Paunchy from being fêted at innumerable Michelin star restaurants, Vice President of International Harry O’Toole greeted me with a salesman’s handshake and a predator’s smile that underscored a bulbous, burst capillary nose, a souvenir of his passion for single malt Scotch. He had a reputation for overlooking spotty performance in subordinate managing directors if a nubile was procured for him during a subsidiary visit.
O’Toole motioned me to an adjacent couch while he ensconced in a bullshit-black leather armchair, air whooshing from the cushions. He crossed his arms and pointed his proboscis toward the eggshell ceiling. “Grant, do you know why you’re here?”
I’d spent the morning reviewing red figures from our Brazilian subsidiary’s financial statements. As if lost in the Amazon jungle, the presiding MD produced results so disastrous that even providing O’Toole with a bevy of samba-school beauties wouldn’t save him.
“The managing director position for Brazil is open,” I replied.
O’Toole’s eyes locked onto me. “What’s your answer?”
Four years earlier, in 1985, Brazil’s governing military junta surrendered power to an elected president who dispensed populist freebies financed by a torrent of foreign debt. Endemic corruption and a weak administration triggered rocketing prices, tottering the country at the cliff of hyperinflation and social chaos.
The Brazilian subsidiary employed thousands with extensive manufacturing operations, ostensibly a plumb job, but I had to survive the crucible. O’Toole had been MD of Brazil during the economic boom prior to the mid-1970s OPEC oil shock, a successful stint that propelled his career. Every MD who followed he’d either fired or retired.
My ego trumped good judgment. “When do I start?”
O’Toole slapped his knees and stood. “Fly to Rio de Janeiro tomorrow.”
Jeez. December 31st!
He waved me dismissively out of his office. I’d solved his problem. Now, it was my problem.
After my appointment was announced, I received a call from a mentor, an Italian returned to Europe. “Congratulations on your promotion,” he said. “You’re moving up in the world, as I expected.”
“Grazie. Any advice?”
“The Brazilian management views O’Toole like Jesus Christ. They’re bulletproof and will tell him what you had for breakfast.”
“What are you saying?”
“Trusting the team is good. Not trusting is better. Capisce?”
On the next day’s Varig flight to Rio de Janeiro, I dug into a pile of background material. The sitting Brazilian president declined to run again and the looming election to succeed him pitted Collor, a narcissistic populist, against Lula, a communist. Nice choice. Both swore to end inflation, Collor with a single coup, most likely some desperately dumb-ass economic move. Brazilian street crime and kidnapping were already pervasive and the essential goods shortage that might follow a government shock could supercharge domestic unrest. I sighed. So much for hoping a robust economy would make my job easier.
The Brazilian subsidiary lost gobs of money and I was the management EMT dispatched to apply a tourniquet. My direct reports were senior to me in both experience and age and likely saw my promotion as them being passed over, particularly the Chief Financial Officer José Sarno, who had been with the company more years than I was alive. I’d be center stage and alone, possibly sabotaged by a jealous management. As I didn’t speak Portuguese, the information I received from them would be filtered for self-interest, and they’d report my missteps to their patron saint O’Toole.
I massaged stiffness in my neck and shook off my malaise. Enough negative crap, I thought, I’m not going to fail.
The plane descended through lumpy clouds and landed early evening at Galeão International Airport. In Arrivals, a physique of a bass fiddle held up a sign with my name. He had the handshake of a cadaver.
“Welcome to Brazil. I’m Human Resource Manager Clodovil Hernandes. I hope you’re not too tired from your trip.”
“Not at all. I’m delighted to be here. Thanks for meeting me.”
He offered to wheel my bag to his car, but I waved him off. Before he dropped me at the Copacabana Hotel, he said, “Monday you’ll meet the management committee. I suggest you not walk about Rio, especially at night. The favella slums are particularly dangerous, but even along the beach a thief will put his hand into your pocket.”
I just listened, thinking that I probably experienced worse neighborhoods in Brooklyn.
After unpacking, I fidgeted. No way I’d just sit in my hotel, so I conferred with the concierge.
“I suggest attending this evening’s New Year’s festival on Copacabana beach to honor the Candomblé goddess Yemanjá, queen of the sea,” he said. “Dress in white.”
I donned my linen suit and, remembering Hernandes’s warning, I left my watch and everything but pocket change inside the hotel safe and set out for the festa. Sugar Loaf and the Christ The Redeemer statue on Corcovado Mountain overlooked the sparkling turquoise of Guanabara Bay, which was lined with beige-sand beaches and high-rise hotels. Beyond the glass and stone structures, the slopes were crammed with rows of favella shacks. The ravages of inflation had turned Brazil into a country of extreme rich and poor.
As the sun set, crowds of Brazilian Candomblé devotees in flowing white garments approached the swelling surf with foamy waves that crawled up the beach at Copacabana. Seeking Yemanja’s blessing, they clutched bunches of red and blue flowers and small boat replicas each with a candle mounted. Candle lighting was accompanied by the rumble and pop of samba drums and the staccato metallic rap of cowbells. The air smelled of coconut and salt spray. Worshipers filed toward the sea as if to a communion rail, entering the surf, setting their candle-lit boats adrift and floating their flowers on the sea. Barefoot women with long black hair, wearing tiaras and white gossamer skirts swayed with graceful hand gestures, flowing hips, and light steps as everyone sang with the beat. Caught up in the music I rocked rhythmically, and the thump of drums created a calming effect, drifting my mind into a semi-hypnotic state.
A black woman with striking blue eyes that matched her headdress must have observed my reaction and approached me. She cupped my face, and I awoke from my trance.
“Yemanja has initiated you into Candomblé,” she said. “You’ve been possessed, she is now your orixá, and the spirit of the goddess will guide your destiny and protect you.”
I was a little taken aback. “How did you know I speak English?”
The woman smiled. “You’re struggling with a problem.”
“Aren’t we all,” I said in a skeptical tone.
Her smile broadened. “Open your heart to the goddess.” She pressed a card with the image of a dark-skinned woman dressed in blue into my palm.
When I looked up, she’d disappeared.
Monday’s drive to company headquarters passed walled houses with thirty-foot vines of blazing Bougainvillea of crimson, magenta, lavender, and white. Dark and light-green flora dotted orange-clay hillsides under a bright sun mantled by a blue and puffy cumulus sky.
Approaching the conference room, I heard lively Portuguese conversation spiked with laughter.
I entered and we introduced ourselves. Sarno’s face was dour when we shook hands.
“What were you joking about?” I asked.
Alberto Matarazzo, tall, the Sales and Marketing Director said, “Inflation. Rather than cure a problem, we Brazilians ‘push it with our belly.’ We’ve indexed the economy, confusing pricing. Yesterday I received a quote for tires, and I wasn’t sure if it was for two or four.”
Everyone but Sarno chuckled.
Hugo Safra, swarthy and serious, the Manufacturing Director said, “The cruzado is indexed daily by the banks. If you go to sleep with cash in your pocket, you lose money.”
Our conversation turned to business and the company’s losses. Having their last MD fired, I might’ve expected to find a defensive management, but they knew O’Toole had their backs.
“How do we get this company onto a sound financial footing?” I asked.
“Brazilians need everything,” Matarazzo said, “but this is a poor country. If we push up prices, demand will dry up. Better we control our costs.”
Safra said, “If demand dries up, we might as well shutter the factory. As for cutting costs, inflation runs far higher than productivity improvements.”
To draw Sarno into the conversation, I asked him, “What do you say about all this?”
Short and wiry, he flashed an enigmatic smile. “Our crazy country must come as quite a shock to a North American. If you’re uncomfortable now, trust me, things will get worse.”
Heat rose up my neck, but I damped down my anger. Sarno lusted after my job, hoping I’d fail, and O’Toole wouldn’t approve my shit-canning the prick. I began to sympathize more with my predecessor’s dilemma. Not all problems had solutions, and I could soon join a long series of failed Brazil MDs, returned to the US in disgrace, or shit-canned myself. Only a blue-eyed optimist believed the upcoming presidential election would help. Newspapers expressed the view that whether Collor or Lula won, dealing decisively with inflation would cause civil unrest and the military would retake power.
Back in my office, I piled financial statements next to a large cup of strong coffee. I leaned my picture of Yemanja against a pen set and concentrated on the image. Remembering what the woman at Copacabana had said, I thought, okay, Orixá, now’s the time I need some inspiration.
While I worked, Sarno delivered more files, and when he spotted the image of Yemanja, his eyebrows rose, but he said nothing.
I read financial statements and tapped my calculator well into the evening, finally huffing at my inability to come up with a plan to get us profitable. My eyelids became heavy and I slipped into the same trancelike state I experienced at the beach. In my brain, an image of a chocolate-skinned woman with long black hair, wearing a flowing aqua gown emerged slowly from the sea, the water sheeting from her body. Her intense blue eyes stared straight at me. Her slender hands went to the bodice of her dress and a U.S. dollar sign appeared. She smiled, and I snapped awake, my eyes on the image of Yemanja on my desk.
The realization hit me. All the company’s statements were in cruzados, but what was their value in dollars? With inflation raging, by the time a customer paid for goods, we’d collected less than the dollar replacement cost, and we lost money.
The next morning, I called a management meeting.
“Starting next week, our prices will be based on U.S. dollar replacement value,” I said, “ignoring historical cruzado costs.”
Sarno piped up immediately. “It’s illegal to issue a price list in dollars.”
“Our prices will be quoted in cruzados based on the dollar replacement value,” I responded. “Further, our terms of sale will be shortened to thirty days, and we’ll add an interest charge equaling anticipated monthly inflation plus five percent.”
Matarazzo threw up his hands. “Customers will scream.”
Safra moaned. “Demand will collapse.”
Sarno sat back, crossing his arms.
“Guys,” I said, “this is a risk we must take. By pricing based on replacement cost, whatever we sell will be profitable.”
Dubious faces expressed the cheerfulness of a wake.
Customers groused at the new prices and terms, but volumes didn’t deteriorate significantly. Apparently, Brazilians understood that tangible goods were an effective inflation hedge, and nobody could tell if they were buying two tires or four. We turned our first profit in many months.
No sooner were our results transmitted to the States than I received a call from O’Toole. He didn’t mince words. “I don’t believe in miracles.”
Clearly, he suspected I was cooking the books.
“Come and see for yourself,” I said, trying to ignore my suddenly acid stomach.
“I’m arriving Monday. My assistant will send you the flight details.” He hung up.
The company jet arrived in the early afternoon, and O’Toole was stone-faced when we shook hands. In the car to the hotel, he didn’t ask how I was getting on. His only comment was, “I assume the usual arrangement has been made.”
I grunted noncommittally. He didn’t invite me to join him for dinner.
Earlier that day, Sarno had handed me a slip of paper with the name, “Monica,” and a phone number, saying, “O’Toole likes to see her when he’s in Brazil.”
After Sarno left, I crumpled the paper in my fist. Pimp wasn’t in my job description.
The next day, I’d anticipated that O’Toole would be pissed, but he was livid, and my “Good morning” wasn’t returned.
Silent in the car, we entered the conference room, and O’Toole greeted Matarazzo, Safra, and Sarno, then sat at the table’s head.
I reviewed the new pricing plan in detail, including our recent financial statements, before each member of the team made a short presentation on their area.
When Sarno spoke, O’Toole asked him, “Are there any irregularities you’d like to tell me about?”
Sarno’s face showed disappointment that he had nothing to report.
In the car headed back for the airport, O’Toole said, “Let’s see how long your luck lasts.”
When the plane was in the clouds and out of sight, I clicked my heels in relief.
Fernando Collor de Mello won the presidential election vowing he’d kill inflation with “one bullet.” Inflation hit 90% per month when he took office on March 15, 1990, and the soothsayer who warned Julius Caesar was correct a second time. Collor immediately froze every personal and commercial bank account in the nation, bringing business activity in Brazil to a dead stop.
At the management meeting I called, everyone looked crushed.
Safra verbalized the universal concern. “Daily indexing was my only protection from inflation. All my retirement savings were in the bank. Now, the Government will make the money disappear.”
Although I sympathized with their pain, I had to turn the conversation to business. “As of today, few people have money. For those who do, we’ll implement a cash-sale policy until customers have time to re-liquefy their business.”
My assistant entered. “Sorry Senhor, but Mr. O’Toole is calling.”
I took a deep breath trying to dampen my angst before I picked up the phone. O’Toole came quickly to the point. “What’re you doing about this new economic crisis?”
As I replied, I kept my eyes on the image of Yemanja on my desk. “We’re taking a cautious approach on credit. Business will be terrible for a while but I’m sure the economy will bounce back once everyone has figured out how to operate. Brazilians adapt.”
“Sounds like bullshit to me. I heard a disturbing report that you’re getting involved with Candomblé. That’s voodoo.”
Sarno told O’Toole about the picture of Yemanja on my desk. I tried to sound unconcerned. “I don’t know what you’re hearing.”
“I’m worried about our corporate reputation, and the newspapers grabbing the story: ‘Executive becomes Macumba witch-doctor.’ I won’t chance that.”
I responded rashly. “You’re sore I didn’t arrange for Monica to be in your hotel room during your visit.”
O’Toole shouted. “You’re fired.” His agitation felt like a bonfire even over the phone.
I swear that the image of Yemanja smiled. My consciousness retreated, and my mind floated like a fetus in amniotic fluid.
O’Toole continued. “Get your ass out of the office before…” His words deteriorated into a violent cough, and he choked hoarsely. “Before I order security to remove…”
The phone went silent, but I could no longer hear. In my mind, Yemanja cradled me inside a giant seashell.
O’Toole’s assistant’s shout over the phone woke me.
“Mr. O’Toole has fainted. I’m calling an ambulance.” She hung up.
I held Yemanja’s image and leaned back. There is a goddess.
By the end of day, a corporate press release announced that Harry O’Toole had suffered a massive heart attack and died. Sarno took the news hard. I didn’t shed a tear.
For the next year, the Brazilian economy bounced along. My international career progressed through assignments of increasing responsibility until I became Vice President of International. I’d put Yemanja’s image inside an 18K gold frame and carried it everywhere.
Joe Giordano was born in Brooklyn. He and his wife Jane now live in Texas. His stories have appeared in more than one hundred magazines including The Saturday Evening Post, and Shenandoah, and his short story collection, Stories and Places I Remember. His novels include, Birds of Passage, An Italian Immigrant Coming of Age Story, and the Anthony Provati thriller series, Appointment with ISIL, Drone Strike, and coming in June 2022, The Art of Revenge. Visit Joe’s website at https://joe-giordano.com/.
Copyright © 2021-2022 by The Whisky Blot. All rights reserved.