Authors: Wick Welker
A white peaked mountain stood silent through the cloudy haze of the downtown smog. Elise had never been able to make out the top of the active Popocatépetl volcano, which lies several miles southeast of the main city. As the car changed lanes and moved onto the freeway heading toward downtown, she etched out the silhouette of the mountain from the darkened sky. It had been decades since its last eruption, probably in the fifties she thought, trying to recall what she had read the night before about it. For the past half century no one had to run from smoky eruptions of fire; it had been dormant while the city spilled out with the unchecked growth of twenty million people sprawling outward.
The only sound in the car was the continuous blasting of air conditioning from the vents on the dashboard. Agent Sheffield sat in silence at the wheel as the monotonous sound of shooting air prevented any casual chitchat from sprouting up. The silence grew awkward as Elise gave out a forced cough, as if it would introduce a topic of conversation between them. Unfortunately, the silence continued as the black sedan moved painfully slow with the congested traffic down the highway.
“Do you know how much longer it will take?” Elise asked, looking out the window, and wincing at the sunlight that peeked through the cracks of the skyscrapers in the distance.
Sheffield looked back at her through the rearview mirror. “Yes, ma’am, I’ve been to this location before. Given this traffic, it will probably take another thirty minutes. Normally we would’ve already been there by now.”
“Okay, thank you…ah?” Elise paused, trying to remember his name.
“I’m Agent Sheffield,” he said, his gaze on the road.
“Thank you, Agent Sheffield. I’m sorry, I’ve been introduced to so many people lately it’s hard to keep all of the names straight. Give me time. I’ll know everyone’s names very soon.” Elise shot a smile at the rear view mirror, and turned again to the window, looking across four lanes of traffic that bobbed back and forth. Each car scrambled to change into slightly faster moving lanes only to find that the lane slowed too. The downtown skyline had grown closer from the last time she looked out—the building surface textures becoming clear.
“You’ve been in Mexico City the longest of everyone in the department, is that right?” Elise asked.
“Yes, ma’am, I’ve been here about seven years,” he replied.
“And how does your family like it?”
“We like it,” he said with finality.
“I hope I adjust to life here quickly, too.” Elise laughed again and opened her briefcase to review a speech that she had prepared. Thumbing the pages, she felt her stomach rise with the movements of the car as her anxiety began to build. She had hurriedly put together the speech in the last few days of plane rides, meetings, and moving her entire life to the suburbs of Mexico City. She rubbed her sweaty palms down the length of her legs and let out a deep breath.
“You know, ma’am,” Sheffield spoke up again, “as I said, I’ve been doing this for a long time, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen an ambassador have to give a speech at a mall. Kind of strange.”
“Yeah, it seems a little weird, but everyone thought that it was a nice symbol of, of, joint commercialism between the U.S. and Mexico, or something like that.”
“Yeah… I guess. It’s also a little unusual that they would even send you with the secret service at all to something like this.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, nothing, it’s just another glimpse into the paranoia of Washington. To me, anyway.”
“Oh… that. Well, we can’t really blame the government for overreaching with security ever since the outbreak.”
“There’s got be a line drawn somewhere…” Sheffield said, flipping the blinker, and moving the car over to the next lane. The car from behind let out a sustained honk. “Man, these crazy drivers. You will never see drivers as crazy as they are here.”
“Is that right?” Elise laughed and turned her head to the car behind.
“So there’s something I’ve been meaning to ask you ma’am, if you don’t mind.” Sheffield glanced back at her.
“Yes, of course, you definitely don’t have to be formal with me. Go ahead.” She looked at Sheffield’s eyes in the rearview mirror, relieved at the break in awkward silence.
“Usually an ambassador will come for a couple years, right, a year at least?”
“When did you get the appointment? Was it… was it rushed?” he asked.
“Oh, no, I’ve known that I would be coming here for the last, oh jeez, six months I think.”
“Do you have more baggage coming? I didn’t see much at the house…”
Elise paused and saw his eyes looking back at her from the mirror. “Well, no, no that’s all that I brought with me. The house came fully furnished, so I really only needed a couple of bags, and that trunk.”
“Do you have family coming?”
“I’m sorry, I only ask to just make sure of the reports that I was given. As far as I’m concerned, no one else is coming, correct?”
“Uh, no, I’m not expecting anyone. I know it’s kind of a big house to have all to myself.” She forced a laugh, and looked away from his eyes, and to the sea of cars out the window.
“Well, you’ve got me right next door to you at all times if you ever need anything.”
“Thanks, I really appreciate that.”
“No problem, and call me James.”
“Oh, really. James?”
“That was my husband’s name.” She looked at his eyes once more in the mirror.
Sheffield weaved in and out of lanes until he moved the car all the way to the right lane to exit the freeway. A wake of honking cars was behind them as he sped up onto the shoulder and came down the exit ramp. Crowds of pedestrians streamed down the sidewalks, with natural breaks in their movement around kiosks and food vendors. As they stopped at a light, a man with deeply set wrinkles in his face approached Elise’s window, dangling a ceramic Bart Simpson doll from his hand, and smiling. She bent over for her purse and rummaged around when Sheffield interrupted her movement.
“Ma’am, I’m afraid one of our policies is to never roll down a window while on route. I would also highly discourage giving any amount of money to a stranger.”
“Oh, yes, of course you’re right.” She turned and smiled at the man. “How tinted are these windows?”
“Oh, they’re very tinted, that guy can’t even see you.”
The man continued swaying the ceramic doll back and forth in front of the window, hoping for movement from within. After another moment, he backed away, and walked down to the next car behind.
Elise’s head was throbbing with a headache. She felt a pulsation of pain with each heartbeat and began to doubt that she had any business being in Mexico.
They gave me the assignment too early
, she thought.
I haven’t had enough time to process everything. I shouldn’t have told them I was ready
. She breathed in slowly, and then let out a sustained breath through pursed lips.
“Everything okay, ma’am?” Sheffield asked.
“Yes, yes, I think I’m just a little nervous.”
“No, you got nothing to be nervous about. I’ve seen these types of functions a thousand times. Just a couple of bland speeches, a handshake, usually something is exchanged like a pointless plaque or something, and then everyone goes home.”
“Ha, thanks, I appreciate it.” She spoke slowly in an attempt to mask her panic as her jittery hands lowered to her purse. Within her purse she opened a small metal box, took out a single pill and brought it up, hidden in her palm. She brought her hand to her chin as if she were resting on it, but quickly slipped the pill in her mouth, and crunched on it. After a moment, the pulse in her neck slowed as she felt the chill of sweat resting on her forehead. Her mind cleared, and she watched the crowded sidewalks again as the car drove past.
“Okay, I think we’re about five minutes from the mall, Madame Ambassador. They will have a section of the parking garage marked off for us and from there we will enter the building.” Sheffield looked back again at Elise from the rearview mirror.
Elise gave out a small cough and cleared her throat. “Okay, that sounds great. Is there a pre-meeting with the Secretary of Tourism, or are we going right to the stage?”
“We’ll be meeting for about five minutes beforehand with Secretary Gamez.”
“Sounds good.” Elise felt her nerves detaching from her stomach and her muscles relaxing in her arms and legs.
The car waded through the traffic and turned into an underground parking garage, lowering into the cement catacombs of the mall. After several winding corners, Sheffield brought the car up to a revolving door that was surrounded by a small crowd of people and a few cameramen.
Elise opened a compact mirror from her purse to check her makeup as the car came to a stop in front of the crowd.
“Okay, Madame Ambassador, here we go. Please wait for me to come around and open your door,” Sheffield said, turning off the engine.
“Thank you, James,” Elise said. Through the window she saw the Secretary of Tourism, a Mexican woman with a wide smile.
Sheffield approached the other side of the car and opened the door for Elise, who slowly stepped out.
“Hola, Madame Ambassador, Elise Whitten!” The Sectary of Tourism approached Elise with an outstretched hand. Her face was wide and smiling with enthusiasm.
“Secretary Gamez, it is a pleasure to finally meet you,” Elise replied, offering her hand, but was then swallowed up into a complicated hug and cheek-kissing greeting she felt lasted over a minute.
“It is also a pleasure to have you visit us during your first public appearance as Ambassadora of the United States,” Gamez responded with a light Mexican accent. “Please, follow me this way, we will chat first, and then we will make our way to the stage that we have set up near the cafeteria of the shopping center.”
Elise lifted a briefcase and followed Gamez, with Sheffield behind her, and a few disinterested cameramen trailing after. They hiked up a few stairwells and were led into a small, bare room with a modest table of water and donuts. Sheffield waited until everyone was in the room, then planted his legs by the threshold of the door, and stood with his hands behind his back.
“Please, we will sit now and talk?” Gamez asked Elise, motioning to two metal chairs positioned in the corner of the room.
“Yes, of course,” Elise said, holding her suit skirt to her legs as she sat.
“Ambassadora Whitten,” Gamez said while also sitting, “I’m so happy to have you here finally at La Grán Avenida shopping center. If it was not for some of the most recent policies that the United States has made in the last month, we never would have been able to get the funds from American corporations to build this magnificent center.” She smiled and lifted her arms as if gesturing to the entire building.
“It is my pleasure and honor to visit here, and I’m very happy to know that our new policies have made such a difference,” Elise said.
“And how generous the new policies have been!” she said with enthusiasm. “It would seem that the economic… shifting in the United States has had your government opening its arms more to its close neighbor.”
“Yes, we’ve had to change some of our trading policies lately,” Elise replied timidly, attempting to change the topic.
“Yes, and that is why we have invited you here for the grand opening, so that we can give proper thanks to the United States and to you as the ambassador.”
“Thank you, Miss Secretary.”
“You are very welcome.” She lowered her voice, “Now I know you were just recently appointed, and I was wondering how you were finding your new life here in Mexico City.”
“It’s going very well. I just moved in a day ago, and I think I’m getting settled okay.”
“That is very good to hear, if you need anything like a tour guide of the city, please just let me know.”
“Thank you, I might take you up on that. I was actually thinking of visiting the volcano.”
“Volcano?” Gamez asked, confused.
“Yes, I forget the name, it starts with a P?”
“Oh yes, Popocatépetl. It is a beautiful mountain to visit. Sometimes I forget that it is a volcano. How funny that you bring it up. You have nothing to worry about. It has not erupted in quite a long time.” She smiled and tilted her head in an orchestrated way. “Miss Ambassadora, I believe you and I will be working together quite a bit during your stay here in Mexico. I’d like to maybe have you over for dinner soon?”
“Yes, I’d like that very much.” Elise nodded.
“And, please, forgive me for being too forward, but I’ve been told that you lost your family in the outbreak of Washington?”
“Yes, I did.”
“I’m so sorry to hear that. I’m sure you have gone through a lot the last two years. I admire your strength to now be in such a hard-working position for your government.”
“Thank you, Miss Secretary, I very much appreciate that.” Elise smiled as Gamez reached out and briefly touched her hand.
Gamez continued. “Okay, why don’t we go down to the main shopping area now for the opening ceremony? Yes? We will have a nice plaque to present to you.” Gamez smiled as Elise gave a brief glance to Sheffield. Noticing the amused look on Elise’s face, Gamez asked, “Is something wrong?”