Dogs in Guatemala

All the dogs in Guatemala are like this. It’s what Laurie wants to tell her, this college sophomore crying in the street over yet another brutalized puppy, except she can’t imagine a worse moment for explanations.

“Come on, Arabella.” Laurie touches the girl’s sharp-boned back. “We can’t just hang around out here. Not in the dark.”

But Arabella falls to her knees on the sidewalk, stretching tremulous fingertips toward the dog. Scuttling down the edge of this no-name park, the puppy is oblivious of them, his muzzle thrust inside an old bean can. There’s no sound but the amplified banging of his can on the hard-packed dirt, his once-lush tail rustling behind him like a sullied white train. Cocker spaniel, most likely: one of the cuddly types the dog vendors specialize in. By day, they camp out in this park, middle-aged women who stand on the curb with crates of small wriggling dogs at their feet. Or they dangle a fat furry handful of cocker spaniel or poodle out over the street, as morning traffic grinds past. They make a couple of pups sit together on top of a high stack of boxes, so high the dogs can’t jump down.

Every morning for two years, Laurie has seen this. Normally, after the sun’s up—when it’s safer—she walks out from the Peace Action house in Zona 1, Guatemala City’s decrepit old heart, to buy the paper in Parque Central. She reads it aloud to her teammates, though they’ve all come to Guatemala to stay and are no longer shocked by the news: University students kidnapped as they step off their campus, a leading journalist’s house set on fire, a judge on the Constitutional Court shot through the head in his driveway. Reporting these matters—or teaching them to students like Arabella, who come on brief learning tours—is Laurie’s job. Here’s what happened, and how, and to whom. The follow-up question must be, What can we do about it? It keeps the bad news just bearable.

Explanations are Laurie’s strong suit, part of her work. But the dog hawkers don’t fit into any Peace Action report or lecture to visiting students. They are one of those things she sees but tries not to see. Most days, however, she still thinks of the dogs, how they quiver together on their wobbly box towers, stranded in air.

Now here, before sunrise, is one of their lot—a stray?—snuffling among the day-old tabloids and empty Tortrix bags that litter the park, and nobody else is around. Only Laurie, who wants to keep moving, and this teary twenty-year-old who won’t listen to her.

“I can’t leave you out here alone.” Laurie tries to keep the apprehension out of her voice.

It’s the end of the third decade of war, the tenth year of the Army’s scorched-earth campaign. They have burned whole towns to the ground, with people in them. Draining the ocean to get rid of certain fish, as one General put it. The Army’s death squads patrol these streets every night, their black Chevy vans with dark-tinted windows hunting down writers, union leaders, students: anyone who might still support the guerrilla.

“Poor puppy, can’t we help him?” Arabella wails from the pavement. “He must be lost.”

Ten minutes earlier, Laurie showed up at the guesthouse where the visitors in her charge are staying, to share early breakfast with them. But the first thing the other kids told her was that Arabella had left for a jog. “What?” Laurie said. “Who let her do that?” She banged out the front door before it shut behind her, and didn’t stop running till she saw the pony-tailed figure in a silver-gray Gore-Tex tracksuit, on her knees at the edge of the park.

“Arabella. We can’t do anything for him. We need to get in off the street.”

The dog shakes the can loose and notices them. His forelock is matted, his jowl smeared with beans. He cowers and whines, then shrinks away into the park, and Laurie’s chest tightens with pity. She could pick him up in one sweep, zip him into the front of her sweatshirt.

The dog’s retreat seems to unlock Arabella. “Oh my god,” she breathes and, before Laure can stop her, hastens after him into the darkness. The park’s trees close around her and blot out the shine of her track suit.

Squinting after her, Laurie hesitates on the sidewalk. “Give me a fucking break.”

Normally she wouldn’t enjoy being out in Zona 1 at quarter till six; normally she’d walk fast and hold onto her Mace or her knife. But today she ran after Arabella with nothing at all in her hands, nothing in her head but the notion of bringing her back. And the guilty image she’s pushed down this past hour won’t leave her alone any longer: an image of the man who secretly slept last night in her house. A guerrilla, who arrived after supper, bedded down on the spare cot, and slipped out before dawn, before she did. Laurie had said Yes to him, and endangered them all.

“He’s on his way through,” Ruben told her, when she answered his knock yesterday. “He needs a hiding place in the city just for tonight.”

The skin beneath Ruben’s eyes was pulled tight, pale as the color of scars. He’d come all the way from his human rights office in Zona 9—one of the city’s new neighborhoods, wheeling out from the center like a graph of centrifugal force—to ask for this favor in person.

“Ruben, no sé,” stammered Laurie. “We’re here to do education, to work with civilians. We have to act like we’re neutral.”

“Please, compañera. We would do it ourselves, but—but we can’t keep him this time.” Ruben’s voice sank to a whisper. “We think he’s been seen at our place before.”

“Bring him, then,” Laurie said blindly. “Just for one night.”

The guerrilla had not remained long. He came at nightfall, looking half-starved and strained in civilian clothing, borrowed khakis and a washed-out polo. He slept a few hours and left under cover of darkness, presumably looking the same. During his refuge with them, the man barely opened his mouth, and Laurie and her teammates, tense as he was, hadn’t tried to make conversation.

Now the guerrilla won’t stay quiet inside Laurie’s mind; he keeps moving around just in back of her eyes. Oh, please please be gone by now, please be out of the city again. Please have left without anyone knowing you stayed here with us. She might as well be walking around with her skin peeled back from her bones, she feels so exposed this morning.

“Arabella,” she calls. The girl’s torso is a thin silver wedge, ten or twelve yards into the park. “Let that dog go, and get back here.”

She can see, as if from a distance, how all of this looks: the moon scraping the roofs of the buildings behind them, throwing the last of its light on the backs of a dog and two foreign women, none of whom should be out at this hour. Laurie takes one step, then another into the park. It’s like wading into cold water. Arabella crouches in front of a park bench; the dog’s eyes are two frightened glimmers beneath it. Laurie can feel the street sneering behind them.

“What were you thinking, coming out at this hour?”

“I needed to get out. To do something, you know, on my own.”

“Well, you can’t.” This seems so self-evident, Laurie is blunt. She’s supposed to be teaching—supposed to take care of—short-term visitors like Arabella, but she’s clearly neglected to explain a few things.

Arabella wipes her nose with the back of her wrist and sinks to all fours, so as to get her head under the bench. Another thing Laurie’s forgotten to explain is that Guatemalan men view parks as urinals.

“You can’t just go out on your own,” Laurie insists. “Not here. Not without one of us.”

She hears the morning’s first buses, a few blocks away, grind past the stops on Parque del Centenario. Though she can’t see them from here, she knows how the passengers throng against the bus’s bright windows like a Hydra in silhouette; before daybreak, drivers burn their interior lights, to fend off hijackers and thieves. Traveling in city buses is never a picnic, but Laurie envies those riders for the way they are inside, together. Marimba music drifts from an apartment window across the street.

Then she hears something else, a sound less expected—Psst, psst. A human voice, just behind her.

“Grin-guiiitas.”

Laurie spins on her heels, her skin prickling. The man sounds so close, she ought to detect his outline. But all she can see is the shifting penumbra of the park’s furzy edge and behind it, the street, narrow as a tight-lipped mouth.

“Váyanse a casa, gringas.” Go home, gringas.

Surely this antagonist at the edge of the park is just another Guatemala City cat-caller. Surely nobody’s been watching her house.

“Better go home, gringuitas,” sings the man in the dark. “We know you’re up to no good.”

Laurie’s whole scalp seems to vibrate, like a cap that might leap off her head. But she balls her hands into fists; she points herself toward the man’s voice.

“Fuck off,” Laurie says. “Fuck you, and your mother, and fuck off.

Arabella withdraws her head from under the bench, her face a smudgy white thumbprint on the thick air. “What are you saying? What’s going on?”

“Nothing,” says Laurie. It’s a mercy this girl speaks no Spanish. Laurie takes a final step forward and hauls her up by both elbows. She does not release her again until they’re well out of the park and making for Casa San Juan, still three blocks away. As far as Laurie can tell, no one follows.

For the first block, Arabella keeps crying. “It’s not fair, it’s not fair. I hate how people treat their animals in this country.”

She’s tired, of course. She’s overwhelmed. Laurie tries to recall how this feels. In another corner of her mind, she calculates how much longer she has to work with this group of students. Six days down, four more to go.

Helping North Americans to see Guatemala, is how Peace Action describes their learning tours—to refugee camps on the Mexican border, through Guatemala City’s orphan-filled slums—but for some people it is too much. There’s always one, toward the end of their time with Peace Action, who ends up like Arabella: fixating on animal life. It’s as if they give up, Laurie secretly thinks. They squeeze a week or ten days’ accumulation of horror and grief onto these objects of suffering—the dogs or the cats—that still make some sense, whose pain is just small enough to imagine.

Even some of her Peace Action teammates, though they’ve lived here so long they all dream in Spanish, have started to weaken. Last month, Dean had to dash from the theater in the middle of watching Platoon, to throw up in the manicured bushes of Zona 10. And now Yvette won’t leave the house after dark, not at all: not since she saw a death squad chase down a student outside Universidad de San Carlos.

“He froze when he saw them,” Yvette kept saying, when she got home. “Like a deer in the fucking headlights. Just froze.”

“You’d have to be crazy, reacting like that,” Laurie said.

But Yvette slapped the table, open-handed, so hard Laurie started. “You don’t know. You don’t know what you’d do. If you try to fight them, those death squad guys just break your legs first. Then they can get you into their van.”

“But you could try to run away, couldn’t you?” Laurie snapped. She felt she’d been struck herself. Yvette was over-reacting.

The next day, however, when Yvette wouldn’t get out of bed—not even to eat—Laurie tried praying again, a practice she thought she’d abandoned once and for all, along with her sorry-ass, backwoods hometown.

“We ought to think about leaving,” Yvette said, when she finally got up. “It’s getting too dangerous here.”

No, Laurie thinks now, hustling Arabella along the last blocks to the guesthouse. Joining Peace Action, she signed on for three years; they all did. She won’t, she can’t, back out now. No matter what Yvette says. No. You have to grow a new skin to live here; have to tell yourself, “My life in this country is going to be different.” That’s all.

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