restricted access The Lady in the Red Coat
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The Lady in the Red Coat

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 little sister—that we all arrive together—my brother and I were already hurrying toward the huge cabin with its wooden beams and posts and red-tiled roof, toward the sweet smell of smoke and sizzling meat, toward 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 toward 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 [End Page 35] 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 toward 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.

Four men played: two at each marimba. One was blind, or maybe half blind (he had a milky gaze), but he handled the mallets the same as 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. 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 toward the entrance, he whispered again: “she was one...

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