Never judge a book by its cover – Nunca julgue um livro por sua capa
João eyed the red light staring balefully at him and increased the pressure on the accelerator in anticipation of roaring across the intersection. He hated this one cruzamento – crossroad – above all. This one crossed the arroio dilúvio; the putrid remnant of the once sweet river that bisected the city, now merely a conduit for the sewage and assorted detritus that was easily and conveniently disposed of in the massive lake on the edge of the city. But it wasn’t the putrid smell emanating from it that João hated, nor even the inherent physical ugliness of the rift, the forgotten beauty now marred by floating plastic, polystyrene, fish-belly white used condoms – historical records of fleeting love – cast off clothes and the occasional bloated animal decaying in the foetid waters. No! It was something far more insidious; something that reached into his primal soul, twisting and turning in his belly like a knife disembowelling him every time the necessities of his daily life dictated that he should pass it.
The denizens of this place were the dregs of society: the unwashed, the wretched filthy poor, the homeless, the criminals and the crack-heads. And worst of all, if you were caught at the traffic lights, these desperados would descend upon you, hands out-stretched in front of them, pleading and beseeching you – the unfortunate occupant of the vehicle – for some small change or even some food. These were the filthiest mendigos – beggars – of the entire city; the bane of good, honest, hardworking folk such as he. He had often asked himself why they couldn’t simply just get off their lazy bundas – backsides – and get a job, and he was certain that he would never find a decent explanation, or at least one that could satisfy him sufficiently; some people are just too lazy, too comfortable taking from those who do the real work to even consider working up a sweat themselves, he had concluded.
Almost too late, he noticed that the eager drivers at right angles to him had already restarted their ritual commute.
“Merda!” – Shit! – he cursed, as he slammed his foot on the brake pedal; the tyres of his new Mercedes squealing in protest, quickly followed by the sound of further tyres registering their own protest behind him.
He glanced apprehensively into the rear-view mirror, bracing himself for the impact, but fortunately, the car behind pulled up a whisker short of ruining the gleaming silver paint of his precious new car. Not that that would have been too much of a problem; his insurance would cover that, but imagine the wasted time, the inconvenience, the interminable bureaucracy.
As expected, the red light signalled the onslaught of the drug addicts and social refugees and they descended upon the hapless drivers trapped at the junction. João averted his eyes from the one approaching him; adopting an ‘if I can’t see you, you won’t see me’ attitude. Fixedly, he stared ahead, avoiding the shuffling mound of rags approaching him, heavily wrapped despite the fact that the early morning air was already hot, heavy and humid, but the shuffling mound of rags refused to be deterred so easily. The mendigo tapped on the driver’s side window.
“Me ajuda, por favor,” – Help me, please, “só uma moedinha,” – just some small change.
João stoically ignored the annoying creature, keeping his gaze glued on an imaginary horizon. It did not even occur to him for one minute that this was the most polite mendigo ever to accost him. Unperturbed, the mendigo persisted and again tapped gently on the window.
“Tenho uma mulher e três filhinhos passando fome,” – I have a starving wife and three small children – he added in a desperate, plaintive voice.
Unable to ignore this hideous apparition any longer, João turned his head quickly and angrily barked at the mendigo:
“Fode-se!” – Fuck off! To which the mendigo, seemingly reluctant, complied, but there was something about his eyes that was far removed from simple acceptance of this rebuff.
Had João been able to really look at this miserable wretch on the street, he would probably have been surprised. The mendigo, besides being dressed in mismatched grimy rags, encrusted with all manner of filth, food, innumerous unidentifiable stains and full of holes, had eyes that were intelligent, bright and alert, and shining with a mischievous twinkle, with an almost cheeky smile that illuminated his emaciated face, revealing the blackened stumps of what used to be teeth. But João noticed none of this, merely seeing the irritating excrescence of a sub-human being trying to scrounge a free lunch.
Fortunately for João, the lights then changed and he gratefully planted his foot to the floor. The tyres, as if unable to take in this sudden influx of energy, merely rotated rapidly on the spot, sending an oily, acrid blue smoke into the air, disturbing it with a screech of complaint before they finally seemed to comprehend the inflow of power and the car lurched forward. João tried to dismiss the mendigo from his mind, which he managed easily enough, but he was unable to wipe the stain from his psyche and his stomach roiled and this nausea persisted unpleasantly for the remainder of his drive to his office.
When he arrived at work, the security guard, recognising his Mercedes, activated the electronic portão, which slid to the side with a gentle hum and allowed him ingress to his private parking bay. On the bustling street behind, a flanelinha – so called because of the filthy flannel rag they waved at approaching cars on the street – was trying to catch the eye of passing motorists and direct their cars into the sparse vacant spaces awaiting, where, for a fee of course, he would watch their cars and keep them safe all day; safe from ladrões such as himself, who, if unpaid, would inflict their own damage, even if only verbally.
Had João had the perspicacity to acknowledge this pathetic creature’s very existence, he would have realised that it was the same man who had baled him up at the traffic lights on his journey to work and he would certainly have wondered how on earth this filthy creature could have possibly arrived there before him; perhaps he might even have recognised the mischievous glint in his eyes. But João, like tens of thousands of his fellow citizens, would never have noticed such a thing as this; these people were nothing more than a blight on the face of this modern city, an inconvenience, an eyesore and a menace to law abiding folk; they were beneath noticing, beneath contempt even. The sooner the Policia Militar finally did something about this scourge, the better!
João swiped his crachá across the card reader at the main door and the electronic lock opened with a metallic click. He glanced at his Rolex and realised that he had made good time on the hectic roads this morning and was a little earlier than usual. Normally, the cleaning staff had already left the building by the time he arrived, but today, he noticed with irritation, they were still there, obstructing him as he tried to navigate the corridor to his office. He never once noticed the immense sad, bright eyes in their negro faces as he aggressively forced his way past them; never once even deigning to meet their eyes with his own. Why should he? They were nothing more than mere cleaners!
Once seated in his comfortable leather swivel chair, the uncomfortable gnawing in his stomach fading like a bad dream, he turned on his P.C. and set about his important tasks of the day – contracts to be signed, meetings to be arranged with important clients and the like; the sound of other people filing into the building passing unnoticed as he engrossed himself in what he was doing and, as the day progressed, the mild discomfort of the morning was soon forgotten.
A lunch time meeting at an up-market churrascaria with a very important client – he was on the verge of signing a multi-million Real deal, taken from right under the noses of his competitors – meant that João had to leave the office around midday. As his Mercedes glided out through the portão, he again failed to notice the flanelinha on the rua, but the flanelinha noticed him and the same gleam in his eyes illuminated his cadaverous, tawny features. He made no effort to follow or interfere with João, merely watched him portentously as he drove away.
The churrascaria was in the centre of the city, at least a 30 minute drive from his office, but João made it in good time and pulled up without incident. He briefly noted the dishevelled and filthy flanelinha on the rua outside the restaurant, extorting money from the honest folk who were forced to park on the side of the rua due to the limited number of safe, sheltered parking spaces, and was thankful that the restaurant had its own parking, with a reliable valet. He got out of the car and wordlessly handed his keys over to the parking attendant, confident that his car was in good hands, or at least covered by the restaurant’s insurance, and made his way to the front door of the restaurant, his mind full of the business deal he was sure to conclude today; he was nothing if not confident of his negotiating skills; he hadn’t got where he was today for nothing.
The outside air was redolent with the smoke and aroma of the churrasco as it slowly poured forth from the short, narrow chimney at the side of the restaurant. That smell was comforting for João; it made him feel at home, for he was a Gaúcho and this smell was as intertwined with his soul as was the entire southernmost state of Brazil for him. Every Sunday, all over the whole state, the air was filled with the same smell of barbequing meat and the smoke that emanated from virtually every house, even in the vilas, where the poor exchanged their staple daily diet of arroz e feijão– rice and beans – for the luxury of the churrasco or, for those even less fortunate, the galeto – barbecued chicken.
The client, Anthony Burgland, senior sales manager for the Americas South and Central with one of the large international software companies, housed in a technology park at one of the local universities, was already waiting in the restaurant and, although an estrangeiro – foreigner – from the US, greeted João warmly in typical Brazilian fashion, grasping his hand firmly with his own whilst his other arm wrapped around him, enveloping him in a warm, brotherly embrace, which João returned equally warmly.
The restaurant was in full swing; the majority of the neat tables were already occupied by well-to-do customers, while the waiters, dressed in immaculate white shirts and borboletas pretas – black bow ties, pirouetted from table to table, sword-like espetos in hand, laden with their bounty of succulent treasures: picanha – the top piece of rump steak, a cut unique to Brazil, and highly valued for the flavour the fat imparted to the succulent meat – with its crust of creamy, toasted fat, the most prized cut of beef in the whole country, cooked to perfection; costela, with rib bones cheekily peeking out from the fat, juicy meat surrounding it; coração de galinha – small, salty chicken hearts, oozing savoury juice down the length of the espetos, only to be caught in the tray at the point of the spear; provolone, elongating and desperately trying to escape its quasi-solid, smoky cheese form as the heat from the charcoal penetrated it, and various other delicacies, all being delivered in an elegantly choreographed ballet.
The salad bar was sumptuous and luxurious, laden with all manner of different dishes; the cuisine heavily influenced by the Italian and German immigrants who had made this State their home. All in all, a meal fit for an executive such as himself and his equally worthy client João thought, as his eyes appreciatively passed over it.
As the waiter expertly sliced a piece of medium rare picanha and delivered it to his plate without one single drop of meat juice despoiling the immaculate crisp white table cloth, João fleetingly wondered how the waiter’s uniform could remain so spotless, but the thought was soon dispelled as the pair toasted their business venture with a cool and refreshing caipirinha; the limes expertly muddled with sugar and mixed with aged cachaça and crushed ice.
João was oblivious as Burgland eyed him with pupils nearly popping out of their eye sockets; João held his fork in the palm of his left hand, with the tines facing to the right which he used to stab the object of his carnal desires, but who was he to judge the manage and customs of others?
The meal continued and Anthony Burgland studiously avoided looking at the manner in which the eating utensils were utilised until the meal was concluded and business was successfully negotiated and he and João had eaten and drank their fill. With negotiations concluded, their belts pleasantly tight and their heads warm and fuzzy, João settled the bill – equivalent to about half the monthly salary of at least half of the population – with his gold credit card, he again embraced his important client and then bade him farewell. Burgland’s driver was waiting at the gates and he was soon disappearing down the rua.
João was very pleased with his business lunch; he had signed a deal worth over a million Reais and had further enhanced his ties with a very useful contact in the US as well. All in all, a very successful lunch, he mused as he waited for the valet to bring his car. When the valet arrived, João silently slipped him a ten Real note, five times what the flanelinha would have expected from a typical motorist, but perhaps only twice what he would have expected from someone driving a Mercedes.
Brazil had recently introduced a zero tolerance for alcohol and driving, which was somewhat inconvenient for most people at first, as the Brigada Militar was duty bound to enforce it, but for João it was no inconvenience at all thanks to O Jeitinho Brasileiro or The Brazilian Way, a concept that went far beyond mere bribery and corruption, but also encompassing QI – Quem Indica – who recommends you? Or, who do you know? – Known in the West as the old boy network – and for João, the list was pretty impressive indeed, for he had dined and dealt with the highest of this small city’s high society. Being an executive, and an extremely successful one at that, João was as used to O Jeitinho Brasileiro as an alcoholic is used to alcohol; second nature and not even meriting a second thought. Therefore, the drive back to the office, with his head glowing warmly, was not something that occupied even a single neuron of space in his skull as he slipped into the driver’s seat and eased the Mercedes through the portão, cursing loudly at some stupid, scruffy individual who, obviously, had no right to be in this exclusive bairro, let alone on this calçada – footpath, and who had foolishly tried to traverse the pavement in front of him. Blasting his horn furiously at this idiot and casting aspersions on the occupation of this man’s mother, he drove onto the rua with an angry screech of tyres and directed his car back towards the office.
Had he been even slightly observant, he would have recognised the scruffy individual as the mendigo from the traffic lights that morning, but why would he? Obviously, this mendigo, this ladrão, was a criminal and, therefore unworthy of attention!
The sun beat relentlessly on the roof of the Mercedes as João cruised the ruas of the city, insulated from the merciless heat and rapacious humidity of the powerful southern summer by the efficient air conditioning breathing cool, dry air into the cabin space. The brand new suspension of his executive car easily absorbing the cruel jostling of the rough cobbled small streets he was obliged to take to reach the smoother asphalted arterial roads on his way back to the office. Even when these ruas were first built, they were certainly as bone rattling as they currently were, as the very surfaces of the individual stone blocks, pieced together like an immense jigsaw puzzle, were themselves somewhat less than smooth, but time and the unrelenting onslaught of the rains and years of traffic had served to undermine the foundations and dangerous pot holes had opened up, increasing the demand for the services of suspension mechanics.
His mind was not evenly slightly perturbed by the thought of his least favourite intersection as he neared it. The pleasure and satisfaction of a lucrative and successful meeting, coupled with a pleasantly tight belly and an equally pleasantly tight brain, anaesthetised by the caipirinhas he’d consumed during lunch, driving away all negative thoughts.
As with his morning journey, the traffic lights had just turned red as he approached the dreaded intersection, but his heart was light and he was relaxed; comfortable and self satisfied. With a quick glance to the left and, seeing nothing approaching, he noted the red light, gently squeezed the accelerator and sped towards the bridge that spanned the putrid arroio dilúvio. His brain then suddenly registered something, but it was too slow and fuzzy to comprehend exactly what. Then it struck him: there was a car careening into his lane and accelerating towards him!
“Mãe de Deus!” – Mother of God! –his mind had time to think, “Aquele maluco vai me bater!!!!” – That crazy guy is going to hit me!!!!
His mind switched over to auto pilot and he wrenched the steering wheel to the right to avoid the impact. With nowhere else to go, the Mercedes was forced to smash into the ornate red granite sides of the bridge and the oncoming car ploughed into him, shunting his precious new car through the shattered wall and, as the hard stone gave way under the impact, the once gleaming Mercedes plummeted towards the raging torrent below.
Unfortunately for João, the summer had been particularly wet and the arroio dilúvio was at virtually peak capacity, with tens of thousands of litres of esgoto – sewage – and rainwater runoff, polluted with paper and plastic and who knows what, rushing through its constricted channel per second.
João didn’t even have time to think as the front heavy Mercedes plunged the five metres or so into the contaminated rancid flow below and the lights went out for him.
The executive vehicle, with its windows sealed shut, air conditioner still purring, slammed into the raging mass of water, and its front-heavy end smashed into the concrete surface of the bottom, buckling the entire front end beyond redemption before it bobbed to the surface, becoming entrapped in the rotting, relentless rush of the river. But slowly, ever so slowly, the rapacious water seeped through the rubber seals around the door and engine bay and the unstoppable leak grew, leisurely, inexorably, resolutely filling the car as it was inevitably swept away.
João was oblivious to all this; his consciousness had been extinguished by a savage connection between his face and the steering wheel; a livid bruise marring his face with a deep purple welt and a crimson tide washed down his features from a deep slash on his forehead sustained in the impact.
As the car slowly filled, becoming heavier and heavier, its buoyancy, little by little diminishing, its charge towards the great lake was slowed, but his journey to oblivion ruthlessly marched on as the Mercedes sank lower and lower in the grey water.
The cold liquid roused his senses and his eyes tried to blink open, but failed to achieve their objective, merely bridging the gap between blindness and vision, though unable to comprehend his situation: his eyelashes were constricted by a thick viscous, gluey mass and he could not make head nor tail of what little was visible through them. His nostrils detected a foul, stomach wrenching aroma, but his brain was unable to comprehend what it was. His lower body was soaked not only by the inflow of water, but also by his own pollution; between smashing into the bridge and plunging into the water, he had soiled himself in every conceivable way. In any case, instinctively, no matter what, he understood, his brain knew that he was in dire straits.
With a herculean effort, he wrenched his recalcitrant eyes open, tearing out many of his eyelashes in the process, but still his brain couldn’t fathom what it perceived. He could just discern the foam of whitewater, now splashing around the outside of the windows and some jagged red teeth above. His brain was unable to decipher that these jagged teeth were the crumbling taludes – the local red sandstone paving slabs that shored up the embankment above.
The stinking water continued rising within the interior space of the car, the surface occasionally being disrupted by massive bursting air bubbles and renting the air in the cab with putrescence. João didn’t have either the wits nor the comprehension to be scared as the water rose to chest level. It continued climbing steadily until finally it reached his mouth. He gagged and spluttered as this foetid greywater passed over his lips, and breathing became virtually impossible as his nose was now nothing more than a mass of jellied tissue and blood clots and the putrid water and detritus inevitably filled his mouth and percolated down to fill his stomach and lungs.
The angels began to gently call his name as his dazed, confused eyes slowly drifted shut and darkness began to envelop him. It was so surreal: as his consciousness slowly ebbed away, the light and life being stolen from him, paradoxically, at the same time, he was almost grasping for and welcoming the comforting blackness willingly offering his life in the process. And then indigo, blackness, nothingness, oblivion, peace!
“Puta que pariu!” The filthy words exploded from his mouth along with the filthy water and excrescence that had filled his lungs as the pain hit him square in the face at the same time as his encrusted eyes forced their way open. Gagging, gasping and spluttering, he found himself in a very uncomfortable position: the front of the car facing southwards, dragged down by the weight of the engine, and he found himself bobbing on the surface of the water that filled the cab, not being restrained by the seatbelt which he had always eschewed, the lack of which being responsible for the cuts and contusions on his face. João felt, but couldn’t see the pair of grimy hands, caked with dirt and filth, ragged nails topping the end of the stubby fingers, pulling at him, clawing at him, dragging and heaving him through the grey water and out of the now shattered window.
The gushing water had helped to unglue his eyes, but nonetheless they were still filled with a blood-red haze of pain and dark crimson, but, even so, behind the brilliant glare of sunshine, João could just about discern a hideous, corpse-like face smiling benevolently at him.
His car had become lodged behind a fallen tree which had snagged itself in the river and someone was pulling at him, obviously trying to rob him whilst he was incapable of defending himself. The face was repugnant! Lank and greasy black hair framed the skull-like face, the colour of age-darkened bone; the open maw filled with blackened, broken teeth and, Meu Deus, it was smiling almost serenely at him. A wave of repulsion washed over him until his befuddled brain finally managed to take in the situation and then pure, unadulterated anger flooded through him. What right did such a worthless excuse of a human being have of laying a hand on him, João Telles? Then, understanding finally smashed into him like a punch to the solar plexus: this repellent individual was actually saving his life, not robbing him and this realisation went against everything that João Telles knew about life!
The mendigo finally managed to drag João free from the car and then had the arduous task of trying to get him to the safety of the bank. Now, this was no easy task as the Mercedes was wedged in the middle of the heaving river and the flow of water was not so much a flow as a seething torrent and João, after many years of good living, was somewhat portly, but finally the mendigo breathlessly succeeded in pulling him up onto the bank of red sandstone slabs about fifty metres downstream of the car.
Both the filthy mendigo and João were saturated, filthy and exhausted after this was accomplished and it took them both many minutes to catch their breaths. João was the first to try and speak, but all that came out of his mouth were incoherent phrases: half formed thanks and, conversely, at the same time, recriminations and vicious curses. The mendigo put a gnarled and filthy finger to his cracked and scabbed lips as if to silence such nonsense, and then smiled at João in way that João had never experienced in his life. The closest he could come to describing it later was that it was a benevolent, almost angelic smile.
The erstwhile guardian angel uttered just one simple phrase with a tranquillity that João had also never previously experienced:
“Nunca julgue um livro por sua capa, senhor,” then smiled a gappy, toothless, black stumped grin, turned and scrambled up the crumbling bank of the foetid arroio dilúvio, not once looking back as the water streamed forth from his rag-tag assortment of torn and mismatched ill-fitting clothing, and disappeared from the life of João Telles, content in the knowledge that his work was finally done with this now Earth-bound fallen angel who, as punishment for his sins, had been transformed into an Earthly mortal, forever bereft of the knowledge that he too had once soared the heavenly heights alongside his brethren.