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Authors: Héctor Tobar

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BOOK: The Tattooed Soldier
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*   *   *

Morning came and the sky was a canopy of whiteness, soft and pale, the diffuse light of dreams. What time was it? Five, six o'clock? Antonio had not slept one minute. His mouth was dry and his eyes ached and stung. José Juan was already up, exploring the lot; Antonio could hear him scratching about in the patches of dirt and weeds. Suddenly he was standing over Antonio, his thick eyebrows arched high in an expression of childlike wonder. José Juan had the almond-shaped eyes and curly black hair of an Arab, which was why Antonio sometimes called him
moro.

“Are you awake?” José Juan asked.

“What do you think,
moro
? Of course I am. Who could sleep here?”

“Good. I want to show you something. I found something really neat.
No me lo vas a creer.

Antonio rose to his feet reluctantly, his back heavy and sore from the night spent on the ground. A car droned by on Beaudry Avenue, and a phlegmy cough sounded from one of the tents. Otherwise the lots were quiet; everyone, it appeared, was still asleep. José Juan walked across the lot where they had slept and stood in a flat patch of red dirt.

“Look,” he said, spreading his arms wide to celebrate his discovery. “There's a floor here. Tile. It used to be a kitchen. This was somebody's house.”

For a moment Antonio thought that José Juan was trying to make some sort of joke, but then he saw a narrow path of bricks leading to a set of concrete steps. A little farther on were the ruins of a driveway.

“See?” José Juan said. “A family, a rich family used to live here.” He walked around the empty property tracing squares and rectangles, the geometry of a home that had been demolished many years ago.

“Right here, this was their garden. That was their garage.” José Juan jumped a few steps to his left. “Over here was the bedroom. And see this? These bricks? This had to be the fireplace. See? A fireplace to sit by when it's cold, like it is now. A nice hot fire to keep warm. Can you see it? Can you?”

Antonio looked at the land around him. There was the green hill, with perhaps a dozen tents and shacks perched on its muddy earth. Underneath these ephemeral structures were the ruins of a lost community, a forgotten neighborhood built with brick and cement. On the hill, and on the flat plain that extended from its base, he could see a grid of city streets, blocks of land cut in rectangles and bordered with sidewalks, asphalt avenues with iron manhole covers for the sewers. Dozens and dozens of concrete stairs led from the streets to what used to be front lawns. In all, Antonio counted more than forty demolished lots, a whole section of the city leveled to an expanse of wild grasses.

Only the palm trees had survived the disaster that swept through this place: tall, majestic trees that looked very old, each with a heavy crown of dry leaves near the top, like a lion's mane. To the east, looming over the open plain, were the skyscrapers, an ocean wave of steel and glass. To the west, the empty fields came to an end and the city started again, now closer to the ground: not skyscrapers but stubby apartment buildings, liquor stores, fading stucco houses.

Antonio closed his eyes and tried to imagine what once stood on this barren land.
Elena always said I had an overactive imagination.
He could feel the souls of the children who once lived in this place, their after-school games and innocent wanderings. What sins did their parents commit, he wondered, to bring such destruction upon themselves?

José Juan lay down on the tile floor and stretched out with a lazy yawn. “We have a home, our own little
rancho
,” he said. “It's ours. We own it. A nice piece of property next to downtown.”

Several hundred yards away, two men huddled around a fire that blazed in an oil barrel, the smoke drifting upward and settling into a thick haze. In Guatemala, Antonio had seen cornfields set ablaze, swirling rains of ash and ember, veils of smoke that lingered for days like fog in the mountain valleys. He remembered bridges that fell into rivers, asphalt and steel swallowed by white tongues of water. He looked at the wild urban grasses before him and remembered the hills near Huehuetenango, where he once encountered a single-file column of soldiers, a camouflage serpent on the march, disappearing suddenly into the dense foliage.

The vacant property, the plastic shelters, the ruined homes. The more he thought about it, the more Antonio began to feel a kinship with the flattened earth around him.

*   *   *

Sitting on the damp ground of the lot, Antonio opened the Hefty bag to see his possessions swimming around inside, socks and underwear mixed up with spoons and soup bowls. It reminded him of the haste and disorder of his retreat from the apartment building. He worried about leaving things unfinished in the apartment. He rummaged in the bag for his collection of photographs, but could not find them, and this left him feeling unsettled. A moment of déjà vu, until he pinpointed a memory, another day like this one.

On that day many years ago it was not a plastic bag he carried but a cardboard box tied shut with dirt-colored twine. As today, it held all of his possessions, although he could not now remember exactly what he possessed at the time. He was standing in the central square of San Cristóbal Acatapán, the box at his feet, because he was fleeing that horrible little village, taking the first step in the journey that would lead, eventually, to Los Angeles. He was leaving behind a house with floors that were covered with reddish black blood. He had wandered through that house like a sleepwalker, his shoes sticking to the tiles.

There had been a crowd around the doorway when he got there. A man he didn't know, a
campesino
, was kneeling over the bodies, poking a stick into Elena's ribs, trying to see something underneath her corpse. No one had known he was the husband and father until he pushed his way to the front and gasped and fell to his knees. Elena's arms raised above her head, as if she were reaching for something behind her. Wearing a blue apron he had never seen before. Next to her, their baby, his arms and face covered in watery pink splotches, eyes open and fixed.

That's the way the doctors gave him to me when he was born, just out of Elena's belly. Covered in an earth brown film of blood and tissue, mother and son joined by life's fluid. This is something a father can never forget, the son's first cries, the voice of new lungs, the mother's exhausted glow of relief and joy.
Antonio would forever relive these two moments as one, the birth and death of his son fused into a single image, the living cry of the newborn and the scream of the father.
And then the moment when my baby opened his eyes for the first time and I realized that they were my own, my legacy, Spanish eyes of Zacapa passed down by our fathers and mothers for generations and generations.

Someone had dragged the corpses through the house before he got there, painting the floors with their blood, placing Elena and Carlos on the front steps for the crowd to see.

People he didn't know whispered to him that he should leave San Cristóbal immediately. They said the soldiers who killed Elena and Carlos would soon return to finish their work. The family servant, Marisol, ran through the house in a panic, filling the cardboard box with the things he could not remember. “You have to leave,” she repeated between sobs. “You have to leave or they'll kill you.” Hypnotized by the smudges of blood on the floor and the walls, by the bullet holes he found in a closet door, Antonio would have stayed in that house all day if Marisol hadn't dragged him out. Carrying the box, she led him by the arm to the town square and left him there, by the kiosk, to wait for the bus that would take him away to safety.

The box was still at his feet when the bus pulled in and parked, its engine idling in a loud sputter. He was about to board when he was spotted by Mrs. Gómez, his neighbor, the woman from across the street. He didn't want anyone to look at him, he longed to be invisible, but that was impossible when you lived in a small town and stood in its central square. Antonio did not really know the woman, but he knew she had spoken to his wife quite often. Elena was gone, but Antonio still possessed this absurd fact: she did not like this Mrs. Gómez very much.

Embracing him, Mrs. Gómez offered her
pésame.
She was an older woman with white hair tied in a braid. Tears were streaming from her milky eyes as she lamented the passing of “our Elena.” Everything was a jumble, and he did not hear what she was saying. She talked and cried. It occurred to Antonio that the bus passengers around him might think she was his mother come to wish an embarrassed son a tearful goodbye. She should go away: it seemed to him that he should be allowed to suffer alone. And then the stream of her condolences came to an abrupt stop. She fell silent, her eyes fixed on something behind him. Without warning she grabbed him by the arm, squeezing his biceps.

“Oh my God, that's him, right there!” she said, looking over Antonio's shoulder. “He's one of
them
.”

“What?”

“He's one of them. I saw him at your house.”

Confused, Antonio turned to see what Mrs. Gómez was looking at.

“Don't!” she said in a fierce whisper, pulling at his arm. “He'll see you. He'll kill you.”

“Who?”

“It's them. It's him. One of the men at your house. He killed Elena. He killed the baby. He's one of them.”

Antonio felt himself suddenly alert again, the haze around his eyes dissolving, the moment coming into sharper focus.


Matones sinvergüenzas.
They're not even ashamed to show themselves,” Mrs. Gómez said. “
Asesinos.
They kill someone and buy an ice cream like it's nothing. Nothing!” She pushed him toward the bus.

Look at him. Why are you afraid?
The twine that held the box together cut into Antonio's fingers.
Drop the box. Drop it and confront the man.
The box seemed to have a will of its own, pulling Antonio forward, onto the bus. Turning, he caught the outline of a man with a chocolate ice cream to his mouth, diminutive but stout, like a tree stump.

Antonio shuffled along with the other passengers, keeping the vague form of the killer in his field of vision. Moving through the aisle now, he took a seat by the window. He squeezed his hand into a fist for courage and looked out.

The killer was sitting on a cast-iron bench, not thirty feet away, wearing black denim pants and a green sweatshirt, hair stubble-short. He raised the ice cream to his mouth with a chunky, muscular arm. He was dressed like a civilian but looked like a soldier. The shaved head was the giveaway. Antonio memorized his face: the dark features, the long nose, the protruding ears, something childlike in the eyes.

The killer caught Antonio's glance and pulled the ice cream from his mouth, slightly perplexed, as if to say, “Who are you and why are you staring at me?” Antonio did not look away. The killer lost interest and returned to his ice cream.

Antonio saw one more thing before the bus jerked into gear and began to roll forward. On the killer's left arm, the one not holding the ice cream, halfway between the wrist and the elbow, there was a mark on the skin, yellow and black. A tattoo of a yellow animal with its jaws open.

For the next several hours Antonio rode the bus with his feet on the box underneath him. The box with the forgotten, worthless possessions. He vomited out the window, wept into his hands, pounded a fist into his thigh.
I am a coward. I am a coward.
He had failed to summon the courage to jump from the bus in the square in San Cristóbal and confront the man who had killed his wife and son.

 

2.
EL PULGARCITO EXPRESS

 

Guillermo Longoria, retired sergeant in the Jaguar Battalion of the Guatemalan army, lived six blocks from MacArthur Park in a brick building called the Westlake Arms. He kept his one-room apartment meticulously clean, making his bed first thing in the morning and dusting his only furniture, a dresser and an old wooden chair, three times a week. Every Sunday he took a wet rag and wiped down the scratched lime green skin of the linoleum floor on his hands and knees. He worked his muscled arms hard against the scuff marks and the faint outline of dirty footprints, reaching under the bed to annihilate dust balls and loose hairs. No matter how hard he cleaned, no matter that his palms were wrinkled and white from scrubbing, the floor always seemed to be dirty again an hour later. Alone in his room, Sergeant Longoria was waging a war of attrition against the gray film of soot that infiltrated whenever he left the window open, fine particles of automobile exhaust and God knows what else that came creeping in from the streets four stories below.

This self-imposed discipline and Spartan lifestyle set him apart, he felt, from the rabble that lived around him, the Salvadorans, Mexicans, and Guatemalans who filled the Westlake Arms. He saw them in the hallways and stairways, these janitors, garment workers, and housekeepers, scrambling off to work every morning. They were on a sad minimum-wage quest, with no sense of life's greater purpose. He hated them, they were so pathetic.

Longoria considered himself a man of accomplishment. The certificates and diplomas from his military training in the Panama Canal Zone and at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, the newspaper clippings detailing his unit's exploits in Guatemala, were all carefully preserved in an album he kept in the bottom drawer of his dresser. The intellect, strategic vision, and wisdom of great military leaders had been passed down to him. A soldier did not lose those things when he quit the army; he carried them with him wherever he went, even to a city filled with criminals and drug addicts. His neighbors lived in apartments dense with people, two or even three families sharing one room. That was good enough for them, but Longoria demanded better for himself. He made enough money from his job at El Pulgarcito Express to afford living alone.

BOOK: The Tattooed Soldier
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