Bel canto, p.25
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       Bel Canto, p.25

           Ann Patchett
 

  “You play chess?” General Benjamin asked.

  Mr. Hosokawa and Roxane kept their eyes on the board. There was a time, out of politeness, when they would have at least looked at the person who was speaking, even if they couldn’t understand a word of what was being said. Now they both knew a little Spanish and they didn’t bother to look up. Mr. Hosokawa was angling for the General’s bishop. Roxane could see what he was thinking.

  “I guess I do. I’ve been watching. I think I understand it now.”

  General Benjamin laughed, but it wasn’t such an unkind laugh. He tapped Mr. Hosokawa on the arm. Mr. Hosokawa looked up, pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose, and watched while General Benjamin took one of Ishmael’s small hands beneath his own and put it on a pawn, then he hopped the pawn from place to place on the board. He motioned between the three of them and that was clear enough. Mr. Hosokawa smiled and clapped the boy on the shoulder.

  “So you will play the winner,” General Benjamin said. “Everything is agreed.”

  Ishmael, feeling a great rush of luck, took up a place at Roxane’s feet and stared at the board the way she did, like it was a living thing. He only had half a game left to learn everything there was to know about chess.

  Gen rapped lightly on the frame of the door to the study. Messner stood behind him. Everything about Messner’s countenance seemed weary except for his hair, which was as bright as daylight. He still wore a white shirt, black pants, and a black tie, and, like the hostages and terrorists alike, his clothes showed signs of wear. He folded his arms and watched the game. He had been on the chess team in college, rode the bus to play against the French, the Italians. He would have liked to play now, but had he stayed in the house for three hours he would have been expected to have something significant to show for it when he came outside.

  General Benjamin held up his hand without looking. He was beginning to sense that his bishop was in peril.

  Messner watched the direction of his eyes. He considered telling the General that the bishop wasn’t really his problem, but God knows Benjamin never would have listened to him. “Tell him I’ve brought today’s papers,” he said to Gen in French. He could have said that much in Spanish but he knew the General would only have glared at him, speaking in the middle of the move.

  “I’ll tell him.”

  Roxane Coss lifted one hand and waved to Messner but kept her eyes on the board, as did Ishmael, who felt the creeping bile of fear churning in his esophagus. Maybe he didn’t know how to play chess after all.

  “Are you planning on springing us anytime soon?” Roxane asked.

  “No one moves,” Messner said, trying to be light. “I’ve never seen such a stalemate.” He felt oddly jealous of Ishmael, sitting right there by her feet. He would only have to slide his hand two inches to brush against her ankle.

  “They could starve us out,” Roxane said, her voice steady and calm, as if she didn’t want to disrupt the game. “The food isn’t so terrible, not as bad as it should be if they were really interested in getting things moving. They can’t be so intent on freeing us when they essentially give us everything we want.”

  Messner scratched the back of his head. “Ah, I’m afraid that’s your fault. If you thought you were famous before you came in this place you should read about yourself now. You make Callas look like a spear carrier. If they tried to starve you out the government would be overthrown in an afternoon.”

  Roxane looked up at him, blinked a pretty stage blink, large and pleased. “So if I get out of here alive I can double my price?”

  “You can triple it.”

  “My God,” Roxane said, and there were her teeth, the very sight of which broke Messner’s heart. “Do you realize you’ve told him how to overthrow the government and he doesn’t even know it? It’s all he’s ever wanted and he missed it.”

  General Benjamin had his hand on his bishop. He was rocking it side to side. The words passed over him, around him, like water passing over a stone.

  Messner watched Ishmael. The boy appeared to be holding his breath until the General decided on his move. More than any other negotiation Messner had ever been involved with, he found that he didn’t really care who won this one. But that wasn’t it exactly, because the governments always won. It was that he wouldn’t mind seeing these people get away, the whole lot of them. He wished they could use the tunnel the military was digging, wished they could crawl back into the air vents and down into that tunnel and go back into whatever leafy quarters they came from. Not that they had been a brilliant lot, but maybe for that very reason they didn’t deserve the punishment that would eventually catch up with them. He was sorry for them, that was all. He had never felt sorry for the captors before.

  Ishmael sighed as General Benjamin took his hand off his bishop and chose the knight instead. It was a bad move. Even Ishmael could see that. He leaned back against the couch, and when he did Roxane draped one arm across his shoulder and put her other hand on the top of his head, touching his hair as absently as she did her own. But Ishmael barely felt it. He kept his eyes on the chess game, which, in six more moves, was over.

  “Well, that’s enough,” General Benjamin said to no one. As soon as the game was finished the floodgate opened again and set all the pain in motion. He shook Mr. Hosokawa’s hand in the quick and formal way they did after every game. Mr. Hosokawa bowed several times and Benjamin bowed in return, a weird habit that he had picked up like someone else’s nervous tic. After all the bowing he stretched and then motioned for Ishmael to take his seat. “But only if the gentleman wishes to play again. Don’t impose yourself on him. Gen, ask Mr. Hosokawa if he would prefer to wait and play tomorrow.”

  Mr. Hosokawa was glad to play with Ishmael, who was already getting comfortable in General Benjamin’s warm chair. He began to set up the board.

  “What do you have for me?” the General asked Messner.

  “More of the same, really.” Messner thumbed through the papers. An imperative letter from the President. An imperative letter from the Chief of Police. “They won’t give in. I have to tell you, if anything they seem less inclined now than they did before. The government isn’t so uncomfortable with the way things have been going. People are starting to become accustomed to the whole thing. They walk down the street and they don’t even stop.” He handed over the daily list of demands from the military while Gen translated. Some days they didn’t even bother to reword the counterdemands. They just made copies and changed the dates with a pencil.

  “Well, they will see, we are geniuses at waiting. We can wait them out forever.” General Benjamin gave a halfhearted nod as he looked over the papers. Then he opened the little French secretary and he took out his own set of papers which Gen had typed up the night before. “You’ll give them these.”

  Messner took the papers without looking at them. It would all be the same. The things they were asking for had become reckless in the last month, the release of political prisoners from other countries, men they didn’t even know, food distribution to the poor, a change in voting laws. General Hector had come up with that one after reading some of the Vice President’s legal books. Instead of curtailing their demands, getting nothing had only made them want more. As usual, they made threats, promises to start killing hostages, but threat, promise, and demand, had become a set of decorative adjectives. They meant no more than the stamps and seals the government affixed to their papers.

  Mr. Hosokawa let Ishmael go first. The boy opened with his third pawn. General Benjamin sat down to watch the game.

  “We should talk about this,” Messner said.

  “There’s nothing to talk about.”

  “I think,” Messner started. He was feeling a weight of responsibility. He was starting to think that if he were only a more clever man he might have talked this thing through by now. “There are things you must consider.”

  “Shh,” General Benjamin said, and held his finger to his lips. He pointed to the board.
It’s starting now.”

  Messner leaned against the wall, suddenly exhausted. Ishmael removed the tip of his finger from his pawn.

  “Let me walk you out,” Roxane said to Messner.

  “What?” General Benjamin said.

  “She said she’ll take Mr. Messner to the door,” Gen said.

  General Benjamin did not care to go along. He was interested in seeing if the boy could actually play.

  “Tell me what they’re going to do,” Roxane said as they walked down the hall. Gen had come along and so the three of them spoke in English.

  “I have no idea.”

  “You have some idea,” Roxane said.

  He looked at her. Every time he saw her he was surprised all over again by how small she was. At night, in his memory, she was towering, powerful. But standing beside her, she was small enough to slip beneath a coat if he had been wearing one, small enough to sweep out of the house quietly beneath one arm. He had the perfect trench coat at home in Geneva, it had been his father’s and his father had been a bigger man. Messner wore it anyway out of a combined sense of love and practicality and it billowed behind him as he walked. “I am a farrier, a delivery service. I bring in the papers, take out the papers, make sure there is plenty of butter for the rolls. They don’t tell me anything.”

  Roxane put her arm through his, not in a flirtatious way, but in the manner of a heroine in a nineteenth-century English novel going for a walk with a gentleman. Messner could feel the warmth of her hand through his shirtsleeve. He did not want to leave her inside. “Tell me,” she whispered. “I’m losing track of time. Some days I think this is where I live, where I’m always going to live. If I knew that for sure then I could feel settled. Do you understand that? If it’s going to be a very long time, I want to know.”

  To see her every day, to stand out on the sidewalk in the mornings with the thronging crowd to hear her sing, wasn’t that a remarkable thing? “I imagine,” Messner said quietly, “that it’s going to be a very long time.”

  As they walked, Gen trailed behind them like a well-trained butler, both discreet and present if he was needed in any way. He listened. Messner said it. A very long time. He thought of Carmen, of all the languages there were for a smart girl to learn. They might need a very long time.

  When Ruben saw the three of them coming he moved briskly up the hallway before any of the soldiers could cut him off. “Messner!” he said. “It’s a miracle! I wait for you and then you manage to slip right by me. How is our government? Have they replaced me yet?”

  “Impossible,” Messner said. Roxane stepped away, stepped back towards Gen, and Messner felt the air cooling all around him.

  “We need soap,” the Vice President said. “All sorts of soap, bar soap, dishwashing soap, laundry soap.”

  Messner was distracted His conversation with Roxane should have lasted longer. They didn’t need Gen. Messner often dreamed in English. There was never a moment to be alone. “I’ll see what I can do.”

  Ruben’s face darkened. “I’m not asking for anything so complicated.”

  “I’ll bring it tomorrow,” he said, his voice growing soft. Why all this sudden tenderness? Messner wanted to go back to Switzerland, where the postman who never recognized him when they passed in the hallway always put mail into the correct slot. He wanted to be unneeded, unknown. “Your face has finally healed up.”

  The Vice President, sensing the ridiculousness of his anger, the burden on his friend, touched his own cheek. “I never thought it would happen. It’s one hell of a scar, don’t you think?”

  “It will make you a hero of the people,” Messner said.

  “I’ll say I got it from you,” Ruben said, looking up into Messner’s pale eyes. “A knife fight in a bar.”

  Messner went to the door and held out his arms and Beatriz and Jesus, the two guards on the door, worked him over until he felt embarrassed by the persistence of Beatriz’s hands. It was one thing, the way they shook him down when he came in. He could not understand why the whole process needed to be repeated upon his exit. What was he smuggling out?

  “They think you might be taking the soap,” the Vice President said, as if he was reading his friend’s mind. “They wonder where it has all gone to when they haven’t been using any of it themselves.”

  “Get back to the sofa,” Jesus said, and laid two directional fingers on the top of his gun. The Vice President was ready for a nap anyway and went his way without further instruction. Messner went out the door without saying good-bye.

  * * *

  All the time Roxane was thinking. She thought about Messner and how it seemed to her he would have rather been a hostage himself instead of bearing the burden of being the only person in the world who was free to come and go. She thought about Schubert lieder, Puccini’s arias, the performances she’d missed in Argentina and the performances she had missed by now in New York that had taken forever to negotiate and had been so important to her, though she had not admitted it at the time. She thought of what she would sing tomorrow in the living room, more Rossini? Mostly, she thought about Mr. Hosokawa, and how she had grown so dependent on him. If he hadn’t been there she thought she would have completely lost her mind in the first week, but of course if he hadn’t been there she never would have come to this country, she never would have even been asked. Her life would have gone on like a train on schedule: Argentina, New York, a visit to Chicago, then back to Italy. Now she was completely stopped. She thought of Katsumi Hosokawa sitting by the window, listening while she sang, and she wondered how it was possible to love someone you couldn’t even speak to. She believed now there was a reason why all of this had happened: his birthday and her invitation to be, in a sense, his birthday present, why they had been stuck here all this time. How else would they have met? How else would there have been any way to get to know someone you couldn’t speak to, someone who lived on the other side of the world, unless you were given an enormous amount of empty time to simply sit and wait together? She would have to take care of Carmen, that was the first thing.

  “You know Carmen,” Roxane said to Gen. They were on their way back to see how the chess game was progressing but she stopped him in the middle of the hall when they were far from any door.

  “Carmen?”

  “I know you know who she is, but you know her a little, too, don’t know? I’ve seen the two of you speaking.”

  “Of course.” Gen felt a flush rising up in his chest and he willed it not to go any farther, as if one could will such a thing.

  But Roxane wasn’t looking at him. Her eyes seemed slightly out of focus, like she was tired. It was only noon but she was often tired after she sang in the morning. The guards would let her go upstairs alone to go back to sleep. If Carmen wasn’t on watch sometimes she would find her and take her wrist and Carmen would follow her. It was so much easier to sleep when she was there. Carmen was probably twenty years younger than she was, but there was something about her, something that settled Roxane down. “She’s a sweet girl. She brings me breakfast in the morning. Sometimes I open the door to my room at night and she’s sleeping in the hall,” she said. “Not all the time.”

  Not all the time. Not when she was with him.

  Roxane looked back at him and smiled a little. “Poor Gen, you’re always in the middle of everything. Anyone who has a secret has to take it through you.”

  “I’m sure there’s plenty I miss.”

  “I need you to do me a favor, just like everybody else. I need you to do something.” Because if Messner was right, if it was still going to be a very long time that they were held hostage, then she deserved to have this. And if, at the end of that long time, they were killed anyway, because that was always the talk, that the military would shoot them to pin it on the terrorists, or that the terrorists would kill them in a moment of desperation (though she found this harder to believe), then she deserved it all the more. And if the third scenario were true, that they would be released quick
ly and unharmed, that they all would go back to their regular lives and put this behind them, then she would deserve it most of all, because certainly then she would not see Katsumi Hosokawa again. “Find Carmen tonight and tell her to sleep somewhere else. Tell her she shouldn’t come up with breakfast in the morning. You’d do that for me?”

  Gen nodded.

  But that wasn’t asking for quite enough. That wasn’t asking for everything because she had no way of telling Mr. Hosokawa he should come to her tonight. She wanted to ask him to come to her room but there was only one way of doing that, to ask Gen to go to him and say it in Japanese, and what did she mean to say, exactly? That she meant for him to stay the night? And Gen would have to ask Carmen to find a way to get Mr. Hosokawa upstairs, and what if they were found out, what would happen to Mr. Hosokawa then, and Carmen? It used to be if you met someone and you wanted to see them, maybe you went out to dinner, had a drink. She leaned back against the wall. Two boys with guns walked by but they never teased or poked when Roxane was there. Once they had passed, she took a deep breath and told Gen everything she wanted. He did not tell her this was all insanity. He listened to her as if she wasn’t asking for anything unusual at all, nodding while she spoke. Maybe a translator was not unlike a doctor, a lawyer, a priest even. They must have some code of ethics that prevented them from gossiping. And even if she wasn’t positive then of his loyalty to her, she knew he would do everything possible to protect Mr. Hosokawa.

  Ruben Iglesias went into what he still thought of as the guest room, but was now the Generals’ office, in order to empty the wastebaskets. He was going from room to room with a large green trash bag, taking not only what had been thrown away in the cans but what was on the floor as well: pop bottles, banana peels, the bits of the newspaper which had been edited out. Ruben surreptitiously deposited those into his pockets to read late at night with a flashlight. Mr. Hosokawa and Ishmael were playing chess and he stood in the door for a minute to watch. He was very proud of Ishmael, who was so much brighter than the other boys. Ruben had bought that set to teach the game to his son, Marco, but he still felt the boy was too young to learn. General Benjamin was sitting on the couch and after a while he looked up at Ruben. The sight of his eye, so badly infected, took Ruben’s breath away.

 
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