We are at war!
This is no longer a part of Texas, no longer a part of the United
States of America! You are in the Buffer Zone! You are no longer
American citizens! By consenting to remain, you have agreed to this!
The town of Santa Olivia no longer exists! You are denizens of Outpost
No one knew what it meant, not exactly. There was something about
sickness and something about the scourge to the south on the far
side of the original wall, the revolutionary the soldiers called
El Segundo. But there was too much dying to be bothered. If the
soldiers brought money and food and medicine, and doctors who hadn't
succumbed to the plague, that was to the good. It had always been
an isolated place.
Santa Olivia; Santa Olvidada, soon to be forgotten by most of the
Outpost No. 12.
What Carmen Garron remembered most about that night was the humming
generators and the light. She was thirteen years old, and for the
last six years of her life, there had been precious little of it
after nightfall. Generators were scarce, fuel to be hoarded for
important matters like refrigeration. Now, here! Light, white-hot
and spilled with reckless abandon, throwing stark shadows. It highlighted
the general's clenched face with its incipient lines. It teased
out the lurking sickness in her aunt and uncle's faces, in the faces
of their neighbors. It lit up her cousin Inez's nubile features,
and her own.
And the soldiers... the American soldiers looked so strong and
Carmen Garron liked soldiers.
After the barracks and the other buildings were finished, there
were more soldiers. They didn't want to be bothered with the town's
troubles, so arrangements were made. With the Army's blessing, Dan
Garza declared himself in charge and his men took care of security.
They swaggered through the dusty streets, deferring to no one who
wasn't in uniform. They weren't allowed to carry guns - no one in
Outpost except soldiers were - but they carried lengths of metal
pipe and weren't afraid to crack heads if they felt like it. People
muttered, but what could you do? As long as they kept the peace,
the General didn't care.
Old Hector Salamanca, who owned a good chunk of real estate in
town, made arrangements, too. He was a shrewd old fucker, too scrawny
and stubborn for the plague to take. His arrangements were made
with the Chief Warrant Officer and involved liquor and food and
generators and kerosene. His businesses thrived. Bodegas turned
to bars and brothels, and people could buy what they needed in his
shops. As long as it kept the peace and kept the soldiers happy,
the general didn't care.
Sister Martha Stearns and Father Ramon Perez also made arrangements.
She was a diminutive blonde woman with an intense gaze and a sense
of purpose that owed nothing to divine calling; despite her nun's
garb, she was in fact an orphan of the church and had never taken
vows. Handsome Father Ramon, who was himself only a novice despite
his priest's collar, knew this. They kept one another's secrets.
It wasn't their fault. Father Gabriel, the last real priest in Santa
Olivia had caught the plague and hung himself from the bell tower
before it could take him.
Go forth, fornicators! he had shouted before he plunged,
perched on the narrow walkway, the noose around his neck. Go
forth while you may, go forth and seize the day! Fuck your mothers,
your brothers, your sisters and fathers; fuck in the streets like
dogs, you sodomites and whores! Why not? Death rules all! God has
turned his face away!
Then he jumped.
That explained all the fucking, in part.
What Sister Martha and Father Ramon arranged for was medical care.
Once a week, a doctor from the base would hold a free clinic at
the mission church with its ancient adobe walls, and anyone could
come. He taught Sister Martha enough about medicine to care for
the townsfolk the rest of the time. They made those arrangements
with the army Chaplain, a sincere fellow who hadn't the faintest
idea neither of them were true clergy. As long as it didn't interfere
with care and well-being of his soldiers, the General didn't care.
General Argyle cared about three things. He cared about his men;
and they were men, all men. There was a story that once women had
served in the Army as officers and everything, but it was only a
story. He cared about patrolling the southern wall and keeping his
section of the cordon secure.
And he cared about boxing.
One thing about the general - whose full name was William Peter
Argyle - was that he loved boxing. Loved it. It was said
he'd been a boxer in his youth, a junior heavyweight of some promise,
and maybe it was true. Anyway, he couldn't get enough of watching
it. So the soldiers held boxing matches on the base, and on the
third Saturday of every month, there was a match in the town square.
For the first year, they were mostly exhibition matches; soldiers
fighting soldiers. When that began to bore the general, he made
an offer. Higher stakes made the matches more exciting. If any of
the townsfolk were able to defeat one of his champions, they would
win a considerable purse and safe-passage to the north for themselves
and a companion. Out of the cordon, back to free territory in the
U.S. of A.
A lot of men tried. None of them ever stood much of a chance, but
they tried anyway. They put brawn and heart and sweat and blood
into the effort, fighting until they were knocked down too hard
to rise and lay gasping on the canvas floor. And that made the general
"Men ought to strive for what's beyond their grasp," he said once.
"That's what makes 'em men."
What he thought of women, no one knew.
There were no women in the Army and no women on the base, except
for the local women hired to the cleaning crew and they had to leave
the premises before sundown. Married men had to leave their wives
behind when they did their tours in the cordon. Single men with
sweethearts were forced to abandon them; single men without sweethearts
were forced to reconcile themselves to the fact that they'd not
find lasting love until their tours ended. It had been declared
illegal for military personnel to wed denizens of Outpost.
"Why?" Carmen Garron asked her first soldier-lover. She was seventeen
years old, but she looked nineteen and had told him she was. Her
aunt and uncle had passed, taken by the sickness; her cousin Inez
had gotten her a job waitressing in a diner the soldiers liked to
frequent. It didn't quite pay enough for her share of the rent on
Her first lover was a clever boy from somewhere out East, with
brown hair, spectacles and a wiry wrestler's body.
"Because." He stroked her warm flesh, her skin damp with sweat.
His face looked a little naked without his glasses, but his gaze
was sharp and earnest. "They don't want people to know you exist.
Not for certain. They don't want anyone to know. You understand
that, don't you? That this used to be part of America?"
Carmen shrugged. "I guess."
His palm shaped the curve of her waist, dipped lower. "Trust me,
She looked at the top of his head as he bent to follow his hand
with his lips. "What about the general's offer? The boxing?"
He glanced up and laughed. "No one will ever win. And anyway, General
Argyle's a little crazy."
"Okay," Carmen said uncertainly.
Her lover peered at her. "So you understand?"
A little bird in her heart uttered a single warbling note and
died. "Yes," Carmen Garron said sadly to her first lover. "I understand."
He came and went, that one, after his tour ended. And then there
was another who said much the same thing. He wasn't as clever, but
he was fun and funny. Life settled into certain rhythms. By day
there was the diner, by night, most nights, there was the soldier.
Like the other, he gave her an allowance that enabled her to pay
her share of the rent. Once a week, there was a visit to the free
clinic in the mission. The Army doctor gave her a certificate of
health and a week's supply of condoms. He wasn't authorized to offer
any other form of birth control to the female denizens of Outpost,
no matter how hard Sister Martha argued for it.
The third soldier was different.
He was a boxer; that was where she saw him first. Fighting in the
ring in the town square on the third Saturday against a young townsman
named Ricky Canton. Carmen should have been rooting for the local
challenger, the underdog; everyone did. Instead, her gaze was fixed
on the soldier.
He was a big Minnesotan farmboy with a nice, easy smile and a lazy,
looping left hook that looked much slower than it was. He used it
to pummel Ricky Canton up and down the ring.
"Go on!" Inez nudged her cousin.
In between the fourth and fifth rounds, Carmen Garron slipped through
the crowd, made her way to the outside of the soldier's corner.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw her.
"Hi there." He slid one muscled, sweaty arm through the ropes,
touched her hand with his gloved fist.
The bird in her heart warbled.
"Hi," Carmen whispered.
It took three more rounds for Ricky Canton to go down for good,
but he did. The Minnesotan farmboy stood in the center of the ring,
tilting his head modestly as the referee raised his hand in victory.
And then he went back to his corner, leaning on the ropes, lowering
his head toward Carmen's.
"Can I buy you a drink?" he asked. "At Salamanca's?"
She flushed. "Of course."
She was twenty years old, still in the first flush of youth, and
he was her first love; her first true love. His name was
Tom Almquist, and on nights when she was alone, Carmen whispered
his name to herself like a prayer. Like her first lover, he was
earnest; like her second, he was funny, although it was humor of
a slow, careful kind. But he was different.
"I'll marry you," he whispered the time the condom broke, his lips
pressed to her temple. "Don't worry. Either way, I will."
"You can't!" Carmen whispered back.
His massive shoulders rose and fell. "Don't care. I will."
And maybe he would have found a way, because Tom Almquist was
a determined young man, and when he found out that Carmen was pregnant
for sure, it only made him more determined. But two weeks after
they knew for certain, Tom Almquist was killed when his squadron
was sent to investigate a report that El Segundo's men had breached
the southern wall some twenty miles away. There was a breach, but
it was a small one. And there was a booby-trap and a bomb.
The bird in Carmen Garron's heart went silent for a long time.