A Guatemalan story
2004 by Dina Bern
A special day
I woke up. Next to me, Loba, my enormous black German shepherd, opened her eyes and stretched. A strange feeling took hold of me. I sensed that something out of the ordinary was going to happen that day. The feeling scared me, but Loba’s presence put me at ease.
After having breakfast with my parents, my dog and I went out for our daily morning walk. Then I ran to school. The strange feeling that something unusual was going to happen didn’t leave me even during classes, or breaks.
The day was half gone when I started the way back home in the company of my second-grade classmates. I told myself then that maybe the feeling was a nightmare’s leftover, a bad dream which I couldn’t remember. Near home my friends ran scared as soon as they saw Loba, who, running as fast as she could, was about to give me her usual welcome. She was huge and her size terrified them. She barked high and hoarse. It was her way of saying ‘welcome back.’ The feeling disappeared then.
My dog and I rolled happily on the thick grass while my mother, from our garden, yelled euphoric words of disapproval for my conduct. I looked up. The sun shined bright and orange behind her making her look like a black shadow, a shadow standing in the middle of a wave of colors. The colored wave was produced by the breeze on the exotic flowers of infinite colors that the whole family contributed to care for. Mom yelled that my behavior was inappropriate. It was so bad, according to her, that at times she wondered which of the two creatures rolling on the grass was the beast! Mother threatened again to get rid of Loba if I didn’t learn to behave like “a decent and well educated little girl.”
I entered the house pretending not to hear. The strange sensation of the morning came back immediately. The day was not over yet, and the unexpected could still happen. My mother came into the house and, with her screams, chased away the bad feeling. My thoughts focused on her persistence. Did she really expect me to become a ‘decent, well educated little girl’ some day? She should have desisted by now. She and my father had received enough complaints from the principal, from my teacher and from some of the neighbors. They knew that I was a member of the most mischievous gang in our small village. I didn’t want to be a ‘little girl’; especially ‘decent and well educated.’
Mother served dinner as soon as father came back from work. I ran out of the house to meet with my gang after eating. Loba ran next to me, at my pace. The strange feeling of the morning came back. My companion sensed my uneasiness and reassured me with a glance that made her big almond-shaped brown eyes shine like glass marbles.
We lived in a community known as El Petrolón. Its name was due to the fact that it was located within the confines of an area where a well-known multinational company from the USA exploited oil. The inhabitants of El Petrolón were all company employees and their families. Mr. Lawrence, the boss Number One of the company, had a servant. He was a small skinny old man with a head full of white hair and a well-trimmed white beard. His name was Don Pepe. Don Pepe had a secret dream: To win the lottery. He spent his salary on lottery tickets.
Parties, parties, parties
One morning, while our teacher taught us the multiplication tables, my mother, in the company of other women of the village, came to inform our teacher in a very agitated state that Don Pepe had won the lottery. “He's like a nut, knocking on all doors to share the news of his good luck!” they complained. A few days later Don Pepe got his money and, for almost a month, the school was visited by clowns, magicians and trained animals. We played all the time, and ate enormous amounts of cake, ice cream and candy. When ‘señorita’ Clara, our teacher, decided it was time to go back to the old school routine, she discovered that it was not going to be easy. We refused to listen to her. All her attempts to teach us anything failed. Talking to our parents didn’t help either, they blamed her for accepting Don Pepe’s offer of bringing a little fun to the school. Our teacher turned to Don Pepe then. She told him that the parties had taken away our curiosity for learning. All we did was look forward to the different surprises that the next day’s party would bring.
“Life is not a party, Don Pepe”, she declared, “You are older than I am and you know it well. You have to help me, you must stop these parties. If you don’t, these children are going to end up ignorant, dumb and good for nothing!”
Don Pepe understood the seriousness of the situation and stopped the daily parties, in spite of the fact that we begged him not to. A short time later he bought a big portion of land very close to El Petrolón and built a house that looked like a king's castle to us. A short time later, he married 'señorita' Clara, our teacher.
Envy and jealousy
It was said in El Petrolón that the boss Number Two, a Mr. Jack Johnson, besides feeling deep envy for Don Pepe’s good luck also felt jealousy. The reason, supposedly, was 'señorita' Clara. The day before the wedding, Mr. Johnson visited the teacher to confess his love and offer her a life somewhere in the land of Uncle Sam. The teacher did not accept the proposal. She decided to marry Don Pepe and stay in El Petrolón. She explained to the American that she did not want to abandon her family. She would have had to do just that if she accepted Mr. Johnson's offer. However, everyone in El Petrolón, including 'señorita' Clara, knew that Mr. Johnson was a rascal. He liked drinking and, according to my parents conversations with each other and with our neighbors, he liked to keep the company of “women of ill repute”.
Yes, Mr. Jack Johnson was really a rascal. Before Don Pepe cashed his winning ticket, Mr. Johnson proposed to Mr. Lawrence to go to the police and claim that the old man had stolen the ticket from him. For such a brilliant idea, Mr. Lawrence would have had to share the money with him in equal parts. But the boss Number One refused to commit such a low act, for which Mr. Johnson promised revenge. Supposedly, Mr. Johnson himself had told the story to several employees, among them my father, during one of his drinking binges. The employees told the story to their wives and they disseminated it in the small village. But the veracity of the incident was doubted because the two foreigners continued socializing. Everybody saw them doing things together, as usual. They played handball, they play cards, they watch television and drank beer together as if nothing had ever happened to spoil their friendship.
The gang consisted of six boys plus my classmate Abigail and myself. On the day of my bad sensation, after we got together, we decided to visit the nearby village of Tacatón. We walked all the way, afraid to be discovered by the neighbors or, even worse, by our own parents, who drove almost daily to different nearby villages looking for things to buy or for domestic help, or simply to admire the primitive beauty of places less privileged than El Petrolón. A few months earlier a truck had killed three children from a nearby village. They had been playing ball on the highway. Our parents worried because they knew that at times we also did the same. They promised us hard punishment if they ever knew that we walked or played on the highway.
As soon as we arrived in Tacatón, Abigaíl saw a street dog that looked a lot like my black Loba. According to my little friend, her fairy godmother had put the dog on her way so that she could take him home. All of us decided to help her trap the animal. Our attempts scared him. He ran all over the dusty streets of the village and we ran after him. The dog’s persecution took us to the door of a bar where, surprised, we discovered Mr. Lawrence and Mr. Johnson drinking beer. Each man had a woman sitting on his lap. They did not see us, they were already drunk and concentrated on the half-naked women who, obviously, were employees of the establishment. All of us had heard our mothers, and occasionally also our fathers, criticize the shameless ‘gringos’ for keeping the company of women of ill repute. We wondered if these were the ‘women of ill repute’ our parents talked about. Thus, in spite of the fact that we risked hard punishment for disappearing from our homes without giving notice of our whereabouts, we hid in a half-burned hut located only a few meters from the bar. From there we could see if the bosses left the place by themselves or in the company of the women.
Time flew by. Night fell and in the dark we began to feel guilty thinking about our parents' worry due to our absence. Suddenly the bosses left the place, alone, no women. A bit disappointed, we decided to start our way home. We allowed Mr. Johnson’s car to leave before we left our hiding place so as to avoid being seen by them. If they saw us our parents would definitely know where we had been that day. On the way back we began inventing lies and excuses to tell our parents. The strange feeling of the morning came back, and this time Loba’s presence didn’t calm me down.
On the highway we passed Don Pepe’s impressive mansion, situated on the top of a hill. We were surprised to see Mr. Johnson’s car parked right in front of the small paved road that lead up the hill, to the entrance of the mansion. The car’s front and back lights were not on but the interior was illuminated. The passenger’s front door opened suddenly and Mr. Lawrence walked out staggering. He only walked a few steps before falling to the ground. Then Mr. Johnson came out of the car. Two jumps of his long skinny legs put him right next to his fallen countryman. He kneeled beside the man, ‘to help him’, we thought. We were wrong! The act we witnessed paralyzed of terror our incredulous young hearts. We saw Mr. Johnson stab Mr. Lawrence countless times. With every thrust that he directed against the torso of the fallen man the killer yelled over and over again,
“So, noble gringo, you’re now a dead gringo!”
The killer stood up, knife in hand. The free hand he pushed inside one of his jeans’ pockets to extract a handkerchief, which he used to clean the handle of the long-bladed knife. He wrapped the handkerchief carefully around the handle and, holding it firmly, with a powerful thrust stock it in the ground, right next to the body. Then he unwrapped the handkerchief and put it back in his jeans’ pocket. The killer returned to his vehicle and disappeared behind the concrete wall that surrounded El Petrolón. It was then that we allowed ourselves to express our suppressed terror. We embraced, we screamed and cried. And we decided not to tell our parents about the horrendous experience we had just lived through. I knew then that the strange feeling that had taken hold of me early that morning had been a premonition, a warning for this crime we had just witnessed. Loba moved and groaned nervous among us.
“How lucky we were that she didn’t bark” commented Abigail, “Mr. Johnson would have killed us if he saw us.”
Once home, we were relieved to find out that our families were not in. Only Tavo Godinez found his older brother, nicknamed ‘Perico’, watching television at home. ‘Perico’ informed Tavo that the whole village was at the “Pasatiempos”, the big square concrete building that served as clubhouse, movie house, theater and dance hall. Our families were there to watch a boxing match. Tavo went personally to each and every one of our houses to convince us to go to the boxing match. We all allowed ourselves to be convinced.
The eight of us sat at the same row. There was silence. The match was about to start. Suddenly, the door of the ‘Pasatiempos’ opened and Mr. Johnson appeared, yelling,
“Something horrible has happened! The police has just called me to inform me that my good friend Mr. Lawrence was found dead on the highway near Don Pepe’s house!”
Some in the multitude gasped. Others asked aloud for God's help and protection. The witnesses of the crime left the 'Pasatiempos'. Outside the building we went our separate ways. Some of us walked fast. Others walked slowly. I ran home as fast as my legs could take me. I had never felt so afraid in my life. Loba was not by my side to comfort me. The ‘Pasatiempos’ didn’t allow dogs in the premises; thus she had not accompanied me.
The case of the murdered gringo was cover page news in the Guatemalan newspapers for several weeks. When the police finally centered on Don Pepe as the main suspect the gang was shocked. All of us heard our parents talk about how Mr. Johnson’s testimony had been crucial in the crime’s investigation. He had testified that “his good friend Mr. Lawrence had confessed to him that he himself had bought the lottery ticket that Don Pepe had cashed. According to Mr. Johnson, the old man, abusing the trust and good will that Mr. Lawrence had always shown him, had stolen the ticket after the winning numbers had been published.
The testimony of someone as important as Mr. Johnson, Vice Chief of Production of El Petrolón, was essential for the police to reach its conclusion: The victim told the old man that he had the winning ticket and the old man stole it. The real killer added that the victim had told him how he had approached Don Pepe several times to demand a share of the prize, but that the 'thief', besides refusing to share, had threatened to kill the victim. There was no doubt as to Don Pepe’s guilt. The judge sentenced him to death.
I learned about Don Pepe’s fate one evening at home, while watching the news on television in the company of Tono, Fredy and ‘fat’ Felix, all members of the gang. The news affected me so badly that I started sobbing. So did my friends. My parents tried to console us without understanding the reason of our reaction, which was a result of the guilt we felt for the punishment that Don Pepe was about to suffer. We never told anyone that we had seen Mr. Johnson kill Mr. Lawrence. Fredy was the first one to talk. I followed. Tono opened his heart after me and ‘fat’ Felix’ opened his last. My parents listened to us without uttering a word.
My father took us to the homes of the other members of the gang, who repeated the same story. Early in the morning of the next day, in the company of our parents, we visited the judge that dictated the sentence. Unfortunately, ‘His Honor’ didn’t seem a bit interested in what we had to say. Our parents decided to try other means to save the old man. We visited several lawyers, other judges and the chief of police, all without positive results. When we had lost all hope, my father decided to visit the USA embassy. The vice-consul received us, after long arguments between our parents and some of the embassy’s lower employees. He claimed not to have much information about the case, but became extremely interested when he heard our story. While we were still in his office he ordered his secretary to locate the judge that sentenced Don Pepe to death as well as the chief of police.
A few days after our visit to the embassy, several citizens of the land of Uncle Sam visited our small village. They arrived in the company of several Guatemalan policemen. They didn’t have to knock on Mr. Johnson’s door, he came out to meet them. He came out sucking on a bottle of Bell's, barefoot and naked from the waist up, his old jeans wet with a mixture of urine, sweat and whiskey.
”Yes!” he yelled, ”I killed him! I killed the bastard because he felt more solidarity with that old goat who stole Clara from me than with me, and because he refused, refused, refused to help me steal the lottery money from him! My countryman! Ha! So noble! So noble the poor devil! So noble that he forgot his priorities. He forgot that first and foremost we most support our own! ‘Noble gringo, dead gringo’, I told him, and stabbed him till I knew he was dead!
When Don Pepe left prison he bestowed upon us once more the activities he provided us with at the time he won the lottery. Daily, our school was visited by clowns, magicians and trained animals. We also had a repetition of the parties where we ate ice cream, cakes and candy. And we rebelled against our new teacher's attempts to teach us something. 'Señorita' Marcela, our new teacher, talked to Don Pepe. She explained that we lived only for the parties of his daily freedom celebration, and that if such state of things continued we would end up totally dumb. Of course, the old man understood the seriousness of the situation and stopped the daily parties.
In his speech to announce that he was ending the celebrations, the thankful old man pointed out that it was a pity that a little village as privileged as ours didn’t have a park for the pleasure of the children.
“Our children must not learn only to extract the oil from our soil. This is nonsense!” he declared, “The children of El Petrolón must play, like any other children in the world. And the best place for our children to play is a park near their homes!”
Then he announced that the same construction company that
had built his mansion would start building, the following day, a park in
the center of El Petrolón. We all applauded, happy and thankful.
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