Pan de Muerto

by Maria Nieto, copyright 2017


Melodic coos reached Gloria’s bed carried on the tail of a damp breeze. Pajarito Travieso Hermoso Mi Amor was awake and eager for a pre-dawn flight. The wayward homing pigeon that captured Gloria’s heart nearly three years ago was too much bird to bear a single name; Gloria decided on several to express how much she loved her mischievous, beautiful feathered friend. Today the pigeon’s coos captured more than Gloria’s heart, they captured her dream, transporting her back in time to a college campus demonstration spearheaded by a fraternity.

The brothers of Upsilon Upsilon Upsilon were demanding mass extermination of the local pigeon population, yelling “Death to flying rats. Kill the pigeons now.” They were convinced pigeon poop was to blame for a recent outbreak of flu-like symptoms on fraternity row. Gloria’s student organization, Animal Lovers Unite, believed the pigeons were being scapegoated to steer attention away from a rash of recent violent pigeon murders, possibly perpetrated by the brothers themselves. Her group held strong against the hateful rhetoric, holding signs that read, A pigeon’s coo says I love you, Fertilize the natural way, pigeon poop is here to stay, and Equal rights for all our 
avian friends. Just when it looked like the demonstration was going to get physical, Gloria was pulled out of her dream by a loud shrill. It was Pajarito Travieso Hermoso Mi Amor. He had grown impatient and left his cage to walk on Gloria’s head.


“Ay, Pajarito. Okay, okay, I’m up.” Gloria reached over to open her window and the bird immediately took to the sky.

                                                                                                    
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No timekeeper was needed. When Felix Galván started to knead his first mound of dough the short arm of the clock clicked into place; it was 4 a.m. Felix dug the palms of his large muscular hands into the mass and stretched it across a floured tabletop. He then tucked the dough into a round before leveling it again. He repeated the process to create a smooth, elastic texture off the backs of life – hordes of single-celled yeast. The microorganisms fed off the flour’s starch and gave in return their waste, carbon dioxide gas forcing the dough to rise.

After loading the last tray of Mexican sweet bread into the display case it was 7:00am and time for Felix to open for business. Conchas whose shapes and sugary coats rivaled the rarest, colored seashells, flakey orejas that looked like the ears of Goliath, and empanadas de manzana that would win the envy of Johnny Appleseed, filled the panadería with a smell of golden caramel awash with the sentimentality of a home you never wanted to leave. The early morning aroma used to lure a steady flow of people, but over the last couple of years business was slow for Pan Del Corazón, Felix’s 24th Street shop where each baked good reflected the storefront’s name, Bread from the Heart.
People like Socorro Prieta, Rudy Garcia, and countless others no longer came; they no longer lived in the neighborhood Felix had called home his whole life.


The Mission District of San Francisco was changing. New residents now occupied many of the Victorian flats and ornate Queen Anne buildings dotting the historic landscape; their palates demanded the avant-garde in flavor - donuts infused with lavender and hibiscus oils and iced with lemon chiffon, ice cream boasting large chunks of imported dark chocolate and flavored with orange cardamom, and bite-sized green tea cupcakes layered with mint frosting. Price was no factor for the newcomers. In fact, the higher the cost, the more people clamored for the chance to eat what they could easily afford and damn well thought they deserved.


For all the customers Felix had lost over the years, he still had a few loyal patrons like Gloria Muñoz. Nearly every morning she made her way to the panadería to share space and time with Felix over a cup of coffee and pan. Felix was sure she’d be arriving soon because today was special, it was Día de los Muertos, the day to commemorate the dead, and he knew Gloria would need to buy a loaf of pan de muerto; an offering to her loved ones who had already departed this world.

It was noon before Gloria arrived. “Where you been? You’re late today.”

“Pajarito Travieso Hermoso Mi Amor woke me too early; it activated this damn arthritis. It took two coats of menthol cream to get my legs going.”

“Is that what I smell? You could be a walking commercial for Vicks VapoRub.”

“Ay ya, where’s the sympathy?”


Gloria took a seat near the front window where Felix met her with a cup of hot coffee and a custard 
turnover. “Here, this will help.”

“Where’s yours?”

“No appetite.”

“Is it because of that?” Gloria pointed to a business across the street with a grand opening banner hung over the front door.

Felix answered with a voice of defeat. “No entiendo por qué hacen eso.”

Gloria didn’t hold back. There was fire in her tongue. “What do you mean you don’t understand why they’re doing it? They want to run you out and they’re going steal your panadería’s name to do it.”

“I looked into it. Nothing I can do. Doesn’t matter that we have the same name. Mine is in Spanish and theirs is in English, and that’s that.”

“Did you talk to those new owners?”

“I did. They won’t change the name.”

Gloria sat pensively and then announced, “I have an idea.”

“You always have ideas, Gloria.”

“You’re going to like this one. Tonight, I say we go over there and change the sign. It will read, Bread from the Heartless.”

“Estás Loca.”

“It’s not crazy to tell it like it is, Felix.”

“We’re not young and in college anymore.”
Gloria wouldn’t take no for an answer. “Well how about a protest? I can get some people together. We’ll have a sit-in.”

“No, Gloria. Listen to me. I’m tired. I’m ready to pack this show up. I have buyers for the place.”

“Who?”

“You know them, Ana Rosales and Tito Contreras, right?” Gloria nodded. “They have plans to turn this place into an art collective with a community center. I’m giving them a great deal with the promise they’ll do good work, right here in the Mission.”

“Ay, you’re a good man.” Gloria reached out her hand and grabbed onto Felix’s forearm. “What about you? What will you do?”

Felix softly brushed the top of Gloria’s hand with his fingertips. He fondled her wedding ring, a simple gold band. “I know you loved Eugenio very much. I loved him too. Still can’t believe he’s 
been gone ten years.” With no warning Felix abruptly pulled his hand back and stood up. “I should get back to work.” He turned and started to walk away.

Gloria didn’t quell her frustration. “What is it? If you have something to say I want to hear it. I’m too old with little patience for whittling words free from a man.”

Felix turned back. His eyes fell on a woman he had admired for years. Since the first day he met Gloria at a protest rally on the Berkeley campus he knew she was destined to do great work. It was no surprise she became an attorney, not for big corporations, not for private interests, but for immigrants trying to secure a place in a new land. He panned over Gloria’s face, one with features he knew better than his own. With his eyes closed he could trace every wrinkle and each spot weathered by the sun. There had been times over the last decade when he’d allow himself to dream of slowly undressing her and then pulling her close so his fingers could travel the nape of her neck and gently sweep across shoulders that had carried the pain for those who couldn’t. He’d move down her back, one that had been resolute in its stance to defend those living in the shadows. He ached to be her apprentice in a choreographed dance. It would begin with delicate movement and transform into a roaring tide that would spill into hidden nerve tracks charged with high voltage current.

Calmly and directly he answered Gloria’s question. “We’re in our final chapters and I want to reach the end of the story with you.”

Gloria slowly stood and wrapped her shoulders in a bright yellow rebozo. “There’s a chill in the air. I’m making a pot of cocido tonight. It should be ready by 7:00. Can you pick up a bottle of red wine?”

Felix stood blank faced for six long seconds, the time it took for Gloria’s words to register and for Felix’s mouth to break open into a huge smile. “Yes, yes, red wine.”

“Good. Now, I just need my pan de muerto for my altar.”

Gloria left the panadería with her arthritis pain a distant memory, quashed by pulsating nervous anticipation. She had harbored feelings for Felix for many years, but didn’t realize he felt the same way. Sure, in college they had a short romance, but thatwas long ago. Gloria was now an old woman and for more than 40 years Eugenio was the only man who had seen her, all of her. He had grown to love all of her body’s imperfections sculpted by the 
unforgiving and relentless hands of time. It didn’t matter to him that Gloria’s breasts could no longer fit perfectly into the cups of his hands. Regardless, Eugenio was gone and Felix was a different man. Gloria felt insecure knowing her breasts no longer resembled the bright marigold orbs now adorning her altar. Instead, her breasts had transformed into saggy clumps that looked more like semi- melted queso fundido. But as she made her way home she battled the uneasiness. “You can’t eat marigolds,” she thought. “And who doesn’t like cheese, no matter what the consistency?”

Nearing home Gloria came across a man barely able to keep his torso off the ground as he sat hunched on a curb. As she got closer she saw it was Hernán; he didn’t look good.

“Are you okay?” Gloria shouted.

Hernán turned. “Ay.”

Gloria knelt down. Hernán’s shirt was drenched with perspiration and he was trembling. “How much have you had to drink today?”

“Just this.” Hernán pointed to a small paper bag with a can inside, no doubt containing some brand of malt liquor.

“I’m going to call an ambulance.”

“No, Gloria. Please don’t. I have to see my son. My ex is bringing him. I’ll be okay.”

“Let’s get some food inside you.” Gloria reached into the bag with her loaf of pan de muerto and tore off a big chunk. “Here, eat this.”

Hernán gulped the bread and then took a deep breath. “Better, that helped.”

Gloria stood and then helped Hernán to stand. “Let’s get you home so you can take a shower before your ex gets here. And give me the rest of that beer. You don’t need anymore before you see your son.”

“Okay, Gloria.”

Gloria had known Hernán for over 30 years, ever since he first knocked on her door selling chocolate covered peanut clusters for his first grade class. The little boy she met that day was confident and charming and he grew into a young man with the same attributes. The day after Hernán graduated from high school he enlisted with the Marines. The Corps promised Hernán money for school once he finished his enlistment, but college enrollment never happened. Within a year after finishing boot camp Hernán was flown to Afghanistan and stationed at a desert outpost near active military operations. One week before his tour of duty was to end, the armored vehicle he was driving crossed over a roadside bomb. Everyone with him was blown to pieces and died that day, except for Hernán who walked away with nothing more than a forehead gash. Even though he survived with all his limbs in place, Hernán returned home an incomplete man; his soul still tethered to the desert floor along a remote highway. Each day he woke with hot desert sand in the back of his mouth; it suffocated him. Cold beer was the only thing that could clear his throat, freeing it from the survivor guilt slowly choking him to death.

Hernán grabbed ahold of Gloria’s arm and they both stepped into the crosswalk. Gloria looked both ways and then led Hernán toward the other side of the street. Not even halfway into their journey the roar of an engine caught Gloria’s attention. She turned to see a sleek red car low to the ground and barreling toward them. Gloria’s grip around Hernán’s arm tightened as she tried to speed their pace. The car showed no signs of slowing down. Hernán and Gloria had nowhere to go as the car’s thundering rumble closed in. In a split second Hernán registered what was happening and used all his strength to push Gloria out of the car’s path and he followed. Before they both hit the ground the red sports car’s horn blared as it sped by.

Gloria raised her fist off the asphalt and yelled. “Ni tu mamá te quiere.”

Hernán laughed. “He almost killed us and you’re telling him his mother doesn’t love him.”

“It’s what came to mind. Plus, wouldn’t it be the worst thing, your mamá not loving you?”

“You got a point.”

Gloria and Hernán stumbled to the curb. Herman looked down to see Gloria bleeding. “Your knees are scraped pretty bad. You going to be okay?”

“I’ve seen worse. I’m more worried about that driver killing someone. Who the hell does that guy think he is?”

“He just moved into the neighborhood and he’s been speeding through here, caring about no one, for the last couple of days.”

“Well, Hernán, I have a feeling the sky will close in on that driver soon enough.” “I hope you’re right, Gloria.” Hernán pointed to Gloria’s bag, now containing a
loaf of smashed pan de muerto. “It’s a miracle we’re alive and it’s because of your bread. It gave me strength.”

“Ha, the pan de muerto. I guess today we’ll call it pan de vida.”

Hernán smiled. “Yes, bread of life. It’s strange. I feel like a new man.”

By the time Gloria made it up the stairs to her two-bedroom flat bruises had started to appear on her arms and legs, and her knees started to throb. As was customary each time she arrived home she removed the sheet covering the large cage so Pajarito Travieso Hermoso Mi Amor could scamper around the flat. She took a seat to rest in front of her altar and Pajarito immediately joined her, perched on the arm of her chair. She lit a large candle and burned some copal that was sitting in a small ceramic bowl. After feeding Pajarito a large piece, she placed the remaining flattened pan de muerto next to the photograph of Eugenio.

“I know it’s not a complete loaf this year, and it’s a bit beat up, but it couldn’t be helped. I know you don’t mind.” Gloria spoke to the photograph as if Eugenio were present. “I’m not asking permission, but I thought you should know Felix is coming over tonight. I’m not sure what will happen, but I’d like something to happen. Maybe there will be a kiss, maybe something more. I love you and that will never change, but I’m ready to love someone else now. I’m ready to let someone else love me.”

Pajarito jumped off the chair and onto the floor. He walked over to the patio door and began to coo, a signal he was ready for his afternoon flight. Gloria opened the door. “Don’t be gone too long.”

Pajarito was off, flapping his wings to power his flight high above the rooftops dotting the Mission skyline.


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In another part of the Mission District a red sports car ran a red light and nearly collided into a van to nab a free curbside space. Now parked in front of a new high-priced restaurant already known for their bacon wrapped everything, the male driver exited the vehicle. At that exact moment Pajarito Travieso Hermoso Mi Amor happened to stop his flight and balance himself on an electrical wire that crossed above the red sports car. With his small claws wrapped tightly around the cable he stepped back, lifted his tail feathers forward, and constricted his cloaca to relieve himself of digested pan de muerto. The bird poop landed with a splat at the top of the driver’s forehead and then slowly dripped down to the bridge of his nose. The sky had closed in to deliver a message.

Copyright 2017