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American family in Rio de Janeiro remains unaware of peril.

 Published in "L'Ouverture" :


           Time came when Maria Jose did not particularly want to go home to the barraca she shared with Nona.  The journey was long and tiring, after an already long and tiring day working in the home of her Americans.  They asked her at least once a week why she would not move in and give up her commute.  Senhor Peter had painted the walls, bought a dresser and small closet, and a bed with head- and footboards.  The little room, off the side of the main house, was like a palace compared to her barraca, which she sometimes had to share with oddments of nephews and nieces when their mothers, her sisters, sent them down to Rio to find work.  Her three blouses and two skirts lived on wire hangers suspended on a nail driven through the tin wall.  A spotted mirror hung from another nail.  One cot with straw-filled ticking was her and Nona's bed.  A cardboard box held four plates and some spoons and a knife.  There was a blackened coal stove and a basin to hold water and a plastic trash barrel to haul it from the spigot at the foot of the hill.  These things were the sum of her possessions.  They were easy to keep track of and nobody wanted to steal them.  On the favela hill where she and Nona lived people sometimes took what they wanted when you weren't home.  If someone needed an extra plate or spoon these items might just disappear and turn up a month afterward without explanation back on your doorstep. 

            Maybe the reason she didn't want to move into the servant's room in the city was the children.  Less and less she liked the idea of leaving them to Nona's care.  Nona was just as likely to sell the little ones on the streets as feed them the black beans and rice Maria Jose set aside for them to eat.  Nona made fun of Maria Jose for presiding over so many housekeeping machines in the home of her employers.  Soon you'll be driving their car, she said.  And then we could ride up to Bahia and see our families.  My father just got himself a new woman.  I'd love to see if this one has any teeth in her head.  If she makes more babies I don't know where they are all going to stay in that shack.  Aren't you glad we left home when we did?

            Maria Jose wasn't so sure, at least about living together with her.  It was funny how someone you had known all your life could change into a person more strange than a stranger.  Nona gobbled up the street life of the big city within a few days of their arrival and then took to dawdling on the corners of Rua Santa Clara because there, she said, was where important things happened.

            What kind of important things?

            I saw a man rob a bank.

            And what had that to do with you?

            He might have noticed me.  I'm pretty, aren't I?

            Pretty but too dark-skinned, Maria Jose thought.  Rich Brazilians got dark on purpose, by suntanning themselves on Copacabana Beach or at their private country homes or on their boats.  Their servants were born dark-skinned, like herself.

            Ogum will open my road, Nona said.  I brought him the best brand of cachaca at the terreiro.  I always do.

            Your Ogum.

            MY Ogum.  Stronger than your Yemanja.  Yemanja is the mother of the weak.  Ogum rides a horse and carries a sword and kills dragons.

            "I hear so many interesting things about macumba, Maria Jose," dona Catherine said one day in her fractured Portuguese.  "You must tell me more about these gods of yours.  Do a lot of Brazilians believe in them?"

            "Many are spirits.  All Brazilians believe in them."

            Dona Catherine looked amazed.  "You mean senhor Gabriel, the president of my husband's company, believes in spirits and makes offerings to them?  What about his wife?  She wears the latest French fashions.  I can't believe that!"

            A senhora sabe, muttered Maria Jose.  It was better to back off from disagreeing with your boss.  If You Say So was the safest answer.  It avoided offending and kept you out of trouble.  She had seen Nona say it once to a police officer, but with a wicked glint in her eye.  Her daring both frightened and delighted Maria Jose, who was ashamed of her own lack of courage.

            Instead of speaking up to dona Catherine, she pretended, one whole afternoon during a thunderstorm, to be ironing clothes.  The cord of the iron stayed unplugged, out of sight behind the washing machine.  Everyone knew it was dangerous to use electrical things in such weather.  You were as likely to draw a bolt of lightning as go to hell for spitting at the name of God.  Dona Catherine had caught her one morning scrubbing the sheets on a wooden washboard in the yard sink.  Maria Jose told her they were out of detergent for the machine and had only this bar of laundry soap.  Dona Catherine had shaken her head and gone out to her bridge game. 

            Senhor Peter played a lot of golf, and the couple entertained at least once a week.  If their guests numbered fewer than six, they invited them home.  Dona Catherine had taught her to prepare roast beef the American way but in the matter of vegetables had only said, Do them your way but cook them well, emphasizing the Well in a way that made sure no single germ would escape alive.

            One time she was discussing the menu for a dinner and saw Bico peering at her around the kitchen door.

            "And who is this?"

            "My nephew, senhora.  He won't be any trouble and look, he is sweeping the yard.  He will work for his food while he is visiting me."

            "But he is so little.  He's only about five, isn't he?"

            Maria Jose didn't know what she meant.  "Yes.  Almost six.  The youngest of my younger sister's three children."

            The oldest one, Marta, she had placed outside a supermarket to help shoppers carry their purchases home.  Be polite, she told her, or they will think you will run off with their packages.  The middle child, Dedo, she had left on Avenida Copacabana to watch cars, but the first night after her work she found him huddled against a wall, his nose bloody and eyes welted.  His T-shirt was torn right up the back.  Titia, they won't let me share.  The big one says this is his sidewalk.

            Maria Jose said, I told you to give them half of the tips you earn.  You should have told them from the beginning.

            Titia, I did tell them.  They took everything.

            Then you must run faster when they chase you.  These boys are not from the country.  They will kill you next time if you are too slow.

            Each night, when she finished up at the house, she took Bico and went to collect Marta and Dedo.  Marta would cry whenever she saw her aunt approaching her station outside the big supermarket called Casa de Banha.   Nobody trusts me, Tia.  I didn't make any money all day.

            Maria Jose gave Marta her man-sized handkerchief.  Don't wipe your nose on your dress.  I'll have to wash and iron it soon if you keep this up.  Yemanja, she thought.  Show me the way with this child.  I have no idea what to do with her.  She was frightened that some man would notice Marta and steal her.  Little girls had no value except for what they could earn by opening their legs; there was a man living in Maria Jose's favela who made a very good living peddling his little girls.  One more reason why she didn't like leaving Marta alone in the barraca.

            Her nephew Dedo, the car watcher, sometimes gave her a lift of hope.  Grinning but not speaking, he would join up with his aunt and brother and sister.  When they got home, he opened his mouth and Maria Jose extracted tiny squares of Real notes.  They were well covered with his saliva, but that was of no concern.  Maria Jose washed them off and put them away in her brassiere, where she also kept her pocketbook.  If Nona was home Dedo did not open his mouth even to eat rice and beans.  The tips he earned barely amounted to bus fare; but when they added up to a decent sum she would send it to her sister.    

            On New Year's eve, Maria Jose gave the children a treat.  The four of them crossed Avenida Atlantica and walked into the sand of Copacabana Beach, and there they sat near the water, snuggled in the warm moist sand.  The night became purple before it became black; as the fiery summer air cooled, the beach filled with people, many of whom carried clay platters of food or garlands of flowers.  The beating of drums arose and reverberated against the glass-fronted buildings along the Avenida.  The dark-skinned priestesses, huge in their layers of white cotton, began to sing and wade into the water.  The deeper they went, the more the skirts belled up around their bodies, until the women looked like floating balloons.  The turbans on their heads swayed, the dozens of shell and bead necklaces dangling from their necks clacked.  The surf swished around the feet of hundreds of worshipers praying to Yemanja, the Virgin Mary.

            Cars along Avenida spewed heat and smoke as drivers sought parking spots.  The drivers who didn't want to stop honked their horns steadily as the traffic mess built up as far back as Posto 6 at the head of the boulevard.

            As midnight neared people lit candles, set them into the sand, and laid their platters of food there.  The beach glowed with candlelight, so that Maria Jose and the children could see the color of the flowers and other presents people tossed into the water.  If the surf did not throw these things back, then Yemanja was pleased to keep her gifts.  Except for several white men wearing suits, the poor people all were dressed in clean white cotton garments.  A white woman with blond hair, the wide pantlegs of her silk jumpsuit fluttering in a mild breeze, undid her gold bracelet and threw it into the water. 

            Fool woman, said a voice near Maria Jose's ear.  She turned.  It was Nona, laughing at her.  A man whose skin was greenish-tan of the shade Brazilians called pardo, held her hand.  This is Egidio, Nona said, My bank robber.  He did notice me, you see?  He is going to make our fortune.

            Egidio, grinning, did not trouble to hide his inspection of Maria Jose's body.  He seemed to be looking everywhere at once, the sort of man who liked crowds because he could hide in them as well as milk them like cows.  She noticed that Nona had learned to scan the people around them the same way.  They did this constantly, between Nona's remarks to Maria Jose.

            You think your Yemanja is going to bring you luck?  I go to find my own.  Very soon I will be moving out of our barraca.  Come visit me in my new house.

            Oh, of course.  A villa facing the ocean.

            Do not mock me, Maria Jose.  You will see.

            I see enough.

            Really?  What I am looking at is a poor woman with a scarf wrapped all over her round head.  A servant.

            Your man will kill you one day.

            No.  I am likely to kill him.  You never knew me, Maria Jose, even when we were growing up together.  Rio is for me.  I understand how to live life in this city.  Nona turned to looked for Egidio, who had slipped into a mass of worshippers near the waterline.  Soon he was back, smiling and with something in his fist.  For you, my little kibe, he said, and handed her a man's watch.  These people are unbelievable.  So stupid.  It's never been this easy.

            Maria Jose gave him her back and tried to think about this celebration of Yemanja, but everything was spoiled.

            Three days later, Nona and Egidio appeared outside the garden gate of Maria Jose's American home.  They clapped their hands, arousing the barking of dogs on both sides of the house and until dona Catherine came downstairs.  None of the private houses in the city had a doorbell, for then children and vendors would be ringing it all day long.  Dona Catherine asked Maria Jose who these people were. 

            Friends of mine, I am sorry, senhora. 

            Dona Catherine reminded her that the guests would be arriving soon and would she please not get distracted.  Flustered, Maria Jose went to let them in and lead them around to the back kitchen door.

            They could not have dropped in at a worse time.  She was forgetting to baste the roast for the dinner party; she peeled the potatoes hurriedly and produced ugly lumps.  Already, because Nona was mixing her up, she had cut corners by not boiling the water the full twenty minutes before putting it in the refrigerator to chill.  She also had taken the strawberries out of the purifying solution too soon.  Dona Catherine purchased these special pills in the United States for fruits you couldn't peel. 

            A metallic, bonging noise came from the street and again the dogs started barking.  The guests, a young couple who had recently come from the United States, had arrived.  As usual with newcomers to Brazil, they would have been searching for a doorbell, and finally had begun using their knuckles on the metal gate.  Brazilians simply clapped their hands.  Maria Jose ran around the side to open the gate and usher them into the house.  Her employers often entertained the ones new in senhor Peter's company.  These new people always acted confident (they glowed with excitement at being in Rio.  In the service of Americans, Maria Jose had learned that Rio de Janeiro was considered "exotic."  She still was not sure what the word meant.  The Americans were always pleased to own the prestige of being Americans, but to Maria Jose they reminded her of just-born mice, blind on every side to the blade edges of life in this country that was hers.  She wished this couple had called to say they could not come tonight.  She wished they had not come to Brazil at all.  The young man and his wife smiled at her and said obrigado, obviously proud of mastering a Portuguese word.  When Maria Jose hustled to the kitchen to fetch the glasses, ice, and bottles of liquor, she met the amused smiles of Nona and Egidio that said, Fool woman, fool slave.  Though they sat on the wooden stools, exactly where she had left them, Maria Jose had the feeling they had only just got back to their places before she returned.

            She worked fast but her hands were clumsy because her mind was not in them.  Dona Catherine would be expecting the tray of appetizers to be served to her guests.  Bico came into the kitchen to ask for some water to drink.  He had been good all day, staying out of her way, and Maria Jose was sorry she spoke harshly to him when she sent him back outside.

            Nona chatted on, fingering the silverware Maria Jose had polished that morning, and Egidio said nothing though his looking was busy.  The American refrigerator and big freezer beside it seemed to fascinate him.

            Nona took a radish from the platter of appetizers and bit it off between the whorls of skin carefully carved by dona Catherine, who did the little jobs involved in entertaining.

            I am leaving the barraca, Maria Jose.

            This startled her.  You came here to tell me that?  I always thought you would disappear one day, without a goodbye.        

            Nona smiled.  She crunched the radish between the pointed teeth at the corners of her lips.  I thought it would be fun to see this house, full of your rich Americans and their American things.  I am surprised you don't have a TV in the kitchen.  Egidio winked at Maria Jose and laughed.  He got up to lean against the spice cabinet; now he stretched his arms high and hard above his head, his tongue pink and moist as he pretended to yawn, ahhhh, ahhhh.  He had muscles, this nordestino.  The homeland of this man bred little people, always thirsty for water, always dropping their hoes and miserable plantings to come down to the south where everybody thought you could get rich.  As had Maria Jose and Nona, but their Bahia was superior in every way to Egidio's Ceara, which bred Indians with poor Portuguese and even poorer black people and produced types like this one, tough-skinned and meek.  Except this one was not meek.  He had robbed a bank and like a magician had skinned the worshippers at the beach of their valuables.  The top of his head was flat as all nordestino heads were.

            Don't do that, Maria Jose said.  Dona Catherine will see you.  He had gone to stand at the pantry door, had partly opened it, and was peering, through the crack between the hinges, at the group sitting around the large glass cocktail table.  Laughing to himself, Egidio ignored her.

            In the living room, dona Catherine rang a silver bell.

            Yemanja, Maria Jose prayed, her thoughts in confusion.  She retied her white organza apron and picked up the appetizer tray.  The voices of the guests floated through the door, loosened and unaware after gin-and-tonics and breaking into easy laughter in the darkening summer evening.



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