The Brazilian crônica is a short story literary genre that narrates everyday occurrences in the lives of ordinary people. The backdrop is usually a well-known urban area. In the crônica, slight criticism, as well as humor, is combined with a defined chronology (hence the name crônica), colloquial dialogue, and simple language throughout to create a narrative that hangs between fiction piece and journalistic tale. When language becomes more sophisticated and exaggerated, it is usually for comedic purposes. Sometimes, even neologisms appear! The names of streets, squares and shops are well known to the people of the urban area in question, and they are often presented in a newspaper-article style. The reader feels like the events could have happened “just down the street.” Yet, through this seemingly simple narrative and plot structure, the crônica is capable of capturing much of the comedy and tragedy of a place and time. What worries do everyday people have? How do they handle family, money, politics? What do their houses, streets, and relationships look like? While very unassuming, the crônica in time acquires historical value. For one can tell much about the cultural history of a city through its crônicas.
Seu Euzébio left his spacious apartment on the 5th floor of his building, Lírio Branco, on Avenida Higienópolis at 9 o’clock in the morning. His goal was to buy bread at a bakery called Esperança, two blocks away from his home. The morning presented itself cold and damp, a typical São Paulo late autumn a.m., so Euzébio put on a sweater over his tee-shirt. Feeling too lazy to look for his missing sneakers, he inserted his feet into the brown leather dress shoes his wife had given him on his most recent birthday.
Euzébio made small talk with a neighbor who waited for the elevator and was headed for the tennis club. When they disembarked on the ground floor, Euzébio went through the entry hall where an abstract painting he never understood but imagined cost more than it was worth hung quietly under the dichroic light. Already on the sidewalk, he ran into Raimundo, the porter, who wasted water hosing off the pathway of little white and black stones even though the sky looked like rain.
“Hi, Seu Euzébio. Leaving early?” Asked the porter, likely in an attempt to gather material so he could later relay building gossip to anyone who cared to listen.
“Bakery,” answered Euzébio quite drily because he didn’t like to be grilled and preferred to start his own conversations.
“How about those São Paulo players?” continued Raimundo, appealing to the kind of bond that in Brazil real fans of the same soccer team tend to have.
“All happiness, Raimundo! All happiness.”
Euzébio remembered to stop by the ATM in front of the bank because, being that it was Saturday, chances were his kids would later come to ask for money to go to the movies, eat a hamburger, or sit at a café. In front of the machine, he whispered a quick Hail Mary. So many were the security codes and pins necessary to access the account that it was close to a miracle that one convinced the contraption to cough up the money. He shook his head; identity theft was painful even when it didn’t happen.
In the end, it must have been his lucky day because after much typing and retyping of the numbers on the oily keypad, repeat rounds of inserting and reinserting the card, and the hearing of strange noises straight from the entrails of the machine, Euzébio saw his 200 reais materialize in front of his eyes. He shoved the crisp new bills inside his pocket and made his way out the glass door of the money box.
Whistling an old samba by the Demônios da Garoa, Seu Euzébio continued on his way toward the bakery, now thinking that it was best to buy salami and cheese too; one relative or another always showed up to meal-crash the afternoon snack.
At the bakery, he spent 40 reais buying the items. He hugged the bread and left carrying the deli goods in a small plastic bag. He was going back home thinking about nothing and a bit of everything, when at the corner of Higienópolis and Angélica it all happened. Two teenagers, not any older than his middle child, touched his belly with the pointy side of a sharp object. In reality, it might have been a little pocketknife, but to Euzébio, at that moment of fear, the threatening article looked more like a cleaver. A sickle even!
“Gramps, pass me the bread,” said the first.
“And the money,” added the other.
“And the shoes,” demanded the original one, trying to one-up his peer.
The boys ran away with the dexterity of those accustomed to sudden escapes. Seu Euzébio only stood there, without the bread, without the 160 reais that for a short while remained from his purchases. The small bag of deli goods still hung from his arm ignored by the young rascals. His dark socks were exposed against the light-colored pavement.
Being careful not to stomp on anything poky, Seu Euzébio took gaunt steps toward his apartment. He was still anesthetized by the scare of the robbery. In front of the building, he wet his socks in the puddles of water that Raimundo’s big washing up had caused. Euzébio took the service elevator since he did not want to run into any neighbors while barefoot and baffled — he, that is, not the neighbors. He prepared himself to tell his tale to his family with the necessary dramatic tone. He checked to see if his hands were shaking.
Upon arriving on the 5th floor, Euzébio got out of the elevator and went through the service door that led to the kitchen. There, he found his wife and the uniformed maid engaged in a heated debate, so heated that it seemed that the outcome would decide the future of humanity:
“This cake recipe does not need any baking soda!”
“Of course it does!”
“Dona Emilia, it will taste awful.”
“On with the baking soda, Elvira!”
As Euzébio deposited the deli goods in the fridge, he tried to interrupt the domestic dispute to narrate his adventure, but after two frustrated attempts he lost his nerve. He removed his gelid socks and threw them in the woven basket that peeked out from behind the laundry door. He then moved on to the quarters beyond the kitchen, marking the carpet with his moist feet. Suddenly, he was in no hurry to admit that he had let the boys take the expensive shoes originally destined for another kind of occasion.
He was drying his feet while sitting on the bed and thinking whether or not he should have surrendered in the face of a simple pocketknife — for it had become clear to him that the small instrument was all the miscreants had relied upon to overpower him — when his daughter Juliana came in. She wore torn jeans and bangs of dark brown hair that almost covered her green eyes. She didn’t look at her father since she had her gaze glued to the screen of the cell phone where she typed furiously.
“I have no money, Juliana.”
“What do you mean you have no money? Marcos is coming to take me to lunch and the movies.”
“That is just it. I don’t have any. The fact is that when I left to buy bread …”
“Dad, what has the bread got to do with anything? Well, I’ll use my allowance and later you can pay me back, okay?”
Seu Euzébio caught himself wondering why in the world he was supposed to reimburse her given that the money for the allowance also came from his pocket, and yet he had no chance to argue with the girl because she had already disappeared into the hall. He only heard the front door slam shut, announcing his daughter had left. When he was a kid, if a young man invited a young woman to lunch, he paid for the meal. But that was a concern from yesteryear. The individual had not even come upstairs to say hello.
Euzébio lay on the bed imagining where his expensive shoes might be. Would they have been discarded and deemed antiquated? Sold for a fraction of the price? He was counting the cracks on the ceiling when João, his middle child, that one about the age of the robbers, came to see him:
“Dad, give me some mullah.”
“I don’t have it. They took it.”
“If you don’t want to give it to me, just say it. Who the heck is ‘they?’”
“It is true, João. They took it.”
“Whatever. I’m out of here. Be back for snack.”
The lanche, the afternoon snack, stood as an expression of the Brazilian need for communion, for social unity, and was forever popular on weekends. If British and American mornings have their brunch, the Brazilian late afternoon is blessed with the lanche, a meal full of the comforts of fresh breads, rich cheeses and just-out-of-the-oven baked goods.
Seu Euzébio reasoned that he should finally find his sneakers and go buy more bread. The right thing to do was to get things ready for the meal. But a state of complete lassitude was overcoming him, a deep desire for spending the day doing nothing at all. As if on cue, when Euzébio was starting to relax into the idea, his wife Emilia inserted her coiffed head through the door:
“Euzébio, I am off to lunch with Célia. Ask Elvira to serve you some food. By lanche time, I’ll be back.”
At that point, the man started to feel a sort of perverse satisfaction. All of these people were counting on the lanche, and he was completely breadless. He now had even more reason not to go out again. He was going to stay right there, lying on the bed. He was going to look for a soccer match — the teams did not even matter. And he was going to pray for the foreshadowed rain to fall, so that his late morning and early afternoon could be even more pleasurable.
Euzébio messed up the bed previously made by Elvira and nested himself under the perfumed blanket.
“You sick, old man?” Marcelo, the youngest, entered the room.
“No,” answered Euzébio as aridly as the Sahara desert would if it could talk.
“Free up some reais for me, dad.”
“No can do.”
“Ten bucks, old man.”
“I don’t have even that. I was robbed!”
Marcelo seemed not to register this last piece of information
“What you watching there?”
“I haven’t the foggiest idea!”
“You watching and don’t know who is playing?”
“You’re weird, Dad.” Marcelo tapped Euzébio’s shoulder and, shaking his head, prepared to leave. Changing his mind, he looked back at Euzébio, “By the way, your white sneakers? I took them yesterday to go jogging. It was raining, so there was a lot of mud. You might need to clean them, or get another pair for that matter. Bye.”
A disproportionate revanchism was beginning to rise up Euzébio’s throat. After all, what was this day becoming other than a profound manifestation of his lack of territory, of his shrinking geo-political space? Everyone seemed to be demanding one additional square meter that previously belonged to him. Everybody wanted something of him, and no one had even had the courtesy to ask him about his day. No one paid the least attention to what he said. If they had, now they would know about the robbery.
Euzébio imagined his wife, worried and loving, hugging him with zeal, bringing him some tea to calm the nerves. His daughter would congratulate him on his valor and courage under pressure. And his sons would ask him for advice so that they would know how to act in a similar case.
Alas, it was all in his head. The daughter was out with that Marcos, his wife was likely gossiping her lunch away, and his sons only wanted to protect their weekend budget. Euzébio now wished the cheese and salami had also been taken! It would be even better if three or four freeloaders showed up uninvited. They too would leave with empty hands and empty bellies. These were not symbiotic relationships; he was surrounded by spongers.
In the end, this reverie, with undertones of a guilty pleasure, led Euzébio to fall into a deep sleep, full of troubled dreams. In them, the young robbers were sitting at the oblong dinner table, eating a lot of salami and a whole French baguette. And Euzébio’s sons were laughing at him, at the fact that he was still wearing his cold, wet socks.
He woke up and noticed his feet sticking out from under the plushy blanket. His head hurt with the kind of dull headache that results from short, deep, off-schedule slumber. His mood only deteriorated further. His stomach growled since he had slept through lunch. His desire to defy his family was starting to feel more and more like a hunger that needed to be satiated. He needed a good bowl of pasta Bolognese and a large serving of respect — not necessarily in this order.
But the apartment felt deserted. He couldn’t hear even a peep from the other members of his domestic circle. Even Elvira’s usually-chatty radio was quiet, and someone had turned off Euzébio’s bedroom television while he slept.
The man looked at the clock on the bedside table. It was two in the afternoon. There was still time to concoct some retribution.
Euzébio found some dry socks. They were warm and comforting. He thought of his destroyed sneakers. They had been expensive. He had hoped they would last a long time. He made his way to the kitchen and found a sad plate with pasta sitting on the Formica table. He heated it up in the microwave oven and ate alone. Elvira, he could tell by the distant hum of the machine, had been vacuuming somewhere else. The dog, a little fluffy mutt that answered to the name of Leco, stared at Euzébio. The man washed his dish in silence, and then he knew just what he had to do.
He chose a nice tablecloth, one of the embroidered pieces his wife had crafted all those many years before, when they first got married. He skipped the everyday dishes from the kitchen and used instead the fine porcelain from the dining room armoire. He took special care folding the linen napkins and made sure the cups and glasses were sparkling. He finished the ensemble by placing the vase of flowers from the living room on the table.
Elvira passed by the door of the dining room and, seeing her job done for her, came to talk to Euzébio:
“Who is coming to eat?” She dried her hands on her crisp white apron.
“I don’t know. Just us.”
“Then why the good dishes?”
“What’s the point of having expensive things and not using them? And besides, someone else always comes.”
“All right. You’re the boss.”
“Never mind, Elvira. Never mind.”
Euzébio stood in the dining room and admired his work. The maid left mumbling something under her breath. For a person who was not used to setting the table, he had created a display worthy of any style magazine. He wondered what his wife would think. Most likely she would figure it was Elvira’s doing.
Juliana was the first to come back for the lanche. Euzébio was sitting at the table in the scarcely lit dining room.
“Dad, what are you doing there alone?” she was predictably typing away on her phone keyboard.
“Waiting for you all.”
“I see.” She put the phone in her back pocket. “I’ll freshen up and come to eat.”
In the meantime, the boys arrived. They were discussing some new videogame. Euzébio was drumming his fingers on the table.
“So how did the match go?” Marcelo asked attempting some small talk.
“I don’t know. I fell asleep.”
“You are getting old, dad,” João tried to joke around.
“Maybe I am.” Euzébio combed his gray thinning hair with his right hand.
Elvira came with the cake. She placed it on the table and admired it, tilting her head to the side. She said they would all wait for the lady of the house. It wasn’t long before Emilia came strutting into the room carrying an armful of shopping bags. She wore a white skirt and suit combination that offered much contrast against her red hair.
“I’m sorry I’m late. The mall was particularly irresistible today. What a beautiful table Elvira has set for us. What are we celebrating?”
Euzébio didn’t answer. The ringing of the interphone interrupted his thoughts. Elvira came in to say that Emilia’s aunt and two cousins had come for a visit.
“I’d better bring more plates to the table.” Euzébio only rolled his eyes.
The uninvited guests came up, and the necessary hellos, kisses and comments on clothes and hairdos filled the living room. Euzébio only issued a yellow smile from his place at the table. It was as if he had been glued to the chair.
“So good of you to come for a visit,” said Emilia, already offering seats at the dinner table. “Elvira, bring us the bread and cheese and any deli goods Euzébio bought. Make us some coffee.” The aunt, a heavy-set older woman, licked her lips in anticipation of the meal to come.
But Elvira took a long time in the kitchen, and everyone was becoming impatient. Emilia fidgeted, Juliana crossed and uncrossed her legs and João rehearsed playing a videogame on his cell. When Elvira finally entered the room, she looked worried:
“Dona Emilia, I can’t find the bread. Seu Euzébio usually brings at least one baguette. There are no deli goods in the fridge either.”
Emilia was livid for a second. “Euzébio, didn’t you go to the bakery this morning?”
“Didn’t you buy bread, and cheese, and all?”
“So where are they?”
Euzébio put on a smile, the kind of Machiavellian grin usually reserved for movie villains at the height of their machinations.
“Not here,” he replied enigmatically.
“Then where?” Emilia looked at the uninvited guests and flattened her lips in an attempt at a smirk that in the end did not really take.
“The cheese and salami are in Leco’s belly.”
“Leco stole the food?”
“No, I gave it to him.”
“We had no bread, so we had no use for the deli goods.”
“But where is the bread you bought?”
“Same place as my good new leather shoes.”
“Euzébio, you’re not making any sense.”
“Two little rascals robbed me this morning. They took the shoes, the bread and the money. They had a big knife, you know.”
“Why were you wearing your good shoes in the morning to go to the bakery?”
“Because my sneakers were missing.” Euzébio looked at Marcelo who was picking invisible lint from his sweater.
“Why didn’t you tell any of us?”
“It wasn’t for lack of trying. I guess the dog paid the most attention, so I rewarded him with food.”
Emilia looked uncomfortable like people do when their pants are too tight or they are sweating under a scorching sun.
“Well, at least we have the cake.” She took the fancy silver cake knife and sliced the soft treat, placing a piece in front of every guest. Each person waited politely for her to be done and try the first bite. But it took only one forkful for Emilia to shout toward the kitchen:
“Elvira, just how much baking soda did you put in this cake?!”
Patricia Friedrich is an Associate Professor at Arizona State University. She is an author of non-fiction and fiction, with two books by Continuum — Language, Negotiation and Peace and Teaching Academic Writing (ed.) — and a new edited book (Nonkilling Linguistics: toward practical applications) by the Center for Global Nonkilling. She has also published some 25 articles/book chapters in periodicals such as Harvard Business Review and World Englishes, and edited an area of The Encyclopedia of Applied Linguistics (Wiley-Blackwell). Patricia's fiction has appeared in Grey Sparrow, Eclectic Flash, Blue Guitar, and The Linnet’s Wings, among other journals and anthologies. Her novel manuscript, Artful Women, won first prize at a Romance Writers of America regional competition (as a mainstream fiction entry).