Saturday, August 23, 2008

The Littlest Mermaid (part 2)

A few months later Eddie and I were sitting at a cafe table. It was a Saturday morning and the broad avenue by the beach was full of tourists. We were hungover but nothing sunglasses and thick coffee couldn't cure. We had celebrated last night. I had a job!

If you had asked me, though of course you didn't, I would have told you why my pockets were empty. Beauty. Light. Color. Art. It was my camera that led me here, to this city by the ocean. The way the sky was changed by the expanse of water; the way the light reflected off of both changed the faces of the people and the buildings, how sun bleached truth out of makeup and color-washed plaster.

I had shown my photos to someone in the clubs who had a friend downtown. The next time I saw him he handed me a name and address scratched on a scrap of paper. "Darling go see him! I told him about your photos!"

I found the address. "Studio Som Novo" read the sign. At the front desk I asked for the name on the paper. "Gustavo... I am here to see Gustavo." The girl looked at me dubiously over the rims of her glasses, but nevertheless got up from her seat. As she walked away I was sure the little extra shake of her behind was for my benefit. When she returned from an inner office she gave me the up and down. "Senhor Gustavo will see you." I smiled at her, despite the upturn of her nose.

Gustavo wore an ill-fitting suit. But he was friendly. He rose from his desk to shake my hand. "Gigi said you were an excellent photographer."

I was surprised that he called my friend Gigi. Apparently Gilberto and Gustavo knew each other somewhat better than I had assumed. It was a long time before he let go of my hand.

I had come with a folder of photos, and I spread them out on his desk. Faces of people. Bright colors from the market. Children playing on the beach. Musicians. Dancers.

"Nice. Very nice. I need someone with your..." he looked me up and down, a lecher's gleam in his eyes "...talents!"

"We try to put out records every week. Some sell. Some don't. You will take pictures. You get paid if they sell. I will introduce you to our creative director."

And so it began, my humble career. I stopped by where Eddie worked, that salon in the big hotel downtown. I fanned the bills out Gustavo had given me as a small advance. "Baby we are going out to celebrate!"

That was last night. The rest of the evening I remembered dimly. So many drinks. Much laughter. There was that fight at one bar, a drunken tourist laid low across a table, drinks and plates smashing onto the tiled floor, when he refused to stop talking to some tough guy's girl. At some point Roberto found us, he was high as a kite, asking if we had seen Zizi and her American boy. No, we said, and he shuffled off, eyes fixed on a young tourist sitting alone at the bar.

I sipped from my cup and squinted behind my dark glasses, glad for the coffee, which was hot and sweet. Eddie was reading the paper. "Hey look at this." He spread the paper down in front of me, pointing to the full-page advertisement.

Sr. Henry Gilson and His Orchestra
featuring A Pequenina Sereia and Her Guitar"

And there in the picture below the gaudily laid out headline was that girl. She looked small and out of place photographed on some bandstand between a row of violinists and three flautists. She gazed at the camera with the look of a deer caught in headlights. The concert was not at some bar or club, but a regular hall. And it was that very week.

I brought the ad to Gustavo that Monday. "Oh yes. Henry's little mermaid. Not much of a nymph, is she? Still a lot of baby fat on that one," he said.

I asked him if he had heard her sing. "There is something about her."

Gustavo pursed his lips. "Henry has been after me to put him on a record. You go to this show. Take pictures. See if you can coax a smile out of your little sea nymph. Everybody needs a pretty girl on their record cover, otherwise it doesn't sell. If you can make her look good maybe I will give Henry what he wants. Iemanja eh? Henry's soul must be blacker than I know."

Feeling dismissed I turned and left his office. I walked around the offices and met my new coworkers. At the front desk the girl with the glasses handed me an envelope with a few bills and two tickets. "Senhor Gustavo says make sure you get a nice photo. No pretty pictures no sales. And no money means this shithole closes down and I am not going back to that typing pool."

I raised my eyebrows. I had no idea our little desk girl had the mouth of a sailor. I assured her I was up for the challenge. I pocketed the envelope.

"So do you have a girlfriend?" she asked not quite coquettishly as I turned to leave. Surely I waited too long to answer. "Pahh," she spat, "another faggot. Just like the rest." She turned back to her desk and waved me out the door.

A few nights later I put a few rolls of film in the pocket of my only suit and slung my cameracase over my shoulder. I was meeting Zizi for a cocktail before the show. I had called her up from a payphone and asked her if she would like to come along.

"It's an assignment for my new job. But it's quite an event. And all very voodoo."

"Oh how exciting! Shall I wear some flouncy white skirt and wrap myself in beads?"

I assured her that was not necessary. This was a society event not some wild ceremony out in the slums. Zizi showed up in one of her usual outfits, a trendy Parisian cocktail dress. A smart little hat with white lace. A madly huge crucifix was pinned with flowers to her breast. "I told Daddy and Grandmama where I was going and Grandmama cried that I was going to be carried off by white slavers. She insisted that I wear this."

The crowd at the hall was huge. But it was not a crowd of the mothers and fathers of the saints but the usual ladies and gentlemen of nighttime society. A few trendy concert goers, women with beautiful skin the color of coffee mellowed with cream had chosen to wrap their hair with intricately folded scarves.

(to be continued)

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