Out of Bounds

Stephen Benz

Back in Spokane, sitting on a pleather sofa,
the smell of Lysol heavy in the air, I faced
my parents’ dismay. The television blared
the nightly news: trouble the world over.
My old man stared hard and said,
“What in the name of God got into you, boy?”
I had nothing to say. Looking back, I could see
the error of my ways. But at the time,
as things were going down, I was lost in fog.
Only hindsight, as they say, is twenty-twenty.

How else to explain Guatemala and what we did
during the long hot months of martial law,
its ambience of brutality: death squads, gunships
beating the sky, massacres in the highlands.
Serious shit going on, but we loved it.
Why? Did we think we were somehow above
the situation? That our passports granted immunity?

Paradox stands at the center of all human existence,
so said Kierkegaard. This, whether we knew it or not,
was our code. We argued the existential nuances
over Rooster Beer in a pink-walled brothel
tricked out with strings of Christmas lights.
Beyond the brothel: curfew and clampdown,
claxons all night long, sporadic Uzi bursts.
We ventured out nonetheless, goaded on
by Caldwell and Jones, Aussie dealers
in guns, drugs, and native handicrafts.

“Come on, CIA,” Jones said.
“Time to do some dealing.”

Caldwell and Jones always called me CIA.
I had come to Guatemala to teach English,
but “English teacher” was a dubious cover.
The Aussies thought I must be hiding something.
Who would just show up, middle of a civil war,
to teach English? I didn’t correct them.
In those days, it helped to be a little mysterious,
an unknown quantity. Self-deception,
according to Nietzsche, is our most destructive trait.

“That’s a crock,” Caldwell said. “A crock load of shit,
and your Nietzsche is a nancy boy.”

The Land Rover shot through pitch-black streets,
no light anywhere. The guerillas had dynamited
another power station. We passed idle patrol cars,
but the cops didn’t budge. They knew better
than to stop a badass vehicle like that—
ultra-pricey Rover with blacked-out windows—
in the dead of night during martial law.
With me in the back seat: Caldwell and Jones’s best
connection—some colonel’s teenaged son,
off soon to fascist flight school in Pinochet’s Chile.
The kid had access to the purest shit
in the isthmus, the Aussies claimed.
Eyes shut, the little colonel grinned to heavy metal
blasting from the sound system—“Highway to Hell”—
the Land Rover bounding from pothole to pothole
until we came upon a military base: turret-topped walls,
razor wire, searchlights playing from stork’s nests.

Then a gate appeared in the high beams,
Jones blaring the horn in some coded sequence,
full-on bass rattling the Rover’s smoked-glass windows,
the kid hopping out to chat up some ghost soldiers,
money exchanged for a duffel bag.

Next stop: the Sheraton Conquistador.
Caldwell, Jones, and duffel bag rode the lift
up to the penthouse. I sat in an empty piano bar
and watched a Lorca look-alike play
a plinky version of “Spanish Eyes.”
A calm moment to think to myself.
Martial law could make you homesick,
even for Spokane. Bland, boring Spokane.
But it was pointless to think of going back now.
Bridges burned, et cetera.

“Done deal,” Caldwell said upon return.
“Time to celebrate.”

Other than swank hotels and brothels,
only one place was open past midnight
to serve the curfew-defiant: the bowling alley,
El Jefe Maximo, a name that seemed to indicate
some military connection. But Jones said no,
just the translation of “Kingpin,” the name
of the defunct stateside alley whence had come
the used equipment (abused is more like it, Caldwell said),
bought up and imported by an exiled politician
who had returned to fanfare and a death squad.

The boards were warped, the balls chipped,
and the automatic ball return was fickle to say the least.
The lane-clearing gates had minds of their own,
sometimes sweeping away fallen pins,
sometimes doing away with all pins
before the second ball, sometimes leaving
the pins scattered. And every so often
the gate came down and stalled
as if weary of the task. Whereupon
we simply moved on to the next lane,
eventually playing our way across the alley.

Perfect metaphor for the country, Jones said.

We chugged shots of aguardiente
and slurped a ceviche of huevos de toro
bulls’ balls, the sort of thing true-blue hombres
scarfed to prove their machismo. Prove it we did,
to the point of getting sick in the parking lot
as the sun was coming up and local chickens
materialized to peck at our losses.

I knew things were headed in the wrong direction.
Still, it was nearly a year before the grip loosened,
allowing me to slip free. But not before I learned
more than I wanted to know about torrential rain
and truncheons, the smell of an interrogation room,
the blind luck of an illegal nighttime border crossing,
the privileges accorded those who can receive
wired funds when all else is lost.


About the Author

Stephen Benz has published four books of creative nonfiction, including Topographies and Reading the Signs (both from Etruscan Press). He has also published a book of poems, Americana Motel (Main Street Rag Publishing Co.), along with essays in New England Review, Creative Nonfiction, River Teeth, and Best American Travel Writing. He lives in Albuquerque, where he teaches at University of New Mexico. Website: www.stephenconnelybenz.com