Black coffee: pure, strong, thick. She added five spoonfuls of sugar and stirred until it cooled, until the voices around her penetrated her thoughts as if they were part of them, as if they emerged from them. Anything else, ma’am?
It was a Thursday and the restaurant was crowded. What juices do you have? The coffee was never strong enough, and she didn’t even like coffee, much less sweet coffee. A stupid beverage, and the stupid little sweet sitting there beside the cup, almost crumbling in the saucer. Can you bring me the check, please? It’s the sugar that gave the liquid that sticky consistency. Is this dish enough for two?
She raised the spoon with a bit of coffee and spilled it onto the napkin on the table. Then she lifted the paper to see whether the tablecloth also absorbed any of the liquid. Is this knife enough to kill someone?
Who was laughing?
She called herself Lina, mainly because no one would call her anything, and she almost always forgot the name when she introduced herself to someone. She was called by a different name each day. They say it’s a butcher knife, for slicing pork, I don’t know. She didn’t like senhorita, which seemed as if they were saying she was incapable, incomplete, awaiting the man of her princess dreams. Like one waiting for life to begin without ever risking the initial steps. Would you like coffee, senhorita? “Lina” was good, it sounded like a fairy name, something taken from a fantasy book. It wasn’t the name she had heard during most of her childhood, but then she remembered almost nothing from her childhood, except an immense desire to laugh at the voices of others. Who carries a butcher knife in their pocket?
(And leaves walking down the street.)
At times, the voices were amusing. Lina raised the cup to her lips but stopped when she caught the sweet smell of sugar. She let her hand hover in the air for a time, then spilled part of the drink onto the saucer and the crumbly sweet, carefully so as not to splash her clothes, because no one likes clothes stained with sweetened coffee. She rested the cup on the table and tipped the saucer a bit so the liquid could escape and stain the tablecloth again. She ran a fingernail over the tacky stain and discovered nostalgia lost in memory: the touch of the damp cloth, the friction at the tip of her index finger. It’s seven centimeters, isn’t it? I think I read that somewhere on the Internet. How curious: a reduction to the metric. She had never been very good at math. She vaguely remembered the smile of the elementary school teacher—a red mouth, terribly red. Thank you, come back soon. You’re welcome. Lina, they’re calling you outside. That man who just left, gray suit, graying hair, the face of a politician. How can someone wear a mustache in the twenty-first century, for heaven’s sake. Must be a congressman. Or did he actually say he was a congressman? Come on, you’re not even going to drink the coffee. Leave five reais on the table and get up.
Who leaves the money on top of the table and then leaves in the twenty-first century? What’s happened to customs, the best customs? That cinematic attitude of I know how much I have to pay, I don’t want to look the waiter in the eye again.
Let’s go, Lina.
A breaded cutlet with sautéed potatoes, please.
The five-reais bill and another of two, just to be sure and because it wasn’t going to make any difference. That thick wrinkled wad of money that she had in her pocket, without a wallet. She couldn’t remember where she had lost her wallet. It’s gotten cold, hasn’t it? But it’s August, what else can be expected in August? Somebody had said it was going to rain. The congressman with the mustache went down the narrow street with his hands in his pants pockets, a wide step, a lazy step, in narrow-toed shoes that looked like nineteenth-century transatlantic liners. A huge mistake, a transatlantic crossing the dirty black-and-white bricks and skirting puddles that even without rain emerge from the bowels of the earth. But it depends on the organ affected, the size of the cut. Maybe he was a lawyer, because this area is full of lawyers and what a breed, those lawyers. They’re never congressmen. A cup of coffee after lunch and back to the office to invent more bureaucracy to delay for another month any case already lost from the start. Where did you hear that, Lina? Since when do you know anything about the law?
This place becomes impossible at night.
The gaze of the woman, you know?, everything the cement and the asphalt and the buzz of cars. The monotonous voice that narrates a repetitive routine of signing documents and copying legal papers, changing a few dates, some names. Always the same boring task; for this she had studied six years? The salary at the end of the month and the bills to pay and the house to clean and clothes to wash and
(but had she told all that?)
maybe it would be better to go back to college and study something less useful like art or literature or oceanography
(leaning against a dirty wall of some gray building after asking, Got a light?).
Because at times she got lost. She trod paths that were not hers and followed steps that merged into the patterns on the sidewalk. Her reflection in a puddle of water: Do you still remember me? Maybe she was invisible: I nearly didn’t recognize you in the light of day, he would have said if he had said anything. What Lina saw was the spotted leopard printed on orangish paper and Please don’t bother me, I need to go back to work. Or she heard someone calling from the other side of the street, there where a group of ladies gathered inspecting children’s T-shirts priced at 3.99. Afterward, she was lost: she read the name of the street—surely the name of some baron or priest or politician from many years ago.
Where else had she witnessed that scene, that trickle of dark liquid sliding along the wet ground and disappearing among the black stones to reemerge among the white stones and later the black ones and later . . . Where else? She didn’t remember; perhaps it was the thick coffee on the cheap fabric of the tablecloth. The green-and-white checkered tablecloth. The coffee on the edge and the drops on the floor, in the carpet; the red carpet and—
Listen, Lina: someone is calling.
The knife ought to be here somewhere.
A knife like that can even kill a spotted leopard.
Two transatlantic shoes half-covered in a puddle of water: one with the tip upward toward the cloudy sky at the top of the buildings; the second toppled and tragic. The improbable puddle in the irregular paving of the slope. The tie with blue and green stripes, the shirt stained wet and dirty, and that impossible, probably imaginary silence
(or it was the voices that had suddenly quieted)
the certainty that something was missing from the scene someone.
Why do you get involved in that kind of story, Lina? Better to get out of there, the problem isn’t yours and someone is going to appear, following the stain on the pavement below that creeps between the square bricks. The doorman at the neighboring building pausing for five minutes for a smoke or one of those bored policemen who don’t like people using the narrow street to make their homes out of cardboard boxes. A pile of cardboard and empty plastic bags like an abandoned house, and in the silence, the congressman, his eyes and mouth open, his mustache stiff, his belly swollen
(and red).And was that sound in the distance a gunshot?
And was that sound in the distance a gunshot? The military police had a habit of killing crazies with no questions asked; she had seen it on the news the previous week. At the foot of the slope was the valley and a busy avenue. Was it already getting dark? When did these passageways become so deserted? To a casual eye, the politician with the mustache looked like one of those drunks toward the end of the afternoon. This is the world, do you see? Lina enjoyed the company of that woman, though she didn’t much like the cigarette smoke. But the entire city was smoke, all the time: cigarettes, cars, buses. The constant smell of filthy wet asphalt. The woman was also the city, the paleness of the city center, the gray of buildings, the weariness of business employees. She said things like this, important things: The city kills because it devours choice. Lina didn’t know what that meant.
The voices didn’t always make sense.
She walked up the slope and made her way to the corner, felt the cool air of open space, the murmur of the street and the people. The knife wasn’t there, it wasn’t anywhere. How can a man die of a stabbing if the knife doesn’t exist? Because it wasn’t the first time; something told her it wasn’t the first time. Despite the crowd in the city center, the military police fired without taking names and people found a dark corner a few steps from the subway entrance to die of knife wounds.
Lina didn’t know the woman’s name. She was a lawyer; she had to be.
Inconsistent punctuality, she always appeared at that spot at five in the afternoon every other day—or sometimes not. Good thing it’s Friday. At times Lina didn’t know if she was really there, her body leaning against the neoclassical construction, one arm folded over the belly, the other elbow floating in the air next to the cigarette smoke. What a shitty day. She cradled the cigarette deep between her index and middle fingers, and when she raised it to her lips it was as if she covered it with her entire hand, as if repenting something she had said; as if
(she seemed incapable of repenting anything at all).
A repeated figure: that desire for importance while the city passed by her indifferently. A voice muffled by the street noise and the cigarette smoke mixing with the exhaust of cars, of buses. Lina spotted the law students lined up on the sidewalk with their backpacks and rolling carts loaded with voluminous books. I haven’t studied at all for that exam on tax law. The woman said she felt sorry for those children with large egos. She spoke of her day in the office, about a missed dead- line, about an irate boss and an incompetent intern.
They killed a lawyer yesterday in the center of the city, near here.
Stabbed to death;
a nonexistent knife.
If only things could exist through force of the word, by simple syntactical placement or;
(of course she wouldn’t think this).
Lina wasn’t one to worry about linguistic questions, and since the elementary school teacher there was no teacher at all. My school is the street, as the voices repeated at times; sometimes the voices were downright ridiculous. The street didn’t teach anyone anything; the street was the street, literally or figuratively, a stretch of asphalt or that dirty setting in which people crossed hurriedly to and from work. A knife that large can’t go unnoticed. She smelled the suffocating smoke from the cigarette and tried to recall the expression in the eyes of the congressman who wasn’t a congressman. That’s where the answer would be. Then they say no one saw anything. She had seen the knife, she was sure of it. In the middle of the street, two blocks from a police guard post. The answer was in the memory shattered by the wrong turn that had led her to notice a pair of transatlantic shoes shipwrecked in a puddle of water. Do you remember everything you saw today? Lina didn’t understand. Remember the street kid smoking crack and the couple who passed you on the viaduct? She remembered the thick texture of the coffee on the checkered tablecloth in the restaurant and didn’t understand what those people had to do with a dead lawyer.
She wanted to know how much force was needed to make a knife blade penetrate human flesh
and especially wanted to remember because there was a knife
if the lawyer had been stabbed but she kept quiet.
No one ever sees anything.
Or they see and forget. They spend the afternoon and night trying to remember; a half-sensation that merges with the coffee stain between the tablecloth and the wooden table. Lina remembered when two military policemen shot a boy who was running away—shot him in the back and he fell as if he’d lost control of his legs. A dive onto the concrete without even time to protect his head with his hands, elbows, shoulders; thrown forward like a cloth doll and someone screamed before a totally wrong silence flooded the block and another dull thunderclap sealed the fate of the youth sprawled on the sidewalk.
Seems like exaggeration, don’t you think?
She shifted her gaze from the students on the corner of the law school and stared at the woman and the cigarette and the smoke. She must have made some comment about knives and spotted leopards, must have stuck her hand in her shorts pocket and shown the lawyer the wrinkled fifty-reais note as if to make sure she knew what a leopard was
(because city people only know the animals printed on currency or)
and they give me money when they encounter me during the day.
The lawyer didn’t react and Lina no longer knew why she had the figure of the spotted leopard in her hand. She stuck it back in her pocket, tugged her shorts down a bit, her panties up a little; she looked at the mark the elastic made on her waist because of excess flesh or fat or a bit of each or the shorts being too small. The lawyer had on a skirt and jacket, both gray, and rather worn flats. Hair pulled back and an old green handbag; cheap leather coming apart at the seams. You shouldn’t be in the street, girl, she said. Perhaps it wasn’t the first time she ever said it.
Or had it been another person?
Why don’t you go study?
Lina didn’t understand what to study for and even why people studied; she didn’t understand life in an office and grumbling at the end of the workday and having a car and living in an apartment with security cameras. It seemed to her that everything was the same: work, money, office, street, a dark motel. And after all those years of study the woman didn’t even have an answer: a congressman, his transatlantic shoes in a puddle, the nonexistent knife.
(The knife should be there somewhere.) Nor the voices;
memory a silence.
Don’t go around asking about a knife; some may find it strange. But she—the lawyer, her cigarette finished, the butt tossed into the gutter to join other garbage and filth and an empty yogurt container, a remnant of pink mixed with the soot of exhausts—she the lawyer didn’t find that strange at all or; she reappeared and stayed even when Lina didn’t have a light, she never did.
If anyone gets the idea that you did something;
but was she following him? she only wanted to ask
(do you still remember me?)
because she remembered him, or was almost sure she did, and there were few times she remembered someone
it’s not going to help much to say you’re innocent because they never believe people like you.
Lina wanted to know what the discomfort she felt was; whether from the absurd accusation or. Do you know to whom you’re speaking, Lina? At times she doubted that presence in flesh and blood, were not the clothes and the work handbag such obvious indications of reality: the fabric frayed by time and the dust of the city infiltrating the fibers. The so ordinary reality: to realize that her shorts really were tight and constituted so little cover that she felt a bit cold.
But she only wanted to ask
and he was startled because he recognized her or the fifty-reais note
two ladies choosing children’s T-shirts three ninety-nine.
Valtinho grows so fast it doesn’t pay to buy clothes for the boy;
you have to take advantage of sales.
Suddenly the lawyer wasn’t there either. Lina heard the sound of hurried footsteps, or perhaps imagined them; she heard the wheels of a handcart full of books being dragged by one of the students from the other side of the corner.
First she saw the ID: a piece of paper laminated in plastic inside a black wallet, with the shield of the civil police embossed on the cover. He opened and closed it a few times, to be sure she fully understood the purpose of the visit. Or because the movement made it impossible to read anything or closely examine the photograph, the name, or any proof of authority instead of paying attention to the stitching that was coming undone or the damp stain on the edges. Lina would have opened the door without saying anything; standing there like an interrogation, unmoving.
The name coming from his mouth was unknown and she didn’t know how to react. Lina, she wanted to say, but—
I just want to talk.
It was also a repeated discourse, although not so much by the police investigators who appeared at her door with an old wallet and an incomprehensible ID. Still at the threshold, he cited names and Lina didn’t know what the thread of the conversation was. May I come in?
No answer, just the subtle movement of her head and the door left open; she returned to the interior of the apartment that in reality was a kitchenette the size of a small bedroom. The kitchen itself was a camping stove with two burners that some crazy guy had thrown in the trash and the neighbor woman had connected to the natural gas outlet with an old piece of hose. No refrigerator, she didn’t need it. On the counter was a package of coffee, some bananas, and boxes of crackers.
A couple of fruit flies buzzed above a blackened, some- what overripe banana.
Were they there before?
They said you are usually near there toward the end of the day.
They said. Near there.
What did the man want? She told him to have a seat, removed a magazine and some wrinkled clothing from the sofa bed to create a bit of room. Make yourself comfortable, she must have said. The words didn’t come out? He sat to the side with his arms resting on his legs, his hands clasped together in front, his spine quite straight. She expected more from a police investigator entering with official credentials that left no room to say no. That lack of assertiveness was the same as the lawyers; as the female lawyer and her worn handbag. The congressman who didn’t even deign to be a congressman, on the dirty ground with his feet in a puddle. These people are all so common, in their cheap suits and untidy colored ties. Shoes that have seen better shines. Reality was always disappointing and Lina didn’t even watch soap operas, she didn’t watch television, she didn’t like how the voices also repeated themselves in the electronic medium and continued echoing throughout the day. But the images of a more attractive life, less worn-out fabric and fewer tomato stains on the shirt collar—those images were everywhere, in magazine ads and the display windows at the shopping center close to her apartment.
That’s where you hang out, isn’t it?
Wasn’t that how it was said? Hang out? What odd turns words take. He repeated a name. Lina didn’t know why the man was there. She distracted herself by thinking of knives and spotted leopards—had she been robbed of a part of her memory that had been replaced by the vague sensation of running a fingernail along tacky fabric stained with sweetened coffee? She said: I can make some coffee; do you drink coffee? Was that how it was, Lina? Sometimes the voices remained silent, and Lina forgot what people did to have a conversation.
Listen, there’s no need to worry; I’m not here to talk about your work.
But coffee, mister, she was talking about coffee. He would use one of those gestures with his head and hands like some- one saying, Please, relax, or, I’ll have some coffee, of course, why not. Him and his jeans that hadn’t been washed in a week, beat up and dirty, wrinkled at the knees and beneath the hips. His sneakers were a soiled white, disguised among exaggerated colors that would never go with the long baggy shirt to conceal the gun stuck in the waistband of his pants so obvious from the motion of sitting down and leaning forward with his elbows on his knees.
The flaking enamel of the small stove that had once been white;Perhaps she should tell him, explain to him: It was a knife like this, understand?
Perhaps she should tell him, explain to him: It was a knife like this, understand? More or less this size, with a wooden handle, the kind that lets you see the continuation of the blade all the way, which is an indication of quality, they say. Because then—isn’t that right?—the blade won’t come loose from the handle no matter how much force we use when we are cutting an onion, for example. Cutting an onion can be dangerous. The blade was something like a handspan more or less in length—the flash of the metal impresses and memory tends to exaggerate what we remember, especially when it’s replaced by a thick coffee stain. It was there, I’m sure of it. The knife, you understand?
(Don’t go around asking people about a knife.)
He got up to avoid the open part of the sofa bed and went to the window with his hands behind his back, just like a television detective and completely wrong given his ordinary presence.
(If someone gets the idea you’ve done something.)
This is the third time it’s happened, and if you help us this time. Fill the pan with water and light the fire with a depleted
lighter still good to produce a spark
(got a light?);
open the package of coffee and wait. (If you help us this time.)
Because it wasn’t the first time and Lina remembered the knife
Are you sure, Lina?
(She never had a light.)
But what could she tell the police investigator if reality had the habit of always taking wrong turns; or she would become confused and needed to ask the time or the price of a pair of shoes, just to be sure the world had not suddenly been replaced by another, unknown. From the back she saw that his shirt had two small holes in it, at waist level. Also the stitching was coming undone in one spot, leaving a piece of yellow thread hanging.
Someone is killing under the nose of the police, in the open air. A boy running away and the police who shot him in the back, in the open air. Pay more attention, Lina. The voices can teach you something, explain how these people work. She still remembered when she was a child and had gone to the zoo with a class from school. She remembered the spotted leopard and the capuchin monkeys, and some birds with long legs and pink feathers that tucked their necks into their bodies, to rest standing on only one foot.
You’re always in that area, girl.
And the guide said, Now we’re going to see the area with the elephants. Wasn’t that how it was? The capuchin monkey picked up trash from the ground and jumped back to what looked like a tree house, full of small doors and windows.Reality was more than a shirt with holes in it, an old worn handbag, trash and soot in the gutter…
Just what was it the spotted leopard did?
Whose idea had it been to put animals on the back of currency? Lina opened the drawer to get a spoon and stopped with her hand hovering over the cutlery
(please don’t bother me, I have to get back to work)
and was it a smile or merely an expression of relief at seeing it was no longer necessary to search.
You were there the whole time?
The investigator continued looking out the window, staring at the dirty wall of the neighboring building. In the silverware drawer the spoon she used to measure the coffee was hidden behind a large knife with a wooden handle, just as she remembered it; the blade wasn’t shiny
some fifteen centimeters?,
Lina grabbed the spoon and closed the drawer.
How old are you?
How many spoonfuls of powdered coffee? The perfect consistency was impossible because of the old filter or the cheap brand of coffee, but she didn’t give up trying, ever. She noticed the water boiling and the man at the other side of the apartment observing her and waiting for an answer, any answer. Can I use the bathroom? Lina pointed to the narrow door near the entrance and he crossed, once again, the space that separated them, to disappear from view with a click of the latch.
She poured water into the filter full of powder and watched as the black liquid flowed through. Black coffee.
Pure strong thick.
She served two cups and went to look in the drawer for a small spoon to stir the sugar. She didn’t notice the sounds coming from the bathroom, sounds of someone moving cautiously in a restricted space, lifting clothes and displacing objects. She thought about asking if he wanted sugar; she didn’t have artificial sweetener—they say sweeteners cause cancer. She approached the bathroom with the cup in her hand just as the door opened and the enormous body of the police investigator appeared. An unexpected gesture and a scream when the hot coffee streamed down the checkered shirt
(son of a bitch!)
and to Lina it seemed a multitude of arms when she moved the knife rapidly upward and forward, with force and skill. The man’s hands on her shoulders her arm her neck in an effort to grab the weapon in his waistband but the door too narrow and the bathroom a cubicle suddenly painted in red; there was barely space to fall to the floor, slide along the wall, and hit his knee on the toilet. It mattered little that he would reach the weapon in the rear of his waist. Lina wielded the knife until it struck a rib, curved, made contact with the rib on the other side. The investigator’s right hand found the pistol while his left closed around the handle of the knife over Lina’s hand, without the strength to stop her from raising it and attacking his chest again. On the checkered pattern of his shirt the coffee stain merged with the blood, a dark sticky red that was a little like a lost and then rediscovered happiness; it was the fingernail on the tablecloth stained with sugary coffee, knowing that she no longer needed to remember, that the voices asked no questions, and that reality was more than a shirt with holes in it, an old worn handbag, trash and soot in the gutter, the sound of a law student’s wheeled valise jolting over the uneven sidewalk in the city center.
Excerpted from São Paulo Noir, edited by Tony Bellotto. Copyright 2018 by Olivia Maia; translation copyright 2018 by Clifford E. Landers. Used with permission of Akashic Books (akashicbooks.com).