- Robert L. Giron
This issue features
photo by Lilyling,
fiction by Richard Risemberg,
photo by Mihai Andritoiu,
fiction by Jen Ross,
photo by Mikephotos, and
poetry by Claire Scott
Jumbo Rock in Malibu Beach
The Deep Blue Sea
From the dry hills over Malibu, the sea looked hard and dark. But when Eddie Rivas leaned on his spade and gave it more attention, he could note a sort of wrinkling of its surface that never changed but that was never quite the same. There were the tiny bright dashes of whitecaps, too, appearing and disappearing: that meant that it would be rough down there. He had been on the bay in small boats, with his cousin Gabi, who loved to fish. Gabi loved it so much that he had eventually bought a little cabin cruiser, though it wasn't much of a boat. Eddie had been bounced around plenty in that thing. Now it was gone, repossessed. What could you do. The bay was as empty as the sky today. When it was rough down there it wasn't very comfortable fishing.
The client drifted out of the house to watch them work, so Eddie pulled up a corner of his bandanna, wiped the sweat from his face, then turned his gaze to the earth and started digging again. This landscaping was a funny business: two months ago a hired crew with a Bobcat had scraped up the front yard; three weeks later, Eddie and his boss had come and turned it up again with mattocks and spades, since the Bobcat had packed it all down too much. A week after that, they had spread mulch over it, fragrant bark chips that had been dropped off at the curb by a dump truck. Now they were digging it up again to put in drains and irrigation. One of these days they would plant something. The client suffered from very particular and occasionally inconsistent desires, some of which weren't practical in the climate, but the boss would figure out a way to make him happy. The boss almost always did.
Sometimes interesting junk turned up in the soil: an ornate wrench, forged in curves and ridges, which the boss let Eddie keep; a hubcap, dented but still shiny; an old key, like the wrench ornately decorated, of a style not in keeping with the practical present. This part of Malibu had burned in one of the recurrent fires Eddie had read about in the paper, from the safety of his own little house in the distant flats of LA. Many of the houses here, including the worksite, were less than twenty years old, and showed it: angular reaches of stucco painted dark gray, black metal window frames that looked cheap but probably weren't. Windows that didn't open: Eddie had noticed that with dismay. The breeze coming up the hill from the hard blue sea felt so good on his face: why wouldn't you want that in your house?
He didn't know what the clients did or had done for a living—they were old enough to be retired if they wanted to be—but they must have had money. The address alone was expensive, and their cars were the "luxury SUV" type that seemed to be required in the neighborhood. Eddie struck what felt like a large stone with the tip of his spade and began to dig around it, sweating into the bandanna while the breeze caressed his cheeks. But it turned out to be another hubcap, matching the first one they had found. Maybe the whole car would be down there: wouldn't that be something. Eddie laughed as he dug. The hubcap came up easily, dirty but in good shape, except where the spade had gouged it. He jabbed the spade into the ground and carried the hubcap over to his boss, who was pointing at various parts of the yard while chatting with the client.
He stood silently beside them, following the underling's protocol. He knew the boss knew he was there but had to look interested in the client's opinion. The two leaned their heads towards each other, nodding with great dignity as they went over the latest changes to the plan. Eddie could wait. He had been digging for three hours, and the day was warming. Finally he heard the cadence change in the conversation, and the two men straightened up, giving each other a final nod. The client ambled back into the house and shut the door. "Hey, Jerry," Eddie said.
"What ya got there?"
"Another damn hubcap. Might make a nice planter."
"Take it if you want. I'm sure it wouldn't fit Mr. Leonard's elevated tastes."
"Got no use for it, really. Maybe it's vintage. Might be worth something."
Jerry scrutinized it. "It's crap. Not even worth the effort of throwing it away. But I guess we got to. How's the trench going?"
"Nearly done. I put a nice grade into it. Should drain right."
"Long as it's deep enough."
"It's deep enough. But you decide."
The two walked over to the trench. "Hell, yeah, it's deep enough," Jerry said. "Give me those last six feet, and we'll go to lunch. It's getting hot."
Eddie walked over to the recycling bin on the other side of the garage. The garage stuck out closer to the street that the front of the house. Eddie felt it wasn't very welcoming to have the human entrance to the house so far from the street. He suspected the house wasn't meant to be welcoming. When they got around to planting the actual garden, there would be a wall of shrubbery hiding a patio by the front door. No one walking by would be able to see the family having their drinks in their little front-yard paradise. If they ever actually used it, and if anyone ever actually walked by. He had only seen joggers pass, bumping up the steep grade of the street with their mouths gaping. Eddie dropped the hubcap in the recycling bin, where it fell on a box that had held a security camera kit, according to the label. He wondered about the hubcap, and who it was that had changed the decoration on their car to make it more their own. Eddie's kid who was nineteen, had spent hours agonizing over which custom hubcaps to put on his own little car. Eddie had done the same when he was that age. Now he didn't even care, as long as the car ran well and didn’t burn too much gas. He went back to his shovel. The dirt and mulch smelled good when he dug them up. He still wondered about the hubcap though.
An hour later the trench was done, and Jerry had verified the grade with a long bubble level. "Let's go eat," the boss said. "We'll lay the pipe when we get back."
They got in the truck and drove down the hill to the sea. There was a pier up the coast a bit with a couple of restaurants that catered more to visitors than locals, but the ones that catered to locals were too pricey for Jerry, who always bought them both their lunches. Anyway, Eddie liked old piers, and this was an old one, nothing fancy, no amusements, just a fishing pier with a bait shack and two restaurants selling greasy fish dishes, mussels when they were in season, french fries, and sourdough bread. Beer too, but beer was generally a no-no while on the job. They still snuck one in on hot days like today, but Eddie always waited for Jerry to suggest it. Jerry did, and they settled in their wobbly metal chairs at the outdoor table, with the beer in plastic glasses and their fish bits and french fries nestled in wax paper, which was itself nestled into bright red plastic baskets. There was a chromed metal napkin dispenser on the tabletop, speckled with sea-rust, as well as glass canisters of salt, black pepper, and some kind of chili pepper mix that the restaurant felt compelled to brag about on their menu board. Their table was by the metal railing of the pier, on the seaward side of the restaurant, where the prevailing southwesterly wind blew steadily across them, tousling Jerry's colorless dry hair. The coarse wooden planks of the pier smelled of tar and creosote beneath their feet, and the wind smelled of salt and distances. Eddie took a long swallow of his beer and settled down to eating. The table nearest them was empty, and an old man sat eating alone at the next one over, stuffing french fries into his badly-shaven face. They could hear the rustle of water beneath the pier. Eddie wished he were fishing, though he almost never caught anything when he was. He stared out at the deep blue sea as he ate. "Did I ever tell you," he said, "that I used to fish right out there with my cousin?" He pointed a french fry at the long horizon.
"You tell me that about every time we eat here. And then he lost his boat to the bank."
"He still fishes. Off the Hermosa pier, closer to home."
"Not the same, is it?"
Eddie shook his head. "Hell, no. And I don't trust fish caught that near to the beach."
They ate quietly for a while, occasionally glancing out at the ocean. "You know," Jerry said, "I've got a boat."
"You never mentioned it before. Where do you take it out?"
"Don't any more. Got seasick too damn much. Guess it's been sitting on its trailer behind the garage for seven, eight years now. A little twenty-foot sloop."
"Yeah. No cabin, nothing fancy. Might do for fishing. It's even got a little motor that don't do much." Jerry turned to look him in the eye. "You want it? It would need some fixing up."
Eddie imagined himself out on the restless water. He'd gotten seasick only once so far. It had been awful, but it hadn't happened again. "But I don’t know how to sail," he said.
"Heck, it's easy," Jerry said. "Here's a deal for you: help me fix it up—you buy the parts. Then we'll take it out and I'll teach you how to sail it. We'll pick an easy day so I don't get sick. What do you think? It if doesn't make you happy, you can sell it. It won't hurt my feelings if you do. Ain't worth much anyway, or I'd have sold it myself already."
"You'd really just give it away?"
"Why not? You're a good worker. Gotta keep you happy. And I want that space for a cheap cargo trailer I got my eye on. Figure we can save some money if I can haul boxed trees and bulk mulch around my own self. What do you think?"
"I think…I think probably yes. I guess I got some room behind my house for it." Eddie smiled. "Man, I could go fishing again, the real thing, way out there…."
"It's yours, Eddie. Only I get some of the fish you catch. Deal?"
"Deal!" Eddie said. He smiled. Jerry reached his hand across the table and they shook on it.
The truck labored slowly up the hill to the worksite. The two men felt as heavy as the truck with their bellies full of grease. Eddie looked out the side window at the houses as they climbed. There weren't all that big, really, one story, wedged into the slope, although they were all fresh-looking and sometimes of the odd shapes that meant an ambitious architect had been involved. The front yards were small and distorted by the slope and by the curves of the street. The streets of course had to curve arbitrarily, or maybe because of the changing shape of the hillside, most of which was hidden under asphalt, grass, and roofs. There was a line, though, two-thirds of the way up the hillside, where the houses ended. "Is that a park or something up there?" Eddie asked. "I’m surprised they just didn't take it all."
"Who didn't take what all?" Jerry said.
"Whoever built this shit. It just stops up there." Eddie gestured with his chin.
"Yeah," Jerry said. "Some kind of state park, I think. All pretty wild. I heard a mountain lion ate a couple of dogs up there a few years ago. Right by the houses."
"Huh. How'd they know the dogs didn't just run away?"
"They found the pieces of one of them, with big paw prints all around. But they never found the cat."
"Huh. That's funny. A cat eating dogs."
"It's funny, but I won't hike there. Not me. I get enough chances to get killed driving around this damn town." Jerry carefully parked the truck by the worksite, making sure not to block anyone's driveway. There had been complaints the first week they were on the job.
Eddie and Jerry got out and let gravity slam the doors of the truck closed, as it was still pointed up the hill. The big white plastic pipes waited for them by the side of the house. So did the bags of gravel they would nestle the pipe onto in the trench. Eddie didn’t look forward to lifting the bags of gravel, but it had to be done. At least Jerry was the sort of boss who did his fair share of the heavy work, if the client didn't come out to bend his ear. "You ready?" Jerry said.
"Let's do it," Eddie answered.
Eddie was grateful for the sea breeze cooling his cheeks as he hefted the dusty plastic bags of gravel and poured a clatter of small rocks into the trench. With Jerry helping it really didn’t take too long. Then Jerry got the pipe glue out of the truck, and they laid the pipe into the trench.
"I sure hate the smell of this stuff," Jerry said. Eddie grunted; he hated it too, but he had to hold the pipe steady while Jerry glued the sections together. The sun glared on his neck, and the harsh solvent stink tainted the sea breeze for a while, but this was the easiest part of the job, so it didn't last long. Jerry clambered out of the trench. "I'd rather use metal pipe, but no one wants to pay." They both stared at the expensive cars in the driveway. "Come on, let's bury it and hope it don't collapse in fifteen years." They grabbed their shovels and bent towards the earth. When they were almost done, the client drifted out again. Jerry went to him, and they stared at the faint line left in the earth where the trench had been. Eddie stood aside, leaning on his shovel. The client nodded while making some noises Eddie couldn't hear from where he stood. He knew he was just part of the scenery now, and waited for them to finish their palaver. He was tired anyway.
The client gestured towards the house, and Jerry followed him in, carefully wiping his feet on the doormat. Eddie stayed where he was, staring up at the hills beyond the last houses for a while, the hills where lions trod silently and ate the neighbors' dogs. The thought made him smile. Then the breeze freshened, and he turned to look at the sea again. He remembered that he would have a boat of his own soon, and he could take Gabi fishing. Gabi would be happy, and so would Eddie. God damn: he would have a boat of his own soon, and the sea would be his.
Copyright © 2023 by Richard Risemberg.
About the Author
Richard Risemberg was born to a mixed and mixed-up family in Argentina, and dragged to LA as a child to escape the fascist regime. He's spent the next few decades exploring the darker corners of the America Dream and writing stories, poems, and essays based on his experiences.
Rio's Rocinha Favela
Tall and slender with flawless caramel skin and glossy, shoulder-length black ringlets, she fidgets with her tight red dress, trying to pull it further down her thighs. But it rolls back up as she steps out onto the cracked sidewalk of this sleepy suburb in São Paulo, Brazil. She cringes as her black stiletto heels hit the pavement, creating a light metallic echo. It’s a sound she hates, because it signals the start of her night, on the prowl, for customers.
This was not the life she had envisioned. But tonight will be the last time, she vows.
As early as Fernanda could remember, strangers would stop her.
“What a beautiful child,” they would say. “What piercing amber eyes.”
Fernanda never quite understood what it was they saw. Her mother, Norberia, would smile dismissively. But at some point, she must have started believing there was something to their compliments, because by the time Fernanda was 9, she had signed her up to compete in the Young Miss Brazil pageant.
Fernanda had no idea what she was doing. Everything felt awkward: the makeup caked onto her face; the posing in itchy, poofy outfits; and speaking in front of a crowd. But she was a skilled impersonator, so she studied the way the other girls flicked their hair, fluttered their lashes, and jutted their hips out. She analysed the pauses in their strides and the feigned compassion or excitement in their rehearsed speeches.
She somehow managed to finish third runner-up, winning some much-needed prize money. Norberia jumped around excitedly, as if she’d just won the lottery.
At her insistence, Fernanda persevered. With some training from an older pageant girl who lived in her same improvised slum, the favela of Bom Retiro, she learned new tricks. How to twirl playfully, delicately cock her head, subtly brush her hands past certain body parts, and when to smile strategically at the judges.
The following year, she competed for Young Miss Brazil again, having more time to come up with and rehearse high hopes and dreams that were not truly her own. Fernanda took first place that second time around, becoming an instant sensation on the child pageant circuit.
Over the coming years, with financing from sponsors, she travelled the country to compete in different cities, sometimes taking long breaks from school. Fernanda didn’t care about missing her boring classes and her teachers didn’t seem to mind her absence.
She got noticed by modelling agencies and was soon posing for advertisements in magazines and billboards – for a mobile phone provider, then a cereal brand, then a children’s clothing line. She exulted in seeing her face on the larger-than-life billboards. She relished strangers pointing and whispering as though she were a celebrity. Girls she didn’t know would sometimes as her for selfies – at the beach, at malls, and once even at a dentist’s office.
Her best friend, Juliana, would parade her ads around the neighbourhood, gloating: “That’s MY best friend! Fernanda da Souza!”
But since that first pageant, Norberia had made a point of not celebrating her successes. “Don’t let it get to your head,” she’d warn. She only showed interest in cashing the paychecks.
Between Fernanda’s pageant wins and modelling gigs, she managed to earn enough to pay for a modest home just outside the favela. Norberia teared up as the blonde, booty-enhanced real estate agent handed over the keys to their two-bedroom with real doors and running water.
A few months later, Norberia lost her job at the local supermarket, after constantly showing up late. But with Fernanda’s modelling taking off, Norberia didn’t look for another job. Fernanda imagined she’d be happier and less stressed with all her free time, but her mother’s lips were always pressed shut, unless she was yelling at Fernanda to pick something up off the floor or do the dishes. Meanwhile, Norberia spent most of her day watching soap operas. When Juliana was over she would bite her lip with unmistakeable pity in her eyes.
Then Norberia started bringing home boyfriends. They didn’t talk to Fernanda, which was just as well. Sometimes they’d hang around for a few weeks, before disappearing, much like Fernanda’s father had. Her mother reassured her it was for the best. “He wouldn’t have been a good role model.”
Then one day Norberia announced: “Fernanda, you’re going to have a brother, or sister.”
“Really?” Fernanda squealed in excitement, hugging her mother, who received it limply.
Fernanda had always yearned for a sibling, to comb, bathe and feed, like her favourite childhood doll. She hoped it would be a girl so she could teach her to twirl in the frilly dresses she wore for the pageants, many of which her mother had kept.
Over the coming weeks, Fernanda would place her hands on Norberia’s belly, which looked like a balloon slowly filling with air. She begged to feel the baby kick, but her mother kept insisting it was too soon. They spent a lot of time just relaxing on the couch together. And although Norberia didn’t kiss or hug her, Fernanda felt closer to her than ever.
“Who’s the father?” Fernanda asked one day, wondering if she might remember him.
Norberia snapped: “Why does it matter?”
“Oh… no … it really doesn’t matter. Forget about it.”
“Do you really think the father matters? Well… do you?” prodded Norberia, temper rising. “Where was yours when you were growing up? Or maybe you wish he’d been the one to raise you, by himself? Do you? Am I not good enough of a mother for you?”
“No mae, I never said that,” Fernanda muttered, eyes fixed on a crack in the tile floor.
“We don’t need a man in this house!” Norberia intoned, and waddled off to her room.
A few months later, Norberia woke in the middle of the night, moaning. “It’s time! The baby is coming! We need to go to the hospital!” Norberia cried.
They rushed outside and huddled under a blinking streetlight with her mother hunched over, cursing and groaning in pain, until Fernanda was able to stop a passing car and beg the driver to take them to a hospital.
After her mother was promptly wheeled inside, Fernanda, sat on the edge of the seat in the waiting room, in her raggedy pyjama dress, tapping her heels anxiously. An eternity later, an elderly nurse emerged, smiling: “Congratulations young lady! You have a healthy baby brother!”
Fernanda squealed with joy. Whether it was a boy or girl didn’t matter. She had a sibling and she was no longer alone in this world.
When Fernanda entered the hospital room, her mother was cradling a wrinkled, miniature brown body. As Fernanda neared, she noticed he had a yellowish goop stuck in globs between the creases of his neck and in his patches of tightly curled hair. But he was beautiful. Fernanda marveled at his tiny toes and fingers, which curled instinctively around her finger when she placed it in his palm.
They named him Rodinho, after a soccer player. He was a happy baby, with a gorgeous, dimpled smile. And Fernanda was eager to help with all aspects of his care, even changing diapers, while Norberia retreated further into herself. She was sad all the time, or angry, often switching meteorically between the two. Two weeks later, Norberia stopped breastfeeding.
Sometimes Fernanda would come home from school to find Rodinho all alone in his crib, crying desperately because Norberia had forgotten to feed him. Without a word of criticism, Fernanda would change his bulging diaper, cream his rash-covered bum, and prepare his bottle.
Fernanda eventually had to start cooking for herself and her mother, usually from a can. Sometimes her mother would eat a bit. Sometimes she’d leave it untouched by her bedside.
With all her new household responsibilities, Fernanda found little time to study. Her grades slipped so much she ended up failing the school year, which was more devastating than she’d imagined because Juliana went off to another school for 9th grade and made a new best friend. And the new girls in 8th grade were all boy-crazy, which Fernanda had no time for.
Fernanda had to stop modelling and competing in pageants because she was afraid to leave Rodinho alone with her mother for too long. Besides, Norberia used to take her to the shoots sign the consent forms, but now she couldn’t even bring herself to get out of bed. When Fernanda finally asked if she could enter a competition, explaining that they needed the money to pay the bills, her mother muttered: “You think you’re so special with your little pageants! Let’s see where your beauty will get you.”
And so, the electric bill went unpaid, as did the water, until one day the electricity got shut off. By then, Rodinho was trying to walk on his own. Norberia was more withdrawn than ever, so Fernanda went to ask a neighbour for help. “Good afternoon, Mrs. da Silva, I’m sorry to bother you but our electricity is gone and I don’t know what to do.”
“Mine is on. Maybe your breaker is down?” Mrs. da Silva suggested.
Fernanda looked down at her feet, shifting nervously.
Mrs. da Silva seemed to understand without an explanation: “How much do you need?” She returned with a few crumpled bills and a warning: “This is just a loan…”
But Fernanda wore a lost look and didn’t reach out to accept it.
“Ok, dear, I will take you to where you can pay your bill and get your electricity back,” sighed Mrs. da Silva, slipping on her sandals.
Along the short walk and the old lady tried to make conversation: “Child, do you need a job? My grandson knows someone who pays good money for beautiful girls to dance.”
“Thank you, but I have my hands full right now,” said Fernanda, unable to fathom the idea of leaving Rodinho with her mother. She would need to find another way.
Her second time around 8th grade was boring and repetitive. So, once the bills started piling up, Fernanda dropped out and got a part-time job at the same supermarket where her mother used to work. But she only took short shifts, timed around Rodinho’s naps.
One day, when Fernanda was stacking papayas in the produce isle, Juliana came in with her mother. “Fernanda, oh my God! I haven’t seen you in ages!” squealed her estranged friend, with a tight hug. “How are you? How is Rodinho?”
“Good,” Fernanda said plainly, straightening the uniform she’d taken to wearing three days at a time to save on laundry detergent.
Lowering her voice to a whisper, Juliana asked: “Fernanda, what are you doing working here? Why aren’t you modelling?”
“It’s a long story that I’m sure you don’t have time to hear,” said Fernanda dismissively. “Sorry, but I need to get back to work.”
Juliana paused, perhaps unsure if she should try to convince her friend otherwise. And as she walked away, that familiar look of pity washed over her face.
By the time she was 16 and Rodinho was nearly 2, Norberia had returned to her old self again, still moody and mercurial, but able to watch Rodinho and help out around the house.
“Mae, why don’t you come back to work at the grocery store with me,” Fernanda suggested one day. “We could take opposite shifts so Rodi is never alone.”
Her mother pressed her lips and rolled her eyes: “I’m getting too old for that heavy lifting.”
An injured look crossed Fernanda’s face. She didn’t know her mother’s exact age, but she seemed younger than any of her friends’ mothers, all of whom were working. Upon reflection, Fernanda realized that she’d been the sole provider for the family since the age of 10. Of course, she did not voice this out loud, knowing her mother might well explode.
“Fernanda, why don’t you take that job the neighbour told you about, where they pay good money for pretty girls to dance?” suggested Norberia. “You don’t really know how to dance, but you sure have the looks.”
Fernanda perked up at her mother’s unusual half-compliment. She hadn’t given Mrs. da Silva’s suggestion another thought. But at least her mother was in a better position now to care for Rodinho.
After dinner, Fernanda strolled over to Mrs. da Silva’s, who arrived at the door in large pink hair rollers.
“Fernanda! Come in.” She had graciously lent Fernanda money three times over the past year, whenever the water or electricity had been shut off. And Fernanda had always repaid her promptly. “What can I do for you? Is your electricity off again?”
“No, no, thank you. I’m sorry I’ve bothered you so many times. I was just remembering that job you mentioned last year, where they pay well for girls to dance…”
Mrs. da Silva leaned in and patted Fernanda gently on both cheeks: “I thought you might come around.”
Then she pursed her lips and whistled. Moments later, her grandson emerged from the kitchen. He was a few years older than her, Fernanda guessed, with bleached-blond hair shaved into a star on one side and celtic bracelets tattooed on both forearms. He weirdly wore his sunglasses inside the house, giving him the air of a wanna-be gangster.
“Fernanda’s here about the dancing job,” said Mrs. da Silva.
“Oh? She’s interested?” he replied, circling her slowly and licking his lips as if she was a juicy piece of steak. “Oh, she’ll do nicely.” It reminded Fernanda of the way the boys would lamely try to flirt with her in the schoolyard. Or how some of the gross old men in the audience used to stare during the beauty pageants.
“I’ve actually had my eye on you for a while,” he smiled, exposing a gold tooth. “You’re that girl from the Vivo ads. You’ll do, even if you dance like a monkey! Look, it works like this: I have a friend who takes girls on dancing and modelling trips to Spain. You get to stay in a nice hotel for a couple of weeks, do some dancing, get your picture taken and meet important people. And you’ll make loads of money. Sound good?”
Having her picture taken, meeting people and traveling outside of the country for the first time sounded enticing to Fernanda, and almost too good to be true. But she desperately needed money, so she nodded, trying her best not to look too enthusiastic.
“Okay then, it’s settled. I’ll have my friend pick you up at 6 a.m. Pack your bags. You’re going on an adventure!” he said, lowering his sunglasses to the tip of his nose so she could see him wink. Fernanda sensed something peculiar in his tone but decided it wouldn’t do any good to second-guess her decision.
A cherry-red sports car pulled up into her driveway before sunrise. A driver in a sharp black suit knocked at her door as Fernanda scoffed down some cereal. She kissed Rodinho, who was still sleeping. “Don’t keep them waiting,” her mother prodded.
Fernanda climbed into the backseat of the car, her legs squeaking against the shiny vinyl, and was whisked off into the salmon hue of dawn.
An hour or so later, she arrived at a tattered white house in a suburb she didn’t recognize. With reggaetón blaring in the background, three women younger than her mother started taking her measurements, photographing her and handing her different dresses to try on. One of the women, a blonde who chain-smoked incessantly, ignored Fernanda’s attempts to start a conversation.
At the sound of the doorbell, the three women rushed into a soldierly line. An overweight man with a shaved head and thick black beard emerged through the door. He wore a black leather jacket and oversized metal-studded jeans and walked with a noticeable limp. He brushed each of the women affectionately on the chin as he passed, then stopped in front of Fernanda.
“Now, this is a fine one! Is she ready to start?” he asked, looking over at the women.
The women looked at one another doubtfully.
“Actually, I think I’ll test her out,” he said, ogling Fernanda with a mischievous, serrated-tooth grin.
Sensing that something was off, Fernanda asked: “So, when are we going to Spain?”
“You’ll need to earn your way,” said the man, grabbing her arm and leading her to a room at the back of the house that had only an unmade bed with a single white sheet. He closed the door, took off his jacket and started undoing his belt.
“Wait! There must be a mistake,” protested Fernanda. “I’m here for the modelling trip!”
“That’ll come later,” said the man, grabbing her T-shirt and hurling it briskly over her head.
“No, please! I’m not that kind of girl!”
Ignoring her, the man restrained both her wrists in one of his hulky hands. With the other, he tore off her undergarments. When Fernanda started screaming, he grabbed her T-shirt from the floor and stuffed it in her mouth to muffle her. He threw Fernanda onto the bed and thrust himself on top, straddling her small frame. Then he penetrated her with so much force, Fernanda saw stars. It was a pain so intense she imagined it must be like giving birth.
Beads of sweat dripped from the man’s face, as he barked: “Look at me like you want this. Stop crying like a baby! Scream like you like it.”
His words started fading and Fernanda couldn’t be sure if she lost consciousness from the pain, but by the time she was finally lucid, he was pulling up his jeans and leaving the room.
The three women avoided making eye contact when they came to wake Fernanda the next morning. “Get showered. Your first client is at noon,” a blonde woman ordered, in an odd accent that Fernanda couldn’t place.
“I did not sign up for this! I want to go home!” Fernanda moaned.
“Darling, none of us chose this. But it’s too late to get out now. Don’t even think about trying to run away. They’ll kill you!”
The words fell like a brick on Fernanda, who could only stare in disbelief.
“Listen, your clients will pay you in cash, but you have to hand it all over to the cafetão. He’ll give you your share at the end of the month.” Then, the woman paused and shifted her gaze to the floor: “Sorry he had to break you in yesterday. We know how brutal he is.”
Fernanda lay there with her mouth gaping as she began piecing it all together. That odd wink from Mrs. da Silva’s grandson; the super-early-morning pickup; the too-good-to-be-true promises of fast money and a trip to Spain. How could she have fallen for it? She’d heard about women from the favela being lured into prostitution rings. How could she have missed the signs?
“Come on now, get up! When your 12 o’clock arrives, don’t forget to smile. They pay better that way,” the woman added.
Minutes later, the other two women joined her to brief Fernanda on the tricks of the trade: how to pretend to enjoy herself; how to get a man’s attention on the street; how much to charge for sex, oral sex and other ‘services’; how to handle questions from police. The advice felt surreal and left Fernanda reeling. She’d been a virgin before the cafetão and now, suddenly, she was expected to perform like a seasoned lady of the night.
During the first week, they kept Fernanda locked in the bedroom. They brought miserable meals on a tray and only let her out to use the bathroom. The clients would usually come around lunchtime, for a quickie. And from the muffled female voices she could make out in adjoining rooms, there must have at least three others taking clients, but it was impossible to tell if they were the other women’s voices or those of other girls like herself.
After her ‘trial period’, the cafetão started taking Fernanda to the streets after dark, ordering her to find as many customers as she could, and warning: “There are bonuses when you get more; consequences when you don’t get any.”
On her first night out, Fernanda had to wear a tight black tank top exposing her cleavage, a short sequined mini-skirt and black stiletto heels so tall even the seasoned pageant queen lost her balance. Fernanda thought back to how she and her school friends used to make fun of the young prostitutes who wandered the edges of the favela at night. She’d never stopped to consider that any of them could have been tricked into it.
One of the older women from the house accompanied her the first few times, correcting her walk and coaching her on what to say when a car slowed down: “Lean in, smile flirtatiously and twirl your hair.” In some ways it reminded Fernanda of her training for the beauty pageants.
She avoided making eye contact with drivers and tried to look lost, until a dark sedan slowed down beside her and a man with grey hair and a stubbly beard rolled down the window: “How much?”
Fernanda hesitated before noticing the cafetão on the opposite corner, watching her every move. So, she forced a smile: “300.”
He opened the passenger-side door and slipped his hands immediately between her legs, ordering her to undress right there in his car. His beard felt like sandpaper, and Fernanda shed silent tears throughout the ‘transaction’. She was sure she would have vomited if it had lasted any longer, so the only saving grace was that it was done quickly. He handed her three crisp 100-Real bills. It would have taken her at least three 8-hour shifts at the grocery store to make that much, but oh how she wished she were packing frozen chickens instead of this.
How could she get back to Rodinho and her mother? She didn’t even know where she was and her cafetão kept all her earnings. The other women told her that in the first few weeks, the money would go towards paying for her clothes. After that, if she did well, she would get to go to Spain, where customers paid even better.
“You’re beautiful, so you will do well,” one of the women had reassured her.
In that instant, Fernanda wished she could tear her face off.
Sensing her unease, the woman warned her not to try to run away, as the punishment would be swift and brutal. “We know. We tried. We failed.”
One morning, after two soul-crushing weeks with multiple customers per night, the cafetão announces that Fernanda will soon be ready to go to Spain. Fearing the added distance, Fernanda decides she has no choice but to try to escape – whatever the consequences.
That night, she sets out in a clingy red dress, on the prowl for just the right customer. She smiles wide as she climbs into a car driven by a skinny old man with thick glasses. Along the drive to a nearby motel, he stops at a red light and Fernanda takes her cue. Ripping off his glasses with one hand, she opens the driver-side door with the other and uses her whole body to push him out onto the street. Heart hammering in her chest, she closes the car door before he can react, grabbing the steering wheel and stepping on the gas.
Petrified that the cafetão might be following, Fernanda speeds through the next three intersections. She doesn’t even know where she’s heading, but prays she’ll eventually come across a police station.
A few minutes later, swirling squad car lights and the blare of sirens herald her rescue. Screeching to a halt, Fernanda stumbles out the door, sobbing uncontrollably. With black mascara streaming down overly blushed cheeks, she proceeds to tell the officers everything.
Copyright © 2023 by Jen Ross.
About the Author
Jen Ross is a Chilean-Canadian journalist and former foreign correspondent with hundreds of nonfiction articles published in newspapers and magazines around the world, including on the issue of human trafficking in Brazil. She spent 10 years working for the United Nations Office for Human Rights in Chile and UN Women in New York, before moving to her husband’s country, Aruba, where she took time off to write her first fiction and now lives and works as a freelance writer and editor. Her creative nonfiction has appeared in Guernica Magazine; her poetry in The Poet Magazine; flash fiction in The Pine Cone Review; a short story is forthcoming in The Global Youth Review; and she has a novelette published in the Everlast anthology by Dragon Soul Press.
Cars Recharging at Tesla Stations
Should Teslas Rule?
The thing is Einstein was wrong
God does play dice
this world is weird and random
the truth suspended
somewhere above a sealed box
And Berkeley was wrong
if a tree falls in a forest and no one is there
and not even God is about in the Quad
the tree knows it has fallen
A stack of bones
to pick with god, a gambling god
a god gone for a beer
maybe we should trade him in
for an electric model à la Musk
Cruise comfortably on autopilot
through the rest of our alotted days
not worrying about trees or dice
not picking at empty bones
or stepping in the same river twice
Copyright © 2023 by Claire Scott.
About the Author
Claire Scott is an award-winning poet who has received multiple Pushcart Prize nominations. Her work has appeared in the Atlanta Review, Bellevue Literary Review, New Ohio Review, Enizagam and Healing Muse among others. She is the author of Waiting to be Called and Until I Couldn’t. She is the co-author of Unfolding in Light: A Sisters’ Journey in Photography and Poetry.