Who’s coming to the party? A lot of people, it’s going to be a big success: the Mendozas and the Vasquezes, the Lorenzos and the Smiths. The maids drag the white plastic chairs into the yard, forming half-circles beneath the mango tree and around the barbecue pit. The gardeners carry out the big wooden table, a security guard following closely behind with a ruler to scrape off the white globs of dried candlewax, accumulated in thick layers from weeks of blackouts. The dogs yip excitedly, nipping at people’s ankles, and behind the safety of their chickenwire cage the rabbits look on, horrified. Inside the kitchen, staring out the window, one of the cooks says, ‘We really need to lock them up. Can you imagine Lola rolling in her poo and then licking Mrs Montoya’s hand?’
The caterers have arrived; they’re getting set up. They’re carrying big metal pans, steam rising beneath the lids, filled with white fish soaked in lemon juice, red peppers for the grill, raw bloody steaks and chicken breasts stabbed with fork marks. Nothing is extravagant, nothing is over the top, except for maybe the lobster claws on ice, the tins of caviar and the oysters that the cooks are busily prying open with their special metal knives. That’s not his style.
Here he comes. Folding the cuff of his black shirt above his wrists so that a pale strip of unburnt skin shows, like a patch of exposed land on a jungle hillside. People rarely notice, but the three middle fingers of his right hand end abruptly in smooth pink stumps, neatly aligned with the humble pinkie. ‘Looking good,’ he says to the blinking white Christmas lights hanging from the branches of the grapefruit tree. ‘Excellent,’ he says while strolling past the arts and crafts supplies set out for the children by the pool: crayons and candles and paper plates. ‘Go along now,’ he says to one of the many cats, sitting on the drainpipe above the jacaranda bush, a distasteful expression behind its droopy whiskers. Who knows how many pets they have at this point? Just the other week he saw a turtle lumbering under the sofa in the living room, but when he got down on his knees to check there was nothing there, not even dust balls or coffee-flavored candy wrappers.
He wanders inside the house through the swinging patio door, scratching the back of his neck. The maids have done a good job at making everything seem presentable. The bookshelves have been dusted, the broken electric piano cleared away (a lizard got electrocuted deep inside its mechanical guts years ago and ever since it’s refused to make a sound, not even when the cats frantically chase each other across the black and white keys). Considering that they only come out to this country ranch every few months, for Easter or holiday weekends, the house still feels fairly lived in: the living room fresh-smelling with the sharp scent of white laundry powder, the lampshades shiny without a single dead moth smear, no cobwebs around the chandelier or shelves of VHS tapes.
‘How’s it going?’ he says, knocking on the door to his daughter’s room at the same time that he pushes it open. The room is deserted – the only sign of her presence is a stack of CD cases spilled all over the bed, next to some shredded packets of plantain chips. It’s hard to restrain himself, this rare opportunity to intrude in her bedroom – normally the door is firmly locked, American bands screaming their angst-filled rage from her stereo on the other side. So he now finds his eyes flickering greedily, taking in one new poster after another hanging on the walls. The one of a mournful-eyed American singer with shaggy blond hair holding an acoustic guitar, that’s definitely new; Snoopy dancing with a balloon, that’s been up since she was in kindergarten and received it as a present at one of the immense birthday parties she hosted here for all her classmates. The closet doors are half open; he can glimpse the shelves lined with stuffed animals that couldn’t fit into the storage trunk in the hallway, Care Bears and shabby dogs and other beasts that were never loved enough to be guaranteed a spot at their main house in Cali. There are rows of plastic toys based on countless American cartoon shows, Transformers and ThunderCats and Ghostbusters, stiff plastic bodies randomly positioned in a messy parade, silently poised with their daggers and ray guns, ready to leap into battle with invisible enemies at a moment’s notice. Everything slowly gathering dust.
From where he’s standing he can clearly see that the empty packets of plantain chips have been licked clean, not a single crumb remaining. Shaking his head, he picks them up between two fingers and drops them from the bed onto the floor where it’ll be easier for a maid to sweep them up. That’s when he sees it – the small ziplock baggie lying on a pillow, half-filled with bright red JELL-O powder – the kind of treat you can purchase from street children at traffic lights. He picks it up and shakes it up and down, the powder accumulating at the bottom, except for the wet clumps clinging near the baggie’s thin lips. He can already picture the garish stains across her front teeth and mouth, the demon red of her tongue flashing at the guests as she utters a sullen hello, the sticky finger smears on her shirt, running up and down the fabric as though a tiny animal with miniature bloody paws had danced all over her body. Ave Maria, the maids will say when they see her, closing their eyes in supplication. Mija, what were you thinking? What will your father say when you show up looking like that for his party?
The automatic gate rumbles at the same time that he hears car wheels crunching on the gravel driveway. He puts the JELL-O baggie in his back pocket, jammed tightly behind his cellphone. After closing the door behind him, he pulls his right shirtsleeve down as far as it’ll go, almost completely covering the white scars snaking over the backs of his hands.
Here they come. Black and blue high heels clicking, jackets draped over arms, wispy strands of thinning hair combed neatly back. The chauffeurs park the mud-splattered jeeps with Bogotá license plates under the fig trees; the bodyguards climb out and immediately cross their arms, already hovering in the background. He waits under the mango tree in the backyard. Smoke rises from the barbecue pit. The chefs grimly rotate sausages slashed with deep knife cuts over the fire, red peppers and onions impaled and sweating on wooden sticks.
‘Hello, hello,’ he says in greeting. Right hand hidden behind his back in a clenched fist, left hand extended and welcoming, fingers spread wide.
Everyone arrives safely, happily. Nobody’s been chased by the crazed spider monkey, the one the maids have nicknamed ‘Baloo’ for the size of his black testicles, so impressively heavy that the housecleaners whisper amongst each other: now that’s a real man, Linda, just what you need, someone to keep you satisfied, before exploding into giggles. At the last big party (two years ago? Three? Was it celebrating the successful Congress run, or hosting the visiting HSBC managers?), Baloo had run back and forth over the stone wall for hours, staring hungrily at the food, the tables, and the guests most of all (this was before the shards of glass were installed along the wall’s perimeter, before Uribe’s successful presidential campaign based on vows to ‘restore national peace and security’ before he’d started hearing the clicking sounds of recording instruments every time he lifted the phone). At one point, Baloo had jumped down and stuck his head up Mrs Montoya’s skirt, and her banshee screams had caused the maids in the kitchen to raise their eyebrows at each other.
Thankfully there’s been no sign of Baloo for months now – the fact that the security guard has been tossing his slimy orange and banana peels into the forest, well away from the main house, has possibly helped. As a result the party is going well, the conversation gliding along smoothly, effortlessly. No bottles of aguardiente or rum yet, it’s still early, the sun casting hazy yellow light over the freshly mown grass, the mosquitoes blessedly absent. Instead it’s green glass bottles of chilled beer for the gentlemen, tall slender glasses of champagne for the ladies. The hired waiting staff stalk silently back and forth across the patio, black and white uniforms still free from wine splatters and crumbs. Everything is under control; everything is fine.
He doesn’t see us, but we’re watching.
We’ve been doing so for a while now. We didn’t get any greetings, no gentle air kiss near the cheek, no firm pumping handshake, but that’s okay, we don’t take it personally, we don’t mind. Instead we take our time, take things slow: there’s no reason to rush, no reason to make things happen before they need to. We walk in slow circles around the barbecue pit, smelling the charcoal fire and crackling chicken skin with deep inhalations. We put our hands tentatively in the glass bowls of peanuts; what a nice rattling sound they make when we stir our fingers. We take turns gently touching the beer bottles, admiring the streams of condensation running down the smooth glass bodies. No one makes eye contact; nobody invites us to sample a plate of sliced limes or a tray of roasted garlic. But we’re not upset; we’re not bothered. For now, we’re happy, watching the hummingbirds dart nervously amongst the orange flowerpots. Everything has been so tasteful, nothing over the top – no helicopters landing in the football field, no spray-tanned models greased up and wrestling each other while the guests cheer and look on. No one’s slinging their arms around each other, singing classic Mexican corridos at the top of their lungs; no one’s pulled the gun from their holsters and started shooting wildly at the darkening sky. Nothing like that. The food is delicious, and everyone is having a wonderful time.
Published by Daunt Books, November 2014, 9781907970672, £4.99. To find out more about Daunt Books publications and to subscribe to our newsletter, please visit www.dauntbooks.co.uk.