I Met La Calavera Catrina at CVS Pharmacy
Los Angeles, California, USA
Francisco Bravo Medical Magnet High School
I had never seen death before, but I had smelled and heard her. Which is why I was able to recognize that it was her that had been watching me the whole time since I’d arrived at the CVS.
I didn’t turn around, not exactly afraid, but unsure what to do. I continued to eye the different brands of skin-bleaching products I had come for.
It was close to midnight and the CVS was deserted. There was no one but two workers stationed at the cash register, bored on their phones, and the security guard falling asleep to the lulling elevator music on the store’s speakers.
Nobody was present to take notice of the Calavera Catrina’s extravagant presence. But I still remembered my father’s story about a young woman who shunned her Mexican roots. Her deep obsession with appearing European led her to wear early 20th-century, French fashion, consisting of a luscious feathered hat. And the only thing she could do to appear whiter in skin tone, was solely wear her porcelain white bones. This new image of the skeleton came to represent Death herself. Or at least that was my father’s explanation as to why she appeared like that on every papel picado or sculpture we’d come across. He’d also tell me the story to lecture me anytime I commented that I simply wished I was lighter in skin tone, eyes, and hair. Are you not proud of looking so much like your father? At one point I would have been immensely overjoyed to be just like him. But not anymore.
Since I still wouldn’t dare to turn around, I couldn’t tell if everyone’s descriptions revolving around la Calavera Catrina were true. I only knew she was here when her aroma swept my senses.
I had smelled her lingering stench of alcohol before from my father's breath when he’d come home late from “work”, and later on, heard her sonorous footsteps when she walked up to my father’s casket at his funeral.
With sweaty palms and a thumping heart, only then did the grim realization hit that if she was here, it must be for a reason. She had come for me.
I was never afraid of death; however I also wasn’t exactly warmed up to the idea of her, since she was the one who took my drunk father away from me. Still unsure of what to do, I didn’t want to turn around and face her. Even if it meant that I had the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see what Death physically looks like. But who would believe me? And it’s not like if I turned around to take a peek, I would have survived to tell the story.
What to do? I had to make sure it was her though, because it could have been some random creep.
But it was her. I knew it deep down in my bones.
Was I ready to die? I was only 16 years of age, I still had a few years left until adulthood. I also thought about how I never took any precautions in my life when I would text and drive, drink with my friends, and surround myself with bad influences. Had I never cared about the possibility of death? No. During those life-threatening moments, I never cared that they could be my last. Like the time I stood on the edge of a bridge, looking down at the racing cars due to some stupid dare. Or the time I delivered a suspicious package to some menacing people just for money; I ended up using it to dye my hair blonde and buy a pack of beer bottles, which later shattered when I fell drunk on the sidewalk. Did that mean that I- Did I want to die?
My whole body began to sweat, not just hands this time, and the urge to vomit from a sudden nausea overwhelmed me. I was in fact scared. Beyond scared. At that moment I decided no, I was not ready to leave this life yet. Not as this current state of person. A person conflicted with bittersweet feelings against their father, hating him, and yet still following in his footsteps.
It seemed impossible, but I felt her dead stare grow colder, beginning to pierce through my skin. This is when I, an atheist from a Catholic household, began to pray the rosary: Jesús mío, perdona nuestras culpas, preservanos del fuego del infierno y lleva al Cielo todas las almas, especialmente a las más necesitadas de tu misericordia… I heard it daily, from the times my father had passed away, and memorized it. My mother prayed every day that his soul would find eternal rest, but, shouldn’t she have prayed before he had passed on? Then again, my mother was sanctimonious; only attending mass when she needed something to go her way. In my father’s final days from being consumed by the alcohol, my mother stayed all day long at Church. Unlike I, who prayed every day that my father quit his drinking habits since they first started, and for my father to turn back into the wise, kind man he was. But clearly, God didn’t listen. So what made me assume that he would listen to me now?
That was right, God wouldn’t help. He didn’t even exist. I had to rely on myself and no one else to rescue me.
Running away from Death was the only plan I could think of, but I acknowledged it probably would not end well. I could, however, begin to walk to the next aisle as slowly as possible. And so I did. After a good 5 minutes of pretending to be interested in anti-wrinkle serums and then moving onto the next product, I finally arrived at the next aisle.
This whole aisle reeked of her. Her presence was much stronger. My father’s presence was much stronger. The alcohol section. Terrible mistake. I glanced at the nearest whisky bottle, which so happened to be the brand that had taken control of my father. Instead of unpleasant memories, a riot of fiery, lively colors reflected from the bottle. Unable to distinguish the details, I squinted my eyes to recognize the festive orange petals that come from the beloved cempazuchitl we give the dead on their day.
Her image was distorted, but sure enough there stood a tall figure with a flamboyant ornate hat. It seemed to be covered with many things, one of them being the dedicated flower to the dead. Before I continued staring at the bottle’s reflection, a soft yet rich melodic voice startled me. Looking away from the bottle I swung my head but paused in mid-action as that same mellow voice said “Don’t.”
My entire body was frozen, and I didn't even dare to breathe. Her angelic voice laughed. She could sense it and started to speak in Spanish.
“Relax. I’ve just come for a drink… and for you.” She laughed again as I flinched. “I’m just joking. No, mija, I just came to keep my eye on you. He asked me to do so.”
Who’s he? I wanted to ask, but I was in shock and my head was processing the whole situation.
She sighed, “Life hasn’t been the same without him, huh? I could’ve just come up to you and cut straight to the point, but I wanted to see your reaction to me here. You seem to be defiant towards death but when it is a few feet away from you, like a cowardly hypocrite, you cry and run for shelter. Just like your father.”
Do not speak about my father like that! I wanted to snap back at her. But again, my mouth did not dare to make a sound.
“You have truly disappointed me. I represent death and honoring the life of the dead and you, mija, have been taking it way too seriously. Thinking that honoring your father’s life is by following his same footsteps,” she scoffed. “Ridiculous. This is not my first time visiting you, you know. Every time you pull some dumb dangerous act, I immediately come to intercede if I have to. I never do though, because you seem to get yourself together.”
Why? Why take care of my life? Appearing to read my thoughts, Catrina continued.
“He made me promise him that I’d take care of you so you didn't end up like him. A cowardly hypocrite, begging for me to not take him away after he killed his own poor liver due to his toxic love of alcohol. Seeing him implore me, did move me I suppose.
“But I’m tired, you know, of having to babysit a mere mortal. I have babysitting to do, yes but of the dead!” she complained. “Today was just another day where you attempted death and you’ve got to stop or I will reunite him with you.”
How did I attempt death? I simply came to buy something at my nearest CVS.
“Don’t be silly. Death doesn’t just mean losing your life physically, but also within yourself.” When I continued not saying anything, she grew more irritated. “Not loving yourself and voluntarily doing something that changes a part of you is also considered death.” I looked down at the skin-bleaching product I was planning on buying. According to my father’s stories, that was the cause of la Catrina’s death. Hating the skin color you were given, and actively planning on changing that, automatically kills you. Like she said, not physically, but it still counts. She could technically take my soul with her.
“This is my first time interceding because it really looks like you are planning on buying that lotion, so I had to stop you.
“But now that I have. I have to go, and hope to never see you again, until your time has come. I am busy and have lots to do. Short conversation we had, partly to do with you not saying anything but that’s alright. Now, leave that cream somewhere here and -oh, don’t turn around yet but he says he loves you.”
He. Could it be?
I made an effort to respond, but it's only then I realized I was crying and had been this whole time.
I squeezed out of me, “Tell him, I love him too.” But it was too late for that, because the whiskey bottle didnt show her reflection there anymore. And she didn’t answer back.
I looked down at the lotion, and back again at my distorted reflection on the bottle, in a state of shock at how unrecognizable I had become. If I had become like my father in his close relationship with alcohol, then how come at least I didn’t follow his love and pride for being the way we are? Then, for a quick second, I remembered the deep sound of my father’s heartfelt chuckles after he’d seen that I somehow had food in my hair and whole face from the esquites he’d bought. Such a little moment and yet a grand realization hit me. Not only had I kept his bad traits with me, but I had also kept my bad memories of him, and nothing else. Up until today’s visit from la Calavera Catrina, I hadn’t actively remembered any of the fond memories I had with him. Our memories of the dead help us accept their passing, and of course I still hadn’t moved on from his death, since I had chosen the worst ones to remember him by.
During midnight at an aisle of CVS pharmacy, of all places, I realized I never properly grieved for him. So for the first time, as I fell to my knees, I cried for my father as if I had just lost him recently all over again, because I had. Memories are the only thing keeping alive those that are long gone.
Using vivid descriptive details and complex characters as tools, the writer weaves a gut-wrenching narrative about self-identity and grief. It feels as if we can hear Calavera Catrina’s voice slide out of the pages. I was also drawn in by the juxtaposition of elements of Hispanic culture with the internal conflicts of the protagonist and her family.
Besides expressing herself through writing, art is another form of expression that Allison loves to do. She spends her free time drawing, painting and learning about art history, specifically Impressionism. By dedicating all of her stories to both of her grandmothers, Allison hopes to connect with them through her writing.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR