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Authors: Héctor Tobar

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BOOK: The Tattooed Soldier
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The name stunned Antonio. It had not occurred to him that the soldier even had a name, and for a moment he lingered over it, wondering what use it might be to him, if any.

Standing in the center of the room, he flipped through the album until he came to a section of photographs. The soldier seemed to attach more importance to the certificates and clippings than to the photos, which were of all different sizes and types, as if taken with a dozen different cameras: Polaroids, large black-and-whites, colored squares aged to a pink wash, passport-sized head shots. They showed the same man Antonio had seen, only younger, even younger than in San Cristóbal. One was a close-up of the tattoo. In what seemed to be the oldest picture, a small snapshot with rounded corners, the soldier was lean and small, squeezed into an impossibly tight uniform of plain forest green. Later he wore camouflage and was larger in the chest and limbs, his expression hardened into stony masculinity. The only constants were his shaved head and the way he displayed his weapons to the camera, rifles and handguns carried stiffly, as if he had held his breath until the shutter tripped.

At the end of the album, taped to the back cover, there was a white envelope. When Antonio pulled on the flap, which was tucked in but unsealed, a small stack of photographs fell to the floor. He put the album on the bed and scrambled to pick them up. He was squatting to look under the dresser when he saw the bodies, three corpses lined up on a cement floor. Scattered all over the green linoleum, everywhere, were pictures of corpses. A morgue had fallen from the album and spilled around his feet. Corpses with their eyes open. Corpses with their pants pulled down, the seahorses of their genitals exposed. Corpses with their arms folded over their chests. Corpses with hands missing. Peasants in green shirts. Living men, in camouflage, posing with the corpses, as if to say, We're alive and they're dead. And here is the tattooed soldier, the painted killer, standing over a child lying face down on a dirt path. Other soldiers, taller men, pointing at a corpse with its mouth open, a silver tooth bared. An Indian woman's hands formed into fists as if to fight off death. A man with his shoulders pulled up, frozen in his last breath. Colorless skin with machete gashes that no longer bled. Hair sticky and stiff.

His hands trembling, Antonio picked up the corpses and put them back in their envelope, where he wouldn't have to look at them. This was too much to see. Too much to know and hold inside your head. All of the corpses and all their tragedies, the lives they led, their endings captured in a killer's camera.

Antonio shoved the album back in the dresser and went to the door. The latch wouldn't open, and for a moment Antonio thought he would have to go back down the fire escape and plunge to his death. He was in no state to play spider now. This room was making him sick, this room filled with disinfectant and perversions. If he stayed here any longer the taint and smell of the soldier would stick to his clothing, a smell more disgusting than anything in a homeless camp.

At last the door gave way, and Antonio stepped into the dusty air of a long, empty corridor, much like the hallway outside his last apartment. He ran down the stairs, out of the building, into the night, and walked as fast as he could to the lot he now called home.

*   *   *

Frank and the Mayor sat around the campfire watching José Juan throw dead olive branches into the flames, contemplating the twists and turns in the story Antonio had just told them, about Elena and Carlos, the tattooed soldier, the chance encounter in MacArthur Park. For five days Antonio had kept the secret of the soldier to himself, not even telling José Juan, but finally he had felt the need to talk. Omitting the break-in and the photographs, he had recounted the events in a circular narrative, starting somewhere in the middle and ending back at the beginning, with the moment he discovered Carlos and Elena dead in San Cristóbal Acatapán. Now the campfire was enveloped in a sad stillness, Frank and the Mayor showing their respect for this stranger's grief by staring silently at the flames.

“I'd kill the bastard,” the Mayor said finally. “Motherfucking soldier deserves to die.”

“I know a guy who'll do it if you give him your welfare check,” Frank said.

“We don't get welfare,” José Juan said.

“Well, whatever. Give him two hundred ninety-seven dollars, then. That's how much G.R. is anyway.”

“I know a guy who'll do it for
fifty
bucks,” the Mayor interjected.

Antonio had thought about killing the soldier, but only in the abstract. He could not yet imagine killing another human being, even a man with so much blood on his hands. But having someone else do it, that could work.

“I don't have any money at all,” Antonio said. “Not even fifty. Not even ten.”

“Do it yourself, then,” Frank said. “Just club the guy. With a pipe, a hammer, whatever. Push him in front of a bus.” He smiled wryly. “Shit, buy me a steak dinner and I'll do it for you.” At this, both Frank and the Mayor laughed heartily. “I've seen people killed for less. A lot less, as a matter of fact. I've seen people killed because they insulted some idiot's old lady.”

“Me too,” the Mayor added. “These days people get themselves killed just for any stupid reason.”

“Antonio doesn't want to kill anyone,” José Juan said in a soft, serious voice. “He just wants justice.”

“Yeah, justice,” the Mayor said with the faintest trace of sarcasm.

“This man should be, how do you say?
Castigado.
” José Juan frowned in concentration. “Punished.”

“Who's going to punish him?”

No one could answer the Mayor's question. All four men sat listening to the tree branches crackling in the fire.

“This is true, what you are saying.” Antonio looked at the Mayor. He spoke slowly, afraid his immigrant English might not be understood. “No one will punish this man. In my country there is no one to punish the army for their
barbaridades.
No court will do it. This man can go free, he can do anything he wants. He can live here, he can live in Guatemala, and no one will bother him. Like you say, no one will fuck with him.”

“Yeah,” Frank said. “They'd probably give the s.o.b. a medal.”

The Mayor pulled his watch cap down over his ears. “Oh man, this is too much!” he yelled. “Too much! Imagine some guy killed your old lady and the cops don't do shit. They just pat the guy on the back. They say, ‘Good going, little buddy.' Wouldn't you want to mutilate him or something?”

“I'd stab him,” Frank said. “Like this.” He rose and made a half-dozen thrusts at the air with an imaginary knife, grunting and baring his teeth. “Motherfucker deserves to die!”

The Mayor laughed at Frank and stood up to leave. Frank hung back and pulled Antonio aside, placing a hand on his shoulder.

“That's some heavy-duty shit you're dealing with,” he said with great solemnity. “You need any help, partner, you let me know. Me and the Mayor are with you on this.”

Antonio looked at Frank and remembered the prayers of his wife to San Martín de Porres, the black saint of Peru, when she was pregnant with Carlos. Perhaps, from the grave, Elena had asked San Martín to send this black man to help him. San Martín was the mulatto son of a slave, the patron saint of social justice, the man who swept out the poorhouses.


Gracias
,” Antonio said as Frank walked away. “Thank you.”

*   *   *

The next morning Antonio sat outside the shelter sifting through the black Hefty bag, looking for the picture of Elena and Carlos. He wanted to see them alive today, to remember what the tattooed soldier had taken from him. It was the picture from Quetzaltenango after Carlos Martín's second birthday. Carlitos stood next to Elena in a white shirt and red tie, his hair parted to the side, moments after his mother ran a wet comb through it, just a few weeks before they both died.

Antonio hadn't looked inside the bag for days. He opened a shoe box full of old bills and pay stubs. He found at least a dozen pictures of José Juan's family, posed shots of his wife and four children taken in front of a small cinderblock house, the dates written carefully on the back in his wife's handwriting. He couldn't have forgotten the picture, it had to be here.

After ten minutes of searching, papers and clothes scattered all around him, Antonio gave up. Most likely he had dropped it on the floor after arguing with Mr. Hwang. He drove a fist into his thigh in frustration.
I lost their picture. How could I have been so stupid!

Antonio was tossing papers and photographs back in the Hefty bag when he came upon a stack of letters to his old Los Angeles address, written in his mother's looping script. They were the letters he had received once a month until about a year ago, when he moved to Bixel Gardens without telling anyone in Guatemala. Most of the letters he never opened because he didn't want to be reminded of home, because he didn't want to hear from his parents, because he was still angry with them for so many things. But he hadn't thrown them away either.

One of the envelopes was thicker than the rest and seemed to contain something stiff. Hoping to find a picture of Carlos and Elena, Antonio ripped it open. There was indeed a photograph, but not of people. Instead it showed what looked like a white wall. Perplexed, he began to read the letter.

FEBRUARY 11, 1990

Dear Son,

It's been months since I've heard from you and I am sending this letter with prayers that, somehow, you will receive it. I can only hope that you are still at the last address you gave me. Your aunt Imelda told me that in Los Angeles no one ever stays in the same place for very long. So I can only hope that you haven't moved again.

It hurts your mother not to hear from her only son. Why have you stopped writing to me? Why this silence? What have we done to deserve this? If you don't write to us we can only assume the worst has happened, that you are either sick or dead, that you've had some terrible accident. Please write to us (your father also worries about you terribly). Please give us some message to calm our fears.

I talked to your father's friend, the sub-rector at the University, who is of the opinion that the political situation has improved sufficiently for you to return. Things aren't like they were when you left. We still see bodies in the newspaper but nothing like the horrors that were happening two or three years ago. I think and hope that the time of the worst ugliness has passed. Things have calmed down. There is no reason for you not to come home.

If you stay in Guatemala City you shouldn't have any problems. It's safe here in the capital. As long as you avoid San Cristóbal, you should have no difficulties whatsoever.

In regards to San Cristóbal, I heard recently from your friend the Belgian priest, Van der Est. He remembers you fondly, of course. He telephoned a few weeks ago to say hello. I gave him what little information about you I could. Then we started talking about Carlos and Elena and he mentioned that there was still no marker on the graves. This seemed so terribly wrong to me. I persuaded him to place one for us. I hope you won't mind that I sent him 300 quetzales for this purpose. The marker is there now—a little marble plaque in the
panteón.
I have sent along a picture of it. I fear it may still be a long time before we can visit the graves in person. The war continues in places like San Cristóbal, where, sadly, it may never end.

I hope you are feeling better. Perhaps it is best, as a friend of mine suggested, that you see a psychologist. Despite my reluctance to recur to such drastic methods, it seems to me that, perhaps, you may need someone with professional skills to help you cope with the demons that have persecuted you since the horrible tragedy. Please think about it.

We were worried by the news of the recent earthquake in Los Angeles, but later relieved to hear that it was a very small one and that the damage had been minor. I looked for you in the television reports, even though I knew it was silly to expect that the camera would find you in a city of millions of people. I am content only to see a face that looks like yours, to imagine that you are safe, that you are eating well.

Please write.

Love,

Your Mother

Antonio looked at the photograph, two marble squares in a large wall of similar squares. He recognized this as one of the public funeral vaults in the Cementerio General in San Cristóbal. He had been there once, to inspect the premises as part of his responsibilities at the Department of Public Works. This was where Elena and Carlos were buried, in little more than paupers' graves, surrounded by peasants killed on the highway and slum children who died of dysentery and malnutrition. The names on three of the squares next to Carlos's and Elena's were written in with crayons and pencil by families too poor to afford a permanent inscription. Thanks to his mother's generosity, his wife and son now had white marble markers etched with gold-leaf letters and swirling flowers.

ELENA SOSA DE BERNAL, MADRE Y ESPOSA

CARLOS MARTIN BERNAL, HIJO

The sight of their names filled Antonio with bitter shame. This responsibility of the father and husband had passed to someone else, to Van der Est, a stranger. Antonio had been forced to leave San Cristóbal the day of the killings, before he could make any decent arrangements for the burial. He had just discovered the bodies and was still in a trance. If Antonio had stayed for the funeral, the tattooed soldier would have killed him too, and that would have been the end of all this misery. He would never have seen Los Angeles or lived under a plastic roof. Antonio should have died in San Cristóbal.

He looked at the photograph again. He would never forgive his mother for taking upon herself a duty that should have been left to him. The hypocrisy. This woman who never cared about his wife was looking after her grave. If he were to see his mother now he would give her a real
maltratada
, one of his raging fits that made people step back in shock. He would tell her to leave the memory of Carlos and Elena alone, that she had already done enough damage with her meddling.

BOOK: The Tattooed Soldier
7.84Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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