Son of the General

Below the hotel veranda, neighbor boys shoot down mangoes with slingshots. Sometimes they miss and startle roosting fruit bats. A belt stretches across the restaurant table. “Eso no es nada,” son of The General says, referring to the cloth belt that he uses on his child. “Once, when I was around sixteen years old, I walk into the army station and the soldiers ask me, ‘Are you afraid of your father, El General, or do you respect him?’ ‘Claro—of course, I’m afraid of him,’ I answer. My dad overhears and rages into the room. ‘Miedo? Fear? I’ll teach you what fear is.’ He turns to the soldiers. ‘Prepárense el agua.’ He yells at me, ‘Strip down to your underwear.’ I do what he says. The soldiers drop ice water on me from an overhead tub. Out of nowhere, my dad slams his pistol on the side of my face and then my shoulder. I fall to the ground and my dad comes after me again. For sure, I think my shoulder’s broken. Then I get up, limp home in my underwear, pack my bags, and leave for an artist community in the mountains.” After a peasant massacre, El General earns the nickname “El Loco.” Green Berets send counterinsurgency experts to train him in how to clean up Communism. El General forms “La Mano Blanco” — “The White Hand” — the first Death Squads in Central America. Surveillance files are established with tabs: union, student, antigovernment, religion. Murdered victims are thrown in ditches with signs, “La Mano Blanco.” Bankrolled by the CIA, El General buys land and a fleet of luxury cars. President LBJ presents El General with a medal for his “Exceptional Meritorious Service.” Studying abroad, the son of El General and my husband become roommates. In college, the son receives a phone call. His brother was murdered leaving church. The army advises him not to return for the funeral. A year later, another phone call. This time, El General was murdered. Again, he is advised not to return. “We know who killed El General,” says a high ranking military official. “If you give us the word we will avenge your father’s death.” The son does not give the word. Both he and my husband graduate, relocate, then lose contact as they wait out the war in different countries. Granted political asylum, the son of El General and his first wife settle near pacific waters, which at first they find comforting. But when warm currents from home never arrive, they shake their heads at the chilly waters, as if an old friend has changed; his wife says the ocean knows only one season: winter. Once, holding his firstborn, the son walks against a seawall. A surging tide sideswipes him, knocks his baby out of his arms, and pulls his boy out to sea. He lunges after him, reaching for hand, heel, or leg. The next wave returns his son back into his arms, unharmed, as if the sea grants second chances. Now, he has a recurring nightmare, even though his firstborn has grown, lives abroad, and plays in a rock band. Enshrouded in waves, dark seal shapes rise, then crash to shore. They are babies. Babies crawling to land. Before the next wave breaks, he gathers as many as he can, but still, he can’t find his firstborn. He wakes on all fours, pillows and covers in hand. By chance, twenty years after college, my husband runs into his old roommate at our vacation hotel. Remarried, he has a child our son’s age. When I meet him, I am standing waist deep in the pool and he almost falls in as he reaches across the water, trying to shake my hand. Late afternoon, we share foil-wrapped roasted fish with him and his new wife. Our caramel-colored sons look like twins. My one-eyed fish stares up at me. Long-tailed roosters strut by our palapa as if they own the pool deck. Below the veranda, neighbor boys shoot down mangoes with slingshots. Sometimes they miss and hit fruit bats. A soft belt stretches over the table. Our server delivers another round of Pilzners topped with limes and hands the boys their Cola Champagne. Seeing a shadow in the deep end, my husband dives into the pool and pulls up a boy. Bloated, face purple, hands blanched, he isn’t breathing. On the other side of the pool, his mother screams. Distracted by shell necklaces for sale, his parents didn’t see their son jump into the pool. The boy spews a fountain of water when his uncle administers CPR. He starts to breathe. They rush him to the hospital and later he is released in good health. Sons in hand, we walk out to the beach and await the sunset. Sitting in the sand, we watch the sun glow iron red. Farther down the beach, the father of the drowned boy also watches. The father never thanks my husband. The son of El General shrugs. “What’s a father going to admit?” With his palms face up, the setting sun rests in his hands then slides through his fingers. Like molten lava, the sun burns into the horizon.

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