вход по аккаунту


Shadow Life

код для вставкиСкачать
Graduate School ETD Form 9
(Revised 12/07)
Thesis/Dissertation Acceptance
This is to certify that the thesis/dissertation prepared
By Christopher Arnold
Entitled Shadow Life
For the degree of Master of Fine Arts
Is approved by the final examining committee:
Porter Shreve
Sharon Solwitz
Bich Minh Nguyen
To the best of my knowledge and as understood by the student in the Research Integrity and
Copyright Disclaimer (Graduate School Form 20), this thesis/dissertation adheres to the provisions of
Purdue University’s “Policy on Integrity in Research” and the use of copyrighted material.
Porter Shreve
Approved by Major Professor(s): ____________________________________
Approved by: Nancy J. Peterson
Head of the Graduate Program
Graduate School Form 20
(Revised 1/10)
Research Integrity and Copyright Disclaimer
Title of Thesis/Dissertation:
Shadow Life
Master of Fine Arts
For the degree of ________________________________________________________________
I certify that in the preparation of this thesis, I have observed the provisions of Purdue University
Teaching, Research, and Outreach Policy on Research Misconduct (VIII.3.1), October 1, 2008.*
Further, I certify that this work is free of plagiarism and all materials appearing in this
thesis/dissertation have been properly quoted and attributed.
I certify that all copyrighted material incorporated into this thesis/dissertation is in compliance with
the United States’ copyright law and that I have received written permission from the copyright
owners for my use of their work, which is beyond the scope of the law. I agree to indemnify and save
harmless Purdue University from any and all claims that may be asserted or that may arise from any
copyright violation.
Chris Arnold
Printed Name and Signature of Candidate
Date (month/day/year)
*Located at
A Thesis
Submitted to the Faculty
Purdue University
Christopher Feliciano Arnold
In Partial Fulfillment of the
Requirements for the Degree
Master of Fine Arts
May 2010
Purdue University
West Lafayette, Indiana
UMI Number: 1479798
All rights reserved
The quality of this reproduction is dependent upon the quality of the copy submitted.
In the unlikely event that the author did not send a complete manuscript
and there are missing pages, these will be noted. Also, if material had to be removed,
a note will indicate the deletion.
UMI 1479798
Copyright 2010 by ProQuest LLC.
All rights reserved. This edition of the work is protected against
unauthorized copying under Title 17, United States Code.
ProQuest LLC
789 East Eisenhower Parkway
P.O. Box 1346
Ann Arbor, MI 48106-1346
For Reyna Tenorio
siempre enamorada
Thanks to my parents for their support. To my brother Josh for always looking out for
me. To Reyna for her patience and encouragement.
Thanks to the MFA Program at Purdue, especially everyone from workshop, all great
writers, readers, and friends. Thanks to Patricia Henley for wonderful conversation and
for Hummingbird House. Thanks to Sharon Solwitz for her heart and insight. Thanks to
Bich Minh Nguyen for her incredible comments and for non-fiction class. Thanks to
Porter Shreve for helping me sift through all those pages looking for a book.
PART ONE………………………………………………………………………………..2
PART TWO……………………………………………………………………………...66
PART THREE………………………………………………………………………….112
PART FOUR……………………………………………………………………………220
PART FIVE…………………………………………………………………………….285
Arnold, Christopher Feliciano. M.F.A. Purdue University May 2010. Shadow Life.
Major Professor: Porter Shreve.
A novel-in-progress. When an adopted Brazilian-American journalist searches for his
birth parents in Rio de Janeiro, he discovers that some doors are better left closed.
Verdadeiramente há só uma desgraça: e não nascer.
Truly there is only one misfortune: not being born.
-Jaoquim Maria Machado de Assis
At sunrise I waited for Daveison by a corner fruit stand on Avenida Pessoa. No
sleep the night before. Traffic curved around the lagoon, motorbikes and busses, police
cars and taxis, kombi drivers trolling the curb for fares. Reflections of clouds darkened
the water like bruises. I wanted to abandon this plan, but Daveison would insist. A
surprise attack was the only way.
One-sided, yes, but so was adoption itself. Phoning first allowed parents to deny
history. Face to face encounters brought the past to life. I worried that my reappearance
could wreck a home, but Daveison assured me that in Brazil, family was family. Over
the years, he’d seen mothers embrace their children like lost lovers, or cast prayers as if
they were vengeful spirits returned. But he’d never seen one turn her back.
The fruit vendor arranged mangos and avocados and cigarettes in neat rows. I
asked for the time and he glanced at his cell phone. 7:14. Five more minutes, and I’d
call the whole thing off. This wasn’t even the real purpose of my trip. Twenty-fouryears old, and back in Rio de Janeiro for the first time since birth, I was supposed to be
filing travel stories for The Portland Pioneer. But I had information about my birth
mother, and Daveison had a number in the white pages. We’d made all the arrangements
by phone. Notebook in hand, I listened, waiting to jot down the details of our search, but
Daveison went on and on about Casa de Esperança.
He’d lingered in the orphanage for thirteen years before he ran away. That night
he slept under a palm leaf on the beach, and when he woke up, his caretaker Abigail was
waiting beside him, holding two hot cheese sandwiches wrapped in foil. Together they
watched the sun peer over the Atlantic. On the walk home she asked why he left.
Daveison said he was sick of being a burden. So Abigail collected money to hire him at
the Casa da Esperança, first as a cook, then as a gatekeeper, and later as a tutor for the
little ones. By 1981, the year I was born, Daveison was stationed behind the front desk,
shepherding foreigners like my parents through the Brazilian courts. Under his guidance,
my adoption was certified the night I was born, a new life, a farmhouse in Partway,
Now a cream-colored kombi skidded to a stop in front of me, hazard lights
blinking red. A small black man slipped out the door.
Peter! he said. A taxi whisked past, honking at him for blocking the lane. On the
sidewalk he embraced me as if we’d known each other our entire lives.
I couldn’t sleep all night, I said.
Listen to this guy’s Português, Daveison told the fruit vendor. Carioca da gema!
His was the same voice from the phone, low and smoky, but I’d expected
someone bigger. This Daveison looked like the next gust of wind might blow him into
the lagoon. He opened the passenger door and cleared loose papers from the seat. I
climbed inside and he hustled around to his place behind the wheel. Big day for us, he
said, turning down the radio. It’s okay if you’re scared, but be excited, too.
I am.
Scared or excited?
Tudo bom, he said. If you weren’t a little scared, I would worry you hadn’t
thought this over. Now before we go on, a cafézinho.
A caravan of furious drivers squeezed past the kombi, but Daveison didn’t budge.
From under his seat he withdrew a blue metal thermos and a sleeve of Styrofoam cups.
He filled two half-full with steaming coffee. Sweet and strong. I needed it. I’d spent the
previous night wide-awake on the futon, listening to my best friend Gary snoring on the
couch like a timber mill. He was in Rio for a two-week soccer clinic, and by ten o’clock,
he was passed out with ice packs on his knees. I could hardly close my eyes, listening to
sirens wail past on the street outside. It had only been five weeks since Mom’s funeral,
the last station on a wearisome road. We were supposed to make this trip together. How
would she feel knowing I’d come here so soon?
Daveison sipped his coffee, flipping through a clipboard of fuzzy printouts. Rain
tapped on the roof of the van. We are super-fortunate, he said. Based on the information
you gave me, and the files I uncovered, there is only one Sonia Aúrajo who is the right
age to be your mother.
In a city of 10 million? I asked.
Well we have 31 Sonia Aúrajos living here now, he said. But your registry says
she was sixteen that year, which leaves just one match. So it appears God is on our side.
Daveison set the clipboard on the seat between us, dozens of Aúrajos listed in
neat rows. My entire life I’d been carrying that name like an overstuffed duffle bag.
Mom always wanted me to remember where I’d come from, so she gave me a middle
name that would never let me forget: Peter Aúrajo Randolph. Looking at the list, I
imagined the hundreds of Aúrajos walking this city, some of them blood relatives.
In the rear-view mirror, police lights flared like jewels. Transit cops rolled past in
a blue and white compact, buzzing their siren. Daveison gave them thumbs up and threw
the van in gear. The engine droned in the rear of the kombi as we accelerated around the
lagoon. Delivery boys on mopeds slicked past my window. At traffic lights, street kids
held up spray bottles and squeegees, their business ruined by the quickening rain. We
passed two ambulances askew in a pool of broken glass, EMTs treating each other’s
wounds. Daveison never seemed to look at the road, his attention divided between girls
on the sidewalk and the clipboard on his lap. When he noticed me clutching the oh-shit
bar, he cranked up the radio--Transamerica 101.3--as if samba would soothe my nerves.
I’d imagined an epic journey across the city, but just across the water Daveison
turned onto a quiet street lined with mango trees. A neighborhood like this was the last
place I’d expected to find her. A pack of toy dogs wearing little windbreakers trotted
across the street, leashed to a dog walker gabbing away on her cell phone. German cars
slipped through cast-iron gates, private guards locking up behind them. Giving me up
had allowed my birth mother a new life. A slate, wiped clean.
Birth mother. I’d learned that phrase from Mom and Dad, Vanessa and Michael
Randolph, who learned it from the pre-adopt guide. Mom and Dad, who changed diapers
and cooled fevers, who taught me how to use toilets and tie shoes, how to shear a sheep
and drive a tractor. Real parents who taught me about birth parents. This invented
distinction, birth parents, this line of defense against childhood interrogations: Do you
like your fosters? When do you go back? What happened to your real parents? As if
Mom and Dad were imposters, these Randolphs, who saved my art projects like real
parents, but who weren’t to be confused with the real. But it was my birth parents who
were figments. And they remained so until the night before Mom passed away, when she
clutched my hand and directed me to go home and look. Look in her bedroom closet.
Look in the firebox on the top shelf. There I found a burnt-orange envelope, a letter from
Sonia Aúrajo.
Here we go, Daveison said, stomping his brakes. Through the rain-streaked
window I saw an old colonial home, tucked behind a stucco wall that was spiked with
broken glass. Daveison squinted at the address number and checked it against his
She must have won the lotto, I said.
No no no, Daveison said. She works here.
Another possibility: Sonia was still a maid. One of few details I’d gleaned from
that old letter. She was a domestic servant, unmarried, her pregnancy an embarrassment
to her employer, a shame to her father. She was kicked to the street, penniless. She was
a woman of faith, but faith could not feed a child.
The windshield wipers tugged a mango blossom across the glass. Daveison
pulled the keys from the ignition. You look pale, he said. Breathe. After this, no matter
what, I take you to chicken kabobs.
I should wait here.
They don’t answer for a black man in this neighborhood, Daveison said. We go
We stepped out into the rain and approached the gate. On the second floor of the
house, hydrangeas dangled over the wrought-iron balcony, dripping water onto the stone
walkway. Daveison touched the intercom. A woman’s voice crackled through the
We’re looking for Dona Sonia Aúrajo? Daveison asked.
The voice responded: You have the wrong address.
No no, Daveison said. Could you please ask your patrão?
One moment.
A curtain fluttered on the second floor. I imagined Sonia peering down,
wondered if she would see herself in me.
The gate clicked. Please come in, the voice said.
At the door stood a chubby young woman in a maid’s uniform, hair pulled into a
tight bun. From down the stairs came a woman in a pink leotard, her dyed blonde
ponytail swaying along her shoulders. In her hands she carried two small weights. Sweat
glistened on the bridge of her nose.
May I help you? she asked.
Daveison told our tale. The woman listened, still catching her breath.
Yes, she worked for us two years ago, she said. But we needed someone who
could get on her knees with the children.
Do you know where she is now? I asked.
We hired her through an ad in O Globo, the woman said, but perhaps my husband
kept her information. She whispered instructions to the maid who hurried down the
hallway, scent of lemon in her wake.
Did she have kids? I asked. A family? Was she healthy?
Acalma, Daveison said, touching my shoulder.
I wish I could say more, the woman said. She was only with us a short time.
Do you have a picture? I asked. My entire life, I’d never seen a blood relative.
I’m afraid not, she said.
Did she look anything like this gentleman? Daveison asked.
The woman examined me, cocking her head slightly. A bit like you, I suppose.
Yes, I can see it. Around the eyes.
Aqui está, the maid said, returning with a small yellow index card. Sonia’s name.
An address. No phone number. The handwriting looked different than in her letter, a
world-weary version of the same penmanship.
May we keep this? Daveison asked.
Of course, the woman said. We wish you luck.
No time for kabobs. The address directed us to the Morro Floresta de Tijuca, a
favela tucked against the jungle west of here. We sped. In the darkness of the Túnel
Zuzu Angel, the kombi engine gave an echoing roar, chasing us toward the oval light. A
city bus surged past, its passengers like specters in the foggy glass. We emerged on the
other side and turned toward the Floresta. The rosary hanging from the rear-view mirror
swung like a pendulum as we wound our way up the hills. The rain grew heavier, and
before long we were driving through clouds. At last we turned sharply up a steep dirt
road, green and yellow streamers strung in celebration of the Copa do Mundo. Several
women huddled under the bus stop, turning their heads as we rattled uphill. The lane
narrowed, penetrating the clutter of cinder-brick homes and storefronts. Soon a boy
wearing a garbage bag as a rain slicker stepped into our path, signaling for Daveison to
No more road, Daveison said. He pulled the kombi to the side, turned the steering
wheel hard right, and yanked the emergency break, but at this wild pitch it seemed the
slightest tap would send the van rolling.
Number 226? Daveison asked. The boy pointed uphill toward the jungle.
Daveison paid the boy cinquenta centavos and promised more when we returned. Muck
trickled at our feet as we walked. Behind us, the boy guarded the kombi, clicking his
tongue, coaxing a curious tamarin from a nearby rooftop. A life I could have led.
From these hills, a view of the ocean, gray water under gray sky, empty beaches,
cityscape damp and gritty. We stopped once more to ask directions from a silver-haired
woman seated at her open window. She gestured down a crooked alley with wires and
clothes lines criss-crossed overhead. We entered single file, Daveison first. The homes
were boxes of brick roofed with corrugated tin, adorned with crucifixes and potted
flowers and painted address plates above the doors. Here was 226.
Para cá, Daveison said. Ready?
I drew in a chestful of salty mist. Daveison rapped his knuckles on the door.
Birth mother. I summoned that old defense, but it failed. For nine months, this woman
had fed me; in her belly, I grew veins, fingers, eyes.
Two deadbolts turned. The door opened a crack. A tiny woman peered through,
holding a phone to her ear.
Dona Sonia Aúrajo? Daveison asked.
I examined her face for features similar to mine--deep set-eyes, thick black curls,
a small, pointed nose. She met my gaze, no sign of recognition.
She doesn’t live here no more, the woman said.
Por que não? I asked.
She never paid on time. I don’t rent rooms for free.
Where is she now? I asked.
Só Deus sabe, she said, eager to return to her call. Tell her she still owes me
trezentos reals.
Obrigado, Daveison said, stepping away. The woman went on with her
conversation and bolted the door. I raised my hand to knock again.
Peter, Daveison said. Leave this woman alone.
She has to know something, I said. She can at least put down the phone.
If she knew more, she would tell us, Daveison said. You think she hasn’t tried to
get her money? Come on now. Let’s get out of the rain. He started back up the
Maybe she has a picture? I said, following.
We’re getting closer. This takes patience.
Closer? I said. There’s a million houses off the grid in this city. She could be
dead for all we know.
Don’t think that way, he said. This is all fantastic news. She is alive, working.
You still have many questions, no? But some answers are better than none.
Twenty-four years as a domestic servant. Too worn down to play on her knees,
too broke to make rent. A son three thousand miles north, oblivious.
We approached the kombi. The boy wearing the garbage bag sat on the bumper,
flipping his coin. Daveison handed him another and we climbed inside.
What now? I asked.
He retrieved the thermos from under his seat, poured two fresh cups, lukewarm
now. Reaching across my lap, he popped open the glove box to reveal an assortment of
packaged cookies.
Take your pick, he said. Daveison understood patience the way a bird understood
flight. I imagined his years at Casa da Esperança, waiting for parents who never came, a
disappointment that hollows the bones. These are only salgados, he said. I promised you
At my door, the boy tapped on the glass.
Já! Daveison snapped, but the kid didn’t move.
I cranked down the window and held out a packet of sugar cookies. The boy
snatched them and fled downhill, shrinking away in the side-view mirror.
That Tuesday, the city took a holiday in reverence of Brazil’s opening match in
the Copa do Mundo. Gary had no soccer clinic, and I coaxed him into riding the 312 bus
to Avenida Atlântica. Not taking a cab was a big step for him. Aside from our 4th grade
field trip to the Oregon Coast Aquarium, Gary had never been this far from Partway.
Everyone on the bus, including the driver and cobrador, sported some variation of the
national jersey. We found seats a few rows apart. Minutes after we boarded, Gary
volunteered his spot to a gentleman with a cane, and now he clutched the overhead rail
with his one good hand, staggering as the bus cornered like a rollercoaster. Near the
Copacabana Palace Hotel, I signaled for our stop. When Gary tried to exit through the
front turnstile, the cobrador pointed him to the rear door. The bus left us on the corner in
a cloud of exhaust.
“Let’s never do that again,” Gary said.
“It’s healthy to get out of your comfort zone.”
“Quit saying that.”
The afternoon sky was endless blue. The coast formed a two-mile crescent,
Cariocas and tourists side by side on the sand. A giant digital display counted down the
days, minutes, hours, and seconds until the 2007 Pan-American games, less than a year
away, but an afterthought to tonight’s match versus Croatia.
Poor, poor Croatia, said the beer man who rented us a pair of nylon beach chairs.
Ronaldinho would dismantle those simplórios. The sixth championship was inevitable,
We planted our chairs near the fresh water shower where two girls stood face to
face, rinsing sea salt from their bodies. Vendors weaved through a minefield of flesh,
hawking sunglasses and t-shirts, shrimp and fried cheese, cerveja and iced tea. Body
surfers floated in with the tide. Near the volleyball nets, policia in shorts watched a
women’s game, sunglasses reflecting bikini clad bom boms. Stripping off my shirt and
board shorts, I plopped down in my Speedo.
“Christ-all-mighty,” Gary said, “you’re going to blind someone with those
“When in Rio.”
“I hope you burn.” He fished around his backpack for sunscreen. The other day
he’d fried like bacon, and he was still deep crimson, except for his right hand, which
remained its usual glorious peach. Gary was born with limb reduction, missing one hand,
his left. The prosthetic looked decent, but when contrasted with his sun burnt arm, it
resembled what it was--a piece of plastic. Back in junior high guys would snatch it and
play keep away, girls would decorate it with fingernail polish when Gary fell asleep in
class. I was the only one who never gave him shit. I accepted his hand, or lack thereof;
he accepted that I looked nothing like my blonde and blue-eyed parents, or any of the
freckled kids in Partway.
We cracked our beers. A zit-faced teen wearing a backpack shuffled past,
whispering an offer for smoke and bomba.
“So when do you think you’ll hear from your guy?” Gary asked.
“Don’t know,” I said. “It’s a big city.”
“At least you got to see where she worked.”
“That was probably a different Sonia,” I said. As an adoptee, self-deception was
a survival instinct. Daveison and I had the wrong woman. The real Sonia Aúrajo was
healthy, happy, employed.
In front of us, a trio of teenage girls splashed in the water, careful not to spoil
their makeup, crouching just low enough for waves to wash over their breasts.
“Why don’t Partway girls dress like this?” Gary said, plunging his beer can into
the sand.
“Because it’s 3,000 miles north,” I said. “And there’s no beach.” I was grateful
to have Gary around. He was the closest thing I’d ever had to a brother. He also made
me feel more Brazilian by contrast, like the way frumpy girls make their average friends
look hot.
“I wanna bring these girls back to Oregon.”
“Stay a couple weeks longer,” I said.
“Some of us have real jobs.” Gary taught woodshop and coached soccer at our
old high school, and he had to get back for summer school. These days, he was a campus
legend. The first day each semester, he unfastened his prosthetic to reveal his flaky,
elbow-like stub: Safety Lesson #1. The students were awestruck. After school, he was
Coach Murphy, commander of the varsity soccer team, feared by his athletes, beloved by
the community. Soccer was the only way could convince him to join me in Rio--the onetwo combination of a World Cup in Rio and coaching clinic called FUTESCOLA! was
enough for him to finally apply for a passport. Every morning an air-conditioned shuttle
van picked Gary up at our apartment, delivered him to an Astroturf field where he and
two dozen other U.S. coaches learned drills and plays from the Brazilian stars of
yesteryear. Gary hoped those secrets would lift his team to state.
Now that trio of girls rose from the waves, bathing suits dripping. “I’m getting
in,” Gary said. He unclipped his prosthetic and tucked it under his towel. “Keep an eye
on this. The guidebook says there’s thieves.”
“Who would want your sweaty hand?” I said. “It’s probably fungal.”
He raised his stub, a phantom middle finger, and jogged to the water. At least he
was having fun. I owed him that. The last year of Mom’s treatments, I’d called on him a
few times to visit the hospital when I couldn’t make it down to Portland. He would bring
flowers, sit, and talk. Gary never understood how I could stay up in Portland while my
mother was fading. Mom knew I dreamt of being an international journalist, and she
knew that couldn’t happen at The Partway Weekly Shopper. For two years I covered the
city courthouse for The Portland Pioneer, driving home on weekends to help with chores
around the farm. The Pioneer was a large daily; I was building good clips. But
following Mom’s funeral, I’d found myself paralyzed in the mornings, standing in the
shower after the water had run cold. Day by day, I used up all my accumulated leave, a
Monday here, a Friday there, until I missed an entire uncompensated week. Condolences
poured in from the newsroom, yet it wasn’t so much Mom’s passing that had me
crippled. For eight years Dad and I had watched her pass through a crushing cycle:
treatment, remission, relapse. No. What had me overwhelmed was translating that letter
from Sonia, swallowing my anger at Mom for keeping it secret for 25 years. For never
writing back.
In my dim apartment, I worked through each page of the letter with a PortugueseSpanish-English dictionary, relying on college Español to make sense of Sonia’s words.
A solitary task, too private for a translator. I listened to a 16 CD set of Brazilian
Portuguese lessons on repeat. I watched old Brazilian movies--Pixote, A Hora da
Estrella--pouring over the subtitles. Portuguese was escape to another world, one
without a word for grief.
Three weeks ago, my tobacco-stained editor Chuck Gasparino showed up at my
Hawthorne apartment, dug me out from under a pile of beer cans and takeout boxes.
He’d taken a chance on me as a dopey summer intern, and here was his investment, going
to rot. “You look and smell like ass,” he said. “Take a trip. Bang out a few stories, snap
some pictures. We’ll have payroll move you to freelance until you get home, if we’re not
bankrupt by then.” Extended bereavement leave, the paperwork said. I couldn’t tell if it
was a sweetheart deal, or Chuck’s way of laying me off piecemeal. Either way, it was an
opening, an excuse to see Brazil. Trouble was, I’d been here two weeks without cracking
my notebook.
Now a policia helicopter thwapped along the coast, low enough for its blades to
disturb the water. A pair of officers dangled their legs out the side door, panning
binoculars along rows of sunbathers. In the middle distance, surfers bobbed, waiting for
the next set. Near shore, a man and his son in matching Speedos rode a wave toward the
sand. Gary ran back to our chairs, ordered two more beers from the vendor, and took his
“Did you hear that?” he said. “I just used Portuguese.”
“It’s cerveja,” I said. “Cerveza is Spanish.”
“Look, smart guy--it says right here.” He refastened his hand and flipped through
his phrasebook. “Visitors to Rio will find that Spanish is understood by most Cariocas.”
“You should be reading the book I gave you.”
“I left that hunk of junk at the apartment,” Gary said. “Too heavy to lug around
all day.”
“It’s better than your little instruction manual. It makes us stick out like total
“We already stick out,” Gary said. “Especially with your pasty-ass thighs.
You’re not going to fix that with your nerdy book.”
I’d lent Gary my copy of The Brazil Reader, a collection of academic essays that
covered pre-discovery through the abertura. It was a book I’d purchased in college, after
my Latin American History teacher--Argentinean--refused to talk about Brazil except to
say it was a special case, best left for the end of the semester, if there was time, which
there wasn’t.
The beer vendor delivered our fresh cans: Os últimos, he said.
“What’d he say?” Gary asked.
“Last ones.” Por que? I asked the vendor.
Quase na hora de Rolaldinho, he said.
We turned our chairs to catch a few last minutes of sun, which sank now over the
hotel rooftops. A few boys were tangled in a half-field soccer game, while beside them a
group of men and their girlfriends played futevolei--volleyball with the feet. A pair of
white-haired turistas snapped photos as if witnessing a circus, Brazilians getting 7/8ths
naked and performing dazzling tricks.
“Get in on that soccer game,” I said.
Futebol, he said.
“At least you know one word of Portuguese.”
“Not enough to play with them.”
“Sport is the international language.”
“Then you get out there, Mr. Brazil.”
“No thanks,” I said, but I yearned to join. It wasn’t language holding me back.
While Gary was an All-Conference forward back in high school, my sport was
basketball. I was the only Brazilian on the face of the planet who’d never played an
organized game of soccer. Twenty-four-years-old, and I’d never scored a goal. A
fucking shame. But it was too late; my feet were gringo feet.
The futevolei ball landed near our chairs. I tossed it back to one of the girls.
Juggling it on her toes, she kicked it to her friend, who smiled, brushing sand from her
“Now there’s something you won’t find in your book,” Gary said. “A real
Brazilian would never throw a ball back, he’d kick it. Even I know that.”
I didn’t know how to explain to Gary why I clung to The Brazil Reader. Good
reporting needs context, but it was more than that. Growing up, all I knew of Brazil was
what I learned from Mom’s stories. She bathed the country in magnificent light-melodious birds, adorable monkeys, musical people who loved to dance. But if Brazil
was such a paradise, why would Sonia have given me up? Mom explained that the
country had some growing pains, end of story. I tried to reconstruct the history myself,
eavesdropping on phone calls, sifting through old pictures, but I quit asking questions.
Mom seemed wounded by my curiosity; Dad seemed content to imagine that I’d arrived
via FedEx. The Brazil Reader told of colonial pillaging and ruthless slaveholding, a
Presidential suicide, a regime of despotic generals, torture, censorship, economic
implosion. And then I was born. I needed to understand the tectonics of Brazil, 1981.
Right here, up the beach, hillside shanties were clumped like brick piles, ready to slide
into the sea. I had family in those hills. A burden, and a badge. I was ashamed of my
privilege; I wasn’t just an ignorant gringo.
The beer man came for our chairs. The beach was thinning out, futebol fans
dispersing to watch the game. We packed up and brushed off sand. The coaches at
Gary’s clinic had invited everyone to a bar to see Croatia get destroyed. On Avenida
Atlântica, Gary hailed a cab.
“Let’s walk,” I said.
“No time.”
I hated cabs. Stepping into one made me feel like a gringo alarm was wailing just
over my head. But Gary was right--the game started in twenty minutes. He told the
driver the name of the bar in phrasebook Portuguese. The cabbie turned the radio from
Transamerica 101.3 to some Top 40 U.S. station. At least it was a short ride. We slid
out, left damp imprints of our ass-cheeks on the seats.
Shenanigans, an Irish Pub. Whoop-dee-fuckin’-do. We might as well have been
in Portland on St. Patrick’s Day. In the corner, a guitarist sang U2 covers in wobbly
English. Gary ordered a pitcher of beer. A few of his FUTESCOLA! friends were
clumped in a corner booth, sunburns peeling. They tried to make nice.
“Are you from Oregon, too?” they asked.
“It’s fucking awesome here, huh?”
“He’s not usually this serious,” Gary said.
I tried to block conversation by thumbing through that day’s edition of O Globo,
trolling for story ideas. The prefeitura was making plans to build walls around the
hillside favelas, to protect the floresta, they said. Opponents claimed it was to cover up
the poverty before the Pan-American games. I imagined Sonia, living off the grid, soon
to be walled in. I didn’t want to be rude, but I didn’t come to Brazil to meet Americans.
Every English word I spoke seemed to sap some of my already meager reserves of
Brazilian-ness. The more I lingered on the periphery, the more I defined myself.
Gary’s coaches arrived, former soccer stars in their old club warm-ups, and just
like that, whatever Brazilian-ness was inside me evaporated. In their company were six
half-drunk American women, this year’s female cohort from FUTESCOLA! If they
hadn’t been fucked silly already, it wouldn’t be long now. The game began, and it was as
if the bar was divided into two camps: Futebol fans, screaming and shouting and
whistling, and gringos, entertained more by the fanfare than by the game itself. Sadly, I
fell into the second camp. I knew all the history of Brazilian soccer from The Brazil
Reader, but when it came to the beautiful game itself, I could never bring myself to pay
attention to anything but penalty kicks and replayed goals. It was a simple matter of
taste. Not enough scoring. I needed a sport where points were put on the board every
minute of every game. Soccer on TV had only one redeeming quality--sparse
commercials. Sipping my bitter beer, I watched Gary arguing with Brazilians over the
nuances of Croatian defense, which held the magical quartet scoreless. Ronaldinho was
failing. Finally, in the 44th minute, Kaká redeemed Brazil with the game’s only goal. I
was glad when the game ended, when last call arrived, when the place shut down.
“Let’s take a cab,” Gary said.
“We’re walking. It’s a nice night.”
Drunken fans stumbled about Plaça General Osorio, whooping and hollering,
looking for one last drink. As we left Ipanema, the crowds grew sparse, security guards
gathered here or there, recapping the match. Firecrackers and celebratory gunfire from
the hills, sidewalks aced with shadows. The shops were shuttered and now the avenida
was one long corridor of graffiti, trash bags piled high on the corners. The bus stops
were plastered with posters of Angelina Jolie, standing in a jungle with a gun in her
hands. A trio of police cars raced up the empty street, blowing red lights. We passed the
Howdy Howdy discotheque. A white man climbed into a cab with a black woman,
pushed her against the window glass, one hand in her hair, the other up her skirt. On the
next corner, a boy and girl huddled together under a rain-bloated TV box.
“Let’s grab a bite,” Gary said.
We staggered into a corner market, the only place open, and ordered two
empanadas from the bleary cashier behind the counter. Waiting for him to count back
our change, I felt a tug at my shirt. A kid no taller than my kneecaps looked up at me,
binky in his mouth.
Vai, vai, vai! the cashier said, shooing the little boy back out the door.
“Holy shit,” Gary said. “That kid was like two.”
“His mom’s out there somewhere,” I said, ordering two more empanadas.
“Giving money to beggars makes more beggars,” Gary said.
“It’s not money, it’s food. I could see his ribs.”
“You shouldn’t encourage it,” Gary slurred. “Especially you of all people.” He
left the market and stumbled on.
I paid and stepped outside. The boy had vanished into the shadows with his
mother. I lingered a while on the corner, an empanada in each hand, hoping they might
come out. Could this have been my life? Was trying to survive better than saying
goodbye forever? I had no business questioning Sonia. My life in the United States was
a stroke of good fortune. But what if she hadn’t let go?
Gary waited halfway up the block, peering into a gate house, a valet watching
Copa highlights on a tiny TV. I found my balance, tried to keep from plunging into that
gap between where I’d come from, and where I’d travelled.
Daveison called the next morning and asked me to meet him for lunch at a kiosk
near the Carioca metro station. I left Gary a note saying we’d meet up after his clinic. It
was raining hard and when I surfaced from the subway, I was swarmed by street kids
selling two for one pocket umbrellas. Businessmen hustled past, shielding their hair with
copies of O Globo. Sidewalk vendors in ponchos grilled tapiocas for the cleaning ladies
on lunch break. I spotted Daveison tucked under an awning like a cat hiding from the
We found a table for two. Daveison ordered a giant bottle of orange soda and
filled two glasses to the brim.
I have two pieces of good news, and one piece of shitty news, he said. I can give
you the good news first, or-Shitty first, I said.
Ta bom, he said. Well, Peter. Nothing is impossible, but I’m afraid that it is 99
percent impossible to find your Sonia Aúrajo.
I leaned back in my chair. I’d been warned. I’d been a fucking idiot for
expecting any other outcome. This wasn’t an after school special.
I checked every avenue, Daveison said. The housekeeping agencies, the hospitals. There
are many cracks in this city. In all likelihood-On to the good news, I said. A street sweeper in an orange uniform walked past
our table, brooming damp trash into his pan.
I hope that you’re not angr-Please, Daveison. The good news.
The good news is this, Daveison said. In the years before you were born, the
Ministry of Labor required domestic workers to report the terms of their employment-wages, dates, and so forth. These files are off the public record, but I was able to take a
peek at Miss Sonia’s.
Um jeizinho, he said. You know this word? There’s no good way to say it in
English. “A favor…a way…”
“A favor,” I said. Close enough. What did you find out?
He presented me with his clipboard, photocopies of Sonia’s contracts. Now look
here, Daveison said. An entry circled in red pen:
Dom Ricardo Alfonso
Trabalhos domésticos
$160 cruzeiros p semana
De 21 Septembro 1980
Até 20 Abril 1981
What do you notice?
She wasn’t there very long, I said.
Here’s what else, Daveison said. The contract ends just four months before you
were born. Plus, Dom Ricardo Alfonso was a banker, and the letters that your mother
sent to America said that your father was a very bright man. How do you say in English,
“Bingo,” I said.
“Bingo!” Daveison said. You see, this was a very common story at Casa da
Esperança. A maid and her patrão, having a little fun. Mistakes are made. When the
Dona discovers what her husband is up to, well…bad things happen.
A little fun. Mistakes are made. Bad things happen. Daveison was feeding me
sugar-sprinkled horseshit.
But this is a wild guess? I said.
Not a guess, an investigation. An ongoing investigation. I am learning about this
Ricardo Alfonso piece by piece, and I tell you, there is a good chance he is your birth
The possibility cast a shadow over the mythology I’d dreamed up over the years.
I’d relegated my birth father to a secondary role, nameless, faceless. The mother, not the
father, births a child. Only she can give one away.
So you think I should meet him?
It’s not so easy, Daveison said. This man has come a long way since 1981. He
worked for Unibanco, then for the prefeitura, and then for the Banco do Brasil. He has
many friends, in the government, at the papers. A very powerful man. But he cherishes
privacy. Except for this record from Sonia, his life has been a whisper. A proper
investigation will require more time.
How much time?
One month, Daveison said. And I’m afraid, more money.
I knew this was coming. How much?
Same as always. Half now. Half later. But if this turns out to be another dead
end, I refund your money.
I couldn’t afford this. I still owed Chuck an article. Gary was headed back to
Partway at the end of the week, and after that, I was covering rent by myself. But
Daveison had legit connections. If I could meet this Dom Ricardo, I could explain the
story of Sonia. The man had to have some sense of shame. He could help her. Only the
three of us would have to know.
So where do we start?
Right there, Daveison said, pointing across the street. A sleek high-rise, steel and
smoked glass: Sociedade Comercial do Rio Novo. Dom Ricardo is one of the big boys,
Daveison said. They fund developments across the city.
Let’s drop in for a visit.
No no, Daveison said. This man is a jaguar. We must be careful how we
approach him. Leave that to me. In the meantime, I promised you more good news. We
are going to go visit Casa da Esperança.
I thought it was torn down.
It was, he said. But I want to show you the old neighborhood. You’re not
Now, he said, signaling for our check. Vamos.
Whatever the story of my origins, my life in Brazil began and ended at Esperança.
The orphanage was part of a long tradition in Rio, beginning in colonial times when so
many abandoned children wandered the city that convents established foundling wheels
for good Samaritans to deposit little ones before they were snatched up by packs of dogs.
International adoption bloomed only briefly, around the time I was born. Esperança
closed down in the late ‘80s, when local politicians decided that only a Third World
country would need to send its children abroad. I wanted to see the remains, even if only
as a grave site where I could pay respects to whatever inside me was Aúrajo.
In a way, Casa da Esperança was a portal between worlds, from Rio de Janeiro to
Partway, from an urban shelter where children played with donated toys, to a farmhouse
where Gary and I camped in front of the Nintendo. Esperança was the soul project of a
woman named Abigail Long, an altruistic Christian who had grown up in Partway, and
who like most of us, moved as far away as possible. After a decade of international
mission work, she settled in Rio de Janeiro in the 70s, and over nearly 20 years, was
responsible for hundreds of children being adopted to the United States. When Mom and
Dad failed to prove the income for a domestic adoption, a friend referred them to Abigail.
I was the first of three Brazilians transplanted to Partway. The other two didn’t
have the luck to be adopted at birth. Ana Luiza arrived at age 7, a mixed girl without a
word of English. She’d never learned to trust adults, and at school, she was relegated to a
special classroom. Ana Luiza scared the shit out of me, a shadow that had slipped
through the portal and into my backyard, a reminder of how I got here. We only spoke
once a year, at annual gatherings of adoptive families. I taught her the names of cartoon
characters; she taught me tongue twisters, babble I could never get right. Três tratos de
trigo para três tigres tristes. Três tigres tristes para três tratos de trigo. When the
potlucks ended, we returned to normal life at school, strangers.
Rogélio arrived a few years later, at age 13, and quickly became Roger, the first
black kid in Partway. He’d been taught traces of English at Esperança, and his accent
was thick as pitch. Girls loved him. Teachers loved him. Soccer coaches loved him. I
remember on weekends Roger would stand on the shoulder of Highway 97, waiting for
semi-trucks to roar down the long straightaway through town. Someone had taught him
how to signal with his arm for the drivers to blow their horns. He loved to hear it so
much that word got around about him on the CB radios, and drivers would sound their
horns a mile before the blinking yellow light, just to see Roger roll with delight.
I grew up on a sheep farm a mile off the highway, only one other house--Gary’s
place--visible from our property. Partway wasn’t called Partway for nothing. A onestoplight farm town between the mountains and the eastern flats, we were high desert,
juniper trees and sagebrush, cinder rock and pumice. From our pastures we could
glimpse the Cascade Mountains, seven icy peaks like white fangs on the horizon, source
of blizzards, source of wilderness, deer and elk and coyotes, cougars that slipped through
our barbed wire and left our sheep spilled red in the snow.
Any desire beyond gas or milk required a drive to Bend, seventeen miles away.
Bend was a resort town--skiing and golf and white water rafting, a playground for
Californians, a world apart from the farm. Our bus ride to school was an hour, snoozing
through starts and stops, heads rested on the seats in front of us so that we arrived with
dents in our foreheads. Partway only made the news once every two years, during our
biennial infestation of Pandora Moths. Their larvae pupated in the soft pumice sand, only
to surface the next year later with the wingspans of larks, swarming the fields, the roads,
the houses, so that when they died off and dried out, their crispy remains littered our
town. We were cursed, Partway kids, freaks from BFE.
Daveison’s kombi rumbled up the cobblestone hills of Santa Teresa. He pulled to
the shoulder, making way for a trolley car rattling downhill. Tourists dangled from the
hand rails, aiming digital cameras at the downtown skyline. At last we came to a stop at
a three way intersection where a Western Union, a Kentucky Fried Chicken, and a
Dunkin’ Donuts were clumped together along a spritely new strip.
There it is, meu mano, Daveison said, rolling down his window for a better look.
He burped into his hand and launched into a ghost tour of the building: There’s where the
gate used to be. Abigail kept a tray of strawberry candies for everyone who came home
on time from school. The courtyard is where we had our futebol matches, except one
time, we kicked the bola through the office window and Abigail didn’t let us play again
for three days. Wait, no. The girls could still play. Three days felt like a lifetime, let me
tell you. Speaking of the girls, have I ever mentioned Cristiani? Linda, linda, linda.
Boys from school used to tie love letters to their kites and fly them over the wall for her.
But she liked me best. We were going to get married, but then they found a home for her.
Oh, if she wouldn’t have left, let me tell you, I would have-I was born in a Western Union, I said, gazing out the rain-dappled window.
Daveison clasped his hand on the back of my neck until I met his eyes. Come on,
meu mano, he said. You’ve got imagination, no?
That night after dinner, Gary and I ducked into an Internet café on Rua Bolivar, a
dim, smoky joint that had no business calling itself a café. The place never seemed to
serve any coffee, only cold cerveja and Guarana and baskets of fried shrimp, and all the
keyboards and mice were coated in a thin layer of palm sweat and grease. But it was
only 1 real for 15 minutes, so we sat.
At the terminal beside me, a black dude wearing wire-rimmed glasses slurped a
beer, uploading self-shot pictures of himself on a hotel bed with a young morena. Gary
sat on my other side, prosthetic guiding the mouse, real hand gliding across the keyboard.
As always, he navigated directly to the Partway Weekly Shopper, hungry for new from
home. I cracked a beer and opened my inbox, the only new message a one-liner from
Chuck Gasparino: Randolph, Freelance dollars don’t grow on trees. -CG.
“Look at this shit,” Gary said, pointing to a slideshow of photos on his screen.
Smoke pouring from the Cascade woodlands west of Partway. Flames engulfing banks
of trees like a wild, burning wall. A herd of elk fleeing across the highway.
“Close to town?” I asked.
“Not yet.”
The damp winter in Rio made it easy to forget the tinder-dry summer in Partway.
I slipped on a headset to place a call to Dad. We hadn’t spoken in over a month, since the
night I announced I was headed down to Brazil. I listened to the ring tone, imagined a
solitary bird perched on the line above our house in Partway, horizon blood-orange from
the fires. Answering machine, Mom’s old greeting, a remnant from April, before her
final relapse: Spring has sprung, and you’ve reached the Randolphs…She kept her spirits
high, as if humor were the cure, even when people asked about her diagnosis. “I’m full
of rotten eggs,” she would say. I hated that image. It recalled those old afternoons when
Gary and I would steal eggs from our blind neighbor’s chicken coup, chuck them against
juniper trees for shits and giggles, awestruck by the fertilized ones, gooey yellow halfchicks in the yolk.
I ended the call and tried again; back in Partway, the sun would be setting, Dad
would be coming in from the pastures. This was my betrayal: I’d left him to grieve
alone. For eight years, he’d focused every free hour on Mom, and now that she was
gone, he turned his attention to the repairs he’d neglected. I imagined him walking the
property line, digging new post holes, straightening our crooked fences.
This time he picked up the phone. Lambs bleated in the background. I pictured
him standing at the black rotary phone in the barn, boots covered in manure and hay dust.
“What’s going on with those fires?” I asked, voice delayed a few seconds, a few
thousand miles.
“Heat lightning is all,” he said. “They’ve got it under control.”
From there we made the smallest of talk. Me: rainy weather, Gary’s having fun,
haven’t filed an article yet. Dad: tractor acting up, killed two skunks the other day,
business could be better. For twenty years, he’d worked as an independent contractor,
specializing in fence work. Electric, barbed wire, aluminum, cedar--you name it, Mike
Randolph would get it built for a fair price. Except these days nobody wanted to pay a
fair price.
Without warning, he brought it up: “Any luck playing gumshoe?”
“It’s a big city,” I said.
“So is that a yes or a no?”
“They tore down the old orphanage,” I said. “Twenty-five years is a long time.”
“I know how long it is,” he said. “Listen, I’ve got to get these animals fed. Keep
your head on straight.”
The entire conversation lasted 10 minutes. When he hung up, I stared at the
screen until my minutes at the terminal expired.
“Some kid got his face bit by a hog at the county fair,” Gary said.
“Let’s get out of here,” I said. We paid up and left.
“How’s your dad doing?”
“Fine,” I said.
But I had no idea. We hadn’t spoken a word about Mom. I wondered if it made
him feel better or worse taking care of those sheep. Our farm wasn’t much. Ten acres.
Sixty-five ewes, four rams. Dad had no intention of breeding them now that Mom was
gone, but he refused to sell them off. The barn was her sacred territory, the one place he
couldn’t bear to clean out.
A few days after the funeral, we packed up Mom’s closet, speechless, as if we
were straining to hear her footsteps somewhere in the house. Dad slipped garments from
their hangers, sealed them in boxes with absurd amounts of duct tape. When he left the
room for more boxes, I climbed the stepladder, took down the old firebox.
Inside was a file folder of social security documents, account statements, Dad’s
veteran status papers. Below all that was an unlabeled manila envelope. I opened it. A
bundle of old documents, held together with a dry rubber band that snapped when I lifted
it. A birth registry, faded Portuguese type. A Brazilian birth certificate, an ink stamp of
tiny feet and palms. A burnt-orange envelope with an international stamp.
“Don’t waste any time, do you?” Dad said. He stood in the doorway with a roll of
tape in one hand, in the other, Mom’s wig.
“She said--”
But he’d already turned down the hall. I sat on the closet floor, examined the
documents. The certificates smelled of smoke and dew. The postmark on the envelope
showed it was sent just before my first birthday. Holding it lifted my heart rate.
The story of my birth was one I had reassembled like a shattered urn, examining
fragments, longing for connections. The history grew darker year by year. Mom’s
retellings were alive with mysterious people and places--Abigail and Daveison, Casa de
Esperança and Corcovado--a fairy tale with a foundling at the center. But one night when
I was seven, I picked up the phone during one of her calls with Ana Luiza’s mother. The
woman sobbed, said she’d given up. Ana Luiza was better off back in the orphanage, but
now it was too late. Mom detected my breathing and told me to hang up. But over the
years I heard other parents whisper stories at adoption agency potlucks, tales of
courthouse confrontations, falsified documents, bribery at customs and immigration. I
tried to make the pieces fit. Whenever Mom and Dad left for Irrigation District meetings,
I sifted through an old box of 35 mm slides from Brazil. Holding each one to the lamp
light, I gazed back to 1981, my parents on a corner in the Centro, squinting in the sun.
Western shirts and jeans, hair parted in the middle, youthful faces like masks.
Who were these people?
Vanessa and Michael Randolph. Twentysomethings from Partway, desperate for
a child, any child. Each picture spawned questions, but the answers could only affirm
what I already knew: This life wasn’t supposed to be mine. So instead of asking
questions, I let my imagination tremble. There was ample time and space for dreaming-long morning rides to school, afternoons of barnyard chores, nights awake in the glow of
the moon. The Brazil of my imagination swelled into a shadowland, its history always
changing, its border stretching clear to Partway, and now this letter from Sonia Aúrajo, it
buried that landscape in ash.
I unfolded it carefully, paper weightless in my fingertips. The handwriting was
large, each word a careful block. It began Meu Filho, it was signed Sonia Aúrajo. With
my dusty Spanish, I could only decipher a few passages, but enough to summon the
ghosts of my entire life.
By the time I picked myself up from the closet floor, the light through the
windows had dimmed. Outside, the sun spilled pink and gold along the peaks. The barn
light was on. I slipped the letter in my pocket and found Dad at the lambing pens, a hose
running in his hand.
Ours was an untreatable wound, one neither of us had the courage to touch.
Without Mom, I was the only one left to reassure him that blood didn’t matter. And now
I was leaving.
He kept his eyes on the water trough, as if it might never be full again. His last
words before I turned away: “Don’t forget. Some doors, once you open them, they can’t
be closed.”
Vanessa had miscarried three times--once on the tractor, once at a minor league
baseball game, and once in the shower. In the aftermath, Michael would hold her like a
broken bird, promise her that everything was going to be okay. A life without children
was still a life together, and that’s what mattered. He couldn’t know that what stopped
her from keeping a baby would someday kill her. He only knew that they shouldn’t try
They had plenty to keep them busy. The farm. The house. Fishing, hunting,
camping. They’d looked into adoption, but the questionnaires were minefields meant to
stop people like them: no college diplomas, no steady W-2 income, no chance. But
Michael saw the look on Vanessa’s face that year at Christmas, how she lingered near the
coat rack, caressing the fabric of their little nephew’s snowsuit. So when she told him
about this woman, Abigail Long, about this place, Casa something-or-other, the only
word to say was yes.
To afford it, he would have to build more fences, cut the prices on his bids, string
barbed wire until his gloves wore out. He dropped out of bowling league and worked
two night shifts at the lumberyard in Redmond; the employee discount saved 15 percent
on supplies. Vanessa started babysitting a few nights a week, switched to grain and hay
for the sheep, shopped for groceries at the canned food outlet. A nickel here, a dime
there. When Michael finally showed up for a pitcher of beer at the Rusty Skillet, the
boys asked him what the fuck was going on.
“It’s expensive,” Michael said, “but it’ll be worth it.”
“Careful what you wish for,” a co-worker from the lumberyard warned: “Lotsa
niggers down there. My wife raises one by mail, keeps his picture on the fridge.
Sonofabitch costs me eight-ninety-five a month.”
Before long Michael and Vanessa were seated in the offices of an adoption
agency in Salem, flipping through a photo album of available children. Some had scars
or blind eyes or bottle mouth teeth that made them look like baby alligators. The
caseworker peppered the conversation with the words realistic, lengthy, and process.
They borrowed--Michael hated to borrow--from family, friends, neighbors, even the
postman, who left an $80 check in the mailbox. They booked a one-way flight and a
small apartment in Rio de Janeiro. They hired a neighbor girl to water and feed the
On February 26th, 1980, a frozen Portland morning, they departed; sixteen hours
later, on a broiling summer night in Rio, they arrived.
Casa de Esperança was only six blocks from the complex where Michael and
Vanessa were renting, perched on a hill overlooking the city center. The orphanage
looked like a miniature military barracks, surrounded by a cast-iron fence, courtyard
littered with abandoned toys. In the lobby, they were greeted by a young man in a crisp
yellow shirt. He introduced himself as Daveison and invited them to take a seat while he
went to find Abigail.
Michael remained standing. On a corkboard near the front desk were dozens of
newspaper articles tacked side-by-side with clumsy English translations. Depending on
the paper, Abigail Long was perceived as an angel or a devil in Rio. Some praised her
for providing a clean borning room for pregnant girls shamed and deserted by their
families. Others said she encouraged turpitude by offering an easy solution to common
whores. But each article seemed to conclude that at very least, Abigail was saving lives,
finding homes for infants who might otherwise become fodder for dumpster dogs, for
little ones who knew nothing but the bottom of a glue bottle, for street kids who would be
exterminated by the police. Abigail’s children were the malqueridos--the unwanted.
Now she entered the lobby, a woman in her fifties wearing an apron splotched
with finger-paint. She launched into a conversation with Vanessa, about the flight, about
their apartment, about the goings-on back in Partway. Michael half-listened, peering out
the window to the courtyard where Daveison arranged a line of children on the soccer
field. The children divided themselves by gender, and then Daveison sorted them by
height, settling disputes with a snap of his fingers. Once they were in line, he passed hair
ties to the girls and helped the boys slick back their hair with a dollop of grease and a
small white comb.
“They all have families waiting for them somewhere,” Abigail said, leading them
to the courtyard. “The Lord has them chosen already.” This Abigail had the aura of a
used car salesman, introducing each child by name as they walked the line. Michael
avoided their large, wet eyes, touched the small of Vanessa’s back, careful not to let her
linger too long on any one child. The smallest boys and girls leaned forward, listening
for their names. At the end of the line, a tiny black boy with a binky in his mouth
scurried out of place, clutched Vanessa’s legs.
“This is Rogélio,” Daveison said.
“As you can see, he’s not very shy,” Abigail said. “A sweet little boy.”
They left the children in the courtyard to play, retreating to Abigail’s office. At
her desk, Abigail slipped on a pair of thick reading glasses, licked her forefinger, and
flipped through their dossier. Behind those glasses, her eyes were icy blue beads.
“We were promised an infant,” Vanessa blurted.
“Well,” Abigail said. “Rogélio is only two years old.”
“It’s not the same,” Michael said.
“Mr. and Mrs. Randolph,” Abigail said. “You simply cannot be afraid of a visible
“It’s not that we’re afraid,” Michael said.
“What is it, then?” Abigail said, removing her glasses. Michael couldn’t find the
words. He wasn’t afraid of the child, but for the child. Michael knew Partway, the slurs
scrawled on the restroom walls.
“It’s just we’ve been waiting for so long,” Vanessa said, “for a newborn.”
“That’s not always possible,” Abigail said. “An adoption like that could take a
considerable amount of waiting.”
Waiting became a religion. Michael and Vanessa would wake early, and while it
was still cool, sit in a café near the orphanage, sharing sweet bread, leafing through O
Globo, brown coffee rings on the pages. Michael understood little of the language, but
the pictures were enough, ceaseless images of robberies, homicides, bullet riddled busses.
An inventory of reasons to deliver a child from this fragile city. But there was beauty
abound in Rio. Beaches and jungle lay just over the skyline. They still hadn’t visited the
rainforest or the giant Christ statue. Michael coaxed Vanessa into a ride to the top of
Sugar Loaf Mountain for sunset, sweet relief, but Vanessa feared they were missing a
development, a phone call, a vital message. He wanted to make her face reality: there
was a chance they could go home empty handed.
On Easter weekend, when Abigail assured them she would be taking no calls,
Michael convinced Vanessa that they needed to see that Brazil wasn’t just a country of
offices and courtrooms. They took a bus from the Centro to Copacabana. With little
money, they could only afford to stroll along the beaches, but at least it was a chance to
put their swimwear to use. Mid-afternoon, as a reprieve from the sun, they walked the
stinging-hot sidewalks to Ipanema. Here and there on the walkway were children asleep
under palm leaves. Michael stepped around them, tried to focus on other foot traffic, a
parade of women in string bikinis.
“They’re certainly not shy,” Vanessa said, adjusting her one piece.
“What do you mean?”
“Don’t pretend you’re not looking.”
Women of every shade passed by, slender and smiling, leaving wet footprints on
the sidewalk as if they had just emerged from the sea, only to be polished by the sun. If
they had a daughter, would she look something like this?
That night, back in the cramped apartment, Michael flossed his teeth, squinted
into the mirror at his slack, worrisome face. Vanessa stood beside the bed, shedding her
clothes. It seemed absurd that the two of them, so painfully ordinary, might one day have
a daughter like one of those girls on the sidewalk.
Michael slid into the rough sheets, and without speaking, without kissing, moved
on top of her. Perhaps after a day on the beach it would be different, and for a moment it
was, as if something in the sweaty, salty air had seeped into them, but their motion
devolved to the habitual, absent of craving, practiced from years of trying to conceive.
And now, closing his eyes, Michael tried to push back the thought that, for all the love
they had, he and Vanessa had failed to complete that most simple and natural act. His
mind wandered to that pageant of women on the Ipanema sidewalk, and as if Vanessa
could sense that he was no longer with her, she told him to quit.
“What do you mean?”
“Just stop.”
Michael rolled to her side, half-expecting a spider or lizard to drop from the
ceiling onto his bare chest.
“We made a mistake,” Vanessa said.
“You say that now?” Michael snapped. “After two months? Now you decide--”
“I don’t mean Brazil,” she said. “I mean going to the beach. What if Daveison
needed us for something?”
They dressed silently. Vanessa sat on a chair in the corner, chewing ice, rereading the pre-adopt guide, a chapter about reactive attachment disorder, the critical
importance of bonding with a child at once. “It says I need to hold her to my skin,” she
said. Michael watched her gaze out the window, holding her arms to her chest, as if
pretending how to rock, how to cradle, how to breathe the child like a scent or a spirit.
He found a soccer game on TV, absentmindedly filled out the postcards he’d
purchased from a vendor at the beach. Images of the sights they were supposed to be
seeing. Tijuca Rainforest. Sugar Loaf Mountain. Corcovado. He scribbled notes to the
folks back home--Rio is amazing! So much to see!--and left them on the nightstand for
Vanessa to sign before bed.
My grandmother, who used to call me her Brazilian coffee bean, bought me a
globe one year for Christmas. I remember spending hours with it on my bedroom floor,
tracing snakes of rivers, bumps of mountain ranges, spinning the Earth wildly on its axis,
stopping it with my fingertip. I imagined a life wherever I pointed. Port Harcourt,
Nigeria. Kyoto, Japan. Honfluer, France. The randomness was intoxicating. Dots on
the map, other lives. Portland was the only dot in Oregon, and I would touch my pinky
finger there, and try to reach my thumb all the way to Rio de Janeiro, stretching across
desert, sea, and jungle, my hand always too small. Not until high school could I finally
connect the two cities with one hand, and by then, I’d decided on my future. I was going
to get the fuck out of Partway. I was going to be a journalist. I was going to write about
all those dots on the map.
There were 20,000 students at the University of Oregon, twenty times more
people than lived in our town. Gary settled for community college, so I arrived in
Eugene friendless, but exhilarated. I took any assignment I could at The Emerald, fell
asleep reading the AP style guide. But while my classmates took summer internships at
Reuters and the AP bureaus, I lingered in Oregon as an intern for The Portland Pioneer,
tethered to Partway. I travelled thousands of miles each month, a perpetual journey
across Mt. Hood, to the oncology ward at St. Charles. Always the same news to report:
Mom was getting worse.
Now after two years covering the courthouse for Chuck at The Pioneer, I finally
had the chance to score a few international clips. I’d always believed in the high ideal of
journalism, that reporting could take me closer to the heart of the world, but this morning
I couldn’t even describe the breakfast table.
Gary buttered a roll, pitching story ideas. “How about The Girls from Ipanema?
You know, lots of bikini pictures.”
“Okay, so take one of those favela tours. I see those flyers everywhere. Drug
dealers sell papers.”
“Hack job,” I said. “Voyeurism for gringos.”
“You’re writing for gringos, dumbass. That’s why they call it the Travel section.”
He was right. Chuck would have printed either of those pieces in a heartbeat. But
I was looking for a story that could harness the city, its verve and its heartbreak. I needed
to hit the pavement, get a feel for my beat, but I was afraid to miss a call from Daveison.
Stupid. He’d been clear: Arranging a meeting with Dom Ricardo might take a month. It
hadn’t even been a week yet. When Gary left for soccer clinic, I lingered in the
apartment flipping through The Brazil Reader and O Globo. I was too anxious to work,
but diversion was for tourists, so I wasted my afternoon in the dim of an Internet café,
researching for Dom Ricardo.
Daveison was right. Nothing much to find. No news briefs, no photos, no home
address. Only a few financial statements with his signature at the bottom, a pair of
smooth loops.
I yearned for a glimpse of him. Early the next morning, I asked Gary if he wanted
to take a ride to the Sociedade Comercial do Rio Novo.
“So is this reporting, or personal shit?”
“Both, I guess.”
“I paid $899 for this camp, and I’ve only got two days left,” he said.
“Come on. You can take pictures.”
“Absolutely not,” Gary said. “They shoot journalists here, Pete. This is like one
of those Choose Your Own Adventures where one of the options is the stupidest idea
The downtown vendors were just lifting their shutters. At the corner of Rio
Branco and São Jose, I gazed up at the smoky windows of the Sociedade Comercial do
Rio Novo. In one of those offices sat Dom Ricardo Alfonso, perhaps pouring himself a
cafézinho. I crossed the intersection in a huddle of businessmen clutching briefcases and
smoothies, entered the building through revolving doors. Bom Dia Rio! droned on
televisions in the lobby. The front desk was black marble, staffed by a young woman in a
pink blouse who looked soft and damp like she’d just stepped out of the shower. I
introduced myself as an American journalist assigned to write a feature about the
These should be helpful, she said, handing me an assortment of glossy brochures.
I was hoping to see Dom Ricardo Alfonso, I said. Could I make an appointment?
I’m afraid our financial officers don’t grant interviews.
I sifted through the brochures. I don’t see any information about your board
members, I said. Maybe you have some biographical notes? Photos?
This is a privately held corporation, Mr. Randolph. I’m afraid the literature here
is the most I can offer.
I sat on a leather chair in the lobby and perused the materials. Formed in the mid80s, in the first years after the dictatorship, the Sociedade grew into an industrial
juggernaut, commanded by former generals, judges, and bankers. Its business was
concentrated in Rio de Janeiro state, and spread across four divisions: media,
construction, transportation, and investments. The brochures highlighted development
projects for the upcoming Pan-American games. Plans to expand 54 kilometers of Metro
line, to install 621 chemical toilets along Copacabana and Ipanema beaches, to launch an
18-month sexual health campaign in the hillside communities. The crown jewel was a
clean-up of the Guanabara watershed, spearheaded by a group called Guardiões da Baía-Guardians of the Bay. The pamphlet featured computer generated images of heavy
equipment dredging silt deposits. Photographs of elementary school children planting
new mangroves. A portrait of a smiling man in a green jumpsuit, using a long fishing net
to scoop a plastic bottle from the crystal waters.
Muito obrigado, I told the secretary on my way out. You’ve been a big help.
Guardiões da Baía. Not quite the sex appeal of beach volleyball, but Chuck
always had a hard-on for the environmental angle.
A kombi to the port district. Beside me in the back seat, dockworkers in
coveralls, hardhats in their laps, debating whether Ronaldinho would choke in the big
weekend match against Australia. Out the window, a supertanker navigated the mouth of
the bay, leaving fishing boats bobbing in its wake. Along the pier, dozens of container
ships were docked, cranes transferring cargo. Overhead, freeway traffic merged onto a
bridge to the International Airport.
I showed my brochure to the kombi driver’s assistant, offered him ten reals to
drop me off near any of those projects. The man flipped through the pages and stopped at
the picture of the worker fishing out a plastic bottle with a net.
This guy is on our route, he said.
We followed the portside road along shore, through an industrial park, past a
nauseating sewage treatment plant, and then inland alongside a canal flanked by shanties
and abandoned fishing boats. The kombi driver skidded to a stop in the shade of the
freeway overpass and let me out near the muddy bank. A string of buoys crossed the
murky water, a floating net. A dam of trash spanned shore to shore: mattresses, car parts,
diapers, sheet metal, clothing, thousands of bottles and cans. A white vulture stood on a
tire, pecking at an unrecognizable carcass. The stench of human sludge lifted my
stomach to my throat. A man in a green jumper paddled along the water in a dinky
rubber raft, spearing pieces of trash and dropping them into buckets at his side.
Oi! I called out to him.
In the rush of traffic overhead, he didn’t seem to hear me. Holding my nose, I
plucked the arm of a plastic doll from the muck along shore. I flung it over the water,
and it plopped near the man’s raft, startling the vulture. The man removed the cap from
his head, wiped his brow, and looked around. I waved. He paddled through oily
rainbows to where I stood waiting.
Am I in trouble? he asked.
No, I said. I’m a reporter.
I’ve got nothing to say.
This is you, right? I asked, showing him the brochure.
Where was this picture taken?
We collect more than 1,000 kilograms of waste each week, he said, echoing his
quote in the literature.
We? I asked. Is there anyone else out here?
Just me, he said, swatting a fly from his nose. New waves of trash floated down
the canal and merged with the glittering dam.
Where do you live? I asked.
Alla, he said, gesturing up the canal, a long row of shanties.
With the cash in my pocket, I could get this man to write me a song about the
Guardiões da Baía. But I wasn’t looking to get anyone fired.
Thank you for your time, I said. He pushed off shore and paddled back out to
work. Standing on the bank, I snapped a few pictures: the trash dam, the trail of scum
trickling through the net toward the bay, the tankers looming in the distance. In the shade
of the underpass sat a lunch box and a collection net that must have belonged to the man.
I unlatched the box, slipped a twenty real bill inside, and walked back to the main road
for a kombi.
Back at the Sociedade, the woman behind the black marble desk was busy
answering phones. I showed her the images on the tiny camera screen.
Remind them that I’m from an American newspaper, I said.
Please take a seat, she said, and placed a call.
I waited in a comfortable leather chair, watching a television overhead. A man in
a crisp blue suit stood on a stock market trading floor, recapping the morning surge in the
BOVESPA. Now a primly dressed young executive strolled across the lobby with a
clipboard in her hand. “Mr. Randolph,” she said in impeccable English. “Our Chief of
Public Affairs would like to meet with you this evening. If you write down your address,
he’ll send a car for you at seven o’clock.”
That evening, a charcoal-colored town car pulled up to our apartment building at
seven sharp. The driver shuttled me directly to Leblon, a sheik enclave of luxury
condominiums, designer boutiques, gelato shops, bookstores, and pet groomers. On the
corners, private school kids in designer jeans wore sunglasses even at this dim hour.
Performance cars lined the streets, guarded by valets in red and gold uniforms. Leblon
was a forgetting zone, too posh for all but celebrity tourists, a haven for wealthy South
Americans impervious to the struggles of the continent, as if history had skipped right
over them.
Dom Manuel Gilberto waited for me at the center table of the Sushi Leblon, a
blue-glass enclosure decked out in fish tanks and aquatic lighting. A blond, blue-eyed
man in his forties, he stood to shake my hand, smiling, veneers like horse teeth. A bottle
of sake arrived at our table; he sent it back to be warmed a bit more.
Dom Manuel, I said, opening my notepad. Tell me about yourself.
“Please,” he said. “Call me Manny. And while I admire your Portuguese, I think
it’s best that we speak in English, for accuracy’s sake.”
“Whichever you prefer,” I said.
We picked our way through plates of sushi. Manny delivered a diatribe about the
Sociedade’s commitment to “rehabilitating” the city. He glanced at my notepad as I
wrote, and when I caught him looking, he turned his attention to the fish tank behind me,
bright fish like gold coins.
“This is about more than planting trees and passing out condoms,” he said. “It’s
about access to the 21st century. Wheelchair access in the Metro, Internet access in the
plazas, student loan access for those who seek better futures.”
“Sounds costly,” I said.
“The price of progress,” he said. “This is a generational opportunity. For too
long, our attention here in Rio has been focused on the lower end of our social spectrum.”
“The favelas--”
“--Hillside communities,” he said. “The favelado mentality is damaging. It’s
become something of an industry here. Surely you’ve seen the tours, making theme
parks of our slums.”
These tours were advertised at every hostel and Internet café in the Zona Sul.
Twenty bucks for a van ride up into the hills, a guided tour of the bairro, capped with an
evening at a Real Favela Funk Party! Some companies spread awareness by taking
visitors to community centers, clinics, and schools. Most offered gringos the chance to
get off on their City of God fetish--photos ops with AK-47s and bags of coke--inspired by
a hit movie about the slums of the late 70s, right around the time I was born.
“If the prefeitura is so intent on embracing the hillside communities, how come
the city council wants to build walls around them?”
“That’s a separate issue,” Manny said, “an environmental issue. Substandard
housing is penetrating the jungle. We need to contain these developments until
permanent solutions can be found.”
“If the environment is the issue, why not build a waste infrastructure, instead of
picking it up later with nets?”
Manny put his elbows on the table and interlocked his hands. “To an outsider,
these issues can seem, how do you say, cut and dry. Trust me when I tell you that the
situation here is more complex than it looks on the surface.” He signaled for the check.
“It seems a pity to talk business after such a wonderful meal. I hope to show you a bit
more of what Rio has to offer. Are you a betting man?”
Shaky ground for a journalist--accepting free meals, drinking and gambling with
interview subjects, but perhaps a chance to get closer to Dom Ricardo. The town car
drove us to the Hipódromo da Gávea, a gigantic equestrian facility at the edge of a
university neighborhood. Older than Churchill Downs, its floodlights were visible from
across the city. The blood red track was flanked by grandstands, segregated into lower
tiers, second tiers, and a luxury lounge. We rode the elevator to the top floor. A
doorman greeted us as we entered.
We took a seat at the bar. Manny introduced me to the bartender as an American
journalist, and ordered a round of Johnny Walker. Thumbing through the race booklet,
he noted his selections for the night’s first race. I shadowed Manny on a few small bets-nothing that would break my already fragile bank. Back in Partway, my Uncle Rob was
perpetually bankrupt thanks to the casino out in Ka-Nee-Ta, and Dad always referenced
him up as a cautionary tale. Besides, Manny was shitty at picking horses. By the sixth
race, he hadn’t chosen a single winner, and after four more Johnny Walkers, his English
had lost its polish.
My system isn’t working tonight, he said, slurring in Portuguese now. Do you
know how my system works?
How my system works is I read the names of all the horses. Every single name.
Then I pick the name that sounds like a good name for a penis.
I reviewed his selections for the night--Gato del Sol, Grindstone, Strike the Gold,
Ferdinand. Maybe it’s just not working tonight, I said. Do you come here often?
Three nights a week, he said. Not usually by myself. Usually with the guys from
work. But lately I’ve been losing on the weekends so I’ve got to win it back during the
How well do you know Dom Ricardo Alfonso? I asked.
How do you know Ricky?
I don’t, I said. I’m just curious.
He’s a family man, Manny said. He comes only now and then. Usually he’s got
plans with his son and daughter.
He has children? How old are they?
I’ve said too much already, Manny said. He’s a very private man. He doesn’t
like his name in the papers.
Why not?
We are off the record, no? he said, peering into his empty glass. I mean, that’s a
lot of Johnny Walker, no?
Com certeza!
Ricky is thinking about a run for mayor, he said. Best to keep a low profile until
then. In Rio politics, the less people know, the better.
I see.
He’ll make a good mayor. Beautiful wife. Very lucky at the race track. The man
knows how to pick a horse. Why do you ask all this?
No reason.
The sixth race ended in a photo finish, and when the results came in, Manny
signaled for the check and stumbled away to take a piss. On the ride back to the
apartment, he leaned his skull against the headrest. At a stoplight on Rua São Clemente,
he rolled down the window and pointed up to a dark hillside. Bright dashes of tracer
rounds, chains of bullets searing across the black.
Now listen close, he said, index finger to his lips. Hear the little guns? Those
tiny pops? Those are the police.
Gary snored on the couch, ice packs around his ankles. Under the light of the
breakfast table, I sat with my notebook. Tonight, the mountaintops were shrouded in sea-
mist so that all that was visible of Cristo Redentor was his two outstretched palms
glowing in the spotlights.
From this furnished apartment, with its security guard, its microwave, its ice
maker, who was I to write about this city?
The bustling ports and grim docks, container ships and tankers clogging the bay.
Copacabana and Ipanema, the perpetual weekend, gringos washed up on the sand like
white fish, ATM cards lodged in their gills. A world of visitors, Chinese, Chilean, and
Canadian, thrilled by the surf, annoyed by the beggars. Thousands of Americans and
Brits, shitfaced by noon, reading guidebooks upside down. The sun sinks. Clubs burn
neon. Lovers for hire lean on jukeboxes.
This city could not be contained in a travel section. Condos with glass-shard
flecked walls. Claustrophobic hillsides, guarded by teens with grenades. Art deco
apartments and manic streets. Those on television, those in the shadows.
Busses and kombis, passengers counting centavos for the cobradors, slumped
into seats for the long ride home. Dog walkers bagging handfuls of poodle shit. Janitors
and yoga instructors. Those who work, those who work out.
Priests, nuns, choir boys. Flamengo fans, Botafogo fans, Vaca fans, Fluminense
fans. Cigarette vendors opening fresh cartons, Copa highlights on the radio. Florists
sitting on flower crates, clipping bouquets of lilies, waiting for newlyweds on night-walks
home. Those who pray, those who cannot sleep.
I was trying to bridge an impossible gap. Brazil 1981, Brazil 2006. South
American blunder-state, emerging market wunderkind. I was born in the twilight of a
military regime, on the rubble of an economic collapse. Now there were powers eager to
wipe that era from memory. To a man like Dom Ricardo Alfonso, I was a smudge on an
otherwise clean window.
Hang gliders circled the mountains around Rio like pre-historic butterflies.
Whenever Gary saw one, he would stare slack-jawed until the pilot caught a thermal
toward the sea and out of sight.
“I have to try that,” he would say.
I’d known Gary long enough to understand that if he said he had to try something,
it meant he never would: Picking up a starfish at the Oregon Coast Aquarium;
skateboarding; going to a college outside of Central Oregon; nigiri sushi; teaching at a
high school outside of Central Oregon; online dating--Gary was a vessel of unrealized
wishes. It wasn’t that he lacked courage. He could be fierce within his comfort zone, but
that zone was Partway, Oregon, plus a few neighboring counties where his soccer team
travelled for games.
So on Gary’s last morning in Rio, when I caught him gawking at a hang glider for
the seven-hundredth time, I dragged him to the peak of Pedra Bonita, a 1,500 foot granite
slab overlooking the Floresta Tijuca and the beaches of the Zona Sul. Half a dozen
rainbow colored gliders rested like giant kites near the cliff edge. A crowd gathered near
a makeshift snack bar, sipping caiparinhas, cameras ready.
“I thought you hated tourist traps.” Gary said.
“This is a time honored sport in Brazil,” I said.
On deck was a Japanese dude set to fly tandem with a young Bahian pilot.
Together they perched on the launch station, a wooden ramp slick from last night’s rain.
On the count of three, they ran down the ramp, off the cliff. The Japanese guy shrieked,
kicking his legs like a swimmer as they swept over the forest. No thank you. The only
thing worse than a tourist trap was an extreme tourist trap.
Gary was getting flustered with the straps on his kneepads. I knelt down and
cinched them tight. He unfastened his prosthetic. “Lose that, I’ll kill you.”
His pilot sauntered over and patted him on the back. “You okay, my buddy?”
“Fuck yeah,” Gary said.
The pilot turned to me: Your friend looks ready to upchuck.
“What’d he say?” Gary said.
“He says you look like a natural.”
I’d never seen Gary this freaked out. Heights never fazed him. Back in Partway,
we used to swim in a river with a 40 foot cliff along its bank. Gary would dive off like an
acrobat. Now he circled his blue and yellow glider, checking the tension of the bracing
“Look at this shit,” he said. A section of the fiberglass skin was patched with duct
tape. “Huge, huge red flag.”
“I wouldn’t sweat it,” I said. “If there’s a problem, the pilot dies, too."
“Don’t be naive,” he said. “One of the girls at scrimmage warned me about this.
This Australian lady was on a tandem flight, and one of the wings tore apart in the wind.
The pilot needed to drop weight fast, so he whipped out his pocket knife and cut her
“He probably figured it was better to save one life.”
“Are you kidding? The pilot spiraled into a mountain. Probably this mountain.”
At the snack bar, a frat boy and his pilot took shots of cachaça with lime, posing
for the cameras. Satisfied, they slipped into their nylon body bags and stepped onto the
“See?” I said. “If it was so unsafe, would they be drinking beforehand?”
The assistant circled the glider on deck. He double-checked the connections and
tugged on the frat boy’s clip-in latch, which popped off in his hand.
Espere espere espere! he called out.
The kid at the snack bar dug around his backpack for a new clip and tossed it to
the assistant.
“Fuck this,” Gary said. “Give me back my hand.”
We took the next kombi downhill. Gary slumped against the window, watching
the gliders arc over the city. Part of me was glad to see him headed back to Partway. No
more English, no more tourist traps. The real city would open up to me.
“Don’t tell anyone I pussed out,” he said.
“No worries. I won’t even mention we were up here.”
That afternoon at the Internet café, Gary confirmed his flight and itinerary. My
mailbox contained a single email from Chuck: Travel, not politics! Managed to salvage
sushi, etc. Best, Gasparino. I checked the Pioneer Online. My feature had been boiled
down to a 250 word capsule about Leblon, practically ad copy. Treat Yourself to Rio’s
Best! Back at the apartment, I collapsed on the couch in a stupor.
“Fuck it, Gary said, stuffing his duffel bag with 15 Flamengo jerseys, gifts for the
kids on his team. “Newspapers are written at what--a tenth grade level?”
“Sixth grade,” I said. Outside the window, the sun sank away, city lights alive on
the surface of the Lagoa.
“So your article was too complex for a sixth grader,” he said. “Take it as a
Gary double-checked his bags and zipped them tight. We had one last meal at the
kilograma on Avenida Isabel, one last competition to see who could eat the most. Gary
won, as usual, devouring 1.42 kilograms of steak, potatoes, and beans. At a nearby table,
a family ate in silence, attention divided between two TVs--a preview of tomorrow
night’s match against Australia, and a soap opera called América. We leaned back in our
chairs to digest.
“So how much longer are you going to stay?” Gary asked.
“Depends if Chuck keeps lopping off my column inches.”
“What about your Dad?”
“He’s fine.”
“He’s all alone.”
“I deserve to have some fun down here.”
“But you’re not,” Gary said. “You walk around Rio like it’s a crime scene.”
Our last two weeks had been two different trips. His, a summer vacation. Mine, a
failed attempt to prove that I belonged. My mangled article proved it. I was looking at
this city through the wrong lens. I’d drug Gary down here on the biggest trip of his life,
only to mope around like a dweeb.
“We’ve got a few hours left,” I said. “Let’s go to Lapa.”
“The guidebook says it’s not--”
“Fuck the guidebook. All you’ve done is hang out with Americans. You haven’t
even danced samba.”
“I did the other night.”
“The jukebox at Shenanigans doesn’t count.”
“Maybe if you would have asked last night,” he said, chewing ice from his water
glass. “I have to catch a cab at like 5 a.m. Summer school starts Monday. I’ve to do
lesson plans and shit.”
“Lesson plans?” I said. “Gary, look at me. You’re going to spend the next nine
weeks teaching kids how to make birdhouses.”
He glanced at the clock on the wall: 10:00 p.m. I had him.
Downtown lights jaundiced the Roman arches of Largo de Lapa. The square
brimmed with drunks stumbling among food and liquor vendors, restlessly waiting at the
doors of pastel colonials, now renovated into dance halls. Traffic stalled on the palmlined avenue, radios bumping, revelers hungry for dance. The hot air pulsed: hip hop
beats and samba standards, Roland 808s and tribal drums, turntables and cauaquinhos,
Les Pauls and laughing cuícas, slant rhymes and sultry refrains, five generations of music
set ablaze, fueled by cachaça and lime.
Gary struggled to slip through the sweaty crowd, excusing himself for every
bumped elbow. “Okay, we saw it,” he said.
A transvestite in carnival costume weaved past with a tray of shots. I stopped her.
She winked and watched us down the liquor.
Two more, I said.
“We’re not going to be here that long,” Gary said.
“That’s why we have to drink fast,” I said, handing him a second shot.
We followed the herd along the cobblestone streets, an endless procession of
booty and tits. A woman’s voice drew us up a narrow flight of stairs and into a packed
ballroom, dance floor drenched in red light. On stage, a six-piece samba band, a raven
haired beauty on one knee, enchanting the crowd. We made a beeline for the bar, ordered
another round. Gary was loosening up. I was beginning to forget about the hacked up
article, envisioning Chuck Gasparino sneaking a cigarette in the men’s room, cold and
lonely, waiting to put that next morning’s edition to bed.
I raised my shot: “To travel.”
“I have to talk to one of these girls,” Gary said. But every woman was dancing
with a man, and those who weren’t were dancing in with girlfriends, tight rings of ass that
could only be admired from a distance. We leaned against the bar, drinking without
hope. The musicians jammed their way through a set of standards. The crowd sang in
beautiful unison, O Coraçon Latino, anthems memorized in childhood. Not a single
word was familiar. I could learn these lyrics, but I would never know these songs.
“Let’s get out of here,” I said.
And here’s where things get hazy.
The crowd on the street had swelled. I remember a drink mixed with condensed
milk, and another drink, the color green. Gary lost twenty reals in a shell game under the
arches. I called him an asshole and gave twenty reals to a little girl and her mother who
sat on a fire hydrant, selling Lifesavers and cigarettes.
I remember being approached by two girls--a platinum blonde and a brunette-wearing spaghetti straps and jeans so tight it looked like they’d been spray-painted on.
Vocês Americanos? they asked.
“Yes,” Gary said. “Americanos.”
“Fuck George Bush!” they said in tandem, laughing.
I don’t remember their names. The four of us shared a joint on the dewy lawn,
overlooking the square, street kids squeezing through the crowd, hands out for spare
change. Gary pinched the joint to his lips, wasted, not bothering to hide his prosthetic
This is my friend’s last night in Rio, I said. He’s never danced samba.
Samba is beautiful, the brunette said, but that’s my parents’ music. We should go
dance hippe hoppe.
“What’d she say?” Gary asked.
“They want to go dance.”
“Sure!” Gary said.
“So you want go on date?” the blonde asked. Her hair shimmered and her contact
lenses made watery sapphires of her eyes.
“What?” Gary asked.
“You want date with us?” she asked again.
Only then did I realize they wanted us to pay. I’m sorry, I said. We
Assholes, the brunette said.
You still owe us for the weed, the blonde said.
We didn’t realize, I stammered, pulling Gary up from the grass. “Let’s go.”
“Fuckholes!” the girls called out as we walked away.
“They were so nice to us,” Gary said.
“Let’s forget that even happened.”
It was Gary who marked us. Without him, I could blend in. I wouldn’t be
speaking English half the time. I could learn to hide my accent. I would be a magnet for
prostitutes. When my dream woman asked where I was from, I could say Carioca de
We ducked into a back alley, took leaks alongside two dozen other men, urine
trickling along the brick wall. Gary asked another American for the time. The dude
showed his watch.
“Fuck it’s almost four,” Gary said. Staggering out to the arches, he searched for a
free taxi among the line of cabs. “I knew this was a stupid idea.”
The clubs expelled hoards of hungry dancers, roaming the food stands that
clouded the square with meaty-smoke. Every cab was taken.
“A kombi is just as fast,” I said.
“I’m going to miss my flight.”
“Quit being a pussy for once,” I said. A kombi squeezed along the curb, a sign
for LAGOA on its dash.
The van was packed with Brazilian college kids, laughing, smoking, making out.
Bright ovals of streetlights panned across the windows. On the corners, women in
lingerie waited for tricks. Traffic was light. We were making good time, until police
lights flared behind us.
The other passengers fell silent. A transit cruiser pulled alongside in a blue and
white compact that looked like it could barely support the weight of the top lights. Two
officers stepped out, one with the build of a featherweight boxer, the other one so heavy it
was unfathomable how he’d squeezed into his bullet proof vest.
Big Boy yanked the sliding door open.
Out, he said.
“What did we do?” Gary asked.
“Keep your mouth shut,” I said.
The officers ordered us to place our hands on the hood of the car. They
exchanged a few words with the kombi driver. The college kids in the van looked away,
except for one girl in the back seat who gazed at us, smiling. The kombi sped away,
coughing exhaust.
Excuse me, I asked. What were we doing wrong?
Oi! Big Boy called to his partner. Este fala Português.
Que esperto, the other said.
Big Boy slipped cuffs on my wrist and skull steered me into the cramped back
seat. Through the window I watched the other officer try to handcuff Gary. When he
tugged Gary’s prosthetic, it slipped off and fell to the sidewalk. Gary looked at me
through the rear window, panicked. The officer pushed him into the back seat,
handcuffed his left wrist to his right ankle.
Featherweight took the wheel. Big Boy sat shotgun, sinking the car on its axels.
An empty, brightly lit avenue. Big Boy held Gary’s hand up to the window,
examining it in the street glow.
“Please, please be careful with that…” Gary said.
Your friend is noisy, Big Boy said.
Could you give that back, I asked. It’s really important to him.
Oh sure, Big Boy said, turning around. He held the hand out to Gary like he
wanted to shake. When Gary reached he pulled it back. Junior high revisited.
The driver parked half-a-block down from a Western Union. An ATM glowed
like a box of gold on the corner.
A thousand, and we give you a ride home, Big Boy said. Any less, we let you
walk. And believe me, we can drive you far away from here.
Back at the apartment, Gary washed his hand in the sink, inspected it under the
stove light. The sunrise turned the mountainsides burnt yellow.
“You can still catch your plane,” I said.
He fastened his hand and gathered his bags.
“We’re still alive right? If you think about it, that was actually a good price--”
“Really? Did you read that in your book?”
He wouldn’t let me help him carry bags downstairs. I followed him down to the
curb. We waited for a taxi to pass.
“Gary, I’ll make this right.”
“You think you know everything.”
“I’ll pay you back.”
“Sure you will,” he said, climbing into his cab. I watched the taxi merge with the
morning traffic, taillights like two red eyes roving around the lagoon.
Hung-over, I fell into bed. At midday I woke, ripe with shame and citrus bile. I
left a message on Daveison’s machine--I’ll be in touch again soon.
Dad had warned me: Some doors, once you open them, they can’t be closed.
I pitched The Brazil Reader in the vomit-splattered wastebasket. I stuffed my
backpack, caught a bus to the airport, soothing my head on the cold glass as we crossed
the bridge over Guanabara Bay. The passengers sat still in their seats, as if paralyzed,
ears tuned to the Australia match crackling over the P.A. When Fred scored a goal in the
90th minute, the bus erupted into cheering that split my head like a melon. The driver
steered us to the shoulder, paused there to listen to the instant replay.
We arrived at the airport at sunset. The staff behind the counter buzzed about the
victory, 2-0, one step closer to the sixth championship, and Ronaldinho hadn’t even
woken up yet!
The woman at the ticket counter swiped my American Express. She inspected my
passport, pausing at Place of Birth, and double-checking my face against the photograph.
In this country I was born, in this country I was lost.
Bom viagem, she said, handing over my boarding pass.
“Thank you,” I said, then caught myself: Obrigado.
Manaus, jungle metropolis, echo of the rubber boom. In the city center, Japanese
businessmen clustered at corner bars, pecking at laptops and sipping frosty beers.
Tourists stalked the perimeter of the Teatro Amazonas--once great opera house of South
America--striving to photograph the neo-classical enormity in a single frame. Boys and
girls in Catholic school uniforms ambled across the plaza, glued to their cell phones. I’d
flown here to glimpse the source waters of the Amazon, but so far there was no water to
be seen.
The muggy air was thick with mosquitoes buzzing like dentist drills. On every
block travel guides offering trips along the river and its many creeks, kiosks plastered
with photos of tourists holding toucans, lounging in elaborate tree huts equipped with
foosball tables, sensual massage, and AMERICAN STYLE BANEIROS! Amazonas was
accustomed to outsiders. For six generations, gringos had arrived hungry for the interior,
except these days, instead of taking rubber sap, they snapped pictures with parrots on
their shoulders, they fed mice to bright yellow snakes, they slunk into alleyways for snips
of jaguar pelt.
Chuck wanted a travel story, and this time I had to give him what he wanted. I’d
been coasting on American Express, and thanks to the upstanding lawmen of Rio de
Janeiro, I was only a few swipes from my limit. I promised Gary I’d pay back his half of
our bribe. On top of that, if Daveison led me to Dom Ricardo, I owed him the rest
of his fee. I needed to sell a fucking article. But I wanted to report on the real jungle, not
a luxury tree house with bidets in the bathroom.
A few blocks off Rua Dez de Julio, I found a guide operating from what looked
like a walk-in closet. He wore a thick pair of glasses with the left lens cracked down the
middle. No brochures, no photos, no English. On a laminated map, he drew the route of
his tour with a dry erase pen, tracing a path in red ink from a nearby port to a campsite in
the middle of the map.
Are we talking about the real jungle? I asked.
Isso, he said. He licked his fingertip and smudged away the original route, drew a
new one along the broad Rio Solimões, clear onto the reverse side of the map, down a
few curvy, watery detours, and to another spot in the heart of the interior. Rio Espelho,
he said, giving me thumbs up. Jungle muito bom, muito bonito.
He pointed me to the marketplace where I bought a green and yellow hammock.
That night I rented an eight dollar hotel and used the sink to soak my clothes in DEET.
After three weeks of downing malaria pills, I could finally swallow them down knowing
they’d be put to good use.
Danger. Fuck yeah. I couldn’t sleep. The Brazilian-American journalist on
assignment surrendered to the farm boy playing Indiana Jones in the woods.
Dawn arrived smoky gray, clouds so low it seemed possible to slit them open with
the flick of a knife. The no-brochure man waited outside on his moped. Sputtering past
taxis and tour busses, we cruised along the river, banks lined with factories, water slick
with waste.
On the docks, women in baggy shirts weaved through the crowd, offering beer,
nuts, shrimp on a stick. My boat departed at noon, O Palacío, a diesel powered vessel
some 150 feet long and 30 feet wide, Brazilian flag flapping wildly from an aluminum
pole. There were four decks in total, connected on the starboard side by a narrow
stairwell of metal grate steps. The top deck featured single-bed cabins, an open air
restaurant and bar, Christmas bulbs hanging over plastic table sets. The two decks below
that were for passengers who knotted their hammocks on steel support bars on the
ceiling. The lowest deck was a tenth of the price on account of engine noise and the
constant waves slapping the hull. A boat like this was the Greyhound Bus of the
Amazon, some passengers boarding for a seven day, 1000 km trip to Belem, but
according to the no-brochure man, I would only be riding for a few hours. He handed me
a first class ticket.
Now you relax and enjoy, he said. On this boat you can find sandwiches and rum
and your last real toilet.
I don’t need first class, I said.
Cleaner, safer, he said. No extra charge to you. I only ask one favor. He handed
me a leather satchel. Give this to your guide. I can trust you on this, no?
Com certeza, I said, tucking the satchel into my pack--a mission.
I joined the line of passengers waiting to board, luggage and hammocks in hand.
Atop the gangplank I turned to see no-brochure man pointing toward the top deck. When
he turned away I took the stairs down to steerage and found a place among the dozens of
people securing hammocks to the overhead rails. My neighbors gave me puzzled looks.
To my left, a middle-aged woman sagged in her hammock, cracking nuts in the palm of
her hand. To my right was a man about my age.
Como vai? I asked. Expressionless, he knotted his hammock as if fashioning a
As the crew made final preparations, I tried to spark a conversation with the
woman. I explained that I was born in Brazil, that I was traveling the country para
encontrar meus origens.
Você Brasileiro? she asked.
Paraces Americano, said the man beside me.
Pues, Bem-vindo à casa! the woman said.
Welcome home indeed. O Palacío’s engines roared to life. We ferried out of the
harbor, past the Toyota Motors plant, past the cargo ships, across the meeting of the
waters, where the dark Rio Negro converged with the brown Rio Solimões, merging into
a wide open channel. The development thinned from cityscape to village life, school
children running along the banks, waving, rolling with laughter when the captain blew
the ship’s horn.
The gallows man glared, pointed up at my hammock knot and called out some
slang I could not understand. Everyone within earshot chuckled. I kept to myself,
watching the riverbank drift past. A Brazilian flag hung from nearly every hut, the fruit
of a decade long effort to nationalize the vast interior, roads and telegraphs and radio to a
population that had never heard the country’s anthem. I was leaning again on my old
crutch, The Brazil Reader, unable to shovel that horseshit from my mind.
Sun glinted off the slow-churning water. The conversation nearby shifted to
Thursday night’s big match against Japan. The gallows man turned to me, a tenuous
offer to join the conversation.
Eu sou um fã de Ronaldinho, I said, dropping the name of the only player I knew
anything about.
Ronaldinho pode ir pa’ no inferno, the gallows man said. Podemos ganhar sem
ele. The other men on the boat grumbled in agreement--Ronaldinho can go to hell!
We’ll win without him!
Tucking myself deeper into the hammock, I shut my trap. Now only a few thatch
huts lined the riverbank. Hearing our approach, children in small wooden canoes paddled
toward the ship, calling for handouts. Suddenly it rained beer cans and bags of chips.
I rolled out of my hammock and leaned over the rail.
On the top deck, passengers snapped pictures of the children hurrying toward the
snacks. On the starboard side a woman and her young son paddled directly into our path
so that it seemed we might capsize them. As we sped past, the boy tossed a rope onto the
lower deck. The gallows man tied off the rope, and in an instant it drew taut, the canoe
skimming alongside our hull.
The boy’s mother tied several plastic bags to his arms. He walked the towline
like a high wire, arms outstretched, bags dangling, until two women received him on our
end, the bags overflowed with fresh fish and dried shrimp and nuts. In the canoe, his
mother waited patiently, wavelets spraying her hair.
Within minutes the boy was sold out. He wrapped his coins in a plastic bag,
clutched his profits in his fist. The men helped him unfasten the towline, and as the knot
slipped open, his mother drifted away, bobbing our wake. The boy climbed over the
portside railing.
I hurried over, afraid he might drown in the churn.
De onde voce é? he asked, narrowing his eyes at me.
Estados Unidos, I said.
Que bufo! he said, giggling. He front flipped into the water, surfaced a moment
later, and swam quick strokes toward his mother.
I returned to my hammock. The woman at my side offered me a large brown nut,
watched with great interest to see if I could crack it. No luck. She plucked it from my
palm and cracked it for me. Laughter from the other passengers. In stringing my
hammock down here, I’d committed some trespass. Fuck the The Brazil Reader. I could
jabber on about state-building and positivism, but I couldn’t crack a fucking nut.
I endured their taunts until at last we approached my stop, a dock on the shore
ahead. My hammock strings had tightened into an impossible knot. The gallows man let
me struggle a few minutes before standing to help me.
Boa sorte, meu mano, he said, untying the note with a flick of his wrist. He gave
me thumbs up.
I thumbs-upped him back and deboarded.
Waiting on the dock was a sun-spotted fisherman with a white paper sign that
read RANDALF. He ferried me to the opposite bank. The motorboat was too loud for
speech, and I was thankful to be saved from my own stupid mouth. Noontime sun
sparked on the cool waters. O Palacío drifted away. Across the river was a tackle shop
where I was told to wait for a blue kombi. The fisherman motored away, trickle of
engine oil in his wake.
For thirty minutes, I stood there without seeing a single vehicle. The woman at
the tackle shop regarded me like a familiar tree. If this tour was a scam, I was utterly
I bought a pack of cigarettes. I hadn’t had a cigarette since the week of Mom’s
death. Smell of smoke, pangs of broken promises. She’d always planned for us to return
to Brazil together. Afraid to disappoint her, I’d reluctantly promised. But plans always
turned into plans for next year. Mom was getting tired--down in the dumps, she called it.
Tests. Treatments. Next year’s plans turned into someday soon. Secretly, I was
thankful. I wanted to see the country for myself, without her stories in my ear. What I
didn’t know then was that someday soon, she would be down in the dumps, and she
wouldn’t get back up again.
At last a blue kombi rattled up the red dirt road, piloted by a kid who looked about
ten, a cigarette dangling from his lips. When I climbed aboard he stole a glance at the
satchel the tour organizer had given me, as if secrets were kept inside. Without
introductions, he hit the gas.
A chain smoker, he drove with one hand on the wheel, the other fiddling with the
dashboard tape deck, a Tupac compilation. Noticing I dug the music, he beamed with a
satisfaction that can only be achieved by a pre-adolescent simultaneously driving,
smoking, and listening to rap. The dirt road was long and straight and the boy honked at
every pedestrian--farmers, nannies, and his vanless peers on bicycles or donkeys. The
road was flanked with waterlogged cows wading knee deep in flooded fields, entire
villages--houses, markets, schools--on stilts over water. The boy didn’t acknowledge me
until he ran out of cigarettes, when he touched two fingers to his lips like, Hey can I bum
a smoke?
Those things will kill you, I said.
He gave me a look like Quit bullshitting me. I tapped a smoke from my pack and
gave him a light.
Sky blue sky. I reached my arm out the window, let my hand surf the breeze,
smoke ribboning, red dust billowing behind us. For a moment the whole dung heap
world--Mom and Dad and Gary and Daveison, Sonia and Dom Ricardo and the
Sociedade Comercial, The Portland Pioneer and Chuck motherfucking Gasparino--all of
it was a single bloated mosquito, flicked away in a smear of blood. When the tape deck
began chewing up Tupac, the boy ejected the cassette, wound it with his pinky, and
slammed it back in, pumping the volume louder, our brotherhood restored. The trees
grew thicker, and without warning the boy cranked the wheel hard right, power sliding
into a narrow, teeth-rattling cow path, foliage brushing against the side panels. We
skidded to a stop at a tiny dock. The boy slid off the driver’s seat, opened the back of the
kombi, and hauled out a large Styrofoam cooler.
You’d better go to the bathroom, meu mano, he told me, the first words I’d heard
from his mouth.
What followed was the most glorious outdoor piss of my life. The Rio Espelho, a
perfect mirror, flooded forest reflected so clearly that in a photograph it would be
impossible to perceive the real from the double. The canopy, sixty-feet high, dense
enough to shadow the water black, strands of finger-thick vines, filaments connecting
river to sky. Homebody offered me a beer from the cooler. We drank, wordless, until
finally the drone of a motor echoed through the trees. An aluminum boat drifted into
view, the captain, a twin of my driver. Together the boys lashed the hull to the dock.
Are you two brothers? I asked.
They nodded in unison. The second boy checked the cooler, a quick inventory of
the supplies inside--chicken breast, a plastic bag of silver fish, a carton of quail eggs.
And he has the satchel, the driver said.
It’s for my guide, I said.
He’s been waiting for you, the second boy said.
I tossed my backpack into the boat, leaving the first boy behind to repack his
cooler in the kombi. We skimmed upriver, the canopy and its reflection surrounding us
like a tri-colored sphere: green, blue, black. The boy steered with one hand, navigating
the creeks like neighborhood streets. I had crossed a threshold. I had left something on
the dock back in Manaus. I didn’t know what it was, but I knew I didn’t need it.
Before long he let off the gas and let the motor die. We drifted quiet in the
crystalline waters. From the cooler he withdrew the plastic bag of fish.
Take one, he said. Like this.
He leaned over the water and slapped the fish on the surface. I did as he did,
staring into the floodwaters, drowned saplings, an entire thicket below us. Only now did
it occur to me that in the summer season, this water would recede, these islands would be
hills. This boy held two maps in his mind, the wet, and the dry. The canopy I saw today
was but a fraction of the forest, the other half underwater, breathing in the dark.
From below a creature surfaced, snatched the fish from my hand. A dolphin,
teeth like pearls. Now there were two--a pink one, a silver one--fins cutting water like
How did they get here? I asked.
River spirits, the boy said.
They vanished, weaving through sunken tree trunks. Now the boy reached for a
paddle on the floor of the boat and handed me its pair. We nosed into a nook in the trees,
onto a patch of damp land. The boy pointed up the trail. There stood a thatch hut with a
thin curl of smoke rising from the roof.
Up there, he said.
Yes, here I was, at the source. A river beyond time. A pre-historic other. I
stepped from the boat and approached slowly, careful not to disturb the ritual unfolding
Then I heard the laughter of buffoons.
Inside, two American frat boys circled a fire where the person I assumed was our
guide demonstrated how to cure rubber sap. He lifted a droopy sample from the heat.
“And there you have a condom,” he said in perfect English. “Now you try.” He
noticed me standing in the entry. “Oh, Randolph is here.”
“It’s Peter,” I said. “I’m supposed to give you this.” He peeked into the satchel
and gave me thumbs up.
Introductions. The frat boys were named Dan and Danny. Both wore identical
board shorts and flip-flops and visors stitched with their fraternity logo, Delta-somethingsomething. They were distinguished only by their fraternity function t-shirts: Dan’s,
from a wet-tee-shirt contest; Danny’s, a breast cancer awareness shirt that read I ♥
Our guide was Damien, the youngest among us. Aside from his copper skin and
rubber craft, he seemed much like a Delta pledge, dressed in board shorts, Nike sandals,
Nike tank top, and a Nike visor corralling his raven black hair.
“We can start over if you want to learn,” he said, testing the elasticity of the
“No, that’s all right,” I said.
Damien coached the Deltas through their individualized condoms. They traded
jabs about size. I paced about the hut, listening to the quirky calls of birds from the trees.
Overhead, the roar of a commercial jet descending toward Manaus. As the crow flies, we
weren’t far from the Teatro Amazonas.
The illusion of water travel. I’d been duped.
The boy in the aluminum boat was gone. Damien piloted us upriver in a long
wooden canoe powered by a small gas engine. We moored alongside a warped-plank
dock. On shore was a long hut with a Brazilian flag hung above the entrance, half a
dozen hubcaps nailed to the exterior wall, catching sun.
Three hammocks hung inside, veiled by mosquito nets. In the center of the room
was a rectangular wooden table with benches on either side. In the corner, a propane
stove, an ice chest, and a boom box. Behind the hut, a dirt path forked off toward an
outhouse. Damien sat at the table and opened the satchel. A stack of bootleg CDs.
Before long, death metal echoed across the water, drums, power chords, and growling
that must have chilled the spines of every howler monkey within earshot.
The Deltas dug through their packs for a bottle of cachaça and a bag of weed. I
wanted slip into the water and be devoured.
Are there piranhas? I asked Damien.
“Speak English so that everyone can understand,” Damien said.
“How do you say ‘weed’ in Portuguese?” Danny asked.
Marijuana, I said.
“To answer your question, yes, there are piranhas,” Damien said. He removed his
hat and sunglasses, fished his cell phone from his pocket, and dove headfirst into the
river. We gasped, waiting for blood to pool. Damien surfaced: “But in the wet season,
like now, they aren’t so hungry.”
I stripped down to my boxers and dove in, sweet refuge from the pop ballads
blaring on the surface. The water was warm and buoyant, and the frat boys were afraid to
come in. As long as I was in the river, I wasn’t with them.
“Don’t pee in there,” one of the frat boys said. “Bugs will crawl up your pecker.”
“That’s a myth,” I said.
“No, that’s true, so don’t piss,” Damien said. “So you guys want to see piranhas?
No problem. We’ll have piranhas for dinner.”
We climbed aboard the canoe. Damien motored us across the river, cut the
engine, and steered into the flooded forest with a long pole. Shafts of light grew thinner
until we drifted into a cool shade. Damien passed us each a thin stick with string
attached. From a plastic bag he removed a chicken drumstick and tied a chunk to the end
of each string.
“So just pretend you’re a cow that fell into the water,” he said, and thrashed the
surface with the tip of the stick. An instant later he lifted the pole. A shiny piranha
dangled on the string, razor teeth sunk into the chicken.
“Holy shit,” Dan and Danny said.
Damien handed us each a pole. Within twenty minutes, the Deltas had snagged a
bucketful of piranhas, but I hadn’t managed to catch a single one. I couldn’t figure out
what I was doing wrong. I gave up and snapped a few pictures fit to print--the Perils of
Ecotourism--the Deltas eviscerating an entire school of piranhas. I wanted to push them
into the water, watch them get picked clean by the piranhas, but it was the wet season, so
I had to settle them getting eaten alive by mosquitoes.
That night, as promised, Damien boiled a pot of piranha soup. They tasted like
the chicken we’d used to lure them. He watched us eat, and when we finished, he fixed
himself a box of macaroni and cheese.
That night we slept, mosquitoes buzzing around our nylon nets. Our agenda for
day two was a journey deeper into the creeks, a search for the açai fruit. The morning
sun melted across the water like gold. Damien paddled our wooden canoe deep into the
forest, stopping now and then to rest his arms and call out perfect imitations of toucans
and tamarins and parrots, creatures calling back as if he were a lost friend. He landed us
on an island and hacked a path inland with a machete. We advanced into the thick, dead
vegetation piled in our wake.
“Aren’t we hurting the jungle?”
“This can’t hurt the jungle,” he said, hacking a few extraneous branches as if to
prove the fauna was impervious. He paused and pointed to the treetops. A barrel of
spider monkeys scurried across the canopy, mothers leaping from branch to branch with
babies around their necks. I wondered if maybe Damien was right. We weren’t
bulldozers. The jungle shrank us to the size of gnats, compressed our time so that a
human life was merely a few dozen flood seasons.
Then Damien handed his machete to Dan, unsheathed a smaller one for Danny.
“Look,” Danny said, hacking through the thick. “I’m motherfucking Indiana
Oh God. They were like me; This couldn’t be.
We lingered while Damien snapped an assortment of photos and digital videos of
Dan and Danny swinging from a thick-veined tree like Tarzan, complete with sound
effects. My face was slick with sweat. Apparently it was vital to document this journey
on the Delta-something-something website.
“You want a picture?”
“No thanks,” I said, disappointed that Damien would lump me in with these
assholes. Back in Rio, the Deltas would have made me feel more Brazilian by contrast,
but here in the jungle Damien called me out for what I was: a pretentious white boy
trying to pass as a Brazilian, a repugnant, two-headed gringo.
“Up there you can see açai,” Damien said, pointing to the top of a palm-looking
tree. A patch of purple fruit hung beside a clumpy nest. “We have to be careful of
Damien yanked a broad leaf from a nearby bush. He held the leaf in his teeth as
he climbed the tree barehanded, fingers interlocked around the trunk, Nikes providing the
grip and thrust he needed to lunge higher. He drew closer to the wasp’s airspace.
Hugging the tree one-armed, he reached into his pocket for a lighter and lit the leaf in his
“If he falls we’re so fucked,” Danny said.
“I could get us back to camp,” Dan said.
Damien held the smoking leaf toward the wasp nest, mellowing the swarm. He
plucked four açai fruit and dropped them down to us. I expected him to tumble down
after them, but instead he shimmied to the jungle floor, mission accomplished.
The fruit tasted like honey and left my lips purple and sticky. The Deltas took a
few bites. When Damien wasn’t looking, pitched theirs into the thick.
“Too sweet,” Danny said.
“Did you even see the effort he put into picking those?” I said. “He could have
fucking died.”
“Nah,” Dan said. “He’s done this a million times I bet.”
“We’re paying customers,” Danny said.
A searing pain in my neck: “Fuck!” Vengeful wasps, drawn to the açai dribble on
my hands and face.
We fled back down the machete path and pushed off in the canoe. As we floated
along, the Deltas snapped a picture of crimson bite on my neck. By the time we reached
open water, I was overcome by feverish chills.
“Those bites hurt, no?” Damien said. “Now you can say you’ve been to the real
The finale of our tour: a night with a real Amazonian family. At dusk, we boated
upriver, water ruby in the sunset. Puff birds chirped across the river in flocks of
thousands. Along the banks, the occasional thatch hut was perched on stilts over the
marshy water. Damien steered the boat door to door, calling out to the occupants in
Nheengatu. I couldn’t understand a word, but the gist of his offer was a whole chicken
and a box of batteries in exchange for letting us string our hammocks inside.
It was dark by the time we found a family willing to host us. A man, his wife,
their adolescent daughter. We moored the boat, yellow moon peeking over the canopy.
Their residence was elevated three feet above the water, probably twenty feet during the
dry season. A single room contained a propane stovetop, a plank dining table with a
small television, and three hammocks strung from the frame of the hut. The man untied
his family’s hammocks and moved them outside to make room.
By candlelight the woman prepared the chicken with rice and manioc flower. The
husband made a thousand tiny adjustments to the television antennae, the big match
versus Japan playing out on a field of static. We ate at the dining room table while the
family watched from the plank walkway outside. The Deltas picked at their food,
glancing overhead as if the room would collapse on us any minute.
“This if fucking nuts,” Danny whispered.
“You can speak normal,” Dan said. “They can’t understand us anyway.”
“When does the family eat?” I asked Damien.
“Visitors eat first,” he said. “Tradition.”
When we finished, the family sat down to our leftovers. While they ate, we took
turns squatting over a hole in the plank walkway behind the house. Mosquitoes zipping
around my bare ass, I cringed at the plop of my waste in the water. For once, Danny had
it right. What the fuck were we doing here? What were we paying to take home, and
what were we leaving behind?
Damien summoned us back down to the canoe. With his long pole, he steered us
silently into the backwaters. Drifting into the pitch forest, he withdrew a spotlight,
waved the beam along water and vines and leaves as if stirring the dark. Gliding under
the trees, he spotted a striped owl clutching a river rat, a sloth in suspended between
branches, a boa constrictor coiled around a trunk. This is what I’d wanted, to be lost,
breath taken. But as we drifted back to the hut, as Damien fanned the spotlight across the
water, I shuddered under the gaze of a red-eyed alligator, witness to our trespasses.
Now the father sat in the glow of his portable television, a decent picture now,
Brazil crushing Japan 4-1, even without a goal from Ronaldinho. We tied hammocks.
Damien explained to the Deltas how he lost his previous job for fucking too many white
“I had these two stories they loved,” he said. “One about the time I killed a jaguar
to save my sister, and another about how my real name is Essomericq.”
“Wow, how’d you kill it?” Danny said.
“I’ve never even seen a jaguar,” Damien said. “No sister, either.”
“I can’t believe they buy that shit,” Dan said. “Essomericq sounds like a name
from Star Wars.”
“That part’s true,” Damien explained. “I was born in Amazonas, but sent to live
in French Guiana.”
“French what?” Dan said.
“French Guiana. I grew up in a Jesuit school outside Kourou. You’ve heard of
the space center, no? Whenever they launched rockets we got the day off.”
“Wait, French what again?” Danny said.
“Never mind. They taught me languages and the Bible. Plus all the stuff I show
you. That’s how I got my first tour job. But then this one chick turned to be married, and
she woke up all guilty the next day, so when she told my boss, he was like…”
Damien spoke of his origins without gravitas, the way an American might say he
was born in Columbus, but moved to Cleveland. I needed a smoke. Outside, the yellow
moon wavered on the water. A harmonious song in the air. I peered around the corner,
glimpsed the mother and her daughter bathing naked in the lunar glow, soap bubbles
coalescing around the stilts of the hut. I turned away, but couldn’t resist; I looked again,
listened to their singing.
The daughter reminded me of Ana Luiza, the second Brazilian to join me in
Partway, my fear, my crush, how I wanted so badly to kiss her, to touch my lips to her
breasts, to draw her essence into my mouth and swallow. Now the mother rinsed her
daughter’s hair. I felt as if I were witnessing a baptism, but I told myself don’t
romanticize. Don’t exoticize. This is nothing holy. This is everyday bathing. Yet I
yearned for the other, my entire life had been the other, other mother, other father, other
country, other life.
I retreated, exhilarated, guilty, grief-stricken. At the window, the Deltas stood
side-by-side, snapping a picture of the bathing. Damien stood over their shoulders.
“What the fuck?” I asked.
“You want your camera?” Damien said.
“Are you kidding?”
On the plank walkway out back, the father was re-stringing their hammocks for
the night. He saw the Delta’s at the window. I expected a massacre. Instead he asked to
see the viewfinder, gazed at the camera screen, his family suspended in moonlight, as if
he were seeing them for the first time.
That night, I couldn’t sleep. Howler monkeys swept through the canopy like a
storm. Rain thrummed the thatch work roof. I heard commotion outside, peered out the
window. The moonlight was gone. The father moved through the dim, hanging a sheet
of clear plastic over his wife and daughter. Shelter.
I logged back into the world from a café on Rua Dez de Julio. The Internet was a
well of worries. O Globo ran a front page article about delays in the Metro expansion.
From his corner office at the Sociedade Comercial, Dom Ricardo was probably shitting
bricks. The Pioneer plastered its home page with images of borate bombers dropping fire
retardant over the burning hills west of Partway. High winds had breathed life into the
flames. That story probably had the newsroom in a frenzy. Chuck wouldn’t have the
time to gut the article I sent him, a feature about ecotourism in the Amazon, accompanied
by pictures of Dan and Danny, curing condoms, swinging from vines, holding a bucket of
piranhas piled like gold coins.
Damien still troubled me--his complicity, his nonchalance, his original name. He
was a true amphibian, at home in dance clubs and rivers, in Nikes and barefoot. Would
he even respond to the name Essomericq, or did the missionaries wipe that away in
French Guinea?
I wondered sometimes if I would have been better off had Mom and Dad
whitewashed me completely, given me a neat middle name like Thomas or Stephen. But
Mom insisted that my birth country meant something. She placed miniature Brazilian
and American flags on my bed stand, made desserts from a Carioca cookbook,
played Gilberto Gil records on Sunday mornings. Was it to preserve who I was, or to
appease a sense of guilt?
She couldn’t teach me Portuguese, but she could teach me who I was, how our
family came to be. Is there a right way to explain this to a child? A right time? These
questions gnawed at her since the pre-adopt classes. During the 16 hour flight to Brazil.
On boiling afternoons in the prefeitura courthouse. In the middle of the night as lizards
crept along the apartment wall. Justifying our family would become routine, starting
with the return trip through customs, stepping into an interrogation room while other
families sauntered through the turnstiles.
In the 1980s, international adoption wasn’t a liberal trend, it was an uncanny
spectacle. In Partway, Oregon, it was the talk of the town. Folks treated Mom and Dad
like they’d taken on a charity case, like taking me in was a humanitarian act. Wherever
we went, our story preceded us. Those first years, Mom worried herself sleepless. What
would happen when I started school? Was there a way to protect me from doubt?
From a hemisphere away, Casa de Esperança tried to help. On my third birthday,
Abigail sent a letter Sonia Aúrajo, handwritten in Portuguese. Mom could scarcely make
sense of the message, but two words filled her with rage: Meu filho. My son.
She must have called Abigail. “We don’t want this, we didn’t ask for this.”
Abigail would have described what the letter contained. “I know it hurts to think
about, you’ll thank us when he starts asking questions.” If mystery could wound, here
was the salve. “Simplicity,” Abigail said. “That’s what you must remember.”
I don’t blame Mom for trusting Abigail. When the day came, she would need a
Vanessa understood there was a thin window of opportunity. Reveal too early
and the conversation would be weightless. Wait too long and the revelation could be
“Listen to what the book says,” Michael said.
But there was nothing natural about the pre-adopt guide, this spiral bound
instruction book for how to make another woman’s son your own. Tonight, with Michael
snoring beside her, Vanessa reviewed all three chapters devoted to the matter: wait for a
natural time; use vocabulary the child will understand; be sure the conversation takes
place in an area free of toys, television, or other distractions; describe where what makes
your home a safe, loving environment; pause frequently; ask if the child has any
questions, especially if the child shows signs of confusion.
Vanessa hated that term, the child, the way it could be any child, anyone’s child.
This child, in this country, no longer that child, from that country.
A shadow at the door. Her little boy, dark curls tussled, standing no higher than
the doorknob.
“I had a nightmare.”
“Come up here, sweet pie,” she said, making space on the bed. “You can sleep
with us.”
Vanessa lay awake all night, eyes open, ears keen to the bleating of lambs outside
in the dark.
For several days she practiced in front of the mirror. Various tones, inflections.
“You’re going to give yourself a complex,” Michael said. “Him, too.”
Michael was never one to talk about the adoption. He never spoke of those
months in Brazil, and now back in Partway he confronted the process just once a month,
when he wrote checks toward their debts, which still lingered after four years. Once
those were paid, there would be no more evidence of the transaction.
But Vanessa knew adoption wouldn’t fade like a birthmark, it would grow
sharper. This became clear at support meetings in Salem where mothers from across the
state gathered yearly to fill out post-adopt reports and receive counseling.
Another woman from Partway had just adopted a seven-year-old from Casa de
Esperança. The girl’s name was Ana Luiza, and she was a cracked gem. After a year
with her new family, she still hoarded food. Her new parents were instructed to keep a
tray of cheese and crackers in plain sight at all times, but her mother kept finding stashes,
vacuuming under the bed, old sandwiches, bananas, oranges left over from 4th of July,
now gathering blooms of mold, ants. Vanessa listened to the stories, horrified, grateful.
Ana Luiza running away, walking down the gravel road in bare feet and pajamas.
“You two are still just getting adjusted,” Vanessa said, as if it were a simple
matter of adjusting to room temperature. But secretly she was thankful to know there
was another adoptive family in town, one that made hers seem normal by comparison.
“Just imagine the progress you’ve made,” the counselor said. She recommended
a baby monitor be kept in Ana Luiza’s room. A week later, Ana Luiza’s mother called
Vanessa at midnight. She and her husband had gone to bed as usual, listening to the low
static of the baby monitor, waiting to hear the ghost sounds of Ana Luiza’s breathing.
Instead they heard a popping noise. They hurried to her bedroom, flipped on the light.
Handprints like red butterflies across the periwinkle walls. On the carpet, shattered
picture frames. Ana Luiza worked the shards of glass in her mouth, a well of red paint.
There was that child, and then there was this child, Peter, oblivious to his origins,
his bedroom a tidy memory hole. At night Vanessa bathed him, disguised his dark curls
with bubble bath. Only his brown eyes spoiled the illusion that he came from her.
She could dye his hair. It would be harmless. More harmless than the manager at
the grocery store in Redmond who just last week asked Peter, “Are you lost, little guy?”
even though Vanessa was standing right there.
But there was no hiding from adoption, even among friends. Watching Peter’s
swimming lessons at the aquatic center in Bend, Vanessa listened to the other mothers
share pregnancy stories. When the conversation turned to her, the women fell silent,
turned to the pool, searched the flock of water wings for their children.
In less than a month, Peter would begin his pre-school program. The natural
moment for the conversation had to arrive in the next four weeks. Vanessa didn’t want
him confused by questions from his classmates, from the teacher, from other parents.
“Let it be,” Michael said. “If it was that important to tell the kid before school
age, they would have mentioned it.”
“But don’t you think—“
“Don’t you think you should just enjoy this? He’s ours now.”
On registration day, the school nurse thumbed through the triplicate forms. “It
says here he was born in Brazil?”
“International children need a whole other exam.”
Another doctor’s visit, another $80. Then, without warning, as if to prove the
school nurse right, Peter came down with a fever.
“We have to take him in,” Michael said, holding a cold cloth to his forehead.
Vanessa didn’t want to bring him to the hospital. She could take care of this. She
was his mother. But when the fever refused to break, she gave in. To arrive in the ER
with a child so ill seemed to confirm an inherent problem. She wasn’t fit to be a mother.
The universal gift of procreation had been stripped from her genes her for a reason.
The nursing staff glared at Vanessa as if she lacked single maternal instinct.
How could she have waited so long? They submerged Peter in a tub of ice. Watching
him shudder in the cold water, Vanessa panicked. It’s wasn’t looking good. Nobody
would say it, but that’s what the nurses seemed to be telling the doctor with their eyes.
“It’s probably best if they leave the room,” the doctor said.
In the hallway, Michael tried to comfort her. “We can adopt again.”
Vanessa pushed him away. “So we’ll just get another one? Is that what you
“That’s not what I meant.”
“You don’t deserve to be a father,” Vanessa said, wondering who deserved what
in this world.
This child looked small, shrunken. The doctor said they were very lucky. Any
longer, and the fever could have led to hearing loss. Which is why Vanessa was so
surprised to hear Peter laughing the next day, thrilled by the prospect of all the ice cream
he could eat. Soon he returned to swimming lessons. She wouldn’t take her eyes off
“Did they ever find out what it was?” one mother asked, as if the pool were being
exposed to a deadly Brazilian contagion.
“The flu.”
“So his system can’t handle American flu?”
“Just an ordinary, everyday, common flu,” Vanessa said. “It can happen to
anyone. It could have happened to one of yours.”
Tomorrow, pre-school, his first day. The fever was long gone, but all afternoon
Vanessa had been feeling Peter’s forehead as if reading a fortune there. Now he shuffled
across the shag carpet in his socks, practicing the magic of static charge. Vanessa set the
pre-adopt book aside.
“Peter,” she said. “Come here a second.”
His socks crackled on the carpet.
“I have something very important to talk to you about. About our family.”
The most natural time, the most natural words. Peter stood in front of her,
fidgeting as she spoke. Vanessa unfolded an atlas, pointed to Oregon, to Partway. He
shuffled his feet. She flipped several pages to South America, hands shaking, and
touched Rio de Janeiro.
“Do you understand?”
He reached out with his finger and shocked the tip of her nose.
“Stop that,” she said. “This is important. What I’m saying is that even though I
didn’t have you, I am your mother.”
But he was all laughs, shuffling in his socks, building charge. Vanessa grabbed
him by the shoulders, shook. “Now you listen,” she said. “I am your mother. Do you
understand? I am your mother.”
Breathless, she felt him trembling, her rage written on his face. The tears were
proof. He would remember.
My checking account was fucked. Rent would be due when I returned to Rio; It
was already past due in Portland. On the bus ride to the Manaus airport, I scribbled
calculations on a napkin, gazing at the math as if a few extra zeros would materialize. I
wasn’t ready to return to Rio, to the specter of Sonia floating in the hills, to whatever
news Daveison had waiting. Assuming Chuck took the ecotourism story, I had enough
credit left for one more jaunt.
Passport in hand, I waited in line at the ticket counter. Already I’d seen more of
Brazil than most Brazilians. I wanted to believe that its history was my history, yet here I
exploited that freedom of motion so essentially American, jetting where I wanted, when I
wanted, all on plastic.
If travel was power, I would use it wisely. From Manaus it was only a four flight
to Bahia, where the blood of Africa entered the country’s veins. If I wanted to
understand Brazil, I had to breathe that air.
In Salvador, the cab driver griped about Ronaldinho as he swerved between lanes,
his dialect lost on my ears. When I finally had a chance to respond, he immediately
called me out on my accent.
Vocé Carioca, no?
Sem, I said, swelling with pride. Carioca de gema. The first time since I’d
arrived that anyone had addressed me as a Brazilian, and in a taxi, no less. I rolled down
the window, scent of sea salt and factory fumes. Born in Rio, and now with the accent to
prove it.
The driver took me directly to the Pelourinho--the historic center in the Upper
City--a hilly district overlooking ports along the Bay of All Saints. Turning up a narrow
cobblestone street, he warned me not to stray far from the plaça central.
É Cracolándia aqui, he said, gesturing out the window.
Ruby-eyed boys walked barefoot along the gutters, shirts slipping off their
collarbones. Men with weathered faces slumped against brick walls, bottles and bags in
their hands.
The driver deposited me at the bottom of a long hill closed to traffic, a colorful
slope of pastel churches and storefronts. The Pelourinho, a World Heritage Site, once the
most active port in the slave trade. Its namesake was a whipping post for public beatings;
Now the district was an African Art Walk. Artisans lined the sidewalks with easels of
bright acrylic art and velvet tabletops sparkling with jewelry. Plump Bahian women in
traditional red and white dresses sold dumplings fried in dendé oil, their bandanas moist
with sweat. Young Rastafarians charged ten reals to twist gringo hair into dreadlocks.
Around the central plaza, capoeira dancers in yellow and blue jumpsuits flipped acrobatic
to the hypnotic beat of a drum circle.
On every corner, an ATM machine, guarded by military police with machine guns
slung haphazardly on their shoulders. Since that night in Lapa, any man in a uniform left
me paranoid. I retreated to overlook, a cliffside view of lower city--ports, warehouses,
tenements with windows like mouths of broken teeth--and beyond that, the Bay of All
Saints, sun sinking into the water. Turistas swarmed like ants to melted ice cream,
snapping pictures, checking their viewfinders, and then snapping better pictures.
The history I’d learned from The Brazil Reader--finger splitting cane harvests,
iron masks for alcoholic slaves, punitive separation of mothers and children--was buried
somewhere in this theme park. I watched freight ships twinkle along the coast and out to
sea, bound for the U.S. or the Caribbean or Europe or Africa, and when the sun finally
melted over the edge, I lingered a while in the dark.
The hotel sign read LOCALLY OWNED. Inside I was greeted by a toothy
woman named Isabel. After showing me to my room, she offered a brief tour of the
amenities--a communal refrigerator, a TV and computer room, a foosball table, and a
clothes line for guests, not to be confused with her personal clothes line, the one strung
next to the parrot cage.
And don’t forget, Isabel said. Read the postings in the lobby! This place is full of
I thanked her and unpacked. In the TV room I checked my email. Chuck
Gasparino, subject line: Are you fucking kidding me? I clicked open the message. Save
the Amazon, blah blah blah. This isn’t 1994. Oregon is on fire! Give us something hard
Gasparino the Impaler had done it again. On the website, a picture of the Deltas
fishing for piranhas, a trivia item debunking the myth that “these most ravenous of fish”
can devour a cow in 60 seconds. Not even a byline.
Hard hitting? Motherfucker. Chuck deserved a hard hit to the nuts. At least I’d
get a few bucks for the photo--enough for another week of street food.
On my way out, I glanced at the pin board hanging in the lobby: WATCH YOUR
warnings for gringos, a title I had defiantly shucked off.
Now that it was full dark there were twice as many soldiers guarding the corners.
In the yellow glow of street lights, drizzle like diamond shards. On a nearby corner I
ordered shrimp dumplings from a Bahiana and ate standing up, licking dendé oil from my
fingertips. Afterward I wandered to an outdoor café on the perimeter of the historic
district where a salt-and-pepper haired guitarist sang Gilberto Gil songs for drunken
study-abroad kids indifferent to the rain.
Children weaved through the plastic table sets, selling gum and candomblé icons
and post-card sized paintings of capoeira dancers. A pair of soldiers leaned against the
brick wall, arguing about tomorrow’s match against Ghana, glaring now and then at any
children who resorted to the hard sell. In the alleyway, a woman in a hooded sweatshirt
sent her little girl to the tables to beg.
The runny nosed criança approached my table, gestured hand to mouth, and
extended her little palm. I reached into my pocket for a five real bill, pink and wrinkled.
A soldier stepped forward and scattered her back into the dark.
She wasn’t bothering me, I said.
They must have something to sell, the soldier said.
Echoing somewhere in the distance, percussion in the pastel alleyways, growing
louder until I could feel the bass in my chest. A local drum bloc turned the corner, men
pounding surdos with thick wooden sticks, women dancing folkloric in unison, a throng
of turistas behind them in a drunken conga line.
The following morning, I heeded the taxi driver’s warning, and restricted my
wandering to the historic center. I photographed the Elevador Lacerda, a giant lift that
lowered turistas to the Mercado Modelo near the port, a dez centavo ride down to the
waterfront, safely avoiding the side streets.
A teenage girl offered passengers postcards as they exited the elevator. She wore
a tie-die shirt that read Cidade de Amanhã--City of Tomorrow. Most ignored her, but a
few stopped to offer a small donation.
O Senhor, she said in as I approached. Then in English: “A postcard for hungry
I paid ten reals for a postcard of a glorious sunset over the bay. On the reverse
side, a brief paragraph of information about the Cidade de Amanhã. An address nearby,
Rua Frei Vicente.
I asked the girl for directions to the headquarters. It was only a few blocks away,
a block beyond the limits of the historic district, a small street front office with a sign that
matched the logo on the girl’s shirt. On the curb outside, an ashy-skinned boy sat alone
at a chessboard, locked in an endgame with himself. Fingertip on a rook, he wore a
quizzical expression as if taking an exam so engaging it delighted him.
Como vai? I asked them. Can you tell me who’s in charge here?
Dashawna, he said, and pointed me inside.
The office was sparsely decorated with soccer posters and crayon drawings.
Another little boy sat on the floor, sipping a Coke, watching Brazil run the clock against
scoreless Ghana. Rotating fans stirred the stale air, ruffling the pages on a front desk
piled high with books. At a kidney shaped table in the back of the room, a black woman
around my age conversed with a little girl, a microcassette recorder positioned between
Excuse me? I asked.
Dashawna stopped the recorder and sent the girl outside to play. I introduced
myself as an American journalist. She immediately switched to English, a hint of the
south in her voice. “Who do you write for?”
“The Portland Pioneer.”
“You’re a long way from home,” she said, gathering her notes from the kidney
shaped table.
“And you?” I asked.
“I’m from D.C.,” Dashawna said. “Georgetown.” A doctoral candidate there,
founder and sole member of Cidade de Amanhã.
“So you were born here?”
“I just told you. D.C.”
“So what exactly are you doing?”
“I’m writing ethnography.”
I looked around the office again. Among the books on her desk was a tattered
copy of The Brazil Reader. A stack of microcassettes labeled and dated in black marker.
“So what’s all this?”
“The children come here to eat.”
“And you record their conversations?” I asked.
“Look, I’m really busy,” she said. “I don’t think I can help you,” she said.
“No, I think you can,” I said. “This looks really interesting.”
Nossa! said the boy watching the Copa, pointing at the screen. Zé Roberto with a
goal in the 84th minute. Upon seeing the replay, he collapsed into giggles on the floor,
nearly spilling his Coke, reminding me of Roger back Partway, waiting for truck drivers
to blow their horn.
From a mini-fridge under her desk, Dashawna pulled out a can of Coke and
delivered it to the boy at the chessboard outside who was arranging pieces for a new
“I guess I don’t see why this has anything to do with you,” she said.
“I’m Brazilian,” I said. “I mean, I was born in Rio. Adopted I mean. I guess I’m
here to see my roots.”
“Don’t take this the wrong way,” Dashawna said, sizing me up. “But I’m pretty
sure you don’t have any roots here.”
Back at the hotel, Isabel pinned laundry on her line, chatting with her parrot. I
told her about Dashawna.
Oh yes, she said. We get lots of gringos like that. Always very curious. Like
they never had grandmothers. It’s good she’s keeping those meninos off the glue.
She’s writing a book.
You sound jealous, Isabel said. I don’t see why. Who would buy a book like
Outside the sky was violet, the streets were growing dim. I walked the perimeter
of the Pelourinho like an animal pacing a cage. I wasn’t going to let some Georgetown
academic tell me where I could find my roots. I wasn’t going to let the prefeitura decide
where it was safe to walk. I was going to see the Lower City. I turned down Ladeira da
Montanha, a side street that switched backed down the cliffside.
“Excuse me, sir,” a policia called from the corner, “For your safety and
convenience, we recommend the elevator.”
I prefer to walk.
Sua escolha, meu mano.
I trotted briskly down the brick alleyway. An enormous stray dog nosed through
a pile of trash bags. Above, I could see the flash of cameras from the overlook. A man
pushing a wheelbarrow of plantains rolled uphill. We nodded at each other. Overhead,
the twin cars of the Elevador Lacerda hummed, heavy with gringos. It wasn’t long
before I reached Avenida da Fraça, where a last group of turistas waited to be lifted to the
Upper City.
I walked along the waterfront, past the Mercado, past the Naval Headquarters.
Fishing boats bobbed along the docks, freighters like gems on the horizon. I took a side
street into a neighborhood. Traffic thinned. No gunshots, no sirens, no imminent danger,
only a neighborhood without much light. From the window of a high-rise apartment,
someone practicing heavy metal guitar.
I passed under a sodium lamp, my shadow in the buzzing light elongating with
every step. A group of boys emerged from an alleyway just ahead--six of them--just
boys. One stepped forward and held out his hand.
O Senhor, he said. If we could have one moment of your time. We would be
very grateful for money to buy milk for our brothers and sisters.
His nose ran freely and his eyelids drooped. If Sonia had made another choice,
would it have been me begging strangers for milk? Just a block ahead was a corner
market. The boys followed me there, waited on the street while I went inside. The
woman behind the counter looked puzzled when I set two cases of condensed milk--50
reals worth--near the cash register. She leaned over the counter, peering out the window,
but the boys had disappeared.
They returned when I stepped outside. They ripped the cellophane from the cases
and used their shirts like baskets to load up with cans. One by one they thanked me
before scurrying down the alleyway.
The walk back to the hotel was an uphill trudge, but I was energized. Dashawna
could keep selling postcards, trading meals for children’s private histories. I would give
the right way--generosity without ethnography. Back at the hostel, I told Isabel.
Meu Deus, don’t you read? she said, pointing at the pin board. NO BUYING
MILK FOR THE CHILDREN! It’s the oldest trick, she said. Those malqueridos just
trade it for pedra.
I’d been listening for Brazil to whisper who I was, and now the response was a
shout: Gringo! No pre-history in Amazonas, no roots in Bahia. All just imperial fantasy.
I was nothing of the jungle, or the African Diaspora. I wasn’t even Carioca. I was
Partway, the son of a sheep farmer, a farm kid with a funny middle name.
On the 1st of July, Henry da França stabbed the heart of Brazil with a goal in the
57th minute of the quarterfinal game. Fans wandered the streets of Rio as if in the
aftermath of a quake, tugging at their hair, peeling off their jerseys, cursing Zé Roberto
and Fred, Ronaldo and Kaká, and that overpaid good-for-nothing playboy Ronaldinho.
That afternoon I returned to the apartment to find a late rent notice tacked to the
door. The place was stuffy and silent, Gary’s blankets folded neatly on the couch. The
voicemail blinked red.
Número uma mensagem: Oi, Peter! Just a little more time, no?
Mensagem de dois: If we don’t have rent by sexta-feira, we change the locks…
Mensagem de três: Nada.
I heaved my filthy backpack on the bed and called the newsroom. It was time to
come clean to Chuck. No more exposés or features. I would write what I was qualified
to write--vignettes for gringos, delightful little jewels that would entice our dwindling
advertisers, that would make some insurance broker in the Pearl District book his ticket
to Rio. A panorama starring Cristo Redentor, with action shots of beach volleyball and
sweaty red-filtered samba clubs. An extra 250-word brite on the history of the bikini. I
would cash my check and go home.
Chuck answered: “Hey hey!” In the background, shouts and laughter. “Wish you
were here, kid. There’s bourbon.”
“I’m really sorry. I know I said--”
“No, it’s my fault,” Chuck said. “Listen, I didn’t want to fuck up your vacation.
We got the doomsday notice as soon as the Forest Service put out the fires. Those
fuckers squeezed one last good story out of us, then boom! Sold! Ha!”
“So what about--”
“That’s the four million dollar question. They’re saying that starting Monday,
70% of copy comes off the wire. Whatever you got, don’t bother. It’s gonna get killed.”
Chuck broke down the details. When I came back to Oregon, I had to apply for a
transfer to the new parent company. Cub reporters like me were cheap dates, so I might
still have a job. Either way, health benefits would be extended a year.
“Look, buddy,” Chuck said. “I feel like a turd for stringing you along, but I put in
a call to a buddy of mine. I got you a gig down there. Not much, but I didn’t want to
leave you out to dry.”
“Thanks, Chuck.”
“How you doing anyway, kid? Get yourself laid yet?”
“Everything’s fine.”
“Do yourself a favor and get some pussy. Some for me, too.”
The Financial Times needed a contributing reporter to a feature on offshore oil in
the Campos Bay. They paid for the car, they paid a per diem. Best of all, it would get
me moving again. Friday morning I rented a compact VW. Rio traffic was a clusterfuck,
a game I hadn’t been invited to play, but I squeezed onto the expressway and across the
bay to Niteiroi.
I followed a road map that I held on my lap. North on BR 101. The two lane
highway severed a wide valley of green hills, cattle perched on impossible slopes,
farmhouses leaning from decades of wind. Semi-trucks dominated the road, passing
uphill and around blind corners, heavy with pigs, beer, cattle, propane tanks, sugar cane,
cars, and coconuts. I kept my hands at two and ten, prepared to swerve onto the shoulder
at a moment’s notice. Finally, a Petrobras sign pointed down a road that wasn’t on the
map, cratered with pot-holes and littered with cane stalks. Endless sugar fields,
interrupted only by the occasional muddy tractor trail strewn with cattle bones. On the
horizon the sky was brown and orange, ash fluttering from burning fields. Beyond the
wall of smoke was the village of Quissamã.
I was here to cover the new helipad, built by the prefeitura to help speed up oil
company investment. Quissamã had been mired in an economic slump since abolition.
Ethanol policy gave the town a boost, an influx of corporate cane fields and research
refineries. But the real black gold was offshore, and Petrobras paid hefty royalties to the
prefeitura for the right to drill. The mayor had lathered the town with a fresh a new coat
of baby blue, including the town’s colonial church, which was getting a second coat the
afternoon I arrived. Restaurants, newsstands, and two internet cafés lined the only plaza,
which now featured a tourist kiosk staffed by the mayor’s son, who dreamily flipped
through a stack of full-color Quissamã brochures.
I was greeted with an ice cold bottle of the town’s famous coconut milk, and
offered the front seat in the mayor’s jeep. He drove very, very slowly on the way to the
helipad, which was a fancy word for the giant concrete slab just outside of town, a
sunspot for milk cows. The mayor honked to scare away the cows, and politely asked his
assistant to shovel off the cow pies before I took pictures. Not exactly journalistic
integrity, but what the fuck. I was here to provide three photos and the word from the
man on the street. Some analyst back in London would fill in the commodities data. A
shared byline. My first real international clip.
Back in town, I sat on a bench in the plaza, interviewing folks about the boom. I
overheard the mayor’s son explain that I was from O Globo, and I didn’t correct them. In
the right light, I felt Brazilian. Villagers lined up to speak about their new jobs. I took
notes in Portuguese. New construction, new jobs. Mustard and ketchup in the
restaurants. The village had geared itself up for tourism, but unless gringos arrived via
chopper, the villagers were going to be waiting a long time. I was the first journalist to
brave the roads, a sign of good times to come.
The mayor had found jobs for all but two of the town’s beggars, a rail thin blind
man with creamy eyes, and his companion, a large, bearded man who had clearly
suffered some sort of head injury. The bearded man was unable to speak, one side of his
face drooping like clay, but he was more than capable of leading his blind friend around
obstacles. They waited at the end of the line, and then shuffled forward.
Oi gringo, the blind man said. What brings you here?
What makes you think I’m a gringo? I asked.
You smell like you might spare some change.
The payday wasn’t much, but enough to cover another month of rent. The rain
started and wouldn’t quit. The Confenderação Brasileiro de Futebol had been suspended
out of respect for the national team’s inevitable sixth championship, but now that the
team had choked, Cariocas were thunderstruck, a life without futebol for two more
I sat in the apartment, watching novelas until a bittersweet moment when I
realized that I no longer strained to comprehend the dialogue. Nossa. I’d once believed
that once I was fluent in Portuguese, Brazilian-ness would rise inside me like a
superpower, now I understood that fluency meant language without mystique.
A voicemail from Dad: “Heard about The Pioneer. So what now? You gotten
this out of your system yet?”
No. I was busy riding busses, straining to digest the city, to internalize its map.
Rio de Janeiro, where the grid goes to die, where every road curves, or is about to curve,
where water and jungle and mountains resist boxes, where tunnels bore like worm holes
under the favelas, escape routes, tunnels cool and dark under the heat of shanty-stacked
morros, under iron bars and barbed wire, under baile funk and samba, under guard dogs
and stray bullets, tunnels leading to a pinprick of light, the next district, a palm-lined
paradise, or a dewy jungle, or a fortress of banks, Rio de Janeiro, where south means
beach, where north means brick, endless rolling hills of brick, where the pavement cracks
and craters, where the busses turn around.
I foolishly hoped that if I covered enough ground, I might bump into Sonia, or a
half-brother, or a cousin walking these streets. Would I recognize blood relatives?
Would they recognize me? In the mornings I wandered not unlike that pair of beggars in
Quissamã, half-blind, half-speechless. Afternoons I lingered around Carioca station,
pacing around the Sociedade Comercial, striding along the flocks of businessmen,
wondering if I might just catch the eye of Dom Ricardo. At night, peering out the
window, I saw my reflection in the glass, my phantom Brazilian-self staring back at me.
When France was crowned champion of the Copa do Mundo, the city began to
recover. Zidane’s flagrant headbutt was proof—they had cheated the entire way, and any
doido could see that Brazil would have gone on to win as soon as Ronaldinho woke up.
Cariocas put that past aside, and began frothing about the final matches of the Copa do
On a morning when the sky was clear except for a single cloud like a rotten
banana, I boarded the 312 to Avenida Atlântica, my first beach day in weeks. The giant
digital clock counted down to the Pan-American games, drawing closer by the second.
But today Copacabana Beach was nearly empty, only a few vendors packing their wares.
Oi, I asked the beer man. One beer, and one chair.
Beer, no chair, he said.
Por que não?
He pointed at the rotten banana sky on the horizon, as if the city were doomed. I
sat on the sand with my beer, sipped foam from the rim, watched the waves gather
strength. The beer man packed and fled. Along the two mile coast, only a few trash
collectors poking cans with sticks. The rotten banana cloud multiplied, endless bushels,
tumbling toward shore. I stayed put, scanning the brick homes on the hills, wondering if
anyone up there could see me down here. Thunder. Rain thrummed the sand, crabs
skittering sideways to the sea. Beach to myself, I lay on my back, drops like needles in
my eyes. This was it. Time to call it quits. Daveison wasn’t coming through and soon I
would be broke. Real life waited back in Oregon. Mom was gone and she wasn’t
coming back. This escapade had served its purpose. I’d seen the country and gotten a
clip. I would grit my teeth and admit it. Dad was right. Some doors, once you open
them, they can’t be closed. I’d opened this one, and now I had to face facts: Some burials
happen without bodies.
When I returned to the apartment, the voicemail blinked red.
Número uma mensagem: Good news, Peter! He finally listened! Dom Ricardo
will send a car in the morning…
That night before I was to meet Dom Ricardo, I lay awake in the gray wash of
moonlight through the window. A faint rush of traffic from the street below, punctuated
by the tapping of footsteps in the stairwell outside my door. Time slowed down.
Três tigres tristes para três tragos de trigo. I imagined Dom Ricardo awake
somewhere in the city, imagining me. And Sonia? Could she sense us somehow, ghosts
of her past coalescing? Três tragos de trigo para três tigres tristes.
The evening I opened Mom’s firebox, when I discovered that burnt-orange
envelope, I tore into a wound I didn’t even know I’d suffered. In those two pages, front
and back, Sonia crammed the essence of our nine months together. Her work, her family,
her best friend. Meu filho, my son. Seu mae, your mother.
For the first time, I
understood that my bones were once soft tissue in her belly. Those months she agonized
whether or not to keep me, I was there, borne around in her womb, hearing what she
heard, eating what she ate, assembling myself.
In the dark I convinced myself that all three of us were awake at once--Dom
Ricardo, Sonia Aúrajo, and their son-- thoughts connecting through the night like a
circuit, bringing the past to light. 1981.
I squinted at the clock, numbers blurry in the dark.
Five in the morning, Sonia sweating through her blouse, this bus like a hot can
kicked down the avenida. The sky was a violet shade, yellow drops of streetlights
flanking the billboards of Rua de San Luis, displays of families at the park, or around the
dinner table, or in church pews, all smiling examples of the military’s slogan: Brasil:
Ame-o ou Deixe-o! Love it or leave it.
Today was Friday, and all week Sonia had been deciding how best to tell Mr.
Alfonso that she was pregnant with his child. Whether to tell him at all. She leaned her
head against the window glass. Behind a series of ground-level billboards, malqueridos
squatted in makeshift shelters, lighting fires for breakfast. The policia, batons in hand,
were clearing the families out. Sonia watched the officers fling a birdcage and an ice
chest into a flaming pile. A man and his wife looked on, glints of fire in their eyes, the
woman holding a baby to her shoulder. When the bus pulled away Sonia turned back to
see the officers ignite the billboard, a reminder of her father’s perpetual warning: Minha
filha, if you don’t find the right kind of man soon, you’ll end up with the kind who lives
Mr. Alfonso was the right kind of man, except that he was a banker and she was
his maid. His family’s maid. For 10 weeks already Sonia had entertained notions of him
leaving his wife and two children for her—easy as turning the TV to another channel—
but now she felt the child growing, and cursed herself for daydreaming.
Above the bus driver’s seat was a small, sputtering fan. Passengers leaned
forward to catch a bit of its breeze. At the corner a frail woman boarded with a tray of
fruit for sale, fingertips on the seats for balance as she walked the aisle. Today one
avocado cost one novo cruzeiro. The passenger in the front seat grumbled about the new
price, holding a crisp bill up to the light of the window to see exactly what he was
spending. Six months ago fruit cost only a few coins. Then a cruzeiro—one of the old
kind. Not long after, five cruzeiros, and then ten. This month, the military had printed
these novo cruzeiros, rendering the old ones worthless. Here the fruit vendor snatched
the man’s novo cruzeiro and handed him an avocado, which he peeled slowly, as if to
make it last.
Sonia was hungry, but let the woman go by. The driver stopped the bus, brakes
hissing. All at once the passengers shut their windows against the stench of melting
rubber. Outside, a group of striking workers blocked the road with burning tires. The
driver opened the door and stepped out. The fruit vendor followed. Peering out her
window, Sonia caught eyes with the leader of the strike, determination chiseled into his
face. The young man reminded her of Tonio, her brother, who led demonstrations of his
own in São Paolo, refusing to leave the factory grounds even when they brought in the
dogs. Now the bus driver pointed up at his passengers—maids, mechanics, nadie mais.
The leader ordered his men to clear the road. With pitchforks they dragged the burning
tires across the lanes. The driver hustled back to his seat, cursing, and pulled through the
narrow space. Two other cars honked and slipped past behind them. Sonia watched out
the rear window, men hauling tires back to the center line.
It was six o’clock when she arrived at Plaça da Quimera and the sky was a fiery
pink. Birdsong filled the trees as she walked the street of townhouses. A dog trotted
behind her, nosing trash cans. It was an unorthodox situation, this daily commute to the
Alfonso home. Most servants in the neighborhood lived with their employers, or at least
in boarding houses nearby. Sonia had occupied the maid’s quarters until three weeks
ago, when Mrs. Alfonso decided to convert that space into a gift wrapping room.
Sonia unlocked the rear door of No. 427. She wiped her feet on the mat. Mrs.
Alfonso, a tube of lipstick in her hand, turned down the hallway without saying good
morning. Bom dia, Senhora, Sonia called after her. She started a pan of café and sliced
bananas onto four bowls of wheat flakes. In the salon, Mr. Alfonso played with his
sleepy-eyed children, Juliana and Thiago. Together they stacked dominoes in a line from
the television to the coffee table, across the book shelf, and then precariously atop the
record collection. Little Thiago was eager to knock them over.
You eat your breakfast first, Mr. Alfonso said, tucking his tie between his shirt.
Oi, Sonia.
Bom dia, Senhor.
How tender he was with the children. A bright, stern man with neatly combed
hair and a thick, black mustache, Mr. Alfonso worked as an officer at the Banco Central
do Brasil. The switch to the novo cruzeiro had demanded long hours lately. His eyes
were rimmed with fatigue, but still he still woke early to play with the children. Here
was the type of man Sonia’s father would approve of. For seventeen years her father had
worked at the Fiat Motors. These days he watched the strikes on television—strikes his
own son organized—astonished that men would question steady work on any terms, even
if wages lagged three years behind inflation. Mr. Alfonso understood what it meant to
provide. Still, he terrified Sonia. She was 19-years-old and he the first employer she had
ever known. But his tenderness could be found in small actions: the pauses at the
birdcage to tickle the parakeet, the tuneless ballads he sang in the shower, the pocket full
of thin mint candies he kept for the children.
This morning the children ate quickly. Sonia cleared their dishes and soon heard
the quick zip of their dominoes, giggles, then disappointment that it was over so quickly.
Time for school, Mrs. Alfonso told them. Go on, now. Wash up.
Juliana obeyed. Thiago lingered on the floor, rearranging dominoes.
Thiago, agora! Sonia said. He boxed up the dominoes and slouched toward the
bathroom. Sonia kept herself from smiling at her silent understanding with the boy.
Listening to his mother was optional.
Mrs. Alfonso grumbled. She and Mr. Alfonso sat at the breakfast table, sifting
through the newspaper. I’m taking the children to school myself this morning, Mrs.
Alfonso announced.
You have the luncheon to prepare for, Mr. Alfonso said.
One of the others can take charge.
These charities are important. The car is already on its way.
Sonia scrubbed the countertop. When Mrs. Alfonso noticed her eavesdropping,
she switched to English. The conversation tumbled into a mess, like the sound of a
washing machine. Sonia yearned for a language she could speak to Mr. Alfonso alone,
one that his wife could not understand. Wiping down the breakfast table, she noticed a
spot of lint on the shoulder of his suit. When she reached to remove it, Mrs. Alfonso
glared, mouth suspended between English words.
Sonia wanted to blurt the truth right then. He couldn’t resist himself. You should
have seen us in the bathroom. In front of that same mirror where you put on your make-
up. But she had been warned against such foolishness by Jackie, her best friend and
confidant: This is no soap opera. He’ll pop you like a roach, just a tap of his foot.
You’re lucky he convinced his wife to keep you around. Get your milk while you still
Since the day Sonia lost her virginity to Mr. Alfonso, it was Jackie who saw each
drama unfold before it happened, as if she could peer into the future. If Sonia told Mr.
Alfonso about the child, her options would evaporate. Except time was running against
her. She had noticed her skin breaking out, the way her apron hugged her belly. Surely
Mrs. Alfonso had noticed, too.
Mr. Alfonso shook open the financial section and held it so that his face was
hidden. Sonia finished wiping the table, avoiding Mrs. Alfonso’s gaze. At the kitchen
sink she squeezed grime from the sponge, left the tap running to soothe the sharp silence.
Finally Mr. Alfonso retreated down the hallway to kiss his children goodbye. On his way
out the door he tickled the parakeet and then it was just Sonia and Mrs. Alfonso alone,
the bird gleefully chirping in the morning light.
Mrs. Alfonso left her dishes on the table and adjusted her blouse in the entryway
mirror. I have a luncheon at the children’s hospital, she said, but I will pick up Juli and
Thiago from school myself.
Of course, Senhora.
At long last Mrs. Alfonso’s car arrived and she departed for her fundraiser. Sonia
readied lunches for the little ones. They waited by the door, backpacks slung over their
shoulders. Good looking children. Sonia handed over their lunch bags, crouching to
clean a spot of jelly from Thiago’s uniform. Yes, good looking children, and soon she
would be mother to one of her own. She tried to discern in Thiago’s face those
features—the defined jawbone, the thin nose—that came from Mr. Alfonso. She held her
arm near to Thiago’s, her copper against his cream, imagining what tipo she had growing
inside her.
On the walk to school the streets were boiling. Policia stood on the corners, shirts
unbuttoned, leaning on their guns like canes. A helicopter thwapped overhead like a
giant hawk.
Where are they going? Thiago asked.
Nobody knows, Sonia said. Perhaps to the strikes in São Paolo? Sonia imagined
her brother sweating it out on the factory lot where for a hundred days none of the
workers had manned the assembly lines. Juliana ambled along the sidewalk, applying
lipstick carefully from a pocket mirror, subtle rouge, a secret kept from her mother.
Sonia and Juliana had never come to this agreement formally, but it was a matter of trust:
the lipstick was permitted so long as she washed it off before coming home. Tell me,
Sonia said. Have your mae and pai been arguing lately?
Always, Thiago said.
Cale o bico! Juliana told him.
It’s true, he said.
That doesn’t mean it’s everybody’s business, Juliana said.
Sonia isn’t everybody.
All right, all right, calm down, Sonia said. I was only curious. So what does your
father have planned for the weekend?
Weekends are family time, Juliana said.
But Sonia wanted to know more about those vanished two days. Did Mr. Alfonso
ever speak of her? But soon they were at the school gate, and the children hustled into
the courtyard to stand in order for the morning flag.
Back at the house, Sonia tended to her chores. In a home of this size there was
plenty to dust. The Alfonsos were fond of travel, always leaving the country for Buenos
Aires, or Santiago, or Miami, and Mrs. Alfonso returned each time with new collectibles-statuettes, glassware, peculiar plates and coins--for display in the salon and along the
In each room there were pictures to wipe clean, the children’s school portraits,
immaculate wedding photos, and on the bedroom nightstand, a black and white image a
younger Mr. Alfonso, boyish without his mustache, gazing out into the bay as if
surveying his future. Did he see all this? Sonia daydreamed about how he met his wife,
what sort of dates he’d taken her on, what sort of love they made the first time.
She moved on to the laundry, sorting towels and linens, turning socks inside out,
fishing loose candies from Mr. Alfonso’s pockets. She imagined they had met in school,
or that they had been introduced by their parents. She imagined what Mrs. Alfonso’s life
was like when she was pregnant with Juli and Thiago, what sort of salgados Mr. Alfonso
brought for her cravings.
Sonia moved on to the bathroom, scrubbing the tile walls until she saw her face
reflected in a dozen squares at once. So many different lives to live, and if weren’t for
the fact that they were silent enemies, Sonia would have liked to ask Mrs. Alfonso about
hers. About the university. The fundraisers for the children’s hospital. The trips to
Disney World.
Sonia swept the floors neatly and swept again and shook the leavings into the
trash. Beside the wastebasket was a cardboard box labeled JUNCO. As often as Mrs.
Alfonso gathered new trinkets, Mr. Alfonso disposed of old ones. Sonia carried this new
batch of throwaways out to the back alley where several meninos de rua were plucking
coins from the sidewalk, old centavos that had been discarded.
One of the children Sonia had been watching for weeks, a dark girl with gray
eyes. Usually the girl carried her baby brother in her arms like a doll. Sonia always
offered them a can of milk, or a banana. Today the girl was alone. Where is your
brother? Sonia asked. The girl shrugged. Up the street, a policia turned into the alley,
hand on his baton. The girl dashed away, coins jangling in her pocket.
It was midday when Sonia got around to cleaning toilets. She heard keys in the
front door. Holding still, she watched her face waver in the toilet water. That first time
with Mr. Alfonso had been here in the bathroom. Sonia had been singing to herself and
didn’t hear the door open. Then a body was behind her, hands clutching her breasts. She
felt his stubble scratch her neck, glimpsed their reflections in the mirror. Hers was an
expression of pain, yet his face seemed to show pain also, so she told herself this is all
how it’s supposed to be. She wanted it, but not like this. It had happened on six other
afternoons since, always in the bathroom or the hallway. Now she peered out the
bathroom door, expectant, saw Mrs. Alfonso walking from room to room.
Where is my husband? she asked.
Perhaps working? Sonia said. How much did Mrs. Alfonso suspect? Enough to
have Sonia removed from the maid’s quarters. She would have terminated Sonia’s
contract entirely had Mr. Alfonso not convinced her that the children wouldn’t tolerate
anyone else.
You are done for today, Mrs. Alfonso said.
Sonia left the bathroom, a lemon smell in her wake; Mrs. Alfonso stood at the
front door, held it open as if Sonia were an odor she could air out.
On the ride home, Sonia examined herself in the mirror, sweat trembling on her
face as the bus rattled out of the city. She wished it would keep going, all the way to
Uruguay, but when they reached Planalto the driver gunned the bus uphill until the
engine shuddered and choked and finally the driver gave up, pulled the brake, and let
passengers out there. Sonia continued uphill as the driver reversed carefully back down,
kids kicking a bola against the side of the bus as if it were a moving goal. She weaved
through the narrow alleyways. In the runoff stream that trickled between the houses,
children raced paper boats. She mustered a wave and crossed the plank bridge home.
Inside, the single room was dim. Her father sat in front of the television, tuned to
the afternoon match, in one hand a bottle of Skol, in the other an aluminum meter stick.
She kissed him hello and freshened the bags of ice on his knees. Weakened by the
factory floor, his knees pained him too much these days to stand and adjust the television
reception, so now and then when the field went fuzzy, he probed the rabbit ears with his
meter stick until the picture came into focus.
Did that man pay you today? he said.
Next week, Sonia said.
Always next week, he said. Who knows what a cruzeiro will buy you next week?
I have a date tonight, she said.
Yes? he said. She heard the metallic rattle of an antennae adjustment. With who?
A friend of Jackie’s brother, she said. A soldier, I think.
So maybe the tide is turning around here, he said. Now if we can just get your
brother back to work.
Sonia didn’t want to hear him start in on this. She yearned to go to another room,
but this wasn’t the Alfonso’s; there was no other room; the best she could do was step
into the corner by her bed and hang the privacy curtain, her only wall. She sat on the bed,
palm on her stomach, breathless.
I wore my only good clothes--khakis, dress shoes, a moderately wrinkled button
up shirt. At 8:00 sharp, a charcoal-black town car pulled up to the corner. I peered
through the tinted glass at the silhouette behind the wheel. Would Dom Ricardo come for
me himself? For years I had imagined what my birth parents might have looked like,
which one of them was the source of my eyes, cheeks, lips, hair. What must it be like to
look into your parents’ faces and see your own?
The passenger window rolled down. Behind the wheel, a fortysomething driver.
The remaining seats were empty.
Seu carteira de identidade, he said.
I presented a photocopy of my U.S. passport, the original tucked in the nightstand
upstairs. The driver rolled up his window. He dialed a cell phone. Then his door swung
open and he walked briskly around to the rear passenger door and held it open for me. I
took my seat inside.
The driver pulled into the bumper to bumper traffic. No music, no conversation,
only the subtle hum of the car as we circled the Lagoa toward Leme. Joggers and
rollerbladers filled the bike paths, dressed in long pants and gloves against the morning
cold, the morning routine. I was about to undergo a seismic shift, my life divided on a
fault line, before and after I got in this car. The search for Sonia was a game of chance.
This was gravity pulling me toward the truth. What words would I say, in what
language? Through the window, Cristo Redentor, arms outstretched to greet the rising
At red lights the driver lifted a comic book from his lap, lips moving as he read.
At green lights he set the comic book aside, tapping his thumbs on the wheel as he drove.
When he tossed the comic book in the glove box I knew we were close. He pulled the car
up to a corner café. I reached for my door handle.
Espera, he said.
He stepped outside and opened my door. Did he know what was would unfold
here, or did he think I was just another client on my way to meet Dom Ricardo.
The table near the fountain, he said.
At the café door, I touched the cold handle, took paused a moment to gather
myself. In the chill morning air I saw my breath for the first time since I’d been in Rio. I
swallowed it down and stepped inside. Near a ceramic fountain sat a woman wearing suit
pants and sunglasses, a leather briefcase by her side like an obedient pet.
She set down her cafézinho and dabbed her mouth with a napkin. I glanced up
and down the row of tables.
“Mr. Randolph,” she said in English, clear and crisp. She her sunglasses--icyblue eyes. Her short, straight black hair framed her face like a sheet of paper, red lipstick
drawn with precision, as if without it, there might not be a mouth.
There must be some mistake, I said.
“I assure you there is no mistake,” she said. “And please, English suits for our
purpose here.”
I took the seat across from her. “I suppose it goes without saying that I am not
your father.”
“When is he coming?”
“First and foremost, we have to ask ourselves an important question. Can we ever
be sure about anything that happened so many years ago?”
“Yes,” I said. “We can. I have a friend who verified everything. He does this for
a living.”
“Ah, Daveison,” she said. She signaled to the busboy for another cafézinho.
“Yes, there are dozens of Daveison’s in this city, looking to dredge up the past. A
popular task these days, no? Tell me, how much are you paying this Daveison?”
“So Dom Ricardo is afraid to meet me?”
“Let’s just say that my client is willing to do whatever it takes to make this
better.” She lifted her briefcase on the table, dialed in a combination.
“No no no,” I said. “There’s been some misunderstanding. I just want to talk to
him. An hour, half-an-hour is all. Just some questions.”
“Surely you understand. Everyone has multiple lives. But wouldn’t you agree
that sometimes the past is better left in the past? I’m sure you’ve had a wonderful life in
America. Children? A wife perhaps? Perhaps your family could use a vacation. A
wonderful, family vacation.” She turned the briefcase toward me. Five bundles of U.S.
hundreds, arranged neatly on the felt.
“You don’t understand,” I said. “This isn’t what I’m asking for. This isn’t what I
want. I just want a few minutes with him. Five minutes. I’m sure he wants to see me,
A genuine look of sincerity crossed her face like a passing cloud. “Mr. Randolph-”
“Mr. Randolph. Mistakes like this happen more often than you might believe.
You must understand, this is a convenience for all involved.”
Mistakes. There was that word again. Here was the proof. I was an illegitimate,
a bastard to be tucked away, hidden. A lump of shame in my throat. This money. I
could take it and find Sonia. But what if she still couldn’t be found?
I stood to leave. “Let him know that I’ll be dropping by the office for a visit.”
“Now Peter,” she said. “Listen very carefully. Threats are not helpful. You are a
visitor here, remember? Perhaps you should take some time to think this over?”
I left her behind at the table. My early departure took the driver by surprise. He
flipped his comic book aside and scurried out to open the door, but I was past him. It was
only nine o’clock, five o’clock back home. At this hour, Dad would be rising from bed,
hands on his sore back, starting coffee for the day. The same way he’d risen bright and
early for decades to bring me a life. And here I had betraying him. He was right. I never
should have come. Now I wondered if Mom would have been better off taking this secret
to the grave.
On the corner I glanced around for street signs. I hadn’t paid close enough
attention to where the driver had taken me. I jogged down one block, looking for
landmarks, but here there was nothing familiar, no mountains, no Cristo Redentor, only
anonymous streets, trucks, taxis, a charcoal black town car? The lawyer, peering through
the glass, briefcase on her lap? Dom Ricardo, driving by for a glimpse of his gringo son?
Santa Teresa, Daveison’s apartment, a residential complex in São Cristobal, an
apartment on the sixth floor. The elevator was a rusted out cage. I took a flight of stairs
to his door and knocked hard three times.
Peter! he said, peering through the crack in the door. I did not expect you here so
fast. Wait here a moment while I clean up this place.
He stepped away from the door, door chain intact. I peered through the crack to
see him shuffling papers, cleaning up take-out cartons and pizza boxes. When he opened
the door again he set two plastic bags of trash in the hallway outside and invited me in.
This is your office? I asked.
It’s hard to put a mailbox in a kombi, no? Sit, sit! Tell me what went wrong.
As I explained, he leaned back in his seat, wiping crust from the corners of his
eyes. I am so sorry, Peter.
She made it seem like you’ve been cheating me, I said.
Impossible, he said. We have an agreement. There is no need for you to pay me,
not after something terrible like this. They will do anything, say anything to make you go
away. They will try and turn you against me. This is all very common.
Fuck the money, I said. I just want to talk to him.
For Dom Ricardo it’s the money that does the talking, I’m afraid. The question is,
what now? I say you might consider taking his offer. Perhaps we try again to find Sonia,
we give her some sort of gift.
I’m not going to let him just brush me aside. Not now.
Peter, he said. That’s not how it works here. A man like this always gets the way
he wants.
Five minutes, Daveison. Where can I find him?
Even if I did know, it’s a bad, bad idea.
Then you know where. Tell me, Daveison. You owe me this.
Fine fine fine, he said. He loves to bet the horses. Fridays and Saturdays he
spends at the track. He’s a patron of the Jóquei Clube Brasileiro, good friends with João
Daveison explained: João Rafael was treasured as one of the top three horsemen
in the history of Brazil, and now that his racing days were over, he served as chief scout
for the Gávea Jockey School. He found featherlight boys from around Brazil and brought
them to Rio for training. Donating to João’s boys was a sign of great status. Men who
mattered in Rio politics wore a green and yellow bow on their shirt pockets, proof that
they supported Brazil’s landless rural class, that those kids deserved a chance to shine in
the city, et cetera, et cetera. The largest benefactors had their names etched on bricks
around the winner’s circle. One of those names was Dom Ricardo Alfonso.
But I’m telling you Peter, Daveison said. It’s best to let me handle this.
Emotions can be dangerous in these situations.
The bedroom door creaked open. In the frame stood a young mulata with a sheet
wrapped across her chest. Daveison waved her back inside.
Think it over, he said. For now, get some rest, é?
That afternoon I got hammered. Not at a bar or in a café, but on the street. I
walked the length of Nossa Señora de Copacabana like a kid on a scavenger hunt, looking
for that next can of beer, that next caiparinha, that next anything I hadn’t tried before.
Fuck it.
I pissed four times in three hours--in a McDonald’s, in a KFC, and another
McDonald’s. I stumbled through Lido, sex shops and strip clubs and hourly motels. If
kids asked me for money, I raised my palm like a stop sign, until finally I so trashed
nobody bothered to ask anymore. Fuck it.
For six weeks I’d been prissing around this country, frothing with righteous anger,
as if Brazil needed me, as if I were some prodigal son returned. Now I was on a mission
to forget my name. Except there was no one to go wild with me. A drizzly Tuesday, the
shops were closing, the coastline was gray and empty. Fuck it.
By dark I was shitfaced at the only beachside kiosk that had bothered to stay
open, sopping up the cachaça in my gut with a greasy slice of sausage pizza.
You look like you’ve been dealt a broken heart, my waiter said.
I was supposed to meet someone today.
Stood up? he said. I know how that is. He walked from table to table, stacking
chairs and folding up umbrellas. The only other customers were a couple of working
girls sipping Guarana, applying their make-up for the night.
Worse than stood up, I said. What’s the word I’m looking for? Abandoned.
Believe me, meu mano. No matter what you say, I’ve heard worse.
I wanted to prove him wrong. I called for another beer. When he delivered, I
launched into a rant, a slurred half-English-half-Portuguese inventory of the past six
weeks: Mom and Dad, Sonia, Daveison and Casa de Esperança, Gary and Lapa and the
fucking policia, the Sociedade Comercial and Dom Ricardo Alfonso and the Guardians of
the Bay, Amazonas and Salvador, Damien and Dashawna, Quissamã and its manurestained helipad.
The waiter took it all in patiently, polishing the plastic table to a high
shine, refilling my beer glass when it ran empty. When I finished, I wiped my mouth.
You know the saddest part of your story? he asked.
You been here all this time and you ain’t had a Carioca woman yet. The working
girls at the nearby table chuckled. When I glared they pretended they hadn’t been
listening. Maybe you could use some company?
I’m not here for that, I said.
Oh I don’t mean girls like that, the waiter said. I know this club.
No way, I said. I know all about the Howdy Howdy.
It’s not like that at all, he said. This is just a regular club. Lots of good looking
girls who like gringos. You don’t pay for anything. Maybe a few drinks. Breakfast. If
she likes you, maybe you hang out again, no?
I’m too drunk. Maybe tomorrow.
Don’t be so cold, he said. From his apron he withdrew a cell phone, tapped a few
buttons, showed me a picture on the screen.
See? There’s tons of girls like that. They’ll love you, meu mano. You’re a gato.
Can I have my check?
Whatever you say boss, he said. When he returned with the bill, he slipped me a
flyer. Give them this and they’ll let you in for free. Worth a look, no?
I took a cab. For once I didn’t give a shit about looking like a turista. The name
of the club was Sombra. It was tucked in a back alley in Lido, a mirrored room with a
low-ceiling, walls lined with booths, like a strip club without poles. A DJ in a Yankees
cap stood behind a pair of turntables, mixing baile funk. The clientele was a mix of
young black men and middle aged white guys, curled into booths with women of every
size and stripe, stirring cocktails and making clipped conversation over the din of the
These girls weren’t out for drinks and dancing, but they weren’t working, either.
They were performers on that gray stage between escort and courtesan. Just yesterday
the thought of a place like this would make me livid, but now I felt ridiculous for ever
being so certain of anything. The past was the past. Brazil was Brazil. This was
Copacabana, for Christ’s sake. Hot women everywhere, oozing sex. The men here
didn’t deny the world. They were explorers. Conquer new places, fuck new women.
Along the bar, women stood in pairs, dressed for the club, not the street corner. I
stumbled along, trying not to linger too long on any one girl. Another batted her eyes,
flittering of blue shadow. Another teased her straw with her tongue.
I didn’t want to
be lured, I wanted to choose.
At the end of the bar stood a girl who reminded me of Ana Luiza--skin like café y
crema, obsidian hair, a look in her dark brown eyes like she was sad to belong to this
“What’s your name?” I asked.
“Nélida,” she said. “Do you buy me a drink?”
We did not speak, we danced. The only things sweatier than our bodies were the
drinks in our hands. One by one, the booths around us emptied. At three a.m. the DJ
packed up his records. We fled to the street, ears ringing.
The memories here are patchy. I remember trying to cross the street, almost being
taken out at the knees by a cornering taxi. I laughed; my heart raced; I was new again,
uma turista pura; even the simple rhythms of traffic eluded me.
“Cars very dangerous,” Nélida said. “We go to hotel?”
“I have an apartment,” I said.
Tenho um apartmiento. Vamos.
Fala Português?
Espera, espera. “Hold on. Let me look at you first.”
“I never do this with stranger.”
I wish I remembered. But I don’t. Even the name Nélida is only a guess. But
I’m certain of this: Sticky with sweat, I rolled over and asked her a question.
“Do you have any children?”
I can’t understand you.
Tem filhos?
I hope you’re just drunk.
We just met.
What if I just got you pregnant?
Don’t talk like that. I’m here to have fun tonight.
Just imagine, I said. What would you do with it?
You’re a crazy babaca, you know that? she said.
A new word, babaca, but before I could ask what it meant, I fell asleep.
Sonia wanted Jackie to stop talking.
Believe me, Jackie said. It doesn’t hurt bad if they do it right. You know he’ll
pay for it.
Friday night, dusk, Jackie’s house. Their make-up kits rested on a stack of milk
cans. Milk was getting more expensive by the day. Jackie’s family had been hoarding so
that nearly every solid object in the home--the coffee table, the TV stand, even the bed
frame--was an amalgamation of milk cans.
It’s not about the money, Sonia said. Nothing is a question of money for him.
Don’t be so sure, Jackie said. These banceros haven’t been careful with the
country’s money. What makes you so sure he’s done good with his own?
He’s an honest man.
Really? Tell that to Mrs. Alfonso. That’s who you should worry about. You
crossed the line. You should have learned better from your mother, rest her soul. You
want the wives to respect you. How do you think I got my job?
That woman just wanted you out of the house, Sonia said. Jackie’s last employers
had recommended her for a job as a cleaner downtown. She had this life figured out.
She was back in classes, learning to read and write. Soon she would be working as a
clerk, or a typist. Options.
Maybe it could work, Sonia said.
You watch too much TV, Jackie said, squeezing beside Sonia so they could both
use the mirror. She applied her last touches of eyeshade. Jackie was always doing sexy
things—blowing kisses, tossing her hair, nibbling her lower lip. Even leaning against a
bus stop she looked sexy, hand on her hip, as if on display, perfect angles that required no
thought. Jackie always said that the sexiest gestures came naturally, yet Sonia had never
been able to discern her own. Sonia had been wondering lately what she had done to
communicate her desires to Mr. Alfonso. The care she took with his shirts, perhaps? The
way she met his eyes as she spooned sugar into his cup? Is this enough, o Senhor, or
would you like a touch more?
It’s not impossible. She’s not right for him.
Don’t go thinking you did anything special to make him take you, Jackie said.
But the way he looks at me—
—the same way he looks at a plate of beef, Jackie said. She blocked Sonia’s view
of the mirror, demanding her full attention. Just because his wife is a bitch doesn’t make
you the queen. Clear your eyes before it’s too late.
Jackie’s brother would chaperone again tonight. It seemed each weekend one of
his friends finished military training and was looking for a girl. Jackie never complained.
Free drinks, someone to dance with.
A knock at the door. Jackie’s brother stood with two friends, each wearing their
uniforms, buttons polished to impress, as if the girls had never seen soldiers in their lives.
Linda, linda, linda, Sonia’s date said. Red-faced, cachaça on his breath, he wavered on
his feet as if some imagined wind were at his back.
Give him a chance, Jackie said. She took her date by the arm.
They started their evening with stew and choppe at a sidewalk café near Planalto.
Now and then when a group left a table, their waitress gathered her tip, let the centavos
drop to the ground. Children scurried from the shadows to pick up the coins. Sonia
imagined Mr. Alfonso at the Banco, even now on a Friday night, trying to sort out this
mess with the cruzeiros.
You see what they’ve done with our money? Jackie said.
The leadership knows what they’re doing, Sonia’s date said. Our country faces
many challenges. Many. Especially now with those radicals.
Careful, Jackie’s brother said. Sonia’s brother is on strike.
He’s not a radical, Sonia said.
I’m just saying, the drunken soldier went on. Do you think he would have any
problem with his pay if he’d just stayed in the Army?
Not everyone’s a soldier, Jackie’s date said. Half the men in this country, they sit
around lazy all day watching futebol.
Maybe he couldn’t cut it, Sonia’s date said. I know I could cut it. Three days in
Amazonas. You know what they give you? A knife and three matches. That’s it for
three days. You know, once, I heard a jaguar.
Have another drink, meu mano, Jackie’s brother said.
I’m just saying. He passed his new badge around the table. Now I can survive
When Sonia’s brother turned eighteen they called him to the Army. Tonio left
Planalto a skinny boy and returned, two years later, with arms thick as trees. He could
cut it in the military all right. Trouble was, when Tonio thought of the military, he
thought of all the problems in Brazil. The military ran a country that couldn’t provide
medicine for their mother when she was sick, that couldn’t find better work for their
father when his knees went weak.
Come on, Jackie’s brother said, counting bills onto the table. All anybody does
anymore is talk politics. Let’s go dancing.
Exhausted, Sonia watched the night pass before her like a slow, dark river. With
this baby inside, there should be no more drinking. They went to Estrella where her date
spent more time at the bar than on the dance floor, and when finally he did dance, he
moved like an oaf. He offered her drinks; she waved each away. He took her cachaça
along with his, throwing both cups back in giant gulps, and soon he was heavy lidded,
stepping on toes, flashing his badge to all the girls on the dance floor. On the way home
to Planalto, he snored in the back seat. I’m sorry, Jackie’s brother said. He’s not always
like this. Sonia’s father was asleep at the television, network finished for the day,
grayscale bars silent on the screen. The ice bags were puddles at his feet. With her dirty
apron she sopped up the water before curtaining herself into the corner for sleep.
Sunday at church, Sonia prayed for her coming baby, for the strength to tell Mr.
Alfonso. The child weighed inside her like a hot stone. During Mass, there was no
question that she would keep it. But she knew that by midweek, she would worry again
that Jackie might be right. She prayed that Mr. Alfonso would acknowledge this child, a
guilty prayer that he would leave his wife and come to her instead. The priest passed a
collection tin along the half-empty pews, donations for the striking auto workers. After
the tin went around once the priest sifted through the old cruzeiros like so much tissue
and asked for novo cruzeiros, please. A few elderly members of the congregation
counted novo cruzeiros into the tin, while others turned their pockets inside out or held
their purses open like hungry mouths. Sonia second guessed her prayers. She was still
owed two week’s pay. Maybe it was better to ask God for her salary instead.
I woke to a spinning room, head-split, putrid taste of limes in my mouth. Through
the blinds, the pale pink of morning. Jangle of keys like an alarm clock. I looked over
and saw Nélida, her face smeared with make-up, rifling through my bedside drawer.
Wait, I said.
She snatched my pants from the floor and hustled out of the room. I scrambled
out of bed, wrapped myself in a sheet, and chased after, stomach lurching. Down the
hallway, she stood in the elevator, frantically pressing buttons. The doors slid closed.
I ran down seven flights of stairs, tripping over the bedsheet, stopping only to dry
heave. On the first floor I hurried out the front gate, security guard still asleep in his
bulletproof box. In first light, our neighborhood fruit vendor was just arranging his
mangoes on a green carpet. He smiled at the sight of me doubled over in a sex-stained
Did you see her? I asked.
He pointed at a taxi already turning around the block.
I couldn’t take another step without vomiting. The apartment complex was lined
with neat landscaping, and I leaned into the bushes and let heave. Wiping my mouth, I
turned and saw the fruit vendor waiting with a paper towel and a fresh mango.
É gratis, he said. Maybe the rest of your day goes better, no?
I stepped out of the elevator back on the seventh floor and a pair of women skirted
away as if I were some monster come to shore from the Lagoa. Some good Samaritan
had closed my apartment door.
Fuck me.
Naked and keyless. If I’d had an ounce of moisture left in my body, I would have
slumped on the floor and wept, but whatever liquids I had left I’d already upchucked into
the bushes outside. My mouth was an acidic cocktail, my brain an overcooked egg. I
shuffled downstairs to talk to the security man about a new key. The fresh morning
seared my eyes.
That was your only key?
Yes. Yes it was.
What about the one-handed fellow?
He left like a month ago. He turned his key in to you, remember?
This security guard did not inspire confidence. He followed me back up to the
apartment. He stood at the door a moment as if deciding whether or not to kick it down.
Instead he sorted through his keychain for the master, a shiny gold number that slid
effortlessly into the deadbolt.
That girl outsmarted you, he said.
Sem. Yes. She did.
You shouldn’t let women come back here.
I know. That was stupid.
That’s what motels are for.
So can I have another key?
I’ll have to have a duplicate made. Come get it after you clean yourself up.
Muito obrigado.
He sauntered down the hallway, whistling between his teeth. At the elevator door
her turned: And maybe you should drink a little less next time.
She got everything. Wallet, credit cards, passport, driver’s license, extra cash.
Everything except my clothes and my camera. So at least now I could look at pictures of
Dan and Danny Delta smiling with their bucket full of piranhas.
The only identification I had left was a fuzzy photocopy of my passport. This I
took to the Western Union in Leblon, where I begged the woman to let me receive a wire
without an original copy. I used the customer service phone to call Gary at school. The
secretary who answered was the same grizzled lady who had been working the front
office back when I was there. I asked for Coach Murphy, saying it was an emergency.
After a long wait he came on the line.
“Gary?” I said. “Sorry to interrupt your class.”
“Meh. They’re just staining birdhouses.”
“I need to borrow some money. Just a little bit. I’m having an issue with my
bank cards.”
“Hmmm,” Gary said. “Don’t you still owe me four-hundred dollars? I can’t
seem to remember why…”
“Gary, please. Just a couple hundred bucks.”
“You’ll have to wait until B lunch.”
“I’ll pay you back. Plus the bribe money. Plus more.”
“I know where you live,” he said. “By the way you sound like shit. Are you in
“It’s not appropriate for school,” I said.
Gary wrote down the details. While I waited for his wire I walked to the
American Express office at the Copacabana Palace. After answering three security
questions--the street I grew up on, my mother’s maiden name, my best friend--they
agreed to send a replacement card to the Rio office in 14-21 days, but I could only pick it
up with official documents. Back at the Western Union, Gary’s wire was in, $1,218.12,
along with a message: It’s time to come home.
I didn’t even want to think about the clusterfuck waiting for me at the consul, a
walk of shame complete with bureaucratic spanking. For the next three days I sat in the
apartment, imagining how Nélida was spending my cash, running around town, joking
with her friends about the gringo she ripped off. But that anger quickly gave way to
shame. I’d turned my back on my better self. I deserved to be taken advantage of, for
my ignorance, for my arrogance.
But I couldn’t leave just yet. I wasn’t finished with Dom Ricardo. I wanted to
punish him, for walking away from Sonia, for humiliating me, for having the power to
hold us at arm’s length. I knew I could find him at the track. That Friday, I bought a
crisp new dress shirt at the Copacabana outlets. I had my shoes shined at the Metro.
When the sun went down, I took a taxi to the Jóquei Clube Brasileiro.
In the lounge overlooking the brightly lit horse track, I recognized old Manny
Gilberto, PR man from the Sociedade Comercial de Rio Novo. He was laughing it up at
a mahogany table with three other elites, yellow and green bows pinned to their shirt
pockets. I eavesdropped from a stool at the bar.
Soon it was obvious which one was Dom Ricardo. He the man setting the pace of
the drinking, the man who ordered fresh ice to the table, the man who spoke infrequently,
but who captivated the table anytime he opened his mouth. Beer sweating in my palms, I
watched and listened, trying to extract the courage to approach the table. When Manny
Gilberto glanced toward the bar, I turned away, afraid to be recognized.
All afternoon the city had been wrapped in clouds and rain. Now the air was clear
and hot, the damp track dimpled with hoofmarks. The men had nearly finished a bottle of
Johnny Walker, and leafed through their programs, choosing horses for the 7th race. A
petite man arrived, posture perfect to squeeze every inch from his frame. João Rafael, the
former Grand Prix champion. He greeted each man in turn, and then, arms folded across
his chest, gazed down at the next set of horses trotting from the barn.
Those programs won’t tell you everything, João said. Look at number eight.
He’s off-kilter tonight.
The horse or the jockey? Dom Ricardo asked.
The horse, João said. My boys are never off-kilter. The mud-colored
thoroughbred broke into an uneven canter, his tiny jockey struggling for calm.
He looks good to me, Dom Ricardo said. High Tide--that’s a strong name. It
says here he’s been getting faster every week.
Dom Ricardo studied his race booklet, and I studied him. We looked more alike
than I’d ever imagined--lanky builds and square faces, dark brown curls and deep-set
eyes. Or maybe I was only seeing what I wanted to see. A blood relative--uncanny,
disarming. My righteous anger melted away, and now I only wanted to be closer to him,
to ask him a simple question: Do you know who I am?
The PA system crackled: Five minutes left to place bets. João helped Dom
Ricardo and his friends choose trifectas.
High Tide! Dom Ricardo said, defying the jockey’s recommendation. He stood
from the table, a bit wobbly from the whiskey. Mark my words on this one!
I paid for my cerveja and followed him to the cage where dozens of men
assembled to place bets, their shoes reflecting the overhead light. I fell into line directly
behind him. Tiny drops of sweat glistened on the back of his neck, and I could feel my
own sweat percolate. We were around equal height, six footers, but I had him by an inch.
Now he stepped to the betting window, a whiskey smile for the girl behind the
Number eight to win, he said, slapping a hundred real bill on the countertop. The
monitors above the window showed the odds on High Tide at 35:1.
Some doors, once you open them, they can’t be closed. Hand shaking, I tapped
Dom Ricardo on the shoulder.
He turned as if I were a pickpocket. At once his face softened. Recognition?
O Senhor, I said. You should bet for him to place. It’s less of a long shot.
He glanced around as if security had made a grievous error by letting me upstairs.
You should mind your own bets, he said.
I’m betting High Tide, too, I said. But he looks a little off-kilter today, no?
Two more minutes to place bets.
Vamos ver, Dom Ricardo said, taking his ticket.
The woman called me to the cage. I placed a fifty real bet for High Tide to place.
If he finished first, second, or third, I was a winner. I returned to my stool at the bar and
ordered another cerveja. João Rafael paced, nervous for his young jockeys.
The PA announced that betting had closed. Down on the field, the jockeys lined
up in their stalls. In the grandstands below, thousands clutched their tickets, five real
bets, ten real bets, folding their hands in prayer. My fifty real bet felt brash and reckless,
American at its core, and for a second I wished I would have saved that money for one of
the meninos sleeping under palm leaves on the streets outside, contrition for the night
with Nélida.
Dom Ricardo and his friends stood, drinks in hand, to watch the race from the
overlook. Not one of them was steady on his feet. High Tide jostled in his gate.
The bell sounded. The horses leapt forward. They hammered past the roaring
grandstands, jockeys on their heels, fighting for position. João Rafael shouted for his
boys, each in turn, like a father who refused to choose a favorite son. High Tide fell to
sixth, trapped outside, struggling for a path along the rail. Dom Ricardo threw back his
drink, clutched the empty glass in his hand. The horses thundered around to the
backstretch, hooves carving clumps of dirt. The pace was blistering. High Tide’s jockey
retreated to the outermost path.
Puta que pariu! Dom Ricardo shouted.
High Tide fell three lengths behind the leaders. The jockey whipped him forward,
the horse surging into long, predatory lunges. They neared the turn, two lengths behind
the leaders. Cutting inside, the jockey found an opening two paths from the rail. He
entered the homestretch in third, one length behind the leaders, now in second, only a
neck behind.
Vai vai vai vai vai vai vai! Dom Ricardo shouted
A photo finish seemed inevitable, but High Tide charged as the pack faded. High
Tide crossed the finish line ahead by a neck. João Rafael whistled like a bird. Groans
and cheers spilled from the grandstands. Dom Ricardo thrust his arms skyward, ice cubes
tumbling from his glass. João Rafael slapped him on the back and hurried down to the
winner’s circle to greet his jockeys.
The men returned to their seats and poured the last of their bottle. Standing
behind his chair, Dom Ricardo raised his glass. Looking my direction, he offered a toast
to High Tide. The men inhaled their whiskey. Dom Ricardo sauntered to the bar.
I pulled out the empty stool beside me. Whatever there was to say here, I didn’t
know the words, not in Portuguese, not in English.
Another bottle, he told the bartender. He sized me up, smug, as if maybe now I
should leave.
It looks like we’re both winners, I said.
Off-kilter? he said. Filho da puta! It was only nerves. It’s good to be nervous
Monday morning I contacted João Rafael at the Gávea Jockey School and
explained that I was a journalist from Sports Illustrated, hoping to interview him about
his charity. We met that afternoon at a portable classroom adjacent to the barns at the
track. Afternoon classes had just ended, and now we walked from stall to stall. Scouting
for the Jockey School, João Rafael had transplanted dozens of children from the campo to
the city to learn the high art of horseracing. Tiny boys of all shades stood on stools
beside their horses, grooming the animals and placing tiny saddles on their backs. One
boy with his arm in a sling brushed his horse with one hand.
Como vai hoje? João asked.
Muito melhor, o senhor, the boy said. Estou listo.
Logo, meu filho, the jockey said, and led me along.
Broken arm? I asked, notebook in hand.
Nothing that can’t mend. In the long run, it’s good to take a big fall. It builds
guts. Any monkey can ride a horse, he told me. Guts cannot be taught.
In the last stall of the barn, another teacher was instructing boys seated on bales of
hay how to turn back and look under their shoulder without turning their backs. Out on
the track, the older boys were beginning their warm-ups, cantering along the backstretch.
We give them a fine education, steady room and board.
And the parents?
The parents are happy to see their boys become Carioca. It is a dream to send
their children to Rio.
Each winter, João toured the nation in search of those rare, birdlike young men
who might become Grand Prix champions. But there was doubt in his voice. Perhaps he
knew that the Carioca promise was empty as a broken egg. João himself had been
adopted into racing himself as a child. In the folds of his heart, he must have known that
a boy can never leave his original life behind, no matter how far he travels, no matter
how many races he wins.
The jockey summoned the boys to the fence line. They lined by age. He
introduced them one by one.
This man is going to take your pictures for Sports Illustrated, he said. Let’s show
him how tough we can be!
I clumsily explained that a photographer would come along later. Disappointed,
the boys went back to their routines, the younger perched on the fences with stopwatches,
timing the older riders as they thundered down the homestretch.
I’m sorry, I said. I didn’t mean to get their hopes up.
These boys don’t hope, they train, João said. We make them no promises. Most
of them will win a purse or two in the pony circuits. They will return to their villages,
buy zinc roofs for their family home, maybe new plots of land. These years in Rio will
be stories for their grandchildren.
And the best of them?
The best of them will rise to the junior leagues in São Paolo or Belo Horizonte.
They will get homesick. They will try to convince their mothers and fathers to move to
Rio, which never happens, at least not for long.
Why not?
Their parents struggle to do the simplest things here, he said. Shopping for fruit,
crossing the street. It’s a different world than the campo. And here’s where it takes guts:
To win in Paris or Sydney or Louisville. I’ve seen it end one of two ways--a promising
rider who surrenders his career, too terrified to leave Brazil, or else a Grand Prix
champion who knows how to order caviar, but who can’t find his village on a map.
And how do you feel about that? I asked.
He looked at me with a keen glint in his eyes. I teach my boys how to win races,
he said. When it comes to the family, they make their own choices.
We carried our conversation over to the Photofinish, the bar outside the race
grounds. In the entryway was a large glass enclosure with scale-models of all the Grand
Prix champions from the Jóquei Clube Brasileiro, jockeys and thoroughbreds suspended
in youth and glass. The jockey leaned into the display, polished the glass with his
Guess which one is me? he asked.
This one? I said. In miniature, they all looked the same.
He is a common slob, he said. He pisses his fortune away on the stock market.
That one? I said.
No no no. That man squanders his good name advertising for energy drinks.
Do you give up?
I give up.
It was a trick question anyway. There are three João Rafaels. Here, here, and
here. These horses were my truest partners. Bandido Vermelho, Ace of Hearts, and
Sky’s the Limit. Are you writing this down?
Got it, I said, scribbling notes.
We sat in a small booth in the corner. It was immediately obvious that the jockey
preferred conversation sitting down, where he was on more equal stature.
My philanthropy is a labor of the spirit, he said. I certainly don’t need the money.
I want to leave a legacy. I never had children, you know. A lot of women, but no
Tell me more about your charity, I asked.
It is tough on these boys, coming here to Rio, he said. They cry. They struggle.
We gather money so that they can return home on occasion, the younger boys especially,
the older boys, for holidays and funerals.
A gorgeous waitress came over to deliver our sandwiches and beer. João Rafael
stood for her and touched his toes. I’ve still got it! he called after her. She giggled and
walked away.
That one has had a crush on me for a long time, he said, winking.
And your donors? he asked.
All wonderful men, João Rafael said. They understand how important it is these
boys have the chance to come to the city. Grand Prix champion or not.
You receive a lot of support from the Sociedade Comercial de Rio Novo, I asked.
I thought this was Sports Illustrated? he asked, not the Jornal do Wall Street.
We want to give these generous men the credit they deserve.
The giving is its own reward, don’t you agree?
A few quotes about why they give, that’s all I’m looking for.
You must understand, I value my donors. A wealthy man in Rio de Janeiro is
always being hounded for money from one person or another. They count on me to
respect their privacy.
We finished our sandwiches. I promised him that a photographer would be
coming by in short order. He confessed that he would be out of town the rest of the
week, a recruiting trip. When tonight’s races finished, as soon as the horses were rubbed
down and put away, he would hail a cab to the airport, off to this week’s destination,
perhaps a small river village near Belem, a lost gold town in Minas, a cattle ranch in
Espiritu Santo, always on the lookout for right-sized, right-hearted young men, and of
course for women of a certain age who might recognize him from the glory days.
I spent the next day scouting out the jockey’s Leblon neighborhood. These were
not the art-nouveau complexes of Copacabana, nor the suspended colonial mansions of
Jardim Botánico. These were swank, urban high-rises--marble facades and smoked glass,
polished brass balconies and A/C units that rained cold drops onto the sidewalks. This
afternoon the sidewalk cafes brimmed with playboys and young businessmen, ties
loosened, beer glasses sweating. Women in gym suits strutted past, on display for the
infinite cocktail hour.
João’s doorman was a lanky, fresh-faced red head who took pride in his polished
shoes. By day he wore a constant smile, on the alert for his tenants, sun-dried former
beach beauties who shopped in the morning and returned after lunch hour, laden with
boutique bags, eager to apply their afternoon make-up. I overheard them ask the
doorman where the jockey was traveling this time. I imagined these women loved
listening to his Paris stories. The doorman never revealed João’s whereabouts, but
otherwise delighted the women by complimenting their perfumes or jewelry or cellular
phones, and by asking about their children, but never their grandchildren.
One of the doorman’s ladies emerged from the building, a Yorkshire terrier
peeking from her purse. The doorman was feeding the dog a treat, piece by piece, when
without even a clap of thunder, clouds swamped the sun, and rain thrummed the
pavement. Now the doorman scurried to open an umbrella for the woman and her dog. I
sought shelter in a public phone, its privacy dome like a giant eggshell, and there waited
out the rain.
As afternoon turned to dusk, the rain let up, and the red headed kid was relieved
by a night watchman, a young black kid with a portable radio and an aluminum lunchbox.
Traffic in and out of the building thinned, and by dusk he was free to eat. He kept a
bottle of hot sauce under his check stand, and took his time eating his rice and kabobs,
enthusiastically wielding an electric fly swatter, blue spark of death for the insects that
swarmed his plate. Later, when the streets were quiet, he turned the valet security
monitor over to the Flamengo match, fell asleep still clutching that bug-crispy swatter, as
if even in slumber he dared any mosquito in Rio to cross him.
I woke him: Com licença, I asked. I need the key to João Rafael’s apartment. It’s
an emergency.
The boy wiped his eyes, flipped through the registry.
He didn’t leave a note.
It wouldn’t be an emergency if he had time to leave a note, now hurry up.
What’s the emergency.
It’s a personal matter. Now please.
I have to phone my supervisor.
Do I look like a thief to you? I asked. “Would a thief be speaking English?” Me
entendes? Puta que pariu, you’re wasting my time. Hand me the phone. I want to call
speak to your supervisor myself.
Panic crossed the boy’s face. He glanced around, as if someone might appear and
tell him what to do. He sifted through his registry and the drawer of keys in check stand
and presented me with a shiny gold key, labeled with tape, 777.
Please don’t get me in trouble, he said.
I ignored him and pushed my way through the revolving doors. Avoiding the
elevator attendant, I took the stairwell. I felt like shit for bullying the kid at the door, but
the fact that this plan was working was enough to convince me that this wasn’t a dipshit
idea, and a surge of confident propelled me two-steps at a time to the seventh floor. At
the end of the hallway, a picture window view of the Lagoa, my apartment somewhere
building among the lights across the lagoon. I found 777 and slipped inside.
The jockey’s apartment was spacious and clean. A trophy case glimmered on the
far wall, surrounded by a collection of black and white photographs from his years in
Europe: shaking hands with jovial politicians and footballers; posing in the winner’s
circles in Longchamp, Sussex, and Goodwood; carrying a raven-haired woman, piggyback style, across the Champ de Mars.
On an oak desk in the jockey’s office sat an old typewriter. A stout black file
cabinet in the corner. The paper trails of dozens of boys, taken from all corners of Brazil.
Astounding how much of life can be contained in a single folder, how much can be
omitted. Descriptions of villages, names and heights and weights of their mothers and
fathers, results of physical and mental examinations, photocopies of notarized
agreements--children transferred to the guardianship of the Gávea Jockey School. Filed
under a separate paperclip were the records of their new lives: science and math exams,
essays written in French and English, orthodontia charts, X-rays of broken bones,
detailed logs of last season’s lap times. I was halfway through a ledger of deposits when
there was a knock at the front door.
Open up, a voice called. I know you’re in there.
I crept to the entrance. In the peephole, head oblong like a quail egg, the
featherweight transit cop from Lapa.
I’m watching this place for a friend, I said through the door.
Você cheio de merda, he said. Don’t make me call my bosses.
Fastening the golden chain lock, I opened the door a crack. Look, I said. I can
take care of you again. Just give me fifteen minutes.
He kicked open the door. The impact sent me on my ass. He fell on top of me,
yanked my arm behind my back. Handcuffs clicked around my left wrist.
Whoa whoa whoa, I said. Let’s talk this out.
No time for chit chat, he said. Give me your other hand.
I’ve got money.
He ratcheted my arm up higher until I complied. He pulled me from the ground
and pushed me out the hallway into the elevator. On the way down, I glanced at his
nametag: Silva.
Listen, Silva, I can get you cash.
Do you even know how to shut up?
Back on the street, the doorman glared at me, touched the corner of his eye with
his index finger. We turned the corner. There, waiting for me, was Big Boy, stuffed into
his bullet proof vest. He leaned against a black, unmarked, windowless van. A green
beret sat on his head like the crown of a tomato.
You get a promotion? I asked.
He hit me open-palmed across the face. You think just because you’re American
you can be funny with everyone?
Silva unlatched the van door. Inside, he said. From his pocket the cop pulled a
small black hood. Give me your head.
Please, I said. You don’t have to do this.
I said give me your head.
I leaned forward. He slipped the unwashed hood like a stinky sock over my head.
The instant he slammed the door, rain began again, needles on the roof. The engine
turned. The axels groaned on the passenger side. Through the wall I heard them crank
up the stereo, FM 101.3 Transamerica. They both sang along. One of them shook his
keychain along with the congas like a tambourine. It sounded pretty good, actually, like
if their lives had spun some other way, they might have been sambanistas.
The van stuttered through traffic. In the back, I crouched to the sticky floor,
hyperventilating under the scratchy hood. Acalma, calm down, breathe.
The rush of passing traffic--air brakes, sizzling mopeds, a cacophony of horns. In
the darkness I concentrating on our turns, tried to pinpoint our location, a childhood game
from back in Partway, eyes closed in the backseat as Mom and Dad drove us into town,
predicting our final destination--the feed barn, the grocery store, the Big R Supply. But
that was dirt roads and highway, straight lines. This ride felt like a long, slow spiral. My
only clue was the rain needling the roof, going silent during a long tunnel. Would a real
Carioca hear the difference between Zuzu Angel or Rebouças? It was hopeless. We
could be going anywhere.
I heard Silva radio to his supervisors, a muffled hiss and crackle. Nothing to do
but wait. How much would this take? I had almost a thousand dollars back in the
apartment, but unlike the night in Lapa, I had broken the law this time. How long had
they been following me, waiting for another easy pinch?
Now gravel snapped in the wheel wells. The van rumbled down a long road,
water splashing the mud flaps. We rolled to a stop. I felt Big Boy step out of the car,
axels sighing with relief. A squeaky gate opening. We passed through and stopped
again--Big Boy closing the gate. Parking. The engine ceased, the doors opened
and slammed.
Okay, I called through the door. You can let me out now!
There was no way to explain my presence in the jockey’s apartment. Daveison
would have to bail me out. Was this a misdemeanor? A felony? I could already a
looming weight overhead, the way a mosquito must sense a rising hand.
I felt my way to the door and kicked. Ja! Qualquer vocěs querem!
The door swung open, a rush of damp air on my face. Someone twisted the wrist
of my right hand. Pain bolted to my elbow until I felt it might snap.
Do you want me to break this? Big Boy said.
No no no no no, I said. Please. Please. We can do this another way. Let’s go
back to my apartment.
We already did.
He let go of my finger and yanked off my hood. My eyes adjusted to a gravel
parking lot, sodium lamp tinting our skin green. Big Boy pulled me down by the
handcuffs, whistling as if walking a dog. He pushed me into a parking structure. Neat
rows of military police trucks, impounded vehicles askew in their spaces. We entered a
door emblazoned with the shield of the Ministério de Segurança Publica. On the other
side, a short hallway crowded with a foosball table, a weightlifting bench, and a vending
machine. Two cadets stood at the machine.
Slender in their outsized uniforms, both
gazed as we passed, scratching their peach fuzz beards. Then they returned their
attention to the vending machine, trying to filch a bag of chips from the mechanical claw.
The hallway led to a small barrack, half a dozen bunks, a neatly kept desk at the
forefront, an observation window that peered into the next room. Seated there was a
white haired lieutenant, puzzling over a game of Sudoku. He rose from his chair and
checked me in like an unwelcome package, leaving two long scribbles on the ledger
where I was supposed to have signed my name. Before I could protest, Big Boy pushed
me through a frosted door into a wide, dimly lit room. On one side was a kitchenette
with a television showing the Flamengo highlights. In the center, a card table surrounded
by four chairs. In the far corner, like an after-thought, a cage of white, cast-iron bars. A
dozen or more men were crammed inside, clamoring for food, for water, for the volume
to be raised on the television.
Everything I knew about Brazilian law I could write on a fingernail, but I
understood one thing clearly: a police lock up is the worst place to land, limbo between
the street and the courtroom, half jail, half rec room. Anything goes.
Get inside, Big Boy said.
We don’t got no room, one of the prisoners said, a broken-toothed crack head,
thin as a skeleton dipped in wax.
His companions looked no better. A transvestite with smeared make up, a broken
nose, blood on his skirt. A naked man, fingers swollen purple, squatting over a tin
bucket. Leaning against the rear wall, a few brittle men, rank clothes like crust.
Oi! You have to let me call the U.S. Consulate.
Big Boy looked confused, the gravity of those words sinking in. He uncuffed one
hand and clicked that ring to a cage bar. The twin cadets stood at his back, passing
around a bag of chips. All three stared like I was a circus animal about to perform a trick.
With my free hand, I untucked my travel belt, withdrew a fuzzy photocopy of my
Big Boy snatched the paper--a black and whites of my passport and driver’s
license. I felt cheap. Exposed. But enough with the ruse. This cell stank like tooth
decay and rat shit. Bring on Uncle Sam.
I’d always known the value of U.S. Citizenship. I wasn’t naturalized until the
sixth grade, when Mom showed up at the classroom door in the middle of Tuesday
spelling review. In the days, weeks, months, and years following my adoption from
Brazil, Dad neglected to submit a simple but critical form, which would have granted me
U.S. citizenship without ceremony. That morning, via certified mail, Mom had received
a sternly worded letter from the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services. The
deadline for submitting that form was my 10th birthday. We had 28 days to complete the
process via standard immigration protocol, or I will be returned to my country of origin.
“Oh my,” Ms. Trumpet said. “This sounds like an emergency. How exciting!”
She added naturalize to chalkboard. My classmates flipped through their dictionaries and
In a single afternoon, like kids scrambling to turn in homework, we got
fingerprints and photographs. We walked the aisles of the Bi-Mart, looking a decent set
of clothes so that I can look my best for the judge. That night, at dinner, Dad put the
finishing touches on the paperwork.
“You have to decide,” he says. “Do you want to be a full U.S. citizen, or do you
want dual citizenship.”
“What’s the difference?”
“If you choose full U.S. citizenship, it means exactly that. You are a full U.S.
I thought about the cranberry sauce I spilled on Uncle Rob’s carpet at
Thanksgiving, his threat to send me back to South America. Full U.S. might shut him up.
“And dual citizenship?”.
“That means that you have U.S. citizenship, and Brazilian citizenship.”
“I’m not sure,” I say.
“Do you want Brazil to be able to send you to a war?” Dad said.
“Don’t scare him,” Mom said.
“You have to decide.”
“Full U.S.,” I say.
“Are you sure?” Mom asks.
“We don’t have time to debate this.”
“Jesus, Michael! If you had done this when you were supposed to--” And this is
when you send me to my room. Ear to the door, I listen. Something about big mistakes.
I slid open my bedroom window and removed the screen, just like the Fire and
Emergency Action Plan that I designed as homework. The moon was high in the air,
casting tree-shadows on the snow. I followed the irrigation canal to the highway. Brazil
was south. If I could get to the Highway, I could hitchhike. At the sight of headlights at
my back, I dove into the frosty bushes. Mom and Dad followed my prints in the snow.
The next morning, slack faced, we loaded up the truck, drove past St. Charles
Medical Hospital, where all my friends were born, and headed over Mt. Hood pass.
Portland streets were slick with freezing rain. I had never been in a building made
entirely of stone.
“Pay attention,” Dad said. “This is serious.”
We shuffled from room to room, speaking with this or that clerk. Finally we were
led to a courtroom where I file into a row of Koreans and Mexicans. Just like in The
People’s Court, the bailiff told us to rise, and we did. No problem. I could do serious.
The judge asked us to raise our hands and repeat some stuff after him. We all said the
Pledge of Allegiance, just like I did every day at school. All around us, cameras flashed.
I turned around and saw that my grandparents. Even Uncle Rob showed up. I wondered
if Grandma would still call me her Brazilian coffee bean. Dad glared, motioned for me to
turn around and face the judge. We were declared citizens. The courtroom burst into
applause. The bailiff passed out tiny American flags. Even the bailiff, a man with arms
like giant fleshy cannons, was waving a tiny flag.
That night, Mom came into my bedroom with a little Brazilian flag, and a little
plastic flag holder with two holes. You inserted the U.S. and Brazilian flags, side by
side, and set the totem on my nightstand. “This way you always remember where you
came from.”
Big Boy turned down the television and sat at the card table, examining the
documents. I imagined the consul would dispatch a staff of diplomats to demand my
release. U.S. foreign relations, terrifying under God.
Nesceu aqui? he asked.
Carioca de gema, I said.
Mas vocé é Americano?
Foi adoptado.
Mas fala Português?
He tilted his head, a mystified look, as if I were a peculiar amphibian. Espera, he
said, retreating to the front desk. He showed the forms to Silva, who raised his eyebrows.
They passed the papers across the desk to the white-haired lieutenant. That’s right.
Verify that shit.
The lieutenant wasn’t happy to abandon his Sudoku. He squinted at the
documents and then at my face. Sitting at his computer, he keyed in some information,
lifted up the phone.
Finally. I breathed easier. These interrogations were familiar territory. I’d faced
the same questions from consuls, financial aid representatives, consuls, doctors, dentists,
guidance counselors, teachers, kids on the playground, even my friend’s parents. Even
Gary’s mom grilled me once, when I was nine-years-old. She’d known me my entire life,
but it was as if she’d been waiting all this time to ask me: “So, Peter,” she said, spooning
out a bowl of tomato soup. “How do you feel about your parents? You must really love
“They’re just my parents.”
“Isn’t that sweet. You must feel so blessed.”
“I guess,” I said, staring at my reflection in the steaming bowl, wondering how
come people were always telling me how so blessed and so lucky I was, as if I were a
foundling saved from the gutter, dusted off and shipped to the land of honey and milk. I
remember standing in Gary’s hallway, examining the procession of family photographs,
the astonishing resemblance from photo to photo. A strand of DNA spiraling along the
wall, great grandparents to grandparents to parents to Gary.
“Your great grandpa had one hand, too?”
“Quit looking at that,” he said. “It’s like the Wall of Shame.”
But did he realize how so blessed and so lucky he was to have this hallway? A
family chronicle, a sense of weight, a bloodline. I hated that; I wanted that. I’d appeared
from thin air, an explosion still ringing in my ears.
The inmates whistled, squeezed up to the bars for a closer look at me. The
broken-toothed man reached through the bars for the travel belt like maybe I papers for
him, too.
Não toque, I growled, trying to make myself big.
Peering into the barracks, I saw the white-haired lieutenant on the phone, mouth
moving, soundless through the glass. Finally he set down the phone and returned to our
room. In the kitchenette, he rummaged through the refrigerator: several brown paper
bags with names scrawled on the sides, an assortment of juice boxes, a twelve pack of
beer, an egg, and a few tiny medicine bottles that looked like the serum Mom used to
inject into the newborn lambs. The lieutenant sniffed a few lunch bags before settling on
a juice box.
He dragged a chair from the card table, placed it backwards in front of the cell.
He speared his juice box, took a long sip before speaking: You know, he said. It’s illegal
to be without documents. Especially when you’re nosing around someone else’s
My name is Peter Randolph. I’m a U.S. citizen. I demand to speak with the
My name is Peter Pan, he said. Or Homer Simpson. Photocopies, duplicates,
they just aren’t sufficient. What with technology these days, we can all make up our
He crumpled up the photocopy and tossed it over my head and into the cell. The
inmates scrambled. The only proof of me, within seconds, torn to shreds on the floor.
Time for another tactic: Look, I’m not just some regular gringo. I was born here.
I know all the swear words. Puta, merda, boceta, quenga, tarraqueta…
The lieutenant chuckled. Silva and Big Boy and the twin cadets fell into laughter.
The inmates behind me hollered and stomped their feet.
I can even do tongue twisters--Três tigres tristes para três pratos de trigo. Três
pratos de trigo para três tigres tristes. See?
He’s pretty good, no? Silva said.
Carioca de gema, I said.
But you just said you were Americano, the lieutenant said. Clearly we have some
complications here.
Born here, raised in America.
Lucky you, the lieutenant said. But you know, they say God is Brazilian.
Please, I said. Just call the consul. We can have everything fixed. I hid the
originals back at my apartment. Passport. Visa. Driver’s license. Everything. We can
go there right now. Really, Nélida had everything, but I’d say anything to keep from
being shoved in that cell. It was easier to lie in Portuguese.
The lieutenant sucked down the last of his juice box. There will be time, he said.
As you can see, we are very busy around here.
Big Boy uncuffed me from the cage and opened the cell gate.
Listen, I said. This is a huge mistake.
In, he said.
There’s no more room! one of the inmates said.
Leaning against the refrigerator was a length of sugar cane. Silva grabbed it and
smacked it several times against the bars until the men pressed back, as if making space
in an elevator.
Always more room, Big Boy said. He shoved me inside and slammed the cage
door closed. Whistles and clicking tongues from the inmates.
The lieutenant stood and replaced his chair at the card table. He selected another
juice box from the fridge.
Tomorrow you have a visitor coming, he said, piercing his drink with a straw.
You’re in some special kind of trouble, no?
In the wake of the naturalization debacle, Ms. Trumpet reserved a portion of our
history lesson as an opportunity for me to explain immigration to the class.
“Tell us,” she said. “What did it feel like?”
My national origins had previously been a curious footnote to the first day of
school, when our new teachers would invariably stumble over my middle name (Ow-rajew?) but now Ms. Trumpet unrolled the pastel shaded world map over the chalkboard so
that everyone was crystal clear how far Rio de Janeiro was from St. Charles Medical
“It felt weird I guess.”
“Weird how?” Ms. Trumpet waited to see if there was anything else I might add,
and when she saw my dumbstruck expression, she turned to the class: “Well it’s a lot for
us to think about. Just remember how lucky you all are! United States citizens without
having to do anything!”
That afternoon I decided anything that made me different had to go. In the tack
room out in the barn, I plugged in the electric clippers we used to shear the sheep. Off
went my curls. Mom heard the buzzing, opened the door and saw the black shock of hair
on the floor. “Peter, what have you done,” she said, gathering them up in her hands as if
she could put them back on. She looked at me, tears pooling: “Someday a girl is
going to want to run her hands through these curls.”
I wasn’t going to let Brazil shadow me in junior high. A new school with new
teachers, a chance to re-invent myself. Fitting in became priority one. On the first day of
class, before the bell rang, I was careful to advise each teacher that Aúrajo was a
misprint, and I lingered over their shoulder until they struck the name from their roster.
From now on, if anyone asked, I was born at St. Charles like everyone else.
It seemed to work. My old classmates from Ms. Trumpet’s class were too
occupied with their budding breasts and sprouting pubes to nourish the myth that I was an
alien. Being Brazilian became like gravity--essential, but ultimately forgettable. I was
good ol’ Pete, American country boy. Riding horses and fishing for rainbow trout.
Fattening up a pig to sell at county fair. Changing pipe in the summer, bucking hay in the
fall. Oiling my cowboy boots for Sisters Rodeo weekend. Collecting arrowheads and
Garth Brooks tapes. Wading in the Little Deschutes River, searching the rocky bottom
for crawdads. Just as I was conscious of gravity only when falling or flying, I only
considered my history when forced.
Every year around Memorial Day weekend, Abigail Long made a visit to
Partway. I always knew she was coming when I’d return home from school to discover
my bedroom closet in immaculate order, a stack of cardboard boxes sealed up in the
“It’s all stuff you haven’t touched in a year,” Mom would say when I protested.
“The kids at Esperança can use those kinds of things.”
Use them for what? Why anyone would want a chewed up GI Joe or a grassstained pair of Wranglers was beyond me.
Whenever Memorial Day rolled around, we’d pack the cooler and drove out to the
farm where Ana Luiza lived, following a trail of signs that her parents, Dale and Janice
Schremp, had painted and hung themselves. They were animal lovers and entrepreneurs
and owned a large plot of land east of Partway called the Little Explorers Petting Farm.
Among their stock were dozens of animals that required special permits to own: reindeer,
pot bellied pigs, llamas, emus, and even a pair of mountain lions, off-limits for petting.
As we turned into their epic gravel driveway, ostriches emerged from the brush to peck at
the windows. Finally, the road descended into a wide, neighborless valley, and if I was
glad to arrive, it was only to see Ana Luiza.
This was my one chance each year. At school we occupied separate worlds, me
in regular education, she in her special class. The teachers called it Life Skills; the
students called it the retard room. But Ana Luiza wasn’t that far behind. After six years
in the U.S., she spoke English with a slight impediment, but she was a voracious reader
of Choose Your Own Adventure books. Except she was prone to violent outbursts. Once
each semester the administration would experiment with letting her eat lunch with the
general population. Like a ticking bomb, she sat at a corner table. Everyone whispered,
made fun of her accent, stared at the scars on her arms and face.
“Don’t you know that girl?” kids would ask.
“Nope,” I said, eyes on my calzone. I took enough shit for being best friends with
the one handed kid. The last thing I needed was to be associated with a girl who was in
7th grade at age 14.
Before long Ana Luiza would be on the cafeteria floor clawing at one of the girls,
blood on the tile. Even the janitors were afraid to get close. Back to the retard room.
But every Memorial Day weekend, I had the chance to see her up close, free from
the crucible at school. She would lead me through the petting zoo, and if I was lucky, tell
me a bit of what she remembered from Brazil. Stories from Esperança. Soccer games,
hair cut days, the fado de diente who left thin mint candies underneath your pillow when
you lost a tooth. I listened rapt to a life I could have led. At sunset, we went our separate
ways, strangers.
But I now and then between classes I would linger at her classroom door, catch
her eyes through the reinforced glass. We’d lock eyes, and I might wave, but probably
Memorial Day weekend of 8th grade year was the last time I went to one of those
adoption potlucks. I was pissed about going in the first place. The drive out their killed
the entire morning. Only recently, Gary had introduced me to the wonders of the Sears
catalogue. Its pages left me awestruck, and an afternoon visit with crinkly old Abigail
Long was robbing me of precious alone time with the angel smooth boobs in the lingerie
As we pulled into the circular driveway of Little Explorers Petting Farm,
miniature donkeys gathered at the fence. We parked beside the mountain lion pen, a
large chain-link box shaded by junipers, the names ABE and SARAH painted on signs
above their twin houses. But one of the two cats was missing. Janice met us there, a
cheerful woman with hair tucked into a handkerchief. She explained that two months
ago, Abe had escaped. This was no cause for alarm--in all likelihood, Abe was D-E-A-D,
she said, spelling it out, as if to drain the word of sadness.
“Not so close,” Mom said. The hue of Sarah’s coat shifted brown to gold as she
slunk between shafts of light. I took a half-step away from the cage. She paced faster
now, tail brushing the chain link, near enough to touch. Sarah and I were locked in a
staring contest. When my gaze fell to her glowing whiskers, she pounced at the fence-teeth, tongue, yellow eyes--a long, low growl.
“What’s gotten into you?” Mom said. “She’s a wild animal!”
“He’s fine,” Janice said, chewing ice from a cup of lemonade. “Just a long
morning in the car.”
We let Sarah be and walked the gravel trail back toward the house. Two peacocks
waddled across our path. I scattered them into the brush. We carried our casserole to the
backyard where Abigail and Janice and Dale and several other grownups--lawyers, case
workers, folks from Abigail’s church--gathered around the table. In the backyard, I
found Dad in the crowd of other dads and checked his watch.
“When can we leave?” I asked.
Dad never liked these potlucks, either. He’d convinced himself beyond all doubt
that I was his blood. So what if he had red hair, and I had black curls? Those were minor
details, inconveniences. These parties, they ruined everything.
The grownups stood in circles of four or six, drinking cans of beer and plastic
cups of pink, boxed wine. Abigail sat at the picnic table, flipping through a photo album
of children she had placed in the past year. Scattered around the petting zoo were a
dozen other adopted kids from Guatemala, Peru, Korea, et cetera, adopted through other
agencies and orphanages, all linked by Abigail and her worldwide network of likeminded Christians. Parents kept warning to stay on this side of the fence, as if a few
strands of barbed wire would be enough to keep a hungry Abe from pouncing. Like me,
some of the kids at the party had been adopted shortly after birth. We had all the same
memories as biological children, except we looked nothing like our parents. Other kids
had been adopted much later and spoke mysterious pidgins. Parents and children alike
were given nametags (PETER – BRAZIL) and more or less segregated themselves by
countries, as if establishing little nation states.
Abigail flipped through the photo album, sharing stories about people I’d never
met, but I knew their private stories from the year before. When the Everetts returned
from Peru with their son Diego, they forgot their birth registry in the hotel safety box and
were detained at the re-entry gate at LAX. The Simons waited nine hours in a hot
Guatemala City courtroom for the stenographer to receive a new ink ribbon, and when
the ribbon finally arrived, the judge denied their request. The Clarks told how, eight
months into their process, the birth mother changed her mind.
These stories were the same snoozers from the last adoption party, and the one
before that, and the one before that. The Everetts had the birth registry shipped overnight
and were allowed back into the U.S. after a 36-hour wait. The Simons slipped the judge
two hundred dollars to approve their request. The Clarks lost their son to his birth
mother, but found a three-year-old girl, Lula, who had gone unwanted because of her
cleft lip, so expensive to repair.
A small plane buzzed overhead. Among the myriad curiosities at Janice and
Dale’s property was a local skydiving outfit that used the nearby fields as a landing
space. Several divers leapt from the hatch, seeds dotting the blue sky. The parachutes
bloomed like flower petals, drifting, and sank out of sight to the other side of the hills.
I found Ana Luiza sitting cross-legged on the lawn wearing a yellow tee and black
cotton shorts so short that I thought I caught a peek at whatever might be between her
legs. Sitting beside her was black kid, gesticulating wildly, speaking in tongues. His
nametag read: ROGER – BRAZIL. A black kid in Partway was rarer than a shooting
star, let alone a black kid who talked like that. But what caught my attention most was
his Garth Brook’s t-shirt, a burn hole in the bottom from when Gary and I had
experimented with matches and WD-40.
From behind us came Abigail, clutching a black binder like sort I used to display
my baseball cards. She embraced me, bracelets dangling from her bony wrists. “I’m glad
the three of you found each other,” Abigail said. “This is Rogélio, but you can call him
Roger. Next year you’ll be in the same school. He’s trying very hard to learn English.
Right, Roger?”
“Sem Tia,” Roger said, smiling.
“How you’ve grown, Peter,” she said. “Now that you’re a little older, I have
something special for you.” I glanced around for my parents. Mom was back out on the
deck, listening to a story. Dad minded one of the grills.
“Okay,” I said.
Knees crackling, Abigail crouched down to the grass and opened her album.
Close up I could see the cataract in one eye like a dollop of yogurt, and it seemed at any
moment the thing would slip off onto the grass. She licked her finger and began to thumb
through the plastic pages. Old, blanched photos of babies and mothers. A courtyard
littered with toys.
“Here is little Ana Luiza,” she said, pointing to a picture of a young Ana Luiza
shirtless in a small plastic pool, nipples like my nipples. “And here is Roger--this was
just last year, on his soccer team.”
Dad appeared, barbeque tongs in hand. Abigail smiled and folded the album
“Hello, Michael.”
“Kids,” he said. “Why don’t you go eat?”
An endless supply of dogs and burgers on Styrofoam plates. I sat on the deck
with Ana Luiza, who explained to Rogélio what condiments he might like on his hotdog.
I couldn’t understand a word of what they were saying.
“I know some Portuguese,” I said, trying to recall the tongue twister Ana Luiza
had taught me the year before. “Três tratos de trigo para três tigres tristes. Três tigres
tristes para Três tratos de trigo.”
Roger laughed so hard he almost choked on his hotdog.
I kept my mouth shut. After lunch, Janice and Mom arranged groups of kids for
photos in the garden. Ana Luiza explained what we were doing to Roger in Portuguese.
I walked over with Ana Luiza, wondering what her nipples looked like now. Janice
posed the three of us under a fir tree, Ana Luiza in the middle. Rogélio put his arm
around her and winked at me.
“Now we have all the colors of Brazil,” Janice said, placing us so the shadows
weren’t on our faces.
It was Sarah’s turn to eat. Janice and Dale said all of us kids could watch so long
as we didn’t crowd too close. Dale cut of venison from the long freezer in their garage.
Birds chirped from the trees as we the path to the cage, library-quiet as Sarah came into
The cage had been designed so that it could be divided into two parts: One half, a
large shelter with beds of hay, the other half a feeding area with a huge plastic water
bowl, and a blood-stained, aluminum trash can lid. Dale used a pulley to draw a gate
across this section, sealing it off to safely deliver the food. Sarah paced, shoulder
muscles flexing, eyes fixed on the thick red cut of meat.
Dale tossed the venison on the trash can lid, then stepped out of the cage.
Yanking on the pulley, he opened the interior gate. Sarah stepped toward the meat, Mom
gave me a look like I’d better not tease the cat again.
“She no hunger?” Roger asked.
“Not when we’re all watching,” Janice said. “She’s very protective of her lunch.”
“Why?” Roger asked. “Nobody want what she got.”
“It’s her instinct, sweetie,” Mom said.
A plane zipped overhead. Kids scattered to watch the latest batch of skydivers.
By the time Sarah finally began tearing into her meat, all of the kids except Ana Luiza,
Roger and me had gone back to the trampoline. Sarah licked her enormous paws,
satisfied, as if the meal had reduced her to an ordinary house cat. Ana Luiza held a
garden hose through the chain-link, filling up Sarah’s water bowl. The giant animal
rubbed against the chain link like a cat to a scratching post. Ana Luiza and Roger ran
their hands along the animal’s coat. A wonder they could get so close.
“Ana Luiza took it really hard when Abe escaped,” Janice told Mom. “She
spends a lot of time down here. The animals really seem to calm her down.”
“Well, maybe Abe will come back,” Mom said.
“We figured he would, at least for the food,” Janice said. “He never learned how
to fend for himself. I mean, he didn’t even have enough of a hunters’ instinct to go after
the llamas or the pigs.”
“Did you call animal control?” Mom asked.
“Lord no,” Dale said, wiping his hands on a red-stained rag. “We’d have lost our
permit over that. When he didn’t come back after a month we had to tell Ana Luiza that
he was probably dead.”
“It was hard on her,” Janice said. “We’re pretty sure she was the one who forgot
to lock the gate.”
The parents retreated into the house to watch the Everetts’ slide show from
Machu Picchu. The younger kids gathered at the basketball court for a game. Ana Luiza
and Roger drifted away from the rest of the group, across the barbed wire fence and down
a wooded path. I hurried to catch up.
Drawing closer, I overheard their conversation, an urgent conversation, as if
Roger was explaining something he’d been waiting his whole life to tell her, and it only
occurred to me then that they had known each other back at Casa de Esperança.
“So how long have you guys known each other?” I asked, walking behind them.
“I always thought I was going to marry Rogélio,” Ana Luiza said.
They shared something I would never have, beyond dark skin and Portuguese, a
history they could tell stories about. They started singing a song--a simple playground
rhyme, yet I knew not a single word. Roger looked over his shoulder, singing, and when
he saw my blank face, he smirked.
We approached the base of a large tree house, a row of planks nailed up the trunk
of the tree. Ana Luiza started up first, followed by Roger.
“Why don’t you go play basketball,” Ana Luiza said when I reached for the first
plank. I watched them climb and disappear inside. Maybe I deserved this for all those
times I was left to play alone. I heard giggling, then silence. I climbed the tree house
carefully, quietly, and when my head emerged through the hole in the floor I saw Roger
and Ana Luiza pressed up against the wall, Ana Luiza’s shirt in a pile at her feet.
Vai vai vai, he said, waving me away.
“Abigail is calling for you,” I said.
“Abigail!” I said, pointing out the tree house window.
Roger scurried down the plank ladder and toward the house. Red-faced, Ana
Luiza squirmed into her shirt. Pants hot, I cornered her. This was what I had wanted.
The entire reason I had suffered through all these years of reunions was for this moment,
right here, with her. I clutched her shoulders, kissed her hard on the mouth, a spark, a
sizzle, a transformation.
Puta que pariu! she said, jabbing me in the nuts with her fist.
I shrunk away, writhing. She descended the tree.
I checked my sack, leaned against the wall, caught my breath, waiting for Janice or Mom
or Abigail to come wring my neck. I held the feeling of Ana Luiza’s mouth, still moist
on my lips. For a moment I thought it was all worth it, no matter how much trouble I got
in, as long as I could remember that feeling, but before I could breathe it in completely,
the sensation left me.
Then panic. I was on the wrong side of the fence. I imagined Abe roaming the
forest, waiting for someone to cross the barbed wire. Every snapped twig turned my
head. But I told myself I was stupid for being afraid. It didn’t make sense to me that a
mountain lion could forget how to hunt, but I had to face it--he was gone, starved, dead.
I gazed through the tree house window, kids standing on the deck like dolls. Ants
crawled up my leg and I flicked them away. The blue of the sky faded. None of it made
any sense. It didn’t make sense that nobody was looking for me. That Ana Luiza didn’t
want to kiss me. That I couldn’t speak Portuguese. That I had a stupid name like Peter
and didn’t look like I was supposed to. I wanted to know what Abigail had in her photo
album. Why we kept coming to these stupid potlucks instead of just forgetting about
Brazil and Brazilians.
Near sunset, that tiny airplane sliced between the clouds one last time, sprinkling
divers across the sky. I watched the parachutes drift over the hills and out of sight. At
the house, a group of younger kids moved the trampoline in front of the basketball hoop.
They handed the ball to Larry Everett, the lone blue-eyed biological kid at the gathering.
Larry craved attention like a moth craved light. On the trampoline, he gained altitude,
bounce by bounce. Without warning he sprung toward the basket. From a distance, it
looked like the dunk of a lifetime. Then he hit the backboard and dropped to the
I heard him bawling all the way across the field. Adults swarmed the court. Dale
carried Larry inside. I figured it was now or never and walked back toward the house. As
I crossed the field, the miniature donkeys were making full grown hee-haws. A llama
turned in circles and spat, kept turning as if it had no idea where it should go. On the
deck, flies gathered around the last of the deviled eggs. I opened the sliding door. Mr.
Everett held Larry over the kitchen sink, wiped at his mouth with a bloody washcloth.
Mom and Abigail and Janice and a dozen other kids and parents crowded the kitchen,
“There you are,” Mom said. “Where’s Ana Luiza and Roger?”
Never in my life had I been a snitch, but I had to save my own ass. “I saw them
buck naked up in the tree house.”
The adults sprang to life. It was a quick search. They found Ana Luiza and
Roger on a bed of hay in the barn. They were hauled into the house for questioning.
Mom told me to go into the other room and watch TV with the little kids. I did as I was
told, but leaned my ear against the wall to hear Janice and Dale tear into Ana Luiza. I
heard my name, but they accused her of lying. Ana Luiza, I thought you were over this,
why are you always lying! Then Abigail’s voice, Portuguese like an angry song, ripping
into Roger, full name like knife strokes, Rogélio! la-da-da la-da-da la-da-da la, Rogélio!
la-da-da la-da-da la-da-da la Rogélio!
One by one families gathered their kids to leave. On the deck, Larry sat on his
soccer ball, reddened gauze over his lip, watching the sunset while Janice finished telling
a story to my mom. When the story was finished, it was finally our time to leave. Mom
and Dad said their goodbyes. I saw Roger in the hallway, tears still pooling, but I
wouldn’t meet his eyes.
It was our time to go. The donkeys made a racket as we crossed the driveway to
our car.
“Mom?” I asked. “How long until Roger speaks English?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “Soon, hopefully.”
Pulling out of the driveway, we drove past the mountain lion cage. Sarah licked
her paws, camouflaged in the dusk. Ana Luiza leaned against the cage, fingers gripping
the chain link. Dad tapped the horn. Ana Luiza and Sarah turned and looked up at once.
“Mom?” I asked.
“What, sweetie?”
“How come Ana Luiza can get so close?”
“Sarah knows Ana Luiza,” Mom said.
“Oh,” I said, head bobbing with the bumps and dips of the driveway. I needed to
know how it could be so different, how Ana Luiza could unlatch Abe’s gate, how the cat
could brush right past her, dash away soundless.
“How come she lies so much?”
“It’s hard to explain,” she said. “Ana Luiza spent a long time in an orphanage. I
guess she never learned what trust is.”
I looked to Dad as if he might say something, but he kept his hands on the wheel. Mom
continued: “Well. She had a baby sister, and when that little girl was adopted, her new
family didn’t have any room for Ana Luiza.”
“Why not?”
“I don’t know why not,” Mom said. “Not everybody’s as lucky as you.”
I wish I could have taken what Mom said right then, and believed it, and carried it
home. I wish I would have done more in the years we had left to prove that I
remembered the fortune of having a mom and a dad and a bedroom and a dinner table,
the innumerable graces of my life in the United States. But I didn’t know what to
believe. Turn by turn, we rose out of the valley, curving through shadows and trees. I
wondered about Ana Luiza’s brother, what his name was. About my own name, before it
was Peter. Gazing at the thick forest, I wondered how those skydivers ever found a safe
place to land. I imagined one of them tangled in branches, dangling from his parachute,
caught. I imagined Abe, starving, yellow eyes glowing in the underbrush, trying to
remember what he was supposed to do next.
I could hear Big Boy and Silva and the two cadets killing time in the hallway, the
roll and slap of foosball, the dull ping of the weight set. The lieutenant checked his
watch, closed his Sudoku, and ordered them to cut the racket. In the kitchenette he stood
in the light of the fridge, grabbed a fresh juice box, and brushed aside the serum bottles to
find an avocado. At the card table he pulled out a chair and the tiny television to that
night’s episode of América, a syrupy telenovela about a Carioca girl who dreams of
becoming a singer in Nova York. Big Boy and Silva left for patrol. The lieutenant
leaned back in his chair, sipping juice, slicing bites of avocado with a pocket knife. The
cadets slouched at the card table, waiting for the commercial breaks when they were
allowed to speak.
A few of the inmates huddled at the bars to watch. The transvestite in the bloody
skirt backed me into the corner, a shred of my torn-up ID pinched in his fingertips.
I don’t see the resemblance, he said, examining the photo from my driver’s
license or passport, I couldn’t tell which.
You don’t need the picture to tell he’s American, said the broken-toothed man.
Look how tall he is! It’s the milk up there.
These days I looked nothing like clean-cut guy in the photo. In the weeks since
Mom’s funeral, I’d let myself go shaggy, scruffy. For years I’d used my hair to reinvent
myself at will. When I finally escaped Partway for the University of Oregon, I
learned that diversity was good for scholarships and sex. I grew the hair back, wrote my
middle name on papers, let girls go wild with Aúrajo curls. When I interviewed for The
Pioneer, I played it safe, cropped my hair, tossed the middle name like a used rubber.
Pete Randolph, plain vanilla.
The transvestite leaned into me. He looks sort of like my cousin. I can see it
around his eyes.
He looks like my cousin, too, the broken-tooth man said, reaching into his pants.
Oi! I shouted, pushing my way through them. Do you see what these viados are
doing in here?
Without turning his eyes from the screen, the lieutenant snatched the sugar cane
and raked it along the cage bars until a hush fell over the cell. The transvestite and the
broken-toothed man gave up, nudged to the front for a view of the screen. This evening’s
episode followed the girl as she tried to find a coyote to take her north, through Mexico,
and beyond, to Nova York. Even in the dust and heat of the desert she remained well
kempt, gazing into the camera as if staring directly into the lockup. I slid to the back of
the cage and put my back against the cinder brick wall.
When the telenovela ended, the lieutenant turned to his men with a peaceful,
reflective look on his face.
I’m through here for the night, he said. You boys go back to your fun.
The lieutenant gathered his jacket and Sudoku book and the peach fuzz triplets
saluted him as he left down the corridor. Yawning, men in the cell began claiming floor
space for the night, stacking themselves neatly like lumber. It was no use sleeping. Big
Boy and Silva returned from patrol with beer and liquor. From the hallway came the
clatter of weights on the bench press, the shouts of a seemingly endless foosball
tournament. Now and then one of the cadets stumbled into the kitchenette, reeking of
cheap cachaça, spilling yellow light over the cell as they dug around the fridge.
Late in the night, one cadet fumbled with his keys and unlocked our cage. I felt
the inmates hold their collective breath. The cadet yanked a lanky, balding prisoner from
his sleep and hauled him out into the hallway. For what seemed like an hour we heard
the clatter of weights, screams of pain, and drunken bursts of laughter. I plugged my
ears, tucked into a ball on the piss-stained concrete, and to will myself to sleep. In a fitful
dream I saw a horizon washed in pink, sunset on the mountains back home in Partway. I
was stirred awake by the snorts and snores of cellmates, the cadet returning the man to
the cell, his bald head bleeding, his hands hanging limp as dirty socks.
At sunrise Silva was already awake, stirring sugar into a pot of café in the
kitchenette. When the pot was finished he rattled the cane of sugar on the bars and
passed out small paper cups of cafézinho to each of us inside. Big Boy and the cadets
emerged from their bunks, red-eyed and yawning. The hung-over cadets distributed stale
bread rolls. Big Boy handed each of us one slick slice of ham, stuffing the leftovers into
his mouth. Together we watched the news, wiping crust from our eyes.
Today’s lead story was the disappearance of a very important dog. An
internationally famous Carioca model had lost her beloved companion, an overweight
black pug named Pelé. She said there was no telling where Pelé may have fled, but she
was willing to offer one hundred thousand reals, an extraordinary sum, for his return.
Either of you seen this little dog? Big Boy asked the cadets. No, no, Senhor.
Well if you if you see one, bring him straight to me.
Soon the cadets led us two at a time out to the rear of the building where we
squatted to relieve ourselves against the brick wall. The morning was foggy and gray and
it was hard to get a sense of where we were. An airplane rising just above the cloud
cover told me that we weren’t far off from the city. Back in the cell, the bald man who
had been taken away the night before refused to get up for his bathroom break. His hands
and fingers blue, turning green. He pissed himself on the floor. The cadet shrugged at
the mess.
Finally the lieutenant entered the room, brushing crumbs from his shirt, a
McDonald’s coffee in his hand. Ah, you’re awake, he said. Listen up, this is important.
If on patrol you see a little black pug, you pick him up, you bring him here, me
The lieutenant finished his coffee and brushed his teeth over the sink and slicked
back his hair. He straightened out his desk and checked his watch. Soon there was a
buzzer--someone at the entrance. He sprang from his desk, checked his teeth in the
reflection of the computer monitor, and walked out of sight down the hallway to answer
the door.
The echo of high heels. Dom Ricardo’s lawyer emerged from the hall, tall and
kempt in a grey pant-suit, the lieutenant trailing behind her like a puppy. I was a knot of
rage and relief; I was being extorted, but at last, a familiar face.
The lieutenant pulled out a chair for her at the card table. She sat and withdrew a
yellow pad from her briefcase. He ordered one of the cadets to release me. The brokentooth man grabbed my ass as I slipped out of the cell.
“Hello again, Mr. Randolph,” the lawyer said, her eyes like a light blue flame.
She clicked open her pen. “You will remember me?”
“Por que estou aqui?” I said. “Onde fica meu pai?”
“My my,” she said. “Your Portuguese is less firm when you’re angry. Let’s
proceed in English. We want everything to be perfectly clear.”
“I have a right to speak to the Consul.”
“These situations of mistaken identity can be very complicated,” she said. “Be
not afraid. We will see to it that your case proceeds along the proper channels.”
“You know exactly who I am,” I said. “You know my background.”
“I would like to take what you say at face value. But the events of the last few
days. Can I trust someone who is a--how do you say--a stalker? Who breaks into
“I want my phone call,” I said.
“You forget this is not the United States,” she said.
“I know my rights,” I said, losing my patience.
“The Consul won’t be of much help to you now,” she said. “You see, there is the
small matter of your nationality. The chief here says you were born in Brazil?”
“I’m a United States citizen.”
“Did you lose your Brazilian citizenship?” she asked.
“No,” I said. “I was naturalized.”
“But you have no papers,” she said. “Telling us who you are simply will not do.
Identity is no laughing matter. Border security, terrorism, bla bla bla. Surely you
Now the lieutenant returned to the table with a cup of cafézinho, a small plate of
yogurt with a silver spoon. He smiled at the lawyer, hands folded, as if waiting for a
Muito obrigado, o senhor, she said.
“Identity is not the issue,” I said. “You know exactly who I am.”
“Do I really, though?” she said. “You would be surprised how commonplace
fraud can be. But rest assured, we want to see you go home where you belong.”
“I’m an American journalist,” I said, pounding the table, rattling the plate and
spoon. The lieutenant rose quickly from his station, hand on his holster. The lawyer
raised a palm and he returned to his seat.
“American or not, you are making life very difficult for my client.” “He is a
powerful man, but a kind and generous man, as you remember.”
“I don’t want your money.”
“We are long past that option,” she said. “You have, how do you say, missed that
bus.” Glancing over my shoulder, she examined the men behind me in the cell,
scrunched her nose as if she’d just taken a terrible whiff of something. “However, as you
can already imagine, my client can make your stay in Rio very uncomfortable.”
“Does he know what you’re doing to me?”
“Brazil is a big country, no? Many fine places to visit. Cabo Frio. Manaus.
“I want to speak to him directly.”
“I understand you are angry,” she said. She leaned forward in her chair, folded
her hands. “Yes, I understand it can be sad, growing up without a father.”
“I didn’t grow up without a father.”
“Many in Brazil grow up without fathers. It is quite common. A perfectly
regular, ordinary, everyday reality. Perhaps, as you say in America, you should suck it
Puta que pariu, I said.
Now there is some Portuguese, she said. I can’t imagine who taught you that
But she was right. My home in Partway was a life anyone would have been lucky
to have--baseball games, trick-or-treating, birthday parties--yet there was always that
shadow behind me, disappearing whenever I looked.
“Please,” I said. “There has to be another way we can do this.”
“I believe we tried the other way,” she said. “Now. I will leave you to fill out
this form for the Consul.” From her briefcase she pulled a triplicate sheet and a ball point
pen. “These cases of confused identity can make for a very long process. Or it could go
fast. Who knows how this world works sometimes? We will see how you feel about
everything in the morning.”
With that, she stood to leave, smoothing out her pantsuit. “Don’t forget to press
hard. You’re making three copies.” Heels click-clacking on the concrete floor, she
sauntered to the door, whispered something into the lieutenant’s ear on her way out.
Cell phone in hand, he snapped her picture as she walked out the door.
Uma garata, no? he said, whistling between his teeth.
The lieutenant allowed me to sit at the card table while I filled out the form. The
top copy was intended for the Ministério de Segurança Publica, the second copy for
Brazilian Immigration and Visa Services, the bottom copy for the Foreign Consulate.
Below that were spaces for passport and visa numbers, which I had to leave blank. Puta.
Without the lawyer’s cooperation, there was nothing I could do to advance my cause.
At the bottom of the page was an empty box with instructions that read: Below,
explain the circumstances surrounding your civil status.
Behind me, Big Boy walked the perimeter of the cell, spraying the inmates with a
bottle of Febreze deodorizer. The prisoners coughed and squinted in the tulip scented
Should I answer this in English or Portuguese? I asked, holding up the form.
Well, Big Boy said, if you want to prove you’re American, I’d try English.
Does the person who reads these understand English?
Nobody’s going to read it, he said, giving me a squirt from his bottle. Oh, I’m
only kidding. Try Portuguese if you want. Write them a poem. Who knows? Do I look
like a bureaucrat to you? He leaned over my shoulder and glanced at the form, lips
moving as he read. You know, I’ve never much cared for English, he said. I still have
some from school, though. “What your name is?” Correct?
“What is your name?” I repeated for him.
“What is your name? What is your name?” He walked away with the form,
repeating the question with various inflections, like trying on hats. “What is your name?”
Michael and Vanessa Randolph. By now they were tired of their own names. On
this continent they were forever introducing themselves--to clerks, doctors, street
vendors, lawyers, taxi drivers, nuns, young mothers--and when they weren’t introducing
themselves, or re-introducing themselves, they filled out applications, or consulted
byzantine maps, or thumbed through pocket dictionaries, searching for any word that
might end their waiting.
Everywhere they waited. The consulate, the courthouse, the orphanage.
Daveison assured them daily that they would have a child soon. But soon became a
relative term. Soon Michael’s extended leave from work expired. Soon it would be
summer again, at least back home in Oregon. Soon Vanessa turned forty, which meant it
would be three years, all said, since they had taken this notion of adoption--this wild idea,
as her mother had called it--and resolved to make it a reality.
After six months of waiting in Rio de Janeiro, that other life in the northern
hemisphere seemed to Michael a mere figment, clutching the cliff-edge of memory.
These days their few bits of news from the United States came via painfully expensive
international calls, or nightly newscasts they could only comprehend halfway.
This week, the waiting had turned hot and urgent. Abigail had been in contact
with a pregnant young girl named Sonia Aúrajo, a girl who was willing to give them their
child. She was due any day. Now that they finally had a mother’s name, they needed
final approval. For yet another afternoon, they sat on a stiff wooden bench on the third
floor of the downtown courthouse, sweat like drops of glass on their foreheads. Daveison
flipped through a comic, laughing out loud occasionally, and stepped outside on the hour
to smoke. He returned from his after lunch cigarette break with a golden box of giftwrapped chocolate: “Um jeito,” he said. “We grease the wheels.” He presented the
chocolate to the court clerk with a kiss on the cheek.
Jeito, a noun, a way, a knack. Brazilians are famous for jeito--a belief that they
can find a way around any obstacle. Jeito can mean charm, as in, How did he get away
with that? Jeito. It can mean getting what you want, or getting out of trouble. A little
jeito. Um jeizinho, a shortcut, a dodge, bending the rules.
Michael stood behind Daveison, inspecting the clerk’s desk for any forms that
might suggest they were moving forward. But her desk was uncluttered. If she were
accomplishing anything, it was in the realm of daydreams. “Somos Randolphs,” Michael
said, pushing the limits of his Portuguese. The clerk opened her drawer and placed the
box of chocolate beside a stack of ten identicals.
“Lot of good that did,” Michael said.
“Always works,” Daveison said. “Soon, no?”
Michael returned to the bench. Because what else was there to do? Daveison,
this twenty-something attorney in sandals, was their advocate, their guide to local food,
their only friend in all Brazil. And so they sat the afternoon away. Two other families-one speaking German, another French--waited beside them. No sense of activity in the
courthouse. In the six story building there were only three working telephones. The
resulting silence stretched every second to its breaking point, ceiling fan turning lethargic
as if to make the room hotter, flies sizzling from forehead to forehead, court clerk fanning
her face with the front page of O Globo. What little work the clerk did came in brief
waves--fifteen minutes of every hour. Now and then, as if to demonstrate that there was
nothing to be done about the temperature, she heaved open the thick glass window beside
her desk, horns and shouts of the Centro pushing in, and when finally it was clear to the
waiting families that the open window only made matters worse, she shut it again, sealing
the room in quiet heat.
“Air,” Michael said, standing for a walk.
“What if we’re called?” Vanessa asked.
“Just a walk around the block.”
He left her with Daveison, fled the courthouse. At a corner vendor, he retrieved a
bottle of Coke from a cooler of melting ice. His forehead seemed to warm the beverage
before he could gain any use from it. A grimy veil of exhaust waved from the asphalt,
taxis and trucks jammed haphazardly in the intersections, dogs trotting between their
bumpers. This was not the Brazil he had imagined. Back in Oregon, he had traced the
distance on an atlas--seven thousand miles--and imagined monkeys, banana trees, birds
of paradise. This was instead concrete and graffiti and pickpockets, pimple faced soldiers
with machine guns.
He wanted out, he wanted home. If this arrangement with the mother didn’t work
out, he wasn’t sure he could stand to wait any longer. Their money was nearly tapped;
their conversations were perpetual rolling boil, always on the verge of shouting. Were
they wrong for waiting so stubbornly, for insisting on a newborn? That boy Rogélio was
growing older before their eyes. Already, he was out of his binky, running around the
courtyard now with a miniature soccer ball. They could have been a family in Partway
six months by now, bigots at the lumberyard be damned. Or the other child, Paulo, his
face like the skin of an overcooked chicken, one eye burnt halfway closed and weeping.
Abigail had even found parents for Paulo, a Christian couple from Tacoma. Was it
something wrong with Michael and Vanessa that they weren’t willing to be flexible?
Were they patient, or just too picky?
On his way back into the courthouse, Michael passed a uniformed boy, probably
too young to drink back in the U.S., yet here spitting and grinding the phlegm into the
asphalt with the toe of his boot. The walk was little relief. The Coke was hot when he
handed it to Vanessa. The clerk called out a name, and the German couple on the
neighboring bench rose, the woman dabbing away tears. From the judge’s chamber, the
slow hunt and peck of a typewriter, and finally the couple surged from the judge’s door
fresh faced with purpose, a document, vanilla white in the man’s hand. The clerk placed
a final, authoritative stamp over the judge’s signature, and folded the permiso neatly in an
envelope for the afternoon mail.
That signature--that simple flick of the judge’s wrist--was all they needed to
advance yet another turn in this labyrinthine process of transplanting a child from one
hemisphere to the next. Michael imagined snatching the permiso, or paying them for it,
or handing cash to the clerk to just let them go next, but they had no money left to spend.
Already he and Vanessa were skipping meals and laundry, and regardless, no amount of
money would budge this hot afternoon.
At three o’clock the clerk passed around a tray of cafézinhos, along with one of
the boxes of chocolate from her desk. Michael downed his coffee quickly, Vanessa’s cup
as well. The caffeine, she said, only made her worry. Daveison helped himself to a
handful of the chocolates. Then the lights flickered, dimmed, and cut out. The clerk
made an announcement.
Daveison stood. “That’s it today,” he said.
“What do you mean?”
“No power,” he said.
“You don’t need power for a typewriter.” Michael said. The windows filled the
room with ample light.
Daveison shrugged, popping chocolates into his mouth two at a time.
Michael approached the desk. “Randolphs?”
Ahmaňa, the clerk said.
But they were running short on tomorrows. The birth mother was due in four
Now Daveison recommended a restaurant before departing for his afternoon
soccer game. Michael and Vanessa waited outside the judge’s chambers, hoping for just
a word, but the clerk hurried them away. They watched her fill a burlap bag with eleven
boxes of chocolate. They watched her walk across the street, hand the boxes to the
corner vendor who counted bright bills into the palm of her hand.
The next morning, they found Daveison after breakfast, waiting on the courthouse
steps, rolling a cigarette on his briefcase. When he saw them he stood quickly, hurried
them upstairs where the clerk waited with their permiso.
“Randolphs,” she said.
“Oh thank God,” Vanessa said.
“Now we mail to Brasilia,” Daveison said. “Two more signatures”
“There isn’t any faster way?” Michael said.
“What about fax?” Vanessa asked.
The clerk shrugged.
“Then let’s go find one,” Michael said.
“She must be the one to send it,” Daveison said. “This form can’t leave the
building. Federal rules.”
Two days to Brasilia, two days back? Vanessa said she couldn’t stand it--their
child born to a motherless world, or worse yet, the mother with two days to reconsider,
child in her arms. Downstairs at the payphone, Michael held a finger to his ear to block
the din of the street, the distant dial tone a hemisphere away. He checked his watch,
estimated the time in Partway.
Michael’s supervisor at the lumberyard, still having his morning coffee, yawned
into the phone: “You do realize you’re going to owe me three years of weekends when
you get back.”
“This is the last time,” Michael said. He and Vanessa had borrowed already from
every possible bank, relative, and friend. Michael’s supervisor, a single, childless man
with thinning white hair and a desk brimming with photos of nieces and nephews had
been infinitely flexible with leave. These paycheck advances were a resource of last
Jeito. A way. How fortunate was I to be adopted at birth? Not a single memory
of the orphanage. Ana Luiza, seven years. Roger, thirteen years.
“I just hope it’s worth it,” his supervisor said.
“It’s worth it,” Michael said.
“Because there’s no shame in coming back empty--”
“We’re close,” Michael said. “This is as close as we’ve ever been.”
He repeated this to himself, waiting in line at the Western Union. It was almost
two o’clock when they reached the Bom Precio. Michael counted out six hundred
dollars. The cashier called the manager to certify that the U.S. bills were true. Finally,
Michael carried the fax machine back to the courthouse, Vanessa ahead of him, pushing
through the sidewalk crowd, pedestrians turning to see what the box contained.
Jeito. Like how the Daveison dodged the law that said Ana Luiza and her little
sister were never to be separated, a way to make sure that at least one of the little girls
found a home. Like how Abigail found a way to sneak Rogélio past Miami customs
using certified documents from a boy who’d been dead six months.
The court clerk inspected the fax machine like a strange vehicle and, after some
pleading from Daveison, summoned the judge for a closer look. Michael fumbled
through the pages of the manual, looking for instructions in Portuguese.
“He says he knows how to use it,” Daveison said.
The judge returned to his chambers. Not long after, the chirp of the fax machine,
as if it were broadcasting their future, their entire child, to the capital city. After a period
of silence, the buzz and twitter continued, off and on for some two hours. Michael and
Vanessa waited on the bench, watching the clock. Michael tapped the tip of his shoe in a
quick rhythm on the floor. At any moment the electricity would cease. At three o’clock,
Vanessa stood, and to the astonishment of the other families in the waiting room, stormed
past the court clerk, into the judge’s chambers. Michael and Daveison followed. The
court clerk gave chase halfheartedly, as if they were just too quick, like escaped mice.
Inside, the judge fed a new fax into the machine. Vanessa pinched the sheet from his
fingers, a crudely drawn chessboard, each move sketched and then faxed to some friend
on the other end of the line.
“You can’t do this,” Vanessa said.
“Randolphs!” he said, shuffling through his desk for a different sheet. He held it
up another fax, pointed at the two fresh signatures. He summoned the clerk to notarize
the document. She handed it over with a broad smile, offering them a chocolate from her
That night, neither Michael nor Vanessa slept.
“What are you thinking?” he asked. He held Vanessa close to him. She had
begun to weep.
“That even with all this, I’ll never feel her inside me. I’ll never feel her heart
“That doesn’t matter,” he said, as firmly as he could. “She’ll be ours.”
They were hoping for a girl. They had agreed never to discuss names until they
were sure, one hundred percent sure, that it was over. But tonight, they auditioned
names, let the words hang in the night, a moment of silence between each one, as if any
excess noise would disrupt the moment of creation that had manifest. Outside, a bottle
smashed in the alleyway. Headlights rushed along the Boulevard. From some distant
corner, a woman’s song.
Jeito. Determination. Like how Dom Ricardo flipped to a number in his
Rolodex, picked up the phone: Hey, there’s this gringo poking his nose around Leblon. I
need you to take him out of circulation.
The afternoon of my second day in the lock up, the lieutenant left duty early,
boasting that he had prime seats to that night’s final match of the Copa do Brasil. He
passed the coveted tickets among his subordinates who seemed thrilled just to hold them.
Flamengo versus Vasco de Gama, the wildest rivalry in Rio de Janeiro, face to face at
Estado de Maracaná, the largest stadium in South America.
Look for me on the TV, no? he said, walking out the door with a Flamengo jersey
slung over his shoulder.
Big Boy waited less than a minute before picking up the phone. Silva ordered the
cadets to fetch ice and beer. Soon a friend of Big Boy’s arrived, also big, a transit police
carrying a portable grill and a tray of chicken drumsticks and beef kabobs. The cadets
returned with two Styrofoam coolers. Big Boy unplugged the tiny television on the card
table. With Silva’s help, the cadets hauled in a large TV, someone’s home set,
apparently. The grill master fired up his coals.
Move that into the barrack, Big Boy told his friend. Better ventilation.
I can’t see the game in there, the grill master said.
They set-up the smaller television in the barrack so that he could watch while he
did the kabobs. All of us in the cell salivated over the marinade aroma. By the time the
game started there were a dozen visitors assembled around the room, MPs and transit
police, a two-man K9 unit with a pair of German shepherds licking their chops. They
drank beer and smoked, shouting at the officials, fingers slick with the grease of beef
kabobs and chicken drumsticks.
At intermission Silva collected the chicken bones on a paper plate and slid it
under the cell bars. When the inmates began wrestling over the leftovers, Big Boy rattled
the sugar cane across the bars.
Everyone share, he said. A game like this does not happen every day.
We each took a drumstick except for the man who’d his hands crushed in the
weight set. Bones picked clean. The game was a dud; Vasco was impotent. Flamengo
took the Copa with a 1-0 win, to the delight of everyone in the room except for one of the
inmates who rattled the bars, cursing Vasco and their bicha trenador. The visitors
dispersed for more drink. Big Boy and Silva and the cadets hurried to conceal the
evidence of their churrasca. A flash call crackled on the radio. Big Boy and Silva
ordered the drunken cadets to respond, and retreated to the barracks for bed.
In all the commotion, they had neglected to let us out. Soon the tin bucket
overflowed and the cell reeked of shit and piss. The man who’d had his hands crushed in
the weight set didn’t have the strength to pull himself away from the pooling urine. The
transvestite lifted him by the armpits and drug him to a clean spot of floor. I pushed my
face to the hot bars, gasping for air. Behind me, the broken-toothed man made
smooching noises.
Oi gato, he said.
Closing my eyes, I tried to ignore him, resting against the bars. Big Boy and
Silva, snoring like twin hippos. Flies buzzed around the bucket. The only escape was
I woke to the smell of rotten mouth, the broken-toothed man leaning into me,
jerking himself. Kicking him away, I shouted for help. He kept on with it, smooching.
Hey, I shouted, someone get in here!
My cellmates groaned, stirred from sleep.
A moment later the lieutenant flipped on the light. Red-faced and wearing his
Flamengo jersey, he glanced around the room for his sugar cane. Oh, that viado? he said.
He’s harmless.
I’m not staying in there with him.
He shuffled over to the fridge, yawning. No more beer?
Ah, here we go. He cracked a can and leaned back on the countertop. Hell of a
game, no?
Yes, I said. Hell of a game. Now please let me out. At least until morning.
Well, he said, slurping from his can. Maybe you’re in luck. Do you know how
to wash a car?
I’ll wash ten cars.
Okay, okay, okay. He sifted through his pocket for the key. The men have a job
for you.
He released me from the cage and walked me down the hallway to the parking
structure. The peach-fuzzed cadets stood around a late model Volkswagen with its
windows shot out.
You think it will still run? one asked the other.
It’ll clean up good, the second cadet set, holding a spray bottle of lemon-scented
The lieutenant opened the driver’s side door. I gagged. The front seats were
damp, warm-red, the windows spackled with blood and matter.
I can’t do this, I said.
Ta bom, the lieutenant said. Then you go back inside.
I’m a fucking American! I shouted, voice echoing off the concrete pylons. The
cadets chuckled, poking their fingers through the bullet holes in the back window.
I think you’ve forgotten where you are, the lieutenant said.
Por favor, I said. Não me faça fazer isso.
I’m not making you do anything.
Por favor.
It won’t take long.
The gore lifted my stomach to my throat. The alternative was being trapped with
the broken-toothed man.
Gloves, I said. Can I at least have some gloves?
The lieutenant ducked his head inside the cab, looked around, as if to assess what
this job might actually require. He whistled between his teeth. Hey, he told one of the
cadets. Go get this kid something.
The lieutenant handcuffed me to the steering wheel. One of the cadets appeared
at the driver’s side window, passed me the spray bottle of Maravillosa. His partner
materialized on the passenger side with a fistful of filthy rags.
Honk when you’re finished.
Alone. Fluorescent garage lights buzzing. Like a coyote bit by a trap, I moaned,
yanked at the cuffs until I lost my breath, until my wrist was bleeding, until I gave up and
broke down.
I squirted Maravillosa on the dash. I clenched a rag and scrubbed but everything
smeared and smeared. I vomited on myself and kept scrubbing. I squirted Maravillosa
on the dash and clenched another rag and scrubbed.
I tried not to look where I scrubbed. I focused on the glove box, which had been
rifled through, a splattered binder of bootleg CDs--Tupac, Ja Rule, Eminem--splayed
open on the floormat. I focused on the Odometer: 62652-and-three-quarters. I focused
on the virgin hanging still from the rearview. In the rearview mirror, gore soaked the
I focused outside. Reserved Parking. Reserved Parking. Reserved Parking. I
vomited on myself and kept scrubbing. I squirted Maravillosa and clenched another rag
and scrubbed. I focused on the garage entrance, the graffiti tagged there, tagged by
police? I focused on the pile of black garbage bags, trash from the festa. Beer cans,
chicken drumsticks, spent charcoal. Beside the coals, a heap of something haphazardly
wrapped in plastic, a heap of something with hair, with a head of hair, with a bandana
still taut around its head of hair. A boy, no older than sixteen. A boy whose eyes were
frozen open, whose eyes were looking slightly behind me, looking at my shadow.
Nothing left to vomit. I focused on the buzzing lights and scrubbed.
What the fuck was I doing at sixteen? I remember desperation, horniness meets
melancholy, a consuming desire to pop a girl’s cherry. Whatever a cherry was, there
were only so many of them at our school, and before long they would all be popped. It
would be me and the Sears catalogue, together for life.
For the last year I’d been working at the Rusty Skillet, a steakhouse just outside of
Bend, a real cowboy joint, red checkered tablecloths, waitresses in denim aprons, antique
ranch tools lining the walls. I said howdy partner. I snuck leftover pitchers of beer
behind the bus station where I guzzled warm brew and gawked at Meadow--our six-foot
Klamath Indian waitress the bust of a goddess. At the end of the night, whip hits in the
storage freezer, tips in my jar. Sixty, seventy dollars a night. Enough for gas and
cigarettes and CDs. Enough beer and weed and mushrooms. Enough to buy a 1983
Datsun Maxima.
Those wheels, I hoped, would get me laid, a mission that occupied every waking
moment and most dreams. The American and Brazilian flags at my bedside were thick
with dust. I’d skipped the last two years of adoption potlucks. I was embarrassed to see
Ana Luiza, and I saw enough of Roger at school, where he’d arrived as an overnight
sensation, star of the varsity soccer team. When I stopped going, Dad stopped going.
Mom continued to box up my used clothes for Abigail. Each Memorial Day weekend,
she prepared a casserole. On her way out the door, she checked to see if I wanted to join
her, but I was drooling on my pillow, hung-over from a night at the river.
This was after Mom started feeling down in the dumps, but before we knew what
that meant. I remember the year I turned sixteen, she returned from the potluck with an
empty casserole dish under her arm. I was at the kitchen sink, scrubbing my apron. Dad
was on his stomach on the carpet, an ice pack on his back, Monday Night Football on the
“Peter?” she asked, setting the dish in the sink.
“Yup,” I said.
“Can you stop that for a second?”
“I’ve got work soon.”
She turned off the hot water; I turned it back on again.
“You know Roger from school,” she said.
“I was talking to Abigail today.” She paused, turned off the water again. “I was
talking to Abigail and she needs a home for Roger. He’s been bouncing between fosters
homes and that just won’t work. He needs stability.”
“His soccer coach should take him.”
“He offered,” Mom said, “but Abigail doesn’t think his coaches have his best
interests in mind.”
“That sucks.”
“It would only be for two years, until he graduated.” She left the conversation
hanging open, a gap I was supposed to fill myself: She wanted Roger to live with us.
“Are you fucking kidding me?”
“Don’t use that language with your mother,” Dad said.
“Are you hearing this?” I asked Dad.
“He knows Abigail’s been worried. We’ve talked it over.”
Dad lifted himself up from the floor, ice pack dripping on the carpet. “I didn’t say
yes, I said we’ll see.”
“We’ll see?” I said, stunned by Dad’s betrayal, Mom’s surprise attack.
“I can’t believe you’re willing to go along with this bullshit.”
“I told Abigail we would ask you beforehand. This is just a chance for Roger to
have a chance at a better life.”
“So you’re looking for a charity case?” I said.
“He’s not a charity case. You know him from school. He says he really likes
“Probably just because he needs a place to live. I barely know him.”
But I knew him from the hallways, arms around Ana Luiza. I knew him from the
school assemblies, collecting trophies for the soccer team. I barely knew him, but I hated
“Will you think about it?”
“There’s nothing to think about. I’m late for work.”
On the drive to work I could barely concentrate on the road. If Roger was a
charity case, did that make me a charity case? Suppose our lives had gone another way.
Why me and not him? Was my lighter skin the only reason I’d been chosen? Suppose
they’d picked Roger instead. Suppose I was the one who spent all those years waiting.
I scrubbed.
Sixteen. From the trash pile, the boy watched me scrub, his lower lip split in the
middle. A fly turned circles on the dried blood and zipped away to the mouth a beer can.
How did this kid get his hands on a Volkswagen? What future did the police erase? I
imagined him on his way to a party, hoping to meet a girl, longing to put his mouth
someplace it had never been before.
The summer I was sixteen, August arrived boiling. The Pandora moths were
dormant that year, larvae growing fat in the pumice sand. At the Redmond Air Show,
two people died of heatstroke. At the Bi-Mart in Bend, a woman left her baby ten
minutes in the hot car and the aftermath cast a pall over the entire town. But just when
folks thought it couldn’t get any worse, there it was, worse, on the front page of the Bend
Bulletin. The star freshman point guard from Mountain View, swallowed by an
underwater lava tube in the Little Deschutes. They still hadn’t found his body.
Partway kids weren’t going to let that fuck up the summer. Bend was no
metropolis, but it was thirty times bigger than our town. Rich kids who didn’t spend two
hours a day on the school bus. Rich kids with an aquatic center to pass the time. Partway
kids cooled off in the Little Deschutes River. Partway kids shared an unspoken feeling
that Mr. Mountain View got what he deserved for trespassing in our waters.
White Rock--our swimming hole. It took a car to get out there, sixteen miles,
fishtailing on gravel, dust blooming in the rear view mirror. Gary and I made the trip
every afternoon that summer, windows cranked down, stereo blasting, washboard rattling
our teeth.
This afternoon we saw the line of cars parked along the barbed wire fence, saggy
from so many people crossing over. Across the fence was an old deer path littered with
beer cans and cigarette butts. That path was private property, but nobody could own the
river. It was a long hike on hot dust, grasshoppers clicking from sage to sage. Makeshift
fire pits, broken bottles, panties and crusty muscle shirts strewn about. Then out of
nowhere, a sudden cliffside--you had to be careful not to walk off the edge. Below, the
river--only two ways down. Descend the cliffside, a slow, fifteen minute reverse-climb.
Or take the forty foot leap, a test of will, paradise waiting for those who succeed: slow,
crystal cool current; natural rock slides; warm, shallow eddies where mini-waterfalls
soaked girls in bikinis. On the opposite bank, a landscape of sun-heated rocks, perfect for
cold beer and hot pipes and watching people make the jump.
The key was not thinking too much. Push off the cliff-edge hard enough that you
cleared the rocky bank below and sank into the deep. Nobody had ever failed to make
the water, but the possibility plagued me. The summer was on its downhill slope, and I
still hadn’t willed myself over the edge. I was the only kid my age who hadn’t leapt; I
wanted it more than anything.
This afternoon I kicked a rock over, watched it plop to the water below. Kids up
at me gazed like sea monkeys in the dark waters. But I took the cliffside down. No jeers
or laughter from the spectators, just silent acknowledgement that I was a sopping wet
pussy. I found a place on the rocks. A group of girls assembled at the cliff edge, hung
their shirts and shorts on a cliffside juniper. One of them was Julia Hudson, a red-headed
senior with enormous freckled tits. The guys called her fire-crotch, though nobody had
ever seen it. The girls adjusted their suits, and one by one, they leapt, sank, and surfaced,
proof that I would never get laid unless I made the plunge.
The best jumpers surfaced to whistles and shouts, and nobody got more cheers
than Gary. With only one-hand, he could manage to climb up the cliff at dusk, but was
impossible for him to climb down. He had the most experience jumping because he’d
never had a choice. This summer he’d been accepting dares--front flips, back flips, full
outstretched rotations. Sometimes he failed and flopped miserably on the water, his
prosthetic coming loose and floating away, but kids cheered nonetheless. By August his
stunts were so perfect that he landed without a splash, everyone watching, mouths agape,
as if he’d just disappeared. Gary had been waiting for this his entire life—something he
could do that nobody else could. He told me that jumping was the only time he didn’t
think about his hand.
Today I had a new dare. “Hey,” I shouted up to him. “Jump from the tree.”
Gary lit a cigarette and examined the juniper near the cliff edge. It was about
fifteen feet tall, various shirts and shorts and caps hanging from its twigs. Gary tested the
strength of its branches. He stood there smoking, figuring his way up. Before he’d even
finished his cigarette, he’d hauled himself to the top branch, rocking in the wind, smoke
trailing from his Camel. He tossed the cigarette over the edge, as if to test this new great
height. It fluttered a good long while, hissed in the water. By now a crowd had gathered
to witness the leap.
“Does he ever get scared?” Julia asked, a flutter in her voice like she was ready to
jump Gary’s bones the moment he landed.
“He’ll puss out,” I said.
Gary leapt, arms waving like a bird. He straightened his body like an arrow and
pierced the surface, but the splash sent water clear to our seats on the opposite bank. We
waited breathless for him to rise. His prosthetic broke the surface. A moment later, he
emerged, a worm of blood crawling from his nose.
“How’d you like that,” he said, farmer blowing red snot onto the rocks at my feet.
Gary’s leap earned him an invitation to camp with the Julia Hudson’s group that
night. They gathered at the top of the cliff, around a fire pit just off the deer trail.
“Is he going to tag along?” Julia asked Gary.
“He’s my ride,” Gary said.
Here around the fire he was still getting slaps on the back for his tree jump.
Stupid fucker wouldn’t have even been able to get out here without my car, but now firecrotch was sitting on his lap, sharing a joint with him, asking if she could touch his hand.
There was nothing for me to do but drink myself into a coma. After too many
beers, I shouted it out what seemed like a brilliant idea: “Let’s go down to the water!”
“How we going to get down there, dumbass,” one of the older guys asked.
“Jump?” I said. Everyone laughed. But I led the charge anyway. Or at least I felt
like I was leading the charge.
“Pete,” Gary said, following close behind, “this is fucking stupid.”
At the cliff-edge, a crowd gathered behind me, I knew, just to see me puss out.
Every bone in my body told me to stay put. Even the tree, fixed on the rocky edge,
seemed to be telling me not to jump. I hung my cap and shirt and climbed the branches.
Gary glared, but I could tell he didn’t want to spoil anybody’s fun. From the treetop, I
peered down. Dark churn, rip curls in the moonlight.
I heard gasps as I pushed off. It seemed I was falling the entire summer. White
seeds of moon flecked the water. Wind in my ears, I waited to die. I hit the frozen water
and sank, kept sinking, becoming another being entire. I pushed off the sandy bottom,
looked up to see twin moons like faces wavering on the surface, tiny bubbles spinning in
white light. I kicked toward those faces, breathless, kicking through orange sparks like
torpedoes. I broke the current. No whistles, no cheering, only Gary calling down to see
if I’d survived.
Ears ringing, nose and eyes burning. Only one moon. Those orange sparks,
blood pulsing in my eyes. I swam to the rocky shore and climbed onto the bank. My
bare feet stepped onto a mushy carpet of fur. The broken remains of a yearling fawn,
strayed from the deer path, broken on the bank. I sat with it a moment in the dark,
ignoring the murmurs from the cliff top.
Its body was still warm. I wondered how long its mother had paced the cliffside
before giving up hope. Had our drunken walk along the path chased her away? Now the
impact had me nauseous. I vomited, wiped beer and bile from my chin. I caught my
balance, shouted to the top, “I’m still here!”
A long, dizzying climb. At the top, nobody was there to celebrate. Everyone was
tending to fire-crotch’s bloody feet, shredded by some bottle shattered on the path. I told
nobody what I had seen below; the yearling would be carried away by a cougar come
In the yellow dawn, Gary and I drove home with adult-sized hangovers. The
midnight leap had broken vessels in my eyes and in the rear-view the scleras were dark
red. Gary said nothing of his jump or mine. Soon after, the heat broke, the season
ended. By the following summer, White Rock had changed. Swimmers were finding
syringes and vials along the riverbanks. A girl was raped. The Sheriff sent routine
patrols down the path on horseback. By the time I finished college, the cliffside was
fenced off completely, the canyon checkered with ranch style homes. But that morning, I
felt like my jump would live forever. I found him hammering nails in the garage. I
thought he’d be proud.
“Look at your eyes,” he said, almost shaking. “We give you a car, and this is
what you do with it, try and get yourself killed?”
He demanded that I hand over the keys. I refused. He unplugged the battery.
The fight escalated, lasted a week, then a month, until I told one night I told him: “Maybe
you’d be better off with Roger.”
I scrubbed. I clutched another rag and sprayed the splattered window and wiped
at the glass. I was a stupid, selfish prick. I remember seeing Roger’s face on the front
page of The Portland Pioneer. The article wasn’t about soccer; it was about his new
brothers and sisters. Here they were, fourteen of them, lined up on a porch in army
fatigues. Roger, standing in the back, the only black kid.
I scrubbed. His new foster father was a military man. He and his wife kept the
boys and girls in bunkhouses. Military discipline, Bible study on Wednesdays,
Saturdays, and Sundays. The newspaper article announced the father had been arrested
on allegations that bad shit going down in the bunkhouse. The allegations were legit, but
by the time he saw a trial, Roger was 18-years-old, off at boot camp.
I scrubbed. That summer I turned sixteen, the freshman point guard from
Mountain View washed up sixty miles away after three weeks of being pressure sucked
through the long snake of a lava tube. He was less than pulp, a collection of bones and
teeth, gray like pearls. Mom showed me the article. “This is why your father was so
angry,” she said. “If something like this ever happened to you, it would kill him.”
Now I pinched shards of teeth like rock salt from the floorboards. That boy in the
trash pile, still watching.
Finished, I laid on the horn. The concrete outside the driver’s side window was
littered with bloody rags. The car still wasn’t clean. Not even close. But I deserved a
drink of water, a chance at the bathroom.
Big Boy came out to inspect, yawning.
You’re no maid, that’s for sure, he said, bottle of Febreze in his hand. This might
I need a break, I said.
When you finish you can come inside. There’s kabobs leftover. He unlocked the
trunk. Flies rose from inside. Puta merda, he said, brushing them away. Looks like a
long day for you.
He uncuffed me from the steering wheel so that I could get to work on the trunk.
Loose, I scrambled to the passenger door, fumbled with the handle.
He gripped my ankle. Get back here.
I shook my leg free and rolled out the passenger door. Big Boy glared across the
hood of the car, the only thing between me and the parking garage exit. So you feel like
getting shot today?
Let me go and I can make it worth your while, I said. I’ve got lots of money.
Cash. Tell them I escaped somehow. Nobody has to know. Um jeizinho, é?
Life is just money for you gringos.
See? I said. You know I’m American. You know I’m not supposed to be here.
You don’t even know where here is.
He was right. The facility was fenced, gated. There was a long gravel road, that
was all I knew. These lock-ups were in the middle of nowhere for a reason. Zero chance
of getting back to the city alone.
Big Boy’s expression softened. For a second it
looked like Big Boy was giving my offer a thought. But it was only preparation for a
sneeze. He sneezed into his palm and wiped it on his bullet proof vest and walkie-talkied
for backup. Silva and the cadets appeared at once, guns drawn. My hands rose as if on
I just want to go home.
Que merda, Big Boy said. On the ground.
I dropped to my knees, then flat on my stomach. Belly on the concrete, I felt
them surrounded me. I heard the lock-up door slam, angry footsteps approaching.
Roll over, the lieutenant said.
I did as told. He’d changed from his soccer jersey back into military dress.
This has the potential to turn into a real bad mess, he said, knees popping as he
crouched beside me. Alcohol on his breath, red puffs under his eyes, hung-over from last
night’s game.
I’m an American journalist, I said. If I go missing, you will be fucked,
understand? Word will get out.
His mouth opened but no words escaped.
I nodded toward the trash heap. Never mind O Globo, I said. You’ll be on the
front page of The New York Times.
Rising from his knees, he scowled at his men. Get him up.
The cadets lifted me from the concrete and hauled me to the barrack. Whatever
favors the lieutenant owed Dom Ricardo would cost him his pension.
At the front desk, he shuffled around for my triplicate form and placed a phone
call, tapping his pen nervously on his sign-in sheet.
I apologize, but it’s urgent, he spoke into the receiver. Behind me, Big Boy and
Silva and the cadets murmured. Now the lieutenant listened carefully, plugging one ear
with his fingertip.
A surge of adrenaline. American journalist. That’s fucking right. Sweat stinging
my eyes, I imagined the exposés.
É, the lieutenant said. Entendo….entendo…
He’d better understand. The moment I got out, he was done for. I would
personally bulldoze this lockup. The others, too. Open up the veins. A dose of medicine
for Brazilian Amnesia.
Que bufo! the lieutenant said, chuckling now.
I stepped away from the desk, bumped into Big Boy.
For you, the lieutenant said, handing me the phone.
My birth father’s lawyer: “You’re making this exceedingly difficult,” she said in
English, a crackle in her voice. She had just woken up. I could hear children in the
background. She shushed them.
“Do you have any idea what’s going on in here?”
“Peter,” she said. “We know it’s no Copacabana Palace in there. But if we can
come to terms on this, we can make progress very quickly, you will see.”
“Journalists don’t just go missing,” I said.
“Oh that,” she said. “A strange thing. You’re here on a tourist visa, no? Were
you trying to scare us?”
“We’ve learned many curious things about you.”
Inmates huddled against the cage bars, nibbling on chicken bones. “I just want to
go home.”
“Of course you want to go home,” she said. “Be not afraid. My client is a very
powerful man. If he wanted harm to come to you, it would come. We have a safer place
arranged for you. It will give you some time for reflection. We’re sure you won’t want
anything like this to happen again.”
“Anywhere but here,” I said. The lieutenant snatched the receiver.
He called to his men: This one’s going to the bughouse. Whistles, shouts,
smooches from the cage.
Big Boy grabbed me by the arms, pushed me into the next room. “You can’t do
this,” I said in English. “Look. I’m not Brazilian. Believe me. Preciso voltar nos
Estados Unidos!”
Inmates and guards laughed together. Big Boy pushed me face down on the card
table, its legs wobbling under the weight. The lieutenant opened the refrigerator, shuffled
some items around, and withdrew a bottle of milky serum.
With his teeth, he tore open the plastic wrapping on a hypodermic needle.
Stabbing the bottle, he drew liquid into the syringe.
“You can’t do this! I’m American, I’m American.”
Hold him, the lieutenant said.
“Não posso falar Português,” I pleaded. “I can’t even do that tongue twister.
Listen. Três tigres tristes para três pratos de trigo…” Rs fell dumbly from my mouth.
Three sad tigers for three plates of wheat. “Três pratos de trigo para três tigres tristes…”
Three plates of wheat for three sad tigers.
Big Boy let go momentarily to sneeze.
I said hold him.
The cadets gripped my arms. Inmates rattled the cage bars. The lieutenant tapped
the syringe.
A prick of the needle.
Sonia worked over what she would say to Mr. Alfonso. Senhor, may we please
speak in private? That wouldn’t do. She needed something more forceful.
Monday morning, and already the prefeitura had sent workers to replace the
billboards the policia had burnt down the week before. These new and improved displays
were elevated, impossible for squatters to use as shelter. The military’s slogan would be
restored: Ame-o ou Deixe-o! Love it or leave it.
Maybe she would be better off leaving it. Jackie was right--it all seemed like a
fantasy now, the idea that Mr. Alfonso would leave his wife and Juliana and Thiago. The
more she thought about it, the more childish she felt for ever considering it a possibility.
O Senhor, I must speak with you at once. Perhaps something more tender, less
Sonia disembarked at Plaça da Quimera. She took her time walking, uncertain
whether today would be her last day with this job. The fiery pink of the rising sun was
reflected on the window of every house on the her side of the street. On the opposite side
the windows were cold and gray. When she reached No. 427, she reached into her purse
for the key.
Mrs. Alfonso opened the door.
Bom dia, senhora, Sonia said.
What is this? Mrs. Alfonso said, holding the tube of lipstick, the very shade that
little Juli had been carrying to school lately.
I don’t know what you’re talking about.
Friday afternoon, Mrs. Alfonso said. I pick up the children from school, only to
find my daughter dressed like a common whore.
I-She says you watch her do this every day. That you say nothing.
In the kitchen, the children were seated at the breakfast table. Thiago wouldn’t
look up from his bowl. Juliana peered into the salon as if she had a front row seat. It was
obvious now that Sonia had only imagined a loyalty between herself and the children.
She had no business asking them about their parents’ arguments, about their weekend
plans. The daydreams that Juli and Thiago were her little ones, that it was Mrs. Alfonso
who was extraneous to the house--all foolishness. She wondered how quickly Juliana
had betrayed her.
Perhaps once or twice I saw this, Sonia said.
So you’re lying to me? Mrs. Alfonso said.
No, Senhora.
I wonder what else you lie about.
I have no time for this now, she said. Mr. Alfonso will have more to say to you at
lunch. I will take the children to school myself this morning. You’ll find the list of
groceries on the bedroom nightstand. The money is there as usual, if you can be trusted
with it.
Mrs. Alfonso turned down the hall, ending the conversation. In the kitchen, Sonia
cleared the children’s dishes. Neither child met her eyes.
When Mrs. Alfonso and the children left, the house was gray and silent except for
the parakeet chirping, as he did, rain or shine. Sonia found the shopping list and the
envelope of money and there behind the nightstand noticed a coin-sized spider, yellow
and black, the poisonous variety she had disposed of a thousand times, for these could be
fatal to the children. Yet today she wondered what she might do with it, how easy it
would be to move the spider ever so carefully to Mrs. Alfonso’s wardrobe, or to her
make-up kit, so that the next time she reached for her violet blouse or her white facial
cream, all of Sonia’s problems would be solved, instantaneamente, blue-lipped on the
ground. And Mr. Alfonso with a new wife, waiting. And the children with a new
mother, a new brother or sister on the way. Yes. Except now, Sonia, removing her shoe,
crushing the spider with her shoe, now she worried it was she who was better off dead,
who was living in a nonsense world, who was nothing fine enough for this man, this
house, this life. She ground her shoe into the spider until it was only a black and yellow
ick that she would have to clean up later
When I came awake I couldn’t move, bound to a gurney by canvas straps. Vision
blurred, I licked my cracked lips. I was dressed me in a yellow jumper and blue sandals.
The gurney was rolled snug against the wall of a narrow tile corridor. Shafts of daylight
slanted through barred windows, casting lines of shadow on rows of metal-frame beds,
mattresses curled like stale bread slices.
Opposite my gurney, a frail Bahian man sat in his underwear, handcuffed to the
bed frame, his frizzy black hair salted with gray. He scratched at his shins as if they were
infested with worms, red crosshatches from his ankles to his knees. Pausing, he gazed at
me with large, wet eyes.
Where are we? I asked.
Have you seen Arminda? he said, voice like gravel. Back to scratching.
Hello? I called out, echoes like birds fluttering down the corridor.
He’s awake! a voice called out. Flip flop of sandals on concrete, approaching. A
pale, bald man stood over me, faded yellow jumper hanging from his bony frame. He
tilted his head slightly, smiled, showing two gold teeth.
You haven’t checked in with me yet, he said. I’m the President. Everyone has to
check in with me.
Vai! a woman said, pushing a squeaky cart down the hall. Vai vai vai! The bald
man laughed and scurried down the hallway.
The woman wore blue jeans and a yellow blouse. The cart was piled high with
rags and dry sponges, bleach bottles and cleaning solutions, a water bucket steaming.
Let me out of this, I said.
Only the zeladors can do that, she said.
Where are we? I asked.
Stop that, Othoniel, she said, gripping the Bahian man’s wrists. No amount of
sleep would cure the dark crescents under her eyes. Othoniel gazed up at her with vague
recognition. She sat beside him on the bed and withdrew a nail clipper from her shirt
pocket. Othoniel let her take each finger, nails stained crimson.
Have you seen Arminda?
Shhhh, the nursemaid said. Quiet now, meu filho.
Please, I said, squirming on the gurney. My name is Peter Randolph. I’m here by
The nursemaid leaned over and checked a plastic ID bracelet on my wrist. She
squinted her eyes, sounded it out syllable by syllable: Jo-sé-Da-Sil-va. Jo-sé Da Sil-va.
It says here José da Silva. We get a lot of those around here. She sat back down on the
bed and moved on to Othoniel’s other hand.
José da Silva--the Brazilian John Doe.
That’s a mistake, I said. I’m an American. Someone put me here on purpose. A
man named Dom Ricardo Alfonso.
There are all sorts of mistakes here, she said. Dipping a hand towel into the
bucket, she went to cleaning Othoniel’s wounded shins. His ashy legs were suddenly
shiny, wounds taking on a raw definition, red hieroglyphics. He rocked slowly as she
Please, I said. I need to speak to the U.S. Consul immediately.
The nursemaid chuckled. It’s your lucky day then because the man who was just
here with you, he’s the President of the United States.
I repeated everything in English, as if that might prove something.
Não falo Inglês, she said.
You have to believe me. I need out.
The nursemaid ignored me, humming as she dabbed the wounds, ringing pink
water into her bucket. Finished, she tossed the damp rag onto a pile on her cart. The man
began scratching at himself with his bare fingers. She brushed the clippings from the
floor into her palm and dropped them into the water bucket like slivers of pearl.
Will you loosen these straps? I asked.
I’ll tell the zeladors you’re awake. They’ll let you free once you’ve taken your
You don’t understand, I begged her.
No, you don’t understand. I clip nails, I cut hair, I clean toilets. Only zeladors
and médicos can unbuckle you.
The woman withdrew a tissue from her cart and dabbed at the corners of
Othoniel’s mouth. She kissed him on his forehead and pushed her squeaky cart back
down the hall.
Wait, I begged her. I can explain.
Save your story for the médico, she said.
The corridor reeked of vomit and cigarettes, but the tile walls were polished to a
high shine, reflecting my face oblong: dark-half moons under my eyes, a swollen lip,
three days of stubble. The last I’d had to eat was that leftover chicken drumstick. My gut
had turned to glass, and now that glass was cracking.
From the windows, the violet light of sunset. The cell gate at the end of the hall
clicked open. A pair of zeladors herded a procession of patients toward mealtime, one
caretaker at the head of the line, another taking up the back. Both zeladors wore medical
facemasks and twin white uniforms, flags of Brazil patched on their breast pockets, blue
orbs staring like eyes. On their belts were pepper spray and stun guns and walkie talkies
that chirped at random, voices crackling.
The line of patients shuffled past, two dozen men, laughing, mumbling, clapping,
fondling, singing, smoking, or staring blankly ahead. An Indio with tattooed arms traced
his fingertips along the tile wall as he walked past, and now along my leg and torso. He
snapped his fingers an inch from my eyes, as if checking to see that I was still alive.
The bald man from earlier, the President, stopped at each bed in the hallway,
turning over mattresses and pillows as if looking for some treasure. At my gurney he
snatched the sandals from my feet.
The final patient was a gangly mestiço with a patchy beard and a cigarette
dangling from his lips. He flicked his thumb like he needed a lighter. When he realized I
was strapped down, he gave me thumbs up like, No problem, sir, I shall find one
elsewhere, and continued down the hall.
The second zelador uncuffed Othoniel from his bed. Dinner time, he said,
facemask pulsing when he spoke. Othoniel rubbed his wrists and shuffled down the hall.
The zelador stood over my gurney with a clipboard and a small plastic cup.
Dinner time, he said.
Gracias a Deus, I said. I need to see the person in charge.
Medicine first, he said, checking his clipboard. From the plastic cup he tapped
two yellow and green pills into his palm.
I’m not taking any medicine, I said.
It says here you’re distressed, he said, referencing his clipboard. Looks about
right to me. This is benzodiazepine, to help you relax.
I just need a telephone. I need to speak to the Consul.
Don’t worry, they’re fun, he said, and as if to prove this, he pinched one from his
breast pocket and popped it in his mouth. É?
I let him slip the pills between my lips. Holding them under my tongue, I
pretended to swallow. Já, I said. Ta bom?
You think I’m stupid? He pinched my nose. Squirming, I spit the pills like two
bugs. They bounced off his white shirt. He snatched them from the floor.
We try this again? Gripping my jaw, he forced the capsules between my lips; I
swallowed. Goooooooood, no?
He unbuckled me. Lightheaded from so much time on my back, I rolled upright,
wobbly, sparks in my eyes. Now can I please use the phone? I asked.
Dinner time, he said.
The bathroom at least?
He escorted me to a bathroom down the hall and waited outside the frosted door.
A single toilet, a sink, no mirror. I dropped to my knees in front of the toilet and probed
my forefinger down my throat until the pills surfaced like two jewels. At the sink I rinsed
my mouth. Outside, the zelador waited with another plastic cup.
Slow learner? he said.
Benzodiazepine. It couldn’t have been worse than starving. I did as I was told.
The zelador led me through a cell gate and down a narrow flight of stairs, the
steps sticky on my bare feet. I peered through the windowed doors at each landing. The
floor below us was an identical gated corridor of beds and gurneys, patients askew on
their mattresses, others in heaps along the wall. The next floor down was lined with
narrow cells and I glimpsed two zeladors shoving a straight-jacketed man into a dark
space. The next floor down was a hall of offices where the nursemaid stood beside her
cart, wiping at handprints smeared across an office window. At the bottom of the
stairwell we pushed through double doors to the entrance of a first floor cafeteria. The
line of patients from my corridor leaned up against the wall, waiting to be admitted
through a turnstile.
No escape--this was a manicômio, a custody hospital. Most of these asylums had
been torn down during the abertura, but a few remained, psychiatric prisons, security
measures outside the traditional penal system. They were used as containers for
offenders too crazy for the penitentiaries, or as a favor from judges to friends, jeito, a way
to take enemies out of circulation.
Wait your turn, the zelador said. The patient at the front of the line approached a
pharmacy counter where a zeladora stood behind reinforced glass. The patient held his
ID bracelet up to the window. The zeladora read his tag and counted yellow and green
pills into a small plastic cup. She filled an identical cup with water from a tap at her side
and passed both cups through a turn box at the base of her countertop. The patient threw
back his pills and passed both cups back through the turn box. At the turnstile leading to
the cafeteria, another zelador him open his mouth to verify that he had swallowed. He
was allowed to proceed. The zeladora rinsed both cups at the tap and the next patient
stepped forward. It went on like this until I was first in line.
I got him already, my zelador said, winking at me.
I still need to see his bracelet, the zeladora said.
My name is Peter Randolph, I said.
She needs to see your bracelet, my zelador said. He gripped my wrist and held it
to the window and the zeladora noted José da Silva #6 on her clipboard.
Was that so hard? the zelador said.
Another line wrapped around the cafeteria, inching slowly toward the steaming
food line. José da Silva #6. How many of these men had been erased like me, and for
how long? I could only trust what the lawyer had said: Dom Ricardo was a powerful
man, and if he wanted harm to come to me, it would have come already. This place was
safer than the lock up, if only because the population was sedated. Here at the back of
the line, patients were still wild and rowdy, but farther along toward the food, those
patients who had swallowed their pills fifteen minutes earlier stared slack jawed at the
backs of the men in front of them. Still, I avoided eye contact at all costs.
The cafeteria windows were barred as well. Two zeladors supervised the rows of
tables, uniforms and facemasks identical to the others, walkie-talkie phones chirping like
birdsong. I couldn’t tell whether the manicômio was staffed with dozens of caretakers, or
a few working efficiently. Patients sat shoulder to shoulder, pushing rice and beans
around their plates, carving graffiti into the tables with their spoon handles.
All eyes were turned toward several small televisions mounted on the walls
around the room, tuned now to same breaking news update: PELÉ--A BUSCA
CONTINUA! The famous Carioca model still hadn’t recovered her black pug, and
tonight she had doubled the reward.
The patient ahead of me turned around: Isso, he said. If I had that kind of money,
I would buy cigarette proof lungs! Then he laughed until he fell apart coughing.
At the start of the food line I grabbed an aluminum tray. The Indio with tattooed
arms stood behind the counter, serving food. Now he wore a hairnet and spooned me a
generous helping of rice and beans, plus two warm juice boxes. No silverware remained,
no empty seats at the tables. I found floor space near the trash can and sat cross-legged,
fingering food into my mouth. The rice hit my stomach like needles. I ate so fast I
gagged. I fingered my tray clean. I licked my fingers and the webs between my fingers.
The cafeteria was an echo chamber of laughter and news casting. The President
approached the trashcan, ready to dump a half-full tray of food.
I scurried to my feet. Por favor, I said. I’m starving.
You owe me if I give you this.
Cualquires, I said. He handed over the tray. I slumped to the floor and ate
greedily, amnesia of joy, oblivious to where I was, who I was, what might happen next.
The zeladors flipped the cafeteria lights off and on. Dinner was over. I could
barely stand. One by one the patients clicked through the turnstile, hundreds of sandals
flapping like a slow round of applause.
The speechless man who’d asked for a lighter shuffled past. He waved; I ignored
him. He pointed to his wrist as if wearing a watch, then flashed ten fingers at me three
Thirty minutes? I said.
He nodded, then pointed at the lights.
Thirty minutes until lights out?
Smiling, he gave me thumbs up.
Patients filed in two directions--some through a revolving door to a courtyard
outside, others into a low-ceiling space labeled Sala de Divertimento--recreation room. I
entered the sala hoping for a phone. Leakage stained the ceiling tiles and spills stained
the carpet so that the room from top to bottom seemed spotted. The zeladora who had
doled out our medicine sat behind a small desk, flipping through a magazine, listening to
music from a pair of ear buds. The tattooed Indio, still wearing his hairnet, sat at a
kidney shaped table with a box of crayons, doodling on recycled office paper. Four
patients surrounded a foosball table and without a real foosball they used a crumpled
piece of paper to limited effect. Along the wall several comatose patients sat in
wheelchairs, facing a window that overlooked the moonlit courtyard. In the corner of the
room, jabbering into a phone, combing his few remaining strands of hair with a plastic
spork. Thank God.
I need to use that as soon as you’re finished? I asked.
He covered the receiver with his palm--Is it urgent? Because this is urgent.
It’s urgent.
Who do you need to call?
The U.S. Consul.
You’re American? he asked, gazing into my eyes as if he could find proof there.
How many states can you name?
All of them, I said.
Nobody can name all of them, he said. I’m the President, and I can’t even name
all of them. Nike. Hershey. Pepsi. On his tongue the names were strange
amalgamations of syllables, barely recognizable.
I just need to use the phone.
I can connect you, he said. He brought the receiver close to his lips. Get me the
Consul! Tomorrow won’t do, I have to speak to him now!
He handed me the phone. Here you go.
Thank you, I said, taking the phone.
That’s two you owe me, he said, touching his index finger to the corner of his eye.
He ambled away, hands in the pockets of his jumper.
I tapped the switch hook. No dial tone. I tried again. Nothing. He’d been
speaking to the ether.
The benzo pills weighed heavy on my brain. Maybe the zeladora could help. I
asked her about the phone. She looked at me as if she didn’t understand. I asked her
again and she took her ear buds out.
O telefone não está funcionando.
Chamadas recibidas só, she said. Incoming calls only.
Can I please borrow your phone? I asked.
She licked her finger and flipped the page on her magazine, obviously
accustomed to ignoring that question.
I shuffled through the revolving door. A pair of sodium lights threw a bluishgreen pall across the courtyard, patients lining the high walls, smoking, dozing, jacking
off. Other patients huddled in the night-shade of mango trees, adding to the graffiti on
the latex coated trunks. Arranged haphazardly along the burnt grass were four picnic
tables where inmates played cards, arm wrestled, carved messages into the wood with
stolen spoons. Two zeladors ambled from table to table, chatting amongst themselves,
brushing mosquitoes from their facemasks.
The perimeter walls were speckled with shards of glass that glimmered like
broken teeth in the moonlight. I walked the edge of the courtyard, reading graffiti on the
the eastern corner stood a tree with branches hanging over the wall. My way out. The
zeladors were turned the other way. I stepped closer to gauge the height of the branches.
A hand grabbed my shoulder.
The speechless man, a grave look on his face. He pointed at the wall, and then
waved his index finger, like No, that is a really bad fucking idea. He gestured toward the
zeladors, backs still turned, walkie talkies chirping. Speechless grimaced, jabbed his
elbow into the palm of his hand to show how bad they would kick my ass.
Thanks, I said.
He gestured again for a lighter.
Não fumo, I said.
He shrugged and walked off. A voice from the overhead speakers warned:
Fifteen minutes until lights out, lights out in fifteen minutes. The zeladors began
breaking up the card games and herding the patients inside. The President stood at the
door, directing traffic. Speechless refused to go in, dizzying himself in revolving door
until the zeladors shove him inside.
I lingered, savoring every last breath, the first fresh air I’d had in days. A clear
night, a warm breeze on my cheek. The benzo, smoothing the edges of my rage. Três
tigres tristes para três pratos de trigo. A zelador fell behind me, walkie-talkie chirping.
From the 4th floor, Othoniel watched over the courtyard, his face a sad oval in the barred
window. Três pratos de trigo para três tigres tristes.
That night a slow storm passed over the manicômio. I tossed on the gurney,
groggy but afraid to sleep, listening to rain puddle the courtyard. A bored zelador
monitored the corridor, toying with his stun gun, a crackling blue spark flaring
periodically from his station.
Clouds lingered in the morning, grimy smears outside the barred windows.
Yawning, the zelador sifted through his keys and unlocked the rusty gate. A few patients
in the corridor drifted to the cafeteria as if sleepwalking. On the gurney beside me,
Othoniel sat awake on his mattress, mouth agape, fingertips in the back of his mouth, a
look of concentration on his face as if he were trying to pry something free.
Last night’s food had turned to stone in my stomach. I waited a moment on the
gurney, held my eyes closed and opened them again, willing myself from a nightmare to
a waking state, to a time before I knew the name Dom Ricardo, before I’d contacted
Daveison, before I’d embarked on this fool’s journey to Brazil, but the ache in my gut
told me it was useless. Those doors had been opened; this was the one and only world.
I gathered my bearings and walked to the cafeteria. At the medicine counter, the
zeladora seemed distracted with her music player. I tried to pass directly through the
Stop there, she said without looking up.
The other one gave me my pills already, I said.
The zelador at the turnstile snatched my wrist, read my ID tag into his walkietalkie. Chirp-chirp. A static-voice confirmed that No, I hadn’t taken my medicine. My
pills and water spun around on the turn box. I tapped them into my mouth and
Open up, the zelador said, peering into my mouth. Now lift up your tongue. Ta
bom, go on.
No line yet for food. I slid my tray along. A lone, groggy patient served me a
piece of bread, a slice of ham, a slice of cheese, and a juice box. In the back of the
kitchen, the nursemaid from the day before leaned over a large industrial sink, scrubbing
her yellow blouse on a washboard. A sane, familiar face.
Por favor, I mouthed to her. Ajuda-me…
She ignored me, held her blouse to the light of the window.
Only a few other patients were scattered among the rows of empty tables. The
graffiti laced Formica smelled of Maravillosa and my appetite evaporated. On the
television, Bom Dia Rio! showed a crowd lined up outside a Leblon apartment building,
each of them with a small black dog. Some were fat, others were slender, and most of
them weren’t even pugs, but everyone thought the dog they carried was Pelé, beloved pet
of that famous Carioca model. At the table beside me, Speechless watched the news,
furious, tears streaking his face.
I stuffed my mouth with bread. At the cafeteria entrance a young nun clicked
through the turnstile. She passed from table to table offering prayers, sprinkling patients
with holy water. She sat with Speechless, clasped his hands in hers, and whispered
something as she met his pooling eyes. When he regained his composure, she handed
him a pocket bible.
I scarfed down the last of my ham and cheese and hurried over to her. Freira?
Can I speak to you?
Meu filho, where are your sandals?
I don’t belong here, I said. I’m an American. I’ve been sent here as a
We have to find new sandals for you.
I need your help.
She touched my shoulder: Todos nós precisamos de ajuda do Senhor, she said,
opening her vial of holy water, eyes radiant with the sympathy. The more I asked for
help, the more I seemed completely doido.
Freira, I’m serious. If you could help me find a telephone-A sprinkle of water on my nose. The freira moved on to the next table. These
poor nuns, forever serving malqueridos. They had been in this city for three centuries,
since the days of the foundling wheel; they would be here three centuries from now,
when everyone in this building had turned to dust.
Walking figure eights in the courtyard. More blood, more air. I needed a plan.
In the bright of day, the walls looked higher, their broken glass teeth more fierce. Even if
I managed a way over, it was hard to tell our location. No sounds of traffic, no vapor
trails low in the sky. We could be miles from the city.
The sun worked its way higher. Patients filled the courtyard, returning to their
routines--arm wrestling, cards, singing. One of the zeladors dropped a bola on the muddy
grass and set a clipboard on the table. The President seized the ball and handed the
clipboard to the tatoooed Indio. A few others used their sandals to dig goal boxes. The
men divided into two teams and removed their sandals and began a lethargic game of
futebol. The president refereed. The tattooed Indio jotted on the clipboard with a #2
pencil. Between games I looked over his shoulder at the careful notation--COPA DO
MANICÔMIO-- dozens of names on the roster, checkmarks for every goal.
The older patients were content to lean against the trees and applaud. I sat on a
picnic table and watched the players scramble barefoot across the makeshift field. How
long had these men been here? Long enough to forget their old lives?
A zelador grabbed my wrist. Levanta-se, he said. Time to see the médico.
At last, someone I could reason with. The zelador led me to the second floor
administrative hall. The médico and his secretaria shared a narrow office. They sat at a
small desk flanked by file cabinets, but no amount of storage could contain the tornado of
paper that had touched down. Every surface was littered with patient histories and sheets
of yellow legal pad, all periodically rustled by the rotating fan on the desk. The zelador
pointed me to a seat and stood in the corner near the coat rack.
The médico was a handsome middle-aged man in a crisp blue polo, looking
dressed for a game of golf. His secretaria sat at this side with a silver pen and a yellow
legal pad, the apparent source of hundreds of yellow sheets strewn around the room.
The médico lit a cigarette. Let’s begin then, Jão da Silva #6, he said, glancing at
secretaria’s notation. Tell me. Why do you think you are here?
The médico smoked two more cigarettes as I explained the story of the past few
days. His secretaria took careful notes, squinting now and then when the rotating fan
blew curls of smoke into her eyes. I left out the breaking and entering and focused on the
conditions in the lock up. The médico wore a grave expression. Now and then he
wiggled his index finger in the direction of the young secretary, signaling for her to
record some pertinent detail--the white-haired lieutenant, the shot-up Volkswagen, Silva
and Big Boy, the peach-fuzzed cadets.
“Indeed,” he said. “This is all very serious.”
“You speak English?”
“Of course.”
“Thank God,” I said. “You’re the only one who can help me.” Using English
again was like surfacing from deep, frigid waters. “Please, you have to listen to me.”
“I’m listening,” he said. “You’re saying there’s a conspiracy against you. We
have that written down right here.” He wiggled his finger at his secretary and she held up
the yellow notepad with clean, careful notes. “Patient believes there is a conspiracy
against him, except of course, she has written it in Portuguese, as is our policy.”
“It’s not exactly a conspiracy,” I said. “It’s that Dom Ricardo wants to run for
office. An illegitimate son is a PR problem.” It was the first time I’d referred to myself
as illegitimate, and a label that now felt ultimately true.
“I see,” the médico said. Noticing his secretaria coughing on his cigarette smoke,
he adjusted the fan so that it blew only in his direction.
“How else do you explain the fact that I speak English?” I asked. “Do I sound
Brazilian to you?”
“The question here is not, how do you say, civil status,” he said, enunciating extra
clearly as if to demonstrate that he, too, could speak fine English. “The police report
clearly states that you furnished questionable documents for the Consul. No passport
number, no visa number.”
“My documentation was taken.”
“You even provided a false address.”
“I didn’t want the policia ransacking my place.”
“Has your apartment been ransacked before?”
Wiggling his finger at the secretary: Patient harbors irrational fears.
“These aren’t irrational fears!” I said.
The zelador put his hands on my shoulder as if to keep me seated.
“If I could just make a phone call--”
“There is a phone on the first floor,” the zelador said.
“I tried,” I said. “Incoming calls only.”
“We’ve had troublesome experiences allowing outgoing calls in the past,” the
médico said. “Certain patients harbor strong delusions. If someone wishes to get in
touch with you—”
“How is someone supposed to get in touch with me?” I asked. “You don’t even
have my name right. Just give me one call to the Consul.”
The secretary looked to the médico for any indication that she should be writing
this down. He shook his head.
“No need to involve the consul just yet,” the médico said. He reached for another
cigarette, but his box was empty. “Mistaken identity has a way of working itself out over
time. It’s all a matter of certain paperwork passing through certain channels.”
Distracted, he searched for another box of cigarettes in the desk drawers and underneath
piles of paper.
“Listen, I know you see a lot of genuinely crazy people in here, but I am
absolutely, one-hundred percent sane.”
Com licença, he asked the zelador. Você pode passar minha jaqueta?
The zelador plucked the médico’s suede jacket from the coat rack and passed it
across the desk. I watched him fish through the pockets for smokes. There, on the breast
pocket, the yellow and green ribbon of the Jóquei Clube Brasileiro.
“Is something wrong?” he asked.
I glanced around the office. There on the file cabinet, a stack of race betting
forms. On the bookshelf near the window, a photograph of médico with a group of men
on a fishing boat, Manny Gilberto and his horse-teeth veneers, PR man for the Sociedade
“You know Manuel Gilberto?” I said.
“Who?” the médico said.
“You’re a member of the Jockey Club.”
“Now you’re just speaking nonsense,” the médico said. He tore open a fresh pack
of cigarettes and passed his jacket back to the zelador. He kept the smoke unlit in his
mouth as he fumbled through the loose papers on his desk. When he found a prescription
pad he scribbled on the top sheet, peeled it off, and passed it to the zelador. The zelador
read it and left the room.
“Does Dom Ricardo know that I’m here?”
The médico switched back to Portuguese. It’s obvious that you haven’t been
taking your medication, he said. Now turning to his secretary: Please note that patient
suffers from paranoid thoughts.
Two zeladors entered the room.
Let’s take all precautions to see that this patient follows his new regimen.
Sem, Senhor, the zeladors said in unison.
I assure you we have many methods, the médico said, lighting his cigarette. If
this doesn’t work, we’ll try another.
At dusk I hid in the bathroom stall, but the zeladors found me, fed me four bright
pills. By the time I’d finished dinner the world was underwater. Now I lingered in the
4th floor corridor, empty beds, crumpled sheets like ghosts, moonlight boxed by the
barred windows. Othoniel sat handcuffed to his bed frame, still tugging at something in
his mouth.
Ah ha! he said, raising a tooth in the moonlight, admiring it like a freshly plucked
berry. He slipped it under his mattress and reached into his mouth for another. I wanted
to reach out and stop him, but this man was dangerous--a killer or worse. He must have
been here for a reason.
I needed free of this place. There was no going out the front door. There had to
be a way over the courtyard wall, its lips of broken glass. I dragged a bed near one of the
windows and stood on the frame and peered outside. Another game of futebol. The
Indio with the tattooed arms recorded the goals on the clipboard. One of the zeladors
supervised the game, while another supervised the picnic tables, settling a dispute in a
game of cards. Near the mango tree on the corner of the courtyard, the a few older
patients sang folk songs, Speechless clapping along.
The yellow moon hung like a face over the courtyard, reflected bright on a pool of
standing water. A shout from the futebol game--the bola sailed across the courtyard and
splashed in the pool. Ripples pulsed across the water; the reflected moon
quivered; the Indio fetched the bola and the water settled into a perfect mirror.
Full moons had always been a melancholy sight. Before I was old enough to
understand the astronomy of hemispheres, I’d fantasized that Sonia and I gazed upon the
same moon, that when its face was full, we drew closer like tides. When I was old
enough to understand that our moons were mirror images, hers waning right, mine
waning left, the knowledge made the sky twice as grave, twin talismans, a reminder of
our distance, celestial objects pulling our blood apart. But even after I learned the truth,
staring too long at the moon could still carve a hole in my heart.
The moon was full the night of my seventeenth birthday, the night Mom collapsed
in the hay. I’d promised to help hang a new gate before going out to celebrate. It was a
hot, sweaty August night, the middle of an infestation of Pandora moths. They swarmed
the floodlights in the corral, pinged against the row lights along the barn. They popped
under out boots. The moon hung low over the junipers, taking forever to rise, forever to
become night, forever until I could get the fuck out and go drink.
One moment Mom was holding a hinge, the next she was on her stomach. Dad
and I dropped our tools. As we drove the 17 miles to St. Charles, swirls of moths
fluttered in the headlights like fat snowflakes. We pulled into the hospital parking lot,
their crisp bodies crunching under our tires. The doctor ordered a barrage of tests and
gave Mom a room for the night. For months, these overnight tests. The doctors had no
luck finding out what was wrong. All summer I would stumble home after work, stale
beer on my breath, and find Dad in the kitchen squinting at medicine bottles. Now here
we sat in our familiar seats.
“You should go meet Gary,” Mom said.
“Not with you in here,” I said.
“I’m just feeling down in the dumps,” she said. “Your birthday only happens
once a year.”
I flipped through the pages of a fishing magazine, but I was too furious to read.
I’d gotten over being angry at the piece-of-shit hospital, or the incompetent doctors and
their perpetual tests. What had me furious was how we’d resigned ourselves to these
nights, no urgency in the waiting, just waiting. How Mom had memorized the numbers
for the cable channels on the hospital room televisions. How the tests were wearing
down the family savings so that Dad and Mom worked over the insurance statements
together during Wheel of Fortune. How I wanted the doctors to deliver just one definite
piece of news. How I didn’t need the fucking news, because I knew it already: Mom was
only going to get worse.
Visiting hours closed. Only one of us could stay in the room. I kissed Mom
goodbye on the forehead. Out the window, I watched a car cross the parking lot,
windshield wipers brushing fat moths onto the asphalt.
“I’ll have Gary come over and help finish the gate,” I said.
“Forget the gate,” Dad said. He opened up his wallet and handed me two crisp
twenties. “Go be young.”
In the parking lot of the Pizza Palace, we smoked a bowl of weed. Gary
supported the pipe between his lips and lit it with his good hand. Inside we split a
pepperoni. They were out of straws. With only one hand, Gary had to set his pizza down
if he wanted to take a drink of pop or wipe his face. I did the same. Since elementary
school, whenever I ate with Gary, I ate with one hand under the table, to put him at ease.
He wasn’t as self-conscious these days, but the habit stuck.
“Even if that’s what she has,” Gary said, “there’s all sorts of stuff they can do.”
But I was tired of talking about what Mom might have. The moon was full-up
now, and that’s when I got blue. “Let’s go find beer.”
We shoulder tapped in the Wagner’s parking lot, Gary walking up and down the
sidewalk, asking people if they would buy for us. Finally, a shaggy guy in a flannel took
our money.
“Thanks,” Gary said when the guy slipped the case into our trunk. “It’s my
friend’s birthday.”
“Birthday boy always gets laid,” he said, winking.
But we weren’t getting laid. The Sherriff had busted up the White Rock
swimming hole, and the summer drinking scene had moved to backwoods fire pits that
Gary and I were never cool enough to be invited to. Tonight we drank and drove around
to all the usual camping spots. The entire county was crawling with moths. By midnight
we’d only come across cold coals and broken bottles. We gave up our search early and
settled for Partway reservoir, a murky shallow at the end of four miles of cinder road,
near the county line. An old dusty utility road led right to the water. We parked and
pulled up some good sitting rocks around the pit. Juniper branches for firewood, beer
box for kindling. Soon the moths swarmed to the fire. By then we were ten deep into the
beer. Gary packed and lit another bowl. Bottles and cans and torn underwear littered the
dust around the fire pit, like we’d just missed a big party the night before.
“Happy birthday,” Gary said, clanking his beer against mine.
The moon wavered on the reservoir water. Happy fucking birthday. On the
horizon, the mountains were bare and gray in the moonlight. Dying moths squirmed in
the fire. How is it that we’d grown accustomed to this pestilence? How is it that I
belonged in this town? I’d always imagined Partway as my home, Brazil as the
otherworld, but now, gazing across this infested landscape, ghostly in the moonlight, I
was certain I deserved another life.
“You’re quiet,” Gary said.
“Do I need to be talking all the time?”
“I’m sure your mom is going to be fine,” Gary said.
“Thanks, Gary,” I said. “I’m sure your hand will grow back.”
“You’re an asshole.”
“You wouldn’t understand.”
Mom was asleep by now, Dad drifting away in the blue glow of the television.
She was going to die. I thought of the flag stand she’d given me on naturalization day,
the Brazilian flag I slept beside, the American flag up there on the moon. I hated my
birthday. I thought of science class, and the principles of orbit, how it wasn’t even a full
moon in Brazil. I thought of my birth mother, Sonia, a stranger. I thought of Mom and
Mom’s medical chart, her six-inch fucking chart. She was going to die. She was going
to die, and when she did, it would be all right. It would be all right. She wasn’t my
mother anyway.
“You’re a selfish prick, you know that?” Gary said. “All you ever do is list off
your problems. If you’re so sad about your Mom, how come you never spend time with
“Shut up,” I said. “It’s not that.”
“Oh so it’s Brazil again? It’s your birthday and it makes you think too much?
Boo hood. Give it up--you’re American. Apple pie and the 4th of July, man. I’m sick of
hearing this every year.”
“I didn’t say anything, so shut the fuck up.”
“You got practically everything in this life, but you’re too busy thinking about
some other life. Maybe if you opened your goddamn eyes instead of writing in your
journal like you’re David fucking Copperfield.”
Gary stumbled to his feet.
“Where you going?” I asked.
“I’ll walk,” he said, shattering his bottle against a rock.
“Well fuck you!” I said. I pitched the bottle at him, but it sank into a bank of
sagebrush. He’d set the truth at my feet like a landmine. My life had been a singular
stroke of good fortune. I’d never chewed glass like Ana Luiza. I’d never bounced from
home to home to home like Roger. Mom and Dad had given me this entire life, a grace,
but I’d forsaken them.
Moths hissed and popped in the fire. I searched for Gary in the shadows. He’d be
back. We were blood brothers. I was the only one who knew he was afraid of the dark.
The second night at the manicômio, I dreamt of Gary and I, chucking stolen eggs
against juniper trees, poking at the gooey chicks half-formed in the yolk, and then of
Mom cracking eggs in the kitchen, whipping them in a clear glass bowl, pouring the
sickly mix down her throat. At sunrise I peeled myself from the gurney and waited for
the zelador to unlock the cell gate.
I slipped through the cafeteria turnstile before the zeladors were stationed at the
pharmacy counter. At the food line, the tattooed Indio was only now slipping on his
hairnet. He served me my bread and cheese and juice box, looking ahead to a morning
without benzo pills, a few hours to plan my escape.
Near the trash bins the nursemaid sat at a table by herself, a towel wrapped around
her wet hair. The fluids on her supply cart glowed pink and yellow in the morning light.
It hadn’t occurred to me that she might live here; I wondered where she slept.
Bom dia, I said. Can I sit with you?
She wouldn’t take her eyes from the television. Morning news: Pelé the missing
pug was yet to be found.
I saw the médico yesterday, I said. He wouldn’t let me use the phone.
She dabbed her mouth with a napkin and crumpled the napkin on her tray.
That man Othoniel, I said. He pulled a tooth out yesterday.
Quê! And you didn’t come find me?
I didn’t know where to look.
She stood and dumped her leftovers in the trash bin. I’m all over this place, she
said, releasing the wheel-brake on her cart.
A zelador stopped me at the cafeteria exit. You think you’re so sneaky? Four
bright pills, like swallowing bees.
In the courtyard the sun was straight above us, a white spot behind thin clouds.
My mind was a whirlpool, Portuguese and English swirling, so that it was exhausting to
find names for the world--manicômio, nuthouse, zelador, caretaker, pills, pílulas--that
one was easy--pílulas, pílulas, pílulas.
The benzo blunted my senses, weighed down my legs so that I dragged my
sandals like concrete boots. I laid myself out in the shade of a mango tree, burnt blades
of grass on my cheek. The day passed in fits, endless rounds of the Copa do Manicômio
unfolding before my eyes. Time was a smashed cuckoo clock. Clouds drifted across the
sky at an alarming rate. The President assigning penalties, the tattooed Indio noting goals
on his clipboard, the players shouting and whistling like children wound up and set loose
on the playground. An airplane hung suspended in the air, motionless, soundless, until I
blinked and suddenly the airplane was vanished and it was dark and I heard the P.A.
announcement for dinner.
Four bright pills at dinner, a thin film of benzo over my eyes, like moisture on a
mirror. The cafeteria was a cavern of laughter, television droning. Now I heard the
click-clap of the lawyer’s heels on the concrete floor? Was she here to sign me out, to
take me home? No. She was Speechless, tapping a spoon on the table top. Nobody was
coming. It was clear Dom Ricardo intended for me to experience the grind of this, a taste
of what could happen, of where I could stay. Or else he intended for me to die here.
In the courtyard after dinner, cards, arm wrestling, futebol. Under the mango tree
in the corner, old men singing old tunes, Speechless patting a rhythm on his pant legs.
Considering the circumstances, they didn’t sound so bad.
The P.A. summoned us to bed. In the corridor I stood on a bed and gazed out the
barred window. Over the high-walled courtyard, I thought I glimpsed the glow of Cristo
Redentor in distant Martian clouds.
The zelador slammed the cell gate, brandished the blue spark of his stun gun.
Hey you! Get to bed!
I lay on the gurney. After spending the day half-asleep, I could barely close my
eyes. The corridor echoed with moans, grunts, sleeptalk of two dozen restless souls.
I needed sleep thoughts: irrigation sprinklers clicking steadily outside my old
bedroom window; the soft bleating of lambs in the pasture; a civilization of frogs
gurgling in grass.
I was stirred awake by a tapping noise beside me. I rolled over. Othoniel
slumped off the edge of his mattress, one end of his bed sheet knotted around the window
bars, the other end cinched around his neck like a scarf. His heels kicked the concrete,
his face growing darker, a purple shade visible even in the dim of the moon.
Oi! I called down the corridor. I rolled off the gurney and tried to lift his deadweight, to untangle the sheet from his neck. Ajude-me! Alguém!
The chirping of zeladors, boots in the corridor. Patients rolled awake, mumbled,
rolled asleep. The zeladors lifted Othoniel by his armpits, untangled the sheet from his
neck. He sprawled on the bare concrete, tongue slobbering from his mouth like a slug.
The zeladors balled up the sheet and turned back down the hall.
Aren’t you going to do something? I asked.
It never kills him, they said. It’s not high enough.
He needs help.
We’ll tell his mother.
They walked down the corridor in tandem. The windows turned to black-barred
squares of pink light.
A Deus, Othoniel, the nursemaid said, pushing her squeaky cart down the
corridor. She stopped at his bed, withdrew a small fat candle, and touched a lighter to the
wick. In the glow I could see the color was only now returning to Othoniel’s face.
Have you seen Arminda? he asked.
Shhh, she said. Hush now meu filho.
Is he always like this? I asked.
His moods change like weather, she said. On her cart she unwrapped a cloth.
Within, three quail eggs. When she set them in Othoniel’s palms, he grinned, testing
their tiny weight.
He likes these, she said.
Cross-legged on the floor, he began juggling, small circles, growing ovular, until
the arc of the eggs took them nearly to the ceiling.
Why doesn’t the medicine keep him still?
When you’ve been here so long, the pílulas only make it worse.
So he’s your son? I asked.
You ask too many questions, she said.
I saw you washing your clothes in the kitchen.
Nobody else is going to take care of him.
Where do you stay?
You should be asleep like everyone else. Down the hall, the zelador stationed at
the cell gate was asleep in his chair, stun gun held loose in his hands.
I tried to find you this time, I told the nursemaid. I tried to help him.
Thank you, she said. What’s your name?
Peter, I said.
Pe-ter? I knew you didn’t look like a Jão da Silva.
Três pratos de trigo para três tigres tristes. A flare of lightning. Thunder. Rain
thrummed the roof. Othoniel’s eyes never left the tiny eggs. Três tigres tristes para três
pratos de trigo.
What’s your name? I asked.
Zezé, she said. Now watch this.
As a finale, Othoniel covered his eyes with one hand, kept the eggs in motion
with the other. Now he clapped his hands, caught all three eggs, and set them spinning
like tops on the concrete floor.
Opa! I said. Who knew you were so good, Othoniel?
For him this is better than any medicine, Zezé said.
Why is he here?
Nobody has asked me that in a long time. She leaned back into the yellow sphere
of candlelight, as if thinking of where to start.
They say he killed his sister and her macho.
Meu filho Othoniel, minha filha Arminda. For years we lived quietly in Favela
Babilônia, in a house my husband built brick-by-brick before he drowned. Next door
Edvaldo lived with his mae. That poor woman. Nobody had taught her how to discipline
a child, and it was obvious even when Edvaldo was small that he would be um fedelho.
But he was Othoniel’s best friend, and Arminda’s crush. Those three were a pázinho-together, noon or night.
This was all back in the ‘80s, when the future was coming to Rio. The prefeitura
was closing down casinos and opening up metro lines. They were cleansing the streets of
malqueridos--the unwanted. Anyone without steady work had to keep clear of the
policia. I spent most days on the roof, sewing handbags for sale in the Centro, chatting
with friends on other roofs. There was a nice breeze off the sea, and whenever I heard
the quick flapping of little sandals in the alleyways, I knew it was Othoniel and Arminda
and Edvaldo, headed this way or that, anywhere but school.
Back then Rio was overrun with meninos, begging outside restaurants, or else
sniffing cheira in alleyways until they were still as statues. But Arminda was afraid of
the glue, Othoniel looked up to his big sister, so when the prefeitura offered free biscuits
and honey to lure the children to school, they started going, at least for morning hours.
Edvaldo tagged along just to be closer to her. They caught rides on the rear-end
of the 161 bus. From the rooftop I could see all the way down to Rua Anchieta, my little
ones clinging to the bumper, Edvaldo between them, coughing on exhaust as the bus
turned onto Avenida Atlântica.
I wish Othoniel could tell this story himself. Would you believe that when he first
arrived in the manicômio, he was still a bright boy? He would repeat this story every
time I visited, so that I could recall every detail for the judge. But the policia had their
own story, so the judge never listened.
Edvaldo and Arminda were two years older than Othoniel, and all the trouble
started when they began lording that over him. Each day, as the bus lumbered past the
schoolyard, Edvaldo would count--Um…Dois…Três!--and they would leap from the
bumper just in time for morning flag. But the year Edvaldo turned thirteen, he started
playing pranks. When Othoniel jumped, Edvaldo and Arminda would stay on board.
Othoniel chased after, but the two of them laughed and laughed, waving goodbye as the
bus turned the corner.
After school Othoniel came back home, eyes pooling up when he saw me at the
wash bin. He’d held back tears until he was inside; my poor boy already had enough
problems with people thinking he was soft. Now he sat on the step and let it all out,
bottom lip quivering like a tuning fork.
I said don’t worry, meu filho, there are only so many places they could be. And it
was true. The prefeitura had been cracking down on the meninos. The children had
become a nuisance, growing bolder each day, annoying turistas and ruining business for
the shopkeepers. The policia herded the little ones into a few choice alleyways.
Rehabilitation, they called it. There were only a few places anymore where the kids
could congregate without taking lumps.
Plenty of troublemakers still lingered down at that little beach under the Botafogo
piers, swimming and playing sloppy half-field games of futebol. Othoniel found
Arminda and Edvaldo there, hiding in the shade of the culvert that drains into the bay.
Edvaldo’s small radio filled the tunnel with the music of Jorge Ben, drums echoing
hypnotic against the concrete walls. Farther down the tunnel, in the dark, other kids
huddled with bottles of cheira, eyes like rubies. Othoniel stood in the mouth of the
tunnel, blocked their view of the sea and sky.
Vai tomar no cu! Othoniel said.
Relax, Edvaldo said, passing a joint to Othoniel. He and Arminda sat with the
checkerboard they’d borrowed from Pepe the barber, only they sat beside each other, not
across. Arminda had taken off everything but her intimas. Minha filha was a great
beauty, but she thought beauty was something to share with everyone. That day she was
getting plenty of stares from the doidos passing by on the beach. Edvaldo was showing
off his chest hairs, squaring his jaw to look like a tough guy.
Why are you guys hiding? Othoniel asked.
The sand is too hot, Arminda said. She reached across the checkerboard, twirled
Edvaldo’s three tiny hairs in her fingertips.
We found you some cócos, Edvaldo said. Beside his radio were three coconuts.
These he tossed to Othoniel who cradled them in his skinny arms, examining their weight
and balance. This was in the early days of his juggling, but already he was particular.
Still, he wouldn’t be distracted. Arminda, stroking Edvaldo’s chest.
He stuck those on with glue, Othoniel said.
Don’t be jealous, Edvaldo said. Yours will grow in someday.
Othoniel stepped outside the tunnel, straddled the stream of muck, and began
juggling, a simple warm-up routine. Now Edvaldo traced his fingertips along Arminda’s
stomach, examining her pano branco--the white patches on her black skin--leftover from
that fungus that was going around those days. Othoniel had the same marks under his
Put your clothes back on, Othoniel told his sister.
Fica-frio! Edvaldo said. But at the end of the day, when they counted cruzeiros, it
was Othoniel with the most money. Instead of wasting his time with checkers, he was
learning a skill. For some people that made him soft, but he knew that someday his cócos
would earn him enough for a dozen radios. So he ignored Edvaldo whispering in
Arminda’s ear, and focused on the cócos, coarse on his palms, daydreaming of his
coconut stand. He talked about that cóco stand to anyone who would listen. He planned
to go early to market for the best cócos. He would sell agua de cóco and gelado and
cerveja, all at fair prices, Jorge Ben jamming from his stereo so that the customers
lingered. He would keep his machete clean and sharp, because turistas like clean, and
with his glinting blade hack a star shaped opening at the top of the cóco, because
everybody knows turistas like a star shaped cap on their drink.
Later the policia wanted me to believe Othoniel was angry, jealous, even. But I
told them the story of his tapeworm pills, how I came home to find his bottle empty and
swatted him raw with a wooden spoon. It turned out he shared his doses with a dozen
other children in Favela Babilônia. I told Othoniel that’s now how the medicine works,
those pílulas were for you alone. They were supposed to last a week.
You see, there are those who take, and those who give, and Othoniel was not a
taker. He wanted that cóco stand so he could give jobs to Edvaldo and Arminda. He
understood what work could cost a family. Othoniel was too young to remember when
his father fell into the bay, but it was an absence he could never forget. He just wanted
everyone he loved to work together on the beach. Tudo tranqüilo, he said. He promised
he would always save a seat for me in the shade.
This is what meu filho would dream at night. And look at him now.
It seemed one year the gringos came for Carnival and never left. Now they
flooded the Zona Sul year round, turning red on the beaches, drinking night and day,
gorging themselves on shrimp dumplings and bobó, practicing guidebook Português,
asking perfect strangers for sex or marijuana, snapping photos of the meninos de rua and
the policia militar. The prefeitura was getting what it wanted.
In the evenings turistas rushed from Copacabana to Ipanema to watch the sunset
light the surf on fire. These were the hours when Edvaldo and Arminda would walk the
shore, hands out, practicing their broken English phrases. Can you please have me? I am
very honey! Othoniel lingered behind, weaving through a sandy maze of white legs, eyes
keen for policia eager to pinch him like a roach.
Tonight Othoniel found a clear spot of beach, filled his lungs, and shouted:
Coconut Juggling, the Most Dramatic in Brazil! Few of the gringos understood him, but
he soon had the attention of a small crowd. Now that he was going on thirteen, he was
proud of his own upkeep, scrubbing own his shorts and shirts so he looked presentable.
A brief pause, for suspense. Then he tossed his cócos skyward. They rose and returned
to his hands, as if on wires, Othoniel spinning in circles--one, two, three times--dizzy,
preparing for the finale. He closed his eyes, juggled two cócos with one hand, holding
the third one in the other, kissing it like a hairy breast. At the sound of applause he
opened his eyes and the cócos fell into his arms. Bowing deeply, he held out his hand for
a tip.
Obrigado! the gringos said, Portuguese like marbles in their mouths. Drunk
already, stinking of cachaça, they surrendered their coins. A policeman guarding one of
the new bank machines watched from the edge of the sand. He hesitated a moment,
afraid to spoil his freshly polished boots, but then hurried across the beach to break up the
Muevalo, he told Othoniel, hand on his baton. Othoniel retreated to a dumpling
stand across the street, breathed in the sweet smell. The guard chased after him, but
Othoniel escaped through traffic.
Up the beach near Posta 9, Othoniel found Edvaldo up to one of his old tricks,
zigging his eyes this way and that, clinging to Arminda like a blind person. I’d watched
him practice this act from the rooftop. He used to be pretty convincing. Gringos would
shell out like he was their own son and he would return each night with pockets full of
coins. But lately it wasn’t fooling anyone. Folks were still willing to give Arminda
money just to see that pretty smile, but Edvaldo had grown into that tough guy he’d
always planned on being, and blind or not, he scared the turistas.
That night, all of Babilônia fell asleep to the sound of Edvaldo’s mother
screaming after him like a cat, breaking glass, throwing pans, a crazy jazz that woke the
entire hill. Lately his mother had outfitted him in Mickey Mouse t-shirts, to make him
seem younger, in baggy shirts, to make him look hungrier, but it was no use. Edvaldo
gave the costumers a chance, did what he could for his mother, but at his age the policia
would take any reason to haul him to detention. For meninos de rua, growing old is a
curse: money comes so easy when you have a baby face, but one day in the mirror you
see stones in your eyes, and understand why turistas huddle near streetlights until you
Edvaldo’s time had come. We heard him flee his mother’s home, shouting from
the alleyway below. Oi! he announced. Peering out our windows, we rubbed our eyes.
On the corner Edvaldo stood shirtless, waving. That’s it for me! he called out, almost
singing. Agora eu só com deus!
And that’s how Edvaldo ended up alone with God. Arminda and Othoniel
continued with school. The prefeitura was making new efforts to teach the children
English, so that all citizens of Rio would be able to speak to turistas of the Gran Historia
do Brasil. I heard Othoniel and Arminda every day in the stairwell, practicing phrases
like scales. Good morning, did you know that our country is shaped like a heart? On
weekends, they roamed the beaches looking for Edvaldo.
To their surprise, he was looking better and better. You’ve never eaten like this
before, he told them one night, huddled in the beach culvert with Chinese food from the
restaurant up the street. They’d waited patiently in the alleyway, and when out came the
night’s trash they filled their shirts like baskets, beef, chicken and endless rice. Edvaldo
had learned two or three things on the rua. He snatched fresh shirts and shorts from lines
all across the city and never wore the same thing twice. For money he’d been guarding
parked cars or washing windows or hunting alley rats, and now he had enough cash to
roll as much marijuana as he wanted. They listened to Jorge Ben, laughing, smoking,
Edvaldo with his arm around Arminda. Othoniel told me he didn’t mind so much;
Edvaldo seemed happy; they were together again.
Tonight Edvaldo was telling stories: You remember that one-legged malquerido
who sold the painted eggs? he said. Well the justiceiros snatched him up in a black
sedan. We found him with his nose knifed off. They carved him up like soapstone.
Othoniel watched Arminda. She listened as if every word were gold.
He’s just running his mouth, Othoniel said. None of that stuff is true.
You think you know? Edvaldo said. I’ll show you something. He told them to
finish their smoke. They walked along Avenida São Carlos, the bay dotted with the
bright dots of ships, lighthouse beam turning on the horizon. He led them down a rocky
slope to the underside of the pier. Now and then the shallow waters brightened from the
flare of the lighthouse and just as quickly fell dark. Right here, Edvaldo said. The light
swung around and brightened the body of a young man, pale and leaking like a rotten
fish, his mouth brimming with rocks. I saw them do it, Edvaldo said. Waves lapped the
shore. I guess he didn’t sink like he was supposed to.
You weren’t scared? Arminda asked.
Justiceiros don’t scare me, Edvaldo said.
That night, walking home, Othoniel warned Arminda: You better tell him to be
careful. You think he’s getting all that money washing cars? É dinheiro errado.
He’s a man, now, Arminda said, bold and stubborn como eu. He can take care of
I didn’t find out any of this until a week or so after. Othoniel came home like
he’d seen his own ghost.
What’s wrong, meu filho?
Turns out maybe Edvaldo should have been more careful about showing off that
body. Othoniel had found him huddled in an alleyway with a can of cheira and a broken
arm. And why? Edvaldo had been sleeping under a palm leaf when the justiceiros
picked him up, dragged him to the detention hall to cure his big mouth with the parrot’s
perch. For an entire night they strung him upside down and poured Maravillosa down his
nose and throat. After that, a week in the cells. The guards warned him: Next time, he
would be named manager of the detention hall, his job to beat the other children, or be
beaten by the guards--a death sentence--when a manager was set back on the street,
enemies waited on every corner.
Come home, Othoniel said.
My mother hates me.
Then stay with us, Othoniel said.
What, so I can be spoiled? Edvaldo said. There’s no going back.
That night Othoniel woke to familiar voices in the alleyway, and thought for sure
Edvaldo had changed his mind. He was coming home. But when he felt the empty space
beside him on the bed, when he looked out the window and saw two figures slip into the
shadows, he knew that it was Arminda--gone.
What did I do to drive away minha filha? I never beat her, never teased her the
way other mothers tease their girls. I tell myself maybe it was because of the day they
found her father washed up on the shores of the bay.
In the waiting room that morning, the inspector offered her a strawberry candy.
She wouldn’t take it. I was summoned to identify my husband. Arminda wanted to come
inside, she wanted to see him. I wouldn’t let her. I knew there would be nothing left to
recognize. I left Arminda behind to hold baby Othoniel.
Was that morning the reason why she grew so cold? I can’t say for sure. She
never spoke of it. And that’s the trouble. If I could tell you exactly how all this
happened, I could have done something to stop what happened next.
Without his pázhino, Othoniel wandered the streets alone. By then he had
mastered his cócos and his routine resembled a magic show. A fourth cóco was added,
balanced like a stone on his head until the perfect moment when he tipped his chin
forward and set it into motion with the others, juggling four now, higher than the
streetlamps. I never saw him drop a single cóco. The beach vendors would pay him a
few cruzeiros to perform in front of their kiosks. Turistas begged Othoniel for a second
act, a third. His smile never failed to win their applause, but when the show was over,
grief slipped onto his face again.
Arminda worked in the zona now, on a corner so dark even the taxis wouldn’t
stop. Every night I walked the stairwell, lighting candles for the orixás, hoping they
would show Arminda the way home. On the weekends I sent Othoniel to look for her.
The night he finally found her, he could barely tell the story. After weeks of searching,
he discovered them squatting behind a billboard--cardboard and palm leaf beds, a coffee
can fire.
Nobody tells us what to do here, Arminda said. She and Edvaldo passed a light
bulb back and forth, kissing the glass, savoring the thin curls of white smoke.
You’ve got to come home, Othoniel said. Mae esta preocupada.
Tell your mother this is love, Edvaldo said. You can’t change love.
And yes, Othoniel confessed to me later that in that moment he wanted Edvaldo
dead. Meu filho was a brave child, always braver than his size. When the three of them
were very small, the policia had stopped them on the walk home, hauled them into an
alley. The men had put Othoniel and Edvaldo face against the wall, made Arminda take
off her clothes and dance. Edvaldo stood quiet, as if it were only a storm passing
overhead. The policia unbuckled their pants for the show. It was Othoniel who threw
himself against the policia, punching, not caring whether they strung him on the parrot’s
perch, or filled his mouth with rocks, because his sister was crying now. Yet Edvaldo
just stared at his sandals. The policia buckled their belts and sent Othoniel to the
concrete with their batons. You’re going to have big nuts when you grow up, they told
But that afternoon behind the billboard, watching Arminda and Edvaldo shuffle
through trash for leftover cheira, Othoniel didn’t feel brave at all. When at last Arminda
found a final sniff of glue, she looked up with eyes of glass. If we go home will you
teach us how to juggle? she said, laughing. Please, little brother?
It was only the pedra. Yet Othoniel reached into his pocket and counted out
several bills. If they had money, Edvaldo would have no reason to put Arminda to work.
Sair daqui, viado! Edvaldo said, snatching the money. And that word, viado, you
know how it is in among the meninos. The rua is a small world. That word was already
following Othoniel around, but now Edvaldo spoke it like a hot brand, and before long
even the smallest meninos in the Zona were treating my son like a faggot.
So now it was Othoniel alone with God. While everyone around him was ficando
doido, he walked to school by himself, juggled his cócos on the beach every afternoon.
Some nights he counted sixty or seventy cruzeiros into my hand. I would press his
cheeks close to me, and say, Meu filho, meu Othoniel, gracias a deus.
For a year it was routine. Othoniel, trudging up the hill, cócos cradled in his arm.
Inside the house, I lay awake, waiting for him. I can still feel his kiss on my forehead.
Estou em casa, mae. He stacks his coins carefully in the sugar tin. He empties the
buckets of rain leaked from the roof, extinguishes the bedside candles with wet fingertips.
He unrolls his bed, and though we are both still, we are both awake. We cannot close our
eyes for the patter of drops in the buckets, quickening as the rain keeps coming.
It was after Lent, in the rainy month of April, when Arminda came slouching onto
the beach to call on Othoniel for a favor. She summoned him into a dim alleyway, eyes
putty-gray, bottom lip split like a fat red worm. By then she had been working more than
a year in the zona. Skinny as a drumstick, yet somehow her hair was still smooth and
shiny. She’d just been hitting pedra, he could tell, her lips burnt raw from the hot glass.
Help me brother, she said. Nobody else will help me.
She lifted her shirt. At first he noticed only the pano branco, those old white
patches of skin on her stomach. When they were young I skipped a week of meals to
afford the cream to get rid of that fungus. There are so few things a woman like me can
ever do for her children. I knew that if it spread to their faces, it would forever mark
them as malqueridos. Every night for a month I massaged the stinky cream into their
skin. At last the pano branco receded, except for the two matching white spots on each of
their bellies. But tonight Othoniel saw something else--Arminda’s stomach taut with a
He told her that they would find help, that I would know someone with a remedy.
But Arminda insisted there was only one way. She leaned up against the wet brick wall,
eyes weepy from the cheira, and brought the bottle to her nose for one last huff. She
braced herself. She told Othoniel it would be easy, easy, she said, just one kick, como
um futebol, she said, lifting her shirt higher. In the distance, musicians, drums echoing
like pebbles pitched in the alleyways.
The way the policia tell the story, Othoniel delivered a fatal blow. From then on,
it’s the same old song. He found Edvaldo in the zona, killed him on the street. Strangled,
stabbed, nobody knows, because the policia never produce bodies. Bodies are always
vanishing around here, rising from the dead to walk into the sea. The policia started into
their tune about the boy who killed his sister and her man. A story to cover up Edvaldo,
to explain away the disappeared.
Othoniel was sent to special detention. They said he wasn’t a boy anymore, that
he required security measures. I pleaded with the officials. They promised a trial if we
could afford an abogado. Until then he would wait in the manicômio. When I sold the
house to hire the abogado, they said a trial could wait.
This was twenty-five years ago. I was still a young woman then. I have spent the
last of my youth begging. They say I am wrong about Othoniel, that I’m afraid to admit
that their story is true.
I hate to imagine it. Arminda bracing herself, palms flat against the wet wall,
turning her pretty face away as if Othoniel intends to strike her there instead. Does he do
what she asks because he thinks it is Edvaldo’s baby, because he seeks revenge? Or does
he fulfill her wish because he knows what we all learn sooner or later, that some children
walk this world alone with God, while others don’t have the luck to be born?
Either way, each night I say prayers for them. For Othoniel, for Arminda, even
for Edvaldo. Then I say a prayer for that unborn child.
The candle expired. Othoniel sat empty handed on the mattress, gazing at the
three eggs on the concrete floor. Zezé wrapped the eggs in a towel and lifted herself to
her knees.
Come with me, she said. And be quiet.
At the cell gate, the zelador gently snored. We quietly made our way past him,
into the stairwell, down to the second floor offices. Rain streaked the windows, glowing
white where the moon lit the glass.
At the médico’s office door, Zezé slipped a key into the lock. His screensaver lit
the room, a slideshow of a fishing trip, the médico proudly holding a drum fish. On the
desk a telephone blinked red with ignored messages.
Zezé withdrew a blue and orange telephone card from her purse. It might not
have any minutes left, she said. Her lips moved as she tried to read the instructions on
the back. Here it says calls to E.U. She handed me the card. I dialed the pin number and
then Partway.
Tem dois minutos por esa llamada.
A few distant tones, thick silence, and then ringing. Zezé checked the hallway for
zeladors. A click on the line--the answering machine. Dad had finally changed the
message: You’ve reached Michael Randolph at 382-9678, please leave a message.
“Dad, I said. “This is an emergency. If you’re there, please pick up…” An
instant later I heard my own voice echoed, delayed, in the receiver. “I’m still here in Rio
and I’ve been arrested. This is my only chance to use the phone. Right now they have
me locked up in a place called…” I shuffled around the desk for letterhead, a business
card, anything. Here was a piece of mail: “Hospital Custodial y Tratamento de Rio de
Janeiro,” I said. “Custody and Treatment Hospital of Rio de Janeiro. It’s on Avenida
São Carlos in the Tijuca district. You have to notify the U.S. Consul as soon as you get
I remembered the phone in the recreation room. What’s the number for the phone
in the sala? I asked Zezé.
Não sei, she said. Nobody ever calls.
I checked the telephone for a list of extensions. Nothing. I glanced around the
“Please, Dad--” I said into the phone.
Taped to the bottom of the computer monitor, beside a picture of the médico and a
smiling kid who looked just like him, was a list of extensions around the building: Sala
de Divertimento--4567-3902.
“You can try to call me at 4567-3902. It’s a Rio de Janeiro number. Give it to
the Consul, too.”
Tem um minuto por esa llamada.
“You were right,” I said. “I’m in way over my head.” The machine beeped,
ending the message. No minutes left to try again.
We have to go, Zezé said.
I have to try the Consul.
There is no time, she said.
Por favor, just one more minute. A phone book weighed down a stack of loose
patient histories on top of the file cabinet. I flipped to the government agencies.
Look, Zezé said. I’ve done you a favor. Don’t make me lose my job over this.
I dialed the number. Just one more second.
Para falar na Português, primo o número um. To speak in English, press—
I pressed 2, which transferred me to a labyrinth of automated directory. From
down the hall, the chirping of zeladors on walkie-talkies. I hung up the phone and
flipped through the phone book for Daveison’s number. Zezé ducked behind the desk,
pulled me down with her. The zelador ambled past, yawning.
One more call, I said.
We must go.
I’m sorry, Zezé said. This is all I can do for you.
Her eyes told me there was no use arguing. We slipped out of the office. Zezé
locked the door. Back to bed. All I could do now was hope.
Sonia wandered the aisles of the market, clutching Mrs. Alfonso’s shopping list.
The price tags spread panic like a virus. The novo cruzeiros were failing.
Prices for arroz, frijoles, bife--even toilet paper--were higher. Prices for arroz,
feijão, bife— even toilet paper—were higher. In the next aisle, a woman argued with the
store clerk. What do you mean no milk? Farther down, two more women clamored over
the last box of soap like a tug of war. The tile floor shined, spotted with centavos, old
and new, so many coins that Sonia had to be careful not to slip. Children wandered the
aisles, pocketing novo cruzeiros, letting the old ones clink to the tile.
At the cashier, Sonia came up short with the payment, sorted through the
groceries for anything she could leave behind—furniture polish, birdseed, mint candies.
Instead she paid the last 500 cruzeiros from her own purse. No, Mrs. Alfonso would
accuse her of stealing. She would never believe these new prices, that her allotment of
novo cruzeiros was not enough. Sonia needed everything. For the sake of trust.
Whatever that was. She paid the last 500 cruzeiros from her own purse.
Outside, pouring rain. On the sidewalk, the man who had purchased the last cans
of milk was selling them again for double. By the time Sonia returned to No. 427, the
damp paper grocery bags were tearing at the seams.
Sonia put away the groceries. She set an egg to boil and placed a sweaty can of
Coke on the kitchen table for Mr. Alfonso. He arrived, as usual for Monday, promptly at
She cracked open the soda can. I’ve been waiting for you, she said. He took his
seat. She stood behind him.
I apologize for my wife, Mr. Alfonso said, lifting the can of Coke and wiping a
ring of perspiration from the table. She is particular about how she likes Juliana to be
dressed for school.
I didn’t mean any harm, Sonia said.
I know you didn’t, Mr. Alfonso said. He took a long pull from the Coke, jugular
throbbing with every sip. He did not meet her eyes. I will tell her that we’re keeping
At the counter Sonia spread butter on a roll of bread and set it on a plate. She
spooned the egg from the boiling water and peeled it over the sink. She sliced it cleanly
and arranged the slices in a half-moon on the plate. When she turned, he was waiting,
fork in hand.
Algo mais? she asked.
Nothing more for now, he said.
Sonia took a seat across from him. There was an understanding in his eyes. O
senhor, she said, now that we have a chance to speak in private-I already know, he said. From his jacket pocket he pulled an envelope, set it on
the table. These are old cruzeiros, he said, but beginning next week, we will be paying
you in novo cruzeiros. You have my word on this.
She didn’t know how to proceed. None of the words she had practiced with
Jackie felt right, but silence was not an option. She watched him finish his roll, brushing
crumbs from his tie to the floor. He fished through his jacket pockets for a cigarette. He
slipped one between his lips and leaned forward. Sonia reached into her apron for
matches, struck one, and held it out for him, smell of flame and sulfur, same as policia
burning billboards.
We have more to speak of than just money, Sonia said, waving out the match.
Smoke ribboned to the ceiling. Rain sizzled on the roof. She touched her stomach.
Isso, he said. I can’t be held responsible for what you do on weekends.
This did not happen on a weekend, she said.
Oi, Sonia. You have to be joking. It’s been only those few times.
She tried to speak up, voice like thin glass: This is yours inside me, o Senhor.
You’re making a big mistake here.
No mistake, she said. I’m sure of it.
Puta que pariu, he said. Imagining things.
Well I wonder what your wife would think of my imag-He pounded the table with his palm: Voce sabe quem esta falando? But Sonia did
know who she was talking to. Jackie was right. A scoundrel, a cheater, a man who
should pay for his mistakes. Mr. Alfonso looked around as if at any moment his wife
could hear, as if the parakeet might relay the truth when she returned. He wiped his
mouth with his sleeve. If you’re so sure, then I can give you money for that, too.
Was this child so easily bribed away? Something to be placed in the JUNCO
box? Sonia tried to think what Jackie would do.
No, senhor, Sonia said. You’ll give me the money for this week and next week
and ten weeks.
For a moment when he stood and wrapped his arms around her, she thought back
to that first lust in the bathroom, but now he squeezed her, rifled through her apron for
the house key, and carried her like a misdelivered package to the back step. Sonia
slapped her hand against the pane glass, shouting, until a policia down the alleyway
glared, waiting for her to retreat.
The rain had quit and now the air was thick and muggy. The courtyard of the
Plaça da Quimera was slippery with littered coins. The baby kicked.
Jackie will help. Save your crying until you get home. Jackie always knows what
will help.
The midday bus was nearly empty. On the Rua de San Luis, already the
prefeitura workers had finished replacing the billboard burned the week before. The new
display stood on fifteen-foot poles, safe from the malqueridos: The photo-family gathered
for evening prayer, spotless, unpeeled by wind and water. Ame-o! Love it. Deixe-o!
Leave it.
After three nights in the manicômio, my teeth were thick with scum. The benzo
shrank the days and swelled the nights.
Each morning I gnashed a fresh notch on my ID
bracelet, afraid to lose track of time. Three nights here, two nights in the lock-up,
however many nights in between. A week at least since the jockey’s apartment, since I’d
been renamed Jão da Silva.
No more skipping medicine. I’d crouched under beds or behind trees, listening to
the chirp of walkie-talkies drawing closer, but the zeladors always found me, pinched my
nose and checked my mouth. Best to swallow and forget. This morning I shuffled
through the line for the pharmacy counter, presented my chewed ID bracelet to the
zeladora behind the glass. A cup of four pills, a cup of water in the turn box.
The young nun circled the cafeteria for morning blessing, but the patients were
engrossed in the morning news: The famous Carioca model’s Leblon neighborhood,
overrun with little dogs. Residents from across the city had been scooping up any black
dog they encountered, hoping by chance it was the model’s beloved pet. When it wasn’t
the match, they set the animal loose in the alleyways, and now black dogs of all shapes
and sizes wandered outside the boutiques, panting in the shade, begging for gelato,
growling at cameramen. The real dog had been found overnight by a member of the
model’s entourage. Pelé had been restored to his rightful place.
At the food line, the tattooed Indio served me a thin bowl of soup and two juice
boxes. I found a seat beside Speechless and the old men who sang under the mango tree.
Familiar faces at least. They ate silently, staring at the screen. The camera panned across
the model’s suspended mansion. Split level pool, crystal dining room, stainless steel
kitchen, game room, master bedroom the size of the cafeteria.
So tell us, asked one of the old men, is that what it’s like growing up in America?
You should ask the President, I said. He’s somewhere around here.
I mean for everyday people, the old man said.
That dog lives better than anyone I used to know, I said, as if America was from a
past I would never see again.
The footage of the mansion didn’t stop. Juice bar. Home theater. Maid’s
quarters. Butler’s quarters. Chef’s quarters. Trampoline room. Listening room. Hot
rock massage room. Speechless and his friends watched the procession, transfixed. At
the medicine counter, patients queued up at the turn box, awaiting their doses.
I gazed slack jawed into my lukewarm bowl of soup, dreaming of escape, as if I
could dive into the salty broth and live like a sea monkey.
Now the camera zoomed on Pelé, tongue hanging from his mouth, lounging on a
fuzzy pillow beside a bowl of blended açai. Speechless pointed at the screen, then tapped
his chest.
What’s he saying? I asked the old man.
He says that life should have been his.
In the sala I found the President leaning against the wall by the phone, receiver
pressed close to his lips. He spoke urgently, eyelids twitching. At the end of his
imagined conversation, I stopped him before he could dial again.
Com licença, I asked. I’m waiting for a call. Could you make your call later?
Are you telling me what to do?
You already owe me two favors.
I remember.
This phone is only for emergencies.
This is an emergency.
He glanced out the window to where a new futebol game was beginning in the
courtyard. Okay, he said, but this makes three.
I pulled up a chair by the telephone, desperate for it to ring. I imagined Dad
listening to my message, my lunatic rambling. I knew my father, his sense of justice, his
sense of pride. Either he would think I deserved whatever trouble I was in, or he would
figure I should clean up my own messes.
Nearby, a patient stood alone at the foosball table, spinning bars at random. At
the window, comatose patients watched the clouds swamp the sun, stirring a bit when
thunder shook the room. Light rain spotted the glass. The zelador supervising the room
doodled with crayons, got bored, and began melting crayons in the blue spark of his stun
When the P.A. announced dinner, the President poked his head through the sala
door, bald head dripping sweat.
Did your call come? he asked.
Not yet.
Hey, is your name Peter Randolph?
Yes, I said, standing.
Isso, he said, scratching his chin.
Why? What happened?
I remember some guy called for you this morning.
Why didn’t you tell me?
He didn’t know the code word.
Benzo, brain adrift, eyes like peeled cherries. Nothing to do after dinner but walk
the corridor, toiling just to stay awake, shoulder to shoulder with my reflection on the tile.
Lightning, thunder, the manicômio trembled. Othoniel rattled his handcuffs on
the bed frame, gleeful. I stood on a bed and peered outside. Curtains of rain. The
patients mucked around in a sloppy futebol game. The President stood on the sidelines,
rain washing his hair across his face. The old men huddled under the mango tree in the
corner, singing folk music, Speechless clapping along.
The P.A. announced lights out, early on account of the worsening storm. The
President signaled for the players to keep going--the game wasn’t over. Outside, the
zeladors struggled to herd loose patients through the revolving door. I heard the chirp of
walkie talkies down the corridor, extra hands being summoned to help contain the mess
The President called a penalty. The offending team protested, but the President
insisted, ordered the other team to line up for a penalty kick. Before they could settle the
dispute, a zelador walked across the field and snatched the muddy bola in his hands. The
tattooed Indio shoved him to the ground and took it back.
All at once the courtyard disintegrated into chaos. Rain blew sideways. Patients
scattered. However omnipresent the zeladors seemed in their identical uniforms and
walkie talkies, it was obvious now that only a few staffed the hospital. Now I counted
four six trying to herd the dozens of patients through the revolving door, their pepper
spray useless in the wind. One zelador held a stun gun in his hand, hesitant to use it in
the rain.
This was my only chance. I hurried along the corridor, feet weighed down by
days of endless benzo, stripping sheets from their mattresses. Othoniel stood at the
window, watching me twist four sheets tight, knotting them into a long rope.
Have you seen Arminda? he asked.
Arminda is fine, Othoniel.
Through the window, I heard a zelador call through the PA system: Policia
militar are on their way. If you don’t come inside right now, it’s going to end up just like
last time.
I pulled pillowcases from the beds and wrapped them around my hands like giant
mittens. Othoniel said nothing as I ran down the corridor. Rounding the stairwell, my
legs were blubber. I pushed through the revolving door to the moonlit courtyard where
now the President stood on a picnic table, naked, waving his yellow jumpsuit like a flag,
cheering the riot.
The mango tree in the corner was my only hope. Speechless and his friends
gathered around the trunk, offering their music to the wind. The only stopped their song
when I threw my sheet-rope over a high branch.
You’ll never make it, one of the old men said.
It’s a pretty good idea, though, with the sheets, said another.
I tested the sheet-rope. It held my weight. The zeladors were occupied at the
picnic tables. I tried to climb the rope, bare feet against the brick wall for leverage.
Speechless stepped in and tried to push my ass over. His joined in to help.
I reached my right hand over the wall, but the pillowcase wasn’t enough padding.
A glass shard pierced my hand like a knife into dough. Crying out, I fell backward,
collapsing onto Speechless in the mud. A zelador hustled over, drenched in rain, stun
gun crackling blue in his hands. n.
Time out, Speechless signaled with a T. His singer friends returned to their
spaces under the tree.
Told you, one said. This isn’t the movies. It’s a manicômio.
The zelador pushed me against the brick wall. A blue spark, a clap of giant
hands. I dropped, mouth frothing. The current gripped me, tight like a fist, and that last I
remembered was the smell of burning hair.
In the pitch of night, I woke, strapped to the gurney. Veins hot, bones scraped
clean of marrow. Heart still pounding. Left hand wrapped haphazardly in a brown paper
No more rain, as if the storm had been cancelled. I heard a metallic scratching
like rats chewing on wire. I turned my neck to see Othoniel yanking at one of the metal
bedsprings below his mattress. Now it twisted free, curled like a hook.
Zezé! I called out, but my voice was but a cold, damp cord strung loosely from
my mouth. The corridor was fast asleep.
Othoniel went to work on his shins, gritting his teeth as he scraped.
I could only turn toward the wall. Electricity hummed in my chest. The night
budged slowly, the moon’s reflection arcing across the tile work, until at last it melted in
the morning pink.
Abigail summoned Michael and Vanessa to her office for one last request, on
behalf of the birth mother. The girl was due to deliver that night.
“It’s not that she’s changed her mind,” Abigail said. “It’s that, by law, she has
twelve months to revoke her decision. Some mothers are willing to waive that right in
exchange for an act of good faith.”
“I’m not paying for my baby,” Vanessa said.
“That’s not what I’m asking you to do,” Abigail said.
How much had they paid already? Lodging, court costs, airline tickets,
donations--the sum of the endeavor, two years’ salary.
“This gift will be very helpful,” Daveison said. “The girl, she can start a business.
Make clothes, a little money. This way she can, how do you say, pick up her life?”
The night before, the young mother had moved in to the borning room. Vanessa
spied through a crack in the door. No older than sixteen, she told Michael later. Her face
was flush with color, her stomach a soft globe. Vanessa said that she only wanted a
glimpse, just to imagine what their child might grow up to look like. But when she
touched the door handle, a surge of envy left her trembling.
Now Abigail removed her reading glasses, waiting for their answer. For the first
time, Michael noticed in the corner of her eye a gray film, the beginnings of a cataract.
“Is this ordinary?” Michael asked.
“Perfectly ordinary,” she said.
“A very lucky situation for you Randolphs,” Daveison said. “A child straight
from mother. Skip the orphanage.”
“Is this even legal?” Vanessa asked.
“What we must remember here,” Abigail said, hands folded on the desktop, “is
that the Lord has provided us with the opportunity to enact an exchange of the highest
Vanessa refused to accompany Michael for the purchase. He walked the aisles
alone, holding a picture of a sewing machine that Abigail had clipped from O Globo. He
examined each machine. Should it be wrapped? He didn’t even know how to ask the
woman behind the counter for the service, but with a few gestures, he conveyed the idea.
The cashier wrapped the box in bright blue paper. This he carried back to the orphanage,
pausing at every corner to adjust the heavy load.
Abigail opened the gift herself. “You didn’t have to spend this much,” she said,
examining the machine.
“The other ones didn’t look as nice.”
Outside the borning room, their last, long hours of waiting. Daveison explained
that the girl had been given an extra special medicine to blunt the panic that would
follow. He stepped into the room with a clipboard of papers for the girl to sign. It didn’t
take long.
From the end of the hallway, they heard no wailing, only brief, low groans. When
finally the infant’s cries filled the hallway, a handful of other children in the orphanage
emerged sleepy from their bunks, sucking their thumbs in the shadows. Daveison said a
prayer. Abigail emerged with the baby wrapped in cloth and closed the borning room
It was a long time before Vanessa would turn over the child to Michael, and when
it was finally his chance to hold this delicate blend of air and blood and time, he could
not comprehend how that heavy chain of hot afternoons could be reduced to something so
Their last night in Brazil, the power failed across Rio de Janeiro. They packed
their bags by candlelight. Vanessa held the baby while Michael arranged the last items,
souvenirs, artifacts of their months on the continent. Sweet liquors and marble statuettes,
t-shirts and post cards to disperse back home, meager recompense for those who had
offered their dollars and prayers.
The telephone clipped the silence. Daveison: “I could not stop her. She says she
just wants to hold her. She’s on the bus right now.”
Michael hung up the phone and without explanation told Vanessa to pack the
baby’s bag, and quickly. He called for a taxi. Every passing car seemed to quake the
A knock at the door, a rapping so loud as to make the child cry. The girl, sobbing
on the front steps, now shaking the handle, now pounding her palm on the door, a steady
heartbeat, ceasing only when she shouted into the black, balmy night--Meu filho!--as if to
splinter the tiny house with the tremor of her voice alone.
“She’ll give up soon,” Michael said, and resumed packing the suitcases. Vanessa
stood at the back door, clutching the infant to her chest, peering out to the dim alleyway.
“No. She won’t.”
Michael split the curtains, peered outside. No headlights, no cab waiting. From
the steps the girl called out, unrelenting. He extinguished the candles with his fingtertips.
They surrendered all but the essentials. No more waiting, no choice in this
matter. They slipped out the back door, shadows in the alleyway. Michael felt his waist
belt for their documents. They heard the girl keening. Vanessa hushed the child. They
slunk around the corner, readied themselves to flee down the boulevard. Michael glanced
at the front steps: the mother clutched the sewing machine like a raw black ore.
He resolved, at that moment, to forget.
Before the sun was full-up, the zeladors unbuckled my straps and led me to an
examination room on the first floor. The médico entered, cigarette between his lips, and
gawked at the paper bag wrapped like butcher paper around my hand.
Opa, he said, peeling away the bag. The glass shards on the wall had split the
hand between the middle and ring fingers so that now it flayed open like red wings. We
get you cleaned up, no?
He left the room, cigarette smoke trailing like exhaust. A zeladora appeared with
a plastic tub filled two inches deep with iodine. A hurried, untrained washing. The night
before was a cold, hard blur, like falling into a frozen lake; the hot jolt of iodine yanked
me to the surface.
The zeladora wrapped my hand with gauze, afraid to tighten the dressing, so that
when she was finished it resembled a poorly wrapped gift. A knock at the door. My
birth father’s lawyer, dressed in sweatpants and a baggy hooded sweatshirt. Without her
makeup she looked younger--my age. The zeladora excused herself.
“Bom dia,” the lawyer said, taking a seat on a plastic chair underneath the
calendar. “I brought you a hot cheese sandwich.” She reached into her purse and
presented me with a small foil package. “Made fresh from home. If there’s one strange
thing about Americans, it’s that you hardly ever make food fresh at home. Always going
out, no?”
“Please,” I said, “just let me go.”
“You don’t need to worry,” she said. “It’s not poison. My daughter ate one just
an hour ago.”
“You have to let me out of here.”
“We know this hasn’t been the most comfortable of circumstances,” she said, “but
believe it or not, we thought you might be safer here. For a while you were doing so
good.” She replaced the sandwich in her purse and withdrew a digital camera. “It seems
you have been causing some trouble since last we spoke.” She stood, began taking
photographs of me--face, hand, ID bracelet, tattered feet.
“Why are you doing this?” I said.
“You must be tired,” she said, stifling a yawn. “To be honest, I am tired as well.
As you can see this engagement is well beyond my normal working hours. This morning
my little one is playing her first match in the goalie box. But I’ve been told my
willingness to work odd hours is what makes me excel at my job.”
“I’ve already called the Consul. They know all about this. I’ve called Daveison.”
“You’ll be pleased to know we’ve cleared up much of this, how do you say, funny
business with Mr. Daveison. I met him for the first time this morning. He has been
looking everywhere for you.”
“Let me see him,” I asked. I stood from the examination table. The zeladors in
the hallway noticed and rushed inside. The lawyer offered them the hot sandwich. The
zelador unwrapped the foil, tore the sandwich in two, and gave one half to his friend.
They retreated to the hallway, pulled down their face masks, and ate.
“How to explain this?” the lawyer said. “Daveison is a vulture. He has led you
down quite a terrible road. It is a sad truth that there are more and more men like him
these days, taking advantage of young people like yourself, extorting respectable people
like my client.”
“You’re lying.” It couldn’t be true. If Dom Ricardo wasn’t my father, why all
the effort to put me away?
“Look around you, Peter! What more proof do you need?” she asked. “Would a
father do this to his son? A place like this is for enemies, not family.”
I felt my heartbeat pulsing through my wounded hand. There was no one to
believe. I couldn’t even trust myself anymore.
“What does Dom Ricardo want from me?”
“My client has taken extreme measures already,” she said. “Ordinarily there
would be no going back. You might stay here until your hair and teeth fell out. But I
phoned him personally moments ago. I explained this Daveison situation, how you have
been victimized, so to speak. My client is a powerful man, but a father himself, and a
good one at that. His only request is that you surrender your visa.”
“Let me speak to him. Please.”
“Mr. Randolph, you have this unfortunate habit of not listening,” she said. “Let
me make our offer clear: You will leave the country. You will pursue this no further. In
exchange, we will see to it that the charges against you are forgotten.
I studied my hand, blood and iodine leaking through the gauze.
The lawyer stood from her chair. “You’ll be happy to know that Mr. Daveison is
here. Allow me to fetch him. I’m sure our generosity will be abundantly clear.”
She left the room, and a moment later, into the cell walked Daveison. On his
face, a look of panic, as if he’d been cornered.
Peter, he said, Gracias a Deus.
“I found him,” I said, too exhausted for Portuguese. “Dom Ricardo. I followed
the Jockey Club.”
Outside the examination room window, the lawyer stood speaking to the médico
who passed her a chart.
You can tell me all about it later, Daveison said. We need to get you out of here
now. Home to your father.
“They said you were lying.”
This is your only chance, Peter. They are willing to forget about the break in. If
you just go now. This could get much worse very quickly, for both of us.
The lawyer poked her head through the door. “This is one time when you can
believe him, Peter.”
Daveison took a step away from me, to the corner of the cell.
“But Dom Ricardo?” I said. “Why would he care so much?”
“Final offer,” the lawyer announced from the hallway.
Daveison called to her: “He’s ready to go home now.”
Three zeladors swarmed the room. I lay back on the cold stainless steel of the
examination table, as if they were about to cut me open. Instead they clipped my ID
bracelet like a flower stem, handed over my clothes in a Ziploc bag.
“This has been a wise choice,” the lawyer said, passing me an envelope from her
purse. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I must get to a match.”
I opened the envelope. An exit visa, a one-way ticket to Portland. Poof.
We emerged from the manicômio gates, onto the street. It had all happened just a
few blocks away from the Tijuca National Park, and now a tour bus turned into the park
entrance, passengers pointing cameras out the window.
The sky this morning was sapphire, white at the edges. Driving back into the city,
the hands of Cristo Redentor were visible in the unraveling fog.
“How did you know I was here?” I asked.
“Your father Michael call from U.S.,” Daveison said, searching for words in
English. “He play for me your message. Just last night. I come right away, but no
visitors until morning.”
“She said you were a vulture. That none of what you said was true.”
“I thought you just want a few answers, a few stories. I think, good reason for
Peter to come visit Brazil. Not take it so far. No harm, just a few answers.”
“What are you saying?
“Peter, how do you say? Things are no good for me here lately.” He clenched the
steering wheel. “I needed the money, my friend.”
“But the envelope I showed you. The letter she sent.”
“I must speak of the truth,” Daveison said. “There was a time when we, when
Abigail, when we would send those letters. To bring peace to the families.”
“What? That’s not possible. Why?”
“They were like fairy tales. We thought the children would outgrow them.
Really, Peter. Did you think that your birth mother knew her ABCs?”
For all the reading and traveling, for all the nights of imagining, I had blinded
myself to this simple reality: If Sonia could read, if Sonia could write, she wouldn’t have
had to give me up. Did Mom know the letter was false? Is this why she never wrote
back, why she kept the envelope hidden all those years? Or did she daydream like I did?
“This is ninety-percent my fault--” Daveison said.
“But I will make amends for it, Peter, I promise! But we must go now. To the
airport. Time is most important. I will take care of your apartment, have your things sent
to you. I will take care of everything.”
But I was too exhausted to be furious at Daveison. At this moment I only wanted
to leave, to get home, to set my foot on American soil. I gazed out the window as we
drove to the airport. We passed billboards, phone booths, children tapping shoulders at
the sidewalk cafés, palms out.
“Can you forgive me Peter?” Daveison asked. Searing through the tunnels, my
pupils widened in the dark. “I just don’t want you grow up thinking you were another
whore’s child.”
When we emerged into the light, it was clear to me why Dad never wanted me to
open this door. Now that I’d seen the other side, it was impossible to forget how close
I’d come to not having this life.
Dad waited for me on the other side of U.S. Customs in Portland. A federal agent
stood nearby, squeezing a cell phone between his neck and shoulder as he jotted notes on
a pad.
Dad grasped me in his arms. I hadn’t seen him in three months, and in that time
his hair had lost its last strands of color. The lines on his face were canyons.
“Let me see that hand,” he said, peeling back the gauze. “Jesus.”
“It’s fine.”
“We need to get you to a doctor.” He inspected me inch by inch, and satisfied
that I was otherwise intact, he took a step back. “What the hell did you get yourself
“It’s not how it seems.”
“Breaking and entering, Peter!” he said. “They have pictures, fingerprints--it’s
exactly how it seems!”
The customs agent glared at us, plugging an ear with his fingertip. When he
finished his call, he escorted us into a small office for paperwork, his desk a neat
rectangle that smelled of pine.
“To be quite honest,” he said, capping his pen, “I’ve never seen such a generous
deal. We’ve revoked your visa, but you’re free to walk. For our part, we won’t be
pressing any charges.”
“This won’t happen again,” Dad said.
“Consider yourself very lucky,” the agent said. “Whatever happened down there,
you have some friends in high places.”
The first order of business was repairing my hand. The agent directed us to an
urgent care clinic near the airport. The hospital waiting room, like coming home. The
nurse irrigated the gash. An x-ray showed the bones intact. The second and third digital
nerves had been severed. For now, 25 stitches, antibiotics, and a tetanus booster. In a
few months, surgery. Dad and I watched the doctor work in silence, no words worth
exchanging in public.
We left the city, engine running hot. Silence, save for the radio news, the Dow
Jones Industrial Average, Afghanistan, the American League pennant race, a whole world
spinning on. Soon the highway narrowed into two lanes cutting into the forest.
Snowmelt waterfalls cascaded down the cliffsides. We rounded Mount Hood, the
familiar path to the desert, roadside flanked by the charred remains of the early summer
forest fires, hillsides of timber like burnt matchsticks.
The odometer turned, mile after mile of quiet, so much unsaid between us that to
choose a first word was to pick a knife. It wasn’t until we were halfway home that Dad
finally spoke.
“I should have stopped you before you left,” he said.
“Since when are you allowed to stop me?”
“You’ve always made too much of this.”
“Too much of what? My life?”
“Tell me just one thing,” he said, eyes flitting from the road to the rear view.
“What is it that we didn’t give you?”
“This was never about you and Mom,” I said.
“Exactly,” he said. “It was about you. Even when your mother was dying, it was
always about you.”
“It’s not that,” I started. “It’s--” But I didn’t know how to finish. When it came
to talking about Mom, we had only ever learned the language of prescription warnings,
test results, insurance statements--no words to describe this ache. “I just needed
something else.”
Out the window, pine forest, a green blur.
“So you had to run off and do your little investigation?
“I couldn’t just live the rest of my life not knowing.”
“Nobody asked you to wait the rest of your life,” he said, “but the flowers hadn’t
even wilted yet.” The truck rumbled, tires dipping off the shoulder momentarily. “Your
mother used to say you just had a wild imagination--”
“Who’s the one who kept feeding me bullshit all those years? She thought she
could just buy me a fucking flag and I’d forget about Brazil?”
“Peter, stop.”
“Stop? That’s all we’ve ever done is stop. You couldn’t even stand to look me in
the face and talk about it! Why couldn’t you just tell me the truth--my birth mother was
an illiterate a servant, my birth father was an asshole who didn’t want me. Is that so
hard? Did you think I couldn’t handle it?”
Dad slowed the truck, pulled the car to the shoulder. Gravel snapped up into the
wheel wells. Traffic overcame us.
“Sometimes stories are better,” he said.
“I didn’t want stories. I didn’t need a fairy tale. It may have been better for you
and Mom, but it wasn’t better for me.”
“Fine,” he said, touching his head as if it ached. “The truth is, someone called
the orphanage…” He turned to the window. “Listen, what happened was… you see, this
lady saw a towel on the sidewalk. She heard something inside--”
“And it was you, Petey.”
A semi-truck blared past, rocking the truck on its axels. Dad shifted into gear.
We rumbled back onto the asphalt. Dusk. The forest thinned out into desert. I didn’t
come to my senses for miles and miles, not until we saw that first sign for Partway.
That summer the Pandora moths came late. I remember catching a single A
baseball game with Dad in September. We sat under the stadium lights, moths swarming
overhead, the diamond growing dim. In the 3rd inning, outfielders began dropping
routine fly balls. The moths smoked on the hot bulbs, fluttered crispy into our beer cups.
We pinched the charred bodies from the foam, tossed them over our shoulders, and kept
drinking. In the middle of the 5th , the umpires killed the lights and called the whole thing
Chuck found me a job with the company that scooped up The Pioneer. Easy
work, writing Spanish ad copy for the auto section. I sank back into the United States.
Health insurance, 3% matching annuity. First world plumbing. Clean, orderly lines.
Wheelchair ramps and emergency fire sprinklers, the microfibers of infrastructure. Iced
lattes. Fifteen dollar lunches. Worrying about deductibles and surgery and the loss of
sensation in my hand. Forgetting about Brazil and international clips. Forgetting to visit
the cemetery.
In November Gary took his soccer team to the state tournament. They got their
asses handed to them in the quarterfinals, but he won Coach of the Year. By
Thanksgiving he was fielding job offers from up and down the west coast. He surprised
the shit out of everyone by leaving his job mid-semester--before he had too much time to
think it over, he said. San Diego, he said. Lots of sun and Mexican girls. He didn’t tell
anyone until his truck was packed. With the money I paid him back, he bought a new
Skilsaw for the woodshop. With his last paycheck, he ordered a brand new set of
uniforms for his team, striped like Flamengo. The poor kids cried when he left. He told
them sometimes you just gotta jump. Then he did.
Hardly any snow fell that winter. The Cascades were gray and bare except for a
few old glaciers melting down the peaks. The ski resorts manufactured powder to stay
open. In Portland it was clear and sunny, 60 degrees in January, everyone looking up at
the sky like something was broken.
Then in March, Partway froze, hard and fast. Dad needed help with the lambs.
On a Saturday morning we spread fresh straw in the birthing pens, set the heat lamps on a
timer. That night he woke me. I squinted at the clock--4 a.m. I slipped on my boots and
jacket in the dim hallway and stumbled out to the barn, air heavy with blood and manure.
A ewe was hemorrhaging. One of the lambs had already arrived, steaming in the cold. I
gripped the ewe by the neck while Dad tugged at the half-birthed twin. It came stillborn,
but the ewe went to licking it anyway, left the healthy twin writhing in afterbirth. Dad
leaned against the wall of the pen, out of breath, bloody hands on his knees. He yanked
the ewe over to its healthy lamb, yelled and cursed at her, but she kept going back to the
stillborn. I took the dead one in my arms and carried it out to pasture. We’d bury it
tomorrow. When I returned to the pen, the ewe had gotten the right idea, but Dad was on
the straw, sobbing into the sleeve of his flannel.
The anniversary of Mom’s death. She wouldn’t want us feeling sorry. We treated
it like a birthday, got dressed up for the Sizzler. It used to be that Mom and Dad let me
start on the salad bar while they waited in line to pay. Now Dad and I waited in line
together. “Go on and get started,” he insisted, but I couldn’t stand to see him alone at the
register. I lingered just behind him and paid before he could reach for his wallet. We sat
down together. It was only when the bus girl came over that we realized we’d ordered
three Pepsis. Dad peeled open two straws, the way Mom liked, and stuck them in the
extra cup. Our first good laugh. Folks looked at us like we were crazy, but we chowed
down like old times.
Things were getting better, week by week, month by month, which is why I didn’t
tell Dad when I saw the obituary. It ran that winter in The Oregonian, not long after New
Year’s. I was riding MAX home from work when I saw Abigail Long, dead at
86…responsible for more than 340 Brazilian children being adopted to the U.S. from
Brazil, the article read, many of them right here in Oregon… Maybe they ran one in the
Partway Weekly Shopper. If so, then Dad had seen it. These days he turned straight to
the obituaries, reading up on all the ways there were to die. If he saw Abigail’s, it
probably gave him a sense of relief, a door finally closed.
But I had to go to the service. It was held at the St. Augustine Catholic Church in
northeast Portland. A rainy day, near freezing. The street sweepers hadn’t passed and
gusts sent trash fluttering along the curbs. I’d forgotten my umbrella on the bus and by
the time I reached the church I looked like hell. The pews were full of people of all
colors on their knees.
The mass was led by a priest named Father Paulo. His face and hands looked like
chicken skin, and his left eye perpetually wept so that periodically he had to dab at it with
a white cloth. He spoke to the assembled, said that what we all had in common was
Abigail Long. “She even found a home for me,” he said. “And you don’t have to look
very hard to see that was no easy task.” Father Paulo said that Abigail considered all of
the children at Esperança her kids, and she spent accordingly. Every last nickel had gone
to cleft lip surgery, eye glasses, and dental work. But now Father Paulo pointed our
attention to the casket, which gleamed, and thanked everyone for contributing.
“Abigail was part of a long line of Rio saints,” he said. “In olden times, orphans
were so common that people would find them tucked in the bushes like Easter eggs.
Folks would deposit the foundlings in turn boxes outside the convents, and spin the
wheel, and on the other side would be nuns waiting to give that child a name and a home.
No matter the child, a name and a home…”
The reception was held at a private residence a few blocks away from the church.
The house seemed to barely be able to fit everyone. I hardly recognized a face and didn’t
bother with a nametag. The food was in the living room, but mourners gravitated toward
the kitchen anyway.
On the refrigerator door were photos of dozens of Abigail’s kids, a giant collage,
sticky notes explaining what each was up to now. Freshman at Reed. History Teacher.
Graphic Designer. Paramedic. Mechanical Engineer. Network Specialist. Names like
Andre Robinson, Lindsay Butler, and Rachel Steinlobowitz, Brazilians by blood,
something else by name. Someone had taped up an old photograph from one of those
Memorial Day weekends at the petting zoo. Ana Luiza, Roger, and me, standing in the
sun, shade of the fir trees falling on our shoulders. Only one label: Ana Luiza Schremp Veterinary Assistant.
I remembered the night Ana Luiza taught me that tongue twister. Três tratos de
trigo para três tigres tristes. Our parents were inside, watching a slide show. The two of
us lay out on the trampoline, gawking at the stars. No moon. The sky was a deep purple
cloth full of puncture holes. Coyotes whined off in the distance. An owl swept across
the barnyard like a specter. A motion light triggered, flaring over the mountain lion cage-Abe and Sarah pacing, eyes like drops of fire. Três tigres tristes para três tratos de trigo.
Now a hand on my shoulder, Ana Luiza. She’d grown taller and when she smiled
her cheeks rose and dimples appeared at the corners of her mouth.
“Long time no see, huh?” she said.
“Wow. Hi.”
“I hear you’re doing good,” she said. “I’m sorry about your Mom. She was
always really nice to me, you know? When we had those parties, she never tried to teach
me English or anything. She would just want to sit and talk.”
“So veterinary assistant, huh?”
“It’s just a fancy title for someone who gives enemas,” she said, smirking. The
scars around her mouth had grown faint with time, marks you would only notice if you
knew the stories behind them. “So someone over there told me you finally made it to
“Yeah,” I said, looking into the next room. I didn’t realize anyone here knew me
well enough to talk about what happened. I tucked my bad hand in my pocket. “I was
doing some writing.”
“Like a book?”
“Just some articles,” I said. “It wasn’t what I was expecting, I guess.”
“What were you expecting?”
“I’m not sure.”
Now other visitors crowded around the kitchen table where Father Paulo had
spread out Abigail’s old photo album, pictures there for the taking. Families lined up to
search through the pages.
“So many of us,” I said.
“You still think about Esperança a lot, huh?” Ana Luiza said.
“All the time.”
“It’s so funny,” she said.
“Why’s that?”
“I mean, you were hardly there.” We stepped apart to make room for a woman
slipped past to the photo album. “Hey, I got a letter from Roger,” Ana Luiza said.
“I didn’t know you two stayed in touch.” I remembered Roger standing on the
shoulder of the road his first year in Partway, waving at semi-trucks as they blared past,
signaling for the drivers to blow their air horns. The sound collapsing him into giggles.
“He’s in Afghanistan. I don’t think he has anyone else to write to,” she said.
“He’s been there three times. Talk about a hard life.”
I wondered what life Roger would have had if Mom and Dad would have taken
him that year in high school, but I stopped the thought before it took root. These days I
was leery about imagining all those other lives.
“We’re all so different now,” I said.
“I know. I was sort of a freak. I try not to think of when I first got here. It was
hard. Like I wanted to go home, only the door was always locked.”
“What made it better?”
“Time, I guess,” she said. “And Mom. She tried like really hard with me. I once
stabbed her in the cheek with plastic fork,” she said. “Can you believe that?”
“So you never think about Esperança? You know, how things could have been?”
“Maybe,” she said. “I don’t know, I guess things could have been different. But I
like where I am now. If you do write a book, you should put that in there. Like Father
Paulo said, we are all really lucky.”
Outside gray waves of clouds began to move, dimming the road. The landscape
trees on the street brushed side to side in the gathering wind.
“You feel that way, even with what happened to your sister?”
“How do you know about my sister?”
“I’m just asking.”
“She has a nice family somewhere,” Ana Luiza said.
“How do you know?”
“I don’t know, I guess. But she’s somewhere. She’s fine. “She’s probably a
good futebol player.”
“But how do you know for sure?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “I just know. She loved to kick stuff around, even
when she was a baby. Listen, I have to go say goodbye to Father Paulo.”
“It was good seeing you.”
“If you do write a book, make me pretty, okay?”
And with that, she walked away. I remembered why I’d been compelled to kiss
her so many years ago--black eyes I wanted to dive into, raven hair drawing all the light
of the world.
I nudged closer to the kitchen table, joined the line for the photo album. People
gathered, holding pink cups of wine. Ahead of me was Larry the blue-eyed biological
kid, his lip still scarred from that trampoline dunk so many years ago. He was talking to
someone about his job--an adoption lawyer of all things. I avoided eye contact,
conversation, not wanting to answer questions about Mom or Brazil or my hand.
We shuffled forward in line, the book of origins, its strange gravity. I
remembered the look on kids’ faces when they saw those pictures--tenderness, pain,
wonder. Somewhere in that album was the only image of me as a newborn. Now I
understood why Dad had always kept it out of reach. That photo was a thousand
questions they didn’t know how to answer.
Finally it was my turn. I thumbed through the pages. Polaroids, organized by
age. At the beginning of the album, the infants, varying shades, varying patches of hair
on their heads. Some of the babies were held in the arms of someone just outside the
frame, others were on their backs on cotton sheets. On the white strip at the bottom of
each picture, Abigail’s cursive in black pen--a birthday, or an approximation, and a first
name. I examined each page, looking for myself. If Mom were here, she would pick me
out instantly by the shape of my brow or the mess of curls. But none of the pictures stood
out. Then I saw a photo labeled: AVENIDA ARAÚJO – ??? a.m. - January 12, 1981.
Hours old, eyes not yet adjusted to the light of the world. Born without a story,
born into thin air.
“Do you see yourself in there?” a woman behind me asked.
“I don’t think so.”
Outside it was dark. The temperature had plunged and now freezing rain slicked
the sidewalk. At the bus stop, I stood under a floodlight, expelling hot breaths like
ghosts. Snowflakes swirled in the light, fat enough to cast shadows on the pavement,
dark spots spinning toward a center point. Here is Damien the tour guide, curing fresh
rubber condoms in the flooded forest of the Rio Espelho; Essomericq the school boy in
French Guiana, witnessing a launch at the space center in Kourou--rumble, flame, a
rocket rips the purple sky. Here is Dashawna in the Pelourinho, keeping criança off the
glue. Here is Cracolándia, meninos de rua tearing the cellophane from cases of milk;
Nélida, climbing into a taxi outside the Howdy Howdy discotheque, glancing at the clock
on Avenida Atlântica--good news--it’s still early yet. The blind and feeble beggars in
Quissamã, now employed, sweeping cow pies off the helipad; an executive exits the
chopper, adjusts his periwinkle tie, steps into a spot they missed. Três tigres tristes para
três tratos de trigo. Abigail walks the beach, holding two hot cheese sandwiches. The
lighthouse blinks off shore. There he is, Daveison, skinny legs sticking out from under a
palm leaf. Always so angry, always alone in this world. She lets him sleep, tide lapping
the flowers she etches into the sand with her fingers. Daveison, years later, sneaking into
the Esperança bunkhouse with a cinquenta centavo coin. Young Paulo sleeps mouth
open, his melted eye weeping onto the pillowcase. Daveison lifts the pillow gently, finds
a lost tooth tucked away like a gem. O Fado do Diente, harvesting in the night. João
Rafael, not even eighteen yet, and already the finest jockey in Brazil, and now his heart
pounding, his horse shuddering in the gate box at the Grand Prix in Paris. Calma, calma,
calma. Back in his village, his baby sister Jaiva is stricken with yellow fever, but Jão
pushes the news from his mind, just as he’s been trained. Bandido Vermelho snorts and
stomps. Calma. Here is the bell. João snaps the reigns. The pack fights for the rail,
jockeys gasping, horses grunting. The crowd sizzles in his ears. He will not hear until
tomorrow that Jaiva is gone from this earth. Tonight, João is a feather, and Bandido
Vermelho, a mighty train. Tonight they surge into the homestretch, a quake of hooves
behind them, only air ahead. They gallop over the line--the crowd rises--João leans to his
horse's ear: Tell me friend, how did we get here? Othoniel de Fogo walks the dripping
streets, cradling three cócos worn smooth from juggling. He calls into the alleyways, Oi,
Arminda! She hears him like this every night, but she does shout back. Edvaldo smirks,
counting money in the firelight, a fortune, no? Arminda peers around the corner, her
little brother breaking into a jog now, hurrying home before their mother lights candles
for the Orixás. Três pratos de trigo para três tigres tristes. Roger sweating in desert tan
fatigues, gazing out at sunset, flag duty at dusk. Ana Luiza trembling the first time she
touches snow. Our first breaths were goodbye. My young father, teaching his son how
to slit the belly of a trout, years later, scissoring courthouse briefs from The Portland
Pioneer. My young mother, watching doctors submerge her little boy in ice, years later,
on her back in a hospital bed, searching for the button that releases analgesia.
Now at the bus stop, my eyes puddle in the wind. I blink away the blur. A bus,
windows glowing in the dark. Where it’s headed, I don’t care. I step aboard. The rows
are empty, save for a young woman in the back, brushing a strand of hair from her face. I
take the seat beside her. We are figments, twin reflections in the dark window. I touch
her hand; she cannot feel me.
Não preocupa, I tell her. It all turns out the way you hope.
She tilts her head as if she hears the murmur of a ghost. She counts the coins in
her purse. Closing her eyes, she touches her belly, tries to sense if it is a boy or a girl, as
if that knowledge could be delivered through the bloodstream. If it’s a girl, she will name
her Jacqueline. There will be a family who wants her, in Recife or Brasilia maybe, a
home where she can work for food and school. And if it’s a boy? She does not want to
imagine those names. She thinks of her father, on his knees, waiting for the afternoon
whistle. Of her brother, marching on the factory in São Paolo, beaten to the asphalt, only
to stand again another hundred days. She can only guess how much a cruzeiro will be
worth in a hundred days, Lord help me, in two hundred days, when the child is born.
Без категории
Размер файла
1 916 Кб
Пожаловаться на содержимое документа