CHAPTER ONE 

People of America, heed this advice.  Should there come a time in your life when you need relief from your burdens, head to New Orleans.  And if your woes happen to overwhelm you during Carnival season, which spans the Feast of the Epiphany and Ash Wednesday, so much the better.  For if ever a metropolis were made for escaping one’s troubles, New Orleans—or the Crescent City or the Big Easy or whatever you want to call it—is it.  Especially during that bacchanalian interlude that culminates in Mardi Gras, when the locals really put the F in festive.

It is this party attitude that explains why my begowned self is currently appearing on live New Orleans television with not only my fellow beauty queens Trixie Barnett and Shanelle Walker at my side, but a cocktail as well.  And not a faux cocktail, either, but a full-fledged Hurricane, sporting two types of rum, grenadine, various citrus juices, and a skewer teetering under an explosion of fruit garnish.  The Hurricane is not New Orleans’ official cocktail—that would be the Sazerac—but NOLA is the only city in the nation to boast an official cocktail.

Now that tells you something.

Antoine Duval, the sandy-haired male host of Live at 5, decked out in a tuxedo in honor of tonight’s merrymaking, pivots toward my BFFs and me.  At this twilight hour we’re broadcasting from an outdoor platform in the Garden District high above famed St. Charles Avenue.  The location affords a glorious view of the subject of the evening’s special telecast: the Carnival parade put on by the Mystic Krewe of Plutus.  Revelers are lining the avenue to enjoy not only the floats but also the marching and jazz bands parading along with them.  It’s such a joyous ruckus I can barely hear the orange security choppers buzzing overhead.

Last week I had no idea what a “krewe” even was.  But now I know it’s a social club whose biggest whoop-de-do of the year is putting on a Carnival parade.  And from what I can tell, partying beforehand, afterwards, and during.

“So, Antoine,” I say, “how many parades do you have in New Orleans leading up to Mardi Gras?”  Which is, of course, French for Fat Tuesday.

“Over fifty.”  Antoine preens with civic pride.  “With more than a thousand floats.  And if you line up all the parade routes one after the next, it adds up to three hundred miles.”

“That’s amazing.”  It goes to show what a huge deal the parades are that local TV covers them live for hours on end.  Which explains our presence.  Guests like us can help fill all those hours of programming.  “I love how so many of the krewe names come from mythology,” I go on.  “Greek, Roman, Egyptian—”

“The names are so fun and magical!”  Trixie giggles, her hazel eyes shining and copper-colored hair very stylish with its new pixie cut.  “Cleopatra, Athena, Pygmalion, Morpheus—”

“And Nyx and Endymion and Pontchartrain.”  Shanelle is particularly lovely tonight with her Afro held off her face by a sparkly gold headband.  Maybe she can pronounce that last krewe name so easily because it’s also the name of a local lake and her hometown of Biloxi is only a hundred miles away.  So she sort of grew up in these parts.  Or maybe she’s just great at pronunciation.  After all, she is one of those rare peeps able to whip off my surname: Przybyszewski.

Truth be told, I haven’t deployed that four-syllable behemoth since my mom got me into pageantry.  I protested mightily when she began trying to stoke rhinestone ambition deep in my soul, but look where it’s gotten me.  Now I’m beyond proud to wear the Ms. America crown.  Five months into my reign, it still stuns me that Ohio’s Happy Pennington is the titleholder for the nation’s leading pageant for married women.

Let’s just hope I can keep the tiara atop my brunette head.  My pageant owner has been less than thrilled with me lately and the state of my marriage is—how shall I put it? —precarious.

“You ladies might be visiting from out of town,” Antoine says, “but you’ve certainly embraced the Carnival spirit.”

I gesture to our gowns.  “Are you referring to these?”  All three are identical in style, with a rhinestone brooch securing the sideswept waist and the soft jersey fabric dipping low and sexy in the back.  But in honor of Mardi Gras’ trademark colors here in NOLA, Shanelle’s gown is purple, Trixie’s is green, and mine is gold.  “Am I right, Antoine, that this trio of colors was selected way back in 1872?”  I can’t resist showing off my research at least a little.

“Yes, by our first Rex, our first king of Carnival.”

“Purple for justice,” Shanelle says.

“Green for faith,” Trixie adds.

“And gold for power,” I finish off.  The colors are everywhere this time of year, decorating homes, people, pets, businesses, and of course the floats rolling up and down the avenues.  “And let me add that we’re just thrilled to be honorary guests of the Krewe of Harmonia this year.”

“It’s right up our alley since we represent the Ms. America pageant,” Trixie goes on.  “After all, Harmonia is the Greek goddess of harmony and concord, particularly in marriage.”

I won’t mention the irony that Harmonia was born after Aphrodite had an adulterous affair with Ares.  “We still have to finish making our tiara throws for the parade,” I say instead.  “It’s so fun that we beauty queens get to decorate tiaras.”

The throws are a highly entertaining element of the parades.  The krewe members playfully toss all manner of items out to the crowd and everybody goes crazy trying to catch something.  Strings of beads are the most common throw, but it sure doesn’t stop there.

Antoine launches into more Mardi Gras lore and Trixie and Shanelle get into peppering him with questions.  I allow myself to sit back and listen as if I were a viewer at home.

It almost feels like the first time I’ve relaxed since the Krewe of Harmonia invited us to New Orleans.  The request for our presence came in pretty late as these things go, and since I’d never been here before I wanted to bone up on this US city so unlike every other.

Shall I count the ways in which New Orleans stands alone?  Let us begin with its French and Spanish roots and strong ties with Africa and the Caribbean.  Then we can move on to its amazing architecture, extraordinary food and music, and ongoing flirtation with the paranormal, from ghosts to vampires to voodoo.  I love how this city embraces pretty much everything that diverges from the norm, which makes it such a draw to creative types.  And beyond all that, there’s its phenomenal ability to come back from disasters that are truly epic in scale, from outbreaks of yellow fever to devastating fires, floods, and, yes, hurricanes.  A lesser city would’ve surrendered a few centuries ago.  But not New Orleans.  Not only does it fight on, it does so with a cocktail aloft and beads looped around its neck.

Around here people say “Laissez les bon temps rouler!”  That’s French for “Let the good times roll!”  So even though, or maybe because, the city lies five feet below sea level and faces a worsening threat from rising waters, and who knows what else, its spirit remains unbowed. 

Fatalistic?  Maybe.  But how can you not love it?

Antoine’s voice breaks into my thoughts.  “It’s almost here!  The float bearing the king of the Mystic Krewe of Plutus!”

I see it now on the TV monitor set up across our platform.  The float that transports the krewe’s top royalty is the highlight of any parade.  “Antoine, how does the krewe select the king?”

“Well, usually they choose a local luminary.  But every so often, like this year, the selection is a nationally known celebrity who’s also a native son.”

I know you have to be a semi big shot just to be a member of an old-line krewe like Plutus.  Until the early nineties, you had to hail from one of the “right” families, in other words, “rich” and “white.”  Eventually people got fed up with all that and now the krewes must be more open.  But they still can be pretty secretive.

The mob below is increasingly raucous as the king’s float nears our platform.  Who can blame them?  Lots of these folks have been camped out waiting for this moment for hours, even all day.  I have to giggle as I watch little kids throw back their heads and blow their purple and green trumpets, adults grab for beads as if their lives depended on scoring a string or two, and everybody pretty close to delirious with all the noise and fun.

Antoine raises his voice over the hubbub.  “Can you guess why the cornucopia of grain is associated with Plutus?”

“He’s the god of wealth,” Trixie says, revealing that she did her homework, too.  Of course she’s never one to rest on her Ms. Congeniality laurels.  “And we all know that the cornucopia symbolizes the abundant blessings of wealth.”

And guess who’s super, super blessed?  The man the Krewe of Plutus chose as this year’s king.  I’m guessing everybody (but me) is really stoked because, as Antoine said, this guy is a native and a big-name celebrity all rolled into one.   Yes, the man of the hour is none other than famous actor and local boy Dennis Garrity.

I apologize that I cannot hide a certain snarkiness toward Mr. Garrity.  Ever since his reality show had the nerve to come on the air directly, and I mean directly against the show hosted by one Mario Suave, he has annoyed me.  Especially since his show is beating Mario’s in the ratings.  Don’t ask me how a show called Who Among Us? could prevail over a show called America’s Scariest Ghost Stories.  The premise isn’t even believable, in my opinion.  It profiles people who embrace the vampire lifestyle.  I mean, really.  Who does that?

I get so upset when I think about it.  I cannot help but remember last month in New York, when among other highly revealing confessions Mario admitted to me that he was worried about his show’s ratings.  He feared the network might move the show to another night, which could prove its death knell.

I am well aware that I shouldn’t be getting all het up about this.  After all, when I got home from Manhattan I forced myself into Mario Rehab, a treatment program for those of us addicted to all things Mario Suave.  (In my case I had to get off a dangerous path—one that could even have ruined my marriage.)  Even though I concocted the Mario Rehab rules myself, the regimen is severe.  No social media: no liking, no following, no snapping, no pinning, no nothing.  No surfing the web for news updates.  I’ve asked Trixie and Shanelle to avoid mentioning his name.  I don’t even allow myself to watch Mario’s show anymore, which makes me feel especially bad because what if Nielsen is monitoring my set?  I could unwittingly be helping to torpedo Mario’s ratings, which would truly be tragic.

Anyway, in the aftermath of this purge, I have no clue what’s up with Mario.  He could be anywhere, doing anything, and I wouldn’t know it.  I do not allow myself to think about him, although as you can tell I’m not very good at that.  This last minute I’ve been pondering him so intently that Shanelle just had to pinch my thigh to get my attention.  I swing my head left to find her dark eyes boring into mine.

“Antoine wants to know if you’ve dined at Le Comte yet,” she says.

“I’m dying to!” I lie, smiling brightly in Antoine’s direction.  “If we can snag a reservation.  Since Dennis Garrity is king of the Krewe of Plutus this year, his restaurant is the hottest place in town.”

“I’ll pull a few strings for you ladies.”  Antoine winks.  “And you can all have a Vampire’s Punch on me.”

Le Comte is a French restaurant with a vampire theme.  Fictional and supposedly real bloodsuckers are what made Dennis Garrity famous, so I suppose the concept makes sense.  Anyway, for Mario’s sake I hate to support the restaurant.

Oops.  I thought of Mario again.

I force myself to shove him and his Latin sexiness out of my mind.  Actually it’s not that hard, since I can’t help but get swept up in the crowd’s jubilation as the king’s float nears.  A close-up shot appears on the monitor, and now that it’s pitch dark out the float looks extremely dramatic all lit up.

“This float is a real classic,” Antoine says with admiration.  “Decades old.  Clearly it was built to last.  The chassis isn’t as big as we see nowadays with new floats, but still I find it very impressive. 

I must agree.  The float has only one level, dominated by a gold throne upon which Dennis Garrity has planted his middle-aged butt.  But behind the throne is an attention-getting tableau.

Life-size golden statues depict a toga-clad Plutus with a laurel wreath atop his head distributing gold coins to similarly attired mortals, men and women, young and old.  Some look virtuous but some appear downright malevolent, leering at Plutus even as he gifts them with riches.

“I don’t understand what’s going on in that tableau,” Trixie says.

Antoine has a ready answer.  “Mythology has it that Zeus blinded Plutus so he would distribute wealth indiscriminately, to those who don’t deserve it as well as to those who do.”

“That sounds like something Zeus would do,” Shanelle says.  “I’m more an Achilles fan, especially when played by Brad Pitt in the movies.”

As Antoine laughs, I imagine Pitt instead of Garrity atop this float.  After all, he may not be a native, but he’s tried to help NOLA in all sorts of ways.  And he’s far better eye candy than Garrity, who’s let himself go in recent years.  I suppose he’s allowed to enjoy his own cuisine at Le Comte, but couldn’t he at least have dyed the gray in his mussed brown hair for his stint as king?

I know I’m not being fair.  I just don’t like the guy.

He is strikingly dressed, in a white toga with black and gold embroidery at the hem and gathered waist.  He’s also sporting a gold crown, leather wrist cuffs, and gladiator sandals, but what really catches the eye is the outsized medallion hanging from a chain around his neck.

“Tell us about that medallion, Antoine,” I say.

“It’s very famous,” he says, his tone reverent.  The cameraman shooting the float, who’s hearing us through an earpiece, zooms in for a close-up.  “The only person ever allowed to wear the medallion,” Antoine goes on, “is the king of the Krewe of Plutus, on parade night.  It’s centuries old and comes from Greece itself.  Of course the medallion is real gold.  You’ll note that it’s circular with nine small gold loops around the perimeter and an oval in the center made of blue ceramic.”

The cameraman returns to a wider shot and I realize the float is close enough to our platform that we can see it clearly.  We twist away from the monitor to watch it approach.

Garrity is alone atop the float, and as we’ve seen other kings and queens do, he lifts a flute of champagne toward the cheering onlookers held at bay by waist-high barricades.  At that moment, sparkler fireworks in brilliant gold shoot up from all four corners of the float, creating a spectacular effect.  The crowd shrieks in exhilaration, which I’d do, too, if I weren’t wearing a mic.

“Hail, Plutus!” Antoine booms.

“Hail, Plutus!” Trixie, Shanelle, and I repeat, mimicking Garrity by raising our Hurricanes in the air.

“Plutus has had some popular kings in its day, but few to rival Dennis Garrity.”  Antoine practically has to shout to be heard over the crowd.  “And boy, I’ve always loved the sparklers on this float, from when I was a kid.  I remember—”

I don’t catch the rest of Antoine’s remarks, even though he’s sitting right next to me, for in that instant a ball of fire erupts from the float and a thunderous boom rents the air.  I swear that a second later I feel a wave of heat slap my face.

“Oh my Lord, what was that?” Trixie cries from Antoine’s other side.

My thudding heart and I are pretty sure what that was, but I don’t want to even say the words.  I grab for Shanelle, whose hand latches on tight.

Now the crowd isn’t roaring.  It’s screaming, the sort of frenzied high-pitched screams that come from shock and fear.

Because it’s all too clear what happened here.  An explosion happened here.  And it seemed to be centered right on the float carrying Dennis Garrity.  I throw a frantic glance at Shanelle, who looks petrified.  I bet she’s thinking what I am: that might not have been the only explosion.  More might follow.  When these horrible things occur, they often come in twos or even threes.  And here we are, so close, and down below us are all those other innocent people, even closer.

“Everyone, remain calm,” Antoine exhorts.  But I hear the barely concealed panic in his voice.  I feel dread coming in waves from the people on the avenue, where pandemonium reigns.

I struggle to find my voice.  It’s so hard to grasp, how in one second everything can turn from joy to terror.  “There’s so much smoke!”  I don’t know how I manage to spit out the words, since the air is now so choked that it’s hard to speak.  “What can you make out, Antoine?  I can’t really see much of anything.”

I lean forward and squint in the direction of the float, my eyes tearing from the smoke.  But now that it’s dissipating a bit, I almost wish it weren’t.  For in the ashy blackness left by that dreadful burst of flame, I find only emptiness in the place where Dennis Garrity used to be.



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