Azalea Day, by Harvey Sutlive.
A new hurricane just landed on Florida. They gave this one the name of my second husband. Initially that shocked me, but I dismissed the connection from my mind. Anyway our town is far north of Florida, in the mountains, and hurricanes barely bother us.
Hurricane Blank chewed up Orlando day before yesterday, and last night it trashed Tallahassee. This morning the very far edge of Blank arrived here with what I would call a welcome effect. The sun is barely visible, through clouds, intermittently, a pretty pale disc. We are breathing misty ocean air. The usual summer heat is pushed away.
The Azalea Day parade starts in twenty minutes. Our city council put up the review stand on Station Street yesterday. They tested the PA system twice this morning. The fire department cooked barbeque all night last night.
The misty-bright hurricane-induced light makes Station Street seem a single large room. Visitors and residents walk the street. They wave to each other, they nod in passing. Mother and I have already arrived and unfolded our lawn chairs. We sit under some old shade trees opposite the review stand. We have a cooler. We have parade programs. In a cleared grassy space behind us children play. Vendors sell used books and trinkets and junk food.
Caved-in old cotton warehouses once covered the field behind us, until the fire department burned them down for practice they graded the ground afterwards and planted grass. Fundraising in the community, which Mother organized, made that happen. She's an achiever.
We relax in our lawn chairs. The tops of these old shade trees have been blasted and broken away by lightening and disease. Newer branches like a bald man's comb-over disguise some of the bad places.
The PA system switches on fiddle and guitar music from the mayor's cd collection fills the town. The music is clean and pleasing and it mixes in the air with the hickory smell of the fire department barbeque.
Three long blocks down Station Street, on the far side of the railroad tracks, the parade group waits. The morning granite train on its way to the quarries on the west side of the county will soon pass, and after that, the parade group may begin marching.
Mother tests the arms on her lawn chair. Anita go get us some barbeque she commands me. Mother is a veterinarian with a well-established practice. She could retire, technically, but she likes work too much to do that.
Go on Anita says Mother before the line gets too long.
I'm an achiever but in a different way. I liked college a lot at first. But the cadaver we had junior year, for anatomy class, gave me a nervous breakdown. I got married the first time just to stop going to college.
GO ON says Mother.
To shut her up I say OK. I take a walk down Station Street.
On the far side of the train tracks, inside the mass of the parade group, banners wave and tremble, and band instruments and chrome car bumpers glint like weapons. Under this white sky the three blocks to the tracks seem an enormous distance.
A tandem set of gray locomotives, and behind them many flatcars and boxcars, appear on the shallow-curving tracks on the east side of town. The train slowsthe locomotives sound their hornsthe engineers lean out their cab windows.
The engineers crane their necks anxiously. They wish they might clear the crossing without crushing any horses or floats or parade-goers.
The locomotives cross Station Street at walking speed. Right away, their engines accelerate. Now the train is going fasterand when the long line of cars finally clears town, the train is traveling quite rapidly. The fast clacking train wheels, and those flickering gaps between the cars. and the rumble from the vibrating rails beneath the train, nearly hypnotize many parade-goers.
On the far side of the tracks the parade group ripples and elongates and begins to advance. I turn round and return to Mother, who is surprised, because I have no take-out boxes. Where's the barbeque Anita she wants to know.
They're not selling yet I tell her. Screeching siren noises rise like paint fumes from the front of the parade group.
Our mayor, a compact sensible-looking person, waits on the review stand. He refers to a clipboard in his hand. He taps the microphone. He shouts good morning to everyone. The cars of all the county sheriffs in the area sirens cranked full blastarrive at the review stand.
The mayor calls off the name of each county sheriff. The sheriffs scatter bubblegum from their patrol car windowsagile children jump into Station Street and squat and retrieve it.
Two high school marching bands wheeze by. A blonde girl with a long neck, Miss Wild Azalea, passes on a large float. She is smiling and waving. Everyone is watching her. The Wild Azalea is our town flower.
Mother looks grim. Twelve years ago, in my own year, I refused to participate in the Miss Wild Azalea contest.
A pickup load of Cub Scouts stops by the review stand. There is a hitch in the parade downstream.
Show some spirit, Cub Scouts! cries Mother.
A signboard on the pickup tells of Cub Scout achievements. Ten or more Cub Scouts are packed in the back of the pickup. They stare at the crowd. They chew gum sullenly.
Show some spirit Cub Scouts! Mother cries again. She waves her parade program. The Cub Scouts are staring at Mother.
Show some spirit, cub-scouts, one Cub Scout says sarcastically.
Fuck YOU you little shit I scream at this kid.
ANITA, says Mother angrilyshe strikes me with her parade program. The parade begins again and the Cub Scouts disappear.
Local politicians and a Congressman pass in three or four convertibles. Businessmen from a Club in Atlanta ride by on go-karts, on big and little motorcycles, on trick miniature automobiles that rear in the air. These guys drove two hours to be in our parade.
State legislators in SUV's push double fistfuls of bubblegum out their windows. The Miss Handicapped float goes by: a pretty one-armed girl, in a frilly dress, on a throne of paper flowers. The usual fleet of ancient tractors and old cars pass. The mayor names off the years and models.
A thin old man wearing a World War I helmet waves delicately to the crowd. He is sandwiched in place in the back of a convertible between two large American Legion vets.
We're proud to have you with us today Mr. White, calls the mayor from the grandstand. Mr. White is in the parade every year.
Quiet strange-looking children roll by on an undecorated float. Their float name is a series of initials. The septic-tank cleaning man passes in his pumper truck. He leans out his truck window and flourishes his work cap.
The septic man pulls a decorated farm trailer. His wife and her two girlfriends ride the farm trailerthey wear bikinisthey wave at the crowd and shout and throw bubblegum.
There's a soil conservation float, a domestic violence float, an alternate energy float, then finally come the horses. Mother squints at each horse professionally. The parade is over.
The mayor's daughter sings the national anthem. Mr. White in his WWI helmet is helped to the review stand by the American Legion vets. They seat him in a folding chair beside the visiting congressman. They step off the rear of the stand and walk off in the direction of the fire department barbeque.
The congressman gives a filthy bloodthirsty dishonest speech on religion and patriotism and military spending. A gospel choir from a nearby black church sings two songs. The mayor recognizes men and women in the armed services from our area. He reads a list. There is steady applause. He points to Mr. White in his doughboy helmet.
I think everybody knows Mr. Horace Chandler White says the mayor. Our last surviving World War I veteran, in the area, that we know of.
There is movement on the stage. Mr. White is trying to rise from his chair.
What says the mayordoes hefolksMr. White wants to say a few words. The mayor dashes over and grabs Mr. White's elbow. The congressman snatches Mr. White's other elbow. They haul him halfway out his seat.
The mayor says something to the congressmanhe releases Mr. White. The mayor intends to bring the microphone to Mr. White. When the mayor lets go of Mr. White, the congressman lets go also, and Mr. White drops in his chair like a sack of potatoes.
He frowns angrily and struggles upright. He ignores the congressman, who is pretending to help him, and totters to the microphone. He is still wearing his doughboy helmet. He shakes off the mayor and glares at the crowd, which applauds him enthusiastically.
A lot of the boys don't come home says Mr. White. He stares at or above us. His voice is hoarse and unsteady. They don't come home he says. His face is too close to the microphone. His chin and his lips bump the microphone's foam covera thudding sound punctuates his words:
Sometimes in the evenings, when I was a young man, I'd go courting, and my mother always kept. a kerosene lamp burning, in the window for me, til I come home.
When I was away in France, she lit that lamp... all the time I was gone. Every evening. She burned it every night til I come home. I'll always remember that about her.
And my friend, Billy Epps... is still there. He's still in France. We went through a lot together. He's buried there. He was my... best friend. I can see him plain right now, smiling and singing... playing the piano...
Mr. White blinks his eyes. The strap from his doughboy helmet is snug under his chin. He ducks his head, he begins to cry. His face is bobbing a little and that makes thudding sounds through the microphonein an instant the mayor is there to help Mr. White to his seat.
Thank you Mr. White says the mayor after he returns to the microphone. Thank you.
Mr. White slumps in his chair beside the congressman, who smiles and ignores him. Mr. White's head is down. His chest is shaking.
A country music band begins to play. Mr. White gives us this speech every year. Nonetheless, Mother is crying. Small boys balance on the roots of the ruined shade trees opposite the standthey raise themselves on tiptoes so they might see the band a little better.
We are dressed differently but in everyone's faces and in the attitude of our bodies there is a likeness, there is something recognizable and similar to old black and white photos of parades in the thirties, in the twenties, parades further back into horse and buggy days. There is a connection.
While the music plays, people circulate. Older people eat barbeque. Some take naps.
The two American Legion vets have returned from the barbeque tables. They carry boxes of food. They see Mr. White slumped and weeping on the review stand. They put down their food. Both vets climb the review stand. Shouldering aside the congressman they help Mr. White from his chair and assist him down the review stand steps. They cross Station Street and find chairs under the shade trees with the rest of us.
The sun for a few minutes breaks through the cloud cover. Leaves and branches on the old shade trees make shadows in a pattern, like printed cloth, over the crowd.
A folk group comes onstage and clogs to a recording. The crowd applauds their maneuvers generously.
The sun goes away againa light mist begins to fall. Maybe next year Mr. White's speech will last longer I tell Mother.
Next year Mr. White will be dead she replies. She pretends to look at her parade program. Everyone says that, every year: Next year, Mr. White will be dead.
Another church choir is onstage. Mr. White murmurs to the American Legion vet on his right, and that vet places extra barbeque on Mr. White's plate.
The three men eat. They listen to the church choir. Next year the businessmen will certainly return, and the sheriffs, the tractors, the Cub Scouts. Next year will be hotmore hurricane weather next year is too much to ask for.
I will never be old as Mr. White, I hope. Soon the mayor's daughter will sing another song.
Mist dampens the Station Street pavement. Mist floats in the ruined branches of the giant shade trees. This will be remembered as the hurricane year.
Anita get us some barbeque says Mother.
And we will remember next year as: the hot year... after the hurricane year.
Get some barbeque says Mother. Right this minute.
We will remember next year, we will remember all the parade years. We will remember everything... everything that has ever happened to us...
GO says Mother. She's holding a ten.
In the panhandle Blank has destroyed a resort, and a middle school, plus three marinas.
I'm a vegetarianbut the fire department makes good coleslawthey do that every year. I remember. Mother frowns . She shoves the ten into one of my hands.
GO ON she says.
I am Mother, I whisper. The church choir is singing.
WELL GO says Mother.
I. am. going I say. Mother's face is red. Her lips make a line. I turn away. I gaze upon Station Street.
Both Mother's palms are upon my shouldersthey exert a forceI moveinto Station Street. My lips are moving. My legs are moving too. And now that I'm walking I just keep going. I wave the ten at Mother, to reassure herthat I am going. I am walking faster somewhat. I am going.
Harvey Sutlive's fiction has appeared in Offcourse Issues #20, #18, #17, #16 as well as in many other print and online publications.
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