We could already hear the marimbas. My father had parked our jade-green Volvo on Séptima Avenida, and for all his insistence that we wait for him, my mother and my little sister – that we all arrive together – my brother and I were already hurrying towards the huge cabin with its wooden beams and posts and red-tiled roof, towards the sweet smell of smoke and sizzling meat, towards the music of the marimbas. My father shouted at us again, an almost mythic bellow, as we both rushed past a beggar on his hands and knees.
El Rodeo. That was the name of the restaurant. It was one of the few family restaurants in Guatemala in the seventies, and perhaps the only one in the capital that opened for lunch on Sunday. I remember it was always packed, and that everything was big, at least from my child’s-eye view: the thick mahogany tables, the chairs upholstered in black-and-white cowhide, the heavy leather-bound menus, the bull’s head on the wall just inside, the vast grill where half a dozen sweltering men were cooking. In fact, all the people who worked in the restaurant – chefs, waiters, bartenders, musicians – were men, and they were all identically dressed: black trousers, long-sleeved white shirt, black bow-tie.
“Didn’t you hear me?” My father caught up with us in a fury.
My brother and I were still hovering in the doorway, straining to see the two marimbas in the back corner.
“We’re all supposed to arrive together,” my father roared. “Not like animals.”
“Come on, boys,” said my mother, carrying my three-year-old sister and struggling to herd us towards a table that, to my dismay, was far from the marimbas.
It was the same ritual every Sunday. We would go to the table with my mother while my father greeted his friends and acquaintances along the way; we would sit down making sure we left him the chair with the best view of the main entrance (“I like to see who’s coming in,” he used to say); my brother and I would order and gulp down our only soda of the day (an unbreakable rule), and then sit quietly, behaving ourselves until my father finally arrived, all smiles, asking the usual question:
“Do you know what you want?”
My father called the waiter over and ordered sirloin and rib-eye, guacamole, grilled spring onions, a basket of garlic bread. The waiter took away the two empty bottles. My brother kicked me under the table.
“Can we?” I asked.
My father shook his head, frowning.
“Ten minutes,” he said gruffly, and my brother and I grinned, pushing back our enormous black-and-white chairs and running towards the marimbas.
We didn’t like the marimba music. Not that much. What we liked was to watch the marimba players, watch the mallets moving in their hands, watch the almost perfect coordination of the rubber-tipped mallets of guava wood in the hands of those uniformed, dark-skinned, expressionless men.
There were four men: two at each marimba. One was blind, or maybe half-blind (he had a milky gaze), but he handled the mallets just like the other three. We stood in front of them, watching in silence, a rapt silence, until the song ended abruptly and the half-blind man put one of the mallets in his mouth and began to chew frantically on the rubber tip, and at the same time we heard our father shouting behind us. Those ten minutes were never enough.
“Sit down, boys,” said my mother, “before the meat gets cold.”
The sirloin, grilled corn and a baked potato lay steaming on my plate. I was old enough to use a steak knife now. Proudly, with great concentration, I began to cut my steak.
“That lady over there, the one in the red coat,” my father whispered, but I wasn’t sure if it was to me, or my mother, or the whole table. And then, pointing with his chin towards the entrance, he whispered again: “She was one of the guerrillas who kidnapped my father.”
The marimbas started up.
I was nearly nine and I knew some of the details of my grandfather’s kidnapping: odd, fragmented, nonsensical details. I knew it had happened in 1967, four years before I was born. I knew that the kidnappers had christened it “Operation Tomato” because of my grandfather’s skin, which was so fair it was almost pink. I knew that every night his kidnappers would ask him what he wanted for dinner, and that my grandfather would say a pizza from Vesuvio’s, with anchovies. I knew that in the evenings his kidnappers would challenge him to a game of dominoes, and that he’d always let them win. I knew that my grandfather had presented his kidnappers with the two gold-plated fountain pens he’d had on him. I knew that, after thirty-five days of negotiations, a high ransom had been paid. I knew that my grandfather had walked all the way back home to Avenida Reforma, his money untouched in his wallet, his three-carat ring still on the little finger of his left hand. And that was about all I knew. But I had always imagined the kidnappers as any child imagines a villain: stinking, shaggy and fat, with a few missing teeth, their greasy faces covered in warts, pimples and scars. I never pictured a lady, much less a beautiful lady, proud and preening in her red coat.
“Garlic bread?” asked my father, offering us the basket.
I reached out my hand. Grabbing a piece of crusty, oily bread, I miscalculated and took too big a bite. I chewed with difficulty, my mouth half open, while the lady in the red coat greeted everyone and laughed with everyone and glided over to her table next to the marimbas.
Translated from the Spanish by Alba Griffin, Avgi Daferera, Bridget Lely, Hugh Caldin, Jim Knight, Lucila Cordone, Michael McDevitt, Ollie Brock, Sabrina Steiner, Samantha Christie, Shazea Quraishi & Tom Bunstead with the collaboration of Eduardo Halfon and Anne McLean.
This translation was first featured on the New Spanish Books website here.