Pilar Quintana, "Easy Money"

...Memory is a rotten apple, now everything is appearance and distortion...

Colombian writer Pilar Quintana has authored five novels and a short story collection. Among the novels, Coleccionistas de polvos raros (Bogotá, 2009), from which “Easy Money” is extracted, won Spain’s Premio de Novela La Mar de Letras. La Perra (2017), translated since into 15 languages, garnered her two major honors in Colombia and two major awards for Lisa Dillman’s English-language translation. Most recently, Los abismos won the 2020 Premio Alfaguara de novela. Quintana is also a screenplay writer and a creative writing teacher.

Translator’s Note

I began translating Pilar Quintana‘s novel Coleccionistas de polvos raros (literally “collectors of weird screws"; the excerpt here was re-titled “Easy Money”) in the summer of 2008. It was one of the first texts I tackled as a translator. I found the novel fast-paced and psychologically astute, and its portrayal of Colombia’s shifting social ground was both harrowing and heart-breaking. At the same time, because so much of the novel’s power depends on the distinctiveness of the characters’ voices, bringing them into English was my biggest challenge.

I took up translating at a time in my life when my day job and the needs of my young children left me craving intellectual activity. I wanted something that would satisfy that urge, and that I could do in short bursts, during a child’s nap or a coffee break. The intermittent nature of my translating schedule made maintaining consistency in the characters’ voices a constant source of worry. It also obliged me to recognize that translating involves extensive re-writing. I had no time to agonize over whether I was getting passages “right”: it was more important to get something down on paper quickly. With a chunk of very roughly translated material large enough to give me a perspective on how I had rendered the characters’ voices to that point, I could now revise, fashioning the characters’ voices in English as close to the sharpness that the author had achieved in Spanish.

—Joel Streicker

[ …]

Button your lip. Don’t let the shield slip.
Take a fresh grip on your bullet proof mask,
And if they try to break down
Your disguise with their questions,
You can hide, hide, hide.

Paranoid Eyes, Pink Floyd


9:45 pm

I don’t know what he told me on Sunday, thinks la Flaca, Skinny Girl. That man never wants to have anything to do with me and suddenly he acts so loving all day and all night. Flaca this and Flaca that, have some of this rum, this aguardiente, come here I’ll light your cigarette, grab the reins like this. They are riding horses through a spectacular meadow. The gray sunset at their back, cow shit below, thorn bushes on this side, barbed wire on the other, mosquitoes everywhere. In other words, a fairy tale. And then the man approaches her.

“Flaca, I’m going to tell you something,” he gets very serious, explains to her: “It’s from a song by Pink Floyd.”

He draws so near that their foreheads touch and the butterflies in la Flaca’s stomach flutter. And that’s when he came out with that blessed phrase I didn’t understand, Aurelio spoke to me in English and I don’t know a damn bit of English. If instead he had sung her a vallenato: “I get jealous when I see you arrive/with your distinguished husband.” She would have understood that: Aurelio wants me all for himself, I would be happy. But she isn’t. Aurelio is well-off, and he could only talk like the well-off talk, that is, in English, that language that seems so good to la Flaca, and more so dealing with an issue so fundamental. La Flaca is convinced that phrase was decisive between the two of them, that it encapsulates the mystery of all that happened before and after. The essence, the nature, the reason or lack of reason of his intentions and she was left not knowing, that’s what happens to me for trying to pass, if what he said was: (a) Stay with me tonight you’re such a whore and tomorrow I won’t remember a thing, and I’m such a whore that I go to bed with him, or (b) Stay with me tonight and every other night with me alone, Flaca my love. But then why doesn’t he call, la Flaca asks herself and then says: how maddening.

My tits were a pair of normal tits. They were small like the tits of an anorexic Italian model. Brief. Concise. They didn’t get in the way, they looked good in any shirt. But they were juicy, in that sense they were nothing like those of Italian models, who have dead tits. Mine were alive, when I jumped they jumped, and they were well-fed. They were round and meaty. They inspired a desire to be sucked, and when sucked they stretched. They were elastic tits, a pair of playful and provocative Gerber pacifiers. Or I don’t know what men would say. But I liked them.

One day Someone got me an appointment with a doctor. I’m not sick but we go anyway. The doctor, four-eyed and stooped, takes pictures of my tits. From the side. From the front. From the other side. Then he shows them to me on the computer.

“These are your tits.”

“No, doctor, my tits aren’t so swollen, my tits are more like an anorexic model’s.”

But he insists that these are my tits and Someone confirms, excited, that these are them. Then they cover my nose and mouth with a mask and I breathe and I see a round lamp on the ceiling and then only a blue light. I wake up all drugged and with the tits from the computer.

“Do you see that that was them?” the doctor asks.

“Do you see?” Someone corroborates with satisfaction.

Every Thursday Someone comes to her apartment. Someone is a really unpleasant character. Belly spilling out. Chicken feet. Incipient peach fuzz. Thick hair almost down to his shoulders. Wild. Greasy. He wears iridescent shirts of multi-colored capricious arabesques and real silk and he wears them unbuttoned down to the fourth button. Of course, you can see the disgusting keloid scar he has on his chest and that he constantly scratches. La Flaca has told him to put an anti-itch cream on it, but it goes in one ear and out the other. Someone hangs his cell phone on his belt, wears cowboy boots in this heat and is named John Wilmar. He walks in like he's the apartment’s owner (because he is), and Doña Martha Lucía wraps herself around his legs. He playfully jiggles his set of keys as he advances along the hall and with the other hand takes out a pistol that he always carries hidden in a strategic place on his anatomy, with the air of a great mafioso (because he’s not).

“Take everything off,” he orders her, “But leave on the heels, mami.”

“Yes, papi,” la Flaca replies.

Today is Thursday.

Crap, la Flaca says, the ravings of a nut case. You’ve got to understand her. First, Aurelio hasn’t called her. Second, there's the language barrier: that’s what those words seemed to her. A mass of deformed, ridiculous sounds curved in a perpetual “w.” And then there's the pot they smoked behind the stand of bamboo. Aurelio was stoned. And he was drunk, too, he’d already put away a bottle and a half of aguardiente. Just that and the little bit of rum that the horseman dressed in red offered us, la Flaca thinks. But he wasn’t so far gone not to know what he was saying, la Flaca rectifies and notes, with emphasis, that the horse never threw him. Besides, drunks always tell the truth.

La Flaca has no idea what that truth is. But she can imagine it. A feeling he has locked up in that beautiful hairy chest of his, she says and at the same time: this can’t be true. She doesn't feel capable of inspiring something so, how should we say, reciprocal. And less so in that particular man. A dog, a misogynist, indifference personified, the only thing he's done in his life is ignore her existence or, to put it another way, a Prince Charming. La Flaca sees him, mounted on the horse and everything, finally whispering to her all she's hopelessly desired since she met him. Of course this can’t be, this is only what I want to see.

La Flaca asks herself what he saw. I’m not a contestant in the national beauty pageant, but I’m not ugly. The little blouse highlights her tits, the nipples are standing up because of the wind, and the saddle emphasizes her ass  if one looks close enough. And Aurelio looked very closely, la Flaca thinks: Dying to paw what he had in sight. In contrast, here is something that she does feel capable of inspiring. Horniness. Hunger. Desire to drive it into her body’s every orifice. But how to know. How to be really sure. I want to know each one of his words, but more why he chose them, I want to know what he injected into them, what he wants, what he feels for me, I want everything, to see me through his eyes, feel me run through his blood, read myself in the abstractions of his gray matter.

In fact, the words are the least of it, la Flaca wants to penetrate his brain and make her way through it and discover what Aurelio keeps there. The problem is that one cannot pass through walls just like that. First there is that thick but incorruptible barrier of skin and then the powerful cranial shell, enameled for greater security. The thoughts are protected, hermetically sealed against external intrusions. La Flaca is here, stuck in her own wrapping that she can't get out of, and Aurelio is there. Very near, foreheads touching each other, but so far that la Flaca can't reach him. Aurelio finishes speaking. That forehead, hot as it is, pulls away from the other forehead. La Flaca is very flustered, he told her something and it seemed important, no idea what, but, anyway, her heart wants to leap clear of her body. Whatever it was needs a response. Aurelio looks at la Flaca. La Flaca doesn't know how to react. She doesn't want to give a sign of love if he didn't speak to her of love, she doesn't want to remain at a disadvantage before him. But she also doesn't want to leave him at a disadvantage if he did speak to her of love. I’m waiting, it seems like Aurelio said to her, tell me what you need to say.

I smiled at him because what else could I do, la Flaca thinks now with frustration. In its moment everything was simple and perfect like that, but she has done nothing but turn it over in her mind since Sunday. She searches. She wallows. She goes over the scene time and again trying to perceive an indication, a gesture of Aurelio’s that escaped her in the moment, a significant tonality in his voice, something she could grab onto and each time it seems that she finds a new nuance, a new and possible explanation, a new truth that the facts can't refute. But not confirm either. La Flaca is lost in her own memory, like a mad woman, and the more she strains to see with clarity the more things fogs up. Memory is a rotten apple, now everything is appearance and distortion. It's a new thing that no longer has anything to do with the original: the apple that lost its consistency and color a long time ago. I should have asked for a translation, la Flaca laments now, knowing that should-haves are no good. What happened can't be reversed, not to mention what didn't even happen. And remained not happening. She says it only to say it, to torture herself, since Sunday this has been my only entertainment. Say what? la Flaca might have said. She has rehearsed it a thousand times and this is the most accomplished version of the thousand: please talk to me in plain Spanish. Just that easily this doubt that is eating away at her would've been avoided. But that would've implied acknowledging her complete ignorance of English and everyone knows that in this well-off city, if you don't speak English, you're low-class.

A poor nobody who couldn't afford a bilingual school, student exchange, semester in London, summer camp in Florida, who couldn't even afford a fucking class at the local Berlitz. Who didn't even have enough for the monthly cable TV payment with those instructive subtitles in Spanish. A nonentity from out of those nameless neighborhoods that are down there, a John Wilmar, and I wasn’t going to unmask myself. I’m not la Flaca. I’m the lie that I’ve invented out of myself.


Every Thursday la Flaca gets depressed. She puts on the oldest and biggest t-shirt she has, connects the telephone that she had disconnected so that Someone would never realize that she has another life, sinks into the bed and turns on the television, which she doesn’t watch, and lights a joint, which she smokes up completely. She turns it off. Doña Martha Lucía climbs up on her chest and purrs and la Flaca grabs the transparent lighter with the little red scissors that Someone gave her. She lights a cigarette. Rumor has it that if one chases marijuana with tobacco it takes effect quicker. La Flaca begins to feel very stoned.

Sometimes la Flaca walks. She likes to stroll around the western part of the city. Go down streets she has never seen before. Look at the houses and buildings. Imagine the people who live inside, like she did with the people on the buses when she was a girl. But sometimes she shuts herself up in her apartment. She rents movies, smokes marijuana and cigarettes and eats Corn Flakes for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Actually, this Flaca does not do anything, aside from hoping that the next Thursday won’t arrive. But it always does. Then she takes her revenge by partying all weekend with a group of well-off people in a well-off city that is not hers.


La Flaca comes to the end of the street and turns the corner. The panorama is frightening: it is Sixth Avenue. There are still vestiges of what it was in an earlier time. Exclusive area with wide sidewalks. The well-off like to live large, City Planning does not object and opens its coffers. Theaters. Ice cream parlors. Trees on both sides that one day will touch in the middle to shield the well-off from the risk of sunstroke and purify the air for their finicky lungs. In short, the same attractive and photogenic crap out of which the west side is made. But the farther one walks down this street, the more scarce the ruins become, and the more splendors of a new and invasive culture are found. Dives that aspire to be Jamaican beach bars. Lines of shacks that aspire to be Parisian cafes. Two or three rats’ nets that aspire to be UFOs. And in all the doorways, guys in tuxedos with refined gestures, aspiring to elegance. The only thing authentically national and without pretensions is on the corners. Drug dealers, pimps, whores, fags, transvestites, drag queens, lesbians. Whatever you’re looking for, we have it here. This is the territory of omnipotence: the capos have already colonized Sixth Avenue. No, it wasn’t even them. It was their lackeys, gentlemen of frightful presence, reputation, and conduct, John Wilmars with pistols and gold even in their teeth who arrived here like he arrived in her neighborhood, to impregnate la Flaca with his ostentations. Four-story stereo speakers so that the music is loud and competes with the neighboring establishments, the winner being the one who causes the most headaches. Everything is large because size does matter. Giant screens that, because the América soccer team isn’t playing today, are showing dripping-wet females, the only small thing about them is their bikinis, with colossal tits because size is what matters. If my God did not grant them the natural gift of abundance, we will pull off their nipples and stuff some little artificial plastic bags in them with everything they were lacking. It’s like AIDS, la Flaca says. At first one doesn’t notice because it eats away at the deepest parts, it’s only when it’s in its last stages that it attacks the facade. Neon. Plastic. Crystal. Aluminum. Wood. Stained glass. Glitter.

La Flaca turns around and shakes off her disgust. She returns quickly to the west side, still free of chancres. She torments herself by thinking that this advancing AIDS is only three houses away from turning the last corner. She had thought that in the well-off city the plague would only brush her lightly around seven on Thursdays, and the rest of the time it would be all white walls and discreet decorations, like in a magazine. How wrong I was, la Flaca says as she begins to realize that she too is a palpable sign of that AIDS.


Joel Streicker’s translations of Latin American writers Samanta Schweblin, Mariana Enríquez, and Pilar Quintana, among others, have appeared in A Public Space, McSweeney’s, and elsewhere. His stories can be found in Tupelo Quarterly Review, Great Lakes Review, and Kestrel, among many others, and he has published poetry and non-fiction in both English and Spanish. In 2020, he won Blood Orange Review’s inaugural fiction contest.

91st M 2021 Vol 11 no 1



· Zhang Zhihao: four Wuhan poems; translated from the Chinese by Yuemin He
· Choi Jeongrye: five poems; translated from the Korean by Brother Anthony and Chung Eun-Gwi


· Homeira Qaderi, from Noqra, the Daughter of Kabul River; translated from the Dari by Ali Araghi
· Iana Boukova, from Taveling in the Direction of the Shadow, translated from the Bulgarian by Ekaterina Petrova
· Pilar Quintana, "Easy Money," an excerpt; translated from the Spanish by Joel Streicker
· Beaudelaine Pierre, "You May Have the Suitcase Now," a memoir-essay.