Collecting garbage sharpens the senses. It allows us to notice what others do not see. Where most people would spy a pile of junk, the rag-and-bone man sees treasure: empty bottles that might be dragged to the recycling center, computer innards that can be reused, furniture in decent shape. The garbage collector is alert. After all, this is a profession.
Domingo was always looking for garbage and he was always looking at people. It was his hobby. The people were, not the garbage. He would walk around Mexico City in his long, yellow plastic jacket with its dozen pockets, head bobbed down, peeking up to stare at a random passerby.
Domingo tossed a bottle into a plastic bag, then paused to observe the patrons eating at a restaurant. He gazed at the maids as they rose with the dawn and purchased bread at the bakery. He saw the people with shiny cars zoom by and the people without any cash jump onto the back of the bus, hanging with their nails and their grit to the metallic shell of the moving vehicle.
That day, Domingo spent hours outside, pushing a shopping cart with his findings, listening to his portable music player. It got dark and he bought himself dinner at a taco stand. Then it started to rain, so he headed into the subway station.
He was a big fan of the subway system. He used to sleep in the subway cars when he first left home. Those days were behind. He had a proper place to sleep now, and lately he collected junk for an important rag-and-bone man, focusing on gathering used thermoplastic clothing. It was a bit harder to work the streets than it was to work a big landfill or ride the rumbling garbage trucks, sorting garbage as people stepped outside their houses and handed the collectors their plastic bags. A bit harder but not impossible, because there were small public trash bins downtown, because the restaurants left their garbage in the alleys behind them, and because people also littered the streets, not caring to chase the garbage trucks that made the rounds every other morning. A person with enough brains could make a living downtown, scavenging.
Domingo didn't think himself very smart, but he got by. He was well fed and he had enough money to buy tokens for the public baths once a week. He felt like he was really going places, but entertainment was still out of his reach. He had his comic books and graphic novels to keep him company, but most of the time, when he was bored, he would watch people as they walked around the subway lines.
It was easy because few of them paid attention to the teenager leaning against the wall, backpack dangling from his left shoulder. Domingo, on the other hand, paid attention to everything. He constructed lives for the passengers who shuffled in front of him as he listened to his music. This one looked like a man who worked selling life insurance, the kind of man who opened and closed his briefcase dozens of times during the day, handing out pamphlets and explanations. That one was a secretary, but she was not with a good firm because her shoes were worn and cheap. Here came a con artist and there went a lovelorn housewife.
Sometimes Domingo saw people and things that were a bit scarier. There were gangs roaming the subway lines, gangs of kids about his age, with their tight jeans and baseball caps, rowdy and loud and for the most part dedicated to petty crimes. He looked down when those boys went by, his hair falling over his face, and they didn't see him, because nobody saw him. It was just like with the regular passengers; Domingo melted into the tiles, the grime, the shadows.
After an hour of people watching, Domingo went to look at the large TV screens in the concourse. There were six of them, displaying different shows. He spent fifteen minutes staring at Japanese music videos before it switched to the news.
SIX DISMEMBERED BODIES FOUND IN CIUDAD JUÁREZ. VAMPIRE DRUG WARS RAGE ON.
Domingo read the headline slowly. Images flashed on the video screen of the subway station. Cops. Long shots of the bodies. The images dissolved, then showed a beautiful woman holding a can of soda in her hands. She winked at him.
Domingo leaned against his cart and waited to see if the news show would expand on the drug war story. He was fond of yellow journalism. He also liked stories and comic books about vampires; they seemed exotic. There were no vampires in Mexico City: their kind had been a no-no for the past thirty years, ever since the old Federal District became a city-state, walling itself from the rest of the country. He still didn't understand what a city-state was exactly, but it sounded important and the vampires stayed out.
The next story was of a pop star, the singing sensation of the month, and then there was another ad, this one for a shoulder-bag computer. Domingo sulked and changed the tune on his music player. He looked at another screen with pictures of blue butterflies fluttering around. Domingo took a chocolate from his pocket and tore the wrapper.
He wondered if he shouldn't head to Quinto's party. Quinto lived nearby, and though his home was a small apartment, they were throwing an all-night party on the roof, where there was plenty of space. But Quinto was friends with the Jackal, and Domingo didn't want to see that guy. Besides, he'd probably have to contribute to the beer budget. It was the end of the month. Domingo was short on cash.
A young woman wearing a black vinyl jacket walked by him. She was holding a leash with a genetically modified Doberman. It had to be genetically modified because it was too damn large to be a regular dog. The animal looked mean and had a green bioluminescent tattoo running down the left side of its head, the kind of decoration that was all the rage among the hip and young urbanites. Or so the screens in the subway concourse had informed Domingo, fashion shows and news reels always eager to reveal what was hot and what was not. That she'd tattooed her dog struck him as cute, although perhaps it was expected: if you had a genetically modified dog you wanted people to notice it.
Domingo recognized her. He'd seen her twice before, walking around the concourse late at night, both times with her dog. The way she moved, heavy boots upon the white tiles, bob-cut black hair, with a regal stance, it made him think of water. Like she was gliding on water.
She turned her head a small fraction, glancing at him. It was only a glance, but the way she did it made Domingo feel like he'd been doused with a bucket of ice. Domingo stuffed the remaining chocolate back in his pocket, took off his headphones, and pushed his cart, boarding her subway car.
He sat across from the girl and was able to get a better look at her. She was about his age, with dark eyes and a full, stern mouth. She possessed high cheekbones and sharp features. Overall, her face was imposing and aquiline. There was a striking quality about her, but her beauty was rather cutting compared to the faces of the models he'd viewed in the ads. And she was a beauty, with that black hair and the dark eyes and the way she stood, so damn graceful.
He noticed her gloves. Black vinyl that matched the jacket. She wasn't wearing a fancy outfit, but it fit her well; the clothes were of good quality, he could tell as much. The subway car stopped and Domingo fidgeted, wondering where she was headed, trying to build an imaginary biography for her and failing, distracted by her nearness.
The young woman patted the dog's head.
He was looking at her discreetly, and he knew how to do discreet, so he was a bit surprised when she turned and stared right back at him.
Domingo froze and then swallowed. He found his tongue with some effort.
"Hey," he said, smiling. "How are you doing tonight?"
She did not smile back. Her lips were pressed together in a precise, unyielding line. He hoped she wasn't thinking of letting the dog loose on him for staring at her.
The subway car was almost deserted, and when she spoke her voice seemed to echo around them even though she spoke very softly.
"Should you be out by yourself at this time of the night?" she asked.
"What do you mean?"
"How old are you?"
"Seventeen," he replied. "It's early. It's just before midnight."
"No," he scoffed. "I live on my own."
"Ah, a man about town."
There was laughter in her voice even though she didn't laugh. It made Domingo feel stupid. He stood up, ready to push his shopping cart to the other side of the subway car, to leave her alone. This had been a terrible idea, what was he thinking talking to her.
Her gaze drifted, skipped him, and he assumed this was goodbye. Goodnight. Go to hell. Which was the only reasonable response from such a girl.
"I'm looking for a friend," she said unexpectedly.
Domingo blinked. He agreed, uncertain.
"Would you like to be my friend? I can pay you."
Domingo wasn't in the habit of prostituting himself. He'd done it once when he was in a pinch, after he'd left the circle of street kids. Times had been hard, and one did what he could to survive. He'd been cold, hungry, desperate for a few pesos. He wasn't any of those things now.
"Sorry, I'm not sure I understand," he said. "Did you —?"
"I'm getting off at the next station. Would you like to come with me?"
Domingo looked at the woman. He'd seen her walk by those other nights and he'd never thought she'd speak to him. When he'd tried to talk to a girl on the subway the previous year, she'd recoiled. Domingo couldn't blame her. He did look grubby. And now this pretty woman was chatting him up. Who was he to imagine a babe of that sort was gonna give him the time of day?
He nodded. He'd never been a lucky guy, but maybe he was in luck today.
* * *
Her apartment building was located just a few blocks from a busy intersection. It looked rather run down, a box of bricks built in the '50s that had not been updated. The tiles that had once decorated its façade might have been green and lively in the beginning, but they were now a muddled brown. Many of them had slid off, revealing the naked cement beneath. The apartment's name was written on a plaque by the entrance, but someone had defaced it.
Though he was reluctant to part with it, Domingo left his shopping cart near the front door of the building. People stole your shit if you didn't keep an eye on it. Garbage pickers were notorious for it. You could spend hours gathering glass bottles only to come back and discover they'd disappeared. That's why you kept your stuff close. Domingo didn't think he could ask her if they could take the cart into her apartment, so he hid it behind the stairs and prayed nobody chucked it out.
They climbed the stairs and he noticed that the building was in better shape inside; there were tiles with cracks here and there, but some retained their original coloring. There were potted plants running down the hallway and he realized the apartments were organized around a center square. He leaned against a railing and peered down, spying the laundry area below, which had stone sinks and several clotheslines.
"Hey, you haven't told me your name," he said when they reached the fourth floor.
"Atl," she replied, taking out her keys.
"Is that foreign? What does that mean?"
"No. It's from the Nahuatl language. You know. What they call Aztec. It means 'water.'"
It was an odd name but it was pretty. It suited her. He thought her voice sounded like water, like a stream filled with pebbles, though he'd never seen a real stream in his life. All he'd had were the periodic floods in Mexico City during the rainy season, when the garbage gets stuck in the sewers and the water overflows the drainage system, creating little rivers full of debris, rotten fruit, and dog shit. The door swung open and she turned on the light. The apartment was small and empty. Atl owned a rug with some cushions on top of it, but had no couch, no television, and no table. She didn't even have a calendar on the wall. A very big window sported garish, tattered curtains, further spoiling the place.
He thought girls had more of an interest in decorating their apartments. He pictured nice living rooms with pink curtains and neat furniture. A stuffed animal, perhaps. That's how it looked like in the magazines, with rooms like museums. And the ads, the ads had told him to expect color coordination, scented candles on tiny tables.
The apartment did have a heavy smell, animal-like, probably courtesy of the dog. Perhaps she kept more than one pet.
"You haven't lived here long, have you?" he asked.
She stared at him and for a moment he worried that he'd offended her. Maybe she didn't have a lot of cash after all, and couldn't furnish the place. He was no one to judge.
"I'm passing through. Do you want tea?" she asked. Her voice carried a soft indifference.
Domingo would be better off with pop or a beer, but the girl seemed classy and he thought he ought to go with whatever she preferred.
"Sure," he said.
Atl took off her jacket and threw it on the floor. Her blouse was pale cream; it showed off her bony shoulders. She didn't bother taking off her gloves. Looking at her, he thought of smoke, of incense and altars, and the painting of a girl he'd seen in a discarded museum catalogue.
He followed her into the kitchen. She lit a match and placed the kettle on a burner.
"I'm Domingo," he told her.
Her gloved hands moved carefully, pulling out two cups, two teaspoons, and a box filled with tiny sugar cubes.
The dog padded into the kitchen. Atl leaned down, whispered something in its ear, and then it walked out.
She opened a tin decorated with pictures of orange blossoms. It was filled with white tea bags.
"I'm going to pay you a certain amount, just for coming here. If you agree to stay, I'll double it," she said.
"Listen," Domingo said, rubbing the back of his head, "you don't really need to pay me nothing. I mean, you're cute. I should be paying you. Not ... um ... not that I think you work that kind of gig. If you do that's all right too," he added quickly.
"I'm not what you think I am."
Atl looked at him as she fished out two tea bags and closed the tin. She grabbed a pad of lined notepaper that was attached to the refrigerator. It had smiley kittens on it. He knew it wasn't hers; it was probably the relic of a previous tenant. She wasn't a smiley kitten girl, that was for sure.
"No, man, no, I wasn't saying, you know. Just ... in case, I —"
"I'm a Tlahuihpochtli."
That's not a word he expected to hear. Domingo blinked. "You can't be. That's a type of vampire, isn't it?"
Domingo had heard about vampires. He'd seen the stories about them on the television. He'd read about them in old comic books and graphic novels. He'd never thought he would meet one, not here.
For the first time, he noticed a certain redness to her eyes, as though she had been awake for a long time, as well as dark circles faintly visible beneath her makeup.
"It's vampire-free territory in Mexico City," he mumbled.
How'd she gotten in the city? Sanitation should have nabbed her. Those Apostles of Health who were supposed to stop whatever new disease was going around, but who didn't do jack shit except harass people in the poor neighborhoods. What was it Quinto had said? Something about how the human species was self-destructing at a bacteriological level but sanitation in Mexico was too busy fining people to care. But they would have noticed her, wouldn't they? And if not them, then the cops.
Maybe she wasn't a vampire. Could just be a wealthy, crazy girl playing dress-up. But he didn't think so. He felt he was staring at the real thing.
"I know," she said, scribbling a number on the pad of paper and holding it up for him to see. "How would you like to not have to work for a whole month?"
Domingo leaned against the wall, arms crossed.
"That's more like five for me," he said.
He should have been more worried. He wasn't sure if vampires really did have mind powers or if he'd simply been lulled into a sense of comfort by the woman's appearance; either way, he didn't feel scared. He felt a bit giddy and nervous, but there was none of the true fear that should punctuate this moment. It was a good moment, like that time when he found a new pair of fancy sneakers in a trash bin, box and all.
Atl nodded. "I need young blood. You'll do."
"Wait. I'm not going to turn into a vampire, am I?" he asked, because you can never be too sure — and he wasn't sure of anything. Vampire comic books and shit, they contradicted themselves.
"No," she said, sounding affronted. "We are born like this."
The kettle whistled. Atl removed it from the burner and poured hot water into the two cups. She placed the tea bags in the cups and offered one to him, pointing to the sugar.
He grabbed a sugar cube. She tossed six into her cup. Atl's spoon rattled against the cup's sides as she stirred.