I guess I should talk about this. It’s still the source of bad dreams that wake me up during the night, even eight years after the fact. It happened when I was still in the military. Way in. I was sent to Panama on an MRT (a Maintenance Recovery Team) to repair a bird that went down out there. I had been there for about two and a half weeks when we finally got the parts in and made our repairs on the C-130. Typical procedure is that it flies home immediately and we as a crew hitch a ride on it. Well due to circumstances upon which I cannot comment, I had to stay behind for several more days, and would catch a bus to Costa Rica (ugh) and from there, fly into San Antonio. All good.
I was staying in a cheap shitty motel on the outskirts of Santiago, trying to dodge people wherever and whenever I could, lying low. I’d already had several run-ins with the locals and had almost been arrested for being white. I had sent my uniforms and all evidence of my involvement with the US military back on the plane with my team. All I’d been left with was a sidearm. Once my double-stack magazine was empty (and I hoped to God I wouldn’t have to empty it) I was out. Bare as a naked baby’s ass.
It was a Thursday night, and down there it seems to be a good party night, so the elevators were running full service, the pool was full of beautiful brown people, and taxis were running up to the hotel in almost a constant wave, being snagged almost as soon as they would pull up. I’d spent the last couple of hours on the balcony looking down onto the street below, smoking bad cigarettes and drinking cheap beer.
The stereo in my room had been blasting Ray Charles Love Songs for the last hour while I stood sweating in the heat, wiping my forehead and putting the cold bottle on my neck every few minutes. I had two beers left and they had to be gone before I left the room. I’d be leaving the jam box. It was old and beat-up, speakers duct-taped to the unit. I’d had to keep it behind when I sent away my belongings. The price for having it those few extra days was great, but so was the reward. Without music I’d have had nothing to keep me sane. I checked the clock on the tower across the street and decided I’d better go ahead and make my way toward the depot.
I put on a light-weight shirt and linen pants and made my way out to hit the bus stop. I was finally getting the hell out of dodge. And as I slid my shades on and pulled the door closed, I noticed an armored transport rumbling up the road. All in all, not a big deal, or anything out of the ordinary. But this one was different.
It was American.
shit. I ran to the end of the walkway and hit the call button on the elevator. I was only on the fourth floor, but the stairs were shitty and very high-visibility. With an American troop transport in the street, there was going to be action in the air. Ding. The elevator doors finally opened. I stepped on and joined the only other person on the car. A woman. She was small and timid, she was alone and wide-eyed, and she was Panamanian. I’m okay with that. I just hope she doesn’t immediately place me as a service man.
She was actually quite pretty, and in retrospect, looks (at least in my recollection) almost entirely like Felicity Freakin’ Fey. Not quite as well endowed, but no less attractive. Anyway, I said hello to her and she smiled and said hello. I felt oddly magnetized by her allure, and found myself in sudden want of her. Wouldn’t it be great if – BAM. That’s when the damn elevator jammed.
The floor slammed down at some weird angle, the box car lodged in the shaft, the front of it ramming forward and leaving the floor at a thirty-degree angle. It was a sharp crash, and the Panamanian girl flew into me, pinning me up against the doors. She quickly tried to right herself and move out of my space, but it wasn’t working. The angle of incline was so steep that she couldn’t make it back up to the back of the box, and I was leaning myself toward the door, trying to find footing. I was trembling like an alcoholic coming out of the DTs.
I noticed she was even wider-eyed than before, and she was actively holding onto me now, looking up at me like a scared child. Instantly I regretted thinking of her sexually before, as she was now in a situation that she’d undoubtedly never forget, and I might be her only chance at sanity coming out of this. It was at once a feeling of strength and helplessness. I was acting hero to this strange woman, but was yet just as helpless as she in the face of this new reality.
I tried to maintain my calm, because I understood that this wasn’t going to be a quick escape, but thought I would in the end have indeed the resolve to find myself out of this predicament – with my new friend. But what with the elevator being tilted as it was, I realized that we may be lodged in such a way that there would be no escape at all, at least until they tore down the column within which the apparatus was housed.
I asked her if she was okay, and helped her to sit (with a little coaxing: she felt subconsciously that if she sat down she was surrendering to fate). I felt her fear, but outwardly I had to be the man in this situation. Everything I’d learned told me that if you have two screwed-up people in a situation, you’ll somehow be worse for the wear. She wasn’t fanatical, but I could tell she was terrified, and I could see the end in her eyes. She clearly thought this was it for us.
As we sat on the uneven, dirty, peeling floor of the shitty elevator, I leaned against the doors and took a deep breath. We’d have to wait for help. There were no luxuries such as emergency phones and escape hatches. She leaned against the door and me, and pulled my arm around her shoulders. I could immediately feel her trembling crazily, and knew it was an act of fearful endeavor rather than lustful aggression that she had arranged my embrace. I rubbed her arm and shoulder and she leaned her head against my chest. The elevator started shaking.
The loudest whine I’ve ever heard bellowed up from the floor and it sounded like a thousand pallets being dragged across the empty metal floor of a scarred trailer. The noise was intense and deafening. We covered our ears and she shouted at the horror that now had positioned itself directly in front of us. The box was bouncing. Not big, only about an inch in each direction, but it was clearly trying to go somewhere. And the sounds only got worse. The bouncing started aiming itself at the corner directly beneath us, forcing me against the doors, and I feared it would break my back against the corner beneath me – with the pistol in the small of my back eating my soul away. It dropped about three feet suddenly, then everything was still. Quiet.
And then the lights went out. Purple spots stained my retinas and I opened my eyes widely trying to find any source of light. My whole body felt like it was on fire from the sharp impact. The terror I felt inside was almost overwhelming, and I felt it boiling up inside me quickly. I thought I was about to lose it and just start screaming, banging on the doors. I’d never felt fear like this. But as long as she wasn’t screaming, I wouldn’t. I had to maintain. If not for me, then for her. screw pride; it’s not about that. But what kind of man can’t handle himself in a situation where a woman is solid? It’s not pride, it’s about self-respect. I could never claim dignity if in the end I had been the broken one. There has to be someone for someone else to turn to. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I literally felt sick with fear. But in breathing deeply, I felt a calm slipping in.
I could feel her head rocking slightly against my chest and realized she was sobbing quietly. I put my hand on her head in the dark, pulling her tight against me. And at that point a vision hit me. It was like I suddenly knew we were going to die in this hell forsaken elevator. And the feel of thick fear rushed up my throat and I had to swallow. I picked a spot in the dark and stared hard at it, pushing back my fear and concentrating on the girl. Being in the jungle – which was where I’d spent most of the last two weeks – wasn’t as frightening as this elevator. Out there I was being targeted and shot at. But I felt in control. There was, of course, the ever-present tightness in the stomach – the anxiety that reminded you of your mortality. For at any given moment you could be taken out with the blast of a whizzing bullet. But it would be instantaneous. Painless. Fearless. It was shameful to have made it through two weeks of contingency in the jungle only to die in a damn elevator.
I put my hand on her arm and began to rub her bare skin. I could feel gooseflesh under my hand, but her hand came up and covered mine on her arm. And for some stupid screwed-up reason, I cocked my head down and kissed the top of her head. It wasn’t a quick summery kiss like you give your sister. It was intended to be felt. I kissed the top of her head long and hard. I guess extreme situations… Whatever. I had immediately been shocked by my own behavior and wondered what I was doing. But then she reciprocated. Her head tilted up and her hand left mine. It ran up my chest and found my jaw, and her full lips met mine in the dark. I could feel the gentle tremble in her kiss. But kiss her I did.
I still believe it was more of a fear-induced outcry rather than one persuaded by pure sexuality alone. Of course there was obvious arousal, but it also reinforced my perception that we weren’t getting out of this elevator. She kissed me because she knew it would be the last thing either of us ever did.
The heat in that small enclosure rose intensely over the next five or ten minutes. Sweat and condensation from our breathing found its way to the floor and the slick metal doors behind me. Our encounter, it occurred to me, had happened rather expediently, even though we never did anything but kiss. And I found myself strangely taken by this girl emotionally. Perhaps it was the dangerous situation we’d been put in together – or maybe it was those first ninety seconds of our meeting when I’d gotten to look at her. I don’t know. Or maybe it was something entirely different. Maybe it was what happened next.
The screeching came again, but this time from above. I heard stomping and a loud crash, then a single bang went off and suddenly a perfect round spot of light pierced the darkness from the upper corner of the tilted elevator. The girl leaned heavily against me. My immediate instinct was to cover my eyes against the light, but it was soon covered again, and then the whole top of the world began to come apart.
I pushed her up and tried to swing her off me as I called out to those standing atop the elevator. “Hey there’s two alive in here!” I shouted, trying to stand. The girl wasn’t cooperating though. She was still trying to hug me and bask in the passion that lay puddled beneath us. screw this, get up – we don’t have time for this now! I thought. I grabbed her by the shoulders again and said something to her, but her head flew forward and knocked stars into my vision, opening my lip in the process. what the hell was going on? She was now completely limp in my arms and getting too heavy to hold.
The ceiling rose away and the bold light re-asserted its control of the area. I covered my eyes with an arm, squirming to the side to get out from under my makeshift girlfriend. She slapped quietly against the floor behind her and rolled to the side. I slid quickly back and began finally to realize what was going on. They weren’t rescuing me. There were large, dark splotches of thick gelatinous matter on my lap and shirt. I looked up again, but there was no one there. They’d torn the top off the elevator, and were now gone – presumably to retrieve something. I knew they would be back though.
The light was poor, but it was efficient. The angle at which it hit my Panamanian girl put the right side of her face in shadow, but I could see her mouth was open. I was on my hands and knees, trying to find a way to get on my feet, possibly reassess my situation. I reached out and put my hand on her jaw, shaking her as if to wake her. Her jaw fell loosely away though, and her head moved into the light.
The bullet had entered the top back of her head and had made a wreck of her face. I could see an opening inside her mouth – on the roof of her mouth – and through it… I gulped back my emotions and leaned against the floor, my feet against the doors, and tried to slide over to the side of the box. I managed to make it into the corner of the box and lean against the buttons that directed the controls. I pulled the pistol out of my deep cover holster in the small of my back. The relief was immediate and profound. I took a deep breath and leaned back into the corner as far as possible.
The next face that appeared in the opening came with good warning. I could hear him land on the box, and immediately there was light from a flashlight scanning the dead elevator. I fired a single round up into the mass above. The gunner fell away and rolled down off the top of the elevator and wedged against the wall of the shaft. The box rocked a little as he made impact. Immediately was audible the cry of another soldier from above. He was calling out in Panamanian tongue some kind of challenge, waiting for the proper response from his compadre.
I was firm and ready for him. I could hear him lowering himself down from a floor above. He wasn’t graceful, but there was no way I could make it to the hole. I was indeed trapped in the elevator, but once again I felt strong, powerful. In control. I would definitely be getting out of this elevator now. Be it by pine box, fireman’s carry or pure force and a pile of bodies, I’d find my freedom.
The next few seconds were hard to accommodate psychologically, but I gathered my senses enough to realize I wouldn’t win if I went out shooting. I had left in my Glock thirteen rounds of hard fire, but I knew it wouldn’t be enough. If it were I’d be a real American freakin’ hero. I sure as hell wouldn’t go down easy though. Unless I beat the crowd, I was a sitting target.
The rope either reached its end, or the soldier fell off it. He crashed down onto the car and his foot went through the hole. I could easily grab it, but I’d have to give up the death grip I had on my pistol. I wasn’t ready to do that quite yet so I waited, breathing steadily. He quickly pulled his leg back up out of sight and crouched down on the top of the car. His flashlight fell through the hole and landed on the girl, pointing straight into my eyes. shit.
I ducked quickly, and in doing so rammed my ass against the doors, which forced me forward against the floor. I hit and rolled to the right, grabbed the flashlight off the girl and aimed it right back at the hole. Then he kicked me in the head. He was already in the box with me. I only weighed in at about 180 at the time, standing awkwardly at about six feet tall, but I think it was enough.
I struck him with the butt of my Glock, not very well, but he fell back and kicked me again, then he dove toward me, punching and screaming. I dropped the flashlight to guard my face. He was standing on the girl’s head and shoulders trying to get footing to fight me. I shook my hand trying to get it loose of his grip. He had his finger stuffed behind my trigger like a relentless wad of bubble gum. He hit me in the face and I swung back connecting with his jaw. It was a left-hander though, and didn’t carry much force. I was off-balance and still trying to win back my firearm.
He then put his fingers in my eyes and mouth, trying to screw off my face. This gave me the distinct advantage of being able to bite his damn finger off. He hit me very hard, very rapidly about ten times in the ear but I kept biting. I think I could hear him screaming at me, but it was all a wash. It was blurrier than my shited-up vision, stained by his fingerprints. My eyes burned like fire. Behind them I could feel resonance though. I was ready to resound. What? What had I to say? Then I found presence of mind. That carried with it the realization that if I was biting his hand and he was hitting my head, then my trigger was free. I pulled it.
There was a resounding in the cramped and sweaty chamber, and a sudden hot flash of muzzle flare and powder as a .45-caliber cartridge rocked through his skull, spraying me with hot Panamanian blood. He slid down the back wall, taking most of the girl’s face off with his boot on the way down.
I did what I could to cover her face with her dress before I left. I felt it was the least I could do short a proper burial. I was still in fragile denial about the whole incident as I climbed out the hole using his back as a stepping stool. And as I stepped out onto the rickety roof of the dilapidated elevator I was met with a comforting gust of rank but cool air from the elevator shaft. It was mostly light out here, as they’d pried the doors open from the floor directly above me. It was no easy task getting up the wall, but it was only about seven feet. I was weak from the struggle below, and out of energy from the drinking, smoking and screwing I’d been doing of late.
I pulled myself up and looked both ways down the walkway, like a kid at an intersection. There was no one coming, but there would be. I jogged across the breadth of the hotel and swung around the frail metal staircase. As I jogged down the stairs I tried to shake clear my vision and regain some composure. My shirt was covered in blood and greasy smears on whose sources I’d rather not venture to guess. The sun was lowering in the sky though, and it would soon be getting dark.
I reached the bottom of the stairs and saw a couple of men coming toward me. They weren’t military, but I didn’t need to raise suspicion so I feigned a fall and smacked down in the dirt off the edge of the shitty sidewalk. The soft semi-mud effectively covered my stains and made me look somewhat normal, I suppose – albeit dirty as a back alley hooker. Water dripped steadily from a loud air conditioning unit hanging precariously out a window on the second-storey floor. I packed some more mud onto my boots then stood up and trotted off to catch the next bus.
Around the alley at the end of the street I ran into the armored troop carrier and slowed my gait. The Marine standing guard outside saw me coming and straightened up, preparing to assail. I called out to him, out of breath, “I’m American. I need help.” He nodded quickly at me, then squatted as he reached back and knocked hard on the side of the vehicle. I heard hinges and saw it open. They pulled me inside without question, but once the doors closed they immediately began asking what had happened. I told them about the girl and the elevator and they exchanged glances.
It wasn’t me the Panamanians had been after. But it was me they had gotten. And they had gotten every bit of me. The Americans were in the area in search of the same woman. what the hell kind of fortune is that? They spoke briefly of a court martial and thought “I could avoid it” somehow. I didn’t see how it could even be possible that I would be in trouble for my actions – they were purely defensive – but they assured me I could.
The next two days I spent in the Marine outpost before they finally put me on a transport back to the mainland. And on my way back I had access to some rather interesting reading material. They wouldn’t let me keep it, but I remember it all, just about word for word. I wasn’t terribly surprised to find out that the crashing of the elevator had been orchestrated. Talk about being in the wrong place.
What did surprise me is that the girl – her name was- you know what? I’m not going to tell you her name. I learned it from the packet they had on her, but I never knew it while she was alive. Maybe that’s one thing I’ll keep to myself. But I was surprised to learn that she had known about their coming to get her. She wasn’t afraid because the elevator had stopped. She was scared because she knew she was in her final minutes. And that’s why she had been such a libertine. Why had they waited so long after stalling it to come in and take her out? Who the shit knows? But I do know she had a better exit than going out alone.
In my flight back to Texas, I had gone over that packet learning about this strange and seductive woman I’d never known in life. And in my perusal of the documents, I’d slipped open the zip-lock bag and pulled out a tattered wallet-size photograph of her. I pocketed that picture. In looking back, I wonder sometimes if she ever did receive a proper burial.
Those haunting notes still plague my dreams – those Ray Charles Love Songs – but I love them ever so much. I often look at the picture while listening to the greatness of his music. I’ve tried to cry for her, but I never can. I’ve never been able to sufficiently arouse the emotion to bring forth tears for her. I wish I could let her sleep. But I can’t. Not until I forget her.
Tonight I stepped out onto my deck and squatted down to pet the dog. As I stroked his neck, I lit a smoke and dragged hard from it, then I pulled out her picture. Those deep brown eyes stared right back at me. That thick black powerful mane looked mysterious and sexy in the moonlight. Why did they want you, angel? What did you know? I smiled a bit of pride at the picture, nodding my head. Someone far more valuable than me, she was. I’d just love to tell her one more thing.
I stood up and clinked open my Zippo. I put her to sleep tonight. I burned the picture. And then I cried.