Exú’s Fedora

Ben Paris: Salvador, Bahia, Brazil

Ben Paris lives in Salvador’s seaside neighborhood of Itapuã, where he eats, sleeps, drinks, swims, fights and writes.

* Exú (eh-SHOO) is a West African deity who established himself in Bahia during the slave trade. Often mistakenly conflated with the devil, his presence is associated with Dionysian pandemonium.

Exú’s Fedora

Franklin had left Jersey City during the real estate boom. They sold their house, he and his Brazilian wife, and with the profit, built a small house on land her parents had given them, and settled in to pursue the simple deliberate life in a former fishing village called Beira Mar. He set up a small tourism business, the income from which turned out to be not more than pocket change, but it kept him busy.

He’d been flipping through the pages of the local tourism magazine, dozing in the hammock, when the loud music started up again at the new brothel around the corner. The group from Texas was due in; he was hoping to get some sleep before they arrived.

His wife warned him about going over to the place. Who knew how they’d react? What kind of people were these? These brothelistas,she called them.

He’d been stewing about it for weeks, since the owners of the building finally gave up on the idea of a bed-and-breakfast, rented it, and took off to the countryside. He had expected something like an argument. But he was welcomed like a client. Idle women at the pool peeked around the potted plants for a look.

The manager, wearing a Speedo swimsuit, sunglasses, belly hanging proudly over his waist, put his hand on Franklin’s shoulder. “I understand,” he said.

“The people on that block over there” Franklin pointed to his own house, “are just a few meters away.”

“Sure. You’re right.” The manager called his assistant, also shirtless; washboard belly, sunglasses, goatee. “Tell them to turn down the volume. The neighbours….”

Then to Franklin: “See. Easy. We want to get along with everyone here.”

With the music turned down to a more agreeable thumping, the assistant returned: “Better?”

“Better,” Franklin said. “Thanks.” He held out his hand, a formal business-like handshake. “For your own good, by the way. You don’t want to, you know, mess up business. The neighbours….”

They both nodded. “We know.”

On his way out, Franklin ran into his neighborhood friends, Jorginho and Pau, sitting on the stoop in front of Jorginho’s bar. Kids played soccer in the street in front of them; another group played a version of hopscotch in the late afternoon shade.

“Just complaining about the noise,” Franklin said. He looked around to see if anyone else may have seen him leave the place. “Nice neighborhood like this, kids, families. Now we have to put up with putas. I don’t know why people tolerate it.”

Pau poured beer into his Jorginho’s cup. “I’m sick of it too.” He handed Franklin a cup and poured the beer. “This kind of thing happen where you’re from?”

“The putas?”

“The putas, yes; the whole scene over there,” Pau said.

“Barking dogs were a problem in Jersey City sometimes,” Franklin said. “People used to argue over parking spots. But a brothel moving into the neighbourhood? No, that never happened.”

“He’s right,” Pau said to Jorginho. “I’m sick of it too.”

A soccer ball rolled over; Jorginho kicked it toward the kids.

Pau took out his cell phone and dialed. He shouted into the phone in Portuguese slang that Franklin could not understand. He put his hand over the mouthpiece and looked up at Franklin. “We don’t ask. We call the police and the police break heads.”

“I didn’t want to create problems,” Franklin said to Jorginho, who ignored him. “I talked to them. They lowered the music, and that was the end of it.”

The fragile social contract in Beira Mar was being tested the last couple of years by a crack epidemic. The police, poorly paid and over-extended, had shadow groups that kept order. They worked off-hours, wore masks, and did what they had to do.

He snapped the phone shut. “You’ll see,” he said to Franklin.

“I wasn’t trying to create problems. Just went over to talk to them, and it was taken care of.”

‘Now it’s taken care of,” Pau said. “You’ll see how we take care of things.”

On the day of the big pre-Carnaval street festival in Beira Mar, fireworks woke the saints at dawn. The year before, police raided houses in the neighborhood at daybreak looking for drugs, guns, and dealers. They used a helicopter to catch people trying to escape.

A helicopter wasn’t used for the brothel bust, but the raid took place at dawn on the day of the big festival. Franklin walked by on his way to the bakery, and saw the sliding aluminum garage door knocked off its track. From the street, he could see around the pool, men in shorts and women in nightclothes face down with their hands behind their heads. Plainclothes police wearing sunglasses and carrying guns, shouted orders.

Pau sat on the stoop; he winked when Franklin walked by. Franklin responded with a discreet thumbs up. At the bakery, Jorginho was stirring his coffee.

“Looks like they came like they said they would,” Franklin said.

“Looks like they did.”

“Wonder what’s going to happen.”

“Don’t have to wonder. It’s happening,” Jorginho said.

“But later. What’ll happen later?”

O bicho vai pegar.”

bicho can be any living or imagined thing, from a bug to a bird to a spirit or monster. A legitimate dictionary will have a page of meanings. One of the first words Franklin learned while he was learning Portuguese, he used it regularly.

The bicho will make itself apparent somehow was what Jorginho said to Franklin.

The group from Texas, four of them, from a company called SunTex, had won an audience with the Brazilian national oil company after they bid on a new round of drilling off the coast of Bahia, a few hours from Beira Mar. In his email note, Clyde Barriston, principal, requested “…a look around the city, a little pleasure mixed with business.”

The sign Franklin made with Barriston’s name on it, black magic marker and cardboard, was redundant, but they didn’t know it, and he raised the sign high. The four Texans lumbered through the exit gate like cattle from their home state. The walk from the runway to the gate in the tropical heat left them breathing heavily; extended patches of sweat stained their polo shirts.

Street festivals, single-day versions of Carnaval, the way they happen in Bahia, could never happen in the US: cheap alcohol sold from makeshift stands, one next to the other, blasting their own music; everyone drunk or drinking; women and girls dancing with a sexuality that would make Americans blush. Police in riot gear tried to keep order by walking through the crowds poking people who happen to be in their path with billy sticks, as a reminder of what was at stake if they got out of hand. Fights broke out spontaneously. Reasonable people were safely home and tucked away.

When Franklin ran into Jorginho and Pau, they tapped fists; the music was too loud to talk. Pau turned toward the bar, and turned back around with three glass cups filled with cachaça. Franklin bought the next round. Then Jorginho. By the end of the night, Franklin was making an idiot of himself with the girls on the street. The dance implored women, according the lyrics, to “rub your genitals on the floor.” The guys followed behind. Franklin couldn’t keep up, but the girls didn’t mind, as long as he was buying them beer. A black fedora found its way to his head somehow, which made him feel like Exú, the id among the pantheon of saints in Bahia, or the devil according to some, who wore the same hat in popular representations. Cachaça was Exú’s favorite drink.

“This is how you do it,” the girl in front of him said. She smiled, gyrated her hips, descended, telling him to follow. He went as low as he could until she danced herself around so her backside pressed the front of his hips. In the song, all the gatinhas, cats or pretty girls, shouted their presence, followed by the cachorras, the feminine form of dog or horny women, shouting their own presence, laughing outrageously every time. Franklin tried to keep his balance with the help of the girl’s shoulder, but he fell and pulled her down with him. The group around them broke up in fits of laughter. Her face planted in his belly, she grabbed a cup of beer from one of the tables, and threw it on his chest. The group laughed some more: cachorras! gatinhas! cachorras! gatinhas!

Franklin stumbled from the scene toward the beach, rested his shoulder against a coconut tree, and took a leak. Salvador, on the other side of the bay, sparkled like the women at the party. Franklin had known the world’s legendary cities, and none had anything on Salvador, not the least of which was because the people, a mix of African, indigenous, and European, combined with sun, tropical food and lives lived outdoors, were as physically beautiful as the city they lived in.

He zipped up and turned.

The brothel manager and his assistant, thick silver chains hanging from their necks, were blocking his way.

“Happy?”

Franklin looked around, tried to push through them.

“What do you mean, ‘happy’?'”

“They tried to shut us down. That’s what you wanted.”

“I just wanted you to lower the music. If I wanted them to shut you down, I wouldn’t have gone over to speak to you personally.”

When Franklin saw the girl he’d been dancing with running toward them, he assumed he’d made a new friend; help was on the way. But she threw her arms around the brothel manager: “I thought they took you in,” she said.

Franklin could see Pau and Jorginho standing under the streetlights near the dancing crowd.

“They did.” The manager held up his hand, rubbed his thumb and forefinger together. “Money. Friends. Lawyers. And here we are.”

“And everyone else?” the girl said.

“All of them, probably out here somewhere.”

She kissed him on the lips, and let out a squeal of happiness. She repeated the same ceremony for his assistant. She locked her elbows between theirs and marched them back, Dorothy-like, to the party.

Walking away, the manager turned and said to Franklin, “Watch your back.”

Franklin’s wife was reading the newspaper when he sat down at the table for breakfast the next morning. He poured coffee from a thermos, said good morning.

She ignored him.

After a while she said, “I can smell the alcohol from here. Had a good time, I guess, huh?”

He sipped the coffee.

Then, “Love the hat.” She pointed with her chin at the fedora hanging on the chair. “Nice effect. Where did you get it?”

He blinked his eyes, and tried to remember.

Before he could respond, she pushed the newspaper across the table, “See this?” The headline said, “Beira Mar Brothel Raided. Twelve arrested”; beneath it, a photo of the pool at the brothel, the image that Franklin had seen the day before, bodies with hands clasped behind heads. Franklin examined it, and identified the manager and his assistant.

“That’s them,” he said, pointing at the photo.

“So you went over there?”

“Yesterday.”

“And I guess you thought it wasn’t important enough to mention?”

“You would have been thrilled, right? Didn’t want the drama. How did you know?”

“You were out there on the street talking to Pau and Jorginho. Their wives, the kids. They all have eyes, and they all talk.”

“What’s the difference if I went over there or not?”

“When they come looking for you, who do think is going to have to explain things to them?”

“I just wanted them to lower the music.”

“Well, now they’re in jail, and they’re out a lot of money, and you were over there complaining, and it doesn’t matter what you did or didn’t do, it just matters what it seems like you did.”

“They’re not in jail. Saw them last night.”

She shook her head back and forth, incredulous pity. “You know what that means then, don’t you?”

Franklin sipped his coffee, and examined the photo in the paper.

“These people aren’t just regular neighbours,” she said. “I can’t believe I have to explain this to you. They’re gang people with connections; they pay people off to get what they want. Without complicity, connections, they wouldn’t be in business.”

“What should I do?”

“I don’t know what you should do, but you better do something.”

“Or what?”

“Or what?” She shook her head back and forth again.

“Yes. What?”

“I don’t know what, but you know what’s going to happen, don’t you?”

O bicho vai pegar,” he said.

Waiters in tuxedos circulated the expansive room with slabs of meat on spits. They stopped at tables looking for the affirmative nod, sliced meat onto diners’ plates, and kept moving. Barriston chewed and talked at the same time. His plate was piled high with strips of beef cooked rare oozing with blood-red gravy.

“It isn’t this good in Texas, I’m sorry to say. Isn’t that right, boys?”

Barriston’s employees agreed and chewed. “You have to pay for it,” one of them said. “But you can find it.”

“We can take a ride out to the countryside where the beef is raised,” Franklin said, “if you have some free time before you leave. It’s all out there grazing in the grass, just an hour or so outside town. You guys could buy a ranch.”

Barriston sipped his caipirinha. “Grass-raised beef, that’s why it’s so good.” He looked around the table. “We could a take trip like that. Or maybe our friend Franklin here is just trying to drum up business.”

“Just offering,” Franklin said. A trip to the countryside in the mini-bus with the four of them would net Franklin enough money to pay the bills for the month.

Barriston leaned toward Franklin. “I told you what we want to do with our free time,” he said.

Franklin looked up, thought about the logistics for an instant, and grinned.

They pulled up to the aluminum garage door in the mini-bus. Franklin rolled down the window on the passenger side and looked around. He was wearing the black fedora. The manager wouldn’t risk losing the clients, especially the gringos, Franklin figured, by doing something against his own interests. He got out and slid open the mini-bus door. Franklin imagined what they looked like, the five of them, in the security screen at the front desk. He pulled the fedora down over his eyes. The manager opened the door.

Franklin wasn’t greeted like a client this time. “I have a proposal,” he said, gesturing toward the Texans.

The manager nodded his approval, and the Texans pushed through the door as fast as their big bodies would allow. A hostess in high heels and a one-piece bathing suit led them to the pool. Lit by underwater lights, it glistened like a turquoise jewel. They arranged themselves in lounge chairs around it.

“Nice place,” Clyde said to Franklin.

The manager offered drinks.

“They don’t speak Portuguese, only English. But they have money,” Franklin said. It was a muggy night. Franklin could smell the jasmine hanging in the air. He glanced around the pool to identify the source. A fragrance that Franklin spent considerable time and effort trying to cultivate, the scent of jasmine always belied the more unsavory aspects of Beira Mar living.

Another waitress arrived with caipirinhas on a tray. They each took one.

The music started. Franklin was called for a meeting with the manager in his office.

“So you’re back.” The manager had his legs crossed on a couch. He was smoking a joint, offered it to Franklin, who declined, then to his assistant. Franklin watched the Texans through closed-circuit camera.

“They have money, the gringos. Two-hundred each. Not sure what people pay, but it probably isn’t two-hundred.”

The fedora gave Franklin a feeling of invincibility.

The assistant passed the joint back to his boss.

“And there are more. I get gringos like this all the time. A nice arrangement we’ll have,” Franklin said.

Franklin turned toward the pool. “One minute,” he said to the manager and his assistant.

He walked over to Barriston, who was on his second caipirinha already. After a short conversation, Barriston stood, reached into his pocket, and pulled out his wallet. He counted the money and put it in Franklin’s hand. Barriston’s employees stood offering money, but Clyde waved them off. Franklin shook his hand, and walked away.

Between the pool and the office, Franklin took a drink off one of the waitress’s trays.

The manager counted the money, then counted it again. He took another hit off the joint, and offered it again to Franklin.

Franklin took a hit, and passed it to the assistant.

The manager peeled off a few bills, and handed them to Franklin.

“There are more,” Franklin said. “More gringos, and more money.”

“We’re here. Just pass them along.”

A light open-hand slap, and the fist bump. “You’ll put them in a cab when they’re done, right? I’ll let the driver go.”

“Sure.”

“And keep down the noise.” Franklin tipped his hat, and closed the door on his way out.

He walked home around the corner and put himself into the hammock. The music at the brothel was barely audible; Barriston’s voice carried farther.

He watched the bats fly back and forth through the dim streetlights with their frantic grace, and flipped through the pages of the tourism magazine. He took off the black fedora and hung it on the same hook the hammock hung on. Then Franklin nodded off.

fin