It was six o’clock on a steamy January evening in Sao Paulo when Roland saw the toad. He was walking home along Alameda Santos with his ancient Nikon at the ready, searching for photographs. This was his pleasure after a sweaty day teaching English to Brazilians. Now, between the end of one summer rainstorm and the start of another, he watched for images reflected in puddles, in wet asphalt and the spinning hubcaps of cars.
A visual anomaly on his left suggested something interesting. He swung his camera in that direction, adjusting the focus. A toad came into view, sitting in the gutter at the lip of an open drain, inches from the traffic, rainwater washing around its legs. Nobody else seemed to have noticed the toad’s predicament. Roland saw it as a life-and-death situation on a miniature scale. He began taking photos from the sidewalk, standing, crouching, closer, farther away, the blurred wall of rush-hour traffic as background; then from out in the street, stepping off the sidewalk when the traffic permitted, swinging around and shooting into the legs of passersby.
He finally lowered his camera, moved to the edge of the sidewalk, and squatted down. He reached for the toad, saying, “It’s all right now, brother.” That’s when he saw that somebody had stitched up the toad’s mouth with fine, almost invisible, black thread.
Roland stood, making an involuntary ugh sound, staring at the black thread. “Oh, brother,” he said, thinking of the forced compression of the toad’s lips, and how in the throes of his own stutter (it troubled him little as an English teacher because he saw to it that the students did almost all the talking) he would compress his trembling lips when trying to master a difficult word. He imagined a hand (a woman’s: why, he wondered, a woman’s?) holding the toad’s lips together as her other hand inserted the needle.
He’d lived in Sao Paulo for two years and he’d heard about macumba, the Brazilian voudou. He’d looked into it, having heard that it was one of the hidden currents of life in Brazil. He didn’t believe in it, but many others did. Everybody had a story about it, but he’d never met anybody who claimed to practice macumba. He himself was a New England Yankee, the product of generations of stiff-necked Congregational church-goers. He believed in evil as a force in the world, and that some humans embody it, however briefly. Evil shouldn’t be played with; attempting to summon the powers of macumba seemed both foolish and dangerous to him, like swimming with sharks.
Often, late at night, coming home, he encountered, in the middle of a busy intersection, a lighted candle stuck in a bottle surrounded by flowers. This was called a trabalho, a “work,” in macumba. The traffic, no matter how heavy, flowed carefully around it. The Brazilians had a saying, “I don’t believe in spirits–but if they exist, they exist.” Roland knew that after hundreds of years of human habitation in Sao Paulo, “works,” some very tiny, and their residue, were all around him, a force field of wishes, some good, most very bad. This stitched-up toad was a prime example.
Now, on the sidewalk, Roland didn’t know what to do. Instinct told him to move on, but he hated cruelty to animals, and he hated the idea of being panicked by superstition. Also, because he’d taken photos of the toad, he felt he couldn’t ignore it. He felt responsible for it, but at the same time he had to admit that while the stitching up of the toad’s mouth made him angry, it also frightened him… There was a good kind of macumba (“white table” it was called); the stitched-up toad represented the other kind. Still, it wasn’t the toad’s doing. Roland couldn’t just walk away and let the toad get run over or swept down into the sewer. Roland assumed he’d be interrupting a “work,” and he hoped it wouldn’t cause him problems.
He crouched down, grasped the toad behind its head, and picked it up. It was about the size and weight of his closed fist; or; he imagined, of a human heart. The toad felt lumpy in some areas and in others like fine leather slicked with water. The toad’s eyes seemed to bulge indignantly and its legs kicked out into the air. It tried to make a sound but the stitches blocked that. Roland put the toad in his canvas knapsack on top of his notebook and school papers and hurried along Alameda Santos.
He was pressing the buzzer, waiting for the concierge to let him into his apartment building, when a voice emerged out of the traffic noises behind him. “Senhor?”
He turned and saw a pretty woman wearing a blue raincoat, outlined against the rushing wall of cars. She was smiling at him in a manner that suggested acquaintance. At first he felt flattered, then mistrustful. He didn’t know her. There was no earthly reason for her to smile at him. Too bad, he thought, she had such a pretty smile. She looked older than him by four or five years–in her early thirties, say–and she had long brown hair and the green eyes he so admired in Brazilian women.
“May I talk to you?”
“You have my toad.”
They’d spoken in Portuguese. She used the polite form (“The Senhor has my toad”). His teacher’s trained ear noted an upper-class Sao Paulo enunciation. He had students like her in his conversation classes. He called them “the jangling gold bracelet brigade.”
“Toad?” he said, scrambling to imagine the connection between this woman and the toad. She clearly saw something non-threatening in him because, after glancing up at the falling rain, she moved closer. They stood inches apart in the doorway. He smelled her perfume. He thought, I could play this game all evening.
“In your knapsack. The toad,” she said. “It’s mine.”
“Yours? I found it in the–” So as not to stutter over the word gutter, he pointed at the street, which triggered his memory, and he remembered that he’d seen her before. A woman in a blue raincoat, standing to his right, by the wall of an apartment house. Somehow, she’d directed his attention towards the gutter. She’d been watching the toad. Maybe that was why Roland had looked down to his left.
“You put it in the–in the–you put it there,” he said, pointing again at the street.
“I want it back.”
“But you stitched up its mouth. How–how–could you do that?”
She told him the toad was a favorite family pet; her daughter loved it and would be devastated if it was lost. What’s its name? he said. Name? she said. Its name, he said again. What’s its name. She looked around and then said, Beto. Its name is Beto. So, he said, for fun your daughter sewed up Beto’s mouth with black thread. It was a school experiment, she said. I didn’t know about it until it was too late.
Experiment, Roland said. That must be some school. Roland looked at her and thought, She’ll put the toad right back in the street.
Roland turned and pressed the buzzer again. This time the electric latch clicked open. Roland slipped inside. “I’m sorry, he said, shrugging in the humid gloom of the hallway. But he wasn’t sorry. He gently closed the door in her face. She rapped furiously on the glass.
When he reached the concierge’s desk, Roland turned and looked back. Her dark outline was pressed against the glass door. She rapped again. Behind her, in the street, he saw rain falling, and the cars.
He nodded at the concierge, who smiled and glanced towards the front door. “Heavy weather today, eh, Senhor Roland?” The concierge winked.
“Uma louca,” Roland said. A crazy woman.
In the elevator, Roland thought of the concierge and laughed. Roland hadn’t slept with a woman in more than three months, but because he gave private English lessons to women in his apartment the concierge imagined he had a spectacular sex life. Before, the winks and knowing looks had irritated Roland, but now, the lonelier he got, the more he enjoyed the concierge’s innuendos.
Inside his apartment, he wiped the Nikon off with a handkerchief and put it down on the coffee table. He went into the kitchen and turned on the light. He’d shut all the apartment windows in the morning because of the certainty of rain, and now the air was hot and humid. He opened the window next to the stove and the steady pulsing noises of rain and traffic slipped into the kitchen.
He put his knapsack on the counter next to the sink and opened it up. The toad had crapped on one of his student’s papers. He picked up the toad in one hand and the student’s paper in the other–it was that student– and thought of all the elaborate excuses he, Roland, would have to give the next day, and then he crumpled the soiled paper and threw it into the waste bin.
He studied the toad. It was just as monstrous-looking close up as far away. Its front toes looked delicate, though, almost human. In wide loops around its mouth the woman–or her daughter–or somebody–had used a fine thread that was almost obscured by the toad’s dark brown-and-green mottled coloring. Roland didn’t want to try and cut the thread with a knife or his blunt kitchen scissors. He put the toad into the sink, covered it with a colander, and fetched a pair of nail scissors from his bathroom cabinet.
The toad remained calm as Roland cut the stitches, but just as he snipped the last one the toad opened its mouth and made a tremendous aaarrrk sound, stuck out its tongue and extruded a small, slightly slimy roll of paper. Roland snatched it off the toad’s tongue.
Roland gagged and held the paper and the toad at arm’s length. He put the toad into the sink and carefully rolled the paper out on the counter. A name, a man’s name, was written in indelible ink: Marcio Pinto Leite. Now, Roland was frightened. He guessed what this meant, what this woman had wanted to do. By writing his name and sewing it inside the toad’s mouth, the woman had condemned this Marcio to death. By the logic of macumba, that is. The woman had been waiting for the toad to be run over, or swept to its death in the cataracts of the gutter, because when the toad died, Marcio Pinto Leite, wherever he was, would die also. That was the macumba logic of it. “Unbelievable,” Roland muttered. He shook his head. “Unbelievable.”
Elsa had generously tipped the concierge and endured his wink and his laugh, rich with complicity, as he took God’s good time to tell her the young man’s name and apartment number. Now, as she ascended in the elevator, she repeated his name so it felt more familiar to her and helped her pretend she had more control over the situation. “Roland Madden, Roland Madden…”
The landing was humid and poorly lit, but there were only four apartments. Elsa quickly located his door. She paused. What could she tell him? That story about the toad being a pet? How stupid. But she couldn’t think of anything more convincing. Just thinking about that toad, with Marcio’s name on a sliver of paper rolled up inside its mouth, made her heart race. Did she really want Marcio dead? She was beginning to doubt it.
Her first impulse had been to use a pistol. Marcio kept one in the glove compartment of both their cars, and Elsa had taken a training course in pistol shooting at the Clube Hebraica. Many Brazilians carried pistols in their cars, street crime being what it was. And Brazilian courts understood crimes of passion. Elsa knew a woman–saw her every weekend at the Harmonia Club–who’d shot to death two husbands with the same pistol and gone free. But a pistol had seemed too clean, too easy on Marcio, the consequences too hard on her, whereas there was something about the ugliness of the toad, about it being smashed flat by an automobile tire or drowning in the sewer, that she’d thought fitting for Marcio the Betrayer. It had all made sense to her when she was out of her mind with jealousy, but now–well, maybe she was still a little insane. It was so hard to tell. She took a deep breath, then another, and raised her right hand to knock on the door.
The toad jumped out of the sink, landed heavily on the kitchen floor, and jumped again into the hallway. As Roland was chasing it down, the doorbell rang. He snatched up the toad, carried it into the kitchen, and put it back into the sink, covering it with the colander. The doorbell rang again. Somebody knocked.
He knew, and he wasn’t surprised: the concierge was paid so little, and really lived on tips. At the sight of her, Roland stepped back. What to do? The woman chose to interpret this movement as an invitation to enter. She quickly moved past him, into the living room, where she stopped, rainwater dripping from her blue raincoat onto the sisal rug. There was a tremendous clap of thunder close by; the rain beat down. Roland shut the apartment door, feeling, as he did so, a sexual surge. The lightning? He wondered. Maybe. Electrical charge?
She asked if his name was Roland Madden. He nodded. Here was another matter to go into with the concierge. She said her name was Camilla. The way she said it made him think, She’s lying.
“I hate to seem impolite–” he began, meaning to tell her that she ought to leave, but she forestalled him by peeling off her blue raincoat and holding it out to him, at the same time apologizing for the rainwater dripping on the sisal rug.
“Don’t you have some place you can hang that?” she said, indicating the raincoat in his hands. She was looking around. She pointed at a drawing hanging on the wall and exclaimed, “Mira Schendel! Isn’t she wonderful?”
“I can’t ask you to stay.” Roland tried to think of some place to put her raincoat that would underline what he’d just said. The floor? He dropped her raincoat on a chair.
She’d been rummaging in her purse. Now she brought out a pack of Marlboro Lights and offered him one.
“I really ca-can’t ask you to stay,” he said again.
She nodded and handed him a yellow plastic Bic lighter and leaned in, looking up at him, waiting. She’s too much, he thought, and once again he felt a sexual surge. He lit her cigarette. She inhaled deeply and then sent a plume of smoke at the ceiling. He watched her throat.
“Do you mind if I sit for a second?”
Roland shrugged. The room was growing dark. Three months, he thought. And now this? He moved over to the desk and switched on a lamp.
“You live here alone?”
“Yes.” Just as he turned away from the desk, she moved. She dropped her cigarette into an ashtray, stood, and walked right past him into the kitchen.
He heard the metallic rattle of the colander. She cried out, “Shit.”
Roland grabbed his camera, flipped up the flash attachment, and turned it on. Approaching the kitchen, he adjusted the focus, moved into the kitchen door, and blindly took a photo, then another. He looked and saw that she was standing at the sink with the toad in one hand and the unrolled piece of paper in the other.
She yelled something and Roland ducked back out of the doorway and slid the camera behind the sofa.
She came back into the living room holding the piece of paper in her left hand. She was crying.
“Please, sit,” Roland said. She shook her head. He sat down on the sofa. The rain was still coming down hard, but not hard enough to drown the demonic traffic noises from Avenida Paulista. The woman stood near him, crying as if she were alone in the room, crying, so he now realized, with relief. Finally, she sighed, then said, “I need the bathroom.”
He got to his feet and pointed down the hallway. She left him, carrying the piece of paper. Through the open bathroom door he watched her throw the piece of paper into the toilet bowl and flush and flush again. Running water: she was washing away a curse. She looked up and saw Roland watching, reached out and closed the door.
Roland hurried over to her purse and took out her identity card. Elsa Maria Pinto Leite, it said, and it gave her date of birth. She was thirty-four and married. He put her identity card back in her purse, shook out a Marlboro Light from her pack and lit it with her small yellow Bic lighter. He went back and sat on the sofa and smoked and stared out at the rain.
He heard the bathroom door open. Her footsteps came down the hall towards him. When she came into the living room she sat down on the sofa next to Roland and put her hand in his.
“I need something,” she said. “Do you have any whisky?”
She cried out, telling him to stop, her heart was running out of control. He rolled to the side of the bed while she lay on her back, panting, her body looking flattened, her rich chestnut hair fanning out behind her head, her green eyes dilated.
“Feel my heart,” she gasped, taking his hand.
Her heart was beating fast, Roland decided, but no faster than his. “It’s called excitement,” he said.
“I almost had a heart attack.”
Roland saw the sheet beneath her thighs, drenched with her juices. “Is that what you’d–you’d call it?”
“You don’t understand. I almost died.”
“I’m sorry. I thought you were–you were enjoying it.”
“I thought I was going to die.”
“I’m going to take a shower.”
“I’ll join you.”
“No,” she said. She switched on a bedside lamp and sat up. “I have to go.”
“Let’s get something to–to eat.”
She called from the bathroom, “What are you going to do about that toad?”
He went into the bathroom. “Beto? Your family pet? Don’t you want to take him wi–with you?”
She turned off the shower and slid back the glass door. “That’s a horrible thing to say.”
“I’m sorry. I was joking.” Watching her towel herself off made him hard again. She saw it as she stepped out of the shower and rolled her eyes.
“Out of the way,” she said, not unkindly.
He watched her hunt around for her underwear. She found them by the side of the bed, examined them, shook her head, and threw them neatly into the waste basket. She pulled on her slacks.
“I don’t know your name,” he said.
She glanced at him. “Camilla,” she said, and slipped on her shoes.
Her response irritated him and he admitted that he’d looked at her identity card while she was in the bathroom. “Elsa,” he said, using her name for the first time. “Who is Marcio?”
She shook her head. “That’s none of your business.”
“All I need to do is look it up in the phone book and verify it with a phone call.”
She watched him for a moment. Finally, she said, “Marcio is my husband.”
“I want to see–to see–you again. Please.”
“That’s impossible.” Her voice was gentle. It was a statement of fact. That was all.
She glanced at her watch. “My god, it’s really late,” she said.
He looked at the bedside clock: nine o’clock, family dinner hour in Sao Paulo.
He felt breathless. “Don’t go yet,” he said, as she walked out of the bedroom. He threw on his trousers and followed her. “Wait,” he called out, and hurried down the hall after her. He caught up with her in the living room, as she was putting on her raincoat. In the humid air, he felt like he was suffocating. He wanted to embrace her, but she moved away, towards the door. Panting, a little dizzy, he followed her out onto the landing.
“Elsa,” he said. “I r-really like you.”The elevator door opened.
She stepped inside and turned to him. “This never happened,” she said. “Please, have the goodness to see that.” The elevator doors shut.
After Elsa left, Roland finished dressing, put the toad in his knapsack and walked down Alameda Santos to Trianon Park, across Avenida Paulista from the Sao Paulo Art Museum, and set the toad free. “Bye bye, Beto,” he said. The toad sat, unmoving in the undergrowth, as if it couldn’t care less about its sudden freedom. Roland nudged the toad with the toe of his foot, waited for a while, then hurried out to the street. The rain had stopped and people were about. The park was a dangerous place at night. He went into a nearby café and ate a Beirut sandwich and drank chops. After that, he had a coffee and a brandy. He felt numb, restless, confused.
Roland didn’t doubt that he’d interrupted an “obra.” Had he really saved Marcio Leite’s life? Why had Elsa slept with him? Relief? Revenge on Marcio? A mixture of both? Had she sensed Roland’s sexual neediness and used sex as a kind of payoff? What Roland didn’t understand–which was just about everything–exhausted him. Worse, though, was the growing conviction that he’d been used. He hated the feeling of being used somehow. It made him very, very angry.
That night, in the makeshift darkroom he’d built in the unused maid’s room at the back of his apartment, Roland developed the roll of film he’d taken that afternoon. The image he puzzled over was the one taken in his kitchen: Elsa held the toad up in her right hand; the piece of paper inscribed with her husband’s name dangled from the fingers of her left hand. She was looking directly at the camera and she didn’t look surprised, she didn’t look anguished. She looked almost happy.
He hung up enlargements of the photos he’d taken of the toad and of Elsa in his darkroom–the maid never came in there–and studied them in the evenings after he came back from work, wanting to understand them, and her, better. The encounter with Elsa had left Roland feeling thrilled and lonely. The murderous impulse which the toad represented kept buzzing around his consciousness, but he pushed it away. He wanted to put a romantic frame around the episode, to discount the evil of the “obra” and think only about that rainy afternoon, his dark, humid apartment, the sexy taste of whisky and cigarettes on Elsa’s breath, the mounting, radiant force of her sexuality, which seemed so pure, so full of the sense of discovery, something which Elsa herself seemed to have recognized, then denied, then given in to, and then finally denied with her “heart attack.”
Meeting Elsa was the most exciting thing that had happened to Roland since he came to Brazil. It made him feel he was in touch with the secret pulse of the country. He looked at everything with fresh eyes, and he wanted to learn more.
Roland tried to speak to Elsa again. He looked up her phone number and called her apartment every day, except weekends, when Marcio was likely to be at home, but the maid always answered the phone and told Roland that the senhora was out. Elsa didn’t call back or try to contact him. Her evident lack of feeling for him made him feel even more lonely, then insulted and bitter, and finally very angry–at her, and at himself. Didn’t he have something better to do with his time? No. She was an itch he was determined to scratch. Elsa, Elsa, you silly hysterical bitch. Who did she think she was to use him, then drop him?
He debated sending Marcio a photo of the piece of paper taken from the toad’s mouth, unrolled so that Marcio could see his name written on it, along with the photo of Elsa standing in Roland’s kitchen, the piece of paper in one hand, toad in the other. Roland found out Elsa’s address, and the address of Marcio’s office, and followed them and their daughter Silvia around, taking photos, building up what he called “evidence.”
Elsa, meanwhile, worried about her own craziness: Roland was clearly just more of it, and she refused to talk to him. She’d felt her life shifting again that evening in his apartment–tilting dangerously again, she thought. The first dangerous tilt had occurred when she realized that Marcio was having an affair. She’d gone off her head with jealousy.
Her attack on Marcio’s suits was one result of that. At luncheon, a “friend” of hers had alluded to Marcio’s affair. It was, apparently, common knowledge. Elsa rushed home, determined to do–something. She went through his desk, his drawers, looking for evidence. She went into his closet, where his forty suits hung in perfect rows, and began turning out his pockets. She found two handkerchiefs with lipstick stains in a color she never used. No proof of anything, really, but enough for her. She sat on the floor of his closet and wept. Then she found a pair of shears and cut off all forty trousers of Marcio’s suits above the knee. Marcio never said a word about his ruined suits, which was, as far as Elsa was concerned, the most damning evidence of all. She went to her maid and asked her to make contact with a pai de santo, a macumba priest. One night, Elsa went with her maid to a favela on the outskirts of Sao Paulo to meet the pai de santo, and he asked her about the work she wanted done: was it to harm somebody? And she said, yes.
But then her feelings began to change. The saving of the toad was surely a sign. She’d come to her senses right in the middle of making love with Roland. She’d thought, What am I doing, jumping into this boy’s bed? Finding herself drunk on whisky, lying in a strange room, in a strange bed, with a stranger, a child, almost. Her heart had pounded as if it wanted to burst out of her chest. What good would it do herself or her daughter to kill Marcio? God was going to punish her.
She’d been astonished to see, when she returned home from Roland’s apartment on that rainy evening, that everyone, everything was the same. She’d expected to find her house struck by lightning, burned to ashes, flooded, ransacked, her daughter raped, dead, her husband waiting for her with a pistol. The very normality of her life over the next few days convinced her that some terrible retribution was about to descend on her. She loved her husband, the father of their child. How could she ever dream of harming him? She asked God to forgive her, just as she now forgave Marcio.
Unable to speak to her in person, Roland wrote Elsa a letter saying that if they could meet again, he’d give her the negatives of all the photos of the toad and of her, and any prints he had made from them. The message frightened her: it felt like a threat. She’d blocked off all thoughts of what she’d wanted the toad to do for her. She sent a message to Roland asking him to wait, she’d be in touch when the time was right. And then she dithered. The maid told her that the pai de santo was demanding to see Elsa, saying that it was of great importance to her that they meet, but Elsa dismissed this as a ploy to get more money from her and she stayed away from him as well.
Another six weeks passed before Elsa returned to Roland’s apartment. It was evening, and raining again. Roland had just come back from the language school. Elsa took off her blue raincoat and put it down in the same chair as before and sat down across the coffee table from Roland and told him that she was sorry, she didn’t have much time. Roland nodded.
As the sound of the rain grew heavier, he handed over the photographs of the toad in the gutter, and of Elsa in Roland’s kitchen holding the toad and the piece of paper with Marcio’s name written on it. She lit a cigarette and tore the prints into little pieces and put them in a pile on the coffee table. Roland handed her the negatives. She held them up against the light.
“Do you have a pair of scissors?”
He gave them to her and she cut the negatives into pieces. She lit another cigarette.
“Thank God that’s over,” she said. “Thank you.” She took a deep breath and then exhaled.
“Thank you,” she said again.
Roland pursed his lips, then, with effort, said, “How are you th-these days, Elsa?”
“I’ve m-missed you.”
“Please don’t start that, okay?”
“I’m not st-starting anything. I’m simply stating a f-f-f–”
She crushed her cigarette in the ashtray and got to her feet. “I’ve got to go.”
“Don’t. Please stay.”
“Well, before you go–” He picked up a manila envelope with her name scribbled on it in large letters, “ELSA PINTO LEITE,” and handed it to her. She took out some photos, black and white, sized eight and a half by eleven, and began looking at them. The top photo showed Marcio entering an unfamiliar apartment building with his arm around a pretty girl who looked about seventeen or eighteen. The second photo showed Marcio and the girl leaning against his car and kissing. In the second photo the girl was wearing a different dress.
Elsa’s face sagged. She said, “You took these?”
“Who is she?”
“Who is she, Roland?”
“A classmate of your dau-dau–”
“You followed them around?”
“A chance en-en-encounter.”
“Sao Paulo’s a small town.”
“I love you, Elsa.”
“I love my husband.” She stood up, swayed, and for a moment looked as if she didn’t know where she was. She passed the photos back to Roland and walked towards the door.
“Your raincoat,” he called after her.
Afterwards, Roland told himself that what happened wasn’t his fault, that Elsa was an adult and knew what she was doing, and besides, the authorities, after an extensive investigation (which included questioning Roland and declaring him to be “of negligent interest”) had ruled the shooting of Marcio Pinto Leite by his wife a “regrettable accident.” It took place at night in the garage of their apartment building. In the dim light, she mistook Marcio as an intruder, come to rob her, or even worse, and reached for the pistol in the glove compartment. Her lawyer was clever, single, handsome, and had a solid record of acquittals for his clients. Elsa’s friends rallied round and mourned with her. Secretly they were impressed by Elsa’s decision to take action. It was fate, they agreed. Marcio got what was coming to him.
Roland tried to speak to her. He wanted to congratulate her. She refused his calls and messages, and that made him very angry. Her concierge threatened to call the police if Roland didn’t stop hanging around Elsa’s apartment, and he tried to stop, he really tried.
It was after midnight on a Saturday when Roland took a taxi out to the slum called Paraisopolis–Paradise City. It had taken some time to find a taxi driver who knew the address and was willing to take Roland out there at night and, more crucial, to wait for him and bring him back. Roland found a young kid named Arnaldo, a tattooed bravo who drove a clapped-out Beetle with the front passenger seat removed and was willing to do it for double the time on the meter. Roland took his knapsack, but not his camera; he dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt, and he wore a cheap watch and carried extra money in his sneaker.
“There,” the taxi driver said, bringing the taxi to a stop. He pointed at a concrete block two room house across the narrow street and down a few yards. People were milling around the open door, and when the crowd moved Roland caught glimpses of the rich glow of many candles within.
“You brought money,” Arnaldo said.
“I’ll go with you,” Arnaldo said.
“No, you don’t need to.”
Arnaldo gave him a contemptuous glance. “You think you should go in there alone?”
The crowd parted for them at the doorway. They stepped into a room that was bare except for a bank of flickering candles at the far end and two or three plastic chairs. Arnaldo brought over a smiling old man in a sweat-soaked shirt, baggy trousers, and plastic sandals. He was smoking a cigar and he stank of cachaca. “Hello,” he cried. Arnaldo did the introductions. Roland didn’t catch the old man’s name. The place, and the old man, gave him bad vibes.
“Arnaldo, let’s go. I’ve changed my mind.”
The old man pointed at the knapsack. “What have you brought me?”
“Nothing,” Roland said. “Arnaldo, let’s go.”
“What have you brought me?” the old man said again, his voice taking on a silky gentleness. “Show me.”
Roland had no idea why he gave in to the old man, but at the moment it seemed the right, the only thing, to do. He opened his knapsack. Together, he and the old man peered down at a toad.
Roland said, “I need your help.”