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An ulcer is like the calloused hand of a labourer. You can recognise a man by the callouses on his hands or the wounds in his stomach. I heard that nugget of wisdom somewhere and it was all I could think of as I got distracted for a few seconds looking at my pale, clean hands, while my boss, sitting opposite me, his breath as he exhaled smelling sweetly of peanut butter, searched for alternative ways to tell me yet again: You’re fired.
Son of a bitch, I thought, looking now at my new suit. Two weeks ago he had told me to buy a better suit because appearance counts for a lot. Bloody hell, I’m paying for it in ten instalments, my brand new suit. There’s nothing like being fired in an expensive suit, which is going to cost you whatever money you’ve got left. I don’t think it brought me much luck.
A very emphatic Good. Bye. and in that second I identified the brand of peanut butter. I used to buy it and eat it slowly, which would guarantee me around twenty days of imported peanut butter. I don’t eat it any more.
Shaking his head and smoothing down the six hairs right on the top of it, he said, faking a kind of consternation in his dodgy Portuguese: I am very sorry. Of course he is. I’m sorry too that those six straggly strands on his head won’t last much longer. It’s pitiful.
Two months ago we went through a merger with the French. They have more money and dress better. Other than that, it’s the same old story. My former boss was relocated to another department, downgraded, and I’ve been relocated into the street.
“We can’t bend the rules, there’s no way around it, Roger, c’est tout.”
He summed up all my years there with a c’est tout. What’s that about? I am someone who lives outside the rules. Bloody office… can’t bend the rules? C’est tout, Pas de tout, he spends his life saying that between gritted teeth. But one thing I have learned. Vá au merde.
He answers a phone call and I grunt a few uh huh, uh huhs, oui… oui, and he makes a clumsy gesture with his hand dismissing me. Seven years at this place… it might as well have been seven years in Tibet, that’s all I can think about, Tibet and Tibetan monks and the silence there must be inside a monastery and that they’re all bald like my boss will be by the end of the year. Shitty job… and after seven years I’m still outside the rules.
C´est tout? he asks turning his mouth away from the phone and I nod pointlessly understanding that whenever someone says c´est tout it’s to put an end to the subject, whatever it is.
My daydreams are interrupted by the unbearable sound of the photocopying machine right beside us; this room with thin plywood walls, fragile like eggshell like everything else, makes me want to vomit. I leave the room and go back to my desk which has just stopped being mine. In fact it never was, but I could see some marks on it from so much wear and tear, my sweat that over the years stained the wood and the circular mark forming a perfect circumference that reminds me of how many mugs of coffee I had to drink in order to stop myself from falling asleep.
I want some silence, but the sound of the old photocopier is intolerable. Sheet in, sheet out. The light that slides over the paper bewitches me. There are machines like this in every room, they’re everywhere, entrenched, producing hundreds of applications, the white monster on my desk, the pile of papers, the wall which never seems to yield. You can feel the heat that comes off them; too long beside one of them and you’d fry; the paper burns your fingers when it comes out. A colossus of light and heat, and you can even be reproduced yourself. Copied. Inauthentic. I expected to come across my unauthorised reproduction in the office corridors; a falsified image, with my exact measurements.
Frenzied machines, they reproduce a kind of extreme stupidity. The mistake is copied and passed over and, as time passes, what’s wrong becomes right, through insistence, through reproduction. You can hear them, multiplying in their thousands.
I decide to leave while I still retain some dignity and to seek my few remaining things the next day. I go out to make the most of the warm early evening and wander around the city while the skies support the weight of waters ready to burst in a torrent of summer rain. I head for a bar when I feel large drops on my arms. I look up and the heavens surrender to my presence, but only the heavens and nothing else.
Inside they are all crazy and lonely and I’m in the middle of that effervescence of colours, noises, groans, doors slamming and smells. Lots of smells and confessions. It’s weird: when I sit at the bar I can see that they are confessing, but I can’t work out what because the music’s too loud. Secrets shared aren’t secrets; that’s anguish. Anguish shared is despair. They share their guts. There are guts spread out mixed up bleeding all over the place; good and bad guts, inflamed guts. I’m going to sit beside the loudspeakers because there I’ll be deafened enough to be able to sleep soundly tonight.
They offer me brandy and I remember someone saying, “But a moon like that, brandy like that, make you get all emotional”. I don’t remember who said that. It might have been the guy serving at the bakery; they sell brandy there. It doesn’t really matter. In any case, I don’t drink brandy and I never get all emotional.
When I feel deafened enough that my thoughts are drowned out, I take my beer and go and sit at the bar again. There’s a round glass bowl there with different coloured boxes of matches in it. A kind of goldfish bowl with famous film stars printed on each little box. I think I hear someone say: is there a problem. I would say there is, but not out loud. It’s the barman in front of me with a white cloth over his left shoulder leaning forward and in an insistent way he asks again. I don’t look at him directly, I do a suspicious dog look, like when they look at you sideways. I take my glass and lean my head back in search of the last mouthful, which benevolently is in fact two.
“Another beer?” is what he’s asking and I shake my head, I say c’est tout and then gesture to him to find out how much the bill came to. Twelve reais fifty, he says. Shit, twelve fifty! I have to work two and a quarter hours to earn that much, I think, And there go two hours drinking beer in less than an hour of unconscious effort.
He realises that I don’t really agree with the total amount and hands me a bill with the specific expenses.
“Hey, these matches… I didn’t order any matches, that’s for sure.”
“But you took some. Do you think I didn’t notice?”
“I didn’t take anything, I’m telling you, I was just looking.”
I really am an idiot and that’s why barmen exist, to confirm this to you in case of any doubts floating around. Twelve fifty, he says emphatically, as if he’s stating a fact: You’re fired. I’m getting used to this emphatic tone; we can’t go bending the rules… Pay what you owe me and vomit up what you’ve eaten, this rubbish is practically turning into a dubbed Western.
Standing on the pavement and the rain hasn’t even wet the asphalt. It’s all a bloody trick. I take my last cigarette and throw the empty pack on the ground. On the next day people will clear it up and I will also be doing my bit somewhere. I lift the cigarette to my mouth and take the Brigitte Bardot matches out of my pocket and realise that two matchsticks are missing. Somebody lit their cigarettes with those matches, but it was me who had to buy them. I really am a lucky man and I can’t even manage to steal a box of bloody matches.
I pick up my briefcase which is resting on the ground and head down the street imprinting on my lungs the dusty, stuffy smell left by a rainstorm that passed all too quickly, taking its torrents elsewhere. This is when your soul gets porous, along with the rough surface, and the rain sets off to the north leaving the lucky ones behind.
The streets in the city centre and their regulars who only go out at night; after the working day, mice and beggars have a few hours to enjoy what is familiar to us only during daytime. Scattered all over the place, they remind me of the photocopiers. Alone or in small groups, they are always splashing in the rubbish, scaring the mice who want to enjoy their dinner. Mice in their thousands under our feet, in the underground sewers, come to the surface and need to fight with man for food. Undoubtedly one day they’ll get tired of it, those mice, and we’ll have a revolution on our hands.
The mice come out of the sewers to search for leftover food, the people search for the leftovers of the day. A city like this produces lots of food, waste, rubbish and people like you and me. If I let myself get distracted, the mice will devour me.
I lose my balance as I walk. I can feel my legs now and again without much direction and the lukewarm heat that rises from the asphalt splashed by the rain reminds me of the photocopier screeching like the siren of the police car that’s just turned the corner. I love sirens at night, a kind of ultimatum announced across whole metres of distance, they make my heartbeat speed up.
It annoys me when I can no longer see the reflection of the siren’s lights, and my bladder seems to have woken up because it’s burning and painful. I turn around and six steps later I open my fly and piss in the doorway of a Korean cake shop. Not one of the best, but I’ve never eaten anything stale there. At the beginning, I could only afford to eat there with the salary I was on at the time, later I started going to another, more expensive one, and there I once found a shard of red-varnished fingernail in my tuna sandwich. I do up my fly and realise that I won’t have to worry about that any more. One problem less.
I look towards where the office building is, the streets I used to walk along, until now hurrying every day, the places where I used to devour food in violent forkfuls, digging holes in my plate, almost burying myself under mashed potato, and lastly at the little windows of all the buildings around me.
I’m transported back to the tiny window beside my old table with which I spent interminable hours, admiring the sun, the moon and the stars. What a melancholy, pitiful thing. The passing of time, dissipating through a crack not much bigger than my television, twenty inches in the centre of the living room. Nobody should dream of having a horizon less than twenty inches wide.
On the way towards the metro I come across an old man sitting on the ground. Dirty and stinking. Not even the mice will go near him; perhaps only when he dies, to drag his carcass into the sewer; enough food for days. A fragile old man, certainly not even his bones would remain. He must have osteoporosis; brittle bones easily gnawed to bits by rodents. A disaster of unruly horror.
He says he has a wound and that he’ll show me if I give him some change. Why should I want to see a wound? And by the size of the bandage on his leg it must be a big one. I laugh at the conversation. Come and see, is what the old man says. I have a wound here and you’ve never seen one like this before. I take a few steps, ignoring him, but it’s too late. I feel in my pocket for a few coins and throw them at him. I want to vomit. At the wound, at my curiosity. There are maggots swimming in the spongy flesh. He is being eaten alive and the mice hang around him respecting the hard work of the maggots so they’ll be able to drag him away later.
It’s been a while since I’ve been able to smile; in fact I’ve become serious enough to be disbelieved. In the face of something like this anyone might stop turning sharply on their axis and topple over. That’s what I do: I topple over trying to reach my centre of gravity hoping that it isn’t too deep.
I go down the street to the metro and, when I get there, I look at my pale, clean hands. You can recognise a man by the callouses on his hands and by his wounds. C’est tout. I breathe deeply when I get into the deserted carriage. I sigh, feeling sedated by the vestiges of a subterranean city, its inhabitants and its potential wickedness.
Translated by Claire Williams.
Claire Williams is Senior Lecturer in Brazilian Literature and Culture at the University of Oxford (St. Peter’s College). Her research interests converge around the themes of gender, identity and resistance in women’s writing from the Portuguese-speaking world.