Daredevils Attempt Falls
This wasn’t the first time I’d helped a young family wedge themselves into the barrel. I pulled on the mom’s shirt sleeve, showed her where to perch the kid so his fat legs dangled over the side. I told the dad to get in the back, pantomimed him hugging them tight.
It was the end of a long day, but this was a snap. Last month I’d packed in a busload of Japanese tourists, every one with a long-lensed Nikon around their neck. That put me on the staff Wall of Fame.
“Okay, look this way. Look scared!” I waved to get baby’s attention and popped the flash. Out slid the first white square. Our daredevil package was three Polaroids for eight dollars. My false enthusiasm was free.
“Again. Looking happy!” Pop, whir. “OK, last chance. Go wild!” Pop.
The baby didn’t need convincing, he was wailing. “Probably needs a change.” Daredevil Mom wiggled out of the barrel with him to chest. She stuck her finger up the edge of his diaper.
Disgusting. I’m never having kids.
Well, unless they’re Wayne’s.
“Do y’all have a restroom?”
Americans. I looked hard at the lady, stared at her and wished more than anything I was at the Gorge and not crammed in behind the cash register, on the last square inch of floor space. At my feet were stacks of film, boxes of yellow Kodachrome on the left, green Fujifilm on the right, Polaroid 8 in the middle.
I kept my voice perky, slathered chemical gunk over the developing Polaroids. “Nope, ‘fraid not.” The baby’s wet face turned toward the stench, acetone so strong it wiped out the sweet jam smell from Hot Belgian Waffles next door. I was good at my job, I made their memory of the Falls last forever.
I smiled at the baby. “Try the Super 8 across the Hill, in the lobby.” I rapidly flexed each print and slid it into a cardboard frame, folded the cover closed just a little so we could all read the fake newspaper headline, Daredevils Attempt Falls!
“There you go.” I turned my whole body toward the exit steps, a trick my boss Garry taught me on my first day. “Leave the folders open a bit so they dry. Thanks for coming in today, enjoy your stay!”
Garry, who owned both the barrel and the waffle house, was a brilliant businessman. He’d posted a sign Line Starts Here between the two booths. Waiting customers chowed down on fresh waffles smothered in globs of red gel and squirts of faux whipped cream. Garry’s other sign said, No food in the barrel. They’d cram their face or set the paper plates teetering on the glass countertop. There was a bottle of Windex and a rag on the floor between my feet. I smiled and waved goodbye at the baby. I’d take a screaming kid over a half-eaten waffle on the floor any day.
I pulled the red-carpet rope across the front of the booth, turned my back on gawkers tripping down Clifton Hill, now lit like a circus in the dusk. The waffle house stayed open, but Garry had me close at nine on Saturdays when the barrel drew crazy drunks. There were already teeth marks along the Styrofoam brink of the falls and pink vomit stains in the barrel.
I turned away from the street and tried to count the American bills, all the same comic-book green, tried to concentrate over the blaring speaker at Ripley’s, You won’t believe what you see! To close meant counting the till and taking the banker’s bag next door. Garry didn’t let us girls make night deposits alone anymore.
The velour rope didn’t stop Freida, she just ducked under it and touched my back. I swung around, ready to cry out. My best friend stood there panting. She looked like a clown, with pink dabs of colour stark on her chalk-white face. She’d been at the Gorge.
“Your bike…Lori, your bike. I need it.”
“Sure. Course. What for? What gives?”
“The ambulance took Wayne. I need to get over there. Too far to run.”
I lost count, gripped the bills so hard they creased down the middle. My chest felt hollow. Wayne was my brother Danny’s friend—well, his dealer. Wayne lived in one of the sketchy motels on the Lane with his dad, a vet like my Uncle Ned. He’d dropped out, but Freida and I watched him at recess. He’d meet the grade twelve guys on the far side of the fence. They’d crowd around him in a tight circle, his neck bent, his ebony ponytail between shoulder blades like an iron pipe. Wayne wore a black T-shirt pulled tight over hard biceps, tucked into jeans that looked, oddly, like they’d just been pressed. A buck knife hung on his belt. Up close, his eyes were stashed under swollen lids, his cheeks were freckled with Bambi-like spots, his plum lips were a pincushion.
I was in love with Wayne. Freida was in love with Wayne. Every girl in our class was in love with Wayne. The hollowness had dropped to my gut.
“Wayne’s hurt? What happened to Wayne? Fred, was there a fight? Did he fall?”
She shook her head no, and then yes. You won’t believe what you see! I pushed the bills into the till, slammed the drawer shut. There were thin red scratches on Fred’s forearms and mud on her knees, like she’d scrambled up the bank yanking on scrubby brushes. I was guessing. I hadn’t been to a Gorge party yet—my brother said he’d kick my ass if he found me there—but Fred didn’t have an older brother. She wasn’t working to save for university either.
“What did he do? Was Danny there?”
Fred swayed and chewed her thumbnail. Her eyes were black saucers and she hadn’t blinked, even under the harsh Hill lights. She was on something too. I wanted to shake her, spit it out, but I reached into my shirt pocket for the red du Maurier pack.
“Take the bike, go. Can you ride okay? Want some smokes?”
“Yah, yah, I’m good. Here, take.”
She fished in her jean pocket and pushed a joint at me. I palmed it and looked to the street, but nobody cared about us. I twisted foil around three smokes and handed the bundle to Freida. Stashed the joint into the empty spot.
“Fred, how’d Wayne fall? Did you see?”
But she’d already dipped under the rope. The hot bike my brother loaned me was leaned against the back of the booth, unlocked. “Sure, take it to work,” he’d said, all puffed up and generous after one of his night raids, “but if the cops ask, you don’t know who parked it there.” Fred got on the bike and wobbled off.
I started over, but as I counted the money my hands shook and I dropped dimes to the floor. By the time I pulled down the security grate and gave the money bag to Belgian Waffle House, Fred would be up the Hill, left at Lundy’s Lane and pedalling the steep incline toward the hospital on Main. I’d never catch up.
Dusk was ready to drop into full night when I started up Lundy’s Lane. I walked fast. Ten minutes from the Falls the neon glow petered out. There was only Mama Mia’s Home Cooking in hot red, and, at a Bates-style motel, flashing blue Walking Distance to the Falls. Dim streetlights lit the metal grills that criss-crossed storefronts. At the pawnshop’s handwritten sign “We buy gold at $US par” I jaywalked to avoid the propped-open door of the pool hall and the smoke-and-beer stink from the Legion.
I stopped at the four-foot-high fence I’d been looking for, the one tipped with sharp iron points to keep winos out. I stepped up onto the bottom rung and placed my hands between two spikes, felt the grit of rust dust on my palms, then hoisted myself up and over and fell onto the plush grass on the other side. A siren screamed toward Main Street.
It was as dark as if my eyes were closed, but I knew the place. I crept forward about twenty feet and, at a small rise, stood up off the damp grass and took twenty more steps to where the lawn dropped back down. There were no trees or rocks, just the most lush, well-cared-for grass I knew. Here was the perfect place to sit, to sit quietly, to be alone and think about Wayne. Once I got home there would be no rest, I’d be sucked into the noisy, useless motions of my family. I wanted to lie on the knoll and picture Wayne lying in the ambulance and then lying in the hospital. Picture him in perfect health, in the future, lying beside me. I needed to will Wayne’s future different, will Wayne smarter than the other guys I knew. I needed to pray him alright.
The Zippo in my back pocket dug into my butt, and I wriggled it free, wiped my hands dry on my lap, and pulled the du Maurier’s from my shirt pocket. While I smoked I touched the joint Fred had given me. It was Wayne’s signature roll, thick in the middle with ridiculously long twisted ends. Danny had cursed Wayne’s joints after a heater fell between his legs when he was driving. He’d bitched for months about the burn hole in his car, but no one said a thing to Wayne’s face.
I pictured Wayne rolling the joint, laying the papers on his Levi-covered thigh, pinching dry leaves from a baggie, sprinkling them in a line. He’d pick through and pull out twigs and seeds. Wayne wanted you to see his joints were clean. Then he’d lift it like he was drinking water from a folded leaf, and run his tongue along the glue edge. Both his hands would cover the bundle and voila, he’d twist one end, then the other. I poked the sharp end into the pad of my thumb.
I was here to think about Wayne, and I did. I thought about him rolling a joint. About the first time he’d noticed me as I studied at the kitchen table, when he’d winked lightning fast while my brother got them beers. In June, a day mom was at work, he’d come to the house. He’d walked behind me from the kitchen down the hallway to the bathroom, and he’d asked me how old I was. His eyes had stared over my shoulder at us in the mirror and he had put his fingers around my earlobe, and tugged it, twice. On the dark hill, I pinched the turquoise earring that marked that spot. Mom had let me pierce my ears with my first paycheque. I spun the cheap stud around and around, the itch in my earlobe sending my tongue to the roof of my mouth. Wayne hadn’t seen me with pierced ears yet.
I shut my wet eyes and felt how hard the ground was, how uncomfortable. By now Wayne was probably jacked upright on a narrow hospital bed, his lips sour unripe plums, plastic tubes taped to yellow bruises on his soft inner elbow. Wiry strands of hair had escaped his neat ponytail and he’d have a frizzy halo against the bleached pillowcase. Who was with him, besides the doctors and nurses? Freida, if she was smart enough to say she was family. No one else who’d been at the Gorge would go near the hospital. Maybe his dad was there, the old man Uncle Ned played cards with at the Legion. I couldn’t picture a mom at his bedside.
I bolted upright. The boy’s voice calling had startled me, so close and without warning. I didn’t run. His throat had cracked on the second word, and his shape was slight. I knew other kids came here to smoke, or neck. He was meeting someone named Laura.
“Sorry, close, but no cigar. She’s not here yet, not that I’ve seen. I’ll just get out of your way.”
But he shook his head and extended one arm to stop me. My eyes had grown used to the moonlight, and I could see he was leaning on—was it a cane?
“No, please, stay. I’ve not made plans to rendezvous, I only saw your flame and it put me in mind of Laura. I was hopeful it might be she.”
We both paused. He was resting on what he held—a pool cue?—and catching his breath. Surely if he’d limped over here, I’d have heard him on the gravel path alongside the Museum. His words were so stiff and formal in my ear. I was placing his accent, it sounded kind of New York state, but weird.
“Want a smoke while you wait for her?”
“That is most kind of you. I am in need of charity, since my faith has proven not enough. I believe tobacco would settle me some.”
He sunk onto his haunches a foot away, laid the long prop on his other side and used his hands to lower himself. I heard a soft oof from his lips, and his hand went to his stomach. Was he hungry—homeless? I wasn’t scared, he was pretty skinny and his sissy speech was funny. I handed him a cigarette and lifted my butt up to fish the lighter out of my back pocket again.
“The local men speak of Laura as a true angel, one who takes no notice of whether a waistcoat is blue, or red or grey. A true angel of mercy.”
Was this guy a religious freak, one of those Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses? A couple of times I’d found Watchtower fliers tucked inside Garry’s barrel. My thumb stung when I rolled it across the steel wheel of the Zippo, and the flame danced too near my fingertips. He inhaled, the cigarette glowed, and I pulled back my hand and snapped the lid shut.
“They say she helps all those in need, regardless of their allegiance. It seems I’ve lost my way.” He whispered this and it took the harsh edge off his accent. When he exhaled, it was with a small moan. “Though not she, I am sure you are also a sympathetic mistress. It is to our advantage that English subjects, those encountered away from the field, are as civil and good-natured as is rumoured.”
I didn’t know what to say. I let him talk in his halting way, his face lighting up with the red tip of the cigarette on each inhale.
“My father often said, a nation that bends knee to an absent and uncaring sovereign,” inhale, moan, exhale, “that generously lays its resources at the foot of the unkind crown,” inhale, exhale, moan, “is sure to be ripe with innocents willing to sacrifice their well-being for a stranger.”
I saw dark grime in rivulet stripes down ruddy cheekbones, like a pretty girl whose mascara has run into her blush. His nose was slim and slightly turned up. He was cute.
“We born and bred North Americans expected to encounter camaraderie. And there was, there was even a crossing of lines.”
“Are you a Vet then, looking for the Legion?”
I asked the question, but it didn’t make sense, he was just a boy. Unless he was one of those injured kids the Vets raised money for, the War Amps kids we saw on television, the ones who jumped freight trains and fell and lost their legs. When the War Amps mailer came, Mom hung the tiny licence plates on her keyring, even as she threw the empty donation envelope in the garbage. A fake leg would account for his crutch.
He finished the cigarette and smushed it into the wet grass. Clouds covered the moon and I couldn’t see his features anymore, but my nose twitched at his stink. He smelled like my palms after I’d counted the coins in the till, a nice metallic tang, and his jacket gave off a mustiness like my winter mittens as they dried on the radiator.
The traffic beyond the fence went quiet, stopped by the red light a block up on Drummond Road. In the dead silence we could hear the roar of the Falls, even at this distance.
“It increases the parch, somehow, the sound of it.” I heard him lick his lips. “In Chippewa, we’d had our fill. We were given permission to lay on the bank beside the horses, our teeth and theirs clinking against cool stone. All along the march we’d been tempted to break rank and swim. At the farm fence, the order was to set full canteens down in the woods, over there,” he pointed at the path to the museum. “Our officer was certain, he assured us, when we had obtained the battery from Drummond, we would have the upper hand.”
I was not paying attention to his words, in part because he wasn’t making sense, but mostly because the sound of the Falls reminded me of the Gorge, which reminded me of Fred and of Wayne. A tiny rock bubbled up from my chest to my throat. What had Wayne done to himself in the Gorge? Guys in Niagara Falls, I knew, did crazy things. They got loaded, they smashed up cars, they fought in bars. They believed Billy Joel that only the good died young.
He’d caught my attention with Drummond. Was he looking for a mechanic on Drummond Road, a battery for his car?
“I think all the gas stations will be closed by now. There might be one open closer to the Falls, the other direction, closer to the bridge. You could thumb a ride.”
“But it never ended!”
He turned to me and I felt his agitation as he shifted, smelled a wave of coppery musty wool. “The night wore on and we became mad with thirst. When the smoke was thickest, some could not help themselves but heed the cataract’s siren call. The moon was a lantern, I saw them slip under the fence and run back to the gorge.”
I could thumb a ride, I thought. I could walk to the hospital and just peek in the window of Wayne’s room.
“Oh, would that I had gone with them, but the clouds came that hour and the moon’s luster was gone. And my duty, my duty!”
His voice cracked and it embarrassed him. He pulled his face back a few inches then flopped on the grassy knoll, his length alongside me a strange reminder he was taller. He looked at the sky and I couldn’t see if his eyes were open or shut. When he pressed his hand to his stomach his elbow poked me.
“I could not flee. Why even jest? Father had been a General, my mother waited on my stipend. I could not lay my duty down in the field, even when it was so heavy.”
I thought about asking him to smoke Wayne’s jay, but my brother had drilled into me to trust no one, they could be a Narc, they could be trouble, always let them offer first, he’d said. I thought to go. I had no money on me and no way to help him. I was going to find Fred, get news of Wayne. I was about to stand up, to point him toward the Legion Hall, when words poured from his mouth at the sky.
“I was dying of thirst and my eyes burned so I had to shut them. I laid my hand against the horse’s flank on my left, stayed close to hear the orders. I heard nothing. But God, the cannonade! The horse turned away and I was pressed. Pressed on both sides. I moved forward, they took me with them. My musket was ready, I did as I was taught: I held steady at the waist and I marched forward. The blade caught, I stumbled. It was caught. I pulled back. I pulled to get the blade clean from the bale. I felt the blade turning and it wouldn’t come out and it hit a bone and the shiver shook the steel and shook my hand. I dropped it.”
He began to wail, and he rolled on his side to face me in the dark and now his voice cracked in a million places.
“It’s not straw, it’s not straw. Momma, I cannot. I must your mercy, Momma!”
His voice, that cry, it was hauntingly familiar to me. I’d heard this exact tone once, years ago. Heard it come from my brother, on his twelfth birthday, standing stoic, legs astride, arms twisted together in defiance, tears pooling at the bottom of his eyes, a bloody bandage around his ankle. Mom had caught him playing chicken with his pellet-gun, a gift from Uncle Ned. The other boys at the party were sent home, she picked pellets from his leg, she took the gun away. I had watched unmoving from across the kitchen table. My brother’s yell, “Give it back, it’s mine. Mom! Mom!” had sounded just the same, the exact same. Mad, lonely, afraid, betrayed. The voice of a hurt child bumped up against a harsh world.
A rifle. That’s what he’d been leaning on. That’s what lay in the grass beside us.
I still was not afraid. His childish sobs were deep, wails of pure pain with shaky moans marking each in-breath. Trying to silence him I rolled onto my side, felt scratchy wool against my bare arms as I took him in an embrace. I lifted my face up and away from the earthy smell of his collar, put my lips against his ear. When the nub of his earlobe touched my teeth I took it into my mouth and sucked it gently. His hitchy moans faded away, his body gave a shudder, and he stopped crying and lay heavy against me.
“It’s alright,” I whispered with his earlobe, like a soother, in my mouth. “I’m here. You’re alright. I’m right here. You did good. You are good.”
My legs were lead, I felt my mind tumble into a black ravine.
When I woke it was with a startled shiver, the cold seeping through my jeans. The clouds had passed and the moon glinted off the glass of the museum. In the silence, the falls roared. The boy with the gun was gone.
At home, I called Fred. She told me Wayne was gone too. His death that night, in the ambulance, before he’d made it to any hospital bed, blew everything else from my mind. Wayne was the second death in the Gorge that summer, and I knew of one other guy who OD’d in a motel room last winter. The waste pissed me off, shoved me out of that group of friends, my grief a wedge between me and Freida, me and my brother, me and everyone else who’d been in the Gorge or who had wanted to be that night. At the funeral I’d listened, sick, as his friends said they’d dodged a bullet, that he’d given them betting odds. There was this look on his dad’s face, silent rage, I think. My brother took over at the schoolyard fence, selling blunted joints, full of seeds and sticks. He finished each story of his latest exploit with, “Wayne sure would’ve loved it.”
When grade eleven started, my sorrow seeped underground. My own sobbing jerked me awake in the night, and I’d reach for something just outside my grasp. My stomach would burn in its emptiness. I yearned to see Wayne leave the motel, quit the shady corner of the schoolyard, march toward the freedom his Dad and Uncle Ned had fought for. I wanted Wayne back, but I wanted him back so I could watch him grow up, get better, make something of himself, become a man.
I grieved Wayne again at university, achingly missed him when a man I loved sat on the edge of my bed and let me braid his black hair. I’d stopped smoking pot by then. One night, when I felt his hair lay like a rope between us, I told him about that night on the Hill. I said I smoked Wayne’s joint with the stranger, said maybe the drug had conjured him.
My lover was a history major, and Brock U had archives from 1812. He signed us into the cramped top-floor library room, where they gave us white gloves and we read aloud from faded diaries. We gently unfolded hand-drawn maps, and we pledged to name our first daughter Laura. I wept at the callousness of leaders who’d pushed young men to bayonet each other at close range, wished for an alternate universe where my soldier returned home to his mother, where he lived to pen an anti-war memoir in old age.
By December it was freezing cold in the dorm. We couldn’t get warm even in bed. We argued over the loopy calligraphy that forever spoke of savages, that used the word Indians. I quit going to the library, and we split soon after.
Home for spring break I considered asking Danny for a joint. I would do it all again. I would go to the museum lawn, I’d smoke it at midnight. This time I would ask his name, first and last, his regiment, his rank. I would listen, really listen, about his father, his mother, his honourable life.
I didn’t get the chance. My brother was on an escapade, my mother hadn’t seen him for a week, and I knew no one else to deal with. I felt I couldn’t go back that way. Instead, I drove with her to the cemetery and we walked among the soft muddy gravesites. I wasn’t sure where Wayne was buried, but she walked us to Uncle Ned. I watched her brush dirt from the carved granite, a stone laid flat on the earth.
“Your uncle, he was a good man,” she said.
“Tell me,” I said.
MJ Malleck is a first generation university graduate who wrote a business blog before returning to her first love, telling stories. She grew up on the Canadian side of the US border and still likes her weather report in Fahrenheit degrees. These days she attends classes and relies on a cadre of wonderful women writers for workshopping and encouragement. Her work has appeared in Entropy, Better than Starbucks, Literally Stories and forthcoming in blank spaces. She is working on a collection of shorts and her first novel.