I make my slow way to the center. The sun burns my skin, even as I shelter in the shade of the trees along the sidewalk. The air around me dances, as though spellbound by the heat rising off the cobblestones. The roar of cars and motorcycles choking the streets has replaced the hum of the hundreds of bicycles that once swarmed the city at the sound of the steam whistles at the textile mills. My childhood smells of cotton carted down from the Northeast in canvas-covered truck trailers unloaded by men with muscles that gleamed as they formed the bales into white, snowy peaks. Whole families lived off the paltry wages they earned as millhands and lived in row houses on the banks of the Rio Pomba, whose waters brimmed over every year, wrecking the families’ few pieces of furniture, dampening the walls, and getting the children sick. There’s hardly a textile mill left, and though the money has changed hands, floods remain a constant. The city is ugly, dirty, and reeks of piss. Trash is strewn on the sidewalk. Beggars and street vendors compete for the attention of passersby. In botecos, bars, and restaurants, people lounge about in the thrall of television screens. The pedestrian way of Rua Comércio is a window display of stories. A deformed poster from the last electoral campaign catches my eye. Though in pieces, I recognize the face. I buy a bottle of water from the ice cream parlor and ask the teenager behind the cash register who the current mayor is.
She gives a tense smile, as if I’d caught her red-handed. A man dressed in shorts, a polo shirt, and casual shoes interjects as he resignedly wipes his son’s sticky face. “The mayor’s that crook Marcim Fonseca!” I turn around. Defiantly, he continues, “The man’s a white-bellied rat! Do you know him?” “I’m not from here,” I say, intimidated, as I shake my head and cross the street.
Marcim Fonseca . . . Who would’ve thought . . . I sit on a bench beneath a sibipiruna tree on Rui Barbosa Square. I sweat, unmoving. I take small sips from the water bottle. The digital display on the publicity stand reads 31°C. Márcio Luís Fonseca . . . We were at the same high school for a couple of years. Colégio Cataguases. In my freshman year, the papers I wrote earned the praise of Mr. Haroldo Flávio de Carvalho Sá, a steely teacher whose name formed a perfect Sapphic verse, with stresses on the fourth, eighth, and tenth syllables, as he liked to pompously remind us. Authoritarian, dark-suited, and somber-tied, he had a habit of humiliating the poor students—calling them dumb, ignorant, and dim-witted—and showing leniency toward the sons and daughters of the city’s wealthier families, no matter how stupid they were. What’s more, he kept a close eye on anyone with the nerve to espouse independent ideas on any given subject, categorizing them as rockers, potheads, and perverts, whether they were longhairs in colorful shirts, tight jeans, thick belts, and bags with shoulder straps who reeked of patchouli; or else took part in youth groups that on weekends helped out at mass, visited shelters, orphanages, and needy families, or planned trips to abandoned places where they could drink, smoke, and make out in secret. In the grips of a nationalist fervor, Mr. Carvalho Sá not only went after students but also spied on his fellow teachers, whom he accused of subversion. He informed on students and teachers alike to the chief of police, Aníbal Resende, a well-known browbeater who tortured prisoners by whipping them with wet towels so as not to leave marks on their bodies, as he himself bragged in conversation at Bar Elite. (Though both were dead, the two remained close: there were streets named after them in a middle-class gated community in the suburbs.) Mr. Carvalho Sá had little affection for me, seeing as I was working class, but he admired what he called my dedication and perseverance—though not my intelligence, an attribute reserved for people with pedigree. The papers I wrote completely lacked originality; I had simply learned to walk the steady tracks of a winding road, and wrote just the way he wanted me to, which is to say correctly. The sentence, he used to lecture, is feminine. And like all women, it is vain and enjoys dressing up. The adjective is the accessory of the sentence. Too many, and the sentence turns vulgar. None, and its beauty is dulled. I learned this lesson early, and became a virtuoso of his preferred style: the Brazilianness of Alencar modernized by the restraint of the neo-Parnassians, he used to say, even though we couldn’t make head or tail of all that mumbo jumbo. After putting me on display in front of the classroom and making me read off the lined paper covered in cursive letters—highly legible, at his insistence—I’d transcribe the text on the chalkboard for the class to copy. All the while, Mr. Carvalho Sá would sit at his desk pretending to quietly read some hefty tome that he used as a cover to better surveil his students through thick, heavy glasses, cracking down on the troublemakers and jokers by whacking them on the head with a yardstick he’d commissioned for the purpose. Mr. Carvalho Sá’s name struck fear in the hearts of the teaching staff. So, while toadying up to him may have inspired the hostility of my fellow students, it also spared me some bother in other classes. And I strove to please Mr. Carvalho Sá not out of a sense of admiration or pride, like the others, but out of sheer indifference. Wanting them to stop harassing me, I became suggestible—satisfied, the people around me drew away, leaving me alone, broken inside, detached from the world. With time, this lassitude turned me into a character in my own life—always prone to agree and guarded with my feelings and opinions—and I grew more and more isolated. I wipe my glasses with the edge of my shirt. The digital clock reads 16:42, and my stomach growls. I need some food to appease it. I’m a bit unsteady on my feet as I get up and walk down Rua do Comércio, the sun beating down on the naked heads of passersby. I enter the first decent-looking diner I come across, on Rua da Estação. In a corner, two women, perhaps a mother and a daughter, are eating coxinhas and drinking Coke. Opposite, by the door, a man with a half-full tulip glass of beer is entranced by the movement on the street. I go up to the counter and ask the server if they still have the set menu. He shakes his head. “Just sandwiches,” he says, gesturing at the pastry display, “And savory snacks.” Everything makes my stomach turn. I order a meat sfiha. He sets it on a paper plate and then places the plate on the counter. “To drink?” I study the drink dispenser and point to the cube filled with a gurgling light-red liquid. The server fills a very thin plastic cup, which warps between his fingers, and puts it down beside the sfiha. He quotes the price. I pull my worn leather wallet from my back pocket and take out a bill. He goes to the cash register and hands me some change. I head to a table behind the man drinking beer. I eat slowly, helping the doughy glob down my throat with sips from the sugary drink, which I assume is strawberry. Mosquitoes buzz round and round, then land on the thick and greasy sheet of semitransparent plastic that sits over the checkered tablecloth. Sweat dribbles down my forehead, face, belly. Marcim Fonseca . . . Though we grew closer in our second year, we never became friends. The trainee history teacher, Malu, helped dispel the animosity I inspired in my classmates. Malu and her pixie-short black hair. Malu and her thigh-revealing dress. Malu and her advanced behavior. The daughter of Principal Guaraciaba dos Reis, she was attending university in Belo Horizonte. In the very first couple of weeks, bursting with ideas, as Mr. Carvalho Sá liked to spitefully say, she’d drawn lots and divided the class into three groups, then explained that we were going to work on a project about the Early Modern Period, which we would then present in seminars throughout the second semester. My partners were Marcim Fonseca and Graciano Barbosa, our subject the French Revolution. Graciano was one of the troublemakers, defying teachers from the back of the classroom and taunting his enemies during recess. We all coveted his blond curls, set atop his sculpted chest and arms. Scrappy and vain, he suffered from intellectual poverty. Were it not for his singular gift at cheating on tests—achieved through either charm or menace—he may not have finished high school. Years later I came across signs with his name on them all through the city—Graciano Barbosa, Responsible Engineer. The deafening fans in the four corners of the diner circulate the muggy air. I take my hat off and run my right hand over my sopping head, then wipe the sweat on my pants. I collect the paper plate, plastic cup, and dirty napkins, then throw them in the trash.
Excerpted from Late Summer: A Novel by Luiz Ruffato, translated by Julia Sanches. Recently published by Other Press.