Author: Luiz A G Cancello
Translated by Alison Entrekin
“Folks, what we’re about to do is tricky. It takes a lot of practice. Performers need encouragement, so your attention please and a round of applause.”
It was November, a hot night, tables out on the sidewalk. The bar’s clientele didn’t look interested and kept talking. The (once) glorious Santos Football Club had played that afternoon and had beaten a team from São Paulo. It was on everyone’s lips. He tried again:
“Folks, we used to be beggars, street kids. Now we’re performers. Attention please, ‘cause our number’s about to start.”
Two or three girls started to glance over, curious, much to their companions’ distaste. Maybe they weren’t interested in soccer. Clara and I still didn’t know what was going on. It was the first time we’d seen them. She vaguely remembered reading something in the paper about a circus school for street kids. “The lefties on the city council are organizing it. I think it’s interesting,” she said. I wasn’t in the habit of reading the paper. I was OK with the way she thought. After all, her dad was a communist and had always dreamed of revolution. “There they are again,” grumbled a middle-aged man, a regular at the Zero Grau, to his friends at a nearby table. “They should send those guys off to work in the fields,” said another.
The two young men were dark skinned. The one doing most of the talking was short, stocky, and muscular, and wearing a singlet shirt. His lanky companion waited in the background, serious, ready to start the show.
They picked up their wooden bottles. The spokesman started throwing them into the air, one at a time, where they traced intricate circles before coming back down. Precise timing and height, the same geometric movement over and over, a hypnotist’s pendulum. The bottles always fell, incomprehensibly, with their necks in the juggler’s palms. The variations began: now he’d throw one under his leg, now he’d catch one with his arm behind his back. Sometimes he had to stretch a bit to catch a stray bottle. “He’s like a ballet dancer,” said Clara. The shifting of his body was impressive, his feet gripping the pavement, forming the base where the projectile would land before returning to the skies. I tried to follow it with my gaze. At times it was so fast that I lost it; but there were moments of slow motion, odyssey in space, bone becoming starship, the memory of an old film seen on TV. I felt a certain intoxication in the alternating speeds.
The clientele’s hands performed a different magic; the cold beer made it to their lips without their eyes ever glancing at the table. There are feats that are only possible when one’s attention is elsewhere.
This wasn’t the case with the second member of the duo, now in action. He’d throw the bottle high in the air and, while it traced an arc and came down, he’d somersault forward, catching it exactly as he straightened up. There was some timid clapping. The more talkative one kept working the audience:
“We need a round of hands, folks. Performers need to feel the audience. C’mon!”
And he’d clap his own hands to give an example.
The heat wasn’t intense enough to justify the sudden change in the weather. . But a characteristic wind started affecting more sensitive skins and noses. I’ve always hated this air that arrives hot and muggy; I feel unsettled, vexed by the sudden gusts. Clara always said she drank the northwesterly together with her beer. She loved this force of nature, which she thought invigorating. We both instinctively glanced towards the beach, from where the wind seemed to be coming. But our eyes were soon trained on the jugglers once again.
They were now performing together. First facing one another, throwing the bottles between them. Four (or six?) objects flew back and forth with precision. Then, with no visual contact, back-to-back, throwing the bottles up in the air, synchronized to a sound made by the talker, something like “hup, hup.”
The waiters moved among the tables as if nothing were happening. They had already seen it before. Perhaps they weren’t impressed by it, equilibrists of trays and glasses; perhaps they should have appreciated their circus ring counterparts. But the show didn’t deter them from their implacable routine. “Want another beer?” No one applauds a waiter.
The wind, in irregular gusts, caused the bottles to change their orbit. Little by little, the performers came closer to the tables, to compensate for the bottles’ new course. There is controversy; no one knows for sure if the heat stimulates our sense of smell, if the liquids in the environment evaporate in greater quantity, or if there is maybe even a demon that roves to the rhythm of the northwesterly wind. But the fact is that Clara was particularly affected by the strong smell. The talkative one was very close to us now, and his t-shirt was dripping with sweat. One of the men at the next table, obviously inclined to find my companion more interesting than the game, noticed a light in her face. A keen observer, he noted the details, dilated nostrils and pupils, deeper breathing; but he also saw that I was in a different state, in a different grace, possessed by the dance of the objects. Our fate was ill-stared: while she was absorbing the movement of the air, I was absorbed by the flight of the solids. But I only found that out much later, when I was alone and the time was other.
Finally, the quiet juggler did a number with torches. Circles of fire blazed through the night and the ladies and gentlemen deigned to pay a little more attention. It is possible that this feat did not require any more ability than the others, but the artistic effect and ritual of flames made itself felt. The excitement intensified and there was finally some vigorous clapping. I think Clara’s hands must have hurt. Someone called for an encore. They didn’t have to ask twice. They had an original number ready to be performed.
That was when the elements caught up with the times. Artists’ and spectators’ spaces should be distinct, no matter how hard a so-called avant-garde theater I saw on TV may have tried to make them one, and we were so far from such modernist trends there. I wonder how far back circuses go? The sweaty juggler tried to stop one of the bottles, blown off course by the northwesterly, from hitting Clara. Who knows if its disastrous trajectory was intentional? Who knows what sorcery there is in moving air? The fact is that the juggler leapt into the air, flung out his arm, lost his balance, and rolled over my girlfriend, confusing stage and audience. Before I knew it they were both on the ground and she was clutching his body to hers and licking the sweat off his chest, completely unhinged.
I stayed glued to my chair. The other guy came over to me, took me by the arm, led me to the bar, and pointed to a stool. I sat, unable to react. He said:
“See if you can follow me. There’s no rehearsal for life. We’re all on stage right from the start. Everything is part of the show, even the clientele and the wind. We’re creatures of limits. Our mission is to challenge them. Do your part.”
I sat there, dumfounded, watching the Juggler on the ground tracing circles around Clara, or her around him. Everyone probably had a different perspective, but the scene came to me from every possible angle. As if in a trance, I watched the clothes peeling off their bodies, the dexterous hands that had previously caught bottles were now undoing buttons with the same and greater virtuosity, an art that she seemed to have learned by magic, because she accompanied him with the same precision, now more quickly, now in slow-motion under their clothes. Further up their mouths converged, in the trail forged by skilled fingers. They danced horizontally, and I no longer knew if I was just seeing things or completely intoxicated, but I hadn’t drunk much alcohol. I was now drinking a different potion through my eyes. Was it the contents of an enchanted bottle?
I glanced at the other customers, curious to know what they were making of that scene in the middle of the sidewalk. Their conversations were animated but they didn’t seem to notice a thing. Their attention was scattered elsewhere. There was a tunnel of invisible walls in front of me. I was the only one who had been given the power to see Clara and the Juggler, now naked, their insinuating to-and-fro, a pendulum of movement not always in perfect rhythm – but was that blood I saw? She had become a virgin again, so nothing was impossible any more, the liquid gushing from the point that united them, spilling down to the gutter, along with their sweat, along with their tears. So many confrontations had already united these vital essences. Was ecstasy of the essence of water? From the gutter to the drain, to the sewers, and finally to the sea, to the skies, to the rain, to the soil; in parallel I followed the moist path through which the sources of life circulate.
The wind’s caprices brought me the smell and the sounds, whispers bearing on moans bearing on almost-screams, synchronized noises. It reminded me at every instant that there had never been any rehearsal. I was the one who’d always stayed in the wings, I’d been the mute prompter, he who’d avoided the leading role, the lighting technician whose bulb was always burnt out; but on the stage floor the light was bright, the flame generated by the ritual of skin against skin. In their last movements everything seemed to quake, waves rolled out to the soil under the pavement and reached me, unbalancing the things on the counter. In the distance I heard the echo of the swirling liquid gushing, in a precise rhythm, from the Juggler to Clara. The dance slowly ceased, then came the calm, the northwesterly died down, a mist descended, and the Juggler and Clara faded away. And my companion, the clientele, the waiters, where are they all?
I feel dizzy, as if I’ve just emerged from a long, deep sleep. I look around. I’m alone, at the Zero Grau, sitting on the same bar stool, slumped over the Formica surface. I’m very thirsty. There are two bottles in front of me and no glass. I raise one to my lips, but nothing passes through its neck; it is solid, a juggler’s prop. Now I understand. I am fully awake; my time has come. I take up my tools and accept the challenge.
What I’m about to do is tricky. It takes a lot of practice.