Read an Excerpt
1. ON CROWN HILL
Neither man could claim English as his mother tongue, but it was the only language they shared. The tenant, Antonio Bernal, was from Guatemala. Through the narrow opening of a door pushed slightly ajar, he was speaking to the building manager who was about to evict him from his apartment, a Korean immigrant named Hwang. Both men squinted, each confused by the other’s diction, trying to decipher mispronounced words. After several minutes of mumbled exchanges, they began to toss night-school phrases back and forth like life preservers: “Repeat, please.” “Speak slower.” “I don’t understand.”
Los Angeles was the problem. In Los Angeles, Antonio could spend days and weeks speaking only his native tongue, breathing, cooking, laughing, and embarrassing himself with all sorts of people in Spanish. He could avoid twisting and bending his lips and mouth to make those exotic English sounds, the hard edge of the consonants, the flat schwa. English belonged to another part of the city, not here, not downtown, where there were broad avenues lined with Chinese pictographs and Arabic calligraphy and Cyrillic, long boulevards of Spanish eñes where Antonio could let his Central American ches and erres roll off his tongue to his heart’s delight.
“What?” Antonio said.
“I ask what you say?” replied Mr. Hwang, a squat man in khaki pants and a freshly starched shirt.
“I said, How much time? More time. Time, Hwang?”
“What time? Say again.”
“Say what again? Time?”
“I don’t understand.”
Antonio was tired, and his accent felt a little thicker than usual. Mr. Hwang crossed his arms impatiently, as if he suspected that this confusion of tongues was only a stalling tactic, a ruse to postpone the inevitable eviction. Or maybe he was just callous, maybe he didn’t care that Antonio had stayed up most of the night worrying about what he would do this morning. Antonio loosened the chain on the door and opened it wide to show Mr. Hwang that the floor of the apartment was littered with clothes and old paperbacks, proof of what he had been unable to communicate with words: he and his roommate were not ready to leave, because they had just begun to pack.
“We are trying, Mr. Hwang,” Antonio said slowly. “We are trying.”
“If you don’t leave by two,” the manager blurted out, “I have to call police.”
Antonio took a deep breath and tried to compose himself, pushing his glasses up the bridge of his nose, a habit of his at moments when he felt close to violence. They were circle glasses, and when he caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror he would sometimes remember the day he first put them on, a decade ago, when he was a student at the university in Guatemala. “These are my intellectual glasses,” he told a friend once. “I can’t decide if they make me look like a chemist or a Maoist. What do you think?” He had kept his circle glasses through all his travels, all the way to Los Angeles, and had worn them at his last job, as a bus boy at a now defunct diner on the Westside. One of the cooks made fun of him and called him “professor.” Somehow, the ideas and learning that made him strong in Guatemala had slipped away once he crossed the border, lost in the translation.
Granted, he did not speak English well, but who did? That in itself was not an explanation for what was happening to him today. Spanish was as good a language as any other. In Spanish, I sound like the intelligent person I really am. In English, I am a bus boy. But even that was dignified work. To have lifted dirty dishes, poured coffee, and worn a servant’s brown uniform was nothing to be ashamed of. The little brown cap did not demean him, nor did the name tag that had begun to fade after so many months until it read ANT NI.
Voy a ser uno de los “homeless.” It did not seem right to him that a man who loved to read, a man with Crimen y Castigo and El Idiota and countless other works of real literature scattered on the floor of his apartment, would be called this ugly word. And at the same time it made perfect sense, the logical conclusion to years of living in this cold, alien country. No Spanish equivalent captured the shame and sooty desperation of the condition, and so this compound, borrowed word would have to do: home-less.
“You are making me homeless,” Antonio told the manager.
“If you don’t leave,” Mr. Hwang said in suddenly perfect English, “I will call the marshals.”
Antonio pushed his glasses up again. He really would like to hit this coreano. There would be some satisfaction in that. But no, he could only blame himself for this fiasco, for having failed at the mathematics of his finances. He had decided to be polite to the building manager, apologetic, because he thought he detected a note of regret in Mr. Hwang’s voice when he first knocked on the door to say, “You must leave.” But now Mr. Hwang was threatening to call the marshals, the police of evictions. To have the police come here and treat me like a criminal. I was a bus boy, but that doesn’t make me a criminal. He imagined himself being led away in handcuffs, his arms pulled behind his back, the public indignity of being marched past the neighbors.
“Call the police!” Antonio boomed six inches from the man’s face. “Call the police!”
“Thirty minutes!” the manager yelled after taking a step back. “You have thirty minutes!”
“¡Come mierda!” Antonio shouted. “Hijo de la gran puta.”
“Sip sae ki!” the manager hissed in Korean.
The neighbors began to appear almost immediately. Down the length of the first floor, doors snapped open and heads popped out—a dozen nameless acquaintances, people Antonio knew from hallway chitchat, glances and nods on the stairs, their startled, anxious, amused faces illuminated by the severe light of two naked bulbs that hung at either end of the corridor. The man who lived in the adjacent apartment, a lonely-looking and hirsute Mexicano, was standing bare-chested in his doorway, one foot in the hallway, the other in his room, grinning as if he expected to be entertained soon by a fistfight or shoving match. Antonio stared back at him and the other neighbors with his best impersonation of a madman, eyes ablaze, nostrils flaring.
“¡Me está sacando a la calle!” he shouted. And then, in English, so that everyone would understand: “He’s throwing me on the street!”
More doors opened, and the hallway audience grew. A dozen people were standing in the buttermilk yellow corridor now, along with three children who had been playing with toy cars on the grime-stained carpet of the lobby, next to the rows of mailboxes without any names on them, just numbers. A crowd of brown eyes was trained on Antonio and the building manager, who was known to the residents, depending on their mother tongue, as “el chino,” “the manager guy,” “el manager,” or “Mr. Chang.” Antonio, who had lived in this building for a year, was one of the few people who knew Mr. Hwang’s real name.
“Chang is getting really pissed,” said a voice in the corridor. “I never seen him like that.”
Mr. Hwang drew back as if to spit, then seemed to think better of it and walked away, leaving Antonio to the fire drill of trying to fit everything he owned and wanted to save into a black plastic Hefty trash bag. His roommate, José Juan, was dumping a large collection of plastic spoons and forks out of a dresser drawer, unperturbed by the shouting. Exhausted and depressed, he and Antonio had fallen asleep just before dawn, only to be startled awake by the pounding of Mr. Hwang’s fist on the door and the bright sunshine of midmorning. Then they had argued about what to do with the four-burner hotplate José Juan insisted on keeping even though it was clear now that they wouldn’t have anyplace to plug it in.
“Never mind that chingadera,” Antonio said, using one of the vulgar Mexican expressions he had picked up during his years in Los Angeles. “Leave it behind.”
“But it cost me forty dollars.”
After half an hour, Mr. Hwang returned and stood in the open doorway with his hands on his hips, watching Antonio sift through a pile of papers scattered on the dark brown rug. Behind the manager, a crowd of tenants had gathered again.
Antonio glared at him, then picked up a stack of unopened letters from his mother in Guatemala. In between two of the envelopes he discovered a forgotten photograph of his wife and son, taken years ago in Quetzaltenango against a painted backdrop of fanciful lakes and volcanos. Of all things. He raised the photograph to his lips and tried to fight off the rush of memories that began to gather and rumble like thunder behind his eyes. This picture is the sadness of me, the tragedy of me.
“Hurry,” said the voice above him. “Hurry, please.”
It struck Antonio as an outrageous invasion of his privacy, to have the manager standing over him as he packed away this photograph.
“I’m doing the best I can,” he said.
“You supposed to be out at eleven o’clock.”
“We don’t have anyplace to go,” Antonio shot back. “What are we supposed to do?”
“I don’t care,” Mr. Hwang said curtly. “Go sleep under the freeway.”
Sleep under the freeway. Antonio had heard this phrase more than once in the weeks leading up to this humiliation, as the money in his wallet slowly disappeared and the prospect of eviction became a certainty. Sleep under the freeway. It was almost a refrain in the neighborhood. José Juan had said it once, just five days ago, when Mr. Hwang slipped the final, final eviction notice under their doorway. “Podemos dormir debajo del freeway.” It didn’t sound any better in Spanish.
Elvira Gonzales, the elderly Mexican-American widow who lived down the hall, and who was now toward the back of the crowd staring at Antonio with a sad and disapproving motherly frown, had repeated it too. “Well, muchachos, if they throw you out, I guess you’ll have to sleep under the freeway. That’s what everybody else does. I guess it’s warmer there.”
Why did people persist in repeating this horrible little phrase? No matter which way Antonio turned the situation and looked at it, he knew he would still be out there in the open, with only a shrub or a piece of cardboard to protect him against the wind, the cold, and the junkies. And now this chino was saying it to him. Go sleep under the freeway. It was too much. Antonio wanted to grab Mr. Hwang’s plaid shirt and shove him against the very walls within which he and José Juan were no longer welcome. At least that would be poetic justice.
Antonio lunged for Mr. Hwang, his fingers gripping the manager’s collar. Seams ripped in his hands.
“You go sleep under the freeway! You! ¡A ver como te gusta!”
“Mister Manager!” yelled a voice in the hall. “Do you want me to call the police?”
At this, Antonio surrendered to the arms that were pulling at him, separating him from Mr. Hwang.
The crowd completely filled the hallway now. People had come from the other floors to watch the spectacle. They probably expected the police to arrive at any moment. Car crashes and altercations always drew an audience. Antonio had seen this sort of thing before, had been part of the crowd himself on more than one occasion. The promise of real-life violence or chaos was just about the only thing that could entice the apartment dwellers to break the burglar-proof seals on their doors and venture into public space. Fires, gang shootings, marital slugfests that spilled out onto the street: friendships were made and love affairs ignited in these magical moments when people gathered in the hallway, on the sidewalk or the front steps, tugging at the yellow police tape, whispering under the pulsating blue and red lights of an ambulance or patrol car.
But there would be no police cars, no flashing lights today. A few minutes after Antonio ripped the manager’s shirt, he and José Juan were ready to go. They left a collection of newspapers, letters, books, immigration forms, and check stubs on the floor. On a wall they left a life-sized poster of Hugo Sánchez, the mop-haired Mexican soccer star. José Juan and Antonio both loved soccer; it was how they became friends in the first place, talking about fútbol in the diner where Antonio had been a bus boy and José Juan a dishwasher. When they had steady work, they saved to see games at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, El Salvador versus Guadalajara, Mexico versus Guatemala. Now they would leave their room to Hugo Sánchez. He seemed to be having a good time, anyway, with his foot on a soccer ball, a beer in one hand, and the other around the waist of a pretty brunette.
Goodbye, room. Adiós, Hugo.
At 3:00 p.m. they picked up the black Hefty bag and walked down the corridor, which was now empty and quiet. The neighbors had returned to their apartments, but Antonio could hear the murmur of their voices passing through the closed doors, wooden rectangles that breathed words in a jumble of English and Spanish.
José Juan closed the black iron door of the lobby behind them, and the voices of the Bixel Garden Apartments grew silent. They stood on the bubble-gum- and oil-stained front steps, pondering their options. Go sleep under the freeway: it seemed as good a choice as any. They began walking the nine blocks from their apartment building to the overpasses of the Harbor Freeway.
Antonio and José Juan carried the Hefty bag downhill along Third Street, straining to keep it from scraping the ground. The bag was heavy because it contained everything they owned: clothes, shoe boxes filled with letters from Mexico and Guatemala, two blankets, a framed picture of José Juan’s wife, and the four-burner hotplate.
“We should get rid of this stupid hotplate,” Antonio said.
“We’re not going to be out here forever,” José Juan answered defensively. “When we get another apartment you’ll be thankful. I’ll be eating hot food and you’ll be begging me to let you use it. Ya vas a ver.”
They walked through a neighborhood of tumbledown wood-frame houses with damp clothes draped over the porch railings, then a street of squat brick apartment buildings. Someone tossed a bucket of water from a third-story window behind them, bringing the merchants out of the first-floor storefronts to complain and hurl insults skyward. A mother pushing a stroller hurried past the scene. The sidewalks were thick with people, but no one seemed to pay any attention to Antonio and José Juan with their plastic bag. They passed a crowded bus stop, mostly women watching the traffic go by with weary, end-of-the-working-day stares. No one bothered to cast them a glance.
Antonio was living on the streets, carrying everything he owned in a plastic bag, and no one would look him in the eye. He was used to being unseen. There was the invisibility of being a bus boy, of walking between the tables unnoticed, a shadow rolling the cart, clearing the dishes. But this was another kind of invisibility. People now made a point of turning away from him, just as Antonio had turned away from the hopeless men he saw in this same condition. Those men pushed their belongings around in shopping carts. Now he could see how practical it was to have a shopping cart.
“I’m tired of this,” Antonio said suddenly, dropping his end of the Hefty bag. He felt disoriented, as if someone had spun him around in circles. He wanted to scream at José Juan, at the people on the sidewalk who would not look at him. There was a word the Americanos used when they were angry, a word Antonio liked because it sounded so harsh and mean and ugly.
“Fucking bag,” he said in English. “Fuck it.”
José Juan let out a sigh and looked up at the sky. The sun was low, but his face was covered in sweat. The freeway was within sight now, an overpass just down the hill, only two blocks away. Without a word, Antonio picked up his end of the bag, and they began walking again.
They reached the freeway and stood underneath it, dwarfed by the immensity of the structure. This overpass was higher than most, an underbelly of concrete covered with a fine network of leafless ivy branches that spread out like capillaries across the gray surface. Water oozed like blood from the cement, and the damp air around them smelled of feces and urine. Antonio could hear trucks passing overhead with hurried rattling sounds, hydrocarbon winds rushing by in their wake.
“Now what do we do?” José Juan asked.
Antonio decided that they should walk a little farther, to the spot where a series of overlapping concrete spans vaulted and curved in the air, the interchange of the Harbor, Hollywood, and Pasadena freeways: inside the shadows cast by all these overpasses and underpasses, on-ramps and off-ramps, there had to be, surely, a place to sleep.
They threw the bag over a cyclone fence and then jumped over themselves, following a trash-strewn path that cut through a slope of ivy landscaping. They walked a few hundred feet to a two-lane transition road where cars passed under a bridge and into a tunnel, the sound of their engines echoing into a fluttering roar. Across this narrow road, hidden in the concrete hollows at the center of the interchange, Antonio could see the makeshift shelters of human beings.
“Ya llegamos,” he said. “We’re here.”
To reach the shelters they would have to cross the transition road, which was filled with rush-hour traffic, two lanes of cars snaking past them at about twenty miles an hour. Inside the cars, everyone seemed to be wearing sunglasses. Antonio stood and waited for a break in the stream of sedans, RVs, trucks, buses. Fifteen minutes later he shouted, “Now!” and they ran across the tarmac, dragging the Hefty bag and its hotplate cargo behind them, a blue sports car speeding by on their heels.
Antonio bent over with his hands on his knees to catch his breath, and began laughing as he hadn’t laughed for days and days. José Juan smiled broadly. The absurdity of their situation was sinking in. Antonio felt silly, scampering across the freeway with this impossibly heavy plastic bag, like some Mexican comedy act, Cantinflas or Tin Tan.
They examined their surroundings. Now that they had stepped into the shadows, Antonio could see the shelters more clearly. He made out a sofa, a director’s chair with the back missing, several mattresses tossed about. Maybe twenty or thirty people lived here. At the moment, however, the lone resident was a black man with a long beard who was sitting on a blanket on the dusty ground. He stood up and walked toward them.
“You must be visiting, right?” He examined the plastic bag at Antonio’s feet and shook his head. “Because I know one thing. You sure as hell ain’t staying. This spot right here is taken, it’s our spot. There ain’t no more room here. And we don’t need any neighbors. Comprende?”
Antonio looked at José Juan. Silently they picked up the Hefty bag and turned around. They were outsiders here, and there was no use arguing with the man. A fresh wave of defeat now, a sense of pointlessness as they ran back across the lanes of traffic and followed the path through the ivy back to the street. Sleeping under the freeway wasn’t so easy after all.
The shadows were lengthening as the short March day came to an end. They had been walking for at least an hour, maybe two. Antonio glanced at José Juan and saw that his friend was biting his lower lip, tears welling in his eyes. He is broken, this is too much for him, Antonio thought, the humiliation is too deep. Mexicanos. When they are little boys their fathers won’t let them cry, ever, and so they fight it off as long as they can.
They walked back up Third Street, away from the freeway. Away from that horrible freeway. Antonio had not felt so lost and alone for many, many years. He wanted to weep too, but he held it in. He felt like a child out here on his own, a boy wandering about in his pajamas, separated from parents and home, pining for his pillow and his bed. They entered a stretch of downtown without pedestrians, passing a large white monolith with a blue sign announcing “Pacific Stock Exchange.” Here there were only cars and low, windowless office buildings sealed off with layers of stucco and iron. Electronic eyes scanned garage entrances, unused doorways. Everything was painted tan and gray, as if in imitation of the sky and earth.
A few blocks on, they reached a flat, empty space where even the squat buildings had disappeared. The scent of burning wood wafted through the air. In the growing darkness Antonio saw at least two fires going, the outlines of people. There were several shelters and tents, one resembling an igloo, wool blankets and a blue tarpaulin attached to a round skeleton of wire and wood planks. The shelters were spread across several vacant lots. There seemed to be plenty of room, and it might not be so bad to camp out in the open.
“I guess we can sleep here,” Antonio said. “This looks like a good place. I think we can rest here.”
The people standing around the tents and shelters seemed to ignore Antonio and José Juan as they set down their Hefty bag by an old palm tree. José Juan found some pieces of cardboard nearby and laid them on the ground. This was where they would sleep. They were on a small hill that rose over downtown, the muddy lot beneath them green with weeds grown thick from the recent rains. The leaves of the palm trees waved in the cool breeze. This place was some sort of geographic anomaly, a lush knoll of wild plants and grasses in the middle of the city.
Hours later Antonio was lying on a mattress of crushed boxes, adrift in a timeless night. José Juan was snoring, tossing and turning, resting finally. Above Antonio the Los Angeles sky stretched in a vast blackness empty of stars, constellations erased by the glowing lights of too much city around him. To his left he could see the skyscrapers on Olive and Grand, so close he could almost make out the faces of the janitors inside. He imagined Mexicanos emptying trash cans on the thirty-second floor, mopping, dusting, daydreaming, sitting in the executive’s chair, talking on the phone, doing things they weren’t supposed to do.
Sleepless hours passed as Antonio listened to the sounds hidden in the darkness around him, wondering if they would bring new calamities. Voices came from the igloo-shaped tent now, people speaking in Spanish and English, men with Central American accents, lilting voices that felt familiar and comforting. There must be a hundred people living here, chapines and guanacos too, living here as if it were the most normal thing in the world, as if they’d been here for years and years. He heard a woman, a gringa, her voice scratchy and insolent. The men called out her name. “Come here, Vicki. Ven acá, Vicki.” She responded with streetwise laughter. “Conmigo, Vicki. Next to me, Vicki.”
“You guys are so sick,” she said playfully. “That’s why I like you so much. Because you’re so fucking sick.”
It was strangely reassuring to hear their voices, to know that the people who camped here went about their lives like anybody else. He could easily have heard the same squalid dialogue in the building he had just been evicted from. Vicki and the men in the tent laughed together, a rich, human laughter. They sounded happy. But no. What a silly thing to say. How could they be happy? That was a word for birthdays and weddings. The bride and groom looked happy when they left the church.
Antonio had spent a lifetime turning away from all that was ugly and unpredictable, and yet here he was right in the middle of it. He was sleeping on dirt, exposed to everything, protected by nothing. He was already beginning to feel nostalgic for the yellowing walls and rusty locks of the apartment he had left just a few hours ago. When he rolled over, trying to sleep, his lips touched the soil, grains of earth sticking to his tongue until he spat them out. The taste was not unpleasant. It reminded him of eating dirt, something he must have done when he was less than two, a memory older than words.
* * *
Morning came and the sky was a canopy of whiteness, soft and pale, the diffuse light of dreams. What time was it? Five, six o’clock? Antonio had not slept one minute. His mouth was dry and his eyes ached and stung. José Juan was already up, exploring the lot; Antonio could hear him scratching about in the patches of dirt and weeds. Suddenly he was standing over Antonio, his thick eyebrows arched high in an expression of childlike wonder. José Juan had the almond-shaped eyes and curly black hair of an Arab, which was why Antonio sometimes called him moro.
“Are you awake?” José Juan asked.
“What do you think, moro? Of course I am. Who could sleep here?”
“Good. I want to show you something. I found something really neat. No me lo vas a creer.”
Antonio rose to his feet reluctantly, his back heavy and sore from the night spent on the ground. A car droned by on Beaudry Avenue, and a phlegmy cough sounded from one of the tents. Otherwise the lots were quiet; everyone, it appeared, was still asleep. José Juan walked across the lot where they had slept and stood in a flat patch of red dirt.
“Look,” he said, spreading his arms wide to celebrate his discovery. “There’s a floor here. Tile. It used to be a kitchen. This was somebody’s house.”
For a moment Antonio thought that José Juan was trying to make some sort of joke, but then he saw a narrow path of bricks leading to a set of concrete steps. A little farther on were the ruins of a driveway.
“See?” José Juan said. “A family, a rich family used to live here.” He walked around the empty property tracing squares and rectangles, the geometry of a home that had been demolished many years ago.
“Right here, this was their garden. That was their garage.” José Juan jumped a few steps to his left. “Over here was the bedroom. And see this? These bricks? This had to be the fireplace. See? A fireplace to sit by when it’s cold, like it is now. A nice hot fire to keep warm. Can you see it? Can you?”
Antonio looked at the land around him. There was the green hill, with perhaps a dozen tents and shacks perched on its muddy earth. Underneath these ephemeral structures were the ruins of a lost community, a forgotten neighborhood built with brick and cement. On the hill, and on the flat plain that extended from its base, he could see a grid of city streets, blocks of land cut in rectangles and bordered with sidewalks, asphalt avenues with iron manhole covers for the sewers. Dozens and dozens of concrete stairs led from the streets to what used to be front lawns. In all, Antonio counted more than forty demolished lots, a whole section of the city leveled to an expanse of wild grasses.
Only the palm trees had survived the disaster that swept through this place: tall, majestic trees that looked very old, each with a heavy crown of dry leaves near the top, like a lion’s mane. To the east, looming over the open plain, were the skyscrapers, an ocean wave of steel and glass. To the west, the empty fields came to an end and the city started again, now closer to the ground: not skyscrapers but stubby apartment buildings, liquor stores, fading stucco houses.
Antonio closed his eyes and tried to imagine what once stood on this barren land. Elena always said I had an overactive imagination. He could feel the souls of the children who once lived in this place, their after-school games and innocent wanderings. What sins did their parents commit, he wondered, to bring such destruction upon themselves?
José Juan lay down on the tile floor and stretched out with a lazy yawn. “We have a home, our own little rancho,” he said. “It’s ours. We own it. A nice piece of property next to downtown.”
Several hundred yards away, two men huddled around a fire that blazed in an oil barrel, the smoke drifting upward and settling into a thick haze. In Guatemala, Antonio had seen cornfields set ablaze, swirling rains of ash and ember, veils of smoke that lingered for days like fog in the mountain valleys. He remembered bridges that fell into rivers, asphalt and steel swallowed by white tongues of water. He looked at the wild urban grasses before him and remembered the hills near Huehuetenango, where he once encountered a single-file column of soldiers, a camouflage serpent on the march, disappearing suddenly into the dense foliage.
The vacant property, the plastic shelters, the ruined homes. The more he thought about it, the more Antonio began to feel a kinship with the flattened earth around him.
* * *
Sitting on the damp ground of the lot, Antonio opened the Hefty bag to see his possessions swimming around inside, socks and underwear mixed up with spoons and soup bowls. It reminded him of the haste and disorder of his retreat from the apartment building. He worried about leaving things unfinished in the apartment. He rummaged in the bag for his collection of photographs, but could not find them, and this left him feeling unsettled. A moment of déjà vu, until he pinpointed a memory, another day like this one.
On that day many years ago it was not a plastic bag he carried but a cardboard box tied shut with dirt-colored twine. As today, it held all of his possessions, although he could not now remember exactly what he possessed at the time. He was standing in the central square of San Cristóbal Acatapán, the box at his feet, because he was fleeing that horrible little village, taking the first step in the journey that would lead, eventually, to Los Angeles. He was leaving behind a house with floors that were covered with reddish black blood. He had wandered through that house like a sleepwalker, his shoes sticking to the tiles.
There had been a crowd around the doorway when he got there. A man he didn’t know, a campesino, was kneeling over the bodies, poking a stick into Elena’s ribs, trying to see something underneath her corpse. No one had known he was the husband and father until he pushed his way to the front and gasped and fell to his knees. Elena’s arms raised above her head, as if she were reaching for something behind her. Wearing a blue apron he had never seen before. Next to her, their baby, his arms and face covered in watery pink splotches, eyes open and fixed.
That’s the way the doctors gave him to me when he was born, just out of Elena’s belly. Covered in an earth brown film of blood and tissue, mother and son joined by life’s fluid. This is something a father can never forget, the son’s first cries, the voice of new lungs, the mother’s exhausted glow of relief and joy. Antonio would forever relive these two moments as one, the birth and death of his son fused into a single image, the living cry of the newborn and the scream of the father. And then the moment when my baby opened his eyes for the first time and I realized that they were my own, my legacy, Spanish eyes of Zacapa passed down by our fathers and mothers for generations and generations.
Someone had dragged the corpses through the house before he got there, painting the floors with their blood, placing Elena and Carlos on the front steps for the crowd to see.
People he didn’t know whispered to him that he should leave San Cristóbal immediately. They said the soldiers who killed Elena and Carlos would soon return to finish their work. The family servant, Marisol, ran through the house in a panic, filling the cardboard box with the things he could not remember. “You have to leave,” she repeated between sobs. “You have to leave or they’ll kill you.” Hypnotized by the smudges of blood on the floor and the walls, by the bullet holes he found in a closet door, Antonio would have stayed in that house all day if Marisol hadn’t dragged him out. Carrying the box, she led him by the arm to the town square and left him there, by the kiosk, to wait for the bus that would take him away to safety.
The box was still at his feet when the bus pulled in and parked, its engine idling in a loud sputter. He was about to board when he was spotted by Mrs. Gómez, his neighbor, the woman from across the street. He didn’t want anyone to look at him, he longed to be invisible, but that was impossible when you lived in a small town and stood in its central square. Antonio did not really know the woman, but he knew she had spoken to his wife quite often. Elena was gone, but Antonio still possessed this absurd fact: she did not like this Mrs. Gómez very much.
Embracing him, Mrs. Gómez offered her pésame. She was an older woman with white hair tied in a braid. Tears were streaming from her milky eyes as she lamented the passing of “our Elena.” Everything was a jumble, and he did not hear what she was saying. She talked and cried. It occurred to Antonio that the bus passengers around him might think she was his mother come to wish an embarrassed son a tearful goodbye. She should go away: it seemed to him that he should be allowed to suffer alone. And then the stream of her condolences came to an abrupt stop. She fell silent, her eyes fixed on something behind him. Without warning she grabbed him by the arm, squeezing his biceps.
“Oh my God, that’s him, right there!” she said, looking over Antonio’s shoulder. “He’s one of them.”
“He’s one of them. I saw him at your house.”
Confused, Antonio turned to see what Mrs. Gómez was looking at.
“Don’t!” she said in a fierce whisper, pulling at his arm. “He’ll see you. He’ll kill you.”
“It’s them. It’s him. One of the men at your house. He killed Elena. He killed the baby. He’s one of them.”
Antonio felt himself suddenly alert again, the haze around his eyes dissolving, the moment coming into sharper focus.
“Matones sinvergüenzas. They’re not even ashamed to show themselves,” Mrs. Gómez said. “Asesinos. They kill someone and buy an ice cream like it’s nothing. Nothing!” She pushed him toward the bus.
Look at him. Why are you afraid? The twine that held the box together cut into Antonio’s fingers. Drop the box. Drop it and confront the man. The box seemed to have a will of its own, pulling Antonio forward, onto the bus. Turning, he caught the outline of a man with a chocolate ice cream to his mouth, diminutive but stout, like a tree stump.
Antonio shuffled along with the other passengers, keeping the vague form of the killer in his field of vision. Moving through the aisle now, he took a seat by the window. He squeezed his hand into a fist for courage and looked out.
The killer was sitting on a cast-iron bench, not thirty feet away, wearing black denim pants and a green sweatshirt, hair stubble-short. He raised the ice cream to his mouth with a chunky, muscular arm. He was dressed like a civilian but looked like a soldier. The shaved head was the giveaway. Antonio memorized his face: the dark features, the long nose, the protruding ears, something childlike in the eyes.
The killer caught Antonio’s glance and pulled the ice cream from his mouth, slightly perplexed, as if to say, “Who are you and why are you staring at me?” Antonio did not look away. The killer lost interest and returned to his ice cream.
Antonio saw one more thing before the bus jerked into gear and began to roll forward. On the killer’s left arm, the one not holding the ice cream, halfway between the wrist and the elbow, there was a mark on the skin, yellow and black. A tattoo of a yellow animal with its jaws open.
For the next several hours Antonio rode the bus with his feet on the box underneath him. The box with the forgotten, worthless possessions. He vomited out the window, wept into his hands, pounded a fist into his thigh. I am a coward. I am a coward. He had failed to summon the courage to jump from the bus in the square in San Cristóbal and confront the man who had killed his wife and son.
Copyright © 1998 by Héctor Tobar