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.
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.