The dead dog lay on the side of the highway. It had been there for days and no one bothered to move it. From the pumps, Manuel Meza regarded the roadkill as just another dead thing in the desert—a creosote bush crushed by a heedless boot, or the brittle remains of some crustacean from the nearby fishing villages. All things in the desert become the desert in the end, and Manuel didn’t feel anything for the mutt. Just meat for the flies.
By the time the gringos arrived, the dog’s body was bloated, festering in the same spot where the car had dragged it days before. The truck’s silver gleam blinded Manuel as he sat under the shade of the mini-mart’s awning. The smell of gas subdued the stench of decay, so the furry mound went unnoticed as a yellow-haired man stepped from the car. Manuel approached the pumps and reset the ticker. It was near noon and the sun blistered.
“You take dollars?” the American asked.
Manuel nodded as the man walked inside the mart. At the counter, Diablo could be seen drinking a bottle of soda. As the man paid, Manuel attached the hose, subtly glancing through the car windows. A teenager reclined in the back, drooling into his pillow, and an older man sat in the passenger seat, chewing on torn piece of jerky. The passenger washed the meat down with a can of beer and then unfolded a map onto his lap. While the pump continued to tick, Manuel noticed the truck’s cab was loaded with bags, coolers, and other equipment. On top the truck were surfboards fastened by bungee cords. Everything, from the chrome on the hubcaps to the green pine tree air freshener, proved the wealth of these people.
“Fill the tank!” Diablo hollered.
“All right, Jesus Christ!” Manuel hollered. He wasn’t stupid. He knew if the place was his father’s he wouldn’t be the one sweating.
The yellow-haired gringo returned, stuffing bills in his wallet. Manuel eased on the trigger as he watched the numbers roll on the pump. 1998 Dodge Ram, 26-gallon tank American—about 4 liters, he thought. After the tank was full, he grabbed a sponge and began wiping the windows.
“No need, no,” the man in the passenger seat mouthed, waving his hands.
“Much thanks,” the man said, handing Manuel a few American dollars.
He took the money and nodded.
The truck kicked dust into the air as it merged onto the highway. A squall of earth plumed and lingered until a pathetic breeze carried it away. By the time the dust settled, the truck was gone, and Manuel sought refuge under the station awning.
Although a geographer had named it something else, those living in Dolorosa called the mountain “the church.” Everyone had a story about how the crucifix found its way onto the mountain’s apex, but Manuel affirmed that no one really knew. His father claimed he knew the man who had carried the cross up the mountain—a poor drunken farmer who, one day in a stupor, lost his only son to the shredding of a hay baler. Carried the thing up barefoot, stepping on horse cripplers, suffering scorpion stings. As sacrifice, his father had said. Others believed that the thing was put there by a padre at the request of Cortés. Another story that passed through the cantina like the wind was that the cross had been there when the town’s founders arrived from San Quentín. A divine sign the place was blessed, they believed. And why not think that? A river had once passed through Dolorosa, providing greenness and lush landscape. Flowers had bloomed too, but Manuel never saw much more than a wilted daisy by the trickle once a river.
How the cross arrived didn’t really matter. Even as they looked up towards the flimsy, wooden crucifix, neither Manuel nor Diablo cared about its origin. It might as well have been a part of the mountain itself. Stories were for the old who couldn’t act. They hiked in the heat with the simple thought that the mountain was tall. And tallness meant vantage.
“What’s with these gringos?” Diablo said between breaths.
Ahead, Manuel continued hiking without word. It was late afternoon and the offshore winds were rising. The sun burned lonely in the sky. They were near the top and could see the cross.
“I mean, why drive all the way out here to sleep in a tent battered by wind, to swim in the water that’s dick freezing cold,” Diablo said. “Can they not do that in America?”
“Why do you do that?” Manuel said, looking down at his friend.
“Speak that way.”
“You know what I mean,” Diablo said.
Manuel turned and continued up the last stretch. The heat made him stink, and the droplets of sweat on his forehead had all run dry. Reaching the peak, he staggered, the harsh wind nearly toppling him if it were not for the cross. Keeping his balance, he surveyed the endless miles of Baja coastline. Beside a barren ravine, the shacks of Campo Cardón looked like decimated cardboard boxes. Somewhere in the icy Pacific, his father dived with a tube in his mouth, picking lobsters and abalone, braving the bends, all for almost nothing. At the point of the port, he could see the Americans and their camp—the gleam of the silver truck and a few tents erected.
A lethargic Diablo finally joined him and together they stood, overlooking the land, only the sound of their shirts whipping in the wind.
“I shouldn’t have eaten all that molé,” his friend said.
“How much do you think they’ve got?” Manuel said.
His friend seemed to understand, sheltering his sunburned eyes with a crusted palm.
Feeling the cross, Manuel felt tiny splinters enter his calloused fingers. He felt no pain, only the perpetual irritation caused by the unrelenting heat and wind. While Diablo dealt with his indigestion, Manuel scrutinized the landscape. Eastward there was Dolorosa, a sprout of weeds, westward the fishing camps reeking of spoiled fish, then the coastline, a tundra of waves, the horizon, and beyond. He imagined what it would look like if a city was erected on the coastal desert plains, rows upon rows of buildings covering every inch of cracked earth. The platinum skyscrapers reaching the heavens. Replica houses with lawns and sprinklers. He looked upwards, the cloudless sky appeared tangible. If only he wasn’t born in Mexico, in Dolorosa, to a poor fisherman and his tired wife.
“This is the closest we will ever be to God,” Manuel said. His words drifted on the wind.
“What was that, Mano?”
At least Diablo’s father owned something. Had money, not much, but enough. Enough for a house for his family and his family only. No sharing of rooms with his cousins and his brothers. No fish every night. Manuel again looked to the sky. After a long silence, he turned to his friend.
“I think it’s time we went down.”
In the kitchenette, Manuel’s family sat before a plate of breaded abalone. Mr. Meza, eyes bloodshot from the long day out at sea, put a bottle of beer to his lips. As usual, he had come home in the evening, hair in knots, skin burnt brown, still smelling of the sea. Often he would come home, speaking to no one until he had guzzled down his beer. But tonight he was lively with talk about the gringos.
“Good people,” he said, squeezing lemon over the measly mollusk meat. “Surfers with much to offer. Traded some of us in the camp. Wetsuits for crab legs. Just look!” He pointed towards the window where the dripping wetsuit could be seen hanging on a clothesline. “Some of the others said they stopped by their camp and they all drank whiskey from mugs. But not me, had to get back here.”
Mrs. Meza gave him a look, but said nothing as she ate. She appeared more concerned whether Manuel’s brother, Bernardo, had eaten anything. The young boy pushed away his plate and whined.
“They stopped by the station this morning,” Manuel said. “The man, the older one, gave me a couple American dollars.”
“Probably more than that ass seller, Alvaro, pays you in a week,” Mr. Meza grunted. “Soon you’ll be ready to join us on the boats. Do real man’s work. Get muscle. Look at him, mama, your oldest son is a bean pole.”
Manuel scrapped his plate and drank from a can of soda. A part of him wanted to leave it be, maintain his role as the son, remain obedient and listen to the head of the household. He knew his father was as stubborn as a mule, but more importantly it was evident that the old man’s insecurities about money made him bitter. Yet, Manuel couldn’t keep his mouth shut.
“And you brag about wetsuits when you could have gotten money. Look at those gringos, look at all they have, you should make them pay to stay on our land.”
Mr. Meza finished his beer and grabbed another. Turning to his wife, he smiled. “You see, he is almost ready. Almost a man. But what he hasn’t learned is respect. He hasn’t learned to calm his hate. Thinks gringos are the cause of all our problems. Thinks what makes life good is having things. Possessions.”
“Perhaps he’s right, Salvador, maybe there’s more money to be made,” Mrs. Meza said.
“There is no honey without bile, Mama. We take advantage of these gringos, then the never come back. All they want is to surf, and nothing more. Mano doesn’t realize yet what it is to be man, to think like a man.”
“You can’t tell me you’ve never wanted more than this,” Manuel said.
“There’s a prayer we say before we dive: give us tomorrow, as yesterday and today. All things most needed for rightful living; And move our hearts that we may have sorrow. Bless now our work. And cherish us safe till the morrow.”
Mr. Meza shook his head, left the table, and sat in front of the television his nephew had stolen years before. The nephew that hadn’t shown up in days, the son of his brother long passed. Soon Mrs. Meza and Bernardo were gone as well, leaving Manuel alone at the table. For a moment he sat there, looking at an abalone shell on the kitchen counter. In the right light a rainbow shimmer could be seen. He threw it in the waste bin along with all the other trash.
Whether Diablo truly believed in the plan Manuel was uncertain. It didn’t take much coercing, for he knew his friend wouldn’t want to appear spineless, weak, unmanly. Besides, all he had to do was keep watch anyway. He had heard stories about them leaving their cars while they surfed. He had listened how his cousin bragged about the easy money. Dollars, cards, and even one story about a stolen catalytic converter.
Over the last several days, after their work at the station, they had hiked the mountain, watching the Americans. Diablo had managed to steal his father’s binoculars, and the friends took turns watching. The gringos passed each day in the same manner, days devoted to eating, drinking, and merriment. When the gringos weren’t out surfing, they passed the time playing what appeared to be games, throwing colorful balls, swinging golf clubs, laughing, and drinking. Lots of drinking. The silver shine of cans illuminated in their hands. An inaudible laughter hid behind the wind.
Manuel had to admit that he enjoyed watching them surf. How they seemingly flew across the waves like pelicans. How they carved, spraying water into the air. They appeared careless and liberated, spending hours on end in the water. What a hard life they led. At night they dreamed of rolling swells. Actually, what the Americans did at night Manuel could only guess, probably recline near a camp fire with full bellies and warm thoughts. But night wasn’t important. Not now. At dawn when the gringos left their camp for the surf, he and Diablo would be ready.
The sun had yet to rise when Manuel lightly tapped Diablo’s window. The sloth was still swathed in his bedsheets. A couple chickens emerged from a dingy coop, and Manuel kicked up some dirt, bringing forth a couple clucks. Diablo turned over and sluggishly put on his shoes. For a moment he vanished into another room only to reappear with a rifle slung across his shoulder. Finally, he shuffled outside, rubbing his eyes as if they had been full of sand.
“Christ,” Manuel said, “by the time we get there it will already be a million degrees.”
“You should listen to yourself sometimes,” he said, yawning. “You sound like an old lady.”
Manuel kicked his friend in the butt and together they walked in the violet dawn along the main road. At a stop sign near the station, they could see the small group gathering in their Catholic school uniforms, awaiting the bus to take them to San Quentín. Some went to school, others to work. Sometimes the bus came, sometimes it didn’t. Manuel remembered being like them. He was happy that his father and mother allowed him to work. He dismissed the memory as they traversed onto the dirt road towards the coast.
For much of the journey they remained silent. Manuel listened to the buzz of the desert, and every now and then Diablo suppressed a yawn with the cup of his palm. Behind them, the sun gradually rose, spreading morning light over Dolorosa. In the wilted light, the church loomed, its cross invisible. Manuel stared at it long, but as hard as he strained his vision, he couldn’t see the crucifix.
Perhaps it was the lack of conversation, or his fear that what they had planned was almost near, but Diablo finally spoke, breaking the silence.
“What if something goes wrong?”
“Nothing will,” Manuel said.
“But what if—”
Footsteps spoke crushed earth as they neared the coastline. The gringos’ camp was in sight, so they made sure to keep their distance, just enough where they could see them come and go. They passed a withered cardón, thistleless, grey, hollowed by bats. Coming to an eroded bluff, the two carefully climbed down into a fissure where they could spy without being seen. Below them, the sea was glass. A high tide surged, waves imploding at the bluff’s base. Manuel’s father and the other fishermen would have a difficult time getting past the break for the morning catch. He thought about how the boats would launch over the rolling swell, booming as they landed.
“Now what?” Diablo said.
By the time the gringos awoke, the boats had already launched and disappeared down the coast. Diablo had dozed off. Manuel, who had been watching the camp eagerly, now shook his friend. Together, they watched the Americans walk out to the tip of the bluff. The gringos just stood there, looking and pointing at the waves.
“What are they doing?” Diablo asked.
The Americans observed the waves, mapping the sea as if planning an exploration. At times they would holler and hoot as the swell surged. Finally, they returned to the camp and retrieved their boards and wetsuits. Manuel watched the teenager. He was probably about hissame age, give or take. It was like he was from a different dimension.
“It’s time,” Manuel said. “We must be quick.”
Diablo nodded. His face wrought with uncertainty. Manuel considered the possibility that he might flee.
“Think of the money and nothing else,” he continued.
As the gringos trekked towards the beach, the two remained unseen in the alcove. Once the Americans were in the water, Manuel hopped from the crevice and ran towards the camp. He rummaged through the tents first, uprooting packed bags and inflatable mattresses. He dug into pockets. If these people were idiots he would find a wallet here. Yet, he knew that anything worth anything would be in the truck. The offshore wind began to lift, fluttering the tent flaps. Manuel checked for Diablo’s signal.
The truck was locked, so Manuel slid his hands under the bumper then the wheel well. He really didn’t want to break the window and possibly set off an alarm. Not like they would be able to hear it anyway, but still it wouldn’t do any good. Hands dirty with dust and grease, Manuel’s fingertips brushed a small container. The key rattled inside. It was too easy.
In the glovebox he found everything—wallets, passports, documents he didn’t understand, and several packs of cigarettes. The thought occurred to him to take it all, but he realized that he didn’t bring a bag. And besides, he had no use for anything else than the money. Maybe the passports, but he knew of no one to sell them to. He stashed the two wallets in his pocket and shut the compartment. A teasing thought to stick the keys in the ignition and drive off came and went. Too dangerous.
Back at the cracked bluff, Diablo crouched, looking over his shoulder as if afraid of being seen. Only the old cardón stood behind him.
“What did I tell you?” Manuel said, holding up the wallets he had pillaged. He threw one at his friend who quickly thumbed through the bills.
“There’s a lot here, Mano!” he said. “We better go!”
They took back the same road from which they came. When they were far enough away, Manuel took out the wallet again and flipped through the green bills. Enough for a lot of things, he thought counting each American hundred. The identification card depicted a middle-aged man, the passenger who days earlier had gnawed on jerky and guzzled beer.
The roar of an engine could be heard, and for a second the friends listened. It was getting closer. Manuel began sprinting towards Dolorosa. His friend trotted behind, but struggled with the rifle that bounced against his back.
“Keep running!” Manuel yelled, keeping his pace and staring straight forward.
“Bitch mother!” Diablo cried, “Wait!”
Diablo tripped and cursed. Manuel was far ahead now. He ran as if death itself was chasing him. Once he peered back he noticed a plume of dust billowing high. The truck was gaining on Diablo who seemed unable to stand. That oaf! Couldn’t run to save his life! Manuel didn’t know what would happen if the gringos caught up to him, but a man never leaves a friend behind.
Somewhere a dog yipped and Manuel remembered the decomposing dog near the station. No doubt it was still there. It would always be there.