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from the June 2008 issue

Settling Accounts

My father abandoned my mother a few months after I was born. So my mother and I had to move into the home of my maternal grandmother.

My mother had only one brother, Uncle Otávio, a failed economist who worked for an import firm for a pitiful salary. A friend of his was elected president of the nation and made him head of a large state entity, where he had the opportunity to get rich through corrupt measures, allowing him to give his mother, my grandmother, a life of luxury. She was a born spender and came to love her favorite child even more. She would travel to Europe every year, staying in the best hotels, and return loaded down with purchases, all for herself. She never brought me or my mother, who was after all her daughter, a single present.

With the money from his crooked dealings my uncle bought a beautiful mansion where he lived with his wife Daniela, an extremely thin woman with a delicate, fragile face.

I began spending every weekend at that luxurious house. It had a pool, tennis court, volleyball court, a garage for several cars, a game room, a climate-controlled wine cellar with hundreds of bottles. An irascible man who fought with anyone who disagreed with him, he had almost no friends. We would spend the weekends practically by ourselves, me, Uncle Otávio and Aunt Daniela. They had no children. Uncle Otávio had a playground built for me, with a swing, a slide, a dollhouse, and gave me a present that touched me deeply, a beautiful white puppy I named Snowflake but who came to be known by the nickname Flaky.

I loved going there, and my uncle, in a way, played the role of father. Whenever I arrived he would put me on his lap. He didn't call me by my name, Joanna, he called me "Princess." He was very affectionate. He would make up games, like hide-and-seek. He would ask me to dance for him by the pool while he filmed me. He was so tall, so good-looking, that I loved it when my friends saw him. I was proud of him, grasping his hand and pretending to everyone that he was my father. *** When I was eight, more or less, I was lying down watching television wearing a long knit shirt and panties. Uncle Otávio came into the living room and lay down beside me. He hugged me and we watched a film. He began pulling me toward him and kissed me in a different way. He ran his tongue along my neck and into my ear. I laughed and told him it tickled. He told me to close my eyes, because I would really like what he was about to do.

I obeyed and went on laughing a little. I was surprised when I felt his hand between my legs, under my panties. I was frightened and kept my eyes tightly shut. A dark sensation that I was unable to understand overwhelmed me. What was he doing? Then Uncle Otávio picked me up and carried me to the bed, covered me with the sheet, kissed me on the forehead and said, "Good night, Princess." I couldn't get to sleep.

For several years, whenever I stayed at his house, he would come into my room, caress my body, my still nonexistent breasts, my hairless sex. I was certain that it was wrong because he only acted like that secretly. But it was good to have a secret that belonged just to the two us. I would pretend to be asleep, as if unaware of what was happening.

But after a time I began to feel tormented, I would remain rigid, my legs clenched. I couldn't take any longer his caressing my body and doing all those things, but I wasn't yet ready to resist. He was the only person who did anything I wanted, who protected me.

One night I spoke to him, begging him to stop. He kissed me on the forehead and said there was nothing wrong in it, it was just a way of showing affection. I felt his damp lips on my mouth and tried to push him away, but he grabbed me forcibly and got on top of me. He ripped off my panties and raped me.

I stopped going to his house. I thought that would let me forget everything. But there are some things you never forget. I regretted not telling my mother from the very beginning, but I didn't have the courage and wouldn't have known how.

To make my pain worse, when I phoned Aunt Daniela to ask for Flaky, she said Uncle Otávio had found the puppy dead in the garden and thrown him in the garbage.

I was wasting away inside; I had almost no friends at school and spent the days locked in my room, drawing. On weekends I would stay by myself, often just staring at the wall. Until one day I told my mother everything. I couldn't bring myself to give details.

My mother told my grandmother what had happened. She replied that she didn't believe her dear generous son could so such a thing. She added that I was a problem child, an ungrateful little liar.

*** My mother resigned the job that Uncle Otávio had gotten her. We had to move to the small one-bedroom apartment that my father had left us when he deserted us. I never again spoke to my grandmother. But I knew my mother met with her from time to time, always behind my back.

Mom found a job as a clerk in a dress shop, working only on commission. I started going to a public school. As soon as I turned sixteen I found work as a hostess at nights, in a restaurant.

Whenever I could, I would wander into the kitchen and watch the chef and his helpers as they worked. I asked one of them where he had learned to cook. "In a school funded by a commercial association," he replied. "I liked it a lot. It's free, and you even get a diploma." It was a two-year course. I asked him for the address.

I signed up for the cooking class at the free school. Classes met every day for three hours and included training the cook in the service routine and preparing Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, French, and Japanese cuisine in addition to typical Brazilian dishes. I also took a baking course, where besides bread and phyllo dough I learned to make sweet and savory dishes of every kind.

After graduating I went to work in another, more sophisticated restaurant. I began as a helper and in less than two years had become the right-hand assistant to the chef, a well-known Frenchman. I liked working there, but my dream was to open a restaurant of my own. To make that possible, my mother sold our apartment and bought a restaurant in a good location at a reasonable price. We painted it ourselves, made the tablecloths, worked till we dropped. We went to live in an old building with dozens of apartments per floor. It was a cubicle that didn't even have a stove, just a hotplate that sat on top of the sink built into the wall. We slept on a sofa-bed.

Mom continued to work at the dress shop while I ran the restaurant. To help with the cooking I hired Aristides, who was from Ceará. A waitress named Chris helped me with serving. The restaurant had six tables and a set menu for each day of the week. We were open for lunch and dinner, which meant two menus a day. The restaurant became known in the neighborhood, and lines began forming at the entrance. The customers praised my cooking, whether it was a risotto, a paella, grilled cod, a bouillabaisse, or some typically Brazilian dish.

One day Aristides called me aside and whispered in a frightened voice that he had known the guy sitting at table three back in Ceará. He was a dangerous hired killer named Tião.

"What's the problem, Aristides?" I said.

"It's just that he saw me, Miss Joanna. He recognized me and made a gesture like he wanted to talk to me."

"Go over there, Aristides, and see what he wants."

Aristides went to speak to the guy and came back relieved. Tião merely wanted to praise the food and know if we served jerked beef with squash. "I told him, Miss Joanna, that we serve that dish, jerked beef with squash, every Thursday, at lunch."

And every Thursday, Tião, or the killer, as Aristides and I called him, would have lunch at the restaurant. Fortunately, he wasn't the only steady customer we had attracted.

Suddenly, newspapers and magazines were talking about our food. We had more customers than we could handle. We started taking reservations. It was a success. We worked day and night, but it didn't bother me. I was very happy, even if I didn't go out, see movies, or have a boyfriend. Everything was going as planned, even better. I was doing what I enjoyed, the restaurant was making money, and my mother and I could finally move to a decent apartment.

One night, at closing time, when we weren't accepting any more diners, I was in the kitchen with Aristides working on the next day's menu when Chris came in and said there was a gentleman who insisted on eating and was anxious to try the food. I asked if there was just one person. She said yes. I decided to let him in.

When I went to the dining room I experienced a surprise: it was Uncle Otávio. It had been almost twenty years since we'd seen each other. But, as I've said before, certain things you never forget. He was different: short, old, and ugly. He looked at me and said, "A long time, eh, Princess?"

With difficulty, I repressed the disgust that threatened to overwhelm me and said, "Good evening, Uncle Otávio."

When I passed by his table again, he was on his second bottle of wine. He invited me to have a drink with him. We drank the wine in silence. Meanwhile, I was planning how to settle accounts.

Uncle Otávio, drunk, said in a thick voice, "Princess, you haven't changed a bit, you look like that same little thirteen-year-old girl… You think we could get together?"

"Yes, but not today," I replied. "Leave your phone number with the waitress and I'll get in touch with you." I got up and hid in the kitchen.

I waited a week, then phoned him.

"Uncle Otávio," I said, "it's Joanna."

"Ah, Princess, at last. I can't sleep from thinking about you, I've got to see you, I want to be alone with you."

"Come by the restaurant," I said.

The next day, Uncle Otávio showed up at the restaurant, had dinner, and again asked me to sit with him. "When are we going to be alone together?" he asked.

"I promise we're going to, just be patient, Uncle Otávio. First, I'd like you to co-sign for a bank loan so I can expand my restaurant." Uncle Otávio looked at me pensively for a few moments. He knew that co-signing for the loan wasn't a problem; he'd become a millionaire through his thefts from the government.

"I'll do anything you want, Princess." *** With the resources from the excellent bank loan for which Uncle Otávio had co-signed, I was able to open the restaurant I'd always wanted. The location was perfect. I remodeled everything. I had a state-of-the-art kitchen put in, and in the basement built a bakery for making pies and various pastries. I was the chef and had two sous-chefs, one of them Aristides. The hostess was a beautiful young woman, elegant and refined. Chris also went on working for me. Despite being on the pricey side, my restaurant was so popular that reservations had to be made well in advance. Only one person didn't need to make reservations: Tião, the killer.

Uncle Otávio was constantly calling me to ask, irritated, "So, are we getting together or not? Just the two of us."

"Take it easy," I said, "we are, any day now."

"Alone," he insisted. "You've been leading me on for too long."

As soon as the killer came into the restaurant, I want over to his table.

"Mr. Tião, is the jerked beef and squash to your liking?" He nodded. "May I sit down? I want to propose something." He gestured for me to join him at his table. He was a man of few words.

"I want you to kill someone." He nodded again, just a tiny movement of his head. "But I want that person to suffer terribly before dying, I want him to be tortured slowly."

Tião, still eating, again gestured his agreement. "When I open the newspaper one of these mornings, I want to read the news of that bastard's death. Then come by here and I'll pay your price. Do you want an advance?"

He didn't want payment until the job was done. I handed him an envelope with Uncle Otávio's photo and address.

Three days later, leafing through the morning paper, I saw the headline: "Tortured and murdered." There was a picture of Uncle Otávio and the report began: "The naked and mutilated body of the well-known businessman Otávio Morais was found in an empty lot in the Baixada Fluminense. Forensic experts say he was subjected to a lengthy process of torture." I didn't read the rest.

I went to the wake, early in the morning. Uncle Otávio's body was in the casket, with no one around. We were finally alone, just as wanted, but in the way I had chosen.

The account was settled.

The next morning, I went to a pet shop to buy a puppy. I took him away in my arms. He was pure white. Holding the puppy, I walked down the street, free and cleansed. I looked at the sky. It was noon, a day with neither clouds nor shadows.

Translation of "Acerto de Contas." Copyright Paula Parisot. By arrangement with the author. Translation copyright 2008 by Clifford E. Landers. All rights reserved.

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