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Authors: Héctor Tobar

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BOOK: The Tattooed Soldier
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Two hours' walk and a long bus ride later, the soap had been purchased, white powder with specks of blue that made his nose itch when he sniffed at it. The soap was in a plastic bag placed carefully between his two feet as he sat in this forbidden place, the movie theater. Guillermo was just two rows from the front, so close to the screen that he felt his seat was moving when the camera panned across a scene. They showed two kinds of movies at the Lux, Mexican and American. Guillermo preferred the latter. He looked up at
E.T.
and marveled at the movie's wide, clean streets and the impossibly large houses. For two weeks he had been saving for this ticket, and now he was finally in the packed theater, elbow to elbow with dozens of
campesinos
, men and women with sun-baked necks and faces watching the bright Technicolor images in muted awe. The suburb on the movie screen seemed to Guillermo more like a playground than a neighborhood. He watched a boy pedal his bicycle across the perfect pavement of a cul-de-sac, across open streets where there was not a single car or bus in sight.

He had seen other American movies before, mostly action pictures with exploding cars and gunfights. But he had never seen a movie with a house like this, room after room filled with televisions and toys, closets packed with more clothes than anyone could wear in a lifetime, a cornucopia of gadgets and appliances. It made sense that the Extra-Terrestrial would go to the United States. He would never come to Guatemala to be cooped up inside a little adobe house with a cement floor like the one where Guillermo lived. In the United States, E.T. had a whole refrigerator of food to indulge his appetites. What would he eat if he were to visit Guillermo's house? A tortilla with some beans and a pinch of salt?

On the screen, the cuddly little alien stood before a television set, fumbling with a remote control.

If I were in that house I would feel like E.T., like some small creature in a far-off world, making sounds no one understood.

E.T. drank beer from the refrigerator. He was alone in Elliot's house, getting drunk. He stumbled into the little sister's closet and put on her clothes and a silly hat.

Suddenly the house lights came on and the screen turned a blinding white. The theater filled with a confusion of voices, whistles of protest. The people in front of Guillermo turned to look back at the projectionist in annoyance. “Put the movie back on!”

The exit doors to the right and left of the screen burst open with a loud crack. Fatigue-clad soldiers appeared in each doorway with machine guns in their hands.

“¡El ejército!”
a woman cried out. “Run,
muchachos
, run. It's the soldiers. Run before they get you!”

The theatergoers exchanged glances of incipient panic.
This is not happening. We're supposed to be at the movies.
Peasant men stood up and held their straw hats at their chests, women placed protective arms around their small children. Next to Guillermo, a boy began to crawl under his seat, squirming on the sticky syrup of the theater floor. A young man with a scar on his cheek sprinted up the aisle toward the lobby.

“Nobody move!” a muscular voice shouted from the back of the theater. “Everyone stay where you are!”

Guillermo turned around and saw soldiers spilling through the doors that led to the lobby. The soldiers looked too young, boys with high Indian cheekbones, dwarfed by their black rifles. The man with the muscular voice stood at the head of the aisle and surveyed the scene with self-satisfied authority. He wore tall boots and camouflage fatigues.

“Okay, you sons of bitches,” he muttered as he lumbered down the aisle. “Now you'll see I mean business.
Ya van a ver, hijos de la gran puta.

He climbed up on the small stage just below the blank screen. All eyes turned to him; he was clearly the officer in charge. For a moment Guillermo was excited by the drama of the scene, so much like part of a movie, though not the movie he had just been watching. This soldier up on the stage was something of a cross between a Mexican comedian and one of those American action-adventure heroes who carried big guns and set off so many explosions.

“The women and girls can leave. The men and the boys will stay,” the officer shouted. “Every boy over fourteen stays right here. And get your documents out. We're checking documents today. Anybody without proof of military service goes straight to the
cuartel
.”

Women in embroidered peasant blouses began stepping out of the rows, crying as they separated from husbands and sons, holding the hands of small boys and girls in shoes too big for their feet. Two soldiers pulled a man from his seat and dragged him to the front of the theater. One of them reached into the man's pocket and handed the officer some wrinkled documents. The officer shook his head and jerked his thumb over his shoulder.

“You're twenty-three years old and you haven't done your military service?” he said. “Sergeant, take this lazy yellow piece of shit and put him in the truck.
Al cuartel con este maricón
.”

The soldiers grabbed more men and boys from their seats and formed them into a line along the aisle. The officer checked documents; those with a blue stamp on their identity papers, proof of military service, were allowed to leave by the door on the left, while the others—all but a handful—were pushed, dragged, and kicked toward the door on the right.

A tall, skinny
campesino
with a wispy mustache stood before the officer, his head bowed. The officer glanced at the pathetic man before him and took in the surroundings, a second-rate theater with holes in the seats. He seemed suddenly disgusted by the cheapness of the drama he had concocted. After inspecting the man's papers, he pointed with a limp finger to the door on the right.

Finally it was Guillermo's turn to stand before the corpulent officer. He produced his papers, uncertain of the consequences.

“No seal on this one either,” the officer said listlessly. “Another one for the barracks.”

“But I'm not eighteen yet,
jefe
,” Guillermo protested weakly.

“Don't tell me what the regulations are, you bastard. You think I don't know the regulations? You'll be eighteen soon enough.”

Guillermo felt strong arms pulling at his collar. He tripped and nearly fell into the front row of seats. Another soldier pulled him up and shoved him through the exit door into the hot whiteness of the day. Before his eyes could adjust to the sunlight, he felt sharp pains on his legs and shins. He was running a gauntlet of soldiers who were kicking him, trying to trip him. After a few strides he fell to the ground, scraping his forearm on the asphalt, then the sensation of being lifted into the air like a sack of beans and landing on the wooden bed of an army truck.

A boy next to him was crying, his face buried in cupped hands. The man with the wispy mustache was bleeding from a cut to the forehead. They were all heaped up against each other. The truck began to move over a potholed road, tossing the men around like tourists on a carnival ride.

At the barracks, soldiers shaved the stringy hair from Guillermo's head and issued him a uniform. That night he slept in a stiff cot, weeping quietly. He knew his mother would be angry with him because he didn't listen to her and just buy the soap and come back home. If he were a good son, he wouldn't have gone into the theater and he wouldn't be in the army now.

 

3.
INSTANT SHELTER

 

At this point, anything would do. A glass of milk, a chicken sandwich, a
torta
like the Mexicans made with that round bread shaped like a pregnant woman's belly. Antonio had not eaten since yesterday, before the eviction.

He was sitting on a piece of cardboard, legs crossed, a blanket over his shoulders. The camp was in shadow, the sun still hiding behind the silhouette of the Financial District skyscrapers to the east. From time to time he heard rats scurrying up and down from their nest in the crown of a palm tree. Antonio and José Juan had moved their cardboard mattresses next to the whitewashed concrete wall of a basement, all that remained of a building that had otherwise dissolved into dust and pebbles. José Juan, ever resourceful, had found some plastic sheets nearby that he was going to use to build a lean-to. He was a bundle of Mexican energy, making the best of the situation, always finding something to do.

Antonio's hunger was an acid stream that flowed upward from his belly to his throat. Smoke signals from his stomach, a request from the intestines to the feet and legs:
Stand up and find some food.
He knew that they gave away groceries at the Unitarian food bank, thick blocks of orange cheese that you could eat with bread to fill you up. He should go soon, to get a good spot in line behind the bleary-eyed women who were always there two hours before the place opened. If he didn't move quickly the women would take all the good tomatoes and bread, leaving behind the stale loaves that only the homeless would eat.

But Antonio did not feel like moving from his patch of pebbles and dirt. A trip to the food bank would stave off the hunger for a few hours, and then he would have to start searching for food all over again. The effort seemed pointless, like building a wall of sand to stop the sea. And he would have nothing to show for it but the degrading memory of having waited in line, in the beatific glow of the church volunteers who smiled stupidly at the resentful winos, the impoverished mothers, the homeless immigrants.


Tengo hambre
,” José Juan said, appearing suddenly with another sheet of plastic. “Let's get something to eat.”

Antonio ignored José Juan and the protests of his own stomach. He had forgotten something, and this had triggered another one of his famous depressions. He could feel it covering him, a somber rain, those leaden moments when even the breeze had too much weight, when it seemed his skin would collapse under the burden of so many thoughts, so much sadness. He could not remember when his wife and son had died. He could remember their birthdays—September 23 and May 15—but he could not place the date of their deaths.

What kind of father would forget? If she were alive, Elena would smile at him and say, “Of course you don't remember, Antonio. You always forgot everything. Anniversaries, phone numbers, appointments. You always forgot.”

Elena is gone too many years. She has left me alone in this city of food lines and plastic cheese. Elena did not live to see this Los Angeles that I know, the empty sky, the only stars the lights of the skyscrapers that come on at dusk and watch over me like a thousand glass eyes.
One moment he might be a normal man, someone with hopes and desires like anyone else, and the next he wanted to curl into a ball. To lie down and let his body seep into the ground. A moment of rest.

Vaguely aware that José Juan was still standing there, Antonio allowed his eyes to drift across the landscape. Saturday morning in downtown Los Angeles. On Third Street a car zoomed past the vacant lot every minute or so, streaks of waxed metal screaming out a Doppler hello and goodbye as they headed for the bridge that somersaulted gracefully over the Harbor Freeway into the Oz of the Financial District. Antonio sat just a few blocks away, in a checkerboard of rubble-covered lots where weeds poked through crumbling layers of concrete, brick, and asphalt.

“¿Qué te pasa?”
José Juan asked, squatting down to look his friend in the eye like a mechanic checking under the chassis.

Antonio turned away.

“You look like you're dead,” José Juan said. “All sad and everything. Say something, talk to me.” He grabbed Antonio by the shoulders and shook him like a doll.

“Hey, listen to me. Snap out of it.
No te agüites.
I hate it when you get like this.”

He hates me when I get like this. Who can blame him? Poor man, to have put up with Antonio for so long. What have I done to deserve such a patient friend?
José Juan did not seem to like the Antonio who wanted only to sleep, the friend who seemed to be on the verge of suicide every few weeks.

“Go ahead and suffer then,” José Juan said, standing up and shaking his head. He drifted off toward Third Street.

Antonio was left alone to watch the camp coming to life around him as the sun crested the skyscrapers, filtering through the blue patches in a half-cloudy sky. Here and there he saw white men in nylon jackets and olive drab parkas, and one gangly old man with a long white beard who looked like a caricature of Father Time. The Latino men in the tent next to Antonio and José Juan stepped out into the daylight and rubbed their bloodshot eyes. The Vicki from the night before stood among them, a heroin-pale woman of indeterminate age and angular features.

“Aw shit, look where I am,” Vicki said, squinting. When her eyes had adjusted to the light, she saw that Antonio was staring at her and gave him the finger.

Embarrassed, he turned his attention to another encampment, where two black men were hanging clothes on a rope stretched between palm trees. A third man, a long-haired white, started a fire in a circle of rocks, balancing an old barbecue grill over the flames. Soon the scent of pinto beans began to drift toward Antonio, and his stomach growled again. As far as he could tell, the three men lived together in the shelter of milk crates, blankets, and corrugated tin that teetered behind them. The white man sat down on a crate by the fire and ran his fingers through his oily hair, an old instinct toward neatness reasserting itself. He rubbed his palm over the stubble on his face, then stood up and took off his shirt to expose a concave chest, bony and pale. He knelt and poked his head into the shelter, pulled out another shirt, and put it on. He was still stooping as he paced around the fire, as if his body carried the memory of living in that cramped space.

All the people here seemed to have the same vacant expression and hunched posture. They looked like walking question marks.

BOOK: The Tattooed Soldier
7.73Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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