Asa Zatz, who translated nearly 100 books from Spanish to English, was 100 years old when he died last month. Asa was a modest man. He once compared translating to dentistry and joked he was the guy publishers called once they found out Gregory Rabassa wasn’t available. But he was truly (and rightly) proud of his 1987 translation of José Luis Gonzalez’s classic novella of Puerto Rico, “Ballad of Another Time.” (You can find out more about “Ballad’s” undervalued author in this companion post by Irene Vilar—a slightly compacted version of the foreword to University of Wisconsin Press’s 2004 edition of the novella.) What follows is a chapter from “Ballad.” Take it as our public tribute to its (humble) translator who was a longtime supporter of “First of the Month” and a dear friend. B.D.
He seeks peace, only peace, in this flight with another man’s wife…respite for the demon he has borne within and which has never let up on him since the day, years before, when the girl from the next farm, an adolescent like himself, turned on him at the last moment biting and scratching there on the rough ground of the cane field, and frustrated the awakening of his manhood. Since that time, the demon has haunted him relentlessly: Hey, man, you Fico Santos, all you could manage to do to the first woman in your life was scare her, wasn’t it? You couldn’t do what a male is supposed to, Fico Santos, and you know it!…Find yourself another woman and try again. Maybe this time you won’t fail.
At first, he did his best not to listen, but how is a person to close his ears from inside? So, he began to talk back to the demon, and it wasn’t long before people started saying that Fico Santos talks to himself along the road and even at work. “That boy’s screws are coming loose. What do you suppose is the matter with him?”
It didn’t take long to become known, and in the worst possible way. It was on a Saturday in the middle of the sugarcane harvest. The farmhands had just been paid, and Fico was counting over his scanty bills when Marcial Badfa, a childhood friend and fellow worker, came over to him
“Up in the money, eh?”
“Let’s go have a slug.”
He disliked rum, but this was a man-to-man invitation and he accepted.
“Listen,” Marcial said as they were finishing their second drink, standing outside the little shop. “I’m going into town tonight. Why don’t you come along?”
“To get a woman.”
Despite all the rum inside him, his feet turned cold. He was slow to answer, gaining time.
“What do you mean, get a woman?”
“Whores, man,” said Marcial with a one-sided little smile. “Don’t you know?”
“Naturally, I know.”
“It’s just that…they’ve got to cost a lot.”
“Well, they don’t give it away.” Marcial produced another half-smile. “But they aren’t all that dear. They get three pesos, about.”
“Better another day. I can’t spare the money right now.”
“I’ll treat, pal.”
“No that’s okay.” Dignity obliged him to accede. “Alright, I’ll go with you. What time?”
It was beginning to get dark as they reached town. After stepping off the rattletrap rural bus, Marcial headed straight toward the marketplace.
“What time do they open?” asked Fico, just to say something.
“They’ve been open quite a while, these have,” he said, laughing.
Nervous tension did not let the joke penetrate. They were passing a cafetin, and Fico stopped short.
“Let’s have a beer,” he proposed.
“They sell it where we’re going,” Marcial replied.
“It doesn’t matter. I’m thirsty.”
He drank slowly. Marcial drained his bottle and hurried Fico to finish.
“What’s the matter? Didn’t you say you were thirsty?”
“Take your time, man. Have another.”
“No chico. Beer works against you in this sport. Didn’t you know that?”
“Drink up, drink up! I want to try to get the same little one I had the last time, if I can. Wait till you see her…” And he slid his hand over his crotch in a gesture of pleasurable foretaste.
It was a dark and narrow street. In the shacks on both sides, women barely visible in the shadows behind the barred windows hissed at passersby. Marcial walked along the middle of the street without turning his head followed by Fico, eyes cast down, hands in his pockets. Shortly before reaching the first corner, Marcial veered toward one of the windows. Fico heard him asking, “Is María Luisa there?”
“There’s no María Luisa here,” answered a husky female voice, “but I’m here and I do the same.”
“She was here three weeks ago.”
“A lot happens in three weeks. Do you want me to open the door?”
Looking over Marcial’s shoulder, Fico studied the woman’s face furtively. Under the thick layer of powder and paint, she was neither young nor pretty, he guessed.
“We can take care of your friend too,” said the mask, fixing her coal-black glance on Fico.
“But she told me she was going to stay here,” Marcial insisted.
“And I’m telling you there’s no Maria Luisa here. Do you want me to open up or what?”
When the woman pulled back the latch inside, Fico felt a chill in the pit of his stomach. Marcial entered first and he followed. The door opened on a tiny room with damp-stained walls, its only furnishings two sagging armchairs. A bare bulb hanging from the ceiling cast a dim light. The woman, standing before the two men, looked at Fico again.
“Do you like them cinnamon color? The reason I ask is that there’s a little mulatta her from Guayama who, I tell you…” And she pressed the tips of her fingers together and raised them to her lips.
“Well!” The cat got your tongue?”
“Call her out for him, chica,” Marcial said.
“I didn’t say anything,” Fico warned.
“That’s right, no obligation,” acknowledged the woman. “Look her over and if you like her…”
The girl who emerged from the rear of the house in answer to the other woman’s summons actually was of a delicate cinnamon color. And more than that, the firmness of her breasts and compact roundness of her back-side stood out under the shiny rayon dress. Fico smiled at her without realizing it, but Marcial broke in with an exclamation: “María Louisa!”
“Hi!” responded the girl, smiling. “I thought you weren’t coming back.”
Marcial turned to the other woman.
“Hey, why did you say she wasn’t here?”
“Since when is your name María Luisa, for God’s sake?” asked the woman, her voice hardening.
The girl just laughed in reply, but her companion, arms akimbo, demanded: “Well, now what? This one here was all set with me.”
“Oh no!” Marcial said. “I came here asking for María Luisa. Remember that.”
“Well, I’ve known her as Silvia since the day she came here.”
“But what’s the argument all about if we’re two couples?” interrupted Silvia-María Luisa, conciliating. “Look, Margarita,” she went on, pointing at Fico, “this boy didn’t come to see me. So I go with mine, you go with him…and that settles it. Nobody gets hung up.”
Fico shrank back as though evading an attack, and Marcial moved toward him with a jubilant exclamation, “Great! Now we’re all set!”
Fico shook his head in desperate denial. Marcial took him by the arm. “What’s wrong, chico? If María Luisa wasn’t here, I wouldn’t be leaving you this other meat for anything in the world. It’s good stuff, I’ll bet you whatever you want.”
“What do you mean, ‘no?’”
“I don’t want to. I just came to keep you company.”
“To keep me company? But you even wanted to know how much the who—…the girls charged.”
“I just wondered. I’ll be leaving now. If you want, I’ll wait for you outside.”
“That does it!” Marcial let go of him and threw his arms open in a gesture of helpless protest. “Now you’ve loused me up good.”
But Silvia-María Luisa would not admit defeat. “No, man. The trouble with your friend is that he’s timid. That’s just why the best thing for him is a girl with experience like Margarita.”
“For God’s sake!” commented the other woman, getting impatient, “I think this one’s problem is that he doesn’t like girls.”
“Better not say that, you hear!” The edge Fico’s tone put on the words cowed her.
“I was just checking you out, negro. Come on, let me show what a good time is.”
The boy studied her from head to toe and felt his repugnance grow. You have to, Fico! You have to and you know it!
“You have to, chico!” Marcial’s voice was an incredible echo of Fico’s thoughts. “You can’t let them keep begging you.”
You have to and you know why! Remember that other time! Remember!
“Alright,” he acceded.
Grateful, Marcial slapped him on the back, and the two women smiled with satisfaction.
A few minutes later screams made Marcial jump up from between Silvia-María Luisa’s inviting and accomplished thighs.
“Coňo! What the hell was that?”
“It’s Margarita,” said the girl. “Better see what’s happening.”
He pulled on his shorts and opened the door far enough to stick his head out. Fico was in the corridor, fully dressed, his eyes fixed on the ground, arms dangling in a pitiful attitude of defenselessness. Three steps away Margarita was assailing him at the top of her lungs: “…because it wasn’t my fault, you hear! So you better pay me if you don’t want me to go out in the street yelling that you’re a fairy.”
He’ll kill her, thought Marcial, preparing to intervene. But Fico didn’t even lift a hand.
“I’m not going to pay you because I don’t owe you anything,” he said without raising his voice.
Marical heard Silvia-María Luisa call from the bed, “Hey, what’s going on?” and he waved his hand at her to keep quiet, as Margarita began shouting again.
“What do you mean you don’t owe me anything? What about my time? Is all that time I spent on you worth nothing?”
Fico did not reply. The woman moved a step toward him. “Or maybe you figured I was going to let you have a free ride because you’re so handsome. Go take a look at yourself in the mirror.”
Marcial hesitated for a moment and finally made up his mind. He closed the door, careful not to make a sound, and went over to the bed. When the girl saw him pulling his pants on, she asked, “What are you going to do?”
“I don’t know. Keep quiet!”
He actually had no idea of what he was going to do as he opened the door and stepped out of the room. However, he went resolutely over to his friend. “What happened?”
Fico raised his head to answer, but the woman spoke first.
“Practically nothing. He comes into the room with me, puts me to the trouble of undressing, we get into bed and…and he couldn’t. So he gets up, puts his clothes on, and real cool, says to me, ‘Well, I’ll be going now.’ So I say to him, ‘And what about my centavos? Fork over!’ so this nervy…”
“I didn’t do anything with her,” Fico interrupted. “She says I couldn’t. The truth is, I didn’t want to.”
“Didn’t want to… didn’t want to…” the woman mimicked him scornfully. “Maybe your little friend here is the one you’d like to have.”
“That’s not the way,” Marcial put in. “You won’t get anywhere insulting people.”
“So let him pay me and get it over with. Three pesos.”
“Come on,” Marcial urged his friend, “three pesos isn’t going to make you much poorer.”
“I don’t owe her anything.”
“But she did put in her time. Look, why not come to an understanding?”
“What do you mean?” the woman asked.
“Settle for two pesos.”
“Listen to him! You sound like you’re shopping for yams in the market. I told you from the beginning, it’s three pesos.”
“I don’t owe her anything,” Fico repeated. “I’ll be going.”
“That’s what you think!” The woman said, blocking his path, and turning to the rear of the house, she shouted, “Goyo, honey, come out here, will you?”
“Wait a minute,” Marcial tried to placate her.
But Goyo—squat, scar-faced, muscular—was already at the other end of the corridor, advancing toward them, puffing out his chest under his tight, striped undershirt.
“Oh my God!” Marcial muttered as the ruffian solicitously inquired of the woman, “What can I do for you, little one?”
“Give us a hand here, my soul. These boys had their fun, and now they don’t want to pay up.”
The pimp smiled without slackening his lips, stretched his right hand out palm up and, looking at Marcial, announced curtly, “Three times two makes six, my friend.”
“Okay, man, here’s my part,” and Marcial took three pesos from his pocket, which he deposited in the waiting palm.
“Good boy,” said Goyo, and turning to Fico, “and another three over here, my dear sir.”
“I don’t owe her anything,” Fico repeated. “I didn’t do anything with her.”
Goyo swiveled toward the woman. “Didn’t he do anything?”
“He couldn’t. Know what I mean?”
“Didn’t want to!” Fico’s voice suddenly took on a violent tone.
“That’s your problem,” Goyo decided. “She did her part, and there’s a charge even if not used. Three pesos!”
“Chico give him the money and let’s get out of here,” Marcial almost pleaded.
“Good advice,” said Goyo.
“I don’t owe anything, I’m going,” Fico repeated, turning his back on Goyo and moving toward the door.
“You’re staying right here!” Goyo’s claw clamped down on the boy’s shoulder and swung him around on his heels. Then, with a feline economy of movement, he buried his other fist in the pit of Fico’s stomach, and Fico doubled over with a gasp and fell to his knees.
Marcial stepped forward saying, “Hey, don’t do that!”
“You paid up,” Goyo warned, “but if you want some of the same, I’ll let you have it.”
“Look, I…I’m not asking for trouble, see…”
“Good boy. Now tell your friend to get out the three bills and there won’t be any prob—…” He never finished the sentence because at that instant Fico brought his head up with all the power of his neck muscles, ramming Goyo viciously in the testicles. The pimp let out a howl as he clutched his groin with both hands and fell forward on top of Fico, who was still on his knees. Marcial and Margarita, paralyzed by surprise, had time only to look at one another in disbelief. Fico stood up, throwing off the other man’s body and, without turning toward the pair staring at him in silence, fetched the fallen man his first kick. The other kicks followed in a frenetic series, landing on Goyo’s ribs, his head, the hand with which the victim tried to protect his face. When blood spurted from his gashed cheekbone, the prostitute came out of her stupor and ran screaming to the street. Marcial (at the same moment Silvia-María Luisa finally decided to come out of her room) jumped on Fico, trying to stop him.
“Enough! Let him be!”
Margarita’s first shouts could be heard in the street: “Police! Police! They’re killing a man in there!”
“Let’s get out of here,” Marcial insisted, trying to drag Fico to the door. He had almost succeeded in getting him there when Silvia-María Luisa barred the way, saying “You’re not leaving here!”
“What?” Marcial seemed not to understand.
“I said you’re not leaving until the police come.”
“What are you mixing in for?”
“This is a house matter, and now I’m responsible for the house.”
“Why, you little whore…!”
“Right. That’s why I went to bed with you.”
“What’s the trouble here?” The policeman, corpulent and mean-looking, entered ahead of Margarita, brandishing his club ominously.
“Those are the ones! Those are the ones!” the woman yelled, pointing. “Just look at what they did to that poor boy.”
“He hit us first and we only defended ourselves,” Marcial said, without letting go of his friend’s arm.
“That’s a lie officer! Goyo just came to collect from them, because they wanted to leave without paying, and look what they did to him.”
“Alright, now. We have an injured party here,” the policeman declared, deepening his voice importantly. “Which one hit him?”
“My friend had to defend himself,” Marcial explained. “This guy here…”
“So it was your friend?”
“That’s the one!” Margarita’s accusing forefinger practically vibrated in the air. “That little cockroach…deadbeat…crook…!”
“Alright, alright, don’t be getting yourself all worked up, now,” the policeman admonished. “What we have to do here is clarify. Let’s see now. You, first, tell me how this hassle…that’s to say, the incident, got started.”
“I already told you. They went in with us, and then they refused to pay, so I…:
“I don’t owe her anything,” Fico interrupted, shaking off Marcial, who was still clutching his arm. “I didn’t do anything with her.”
“Because he couldn’t, officer. Get it? Just look at him…”
“I didn’t want to!”
“…machito enough to be beating up people but he couldn’t.”
“I didn’t want to!”
The policeman looked him over, and a smile flickered to his lips.
“That’s nothing. Doesn’t mean a thing.” The smile broadened: “It can happen to anybody.”
“To you, maybe. Not to me.”
“Hold on there, my friend…!” The policeman’s expression instantly hardened. “Watch it with that disrespect for an officer.”
“Then have respect for me yourself.”
“How’s that? I should res—…Step that way!” His club menacingly indicated the door.
“To the precinct, under arrest. Move on, walk!”
“I’m not going to any precinct.”
“Willing or not willing, you’re going. You’ll be better off willing.”
“Don’t pay attention to him, officer,” Marcial interjected. “The thing with my friend is that he…”
“You, too, now! Walk! Pair of hick troublemakers!”
Marcial moved meekly toward the door, but Fico did not budge.
“Didn’t you hear me?” The policeman’s hand clenched his polished walnut club until the knuckles whitened. “What are you waiting for?”
“I’m not going anyplace. I already told you.”
“Then I’m taking you in.” Not hesitating an instant, he seized Fico by the arm.
Fico shook him off with fury. “Let me loose!”
Without another word, the policeman raised the club and brought it down above Fico’s ear. He swayed, lifting his hand to his temple. The officer hit him again on the nape of the neck, and the boy, stunned, tried to hold himself upright against the wall beside him.
“Officer, the other one’s getting away!” shouted Margarita as Marcial, taking advantage of the darkness outside, fled headlong down the street.
“Let him go. This one’ll pay for the both.” And he delivered a third blow to Fico’s forehead, knocking him to the floor next to the wall now spattered with his blood.