Lamb Crown

After waking up, and after I had emptied last night’s ashtray (full), tossed last night’s bottle of wine (empty), and reviewed last night’s work (none), I noticed a folded letter slipped beneath my room’s front door, a quick note written on the hotel’s letterheaded stationary.

“Mr. Callert, the note began, there’s been a problem with your credit card Please see anyone at your earliest convenience to settle this issue before your departure tomorrow. It was signed Mr. Ruiz—Manager, and anyone was underlined in thick red ink.

My first stop after skirting away was a public square nearby. Head in hands, I wondered where I would sleep that night, what I would eat, and whether or not I should go to the airport a day in advance. My passport wallet held only a few pesos outside the delinquent credit card. Around me, businessmen in frumpy brown suits hurried from one end of the square to another with their toupees amiss, and a Filipino au pair pushed a stroller through blankets of pigeons. These darting, passing figures only further emphasized the square’s off-season desolation, much like how drips of sauce on an otherwise spotless oxford sometimes bring the surrounding emptiness into better picture, and it was this emptiness that presently crushed my heart. I felt alone and without option. I resented my matte purple suitcase.

Why had I chosen such a conspicuous color? It caused such a stir when I first checked in, a buzz that made me proud at the time, like I was something close to fashionable. The front desk adored it, and a mustached man lent a dignified nod as he hustled through the lobby, winking at the unusual color of my luggage. I assumed he was the manager, so steady was his gait. That must have been Mr. Ruiz, I realized now. The man who had taken the time to thickly underline anyone in his note as a panoptic boast.

If he caught me, there was no doubt I’d be forced to pay my dues under Mr. Ruiz’s thumb. He’d decide my night’s lodgings for me, likely a dank prison somewhere in the city center, the ultimate end of bounced checks.

I covered the suitcase with my jacket, braving the breeze and feeling better with the suitcase obscured. More secure. More anonymous. I took my notebook out the pocket, the pages still blank.

A photo of my father was pasted on the inside of the notebook’s front cover. Photocopied in grainy grey tones, it gazed into me each time I opened the cover, as if I were a customs agent. Written underneath were the few facts I knew about his trip months before with Uncle Ivan: the address of the house they rented in Medellín, the nightclub El El, the alleged first name of a prostitute, a bus route to some destination I had long forgotten, and his favorite restaurant in Medellín, Uribe’s. When I told him I was taking a trip of my own to Colombia, he only had one request: see if anyone at Uribe’s remembered him. I’d come close to fulfilling this request over the last week—I’d eaten dinner at Uribe’s every night of my vacation, but I never asked after Dad. Instead, I ate my dinner quietly and charged my meal to my hotel room; the two institutions

had a tangential relationship, despite their physical distance from one another—a discount was even applied if you presented your room key.

Because there were still questions I needed answered before I left, and because my stomach already grumbled, I decided I’d eat dinner at Uribe’s one final time, room charge and all. I knew it was a stupid decision as I made it, but a solid decision was enough. I was tired of ambiguities.


Hours later at Uribe’s, midway through my second glass of wine, a full lamb crown was delivered to my table, rib bones topped with white paper frills. I hadn’t ordered it, but the waiter was gone before I could protest. Steam rose from the circle of meat, the flesh charred and tender, and I was intimidated. Not only would it be impossible to polish off the entire thing, but the lamb felt ominous after the hotel bill I had dodged that morning, like a last meal

“This lamb,” a man said, stepping into the soft light that overhung my table, “is for being such a loyal customer during the slow season.”

“Thank you,” I muttered, the wine finally reaching my head, flattered someone remembered me, but now even more suspicious.

“Do you mind if I join you,” asked the man.

He took the other chair, smoothing the table cloth before sitting down. His suit was a shadowed purple, the quality of the cut overcoming the natural garishness of the color. Were it another material—plastic, say, instead of cloth—it was easy to imagine the suit being matte, like

my suitcase. His face, though wrinkled, was suntanned and spry, his muscles expressive and untired. Despite his age, he looked to be in remarkable shape, and his suit reflected this. It clung to his body, meticulously tailored.

Don’t worry,” he continued. “The lamb was in danger of spoiling—we either served it tonight or threw it away tomorrow. You won’t be charged.” He paused. “I’m Uribe.”

“It’s a pleasure to meet you,” I said, stunned. “Your restaurant is incredible.”

Uribe smiled and folded his hands. “Yes, it is. Some may think it pompous to say so, but I’ve worked hard and have been to enough restaurants to know mine is a good one.” His accent was implacable. The way he pronounced pompous suggested his education was more advanced than my own.

“Well, I appreciate the lamb,” I said, nervous and eager to be alone, ready to leave this restaurant, this country, and fly back to America. “But I don’t think I can eat it all.”

Uribe clicked his tongue, and a waiter brought a dining set. With the large serrated knife set beside the lamb, he cut off two chops, one for each of us. “I haven’t eaten all day,” he said.

After a few minutes of silent chewing, not a second of which I enjoyed, especially with Uribe looking up every few moments to smile with his mouth closed, I ventured a question: “Do you often remember people who eat at your restaurant?”

Uribe finished his bite and dabbed his lips with a napkin. He pointed up, and I followed his finger to a small, dark space in the wall near the ceiling. “Most of my nights are spent up there. In that tiny windowed room. Watching.” As if sensing my apprehension, he said, “you may

think it a bit nefarious as an American. But in Colombia, this vantage point used to be a necessity. Years ago, we had our fair share of tough customers. I’m sure you can imagine the types. With a bird’s eye, I could see everything. I could see each gun. Each bomb. Each reach into jacket, each move toward the ankle. And as soon as I did, I’d send security, straight away.

“This habit,” he continued, sheepishly now, “was tough to break, even as more tourists poured into our country and the violence atrophied.”

Atrophied. What a strange word to use.

“So, yes, if someone comes in repeatedly, especially night after night, such as you did, and especially if the season is slow, I will remember their face.”

Uribe waited as I unlatched my suitcase underneath the table, took out my notebook, and showed him the photo of Dad I taped to the front cover. “Do you recognize him? From the summer of last year?”

“Yes,” said Uribe. “Of course.”

“He’s my father.”

“And he was my friend. We talked many times that summer. Every time he came in, we’d share stories and trade philosophies—his interest in the cosmos was particularly keen. He was always so clean shaven, you could see each nob of his teeth when he smiled, which he did often. I have to say, I’m not surprised at the relation. I see you two share the same receding hairline.”

I stared at my lamb. We had moved onto our second or third chops, and the carcass between us was decimated. Meat hung from bone and blank spots balked between pockets of food.

“That’s strange,” I finally said. “He told me about your restaurant, but he never said he knew the owner.”

“Oh no,” said Uribe, looking hurt. “I hope I did not upset him.”

“No, I don’t think he would tell me to come here if you did.” The wine was really in me now, and, as Uribe ordered another bottle, I felt an inexplicable need for intimacy, a desire for kinship. I no longer worried whether or not I’d be caught by Mr. Ruiz. I only wanted Uribe to remember me as kindly as he remembered Dad, so I told him something sudden and frank.

“I’m writing a story about my father. And my Uncle Ivan. I don’t know if you knew him, too.”

“What is the story about,” Uribe asked, ignoring the new name introduced to the conversation.

“Some bad things done in Colombia.” I wanted to sound mysterious.

“Many bad things are done in Colombia. Your country can be blamed for most of them.” A waiter took the decimated crown of lamb away, replacing it with a candle. Our wine glasses stood half-empty on the table. “What makes this one different?”

“Because my dad is a man who would not normally do bad things, I don’t think. Yet, he travelled here with a man who I suspect is very bad, my Uncle Ivan. Why Dad would do that is a

question I think worth exploring.” I hated that I said this last part. It sounded so academic, so fake, so pompous.

“You don’t think your father does bad things?”

“No,” I hurriedly said. “Why? Did he do something here?”

“Not at all, not at all.” Uribe put his hands up in reassurance. “He was gregarious, polite, and charming. A man full of life. He commanded rooms, pulled people into his circle. But none of that excludes him from the draw. The polite and charming are the ones who can get away with more, after all. They’re rarely under anyone’s suspicion.”

I had nothing to say. I supposed he was right.

“I may be wrong,” he added. “He may have been just as you say—a good man. All I’m saying is I’ve seen types like him before. There’s more than meets the eye.”

We drank our wine.

“Did you ever see my father here with someone else?”

Uribe frowned. “Once or twice. He was very quiet. Cagey. I forget his name, though it must have been your Uncle Ivan, as you’ve said.”

“Did that man seem like a bad person?” For some reason, I looked to Uribe as the ultimate judge, as if his years in the restaurant business, his years in that dark hole near the ceiling, had given him a power of perception beyond my own.

“Maybe. Like I said, he was quiet. Your father did most of the talking whenever they were here. But quiet people do seem to have tricks up their sleeves, don’t they?. If they get you into a corner, they might talk your ear clean off,” Uribe laughed, faking a karate chop to the side of his head. “Or they might anonymously donate thousands to some social cause. They might muffle obsessions that drive them absolutely crazy, obsessions that, in another, would manifest in eccentricity and explosive behavior—I’m not only talking about strange fetishes. I once knew a man, the husband of a close friend, who hardly talked whenever we went out. Barely a word. Yet when he died, we found an entire manuscript in his desk drawer. Hundreds and hundreds of pages. It appeared he wrote down whatever he could have been saying at those parties. Like your father, this man also had an interest in the cosmos. But of a different sort.” Uribe leaned back in his chair, his eyes focused on his wine with a melancholic smile pressed into his face.

“On the other hand,” he continued after some time, “the quiet ones may be those that steal your lover. That stab you. That riffle your pockets while you sleep. That stiff you with an unpaid check.”

I panicked at the coincidence and steered the conversation back: “Was it good, Uribe?”

“Was what good?”

“Your friend’s manuscript.”

“Oh,” Uribe said. His eyebrows fluxed, as if he forgot he had told me that. “No. It was drivel. We threw it away. And I should have mentioned this earlier, but if you don’t mind, please call me Mr. Ruiz.”

I excused myself and went to the bathroom to clear my head. Balancing myself on the marble counter, I considered splashing water on my face, but my arms were unresponsive. Inside my matte purple suitcase underneath the table was a bottle of homeopathic betablockers that never failed to calm me, but without them, all I could do was face the mirror and convince myself there were many Mr. Ruiz’s in the country, that Uribe and the hotel manager were not the same person. If they were the same, why would he be talking to me like this?

I repeated this to myself as I went back to the table and saw Uribe staring straight ahead, his hands folded: if they were the same, why would he be talking to me like this?

Uribe switched gears and spoke a bit about his kitchen, his chef, the ingredients, the industry. I hung on every word, not because it was interesting, but because I needed to know if he knew about my skipped hotel bill. I searched every word for a double meaning, I rifled every pocket for intention. As Uribe continued talking and the wine continued flowing, however, my anxieties abated. He must have been in the dark. When the conversation eventually lulled, my thoughts drifted toward earlier that day, the hours after I made the decision to eat at Uribe’s but before the restaurant had opened.


I had used some of my pesos to ride the city gondola to the top of the foothills. Far from the city center, I no longer worried about Mr. Ruiz or anyone else for the hotel catching up with me. I felt free and undeterred, matte purple suitcase proudly brandished, no longer an embarrassment. The neighborhood around the station felt comfortably suburban. Grocery stores, pharmacies, modest restaurants with wine-red tablecloths. Most noticeable was a modern house overlooking a bluff,
one with large windows and a clean balcony. Dad and Uncle Ivan stayed at a similar house during their trip, the address of which was in my notebook. I looked at the house on Google Maps before I ever left America, but once I arrived in Colombia, I didn’t try to find it. Retracing Dad’s steps was ostensibly the entire reason for my trip, but the spirt left me as soon as I stepped off the plane. I’m not sure why. Perhaps the climate. Perhaps because I wasn’t sure what I would do when I found it. I approached the one before me in weak substitution.

A small gate surrounded by hedgerow blocked the sandy pathway leading to the front door. Nearby, a keypad had printed instructions for travelers. The world was so quiet in that moment I assumed the house was empty. Still, I rang the bell next to the gate. I waited. The intercom gave a brief spurt. Then nothing. So, someone was in there.

Beyond the hedgerow, a man pressed himself against the windows of the house, his hands cupped over his eyes. He stared at me and my matte purple suitcase. Even at a distance, I could see a transient’s scruff of beard. A moment later, a woman came and hung herself off his arm, tugging him away. They were done with me; I was an eccentric stranger.

Dad’s rented house had a keypad and intercom, too. It also had an open gas fireplace in the living room. For one brief week, he and his brother lived like kings, he told me.

Toward the end of their trip, after a quiet day spent touring the parks and an indigenous museum, Dad and Uncle Ivan settled in. Uncle Ivan went out for a bottle but didn’t return for hours. By then, Dad had already dozed off beside the fireplace.

He awoke to a full house, relatively speaking. Two women lounged on the chic, formless couch beside Uncle Ivan, while a ruddy German with only a schoolboy’s grasp of English sat on

the floor. The German rocked back and forth, his eyes floating toward the top of his head. Uncle Ivan, drunk but lucid, introduced Dad to the group. “Who knew clubs closed so early in Colombia!” Uncle Ivan said. “Bullshit!” The German nodded along.

The two women carried miniscule handbags and acted bored. When they talked, they looked only toward each other. At one point, the younger looking of the two walked away. She came back with shot glasses and placed them on the low coffee table. Before Dad could even decline, the German slurped down not one but all three drinks. Soon after, exhausted from the haphazard company, Dad went to bed.

The next morning, everyone was gone: the girls, the German, Uncle Ivan. Dad cooked and ate a single egg, his standard breakfast back home, and looked out over Medellín.

After Dad showered, Uncle Ivan came home. He looked fresh and peppy. As they made their plans for the day, their own intercom buzzed. It was the German. They let him in, and he explained his plight.

“Something happen last night,” he said. “All my money is disappear! Now I think infected!” He pointed toward his crotch.

Something, it seemed, had been put in the drinks—the shot glasses, still out on the coffee table, had a powdery residue. After Dad had gone to bed the night before, he guessed the women brought the German to an ATM, made him withdraw his entire account and hand over his credit cards. They even took his passport. It was a sad situation, but there was nothing to be done. The German’s last memory, he said, was sitting in the living room, laughing and having a good time.

He was just as surprised as Dad that he remembered where the house was. Dad advised him to take a taxi to the embassy and lent him the fare, sending the German away in tears.

That evening, Uncle Ivan paid for dinner at Uribe’s, dessert included. When he opened his wallet, the bills nearly poured out, there were so many of them.

The story spoke for itself, as far as I was concerned. It was clear what happened, and it was clear Uncle Ivan had a tangential relationship to all parties involved. Likewise, my father did, too. He may not have robbed the German, but he did eat a full meal on his dime. There was no need to put this all together; Dad gladly told me. He knew his brother had a mean streak, but what could he have done?


I told Uribe all of this as the night drug on, as more and more wine was brought out. I asked him to think of my trip to Colombia as a business expense for research purposes, partially to convince myself of the same. When he asked if plane tickets were still cheap in the off season, it was my turn to ignore him. Instead, I told him more stories about Uncle Ivan, ones Dad told me from when they both were small. The time Uncle Ivan pepper-sprayed a homeless man for fun, the time he’d slept with a girl at a house party and left the room with her clothes in tow, the time he kicked a can straight into another boy’s eye and laughed as the cut poured blood, all the times he had called me porkass as a child. These stories were rote to me, and I could tell them without thinking. They spilt like mud from my mouth. The less silence there was, I figured, the less a chance there’d be for any confrontation about unpaid bills, the anxiety now having reentered my mind.

While I talked, I tried to decipher Uribe’s game. Was he trying to trap me, or was he enjoying a meal with a customer? If he knew, did he forgive me, or was this just a long line to cruelty?

Then there was Dad. He was always outgoing, so Uribe’s description was expected, but something in his voice also suggested that Dad was a ringleader of sorts, that he drug Uncle Ivan along as his ward. What to make of this, I had no idea.

Eventually, I ventured another question: “Did he ever have any women with him?”

“Once. On this last night. Two women.” Dad hadn’t told me they’d come along.

“Was one old? One young? One blond? The other redheaded?”

“This,” Uribe said, after sipping his wine, “I do not remember. All I can say is they were loud, and they stayed very late.”

“Why is that all you can say?”

“Because that is all I can remember.” He looked at me dumbfounded, like I were a dog that spoke.

“Anyway,” came Uribe, after our impasse, “You don’t need my thoughts about your father to write your story. I cannot decode him for you.”

“Why not,” I asked a bit too loudly. It seemed I had placed all my trust in Uribe. This purple-suited, black-haired man had become my guide.

“Because there is no object to decode. There is no solution because there is no riddle. I don’t even know him. If anything, he is just as complex as the rest of us. Why the urge to figure him out? I know a thing or two about literature myself, you know,” he said, “and a character like that in a story will be no good. A figured-out man. That is not exciting. And your alternative is even worse. A man who is decidedly not bad, but watches others do bad things? What a normal thing! Why not write a story about the sky being blue or water being wet?”

Again, an emptiness crushed me.

“Oh, come on now,” Uribe said, “don’t look like that. I was just offering you advice.”

“I know,” I said, choking back tears. “It’s good advice. I’m not upset.”

“Good,” Uribe said. “What I’m trying to say is that you think you know your father, but you don’t. You cannot judge him, because you don’t know how you would have played the same hand. Tell me, have you been to Colombia with your uncle? Or have you been anywhere with someone like that?”

I shook my head.

“No. You have not. And if you ever do, would you have the courage to stand up and stop him? You don’t have to answer. You wouldn’t. I wouldn’t. Few of us have that courage. Very few. For the rest of us, it’s impossible to rebuff anyone outside those quiet, imaginary conversations held inside our minds.”

He took a deep breath and continued, his voice calmer than before: “At least, that is the case for me. I’ve found it better to not worry about such things and just enjoy life. It’s all random

anyway, isn’t it? Isn’t life out of our control? Let a higher power figure it out. The cosmos.” He winked.

I told Uribe I disagreed with him, that I thought we did have agency here on earth, that we did have responsibility to rectify our wrongs, to make things right, and so on. Wine, undoubtedly, dribbled down my shirt.

All he did was shrug. “If you feel that way, then fine, judge away. I don’t care. You seem to think you know all the sides to the story. But remember, people aren’t stories. We might not even have sides at all, only gaps. And in gaps, the facts are never fully recounted. Context is always missing. But this does not necessarily make us bad people. It just means we aren’t good people, either. It’s all rather murky. Wouldn’t you agree?” He would have said my name here had he known it.

This time, I did agree, but I was in no place to say so. I merely shook my head. Some people are bad, I wanted to say, and are bad absolutely. Some people are good. Dad was good. Uncle Ivan was bad. The only mystery, the only gap, is why Dad stuck around him.

Uribe said one last thing to me before he opened his vest and pulled out what I believed to be two cigars and a lighter. “Don’t you have a flight to catch tomorrow?”