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Authors: Héctor Tobar

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BOOK: The Tattooed Soldier
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The street was orange-yellow in the last light of the afternoon. Three girls, Latino and black, played hopscotch on the sidewalk in front of a freshly painted green stucco house with rosebushes exploding in crimson and pink in the yard. There were many nice homes on the block, an abundance of well-kept cacti, neatly trimmed bushes, and brick-lined paths cutting through lawns. A few houses had flaking paint or boarded-over windows or walls covered with a tangle of spray-painted graffiti. On one gabled roof a series of letters painted in chunky blocks faced the neighborhood like a billboard announcing the presence of “Vermont 13,” a local gang.

Everything was as Longoria remembered it except Lopez's house. The grass in front had grown waist-high, thick and unkempt, like Lopez's hair. Fed by the recent rains, the rosebushes bloomed chaotically, a carpet of petals rotting on the walkways. The chain-link fence that marked Lopez's property had become a catchment for windblown plastic wrappers and newspapers. What had happened to the Lopez who was a fanatic for cleanliness, the Lopez who taught him how to make his bunk so the sheets were as tight as the skin of a drum?

Returning to the living room, Longoria discovered to his great relief that Lopez had stopped crying. “What happened to Mauricio junior?” he asked bluntly. “How did he die?”

“Didn't you know?” Lopez said again, looking at his friend in irritated confusion.

“No.”

“I was walking in the door from work when they told me. He was at school. That's when it happened.”

“At school?”

“The gangs. They shot at the security guard. The school was for little kids, but it had a security guard.” Lopez put an index finger just under his eyelid and pulled down the skin, creating a pink crescent. “
Aquí
,” he said. “That's where the bullet hit my son.”

“Those piece-of-shit gangs,” Longoria spat.

“They didn't let me see him right away. It was the gangs that did it. The cholos. It was the guard they wanted to shoot. They didn't like the guard.”

“Those gangs can't shoot for shit. They don't even aim, they just pull the trigger.”

“He was standing in the middle of the playground. By the flagpole. And the bullet just came down and hit him. It happened right there in the playground.”

Lopez's right hand, resting on his leg, began to tremble. “The police wouldn't let me see him.” He looked up at Longoria with desperate, pleading eyes. “Why are you asking me this? Why are you making me tell it?”

“I didn't know.”

“Don't make me tell it. Not again. I was doing fine, and then you come here and make me tell it.” Perspiring now, he reached up to wipe his forehead with a bare hand.

“But
hombre
, I didn't know.”

“They didn't let me see his body. He was just lying there in the playground for an hour.”

Longoria tried to remember the boy's face. A smart little boy with his father's green eyes, about five years old the last time Longoria was here. A neat child, clothes cleaned and ironed, hair parted to the side, wavy but not curly like his father's. Mauricio junior spoke English to his father, who answered him in Spanish.

Why would a bullet fall from the sky and kiss Mauricio junior on the cheek, just under the eye? Why would a bullet find a child on an American playground in the middle of the day? Who gave the bullets their orders? The cholos? Longoria had trouble believing such a thing could happen randomly. In his experience, bullets did not find children by chance.

“Dahlia blamed me,” Lopez said suddenly.

“What?”

“I didn't have anything to do with it, I was at work, but she blamed me. I know she did. That's why I hit her. Because she didn't have the right to blame me for anything.”

“That doesn't make any sense. How could she blame you?”

“I've been trying to get her back,” Lopez continued, pulling at his curls. “But all these things are stopping me.” He got up from the couch and began pacing the room, pointing at the soiled underwear and socks. “Look at this mess. Look at me. I wasn't like this before.”

“You were always neat,” Longoria said, trying not to sound angry. “And clean.”

“It was when I saw him. When they finally showed him to me. His body. I shouldn't have looked at him like that. But I had to. I was his father, I had to look.” He paused and stared at his mechanic's hands, faint traces of oil and grease still embedded in his cuticles.

“You started drinking again, didn't you?” Longoria said. “I told you not to do that.”

“No I didn't. I don't drink anymore.”

“That's what the pills are for, right? To keep you from drinking.”

“No. The pills are to help me forget that I saw him. Bleeding from his face, all stretched out by the flagpole.”

“Stop.”

“He was bleeding from his face. A bullet.” At this Lopez paused, as if he were afraid to say what came next. “I saw him lying there. I saw my boy bleeding from a bullet. He was shot, Longoria. A bullet killed him.”

“It was the gangs that did it. That's what you said. Not you. The gangs.”

“His eyes were still open.” Lopez started to cry again, tears running down familiar channels in his cheeks. “I saw him and it was like all these things I'd seen before. I started to remember all these things.”

“Take a pill,
cabrón
!” Longoria shouted, reaching for one of the amber bottles. “You're losing control.”

“I just started to remember.” Lopez raised his hands to his temples, as if something were stuck there, to his skin. “And now I can't forget.”

Longoria popped the lid off the bottle, and blue capsules tumbled into his palm. “Take one of these and shut up before I slap you. Stop acting like a woman.” He flung them at Lopez, who raised his arms meekly in self-defense.

“Don't.” Lopez fell to his knees and started to pick up the capsules. “They're expensive.”

Longoria headed for the front door. He didn't have to listen to this. Lopez wasn't the man he remembered. The Lopez he knew was a real fighter, strong and brave.

“You're crazy!” Longoria shouted just before he slammed the steel door behind him. “Take your pills!”

*   *   *

Art's Gun Bonanza was in a mini-mall on Alvarado Street, about four blocks from MacArthur Park. A sign in the window cheerfully announced, “Yes, We Have AK-47s!” Longoria went straight there after his visit to Lopez even though it would make him late for his date with Reginalda.

A gringo with a shaggy mustache and a moon-crater complexion stood behind the counter. Art himself, a man with the weary expression of someone who'd been victimized by one too many robberies. He touched his hand to the holstered gun on his hip when Longoria walked through the door. A security guard in a yellow jacket was dozing off in a folding chair by the display of hunting rifles. Semiautomatic machine guns and rifles hung on a rack behind the counter, including the promised AK-47, a crescent-shaped magazine dangling from its belly. Longoria leaned over the glass case and inspected the available handguns, mostly automatic pistols, heavy chunks of gray, black, and chrome-plated steel lined up in neat rows, each with a small price tag attached by string. These were pretty weapons, practical and effective, especially the silver 9-millimeter. Longoria had one once, a gift from an American instructor at Fort Bragg.

The gang members who killed Lopez's son had probably used a 9-millimeter. The gangs were to blame for his weeping and his pills. Lopez was a warrior, but he had been broken by a single bullet fired by a cholo who couldn't shoot straight. There were so many gangs in the city, dozens of little armies, including the one that made its headquarters from time to time on the front steps of the Westlake Arms. The perpetual gunplay in Longoria's neighborhood was a danger he hadn't thought much about until now.

When he saw these cholos on his front steps, they exchanged tense glances, masculine eyes sizing each other up. Longoria saw something he recognized in the gang members, and they must have seen it in him too, because they didn't bump against him or try to intimidate him like they did other people. The cholos had eyes that looked tough and sad at the same time, the faces of boys who knew what a bullet could do to flesh, who knew the helplessness of hearing gunshots and diving for cover.

The gang members were children fighting a war, that was clear. Longoria had been in a war too, but his war was over now. For Longoria the battles had ended years ago, although he read in the papers, and had heard from friends, that they were still going on over there, in the jungle thousands of miles away. As far as he could tell, the cholos were engaged in what his instructors at Fort Bragg called “conventional warfare.” Their game was to claim a position—in this case, the front steps of the Westlake Arms—and then hold it against an enemy that could be counted on to ambush them. To mark their position, their sacred ground, they had covered the black asphalt of the street with a huge graffito announcing the name of their gang, Bixel 13. It was the size of a delivery truck, so large it could be seen clearly only from the third floor of the Westlake Arms or higher. Longoria could read it from his window, but when he stood on the street it looked like a nonsensical geometry of lines, circles, and squares.

The graffito on the pavement was their flag; they rallied around it the same way Longoria and his fellow Jaguars had rallied around the sky blue and white flag of Guatemala with the quetzal bird in the center. Like Longoria, the gang members also painted themselves with their allegiances, although they took the habit to extremes, tattoos covering not only their arms but their chests, necks, and shoulders, their fingers, and sometimes even their faces. The tattoos announced a kind of devotion that Longoria understood and even sympathized with, a declaration of the blood seriousness of their loyalties.

These children on the front steps had been in combat, and you had to respect that. Still, Longoria was confused about the origin and purpose of their war. They seemed to be interested in fighting for its own sake; they fought for no cause Longoria could see, no ideology or greater historical purpose. Longoria had fought to save Guatemala from Communism, to create a country of warriors and honorable men. But the cholos held their position just to prove it could be held, making a big show of their muscles and their courage, daring someone to come and shoot at them.

And when the shooting started, they had no discipline of fire. There was probably not a marksman among them. Longoria had seen them in one engagement: a beefy, pimply teenager in a Mexican sarape, holding a 9-millimeter pistol like the ones in Art's case as he ran down the sidewalk right underneath Longoria's window, arms extended but limp, firing with his eyes closed, pursued by two skinny cholos firing just as wildly. They were like the worst unit of the Guatemalan army, like the first cannon-fodder unit Longoria had been in, a company without effective leadership, shooting at chickens and pigs, getting drunk and firing in the air.

It did not surprise him that Lopez's little boy had been caught in their crossfire. It was not uncommon to hear gunshots outside the Westlake Arms and discover a shrine of marigolds and votive candles on the sidewalk a day or so later, memorials for the dead that seemed to sprout from the spots of blood left on the pavement. They reminded Longoria of the memorials people built in Guatemala, to accident victims, to the dead of the war, to the subversives killed by the army.

Anyone could be caught in the crossfire of the war of the painted children.

After visiting Lopez, Longoria began to see that the gangs were a threat to his physical safety in the same way the old woman was a threat to his mind. Both could destroy him if he wasn't careful. The answer was to buy a gun. With a gun he could scare off the cholos and the next old woman who came to blame him for things he wasn't responsible for. With a gun he would stop feeling this confusion in his head. He would be armed again, just like he was with the Jaguars.

He asked to see the silver pistol, and Art unlocked the case reluctantly, reaching in from behind. “Nice weapon,” he said. “It's got stopping power.” With two quick movements of his hands, he pulled a magazine from the butt. The price tag said $275, which seemed exorbitant.

“That's the cheapest there is,” Art said. “You buy it new, it's gonna cost you a hundred dollars more. Minimum.”

Longoria went home, got the necessary cash out from under his mattress, and walked back to Art's Gun Bonanza to purchase the weapon and some ammunition. Art counted the money twice and then watched with a critical eye as Longoria put a full clip in the gun and stuck it in his jacket pocket.

“Hey, buddy, can I give you a little advice here? You can't carry a loaded gun around like that. In fact, you can't carry it around in public, not openly. Period. Gotta have it in a locked case in the back of your car. That's the law. If the cops catch you with it loaded, they're gonna take it away from you. And that's not all they'll do.”

Longoria shot an angry glance at this know-it-all who would tell him how to handle the gun he had just bought with his own American dollars.

“Hey, I'm just warning you, that's all,” Art said defensively. “I'm just trying to help.”

Longoria turned to leave. These American laws were ridiculous.

“At least keep the clip out of the gun, okay?”

Longoria paused, faced the man, and made a show of letting the clip fall out. The metallic clack-clack startled the security guard awake.

“Jeez,” Art said, shaking his head. “Teach me to be a Good Samaritan.”

 

13.
BASIC TRAINING

 

It was Sunday morning, and the park was nearly empty except for a few addicts still asleep on the lawns, their dew-covered bodies glistening in the sun. Antonio strode past a crumbling concrete statue of Prometheus with a broken torch and one hand missing. A black and white patrol car was parked on the grass next to the statue, the police officer inside sipping coffee and tugging at the bulletproof vest under his midnight blue uniform.

BOOK: The Tattooed Soldier
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