day of dead
Jorge B. Valdes, Jr.

The May Selected Writer is Jorge B. Valdes, Jr.

Please feel free to email Jorge at: yu.knee.verse@gmail.com

jorge valdes

by Jorge B. Valdes, Jr.

Lunch was special on that day. Normally my school doesn’t provide lunch but for Day of the Dead, we get a special treat. The principal—who founded the school—made it known that his favorite lunch was a glass of cold milk and a pan bolillo toasted on both sides, the white part smothered in butter and then layered with smashed refried beans and crumbled white cheese.

Every year since his passing, for Day of the Dead, we get his favorite lunch. And the top student for that current month gets to deliver his meal to him at his plot in the graveyard.

That day it was my turn.

The ride to the cemetery was quiet. The hot plates rested on my thighs. The gravel crunched quietly underneath the van that was carrying me. It was the only vehicle the school owned…the last vehicle that the Principal bought before he died.

The cemetery was fortified by stacked cement blocks, painted white. Fresh spots of paint covered graffiti on the walls. The walls were thick and hearty. I wondered, Do we need protection from these burial grounds, or do the burial grounds need protection from us?

The long, crumbled fence ran for half a mile in one direction and then I turned the van a sharp left. The contents and I jostled slightly as I came to a halt. An old grave-digger in soiled clothes opened the oxidized steel gate. I could see a band of sweat on his cowboy hat and his work shirt hung out of his sagging pants, a result from bending over all day. The grave diggers were quiet men, never looking at anyone’s eyes, afraid to recognize the living, for they bury them eventually.

The van pulled forward through the endless rows of tombstones and flowers. Crows nestled among the tall crosses, watching tentatively for newcomers. Tall tombs leaned over, as if something underneath had moved. The dirt lay uneven between each gravesite.

The beloved principal was at the far end of the cemetery where the town’s prestigious civil servants had their own special corner in this dead neighborhood. The rest of us get buried on top of each other. And as tradition has it in this town, I too will unearth relatives’ bones and rebury them in a newer coffin with my freshly dead self. These city graveyards in Mexico can’t grow anymore, and our city, being close to the border, can’t grow either—we have nowhere else to go, and even the dead feel crowded.

They say that the principal will bless you with a better future, if his spirit is compelled enough. I worked my way to his grave, and stood for a moment, reading his marker. What could I say that would get his attention? How could I compel him?

I lost my grandma that summer. I wanted to tell him about my grandmother. She was very special. She bought me things from Texas and brought them down with my other cousins who lived across the border. I’ve never been to the United States…I can’t, since I am Mexican.

My aunt and uncle worked real hard and had immigrated from our hometown to Texas. It all started with my Aunt. She was really ambitious and didn’t like orders from her dad. So at fifteen, after her last day of school, she hitched a ride with her oldest sister for a strange land.

My Aunt wasn’t afraid. She went across the border with a day pass given to those who cross to go buy groceries. If you pass the check, you are home free, or so I have heard.

Once she got to her new town with her sister, my Aunt started working at a fast food restaurant. My uncle, her future husband was a frequenter and recognizing each other’s accents, belonging from the same region, found a lot in common. They started dating and before they knew it she moved out and was living with my uncle. At seventeen years old, they started out on their own, building a home and a family. My cousins are so lucky.

So, that is my secret desire, to live in the United States, and to provide for my family. Maybe if I talked to the Principal, he would talk to my grandmother.

Our goats aren’t yielding like they did last year. Something is killing them in the night, some say it is the witches from the hills, others say it is the Chupacabra. Both are mythical creatures but I have heard the yelpings and squealings coming from high in the sky, and I am not too sure what to believe. I just stay huddled with my siblings and pray the Our Father for protection.

I wondered if I could all tell this to the principal. Would he feel compelled to listen?

I lifted our meals and walked toward the grave with the freshly placed flowers. The sky had darkened since leaving the school, and I thought it might rain…but how unusual. It hadn’t rained in four months and it normally doesn’t rain in November, at least, not in this part of Mexico.

As I approached the gravesite the wind grew crisp, the food started cooling off, and I rushed toward my destination. An owl hooted somewhere within the tombstones and I turned my head to look, missing my step. I fell and the food went everywhere.

The glass jars with creamy white milk splashed against the uneven gravel. Our breads with the heaps of beans rolled in the dust and dirt. I cried out loud at my failure, and my tears melded with the rain that was just starting.

I felt a heavy hand grab a hold of my shirt and lift me up. I was face up toward the sky, drops started splashing my eyes and I couldn’t look down. I was floating up into the sky. The clouds and thunder were closer. The rain was cold and I closed my eyes and started praying.

I opened my eyes, and I was on my feet, standing alone in the graveyard. The rain stopped and I looked at the mess on the ground which was supposed to be the offering of a special meal.

I knelt at his grave, and wept. I told the principal, “I’ve failed you. I have come empty-handed on this Day of the Dead. You have every right to scorn me, but thank you for picking me up when I fell and dropped the food. I know I cannot ask anything of you now because of my failure.”

It felt like forever. Sharp cold, wet scruff scratched my face. A light in the distance glowed like that of a porch. I felt like I hadn’t eaten in days. My throat felt dry and my hands were wet with sweat.

I heard flapping in the wind and from the top of one of the pine trees I heard a powerful but gentle hoot. It reminded me of the hoot I heard earlier, but it sounded wicked now. I heard rustling but out of respect for Day of the Dead, I kept my eyes closed. Only when I felt a soft palm go across my face did I dare open my eyes.

A man’s shape materialized over the principal’s grave. He moved out of the way and the graveyard morphed into a room, one that I had never seen before. I walked into a warm, steamy bathroom. I turned my head into the mirror and I looked into my eyes. I recognized the face, the eyes and the smile.

I was the same person who had held the hot lunch on his thighs. I was the same kid who liked to joke at recess with his friends. I had not changed but my future was changing into something deeper and more meaningful. My smile was crisper, my eyes brighter, I didn’t feel suffocated, I felt liberated. I felt that my dreams could come true. That little boy’s dreams started to become his own and not of others, this is what changed, and I knew that somehow, the principal had shown me the wonder of America.

Jorge B. Valdes Jr., lives in East Texas and contributes to movie, film, and book reviews for The Horror Zine, and having contributed to their anthology, “A Feast of Frights.” On his time off, he tries to fit in with the real world but enjoys escaping into the realm of fiction. Jorge is happily married and has three wonderful dogs named Rex, Shadow and Corben.