The Magic Hour
Jimmy had photographed some shit in his
life that would make even the most ardent
psychopath queasy, but the Heyith wedding
in Tulum nearly broke him. When he worked for a now-defunct wire service, he used to joke about despondency vectors—things that would stick with you like a disease and shake up your sense of where you end and the darkness begins. His friends, his family, and his ex all said they understood how seeing kids with AK-47s or mass graves covered in white dust might cause a pain you couldn’t escape. They said they understood, but they didn’t. Which is why he took the photos.
Meredith Heyden and Charles Smith’s wedding at a cliff-top Mayan ruin was just as horrifying in every way. To come to terms with his role in the atrocity, Jimmy made a list of things that stuck in his gut about the whole affair:
1. The bride and groom were combining their last names to make a new name.
2. The officiant believed in the “five directions” and revelatory knowledge. Jimmy didn’t know if the Heyiths believed her shtick or if they just wanted her in the photos. She was damn statuesque. Her name: Magda—no last name.
3. Despite the hippie nonsense, they could afford to fly a whole entourage to Mexico.
4. Despite the entourage, the wedding had no guests. The attendees consisted of a crew to capture the elopement for posterity.
This last one rankled most: being a member of the crew. But it was better than not being one. Business had been slow, and fewer young couples were willing to pay extra for a Pulitzer-prize winning photographer to render their special day in a neo-realistic documentary style.
Thunderstorms washed out the shoot last night. Then tonight, after the couple was in place and the Officiant had already burnt the copal, the following conversation actually took place:
“We need to cancel. Jimmy, we need to do it tomorrow night,” Meredith yelled from across the cliffs. Jimmy had perched himself across the way with a telephoto lens and filters to catch the right light at the magic hour, when the low sun perfected the light.
“The light’s fine. Trust me, everything will look great,” Jimmy yelled back.
“The light’s fine, but not magic,” she said and the Officiant agreed with a nod. Oh, she was getting paid by the day.
Maybe the Maya were right: the end of the world; having already seen plenty of war, famine, disease, and death, Jimmy believed that God would ultimately unleash a far worse horseman: Annoyance.
~ ~ ~
Back at the resort Lorie the bartender chatted him up. Her marble-mouthed lilt made it difficult to judge her age because it struck him as a bygone accent. Fortunately, he liked the accent, because boy could she talk.
“So anyway, that’s how I happened into this place. And I don’t make a lot, but with the settlement money I don’t need to save or nothing. And I get to live here in paradise.”
“You like living here? Lots to keep you busy?”
“Oh sure, sure. Running this place takes lots of time, of course. Coming up with new menus. People always want something different. I grew up working at daddy’s bbq stand outside Raleigh. I was so sheltered. When I was fifteen, a customer asked if we served anything without meat ‘cause she was a vegetarian. I asked her if she was born that way.”
“I swear it.”
“What did she say?”
“I don’t remember. She probably tried to explain, but she looked so shocked that I just wanted to hide in the kitchen. Anyway, that’s all anyone wants these days. Vegetarian and fancy seafood. And vegan too. Not really sure what that is. You’d like to think everyone loves pulled pork, but they don’t.”
Regrettably, his laugh came out louder than intended and drew the Officiant’s attention.
“What’s so amusing?”
“I’m just helping Mr. Photographer here plan out his day tomorrow. I was saying he should go looking for the talking cross.”
“The talking cross?”
“It’s a local legend. They say a prophet with a talking cross urged the Maya to rebel against the Mexicans.”
“But the Maya didn’t believe in Christianity! They were pantheists,” Magda said.
“It was in the nineteenth century. Long after the conquest,” Lorie said.
“Perhaps the Maya saw that all religions express different aspects of the Godhead.”
Godhead? He primed the chamber with a quip, but Jimmy didn’t pull the trigger. This conversation needed to end post haste. But silence often betrays skepticism.
“You don’t believe in the Godhead? I simply wouldn’t want to live in such a disenchanted world.”
“I only want to live in two kinds of worlds: a world without God, or a world ruled by a god who finds these discussions kind of stupid,” Jimmy said.
Lorie grinned. “You should go look for the cross, Magda. If you take the back roads west, you can find it. Best to leave at dawn.”
The Officiant slapped the bar, gave a nod and left for bed.
“That was a load of bullshit, wasn’t it?” Jimmy said.
“Not really. There are rumors of it.”
“A talking cross?”
“That’s the legend. There is actually a cool Mayan church in town. If you like, I can take you there. Or we could go snorkeling.”
“Let’s go to the church. I’m no snorkeler.” That was as close to affirming a political identity as Jimmy ever got.
~ ~ ~
The next day Jimmy and Lorie were crammed into a VW minivan heading into the sprawling town of Tulum.
“I hope we don’t run into Magda today,” Jimmy said.
“I didn’t give her directions to this place. We’re heading south not west.”
Even though he disliked the Officiant, sending her snipe hunting struck him as a little mean.
Lorie said, “She won’t go. You kidding me? She’s eating morning glory seeds and worshipping the sun. It’s not as if you like her either. Why does she bug you so much anyway?”
“I don’t know. I learned to mistrust one-named people when I covered a humanitarian conference in Africa.”
“Who was there?”
“Bono, Shakira, and Clinton.”
They disembarked at a huge parking lot that held a smattering of tour buses. It would brim with them by noon. Tulum town was a carnival of cheap versions of US chains side by side with a plastic Mexico: Jalapa-roofed restaurants with giant margarita glasses, or else ersatz pyramid facades. Away from the strip, modest houses lined narrowing streets. Lorie led them into a corner bodega that sold principe cookies, sabritos, apple soda in glass bottles, and the shelves teemed with a kaleidoscope of candles.
“Is this the church?” Jimmy asked as a joke, but he cherished the hope that the Maya used this store as a church, or temple, or pyramid, or whatever. It would have made for some great photos, but Lorie stopped him.
“Not here, and definitely not in the church. They’re touchy about photos. And you need to buy a candle as an offering.”
The candles cost just a few pesos, and Jimmy assumed the grocer lacked the guile to jack up the price for gringos. They crossed the street to a square with a defunct fountain and an old man selling gum from a cigar box. The square’s western border had only one building. It didn’t look like a church. The structure was all cinder block walls and sheet metal roof. A fat guy in a cowboy hat lounged in a hammock slung in the one shady spot the courtyard offered. A few coins and wrinkled bills populated the bottom of a rusted coffee tin at the door. Jimmy wanted to ask how much to give, but felt that speaking would be an intrusion. So he followed Lorie’s lead and dropped in a twenty-peso bill.
The church was one room, maybe twenty by forty, with no windows. Just light coming in from the gap between roof and wall. Several faded photos covered the walls. They were windows into the last century. No, two centuries ago. Portraits of soldiers, almost all of them, but the men didn’t form an army. They posed with bandoleers and carbines, surrounded by their families, or on horseback, and in cornfields, under thatched roofs, in hammocks. No matter the place, the men were at war, soaked by sunlight, expressionless.
Hanging tapestries created an interior space that housed the altar beside which a wiry man chanted and burned incense. Vegetables and fruits and flowers and huipiles covered the knotty wooden table. Even though he couldn’t see a tabernacle, Jimmy genuflected and crossed himself out of habit, one he had believed long dead.
Two other Maya kept vigil with the cantor. They intermittently joined the singing to create a droning harmony. They sang in Latin or Spanish at times, but usually the words were unintelligible. The feeling that his voice might pollute the room prevented Jimmy from asking if it was the Maya language.
A few more peasants streamed into the sanctuary. The women wore huipiles, boxy white frocks hand-stitched with vibrant flowers. The men wore guayaberas. His holstered camera pulled on his shoulder.
More parishioners arrived; they kneeled. So did Jimmy. A lump grew in his throat, and the urge to cry came more powerfully than it had in years. Since his mother died, ten years gone. The shame of feeling like a culture tourist suppressed the tears. This was tantamount to reading magical realism and shopping at World Market. How could he be so gullible?
But the devotees were weeping, and he could only assume they weren’t romanticizing themselves. He heard a sob.
Unbidden, he said a prayer.
~ ~ ~
Lorie’s cook Tomás stocked the bar while Jimmy waited for her. The church preoccupied him, and he was anxious to discuss it with her. They had ridden the pesero back in silence.
The cook looked like the churchgoers to Jimmy, which made him wonder if he was racist. Having had a few, he asked in broken Spanish, “Are you Maya?”
“Kind of,” Tomás said.
“What do mean? Do you speak Maya?”
“I grew up making milpa with my father and brothers. But the ejido is closed. There’s not enough land for growing corn anymore. I work here. So, I am kind of Maya.”
Jimmy thought he understood, but also thought he didn’t. That’s what you get when you mix alcohol with quasi-mystical experiences.
Lorie entered the bar wide-eyed and breathless. “I need your help. I need to look for Magda.”
“Because, dumdum, she went looking for the cross in the jungle. The manager is loaning me his jeep. We leave at dawn.”
~ ~ ~
Mist interlaced the jungle canopy and Jimmy wished he weren’t driving so that he could shoot some photos. His camera was in the back and Lorie freaked a bit when he suggested they stop and switch places. She was taking the Magda’s disappearance pretty hard.
“It’s not your fault. No one could have known she would do something so foolish,” he said.
“Really? On a scale of one to one hundred of likelihood to do something dumb, with a one being King Fucking Solomon and one-hundred being Homer J Simpson, where would you put her?”
“Eighty-five. Solid B.”
Mercifully, she laughed at that. “Oh, I just remembered something,” she said as she rummaged through her daypack. “I have a camera, so I can take some photos for you.”
“You know, those smart phone cameras are almost as good as some of my equipment. I’m worried they’ll put me out of business.” The prevalence of high-end phone cameras worried him. He often felt like he had to do something to keep up, the way painters started Impressionism when some asshole invented the camera.
“Oh, I’ve got something even better.” She held out a 35mm disposable.
“Where did you get that?”
“Gift shop. They still carry them for some reason. I snagged a few.”
“It’s good to have an ironic accessory. I used to carry a cane.” The ripping sound of the film advancing delighted him. Was there an app to mimic that sound, or had most users forgotten it altogether?
By the time they arrived in the village, the work in the fields had been completed for the day, and the villagers had retreated to their thatch and stick houses to wait out the heat.
“Where do we start?” Jimmy asked. Lorie shrugged.
“No idea. I’ve never been here before. Tomás told me not to come. He said the villagers might run us into jail.”
“What? Why didn’t you tell me that?”
“Are you scared?”
Of course he was, even though he had wandered into some of the world’s most dangerous hotspots without batting an eye. Shit, was he getting old?
“It’s not that I’m scared. But I am aggressively rational. And it seems like the best place to start looking for that dingbat would be the jail. That also seems like the last place I would want to be poking around. You get me?”
“I didn’t bring you along to drive.”
“Fine. Where’s the jail? Definitely not in those stick houses.”
“Let’s ask the tweens. They must know where it is. The town only has so many real buildings,” Lorie said.
“Yeah, tweens. They’re between kids and teenagers.”
“In my experience places like this have three life stages: young-useless, working-age, and old-useless.”
“Actually, Tomás told me that the women refer to their kids as possums until age five so that if the infants don’t make it, well, the loss won’t seem like such a blow,” Lorie said with a giggle. “’Possums.’ That’s cute.”
They parked the jeep next to the concrete soccer court with no goals, and Jimmy instinctively donned his photojournalism outfit, strapping himself with his best camera and a vest for lenses and filters, memory cards, and battery packs.
The town’s ramshackle exteriors pleased him just fine, and he knew he would need all of his equipment to capture them correct in the high sun. Such compositional considerations didn’t occur to Lorie, who had already used up most of the film in her disposable. After snapping three successive (and identical) shots of the tortilleria, Lorie proceeded to question the youths in Spanish.
“Excuse me. Do you know where the jail is?”
The girls ran away giggling, but the boys stood their ground.
“Is there a jail in this town? Do you know where it is? Do you speak Spanish?”
“Yes,” the eldest boy said in Spanish.
“You speak Spanish?”
He tried to help out: “Has a white woman…a very tall gringa…come through here?”
“You’ve seen her, where is she, is she here now?”
“Where is she?”
“I’ll tell you, but you need to give me a tip.”
The kid learned early. He turned and trotted across the zocalo’s cracked concrete to a small plot with three single-room structures fenced by a waist-high stone wall. The boy pointed to a collapsed lump netted in a hammock.
“He’ll take you. He has the jail keys. After the siesta,” the boy explained. His job completed, he extended his hand for his tip. Lorie pulled out some pesos, but before she could hand them over the boy said, “I want the camera.” Lorie froze.
“What’s the matter? Just give it to him,” Jimmy said. “It can’t be worth but ten dollars.”
“There’s no film, it wouldn’t be fair.”
“Oh Christ.” Before Jimmy knew it, Lorie had jumped into an explanation about why the money was better. “There’s no more film” seemed to be the mantra, but the boy didn’t comprehend. Lorie asked Jimmy if she was saying “film” correctly. He nodded.
The boy tentatively asked—with the delicacy of someone acknowledging that this might be the dumbest question in the history of humankind—“Can’t I just get more film?”
“This is a disposable camera. You can’t put in more film,” Lorie said.
“I’ve seen it. It can be done.”
“In other cameras….yes. But not this one. It’s disposable.”
“Am I saying disposable right?”
“To the best of my knowledge,” Jimmy said.
After a long pause, Lorie asked, “Do you know what disposable means?”
“I think I’ve got it,” Lorie told Jimmy in English, and then explained to the boy that it’s like drinking glasses vs. soda bottles. Some cameras were like glasses, refillable with liquids. But this camera was like a soda bottle. You use it and then throw it out. That’s what disposable is.
Blank stare. The boy said, “You can put more soda in a soda bottle. You have to bring it back to the store or else you don’t get your money back.” He pointed to a small collection of glass bottles awaiting return to the corner bodega.
This didn’t faze Lorie: “Ok, ok. A regular camera is like a glass soda bottle. You can keep putting film in it. But a disposable camera is like a plastic soda bottle. You use it once and then it’s done. You don’t use it anymore.”
He gestured to the household’s little garden, which was full of nursling plants all growing in the bottom halves of plastic soda bottles.
Lorie gave up.
“What about that one?” he said, pointing at Jimmy’s camera.
Blank stare. This one?
“You need a computer to use this one.”
“We have a computer. At the school.”
“But it might not work with this camera,” Jimmy said.
Lorie shot him a look. Did she really think he would surrender his camera? It was his camera. He said in English, “She can rot in jail for all I care.”
“We could too.”
Two men were standing in the doorway to one of the little huts, and they didn’t look happy. One of them said something to the boy.
The boy said to Jimmy, “Give me the camera and I’ll show you the tall woman.”
“I’m a famous photographer. Would you like me to snap a portrait first?”
He did, but none of them smiled.
~ ~ ~
Crumpled in the backseat, the Officiant spoke in one long rambling sentence, the basic gist of which was “Those people are horrible.”
“Why did they throw you in jail?”
“Why would they?”
“Did you break the law?”
“I did not. I simply strolled through the village blessing the children and taking photos. I had a right to be there.”
“Did you?” Jimmy recalled the feeling of intrusion at the church.
Lorie said, “Get over it. You sat in a locked room for a few hours. It’s not the end of the world. I don’t see what you’re so shaken about.”
“I…I…had a vision.”
Lorie’s phone beeped. “We’re back in range…and I have a million messages.”
“Tonight’s a go?”
“Yep. Magda, you need to pull it together. The Heyiths want us to go straight to the cliffs.”
“What am I going to do without a camera?”
“What ever happens will happen,” the Officiant said. “There is little sense in wishing for things you can’t control.”
“Does your phone have a camera?” Jimmy asked.
“Nope. But I have a few more disposables.”
This would ruin him.
~ ~ ~
At the cliffs, the Officiant stripped off her dirty clothes and was swaddled in a white tunic within seconds. The glistens coming off the Caribbean camouflaged her. How could someone so dumb be so beautiful?
“Let’s get into position everyone!” she cried. “The light is perfect for the sacred moment.”
Meredith Heyden pointed at the disposable camera in Jimmy’s hand; her mouth opened but no cry issued. She looked to Magda to intercede, but the Officiant must have felt she owed Jimmy, because she smiled and said, “All will be well. He can explain it better than I.”
He held out the disposable camera. “I’ve had a vision.”
“Let me explain. You are attempting something unique here, a guestless wedding. But remember how photos get taken, or used to get taken, at weddings? With these—disposable cameras. One placed on every table. When your friends and family see these photos, they’ll be filled with nostalgia. I know just how to frame the shots to create that family-wedding feel. What could be better? I am giving you the audience you deserve.”
Meredith wasn’t buying it, so Jimmy elaborated, “I can even mimic the shots taken by different non-guests. The perspective of the flower girl, looking up. The drunk uncle who can’t center a shot. Later shots can all be off-center as your guests drink. I mean, celebrate.”
Did the idea actually convince her, or did she just resign to it? She asked, “How many pixels do those have?”
By the time the ceremony ended, Jimmy had shot two full rolls. It was easy. He just had to point it out there, and the light did the rest. Coming off the water, reflecting off the rocks and ruins, perforating the frame from all directions. He actually couldn’t wait to see them developed.
That nameless feeling from the church returned and nested right behind his eyes. With a clean rip he removed the third camera from its foil.
He might never go back.