Bel canto, p.7
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       Bel Canto, p.7

           Ann Patchett
 

  The General Benjamin snapped his fingers and one of the minions rushed forward to take Fyodorov’s cigarette away, but Fyodorov only inhaled. He was a big man, even lying down, even with no weapon save the cigarette itself. He looked like the one who would win the fight. “Just try,” he said to the soldier in Russian.

  The boy, having no idea what had been said, was unsure of how to proceed. He tried to steady his hand when he withdrew his gun and pointed it at Fyodorov’s middle in a halfhearted way.

  “This is it!” Yegor Ledbed, another Russian and a friend to Fyodorov, said. “You will shoot us for smoking!”

  What a dream it was, that cigarette. How much more delightful it was to smoke when one had not smoked in a day. Then one could notice the flavor, the blue tint of the smoke. One could relax into the pleasant light-headedness one remembered from boyhood. It was almost enough to make a man quit, so that he could know the pleasures of starting again. Fyodorov was almost down to the point of burning his fingers. What a pity. He sat up, startling the gunman with his girth, and crushed the cigarette against the sole of his shoe.

  To the great pleasure of the Vice President, Fyodorov put the butt in the pocket of his tuxedo and the boy stuffed the gun awkwardly back into the waistband of his pants and slunk away.

  “I will not take this another minute!” a woman shouted, but when they looked around no one could be sure who had spoken.

  Two hours after Joachim Messner had left, General Benjamin summoned the Vice President up from the floor and had him open the door and wave Messner back in.

  Was it possible that Messner had spent all this time waiting just outside the door? His delicate cheeks looked even more scorched than before.

  “Everything all right?” Messner said to the Vice President in Spanish, as if he had spent the last two hours standing in the sun working on his language skills.

  “Very little changes,” the Vice President said in English, in an attempt to be thoughtful. He still had some vestiges of feeling like the host.

  “Your face, it isn’t bad. She did a very good job with the”—he struggled for the word—“sew,” he said finally.

  The Vice President lifted his fingers to his cheek but Messner held his hand down. “Don’t touch it.” He looked around the room. “The Japanese man, is he still here?”

  “Where would he go?” Ruben asked.

  Messner glanced around at the bodies at his feet, all of them warm and taking even breaths. Really, he had seen worse.

  “I’m going to call for the translator,” the Vice President told the Generals, who looked away from them as if they had not noticed that Messner had arrived. Then finally one of them glanced up and gave some sort of brief, sideways gesture with his eyebrows that Ruben Iglesias took to mean, fine, go ahead.

  He did not call for Gen, but walked the long way around the room to get to him. It was both an opportunity to stretch his legs and to take inventory of his guests. Most people gave something between a wince and a smile upon seeing him. The side of his face really was swelling horribly without ice. The stitches already strained against the burden of keeping his face together. Ice. It wasn’t like he was looking for penicillin. There was plenty of ice in the house. There were two freezers, one side by side with the refrigerator in the kitchen and one in the basement just for storage. There was also a machine in the kitchen that stood separately and did nothing but pour forth ice all day into a plastic cabinet. And yet he knew he was not a favorite with these Generals, and to request so much as a cube might mean the closing of his other eye. How lovely it would be just to stand with his cheek resting lightly against the cool white metal of the freezer door. He didn’t even need the ice, that would be enough. “Monsignor,” he said, stepping around Monsignor Rolland on the floor. “I am so sorry. Are you comfortable? Yes? Good, good.”

  It was a beautiful house, a beautiful rug on which his guests crowded together. Who would have thought that he would one day live in such a house with two freezers and a machine that made only ice? It had been a spectacular piece of luck. His father lifted baggage onto flatbed carts, first for the trains and then for the airlines. His mother raised eight children, sold vegetables, took in needlework. How many times had that story been told? Ruben Iglesias working his way up. The first in his family to finish high school! Worked as a janitor to put himself through college. Worked as a janitor and a judge’s clerk to put himself through law school. After that there was a successful career in the law, the correct steps on the unstable ladder of politics. It made him as attractive a running mate as his height. Never in the story did they mention how he had married well, the daughter of a senior partner he had made pregnant during a festive Christmas party, how the ambitions of his wife and her parents pushed him forward. That was a decidedly less interesting story.

  A man on the floor near the tapestry wing-backed chair asked him a question in a language Ruben believed was German. The Vice President told him he did not know.

  Gen the translator was lying very close to Mr. Hosokawa. He whispered something in Mr. Hosokawa’s ear and the older man closed his eyes and nodded his head almost imperceptibly. Ruben had forgotten all about Mr. Hosokawa. Happy birthday, sir, he thought to himself. I don’t suppose there will be any factories built this year. Not too far from them was Roxane Coss and her accompanist. She looked, if this was possible, even better than she had the night before. Her hair was loose and her skin glowed as if she had been waiting for this opportunity to rest. “How are you?” she mouthed in English, and touched her hand to her own cheek to indicate her concern for his injury. Perhaps it was the fact that he had had nothing to eat, maybe it was exhaustion or blood loss or the onset of an infection, but at that moment he was quite sure he would faint. The way she touched her face, did it because she could not stand and put her hand to his own cheek, the image of her standing and touching his cheek, he sank down to the floor, balancing on his toes, putting his hands down in front of him, and dropped his head forward until the feeling passed. Slowly he raised his eyes to hers, which now looked panicked. “I’m well,” he whispered. At that moment he noticed her accompanist, who frankly did not look well at all. It seemed that if Roxane Coss was able to extend such compassion to him she should take a look at the man lying next to her. His paleness had a decidedly gray cast, and while his eyes were open and his chest moved in a shallow way, there was a stillness about him that the vice president thought was not good at all. “Him?” he said softly, and pointed.

  She looked at the body beside her as if she was noticing it for the first time. “He says he has the flu. I think he’s very nervous.”

  Speaking in the very smallest of whispers, the sound of her voice was thrilling, even if he wasn’t exactly sure what she was saying.

  “Translator!” General Alfredo called out.

  Ruben had meant to stand and extend his hand to Gen, but Gen, younger, made it to his feet more quickly and reached down to help the Vice President. He took Ruben’s arm, as if the Vice President had been struck suddenly blind, and led him forward through the room. How quickly one could form attachments under circumstances like these, what bold conclusions a man could come to: Roxane Coss was the woman he had always loved; Gen Watanabe was his son; his house was no longer his own; his life as he knew it, his political life, was dead. Ruben Iglesias wondered if all hostages, all over the world, felt more or less the same way.

  “Gen,” Messner said, and shook his hand somberly, as if offering condolences. “The Vice President should have medicine.” He said this in French for Gen to translate.

  “Too much time is spent discussing the needs of a foolish man,” General Benjamin said.

  “Ice?” Ruben offered himself, as suddenly his mind was filled with the pleasures of ice, of the snow on the tops of the Andes, of those sweet Olympic skaters on television, young girls wearing handkerchiefs of diaphanous gauze around their doll-like waists. He was burning alive now and the silver blades of their skates shot up arches of blue-wh
ite chips. He wanted to be buried in ice.

  “Ishmael,” the General said impatiently to one of the boys. “Into the kitchen. Get him a towel and ice.”

  Ishmael, one of the young boys holding up the wall, a small one with the worst shoes of all, looked pleased. Maybe he was proud of having been chosen for the task, maybe he wanted to help the Vice President, maybe he wanted a shot at the kitchen, where surely trays of leftover crackers and melted canapés were waiting. “No one gives my people ice when they need ice,” General Alfredo said bitterly.

  “Certainly,” Messner said, half listening to Gen’s translation. “Have you reached some kind of compromise here?”

  “We’ll let you have the women,” General Alfredo said. “We have no interest in harming women. The workers can go, the priests, anyone who is sick. After that we’ll review the list of who we have. There may be a few more to go after that. In return we’ll want supplies.” He produced a piece of paper, neatly folded, from his front pocket and clamped it between the three remaining fingers of his left hand. “These are the things we’ll need. The second page is to be read to the press. Our demands.” Alfredo had been so certain their plan would turn out better than this. It had been his cousin, after all, who had once worked on the air-conditioning system of this house and had managed to steal a copy of the blueprints.

  Messner took the papers and scanned them for a minute and then asked Gen to read them. Gen was surprised to find his hands trembling. He could never remember an instance when what he was translating had actually affected him. “On behalf of the people, La Familia de Martin Suarez has taken hostage—”

  Messner raised his hand for Gen to stop. “La Familia de Martin Suarez?”

  The General nodded.

  “Not La Dirección Auténtica?” Messner kept his voice down.

  “You said we were reasonable men,” General Alfredo said, his voice swelling with the insult. “What do you think? Do you think La Dirección Auténtica would be talking to you? Do you think we would be letting the women go? I know LDA. In LDA, the ones who are not useful are shot. Who have we shot? We are trying to do something for the people, can you understand that?” He took a step towards Messner, who knew how it was intended, but Gen moved quietly between them.

  “We are trying to do something for the people,” Gen said, keeping his tone deliberate and slow. The second part of the sentence, “Can you understand that?” was irrelevant and so he left it off.

  Messner apologized for his mistake. An honest mistake. They were not LDA. He had to concentrate to keep the corners of his mouth from bending up. “How long before the first group can be released?”

  General Alfredo could not speak to him. He ground down on his teeth. Even General Hector, who had the least to say, spat on the Savonnière carpet. Ishmael returned with two dishtowels full of ice cubes, a sign of the great abundance the kitchen held. General Benjamin batted one of the sacks from his hand, sending the clear diamond ice tripping and bouncing across the carpet. Anyone close enough scooped up the extra cubes and slipped them into their mouths. Ishmael, frightened now, quickly gave the remaining bag to the Vice President with a slight bow of the head. Ruben returned the nod, thinking it best not to draw any more attention to himself than was absolutely necessary, as clearly it would take little to provoke another gun butt to the side of the head. He touched the ice to his face and winced with the pain and the deep, deep pleasure of the cold.

  General Benjamin cleared his throat and pulled himself together. “We’ll divide them up now,” he said. First he spoke to his troops. “Look alert. On your guard.” The boys against the wall straightened out their legs and lifted their guns to their chests. “Everyone on your feet,” he said.

  “I beg for your attention,” Gen said in Japanese. “It is now time to stand.” If the terrorists minded speaking, they made an exception for Gen. He repeated the sentence again in as many languages as he could think of. He said it in languages he knew he need not include, Serbo-Croatian and Cantonese, just because there was comfort in speaking and no one tried to stop him. “Stand up,” is not a message that needed translation in the first place. People are sheep about certain things. When some begin to stand, the rest will follow.

  They were stiff and awkward. Some people tried to work their way back into their shoes and others just forgot them. Some people stomped lightly on one foot, trying to wrestle it from sleep. They were nervous. As much as they had been thinking that all they wanted was to stand, now that they were on their feet they felt insecure. It seemed so much more likely that transitions would be bad rather than good, that standing increased the likelihood of being shot.

  “The women will stand to the far right of the room and the men to the far left.”

  Gen churned the sentence through the different languages with no clear idea of which countries were represented or who was in need of a translator. His voice was full of the soothing monotony of the overhead announcements heard in train stations and airports.

  But the men and women did not part quickly. Instead they clung to one another, arms around necks. Couples who had not held each other this way for years, who had perhaps never held each other this way in public, embraced deeply. It was a party that had simply gone on too long. The music had stopped and the dancing had stopped and still the couples stood, each enveloped in the other, waiting. The only awkward pairing was between Roxane Coss and the accompanist. She looked so small in his arms she seemed almost a child. She didn’t appear to want to be held by him, but on closer inspection she was actually shoring him up. He draped himself on her, and the grimace on her face was that of a woman unequal to the weight that had been given her. Mr. Hosokawa, recognizing her distress (because he had been watching, having no one to embrace himself, his own wife safely home in Tokyo), took the accompanist in his arms, wrapping the much larger man across his shoulders like a coat in warmer weather. Mr. Hosokawa staggered a bit himself, but it was nothing compared with the relief that flooded her face.

  “Thank you,” she said.

  “Thank you,” he repeated.

  “You’ll look after him?” At this point the accompanist raised his head and took some of his weight onto his own feet.

  “Thank you,” Mr. Hosokawa repeated tenderly.

  Other men, single men, mostly waiters, all of whom wished that they had been the one to peel this dying gringo from her shoulders, moved forward to help Mr. Hosokawa, and together they shuffled to the left side of the room with the sour-smelling man, his blond head swinging as if his neck had been snapped. Mr. Hosokawa turned to look at her, so heartsick to think she would be alone. He might have thought that she was watching him, but really she was looking at her accompanist, who was slumped in Mr. Hosokawa’s arms. Once he was away from her it was much easier to see how ill he looked.

  Now, in the face of so many passionate good-byes, it struck Mr. Hosokawa that he had never even considered bringing his wife to this country. He did not tell her that she had been invited. He told her he was attending a business meeting, not a birthday party to be held in his honor. Their unspoken agreement was that Mrs. Hosokawa always stayed home with their daughters. They did not travel together. Now he could see how smart this decision was. He had kept his wife from discomfort and possibly harm. He had protected her. But still, he couldn’t help but wonder what it would have been like for the two of them to stand together now. Would they have felt so much sadness when they were told to step away from one another?

  For what seemed like a long time but could not have been a whole minute, Edith and Simon Thibault said nothing to each other. Then she kissed him and he said, “I like to think of you outside.” He could have said anything, it made no difference. He was thinking of those first twenty years they were married, years when he had loved her without any kind of real understanding. This would be his punishment now, for all his time wasted. Dear Edith. She took off the light silk wrapper she was wearing. He had forgotten to ask for it. It was a wonderful blue, the blue
used on the dinner plates of kings and the underbreasts of the birds in this very godforsaken jungle. She crumpled it up into a surprisingly small ball and pressed it into the waiting cup of his hands.

  “Don’t do anything stupid,” she said, and because it was the last thing she asked of him, he swore he would not.

  For the most part the separation of hostages was civil. No two had to be pried apart with a gun. When they knew their time was really up the men and the women separated, as if a complicated dancing reel were about to begin and soon they would join and split and change, passing their partners off only to receive them back into their arms again.

  Messner took a stack of business cards out of his wallet and handed one to each of the Generals and one to Gen and one, thoughtfully, to the Vice President, and then left the rest in a dish on the coffee table. “This has my cell phone number,” he said. “That’s just me. You want to talk to me, you call this number. They’re keeping the phone lines open to the house for now.”

  Each of them looked at the cards feeling puzzled. It was as if he was asking them to lunch, as if he didn’t understand the gravity of the situation.

  “You may need something,” Messner said. “You may want to talk to someone out there.”

  Gen made a slight bow. He should have bowed to the waist for Messner, to show him respect for coming into this place, for risking his life for theirs, but he knew that no one would understand. Then Mr. Hosokawa came up and took a card from the dish, shook Messner’s hand, and bowed deeply, his face turned down to the floor.

  After that the Generals Benjamin, Alfredo, and Hector went to the men and from that pack cut out the workers, the waiters and cooks and cleaning staff, and placed them with the women. It was their ultimate intention to free the workers through revolution and they would not keep them hostage. Then they asked if anyone was very ill and had Gen repeat the question several times. Where one would think that every member would claim a faint heart, the crowd was remarkably quiet. A handful of very old men shuffled forward, a handsome Italian man showed a medical identification bracelet and was reunited to the arms of his wife. Only one man lied and his lie was not discovered: Dr. Gomez explained that his kidneys had failed years before and he was late for dialysis already. His wife turned away from him, ashamed. The sickest among them, the accompanist, appeared too confused to make the request for himself and so was placed into a chair at the side where they would be certain not to forget him. The priests were given leave as well. Monsignor Rolland made the sign of the cross over those who remained, a lovely gesture, and then walked away, but Father Arguedas, who really had no pressing duties to attend to, requested permission to stay.

 
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