The Ghost of Mardi Gras

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Storytelling runs deep in the Ozarks. I grew up in the kiddie pools of it, but always waded over to the adult tables at picnics and reunions.

Low prices! Lots of secrets.

Low prices! Lots of secrets.

If you ever get the chance, listen to some Ozark stories. Rest assured you’ll be either laughing or horrified, or both. But Ozarkians are clannish. Suspicious. Stingy even. So catch what you can. If you have the fortune to eavesdrop enough, you learn that good gossip requires a fragment (or entire storyline) held back. The things grownups whispered about had a sense of hidden depth. I imagined them tapping into a secret gossip reservoir for their stories. I drew a map, sketching the reservoir under the Wal-Mart. This was 1½ miles south of the Werewolf Church.

We moved to New Orleans last July. I was shocked to find how freely our Southern neighbors filled my ears with gossip, advice, and stories. My shock turned to amusement when they ducked inside to refill their gossip pitcher. Just in case you wanted seconds.

So knowing very little about Mardi Gras  wasn’t a problem. The community here was excited – greedy even – to indoctrinate us.

This was in addition to the physical evidence of Carnival.

August: the children excavate the bone-bead strands of Mardi Gras Past on St. Charles.

January: shops place “It’s Carnival Time!” signs in their windows. Billboards along I-10 follow.

Early February: the children have eaten at least five meals of King’s Cake.

There was such a cacophony of voices advising us on how to best spend our first Mardi Gras that dinner conversation became a Carnival Survival Meeting. It started requiring minutes from the previous day.

Parade survival kit, lite

Parade survival kit, lite

“So Krewe de Vieux is Friday at 7.”

“Isn’t that one with all the phalluses?”

“Yeah, but K. said it was alright.”

“I heard from A. that children didn’t go to any night parades.”

“I heard that was for parades in the Quarter.”

“Would we call seven o’clock night?”

Mardi Gras isn’t just a day. It’s a solid two weeks, padded at the front end. When the second weekend rolled around, we were ready for our first daytime parade – the jewel in the weekend dubbed “Family Gras.”

Everyone had advised biking, because of the traffic/parking nightmare. Even the children’s school – one block from the parade route – was let out early on parade days so that hours in advance cars could approach the building.

mardi gras 2

Family Gras survival kit

Pushing off from our house – me on my sturdy steel-framed Bianchi, my husband on his sleek Trek hybrid, complete with Burley trailer – spirits were high.

We turned down Broadway to cut by Tulane. Traffic would be slowed there before hitting St. Charles, so even though Broadway doesn’t have a bike lane, it seemed like a smart move.

We were almost at the foot of Broadway when a teal BMW pulled to the right a few meters in front of my husband. The window slid down and a man in polo shirt leaned out, motioning my husband’s bike over. The man saw the Trek and Burley  glide to a stop. He hopped out of his car.

I looked at the bike and trailer as I rolled passed. No flats, nothing sticking out of the trailer. Both children pointed their helmets attentively towards the middle-aged man talking to their father.

Music from car stereos played. A light wind blew. College kids – several Abitas already under their belts – talked loudly on the sidewalk. The man shouted to be heard.

“Ya can’t have these children out durin’ Mardi Gras.”

Mardi Gras casualties: Boy hit by float in Bacchus parade; policeman helping him slipped on beads and broke his leg.

Mardi Gras casualties: Boy hit by float in Bacchus parade; policeman helping him slipped on beads and broke his leg.

My rage spiked. We’d already swallowed the advice of dozens of natives. It was Family Gras. It was fine. Did he expect me to lock the children indoors for all the weeks of Carnival? Who was he, to try and change our minds? Our route?

I prepped my middle finger to fly at him and his intrusive directive. More words, softer ones, followed.

“Please, I lost my son. Please…”

I braked to a dead stop.

The son. A young child, like mine? A reckless teenager? The man lapsed into repetition. His words were stringing into a weak chant that diminished under the noises of tires and wind.

“I lost him, I lost –”

The man’s mouth froze in a thin gap, like he had forgotten the rest of the words to his story.

We left him there on the curb, pushing on to the parade. From the bike lane on St. Charles, I kept looking over my left shoulder, waiting for the creeping line of autos to show a teal sedan, waiting for the return of the chant from a rolled-down window.

“I lost… I lost…”

We locked the bikes at the corner of Napolean and St. Charles. We smiled. We caught yards and yards of plastic beads pressed onto strings in Chinese factories. I drank my beer. The children covered their ears when the trombones blasted their way, reached out their arms silently, too shy to yell for beads.

We repeated the ritual over the next two weeks, in sun and rain and darkness.

The man’s confession quieted, but it continued creeping along the corners. I tried to logic it away, asking myself: Why doesn’t he stay home during Carnival season? Why would he torment himself like that? What compelled him to share his story?

I can see the man going to work somewhere, in a room with lamps and neutral wallpaper, maybe a law office. He’s tight-lipped over holiday feasts, Ozark-style. He’s sitting quietly apart. He goes to sleep in the dark, his story curled up like a snail under his pillow.

Marley in chains

Marley in chains

I never could sketch the lost boy to satisfaction. Maybe my brain is protecting itself. Maybe it’s the lack of concrete information, the age of the child or his coloring.

The image of the storyteller is enough. The silver-haired father, dragging the chain of tragedy around Carnival, red eyes in the weak winter sunlight. He’s carrying his story, hoping that maybe in a moment of feeling, when he sees a small, intact family flashing past his window, the story could be retold. Released. He’s hoping for the magic of time travel. Of changing fate.


And you, Dear Reader: have you ever been blindsided by storytelling? Did it change your route?

5 thoughts on “The Ghost of Mardi Gras

  1. Great story, Stephanie. Includes all the ingredients you list out at first. Loved the image of a gossip-reservoire beneath the local WalMart and of a man’s story curled beneath his pillow like a snail. The most powerful oral rendering I ever heard was told by a friend’s dowdy mother. Part of what made it so good was the flatness of her tone. The story of her escape from the Nazis was plenty dramatic on its own. Looking forward to your next installment re: (literary) life in New Orleans. — Eve

    • Thanks, Eve! And great story – wow, I’m anxiously hoping that you get to retell your friend’s adventure (in print or orally). Also, I’m greedy to hear the story myself, so you’ll have to let me know when that goes down;) ~ Steph

  2. Your post makes me ache for the man and his story. Refreshes the old adage about never judging others until you know their stories. After all, stories are the stuff of life.

    • That aching… such a curse and a gift, right? I actually heard on the radio last week (NPR, of course:) a snippet that goes to the heart of it. A man (guitarist/songwriter I think) was talking about a hit song he’d written after a long career. Paraphrasing very badly: “I just write the stuff that touches a heart chord with me. If I’m very lucky, it’ll find a listener that shares that.” It was super sage, and made me want to write way better. Just to try and touch what’s already there.
      Thanks for giving me something else to think about, Deb! ~ Steph

      • Amen—which I would guess is the reason most of us write—to touch some future someone out there in the world in the same way we’ve been touched by the books we’ve read. I hope for just one young girl to love my story like I loved The Witch of Blackbird Pond 🙂

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