This man has the look. It’s hard to say what the look is exactly, but he has it. It’s not his clothes, or the shape of his body, or even the way his hair is matted to his skull like he’s been asleep for a week and just woken up. Maybe it’s the way he stares at the television behind the desk while I process his credit card, that way that lost people look at television screens like they are the most amusing and useless invention in the last thousand years. Or maybe it’s the way he looks at me when I give him the room key and direct him to the staircase at the end of the building. The guy from last November looked at me in the same way and I want to say, sorry buddy, I’m not the one. I’m not your saviour. But I don’t. I say, the vending machine jams up if you use American coins. I say, the ice machine is broken. I say, the pool closes at eleven and there’s no lifeguard on duty.
Adele picks me up after work. She parks her old burgundy Impala on the side of the road and ignores the traffic building up behind her. She sticks a bony middle finger out the window and shouts in French at a car with Quebec plates that keeps honking its horn.
“You can park in the parking lot,” I say, getting into the car.
“This is more fun,” she says, watching the traffic in her rear view mirror. “They could go around. Fucking tourists. They don’t have a clue.” She waits until the cars have backed up through the traffic light, then makes a u-turn and drives down Murray Hill. It’s seven-thirty and evening sunlight falls across the traffic and catches the mist from the Falls. It’s sort of beautiful, but the air smells like exhaust and hot dogs, and there is too much noise to hear the water.
“There’s weed in the glove compartment,” Adele says. “Roll us a joint.”
“Where did it come from?” Adele never has money. She says that she refuses to work but the truth is that her personality makes her unemployable. Her parents own two parking lots and they have fired her from both of them.
“I picked it up for Adam. We have to go get him.”
“Where is he?”
“Oh,” I say.
I am twenty-one years old. I graduated from high school three years ago and hid my university acceptance letter in a mouldy copy of Franny and Zooey, which I thought was pretty poignant. I run the front desk in an old motel that hasn’t been cute in thirty years. Strange men look at me like I am going to save them from themselves. My only girlfriend is a possible sociopath and my would-be boyfriend is at a strip club. It’s only June and every day I wonder how I got here.
Here are a few facts about Niagara Falls that you will not find in a brochure. There are seven early-cheque-cashing depots, the kind of places that stay open all night and have despondent-looking cashiers sitting inside metal cages. There are seven pawn shops. There are nearly one hundred bars and there are thirty-five churches. There is one synagogue, one Buddhist temple, and two Kingdom Halls. There are three scooter shops and if you go to the Tim Hortons on Victoria Avenue you will find at least a dozen of these scooters parked in the parking lot with their drivers standing around smoking reservation cigarettes and drinking double doubles and talking about what a shit town they live in. There is an entire subculture of skinny, overly tanned forty-five year old women with bad teeth that will punch you in the face if you look at them wrong. There are five massage parlours and twenty pages of escorts on Craigslist. And there are strip clubs. A little city of them sitting at the edge of town, where Lundy’s Lane turns into Highway Twenty. They all have little motels on the property, motels that outdate them, motels that used to be family places a long time ago before the QEW was built and everyone coming in from Toronto or London or Sudbury had to drive by. In the stretches of field that separate these motels are the sad remains of this old time. Dilapidated ice cream shacks, rusty swing sets, gas pumps hooked up to barren lines. Bits of nostalgia, like the old postcards that sometimes turn up in the pawn shops.
Here are a few facts about Niagara Falls that you will not find in a brochure. There are seven early-cheque-cashing depots, the kind of places that stay open all night and have despondent-looking cashiers sitting inside metal cages. There are seven pawn shops.
Adele parks the car behind the club and we sit waiting for Adam. We’ve rolled two joints out of his bag and smoked one. Adele puts her seat back and stretches her legs. She looks at her phone and says, “Fuck it, light the other one.”
The sun is setting behind the club. They’ve turned on their spotlights. Beams of white light criss-cross the purple sky, a summons to all the lonely souls. In a few hours the parking lot will be full. Limousines will pull into the fire lane and drop off bachelor parties, the kind of men that wear khaki shorts and polo shirts and go home afterward to Kitchener or Buffalo or Toledo to be good boys. We watch a girl park a Jetta and enter the club with a duffle bag.
“I could do that,” Adele says. She takes a hit from the joint, coughs, and passes it to me.
“You could, but you’d have to shave your legs,” I say.
“Well, I guess fuck that then.” Adele smiles. She hasn’t shaved her legs in over a year. Soft, light brown hair covers her shin bones. It’s like baby hair and sometimes we’ll be sitting on the hood of her car or something and I’ll let my leg rest against hers and everything in the world stops seeming so messed up.
Adam is walking across the parking lot as we finish the joint. He walks with a lurching, half-drunk gait. Adele stubs the roach on the bottom of her sandal and throws it in the ashtray.
“Hey. What’s up?” Adam says, casual, like we’re picking him up from the library. Adam is a nice guy. He’s not my boyfriend but sometimes we go out for breakfast and he pays the bill. When he comes to my house he always smells like soap and makes polite small talk with my mother. He’s kissed me a few times, but it doesn’t mean much. Recently, I have started to realize that nothing is greater than its singular moment in time.
“Hey, Emily,” Adam says. He lies across the backseat. I look at him in the rear view mirror. He’s good-looking, but not that good-looking. I should probably ask him to be my boyfriend. I should engage in a regular relationship with defined borders.
“What the fuck are you even doing here,” Adele says, and Adam laughs, the way people laugh when the answer is too obvious for words.
The man has pulled one of the poorly upholstered chairs out of his room and set it up in front of his door. He’s put on swim trunks but they don’t look right on him. They look unnatural, like a costume. I wonder what kind of part he’s trying to play. He’s found the liquor store since checking in and there’s a six pack of Pabst sweating at his feet. He drinks them methodically all morning. There’s a baseball cap pulled down low on his head, but I can see his eyes watching a group of girls in the pool. The girls are from Michigan and most of them haven’t been to bed since coming in from Dragonfly last night. One girl came back barefoot and threw up in the parking lot.
I bring towels to rooms and empty ashtrays and change damp sheets. I collect empties and carry them to the recycling bins at the edge of the parking lot. We used to have a chambermaid but she quit last week and now I clean the rooms. I go to the man’s room last. I stand next to him and look through the open doorway. The room is dim. He’s left the blinds closed.
“Is there anything you want?” I say. His bed is made. Two empty six packs are lined neatly on the prefabricated desktop. There is a pizza box folded into quarters and stuffed in the wastebasket. I look at these things through the doorway and do not look at the man.
He sets down his can, pulls a fresh one out of the plastic rings, and jabs at the top with his thumbnail. “Clean towels would be nice,” he says. He has an accent, a bit mid-western, a bit southern. It’s not that hot today but he’s sweating.
I hand him two towels off of my cart. He puts them in his lap, tilts the brim of his hat at me. He’s no one, I tell myself, and go back into the office and shut the door.
Adam and his roommates have a party. They rent an old wartime house with a spongy porch and a kitchen window that looks into the monstrous brick wall of the Post factory. The air in the house smells like shredded wheat and spun sugar. Someone has put Full Metal Jacket on the VCR but the sound is muted.
There’s a stranger here. He’s sitting on the end of the plush green sofa that the guys salvaged from someone’s boulevard on junk day, smiling. He smiles the way some people smile at a meteor burning through the sky.
“You know him. We know him,” Adele says. We’re standing in the kitchen, over the stove. Adele is drunk and wants to do a hot knife. She rummages through a drawer filled with stained silverware. “We went to high school with him. He dated that girl. You remember. The pretty one with the big teeth.”
I shrug. I don’t remember. Adele is probably too drunk to know what she’s talking about. She pulls a knife out of the drawer and sticks it into the orange-hot coil on top of the stove. Her hair falls in her face and I grab it and hold it at the nape of her neck. Her hair is soft and powdery between my fingers, like the wings of a trapped moth.
“You’re going to light yourself on fire,” I say.
The floor is sticky under our feet. The grey tiles have been dirty so long that no one remembers that they used to be white. The stranger in the living room is looking at us.
“You know, Adam is a great guy. He likes you,” Adele says. She puts a ball of hash on the tip of the knife and inhales the smoke that burns off of it. “But that guy – that guy, I get it.”
“You’re drunk,” I say. “You don’t know what you’re talking about.” For a little while I believe myself.
Later, locked in the bathroom, looking at myself in the mirror, looking at the reflection of the stranger in the mirror, I wonder if I have been wrong about all the men. Maybe they see nothing in me; maybe I am the one looking. A girl with a saviour complex. This stranger has that look, that hair a little too long, those fine-boned arms like the son of God.
“This doesn’t mean anything,” I say to him. His fingers are sticky from rolling joints. They leave a resin on my skin.
He laughs. “Don’t be foolish,” he says. “This always means something.”
Most people jump. That’s why they come here, why they board planes and buses, why they get in their cars and drive three thousand kilometres. Someone once told me that there are more than forty jumpers every year, that if we drained the Falls we would find their bodies all over the rocks.
I walk to the brink, to the precipice where the water moves so fast that it looks like molten glass. The sun is coming up over the river, the sky cracking open like an egg shell, the yellow light oozing like a yolk.
Sometimes, in the spring after the ice has melted, a body turns up in the whirlpool. Bloated like a slug, half eaten by sturgeon, it presents itself as a testament to the human condition. I looked, they say, I looked and I could not find.
I have not slept yet, but there’s no time to go home. I start work in an hour. It’s better not to go home like this, better that my mother doesn’t have to see my un-brushed hair, the film of old sweat on my skin. Later, I will tell her that I slept at Adele’s. I’ll tell her that we watched old horror movies and drank wine coolers and she will pretend to believe me because that is the easiest thing for all of us.
I walk up Murray Hill to the motel and take a room key and let myself into one of the unused rooms to shower. I put on a t-shirt from the lost and found bin and sit on the edge of the bed looking at the peach coloured wallpaper. The ancient, embossed bedspread scratches the backs of my legs. There’s a painting on the wall of the Horseshoe Falls, one of those pictures that shows the Falls before we all got here, before we built roads and lawns, before all the factories went up on the American side. There is dust on the frame. It’s been a long time since anyone bothered to clean it.
The man arrives at the end of the month, after all the tourists have gone home. He pays for fourteen nights and spends every day sitting in a plastic bucket chair at the side of the drained pool, looking at the algae stains on the turquoise lining like they hold all the secrets of the universe. Sometimes he comes into the office and looks through the rack of dusty, outdated pamphlets or stands in the corner feeling the plastic leaves of the fake eucalyptus, like he can’t figure out if it is real or not. He has me clean his room every night after the maid has gone home. I bring him towels to replace the ones he never seems to use, even though he always smells like soap. One day, I shut the door and take off all my clothes. It is four in the afternoon and the sun is halfway down, a pale, weak sunset like a resignation. He is married. I see his wedding band in the soap dish on the sink. He pinches my hip and laughs a sad, lost laugh that I hear inside my head for months afterward.
“What are you doing in this town?”
He says that. Like I am the stranger, the visitor that doesn’t belong.
“I’m not doing anything.”
“Do you have a boyfriend?”
“Not really,” I say, thinking of Adam who took me out for pancakes and dropped me off at work less than eight hours ago.
He laughs. “So here you are. Just waiting to happen.”
The police find his car parked upriver, between Table Rock and Kingsbridge Park. He left his wallet and his shoes on the hood of the car. The police come to the motel with his driver’s licence and show me the picture and ask me what room he stayed in. I let them into the room and stand outside at the edge of the pool while they search it. But there’s nothing to find. He’s left no trace, disappeared like an apparition.
It will not be in the paper. This sort of thing never is. It’s a quiet secret, whispered through the town like an urban legend. He jumped. Maybe he left a note in the car, something to give his wife, or his family if he has one. Or maybe not. I sit in the plastic bucket chair and trace the patterns of algae in the pool. It hasn’t snowed yet this year but it will soon. The clouds look like bloated bits of dirty cotton in the sky.
I can feel the bruise on my hipbone where he pinched me, feel his phantom fingers. The wind comes off of the river, cold and damp, the sort of wind that you feel in the marrow of your bones. There’s a residue in the air. It crackles like electricity and settles on my skin like the minute particles of a meteor burning through the sky.
by Kate McQuestion
Kate McQuestion‘s work has appeared in the New Quarterly and SubTerrain, where she was awarded the Lush Triumphant fiction award for 2016. She lives in Niagara Falls with her large, gray cat.