Naturally the samba drums were beating, rhythms beside rhythms on top of rhythms beneath rhythms. Especially just before Carnival did this modern city of nine million people on the South Atlantic reverberate with the ever-quickening rhythms of the drums. From all sides, every minute, day and night, came the beating of the drums.
"You cannot understand the future of the world without first understanding Brazil." That was the way the trim, forty-year-old Brazilian novelist Marilia Diniz spoke. Informative. Instinctual. Indicative. The umbrella over the cafe table on Avenida Atlantica shaded her eyes, leaving her mouth in the afternoon sunlight. She shrugged her thin shoulders. "Unfortunately, Brazil is beyond anyone's understanding."
Marilia sat across from Fletch in a light dress with only straps over her pale shoulders. Marilia Diniz was the rare carioca who never went to the beach.
Laura Soares, more appropriately dressed in shorts, sandals, a halter, more appropriately tanned golden brown, sat to Fletch's right. Laura would always go to the beach.
Fletch was dressed in the uniform he had learned to be innocent, egalitarian: shorts and sneakers.
In front of Marilia and Laura were glasses of beer, chope. Fletch had the drink he liked best in all the world: guarana.
"Now that Fletch sees the Praia de Copacabana he will never go anywhere else," Laura said. "Maybe I will never even be able to get him to come back to Bahia."
"I'll go back to Bahia anytime," Fletch said. "If your father lets me."
"He'll embrace you. You know that."
"I don't know."
"The first truth about Brazil," Marilia said, "is its absolute tolerance."
"Does Brazil tolerate intolerance?"
"I suppose so." Marilia wrinkled her nose. "You see, you cannot understand."
Across the avenida stretched the huge, dazzling Copacabana Beach, from the Morro do Leme to his left, to the peninsula separating Copacabana from the beaches of Arpoador, Ipanema and Leblon to his right.
On the beach, among the brightly colored umbrellas and blankets, were thousands of golden brown bodies, all ages, sexes, their swimsuits so small on them only their skin, really, was visible, exercising, taking turns at the provided chin-up bars, reclining on sit-up boards, running. Within sight on the beach, Fletch counted fourteen soccer games in progress. Small children played at the water's edge, but most of the people in the water were doing disciplined swimming. Proportionately few on the beach were resting. The temperature was thirty-three degrees centigrade, about ninety degrees Fahrenheit; it was four o'clock in the afternoon, and the people's energy shimmered up from the sand more positively than reflected the strong sunlight.
At street corners to the right and left of where they sat drummed samba bands. Boys, men, from fourteen years of age to whenever, beat on drums of various sizes, various tones as if this were their last chance to do so, ever. The band to the right wore canary yellow shorts; to the left, cardinal red shorts. Immediately around each band, pedestrians stayed to give in totally to the samba awhile, dancing on the sidewalk, up and down the curb, among the cars parked pridefully anywhere. One or two drummers might stop a moment to wipe the sweat from their chests, bellies, forearms, drink a chope to make more sweat, but a samba band itself never stops, when it moves, when it stays in one place. A samba band's stopping is as fatal a thought as your own heart's stopping.
And the people passing on the sidewalk in front of the cafe, the pedestrians, going from corner to corner, band to band, businessmen dressed only in shorts and sandals, sometimes shirts, carrying briefcases, women in bikinis lugging bags of groceries, barefoot children running with a soccer ball, walked, lugged, ran, keeping the beat of the drums in their feet, their legs, their hips, their shoulders. This moving to the samba instead of just moving gives Brazilians the most beautiful legs in the world, having a true balance, an ideal proportion between muscular calves and slim thighs. The groups of gap-mouthed begging children, the cloth of their shorts worn so it almost did not exist, kept their bare feet moving to the rhythm of the drums, making the stillness, the steadiness of their huge dark eyes the more shocking, imploring. To provide a deception of class difference for the tourists, the cafe waiters wore black long trousers and white open shirts and real shoes, but even in their brushing crumbs from the tables, begging children away from someone they had implored too long, they somberly kept the samba beat.
"Cidade maravilhosa!" In his chair, Fletch stretched his arms over his head.
"Mysterious city," said Marilia. "Mysterious country."
Fletch said: "The guidebook says something like, 'At first sight of Rio de Janeiro instantly you forgive God for what's visible of New Jersey.' "
"I like New Jersey," said Laura. "Isn't that where Pennsylvania is? I thought so."
"If you cannot understand the future of the world without first understanding Brazil," Fletch said, "I would like to understand more of Brazil's past. Granted, I came to Brazil rather quickly, without really expecting to, without being prepared, but once here I can find out very little of Brazil's history. Even Laura's father--"
Laura giggled and put her hand on his thigh. "Brazil has no past. That's what makes us so mysterious."
Marilia shot a glance at Laura. "You have not heard of queima de arquivo?"
A begging child came by and placed one peanut in front of each of them.
Laura laughed. "A while ago a Brazilian airliner crashed on a runway. As anyone's airliner might. Within minutes a crew showed up to paint over the Brazilian how-do-you-call-them? insignias on the airplane. It is our way of preventing what has already happened."
"It means 'burn the record,' " Marilia said.
"It means 'cover up,' " Laura said. "It is the Brazilian way of life. That is why we are so free."
"It has happened more than once," Marilia said. "A government takes power. In disapproval of all that has gone before, it burns the records of previous governments. Like confession, the idea has been to give us a fresh beginning."
"So we are a nation of anarchists," laughed Laura. "We are all anarchists."
"All histories are shame-filled," Marilia said.
"Brazil's shames we have expunged by setting fire to them, sending them on the wind."
At a little distance from them, the pixie, a boy about six years old, watched them with disappointment. They were not eating their peanuts.
Marilia put her sunglasses on her nose and sat back in her chair. "And you, Fletcher?"
Slowly, Fletch ate his peanut.
Instantly the small boy stepped forward and offered to sell Fletch a bag of peanuts.
Fletch took cruzeiros out of his sneaker and gave too many to the boy.
He opened the peanut bag and held it out to Marilia.
She shook her head. "Do you practice queima de arquivo? Are you in Brazil to burn your record?"
"It would make him Brazilian," Laura said. "Honorary Brazilian."
"Is that why Laura's father does not like you?"
"My father likes him," said Laura. "Loves him. It's only that--"
"Her father," Fletch said, "is a scholar. A professor at the university. A poet."
Now a dozen begging children were around his chair, whispering at him.
"Of course. Otavio Cavalcanti. I know him well. Laura is almost my niece. She should be staying with me, here in Rio."
"He is intolerant of North Americans. I am a North American."
Standing on the sidewalk near the curb, standing uncommonly still, was an old woman, a hag. A long, shapeless white dress hung from her neck. Dark pouches high in her cheekbones made it seem as if she had four dark eyes. All four eyes were staring at Fletch.
"That's not it, precisely," Laura said. "Fletcher can come here to Brazil, to sit in this cafe, drink guarana and watch the women walk. My father is not permitted into the United States of the North anymore, to read his poetry at Columbia University. My father is intolerant of that."
"I have read your father," said Fletch. "He speaks on behalf of the people.''
Across the sidewalk the woman in white was staring at Fletch as if he had dropped from the moon.
"And there is something else." Laura shifted in her chair. "You must admit it, Fletch."
"What is it?" Marilia asked.
"My father feels Fletch does not see the difference in the Brazilian people."
"There is no equality like Brazilian equality," Fletch said. "I love that."
"It is not the equality. . . ." Uncomfortably, Laura was looking at Marilia.
"Oh, yes," Marilia said.
"My father says Fletch keeps trying to understand the Brazilian people through other people he has known. He cannot see the other side of us."
"There is much I don't understand," Fletch said.
"There is much you do not accept."
Fletch grinned at his own joke: "There is much I cannot see.
"Your father is a member of a Candomble," Fletch said. "An intelligent man like that."
Marilia twisted the cloth braided around her left wrist.
"But he loves Fletch. He says Fletch is surprisingly open, as a person," Laura said.
"As a North American."
"You cannot understand Brazil," Marilia said from behind her sunglasses. "Brazil accepts thieves. The United States of North America will not accept scholars and poets who speak on behalf of the people."
"Am I a thief?" Fletch asked. Clearly the hag staring at him from across the sidewalk thought he was something extraordinary.
"You said you came here rather quickly."
"You said you did not expect to come here. You were not prepared."
"You do business with Teo da Costa."
"Teodomiro da Costa is my good friend. In fact, I understand I will see you both at dinner at his house tonight."
"Teodomiro da Costa makes a good business changing hard currencies, like dollars, into cruzeiros, into hard commodities, like emeralds, gold. He has become very rich doing so."
At the word cruzeiros, the pixies around Fletch stepped even closer and raised the pitch of their imploring whispers.
Fletch said, "I thought he drove a taxi."
"Teodomiro da Costa does not drive a taxi."
Fletch took more money from his sneaker and gave it to Laura to pay the waiter. When Laura paid, speaking Brazilian Portuguese, the bill was sometimes as much as ninety percent less. He gave some cruzeiros to the smallest begging child.
"Marilia," Laura said. "In Brazil, a man's past is burned."
"You may burn Fletcher's past," Marilia said. "That is all right. Laura, I do not want to see you burn your future."
"There is no future, either," said Laura. "There is the piano."
"The Brazilians wish for a future," Marilia said.
"Past . . . future," Fletch muttered.
"I said something wrong," Laura said.
"You are staying at The Yellow Parrot?" Marilia asked.
The Hotel Yellow Parrot was an Avenida Atlantica and known to be among the most expensive.
"Yellow Parrot," said Fletch. "You must admit some things in Brazil do not make sense."
"Fletch is okay," Laura said. Then she said something rapidly in Portuguese. "My father loves him."
Down the sidewalk to the right, stepping warily around the samba band sweating in canary yellow shorts, through the dancers, came a North American woman, clearly from the United States, clearly newly arrived, in a light green silk dress moving on her body as she moved, green high-heeled shoes, wearing sunglasses and stupidly carrying her purse like a symbol of rank dangling from her forearm: the California empress.
Laura put her hand on Fletch's forearm. "You okay, Fletch?"
"My God! I mean, why not?"
"Suddenly you turned white."
"Let go of me." Fletch flung off her hand.
He ducked beneath the table and began retying his sneakers.
Instantly there were the seven or eight heads of the pixies under the table with him, to see what he was doing.
Laura's head joined him under the table, too. "Fletch! What's the matter?''
"Estou com dor de estomago!"
The pixies groaned in sympathy for him: "Ooooooohh!"
"You are not sick from the stomach!" Laura said.
"Estou com dor de cabeca!"
"You are not sick from the head!"
"Febre . . . nausea . . . uma insolacao. . . ."
Seen relaxed in the shade under the table, Laura's legs were great to look at. Marilia's, although pale, were not so bad either. The sight made him feel better.
"Fletcher! What is the matter with you? Why are you so suddenly under the table?"
"That woman. That woman in green passing by. Don't look now."
The heads of the pixies looked back and forth from Fletch to Laura intelligently, as if they understood.
"So? What about her?"
"She probably thinks I murdered her husband."
"Janio!" With a frightening rush of long white dress through heavy green leaves, the old hag emerged from the bushes in front of them in the small forecourt of The Hotel Yellow Parrot. She was pointing her arm, her arthritically bent index finger at Fletch's face. "Janio Barreto!"
Fletch took a step back. His hand gripped Laura's arm.
The hag took a step forward, her finger in Fletch's face. "Janio Barreto!"
He thought they had done quite well. They had left Marilia at the cafe, walked half a block to their right, through the samba band on that corner, ignoring the gestures to stay and dance for a while, turned right, right again on Avenida Copacabana, along that a few blocks, turning right again at the street just beyond The Hotel Yellow Parrot, carefully, looking first, hurried around the corner and the short way along the sidewalk and into the forecourt of the hotel. They were to use the beach entrance to the hotel, as Fletch was not wearing a shirt.
He had forgotten about the hag.
Now she was blocking their way into the hotel entrance.
"Janio Barreto!" she accused, wagging her bent finger in his face. "Janio Barreto!"
Laura stepped forward. She put her hand on the old woman's sleeve and spoke in a soothing voice. Fletch recognized the Portuguese word for mother in what Laura said.
"Janio Barreto!" the hag insisted, pointing at him.
Laura spoke quietly to the woman some more.
The uniformed doorman appeared through the main door of the hotel and came through the forecourt to Fletch. "Is there a problem, sir?"
"No. I don't think so. I don't know."
The two women were talking quietly.
"Give her some money," the doorman said. "For charity."
The hag was speaking rapidly now, to Laura.
The old woman kept glancing at Fletch. She was fairly tall and fairly slim, and clearly she could move fast to have gotten to the hotel before them, to have caught them. The leanness of her hands made her fingers seem all the more misshapen. Her brown eyes were huge, clear and intense; her face more wrinkled than drying, caked earth. Thin, iron-gray hair fell from her head like photographed lightning. Her high, cracked voice came through a few blackened teeth.
Now Fletch was hearing the Portuguese words for wife, husband, father, sons, daughter, boat.
Listening to the old woman, Laura began taking long, surmising looks at Fletch. Her looks seemed unsure--not of what the old woman was saying, but somehow of Fletch. She was looking at him as if she had never seen him before, or seen him in quite this way.
His face politely averted, the doorman was listening too.
"What is she saying?" Fletch asked.
Laura waited until the old woman finished her sentence.
"She says you are Janio Barreto."
"Well, I'm not . . . whatever. Whoever. Let's go."
Laura's chin came forward a few centimeters. "She says you are."
The hag spoke some more, clearly repeating what she had said before, something about a boat.
Looking into Fletch's eyes, not smiling, Laura said, "She says you are her husband."
Excerpted from Carioca Fletch by Gregory Mcdonald. Copyright © 2002 by Gregory Mcdonald. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.