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I was a revolutionary, p.16

I Was a Revolutionary, page 16


I Was a Revolutionary

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  Doris added: “You’ll never get rich on him, Ricky.”

  Ricky shook his head, grinning as he dunked glasses in the bleach water and rinsed them.

  Beside Ray sat Sal, silent, content to let the others do the talking. His real name was Adolfo, but one day after a few weeks on the job, as he sat in the break room, Ray told him: “As your friend and supervisor, I feel I must advise you against calling yourself Adolf.” At that point Adolfo knew almost no English, and it took a week to understand why Ray was always talking to him about some guy named Sal.

  “Sal,” because Adolfo was from El Salvador. He’d come north in 1983, fleeing the civil war, and he had the wounds to prove it. His face was scarred badly from the Guardia’s attempt to gain intel about the rebels. It was something he would forget about, the scars lining his face, only to be reminded in the reactions of others—the piercing stares when they thought he wasn’t looking, the quick dart of eyes when they knew he was—and he’d look at the ground and feel shame and anger. Throughout the previous decade of civil war and insurgence many had emigrated from Central America, and recruiting agents, sent by the packing plants, lined the border, drawing cheap and unskilled workers to towns throughout the Middle West. Hector was from Guatemala. Carlos, Honduras. Still others came from Nicaragua. Different as they and their cultures were, to most whites in Dodge they all looked the same, spoke the same language, and were generally referred to with the catchall “Mexican” or “beaner.” But Sal was different. He didn’t look Mexican. He was indigenous Pipil, his face longer, broader, darker in color, which Ray had recognized immediately, and which caused him to take special interest in Sal. “You and me are Indians, brother,” he’d explained to Sal. “We invented this continent before they stole it.”

  Ray was part of the first group hired when D&L opened in 1980, and he’d outlasted almost everyone in his cohort. He was a good worker, talented, and had proved himself skilled and knowledgeable about the plant’s various operations so as to be moved by management to a supervisory role. Ray had been at the plant for three years when Sal arrived, and he’d looked out for him from the start. He set Sal up as a shackler, where he stayed for nearly a decade, until last month, when he’d been moved to Exsanguination, thanks to Ray putting in a few good words to management. It meant more hours, a bump in pay. It was coveted but gruesome work, and Ray wasn’t sure how his soft-spoken friend would handle it. But on the first day of the switch, when Sal was shadowing him, Ray tested him to see if he had the stomach for it. Thinking Sal might hesitate, Ray watched him calmly take the knife from his hand and cleanly sever the throat of a cow shackled hindquarters up. He did it three more times in quick succession without pause. Exhilarated, proud even, Ray cried: “I knew it! You’re like one of those farts no one can hear but it kills the entire room.”

  Now in the bar, Ray signaled Ricky for another round. He let out the ponytail, and his long black hair fell to his chest, the ends of a few strands finding their way over the lip of his beer. He nudged Sal and they walked back to the pool table, where Hector and Dan were preparing to take on Dolan and Carlos.

  “How about the two of us jump in?” said Ray.

  “How about you wait your turn,” said Dolan. “You ain’t boss in here.”

  Ray laughed at the kid’s practiced bravado. Dolan was six-foot-five, and at twenty-seven young enough to hit the gym for ninety minutes before coming in to work a ten-hour on the line. He bought Wranglers and western shirts a half-size small to accentuate his body’s brawn. Ray stage-whispered to Carlos: “You gotta watch out for your partner over there, Captain Tube Sock. He’ll go after anything that bends over. Don’t risk it—use the bridge.” Nestled in the small of his back, attached to his belt, Ray wore a leather sheath, barely noticeable, containing a knife shaped like an arrowhead. An elder had given it to him while Ray was visiting his wife Lorna’s family on the rez in Oklahoma. More good luck charm than anything. He took it out and offered it to Carlos: “Here, take this. You might need protection.”

  “No knives in the bar,” Dolan said, but he sounded like a tattling child and regretted speaking up. It was true, though: Ricky had banned knives after a night the previous winter when a couple of the butchers brought their tools into the bar and injured themselves horsing around.

  “What, this little thing?” said Ray, turning the knife under the light. “I just use this to scratch my butthole.”

  “How about you shut your facehole so we can play?” Dolan said.

  Ray made a childish face, like his feelings had been hurt as he slid the knife back in the sheath. He fished out a couple quarters from his pocket and set them on the rail to stake his place in the queue, then moved over to the lone high-top where Sal was sitting. He continued to stare at Dolan.

  “Fuck you looking at, Ray?”

  “I was just thinking.”

  “You shouldn’t do that.”

  “I was wondering what you must’ve looked like at birth, crawling out the pussy of that giant ear of corn.”

  Hector collapsed onto the pool table, ruining the rack he was trying to center and had to start over. Dolan ignored their laughter and moved into position to break. He sized it up, turning the cue slowly over palm and knuckle, and then did a series of three quick practice shots just to the left of the cue ball. Finally he was ready and brought back his shooting arm, a slight tremor betraying the power he was trying to harness for the shot.

  “Okay, fine. You win,” Ray said to Sal, who stared back silently. “You can buy me a drink.”

  Despite the varied accents and idioms, Sal had gotten by easy enough with so many Spanish speakers at the plant. Ray pushed him to learn English, though. “I want to know about your home, what the Indians are like down there,” he said. “Besides, I need someone I can tell a fucking joke to.” So, early on he’d begun inviting Sal over for dinner at his small two-bedroom house, where Lorna would fix supper while they sat at the kitchen table and talked. Or, rather, Ray talked and Sal tried to follow. Ray would bounce his young son Daniel on his knee, periodically sending the giggling boy into the air above his head. He tried to tell Sal about his and Lorna’s people, the Kiowa, and of the Plains Indian Wars after the Civil War, but Ray spoke too fast, the words bleeding together. The less Sal followed, the more Ray began to embellish and lie. He claimed Satanata, the great Kiowa war chief, had been his great-great-grandfather, and was outraged when Sal didn’t know who that was. He said scalping was a lie created to demonize Indians. Finally, he said that when the white man went to the moon, he found Kiowa and Cheyenne, who instead of relocating to Indian Territory had rowed a special canoe into outer space. Lorna, stirring a pot on the stove, laughed softly through her nose. Sal followed none of it.

  “I see the problem,” Ray said one day back in those early years of their friendship as he drove Sal home after their shift. “You’re like the teacher says about my boy—a visual learner.” So that weekend he took Sal to the Boot Hill Museum downtown. It was a tourist trap made up to look like Dodge had in 1876 with reconstructed saloons and period-style shops and crafts. “Most of this is bullshit,” he said as they entered the museum, passing exhibits on Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, and other famous residents of old Dodge. There were tableaux of cowboys sitting around the campfire, and another of a frontier woman rocking in her cabin. Ray stopped in front of a figure of a smiling Indian in native dress holding a peace pipe in one hand and a bird in the other. “This almost hurts my feelings more than anything,” he said. Then, from the corner of his eye, he saw the life-size buffalo diorama. “Ah, there it is,” he said. “This is what I wanted to show you.”

  Ray led Sal over to the exhibit that explained how the Plains Indians of the area had once depended on bison for food and clothing. When the whites came and the Indians resisted relocation, the settlers began to kill the buffalo and so began the decade of slaughter, the 1870s, when the army machine-gunned the great herds and left the meat to rot in the plains. The goal was not profit but t
he extermination of the native food supply so they would leave their land, which they eventually did, and in twenty years the number of buffalo dropped from seventy-five million to near extinction. Sal had been practicing reading in bed each night and took in the exhibit’s informational cards slowly, understanding about sixty percent of the content. But Ray was right: it was the picture that made the most sense. It was black and white and showed a massive pile of bison bones that Sal couldn’t fully grasp the scale of until he saw the little man, a dot holding a skull, standing on top of the mound. “The Great Massacre,” the caption above the photo read. This Sal understood.

  It would take him several more months before he knew the language well enough to tell Ray the story of his own people’s Great Massacre, la Matanza, when the Pipil Indians rose up against the fascist government. Promising dialogue and pardons, the government invited the peasants and workers into a public square to air their grievances and proceeded to shoot them all. The army killed so many people that no one knew the exact number, perhaps forty thousand, most of them indigenous Pipil who worked on the coffee fincas in western Salvador for the country’s oligarchs. This was in 1932, more than thirty years before Sal was born, but his grandfathers and grandmothers, the great uncles and aunts he’d never know, all died in the uprising. An entire generation gone, as if never born. And after the violence came the real genocide, when to save themselves from further reprisal the Pipil erased their culture. They took up Spanish, burned their native clothing, and married non-Pipil to dilute the blood that made them look so much like the people pictured in the new history books that celebrated the government’s heroic victory over the traitorous Communists and feral Indians. Sal’s parents were both Pipil, but most of the other kids in the village where he’d grown up were mestizo, and he’d only ever heard Nahut spoken late at night as his parents whispered to each other in bed before falling asleep. When he’d ask them about it the next morning, they’d pretend not to know what he was talking about. “You must have been dreaming,” they’d say.

  Time passed in that strange barroom manner, by turns laggard and fleet, Hector literally feeling in sync with the earth’s revolution as he sat in the booth, listening to Carlos go on about his girlfriend not giving it up, while Asie went to the bar to check the score of the game he expected to be in the middle of the third inning only to find a postgame interview with José Lind on the Magnavox. Charlene was in her own dilatory circle of hell, half listening to Doris natter away. She and Kathy both liked Doris, prefacing every behind-her-back critique or bashing with just that phrase, but she could set up camp all night, spouting aphorisms she’d come across in the Cracker Barrel gift shop. What was especially annoying was that Doris seemed to know it was annoying—they were right, she did—and she took a cruel pleasure in playing killjoy. Lacking Charlene’s looks and Kathy’s wit, she exercised the power she did have: the ability to mitigate theirs. She played up her role as matriarch, adopting the style of dress and manner of speech of a certain kind of woman she might become in another ten or fifteen years. “Goodnight, girls,” she said to them as she finally rose from her stool. “Be each other’s shepherd now, okay? Call if you need me.” To drag it out a little longer, she took her time—thirteen interminably awkward seconds after saying goodbye—to dig through the bowels of her purse for tip money, laying on the counter a couple half-torn bills destined for eternal pop-machine rebuff.

  Within seconds of her exit, Dolan made his way to the stool still warm with the heat of Doris’s hams. “I threw that last game just so I could see your pretty face,” he whispered in Charlene’s ear. She was twenty-five and in her third year at the plant, the first two of which she had spent in a long-distance marriage to her high school sweetheart, who worked on an oil rig in Alaska. When her marriage fell apart, the news that she was single spread through the plant like lighter fluid ablaze, and despite the don’t-rush-into-anything prudence Doris had cautioned, it felt good to be so desired. She narrowed her brown eyes at Dolan, meaning: Go on, tell me more.

  Ray sat beside Kathy, doodling on a cocktail napkin. He’d switched to bourbon, and Ricky was setting another rocks glass before him when Brewgner entered the bar. He took a seat on the stool next to Ray and ordered a Miller, which Ricky knew to serve with a glass of ice because Brewgner’s doctor had told him that if he couldn’t quit drinking, for his liver’s sake, he at least needed to water it down. Like Ray, Brewgner was part of the original group of new hires at D&L, so he had seniority, but unlike Ray he had no interest in management. He’d worked himself up to Exsanguination and stayed there until recently, when he developed carpal tunnel in his knife hand. He’d been out on workman’s comp for two months. He was wearing a wrist guard he’d used years earlier during a short-lived stint in a bowling league. Answering a question Ray hadn’t asked, he said, “My wrist feels perfect.”

  “Don’t look perfect,” said Ray, not taking his eyes off the drawing.

  “I’m ready to come back next week.”

  “Good, I’ll let management know we’ve got a new secretary coming in.”

  “I’m serious, Ray.”

  Ray examined his drawing, clicking the ballpoint he’d been using bearing the name of a local real estate agent who’d passed away the previous year. He had a talent for drawing, cartoons mostly, and for a time when he was younger thought he might pursue it, but now he just did it to entertain his kids. This one was a picture of an Indian wearing a headband with a single feather, one hand holding a meat cleaver and the other giving an oversized thumbs-up. The wet bottom of his glass had formed an annular frame around the small figure. He slid it down the bar to Kathy on his left.

  “I want you to have this,” he said.

  She picked it up and studied it.

  “Wait, I forgot to sign it.”

  She passed it back to him and quickly he drew a massive erection on the figure and returned it to her. “It’s a self-portrait.”

  “I need to talk to you,” Brewgner said, pulling Ray’s attention away from Kathy. He needed back on the line, he said. Workman’s comp was a pittance and he was behind on the mortgage.

  “They’re not gonna take you back,” said Ray flatly, honestly. Management had made it clear that they wanted someone younger, quicker, more productive.

  “Who’d they get?”

  “Sal’s taken over your hours.”

  “Of course you take care of your friend,” he said. “I been here since the beginning, same as you. He ain’t one of us.”

  “There is no us, paleface,” said Ray. “If you’re gonna gripe like a bitch, gripe about the fact that he pulls his count before you’re halfway through.”

  Brewgner and Ray had never particularly liked each other, but it pissed him off that Ray wouldn’t go to bat for him, given their shared history at D&L. Brewgner steadied his voice and leaned close to Ray. “Look, I didn’t want to say anything, but Ruby’s sick. Cancer. Treatment’s expensive.” At the moment this was a lie, but in three years Ruby would indeed discover the stomach cancer that would take her life in four. “I’ll do anything—put me in packaging if you have to. I need a job, Ray.”

  “What do you want me to do about it?”

  Knowing Ray’s weakness for gambling, he played his only hand: “Gimme a chance to win it.”

  In the years after that trip to Boot Hill, as he became fluent, Sal would learn how to answer when Ray asked him to tell stories about what it was like back home. What did El Salvador look like, what did he do, what did he eat? Ray wanted to know it all. Sal described the jagged beauty of the southwestern highlands, the quiet stillness of his village versus the bustle of nearby Izalco, where he and his father would take their crops to market. Since he’d arrived in the United States, Sal had been single and kept his hair short, but Ray was tickled to learn it had once been long, down to his waist, and that he’d known the love of a good woman. Ofelia. “You were like the original man out there! Wandering around with your long-ass hair and jungle woman, eat
ing plantains and shit. You probably swung from the trees, didn’t you?” When Sal arrived in Dodge, Ray hadn’t even known there was a civil war being fought in Salvador, and he’d become aware of it only when he finally asked about the scars on Sal’s face.

  Throughout the early years of the war Sal’s village had remained isolated from the fighting, he told Ray, but one day the FMLN showed up, part of their effort to bring campesinos in the rural regions of the country to the side of the revolution. They demanded to be fed and housed, forcing every male villager to stop farming and start training, learning to fight. In the evenings in the open square there were mandatory classes on political theory and economics. There was some sense in what they were preaching, but his support for the revolution was coerced. Sal mostly wanted them to leave. The occupation didn’t last long, less than three months, but at the time, living with the rebels felt interminable. “So you go from Adam in the Garden to Dennis-fucking-Banks—you expect me to believe that? What happened?”

  When the government learned of the cell in Sal’s village, they sent the Guardia. The rebels got wind of it and urged everyone to leave, but many stayed, to their peril. The Guardia arrived and decapitated the remaining men and left them hanging upside down from trees as a warning. The women they raped, before and sometimes after slitting their throats, and they bashed children’s heads against rocks to save bullets. “How’d you get away?” said Ray. That’s when Sal told him about the scars, that the Guardia had tortured him, carving up his face, demanding information about the FMLN, before they’d got drunk and passed out, allowing him to sneak away.

  This was a lie. Here is the story Sal had never told anyone:

  He’d fought with Ofelia about heeding the rebels’ warning, but she wouldn’t leave her family, and her family, like his, wouldn’t leave the village. In anger, he cursed her stubbornness and left, thinking she’d follow if he did, but she never came, her loyalty to her family trumping her love for him. Guilty and ashamed that he’d left his love and his family to slaughter, he tried to kill himself while at the refugee camp in Guatemala, where he’d gone after returning home to discover the inevitable horror. He held the knifepoint to his breast for a long time, imagining the cool blade sliding into the tender muscle of his heart, but couldn’t go through with it. He began to cry at his cowardice, and then he cut up his face so he would never forget it.

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