LIES (As Mentiras)
Docento was a master on the pandeiro, the Brazilian tambourine, and was considered
the best percussionist in Santa Teresa, one of Rio’s many crowded hillside neighborhoods where music could always be heard echoing from bodegas, streets and shanties. Thirteen-year old Gabriel Santos was Docento’s most promising student, sometimes performing with his teacher at the bailes, those popular and raucous dance parties that erupted spontaneously in the city’s favelas.
One day in January Docento paid a visit to Carmela, Gabriel’s mother.
“Your son is progressing well,” he reported. “We would like him to play with us at Carnaval this year, but he needs to practice more. I’m asking your permission to let him stay overnight on Saturdays. I’ll make sure he returns on Sunday to help you at home.”
The pandeiro master’s praise for her son pleased Carmela. Her husband had disappeared years ago. With four mouths to feed, she found work cleaning at tourist hotels near Ipanema beach. Eduardo, now eighteen, had left school early to help support the family. She prayed that Gabriel would not have to do the same. He loved making music above all else, and one day might earn an income from it.
She thanked God that Eduardo was working and kept out of trouble. But as the oldest of her children, he was the man of the house and she often sought his advice.
“Docento wants Gabriel to perform at Carnaval and would like him to stay overnight on
Saturday to practice. He has even offered to pay for his school expenses. What do you think?”
Eduardo clenched his fists. “I don’t trust that old man!”
Carmela was surprised by her son’s angry response. “What do you mean— you don’t trust him?”
“There”— he seemed to be searching for the right words—“there have been stories.”
“What sort of stories.”
Eduardo hesitated. “People say that he enjoys his young students too much.”
Carmela shook her head, not understanding. Eduardo raised his eyebrows, giving her a significant look, his meaning slowly dawning on her.
“Surely that’s not true. I’ve not heard any such rumors.”
“Gabriel spends too much time with Docento already!” he shouted. “I won’t allow him to live with the man.”
“It’s one night only.”
Eduardo simmered with resentment, believing his younger brother was being treated with more favor, being given a free ride. It was also a matter of pride. The favela was filled with gossips and Eduardo imagined the whispers: “I’ve heard the Santos’ oldest boy is having trouble providing for the family. That’s why Docento takes his brother in.”
Even though her son’s accusation was based on gossip, he had planted a seed of doubt, and so Carmela devised a pretext to keep Gabriel at home. She told him the little ones, Armanda and Matheus, had to be watched after school since their neighbor Leticia could no longer do so.
“But Carnaval is almost here!” Gabriel objected. “I need to practice.”
“I need you more.”
“It will only be for a while.”
Gabriel had little choice but to obey his mother’s request. He entertained his brother and sister with his pandeiro. He swept the front steps and picked up the litter from the tiny dirt yard. He sorted cans and bottles and took Armanda and Matheus to the groceria for ice cream. But after a week, he grew anxious and bored.
Docento, concerned about his student’s absence, decided to speak with Carmela one evening after work. He passed crumbling walls covered with graffiti, the favela’s talent on display. He managed to intercept Carmela as she trudged up the last steep stairway home. The wall behind her celebrated a local drug dealer, huge blue letters boldly proclaiming: “Fama e.Deus”
“Hello, Carmela. I haven’t seen Gabriel in the last few days. Is he okay?”
Unprepared for this encounter, she nodded distractedly. “It’s the little
ones. They’ve been ill with bronchitis. Gabriel has been taking care of them.”
“He hasn’t been going to school?”
“Yes, he’s in school. Our neighbor Leticia takes care of the children during the day.”
“Is there anything I can do?”
She looked away, flustered. “No. We don’t need any help.”
“Well, I hope the children get better soon. Please tell Gabriel I miss our practice together.”
“I will.” And with that, she rushed off.
Docento peered at her retreating figure. Carmela’s abruptness troubled him. She was
normally so gracious. “Things must be very difficult for her,” he thought. “She works so hard and now her children are sick.”
Two days later, black and white posters appeared on walls throughout Santa Teresa:
From Bloomington, Indiana, USA
PLAZA de SANTA CRUZ
Saturday, 18 January, 6PM.
No one had heard of this place, Bloomington, Indiana. Surely, children from the USA would not be visiting the favela. It must be a joke.
Neighbors gathered around Docento as he made a call from the groceria to a prominent acquaintance in the city below. Yes, came the answer: a delegation of young violinists from the School of Performing Arts in that American town were making a goodwill tour to Sao Paulo and Rio. They would be performing here the following Saturday. The news spread instantly and everyone intended to be there. Gabriel, frustrated about being imprisoned in the house, resolved he would not miss this performance for anything and vowed to sneak away if he had to.
Eduardo had different concerns. He had been laid off from his construction job and was ashamed to tell his mother. Desperate, he went to Ernesto Fama, the biggest dealer in the favelas. Famabegan his career as a mule for one of the city’s original dealers. Practical and ruthless, he quickly rose to the top and now directed his own network of mules.
The drug boss recognized something of himself in Eduardo, whose eyes shone hard with ambition. Within weeks, his new recruit was captain of a dozen runners in nearby Atocha. Eduardo reported to Fama’s headquarters in the afternoon, picking up the packages and distributing them among the little foot soldiers who dispersed through the tangle of streets and narrow alleyways, climbing vertiginous staircases to deliver the goods.
Eduardo was soon pocketing more money than he ever imagined and he yearned to display his new affluence. He bought jewelry for his girlfriend Mariana, and for himself a pair of expensive running shoes— black and white with bright aqua soles and toes. Attempting to conceal his new profession from his mother, he brought only modest gifts home: a colorful scarf for Carmela, sweet treats and simple toys for Armanda and Matheus. He nearly always managed to make his customary appearance for dinner and then left to finish his rounds. If he wasn’t home the next morning, Carmela assumed he had spent the night with the Rocha girl.
In the favelas, even the most private conversations don’t remain secret for long. Insinuating rumors about Docento’s behavior with his students had spread. The old musician couldn’t help but notice subtle shifts in how he was treated: the grocer a bit less friendly, a usually chatty neighbor reluctant to talk with him. Most troubling of all, two more of his students were pulled from their lessons.
Normally an expansive, affable man, Docento grew introspective. Something was not right. People had considered him a local hero, Santa Theresa’s musical ambassador to the city. Now he wasn’t sure. What was happening and when had this all begun?
He made his way around the hill. Winded after climbing several sets of stairs, he caught his breath only yards away from the Santos’ house. Staring through the glassless windows and open front door, Docento heard sounds of a Samba rhythm: tapping and subtle brushings alternated with percussive pounding on the pandeiro. He smiled, hearing his student play. But when he approached the doorway, he hesitated, shook his head, and then turned away.
If he had shown himself, Gabriel would have hugged him. He missed his teacher. “I need to start practicing again,” he told his mother.
Carmela, trapped in a lie, fabricated another: “Docento is ill.”
“He’s sick? I should go visit him.”
“He can’t see anyone right now.”
Gabriel felt the future suddenly falling away. What if he couldn’t perform at Carnaval? He began to skip school, spending the day smoking joints with other boys hanging out at the video arcade. One of them happened to be a runner for Fama. He bragged about all the money he collected from customers and the reales he earned— paid to him by Gabriel’s brother.
“So—Eduardo’s been pretending he has a job, a fucking liar all this time!” Gabriel, knowing how much it would disturb his mother and fearing retribution from his brother, kept this to himself.
He purchased a piece of paper and borrowed a pen from the arcade manager and painstakingly printed a note:
Mother tells me you are sick and I should
not bother you I am sorry. I miss my lessons
and hope to begin when you are better please
let me know.
Gabriel asked the runner to deliver the message on his rounds. Docento was mystified. It made no sense. He intercepted the runner on his return, handing him a note of his own:
My Good Gabriel,
I am in excellent health so you must not
worry. I am only sad that you cannot play
music with me.
Your Friend, Docento
Gabriel folded the note and put it in his pocket. Was his teacher better now? Had he not been ill at all? If so, why had his mother lied to him?
When Carmela arrived home, Gabriel handed her the note.
“You told me he was sick.”
She sighed and sat down.
“You lied to me?”
“No, not exactly. I could not tell you what I had heard, so I invented a story—
only to protect you.”
“What did you hear?” Gabriel crossed his arms over his chest.
“There— there have been stories about Docento.”
“What kind of stories?”
“I can’t say.”
“Tell me!” he demanded.
His mother looked deflated. “That he has been acting improperly with his students.”
Gabriel glared at her.“‘Improperly?’ What does that mean?” She hesitated, afraid that her son’s response might somehow verify the rumors. “That he’s been taking advantage of them.”
“That’s not true! He never— who told you this?”
Gabriel turned away and stomped angrily into the curtained-off space where he slept. He returned carrying his backpack and his pandeiro.
“Eduardo is a liar and a drug-dealer. And you’re a liar too. You ruined everything!” He strung the backpack around his shoulder, the pandeiro banging against the doorway.
“Please, don’t go!” wept Carmela.
Amanda and Matheus peeked at him from the corner as he raced down the stairs, sprinting along the narrow street and disappearing around the corner.
Eduardo returned the next morning, surprised to find his mother at home.
“Why aren’t you working today?”
She shook her head.
“Your brother. He’s gone. You lied to me about Docento.”
“That’s not true. I swear—“
Carmela put her hand up. “I don’t want to hear it. You must find him.”
Eduardo nodded and hurried out the door. His lies and need for secrecy filled him with shame. Instead of searching for Gabriel he went to see his girlfriend instead, returning later that evening toclaim Gabriel was nowhere to be found.
“Did you go to Docento’s house? Has he had seen him?”
“Mi Dios! Where could he have gone?’ Carmela imagined the worse—Gabriel already far from the favela, begging for change at the beach or stealing food and taking shelter with criminals. That night she had a horrible nightmare: her son murdered on the streets, his body tossed into the ocean. Grotesque carnival faces appeared in the dream, with painted mouths and dark, menacing eyes, laughing at her.
She remained at home, sick with worry. Eduardo assured her that everything would be all right. He was the man of the family. He was making good money now and would take care of them all.
But the night before, one of Eduardo’s runners had failed to report back after making a delivery. Either he had run off with the cash or been murdered for it. Captains were responsible for their mules. If any little fucker failed to deliver, Fama demanded payment in full. Eduardo would have to forfeit his commissions, every real, until the debt was paid back. His family depended on him and Eduardo devised a plan of his own.
* * *
He brandished the gun, a black stocking cap with eye-holes pulled down over his face. The runner raised his hands, pee darkening his trouser legs and trickling onto the ground. Thin rivulets ran irregularly toward the gunman, who moved his feet aside to avoid them. The boy kept his head down, staring at his assailant’s shoes: bright aqua toes and soles against the brown dirt, as distinctive as a tattoo or a piece of jewelry. He would later describe them to Fama. Soon every boy in Santa Teresa would be out looking for him, the drug dealer’s lieutenants in pursuit. There was one last thing he needed to do.
He fled past businesses with dropping rooftops, their hand-lettered signs advertising everything from haircuts to cell phones, and followed a tangle of alleyways crammed with shanties whose rooftops leaned precariously against one another. He raced by a
community center, abandoned midway during construction, arms of bent rebar
silhouetted like angry figures against the sky.
Leaning against a ruined wall to catch his breath, he peered suspiciously into the shadows. Voices in the distance, agitated and intent. They were already looking for him.
In the Plaza de Santa Cruz, the young musicians from Bloomington played a Mozart violin sonata and ended their concert with a string chamber piece by Villa-Lobos in honor of their Brazilian hosts. Later, local bands played for their guests: Samba, bossa nova, tropicalia, a rap group. Music boomed from the plaza, attracting curious favelados from other hills. The party continued well into the night long after the young Americans had returned to their hotel.
Eduardo observed everything from the rocks above. Bright lights shone on the cheering, gyrating crowd, Samba beats rising up from the stage, resonating in the night air. He watched Docento pounding on ebony drums with his massive hands. Gabriel stood next to his teacher, beaming as he tapped the head of his pandeiro.
Eduardo felt for the bulge of cash in his pocket. He jumped hearing two cats growling and scuffling behind him. Before disappearing, he told his mother that Gabriel was safe and confess that he had invented the story about Docento. He would leave most of the money in the cupboard for her, on the top shelf where she kept change for the market.
William Torphy’s fiction has appeared in Bryant Literary Review, The Fictional Café, ImageOutWrite, Sun Star Quarterly, Burningword Literary Journal, Chelsea Café, Arlington Literary Journal, The Meta Worker, and HOME:An Anthology, by Flexible Press. His political opinion pieces have been featured in blogs, including Solstice Literary Review and OpEdge. He is a host and frequent reader at LitCrawl in San Francisco where he works as an exhibition curator.