j a n e    l i d d l e

The Catastrophe Parade

 

Esmé stood along the shore of Neptune Avenue, wearing a red-and-white polka dot 1950s-style bikini and a pink bandana tied up in her hair. The Atlantic Ocean lapped at her heels; cigarette butts grazed her ankles. She moved to the other side of the street where the tide had not yet climbed. A young gentleman on stilts, wearing an Uncle Sam inspired uniform, waded in the water, his smoke-gray wig unnaturally still. The remnants of the Wonder Wheel sat behind him, half-dipped in the sea like a cookie dunked in milk. He lifted his megaphone. "Brothers and sisters, brothers and sisters, welcome to the fourth annual Catastrophe Parade!"


Hundreds had descended upon post-Coney Island, wearing bathing suits, skivvies, dresses full of air. The temperature was nearing a hundred. It was April. There was, mercifully, a sea breeze that drifted through every so often to the relief of those in the crowd, except perhaps the man on stilts, who swayed like a dying branch. A roman candle shot into the air. The crowd cheered.


Esmé stood on her tiptoes in anticipation of the float Paige would ride upon. Esmé had spent the past year cleaning up Paige's sick, rubbing salve on her wounds, leaning in close to understand her slurring words. She had made sure she didn't mix her medicine with other medicine, unless it seemed like a good idea at the time. Esmé had helped Paige find a balance, even if that balance leaned toward sleepy inertia. But that balance had teetered the past week. Paige was rarely home, and when she was her eyes were frantic and it was three in the morning. She was messy and swore and paid no one no mind. She brushed off Esmé's questions with others: "What do you care? What does it matter? What does it mean?" Now that she had stopped taking anti-psychotics, all that was chemically suppressed poured out like a fall. But Paige would be here. Paige never missed the Catastrophe Parade.


First, the Bubonic Plague, classic catastrophe, performed with great historical inaccuracy by people wearing Victorian clothes and monocles, made up to look like zombies. Behind them was a float designed to look like an ark with cardboard cutouts of animals and the historically impoverished and a miniature Cyclone roller coaster. Esmé clapped, forgot, gasped at what came next: a papier māché Redwood tree, the base as wide as a river, and those upon it dressed as beetles, gnawing on the bark, which seemed to leak a yellow puss that Esmé later learned was creamed corn.


Esmé had never seen a Redwood and she knew she never would. Nor would she ever be stung by a bee or pour real maple syrup on a pancake or love without protection.


Next, AIDS—not unlike a traditional gay pride float, but with Ronald Reagan and Eazy-E holding hands at the helm. Drag queens dancing with ravers pumping dance music from the part of the world formally known as Eastern Europe. Esmé caught sight of Paige on that float, spraying a Supersoaker of water into her own face, her whole body alive in a way that reminded Esmé of old times.


In the previous life, back when a catastrophe parade would have been misunderstood, unnecessary, Paige wrote and sang folk tunes about the struggle of working-class and working-poor people—one song for each country and its citizens. She called her mom every day. She was a serial monogamist and all her girlfriends were sublimely beautiful and a little dim, never igniting Paige's strong competitive instinct and artistic insecurities. Not the way Esmé, her friend, sometimes did, with Esmé's talent for every musical instrument, whether she'd ever played it or not. Paige had been going places, and Esmé'd cheered her on. Performing on the float, Paige looked like a concentrated version of her pre-epidemic self.


She wore a light denim romper that had rainbow patches on the ass. Esmé recognized it as her own. Paige was wearing Esmé's clothes and having genuine fun.


Six white horses carrying twelve children in leg braces trotted gently past—Central Park horses finally sent out to pasture, or broken free to do so. The sun was pounding now. One of the horses strayed to the right and licked some saltwater, then stepped back, confused.


There was Dorothy and the scarecrow and an extinct lion.


There was an asteroid not fully realized.


There were sad-clown-faced dog puppets, and the onlookers bowed their heads, a moment of silence for man's best friend, newly lost entirely.


Hollers went up at war-painted men dragging blankets. "We miss you even though we never knew you!" the onlookers seemed to feel.


Farther down the avenue Esmé noticed a group of men standing offsides. They looked like part of the citizen guard, though there'd been no guard presence at parades previously. She thought she saw her brother among them, but as she got closer the man was taller and had a full beard, which she doubted her brother could ever grow. She turned away from them, since the citizen guard was, at its core, a gang self-justified by a patronizing philosophy. It was an attractive option to many men, lost in a sea of helplessness and hormones. The guard had been clashing with the state police more often, as well as with separatists and local community organizers. Esmé worried these clashes would lead to a new kind of danger.


Esmé walked among the crowd, sometimes feeling like a ghost, sometimes like the living person among ghosts. She bought a kazoo for five dollars. Money meant nothing. She blew on the kazoo, the first instrument she had picked up in years, and felt a poke in her back.


"Did you see me?" Paige asked. Her dry blond hair was braided Heidi-style and her light brown eyes were all honey.


"Yeah, couldn't miss you."


Paige gave Esmé an air hug, said, "This is the best Catastrophe Parade yet!"


"That's my romper you're wearing."


Paige looked to the heavens. "Who cares about romper ownership during a time on Earth when we have catastrophe parades?"


"Just ask next time, okay?" Esmé blew on her kazoo, managed a rusty little church hymn, got it real high.


Paige's eyes blanked like she had just popped some government medicine.


"I only bring it up because I was thinking of wearing the romper myself and I spent a lot of time looking for it this morning," Esmé said. This was a lie.


"Well, you look great in that bathing suit, just like you'd have looked great wearing any of the thousands of other clothes you've hoarded." Paige said this while watching Big Bird stroll by, who had lost most of his feathers. Behind Big Bird were people dressed as cows angrily shouting. Paige leaned to the right as if giving up. Esmé caught her elbow. "Do you need some water? Let me get you some."


Paige pulled her arm away. "Don't help me. And don't give me any more therapists' numbers either. The last one had me thinking about higher powers and surrendering. Had me believing in it."


"Bull shit. You know I'm against that. Maybe you misunderstood."


"He was a man, Esmé. A man therapist. A straight one!"


Esmé said, "Some of those can still help you... maybe."


"You're complying these days, you know that?"


"I got his number from Luis, the guy across the street who has all the flags. He said the doctor helped his mother when she was struck by lightning. She was having a hard time with paranoia."


"Doesn't mean they're not after you and all that. Where'd you get the kazoo?"


Esmé gestured dismissively. "Some straight man."


Paige rolled her eyes, bent toward Esmé's ear, and whispered, "Go fuck your strangers." She walked away, shrugged through the crowd as Esmé's tears merged with droplets of sweat running down her cheeks. She was surprised that she was crying, even if only a little bit. She flung the kazoo in the ocean, watched it bob with children and beer cans. In the previous life, Esmé was punk rock to the soul. In this one, she believed she still was. She did not believe Paige's self-destruction was inevitable, as Paige did. In trying not to witness it Esmé had forgotten the worth of a testimonial.


Women dressed as men marching as synchronized soldiers passed her by. They carried cardboard rifles and foamed at the mouth by way of toothpaste.


A man dressed as a priest carried above his head a wood star that was on fire. Esmé recognized the priest as Tyson, a man she met briefly months before who made superb brandy and gave light touches. She realized that he was carrying an exploding sun. Esmé thought that was redundant.


In a previous life Tyson was a student of theology and physics. In this life, he must have been hot. Esmé felt aflame just watching him carry on. It all should have been impossible.


The knot at the top of her halter dug into her neck. She loosened it, untied it, and as she tried to tie it again someone had grabbed the strings from her and tied it himself.


He was just some guy wearing a bathing cap and a vintage bathing suit, the kind that went to the knees and was connected to a tank top. He looked as if he belonged on a high diving board. He had burn scars on half his body. It was a pain Esmé couldn't imagine. She reached out to touch him, to comfort him with one of the ways she knew how. The burn makeup on his arm smeared onto her hand. Catastrophe: firestorms. His smile was nearly toothless and Esmé contemplated running her tongue over his gums, just to see if she could have him without disturbance.


The sound of gunshots ricocheted between the buildings. Gunshots were common enough now, yet the sound of them still rung unfamiliar. Panic billowed in the crowd, and all Esmé could perceive was fragments of images. She heard a horse scream, saw it stagger, swore at the unfairness. She ran up Stillwell and ran, ran, ran north, eventually loosening into an easy sprint. She was alone, just running with the sun on her side, until she heard footsteps come up behind her, then right next to her. She tried to run faster, afraid to be overcome by a thief, an officer—a man who chases basically. Paige grabbed her hand and they ran home, ran like they had run before from fires, from dogs, from motorcycles, with hearts full of disbelief and fear. After a mile they began to giggle as they ran, as if they were being chased by mere boys.


They made it to their apartment, barely able to breathe. Paige went to her bedroom, shut the door with feeling. Esmé went to her own bedroom, downright slammed her door. She scraped a bowl, salvaging whatever remnants of weed she could, and inhaled through her hyperventilating.

 

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JANE LIDDLE waited at school bus stops in Newburgh, NY, learned to drive on the north shore of Massachusetts, stayed up all night in Pittsburgh, and now reads and writes in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Two Serious Ladies, Wigleaf, WhiskeyPaper, Thrice Fiction, and elsewhere. You can find her at www.walnutcabin.tumblr.com or on Twitter @janeriddle


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