ISSN 2359-4101

Brazilian Literature in Translation / Literatura Brasileña en Traducción

Issue / Numero

year/año: 2012
issue/numero: # 04

The Amateur Sleepwalker

Author | Autor: José Luiz Passos

Translated by Karen Sherwood Sotelino

Pernambuco, Brazil 40 years ago

Chapter One: November

When the rain stops, sometimes I turn off the air-conditioner and
stand there, looking out the open window. I spend over a half hour
watching the goings on in front of the building. Down on the street,
trucks head for the weigh station and, once in a while, a yellow
harvester passes by, its tracks leaving long trails of mud behind the shovel held by
mechanical arms. At the curve in the river, where it widens, and where there used
to be two rows of sweet olive trees, now there’s scrap metal. I haven’t been out
that way for a long time. I’m always fascinated by the overturned wagons, a dead
locomotive, the kind with an open top, and the tractors, once so colorful, now falling
apart and gradually covered with a layer of brittle, brown rust. From a distance,
anyone seeing that pile of scrap metal might even mistake it for a crack in the earth,
the place where the clay is darkest, or else for hay, or rubble, or even sugarcane
bagasse. But in fact, it’s only retired machinery.
Since Big Green was built facing away from the river, you can’t see the bridge
or the banks at Velha rock, which is a very pleasant place to have lunch when I feel
like eating outside. The enormous building isn’t pretty, like the clinic, with its thirteen
arches on the façade, as if it had a long veranda. Nor is it as spacious as the cotton
mill sheds with their sixty-foot high ceilings, ladders, and iron walkways around the
drum carders, the steel bobbins feeding thousands of needles. But Big Green is
where the company’s most important decisions were made.
It’s true it looks like a domino, balancing on one side, abandoned, larger on the
bottom, with a strip running along the side made of hollow, diamond shaped bricks
that show the stairwell and let the dust inside the building. From way on top four
gutters stick out, and when there’s a lot of water, it accumulates and cascades. In
rainy season there’s a particular smell, the rain drains down directly, hits the earth,
digging puddles and sounding like brutish urine because the earth is soft and Big
Green, far too tall. Since there are so few gutters for the wide rooftop, huge quantities
of water run together and splash into them, spraying a thick shower into the air.
From a great distance, almost all the way downtown, you can still see the old
name of the factory at the top of the building. On the way home, sometimes I stop
and look back, pondering its decay, the paint peeling off the building and the marquis
ridden with holes. I think about what Marco Moreno used to tell me, how he would
criticize the building his own grandfather had constructed. That’s when I bend over
to light a cigarette or untie my shoelace, only to tie it again, one foot resting on a low
wall or anywhere else. When I remember what the textile mill once was, and what’s
left of it now, I feel my chest cave in deeper. And that metal sign alone, painted in
large letters covered in sun-parched moss, is enough to make that happen.

I don’t know where you all work, or used to work, but here the siren goes off at
1:45 p.m., calling the workers back from lunch. It’s for the workers in the cafeteria
and also for the workers that go out to eat. And there’s no way to avoid the reminder
since you can hear the whistling from downtown. It also sounds at 6:00 p.m., the end
of the workday.
Sho, sho, shoooo, it’s always two short whistles, then a long one.
But it’s true, I’m terrible at imitations.
What I mean to say is that during these breaks, I normally stay by myself on the
fourth floor. It’s been a long time since I’ve gone out for lunch and, when I do, I like
to go to Neco’s bar, because sometimes they serve rabbit there.
My coworkers wander back in, and one or another of them always looks at me,
all cheerful, trying to joke around, telling me some funny story about what went
on at lunch. They think I’m dying of boredom locked up here in the office, or else
that I’m mad at someone. In fact, that’s not the case. I like to stay in the office
organizing folders, writing letters, or taking care of official correspondence I may
need to send later on that day, or the following day. Sometimes I make a private
phone call or answer calls from anyone that might try during off hours. I also read
part of the newspaper and listen to whatever radio station I feel like. Because of the
arrangement I made, since I don’t take a lunch hour, I get to leave a little earlier. I take
advantage that it’s still light out.
When I walk, I take forty-five minutes to get home from Big Green. On my bike,
at a leisurely pace, it’s under twenty. Along the way I sometimes stop to smoke a
cigarette, run an errand, or watch people in the plaza discussing politics and soccer,
or playing dominos, which I myself don’t do since I don’t like it. So the days go by
without much variation.
But that week, on the afternoon I decided to go to the capital to deal with the
case of the burned boy, I ended up going over to talk to a worker who was sitting
with two others around a deck of cards, on a bench in the plaza.
Jurandir, are you really going or not? You’ve given up, he said.
Since I was walking, I couldn’t just go right by and ignore the comment. It’s none
of your business, I answered, looking at him. You’re sure not going instead of me. Or
are you? That got no answer.
The dealer started laughing so loud and made so much fun of the nosey guy,
cutting the guy’s throat with a card, that I decided to have a seat. I’m not much
on gambling, but they needed a fourth. I found out the talk at lunchtime had been
about Minnie, who’d dumped half a bottle of ketchup onto a paper napkin, folding
the edges to make a funnel, and swallowed the whole thing in one gulp. She got a
case of beer out of it, since she’d done it on a dare. I ignored everyone acting like it
was such a big deal, they just didn’t have enough to keep them busy. Nor was I about
to start arguing with Minnie, who’d apparently let on I’d done the same thing for half
a case or less, that I’d always been cheaper than she was.
When I found out Minnie had referred to me as someone who’d get involved
in a stupid competition like that, I thought the following. Although we’d spent the
previous years together, at Big Green, walking from there back home, going out to eat
sometimes, in fact, we knew very little about each other. Minnie herself, when she’d
first gotten here, right after the cotton mill had been sold to the current group, told me
I was a hero for staying on because, with the coming of the new owners, the work was
bound to change a lot and no one knew exactly how. I remember one time I ended
up telling her a few stories about the start of the company, about my adventures with
Marco Moreno, his affair with a married girl, a decent girl. I told her, then immediately
regretted it, since the truth is at the time Minnie and I weren’t that close at all.

Wearing shorts and a cropped top, her legs crossed, sometimes she looks at
me strangely while I’m sitting there talking, like the day when, for no reason
at all, she dumped a glass of Coke on my lap.
We were in the living room and I was telling her about what had happened with
Marco when he and I were young. I was telling her more or less the same story I’d
told her before.
The sky was clearing up, or I think it already had. We were silent, walking along
the route from the road to the bridge. When the olive trees bloomed, we would set
the bird trap along the banks of the river where it makes a curve around the big
rock, the place Marco used to call Velha rock. When I started taking my own lunch
to Big Green, a couple of times I ate sitting on that rock, watching the river wander
along near the railroad switch, which isn’t used anymore since nowadays everything
is transported by truck. With all the rain, the distance from one side of the river to
the other used to measure eighty feet, but now it’s under forty. At that stretch of
the river, the banks were steep and full of green cane with a lot of pickerelweed. The
bridge, built before the cotton mill, had originally been designed with two lanes and
a wood rail. Now the stone paving is underneath the asphalt and the guardrail is
made of metal. Back then, we felt like building a ramp and jumping from one bank
to the other in our go-carts which, of course, we never did.
Walking around there that day, we were staring at the yellowed, churned up
river, watching the current drag tufts of weeds and sometimes a plank of wood, a
paper bag or a twisted branch. Somewhat bored by all that, my friend stood up and
went over to the riverbank. The road had no sidewalk, so there were a lot of puddles
because the earth was soaked from all the rain. The puddles were like a mirror of
the slowly swirling clouds, which were actually easier to see in those mud puddles.
Without warning, Marco threw a rock at the birds on the other side of the river.
Let’s ride the go-cart, Jurandir? You can drive today, he said, and headed toward the
city hall promenade, with me following him.
At the time, I was surprised since we always used to argue over who got to
drive. Now that I think about it, it seems to me Marco let me because he knew I was
feeling down, and he thought it might cheer me up.
City Hall is about three blocks up from the bridge. Along the way we must have
run into people coming back from the Saturday market, which is even bigger now,
but the truth is I don’t remember seeing anyone at all. I walked along, distracted,
pulling the go-cart by a string I’d wrapped around the front axis so I wouldn’t have
to carry it. As we approached the new promenade, I turned to the slope and pointed
the cart toward Imaculada Conceição. The wall of the convent school was low and
at that time of day the nuns were sweeping the patio. On the weekends, when the
school was closed, the street was quiet. Marco, seeing me just standing there, waved
to indicate I should take the driver’s seat, which I did.
Even now, when Minnie hears me talking about this, or other things from that
time, she strikes an interested pose, taking sips from her cup of Coke and looking
at me with an increasingly vague expression on her face. I give her more and more
details, details I haven’t included before. So, I tell her stories and Minnie pays me
back with ever-growing disbelief, trying to get me to keep talking.
The truth is, I told her, with a mere push, or not even that, I would be racing down
the hill at a very high speed. But what happened was, that day my friend ran even
faster in the push-off. I saw I wasn’t going to make the curve without a spinout and I
yelled to warn him. Marco, it’s okay, let go now, I said. But the steel wheels, scraping
the cement and rocks, made a loud noise, it was nearly impossible to hear anything. I
don’t know if he heard me or not, because the push-off continued for a while longer.
I yelled again and that time he must have noticed because I was already pulling the
handles left and right, making the go-cart curve its way down. At the time, scared of
how much my speed had picked up, I had given up the idea of going to the end of
the promenade and had decided to abort our regular route. I made a sharp turn to
the right to get onto the street and the cart turned sideways. I thought it was going
to flip, but it didn’t. I put one foot on the promenade, trying to slow it down and, with
my leg sticking out, stiff because of the speed, without realizing it, my body also
stiffened. I clenched the handles and kept the soles of my sandals about ten inches
in front of the wheels. When I crossed the main street, jumping from the promenade
to the dirt road, the dust came up and I thought I was in luck. The sand would slow
me down and, before reaching the other side, I’d end up stopping. But since I was
still going so fast, I crossed the street sideways at full speed and realized I was going
to crash into the divider head-on. I must have closed my eyes. I remember I twisted
my body off the go-cart and it flipped. I slid the rest of the way onto the ground and
kept moving without the cart, just my body, all the way until I hit the sidewalk below.
Then, with one leg out, my foot hit the edge of the new cobblestone promenade.
The impact was huge, but it could have been worse. I crashed on my side and sensed
the terrible taste of dirt in my mouth. I opened my eyes and saw my sandals on the
ground, next to the go-cart, which had gone flying and crashed into the wall of a
house. It was totaled. I say it could have been worse because, way behind me, my
friend was in shock. He’d gone mute with fright. I think he was watching and taking
in what he’d just seen. It was only when I moved and started to touch my leg that
he called out how cool the ride had been. But as he approached and saw what had
happened to me, he started talking differently. He said to stay calm, everything was
going to be alright. Then my friend got up and cupped his hands to his mouth. He
started screaming as loud as he possibly could to the passersby, for the love of God,
someone please come quickly.

On the weekends I like to visit the small towns along the coast. Whenever I see
one of those beautiful baby blue Simca Chambords on the highway or pulled
over at the side of the road, with the purring V8 engine, fishtail hubcaps, white synthetic
leather upholstery and mother-of-pearl steering wheel, a picture of my friend
forms in my mind. I stare at the car, to make sure it’s the same model, and when I see
someone behind the wheel who is fair skinned, posing with one hand on the wheel
and the other hand out the window, I can’t help thinking, it can only be him. This time
it’s really him, Marco Moreno Prado, he just can’t stand it anymore and he’s come
back. But as I approach, or hop off my bike, I see once again that it wasn’t.
The truth is, sometimes I’m overtaken by the desire to talk about memories
of my friend to Minnie or things about my childhood to other people, and it’s an
odd feeling, typical of conversations we have when we’re on a break and one of
us, having had a few drinks, ends up saying things they shouldn’t. I started thinking
about this again as I was taking notes for the meeting with the lawyers in Recife.
I spent the entire afternoon gathering documents for the case of the boy with
the burn injuries, since it had dragged on too long and now it had to be settled in
court. Following the advice from someone around here, his mother called me the
other day, sobbing. I tried to calm the woman down, but she would not stop until I
promised I could get a favorable verdict, downplaying the carelessness of her son
who, for not knowing how to operate the new compressor, had gotten steam burns
on his hands and face. Just today, I caught myself pondering the merits of the case.
And also, thinking about his mother’s concern for her son’s future.
I remember having gone through a similar experience, when my son was born
sickly and I asked Marco to be his godfather. I kept reliving that moment and the
excuse my friend had given me, that it would be better for both of us if he declined.
Then an even worse memory came back, more vividly, the two of us walking on
the roads surrounding Big Green, avoiding the puddles, kicking stuff on the road
while we talked about how our lives were going to change. Or I might be confusing
that specific occasion when we talked about the baptism with another time because,
in the weirdest moment of the conversation, I remember we were at a table in a bar or
restaurant and, when Marco finally said, why mix friendship with family, the image that
comes to mind is of a table covered with a colorful cloth and, sitting on top of it, a stack
of clean paper napkins rolled up inside a glass or maybe a jam jar that I kept revolving
between my hands as I waited for my friend’s answer. I’d more or less imagined what it
would be. That it was better to keep things separate.

When I finished gathering the paperwork on the burned boy, Minnie came by my
office desk and looked at me for a while. Then she started that pestering of hers.
Jurandir, I didn’t mean to be rude to you. It was just talk, she said.
You said it though. What was it again? That I’d lost my courage.
I said you used to be nicer. You’d go out with us. That’s all.
Oh sure, Minnie. What’s the problem? Do you think I’m like your friends, getting a
kick out of any old thing? You’re really something.
What do you mean Jurandir?
Sometimes you don’t care about anything. That’s so easy, I said.
We then kept quiet.
Before long, she brought it up again. My offer still holds, take the car. Stop being so
stubborn Jurandir, come on.
You really don’t listen, do you, girl? Sometimes you act like you’re deaf.
Take it. I’m telling you. You can take it and, while saying that, she got closer to me.
She rested her hands on the table, leaned all the way over, almost into my files, and
repeated herself, tapping her purse, rattling her keychain.
I’ve already told you, Minnie. I’d rather take the bus. I really like it better, I said. I
wanted to put an end to the conversation. Since we’d raised our voices, a few people
turned around to see what was going on. Then I gestured so she would notice that
people were reacting. She didn’t say anything. I straightened the pile of folders and
moved the calculator and telephone to one side. I kept looking at Minnie, planted there
in front of me.
Jurandir, it was a joke. Please.
What joke? I’m the one who knows what people have told me. What I heard.
She stayed silent. Then she turned around as if to leave.
I’m going, see?
Go. You can go, I said.
And it was only then that Minnie finally left the office.

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