The Runner: A Short Story of the Rio Olympics 2016

“Are you willing to pay what that dream costs? You know what it costs? Huh?” He slapped Carlito’s hand on the table.

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The city of Rio de Janeiro was an ant’s nest, kicked over and lit on fire. At least that was what Carlito Yaozu Chen thought as his school bus waited for the mob of protestors to clear out of the narrow street. They pumped signs in the air with slogans like, “They tore down my house to pave your track,” and, “Don’t close your eyes to the real Rio.” He knew where they had come from.

“Stupid beggars,” Vitor said, returning to his phone to slash another zombie. “Go back to Autodromo!” The rest of the boys around him laughed.

Enrique cracked the window to throw the rind of a guava at them. It tipped the window frame and fluttered down beside the bus.

Carlito had heard there was no more Vila Autodromo. His father told him so because he had been there with the construction crew when they tore it down. Many of these protestors, mothers with babies in their slings, children with no shoes, old men and young men, had spilled out of the new housing projects and favelas they had crammed themselves into when the bulldozers forced them from their homes. An “urban revitalization project” it was called on the billboards. “The Renaissance of Rio,” his father said over five-spice squid fried golden and crispy.

“Fodam,” Carlito said in his husky voice from the seat behind Enrique.

The boys twisted to look at him with gaping mouths. “What did you say?” Vitor asked.

“Fodam,” Carlito repeated, though a little quieter. He made sure to point a chubby finger outside to direct the insult. “If they cannot move up, then they should move out.”

Vitor’s open mouth exploded with laughter. “Fodam!” he yelled, the rest of the boys joining in the obscene chant.

Carlito’s head fizzed with pride. Though his family had lived in Rio for two years, he was still the new boy at his upper middle-class school and wanted badly to fit in. With one unmentionable word, he had risen to become comrades with the most popular kids in class.

“Fodam,” he had heard his dad say to his mom the night before as Isabel, their maid, was cleaning up the table. “If they cannot move up, then they should move out. That is what I did. From my father’s broken down pasteleria in Liberdade to a five star Chinese restaurant, and now we live here in Humaitá, just spitting distance from Copacabana.” He had sold the restaurant and used the money, and some that he’d borrowed, to start his own construction team. They were small, but had gotten many contracts with the city’s building projects leading up to the 2016 Olympics. Of course, his father had never driven the machines, only given the orders, signed the contracts, and kept the books. He was a hard-working man, but his fingernails were always clean.

That is why he did not approve when he saw Carlito run. The boy had been eight years old when he first watched Usain Bolt streak ahead of a pack of racers to snatch the gold medal at the London Olympics. The dark-skinned man’s legs whirled like the machinery of a steam train, but his joy was free like a bird. When he blazed over the finish line, he crossed himself and pointed to the sky. They covered him with the green, black, and yellow flag of Jamaica. His teammates rushed to his side to celebrate, and cameras sparkled around the stadium as though it was the whole universe.

“What do you think?” his older sister, Maria Mei, asked him.

Carlito couldn’t think. He could only see and dream and be, so the next day at lunch, instead of scratching out answers to extra math problems his father had sent to school with him, he walked to the football field and set down his bag. The other kids, native Brazilians with skin the color of cooling magma and the Amarelos, or “Yellows”, all classmates who’d never picked him for any sport, stopped their games long enough to watch him pace over to the goal line. Had he been given his father’s lean body, he may not have drawn any attention. Except for his flat fleet, though, Carlito inherited everything from his mother, a Brazilian who had been the lavandera for the restaurant’s tablecloths when his father met her. She was a hopeful woman with round eyes, round curls, and a round belly. Even she, however, laughed from the kitchen window as she watched Carlito huff up and down the street later that afternoon. He’d heard her.

Showered and still breathing heavy and dripping with sweat, he sat at the kitchen table that night. His father’s thin eyes appraised him, unamused. The muscle in his jaw flexed as he chewed quietly, and Carlito glanced from his mother, still giggling, to his sister. His mother rubbed his head, sweat spraying from his hair. “You’re a dreamer, just like my Papa,” she said.

“Why are you so sweaty? Are you a dog panting over there?” his father asked.

“I am running,” Carlito said. “I am a runner.”

“You’ve never run before,” his father said.

“But I want to now.”

“Why? Why all of a sudden?”

“Because I saw Usain Bolt last night.”

“What is that? A rock and roll band?”

“No, Papai. He’s Jamaican. He won the Olympics, and I saw it!”

His father scowled. “I saw a man put his head in the mouth of a crocodile,” his father said, “but I’m not a fool.”

That night, Carlito went to sleep listening to a stray cat moan outside, repeating to himself, “Mark. Set. Go.” The next morning, and for the months after, he woke and jogged in place as he brushed his teeth, his thick feet slapping against the bathroom tiles. At lunch, he crossed himself, then bent over the patched dirt and grass of the football field and tried not to fall on his face. The skin of his forearm folded past the back of his wrist as he began to quiver. He raised his large buttocks, tilting sideways until he put a foot out and caught himself. “Go!” he shouted in his husky voice. It echoed between the snickers of his classmates while he stumbled over himself to the goal line and back. He counted every step, as he always did. Fifteen was enough. After that, his head started swimming and his legs caught fire inside.

Carlito saved his allowance and bought a new pair of running shoes, Pumas like Bolt’s. He learned the Jamaican national anthem. He chased the neighborhood cats when they crept into his small yard. He ran from his house to the pasteleria on the corner and rewarded himself with a quindim, a ball of egg yolk, coconut, and sugar, to replenish the calories he’d burned. He had earned it. Somehow, he never lost any weight. The doctor said he had a thyroid problem. A year later, he said, “Also asthma.” They gave him an inhaler the color of a robin’s egg.

He told Maria he didn’t care. He would try out for the school track team the next day. He did, but when spots of light pattered down on his vision like raindrops on the windshield of his family’s Mercedes, he stopped. The rest of the boys left him three meters from the starting line, doubled over, his head pounding and lungs heaving.

“I have humored this ridiculous fantasy long enough,” his father declared over wontons one night. “No more running. You’re making a joke out of yourself.”

“No Papai. I want to run,” he pleaded.

“For what?”

“For the freedom of it. For the wind in my hair and the roar of the crowd.” He waved his hands with the words.

His mother bounced quietly in her seat, the smile on her lips almost tearing into laughter.

“Don’t be so thick-skulled,” his father said sternly. “Look at our house, Carlito. We even have a maid,” he motioned to the kitchen where Isabel was washing dishes. “I didn’t work this hard so that you could piss it all away on a daydream. Besides, you have to buy freedom. You heard the doctor, didn’t you? Are you willing to pay what that dream costs? You know what it costs? Huh?” He slapped Carlito’s hand on the table. “Listen to me, son. It costs your life. Let other people run around. You work with this,” he leaned across the table and tapped him hard on the temple.

After that, he made Carlito spend his afternoons sitting with him at the dining table, eating steamed stuffed buns and going over the columns of the restaurant’s yellow ledger. Then, they moved from Liberdade to Humaitá in Rio. That was when Carlito first saw the favelas, small brick homes that grew out of the sides of the hills, climbing one on top of the other until they stood five storeys high and looked like a strong wind could knock them over. That’s where the people lived who had nowhere else to go. His father told him about them.

“Never go in there,” he said. “It is a place with no future. They will take you in there, and we will never see you again.” Every week it seemed like a new massacre was reported in the newspapers. Drug gangs ruled the favelas, and gunshots seemed to count the hours of the day. Words like “Apartheid” were graffitied across the wall that separated them from the sight of the highway, but Carlito was glad for the wall. On that wall were also plastered the posters. “Welcome to Rio. 2016 Olympics.”

“Can we go, Papai?” he asked the day he noticed the first one.

“Of course not,” the man said. “Don’t waste my time with games, Carlito. Watch it on TV after your homework.”

His new school had been much nicer than his last. There were boys and girls from all over the world. Vitor was from Portugal. Zack was American. Gabrielle was an Amarelo like himself. Ever since he’d cursed at the protestors in the bus, they’d let him sit with them at lunch and invited him to play videogames at their houses, even though they still called him “fatso”.

He didn’t run at his new school, remembering the laughter he’d left behind at his old one. Instead, when he felt like it, he got off the bus a block before his house and ran home, careful to stop in his front yard for fifteen minutes in case his father was there and might catch him panting and wheezing in the doorway. After the pounding in his chest and the burning in his cheeks had stopped, he went in, took a cold shower, kissed his mother, and sat down at the dining table to wait for his dad.

His mother knew his secret. She asked his father one night when they thought he was asleep, “What is the harm? Why not let him dream, Feng?”

“He’s a fat boy with duck feet,” his father had said. “He runs from one pasteleria to another. He thinks he can just decide to be a runner and he becomes one? No skill? No training? No discipline? It’s an illusion, and it’s a waste of time when he could be doing something useful. Don’t encourage him, Marta. You’re filling his head with straw when what he really needs is a mind for money.”

What his father had said stung him, but Carlito still didn’t forget about the Olympics. He started saving up his allowance, and even sold a few of his dad’s old trinkets from China. By the month before the games started, he was one hundred short for a ticket. It made him feel guilty, but he crept into his parent’s room one Friday afternoon and unscrewed the lid of their money jar in the closet. Taking out the worn and wrinkled bills, he whispered a promise to pay them back.

Every night after that, he pulled the ticket out of the running shoe he kept it in and held it up to the lamplight, reading the stadium location: Maracanã; event name: Men’s 100 Meter; and stadium section: 107. Then he tucked it back, slid his shoe into the box, and shoved the box under his bed.

“Don’t move my shoe box, okay Bea?” he told their new maid to make sure no one found out. “If you do, I’ll tell my parents you stole money from them and they’ll fire you.” The tired woman flinched for a moment, then nudged past him on her way to clean the bathroom.

On the night before the race, Carlito told his mother that Enrique had asked if he could spend the night. He saw the pitying look on her face, with her round chin rolling up under her lip. She nodded and kissed his forehead, mussing his hair. “Be good, okay?”

He wore his running shoes to school that day, the ticket still stuffed into the front. In class, he slid his toes back and forth over it, slick as a popscicle. He imagined himself standing, screaming “Bolt! Bolt! Bolt! Bolt!” with the crowd. Bolt flexed his biceps at the boy, and Carlito flexed his back. Then the bell rang. Carlito’s eyes widened. He clapped his pencil case shut and piled it with his notebook into his bag.

He’d planned his route already. He walked to the bus stop, took the 548 to São Conrado, sitting next to a homeless man with a Bart Simpson t-shirt who eyed him while he sipped a can of Guarana. There he found the bus to Barra and walked over a bridge to board the 301, which wound across the slope of Corcovado, the hunchbacked mountain at the center of the city. To his right, at the top of the mountain, Cristo Redentor held wide open arms to Rio.

“Where are you going?” a nun in a grey habit asked him as he tried to hide himself in the corner between the seat and the door of the bus. Her eyes were cloudy with cataracts.

“To the race,” he answered her in his husky voice.

“Alone?” she asked.

“No,” Carlito said, “with my father.” He pointed to a mustachioed man at the front who was still paying the driver.

“Oh, I see,” the nun said.

Carlito doubted that.

Still, when they began down the hill towards the city, she looked out the window and smiled kindly back at the pale white statue of Christ.

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The bus took a corner, and Carlito caught sight of the stadium across the chaotic jumble of a favela that ran down the rest of the slope. It was at that moment that the bus gave one last sputtering cough and died.

“Porre,” the driver yelled, slamming his hands on the wheel and standing up to leave it. The passengers looked at each other for an explanation. A few followed the driver outside and began a conference with him, which turned into a yelling match. Carlito decided he would be better off walking than waiting. The sun was already setting behind the hills to the west.

He tried not to look at the nun, but caught her eye anyway and saw her head swiveling back and forth between him and the man he’d said was his father, now asleep over his folded arms. Her mouth gaped open, and she reached for Carlito, but he tugged away and slid through the door into the pink sunlight before her fingers could close around his sleeve. The nun started up after him, tottering in the aisle of the bus, but by then Carlito had run across the road. He made it onto the sidewalk just dodging a blue truck hauling papayas. The driver blared his horn and skidded. A papaya tumbled over the rail and split open on the ground.

“Vai tomar no cu,” the man yelled at Carlito as it rolled past, which was something his father had said once before his mother slapped him and stopped speaking to him for three days. Carlito stood, heart pumping, a stream of sweat tickling down the base of his spine. He looked at the papaya and took it as good luck. That could have been him. He picked up the half that wasn’t as badly bruised and started to chew on it. Then he noticed the crowd at the front of the bus looking at him. The nun was gesturing wildly from inside. Clutching the papaya to his chest, he clambered through a crack in the wall of the favela.

Inside, he looked up at the jutting corners above him where laundry whipped in the breeze. Hip hop came from an open window, and three boys chased a football across a small pathway from one alley to another. A man in a butcher shop to his left leaned over a bloody counter of dead chickens as he stared, a squadron of flies landing on the chickens like they were aircraft carriers on a red sea.

Carlito gulped. He wanted to climb back through the wall, but could hear the scuff of shoes and voices of the men from the bus approaching. If they found him, he would miss the race. They would take him to the police, and the police would bring him home. He didn’t know what his dad might do. He thought of the disappointment and betrayal that would be written on his face between the bold strokes of anger. Better to get away and sneak back home after the race, or even wait outside school for it to open in the morning and tell them he’d had a great time with his new friends.

He willed his feet into motion and brought the papaya to his mouth as his mind recoiled from the idea that he may never make it to the stadium. He was careful to stay on the far side of the street from any shops or people, his eyes buried in the fruit. It was syrupy sweet and mature. One of the black seeds from the center crunched between his teeth, and he hurried along, afraid that the noise had drawn the attention of the drug gangs.

Carlito was passing on the other side of a cellphone shop when a grey blur bolted out of a doorway. He turned, tingles of fear pricking their way through his body, to see a cat streaking past with a fried fish in its mouth. A little girl came running after it.

“Come back!” she shouted, but her voice was strange. Her brown curls and pink dress bobbed in the wind as her slippers slapped against the street. The cat paused at a drainpipe. It looked back at her, then began to climb. The girl threw up her hands and stomped her foot, shouting “Porra!” at the cat, which disappeared over the rooftop.

Carlito passed her, wanting to so badly get to the stadium and find his seat, to bask in the safety of the halogen lights they would surely be turning on by now, but he heard her whimper and turned to see the tears streaming over her cheeks. She looked at him with large, brown eyes and wiped her nose. “What do you want?” she asked him in that strange way, as though her words were bubbles and her lips couldn’t close around them without popping them. When she motioned with her hands also, he realized she was deaf.

Carlito glanced at his papaya. She noticed it too. He considered giving it to her, but he was hungry. He looked at her, then the papaya, then he turned and walked down the street, licking the sweet juice off the back of his hand and sucking on his fingers. He imagined the grey cat must be doing the same on the roof overhead, but he saw the cat when he came to the bottom of the hill. It still had the fish dangling from its mouth. The fish’s dirty tail dragged on the ground, a crispy, wide eye looking at Carlito for rescue. It was beyond help, he knew. Large flakes of salt clung to its dried scales. Both its top and bottom fin were burnt from the grill. It probably tasted delicious, and Carlito didn’t blame the cat for taking it. Even after finishing the papaya, he was still hungry. In all his plotting, he’d forgotten to plot a snack. If he spent the money wadded up in his pocket, he might not have enough for a ride home.

“Share?” he asked the cat.

Its slitted green eyes glared at him.

“Okay,” Carlito said.

The cat turned its back, whipping the fishtail across a gutter opening, and walked away.

Carlito trodded on. The sunset had faded from the pink and orange clouds, leaving them dull and concrete grey. He caught sight of the stadium again, a silver moon in the chaotic clump of yellow stars that burned from the small shops and condos and fragments of favelas around it. A train streaked in from the east, a meteor coming to rest on the top of the moon.

Thirty minutes later, his feet were aching, his thighs burning, his stomach grumbling, his head swooning, and he had to pee. He wanted to sit down, but he was a long way from the stadium still. He could hear the shallow thump of music, though, and the low drone of an announcer’s voice.

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Sound carried well up the hill. It drew the residents of the favela out of their homes like a cookie draws ants from a nest. He passed a family sitting in their doorway looking down at the lights and a table of men drinking over a game of truco. He made sure to stay in the shadows while people strolled down the hill past him and scooters fluttered by in neutral. Another two blocks and he couldn’t hold it any more. He found an alley and listened to a couple arguing while he peed in their flowerpot outside.

When he crept out of the alley, Christ was glowing white against the darkening sky behind him, lit by spotlights at his feet. I saw that, he imagined the statue saying. His mother was religious and was always reminding him that Jesus and the Virgin Mary saw everything he did. His father still made offerings to his ancestors. Carlito didn’t know what to believe, but he blushed anyway and turned his back from that embrace and continued to make his way towards the stadium.

At the bottom of the hill, he stopped and rubbed his throbbing knees while everyone else around him crossed at the intersection. His chest was feeling tight, so he reached into his bag for his inhaler, only it wasn’t there. He wiggled his hand through the folds of the extra shirt, the Jamaican flag he’d bought from a roadside vendor, between the plastic covers of his books and the cold tin of his pencil case. Panic crept up on him and said “Boo” in his ear. He put a hand to his chest, forced himself to breath. His throat was a broken squeeze toy, a high, airy whistle squeaking from his mouth. He closed his eyes and imagined himself walking into the stadium, flooded with light, and finding a seat.

“One zero seven,” Carlito said. He would sit in it, rest, relax, and watch Bolt stamp his footprints across history once again. Maybe he would buy a chicken coxinha. No, he thought as he smelled the pastéis deep-frying in a stand to his right. He would eat now. He pulled the ball of money out of his pocket and counted it, did the math in his head. He didn’t have enough for meat.

“One pastéis, please. Cheese,” he said.

The woman looked at him curiously while she reached into the warmer and pulled the crisp pastry out, sliding it into a brown paper bag and handing it to Carlito. He traded bills with her for clinking coins and turned to the street again when he noticed the little girl in the pink dress standing behind a man on the other side. They stood by a yellow streetlamp under a tangle of electric wires that hummed so loudly Carlito could hear them from where he stood. A bicycle was leaning on the man’s hip as he talked with a cigarette vendor. The girl didn’t notice Carlito, but was looking at the grey cat instead, still dragging the uneaten fish across the street.

He must have very strong jaws, Carlito thought. Then he wondered if it was even a boy cat.

The girl in the pink dress didn’t care about that. She left the back wheel of the bike and raced into the road to catch the cat. It hissed and darted back, dropping the fish in a trail of pieces and disappearing between Carlito’s legs as he held the pastéis frozen in front of his open mouth. The girl beamed a triumphant gap-toothed smile and knelt down to pick up the pieces of the fish when Carlito heard blaring samba music and saw the nose of the blue papaya truck swing into the intersection on their left.

Folded up in the shadow of the wires on the road, Carlito knew the girl was invisible. He shouted at her, but she couldn’t hear him. People turned to see what the boy with the pastéis was yelling about, but the papaya truck didn’t even have its headlights on, so no one noticed the girl.

Carlito was too far away. He watched helplessly from the sidewalk. Then a gunshot up the hill drew everyone’s attention off of him. The drug gangs, Carlito thought, I have to get out of here. He couldn’t look away, though.

He knew he was too slow and too far. He was already out of breath. He was not a runner, but without meaning to, Carlito swiped the pastéis from his head to his chest, then his left to right shoulder, leaving oil and flakes of the crust on his shirt and chin. “Go,” he said to himself. “Go,” huffing into the street.

He was only a fat boy pretending. It was stupid to think that he could just lace up his shoes and call himself Usain Bolt. In all the jogging and fumbling around he had ever done, he’d never felt the wind on his face, only the heat from his wheezing chest.

“Go!” he tried to scream, whether to himself or the girl, he didn’t know, but a crocodile’s jaw clamped shut around his lungs.

He’d never even finished a race.

He stumbled, feeling the last puff of air escape from his nostrils, and reached for the ground. He glanced up as he fell and saw the eyes of the girl staring at him from the shadow. She had the pieces of the fish folded in her hands.

What had been more pathetic? His breasts jiggling like his mother’s when he stomped across the football field or the fact that he’d thought anything would come of it?

The driver sang loudly behind the wheel. Carlito swung his foot under him and braced his belly against it. It drove a croak out of his mouth before he shoved off that back foot and lunged for the girl. One more step.

He remembered what his dad had said. You have to buy a dream.

His chest was an empty cavity, his lungs folded up into his spine like two sheets of his father’s yellow ledger.

You have to earn it with your life.

Eyes bulging, the wind whistled in his ears, and his tongue went dry. He reached for her. She had started up from her crouch, twisting away from him.

You have to pay for it with blood and sweat, and what was in his blood? Coconut milk.

The engine roared deafeningly. Someone shouted. He heard screeching, but felt the molecules on his left side compressing as the grill of the truck flickered golden in the lamplight. Air scraped the back of his throat. A tear leaked out the corner of his eye, cooling in the wind that rushed over his pulsing temple. He slammed into the girl’s back and knocked her past the truck’s blackened headlight.

Carlito smelled diesel. He felt his shoulder crack against the grill and a thousand fireworks go off inside his small, round body. The street spun. Then he was staring up at the sky among the sweet, musky papayas, stars faded by the glow of the living city. Somewhere in the distance, a hushed roar escaped the stadium, and on the hill above, Cristo Redentor held open his arms.

 

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