On slow mornings like this—most mornings are slow these days—Iván sometimes stands in front of the vanity and wonders if he isn’t the only thing that’s aged in Hotel Luna. He stands in front of the mirror this morning and checks for any new gray hairs, any new wrinkles that have appeared overnight. He’s only 60 but he thinks he might look a decade older. His photographer’s hunch has made him a full inch shorter than his former 5’5’’ frame. He’s narrow in the shoulders. He has a little belly. He wears square bifocals whose temples have broken off long ago and have since been replaced with green twine that he’s attached at the hinges and looped behind his ear to keep them on. Though he doesn’t know it, his clothes belong to that time-capsule as well. He wears the same green sweater that he bought with his first check as a photographer for a magazine called Extremo in the mid-eighties. The brown buttons on his beige shirt and brown pants have either chipped or fallen away. He makes up for that slouchy, sloppy way his clothes hang on him by ironing the creases of his pants and shirt to death. Everything about him suggests he’s clean but washed out, completely dried up in every way.
He sits down behind the faux marble counter of the hotel to read the day’s news. But as soon as he does, Iván glances up from his paper and stares at the plague of grackles perched along the streetlamps and powerlines and frayed banner string that cut up the sky of Matamoros. He hates those birds for the noise they make, but he hates them more for being untethered. He lays his paper down and gets up off his own perch behind the counter in his five-bedroom hotel and steps outside to feel the heat rising up from the pavement into the soles of his cheap Tres Hermanos brand sneakers. He throws his hands together into a single palmy clap, the sound of which ricochets from the concrete squat single-stories across the street and trebles out with a long, electric waaaaang that sets the birds up from their perch, all of them in unison. They take off into the sky like a long, black cloud overhead. Just the flapping of their wings. And then that sound that Iván so much longs for—silence, if only for a little while.
He soaks in the quiet the way he does every morning. He closes his tired eyes and exhales and then, as if resigned to his own fate, he walks back into Hotel Luna—that hotel which he never wanted in the first place, which he inherited from his mother immediately following her death ten years ago and holds him every day like a rat in a cage.
To Iván, everything around him is a time capsule of when his mother was still alive: the counter; the too-large, mahogany vanity that takes up the short wall perpendicular to the counter that gives the tiny foyer the optical illusion of being bigger than it really is; the pale, green doors that seal off each bedroom; the digital cash register from the 80s that just won’t die; the brass hooks screwed into the wall behind the counter with four-sided Enfield keys hanging from each one except the last one, which has Iván’s old plastic Diana camera hanging from a leather strap.
He’d stopped shooting right after his mother died but made it a point to keep that camera around, if only to remind him of who he is or, rather, who he was at one time in his life: a photographer with a beat and a budget and a plastic lens which distorted everything but through which he saw the world that his mother tried her entire life to keep him from.
As a boy, Iván had spent three quarters of his childhood behind that faux marble counter. His mother had her various reasons.
At first it was sun-exposure (too much of it). And as he grew into a teenager, it was the gang violence she saw on TV. And as he grew older still, it was the general violence of Matamoros, which could be escaped but couldn’t be denied—the images were on every newsstand around their hotel. And it was in this way—when Iván went to buy a Coke for his mother, say, or when (often) he’d sneak out to buy a Playboy for himself— he also came to know these images, love them even, because along with the violence came stories and details about the world around him.
He’d buy one copy of every crime magazine he could get his hands on. His favorite, by far, was Extremo. He loved it not because the stories were particularly good or the violence more or less graphic than in any other magazine, but because each issue came with a sensuous centerfold that he’d quickly rip from the stapling, fold into an impossibly tiny square, and stick behind his driver’s license in his wallet. Instead of buying Extremo and Playboy, he could get two for one. There was a new woman every week to masturbate to in his room above the hotel, hating himself for finding any pleasure at all in the women that had been chosen for him by some crusty editor whose taste was 70s Americana. Aqua Net hair spray, Lycra everything, bad eyeshadow that came in all colors of pastels.
It was during one of Iván’s typical mid-morning masturbation sessions that the reality of his situation dawned on him. He was in his early 30s, unmarried, childless, careerless and still under his mother’s thumb. Something had to change.
It was in that desperate moment, with his pants around his ankles and this faux french maid with blue eyeshadow looking up at him from the glossy page, that he flipped over the image and found, to his great surprise, a classified ad on the back. Extremo was in need of a photographer. And Iván decided, then and there, that he would be their man. Never mind the fact that he’d never owned a camera. Never mind the fact that he’d rarely left his block. Never mind that he would finally, probably, have to meet the man who chose these centerfolds and shake his crusty little hand. He was going to do it. And so that day he borrowed the teal Diana from his cousin, Erica. She’d won it at a carnival in Dallas and accidentally kept it in nearly pristine condition due to the fact that it was the worst camera she’d ever owned and had thrown it in a shoebox under her bed and forgotten about it until the day Iván called and didn’t so much ask to borrow it as demand it from her.
She warned him in advance. Everything about the Diana was plastic. The casing around the camera was made from two molds that clicked together and so it suffered light leaks that would expose the film. The plastic lens distorted everything in front of it, and even when you got the right angle, the edges of the photograph would blur. She told him that he would waste more film than any money he could possibly earn, but this was assuaged by the simple fact that the Diana Erica handed over came with three rolls of 35mm film previously unused, along with a black, narrow strap that seemed to hug Iván’s shoulder as if it were custom made.
Because the Diana was a horrible camera, no amount of skill could enhance the outcome of any one photograph. But for Iván, the entire exercise came as natural to him as if he were a seasoned photographer. At the very least, the result was the same: plastic, dream-like photographs whose blurry edges gave the impression that each subject wasn’t already dead but in the process of dying. While other photographers’ cameras professionally snapped and whirred alongside him at any given scene, a simple plastic click sounded from Iván’s camera. Often, it would happen that the flash of another camera or the intensity of the street light above or the headlights of a passing car would leak into the casing, exposing the film inside. Streaks of orange would cloud the photograph, occasionally appearing just above the body. These were the ones Extremo loved the most. They always wrote about how their photographer could capture souls right as they were departing the body, that orange haze (always consistently there) proof enough. And it was in this way that Iván made a name for himself in crime reporting, his photography always maintaining that impressionist quality that became the style of his era.
He was fearless—or stupid as some in the industry said—in that he was willing to photograph any corpse in any part of the city at any time of the night. No questions asked. Such was his loyalty to Extremo for ripping him from the Hotel Luna that had imprisoned him for the better part of his life. He never made much money, but it was enough for him to live on as long as he had the free room above the Hotel Luna, where he slept only when he had to.
To this day, he does not know which published photograph set someone off on the dark path of revenge. He does know, however, which one ended his career. Truth be told, he’d never thought of photographing murder as particularly humiliating to the corpse or to the corpse’s living family, for that matter. He only saw those murders for what they were: murders and nothing more, nothing less. In his heart, he knew there was no art to what he was doing. No redeeming quality or skill to those photographs. Just reporting. Just a cheap camera. Just a way to get out of the Hotel Luna.
It should have come as no surprise, after having worked in the industry for more than ten years that eventually the gore would find its way to the other side of his lens and grip him as it had so many other photojournalists in Matamoros.
He remembers that it was his mother’s body that ruined his career. He remembers the smell more than anything. That familiar iron rot that permeated so many murder scenes he’d photographed before. That dampness tinged with the sweet smell of his mother’s perfume, like lilacs in the air. That same smell by his bedside of so many nights of his childhood. That same sweet lilac that was always thickest behind his mother’s perch behind the faux marble counter of Hotel Luna. He put his camera down that night and crawled into the bed beside her, 70 open knife wounds in her flesh, and put his opened palm over every single one as if to try to stop the blood that was already congealing on her skin. He whispered something to her that he no longer remembers. If anything, he remembers heat of camera flashes on his skin once his colleagues arrived. The slick of the blood on the side of his face.
From inside Hotel Luna, Iván watches a hawk boy no older than ten—the street eyes of the Zeta cartel or the Gulf cartel or the Juárez cartel, he can’t tell which one anymore—snap pictures of something with a cheap HTC One phone camera. Iván knows the boy well or, rather, he’s seen the boy countless times over the last few years. He’s seen the boy age day by day, seen him go about his morning routine: photograph the street, then photograph the cars on the street, then photograph the license plates of the cars parked on the street, then photograph anything worth seeing on that given day—a busted water pipe, a traffic accident, a fist-fight in the Soriana grocery parking lot three blocks down, limes rolling everywhere—and uploads it all to the cloud for someone to see.
Peña, Daniel. Bang. Houston, Arte Público Press, 2017, pp. 57-63