Green Hills Literary Lantern

 

 

 

A Third World Dinner

  

1977 – A Spring Evening
 
“I’ve got to admit I’m worried about what the Ambassador might do,” Deputy Chief of Mission Hugh Hightower said. He couldn’t help but feel anxious about the evening’s dinner at the Ambassador’s Residence. “Ambassador Merchant really didn’t want to host this affair, you know, and he’s inclined to say some pretty inappropriate things.”
 
“Oh, I’m sure he’ll be on good behavior.” Hugh’s wife, Patience, sought to buoy him up. “It’s Bobo I’m worried about. I’ve heard so many stories about her.”
 
“Her too. They’re both loose cannons.”
 
With the 1976 election settled, Hugh hoped fervently for a new ambassador. But, so far, nonews.
 
Patience spoke to their Embassy driver. “Aren’t we almost there?”
 
“Yes, Madam. It’s the next street.”
 
Acutely conscious of his approaching fiftieth, Hugh was a tall, plain-faced man with pale blue eyes. He parted his thinning ash brown hair on the left and combed it over. Although he’d kept slim with tennis and jogging, his cummerbund disguised a slight, but worrying, paunch. Some people--mostly his Newport mother and aunts--reckoned he had the look of a scholar about him. Hugh himself counted among his virtues steadfastness in carrying out duties, discretion, and punctuality. These attributes also made Hugh a worrier; he fretted about being late.
 
Hugh squinted at his watch in the beige light of early evening. Ten minutes before eight; they would just make it. They’d had a delayed start, and custom dictated that Embassy officers arrive early to greet guests who showed up before the time inscribed on their invitations, in this case, eight o’clock. He glanced at his wife and smiled approvingly.
 
Hugh delighted in his wife’s appearance and in her intelligence. Fifteen years younger than he was when they married two years before, she’d introduced blond New York glamour and vivacity into his life. The cleavage of her black evening dress unsettled him, but Hugh kept his thoughts to himself. Ambassador Don Merchant was an ogler.
 
Merchant was also a political appointee. Second largest car dealer in the tri-state area three years running (1973-1975), he’d stuffed plenty of cash into party coffers during the election campaign. He’d been compensated, as had many like him, with an ambassadorship.
 
Hugh visualized Merchant--a heavyset, red-faced man with quivering jowls. Could chipmunkesque be a word? Hugh chuckled inwardly, recalling how Merchant sought to compensate for hair long gone with a “stylish” salt and pepper toupee. Merchant’s rasping, effusive voice reminded Hugh of a talking crow. The man detested neckties and decked himself out in polyester leisure suits. He filled any room he set foot in with lung-grabbing clouds of cigar smoke. A nonsmoker, Hugh fumed over the fumes.
 
Upon his arrival in the capital city of this small European country (best left unnamed), Merchant had demanded the Residence be completely refurbished. The drapes, he said, were awful, the carpet made him want to puke, and the furniture looked like it came out of a New Orleans whorehouse. His official vehicle had to be replaced. His wife, Bobo, detested black cars, and so did he.
 
He also insisted two of his cronies be hired as “special staff.” Neither possessed any apparent qualifications, unless one counted toadyism and low golf handicaps. Moreover, after first meeting him, Merchant characterized the Foreign Minister as an oddball; the less he had to do with him the better. Not, Hugh concluded, an auspicious beginning.
 
Early on, Hugh abandoned hope for any productive work from Ambassador Merchant. “It looks like my main job,” he told Patience, “is to keep the boss from doing something truly outrageous.” He felt like a involuntary minder constantly monitoring the behavior of his charge. Fortunately, because Merchant disliked dealing with the press, knowledge of his more preposterous notions, his biases, and his eye for the ladies initially stayed behind Embassy walls.
 
As Hugh and Patience cruised up the circular drive to the Residence, Hugh drummed his fingers on the sedan’s leather door panel.
 
“No need to be so nervous, sweetie. I’m sure it will all work out,” Patience said.
 
Hugh stared out the window, convinced the dinner was a mistake. Given the Ambassador’s grudging approval of the idea and the erratic behavior of the Ambassador’s wife, the prospect of something bad happening loomed large in Hugh’s mind.
 
Why hadn’t he realized from the moment Bill Baseheart, the Political Section Chief, came up with the dinner idea that it was fraught with risk? Baseheart had argued that, by staging a dinner rich in the geographic and ethnic diversity of its guests, they would, at a single stroke, dispel diplomatic community concerns. The dinner would serve as proof positive the rumors about the Ambassador holding his colleagues in low regard were unfounded. Hugh did not rate Baseheart among the great minds of the Western World. But no one had come up with a better proposal.
 
* * *
 
It had all started one afternoon a few weeks earlier with Hugh trying to convince the Ambassador to attend the Peruvian national day celebration. With trepidation, Hugh said, “Mr. Ambassador, since you’ve been here a while now (it was six months), perhaps it would be useful to expand your range of acquaintances in the diplomatic corps.”
 
“What for? You know what those rinky-dink ambassadors spend their time doing?”  
 
Hugh assumed it to be a rhetorical question and said nothing.
 
“I’ll tell you what,” Merchant went on. “They turn up at these national day receptions--every damn one. Get there early, scarf up all the food, guzzle every free drink some waiter carries by, and stand around yammering with each other. That’s what.” He wrinkled his nostrils in contempt.
 
These and like comments lent weight to Hugh’s perception of Merchant as a particularly curious ambassadorial choice; and there had been plenty of curious ones from among whom to choose. Merchant’s biggest disqualifier was that he didn’t much care for foreigners. Indeed, he didn’t like them at all.
 
To the extent he identified with any foreigners, Ambassador Merchant identified with those from Western Europe--especially the ones who offered him the use of rent-free villas on the Mediterranean. He liked to say, “We are Europe’s children.” He surely never said, “We are Africa’s children,” or “we are Asia’s children,” or “we are Latin America’s children.” No, Don Merchant definitely counted himself a First Worlder.
 
Afflicted with near chronic xenophobia, at least as it pertained to people who “aren’t like us,” Merchant had also missed out on tact in his genetic makeup. At a luncheon with a group of European ambassadors soon after Merchant’s arrival, Hugh had watched apprehensively as Merchant, like a man seeking salvation through drink, guzzled glass after glass of an unappreciated Riesling. Discussion at the table focused on economic assistance to developing nations.
 
Midway through the meal the Swedish host turned to Merchant. “We’ve yet to hear from you, Ambassador Merchant. Perhaps you have some thoughts.”
 
“Gentlemen,” Merchant said, “I am a plainspoken man. I think you’re all well-meaning. But, I have to say all this money we’ve laid out for all these years hasn’t done a damn bit of good. No, sir.”
 
Hugh searched the faces of the committed aid donors ranged round the table. He’d catalogued superiority, surprise, and irritation before he tuned in again on Merchant’s thick-tongued commentary.
 
“You know, gentlemen. I don’t want to seem harsh toward our friends in those places you’ve been talking about. But, you know as well as I do, all those bozo countries are really looking for is a handout from Uncle Sugar. And from you folks too.”
 
He signaled the waiter for a refill.
 
Later, when they were about to leave, the French ambassador took Hugh’s arm.
 
“Hugh, my friend, what exactly is a bozo country?”
 
 “I believe the Ambassador was referring to those developing countries that aren’t always quick to show their appreciation for economic assistance.”
 
“But, bozo. What is this bozo?”
 
“The Ambassador is leaving. Excuse me.” Hugh escaped through the front entrance.
 
In the car, the Ambassador said, “I guess I shouldn’t have talked so tough about our dark-complexioned friends. But, hell, Hugh, sometimes things just pop out. I’m only human, you know.”
 
With performances like that--and there were more--word got round the city that the American ambassador disdained most members of the diplomatic corps and the countries they represented.
 
Like would-be lovers who’d been scorned, offended envoys suffered affronts to personal and national pride.
 
The Nigerian ambassador said, “We’re all tired of Don Merchant’s snubs.”  
 
The Costa Rican ambassador said, “The man is an insensitive oaf who purchased his ambassadorship.”
 
They all delighted in stories of how, at his confirmation hearing, Merchant had been unable to name the prime minister of the country to which he was about to be accredited. The Singapore envoy gleefully reported he’d heard Merchant couldn’t find the place on a globe.
 
Whenever Merchant served up some less-than-diplomatic comment, it provided fresh tinder for another round of rumor and complaint that burned through the community. After meeting the Brazilian ambassador, Merchant was overheard to say, “That fellow looks like one of those greasy samba dancers in some cheap night club.” 
 
But, despite suggestions, veiled and not so veiled, from various diplomats, the host government was not about to chide the representative of “our most powerful ally.” So the Foreign Minister conducted himself with caution, and the ambassadors behaved with diplomatic circumspection.
 
Only Merchant’s own staff seemed inclined to do something. After all, US policy aimed at demonstrating oneness with the world, at lifting America’s shining lantern, lighting the path to freedom and democracy, and at imparting the blessings of economic individualism. At winning hearts. At winning minds.
 
And so, Baseheart and his crew labored to produce a memorandum to the Ambassador. It asserted that a gesture on his part, in this case a black tie dinner, would affirm his commitment to an evenhanded approach to the representatives of all nations, large and small, wherever they might be situated.
 
“This is the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard of,” the Ambassador said to Hugh after reading the memo. “Sounds like feeding more foreigners at taxpayers’ expense.”
 
As the Ambassador spoke with substantial authority on the subject of taxpayer exploitation, having finagled every benefit his position permitted and some it didn’t, Hugh couldn’t say the man didn’t know what he was talking about.
 
“Go ahead, give me your idea of a guest list, then we’ll see,” Merchant said. He didn’t exactly say it; it sounded more like a growl. And the Ambassador’s growl was reinforced by an authentic growl from his dog, Samson, an ill-natured Rottweiler. 
 
The Ambassador patted the dog on the head. “There, there, Samson, he’s leaving.” Samson gazed adoringly at his master, then turned his head and curled his lip like Elvis, displaying his canines in profile. Hugh stepped smartly out of the office. 
 
Hugh instructed Baseheart and the Protocol Officer, Millicent Gretch, to put together a guest list for Merchant’s consideration. The next day Baseheart stood before Hugh’s desk
 
“Here it is, Hugh. It is, as they say, all-inclusive.”
 
Hugh  made an effort to smile tolerantly..
 
“Okay. I’ll show it to him. See what he says.
 
What Merchant said was, “Hell. I’d like to draw a line through every name on this list. Bunch of nobodies from nowhere countries. They’ll probably want doggy bags.”
 
Hugh concealed his exasperation. The proposed invitees came mostly from developing and small countries; the list included several highly respected ambassadors, people whose intelligence, experience, and urbanity enabled them to advance their nations’ interests.
 
“Told Bobo I thought this was a cockamamie idea. Bunch of Third Worlders.” Merchant pointed his cigar at Hugh and leaned forward. “Know what she said?”
 
His eyes tearing up from the smoke, Hugh shook his head.
 
“She said it would be a real kick to bring all those different kinds of foreigners to the house. Said she hoped they’d wear their native outfits.”
 
“We had in mind black tie, but . . . perhaps some of the ladies might opt for national dress. . .”
 
“Tuxes? Sure. Why not? Make it more classy. They’ll go for that. Right?”
 
“It’s the established way of doing things, Mr. Ambassador. I’m sure they’ll be quite at ease.”
 
“Personally, I think it’s a waste of time, but gotta keep the wife happy, you know. So, okay. Go ahead and set it up.”
 
“Yes, sir. We’ll get right to work on the invitations.”
 
“By the way, Hugh, you’ll have your people make some of those index cards with things for me to say, won’t you?”
 
“Yes, sir. You can count on it.”
 
“I might just sort of lead off, then you can pitch in. You understand this bunch better than I do.”
 
“Talk to them about your own business experience,” Hugh reassured his boss. “Ask them about their diplomatic assignments. Inquire about their families. Just be yourself.”
 
“Yeah, maybe I’ll talk about movies. I bet they like American movies. How about Rocky? Think they’ve seen that? Or maybe the new John Wayne – the one where he is dying? Anyway, I still want those little cards.”
 
“You can count on it,” Hugh said again and left the office.
 
Later in the afternoon, Hugh’s secretary, Mary Wright, prepared the invitations from the list Gretch handed her. Baseheart peered over her shoulder.
 
“Ambassador Luis Ramirez and niece? She’s his niece? No way,” he said.
 
Hugh said nothing..
 
Next came the Ambassador of Panama, the only name on the list that had elicited a positive response from Merchant. “That little Chiquita Banana is a real dish,” he’d enthused. Ambassador Gomez’s wife had been third runner up in the Miss Universe contest, or so they’d all heard. “Get it? Banana--a real dish?”
 
Hugh got it. Merchant had earlier referred to the Mexican ambassador’s wife as a hot tamale. Hugh left his boss’s office resignedly shaking his head.
 
Wielding her calligraphy pen with aplomb, Wright stacked invitations on a growing pile. Along with those for the representatives of Columbia and Panama, the heap soon included cards addressed to the ambassadors and their ladies from Nepal (doyen of the diplomatic corps), Venezuela, Jamaica, Tanzania, Zambia, Bangladesh, the Philippines, Iran, Morocco, South Korea, and Ireland.
 
“Ireland? What’s the Irish ambassador’s name doing here?” Hugh asked.
 
“The Ambassador told me to put him on,” Gretch replied. “Laughing when he did. Said Ambassador Killian would fit right in.”
 
The invitations went out on Thursday. By Monday, Gretch began to receive rsvp phone calls. Several callers inquired about the nature of the occasion. Like a talking bird with a limited vocabulary, Gretch recited a stock answer: “Ambassador Merchant wants to establish closer personal relations with members of the community he doesn’t know well. This is both for social reasons and so that he might benefit from the broader counsel of his colleagues.”
 
By Wednesday, they had all accepted.
 
“Probably feel gratified to be invited,” Baseheart said to Hugh over lunch in the embassy cafeteria.
 
“More likely they want to find out what he’s up to. Plain curiosity,” Hugh said.
 
“Gretch is worried about the menu,” Baseheart said. He took a bite of his grilled Velveeta sandwich. (Merchant demanded that the cafeteria serve American food.) “She apparently told the Ambassador’s wife some of these folks might have dietary restrictions.”
 
“And what, pray tell, did the Mrs. say?”
 
“If they’re worried about the food, maybe they should just stay home.”
 
“Sounds like Bobo,” Hugh said. Palms upraised, he shrugged.
 
* * *
 
Passing through the tall doors of the Residence, Hugh and Patience caught the melodic airs of a piano trio positioned in the foyer. “Nice touch. Chopin” Hugh said. But, he promptly quashed his minor elation. Had Gretch cleared hiring the musicians with Merchant? Merchant had proclaimed more than once, “Highbrow music puts me to sleep.”
 
“Have you seen the Ambassador?” Hugh said to Peter Quimby, a bespectacled junior officer assigned to greet guests at the entrance.
 
“No, sir.” Saw Mrs. Merchant, though. Kind of strange.”
 
“How so?” Hugh said while a maid took his wife’s coat.
 
“She asked me if we’re having a party here tonight.”
 
“What?” Hugh shot his wife an oh my God look. “You mean she acted like she didn’t know about the dinner?”
 
“Well, to be perfectly candid . . . I think maybe she started early on the cocktails.”
 
“Great. Just great,” Hugh said. He brought his hand to his forehead, as if trying to curb the foreboding surging through his brain.
 
“Also, the Tanzanian ambassador and his wife got here fifteen minutes early. Mr. and Mrs. Baseheart are talking to them in the reception room,” Quimby said.
 
Nodding to the musicians, Hugh and Patience started across the marbled foyer to join the early arrivers. However, Phil Palford, Merchant’s “special assistant for business matters,” intercepted them.
 
“Don wants to see you upstairs.”
 
Hugh experienced a rush of angst, like someone receivinga late night call. Patience dropped away to escort the just-arrived Colombian ambassador and his “niece,” Angelica, into the reception room. Hugh trailed Palford up to Merchant’s second floor living quarters.
 
Like some minor potentate, Merchant sat sunk into a leather chair sipping a Scotch and water, his stockinged feet propped on a hassock. No tuxedo--instead Merchant had wrapped himself in a plaid woolen robe, one which failed to cover his shiny, white ankles.
 
“Hugh. Sorry to break the news. Just can’t make it tonight. I’ve got this damned cold. Maybe I’m coming down with the flu.”
 
“But, Ambassador Merchant, your guests are already arriving, and . . .”
 
“Hugh, old buddy, you’ll just have to fill in.”
 
“But, the whole purpose was . . .”
 
“Just tell ‘em I’m under the weather. Maybe I’ll come down for an after dinner drink.” Merchant ostentatiously blew his nose.
 
“And Mrs. Merchant? Will she be able to . . .”
 
“Afraid not. Bo’s having one of her spells.”
 
By the time Hugh set foot in the reception room, the guests had all arrived. From the chill in the air, Hugh realized his early fears had been warranted. That the guest list was contrived was as transparent.. Worse yet, indignant expressions bannered the fact there were those present affronted at being included in the company of the others.
 
The Zambian ambassador said, almost plaintively, “Hugh, I thought perhaps we might see our colleague from France here this evening. Or perhaps the German.”
 
Hugh shook his head, offered a charitable smile, and turned away.
 
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Hugh announced, “I’m terribly sorry to inform you Ambassador Merchant and his lady have both become ill. Nothing serious I can assure you. Although they were especially looking forward to this evening, they will not be able to join you for dinner.”
 
Incredulous looks rained on him like a volley of poison-tipped darts. But murmurs of surprise subsided, and the assembled diplomats waited expectantly for further elucidation.
 
Hugh had none to offer and groped for words. “The Ambassador hopes you will still enjoy the hospitality of his home and the fare at his table. He promises he will make every effort to join you for a time after dinner. Now, if you’ll please go into the dining room . . .”
 
Finding their names on the seating chart posted at the door, the assembled guests and the Embassy participants trooped in.
 
On the way in, Patience said, “Cheer up, Hugh, you look depressed.”
 
Gretch had found the seating arrangements a challenge. Among other things, she’d been unaware the Venezuelan and Panamanian ambassadors despised each other, and she had seated them across from each other. And the Jamaican ambassador’s wife mumbled something to her husband when she discovered he was seated next to the Colombian ambassador’s “niece.” This young woman, who showed up in a body hugging red dress, was assumed by all to be the Colombian’s mistress. Gretch had missed the fact the “niece” was ordinarily excluded from functions in polite diplomatic society.
 
Occupying Merchant’s chair at the head of the long table, Hugh surveyed the gathered assemblage. They stopped talking when he tapped his glass and rose to offer a toast. God, what an unhappy crowd, he thought. He felt like a pigeon errantly come to roost in a nest of raptors.
 
Glass in hand, Hugh said, “Again, I want to welcome you. I . . .” Why did they seem to be gazing right past him and into the foyer? “I know Ambassador Merchant would . . .”  A collective intake of breath, then a crescendo of tittering and snickering pervaded the room. Hugh looked over his shoulder.
 
Having transited the foyer--for all to see--Bobo was now making her way back to the stairway. Her gray blond tresses, without benefit of comb or brush, lent her a particularly disheveled look. Clad in a skimpy housecoat, in one hand she clutched a precariously full martini glass. Directly beyond the open French doors leading into the dining room, she balanced on one foot, trying with her free hand--unsuccessfully--to put on a slipper that had come off. A pink, bunny slipper, Hugh noted. The Zambian ambassador later described the scene as a “tableau vivant.”
 
Her robe hiked up to reveal a good deal of a leg. Becoming aware of her audience, she planted her unshod foot on the floor, scooped up the slipper, and began to hobble away. Then, as Hugh stared in openmouthed amazement, Bobo pivoted, waved the slipper triumphantly in the air and executed a little bow. Before disappearing unsteadily up the stairs, she paused once more, put down the slipper, and blew the guests a kiss.
 
“Life is full of surprises,” Hugh said, his eyes confessing his discomfiture. “Please enjoy your meal.” He dropped into his chair, unable to stitch together another sentence. It must all be some terrible nightmare. He hated Bobo Merchant.
 
Meanwhile, staff members began the dinner service, and Hugh heard the reassuring clink of cutlery as the guests soldiered on, diplomatic courtesy tested at its outer limits. At the far end of the table, Patience listened attentively to the Iranian ambassador, a second cousin or something of the Shah. For his part, Hugh labored to display interest in a monologue by the Iranian’s wife seated on his right. A woman with all the brio of a grapefruit, she rambled on about her thirty-year-old son’s aspiration to become a concert pianist, an aspiration thwarted, it seemed, by a jealous teacher in Paris.
 
Suddenly the Iranian woman shrank back, and Hugh sensed an unwelcome presence at his side. A rumbling growl confirmed his suspicion. Samson had joined them at dinner. Hugh gingerly lowered his hand and detected the dog’s massive head. Another low growl.
 
Hugh beckoned to Merchant’s butler, an elderly fellow, a master of decorum and propriety
 
“Can you please get rid of this dog?” Hugh hissed from the side of his mouth.
 
“I’m afraid not, sir. He doesn’t much like me. Besides, that’s his spot. He often sits next to Ambassador Merchant.”
 
“He’s disturbing my guest.” Hugh had read somewhere Persians loathed dogs, considering them unclean creatures.
 
“Perhaps if you give him a treat, he’ll go away.”
 
The seafood course had just been served. Hugh broke off a small piece of lobster with his fork and surreptitiously--he thought--gave it to Samson.
 
Two seats away, the Bangladesh ambassador declared, “This is really too much. He’s feeding a dog at the table. Have the Americans no manners at all?”
 
Meanwhile, Samson lingered, extorting further handouts. He seemed especially taken with the flaky Fleurons Dorées.
 
“He’s really quite gentle. I’m sure he likes you,” Hugh said with forced cheerfulness.
 
“Make it go away,” the Iranian lady said. “Make it go away.” Her tremulous voice captured the attention of those seated near her. As if to endorse Hugh’s words, Samson placed his chin on the woman’s lap, wagged his stubby tail, and drooled. The terrified woman clapped her hands over her face.
 
Hugh experienced an instant of fleeting relief and gulped down a glass of Riesling when the dog lifted its head and trotted off to the foyer. His relief came with a price. The dog had simply gone off to greet his mistress, who had returned and, like a diva making her grand entrance, hovered halfway down the stairs. The wobbling diva, however, was tight and managed to grip the railing only with considerable difficulty. My God, she was back--Hugh was about to become undone.
 
“Would anybody like a drink?” Bobo called out exuberantly. She struggled, with minimal success, to hold together the front of her robe.
 
While this scene unfolded, the Iranian ambassador reached his wife’s side. “We’re leaving,” he announced.
 
Hugh started to get up. “I’m terribly sorry, I’ll see you to the . . .”
 
“No thank you,” the Iranian ambassador said. “You’d best stay here and look after your menagerie.” Did he mean Samson or Bobo? Or both of them?
 
Hugh consoled himself. With all the disorder in Tehran, the ambassadorial pair would likely soon be gone.
 
Ambassador Killian grinned at his table mate. “I wonder what they have in mind for the finale.”
 
Although Bobo and Samson vanished back up the stairs, Hugh stared morosely at the Tournedos Rossini, placed before him. He ordinarily savored the medaillions of sauce-covered tenderloin, but he could not eat. Ditto for the Potatoes Mascotte, and Tomatoes St. Germain. He suspected that other guests were debating whether or not to follow the Iranian out the door. Hugh suppressed an urge to scream.
 
Hugh had just put a fork into his Caesar salad when the Colombian ambassador exploded half way down the table. The man slammed down his napkin and sprang to his feet. Particles of Brie spewed from his mouth and decorated the front of his dinner jacket. His spilled Cabernet Sauvignon sent a red stain spreading across the tablecloth. Conversation stopped, the other guests suddenly rendered silent as the vases of flowers that dressed the tables.
 
“No. I will permit no further insults. I am an honorable man. My niece, the daughter of my departed sister, is a pure young woman.” The Colombian poured his wrath, like a vituperative liquid, over the Jamaican ambassador’s wife.
 
That woman, it seemed, had deemed her husband overly chivalrous towards the lovely Angelica. And the Jamaican wife broadcast what she thought to all around her. In his twenty plus years of diplomatic service, Hugh had never heard the word “slut” directed by one guest toward another at an ambassador’s table..
 
Tugging Angelica along by the arm, like a schoolmaster leading an errant student, the Colombian ambassador marched out of the room. The bickering Jamaicans marched close behind. To the amazement and amusement of the remaining guests who could hear shouting and cursing, the fray erupted again in the vestibule, this time between the two ambassadors.
 
Further complicating young Quimby’s life at the entrance was the fact the drivers for the two ambassadors vied to be first under the portico. Everyone heard the consequent crunch of fenders that brought the chauffeurs out of their vehicles, hurling insults and gesticulating like mad men. Quimby watched helplessly as the Jamaican and Colombian ambassadors continued their own venomous sparring.
 
As empty places multiplied at the table, Hugh concluded the time had come to abandon that venue before everyone was gone. He gamely encouraged the remaining male guests to join him in the library for Cognac, while Patience and Bitsy Baseheart herded the ladies into an anteroom for coffee. Forlorn candied fruits and petites fours remained untouched, as envoys and Mrs. envoys unceremoniously decamped.
 
Still, even though he knew he was deluded, Hugh clung to the hope Merchant would make a belated appearance. Even if he only shook a few hands and said a few words, the gesture might partially salvage the most calamitous evening Hugh had ever experienced. Besides, Merchant himself ought to be stuck with the job of explaining Bobo.
 
Hugh captured Quimby and dispatched him to see if Merchant really was coming down.
 
Five minutes later, Quimby reported back. “I ran into Palford. He said the Ambassador would be on his way in a few minutes.”
 
“Good. I’ll wait for him the library.”
 
“I also saw Mrs. Gomez in the hall when I was upstairs,” Quimby volunteered. “She asked where there was a bathroom.”
 
“I suppose there were ladies waiting for the guest bathroom down here. Anyway, keep an eye out for the Ambassador.”
 
Hugh returned to the library where the wives had rejoined their plenipotentiary spouses. He moved about mechanically, like an old-fashioned windup toy. How the stories would fly through the community--and soon to Washington. “I’m dead.” Hugh whispered to Patience,
 
“Oh, Hugh. Don’t be so dramatic. It won’t seem quite so terrible in the morning--when the smoke clears.” Hugh had just envisioned his career wafting skyward in a cloud.
 
The remaining guests hovered nervously about. After all, Hugh had just told them Ambassador Merchant indeed intended to greet them, rising from his sickbed--nothing contagious Hugh assured them--to do so.
 
Quimby tugged at Hugh’s sleeve. “Something’s going on upstairs. Listen.”
 
They all heard it--an muted commotion emanating from the second floor. Pounding; Merchant’s indecipherable voice pleading, demanding, then pleading again; all intermingled with a woman’s wailing screams. More pounding. More screams. Hugh, the butler, and a security agent clambered over each other charging up the stairs. Ambassador Gomez, huffing and puffing, struggled along close behind.
 
 At the top of the stairs they all saw him--still in his robe, Merchant, half way down the corridor, leaning against a bedroom door and striking it repeatedly with two clenched fists. “Come on, Chiquita, let me in,” the drunken man bellowed. “I just wanted to say hello.” They learned later he’d first sought to extend his greeting by trying to lift her skirt when Mrs. Gomez encountered him in the hall. Mrs. Gomez had fled into a bedroom and was struggling to hold the door shut when her rescuers arrived.
 
Merchant persisted in his pounding until Hugh and the security agent each seized an arm and pulled him away.
 
“You can’t do that. I’m the Ambassador, damn it.”
 
“Time for a rest. Flu. Remember?” Hugh said. They led the shambling Merchant back to his sitting room and slammed the door behind them.
 
Lured out by the rumpus, Bobo emerged from another bedroom, barefoot, but otherwise more or less dressed for dinner. “What’s going on?” she asked of nobody in particular.
 
Pervertido! Desgraciado! That’s what he is. A pervert,” Gomez sang out over his shoulder as he guided his sobbing wife down the stairs and out of the Residence.
 
Hugh plodded after him to the deserted foyer. The guests had fled, even Killian, who did so reluctantly, complaining, “I’ll probably miss something.” Hugh traded stunned glances with Patience. Then he slumped into a chair occupied earlier by the piano trio’s violinist. His world was folding up; Hugh believed he was going to be sick.
 
Awash in a sea of martyred misery, he felt a gentle tap on his shoulder. It was the Nepalese doyen of the diplomatic corps, dutifully still present.
 
“Minister Hightower,” he said, “who is Chiquita Banana?”
 
  
 
 
 

Lawrence F. Farrar is a former Foreign Service officer with multiple assignments in Japan and Washington, DC. He also served in Germany and Norway. In addition to earlier stories in GHLL, his work has appeared in more than 50 literary magazines. His stories often involve a protagonist coming up against the norms and customs of a foreign society.