I met Olegario and his son William in the town cantina. I’d been on the run for weeks, travelling drunkenly from one place to another. I slept in the car and ate when I was hungry. I didn’t care which town I’d arrive in. Eventually they all came to look the same: a plaza with a newspaper kiosk, a church, a cantina and cobbled streets.
Olegario spoke to me in English. I’m not a gringo, I said. He was about fifty and wore a hat, a Zapata moustache and cowboy boots but also an Oakland Raiders sleeveless vest. Can I buy you a drink? he asked. I told him he could, and he called Labios, a boy of about fifteen with a pink scar that split his mouth and palate in two. Another glass for my friend, he ordered. What are you drinking? he asked. Whatever.
Labios looked over to his boss, a thin old man called Cristino who was playing dominoes in the corner. The old man nodded and noted down my drink on a piece of cardboard he was also using to keep score.
I wasn’t in the mood to talk, but that didn’t discourage Olegario. He told me that he had been born in this town but had gone to California when he was very young. He’d returned to present his first grandson to the Virgin of Talpa. He said that she’d performed a miracle for him. Two miracles, in fact: she’d given him a grandchild and brought his son home safe from Iraq.
Miracles, I thought. Diego, I thought. Then I finished the Cuba Libre and started to chew on the ice.
His son came in a little later. He had a bottle of beer in his hand and was already swaying. I recognized him: he was the kid who’d been chasing girls around the plaza on a motorbike. He drove up onto the benches, charged at them and laughed when they ran away. As though it were funny. This is my Willy, the father said, wrapping his arm around the boy’s head and neck. His son wriggled out of the hug, said, Pleased to meet you, and laughed when he clinked his bottle against my glass and the foam flowed over my hand.
Labios came over immediately to clean up.
Willy had all the tics of a cocaine addict: he wrinkled his nose when he drank, blinked a lot and spoke over other people. When he’d finished his beer he took out fifty dollars and told Labios to serve another round on him. No, his father said, I’ll pay for it, and tucked the bill back into his son’s pocket, but Willy shouted in English, I’ll do what I like with my fucking money. His face was red and one of the veins on his head was throbbing. I earned it, didn’t I?
Labios picked the wrinkled note up from the floor and took it to Cristino. I don’t know how much we drank, I just remember that night fell. And that Cristino climbed up on a chair to turn a lamp around and the room was light, then dark, light, then dark, until it was all lit up and someone, maybe me, kicked over a beer and Labios mopped up. Olegario said, Don’t worry my friend, don’t cry, and everything inside me went dark, the sky was grey and black, and yellow light shone from a taco stall, and all I could think about was Diego …
I can’t remember how much I said, but Olegario told me to trust in the Virgin, She took care of my son in Iraq. I called William and asked him how he’d survived because sons always die on us, and he said that first he went to Australia and then to the African coast and then he came back to the States for two weeks. After that, the shooting began, they went into Baghdad to look for Saddam, and things were easier than they thought because the bastard had gone. So they started to look for him everywhere and killed all the sons of bitches they could find.
Olegario started to get upset about the things that his son was saying and at one point told him not to exaggerate. Will laughed. No, Dad, we were just picking flowers. Then he went for a piss, and Olegario apologized to me. He’s seeing an army psychologist, he told me. It’s normal.
Later, Will asked me if I’d seen YouTube videos made by terrorists when they blow up the American army’s tanks. I said that I had, and he started to talk about the videos, he couldn’t understand how someone could plan something like that and then record it so calm and calculated. He said that the worst thing was the moments immediately beforehand. A tank appeared on screen in a field, and you know what’s going to happen, I’ve seen how it ends, he said with sunken eyes. The tank rumbles on as though it were on a routine patrol, the people inside have no idea that someone’s filming them and especially not that we can see them, no one knows when it’s going to happen. That’s the worst part, he said, and then he made the sound of an explosion that had everyone in the cantina turning to stare at him.
Olegario blushed. He turned to look at everyone else, especially Cristino, who surveyed the scene from his game of dominoes. It’s not good for you to think about it, Willy, his father said. It’s in the past, you did your duty.
You talk like the men in suits, Will shouted. He was dangling his beer bottle from two of his fingers. They try to tell me how to act, but they never get their hands dirty, he shouted. The beer spat out foam and spilled onto Cristino’s wooden floor. What do you know about it, Dad? he said, just a few centimetres from his face. Olegario leaned backwards, more and more embarrassed. Thank God you’re OK, he said. The Virgin protected you. What fucking Virgin? Will shouted, and then he said in Spanish that the Virgin wasn’t worth shit, or Balls to the Virgin, or The Virgin can suck my cock.
Then Cristino, who’d put down his dominoes, said, Have more respect, young man, and William said, Fucking old cripple, stay out of it, and Cristino said, You can’t come here and act like that. Learn some respect. Will started to insult him in English, he said fuck you so much that Cristino had him thrown out. The old man’s dominoes buddies, three fat farm hands, crowded around the soldier, and he smashed a bottle over the heads of one of them.
I found an account by Raymond Cross, another soldier in Iraq, on a blog. The translation is mine:
“After the operation in the terrorists’ training camp, we went on a recon mission. Among the bodies of the bastards who were getting ready to blow up our tanks and planes, and even trains and buses with innocent civilians on them, I recognized a man.
“I nudged him with my boot. He didn’t move. Then I bent down and touched his neck. I’d seen him two or three weeks before, during a mission after the bombardment of a terrorist village. The ground was still smoking and there were small fires everywhere, as well as that white dust you get after bombings. The man appeared in the rubble with a dirty beard and face. He was shouting for someone and tried to come over to Panda, but we pointed our guns at his head and the bastard stopped. Friend, friend, he said with his hands raised. Danny searched him. He was clean. The sergeant came over and started to talk to him in Iraqi. We didn’t understand what he was saying, the translator hadn’t come with us, but he seemed truly desperate. Then he started to cry and pull his hair and said, Boys, boys, several times, in English. He went back off into the rubble and disappeared.
“When the mission was over – there was no one left in the village – and we got back to the armoured car, we saw him again. He was crying over the body of a small child, maybe eight or nine, lying on a cart full of mangled melons that gave off the only sweet scent there was that afternoon. The boy was wearing a Ronaldinho shirt, the one the Barcelona footballer wears, and blue flip-flops dangled from his little toes.
“When he saw us, he started to curse.”
After the funeral, Amalia left with her sister. She locked herself in a dark room and refused to see me. I couldn’t sleep in our bed. I woke up at the usual times – twelve, three and five in the morning – as though I still had to turn Diego over to keep his blood circulating. I went to his room and looked at his empty cot with the rails still up to stop him from falling. Gravity weighed more than his body. In the shadows I saw the chair that Amalia sat in to talk to him even though he couldn’t understand. I saw the harness and swing we used to move him when he got older, the wheelchair, folded up, unmoving, the stand for his drip and the nasogastric tube.
I thought that with time … but Amalia refused to see me. Her sister told me that she refused to eat and cried all day, looking at photographs of Diego. I tried to get her out of the room, to make her eat, but she accused me, from the other side of the door, of not suffering enough. It’s as though you wanted to get rid of him, she said.
For years I had a dream in which Amalia and I went to a beach or a mountain, and we didn’t need to ask anyone for impossible explanations, I dreamed that we could sleep as long as we wanted without fear of death intruding, that we were alone again and she got pregnant. And there I was, crying in the middle of the night in the empty bedroom that still smelled of medicine, afraid that she’d go crazy and not yet realizing that I would never understand who our son, the stranger we’d fussed over for twelve years, was, why he managed to survive for so long and why we so keenly missed someone who never even knew we existed.
I don’t believe in God, but the Bible still has answers. There’s a scene in Genesis, I don’t know if it’s on heaven or earth, when three strangers visit Abraham and Sarah, nomads from the desert. After resting in the shade, drinking goat’s milk and eating curd, a voice that miraculously belongs to both Jehovah and the three men says, Sarah will have a child.
Sarah, who’s listening to the conversation going on behind her, thinks that she’s ninety-nine and has already gone through the menopause. She can only laugh. What are you laughing at, Sarah? Jehovah (or the three guests) asks. I wasn’t laughing, Sarah says, and in the text there is an explanatory parenthesis, one of those parentheses that are like suction pumps: (“She was afraid”).
I find something hurtful about the reticence. Is that all it has to say about a withered old woman discovering that she can finally have a child? As though we didn’t already know that to be a parent is essentially to live in constant fear. What if something happens? What if I die? How will it survive?
The Bible story goes on, and after a short, or long, life of 105 verses, God asks Abraham to kill his son. With a knife. On a mountain top. God asks him to burn the body.
(And all the narrator says is that it took them three days to get there: three days in a few words.)
We know how it ends, because in all good stories, especially good biblical stories, the end is revealed in the first phrase: it was one of God’s tests.
I could say that I have a congenital disease. At first I was unaware, but now we know how it ends: with Diego, my son. Amalia and I did tests, and the doctors said go on, you can get pregnant again, but fifteen weeks in it was confirmed that the baby wasn’t developing properly. One of Jehovah’s tests, the narrator of Genesis would say, but that’s all they’d say. No, I said, looking at my unmoving baby, thinking of my poisoned genes. And after visiting the doctor so he could kill him, Amalia locked herself in a dark room and refused to talk to me.
That was the first time.
I went back to the town three years later. During that period I dreamed I was back in Cristino’s cantina several times. I dreamed of William, most of all I dreamed of his voice. Provocative. Violent. Resentful. His words mingled with my pain, images of cold dunes in the Iraqi desert and Amalia’s silence and a tank being turned into a coffin.
The only hotel in town was occupied by a group of gringos. As I looked for a place to stay, I saw Olegario in a butcher’s. He was with a pair of other men who must have been relatives, trying to cut up a chunk of meat, or a cow liver, pancreas or kidney.
I went over to say hello, and he didn’t recognize me. I reminded him of when we’d met. He smiled for a moment and nodded. How’s Willy? I asked. You remember! he said and then bowed his head. He pressed down on the meat with one hand while the other reached for a huge knife and split it open down the middle. It was vividly red but didn’t bleed.
I thought that he’d have three convictions under his belt for domestic violence and two more for drunk driving, that he suffered from recurring insomnia, that the pills didn’t chase away the shades of his dead friends. Or maybe one night he’d tripped on the stairs in his building and killed his baby, or crashed his motorbike against the wall of a school, or had become a junky, or was awaiting death in a prison in Orange County for smuggling the organs of Guatemalan children.
He went back to Iraq and was killed, said Olegario.
After standing in silence for a while I asked him if I could buy him a beer. We crossed the plaza and went into the cantina. Cristino, sitting in his usual spot, nodded at Olegario. He looked at me but without recognizing me. Then he told the waiter to serve us.
Labios wasn’t there any more.