We fly in first-class on Piggy Bank’s dime, arriving at eight o’clock on Friday morning. The limousine driver with chestnut skin holds up a sign with our names on it. We drink single malt scotch from crystal glasses as New Orleans jaunts past through one-way windows. Tourists in T-shirts and cargo-pants try to see who we are. They think we’re famous. The scotch is Johnnie Walker Blue. Bartenders charge thirty dollars for a glass, neat, and I spill some in my lap. The driver, Sweet Comfort, reminds us that champagne brunch on the patio at Bayona will begin in two hours. He calls us Mr. Husband and Miss Wife. He’s in full livery.
“Ya’ll best take it easy now.”
“We slept on the plane,” I say.
“All right. All right. Just don’t let it slide,” Sweet Comfort says. “Mr. Piggy Bank wants everybody on time. He goin’ all out.”
Wife says, “So are we.”
At the Wyndsor Court Hotel, we shower and change in deluxe accommodations. Our rooms have more square feet than our home. We have a foyer and mini-kitchen that bleeds into a den with three sofas. Beyond that, a dining table set for eight. Then a step through French doors reveals a king-sized bedroom with a king-sized bed that opens onto a balcony overlooking the Mississippi river. I press a button at bedside, and a television rises up from inside an antique chest. We use perfumed soaps and tiny bottles of lotion. We drink beers from the mini bar and charge it to the room.
“It’s too much,” I say.
“Piggy Bank’s got it,” Wife says.
“I shouldn’t have opened the scotch in the limo.”
“That’s what it’s there for.”
“Still. It was Blue.”
“We’re married. He’s your brother too.”
“I’m uncomfortable,” I say.
“So take off your coat.”
The limo arrives at ten o’clock sharp and shuttles us to Bayona’s where Piggy Bank opens the first bottle of Dom Perignon with a sword. A smooth, white smile never leaves his thick ruddy face. Fifteen bottles are popped in all. The wait staff runs in and out and in and out and our flutes never go dry.
The rest of the party consists of Piggy Bank’s wife, her divorced parents, her siblings and cousins. Don’t forget Piggy Bank’s family, the half-brothers and half-sisters and a menagerie of friends. All flown in first-class. All expenses paid.
This is New Orleans. This is Mardi Gras.
As we are seated, Piggy Bank’s wife Silky clinks a silver spoon against her glass.
“It’s time for Dirty Beads. You should all pick a number from the bag Sugar is carrying to your tables. Once you have your number, start thinking about which set of beads you want. Other Girl, show them the beads.”
Other Girl begins lifting beads from a bright green bag, one by one. She makes hand motions like Vanna White. She has the same hair. On the first set of beads, tiny lights blink inside translucent pink gambler’s dice. Another has cartoonish boxes of Viagra and a life size penis dangles from the bottom. Bald Guy tries to grab them, but Other Girl slaps his hand. One after the other, she goes through two dozen beads. The last ones, plastic oysters with black and white pearls, she holds over her head and twirls on a finger.
The rules of the game make no sense. Everyone is drunk. Piggy Bank snatches the numbers out of our hands and throws them on the ground. He stands on his chair and tosses beads across the room. He throws some over his shoulder without looking. I catch the blinking dice. Wife catches the oysters. Other Girl already has the penis beads hung around her neck and no one tries to take them.
“Sir,” a waiter says. “Could you step down from the chair, please?”
“This is Mardi Gras,” Piggy Bank says.
“Sir, we’d hate for you to fall.”
Piggy Bank slips out a fifty and folds it into the waiter’s breast pocket. He’s still smiling. The waiter leaves the room.
The parade starts at noon. Piggy Bank owns a huge double-gallery style house in the garden district, directly on the parade route. White columns, black wrought-iron gate, and courtyard pool. He has an iron lion’s head in the wall that spits a continuous stream of water into a fountain. His bedroom ceiling is painted in gold leaf with an oval mirror above the bed. Bald Guy calls it the Hotel Frenchafornia, but we all know his ex-wife Sugar said it first. Piggy Bank bought the house so we could watch the parades without driving or walking. He bought it so we could use the bathrooms and not the port-o-lets. He bought it despite the fact that he lives in Connecticut, works in New York, and only makes it down two weeks a year. Two weeks for Mardi Gras.
This is it.
In the middle of the crowd on the sidewalk, we’ve put together a kitchen of crawfish and boiled potatoes. We’ve got fresh silver queen corn and a half dozen king cakes. We’ve got cases of beer and wine. We’ve got expensive scotch. Piggy Bank stands in the middle of us in coat and tie and sunglasses. He’s red-faced and smiling and waving to friends all over the street. Silky hands plates of food to anyone within reach. A Stranger stops and taps my shoulder.
“Who is he?” A Stranger asks. “Is he famous?”
“Have you seen the movie Wall Street?”
“He’s Gordon Gecko,” I say. Then I wink.
A Stranger kneels down and lifts a beer from the cooler.
“Cool?” she asks.
“Cool,” I say. “This is Mardi Gras.”
The floats cruise past, then the high school bands, then the cops on horseback. Then the next float, the next band, the next batch of cops. It goes on like this for hours. Bald Guy throws his arms over Piggy Bank’s shoulder and drinks scotch from the bottle. He may be the father-in-law, but they’re exactly the same age. I eat a few crawfish, wipe the burn of spice from my fingers, and chase it with beer. But I’m not hungry. Wife catches a plastic headband with googley eyes on springs. She puts it on and does an eighties dance routine. I’ll admit to you that she is good looking, very good looking, and her neck is entirely hidden by beads. I snap a picture.
After the parade, Sweet Comfort drives us back to the hotel.
“Port of Call at eight sharp,” he says. “I’ll be right here at a quarter of.”
“What do we wear?” I ask.
“It’s a burger bar, Mr. Husband. It don’t matter.”
We shower and change into casual clothes. I stretch out on the bed. Wife stands on the balcony and watches people milling in the street.
“Anyone naked?” I ask.
“Not anymore,” Wife says. “A girl on the corner did a quick flash.”
“How was it?”
“How much do you think this room is a night?”
“She was sort of droopy.”
“What? She didn’t even get beads.”
In the lobby, we meet up with Sugar and Sage, Other Girl and Other Boy, and, of course, Bald Guy. He’s still drunk and puts a hand on my shoulder. He holds up a digital camera but his hands shake and I can’t see anything.
“Check this out dude,” he says. “Kiss.”
“Gene Simmons, man.”
“No man, Gene Simmons.” Bald Guy squints his eyes and sings, “I, wanna rock and roll all night, party every day.”
“KISS,” I say.
“Right here in our hotel.”
I steady the camera and look at the tiny image. Bald Guy and Gene Simmons, arm in arm.
“Excellent,” I say.
“He’s riding tonight.”
“I’m gonna get hammered.”
You and Bald Guy wouldn’t get along.
The limo picks us up and winds through back streets. We pull up from behind Port of Call and get out. Piggy Bank is already there, wearing a white linen suit. He’s taking drink orders on the front steps and yelling them over his shoulder to the bar.
“I’ll be right back,” I say.
“What?” Wife asks. “Where?”
“Across the street. They’ve got a cash machine.”
“What do you need cash for?”
“He’s not buying this too,” I say.
“Of course he is. But you can try.”
When I get back, everyone is seated and drinking hurricanes.
“I got your hurricane,” Piggy Bank says.
“That’s okay,” I say. “I’ll get a beer.”
No one pays any attention. The burgers and baskets of fries come, and I eat fast. I order a dozen boiled shrimp and eat that too. Crab cakes. Even the jalapeno poppers. I use extra horseradish in my sauce. When they take my drink order, I ask for Delirium Tremens. You know the one. It’s the beer with a pink elephant on the label. I tell them to bring me two at a time. Then I ask for a dessert menu, and I’m told that all they have is chocolate cake. It’s not what I want, but I ask for it anyway. By the time it comes out, it’s time to go. We stand on the sidewalk while Piggy Bank pays the bill.
We make our way to Bourbon Street and join the crowd. It’s like walking into a thicket. Six steps in and you disappear. I grab Wife’s hand, but everyone else is gone. Just freaks in costume, men in drag, whores on the job, and pickpockets. We move deeper into the street and I make a fist around Wife’s belt. Beads sail through the air. Men and boys, and sometimes girls, throw them at Wife. She smiles and says thank you. Sometimes she does a little curtsy. Then three women on a balcony above the souvenir shop lift up their shirts. Countless thick-necked meatheads gape. The crowd stops moving and we’re trapped, bodies pressed together hard.
“I can’t breath,” Wife says.
“And they’re ugly,” I say.
“This is miserable.”
“Let’s try for that bar.”
We push our way off the street and manage to cut inside a place called Fat Catz. It’s less than standing room only, but it’s better than outside. I pay cash for two Coronas and we sip them in the corner. Wife leans against the wall.
“This is better,” she says.
“For now,” I say. “We’ll have to get out somehow.”
“But this is better.”
“Yes. This is better. But I’ll want to get out soon.”
I get bumped by the guy next to me and it’s clear he’s been shoved. He pulls a fist back and sets his jaw.
I say, “It’s not worth it.”
The guy looks at me. He holds his fist in the air.
“Bullocks,” he says and throws the punch.
The cops arrive instantly. In less than four minutes, they break up the fight and haul three people to jail. That’s the rule on Bourbon Street. If you fight, you go to jail. Get it off the street. Sort it out later. We watch it like a TV show.
When it’s over, Wife and I take alleyways to Royal and make it back to the hotel by midnight. We’re not tired yet so we walk upstairs to the Polo Lounge for another drink. Bald Guy is there with a glass of pink champagne in his hand. He’s doing some sort of dance move and the girl he’s standing with giggles. Her sequin skirt stops an inch below her crotch. Sometimes less.
“My buddy Gene and I rode with Endymion tonight,” he says.
“Gene who?” she asks.
“I, wanna rock and roll all night.”
“Don’t say it too loud,” he says. “He doesn’t want anyone to know he’s here.”
“In this hotel?”
Bald Guy winks and smiles. He orders another pink champagne. He charges it to Piggy Bank.
“Do we stay?” Wife asks.
“We’ve still got the ball tomorrow night. Commander’s Palace on Sunday. I think there might be a lunch at Galatoire’s.”
“I don’t have the endurance for this trip,” she says.
“I don’t have the clothes for this trip.”
“Let’s head up then. Get some sleep,” I say. “We could go for beignets in the morning?”
“Of course we’ll get beignets,” Wife says. “This is New Orleans.”
“And it’s Mardi Gras.”
“That doesn’t matter.”
“Either way, I’m buying.”
“You’re so cool.”
“You go ahead then,” I say. “I’m going to step outside for some air.”
“I forget, does air suck or blow?” Wife narrows her eyes. “Well. Take your time.”
Wife turns on her heel and makes for the door.
We push through the weekend, overeating, overdrinking, overspending. We have trout almandine at Galatoire’s. We have shrimp remoulade at Commander’s. We have the finest champagne everywhere we go. In between, in limousines, we drink Blue. Piggy Bank never stops smiling and Bald Guy never gets sober. You would have never stopped laughing. And not just everyday laughing, but the kind where your eyes pinch shut and your hands shake. I could watch you laugh like that for the rest of my life.
But before it’s all over and before we fly home, first-class on Piggy Bank’s dime, this one thing happened that I haven’t told you yet. I’m not sure if I should. We were in his double-gallery house. After the parade, but before Port of Call. No big deal. It’s just another story.
We carried leftover parade food and booze into the house and picked at lukewarm crawfish. Wife napped on the couch while Sugar and Sage watched TV. Bald Guy drank scotch and twisted unintelligible words on his tongue. He took wobbly steps to the kitchen island. He grabbed on with both hands. Then he lifted his head and focused his eyes. He spoke, maybe to Sweet Comfort.
“You know that girl,” he said.
“Which one?” Sweet Comfort asked.
“The one with google eyes.” Bald Guy put index fingers on top of his head and wiggled them like antennae. His drinking voice boomed through the house.
“You mean Miss Wife.”
He arched his back. “Came to see me last night. She’s as tight as drum. Mouth like a Hoover.”
Silence. No one moved. Not even me.
I was on the phone with you.
Piggy Bank stood near enough to grab Bald Guy’s collar and drag him out of the room. It was over in seconds. A door slammed, but we could still hear the shouting. Silky asked if anyone wanted a drink. Maybe I should tell you that Piggy Bank is having an affair with a woman named Florida. Maybe I should tell you that Silky wants a divorce and that everyone is waiting to see who gets the house. Or maybe I should just tell you what happened next.
Sweet Comfort took a few steps over and squeezed my arm. He wore the penis beads over black livery.
“It’s Mardi Gras,” he said. “Folks act a fool.”
I shrugged my shoulders.
“You should go back to the hotel,” Wife said.
“I would like to clean up,” I said.
“Come on then,” Sweet Comfort said. “I’ll take you home.”
Mardi Gras parades move through the streets in a cloud of beads and Frisbees, embroidered panties and silk roses, a hail of plastic cups and silver coins. Every few years, someone will fall from their float and die. Some are crushed by the wheels, others by the hooves of horses. There are isolated incidents of stabbings and gunfire. But for the most part, the parades move smoothly. The girls who lift their shirts get the most loot. Little boys with fishing nets scoop up the rest. Everyone else taps feet and sips beer and smiles at how much dirty chaos one city can get away with. They fly in from all over the world. They buy souvenirs and expensive dinners and Johnny Walker Blue. They keep hotels in business. It’s very carefully maintained. Men like Piggy Bank own this town. I pass through like a tossed stone, skipping across the surface of the Mississippi River for a brief moment, only to drop and sink beneath the muddy water. Just like Bald Guy. Wife is somewhere in between. Very soon, an epic convergence of hurricane swells and weak levees and leaking oil will change the city forever. But for these few seconds, the parade holds us together. As bright and blinking as an elaborate string of beads.
We all reach up with waving hands and lifted shirts and fishing nets and hopeful eyes. We reach up to catch them. This is Mardi Gras. I’ve got a piece of it right here in my hands.
Murray Dunlap’s work has appeared in about fifty magazines and journals. His stories have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize three times, as well as to Best New American Voices once, and his first book, -an early draft of “Bastard Blue” (then called “Alabama”) was a finalist for the Maurice Prize in Fiction. His first collection of short stories, “Bastard Blue,” was published on June 7th, 2011 (the three year anniversary of a car wreck that very nearly killed him…). The extraordinary individuals Pam Houston, Laura Dave, Michael Knight, and Fred Ashe taught him the art of writing. His web site is www.murraydunlap.com.