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The Festival of Sadness

It was a chilly afternoon but we had come out anyway, wearing hats and jackets to prepare our float for the Festival of Sadness, when one of us, and I think it was Nickerson, spoke up. “I know it’s a little late for this,” he said, “and I know that I’m in danger of creating a cliché, but don’t you think the colors are a little . . . well . . . too bright?”

Despite the fact we’d been knee-deep in those same colors for hours, we all took a step back to see better. There were a few sky blues, a couple oranges, and no more than a dozen pinks, but mostly it seemed to me there were just the usual deep reds, dark greens, and of course, a lot of gray.

“You raise an interesting point” (this was McKinney jumping in, as usual). “Should we be fulfilling people’s expectations or maybe broadening them? Is it sadder to be sad in a sad place, like say a cemetery or a hospital, or at one people usually associate with the opposite emotion, like a birthday party or a wedding?”

I could see where this was heading, and to tell the truth I didn’t like it. Already our float, depicting dolphins caught in a tuna net, was in danger of being passé thanks to new legislation to prevent that sort of thing in the future. (“But what about the tuna?” Jenelle had jumped in to save the day. “Surely they’re sad, too?”) Now it seemed that all the clarity we had begun with was unraveling.

“Hold it,” I said, unzipping my jacket to show I meant business. “Does this mean that in the future we should have clouds of smoke and fog at the Festival of Clarity, or put people fucking on our floats for the Festival of Wholesome Thoughts? This broadening the philosophic background business is well enough, but if you broaden it too much, one day everything will stand for everything else, and there’ll be no reason to have any festivals at all. Then where will we be?”

Jenelle nodded, and she was sort of an authority in these matters because we all knew she was dying of cancer, leaving behind a husband and two kids, twin boys. It was going to be tough for them, I thought, but then, we all were dying of something. For example, Otto’s heart was barely functioning, and about every five minutes he had to sit down and take a rest from decorating the float. We told him it was okay by us if he just sat and watched, but he said working helped him to forget.

“A lot of health is in your attitude,” Otto continued, and most of us, I think, agreed. After all, that’s why we were there.

Reyes had something called Van Nuys Syndrome, which his doctor said left him with five more years at best. McKinney, who was the sole support of his widowed mother, herself a victim of Alzheimer’s, said he woke up one morning and couldn’t feel anything below his knees. The doctors hadn’t figured out a name for it yet, McKinney told us. He said he didn’t know what was going to happen when it reached his head.

On the other hand, Nickerson had a straightforward case of TB that wouldn’t respond to medication, and me, I couldn’t agree more about the attitude thing, which was why I so much wanted this festival to be a big success. “Look at you,” people would tell me at least once a day. “You look terrible. What else could be keeping you alive, if not your attitude?”

And in fact at that very moment I was trying to check my reflection in the shiny gray plastic hull of the tuna boat to see if things had gotten worse, when out of the corner of my eye I caught a motion that turned out to be Otto, who had taken off his shirt, a Hawaiian one, and wrapped it around his arm. He didn’t look good.

“I caught my wrist on a piece of the chicken wire we used to make the waves,” he said, and unpeeled the bloody shirt.

It was bad. Somehow the chicken wire had poked deep underneath his skin, and when he had jerked away out of surprise, he’d pulled out a whole vein. Or possibly an artery.

“Otto,” I said, “don’t worry. Help will be here at any minute.”

But of course it wasn’t. It turned out that the medical people got stuck in some traffic jam or another, and then there was a misunderstanding, so they’d headed back to their headquarters, and once they got there of course they had to turn right around again, so by the time they got to the float, it was far too late for Otto.

“The man died, and for what?” Nickerson wanted to know. He was pretty mad. “For some stupid float?”

Before I could answer, however, there was a whoosh and then a whomp, and when I looked I saw that the cable on the crane that had been lowering one of the plaster tuna models we’d borrowed from the local fish store had snapped in two. McKinney, who had been under it at the time, died immediately, and the only good part about the whole delay with Otto was that the ambulance was already there.

Amazingly, we still managed to put the float together in time for the parade, which was due to start at 8 p.m., because, as you might figure, the Festival of Sadness traditionally took place at night. So I went over to the spot where we’d left the truck that was supposed to pull the float, and that’s when I found Jenelle behind the wheel, the windows shut, except for a space big enough to fit in a hose that had been connected to the exhaust pipe, and the part of the window that wouldn’t wind all the way up to the top sealed off with duct tape. She had stuck a picture of the twins up on the dashboard, and left a note tucked into the crack of the passenger seat. It had been done in ballpoint on a piece of orange crepe paper she’d found, and was in big, loopy handwriting. It said that she didn’t want to cause anyone more pain, etcetera, and that if the twins or Robert (that was her husband’s name) ever wanted to contact her, all they had to do was look up at the stars, where she would always be looking down on them.

Finally, in a PS she wished us luck with the float, too, but by the time we pulled her out of the truck’s cab, another ambulance arrived (this one came right away, thank goodness) and it was time for the festival to begin. But then guess what?

In all the excitement, nobody had thought to check to see if the truck still had any gas left, and as luck would have it, Jenelle had used it all up.

So in the end, the job was left to the three of us, Reyes and Nickerson and me. People offered to help, of course, but we said no, it was our float, and it was up to us to finish the job we had started. And so we did, with me pulling and Reyes and Nickerson pushing that heavy float forward, up and down every hill of the parade route in our city, Las Colinas, the City of Hills.