RIO – Chapter Three

Saturday midday, February 2, 2008

Lucas “Pantera” Rocha had a bittersweet morning. He sullenly rode the bus back toward Ipanema beach, guilty to acknowledge Cristo Redentor. He counted R$129 cash in the American’s wallet, roughly the average income that forty-five million Brazilians earned per month. The bus turned right on Avenue Delfim Moreira and drove westward along the Ipanema and Leblon shorelines—two miles of the most awe-inspiring scenery in the world. International tourists and wealthy locals sauntered along on the signature slate gray and white mosaic walkways bordering the beachfront. Hundreds frolicked in the Atlantic Ocean waves or played volleyball on the toasty-white sands. The rest were either drinking from whole coconuts under traditional yellow beach umbrellas or basking in the mid-day sun. Lucas’ keen sense of smell breathed in the sea air tinged with a scent of tanning oils. Mãe, he thought with misty eyes, you were right. Our home was a gift from God.

The bus shuttled past a gated, opulent estate on the west end of Leblon, and Lucas bitterly recalled a brush with prejudice. Three years prior, he had naively crashed an outdoor party at this mansion to sell them some fresh-picked fruit. Like any street peddler, he wouldn’t take “no” for an answer from the insouciant guests, but this was a private party for the privileged. He had mouthed off to a security guard, who smashed his mouth with a steel truncheon. Lucas then reeled back in pain, but collected his wits and threw the open box of fruit at the man, adroitly scaled a three-meter high stonewall, leapt across to a towering Tipuana tree and swung back down to the ground outside the property. Once home, he had blubbered bitterly in his mother’s arms. “What did I do to deserve this hatred?”

Ana Rocha had embraced him with motherly love. “Hatred is ignorance,” she had whispered. “Always remember, son, that life is only lovely when you leave your heart open to receive love.” She had gently stroked his matted-down Afro. “Now wipe away your tears so you can clearly see the stars.”

The next morning Patricio bestowed Lucas’ nickname. “Little brother, only a jaguar could scale a wall twice its height, sure-footedly navigate the thinnest of tree limbs and gallop as fast as gale winds. Now that you’ve added fangs to your spotted face, I am convinced you are the descendent of a black jaguar.”

Lucas was so offended he charged his brother, who quickly grabbed his strong arms and wrapped him tightly against his own body. “Lucas,” he said, “Hold still. I am not teasing you; I am giving you a supreme tribute. A spotted jaguar is the most powerful cat in the Amazon, but a black jaguar is such a rare breed it’s called a pantera. Is this animal blessed or cursed? I choose to believe it is a distinguished breed just like you.”

Mãe had affirmed Patricio’s new moniker. “Son, the Pantera Onça symbolizes passion, self-confidence, independence, tenacity, awareness, and empowerment. True champions are always remembered by a single name. When the name Pelé is spoken anywhere in the world it is spoken reverently. Someday this will also be true of you as well.” Mãe, he thought, you knew. Pantera is what I am and what I’m intended to be.

The bus ascended up Avenida Niemeyer’s winding ways into the Vidigal hills, and stopped across the street from the Sheraton Rio—Lucas’s stop. A few paparazzi were staked out in the hotel parking lot, signaling that a celebrity had booked there for the Carnival. Given the week I just went through, he thought, a pantera should be treated like a celebrity, if only for today. Bolstering his self-confidence with his newfound cash, Lucas ventured to the lobby doors, only to be promptly stopped by a razor-thin, massively hook-nosed, mono-browed doorman. “Where do you think you are going?” the man snipped in an odd, nasal Portuguese, clearly not the local Carioca dialect used in Rio.

“Don’t I look like a guest, senhor?” He retorted as he imagined a tourist would.

“I’ve seen you around here before. What is your name?” The doorman asked with irritation.

“Pantera,” Lucas proudly replied. “But enough chatter. I’m going inside for some lunch. Will you let me by, please?”

“You know the answer.” He folded his scrawny arms, clearly swimming within his oversized uniform. Torso for torso, Lucas was a better fit for the uniform jacket although his legs were eight-inches too short for the pants.

Lucas peeked around him, marveling at the plush, gold-lit marble lobby inside. Ironically, his mother wouldn’t bring him to her place of work. Maybe it was hotel policy, or maybe because Ana had been on sick leave more than not. Lucas flaunted his newly acquired wallet, flipped it open and fanned the cash. “Are you saying my money isn’t good around here?”

The doorman edged closer and glared at him. “Of course it is,” he grunted.

“How silly of me. I know what you want,” Lucas replied. “Tips.” He held out 10 reais. “A tip for your favor, meu bom homem. I want to take a relaxing swim before I dine poolside.”

“You would be correct,” the mono-brow replied as he snatched the bill like a vulture snaps at road kill. “Money makes my world go around. But even if you offered me ten gold coins, I wouldn’t let you in because I would surely lose my job. Still, I am curious how a punk like you is old enough to qualify for an American driver’s license. So what’s your real name, wise guy?” Mono-brow edged closer.

Lucas slowly backed up. “I already told you, it’s Pantera. But with an attitude like yours, why would I want to spend time in a dump like this anyway?” Mono-brow grabbed for the wallet, but Lucas reared back and sprinted up the driveway, his keen grey-green eyes scanning the area for police.

“Don’t let me see you around here again, gutter trash.” Mono-brow bellowed.

Lucas flipped him the middle finger salute and continued running until he crossed Avenida Niemeyer and entered the safe zone—a narrow mountain path leading up to his favela. Idiota, he silently cursed. Here I am supposed to be the robber, and I almost got robbed.

Few roads lead into a favela. Tragically for its residents, fewer roads lead out of one. Makeshift shacks, fabricated out of scrap plywood, stones and concrete, sheets of plastic and tin roofs, were built as far back as the 1940’s by hundreds of thousands of squatters who migrated from the country to Rio in search of jobs. The fortunate ones found work but when the Brazilian government relocated its capital to Brasilia in the late 1950s, thus transplanting government and related service jobs, the squatters who stayed behind were forever trapped in the slums.

Shantytowns like Chácara do Céu have no telephone lines or sewers. There are no hospitals or police or fire stations. Only the most luxurious shacks have kitchens, which may include a small refrigerator, propane stove, and a rubber hose that runs cold water into a sink that drains into a tin bucket below.

The narrow pathways have no street numbers, but locals instinctively know where to grab exceptional cuisine and enjoy a beer in some ersatz pubs, such as Murilo’s over by Two Brothers Park. Lucas treated himself to one of his favorite entrees—a bowl of eijoada, a thick black bean stew with chunks of beef and pork. Despite a nearby boom box cranking out baile funk music, Lucas sat down at a rusty picnic table under a torn awning and prayed. “Bless us, O Lord, and these, Thy gifts, which we are about to receive from Thy bounty. Through Christ, our Lord. Amen.” After crossing himself, he reverently ate in solitude. His mother always made Patricio and him recite grace before dinner with a fervent hope her two sons would remember those words as well as some of Padre Paulo’s sermons. Perhaps at least the remaining son would.

Lucas couldn’t finish his lunch at Murilo’s due to an aching pit in his stomach. He threw the remaining scraps to some stray cats. He bought his sisters their favorite meal to go—frango com quiabo and cocadas for dessert, left a healthy tip and continued hiking further up the zigzag paths until reaching the stage at Two Brothers Park. Behind it, one mound, nestled in natural grass and vines, still had a wedge of slate marked “ANA.” The other mound was fresh dirt with a slate newly inscribed, “PATRICIO.” The dank night air was laced with an acrid odor like burnt dinner only worse. The smell seemed appropriate.

Lucas placed a second orchid on his brother’s stone. “What do I do now, Patricio? What am I supposed to do?” He carefully removed his bandage and examined his muscular, festering forearm. “We had enough, you and I. Enough. And now you’re…gone.” Lucas stuttered, “Life happens—bullshit! He squinted through watering eyes at Cristo Redentor up Corcovado Mountain. “Mãe said my Christian name means ‘enlightened one,’” He called out solemnly. “Do you always make it this painful to become enlightened? What kind of God are you anyway?”

Christ the Redeemer didn’t reply.


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