The good news was, I would spend the final three months of medical school in exotic South America, studing rare tropical diseases; the bad news? The medical organization there was run by missionaries – no drinking, no smoking, no girls.
So I thought.
“Charlie,” the missionary doctor rasped down at me from his elevated position six and a half feet off the floor, “Get your jacket and Spanish dictionary – we’ve got a house call to make.”
He sucked so hard on his Marlboro that the room’s air whistled as it rushed between his lips.
“Where we going?” I asked, bracing for the toxic cloud of his exhalation.
“Over across the Ruta. We’ll walk.”
The “Ruta” was the major highway that snaked through this sprawling grasslands and remaining islands of hardwood forest. It was “major” only because it was paved. All other roads including the town’s streets were either dirt paths or mud slides, depending on the weather. A depression in the main street remained a puddle for days after a rain, and was home to a large pink sow who moved for no bicycle, motor bike, or truck.
The Ruta was also a steady source of emergency patients to our little hospital. It brought us the chainsaw accident victims and women in labor from miles away where people were clearing the forest to create new lives as farmers. It aimed careless truck drivers and drunk motorcyclists into sudden collisions. Although most were low speed collisions compared with the U.S. variety, they were ugly because motorcycles usually carried entire families at a time.
I could hear the Ruta at night, when the clamor of this frontier town surrounding the hospital ebbed. During brief silences in the cicadas’ songs, it hummed with a low roar that crescendo-decrescendoed as trucks loaded with mahogany logs roared away from the frontier, and trucks loaded food, beer, cigarettes and other essentials of frontier life roared into town. Lacing the edges of this low roar, like embroidery on a dishrag, was a tinkling of loud music, obviously blaring and shrill at its origin, but muted over the distance between the Ruta and us. Aside from the initial drive into town two weeks earlier, I hadn’t been to the Ruta.
“What are we gonna do there?” I asked my mentor as I arose from my after dinner siesta.
“Told ya,” the lanky West Virginia physician said in a cloud of smoke. “House call.” His long bones were so loosely hung on him that he lurched more than walked through the door into the fading light of dusk.
“I didn’t know there were any houses over there,” I trotted to catch up to his ambling silhouette. “Just stores and gas stations and bars, I thought.”
He stopped, turned, and showed me his teeth through a mischievous smile. “Depends on your definition of a ‘house,’ doesn’t it, Charlie? Come on.”
We found a dirt path that wound into the stand of palm trees, reduced now by dusk to shadows against a sky which glowed blue-black from a sliver of moon. Insects buzzed so loudly on either side as we walked that my eardrums hurt. Some bird up above let go with a fusillade of caws like a machine gun. Then I thought: “Snakes” and looked down to find my feet, but they were swallowed into the darkness of the path. I was walking by Braille.
Just as I took a breath to say something, he rasped, “You bring a flashlight, Charlie?”
He clicked on his. The path before us materialized from the darkness.
“You should, you know. There are creatures out here at night.”
“Really?” I ran a couple of steps to get closer to the illumination. “Doesn’t bother me.”
“Oh, good,” he laughed. “I like that. To be a doctor around here, best to be macho.”
A glow ahead silhouetted the tree trunks. The distant cacophony of musical notes became louder as we walked. It was connected to the glow, which also intensified as we approached.
When we emerged at the edge of the Ruta, the blaring of tin quality music smothered the droning cicadas. Behind that noise was another: a gasoline generator, driving the turntable and loudspeaker system wired together somewhere. Stark electric light bulbs, bare and swaying in the evening breeze from wires hung at roof edges, were as harsh as the music.
Four small square buildings of crude plank lumber and thatched roofs randomly sprouted at the other side of the Ruta.
“Where we going?” I asked.
“La Mariposa,” he pointed at one of the buildings which had a faint pinkish hue. “The Butterfly.”
“Already told ya.” He started across the road. I followed him into the glaring din. The flashlight was no longer necessary.
Inside the one room building, the “music” was so loud it was unrecognizable as something produced by instruments. There were four or five small tables of thick wood, about the size of card tables my parents utilized to play bridge in more genteel surroundings. A bare light bulb dangled from the roof above, flooding the center of the room like a stage, and casting the walls into shadow. We sat on crude wooden chairs at the table he chose.
From the shadows, a girl appeared. Short black hair, ebony eyes, skin-tight top low cut to cover half her breasts (until she bent over), and a skirt that ended mid thighs. She was barefoot, I noticed. And her feet were broad – splayed actually – as are those of half the people here who live in such intimate connection with the soil.
“Cerveza,” the missionary requested of her, lighting another cigarette. “Dos.”
She looked at me, smiled – or was it a leer? – and said something to him in Spanish too rapid for me to comprehend.
He chuckled. “The joven is a doctor,” he told her. “Recently arrived. Be sure to be --- nice --- to him.”
She tossed her hair back in a maneuver meant to be sultry, I suppose, and walked away. Wiggled away. Jiggled away.
“Pay attention, Charlie.”
I whipped my head around to face him. “Yea. Sure. Okay. Attention to what?”
“To what you see around you.”
“Been doing that. What did she say?”
“Said she hadn’t seen you before and wanted to know who you were.”
“What did you tell her?”
“The truth. Here’s our beers. Only place we can get beer this time of night. All the stores in town are closed.”
For some reason, it had taken two girls to bring both beers. For some reason, they also brought chairs and joined us.
“We’re not alone,” I said taking a sip from the bottle. I was nervous, trembling a little for some reason.
“You noticed?” he guffawed. The two girls giggled with him.
“Good,” he continued. “You’re paying attention.”
The second girl was more attractive. She was blonde, which is unusual here, and looked older. Wiser. More relaxed and sure of herself. Her eyes, however, were as black as the other girl’s, and burned into me. She said something.
“What’s your name, Charlie?” the Marlboro man said.
“That’s really kind of a dumb question,” I blurted, “for a couple of reasons.”
He guffawed again. This time with a head back, all teeth showing, spontaneous gesture. The girls laughed with him.
“Yeah, I suppose it would be,” he said once he gained control of himself again, “if it were me asking. But I was just translating for you. Margarita asked.”
The blonde smiled broadly and lowered her eyelids demurely at the sound of the name.
“Blondie. Tell her yours.”
“I am called Carlos. Please I am to meet you,” I repeated the phrase I’d memorized best. I had to scream it above the blaring cacophony.
Then there was more Spanish, half of it drowned by the “music”, the other half too fast for my primitive knowledge of the language. It pinballed among the other three with occasional sentences aimed at me to which I merely smiled and/or nodded.
At first my mentor translated a few phrases, but he eventually abandoned English. I had the tone of the conversation by then. It wasn’t deep. It wasn’t philosophical. It was, unfortunately, mostly about me.
“Rosita thinks you’re cute.”
“Yeah, you know, handsome.”
“Margarita wants to know if you’re married. They want to know what state you come from. Do you have any questions for them? They are asking.”
Half way into beer number two, I became aware that the two girls were no longer sitting across from me and from him. They were on either side of me. They were laughing and tousling my hair. Margarita’s bare thighs were rubbing against my pants. Rosita was blowing big bubbles from her gum and we all laughed as she peeled the pink slime from her face, time after time.
“What are they saying now?” I asked the hospital’s medical director.
He blew out a dense cloud of blue smoke that enveloped his brain-shaped skull.
“They gave you a nickname – ‘Choco Clinudo’ – ‘cause of your brown hair. They think you’re cute.”
“Yeah, yeah. I know. They wouldn’t think I was so cute if I was broke, I betcha.”
“You’re right about that,” he said, taking another swig of beer.
Then, a flurry of fingers in my hair propelled by girlish giggles and squeals. Their brown thighs jumped as they teased me. “Hey, you’re messing me up,” I objected, grabbing their wrists and pulling them off me.
“They like you, Charlie,” he beamed, then threw back his head, laughed and guffawed and bellowed and let loose enjoying himself like I’d never seen him in the hospital where he played the role of American mentor to fledgling Latin interns and the dedicated nurses who actually did the work.
When he finished his laugh, he said something to them. The two got up, shook my hand politely and said the “glad to meet you” phrase I understood. They dissolved again into the peripheral shadows.
“Let’s finish up and get home,” he said swigging the dregs of his beer. “It’s late.”
“What about the girls?”
“We’ll see them again at the clinic,” he said. “Thursday. V.D. check day. We need to test them every month.”
“So they come in once a month?”
“Not always,” he said reassembling his lanky frame into an upright position. “These two have missed a couple of times, but they’ll be there Thursday.”
“How do you know?” I waited for him to finish lighting another cigarette.
“Because,” he flicked off his lighter. “I told them you’d be there. Let’s go.”
We crossed the Ruta, dropped down to the palm tree thicket, and he flicked on the flashlight again. As I followed him down the path, I raked my fingers through my hair to re-comb it, and snagged a wad of bubblegum with my fingernails. My hair was deeply entangled in the thick, sugary wad.
“Shit!” came shooting out. “Hey,” I called up to him, perhaps a little more aggressively than I should have. “What exactly were we doing back there?”
His answer came floating back to me in a cloud of Marlboro smoke:
“Public Health, Charlie, Public Health.”