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Authors: Héctor Tobar

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BOOK: The Tattooed Soldier
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Refugees. That was the term for people who lived like this, in makeshift tents, on barren ground. This was something new. He did not know that gringos could be refugees.

These gringos don't deserve this.

Years ago, when Antonio lived in Guatemala, he had an electric idea of Los Angeles. It was a place of vibrant promises, with suntanned women in bikinis and men carrying ice chests brimming with beer. It was a city of handsome, fit young people, all with a bounce in their step. Long before he set foot in this country, Antonio felt that he knew California because he'd seen it come to life over and over again on his television set. In Antonio's homeland, the words “Los Angeles” sparkled, like sunlight glimmering off a mountain lake.

And now this. Skinny question-mark men with dirty bodies and unshaven faces, hanging clothes on a line strung between palm trees, in a lot in the center of the city.

Antonio began to imagine that he was somehow responsible for their plight. If his own mind were not clouded with so much pain, they would not exist.
They are what I feel.
Somehow he had tainted the prosperous Americanos with his condition. The pathos of these men was his own creation, an extension of his tortured past, the curse of a man with a dead wife and son. He wanted to apologize to these gringos, to say, “I'm sorry. It's all in my head. My head is full of all this trash, you see.” He hadn't meant to put them in this horrible predicament. It was all his fault, and they could go home now, back to the lives they had before, to their beaches and ice chests. As soon as Antonio went away, they would slip back into their fit American bodies.

He closed his eyes for several minutes, meditating in a dizzy darkness, wondering if he could make them disappear. They were still there when he opened his eyes, men with teeth and skin yellow like ivory. They were as real as his hunger. He shook his head vigorously, like a dog shaking water out of its fur. He had been out here in the open air too long and was suffering some sort of psychological reaction. If he had a medical dictionary he would look up the symptoms. Hallucinations, delusions. If he stayed here he might lose his mind completely.

It was important not to lose control.

The men in the next lot went about their morning chores with a serious and practiced efficiency, making coffee, dishing out the beans with a small plastic spoon. Even here in a barren lot, it seemed, people could settle into a domestic routine. With two plastic buckets that looked like beach toys, one of the black men brought water from an unseen source at the bottom of the hill.

A few minutes later José Juan returned, carrying several pieces of scrap wood.

“Let's go get food,” he insisted. “We need to eat.”

Antonio stood up. Together they hid the Hefty bag with all their possessions in one of the bushes that ringed the empty lots. Turning onto Third Street, past the last of the camps, they stepped over a cyclone fence that had been cut apart. A sign was still attached: Coming Soon: Crown Hill Hotel and Finance Park

*   *   *

They could see the man from half a block away, reaching into the brambles to pull out the Hefty bag.

“Hey, you!” Antonio called out in English, dropping a sack of groceries from the food bank and breaking into a run. Startled, the man began to walk away with José Juan's hotplate tucked under his arm, taking long, gangly strides. Antonio sprinted to catch up with him and tackled him from behind. The two men fell to the ground with a thud, Antonio landing on the thief's back, pounding him into the weed-covered soil.

Antonio rolled him over and formed his hand into a fist over the man's face. “Bastard!” he shouted.

The thief raised his arms meekly and cried out, “Please don't hit me!” He was the older man Antonio had seen before, pasty-faced, his long beard stained yellow just below his mouth.

We have almost nothing, and this man wants to take it from us.
Antonio drove his fist into the man's face, the nose cartilage snapping under his knuckles. Another punch, this one like hammering nails into the ground, a clenched fist to the temple. A weak scream from the thief, and then one more punch, to the mouth.

“Don't fuck with me!” Antonio yelled.
“Hijo de la gran puta, no te metes conmigo.”

It felt good to hit this man, to feel his own arms doped with adrenaline, to feel his wrists cut through the air as he pummeled the man's face. Antonio stopped when his knuckles began to throb. For a moment he felt strong and free; fury was a much better drug than self-pity.

He walked away and left the man moaning in the dry grass, the milky skin of his face already swelling purple and black. The thief smelled of urine and stale wine; Antonio wondered if the odor would linger on his hands. He wiped them against his trousers, then picked up some dirt and rubbed it quickly between his palms.

José Juan gave him a disgusted, incredulous stare.

“What?” Antonio asked. “What did I do?”

José Juan did not answer.

“He was taking our things,” Antonio said. He shrugged his shoulders and went to collect the scattered groceries. The old man was still lying on his back by the bushes, moaning loudly. A pathetic, theatrical moan. Antonio unwrapped a block of cheese and bit off a piece. The plastic taste was not satisfying.

“Why did you hit him like that?” José Juan said finally. “He's just an old man. You didn't have to hit him.”

Another moan from the wounded man in the bushes, who turned over onto his stomach.

There was revulsion on José Juan's face.
He's looking at me as if I were an animal.
Antonio took an angry bite of cheese and saw the red patches on his knuckles, the dirt embedded in his fingernails. This was what José Juan saw, the stains of the old man on his hands.
He thinks I beat the old man up for sport.

Antonio began to feel like the ugly person in José Juan's gaze. To beat up a
viejo
who was too anemic and emaciated to defend himself was not an honorable act.
It was my temper coming out again. My famous, uncontrollable temper.
The men in Antonio's family had a genetic propensity to bouts of rage. They liked to scream, to shout, to bare their teeth to their wives, sons, and business partners.
Elena said she was afraid of my “reacciones violentas.”
In family lore these outbursts were blamed on Antonio's peasant ancestors in Zacapa, a dry region on Guatemala's eastern frontier, where men still settled accounts with rifles and machetes. Antonio's grandfather was from Zacapa. A Zacapaneco took it seriously when you doubted his manhood. A Zacapaneco would shoot a man who stared at his wife. When Antonio or his father or one of his uncles raised his voice at a family gathering, people said, “That's the Zacapa coming out.”

Antonio had never hit a man before. True, he had grabbed the building manager by the collar and pushed him against the wall, but he hadn't drawn blood. He had been known to raise his voice, to open his jaws, pantherlike, and scream in rage, but he did not think of himself as a violent person.

He blamed his actions on the surroundings. The exposed lots and the dirt and the hunger seemed to demand violence of him. Living out here on the street, you had to prove you were a man. To beat someone up had a purpose here.

I must become a Zacapaneco. Only the blood of Zacapa that runs through my veins will protect me now.

*   *   *

“I'd rather be up here than down there on the row, that's for sure. You're on the mountain, it's kind of nice, you know, up here with the trees and the breeze.”

Frank liked to talk. He was a stout man, perhaps a former athlete, healthier than most of the men in the camp, and his freckled face was the light brown of
chocolate con leche.
He wore gloves that didn't match, one brown leather, the other gray wool. Antonio had awakened on his second morning in the camp with a great thirst, and had wandered around for an hour in a futile search for water. Finally he fought off his growing suspicion of the homeless people around him and approached this black man, who lived in a tent a few lots over from Antonio and José Juan.

At first Frank wore his own mask of distrust, eyes inspecting the stranger, sizing up any potential threat. “Yeah, I can tell you where the water is,” he said. “That's an easy question.” He pointed down the hill that he called “the mountain” to a liquor store on Glendale Avenue, two blocks away. There was a spigot behind the store, and the owner didn't mind you filling up a little bucket now and then. Slowly the sense of mutual distrust began to disappear. Several other nuggets of advice and observations followed.

Frank said he used to live on Skid Row but now preferred these weed-covered lots.

“Up on this mountain nobody bothers you. Except for the crack-heads and the prostitutes, I guess, but even they're kinda mellow here. It's hard to explain, but it's true. Down on the row you can get stabbed in your fucking sleep. People'll knife you for your wallet. The row is a fucking snake pit.” He paused, cleaning his teeth with the corner of a matchbook. “Yeah, the row is a fucking snake pit. That's what it is.”

Frank's shelter was on a choice piece of real estate where the little plateau of Crown Hill dropped off sharply, providing a panoramic view of the Harbor Freeway, the Financial District, and City Hall, a stubby white stone building dwarfed by towers of glass and steel. Frank and his companions had set up an old couch on the edge of the cliff to take in the view. Frank was sitting there now, leaning back and stretching his legs, like a suburbanite entertaining a guest in his living room.

“You met the Mayor yet?” Frank asked, and laughed at Antonio's startled expression.

The Mayor, it turned out, was Frank's friend and tentmate, Larry Greene, who had won his nickname because he went to the Board of Supervisors meetings every Tuesday to tell the county to raise the General Relief payments.

“He makes nice speeches,” Frank said. “Heard him talk at the board once. A real orator, the Mayor is. He's got his name on a couple of lawsuits too.
Greene versus the County of Los Angeles.
Has a nice sound to it, like a boxing match. In this corner, Larry Greene, homeless man. In that corner, L.A. County. The county's a real heavyweight. The Mayor's got a good left hook, but the county's got the fancy lawyers, the best money can buy. The Mayor's lawyer is a do-good volunteer in a wrinkled suit.”

The Mayor emerged from the tent, a black man with a sad, gentle face. He wore blue jeans and a navy blue watch cap pulled down low, almost covering his eyebrows.

“Are you talking shit about me again, Frank?” he said with a playful smile. “Taking my name in vain?”

“Indeed I am. Talking about the G.R.”

“Two hundred and ninety-seven dollars!” the Mayor snapped. “That's how much G.R. is.” He paused and shook his head solemnly. “Don't know why they call it relief when it don't relieve nothing.”

“Tell it, Mayor,” Frank said. “Tell it.”

“What can two hundred ninety-seven dollars a month do but keep you broke?” His gentle features turned harsh as he spoke, as if he were suffering the indignity anew. “You go to the check-cashing place, they take out their chunk. That's a whole little Mafia right there. Go to a regular bank, and they laugh at you. You get angry, you raise your voice, and they call the security guard to throw you out because you're stinking up the place and making all the legitimate customers nervous. That's how it is. A runaround for poor people. That's how I see it.”

Frank and Antonio sat on the couch, contemplating what the Mayor had said. The silence stretched out for a minute or so, the space between the three men filled with the unspoken sense that they were powerless against such overwhelming injustice.

“What did you say your name was?” the Mayor asked finally.

“Antonio.”

“Good to meet you. You're new here, right?” He shook Antonio's hand. “Seems to me I saw you come in a couple of days ago. You and another Latin. There's all sorts of Latins here now, more every day. I wonder why that is? You know why that is?”

Antonio shook his head. It was a good question.

“They're good people, the Latins. We all get along here, you know what I'm saying? There's no trouble here because this ain't like the row. In the row you're just a number, just a body on the sidewalk. Here we all got our little piece of earth. I guess you can say we've got a small investment in the community.” He laughed at the irony. “And the Man, he leaves us alone because he's afraid to come in here. The place looks scary to him, all this rubble and shelters and shit. He doesn't understand it. He's afraid because this is our territory. It's like a liberated zone. Know what I mean?”

Antonio wasn't exactly sure what he meant, but he nodded politely. The Mayor excused himself, shook Antonio's hand again, and disappeared into the tent.

“See,” Frank said. “Told you he made good speeches.” Then, lowering his voice to a whisper, he added, “The Mayor's okay as long as he takes his meds. Once he gets off his meds, it's another story.”

Frank leaned forward on his couch and pointed across a few hundred yards of undulating green hills to the freeway and the skyscrapers beyond. “I've spent so much time here I started me a new hobby,” he said. “Watching accidents.” He told Antonio that he had seen fourteen so far, fender-benders, sideswipes, flip-overs: he collected them, keeping notes in a green loose-leaf binder with Sylvester the Cat on the cover.

“That down there is the Harbor Freeway,” he explained. “The most dangerous stretch of freeway in California. I read that in the
Times.
And it's true. People switching lanes so much they can't help but run into each other. Trying to get over to the Santa Ana, the Pasadena, the Hollywood. Sideswiping each other and shit. It's the funniest thing I ever seen.”

BOOK: The Tattooed Soldier
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