I was lucky to survive sixth grade. It was the same year the Plaza de Toros Monumental was demolished just across the border. It was a supermarket that muscled the historic bullfighting ring out of existence. Like the Plaza, I always had a target on my back. It was like I was being chased down the halls and classrooms and even at home to be taunted and trampled by vicious bulls. The teasing at school was especially ruthless. My mother didn’t help.
“I hate these shoes!” I told her.
“Raul, you don’t have a choice.”
My father stuck his head in the room. “Listen to your mother.”
I made the angriest face I could make. Stupid shoes. Torn laces. Too big for my feet. Bright ugly red. Like clown shoes. But I put them on, and my father left.
“You’re lucky Ernesto grew out of them, or you’d have no shoes at all,” my mother said.
I walked to school and met Jorge on the way, my only friend at school. He had his Chivas, white and red, regulation-sized soccer ball with him, as usual. We walked together, kicking the ball the whole way. We left a trail of dust behind us on the dirt and gravel road. The houses in the town where we lived, outside of El Paso in a place no one knows, were few and scattered across the dry landscape.
“You think I could play professional?” Jorge asked.
“If you practiced a lot,” I answered.
“I do. Watch.” Jorge kicked the ball up over his head and kept juggling it in the air with his knees, head, and chest. He finished with a kick that sent it two stories high and landed at my feet.
“That was, what, seven or eight? How many can you do?”
I was good, but never as good as Jorge and only managed two kicks before my left shoe flew off. I hopped on one foot, trying to avoid touching my barefoot to the dusty road. Jorge played with the ball while I put my shoe back on, as if he didn’t see it happen. He knew it was embarrassing enough for me to wear them to school. He never mentioned it.
We didn’t have the same teacher. I was on my own until after school. I sped to class and sat down first, so no one would see me walk in with my hand-me-down clown shoes. I had just covered my feet with my backpack when the warning bell rang. Everyone filed into the classroom and sat down. A jerk sat next to me.
“Give me some paper.”
I ignored him. I felt him staring, so I turned and said, “What?”
The jerk smiled and took my backpack out from under me. He planned to dump out my backpack and humiliate me, but then he saw my shoes.
“Nice shoes, freak,” he said and faked throwing my backpack at my face. I flinched. He laughed, took some paper out of my backpack, and dropped it on the floor.
I met up with Jorge after school. We walked home, kicking the ball like we had in the morning. We were almost home when Jorge stopped in front of the ranch owned by Mr. and Mrs. Chavez.
“I bet I can make it from here.” He motioned with his head to the fence in the front of the ranch.
Jorge placed the ball on the ground. He aimed and kicked, sending it sailing into the fence and hitting the sun-baked wood with a thud.
“I told you.” Jorge nodded with his hands outspread like he scored a goal in a big stadium.
“It’s not that hard. I can do it, too.”
I kicked the ball to the street, took a few steps back, aimed, and kicked the ball towards the fence. It hit the fence dead-on. It rolled back down towards us and Jorge kicked it again, hitting the fence a third time. I took another turn. And another and another.
“Alright, last one. Watch this,” I said.
I got a running start and kicked the ball, faking out no one in particular, like it was a penalty kick.. I watched as it flew towards the wooden fence. The rusted latch fell off and the fence flew open.
“Get my ball before the old man comes out,” Jorge said.
I walked over to the fence and retrieved the ball. I was ready to kick it back to him when a snorting sound startled me.
“Did you hear that?” I said.
“Bull,” Jorge said again, pointing over my shoulder.
I turned around. A big, black bull, framed by the open wooden fence. Without thinking about the ball, Jorge, or anything else, I spun around and darted down the road. Jorge was long gone by now. I could barely see him in the distance as I ran toward him. I was pumping my legs as fast as I could. I looked back, slowing down for a moment. The bull was right behind me. I faced forward and ran with my eyes closed. I could hear the hooves of the bull and its snorting. I’d been to a bullfight in Mexico with my family, and I knew the animal wanted revenge. I opened my eyes, but still ran with my head down. I looked down at my feet. Shit. My big red shoes.
I ran down the street and started hopping on my right foot, pulling off my left shoe. I tossed it over my head and behind me. I hopped on my left foot and pulled off my other shoe. I ran barefoot on the August gravel until I saw Jorge perched on the fence of his house.
“Hurry up!” he yelled and held out his hand.
I jumped up towards him, running up the fence, defying gravity. We both fell hard on the other side. It felt like I was breathing through a straw. My feet were dirty, bloody and blistered, stuck by a few splinters from the fence. The combination made bloody mud on my feet.
I limped home through the lawns of our few neighbors who had grass. The cool feeling helped, but not much.
My mother was asleep on the couch, in pile of socks and underwear. She had worked late again and fell asleep while folding laundry. The door slammed behind me.
“How was school?” She yawned and started folding right where she’d left off.
I walked past her, focused on getting to my room to clean myself.
“Raul! Your feet… and your shoes?”
I had left rust-colored footprints on the white tile. She got a washcloth and sat me on the couch, nursing my wounds.
“I lost them. But I had to.”
“Me and Jorge were walking home from school. We were kicking the soccer ball and hit the Chavez’s fence. It broke open and a bull came after me.”
“Please, Raul.” She tossed the washcloth on the coffee table.
“He was chasing my shoes!”
“I was running and I took off my shoes and threw them at the bull, I had to. He would’ve killed me.”
“Raul, your dad’s work has been slow. I’ve been working late just to make ends meet, and you still lie.”
“It’s not a lie! Look at my feet!” I raised them to eye level.
“What did you really do? Throw them in a trash can?”
“I told you!”
“Go to your room. No soccer. No Jorge.”
I went to my room and fell asleep with my feet hanging off the bed for fear of getting blood on the sheets.
The next morning, I planned to watch Saturday morning cartoons when my mother interrupted: “Your father called and said he needs your help at the bakery.”
“He said I didn’t need to help him today.”
“He needs you now. Ernesto left a few minutes ago.” She shrugged.
I rode my bike to my father’s bakery, wondering what he needed help with so much that he needed me and Ernesto to go. When I arrived, I put a chain through the frame of the bike and locked it to my brother’s bike’s front wheel and the gas meter on the side of the building. Even with the chains and locks, we couldn’t take our bikes to school after Ernesto’s last bike was stolen. We could only ride to work.
I walked in, went behind the counter, and to the back. The smell of the bakery was usually sweet, with a little sourness. I slid my sandalled feet on the floor, gliding over the invisible grains of flour accumulated over several years, the ones you can’t sweep up. My father and my brother were standing next to Mando. I always called him Tío, though he wasn’t my uncle, just my father’s friend since childhood. Everyone called him Tío if they were young, Primo if they were old. He sat in a chair hunched over. Drunk, probably.
“Dad, what’s up?”
“Come over here and help us.”
I followed my father. My brother and I helped him get a big wooden crate out of the closet. It was from a huge donut mixer my father had gotten delivered to the bakery a long time ago. Now we used it to hold a bunch of supplies. Flour. Sugar. Buckets of whipped topping.
Tiny weevils and other bugs scurried away as we emptied the crate.
“What’s this for?” I asked.
“Bring it around this way. That’s good,” my father said. We sat it next to Mando.
“Why doesn’t he help?” I pointed to Mando.
“He’s dead, Raul.”
Those words didn’t make sense for a while. His mustache reminded me of one of those hairy caterpillars. I remembered being there the day before and Mando joking around with me and Ernesto.
“You’re bullshitting me.” It was the only condolence I could think of.
“Found him like this when I came in this morning.”
“Shouldn’t we call an ambulance or something?”
Ernesto interrupted us. “What are they going to do, dumbass?”
“He’s right, Raul. We just need to get him into the casket and take him to town.”
“That’s not a casket. It’s an old crate.” I was pleading with my father. “We can’t put him in that.”
“It’s just until we get to the funeral home in town. I’m not going to have him ride in the front seat of the van, am I?”
“But why do we have to-”
“Because Mando didn’t have any family. He’s worked with me since I opened the bakery. You’d do the same thing for Ernesto, or even Jorge. Right?”
He was right. I took a step back. I had never seen a dead body before, never thought that the first one would be sitting in the middle of the bakery.
“We’ll lift on three,” my dad said.
I took a step forward.
This is wrong.
We lifted him out of his chair. I felt weak, like I didn’t weigh anything. Then I felt Mando’s weight when I lifted and strained to help my brother.
We placed him on his back, inside the wooden box. Mando was on his back, but still in the sitting position, legs straight up in the air.
“Push his legs down,” my dad said.
“Me?” I asked.
“Just push his legs down so we can put the lid on it.”
I stared. Mando didn’t even look dead. I had seen him take plenty of naps while at the bakery. Sometimes he would open one eye to see if I was watching him and we’d laugh and he’d say, “Don’t let your old man catch me!” He was napping now. I waited for him to open one eye or for the caterpillar to twitch.
I took a deep breath and pushed down on his legs. Mando shot straight up in a sitting position. I jumped back, shaking. “I thought you said he was dead!” and I was weightless again, losing my balance.
“He is, he’s just a little, stiff,” my brother said, almost laughing. Ernesto pushed Mando’s torso back down and his legs came right back up. He pushed Mando’s legs down and his body came up, a seesaw.
“Ay güey,” Ernesto said. He made Mando teeter back and forth.
“Have some respect.” My dad shoved Ernesto aside. “Raul, hold his legs and I’ll straighten him out.”
“We’ll break him,” I said.
“No, we won’t. Hold him good.”
I held him down, putting my forearms on each of his shins. I closed my eyes and pressed down. I heard my father take a deep breath as he pushed Mando’s body down into the crate. Ernesto helped me. Mando made a sound that I can only describe as death creaking. The tension in his dead muscles vibrated through my arms.
“Hurry up, hurry up,” I said.
“That’s it.” My dad wiped the sweat from his forehead. He turned away from us to wipe his eyes.
Ernesto rubbed his hands on my shirt, as if giving me something contagious. He thought it would annoy me.
It didn’t. I felt better, like I was on the ground again, not floating.
We grabbed the top of the crate out of the closet and placed it over the makeshift casket. It took all three of us to lift it out to the delivery van. Ernesto put his bike inside the bakery and put the closed sign on the door.
“Ernesto and I are going to take Mando into town. We’ll be back before dinner.” My father waved me over.
“Listen, I’m proud of you.” He said this only loud enough for the two of us to hear. “This is just between us, the men.”
I watched the rusty brown Volkswagen panel van turn the corner so I could read “Panadería Martínez” across the side of it in yellow. I sat on my bike, leaning against the bakery door. Maybe Mando was still in there and I had imagined the last hour in my head.
I rode home thinking. Mando wasn’t that old I thought. No family? Though proud of what I did, I was still bothered by how we had put him to rest. Packed him up like we were delivering a shipment of fresh bread into town.
A few days later, Jorge was telling me about a local ghost story and where to see it and how to find it. I couldn’t tell him how close I was to Mando when he died, how I had touched him, loaded him in a freight box and put him in the delivery van. How I believed in ghosts.
“I can’t believe you think it’s true,” I told him. “There’s no ghosts.”
“Why don’t we just try?”
“Because it’s a lie.”
“Don’t be chicken.”
“I’m not being a chicken. I just don’t believe in ghosts.”
“Ask your brother, I bet he knows about it.”
“He’ll laugh at me.”
“Just ask him. Then we’ll decide if we go or not.”
That same day, my father and Ernesto got home later than usual, a little after our normal dinnertime, but my mother and I waited up for them anyway. It was the first busy day at the bakery in months.
“Have you heard of the ghost that comes out in the old cemetery?” I asked Ernesto.
“At midnight, right?”
“I guess so.”
My dad interrupted. “Boys, that legend has been around since I was growing up.”
“It’s true?” I asked.
“There’s at least a little truth to every legend, so I don’t know.”
“You going to see it?” Ernesto said.
“Don’t even think about it,” my mom said.
I finished my meal. There was a little daylight left, so I went to Jorge’s.
“You want to go tonight?” Jorge said.
“At midnight? I can’t go. My mom will kill me.”
“We won’t get caught. I’ll go by your window at eleven. We can look around the cemetery until midnight.
Maybe we can find a skeleton, a dead body!”
“Fine. Eleven.” I don’t know why I agreed.
Ernesto was asleep on the top bunk bed. I got my flashlight and jacket ready as quietly as I could, though I wasn’t anxious to go out to the cemetery, especially at night. I had moths in my stomach, my chest, head, everywhere. I took my Ernesto’s watch from his dresser. It had a green light so you could tell time in the dark. I waited by the window, sitting on my bed. Finally, Jorge showed up at 11:05. I crawled out of the window and left a rock the size of an avocado pit in the window frame so I could get back in.
We walked to the abandoned cemetery and got there at about 11:30. I had never been inside, not even in the daytime. There wasn’t even a road leading to it anymore. The grass was overgrown, and the old tombstones were broken and weathered. Shattered statues of Christs and Marys garnished the graveyard. We walked and walked. Jorge insisted on finding a skeleton as if he thought they would be laying around, free for the taking.
Seeing all the broken tombstones and weeds made me glad that they closed the cemetery ages ago. They hadn’t buried anyone there in decades. Good. I didn’t want Mando buried in that mess. We took turns holding my flashlight. It was 11:55, so we stopped where we were and sat down, waiting for the ghost to appear. The minutes went by. I sat with my back on a tombstone. I picked up a broken crucifix that was half-buried in the ground from weather. Jesus’ left arm was amputated and I could see inside the hollow. The ornament looked cheap but new compared to everything else in the graveyard. Bugs and worms were hiding inside the cross. I shook them out and put the cross in my pocket.
“It’s 12:16,” I said, finally.
“Maybe the ghost is running late.”
“There’s no ghost here.”
Jorge sighed. “You’re right. We’ll take one more look for a skeleton, then we’ll leave.”
Jorge had my flashlight and was looking through the thick weeds when the flashlight went dim.
“Raul, your batteries are dying.”
The flashlight went dead. The moon gave almost no light. I couldn’t see anything but fuzzy shapes around me.
“You there?” I asked.
I grabbed onto his shirt and took out Ernesto’s watch. Our backup. The green glow almost let us see where we were going.
“I don’t remember which way we came,” I said.
“I remember. Let me see the watch.”
I gave the watch to Jorge and we tried to make our way out of the graveyard. We walked slowly until a bird swooped over us, an owl maybe. We ran. Where to, had no idea, but we ran for our lives. The watch wasn’t nearly strong enough to light our path. I hit a tombstone and fell. I hit my right knee and felt blood and stick to my jeans. I got up and stretched out my arms, walking around like a zombie, searching for Jorge.
“Where are you?” I said.
No answer. I started walking the same way I was pointed. The bird swooped over me again. I ran. I was running full speed until I hit something. I hit it with my chest and face like I was clotheslined by a pro wrestler. It wasn’t a wall or a tree. I stretched my arms out again and touched it. It was hairy. It moved and grunted. Shit. The ghost! I blindly ran around it and out of the graveyard and heard Jorge calling my name.
I followed his voice until I found him.
“What the hell?” I said, out of breath.
“What the hell what?”
“You left me.” I gasped for air. “I saw the ghost.”
“Well, I felt it, I mean. I ran into it.”
“I’m not lying. You’re the one that dragged us out here.” I pushed him.
I pushed him again. I wanted to punch him, break a bone, but he stumbled back and dropped the flashlight. The light flickered. Jorge picked it up, wiggled the bulb, and it turned on.
“Hey, it works.” He stuck it in my face, making me momentarily blind, then shone the light over my shoulder.
Jorge laughed. “There’s your ghost.”
I looked at the light shining on the Chavez’s big, black bull eating the grass outside the cemetery. I felt my mouth get coated with a foul film like I was going to vomit. I took the one-armed crucifix out of my pocket and threw it so hard at the bull. Amputee Jesus hit the bull and landed in the dirt. The bull did nothing.
It was almost one in the morning now. I walked with Jorge to his house and then home with the flashlight. I crawled back in through my window, dropping the stone that held it open back to where I would find it the next time I needed to sneak out. I was about to lay down when I felt a body in my bed. I turned on the light. My mother was in my bed.
“We’ll talk tomorrow.” And she walked out of the room
Breakfast was quiet. Ernesto smiled, waiting.
“Did you see the ghost?” my dad asked.
“Honey,” my mom said.
I shook my head while my mom wasn’t looking. My father raised an eyebrow and shrugged as if to say, “Better luck next time.”
“Mando and I went to look for that ghost a few times. Never saw anything.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?” I asked.
“Ay, I thought you two would have more respect for the dead.” My mother shook her head and took a bite.
My mother didn’t know that I put Mando in a wooden storage crate that we turned into a coffin, and that I put him in a delivery van that we turned into a hearse. She, and everyone else, thought he died at home. It wasn’t for her to hear. It was only for the three of us, and Mando.
A.J. Ortega is a writer from Texas. He lives in Utah where he teaches English. His writing has appeared in Front Porch Journal, American Book Review, Rio Grande Review, Southwestern American Literature, The Texas Review, and various newspapers and websites. He’s working on his first collection of short stories. He’s an active member of the Popular Culture Association, where his presentations focus on professional wrestling, combat sports, and Mexican American identity.