top of page

The Night Denver Went Missing at the Galveston Mardi Gras / Justin Carter



The night had barely gotten going when we lost Denver. We were in the parking lot of a Wendy’s just off the Seawall and when I went to find him, ask if he was ready to head down to the Strand and keep the night going, he was nowhere to be found. My first thought was he must have gone inside to take a piss, so we waited about ten more minutes, but he still wasn’t back.

 

“Just like the fucker to run off,” his wife, Rosalie, who I’d been sleeping with for about six months at that point, said. “Maybe he’ll just stay gone.”

 

“Hush,” my wife, Kay, said. “You know you love that man.”

 

“He can’t have gone too far,” I said. “We got the truck, so either he’s on foot or hitchhiking.”

 

“Whoever picked him up would get tired of his ass so fast,” Rosalie said.

 

“How many beers has he had?,” Kay asked. Rosalie started laughing. “Oh,” Kay added.

 

Denver had a bit of a drinking problem. Not that we talked about it in that way back in those days. He was just a dude who loved to pound some beers and sometimes he’d pound a few too many. Most the time, really. I’d known him for fifteen years because we worked together at the plant. For the last thirteen of those, we’d been friends, our wives had been friends, our kids had been friends. In fact, their oldest was watching all the kids that night. Usually me and Kay would come down to Mardi Gras with ours one weekend, do the family-friendly shit, and then the next weekend it’d just be the adults.

 

This thing with Rosalie, it got started one night when we were all hanging at our place, grilling up burgers and knocking back Crown shots. Denver passed out drunk on the couch, Kay got annoyed and went to bed, me and Rosalie were alone in the garage. Some stuff happened. Then it happened again a couple weeks later—Denver was working a shutdown, Rosalie was home alone. At that point, it seemed like there was no reason to stop. Not that I didn’t feel bad about it—I did, and I knew how much it’d crush Kay if she ever found out. But at the same time, it felt right.

 

Of course, none of us were immune to marital problems. Denver and Rosalie were on the brink of divorce back in ‘96 when they were both having affairs, but they talked through it, made things work because they loved each other. They really did. None of this was about anyone not being in love. It was just how things went down. As for me and Kay, I’d strayed before too. I don’t know if she had. I suspect not, but you never know.

 

“Does he have a portable yet?,” Kay asked. “We could call him.”

 

“Nah. All we have’s the bag phone and that’s at home. Keep meaning to upgrade but wasn’t really sure it was worth it.”

 

“He knows my cell number,” I said. “I’m sure if he don’t stumble back over here soon, he’ll find a pay phone and give us a holler.”

 

“Sure,” Rosalie said, her voice sounding tired. “He’ll turn up at some point.”

 

***


It’s hard to really describe Denver, because he’s this larger-than-life character. He’s almost a mythological figure in Newell—everyone’s got a Denver story. I have more than one, but I think the best one happened a couple years ago. I heard a knock on the door at like 1 a.m. Kay jumped up all spooked and told me to get the gun. I did and I went to the front door, shouted, “Who is it?”

           

“Who do you fuckin’ think?,” Denver bellowed. I set the gun down and opened the door. Turned out he’d just hit a deer with his Camaro and he needed me to get my truck and drive him down there to pick it up. I didn’t ask why he was out that time of morning. I just got some pants on and took him down there, because that’s what you do for a good friend. When we got to where the deer was, these two other guys were in the process of putting it in their own truck. Denver jumped out the passenger seat and pulled out a knife, started shouting. “I hit that fucker, get y’all’s asses away.” They did and we carefully loaded the carcass into my bed, then headed back to my place to clean and quarter it. He even let me keep the whole backstrap.

           

Denver was a good guy. Even when bad shit happened. Even after the divorces, after me and Rosalie got together for real. He just couldn’t hold a grudge. He was this imperfect man and he made space for other people to be imperfect too. Kay never forgave us, but Denver—within a couple years, we were getting drunk and shooting the shit like old times. He was remarried by then too. When the cirrhosis took him, I was a pallbearer.

 

***


We decided we’d just go ahead down to the Strand on our own, since that was a pretty likely spot for Denver to wind up. If you ain’t been to Mardi Gras down in Galveston before, it’s basically these two different events in one. There’s the part for kids out on the Seawall, the parade that’s just a bunch of floats with people throwing beads off. Sometimes, if you were lucky, you’d see someone famous on one of them, like Earl Campbell or the guy from ZZ Top who doesn’t have a beard.

 

But then there’s the Strand, which is this street on the north side of the island that looks like it came out of the 19th Century. Most of the year, it was just filled with gift shops and restaurants, but during Mardi Gras it became this debauched-ass party. Thousands of people headed down there. There were cover bans. This loud-mouth clown in a dunking booth. People up on the second-floor balconies throwing beads down into the street. And there were a whole bunch of topless women—the best way to get beads was to flash some middle-aged biker guys.

 

In short, it was Denver’s kind of place.

 

Before we made our way there, we decided to head back to the Seawall one more time, just to make sure he wasn’t passed out drunk somewhere. It wouldn’t have been the first time. The parade was long over but it was still crowded. Families taking pictures of their bead haul. Couples making out in front of the motel next door. It was dark, but you could still see the white caps of the waves as they crashed ashore. The salt air hung heavy in our noses. All of that, but no Denver.

 

There was a cop though, so I figured I’d ask him if he saw anything. Denver’s a distinctive guy—he’s got the thickest mustache you’ve ever seen and he was wearing this big, purple top hat. Put those two things together plus the fact he was 6’4’’ and he really stood out in a crowd.

 

“Yeah,” the cop said. “I saw someone matching that description. Maybe fifteen minutes ago. He was heading west with a group of women. Took note because he looked about twenty years older than any of them. But it’s Mardi Gras, so I didn’t say nothing.”

 

I went back over to the girls and gave them the update. Rosalie shook her head. I wanted to reach over and rub her back to comfort her, but I knew that’d look suspicious.

 

“Fuck him,” she said. “He knows where we’ll be.”

 

“Everything alright at home?,” Kay asked.

 

“What do you think,” Rosalie said. It was a question but it also wasn’t a question.

 

“Well,” I said, because I didn’t want this conversation to go any deeper, “I guess we just head down to the Strand.”

 

“I’m sure he’s almost done with those girls,” Rosalie said. “He don’t last that long.” Kay looked like she really wanted to laugh, but she held herself back.

 

The Strand was usually a five-minute drive from the Wendy’s but the traffic during Mardi Gras made it more like fifteen. We spent a lot of that stuck in Seawall traffic, crawling past the Balinese Room, the Galvez, all the little beach bars. It was a different Galveston back then, before they got all corporate and built that roller coaster that jutted out into the Gulf. Kay was driving, staying sober while the rest of us partied. We took turns every year, except any time it was Denver’s turn to be the sober driver, Rosalie would end up having to do it for him. He refused to do Mardi Gras without getting piss-ass drunk.

 

Once we were at the Strand, we decided to ignore the whole Denver thing. He was an adult—he’d figure out how to find us. We paid to park in this crowded lot and got out of the truck, the sounds of a Beatles cover band, “Ticket to Ride” echoing off the buildings. We made our way to the queue where they checked bags. The three of us were hoping to have a good time at that point. Grab a frozen Hurricane from one of those walk-ups, catch some songs at the little park off Moody where they’d set the stage up. And that was what we did. The details of those next three hours don’t really matter. We wandered around. Me and Rosalie drank a lot. She got really emotional at one point and started crying and Kay went over to comfort her, which made me nervous, but they didn’t have much time to talk because Rosalie noticed a place selling Jello shots. She fucking loved Jello shots—almost every time we went over to their place, she’d made a whole tray of ‘em.

 

At one point, Kay went into a porta-potty and Rosalie walked over to me. She put a hand on my thigh. I thought she was about to kiss me, with Kay right over there, a plastic door the only thing keeping our secret, but she must have come to her senses pretty fast, because she moved her hand and stepped away. That was going to what doomed us, I just knew it—Rosalie got a little handsy when she was drinking. Maybe three weeks before this, we’d been over at their place and had a few. She started teasing me, lifting up the skirt she was wearing, and Denver just about caught us. He walked in from the bathroom right as she let the fabric go. Part of me thinks he saw, that he knew. Maybe it was why he’d vanished that night. He was working some things out.

 

By midnight, we were all ready to head home. Problem was, Denver hadn’t turned up. That was the first time we really started to get worried. Or, at least, the first time we started to voice how worried we’d probably all been the whole time.

 

“Hope he ain’t dead,” I said. They both looked at me like I’d just said the worst thing ever, which maybe I had, but someone had to say it. We were being a little too cavalier about this whole thing.

 

“He ain’t dead,” Kay said. “He’s just…not here.”

 

Rosalie started crying. “This is all my fault,” she said. “It’s all my fucking fault.”

 

“Honey,” Kay said. “Don’t blame yourself.”

 

“It’s just…” She trailed off and I took a deep breath. “Well, let’s just say we might be careening toward the end of things.”

 

“Rosalie,” Kay said.

 

“I don’t really want to get into it right now.”

 

“Well,” I said. “We should probably stop lollygagging around and try to find this husband of yours.” I wasn’t really sure why I phrased it like that. Probably, subconsciously, it was ‘cause this was the first I was hearing that there might be some permanent fracture in their marriage. And of course, I was going to feel bad about that, since I was why the fracture was there. I’d taken a backhoe to their foundation. I could tell I struck a nerve because Rosalie shot me this angry glance, just pure daggers in her eyes. But then I guess she had a sober thought, because she looked back over at Kay.

 

“It don’t matter what’s going on with us,” she said. “I can’t just leave him in Galveston. The kids would hate me.”

 

We headed back to the truck. Kay climbed in the driver seat and me and Rosalie both went around to the passenger side. Right before she opened the car door, she gave me one hard kick right in the shin. I climbed into the backseat—figured I’d let the two of them handle things for a bit. The first thing we did was head back to Wendy’s, thinking maybe he’d gone back there to wait for us. That would have been what I’d have done. But when we got there, no Denver. We parked back in the same spot we’d been in before.

 

“He left here on foot,” Kay said. “Maybe we spread out and see if he’s anywhere nearby. Out on the beach. Slumped over on the sidewalk. I don’t know.”

 

“He’s had hours to get wherever,” I said.

 

“Should we call the kids?,” Kay asked. “Maybe they’ve heard from him.”

 

“Shit,” Rosalie said.

 

“You think we need to alarm them?,” I asked.

 

“I think if he’d called them, they’d have called us,” Rosalie said.

 

“If it was my husband missing, I’d probably call,” Kay said.

 

“Not yet,” Rosalie said. “Maybe if…if we end up getting nowhere.”

 

It didn't make sense to call the kids but it also didn’t make sense not to. None of this made much sense. There the three of us were, in a parking lot in Galveston, trying to find a missing person in the middle of the night. This wasn’t supposed to go like this. It was just a fun outing with some friends, something we did every year. But shit—it was getting harder and harder to go on acting like things were normal.

 

After that, we split up. Kay took off down the sidewalk at the top of the Seawall to see if she spotted him either on the side of the road or over in a parking lot, while me and Rosalie went over to the beach. Cause, you know, maybe he went over there to wait for us, or maybe he was just down in the sand having an existential crisis, or maybe we’d find his bloated corpse wedged up against the base of the Seawall. I was really starting to allow for that possibility. Course, we don’t have to really go down the “Denver might be dead” route, since I already talked about the divorce, so he obviously wasn’t dead. But that night, the thought kept creeping in.

 

Me and Rosalie walked down the steps to the beach. It was real dark out there. We couldn’t see Kay and she couldn’t see us. I thought maybe that meant we might be able to talk about some things.

 

“So, does he know?,” I asked.

 

“Jesus.”

 

“You were saying things were almost over.”

 

“I don’t want to do this right now.”

 

“I just…I’m sorry, you know. If I had a part to play in this.”

 

“If.”

 

“You know what I mean.”

 

“FUCK,” she yelled, at the top of her lungs, so loud that I could still hear her yelling after she finished the word. I’m sure somewhere out there in the night, Kay heard too. Maybe even Denver, wherever he was.

 

“Sorry.”

 

“I want to find my husband. That’s what matters right now. We can deal with the rest of this shit later.”

 

I reached for her hand. As soon as I touched it, she yanked it away.

 

“I thought…,” I said.

 

“You’re a drunk bastard,” she said. “Just like he is.”

 

“I’m not…”

 

“Shut up.” She stopped walking, and then she started yelling again. This time, she just shouted his name, over and over. “DENVER. DENVER. DENVER.” I walked over to the edge of the water. Back when me and Kay first got together, before we had kids, we’d come to the beach all the time, usually meet up with her family. They loved to fish. We’d sit out at Bowie Beach all night and drink beer and reel in Gulf reds. We hadn’t done that in years. In fact, we hardly saw her family anymore. I guess that’s just part of getting old. Everyone has kids of their own, priorities change. But it was so much simpler back then. It was times like this that I wished I could go back and do things different. But that ain’t how any of this shit works. “DENVER,” Rosalie kept shouting behind me. I could hear she was yelling it through tears at that point. “DENVER.” I thought about walking out into the water until I couldn’t walk anymore. I was drunk enough that I probably would have done it if I hadn’t heard Kay’s voice.

 

“ANY LUCK DOWN THERE,” she yelled.

 

“DENVER,” Rosalie kept yelling.

 

“NOTHING,” I shouted.

 

Kay came down the stairs. I watched her go up to Rosalie and embrace her, which was when I figured I should stop thinking about drowning and start thinking about what we were gonna do next. I went over to them and we decided it was time to go to the cops. Wasn’t sure how serious they’d take things, but it was better to try than to just keep standing hopelessly on the beach. We headed back to Wendy’s, climbed back into the truck. None of us really knew where the police station was, so we just headed west on Seawall Boulevard, hoped we’d spot it.

 

And then, about fifteen blocks down the road, we saw him.

 

Denver.

 

He was staggering down the sidewalk, with what looked like a hundred pounds of beads weighing down his neck. It looked like he was defying the laws of physics to even be upright. I mean, when I say I’d never seen that many Mardi Gras beads on one person, I’m not exaggerating. Rosalie screamed and Kay pulled the truck over by him. He spotted us and hobbled over.

           

“Well, there y’all are,” he said.

           

“You mother fucker,” Rosalie said. “Where have you been?”

           

“Partying, babe.”

           

“Don’t ‘babe’ me.”

           

“Get in the truck, man,” I said.

           

“We hittin’ the Strand now?,” Denver said. He was slurring his words worse than I’d ever heard him.

           

“It’s one in the fucking morning,” Rosalie said.

           

“Shiiiiiiiit.”

           

“We were on the way to report you missing,” Kay said. “You had us all worried sick.”

           

“I didn’t realize.” He paused, hiccuped. “Time got away.” He made his way around to the driver’s side and Kay hopped out, lifted the seat back. He crawled past her.

           

“I fucked up, didn’t I?,” he said to me. I think he thought he was whispering, but everyone could hear.

           

“You could say that,” I said.

           

“I’m gonna make up for it.”

           

“I think you just need to sleep for now.”

           

He leaned back for a second, like he was fading out, but then suddenly jolted forward, right into Kay’s ear. “Take a left,” he said.

           

“What?,” Kay asked. “Why?”

           

“Something I need to show y’all.”

           

“For Christ’s sake,” Rosalie said.

           

“Really. This won’t take long.”

           

“He’s going to be talking about it the whole way home if we don’t stop,” I said.

           

“You know it, buddy,” Denver said. “Just do this one thing.”

           

“Jesus,” Rosalie said.

           

“Fine,” Kay said. She turned. He gave her a couple more directions—another left, a right, go down two blocks. I wasn’t sure if he was just making shit up at this point or if he was actually leading us somewhere.

           

“Pull in here,” he said, finally. It was the empty parking lot for the local telephone company. I had no idea why he’d led us there. Not at first, at least. But then he pointed toward the back of the building and I saw it. These two giant faces. Probably six-foot tall each. One was a male face, the other a female face. Across the eyes were green and purple masquerade masks. The male one had a yellow and purple jester cap on. The female one had a feather boa. I could see why he had to show them to us—they were magnificent. But I guess Rosalie didn’t see it the same way.

           

“This is what we went out of our way for?”

           

He ignored her. “Open the door,” he said to Kay.

           

“What?,” she replied.

           

“We’re taking those home.”

           

“We’re not taking those home,” Rosalie said. “The hell is wrong with you.”

           

“Open the door,” he said again.

           

Kay shrugged. “It’s going to be easier if I just open the door.”

           

“I’m over this,” Rosalie said.

           

“Come on,” Denver said, turning to me. “I grab one, you grab the other.”

           

Rosalie reached back and put her hand on mine. “You don’t have to listen to him.”

           

But I did have to listen to him. I was in the process of tearing his life apart. And after that night, I knew there was no putting it all back together. If there was one last thing I could give him, it was to help him steal these giant fucking faces.

           

“Let’s do it,” I said.

           

Kay got out of the truck to let Denver out. Rosalie looked at me and shook her head. I mouthed “I love you.” I’d never said that to her before. I guess I was just trying to assure her I was still on her side, even though I was about to help her husband commit a crime in the middle of the night. She didn’t say anything back to me. She wouldn’t for the rest of the night. She just slid out of the truck and popped the seat up. As soon as I hit the pavement, I started to run, full speed, toward these giant heads. I looked over and Denver was there beside me. We grabbed them almost in unison and turned back toward the truck. Denver held the face into the sky and started shouting. We didn’t run back. Took our time, savored the moment. Threw the faces in the bed. I took one home and he took the other. He still has his. But Kay, the night I told her about Rosalie, the night she told me she wanted a divorce, she took ours outside and set it on fire. It burned for a while. The smoke looked like a scream coming out of a mouth.



/


JUSTIN CARTER's first book, Brazos, is forthcoming from Belle Point Press in 2024. His short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in BULL, HAD, Passages North, Rejection Letters, and other spaces. Originally from the Texas Gulf Coast, Justin currently lives in Iowa and works as a sports writer and editor.

bottom of page