Over The Falls

Frederick Church painting, 1857

At three in the afternoon, on September 8, 1827, a derelict merchant ship called the Michigan was set adrift in the surging rapids above Niagara Falls. The effigies of sailors lined the decks. The only real creatures aboard were a buffalo, two bears, two foxes, a raccoon, an eagle, a mongrel dog and fifteen geese. The cargo began to bray and bark as the Michigan became caught up in the fast-moving rapids above the cataract.

Before reaching the Falls itself, the Michigan lost its two masts and broke up on the rocks. The buffalo and two bears jumped overboard and swam for land. One of the bears was later recaptured and led around by a leash, with a muzzled snout, to the bars on the American side. Except for a lone goose, none of the other animals was ever found, and what was left of the Michigan was quickly carried over the Falls. While the promotion proved to be more farce than fable, the taverns and hotels on the Canadian and U.S. sides of the river did run out of booze because of the event. “The message was clear:” historian Pierre Berton wrote a century and a half later, “the Falls was not simply a static spectacle to be gazed upon and admired; now it could be used.”

And used it was.

Now, the classic story of America is one about people pulling themselves up by their bootstraps, making something out of nothing. But one could argue that the tale of Niagara Falls moves in the opposite direction. Here something has been given. Something wonderful. Something huge and inspiring. Yet from this great blessing, nothing lasting or memorable has really been erected.

Certainly attempts were made: power plants were built, factories lined the banks leading upstream toward Buffalo, which was nicknamed “the city of light.” For this was one of the first regions in the world to glow with Edison’s light bulb, to see electric trolleys run from the city streets out past the Niagara Escarpment down to the blue waters of Lake Ontario. While people often did their best, over time several of the power plants fell into the river, bridges collapsed and deals were struck that rarely benefited the ones who came to call this Eden home.
The land became known more for its carnival – the tightrope walkers and barrel riders – than the inherent myth and mystery. The schemers and the tricksters harnessed the cheap power and then moved on when the region, like the rest of the Rust Belt, fell into financial disarray.

Today, the Falls is surrounded by casinos and hotels, bathed in tawdry neon, much of its water flow drained away to run the legion of hydroelectric plants that remain. Yet when you walk toward the precipice, you can still sense the power, the anger, the opportunity for redemption that will always linger there.

***

A gust of wind buffets my mother’s Volvo station wagon. I know that if we pull over, roll down the windows and take a moment to listen, we’d hear the waves on the beaches and bluffs that extend from the mouth of the Niagara River east toward Wilson and Olcott and the other towns that ring the south side of Lake Ontario. There’ll be plenty of whitecaps by tonight. My father taught me how to tell the weather by reading the morning sky and knowing which direction the wind is blowing from. Obvious things that many people don’t pay much attention to anymore.

For a long while there are no other vehicles on the road and we speed ahead in silence toward Bradley’s Nursing Home and soon the three-story structure, as gothic and as foreboding as anything out of Nathaniel Hawthorne, comes into view. Mom knows how about how I feel about this – putting Grandpa in a retirement home.

“If Michael’s here, he’ll already be up in the room,” Mom says, as if a comment like that will make everything all right.

We park in the small lot and sign in at the front desk. Up a flight of stairs and along a hallway that reaches out like a pair of outstretched arms to gather us in, we enter a world that smells of disinfectant and rubbing alcohol. Televisions are on in nearly every room and curious near-ghost faces turn toward us as we pass by. Near the end of the hall, we come to Grandpa’s room -- the second-to-last one on the left.

“There they are,” Michael says as we enter. “I told you they were coming.”

“Hey, hey,” Grandpa says.
He has been stretched out on his narrow bed, lying there as if he is being fitted for his coffin while talking Michael. His head is yellowish, almost translucent, revealing a spider’s web of blue veins that has conspired to keep him alive for nearly eighty-five years. He waves me over and pulls me down to him in an awkward embrace.

“Garrett,” he whispers in my ear. “Get me my car.”

I don’t know what to say to this. Have things gotten so bad he’s turning to me for help?

“C’mon, boy,” he says, still holding me close, “you’re the only one with the balls to get me out of here.”

Only then does he release me and his words flow through me like icy water after the spring thaw. His words leave me absolutely flummoxed. Grandpa gives me a deliciously crazy grin. His eyes -- bemused, maybe a touch insane -- remain on me as I glance over at Mom and Michael. They are kibitzing among themselves, something about the new subdivision going up on the old family property. They haven’t heard a thing. Or they have chosen to ignore our exchange. I pat Grandpa on the knee.

“This looks like a good place,” I reply lamely.

His face folds into a grimace. “Don’t humor the wicked, boy,” he says.

Somehow I keep a stupid smile frozen on my face as I slide his fingers off my forearm. Here was the man that I admired more than anybody else growing up. The great and powerful Oz, and now his gray-blue eyes peer up at me as hopeful and as desperate as any child’s.

Backing away I bump into a wooden bureau in the corner near the room’s only window. I recognize it from the house on Morrow Avenue. Atop it are his stacks of coins, hairbrush, small mirror, pocketknife and a packet of torn newspaper clippings. Grandpa never had a desk at home. He claimed it was a telltale sign of a failed man -- somebody who had to bring his work home with him at night. He could have bought a spacious split-level out on Robinson Road or one of the elegant mansions down near the lake. But why bother when a person was comfortable in his own home? That’s what he used to say. Those words return to me as I watch him and realize that for the first time that he isn’t indestructible. None of us are.

“How long you in town for, Garrett?” Grandpa asks. “Your parents don’t seem to have any idea.”

“Granddad,” Mom says, “you know we gave up trying to keep tabs on this one a long time ago. Our Garrett wouldn’t hear of it.”

“Sunday night -- after the race.”

“Too bad,” Grandpa replies. “One of these times you should stick around longer.”

The coins are sorted into small mounds -- into pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters. I begin to flip through the newspaper clippings. The top one is about the stock market. The next one is a Wall Street Journal editorial about the stock market.

“Don’t worry, there’s something from your magazine there,” Grandpa says. “I watch both of you boys like a hawk. Always have, always will.”

He glances at Michael. “You know it’s the truth, don’t you?”

“You don’t see me arguing,” my brother says.

“For Christmas I’m pushing to get your sister and her crew to come up,” Mom says. A comment out of the blue, which has always been her way. “Have a real family holiday again.”

“Annie would do it,” Michael says. “She says Gord’s doing well in his new job. The four of them could fly up from Atlanta.”

As they chat, I look through the remaining clippings. Only one comes from my magazine: A half-ass book review about a trio of new sailing tomes. No trace of the stories that were nominated for national prizes, which I was sure to send him.

“It’s easy to be optimistic about Christmas when it’s still a couple of months away,” Michael says. “But when push comes to shove, we’re usually missing a familiar face or two.”

The comment, of course, is directed at me. I missed Christmas last year. Ellen and I argued about which family to visit and I ended up staying in New York. For a moment, everybody holds their breath, waiting to see how I’ll respond. But I keep my back to them and soon they move on, talking about when they should retrieve the geranium pots from the family plot at Groff Road Cemetery; if Grandpa will be up to tagging along this year.

I’m about to rejoin them when I see a card half-buried under the short stack of quarters. I carefully edge it out from underneath. It is a temporary card, a paper one, from the Video Palace on Main Street in Porterville. It is made out to Douglas A. Thompson.

I glance around the small room and notice a small television on the end table near Grandpa’s bed. The set has a DVD player built into the bottom half and two or three rentals sit atop it. Pocketing the card, I walk over to the television and inspect the titles: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Original Rawhide Series, Red River.

“I’ve become partial to Westerns,” Grandpa says. Indeed, he has been watching me the entire time. “I’d never thought much of them until recently. But talk with somebody who really knows them. They can help you see them in a whole different light.”

“What are you two talking about?” Mom asks.
Michael has turned on the CD player. Benny Goodman plays, perhaps a bit too loud, in the background.

“Seems like Grandpa and I share an affinity for the Westerns,” I tell her.

“That’s good,” Mom smiles.

The floor nurse knocks on the opened door and tells us to turn down the music. For much of the next hour, we make small talk, the discussion ranging from how dismal the Bills could be this season to the pending school referendum. Mom expects it to pass, but Grandpa tells her to do her homework. It doesn’t stand a chance. As we prepare to leave, I return to Grandpa’s side. It is just the two of us, with the Big Band music still softly playing in the background.

“Who brings you those Westerns?” I ask.

Grandpa chuckles -- happy to have my undivided attention. “I’m an old fool,” he says. “What do I know anymore?”

As we near the door, Grandpa he calls out to us, “So who’s the crew for the big race?”

“The two of us, Russell, Billy,” Michael replies.

“With your father at the helm?” Grandpa says. “Sounds like mayhem in the making.”

“They could win,” Mom says, “if they don’t argue so much.”


***

In the end, my mother once again proves to be a prophet. We got off to a great start in the club’s annual Fourth of July race. After hugging the port side of the starting line, we angled away from shore after the gun on the initial upwind leg. Dad was at the wheel, with me trimming the mainsail and keeping an eye on the weather and the rest of the fleet, which opted to stay closer to the shoreline. The forecast was for winds building out of the northwest, from the Canadian side of Lake Ontario. Our plan was to sail farther out and then ride those gusts to victory by the final downwind leg. Unfortunately, such winds were way too late in coming.

“Not good, not good,” Billy repeated. Billy has sailed with my father since they were teenagers and he was the winch man and sail trimmer on the port side, with my old friend Russell on starboard and little brother Michael manning the foredeck.

“Nothing from what I see,” Michael called out.

As Mom feared, it was if our doubts forced us to debate every move we made instead of just staying quiet and letting the race and the weather play themselves out. Every comment and opinion took time away from the task at hand. Better to get in another zinger than to make sure what wind did befriend us was used to the utmost.

“Whose idea was this?” Michael as the race slipped away. He didn’t need mention that Dad and I had decided to angle away from the fleet. We had done so without discussing it with him.

“Maybe we should cut our losses,” I said. “Head in some.”

“Then you might as well throw it away right now,” Dad replied. Exasperated he let of the wheel and I moved to take it. “Do what you want. I’m getting a beer. Who else needs one?”

“As long as you’re asking,” Billy replied.

“Ready about,” I ordered, but everybody realized it was far too late for us to get back into this race.

Later, after we’d hosed down my Dad’s Cal 3-30 and folded away the sails, we walked to the club for a drink. Only then does the breeze finally fill in from northwest and the five of us pause to look down the Niagara River toward Lake Ontario, seeing the wind roughen the water’s surface.
“Bitch, where were you when we needed you?” Billy groans.

Inside the club, almost every last inch of wall space has been covered with trophy cases and photographs of sailing boats. In one of the cases are the awards I won in junior sailing – most improved, sportsmanship, MVP. Russell won many of the same ones. Just different summers, different races. For a good five years we dominated the competition at the junior level. Him, me and, of course, Shelby.

Soon enough we’ve broken apart again. Dad and Billy, with Michael hanging behind them, begin to hold court with the regulars at the bar. Bored, Russell polishes off his draft, ready to leave. When he slips off his barstool, I tell him I’ll go with him.

“Sure,” Russell smiles. “Shelby’s always excited to see you.”

“Need me to pick you up later?” Michael asks. “I was thinking we could tuck Grandpa in before your flight.”

“OK,” I say. “Just give me a half-hour head start.”

Russell and I roll toward his house in the subdivision of Briarwood, on the south side of town. We pull up in front of his five-bedroom Colonial that stands on a corner lot with a generous stretch of trees leading down to a small creek in back of the house. As soon as we come in through the garage, Russell’s daughter, Deb-Deb, calls out to him, “Russell.” For some reason she calls after him like you would a dog. No daddy or anything like that. Just Russell. Here, boy.

“Where you at, kid?” he says, beginning to climb the staircase. He pauses and turns back toward me. “Garrett, I’ll leave you to find Shelby. Remember if you ever need another assignment done, I’m your guy. Have a good flight back to New York.”

He says those last two words, New York, so softly that they come out part whisper, part prayer. With that, Russell turns and hurries up the stairs after his daughter.

For a moment I wish my parents had stayed in Briarwood instead of moving closer to the lake. The houses in this subdivision were built right. All out of the same kit with hardwood floors split into several levels that give the illusion of more space than the structures actually afford. I walk through the living room and peer into the kitchen. It has been remodeled with mud-brown tiles and lighter-toned cabinets. The oven is set to 350 degrees and something is in there, cooking away.

Down in the family room I hear the dull hum of a motor coming from somewhere out back.

“Shelby?” I say.

I open the screen door that leads out onto a new wooden deck, and there she is. The cover to the hot tub has been pulled back and its jets cranked up high. A lazy mist rises in the heavy afternoon air and there, riding the surface like a misguided angel, is Shelby. She’s wearing a black, one-piece suit and she’s as beautiful as I remember. For a moment, I linger in the shadows, watching as she lies back in the water, with her eyes closed. The throbbing, mechanical current carries her slowly up to the surface and for a few seconds she rides the bubbling froth like a goddess. Somehow Shelby has become more enchanting than when we were in school. Back when she was the homecoming queen and I was the king, and we rode in that convertible from Murphy’s Cadillac around the black cinder track that encircled the football field as the bleachers packed with people applauded. Before everything in my old world here fell apart.

The breeze in the treetops whispers of such occasions and for the first time in years I really pause to listen. Another man, maybe a more prudent one, would have turned away. Yet I walk out onto the wooden deck, and Shelby hears the vibrations of somebody approaching and dips down deeper in those warm waters before opening her eyes. Those hazel orbs hold a measure of alarm, but mostly they are angry and defiant and I admire them so.

“Garrett,” she says. “Russell was supposed to call if you were stopping by.”

“I’m glad he forgot.”

She refuses to smile at my compliment.

“Be a gentleman,” she says, “and fetch me my robe, will you?”

She raises one hand toward the yellow terrycloth draped over a nearby deck chair.

I hold out the robe with one hand and Shelby lifts it from my fingertips as she steps out. In only a beat or two, she has it wrapped around her, tying the sash, leaving my one hand to rest on her shoulder. Her eyes peer up at me. She’s warm to the touch and smells of steam and lotion. It flashes through my mind that if I kiss her now, right away, the years will roll back. Dissolve just like that. But as with too many things I’m not as quick as I need to be. Too soon, from far back in the house, comes the cry of her daughter.

“Mommy?”

“Coming, honey,” Shelby says and I follow her back into the house.

We find the girl in the front foyer. With both hands, she holds up a stack of magazines and letters held together with a thick rubber band.

“Did you say hello to Uncle Garrett?” Shelby asks.

Seemingly noticing me for the first time, the girl nods in my direction. Russell isn’t with her – still somewhere upstairs.

“You still haven’t looked at the mail from the other day, Mom,” Deb-Deb says. “The mailman told me to take it right inside.”

“That because he knows he can trust you,” Shelby says and gathers up the stack from her. “You’re a very responsible girl.”

Deb-Deb beams at her mother’s praise. Shelby flips quickly through the stack and pulls out a single postcard.

“They are going to do it,” she says and holds up the correspondence. “That crazy Swany. He screwed up the tenth-year reunion so bad, he’s going to give it another shot. The Encore Reunion, he’s calling it. Scheduled it for next month. Molly Jackson’s the new co-chair.”

“That means it’ll be top drawer,” I reply.

“Are you coming back for that, Garrett?” Shelby asks.

“I don’t know.”

“You should,” she says.

Her eyes settle upon me, and there’s something in the tone of her voice, some small reassurance, that I haven’t heard in years.

“You can make time for this, can’t you?”

I don’t know what to say or think about the way she’s looking at me: a smile bordering upon a smirk, a proud tilt of the head.

“Maybe,” I reply. “Maybe so.