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from the July 2016 issue

Beauty, a Terrible Story

To Sergio Keuchguerian

“You’ve never heard of a curse
never seen a miracle
never cried alone in a filthy bathroom
nor ever wanted to see the face of God.”

—Cazuza, “Only Mothers Are Happy”

Only after ringing the doorbell many times did he finally hear the rumble of footsteps coming down the stairs. And he recognized the worn rug, once purple, later just red, then each time a lighter shade of pink—now, what color?—and heard the tuneless bark of a dog, a nighttime cough, dry sounds, then he felt the light from inside the house, filtered through the window, fall on his unshaven face, three days unshaven. He tucked his hands in his pockets, looked for a cigarette or a keychain to fiddle with between his fingers, before the small window near the door popped open.

Framed by the rectangle, she squinted to get a better look at him. They took measure of one another for a while that way—the one from outside, the other from inside the house—until she pulled away, not the least surprised. She was older, he saw upon entering. And more embittered, he realized next.

“You didn’t say you were coming,” she grumbled in her old sour way, which before he’d been unable to comprehend. But now, after so many years, he’d learned to translate it as how-I’ve-missed-you, welcome, how-great-to-see-you, or something of the kind. More affectionate, if awkward.

He embraced her in a clumsy hug. It wasn’t a habit, these touches, caresses. He dove dizzily, quickly, into that familiar smell—cigarettes, sweet onion, scabby dog, soap, beauty cream, and old beef, alone for years. Holding him by both ears, as she often did, she kissed him on the forehead. Then she tugged him by the hand into her home.

“You don’t have a phone,” he explained. “I thought I would surprise you.”

Turning on lights, a certain anxiety, she continued pulling him deeper and deeper into her home. He barely had time to recognize the stairs, the bookcase, the cabinet, the dusty photo frames. The dog wrapped herself around his legs, whimpering softly.

“Go away, Beauty,” she yelled, threatening to kick. The dog leaped aside. She laughed. “I merely threaten her, she respects me. Poor thing, nearly blind. Useless, full of scabies. Only knows how to sleep, eat, and shit, waiting on death.”

“How old is she?” he asked. Because that was the best way to get to the bottom of things: through sinuous paths, through trivial questions. Beneath her sourness, the purple flowers on her robe.

“I don’t even know. Fifteen.” Her voice so hoarse. “I heard somewhere that each year is worth seven in a dog’s life.”

He thought hard, he was getting somewhere now:

“So ninety-five years, then.”

She set his suitcase on a chair in the living room, then squinted another time. Then she looked around the room, as if she had just woken up:

“What?”

“Beauty. If she were a person, she would be ninety-five years old.”

She laughed:

“Older than me, imagine that. So old it’s scary.” She pulled her robe to cover her chest and clasped the collar shut with her hands. Covered in dark spots, he saw, like scabs (ker-a-to-sis, he thought), not a trace of polish on the nails of those fingers yellowed by the smoke. “Want some coffee?”

“If it’s not too much work.” He knew this was still the way in, while she entered the kitchen, her kingdom. Hands in his pockets, he looked around, leaning against the door.

Her back so curved. She seemed to move slower now, though she had the same old way of incessantly opening and shutting the cabinet doors, arranging the cups, spoons, napkins, making all sorts of noise, and forcing him to sit in one of the chairs—while he looked on. Grease stains, the kitchen walls. The small window for ventilation, the glass broken. The way she’d jammed a page from the newspaper in the hole in the glass. The country descends into chaos, into illness and misery, the headline read. He sat on the chair with its torn plastic seat cover.

“It’s fresh from the stove.” She served the coffee. “These days, I can only fall asleep after drinking a cup of coffee.”

“You shouldn’t. Coffee affects your sleep.”

She shrugged.

“Who cares? Everything has always been the opposite for me.”

The yellow cup had a dark stain in the bottom, chipped edges. He stirred his coffee, almost against his will. Then, suddenly, while neither of them said anything, he had the urge to run away. The way a tape is rewound in the VCR, walking backward, to pick up his suitcase, across the living room, the hall, past the gravel pathway in the garden, departing once again for the narrow street of white houses. To some cab, the airport, to another city, far away from Passo da Guanxuma, back to the other life where he’d come from. Incognito, no ties nor past. Forever, never to return. Until one of them died, he feared. And yet he longed for it. Relief, remorse.

“Go to bed,” he said. “It’s late. I shouldn’t have come like this, unannounced. But you don’t have a phone.”

She sat in front of him, her robe fell open. Among purple flowers, he saw the countless wrinkles of her skin—crumpled tissue paper. She squinted, sneaking glances at his face each time he took a sip of coffee.

“What is it?” she asked, slowly. And that was the tone that indicated her openness to a new way forward. But he coughed, looked down at the print of the tablecloth. Diamond shapes, red, green. Cold plastic, old strawberries.

“Nothing, Mother. It’s nothing. I just missed you is all. Suddenly, I missed you so much. You, everything else.”

She took a pack of cigarettes from the pocket of her robe:

“You got a light?”

He handed her the lighter. She touched his hand, the rough skin of her keratosis-stained hands against his so pale. Crooked affection.

“Pretty, the lighter.”

“It’s French.”

“What is this inside it?”

“I don’t know. Lighter fluid. Whatever lighters have. It’s just that in this one’s transparent, in the others we don’t get to see it.”

She held the lighter against the light. With a glimmer of gold, the green liquid glistened. The dog snuck underneath the table, whimpering softly. She seemed not to notice, enraptured by what was behind the green, golden liquid.

“It looks like the sea.” She smiled. She tapped the cigarette against the rim of the cup, handed him back the lighter. “So you’re saying that you came here just to see me? That’s nice.”

He clasped the lighter in his palm. Still warm from her spotted hand.

“I did, Mother. I missed you.”

Hoarse laughter:

“You missed me? You know Elzinha hasn’t been here in more than a month? I could die in this house. Alone. God forbid. She wouldn’t even know, only if she saw it in the paper. If it appeared in the paper. Who cares about an old wreck?”

He lit a cigarette. Coughed hard after the first puff.

“I live alone too, Mother. If I died, nobody would know. And it wouldn’t appear in the paper.” She inhaled the smoke. Released it, circles. But she didn’t follow them with her eyes. With the tip of her nail, she removed a splinter from the edge of the cup.

“It’s fate,” she said. “Your grandmother died alone. Your grandfather died alone. Your father died alone, remember? That weekend when I went to the beach. He hated the sea. A thing so enormous it’s frightening, he would say.” She flung the splinter from the cup, paint and all, into the far corner of the kitchen. “And not a single grandchild, died without a single grandchild. The thing he wanted most.”

“It’s been so long, Mother. Let it go.” He straightened his back, which ached. No, he decided, not in this dump. The smell, a whole week, neighbors calling. He ran his fingertips on the faded diamonds of the tablecloth. “I don’t know how you can go on living here alone. This house is too big for only one person. Why don’t you go live with Elzinha?” She made like to spit, a bit cynical. That soap-opera cynicism didn’t go well with the faded purple flowers on her robe, her hair almost entirely white, her hands full of brown spots holding a cigarette nearly burned to the butt.

“And have to tolerate Pedro, with his delusions of grandeur? For god’s sake, only if I were I don’t even know what. They’d have to hide me when we had guests, God no. The old lady, the crazy one, the witch. The hag stuck in the maid’s quarters, like a black woman.” She tapped her cigarette. “And if that wasn’t enough, do you think they would let me bring Beauty along?”

Hiding under the table, the dog began to yelp louder after hearing her own name.

“Come on, Mother. Elzinha has her college classes. And deep down Pedro is a nice guy. It’s only . . .”

She searched the pockets of her robe. She pulled out a pair of glasses with the bridge taped, the lenses cracked.

“Let me get a closer look at you,” she asked.

She adjusted her glasses. He lowered his eyes. In silence, he listened to the ticking of the clock in the living room. A tiny cockroach ran across the white of the tiles.

“You’re thinner,” she observed. She seemed concerned. “Much thinner.”

“It’s the hair,” he said. He ran his hand through his nearly shaved head. “And the beard, three days.”

“You lost some hair, son.”

“I’m getting old. I’m nearly forty.” He put out his cigarette and coughed.

“And what about this dry cough? You sound sick as a dog.”

“Smoking, Mother. Pollution.”

He looked up to her, straight into her eyes for the first time. She also looked straight into his eyes. Faint green behind his glasses, suddenly very alert. He thought: Now is the time, in this current flowing upstream. He almost said something. But she blinked first. She looked away to the scabby dog beneath the table, carefully held her, and brought her to her lap.

“But everything’s OK?”

“Yes, Mother.”

“Work?”

He nodded. She stroked the dog’s hairless ears. Then she looked at him again:

“Health? I’ve heard there are some new diseases out there, I saw it on TV. Plagues, or something.”

“Thank God,” he interrupted. He lit another cigarette, his hands shaking a little. “And how about Mrs. Alzira, how’s she holding up?”

Snuffed out tip of the cigarette between her yellow fingers, she leaned back on the chair. Squinting, as if she could see through him. In time, not in space. The dog lay her head on the table, her glassy eyes closed. She sighed, shrugged:

“Poor thing. More scatterbrained than I am.”

“You’re not scatterbrained.”

“What do you know? Sometimes I end up talking to myself around the house. The other day, do you know who I kept calling all day long?” She waited awhile. He didn’t say anything. “Cândida, remember her? Oh what a nice black girl that was. Could even pass herself as white. I kept calling her, calling her all day long. Cândida, hey Cândida. Where are you, for crying out loud? Then I realized.”

“Cândida is dead, Mother.”

She continued to stroke the dog’s head, slower now. She closed her eyes, as if they were both sleeping.

“Right, stabbed. Like a pig, remember?” She opened her eyes. “Do you want something to eat, son?”

“I ate on the plane.”

She made like to spit, again.

“Good grief. Frozen food, God forbid. It tastes like plastic. Do you remember that time I took a plane?” He shook his head. She didn’t notice. She was looking at the cigarette smoke that disappeared against the ceiling stained with dampness, with mold, with time, with loneliness. “I was all dolled up, looked like high society. On a plane and all, a lady. Train case, Ray-Bans. Nobody believes it when I say it.” She dipped a piece of bread in the cold coffee, put it in the dog’s nearly toothless mouth. “You know that I liked the plane better than the city? It’s insane, all that noise. It doesn’t even seem human, how do you stand it?”

“We get used to it, Mother. We end up liking it.”

“And Beto?” she asked suddenly. And she lowered her eyes until they fit directly into his, once again.

What if I fell over? he thought. If, then, how. But he looked at the wall tiles behind her. The cockroach had disappeared.

“He’s around, Mother. Living his life.”

She looked back at the ceiling:

“So attentive, Beto. He took me out to dinner, opened the car door for me. It seemed right out of the movies. He pulled out a chair for me at the restaurant. Nobody had ever done that.” She squinted. “What was the restaurant called again? Something foreign.”

“Casserole, Mother. La Casserole.” He almost smiled, Beto had such boyish eyes, he recalled. “That night was lovely, wasn’t it?”

“It was,” she agreed. “So lovely, straight from the movies.” She extended her hand across the table, almost touched his hand. He splayed his fingers, a certain anxiety. Saudade, saudade. Then she pulled back, sank her fingers in the dog’s bald head.

“Beto liked you. He liked you so much.” His fingers recoiled. Closed off like this, he ran his fingers through the hair on his own arm. Those memories, the distance. “He said you’re very fancy.”

“Fancy, me? Such a crude old lady, scatterbrained.” She laughed, proud, her spotted hand on her white head. She sighed. “So handsome. Such a sophisticated man, now that was a sophisticated man. I told Elzinha, right in front of Pedro. For him to take the hint, I said it loud and clear. When someone doesn’t have a silver spoon, you can see it in their faces right away. There’s no point in flaunting it, it’s written on their faces. Like Beto, with those torn jeans. Who would have thought that he was such a sophisticated gentleman, wearing sneakers?” She looked into his eyes again. “That’s a real friend, son. He even looks a bit like you, now that I think of it. You look like brothers. Same height, same style, really.”

“We haven’t seen each other in quite a while, Mother.”

She leaned forward, holding the dog’s head against the table. Beauty opened her milky eyes. Despite her blindness, she seemed to look at him as well. They continued staring at each other. A nearly unbearable moment, amid cigarette smoke, full ashtrays, empty cups—the three of them—him, the mother, and Beauty.

“And why’s that?”

“Mother,” he began. His voice quivered. “Mother, it’s so hard,” he repeated. And he didn’t say anything else.

Then she got up. All of a sudden, throwing the dog to the floor like a dirty rag. She began to gather the cups, spoons, ashtrays, tossing everything in the sink. After piling up the dishes, she poured the soap and turned on the faucet, walking back and forth while he sat there, looking at her, her back so curved, a bit older, her hair almost entirely white, her voice even hoarser, her fingers yellower and yellower by the smoke, she put her glasses in the pocket of her robe, clasped the collar shut, looked at him and—as if to change the subject, and that was also a sign of another path forward that, this time around, would be the right one—said:

“Your bedroom is just how you left it upstairs. I’m going to bed because there’s the farmers’ market early tomorrow. There are clean sheets in the bathroom cabinets.”

Then she did something that she would never have done in the old days. She held him by both ears to kiss him on the cheeks. Almost lingering. That smell—cigarette, sweet onion, scabby dog, soap, weariness, old age. Also something humid that looked like pity, visual fatigue. Or love. A kind of love.

“We can talk more tomorrow, Mother. There’s time, sleep well.” Leaning on the table, he lit another cigarette while he heard her heavy footsteps climbing the stairs to the second floor. When he heard the door slam, he got up and walked out of the kitchen.

He took some dizzy steps around the living room. The large table, dark wood. Eight places, all empty. He stopped next to the portrait of his grandfather—his face at a slight angle, watery green eyes just like his mother’s and also his own, a family inheritance. In the middle of a field, he thought, his grandfather had died alone with a gun and his fate. He put his hand in the inside pocket of his coat, pulled out a small imported bottle, and took a swig. When he put it away, drops of whiskey rolled down the corners of his mouth, neck, shirt, all the way to the floor. The dog licked the worn rug, nearly blind, her tongue groping to find the liquid.

He opened his eyes. Just like after a dizzy spell, he found himself gazing into the large mirror in the living room. Deep within that mirror on the wall of an old house, in a provincial city, he found the shadow of an exaggeratedly thin man, his head nearly shaved, eyes frightened like a child’s. He placed the bottle on the table, removed his coat. He was sweating a lot. He tossed his coat over a chair. And he began to unbutton his shirt stained with sweat and whiskey.

One by one, he unfastened the buttons. He turned on the lamplight, so that the room would be brighter when, shirtless, he began to fondle the purple spots, the same old color as the rug on the stairs—now, what color?—scattered underneath the hair of his chest. He ran his fingertips along his neck. On the right side, tilting his head, as if groping for a seed in the dark. He bent his knees until they touched the ground. God, he thought, before reaching out with his other hand for the half-blind dog, covered in pink spots. Just like the ones on that worn rug on the stairs, like the ones on the skin of his chest, beneath the hair. Curly, dark, soft.

“Beauty,” he whispered. “Beauty, you’re a real beauty, Beauty.”
 

Note: “Now is the time, in this current flowing upstream” is a line from Ana Cristina César’s At Your Feet.


© Caio Fernando Abreu. By arrangement with the estate of the author. Translation © 2016 by Bruna Dantas Lobato.​ All right reserved.

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