Last Laughs

Joe Bongiorno

Helicopters are flying in the blue sky above Montréal. The election campaign posters along De Bleury Street are defaced with drawings of horns, mustaches and penises. Almost 5, people have shown up for the climate march, clogging the arteries of downtown. Protesters in blue and green face paint march, banging wooden spoons on gallon water jugs, and climb onto traffic lights. Students, pensioners and mothers with baby strollers chant and shout. Children, filed in single row queues, guided by their teachers, brandish wax crayon pictures of weeping polar bears. A red-haired man in a kilt plays the bagpipes, and a troupe of dancing Hare Krishnas sways from side to side, playing bongos and singing gaily.

A breeze cuts through the heat; it’s a balmy afternoon in late September. Despite the backdrop of impending doom and the extinction of our species, I find myself giggling at the makeshift cardboard signs on brooms and hockey sticks held up by the marchers: There Is No Planet B; Go Vegan; Fuck Maxime Bernier; The Earth Is Hotter Than My Tinder; Suck Dicks, Not Straws; Planet Over Profit; Don’t Be Fossil Fools; Stop Having Children; No Planet, No Sex; Fuck Me, Not the Planet.

People shout from balconies in support, waving their own signs, taking selfies. A woman in a facemask and an Antifa sweatshirt climbs a statue of Queen Victoria and spray-paints a battle cry; onlooking police officers cross their arms. A man in a penguin costume marches forth and waves a Québec flag marked with the anarchist circle-A; he is followed by a woman waving a Palestinian flag, with “End Occupation!” written on it. Others are dressed as skeletons, bones painted onto their clothes. A group of twenty-somethings dressed in black carry a life-size cardboard coffin in silence. A man who resembles Jesus, with a beard and long hair, wearing a white robe and sandals, stands holding a wooden staff, nodding. The silver crucifix around his neck glimmers in the sunlight.

When I reach the other side of Mount Royal, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau joins the march. He smiles and waves, shielded by an entourage of Members of Parliament, and RCMP officers in matching vests and checkered shirts. “On avance pour la planète!” chants Trudeau. Cheers are drowned out by jeers: “No more pipelines! Climate criminal!” Moments later, a protester armed with eggs lunges at the Prime Minister, but is immediately taken down by the RCMP security detail. Trudeau carries on without interruption, smiling and waving.

I wipe the sweat from my forehead and make my way to the stage where Greta Thunberg, the Swedish teenage climate activist, is due to speak. The previous week at the UN she tearfully declared, “We are in the beginning of a mass extinction.” The closer I get, the more signs I see portraying her as a Scandinavian warrior prophet. In a Game of Thrones-themed one she is Aria Stark, swinging her sword at Andrew Scheer, whose face is superimposed onto an image of the Night King, with the words “Winter Is Coming” written on it. Another sign features François Legault, the premier of Québec, as the Night King. Days before, President Trump mocked Greta on Twitter, and this morning the son of President Bolsonaro—currently setting the Amazon alight—tweeted that Thunberg was a George Soros pawn.

A green smoke bomb goes off. I make my way through the crowd, covering my mouth and coughing. People are cheering, “Greta! Greta!” as she takes the stage. Her face fills an enormous stadium-size screen. The microphone is adjusted to her height, and she begins to speak. Every sentence is punctuated by enthusiastic cheers. She is Beyoncé and the Dalai Lama rolled into one.

“You have moose, and we have moose,” she says. “You have cold winters and lots of snow and pine trees. We have cold winters and lots of snow and pine trees. You have the caribou, and we have the reindeer. You play ice hockey; we play ice hockey. You have maple syrup, and we have… well… forget about that one.”

The crowd laughs.

“…They say, let children be children. We agree. Let us be children. Do your part. Communicate these kinds of numbers instead of leaving that responsibility to us. Then we can go back to being children.” She carries on for fifteen minutes, and then brings it to a close: “The people have spoken, and we will continue to speak until our leaders listen and act. We are the change, and change is coming. Le changement arrive—si vous l’aimez ou non!”

As the green smoke fades, the crowd slowly disperses. There is no more laughter. Police officers appear on their handsome trotting horses, and the road barriers are removed. A fleet of street sweeper trucks drive past at a tractor’s pace, their spinning brushes flinging plumes of brown dust into the air. The smell of chlorine lingers long after the vehicles have passed. Suddenly, it’s a quiet evening. The silence is uncomfortable, unnerving. Standing in the deserted street, I watch a lone protestor carry his sign up the street. It reads, “PANIC!”

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Joe Bongiorno

Joe Bongiorno writes fiction and non-fiction. His writing has appeared in or is forthcoming in Canadian and American publications including Geist, Event, Freefall, Broken Pencil and Carte Blanche. He was shortlisted for the 2018 Freefall Prose and Poetry Contest and he won the Event 2019 Speculative Writing Contest. Bongiorno is currently working on a novel and a short story collection. He lives in Montréal.


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