As the name implies, this page offers something extra:
Mobile Mask Editor and Publisher Steve Joynt entered the 2014 Southeastern Literary Tourism Initiative writing contest. The assignment: Write a short story of less than 2,000 words about an attraction in the Mobile Bay area. He, of course, chose Mardi Gras as his attraction, and his entry took third place in the contest. Here's his entry:
THE MOTHER OF MYSTICS
The lawyers around the long wooden conference table closed their laptops and started shuffling folders. Gray Hunley, head of the firm, fixed his gaze on the other end of the table.
“Brad, we sure appreciate you dropping everything on such short notice to come down here and help us through this,” Gray said in a refined Southern accent that had been generations in the making.
“Oh, that’s OK,” Brad Dawson said, packing his portfolio into his black travel bag. “It was a real hardship, leaving Chicago in February for 68 degrees here in Mobile.”
There were chuckles all around, and Gray smiled and asked, “When’s your flight back?”
“Actually, not until the morning,” Brad replied. “I wasn’t sure how long this would take.”
“Well, then,” Gray said. “You’ll have to check out the parade tonight.”
“Parade?” Brad responded. “What’s the occasion?” He looked around and saw grins and shaking heads.
Stephanie Brooks, one of the partners, looked at Brad with a hint of pity and said, “It’s Mardi Gras. Didn’t you know?”
“Mardi Gras?” Brad said. “I thought that was a New Orleans thing.”
The others looked back at Gray, and he leaned back. “We have heard that the folks in New Orleans do have something of a Mardi Gras,” Gray proclaimed. “But here in Mobile, we’ve been doing Mardi Gras for close to 150 years. Mobile is, after all, the Mother of Mystics.”
Brad looked confused.
“The Stripers parade starts promptly at 6:30,” Gray continued. “We’ll have a car take you to the hotel. Get yourself a drink and catch the parade. I guarantee you won’t regret it.”
Brad had seen parades in Chicago – St. Patrick’s Day, Memorial Day, Columbus Day – but he always thought of them as being for kids. And everything he’d heard about Mardi Gras in New Orleans sounded a bit like spring break, with lots of binge drinking and “girls gone wild.”
Sitting in the back seat of the firm’s car, Brad watched the stately old mansions and the thick canopy of live oak trees give way to metal barricades lining the street and trailers and temporary stands offering funnel cake, sausage with peppers, and chicken on a stick.
The lobby of the Holiday Inn Downtown was buzzing with activity. People were wearing everything from T-shirts and shorts to tuxedos with tails or long ball gowns. But it seemed everyone was carrying a drink and wearing shiny strands of beads around their necks.
Brad got into his room on the seventh floor of the circular hotel, tossed his bags on the bed and loosened his tie. He walked to the window, pulled the curtains back and looked down on Government Street. He could see the huge, white, Greek-revival Presbyterian Church across the street and all of the people milling around behind the barricades.
“Looks like a real party,” he said out loud. Brad looked at his watch – 6:27. He had two choices, really: Stay in his room and play Candy Crush on the laptop or go outside and see what Mardi Gras looked like. He headed for the elevator.
The sun had been down for an hour or so, and a cool breeze had people bundling up. Brad thought it felt great, balmy even.
He dodged a cluster of shrieking teenagers, followed by a baby stroller brigade, and made his way up to Government Street. He wandered west about a half block until he spotted an open spot in front of the barricades. He sidled up and rested his hands on the cool steel bar, hoping no one would get mad at him for being in their spot or something.
To his right was a young couple, early 20s, huddled over the glowing screen of a smart phone, laughing and talking quietly. They couldn’t have cared about him or anyone else. To his left was a mom in her late 30s with two young boys. Just as Brad looked over, the slightly bigger boy walloped the other with his glowing plastic sword, and a skirmish broke out.
“If you two don’t stop hitting each other, I’m taking those away from you,” the mom said. She turned to Brad and said, “We’ve been to four parades in the last two weeks, and they’re still just out of their minds with excitement.”
Brad was startled – at first because a stranger spoke to him so openly, but also because of the information she just imparted.
“Wait,” Brad said. “You mean there’s more than one parade?”
There was that smiling look of pity again.
“Oh bless your heart,” the woman said. “You don’t have the slightest idea what’s going on, do you?”
Brad shook his head no.
“Where are you from?”
“Ooo. Chilly back there, I bet,” she said.
“You have no idea,” Brad said, getting a little shiver just thinking about the icy wind off Lake Michigan.
“Well,” the woman said, “I’m Judy, and this is Matthew, and this is Trevor.” The boys stopped shoving each other long enough to mumble, “Hi.”
“I’m Brad,” he said, extending his hand to Judy, a little proud of himself for making friends so quickly.
They shook, and then Judy put her fists on her hips and gave Brad a critical look, taking in his tailored dark gray suit, white Brooks Brothers shirt, and standard-issue red lawyer tie. “The first thing we’ve got to do is make you look like you’re ready for some Mardi Gras,” Judy said, and she took some of the beads from around her neck and held them up.
“Oh, I couldn’t,” he said, taking a half-step back.
Judy laughed. “Sweetie, I’ve got more of these than I know what to do with. And in thirty minutes, you will too. This is just to get you started.”
Brad bowed his head to accept the gift.
“And you need a bag,” Judy said. “Trevor, quit fooling around with that and get me an extra bag out of there.”
The older boy reached into a tote stuffed with provisions, pulled out a plastic Target bag and handed it up to his mother. She handed it over to Brad. “Hang onto this,” Judy said. “You’re going to need it.”
She assessed Brad again and said, “Something else, something else …” She turned to the street vendor coming up the street and shouted, “Hey! Over here!”
The vendor pushed his souped-up shopping cart, covered with toys, boas, and fancy beads, to a stop in front of Judy.
“Hmm,” she said with a finger to her mouth and giving Brad a side glance. “Give him one of those tall hats.”
The vendor unclipped a purple, green, and gold stovepipe hat and handed it to Brad.
Brad held it for a second, rubbing his thumb across the soft felt. “Put it on!” Judy said impatiently.
Brad reluctantly did as he was told, and Judy clapped her hands together and laughed. “Now you’re ready, Brad! You are REA-DY for some Mardi Gras!”
Brad smiled sheepishly, glad that no one in his firm could see him.
“Uh, that’s ten dollars,” the vendor said, looking back and forth at Brad and Judy.
“Oh!” Brad said, and he reached under his jacket to pull out his wallet. He fished out a ten, and the vendor moved on, shouting, “Beads! Horns! Lighted toys!”
“So,” Brad said, trying to look dignified, even with a Dr. Seuss hat on his head, “what exactly is Mardi Gras?”
“I’ll give you the quick-and-dirty because the parade will be here in a couple minutes,” Judy said. “Mardi Gras is a celebration between New Year’s and Lent. The big day is Fat Tuesday, which is always the day before Ash Wednesday.
“We have parades nearly every day or night for three weeks. The parades are put on by mystic societies, and most of them are secret organizations. Tonight it’s the Mystic Stripers, a men’s group. Two nights ago, it was the Order of LaShe’s, a ladies group.”
“Why are some people dressed in tuxedos and fancy gowns?” Brad asked.
“Oh, they’re going to the ball after the parade,” Judy said. “Most of these groups also throw a fancy-dress ball. My husband and I used to go to a few balls every year, before these two came along,” and she jerked her thumb toward the boys, which reminded her to take a quick mom look and make sure they weren’t eating something from off the ground.
“You know, we’re standing right in front of the Mardi Gras museum,” Judy said.
Brad turned and looked beyond the people that had packed in behind them. He saw an impressive old two-story home with two colorful statues of jesters on the porch. The sign in front read, “Mobile Carnival Museum.”
“I took the boys there a year or so ago,” Judy said. “They have all kinds of things in there, beautiful trains and crowns worn by the kings and queens. I grew up here, but I learned all kinds of stuff about Mardi Gras in there.”
Brad was about to ask about the kings and queens when Judy said, “Here’s the parade!”
Brad turned back and looked at the two police cars moving slowly past them, flashers lighting everything in a blue strobe. Next came a color guard, followed by a high school marching band, playing for all they were worth.
Then came the first float, a gigantic tiger, and there were masked riders stationed all over it. Brad saw everyone along the parade route stretch their hands up in the air and shout at the top of their lungs and many of them were rewarded by the masked men on the float.
As the float got up to them, Brad looked at Judy, and she was leaning over the barricade with her hands up, waving and yelling. Her boys were straddling the top of the barricade like excited monkeys.
Brad put his hands up. He saw the masked riders throwing handfuls of beads to the crowd, and one of them hurled a bunch at him. He caught them and turned proudly toward Judy as the float moved past.
“There you go,” Judy said. “Put them in your bag and get ready for the next one!”
More came by. Brad got more frenzied with each passing float. He wasn’t sure why he wanted these beads and plastic cups and such, he only knew he was having fun.
At one point, he caught something wrapped in cellophane. He tapped Judy on the shoulder and showed it to her.
“It’s a Moon Pie!” she shouted.
He gave her a blank look.
She laughed and said, “Save it! Eat it later! You’ll like it!”
A few minutes later, Judy yelled, “Last float!”
As it came by, Brad yelled and tried to make eye contact with the riders. Then he saw a familiar face, even though it was covered by a mask. Sure enough, it was Gray Hunley. There was no mistaking that snow white hair.
Gray also spotted Brad. Then he hollered something at his fellow float riders and pointed at Brad. Instantly, Brad was buried in a maelstrom of beads, stuffed animals, cups, and toys.
He tried to catch it all, but that was impossible. Like hungry seagulls, kids dove at Brad’s feet and scooped up what he couldn’t catch.
When Judy turned toward her new friend, she couldn’t help but laugh. His hat was bent in half, and he was hugging a huge pile of goodies. There was even a strand of beads hanging from his left ear.
“Hoo-boy!” she said. “I guess you had a friend on that float, huh?”
Brad nodded, still a little shell-shocked.
“Trevor,” Judy said over her shoulder, “get me another bag.” Then she laughed again. “Better make it two.”
Here's a simple dish straight from Mrs. Mask's personal recipe file. She invented it to take to Mardi Gras potlucks or to go with a sandwich on the parade route.
MRS. MASK'S MARDI GRAS PEPPER SLAW
This colorful dish combines crunchy vegetables with bottled dressing. The longer you leave it, the better it gets, and because there’s no mayonnaise, it holds up well for Mardi Gras and tailgate get-togethers.
3 cups mini sweet pepper rings
2-3 celery ribs
1 medium onion
6-7 rainbow radishes
½-¾ cup Ken’s Lite Caesar dressing
White pepper and salt (to taste)
Use only those sweet mini peppers – full sized ones don’t look as pretty or hold up as well. Buy the big bag – the leftovers are great in salads, omelets.
If you don’t like some of the additional veggies, choose your own! Crunchy ones work best, like carrots or cucumbers, seeds removed.
We typically leave this on the counter top, covered, after we make it. Why? So every time we walk into the kitchen, we remember to toss it.
You’re essentially pickling vegetables here. So this really does get better with age!