The Strongest Man In The World

Thirty-five years before he died, a man with straight and thick but graying hair hurried down the worn carpeting of a steep wooden staircase. Raul was just five years old, and this was the earliest visual memory he had of his grandfather. The man’s stockinged feet shuffled alternately off each step like playing cards flying off a deck. His khaki pants were creased from the hours he had just spent dozing in the deep embrace of threadbare cushions on his sofa. A damp v-necked t-shirt clung to the contours of his well-defined chest. A joyous smile was stretched across his face. revealing large, slightly yellow, but perfectly sculpted teeth all the way up to the gums. Halfway down the stairs his massive frame stooped a little and this momentarily made him look bowlegged and older than his 40 years. Then his muscular arms arched out as if to reach around a grossly oversized barrel as Raul and his 4 year-old brother stood waiting for him in the lobby of the apartment building.

Their parents stood there next to them beaming as he suddenly gathered each toddler up against his beefy chest and straightened to his full six-foot stature. The two boys inhaled sharply and then simultaneously exhaled their name for him — “Tata!” No one on earth could possibly be stronger than this man. Once, when he was a young man, he had walked down a mountainside and through the coarse jungles of Guatemala with a mortally wounded deer draped around his neck. He had tracked the buck for two days and killed it with a Bowie knife that he carried clenched in his teeth. The weight of its carcass bent him nearly in half so that he didn’t notice when a bobcat leapt onto his load almost the instant he shouldered it. It was only when the beast had silently ravaged the deer for hours and finally jumped off that the powerful hunter realized he had been carrying both animals nearly all the way back to his camp. He related this feat to the boys and then to their younger siblings and cousins many times over the course of their childhood. At the end of the story he would flex a mighty bicep for them to feel its steel-like denseness. Invariably, while jostling to squeeze the tightly packed muscle, one of the boys, usually the youngest one, Jose, would get too close to him and betray the old nimrod’s Achilles heel by stepping on one of his bunions. An unseemly high-pitched scream would be followed by an unrepeatable Spanish curse, as, more than once, small children were sent airborne when the mighty giant’s arm involuntarily straightened in self-defense.

But this would not happen for many years and a few grandchildren later. Tonight his whole life’s treasure consisted of only Raul and his brother one hour off of a twin prop Pan-American DC-6. And although it was late and still hot, even for July, and the middle-aged man had worked a double shift bussing the thick porcelain platters, solid silver flatware, and Baccarat crystal used by the movie stars dining at La Rue on the Sunset Strip, at this moment his exhilaration rendered him wide awake and feeling stronger than six well-rested men. Tomorrow morning at breakfast he would tell his son about seeing Clark Gable at the restaurant only hours before they had all arrived. The great actor came in with a platinum blonde whose beauty and chest were not to be believed, let alone looked at. Crowded into a tiny studio apartment, Raul’s mother would blush at overhearing such a description of feminine allure. She would look first at her children and then at her impassive husband and then back at the old and handsome, green-eyed, slick-haired man as he continued with his story. In wild anticipation of seeing his two grandsons that night he had smiled his big toothy smile and fondled the blonde Amazon with his eyes as he set down two tall crystal glasses beaded with ice-cold Los Angeles tap water (as pure as if it had been boiled and then chilled although it came from right out of a faucet), and then, looking past the mascara and deep into the blueness of two naked, shocked eyes — he had winked at her! Surprised, the goddess had flinched and parted lips as red and as shiny as pomegranite seeds. Not knowing what to say, or maybe sensing that her words would not be understood by this Latin man, she chose to suppress a voice that Tata had been told had the husky quality of taffeta rubbed up against silk. Instead, she swallowed a mouthful of air, and, shocked by the bus boy’s performance, she shifted her gaze back to the movie god seated across the expanse of crisp white linen before her, and nodded at all the godly things he must have been saying to her. She was correct in her assumption: the middle-aged busboy understood not a single North American word. As he walked away towards the swinging black doors of the stiflingly hot kitchen, he moved briskly and made certain that his posture was erect and exuded nothing but his virility.

The night he stood at the foot of the staircase with a grandson in each arm, it was hard to imagine that it had been two years since he left them and his grown son. Was it two years? Carlos, the smaller of the two, had just been born when Tata had left Guatemala City, “la capital” as everyone there referred to it, and the boy had just turned two a couple of months ago. Raul, the older one, was now 3½. It saddened Tata to think of them growing this old without him there to witness their tears and their laughter, and he pressed his large, thick mouth hard against their cheeks and simultaneously kissed both of them as he squeezed their legs — bare below their matching handmade shorts — tightly into his curled arms.

Tata looked over their light-brown curls at their father, his own son, whose smile, while not as toothy or yellow or confident as his, otherwise matched his own smile perfectly. He looked at this younger version of himself, at his hair, the same as his, slick and thick and straight and combed-back, still jet black without a trace of gray, and although Tata smiled at his son, he couldn’t keep from thinking of the other ways in which this younger version of himself was so different from him, or of the last word he had spit into his face two years ago. “Coward.” In Spanish it sounded effeminate: “Covarde.”

Forty-five years later this son would tearfully tell his own grown sons, Raul, Carlos, and Jose, of dutiful visits to his father’s grave and that what terrified him most in the world was to be in a grave dutifully visited by his sons like that — with hollow places in their hearts where feelings of warmth and love for him should reside. But those events were so distant from this lobby here tonight, so many disappointments, so many arguments and humiliations away. Right now his father, the man his sons called Tata, smiled at him, and although it filled his heart with something warm that drew him towards the ashen-haired man, the young man’s thoughts this moment were of how Tata had not left Guatemala of his own volition. It had been the vengeful doing of a whore’s son and that bastard’s father that had caused him to flee the home and the streets and the city he so loved. The young man knew that it repulsed his father to think of himself as someone who had run away. He knew it made him feel cowardly to be unable to return to his country, to his women, to his sons and grandsons all the long and drunken nights alone here in North America, where he yearned for all of them like a bull on fire. The young man knew this because his father had made it known to him in elegantly scripted letters carried by distant relatives — intermediaries whose illicit business dealings kept them in constant flux between the northern and southern continents.

They could not use the Guatemalan postal service because the man whose eyeball Tata pulverized was well connected. With a single blow Tata sent the crushed and bloodied orb flying from its socket and into the stream of brown urine that flowed from the same man’s penis and down a littered cement gutter. How could Tata not have punished this accursed savage? But far, far worse, how could the son he thought he raised to be a man — someone to be feared and respected — just stand there like a eunuch while a fucking drunken bastard yanked a flaccid roll of black-haired flesh and balls out over his beltless waistband to relieve himself right in front of his wife and children sitting on the front steps of their home? The drunken progeny of a brutal army colonel and a whore was permanently disfigured and Tata was forever banned from his beloved Sexta Avenidad, from “la Capital,” and from the most beautiful country ever to grace planet earth.

But on this hot and smoggy night, standing in the dusty foyer of a post-World War II East Hollywood apartment building surrounded by a few cheap simulated-leather handbags bursting with the possessions of a former life so carefully chosen to be the articles with which to begin a whole new life, the son could feel nothing in his heart but love. A love in return for the feeling of having two sons loved so intensely and unconditionally by a grandfather, their Tata, his father. The skinny young man smiled at the man who held the two boys in his arms and then tentatively, and awkwardly, he hugged all three of them.

Tata’s own father died of malaria when he was three. As for the “piece of shit” that his mother married to replace his true father, Tata never felt anything more than contempt. Even seventy years later, his eyes would narrow into slits of anger towards anybody who referred to this son of a great whore as his father, as his stepfather, or even referred to him at all. One time, when Tata was nearly six years old, this mule punished him by tying him to a tree all night in his mother’s garden. One afternoon, while the graceless savage napped on his father’s hammock in his mother’s yard, the eight year old Tata crept up on him. He coaxed a long-barrelled pistol from out of the slumbering beast’s holster. While the imbecile snored, the young boy carefully aimed the gun right at his temple. With the first finger from each of his hands curled around the trigger, he squeezed the black piece of iron with all of his might. He squeezed it so tightly that his hands shook. He squeezed it until his arms and shoulders ached. He squeezed it until he finally had to give up, but only because his eight year-old grip lacked the physical strength it needed for him to spill the son-of-a-bitch’s brains out onto the soil and petals of his mother’s tropical garden. The man his mother had married continued to suck air through his nose and out a shapeless hole of a mouth for another twenty years, and the boy who would someday tell his grandchildren that he was the strongest man in the world silently slipped the gun back into its holster. Walking away, he cried for being such a weakling.

As Tata told this story to his oldest grandson sixty-two years later, the slightest trace of a tear shone in his eyes. He was no longer the strongest man on earth. The same cancer that caused his testicles to swell the size and color of a large papaya had shrunk his body and hollowed his face so that the most prominent feature on it would be a smile that revealed large, yellowed, and perfectly sculpted teeth all the way up to their gums. The smile flickered only for an instant and only because Raul had come from across the country to visit him.

The oldest of eleven grandchildren and a father now himself, Raul had only recently grown accustomed to the notion that great strength and heroic bravura, thick silver hair, tightly packed muscles, and a handsome smile would not endure for even three quarters of a century. It never fully dawned on him that what remained of his grandfather’s features could expire altogether. He was returning from an errand for his parents at the supermarket. He walked on the painted cement pathway from the car to the house, carrying a few plastic grocery bags in each hand. For the rest of his life, Raul’s father would feel so stupid the way he gave his son this news.

“Mijo, Tata se acaba de morir.” Twenty-five years later, as if he let it happen. The thought of his son’s face collapsing as he whispered these words could still bring tears to his eyes. “Son, Tata has just died.” The muscles melted on his son’s face and he reached out quickly to stop him from falling to the pavement. He caught him the instant his legs buckled and became momentarily useless. But the son might not have needed his father’s help. Halfway down the young man dropped the grocery bags, and his body shot straight up again. With a clenched fist raised over his head, the strained tendons in his neck only inches from his father’s face, Tata’s oldest grandson looked at a smoggy, starless sky, and from the bottom of his lungs he cursed the god he had been taught to revere all of his life. The arrogant silence of the firmament, the absence even of an echo, made the two men feel insignificant, and, standing there in each other’s arms, what it was like to be orphans.

Thirty-five years before dying, standing at the foot of a steep, carpeted staircase, Tata pivoted within the confines of the small lobby, and with a grandson laughing loudly in each of his arms he bounded up stairs two at a time and then down a dimly lit hallway to a small painted door. The three of them waited there in silence, looking into each others eyes, the two young boys a little frightened without their parents near, the gray haired man short of breath, smiling, a little amazed, and waiting for his son and his son’s wife to catch up to them after dragging all of their Guatemalan belongings up the stairs behind them one step at a time. Tata instructed his son to take the keys from his pocket in order to open the door and they all stepped into a small room that filled nearly to capacity when a neatly made bed fell down off the wall. Too late and too tired to eat or to talk anymore, everyone would have to sleep wherever they could find a place, but the bed was for the boys.

The youngest was asleep within seconds after mumbling, “buenas noches, Tata.” Tata kissed him softly on the cheek and then came around to the other side of the bed to where the older one lay on his back, too excited to be tired yet. His arms and hands rested over the edge of a slightly tattered, itchy, woolen blanket. Looking up at the giant man settling down onto his knees right next to him, Raul could see love welling up in his grandfather’s eyes behind small tears. His little hand was suddenly lost inside the old man’s soft white palms, and he looked straight up into the greenest eyes he’d ever seen, and he heard him whisper to him and him alone in the whole entire world, “you are what I have wanted my entire life.”

Roberto Quezada-Dardon was born in Guatemala and raised in Los Angeles where he attended film school at UCLA. Currently he is a photographer who wishes he had more discipline to write and a digital media producer who would love more time to read, although there could never be enough time for that. The jury is still out on the discipline. In former lives he was a short order cook, a filmmaker (mostly horror films), and a Web site designer. He would gladly start all over again, if only there was enough time.


Projected Letters is a literary magazine dedicated to publishing the best new and established writing from around the world.