ISSN 2359-4101

Brazilian Literature in Translation / Literatura Brasileña en Traducción

Issue / Numero

year/año: 2012
issue/numero: # 01



Blot


Author | Autor: Silvano Santiago


Translated by Susan C. Quinlan

To Joca, with thanks

For many years I forgot. I had forgotten this for so many years that I purged from my memory the fact I’m going to tell. I apparently purged it. The most ordinary form of innocence is to believe that pretending is integral to one’s psychological life. Yesterday I pretended and today I’m paying the price. I pretended nothing had happened that noontime, in a restaurant n the city of Fort Worth, Texas. Nothing had happened on that day in early January 1963, after a long and tiring bus trip from New Orleans, Louisiana to Albuquerque, New Mexico. After having spent Christmas and New Year’s far from home, overseas, together with a couple from Minas Gerais. After having mixed the festive coziness of a fraternal group of fellow countrymen with the lonesomeness of the bus that cut horizontally through the flooded, humid lands of Louisiana, and the endless Texas prairies. After having left a subtropical and humid region, the air inside the bus turned insidiously dry thanks to the heating system on board — a dryness drier than bonedry made even drier by the very dryness of those never-ending lands. A dryness worthy of Brasília that I only came to know some ten years later. Something so bad occurred in the restaurant in Fort Worth that my memory remains scarred. The scar remains as the sentry of my consciousness. This sentry guards the tomb of the event, as if it were merely out on a stroll, that is, without uniform and without any formal obligation to report to a higher order, the so-called ego. I want to get to the fact that lies buried under the skin and hair of my memory, I will get there through the mortifying memoirs that encircle the scar, through it’s living body that sparkles but is not gold. I will try to reprogram the profundity of that old pain by going through the scar under the cover of this narrative. Of the wound. The narrative to be written on top of the lips of the lesion that were closed, opening them. To be written within the forgetfulness of the fact. Above the expulsion of the fact. Erasing oblivion and expulsion. Erasing the fact. A narrative = "um borrão," a blot. The dictionary says that "borrão" also means rough draft. (It means a timid person as well, but never mind). This narrative is the first draft of a lived experience. From the experience as German philosophers like to say. The words will be written in ink and will be diluted by a drop of water (a drop of sweat, as it is summer now in Rio de Janeiro) that will fall on the paper. This narrative is as intimate as a blot or a rough draft. When I rewrite it - and I will re- write it someday, I don’t know when, - the final version will have the shape of blotting paper, by absorbing word after word, phrase after phrase, page after page.
  The outline demands future rewrites in order to become a story. I will search for terms that more adequately appropriate the incident that is about to be narrated. I will sketch phrases that must be more incisive in order to be truly convincing to the reader. I will restructure the pages that lack the equilibrium of artistic composition. A good short story is a mined field. I lack the gunpowder of revenge. Maybe I don’t have the courage to see these tasks through to the end. I will leave them as testimony for the reader, who will become the author’s, the artists’ doppelganger. Who reads drafts besides the person who writes them? – I ask, rescuing this narrative from self-sacrifice: One day there might be readers, but I know I don’t have any now. It isn’t being written for readers. For the time being, it’s being written for me and for other future readers, those who must play the role of the author’s doppelganger. It’s being written to remind me that, despite appearances, I have not forgetten that bus trip from New Orleans to Fort Worth. A trip that would then proceed to Albuquerque, the final destination for this bus and its passenger. Why did I pretend that I hadn’t decided to interrupt my trip half way through, in order to stand on Texas soil for a few hours? Why did I pretend that I hadn’t cut the journey in half during the middle of January third, 1963? Forgotting functions like pain’s antiseptic. It acts like iodine on a torn wound, so that the microorganisms might burn away quickly, avoiding suppuration. The chills, the ouch! —and before you know it, it’s scarred over. I was fatigued, I was hungry. I wasn’t thirsty. I had brought a bottle of mineral water with me. A recommendation from the more experienced travelers. I was hungry and restless. I didn’t forget the image of the metallically painted Greyhound bus, with its hunting dog painted on the side, in formidable stride. A much more luxurious and comfortable bus than the Comet transit bus I used to take from Belo Horizante to Rio, and back again. I haven’t forgotten the black man who politely asked to sit next to me (he had the window seat). He was the first Negro I spoke with, since I had just arrived in the US in early September, 1962. I said "spoke," I should have said, I tried to "speak with". My English was poor, really poor, I could barely compose the most conventional sentences, which I shamefully iterated in my head before liberating them from my mouth. Stiffened by my voice, they must have sounded like nonsense to any exacting listener. And there I was, wanting other ideas to oppose my own. The suffering he and his people in the Missouri-Mississippi valley had experienced, in comparison with my own experiences as a recently arrived immigrant from another south – "south of the Mexican border," as we were geographically identified after the Second World War. I don’t know if I told him that I was born in Brazil. I don’t know if it meant anything to say that I was Brazilian. Pelé didn’t exist yet in this country; they were clueless about "futebol," rather, soccer. The one Brazilian sports star, known only by whites, was the tennis player Maria Ester Bueno who won the woman’s finals at Wimbledon. Rio’s carnival was disregarded by the country’s inhabitants, who offered tourists Mardi Gras parades in the Vieux Carré district. As far as Americans were concerned, Carmen Miranda was Mexican or Cuban, the sister or niece of Xavier Cugat, the King of Rumbas. I don’t know if I showed him my green card (I had already received it in the mail) made in Miami, where I landed for the first time and handed in all my documents at the airport. I know that I asked him questions, a lot of them. I know that I understood less, much less than half of the words he proffered in reply. I deciphered successive telegrams, worse, I strung together more and more alien phrases, drawn from the two or three words I did understand. The black man was wearing a dark suit, a white shirt and a tie. He had placed his felt hat in the overhead baggage compartment. He wore shiny shoes. He was cordial without trying to be nice. He smiled in a country where people don’t smile at strangers. And I, a novice in this realm, took his pseudo-smile as "Hello, how are you? Good, thank you, how about a little conversation to shorten the trip?" Aldinha, who had given me a few English classes in Belo Horizonte, to prepare me for my day-to-day professional life in a foreign land, said that I had a French accent in English. I didn’t have a Portuguese accent. Of course my accent in English was French. In my youth I had prepared my speech organs – lungs, bronchial tubes, trachea and larynx – to conform to the ridiculous requirements of numerous demanding French professors. My second language. It’s not like, with a wave of my hand, I could turn off all that paraphernalia and restructure the mechanisms needed for English sounds. My third language. It’s not as if my ear, trained to listen to the enrapturing music of the language spoken in Pigalle and Montparnasse, would suddenly and pleasurably absorb the masculine and harsh sounds of North American English, the kind best exemplified by Janis Joplin. It wasn’t automatic and even less so ironclad. I was always a sensitive person. Hypersensitive. Mr. Sensitivity in the flesh. My sympathetic nerve is just under my skin. Hence the hypertension, my cardiologist assures me. I couldn’t make myself understood in my broken English, and the Negro began to lose patience with his inopportune neighbor in the aisle seat. At various times I noticed that he pretended to doze off in his window seat. He pretended, I repeat. The snoring from his fleshy lips, his strong, white teeth, frightened away the words of his seatmate who pestered him about the residents of New Orleans, who at night chased away the vampire like black flies with streams of spray. I had never seen so many black flies at sundown. (I still had never stepped foot on the islands surrounding Angra do Reis.) The black flies in New Orleans came in droves just like those black birds in Alfred Hitchcock’s film. Their gaze hung over and scrutinized us. They would attack at any moment. They stunned us with their quantity, their humming and their insistence. The flies never abandoned their observation point. They were on the lookout for any sudden movement from the windows or doors. When the smell of Deet would wear off, and at the slightest sign of light from the house, they would dive in a swarm at the unsuspecting victim inside. I have sensitive skin. I didn’t know just how sensitive. I awoke with prominent and enormous red blotches scattered over my face and body. On the following day, my hosts had to improvise a curtain of mosquito netting for me. We forget that New Orleans is a narrow strip of land between Lake Pontchartrain and the mouth of the Mississippi. It’s an island surrounded by swamps. Prolific marshes - called Bayous, an indigenous name frenchified by the old colonizers of the region. The bayous are a breeding place for successive generations of daddy-long-legs, as well as the region’s most divine muddy-water crustaceans that enrich Louisiana’s succulent, creamy, and spicy dishes. Some even have okra or kale as ingredients. Cuisine Créole, Bahian cuisine: gumbo, pompano en papillote, shrimp jambalaya, creole chicken. How delicious! It was at the beginning of my return trip (I went there by plane) that I discovered the true magnitude of the marshes. I realized this when the bus crossed a lengthy bridge, if one can use this word for a long concrete highway constructed above swampy land. It was so many years ago, I have no idea how long that bridge was. I don’t know the distance between Baton Rouge (the first bus stop) and where the bridge ended. When we travel by land and keep ourselves awake we tend to lengthen the distances. When we take a nap, it’s as if we jump from one city to the next. We wake up surprised. My gosh, that trip went by so fast! Sleep sucks us out of the bus like the blades of a propeller, making us travel through the air. It lifts our paws from the earth and liberates us from the slow traction of the wheels. The trip was long. I wasn’t able to converse with my seatmate. I wasn’t able to fall asleep. My broken English was responsible for this lack of cordial dialogue and, also, there were those signs I had read in the Baton Rouge bus terminal, with their repeated and synonymous meanings, that enflamed my already frustrated imagination, and left me awake and apprehensive. Silence and uneasiness, that was the mood. It was in Baton Rouge that the bus made the first in a series of stops. More than providing some food, the stop was necessary because, at that time, the Grey- hound buses didn’t have toilets on board. The passengers who were getting off, were getting off because they had reached their destination, or they were getting off to use the bathroom in the bus terminal. I had drunk a lot of bottled water because of the excessive heat. I got off in Baton Rouge. I looked for the bathrooms like a spy in enemy territory. Surreptitiously. I found them. There were four entrances to the bathroom. Two and two. One set of doors was next to a clean lunch counter, adorned with brilliant metal decorations, and the other set was adjacent to something akin to a seedy dive. The first two bathroom doors were identified respectively by the words Gentlemen and Ladies, and the other two by Men and Women. I looked at the two sets of words and pretended that I didn’t understand. Maybe I was lying to myself? Or perhaps to the group of passengers from the bus? Could it be that I really didn’t understand the difference between the words? I opted for the door labeled "Men," just as I could have opted for the bathroom labeled "Gentlemen". Would they have given me the same right to choose that I now give myself in this rough draft? Or could it be that I already understood, like the sheriff, Gary Cooper, in the film High Noon what would occur in a little while, in the midst of a hot and sunny day in January, in the city of Fort Worth. In a foreign country there are many booby-traps where the sharpshooters of Good arm themselves against the intruding agents of Evil. My palm, my soul. There were only mulattos and blacks in the bathroom I chose. I observed. My memory verified that they were also the majority of passengers on the bus. It hadn’t been by accident that I had shared the ride with a black man. If it hadn’t been that one, it would have been another. I was the only fair skinned person in the bathroom, on the bus. The white middle class traveled on the wings of PanAm, or in their own comfortable car. The blacks and the white trash traveled by Greyhound. I could only think about John Steinbeck and the characters in Of Mice and Men. I traveled by plane on my way to New Orleans. I decided to take the bus trip on my way back. I had deferred to the long trip, extremely long, in order to see, close up, the countryside and the human beings that I had known only on cinema screens. I didn’t feel watched in the bathroom. I confess. My temper was not as red-hot as it is today. Age has turned the skin on my face redder, I spent some time in Rio de Janeiro, I loved Copacabana beach, and then I worked in Albuquerque, where the climate was desert-like and the sun shone intensely all day. It was biting cold at night. For many years my face looked sunburned. In Albuquerque I kept my Copacabana tan. All this to say that I was white, but I wasn’t Caucasian - to borrow a term used by the gringos. My hair was long, thick and black, somewhat curly, my beard was full. I could, at best, pass for a "black Irishman," an expression I learned years later in gossip magazines, and in the physical descriptions of Richard Burton. That was what the journalists liked to say after his marriage to Elizabeth Taylor. I must have been mistaken for a black Irishman in the blacks’ bathroom. After returning, I noticed that the two lunch counters attended to white customers, and black and mulatto customers respectively. With a glance, I rediscovered the segregation that I had discovered on the streetcars of New Orleans, where blacks had to ride standing. As the activist Malcolm X said some years later: "You segregated, now it’s my turn to segregate." Above the fertile marshes and the oil-rich fields of southern civilization, mutual hatred had constructed a bridge of familiarity between whites and blacks. Earlier, there was slavery on the cotton and sugarcane plantations, and now the monotonous, daily hammering of the oilrigs. Those pairs of police officers in cops and robbers films fit my imagination today like a glove. What would have happened to Wesley Snipes, Morgan Freeman, Samuel L. Jackson and so many other black actors if, in the past, there hadn’t been two bathrooms next to another pair at bus terminals in the Southern States? In the front seat of the police car, a white cop next to a black cop. What would have happened to the detective Mel Gibson without his black partner? Would Lethal Weapon have turned into a series of lucrative, lethal films? I doubt it. What would happen to the series shown by NET, where the sitcoms for whites shown by Sony and Warner live side by side with the Black sitcoms, all from the same producers? Will Smith, the Prince of Beverly Hills, where are you that you won’t answer me? Being left out means total exclusion from the system. True marginality. The system was the true ground zero for citizenship in the first and second classes. In a dual system each person has to fit into one or the other, here or there, through personal choice, responsibility and risk. I had to fit myself into this system. Was I Mel Gibson or Morgan Freeman in this fight for survival in the land of cowboys of the Wild West? Why did I go into the bathroom marked Men? Could it be that I was defining and sealing my destiny as a foreigner in the United States? Could it be that I would always be a minority in a nation that constructed itself upon successive and different minorities? The bathrooms. Was it because of the four bathroom doors that I forced the issue of the black experience in the US, in my attempt to converse with my seatmate? Or was it because of the coexistence, in a bus terminal, of two lunch counters with different cliental? The fight of a Yankee hamburger with Confederate deep-fried chicken. Aseptic food versus fatty food. Aseptic bathroom against a bathroom infected with germs. I remember that I wasn’t able to be specific with my questions for my seatmate. I was unraveling generalities. The rationalization of someone who had seen most of Hollywood’s films, who read Brazilian and French newspapers, and even American novels in translation. I spoke about a film, Pinky, that had impressed me so much during the times of the Cineclubes. A beautiful young woman, if I’m not mistaken, played by Debra Paget, who was white, and also tried to "pass for white" in the film. She gave herself away by showing her fingernails. They were pink, Pinky! A disguised Negress! The actress wasn’t Debra Paget. I’m mixing up the films. Debra Paget worked on the film Broken Arrow alongside Jeff Chandler, who played an Indian. The film created a scandal in its time because, for the first time, an Indian kissed a white woman. Since 1934, the US Motion Picture Production Codes had clearly stated: "Miscegenation is forbidden." I’m losing myself in the journey of my narrative and forgetting the neuralgic point of my bus trip, the reason for this rough draft. The bus stopped at some other terminals before getting to Fort Worth. Every three hours. Some passengers got off, some got on. The population on the bus gained a new coloring. The blacks got off, most of them tall and gangly, wearing suits and ties, clean shaven; the Mexicans got on, short and chubby, the so called Chicanos. Round Indian faces, straight black hair, needing a shave, all wearing jeans and jean jackets. A kind of SWAT uniform used for assaulting the farms. The Negro traveled alone. Individualists? The Chicanos traveled in groups. Gregarious? The silent atmosphere was shattered by a barrage of words and laughs. I was in Texas territory, face to face with the "bóias-frias," as refered to in Brazil. "Wet- backs" (wet from clandestine, nocturnal crossings of the Rio Grande River). They traveled from job to job like ancient peddlers who traveled from town to town. I got off the bus a few other times to use the toilet. In all the other bus terminals there was the same dual system of hygiene and nourishment. In the "colored" bathrooms, they had added two other words. Under the words "Men" and "Women," like subtitles, were the respective Spanish translations: "Hombres" and "Mu jeres." There was no room for doubt for these passengers. We had left the aristocratic and slave-centered Gallic spirit of Louisiana and had entered the Mexicanized cowboy culture of Texas. We arrived in Fort Worth. The outskirts of the city indicated prosperity. The high quality of the interstate’s pavement was evident, even to layman’s eyes such as mine. At the other end of the prairie, revealed to us through the bus windows, was sumptuous Dallas, which years later would become famous because of the series, and its golden skyscrapers, that enraptured TV audiences. It was already coveted by the Southwestern nouveau rich, because of the department stores that rivaled Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s in New York. The old cowboys and the newly rich oil magnates were swimming in money. I got off to use the bathroom. The bus terminal was really different from the others. Modern and spacious. The signs in the corridors were efficient and done in good taste. You can already guess what my decision was. I was tired and I wanted to stretch my legs. The two available lunch counters didn’t tempt me. I wanted a good meal. From cuisine créole to Texan food, in a flash. I went to the information desk and saw that I could use the Spanish that I learned in school from Professor José Carlos. I asked if I could stay for a few hours and use my same ticket to take another bus destined for Albuquerque. The answer was yes. I decided. I would have lunch in a good restaurant in the city. I took a taxi. I asked the driver’s advice. He made a suggestion and took me to the agreed upon address. I remember neither the restaurant’s name nor address. It would really be too much if I remembered them today, after having them scarred over for so many years. The restaurant was elegant and I imagined that I would be able to peacefully savor a T-bone steak or those famous Texan Ribs. I mentally opted for the lamb chops. They were listed on the menu attached to the outside door of the restaurant. Specialty of the House. So much the better. I walked in, chose a table and sat down. I waited for service. I waited. And waited. The waiters didn’t walk by my table. I never received the menu, nor did they offer me the customary glass of ice water. I motioned fruitlessly. They waited on all the other tables. I waited ten, fifteen minutes. In vain. I waited a half an hour. I remember this well. The pain did not recognize the wound - which is why it scarred over so fast. I stood up and left the restaurant without having enjoyed those famous Texan ribs. How many eyes followed me out the door? I don’t know. I had my back turned. 





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