Bel canto, p.11
Several of the foot soldiers came around with the bags that Messner had brought in on the accompanist’s gurney and distributed sandwiches and cans of soda, wrapped slices of dark cake and bottled water. If nothing else, the food seemed to be in great abundance and when they took one sandwich each the boy shook the bag at them, urging them wordlessly to reach in for more. Or maybe there was simply more for them because they were sitting with Roxane Coss.
“It looks like I’ll stay for supper,” she said, unwrapping the white paper like a present. Inside the heavy slabs of bread there was a piece of meat, orangish-red with sauce or watery peppers. Its juice dripped into the paper which she spread across her lap. The two men waited for her to begin, but they didn’t have to wait for long. She ate like she was starving. “There are people who would like to have a picture of this,” she said, lifting up the sandwich. “I’m very particular about my food.”
“We make exceptions in extraordinary times,” Mr. Hosokawa said, and Gen translated. He was pleased to see her eating, pleased that her grief had not overwhelmed her in any way that could endanger her health.
For Gen, the oily piece of meat (which animal?) inside stained bread made him stop and consider exactly how hungry he was. He was hungry. He turned his head away from Roxane Coss and Mr. Hosokawa, afraid of the orange grease on his lips. But before he had the chance to eat even half of his sandwich, one of the boys wearing a green baseball cap came for him. They were just starting to become distinguishable, these boys. This one had a cap with a photo button of Che Guevara on it, another wore a knife on his chest, one more had a cheap scapula of the Sacred Heart tied high up on his throat with a string. Some of the boys were very big or very small, a few had a handful of whiskers sprouting on their chins, others had acne. The boy that Gen had noticed with Roxane had a face like a fine-boned Madonna. The boy that came for him now told Gen in a Spanish so rudimentary that it was a struggle to understand, that the Generals would see him now.
“Forgive me,” he said in English and Japanese, wrapping up what was left of his meal and putting it discreetly beneath a chair in hopes it would still be there when he returned. He had especially wanted the cake.
General Hector used a pencil to take notes on a yellow tablet. He was extremely meticulous about his writing.
“Name?” General Alfredo asked a man sitting on a red ottoman near the fireplace.
“Oscar Mendoza.” The man took his handkerchief out of his pocket and wiped his mouth. He was finishing off a piece of cake.
Mr. Mendoza took out his wallet, found a driver’s license, a credit card, pictures of his five daughters. General Hector copied down the information. He wrote down his address. General Benjamin picked up the pictures and studied them. “Occupation?” he said.
“Contractor.” Mr. Mendoza did not like them having his address. He lived only five miles from here. He had planned on bidding to build the factory that he had been told Mr. Hosokawa had come to his country to develop. Instead he had slept on a floor, said good-bye to his wife and his grand string of girls for who knew how long, and had to consider the possibility that he might be shot.
Mr. Mendoza shrugged. “Good enough I would think. I’m here.”
“But do you know?” General Benjamin said, trying to remember the tone that the doctor had taken with him when he had gone to the city years before to see about his shingles. “Do you have any conditions?”
Mr. Mendoza looked as if he were being asked about the internal workings of his wristwatch. “I wouldn’t know.”
Gen came along behind them and waited while they asked a few more questions, all of them remarkable only in what unhelpful answers they engendered. They were trying to get rid of more hostages. They were trying to discern who else might be dying. The death of the accompanist had made them nervous. The crowd outside, which had quieted for a while, had begun to bellow again once they saw the body tucked inside its white tablecloth. “Mur-der! Mur-der!” they chanted. From the street there came a constant barrage of bullhorned messages and demands. The phone rang and rang and rang with would-be negotiators. Soon, all of the terrorists were going to have to be allowed to sleep. The Generals were bickering in some shorthand nonsense that Gen couldn’t follow. General Hector stopped the argument by taking out his pistol and shooting the clock on the mantel. There were too many people to watch, even with the crowd cut in half. They went from man to man, asking, printing down the answers and names. Gen served in the cases where Spanish was not understood. It was the foreigners they placed their hopes on anyway. Foreign governments willing to pay foreign ransoms. The Generals were having to rethink their failed mission. If they couldn’t get the President, then there should still be something in it for their troubles. They planned to talk to every hostage in the room, to assess and rank them to see who would be most beneficial in getting comrades released from high-altitude prisons, for getting money for the cause. But the polling process lacked science. The guests played down their own importance when questioned.
“No, I don’t run the company, not exactly.”
“I am only one member on a board of many.”
“This diplomatic post is not as it seems. It was arranged by my brother-in-law.”
No one was quite willing to lie, but they tugged down the edges of the truth. The note-taking made them nervous.
“All of this information will be checked by our people on the outside,” Alfredo said again and again, and Gen translated it into French and German, Greek and Portuguese, each time careful to say their people outside. Something a translator should never do.
In the middle of an interview with a Dane who was thought to be a potential backer for the nonexistent Nansei project, General Benjamin, the upper right portion of his faces in flames, turned to Gen. “How did you get to be so smart?” he said in an accusatory tone, as if there was a secret cache of intelligence hidden somewhere in the house that Gen was hoarding all for himself.
Gen felt tired, not smart. He felt hungry. Sleep was singing him lullabies. He longed for what was left of his sandwich. “Sir?” he said. He could see Mr. Hosokawa and Roxane Coss sitting quietly together, unable to speak because their translator was busy with the terrorists’ footwork.
“Where did you learn so many languages?”
Gen had no interest in telling his story. Was his sandwich still beneath the chair? The cake? He was wondering whether or not they would qualify for release and feeling a sad resignation in the knowledge they would not. “University,” he said simply, and turned his eyes back to the man they were questioning.
When they made their lists of those to keep and those to send away, Gen should have been on the top of the list to go. He was worth no money, he had no leverage. He was as much an employee, a workingman, as the ones who had fine-sliced the onions for dinner. But when the lists were drawn up his name did not appear anywhere. He was somehow beneath their thought altogether. Not that he would have gone without Mr. Hosokawa. He would have chosen to stay like that young priest, but everyone likes to be asked. Once the interviews were completed and the final decisions were made it was late in the evening. All around the room lamps were clicked on. Gen was given the task of making copies of the lists. He had somehow become the secretary to the whole event.
In the end, counting the translator (he added his own name), it was decided that thirty-nine hostages would be kept. The final number was forty, because Father Arguedas again refused to leave. With fifteen soldiers and three generals, it gave them very nearly the two-hostages-for-every-one-captor ratio that they had decided upon as being reasonable. Considering that the original plan was for eighteen terrorists to take one president, the recalculation felt to be as much as they could reasonably handle. What they wanted, what would have been best, would be to tease out the release of the extras, to keep them all for another week and then let them dribble out, a few here and there in exchange for demands that we
The Vice President could not help himself. He was picking up glasses and putting them on a large silver tray he knew the maid kept in the sideboard in the dining room. When he went to the kitchen he was followed but not stopped and he took a minute to rest his cheek against the freezer door. He came back with a dark green plastic garbage bag and began to pick up the wrappers from the sandwiches. There were no crusts of bread left in the papers, only small pools of orange oil. They had all been hungry. He picked up the soda cans from the tables and rugs, even though the tables and rugs did not technically belong to him. He had been happy in this house. It had always been such a bright place when he came home, his children laughing, running down the hallways with their friends, the pretty Indian maids who waxed the floors down on their hands and knees despite the presence of an electric polisher in the broom closet, the smell of his wife’s perfume as she sat at the dressing table brushing her hair. It was his home. He had to make some attempt to put it back towards the familiar so as to keep things bearable.
“Are you comfortable?” he would say to his guests as he swept some tender crumbs into the palm of his hand. “Are you holding up all right?” He wanted to nose their shoes under the sofa. He wanted to drag the blue silk chair down to the other end of the room where it belonged, but decorum prohibited that.
He made another trip to the kitchen for a wet cloth, hoping to blot up something that looked like grape juice out of the tight knots of the Savonnière rug. At the far end of the room he saw the opera singer sitting with the Japanese man whose birthday was yesterday. Funny, but with the pain in his head now he could think of neither of their names. They were leaning towards one another and from time to time she would laugh and then he would nod happily. Was it her husband who had just died? The Japanese man would hum something and she would listen and nod and then, in a very quiet voice, she would sing it back to him. What a sweet sound. Over the constant ruckus of the messages being boomed in through the window it was hard to make out what it was she was singing. He could only hear the notes, the clear resonance of her voice, like when he was a boy and would run down the hill past the convent, how he could hear just a moment of the nuns’ singing, and how it was better that way, to fly past it rather than to stop and wait and listen. Running, the music flew into him, became the wind that pushed back his hair and the slap of his own feet on the pavement. Hearing her sing now, softly, as he sponged at the carpet, was like that. It was like hearing one bird answer another when you can only hear the reply and not the plaintive, original call.
When Messner was called again he came quickly. Ruben Iglesias, Vice President, houseboy, was sent to the door to let him in. Poor Messner looked more exhausted, more sunburned as the day went on. How long were these days? Had it been today that the accompanist had died? Had it only been last night that their clothes were fresh and they ate the little chops and listened to the aria of Dvořák? Or was Dvořák something they drank in small glasses after dinner? Had it been so recently that the room was still full of women and the sweet chiffon of their gowns, their jewelry and jeweled hair combs and tiny satin evening bags fashioned to look like peonies? Had it been just yesterday that the house was cleaned, the windowpanes and windowsills, the sheer curtains and heavy drapes washed and rehung, everything in immaculate order because the President and the famous Mr. Hosokawa, who might want to build a factory in their country, were coming to dinner? It was then that it struck the Vice President for the first time: why had Masuda asked him to have the party at his house? If this birthday was so important, why not the presidential palace? Why, if not because he knew all along that he had no intention of coming?
“I think you’re getting an infection,” Messner said, and touched the tips of his pale fingers to Ruben’s burning forehead. He flipped open his cellular phone and made a request for antibiotics in a combination of English and Spanish. “I don’t know what kind,” he said. “Whatever they give to people with smashed-up faces.” He put his hand over the bottom of the phone and said to Ruben, “Any—” He turned to Gen. “What is the word allergies?”
Ruben nodded his tender head. “Peanuts.”
“What is he calling about?” General Benjamin said to Gen.
Gen told him it was for medication for the Vice President.
“No medication. I haven’t given authorization for any medication,” General Alfredo said. What did this Vice President know about infection? The bullet in his stomach, now that was an infection to talk about.
“Certainly not insulin,” Messner said, flipping shut his phone.
Alfredo appeared not to hear him. He was shuffling his papers. “Here are the lists. This is who we are keeping. This is who we are letting go.” He put the yellow tablet pages on the table in front of Messner. “These are our demands. They’ve been updated. There will be no more releases until the demands are completely and fully met. We have been, as you say, very reasonable. Now is the time for the government to be reasonable.”
“I’ll tell them that,” Messner said, picking up the papers and folding them into his pocket.
“We’ve been very conscientious in matters of health,” Alfredo said.
Gen, suddenly tired, held up his hand for a moment to stop the dialogue, trying to remember the word for concienzudo in English. It came to him.
“Anyone needing medical attention will be released.”
“Including him?” Messner tipped his head toward the Vice President, who, lost inside the intricate world of his own fever, paid no attention to what was being said.
“Him we keep,” General Alfredo said shortly. “We didn’t get the President. We have to have something.”
* * *
There was another list, aside from The Demands (money, prisoners released, a plane, transportation to the plane, etc. . . .) This was the list that slowed things down, the list of Small and Immediate Needs. The details were not interesting, certain things had to come in before the excess of hostages could go out: pillows (58), blankets (58), toothbrushes (58), fruit (mangoes, bananas), cigarettes (20 cartons filtered, 20 cartons unfiltered), bags of candy (all types, excluding licorice), bars of chocolate, sticks of butter, newspapers, a heating pad, the list went on and on. Inside, they imagined the people on the outside being dispatched on a great scavenger hunt, trying to come up with what was needed in the middle of the night. People would be banging on glass doors, waking up shopkeepers who would be forced to flick on the bright overhead lights. No one wanted to wait until morning and risk the possibility of someone changing his mind.
When all the remaining guests were herded together into the dining room to hear the hostage list and release list, there was a great sense of excitement. It was a cakewalk, a game of musical chairs in which people were randomly rewarded or punished and they were each one glad to take their chance at the wheel, even those like Mr. Hosokawa and Simon Thibault, who must have known they didn’t have a chance of going home, stood with the rest of the men, their hearts beating wildly. The men all thought that Roxane Coss was sure to be let go now, the idea of keeping one woman would become cumbersome and embarrassing. They would miss her, they were missing her already, but everyone wanted to see her go.
They called through the names and told them to go to either the left or the right, and while they didn’t say which side was to be released, it was clear enough. One could almost tell from the cut of the tuxedo who would be staying. A great wall of darkness came from those who could now reasonably assume their fate and it pulled them away from the lucky hilarity of the others. On one side, men deemed less important were going back to their wives, would sleep in the familiar sheets of their own beds, would be greeted by children and dogs, the wet and reckless affection of their unconditional love. But thirty-nine men and one woman o
father Arguedas explained to Gen, who explained to Mr. Hosokawa, that what they were looking at in the hours they spent staring out the window was called garúa, which was more than mist and less than drizzle and hung woolly and gray over the city in which they were now compelled to stay. Not that they could see the city, they could not see anything. They could have been in London or Paris or New York or Tokyo. They could have been looking at a field of blue-tipped grass or a gridlock of traffic. They couldn’t see. No defining hints of culture or local color. They could have been anyplace where the weather was capable of staying bad for indeterminate amounts of time. From time to time, instructions came blasting over the wall, but even that seemed to be diminishing, as if the voices couldn’t always permeate the fog. The garúa maintained a dull, irregular presence from April through November and Father Arguedas said to take heart since October was very nearly over and then the sun would return. The young priest smiled at them. He was almost handsome until he smiled, but his smile was too big and his teeth turned and crossed at awkward angles, making his appearance suddenly loopy. Despite the circumstances of their internment, Father Arguedas remained sanguine and found cause to smile often. He did not seem to be a hostage, but someone hired to make the hostages feel better. It was a job he carried out with great earnestness. He opened his arms and put one hand on Mr. Hosokawa’s shoulder and the other on Gen’s, then he dipped his head down slightly and closed his eyes. It might have been to pray but if it was he did not force the others to join him. “Take heart,” he said again before pressing on in his rounds.
Bel Canto by Ann Patchett / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes