When Elisângela threw the box out, with all the authority of a woman who wears the pants, he didn’t really care. To tell the truth, what shocked him most was that it had been two years since he’d last opened it.
He was hiding out in Dourados, at the house of a cousin who didn’t know that he was on the run and welcomed him with open arms, especially after the money he’d sent him to buy a plot of land. Those were the good old days, back when he could send money to relatives to buy plots of land. He couldn’t go back to Rio de Janeiro, things had turned ugly there and it was hard to get people together. No Professor, banks are bollocks. Professor—he just wanted to know who the son of a bitch was who had given him that nickname. From one moment to the next he had become Professor, bank job specialist, even though all he’d ever done was one piece-of-shit agency, and it wasn’t even he who planned and executed the job, but Tatanca, who got shot in the process. He made off with the money, gave the widow her share, Thanks Professor. Maybe it was the old bat that gave him the name of Professor? Anyway, rep is rep, and though he never knew why, he was now being called on to organize bank robberies. Life’s like that, they brand you as something and that’s it, that’s what you become. Even if you’re not. Sometimes the other guys got everything ready, but it seemed his presence was the omen they needed to feel that everything would go as planned. He didn’t even have to participate, he received commission as a consultant. That’s when the swinging doors came in and the helicopters started to appear all of a sudden, the cop who was a little too expensive or too ambitious. But what really fucked things up was the competition. Every week there was some new punk getting in on the act. They invented lightning kidnappings, which gave only spare change, but often a lot of spare change per day—like candy from a baby. Candy from a baby, yeah right, got it, the kids all become fools, amateurs. He put a group of them together to do over an armored car, as the usual crew were either dead, locked up or had become drug dealers. Clockwork. Three at the manager’s house with a gun to the wife’s head. Three with the wife of the escort chief, another five just to swell the scene and collect the money. But no, something goes down and there’s always a crazy. Then it’s gunfire all round, dude kills dude, the cops raid the shantytown, the news is all over the TV, the Secretary of Security starts talking tough. Maybe he got the nickname because of the glasses, or the receding hairline. Maybe it was because he was so slim, or because he had finished high school, or because he spoke properly, that’s right, he could speak properly, I haven’t done anything, not I ain’t done nothing! Once he put on a good suit and cleaned out a bank in a nice university. He had a nice face, he knew that much, not the face of a professor, and he had just shaved. Then again, it might also have started as a joke. Was it that they thought he was too soft? Or a bit of a half-wit—hence Professor?
Let’s go. Oh, Valdir, do I look like a professor to you?
As he was cutting out a photo of her husband, he kept thinking about the first time he had seen her, of the thunderclap that would change his life. Much later, twenty years later, he could now see other things in that thunderclap, and he found it kind of funny how things had transpired. If he told Elisângela, now that she had turned born-again Christian, she’d have said it had all been written in stone. And if he asked her if it had been written in stone that he would have to kill all those men, she’d have said they’d provoked it. Maybe it would turn into a louder argument, or maybe he’d storm out of the house, but no, he was far too used to her company for that, even if he could no longer penetrate her whenever he wanted, wherever he wanted. Nor would he turn the screw on that fag of a pastor who had tamed her, he’d be too soft for it now. How life changes, he thought, looking at the son who would someday tell him he wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps. His life was about to change, though not as he imagined that day as he cut photos from newspapers and thought about the first time he had seen her and of the thunderclap it brought him. Valdir had taken him to the inauguration of a school on the farm his fiancé lived on with her parents. There were two distinct groups, his and theirs, and his group was only there to make up the numbers. There were also cops all over the place, which caused his muscles and gestures to stiffen at first. Not so much for fear of being recognized and arrested, but for the embarrassment it would cause his poor cousin, who had believed all that stuff about his being an estate agent. Some guy Valdir said was the governor was making a speech. And who’s that over there, Valdir? That’s Ms. Dora, the wife of Mr. Guilherme, the owner of the farm, isn’t it, Honey? And that’s when the thunderclap came. He put the cutout in the box and shuffled the photographs once more. That Valdir had called his wife “Honey,” he chuckled, shaking his head. He ran over all the times from the last two weeks. It would be easier to take one of the kids, said a colleague, a wanted kidnapper passing through São Paulo. No, it has to be her, he replied, and the guy didn’t insist, after all, the Professor had to know what he was doing. His friend even recommended three reliable men for the job, adding it would also be a good thing to organize some slut to look after the hideout. He’d have to live with her for a while beforehand, get to know the neighbors so nobody would get suspicious, make some friends at the local diner. They’d have to pretend they were a couple. And when it was all over, get rid of her, understand? He locked everything in the box, placed it in the safe and turned the key.
That one the first night was too easy, she arrived straightaway stroking his thigh, and soon she had her hand on his cock. The slut was a damn good fuck, but she was too sharp. The girl the previous day, from that dive in São Bernardo do Campo, she was seething at him, he could tell, as he shagged her on all fours in a room that reeked of piss—and women with a grudge screw around on you, claw, pester, make a guy’s life a misery, they even kill, she’d even kill, and no end of smacking her around can change it. But they fuck like mad. He had to control himself, this way he was gonna blow all the money. Money spent on pussy is well spent, he knew that much, but he also knew that without work even bank money runs out someday. To say nothing of the rent he had to pay on time, or the car he’d had to buy up front, and the clothes that really did make him look like a Professor. It was an expensive charade. He had to buy a refrigerator, a stove, a sofa, a table, chairs, lamps—the son-of-a-bitch owner hadn’t even left a lamp. A TV too: according to a tip from his friend, a house without a TV is suspect. He also needed a camera, a zoom lens and film, which he had to pay to have developed at a different store every day. He’d lie down at night just looking at the photos, he no longer even tried to understand the reasons for the obsession. He knew very well why. It had been like that since he was a kid, and no saint could ever make him change. No saint and no fist in the face from his drunken father. In one of the photos, Dora seemed to be looking straight at him, eye to eye. It was the photo he liked best, even though it intimidated him. It was as if she could see him. That picture excited him, he really thought that if it hadn’t been for that photo, taken in the first few days, after he’d blown his cover so many times, he’d have given up and gone back to Rio. He was stubborn as a mule, but by no means dumb as an ass. Things had started to look up back there, and some bum was making money that should have been his. But those eyes fixed him, challenged him. And he liked challenges, maybe that’s why he had become so good at doing banks? He was thinking a load of shit, he grumbled to himself, as he pulled over outside a club he didn’t know.
She was a false blonde, the dark roots betraying long days without dye. She had a brown, sad look in her eye, he noticed it as soon as he walked in. She was at the end of the bar, alone, with neither client nor friend for company. From time to time the barman came over and filled up her glass, pouring in Coca-Cola followed by what he imagined must have been rum. She was tall, must have been around his height, maybe more. At least a meter of pure leg. Thin too. Where’s the ass? Her tits were too small, was she really a she? Or underage? She had to be a model, with those expensive clothes like the ones Dona Jurema used to cut out from fashion mags so she could make imitations to sell to the whores. Probably an ice maiden, she had to be a model, not a whore. She wouldn’t be worth a fuck as a whore. He bet she probably didn’t even know how to put on a condom. He turned toward three women who were displaying themselves to him, asses thrown back, tits pushed out, slutty faces, a drawling honeyed hi-there. And after three cognacs and who knows what else, just as he was leaving with a gorgeous mulatta, hot as hell—his cock exploding against his pants so hard it hurt, that stuck-up chick had made his mouth and imagination drool since he’d first laid eyes on her, so he yanked her away from some kid who wouldn’t know what to do with a piece like her anyway—Whaddaya lookin’ at? Go jerk off!—just as he was leaving, with the bouncer holding the door ajar, the mulatta with her bag on her shoulder, shawl on her back, hand in his, he saw her from the corner of his eye, perched at the same end of the bar, in the same loneliness.
My real name is . . .
He interrupted her, his forefinger resting on her lips.
It’s Elisângela, your real name is Elisângela.
She opened her mouth just a little, raised her eyebrows.
The other name is not you, your name is Elisângela, that’s your real name.
And your name, is it Luís?
Luís Paulo what?
You’re curious today.
OK . . .
Luís Paulo III, my name is Luís Paulo III, now tell me, Elisângela, what’s your surname?
Luís Paulo III?
Yeah, fuck it! My granddad was Luís Paulo, so they called me Luís Paulo III!
Souza, my surname is Souza.
And your son? Just Souza . . . his father was married and . . . —he put his finger to her lips once more and shook his head.
That’s a coincidence, my surname is Souza too, Luís Paulo Souza III, but my professional name is Luís Paulo III.
With a youthful smile, she kissed him hard on the mouth and they rolled once more on the bed, naked and sweating, just as they had been for days. If she had believed that, she would believe anything.
That night, he left the club feeling kind of strange, torn between two desires. He could discard the mulatta who excited him down to the last pore and go after the waif at the bar, who attracted him, though he couldn’t tell quite why. Perhaps it was the mystery about her. Or he could leave with the bombshell at his side and let that little curiosity slip away, even though he’d never done the hole of a model before—torn between two desires. Unable to wait any longer, he left with the bombshell and went out into the street, a tree-lined place with few houses she’d recommended when he wanted to have her in the car. Not in the car, Honey. They went on foot and she stood up against the wall with her back to him, it was quick and hard, with faked groans, there among the scattering of houses, the trees, the streetlamps with burned out bulbs, the used condoms laying all around mixed up with the crumbled litter, dry leaves, pools of piss and shit and the drops of hope that dirtied the ground. Torn between desires. He went back to the club. At the end of the bar, an empty seat. The following day too, and with each day that passed, the desire grew. An obsession. He knew it only too well. And so it went until one day she was there and he took her home. After hours of screwing, he fell asleep. It was the first time he had ever slept with a slut to watch over him.
Everything was ready. He now had Dora’s schedule down. Her husband’s too, so he knew exactly what weeks he’d be traveling. The kids’ as well, they had so many classes after school—guitar for the pudgy boy, dance for the girls, swimming, English—that the three already kept the driver and the housekeeper well entertained. Just as Dora entertained him. He knew what time she got up, what she ate for lunch, which guys ogled her ass when she bent over to touch her toes during her routines at the gym. The best time was when she came out of her sessions with the psychologist. Was she crazy or something? She was alone then, with no driver, no colleagues. Almost always after therapy she’d stop off for a coffee at one of those up-market sweet shops in the city. That’s where he took that photo of her facing him. Though with time he came to realize that she wasn’t looking at anything at all, she seemed to be looking inside. She was vulnerable at these moments, he could feel it, and it made him feel vulnerable too, it took effort to hold back the impulse to sit down beside her. To touch her, body and soul. Perhaps . . . ? No, he did not want to fuck her, he wanted to do exactly what he was doing now—just look at her. Look at her the way you look at a statue on an altar. That aura she had about her that hooked him the first day he saw her in Dourados, like a pastor hooks a believer, renewed itself with each gaze. Or maybe it was the way a thief eyes a pile of gold bars. He was a thief . . . but she was more than gold, she was something more sacred than that. It was weird, an obsession . . . Sometimes, not often, but enough for him to know that there was something going on, she had coffee with some guy, and from the way they looked at each other, threatening to move closer, but not actually moving, he could tell he had either been someone in the past or soon would be. He discovered his name by tipping the waiter, who got it from the credit-card slip. That was all he found out, because it was all he went after. He didn’t want to have to take the jerk out himself and his money was already running low. He couldn’t afford to hire a good hitman, like Anísio, for example, a friend of a friend. But he didn’t want to feel jealous either! It was business, just business. And anyway, jealousy is for schmucks, you can find women on every street corner. Women like Elisângela. Everything’s ready, he thought again, Elisângela had already been living with him for a week, soon she’d be coming in from the kitchen with those scrambled eggs with ham and cheese she prepared with black pepper. He returned his notes to the box, the photos too, stowing Dora carefully away for safekeeping, then shut the lid and put away the key.
What’s the matter, love? asked Elisângela, kissing him on the mouth and sitting on the chair the waiter pulled out for her.
I’m just tired.
Too much work, eh?, they say it’s a job that really takes it out of you.
He looked at her, her youthful happiness, her enthusiastic way of talking, the ingenuousness that made her believe just about anything. And she was damn good in bed… He broke into a sad smile she didn’t see because she’d gone to the restroom. The boy looked a lot like her, old enough to start talking. In the photo she’d shown him, they were both laughing, with the sea in the background. He had no father and soon would have no mother either. Fuck. . . . , he muttered to himself, and took a long pull of beer. He would have to kill her. Fuck it, why did she have to go and open that goddamned door! She just had to go nosing around, fuck it! And what the hell was he thinking of leaving it unlocked anyway . . .
Love, what are you grumbling about all to yourself?
Nothing. It’s nothing, just stuff . . .
She started talking about her son, that she’d gone to visit him in Santos, where he lived with his grandfather, who believed, or pretended to believe, that she was a secretary in a multinational. She spoke and he could just see her standing there in the pantry, the red light turned on, a bunch of photos in her hand, Love! Why didn’t you tell me? and before he could answer, Why didn’t you tell me you were a photographer? It’s a newspaper investigation, it’s top secret, that was all he said, ushering her out in the most delicate manner possible. After all, he didn’t need to mistreat her, just kill her. She was talking to him and all he could see was her standing there, in some place, her eyes pleading and full of tears, he could see the gun in his hand before he pulled the trigger, and she’d never understand why she was dying. Fuck it!
Are you sure, Love?
He finally heard her and answered yes automatically, without paying any attention to what she’d been saying, the way you reply to a woman you don’t want to mistreat, only kill. She planted a hard kiss on his mouth, cradled his face in both hands, her eyes welled up with tears, though not of supplication, but of joy. The next day, off he went to Santos to pick up the boy.
What the fuck is this!, wasn’t the woman supposed to take care of the hideout, are you crazy?, she was going to find out one way or another, and wasn’t she going to die anyway, you done lost it?, and the boy just helps with the facade, Oh Professor, I can’t believe I’m hearin’ this!
I can’t believe it either, Wesley . . . have you got the stuff I asked for?
Wesley handed over the order: two handguns, false ID, ammo, some stolen cell phones and a few cloned ones. Cool, Professor, Luís Paulo sure is a toff’s name! They were beginning to lose respect, when before would Wesley have had the balls to stand there face to face and say he couldn’t believe what he was hearing, saying he was crazy and taking the piss like that? Some months ago he’d have grabbed him by the scruff of the neck and slammed him against the wall—you can’t believe what, asswipe? Crazy is your bitch mother! And he’d have looked down, Sorry, sorry. He just wasn’t the same anymore, and neither was Wesley, who now went by the name Spaghetti and was the right-arm man of Zé Maria, locked up in Bangu 1.
How much, Wesley?
For nothin’ Professor, I ain’t forgotten what you did for us when my father died, but from now on I won’t be able to do no more favors, ya understand, don’t ya Professor? and, a piece of advice, you better off staying round here, coz things back there . . . , and now my name’s Spaghetti, OK?
At least let me pay for the trip.
It’s on me, OK, Cat.
If he went back to Rio he was dead. In such a short time he’d lost everything, and all because of Dora. No, because of the money she’d be worth. No, because of that fucking thunderclap. And Elisângela . . . Of course she was always supposed to find out, she was always supposed to look after the hideout, and he was always supposed to bump her off when it was done. But she was such a good fuck, and she made scrambled eggs with ham and cheese, spiced with black pepper.
Wesley left him off at the same gas station they’d met at and drove off in a car Luís Paulo wouldn’t have been able to afford. Now he’d just take a cab home, relieved for having had no expense with the material, as the money would only last a few more months, and that was with Elisângela paying some supermarket bills with what she earned on the streets. He was worried. For Wesley to have come all the way up here, in person, and not charge for the order . . . Message received. If he went to Rio, the Professor was dead.
It’s over there, where those two women are.
And there was the child. Elisângela was at the gate with her son in her arms. She was smiling, and smiled even more when she recognized him in the cab. Standing beside her was the neighbor; an evangelical woman who, when it was all over, when they’d discovered it was a hideout, after they’d found Elisângela’s body full of holes, would pray for him.
Hey Mr. Luís, I didn’t know you were a photographer.
There was that too, the guy at the diner already knew, the guy at the newsstand as well, Elisângela had gone round telling everyone. He even had people calling up wanting quotations for weddings, I don’t do weddings, only newspapers, I’m a police reporter, Sorry, but your wife said . . . And that was another thing, now she was his wife. He didn’t go to the club anymore. He woke up early with the boy and before she’d even got out of bed he’d have already prepared breakfast, put the clothes from the day before to wash and watered the plants she’d scattered about the house. In the last couple of days, in fact, she’d even taken to waking him up telling him it was time. She had forbidden him to put his feet up on the table, sit naked watching TV or take a dump with the door open. She complained about the wet towels he left on the bed, the lid he left off the toothpaste, the dental floss he left lying around. Every minute there was something new, and when he loomed over her to give her a good smacking—Who do ya think you are? You’re pissing me off, this is my house! —I know Love, the house is yours and so am I, she said, sly and firm, knocking him off his stride, and then they fucked the world’s greatest fuck right there on the kitchen table, smeared all over with whatever came up. Exhausted, beaten, he felt her caress his face. Love, go sleep in the bed, go on, I’m gonna clean things up here. On the way to the room he heard her voice, again, Love, you left your shorts on the sink. He went back and got the shorts, Throw them in the laundry basket, OK. Ah! Love, be more careful when you pee, there are always drops on the floor round the toilet. He accepted the kiss she offered, the hand that stroked his head, and replied with a simple Sure.
He’d just hidden the order when he heard Elisângela shouting for him: Love! Love!, desperate tones came in from outside, tones he hadn’t heard before, but would grow used to over the years. He took a fright, instinct kicked in, he shoved his hand in behind the wardrobe and in an instant the gun was under his shirt. Had something happened to the boy? He found her in the sitting room, panting, Love! get your camera, they’re robbing the Banco do Brasil, the one on the avenue! He sketched a reaction. Lets go, love, get a move on! She was already in front of the pantry, Love, come on, where’s the key? Before he knew it he was running with the camera toward the bank, as if he really was a newspaper photographer going after a photo that would, with luck, appear in one of the dailies.
Amateurs, what were they doing going in at that time of day? They were surrounded, three police cars had closed off the street and a crowd was forming, No, you can’t go through! I’m from the paper, sergeant! They let him through. He zoomed in on some of the faces, click, the expressions of the two cops looking toward the bank, click, the gawping faces of the crowd of onlookers behind the police tape cordoning off the area, click, the helicopter above with the commander’s face in the foreground, complete with white mustache and the look of someone who’s pretending he’s not being photographed, click, intermittent screams, tumult, a guy holding a gun to a girl’s head inside the bank, click, he goes closer, a furious glare in the eyes, fear in the eyes, click, click, he readies himself to run when they run, they free the hostages, keeping just one to negotiate their physical safety, the press, a judge, click, click, click, people unsure whether to run or scream, Jair Oliveira, hey, you! Click, click, they were going in, people screaming all over the place, two cops, one on either side of the glass doors, they glance at each other, click, click, and go in guns blazing, the girl escapes, click, click, click, click, click, Professor, he says, as he sticks out a hand, his red fingers reaching out to him, he convulses once or twice as if hiccupping, blood spills from his mouth, Prof . . . click, and he’s out of film.
He feigned enthusiasm as he told Elisângela that his photos would be coming out in Folha de S. Paulo the following day, thanks to a reporter who arrived in time to see him taking the photos but too late to take any himself. He handed over the film, gave his name and telephone number in a kind of daze. Even Elisângela couldn’t hear him properly. The boy wobbled toward him, arms open for a hug. He kissed him, blew on his cheek and handed him back to his mom. I’m gonna take a shower, Love, there’s blood on my trouser leg . . . I know . . .
He ran the shower, though vomited into the toilet before getting in, hands on the wall for support. The hot water poured over his body. Was that why they called him Professor, because he taught without knowing he was teaching? Because he thought he knew so much . . . Wesley, top of the class. But this one, who knew him, didn’t even have to say anything, it was in his eyes. This one, who was that? How many others had passed through his hands, how many others had he taught, without knowing it, how to talk, roll a joint, shoot, plan, how to be cold, how to fake anger, how to intimidate, how many others would he not recognize? Not even with a bullet in the chest, hand outstretched, like he was a shot of whiskey denied to a drunk, just like his dad, like he was Saint George himself. Because that’s what he was to those kids. He helped their families, gave them work, gave them a future. He retched again, but this time he didn’t vomit, only passed some breathless seconds with his stomach almost caving in on itself. Tired of seeing people get killed . . . it’s not that. Panting. Elisângela comes in to the bathroom, leaving the door open to hear the boy, who must have fallen asleep. She strips off and gets in close to him, her hair losing volume little by little, the water trickling down over her body. She tugs at his head so he collapses onto her chest. There’s no getting used to it, is there? She says. He wants to tell her that it’s not that, Dear—now he’s talking just like his cousin Valdir, vomiting just like Valdir would vomit if he saw some dead meat, limp-dicked in the shower in the arms of naked woman, just like Valdir’s dick must be limp—the problem wasn’t that the guy had died, the problem was that he had recognized him, it could have been Benedito, Matias, Washington, Raimundo, João, or someone whose name he didn’t even know, someone whose name he didn’t even know! He just didn’t cry like Valdir would have cried. That would have been too much.
And wouldn’t you know the guy from the newspaper called the next day! In came one job, then another, and a third, which Elisângela made him take, just like she made him get rid of the guns and the cell phones when she found them one day when she had a fit of cleaning. He couldn’t remember what excuse he gave, or if she had believed it or not. He had also forgotten that he was supposed to kill her. Life’s like that, they brand you as something and that’s it, that’s what you become. Even if you’re not. It was just a matter of pretending he was known in Rio, give the names of some guys who were already dead, who he’d supposedly photographed, and that was it, he even had people saying they’d seen photos he’d never actually taken. And when Elisângela threw the box out, with all the authority of a woman who wears the pants, he didn’t care. To tell the truth, what shocked him most was that it had been two years since he’d last opened it. Two years in which he’d put the boy on his lap and blown on his cheek, a boy whose first words were to call him Daddy. Lots of people even said the little git was just like him. And wouldn’t you know he really was! The way he walked, the way he looked in the mirror, slept face down, furrowed his brow when told no. He was even more like him than the little girl he saw born from Elisângela’s belly, and what he really liked during those first few months of the baby were those big tits she acquired. It was barbeque here, barbeque there, pizza on Sunday, a beer at the end of the afternoon, the belly grows, the moustache whitens, and there’s the dog called Bidó he kicks when drunk and Elisângela isn’t looking. Then one day, with all the full curves of a bossy housewife, Elisângela decides to go to church with a neighbor who’s been insisting for years. Now she won’t let him call her his little slut anymore and tells him to cut it out when he grabs her ass as she’s getting dinner ready in the kitchen. But he could never leave her, he’d be far too used to her company for that. He’d be far too soft for that now.
From Dora (São Paulo: Ateli’ Editorial, 2005). Copyright 2005 by Carlos Eduardo de Magalhães. By arrangement with the author. Translation copyright 2008 by Anthony Doyle. All rights reserved.