The shrill of the telephone interrupted his Sunday reading. One, three, five rings. ###
“Are you going to get that?” Lúcio yelled, tilting his head toward the house without looking up from the newspaper. Beads of sweat trickled down his back and he inched his chair closer to the front gate, where the breeze was stronger. His mother’s high-pitched hello echoed out into the patio and he began re-reading the interrupted sentence. He heard her ask who it was, then hush her voice. He crossed the terrace and walked to the living room, wondering why she was trying to conceal this phone call. He hadn't met any women at the bar in the last couple of months. His mother was facing the backyard and had her back to him.
“I'm not sure. No, he can't take calls at work. Of course, I’ll give him the message," she said.
He stood in front of her, stretched out his arm and asked loudly, "Who is it?"
She muted the receiver with her hand, shaking her head. But he was already grabbing the phone from her.
“Yes, I'm here. Hello?"
There was a brief pause then a laugh that rattled like rain.
"Lúcio, after all these years, your mother still gives you a hard time about your dates?"
The receiver felt like a soap bubble dissolving in his hands. Aline. He hadn't spoken to her in nearly a decade. He didn’t know what to say.
“Lúcio? Are you there?”
“Yes. Where are you? Are you here?" He knew she’d been coming back from Atlanta for vacations in Brazil. A friend who worked at Varig Airlines would see her every year, as a string of uncles, aunts, cousins, and siblings greeted her at the arrival gate of the Guararapes International Airport. He’d long since given up trying to find her. She never stayed at her parents’ house, always at a hotel. A different one each time.
He heard a sigh on the other end, "I'll get right to the point." His mother was sitting down in a nearby chair, watching him. "It's Clara. I guess I can't keep delaying this. Your daughter wants to meet you."
Lúcio sat at the round Formica table. The worn pink table cloth bunched up as he pushed his soup plate away.
“I'm going out. Don't wait up."
“But Lúcio, it’s Sunday evening. Don't you have to open the store tomorrow?” She forgot about the bread on her plate, and held the knife she was about to use in midair. Her gray hair was up in a loose bun. A piece of runny butter stuck to a strand that had fallen over her cheek as she moved the knife around, slicing the air. Lúcio wished she’d remarried after his father's death. There were moments when he wanted to tell her that he was only her son, not her husband-substitute. But she couldn't take care of herself alone. She was almost seventy years old and the money she received from her pension was barely enough to cover her medications and doctor's visits. As her arthritis worsened, he spent more and more time at the local bar around the corner. He couldn't stand the nights sitting in front of the black and white television set, watching the latest soap-opera and listening to her complain about the violence in Recife, the neighbors and their loud music, the heat, his drinking.
“I know why you're going out tonight," she said, placing the knife on her plate. "It's that woman. Who does she think she is? Calling you after all these years to go meet that daughter of hers --"
"She is my daughter, unfortunately,” he replied, his heart growing heavy as he wondered if he was in fact at peace with his decision and the role he’d chosen to play in his daughter’s life; that of the absent father over the shitty one.
“How do you know?” his mother asked. “Aline could be lying to you. She probably doesn’t even know who the father is, she has to tell the girl something. So she choose you, because you are good and you have a big heart --“
Like a castaway, he held on to her last words. He refused to go under that sea of guilt that had begun filling his soul.
“It was an accident. You know more than anyone that I wasn’t ready to have a child,” he enunciated his next words slowly, “but it is my child."
“Why are you so sure?” He wanted to yell at her, because when Aline and I were dating she was a virgin, damn it! But the fear that his mother might never look at him the same way held him back. It was easier to let her believe it was all Aline's fault, that she was the loose, rich girl who just wanted an adventure to break free from her routine of island cruises, private teachers, and shopping sprees.
“That girl thinks just because she has money she can walk all over people?” his mother continued. “You remember what we went through because of her! They almost killed you with that beating.” She looked up at him and he saw the indignation from ten years ago back in her gaze. He averted his eyes. Had he been wrong in succumbing to his parents’ fears, he wondered, especially his mother’s? Should he have taken their advice, and stopped trying to contact Aline and Clara? Then a worse thought crossed his mind: what if the girl asked him why he had never tried to see her before? He pushed his chair away from the table, gulping his coffee.
“I’ll see you tomorrow morning, mother. Please don’t wait up. Just make sure you wake me at the usual time.”
He walked the three blocks to Bar da Esquina, slowly, trying to dispel the shame he felt in admitting that there were moments when he forgot he had a daughter.
He remembered the night when Aline told him she was pregnant. He'd been twenty-three years old; she was seventeen. Of all the girls he was seeing, he liked her best, and was even considering seeing her exclusively, though of course, she had no idea about his other escapades. She thought they were going steady. They’d sat on the concrete bench that flanked the boardwalk, facing the ocean, surrounded by fishermen's boats resting on the sand like scattered seashells. He told her that there was no way he could get married. He wanted to study, go to Rio, see the world. He couldn’t have a kid. He knew a place where they could take care of it, they’d get rid of the problem for her. “And when you’re done with school, you can join me in Rio,” he added, as the final winning point in his argument.
She'd held her stomach as he told her this, shrinking away from him, the adoration in her eyes fading, then a darkness that erupted into a flow of tears, revulsion, and anger. He tried to hold her, but she pushed him away. He’d watched the outline of her neck, her face hidden in her hands, how fiercely he’d wanted her then. He suggested they could talk it over in a nearby motel. Her tears suddenly stopped and she seemed to be processing the mention of the motel, and what that euphemism meant. Her last words before she got up and left were: “I’m going to have this child Lúcio, and you’re going to regret all of this. I can see now that you’ve never really loved me” But she was wrong, he had loved her. He just wanted to be with her, minus the baby. A month after their talk, when he was coming back from work, three men accosted him and all he remembered was a deluge of fists, shoes, knees, and something chattering as it hit his head. He stayed in the hospital for a week.
When he got to the bar, it was nearly empty. A loud samba spilled out from the speakers propped up at the counter. He sat at his usual table, closest to the bar, where he liked to talk to the owner, Gilmar, and score a couple of free drinks. He scanned the room for Gilmar, but he wasn't there. He pulled out the white fold-out metal chair from the rusting table, annoyed that he would have to pay for his drink. He felt a pleasant chill against his bare legs as he sat down, but that pleasure was momentary.
January was the hottest month in Recife, and every year he swore he’d buy an air-conditioner, but the prices were always rising, and his salary went mostly towards house expenses and the nights he spent here. He’d never managed to make it to Rio. He had dreamed of working at the Copacabana Palace, of spending his weekends playing soccer on the beach, of going to the theater, and meeting new friends. But when he began making money, his father's cancer was diagnosed and his savings had all gone into hospital bills and then the funeral. Now he only saw Rio through the images of the television screen, watching the soaps with his mother. Aline, whose dream had always been to raise a family in Recife, got to see the world. She had only moved to the U.S. out of necessity, right after her family lost all that money. Some political scandal, his mother knew all about it.
The waiter, a young man with dark brown skin and a bulging lower lip, spotted him, gave him the thumbs-up sign, and brought back a glass brimming with ice and whiskey.
“You can go ahead and bring another, save yourself the trip.”
He drained the glass and placed it on the table with a loud thump. His throat and chest tingled with that familiar burning sensation, and he gulped the summer air, his head feeling clearer. He remembered Aline’s laugh on the phone and wondered how she looked, if the years had been kinder to her than to him. He’d turned thirty-three that year. His receding hairline aged him, and the weight he’d gained from all the whiskey hadn't helped; people usually guessed he was forty. What about the girl, did she take after Aline with her lively green eyes and dark skin, or did she look like him? At least he knew she had curly hair. He wondered how well she spoke Portuguese.
He'd only seen them once, about two or three years after they’d broken up. Aline and the baby were building a sand castle on the beach; he only caught a quick glimpse of his child in a white cotton t-shirt and hat, heard squealing and laughter as its tiny hands fluffed out the sand. He noticed the black curls, so like his own, spilling out under its hat. The desire to go up and say hello, to find out if he had a daughter or a son, gripped him, like a hand on his throat that wouldn't let him breathe unless he found out. He walked towards them, but Aline saw him approaching, started yelling, and throwing anything she could find at him: plastic buckets, a flip-flop sandal, a water bottle. He managed to tell her he just wanted to know the kid’s name. Aline was already walking away, the baby crying in her arms, but then she paused, taking one last look at him and said, "It's a girl, seu filho da puta. Her name is Clara."
Yes, he thought, I have failed as a father, but I have done my duty as a son. If Aline knew that he had done that, she wouldn't think he was such a bad guy. But he had never been given the benefit of the doubt. He wondered why she had called after all those years. Did his daughter really want to meet him or was this some sort of trap to get him to pay child support?
The waiter brought a third, then a fourth glass. The bar seemed livelier now. Lúcio saw some women swaying their hips to the drums in the music, twirling around the makeshift dance floor. He stumbled over to them, attempting a few samba steps along the way, and tripped over a chair. They turned away, their laughter echoing in his ears as he lifted himself up, falling again. A man tried to help him, to raise him off the concrete floor, but Lúcio pushed his hands away.
“Leave me alone!” he yelled.
“Lúcio, man, it's me. It's Gilmar. Come on, I’ll walk you home.” As he put his arm over Gilmar’s shoulder, Lúcio’s last thought before passing out was, what a fool. She's better off not knowing what a fool she has for a father.
He was making a cheese sandwich for dinner when the phone rang. His mother was at a prayer group meeting and hadn’t made him anything. He stared at the gray receiver and how it vibrated on the tabletop. He counted the rings as he ate. Seventeen rings. Let Aline wait, he thought, I haven’t made up my mind yet. He went to the living room and turned on the TV set. The face of an anchorman appeared, reporting on the latest monetary plan issued by the government. Half an hour later, the phone rang again. Seventeen more times. He looked down at his plate and wondered if Clara liked cheese sandwiches. Or maybe she’s a picky eater like her mother.
On the caller’s third attempt, he gave up, cursing as he went over to answer the phone.
“Lúcio, finally! I've been calling non-stop since Monday, hasn't your mother been giving you my messages?" She had, but it was easier to tell Aline that she hadn't. "So, what should I tell Clara?" Her voice really hadn’t changed at all during all those years. Amazing.
“Of course, I'll come,” he found himself saying. “I can’t wait to meet her,” he lied. “You know I tried so many times, pretty much every year. But you always made it so difficult, moving out of the country, not staying at your parents when you visited, changing hotels--” he’d only tried contacting her twice, but she didn’t need to know this either.
“Lúcio, this isn’t about us, okay? Why haven’t you called back?"
Her voice sounded suspicious. He tried to explain.
“You know how my mother is. I’m barely home and we don’t have an answering machine, so I have to rely on her for the messages. She told me she lost the number, but I knew you'd call back. She’s out.”
“Ok, good. So is Saturday afternoon a good time for you?"
“Yes, of course,” he hesitated, then thought what the hell, “Will you be there?"
“Of course I’ll be there. What a question," she sounded impatient. He tried changing the subject.
“So how is life in the States? Have you found yourself a tall, blond gringo?” He tried to make it into a joke, but his tone was more serious than he’d intended.
“So besides my love life, do you have any other questions for me? Is there anything about Clara that you’d like me to tell you before the big day?” She was also trying to sound light-hearted, but he could sense a strain in her voice.
“Uh, not really. Nothing I can think about out of the top of my head."
“You have no questions about your ten-year-old daughter you’ve never met?" she asked. He twisted the phone cord around his index finger. He really couldn't think of a single question, aside from if she liked cheese sandwiches, which of course, he found completely idiotic.
"Ok, well I'll tell you this much. She’s been asking about you since she was around six or so, but I didn’t think she was ready to meet you, so I just fed her little bits of information, here and there. I guess I wasn't ready either. But now… I don't know, she's just reached that age, I suppose. I just can’t manipulate her curiosity any longer."
They reconfirmed the date and time, and she made him repeat where they were meeting, twice. Saturday, three o’clock, Restaurante Bargaço, right on the waterfront. He knew where it was, he passed it on the bus every day on his way to work, but of course he'd never eaten there. He imagined himself sitting in the dining room, wearing a white linen suit, Aline looking up from the menu and smiling at him. He'd order fruit juice instead of whiskey. Clara would be playing in the playground, he was pretty sure those places had a playground, and she’d proudly point at him, telling her little group of friends, "That's my daddy!" It would all happen two days from now.
“Thank you for doing this, Lúcio. I just want you to know that despite our differences, when Clara asked about you, I never said anything negative. So don’t worry, you can start a fresh page with her."
He put the receiver down slowly, paced around the living room, then went to the terrace. He looked toward the bar, wanting a drink badly, but he’d spent all his money on Sunday; all that was left in his wallet were the monthly bus passes provided by his job. He went back into the kitchen and stood looking at the clock hanging above the refrigerator and suddenly felt tired, even though it was only nine o’clock. He lay down on his twin bed, not even bothering to turn on the bedside fan. They were going back in a few days. They don't even live here, he thought, closing his eyes and cursing himself for agreeing to go to this futile encounter.
The mall was empty, the only people walking by the glass display windows were the employees heading to their sales jobs. Lúcio greeted most of them by name. Every week for the past twelve years he’d been walking down these corridors, past the glassed-in mannequins, the food court, the popcorn stands, and the newspaper and flower kiosks. He worked at a men's clothing store, specializing in suits, but his first job in that shopping center had been in a shoe store. That's how he met Aline. She’d come in to buy a pair of shoes. Her first pair of high heels, she’d told him, my parents finally allowed me to get them. She sat down on the black stool and beamed as he brought down box after box of shoes for her to try on. She had the most beautiful feet he’d ever seen, and he’d seen his share of feet on that job, from soles that felt like sandpaper and smelled like rotten eggs, to perfectly manicured feet that smelled like talcum powder. Aline’s had a high arch; they were smooth, the skin as delicate as rice paper, and smelled like lotion. He hated his feet. His middle toes were perceptibly bigger than his big toes, and all ten of them were bunched together. His feet looked like paws. He wondered whose feet Clara had inherited, his or Aline’s?
He arrived at store 175 and checked the time on the fake Rolex watch his father had insisted on giving him when he got his first job. He was fifteen minutes early. Only the mannequins, surrounded by darkness and wearing black suits and beige ties, were there to greet him. Some had arms bent in unnatural poses intended to imitate some sort of human gesture, maybe a wave, others had one hand stuffed inside the front pockets of their suit jackets. Unsure of what to do, he sat on the bench facing the display and tapped the heels of his shoes against the leg that supported the plastic slats. The sound his soles made against the metal soothed him for a few minutes. Tomorrow, he thought, I’ll be sitting next to Aline. And Clara. Clara, he repeated the name to himself under his breath, got up and walked over to the food court, where maybe one of the girls would make him a free cup of coffee. His daughter’s name sounded odd on his lips, as if he were trying a strange new dish, and wasn’t sure if he liked it or not. Not entirely unpleasant, not exactly distasteful, only a bit peculiar. He said it a few more times, glad to be diminishing the strangeness on his lips. As he turned right toward the food court, he noticed that the sheets of brown paper taped to the glass of the new store, the one near the bathrooms, had been removed. The store was called Wonderland. He had no idea what that meant, so he walked over to it, hoping that it wasn't one of those trendy men's stores that had started to sprout all over the mall, slicing away at his clientele. The store was dark and he couldn’t see anything, so he inched closer to the glass and shielded the sides of his face with his hands. The display was covered with confetti and paper maché. He saw a miniature train set, a white teddy bear half his height, colored pencils and books with pictures of clouds and smiling suns. There were dolls the size of his hand, dolls that looked like newborn infants, dolls dressed in miniskirts and boots, with large breasts and tiny waists. He wondered what sort of toys Clara had in the U.S. A present would be a good way to break the ice. She’ll warm up to me right away, he thought. And Aline would certainly appreciate the gesture. He scanned the prices and shook his head at how much everything cost. But I can't go empty handed and I can’t get her any old rag doll, she lives in the United States, they probably have toys there we've never even seen here. He continued thinking about what he could get her as he walked back to his job. He stopped for a minute before going inside and fixed his tie against his reflection on the glass, determined to ask his boss for an advance on his next paycheck.
Halfway through his shift, he wished he hadn't stepped out of the store to chat with the cute flower girl who worked in the kiosk across from him. Alfredo, the stuck-up college kid, stole his turn on the rotation line, and now, Lúcio had to quietly watch as he neatly piled and folded racks of dress shirts, ties, and pants on the glass counter, a little smirk on his face, probably calculating his commission. They weren’t supposed to leave the store outside their break time, so he couldn’t really complain. That money is supposed to be mine, he thought, and he strolled around the merchandise, hands behind his back, feigning a calmness he didn't feel. Also, while he was with the flower girl outside, the cashier told him, their boss had called. So he had not only missed a great client but the opportunity to ask Lauro for the advance on his paycheck. Now Lauro would be unreachable the whole weekend, celebrating his wedding anniversary out at some beach house and not coming back until Monday. And by then, Aline and Clara would be gone.
When he got home, his mother was crocheting out in the terrace. He could tell by the deep wrinkle on the center of her forehead that she was not in a good mood. Not the best time to ask for money, he thought.
“How was your day, old gal?” he asked, and kissed the top of her head, smelling the fragrance of her shampoo, something that reminded him of sour grapes and roses.
She gave a little grunt when he kissed her.
“She called again this afternoon," she pulled the yarn tighter against the needle.
"Who did?" he asked, pretending he didn't know she was talking about Aline.
“You know who, don't try to act fresh with me, Lúcio. You came from here,” she dropped the crochet on her lap and pointed to her stomach, “I know when you're trying to trick me.”
“Why am I trying to trick you?” he said, unable to hide his impatience. He took his shoes off and placed them under a nearby chair. He sat down, stretching his legs, and tried to change the subject. “How was your meeting the other night? Did you ladies get a lot of praying done?"
She ignored his question. “You were going to meet them without telling me!”
“Why the hell do I have to tell you something you don’t want me to do? See, you get all upset and then I have to put up with your bad moods," he said.
“You have to tell me because I’m your mother, that’s why. I know what's best for you, Lúcio. Even if you are the father, like you’ve seemed to have convinced yourself, what’s the point of going?"
It’s what a self-respecting man would do, he thought, but he dared not interrupt her. He remained quiet, watching her hand hook the needle into the thread, weaving the line, and looping it into a pattern.
“For one thing, they don't even live here,” she continued. “You'll never be part of this girl’s life. You can't send her any money, you can’t visit her on the weekends, and you can’t even afford to make a long-distance call to the United States!”
She looked up from her work, her hands on her lap, the crochet forgotten. Her words tore through him, as she pinpointed the worries that had plagued him all week. “You'll be their little circus animal for one afternoon. Aline will play with her exotic monkey, make him dance, sing, run around playing tricks for her little girl. Then when they get tired of the show, they pack up, and that’s it. The girl’s curiosity is satisfied and Aline,” she seemed to spit out the name, saying it as if it were a profanity, "never has to deal with you again. She’s just using you, Lúcio, can’t you see that?”
“You have an illegitimate granddaughter, whether you like it or not,” he said as he put his shoes back on. “And for the past ten years, Aline has never asked for anything. How do you expect me to say no to this?" And as he confronted his mother, his uncertainties diminished. Yes, he felt like a good man and at that moment, was no longer afraid of what he would find in his daughter's eyes on Saturday, when she looked up and saw him for the first time. As he slammed the iron gate shut and walked over to Bar da Esquina, he imagined that instead of disappointment, her eyes would be shining.
He sat at an outside table facing a row of low brick houses, watching people getting off a bus on the corner. A woman carried a large wrapped package, a boy in navy blue soccer shorts trailing after her. He felt himself recoil in shame at not having bought Clara a present.
“Waiter, bring me a whiskey. I’ll settle up with Gilmar when he gets here.”
Gilmar finally arrived, in high, celebratory spirits; he’d just signed a contract for the lease on another bar and he was happy to have someone to celebrate with. The waiter set a bottle of top-shelf Scotch in the middle of the table, and as they poured their drinks, Lúcio felt the familiar burning in his chest, and with each glass he shed his unpleasant thoughts. I’ll just tell Aline I can't go. Better to call the whole thing off.
A chubby brunette was eyeing him from across the room and the bar owner brought her over. He soon forgot Aline, his mother’s words, the present he didn't buy. Gilmar kept filling his glass and the brunette grew tired of his slurring words. When he left the bar and collapsed into bed, it was daylight. He fell on the sheets fully clothed into a profound, dreamless sleep.
The birds chirping outside his window woke him. His skull was pounding violently; he held his head between his hands to steady himself as he tried to get out of bed. The kitchen was empty. He saw a plate covered with a white dishcloth, near the stove, but at the thought of food his stomach contracted in an unnatural way. His mouth was dry, his tongue felt thick and stuck to the roof of his mouth. He opened the refrigerator and drank from the water bottle. It was twelve o’clock; he still had time to call the whole thing off, they weren't supposed to meet until three. He went back to his room but the pounding in his head kept him from falling back asleep. I can tell Aline I got called into work, he thought. He remembered his mother's words. You'll never be part of this girl’s life. Why bother going?
He got up, opened his desk drawer and found the paper with Aline's number. He sat on the kitchen table, making a sort of paper tube out of the slip, rolling and unrolling it across the white Formica. He wished he could get back in bed and sleep through this day. For the past ten years, Lúcio felt like he was walking around in a circle: house, mall, bar, house. What would the future hold, he wondered, would he end up alone, once his mother passed away? He had imagined another, fuller life for himself; a more exciting and independent life where he would have been surrounded with a fulfilling job, intelligent conversations, beautiful women. He picked up a box of matches that was on top of the stove and lit one. He took the paper with Aline's number and touched it with the tiny flame.
The bus wasn't full and he managed to find a window seat. The scenery outside changed from low whitewashed houses to tall waterfront buildings, but he didn't notice it and nearly missed his stop. As he stepped out of the bus he felt the ocean breeze and smelled the seaweed in the air. He waited for the light to turn red, crossing the avenue that stretched alongside the tiled boardwalk. He continued down the jogger’s lane, watching the sun hit the ocean, the waves flickering between green and bright silver, the tide so high he couldn’t make out the reefs that usually broke the water on this part of the beach. He sat on a stool in the shade of a coconut stand where he could see the restaurant’s tinted windows across the avenue.
He felt his pockets and found he still had a one Cruzado coin. He ordered a coconut, watching the boy behind the counter slice it open. A street performer stood in front of a couple that sat on a bench to Lúcio’s left and played an improvised song on his guitar. His voice was deep, but sweet. When he finished, the couple clapped and handed him a few bills, then walked away. The man headed over to the coconut stand and ordered a cachaça.
“We ran out, but my dad will bring some later in the afternoon. We only have beer.” the boy said.
"No, that’s ok. I guess a coke will have to do,” the man replied.
He took his coke and sat on the bench where the couple had been, tuning his instrument and humming.
Past the boardwalk, on the other side of the avenue, a taxi pulled up in front of the restaurant and Aline stepped out. She was heavier, her long hair now a short bob. She wore jeans and a red T-shirt. A small figure stepped out of the car after her, in a blue and white dress, with sleeves that puffed out, and white Mary Jane shoes. The girl smoothed out her dress and looked up at her mother, tugging at the red T-shirt. Aline looked down and the girl turned toward her, standing still as Aline fixed the bow on her hair. When Aline finished, she kissed the top of her daughter’s head, and hugged her.
He watched from the coconut stand as they went inside the restaurant, relieved that they hadn’t seen him. Clara dressed up just for me, Lúcio thought, and he felt a bliss that enveloped his whole body, as if his soul were smiling out to everyone on that stretch of Boa Viagem beach. But the remnants of his delight seemed to fade entirely as he looked down at his faded black trousers and wrinkled shirt. I can't even afford to get her a present and probably still smell like whiskey, he thought. He checked the time, sighing. For the first time in years, he wished his father were alive. He would have come up with a good solution.
The man continued strumming his guitar and Lúcio noticed how slender his fingers were, as they moved over the strings. He gave Lúcio a brief nod, coming towards him, ready to start a new improvisation. Lúcio declined and as the man went back to his bench Lúcio saw that he wasn't wearing a wristwatch.
“Wait," Lúcio shouted, then added in a normal tone “do you like this watch?”
The man took a quick look and said, “Sure, very nice. Why, you wanna sell it? Too bad, I’m probably as broke as you!” then burst into a bellowing laugh.
“Actually, I thought I could trade it for one of your songs."
The man furrowed his brows, confused, “You serious?” he asked.
“Yes, it’s a Rolex. See?" he lied, as he took the watch off his wrist and handed it over to the man. “My father gave it to me, may he rest in peace." The man examined the watch and Lúcio continued, "You see that little girl, with the white dress sitting in that restaurant behind that window over there? See her?” He pointed over to Clara. “That’s my daughter. We're going to meet each other now, for the first time," he paused, choking up, but the man nodded, encouraging him, so he continued, "and I don't have any money for a present, because I—“ he cringed at how he sounded. "I drank all my money away this week. And I didn't think it would be worth it, to come here, I mean. They’re leaving tomorrow. So I thought. Why bother? But now I'm here, and I thought that maybe you could go in there and sing her a song, as a present. One of those funny, improvised repentes.”
The man looked at the watch one last time and placed it on the counter next to Lúcio. “This one is on me,” he said. “You might want to give this to her on another occasion, when she's older.”
Lúcio took the watch from the counter and thanked the man, turning his back on the ocean. The sun shone down on his face, and he was unable to see Clara inside the restaurant. He shielded his eyes, squinting. A traffic light turned green and as the cars rushed through the avenue, he caught glimpses of his daughter across the street, through the reflection in the window. Her face was radiant, her hands moved as she spoke. She took a sip from her glass then looked up at Aline, pointing and laughing at a man pushing an ice cream cart on his way to the beach. She was a happy child. He suppressed his tears as he watched her. I have a beautiful daughter, he told himself. He scanned her face again. Clara didn’t look anything like him; he was glad not to see himself in her features.
The musician patted his shoulder; he was holding his guitar across his chest, as if ready to begin playing at any moment.
“Now, give me something to work with out here, while you two get settled with each other. What’s her name?" the man asked.
"Clara,” Lúcio managed to say.
“How old is she?"
“Eight, no... Ten, she's ten," he stammered.
Lúcio looked out towards the sea, the bathers in their bright suits, staining the ocean with flecks of color, the children running into the waves.
“And she is happiest when she builds sand castles," he added. Lúcio shook the man's hand, tucked in his shirt, and crossed the street, as he walked away from the restaurant.
That night, he slept peacefully. But the following evening, he found himself trying to reconstruct the charred scraps of paper where he had written Aline’s number. He strained to recall those lost digits, as the clanking of his mother's knitting needles mingled with the soap opera's droning dialogue. His gaze remained fixed on the receiver, but it never rang.