The day before Muqtada al-Sadr lifted the Mahdi Army's freeze of attacks on Coalition Forces, things were obnoxiously normal in Anu al-Verona. Kids playing in the dirt, women shopping in the market, old men casting geriatric judgements from front porches, teenagers leering for the sake of leering - you know, the works. It all seems so distant now. Multiple 24-hour plus missions tend to have that effect on the memory.
As usual, Mojo was found near the combat outpost, on the front steps of the governance center. As the mayor’s son, he has the unofficial responsibility of hawking as much crap obtained by less than legal means as possible our way. Phone cards, cell phones, movies, iPods, and various forms of porn far more creative than necessary are always readily available through him – and that’s what he’s willing to try and sell in front of the LT. I’ve been informed there are even less refined aspects of the Mojo inventory. This isn’t exactly your friendly suburban neighborhood lemonade stand.
“LT,” he said, greeting me with a sly grin and green eyes that are far too dubious for one so young. “Maybe you want the phone cards today?”
I paused next to him, meeting the extended fist bump, and took off my Kevlar helmet. “I’m good on phone cards,” I told him, relishing the simple pleasure of running my hands through my cragged spikes of hair still drenched in sweat. “You got any Boom-Booms?” I asked, referencing the local brand of energy drink. The theories of what exactly makes up a Boom-Boom are many, but it certainly can keep a man awake hours beyond what the body is capable of. If it means anything, I haven’t failed a piss test yet.
“Why don’t you ever go to school?” It was the voice of SFC Big Country. My platoon sergeant has the rare gift of asking questions in the form of an order, no matter whom it is posed to. I’ve seen many young soldiers turn into deers caught in headlights because of this, and Mojo was no different.
“Because … well, because they would steal me or kill me if I went,” he responded eventually, kicking pebbles as he spoke. The green eyes swung back up at us from the concrete. “Mother fuckers. So I stay here, where the Americans are. And my father says getting my English better is better than school.”
SFC Big Country and I looked at each other, and exchanged conciliatory nods. “A fair point,” he said. “Although you probably should know soldier-English is a little different than regular English, Mojo. You can’t say ‘fuck’ every other word in America like we do here.”
A group of my Alpha section soldiers walked up at this time, bringing a bright smile to Mojo’s face. He momentarily shed the front of mischievous skeptic when SPC Haitian Sensation picked him up and twirled him around, and began to giggle - freely and easily and joyfully, just like any other child deserves to in this world.
“How old are you today?” SPC Haitian Sensation asked him, putting him back down on the ground, next to the broom closet that serves as Mojo’s shop.
“I’m still fifteen,” came the reply. It’s not as outrageous of a lie as it appeared, even though Mojo doesn’t look a day over a malnutritioned nine; the brutal reality is that most Anu al-Verona citizens do not know their exact age. Birth certificates aren’t exactly a traditional commodity over here. Most aren’t even sure what year it was when we invaded, even though that was only five years ago. Time is a lot more malleable in the third world.
We waited for the rest of the platoon, and started moving towards the combat outpost again. Mojo bartered quickly with a few of my soldiers, something I decided I was better off turning two blind eyes to. I had a patrol debrief to get to, anyways. I was halfway up the stairs when I heard a voice behind me.
“Hey LT!” It was Mojo, scurrying after me. He handed me a Boom-Boom, and winked. “On the house,” he says, repeating a phrase SSG Bulldog taught him. As he ran back over to his Gravedigger clientele, I shook my head in bemusement.
That kid is going to either end up very rich or very dead, I thought to myself. Local kingpin or bust. I cracked open my Boom-Boom, and decided that it will probably be the former. He has certainly had enough examples of the latter over the course of this war to study. Just another sort of education that can’t be learned in school.
Mojo is still at his lemonade stand as I type this. He hasn't gone home with the sunset for a few days, though. Call it a hunch, but it may be a couple more days until he does.