Bel canto, p.18
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       Bel Canto, p.18

           Ann Patchett

  “We will make her sing more,” General Hector said in the downstairs guest suite that they had taken over as their private offices. He stretched across the canopied bed, his boots nesting on top of the embroidered ivory comforter. Benjamin and Alfredo sat in matching chairs covered in enormous pink peonies. “There is no reason she couldn’t sing a few more hours a day. And we will rearrange her times to keep them off their guard.”

  “We will tell her what to sing as well,” Alfredo said. “She should sing in Spanish. All this Italian, it is not what we stand for. Besides, for all we know she could be singing out messages.”

  But General Benjamin, despite his occasional participation in the delusions at hand, knew that whatever they got from Roxane Coss was something to be grateful for. “I don’t think we should ask.”

  “We won’t be asking,” Hector said, reaching back to plump the pillows beneath his head. “We will be telling.” His voice was even and cold.

  General Benjamin waited a moment. She was singing now and he let the sound of her voice wash over him while he sought a way to explain. Isn’t it obvious? he wanted to say to his friends. Can’t you hear that? “Music, I believe, is different. That’s what I understand. We have set this up exactly right, but if we were to push . . .” Benjamin shrugged. He raised a hand to touch his face and then thought better of it. “We could wind up with nothing.”

  “If we put a gun to her head she would sing all day.”

  “Try it first with a bird,” General Benjamin said gently to Alfredo. “Like our soprano, they have no capacity to understand authority. The bird doesn’t know enough to be afraid and the person holding the gun will only end up looking like a lunatic.”

  When Roxanne was finished singing, Mr. Hosokawa went to get her glass of water himself, cool with no ice, the way she liked it. Ruben Iglesias had recently mopped the kitchen floor and rubbed it down with a hard wax by hand so that the whole room shimmered like light on the flat surface of a lake. Could Mr. Hosokawa say, picking up the pot of water he had boiled and cooled this morning for this very purpose, that this was the happiest time in his life? Surely that could not be the case. He was being held against his will in a country he did not know and every day he found himself looking down the barrel of some child’s gun. He was living on a diet of tough meat sandwiches and soda pop, sleeping in a room with more than fifty men, and although there were irregular privileges at the washing machine, he was thinking of asking the Vice President if he could kindly extend to him a second pair of underwear from his own bureau. Then why this sudden sense of lightness, this great affection for everyone? He looked out the large window over the sink, stared into the mist of bad weather. There had not been poverty in his childhood but there was a great deal of struggle: his mother’s death when he was ten; his father holding on, broken, until he joined her the year Katsumi Hosokawa was nineteen; his two sisters disappearing into the distant lives of their marriages. No, that family had not been a greater happiness. The early years he had spent building Nansei were like a hurricane in his memory, a huge, overbearing wind into which every loose thing was sucked. He slept with his head on his desk most nights, he missed holidays, birthdays, entire seasons of the year. From his endless work had come a great industry, great personal gain, but happiness? It was a word he would have puzzled over, unable to understand its importance even while its meaning was evident.

  And so that left his own family, his wife and two daughters. They were the question. If he had not drawn happiness from them then the fault was completely his own. His wife had been the daughter of his uncle’s friend. The country was past the age of arranged marriages and yet essentially a wife had been found for him because there was no time for him to find his own. They sat in her parents’ living room during their courtship, eating candy, speaking little. He was so tired then, always working, and even after they married sometimes he would forget he had a wife at all. He would come home at four in the morning and be startled to see her there in the bed, her long dark hair spilling over his pillows. So this is my wife, he would think to himself, and fall asleep beside her. Not that things had stayed that way. They had come to depend on one another. They were a family. She was an excellent wife, an excellent mother, and surely he had loved her in his own fashion, but happiness? That was not something he thought of when he remembered his wife. Even as he could picture her waiting for him to come home from work, a drink poured, the mail opened and sorted, it was not happiness for either of them that he saw but a kind of efficiency that made their lives run smoothly. She was an honorable woman, a dutiful wife. He had seen her reading mystery novels but she never spoke of them. She wrote beautiful cards. She was a comfort to their children. He wondered suddenly if he knew her at all. He wondered if he had ever made her happy. His happiness was something kept apart, after he had come in from dinner meetings and there was time to spend with his stereo. Happiness, if he was right to use that word, was something that until now he had only experienced in music. He was still experiencing it in music. The difference was that now the music was a person. She sat beside him on the sofa reading. She asked him to sit beside her at the piano. On occasion she took his hand, a gesture so startling and wonderful that he could barely inhale. She asked him, do you like this piece? She asked him, what would you like me to sing? These were things he never could have imagined: the warmth of a person and the music together. Yes, her voice, more than anything her voice, but there were also her fine hands to consider, the bright rope of her hair lying across her shoulder, the pale, soft skin of her neck. There was her enormous power. Had he ever known a businessman who commanded such respect? More than all of it was the mystery of why she had chosen him to sit next to. Could it be possible that such happiness had existed in the world all along and he had never once heard mention of it?

  Mr. Hosokawa remembered himself. He filled his glass. When he came back, Roxane was sitting at the piano with Gen. “I’ve kept you waiting too long,” he said.

  She took the glass and listened to the translation. “That’s because the water is perfect,” she said. “Perfect takes a longer time.”

  Gen exchanged their sentences like a bank teller pushing stacks of currency back and forth over a smooth marble countertop. He only half listened to what they were saying. He was still trying to puzzle out his night. It was not a dream. He didn’t have those kinds of dreams. The girl he had watched, the girl named Carmen, had asked him a question and he had agreed, but where was she now? All morning he hadn’t seen her. He had tried to look discreetly in the halls but the boys with guns kept corralling him back into the living room. Some days they were open to hostages wandering around and other days they seemed to think life’s greatest pleasure was nudging people backwards with a gun. Where was he supposed to meet her and when? He hadn’t asked any questions. Despite her clear instructions, he hadn’t been able to go back to sleep after she left last night. He couldn’t stop wondering how a girl like that had come through the air-conditioner vents with criminals. But what did he know? Maybe she had killed people before. Perhaps she robbed banks or threw Molotov cocktails through embassy windows. Maybe Messner was right, these were modern times.

  Beatriz came up and gave Gen two hard taps on the shoulder, interrupting both Mr. Hosokawa’s conversation with Roxane and his own private thoughts. “Is it time for Maria yet?” she said, not wanting to be late for the soap opera. As soon as she had spoken, she slipped the damp end of her braid back into her mouth and began the serious business of nibbling again. Gen imagined a knotted tumor of hair growing in her stomach.

  “Fifteen minutes,” he said, looking at his watch. Like so many other things, the beginning of the soap opera had become his responsibility.

  “Come and tell me when.”

  “Is this about her program?” Roxane asked.

  Gen nodded to her and then said to Beatriz in Spanish, “I’ll show you on the clock.”

  “I don’t care about the clock,” Beatriz said.

p; “You ask me every day. You ask me five times.”

  “I ask other people, too,” she said sharply. “It’s not just you.” Her small eyes grew smaller as she puzzled whether or not she was being insulted.

  Gen took off his watch. “Hold out your wrist.”

  “You’re going to give it to her?” Mr. Hosokawa asked.

  “Why?” Beatriz said suspiciously.

  Gen said in Japanese, “I’m better off without it.” Then he said to Beatriz, “I’m going to make you a present.”

  She liked the idea of presents even though she’d had almost no experience of them personally. On the program, Maria’s boyfriend gave her a present, a heart-shaped locket with his own picture inside. He put it around her neck before she sent him away. But once he had gone she held it to her lips and cried and cried. A present seemed like a wonderful gesture. Beatriz held out her wrist and Gen fastened on the watch.

  “Look at the big hand,” he said, tapping the crystal with his nail. “When it gets to the twelve here at the top then you know it’s time.”

  She studied the watch closely. It was beautiful, really, the round glass, the soft brown leather band, the hand that was no bigger than a hair that did a slow and constant sweep across the face. As presents went, she thought this was the nicest, better even than the locket because the watch actually did something. “This one?” she said, pointing out one of the three hands. Three hands, how queer.

  “The minute hand on twelve and the hour hand, the little one, on one. That’s easy enough.”

  But it wasn’t quite easy enough and Beatriz was afraid she would forget. She was afraid she would read it wrong and then miss the show altogether. She was afraid she would get it wrong and have to ask again, in which case Gen was sure to make fun of her. It was better when he just told her it was time. That was his job. She had a lot of work to do and all the hostages were lazy. “I’m not interested in this,” she said, and tried to undo the strap.

  “What is the problem?” Mr. Hosokawa said. “Doesn’t she like it?”

  “She thinks it’s too complicated.”

  “Nonsense.” Mr. Hosokawa put his hand over Beatriz’s wrist to stop her. “Look at this. It’s very simple.” He held out his wrist and showed her his own watch, which was dazzling compared to Gen’s, a bright coin of rose-colored gold. “Two hands,” he said, taking hold of both her hands. “Just like you. Very simple.” Gen translated.

  “Three hands,” Beatriz said, pointing out the only one that seemed to move.

  “Those are the seconds. Sixty seconds in a minute, one minute, one circle, pushing the big hand forward one minute.” Mr. Hosokawa explained time, seconds to minutes to hours. He could not remember when he had last looked at his watch or wondered about the hour of the day.

  Beatriz nodded. She ran her finger around the face of Gen’s watch. “It’s almost now,” she said.

  “Seven more minutes,” Gen said.

  “I’ll go and wait.” She considered thanking him but she wasn’t sure if it was the right thing to do. She could have taken the watch from him. She could have demanded it.

  “Does Carmen watch the program?” Gen asked.

  “Sometimes,” Beatriz said. “But then she forgets. She isn’t true to it like I am. She has duty outside today, so she won’t be watching it unless she stands at the window. When I have duty outside I stand at the window.”

  Gen glanced towards the tall French doors at the end of the room that led out onto the garden. There was nothing there. Only the garúa and the flowers which were starting to overgrow their beds.

  Beatriz knew what he was looking for and she was angry. She liked Gen a little and he should have liked her because he had given her a present. “Take your turn,” she said bitterly. “The boys are all waiting at different windows. They’re all watching for her, too. Maybe you should go and stand with them.” It wasn’t true, of course. There was no dating allowed in the ranks and that was a rule that was never broken.

  “She had asked me a question,” Gen started, but his voice didn’t sound natural and so he decided to forget it. It wasn’t as if he owed Beatriz any sort of explanation.

  “I’ll tell her you gave your watch to me.” She looked at her wrist. “Four more minutes.”

  “You should run,” Gen said. “You’ll lose your spot on the couch.”

  Beatriz left but she didn’t run. She walked away like a girl who knew exactly how much time she had.

  “What did she say?” Mr. Hosokawa asked Gen. “Was she happy with the watch?”

  Gen translated the question into English for Roxane and then answered them both that there would be no way to tell if she was happy or not.

  “I think you’re smart to give it to her,” Roxane said. “She’ll be less likely to shoot someone who’s given her such a nice gift.”

  But who’s to say what kept a person from shooting? “Would you excuse me?”

  Mr. Hosokawa let Gen go. It used to be that he wanted Gen with him all the time in case he thought of something to say, but he was learning to find some comfort in the quiet. Roxane put her hands on the piano and picked out the opening lines of “Clair de Lune.” Then she took one of Mr. Hosokawa’s hands and tapped the notes again, very slow and beautiful and sad. He followed her again and again until he could do it quite well on his own.

  Gen went to the window and watched. The drizzling rain had stopped but the air was still heavy and gray as if it were dusk. Gen glanced at his watch, knowing it was too early to be dark, and found his watch gone. Why was he waiting for her? Because he wanted to teach her to read? He had plenty to do without taking that on as well. Every person in the room had a thought that was in need of translation. He was lucky to find a minute alone, a minute to look out of the window. He didn’t need another job.

  “I have watched out this window for hours,” a man said to him in Russian. “Nothing ever comes. I can promise you that.”

  “Sometimes it’s enough just to look,” Gen said, keeping his eyes straight ahead. He almost never had the opportunity to speak in Russian. It was a language he used for reading Pushkin and Turgenev. It sounded good to hear his own voice managing so many sharp consonants even if he knew his accent was poor. He should practice. It was an opportunity if one chose to see it that way, so many native speakers in one room. Victor Fyodorov was a tall man with large hands and a great wall of a chest. The three Russians, Fyodorov, Ledbed, and Berezovsky, mostly kept to themselves, playing cards and smoking from a seemingly inexhaustible supply of cigarettes, the source of which no one was exactly sure. While the French could make out a few words of Spanish and the Italians remembered some of their school French, Russian, like Japanese, was an island of a language. Even the simplest phrases were met with blank expressions.

  “You stay so busy,” Fyodorov said. “I envy you at times. We watch you, up and down, up and down, everyone needing your attention. No doubt you envy us doing nothing. You would like a little more time to yourself, yes? Time to look out the window?” What the Russian was saying was that he was sorry to be another bother, another sentence in need of conversion, and that he wouldn’t ask were it not important.

  Gen smiled. Fyodorov had given up the pleasantries of shaving and in a little more than two weeks had come up with an impressive beard. By the time they were sprung from this place he would look like Tolstoy. “I have plenty of time even when I’m busy. You know yourself these are the longest days in history. Look, I gave up my watch. I thought I was better off not knowing.”

  “That I admire,” the Russian said, staring at Gen’s bare wrist. He tapped the skin with one heavy forefinger. “That shows real thinking.”

  “So don’t think you’re taking up my time.”

  Fyodorov took off his own watch and dropped it into his pocket in a gesture of solidarity. He circled his great hand to enjoy the new freedom. “Now we can talk. Now that we have done away with time.”

  “Absolutely,” Gen said, but as soon as he said it, two
figures walked near the wall of the garden holding up guns. Their jackets and caps were wet from the earlier rain and they kept their heads down instead of looking around the way Gen imagined they should if they were supposed to be watching for something. It was hard to tell which one was Carmen. From so far away in the rain she was a boy again. He hoped that she would look up and see him, that she might think that he was watching for her even though he recognized the idiocy of this. Still, he had been waiting to see her and he felt better somehow, assuming it was her in the first place and not just another angry teenaged boy.

  Fyodorov watched Gen and watched the two figures outside the window until they had passed. “You keep an eye on them,” he said in a low voice. “That’s smart thinking. I get lazy. In the beginning, I kept account of them, but they are everywhere. Like rabbits. I think they bring in more of them at night.”

  Gen wanted to point and say, That’s Carmen, but he didn’t know what he would be explaining. Instead he nodded in agreement.

  “But let’s not waste our time on them. I have better ways to waste your time. Do you smoke?” he asked, pulling out a small blue package of French cigarettes. “No? Do you mind?”

  It seemed that no sooner had he struck his match than the Vice President arrived with an ashtray that he placed on a small table in front of them. “Gen,” he said, nodding politely. “Victor.” He bowed to them, a pleasantry he had picked up from the Japanese, and then moved on, not wanting to interrupt the conversation he could not understand.

  “A wonderful man, Ruben Iglesias. It almost makes me wish I was a citizen of this wretched country so that I could vote for him for President.” Fyodorov pulled the smoke through the cigarette and then expelled it slowly. He was trying to find the right way to begin his request. “You can imagine, we have been thinking a great deal about opera,” he said.

  “Of course,” Gen said.

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