By Margaret Kelliher
Manuel gazed out of his food truck at the beach. Teenagers dove for volleyballs in the sand. Familiar high school couples walked with their arms wrapped around each other. Neon kites floated aloft on a warm breeze, their strings held tight by children dressed in vibrant rash guards and floppy hats.
The name on Manuel’s truck read “Churro Cove” in a whimsical, hand-painted script. Just below that, a wooden sign that read “Churros, Horchata, and More!” creaked in the breeze. Manuel slouched to keep from hitting his head on it. He swatted away the flies that buzzed from the trash can, which overflowed with ketchup-stained paper trays and bloated swim diapers.
To say that the family’s new food truck venture was slow would be an understatement. His parents’ once popular restaurant had met with hard times. So, when the city offered food truck permits on the beach’s parking lot, Manuel’s dad decided that this was their chance for a turnaround.
“If they won’t come to the restaurant, we’ll bring our food to them!” he had announced.
That’s how Manuel found himself leaning his skinny, seventeen-year-old frame on the narrow metal counter and watching his summer days vanish one by one. Next door, the truck serving soft serve had a line fifteen people deep. He waved at them and called out, “No waiting here!” Yet no one came.
The dull clang of glass on metal startled Manuel. An elderly man sporting a tattered, blue forage cap like the one civil war reenactors wore grinned at him. Manuel had seen the man before. He often picked his way around the blankets occupied by moms engrossed in paperbacks and toddlers flinging sand with plastic shovels. Hunched over, the man would scrutinize the sand as if he were looking for something he lost. No one on the beach paid any attention to him.
Manuel liked watching the man. It reminded him of summer days spent with his dad and their metal detector, searching for a shipwrecked family treasure rumored to be buried somewhere on the beach. More than a rumor, his dad had collected ancient maps, shipping records, even a crumbling diary that referenced the lost bounty. All of these items were treasures in their own right. It would be a grim day when they would have to sell all that family history to keep financially afloat.
Manuel straightened up. “Can I get you anything, sir?”
The man hooked his thumbs on the suspenders that overlapped his billowy white shirt. “You need this, son.” He handed Manuel a large brown bottle.
Manuel peered at the yellowed paper label. “Essence of Cinnamon. A treasured, fragrant spice from the coasts of Ceylon. Imbued with the heat of the tropics.” The lettering grew smaller and more faded with each word.
“Thanks, but I have tons of cinnamon already.” Manuel looked up, but the gentleman was nowhere to be found.
Manuel shrugged and placed the bottle in his backpack next to his assigned summer reading books that he was supposed to be getting through during slow times in the truck.
In the evening, Manuel closed up the truck, grabbed the cashbox and his backpack, and headed to the restaurant. His mom was flipping through the day’s receipts in the kitchen. His dad must have already left for his security guard job at a nearby warehouse.
“Manuel, would you go stand behind the front counter? We still have some carryout orders waiting to get picked up.” She paper-clipped the thin stack before sticking it in a drawer.
Manuel remembered how when they first bought the food truck, he had helped her do a photo shoot for the restaurant’s social media. He took colorful pictures of the truck, their food, even did a video of her preparing fresh guacamole in the kitchen. His beautician aunt had come over to do his mom’s hair and makeup for that one.
None of it drove traffic to the restaurant or the truck the way they had hoped. Now his mom stood at the counter, hair frizzing out of a tight ponytail, the wrinkles around her eyes accentuated by the buzzing fluorescent bulbs above her.
Manuel walked through the double doors to the cash register. He surveyed all of the empty tables. Photos of generations in military uniform, including his two older sisters and his dad, adorned the wall behind him. His dad loved telling tales of a great-great-uncle who had served in the New Mexico Volunteer Infantry during the Civil War. Manuel’s family had a long history of serving their country, many seeing conflict, some never returning from it. He couldn’t wait until his eighteenth birthday when he could enlist, too.
Once the last customer picked up their order, Manuel headed back into the kitchen. He spied his backpack on the bench by the back door.
“Hey, Ma. The strangest thing happened today. Some old man gave me this.” He fished the bottle out and brought it over to his mom.
She squinted at the label, then unscrewed the cap and inhaled. “It smells like cinnamon.” She shrugged her shoulders.
“What’s the harm in trying it on the churros? If it’s weird or something, we can throw it out.”
His mother looked at him with an expression probably not unlike Jack’s mom when he traded a cow for magic beans. “I don’t know. Was he trying to sell it or something? The bottle looks really old, like an antique.” She inspected the label again. “I guess it couldn’t hurt.”
Manuel’s mom grabbed the bag of freshly made dough that she was about to refrigerate. She piped long sticks of dough on parchment paper while Manuel prepared the frying oil and combined the cinnamon with sugar. He gave the mixture a tentative sniff. His mom was right; nothing seemed off.
Soon, the delicious smell of frying dough permeated the kitchen. But that was nothing compared with what happened when Manuel rolled the warm churros in the cinnamon and sugar. A sweet aroma exploded into the air. When Manuel and his mother took their first bite, their eyes widened in wonder.
“Wow,” Manuel said. The churro’s crisp outside gave way to a soft, almost melting pastry. He savored the perfect balance of sweet and hot flavors. The family had always agreed that grandma’s recipe was the best, but every churro before this batch now seemed like it came from a mall food court.
“Amazing.” Manuel’s mom licked her fingers. “Manny, you need to use this cinnamon at the beach!”
Manuel did just that. While the line for soft serve formed, he piped out a couple dozen churros and started frying them up. He rolled his first batch in cinnamon and sugar and a blast of sweetness wafted out of the open truck. He smiled with satisfaction when he saw some of the people waiting for ice cream look his way.
A guy in Hawaiian print shorts trotted up to the truck. “Man, that sand is hotter than sin!” He wiped his forehead and hopped from one foot to another. “Whatcha got in there, kid? Smells fantastic!”
Manuel rang up an horchata and a paper cone full of churros. He watched heads turn and noses lift as the man walked past other beachgoers, his drink in one hand and the churros in the other.
Soon, Manuel could barely keep up. He called his mom midday for more supplies.
“What do you need?” she asked over the din of conversation. It sounded like business was good at the restaurant, too.
“Everything, but especially churro dough!” he replied.
The temperature rose as the day wore on. The breeze vanished, and the colorful kites wilted out of the sky. By the time the blazing sun had set in a cinnamon-colored haze, Manuel could barely close the latch on the cash box. He locked up and sprinted to his pickup.
At the restaurant, Manuel burst into the kitchen. “Mom! You’ll never guess what happened!”
But his mother was already rushing toward him. “Manny, you’ll never guess what happened!” she squealed.
Manuel pulled the cashbox out of his backpack and proudly presented it to his mom. She looked inside, then shrieked with joy. She jumped up and down like someone whose name got called on The Price Is Right.
“Who needs Instagram when you have antique cinnamon!” She laughed.
The next day at the beach was even busier. As he rang up order after order, Manuel noticed the soft serve attendant gaping at him in disbelief. He stared open-mouthed at Manuel and leaned so far out of his truck that his little paper hat fell from his head. It caught a gust of hot air and tripped down the pavement before settling against the trash can.
From time to time, Manuel would look out over the sea of baseball caps and straw hats that gathered in front of his truck in hopes of seeing the forage cap. If only the man would stop by again, Manuel owed him a huge thanks.
The aroma of cinnamon now filled the entire beach. The parking lot shimmered in the sweltering heat. People crowded around his truck and fanned themselves against the oppressive weather. At dusk, menacing clouds gathered over the crimson sunset. The water rumbled and churned with waves.
Manuel hardly noticed the change in the weather. He went home that night with yet another heavy cashbox.
“At this rate, your dad can quit working nights!” his mother exclaimed.
The pair spent all night making triple the usual batch of dough.
When Manuel arrived at the beach the next morning, the atmosphere hummed with electricity and angry waves pitched against the sand. Manuel had barely unlocked the truck when the sky opened up and battered the vehicle with a torrential downpour.
Just when things got good for his family. Manuel slammed the truck door shut. He ran back to his pickup, where he watched the whitecaps beat against the shoreline through his front windshield. The glass rattled with hurricane-force winds and inky-hued clouds rotated above him.
Exhausted from his late night, Manuel fell asleep. The next thing he knew, the storm had subsided. He awoke to a gentle tapping on his window.
“Holy–” Manuel startled as he turned to see the face of the man in the blue cap almost pressed up against the glass.
“Ready for the find of a lifetime?” the man shouted.
“Dude! You can’t just walk up to someone’s car like that!”
“Come on!” The man waved his arm at Manuel and hurried in the direction of the beach. Manuel jumped out and followed him. He caught up to where the man had stopped and surveyed the sand. The unusually strong waves had eroded the shoreline and revealed rotten wood planks. The man knelt in the sand and scooped it away with his hands. Manuel knelt alongside him, doing the same. It was like the old days with his dad, except this time they had actually found something. Soon, a small skeleton of a ship appeared.
“Is this what I think it is? A shipwreck?” Manuel asked.
“More than just a wreck.”
Manuel smoothed away more sand and revealed a metal ring. He pulled the ring as hard as he could and out came a metal box. The hinges creaked as he pried the lid open.
“No freaking way.” Coins and gold bars marked with the numbers 1863 glittered inside. Manuel looked around to see if anyone had returned to the beach, but they were the only two souls there.
“Well, what are you waiting for? Go on, take it, it’s yours!” The man urged.
Manuel picked up a coin and examined it. Could this be the family treasure after all?
Just then, the aged photograph at the restaurant and the man in the forage cap became one and the same in Manuel’s mind. He gasped and looked up, but the man was nowhere to be found. Manuel heaved up the box and ran to his pickup.
That day, Manuel brought home the heaviest cashbox his family had ever seen.
Margaret Kelliher lives in the south suburbs of Chicago with her family and a bossy cockapoo who thinks she is a big dog. Urban folklore and unique individuals embroider many of her memories of growing up near the city. Every once in a while, a stray thread comes loose and weaves its way into her fiction. In addition to writing, she enjoys sewing because it forces her to use math.