An extract from Tim MacGabhann’s new novel, Call Him Mine, published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson on 11 July 2019
The plane to Ciudad Juárez on the morning I met Carlos left me the same greenish tinge as the snow clouds above. None of what I was doing made any sense to me. It was all too sudden, too new. But I told myself that this feeling was what I wanted, and kept walking to the taxi rank.
A week earlier, at the end of class, Maya had been zipping shut her bag when she’d asked if I’d wanted to make some extra money over Christmas.
‘Obviously,’ I’d said, lifting my tie to show her the frayed end.
‘Well, if you want, right?’ She’d taken her phone out. ‘I got asked to go up to El Paso. A story. This journalist who can’t go back to Juárez. Some death thing.’
She’d pulled a face. ‘Well, OK, so some death-threat thing. But Juárez is fine now.’ She’d wavered her hand. ‘Ish.’
‘I don’t know, Maya,’ I’d said, tidying a sheaf of papers. ‘I get nervous in the colonia Juárez – and they’re gentrifying the shit out of that place.’
‘C’mon, please? I don’t want to do the story.’ She’d pouted like a toddler.
‘Because it’s dangerous.’
‘No, because I want to go back to Durango and lie on my back at my mother’s house, eating my own fucking weight in bacalao.’ She’d handed me a slim business card with the name ‘CARLOS ARANA // FOTÓGRAFO’ on one side and a picture of a cage fighter whose inner-lip tattoo read JARDCORE.
‘Consider this,’ Maya had said, bowing, ‘my Christmas gift to you.’
The cage fighter’s lip shone livid pink on the card.
‘Well, thanks,’ I’d said. ‘I think.’
In the backseat of the taxi I turned the card in my hands, driving through the smoky winter morning, as far as the International Bridge. On the pavements either side went revellers headed for home and labourers headed for work, their breath smoking in the air, their chuckles and gags breaking through the window. Army trucks roared past under switched-off Christmas lights that looked as sad as dead coral. From the newsstands the morning papers said ‘72 HOURS WITHOUT A MURDER’, like that was a good thing. ‘Missing’ posters hung from the post boxes — ‘Help find Marisela, Carmen, Estefanía’ — under a flitter of snowflakes as pale as moths.
Getting out at the border crossing I stepped into an explosion of laughter from a gang of twenty-something girls off to work the El Paso malls’ Sunday-morning shift, turned my collar up against the wind’s big gusts, and walked through customs and into the U.S.
Carlos’ hotel on the El Paso side was a rain-faded shade of orange, between a shuttered Walgreens and a bail-bondsman’s sign that read 1-888-GET-U-OFF.
When I texted Maya to say I’d arrived OK she replied with a picture of an extremely tall sandwich beside a box-set of The Wire, so I leaned against the wall, smoking, checking my notes on Carlos, and burning all over with envy, because, back when I was driving my dad’s 1991 Toyota Corolla through the fields and taking pot-shots at rabbits, Carlos had been working the crime pages and avoiding pot-shots from gang members. His bylines hurt to read: The Times, the New York Times, the Financial Times – and that was just the papers with Times in the name.
And then there he was, a stooped shape in a black coat, held at the crux of the glass and steel buildings at the end of the street. In one hand he held a battered guitar case. From the other swung a twelve-pack of Dos Equis.
Through a curtain of cigarette smoke and wavy brown hair, he raked a look over me and said, ‘You the interviewer guy?’
I pointed at the guitar-case. ‘You definitely the photographer guy?’
He coughed out a one-syllable laugh.
‘Sometimes your side gig’s your main gig, you know?’ He had that smooth, sidling NAFTA English, all wide vowels and clipped consonants. When he shook my hand I saw a black-and-grey tattoo of octopus tentacles reach up over the back of his hand, tapering right up to his bitten nails.
‘You eat breakfast?’
‘No.’ I held out my hand and took the beers from his hand. ‘You?’
‘You’re carrying it.’
His room smelled of hash-smoke, adrenal sweat, stale beer. Books by Mallarmé, Nicanor Parra, and Michael Herr were stacked on his locker.
‘Take a seat.’ Both the room’s twin beds had been slept in, or at least passed out in, littered with rumpled Levi’s and cigarette-boxes. ‘Mi rúm es tu rúm, güey. Shove over whatever, the whole place is chaos anyway.’ He shook a bottle at me. ‘Grab what you want. They’re not dead cold, but hey.’
‘Bit early for me,’ I said. ‘Thanks, though.’
‘Don’t let me drink alone, cabrón. Sign of alcoholism.’
‘So’s drinking before noon.’
He cocked the base of his bottle at me. ‘So’s timetabling your drinking.’
‘Fine.’ I cracked a bottle open with my lighter.
Carlos shucked off his coat and slung it on the back of his chair. His white shirt was crossed by the thin leather harness of a shoulder holster.
‘Jesus,’ I said.
‘Don’t worry, vato.’ He unbuckled the harness. ‘I can barely shoot a camera.’
‘No bullet-proof vest?’
‘No,’ he said. ‘Too heavy to run with.’ He slid a stout grey Colt .45 from the holster. ‘And the mamónes know how to make sure anyway.’ He stowed the gun under his pillow. ‘Wearing a vest is like saying your life’s worth more than the people you’re reporting on.’ He flung himself down on the bed.
‘What’s the gun say?’
‘That my life’s worth more than a cop’s.’ He gave me a hard look. ‘You want to argue that one?’
‘Not with that lying there.’
The grimy windows were a balcony on Juárez. Grey fog coiled under the arches of the faux-colonial international bridge, while Yaqui vendors toted their wares in and out of the traffic stalled on the Avenida de las Américas, the whole scene shadowed by a grey ruck of mountains.
Carlos took a drag of smoke and a long pull on his beer, his chest heaving as he suppressed a belch. ‘And so, these questions?’
‘Sure.’ I unsnapped the elastic band that held my notebook shut. ‘How does it feel to be Mexico’s best young photojournalist, but not to be able to work in Mexico?’
Carlos’ eyes narrowed. ‘Fuck called me that?’
‘What else she tell you?’
‘That you’re not as much of a try hard as your business card.’
He cackled and rubbed his jaw. ‘Fucken ouch, man. Nah, but not working? That shit’s hard, vato.’ He gestured out the window. ‘The things going down back home, we’re talking pictures enough to make a career, cabrón.’ His voice was warm with awe, envy, bloodlust. ‘And I’m missing it.’
‘You feel safe here?’ I said, then clicked my tongue: I was snapping into my questions too fast, and I’d probably spook him if I kept it up.
But Carlos just shook his head and said, ‘Not after this morning, man.’ He took a swig of beer. ‘You know why I left, right?’
As I shook my head, he took a cigarette from my pack, lit up, and, after three drags, started talking.
‘So this is nine months ago. And I’m driving home from work at Diario de Juárez. And where I lived at that time, me and my mother, yeah? This place, our place, it was way out. You can hear nothing out there.’ Cigarette smoke traced the wave of his hand in the air. ‘Like, for example, as a kid, I’d be staying up, late nights, just watching the trucks come speeding through the dark, from Hermosillo, Chihuahua, Ciudad Cuauhtémoc, from all these places.’ He rapped the air with the edge of his hand. ‘Like, that’s how boring we’re talking. Those trucks passing by all lit up was, like, an event, or whatever.’ He flicked ash. ‘And so, you know, there I am, driving home. Desert road, black all round, lights on green signs, shadows of cactuses, nothing else. And then this fucking cop car, blue and white, out of nowhere.’ He took another drag. ‘Three cops. Federales. Big units, yeah? One waves me over. Has this sort of wrestler beard.’
He mimed a circle around his mouth. ‘That fucken goatee thing.’ He shrugged. ‘Metal fans, wrestlers, perverts, they all have this beard. What it’s called, I don’t know.’ He cackled again and took a long drink, scratching his neck. ‘Anyway, these guys, right. They give me the usual: “Can we see your licence, get down from the vehicle, please,” all that, yeah? And, when I do, one of them kicks out the backs of my knees, drops me to the ground, while this wrestler beard one, he puts his gun right here.’ Carlos screwed his finger against the skin between his eyes.
The tape recorder whirred in the silence. ‘But why?’
He sat up. ‘My job, cabrón. Crime reporting. And if the cops are doing the crimes, the cops get pissed off.’ He took the pack of cigarettes from the bed I sat on, then took the gun from under his pillow. ‘These cigarette right here, yeah? That’s the street gangs. You have your Barrio Azteca, your Artistas Asesinos, your small local sets with, like, eighteen soldiers, max. Harmful in numbers but –’ he shook the packet ‘– you know, lightweight. And this, yeah? –’ he held up the gun ‘– this is the main guys, Chapo’s boys, the cops, the local politicians, a couple businessmen, all the big cheeses sticking together. And so when the army comes into Juárez, what are you going to do?’ Carlos held up the cigarettes. ‘You go after a numbnuts coalition of goons?’ He held up the gun. ‘Or a bunch of guys protected by the government since the year dot?’
‘You go after the small-timers,’ I said. ‘You see can you work your way in with the big shots. You see can you get a cut.’ I was quoting stories Maya had told me. ‘Same as everywhere.’
‘You may collect your free burger,’ said Carlos, and stole a cigarette from the packet before tossing it back to me. ‘And so, yeah, the cops, the soldiers, they turn the blind eye on the gangs they’d prefer to see win. Massacres, drive-bys, suddenly they’re all copasetic, long as it’s the right gangs doing them.’ He curled his lip. ‘And me, I think that’s bullshit, man. And so I just take pictures of everything, everyone, the shit the army pulls, the shit the locals pull, no matter who I piss off.’ He blew out smoke. ‘Which is why I wind up on my knees, begging, and pleading, and offering those Federales my sister’s ass.’ He shook his head. ‘And I don’t even have a sister.’ He shrugged, looking embarrassed. ‘And I mean, OK, so I didn’t shit myself. Well. Not much. But I think I must have –’ he cackled ‘– shamed them into letting me go, you know?’ He drank some beer. ‘And so they accepted my offer.’
I let my jaw hang slack. ‘Your poor imaginary sister.’
Carlos laughed. ‘Nah, man, just my cameras. Wallet, jeep. Computer. They did this other fucked-up thing, too, right, drove me to the nearest ATM, parked their cars right up by the cameras, not a care in the world, and had me take out my daily limit, then drove me around till after midnight so’s I could fetch them that day’s limit.’ He shook his head. ‘Dump me, then, after, in some shithole barrio. Walk myself to my friend’s house. How I didn’t get mugged was a bigger miracle than the first thing. Friend drops me at this here hotel, and –’ he spread his hands ‘– voilà.’
He took a long, slow pull on his beer and looked out the window, a view of the footbridge, the mountains, and the border’s stark wire lines reflected in his glasses. ‘Nine months,’ he said, ‘watching the debt fatten on my credit card while my city burns two hundred meters away.’
My pen tapped my notebook. ‘And this morning?’
He laughed. ‘Shit, you’re worse than me. Can’t let a thing go.’ He took another of my cigarettes. ‘Nah, so, this is, like, two nights ago. Source calls me. Gang member. Nice guy.’ The bottle sloshed. ‘And so this guy, he asks me how I’ve been. Where I’ve been, too. And so I just spill, right?’
‘Oh, shit.’ My voice sounded hollow.
Carlos did his one-shoulder shrug, but it looked like an electric shock. He said, ‘My guy, he tells me to get my guitar. Come back across the border. Make it look like I got rehearsals. Go walk past the first Starbucks I see.’
‘Which is what you did.’
Carlos nodded slowly, his eyes aimed at nowhere.
‘And boom. There they are,’ he said. ‘The Federales who jumped me.’ He took out his phone and held up a picture of a police-car windscreen frosted with bullet holes. Just below, on the bonnet, lay two Federales, shot to mince.
Carlos circled one of the faces. ‘See? Wrestler beard.’ He swiped shut his phone. ‘My guy shot them. Favour for all the stories I did, I guess.’
‘Nice guy,’ I said, my breath hot in my chest. What I was feeling, you couldn’t call it fear, or want – envy, maybe, or whatever word there is for that feeling when you’re not sure if you want somebody or just want to be them. ‘So now you can go back?’
Carlos huffed out a laugh. ‘Nah, nab, my mother’d be scraping up hot chunks of son from the fucken Avenida de las Américas within, like, ten minutes.’ Carlos stared out at the sky’s frozen orange slush and shook his head. ‘If I could go anywhere? I’d go south. Uruguay. This hotel there, me and my mother, we stayed there when I was a kid. Some fellowship deal she got to Buenos Aires – art thing. She’s into all that, painting, sculpting, video, the whole bit. But the Porteños were all assholes, so we got ourselves a ferry across the bay. Country life, you know? Cycling. Forest walks. The beach. Yeah, that’s where I’d go. Take all my pictures. Print ’em all out, shred ’em, and file them into the surf.’
‘What’s stopping you?’ I leaned over and cracked my second beer.
He scratched his jaw. ‘Doing the photos thing too long, I guess. I’d miss it.’
My arms tensed. ‘You could work from Mexico City. Far from here. Who’d care? I mean, you know, I’m just starting out, articles-wise,’ I said. ‘But we could do some work or whatever, like, together.’
He frowned. ‘But this is for a big paper, though, right?’
‘Uh, yeah. Maya slung me the gig. It’s. Well. It’s my first article.’
Carlos leaned forward for another cigarette. ‘You got others planned?’
‘Oh, yeah,’ I said, and cringed at the new-kid shine in my voice. ‘Tons.’
Carlos poked a loose thread with his toe. ‘And so, Mexico City. You think you could find me a place there?’
‘Think so. A friend and her boyfriend, they’re looking for somewhere new.’ I had electric eels swimming laps in and out between my ribs. ‘Want me to call them?’
He walked to the window. The cigarette between his fingers had burned past the writing. He didn’t notice.
‘Do you want to?’ he said, looking at me
‘Well, yeah.’ I didn’t even think. I just started tapping on my phone. ‘I’ll say you’re a friend.’
‘Yeah.’ I could feel his eyes on me. ‘Yeah, you tell them that.’