Cracolándia

Chris Feliciano Arnold

Remember that boy who juggled côcos in the centro, the one who killed his sister and her man? No matter what the cops said, I always believed he was innocent. You see, I watched those kids grow up. Othoniel de Fogo, his big sister Arminda, their best friend Edvaldo. Those three were a pázhino—together, noon or night.

For years we all lived on the seventh floor of a building in the Lower City, one of those old stacks of mismatched brick. This was the start of the ’80s, back when city hall was cleansing the city of malqueridos—the unwanted. No steady work? Keep clear of the police. I spent most days in the stairwell with my guitar, chomping cane, plucking shitty renditions of Gilberto Gil numbers. A nice breeze, an echo to smooth out my voice. Whenever I heard little sandals flapping on the steps, I knew it was Othoniel and Arminda and Edvaldo, headed this way or that.

Back then Bahia was overrun with meninos, begging like dogs, sniffing glue until they were still as statues. But those three wanted to make their mothers proud, so when the city tried to lure kids to school with free biscuits and honey, they started going, at least for the morning hours. They caught free rides on the back of the 161 bus. You’d see them clinging white-knuckled to the bumper, coughing on exhaust as the bus chugged up the hillside. They passed the Elevador Lacerda, its twin cars lowering turistas from the overlook to the waterfront. They passed the solemn morning church services, capoeira groups stretching in the central plaza, private school kids meandering with yogurt cups in hand. And when at last the bus lumbered past the schoolyard, Edvaldo counted—Um . . . Dois . . . Três!—and they leapt onto the street just in time for morning flag.

Except one day, when Othoniel jumped, Edvaldo and Arminda stayed put, waving as the bus turned the corner. Othoniel sulked back to the seventh floor, eyes pooling when he saw me in the stairwell. He sat down and let it all out, bottom lip quivering. I said don’t worry, meu mano, there are only so many places they could be. And it was true. City hall was ridding the historic center of crackheads and beggars. Rehabilitation, they called it. Squads swept up the addicts and herded stray kids into a few secluded alleys in the Lower City. Long as they weren’t smoking or sniffing in the wide open, all was good. Cracolándia wouldn’t fade completely, but at least the police had turned down the volume. There were only a few blocks left where meninos could put their hands out for change without taking lumps from the cops.

Plenty of troublemakers lingered down at that little beach between the piers, swimming and playing sloppy futebol. Othoniel found Arminda and Edvaldo there lounging in the shade of the culvert that drains into the bay. Edvaldo’s small radio filled the tunnel with Jorge Ben, hypnotic drums pulsing on the concrete. Farther down the tunnel, kids huddled in the dark, eyes like rubies.

Vai tomar no cu! Othoniel said.

Relax, Edvaldo said, passing a joint to Othoniel. He and Arminda sat with the checkerboard they’d borrowed from Pepe the barber. Arminda had taken off everything but her intimas, so you bet she was getting plenty of stares from doidos on the beach. Edvaldo was showing off his chest hairs, squaring his jaw like he did when he wanted to look hard-ass.

Why are you guys hiding? Othoniel asked.

The sand is too hot, Arminda said.

We found you some côcos, Edvaldo said. He tossed three coconuts to Othoniel who examined their weight and balance. This was in the early days of his coconut juggling, but already he was particular. Arminda reached across the checkerboard, twirled Edvaldo’s hairs in her fingertips.

He stuck those on with glue, Othoniel said.

Don’t be jealous, Edvaldo said. Yours will grow in someday.

Othoniel stepped into the sun, straddled the stream of muck, and tossed his côcos overhead, a simple warm-up routine. Edvaldo traced his fingers along Arminda’s stomach, examining the white patches on her black skin, leftover from that fungus that was going around the Lower City in those days. Othoniel had the same marks under his shirt.

Put your clothes back on, Othoniel told his sister.

Fica-frio! Edvaldo said. He and Arminda were three years older, and lately, they lorded that over him. But at the end of the day, when they counted money, it was Othoniel with the most cruzeiros. He knew someday his côcos would earn him enough for a dozen radios. That’s what I remember most about Othoniel. He had a plan, unlike most of the cheira-colas you see around here. So he ignored Edvaldo and practiced, côcos coarse on his palms, probably daydreaming of his coconut stand. He talked about that côco stand to anyone who’d listen. He planned to sell agua de côco and gelado and cerveja—all at fair prices—Jorge Ben jamming from his stereo so customers would hang around. He would keep his machete clean and sharp, because turistas like clean, and with his glinting blade hack a star-shaped opening at the top of each côco, because everybody knows turistas like a star-shaped cap on their drink.

Which is why the story we heard later doesn’t make any sense. The cops wanted us to believe Othoniel was angry, jealous, even. But that kid was a softie. Everyone in the building knew the story of his tapeworm pills, how he gave one of his doses to each child on the seventh floor. We heard his mother swat him raw when she found out. That medicine was for him alone. It was supposed to last a week.

You see, there are those who take, and those who give, and Othoniel was not a taker. He wanted that côco stand to give jobs to Edvaldo and Arminda. Real jobs that wouldn’t get them killed. Like every other menino in our building, Othoniel had a father who was gone—a crackhead or a fisherman dead at sea. I don’t remember which, but in the long run, it’s all the same, no? Othoniel even offered me a gig at his imaginary stand. There’d be plenty of chicks, he said. A girl for him, too; a girl with a voice. She’d sing while they watched the sun plummet into the bay, ships like fireflies on the water. She would deliver him a baby.

See what this kid would dream up? You could write a song about it. Believe me, I’ve tried.

I knew a thing or two about the police, how they operated. Not so many years ago I was a troublemaker with a head full of glue, but a month in detention scared me clean. These days I lived for music, playing gigs in the historic center. My friends had all moved near the university to join reggae-samba bands, or Afro-blocs, or Axé groups, playing free shows for the college kids. They called it a movement; I called it starving. City hall always got what it wanted, and city hall said the future was in the historic center.

Gringos swarmed the place like ants to melting candy. They gorged themselves on shrimp dumplings and bobó, snapped photos of the churches and the cobblestone streets, the dancers and the drum circles, the soldiers with machine guns. They took samba lessons and shelled out good money to have their hair twisted into dreadlocks. They asked for weed with guidebook Portuguese, gesturing, a joint to the lips.

I was getting more gigs, but I left the Tropicalismo in the stairwell. It’d been fifteen years since Veloso and Os Mutantes, but the authorities still weren’t fond of those songs. Turistas want samba, they said, melodic, Carioca style. Turistas want safe. They like Bahian rhythms in small doses, but at the end of the day, they prefer songs they know—The Beatles, Michael Jackson, Simon and Garfunkel, et cetera. So I played “The Sound of Silence” and watched the wallets open. My old friends would stare like I was a monkey playing the organ.

Your music is only one color, they would say. Come jam with us.

I would tell them maybe next week.

You need to feel drums, they would say. You’re losing your negritude—your Africanness.

Next week, I would tell them. And can you blame me? I got no problem with Candomblé, with Yoruba dancing, but if negritude meant being broke, then yes, I was losing it.

You couldn’t argue with U.S. dollars. The new money and security patrols were elbowing Cracolándia out of the historic center. The place had been a flea market of addicts and dealers, but now the plazas were stages for capoeira troops in blue and yellow uniforms, flinging themselves to beating drums. Leave the Candomblé out of it, the city said. People are here for the acrobatics. Painters lined the sidewalks, filling canvases with churches and cobblestone streets, bright oils and pastels. If you want to paint abstracts, take it to the Universidade, the city said. In the evenings turistas crowded the overlook to watch the sunset light the bay on fire. These were the hours when Edvaldo and Arminda would sit red-eyed in the stairwells, hands out, practicing their broken English phrases. Can you please have me? I am very honey! Othoniel would weave through the maze of white legs, eyes keen for police eager to pinch him like a roach.

Tonight Othoniel filled his lungs and shouted: Coconut Juggling, the Most Dramatic in Bahia! Soon he had the attention of a small crowd. He was going on thirteen, but his baby face looked harmless, and he scrubbed his clothes clean every week. His routine began with a brief pause for suspense. Then he tossed his côcos skyward, dancing quick steps while they rose and returned to his hands, as if on wires, Othoniel spinning in circles—one, two, three times—enough to make you dizzy just watching. He closed his eyes, juggled two côcos with one hand, holding the third one in the other, kissing it like a breast. At the sound of applause he opened his eyes, and the côcos fell, obedient, into his arms. Bowing deeply, he held out his hand for tips.

Obrigado! the gringos said, Portuguese like marbles in their mouths. Drunk already, stinking of cachaça, they surrendered their loose change. A policeman guarding one of the new bank machines watched carefully, streetlamp glinting on his badge. He hustled over to break up the crowd.

Vá embora! he told Othoniel, hand on his baton. You want money? Learn capoeira. Othoniel retreated to a dumpling stand across the street where a lady sat like a plump red flower, seasoning her frying pan. Crouched under her table, he breathed in the sweet spices while she tried to shoo him away. The guard crossed toward them. Othoniel dashed up the street, but instead of chasing him, the guard paid for a dumpling and hurried back to his station, licking dendé oil from his fingertips.

Back on the stairwell, Othoniel found Edvaldo up to one of his old tricks, zigzagging his eyes, feeling his way along the walls as if he were blind. That kid used to be pretty convincing. Playing guitar, I’d watch Arminda lead Edvaldo around by the shoulder, asking help, please, help. Gringos would shell out money like he was their own son. But lately it wasn’t fooling anyone. Folks were still willing to give Arminda money just to see that pretty smile, but Edvaldo had grown into that hard-ass he’d always planned on being. Blind or not, he scared the turistas.

That night the seventh floor fell asleep to the sound of Edvaldo’s mother screaming like a cat, breaking glass, throwing pans—a crazy jazz that woke us all. Lately, she’d outfitted Edvaldo in Mickey Mouse T-shirts to make him seem younger, in baggy shirts to make him look hungrier, but it was no use. Edvaldo could no longer beg enough money to help her, and the cops would take any reason to haul a kid his age to detention. That’s how it goes in Cracolándia. When you’re young, the money comes easy, and then one day in the mirror you see stones in your eyes, and turistas huddle until you pass.

Edvaldo’s time had come. We heard him escape down the stairwell, his voice on the street below.

Hey, he shouted. Hey! Peering out our windows, we rubbed our eyes. On the corner Edvaldo stood shirtless, waving. That’s it for me! he called out, almost singing. Agora eu só com Deus!

And that’s how Edvaldo ended up alone with God. Arminda and Othoniel kept on with school where the city was making a big push to teach the children some English. I heard them every afternoon in the stairwell practicing phrases like scales. Good morning, welcome to Bahia. Good afternoon, we are very proud of our historic district. Good evening, thank you for visiting Bahia. Weekends, they roamed the Lower City with Edvaldo.

You’ve never eaten like this before, Edvaldo told them one night, waiting patiently in the alleyway behind the Chinese restaurant. When the evening’s trash came out, they filled their shirts like baskets: beef, chicken, endless rice. Edvaldo had learned a few new tricks on the street. He snatched fresh shirts and shorts from lines all across the city and never wore the same thing twice. For money, he guarded parked cars or washed windows or hunted alley rats, and now he had enough cash that each of them could roll joints of their own. They listened to Jorge Ben, laughing, smoking, Edvaldo with his arm around Arminda.

You remember that one-legged malquerido? Edvaldo said. The one who sold the painted eggs? We saw the justiceiros snatch him up in a sedan, a black one. We found him with his nose knifed off. They carved that kid like soapstone.

Arminda listened as if every word were gold.

That’s an old story, Othoniel said. None of that stuff is true.

You think you know? Edvaldo said. I’ll show you something.

They walked along Avenida São Carlos, lighthouse on the horizon. He led them down a rocky slope to the underside of the pier. The lighthouse flared on the shallow water, and the water again fell dark. Right here, Edvaldo said, edging closer. Waves lapped the shore. The lighthouse swept over the body of a young man, pale and leaking like a rotten fish, his mouth brimming with rocks.

I guess he didn’t sink like he was supposed to, Edvaldo said.

You weren’t scared? Arminda asked.

Cops don’t scare me.

That night, walking home, Othoniel warned Arminda: You better tell him to be careful. You think he’s getting all that money washing cars? É dinheiro sujo.

He’s a man now, Arminda said. He can take care of himself.

 

Maybe if I’d heard about all this earlier, I could’ve done something to help, but I didn’t find out until a week or so later. Othoniel was walking around the seventh floor like he’d seen his own ghost. I sat him down on the stairwell. What’s wrong, meu mano? Turns out maybe Edvaldo should have kept his mouth shut about that body. He had been sleeping under a palm leaf when the justiceiros dragged him to the detention hall for a night of the parrot’s perch. They strung the poor kid up by his legs, poured pine cleaner down his nose and throat. After that, a week in the cells with the older boys. The guards warned him: next time, he’d be named manager of the detention hall—beat the other children or be beaten by the guards. Practically a death sentence. When a manager was set back on the street, he had to keep his ass against the wall.

Come home and stay with us, Othoniel said.

I don’t need my mother anymore, Edvaldo said. There’s no going back.

That night Othoniel woke to familiar voices in the hallway. Maybe Edvaldo had changed his mind? But when Othoniel felt the empty sheets beside him, when he looked out the window and saw two figures slip into the shadows, he knew it was Arminda—gone.

By then I finally had a steady gig at the café near the Igreja de São Cristobal. Tuesday nights, three hours worth of Gata da Ipanema, Aguas de Março, et cetera. Decent pay, cold beer, all the feijouda I could eat. The club owner even put my name on the chalkboard in front of the café. I wasn’t famous, but I wasn’t a nobody anymore. Sure, my friends who played Axé music would call me a counterfeit, but did they have white girls taking their pictures, kissing their cheeks, touching their hair?

As for Othoniel, without his pázhino, he wandered the streets alone. His côco routine was resembling a magic show. He’d added a fourth côco, balanced on his head like a stone until the perfect moment when he tipped his chin forward and set it into motion with the others, tossing them higher than the streetlamps. I never saw him drop a single one. The act had become an attraction in the centro. Shopkeepers paid him a few cruzeiros to perform in front of their storefronts. Turistas begged Othoniel for a second act, a third. His goofy smile won their applause, but when the show was over, grief slipped onto his face again.

One rainy night, when the café was empty, he passed by and told me about Arminda. She worked in the zona now, standing on a corner so dark the taxis wouldn’t even stop. With Edvaldo as her macho, she turned tricks for pay or trade. After weeks of searching, Othoniel found them squatting behind a Coca-Cola billboard, palm leaf beds, a coffee can fire. Othoniel took a deep breath; he could barely finish the story.

Arminda looked empty as a ghost. Nobody tells us what to do here, she told him. Edvaldo passed her a light bulb with pedra glowing hot inside. She lit it herself, kissed the glass, sucking thin curls of smoke.

Mae está preocupada, Othoniel said. And it was true—their mother was losing her mind. I’d find her walking the stairwell at night, dressed in white, lighting candles for the orixás, hoping they would show Arminda the way home.

Tell your mother this is love, Edvaldo said. You can’t change love.

And yes, Othoniel confessed to me that in that moment, he wanted Edvaldo dead. But what he wanted more was a way to explain to Arminda that this wasn’t love, that it never had been. He remembered when they were younger still, when the police had stopped the three of them on the walk home from school. The guards hauled them into an alley, pushed Othoniel and Edvaldo face against the wall. They made Arminda take off her clothes and dance. Edvaldo stood quiet, as if it were only a storm passing overhead, while the cops unbuckled their pants. It was Othoniel who charged the police, punching, not caring whether they strung him up on the parrot’s perch or filled his mouth with rocks (his sister was sobbing now) while Edvaldo stared at his feet. The cops buckled their belts and sent Othoniel to the concrete with their batons. You’re going to have big nuts when you grow up, they told him.

But that afternoon behind the billboard, watching Arminda and Edvaldo sift through trash for leftover glue bottles, Othoniel didn’t feel brave at all. When at last Arminda found a final sniff of cheira, she looked up with eyes of glass.

If we go home, will you teach us how to juggle? she said, laughing. Please, little brother?

Othoniel reached into his pocket and counted out several bills. If they had a little money, maybe Edvaldo wouldn’t put Arminda to work that night.

Edvaldo snatched the money, Sair daqui, viado! That word like a hot brand—faggot. And you know how rumors take hold in Cracolándia. Before long, even the snottiest meninos in the Lower City treated Othoniel de Fogo like a bitch.

So now it was Othoniel alone with God, walking to school alone each morning, juggling his côcos in the centro every afternoon. Some nights he counted sixty or seventy cruzeiros into his mother’s hand. I was hardly ever down in the Lower City in those days, or maybe I could have taken the kid aside, told him he should be proud. Whenever I saw Senhora da Foga catching her breath in the stairwell, she said the same thing: Meu filho, meu Othoniel, gracias a Deus.

Every night, the same routine. Othoniel, trudging up to the seventh floor, côcos cradled in his arm. Inside the apartment, his mother sleeptalking, a conversation someplace far away. Othoniel stacks coins carefully in the sugar tin. He empties the buckets of rain leaked from the roof, extinguishes the bedside candles with wet fingertips. He unrolls his bed, closes his eyes, but he cannot fall asleep for the patter of drops in the buckets, quickening as the rain keeps coming.

 

It was just after Easter when Arminda came slouching into the centro to call on Othoniel for a favor. She summoned him into a dim alleyway, lip split like a hooked worm.

Help me, brother.

She lifted her shirt. At first he noticed only those old white patches of skin on her stomach. He remembered when their mother skipped a week of meals to afford the cream to kill that fungus. If it spread to their faces, it would forever mark them as malqueridos. At last the pano branco receded, except for two matching white spots on each of their bellies. But tonight Othoniel saw something else—Arminda’s belly taut with pregnancy.

You have to come home, he said.

The baby is sick already, Othoniel. I can feel it.

Mae will know a remedy.

There’s only one way, Arminda said. Leaning against the wet brick wall, eyes putty-gray, she told him what to do. It will be easy, brother. Just one kick. Como um futebol.

She lifted her shirt higher, braced herself. Distant drums echoed in the alleyways.

The police would say that Othoniel delivered a fatal blow. Madness, they said, his own sister, meu deus. They said he killed Edvaldo in the zona, a machete in the dark. Nobody found the weapon, so the old song goes. Bodies always vanish around here.

But that story can’t be true. I saw with my own eyes what became of Edvaldo.

 

It was a Tuesday evening, just after my big move to the Upper City. After years of playing guitar in centro, I’d finally earned enough for a better place. The month of April had felt like one long night of rain, sidewalks and cafés empty, owners sending me home early. At sunset I tuned my guitar on the overlook. Gringos snapped photos of boats twinkling across the water below. The police were clearing cheira-colas from the guard rail, slinging the boys over their shoulders, bottles still glued to their little hands. Another storm was coming. I wasn’t expecting many customers, but I went to the café and dove into my set anyway.

Just after dark, three pretty gringas arrived, drizzle dampening their hair while they sipped beer, listening to my songs. After enough years of performing, you get to where the music is like breathing, where you can sit back and take in the rhythms of the street. Two cops stood in the shadows, cigarette tips glowing orange. They watched a pair of malqueridos emerge from the alleyways, noses running. The boys trailed after an old couple, gesturing hand to mouth, coaxing them to the corner market for cans of milk. By the start of my next song the kids had scurried down the alleyway to trade the milk for pedra. All the while, Othoniel leaned against the wall, eyes on the pretty gringas, waiting for a moment between songs to demonstrate his routine. Before long Edvaldo emerged from the shadows, swaggering, eyes like cherries.

Viado, he said, spitting at Othoniel’s feet.

Yellow light from the church wavered in puddles on the cobblestone. Edvaldo approached the table of girls. Michael Jackson, he said, trying his best Moonwalk, shirt hanging from his collarbone. The gringas laughed, but handed over no money. More meninos emerged from the alleyways, shirts stiff with glue. The police scattered them into the side streets. Edvaldo put his arm around the prettiest girl’s shoulder to prove he was welcome company. Othoniel raised his côcos to remind the cops he was no simple beggar. I paused for a sip of beer and started into “The Sound of Silence.” Othoniel stepped to the table and began his routine. Soon the girls reached for their cameras. Edvaldo smirked, ran his fingertips through the prettiest girl’s hair while Othoniel juggled his côcos one-handed, perfectly.

Como vai, viado? Edvaldo called out, but like a true performer, Othoniel would not be distracted. The côcos leapt and fell. The girls looked on, dazzled, yet Othoniel had not even reached his grand finale. He closed his eyes, tossing blind. The gringas ooohed and aaahed. Edvaldo reached for one of the girls’ earrings, hands like blackbirds. I played on, strumming, singing. Over the years I’ve seen purses, watches, even dogs stolen from under their owners’ eyes. If I stopped my music to ward off every thief, I’d never finish a song.

But when Othoniel opened his eyes and saw Edvaldo, he warned the girl in English—Hey baby! His côcos hit the table like a cymbal crash, scattering glasses and plates. The police came to attention. Othoniel gathered his côcos, drying them with his shirt sleeves, shame burning his cheeks. The girls brushed ice from their blouses. Before Othoniel could apologize, the police seized him by the neck, batons in hand. Edvaldo slunk away with the earrings, looking thin enough to slip through cracks in the cobblestone.

What I did next returns to me on any rainy night. I quit my song mid-verse and called into the microphone: Thief! The gringa touched her naked ears. That way! I called out, pointing after Edvaldo as if I knew the path to justice. The police threw Othoniel to the ground and gave chase. By the time they returned, dragging Edvaldo into their sedan, Othoniel had fled into the shadows.

Can I be forgiven for begging those girls to stick around for one more number—“Hotel California,” “Good Vibrations”—any song they pleased? Can I be blamed for thinking that I’d saved Othoniel’s skin, that in sending the guards after Edvaldo, I was trading his life for a better one?

There’s wishful thinking, and then there’s foolishness. Within a week, Othoniel went missing, and the police started singing their tune about the boy who killed his sister and her man. But there were no trials, no special detentions. Othoniel was dropped into the waters like all the rest.

Some things cannot be set to music. Arminda bracing herself, palms flat against the wet wall, turning away her pretty face as if her brother might strike her there instead. Othoniel, eyes closed, a prayer for this unborn child. What follows is swift, like a door kicked closed. Now he runs, sandals flapping on the side streets; his sister’s moans, how they tremble like strings.

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