The Last Mardi Gras

By Dario Bijelac
By Dario Bijelac

From the rooftop of the old cathedral, I had a clear view past the Louis Armstrong Park lagoons, all the way to the steel islands of Mid-City. Just like I always remembered New Orleans. Wet.

My boat, a cheap scow with a temper as bad as my dead Aunt Sally, thrashed against the current nearby. Took me all morning to motor in from the Baton Rouge arcology. Standing there on that roof, looking out across that flooded land, I still wasn’t sure why I’d come.

My old lady sure as hell didn’t like the idea, but she’s from Boston and still couldn’t even pronounce Mardi Gras right. We had plenty to worry about back home, with the power going out every other day and everyone fretting about the next wave of hunger riots. I figured I was the only one crazy enough to show, and seeing as how I was sitting alone up there; it was looking like I was right. Probably wasn’t no such thing as the Krewe du Passé anyway.

I kicked a water bin over and gave my old legs a rest. To the East, past the crumbled facades of the Quarter, the remains of the Ninth Ward levees clung to the horizon. The big ones. They were gonna stop the big floods, keep us all safe inside this little bubble we called home.

And maybe they would’ve if it’d been big floods that had come.

Like most things, the end crept up real slow. So slow it was easy to look the other way, especially for all those politicians. Slap another dike up in Florida, build the levees a few feet higher in old NOLA. Forget about it until next year. The picketers kept predicting a big flood, something to throw in the face of the government. Proof that something had to be done. But that’s not how things go down.

No, New Orleans didn’t drop into the Gulf under one big swell. It was a slow death, like watching your grandma fight off cancer for twenty years. And lord, did she fight. But eventually, death caught her, just like it catches everything.
The sun was getting high in the sky, so I pulled my old trombone out and greased her up. The slide was like butter, the mouthpiece the only kiss I’ve ever needed. I trolled out a few notes, then let it wail until the echoes bounced clear down to Lake Pontchartrain.

Most people never understood a thing about this town. Always saying, “Just move higher, you dumb shits.” I’m not sure what ties a soul to a place, but I’ve never felt at home since the day we finally packed up through the second-floor window and motored out of town. The arcologies were supposed to be the future, keep everyone fed and indoors where it’s safe. But they’re soulless hives, and just like a soulless hive they started to rot from the inside. Now the gangs are so bad, sometimes I think it’d be better to take our chances down in Mexico.

My lungs were getting hot, so I stopped for a swig of moonshine.

The Krewe du Passé. Who was I fooling? I’d almost convinced myself to stay behind in Baton Rouge. But then the night before, Big Chief came on the radio. I got the chills all over, felt the movement in my bones. In my heart. I knew I had to find out for myself.

The messages were all cryptic-like, obscure posts and emails. The Coast Guard had the whole perimeter blocked off, and they didn’t take kindly to trespassers, with all the oil poaching going down these days. So it was real cloak and dagger. I left before dawn, and still almost got nabbed by a patrol as I was squeezing along the riverbank. You’d think the bastards would have something better to do, like get food to people that need it.

Down Royal Street, the water was lapping against the old buildings. The last holdouts. Hadn’t been more than a few thousand of us holed up here during those final years. Even then, there were some good days. Carnival days. Most of the krewes were long gone, but a few stuck around. Rex. Zulu. Krewe du Vieux. Marching our problems away. Until the day the gangs boated into town, shooting and looting. Gunned down the mayor right in the waterway. We all knew it was time to go, then. So we said goodbye to New Orleans, and we said goodbye to Mardi Gras. Sure, they still celebrate up in Boston, and I hear they’ve got a museum out in California. But that ain’t Mardi Gras, far as I’m concerned. Mardi Gras lived and died right here.

It was well past the meeting time, and my toes were getting cold. It was gearing up to be a quiet Mardi Gras, but I could dig it. Just me and my grandma, this old city. I drew my bone back to my lips.

Something caught the sunlight, a little quantized rainbow floating by. I leaned over the edge and scooped it up with the slide of my bone. I held it up to the light.

Beads. I’ll be damned. A whole string of them, just like they used to throw. And right through the center, where the sun was starting to blind me, something moved along the water in the distance.

A boat. Then another. And then another.

Like gators through the bayou, they drifted closer, all converging on the cathedral. Some were as small as my scow. Others were large enough to hold a few families. On one deck, a steaming pot of gumbo filled the air with the scent of heaven. From another, a trumpet wailed. A third brought the drums.

And they all came ready to dance. If this was gonna be the last Mardi Gras, we were gonna make it count. We were gonna show our old grandma that she didn’t die for nothing.

* * *