In the Shadow of the Dunes

The sun sets behind the Mexican ocean and stretches the shadow of the dunes impossibly far. In the distance, an ATV hums as it skips across the unscathed sand, then sputters in a rut and whines until it breaks free. The sound of the revving engine roars, but weakens as it carries over the landscape and disappears over the small town. I lean against my own ATV, which has been quiet for some time.

            A dark-skinned girl pulls up the graying, sea swept stubble on my face as she traces the line of my jaw. Her hand slides down my chest, and I look down to see how dark my legs have become next to hers, worried that I’m becoming as dark as the dunes. I pull her hand away.

            “They’re going too fast,” she says against my neck.

            I smile. “They’ll be fine. He knows what he’s doing.”

            “So you’ve ridden with him before, then?”

            “Lots of times. I’m not as good, but I can keep up.”

            “I’m worried she’ll get hurt if he isn’t careful.”

            She shifts her weight in my lap; we fit awkwardly on the seat. The other girl, younger than mine, sits on the back of my friend Mecurio’s ATV and holds him tightly as he spins around and kicks up sand in the face of the fading sun. It rises and settles like smoke. The young girl laughs so hard that she loses her grip as he pulls the throttle and picks the ATV up on two wheels. She screams and wraps him tighter. She fixes her hair as Mecurio makes his way back towards us. He jumps off to grab another beer from the cooler.

            “This stuff tastes like dirt and water,” he says.

            “You shouldn’t drink so much when you ride those,” my girl says back.

            “I’ll be fine.” He turns around to her friend. “Won’t I?”

            She claps her hands and laughs. “Of course, baby.”

            “You’re going to break that thing if you keep pushing it,” I tell him.

            Half of Mecurio’s mouth curls into a smile. He fishes through the cooler. Most of the ice has melted; a few small pieces fight to stay adrift. He finds a beer at the bottom and throws it to me. I catch the cold thing in my hand. The beer is metallic and watery. Bottom shelf stuff, nothing like what we could have had downtown, but downtown is for the tourists, and we don’t think of ourselves as tourists.  

            We are, though. These local girls can see that; it’s what they like about us. They aren’t used to tourists in the winter, as far as I know. We are an exciting delicacy, a treat before dinner. My dark-skinned companion stretches up and kisses me under my chin. I feel her eyes on me, see them from behind my sunglasses as I drink my beer. She complains that I frown too much. I understand, but smiling is what causes wrinkles. We assumed that Mexico would always be warm, but now, here in January, I see that it can make you shiver too. 

            It feels like the sun set at morning and we’re riding on borrowed time. We kick up sand and dirt in a land that doesn’t belong to us. My friend Mecurio is more violent about it than I am. Twice already, he’s gotten his ATV stuck in a ditch, had to jump off and gas it up and back out. The girls stand and watch from a distance, uninterested in the trouble we’re causing. They look just as lost as we do, my girl more so than his.

Mecurio’s girl, the younger one, barely 20, watches his arms bulge as he pushes the ATV up the slope, and I think this is when she decides that she loves him. I put my arm around my girl and kiss her bare shoulder. Her skin smells sour, but I like it. It makes my mouth water and her body tenses up before melting against me.

            Mecurio jumps off the ATV and rips the seat out, sifting through the underside.

            “What are you doing?” the young girl asks him.

            “He really is going to break it,” my girl says, her eyes on the horizon.

            “I’m gonna see if I can adjust the governor chip. Open her up more.” He doesn’t look up.

            “He’s trying to change the regulator, so he can go faster,” I explain.

            “Why would you want to go faster?”

            “You always want to go faster.” Mecurio grins and wraps his arm around the young girl’s waist. She squeals in delight.

            Leaving her behind, Mecurio rides over the spit and through a small estuary, looking for where it’s deepest. I lie out on a cool dune and watch what’s left of the sun as it recedes to a darker place. I pick up small handfuls of sand, lifeless like marble. It’s soft. As I squeeze, it loosens, shedding grain by grain to fit the shape of my hand. I try making a small mound, like a dune. The sand falls in a thin trail. The mound builds up, but so much more falls off the sides. It’s taxing work, building dunes. I don’t envy those who try.

            The girls, both looking younger now as the day winds down, sit on my ATV studying the alien clutch. They poke and prod it. There are only three more beers left. I take one and leave the rest for my friend. He’ll want them more. In the last seconds of daylight, I want to close my eyes and doze off alongside Mexico, but the girls’ laughter and the whine of the ATV disrupt the calm. The moment is gone.

            A warm hand runs up my unbuttoned shirt, and a smooth leg climbs down mine. With my eyes closed, I take a heavy breath and use my hands to search for her face. She sighs when I kiss her lips, and our hot breaths tangle. We make love to the crashing shore break, a sound muffled by the immediacy of our motions. Further away, I hear the grunts and moans of her friend and mine. This sound is not muffled. It distracts me. I rub my neck and feel the grease of worn off sunscreen. I’m chilled by a sudden breeze.

            Blue dusk fractures overhead, and the shadows drown us.

            “Beer’s gone,” Mecurio says, kicking the box.

            I open my eyes, feeling heavy and dry, crusted in sand as he stands over me. I smack my salty lips. His arm is around the young girl; her hair is mangled like seaweed, but she leaves it that way. This is the coda to our interlude.

            “Well, we better get going, then,” I say, suddenly feeling hungry.

            One seems to understand, but the other doesn’t. Mecurio promises the young girl that he’ll take her out to the mountains tomorrow, first thing in the morning. He extinguishes her frown with a kiss.

            I’ve made my own plans for tomorrow that I cannot break. A winery over the mountains for lunch. I can already smell the sizzling carnitas and fresh guacamole, and it makes my stomach groan. I want to go home. My dark-skinned companion waits for me on the back of my ATV. She leaves enough room for me to drive.   

            “We’ll drop you two off and head back to the boat,” Mecurio says.

            “And then tomorrow, you’ll take me to the mountains?” she asks him.

            I laugh and start my ATV. The air is colder now. Still warm, but something about the night makes me feel like I’m not wearing enough clothes. We ride over the dunes towards town, but it’s harder to find our way back in the shadows. I remember the Mexican at the rental shop who told us to turn around if we saw anyone with a gun. Mecurio laughed. It was our only warning about riding past the shops and bars. Strange, now that I see how much trouble is really out here.  

            My girl squeezes me close to her as I wander over the median. We drop them off right outside the restaurant where they work, across the street from the liquor store where we bought the beer. The young girl sulks and pouts. Mercurio whispers something in her ear, and she grins on command. He winks at me as he hugs her, but I ignore it. I check my watch and see a “Closed” sign in the icy, florescent light of the liquor store. Closed, not cerrado.

            My sunglasses fall when I step off the ATV, and my girl picks them up for me. She has that same smirk she had when I introduced myself that morning, and it makes it easier for me to say goodbye.

            “I had fun today,” she says.

            “So did I.” I kiss her, and she sucks my bottom lip.   

            “Maybe tomorrow night we can go to the bars on the pier, by the hotels. It’s brighter there. Better for you two, I think.”

            “Maybe,” I say.  

            Her head lowers.

            Mecurio revs his ATV. The girls disappear down the block, into the darkness, and I can’t imagine where they go back to. I scratch my stubble and realize that we’ve lost our helmets somewhere. We’ll have to pay a fine, but we’re already paying extra for keeping the ATVs past sundown.

            I feel lost, but I follow Mecurio. He rides these old backroads like he’s been here before.

We wander like moths searching for the glowing lights downtown.  

            The streets and shops downtown radiate with a million neon signs that we finally understand. This place burns at the base of the hills and darkens the countryside. Children roam the walkways selling flowers and gum to fair-skinned fools. We move slowly, making our way through the rising crowds. Mecurio grabs a small boy by the arm and asks for two roses.  

            “You should get one, too,” he says.

            “I’ll be alright.”

            “We need a drink.”

            “As soon as we find them.”

            Then I see the headlight on the front of his ATV.

            “Hey, you cracked something,” I tell him.

            He leans forward over the handle bars and fingers the crack until a small piece breaks off.

            “I guess I did break it a little.”

            Lanterns hang over the golden streets and over the patio of a large bar on the corner. It’s like a carnival. Women in shorts and men in unbuttoned shirts blossom from the bar stools. We park our ATVs as close as we can and leave them to their fate. I look down at my own unbuttoned shirt and then to all of the others like it. I feel the salt sticking to my skin. No matter how far we ride, we always come back to the places meant for us.

            We find our wives waiting for us at a table on the end of the patio. The two seats across from them are empty and so are the margarita glasses accumulating on the table. My wife is finishing the watered-down mess at the bottom of her glass. The drink loses its color, so she orders more. When they see us, Mecurio’s wife hugs him violently, and mine runs her straw along the edge of the glass, grinning as her white skin burns a soft pink. They’ve bought trinkets from the shops. My wife has bought enough to fill the empty spaces in our house.

            “You sure you should be drinking like that?” Mecurio asks his wife.

            She punches him in the shoulder.

            “Honestly, a little won’t hurt.”

            Mecurio and I order shots with our beers. The waiter twirls his mustache and pours them deep, but the tequila doesn’t burn as bad as I thought it would. Under the table, my wife grabs my hand and whispers the same words she always does when she’s drunk. I try to smile.

            We keep our story short. ATVs and banditos. This is vacation after all. Mecurio mentions the broken headlight; his wife narrows her eyes and frowns, but they laugh. She’s just as reckless as he is. There was a time when I admired her, even lusted for her thin, girlish figure, but her body has filled and ripened. She curves and overflows, and when she laughs too hard, she loses her breath. She’s full of life, and I know that my wife is empty and alone in this way. I look up at the sky. You can’t see anything when it gets like this, not the waves, the dunes, any of it. You can only imagine what goes on out past the honeyed streets. The women complain that they are tired and want to leave for the boat. My friend Mecurio rolls his eyes; he wants to keep riding, but I don’t want to stay here any longer.  

            I turn back towards the dunes. It’s always the same: the sun rises and sets; the shadows grow and stretch, and then night falls and everything is dark.

Justice McPherson received a B.A. in Creative Writing from Syracuse University. A Stephen F. Crane finalist, his work has appeared in the HCE Review, Your Impossible Voice, Underwood Press, and Zimbell House Publishing.