Beto Rockefeller, Con Man
(Excerpt from a Novel)
By Eleanor Stanford
In 1968, I was seventeen, and in my first year of medical school in São Paulo. Rosh Hashana fell on a Monday and Tuesday that year. I remember, because it was the first year of my life I could recall that I didn’t go to shul. I’d thought about getting special permission to miss class, but didn’t feel like going to shul anyway, so figured I might as well go to school.
In anatomy lab, we’d moved on from the heart to the rest of the circulatory system, tracking the tangle of spokes that radiated outward. Superior, inferior, internal, jugular. I stared into the body cavity, trying to follow the blood vessels’ complicated paths. I was having trouble concentrating.
It wasn’t missing High Holyday services, though, that was preoccupying me; it was the resistance meeting that evening. I couldn’t decide whether to go with Isabel or not. I’d attended one with her the week before, but that had been small time, a bunch of students getting drunk and pontificating to each other about fascism. This one was going to be in a poor area of the city, far from the university and from our own middle class neighborhood. This was the real thing: honest-to-goodness revolutionaries, plotting real guerrilla activities. Whatever that meant.
“You’re coming, right?” Isa asked, her probe lifting a bronchial artery.
“I don’t know.” I peered over her arm. “Careful,” I said. “Don’t poke so hard.”
Isa snorted. “What am I going to do? He’s already dead.”
“Are you sure it’s safe?” I asked her for the hundredth time.
“Safe? Menina, are you even sure you’re safe here? Look what happened to those university students in Brasília, beaten in the courtyard on their way to classes.” She pointed her probe at me as though it were a gun, and pretended to shoot me.
Dr. Soares glanced at us from the other side of the room where he was overseeing another group. “Shh,” I said, elbowing Isa. I knew she had a point. But to tell the truth, I felt more anxious about the prospect of being yelled at for talking in class than I did about beatings or the secret police.
I debated with myself all afternoon as I scrubbed my hands and took off my lab coat, as I sat through a lecture about arrhythmia and ischemia. I packed up my books and slipped out quickly, before Isa noticed. I needed some time to think, away from dead bodies and the overpowering smell of formaldehyde, away from the valves and vessels and everything that could go wrong with them, away from Isa and her overweening confidence.
There was a car stopped at the corner near the bus stop, and through the open windows I heard a radio playing. It was Caetano Veloso, the song I had listened to so many times I thought at first it might have been coming from inside my own head. Alegría, Alegría. Although it didn’t seem to have much to do with happiness. The sun splinters into crimes . . .
I thought about Papai on the men’s side of the shul, davening, and Mutti on the women’s side, head bowed, either deep in prayer or dozing off, I was never sure.
I thought about slipping out after dinner: the click of the lock, my heels on the asphalt. Already, just thinking about it, I felt a small shiver, an illicit thrill.
Splinters into spaceships, guerrillas . . .
The car turned the corner, leaving the song unfinished. The bus pulled up and I got on. But the song kept playing in my head, and if I were more superstitious, I might have taken the lyrics as a sign: I’ll go. Why not, why not, why not . . .
But when I got home late that afternoon, it was just like any other day, and I still hadn’t made up my mind about the meeting, one way or the other. Mutti was sitting on the sofa, staring into space and smoking a cigarette. She must have been home from shul for awhile. Papai was still at shul. Or maybe he’d left too, and gone wherever else it was that he went. There was a plate of sliced apple on the coffee table soft table—soft colorless moon-slivers—and a dish of honey beside the ashtray. The fruit had been shipped from who knew where, probably spent weeks on a boat.
“What do you want to have for dinner?” Mutti asked. She held out the plate of apple slices to me. I shook my head. “We could ask Nilda to stop at the market and pick up a chicken.” I could tell by the lack of enthusiasm in her voice that she probably feared such a fate more than the chicken must have.
“Dona Sofía,” Nilda called from the other room, “I hope you don’t think I’m going out to the market for you at this hour. I’m almost finished in here, then I’m leaving to go home.” Nilda didn’t understand a word of Yiddish, yet somehow she managed to intuit pretty reliably what my mother wanted. Whether or not she chose to oblige was another story.
“We could go out,” I suggested. “What about the Arab place?”
“On Rosh Hashana?” She sounded slightly scandalized.
“We still have to eat.” I shrugged. “You know what Papai always says: God cares more about what comes out of my mouth . . .”
“‘. . . than what goes in,’” she finished for me. She grinned, and stubbed out her cigarette. “So God shouldn’t care if we bring Him a falafel sandwich instead of roast chicken and matzoh ball soup like his mother would have made, right?”
“God won’t care,” I said, even though I knew Papai would. And would no doubt let us know.
I poked my head into the kitchen where Nilda was finishing mopping the floor. “Tudo bem?”I asked. I was tempted to tiptoe across the still-wet floor and sit down at the table, tuck my feet up under me, and settle in to talk with her instead of going out with Mutti. Since I’d started med school, I’d spent so little time with Nilda. We used to watch the telenovelas together, and we’d spend hours gossiping about who was sleeping with whose husband, who was dying of a mysterious illness, as though the characters were real people.
“Tudo.” Her thick black hair was pulled back from her forehead, and the white apron of maid’s outfit was stained and sagging after a long day of sweeping, mopping, and laundry.
“We’re going out, Nilda,” I said.
“Good thing.” She winked at me. “Better than Dona Sofia trying to cook a chicken.”
She put her finger to her lips, shushing herself. “Tchau, meu bem,” she said. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Mutti and I walked slowly. It was a warm evening, that time of year when the cold has left and the heat hasn’t yet arrived. It was almost six o’clock. Services wouldn’t be ending for at least an hour. Mutti clutched her bulging pocketbook under her arm. If you didn’t know better, you might have thought she had a baby or a small animal tucked in there.
We made our way down Bahia, up Goiás. Many of the streets in our neighborhood were named for the different states of Brazil. You could walk a few square kilometers, and fool yourself into thinking you’d seen the entire country. Like any true Paulista, part of me believed it, believed that all of Brazil was contained in these few city blocks.
On Rua Amazonas, the blossoms were falling from the jacarandas. Mutti stooped to pick up a petal, and rubbed it gently between her fingers. “One year in Krakow,” she said, “it snowed for Rosh Hashana.” I knew she was in a rare, lighthearted mood when she started talking about Krakow.
At the corner, a car sped past us, not even slowing down for the crosswalk. Normally she would have grumbled about the awful São Paulo drivers, or even yelled some obscure Yiddish curse into the car’s open window. But she ignored the driver, lost in her reverie.
“How much snow?” I asked. When she started talking about Poland, I always tried to draw her out, to prolong her good spirits.
She looked up at the sky, as though she could see through the high, wispy clouds forty years back into her childhood. “Oh, not much,” she said. “A light dusting.”
I’d lived in Brazil my whole life. I couldn’t imagine that kind of winter: months of fur coats and snow, a pond so thick with ice you could stand on top of it and not fall in. São Paulo could get cold in June and July, and I hated the feeling of slipping into a freezing bed. I avoided showering for days, dreading the cold air on my skin when I stepped out of the water.
Papai always scoffed at Mutti’s nostalgia. “Good riddance,” he said. “If Hitler had lived in South America, maybe he wouldn’t have felt the need to commit genocide. If the Jews had started out in Brazil, they probably wouldn’t be such pessimists, either.”
I didn’t point out that he and Mutti were both miserable, despite their thirty years of sunny weather. Or that this continent had plenty of atrocities to answer for, too, despite its climate.
Mutti was always consulting her doctors about one thing or another. Eczema, fatigue, bunions. Like Papai, she’d opposed the idea of medical school for me at first, though not as vehemently. And now that I was a student, she’d occasionally come to me with her ailments, almost shyly sticking out her tongue for me to inspect her throat, or lifting her shirt to reveal a mysterious rash on her belly.
Still, once in a while, the old Mutti would emerge, and I’d catch a glimpse of what she might have been like before: as a little girl skipping down the street in Krakow; as a young woman, leaning into a mirror to apply lipstick before a dance; even as a new mother, pushing a pram down the bumpy streets of Consolação.
“You would have loved it, bubbele,” she said, still absently rubbing the petal she was holding. She placed one thick-heeled shoe on the cobblestones, and paused, her muscle memory gliding across a frozen lake in Poland. “We would skate all afternoon, gradually stripping off the layers as we warmed up. Coats, scarves, hats. After a while, you don’t feel cold at all. I could jump higher on the ice than any girl I knew.”
I tried to picture it: my mother as a young girl, flying over the frozen surface, dark hair spinning out behind her.
The Arab place (it might have had another name, but that was all anyone ever called it, o lanchonete árabe), was just a long, narrow counter with a few tall stools. A little bell sounded when we entered. “What’s that salad with the lemon and the verdura in it?” Mutti asked, staring up at the big sign displaying the menu. Sometimes random words of Portuguese nudged their way into her Yiddish conversation.
There was a small TV bolted above the bar, and Beto Rockefeller was on. It was the current novela. Beto, a São Paulo shoe salesman, insinuates himself into the city’s high society, and cons people into believing he’s a millionaire. Nilda loved Beto, and was always rooting for him, even when he was trying to swindle an unsuspecting philanthropist, or lying to his goodhearted wife. I wasn’t sure how I felt about Beto. One day I sympathized, the next I found myself hoping he would get caught. Even Mutti had started watching. She’d stand behind the sofa, as though she wasn’t really watching, just pausing on her way from the kitchen, and complain the whole time about how unrealistic the show was.
“Two kibbe platters and two Coca-Colas,” I said to the man behind the counter. I always spoke for Mutti when we were out in public together. “How was shul?” I asked her.
The man put two trays on the counter, one for each of us. On the television, Beto was sweet-talking a rich girl named Lu, even though he already had a girlfriend back in his middle-class neighborhood in Pinheiros.
Mutti didn’t answer my question. “Really,” she said, staring at the screen. “Who’s going to believe that? Look how he’s dressed. Look at his shoes, Lu. You’re a shoe salesman, Beto, you should know those cheap shoes would give you away in a second.”
“I can’t even see his shoes.”
“I can see.”
I didn’t point out that the fact that she kept debating with the characters themselves, meant they must have been at least somewhat believable.
We ate our sandwiches and tabbouleh salad in silence. On the TV, Lu laughed at something Beto said.
“I didn’t go,” Mutti said, not looking away from the television.
I turned to look at her, surprised.
“What?” she said. “You didn’t go, either.” She’d hooked her orthopedic shoes behind the stool’s legs, like a little girl. A dab of yogurt sauce was smeared on the side of her lip.
“I know. I just thought . . .”I don’t know what I’d thought. That she was some sort of permanent unchangeable force, like the weather? That she didn’t have her own moods and motivations, her own shifts and cold fronts? That God would forgive me missing High Holy Days, but not her?
She shrugged. “I didn’t feel up for it. Maybe tomorrow.” She straightened the napkin on her lap, which was draped over her purse. What was in there, anyway? What secret sorrows did she stuff in with the balled up tissues and half-melted sour balls? It bulged on her lap like an enormous tumor.
I reached over with a napkin to wipe the yogurt off her lip. “Mutti, you have—”
“What?” she said, batting my hand away.
In that swipe, that instinctive cuff of her stubby, manicured fingers, was my entire childhood.
She turned away, busied herself digging in her purse for a mirror. She held it up, rubbed the smudge with her thumb, sighed.
I thought about the body on the table, the mysterious network of veins and arteries. I could name them, I could trace their complicated routes and cross-migrations, but that didn’t mean I knew the first thing about what made either of us—any of us—do the things we did.
“Let’s go, mammele,” Mutti said. The man behind the counter was wiping down the surface with a rag. On the television, Beto Rockefeller was ending, the music swelling to a melodramatic crescendo.
Outside it was completely dark. The Days of Awe were just beginning. Descending, semi-lunar, jugular. Somewhere in the city, the guerrillas were stockpiling firearms and plotting to kidnap government officials. Somewhere in the city, the torturers were attaching an electrified wire to a woman’s nipples and tongue. Somewhere strapping a man’s legs to the device known as a parrot’s perch.
Somewhere in the city, Nilda was staring out the window of a bus, or climbing the stairs to her own tiny apartment, or standing at the stove, cooking dinner for her husband. Somewhere in the city, in Pinheiros and Bom Retiro, behind the opaque windows of the apartment buildings, a million Betos were polishing their shoes, combing their hair, preparing to step out of their own lives and into other ones.
Somewhere, from five thousand radios, Caetano was singing: Without books and without a gun, without hunger, without a telephone...
I took a last bite of my sandwich and brushed the crumbs from my lap. “Let’s go, then,” I said, swallowing, the dry mash sticking in my throat. In the shul, on Rua Augusta, in Consolação, the rabbi would be sounding the shofar. A primitive, bone ache of a sound: ventricle-wrenched, aortic throb.
Copyright © Eleanor Stanford 2013
Eleanor Stanford’s memoir, Historia, Historia: Two Years in the Cape Verde Islands, is published by the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography. Her poems and essays have appeared in Poetry, Ploughshares, The Harvard Review, The Massachusetts Review, and many other journals. “Beto Rockefeller, Con Man” is adapted from her novel in progress. She lives in the Philadelphia area. Find more at eleanorstanford.com.