The little orange cocktail umbrella is the first thing to go and the only thing that doesn’t die.
It starts one humid Friday night on the balcony of a high-rise apartment near the Everglades. Aaron Cole raises his sangria glass. “Why didn’t I come visit you sooner, you old bastard?” he says with rough and slightly tipsy affection, and Joel Stone responds in kind.
As their cups clink together, some of the plum-colored wine spills from Aaron’s tilted glass, and
suddenly the paper parasol in his drink is free and floating away in the wind. It lifts into the sky, clearing the balcony railing and evading Joel’s grasping fingers, and for an instant hovers in the space above the balcony. Then the wind changes, and it begins to plummet.
Like an angel falling from Heaven, the umbrella plunges past the balcony and the two middle-aged men staring out at it. (“Son of a bitch!” Joel grumbles, without any real rancor. “Look on the bright side,” says Aaron. Back in high school, we had to explain how we lost your car. Now, it’s just paper we’re losing.” “I guess twenty-five years really will mellow a man.”) It falls past the roofs of houses, past the last few cars bringing tired commuters home, past the barking dogs let out to urinate on the lawn one more time before their owners bring them in for the night. By now the umbrella has slowed to a gentle descent, but it’s still falling, drifting past the carefully trimmed hedges and across the new asphalt glittering in the moonlight, sinking into the turgid water of the swamp and past the thrashing tails of alligators and water moccasins before settling into benthic mud.
The night wears on. Aaron and Joel finish their drinks and move back inside the apartment, trading increasingly wild stories. (“You won how much money in that poker game?” “Your manager really had you bleach the whole floor after that?” “You’re telling me you threw your line out and hooked a goddamn bull shark?”) Down below, the clocks chime midnight, the last car pulls into a driveway, and sleepy residents in nightgowns bring their dogs in. In the swamp, a snake’s fangs close on a wriggling rodent, while an owl’s dolorous call sounds in the distance. The little cocktail umbrella remains planted in the mud that night, still there the next morning when Aaron gets in his car to drive back to Charlotte. (“I’ll miss you, old man.” “Oh hush. Come see me again sometime soon, you fogey.”)
When, three years later, a toaster fire guts the apartment building and forces Joel to move; when, decades after that, hard times come and half of the town’s people pack up their dogs and their cars and head to Orlando; when the once-immaculate asphalt sports a spiderweb of cracks and potholes; when many of the hedges have grown beyond control and some of the houses have been empty for so long that vines pierce through their brick walls; when even the alligators have mostly been driven out by fertilizer runoff and deforestation; when the phone calls and letters that Aaron and Joel exchange become scarcer and scarcer as each comes to terms with his own frailty, until the final teary answering-machine message promising to reunite on the other side—all this time, the umbrella endures at the bottom. The orange paper, of course, has rotted away, but the wooden supports remain, a ghostly little canopy under which the memories gather.