Doña Albita locked the wide wooden door of her ground-floor apartment and slowly walked through the cool, shady corridor. At the end of the passageway she arrived at a courtyard bathed in blazing sun, which revealed the paint flaking from the cracked and crumbling stone walls, and a patina of blues, grays, and reds that illustrated her building's three-hundred-year history.
After sluggishly crossing the patio, silent except for a scratchy radio playing in a second-floor apartment, Doña Albita paused at the staircase and looked up toward the crossing lines of drying laundry hanging from cords attached to the roof. Before climbing the steps, she paused and let escape a couple of deep wheezes.
She was seventy-one, and every year it became harder for her to lift her legs, heavy from lack of use, up the thick stone stairs. The only assignment that she made sure she fulfilled without fail was to collect the rents of the twenty-one apartments in the building that her husband had left her when he died. Most could be counted on to pay their rent on time, with the exception of Mr. Huguez, who was now six months delinquent.
She sighed, pulled down the hem of her navy cardigan, and resolved to appeal to him for the umpteenth time. Supporting her unwieldy, jiggling frame on the wrought-iron banister, she set both feet, encased in blue, low-heeled pumps, on each step before assaying the next. Finally, she reached the top of the stairs, and daintily patted her thick gray hair, subdued in place with an ample measure of gel. She walked to Mr. Huguez's door and knocked sharply five times.
There was no answer. Not at home, she said to herself. Perhaps he's out making money. More likely he'd be sleeping off all he drank the previous night. Just to be sure, she rapped on his door again. She waited briefly, and then turned to take the long walk back to her apartment. His absence was a relief; she got no pleasure from such humiliating encounters.
"Quién?" came the plummy, rasping baritone from deep within the apartment.
Her heart began to pound faster. "It's me," she called, waddling back. "Albita."
"Aaah, the lovely Doña Albita," he said, opening the door. He wore a colorless, primeval terry-cloth bathrobe that had been picked and shredded to a mangy condition. "What a pleasure to see you this morning. As always." He spoke a nearly perfect, florid Spanish, but with a heavy English accent, drawing out the vowels and hardly pronouncing his rs at all.
Huguez was in fact Hughes, from South London, but when he had arrived in Mexico twenty-five years earlier, more than half a lifetime ago, he found that the Mexicans insisted on saying his name in the same way that Anglo names had been bastardized when the Celts and the Irish crossed the Iberian peninsula at various historical junctures--Obregon for O'Brien, Maldonado for MacDonald, Miqueli for McKelly.
Hughes was the only man who flirted with Albita any longer; as such, he never failed to make her feel considerably younger. "And a beautiful morning it is, Meester Huguez," she said. She clucked her tongue, observing his mode of apparel. "It's after eleven and you haven't even left the house to see just how beautiful it is."
"I was actually finishing some work, Doña Albita," said Hughes, letting out a deep tuberculoid cough. "In point of fact, I have an appointment shortly with the photography editor of an important North American newspaper," he said. "Eleven o'clock, you say? Dear me, I completely lost track of time. I must prepare, if you'll permit me. Is there any way I can be of service to you?"
Albita appreciated that Hughes's impeccable British politeness was not all that different from the immaculate cordiality of the Mexicans. He'd also once mentioned to her that both of their countries shared intimate, antagonistic relationships with the United States. So she looked upon him as a kindred soul. "Ay, Meester Huguez," she said. "It gives me great grief to even bring up the topic. But I imagine you already know why I am here." She lowered her voluminous chins, but raised her eyes and stared at his face fixedly. The keenness of Doña Albita's small, piercing orbs--"the stare"--was her greatest weapon in the quest of shaming deadbeats.
Hughes's face, all too steeled to be shamed, was bald to the crown, where it was capped with stray tufts of gray hair. The semicircle of his high, wide forehead swung down to the protuberant knobs of his cheekbones, and then tapered, concaving to the pointy bulb of his chin. He had a turned-up nose with wide, oval black nostrils, and thin lips surrounding prominent teeth. His skin was pale, almost gray, except for asymmetrical pink flushes here and there. His eyes were more gray than blue and, however sympathetic, were no match for the stare.
"Ah, Doña Albita," he sighed, lowering his head. Around his gray chest hairs, he clasped his robe, which had no belt and threatened to open. "You cannot possibly be as grieved as I. Just yesterday I arrived at the offices of Ovaciones to retrieve my check, and they assured me they had posted it weeks ago. So they asked if I could be patient a few more days before beginning the process of preparing another."
He shrugged his shoulders, his eyes downcast, his thin, inverted-V eyebrows raised, a half smile on his lips. The implication was: You know the way things are in Mexico. "But I assure you that, within a short period of time, I will have all the money that I owe you and a month's-- no, two months', rent in advance." He had dared to look up at her again, countering the stare with a warm gaze from his milky gray eyes.
And he felt his landlady's scrutiny like a slap in his gray face: her crow-colored eyes with the weighty bags underneath, her pursed, fleshy lips. "Ay, Meester Huguez, mi amigo," sighed Albita grimly, shaking her head. "I wish you the best of luck today. Que vaya con Dios."
"Thank you," said Hughes. He began to shake involuntarily. Against his will, his robe began to open. "Now if you allow me to prepare--"
"Yes, of course," said Albita, averting her eyes. "Good morning."
"Adiós," said Hughes.
She retreated and heard his door slam. What a pity, she thought.
His body stiff and shivering, Hughes began to sweat profusely. Such encounters were particularly traumatic the very first moment after awakening. He pushed his back against the door for a minute. His shuddering subsided quickly, and he walked past the kitchen where he saw Raquel, pudgy and naked, preparing tea. Thank God, he thought, wondering if he were more grateful for the tea or curly-headed Raquel.
He made his way to the high-ceilinged living room, which seemed absurdly vast given the utter absence of furnishings, aside from a Formica-topped table and two spindly wooden chairs by one of the French windows, now open.
Hughes sat, looking out at the plaza. The old and the reprobate sat on green-painted metal benches festooned with pearl-gray bird droppings. Across the street, young girls stared transfixed at the voluminous white dresses in the bridal-shop windows. A warm breeze caressed Hughes's face. He closed his eyes and enjoyed this modest pleasure.
When he opened them Raquel was sitting beside him, wrapped in one of his wrinkled and unwashed shirts, the teapot and two cracked cups on the table. Hughes was briefly befuddled--had he dozed momentarily, or had she entered at the same instant he closed his eyes? And then he became further confused about when he'd met her--was it four days ago or four months? Her name was Raquel; of this he had no doubt. Well, no matter. He had an incredible thirst; the tea would be heavenly, even better than tequila. "I thank you a thousand times," he said, pouring, in his fluid Spanish.
"It's nothing, Nigel," she said in English.
He took a first grateful sip of the scalding liquid, and then realized that he'd expected her to respond in Spanish. "How is it that you know how to pronounce my name properly?" asked Hughes, in her tongue. Most Mexicans said his first name as if it were two Spanish words: Ni gel.
She looked at him strangely. She had crooked teeth and a heavy jaw, but was otherwise lovely. "Because I am an educated woman, idiot," she said, laughing, in English.
He drained his cup and fished in his bathrobe pocket for a cigarette, from a crumpled packet of unfiltered Delicados. Hughes put one in his mouth and offered them to Raquel, who crinkled her nose and clucked her tongue. His hand shook slightly as he lit it. With the first inhalation, the dark tobacco mixing with the sulfur of the match, his heart began to race. He was finally beginning to feel awake.
Hughes filled his cup with more tea. It was now even better for having steeped longer. He gave Raquel a soft pinch on the chin. "For a Mexican girl, you certainly make an exquisite cup of tea," he said. He raised his eyebrows and offered Raquel the same compassionate glance and half smile that he'd tendered Doña Albita. The technique was far more effective on Raquel, who leaned over to embrace him around the neck.
That was delicious, that was life. He guided her off the chair and onto his lap, gently placing his hands under the rumpled shirt and around the soft skin of her waist. He lingered over her wide amber hips. The chair creaked as she stood up. "Not in front of the window, everyone will see," she said, moving back to her chair.
He loved the modesty of Mexican women, however false. Stroking her satiny cheek, he smiled at her. "I'm so lucky you're here, Raquel," he said.
Abruptly her aspect changed--first a stab of pain, then a wry smile. What stunning portraits those two expressions would have made, with the hazy light filtering in from the window, if only he'd had his camera at the ready. "My name is Margarita, Nigel," she said.
Fuck all, he thought. How terribly, thoroughly embarrassing. The pain on the right side of his skull, the one that came every morning without fail, began to pulsate. "Yes, of course," he stammered. "Naturally. How could you be anything but? Margarita: the fabulous flower and the classic cocktail. What did I say?"
"Shut up," she said, tucking him under the chin with, he thought, a bit more violence than necessary. His skull began to throb viciously. It was like being beaten with a red-hot hammer from inside his brain. "You called me Raquel." She sat in his lap again, grinding her warm pelvis into his, suddenly speaking in rapid Spanish. "Just who is this Raquel? How long have you known her? Is she prettier than me? Does she do this to you?" She moved her body and reached between his legs.
The pain was riotous, unbearable; Hughes could stand it no longer. He brusquely guided her off of his lap ("Permiso, darling Margarita," he said) and went to the kitchen for his customary treatment. The bottle of Ollitas and the caballito into which he poured the robust measure (luckily he was only shaking a little bit) were at the ready. He drained it at once, fiercely suckling; a few drops dribbled down his chin.
The first tequila of the day always gushed over him like a wave--briefly the violent torrential wave of a storm at sea (his body shaking tremendously), and then like a calm, cooling, and gentle wave, reassuringly lapping at his limbs like a reprieve from a woefully hot afternoon.
The pain in his head began to recede; soon Hughes would forget it had ever been there. He sniffed deeply of the tall, now empty shot glass. A powerful musk, dry and sweet at the same time. He ran cold water in the sink, rinsed his hands and then splashed it across his face, blubbering mutedly like the spawn of a seal.
He remembered the appointment with Stewart Hinds and that photo editor from the Los Angeles Times, and looked at the clock on his stove. It marked the time at two minutes before twelve, the same as it had for the last five years. Something at least could be relied upon in this life. But what time was it? They were to meet at one at the Café Versalles. He padded to the bedroom in his ratty open robe, looking for his watch, or the clock, whichever was still functioning.
There he found Raquel, or rather Margarita, fastening a lace-trimmed black brassiere, already dressed in a crisp tan skirt and flat black shoes. Her sullen expression and the thought of her leaving made him hungry for her. "Oh, don't go, darling," he said. "Not yet, it's still early." He embraced her with some strength. Could he get her to undress again and stay? And what if he could? He felt a fleeting but extreme jolt of anxiety. Then he reassured himself: women tended to be palliated by his abundant affection when his prowess faltered, rather frequently these days.
"For me, it's late, Nigel," she said. "I have to go to work." She pointed to the slender, black-banded watch on her wrist. "It's eleven-forty-five."
At least someone knew what time it was around here. "But you will come back . . . tonight?" Hughes asked, cupping her face in his palms. He gave her a minuscule kiss and looked imploringly in her coffee-colored eyes.
"I can't tonight," she said. "My mother is becoming suspicious. She's wondering why I'm sleeping at Adriana's house all these nights."
Margarita was at least twenty-five, probably closer to thirty. Hughes marveled that so many Mexican women, no matter their ages, seemed hell bent on convincing their mothers, if no one else, that they were virgins until they married. "Can't you think of something to tell her?" he asked.
Margarita, staring intently at the cracked mirror above the old oak bureau, pushed her white blouse into the waist of her skirt and then applied crimson lipstick. "If I think of something, I'll call you," she said.
"You can't," blurted Hughes. "My phone is descompuesto." It was actually not out of order, but had been shut off two weeks earlier as a result of ignoring seven months of bills from Teléfonos de México.
"They haven't fixed it yet?" she asked. She scrawled a phone number in the mirror with her lipstick. "What will Raquel say when she sees this? Call me at the office before six. Maybe we can meet early. Adios, papito," she said. She hugged him and touched her cheek to his, kissing the air so as not to muss her makeup. And then moved for the door.
"Wait, wait, darling," said Hughes, steeling himself for a dreadfully tedious transaction. "Can I please ask you one important favor? And I sincerely promise this will be the last time." After this initial chilly plunge, the exertion began to warm him, as he entered a fluffy region of memorized lines: "As a consequence of the declining fortunes of the peso, some of the newspapers are, uh, I should say, have been, terribly late in their payments to me. So if it wouldn't be too much trouble, I'd be extremely grateful--"
"How much?" she asked. Her smile, her stridency, her cheer were gone. She looked at him with cold suspicion: he couldn't remember what she knew; how much he, or anyone else, had told her.
"A hundred," he said. "Fifty will do, really." The truth was that Hughes hadn't taken a single photo for six months. For a year before that, he only took pictures where he could use a tripod, because his hands had become so unreliable, subject to phenomenal spasms at any given moment. He'd survived thanks to the charity of friends, the occasional job from a sympathizer, the misplaced maternal instincts of susceptible women. Well. He'd be back on his feet soon enough. He'd had rough spots before.
She removed a crisp green-and-white bill from her purse. Two hundred pesos. God, she was generous. She could never, never know how grateful . . . what could he possibly say? "Thank you so much," he blurted, his eyes watering.
"De nada," she said quickly, and left. Hughes preserved the image of her squeezable shape leaving, first solidly, and then ever more transparently, like multiple exposures.
He showered quickly, soaping his shriveling, wrinkling body, pallid with patches of pink, the two gray bushes at his chest and pubis, the flaccid genitals and the thighs, surprisingly muscular from so much walking.
Stepping out of the shower, he removed a bottle of tequila from the medicine chest, and had another shot, solely to keep his hands steady as he shaved. Looking in the mirror--the raised eyebrows, the sunken cheeks, the enormous teeth--he thought: Not bad, that a forty-nine- year-old man as ugly as you can still command a bit of the likes of Raquel.
He put on faded jeans, sneakers, and one of his least frayed shirts--clean if rumpled, blue with no collar--that he'd bought in flusher times at the crafts market in Morelia. He grabbed his portfolio. Should he wear his Nikon around his neck? Some of these newspaper chaps didn't believe you were a photographer unless you were tarted up like that feverish fellow in The Killing Fields, ready to do a somersault and land with the lens in your eye at the merest clatter of shell fire. No, he wouldn't bother; he couldn't stand the idea of appearing to try too hard.
Just as he was about to leave, he had an intense burning sensation in the bottom of his gut, imagining a long red worm blazing about in his large intestine. Parasites? Hadn't he been in Mexico long enough, and consumed enough tequila, to become immune to any stray amoebas? As the uproar intensified, he ran to the toilet, quickly pulled down his pants, sat down, and discharged his wet, acidic, blistering pain. It was sheer agony, as if all his internal organs were hemorrhaging at once.
Then torment spread upward from his bowels: a sudden flash of heat surged through his body. The recurrent ache in the right side of his head attacked again, gashing, bleeding, pulsating. It was especially hateful when it ambushed him like this, completely unawares. Sweat poured from his forehead. Hughes began to shake, and to keep from falling, sat on his hands, filthying them in the process. Then he doubled over. If he didn't drink, he would die. He got down on all fours and crawled to the sink, clawing at the tiles for the bottle of tequila atop the sink, his pants around his ankles, staining the floor and wall, spilling the liquor on himself as he drank. Then the pain subsided.
His breath and pulse returning to normal, he lay on the bathroom floor and looked at the tiles. What a frightful fucking bore. He'd have to wash and dress again before leaving.
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