THE INCIDENTAL AMERICAN
Updated: Aug 17, 2021
By Steve Carr
Miranda adjusted her white sun hat that rested precariously other expensively coiffed pile of bright red hair before picking up her suitcase and makeup case that she had set down on each side of her. She then slowly descended the winding marble staircase, testing the fit of her new white stiletto heels that she had ordered online from her favorite frequent shoe supplier, but had just taken out of the box just before leaving her bedroom. She had stopped going to shoe stores while still a teenager having decided that no one should touch her feet but the Korean woman who gave her pedicures. At thirty-two, she had stuck with that thinking all through her ten years of marriage, not allowing her husband, now ex-husband, to touch them. As the heels of her shoes clicked on the marble steps, one step at a time, like the slow and deliberate tapping of a hammer on a nail, she listened for any sign of the heels being inferior. She knew stilettos weren't the right style of shoe for the summery flock she was wearing, but she had purchased them for other reasons. They allowed her to imagine the heels of the stilettos being driven into the skull of her ex-husband. At the bottom of the stairs, she crossed the foyer where large oil paintings of Greek gods and ancient, crumbling structures, inside gold, ornately designed frames lined the walls. The foyer led two directions, to the double doors leading to the outside, and past the staircase to the interior of the first floor. She placed her suitcase and makeup case by the door, turned about and walked to the closed doors of the drawing room. She had been told by the upstairs amid that her parents were in the room waiting on her. She knew from the conversation at the dinner table the night before they were actually waiting on her father's business attorney. They didn't expect her to actually follow through on her plans to leave and humored her each time she made threats of going to South America. "But dear, what do you know about picking coffee beans?" her mother said. "You know how much you detest the outdoors."
"I drink only the very best coffee. What more is there I need to know?" she replied. She smoothed her tailored jersey purple and white print dress with a flouncy skirt, cinched at the waist with a white leather belt, tapped on the door before opening it, and then entered the room. Her mother looked up from her freshly filed fingernails. "Miranda, dear, we missed you at breakfast," she said. "You don't function well on an empty stomach." "I'm waiting on James to bring the car around to take me to the airport, stated Miranda. "Stuff and nonsense," her father said, his face hidden behind an opened, spread newspaper. "It's not nonsense, Father," Miranda replied. "My flight to Brazil leaves in a little over an hour."
Her mother chewed off a small piece of cuticle and politely spat it into a half empty glass of bourbon. "Cook is preparing roast lamb for dinner, dear. You know how much you love Cook's lamb and that mint jelly she makes to go with it."
"You two are impossible! I said I'm going to Brazil to work on a coffee plantation and that's exactly what I'm doing."
Her father turned a page of the newspaper, and with only the top of his balding head showing, uttered mockingly, "Send us a postcard when you get there." "Really Father! No one sends postcards anymore," she snarled and then in a huff, spun about on her heels and left the room. At the front door, she picked up her things and went out. Miranda stepped off the plane in Rio de Janeiro and was immediately blasted with a hot, humid swirl of air. Her skirt blew up around her waist resulting in her dropping her makeup case as she struggled to right her skirt, spilling its contents on the tarmac. She looked around, waiting for someone to come rushing to assist her with gathering up her lipsticks, compacts, makeup and hair brushes, and a dozen other items that lay strewn about. But, as other passengers walked by, barely glancing at her, she bent down and put things back in the case, leaving many of the things on the ground, closed it, and then stood, tightly grasping the handle of the case. Sweat poured down her face causing her eye makeup to run in black streaks. So-much for expensive no-run eye liner, she thought. It suddenly occurred to her that she was thousands of miles from home. She had purposely left her cellphone on her bed back home, vowing to disconnect herself from her country of birth. There was no one she would have called anyway, even if she could have. "They're all wanting me to fail," she muttered as she stood proudly, unwavering, on her spiked heels, and then strode into the airport terminal with her back stiffened and her facial expression set in a mask of stone. She collected her suitcase from baggage claim and then walked out of the terminal. The curb was lined with Taxis and Uber vehicles. Going to the nearest one she cleared her throat to get the attention of the man texting on his phone while leaning against his taxi. He looked up. "Puedo conseguir un paseo?" she enunciated, sounding out each word slowly. He cocked his head. "You an American?" "Incidentally, yes," she said. "Why?" "Here, Portuguese is spoken," he answered. Her eyes widened in surprise. "But this is South America. Spanish is spoken everywhere." "Here, Portuguese is spoken," he repeated. "I learned Spanish anticipating coming here," she said. "Can you take me to the nearest coffee plantation?"
He eyed her up and down and chuckled. "The nearest coffee plantations are about 73 kilometers, about two hours away. I can take you but it will soon be night and travel is not always safe at this hour." She stomped her stiletto like a child about to throw a tantrum. "Take me to the nearest four star hotel then. I'll go in the morning." "Si senorita," he replied accompanied by a mischievous grin. She got into the back seat of the taxi as he put her suitcase and makeup case in the trunk. When he got in behind the wheel, he turned his head and looking at her, said, "If I may be nosey, why do you wish to go to a coffee plantation?" "I want to pick coffee beans." "Pardon me again. Why?" "Working on a coffee plantation would give me something to do."
He looked down at her stilettos. "You will need different shoes," he said before turning back to the wheel and turning the key in the ignition. As the rising sun of dawn spread its luminescent light on Sugarloaf Mountain, Madeline stood on the balcony of her hotel room looking out at the mountain's majestic point while sipping on a cup of Brazilian Arabica coffee. She sighed contentedly, thinking, Beans for this coffee would be delightful to pick. She then closed her eyes and let the warm ocean breeze caress her freshly made-up face. The suggestion by Francisco, the taxi driver, that she allow the concierge of the hotel buy the makeup items she needed to replace, along with a pair of locally made sandals that would be stylish as well as comfortable, had been an excellent suggestion. The makeup supplies and sandals were delivered at the same time as breakfast was wheeled into her room on a cart and set up on a table on the balcony. She opened her eyes, took a last look at the mountain and turned and set the empty cup on the table. She called for a bellhop to come pick up her suitcase and makeup case, put on her sunglasses, and picked up her sun hat and placed it on her head. She slung her purse slung over her shoulder, and left the room, then took the elevator to the lobby. She then went to the desk and checked out of the hotel. Before going out she gave the concierge standing at her station near the doors a hefty tip. She then walked out into the sunlight where Francisco was waiting for her at the curb with the back door of his taxi opened, awaiting her, as they had planned the day before him to do.
Once settled in her seat, and Francisco behind the wheel, she lowered her sunglasses, leaned forward and tapped him on the back. "I saw your famous mountains this morning," she said, "is there anything else you recommend I see before we leave Rio?"
"Christ the Redeemer," he answered. "I thought he was dead," she replied. He pulled away from the curb resisting the urge to laugh out loud. "I think it best if you're looking for a coffee plantation to pick coffee beans that I take you directly to the Arabica Plantations near Sau Paulo," he said. She settled back in her seat and raised the sunglasses to her eyes. "Excellent choice, Francisco," she said. "I like the idea of picking beans for a coffee that I've tasted and like." Traveling west on BR 101, Madeline filed her nails as she watched the passing scenery though the open window. Fearful of using the air conditioning the entire way because of the stress it would put on the vehicle's engine, Francisco had turned it off in spite of Madeline's complaints. As the warm, moist hair blew in, she found she was enjoying the feel of it on her face. She didn't want him to know that. Clearly he doesn't understand that I'm the paying customer. The light fragrance of the Camelia Rose resembled that of her mother's perfume. She didn't regret leaving her mother, but the flower's scent made her slightly homesick. The pink flowers grew along the sides of the highway. "What is that flower?" she asked Francisco. "It's the Camelia Rose," he said. "Many years ago, it was common practice for abolitionists to plant camellias in a show of solidarity." "Were abolitionists gardeners?" she asked. "You might say that," he replied. After ten more miles during which the two returned to silence, thinking of the one time in her marriage that her ex-husband had given her roses, Miranda stared at the back of Francisco's head for several minutes before asking, "Francisco, are you married?" "I'm divorced." "Divorced? Getting divorced is allowed in Brazil?" Bemused, he glanced at her in the rearview mirror. Judging by the expression on her face she was genuinely surprised and interested. "Divorce is allowed in most countries," he said. "I haven't traveled much," she said, her voice tinged with regret. "I thought divorce was mainly an American thing." A few miles further down the road he steered the taxi into a gravel lot in front of what looked like a normal two story house. A sign above the door read: Restaurante Para Viajantes. "Perfect! Restaurant for travelers," she said with a laugh. She understood the sign, Francisco thought, a bit perplexed. "The owners are friends of mine," he said. "They serve the best home cooking in all of Brazil. We're early for lunch, but I'm sure Adriana will gladly serve us brunch." He opened his door and started to get out, looked back at Madeline, and saw her looking into a compact mirror and applying fresh lipstick. "There is no need to do that. Adriana and her husband Lucas are simple people. They're also old-world Brazillians who only speak Portuguese." "They're your friends," she said. "I want to look presentable." A few minutes later, inside the restaurant, where small tables were covered with red checkered plastic tablecloths and bamboo ceiling fans whirled above their heads, Miranda and Francisco were seated at a table by Lucas, a middle-aged man with skin the color of burned caramel. Francisco introduced her to Lucas, who kissed the back of her hand before handing them menus anyway after apologetically saying the only things that Adriana could serve before lunchtime was scrambled eggs and Pao de Queijo. "Obrigada, isso e perfeito," Miranda said in perfect Portuguese. When Lucas went into the kitchen, Francisco leaned across the table. "How did you know to say that in Portuguese and do it without any hint of an American accent?" "I watched a little television and read the room service menu before going to sleep last night," she answered. Mouth agape, he watched as she opened the menu and read aloud the listed items, all written in Portuguese, as if she had spoken the language her entire life. "How did you learn the Portuguese language in such short time?" Francisco asked as soon as they pulled out of the restaurant's lot to continue their journey to the Arabica plantations. "I learn and understand languages with very little effort by listening to foreign cooking shows on television," she said. "It's the way I learn most things that interest me. I hate reading. Sad to say, but I didn't finish college because I wasn't good at studying." "How many languages have you learned that way?" "Fourteen, I think." Francisco let out a long whistle. "That's incredible! You're some kind of genius." She turned her head and looked out the window. "My ex-husband didn't think so. He admired me for being pretty and throwing elaborate dinner parties, but otherwise thought anything else I did was silly and useless." "You should forget what he thought and do something with your ability to speak so many languages." "I'd rather just pick coffee beans," she said. For the remainder of the ride, the two talked, in Portuguese, about their upbringings. She had always been rich. He came from near-poverty. She did poorly in school. He got top grades, and learned the English language, but with great difficulty. He always had lots of friends. She never had any. "Even now the people who I thought were my friends stopped accepting me into their homes as soon as I got a divorce. As much as I tried to please them all the time I was married, it was my husband who they were, and are, friends with, " she said icily. At the Arabica Plantations administrative office building, Francisco took her suitcase and makeup case out of the trunk and set them at her feet. "Are you certain you don't want me to wait, just in case they don't hire you?" he asked. "What can it take to pick coffee beans?" she said. He handed her his card and kissed her on both cheeks. "Call me if you ever need a drive somewhere." "Obrigado meu amigo," she said and then adjusted her sun hat, picked up her things, and went into the building. Two and a half hours later the Uber taxi pulled into the lot of the Arabica Plantations administrative offices. Miranda came out of the building and handed the driver, Joao, who was young and said only a few words to her in broken English as he tossed her things in the trunk of his car. What had happened in the Arabica administrative office was this: The man who did the hiring came out of his office, looked her up and down, his eyes lingering on her manicured, polished nails and her sun hat. "You're not from Brazil, are you?" he said in English. "No, I'm an American," she said, "but my friend Francisco tells me I speak your language perfectly." "Who is your friend?" She handed him Francisco's card. He stared at it for a minute and then looked at her. "He's just a taxi driver," he said, and gave her a look that she recognized. It was the same one her ex-husband used to give her. "You're not made to pick coffee. I recommend you look for work elsewhere, possibly in your own country here jobs are plentiful. Good luck." He then turned, went back into his office, carrying Francisco's card with him, and closed the door. Miranda and Joao got into the vehicle and as they pulled out of the lot she told him she would like to stop at the Restaurante Para Viajantes for lunch on the way back. "I hear the food and service there is terrible," he said. "You're an American, yes?" "Incidentally," she answered. "I'll take you to McDonald's when we get back to the city." "Just take me straight to the airport," she said. "My Swahili is excellent and they grow coffee in Kenya where Swahili is spoken, according to the television show Kenya Cooks."
Steve Carr, from Richmond, Virginia, has had over 540 short stories published internationally in print and online magazines, literary journals, reviews and anthologies since June 2016. He has had seven collections of his short stories published. His paranormal/horror novel, Redbird was released in November, 2019. He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, twice. His Twitter is @carrsteven960. You can read more of Steve on his website, and connect with him on Facebook.