It was a relief to be outside, along a crowded, narrow street of squat colonial buildings. Filing along the sidewalk, at five foot ten Hughes was half a head taller than most of the Mexicans. "Permiso, por favor," he said repeatedly, navigating around the white-painted newspaper stands and bright orange carts laden with sweets and cigarettes. As if it were the healing blue oxygen of the Magic Mountain, he greedily inhaled the fetid air, smelling of diesel and carbon dioxide, fried tortillas and sizzling lard, feces wet and dry. Confidence began to course through him.
He hailed and entered a pesero, an old minivan spewing black exhaust, bursting to the brim with stubby Mexicans ("Permiso, permiso, gracias"), where he stood crouched in the back hanging on a strap, gripping his portfolio with his other arm. A half-hour later the vehicle approached the cheerful, open-air restaurant. "Esquina, baja," he shouted at the driver, who abruptly braked and rudely jolted the passengers into each other.
"Sorry I'm late, the traffic," he said, catching his breath at the table, offering his hand first to plump, tired-eyed, brown-bearded Stewart Hinds, who remained seated, and then to his colleague, who stood to greet Hughes. He was tall and slender, with alabaster skin, wearing an expensive striped shirt open at the collar, freshly pressed blue linen pants, Serengeti sunglasses and enough gel in his black hair to grease a football field. He looked no more than twenty-five. Hughes envisioned a six-foot slithering white snake, with a sprinting forked tongue. The two men had empty coffee cups in front of them. "Nigel Hughes," he said.
"Wayne Veale," said the young man energetically. Yet he'd given Hughes the limpest of handshakes.
"You're not too late," said Stewart, looking at his watch. "Only about a half hour."
Hughes laughed weakly. "In Mexico, that's shamelessly early," he said to Wayne, smiling and sitting. "It's quite frowned upon to arrive less than an hour after a scheduled appointment."
"Comprendamundo," said Wayne. "So. Stewart says you're one of the best shooters in Mexico City."
He doesn't bother wasting time on small talk, thought Hughes. "Well," he said. "That's a great compliment, coming from Stewart. I, I think he's one of the best reporters--"
"Nigel's very modest," said Stewart. "Show him your book."
"I've been in Mexico over twenty years and have managed to get some interesting assignments." He passed the portfolio to Wayne, and found a boyish waiter beside him.
"A sus órdenes, señor," he said.
Hughes looked with dismay at his companions' coffee cups. "Tiene Ollitas aquí?" asked Hughes.
"Si, señor," said the young waiter.
"Un doble, por favor," said Hughes.
"Para los caballeros?" asked the waiter.
"What did you just order?" Wayne asked him.
Hughes had hoped it would go unnoticed. "Tequila," he said.
Wayne looked at his watch and smiled. "Rock `n' roll," he said. And to Stewart: "Ask him for another decaf."
Stewart said, "Dos cafés más, un normal y un descafeinado."
"En seguida," said the waiter and with a sparse bow he was gone.
"Do you like tequila?" asked Hughes hopefully.
"I used to love it," said Wayne. "But I've been on the wagon a good year and a half."
Only an American, marveled Hughes, could achieve rehabilitated alcoholism by the time he reached twenty-five. By thirty, he would probably have gone down in the dumps again and made another spectacular comeback. While Hughes ruminated, Wayne went through the photographer's life's work with astonishing speed.
He was racing through the best years of Hughes's life: a portrait gallery of presidents, business leaders, and soap-opera stars; a panorama of the temples and pyramids of Palenque; a study of Oaxacans with their grave offerings on the Day of the Dead. The facade of the pink sandstone cathedral at Zacatecas, shot at dusk--a picture used for ten years in that city's tourism brochures. La Princesa Rubia, the nineteen-year-old blonde rejoneadora, at the very instant that, on horseback, she gored a fifteen-hundred-pound bull named Noriega. That one had made the cover of Sports Illustrated and won Hughes a silver statuette from the Mexican government.
"Good shit," said Wayne. "What do you use, a Hasselblad?"
"Actually, I'm still, ah, amortizing my Nikon F." Hughes referred to a ten-year-old camera that he'd not yet repaired since it had broken two years earlier. His last pictures had all been taken with another camera, a Nikon twice as old, but that had been built like a battleship.
"No shit," said Wayne, nodding. He licked his lips with a red tongue. "So you don't use medium format."
"Well, not really," said Hughes. "Not yet. That's my next investment, though. For the magazines." What bloody difference did it make to him?
"Too bad. We're trying to get all our photographers to convert."
"But, but, why?" stammered Hughes. His heart was starting to pound. "I mean, surely the quality of the reproduction in a newspaper can't, can't pick up the, you know, subtleties."
Wayne looked up, and although he hadn't removed his sunglasses, Hughes could feel the reproof in his eyes. "We've got state-of-the-art. We expect the same from our contributors," he said. He turned his attention back to Hughes's portfolio. He'd already reached the end of the book, where Hughes had inserted a few artistic images: the deserted dirt streets of the Indian village outside Querétaro, the scrawny child sitting by an even bonier dead dog, the gorgeous nude partly swathed in bandages, à la Manuel Alvarez Bravo. Wayne's eyebrows shot up at that one. Every man's did.
"Rock `n' roll," he said. "That reminds me." He slapped Stewart's thigh. "What about those girlie bars? You down, Nigel?"
Tired-eyed Stewart looked at Hughes. "El Jemma. El Closet. Bar Manolo," he said, naming nightclubs where fetching, scantily clad women, for a price, stripped naked, sat in men's laps, and squirmed.
Smirking, Wayne said, "Sounds like a real human interest story, you know what I mean? You down, homeboy?"
Hughes, breaking into a sweat, sat on his hands. They hadn't begun to shake, but he could feel it coming. "What you're proposing, well, I mean, it's an excellent idea, Wayne." He could feel the trembling under his thighs. "There's more and more of these places since the peso devaluations. Some of these girls are supporting entire families, while all their fathers and brothers are out of work." Thank God the waiter arrived. Hughes achingly watched his tequila atop the tray as the waiter first served coffee to the other men.
"Make sure this is the decaf," said Wayne.
Stewart asked the waiter, "Este es el descafeinado, verdad?"
Wayne said to Hughes, "I can't handle caffeine. I break out in hives, head to toe." Hughes nodded sympathetically, wanting to grab the tequila from the tray. Finally the waiter set it down. Removing a hand from under his leg, Hughes said, "Cheers," and drank, with great self-control, shaking little, managing to spill only a few drops. He felt better immediately. "Anyway." He sighed. "The thing is. It's a very easy way for me to get my camera confiscated and my nose broken. You understand?"
"What?" asked Wayne.
He felt his body now under control again. "Well, the customers are mostly bureaucrats and businessmen, and chaps who work for the government." He drank some more. "They don't tend to want to be photographed, you see. And the girls won't be eager to behold their faces in the L.A. Times, either. Some of them may have family in southern California, actually."
Wayne, removing his sunglasses, looked at Stewart. "What the fuck is he talking about?"
Stewart chuckled softly. "He doesn't want us to do a Pulitzer Prize exposé, Nigel," he said. "He just wants a blow job."
"For God and country," said Wayne, smirking. "Luckily there are some places where it's still politically correct."
"Oh, right," said Hughes, drinking. "By all means. They're quite amusing, really. Those bars, I mean, not the blow jobs. Actually the blow jobs as well, of course." He laughed lightly, although he felt submerged, drowned, in darkness. He couldn't possibly have accepted such an assignment, but it was nice to believe he was at least being asked.
"So you're coming tonight," said Wayne.
"Thanks," said Hughes. "I'd love to, but I've already got plans."
"Suit yourself," said the editor, and handed back the portfolio. "Good shit. Take my advice and get a Hasselblad. Your life will be simpler and you'll get more work."
"Right," said Hughes, finishing his tequila. It occurred to him that if he made the motions of male bonding and accompanied his companions to the bars-cum-bordellos tonight--courtesy of Wayne's L.A. Times expense account--he'd probably end up with an assignment, maybe several. And then perhaps he'd become a stringer, or even a trusted staffer, being sent all over Latin America to shoot rigged elections, coups d'état, crumbling monuments. At his advanced age.
Not bloody likely. He realized that it didn't matter whether he went with Wayne and Stewart, not even an iota. Not only was the meeting over, so was his career. Hughes understood with sudden clarity that he'd taken his last photograph. His decaying equipment was held together with Scotch tape and rubber bands. He still had his eye, but it was useless--he had no hands.
For what seemed like an eternity, he had lived off other people's good will, affection, generosity, or guilt. In a year he managed to run up a debt greater than he'd ever earned in any twelve-month period. Not only was he absolutely useless to anyone, he fought to survive off the blood of others, like a leech. The thought gave him the shudders, briefly sent him into a black bitterness. Thank God the waiter was conveniently near. He'd take advantage of that expense account while he could.
"Otro Ollitas por favor," he said. "Un doble."
After the waiter brought him his drink, Hughes sat passively as Stewart and Wayne made their excuses, paid the check, and left. He watched them walk away, seeing their shadowy figures in several places at once, like a time exposure.
It was calming to be alone, gazing at the busy avenue, engulfed in the embrace of a gentle breeze perfumed with carbon monoxide. He savored his tequila slowly and smoked a couple of Delicados, eyeing the secretaries striding along purposefully, the young German tourists in harem pants and backpacks, the bolero on the corner eagerly buffing the black shoes of a gray-suited businessman.
This was the life! Why didn't he do it more often? For a moment he entertained the idea of drinking away the entire two hundred pesos Raquel had loaned him, but he decided to be frugal, ordering just one more double and swallowing it at a judiciously unhurried pace. He didn't know when, or if, she was coming back, or from whom his next advance was coming.
He thus peacefully passed half the afternoon. After finishing, he stood, clutching his portfolio to his side. He inched his way home on foot, through calle Independencia, a narrow shopping street, crammed with sidewalk vendors of leatherette watchbands, pirated videocassettes of American movies, used magazines piled high on the ground, stiff from rain and sun exposure. "Permiso, permiso," he droned.
He began to sweat and feel dizzy, so he leaned against a wall. His stomach became full with bilious pain. Had that ugly parasite returned? His legs buckled; the ground seemed to be moving under him. Closing his eyes made him dizzy. It was the pollution, he thought, the ozone count must be particularly high today. He looked up at the gray sky. What time was it? He'd forgotten his watch. Where was he? Smack in between the Tio Pepe cantina and the Bar Florida. One bracing drink? No, he'd wait until he got home.
After another interval of dizziness--which unfortunately occurred as he was crossing calle Allende, causing a near-accident--he made it to his building, his hands shaking slightly as he opened the front door. He walked down the dark corridor and bumped into the soft and jiggling figure of his landlady. Startled, English tripped from his tongue. "So terribly sorry," he said, and then quickly shifted to Spanish. "The charming Doña Albita. How are you?" he said.
"Buenas tardes, Meester Huguez," she answered stiffly.
"Listen," he stammered, "my meeting went very well today. I believe I can expect my compañero to provide me with a great deal of work . . ."
"Meester Huguez," said Albita. He felt her grasp his wrist in the dark, and lead him to the light of the patio. "I would like to have a brief talk with you." She had decided to read him the riot act, and fixed him with the stare. And suddenly found herself in a state of shock. Looking at his face--the high arching forehead, the prominent bones and sunken cheeks, the turned-up nose and round black nostrils, the naked teeth--she saw a merciless, skeletal death mask. "Dios mío," she said, crossing herself and wobbling her bulk away from him, toward her apartment.
A sixth sense helped Hughes to intuit what had happened. He chased her awkwardly through the patio. "You don't understand, Doña Albita," he said, his throat faltering despite the determination of his words. "I assure you I'm not going to die here. As soon as I get back on my feet I'm going to look into the, the, teaching application." Albita had slammed her door and locked it behind her.
"I always wanted to finish my days as a photography professor," explained Hughes, breathing heavily, leaning against the cool wall of the dark hallway. "At the Chelsea College of Art. Or, you know, if not in London, there are some good schools in the provinces. Birmingham. Or is it Manchester? I don't know, even Scotland."
He realized he was speaking to no one. He had to get out of there. A walk, fresh air. By now the traffic, of cars and peseros and pedestrians, was almost impenetrable as people began to journey home from work. The stench of diesel saturated the air. Dark gray clouds filled the sky. The muscles in Hughes's arms and legs began to throb, and the right side of his head started to pound. He sweated and he shivered. Barely able to move, he grasped a lamppost, looking into heavy sky, trying to fill his constricted lungs with filth. He felt he might have to vomit, or shit, or both.
A smooth-cheeked adolescent with narrow eyes jostled him, hard, on purpose Hughes suspected, and his portfolio fell to the ground. A woman nearly stepped on it before he accomplished its retrieval. "Permiso, permiso," Hughes said, clumsily lumbering down the street. The first fat raindrops on his skull startled him; they felt as hard as hammer blows. He could barely walk; he had to get inside somewhere. Where was he? He only saw a blurry gray mass of buildings, stumpy figures, and murky sky. With great effort, he focused his eyes: calle Bolívar, a few doors down from La Oreja del Toro. Thank goodness.
He stumbled into the cavernous room, decorated with murals of Spain and antique bullfighters' suits shimmering with silk and rhinestones, inside glass cases. The blood in his skull pulsated. He slowly moved between the tables. There was Charlie Townsend, a sleek, black-haired correspondent for the Independent, chatting up a slender brown berry in a coatdress. He saw Hughes but pretended he didn't, turning his head. The photographer felt stabbed with outrage. But he couldn't really blame Townsend--how many thousands of pesos did he owe him? Hughes saw a fat bearded figure waving to him from the opposite wall.
Hughes trudged to Stewart Hinds's table. "Buenas tardes," he drawled, sinking into a chair.
"Hello, Nigel," said Stewart, licking sangrita, a spicy tomato-juice mixture with which he chased his tequila, from his mustache.
"This is indeed a surprise. I thought you'd be escorting your chap to innumerable dingy fleshpots by now." His head hurt so badly that Hughes was surprised he could even choke out the words.
Stewart stared into his glass through now-mirthful eyes. "Wayne's in bed in his suite at the Four Seasons, covered in boils. It seems he inadvertently ingested some caffeine."
"Oh, dear," said Hughes. "Bother." He noticed Townsend waving to him from the other table. Now that he'd joined Stewart, it was safe; he was not likely to ask him for another loan. Hughes waved back.
A waiter so stocky that he could barely close the buttons on his black vest arrived at their table. "A sus órdenes," he said.
Hughes found that suddenly, miraculously, his various pains and his headache had disappeared. He felt cool and quite tired, but not unpleasantly. He let himself enjoy the sensation for a moment, staring at the back of the bar, toward the kitchen, at the white-clad counterman ladling caldo into terra-cotta bowls. His vision went in and out of focus.
"You want Ollitas or Hornitos?" Stewart asked.
"No, thank you," Hughes said. Odd: it was as if he were hearing another man's voice. "Just bring me a large mineral water. With ice and lime." Stewart looked at him suspiciously. "I'm parched," Hughes said, averting his glance.
"En seguida," said the waiter, dashing off.
Stewart snapped his fingers. "Oh, listen," he said. "There's something I wanted to tell you." To Hughes it seemed Stewart was whispering; he could barely hear. He still had that easy, cool, and languid sensation. "You'll never believe it. The editor of the Sunday magazine called. She's finally interested in the cantina story. So we have to talk about which ones you're going to shoot."
Hughes and Stewart had been talking for years about collaborating on a photo essay about Mexico City's traditional cantinas. Their debates about which were the most exemplary, how many would make a representative sampling, and if there was ultimately a coffee-table book in the idea had gone on for so long that, for Hughes at least, the project had a mythic quality. He'd assumed it would remain perpetually unrealized.
The waiter came back with his soda water. Hughes squeezed a juicy lime in the glass and took a long drink. It made him even cooler and more refreshed. "Stewart," he said, "this may come as a surprise to you, or even as a disappointment." Strangely, he could barely focus his eyes on the other man. He was so tired he could hardly keep them open. "But after our endless circuitous chatter on the subject, in the end I don't think I'm going to be able to do the cantina story at all. I'd love to, of course. And it would have been brilliant for me, up until . . . well . . . this minute, really." He saw that Stewart had a perplexed expression. Could he hear what Hughes was saying? "But it's just not a terribly good idea for me to be strolling from cantina to cantina, you see. I've decided to stop drinking."
There. He'd said the words out loud. It was exhilarating: as if he'd plunged into the North Sea on a bracing morning. Stewart looked positively horrified, as if he'd made a particularly gruesome confession. "Come on, old boy, it's not such bad news!" Hughes laughed. "No one's died." He lifted the glass to take another drink of the soda.
A crash, a thud: the next thing Hughes knew his throbbing ache had returned, this time in the back rather than the right side of his head. He saw the tubular fluorescent lights on the ceiling, and a circle of shocked faces staring down at him: Stewart, Townsend, the brown berry, the waiter, sundry strangers. I must have fallen, he thought. How dreadfully embarrassing. Where is my portfolio? I'll just have to get up. He tried, but found he couldn't move at all.
"Don't be alarmed," he said. "This happens from time to time. It's just a question of low blood sugar, you see. I need brandy, please, three brandies. Because of the sugar content." He was saying the words, but he knew that the faces didn't hear him. And, alarmingly, that his lips were not moving.
For some reason he remembered a time when, accompanying a reporter in the Sonoran Desert, he'd got a stalled Volkswagen to run by wrapping dental floss around the carburetor linkage. And he flashed on miraculous Margarita on his lap in the drawing room. And La Princesa Rubia unmercifully goring Noriega. The white fluorescence of the lights overhead began to spread, until it encompassed the entire ceiling, the circle of faces, and, finally, everything in Hughes's field of vision.
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