Georgia O'Keefe by Alfred Stieglitz

Georgia O’Keefe by Alfred Stieglitz

A dead pigeon careened from the sky and fell flat on the plate in front of her. The woman wasn’t sure how it fell or why, but before she could say a word everyone in the outdoor café swiveled to look at her. Their bodies froze, all but their throats, which expanded as they swallowed large chunks of half-chewed chicken croquettes and meat pies.

A waitress shuffled over to the table, her lipsticked mouth open in a limp O of shock. She looked from the pigeon to the woman, back to the pigeon, reached for the plate, let out a small gasp, regained composure, picked up the plate, and dusted the stray gray feathers dotting the table onto the ground with her rag. The waitress’ plastic mustard-toned miniskirt made a rhythmic squeaking sound as she moved. The waitress turned back and glanced, wide eyed, at the still stationary woman, before ducking into the kitchen with the bird

The buzz of a dozen agitated conversations overtook the silence that had reigned over the café. The woman picked up her small yellow legal pad; along with a scattering of stray words and half quotes, there were a few drops of pigeon blood on the first page. She attempted to wipe the drops off with a napkin pulled from the table-top dispenser.

The napkin only smudged the blood to a dull orange streak across one of the jotted lines of text. Checking her watch, she stood up quickly, picked up her camera bag, and set a small stack of Brazilian reais down on the table. Enough to pay for the food and generously tip the waitress who had disposed of the bird.

As she stepped down from the elevated wooden platform of the café onto the beach, she kicked off her leather sandals with slightly more force than required and began to walk determinedly through the sand. As it had been an especially warm day in Rio, hundreds of sunbathers scattered the sand to absorb the final hours of sunlight. The woman zigzagged through the crowd, barely avoiding collision with the shaved, tanned legs obstructing her path.

When she got to the far side of the beach she stepped back into her sandals and increased her pace, almost running across the cobblestone streets. Eight minutes and thirty-eight seconds later, she arrived at the metro and descended into the dry freeze of the air-conditioned tunnel.

After half an hour of travel, she emerged from the central train station into the steamy hot air of a crowded street. She raised her hand to shield her eyes from the glare of a setting sun, craning her neck to see the top of the mountain in front of her.

The mountain was covered in colorful houses stacked one on top of the next. In the late-day light the scene looked two-dimensional. The masses of people at the ground level turned into an array of tan and brown pixels that moved upwards on to the hill, disappearing and reappearing from aquamarine, canary yellow, and coral pink geometric shapes. The blocks of colors were cut by the sharp metal lines of the gondola towers, digging into the earth like thick trunks of metal trees, electrified by wiry vines that linked them.

The woman stood, rooted to the ground, staring upwards. She pulled out her legal pad and blinked in bewilderment – the kind often mistaken for epiphany – and managed to clear the levitating dust from her blurry vision. She bit off the cap of her pen.

*  *  *

Before biting off any of that mayonnaise-covered hotdog you should really set down your instrument. Respect the tambourine. And you’re wearing a red shirt, don’t you want another napkin? Yes. That’s better. Do you see that view? The sunset, yes, that’s Providence right there. I wonder what it looks like from that gondola. Oh, I know, I know, none of the gondola talk. The gondola, the Mayor’s pet project, it’s for the tourists, not for us on this hill. But I tell you, I would take the gondola if I didn’t have a fear of heights. I’d like to see the view, you know. And I’d like to see the houses that they tore down to build the machine. It would be a sort of silver lining, to ride that gondola. I’d dedicate my voyage to the families who had to leave . . . my dear, really now, take another napkin. You put far too much mayonnaise on that thing and now it’s really glopping off. And besides, don’t you have that interview? Don’t you have to walk down the hill and meet that woman? So why did you buy this hotdog from me just now? Oh, it’s here, I see, at the top that you’ll meet her. That’s where. But do you want a mayonnaise stain on this red shirt of yours when you play that song on camera for that white woman? Take another napkin. Ah, that song – how is it – sing it –

 

jail me, they can | beat me, they can  |  they can

even leave me to starve |

but | here, this mountain, I won’t leave it

no | I won’t | leave it |

 No.

Sim, meu filho, essa canção. That song.

Look, what did I tell you. You stained your shirt.

*  *  *

Carrying the bloodied legal pad, the journalist stepped onto a gondola car and sat stiff-legged on the metal seat. Every time it passed over a tower, the car shuddered and the woman instinctively looked upwards at the methodically shifting gears above her. She exited at the top and walked hurriedly over to the man in the red shirt sitting on a plastic chair in front of a small, makeshift café. There was a mound of crumpled waxy napkins on the table in front of him. Under the overhang of the café, several feet from the man, stood an unmoving old woman, face turned sharply to the left, staring in the direction of the immense city landscape.

The journalist directed several questions to the man. He nodded. She set up a tripod from her camera bag and screwed a Nikon DSLR into the top hinge. She walked over to the table and scooped up the pile of mayonnaise-coated napkins to toss in the trash. She got back behind the camera. Video on, questions rolling. Answers slid off the man’s tongue under the Cyclops gaze of the lens. Every thirty seconds, the gondola rumbled overhead.

Suddenly, the woman (the hot dog vendor, the one staring out at the city) spun around and turned up the radio sitting on her counter to full volume. A throwback song came on, blasting out the beat Ba-Rrraa-BapBa-Rrrraaaap-ba-baRra-clack-boom

All conversation falls silent.

ba-Rrrrrra-ba-ba—three teenage boys dash out from behind a red house with chipping paint, each carrying an AK-47; the man speaking with the journalist, the one with the red shirt with mayo grease stains, swiftly raises one arm and smacks the camera down to the concrete floor with a clack boom, the red eye of its recording lens still blinking. The journalist’s hand goes limp and she drops the legal pad; the pigeon-stained page disconnects from the perforated edge and floats outwards, upwards.

Song over. The three boys leave, careening down an alleyway. The woman in the café turns the radio volume down. The man in the red shirt picks up the camera (lens intact), sighs, and resumes his interrupted sentence:

it was the Mayor himself, he offered me an apartment and thousands of reais, he stood right where you sit now but leaned real close to my face, like this, and said: when we build the gondola, your house comes down. It’s the Olympics, damnit, and don’t you want to make your country proud? That’s what the Mayor told me. The only difference, he said, is how difficult you’re gonna make —

But the journalist, still frozen, can’t focus on the man in the red shirt. She blinks and can only hear the radio as it spews a news story amidst static interference.

Breaking news: a local priest disappeared this morning after parachuting off a cliff on Pedra de Gávea. Climbers at the scene claim he pulled his parachute string too soon and got carried away by a strong gust of wind. He has not yet been located, but may have been sighted floating over the West Zone of the city. Contact local authorities if you see any strange projectiles.