The table is set, immaculate, serene. Nobody’s seated yet and it will be a little while until anybody does sit down and tuck in. But the time has come for us to sit together and eat together and move on. The house carries on. The convenience and grocery stores carry on. So too the bills, the expenses. Two days have gone by without anyone in the house crying. When I go through the living room at night my mother’s bedroom light is off. Silence. She sleeps, everyone sleeps. In this house absent of my father, absent of the smell of his pipe, his slippers left lying around, his newspaper sprawled out, everyone sleeps.
I see the table from the kitchen door, bountiful. There’s bread, a centerpiece of roast beef, a platter of rice. It’s lunch, and it’s Sunday. A whole joint of meat, just as my father liked. Trim and carve and then serve. My father liked it when there was meat left over after he’d served everyone. Because it meant he’d strived and succeeded. Everyone gorged themselves and everyone drank the wine and the fruit juice and soaked up the meat gravy with their bread and played with crumbs on the table with their fingertips. And there was enough meat to go round and to spare, which was what my father always asked for at grace.
All the curtains in the house were drawn. The first thing my father would do whenever he saw a curtain blocking the sunlight was pull it to one side. Morning invaded the living room, the corridors, the bedrooms. He sat in his armchair smoking his pipe and watching the pattern of the light advance across the floor. Dust danced merrily in the radiant heart of the room. In the corners, light crept round the gathered curtains and gave the shadows a warm glow, the healthy red of fresh fruit from the market at the height of summer.
My father died just over two weeks ago. He died in his rocking chair. Baltazar saw him on the veranda and called out to him from the garden, but he got no reply and when he went into the kitchen he said with a smile how old Elizar does sleep, Dulce. And Dulce finished brewing the coffee and put it on a tray with a slice of cornmeal cake and a cup containing the exact amount of sugar she knew Elizar liked and then she moved slinkily through the fifteen rooms of the house and out on to the veranda.
But my father showed no sign of noticing the smell of coffee. No sign of noticing the smell of coffee or the mulatto warmth of Dulce by his side. My father’s hands didn’t reach for Dulce’s behind that morning. They lay still, full of veins. Then Dulce saw the pipe on the floor and the smoke dispersing fancifully and the noise from the street was immense and the wind was gentle. And Dulce perceived all of this as she let out a cry that Jorge the pharmacist heard two blocks away. When he saw me coming toward the pharmacy, Jorge told me to go get Bastos as he’s strong and keep calm and go home because your mother will need you to hug her tight for your father has died. And my father really had died.
Largo de Vaz Lobo was packed for the Seventh Day Mass, onlookers gathering outside the Cristo Rei church. Padre Acácio broke off from the ceremony halfway through and sat down despondent next to my mother. Even rascals die Acácio said out loud and everyone laughed. Whoever said a creaking door hangs longest wasn’t so smart after all Acácio said and everyone laughed. The priest placed one hand on top of the other and stood up and said death is not the worst thing that can happen to a man in life. The church was silent. Acacio went back to the altar, gave a tired smile, dabbed his face with his cassock and went on with the Mass. My mother and my aunt drank in his every word.
Old Matias came into the church with his eyes glued to the floor. As soon as he learned of my father’s death, Matias ordered all his convenience stores to close. No whoring, gambling, or boozing. Matias shut himself away at home, smoking, large and heavy. For ten days, the only places open in Madureira, Vaz Lobo, and Vicente de Carvalho were my father’s grocery stores. The winos sat on sidewalks chewing tobacco, confused, not knowing if they were allowed to drink at the rival’s place. And they came to our grocery stores and they drank. The poorest refused their change. All they could offer by way of homage was their centavos. Those who were less poor bought things out of curiosity and asked me questions that Bastos curtly answered. Someone earned a clip round the ear for their insolence. Gossipmongers were dusted down and sent packing into the afternoon sun. The boy Ezequiel toiled away, finishing off whatever his father gave up on in sheer dejection. One afternoon, Bastos cried like a child and glugged half a bottle of cachaça. When he passed through Largo de Vaz Lobo afterward, he punched a hobo who got in his way. He disappeared for the night, hiding.
Old Matias sat at a distance from us. Didn’t so much as glance at us. He didn’t come to the funeral at Cemitério de Irajá, nor send a message of condolence. Looking at him, it was as if he’d departed along with my father. He seemed lost. The hatred they’d felt for each other seemed childish. Old Matias sweated, stared at the floor, leaned his forehead against his walking stick. When Padre Acácio finished the Mass, Matias stood up, rearranged his threadbare suit and said out loud God is a goddamn son of a bitch. Then he left. I watched him through the church grate, heading into the distance. Alone. His bovine walk stirring up the dust. He disappeared around a corner.
My mother and aunt came down the corridor, arm in arm. They sat down at the set table. My mother took a seat at one end of the table. Maria watched her sister warily. Eliza the orphan came in next, her hands washed, her hair straight. She sat down hurriedly and stared at the roast potatoes as she spread a napkin out on her lap. Dulce appeared with fresh orange juice, placed the jug on the table and said if Dona Vera needed anything she was only to call and my mother nodded and Dulce went back into the kitchen. I waited, I waited and I heard the footsteps that were missing, his footsteps. They came from behind me and passed by me without greeting me. And they stood rooted to the spot before the table.
This because my father wasn’t only my father. My father was our father.
My brother came home four days after the wake. At the Seventh Day Mass he disappeared as soon as my mother entered the church. He vanished, there was no sign of him for two days. He came back carrying a small suitcase. He’d brought all his clothes from his room at the student lodge in Botafogo. I only left the books behind, because I’ve a lot of books and books are heavy my brother said and I said that’s true. He walked around the house, from one room to the next. Working out what had changed. Remembering.
I’m here to help he said and I said if you’re here to help then I’ve several orders need delivering and Bastos is real busy today in Madureira and the boy Ezequiel is down there with him and my brother said I understand of course a few orders to deliver. But he never turned up. I understand of course he’d said stretching out his long soft hand and smiling a full set of teeth. I saw my brother walk past the church with a girl all happy and I saw him sitting in front of the Vaz Lobo cinema reading the newspaper and smoking and I saw him drinking beer cheerily roaring away with Nazário at the door of Bar Toledo. But I never saw him help deliver the orders. He had soft hands, a full set of teeth.
My brother turned up at the house only on special occasions. My father sat on a step on the stairs that led into the garden and listened to my brother talk of the west end, Cinelândia and Copacabana. On Rua da Carioca you can pick bills up off the ground, so many you’d think dough sailed in on the wind said my brother and Nazário’s daughters sat holding hands, laughing and whispering among themselves, and they said but that tale’s just a myth Inácio and he said what’s not a myth, it pleases me to say, is the twilight splendor of certain senhoritas’ smiles and they moved away bashfully, giggling and shoving one another. We might no longer be the nation’s capital my brother said but a king never loses his majesty and my father watched and pondered and smiled, sitting on the step. Silent, savoring his tobacco. And when do you get your graduation ring asked Jorge the pharmacist and my brother said it’ll be soon, Seu Jorge, very soon.
But it wasn’t. I got off the tram in Humaitá and went into the student lodge dorm where my brother lived and sat with Dona Júlia in the kitchen and drank a nice cup of coffee while I waited for him to get back from out on the street. Never from the great Faculdade Nacional. Marble magnificence with its Latin copper plating. Inácio’s faculty was the den of iniquity. I left the bulging envelope with Dona Júlia and went on my way. The few times I did come across my brother at the student lodge he barely said a word to me. He asked after father and I said father’s fine and he said I have to study brother see you later and he shook my hand and shut himself in his room.
On my way home I jumped off the tram at Praça Tiradentes and went up the Rua da Carioca and drank a beer in a cut glass in Bar Luiz and then went down Rio Branco as far as the Teatro Municipal. I marveled at the hats and suits in shop windows, the entrances to the cinemas. I smiled stupidly at the gregarious girls. Night had fallen by the time I got home and when I went into the house my mother appeared in the half-light curious and said ask Dulce to warm your dinner up son but that wasn’t why she was having trouble sleeping. And I said Inácio never stops studying mother and she smiled, and she blessed herself, and she went back to her room content.
And now my brother was here, standing before the set table. Eliza the orphan looked up at him curiously. My mother and aunt Maria quietly waited. And waited. There were two chairs left at the table. But only one chair was Father’s chair, the heir’s chair. The same chair that had been stationed at the same head of the table since before I was born. The place that was now his. I came through the kitchen door and passed my brother and sat down where I always sat. Inácio hesitates, wavers like a branch in the wind. And he sits down at the head of the table. He ponders the empty plate, the cutlery. He rests his elbows on the table, and looks at the family.
Eliza smiles because it’s her special moment. Maria consents and Eliza starts to say an excited Our Father, her eyes closed. She ponders every word. When she finishes she opens her eyes. Aunt Maria gives Eliza a hug and says what we’ve got here is a little angel not a little girl and Eliza fiddles with her bunches and says but Aunty I can’t fly and everyone laughs. But then comes the silence. The roast beef looms large in the center of the table. Even Eliza feels a weight, becomes serious.
Inácio understands and he stands up. He takes hold of the cutlery, the huge knife, and he prods the fork into the beef. But at each uneven cut, the joint crumbles further apart. My mother stares at the mess of meat despairingly. An inward look. My brother serves everyone. We eat in silence. My mother leaves the table. Aunt Maria and Eliza then leave the table too. Inácio rests his cutlery on his plate. And now what my brother says and rubs his face with his left hand. But I don’t say anything. I chew my last piece of meat and put my cutlery down. I slowly wipe my lips with the napkin. I stand up, excuse myself and leave the table.
I lie down on the sacks in the kitchen pantry to nap. I stare at the ceiling, stretch out my legs. And then I hear the violent sobbing, the orphaned, shameful sobbing of my brother. Getting louder and louder. I look at the palms of my hands, scratched, rough, count the calluses on my fingers. The smell of coffee and sugar and cinnamon and beans envelopes me and embraces me. I close my eyes. I want to sleep. And I can’t take it any more, because it’s cold and my teeth hurt. And I can’t take it any more, because it’s Sunday and it’s cold. I bite my lip hard. I take a deep breath. And in the solitude of the pantry I cry too.
“A cadeira do pai” © Vinicius Jatobá. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2013 by Jethro Soutar. All rights reserved.