The first two cars were reserved for women. So when the train emptied and the passengers flooded through the tunnels, up the stairs to the streets, the last 30 meters or so of this human wave was an army of women—marching softly because there was not one pair of heels among them, yawning, hair still damp from morning showers. They rushed past Mr Santiago on both sides like bullets that were just missing him, their arms brushing against him. The smell of cocoanut shampoo. The tops of back tattoos poking out from sheer blouses against rich brown skin. He was the last to climb out of the metro and onto the street, where he removed the lens cap from his camera and walked towards the zocalo.
Yellow strips of tape adorned the city like holiday decorations, so many sidewalks closed that the people, Mr Santiago included, took to walking in the street.
He began taking photographs of the people who were looking up to the sky as if talking to God but in reality probably just worried about a glass shard or a chunk of stone breaking loose.
He took a photograph of a young couple hugging one another, staring at a five-storey building that resembled a cracked egg, gaping holes where windows had been exposing bedrooms and kitchens for everyone to see. He took another photograph of an old woman who was sobbing into her hands in front of a building which was separated from its foundation and listing to one side.
Earthquake scars. There had been a strong one in the middle of the night and then a few days later there had been an even stronger one in the afternoon. Then there had been two aftershocks, both early in the morning. Mr Santiago had to evacuate his building four times, once in the middle of the night.
God hates me, Mr Santiago thought. And he hates all these people as well.
He sat on a bench and cleaned the lens of his camera with his shirt tail. He raised it to his eye to check it and saw an angry face rapidly advancing towards him through the viewfinder. A man who looked as if he had been carved out of dark brown stone stopped in front of him, pulled a gun from somewhere deep inside his belly and pointed it at Mr Santiago’s forehead. “Camerá!… Camerá!”
Mr Santiago did not immediately react. The man shouted at him again, louder, and waved the gun viciously as if it were actually a sword. Mr Santiago removed the camera from around his neck and held it out to the man, who snatched it and stormed off.
I don’t feel well, Mr Santiago thought. He felt dizzy, like maybe the ground was moving again, and he waited for the earthquake siren which made people scream and run into the streets. But it was quiet. He surveyed the area and it seemed as if everyone was oblivious to what had just happened to him, with the exception of a young shoeshine boy squatting across the street. He smiled when Mr Santiago made eye contact with him.
The sky, which had been threatening rain, suddenly cleared and the sunlight shone on the boy, causing him to shield his eyes with his hand. The building behind him, which seemed ready to topple at any moment, began to glow brilliant colors from a mural of a woman painted on its facade. The shadows from the tall, thin trees on Mr Santiago’s side of the street were immediately thrown against it, slashing the painting up and down as if the image was not complete without them. Mr Santiago sighed. The light was perfect for photographs and he didn’t have a camera.
Mr Santiago had taught physics back in the States and he loved it when he got to the subject of light because it captivated him. He would go on and on about refraction and color and the angles of reflection and how all these things were what created a striking photograph. He would tell his students about the time he was at Venice Beach and had seen them filming a movie. They had had a sea of giant reflectors circling the actors, filming at midday but trying to reproduce the angles of dawn and dusk.
Well, he thought. At least the guy had not taken everything. He still had his wallet. He still had his watch.
“Tu reloj!” Mr Santiago looked up to see the thief had returned and was demanding his watch, pointing the tiny pistol at his head again, his shadow dancing with him as he shifted his weight from one foot to the other, almost spanning the width of the street to the boy, who Mr Santiago noticed was walking towards them.
“You got to be kidding me.”
“Imbecile! You had your chance to rob me. You get one helping and that’s it. There is no coming back for seconds.”
Mr Santiago was not following the thief’s Spanish, spoken in quick, short bursts and almost entirely street slang. It was then the shoeshine boy arrived and offered his services as an interpreter. “He wants your watch,” he told Mr Santiago.
“No shit. Tell him he is not allowed to rob me twice in one day. Tell him to come back tomorrow.”
The boy spoke to him and then to Mr Santiago again. “He says he’s busy tomorrow.”
Mr Santiago made a stern face and the thief made a stern face too, a much angrier and uglier face than Mr Santiago was ever going to be able to make.
Mr Santiago took off the watch and tossed it to him, and then the man went down the same path he had taken before and in much the same manner, apparently making circles around the block.
The boy laughed. He told Mr Santiago he should probably go home while he still had his pants.
Mr Santiago sat back on the bench and the boy squatted across from him and looked intently at Mr Santiago’s shoes, which were covered in layers of concrete dust.
“I don’t feel well,” Mr Santiago said. “Is the ground moving again?”
The boy looked at the building behind Mr Santiago while holding his thumb in front of him and closing one eye. “No,” he said.
Mr Santiago rubbed his face. “I need a beer.” He took out a 50 peso bill and held it out for the boy. “Is there any place near here I can get a beer?”
The boy shoved the money in his pocket. “Let’s go.”
They walked several blocks past the metro, and then there was a small dirty restaurant cut out of an abandoned building in front of them, several tables spilling out onto the sidewalk, a large hand-written sign saying “ricas papas fritas”. Mr Santiago seated himself and the boy took a standing position next to him as if he were his bodyguard.
“Are you hungry?” he asked the boy.
“You want some juice?”
“Sit down, kid.”
“Yes, sir. Actually I am a little hungry.”
“That’s what I thought. Order for me too. I just need that beer. And maybe some—” he read the sign, “ricas papas fritas.”
When the waitress brought two beers, Mr Santiago was confused. She poured one into a glass, put it in front of him, then poured another one into a different glass and put it in front of the boy.
“That hits the spot,” the boy said after taking a voracious sip.
“How old are you?”
“I really am not sure, sir.” The boy took another sip. “Aahh,” he said.
Mr Santiago dropped his head into his hands.
“What do you do in America, sir?”
“I was a school teacher.” Mr. Santiago spoke without lifting his face out of his hands but split open his fingers to see the boy between them and saw that he was frowning.
“Why are you making that face?”
“No. Nothing. I just hear teachers in America don’t make much money.”
“Who told you that?”
The boy held out his arms. “Many people, sir.”
“Do teachers here make much money?”
The boy took another swig. “I really do not know, sir.”
“Well, it doesn’t matter anyway because I don’t teach any more.”
“Oh, of course.”
“How long have you been out of school anyway?” Mr Santiago was guessing the boy was no more than 14.
“It has been a long time, sir.” The boy counted on his fingers, but shook his head and took another drink of beer.
“You speak English almost perfectly. How did you learn English?”
“Thank you. That is very kind of you to say. My mother taught me, sir.” The boy signaled for the waitress and ordered another beer.
“Dos, por favor,” Mr Santiago told her.
“Is your family here with you, sir?”
The boy frowned again.
“Why are you making that face again?”
“No. Nothing. It just seems sad.”
“Well. It’s not sad. It’s really good. Just because a man is alone doesn’t mean he is lonely.”
“Oh, of course not, sir. You are right of course.”
The waitress brought two more beers with a plate of ricas papas fritas and the boy clasped his hands together excitedly. “These are my favorite thing in the world, sir.”
The pair didn’t speak for minutes as the boy demolished half the chips.
“Have you ever had a girlfriend, sir?”
Mr Santiago spat some of his beer across the table and then groped for a napkin. They sat in silence for a long time after that, ordering another round of both the ricas papas fritas and beer.
Mr Santiago pulled the lens cap out of his shirt pocket and turned it between his fingers as if it were a poker chip.
“I am not very good with people,” Mr Santiago said at last. “Especially women.” Mr Santiago tapped a finger against his temple. “I have a mental defect.”
“Yes, sir. This is very common here.”
“Yes. My mother was that way, sir.”
“I don’t think we are talking about the same thing, kid.”
“You have no friends? Same thing I think as my mother, sir. Una tipa rara… I miss her very much.”
Mr Santiago drank the beer, and tried to understand exactly what was happening to him. There had been an earthquake. No wait. There had been several earthquakes. A giant wall had collapsed onto his patio right in front of him, almost entombing him. Then there had been a man pointing a gun at his head. Didn’t that happen twice? Mr Santiago thought it had but that seemed too weird to be accurate—being robbed by the same man on two occasions. Anyway, now he was drinking beer with a teenage kid.
Things were not going as planned. Of course, things seldom went as planned. But this time, things were really not going as planned. Things were perhaps spiraling out of control. Mr Santiago took another drink of beer and was certain the ground was shifting beneath him.
“What happened to your mother, kid?”
“She shot herself.” The boy tapped his temple with a finger to show him the spot.
Mr Santiago froze with a rica papa frita halfway to his mouth.
“What about your father?”
“He was crushed by a truck when I was a little boy.”
“You don’t have any other family?”
“I had an aunt. She is dead as well.”
“Then where do you live?”
The boy shrugged.
“Do you have any friends?”
The boy shrugged. “Hey I see your camera, sir.”
Mr Santiago saw his thief walk right past the restaurant, the camera on his shoulder. The boy put both his hands on the table, palms down. “Let’s go, sir.”
Mr Santiago stood up and calmly emptied the remainder of his glass of beer.
They followed the thief. Mr Santiago had no idea what they could possibly do against a man with a pistol, or even against a man without a pistol, but he was more than a little drunk.
He reminded himself of the altitude and that drinking had a strong affect and that several people had advised him not to drink too much. How much was too much? He started counting all the beers he had had but lost track.
They got back to the park, and the man stopped and sat on a bench, his chest collapsing onto his knees in a sick way, as if he were on a toilet.
The boy told Mr Santiago to hide. He ducked behind a grove of trees and watched the boy approach the man. He could hear them laughing, certainly laughing about him and how easy he had been to rob. Perfecto! Mr Santiago thought. Make him feel at ease.
The boy was chastising the man for forgetting Mr Santiago’s wallet. Mr Santiago had the wallet in his front pocket that had more than 5000 pesos in it. He patted it to make sure it was still there.
The boy told the thief that he would take him to Mr Santiago and the wallet in exchange for the camera. He assured the thief that Mr Santiago was very, very close and that getting the wallet would be a simple matter.
The thief offered the watch instead.
The boy frowned. “La arma entonces.”
At this the thief laughed. “Trato hecho!” He pulled out the pistol and handed it to the boy, demanding to know the whereabouts of Mr Santiago. The boy smiled. “It is a toy gun!” he shouted in English and then reached into his shoe-shine kit, took out a metal baton and began striking vicious blows against the thief’s head. By the time Mr Santiago got to them, the battle was over. Mr Santiago made an ugly face. The boy winked at him, handed him his camera and wristwatch and then began searching the dead man’s pockets, smiling twice when he found two separate wads of cash.
“He was not a smart man,” the boy told Mr Santiago. “Not like us.”
“I’m thirsty again.”
The boy smiled. “Me too. But let me take you to a different restaurant, a better one.” The boy waved one of the wads of cash he had taken from the thief.
Mr Santiago nodded and they walked down the street together.
“Would you like me to teach you to take pictures, kid?”
The boy started bouncing as he walked. “Yes! Please! I have always wanted to take pictures! And I have never had anyone to teach me or even a camera, but I have always wanted to learn.”
“Well, kid. I’m your teacher now. You are my student and I am your teacher.” Mr Santiago reached out and put his hand on the boy’s shoulder. “So what is this new restaurant like? Good food?”
“You bet. And there will be plenty of prostitutes too, for you I mean. Just be careful, sir. They like to slip drugs into your beer and then rob you.”
Mr Santiago’s forehead wrinkled.
“This day may have started out bad for you, sir. But I think it is going to be okay in the end.” He beamed and passed the toy gun to Mr Santiago who then lifted up his shirt and put it securely in his belt. “Perfecto,” he said.