Curlews and sandpipers drill for their food in the sand; further out, an osprey drops into the bay. He sits smoking, looking out as far as he can into the Sea of Cortez. Another hot day is coming. But then a boy runs down the hill from the road, calling his name.
‘Señor Garner, the American lady, she needs your help,’ the boy says in English. Garner sighs and stands up. He casts the remains of his breakfast (bacon, eggs, toast) on the beach, for the gulls. The pipe he takes with him.
She lives in a brick house, one floor, with two bedrooms and a bathroom with shower. The kitchen is very large, by his standards. A pot of coffee brews on the tiled countertop.
‘What can I help you with, Mrs. Lacey,’ he says. She is wearing some sort of loose-fitting, brown garment. It disguises the shape of her hips and breasts. The heels of her sandalled feet are chapped, although not nearly as chapped as his.
‘Oh, Mr. Garner, my guests are arriving today and I’ve run out of gas. I asked the locals to give me a hand but …’ she points at the clock. It is shaped around a picture of a man in a sombrero, strumming a guitar. ‘They were supposed to be here at seven.’
It’s ten past eight. He thinks the men will probably arrive by nine, but she doesn’t seem to understand how things work around here.
‘Angel, I’ll need your help,’ he says to the boy in Spanish. They haul the empty canister into the pick-up and climb in. The dust rises from the road like steam. In the town, men talk on verandas, women drift around with brooms. At the center of the place there’s a shop that sells spirits, ice, essential supplies, some fresh produce trucked in from the north. He and the owner exchange banter in Spanish. When they get back to the woman’s house the two men are there, standing around in the sun.
‘I really appreciate your help, Mr. Garner,’ the woman says. ‘Let me cook you dinner sometime. To thank you for your trouble.’
‘That’s alright, Mrs. Lacey,’ he says. ‘You and your guests have a nice visit.’
He walks back to his trailer along the beach, which is white-hot now, the sand brilliant and pure. The clam shells from his dinner last night are scattered down by the water’s edge. He dug his food out of the sand with a child’s plastic spade, down at the southernmost end of the bay, where the beach forms an isthmus. There was more than he could carry, but he only took what he needed. He steamed the clams in beer and garlic, and ate them with bread.
Today he realises it’s been a while since he went out in the canoe. He wonders about taking it out to the islands, to camp; the one that looks like a crocodile always appeals to him. But for now, he’d better get into his sleeping bag before the desert cold washes in like a wave. He ducks into the trailer, minding his head. It only takes a moment to get ready for the night.
Around six months later, he sees a for-sale sign in the window of her house. When he walks up to Al’s bar for his dinner, he finds a notice there too. It describes the house and lists the price in both pesos and dollars. On the board next to it, there’s a clipping from a local newspaper. It says that Americans are moving down to this part of Mexico in droves, trying to get away from big-city life. Al laughs when he sees him looking at the notice.
‘Had enough of living in that trailer, Garner?’
‘No one’s gonna pay that for a house down here.’
‘Shit, you’d be surprised. We’re becoming a major tourist destination.’ The younger man shakes his head. ‘You remember that couple stayed here last week in one of the rental homes? She actually complained about the water pressure in the shower.’
He pays Al for the two bottles of Dos Equis and the tobacco he’s taking with him.
‘Semper fi,’ he grunts. On his way home, he stands and stares at a sea-lion basking in the bay. Someone is fishing in a yellow kayak. The sea-lion is waiting for something worth stealing from the end of his line.
His catch disappoints him. An osprey perched on top of a cardon cactus, a small sea bass in its claws, has been luckier or more adept. Lighting his pipe behind a cupped hand, Garner sees Mrs. Lacey walking along the beach towards him. Hardly waiting until he’s in earshot, she starts to explain why she’s selling the house. Her daughter in Santa Fe is expecting her first child, and anyway she’s feeling awfully isolated out here, a single woman on her own, no-one to do the heavy work, except for hired help that never arrives. How on earth does he manage it, living in that trailer day in day out, no electricity, cooking on a camping stove, standing under a collapsible shower in the sun … she stops, embarrassed. He turns away, to retrieve his fishing rod from the sand. Anyway, she says, she admires his determination to live such a simple life, without luxury or fuss. She hands him a card with her address printed on it. In the bottom left-hand corner, a pencil drawing of a dolphin leaps out of a scene just like the one before them. Come to Santa Fe sometime, she says.
Their business done, he watches her walking back to the house that was never really hers. Everything here belongs to someone else; that’s what he likes about the place. No strings attached. Her long grey hair trails down the back of her shapeless dress like a rope, swaying as she walks. He carries the canoe to the end of the launching ramp and packs the hold with his camping and survival gear.
He hasn’t told anyone, not even his favorite daughter, that he intends to die here, that he wants his ashes cast into the bay. Whatever gets him, an accident or natural causes or a terminal illness, he wants no hospitals. No life support. No tubes or needles or fawning lawyers. He shoves the canoe into the water and climbs in. The paddles secure in the oarlocks, he begins to row into the wind. Half an hour later he seems no closer to the island. He stops and looks around him. A fleet of pelicans floats across the horizon. He takes off his watch and puts it in the front pocket of his fishing vest. He casts his line over the water and waits.