They were hard to push down, the buttons. Stiff, you might say. Marcelinho strained and scrunched his face, and succeeded. It still worked, even after everything. The buttons had always been stiff, even before Ricardo’s death. The little door was cracked, and behind the plastic Marcelinho said he saw some bloodstains, still.
“Don’t be daft, son. That thing’s clean as a whistle. And be grateful that piece of junk still works.”
Work is too ambiguous a word. Does life work? No, it always wrecks.
It was impossible to open the little door and, therefore, impossible to switch the side of the tape. Always the same, Side A, always the same tape, same side. There are lives with only one side to them. Do re mi fa so.
Marcelinho knew how many songs were on side A because, even in the faded handwriting, he could make out its contents: Há Tempos, Pais e Filhos, Feedback Song for a Dying Friend, Quando o Sol Bater na Janela do Teu Quarto, and Eu Era Um Lobisomem Juvenil. But only the first song played right, the rest seemed to drag sometimes, and speed up others.
“Is it the voice of the devil?” the boy asked himself.
Há Tempos was precisely the one Ricardo liked most.
“Hey, Bro, listen to this.”
The boy never forgot when his brother put the headphones to his ears. It was the first time he’d shared something with him, a gesture that wasn’t . . .
“Jesus, what a twit!”
Marcelinho cleaned the Walkman every day. And he never tired of looking at it. Sony. Buttons to be pushed. Legião Urbana. The white tape. Four stations. AM/FM. Play. Stop. Pause. FF. RW.
“Why are you always wiping that thing so much, son!”
“Dust, Mom, dust.”
When you live less than fifty meters from Highway BR 101, you become aware of how the dust dances, day and night.
It’s a dry cloud that covers the days with an opaque film. Words taste like earth. Your voice is always tired, a perpetual frog in your throat.
Marcelinho and his mother lived in a small, colorful clapboard house with two rooms, a bathroom, and a kitchen. The boy knows he lives somewhere between Curitiba and Balneário Camboriú, because everyone says that one side of the asphalt, side A, closest to his house, leads to Curitiba and side B to Balneário Camboriú. Side A destroyed his family.
“It was the asphalt that killed your dad. It was the asphalt. And your brother, too.”
For the nine-year old, curly-haired kid, the asphalt was the devil’s brother. Everyone was afraid of the asphalt, even Grandpa Neco, who his mother used to say was a “learned man.”
“Marcelinho, don’t play so close to the asphalt, it’s unforgiving. You saw what happened to your dad and your brother.”
When his father died, the boy learned what it was to have mixed feelings: happiness and sadness.
The smell of cachaça on his breath, the whippings with a switch, his brother’s tears, the smack of his father’s hands against his mother’s livid face, the shouting: they were all gone. His father was gone.
They say Marcelinho’s father was so drunk he was swatting at the cars, in the middle of the road.
“Come here, you sonuvabitch. I’ll get you, damn fire eyes!”
His father’s death brought silence. His brother’s, emptiness.
Ricardo died because he “trusted his legs,” according to Grandpa Neco. When Marcelinho and his mother heard the crash, they knew there’d be no bread for dinner. He died listening to the first song on the tape, holding the Walkman. Marcelinho thought he’d pressed Stop before he died, and that this was a message to him, a sign. He’d memorized the lyrics and began to imitate lead singer Renato Russo’s intonation.
“You’re cuckoo, boy! You sound like your brother, God rest his soul . . .”
He liked the comparison, and sang even louder in his squeaky voice. And he listened, listened and sang (though he didn’t understand all the lyrics).
Seems like cocaine
But it’s just sorrow
Maybe your town
Many fears are born
From weariness and solitude
Are now heirs
Of the virtue we lost . . .
Words like sorrow, weariness, and solitude make a big impression on any kid, especially when he’s knee-deep in all three on a daily basis. Marcelinho checked in with his small pile of dirt near the well. He and his two plastic toy cars. And he liked to talk to the mound, a bit shorter than him, giving it a sort of human form—in his imagination, of course. They say dreaming about ants is a symptom of loneliness. Marcelinho always dreamed about ants. They bit him in his dreams. When ants would appear on his little mound, he’d go leave and go back to his room, to the Walkman.
A while ago I had a dream
I can’t remember, can’t remember . . .
Your sadness is so precise
And today is such a beautiful day
We’re already used
To not having even that anymore . . .
Dreams come, dreams go . . .
The rest is imperfect . . .
Grandpa Neco said he didn’t have dreams anymore, that the asphalt had stolen them.
“A while back, back before the road was widened, it was a miracle just to wake up. Every month the asphalt would take one,” Grandpa Neco told Marcelinho.
Neco lost his wife and three sons to the asphalt. He knew better than anyone the strength of the beast on wheels, and the beast lurking in the asphalt.
“Don’t play too close, ’cause the asphalt is ornery, it’s just waiting to swallow you up. Stay back near the well. It’s safer there.”
Marcelinho liked the well, its water always cool and clear. When it was full, nearly overflowing, he would spend hours admiring his own reflection, always listening to the Walkman. The boy had always been a living painting, maybe a Bonnard: his sad eyes hid the slightest movements. After his mother’s death, the boy went to live with Grandpa Neco, on the other side, side B, a mile from where he used to live. He stopped speaking and would spend hours and hours watching the cars go by, and there wasn’t a single day he didn’t remember when the noise of the horn and the truck’s brakes eclipsed the Walkman playing at full volume. From the well he could see the clapboards of his house, flying through the air.
You said if your voice
Were as strong
As the pain you feel
Your scream would awaken
Not only your house
But the whole neighborhood . . .
Grandpa Neco cried every day, for the boy’s silence, for everything, and imagined the time left in the boy’s eyes.
© Carlos Henrique Schroeder. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2016 by Zoë Perry. All rights reserved.