His Last Peace
I had been working at TIME in New York for four years when I wrote a long piece in favour of the use of ethanol as an alternative means of powering motor vehicles. The article was published to considerable acclaim and indeed became something of a rallying cry for ecologists nationwide. I had researched the arguments mostly with reference to Brazil, the world’s largest industrial producer and consumer of sugar cane ethanol. Far from dieing down as I had anticipated, the discussion became more and more political and my article was cited with increasing regularity until, one slushy morning in February, I received a call asking me whether I would be interested in the post of sub-editor at American Ecologist magazine.
I am not an ecologist. I switch the light off before I leave a room but I honestly cannot say whether that is because I am concerned about the environment or about saving money. However, American Ecologist was offering me a considerable pay rise and in any case I was beginning to feel that I had hit a ceiling at TIME. It was just a question of when to make my move; I still had a certain amount of paid holiday owing to me which I was keen to use before I tendered my resignation. Brazil was the obvious choice as a holiday destination. My interviews for the article had all been conducted by telephone and they had piqued my interest in the country; I wanted to see it with my own eyes. Furthermore, I had for some time been toying with an idea for a short story. Like so many others, I had become a journalist in order to pay my way while I gathered the material that would launch me as a successful creative writer. The story I had in mind was about the meeting of two writers who, unbeknownst to each other, were both writing exactly the same story. Brazil, I thought, would make an exotic setting.
So, I booked the time off work and bought a flight to Florianopolis, capital of the southern state of Santa Catarina and located on the island bearing that name. I had chosen it on the advice of Dr. Ramiro da Silva, a charming professor of economics at the Universidade Federal de Sčo Paolo who had told me that he went to Santa Catarina every year with his family. He praised the island’s many miles of unspoilt beaches and its climate, less humid than the coast of the northeast. And so it was that I arrived at JFK in snow and darkness one icy March morning and disembarked in Florianopolis ten hours later, after a connection in Sčo Paolo, into the balmy warmth of a Brazilian summer evening.
I rented a car which, I was delighted to see, ran on sugar cane ethanol. Then I drove to Joaquina beach which the professor had specifically recommended. At first I was a little disappointed. Leaving the airport the road was lined with second hand car dealerships and gas stations, much like home. However, a quarter of an hour later I was bumping along the cobbled road that runs parallel to the calm waters of Lagoa da Conceićao, the saltwater lagoon, Occasionally I caught sight of fishermen wading far out, wielding handheld nets and fishing for crab with the aid of torches strapped to their heads. Turning away from the lagoon I climbed a small hill; here the road was in danger of being swallowed by the sand dunes that towered above it on the southern side. A mile after the brow of the hill the road ended at the Joaquina beach car park. There were just two hotels and one restaurant, all facing the Atlantic ocean and the wide open beach that stretched away into the night. I got out of the car, closed the door and gratefully inhaled the warm, marine air.
I spent the next few days lying on the beach and vaguely toying with the idea of starting to write. I got quite badly burnt on the third day, mostly because I had over-ambitiously lowered the factor of my sun-cream, but maybe also partly because the hole in the ozone layer is directly over the south of Brazil, or so it is said. If more clean-burning ethanol were used in preference to fossil fuels I would probably not have got quite so burnt. Be that as it may, by this third day I had already built up a number of the insignificant but enjoyable relationships that lone travellers are wont to do. I was on first name terms with the hotel’s superannuated receptionist whose favourite topic was the weather, a topic which I too enjoy because it is truly democratic: the weather affects everyone equally irrespective of status, colour or socio-economic bracket. I was also friendly with Paolo, the Portuguese owner of the restaurant a short walk along the beach from the hotel, and with Lua, the lady in the ice-cream kiosk. My smattering of Portuguese helped and amused in equal measure and I was soon known as o Americano – the American.
The tourist high season had wound down a week or so before my arrival. Now everything was very quiet though the weather was still hot and the skies clear. I was flattered by the attention I received and the interest people took in me. Accustomed to the amorphous mass of humanity in New York, it was a welcome change to be seen as an object of special interest, to have one’s identity and uniqueness repeatedly confirmed. Wherever I went I was asked where I was from and what I was doing in Brazil. The fact that I was a writer made me an object of even greater fascination and led to Paolo asking me to translate his restaurant’s short menu into English. I obliged over lunch one day, with the help of my dictionary. After that it became hard for me to pay for anything at the restaurant; Paolo would insist that anything I ate was on the house. As I strolled along the beach to the restaurant for a late breakfast on my fourth day, I decided that the time had come to broach the subject with Paolo. I would tell him that he had already been more than generous and that I was now beginning to feel awkward about his refusal to let me pay. Embaraćado, as my dictionary informed me.
As I arrived at the restaurant I saw a man of about my own age sitting at a table on the wooden terrace. He had a dilettante-ish air about him and was carefully, meticulously dishevelled. I disliked him immediately, even before I noticed that he had a scuffed canvas satchel identical to my own. His manner and his skin colour – less red than my own, I was irritated to note – made it clear he was not Brazilian. As did the fact that he was reading a magazine. Very few Brazilians read, though in this instance I don’t mean that as a criticism; very few New Yorkers would read if the average New Yorker were as scantily clad and as shapely as the average Brazilian. However, as I sat down at my usual table I was happy to see the stranger drop his magazine – which looked very much like TIME - into his satchel and prepare to leave. Paolo came rushing out shortly afterwards and, puffed with excitement, informed me that just that morning he had had another Americano in his restaurant. Maravilhoso, I said.
Breakfast in Portuguese is café-de-manha – morning coffee – and that is really all you get. Much as I enjoyed the coffee whilst skimming the local papers – grandfather saves boy from anaconda’s grip using machete during half-hour battle, so much more colourful than the New York Times – nevertheless, I would leave Paolo’s still hungry. Fortunately Lua’s ice-cream kiosk was in front of my hotel and here I supplemented my breakfast with a tasty carmel flavoured ice-cream called doce de leite – ‘sweet of milk’. It was a name I liked, like Lua, in fact, which means ‘moon’. Lua herself was not particularly moonlike – or at least not particularly pale - being one of the few people I had seen so far on Santa Catarina who appeared to have any trace of native indian ancestry. As I fished around inside my satchel for change in denominations small enough not to cause trouble, Lua said, ‘You Americanos really like doce de leite ice cream, don’t you?’ I nodded and managed to force a smile.
For the rest of that day and the entirety of the next, I frequently caught sight of the other Americano. At times I felt that he was stalking me. At midday I found him lying behind the large egg-shaped rock on the beach where I had hoped to read in the shade. During the afternoon I thought I saw a shadow withdrawing from behind the shutters every time I looked up at the front of the hotel. At sunset I saw him on the terrace of the hotel, striking poses which struck me as decidedly camp and smoking long thin cigarillos with studied indifference. I suppose the fact that I kept seeing him wasn’t really all that surprising; there were hardly any other guests in the hotel and my senses were trained by the power of my resentment to pick him out at almost any distance. What an unhelpful psychological phenomenon that is; how much easier it would be if we could just block out the people we dislike, rather than distinguish them with heightened perceptions.
The next morning we walked past each other as I was making my way towards Paolo’s restaurant. I feigned a sudden overwhelming interest in the patterns left by seagulls’ feet in the sand and avoided eye contact. Later, as I was sipping my coffee, Paolo came and sat at my table. ‘Um homem muito interesante, that other Americano,’ he said.
‘Oh yes?’ I asked, non-commital to a fault.
‘Com certeza. He is an author, a very intelligent man. He speaks excellent Portuguese, for an Americano.’
Paolo’s implication that the other American’s Portuguese was better than my own angered me far more than I would have believed possible. Fortunately I did not see my nemesis for the rest of the day - I might have been tempted to confront him, though I had no idea on what grounds. Instead I spent the day alternately sunbathing and swimming and by evening was able to laugh at the idiocy of the morning’s emotions. I decided to drive back past the sand dunes to Lagoa de Conceićao for dinner where I treated myself to a quite excellent seafood risotto in a restaurant justly praised by my guidebook. Fortified by a couple of glasses of dry white wine, I decided I would put finger to keyboard on my story that same evening.
Returning to the hotel I gathered my keys from the receptionist with the usual pleasantries.
‘Faz calor esta noite.’
‘Ah sim, muito calor.’
‘Ooh, it’s muggy too.’
‘Yes, very muggy.’
‘Your keys, senhor.’
I went to collect my laptop from my room so I could start to write on the hotel’s terrace which overlooked the Atlantic breakers and benefited from a pleasant sea breeze. However, as I came down the stairs I saw that the other American had had the same idea. He was leaning back in his chair beside the railing that enclosed the terrace; his laptop was balanced on the flat top of the railing and he was typing aggressively. For a second I thought about retreating back to my room but it was too late, he had already turned and seen me on the stair. I embraced the situation:
‘Good evening,’ I said.
He nodded a response.
‘So, Paolo tells me you speak excellent Portuguese.’
‘Not really. If you’re American everyone assumes you’re an idiot so it’s not difficult to impress.’ He had an arrogant nasal drawl which in no way improved my opinion of him.
‘What brings you down here?’ I asked.
‘I’m a writer, I’m working on a short story.’
‘Oh really? What about?’
‘I’m sorry, I hate discussing work in progress.’
‘Sure, I understand, it’s just that I’m a writer too, and I’m also working on a short story. Couldn’t you tell me, just briefly, what yours is about? It’s important to me.’
‘Well, if it’s important…briefly, it’s about a short story writer who meets another short story writer and they figure out that they have both written exactly the same short story, independently of each other.’
I felt a momentary dizziness and steadied myself by holding onto the railing around the terrace. I felt like I was drowning. That was of course exactly the story that I was writing myself.
‘Are you alright? You don’t look so good.’
‘I’m fine,’ I lied. I was considering telling my nemesis that I was the other author, that life was imitating art in the most extraordinary way, but I decided against it, at least until I had managed to get my head around the situation.
‘Are you sure you’re ok?’
‘Sure I’m sure. I have dizzy spells, that’s all. How does your story end?’
‘It ends in the only way possible: one of the writers kills the other.’
I breathed a deep internal sigh of relief. Perhaps we had not written the same story after all, since in my own one of the authors merely destroyed the other’s work.
‘Why is that the only way possible? Isn’t that a bit melodramatic?’ I asked.
‘All art is melodramatic. That’s what makes it art.’
That, I thought to myself, is not only wrong, it’s also a very irritating thing to say.
‘You really don’t look too good. Let me go and get you a glass of water.’
I started to protest but my nemesis had already sprung energetically from his chair and was striding across the terrace towards the reception in the other room. I was still leaning against the railing where I had steadied myself during my momentary dizziness. I turned round to look at the ocean behind me but as I did so my hand brushed against the laptop that was balanced on the railing next to me. The object fell from the railing and into the sea a few metres below with a surprisingly loud splash.
© James R. Leverman 2007, published posthumously.