“The King of the Milonga” by Roberto Fontanarrosa

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Believe me, Doc, nothing beats being King of the Milonga. You might think I’m exaggerating, but here in Argentina—I don’t know about other places—but here, here, nothing beats being King of the Milonga. Well, maybe, just maybe, goalkeeper for River Plate; sometimes I think that might be the lone exception, especially when I think back to Amadeo the Great. If you saw Amadeo Carrizo in the opposing goal, your socks would drop around your ankles. Tell me if that ain’t so. I don’t know if you follow football much, but you must have heard of Carrizo. Those looks, that presence, that grace. I swear, it was a thing of beauty to watch him play. And keeper for River . . . that’s no small thing. And the chicks were all over him. What beats that? What other job title could possibly be as attractive to the ladies when you sweet talk ’em? What could be more impressive? Economics Minister? Professional singer?

Well, maybe professional singer. I’m thinking of Alberto Morán, for one; he would simply sing the first few bars of “Pasional” and the babes would pee themselves. “Ya no sabrás, nunca sabrás, lo que es morrir de amor y enloquecer . . . ” (You’ll never know what it’s like to die out of love and lose your mind) But when they ask, “What is it you do for a living?” or “Hey, what’s your gig?” Because, nowadays, the younger chicks talk to all the guys like that, even if you have forty years on ’em. “What’s your gig?” “Goalkeeper for River Plate.” Oh, baby! They fall flat on their asses, Doc . . . Ain’t that a fact? Goalkeeper for River, and with those looks and those broad shoulders. Amadeo . . . that guy was phenomenal.

But . . . I tell ya, Doc . . . it doesn’t compare with being King of the Milonga. Want to know why? Because a footballer’s career is too short, way too short. They’re done at 30, give ’em 35 maybe for a keeper. For a milonguero, however . . . just take a look at me. I’m still in one piece.


Milonga at La Ideal, Buenos Aires. Photograph from TangoTV.

Hey! What’s up, Turk? How you doing, my man? Good to see you. Never saw you with that tie before, Turk . . . Dr. Celoria, a dear friend of mine. See you, man. Hey . .  Turk! Lopecito got it . . . he got the good stuff. Amazing, that Lopecito. I’ll fill you in later . . .

As I was saying, Doc . . . I got a niece, for instance . . . Vicky. She won Queen of the Mechanical Milkers in El Trebol. Everything went well, fantastic, the lights, the interviews. But three months later, no one remembered the poor thing. My sister, Susana, had hoped it marked the beginning of the girl’s acting career. From El Trebol to stardom. Six months later, the girl was back at work as a telephone operator at the local hotel . . . Dear, God! . . . The milonga, now that’s something else. That guy I introduced you to, Josami, the Turk, man, can that guy dance. He’s a bit hobbled because he had his prostrate operated on, but he’s back, good as new. Incredible, the Turk. Physically, as good as new, but he’s broke, totally broke. Gambling killed him. Games of chance. He’s a compulsive player. He spends his time looking for numbers to play in the lottery, pulling them off the license plates of passing cars. He stole money from his mom so he could play at the casino in Paraná. He hitchhiked to the one in Rio Hondo. But you look at him now and he looks good, well-dressed with those shiny polished, patent-leather shoes. His coat is a bit worn, that’s true, the collar of his shirt somewhat uneven. That work shirt has seen its share of action, that’s for sure, but it’s a warhorse. He may not be welcomed anywhere else, but here people greet him with open arms, they are fond of him, they embrace him. Ain’t that right, Doc? He’s not like he used to be on the dance floor, that’s true, but, in the end, that’s not that important. The scar from the operation bothers him when he sits, he told me. Is that possible, Doc? Is it possible for the fibrillation of the wound to cause discomfort when you sit, or when you execute a quebrada and your partner sits on your knee?

Anyway, that’s what he says. Poor Turk. And we all believe him. We have a milonguero hierarchy, Doc, that you won’t see in any other country. I mean, I’ve never been abroad, not even to Uruguay. I dunno. The opportunity never came, and I have this thing, this stupid resistance to the idea of leaving, of going abroad. What do I know . . . I heard they dance tango in Finland . . . What’s happening, beautiful! How you been? We missed you the other night, on Marisa’s birthday. It was a good time. We stayed till seven. That hairdo looks marvelous on you. Ciao, beautiful, save a dance for me later . . .

She was really something forty years back, Doc. A real doll. She still does well for herself, but forty years ago, I was crazy about her. I was doing my time in the army in Zárate and the lieutenant would send me off to a pharmacy in Campana to buy sodium permanganate to polish the saddles. And she was behind the counter. A real beaut, with those Russian eyes . . .

So, as I was saying, Doc . . . looks like tango is all the rage in Finland. Have you read about it? Can you believe it? . . . A society so different from ours. But then, of course, everybody likes tango. If you have a heart, a soul, something inside you has to move when you hear it. Unless you’re a cold fish. Right, Doc? Ain’t that right?

Even in Japan they like it. I was invited to dance there once, with Victoria as my partner. She was from Corrientes and she danced like mad. Today she’s in a wheelchair, poor thing. “Victoria and Ricardo,” in Japan; everything had been set for our tour. Osaka, Tokyo, Hiroshima . . . Believe me, Doc, Hiroshima. Because those poor people need some fun. I was to replace Virulazo, who had a herniated disc; he was overweight, Virulazo was; that was always his problem. People would say, “Virulazo is so restrained when he dances, his performance is so tight.” And the fact is that his midsection was bound with four rounds of plastic wrap.

I’m not one to bad mouth Virulazo because, for me, he was a genius on the dance floor, on par with Nureyev, I tell ya. But he didn’t move much because he had a herniated disc. Is that something that can be operated on, Doc? Or maybe that would just make it worse. Imagine, Doc, if it turns out that Gardel was a Finn. Not Uruguayan, not French . . . but a Finn. Why not? Some say he was, just to stir up controversy, like those books that claim he was homosexual. Man, wouldn’t that be a blow to our national pride, eh, Doc? The Gay Finn. In the end, I didn’t go to Japan. I was going to go with Leopoldo Federico, from my neighborhood. I dunno. My old lady was ill, trouble with her lungs. It was like an allergy, her chest seized right up. She had this cough. That dust that gets in the air off the hoppers when they load grain down at the port. Have you noticed? It’s a problem for a lot of folks. We lived downtown, close to the port. I felt I couldn’t leave, go off to a faraway land like Japan with my Ma in the state she was in.

To top it all, she had it up to here with me because she said I didn’t work. “You’re 42 and you still don’t have a job,” she would nag me, between coughing fits. She went on about it the whole bloody day, how I didn’t work and got out of bed at three in the afternoon. I still lived with my parents at the time, primarily so that I could be there for Ma. My sister had graduated from college and moved to El Trebol, and my old man, I tell ya, he worked all day in his law office and didn’t help much at all. My old lady was pretty much all alone, poor thing. And she would break my balls over all that stuff. How I dropped out of high school during my freshman year, how I was unemployed . . . And my old man, I tell ya, he wouldn’t even talk to me. Let me tell ya . . .

So going to Japan under the circumstances . . . I dunno . . . it didn’t seem right. And it was a hell of an opportunity, my big break. I dunno. Maybe I got cold feet. I mean, like I said, Doc, I’ve never even set foot outside of the province, that’s a fact. Never. Besides, it would have required a radical change in my habits. If I had gone to Japan, I would have had to change some things. The producer, one Herminio Zapata, was a Nazi: he expected me to rehearse everyday starting at eight every morning. At eight! Doc, I don’t get to bed till seven. I think I’ve gotten up at eleven in order to do something only once, and that was specifically to go see the great Amadeo Carrizo when River visited Rosario Central and a friend of mine at the club got me a good seat. That’s the only time. The milonga never sat well with Ma. She was part of another world, playing Uruguayan canasta with the other ladies at the Club Español and organizing charity teas . . . What’s up, Pelusa! I love you, man. How you doing? Good? Glad to hear it. You went a bit overboard with the makeup, eh? I’m kidding, just kidding, Pelu. It was a joke, Pelusa . . . Dr. Celoria. Amazing, the Doc. He’s the traitor that put the knife to me. Pelusa, did the electrician drop by? I sent him over, incredible guy, the real deal . . . I’ll catch you later, my friend. I want to talk to you about that business of yours at the retirement office . . . I’ll work it out for you, don’t worry . . . Hey! Pelusa! . . . Lopecito got the stuff, the good stuff. Let me know if you want some. Let me know, eh? . . . Don’t pull the same stunt you did last time.

Stupendous, that Pelusa . . . It’s a shame about the drinking: he steps on a cork and he’s drunk. His tolerance is shot. Seems his liver is fossilized. Can a person’s liver fossilize, Doc? He tells me his is like pumice. He had an ultrasound done.

He’s an incredible guy. Still a good looking man. You’ll see, when he gets out on the floor, how the babes queue up to dance with him. Amazing. But that’s as far as it goes, because two drinks and he’s drunk as a skunk, and we have to carry him home. Sometimes they let him sleep here, in one of the couches in the back. Pelusa was also here last night, when my old man came by.

And that’s what I want to tell you about, Doc, because it drives home just what it means to be the King of the Milonga. It’s bigger, I kid you not, than playing keeper for River . . . What’ve you been up to, Flaquita? How are you? I’ve got a new dance move to show you tonight. But only after Jorge leaves, because he’s always copying what I do. He copies, that Jorge . . . I’ll look for you later . . .

She’s still a good looking woman, La Flaca . . . And she’s a veteran that one, but still going strong. If you’d like, I’ll introduce you to her, Doc, but she’s a bit of a rebel, sort of difficult. When she dances, she wants to lead. Can you imagine that? You know, when it comes to tango, the man always leads, he guides his partner by simply applying a bit of pressure on her back with his fingers . . . Over here, over there, back, to the side. Not La Flaca; she goes where she wants. I’ve always said that feminism means the end of the tango as far as dance partners are concerned. It broke up Eladia and Gustavo, that couple that danced at the Caracol for a thousand years. She began reading Marguerite Duras and started with that madness. She wanted to lead. Finally, after they danced “El Once” one night, Gustavo cracked a bottle over her head.

And last night, Doc, you won’t believe it but my old man came by. After fourteen years without having uttered a word to me. Fourteen years, pissed because I didn’t go to school, didn’t work, and slept through to the afternoon. And, all that time, I was sort of being supported by my folks, although not really, but it’s way too complicated to explain. My old man dropped by. I was dancing “Bahía Blanca” on an empty dance floor, because when I go out there, the crowd parts and gives me my space. I was dancing with a newbie. She was large and danced quite well, but she was heavy and tipped to the right. You could tell the girl had played volleyball and had a bum knee, her leg turned out to the side. It was a chore to lead her, because the big girl tipped to the right . . . Anyway, that’s when they came to me with the news. In the middle of the dance floor, Haroldo took hold of my arm and whispered it in my ear: “Your old man is here.”

There wasn’t even time to be concerned, because there’s got to be a very good reason for them to interrupt me while I’m dancing. The last time they interrupted me wasn’t long ago, when my Ma passed away, and before that, when Julio Sosa killed himself in that car accident. So I walked over to the main entrance and there’s my old man, in the company of a lady. “How are you, Marcos?” he said, and it seemed to me his voice was filled with emotion. I couldn’t believe it. Fourteen years since I had heard his voice; I almost didn’t recognize it. He looked elegant, a good suit on him. Bah . . . as always, a suit of Italian silk and a fine tie. Showing the physical effects of his age, sure, but still standing straight. Tall and, of course, gray haired. He embraced me and, I swear, Doc, I almost cried, almost. “You remember Lolita,” he said. And that’s when I recognized Lolita. A very close friend of my Ma’s, my Ma who had passed away barely two months before, poor thing. Of course, in the half-light it wasn’t easy to get a good look at her. Because that’s one of the secrets of these dance halls for us veterans, Doc: the half-light. You won’t see any wrinkles in this light, nor double chins, nor crow’s feet. The darkness hides it all; it’s the best cosmetic. But as soon as Lolita spoke, I recognized her. That same voice like a penetrating whistle: “How are you, Marquitos? What’s new?” Marquitos she called me, obviously, since she knew me way back when. But she said it with a bit of restraint and self-control, as if self-conscious. And that made sense, since my Ma, her best friend, had died less than two months prior and here she was with my old man.

“I’m a pariah, Marcos,” my old man would tell me later, when we had sat down at one of those tables over there, away from the dance floor. “No one wants to see me. Those friends of mine you know—Polo, Dr. Iñíquez, Medrano, El Rubio—won’t talk to me. They avoid me.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Because of Lolita,” my old man said. “They find it unseemly that I’m going out with her so soon after your mother’s death. Ada has declared it a scandal. Well, Ada and all the other women. The women don’t even want to hear my name mentioned, Marcos.”

Lolita backed every word he said with a nod of her head, like this; she looked like one of those bobble-head doggies you see on the dashboard of taxis.

“Well, Dad, don’t worry about them,” I said.

“I’m not welcomed at the parties down at the Golf Club, Marcos. Where can I go? Where?”

That’s why he came here, Doc. That’s why he came with Lolita, because for two months, he had nowhere to go. They wanted to go out but they knew that if someone saw them, they’d rip them to shreds, Doc. Imagine. None of us, perhaps, would give a damn about that sort of thing. The day after I broke up with Gladys, I showed up with La Negra Villa at the milonga at the Club Almafuerte, as cool as can be. For three years, Doc, I went out with a set of twins, the Zalewski twins, simultaneously, and I was completely carefree. But for my old man, my old man, part of that circle of tight-assed hypocrites, from that world that made him . . . for him it was high drama. Given the cold shoulder by his closest friends. But, you know what he told me? “I don’t have much time left, Marcos. I don’t have much time.” And it’s not that he’s ill or anything, Doc, because my old man is as strong as an oak, but it so happens he’s 79. My old man, 79 years of age. What do you make of that? “We don’t have much time left. We don’t have much time,” echoed Lolita, in one of her few verbal contributions, because she uttered a word here and there. And, of course, what are they going to wait around for? For their 100th birthdays before they start dating? That, that very thing, is what El Valija, one of my friends, told them. He’s that little guy over there, Doc. He had sat down at our table, just like that, not even asking for permission. He brought his glass with him and sat down. “What are you going to wait around for, Adolfo?” he said to my old man. And then, taking him by the arm: “Full speed ahead, Adolfito. And if anyone has a problem with it, may they all go to hell and fuck themselves. What would you like to drink, my dear?” he asked Lolita, who was more than a bit shocked by his colorful French.

My old man never cussed in his life. And then Marino, El Negro Airasca, Florencio, Mendocita and others all came over to talk to my Dad, as soon as they learned who he was. They came over to meet him, and, when they heard of his dilemma, they comforted him. They even tactfully avoided mentioning my old lady or, worse, offering condolences. “Life goes on, Adolfito,” said El Oso, the cook, slapping him on the back; he had come out specially to serve Lolita a small piece of cheese. He nearly parted my Dad in two, but the old man was happy, happy because no one judged or even questioned him . . . Guillermo, my man! It’s good to see you, buddy! You’ll have to show me how to do that turn you did last night . . . Did you bring it? The good stuff? . . . Later, give it to me later in the men’s room . . . El Rulo also wants some . . . Amazing, Doc, this Guillermo, Guillermo Lopez, Lopecito. He’s an artist. A painter. He paints portraits. You ought to see them. Marvelous. The likeness is unbelievable, unbelievable. He painted one of that guy over there, Maisonave, that’s simply incredible. Because it captures not only his likeness, but his style, his soul. That’s what a true artist does, captures more than just someone’s likeness. Ain’t that right? Ain’t that right, Doc? But he is actually a hairdresser, because he can’t make a living with the portraits. He gets one commissioned every now and again. But now he’s found something that is essential, truly essential for all of us, and he makes good money from it.

I’ll tell you, Doc, because I can’t keep a secret from you. How can I keep a secret from the man who performed a hemorrhoid operation on me? You’ve already poked around in that most intimate part of my being, so I can confess to you, Doc, that I dye my hair. I dye my hair. But it’s difficult, extremely difficult to find a good hair color product. They either leave a red tint in your hair or run when you perspire. The other night, Mendocita, poor thing, had these large, chestnut drops—this big—dripping from his scalp right before his eyes because he had dyed his hair with a bottle of some infamous Brazilian dye that isn’t worth a damn. But Lopecito is a hairdresser, and there’s no fooling him. And it looks like he got the good stuff, the real deal . . .

When he was leaving, Doc, when my old man was leaving, at the door, because I accompanied him to the door, he hugged me again and said into my ear: “I was wrong, Marquitos. Your weren’t mistaken in your career choices. You weren’t mistaken.” Because everyone here, who went up to him to support him, to comfort him, to embrace him, did it because—and I don’t  believe I’m wrong about this, Doc—because he’s my old man, and because they love me. Because they love me. Understand? Right? Right, Doc? And maybe tonight he’ll return, my old man, with Lolita. And I just might get them out on the dance floor and everything. Because you can tango at any age. After all, it ain’t breakdancing, right? Right, Doc? It ain’t breakdancing.

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Translated by Dario Bard from “El Rey de la Milonga” as printed in El Rey de la Milonga y Otros Cuentos, published by Ediciones de la Flor, 2005, available from Amazon.

Roberto “El Negro” Fontanarrosa is an Argentine humorist from Rosario, Province of Santa Fe. Although he has written several novels and short story collections, he is perhaps best known for his comic strips, “Inodoro Pereyra” (following the adventures of the title character, a gaucho, and his faithful dog, Mendieta) and “Boogie, El Aceitoso” (a bigoted, homophobic Vietnam vet turned mercenary).

In 2003, Fontanarrosa was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease and, starting in 2006, frequently used a wheelchair. In early 2007, he announced he had given up drawing, having lost complete control of his right hand due to the disease; he continued to write storylines for “Inodoro Pereyra” as well as jokes, and other cartoonists (Crist and Oscar Salas) stepped in to illustrate them for him. Roberto Fontanarrosa passed away later that same year from a heart attack.      

More information, including samples of his cartoons, are available at his official website.


Fontanarrosa (center) in the company of his most famous creations: Inodoro Pereyra (left) and Boogie, El Acietoso (right). And lying under the table, Mendieta, Inodoro Pereyra’s dog.

Argentine public TV, Canal 7, aired a small-screen adaptation starring comedic actor Guillermo Francella:

The short TV spot El Señalador – Libros y Cultura, hosted by Norberto Masso, also provided commentary on the story: