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Authors: Héctor Tobar

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BOOK: The Tattooed Soldier
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Longoria scrambled up, let the bulletless gun fall from his hand, and ran to the embankment and the pepper trees. In an instant he had reached the street above the park and disappeared.

The red-faced officer did not give chase. Instead he grabbed Antonio. The silver name tag on his shirt said “Johnson.”

“What's with the pipe, buddy?”

The twenty or so people standing around listening to the interrogation wanted to know too. The officer cuffed Antonio's hands behind his back and made him kneel on the grass, a posture that suggested contrition, though he felt none.

“Okay, knucklehead, what's the story here? Talk to me.” Johnson had called for backup. Crowds always made the police nervous, and two squad cars were rolling to a stop on the grass in front of the chess tables.

Antonio said nothing. He didn't know what to say. If he told the police that the tattooed soldier had killed innocent people in Guatemala and that Antonio had found him in MacArthur Park by coincidence, would they believe him? The police couldn't care less about international politics. He could tell they'd already made up their minds about him: he was some sort of drug dealer, because after all this was MacArthur Park, and “what else do these people have to fight about anyway?” They searched his pockets, took off his shirt, shoes, and socks, checked behind his ears, and reached between his legs. Despite the lines of dirt caked into his neck, and the sickly sweet smell of his clothes, they pronounced him “clean.”

The arresting officer discussed the situation with his colleagues, whose name tags said “Griffin” and “Pierce.” Since the alleged victim of the assault wasn't around to press charges, and since they really didn't feel like doing any more paperwork that afternoon, they let Antonio go. They left him sitting by the, playground, barefoot and naked to the waist, his clothes piled on the grass in front of him.

 

14.
FORT BRAGG

 

The usual group of cholos had assembled on the front steps of the Westlake Arms blocking the way, menacing young men in oversized Pendletons and blue jeans that covered their bodies like huge curtains. Their heads were shaved nearly clean, haircuts even more severe than Longoria's, the nubby imperfections of their skulls exposed for all the world to see. Leading Reginalda by the hand, Longoria plowed right through them. He had no time for the cholos today, he didn't care if one of them reached up and stabbed him or shot him or whatever it was that these gang members did when they got angry. As he dragged Reginalda up the steps with his good arm, he felt his legs brush against the young men, but all that happened was that one of them shouted, in Spanglish, “Hey,
watchale
.”

Longoria had been fighting with Reginalda, shouts and insults, for about an hour. The origin of the argument was lost, but it all revolved around his
carácter
, his being brusque and rude,
pesado.
He had gone too far, apparently, said something that hurt her feelings, and now she was making him pay for it.

“You're out of your mind, Longoria.
Chiflado.
You're sick in the head. Last night you were fine, and today you call me up all crazy and demand to see me, and then I find you with a broken arm.”

They passed through the lobby and began to climb the stairs.

“The only reason I stay with you is because I'm afraid of you, Longoria. I'm afraid of what you'll do if I walk away.”

She kept on talking as they walked down the hallway to his room. “Why don't you just leave me alone if you hate me? Why do you keep calling me? ‘Let's go to the movies,' you say. ‘We'll have fun. I want to see you.' And then when I see you all you can do is criticize. Criticize and criticize. Do you think I don't hurt? Do you think I'm a stone?”

They were alone in the room at last. He fastened the chain on the door, locked the dead bolts, and turned to face her. He was angry and frustrated and tired of arguing. Looking at her now, he wondered why he had brought her here. He wished she would leave. Why should he put up with this from her? Attacks from Reginalda, of all people.
This is a betrayal.
He felt his left hand forming into a fist. She took a step back. Her fear was tinged with disgust, as if he were a monster. And then he realized that the crazy old woman in El Pulgarcito Express had looked at him the same way. So had the tall man with the pipe, the crazy man in MacArthur Park who attacked him without explanation.

Who was the man in the park and what did he have in common with Reginalda? They both looked at him as if he were less than human, seeing something that he was sure wasn't there. He felt ugly and mean.
You try to be strong, to believe in what you are, but then the woman of your caresses looks at you that way.
This look of hers cut deeper than any insult, hurt more than a punch to the stomach or a wallop from a pipe. Complete strangers stepping out of nothingness to attack him, and now Reginalda suddenly combative, sickened by him. Longoria felt limp, as if all the wind had left him. Years of trying to be strong, of holding himself up against everything. His legs buckled, and he found himself dropping to the linoleum, kneeling before her.
Please don't look at me that way!
Wrapping his good arm around her waist, he buried his face in her belly.

For the first time in his life he wept in front of a woman.

Boys weren't supposed to cry, men even less. Tears streamed down his cheeks. He began to sob so loudly that the neighbors in the next apartment must be able to hear. Reginalda took his head in her hands, pressed him closer to her, ran her fingers through the short, stiff grass of his hair.

Yes, yes. This is what I want. For you to hold me like a baby against your stomach.

Longoria closed his eyes and held on to Reginalda, feeling helpless and weak before her scent and touch. The too tight skin of her polyester blouse, the small bulges at her waistline, the flowery mist of her perfume, the curve of her back. Everything tender about her made him want to cry.

“What's wrong,
amor
?” she asked after a long silence. “Tell me. You can tell me.”

From outside, through the window, came voices, the sound of car doors slamming, engines turning off.

Reginalda's stomach rose and fell against his cheek. He wanted to stay in the trance of her heartbeat. There was so much he wanted to tell her, but the words would not come. They remained anchored to his tongue, like soldiers unwilling to break ranks, fixed in place by years of discipline. If he could find the words he would tell her about the woman in El Pulgarcito Express and the man in MacArthur Park. He would tell her what he had seen in Guatemala, what he had been forced to do in that first village on a Sunday, on market day. He would tell her about the rooms where they held the prisoners, rooms at the barracks in Huehuetenango, Totonicapán, El Quiché. He would tell her, and she would still hold him against her stomach, she would not push him away.

Outside his window, four stories down, the young men on the steps were shouting. Longoria wanted their voices to disappear, but they only became louder. He wrapped his arm tighter around Reginalda. Another voice, older, spoke now, in loud, efficient English, shouting orders. Longoria tried to block out the sounds. Why couldn't they go away?
Just go away for a minute more and leave me alone with Reginalda.

“Hands!” the older voice yelled. “Show me hands!”

“Longoria, something is happening outside,” Reginalda whispered. “I see flashing lights.”

Longoria was rising to his feet, wiping the tears from his face, when he heard a loud report from below. He crouched down instinctively, pulling Reginalda with him, and looked out the window at pulses of blue and red light reflected on the building across the street. A woman's scream now, followed by the sound of feet drumming on the pavement. A brief pause and then three more shots, one right after the other. Reginalda trembled and shook with each shot.

When the shooting stopped, Longoria crept toward the window. “Be careful,” Reginalda said behind him.

The gunfire had brought him back to himself. Rubbing the last tears from his eyes, he peered over the top of the windowsill and saw two patrol cars parked at odd angles. An officer was crouched behind the front end of one of them, gun drawn, peering over the hood in a pose that mirrored Longoria's own. Another officer had taken cover behind the patrol car door. They were both facing in the same direction, toward Longoria and the steps of the Westlake Arms.

Following their line of vision, Longoria looked down at the sidewalk in front of the steps and saw a young man lying face down on the pavement, arms stiffly at his sides, like a soldier at attention. His loose-fitting clothes covered him like a shroud.

“They shot Freddy,” shouted a woman from the window below. “The cops shot him.
¡La chota!
He's dying, he's dying. Call 911!”

*   *   *

Back then, if you had told Sergeant Longoria that he would see such things in the United States, a war of painted children on his front steps, he wouldn't have believed you. He wouldn't have believed that the gringos could tolerate such disorder. Order was what he was looking for when he came to Los Angeles. Order and peace, a respite from so much fighting and confusion.

Longoria had made his first visit to the United States when he was still a soldier, many years earlier, to another corner of this vast country, completely different from Los Angeles. When life in Los Angeles seemed complicated and messy, when nothing made sense, he tried to remember that army base in a place called North Carolina, the promise and perfection of a city run by professional soldiers. On that first trip he had seen things that made him want to settle in this country, to have a room of his own and live like the gringos did.

The United States Army had met him at Pope Air Force Base and driven him in a van, along with ten other Central American soldiers, to the dormitories at Fort Bragg. The American sergeant who picked them up told them they were driving along “the All-American Highway.” The road seemed impossibly wide, like nothing he had seen in Guatemala, two lanes on each side with a thick strip of grass running between. Wide enough to land an airplane, Longoria thought. Maybe the roads were bigger here because the Americanos were bigger. Big highways for big people.

“We're gonna keep you real busy,” said the sergeant, a man who spoke Spanish with a heavy accent, like a foreigner, despite his dark, unmistakably Latino features. “By the time you leave here, you will be
muy, muy cansados
.”

Longoria couldn't believe his luck, to be included in this group granted the special privilege of training on a real American base, with real gringos. It was worth the five hours he spent on the stuffy, windowless transport plane, worth the brief vomiting fit that made his Salvadoran companions laugh and slap him roughly on the back.

Now they were in the United States, and Longoria was already impressed by the size and breadth of the place, its insistent orderliness. Not a single piece of trash on the ground, not a single pothole in the road, the highway a black strip of flat perfection. The highway had traffic lights. They came to a stop in a queue of automobiles, flashy red pickup trucks with shiny chrome wheels, sleek sports cars, brand-new Toyotas. A soldier in camouflage uniform was at the wheel of each car. One of the Salvadorans asked if those men were officers.

The American sergeant looked over at the other cars and laughed. No, he said, as far as he could tell, they were all enlisted men.


Dios mío
, even the foot soldiers here have their own cars!”

“I want to join this army,” said another Salvadoran. “An army where even a
soldado razo
can be rich!”

Later they gave Longoria his own dorm room, his own place to stay during the ten days of training at Fort Bragg. A spotless rectangle, purged of dust, with plaster walls that gleamed white. There was an air conditioner he didn't touch for fear that he would break it, the machine's whir becoming his constant companion. Not used to such cold, he slept with a wool blanket he found in one of his voluminous dresser drawers. There were extra blankets and sheets because the Americanos thought of everything.

After the hours and hours of training, after climbing over a set of square and rectangular obstacles arranged on a field like enormous children's blocks, after the bruising courses on hand-to-hand combat, after talking about “society” and “hearts and minds” and learning about the theories of Mao and Che and so much else that was just too much to remember at all once, Longoria always came back to his spotless dorm room. One day he would have a room just like this. To have a place to call your own, without a brother or a soldier or a mother crowded in with you, a place without dirt floors, without any dirt or dust at all, scrubbed clean of germs, healthy,
sano
—it seemed civilized. He was beginning to understand and appreciate the meaning of this word.
Civilization.
What the officers back in Guatemala meant when they said they didn't live in a civilized country. Being here in the United States for the first time, he could grasp the concept. This was a country where order and cleanliness reigned supreme.

They told him he could wander around during his few hours off, go to “the mall” they had right here on the base, do some shopping before he had to return home. And so he took long walks in the last hours before sunset, going off on his own.

Walking miles and miles and never leaving the base, guided by the tidy geometry of its asphalt streets, Longoria discovered many wonderful and unexpected things. There were unending black parking lots with hundreds of new tanks arranged in neat rows, turrets and guns wrapped lovingly in tarpaulin, being saved for the next war like coins in a piggy bank. He found another parking lot filled with Jeeps, hypnotizing in their identical greenness. There were separate lots for the trucks, humble but efficient, in the same forest green as the Jeeps, and yet another lot for the square bodies of the armored vehicles, proud and vain in their desert dress, beige with tinges of bluish gray.

BOOK: The Tattooed Soldier
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