The Girl from Ipanema

A buddy of mine from my service days had ventured down to Brazil. Mark was a surfer dude and a damn good one before Uncle Sam made him an invitation he couldn’t refuse. Happens to be the best of us, we somehow end up being members of that merry band of pranksters. That is usually enough to put a little of the wanderlust in the soul of an ex prankster.  Mark took off in August of 1970 after his membership was cancelled by mutual consent and he drew his last bit of wages from the accounting office.  I remember how he had discussed his plans amongst us non short timers.  I always though Mark was the more serious type and this expedition into the unknown certainly would sound, at first blush, quite the risky venture.  But he had savings to tide him over and a plan.  “Bill, if I come back in a year or two it means I failed.  I think there’s opportunity down there.”  Such were the utterings of Mark, made in all seriousness.  So he left after all those goodbyes were exchanged and all the good wishes were gathered into the standard package of slaps on the back and handshakes.

Now me, I’m no surfer dude.  I don’t swim all that well, can’t even kneel on a board, and don’t have the upper body strength needed to paddle out to catch the waves.  My childhood disability limited my athletic ability.  But I would watch Mark off Santa Cruz’s Steamer’s Lane and could see that he knew his stuff.  As for Brazil, I knew what I remembered from the Disney Cartoon created back in the fifties and the music that drifted up to the states in the mid sixties and made Brazil 66 very popular in the late sixties.  Beyond that I only knew its history in a cursory manner, you know, read a few books written in the late fifties and scanned a few Look and Life magazines in the sixties.  When it comes to South America, I am not totally ignorant but I am hardly up to date.  Like Mark, I had an inkling of desire to drift down to Brazil or Argentina, maybe Peru.  It seemed like one of those exotic ideas that pop up in your youth.  But now Mark had blazed a trail for those who might wish to follow.  Seems I got bushwacked and all pretence of world exploration was purged from my memory.  I think we have as many regrets about what we never did as we do from what we have done.

Mark was the one who traveled in our stead and the time passed, as it always does, and fifteen years had flown by when he returned.  One thing leads to another and we finally caught up to compare notes.  Mine were plebeian while his were herculean.   Well, he had been somewhere and I had not.  About fifteen years later I chanced upon Mark at a former haunt of his in Aptos.  It was a restaurant where those in the know would go for brunch.  The omelettes were impeccable, individual works of art.  As I recall, they had a very good house chardonnay.  I was sipping my coffee while reading the Sunday SF Chronicle, not really aware of the coming and going of customers, when I felt a hand on my shoulder.  “Bill, is that you?”  The voice was strangely familiar.  Familiar because I thought I had heard it before and strange because I hadn’t heard that voice in a decade or two.  Mark quickly sat down in the chair across from my table as I was turning my head in his direction.  “Hey dude, you look surprised.”

Well, I am pleasantly surprised to see you here.  I thought you had permanent residence in Brazil?”

“I did, dude.  But I had to get out.  Things were getting ugly down there.” Mark sounded a little depressed or at least sad.  Normally he had that happy go lucky personality.  This was a new dimension I saw in his demeanor.

“So what happened?  Why’d you leave?”

Mark gave me a tired look and then spotted someone in the crowd.  “Look, I’ll tell you more later.  Can we meet tomorrow night?  say about seven?”  He quickly wrote ad address and a slip of paper and handed it to me.  “Got to go.  See you then.”  Then he left as quickly and he had come.  I saw him accompany a woman out the door and that was that.

Tomorrow night came and i was arrived at the address.  It was a run down apartment complex in Santa Cruz.  One would expect students UCSC to occupy the premises.  Santa Cruz had gone through its boom and bust periods and this way definitely one of the busts.  I climbed up the stairs and walked over to the door.  In my hand I held two bottles of decent wine, nothing expensive but drinkable.  Wine was one of the ties that held us together, strange as that may seem.  So I knocked on the door and waited the few seconds before it was opened.  “Hello Mark, how’s it going?”

“Good to you, Bill, come in.  You remembered!  What are we drinking tonight?”  A bottle of wine or two between friends does much to keep that friendship in good repair.

“Oh, just a couple of Haut-Medocs, nothing special.  You got a cork screw handy?”

“You know I do.  By the way, meet Chris, I’m staying with him.  Good thing you brought two bottles.  Here, you do the honors.”  as he handed me the cork puller.  Chris was a tall and dark complexion man of about thirty, a little younger than Mark.  He held out his hand in a timid manner.  Well, I was a stranger and dressed better, a bad habit of mine as I tend not to dress too far down.  As if to ease my concerns Mark continued, “Chris is a surfer friend of mine.  He’s helping me get back on my feet.  He’s good people.”

Mark found three glasses suitable for the wine as I opened the first bottle.  Then I poured out what seemed to be about four ounces into the glasses.  Mark motioned to me to sit in the chair as he and Chris occupied the couch.  “You know Bill, I always had that dream to travel to Brazil and I just had to take the opportunity.  Say, this is good Medoc.  Nice.”

“My pleasure, Mark.  I found half a case in San Leandro at a really cheap price.  Sort of like the old days.”

“Yeah, I remember.  You always had the nose of good wine.  Of course in Brazil one couldn’t always find good wine, at least not for the first five years I was there.  But Rio had other compensations, you know?  I tell you, some of the spots I found the surfing was really gnarly.  Some of the best I have surfed.  There are maybe half a dozen spots in the Rio area and I’ve suffered them all.  You know, we used to go on treks both north and south and I swear, some fantastic places to grove, you know?

“Yeah, but you were doing more than surfing, Mark.  I’m sure the locals had their own surfer culture.”  Well, it was something of a challenge to Mark’s way of thinking.  Mark was usually more excited when talking about surfing.  I mean, the man lived and breathed surfing.  There was much that he was not telling.

“Well, the first couple of years I was establishing myself.  You know, showing the locals that I could surf, perhaps better than them.  It’s that fitting into the pecking order and I has at the top of that order.  But you and I know that surfing doesn’t pay much.  Yeah, a few competitions and a bit of prize money, but not enough to keep to feed the habit.  It’s a different culture down there, you know?  So after a couple of years while I was banging on an old guitar I chanced to come upon a small club that needed a quartet to boost its sales.  So I make the right connections and I start learning that Bossa Nova style and I’m playing in the club and surfing in my spare time.  I mean, Bill, we are there at Ipanema and it’s all really beautiful.  You Know?”

Mark’s descriptions and tale of adventure had worn through the first bottle so I was obliged to open the second one.  “So Bill, I’m making a little money playing music and I make a few bucks teaching the upper middle class women how to surf.  It’s a racket, Bill, a license to steal.  I mean, I must have has half a dozen women paying me for lessons and, well, let’s face it, sex.”

Contrary to Gidget and other “surfing” movies, it’s an expensive hobby.  Mark had taught me that early in life.  You learn how to surf as a teenager because that’s when yo have the time and the money, even if it’s mom’s or dad’s.  “So how long did that go on, Mark?”

“I just fell into the habit, you know, it was so easy.  I mean most of the dudes surfing were doing it.  But I was the novelty, the American.  Then I noticed that my skills weren’t as good as they had been.  My mind wasn’t on surfing, it was on who would I take on next.  You know Bill, I was becoming addicted to the money, I was growing fat.  There was a sort of isolated beach area where the waves were really good and there weren’t any crowds.  Just small towns with maybe a hotel and a few hundred houses.  Sort of cut off from the world.  I mean, that’s where I needed to be, get my head together.”  Mark paused to sit back and take a few sips from his glass.  I could tell he was almost in another world from the look his eyes get when he is concentrating hard.  Suddenly his head jerked forward.  “Dude, this is really good wine.  Where’d you get it?”

“I found it up in the city.  One of those mom and pop stores was going out of business and I bought two cases on the spot.  Just a couple dollars a bottle.  You want a few bottles?”  I usually don’t go around hand out bottles of good wine to just anybody but Mark was a good friend back when and we were renewing that friendship tonight.

“Thanks dude for the offer.  Maybe when I got my own place, know what I mean?  I’ve got a deal with one of the board makers, he’s looking for someone to do some design work.  Kind of foot in the door position.  Got to do some of the epoxy work and help with sales.”  He paused for almost a minute then continued, “Last couple of years I tried to go into the business but things got tough down there.”

“How so, too much competition?”

“More than that.  As I was telling you, that little village on the coast changed me.  I had enough savings to surf for four or five months.  I didn’t need much.  Had a small tent to sleep, go to the market for some food.  There were fruit trees and wild vegetables in the hills.  The only misery was the occasional rain storms.  Sometimes I would go into one of the cafes at night and listen to the music.  It was the music, Bill, that saved me.  You know how we used to make fun of that commercial Bossa Nova junk they played on AM?  This was the real stuff.  They played and sang with real feeling and it had a lot of variation.  I mean, it got to the point where I was in one of the cafes almost every night.  I was picking up the language reel good too.  Some one gave me an old guitar and I started practicing chords and later fingers.  Me and some of the locals would be on the beach surfing and practicing and singing.  And then we go to the cafe and play all night.  A couple of months turned into a couple of years.  I’ll tell you Bill, I should’ve stayed there.”

I sat amazed by Mark’s tale.  Only a few individuals can take an ordinary life and turn it into an exotic adventure.  “Sounds like the perfect surfer’s heaven to me.  What made you leave?”

“One of the young women had a good voice and wanted to go to Rio.  She wanted to be a professional singer with all the fame and fortune she could get.  So I went with her, you know, as kind of a protector.  I did it as a favor to her father.  The old man had been good to me, let me use a room in his barn and made sure I had regular meals.  So I told him I’d look after her.”  He studied me for a minute.  “I know all this sounds crazy but I’m telling you what’s real.  In Rio everyone is a hustler, one way or another.  I should have remembered sooner, but I wanted things to be different.”  I saw the mist forming in his eyes and his voice lost his normal ease.  He spoke a little more slowly, a little more deliberate, almost as if each word was an individual pain accumulated over years of suffering.  “We went to the small clubs and cafes, not the best places to work but that’s where you get your foot in the door.  I didn’t know the business and we got fleeced a couple of times, but we survived.  Ana, that was her name, was starting to get known locally.  Well, after a year or so of struggling with small clubs we got a break.  A larger club in Downtown Rio signed her to a year long contract.  Ana was attracting a good audience.  She was becoming a hot property.  Bill, that’s when the real trouble started.  Ana became impatient for the fame and the money.  I tried my best to look after her but that music scene is full of sharks and cutthroats.  I was being edged out.”

Mark dropped his eyes to the floor for several minutes.  When a man has a painful story to tell you don’t rush him.  I could have guessed the ending if this had been the usual Hollywood movie, but I was in for a rude surprise.  “Bill, I really tried to protect her, I really did.  I still came round to the club and watched her.  The owner was making every attempt to seduce her.  Then one night I saw a look in her eyes that chilled me.  She was staring right at me, Bill.  She was pleading with me.  Then the owner noticed her look and followed her stare to me.  Five minutes later a couple of big guys were hustling me out of the club.  They beat the shit out of me, Bill.

I was in the charity hospital for a month trying to recover.  Finally they told me to leave, I was well enough and they needed my bed.  Hell, I was still on crutches, had no money and no where to go.  I had to sell my board for what little money I could get.  There was no way I could go back up north to the village, her father would kill me.  No, I’d have to go the the consulate and see if they could get me back to the states.  That took a few days to arrange and I was books on a flight for the next day.  Bill, I had to go back and see Ana one last time, I really did.  So I went to the club that night.  I saw the change on her face, in her eyes and in her voice.  She had a hard melancholy look about her, you know, that lost woman look.  Anyhow, her eyes sought me out.  It was as if she knew I’d be there that night.  And when she did, she started screaming about all the abuse the club owner had given her.  I mean, what she was saying about him was really bad, criminal.  The band leader tried to shut her up but she persisted.  As they dragged her off the stage she broke free and her accusations were even worse.  Something about two murders she had witnessed him doing.  I think that last confession is what did it.  The owner was suddenly on the stage and I saw him slice her throat.  The blood just flowed.”  Mark stopped his story, his face drained of all its blood.

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