The Last Ever Party in the Drowning Parishes

 

This was the last time the balconies and the ironwork galleries of the Vieux Quartier would be draped in carnival banners. It was the last time they’d be draped in anything really, except, maybe coral and seaweed in a few years’ time. But despite an infrastructure that you’d be charitable to call crumbling, our representatives in the state house managed to ensure that the evacuation order wouldn’t turn mandatory until a day after the Festival of Stella Maris.

As for me, I was cashing in my chips, too.

“What if,” I asked Alice over the phone. “What if I give you Thanksgiving?”

I heard her inhale slowly, the way she does when she considers me. “So I’d have Christmas and Thanksgiving both?”

“Yeah. But.”

“Oh. But.”

“But I’d like you to come, too.”

“Eli.”

“Part of you wants to be here. This is it, Alice. We’re going the way of New Orleans.”

There was a long pause, but I could hear her frowning. “Fine, okay. I’ll stay with Meredith.”

“She left when her part of Riverwood flooded, remember?”

“A hotel, then.”

“The only ones left are all booked up. Dignitaries. Jazz legends.”

“You’re an asshole, Eli.”

I mm-hmmed.

“Have a six-pack of Tin Roof waiting for me,” she said. “For the love of god. You’re an asshole.”

+++

An apartment becomes a bachelor pad gradually, like a yard turning overgrown. It was tough to remember what my place had looked like before I’d let it go fallow. Some changes I could deduce, though. I was reasonably sure that I hadn’t repurposed the nightstand as a TV tray until after it was just me, so I returned it to the bedside where it used to hold Alice’s earrings and antacid tablets. The faux-impressionist print of St. Elmo’s Cathedral was at least a decade old—the headstones still poking above the waterline were the giveaway—but I couldn’t remember when it wound up on my wall. A note penciled onto the back of the canvas cleared things up:

Dear Eli,

Here’s something pretty to help you through an ugly time.

– Superintendent Esposito & Your Family at Sanitation

I stuffed it in the closet.

Old photos helped me reconstruct the terrain. One showed Ernie in a onesie lying on the shag rug with the bookcase in the background. I dragged the rug out from under my bed and finally scrubbed out the soup stain that’d shamed me into hiding it the first place. To get the positioning of the loveseat right, I pored, Zapruder-like, over a video of Ernie’s walking lessons. I paused on a frame where Alice is hunched above him, holding his hands like the ends of marionette strings. Just over her shoulder, a shadow on the linoleum hinted that the seat had remained still through it all.

Finally, I removed my courtier’s costume from its garment bag and hung it on the curtain rod. It’d been a couple years since Ernie’s last Stella, and since Alice’s. Ernie was three then, and the costume had impressed him greatly. The Spanish blue jacket, velvet, silver-buttoned, and embroidered with Stella’s seashell design in silver thread on the breast. Breeches in mint green, and a vest in the same. Knee-high black leather boots. Black tricorne hat. Silver ascot. The get-up would be embarrassing anywhere outside the Drowning Parishes, but here, it’s an honor.

I surveyed the apartment. It was good, I thought, maybe even impressive. A solid approximation of everything before everything went bad.

+++

They left Jackson around noon, but Stella traffic clogged the highway and swelled the lines for the ferry from Baton Rouge. It was almost ten o’clock when Alice finally crossed my threshold with a sleeping Ernie in her arms. She dropped her bags and glared at the living room.

“Everything okay?” I asked.

“It’s just. Different.”

“Different?”

“Did you move the loveseat?”

“I don’t think so,” I said, drawing out my words make them seem uncertain.

She paused for a moment at a framed picture of the three of us. “And shouldn’t you have packed?”

I picked up Alice’s suitcase with one hand and Ernie’s knapsack in the other. “I wanted the place to look nice for y’all.”

She rolled her eyes, but she smiled. “You’re a dummy, Eli. Isn’t Daddy a dummy?”

Ernie stirred slightly and went back to drooling into Alice’s shirt.

“Can I get him a bowl of cereal or something? I want to see if he remembers the courtier’s outfit. Remember how he used to like wearing the tricorne?”

Alice set off ahead of me. I followed with the bags. “You can show him tomorrow,” she said. “He needs to sleep or he’ll be cranky.”

“Right.”

Her back to me, Alice called, “But I’ll have a Tin Roof with you.”

She put Ernie down. I got a couple beers and lit the candle I bought, one of the big ones in the glass jars.

“Okay, fancy-pants,” Alice said.

“What? You like lilac.”

“I like lavender.”

“Oh” was what I said, when what I really wanted was to rip my face off my skull.

“But honestly nothing smells better than a beer right now.”

We shot the shit for a while. She talked about her new job which wasn’t so new anymore. I laid out the timeline of when exactly our old friends had given up and headed inland.

“Your mom doing okay?” I asked.

Alice picked at the label on her beer. “Yeah, fine. She asks about you.”

We cackled.

“I’m pretty sure she thinks of you like she thinks about her eczema,” Alice continued. “You’re to be bravely endured and rarely discussed.”

“Probably for the best.”

“Can you imagine if she knew about your current gig?”

“It’s not as messy as you’d think. Better than when they had me doing garbage pickup.”

“You were always such a…,” she trailed off into a yawn.

“Milksop, I think, is what you’re looking for.”

“God, whose word was that?”

“Janine, the bartender at—”

“At Broker’s!” Her smile wrinkled the skin under her eyes into crescents I didn’t remember, and I suddenly wondered if I’d aged, too. “Maybe we could stop by for a drink before your ceremony.”

“Broker’s was in Southtown. The levees.”

“Damn. Of course.” She shredded the label with her fingertips and sprinkled the strips into a little pile. “Have you decided where you’re going to go? After?”

I shifted in my seat in a way I hoped looked thoughtful. “Honestly, I’ve been thinking about Jackson. For Ernie.”

“Eli.”

“Esposito knows people in the sanitation department up there.”

“Eli,” Alice said, with sharpness this time.

I broke the ensuing quiet. “There’s always Nacogdoches.”

“Your sister still there?”

I nodded. “I have her courtesan outfit, though. In my closet somewhere.”

“And?”

“Nothing. I was just saying. She left it here in case anyone wanted to borrow it.”

Alice stood up and rubbed her hands together. A few scraps of the label fluttered down to the table. “Well, I think it’s time for bed. Today’s been long.”

I stood up, too, and lifted my arms toward her for a hug. She took my hand between her thumb and forefinger and squeezed. “Goodnight, Eli,” she said, and she ducked into our old bedroom, shutting the door behind her.

+++

A hot damp sun rose to greet the last ever party in the Drowning Parishes. Like Grand Isle and then the Big Easy, we’d soon sink into nothing. The sinking, in fact, was long underway, with heavy rains and busted dams taking a city block here, a neighborhood there. But before we abandoned ship, we put on our costumes.

For a half-dozen carnivals, Alice was a courtesan to match my courtier. Today, though, Alice was Alice. I mean, not Alice Alice. She was Alice in Wonderland Alice, with a blue dress, white apron, and a black bow. It was an old standby from when back we used to spend our Halloweens getting drunk on the Sazerac Strip. She reveled in the moment of awkwardness when she introduced herself as Alice. Strangers inevitably assumed she was trolling them with a weird insistence about her costume, and only later realized the troll was a whole level deeper. Ernie was dressed to match, a Mad Hatter with a big green hat and little green suit.

“You should be the White Rabbit,” Ernie told me as the three of us turned the corner into the Vieux Quartier.

“This is my uniform for an important job.” I rubbed the velvet on my sleeve. “Remember last time? The Au Revoir Ceremony?”

His brow furrowed under that giant brim. “The White Rabbit would match.”

“Daddy doesn’t have to match us,” Alice said.

It was only 10:30 in the morning, but the cobblestone already teemed with drunks. In the Quartier, it was legal to imbibe in public, but given the circumstances I don’t think anyone would have minded if it wasn’t. Above the street, a banner stretched from balcony to balcony reading “THIS IS THE END.” A man in thick robes and a Merlin’s beard dangled from a street light with one hand while aiming his Roman candle skyward with the other. A pair of cops below him smiled and shrugged as the fireballs whistled above, barely visible against the daylight. Over on a park bench, a mermaid and a satyr were locked in an embrace, both crying. I scooped up Ernie.

“It’s like the last week of college,” Alice said. “Except without the hope.”

A few high clarinet notes honked over the tumult. I pointed with my chin. “Let’s head that way.”

Ernie clung to me, and I carefully circumnavigated the swamp water welling up from a storm drain and steered clear of the topless women and bottomless men. The clarinet grew clearer, and it was joined by a trumpet, a tuba, a saxophone, a trombone, a snare drum, even a banjo. The band was playing on the sidewalk outside of what used to be a drugstore, and we joined the semicircle around them just as the song was ending. Ernie squirmed to be let down and I obliged.

The bandleader lowered his clarinet to absorb the applause. “This last song is a special song,” he said. “Way back, before the Three-Storm Summer, before the levees broke the first time, before the riots, back even before the flood that drove poor Charley Patton down the line—” The man on trumpet honked out an old Delta blues lick. “—back before that, there was a ship so big and beautiful and famous that everyone said it could not sink. This ship was too mighty, a pinnacle of human ingenuity. It would float on wishes! It would float on dreams! It would float because we damn well said so! But on its very first voyage—” Womp, womp, womp, wooooommp went the sad trombone. “—it sank. The band on the deck, though, they kept on playing as the ship went down, because what the hell else are they gonna do? There was nothing else to do. And what’d they play?”

He returned the clarinet to his lips and blew the first jazzed-up notes of a hymn that prickled my brain somewhere in the neighborhood of Sunday school classes, of church lock-ins and the mothball stink of my father’s dress clothes. Whatever the song was, Ernie was into it, clapping his hands and stomping his feet. I gave Alice a smile. She gave me half of one back. The bandleader squatted down to Ernie and mimicked his sway. I daydreamed for a minute about him someday taking up a clarinet and joining one of the Stella bands. Then I remembered.

As the audience emptied their pockets into the saxophone case, I saw Superintendent Esposito loitering in the dissolving crowd. He was bearded and brawny, with musclebound arms that bent slightly at the elbow even when he let them dangle at his sides. His costume—Bluto, the villain from the old Popeye cartoons—didn’t require much more than a blue sailor cap to make the resemblance uncanny. I waved and caught his eye.

“Ahoy,” he called, striding over. “Alice! It’s been awhile.”

She nodded. “Ernie and I are back for one last Stella.”

“Oh, little Ern! Do you remember me?” Ernie buried his face into Alice’s side and Esposito laughed his barking laugh. “How about some beads for you, little Ern?!”

He pulled a string of Stella beads from his pocket and dangled them above Ernie like a treat for a dog. Alice took them on Ernie’s behalf.

“He’s feeling a little shy,” she said. “But thank you.”

“And a treat for the grown-ups!” He produced a flask and took a swig. “You guys?”

“I’ve got a shift later,” I said. “Four to nine.”

Esposito pshawed. “It’s the last Stella Maris!” He turned to Alice. “And truth be told, half the team drinks even when it ain’t. Sometimes you need a boost to deal with the floaters.”

Alice smiled tautly.

“I don’t do that,” I said. “I’m not on that half.”

Esposito wasn’t satisfied. “As your superior, I hereby grant you permission to knock this bourbon back.”

Avoiding Ernie’s eyes, I took the flask and braced myself. It burned.

“Only the good stuff for Stella!” Esposito shouted, apparently sated. “Laissez les bons temps rouler!” Then he leaned in close to my ear and whispered, “Listen to me, Eli. Endings are endings.”

Esposito retreated into the crowd, his neck craned so he could hold my gaze and his head nodding with dumb profundity. “It’s nothing,” I said to Alice. “He’s had a few.”

“Well, now that you’ve got official permission, maybe we can have a few, too.”

+++

I’d gotten us tickets for the family lunch cruise. We stood along the railing as the ferry boat navigated the swampy canal that used to be Addison Boulevard, the main artery of Southtown.

“Is it what you expected?” I asked Alice.

“It ain’t Venice.”

I snorted, jostling Ernie on my shoulders. He squeezed my forehead tighter. After the levees broke nearly two years previous, Southtown was flooded into a hopscotch board of rotting roofs. I couldn’t even tell which of those roofs I’d grown up under.

“Look,” Ernie said. “Party.”

Up ahead, a few blocks east of Addison, the old parish jail still loomed fragilely like a sandcastle in the tide. Big bunches of balloons—blue, green, and silver—were tethered to the rooftop’s corners. We could hear the bass thumping from a few football fields away.

“It’s the jail,” I said. “From the news.”

They hadn’t bothered to evacuate the inmates when Southtown went under. Something about limited resources and civic priorities. We were quiet for a minute, listening to the hum of our motors and the pulse of their speakers. “Kind of the spirit of Stella,” Alice said. “Of the Parishes.”

I shook my head. “It’s gross.”

“It’s defiant. Like a big party in the face of everything. That’s how this place is, right?”

“It’s like dancing in a graveyard.”

“This whole place is a graveyard, Eli.”

“Who died?” Ernie asked.

“Nobody,” Alice said. “Let’s get some food. Let’s get a drink.”

A buffet stretched half the length of the upper deck, a long line of silver catering trays filled with exactly what you’d expect. Gumbo. Jambalaya. Boudin balls. A big heap of bright red crawfish. Here we were, curling up inside a stereotype of ourselves one last time before the Gulf washed everything away. I piled my plate high. Alice was glad she remembered her Tums. Everyone got a plastic souvenir cup that said, “One last toast to the Drowning Parishes!” We filled Ernie’s with grape soda and took ours to the big orange watercooler that was squirting out Hurricanes. No one bothered to check our wristbands. No one cared.

We ate. The food was fine, a little overcooked. Ernie was afraid of the crawfish. I held one in front of my face and pretended that it pinched my nose. He didn’t laugh. In fact, he screamed and hid under Alice’s armpit. She calmed him by bouncing Esposito’s beads. “They’re pretty,” she told him. “A special souvenir from a special day.” She draped them around his neck and he was happy again. I felt a hot pressure at the corner of my eyes and took a long sip of my Hurricane.

There was a magic show after lunch. The kids sat up close while the parents hung back. Alice and I stood in the back of the back, leaning against the railing. She studied my face. “You’re not still upset about the jail thing, are you?

“You can feel how you feel.”

“Glad to have your permission.”

The magician turned a crawfish into a lobster. A light round of applause.

“So you really don’t want me to move to Jackson?” I asked.

“Let’s just try to make it through the day.”

“You and Ernie are a team,” I said. “I want to be part of it.”

She cut her eyes away from me. “You made choices.”

“I’ll get an apartment near y’all at first, and then we can see.”

Alice took me by the wrist and pulled me farther down the railing, away from the other parents. “You’re not listening.”

“The past is the past, right?”

“The past happened, Eli. History doesn’t start when you say it starts.”

I took a deep breath. “I need this.”

Loud applause now. The show was over. Ernie toddled over and groped for Alice’s hand. “Did you like the show?” she asked him.

“Don’t worry,” I interrupted. “We’ll finish this later.”

Alice rolled her eyes at me and turned back to Ernie. “Look baby, the amusement park.”

The ferry snaked its way through the Picklebury Funfair. The Rocket Coaster, with its dry peaks and unseen valleys, gave the impression of a submerged mountain range, and the Ferris wheel was half underwater now. Someone had leashed a little dingy to its rim. I looked up. A couple of kids, teenagers, had climbed their way into one of the carriages. The boy tossed his weight around, left and right. The carriage swung and groaned, and the girl let out a happy scream. I thought about waving. The moment, though. It wasn’t mine.

+++

My canoe floated above what was once the intersection of McAvoy and Lemieux, near St. Elmo’s and its cemetery. Lemieux is on a hill, and about five blocks north the water meets asphalt just in front of Old Migglemaw’s. Alice and I used to tell our friends that Ernie was conceived in the Migglemaw’s bathroom, but back then we had enough sex that it was impossible to tell for sure. Sitting in the canoe, I wondered if we’d ever have sex again, and if she’d ever again lay with her head on my chest, gently tugging at my stomach hair.

I scanned the water with my flashlight and appreciated the airiness of my breeches. Our government-issued canvas pants pinched when you sat down, but they let us wear costumes for Stella. The breeches were comfortable. So was my buzz. The light—my own and those of the Quartier—played on the ripples of the water, glowing in thick, emphatic strokes like a child’s fingerpaintings. Eventually, a dark rectangle bobbed into view. In the Drowning Parishes, this is what is known as a floater.

Even before we were underwater, the ground had always been swampy. Bury anything, and it’s likely to be pushed back to the surface during the next heavy rain. Hence our customary preference for above-ground crypts and surface vaults. In the case of the latter, the bottom three-quarters of the vault—think of a big, concrete bathtub—is lowered into the earth. The vault is then sealed up airtight, and a granite ledger is placed on top. The deceased is thereby kept dry and in place. Problem is, no one expected to see the water level rise above the surface vaults. When the whole apparatus is submerged, the pressure equilibrium gets thrown off and eventually the top pops open, giving the coffin a chance to float to the surface.

I paddled in close, lining up my canoe parallel to the floater. This one was pearl white, its lid sealed shut. Carefully, I lifted the handle bar along its flank and let it swing back down. It fell heavy against the hull like a door knocker. Everything was still intact, which made it easy. I pulled a placeholder out of my utility bag and wrote its serial number in my ledger. Around the swing bar, I clicked the placeholder’s bracelet end—like a handcuff, but bigger. Then into the water I tossed the anchor end, which is pretty much what it sounds like. The 30 feet of chain between the two ends would make sure that the floater wouldn’t go too far before our cleanup crew got there in the morning.

I noted the floater’s coordinates in my ledger and shoved off it with my paddle. A brass band was playing down by where Lemieux transitioned from canal to street. It was too faint to make out the tune, so I mentally replayed the mystery hymn from earlier. It had been perfect. Of course, it had. It was music to sink by. Warm but melancholy, sad but with its chin up. I wondered whether Ernie could hear the sadness. Did he understand the notes as adding up to something tragic?

My beam picked up another floater just beyond the cathedral. This one was wooden, but not one of the luxuriously sculpted mahogany pillboxes currently in fashion. The shape was more, well, coffin-like, more like you see in cartoons or Halloween decorations than at modern funerals. I checked my watch. Quarter till nine. Paddling quickly, I lined myself up. The casket was definitely old, maybe 50 or 60 years old. It was flimsy, too. Just thin planks of what looked to be pine. The raised wooden cross on the top was simple. No Corinthian flourishes at its tips, no sculpture of Jesus. I ran my flashlight along the length of the casket. The lid had popped open, so I switched my breathing from my nose to my mouth. Of course, a coffin this old didn’t have a nice handle bar like the last one. It had handles like on an old steamer trunk, strips of leather held in place by brass caps.

I gave the nearest strip a yank. It ripped right along the cap. Squatting down low in the canoe, I touched the ends of my fingers to the coffin lid and rotated it slowly in the water. It was smooth and damp, soft like a picnic table after a rainstorm. The handle on the far side circled into view. I reached for it, shifting on the balls of my feet. The sole of my courtier boot slipped on the slick plastic bottom of the canoe.

The rest happened quickly, almost in a single motion. I fell forward, capsizing my boat. And as I hit the water I grabbed for the coffin, wrapping my fingers around the lip beneath the open lid. A sturdier casket, like the one I’d tagged earlier, could’ve probably weathered my fall. Not this one. It flipped onto its side. It flipped open.

I felt a forehead hit mine with a clunk, and I was nose to nose with the thing. The shock of the weight pushed me underwater. As I thrashed, I felt something graze the side of my face—its cheek, maybe, or the crown of its head. I swallowed a mouthful of water. My hand, thinking on its own, shot upward and outward, landing on the corpse’s neck. It had none of the meatiness, none of the musculature that keeps a living neck breathing and swallowing. Grabbing it, I could feel the vertebrae like they were crackers in a waxed paper sleeve.

A flurry of shoves and sloshing water and it was off me, and with a few paddles more, I was pulling myself onto a fire escape that clung to a building just above the waterline. I curled up in a ball on the metal grating. My body had rushed ahead of my mind, or maybe my mind had rushed ahead of my body. I saw nightmare images in my head, skulls and flayed flesh. I couldn’t tell what was memory and what was imagination.

I made myself take some deep breaths, and had managed to mostly stop shaking when a second round of panic hit. The paperwork. A lost floater. A lost canoe. There’d be reams of it. I imagined Alice and Ernie waiting for me at the Au Revoir while I filled out forms and wrote up statements. I’d call them from the office and tell them something came up. They’d be asleep when I got home, and in the morning they’d leave for the last time. Everyone would leave for the last time.

“Fuck it,” I said to no one. Come midnight tomorrow, the Drowning Parishes wouldn’t even be parishes anymore. There’d be no one to give a fuck about my paperwork, no one to fire me if I didn’t do it.

I looked up Lemieux and brushed my hair out of my eyes. It wasn’t till then that I noticed my tricorne was missing. The water was black, but the hat was blacker, floating just a foot or two away from the outstretched hand of the facedown corpse. Part of me just wanted to let him have it, but the Grand Minister wouldn’t allow a courtier approach Stella with a bare head.

Reluctantly, I lowered myself back into the water and paddled toward the tricorne. My strokes were careful and measured, lest I gather too much steam and run into the thing again. As I got closer, the pattern of his suit came into view. It was a gaudy plaid. I thought of my grandfather, and how comfortable he’d been in the flamboyant cuts and colors of the Vieux Quartier. I guess they didn’t know the parishes were drowning then. Or they did. We know they knew. But it must have all seemed at once too remote and too dreary to worry about, like the thought of a hangover in the midst of a bender. I snatched my hat and returned it to my head. Treading the warm water, my eyes darted to the corpse and darted away. They caught the glint of what must have been cufflinks. Maybe they were his best pair. Somebody had picked them out for him. Maybe his wife, his kids. In a time of grief, somebody had dug those cufflinks out of a jewelry box and given them to the mortician. This thing was mourned. Now he was alone. Now he had no more dignity than an old fiberglass buoy.

I took a tentative hold of his ankle. It was brittle. I held on lightly. We made it back to the fire escape with him trailing behind me, yawing gently in my wake. I climbed out of the water and I rotated him slowly, like I had his casket. Then, I stuck my hands under his armpits and dragged him into the dry. He wasn’t as heavy as I’d expected. Time had rotted out a lot of the soft stuff. Humming that old nameless hymn, I flipped him on his back. His empty sockets stared up at the sky and his lipless mouth was almost grinning. I crossed his arms into an X over his chest. I took off my hat. I finished the hymn.

+++

The water was just below my knees when, from a half block away, a woman smoking outside Old Migglemaw’s pointed in my direction. “A ghost!”

I looked over my shoulder before I realized that she meant me, and when I turned back toward her, a gaggle of flushed faces had swiveled my way. I opened my mouth to explain, but all that came out was a blast of hot vomit. The gaggle laughed and whooped and hollered. One man, the boldest, dressed in a French maid’s costume, rushed toward me.

“This guy knows how to Stella!” he yelled to his friends.

In a few loud splashes he was upon me, his arm wrapped around my middle, helping me to shore. Under the bar’s neon lights, the full import of my costume became clear to them.

“You’re one of those,” the maid started.

“A courtier!” the smoking woman finished.

The maid looked at his watch. “Shit, you should be across town. It’s starting.”

I nodded, the acid burn of sickness still rough in my throat.

Someone from the gaggle, a guy wearing a baby’s diaper and a plague doctor’s mask, whistled loudly and hailed with his arm. I was ushered into the back of a pedicab, and a thin man in biker shorts pumped me north on Lemieux, west around the Sunken Playground, then finally north again. The crowd grew thick, too thick for his cab to pass. I got out and wound my way toward the docks.

From either end of the floating stage, a courtier and a courtesan walked toward one another, meeting just in front of Stella Maris, Queen of the Festival, Her Majesty the Effigy. In her shadow, the pair theatrically bowed and curtsied to one another. Then using the golden lighter she was issued upon her inauguration in the High Court, the courtesan lit the tip of her partner’s torch. The couple bowed and curtsied to Stella, and the courtier tossed his flaming torch onto her raft, right at the hem of her skirts.

The process repeated, again and again, until each of the fiftysome courtiers had their turn, but after the first ten or so, each new torch was redundant. The sky-blue gown, intricate with beadwork that the courtesans spent months fussing over, had already caught fire. The crowd roared each time the blaze leapt higher. By the time the last courtier threw his torch on the pyre, the flames were licking her papier-mâché face. Her features were frighteningly realistic, delicate even at this scale. Her eyes looked upward, toward the stars that were obscured by a great swirl of gray-white smoke. Charred black patches moved across her cheeks with the haste of an advancing army. Soon there was no face left to conquer, only the kindling that I’d personally helped to stuff into her head just days before.

I was 17 the last time I’d watched the Au Revoir from the crowd, and in the 17 Stellas since, I’d been eager for my turn, my torch. I relished it. For a few seconds every year, I was at the center of the Drowning Parishes. I was their center, their charge, their ward, their avatar. Now, all I felt was a gross heat in my gut. Disgust, maybe. Shame. Worst of all, I couldn’t tell whether I felt it because the whole spectacle seemed suddenly barbaric, or because I’d blown my last ever chance to take part in it.

My eyes stung from all the burning. I pushed my way back through the crowd. When a hand grabbed my forearm, I almost shoved it away.

“Shit, Eli,” Alice said. “You’re soaking wet.”

“Something happened. I missed it.”

Ernie’s big green hat was precarious, its brim folding against his mother’s shoulder as she held him. My son and my ex-wife looked back at me, uncomprehending, as if through a fogged window or spectral mirror. Alice inhaled slowly. “You need a shower,” she said. “Let’s go home.”

Home. I wanted to believe the word was loaded, the symptom of some tectonic emotional shift. That it betrayed feelings that Alice was stubbornly pretending she didn’t feel. My shame grew hotter still.

Ernie stirred and looked my way. “I want to see the fireworks.”

“I think Daddy’s had a tough day.” Alice’s voice was sympathetic, but not warm.

“I’m fine,” I said. “Let’s stay for the fireworks.”

We put Ernie on my shoulders. The floating bonfire, now unrecognizable as Stella, drifted out onto a river that had once been half as wide. The reds and greens and whites sparked and crackled above us, bright lights that shone through the smoke engulfing us. The end had come, and the revelers howled howls that welcomed and fought it. I looked around. Some people were crying, their tears sparkling in radiant colors reflected from above. But none of it could stop what was already done. Endings are endings, I said to myself. Endings are endings.

 

Travis Mushett is the editor-in-chief of Blunderbuss Magazine and a writer of fiction and non-fiction. He holds a Ph.D. from the Columbia University School of Journalism where he wrote a dissertation about contemporary little magazines. Learn more about Travis' projects and escapades at travismushett.com, and feel free to hit him up via email at [email protected].

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