Pin your ears back, amigo. I’ll give you a story and you give me a smile. You give me a smile — I share it around, see? This is a story about me, my cousins, my Grandpappy Ronato, my uncle Oscar, the crazy-ass Colombian goalkeeper José René Higuita Zapata, and the Day of Skulls where everything went wrong. See, the Day of Skulls is a big deal. Dia di las ñatitas. Every November, you say muchos gracias to your ancestors for looking after your family. They look after you, so you look after them, right?
This is how it goes. After someone’s been dead a few years — let’s say Pappy Ronato, with the belly and the famous gold tooth — Pappy’s been dead a few years. So Nana takes us back to the cemetery. We found his tomb and took out his skull. We cleaned it up, made sure his famous gold tooth sparkled, just the way he liked it. We gave Pappy a hat and put some flowers in his sockety eyes, made him look good. Everybody likes to look good, right amigo? And then Pappy took pride of place in our home. Sometimes he’d sit in the corner where he could watch the soccer, cos Pappy loved the soccer. Sometimes he’d sit in the kitchen and listen to the women chatter. Sometimes we’d leave him to watch over the baby’s crib, so he could chase away the spooks. We always knew that Pappy would see us right. We put him in a special glass box, all filled with marigolds.
And then every November, along comes Dia di las ñatitas. On the Day of Skulls, we paid Pappy back for all the watching he’d done. We’d dress him extra nice, and take him for a walk around the neighbourhood. We gave him coca leaves, cigarillos, maybe a little rum. This would make Pappy happy, and we knew he’d watch for evil spirits another year.
You still smiling for me, amigo? Good. Keep listening.
You know… I’d be lying not to tell you this. But we got a hell of a kick doing stuff with Pappy there, knowing he couldn’t do anything about it. Like when Tino tried to kiss Lupita and she punched him in the balls. Or when we played with the television tuning, looking for MTV, messing up all the other stations. That would have sent him crazy. Best of all was playing soccer inside. See, with Pappy dead, me and Tino and Pepe could play soccer inside. Pappy always used to shout like hell if he caught us playing soccer inside. Every time we played, we could almost hear him —
You goddamn boys! Get your asses outside before I cut your fucking throats!
Ah, how Pappy loved to laugh. And you know, maybe he’d be tickled that we played soccer inside, with him watching over us. And I mean right above us. He was right there, in his glass case on the shelf. We used him as a referee, all of us claiming that Pappy had seen that goal, this foul, the offside. And nothing went wrong, we played soccer just fine. Pappy watched us that way for years. The problems only started when we let cousin Maxi come and play.
‘Check it out,’ he said, ‘I can do the scorpion kick.’
We all knew the scorpion kick. Everybody knows the scorpion kick from José René Higuita Zapata, the Madman, El Loco himself, the craziest goalkeeper of all time.
‘You can’t do the scorpion kick,’ said Tino.
‘Throw me the ball, man,’ said Maxi. Well, Tino threw the ball up in the air, and right there on the rug, Maxi dived forwards, his legs rising up behind, the scorpion, and sure as El Loco himself, he kicked the goddamn ball like a cannon. Which woulda been fine, except he kicked it straight at Pappy. There was a terrible splintering sound of the glass case falling apart and the skull kinda exploded like a powder. In a sick silence, we gathered to look at the pieces of Pappy. The ball rolled into a corner. Maxi recovered first.
‘Damn, bro,’ he whispered.
‘Pendejo,’ said Tino.
‘Chorra!’ said Pepe.
‘Mo-ther-fuck-er,’ I said.
Of course, we beat the crap out of cousin Maxi, but that didn’t fix our problem. There was an honoured ancestor in a thousand pieces all over the rug. There were bits in Pepe’s hair. There was no way we could glue him back together. And as we gathered up the pieces of Pappy, I saw something shiny bright on the floor.
It was Pappy’s famous gold tooth.
Damn, Pappy loved that tooth. It was famous because he swapped a donkey for it when he was fifteen years old, and saved it till he lost a tooth that fit. That took another twenty years. Every time he lost a tooth, people would say, Pappy, Pappy, now have you fitted your famous gold tooth? And he’d say no, goddamn it to fuck, and then everyone had to wait for the next one to go. Eventually, there was a good space for the gold tooth, and our whole neighbourhood had a party to celebrate.
Now it gleamed in the pieces of his shattered skull like ten centavos in the gutter.
I started getting an idea.
First thing, Tino and Pepe distracted Nana and Rosalita, because if Nana found out about this she’d cut off our balls. Next, me and Maxi scooped all the pieces of Pappy into a wooden box. I sneaked a coupla cigar butts and a drip of rum in there too, just to keep him happy. Respect, you know? Dia de los ñatitas is never far away. I put his gold tooth in my pocket, nice and safe. Then me and Maxi ran over to the cemetery like the devil was behind us. We found Pappy’s tomb and I slipped the box in with the rest of his bones, whispering a little apology. Then came the tricky bit.
No-one really liked Uncle Oscar. He was a fat old fucker. Took eight men to shift his coffin. And he farted all the time. Once when he got drunk he tried to beat his wife, only Cristina was too quick for him, and she thrashed him with a mop then went home to her people in the highlands. But I’ll say this much for Uncle Oscar. He only died a coupla years after Pappy, and that meant his skull would look about the same, right? And at that point, he was our only hope. So me and Maxi prised the lid off his tomb, and there’s Uncle Oscar grinning up at us. He’s been in there a few years, and he’s gone all leathery. Sorta — you know… flaky. He didn’t smell too good, either, but I tell you this, amigo — he farted worse when he was alive.
Anyway. I reached into the tomb, took hold of the skull with both hands, closed my eyes, and yanked it out. Well, shit, man. Shit. Half the fucking skeleton came after him. Clutching the skull in both hands, I fell on my arse and dragged out Oscar’s bones all over me and Maxi. We just looked at each other. There were bits of Uncle Oscar inside my shirt, man — down my pants. Maxi scrambled to pack the bones back into the tomb while I plucked bits of skin off the skull with a noise like sandpaper. At last we got Uncle Oscar’s body back into his tomb and sealed it tight again. We cleaned the skull at a drainpipe, rinsing off leathery scraps of old skin and — well, you know — brain — and I hid it under my shirt. Between Oscar’s skull and Pappy’s famous gold tooth, I figured we could get out of this just fine.
One problem. Uncle Oscar had a full mouth of nice white teeth. He never once lost a tooth.
Pedro the mechanic let me borrow his pipe wrench. It barely fit, but I cranked out a tooth in sort of the right place. We used bubble gum to stick Pappy’s famous gold tooth into Uncle Oscar’s jaw socket and back home, me and Maxi laid the skull inside the broken case.
Amigo, I tell you now. I’m not dumb. I knew we couldn’t get away with it completely. The skulls didn’t look the same, and the case was ruined. So we arranged the broken pieces on the floor with the skull tumbled over, broken glass everywhere. Then my brothers fetched Nana back from the market.
‘Nana!’ I said, ‘Nana! Look at what Maxi’s done to Pappy!’
Well, Nana gave Maxi his second hiding. She was furious about the broken glass — about the disrespect for Pappy, too, sure — but mostly the broken glass. After all, the skull’s been knocked about, but look, you can see — it’s okay. Everything was fixed up fast enough. But every now and then, Nana would stop and give the skull an eye.
‘You goddamn boys,’ she said, squinting at the case. ‘You knocked Pappy about so bad he don’t hardly look like Pappy no more.’
Well, we kept pretty quiet about that. Come the Day of Skulls, like always, we took the skull for a walk about the neighbourhood — all pretty in a new glass case, the gold tooth shining — meeting up with everyone else and their family skulls. There was plenty of rum and cigars, just the way Pappy would’ve wanted it. You know. If he’d been there.
We almost got away with it, amigo.
A few weeks later, Nana called us into the front room for a blessing. She had the whole family face the skull, everyone with arms about each other.
‘Pappy Ronato,’ she said, ‘we want to thank you for looking over us. Thank you for looking over me and Tino and Pepe and Maxi and Rosalita and Conchita and Ramon.’
‘Thank you, Pappy,’ we chorused, good and dutiful.
‘But Pappy,’ she continued, ‘we see how all your good work has taken its toll. You’ve been knocked about some,’ with a sidelong glare at Maxi, ‘and I think it’s about time you took a rest.’
I started to get this nasty feeling in my stomach, like when you got the runs, and you know you can’t hold on long enough.
‘Pappy,’ she said, ‘I’m decided. I’m gonna put you back in your tomb. Me and Rosalita have been talking. It’s about time Uncle Oscar took a turn, the lazy devil.’
All at once, me and Maxi and Tino and Pepe looked at each other. Tino all but moaned. Yup. Exactly like when you got the shits. Uncle Oscar looked down from his shelf, the fat bastard, grinning away, Pappy’s golden tooth shining from his jaw like a star.
Nana started bustling away, saying, ‘Now, boys, you get down to the cemetery and switch these skulls, see? And you be good to Uncle Oscar when you wake him up.’
And me, I started getting another idea. I was thinking how, you know, we could keep Oscar’s skull, only Pappy’s gold tooth would have to come out of it. And for Uncle Oscar, who was so proud of all his nice white teeth, that would leave a gap.
I wondered whether, maybe, Maxi might have a couple of loose teeth, you know? Only Maxi saw me coming with the pipe wrench and ran away.
Well, that’s my story, amigo. Here we are. I gave you a story and you gave me a smile. Hey, now we’re talking of it, you smile nice and bright. You got all your teeth, amigo? All of them? Seems to me… seems you could stand to lose one. Maybe just the one.
Sorry, amigo. But you gave me a smile — and I’ll share it around, see?
That’s how it goes, on the Day of Skulls.
Simon Sylvester is a writer, teacher and filmmaker. His short stories have appeared in a host of magazines, journals and anthologies and his first novel, The Visitors, won the Guardian Not The Booker prize. He lives in Cumbria. More about him here. Simon was one of the runners-up to the Heads and Tales Competition run in partnership with Liars’ League. The short story was performed by professional actors and the recording can be seen here.