The Green Ball
In this story by Brazil’s nominee for the Nobel Prize, a young girl will let nothing stop her from attending Carnival, not even her dying father.
The blue-and-white group of revelers paraded with its samba dancers dressed à la Louis XV and its flag bearer with her silver wig in the shape of a pyramid, stray curls dangling across her forehead, the train of her satin dress getting dirty as it dragged across the asphalt. The bass drummer took a deep bow to the two women leaning out the window and continued marching with tricorne hat, his sweat-soaked cape lifting from the ground as he twirled.
“He thought you were cute,” said the young girl, turning to the woman, who was still clapping. “He did his salute in your direction—oooOOOOOooh. . . .”
The black woman chuckled.
“My man is a thousand times better looking, at least in my opinion. And he ought to be arriving any minute—he said he’d pick me up at ten. If I’m late, he starts getting hammered and then there’s no going anywhere.”
The younger girl took the woman by the arm, tugging her toward the vanity. The room had been turned upside-down, as if a thief had entered and tossed boxes and drawers everywhere.
“I’m so late, Lu! This costume is killer . . . I know it’s late, but I need you to help me a bit!”
“You didn’t finish yet?”
Taking a seat on the bed, the young girl spread the green miniskirt across her lap. She wore a bikini and knit socks of the same color.
“Finish? There’s still all this to go, just look . . . just look what I got myself into playing Pierrette to his Pierrot . . .”
The black woman came closer, using her hands to smooth out her shiny silk camisole. Pinned to her hair, she wore a red tissue-paper chrysanthemum. She sat down next to the girl.
“Raimundo’s going to be here any minute. He turns into a bear if I’m late. We’re going to see the Carnaval paraders, I want to see them all.”
“There’s time for that, calm down,” the girl cut her short.
She swept to the side the hair that had fallen in her eyes. She set back up the lamp that had tipped over on the side table. “I don’t know how it got to be so late.”
“I can’t miss the parade, ok, Tatisa? Anything but that.”
“Who said you’re going to miss anything?”
The woman dipped her finger in the glue jar and delicately spread it on the sequins scattered in the tiny glass dish. Then, she raised her finger to the miniskirt and fastened the sequins to it in a sort of chaotic constellation. She retrieved a sequin that had fallen and dipped it in the glue, then fastened it to the miniskirt with tiny circular movements.
“But if we still need to fasten the sequins on the whole skirt . . .”
“Have you already begun with the complaining? I thought I’d have enough time and now I can’t leave it half-finished—is that so hard to understand? With you helping me, it’ll be done in a second. Look! How’s my makeup? You didn’t say anything, you witch. Well, what do you think?”
“Looking good, Tatisa. With hair like that you look like an artichoke, so unique. What I’m not wild about is this green nail polish—it’s so weird!”
In a brusque gesture, the girl threw her head back and took a deep breath. She wiped the back of her hand over her clammy face.
“It’s the nails that increase your score, silly. It’s a green ball—the costumes have to be green, everything green. But don’t sit there staring at me, let’s go, don’t stop, you can talk, but keep working. There’s still more than half left, Lu!”
“I don’t have my glasses. I can’t see right without my glasses.”
“It’s fine,” the girl said, cleaning the extra glue that slid down her finger with the bedsheet. “Stick them on there any way you can—nobody there will notice a thing, it’s going to be packed to the gills. What’s driving me crazy is this heat, I can’t stand it anymore. I feel like I’m melting, don’t you? It’s brutal!”
The woman tried to catch the chrysanthemum that had fallen down her neck. Her expression became serious and she lowered her voice.
“I went in there.”
A car passed on the street, honking frenetically. Boys began singing at the top of their lungs, the beat banged out on a pan: The king’s crown is neither silver nor gold . . .
“It’s like I’m in an oven,” the girl moaned, flaring her nostrils with their pores full of sweat. “Had I known, I’d have come up with a lighter costume than this.”
“Lighter than this? You’re almost naked, Tatisa. I used to take my sandals and that was it, because if the least bit of leg shows, Raimundo starts picking fights over nothing. Imagine with you, then . . .”
With the tip of her nail, Tatista plucked a sequin that had stuck amid the lace of her tights. She dropped it amid the tiny constellation she’d been shaping near the hem of the miniskirt and then began to pensively scrape a half-dry drop of glue that had fallen on her knee. Her gaze passed over various items without fixing on any of them. Her voice was serious.
“You think so, Lu?”
“That he’s dying . . .”
“Oh, he sure is. I know how to recognize it. I’ve already watched a ton of people die, I know what it looks like. He won’t make it through the night.”
“But you were already wrong once, remember? You said he was going to die, that he was on his last . . . and the next morning he was glowing and asking for a glass of milk.”
“Glowing?” the maid said, surprised. She smacked her lips with their violet-red lipstick. “And also, no way I said he was going to die, I said he was in bad shape is what I said. But today’s different, Tatisa. I could see it from the door, I didn’t even need to get close to tell he was dying.”
“But he was sleeping so peacefully when I went in there, Lu.”
“That’s not sleeping. That’s something else.”
Throwing aside the miniskirt spread across her lap, the girl stood up. She went over to the table, grabbed a bottle of whiskey, and began looking for a glass amid the chaos of perfume bottles and boxes.
Throwing aside the miniskirt spread across her lap, the girl stood up. She went over to the table, grabbed a bottle of whiskey, and began looking for a glass amid the chaos of perfume bottles and boxes. She found it beneath a powder puff. She blew the powder from the bottom and drank a few large gulps, clenching her jaw. She opened her mouth to take a deep breath and let go an aaah. She turned to the black woman.
“I drank a lot of beer already. If I mix, I get nauseous.”
The girl poured more whiskey into the glass.
“My makeup isn’t melting, is it? Look and see if the green around my eyes didn’t smear . . . I’ve never sweat so much in my life, I can feel my blood boiling.”
“You’re drinking too much. And with all this last-minute rush . . . I can’t understand either why you decided to make this sequined miniskirt, the sequins will fall off with all those people packed in together. And the worst is that I can’t do a nice job thinking about Raimundo down there waiting on the corner . . .”
“You’re a real pain, aren’t you, Lu? I’ve told you the same thing a thousand times, yadda-yadda-yadda. Can’t this guy wait a bit?”
No response. With a look of ecstasy, the woman listened to the music of the samba block that could be heard in the distance. She sang to herself: You ended up in tears . . . all in tears . . .
“Last Carnaval, I was part of the Block of Misfits and had a grand ole time. My shoes even came apart I danced so much.”
“And I was lying in bed, burning with a fever, remember? This year, I want to really go wild.”
“And what about your father?”
Slowly, the young girl wiped her fingertips, white with glue, on the bedsheet. She took another swig of whiskey, then went back to dipping her finger in the jar of glue.
“You want me to stay at home crying, is that what you want? To cover my forehead with ashes and kneel down in prayer, isn’t that what you want?” She stared at her fingertips covered in sequins. She went on using a thimble as she worked on the miniskirt. “What can I do? I’m not God, am I? So? If he’s gotten worse, how am I to blame?”
“I’m not saying you’re to blame, Tatisa. I don’t have anything to do with it—he’s your father, not mine. Do whatever you want.”
“But you started saying he was dying . . .”
“Because he is.”
“He’s doing no such thing! I also snuck a peek, he’s sleeping, no one dies looking the way he does.”
“So he’s not, then.”
The young girl went to the window and offered her gaze up to the purple sky. On the sidewalk, a group of boys played with plastic squirt guns shaped like bananas, squirting water in each other’s faces. They interrupted their game to hoot at a man who passed by in women’s clothing, almost tripping in enormous high heels.
“Gorgeous, come here, gorgeous!” yelled the oldest boy, running after the man. The girl watched the scene unfold with indifference.
She tugged at the tights stuck in the elastic bands of her bikini.
“I’m sweating like a horse. I swear, if I hadn’t done my makeup, I’d hop in the shower. So stupid to put my makeup on first.”
“And I’m so thirsty I can’t stand it anymore,” the maid grumbled, rolling up the sleeves of her camisole. “Ah, an ice-cold beer. How I love me a beer. Raimundo prefers cachaça. Last year, he got piss-drunk all three days. I went to the parade alone. There was one float, more beautiful than all the others, it was supposed to represent the sea. You just had to see all those mermaids covered in pearls. There were fishermen, pirates, octopus, you name it! And way up on top, inside a shell that opened and closed shut, the Sea Queen covered in jewels.”
“You’ve been wrong before,” the girl butted in. “He can’t be dying, he can’t. I was there, too, before you went in, he was sleeping so peacefully. And earlier today, he even recognized me, just staring at me, staring at me, and then he smiled. ‘You all right, Daddy?’ I asked him and he didn’t respond, but I could tell he understood perfectly what I said.”
“He was acting strong, the poor man.”
“What do you mean, acting strong?”
“He knows you have your ball, he didn’t want to interfere.”
“Ugh, it’s so hard to talk to ignorant people,” the young girl exploded, taking the clothes that were piled up on the bed and throwing them to the floor. She inspected the pockets of a pair of pants. “Did you take my cigarettes?”
“I have my own brand, I don’t need yours.”
“Listen, Luzinha, listen,” the girl began, fixing the flower in the woman’s tight curls. “I’m not making things up, I’m sure he recognized me earlier today. I think he must have felt some sort of pain because a tear went streaming down the side of his face that’s paralyzed. I never saw him cry on that side, never. He only cried on the one side, his tear was so dark . . .”
“He was saying goodbye.”
“There you go again—shit! Stop calling crows, it looks like you even want it to happen today. Why do you have to say it over and over? Why?”
“You’re asking me, but you don’t really want me to respond. I won’t lie, Tatisa.”
The girl peeked below the bed. She grabbed a shoe. She crouched down further, grazing her green hair on the floor. She stood up, looked around. Then she kneeled slowly before the black woman. She grabbed the jar of glue.
“What if you popped in there quickly to have a look?”
“Do you want me to finish this or not?” the woman moaned in exasperation, opening and closing her fingers, dry with glue. “Raimundo hates waiting—today I’ll get it yet!”
The girl stood up. She muttered something, pacing quickly with the gait of a beast in a cage. She kicked aside a shoe that was in her way.
“That pathetic doctor. It’s all that fruit’s fault. I even told him we couldn’t keep Daddy here at home, I said I didn’t know how to take care of a sick person, I don’t have the touch, I can’t do it. If you were a good person, you’d help me out, Lu, but you’re nothing more than a selfish pain in the rear who doesn’t want to hear nothing about nothing. You’re so selfish!”
“But Tatisa, he’s not my father. I don’t have anything to do with this. And what do you mean, young lady? I help quite a bit. All these months, who’s been shouldering it all? I don’t complain because he’s such a good man, the poor thing. But Lord have mercy, not today. I’m already doing more than my share with my butt sitting here when I should be out in the street.”
With a tired gesture, the girl opened the closet door. Looked in the mirror. Pinched her waist.
“I got fatter, Lu.”
“You, fat? But you’re all bone, girl! Your boyfriend’s got nowhere to grab hold of. Or does he?” She made a lewd gesture with her thighs and laughed. The girl’s eyes opened wide:
“Lu, Lu, for the love of God, hurry up, he’ll be here to pick me up at midnight. He had a green Pierrot outfit made.”
“I once went dressed as a Pierrot, too. A looong time ago.”
“He’s coming in a Typhoon. Fancy, don’t you think?”
“It’s a really cool car, with red paint. But don’t sit there staring at me, hurry, Lu, can’t you see . . .” She rubbed her neck anxiously with her hand. “Lu, Lu, why didn’t he stay at the hospital? He was doing so well there . . .”
“Public hospitals are like that, Tatisa. They can’t spend their whole lives with a sick patient who doesn’t get better. There are even people lined up on the sidewalks.”
“It’s been months I’ve been thinking about this ball. He’s lived sixty-six years. Can’t he hold out just one more day?”
The black woman shook the skirt, looked at it from a distance. She spread it once again over her lap and leaned over the dish full of sequins.
“Only a little strip left.”
“And a whole year later . . .”
“Come help me, Tatisa. The two of us together, it’ll be done in a second.”
The two of them worked at a feverish pace, their hands going between the glue jar and the dish, the dish and the skirt curved like a green wing, heavy beneath the weight of so many sequins.
“Today, Raimundo is going to kill me,” the woman began again, gluing the sequins wherever they happened to fall. She wiped her damp forehead with the back of her hand. Then she stopped with her hand in midair. “Didn’t you hear?”
The girl took a moment to reply.
“I thought I heard a moan.” She cast her gaze to the floor. “It came from outside.”
They leaned their heads together beneath the yellow glow of the lamp.
“Listen, Lu, if you could stay today, just today . . .” the girl began in a gentle tone. But then she got to the point. “I’d give you my white dress—the white one, you know which one I’m talking about? And the shoes, they’re still new, you know they’re still new. You can go out tomorrow night, you can go out every night, but for the love of God, Lu, stay here tonight.”
The maid straightened up into a triumphant pose.
“It took some time, Tatisa, took some time. I’ve been waiting for it from the very beginning. But today, no way—not even if you killed me would I stay late.” The chrysanthemum fell as she shook her head. She fastened it in place again with a pin she opened with her teeth. “And lose this parade? Never! I’ve already done enough,” she added, shaking out the skirt. “All ready—you can put it on now. I did a crappy job, but no one’s going to notice.”
“I could give you my blue coat,” the girl mumbled, wiping her fingers on the bedsheet.
“Not even if it was my own father I’d stay, do you hear, Tatisa? Not even my own father, not today.”
Leaping from the bed, the girl walked over to the bottle and downed a few gulps, eyes closed. She put on the skirt.
“Blblblblbllblblb! This whiskey’s killer,” she grumbled, stepping closer to the mirror. “Come here, come and button me up, there’s no need to stand there with this face of yours. You pain in the . . .”
The woman felt her fingers between the tulle.
“I can’t find the hooks.”
The girl stood before the mirror, legs wide, head high. She looked back toward the women in the mirror.
“No way he’s dying, Lu. You didn’t have your glasses on when you went into his room, did you? So you couldn’t even see right, he was there sleeping away.”
“Maybe I really was wrong.”
“Of course you were wrong! He was just sleeping.”
The woman furrowed her brow, soaking up the sweat on her chin with the sleeve of her camisole. She repeated what the girl said, like an echo.
“He was just sleeping, that’s right.”
“Hurry, Lu, you’ve been at it with those hooks for an hour already.”
“There,” the woman said, softly as she backed toward the door. “You don’t need me any longer, right?”
“Wait,” the girl ordered, quickly applying a dash of perfume. She retouched her lipstick, tossed the pencil to the side of the open bottle. “I’m all ready, let’s walk down together.”
“I have to go, Tatisa!”
“I already told you I’m ready,” the girl repeated, lowering her voice. “I’m just grabbing my purse.”
“Are you going to leave the light on?”
“Better, don’t you think? The house seems more lively that way.”
They both looked in the same direction: the door was shut. Immobile as though they’d become stone in their flight, the two women stood listening to the clock in the room below.
At the top of the stairs, they stepped closer to one another. They both looked in the same direction: the door was shut. Immobile as though they’d become stone in their flight, the two women stood listening to the clock in the room below. The black woman was the first to budge. Her voice was like a shallow breath.
“Wanna take a quick look, Tatisa?”
“Go ahead, Lu!”
They traded a quick glance. Beads of sweat rolled down the girl’s green temples, a murky sweat like the rind of a lime. Outside, the lengthy sound of a car horn broke up. The ticktock of the clock grew louder. Slowly, the maid freed her hand from the girl’s. She walked on her tiptoes down the stairs. She opened the door to the street.
“Lu! Lu!” the girl called out in alarm. It was all she could do not to yell. “Wait up, I’m coming!”
Then, bracing herself on the bannister, clinging to it, she sped down the stairs. When the door slammed shut behind her, a smattering of green sequins rolled down the steps, as if chasing after her.
Translation from the Portuguese
By Eric M. B. Becker