The trip starts badly. Josh is hours late, already on Mexico time. I pace the house and curse the dogs. Josh called ten hours ago, said he was out the door. Just had to pick up the photographer, that the editors had come through with one for us at the last minute.
Then they show and the doubt in my stomach turns to dread. They don’t look good. Josh is alternately grim and nervous. Umberto, the photographer, is either very drunk or insane. What the hell am I doing anyway? I am a seemingly normal, happy family man with more bills than I can pay. Why leave the beautiful wife and smiling baby to race down south with people I hardly know? Why risk jail, or worse?
I mumble goodbye and jump in the car. The photographer made a bad impression. He looks like no one you send your husband south with and my wife’s no fool.
The car doesn’t do much to inspire confidence either. It’s a black, ’86 Volkswagen GTI. The broken odometer reads 564,985 miles. The right headlight dangles, pointing at the ground. The passenger door doesn’t open. It idles rough or not at all. Five miles out of town the driver’s side wiper breaks free and hangs out over the road like a dislocated limb.
It smells bad too. Something died in the back seat I think, and it didn’t go easily. I turn and see our photographer hunched back there. He thrusts his sole camera at me and asks me if I think I can fix it. I wonder aloud where the 16mm movie cam is that’s supposed to capture this epic, where the multitude of equipment is that all real photographers carry.
“It’s a bad subject,” the photographer says, one of his few lucid sentences in our short time together. “All my gear, stolen in Panama. You think you know people. Then, wham! up against the wall, the knife at your neck and it’s all gone. Months of work.” He slumps back in the corner and opens another Bud tin.
Josh grips the wheel and says nothing, but the car speeds up. His black hair is stringy already, the church camp basketball T-shirt loose on his bony frame. It’s one of the things I like best about Josh, that he’s skinnier than I am.
We race on into the night, stops for gas and beer and tacos.
(an excerpt from my journal kept on the trip to Guatemala, so long ago)