The dog followed for several blocks, past the beating black hearts of Mexican dance clubs and between flagstones on the sidewalks. The sea was to the left but would soon be straight behind her, and at the top of the hill she would look down to see the white sails of boats, like broken shells. Once she found a shell like an ear (they called it a conch), and another time a spotted one like a leopard. This one was handed to her by a little girl dressed in what appeared to be a snowsuit. She spoke only one language, and it was not English. But these sails were ordinary. Just bleached white shells; the kind you would find behind a bar on the malecon, crunched up under your feet, and picked out like shards of glass in the morning.
Now she wants a beer. An old Mexican man with a nose like a fist sits alone at the bar. The dog follows her inside, lies under the bar with his patch side up, panting. The bar is a “fuck you” bar- doesn’t want you to come inside, and tricks you from leaving.
The girl takes in his veins like tributaries under his eyes and across the bridge of his nose. It is hot now, and the whole town has turned on its side to sleep.
“Pacifico,” she says. The beer goes down quickly, so she orders another one. The man with the fist for the nose gets drunker, and shares photos of his grandkids. Cheek after chubby cheek, wrapped presents, a mom, a palapa, an oak.
As soon as she finishes the beer, she leaves the bar and turns up the hill towards the Museo de Serpientes. The dog trots ahead of her, stopping often to mark the garbage cans and plants.
Max was an electrician in the States, a carpenter by heart. She remembers the day she met him, outside the bar with the good Southern food. He told tales of excavations, the old money he found in between the walls, and another house where he found a safe and sent the boys home so he could swing at the lock with an axe. They had sat at the bar with lemons and salt and tequila. The night had grown brighter. She knew she would go home with him and she would love him and the next day she would be scared. That’s how it was with Max. The next day was Wednesday. The day she walked to the food bank and filled her bag with cans of fruit, white rolls and spaghetti sauce. It would be alright.
The day he flew to Mexico, he checked a garbage bag of clothes and took another, smaller plastic bag on the plane. He liked to fly. Liked the ritual of drinks, peanuts, then pick-up. He liked to stare at the wing and the metal gills that flew up and down at take-off. This was a long flight- there would be several rounds. Flying made him homesick, but this was a brief worry. He handled it with the free beer and a few tiny blue pills in his wallet. Homesickness, he once read, was love. Or no, it was that being in love was the same as being homesick. Made sense to him. But it was a physical loss, too. The way the mountains disappeared and were replaced with the flat blue of ocean. The way the city in its grid kaleidascoped away, and hours later became a European-plotted town, with streets clocking out from the center like rays of a sun. It was not in his plans to ever stay where he went. But this time might be different.
He did not know she was here. She pictures him among the snakes, knows he would enjoy the bravado, the machismo of it. The snake was just a muscle. The thought disgusts her. Cages and cages of muscles.
A few blocks now. Past the Mini-Super Mart and all the carts that sell plastic dolls with their arms straight out, as if to catch someone. Hot dogs, elotes, a hill of shelled nuts. A smell of old clothes, humans sweating, of cheap perfume trailing two girls with hair extensions. She feels the lightness of the beers, senses that without the drinks there would be a weight in her stomach, a resistance against each step up and towards.
Yesterday she bartered with an old man at the beach. She wanted a shell on a leather necklace. Every time she tried to buy it, he gave her the wrong change. Finally, she took the man’s hands and pulled out 60 pesos. “Todos,” she said, pointing at her chest. She felt a strong anger flash into in her cheeks, though he was only shorting her the equivalent of 50 cents. “Cinquenta!” He said, ignoring her, and showing she could buy five for that much. In the end, she pulled out a pack of cigarettes and gave it to him, herself leaving empty-handed. She didn’t know why. Today, when she woke, she replayed the scene in her head, and was again confused by her own actions.
The dolphin and the mermaid statue. Turn left here. Should be one more half mile. The girl felt happy for the dog, felt like he was guiding her. But as she got nearer to the Museo, he skipped down an alley and was gone. Now a church with its doors wide open. A few boys selling shoe-shines. A woman with a broom outside the Hotel Lucinda.
“Serpientes” was written on a concrete wall. There was a smell of dead animal. Turn around, turn around, turn around. She enters. The casual language of young men. Girls on the wall. A dark-skinned man with green eyes is peeling a mango.
“Max?” She says, feeling the dry cave of his name. “Max,” she says again, like a statement. She looks around. There are no snakes here, just parts of cars and grease and barrels.
“Buenes tardes, guera. You need car fixed?”
The girl shakes her head and turns to enter the sun. The sea is straight ahead now. The water is a new color. When she gets to the beach, she will turn right. She has not yet seen that part of town.