-Come closer, my son, so I may tell you of my fever dream.
-Come close? I’ll get my mask.
-Come close, come close. I don’t have much time before I forget what’s happened to me.
-Okay, I’m here. Can I record this? Can I put it on Youtube?
-Put it on YouTube? I look like hell.
-I want to record it and put it on YouTube.
-Okay, okay. It might be funny.
-Yes, I know, I know. Just give me a second.
-Okay, we’ll edit this out. You look like hell.
-Fine, fine. I know I look like hell. I’ll start.
I opened my eyes to see a gray felt ceiling. My body was racked by aches and pains and radiated dull discomfort as I shifted back and forth. I lay in the back of a car. My memory returned to me like a rush of floodwater. Our city was destroyed, sucked under the waves. Destroyed! I couldn’t believe it but I was calm, I took it to be so. Without knowing where I was or why I knew it to be true, I knew that New Orleans was gone. It was not too far from now, some years but not many.
-The whole thing?
-The whole thing. No one could live there but the scavengers who dove for scraps. The Federals took over after the third hurricane, which was the sixth flood.
-That’s not so many.
-What you think, that it was nice and evenly spaced? Enough time to recover between each flood, like Katrina and Josephine?
-Okay, okay. So six floods in a year.
-In a season.
-In a season?
In a summer. The levees wore to nubs, the river burst its banks with every rainstorm. The lake hunched at our backs, sucking under soil every chance it got. But the hurricanes, the hurricanes took apart the city. The Federals took over, there weren’t any roads left to get out with. We gathered on boats like sardines, we loaded down helicopters
and flew. Fear was the scheme of the day, the fetid water poisonous, the future unclear. But this had passed, in my dream, as I lay in the back of a car I knew all this without experiencing it. I was sick, sick like today, with sweats and shakes and hacking breaths. Most things still seemed the same. I lay in the back of a car, driving slow, driving silent.
-Like a Tesla?
-Like a Tesla.
-I knew a girl named Tesla.
-I bet you knew a girl named Tesla, ha ha. Give me a sip of water.
-Here you go.
The city was gone, I knew it when I woke. I was driving through Houston, where I knew I lived now. We all moved there, the whole city pulled up stakes. Stop in Baton Rouge? No room but for tents on the football field. Stop in Lafayette? Destroyed by a hurricane the year past. Lake Charles? Same too. Nearly empty, nearly flat. Port Arthur?
Don’t want’cha. So Houston it was. The city, big city, ate a half million people without a burp. Swallowed us all like a catfish a minnow. We fit, we worked, we fell into their rhythms. Hell, we’d all been there before. Had cousins there. Knew people there. Called ‘em up. Moved in. Moved out. Moved on.
‘S not sad. No, I knew. Cause I knew. We did not weep, no. We partied. As one does. I don’t know what day it was, I don’t know what year it was. When I looked at my phone the numbers were hazy, flowing into each other in a red blur. But I thought just okay, that’s how it’s gonna be. I sat up in the seat, rolling quiet, rolling slow. I looked outside and
saw the drab gray of winter in the South, the trees bare, the ground muddy and wet. I looked to the front and saw there was no driver, my car drove without a steering wheel or arms to hold onto it. I shouted out: What am I doing? Where am I going? And even though I couldn’t understand the answer, like Charlie Brown parents’ talking, it made sense and I calmed. It was Christmas, no, after Christmas, and Carnival season had started. I got that feeling of excitement that I had as a child, the knowin’ that there was gonna be parades and balls and parties and dress-up and masking. It cut right through the fever, lanced through the dull pain I feel the same as now.
Is this where I was going? To a ball? To a parade? I looked down to see if I was in fancy dress, and I would say no. The excitement subsided, I was not promiscuously masked. But hold up now. Under my thumb was a button and in my hand was the phone and I felt like I was dressed to the nines, proud and haughty and civil and upstanding even
though when I looked down I saw nothing but blue jeans and boots and the edge of a threadbare shirt. What was this feeling? The car rolled on.
Skeletal branches scratched against the sky. Faint memories of days like this in the Crescent City rose up; the wet, dull days of winter enlivened by the promise of fitful starts and scenes of Carnival. The car slowed to crawl and stoped for what reason I do not know. The door opened without a hand to pull it outward. I stepped out into the cold, the air damp and heavy. My breath billowed gently and I grasped my arms against my body with both hands.
What’s that? I feel the pull, the intrigue, of music in the distance. Drums, of course. Carrying further than the rest of the band’s treble. I hurried forth, stepping quickly over broken concrete and heeding the call. Horns blare! I hear them!
I am invigorated, suffused with purpose. The exercise warms me. That quiet ten- year-old I once was buzzes through my mind, when I was excited by the whispered conversations of adults making plans in the kitchen, when the first signs on telephone poles went up for King Cakes, when the purple, green, and gold go up and the Christmas trees come down.
In the depths of January despair, I have always felt that a parade could cure my sadness. A yearning in my eternal soul dances with a St. Charles Street beat, sweetening the air. Crunching through downed leaves I followed rat-a-tat through the neighborhood. No light shone through blackout curtains, no neighbors called from porches. Such is the
world in Houston, close and yet so far from New Orleans.
The houses echoed those in the Garden District or the older streets of Metairie—but they all seem too clean, too setback, as if made of plastic and clicked into a standoffish grid. I hustled through this empty dream world towards my quarry. Towards life. Towards the parade.
-What was it like?
-What was it like? The parade?
-It was… it was strange…
-I feel like I saw one thing in front of me and others at the same time. Was I dreaming inside of a dream? For what happened next was not a single parade, but layers on layers of memories, places, events. All so colorful and yet… Tell me son, what is a Naruto?
-Naruto? You don’t know? He’s a cartoon, an anime, a character who…
-Yes, yes, well then this may make sense to you. But I have nothing but glimpses of what transpired, and names that do not make sense to me… Let me see if I can remember…
-Oh em gee, please do. This is gonna be hilarious…
The Narutos, dozens, maybe a hundred of them, rushed past. They all wore the same headband and spike of yellow hair, clad in an orange jumpsuit. They bolted ahead with arms swept back. Never have I seen a parade in such a flash, they were marathon runners! They threw trinkets to the crowd like so many knives, whipping them out without
breaking stride. My, how the crowd cheered! They laughed, they held their phones aloft as if a chorus of documentarians.
Batmans and Jokers! Oh they leered and cavorted. The Jokers lewd and drunk, the Batmans still and tall. All performing cartwheels and flips like acrobats. It was a sight to behold! The crowd cried as a Joker would approach them, spitting, swearing, exposing themselves. Was it all in good fun? More than once did I see a fight break out in the
parade, the two sides a Janus coin, clashing yet so intertwined. As a bloodied Joker stalked past I watched his gaping smile and wide eyes, a bloodied nose pouring red rivulets down his chin and soaking his shirt.
Lolitas cavorted on the streets, surrounding a trundling dronecart piled high with speakers pumping Japanese pop music. Explosions of lace were at every cuff, and petticoats as short as they could be cut, puffed wide with twill and crepe. Their shoes were platforms, black leather with metal clasps, and they appeared to be of all races and sexes
of the world. I watched as a beautiful one twirled an umbrella, languidly stepping forth and flicking their middle finger at catcalls from the crowd. If the Baby Dolls of Treme pushed the bill, these marchers put their amateur outlandishness to shame.
Bands and mariachis and gospel choirs came with every group. Drill! Krunk! Trill! Bounce! Candy-painted cars blasted a rattling din of bass. Demon Slayers! Inuyashas and Izukos and Ichigos! Masking is not simply of us here in Louisiana, as you know. But with a change of scenery and a change in body, the old traditions fell and rose stronger. There were no Rexes, no Zulus.
-No Rexes? No Zulus?
-No Rexes, no Zulus. The Mistiks have been felled, their sires spread to the wind.
The old blood, Creole or WASPy but blue nonetheless, has spread to Colorado, Canada, Cancun. They howled as loud as when Butler cracked down during the Civil War, and this time they gave up. The rest of us went to Houston. There’s a neighborhood in Houston filled with leafy green trees where Carnival has eaten Christmas. The new money,
the Baton Rogue boys, hold their parties and welcome all comers. Then the middle class, the aching poor, came after the city was destroyed. Metarie, Algiers, the Wards; all scattered along the freeways, the loops. But that meant the seeds spread widely, that when the call went out, the sprouts had taken root everywhere.
Who dat? rings across the internet. The day has arrived. The city’s denizens swell the crowds, dwarfing those who remember our Crescent City. As costumes and characters have changed over the last century now a new de rigueur turns over the old. What are these new grotesques that have killed the old? Familiar and yet foreign, weighted with purpose yet no more than vacant names to project oneself upon.
White masked Vs parade in Alief; Thors and Lokis march thirty abreast through the streets of Katy. Elsas and Mayas and princesses ride bicycles through Midtown, meeting Luffies and Pirates for spliffs and red cup drinks. Parade routes in Houston are closely guarded secrets, for they are all illegal. Supporters doxx police communication lines, tying up their efforts and belaying their truncheons and Tasers. The mayor calls for calm, wants the parades to stop. No one listens. Every day there’s a new parade tying up somewhere in the city. They’re denounced as troublemakers, clamored for by the public. Drone news cameras, shot from cannons at their stations, converge on wherever the Twitter chatter blooms.
We thought we were fully evolved. Tucked in the shoulder of the Mississippi, nestled against Lake Pontchartrain, that we were grown. Lord, were we wrong. We were babes too long in the womb. When we were forced out, made to fight and grow and blossom, we changed. Goku could have taught us something there. We weren’t at the end there after Katrina, feeling like we had it all figured out. We were only in Season 3. Our power could still grow so much more; we didn’t know we could take on the world.
It took the death of old New Orleans. And I do lament it so. But to go Super Saiyan, all at once, and demand of the world of our ounce of spirit, is sweeter than a Hand Grenade.
-Wow that’s crazy, yo. That’ll never happen. I mean, good dream and all. That’s some insane shit.
-Wait, wait! There’s more I remember. But give me a second.
-But I stopped recording.
-I don’t care, I’m trying to tell you, not some idiots on the internet.
-I went to a ball.
-No. Somewhere else.
-Where else is there Mardi Gras, then?
-Nowhere… but… somewhere. It was like a world made of imaginary people, they were fake, their faces were blocky. Some people could fly. Others could change completely, in a flash.
-Like Minecraft? Roblox?
-I don’t know… it was humongous, this world. There were portals, there were fields and hills and cities and thousands, tens of thousands of people…
-I don’t know what that means, but I tell you...
I could see myself from the outside, dressed in a tuxedo with wings on my back and a gun in my hand. My face was painted with stripes of yellow. I could see floodlights pointed at the sky in the distance. People ran past me, animal-headed men dressed in business suits, fairies and elves and androids and giants striding for leagues. One with a
rickshaw tied to their back spouted fireworks and sparklers. I ran with them, seized by the urge to see what we were all rushing towards.
The ground was made of planks and passages and wily trick doors. I died many times, starting over again and again. I sprinted faster than I thought a human could go. All around me others ran swifter, aided by unseen powers and minor code hacks. We came across a wall made of rainbows, studded with Hello Kittys wielding rifles that tried to force us back. I fired my pistol, my clip never emptying, and an emplacement exploded above me. A cheer went out in the crowd and we climbed, jumped, swam through the sky over the obstacle. In front of us lay a verdant field of green but no, it was not grass, it was a tract of alligators! We jumped and ran over their backs and dodged mouths brimming with
teeth. I watched a blue bird snapped up in a set of jaws with a poof of feathers. Rambo and Mary Poppins and Liberace, snap, snap, snap. Gulp. I redoubled my efforts, chaotically pinballing about.
At the other end marble steps led up to a grand ballroom. Dirigibles and sailing ships and dragons and enormous mice circled the building, teeming with partygoers like so many Canal Street balconies. It looked like the Municipal Auditorium but extending to the sky!
The doorman was a squat fellow in red overalls with a bushy black mustache and gigantic eyes. I watched as he reached out a finger to touch me. When he did I changed shape a thousand times in a moment, like a roulette wheel spinning. When it stopped I was a turtle, with a sharp top hat and holding flames in my hands. I stepped through the door, my ticket taken. My new mask given.
Stepping quickly towards the hall I watched glittering figures carved of crystal, their faces more beautiful than I have ever seen. Above us all is a monstrous clock, counting down the hour until the end of the party when the King will be unmasked. Technojazz filled the air, fueling me as the crowd raced around, dancing, completing quests, among
fountains of golden coins. Olivia Rodrigo sang over it all, her massive visage hovering over the ball, her face covered in eyes made of sparking jewels and fire.
In this ball on the other side of reality masking was complete. How could you know who anyone is, even if they look exactly as you expect them to? They may be a fake. But the partygoers thought nothing of taking their digital costumes to the extreme. A clutch of slender women leaned against the bar, sipping drinks from smoldering crystal highballs. Flesh melted off their skeletal faces, dripping onto sequined bodices. A table of men bartered lines of code, sporting spiked faces, stone hands, and double-breasted lilac suits. Androgynous figures ctrl+C’d body parts, admiring a cheekbone or the curve of a hip, and taking it for their own.
The King and his Queen sat on thrones of sputtering glitches, nestled into the static of some depth that escapes me. Their masks were little more than brown paper, a pauper’s disguise clashing with flowing gowns of seafoam that rolled off of them, pleats trembling in courses as if animated by creatures underneath.
-This is so great, I’m gonna get so many views.
-What, wait, who are you?
-Oh no dad, are you having another one of your episodes?
-Wait I… I remember…
-Do you remember who I am?
I glance at the countdown, racing faster through puzzles to get more, more. To take everything I can before time expires. Suddenly there is a disturbance. Figures flood the hall dressed in riotous neon colors. Cries go out. The Mardi Gras Indians have arrived, uninvited.
The end is heeeeere!
Heralds rush forth, overturning tables, scattering piles of gold coins and upending platters of drinks. The ballroom is chaos.
I turn back and forth, watching huge, metastasizing lumps rising out of the floor. The music is hacked, layering a deep, dark drumbeat underneath the technojazz. Sensing danger, admins release bots wielding hammers. Heralds were slaughtered around me as they fought to hold their ground. The admins winked out one by one, the invaders revoking their editing privileges. As the growths bubbled and stewed, one sulfurous red and the other canary blue, faces emerged. Turning upward from the ground, they rose to greet their adversary. Massive, sculptural, with closed eyes and wide noses and full lips, they rose three stories tall, growing with each passing moment.
A shudder of fear and excitement ran through me as I recognized that Death now looked me in the face. Digital death, painless and yet complete. This was a fight between rapacious beasts, ferocious birds, a display of brute courage and endurance. Once these battles played out on street corners in the Wards, now their spirit was taken up by hackers with the same devouring spirit.
The Indians rose higher and higher, butting angels and dirigibles and dragons out of the way, the inside of the ballroom a curious booth, larger than its exterior. The edges of the figures resolved into tentacles, reaching and grabbing, absorbing anything around them. Solid and yet liquid, objects grow from their shoulders and chests; patio furniture, hi-top sneakers, Camrys and Lincolns and snarling tiger heads and feathers, so many feathers. The giants pulled their hands from the earth. Heralds jumped and dodged around them, harried by newly animated furniture blasting away with laser-guns. I ducked as a chaise lounge tackled a leopard-headed man. Battalions of coat racks butchered mobs of gold-plated elves. The two sides fought each other, and at the same time for greater control of the server.
Somewhere thousands of miles away, or perhaps just across the street, the gameworld tore itself apart from the inside. Lines of code written and rewritten, glitches and gashes popping in and out of existence. The party is forgotten. Someone has toppled Olivio Rodrigo’s head and it rolls across the ballroom floor, crushing partygoers and heralds and bots alike.
The Mardi Gras Indians have reached their full size, and I back into a corner, craning my head upward to take in their imposing forms. The red one holds a rifle made of sputtering, raging lava. The blue one holds aloft two tomahawks coursing with lightning. Electricity and vapor boil the air around them. I watch the pair in awe. Their edges
coalesce, growing into focus. Pounding, tasseled feet start to step and shimmy in rhythm, the Indians leaning into the beat of the Igbocumbia blasting throughout the ballroom. Every feather, from head to toe, resolves into individual barbs, barbules, and hooklets, fluttering in an unseen breeze.
The computing power they take up with their animation is awesome, dropping us all into glitchy slow motion. Competing tendrils crawl along the floor, devouring stone-faced men and crystalline debutantes, cheering heralds and the head of Olivia Rodrigo, leaving voids of nothingness where once there was existence.
Fright overwhelms me. I am rooted to the spot. The Indians eat bandwidth, overpower firewalls, reach out with hacks and harness the bits and bytes of every partygoer. The server is not enough to win.
Others around me drop their connections and vanish. I cannot let that be my way out. I must know… who wins?
-Yes? I’m so tired and sick...
-You stopped there, who won?
-Oh. Yes, I guess I did. I’m going back to bed now.
-Are you going to tell me?
-I listened to that whole thing.
-I’ll try to remember, I…
It ended with nothingness. My disconnection. Someone may have pulled the plug, run down to the basement, opened the server cages and disconnected the whole thing before the reprogrammed motherboards, overclocked to the point of melting, ended it all.
I had a moment before the end when I swear I saw the Indian, dressed in blue with white trim and a headdress that fanned out across his shoulders, stop, smile, and open his eyes. They dazzled. They shone so bright. But it was a nanosecond. No time at all. It was the moment of triumph, as if their victory was a complete meltdown. Utter annihilation. They won. They took over the room. They vanquished on their field of battle. Bigger and badder and faster and stronger and…
-And nothing. Get me a drink of water.
Sean Morrissey Carroll has been an art critic, acid dealer, butcher, bookseller, cook, curator, hay baler, history teacher, museum guard, non-profit board member, political cartoonist, street food vendor, tagger, tarot reader, waiter, and vintage fashion grader. He grew up outside Buffalo, NY and currently lives in Houston, Texas.