By Kristen Henderson
Carlos discovered an open box of D-con rat poison under a pile of shoes in the back of his grandmother’s closet. He’d been called home from ‘Nam after his grandmother was found dead, rigid, straight as an arrow, on the linoleum bathroom floor. Vomit was pooled around her. Authorities had detained Carlos’ maternal grandfather.
At 6”4” and 265, Carlos, still in his green fatigues and size 14 Vietnam camp jungle boots, shimmied into the closet. He found three decomposed baby rats, curdled up together in one of his grandmother’s many auburn wigs.
Carlos was in the only house that had ever been his home, in the mostly Hispanic town of Watsonville, CA.
His parents met in Berkeley, but never married.
He was an unfortunate result of anti-antibiotics rendering the birth control pill ineffective. His mother’s parents had gone along with the pill, but an abortion, the killing of a child, was not going to happen.
His abuela Carmen and his abuelo Augusto decided to raise him, as his mother had a serious tick disorder and could barely care for herself.
Resources were limited, Augusto was a Carnation milkman and Carmen stayed home to raise their three children. Having trudged through their own breed, they could do little more than give Carlos a bed and money for school supplies.
Carlos was a hustler. His mix of Mexican and Scottish landed him with deep thick dark brown hair and greenish gray eyes that even the most skeptical would trust. Workers at local markets freely gave him candy and chocolates which he sold on the street corners after school and on weekends.
He had a gift for seeing things in different ways from different angles than others. With some chocolate savings and $52 dollars he earned doing chores for his abuelo, he bought a Kodak “brownie” from the Salvation Army store. He volunteered to take pictures for the Watsonville Daily Press, but in only one month, they offered to pay him $3.50 for each of his photos they published.
He thought he opposed the war — most of his friends did or didn’t know how to think for themselves, His abuela Carmen and abuelo Augusto spoke little of the turmoil across the ocean, until one night when Augusto suggested Carlos enlist, but that he insist on a working as a war photographer for Stars and Stripes, the journalist corp for the military.
There were no funds for college, so Carlos went along with the plan. At 18 and 5 months, he boarded a ballooned military plane, stuffed with 100 other cowering boys all going off to fight something that they knew nothing about.
In just a day, Carlos discovered that the Stars and Stripes were the elite. Their barracks had only four to a room, unlike the regular troops who had to squeeze eight into rooms with wall to wall bunk beds.
Carlos had never been above anyone in anything, other than that he dwarfed most people. When they went out into the field, he was guarded by other troops so he could shoot photos while the rest worried about being shot.
“Police, police,” brought Carlos’ mind back to the rats and his grandmother. Carlos rubbed his spiky buzzcut and ushered the two uniformed men into the living room, its centerpiece a 32-inch black and white Motorola.
They were relived to see a car in the driveway, the policemen, both light-skinned African Americans, told Carlos. After introductions and assurances that Carlos belonged in the home, the police suggested to Carlos that he take a seat.
“I was on a plane for 9 1/2 hours, and have no interest in sitting,” the war photographer protested.
“Well, son, we have news,” the taller of the two officers said. “You know your grandmother was found dead right here in the home, yes.”
Carlos nodded his head. “Duh, why do you think I am here?
“I work for the Stars and Stripes in Vietnam, but was summoned home by my abuelo, my grandfather,” he continued.
The officers then insisted that he take a seat on the paisley couch.
“Within your grandfather’s belongings, we found a store receipt for D-con rat poison,” explained the officer whose name was apparently Reggie Richards. “But we also found a crumpled up note signed by your grandfather.”
Officer Richards handed the note to Carlos:
“Dear Carlos, If you are reading this, you must be home. Our home that is infested with rats. We didn’t know rats would ate (he chuckled at the error) anything. We had no food left. We spent all our money on rat poison. Your abuela was so hungry that she ate the D-con. I hope it was not on purpose. What happens to me now doesn’t matter, I am nada without your grandmother.”
Carlos’ cappuccino face turned cayenne. He yanked off his jungle boots and kicked them across tired turquoise shag.
The.three-way radio of the smaller officer buzzed four times rapidly. The eyes of the two officers locked and all blinking ceased. Officer Richards pushed three buttons on the small black hand-held and put it close to his right ear.
“I’m sorry, son, we’ve just gotten word that your grandfather passed away, apparently a victim of rat poison. The jailers discovered one and a half empty yellow packets hidden in his white briefs.”
Carlos sat down and became one with the paisley.