When I was a child my grandparent’s had an English Tudor style house on a hill overlooking the city of São Paulo. Protruding from the rather somber facade of this house were several balconies that had gargoyles carved into them. The floor of the balcony outside of my grandfather’s bedroom was always lightly coated with the dust from the city that made the bottoms of my feet black. In the distance, white skeletons of partially built high rises and building cranes rose into a smudgy sky. São Paulo was booming.
We would always spend a few weeks at the house on Rua Avaré before going to the beach house in São Sebastião. The weather was damp and cold when we were there because it was winter in São Paulo when we had our summer vacation in Canada. There was no central heating but we had electric heaters and brand new scratchy wool blankets.
The house was dark and quiet and had cavernous rooms. I still have bizarre dreams about that house where it becomes a labyrinth of endless rooms and I am searching for my grandparents because it turned out they never died.
My mother used to tell me how in the months right after they moved into the house, her little brother who was just a toddler would stand in the hallway at the foot of the stairs and cry out for her, utterly overwhelmed by the size of their new home. He would cry out “Pipia! Pipia!” until she ran down the curving staircase from her bedroom and reassured him them neither one of them would get lost in those big empty rooms.
Outside the gated driveway, the narrow sidewalk hugged a craggy stone wall out of which grew ferns with hanging tendrils and brightly colored flowers. Accustomed as I was to the tidy lawns of suburban America, the trees on Rua Avaré were startling. Arching over the street high above me, these strange trees dropped red flowers and long hard pods that made a scuffling sound when they were swept up by the maid. Their enormous leaves made pools of shadow, places of respite from the hot sun by day and at night private places where lovers would meet. I would hear murmurs and giggles coming from the darkness and sometimes, driving home after visiting relatives late at night I would make out shapes that were too big to be one person but not two either. It was in those same shadows that my mother’s fiance had lurked and spied on her in the months before she finally decided to break off her engagement and admit to her parents that he had been threatening her life. More about that later.
Inside the massive front door there was a telephone booth with an accordion door. I would go in there, slide the door shut and sit on the wooden bench worn smooth by years of people talking on the phone. How many phone calls? What news, good and bad had came over the wire into that booth in the hallway of my grandparent’s house? I would lift the receiver and in the still, semi-darkness, suddenly removed from the bustle of the house, pretend to call someone.
My grandfather’s medical office which we crept around when he had patients smelled mostly of books, but also of rubbing alcohol and cigars. On his desk was The Paper Weight; the smoothest thing I ever felt, shot full of glass bubbles. Everyday he would sit me up on the examination table and test my reflexes with his little rubber hammer and let me listen to his heart with the stethoscope he kept in a black, shiny leather bag. The bag made a definitive clicking noise when he snapped it shut after the game was over and I had to leave him.
Upstairs between the bathrooms there was an armchair where my grandfather would sometimes sit while the three of us stood around him and we would play a silly hand game he had made up called pingapinga. He would rest one of his hands, palm down on his knee. Then one of us would pinch the top of his hand and then someone else would pinch their hand until all of our hands were used up and we had created a tower of hands on his knee. Then he would start to jiggle his knee eventually making it go up and down, up and down, so that we had to pinch each other tighter and tighter to not let go. Then, when the knee jingling and hand pinching reached a pitch so painful that we could no longer hold on we would all throw our hands up and yell pingapinga! Then we would all yell “again” as we took his hand and put it back on his knee.
When it was cold and rainy Gail and I spent our time going through my grandparent’s closets. My grandmother kept all kinds of boxes; beautiful fabric covered blue, white or red silk lined, some with things like tiny teacups for cafezinho or sweet-smelling leather wallets in them. She would receive these little gifts from distant relatives or minor acquaintances and store them away unused, in the closets steeped in the pungent composty smell of the wood of jacaranda trees and cigar boxes. Sometimes the gifts were still wrapped and we had the added thrill of ripping off the paper, pulling away tissue to reveal a small treasure of no intrinsic value beyond the moment of its discovery.
In my grandfather’s cavernous bedroom, dark and shuttered against the hot sun, there was sometimes this startling revelation; my Grandfather’s teeth in a glass of water! Those were acrobatic teeth. Teeth that slid around my Grandfather’s mouth. Teeth that made us scream hysterically when he pushed them off his gums to the front of his mouth and made them chatter. We would run away and then circle back, begging him to do it again and again.
The bedroom my sister and I slept in had red tile floors and heavy brown shutters; there was no glass to block either the night sounds of tree frogs and distant honking horns or the early morning racket of birds; no screens. My grandmother would tuck the mosquito net tightly around me, lift a corner and kiss my cheek…até manha. The rectangle of light from the hallway narrowed to darkness as she shut the door. I fell asleep to the soft buzzing of mosquitoes that couldn’t reach me feeling safe despite the smudgy handprint on the wall that had been left by a burglar. “He took only the television set,” my grandmother had explained to me.
My favorite part of the house though was the área de serviçio; the ground floor that you reached by going down a narrow, red tiled staircase;. The walls were both smooth and bumpy under trailing fingertips, chasing your brother and sister downstairs; past the kitchen that exhaled the smell of cooking beans, toward the view of distant high rises; hazy in the smog, into the courtyard; Juraçei hanging laundry. The staircase curved at the bottom and gave out onto a hallway that led left to the maids’ bedroom and right to the kitchen and the big wooden doors that were always open and led out to the backyard, paved with tan stones, sloping down to a cement curb beyond which a grassy area sloped steeply down to back of the property where banana trees huddled in the corner.
When I was three years old and Harry just seven, the three of us were playing at “house” in the backyard. We didn’t play on the grass but stayed on the stone patio because once long before I was born when my mother was a child, a poisonous snake had been seen. My grandmother’s sister, Tia Zenith, was the only one brave enough to go near it and she grabbed a machete out the kitchen, the one used to kill chickens and the Christmas turkey, and lopped the snake’s head off.
I was playing the Child, Harry the Father and Gail the Mother. I was throwing a ball and then running after it while my sister “got dinner ready” and Harry watched a make believe television set. I tripped on the edge of one of the paving stones and fell, hitting my head on the curb that separated the grassy part of the yard from the patio, splitting my forehead open. Harry ran over and picked me up in his arms and carried me bleeding all over his white little boy’s shirt, up the steep stairs to the main floor, past the telephone booth, and up the curved staircase to my grandfather’s room and laid me down on his bed; the mosquito net, a gauzy knot hanging above me, my grandfather leaning over me, Gail sobbing.
But the big house on Rua Avaré was robbed countless times over the years and finally sold after robbers chopped the back door down with an ax and destroyed everything they couldn’t take. The gargoyles carved into the cement of the bedroom balconies that my grandfather told me were there to frighten intruders had apparently been ineffective. Ironically, the house is now a police station.