Sewer-rat children screamed obscenities at one another and laughed. Somewhere far away, a siren wailed. Late-afternoon faces gloated down at the spectacle and faded from my view. I felt her claw my hand and heard her weep. I never did learn her name. My breath whistled through red-stained nostrils. Warm blood lazily oozed out of holes somewhere in my chest. Useless arms and legs lazily stretched out to enjoy the last of the sidewalk’s heat. Death straddled me and hummed a playful tune. I half closed my eyes and smiled back. Everything was going to be OK.
■ ■ ■
Even in a Sarjeta (the Gutter), there is always somebody lower than you.
If you’re faster or stronger, someone else pays a price. Could be money. Or favors. Could be that someone weaker pays the ultimate price: his or her life. I’m better than most people stuck here because I dream big. And dreams will show me how to escape this shithole.
The wind scattered dirt and grit, biting my face and the window’s ledge that faced out at Canto do Diabo (Devil’s Corner). The streets of the Gutter dead-ended here, where wall graffiti and littered garbage stopped and the Prodigal Son resided. I was lucky to be this close to the charity’s main building.
Lank curtains hid the waiting room. Several coffee-colored men, coughing up throaty words and inhaling Turkish cigarettes, stood outside by a front door painted red, the dark color of worried eyes. One of them looked at me as I approached. I tried not to fidget with the waxy pouch in my hand. He signaled something, and I was quickly surrounded by four pairs of uncertain eyes.
“Você fala inglês?” the one man said. He grinned, and I spotted gold bordering three missing teeth.
“Yes, sure,” I said.
His greasy thumb gestured at the other three. “These clowns don’t. So you talk to me, OK?” His accent wasn’t Portuguese. Or English.
“Sure,” I said.
I glanced at his face, spotting a tattooed circle on his left cheek. Despite his smile, I sensed something darker hiding behind the mask he now wore.
“A delivery. For him.” I placed the pouch into the gold-toothed man’s hand. My fingers touched his slimy palm, causing me to shiver for a moment.
“Come back next week.”
“What about my money?” I asked.
“Next week. You’ll get another package and your money.”
All four men stared at me. I couldn’t read their alien faces. The tattooed guy jabbed his finger at me.
“You know, I see something in you. Maybe something great, huh?”
I didn’t ask what he saw and quickly left. I decided that Devil’s Corner was not a part of the Gutter where I wanted to be alone after sunset.
■ ■ ■
I stood on Amélia’s concrete balcony and gagged. Inside her apartment, sickly sweet beans, dumped out of dented cans, cooked on a hotplate. Two half-naked children with swollen bellies rubbed messy fingers on my sister’s worn-down apron as they cried for dinner. They didn’t know anything else. This was the same meal served at breakfast. At yesterday’s dinner. And the day before. But I’ve walked by the açougue (butcher shop) and seen real meat. I’ve smelled the bloody flesh. Steak and hamburger and food that people with money could buy. I don’t want to eat beans anymore.
Scraps of faded sunlight crawled down the balcony rails, exposing lag bolts desperately grabbing at the block wall. It was a miracle I didn’t fall into the darkened alley below. I could see someone down there licking at the emptied tins we’d thrown out with the rest of the garbage. I shouted at him to get some self-respect, but he just laughed. I kept shouting.
Amélia looked out at me with worried, dark eyes. “You don’t know that man out there. You don’t know what he could do to us. Come back inside.” Both children clung quietly to her, sensing their mother’s fear. My sister tightly gripped the plastic spoon she used to stir the beans. Her eyes pleaded, seeming to say, “At least we eat.”
“I don’t need to be afraid. I don’t need this shit,” I said.
“Please, the children.”
“I’ll be a famous artist. I’ll escape. And you’ll be forgotten.”
Amélia started to cry. I stormed back to my room and locked the door. An hour later, I ignored her knock when she came to ask if I was hungry. Sleep came soon, and I dreamed that the man in the alley chased me. Then my dreams went black, and I tossed and turned the rest of the night.
■ ■ ■
I didn’t know his real name, so I called him Ben. He didn’t mind. Ben dropped my money and this week’s package onto my sister’s flimsy coffee table. I tried to figure him out. I guessed that he was about ten, only two years younger than me. I asked him where he lived.
He didn’t answer my questions. Ben just looked nervously around.
How does someone so young become a collector?
“You alone?” Ben asked.
“My sister is sewing today. She takes the babies.”
Ben wiped his nose. “That’s good. I guess I’ll come back next week at the same time.”
I pointed at the waxy paper. “What’s inside?”
“Don’t ask. And don’t steal anything.”
He looked down at my drawing pad. I had been sketching from memory a park I once saw in the middle of Avenida da Liberdade. His wide eyes studied every penciled line, every cross-hatched tree as if it were the fucking Mona Lisa or something. Ben held his breath, and for a moment he seemed to have transported himself somewhere a million miles away from the Gutter. I bet he had never seen the avenue or anything else like it.
“I take art classes. The church gives them for free,” I said.
“I couldn’t do that.”
“How do you know? Have you tried?”
“I couldn’t do it.”
“I’ll take you. Come back tomorrow.”
Ben looked over the pad once more. He blinked his eyes and swallowed hard. “Don’t steal anything,” he said. And he left without saying good-bye.
reviewed by Yuliya Geikhman
"Sewer-rat children screamed obscenities at one another and laughed. Somewhere far away, a siren wailed. ... I felt her claw my hand and heard her weep. I never did learn her name. My breath whistled through red-stained nostrils."
Hope, greed, and desperation are very powerful—and very human. Deny the Father is a collection of three stories that delve into the chaos that these forces can cause. The stories contained within this short book engulf the reader in despair and leave a dark mark in their wake. The author dissects his three male protagonists in search of the meaning of humanity, then leaves them for dead. In fact, death is the central thread that connects the three tales. "A Sarjeta (The Gutter)" begins with death in the lowest of places; "Good-bye, Sweet Mercury" discovers death from a different plane of existence and points the reader's mind to the planets; and "Yesterday Never, Tomorrow, and Today" vaults the narrative into these very same planets. Together, the stories form a complete thematic arc, painted in clear prose and dark imagery.
The three stories follow different characters and the internal and external struggles they deal with. No matter how they got there, none of the protagonists want to be where they are. They dream of escaping from their chains and living in a better, brighter place. Using an ambling manner of writing, the author captures each character's state of mind as they follow these dreams for the wrong reasons and to disastrous results. The first story tells the story of an ambitious 12-year-old boy who lives in squalor and eats nothing but beans every day. He dreams of escaping from the "Gutter," but his big dreams land him in big trouble when he gets mixed up with a group of criminals. In the second story, the ghost of a man must come to terms with his death and move on. He longs to reach out to his daughter, whom he affectionately calls Mercury, but instead he must learn to accept that she will grow and thrive without him. The third story takes place on a faraway planet where Earthlings still maintain financial ties to their home planet. Burdened by debt and a failing crop, one farmer comes across a dying alien who just might be able to turn his luck around.
They're an unlikely trio: a young boy, a ghost, and a farmer in outer space. Despite their apparent differences, the three stories are united by the universality of life's struggle. The stories seem to hint that no matter who or where you are, you feel the same in the end as countless others on the planet. The key, the stories seem to indicate, is not to let negative emotions consume and overtake you. The stories pack a lot of meaning into a small space. Along with the idea of mortality they also explore the bonds of fatherhood, the role of the female influence, and a number of other themes. IN their density, you will find yourself reading these more than once to extract the full meaning behind them.
M. Duda accomplishes in a few pages what can take other authors in hundreds. He crafts believable characters, locations, and scenarios, then breathes life into them. He wields the absolute power an author has over his creations: The same life he creates is just as easily snuffed out. The message is grim and the stories are dark, yet there is a glimmer of hope in each story; a spark that shows that selflessness and acceptance can help others find a better place, even when it's already too late for you.