Because it was his birthday. That was the only reason why the boy could have preferences in that life void of choices. He didn't want any toys, he told his dad. But he was sick of eating rice and beans every day. Sometimes they had eggs, the father tried to argue. But that was the consistent scarce menu: rice and beans for lunch and for dinner.

The boy wanted meat. That would be his birthday gift. A very thick steak with onions and fries. He had seen it one day, when he was selling candy on the streets. A fat man wearing suspenders and eating one of those behind the glass wall of a restaurant. The fat man was eating it with silverware, exuding satisfaction in every gesture. The blade slicing the meat and the brown juice streaming over a bed of rice. The circumflexion from hand to open-wide mouth. The mechanics of chewing. The boy was narrating each moment to his father, keeping his eyes closed, and slowly repeating those unknown movements, licking his thick lips with a moist tongue, savoring a ghost taste.

That was why the man decided to work overtime. For the boy. To give the boy a steak for his birthday. It had already been two weeks since he started working from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m.. Monday through Saturday. He had made arrangements with Mr. Nhotão, the grocery store owner, so he could work two shifts for two weeks until his boy's birthday. He wanted to make some extra money to buy the present and maybe, who knows, some cake too―it could even be one of those packaged cakes. The old Portuguese man placed his pencil on his ear and affectionately slapped the face of his employee twice. Alright, you're a good father for paying for all that luxury.

So that was that: wake up at 4 a.m., no time to taste any toothpaste or coffee, rush to get the train and arrive at the grocery store with the trucks unloading boxes of fruits and vegetables, bags of grains and flours, all the weight on his bent, rough shoulders. After organizing the products, sweeping the floors, helping the first customers, weighing half a pound of white beans, half a pound of corn for the lady, delivering some groceries on foot or by bike, eating cold rice and beans from the same usual container, he'd do it all over again in the afternoon. Monday through Saturday. It's all for the boy, he thought, when exhaustion was almost making it impossible for him to think. Because it was his birthday. That was all. His body needed to take that beating.

Until today. It was today, after all. Before he left for work, he tiptoed into the bedroom and kissed the boy's curly hair. The boy was sharing a mattress with his five brothers. Happy birthday, son. He got up and was soon on the train, shaking sleepiness away, the food container tight against his leg. Unloading, organizing, sweeping, helping, weighing, delivering, rice and beans for lunch. It was his third forkful to the mouth when Mr. Nhotão came over, chewing on a toothpick that messed his mustache, saying they needed to talk. The man was sitting on the floor, tin container resting on his knee and cold food in his mouth, he listened to the old Portuguese man telling him he could not pay him the money he promised that day. Debt with suppliers, sky-high tomato prices, and other subterfuges. He couldn't eat anymore. He was burning with anger. Not for the broken agreement, but for his impotence before the boy's disappointment. He walked past the roll of string and put the knife on his pant pocket.

That burning anger wouldn't go away. The fire was feeding off him and he was feeding off the anger. At the end of the work day, the wife of the old Portuguese man had gone inside to watch the 8 o'clock soap opera. The two of them were alone in the grocery store. Mr. Nhotão had his pencil to the notebook and was balancing the accounts for the day, sitting with his back to him. The light he used was the only one still on in the entire store. The man was hiding in the shadows, squeezing the handle of the knife, leaving nail marks on the palm of his hand. He needed to settle their accounts. 

Erase the projection of the occupied table, crumbling down before the weight of the boy's face. The fire sizzles. He needs to exterminate the creator so the creature is no more. He walks towards the thick neck, the sharp edge of the knife. However, as he makes his way to the man, the image of his children comes to mind, his six boys, what would happen to them if he were arrested? They would certainly have the same fate his brother's sons had, killed while committing a crime: the boys became criminals too, a vicious circle. Did he wish that for his children? He pulled the knife away and steered clear of the cashier. When he was about to go out through the small door on the closed iron rolling door, he heard his name. He turned his head around and saw a ten-real bill. Take it, that's all I can give you now. Go buy something for the boy.

What can he do with ten reals? After the train ticket and a drink of cachaça there's barely anything left. He can't face it without a shot of cachaça. The man walks as if he were being pulled by a dog collar, no will left to go on. He goes into a market and buys potatoes, onion, a packaged cake and some hot dogs. At the butcher shop, he contemplates the meat cuts on display, but he doesn't have enough to buy a steak―not even a second-grade cut. Maybe the boy will like hot dogs, he thinks. He believes the boy has never had hot dogs in his life. He hopes that bringing something new will beat the taste of a good steak. Besides, hot dogs are good because you can slice them up and there's plenty for everyone. The man clung to his hope, albeit fleeting and enhanced by the alcohol, because he is a few feet from the station. Soon exodus ensues with the traffic of vans and illegal commerce. There's nothing else he can do for the boy.

He crosses the avenue to get away from that place, and that's when he saw him. At first, he thought it was a  “he,” but then realizes it's a “she.” He sees her. In front of an alley swallowed by the darkness, she is behind a trash can, grabbing on to large plastic bags, some of them already violently torn apart. She is a huge dog. A mutt of large breeds that give her a thick coat of black hair, which would have been beautiful if it had been cared for properly. Her tits are swollen, looking like a pinkish skirt between her front and back legs. She seemed to have given birth just few days earlier. 

The man checks to see if there is anyone around. He approaches her cautiously. The dog looks friendly. He opens the bag and grabs a hot dog. He throws it at the animal, but without hitting her. The female dog gets up, takes a few uncertain steps, looks around and then finally takes a bite of the food offering. The man throws more hot dogs at her, the entire bag. As the dog enjoys the banquet, he checks the surroundings. He finds a rectangular cobblestone. He grabs it and gets closer to her slyly. Standing next to the female dog, he raises the stone and lets it go on top of her head. The dog fell on her side. She yelps a trickle of bubbling blood. Her tongue is inert, her snout pointing forward. She tries to react before the man drops the stone again. Then he throws the onions in the bag with the potatoes and uses the empty plastic bag as a glove to pull the body into the alley. Working with little light, he puts his hand on his pocket and pulls the knife.

Later on, there was a party. He had never seen the boy so happy. He ate the thick steak with onions and fries. Mouth agape. Everyone was eating, what a party it was. Something unprecedented: They had leftovers! Then they sang “Happy Birthday,” even thought there was no candle on top of the packaged cake. The family was gathered around the table. The boy offered the first slice to his father. A tight hug, and he could feel every fragile bone in the boy's body. Thank you, dad! With his lips to his son's ears, he promised the boy wouldn't need to wait until his next birthday to eat meat. Never again.

SÉRGIO TAVARES was born in 1978 and lives in Niterói, State of Rio de Janeiro. 

He is a journalist, book reviewer, and author. Much of his work has been published in magazines and newspapers in Brazil.

He published Queda da Própria Altura (“Falling from Your Own Height,” 2012) and Cavala (“Mackerel,” 2010), which won the National Sesc Literary Award in the Short Stories Category. 

Sérgio is also the winner of the 2005 Literary Competition organized by School of Public Service Foundation (Fesp) in Rio de Janeiro.

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