“You never went trick-or-treating, Simon?” Steve asked as we went about doing the prep work on a house we were painting. Late October was just about the end of the outdoor painting season and Papi had already started lining up interior paint jobs, starting in November. Steve, of course, was back in school – his first semester of high school – and so he was only available to help with painting on the weekends. As a runaway, I couldn’t go back to school, and I was just happy to have a roof over my head. The Rodriguez family had taken me in during this particularly dark time in my life, after I’d just managed to escape from Missouri’s juvenile justice system. Not that I’d done anything wrong, other than getting caught sleeping in a public park.
“I didn’t say I never went,” I clarified, “but my bastard of a father wouldn’t let me spend any money on a costume and he confiscated any candy I collected, so what was the point? Living out in a shack in the woods, it wasn’t like we’d get any trick-or-treaters, either. I went out a few times when I was younger, dressed in my rattiest clothes as a hobo, but that cut a little too close to home, so I gave up on it.”
Although I had reason to hide some of what happened, particularly with regard to leaving home, the truth was that I did grow up in a shack in the middle of nowhere in Southern Indiana. My mom died in childbirth, so it was just me and my dad, who’d sexually abused me for as long as I could remember. He tried to strangle me on my thirteenth birthday and so I shot and killed him with his own gun, and then I ran. It might have been self-defense, but in Indiana, even at the age of thirteen, I’d have been tried as an adult. Because of that, no one could ever know the truth.
The one good thing – my sorry excuse for a father did, was to teach me the right way to paint. He might have been a total fuck-up in life, but he managed to build a reputation for meticulous workmanship when it came to handiwork and painting houses. It was a good thing too, ’cause otherwise we’d have starved. I was convinced I had a guardian angel, ’cause when I escaped from Juvenile Justice in Missouri, I came on Papi and Steve by happenstance. I was trying to find the bridge over the Kansas River, so I could cross over from Kansas City, Missouri to Kansas City, Kansas, when I came across the two of them, painting a house on a side street near the bridge. They’d just lost their older son in Afghanistan and were in desperate need of help with their painting business, and I knew how to paint. I might have been just a kid, but I did a better job than most adults, so Papi hired me on the spot, paying me under the table and giving me a roof over my head and food in my stomach.
The fact that Steve – actually, Esteban was his given name – was good looking, close to my age and gay was a definite bonus. They may have been devout Catholics but family came first, so when it came to their gay son, Mamá and Papi Rodriguez were loving and accepting.
“Well, we are definitely going trick-or-treating,” Steve continued, “but it won’t be anything like the Halloween you’re used to. Maybe you saw the James Bond movie, Spectre —”
“Are you kidding? The only movies I used to see were the ones that were free on TV. Return of the Jedi was the first and only movie I ever saw in a theater. My dad liked James Bond, though, but the last one I saw was Goldeneye, I think.”
“Goldeneye! Jeez, that’s ancient! We’ll have to stream some of the more recent ones, to get you up to speed. But getting back to Spectre, the opening scene begins with a ‘Day of the Dead’ parade in Mexico City. The funny thing is that there never used to be a ‘Day of the Dead’ parade, but the movie generated so much interest that they’ve been holding one every year ever since the movie came out, in 2015.”
“That sounds interesting, but what the fuck does that have to do with Halloween?” I asked.
“Okay, I thought maybe you saw the movie, but I guess in Southern Indiana, you probably didn’t have much exposure to Latin culture.”
“Most of the migrant farm workers were Mexican,” I noted, “but the kids were only in school for a short time during the spring and fall, so I never really got to know them. They pretty much kept to themselves and spoke Spanish with each other, so the rest of us left them alone.”
“Well, if you don’t even know what the ‘Day of the Dead’ is, you’re about to get a crash course,” Steve explained. “It’s a very big deal in our culture and this year will be the first time we’ll celebrate it since Roberto died. We must remember him – to celebrate his life and to honor him. We’ll build a big shrine, and we’ll dance. It’s a really big deal.”
“On Halloween?” I asked incredulously.
“Not Halloween,” Steve countered. “On the festival known as Día de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead. You probably already know this, but Halloween was adapted from a pagan holiday, once celebrated by the Druids. To appease the evil spirits and to get them to leave them alone, their children dressed up as the dead and the townspeople gave them candy. At least that’s the legend. When Christianity came to Europe, the pagan ritual was incorporated into Christian traditions, much as Christ’s birthday was changed from January to December to incorporate it into the pagan celebration of the winter solstice. It’s no coincidence that Christmas occurs just after the shortest day of the year.”
“Yes, I knew all of that, of course, but it originated with the Celts more than two thousand years ago. Your version is close enough.”
“The Day of the Dead has its origin in the Catholic holiday of All Hallows’ Day,” Steve continued, “which is better known as All Saints’ Day – the day when we honor the saints who gave their lives for us – and the holiday of All Souls’ Day, when we remember the souls of the faithful who have departed. You’re probably familiar with the term, All Hallow’s Eve, which incorporated the existing traditions of the Druids into what became Halloween, but Catholics celebrate All Saints’ Day on November 1 and All Souls’ Day on November 2. Most Americans don’t even know of those traditions, let alone of the origin of Halloween.
“In Mexico, however, the traditions of All Hallows’ Eve, All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day, have been incorporated into the multi-day celebration known as Día de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, which honors the saints, our departed faithful and even our dearly beloved and departed but not so faithful into one extravagant celebration.
“We’ll start by building an ofenda – that’s an altar – in our house, in the back bedroom, to honor, remember and celebrate Roberto’s life. Wednesday evening, we’ll dress up as the dead and go around from house to house – what you call trick-or-treating – and people will give us cavalaras, which are candy skulls, and alfeñiques, which are sugar confections. We’ll light votive candles in front of Robert’s altar, and we’ll go to church to pray. We’ll go to church on Thursday and pray to the saints, and then on Friday, we’ll go to church to pray for all the souls of the faithful who’ve departed. On both days, there will be celebrations and dancing. Like I said, it’s a big deal.”
“I take it we won’t be working then?” I asked.
“You’ll take off early in the afternoon on Wednesday, and not return to work until Saturday, but we’ll have to work extra hard on the weekends to make up for it, even on Sunday.”
“We’re gonna work next Sunday?” I asked in surprise.
“This Sunday too,” Steve added. “Sorry about the short notice, but we can’t afford to take off more than two days in a week, so we hafta work tomorrow and next Sunday to make up for it. Keep in mind, we’re still goin’ to Church on Thursday and Friday though.”
“I guess I can live with that.” Then I asked, “What are you planning to wear for trick-or-treating,” thinking perhaps we could coordinate our costumes.
“Probably not what you’re used to,” he answered. “It isn’t about trying to appease evil spirits – it’s a celebration of the lives of those who are no longer with us. We’ll dress up in all-black clothes with skull masks. Everyone in our neighborhood will be dressed like that. And like I said, we’ll get only traditional candy skulls and sugar confections. It’s traditional.”
“How’s it going, boys?” Papi asked as he started to pass by us on his way to the truck.
“We’re almost done with this section,” Steve answered.
“There are a few areas we’ll need to spot-prime, and then we can paint,” I added.
“Let me know when you finish, and we can break for lunch while the primer dries,” Papi said as he headed out to the truck and swapped an empty can of paint for a new one.
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After an incredible dinner of entomatadas and enchiladas de pollo con mole verde, which is Oaxacan cheese-stuffed tortillas and chicken enchiladas with green sauce, I started looking up everything I could find about the Day of the Dead while Steve worked on his homework. After a while, he came out into the den wearing his usual attire, consisting of nothing more than boxers, and looked over my shoulder at the computer screen. I was looking at a spread of Day of the Dead costumes.
“I’m afraid our costumes won’t be anywhere near that fancy,” Steve responded.
“You mean people don’t dress like that in Kansas City?” I asked.
“Some do, but we’ve never had the time or the money to spend on fancy costumes. Besides, it never paid to spend a lot on me, ’case I’d outgrow my costume every year.”
“But these aren’t that expensive,” I pointed out. “You can buy most of them from Applazon or Walmart for only forty bucks.”
“And at that price, I’m sure they’d look like crap,” Steve countered. “Wearing something like that would be an insult to Roberto.”
By then, Mamá had joined us and she said, “I can make something much better than any of those.”
“But you have to work,” I protested.
“I’d already planned on taking the week off while you boys go to school and keep working. As a nurse’s aide, I barely make more than minimum wage anyway, which amounts to mierda in Kansas. The food and the candy aren’t going to cook themselves, after all, and someone has to build Roberto’s ofenda. I can squeeze in making some costumes too. The hardest part will be the face paint. If we’re going to do it right, we must use face paint instead of masks. We already have a dark grey suit for Estaban, and for you, Simon, one of Roberto’s old suits should fit you just fine, the way his other clothes do, but maybe with a little alteration. You just leave everything to me.”
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Papi and I usually worked six days in a row, with Steve helping on Saturdays, taking off only on Sundays, when we all went to church. I wasn’t at all religious, having been raised without anything, and I considered myself to be what I referred to as a radical agnostic, but staying home on Sundays wasn’t an option. Although I couldn’t take the sacrament, I found myself actually enjoying the services, even though they were entirely in Spanish. I understood the language and the more I heard it, the better I got at my pronunciation, which had been horrible when I first met the Rodriguez clan.
The best part of Sundays, however, was what came after the service, with the social and a spread of food that was some of the best I’d ever tasted. Not only did it feel wrong to work on Sunday, but I seriously missed seeing the friends I’d started to make and the lavish feast. At least we had Steve’s help with the work on Sunday, but by the time we knocked off working on Wednesday, I was seriously dragging.
Papi and I knocked off work a bit early on Wednesday and by the time we got home, we were greeted by a ghastly skeleton, wearing a suit. I’d seen skeleton costumes before back in Indiana, but Steve’s costume was nothing like those. His face, neck and even his ears were completely covered in a ghoulish cast of white makeup, with his eye sockets and nose covered in black makeup, which made his eyes look sunken and almost hidden, and made his nose look like it wasn’t even there. Surrounding his mouth was an intricate drawing of a skeleton’s teeth, which spread out across his cheeks and into his jaw. He wore a fancy wide-brimmed black hat with colorful flowers on top of the brim. I doubted that a professional could have done a better job with his fancy charcoal grey suit, black dress shoes and one of Mamá’s frilly white blouses that was embroidered with colorful flowers. To complete the ensemble were skin-tight white gloves.
Mamá came up behind Steve, and she was in a flowing red dress with a red hat, and her face was equally made up as Steve’s was. “Come, Simon, we must get you ready to go out for the evening,” she said, and then added, “and you too, Arturo, so you can help me to give out cavalaras.”
Papi and I quickly showered and then Mamá spent over an hour, just on the makeup for our faces. We got dressed in dress suits and I was surprised at how well Roberto’s suit fit me, with nothing more needed than taking in the sleeves and pant legs by about an inch. Roberto’s dress shoes fit almost perfectly. Under the suit vest I wore one of Mamá’s white blouses, with puffy sleeves and a white fluffy lace scarf with an ornate red broach, worn around the neck. I too wore a wide-brimmed black hat with flowers around the top of the brim, similar to Steve’s
After eating a quick meal of tlayuda, which were miniature pizzas topped with beans and cheese, we lit votive candles in front of Roberto’s oferenda, which I was seeing for the first time. In fact, it was the first time I had seen any photos of Roberto, who was an exceptionally handsome youth who looked very much like an older version of Steve. The oferenda was decorated with several photos of Roberto throughout his boyhood, as well as a large photo of him in his army uniform. The altar was covered in golden Aztec marigolds, which I’d learned are traditional for Day of the Dead celebrations. Seeing his pictures and wearing his clothes, I felt closer to him as a family member and I felt much the same sadness that the family felt at his loss.
Steve and I went out canvasing the neighborhood, which was much larger than I’d realized, visiting as many houses as we could, at which we received cavalaras and alfeñiques, as well as numerous complements about our costumes. Fortunately, the weather was perfect, with partly cloudy skies and temperatures in the mid-fifties. Steve told me how he froze his ass off just last year, when it was down in the thirties, but the year before, it was in the seventies, which made him sweat in his costume. The good news was that late October was exceptionally dry in Kansas City and he could only recall one time that it had rained on Halloween, and never during trick-or-treating. Surprisingly, when we got home, we didn’t gorge on our treats, but rather we added them to Roberto’s oferenda, as a gift.
Unfortunately, removing all the makeup that evening was not fun at all, and it seemed to take even longer than it had to put it all on. Of course the next morning, after another of Mamá’s sumptuous breakfasts, we repeated the entire process of applying makeup and getting dressed in our costumes. After another visit to the back bedroom, where Roberto’s oferenda was situated, and lighting more votive candles and offering prayers, we headed to church for the festival of All Saints’ Day. Much to my surprise, everyone was in costume, from the smallest babies to the priest himself. The mood was festive, and everyone seemed to be joyous. After the service, we had a social unlike anything I’d seen before, which made me wonder what Christmas would be like. The food, the festivities and the dancing went nonstop into the night. After we finally removed all our makeup, hung up our costumes and went to bed, I was exhausted.
I must have fallen asleep the moment my head hit the pillow, but then I was no longer asleep in my bed in Kansas City. I was in a world of amazement, with vibrant colors and fireworks, and there was continuous Mariachi music playing. I was in a Mexican town with adobe buildings and a town plaza with a fountain in the center. All around there were skeletons… no, they were people. Instinctively I knew I must be in the land of the dead, but did that mean that I was dead? I couldn’t find a mirror, but I looked at my hands, and they were still my hands, and not those of a skeleton. I was wearing white gloves and my suit jacket, but I could still feel my flesh and blood, so I must still be alive, but somehow, I was in the land of the dead. How could this be?
“Hello, David,” a I heard a kindly voice behind me. Although it wasn’t my name, somehow I knew he was talking to me and so I turned around to see Roberto, Steve’s brother. He was wearing his army uniform, but his face and hands were those of a skeleton. “I know you go by Simon now and that is how my family knows you. I know you used to go by Adam, and I know you will soon assume yet another identity. You were born as David, however, and that is always who you will be.”
“But how do you know that, Roberto? How do you know me?”
Smiling, though I wasn’t sure how I knew a skeleton was smiling, he replied, “Ah, you know who I am, even in your sleep—”
“I’m sleeping?” I was incredulous.
“Of course you’re sleeping. When was the last time you had a conversation with a skeleton? But in fact you’re not dreaming. I think you already know that. Your mind is creating this world of wonder you see – your version of the underworld – a world that doesn’t really exist, but you know in your heart that I’m real. You know that this conversation is real. You also know that your meeting my family was not by accident.”
With a snort, I responded, “Not that I believe in God, nor do I disbelieve, but I always wondered if I had a guardian angel. You don’t need to believe in an organized religion to believe in angels and it sure seemed like someone was watching over me that day when I met your family. Are you saying that you’re my guardian angel?”
“No offense, amigo, but you’re gonna do fine on your own. Your strong will, guts and tenacity will get you through almost any situation. Very few boys would’ve survived the abuse you endured. Sure, I wanted to help you, but it was as much for what you could do for my family as it was for what they could do for you. My death hit them hard. It wasn’t that they didn’t need another set of hands, but Papi lost the will to live, and Mamá cried herself to sleep at night.
“No one took it harder than my kid brother, though. Steve looked up to me for his strength and support. When he thought he might be gay, it was me he came to first. I was the one who helped him through it and helped him get the nerve to tell our parents. Before you came along, he was floundering, man. He’d decided to give up on school and had already made plans to drop out when he turned sixteen. He was even thinking of joining the army, or of taking his own life.” I flinched on hearing that. “Can you imagine what it would’ve been like if our parents lost both their sons like that? Thanks to you, now he’s even thinking of going to college. You saved him, David. You saved my whole family.”
“But they threw me a lifeline when I needed it the most,” I protested. “I couldn’t have made it without their help.”
“That’s not true, David. You’d have made it, regardless. It wouldn’t have been easy and there’s a good chance you’d have had to sell yourself, but you’d have survived, and you would have persevered, regardless. By finding you and bringing you here, I saved you all of that, but I saved my family more heartache than you can imagine.”
“Jeez, maybe I should stay and help them get more on their feet,” I said.
Shaking his head, which almost caused his eyes to fall out of their sockets, Roberto replied, “No, David. My family is fine, now, thanks to you. Their business is doing well and they’ll hire more people – which they should’ve done as soon as I enlisted. They’ll even make it through the pandemic—”
“Some things are better left for the future, where they belong,” Roberto explained. “There will be some tough times ahead for America and for the world. I just want you to know that all will be well in the end. My family’s business will thrive, Steve will be inspired by the pandemic and go on to get his nursing degree, at a time when nurses are desperately needed. You, on the other hand, will go on to do great things. Your future lies far from here, in places all over the world.”
“How the hell do you know that?” I asked.
“Because you are special, David. Soon, you will meet the boy of your dreams, but you won’t realize it for quite some time. The two of you will invent entirely new technologies, you’ll raise a large family and your influence on the future will be extraordinary, but you’ll never forget who you are or from where you came.”
Laughing, I replied, “Now I know this is all just a dream – the result of my imagination running wild.”
“Believe what you want, David, but in time you’ll remember this moment and realize that everything I’ve said has come to pass.” With that, Roberto just faded away. He didn’t walk away or crumble to dust – he just – vanished, leaving me standing there in the middle of the square, with skeletons dancing all around me.
Then, suddenly, there was the imposing figure of my father before me. He was nothing more than a skeleton, but I recognized the clothes… and the gun in his hand. “Finally, revenge is mine!” he shouted, and then he fired the gun at me at point-blank range, causing me to fly backwards.
I landed in my bed with a jolt as my eyes flew open. It was dark, my bedsheets were soaked, and I was shaking. Then the light came on and I saw Steve, sitting up on the side of his bed, across from me. “I take it you had another one of your nightmares?” he asked.
“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you,” I replied. “I dreamt I saw Roberto in a Mexican town, in the afterlife.”
Stretching and yawning, Steve said, “It’s probably just because we’ve been focusing on him, and because of the Day of the Dead celebration, you know? We should go back to sleep. Mamá will want to get started on our makeup early in the morning.”
“Yeah, of course,” I said as I concluded that Steve was undoubtedly right. My dream had been nothing more than a dream, fueled by the day’s activities and my thoughts of having a guardian angel. I too stretched, with my hands behind my neck, my elbows to the side and my back arched.
“God, Simon, I’ll never be able to go back to sleep if you keep reminding me how sexy you are.”
Laughing, I said, “I’m only stretching…”
“And showing off your magnificent body. Come on, now, let’s get some sleep.”
Steve turned off the light and I turned over. The next thing I knew, it was light out and Mamá was knocking on the door, telling us it was time to get up. After taking our turns in the shower and yet another sumptuous breakfast, we submitted ourselves yet again to Mamá’s skills in applying makeup.
Although yesterday had been festive, today’s festivities were even more so, as this was the celebration of All Souls’ Day, the celebration of departed loved ones. We started with a service in the church, but then we went to the nearby cemetery, where most of the community’s deceased members were buried. It was the first time I’d been to the cemetery since coming to Kansas City, and the first time I’d seen the family visit it.
We quickly located Roberto’s grave on a large enough plot to accommodate Mamá and Papi someday, and maybe even Steve and his husband, and although the Rodriguez family was of modest means, the headstone was elaborate and included a large photo of their son. I knew that the army most likely had provided funds for the funeral and burial, but the headstone was well beyond anything the military would’ve provided. We unloaded the car and built an oferenda on top of the gravesite, lined with Aztec marigolds and Calvera, and some of Roberto’s favorite foods. We lit votive candles, and then set out a picnic on the family plot, with far more food than we could possibly hope to eat, so that we could share our food with the other families.
Steve took me around to the other gravesites, where families I knew from church were celebrating the lives of their loved ones – grandparents, parents, uncles, aunts, brothers and sisters, and sadly, children they’d lost too. At each gravesite, there were enormous spreads of food set out and of course, they shared their food with us. It would’ve been rude of us not to have eaten it, so of course, we filled our bottomless teenage stomachs.
A Mariachi band played traditional Mexican music and people got up and danced in their costumes. It was quite a sight. At one point I saw Roberto sitting on top of his own headstone, appearing just as he had in my dream last night. I did a double take and when I looked again, he was gone. Obviously, it had been my imagination, but then Steve asked, “Did you see that? Roberto was sitting on his headstone.” I was dumbstruck, and all I could do was to nod my head. “He’s here with us, Simon. Roberto’s right here with us.”
The dancing, singing and eating went on into the evening, and it was well after dark when we finally cleaned up from the picnic and headed back home, where Mamá helped us remove all of our makeup. That night in bed, Steve and I looked at each other as if trying to decide. We were both horny as hell, but because we were exhausted from all the festivities and with Saturday being a regular workday, we just turned off the light and said our goodnights.
As I drifted off to sleep, I couldn’t help but remember my dream of seeing Roberto, but then even Steve had seen him at the gravesite. Much of what I remembered from that dream seemed preposterous, but Roberto confirmed what I’d always suspected – that a guardian angel had brought me to the Rodriguez family. I still wasn’t convinced it had been more than a dream, but if true, it had been Steve’s brother.
I was in the process of trying to forge a false identity for myself as a sixteen-year-old, which would allow me to get my GED, my driver’s license and to get a legitimate job. Eventually, I would go to college, but to do all those other things Roberto had told me about seemed so far-fetched to my thirteen-year-old mind.
Content in that I was where I was supposed to be, I turned over and went to sleep.
Author’s Note: Día de los Muertos is based on the serial novel The Brilliant Boy Billionaire and it shares some of the same characters. The concept originated with Part 5, Chapter 8, in which Simon, now known as J.J., celebrates Halloween with the Gonzalez family in Omaha, but remembers back to his first Halloween after running away from home, a Day of the Dead celebration with the Rodriguez family, that hadn’t been described previously. This Halloween short story describes that experience.
The author gratefully acknowledges the invaluable assistance of David of Hope in editing my stories, as well as Awesome Dude and Gay Authors for hosting them. The author retains full copyright and permission must be obtained prior to duplication in any form.