Dia de los Muertos

A thin layer of light stepped inside my apartment and stretched its legs. It splashed across the rug, and dust showed up from the impact, and slept in gold daylight.

Mexico. One day before the Day of the Dead. I opened my eyes a quarter of the way, and stared out of focus at the walls of my apartment. I closed them again, and shifted in the imprint on my pillow. My dog Lily groaned in her sleep. She flinched, and her fur floated upwards, riding the hot wind coming from outside, along with the cigarette smoke from the ashtray. I wanted everything to be black again. Sleep was my immediate goal after waking up. And my eyes were searing. A headache throbbed between my temples, and things started to spin when I tried to pick myself off the couch.

I didn't stay up for long. I pressed my face against the arm of the couch, and thought about what was bothering me. Because at first, I really didn't know. Aside from the hangover, things seemed normal enough to be okay. When I woke up I never remembered. It went and came, always right after sleep. I guess that's what the drinking accomplished. The feeling in my gut, though, that stayed. That lingered, regardless of whether I knew why. It was always there.

Outside there was a loud clunk, and a car alarm went off. Lily's eyes opened. They were light blue and cloudy, like marbles would be. She was near-blind with cataracts. She lifted her head and barked, facing me with a sad, tired look on her face.

"I'm not getting up," I said, but I knew it wouldn't shut her up. She barked again, and made it high-pitched this time. She extended it, and let it hang on with a loud whining sound. Ear splitting. She could do that even though she wasn't tiny, and it would linger like you wouldn't believe.

I told her again that I wasn't going to move. She stared at me. She barked again.

"Fuck it, Lily, I'm not getting up." My voice echoed off the painted brick in my apartment. She didn't even budge. She looked at me with steady eyes and let me know with a low growl like gravel scraping on blacktop that she'd unleash all hell if I didn't get up to close the window. I rammed my head back down into the couch and covered my face with a dusty pillow. It didn't muffle anything. She was doing it to a beat. A slow and painful beat. Worse than an alarm clock.

"Alright, alright," I shouted, and rolled off the sofa. I sighed, staggering over to the fire-escape window that was open and screamed, "Turn that fucking car alarm off!" and slammed the shutters. I started back towards the comfort of my pillow imprint. Lily snorted, satisfied, and of course it was no use trying to get back to sleep. The alarm and Lily woke me up more than a cold shower could, and for the next two minutes I tried hard to pretend that wasn't true. "Fuck you," I said under my breath. Lily glared at me and whined, and then moved to slobber over her water bowl. When I had the strength, I followed her to the kitchen and poured myself some cereal. I went under the cabinet and pulled out some tequila, and poured a little into a coffee mug.

"Hair of the dog," I said, smirking at Lily. She whined. "Yeah I thought you wouldn't be very partial to that expression." I downed the tequila, and went to the fridge. The milkman hadn't come yet, so the half-empty container of milk had managed to grow a thick, yellow layer of skin. I almost threw up at the sight of it, and poured it out into the sink like it was a reflex.

"Lil, until Monday we're having eggs for breakfast," I said, and cracked two over a metal bowl. "I'll get some more milk at the café, when I get the chance."

I made the eggs scrambled, and gave half to Lily in her bowl. We were out of dog food, too. She didn't seem to mind. She always preferred the eggs.

I finished before she did, and I refilled her water bowl. I left, telling her to be good while I was gone.

Carlos took a long drag from his cigarillo and let the smoke sail out of his mouth and run over the rim of his scotch glass. He was tall, and dark, and his hair was long, brought back into a ponytail that was waist length. He wore jeans and work boots, and I was starting to suspect he didn't own any other shirts than the one he had on. It wasn't dirty— just wearing thin.

He sat back in his chair and smiled. We were outside the café, sitting at one of the tables. No customers had arrived yet, and they probably wouldn't for the next few days. The streets were very empty. There wasn't much more than the scorching sun and the dirt along the roads.

"I don't know why we keep this place open this time of year," I said, "it's not like we're booming."

"Come on, Manuel, we always get a few customers."

"But only a few," I said, "Day of the Dead isn't good for business, chief."

Carlos sat forward and nodded. He patted his cigar out in the ashtray between us, and finished up his drink before leaning back again.

"You've noticed," he said, pushing off of the ground so that his chair would stand on two legs, "but it's not like we have anything better to do."

"I guess you've got a point," I said, and drank the coffee I had in front of me.

"Besides, it's nice out. And there's always Naranja."

I smiled. Naranja was the cook for a cargo ship that transported coffee beans from here to Puerto Zappata. The ship would sail into harbor every few weeks or so, and he'd come and have a drink with Carlos and me. We'd have our own table in the corner of the café and sit for hours, sometimes with some of the other sailors, and talk and joke and have a great time before they left to get ready for the next trip.

"He coming in anytime soon?" I asked. Carlos got up and walked inside the Café. He spoke from there.

"He left about three weeks ago"— I heard the clattering of whiskey bottles in the back, and then the cupboard that held the glasses opening, —"so he's coming back tonight. Should be, anyway." Carlos came back out with a full glass of whiskey and another small cigar. He sat down again, and rested his head against his fist, leaning forward over the table.

"Why you drinking coffee today, Manuel?" he asked. "You always used to have tequila, or bourbon."

"Got a bit drunk last night," I told him, "had some tequila this morning to give my head a rest, and now I'm trying to sober up."

"Smart move— you might want to save the drinking for tomorrow when the festival starts."

"I might." There was a pause.

At mid day in Puerto Dorinda there's no ambient sound during a pause. No noise to hold on to when silence comes. No birds. Just hot breezes— and footsteps, if you're walking.

I buried my face in my hands. I hoped to fall asleep. My eyes burned when I closed them, wet with hot tears from the pain I had when they were open.

"Manuel, you don't look too good."

"I know," I said through my hands, "I know." Another pause came, this one much shorter than before.

"How are— how are you holding up?" Carlos asked. I looked through the parted fingers of my hand. He looked honest in his sympathy.

"I'm alright," I mumbled. "I'm doing alright, it's just— it's hard."

He nodded, and knocked down the rest of his whiskey.

"You want one?" Carlos held out one of his cigars.

"No," I said, "I'm trying to quit. Besides, I only smoke cigarettes, anyway."

"You've quit plenty of times," he said, "You're getting good at it."

"Thanks."

Carlos lit his cigar and breathed deep from it. He let the smoke hang in his mouth, swirling around like the way it does when something burns in the oven.

"Do you miss Mariana?" he asked. His eyes looked warm.

"Yes," I said.

"She was a good woman, Manuel, and she loved you."

"I know." I leaned forward and waited a little, thinking of what I was going to say. I spoke into my coffee cup. "I only had three years with her, Carlos," I said, "Just three. That was all."

Carlos put his hand on my shoulder and looked at me without blinking.

"I know it's hard," he said, "A wife is the hardest thing to lose. Just don't beat yourself up about it— I don't like seeing you so upset."

"Have I been upset?" I asked. If I had, I had been too drunk to notice.

"Especially this November."

I shrugged. "Holiday season," I said.

Things got quiet again, and I heard the footsteps of someone down the road, where I couldn't see. Carlos heard them, too: I saw his hesitation before he took the final sip from his whiskey.

"Papa!" I heard.

I turned and saw Carlos's daughter run up to him. Her hair was black and long, at shoulder level, and her eyes were dark, like her mother's. She had everything like her mother's. I should've been so lucky.

Carlos picked Paloma up underneath her arms and placed her on his lap, wrapping both her little arms around his neck.

"Paloma!"

Carlos smiled and gave his daughter a kiss.

"Paloma, where's your Mama?" he said.

"Mama said to go see you here. Mama left for shopping."

Carlos looked at his watch.

"Two-thirty. Pretty late to go to the market."

"Mama said it wasn't."

"I swear," Carlos said to me, "I really do love that woman, but she can be out there sometimes."

"Hey!" Paloma said, pouting, "Don't say bad things about Mama!"

We laughed.

"Hey, how is Neva these days?" I asked.

"She's okay," he said, "Been working hard at the florist's, but that's work for you."

I nodded, turning my eyes to Paloma. She was done holding her father. I grinned.

"Uncle Manny!" she said, "How come you never come over anymore?"

"Yes, we've been wondering about that, Manuel," Carlos said, "you never call."

"I guess I'm kind of a loner these days, Carlos."

I gave him a weak smile, and turned to Paloma again.

"So, Paloma," I said, "how old are you now? You're getting so big. What are you— four? Five?"

She giggled, showing the gap in her mouth where she had lost her two front teeth.

"Seven!" she screamed, and held out seven of her fingers in case I had trouble understanding.

"Seven? Seven!? No I can't believe it…" She laughed again. "Uncle" was an honorary title, but around her I felt like one just the same.

"So," I asked, "you ready for the Day of the Dead?"

"Yes," Paloma said, shaking her head, "we're going to pray for Nana."

"Oh? I had the pleasure of meeting your Nana, once. She was a wonderful lady."

Paloma nodded.

"She's in heaven, now," she said.

On the Day of the Dead, I woke up with Lily in my arms. I stayed that way for some time. I didn't want to move, and I didn't want to think, and I didn't want anything.

"Lily," I said, "let's go to bed and never wake up."

She whined at me.

"Think about it, sweetie. No more cars to chase, no more cats to put up with, no more of that puppy chow. Seems like a sweet deal, don't you think?"

She groaned at me.

"Fine," I said, "have it your way."

I got up from the bed and took a shower. I got dressed. I stopped by at the café to talk to Carlos, and tell him I hoped he'd have a good day. I went to the florist's and told Neva the same. Toto Santos, the old man who owned the place, he gave me a bouquet of marigolds on the house. I thanked him. When I got home I laid the marigolds on Mariana's side of the bed, and I said a prayer.

When I finished, I sat back, and thought how funny it was, the way you never remember someone as a whole. Not when you've lost them, at least. You remember only parts, or pieces, or sections of them. Of their personality and their appearance. Their presence. You catch fragments from time to time, unexpected, but more powerful than a full memory could ever be. I'll be in bed, and I'll remember the nape of her neck, or the curve of her shoulder, and how soft it looked in the morning sun. I'll remember her hair— the split ends and how they fell across her collarbone. Little things that you thought you never noticed. Her back. Her knee. The side of her jaw, just below her ear. And larger things, that you were aware of, but didn't realize you'd miss. The way she smiled. The way she laughed. How she bit her lip when she was happy. The way she looked that onetime it rained, and how her skin shone when it was wet. Her smell after a shower. Going to bed. Waking up in the morning. You could put all these pieces together, and eventually come up with a full person, but it wouldn't hold.

I reached into my pocket and pulled out a candle. It was in the shape of a calavera, with wax roses around the base. She loved candles. I put it among the marigolds, which glowed yellow and orange and dark red in the sun.

"I love you," I said, and turned to Lily, "and I love you, too, pup."

I walked out.

The festival was wild. They held it down by the beach, just near the docks, and everyone was dancing and parading and having a good time. The town hired a mariachi band and they played all day and into the night. They sold sugar masks, and candles, and wooden calaveras at stands set up on the beach. Paper mache sculptures dangled from the store tops. People danced, and yelled, and smiled. It was about happiness. Mourning or grief had no place there. I had no place there. So I drank, and was drunk by night fall. I don't remember much of the festival after dark. I remember the band. I remember them playing Compañeros, an old-fashioned hi-tone fandango my mother used to listen to on the radio when I was a kid. I also remembered laughing, and some woman screaming at one of the Mariachis, telling him he was cute. The thing most clear in my mind was that I felt dizzy from all the excitement. I walked away from the mass of people, and down by the boardwalk. Someone was shooting off firecrackers, and they burned red. People were cheering and dancing, and I was stumbling over myself, thinking of Mariana. I felt my feet slip on a puddle of sand, and my body rushing forward towards the railing of the walk. I held my hand out to catch the railing, but my fingers mashed inwards, dug into my palm, and I fell forward. My ribs cracked hard against the wood. I could've sworn I felt blood come from my sides, but it didn't. I slipped back, down on my knees, and let myself fall onto the boardwalk below me. I looked over to my right and saw a wooden mask. A calavera with long lashes above her eyes and a small nose hole. Someone must've dropped it there. It reminded me of Mariana.

I felt my eyelids grow heavy. I tried to say something out loud, but I couldn't. In the morning I forgot what it was anyway. My last thought before blacking out rang in my head, "Don't leave me, Mariana."

I woke up. Green waves lapped up on the shore, white froth clinging to the wet sand. For a moment, I didn't remember why I wasn't in my apartment. Why Lily hadn't slobbered over my hand or jumped on my chest by now. The sun was beating down on me and the wind pricked at my fingers. My back was aching, numb, and the beach was empty, except for a few people down by the rocks. I let my fingers run through my hair to get the sand out. My ribs still hurt, and it took a while for my eyes to adjust to the brightness. The sky was clear that morning, and a vivid, bright blue, like eyes I half-remembered. I pressed my palm to the bridge of my nose, and somewhere far off, someone was still playing Compañeros. I sat up and brushed more sand from the back of my head, the sunlight baking against my neck. The mask I had found lay next to me. It stared me down without expression. I put a hand over it and picked it up as blood rushed from my head. I was taken aback, off balance from the sudden shift in position. The ocean sailed past me. My eyesight came back, and so did my balance. I started moving. The thin aftermath of a wave wrapped around my ankles as I walked along the shoreline. The water's sharp cold played at the edge of my feet, which was a better wake up call than any I've had. Even the car alarm from a few nights ago. I looked around. Seagulls perched on scattered trash, half-broken shells, and a few bouquets of marigolds, squawked in tune with the crashing sea. I felt tired and hung over, and ran back to Lily across the hot sand.

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