It was a hot night, hotter than what the forecast had led me to believe. But then, I was in South America in summertime. And to expect cool weather in a dusty mining town in northern Chile is, even for some of the service’s more naive men, a bungle of extraordinary proportions.
Speaking of extraordinary proportions…
The girl sidled up to me, dressed in an ill-fitting lace bodice that still did its job of hiding everything particularly interesting, yet offering up a glimpse just partial enough to separate the hard-earned dollars from my pocket. I had blown through thirty dollars already on this particular night, and although I had little intention of spending any more, my resolve was weakening with every step she took toward me.
The air inside the club was thick, but it wasn’t thick enough to obscure her face, nor her striking features, nor the ample bosom that threatened to dislodge itself from the aforementioned bodice. And for a brief, happy second, I closed my eyes and painted a beautiful picture of myself, and the girl, alone — in this smoke-filled room with the velvet booths, the stained glass cigarette holders, the peeling velour.
“What’s your name?” her smokier-than-expected voice pulled me out of my reverie. The girl was even closer now, her chest inches away from my face. I could smell her sweat; she reeked of cigars, alcohol, and Chinese-made mascara. Up close, her bodice was even more pitiful than before. It had holes in it the size of sewer rats, and parts of it appeared to be hastily glossed over with white paint.
I looked up at her eyes. They were strikingly black, framed by what I thought must have been brunette hair, a long time ago. The smoke in the room had taken its toll, though, and now her hair resembled a mousy broom used one too many times. Suddenly, I felt a longing to take her to a sink and comb my fingers through them, letting the water wash her sins — and smoke — away.
“My name is Jack,” I replied. “Jack Bauer.”
“Well, Jack Bauer,” she put her arms around my neck and asked, her eyes glinting. “How about it?”
I shrugged. “All I got is a fiver.”
The girl shrugged too. “I’ll take it.”
I extracted the last, wrinkled note from my back pocket, keenly aware that this was probably one of the stupidest things I could ever do with my cash. Alcohol at least had the decency to last more than thirty seconds.
She plucked the bill from my hand. “Alright, Jack. Just lean back and relax.”
I leaned back. I relaxed. And at the end of it, when we were all done, when her bodice was hanging by one last measly thread from her body and the poor chair had finally broken its remaining three legs, I offered her a smoke. “Thanks,” she said. “Got a light?” I did.
“What’s your name?” I asked as I lit up her proffered cigarette.
“Oh…” for the first time tonight, I felt her confidence buckle. “Karma,” she finally replied after several heavy moments.
I grinned. “Oh, I know that name,” I put my pants back on. “But, you know. Your real name.”
The girl known as Karma only smiled. “Come back tomorrow and I’ll tell you.”
“I gotta work tomorrow.”
“Come late, I’ll be here.”
“You’re just trying to get my five dollars.”
“Well, is it worth it to you?”
I sat in the dark pondering her question. And as the sun rose on me the next morning, I made sure to pack an extra five dollars into my wallet before heading out for the day, money that I had been saving up for a radio. The Brooklyn Dodgers would have to wait.
Karma was waiting for me. “Hi, Jack.”
She didn’t have to wait long as I handed her a five-dollar bill. She smiled. “You’re punctual,” she said. “I like that.”
Afterwards, we talked. I told her about my youth, playing baseball, joining the Army, ending up here. She didn’t say much; however, she listened vivaciously, like she had never gotten the chance to properly listen to someone before. Occasionally, she would burst into exclamation — “Oh!”, “Really”, or “Hm” — but on the most part, I talked, and she listened.
The third time, I told her about my mother, and how she used to be a semi-famous actress in Hollywood. Her eyes lit up when I mentioned movies; she told me her favorites were Keaton and Chaplin. Her enthusiasm for Lillian Gish rivaled my love for the Dodgers.
On the day after that, I talked about the Army. I mentioned my friends (I didn’t have any), my combat experience (I didn’t have any), and the number of toilets I cleaned (I had a lot). She laughed, and without the loud music drowning it, her voice sounded less deep and gravelly than before. It sounded — not pretty, not feminine, not even particularly charming — but mature. It was the kind of voice that told you that she had been through hell and back. I was interested, of course; I asked her about her own past, but she would always turned back the conversation in my direction. I didn’t particularly mind, since I found my stories interesting, even with a retelling.
Of course, I paid her five dollars every time.
That went on for a week. I would pay Karma, we would share love, then I’d spend the remainder of the night telling her stories.
It was Saturday before I plucked up the courage. She was leaning on the futon, I was sitting upright and stroking the back of her thighs. “I want to ask you something,” I began.
“Hm.” she replied. I took this as an invitation to continue.
“Do you ever think about …” I hesitated. “Doing something else with your life?”
I could feel her body stiffen. “What do you mean?”
“I mean …” I gestured. “You don’t really imagine being here the rest of your life, do you?”
Karma remained quiet for a few minutes. “No,” she replied. “I don’t.”
I sighed; it felt as though a compressor had been taken off my chest. “Well, you could come live with, I mean, you know,” I fumbled. “I got a raise, I’m taking civilian work, I — “
Karma cut me off. “No, you don’t understand.”
“What don’t I understand?”
“I can’t … imagine,” her voice broke slightly. “I don’t have that luxury.”
“What do you mean?” It was my turn to ask.
She didn’t reply, but feigned sleeping until I eventually had to leave.
The next day, I didn’t pay her the five dollars. “Not until you explain.”
She sighed nearly imperceptibly; we were still in the public, smoke-filled lounge. “No, I’m sorry, Jack,” she said, with an air of finality. “Go home.”
The five dollars dropped from my fingers. “Can — can I come back tomorrow?” I asked. What was happening? Everything had been fine yesterday. More than fine, really. And all of a sudden, things had changed. I wasn’t sure what.
“No,” she shook her head, head cast downward. As she did this, her eyes turned quickly to a point directly behind me. I turned to leave, but not before casually glancing around the room one last time. I took in the bar’s regular patrons; those like me, Army men off duty. There were several hunched locals; businessmen; the usual crowd.
However, at one corner of the dingy room, I spotted a few men seemingly out of place. They were dressed simply in white dress shirts, were bald, and were keenly eyeing in our direction.
I left. I didn’t like their look much, and I was next to useless in a fight.
That night, Karma came to me. Or rather, she knocked on my window. I have no idea how she figured out where I live, but she was here in the flesh.
The window opened after a hard pull. “Hi,” I said.
The air blew a chill into the room. “Hold on, let me go outside — “
“No, it’s okay,” Karma was looking around, eyebrows furrowed. “I haven’t much time.”
I leaned against the windowsill to get closer to her. “Why are you here?”
Her gaze faltered for a split second. “Remember when you asked me if I wanted to be with you?”
I hadn’t used those exact words, but I was glad that my message had, indeed, gotten across. “Sure.”
“I — I can’t.”
“You told me that already.”
“No, I didn’t,” she grasped my hand across the sill. “I’d love to be with you. But I can’t.”
“Like I said,” she smiled thinly, “I don’t have that luxury.”
“But — “
“I leave tomorrow.”
I gaped. “You what?”
“They don’t like me being with you,” she whispered now. “They think it’s bad for business.”
“Who are you talking about?”
“The people who — ” here she injected a morsel of irony into her voice — “take care of me.”
I was reminded of the bald men in black.
She sighed. “I suppose this is the last time I see you.”
Karma made to close the window, but I held it fast. “Wait,” I said. “Wait. I have something.”
I fished out my last five-dollar bill. “For you.”
She laughed. “But I didn’t do anything for you today.”
“No,” I replied. “You’ve done plenty.”
Karma laughed again, and in the open air, next to the trees and the grass, her voice sounded titillating. “No, Jack. You keep it.”
She let the window drop, then she was gone.
I don’t know what happened to Karma; I returned the next morning, only to find the building gone, replaced by dirt, a stray chair, and pieces of a marquee sign. She could’ve gone to the next town over, or she could have been flown to China. Chances are, I’ll never see her again for the rest of my life. Other people think I’m a depraved human being for visiting every club and bar in every new town I visit, when actually, I’m just looking for Karma. Nobody believes me, but I know she’s out there somewhere.
I’ve still got a fiver burning a hole in my pocket. A piece of paper reserved just for her.