“Proof of Innocence” by Andrés Neuman

Download pdf: Proof of Innocence

Yes. I like being interrogated by the police. We all need for them to verify our innocence, to confirm that we have paid our dues and can move along. That’s why I love feeling like I’m beyond reproach and demonstrating how well-mannered I am, convincing them that it wasn’t me.

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“We are here to look after you.” Photo courtesy of Buenos Aires Street Art.

One drives without thinking about it, letting oneself go, just like others go through life unaware of it. I find peace in the obedience of the steering wheel, the naturalness of the pedals, the breathing of the gears. And while I handle them all, or rather allow them to handle themselves, I think of the police, of when they’ll stop me again and verify that, yes, I’m on the straight and narrow, that I really am a good citizen. Ah! The wide open road.

Suddenly, two officers signal me to pull over. It’s not an easy maneuver because I just started to accelerate in the left lane coming out of a curve. Making sure to avoid any sudden move that might startle the drivers around me and—Why not admit it?—showcasing my skillful driving, I glide onto the right lane and come to a gentle stop on the shoulder. The officers imitate my maneuver, their motorcycles tilting to the side as they come to a standstill. Both wear white-and-blue checkered helmets. Both wear boots that pound the pavement forcefully. Both are properly armed. One is wide of girth and carries himself upright. The other is tall and walks stooped over.

“License and registration,” says the wide one.

“Sure, right away,” I reply.

I hand over my documentation: license and registration. I identify myself.

“Aha,” opines the tall one, examining my documentation.

“Yes …?” I ask with eager interest.

“Aha!” confirms the wide one energetically.

“So …?”

“Yes, all good.”

“Everything in order, then?”

“Like we just said, sir: all good.”

“In other words, my documentation is free of any irregularities.”

“Irregularities? What do you mean?”

“Ah, well, officer, just asking. I understand then, or should I say, you understand then that there isn’t any reason why I shouldn’t be allowed to move along.”

The officers glance at each other, with a certain degree of suspicion in their eyes, I’d say.

“You’ll move along when we tell you to,” says the wide one.

“Naturally,” I immediately reply. “Naturally.”

“Ok, then …”

They seem doubtful.

“Yes? …” I decide to be helpful. “Perhaps you have some more questions for me? Or maybe you’d care to have a look in the trunk … ?”

“Listen here,” says the wide one, “don’t tell us what to do!”

The tall one lifts his head up like a turtle contemplating the sun for the very first time, and hooks a hand around his partner’s arm, trying to calm him down.

“And you! Let go of me!” says the wide one. “Or are we now going to have to inspect whatever this guy tells us to?”

“By all means, officer, by all means,” I interject. “It’s clear you both know exactly what you must do. The last thing I would dream of doing …”

“The last thing for what? What are you insinuating?”

“Nothing, officer, nothing. I’m only trying to collaborate.”

“Well, don’t collaborate so much. It isn’t necessary.”

“As you wish, officer.”

“That’s better,” says the wide one, pleased.

“At your orders,” I add.

“Ok, ok!”

“Do whatever you feel the situation calls for. I’m in no rush, so you can relax.”

“We are relaxed. We are always relaxed, I’ll have you know.”

“Of course! I never doubted it.”

The wide one looks over at the tall one. The tall one, his head drooping, remains quiet.

“Are you joking or what?” asks the wide one.

“Me, officer?”

“No. My paralytic grandmother.”

“Heavens, officer! I applaud your sense of humor.”

“Turn around,” the wide one orders brusquely.

“How’s that, officer?”

“Turn around, I said.” And then, addressing the tall one, “I don’t like this guy one bit.”

“I assure you, officers, I understand your position completely,” I say, a bit nervously. “I know that you are only trying to protect us and I accept that that requires you to frisk me …”

“Hands on the vehicle.”

“Yes, officer.”

“Spread your legs wide.”

“Yes, officer.”

“And shut your mouth.”

“Yes, officer.”

The wide one, apparently quick to anger, knees me powerfully in the ribs, and I feel a ring of fire flare up inside me.

“I told you to shut up, imbecile.”

I’m frisked. Then the two officers distance themselves a few meters. They converse. I hear a phrase here and there. The chassis of my automobile begins to burn the palms of my hands. The sun beams strike me like spears.

“What do you think?” I hear the wide one say. “Should we check the trunk?”

I’m unable to make out the tall one’s reply, but I deduce that he responded in the affirmative because, almost immediately, I see, out of the corner of my eye, the wide one open the trunk and begin to roughly rummage about inside. He throws my backpack to the ground. My toolbox, too. My warning lights. A football that bounces down the highway. The officers carry out their duties with meticulous thoroughness.

“There’s nothing here,” says the wide one with a hint of annoyance. “Should we check inside?”

Immediately, they both enter my vehicle and inspect the seats, the upholstery, the glove compartment, and the ashtrays. They make a mess of it. I dare, for the first time, to interject a timid objection:

“Excuse me, officers, but is such emphasis necessary?”

The wide one crawls out of the car, shoots me look and then jabs his nightstick between my shoulder blades. For an instant, I feel like I’m floating. I fall to my knees.

“What do you have to say now, eh? What do you have to say?” the wide one barks in my ear.

“I assure you, officer,” I stammer, “I have nothing to hide.”

“Oh, no?”

“No.”

“No?”

“I said no!”

“Don’t talk back to me, then!” the wide one screams, giving me a sharp kick to the buttocks. “I know all about scoundrels like you: I have a sixth sense that never fails me. You pretend to be all proper but you are nothing but a fraudster.”

“Officer, I assure you in all honesty …”

“Shut up, you son of a bitch!” the wide one yells again. This time, though, he doesn’t hit me.

Automobiles continue to speed by us like the wind. All the while, the tall one continues going through my car silently.

“Aha!” the tall one suddenly calls out enthusiastically; his voice sounds oddly high-pitched to me. “Check this out,” he says, handing his partner the briefcase with the company’s monthly bills.

“Where did you find it?”

“Under the front passenger seat.”

“What is it? Open it. Can’t you? Give it to me. It must be one of those with a combination.” And, after trying to force it open, he exclaims: “Like I said. You think you’re so smart.”

I would more than gladly tell him the combination; inside there are simply routine accounting documents. But at this point, I’m too terrified to open my mouth.

“Let’s arrest him,” suggests the tall one. “We’ll open the briefcase down at the station.”

The wide one begins to slowly handcuff me.

“Officers, you’re making a mistake!” I say in a last ditch effort. “I don’t have a prior record. I’m not up to no good. I’m inoffensive. I’m like anyone else.”

“We’ll see about that, smart guy,” says the tall one.

They force me into the backseat of my car. They remain outside and call someone on their radio. My shoulders hurt. My head aches, also. There’s a burning sensation in my ribs. A nasal voice is heard over the radio. I don’t like this at all. The automobiles continue zipping past like the wind. I’m unsure if I should say something. In the distance, I hear the sound of my football bursting.

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Translated by Dario Bard from “La Prueba de Inocencia” as printed in Alumbramiento, published by Páginas de Espuma, 2006, available from Amazon.

Andrés Neuman is a writer, poet and translator born in Buenos Aires in 1977 and presently residing in Granada, Spain. He has been recognized by the Hay Festival and Granta magazine as one of the best young Spanish-language writers of his generation; he also contributed several English-language columns for Granta. He has written several short story and poetry collections, as well as a number of prize-winning novels, the latest of which has been translated into English and is available from Amazon.com under the title Traveler of the Century. The blog Work in Progress includes a translation by Richard Gwyn of a Neuman short story, “Mother Backwards.”       

More information available at Andrés Neuman’s official website and on a Facebook fan page. He also frequently posts new material at his blog, Microrréplicas.

In addition to Gwyn’s translation, the blog Work in Progress includes an interesting English-language interview with Neuman in which he discusses his latest novel, Traveler of the Century, and which I have taken the liberty of reposting below: 

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“Natalia Franz” by Edgardo Cozarinsky

Download pdf: Natalia Franz


Viviremos los dos el cuarto de hora
de la danza nostálgica y maligna.
(…) Placer de dioses, baile perverso
El tango es rito y es religión.

Frollo & Randle, “Danza Maligna”

I had been observing her for some time. Openly at first, not hiding my fascination with her face, which appeared to be designed by scalpel. Later, my glances were furtive; I was afraid that my staring would make her uncomfortable, although she seemed not to notice.

When she was invited out on the dance floor, however, I felt free to unabashedly admire her tall, slender figure, the elegant casualness of her movements, the grace with which she held her head high on a delicate neck that was revealed and then concealed by her ash-blond hair as it bobbed to the rhythm of the music. But it was her face, barely corrected with makeup, that caught my eye; there were traces of where the artificial merged with the monstrous, resulting unexpectedly in a sort of Medusa-like beauty (as Praz would put it): sunken eyes that seemed to have awakened in skin other than the one they were born in; cheekbones and arches over the eyebrows that were overly pronounced, as if sculpted from non-malleable material; full but swollen-looking lips that lacked the sensuality that plastic surgery promises.

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          Photo courtesy of Flor de Milonga.

I watched her slowly sip her champagne. She didn’t pay much attention to those around her and was always accompanied by a young girl with plain looks and a timid smile, irreparably devoid of any charm, of that glimmer of mystery that makes many non-pretty women attractive. I was reminded—an old reader of James never sleeps—of “The Beldonald Holbein,” that story wherein Lady Beldonald, a mature beauty who thinks herself clever, seeks to enliven her waning looks by having a wrinkled old lady, marked by misfortune, accompany her at social events. Her artist friends, fascinated by a face that looks as if it came straight out of a Holbein, only have eyes for her companion and soon recruit her as a model. Lady Beldonald learns her lesson: the following season, she appears in London accompanied by a young, not particularly ugly, but dreadfully dull girl.

Had the object of my curiosity perhaps arrived at a similar conclusion?

One night we were seated at neighboring tables. I thought I knew how to mask my curiosity, but eventually she caught me with my eyes fixated on that surgical achievement framed by her straight, loose hair. She didn’t seem annoyed; on the contrary, she gave a hint of a smile.

“You know who I am, don’t you?”

Confused, and surprised by my own indiscretion, I heard a timely response come out of my mouth almost immediately that I did not believe myself capable of.

“Yes, but I didn’t dare think it was really you.”

Her smile became evident and I felt I ought to invite her to dance. I believe the DJ played Fresedo’s “Vida Mía.” She was exceedingly light in my arms and effortlessly resolved, without reproach, the indecisive steps that, in my awkwardness, I could not avoid. It was the last tango in a set, and when it was over, we returned to our tables. At that moment, a man approached to greet her. That intrusion allowed me to slip away.

At the door, I ran into the Turk, his jaw made restless by a toothless mouth, wearing a Hawaiian shirt, his thinning gray hair tied with a rubber band at the nape. I asked him if he knew the woman I had danced with.

“How’s that? Don’t you remember her?”

He summed up the brief but (un)spectacular career of Natalia Franz, the sex kitten who, over the course of various burlesque theater seasons and supposedly humorous television programs, was undressed and lustily pursued by aging and obese comedians. She did not seem destined for bigger and better things when a motorcycle accident left her disfigured. Eight surgeries in two years produced the miracle that had captivated my eyes: a face that was designed, lifeless, where only the splendor of sunken but aware eyes revealed the existence of a living being behind the frozen, donned mask.

To show the Turk my appreciation for this information, I felt obliged to buy a gram off him. I followed him into the Men’s room to occult a transaction that everyone knew was the only reason for the Turk’s presence at the milonga. Offered the regular stuff and what he called his Gold stash, I opted for the former, at half the price of the latter; the poor quality of the product the Turk distributed did not justify extravagance. And besides, it had been two years since I last had any. Out on the sidewalk, I gave the baggie to the parking lot attendant, an unlikely consumer, but a possible reseller.

*  * *

A few days later, I related the episode to Flavia Costa.

“It must have been someone else. I remember Franz. She died on the operating table years ago. The anesthesia was too much for her.”

The next time I saw her, she was dancing with a man of indeterminate age, a toupee propped on the remains of his own hair, which was dyed that shade of black that, by contrast, highlighted his dry, furrowed skin, from which hair so shiny, so well irrigated, could not possibly grow. The vanity that I find acceptable in women always seems pathetic to me when it is practiced by men: no doubt a sign of archaic sexism. I should clarify: pathetic in men of a certain age, who out of vanity attempt to shave off years; in young men, I find the uneven locks of hair dyed in synthetic colors and the metallic objects incrusted in ears and cheeks to be amusing.

It was my observations of that old man’s disguise that made me notice an aspect of the public that had escaped my attention until then. Most of the women were heavily made-up, their faces covered by colorful crusts, their hair immobilized in highly stylized constructions or burnt in a confusion of miniature curls. The excessive exterior traits of femininity made them look like transvestites and did not endow them, by any means, with any semblance of youth. Many of the men had extended the use of hair dye to their eyebrows and mustaches, abandoning their skin to an almost mortuary-like paleness. I thought of the treatment given to cadavers in U.S. funeral services: a varnish that, far from simulating a blissful sleep, suggests the emotionless expressiveness of a wax museum dummy. Compared to these masks, Natalia Franz’s plastic surgery, I told myself, belonged in a class entirely its own: an artificiality that was brutal, but also almost ascetic. It grabbed my attention, in a most morbid way, no doubt, whereas the faces of the others made me turn away sharply, in whatever direction, as if out of fear of contagion.

Funeral services … I believe it was when those words popped into my mind that I was overcome with indescribable queasiness, an object-less fear. I went out into the street, where some venerable couples were smoking cigarettes, which were banned inside. Out from under the milonga’s complicit lighting, the crudeness of those laborious masks was underscored by streetlamps. One of the women smiled at me without parting her lips, as if she didn’t wish to reveal some dental disaster; perhaps, like the Turk, she didn’t believe in the benefits of false teeth. I walked away without looking back, turned on Acevedo and walked down to Córdoba.

At the time, I was working on an idea suggested to me by a friend who was also a filmmaker; the goal was to write a script. The Chinese, he told me, don’t wish to die abroad; they fear that if they do, there will be no rest for their souls. A group of elderly Chinese, sensing the end is near, pool together their modest savings to hire a boat to take them from San Francisco to Canton or Taipei. (A boat … a romantic but anachronistic idea. Wouldn’t it be easier to charter a plane in this day and age? I also had my doubts about San Francisco, with its very famous Chinatown. Why not, say, Lima?) The group is tricked by the captain and his crew, who abandon them in a port, any will do, maybe in Hawaii. When they discover they’ve been duped, some die of distress. A young sailor, who played no part in the deceit perpetrated by his superiors, rises up to the occasion and redeems the situation, acquiring a fistful of symbolic Chinese soil, dug up from the gardens of the Chinese consulate, so that each member of the group can lay his head on a mound of native soil when he feels the end is upon him.

The idea appealed to me, just as all irrational things that guide human behavior appeal to me, but I didn’t see how that ending could be adapted to film. It worked well in a story, but it would be difficult to give the scene impact on the big screen. And so it occurred to me to suggest to my friend a story that had nothing to do with China: the story of two elderly milongueros, who are blessed upon their deaths with a milonga in the afterlife, where they spend all eternity, happily consecrated to the ritual they dedicated themselves to in life. Later I understood that this idea, if not born out of my experiences in Villa Crespo, was at least nourished by them. The final scene would be the sudden realization on the part of an observer, who believed he had discovered the milonga by chance, that he, too, was dead. My friend was unconvinced:

“Could you possibly think of anything more morbid?”

In any case, Natalia Franz was alive. The day after I danced with her, the scent of her subtle, floral perfume remained on my right cheek. I wondered what she looked like during the day, beyond the filtered, honey-colored light of that small milonga. Perhaps she didn’t expose herself to sunlight … although for a week the sun had been hidden by more or less continuous cloud cover. Where did she live? Her name, probably a pseudonym, did not appear in the phone book. I distracted myself, entertained myself with these idle questions while I postponed my search for a novel, visually powerful finale for my friend’s film idea.

One night I returned to the milonga in Villa Crespo without much enthusiasm, without much faith in the possibility of seeing that manufactured face. I thought I recognized the same old cast, or another undistinguishable from it. Standing by the bar, I watched the dancers for a while. Next to me, the DJ scorned the use of a laptop like the one I saw Boggio use in Canning; he hadn’t even progressed to magnetic tape, instead handling with surprising skill a collection of LPs that he spun on two turntables.

I searched vainly for Natalia Franz in the crowd. I was about to give up and leave when I recognized her in a corner under the half-light with her usual, almost invisible companion. I hadn’t seen her come in and I could have sworn that when I glanced at that table just a few moments earlier, there was no one there. I decided on a direct approach.

“When we danced last week, your perfume stayed with me for several days. I can’t stop thinking about it. It’s the scent of a flower … what is it?”

She laughed gently.

“Because of that perfume, my friends call me Narda.”

We danced to Troilo’s “La Bordona.” At some point, my eyes, alertly avoiding collisions with the other couples on the small dance floor, collided instead with our reflection in the mirror. I recognized Natalia Franz, or the woman I believed to be her, but the man dancing with her looked like a caricature of what I believed myself to be. Was it possible that I had aged so, that my figure (not very elegant, I knew) was actually so unappealing? I turned away, like I had the night before when a smile was directed at me on the sidewalk. At the corner table under the half-light, I thought I saw another smile, conspiratorial, with a hint of mockery, on the face of Natalia’s young companion, as if she had guessed what I was then feeling.

I don’t remember under what pretense I left the milonga and quickly distanced myself from Villa Crespo. I called Flavia on my cellphone and again told her what had happened to me.

“Be careful. You might end up trapped in your own fiction. Let me get dressed and I’ll meet you. Today is Thursday. Let’s go to Niño Bien.”

I waited for her at the door of Club Leonés on Humberto Primo, where the second floor comes alive every Thursday with one of my favorite milongas. Before Flavia arrived to rescue me from what she had called my own fiction, I told myself that it was best to put my adventurous days behind me. I was no longer so young as to allow myself to become fascinated with phantoms and the arcane. From then on, I would limit myself to my favorite milongas, to dancing with friends, to forgetting about the dangerous mysteries and bad literature that lie in wait along poorly lit streets and tiny dance floors. If they were trying to tell me something, I prefer to ignore them until the day comes when I no longer can.

That night, Flavia and I stayed till the last dance.

milongas-edgardo-cozarinsky_MLA-F-138879266_87

Translated by Dario Bard from “Milonga sin nombre: la resurrección” as printed in Milongas, published by Edhasa, 2007, available from Amazon. The story was later reprinted in Pagina 12 with the title “Natalia Franz,” used here at the author’s request.

Edgardo Cozarinsky is a writer, filmmaker and playwright from the City of Buenos Aires. He began his career as an essayist and filmmaker. In 1974, with the country showing early signs of the political repression that was to worsen soon thereafter, he relocated to Paris where he published Urban Voodoo in 1985, a short story collection recounting his experiences as a self-exile. Other published works available in English include Borges in/and/on Film, The Bride from Odessa and The Moldavian Pimp, all of which are available from Amazon

On the Argentine television program, Obra en Construcción, Edgardo Cozarinsky discussed his life and his work (in Spanish):
Part 1

Part 2

“Carpe Diem” by Abelardo Castillo

Download pdf: Carpe Diem

“She liked the sea and walking barefoot in the street. She wanted to have kids. She talked to stray cats. She wanted to know the names of the constellations. But I’m not sure if that’s really the way she was. I’m not sure if I’m truly describing her for you,” said the man with the tired face. Since sundown we had been sitting together in the fishing club by the windows that looked out onto the river; it was nearly midnight and for the past hour he had been rambling non-stop. The story, if it even was a story, was difficult to follow. He had begun to tell it three or four times, from different starting points, and always interrupted himself to back up to an earlier time, never getting past the moment when she, the girl, stepped off the train one afternoon.

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“Willow Tree at Night” by Marissa Swinghammer.

“She looked like night does in the plazas,” he said suddenly. He said it naturally, giving the impression that he was unabashed about what he had just said. I asked him if she, the girl, looked like the plazas. “Of course,” said the man, stroking his temple with the palm of his hand; a strange gesture, signaling fatigue or disorientation. “But not like the plazas; like night in certain plazas. Or like certain humid nights, when there’s that mist that isn’t mist and the stone benches and the grass shine. There’s poetry that speaks of this, of the splendor of the grass; actually, it doesn’t speak of it, or of anything that has anything to do with it, but who knows. Anyway, that’s not how things were, and if I start off this way, I’ll never get to the point. The truth is I had had enough of her. She bought plants and left them on my desk. She bent back the pages of books. And she whistled. She couldn’t tell Mozart from Bartók, but she whistled anyway, especially in the mornings; she didn’t have an ear for music by any means, but she’d get out of bed whistling, roaming like a Barefoot Carmelite nun among the books and potted plants, and the dishes of my bachelor’s pad. And, not even aware she was doing it, she’d whistle a really odd melody, something impossible, non-existent. A sort of czardas she had invented. She had … How can I put it? … this monstrous joy about her, this thing that really irritated me. And, since I also irritated her, anyone would have guessed that we’d end up together, clinging to each other, and that it would be a disaster. Do you know how I met her? No, you couldn’t imagine how I met her; no one could. Pissing on a tree. I was the one pissing, naturally. Half drunk and leaning up against a sycamore on Virrey Melo Street. It was dawn and she was headed home from somewhere; strange, I never did ask her from where. Once I was on the verge of asking her, the last time I saw her, but I was afraid to. That morning by the tree she came up on me without my even hearing her footsteps. Later I noticed she was barefoot, with her sandals in her hand. She walked past me and, without even looking at me, said that piss was really harmful to plants. Caught off guard, I wet myself. She entered her apartment building and I, soaked with urine and trembling, knew then that that woman was my curse and the love of my life. In the first minute, a man knows everything that is going to happen between him and a woman. But it’s incredible how things then play out, how a man can begin by explaining to a girl that a sycamore tree can hardly be considered a plant, how she can pretend not to remember anything about the incident, referring to me as sir with joyful ferocity, as if to mark with fire the distance between us, how she can pretend to be in a hurry, to have final exams to study for, and then finally accept an invitation to sit at a café and chat over a cup of coffee, how that chat can last for hours and five glasses of gin, and how I end up telling her my life and dreams, and then move on to a nocturnal labyrinth of sidewalks, with repeated no’s, golden leaves, eventual consent and a long stairwell until I finally get her in bed. Or rather, she drags me to bed, she, who arrived there at the end of her own personal labyrinth, comprised of other streets and other memories, I hear her tell me I’m handsome, and I believe it, I tell her she is every woman, hate her and kill her off in my dreams, only to see her reborn, intact and barefoot, entering our home with an abominable flowerpot full of azaleas or eating a sweet quince pie the size of a wagon wheel. And then one day, with hate that is almost real, with indifference that is almost real, I tell her I’m fed up with so much stupidity, so much operetta-like happiness, and I begin treating her like an ordinary whore. Until one night I slam the door to her apartment on Melo Street with all my might, and hear, as if for the first time, the familiar sound of her Charles the Second of Spain reproduction crashing to the floor. See what I mean? A woman who likes Charles the Hexed! I remained outside the door for a moment, waiting. Nothing happened. That time, she didn’t hang the poster back up on the wall; I couldn’t even imagine her, later, tidying up as she whistled her non-existent czardas, that tune that erased all sadness form her heart. And I knew then that I would never return to her apartment; later, back at my own apartment, while I packed a change of clothes and my shaving kit in a handbag, I also knew, I had known for hours, that she wasn’t ever going to call or come back to me again.”

“But you were wrong; she did come back,” I heard myself say, surprising us both: me, for having asserted something that hadn’t really been made clear; and him, for having heard my voice, as if he had forgotten he wasn’t alone. The man with the tired face looked, indeed, very tired, as if he had journeyed to this town from some distant place. He was, however, from here. He had left for Buenos Aires as a teenager, but returned every now and again. I had seen him often, always alone, but now I think I did see him once with a woman. “Because you were together again, at least for a day.”

“One day, for an entire afternoon. And part of that night. Till the last train that night.”

The man with the tired face made as if to brush a lock of hair from his brow. A youthful and anachronous gesture, for it must have been years since that lock of hair existed. He looked more or less my age, by which I mean he was an older man, although it was difficult to know how old exactly. As if he was very young and very old at the same time. Like a teenager in his fifties.

“What I don’t see,” I said, “is what the problem is. I mean, I don’t understand what there is to understand.”

“Precisely. There is nothing to understand. She said so herself that final afternoon we spent together. You have to believe. I simply had to believe in what was happening. Accept it as natural; experience it. As if I had been granted, or we both had been granted, a special favor. That day was a gift, and it was real. And what’s real does not require explanation. Take that willow by the riverbank, for instance. Suddenly, it’s there. We see it because the moonlight suddenly fell on it. I don’t know if it has always been there; it is there now. Glittering in the moonlight, it’s very beautiful. I walk over and touch it, feel the humid bark with my hand, and that’s proof that it’s real. But there is no need to touch it, because there is another way to prove it. But let it be clear that this isn’t me saying so; it’s as if she’s saying it. It’s strange that she should say these things. She said them all the time over the course of the years; and it’s strange that I never realized it. She would say that the proof that it exists is that it is beautiful. Everything else is just words. And when the moonlight moves on and spoils the scene, or no longer shines on it and the tree disappears from view … Well, then we should remember the minute of beauty that willow tree had … forever. Real life can be like that. It has to be like that. And whoever doesn’t realize it in time is a poor son of a bitch,” he said, almost with indifference, and I replied that I didn’t quite follow, but that I intended to remedy the situation by ordering another whiskey. When I offered to buy him one, he turned me down again for the third time. I signaled the waiter.

“So I called her up. One night I went over to the telephone company, asked to be put through to Buenos Aires and rang her apartment. It must have been around three in the morning and four or five months had gone by. She might have moved, or might not be home, or might even be with somebody else. These things didn’t occur to me then. It was as if from the moment I slammed the door to the phone call that night, there hadn’t been time for anything else. She picked up. Her voice sounded odd, but it was her voice. A bit distant at first, as if she struggled to fully awaken. As if the insistent ringing of the telephone had summoned her from faraway, from the depths of a dream. I blurted it out all at once: the departure time for the train from Retiro; the time at which I would be waiting for her at the station; how I intended to spend the day with her … God knows what I said. Everything we had never done and were on the verge of never doing. The things people do … stroll together along the river, dance on the dirt floor of a patio, listen to the church bells, visit my childhood school. Do you see? Do you know how many years we were together? How many years had passed since the moment she surprised me by that sycamore tree? Yes, I can see it in your face … I say years and you understand. And in all that time it never occurred to me to show her around the Canaletas neighborhood, or take her down the path to the port, or show her the toy-like crossing of the mini-Dipietri trains, or the San Pedro Cross, or the spot where Marcial Palma was killed. How is it that I never thought of these things before? I don’t know. You see, that is the problem right there. Or maybe the problem is that she picked up the phone. Not only did she pick up and speak to me, she also came to San Pedro. She stepped off the train … ”

And not only did she step off the train; she was also wearing an almost-forgotten dress. It was a code between them, a secret sign only they understood. And it was as if time hadn’t touched her. Not only the time lapsed in those four or five months, but Time itself, as if that barefooted girl that had walked past the sycamore tree years ago was then stepping off the train. Finally, I saw the waiter come towards us.

“Yes, that is exactly the impression I had,” said the man with the tired face. “But how did you know?”

I answered that he himself had told me, various times, and I asked the waiter to bring me some whiskey. “What you still haven’t told me is what’s strange about it. What’s so strange about her coming to this town, wearing that or any other dress? Four or five months isn’t that much time. Hadn’t you called her yourself? Wasn’t she your gal?”

“Of course she was,” he said, and he took a small, metal object from his pants pocket, laid it on the table and gazed at it. It was a coin, although I didn’t recognize it at first; it was totally deformed and twisted. “Of course I had called her myself.” He put the coin back in his pocket as the waiter poured a measure of whiskey into my glass. And then, without regard to the waiter’s presence or anything whatsoever, he added, “But she was dead.”

“Well, that changes things a bit,” I said. “Leave the bottle, please.”

She wasn’t a ghost. The man with the tired face did not believe in ghosts. She was real, and the afternoon they spent together in San Pedro that day, and the night hours that followed, were real. As if they had been granted the opportunity to live in the present a day they should have lived in the past. When the man finished speaking, I realized that he hadn’t told me, and I hadn’t asked him, some key things. Maybe he didn’t know himself. I didn’t know how the girl had died and when. Whatever happened could have happened in any number of ways and at any time in that four or five month period. Perhaps it happened accidentally and in some other part of the world. Why not? Four or five months wasn’t that much time, as I had said, but it was enough to sprout endless possibilities. The fact is she was with him for more than half a day, and many people saw them together, sitting at a metal table at a dance with a dirt floor, walking by the shipyards, in the church plaza … She spoke with some children who were fishing, and he was chased by a dog out of a garden he had trespassed on to pluck her a rose. That night, she took the rose with her. Where? he wondered. Many people saw them and a boy even spoke with her, but how could they be expected to verify her identity if no one in town had seen her before. How could we be sure it was her and not some other woman? There’s the dress, sure, but that’s even less convincing; it evoked memories that only they shared, a certain smile or the sway of her hair. And so I thought of the hotel: both their names should figure there. He looked at me blankly.

“We did go to a hotel, naturally. And if you are asking if I slept with her, the answer is yes. She was real. From the hair on her head to the tips of her toes. Much more real than you or me.” Suddenly, he laughed, letting out an unexpected cackle that was so sincere it seemed ignoble to me. “And in the room next to ours, there was also a couple that was very much of this world.”

“That’s not what I’m talking about,” I said.

“That’s a mistake on your part, because it is very important. It’s always been important between her and me. That’s how I know she was real. Not an illusion, not a dream, not a ghost; it was her, and only with her would I have spent an hour of my life with my ear glued to a cup, trying to hear what was happening in the room next door.”

“Both of you would have had to sign the hotel registry. That’s what I’m getting at. She would have had to give her name, her ID number.”

“Names and numbers. I get it. I also collected those sorts of fetishes and held them to be real. But, no. Neither her name nor her ID number. Only mine, with the discrete side note, ‘and guest.’ I could have been with any woman in that hotel, and with any woman they would have noted down the same thing. Try to see things the way she did: that day was possible on the condition that she would leave no trace of her presence in the real world and, moreover, that I would not even try to find one. Listen to me, please. Before, I said that day was a gift, but I’m not sure that’s true. It’s very important that you understand this fully. When do you think I learned that she was dead? The following day? A week later? In that case, I would have been blessed for those hours and this would be a ghost story. Perhaps you imagine that she, or something I think of as her, left that night on the last train, and that I then traveled to Buenos Aires and a concierge or neighbor tried to convince me that that day couldn’t have happened. No. I knew the truth by mid-afternoon because she told me herself. We had already visited the Canaletas neighborhood. We had laughed and even argued. I promised to be open-minded and she more orderly. I was about to buy her astronomy books and star charts as gifts, and she was about to buy a Danish pipe for me, and suddenly I uttered the word ‘bed.’ She became very grave. I might have noticed earlier: her fear when I wanted to show her the old part of the cemetery, where we saw the Irish tombstones, or certain episodes of absentmindedness that resembled an absolute loss of memory, or when I even hinted at any event connected to our last day together in Buenos Aires, or a fleeting sign of sorrow whenever I spoke words like ‘tomorrow.’ I don’t know. What happened is that I said I was too old for all this walking, and if she expected me to go out that night, we ought to find a bed to lie down on first. And she became very serious. She said sure, that she’d go with me wherever I wanted, but that she had to tell me something. She had thought of not telling me. She was permitted to keep it from me if she so chose. But she felt now it was necessary that I know. Otherwise, it would be like an act of betrayal. ‘Don’t forget that this is me,’ she said. ‘Don’t forget that you called me and I came. That I am here with you and that we still have several hours to be together.’ I thought she was talking about another man, and I could have killed her for it. I couldn’t say a word, however, because she put her hand on my lips. She laughed and her eyes shone bright, and it was as if I were seeing her through the rain. She told me that sometimes I was really stupid. She said she knew what I was thinking, that it was very easy to know because the faces of the stupid turn green when they are jealous. She told me there were things that should just be believed without being understood. Trying to understand these things was worse than killing them. She spoke to me of the ephemeral splendor of beauty and its truth. She asked me to forgive her for what she was about to do, and she dug her nails into the palm of my hand, pressing down until she left four distinct lines of blood. Once more she said that it was her, and that’s why she could cause pain, and also feel it; that she was real. And then she told me she was dead. And that if at some moment in what we had left of the evening, if even for a single minute of the night, I felt that this was sad and not, as it should be, something very beautiful, we will have lost forever something we had been given; we will have lost once more the day we never had. Our little flower; ours to cut. And that I shouldn’t forget the promise I had made, to take her to a dance in a patio with garlands and a dirt floor … You know the rest. Or can imagine it. We checked into the hotel, climbed the stairs with a joyful and deliberately furtive air, and made love. We had time to play spy, our ears glued to the wall to listen in on the tumultuous couple next door, stifling our laughter and shushing each other so as not to be heard. It was nighttime when I took her to see my childhood school. Night is the best time to see the building. Its cloisters look as if they are from another century. The trees in the woods seem to multiply and rise higher. The interior patios provoke vertigo. At some point during the night, we got lost. ‘I know how to read the stars to guide us,’ she told me, and said that one must be Aldebaran, the star with the most beautiful name. I didn’t tell her that Aldebaran is not always visible in our night sky; I let her guide me. Later, we heard accordion music in the distance and looked at each other in the darkness. ‘My song!’ she cried out, and began whistling her made-up czardas, now transformed into some type of tarantella. I’d like to tell you what we saw at the dance; it was like happiness itself. A rickety, beat-up car took us bumping along to the station. ‘This is when we should be the least sad,’ she told me. ‘My God, I need a coin,’ she said suddenly. I searched my pockets for one, but she said no, it had to be her coin. She looked through her purse and I feared she wouldn’t find one. But, of course, she did. She told me I should place the coin on the rails and retrieve it once the train had gone. ‘I shouldn’t be doing this,’ she said, ‘but I know how you’ve always liked these sorts of fetishes.’ She also said I had to buy her a ticket. She laughed at me: ‘I’m here,’ she said. ‘This is me. I can’t travel without a ticket.’ She told me not to take my eyes off the train until it disappeared around the bend. She told me that, although I wouldn’t be able to see her in the darkness, she would be able to see me from the rear of the last car, and that I should wave to her.”

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Translated by Dario Bard from “Carpe Diem” as printed in Los Mundos Reales IV: Las Maquinarias de la Noche, published by Emecé, 1992, available from Amazon

Abelardo Castillo is an Argentine writer born in the City of Buenos Aires who grew up in San Pedro, Province of Buenos Aires. He has written several short story collections and recently published his definitive collection, Cuentos Completos (2008), availabe from Amazon. He has also authored several novels and a number of plays. His work has earned him a number of international awards. Further, he launched three literary magazines: El Grillo de Papel, El Escarabajo de Oro and El Ornitorrinco. The latter represented an important act of cultural resistance during Argentina’s last military dictatorship (1976-1983).

Additional English translations of Castillo’s short stories are available at the Barcelona Review, where Graham Thomson has masterfully translated “Ernesto’s Mother” and “Girl from Somewhere Else.” 

On the Argentine television program, Obra en Construccion, Abelardo Castillo discusses his life and work (in two parts):

  

 

      

“The King of the Milonga” by Roberto Fontanarrosa

Download pdf: King of the Milonga

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.

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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.

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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:

 

“La Felicidad” by Isidoro Blaisten

Download pdf: La Felicidad

It all began when Shorty and I were thrown out of our respective homes.

We had, by then, exhausted all possibilities of landing a paid and stable job. Previously, we had started eight different businesses, all of which had failed. The last one had been a photocopy shop in a forgotten street where not a soul was to be seen. By the time we decided to work for someone else, the seeds of exasperation had already ripened, almost simultaneously, in our wives.

The fact of the matter is they lost faith in us, and we were turned out. Shorty moved in with his grandmother, and I was taken in by one of my sisters.

We determined not to see each other again. From then on, we would fend for ourselves and not attempt to go into business together. But a strange thing happened. We bumped into each other quite by accident.

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Photograph by Dario Bard.

We had both been fired. Shorty from his job as a gas fitter and I from my position as a photographer. Not because we were incompetent, but rather for excessive zeal. Shorty was dispatched to install a heating unit and, in no time, had befriended the lady of the house; he fixed a faulty light fixture for her, drew up a home decorating plan, moved the furniture around, and took apart her noisy washing machine. And, of course, there went his entire afternoon.

As for me, I’ve always been one to invent things, and the photography gig went well at first. But two days into the job, I convinced my boss that snapping ID photos wasn’t going to get us anywhere, and that we could make a fortune come wintertime by installing a solarium. I convinced him to buy a good-sized lot; the plan was to cover it with a glass dome so people could sun themselves during the cold winter months. I figured Shorty could warm it up for us, strategically placing huge heating units throughout the place. We would easily recoup our costs from the Coca Cola and hotdog sales, and the admission fees would be pure profit. The idea took hold. So much so, that my boss lost interest in his photography business and even began to turn down clients. He became taciturn, spending his days by the retouching tables, lost in thought. His wife – as wives are wont to do – began to suspect something when she noticed her husband bringing home less and less money. One night, right before closing, she dropped by the studio. I left them alone. I don’t know what they talked about, but the next day I was fired.

Anyway, three days later, I ran into Shorty on Cabildo. Both of us in the same predicament. We were happy to see each other. Hugs all around. Talk of destiny and magic. I told him about the solarium, and we both lamented some people’s lack of vision.

We didn’t dare admit it, but as we walked along the avenue, we both thought the same thing: it was time to go into business together again. Finally, I couldn’t hold back any longer and began rattling off ideas: a car with sliding doors, a new air conditioning system powered by the sun (it cools when it’s hot and heats when it’s cold), and so many other things. But, unfortunately, we needed money.

We continued down Cabildo, silently, each one immersed in his own dream: I imagined myself in a castle in Ireland with a young, beautiful blonde suffering from tuberculosis and serenading me with a harp; Shorty, who has the spirit of a performer, saw himself dancing in the biggest theaters of Paris, wearing a pinstriped suit and twirling a cane before the Queen of England, receiving applause and flowers from the ladies.

At the corner with Juramento, I noticed something on the sidewalk. A red, flat, rectangular box.

“Look at that,” I said to Shorty. He immediately ran over, picked it up, and tucked it under his coat. Just in case, we crossed over to the other side of the avenue and went around the block. When we were back on Cabildo, we excitedly examined the pair of stockings we had found. They were black, the kind that stretch when you put them on. Neither one of us wanted to keep them for ourselves, so we decided to hold on to them as a sort of good luck charm.

Suddenly, an idea came to me: we could dedicate ourselves to finding things. We looked at each other. It was decided then and there.

“Let me look at the sidewalk,” I told him. “You walk beside me, looking straight ahead and pretending we aren’t up to something.”

On the first block, we didn’t find anything. Same with the second block. That’s when Shorty suggested: “Let’s switch off. One block I look down, you look up. You take this next block. Look at the sidewalk and I’ll look up, making sure we don’t bump into anyone or get run over.” That first day, we didn’t come across much. Just a fifty cent coin, a burnt-out light bulb, two curlers, and a toy gun crushed by passing traffic and dirty with asphalt. But it looked promising, nevertheless.

We decided to meet up again the following day at 9:30am on the corner of Cabildo and Echeverría.

Things went better that second day. Before it was even noon, we had found a barely used pen, an earring, four ten-cent coins, a box of El Jeque brand pins (completely intact), a tie clip and a red watch strap still wrapped in cellophane.

At a café, we put everything on the table and took stock of what we had.

Additionally, on a paper napkin, we noted a few observations:

First: The curb is much more fruitful than the middle of the sidewalk.

Second: Things are more likely to be lost at street corners and bus stops than at mid-block.

Third: The mid-day hour and there abouts is when people lose things most.

To this day, we keep that yellowing napkin in a silver box, together with the pair of stockings we first found. That napkin marked the beginning of our organization, of everything that followed, of everything we are today, of our happiness and our misfortunes.

That afternoon, we rested. Things were looking up and there was no point in marching on that day. We had the experience of eight business ventures behind us: don’t use up all your ammo at the outset.

The next day, once more at 9am, we set off from the café. This time we had set a full day’s schedule: from 9am to 12pm, and from 3pm to 7pm. Each one of us had brought a bag and by noon we began to sense that something strange was occurring in our lives.

At lunch, we didn’t want to be overly celebratory or speak much about it, in order not to jinx it. But we were both on fire. Among the priceless items in our bags were a Parker 51 fountain pen (with gold cap) that Shorty had found, and a kid’s golden ring I had picked up (engraved with the initials R.J.). Gold was starting to pave our destiny.

In the afternoon, we decided to implement a new strategy: we split up.

It isn’t easy to walk several blocks with your head bowed, looking down, with no one looking up to watch out for you. First off, you have the tress: caught up in the thrill of the search for lost objects, you might very well crack your head open. Then, there are the children. Especially little girls. You might run into one and, to avoid knocking her over, you might grab her by the shoulders, and then, inevitably, an old woman might yell out, “Pervert!” Or, “Come over here, little girl.” And then a crowd of people might form around you and the next thing you know you are at the center of a scandal.

But even so we decided to split up. Because our confidence and inexperience made us overestimate the instinct to avoid obstacles when walking with one’s head down.

And it went well. I went along Cabildo and Shorty took a parallel path along Ciudad de la Paz. When we arrived at a corner, whoever got there first waited for the other, and then, standing a block apart, we waved to each other. This may seem childish on its face, but it isn’t. The psychological factor is vital in this profession.

Searching separately doubled our possibilities. By the end of the day, the afternoon’s take (not counting stickers and trading cards, combs, lottery tickets of questionable value, and a brown hardcover edition of Naná in Hungarian (that we were unsure how to catalogue)) included: a penknife with a mother-of-pearl handle; a pair of eyeglasses without a case; a key ring with three keys; two gold pendants; a change purse containing 725 pesos; a handkerchief and a coin with a hole through the middle; a fourth grader’s school workbook, almost new; and a gift-wrapped copper candlestick.

No doubt about it. Our enthusiasm was a thing of beauty. The following day, both of us, without having planned it, arrived dressed in our job-interview suits.

It was time to think of storage. We decided that Shorty’s grandmother’s house was our best option. She had become very excited with our latest business venture and let us stow our findings in a chest. When the euphoria of our early success faded, we realized we had a major problem on our hands: What to do with all this stuff? There was almost nothing left from the salaries of our previous jobs. And so at first we opted for the easiest solution: the pawn shops along Libertad, the used-clothing shops, and the flea markets.

Following the advice of Shorty’s grandmother, we set aside part of our profits to buy dollars and deposit them in an interest earning account. We then took the dollars we earned in interest and did the same in another bank, so that we wouldn’t be beholden to anyone. And that is how we were able to buy the store. But that came later, after we tweaked the organization, dividing the city in seven sectors, and hiring employees. We named the store La Felicidad, but, as I said, that came later, after we purchased publicity and evaded earned income tax. Later, we wouldn’t have to. But how can we not recall, with pride and sentimentality, our 11am radio soap opera, the newspaper contests, and the famous televised dance show, “You, Too, Can Be Happy.”

One day, Shorty’s grandmother went to buy a purging and laxative herbal tea at the pharmacy and, walking by the newsstand next door, she noticed a five-peso coin on the marble entranceway, just underneath the magazine display. She wasn’t able to pick it up (the poor thing can’t bend down) but she returned home with her eyes gleaming. She was practically speechless. We were, at that very moment, dividing the city up into sectors, and when she finally told us what she had seen, Shorty and I looked at each other in silence. A new gold mine had opened itself up to us.

We thought it over logically. Experience had taught us that it was never wise to abandon one success in pursuit of another.

Market research on newsstand entranceways confirmed that the investment was worthwhile. However, it was one thing to pick up objects from the sidewalk, and quite another to do so from underneath a newsstand display. The latter was a riskier proposition. Whoever took it on would have to bend down at an angle and run the chance of being spotted by the proprietor. So we filled the position with my nephew, a sharp 11 year-old who was on school break at the time. My sister was thrilled with the idea. Raulito started off earning 25,000 pesos for six hours of work per day, plus a cup of coffee with milk and two percent of profits. His job consisted of tying his shoes in front of newsstands, purchasing lighter flints, and inquiring as to prices.

Raulito pioneered our newsstand subsidiary.

And so we divided the city in seven sectors and new prospects began to emerge on the horizon. On the corner of Santa Fe and Mansilla we opened a store and hired two employees. La Felicidad started off as a sort of flea market or antique shop. But we introduced a twist that led to our great success: product request forms. We hired a client services assistant who approached customers looking about the store and asked: “What would make you happy, madam?” And the madam might reply: “An antique blue opaline lamp.” And so the assistant would fill in all the information on the forms and clients were notified when we found the object that would make them happy.

With respect to photo and video cameras and tripods, our Urban Trains subsidiary proved especially fruitful. It was run by one of Raulito’s friends, who demonstrated exceptional skill in the acquisition of walking canes, umbrellas, raincoats, books, and assorted packages.

Well, when people began to see that La Felicidad looked out for them, notifying them when the object of their desires had been found and offering it at a reasonable price, they became very happy.

But that also turned out to be the first blow to our morale. No one was ever satisfied. They kept coming back for more, and our client services assistant often took down new orders on a repeat client’s original product request form. Our profits skyrocketed, but Shorty was right when he said, “Look at how people are. You would have been satisfied with the winter solarium and I with the gas business. But not these people. They have everything, but they always want more.”

La Felicidad had that side to it.

But things were so promising that we launched a massive publicity campaign. There was the 11am radio soap opera, the newspaper contests, and the now-famous televised dance show, “You, Too, Can Be Happy.” We evaded income taxes and soon grew bored of making money hand over fist.

We all bought new homes. And all according to our tastes. I renovated an old mansion in Belgrano, with parquet floors, a swimming pool, an Andalusian patio, and a study (a large room with corkboard on the walls and all the modern comforts; it was where I went when I wanted to think). Shorty bought a three-story house in Villa Luro, and converted the entire top floor into his workshop. His Grandma moved into a house in Villa Urquiza, with a small garden in the back where she grew herbs and a modest laboratory where she made teas. And my sister bought a well-located apartment on Cordoba at the 5500 block. We all had our own cars.

And this is how things went: Shorty and I had new girlfriends every month and we had lots of children to carry on with the company.

But were we happier? I don’t know. Our ex-wives came looking for us with all our children, and I do know that they weren’t happy. Both of them had remarried. Mine with a pharmacist; Shorty’s with the manager at the Villa Adelina branch of Banco Nación. And the two returned to us after all these years. But we spurned them. At the time, I didn’t understand why they came back. They had everything they wanted but didn’t have when we were married. Yet, they came looking for us, and even made demands of us, wielding our kids like weapons.

Another woman cleared it all up for me, but too late. She told me that although our ex-wives had everything, they missed us. They couldn’t live without us.

My wife missed my waking her up at 4am to tell her about an idea that would make us rich; Shorty’s wife missed the pedal-powered washing machine he had built for her. They missed our business ventures, the mystery of our latest projects, of not having all the lights of the house turn on when they plugged in the iron. Maybe they missed our happiness.

But we spurned them. We already had many children and intended on having many more. We offered them money, but they refused.

In any event, today La Felicidad basically runs itself on well-greased rails. And Shorty and I can walk along the streets of Buenos Aires without having to bow our heads and look down at the ground.

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Translated by Dario Bard from “La Felicidad” as published in Cuentos Anteriores, published by Editorial de Belgrano, 1982, available from El Aleph. “La Felicidad” was first published in 1969.

Isidoro Blaisten was an Argentine writer from Concordia, Province of Entre Rios, best known for his short stories. His characters and the language he employed are typical of the City of Buenos Aires. These porteño elements, combined with his unique humor and touch of the absurd, define Blaisten’s unique style. He passed away in 2004 at the age of 71.