Rubem Fonseca is one of Brazil's most influential writers. A collection of his stories, The Taker, is published by Open Letter.


The game of dead men

They met every night in Anísio's bar. Marinho, who owned the largest pharmacy in town, Fernando and Gonçalves, partners in a grocery store, and Anísio. None of them was a native of the city nor even of the Baixada. Anísio and Fernando were from Minas Gerais and Marinho from Ceará. Gonçalves had come from Portugal. They were small-businessmen, prosperous and ambitious. They owned modest summer homes in the same development in the lake region, belonged to the Lions, went to church, lived a quiet life. They also had in common a strong interest in all forms of gambling. They would bet, among themselves, on card games, soccer, horse races, car races, beauty contests, anything with an element of chance. They bet big, but they usually wouldn't lose much money, since a losing streak was normally followed by a string of wins. In the last few months, however, Anísio, the owner of the bar, had been losing steadily.

They were playing cards and drinking beer the night the game of dead men was invented. Anísio invented the game.

"I bet the squad kills over 20 this month," he said.

Fernando observed that over 20 was very vague.

"I bet the squad kills 21 this month," Anísio said.

"Just here in the city or in the whole Baixada?" Gonçalves asked. Despite being in Brazil for many years he still had a strong accent.

"A thousand that the squad kills 21 this month, here in Meriti," Anísio insisted.

"I bet they kill 69," Gonçalves said, laughing.

"I think that's a lot," Marinho said.

"I'm joking," Gonçalves said.

"Joking my ass," said Anísio, forcefully throwing a card on the table. "What's said is said, and it's just too bad for anybody who talks nonsense. I'm sick of losing out that way." It was true.

"Have you heard the one about the Portuguese guy and sixty-nining?" Anísio asked. They had to explain to the Portuguese what sixty-nining was; he was horrified and said, "God that's sickening. I wouldn't do that even with my dear mother."

Everyone laughed but Gonçalves.

"Say, this is a good game," Fernando said. "A thousand says the squad kills a dozen. Hey, Anísio, how about some cheese to go with the beer. And some of that salami."

"Write it down there," Anísio said to Marinho, who noted the bets in a book with a green cover, "plus a thousand more that out of my 21, 10 are mulattoes, 8 are black, and 2 are white."

"Who decides who's white, black, or mulatto? Here everything's a mixture. And how will we know who does the killing?" Gonçalves asked.

"Whatever it says in the newspaper is what counts. If it says he's black, he's black; if it says it was the squad, it was the squad. Agreed?" asked Marinho.

"Another thou' that the youngest of mine is 18 and the oldest 26," Anísio said.

At that moment the False Perpétuo came into the bar and the four immediately stopped talking. The False Perpétuo had straight dark hair, bony facial features and an impassive gaze, and like the true Perpétuo, a famous detective who had been assassinated some years earlier, he never smiled. None of the players knew what the False Perpétuo did, perhaps he merely worked in a bank or as a civil servant, but his presence, when he showed up now and then in Anísio's Bar, always frightened the four friends. No one knew his real name, as the False Perpétuo was a nickname given him by Anísio, who claimed to have known the true Perpétuo. He wore two .45s, one on each hip, and one could see the wide cartridge belt above his pants. He had the habit of lightly running the edge of his jacket through his fingers, as babies do with their diapers, a sign of alertness, always ready to pull out his weapons and shoot with both hands. When he was killed they had had to do it from behind.

The False Perpétuo sat down and ordered a beer, without looking at the players but turning his head slightly, his neck taut; he could be listening to what the group was saying.

"I think it's just our impression," murmured Fernando, "and anyway, whoever he is, why should we care? No debts, no worries."

"I don't know, I just don't know," Anísio said pensively. They went back to playing cards in silence, waiting for the False Perpétuo to leave.

Continues in the print edition. Order now.

Translated by Clifford E. Landers.



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