Muertos

Gabriela Denise Frank

On the Day of the Dead, souls of the departed return to earth to commune with loved ones. But I wasn’t at my mother’s grave in Phoenix, I was at a bar in Tucson, waiting for the parade. The silver blare of trumpets, the thud of drums, would rouse Catrina the way I wished my mother would quit her dirt bed. I pictured Catrina’s onyx eyes blazing in the dark, their spirit light catching flame. Did she enjoy the warm press of human hands as her attendants, plump and alive, thrust the shriveled stubs of her hobbled feet into shoes, and lay her body on the silk pillow to clothe her skeletal form of old driftwood and corn husks? Did she sense how gently they placed her arms, her hand bones, chipped and scattered, held together by steel wire, through the rough cloth of her dress, before stringing her up on the parade float? Did she mind the scratch of yellowed lace? La Catrina, Zombie Bride, had been revived thousands of times—could she remember what happened when they removed her from the casket, year to year? Had rats and insects gnawed her nose away? Were her mandibles reduced to desiccated straps of sinew? I imagined Catrina’s withered green tongue licking at the stringy pain of rebirth into her brittle skin, her blackened lips stretched back into a horrible smile. Could Catrina sense the burgeoning decay on the marigold wreath they placed atop her head?

Is this how you look, Mom?

I imagined death as blissful oblivion from the tedious pain and heat that was living in Arizona. Falling into cactus. Burning myself on the seat belt. The lick of my father’s belt lashing my legs. To be alive was to smell the stink of melted wax and rotting flowers at funerals.

Did my mother’s limbs ache, her lungs burn, in passing from life to death? Could my mother see me from the other side?

The day we buried her, it snowed in Phoenix. I was sixteen. Powder falling in the desert, a sonorous silence of white. A dream, yet I lived it. Six years later, the memory still troubled me: tiny snow drifts gathered in the gravel, in the shrugging shoulders of saguaro cactus, inside the tiny cups of sage-green mesquite leaves reaching skyward. Silent, and unnatural. The crystals melted with the warmth of my hand.

Six years after her passing, I missed my mother enough to hug her dead body, embrace her even if she were nothing but gristle, hair and bone. A ghastly thing. Love turns us desperate. And faithful.

 

To my boyfriend, Alan, Día de los Muertos in Tucson was merely another party, another reason to meet our best friends, Kurt and Luke, at a bar on Sixth Avenue.

“I’ll get the first round. You guys in?” Kurt asked when we arrived at Che’s Lounge.

Yeah-yeah, we nodded.

At 230 pounds, Kurt had the best chance of pushing his way to the packed bar. Alan went along to pay and carry while Luke and I held the table. Kurt and Luke were roommates, an odd couple—the hefty, tattooed ex-Marine and the over-educated ex-English teacher-slash-visual-artist—but they were both monastic in their housekeeping and got on well. The four of us had formed a close-knit party squad in college.

“You seem jumpy, Grasshopper,” Luke shouted in my ear against the din. He called me that despite being a mere two weeks older.

“I just wanna get to the parade.” I fidgeted with a snag in my secondhand jeans from Buffalo Exchange.

“You sure that’s it?” Luke said, pressing his thigh against mine beneath the table. Luke’s brazen flirtations reassured me that I was wanted. I couldn’t tell whether he actually loved me, or how serious I was about him. For years, we tiptoed at the edge of making moves on each other, laughing off our coquetry.

“Maybe,” I shrugged, sweeping the frizzy ends of my bob behind my ears.

Like me, Luke had known tragedy growing up. His dad ran off with another woman, leaving his mom with six kids to raise. His siblings, even his mother, turned to Luke, the responsible middle child, age ten, to hold them together. The side of him drawn to suffering embraced the never-ending demands of his family—the sort of obligation we Catholics revere.

“Anything I can do to take your mind off things?” he said, stroking my knee.

I fought the fuzzy, excited flutter between my legs and tried to see whether Kurt and Alan made it to the bar. There were too many people and too much clutter. Even without the crowd, Che’s was a messy labyrinth, a tumbling of cheap wicker chairs,wobbly glass-top tables and olive-drab canvas couches. The red walls made me dizzy.

“I don’t know,” I teased, running my nails up the inside skin of his thigh. “You tell me.”

“Hey now,” he said, pushing himself straight in the chair. “Watch it, Grasshopper.”

My gaze flicked to Alan, who was laughing with the bartender at something Kurt said. How long did it take to get a round of drinks?

That day, everything irked me: the high-pitched chatter of freshmen with fake IDs, the Beavis-and-Butthead heh-heh-heh of muscle-head jocks, the jostling of elbows and knees as people passed our table, the speakers squelching the opening notes of “Bittersweet Symphony,” and the squawk of waitresses shouting, “Whaddaya want?”

“Here we go,” Kurt said. He set down two pitchers. Alan followed with shots of whiskey on a tray, two for each of us.

“Día de los Muertos!” Kurt said, thrusting his into the air. His white teeth gleamed against his skin, tanned the shade of burnt sienna from the past four years at the University of Arizona. We hoisted our shots, clinked glasses and tipped the Jack Daniels into the thirsty hollows of our throats, slamming pints of beer behind it.

Alan pounded on the table, hooted and brought my chin forward to plant a sudsy kiss on my lips. I ignored Luke’s sideways glance and fell into Alan’s embrace.

 

Alan and I began as drinking buddies, always last at the bar, spouting the sort of cockeyed philosophy that only makes sense to blitzed liberal arts majors. First, we drank because we made it through finals, then we drank because we had graduated, then because we were young and bored and living in Tucson. We would have gone on trading inebriated doctrines and light flirtations, had I not broken up with my controlling boyfriend and unwittingly moved into Alan’s apartment complex the summer of ’96.

“Hey you,” he called from the second floor.

I looked up, sweaty from schlepping boxes in the blistering heat. “What are you doing here?” I said, skinning a lock of mouse-brown hair behind my ear.

Alan leaned over the stuccoed balcony, sweaty pint glass in hand, and laughed. “I live here. Wanna come up for a beer?”

He pushed his wire-frame glasses up his nose, beaming down a lopsided, friendly grin. He was funny, cute, smart. I was newly single, seeking attention—and a drink. This was damned convenient. My mild crush on him tripled right there.

We never acknowledged our dependency on good times with Kurt and Luke, the unwitting co-conspirators in our well-lubricated relationship. We didn’t speak much about anything serious. Alan was sweet and lighthearted. We partied, blacked out, never thought twice. Nothing could be worse in our small college town than sobering up to admit that, by getting serious with Alan, I was making the wrong choices.

 

Kurt insisted the view of the parade was best from Sixth and Alameda where the tunnel came up from beneath the railroad tracks. We’d have a clear vantage of LaCatrina and her tuxedoed groom waking from the dead to dance the herky-jerk with their skeleton posse.

The once-familiar street was strange with drum beats. Blue-black dusk fell hard, crushing the last sliver of orange sunset beneath billowing bullet-gray clouds. The parade route was lined with torches and policemen, the air expectant with frenzy. Hoots from drunk college kids went off like firecrackers amidst rapid conversations in Spanish, children’s shrieks, and grumbled impatience from Tucson’s elderly residents sprinkled throughout the crowd. Little girls, their heads wreathed in orange marigolds, danced to mariachi music, their dresses fluttering in the chilly air as they spun. Vendors sold frybread, popcorn, hotdogs, tacos, nachos, and cotton candy. The sweet-sick aroma of street food was set off by black plastic trash bags burping hot garbage from the alleys. Beneath the cacophony lay a harried silence; the pause before a jagged crack of lightening.

The kettle drums, skins stretched to the verge of breaking, throbbed in my chest, blunt bellows of force meeting resistance. My innards vibrated inside my wet gut, soft tissue tremors rolling with the tympani. At five-foot-four, I could barely see above the throng lining the roadway. Given the press of the crowd, which extended miles in both directions, a couple hundred thousand people had gathered.

I always felt twitchy this time of year. Halloween of eighth grade was my last night of childhood normalcy, sneaking out with my two best friends. Mom’s diagnosis came November 3.  Three years later, she went into the hospital for the last time on November 13. By Thanksgiving, she lost the ability to speak. On December 18, she died.

Years didn’t matter; it was the entire season.

The air felt splintered and dry, like it would never rain again.

“Here they come!” Kurt bellowed. The parade crew, a squadron of undead attendants in skeleton body suits, bore Catrina’s litter, leading the way with flips, cartwheels, and walk-overs that made us Oooo and Aaaah. We chanted to welcome her,“La Calavera Catrina!”

Emboldened by a sip from his flask, I grabbed Alan’s hand and pushed past a gigantic man wearing a black “IRON MIKE / IRON BITE” T-shirt with a growling photo of Tyson on the back. Tattooed on his biceps were two writhing anacondas. He seemed oblivious to the cold.

“Hey, wait!” Alan called.

I squirmed to the front of the barricade, losing his grip. My head spun from drink; I tried to focus my eyes. We called her to join us in the world of the living, to dance: ¡Despierta, Catrina! ¡Levántate, Catrina! ¡Baila, Catrina!

Catrina turned, arms raised, to survey the crowd. She howled like a wolf, long and piercing, up into the black sky. Her laughter reverberated against the concrete walls of the one-story warehouses surrounding us. Eyes searching, she was now alert, awake,baring her skeletal teeth. Her undead husband swooned her into a dip to our cheers. In life, they were Bride and Groom; in death they remained verged on their wedding night.

La Catrina shook off the stiffness of her death sleep and threw sprays of pastel candy into the crowd. I prayed for her to throw a handful at me—evidence of life beyond the grave, the sort of skulls I could catch and keep. My hands outstretched, the swell of the undulating crowd pushed my body forward, my spine threatening to snap against the wooden barricades, the force of hundreds of bodies pressed on mine as we fought for the same cheap prizes.

The crowd chanted, “Awake! Awake!” ¡Viva! ¡Viva! ¡Viva! Live, live, live! I chanted, too—privately, to my mother: Live!—through hot, fat inebriated tears. I searched the crowd, wondering if she heard me, if she had woken from her grave. She had promised, long before she was sick, that she would never leave me.

“Do you know how much I love you?” Mom said to me, slung in her lap. We curled up to read books together in bed at night.

“How much?” I asked. I loved it when we repeated these lines.

“I love you more than anyone in the world. Did you know that you’re my favorite person?” I looked up into her eyes and saw she meant it. Her words, a protective charm; her love, more home than home. “I will always take care of you,” she promised, hugging me to her chest.

There was no reason to doubt her, even in death. If I was patient, she’d find me.

On passing, Catrina’s glittering eyes met mine. “Viva Catrina!” I shouted, sparking the grace of her undead smile. The pink skulls she tossed landed softly in my hand.

 

I let Alan rescue me from the crowd after Catrina’s float went by. “Are you okay?” he kept asking, putting his arm around me. “Yeah,” I said, pulling away to wipe my swollen eyes. I wanted to hit him when he treated me like glass.

“Wanna go to The Buffet?” he asked. Our favorite dive. My cure-all.

“Nah. Let’s hit it on the way home,” Kurt said. “I’m in the mood for someplace new.”

“A place on Congress just opened—Divine or Velvet,” Luke said. “Something with a V.” He always had a line on the new clubs; per usual, we followed him.

The flat desert air made me wish I had worn something warmer than a T-shirt and denim jacket. I pulled the edges closed with the hand Alan kept trying to hold and quickened my pace. Though my head felt thick, I wanted another drink, fast.

Crossing Sixth, I glimpsed a woman who resembled Mom—tall, dark brown curly hair, olive skin. I stopped cold. Had my prayers worked?

It wasn’t her, of course. This woman laughed and put her arm around some guy. My mother lay buried, surrounded by dead senior citizens in Sun City, a 50+ master planned community, three feet away from my grandfather in the soldiers’ section. We didn’t know where else to put her; burying her by herself seemed lonely.

How the hell could I ever explain depressing, random thoughts like this to Alan, whose life revolved around music, movies, and drunken foreign exchange adventures in Europe?

There was a line outside Velvet or Divine, whatever name hung in hot purple neon script in the club’s window. Alan was entertaining Kurt and Luke with a story about getting drunk and throwing up on his sergeant during the first day of basic training in Georgia. Normally, his tales amused me, but I moved away to stand against the storefront glass of the dark stationery shop next door. I could feel the chill of my mother’s hospital room like I was still there. The cold glass at my back was reminiscent of the hard, wooden visitor chairs, impossible to get comfortable in, and the icy air conditioning of Mom’s room where I spent every night after school.

“You okay, Grasshopper?” Luke asked, putting his arm around my shoulders. His body warmed me where his torso met mine.

“Mm-hmm,” I said, trying to smile.

“Don’t believe you.”

“Not trying to fake it,” I sneered.

“Jesus. Why are you always such a bitch?” he laughed, shaking his head.

“Comes naturally,” I said, though I didn’t really want him to go.

He shrugged and returned to where Kurt and Alan stood in line. I lit a Marlboro and marveled at the lightheaded detachment that carbon monoxide conjured, watching Alan’s eyes twinkle as he launched into his next story, about partying in Koblenz: at the sight of the full moon, he peeled off his clothes and ran up a grassy hill, howling like a werewolf until his squad, unable to dissuade him, joined in. To be free like that.

Eventually, the line moved and we made it inside. I was glad the pulsing music was too loud for conversation. I tapped my feet to “Semi-Charmed Kind of Life” without the slightest desire to dance. Fuck this. Fuck the trendy blonde girls spilling drinks on me, slinking by in slutty black dresses, with their doting parents who drove down on weekends with care packages and clean laundry. I needed a cocktail. It must have been apparent. Alan brought me a Long Island Iced Tea, which I drank in one steady guzzle before polishing off his.

“Bloody hell,” he said. “Want another?”

“Sure.”

“Seriously,” Alan said, pulling his chair close, his hands on my knees. “What’s wrong with you?”

I hated his sympathy. When I was in a bad mood, his addle-brained kindness always made me feel worse. “What’s wrong with poor old me?!” I slurred. “Are you kidding? You’d never understand.”

“You always say that. Why don’t you try me?”

“You wouldn’t know what to do! You’re a—” I stuttered. How cruel did I want to get? “You’re a spoiled Mama’s boy,” I said finally. “You’ve never had it hard.”

“Well, fuck you!” he said, sitting back. “Whatever’s eating you, get over it!”

I was thrilled to see him in distress. I half-hoped he would hit me. He generally handled me better than anyone, except Mom, and for him, like her, I mostly behaved. As much as I thought I wanted a good guy, particularly after my last boyfriend, a year of Alan’s nothing-but-fair-skies love made me feel trapped. Sometimes I liked dwelling in the tidy cage of his affection, but I’d be lying if I said it always fit. It’s like he didn’t know bad things happened to good people, and that good people sometimes did shitty things. He wouldn’t like the real me. I hated him for not knowing who he was dealing with, and really, whose fault was that?

“What’s wrong with me?” I spat, my heart racing. “It’s you, with your perfect family! You grew up with everything, and you don’t even know it!”

Whenever Alan’s parents visited, they took us out to fancy dinners with expensive wine. Alan got his storytelling capabilities from his dad, an airline captain, who loved to talk about the big, drafty old Craftsman they renovated in the suburb of Chicago where Alan grew up.

His dad regaled us with tales of TITS—Tennis Invitational Tournament Spectacular—for which he made custom baseball hats with plush pink boobs on them for their otherwise buttoned-down friends. Alan’s mother told the cute stories, like about Alan’s paper route: he had rigged up a sled to their Husky dog who pulled it through the snow. Alan spent summers at camp and had more gadgets and clothes than a kid could want—plus three colleges that his parents paid for, which he partied his way out of prior to joining the military. He didn’t return to school until he turned thirty, which is where I met him. Life did not demand much from him, it seemed.

I didn’t realize until that moment how jealous I was.

“What are we even fighting about?” Alan sputtered.

“Nothing! Everything!” my voice cracked. “You have no idea how hard it is for me,” I choked. “You don’t get what it means to have no one—to have nothing.”

“You have—”

“I’ve got no mother, no father, no one to take care of me. I don’t have the luxury of screwing up. You’ve had chance after chance, and your parents always save you. Even now, at thirty-three!”

I shattered my glass on the concrete floor and stormed off, shoving the bodies of strangers from my path. They swayed back and forth, a gauntlet of human sandbags. I elbowed through with a savagery that shocked the nugget of my normally quiet self, now cowering deep in my gut.

I made my way to the front of the club, the ejaculations of, “Ow!” and, “Hey!” splashing in my wake. My eyes narrowed on the glowing green EXIT sign hovering above the front door. I wanted to punish Alan for being stupid enough to love me and I wanted to punish my mother for dying, but I mostly wanted to punish myself because pain seemed to be the one thing I could feel. Everything else—even love and sex—was dull.

I broke the portal and stepped into the night.

 

I turned off Congress, not wanting Alan to find me too easily; I was sure he was right behind me. I walked left and then right down dimly lit streets, through stagnant puddles of dumpster sluice and pools of sulphur lamplight. A volcanic rage propelled my legs into the south of downtown Tucson. I crossed lots I didn’t recognize, my mind focused on one mantra—Alan doesn’t understand, he can’t understand—pounding bruises into the meat of my thighs.

I could never really talk to my friends in junior high and high school about my mother’s death, either. They didn’t probe; maybe they thought they’d hurt my feelings by asking. I wasn’t about to offer stories about her sobbing in a ball on the bathroom floor, mourning over the loss of her breast, the ugliness of her baldness, the burnt skin of her chest from radiation treatments. When I hugged her, the gadgetry of the IV port stemming from her aorta poked me. Did she know that I backed off so I wouldn’t tug or displace it? Did she think I was repulsed by her, too?

Her last night alive—should I talk about her blue-gray pallor? Her cold, sallow flesh, spiny with dark brown hairs that pushed through the skin of her legs? That last hasp of breath, the sound of her fogging an invisible mirror? Did Alan want to know that? Did he want to hear about my father’s rage after my mother was gone? His calloused mechanic’s hands on my face, my body? Asking me to take him to the emergency room the night he thought he broke his hand swinging at me, only to punch a hole in the drywall instead? On the drive to the hospital, he told me to lie if the nurses asked me how it happened. “They’ll take you away from me,” he warned. As if that would be a bad thing.

Alan’s parents loved and cared for him above all.

I was afraid he’d see how much more I wanted them than him.

 

After Mom died, I fantasized about killing myself. Not slitting my wrists or taking pills like the Jennifers and Jessicas in high school. I wanted something awful to happen to me, outside of my control. I wanted the permission to give up, to lose, to be put out of my misery.

I started smoking when she went into the hospital, fishing used butts from the ashtray at Thunderbird Samaritan. I drank at parties until I passed out; I don’t know how I got home some nights. I dated controlling guys, went off with strangers I met at parties, had unprotected sex and a pregnancy scare my senior year of high school. An abortion my freshman year of college.

Storming out of the bar, alone, at night, drunk, on the Day of the Dead, in order to punish my goody-two-shoes boyfriend and put myself in danger—in context, what I did was understandable.

 

The spring before I turned eighteen, I stood in my bedroom, thigh-high in a herd of cardboard moving boxes, making difficult choices. Most of my beloved books lay at the bottom of the larger ones. I had reserved five favorites—The Pie and the Patty-Pan, The Pushcart War, A Light in the Attic, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, and The Stand—in a smaller box.

“You’re behind,” my father growled during his stop at home that morning. He had come from his girlfriend’s apartment to shower and change clothes; he lingered at the door of my mostly unpacked room. “We move in three weeks. You’d better get your butt in gear.”

He remained at the doorway.

“And do the laundry after school,” he spat. “It’s piling up.”

I flipped him off after he walked down the hallway.

He slammed the front door, rattling it in the frame.

My father didn’t notice that I had spirited away a few pieces of my mother’s jewelry in the sealed boxes, as well as travel photo albums from her single days, a tie-neck purple blouse that still smelled of Chanel No. 5, and a hand-sized prayer book inlaid with mother-of-pearl—a present for her first Communion. After Mom died, Dad had packed away these belongings. Proof of her existence disappeared; to walk through our house, you’d never guess that she had lived with us—or lived at all. He started dating Sandy that spring. Shortly thereafter, he donated or tossed most of Mom’s things, except for three boxes at the back of his closet from which I pilfered.

Two weeks later, a van pulled into our driveway while Dad was at work. My grandmother—his mother, who we called Nanny—hired movers to transport my clothes and a few boxes containing my entire life into her house. She urged the men to move quickly. Nanny didn’t have much extra space at home; my piano, which she had bought for my tenth birthday, went to Uncle Don’s for safekeeping. My beagle, Sheba, I had to leave behind.

That day, my lineage was effectively erased. The remaining proof of my childhood, my mother, and our family of three resided in the scant memorabilia I took.

It wasn’t until that afternoon at Nanny’s house, unpacking my boxes in her guest room, that the sense of fucked-upedness descended. Neither of us said it aloud: she helped me run away from home for fear my father would beat me—or worse. The move felt sudden, though we had plotted my extraction for months.

Despite my fear of and hatred for him, I left Dad a note. I didn’t want him to think something horrible had happened to me when he returned to an empty house. Why I felt obliged to alleviate his worry says something about my sense of childhood debt, I suppose.

That evening, upon discovering my letter—when he realized that I had pretended to pack those boxes, that I had left him—he phoned Nanny in a rage. His rambling howl, recorded on her answering machine, was more animal than human. The words we could make out were, “You think you can get away with this? You’ll fucking regret it, both of you!”

That night, at Nanny’s ranch-style house in Sun City, I could only worry about the two of us: Dad was armed. A Colt .45 in the glove box of his red Trans Am, a .38 Special and a Winchester rifle in his closet. My body stiffened when a car rumbled past, its headlights sweeping yellow-white beams across the walls of what was now my bedroom. For many nights that summer, I anticipated the thud of his fists beating down the front door. Mom, buried in Sunland Memorial Park nearby, could no longer protect me like she promised.

 

I had been walking for hours. I was somewhere in South Tucson; it was past one or two o’clock in the morning. There were few areas in our college town where a woman alone would be in trouble, and I was in it. I kept going.

Nothing looked familiar. I didn’t have a clue where my anger had taken me. I was exhausted and drunk. I had to pee. I paused at the lip of an alley, looking around. Not a soul. Metal music played a few streets over, a late-night bar that I probably didn’t want to find.

I looked up at the black sky. No moon. I stepped into the alley a couple of feet, unzipped my jeans and squatted next to a stack of cardboard boxes. A warm flood of relief splashed between my feet.

Without warning, the silhouette of a man stepped into a pool of downcast lamplight at the far end of the alley.

I sucked in my breath and crouched deeper, squat-walking back against the grimy wall. Did he see me? I stretched out my legs and pushed back into the bricks so that I could stay low while zipping up my jeans. Dashes of urine wet the inside of my underwear.

I had nothing on me—no weapons, not even car keys—except my driver’s license, a pack of cigarettes, and the candy skulls inside my pocket. Cell phones, a new thing even for business people, were out of reach for broke receptionists like me.

“Hey!” the man shouted, his voice bouncing off the walls of the narrow passage. His silhouette was massive, his face cast in shadow.

I stood slowly, my legs trembling.

We stared each other down across the distance of the alley, perhaps a hundred and fifty feet. His wet eyes shone within the dark void of his face, two flashing mirrors. His hands wavered at his sides. Was he lost? Homeless?

My blood iced in my limbs as he began to walk towards me. In that moment, I felt just how far from home I had come.

Walk, whispered my mother’s voice. Go. Now. Turn and step the other way.

I pivoted, slowly, to the left and stepped one foot, then the other in the direction I had come. No sudden moves. I stepped through broken concrete and gravel where the sidewalk used to be. From behind, a heavy rhythm of sneakers slapping on asphalt—the man was chasing me.

I took off.

His grunts echoed off the shuttered storefronts. I ran, my breath jagged, my legs on fire, turning one corner and the next. I just needed to get to Kurt’s house and I’d be okay. Alan would be there. I’d fix everything.

“Hey! You! Girl!” the man boomed. He was closer than I thought. Faster! my mother urged. I ran harder, my legs surging with adrenaline. The sulphur street lamps blurred past.

Slap-slap-slap-slap!

He was behind me, gaining.

I ran up one street and down the next, 20th to Scott to 19th, turning sharp corners, hoping to lose him by zig-zagging towards the lights of the university district.

Slap-slap-slap!

How much longer could I keep this up? A searing pain bloomed in my asthmatic lungs; I regretted every cigarette I had ever smoked.

“Get back here!” he shouted again.

I ran and I ran and I ran.

 

Death was the door to a world that held my mother. It wasn’t until I ran for my life that I realized my death wishes were actually about an ease from suffering rather than a call for it.

I ran harder than I thought possible, no breath for stopping or screaming. Who would hear me, anyway? The storefronts were papered up, the office towers dark. I had a sick laugh at the four years I nearly failed P.E. for not being able to run the mile in less than fifteen minutes. If only Coach Youngberg could see me now.

My chest ached as I imagined La Catrina’s lungs burned, too, from breathing more air than a dead body can rightly exchange. Is that how my mother felt in her final breaths going down, the wretched, jagged exhales of the comatose? Don’t worry, her nurse, Michael, said in between sucking rasps, she can’t feel anything.

I cut a vacant corner and nearly ran right into a few kids my age. They had spilled out of the side door of Club Congress, their skin glistening from dancing in the small, crowded room.

“Hey!” one of the girls said when I brushed her arm.

“Sorry, this guy—” I turned around and he was gone.

I hung my head between my legs, a gurgle of sick rising in the back of my throat. The girls blew smoke and laughed at me.

“What the fuck is her problem?”

“What-ever. Freak.”

I panted, unashamed, until my heart slowed.

My hands trembling, I walked past the mumbling junkies slumped inside the Fourth Avenue Tunnel on my way to Kurt’s. Compared to what I had just been through, their gauntlet didn’t frighten me like it normally would. I kicked a path through their jetsam and turned right on Ninth.

Most of the duplexes and motor court apartments were dark. Their weedy yards, eerie in the moonlight, held graveyard scenes leftover from Halloween. The one bright spot was The Buffet Bar and Crock Pot where three men flopped face-down out front where the doorman had bounced them. The Buffet stayed open past two a.m., although God knew what time it was. The place reminded me of Cannery Row; if Mack and the boys had transformed the Palace Flophouse into a bar, it would have been The Buffet. It was one of few places in town I felt happy.

This is where Alan and I had kindled our friendship, where he taught me to hold down my first shot, where we played thousands of games of air hockey, where—on a dare—I tossed my bra over the moldering buffalo head mascot on the shiplap wall above the bar. A person could get properly drunk at The Buffet at nearly any hour of day for a reasonable price. They served hot dogs, cooked in a crock pot, plated on coffee filters with sides of chopped onion, pickle relish, and champagne mustard. On slow nights I lingered in the ladies’ room, deciphering sage advice from decades-old graffiti carved into the wall.

Ninth Street grew darker as I carried on, or maybe it was my eyes; the adrenaline ebbed from my body. Shadowed row houses paraded by slowly on the walk east, like a rotating canvas backdrop in a school play. With every footfall, I felt my moment of choice arrive.

I could dump Alan for Luke, who had no assured future beyond his art, whose affections were thrilling but uncertain as my own—or I could be smart and marry Alan, like he had been hinting at for the past few months. With my mother gone, I needed someone to save me, and he was the only person who kept volunteering for the task.

 

With Alan I knew I had the upper hand. The night of the homecoming game, that year we actually won, on the walk back to Kurt’s, I pulled off the weedy sidewalk to light a cigarette. Poof. I cupped my hand to shelter the shivering shard of bright, dipping my Marlboro into the fire. Alan and Kurt ambled on, shouting lyrics to “Bear Down Arizona.”

Luke put his arm through mine. We pushed at each other, pretending to squabble, knocking hips. He tickled my armpits. Child’s play.

Luke put his arm around my waist. I watched for Alan’s glance. I sort of wanted him to be jealous. To fight for me. I leaned into Luke’s humid body. It was too early to be as tired as I felt. The temperature hovered at 85 degrees after sundown, after we had been jumping up and down for three hours shouting bawdy cheers.

Hot air rushed out of Kurt and Luke’s side of the duplex when we opened the door.

“Wanna see something?” Luke asked. I shrugged.

“Want another beer?” Alan called at me from the kitchen.

“Yeah,” I said, “I’ll be right there.”

I followed Luke into his room. He closed the door. It was a little cooler in his cell, albeit crowded with boxes and luggage stacked waist-high. It reminded me of my childhood bedroom, only Luke was coming rather than going. Luke had returned that week from a two-month backpack tour of Africa with old school chums during which he had lost thirty pounds. He looked cuter and blonder than I remembered.

He cleared a place for me at the edge of his bed. I imagined what it might be like if he threw me down and made love to me right there. My heart beat faster. Is that what he wanted to show me? I hoped he would crush me with desire.

He dug inside a box, tossing crumpled newspaper out of the way, and extracted a soft flat package tied with string. He unrolled the parcel slowly, turning it over and over until the brown paper fell away. A small handwoven tapestry lay in his hands. He held it out to me.

Giraffes, lions, antelopes, and cheetahs, sewn in black and gold thread, lounged at a watering hole beneath a large round circle of sun. Mouth thrown open mid-roar, the lion’s red tongue held the sole dash of color. “It’s beautiful,” I breathed. He looked me in the eyes, the way guys do when they’re going to plant one on you—a queasy expression. The idea of actually kissing Luke was like going over a waterfall. I clung to the tapestry; I needed to grab hold of something. After years of build-up, he gave me the quickest of pecks, a testing kiss.

That was it?

I searched for something witty or sexy to say.

“You kissed me,” I stuttered.

“You noticed,” he said.

He broke the spell by drawing the underside of my chin to his. He leaned in, his breath passing inside my mouth, his warm, wet lips mashing mine.

Without warning, my stomach churned.

Shots of rum and tequila were fighting with the lukewarm beer I drank during the game. My hand flew to my face; I fled to the bathroom, slamming the door. Vomit sputtered out of me in slushy chunks, partially missing the porcelain.

“You okay in there?” Alan knocked. “Can I come in?”

“Yeah,” I burped, sinking to the tile while my guts churned.

Alan stroked my hair, wiped my mouth with flimsy toilet tissue, rubbed his hand on my back in circles like Mom used to do.

“She okay?” Luke asked from the hallway.

“Yeah,” Alan said. “I got her.”

 

Relief flooded through my body when I saw the front yard of Luke and Kurt’s place, painted in golden porch light. Alan’s car was out front. I had made up my mind. He would give me the family I desperately needed; besides, didn’t everyone say that you should marry your best friend?

I ignored my intuition, which said that our I-do’s would likely come undone—that I would be the one to break them. Like Catrina, I buried myself that morning, along with my desires. It never occurred to me that I had another choice that involved neither Alan nor Luke.

The shadowy man had run down a part of me, even though my body escaped. He made me feel how unsafe I was on my own. I sloughed off my independence right there in the yard, a moth-eaten fur coat left atop the trash with the rest of the dead things.

My mother was never coming back—not through magic or prayers. Her voice, conjured in the dark spells of the night, was gone. It was November 2, the red fingers of dawn beginning to scrape across the sky. I was tired of fighting and too scared to face the world alone.

Without knocking, I stepped inside to find Alan on the phone with the police. He was furious and happy to see me, hugging me and yelling at me for running off . I had to affirm for the cops that I really was okay; they were sending a squad car by to be sure.

After we hung up, I had a hard time meeting anyone’s gaze. Kurt’s scolding, followed by a bear hug, was the easiest to take; Luke mumbled that he was glad I was okay, then slunk off to his room. Alan took me into his arms with a roughness that gave me hope.

Alan kissed me, and I felt the long-ago spark from when we first dated. That exciting newness when it was just the two of us, before we revealed our romance to our friends.

Maybe it will work, a part of me thought. His protective embrace felt more home than home, or I told myself it did. That’s what I wanted more than anything. It was the first time I understood that something wrong and something right could be the same thing.

The pink candy skulls, now crushed, remained in my pocket.

 

 

From Hunger Mountain Issue 23: Silence & Power, which you can purchase here.

Art by @anna_croc01, curated by Dana Lyons.

Gabriela Denise Frank is the author of CIVITAVERITAS: AN ITALIAN FELLOWSHIP JOURNEY. A writer of fiction and essays, her work has appeared in True Story, Crab Creek Review, Gold Man Review, Lunch Ticket, The Rumpus, and Front Porch Journal. Her writing is supported by fellowships, residencies and grants from 4Culture, Jack Straw Cultural Center, Mineral School, The Civita Institute and Vermont Studio Center, where this story was composed. Special thanks to Sigrid Nunez who contributed critical feedback on MUERTOS.