Mule Day by Alex Miller

 

What I’m thinking before the parade is how to get my hands on some of that candy. When you’re a kid, you think a lot about candy. I still don’t even know why grownups go to the parade—for community or history or because they like to see a bunch of horses shitting on Main Street—I don’t care. When I was a kid, all I wanted was candy.

Here’s how it worked: the nice people in the parade threw candy from the floats, and a bunch of kids scrambled for it and hopefully didn’t get run over by the floats. This one year in particular, I remember a big crowd, which meant lots of kid competing for the candy. Everybody had lined up on either side of the main drag through town, impatiently waiting for the show to start. And then this clown on a bicycle—an actual, honest-to-god clown on one of those old-fashioned bikes with the one huge wheel in front—rode up and made a slow circle, waving to everybody. He had red hair like Ronald McDonald and a big blue ball on his nose. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a brown paper sack, the kind we used to put our lunches in when we took them to school. And then the clown grinned real big and tossed the bag in the air. And I watched it, sort of in slow motion, and all I could think was how much candy would be in that bag. It could have been the biggest candy-haul in the centuries-long history of the parade. I glanced at my brother, and he looked up at me, and we both knew what to do. The two of us and about nine other kids ran at the bag, aiming to catch it like a touchdown pass at the Superbowl. I must have been 11 or 12 years old, just a little older and faster than the rest. I bolted to the head of the pack, never taking my eyes off the bag as it sailed in a delicate arc through the sky, and I reached high over all the other kids and snatched it out of the air. It was mine. That sack full of all the candy in the universe. Mine. So I opened the bag. And inside was another bag, a clear-plastic Ziplock. But there was definitely no candy—just this weird sort-of squishy, brown mass. I held up the Ziplock to get a closer look.

“Is it a brownie?” my brother asked. He stood right beside me, tugging my shirt tail.

“Sure,” I said. “It’s a brownie.”

Then, my face red and burning, I marched to the nearest garbage can to ditch the evidence before anybody saw.

***

Miyu listened to my story. She sat across the table from me at Applebee’s. She sipped a Blue Moon she’d ordered at the bar. She looked at the bottle with a deeply thoughtful expression, then looked up at me again.

“It wasn’t a brownie, was it?”

“It was poop, Miyu. The clown threw a bag of poop.”

“You tell the weirdest stories,” she said.

“And that’s what Mule Day means to me. It’s not horses or cowboys or rodeos or history. It’s a psychotic clown riding around on a bicycle, his painted-on face locked in some bizarro-clown grimace, and he’s laughing it up and throwing poop.”

Just then the waiter came to take our orders. The restaurant was packed, which is rare for an Applebee’s, but the parade had drawn people from all over. We’d waited an hour for a table, and the better part of another to be waited on. The waiter turned out to be a guy from my old high school. I recognized his face immediately but couldn’t think of his name. I’d never known him very well. We shook hands, and I acted friendlier than usual to make up for not remembering his name. He seemed embarrassed to be our waiter. He told me his band was still practicing and getting better all the time. He said he was just waiting tables until the band took off. I wished him good luck. I told him his band was great, and everybody from high school liked it and believed in them. Then I placed a drink order.

“What kind of music do they play?” Miyu asked after he left.

“I never knew he was in a band,” I said.

Later we ordered hamburgers. When you’re eating at a place like Applebee’s, it’s best to keep things simple. The hamburgers were cheesy and greasy. They were OK. Columbia is a hamburger town. Miyu ate her entire hamburger, and I wasn’t surprised. She was slender and only about five feet tall, but she could eat. People think the Japanese eat nothing but fish and rice, but Miyu could put away a hamburger.

“There’s a place like this in New York,’” she said, licking the grease off a finger.

“Is it Applebee’s?”

“No. Just some hamburger place. Like this but better.”

“Applebee’s is the worst.”

“It’s not so bad.” Miyu shrugged. “It’s cheap, anyway. One meal in the city, just for myself, would cost more than you’re paying for both of us. In some ways, you’re lucky to have grown up in a place like this.” She placed an unnecessary emphasis on this, as if my perfectly normal, smallish Southern town, with its strip malls and flea markets and Super Walmart, was somehow set apart from the real world, like a quaint seaside village in Scotland, removed from the normal flow of things and left eerily untouched by time.

I made eye contact but was careful not to overdo it. We hadn’t slept together since the summer, and I didn’t want her to know how much I still thought of her. You have to be careful with girls. You have to be cool. Once a girl knows you love her—when she really knows without any doubt—that’s when it’s over. That’s when she owns you. That’s when she gets bored and starts looking around for someone new, someone with that air of mystery you had once but lost. You gave it away. You gave it away because you love her.

“So how do you like it up there?” I said.

“New York is the best,” she said. “The greatest. You wouldn’t even believe. It’s the center of the universe. You should visit. The MOMA. Central Park. There’s so much. I’ll show you everything.”

“Have you picked a major?”

“You ask all the same questions as my grandmother,” she said. “Ask something interesting.”

“Why did you want to come here?”

“I missed you,” she said, her face lighting up. She reached across the table and took my hand. “I wanted to see you again. I wanted to know where you come from. You used to talk about it so much. I wanted to see it for myself.”

“How are things with Franklin?”

Miyu pulled away. She looked down at her plate. She picked up one of the last French fries and popped it, quickly, into her mouth. Until now when she’d spoken, she’d looked straight at me with her brown eyes, but when she began again she stared across the room.

“Franklin is good. He’s great, actually. He’s great. I’ve never been with someone so intellectual. You’re very smart, Jake, but Franklin is intellectual, you know? And he’s fun, too. And he’s a graduate student and knows everything about the city, all the places to go. I like him. I like him a lot. I love him.”

I started to say something but instead lifted my glass to my mouth.

“I guess what you need to know is that I’m happy in New York. And I’m in love. And I suppose, even after everything, that you were right, and it all worked out for the best. I’m happy. I’m glad I left, and I’m happier now than I’ve been in my life.”

When the waiter returned I asked for the check.

* * *

Miyu and I drove around town, past the Walmart and Piggly Wiggly and all the push-pull-or-drag used car lots. Traffic thickened as we approached the parade route. The two of us didn’t have much to say. My eyes drifted off the road to the tree limbs hanging above. The leaves were only now returning after winter, and the small, green shoots filtered the sun so it painted abstract patterns on the street below. Finally I pulled into the parking lot at a Fred’s discount store. We got out of the car and worked our way through the crowd so we’d have a good view of West 7th Street. Some police on motorcycles rode by, sirens blaring. A few minutes later a horse and wagon drove down the road, followed by a group of men dressed as frontiersman, then a red convertible with a beauty queen riding in it. The platinum blond waved to the crowd and smiled her big, fake beauty-queen smile. The parade went on like that for a long time. A lot of guys rode by on horses. The guys had dressed as cowboys, but they weren’t really cowboys. It was all pretend. The fake cowboys looked nice, all clean and fresh, not at all like men who toiled in the fields, in dirt and horse shit. Occasionally one would wave, and everybody in the crowd waved back. Or one would lift up his hat and whoop, and everybody would cheer like he’d done something special. I clapped, too. So did Miyu. We were all in on it together.

“How long does this last?” Miyu said.

“Hours.” I shrugged.

“Did you ever march in the parade in high school, with the band?”

“Every year for four years,” I said. “The parade is more exciting when you’re in it. Avoiding horse shit requires constant vigilance.”

Kareem came walking down the sidewalk. Kareem was another guy I knew, a little, from high school. We were never close friends, but we’d talk sometimes. I knew him just well enough that I still recognized him after a few years. I waved and he came over.

“This is bullshit, man,” Kareem said.

“That’s the point,” I said. “Once a year the whole town comes together to celebrate bullshit.”

“It’s not just mules they used to sell here, you know?” he said. “They sold slaves. Right on the square. Goddamned slave market.”

“Oh my god,” Miyu said. “I can’t even imagine.”

“They used to grow cotton here,” I said. “Before the Civil War. I guess it makes sense. All the land around here used to be cotton fields.”

Kareem pointed to the parade. A guy with a scraggly red beard drove a carriage. He was overweight, with a shiny bald head and denim overalls. He cracked a long whip over his horses. Several rebel flags flew from the carriage.

“You see that shit?” Kareem said.

“Oh my god,” Miyu said.

“That’s a swastika,” Kareem said. “Motherfucking American swastika.”

“It’s everywhere around here,” I said. “People fly it from their porches. They put the stickers on their trucks. They think they know what it means but they don’t.”

“Oh my god,” Miyu said.

“You see that horse-driving motherfucker?” Kareem said.

Miyu nodded.

“Fuck that guy,” Kareem said. “His great-granddaddy drove slaves.”

Me and Miyu walked up the street. The parade kept going and going, and after a while it all looked the same, more horses and mules and fake cowboys and cowgirls. A group walked by, all of them dressed as settlers. The men wore flannel and the women wore gingham dresses. And the men were handsome and the women were pretty, and they smiled, all big and happy. History classes had taught me that the life of a settler was a hard one of busting sod and living in the dark and isolation. But it was nice to see the reenactors in the parade, all cheerful and lovely. It was better to imagine the settlers that way.

“Jesus,” Miyu said. “All of this. It’s too much.”

“I’m used to it,” I said. “It’s like this every year.”

Miyu stopped. She looked at the parade. She looked at the crowd. She looked at me, her brown eyes large and watery.

“I hate Barnard,” she said. “I hate the city. I hate all the rude people. I hate how the professors treat us like we’re stupid. I hate how all the students are cocky and act like they know everything. I hate how, in high school, I was the smartest. Being the smartest was who I was, and I liked it. But up there, I don’t know. Everybody’s a genius. Everybody grew up a child prodigy. Everybody comes from a rich fucking family. I hate college. I hate Franklin. I hate everything about my life.”

I stepped close to her and put my arm over her shoulders and pulled her close. I kissed the top of her head. I smelled her hair. It was a familiar scent but something I’d forgotten about until just then. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a cowboy ride by on a horse. He was young and handsome. He looked like every other cowboy in the parade. He wore a colorful Western shirt, the kind guys buy at Old Navy, the kind that probably didn’t even exist in the olden days.

Miyu wasn’t crying but seemed like she might. I kissed her—for real this time on the lips—and it felt like it had been decades since that last time. We kept at it for a while, and when we pulled apart she looked just like I remembered her from the summer. We smiled and looked away. We watched the parade. The cowboy lifted his hat and whooped and held it high in the air. The crowd cheered for him. Everybody liked the fake cowboy. A great roar rose up, like thunder from beyond the hills. I didn’t know if Miyu would stay with me or if she’d disappear to the city and back to Franklin. The cowboy whooped again. The sun shown down on his curly hair and the smooth white skin of his face. He looked like an angel from the American West. I kissed Miyu again and felt—suddenly and strangely—that we could travel back in time and write a new history for ourselves and for our world. A better history, a kinder and more honest one. Our love could right historic wrongs and set the young nation on a truer course. The cowboy kept smiling; the crowd kept cheering. They loved the parade and how it made them feel about themselves and their ancestors and the past. Most of all they loved the handsome cowboy. The history I’d write with Miyu would be more beautiful even than our cowboy angel from the wild frontier of dreams.

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