Capoeira With Heckler & Koch

My bag in the back of the truck, the Antarctica bottles open, and we're off. David at the wheel of the red pickup, Felix in an open shirt and panama hat, me with the twenty-four-hour flight in my bones. We blast through a red light. Between the entrance ramps and concrete pillars the greenery grows rampant, and above everything an airplane thunders in for a landing. Felix reaches for the glove compartment and tears the door off, Holy Mother of God, there's nothing there, did you drink it all, he asks. David? And again: David? Felix says "DAVI" with the last d silent, as Brazilians do. David with his pitch-black skin drives with tunnel vision down the street, a luminous tube through the sultry night, from the rearview mirror dangles a crucifix. Synthetic lambskin hangs over the seats. At our backs shimmers the Recife airport. Felix raises his bottle, spraying some beer, welcome to the tropics, my Svensson! Felix is wearing colored bracelets around his wrists and explains that that's what's done here. I'm out of it, in the glow of the streetlights before my eyes there's a sprinkling of moisture or cigarette smoke. Or is it the light-emitting diodes in the crown of the holy Madonna flashing from the dashboard? Is the driver really wearing the black skull-and-crossbones sweatshirt of FC St. Pauli? I say: The flight from São Paulo was a disaster, they'd unscrewed the seats next to me, there were only two other passengers on board, the propellers were flapping and grating. There was beans and rice and nothing to drink, it was hard for me to swallow. Felix and David raise their bottles with a loud clink. Turn on the music, meu amigo, says Felix, make it louder, there's something to celebrate, Svensson's here! I say: I guess I am, but where are we actually going?

The pickup roars along the Recife beach promenade, the left rear wheel suspension makes a whistling sound, or maybe it's Felix singing to the music on the radio, "Girl from Mars." Now and then a streetlight, now and then none. On the left the black sea and the white streaks of the waves, on the right beach bars with strings of lights or strings of lights on wooden trellises over the doors or over a few men in open shirts, over beer bottles and card tricks. And the waves crash on the beach. Then steel fences, behind the steel fences high-rises, between them dark green bushes with thick, shiny leaves, Madonnas with low-voltage aureoles, now and then a neon cross, soldiers and armored cars and rifle barrels on the driveways. I ask: Are those Kalashnikovs? No, answers David, all Heckler & Koch, quality workmanship from Germany! Then the pickup leaves Boa Viagem, first come flat buildings made of concrete, then corrugated iron, then plywood, then cardboard. Felix opens another bottle of beer and pushes his hat back, I say: From above the city is a carpet of glowworms and frayed at the edges. Tourist, hails Felix, those are the fires, there are no glowworms here, this here is the favela of Recife, Svensson, you understand? I don't understand anything, but meanwhile I'm holding my third beer since my arrival in Brazil in my hand. David turns the corner and winds through the muddy roads, he avoids the cardboard huts and burning garbage cans, the dark faces between the flames, and they all turn with the pickup like flowers with the sun. I ask again: Where are we actually going? The pickup stops in front of a poorly lit shell of a house, on the second floor a few windows are illuminated, in front of the house a tin garbage can is burning and throwing off sparks. Here, says Felix, to buy weed. I ask: Can't we just get a beer and then go to a hotel? Don't worry, my Svensson, says Felix, jumping out of the truck, this is all great fun.

I ask through the open window: Isn't this dangerous? Felix hunches his shoulders as he walks toward the mossy ruin. I get out and follow him, I ask louder: Isn't this dangerous? Toward the horizon the lights of a tanker or an airplane in descent or the sparks over the garbage can? I ask: Felix? But Felix is climbing the dark staircase, stepping over the trash on the staircase, he jumps over a man lying in a watery pool on the concrete, the man is snoring and stinks. Felix? Be quiet, Felix replies, or else they'll hear your fear, and I can't say they're harmless. Up above light falls through a door into the stink of piss and onto the stains on the walls. Am I breathing too deeply? Can fear be heard? In here, says Felix, and I think: Get out of here! and stay in the stairwell. I hear terse sentences from inside, and someone laughs loudly. I turn around and begin to go carefully down the stairs. Is the man on the landing snoring louder as I step over him? Are the fluorescent lights in the stairwell flickering or am I not seeing straight? Is that piss or liquor or mildew burning in my eyes? Am I sweating going downstairs in the dark? Is that possible? Can this all be true?

I wait in the passenger seat as Felix jumps onto the back of the truck, the air thick with smoke from the garbage cans. Felix with a bulging plastic bag in his hand, printed on it is: Supermercadinho e Panificadora Bom Jesus. David turns the key in the ignition back and forth like a screwdriver, the engine sputters and finally starts. We got lucky, says Felix, and I ask: Why lucky? They messed up, says Felix, meu amigo! Look at this bag full of weed, he whispers, the idiots made a mistake, meu amigo, he cheers, this is at least five hundred grams! And are sparks flying from the garbage cans on the road, or is there an illegal Heckler & Koch rattling behind us, and are the shadows on the road ducking like flowers in the moonlight? I stare at Felix: Are you serious? David steers the pickup out of the favela, but with my twenty-four-hour flight in my bones I have trouble following. With such curves, with such holes in the ground.

Felix and David show me the area through the truck window. The pickup roars along the sea again and then turns into smaller streets, we drive up a hill and back down, past gardens full of orchids and bougainvillea, past iron fences and shining old buildings. I say: There are palm trees everywhere here! Incredible! Olinda, says Felix, is not a city, Olinda is an attraction. The pickup drives over rivulets and streams, through the window I hear cars honking and beggars singing. Felix passes around an Antarctica, then a Skol, then a Brahma. With Felix you always have to be drinking. The pickup drives past glass facades and gas stations, it turns under bridges, there are mildewed election posters stuck to the bridge piers, Burger King shines in the night. Then the billboards and satellite towns disappear, the pickup leaves the city. David signals to move into the passing lane and steps on the gas, he turns up the cassette player and whistles through his teeth, Rudi Ratlos heisst der Geiger, Felix screams to the sky, der streicht uns grad' 'nen Evergreen! Half a kilo of weed! And I with the twenty-five hours without sleep in my bones sit next to Felix on the synthetic lambskin and scarcely believe my ears and eyes. I ask: What are we actually doing here? I thought this was alternative service in the rural blight of Seraverde, Pernambuco. David laughs and drinks and throws a Brahma bottle into the bushes and stalks flying by on the roadside, in a way it is. Felix laughs louder, in a way it is! Seraverde, he says, is a town of average size and average beauty between rainforest and desert. Seraverde throws its trash on a piece of fallow land behind the bus station, Rodoviária. The poor live off the trash, they wear old shoes and T-shirts, they drink the oily water, they eat melon rinds and gnaw on chicken bones, they beg for sugarcane liquor. That's why we're here, my Svensson, says Felix, we're building a water tower. We cook them soup, we show them how to use a toothbrush, we pay a doctor, we pull rotten teeth, we teach them the alphabet, we change diapers. The Germans and Italians and French donate money, the Catholic Church pays a padre to hear confessions. We provide salvation, we have a fax machine, we throw condoms on Rua do Lixo. The poor fuck like rabbits, then they get into fights, they stab each other and shoot, they die like flies, and we drive the ambulances, we manage the sutured wounds. Felix turns around to me. Ruo do Lixo is the ass crack of Seraverde, the garbage street, you understand? We wipe Seraverde's butt, so it doesn't itch the medium-sized and moderately pretty city. And since this work is a disaster, David laughs and looks at us instead of the road, we got ourselves some weed. Felix cheers and slaps me on the shoulder, porco dio! The two of us in Brazil, Svensson! The two of us! Warm night air wafts in through the window, and I'm suddenly so tired that I can't even see straight. I ask: When will we finally get there? Another five hours to Seraverde, says David, then you'll get a hammock and a mosquito net, then you'll get electricity, then you two will have a wall around you and glass shards in concrete. And you? I ask. I'm your night watchman, says David, and takes a Heckler & Koch out of the glove compartment, I guard you. Nothing will happen to you! Felix takes the pistol out of his hand and aims into the darkness. Old tires on the median strip, and because David is grinning and the music is clanging so beautifully, I lay my head on the lambskin and close my eyes. Urinating is good for you, I hear Felix singing, and as the pickup stops in the middle of the rainforest and Felix pees on a car wreck, in the din of the crickets, in the howling of the jackals, with my twenty-seven hours of anxious anticipation in my bones, I finally fall asleep.

***

Reprinted from Funeral for a Dog by Thomas Pletzinger, translated by Ross Benjamin. Originally published in German under the title BESTATTUNG EINES HUNDES. Copyright (c) 2008 by Verlag Kiepenheuer & Witsch, Köln. Translation copyright 2009 by Ross Benjamin. The translation of this work was supported by a grant from the Goethe-Institut which is funded by the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton. This selection may not be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form by any means without the permission of the publisher.