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On a rainy first of November many years ago, my friend Anne took me to Chicago’s National Museum of Mexican Art for its Dia de los Muertos celebration. I was immediately smitten by the altars, those skeletons, the offerings, the colors. That first Day of the Dead experience still dances in my bones. (Thank you, Annie!)
When I was working on the closing scenes of my novel Human Slices, I imagined my female protagonist heartbroken and numb at Halloween. Then she went off and created a Day of the Dead altar.
Whenever this day comes around, I think of this scene with Salm — which is her odd little nickname for her longer nickname, Little Salmon. Here’s an excerpt from the last chapter of Human Slices.
Happy Dia de los Muertos!
As the wet autumn leaves squeaked underfoot, Salm lugged four small pumpkins up the stairs to her apartment. She spread several Sunday papers onto the kitchen floor and sat down, putting the pumpkins between her legs. She cut deep wounds around their stems, and after pulling off the tops, she settled in for the best part of the job—digging her hands into the cold slime and separating the stringy innards from the seeds.
She spent the early evening washing the pumpkin seeds, salting them, and baking them in her oven. She was going to take the seeds to Sylvia and Reed’s tomorrow. They had just moved in together, and they were having a Day of the Dead celebration in conjunction with their housewarming party. Reed had told her he had a mild addiction to pumpkin seeds. While the seeds cooked, Salm sliced unhappy geometric expressions into the pumpkins’ faces.
Sylvia had introduced Salm to the Day of the Dead rituals—Dia de los Muertos—years ago. It was the day the dead came back to visit the earth. Creating an altar with candles was essential. The altar honored their memory, and the candles guided their way.
After the pumpkins were carved, Salm lined them on top of her kitchen table. She went into her pantry and dug out the voodoo candles she bought at Maxwell Street last year—thick, round candles encased in sparkling glass. Her cats followed Salm from room to room as she roamed her apartment, picking up assorted mementos—photographs, bits of memorabilia, postcards, souvenirs, a book of poetry, letters, holy cards.
On her bureau, she found Luke’s dog magnets. She arranged and rearranged everything until the memories were in their right places. Then she sprinkled the entire creation with glitter. Satisfied with the altar’s look, she rummaged through the cabinet under her sink to find an old bottle of mescal and poured herself a double shot. She lit the candles and turned off the overhead light.
She sat at the kitchen table and watched the candles flicker. “To the dead,” she began, lifting the shot glass to her eyes and squinting through it. She threw the fiery liquid down her throat.
Salm toasted to the pumpkins. “To Dad.” She sighed.
“Aunt Elaine, Grandma and Grandpa Collins, Big Fred, Grandma Penszak.” She sat in silence.
“To Sandy, my guardian angel, Bobby Kennedy, Uncle Walt, Theresa, Peter. Jennifer, Cal, Les, Stuart, Rick, Terrence.”
As always, Luke was on her mind. “To Luke’s parents, his Uncle Jerry, Greg, Anne Marie and all the rest.” She felt a certain numbness from the mescal overtaking her fingers and toes.
“To all of the lovers and friends who are dead…really dead…and the ones who are dead to me from absence.” She felt tears burn in her eyes.
“And, of course, to Luke.” She spoke quietly and solemnly.
The candle flames quivered and swayed, catching and reflecting the light of the raindrops on the window.
Salm sat still for a long, long time.
She thought she heard a knock at the back door, but it must have been a branch, or a tipped garbage can being blown down the alley.
“It’s open,” she thought to herself. She remembered saying that to Luke so many times.
There was another knock. She looked up to the back door and thought she saw Luke’s image through the screen. She wondered if the mescal could cause such a hallucination.
“Salm?” Luke said quietly.
Human Slices is available for Kindle and in print on Amazon.