“Viaduct Rodeo” by Maria-Luiza Brisbane

"Untitled" by Janie Stamm / janiestamm.com

He had no idea how he’d found himself in this situation, or why he’d allowed them to talk him into coming along. The fact remained, however, that he now stood with one leg swung over the concrete railing, the other foot planted against the asphalt. Below him stretched a massive eight-lane avenue for several kilometers, until it bifurcated and wrapped its tentacles around the park. Cars, buses, and motorcycles whooshed by, slowing down only when approaching the traffic radars, that resembled giant mechanical fireflies from above. The darkness of the night was interrupted only by the occasional oncoming headlights.

Pablo, the Bolivian, dangled from two ropes. One, tied to the concrete railing, with the other pulled taut by Wanderlei and Sérgio. Pablo swayed with the force of each passing car below, or with the twitch of Sérgio and Wanderlei’s arms. He gripped one of the ropes, while his other hand held the spray paint can. Pablo lifted his head up toward José, reeling him into his deep gaze.

“You’re next, rookie cowboy!” Pablo shouted over the roar of the vehicles. 

José inched forward and peeked down at the man-made expanse below. As blood drained towards his draped leg and foot, his limbs weighed down like an anchor. There was a lightness to his upper body as if air were being pumped out. While his head spun and his chest constricted, he felt his body tilting backward, in an attempt to regain balance and escape obliteration.

Porra, José!” Senhor Kodama’s face was puce-colored. “How many times do I have to tell you? It’s the box with the orchids! The ‘orquidea’ is written on it. There’s no mistaking it!”

Senhor Kodama swatted his hand at José as if he were dismissing a pesky insect, and then resumed his conversation with the client. José turned the cart around and made his way back to the Volkswagen minivan. His eyes glowered with suppressed rage, as he halted the cart with force; the box with the petunias flew over the side onto the ground. Swinging open the minivan doors, José stepped into the back. 

“Fucking Japa!” José said under his breath.

He glanced around at the boxes of flowers. Senhor Kodama said, “white orchids.” The petunias were white, but not the right kind of flower. There was a black word printed at the bottom corner of each box. José sounded out the word in his head over and over, or-qui-de-a, while trying to match the letters on the boxes to the sound. 

As he stared, the letters quivered, trembled, jumbled, and floated from the boxes. José shut his eyes then reopened them, but the letters were still scrambled. He opened one of the boxes even though Senhor Kodama didn’t like the flower boxes to be opened in the minivan. He preferred that they be showcased only at his stall. But José thought he couldn’t afford to make another mistake that day. His boss already lashed out at him, and it was only eight in the morning. This was already his third job since arriving in the city a few months ago.

He peeped inside one that held red roses. Why couldn’t Senhor Kodama ask for those, he thought to himself. Porra, everyone knows what a rose looks like, no need to worry about reading. He closed up the box with the roses and checked the next one. The flowers were white, but were they the damned orchids? He looked at the word printed on the side of the box, but it was as unintelligible as the others.

“Shit,” he said, and poked his tongue around in his mouth.

“Need any help?”

It was Sérgio. He, too, worked as a delivery assistant for Senhor Kodama. José had met Sérgio a couple of weeks ago while having a beer at the boteco close to where he was living. The two men had started talking about the national soccer championship. From there, they discovered they both came from neighboring towns, hundreds of kilometers from the city of São Paulo, in the sugarcane and cattle region of the state. At one point, José mentioned he was looking for a job. The next day, Sérgio brought José along to talk to Senhor Kodama, who was looking for an extra hand at the flower stall he ran with his sister, Dona Masako. After a ten-minute chat in which Senhor Kodama did most of the talking, while scrutinizing José to the point of making him uncomfortable, Senhor Kodama hired him because “Sérgio knows you and if it doesn’t work out I’ll get someone else.” Then, he flicked his hand twice at José, signaling him to leave and return the next day to start work. 

Sim,” José answered. “Which ones are the white orchids, again? Having a hard time figuring them out.”

“There, over in the corner. It’s printed on the side.” 

The potted flowers with the flat, thick, dark green leaves and the long stems with the delicate white oval petals were the ones he had been looking at. He reached down to pick the orchids up.

“See, the name here.” Sérgio pointed to the letters and then gazed at José.

As if on fire, the box buzzed against his palms. José felt his scalp tighten as all his jaw muscles contracted. The letters jangled in his vision. Por favor, don’t ask me to read it aloud, he thought to himself.

Orquidea phalaenopis,” blurted Sérgio. “A favorite of the rich madames, always a best seller in this neighborhood. Go ahead, say it.”

José repeated aloud the name, stumbling and stuttering on the last syllables.

“That last word is a tricky one! Senhor Kodama was always correcting my pronunciation. It took me weeks to finally read and say it right. You’ll get it.”

José offered a slight grin. He loaded the box onto his cart, and as he did, he felt his knee muscles lock.

“Tell you what,” Sérgio said. “I’ll write down some flower names, and we can go over them together; that way, you can start to memorize them.”

José looked over at Sérgio with a vacant face, then turned around and made his way towards the stall. 

Senhor Kodama, the orchids you asked for,” José said. 

The Nikkei shot a sideways glance at José. “Finally.”

José began to unload the flowers. Senhor Kodama picked up an orchid and handed it to the woman standing next to him. Two flowers had bloomed, and four other buds were jutting their way toward the end of the stem. The woman examined the specimen with intensity. The strong scent of her perfume rose above the warm sweetness of the air around the rows of flowers. Everything about her reeked of a life lived through the pages of some glossy magazine. The stack of thin gold bangles that crawled up her arm, the large, pearl-faced steel watch, the impeccably ironed skirt, and the leather tote as shiny as the hood of a new sports car. She turned her head in the direction of José, looking right through him, and pointed to the orchids. 

“José, bring two more flowers over and give them to Dona Masako so she can add this order up,” Senhor Kodama called out.

“Set them aqui,” Dona Masako said, patting the worktable at the back of the stall. Short and plump, she always wore her jet-black bob haircut with a bubblegum pink hair band that seemed a little too childish for a woman her age. Her eyes were even more slanted than her brother’s. When she smiled or laughed, which was often, the lids shut tight, obscuring the pupils and forming a thread-like line across the sockets. 

“You want Zezinho to deliver the flowers?” she asked her brother. Dona Masako called everybody by a diminutive nickname. 

“No, she lives a couple of blocks from here. Just pack them.”

José put all three orchids into a tray-like cardboard box. Then handed them over to the woman who was already retreating. 

Sérgio appeared with a cart filled with miniature potted pine trees, a large red bow tied at the center of each pot. As José began unloading the plants, lining them up, José realized this would be his first Christmas away from his family and friends. At that moment, four other customers approached the stall. It was a bustling morning, the kind that soothed Senhor Kodama’s humor. A madame with her housemaid, dressed in a black uniform and a white apron, selected yellow roses. Another woman inquired about the lilies. A man in a dark suit pointed to the miniature succulents. A tiny elderly lady with a Yorkie on a leash inspected the potted lilac hydrangeas. 

José slid towards the back of the stall and sat on an upturned plastic bucket, as the Kodamas and Sérgio catered to the clients. Earlier, his right knee twisted as he had stepped out of the minivan with the orchids; it now pulsed and throbbed with every heartbeat. He had been up since four-thirty that morning, helping the Kodamas load and set up their stall at the Friday farmers’ market at the Higienopólis neighborhood. Except for Sundays, every day of the week, the itinerant flower stall was set up and then taken apart at farmers’ markets in middle class and rich bairros all over the city. It was grueling physical labor, but José dealt with that all his life. 

He had broken every single finger, dislocated both shoulders, and had broken his left arm twice. Ripped tendons and ligaments were routine. A scar from fifteen stitches ran parallel to his right jaw. He had replaced two teeth. Calluses bled from a simple touch and splinters dried and fossilized under his skin. Lacerations and strained muscles swelled, ached, and gnawed at his insides. And his deviated septum had become a maze of tunnels from all the broken noses. This was all before the bull.

That bull. José still woke up in a sweat in the middle of the night. Those dark, maniac, glassy eyes locked on his. It was during the finals of the Paringá Rodeo. The last rodeo before Barretos, the biggest in all of Brazil. Riders from all over the world came to compete, and José had trained years for it. Ranked third that year, he had enough points to qualify for Barretos. If he could stay on the next bull for more than eight seconds, the Paringá cup would be his. Eight seconds only. But José had lasted only 3.39 seconds on Fúria Elétrica.

Things seemed to be going in José’s favor. The bull kicked and butted, but José’s body swayed and heaved in sync, his hand firmly gripped the rope. The crowd chanted his name. Then, as the bull was landing back down on its hind legs, it tripped and fell sideways onto José’s right leg. As they tumbled, Fúria rolled his eyes back and caught José’s gaze. For an instant, their eyes locked as if time had halted. The next thing José felt was an explosion of fragments under the weight of an animal as big as a freight car. The right side of his body sank deep into the hoof-churned mud of the arena. The pain was so excruciating that José blacked out and only awoke in the hospital. 

It had taken two rodeo clowns and another four rodeo hands to lift Fúria off José’s leg. The bull had a broken ankle and was sacrificed an hour later. José’s femur had broken in three places. The tibia cracked in half, and his knee crushed, its flesh and cartilage sliced to ribbons. For over a year, as he recuperated from surgeries and endless physical therapies, José wished he’d faced the same fate as Fúria. Especially when the doctors told him that he’d never ride again.

José rubbed the knee with his palm. The ligaments burned and tingled. If, after only a week of working for the Kodamas, his knee was already this painful how would it feel weeks down the road? 

The cacophony of the farmers’ market was intensifying. Customers were trickling down the streets. Making their way to the three closed-off blocks where the market took place every Friday morning. Older folks and housemaids pulled narrow, metal, two-wheeled, foldable shopping carts that click-clacked along the sidewalks behind them. Madames sauntered by, while clutching chic reusable shopping bags, often advertising faraway cities like Paris or New York. Vendors hollered out their merchandise in an attempt to lure in customers. Bananas, tangerines, star apples, jabuticabas, mangoes, and papayas. By the time morning wore off, the vendors’ decibels had increased in proportion to the discounts being announced. Shoppers seeking quality frequented early morning hours, while penny-pincher opportunists strolled in at noon, when prices were sliced in half. By late morning, the hissing and popping of fried, envelope-sized pastéis added to the clamor and fed hungry teenage school kids, shoppers, and office workers. Overhead, the roar of a landing helicopter on a nearby skyscraper overrode the constant hum made by the grinding of the sugarcane juice mixers. On the corner, a black sedan parked, and a chauffeur opened the door for an impeccably dressed couple. With his palm pressing against his knee, José listened to the car’s engine tick its way into silence. 

“There you are,” Sérgio said, coming up behind José. “Here, I wrote down some names of flowers, to help you memorize them.” He handed José a sheet from a notebook, with two columns filled with letters.

“Oh, obrigado.” José reached up and took the sheet. His chin descended to somewhere deep in his shirt, and he folded and stuffed the paper into his jeans.

“Sérgio, José, come over here! We have deliveries to make,” Senhor Kodama summoned. José followed Sérgio with a strained gait.

The early afternoon sun glared absolutely still. The cloudless sky reflected a blue so luminous and crisp that it seemed strangely misplaced for a city usually marred by smog and pollution. Steamy, liquid December air pooled between the stalls. Most of the flowers had been sold. All of the poinsettias had gone. Two orchids lagged behind. A lady and her daughter had taken home three buckets-worth of red and violet bromeliads. The roses were wilting fast in the hanging heat. A fine film of sweat formed on José’s face.

Dona Masako sat at the table, busy checking her books. Senhor Kodama chatted with the owner of a vegetable stall next door to his. José still felt pangs in his knee, but slightly less so than before. During his thirty-minute lunch break, he’d asked a fishmonger for some ice he was tossing out and applied it to his knee. Now, José pulled the list from his back pocket. His palms were gummy with perspiration and his thumbs stained the side of the paper as he held it. He tried to sound out the first word on the list. 

“Ca-ca-mmm,” he whispered slowly. But once again, the letters jammed and sambaed together before his eyes. “Argh, porra!” José crumpled the paper and stuffed it into his pocket.

“It’s camellia,” Sérgio said, walking into the stall with a box. “You can’t read, can you?”

José’s face squinched, and he stared down at the floor. He knew the look Sérgio was probably giving him, one of pity and revulsion. In the rodeo ring, he’d managed to dodge those stares, and his trainer always stood by and helped him. But out in the real world, the fact that he could barely read had him feeling slighter than a toddler who could only giggle at picture books. He’d lost his two previous jobs because of it.

Por favor, don’t tell the Kodamas,” José exclaimed, still casting his gaze on the ground. “I need this job. I have nothing.”

Calma, omeu. Relax, I’m not going to say anything. But you’d better not let the Kodamas notice it. They’re not too keen on analfabetos.”

“I’m quick to memorize. I just need a little more time and I’ll have the names of all these flowers branded in my mind.” José looked up and saw an expression of sympathy in Sérgio’s smile.

“How come you can’t read?” Sérgio asked.

“I . . . I had difficulties at school.” José ran his hand over his mouth, then he added, “Couldn’t keep up, but they kept passing me.”

Sérgio nodded. “I can remember kids like you in school.”

José’s mind flew back to his nine-year-old self, sitting at a desk in the last rows of the classroom, suffering as the day dragged on, barely comprehending what was unfolding before him on the blackboard. He would hunker down low into his chair, hoping to blend in with the other kids who sat in the back, dreading to be called upon. From time to time, though, he’d hear his name and he’d begin to sweat and tremble as he tried to read a sentence. He’d stammer for a few minutes as the letters twisted and squiggled before his eyes, only to be interrupted by the stinging laughter of his classmates. José would then spend the rest of the day staring out the window at the fields.

A bead of sweat raced down the side of José’s face. “So finally, I quit and went to work as a ranch hand and from there to the rodeos.”

“I’ll help you to memorize, but you should see about going back to school. There are night courses for adults, you know.”

“Thanks, omeu, I appreciate it, man.”

“Don’t mention it.” Sérgio poked José lightly on the shoulder. “By the way, a couple friends of mine are going out for a drink tonight, why don’t you come along? I think you’ll have a good time, caubói.”

José tucked his T-shirt into his jeans. He opened the narrow, faded wardrobe cabinet. The felt, russet cowboy hat lay on one of the shelves and curled up underneath was his prized belt with the silver oval buckle. José wheeled the belt around his waist and caressed the shiny horse cast into the metal. Looking into the small rectangular mirror hanging inside his cabinet, José fitted and adjusted his hat. It always felt good on his head, and he missed wearing it every day. When he first arrived in the city of São Paulo, he noticed how no one wore cowboy hats, which struck him as odd, being the state capital. Hats like his were a common sight in the vast cattle ranches or sugarcane plantations, in the dimly lit truck stops, in the rodeo stands, and in the small, weather-beaten towns in the interior of the state. Not wanting to call attention to the fact that he was an outsider, he stashed the hat on a shelf. Every day after work, when he returned to the tiny, one-room apartment he rented, he’d put the hat on to soothe his longing for the ranch. 

He missed the countryside, the wide-open spaces, the gentle rolling humpback hills in the backlands of São Paulo, the predictability of ranch life, riding out to move the heard, branding of the calves, vaccinating the animals, or cleaning out the corrals. In the afternoons, he and a couple other ranch hands would retreat to a smaller corral to train on the ranch’s bucking bulls for the rodeos. That was the only life he’d ever been familiar with. But now, with his knee turned into shrapnel and the diagnosis that he would never compete again professionally or else he’d risk losing natural movement in his knee, José could no longer only be a cowboy. The ranch owner, to keep him, had offered him a chance at a more “administrative” job, but with his limited reading skills, José knew the offer was proposed solely out of pity. His coach had asked José to stay and help him train new riders. But working around the animals, inhaling their earthy, rank salty smells, hearing them snort and bellow, and not being able to mount and dominate them became excruciatingly painful to contemplate for him, much more so than any aching in his knee. For José riding bulls was like a current of electricity shooting through his body. The thrill of the adrenaline rush as the beast twisted, spun, leaped, bucked, skipped, and whirled. For a few seconds, the world stilled, and all that mattered was the duel between José and the majestic force of the animal. Those precious seconds gave him a feeling of fiery existence. 

He wrinkled his nose at his reflected image, tore off his hat and tossed it on the mattress on the floor.

“Hey boy, this is the stop you asked about,” the bus driver warned José. 

José thanked the man and stepped out onto the curb. Holding up the piece of paper, he matched the letters to the ones on the street sign. Sérgio had written down the address of where they were to meet. José walked down the street past a couple of storefronts when he spotted Sérgio sitting on a wooden table outside a bar. 

“There he is!” Sérgio called out. “José, this is Wanderlei, my cousin, and Pablo. Pablo is from Bolivia.” 

“Bolivia? I was there once for a rodeo. Do you live in São Paulo?”

Sí, no jobs in my shithole town, muchacho,” Pablo said, mixing Portuguese and Spanish. “Entonces, Sérgio tells me you are a caubói de rodeio.”

“I was, yeah,” José corrected. “What do you do?”

Yo? I work in a sweatshop during the day and a grafiteiro by night.”

“What’s a grafiteiro?”

“Another name for a pichador, but I’d rather consider myself an artist.” Pablo gesticulated a spray can with his hands.

“We all do it,” Wanderlei added.

José took a long sip of his beer. “Aren’t you afraid of getting caught?”

“That’s part of the thrill, muchacho.”

After some rounds of chopp and idle chat, Pablo suddenly stood up. “Vamos, we should get going.” 

“Where?” José asked.

“You’ll see,” Sérgio said.

It was almost one o’clock. The night crowds had slowly begun to evaporate, but there were still plenty of people hanging out in bars, restaurants, nightclubs, or in all-night convenience stores. Neon billboards, lit up mall fronts and store windows, and the patchwork of fluorescent lights on skyscrapers shimmered in the murky night cityscape sky. It still amazed José how alive the city was at night, how it buzzed and honked even into the wee hours. The small towns he knew morphed into sealed cocoons after a certain hour. The city was so bright that an eerie, orange halo incandesced over it.

The men strolled down some streets before arriving at the entrance of a viaduct that spanned across a long, multi-lane highway. Pablo, who was carrying an oversized backpack, looked both ways before crossing the street and making his way up the side of the viaduct. Wanderlei followed closely behind.

“Why are we walking here, we could get hit by a car.”

“Don’t worry, José, it’ll be a trip you won’t forget.”

When they reached the middle of the viaduct, Pablo stopped. He opened up the backpack and pulled out a series of ropes and hooks. With the help of Sérgio and Wanderlei, he tied two cables around his body. A motorcycle swerved from behind a car and whooshed what seemed inches from Pablo’s rear. The rider swore and flashed a middle finger at the men. Pablo, Wanderlei, and Sérgio cursed back in unison. José’s expression went vacant as he held his breath, wondering what on earth was he doing here.

“I . . . I’m going to head back,” José said. “It’s getting late.”

“No, we haven’t even started, wait awhile,” Sérgio said. “Wait till you see what Pablo’s going to do.”

Pablo sat on the viaduct’s concrete railing and swung both legs over the side. José watched in disbelief as the Bolivian heaved himself off the edge of the bridge and rappelled into darkness. 

“Go ahead, vai, take a look at what he’s painting,” Sérgio said. “He’s been working on it for some time.” 

José stepped closer to the railing, but he still couldn’t see Pablo. Only when he strained his neck far over did he catch a glimpse of Pablo dangling from the ropes. With two cans of spray paint, one in each hand, Pablo’s arms flickered and fluttered in the air. The intricate graffiti of a vintage robot was taking form on the outside wall of the viaduct. 

“That’s amazing, omeu!” José yelled out to Pablo.

“Thanks, muchacho. You’re up next!”

“What? No, I . . . I can’t draw anything!”

“Don’t be shy! You must be good with ropes,” Wanderlei said, his biceps tense from pulling the second rope with Sérgio. The first rope hooked onto the concrete railing. 

“I was good with ropes in rodeos. It’s nothing like this.”

“Try it,” Sérgio said. “Or I’ll tell the Kodamas you can’t read shit!” He winked at José. “I’m kidding, omeu. Try it. Wanderlei and I fill in Pablo’s designs. He’s the artist and we’re the workmen, as always.”

Slowly, José lowered himself and sat on the railing. He knew Sérgio wouldn’t say anything about his illiteracy to the Kodamas, but he didn’t want these guys to picture him as some sort of hillbilly wimp either. At the bar, he’d felt comfortable around them, sensing he could make friends. After months in the city, José hardly knew a soul. He dangled one of his legs over the railing. He felt a shadow brush him as he gazed out into the open, black space beyond.

“Ok, caubói, let’s hook you up,” Pablo said when he ascended to the top of the viaduct. 

“Robot’s looking good,” Wanderlei remarked, bumping fists with Pablo.

“Yeah, not bad. I’ll finish it up next time.”

Wanderlei and Sérgio unhooked Pablo. Then they stood in front of José with ropes and cables in their hands. José spun back around and allowed Sérgio and Wanderlei to harness him up. As they did Pablo, they hooked the security cable to a pillar of the railing, while they held and pulled the second rope. 

“Hey, muchacho, don’t forget this,” Pablo said, throwing a spray paint can at José. Raising his arm, José caught the can in midair.

“What should I do?” José asked. He examined the metal can.

“Whatever you want, muchacho, it’s livre!”

José now found himself facing the three men. With his feet perched on the bottom of the railing, while his hands gripped the top. His back exposed to the vastness below. The whizzing of the cars below hammered in his ears. He kept the spray paint can tucked between his shirt and jeans.

“Let’s ride, caubói!” Pablo said. “We have you by the reins.”

José closed his eyes and hesitated for a moment. An image of his body splattered below flashed in his mind. Opening his eyes, he crossed himself like he always did right before the chute door flung open, and he and the bull would buck into the arena. Then he released his hands from the concrete railing and wrapped his fingers around the rope, and pushed his feet away. Dangling and suspended from the viaduct, José diverted his gaze from the three men and looked down. His palms throbbed wildly, and his heart lurched upward into the back of the throat. His stringy leg muscles spasmed. Panicking, José snaked and twisted in the ropes. His body started to sway vigorously like an out of control pendulum.

“José, don’t look down!” Sérgio shouted. “Keep your eyes on us. Don’t panic! We have you.”

José lifted his gaze; the faces of the men came into focus. His shoulder locked, but he rolled it against the tension. He slid his arms down the rope until only his hands clenched it. It reminded him of how it felt to have a taut bull rope wrapped around his buckskin-gloved hand. His leg muscles eased. 

Sérgio and Wanderlei began to lower him. “Steady, steady,” he heard Pablo saying. 

“Ok, that’s enough,” Pablo said. Then he leaned over the railing. “Hey cowboy, paint away, you’re livre again man!”

José felt his pulse stabilize. He was face to face with the viaduct’s suspended sidewall, a blank, concrete canvas. Next to him was Pablo’s unfinished robot graffiti. He pulled out the spray paint can and pressed. A smudgy, black blob formed on the wall; most of that first jet ended up on his hands. 

Porra caubói! You can do better than that!” Pablo cackled.

José grinned and pressed the can again. This time, a squiggly circle appeared on the wall. 

“Much better, muchacho, keep going!”

A jolt of euphoria ran through his body. He painted an object resembling a mixture of the letter “S” with the number five. Then a right side up “V” on top of an upside down “V.” The next figure looked like a rectangular heart. As José painted, his body rocked and swayed. Suspended in mid-air, painting whatever whisked through his mind, he felt he was once again on the back of a bull. It was only him and the concrete viaduct, and he sensed his life swelling in size.

A series of odd shapes and symbols took form before his eyes. In the distance, he heard a faint siren.

“Ok, caubói, your time’s up,” Pablo called out. “Might be cops. Let’s check out of here!” 

Before he could finish his next symbol, José felt a sharp tug on the rope. Within a split second, Sérgio and Wanderlei helped him climb back over the wall. Pablo unhooked José, while the other two men unhinged the cable from the railing. The ringing of the siren grew louder. They stuffed the gear  haphazardly into the backpack.

Vamos, vamos!” shouted Sérgio.

The four men raced towards the entrance of the viaduct and scurried through the streets, only halting at a bus stop. José’s knee pounded against his skin like a jackhammer. They could no longer hear the siren. Panting and sweating, the four men sat together on the bus stop bench to catch their breath. 

“Good work, rookie cowboy!” Pablo said, wiping his forehead. “You’re gonna be a grafiteiro, muchacho.”

José glanced at Pablo and inhaled deeply. “I wouldn’t mind trying that again.”

“You’re gonna end up hooked like us,” Sérgio added. 

“We still have a long way to go, muchachos! Someday we’ll do something like that over there.” Pablo pointed with his chin to the other side of the bus stop. There on a windowless façade of a skyscraper was a massive, black and white graffitied mural of Pelé and Muhammad Ali, sitting across from each other engaged in an arm wrestle. 

As José glared at the mural, its enormity gathered inside him like a twitching bull at the bucking chute.

 “That’s commissioned, professional graffiti,” Wanderlei sighed. “Real street art.”

A faint sunlight slithered across the horizon, abating the darkness. Riding the bus on his way to the depot where the Kodamas stored their flowers and the stall equipment, José observed the endless rows and rows of buildings and skyscrapers coming into view. He remembered the first day he arrived in São Paulo, its skyline rising from the ground like a menace. Highways and overpasses spreading out into traffic lanes like metal rivers. The unreadable road signs and billboards that swarmed around him as he had entered the city.

The bus stopped at a traffic light. The viaduct from which he had swung the night before loomed overhead. There, branded on the concrete, was José’s alphabet, one only he could finally begin to understand.

Maria-Luiza Brisbane is an American-Brazilian journalist and writer. A recent graduate of Chatham University’s MFA in Fiction Writing, she has worked for over two decades as a journalist. Her fiction has appeared in Drabblez Magazine, and she’s working on a historic novel set in the Amazon. Currently, she lives with her family and pug in São Paulo, Brazil.