The Day the Parade Stood Still


Seeing as it is Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade tomorrow, here's a first draft of an a propos short story:


The Day the Parade Stood Still


Five of the men invited to this meeting had arrived a good ten minutes early, wanting to make a good impression. They now wait in the stuffy makeshift living room for what seems like an interminably long time for yet another man already more than five minutes late.
The topic, everyone’s favorite alcoholic beverage—the only bit of conversation, exhausting less than a minute—wears out and the men fall back in their chairs and nurse their beers. Shifty eyed, their initial excitement and apprehension slowly becoming boredom as they begin to get used to each other’s presence, to their invisible host pacing on the other side of the wall, and to the screeching, suburb-bound trains occasionally barging in on the apartment’s heavy, squeak filled silence.
Then, a booming knock rattles the front door.
The wiry, angry-looking fellow with the shaved head is on his feet and coiled like a new spring as the guy in the ketchup-stained camouflage jacket gags on his beer—spittles fly unnoticed across the room—and the swarthy, Latino version of Truman Capote instinctively pats his double-breasted jacket for the weapon he was specifically told not to bring while the clean-cut dude in the white Oxford button-down shirt with the bulging neck muscles and swelled, veiny forearms eyeballs the obese black man who returns a similar, panic-filled look, his plump fingers bunching sweatpants, digging in his meaty thighs.
The knocking starts up again. All five jerk in sync with the sharp bangs that ring through the bare apartment. Then, simultaneously, they begin to recognize the structured, rapid succession of knocks. Here is the anticipated pause, and there is the expected double knock; breathing resumes in the tiny, sweat-scented room. The men lean back, the cheap chairs creak and strain under their weight as each takes a swig from his beer bottle in almost perfect choreography.
“Coming, coming!” A sixth, lanky, olive-skinned man emerges from the kitchen and heads for the front door, rushing by the living room so that the men sitting there catch only a glimpse of a bright, blue-white blur. They chuckle quietly amongst themselves as if sharing a private running-gag despite their having met for the first time only minutes earlier.
"Who is it?" asks the sixth man with his nose pressed against the front door as he strains his eye through the spyhole.
"It’s the Avon lady’s husband," a harsh voice echoes back through the reinforced steel door.
"But I did not order anything," the man replies flatly.
"I was in the neighborhood and she asked me to drop off some free samples."
Satisfied with the response, the man slides the chain, unlocks the deadbolt, turns the key in the double lock, and opens the door to an imposing, big boned, big-jawed man in a long black overcoat.
"Mr. Eastwood, yes? How are you?"
The man called Eastwood nods and steps inside to be greeted by an acrid mix of hops and sweat and some unknown spice. "Fine,” he replies as he removes his sunglasses and folds them into his breast pocket in one swift, practiced movement. His fat, chapped lips curl involuntarily and betray a slight grin as he studies his host who—obviously Arabic or thereabouts, I always have a hard time telling, thinks Eastwood—is wearing crisp, flawlessly blue, knock-off jeans with an identical denim shirt still showing the stiff, starchy packaging creases. Immaculately white sneakers act as eye magnets but even more comical and attention getting is the huge, ostentatious silver belt buckle with the slogan “Born Free” and an eighteen-wheeler embossed in a way that makes it look like it’s on the verge of breaking free from the cold, metallic world that contains it. Even his hair, as dark as the dark of his eyes, seems somehow inappropriate—tied in a neat, slicked-down ponytail that pokes through the opening at the back of a royal blue Nike cap and drops to about mid-back. The man is plainly trying to look American, but, and although it’s true that one could find a vast number of people wearing the same things, the look on him seems absurd—like eyeglasses on a turtle.
“I can tell you like my, how do you say, treads?” The man’s rough skin creases in a smile. “As American as apple pie, no?”
“Threads. Yes, as American as apple pie,” chuckles Eastwood. The two shake hands.
"Please, call me Superman." He takes Eastwood by the elbow. "Come, come, my friend. We are ready to start. You are the last to arrive." He guides him outside the cramped foyer and into a somber living room where the five men, each fondling a near-empty beer bottle, stare back from mismatched metallic chairs placed around a chipped melamine coffee table, their backs against bare, cracked walls. Eastwood nods at them and all nod back, straighten up, re-settle in their seats, clearly happy to have another face join them and perhaps finally get down to some business.
"Everyone, this is Mr. Eastwood," says Superman who then points to the gangly, bald guy who’s chewing his nails, then to the guy in a camouflage jacket with a day-old beard that probably took a week to grow, then towards the Latino in a creased polyester suit who looks equally inept in love and killing, then to the obese, clammy man who seems to be struggling with each breath, ending with what looks like a surfer dude on steroids. He says each of their assigned names as his finger lands on them. "Eastwood, this is Pokeman, Indiana, Mickey, Hulk, and Springsteen."
Eastwood shake hands with each, stretches far over the table to reach the fat man, and takes the empty seat next to Springsteen.
"Before we get started, would you like a drink?" Superman asks Eastwood.
"I suppose I'll have a beer."
Superman vanishes and Eastwood reaches inside his jacket pocket, scans the room for an ashtray. “Do any of you mind if I smoke?”
“I sure as hell don’t but some of these guys do,” snarls Pokeman as he raises his chin towards Hulk then Springsteen.
“Yeah. I kinda would prefer it if you could, you know, abstain,” says Springsteen with a hint of condescension.
Superman comes back holding a sweaty beer bottle in one hand and a stack of manila envelopes in the other. Eastwood takes the beer and the sealed envelope he’s handed; the rest of the manilas are distributed. He takes a sip of the cold beer as he stares at his phony name carefully printed on the envelope, unsure whether or not he should open it. He scans the room; everyone else seems to be wondering the same thing.
"Please do not open them up just yet," says Superman in answer to all. "First of all, I'd like to thank you for coming. You are about to be a part of history. If any of you know anything about us, our past and our people, you will know that we are not accustomed to dealing in this manner. Unfortunately, in light of past events, we are now under tremendous scrutiny. The CIA, the FBI, the NSA, even the triple-A is monitoring our every movement. It is now impossible for even one of us to think about urinating in holy water, never mind plan an attack on America. This is why we have traced our paths to you through the classified section of Guns&Boobs.”
“Classified!" says Indiana. "Oh! Oh yeah! You mean the small ads."
"Can we at least know which group we're dealing with?" asks Eastwood.
"For the moment, no you may not," says Superman. "We do not think that this should matter to you or that it should affect your job. You will find out, but all in good time." He leans against the doorframe and sticks his thumbs in his belt loops, taps his thighs with his long, manicured fingers. "I must warn you that once you open these envelopes, there is no turning back. This is your last chance to gracefully renounce this opportunity if you are so inclined.”
All eyes shift from one to the next. No one says anything.
“Good! You may now open them."
Eastwood tears open the envelope. Inside is a street map of Manhattan. A thick red line traces a course from Central Park to 7th Avenue with several times scribbled along Broadway. Inside is also the blueprint of a building top with a red star bringing attention to one of its corners and a single piece of plain white letter paper with an address printed on several strips of label-maker tape. Everything seems normal, as expected, until he tilts the envelope and two Barney game cards, a cut out of Ronald McDonald, and three stickers of Jimmy Neutron slide into his hand; Eastwood is as insulted as he is confused. All the other ‘packages’ he had opened contained pictures of diplomats, dictators, and industrialists—he doesn’t know what to make of these. He glances sideways and sees that Springsteen is staring, agape, at prints of Mr. Monopoly and Uncle Sam in his hands. Eastwood then looks at the others who all look back with equal confusion, with the exception of Pokeman who sits with elbows on knees, tiny hands massaging his shinny scalp as he concentrates on a color drawing of a red dog and two comic strips featuring a fat orange cat.
“Is this a joke?” asks Eastwood.
Superman doesn’t answer. He spins on his heels and leaves the room. The men look at one another as they listen to his footsteps recede down the long, bare hallway and into the empty bedroom at the far end of the apartment. They hear the harsh squeak and slide of an erratic closet door and a loud clank of metal smacking wood that is instantly accompanied by coarse, guttural sounds they all assume to be cursing. Superman finally reappears holding what appears to be a tactical rifle, as each had expected (except Pokeman, who had imagined some sort of secret super weapon).
Without saying a word, his dark features expressionless, Superman raises the rifle and pulls the trigger; the sound of wet, mucus-filled spitting escapes from the end of the barrel followed by the sound of plaster crumbling above Hulk's head. The men jump in their seats as wispy white dust invades the beams of sunlight pouring over the edges of the worn floral bed sheet that serves as curtain. Hulk shakes the white specks out of his matted, already salt-and-pepper hair as the others rise to examine the precise, miniature hole in the tatty, brittle plaster.
"What the hell's that!"
"This, gentleman, is the most advanced, most powerful BB gun available. Dead-on accuracy up to a half-mile; 25 shots per minute." The same spitting sound as he fires again and plaster crumbles a few feet above the first shot. "And whisper quiet too. And the best feature? Can anyone guess?"
No one says anything. The men are all mentally debating whether they should take Superman seriously, laugh or get up and leave.
"Try and guess, my friends," begs Superman.
"The telescopic sight," offers Indiana meekly.
"It's weight," guesses Hulk.
"No, no. It is lightweight but in truth, the telescope, it is shit. What is so great about…"
"No need for registration," interrupts Eastwood.
"Correct!" exclaims Superman tapping the tip of his nose and giving Eastwood a nod of approval before repeating, "No need for registration." He hands the rifle over to Eastwood. "Please pass it around. These can be purchased by anyone without any background check and all the messy paper trails. We have actually acquired these by dealing with middlemen who hired teenagers from four different mid-west states to buy them. They then arrived in New York via Houston, Washington and Chicago. They are absolutely untraceable."
“Sorry man, I only work with my Mauser. I’ve got a Bausch & Lomb scope mounted on…”
"What the hell are we suppose to kill with these?" interrupts Mickey.
"Inflatable versions of the characters in each of your folio, Mr. Mickey."
"I don't get it," says Springsteen.
Eastwood looks at the map, the blueprint—just then it hits him. “Are you asking us to take down the giant helium balloons during Macy’s annual Thanksgiving Day Parade?”
“Very good my friend. You are better than your advert suggested.”
"Yo man! You’ve got to be kiddin’ me!” says Hulk.
“But…but…that's sick!” says Indiana.
"That'll ruin Thanksgiving! Think of the children! Why don’t dju ever think of the children?" shouts Mickey.
“I’m still not sure I get it,” says Springsteen.
“What my colleagues are trying to say,” Eastwood breaks in, “is that the Thanksgiving Day parade is an innocent, wholesome, family oriented tradition. Why can’t we just shoot off a few politicians, stars, and such? Seems like the more humane thing to do, no?”
“Sorry my friends,” Superman brings his hands together with a loud clap, “this is, how do you say, a not negotiable deal.”
“Screw this! I for one refuse to participate,” says Indiana as he tosses his envelope and papers on the coffee table, finishes his beer and slams the empty bottle on the table then rises. “I’m outa here!”
“Stop!” Superman blocks the exit, both hands raised, palms forward. “You will do no such thing my friends! Please remain seated,” he orders. “We have been taking pictures of you all this time that clearly show you in contact with me. I am a well-known terrorist. If you refuse to co-operate these will be instantly leaked to the media. I think you can all guess the consequences this will have for you.”
"And what if I was to kill dju right here, man?" Mickey hisses.
"Please," Superman chortles unimpressed. "Then my associates will gun you down before you even reach the front door…and also the pictures will be leaked to the media."
“What! What associates? Where are they?”
“You mustn’t worry about that, my friends. But please, the option is always yours to find out should you want to kill me, or simply walk out.”
The men sit hunched, subdued, with eyes riveted on the worn melamine tabletop and their callused hands squeezed into tight fists, knuckles turning white. A grinding train fades; the refrigerator motor turns itself off, whines down. Total silence and the tension in the room tightens like a Yo-yo string that turns your finger purple then blue. The men are fuming, that is, with the exception of Pokeman who is actually excited. What no one knows is that, despite his claims, Pokeman’s only victims have been neighbourhood cats he had targeted for training. Bagging Garfield and Clifford The Big Red Dog will be a major step up.
“Then if I’m to do this I have to use my own rifle; not these sissy guns,” suddenly growls Springsteen.
“No!” snaps Superman. “You will use the BB guns. That's the problem with you people," he chides, "always ready to use a grenade-launcher when a slingshot is sufficient. Our goal is to strike directly at American pride in a way that America, and not Americans, gets hurt. And this is only the first of such attack. Trust me, my friends, pretty soon the word 'parade' will strike fear across the United States."
"You're insane!" says Eastwood.
“Maybe so. Nonetheless, that gives you all four weeks to acquaint yourselves with your positions, surroundings, bring your weapons inside the security area, plan an escape route, and all that stuff you guys do. You will never see or hear from me again. If you go to the authorities, you will only be jeopardizing yourselves and your colleagues—you will not be able to link us to you. Payment will be made immediately following confirmation of your kills. Target not down, no payment." He loops his thumbs around his belt again, fingers on the buckle. "By the way, Hulk, we are still in need of a void cheque if you want direct deposit.”

Eastwood is scrutinizing the contract for a loophole. Hulk and Indiana are telling themselves that they sure could use the money. Mickey sits horrified as he imagines the children's reaction. Springsteen is still sulking about not being able to use his Mauser. And Pokeman is stroking his peach smooth head wondering whether or not he should ask for another beer. He doesn't see why everyone else is so upset and he doesn’t care—this is the first time that somebody has replied to his ad and he's just really happy that he'll finally have something genuine to put on his resume.


The end


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PDL


© Pascal-Denis Lussier 2008

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