This week on guest blog Wednesdays we have something a little different. R. Singh, author of The Reward has shared a chapter excerpt from his novel, The Reward.
CHAPTER 12: Gorda Sings. Julia Cries.
The party scene is a lot like a sports league. You win or lose every time you go out. Also, people maintain standings in their minds over time. As caterers, Miguel and I would never play in the same division as the politicians and stars we served, but we competed within our sphere, dropping names of people and places as an increasingly important group filled our apartment on off nights.
Unlike others, who maintained a fixed position, we moved up when we could and down when we felt like it. At first, we catered events in union halls and churches because that was all we could get. As we became more successful, we still penciled in a few pedestrian gigs in places our competitors wouldn’t dream of. We did this for two reasons. The first was to maintain contacts in case we fell out of favor. The second was to remain above it all and not too grasping among our own crowd. Oh yes, we were in touch with, “The people.” We were authentic.
As I look back, there are only two names from this period worth remembering. The first is Octavio Paz. He was a marvelous soft-spoken man who wore a blue blazer with khaki pants. His grey hair fell naturally backwards, in a manner that suggested an expensive haircut. Incredibly, he achieved this through good genes and whatever cheap barber was nearby at the time. Unlike others, he was neither vain, nor loud. Smooth and quiet, he had time for everyone.
“What was India like?” I blurted out near the end of one party.
In my current identity, I use his description when I’m asked the same question. He mentioned the smell of burning cow dung, crushingly crowded cities, and the lonely Taj Mahal. We talked for about 10 minutes.
The other memorable name from back then is the Águila. Closed to the public since 1980, it looks like one of the last wooden two-story buildings near the Reforma. The original structure was Empress Carlota’s summer villa. Once she fled, it fell into disrepair, until it was fixed up by Porfirio Díaz, who began living there in 1885. In 1890, he moved away and gave it to a mistress, who promptly sold it to one of the DuPonts, who remained until the revolution. From 1910 until 1940, nobody knew what to do with it. It was part of the past no one wanted, but too beautiful to tear down. Over time it was a school, a brothel, a farmers’ market and a plumbing supply. Finally, it became the Porfirio Díaz Museum.
The Águila got its name in 1976. The government moved the museum to Chapultapec Park and sold the old villa, long since in Mexico City’s urban center, to Modelo Brewery. They turned it into a disco and named it to promote the launch of Águila beer. Águila means eagle. The sign in front showed the label emblem, which was our flag’s eagle wearing sunglasses, relaxing on a cactus, and drinking beer from a glass.
While the beer sold well in its time, the Águila disco became Mexico’s Studio 54. I remember pictures of it in magazines. Doormen always held back a crowd. Some of those made to wait were pretty famous. Disco was still popular when the Águila closed in 1978. The brewers wanted out of the club business and sold it to a former president. After that, it was used only for private parties and rumors began.
By the time we arrived on the party circuit, there were all sorts of stories. Only the façade remained, and the rest of the structure was cement, with a four-story basement. It housed secret military records. It was a TV studio, used by politicians to make unpopular announcements. Other tales were more pleasure oriented. It was said there were wine cellars, media rooms, two discos, a walk-in humidor, and a hall of science. From helicopter shots in magazines, we knew for sure that there was a flat cement roof with tile trim and a jacuzzi in the middle.
Those who had been there spoke of a side entrance and a rickety elevator that took them directly to the roof. In one corner, there was a small spiral stairway that led into a restroom area. Nobody we knew had been any further.
Finally in 1991, we got the call to join our country’s elite. We would cater an exclusive party for about 30 people in politics and business. It was an odd place to host a party themed, “The Streets of Mexico,” but it meant our work would be easy. We were to serve street food: Barbecued corn, carnitas, and tortillas. Miguel decided we would take Gorda, an affectionately named antique barbecue with cast iron grills. On display at our apartment, it gave clients an impression of heritage.
“Iron gives a more authentic flavor. Besides, everyone we know has only been up the elevator. We can go up the stairs and look inside.”
“Miguel, I’m not dragging Gorda up the stairs. Iron is better, but nobody has used it for years.”
“Honey, if we serve these people anything like street food, they’re going to vomit.”
Of course, Miguel was right. Many of the party guests had only ridden over our streets in limousines.
This meant lubricating Gorda’s hinges with lard and cooking oil, cleaning her up, and buying charcoal. The rest of our equipment ran on propane. Her trip down the stairs was nearly a disaster. Unlike newer models, there was no taking her apart. Only the grills could be removed.
By the time we loaded her into the van, we were covered in sweat, lard, and iron stains. We changed clothes. We brought a third set of uniforms to change into after we had taken Gorda up the stairs at the Águila.
Finally, we were at the door. We were informed that unless we returned in half an hour with a barbecue that could be taken apart to go up the elevator, they would call another caterer.
“Of course,” I began obsequiously.
Miguel interrupted, “Of course, we will not sacrifice our integrity to cater this gathering the wrong way! If your guests want an inferior product, don’t wait half an hour. Call now, and you can get generic soda and beer. There is no substitute for cast iron. We will not be responsible for lowered standards at the Águila.”
The door closed, and Miguel smiled triumphantly. Either way, he later explained, we won. If the Aguila was on its way down, we were distanced from it. If it maintained its position, we were the first to risk turning it down. By taking the risk in the name of quality, we would be beyond reproach and looked on with awe.
The door reopened. Gorda, like an overweight opera singer coming out of retirement, would perform again. Younger singers might be better technically, but none have that sound. Gorda was old and creaky, but her combination of charcoal, cast iron, and decades of grease in places that could never quite be cleaned off brought food to levels unattainable in other equipment.
We were shown into a well-lit room that took up the entire floor. In spite of the creamcolored walls, I recognized the Águila disco. Dust covered the mirror ball, which still hung over the room. The doors to both VIP rooms swung half-open on their hinges, as though auditioning for a western movie.
We went up the stairs on one end of the room. When we reached the second floor, we found that the stairs continued on the other end of the room. Carlota had not liked people running up and down the stairs. Her design of alternating stairs on either end of the room forced people to stop and enjoy each level. For us, it was a delay. The second floor was empty, and filled with scaffolding. We could see the cement and steel structure that went around and through the villa to support the jacuzzi on the roof.
Eventually, we made it to the stairs to the third floor. There, we found the beginnings of a hall of science. Signs were painted about Mexican scientists who duplicated Ethyl at PEMEX, and there was a section on attempts at a malaria vaccine at the UNAM. The glass cases were empty and covered in dust. I would have liked to look more closely at the fourth floor. Iron pipes and awkward tools were scattered among what was left of the farmers’ market. It was a time capsule.
“Gorda’s home,” I said. “Let’s leave her here.”
“She’s taking us to the top, as soon as we get her there,” Miguel replied.
From there, we opened the door to the bathroom area and the final set of stairs. At last, we were on the roof. We went back downstairs and changed. We brought everything else up on the elevator.
Usually, Miguel and I divided our work somewhat evenly. Both of us served and cooked, but I spent more time in the kitchen, while Miguel spent more time among the guests. This time, we would have a rigid division of labor. I would not leave Gorda until it was time to clean up. Without temperature controls and modern design, she required constant attention, checking on the food, shifting and adding coals.
From my station at the barbecue, I watched people come in. All felt very important and played their roles. There were young movers and shakers, shady businessmen, and even an eminencia gris. A familiar figure caught my eye and turned the heads of many straight men. She had a tight white dress cut off above the knees with a sloping black triangle with its base at the legs stretching up to a point at her left shoulder. Her full brown hair was cut an inch above the shoulders. I saw her sunglasses and nearly did a double take. It was my sister, Julia. She was on the arm of a grey bald man, high up enough in government to have his picture in the paper, but not high enough for his name to be common knowledge.
Her arm was around him in a possessive sort of way. Carefully, she wiped his chin and laughed at the right times. She brought him drinks and food. When she came over to the barbecue to fill their plates, she did not recognize me. For the first time since the coffee incident on the plane, I started to feel that something was wrong. Somehow, she was not a real person. Although she had clearly moved up, she was an accessory, a human Rolex whose value could rise or fall according to fashion.
Other women deferred to her, apparently asking questions about her jewelry and hair. Men flirted with her, enough to get her attention, but not so much as to get on her escort’s bad side. I never saw a trace of regret, but wondered why the sunglasses remained long after it was dark.
I felt bad for her. Internally, I became our parents, suddenly wanting her to leave her life behind to get a job and go to school. “It can’t last,” I wanted to tell her. I couldn’t make a scene, and there was no sign that she knew who I was. My eyes burned with angry tears for what I saw as terrible mistakes she and I had made. I used to admire her pictures in the paper. Now, I felt guilty, as though I had a part in her situation.
“What’s wrong with your eyes?” Miguel looked concerned.
I wiped them off. “Gorda makes a lot of soot.”
“I’ll take over,” he said, motioning me away.
I walked to the edge of the old villa, looking at the Reforma. I could see where I had been at 10, looking over at the same street. I wondered what I would tell the younger version of myself had it been possible.
An older woman in a loose black cocktail dress and too high heels came in and went straight over to Julia, barking at her and slapping her companion. She was younger than the man. Consequently, I couldn’t tell if she was the scorned wife or a displaced mistress. In any case, she won, and Julia was left alone. She was somewhat drunk and less attractive. She tried to catch the attention of those who flirted with her earlier, but as I picked up plates and glasses, I could hear them make polite excuses and head for the elevator.
I went back to the barbecue and asked Miguel to help her. He pulled a plate of sausages from a lower compartment and walked over.
“Look at this! We save the best for last. This is for you: A sample plate of Mexico’s finest sausage by VW. Try this and let me know what you think.”
Julia was important again. She carefully told Miguel her opinion on all of it, while the rest of the guests filed out. It was a ruse we used continually. Obnoxious drunks would stop fighting, eat too much meat, and slip away to vomit. Those who were saddened, usually by a drop in the pecking order, found the meat comforting. If there was no situation to remedy, the sample plate would appear at the end of a party as a way of building my business.
Eventually, the three of us were left with the maintenance crew, waiting for Gorda to cool down. Everything else was loaded in our van.
Julia started watching me. Her eyes followed me as I walked around to make sure that nothing was left behind. Finally she blurted out, “Antonio! You’re the other maricón!”
I hugged her anyway. I took off her sunglasses and revealed sunken, defeated eyes. She helped us take Gorda down the stairs, ruining her dress in the process. She would stay with us. Her casita was closed.
We talked at home for about an hour. I tried to get her to come to work for us. I hated to see her fall like that. I made some other suggestions. Finally I blurted out, “You’re a little too old to be put in a casita.”
She slapped me across the face and went to bed. “Maybe it sunk in,” I almost said.
The next morning Martina found her, and the two of them began a long intense discussion in one of our bedrooms. Julia listened, occasionally making a point or raising and objection. Martina, only a few years older, made intense hand gestures and sometimes raised her voice: “That’s not what it means to be a woman! You’re like a pet!” and finally, “You don’t even care about those people.”
After a few days, Julia left to stay with Martina. In the meantime, she helped us at parties. Working with her was, in a way, recapturing our childhood. Instead of swimming, we were running up and down stairs with trays of food and drinks. None of our gigs were with her old crowd. She was punctual for three weeks.
Julia and Martina got along well, giving each other advice. Julia helped Martina with fashion, while Martina was Julia’s mentor for things that mattered. Julia started taking classes. It was the first time I had heard her talk about books.
One morning, Martina came to work and hardly spoke to us. She hardly said a word before I left on my sales route and was equally silent when I came back. That night, Julia didn’t show up. After a week of a sullen Martina and no Julia, I asked what was going on.
“There’s no talking to some people. She started to study, then stopped her classes after beginning an affair with a teacher. When she got the director’s attention, she threw him over the side. She’s back in her casita, courtesy of someone at the education ministry.”
Martina grabbed a stack of receipts, stared intently at her desk, and motioned me away.
Synopsis: Reggie Singh is dying of kidney failure at the Veterans’ Administration hospital in La Jolla, California. The book is a long letter to his partner, telling him the truth. It will be delivered after he dies. He reveals that he never worked for the CIA. His past as an operative working in Pakistan is made up. His real name is Antonio, and he is Mexican He is in the Witness Protection Program because he shot Ramon*, a cartel leader, and got the reward money.
More info @ Goodreads.
To be released October 2011