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Pingo went first. He always did. The rest of us stood at the top of the slope over the place where the sewer pipes from town spilled into the narrow creek that  disappeared into a deep ravine west of town. The creek smelled like shit. The whole town smelled like shit. But here in the junkyard, in a landscape of endless rusted, broken down wrecks, it seemed normal. It was as if the place was built of shit, to smell of shit and to be populated by it. Shit. That was us. We were living shit.

The junkyard was next to the highway at the end of town, but I had become deaf to everything outside this moment. All I could hear was my heart grinding, trying desperately to pry itself out of my ribcage, to escape something I didn't understand because as much as I wanted out, I also wanted in. I stood motionless like one of the wrecks, a rusted skeleton, hoping for something better.

But better would never come.

I had met Pingo and Chicharra and Benito earlier that afternoon outside Luciano's store. They were all worked up and insisted I come with them to the junkyard. I knew them from school, from around the pueblo. Everyone knew them. But we weren't friends. Not like real friends.

"Just come," Pingo said. "And if Ana Dolores shows up, I swear, you'll be thanking me for the rest of your miserable life."

Pingo was a couple of years older than me. He was big and his head was shaved to the skin. People said his father was in prison up north. Maybe that's why I went with them, to hang with Pingo. Everyone wanted to hang out with him.

Chicharra went wherever Pingo went. But Chicharra was slow. He repeated fourth and six-grade before he finally dropped out of school. His mother sold vegetables at the market and cleaned houses for people in Las Maravillas. His father was also up north, maybe in prison with Pingo's father, because he had been gone for three years now and had quit sending money or calling. Chicharra's older sister had married a man from San Sebastian. Everyone said he beat her.

I feared Pingo as much as I admired him. Everyone did. He was great when he was on your side, or you on his. Otherwise–

Friends. I could see it. Me and Pingo and Chicharra hanging out in the plaza, sneaking drinks at the cantina, playing pool at the billar. Friends.

Pingo came out the back of the truck. It was a blue panel van that at one time had made deliveries but now lay half buried in dirt the color of shit. It had no tires or windows, or seats. A twisted Huizache tree grew out of the hood where the engine had been.

He came out smiling like he'd won a prize, and for a brief moment I felt relieved, as if nothing was wrong.

He climbed up, his shoes sinking, penetrating the earth, making marks, leaving his tracks, as if every step screamed, Pingo was here.

He smacked hands with Chicharra like two soccer players who'd just scored. Then Chicharra walked down the mound.

Pingo stood beside me and slowly tucked in his shirt. He said nothing. We stared with profound intensity at the van where Chicharra had disappeared, as if the abandoned vehicle held a great mystical power. Pingo's smile faded, and the silence of the place and the stink of the creek, the sewer, climbed upon us like an infection that would stay with us forever.

Chicharra didn't take long. When he came back he just stood between Pingo and me, watching Benito who was so fat he almost fell down the slope. Chicharra didn't smile, either. He didn't talk. He didn't make a sound. It was as if something had been taken away, torn from his insides, and I guess if I'd had any reservations about it, that it was wrong, that we'd get in trouble, I now wondered if it was hurting us more than we realized.

By the time Benito appeared, I didn't have a choice. Either way something was going to follow me for the rest of my life. I didn't want my friends and everyone in town knowing I had chickened out.

Benito leaned against the van and spat, then ran up the mound. I climbed down and walked slowly to the back of the van where Ana Dolores lay on a soiled mattress, her pink panties wrapped around one of her ankles, shoes on, dress pulled up above her small breasts, face turned away toward the place where the driver of the van should've been, and the creek that stank of shit.

Once, quite a few years ago, we played tag at school. As I ran across the yard to safe heaven, Pingo tripped me. I fell forward, flat on the cement. It was more dramatic than painful, but I couldn't fight the tears. Everyone in the schoolyard watched. I cried more out of embarrassment than pain. Ana Dolores was the only one who came to help me. She knelt by my side, her hand on my shoulder, and asked if I was hurt. Now I lay on top of her wondering if the sweat on her forehead was as salty as the tears on her cheeks.

Our town, Navidad, which means Christmas, is not a real town. It's just a poor neighborhood on the side of the hill separated from the real town of San Juan by the Guadalupe River. Here everyone is tough, even the girls. But after that afternoon and the thing with Ana Dolores, we were different. Pingo and Chicharra and Benito were tougher. They walked with a swagger. They had reputations as great as the young men who risked it all to go north.

It was the opposite with me.

Those three bragged about what happened inside the van, and how just as I had finished and was pulling up my pants Pingo and Chicharra and Benito walked up behind me, laughing. Pingo threw a handful of cash at Ana Dolores. She just lay on that dirty mattress, not saying anything, not doing anything. Not even covering herself.

And then Pingo said, "Now you're a whore."

I never told anyone about that afternoon. I didn't care that she took Pingo's money. That she did it for cash. I can understand the things we have to do to survive. But it bothered me that it was four of us. That it wasn't just Pingo or just me, because after that, after that afternoon in the junkyard, after those brief minutes I spent pressed against her, her flesh against mine, the salt of her tears, her sweat, and even the smell of shit, after she looked away, after Pingo and them walked away, after she pulled up her panties, she locked eyes with me and said, "What the fuck are you looking at?"

After all that, I fell in love with her.

image: Valerie Molloy