Cambyçara Building

I don't know when I started to smell like old stuff. Maybe it was when my building started to become decrepit like me. I used to laugh at my grandfather when he said that old people smell and need to shower every five minutes. Now I understand why he was always in the shower―with a complete wash on Sundays. The weight of old age is an obstacle to any attempt of movement, especially underwater adventures, even if it's only under a simple shower head. 

Today, I am always covered in baby powder and drenched in deodorant. I keep my clothes reasonably clean, but I don't know how to get rid of this mothball smell. I can't take a shower every day either―my arthritis won't let me. As my ancestors did before me, I now put my cane against the wall covered by old tiles and wash myself as far as my strength allows. I feel fresh, but will eternally have that smell of things forgotten, sprinkled with sulfur.

I can smell my grandfather's perfume penetrating my skin. I remember him as if it were today. There I am, waiting at the station, carrying my bag with shaky hands and an absorbed look of homesickness in my eyes. He pats me on the head with his wrinkled hands and kisses me with tears in his eyes. Soon I will be a respectable professional, like he has been once. University awaits me at the Capital City and I will have to learn how to take care of myself. Nonetheless, I am happy. I'll finally taste the freedom and have a brand new seaside apartment all to myself.

I am seventy-five years old now. My neighbors are no longer those I lived next to back them. Students went their own ways and the wealthy families that would come to spend summers on the shore abandoned the city bit by bit, going to other less chaotic beaches, running away from progress. 

I remained here. I watched each brick, each gravel, each spoonful of mortar that erected this damn progress. The luxurious building, the result of state-of-the-art architecture, has rotten like my body. I have wrinkles, the building has cracks. I smell like mothballs, it smells like mold and promiscuity. We're partners in life, made for each other. I never got married, never wanted children. I have made a commitment to my apartment, the witness of a lifetime. It will probably be my future grave.

It was my birthday a few days ago, but nobody seems to have remembered. It's for the better. There's nothing to celebrate about a scarred, limping body. I'm overripe, old stuff, a good-for-nothing object sitting in a corner where nobody sees me―or pretends not to see me.

I see no point in having a birthday cake or those colorful cone-shaped hats reaffirming my state of retardation. I wouldn't be able to blow out the candles without spitting all over the glaze on top of the pie. I would rather be forgotten. I would like to forget myself, but I'm unable to.

My joints remind me every waking minute that I'm but a sack of brittle bones. I see my grotesque figure in the mirror every day and try not to think how handsome I once was. My skin used to be smooth and well toned, now it looks like it's made of paper and gets torn at the least amount of movement, leaving horrendous marks that I can no longer prevent.

I was forced to accept me. Time seems to be a good teacher. I just have not been able to get used to my age. My flaccid body doesn't keep up my young mind. I can appreciate a beautiful woman when I see one, but I'm no longer eighteen and can hardly remember the last time I had one of them in my arms―was it a young woman or a prostitute? Even though I cannot recognize my virility anymore, I still desire women. That's the greatest tragedy of my life.

I left my tiny apartment at seven thirty in the morning. One of the things that we learn from old age is that sleep gradually abandons us, until it completely disappears, making us memorize cracks on the ceiling until it is three in the morning and your wide eyes have been staring at the infinite nothingness all along. 

I had gone to bed late at night and got up with the first rays of sunshine. I washed my face and brushed my dentures. Then I met her by the door, in the claustrophobic hallway of our beloved building. Among so many apartments clustered in the same floor, she stood out from all the other tenants. Her deliciously vulgar nightgown was tight against her body and displayed her tempting shape without any chastity, thus indicating her profession.

“Good morning, Mr. Antunes!”

Even in the morning her voice was delicious. I couldn't believe a woman would ever be able to show her sensuality with a stinky late-at-night breath. But that was Marli: she emanated sin and voluptuousness in her eyes, even during the day.

“Up already, girl?”

That was the only sentence I could put together. It was ridiculously fatherly. I thought it would be less humiliating if I played the part of the father, instead of that of a drooling old man.

“I'm so worn out today! Besides my 'date' yesterday, I had to wake up early today... What a shitty life!”

“Why don't you go to sleep, my child?”

“I have to clean up this pigsty. I can't have my sister over with the house like that, can I? She doesn't know I'm a whore. She thinks I work at a store.”

A cold breeze came in through the decorative hollow blocks on the wall, flinging Marli's door open. I could smell the cheap eucalyptus scent permeating the room. She had put her skinny arms to work, scrubbing the soiled floor persistently in repeated, violent movements, as if the detergent were able to clean her reputation as well, erasing the painful marks on her body and soul once and for all. Like me, she had also come from the countryside. The streets have been her college. No diploma, no honors. She supports herself and her family back home.

“And what will you do about your clients, my child? She may suspect something...”

“I'm not one of those depraved whores, Mr. Antunes! Have you ever seen me bringing a client back home? I'm an old-fashioned gal in that sense. I do a good job out there, but I'm just good-old Marli when I'm back home. I don't like crossing the lines that way. I see my clients out in the streets, during business hours, so nobody will notice.”

I sensed a ridiculous wave of morals coming out of her vulgar chest and into those words. While she dusted the image of the Virgin Mary on the bookshelf, I looked at her thick brown thighs and wanted to ask Our Saint Lady why old men like me must go through all this suffering. I said good-bye to Marli and wished her the best. That was all I could utter without looking away from her brown skin.

I buttoned up my jacket with shaky fingers. The wind in those halls brought shivers down my spine. Despite the tropical climate, I felt cold―a cold brought by the death that surrounds all old people. The light near the elevator had gone out almost a month ago, but nobody was willing to change the lightbulb. I was exhausted of walking around in the dark, feeling the cold walls with my hands. I counted the money in my pocket. I'd have a little change to spare after paying for the condo fee. I'd take the opportunity to complain to the new manager. He would have to listen to me. After all, I've always paid my bills on time!

I got into the old elevator, feeling as uneasy as I'd always be whenever I looked at that worn-out device. Cluttered iron and steel cables, it looked like a can of sardines. It stopped on the ninth floor. The air smelled of rust and a boy―seventeen years old or so―came in looking like he was in a hurry and couldn't miss the last train to a distant land. He was wearing the same thing kids his age wear, but he had cold hands and a nervous look about him. I could feel how cold he was, even though we didn't touch. His hoodie came down, exposing his pale, uncertain face. I supported myself with my cane and got closer to him. My strict manners compelled me to help anyone who might be ill, and that boy looked like he was sick.

“Do you need any help, young man?”

“Gimme all you got, old man!”

Even though I have to live with my senile figure every day, I am far from being used to someone calling me “old man.” It almost sounded like an insult, an expression that wipes out all the experience I have accumulated throughout my life, as if the damn long years I have enjoyed in life were simply useless. I never liked the word “old.” Even museums have their worth, but society sees an old person like garbage. Dirty and useless!

“My name is Antunes, young man...”

“No small talking. Gimme the money now, stupid old shit!”

I don't know how he knew I had money. He probably didn't, nor could he understand what he was doing by taking that little knife from his pocket. What harm could I do to that boy? With my strength down to zero, I would be unable to react, even if he had no weapon.

“I don't have anything, you punk!”

The youth's agile hands quickly found the envelope with money inside the pocket of my pants. I never thought that one day, inside a building that used to be associated with glamor, I would have to watch out for muggers. I had heard about worse crimes, but I never believed it could happen. A little bag with some herbs fell from the boy's pocket and he swiftly picked it up and put it away with my meager change.

I don't want to dwell on the contents of that bag. I'd rather think it was medicinal herbs. I still believe in the innocence of people. I just can't believe nobody has manners anymore. He called me an “old man!” That damn punk!

Apartment six hundred and two had the most beautiful door in the entire building. The embroidered rug gave a false air of nobility to the place. The manager, a fat man with a thick mustache, opened the door still looking a little sleepy. And there I stood for a whole long minute, not knowing what to say.

“At this time in the morning, Mr. Antunes? C'mon on! What do you want?”

“The light on my floor... It went out and the lightbulb needs changing.”

“I told you I'd take care of it. What else do you want me to do?”

“It's been almost a month and I'm still waiting.”

“Do you know how many back payments on condo fees I've been waiting for? We have three thousand people living in this building. Almost nobody pays their fee! Do you really think I can manage this human beehive without a budget? Or do you want me to pay for it out of my own pocket?”

The idea of claiming my rights disappeared when the manager―moving that big belly lazily―made me aware of the real situation in the building. With over forty percent of residents classified as defaulters, there was little that the poor man could do. 

I bit my tongue and my empty stomach started to complain―I hadn't had breakfast. I held on to my cane and kept my mouth shut. I couldn't tell him that I wasn't able to pay the condo fee that month. I also know it was no use telling him about the mugger and play the victim card. If residents weren't even slightly shocked with the recent murder of one of our neighbors, they sure wouldn't even pay attention to my personal drama. I was stupid. Anyone who lives at the Cambyçara Building has no right to walk around with money in their pockets. I said good-bye to him without a word about it and promised to come back with the payment for the month.

I took a break at the corridor. I was exhausted, so I sat down on a wicker chair forgotten in a corner, allowing my weak body to rest. The big fuss of poor souls in a hurry and children demanding their first meal of the day no longer bothered me. I had been living at that place for years―centuries actually! All that melting pot of things and people of questionable origins was absolutely normal to me. 

I looked around and found the skeleton of what one day was a noble residence. I had never stopped to look at the exposed wires coming from the moldy ceiling. The water seeping through and running down the walls created putrid drawings, some sort of greenish tattoo that was hard to get rid of, just like those stains that linger in the air and in our minds.

Further down, on that very same floor where the new manager's apartment was, I could smell the blood of the murdered neighbor. The stain was still there. You couldn't see it, but you could feel it. It happened late at night, but nobody seemed to have heard the blasts. Six bullets, all to the head. The building wasn't even shaken up by the sounds of death. I had never seen anything unusual about that fellow, and I also tried to imagine that he used medicinal herbs, but the white powder that he supposedly consumed was more expensive than his own life.

Bit by bit, doors were being opened slowly and loudly. It still smelled like bed and sin. Not all girls were like Marli. Most of them brought their work home and the paper-thin walls indicated the lack of shame hidden in each cubicle of those long corridors. At first, neighbors started to protest against the strangers coming and going. After some time, the fact became trivial. Good-looking young men, gray-haired middle-aged men, reformed men, bums, men who smelled good and men who hadn't washed in ages. These young prostitutes take on clients of all shapes and sizes, as long as they can pay for their cheap fee. That's because the more experienced whores weren't willing to waste time with dirty stingy bastards. They would take the streets to select a better clientele.

If my mother were still alive, she would have a fainting spell upon hearing that I share the same roof with this kind of people. Prostitution, homicide, defaulters, drug dealers: That was my reality now. When I first got here at the height of my eighteen years of age, I was showing off my riches, living in a luxurious environment, enjoying the best that the city had to offer. I remember that time as if it were yesterday... The majestic building smelled like something that is brand new. The fresh coat of paint reflected the sunshine that would come in through the window, since back then there were no skyscrapers around to block the sunlight.

I met so many young men like me, who had come to attend university in the big city. The light of restaurants and nightclubs sparkled before us, calling our attention and claiming our allowance. Women of all paths would come into the arms of “bumpkin students.” That's the way we were known back then, practically virgins. We spent delicious times with those mature women who were thirsty for money. I can't recall how many times I went to the “floating club,” nothing but a brothel disguised as a pub. It had hot diffuse lighting and we spent most of our sleepless nights there.

My friends graduated, became respectable professionals. As for me, I went on enjoying the embrace of all those girls. I enjoyed the bohemian lifestyle too much to give it all up for a diploma. I had several jobs, from the most menial tasks to others that paid very well, but my grandfather died displeased of the fact that I never followed his recommendations. I didn't become the lawyer he always dreamed I would be. He only left me the apartment where I live today and a small house on a secluded neighborhood. Everything else, he left to the church. I stopped going to mass.

Today, renting out that house is what supports me. Deep down he somehow knew I'd have to support myself when I hit a certain age. He was also aware of the delicious times you can spend with women and imagined that I would let myself go by the taste of sin.

I was sure one day I would have that earthy smell he once emanated. My partners in youth never looked for me anymore. They left me behind once they realized I would amount to nothing. I have no friends today, but I have no regrets about anything in my life. I have lived intensely. I used to drink from the mouth of the most superb women in the city. I have smoked cigars and cigarettes. I have driven trucks and scrubbed toilets. I have always been free. My gray hair always inspired some respect. I'm the nice Mr. Antunes, everybody's grandpa, that harmless being. I live with my bland, opaque neutrality. I've made peace with it.

The strong smell of my breath brought me back to the present. My mouth tasted sour. I needed to eat something. The ground floor was the most exciting place in the building. Pubs and small businesses polluted the entire block, but we were so used to them we could hardly live without them. The lack of hygiene concerned me, but after so many years I also learned to live with the dirt.

I went around the damp pile of trash and leaned over the counter at my usual kiosk of choice. Mr. Feitosa was there, all sluggish and soiled, with a dishcloth hanging from his hairy shoulder, wearing that same disgusting wife beater that used to be white, with that same chronic cough that was his companion since his early teenage years.

I ordered a cup of coffee with milk. It was ready in no time, as usual. It was quick and thin, with a thick layer of milk fat floating on the surface. It looked like dirty water, but it was delicious. I ordered some grub to eat as well. I had a hard time eating that grilled-cheese sandwich because the day-old bread was still cold, but I liked it that way―or at least I taught myself to like it. I went there every day, not so much for the meal, but for the pleasure of people-watching, to shoot the shit with the business owners, to feel alive and participating.

“What's new, Feitosa?”

“What news could I possibly bring you, Antunes? We work for these hobos and street walkers and, at the end of the month, there's no money left. Times are bleak, the authorities are breathing down our necks and I have no idea what will come out of it...”

I sided with the authorities: Businesses of that nature should be shut down. I shouldn't even be eating there, but at that point in my life nothing could hurt me. They were my people, my companions in misery, people who had been forgotten like me: No relatives, no past and probably no future.

“Things improve with time, my friend. They always do.”

“If they improve as much as this building...”

I laughed without conviction, while the rubber-like bread stuck to my fake teeth and I took my last gulp of the watery coffee. I reached down in my pocket to grab the little change I had on me. I had completely forgotten that the pilferer had left me none. “Pilferer”... My God, I'm so old! The boy was right. I am stuck in a place and time, using the vocabulary of yore! There I was again, pouring expressions from inside of me while nobody seemed to understand their meaning.

I asked Feitosa to add it to my tab. His silence made me assume that he agreed to it. I hadn't paid my condo fee, now I hadn't paid for my breakfast.

A young hobo went past me running and almost knocked me down. He had a bottle of glue in his hand and some furious tourists were following close on his heels. I never got used to the young age of modern criminals. Boys in short pants who, instead of running on milk or cream of wheat, find fuel in the inebriating narcotic.

I kept waking. The sea was blowing in a peaceful breeze that smelled like salt. I admired the beautiful palm trees that adorned the street. This was a beautiful city. I fell in love with her the first time I laid eyes on her. I was still in love with her, despite the tears burning my senile eyes upon seeing what it had become. The trinket tents, the raw sewage running down the beaten sidewalks, the authorities looking the other way about the lack of hygiene and safety.

The screaming street vendors woke me up from my stupor. It was useless to stay there, imagining what the city could have been or thinking back about what it once was. Everything had changed, including myself. I had no other alternative, but to return to my unhealthy apartment, turn on the TV and pretend nothing had ever happened.

That damn 1950s elevator had seen few maintenance work in its life. I was certain it was more rotten than I was. I never trusted it one bit. While it climbed up slowly and loose, I tried not to think about the violence of its cranking noises. I could feel the steel cables about to come undone sending that metal box spiraling down.

I sighed in relief when I arrived at my floor. I was glad to once again return to my long dark corridor. I opened up the windows in my apartment and breathed in the salty air. The view was spectacular: The garbage and confusion from the tents down below selling food items seemed to disappear from that point of view. I could only hear the palm trees ruffle in the air and the horns from the cars became background noise.

For the first time after so many years I would make the list of defaulters who still owed their condo fee. I come from a time when one hair from a man's mustache was worth just as much as a notarized document. Yes, I was old. That damn kid had stolen from me. It didn't even cross my mind to go to the police station to report it. They would just laugh. Only someone this stupid could still be outraged by crimes committed at the most famous and most infamous building in the city. I was just a “stupid old shit,” like the punk had called me.

I didn't want to watch any morning shows. I had that bitter taste in my mouth and in my soul that took away from the simple pleasures. Ten days left until the end of the month... Until then, I'd have to make do―God knows how. I never saved any money, I had no savings account. I've always been a bon vivant and, in spite of all hardships of life as a poor man, I have no regrets. I have lived and now I give my life away to divine providence.

My grandfather had taught me to shower every day and trust in a celestial being. But, now that I'm pushing eighty, I don't even know what I believe in anymore. Maybe I have lost faith in everything, even myself.

I rummaged through my old drawers and found some tranquilizers. I hadn't taken them in so long that I didn't even notice they had expired. It doesn't matter. I took five or six with plenty of water. I wanted to sleep for ten days, have nothing to think about and feel no shame for having no money to pay my bills. Maybe an angel would come and collect me. Maybe I wouldn't have any use for my cane anymore. I didn't know what I was doing or thinking.

I laid down on my wide queen-sized bed enveloped in the ocean breeze. For how many days have I slept? Three, maybe four? The sour taste in my mouth indicated the emptiness in my stomach. I could feel all its creases contracting in spasms. I looked around to double check where I was. My beloved apartment. Home sweet home. I had grown at least five years older. That's the surprising side of old age: Every day you grow one year older and the difference is evident!

I felt extremely dirty, as I hadn't felt in decades. Sitting on a wooden stool, I made myself comfortable under the shower head, spending one minute for each year of my existence, washing over half a century of life. I gave myself a good trim, feeling even older by using these old expressions, but I liked the word “trim.” It made me think about the barbershop on the corner that used to offer full service: Beard, hair, and mustache. How I missed that! There are no barbers around anymore. This time around, I rejected the baby powder―it intensified the smell of ancient stuff. I drenched myself in aftershave and combed through my gray hair.

I was thirsty. I drank the remaining orange juice from the carton. It may have been in the fridge for a month, I didn't even notice what it tasted like. All I know is that it was cold, like my feet. I put on some shoes and went out in the hall.

They changed the lightbulb. It seemed to me that the light was way too bright. I almost longed for the darkness again. A silhouette appeared on the other side of the corridor and I straightened my glasses to get a better glimpse of Marli's sensual figure. Beautiful, as always. She didn't have her usual tight clothes on, through. She was wearing a long skirt and a very well-behaved blouse buttoned up all the way to her neckline. Her face showed no sign of the rugged brothel makeup. Her pale lips did not boast that blood-red lipstick and her hair was pulled up in a bun.

“Good morning, Mr. Antunes. It's been a while.”

“Marli, my dear, what happened to you? Did you quit the industry?”

“Shhhhh... Shut up, man! As far as you know, I'm a respectable woman. My sister's staying with me.”

“Oh, I see... But how are you going to live without your dates...”

“Marli, who are you talking to?”

“Rosalba... I... This is the gentleman I had told you about.”

“This one?”

“The name is Antunes, young lady. It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance.”

“But he's so old, Marli!”

“He's a respecting man, earns a decent pension, and really likes me, Rosalba. He'll make a good husband.”


I felt my blood running cold. Something told me Marli wasn't kidding and I was in big trouble.

“Well, at least he is elegant, and smells nice. He seems to be a respecting man indeed. Congratulations, sister! I'm happy to see that you have a man by your side. Nice to meet you, sir. Now I have to go back to my room because my rosary is calling me. See you later.”

My incredulous eyes followed the pious woman dragging her long skirt back into the bedroom. Marli was holding my hand. She was nervous, digesting her sister's approval.

“Thank you, Mr. Antunes. She likes you. I don't want her to think I'm a big city slut...”

“But, we have to get married now? And you didn't even tell me about it?”

“No, Mr. Antunes. That's just make-believe, while she's staying with me. You won't say no to me, will you? It's very important to me.”

For an instant, I remembered I didn't have two pennies to rub together. The condo fee was late and my pantry was empty. All my life I had learned to make ends meet, finding loose change here and there without asking anybody for help. I've always been clever and honest. But there is a fine line between being honest and following a survival instinct. At the point in my life, I couldn't be so prude. Old age gives us the freedom to be honest with ourselves and say whatever comes to mind. For the first time in my life I took advantage of my age without any remorse.

“Three hundred bucks and you got a deal! I'll be your husband for as long as you want me, my child!”

My grandfather was right. Old men stink. That day, I smelled as nice as a barber's son. I was a decent men. He would have been proud of me. I would be part of the history of that building, assuming the position of a highly dangerous man. I was a clever man! A prostitute was paying for MY services. I was really old and times have really changed. Oh, how they've changed indeed!

ILKA CANAVARRO was born in Recife in 1975. She graduated in Languages and Literature at the Federal University of Pernambuco and now works at an advertising agency in Tuscany, Italy. She has always been interested in the human psyche and showed interest in writing from an early age. 

She specializes in short stories that speak only about people. While creating her characters, she takes a stroll through their most intimate moments, revealing what they carry within their very soul: Yearnings and frustrations, a myriad of feelings that make up the life of everyday people.

Her short stories show intense emotional conflicts, depicting the deaf suffering of characters worn out by the system and their own existence, making readers feel afflicted and fascinated until the very last line. 

She has had her work published in literary magazines, including one entitled A carne ("The Flesh") in O Verbo, which tells the story of a family torn between starvation and the will to keep their dignity. Other short stories include O passeio ("The Stroll,") Manuela, Aplauso à mania ("An Ovation to Excentricities,"), Vendi minha alma ("I Sold my Soul.")

Ilka is currently writing two novels: Cartas para Anabela ("Letters to Anabela") and A ilha que nunca existiu ("The Island That Never Was.")