Bel canto, p.12
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       Bel Canto, p.12

           Ann Patchett
 

  “A good boy,” Mr. Hosokawa said, and Gen nodded and both returned to looking out the window. The priest need not have been concerned with how they felt about the weather. They had no issue with the weather. The garúa made sense, while atmospheric clarity would not. When one looked out the window now it was impossible to see as far as the wall which cut off the garden from the street. It was difficult to make out the shapes of the trees, to tell a tree from a shrub. It made the daylight seem like dusk in much the same way the floodlights that had been set up on the other side of the wall almost made night into day, the kind of false, electric day of an evening baseball game. In short, when one looked out the window during the garúa all one really saw was the garúa itself, not day or night or season or place. The day no longer progressed in its normal, linear fashion but instead every hour circled back to its beginning, every moment was lived over and over again. Time, in the manner in which they had all understood it, was over.

  So to rejoin the story a week after Mr. Hosokawa’s birthday party ended seems as good a place as any. That first week was only details anyway, the tedium of learning a new life. Things were very strict in the beginning. Guns were pointed, commands were given and obeyed, people slept in rows on the living-room carpet and asked for permission in the most personal of matters. And then, very slowly, the details began to fall away. People stood on their own. They brushed their teeth without asking, had a conversation that was not interrupted. Eventually they went to the kitchen and made a sandwich when they were hungry, using the backs of spoons to spread the butter onto bread because all of the knives had been confiscated. The Generals had a peculiar fondness for Joachim Messner (even if they did not demonstrate this fondness to him) and insisted that not only was he in charge of negotiations but that he must be the one to bring all supplies to the house, to lug every box alone through the gate and up the endless walkway. So it was Messner, his vacation long since over, who brought their bread and butter to the door.

  Time could barely pull the second hand forward on the clock and yet look at all that had been accomplished—could it only have been a week? To have gone from guns being pushed into backs to most of the guns being locked up in a broom closet should have taken no less than a year, but already the captors knew the hostages would not mount an insurrection and in return the hostages knew, or almost knew, they would not be shot by the terrorists. Of course there were still guards. Two boys patrolled outside in the garden and three circled the rooms of the house, their weapons pointed out like canes for the blind. The Generals continued to give them orders. One of the boys, from time to time, would take a little poke at one of the guests with the muzzle of his gun and tell him to go to the other side of the room for no reason at all other than the pleasure of seeing them move. At night there were sentries, but by twelve o’clock they had always fallen asleep. They did not wake when their weapons slipped from their fingers and clattered on the floor.

  For the guests of Mr. Hosokawa’s birthday party, most of the day was spent wandering from window to window, maybe playing a hand of cards or looking at a magazine, as if the world had become a giant train station in which everything was delayed until further notice. It was this absence of time that had everyone confused. General Benjamin had found a heavy crayon that belonged to Marco, the young son of the Vice President, and every day he made a thick blue slash on the wall in the dining room, six slashes down and then one across to indicate a week had passed. He imagined his brother in solitary confinement, Luis, forced to make scratches against the brick with his fingernail in order to remember the days. Of course, in a house there were more traditional ways of keeping track of time. There were several calendars, a date book and planner in the kitchen by the phone, and many of the men wore watches which gave the date as well as the time. And if any of those methods were to fail they could easily turn on the radio or television and hear what day it was while listening to news of themselves. But still General Benjamin thought that the old-fashioned way was the best. He sharpened his crayon with a gutting knife and added another slash to his collection on the wall. It galled Ruben Iglesias no end. He would have punished his children sharply were they to do such a barbaric thing.

  Without exception, these were men who were largely unfamiliar with the concept of free time. The ones who were very rich stayed at their offices late into the evening. They sat in the backseats of cars and dictated letters while their drivers shepherded them home. The ones who were young and very poor worked just as hard, albeit at a different kind of work. There was wood to be cut or sweet potatoes to be dug out of the ground. There were drills to be learned with the guns, how to run, how to hide. Now a great, unfamiliar idleness had fallen on them and they sat and they stared at one another, their fingers drumming incessantly on the arms of chairs.

  But in this vast ocean of time Mr. Hosokawa could not seem to startle up any concern for Nansei. While he stared at the weather he never wondered if his abduction had affected stock prices. He did not care who was making his decisions, sitting at his desk. The company that had been his life, his son, had fallen away from him as thoughtlessly as a coin is dropped. He took a small spiral notebook from the pocket of his tuxedo jacket and, after inquiring as to the correct spelling from Gen, added the word garúa to his list. Incentive was key. No matter how many times Mr. Hosokawa had listened to his Italian tapes in Japan he could remember nothing that was on them. No sooner had he heard the beautiful words, dimora, patrono, than they vanished from memory. But after only one week of captivity look at all the Spanish he had learned! Ahora was now; sentarse, sit; ponerse de pie, stand up; sueño, sleep, and requetebueno was very good, but it was always spoken with a certain coarseness and condescension that told the listener not that he had done well but that he was too stupid to merit high expectations. And it wasn’t just the language that had to be overcome, there were all the names to learn as well, those of the hostages, those of the captors when you could get one of them to tell you his name. The people were from so many different countries that there were no easy tricks of association, no familiar toehold from which to pull oneself up. The room was full of men he did not know and should know, though they all smiled and nodded to one another. He would have to work harder to introduce himself. At Nansei he had made a point of learning the names of as many of his employees as was possible. He remembered the names of the businessmen he entertained and the names of their wives whom he inquired after and never met.

  Mr. Hosokawa had not led a static life. As he built his company, he learned. But this was a different sort of learning he did now. This was the learning of childhood. May I sit? May I stand? Thank you. Please. What was the word for apple, for bread? And he remembered what they told him because, unlike the Italian tapes, in this case remembering was all. He could see now the full extent to which he had relied on Gen in the past, how much he relied on him now, though now he often had to wait with his questions while Gen translated something for the Generals. Two days ago Vice President Iglesias had very kindly given Mr. Hosokawa this notebook and a pen from a drawer in the kitchen. “Here,” he said. “Consider it a late birthday present.” In that notebook Mr. Hosokawa printed the alphabet and had Gen write out the numbers from one to ten and every day he planned to add more words in Spanish. He wrote them over and over, keeping his writing very small because even though paper was plentiful now, it occurred to him that a time could come when he would have to be careful with such things. When had he last written something down? His thoughts were entered, recorded, transmitted. It was in this simple repetition, the rediscovery of his own penmanship, that Mr. Hosokawa found solace. He began to think about Italian again, and thought he might ask Gen to include just a word or two every day from that language as well. There were two Italians in their group and when he heard them speak he could feel himself straining to understand as if he were listening to a bad phone connection. Italian was so close to his heart. And English. He would enjoy being able to speak to Miss Coss.

&n
bsp; He sat down and tapped the tip of his pencil against his pad. Too ambitious. If he took on too many words he would wind up with nothing. Ten words of Spanish a day, ten nouns actually learned and then one verb, fully conjugated, was very likely as much as he could manage if he was to really remember each word and carry them over from one day to the next.

  Garúa. Often when Mr. Hosokawa sat at the window he wondered about the people on the other side of the wall, the police and the military who were at this point more likely to use the phone than the bullhorn. Were they constantly damp? Did they sit inside their cars drinking coffee? The Generals sat in the cars, he would guess, while the boys with their guns, the foot soldiers, would stand at attention, the chilled rain running freely down the backs of their necks.

  Those soldiers, they would not be unlike the children who patrolled the living room of the vice-presidential estate, though perhaps there was some minimum age requirement in the military. How young were these children exactly? The ones who appeared to be the oldest would then step beneath the bright light of a lamp and it was clear they weren’t older, only bigger. They loped around the room bumping into things, unaccustomed to the size they had so recently acquired. At least those boys had Adam’s apples, a sprinkling of new hairs mixed in with the angry pimples. The ones who were actually the youngest were terrifying in their youth. Their hair had all the weight and gloss of children’s hair. They had the smooth skin and small shoulders of children. They stretched their little hands around the butts of their rifles and tried to keep their faces blank. The hostages stared at the terrorists, and the longer they looked, the younger the terrorists became. Could these be the same men who burst into their party, the same marauding animals? They fell asleep on the floor in limp piles now, their mouths open, their arms twisted. They slept like teenagers. They slept with a kind of single-minded concentration that every adult in the room had forgotten decades before. Some of them liked being soldiers. They continued to carry their guns. They menaced the adults with the occasional shove and hateful glower. Then it seemed that armed children were a much more dangerous breed than armed adults. They were moody, irrational, anxious for confrontation. The others spent their time staring at the details of the house. They bounced on the beds and tried on the clothes in the dressers. They flushed the toilets again and again for the pleasure of watching the water swirl away. At first there had been a rule that they were not to address their prisoners but even that was growing slack for some of them. Sometimes now they spoke to the hostages, especially when the Generals were busy conferring. “Where are you from?” was the favorite question, though the answers rarely registered. Finally, Ruben Iglesias went to his study and brought back a large atlas so they could show them on maps, and when that didn’t seem to make things any clearer he sent a guard to his son’s room to bring down the globe on a stand, a pretty blue-and-green planet that spun easily on its stationary axis.

  “Paris,” Simon Thibault said, pointing to his city. “France.”

  Lothar Falken showed them Germany and Rasmus Nilson put his finger on Denmark. Akira Yamamoto, who was not interested in playing, turned away, and so Gen showed them Japan. Roxane Coss covered the whole of the United States beneath her palm and then tapped one nail on the dot that represented Chicago. The boys took the globe to the next group of people, who, even if they didn’t understand the question, knew the game. “This is Russia,” they said. “This is Italy.” “This is Argentina.” “This is Greece.”

  “Where are you from?” the boy called Ishmael asked the Vice President. He thought of the Vice President as his own hostage because he had been the one to bring the ice from the kitchen when the Vice President was first injured. He still brought Ruben ice, sometimes three and four times a day, without ever being asked. It gave the Vice President relief as his cheek had become infected and persisted in its swelling.

  “Here,” the Vice President said, pointing to the floor.

  “Show me.” Ishmael held up the globe.

  “Here.” Ruben tapped his foot on the carpet. “This is my house. I live in this city. I am from the same country you are from.”

  Ishmael looked up at his friend. It had been easier to get the Russians to play. “Show me.”

  So Ruben sat down on the floor with the boy and the globe and identified the host country, which in this case was flat and pink. “We live here.” Ishmael was the very smallest of all of them, so much a boy with a boy’s white teeth. Ruben wanted to pull the child into his lap, to keep him.

  “You live there.”

  “No, not just me,” Ruben said. Where were his own children? Where were they sleeping now? “Both of us.”

  Ishmael sighed and pushed himself up from the floor, disappointed in his friend’s thickheadedness. “You don’t know how to play,” he said.

  “I don’t know how to play,” Ruben said, looking at the deplorable condition of the boy’s boots. At any minute the right sole would fall off completely. “Now listen to me. Go upstairs to the biggest bedroom you can find and open all the doors until you see a closet full of lady’s dresses. In that closet there are a hundred pairs of shoes and if you look you’ll find some tennis shoes that might fit you. There could even be some boots.”

  “I can’t wear lady’s shoes.”

  Ruben shook his head. “The tennis shoes and boots are not for ladies. We only keep them there. I know, it makes no sense, but trust me.”

  “It is ridiculous that we sit here like this,” Franz von Schuller said. Gen translated into French for Simon Thibault and Jacques Maitessier and then into Japanese for Mr. Hosokawa. There were two other Germans there as well. The group of them stood by the empty fireplace, drinking grapefruit juice. An enormous treat, the grapefruit juice. It was better than a really good Scotch. The sharpness settled over their tongues, making them feel alive. Today was the first time it had been brought in. “These people are amateurs. The ones in here as well as the ones outside.”

  “And you suggest?” Simon Thibault said. Thibault wore his wife’s huge blue scarf tied around his neck and hanging down his back, and the presence of this scarf made people less likely to listen to his opinion on serious matters.

  Pietro Genovese walked by and asked Gen to translate the conversation to him as well. He knew enough French but no German.

  “It isn’t as if the guns are hidden from us,” von Schuller said, lowering his voice even though no one seemed able to pick up the German. They waited for Gen.

  “And so we shoot our way out. Just like television,” Pietro Genovese said. “Is that grapefruit juice?” He looked bored by the conversation even though he had just walked into it. He built airports. As a country’s industry enlarges, so must its airports.

  Gen held up his hand. “One moment, please.” He was still translating the German into Japanese.

  “We would need a dozen translators and arbitration from the UN before we could decide to overthrow the one teenager with a knife,” Jacques Maitessier said, as much to himself as anyone, and he knew what he was talking about, having once been the French ambassador to the United Nations.

  “I’m not saying that everyone would have to agree,” von Schuller said.

  “You’ll give it a try on your own?” Thibault said.

  “Gentlemen, your patience, please.” Gen was trying to translate it all into Japanese. That was his first responsibility. He didn’t work for the general convenience of the people, although everyone managed to forget that. He worked for Mr. Hosokawa.

  Conversations in more than two languages felt awkward and unreliable, like speaking with a mouthful of cotton and Novocain. No one could hold on to their thoughts long enough and wait their turns. These were not men who were accustomed to waiting or speaking precisely. They preferred to expound, to rant when necessary. Pietro Genovese went off to see if there was more juice in the kitchen. Simon Thibault smoothed down his scarf with the flat of his palm and asked Jacques Maitessier if he would be interested in a hand of cards. “My wife w
ould kill me if I was involved in an overthrow,” Thibault said in French.

  The three Germans spoke rapidly among themselves and Gen made no attempt to listen.

  “I never get tired of the weather,” Mr. Hosokawa said to Gen as they walked back to the window. They stood side by side for a while, clearing all those other languages from their heads.

  “Do you ever think of rising up?” Gen asked. He could see their reflections. They were standing very close to the glass. Two Japanese men, both wearing glasses, one was taller and twenty-five years younger, but in this room where people had so little in common Gen could see for the first time how they looked very much the same.

  Mr. Hosokawa kept his eyes on their reflection, or maybe he was watching the garúa. “Something will rise up eventually,” he said. “And then there will be nothing we can do to stop it.” His voice turned heavy at the thought.

  The soldiers spent most of their days exploring the house, eating the pistachio nuts they found in the pantry, sniffing the lavender hand lotion in the bathroom. The house offered up no end of curiosities: closets the size of some houses they had seen, bedrooms where no one slept, cupboards that held nothing but rolls of colored paper and ribbon. A favorite room was the Vice President’s study, which was at the end of a long hallway. Behind the heavy draperies, the windows stopped short at two upholstered bench seats, the kind of place where a person could tuck up his legs and look out into the garden for hours. The study had two leather sofas and two leather chairs and all of the books were covered in leather. Even the desk set, the cup that held the pencils and the edges of the blotter were leather. The room had the comforting and familiar smell of cows standing in the hot sun.

  There was a television in this room. A few of them had seen a television before, a wooden box with a curved piece of glass that threw back your reflection in peculiar ways. They were always, always broken. That was the nature of televisions. There was talk, big stories about what a television once had done, but no one believed it because no one had seen it. The boy called Cesar put his face close to the screen, pulled back his lips by hooking a finger into either side of his mouth, and enjoyed the picture. The others were watching. He rolled back his eyes and shook his tongue. Then he took his fingers out of his mouth, crossed his hands over his chest, and began to mimic a song he remembered Roxane Coss singing that first night they were waiting in the air-conditioning vents. He wasn’t quite getting the words, but he was close to their sounds and right on their pitch. He wasn’t mocking, exactly, he was singing and then he was singing very well. When he couldn’t remember what came next, he stopped abruptly and bowed at the waist. He turned and went back to making faces in the television.

 
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