By Brazzil Magazine
Would he be able to handle a night here? Alex looked at the concrete bench in the empty
spot in the park. It was narrow. And hard. Maybe it was better to lie down in the grass
under the tree. But what if there were animals? Stinging ants, maybe. Or spiders. Or a dog
that started sniffing at him. The idea filled him with dread. No, better the hard bench.
The bench was very long and shaped like a horseshoe. Farther down a bum lay snoring. A
little human heap in a flour sack, that was what he looked like. He probably walked around
barefoot all the time. Shapeless black calloused hunks stuck out of the tattered pant
legs. Alex shuddered.
Would he look like that too in a couple of weeks? If he were still alive. He looked
down. There was nothing wrong with his plastic sandals—everybody had those. Boys who
lived in houses, too. But they didn’t have sand between their toes the way he did, because
when they got home from the beach they took showers. The ocean had left salt stains on his
black legs. Luckily he could get them off if he rubbed hard. Nobody would see the hole in
his nylon shorts if he rolled them up. His T-shirt was clean—he had washed it
yesterday in the river. No, Alex thought he actually looked pretty good. Nobody could tell
that he had been thrown out of his house and was living on the street.
The bum didn’t move. Maybe he was dead. The thought terrified Alex. “Ghhruk,”
said the corpse and the burlap bag rolled over. “Thank God,” mumbled Alex.
Another dead person, that would be the last straw.
From the bench he could see the beach through the trees and even the little lights on
the other side of the bay. The hills were dark, plump shadows. Like a herd of sleeping
cows. It must be at least eleven o’clock, Alex figured, but people were still walking up
and down the asphalt path along the beach. Bright floodlights lit up the white sand almost
all the way to the bay.
The volleyball players gave the ball dull slaps. On the low stone wall dividing the
path from the park sat drummers in their swimsuits. One of them was drumming along with a
stick on a can. They were singing a samba:
Coconut tree where the coconuts grow,
where I hang my hammock
on clear moonlit nights
for me, it’s Brazil.
Now and then the tinkling of a bicycle bell or shouts would Ring out.
Alex spread out the newspaper he’d found near the trash can. He folded over the top of
his plastic bag of clothes so that he could use it as a pillow, and he lay down. His feet
hurt from walking. If it were possible, he’d unscrew them.
He closed his eyes, but he didn’t like the feeling at all. His heart seemed to be
pounding even harder. That was strange.
There was a rustling noise behind him. What was that? He pricked up his ears. It
rustled again. Could it be somebody walking? He turned his head carefully and looked. The
stretch of grass under the trees was empty, but the tree trunks were so big that somebody
could easily be standing behind them. Some twigs snapped. Alex was breathing heavily and
his mouth was dry. What should he do? Run away? He opened his eyes wide, but nothing
happened. He got hold of himself. It must have been a rat.
Nothing happened for so long that his eyes slowly closed again. That wasn’t good. He
had to stay awake. At least one eye open, so that he could see danger approaching. He
rolled onto his back and stared at the sky. He saw no stars or clouds. He saw only images.
Like a video clip, the day ran through his head.
He saw himself walking down the dirt path by the dump on the way home. There were his
former school friends. “Hey, Alex. How you doing? Too bad about your mom.”
“What? What about my mom?”
“She’s dead. Didn’t you know?”
He ran home. There was the Volkswagen van that was used for funerals. He felt hot and
then ice cold. It couldn’t be true. She was still so young. The little board over the
ditch thumped as he ran inside.
The room was crowded. He saw neighbors, his older brother Pito and his wife, and
“the guy,” which was what he called his stepfather, and the guy’s daughters. A
neighbor lady was sobbing in great bursts. “No, no. My God, no. She can’t die!”
He pushed his way between the bodies. On the spot where the couch normally stood, his
mother lay in a casket on trestles. She had her eyes closed as if she were sleeping. Her
face was as white as the dishes in the kitchen. Her hair was longer than when he had last
seen her, three months earlier, before she went to the hospital. It seemed as if she might
wake up any minute, but he knew she wouldn’t. He was looking at an empty body. The only
person he had in the whole world had flown away. She would never again hug him to her. She
would never again run her fingers through his hair. The move, the course he was going to
take… All the plans, shattered. She had handed him over to that guy.
“She didn’t want to put up with it anymore. She pulled the tubes out,” his
brother’s wife whispered to a neighbor lady.
“What do you expect … Three months on an IV and no future.”
He whirled around.
“Where you going?” his brother called out.
He didn’t answer but ran to the little soccer field at the end of the path.
That was where he’d sat down. He’d seen how the funeral party had filed toward the
cemetery. After about an hour he had gone back. Only Bruno, his younger brother, was home.
Bruno had cried when he saw Alex collecting his clothes. He had given Bruno his baseball
cap and soccer ball. “Don’t cry, Bruno. Someday I’ll be back. Then I’ll be rich and
I’ll come take you out of this place,” he had said.
Then they’d heard the thump of the board. He estimated his chances. Would he be able to
get away through the hole in the wall and across the yard without being noticed? Too late.
There stood his stepfather, big and booming. “How dare you show your face here, you
good-for-nothing punk! You, nothing but lies all the time. You didn’t get the message, did
you? You’re not welcome here anymore!”
Alex felt his head grow hot and light. Before he could think, he blurted out, “Now
you got what you want. You can smoke in the bedroom. Drink beer. Don’t need to take your
whores in the bushes anymore. You can have all forty other members of your family over.
He couldn’t finish his sentence. He hit the wall with his stepfather’s arm resting
heavily on his chest. The pockmarked face hung right above him and yelled, “I’ll kill
you like a dog if you ever dare set foot in this house. A bullet is what you got coming.
Now beat it, freeloader!”
A spray of spittle settled on his face, but Alex couldn’t wipe it off because he was
pinned. He felt sick to his stomach from the sour beer smell that wouldn’t go away.
When his stepfather finally let him go, he had grabbed the plastic bags and left
without a word. He wouldn’t have been able to say anything even if he had wanted to. His
throat was swollen and dry as if it were full of foam rubber.
He had left his clothes and his sneakers with his buddy Sergio. “If you haven’t
heard from me in a couple of months, it means I’m dead. Then you can have them,” he
had said. Sergio had said nothing. Alex had taken along only an extra pair of shorts and
two T-shirts in a plastic bag. Sergio’s mother had given him a package of coconut cookies
for the road. Then he’d taken the train to the city—the train known as the
“stock car” because it’s so crowded and stinks of sweat and urine.
Feeling numb, he had walked around the streets lined with skyscrapers. He didn’t really
know what to do. Where could he go? Then he remembered the park. His mother used to have a
cleaning job somewhere around there. He had gone along a couple of times and remembered
having seen street kids with blankets in the park.
He found it easily. It was located close to downtown in the curve of the bay. First
there was the beach, and around it, like a giant comma, lay the park. He had walked on
asphalt paths and little bridges. He had climbed up hills and looked around the soccer
fields. Nowhere had he seen street kids. Not on the beach, either. He hadn’t wanted to ask
anybody. What if they thought he was a street kid?
The thought startled Alex. Maybe he was a street kid. He had slept on the street before
sometimes, but now it was different. He didn’t have a house anymore. Or a mother. He had
Wham! There was the casket with the white face popping into his head again. He didn’t
want to think about it, but the videotape kept running on its own. Where was her spirit
wandering now? Was she in heaven? Was it nighttime there too? Maybe spirits never slept.
Alex stared at the sky. Big gray clouds floated by. He decided that his mother was awake
and was looking down at him from the sky. The idea reassured him. As if she were watching
over him just a little bit. Suddenly it wasn’t quite so scary to go to sleep.
A train with a thundering roar was heading straight for Alex. He was lying on the
tracks, and no matter how he tried to get up, it didn’t work. He could hear the engine
wail and a whistle blow. Then he woke up. On the airstrip out in the bay an airplane had
landed. The engines shrieked.
The sun was shining, but it still wasn’t very hot out. That figured—it was winter.
On the grass stood a small group of people. Most of them were women, and they flapped
their arms at a young man’s signals. Cyclists in cycling outfits whizzed by on the asphalt
path. At the end of the concrete bench sat an old man in shorts reading the paper. The bum
lay in his rags a little farther down, as if he hadn’t moved an inch the whole night.
Nobody seemed to be paying any attention to him.
Alex was thirsty and hungry. Suddenly he remembered the cookies. He fished the pieces
out from among his clothes in the plastic bag. Dumb, he thought. He had slept on them. Now
he had to find water. Where had he seen the tap where people filled their thermoses?
Near the beach Alex found the tap. He drank, washed his face, rinsed his sandy feet and
his legs. And when nobody was looking, he pulled the elastic waistband of his shorts out
as if he were nine months pregnant and let the stream run down his belly and into his
He wasn’t wearing underwear; he hadn’t ever had any. Quickly he slipped his hand
between his legs and slapped water over his crotch. He rubbed an imaginary piece of soap
over his stomach. Done. Clean.
“Good lord, has this turned into some kind of public shower?”
He jumped and turned around. Behind him stood an old woman with a sun-hat on and a
poodle. The blood drained out of his cheeks. He didn’t know how to act. Had she seen
She laughed. “If you ask me, you’re a little wet behind the ears.”
He clutched at his ears. Only then did he realize that she was making a joke.
She ignored him after that. “Come on, Pretinha, your turn,” she said to the
poodle. She pulled at the leash. “We’re going to have a nice little turn under the
She obviously didn’t have children, thought Alex.
On a stone wall he let himself dry off in the sun. A huge oil tanker was making its way
through the bay. Now and then an airplane would skim over the water. In order to reach the
landing strip the planes had to drop so low that their bellies almost touched the surface.
“Watch it, watch out.” A man was pedaling up the path. Hitched to the bicycle
was a wobbly metal cart with thin logs of ice at least three feet long in it.
He’d better be quick, thought Alex. The ice logs were melting as he watched. There was
a long trail of water drops on the path. The man kicked out the stand and tossed a rag
over his shoulder, then ran up the beach with a log of ice. “Watch it, watch
out.” The ice log was delivered at a beach bar and beaten to bits for the coolers. By
the time he got to the second ice log, his bicycle was parked in the middle of a puddle.
The beach started filling up with sunbathers. They came from all directions with
folding chairs and beach umbrellas under their arms. There were lots of mothers with
children, groups of friends. He saw hardly anybody going by themselves. Some were hauling
radios and coolers of food.
Alex smelled fried onions. Farther down a hot dog cart had stopped. In a frying pan as
big as a tire the hot dog man was frying onions and tomatoes.
Alex had never paid attention to it before, but the beach was crowded although it was
the middle of the week. Didn’t these people have to go to work? He thought of Bruno, who
had slept by himself in the twin bed and was now at school. Just like Sergio.
I can do as I please, thought Alex. But without any money, what was the point?
What did a street kid do during the day, anyway? He could think of nothing but swimming
or playing soccer. If they sold candy, where did they put the candy at night? If they
polished shoes, they had a wooden chest that had to go somewhere. Or would they hide that
in the bushes?
“Hey, weren’t you lying on the bench?”
A boy had come and sat down beside him. He was almost a head shorter than Alex and not
as black. His skin was the color of toffee, and his hair wasn’t kinky like Alex’s but
thick and wavy.
“Look, that’s where I was,” he said without waiting for an answer. “See
that white thing on the other side of the trees?”
Alex leaned forward and saw a building that looked mostly like a concrete
merry-go-round without any animals on it.
“That’s a band shell.”
“Hmm,” said Alex. He didn’t know what a band shell was, but he wasn’t going
to let on to this boy.
“I work for Dona Lica in the bar.”
“Oh,” said Alex.
“There, on the beach. I just chipped the ice.” The boy showed his wet arms.
The sharp edges of the ice had cut his arms. He was even bleeding. He pulled a can of Coke
out of his shorts pocket. “Earned it. You want some?” The boy smiled. He had
nice white teeth, not little black stumps like Alex’s.
“Hmm,” Alex said again, hesitating. He did want some.
The boy shoved the can into his hands. “Don’t give me that, man.”
They sat there a while and watched the joggers passing by and the girls in bikinis.
“My name’s Robson,” the boy said after a long silence. “What’s
“How old are you?”
“Thirteen,” said Alex.
“I’m fourteen,” declared Robson. “Did you run away too?”
Alex nodded. “I’m from Japeri,” he said. “You know where that is?”
Robson shook his head.
“That’s two hours away by train unless it stops somewhere.”
“Did they beat you?” Robson wanted to know.
Alex sat up. “If the guy ever started punching, I’d hit him back. No, that wasn’t
the problem. My mother died. And the guy, I mean my stepfather, is out to get me. He
kicked me out of the house because he wants to have everything for himself.”
Robson looked at him. “Damn, stepfathers suck. First they move in on your mother
and then they tell you to get the hell out. What about your mother?”
“My mother always stood up for me. ‘If he goes, I go,’ she’d say. She was on my
side. When she went into the hospital, he didn’t let me eat at the house anymore. Now
she’s dead. There was something wrong with her intestines or something.” Alex tried
to talk fast so he didn’t have to think. When he talked about his mother and her being
dead, his heart grew heavy. As if there were a wet towel hanging over it. He looked at
Robson out of the corner of his eye. The boy hadn’t noticed a thing.
“My father’s a cachaceiro,” said Robson. “Falls down drunk every
day. Pounded all of us. Never had any money. It all got spent on rum. My mother’s dead.
But she never did anything to stop it. Every time he promised he’d quit, and she believed
him. I broke out, though. I’m not crazy. No grub at home and then they go and get on your
case too. I’d rather be on the street. You don’t have any grub there either, but at least
you can do what you feel like.” Robson paused and glanced up. “I’d say it’s
Alex was blown away by how coolly Robson talked about home.
“Dona Lica,” Robson shouted. When the woman with bleached-blond hair tending
the bar looked up, he tapped his wrist with his index finger.
She understood immediately. “Twelve-thirty,” she hollered back.
“Whoa, Alex, we better get moving.” He waved at Dona Lica, who had collected
beer-drinking men under her beach parasol, and jumped off the wall.
Alex followed. He had nothing better to do anyway. Besides, he was curious. What was
this Robson up to?
They walked out of the park and into the neighborhood. Its name, like the park’s, was
Flamengo. The streets were narrow and lined with trees. There was a miniature castle with
turrets and stairs on the corner. Behind it the housing complexes began, tall apartment
buildings. Where rich people lived.
There was a big difference between rich people and poor people, Alex thought. In
Flamengo there weren’t any dirt paths or potholes in the street, as there were in Japeri.
The walls were white and you never saw any windows covered with cardboard. Everybody had
glass. When you went to visit somebody, you first had to go through a tall gate that was
locked. After that there was usually a glass door that was also locked. Somewhere in the
lobby there was a doorman behind a console. If he wanted to open the door, he pushed a
button. Inside, everything was big and new. A wide hallway, mirrors, tiled floors, a
swimming pool on the roof. That was how the building his mother had worked in had looked.
That was how the apartment building to which Robson brought him that afternoon looked.
“This is where we’re going to eat,” said Robson as the glass door buzzed
open, and he sprinted toward the elevator.
Robson’s aunt lived in the apartment. No, not his real aunt. She was more like a kind
of friend, Robson said. He knew her from the beach. She went to the beach a lot, usually
with her daughter. She always looked around to see if Robson was there. One day she’d
said, “Why don’t you come eat lunch with us?” So Robson got a house where he
could eat every day, take a shower, and change clothes. Because she kept his bag of
clothes for him.
“Well now, is everything all right? You two are late,” said the woman who
opened the door. She had little curls and was on the heavy side. She acted as if it were
normal that Robson had brought him along. “My name’s Vera,” she said, smiling,
to Alex. She threw her arm around him and pulled his head to her chest.
“His name’s Alex,” said Robson.
Alex smelled flowers and something else. It made him dizzy. Rich people even smell
different from poor people, he thought.
“Go take a shower, quick. Then we can eat,” said Vera, letting him go.
Alex felt strange as he sat down at the table. As if he were walking around in a movie.
The kitchen at home had a hard dirt floor and they cooked with bottled gas. Water had to
be fetched. Here there were tiles, a shiny sink, and a big stove with six burners. And
there was as much food as he wanted. Rice, beans, meat, salad.
Robson talked a blue streak. About the iceman, about Dona Lica, whom Vera also knew,
and her bar, about some jogger who’d been robbed of his track shoes in the park, about the
new fence around the utility shed. Vera smiled a lot, and now and then she winked at Alex.
Alex ate in silence and tried not to look at Vera’s daughter. She was sitting straight
across from him and kept staring at him. He tried to eat in such a way that she wouldn’t
see his teeth. He was ashamed of the cemetery of black stumps in his mouth, and he
desperately hoped nobody had noticed the rip in his shorts. A fancy house like this… Too
bad he couldn’t tell Bruno.
Then he had to go to the bathroom.
“Marlene, will you show Alex where the bathroom is?” asked Vera. The girl who
had stared at him the whole time got up.
“Here’s the light switch,” she said as she opened a door.
Alex stepped in. He didn’t lock the door. What if he couldn’t get it unlocked again? He
sat down comfortably. Who knew how long it would be before he sat on a real toilet again?
There were mirrors, mats, and little bottles everywhere. The tiles had flowers on them.
This Vera must be really rich.
When he was done, he wanted to flush, but he couldn’t find the rope to pull. There
wasn’t a bucket, either. He was starting to sweat. He peered at the ceiling. Nothing.
There was a cup on the vanity. He filled it and emptied it into the bowl. Then another
one, and another quickly after that. Nothing happened. “C’mon, go down,” he
pleaded. He tried being stern: “Yo, beat it. Go on down.” But the giant turd lay
If he went to get Robson, the girl was sure to come too, to see what was the matter.
Alex started sweating even more at the idea. Cover it! Quick, toilet paper, and then get
“Jesus, man, what have you been doing?” asked Robson when he came into the
bathroom and saw all the loops of toilet paper spilling out from under the toilet seat
cover. “Carnival’s over, you know. Man, it stinks in here.”
“Robson, please, shhhh.” Alex thumped his back to get him to shut his mouth.
“Help me. I don’t know how you’re supposed to flush. Where’s the rope?”
Robson leaned over and pushed a brass box on the wall. The waterfall sounded like music
to Alex’s ears.
“Cool,” he said in amazement. “Rich people even make something nice out
of taking a dump.”
After lunch they walked slowly back to the beach and lay bloated in the sand. “How
did you get to know her, anyway?” Alex asked.
“I told you already,” said Robson. “At the beach.”
“Just, you know. I asked her for money. So then she bought me a roll. She asked me
all kinds of things too. Where I came from and stuff. After that she waved every time she
was at the beach and saw me. Sometimes I’d go sit with her.”
Alex kept silent. He hoped he would meet a lady like that on the beach too.
“She wants to adopt me,” said Robson. “But there are still some things
she has to fix up first.”
“Mmhmm,” said Alex skeptically. “So are you going?”
“Of course I am. What would you do, man? A house. Food three times a day. A bed
with sheets on it. Clean clothes. School. And …” He paused. “And a toilet with
a supersonic flush.”
Alex said nothing. “Then you’ll be stuck with that kid,” he blurted out.
“She’s all right. just like her mother. It’s just because she doesn’t know
you,” Robson said defensively.
“Then you’ll have to be home on time,” Alex started in again.
“Sure, because I have to get up at six-thirty in the morning to go to school. I
bet I’ll take the bus,” said Robson. It sounded as if this appealed to him.
“Guess what, she has a car too.”
“And you thought the street was so fine. Come and go where you please,” Alex
Robson looked at him. “You’re jealous, man.”
“Am not.” Alex flopped over onto his other side.
Robson dreamed on. “If I were rich, I’d marry her.”
“The girl—who else. Her mother?”
Alex opened his eyes wide and looked at the blue sky. Robson was wrong, he decided. He
wasn’t jealous. He wanted his mother back; yes, that was what he wanted.
They sat on the beach all afternoon.
At seven o’clock it grew dark and the floodlights switched on. They looked at the
volleyball players setting up their nets. The beach looked like a sports field. On the
path families strolled back and forth arm in arm. Among them zigzagged cyclists and
“Robson, what are those guys doing?” Alex pointed at the benches under the
trees. It was dark there, but by the light of the moon you could see a boy sitting on
every bench. Sometimes they got up, walked a few feet, then sat down again. There were
also boys lying on the benches. “Do they sleep in the park too?”
Robson had to laugh. “No, they drop their pants and then they get money. Haven’t
you ever done that?”
“No,” said Alex. He felt stupid.
“I have,” said Robson.
“But who pays for that?”
“Yeah, dirty old men with those bbbbrrrrr tongues.” Robson stuck his tongue
way out and let it flubber.
He was exaggerating, thought Alex.
Robson slapped him on the shoulder. “But you don’t have to worry. Beanpoles like
you have to pay.”
Close to midnight they went to the brightly lit concrete band shell in the middle of
the park. Robson insisted on sleeping there.
“But with all that light everybody can see you lying there,” Alex protested.
“So what, stupid? Sleeping in the dark like you did, now that’s dangerous. The
more light, the better. Then they don’t dare to come. Everybody can see you from the road,
but they can see them too.”
“Who’s them?” asked Alex. Robson was a veteran; that much was clear.
“People who steal, kill, people who want to mess you up or rape you.”
“Mess you up how?”
Robson took a deep breath. “You got people who get a kick out of roasting you
alive. When you’re asleep, they sneak up on you. They throw gasoline all over your blanket
and then put a match to it. That burns like hell, man. Sadists is what they are. I slept
at the Central Station for a week. It happens a lot there. You never saw that, kids with
burns on their legs?”
“Well, it’s a good thing we don’t have a blanket,” said Alex.
“Doesn’t make any difference. They do it with plastic bags too. Set them on fire
and then the plastic starts to drip. They hold that over you. Man, that hurts, if that
stuff gets on your skin.”
Alex kept silent. He chewed on his fingernails. He knew that the street was dangerous.
But setting people on fire? How many nights would he have to keep going like this? He
thought of what his stepfather had said. If you live on the street by yourself you’ll die.
Robson and himself, that was almost the same as being alone.
Robson spread out the newspaper he had brought along and sat down on it. “I got a
surprise,” he said.
Alex didn’t react. He sat motionless on the steps with his plastic bag in his lap.
“Look.” Robson pulled three marbles out of his pocket, one big one and two
small ones. He wiped them clean on his T-shirt and gave two of them to Alex. “Here,
you go first.”
They played marbles until it got boring. Then they stretched out to sleep. Alex lay on
his side and looked at the lights of the apartments of the Flamengo district. The
road was nearby. Now and then he would see the lights of a passing car. Buzzing mosquitoes
danced in front of the dome lights.
Robson coughed and rolled over.
“You asleep already?” Alex attempted carefully.
“Yeahhhh …” came from the other side.
“You’re all right.”
“As long as you don’t start kissing me,” grumbled Robson.
Alex snickered. “But I just have a thing for you.”
“Gettawaaayyy,” cried Robson. And they both laughed really hard.
Alex looked at the cloudless sky. He almost knew for sure—his mother had arranged
Robson for him. “Thank you,” he said softly to the sky.
Excerpted from Asphalt Angels by Ineke Holtwijk,
translated by Wanda Boeke, Front Street & Lemmiscaat, 1999, 184
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