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Authors: Héctor Tobar

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BOOK: The Tattooed Soldier
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Antonio sat and watched the traffic. From this vantage point, a good half-mile away, the freeway ran quiet, like the sound of wind. The cars sped along, then slowed down, bumpers almost kissing, as if engaged in an automobile courtship ritual. Frank took the matchbook to his teeth again, cleaning patiently without taking his eyes off the freeway. Soon Antonio began to feel sleepy, hypnotized by the repetitive rush-rush of so many trucks and vans, Volkswagens and convertibles. All those cars and destinations. He dozed off for a second, awakened by the snap of his head falling forward.

“Kind of relaxing, isn't it,” Frank observed.

Antonio wiped the sleep from his eyes and stood up.

“Thank you for telling me about the water,” he said.

“Nice to meet you,
amigo
,” Frank said. “Where'd you say you were from again?”

“Guatemala.”

“Oh yeah. That's by Mexico, right?”

An hour later Antonio was sitting on his cardboard mattress, leafing through the Mexican soccer scores in
La Opinión
, when he heard excited shouts from Frank's camp.

“Whoa! A double flip!”

Antonio looked up and saw Frank slapping palms with the Mayor, in the style of American athletes.

“Did you see that, Mayor? Did you? Right over the center divider! Ka-pow! Oh man, that's fifteen! One-five.”

*   *   *

José Juan scratched his head, his fingers deep in his curly hair, now a repository for bits of dirt and blown grass. He had been working diligently on the new shelter for several hours, but now he was looking at the assembled wood scraps and plastic sheets on the muddy ground as if he had just become aware of what he was actually doing.

“I'm finished, done for,” he said. “I'm living on the streets. Everything is over for me.
Se acabó.
This is it.”

He must be thinking about his family again, Antonio surmised. When you live with someone long enough, when you suffer with them, you begin to recognize the patterns of their moods. José Juan always scratched his head when he thought about his family. It had been more than three months since he sent money to his wife and children in Morelos, and weeks since he had enough for a long-distance phone call home. That was why he came to Los Angeles in the first place, to be a better provider for his family, so his children could have the pretty things they deserved.

“My wife and kids, they must be wondering what happened to me,” José Juan said, digging at his scalp. “My mother will think I'm dead. But my wife will think I've gone off with another woman, a
gabacha
, a blondie. She told me that when I left home. She cried and said, ‘I know I'm losing you forever.
Te voy a perder.
You'll find a
gabacha
and you'll fall in love.' I told her that would never happen. But now that's what she'll think, that I've gone off with a gringa.” He buried his face in his hands.

Antonio reached over and put an arm around his friend's shoulder. “It's okay,
hombre.
It's okay.”

As the sky began to turn a more ominous shade of gray, Antonio realized it was his turn to take charge.

“Let's get going with this,” he said. “We'll drown if it starts to rain.”

With six rotting two-by-fours José Juan had rescued from an alley on Alvarado, they began to erect a roof. They drove the planks six inches or so into the ground, braced them upright with bricks and chunks of concrete, then lifted several plastic sheets and old blankets over the frame.

José Juan looked at the makeshift shelter and frowned. “We're only going to be here on this mountain for a little bit, but we might as well make the best of it,” he said. His spirits seemed to lift. “All it takes is one good job to get us back in a real apartment. Three weeks of work and we'd have enough for a down payment. Maybe I should go bother that Armenian guy again. If that guy paid me my money then we wouldn't have to stay here.”

“Why do you keep bringing that up,
moro
?” was Antonio's testy reply. “
El Armenio
is never going to pay you. Just get that through your head.”

“He might. The court says he has to.”

Antonio had been listening to his friend talk about
el Armenio
for months. A building contractor of dubious repute, he had hired José Juan and a few other immigrant workers at a street corner on Santa Monica Boulevard in Hollywood. Three weeks into the job—the construction of an apartment building in the Los Feliz district—he had asked the crew to work late. Overtime was promised. The men stumbled around in the darkness, plastering walls on the exterior of the three-story building, until one of them, a Salvadoran, slipped off a scaffold and broke his ankle. When the crew refused to work in such dangerous conditions any longer,
el Armenio
fired them on the spot, cheating them out of their last six days' pay.

The other workers figured they had no recourse because they were
ilegales.
But José Juan, with his usual perseverance, had taken the case to small claims court, winning when the contractor didn't show up. The judge tacked a $200 penalty onto the $360 in wages the contractor already owed. José Juan had been counting on this $560 for two months, carrying around a stack of forms from the court as if he expected them to be transformed into cash at any moment. The contractor, however, was nowhere to be found. The dog-eared judgment of the small claims court was now tucked inside the Hefty bag.

“Just forget about it,” Antonio said. He dragged their cardboard mattresses into the new shelter. “Thinking about it will only make you angry.”

José Juan looked up at the sky, now completely overcast. Suddenly the day had become blustery. Their new roof fluttered in the wind. “One day. One day soon
el Armenio
will pay.”

Antonio shook his head and sighed. He knew what it meant to be taken advantage of. That was what happened when you worked as a bus boy, cut lawns and planted flowers for strangers, when your best hope for a job was to stand with the crowds at the infamous street corners. There were certain employers who looked at men like Antonio and José Juan, saw the Mayan and Aztec in their eyes or heard the Spanish handicap in their speech, and took them for defenseless bumpkins. And it wasn't just the employers. The same type of person would sell you a radio that didn't work or a car without brakes, or rent you an apartment without heat or water.

Antonio had learned to appreciate simple common decency. For example, at the Culver City diner where he and José Juan became friends, they always paid him on time, and the waitresses gave him his fair share of the tips. Mr. Finkel, the owner, had declared bankruptcy but had managed to give each of his workers a week's severance pay before closing the place down.

No sooner had Antonio and José Juan put the last touches on the shelter than it began to rain, first a light sprinkle, then a downpour. They crawled inside and listened to the drops pattering on the plastic roof, which sagged just a few inches above their heads.

An hour passed and the rain did not stop. Pools of water began to form in the plastic canopy. Antonio examined the bruises on his knuckles, a reminder of all that had happened in the last three days: the eviction, the nights under the sky. Even the beating of the old man seemed like it was ages ago. The beating and the bruises on his knuckles seemed perfectly normal.

I can't get any lower than this. This is the lowest. Where did I go wrong?

When he first came to Los Angeles, Antonio thought of it as the place where he would redeem himself, undertake a new beginning. He remembered the feeling of tempered hope when he arrived at the airport and everything was so new and orderly compared to home. He looked at the clean-shaven police officers, for instance, and knew immediately that they wouldn't accept a bribe. In those first few months in California he had aspired to study literature at
UCLA
, to continue the education that had been cut short in Guatemala.

Antonio had not advanced beyond night-school English classes. Eventually he had learned what every other immigrant in the city seemed to know already. It was a fact of life that when you came to the United States you moved down in social station and professional responsibilities. Women with medical degrees became laboratory assistants, accountants became ditch diggers. Los Angeles made you less than you were back home. People accepted this because they still made six times more money than they could in El Salvador or Mexico, even though everything was twice as expensive.

Everyone took a step down, but Antonio had dropped further than most because he carried the unbearable burden of what he had seen at his house in San Cristóbal so many years ago. His Guatemalan memories were a bloodstained cloth that hung over him just as the rain-soaked roof hung over him now, threatening to collapse and inundate him: the inescapable sense of having failed Elena, his first and only love; of having failed Carlos, his son; of having allowed them to die alone. The feeling of being responsible for their deaths had only grown stronger over the years, with each new Los Angeles failure. He had allowed the many threads of his life here to come undone. Among other things, he had neglected his application for political asylum, ignoring the pleas of the caseworker at the Central American Refugee Center who told him he needed to show more backbone. “You won't get
asilo político
unless you try harder, Antonio. Don't be lazy.” Dispirited by the never-ending immigration paper chase, he had allowed his tourist visa to expire, slipping into the caste of “illegals,” the
indocumentados.

Antonio soon found himself settling for jobs that were clearly beneath him. He stood under the baking sun at the on-ramp to the Santa Monica Freeway, selling oranges for two dollars a bag: a dollar fifty for the guy from the produce market, fifty cents for him. He worked in a garment factory and at MacArthur Park, selling roach powder that came in little yellow boxes with Chinese writing on the back. He pushed heavy square carts filled with ice cream and
paletas
up and down the streets of South-Central, block after block, ringing the little bell that brought the black children running out of their stuffy apartments.

Elena was ambitious, she aspired to something more. She thought a man with an education should put it to good use.
But he liked the street jobs because he was on his own. Restaurants he did not like because he found it difficult to be polite and obliging. He could not hide his indignation when people spat out orders for coffee and called him Pepe or José or Pedro just because he was wearing the bus boy's uniform. He pushed his glasses up on his nose and gave the rude customers his meanest I-spit-in-your-face stare.

I have too much pride. A bus boy with too much pride is a contradiction in terms. An illegal immigrant with too much pride is doomed to unemployment.
Only Mr. Finkel, the Culver City restaurateur, tolerated Antonio's sour disposition. Mr. Finkel was a Polish Jew and seemed to recognize something in Antonio, the face of concealed trauma, perhaps, the disoriented, resentful eyes of the exile.

Antonio was used to being tall. In Guatemala he towered above family and friends. But Los Angeles made him short. It made him stoop and it cast him out with its untouchables, the lifters of dirty dishes, the silent sweepers of bathroom floors, the men and women who placed their hands in the city's toilets and urinals, scrubbing everything antiseptic-clean.

After an hour of steady rain, the plastic roof began to leak. It was too flimsy. Water soon soaked Antonio's hair and dripped down his neck, covering his back and chest with lines of icy wetness. First he shivered, then he began to sneeze.

Elena would be horrified to see what I've become.

*   *   *

The search for building materials took them through the open fields of rubble and weeds on a scavenger hunt for plastic, planks, pipes, anything they could use to shore up their shelter. Antonio came upon the rusting frame of an automobile left by thieves who had stripped it for parts. Windblown plastic bags bounced across the landscape like tumbleweed. There were white steel appliances, bed frames, a dollhouse with the roof missing. At the base of “the mountain” José Juan spotted a twisting stairway, a hundred steps climbing up the hillside. The only signs of human habitation were the scattered tents of the homeless men, the American refugees. Occasionally they came upon a car parked on one of the abandoned streets, its windows covered with newspaper and towels, suggesting that people lived inside.

They found a rain-soaked mattress and decided to drag it back to their shelter. The mattress was heavy, so they stopped to rest.

“Hey, look,” José Juan said. “Words.”

Stamped into the concrete was the name of a street:
SAPPHIRE AVENUE.
Forgetting the mattress for a moment, Antonio and José Juan walked along the sidewalk with their heads bowed to the ground, like penitent monks. On the next block they found another name,
DIAMOND STREET
, and then one more,
EMERALD STREET.
And finally:
A.J. SIMMONS, CONTRACTORS, 1919. INSPECTED, CITY OF LOS ANGELES.

“There were people living here in 1919,” Antonio said.

“Maybe there was an earthquake,” José Juan said. “Or a fire.”

Antonio wondered if he could take this information, piece it together, and come up with a theory to explain why all the buildings had collapsed, why there were vacant lots in the center of Los Angeles.

When they were dating, Antonio remembered, Elena had taken him to the only Mayan ruins in Guatemala City, a place called Kaminaljuyú. It was a minor outpost in what had been a vast empire, centuries dead. The abandoned Mayan city was little more than a series of earthen mounds covered with wild grasses, fenced off from the modern residential neighborhood around it. Walking through the ruins was like walking through a park. People played soccer games around the old temples, flew kites. The grass mounds of Kaminaljuyú looked much like the land on which Antonio now found himself, ten years and thousands of miles later.

BOOK: The Tattooed Soldier
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