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Authors: Héctor Tobar

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BOOK: The Tattooed Soldier
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Longoria's photo album was filled mostly with snapshots of his buddies in the army, pictures of men posing with their weapons and with the company mascot, a brownish mutt named Che. One shot was a close-up of Longoria's forearm when the tattoo of the jaguar was fresh, two weeks new—yellow pelt, black spots, moist red mouth. A certificate from the School of the Americas in the Canal Zone took up an entire album page. There were several newspaper clippings, two of them from
La Prensa Libre
: an interview with Lieutenant Colonel Miguel Villagrán, commanding officer of the Jaguar Battalion, and a report of Villagrán's death in an ambush by “terrorist delinquents.” Longoria loved Villagrán even more than his own father, a love that had grown stronger in the years since Villagrán was killed. The album also held a stack of battlefield photographs that Longoria rarely looked at, the last of what had once been a trunkful of war trophies, most of them given away when he left Guatemala.

In the drawer with the album, Longoria also kept his book collection, which consisted of several paperbacks, among them
Vladimir Rashnikov's Guide to Intelligent Chess
and
Fifty Chess Openings from the Grandmasters.
He had three titles by Dr. Wayne García, including
Success and Self-Fulfillment Through Mind Control.

Dr. García helped Longoria understand his inner urges. He had read all of Dr. García's books, and considered him one of the great thinkers of our time. Dr. García taught Longoria that the mind was like any machine and that he had to control the machine instead of allowing it to control him. If Longoria had read Dr. García's books when he was younger, he might have gone further in the army, might have accomplished more with his life.
Maybe I would have been an officer.
Longoria wanted to meet Dr. García one day.

Besides the dresser, the bed, and the chair, the only other objects in Longoria's apartment were a weightlifting bench and a set of barbells, which he kept stacked like coins in a corner of his room. Although he was a small man, he could bench-press two hundred fifty pounds, almost double his weight. He bathed after each workout, in the morning before he left for work, and in the evening when he came home. Afraid of running out of shampoo, he kept extra-large bottles of silky yellow Suave in the shower. When he rinsed off, he took great pleasure in looking down to watch the dirty water drip off his body, thin black lines swirling down the drain. After just a few hours on the street, the soot was always thick and sticky on his neck and face.

He would not be swallowed by the uncleanness around him.
This place, this Los Angeles, is a cloud of filth, even the sky is muddy brown.
He found condoms and hypodermic needles on the street. There were needles everywhere: in the park, on the lawns, by the bus benches, in the gutters. All it took was one little poke, one little drop of blood to infect you. He'd seen the
AIDS
cases, right here in front of his building, the old
culeros
so close to death, skeleton men.
If the needle pokes me, my muscles and bones will corrode and I will die here, alone in this room. It will take them weeks to find my body. To die like that is to die without honor.

Over the years Longoria had learned to spot the
AIDS
cases and the
AIDS
-cases-to-be: the hypes, the doomed
tecatos
, the human pincushions. The streets around MacArthur Park were thick with wan-faced heroin addicts. They were stacked in the old hotels and apartment buildings like diseased cords of wood. When they drifted toward him on the street corner, bony hands outstretched for a cigarette or a few coins, he gave them a homicidal stare.

Behind Sergeant Longoria's building was an alley where a group of these heroin addicts lived, adding another layer of scent to the putrid sweetness of the alley's dumpsters. Longoria saw the addicts and breathed in their smell every morning when he took out his trash. This was another of his rituals, something he did every day, even if there was only a single Kleenex in the red plastic waste basket he kept in his bathroom.

The addicts had been living in the alley for about two years. Their cluster of shacks pushed against the unused rear entrance to a medical clinic, under a sign reading “
Clínica Médica Familiar: Un Servicio Para la Comunidad.
” Longoria would like to see them flushed out of the alley like shit down the toilet. But there was no one to do it, because no one in Los Angeles seemed to care about trespassing, about people breaking the law.

When they first arrived in the alley the
tecatos
slept in the open air, with a piece of cardboard or a blanket thrown over them. After a few weeks they brought boxes and plastic milk crates to build snug little shelters, then some sheets of plywood to fashion a crude lean-to against the wall. Step by step they added on, and now they had this little settlement with an air of permanence about it, made from things other people had thrown away. The heroin addicts were here in the alley for the long haul.

Longoria made a point of never talking to the
tecatos.
He hardly even looked at them anymore. Only once did he exchange words with them, on a nippy winter morning when he heard a curious noise drifting from their shacks. He was standing in the alley, raising the dumpster's table-sized lid to throw out his trash. Then this unfamiliar sound, a high-pitched tone halfway between a hum and a whistle, and the chatter of voices. When he stepped closer to investigate, the source of the noise became clear: a television set. The heroin addicts were watching television. It couldn't be, but yes, now he could make out the jovial monologue of a weatherman.

“… the forecast is for heavy snow across the Midwestern states, with icy blasts of arctic air coming down across Lake Michigan. Sorry about that, Chicago! And our hearts go out to the people of Buffalo this morning, Katie, where it's a bone-chilling fifteen below. Ouch!”

Longoria walked slowly past an opening in the wall of blankets and saw a man and a woman sitting on a mattress, bathed in the gray glow of the television screen. Inside, the space was no more than four feet wide, just enough room for two people to sleep side by side. He stepped back and saw a frayed brown wire poking out from under the rotting blankets and cardboard that were the shack's roof. The wire snaked up along the wall of the medical clinic, looped around a water pipe, and disappeared into a window in the Westlake Arms.

Intrigued, Longoria went inside and found the wire dangling from a windowsill in a second-story stairwell, attached by a crude copper braid to another wire that ran along the base of the wall. For a few seconds he stared at the wires in confusion, until he realized that the heroin addicts were using electricity from his building. It incensed him that they would do this. They sure had a lot of nerve, these hypes. This was going too far,
se estaban aprovechando.
Longoria ripped the wires apart, causing a small but fierce explosion of blue sparks that sent a quick jolt of electric current through his arms. He fell butt-first onto the floor. The television noise in the alley sputtered and died.

“Aw shit,” a male voice shouted below. “We're gonna miss the rest of
The Today Show
.”

“Go reconnect it, baby,” a female voice said. “Hurry. I wanna watch that interview with Whitney Houston.”

Longoria got to his feet and stuck his head out the window. “
Ladrones
, you were stealing our electricity! We paid for that. It's not yours, it's not free. It costs money!”

After a short silence, the male voice in the alley called back slowly, “Fuck you, buddy. Fuck you.”

*   *   *

They came to the offices of El Pulgarcito Express clutching envelopes overflowing with Mother's Day cards, love letters, and Kodak pictures of the grandson's baptism. They carried cardboard boxes stuffed with vitamins and cold creams you couldn't find in San Salvador or Guatemala City. They took neatly folded bills from wallets and purses and bought money orders made out to relatives in Quetzaltenango, Tegucigalpa, Jutiapa, and Zacatecoluca.

They didn't trust the mail system in their native countries, painfully slow when it functioned at all, so they came to El Pulgarcito or one of its competitors: Lopez Express, Cuzcatlán Express, Quetzal Express, and a half-dozen other outfits with equally quaint Central American names, in storefronts decorated with the sky blue and white flags of El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras. You paid fifteen dollars and El Pulgarcito promised to deliver your letter within one week,
más o menos
, unless the destination was in one of the “zones of conflict,” the euphemism of choice for guerilla-controlled territory, in which case the delivery might take a lot longer.

At the El Pulgarcito office on Pico Boulevard, branch number two, Sergeant Longoria's job was to handle complaints, to listen to the customers whine about the rates, about packages that never arrived at their destinations, about lost checks and money orders.

“My sister said she opened the letter and there was no money order, it disappeared,” a corpulent Honduran woman said, waving a receipt before Longoria's face. “Two hundred dollars, gone, just like that! You know what I think? You're just a bunch of thieves, that's what.”

Longoria wondered which of the five or so people who worked in this office had taken the woman's money order. Maybe it was Carlos Avilés, the manager, who opened every letter to check for political messages, or maybe it was the owner himself, who wasn't above a little pilfering now and then. Longoria had no doubt this customer was telling the truth, but then again, she was a fool for trusting El Pulgarcito in the first place. She got what she deserved.

“We only guarantee the money order if you buy it here, with us,” Longoria said for the third time. “If you put one in and don't tell us, we're not responsible. The company isn't responsible for any of that. This is what our
jefe
says. The
jefe
says those are the rules.”

“Oh, so that's how it is?” the woman shot back. “I see. So that's the little racket you've got going here.”

Longoria stared straight into her angry eyes. This was his practiced soldier's gaze, his
cara de matón
, the look that said he was one of the serious ones, the type to grin after he hit you over the head with his rifle butt. Anyone from Central America recognized this look. Longoria had the face of the soldier the customers remembered from back home, a Galil at his side, pants tucked into high laced boots, standing with menacing grace on a street corner in Guatemala, El Salvador. Dead dictators and demagogues lived on in these cold brown eyes. It was Longoria's great gift, his strongest personal asset. His stare always chased the complainers away, which was precisely why he had been stationed at the front counter. The Honduran woman put the receipt in her purse, turned around, and walked away.

There was a certain discipline involved in his work, and Longoria liked that. You had to be patient and resist the urge to reach over and slap the woman. Self-control. That was what he was learning from Dr. Wayne García's book, to rein in the initial impulse to strike out and solve the problem with his fists. Sometimes it took more nerve not to hit someone than to hit them.

Longoria liked working at El Pulgarcito because it was an office job. He told people he worked in “the service sector,” admiring the orderly sound of this phrase. When he first came to Los Angeles, Longoria had worked in a series of factories, including eight months in a sweatshop on Washington Boulevard where his job was to tend to large vats of acid that turned regular blue jeans into “stone-washed” jeans. This was smelly work, and he felt he deserved something better than noxious fumes. Above all, he wanted a job where he could stay clean and not worry about chemicals eating into his skin.

Longoria the factory worker had begun his search for new employment on a Sunday afternoon, walking into the storefronts along Pico Boulevard to ask the owners if they needed any help. He was turned away at a
discoteca
and a shop that sold religious articles, saints and votive candles of all shapes and sizes. He stepped into a store called La Primerísima, which sold First Communion, wedding, and
quinceañera
dresses. Waves of lacy white fabric gushed from every corner of the cramped space, from the display windows, from hooks on the walls, from the rows and rows of racks on the floor. The young women who worked there laughed at him, asking if he wanted a job modeling the dresses.

His next stop was El Pulgarcito Express. Behind the counter stood a thirtyish pug-nosed man in a square-cut guayabera shirt, the uniform of the well-dressed Latin American businessman. The man turned quiet, his eyes narrowing, when Longoria asked if the company was hiring.

“You're a soldier, aren't you?” he said, staring at Longoria as if he were some sort of zoological curiosity. “I can tell. You're a veteran.”

“Yes,
jefe. Así es.

“What unit were you with?”

Talking about one's military past was always risky, but Longoria already had an inkling of this man's sympathies.


Ejército de Guatemala
,” he answered efficiently, as if he were addressing an officer. “
Batallón Jaguar. Sargento Guillermo Longoria, para servirle.

The man in the guayabera broke out in a perfect white smile—a wealthy man's smile, Longoria observed—and embraced him.

“Welcome, sergeant, welcome to El Pulgarcito Express. Of course we have a job for you. You'll work the counter, you'll help with the shipments. How's six fifty an hour sound?”

This was two dollars more an hour than Longoria had ever earned before.

“Consider this your home, soldier. You're part of our family now.”

BOOK: The Tattooed Soldier
10.97Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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