Palmsville’s Parade for the Dead and Dying took place on a clear, bright morning in 1985. The sky was daubed with cirrus clouds. You’d think it’d be raining for such an event. But it was pure sunshine the whole time, like a commercial for dryer sheets.
Each local hospital made a showing: Royal Oaks trotted out its new heli-ambulance, County squeezed four bodies from the morgue onto the back of a flatbed truck, and, in a fit of whimsy, Mount Sinai put three geriatrics and their ventilators in a Seabring convertible. Neighborhood youth got involved as well—the high school drama club performed scenes from The Shadow Box on the roof of an ambulance. Seeing teenagers play terminally ill cancer patients gave onlookers pause. Some teared up, thinking of their own children, their own parents, their own eventual deaths.
The idea for the parade was Rose Hoffman’s. Rose was a spry fifty-two and had run three marathons; four if you counted the two half-marathons she’d done with her daughter (and Rose did count them). She was the only woman Palmsville ever knew to lie about her age by adding years, so that her physical accomplishments would seem even more unlikely and therefore more impressive. The point of the parade, she told the city council, was to honor nature, not fear it. She’d heard of a similar tradition in Europe. Sweden or somewhere. You mean like a jazz funeral? someone asked. Where they drink and party around the casket?
Not like that at all. This wasn’t an excuse for immoral behavior, Rose said. The parade and the community gathering afterward would be a dignified celebration. There would be Bingo. Revelry was just as much a way to distract oneself from death as the painting and embalming of a corpse.
Everything went so slow at first that it’s hard to grasp how fast it went wrong. The procession turtled down Coconut Ave., the town’s main drag, along which Rose had taped posters: DENIAL. ANGER. BARGAINING. DEPRESSION. ACCEPTANCE. The idea was that the parade progressed through Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’s five stages of grief and dying. When the floats got to the “ACCEPTANCE” sign, they were supposed to park in the lot behind the high school, where there’d be music and games and speeches.
But the flatbed truck driven by Randall Windjammer Rott kept going. At first onlookers assumed he hadn’t been able to make the tight turn and was going to circle the block in order to get a better angle. By the time they realized something was wrong, Randall was five miles down Interstate 95, four embalmed corpses in tow.
He knew it was excessive, driving off with all four of them when the only one he cared about was Susie Bingham, but respect had made this an all-or-nothing situation. He couldn’t just dump the others, three elderly gents (one tall, dark and skinny, one tall, pale and skinny, and one short and eggplantish) he didn’t recognize, like a load of gravel. The corpses were secure on their body boards; he’d checked the tension in the straps that morning. They were out in the open, though. Suzie’s long dark hair danced wildly. None of the men had hair.
He hadn’t planned the abduction—kidnapping?—theft?—at least, not exactly. Sure, he’d imagined different ways of showing them all that Randall Rott was capable of big things. But he really had misjudged that turn. Then at the light he saw the green interstate sign and felt his foot hit the gas and now here he was, cruising past the salt plant into farmland, three anonymous dead men and Susie strapped in for the ride.
He watched the mile markers tick by and felt increasingly helpless. He couldn’t go back now. What would he tell them? He could pretend it was a joke, maybe.
No, they wouldn’t believe him. He wasn’t a funny man. He’d played Hamlet this year. And played him, according to at least one review, “with startling fervor.”
He could say he objected to the treatment of the bodies, being exposed for all to see. He could claim himself a rescuer.
No, the deceased had specifically donated their bodies for the advancement of public good and understanding. Suze had been generous that way.
He thought of a scene he’d witnessed years ago in the big church in Tampa Bay. He’d gone inside the solemn place out of curiosity; it was a Saturday afternoon and the building was open to the public. The only other person in there was a guy in all black going around lighting every prayer candle he could find. A monk came out and asked him to make a donation for all the candles he’d lit and the guy went crazy. You telling me I gotta pay to pray? God won’t listen without a bribe? He grabbed a hymnal and smacked it against the monk’s chest. The monk pulled out his cell phone and began to speak calmly. The man in black chanted, Blasphemer! Blasphemer! The words bounced off the statuary and the curved ceiling and the stained glass. Then the guy stalked toward the door and just when you thought he was done, that he’d made his point, he turned back and looked at the monk (still on the phone) then at Randall—at him!—and strode toward the doors and grabbed the moneybox. It looked like solid oak and came to the guy’s neck. You could tell from the sound that it was full of coins. Jewel-hued light from the stained glass fell onto the top of the moneybox and folded obediently around its beveled edge as the man grabbed it. How wrenching color was, how humanely light behaved, wrapping around the old wood as if to protect it; how heartbreaking that he alone had witnessed this magic. The man in black hefted the box an inch off the ground, dragged it toward the door. It bumped over the thin carpet. The monk told him to please put it back and the guy kept pulling and the box kept bumping awkwardly along…
“What a piece of work is a man!” Randall cried as he drove. “How noble in reason! How infinite in faculties!” The lines sounded less grandiose, more personal, there in the boxy truck cab than they had onstage. Playing Hamlet had changed him, or at least, unburied some part of him. “Your inner madman,” Suze had called it. She teased him about it, and though she said it was sexy, he wondered if taking that role had stopped their momentum. When they first started out, during Our Town, she was going to leave her husband. During Hamlet, though, she stopped talking about that. He should have pushed her a little more, taken some kind of action that would’ve made her completely his.
He braked to make sure he was only going five over the limit and pondered it: not just how you could feel both helpless and powerful at the same time, but how one seemed to inform the other. To deepen it. How confusion fortified certainty.
He thought about Rose Hoffman, with her sinewy speckled legs, put-on southern accent (she was from Baltimore, for god’s sake) and over-easy breasts. He’d lived there six years now and she still treated him like an outsider. “A recent transplant,” was how she’d put it in that Gazette article about his performance.
The monk had remained calm through it all: the berating, the physical abuse via hymnal, the dragging of the donation box. Then the nut got mad enough to drag the huge box to the front door, hip-check it open, and drop the box down the church’s white steps. The action had reminded Randall of a little kid trying to lift and bowl a fourteen-pound ball. The box split open and hundreds of coins sang down the concrete.
Randall checked his speed and continued, “In action how like an angel! In apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world! The paragon of animals!”
He passed a sign that read Orlando 34, Tampa 118, Miami 204. An interchange was coming up. He could go south, west, or east and end up in one of those cities. What waited in each place? Oiled flesh in Miami, Cadillacs in Tampa. Or—
“And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?”
He veered left onto a ramp that wound higher than the others, carrying him high above the hurricane-flattened landscape. The force of the turn gripped him. He checked his rearview: the bodies were still tied securely in place on their boards, though a strap—not Suzie’s—had come loose from somewhere and was dancing in the wind. The black balloons he’d tied on for the parade jerked frantically on their strings. A station wagon passed on his left. The face of a girl was pressed against the window. She was pointing. He slowed, let the wagon distance itself. Then he leaned with the truck as it completed the turn. He knew where Susie wanted to go.
He took an exit that looked promisingly empty—no gas stations or fast food joints, just a two-lane road heading into the state’s middle nothing—and made quick work of tightening the straps and concealing Susie and the men. The tarp he’d found in the emergency kit under the driver’s seat floated down over the bodies like a bedsheet. At the last second he stepped under it and knelt beside Susie as it settled, creating a silent, blue-tinted room. Spots of red and gold from the patches on the tarp quivered on Susie’s cream-colored dress. There was no smell. Susie’s hair had blown free of the undertaker’s braid, creating a cloud of crimped strands around her face. Randall did his best to smooth them. She still looked alive, though slightly less so than at the wake two days ago. It was funny how once a person was dead, their timeline stopped, dead was dead, but for the living she became deader and deader as the days passed. He’d sat in the back at the wake, staring vacantly on as her husband wept and shook up front. For a moment Randall thought: we could help each other. Randall’s father, a military man, liked to tell how he’d once seen a badger and a coyote walking side by side in the California chaparral. If those two solitary animals who hunted the same prey, required similar sustenance, could band together, why not two men who had loved the same woman?
But animals were much more reasonable than men. He could not grieve publicly for Susie. He swallowed his knowledge of her, played the part of an acquaintance while his heartskin wore thinner with every heavy, silent thump.
It felt good to have a destination. His was a different type of parade: a parade of one (or four, he thought) in which the endpoint mattered more than the procession. A voice in his head whispered, “But what will you do when you get there?” and he silenced it by turning up the radio. The only people within hearing distance would not be bothered by loud music. He turned it up again when he realized he’d forgotten what real loud sounded like, the ear-thrumming blast of his headphoned youth. Real loud was a sound cocoon. Inside, wounds were welcome.
He didn’t have to make any more decisions for a while—just how fast to drive, where to wipe his nose, whether to yell melody or harmony on “Wild Horses.”
He’d decorated the truck himself, had taken pains with the balloons and paint job (white clouds drifting over the truck’s royal blue cab), had even figured out, thanks to some ingenuity with a fishing pole, how to attach a disco ball. Now, he wasn’t sure why he’d bothered. He didn’t like Rose. The idea of celebrating death in a general sense was silly. When Tim Seton, his acting mentor at USF, passed away five years ago the celebration of life gathering had been a fitting and wonderful tribute to the man. But this telescoping in on deadness as a concept felt contrived. As if Rose needed to broadcast her lack of fear about death in order to cover up her utter terror of it, the way a guy in the closet goes out of his way to hit on a tall blonde.
But of course, he hadn’t done it for Rose. He’d done it for Susie and he’d done it because even though he thought the parade was ridiculous, he didn’t want anyone else in control of her body.
Those Our Town days were good ones. He’d won the role of Stage Manager, the godlike character who narrated the story, controlled characters, and interrupted throughout the show; she played the female lead, Emily Webb. Suze had charisma. Every time she died during rehearsals—when Emily Webb died—the sense of loss in the empty auditorium was palpable. And, on opening night, when she delivered that line about returning to the land of the living for just one day, it was just as Randall predicted: even men in the audience wiped their eyes.
One night after rehearsal she came home with him. They shared a bottle of wine under the covers, which led to quiet sex that had a severity to it he’d never experienced before. Afterward, they talked about their favorite places. He told about his grandfather’s cabin with the screened porch in Wisconsin, now gone; the electric space behind the curtain right before it opened; the theater of Dionysus in Athens, where drama was born. She spoke of open water and Disney World.
“It’s the biggest set in the world,” Susie said of Disney. “So big it becomes real. Unbelievably meticulous. Every detail, down to the Kensington patterns on the Mad Tea Party ride. Isn’t it crazy how much effort it takes to create something that looks effortless? You’re there in that park and your idea of what nature is actually changes.”
He’d really liked her. She may have seemed plain to some, but there was something essential about her if you took the time to notice. She had a way of speaking, as if God himself, that eternal director, had provided her with an invisible and crucial script.
“Good afternoon, sir!” A round-cheeked kid leaned out the VENDOR CHECK-IN booth. “Where Dreams Come True” arched along the top of his nametag. The middle had been stamped: BUD, AKRON OH.
“Are you Mr. Incredible?” Bud asked.
Randall’s nervousness receded and a character popped to mind. Smartass. From the East coast—Jersey. Yeah, I’m Mr. Incredible, all right. I’m big, strong, and I got four dead bodies on my back. Instead he said, “Who do I look like, Daffy Duck?”
Bud revealed a Wonderbread smile, unnaturally white and regular. “I was worried you weren’t going to make it! The parade starts at sundown.”
Randall could only nod. Another parade! All of life was a goddamn parade!
Bud extended his arm. “Paperwork, please?”
The red-striped gate hovered before Randall like a single prison bar, and he felt the momentum of what he’d already done push the words from his mouth. “Shit. Left without it.”
“Well—um—didn’t you get—”
“I was already late getting outta there,” Randall said. “Anyway,” he added, aiming an impatient gaze beyond the gate, where Mr. Incredible obviously had important work to do, “the usual guys here, it’s either Jim or Paul, they never need that stuff right away.”
A glinting Towncar swung in behind Randall. “Who they got supervising you?”
Randall laughed so hard he started to feel truly good. “Sheila! Holy hell! They made her a supervisor?” He kept laughing until Bud joined in.
“Yeah,” Bud said, lowering his voice. “She can be crazy. Like, one of those bosses who gets all obsessed with authority? And then has to hold it over everyone’s head when she gets a little power?” He looked around quickly. “Don’t tell her I said that.”
The Towncar honked. Bud, flustered, held up a one-minute finger.
“No problem,” Randall said. “I’ll tell her you’re doing top-notch work.” And though Randall despised trite gestures—thumbs-ups, winks, and the worst, making a gun with your finger and “shooting” someone—instinct told him a wink would go over well now.
“Man, that would be awesome.” Bud winked back and gestured with his chin toward the gate, which lifted. “Hey, what’d you say your name was?”
Randall let his foot off the brake. “Mr. Incredible,” he said. And he as rolled onto that service road, toward garages and warehouses branded with the curling Disney D, he did feel all-powerful. “Though this be madness, yet there is method in't!” he shouted to the covered bodies in the truck bed.
Once he’d worried to Susie that acting came too easily to him. He could put on the mask anytime, anyplace, and that worried him. Was he just a fake overall? She’d poked him in that soft hollow place below the Adam’s apple, then pounded a cough from her chest—she was probably already sick then—and wheezed, “Maybe we lie so easily ‘cuz there is no truth.”
Randall’s oddly decorated truck was catching looks from the workers he passed. He put on an expression of boredom as he looked for an inconspicuous place to park among the squat garages and doublewide trailers that flanked the service road. Every curious glance, every split-second of eye contact, sucked away a little of the euphoria of his performance at the gate. Surely the real Mr. Incredible would be along soon, and his cover would be blown. What would he do then? He wasn’t used to this deflation; as an actor, his audience expected him to perform. They desired his success for their own entertainment.
The tarp was coming up on one corner of the truck bed, but he couldn’t stop and fix it without drawing attention to himself. He began to sweat, more than he’d ever sweat from stage fright. The A/C was blasting at sixty-five degrees in the truck yet he was dripping as if under Broadway lights. (He’d heard it reached a hundred and six on that stage, and they stuck maxi pads under your arms to hide the stains.)
A shady passage between two tall garages caught his eye. The passage was tight and he barely fit. He pulled in as far as he could, touched the front bumper to a wire fence. He opened his door onto a concrete wall painted lavender and squeezed out, took a few deep breaths, and threw up the toaster waffles he’d eaten for breakfast.
Under the tarp, he made himself focus only on her freckles, which spilled from the bridge of her nose and followed the top of each cheekbone. He traced these lines with his index finger. Her skin was startlingly, alively warm from the day’s heat. There was a painful suctioning in his chest and stomach as he relived having her, losing her, all over again.
On the rare mornings he’d woken up with her, when her husband was out of town on one of his “corporate adventure teambuilding outings” she made farina for breakfast. When he called it “Cream of Wheat,” she rolled her eyes. It was farina and you ate it with a pat of butter pooling in the center and cinnamon was critical; you had to tap the shaker gently and hold it almost perpendicular to your bowl, lest you get too much and ruin everything. She’d even made up a song about it. “A teaspoon’s too little and a tablespoon’s too much; a teeplesoon’s what you want in your mush,” she sang in her Sound of Music voice. Though he hadn’t said so, he found this kind of behavior a little nauseating. But now it only seemed like evidence of her irreplaceable charm. Yes, he thought, looking at her face for the last time, that was it: she had exactly one teeplespoon of freckles.
“Goodbye to clocks ticking…and my butternut tree. And Mama's sunflowers…and food and coffee…and new-ironed dresses and hot baths…and sleeping and waking up,” he whispered. He could still hear her, still close his eyes and replay her movements as she performed Emily’s final speech. “Oh, earth, you're too wonderful for anyone to realize you! Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it — every, every minute?” His Susie’s eyes looking at him pleadingly behind the mask of Emily.
“No.” Randall said. A long pause. “The saints and poets, maybe—they do some.”
He carried her body into the park itself, a parade of two. She was very light. He sat her on a red bench. He said his goodbye silently, then walked over to where the music was playing.
He spun and spun, the world messing into a blur of colored light and skin tones and violins and voices. He spun until the ride was over, then he jogged out the exit, back through the turnstile, and rode again. And again. He no longer felt sick; it was only when the teacups stopped and he stood on solid ground that the queasiness returned. In the twirling cup he could hear Susie’s calm whisper between Mad Hatter melodies, feel her pressing against him as he cut tighter and tighter circles until he rose above the rotating platform, floating even as the music snapped shut, the house lights burst on. He twirled like a tornado, his center calm as a monk’s.
Kelly Luce is the author of the story collection Three Scenarios in Which Hana Sasaki Grows a Tail and the novel Pull Me Under, a Book of the Month selection and one of Elle's Best Books of the year. She was a 2016-17 fellow at Harvard's Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. Find her online: kellyluce.com @lucekel
This story was originally published in issue 5 of The Austin Review.