“Does anybody here sell beer or do they just lock it up?” The woman who asks me this has just hiked down the narrow road scraped through the rocky desert from Baja California’s Route 1 to Marcelino’s nameless bar built on a nameless beach of driftwood, construction scraps, and corrugated aluminum. She asks this looking at dusty crates of one-liter beer bottles through gaps in the shipping-pallet walls of the bar’s storage room. A small daypack rests on the sand at her feet.
She’s wearing a white t-shirt and sun-faded jeans. In the shadowy light of the bar, her t-shirt glows against her brown skin. Her black hair falls to her shoulders and has a slight wave so that it curls inward slightly to frame her face like two parentheses.
I say, “Marcelino usually shows up around noon.”
Her bicep bunches when she raises her right hand and tucks a few strands of hair behind one ear and then the other. “What time is it now?”
“Late morning as far as I can tell.”
She doesn’t say anything to this. Instead, she looks around the ramshackle bar. Other than the storage room and four plastic patio furniture chairs in various states of disrepair there isn’t anything besides a metal fifty-five-gallon drum with the top cut off. The drum is half-full of bottle caps.
When she brings her gaze back to me, I tell her “If you want to sit down, that red chair is probably the pick of the litter.”
She looks at me for a long moment then nods as if she’s made a decision. She grabs the red chair and plants it in the sand next to me so we’re both looking down the beach to the small, quiet waves breaking against the shoreline of the sheltered cove. There isn’t much to see besides rocks and cactus and saltwater. Beyond the cove, a low swell moves the sun-drenched waters of the Sea of Cortez.
I offer her my hand. “My name’s Jesse.”
“Marimar.” She flashes a crooked smile and we shake hands “How long have you been here?”
“About a week.” I watch as a seagull lands on a cactus growing on one of the low hills protecting the cove from the bigger water. It folds its wings and stands looking out to sea. I keep looking at it. It doesn’t move.
“What are you looking at?”
“A seagull just landed on top of that cactus there.”
Marimar watches the seagull for a moment. It doesn’t move. “Not quite a partridge in a pear tree, is it?”
I laugh. “No, it’s not. I grew up thinking the desert never touched the ocean. So now I just can’t get over seeing a seagull standing on a cactus.”
“Where’d you grow up?”
“Nowhere I’d like to go back to.”
Marimar shakes her head softly.
I lean back in my chair and feel the plastic flex. “I’m here to get away from Christmas.”
Marcelino walks in and offers us a distracted wave. He’s wearing sun-faded surf shorts, a sleeveless t-shirt, and a Los Angeles Dodgers baseball hat.
He looks at us and says, “Dos?”
Marimar nods so I say, “Sí, dos,” and walk across the shaded sand to the storage room.
Marcelino unlocks the door, reaches inside, and hands me two bottles. He closes and locks the door. I drop the heavy Mexican coins into his hand. He pockets the pesos and says, “Regreso más tarde,” and walks away, back up the dirt road.
There’s a bottle opener tied to a string nailed to the center post. I open the first beer and hand it to Marimar.
She watches me drop the cap into the drum. “What happens when it gets full?”
I look into the drum and wonder how many caps are in there. “I have no idea.”
Marimar takes a drink of beer and makes a face. “It’s not that good warm, is it?”
“It’s worse flat. You look like you’ve been traveling a while. You want to share this one before we open the next?”
I wait while she thinks about it. She nods and passes me the bottle. I sit down and take a pull and pass it back to her.
“One of the nice things about the desert back home,” Marimar says, “is that most of the time you can find cold beer.”
“What desert is that?”
“The Sonoran. I love the saguaros too much to leave them for long.”
“Well, if you ever want to visit the Mojave, there’s a preserve full of Joshua trees and sand dunes I could show you. Plus, I know a camping spot at the base of an enormous sand dune surrounded by the biggest creosotes you’ll ever see.”
“That sounds beautiful.”
“It is. You can sit around the campfire eating pistachios and watching the kangaroo rats creep around the edges of the firelight, see the flames reflect off their silver fur and black eyes.”
She holds out her hand and I pass her the beer. “So why are you spending Christmas here and not there?”
I think about it while she takes a drink. “I wanted to get further away from it all.”
“I wish Christmas was nice like it was supposed to be. But it’s not. It sucks.” She hands me the bottle. I twist it into the sand so it won’t spill.
Marimar says, “Christmas doesn’t have to suck.”
I look up. “No?”
“No.” She looks me in the eye. Her eyes are dark green, fragments of bottle glass polished by the waves. “I’ll prove it to you,” she says. “We’ll decorate a tree.”
“Decorate a tree?”
She laughs. “There’s only one here.”
The only tree on the beach is dead. It stands dry and skeletal just above the high-tide line, its bark long-since peeled away by blowing sand. The bare wood is cracked and faded under the desert sun. A single branch the length of my forearm juts out from the trunk about five feet off the ground.
I ask her, “You want to decorate that tree?”
She nods. “’Tis the season and all that.”
I can’t think of a reason not to. “Okay. Let’s do it.”
She smiles her crooked smile, and I can’t help smiling back at her.
We walk the beach gathering whatever we can find. A few lengths of fishing line, a couple fragments of net, three sun-bleached aluminum cans, and four or five mostly whole seashells before we retreat to the shade of the bar.
Marimar arranges the chairs we’re not sitting in into a makeshift workbench and sets to cleaning sand and grit from our meager treasures. I sit next to her and untangle the fishing line and shreds of net. She’s humming something. It sounds like a Christmas carol.
I reach for the beer and take a drink. There’s not much left, and it’s mostly flat. I tilt the bottle toward Marimar. She shakes her head, so I polish it off.
When I get back from setting the empty bottle by the storage room, she’s tying a piece of fishing line to a fragment of seashell. I sit and tie a big loop into one of the pieces of fishing net. Then I tie the other end around the pull tab on an aluminum can. The sun has faded the logo beyond recognition.
It’s not long before our collection is ready. I take hold of the hem of my shirt to make a pouch, and Marimar loads our improvised ornaments into it one by one.
Marimar hums a different Christmas carol as we make our way down to the tree. Silent Night. I hand her the ornaments one at a time, and she hangs them from the tree’s lone branch or from broken stubs of branches.
After everything is hung, we step back several paces and look at the tree. Marimar tilts her head and frowns and rearranges a few of the ornaments.
“It looks good,” I say.
“Almost, but not quite,” she says. “We need popcorn. Strings of popcorn.”
“What about bottle caps?”
Halfway back to the bar she reaches out and takes my hand.
Using a nail pulled from one of Marcelino’s driftwood posts and a rock scavenged from the side of the dirt road, I punch holes into a couple dozen bottle caps. Marimar strings them onto the last bits of fishing line two at a time, back to back. When she’s done, we hold hands and hum Deck the Halls as we walk down to the tree.
By the time she has the strands of bottle caps arranged to her liking, we’ve moved on to Rudolf the Red-nosed Reindeer. The ornaments sway in a light breeze coming off the water.
Marimar asks me, “What do you want for Christmas?”
I look out over the hills to the sea beyond the hills. Even though it’s only late afternoon, a full moon is rising. I tell her, “To let somebody know me and have them stay once they do. I want that every day, not just on Christmas.”
She doesn’t say anything right away, and I wish I hadn’t been so honest. We watch the moon rise over the rocky hills for a minute or so. Marimar says “That’s a lot.” After another long moment, she says, “But I don’t think it’s too much.”
I look at her then back at the water. “I hope not.”
Later, we walk hand in hand into the warm ocean. When the water is nearly to our waists, we lean forward and swim a short distance into the middle of the small cove then stop and float side by side, silent under the glittering sky, looking back toward the beach and the rocky, cactus-covered hillsides behind the bar.
The smooth wood of the naked tree shines like bone in the moonlight. The seashell and tin-can ornaments are dark shapes against the sand. The soft rattle of the bottle caps comes to us over the water, barely audible over the whisper of the surf. The tide is coming in, and small waves push us gently toward the shore.
I’m watching a satellite slide across the sky when Marimar points toward the beach. Drops of water falling from the tip of her finger shine in the moonlight. Very quietly, she says, “Look.”
An owl glides out of the desert, banks slightly, and perches on top of our Christmas tree. After a few moments, it shifts its feet and opens its wings. The owl stands with its wings outstretched as if in benediction then launches itself into the air. After several wingbeats, the owl stills. It passes over us in a silent, majestic glide. We turn to watch its flight, but it’s gone, vanished into the night.
Marimar and I look back at each other. I open my mouth to say something, but she shakes her head and smiles. I smile back at her and turn to look at our Christmas tree, thinking that if two people can make beauty from trash, anything is possible.
Longtime subscribers will recognize this story. But since it’s my one and only Christmas story, I’m trotting it out today. If you’re looking to give presents, I’d love a paid subscription. Or a coffee or a mulled wine.