The International Writers Magazine: Towards the Graveyard in
Dia de Todos Santos- Oh when the Saints
B. Lafe Metz
I'll kick them in their rotten nuts
Oh how I'd love to be armed with a shotgun
And tell the Saints to kiss my butt
The bus driver was
drunk, but I felt good. I was wedged in the back seat of a chicken bus
with one arm around a pretty blond who wore sunglasses, Swiss braids
and a blue bandana. With my other hand I pressed La Prensa Libre against
the seat back in front of us. We giggled over the Spanish translations
of Garfield and Igor, waiting for the bus to start.
It was about 9.30am on El Dia de Todos Santos, one of the biggest fiestas
of the year. To solve the admittedly vexing problem of a drunken driver
- not hung over, mind you, but still drunk - the bus company opted to
sober him up with strong instant coffee and fruit salad. It stood to
reason since the other drivers were likely drunker still.
Belching a cloud of diesel fumes, the bus lurched forward, jostling
over the cobblestones. I was leaning against the rear door, which sprung
open when the driver ignored the speed bumps at the edge of town. Beginning
to fall, I clutched desperately at the seat. My pretty German girl grabbed
my wrist and pulled me into her arms. "Christ," I muttered,
watching the joke news flutter out the open door and wrap itself around
the trunk of a roadside avocado tree. The rest of the trip, I kept one
arm around the girl and held the broken door closed with the other.
Making a five point turn in the middle of a four lane highway, the bus
pulled into a gas station to refuel. I watched the driver puke behind
the ramshackle outhouse, the poor bastard.
Back on the road, we crawled through almost impenetrable traffic as
we neared Santiago. We were headed for a graveyard to watch the giant
kites and enjoy the mayhem. The bus parted the sea of tostada and corn
vendors, impromptu beer men, and Mayan kitsch magnates like a buffalo
running through tall grass. Just before we began to plow women and children
under the bus, the driver thought it a good time to stop. We threw the
back door open like people buried alive. Men swung down the ladders
like firemen, held the women by the hips as they jumped to the street.
milled through the throng, clutching purses and wallets, deflecting
the entreaties of an endless procession of salesmen, charlatans
and would-be friends, pushing our way to the graveyard. Stopping
along the way in a private house, we paid a quetzal each to use
the filthy bathroom. To flush, you dip a bucket into a 55 gallon
drum of water and splash the water into the churning pot.
I'm lacquered in sunscreen and wearing shades and a ballcap, the
sun is shouting in my face like an angry school teacher. Most of
the locals are pretty short; I'm grateful that I can see over the
cacophony of undulating black heads. But I can't move, I'm hungry,
sweaty, hot and starting to get pissed off.
But at the side of the road a woman is selling delicious ears of
grilled corn. Forgetting my troubles, fighting the current, I float
across the street on the sweet smoky scent of burning corn like
a cartoon mouse on a trail of limberger. Forking over three quetzales,
a greedy smile spread across my face as I accepted the hot ear of
a corn, served on a single sheet of husk with a wedge of lime and
a pile of sea salt.
Rejoining my friends,
I resume climbing toward the graveyard. Perreo, merengue, salsa and
John Cougar Mellencamp pound the air like the president's helicopter.
On stage, two nearly naked teenage girls grind their hips beautifully
but sing like confused hens. I watch for a while, happily munching my
We're nearly at the graveyard and start to get swept along in the avalanche
of people thundering into a narrow canyon. People press against me from
all sides. I can barely move. And suddenly, I can't move at all. "What
the fuck," I think, flailing my arms like a man in a straight jacket.
Then I feel the sickening lightening of my right front pocket. My fucking
wallet. I look murderously to the left and right. On either side of
me, a thick Mayan guy pins my arm to my side like a captured pigeon.
To my surprise, the thief, a squat 50-year old Mayan woman, runs forward
past me. I lunge for her but we are already a few yards apart and I
can't penetrate the crowd. Everyone seems to be in on the heist.
"Bernt! Grab her!" I yell to my friend, dropping my corn and
thrusting heads out of my path. He gets an armful of her handmade blouse
and holds her as she thrashes like a hooked catfish. I fight through
the still thickening crowd, face contorted, bald head sweating and dark
red. Just before I get to her, she drops my wallet from under a cloth
she wears wound around both hands like a muff. Goddamn wallet was a
gift from my best friend. Two grimy, barefooted urchins appear from
nowhere, dodging around people and between legs, snatch my wallet from
the ground and disappear into the surging throng. I know it's over.
"Give me back my wallet," I shout at the woman in Spanish.
"No hablo español, señor."
"Bullshit. Give me my wallet you goddamned thief."
"Por favor, señor, no hablo español." She starts
to sob. Fat tears stream down her fat dirty face.
"Go to hell, señora." Unclenching my fists, I push
her away in disgust.
"For fuck's sake, this sucks," I grumble. Never trust a woman's
tears. Or a dog with its tail between its legs.
So I'm broke. I try to make the best of it. A Canadian water engineer
buys me a beer.
I share an ice cream with my German girl.
Looking up from the ice cream, I see that we've reached the graveyard.
A dozen enormous kites hang perilously in the baking white sky. They
are circular and thirty feet across, painted construction paper stretched
across bamboo frames, patched with newspaper and homemade glue. Each
sports a towering pennant at noon, usually the blue white and blue Guatemalan
flag, and a long tail of garbage bags tied together like bedsheets to
escape this madhouse. Groups of men and teenage boys man the thick kite
strings. On the ground are yet bigger kites, 60 feet across, awaiting
a stiffer breeze. One advertises the benefits of physical education.
Its neighbor promotes Payasos, the national brand of smokes. The grand
daddy of them all protests violence against women. Each is a mesmerizing
pattern of bright colors that will tumble and swirl in the sky like
From time to time, the strings of two thirty-footers become ensnared
and kites crash to earth with surprising speed, a meteor shower of giant
gobstoppers. Like friendly ants, boys flit over the rocky hillside,
hopping over gravestones, dodging soda stands, to retrieve and mend
the kites. They're airborne again within 15 minutes.
Every grave appears to be freshly dug. Mounds of newly turned earth
hide bodies in shallow graves. Driving a spade once, you would crack
a collarbone or hip. The Guatemalans are unconcerned. A two-year old
girl lays face down on a warm burial mound, happily licking a filthy
popsicle she has just flavored with dirt. Her parents point and laugh.
Domino's Pizza men buzz through the graveyard like mosquitoes, dragging
their dirty shoes and tired legs over trampled flowers and flattened
burial mounds. An ice cream man wheels his cold, heavy cart over graves,
halting atop a mound to sell a frozen chocolate banana.
My friends are perched on a green, split-level mausoleum, drinking beer
and smoking cigarettes, imitating the locals. We are mostly Germans
and Americans, with a gay Irishman and a haughty Canadian thrown in
for good measure. We are surprised at how quickly we overcome our idea
of respect for the dead and adopt the Guatemalan custom. It's more fun
to drink beer than to cry, especially when they ain't your relatives.
A bit later, an old woman, her daughter and granddaughter arrive to
pay their respects to the husband and two brothers buried in the mausoleum
were sitting on. They are unphased, even friendly. They hand up
bleach bottles filled with water and motion for us to clean off the
roof. We do. They affix wreathes of flowers to the front and back of
the tomb. Once the roof is clean, they hand up bags of long soft pine
needles, which we spread across the roof. Next they send up a bag of
red rose petals, which we sprinkle over the pine needles. It looks and
smells goddamned beautiful. Once we've finished, they smile at us happily.
The old man, a sociology professor, died of cancer; the brothers in
a motorcycle accident. We have moved to the roof of the neighboring
mausoleum, but they insist that we resume drinking on their roof. They
smile and clap when we move back. The daughter accepts a beer, which
she opens with a giggle and raises to us in a toast.
Two dogs run by, stopping occasionally to tear at a baby diaper they
have rooted from the trash. People are pissing everywhere, good naturedly.
I am still mad about my wallet. Cracking a new beer, I hunch in the
shadow of a looted mausoleum, piss on a fresh grave, and feel that all
© B. Lafe Metz Feb 2005
all rights reserved