Written by Bruno Vieira Amaral
Translated by Luís Coimbra
Excerpt from the novel The Former Things
Lurdes Bexiga was resurrected on Easter Sunday. Afterwards, she left the hospital, took her three kids and moved in with her cousin in Quinta da Fonte da Prata. It was the third time that year she’d fallen down the stairs, or slipped on a freshly scrubbed floor, and since things just kept getting worse — no longer just a matter of bruises and chipped teeth, but now also a pierced lung and a shattered jaw –, she decided she had to move out of her home for the love of her children, fearing the next accident might be the death of her. Domitília, who owned the fishmonger’s where Lurdes worked, had offered to help her at first, but she couldn’t hold on to an employee who needed medical leave every now and again. She liked her and she was terribly sorry, but that just wouldn’t do. She had a business to run. So when she settled with her three children in a bedroom at her cousin’s flat, Lurdes was forced to take up odd jobs, partnering up with Isa to clean stairs in buildings during the week, and to clean house at Teixeira’s café in the weekends. Sunday afternoons were the only times she felt free, the only times she could forget all the miserable years she’d spent locked in an unhappy marriage, and, donning the only dress she owned, wearing the makeup her cousin put on, off they went to the matinees at the Copacabana Dancehall.
She felt like a teenager again, and she enjoyed the somewhat sordid atmosphere of the place, the middle-aged men with well-worn suits, white socks in patent leather shoes, the sharp scent of hairspray and cheap perfume, the tiny dishes crowded with peanuts and pumpkin seeds, breaths smelling of beer and stale Sunday dinner, an unfamiliar body holding her tight as she danced to the sound of Tony de Matos, Roberto Carlos, or Rosana, because she was like a teen again and she wanted to forget there was a whole other world outside, that that sanctuary for swingers and weathered whores kept solvent by their lovers was the only place where, for a few fleeting hours on Sundays, she could recover a modicum of lust for life, because if it weren’t for that, without that mockery of a shelter where tangos and waltzes filled the late afternoon air, she might give in to depression, give in to her fear of her husband, and Lurdes might decide to put an end to it all and throw herself onto the railroad tracks.
It didn’t come to that. Her husband had already showed up at her cousin’s flat, kicking at the door and hurling curses in the night, before some neighbours managed to throw him out, drunk and raging. Once, on a Sunday morning, he’d tried to ambush her outside Teixeira’s café. Isa was the one who’d bailed her out, telling her to scurry out the back door.
When he heard his wife spent her Sunday afternoons at the Copacabana, he went over and waited for her in the parking lot, and when she left the dancehall, her face bright with a moment’s happiness, feeling like a teen again, he shot her three times at close range and left her lying limp in a pool of her own blood, the only dress she owned, black and backless, covered in mud. Her tiny handbag, a gift from the fishmonger, spat out a mirror, some eyeliner, a 500 escudos bill, a purse that held nothing but a couple of bus tickets, and a picture of her with her three children, taken a lifetime ago. She was already dead when the final bullet destroyed her skull.
I felt numb when I left my mom’s house. We’d had cottage cheese, cod with straw potatoes, I’d had seconds, and we’d drunk wine – rough, cheap wine. I stood in the landing, lights out, smoking a cigarette and looking at the windows on the buildings across the street. I enjoy having a smoke in the dark, a clandestine pleasure. That’s where my mind was there and then. I walked down the stairs. I was sure that stairwell used to feel more alive, there used to be more people going up and down with weary sighs, and even outside, those stirrings, the muted animal breathing from within people’s homes made itself heard: voices from television sets, toys dragged across loose floorboards, doors creaking open and banging shut, knives slicing into onions, the tiny thunk of blades hitting stone kitchen counters, pots filled to the brim settling on the stove, matches scratching against the coarse edge of a box, water bubbling, brought to boil, clotheslines screeching through rusted pulleys, the flutter of birds startled in their cages, a nervous dog pawing a wooden door, a yelp, the faded laughter of the miserable, the steady hum of a dozen refrigerators, a mother’s scream, and off in the distance, in the back of the building, the crash of bottles exploding into crystal shards in the bottom of a bin. But that’d been years and years ago. The bedlam had died down, like a storm that had cleared. The building had become a diseased body, fragile in its naked concrete skin, silent as a body not at rest, but settling down to die. When I walked outside, I heard a voice:
The voice grew sharper.
I searched the darkness, the streetlamps were out. I made out a profile.
Who could it be? Surely someone who knew me.
He was standing right in front of me, but I didn’t recognize him.
“You don’t remember me?”
That’s when it hit me. It couldn’t be. Fernando. He was standing right there. He looked the same as ever. He hadn’t changed a bit since we were kids. We shared a smile, it was only fair. We walked together through the maze of buildings. We found that we had very little to say to one another, after all.
“How long has it been? Ten years?”, I asked him
“Longer than that. It happened on December 26th, 1999”, he replied.
Then he pointed at the phone booth in front of the local council headquarters. “That’s where it happened. Right there. Remember?”
My memory failed me. Had it really happened there?
“There. December 26th, 1999. That’s where they killed me.”