Monday, June 19, 2017

Paddle Wheel

Every so often, Sally would hear a series of clinks from the paddle wheel that didn’t make sense among the thrashing of the blades slapping against the thick, greenish brown water. 

Mrs. Reese’s boy squeezed between the rails and leaned over the paddle wheel that now churned at full speed and pushed the boat towards the middle of the river. Sally thought the worst of what might happen before her, yet told herself to stop being so dramatic. She opened her purse just to hear it snap shut again. Besides, did anyone ever go in such a way? Of all the years in steamboat history, did anyone ever really fall off the edge and into the paddle wheel...and go like that?

No. You foolish woman. You silly Sally.

The boy placed his left foot up on the first rail. Sally stiffened her lower back, looked around for Mrs. Reese. She wondered if Mrs. Reese was truly as stupid as Sally suspected during those occasions when the know-it-all went on and on about the inevitable next world war that the end of the Prohibition will call forth, or the start of Armageddon as soon as Herbert Hoover’s presidency ends and “criminality beyond the pale; might as well say your prayers now and keep your children locked in their rooms.”

And now this careless thing about to happen and that stupid woman’s attention on the Louisville shore and waving at no one in particular – for Mrs. Reese had no real friends who would see her off – and unaware that her boy was just a passing breath away from falling onto a colossal eggbeater. Bad enough to have bumped into the witch on this boat, and of all days. Must she see the boy get churned to butter, too?

The boy now had both feet on the lower rail. His butt stuck straight out into the aisle and the splash of the paddle wheel seemingly grew louder and louder. Enough.

“Jack.” Sally mumbled, and then shook her head at her own weakness. 

Jack leaned further over the rails. Sally leaned over her own rail on the second landing of the steamboat and clutched her shiny, black leather purse against her stomach, her gloved hand feeling along the edge of the purse for the metal clasps. 

“Jack! Get back from that….” 

The boy stood up on the railing and teetered back and forth on the heels of his feet. 

“Jack!" She screamed, and louder than she anticipated. She yelled over the slapping paddles and the otherwise pleasant ringing of stirred water belatedly splashing against the Ohio River. "Now, you listen to me, Jack!”

“Jack Carlton Reese!”

Mrs. Reese scolded her boy and yanked him back with his belt. The boy hit his head on the metal rail with a solid thud, but Sally guessed the boy knew well enough to not say anything as he rubbed the pain out and stared up at his mother. Of course, Mrs. Reese didn’t even bother to thank Sally, or even glance up at her. Sally returned to her seat, placed the purse at her side. Well, that non-look said it all.

Witch.

Sally must have been a little too brave that one Saturday evening in Barry’s CafĂ©’ when she finally responded to Mrs. Reese after about a ten minute ‘guess what I think about that’ dribble. What about the evils that Prohibition brought to the new world, Sally asked, with a shot of weak bourbon in hand. And the Sicilian gangs taking over the cities? And their turf wars and the prostitution rings and all those red light stripping clubs and watering holes – blind pigs just like Barry's? Al Capone and the free reign of their corruption never seemed to take sprout in Mrs. Reese’s perfectly trimmed green lawn of righteousness. Mrs. Reese looked at her pompous husband, as if expecting him to stand up for her or, maybe, threaten Sally with a lawsuit. When nothing came from him but a grin….

Still. Silly of you Sally. To make such a fuss, and so public. A scene that went around the office for weeks and even generated several whispered accolades. She pressed the side of her hat and then tugged it down tighter. The mist from the paddles never reached her, but her skin felt damp. A storm was brewing off in the distance over the Indiana side. Sally heard about the storm forecast and assumed she’d have the whole boat to herself. What was the chance of picking the same day and the same passage to Rose Island Resort when Mrs. Reese was taking her boy to the amusement park there? 

The witch preferred the other paddle boat – the American – over the Belle of Louisville. How did Sally know? Well, because Clara Reeves said so. Several times. She even pointed out the office window at the shore and called this very boat 'The Belle of High Hell." The Belle was gaudy, she said. Too “Ol’ Mississippi” and too Southern for her liking. “A dressed-up Uncle Tom is all that slave ship is.”

Northern trash!

The woman was like Sally’s shadow as of late. Same jeweler…same book club…same hairdresser…same small circle of secretaries and office clerks. And since the start of May, even the same boss! 

Joey Bellomo. The man she was to meet at Rose Island Resort. Joey. The man who...

Sally heard something fall to the floor. She looked around her chair and searched for her purse. It had fallen beside the chair. Good God. But, even if she were to lose it… Someone would have told her. Right? She was only one of fifteen or twenty other women and a few children heading to Rose Island. Someone would have told me. Sally took in a deep breath, realizing she had been holding it since her burdensome purse fell. A drop of sweat cooled against her temple in a sudden gust of air from the north.

A threatening day for sure. Louisville was expecting a Noah's Ark of rain and high winds. Most trips on the river were cancelled, no doubt. Except for Mrs. Reese, who probably didn't care one way or another. She wasn't really taking her Jack to the amusement park, and for his enjoyment. She must have had a lover waiting for her... Yes, even miserable, dumb, Clara Reese might be playing around. Why not? Her husband did the rounds all the time. Everyone knew that. Or, at least, that was Joey always told her.

"Excuse me, Miss. Lunch will be served in five minutes. Do you have a ticket?"

"No. No lunch for me, please." Sally grinned, but the Dining keep stood over her, emotionless, and close enough to block the increasingly cool breeze coming off the storm over at the Indiana side. "Is it okay if I remain sitting up here? Or, will I need to --"

"I don't mind. Please let me know if you need any refreshments, Miss."

Sally’s throat did feel dry. Yet, she just wanted to get this day over with. She didn’t come to enjoy the afternoon on a river boat ride. Thirty minutes. Surely just thirty minutes. The trip to Charlestown was sixty to ninety minutes from Louisville. She had been on the boat for a good fifteen minutes. She couldn’t recall how long it took her and Joey to get to the resort. Couldn’t even remember the shorelines. In those days, time was measured in dinners, rounds of bootleg cocktails, and room numbers and room keys. She was so in love. In love with a handsome man. A dark man. A bad man. An abusive man, and a terrible man in so many ways. Subtle at first. Electric machoism. Made her feel pretty. Wanted. But then, she’d feel like property, especially after he threatened her to – forced her to do the unthinkable. The nightmares afterwards. The guilt that settled inside her like swallowed bricks that she couldn't throw up enough to rid. Couldn’t even look at herself nude in the mirror while dressing. Still couldn't. No more. 

It ends today, Joey. And if he threatened her again… 

Sally adjusted her hat, squeezed her purse between her knees. Belatedly, she looked for Mrs. Reese and her boy. They were nowhere to be seen on the lower deck. Only a couple of older women walked arm in arm, grasping onto the railings as if a tropical gale might blow them over the edge.

Over the edge.

Joey Bellomo had already done just that. Sally pulled out the purse from between her knees, felt the hard bulge behind the thin, shiny leather against the palm of her hand. There was no going back to Joey Bellomo.

“Oh, we won’t be eating that.

Sally heaved a sigh. Mrs. Reese was sitting directly behind her in the dining hall and apparently admonishing the lunch attendant. Of the two hundred chairs, she had to pick the one closest to her? Sally decided to move to the lower deck after all. Maybe she… No. Sally put the thought out of her head. Why would Mrs. Reese be following her? And to do so with her kid? The woman was loud, stupid, and slightly evil. Only slightly. Good thing Rose Island was vast and had a hundred various places to blend. Besides, Sally was single. If for anything, Mrs. Carlton Reese would have to be the one to explain why she was wondering the halls of Rose Island Resort; not her.

The paddle wheel was noisy, but it was more hypnotizing than annoying. Every few seconds, a wayward spray of water would hit the river’s surface in pleasant clinks, like a silver-chained necklace dropping onto the night table. She found herself listening for the clinks among the slaps of the blades that conjured up painful blows. The first time it happened, Sally blamed the alcohol. The second time, she saw it as a true misunderstand, even some twisted romantic fear of losing each other. By the sixth and the seventh time, Sally blamed herself. Since her trip to Indiana, she blamed only Joey Bellomo.

Sally startled, even let out a small gasp, and pulled her purse up against her breast. Mrs. Reese's boy, Jack, had appeared beside her and had grabbed her waist with his tiny hand to help himself hoist up the first railing.

"Well, I almost forgot you were on the Belle." Mrs. Reese's accent was as sharp as any Northern tongue could slice the skin off an apple. "I could ask what brings you here, Ms. Bledsoe, but I knew the moment I saw your ticket at the office what little excursion you had planned for an otherwise boring Saturday."

Sally gritted her teeth, felt them slide past each other in a painful grind. "A ticket at the office, Clara?"

"Yes. A ticket you foolishly left on your desk for all of Kentuckiana to see."

Sally stared down at the paddle wheel. Oddly, she thought to count them, but they were a blur in the gray wash of river water. 

"You give me the impression that you followed me here." Sally turned to look at her, but only her body turned slightly towards the vile Mrs. Reese. The paddle wheels were still a blur.

"Oh- Silly, silly Sally. I have better things to do than to follow in a whore's wake."

Sally gritted her teeth again. Witch. The edge of her purse where the metal lined the opening pressed into her right breast. "You say that again, Clara, and I'll --"

"What is that now? Tell Mr. Bellomo? Silly girl. Go right ahead. I'll have my husband take care of him. Besides..."

She wanted to listen for the clinks, but the sudden stench of wet mud from the river overpowered her senses.

"...You silly, silly girl. Everyone knows what kind of filth is going on."

A wet rot. Like a pond boiling in the sun. Jack grabbed onto Sally's arm and balanced his weight against her. Sally felt her stomach drop.

"I imagine Jerry, the elevator attendant; yes, he's probably the only one who doesn't know about your affair with Mr. Bellomo – unless he’s kept track of all the secret outings you two have been taking at the oddest of hours. In fact, my dear Silly Sally -- You know, they call you Silly Sally at the office for a reason --"

The boy struggled, and Sally responded, absentmindedly, by gently placing her hand around the boy's shoulder.

"--Well, let me just take a stab. Could you be meeting your Italian Stallion at the lovely Rose Isle Resort this afternoon? Lots to do there. Maybe stroll among the ferns? Walk the Devil’s Backbone? Oh, but not while it's raining outside. Aw, shucks. The rain will close the park down for certain. And that little Italian merry-go-round that you couldn't resist stepping on just won't be running wooden horsies for my little Jack with all this electric in the air. I guess I'll just have to go dine at the resort, take a stroll along the carpeted halls and gilded sconces, get a good look at all those beautiful, young, happy couples.”

One.

"But maybe this time, you can make some room for that unfortunate thing inside your busy chamber and not give into your Italian's insistence to go "'cross river" as they say."

Three. Four.

"I think that little jewel has yet to go around the office. However, I might be convinced to keep my rosy lips sealed with the right kind of currency. You must know it's awfully expensive for me to keep such secrets buried, especially if your Italian man is linked to the mob. He's Sicilian, you know. And you can bet, my Carlton has --"

Mrs. Reese faded into the thrashing of the paddle wheel. Interesting, the red paddles were no longer a blur. Seven. Eight. Each blade was visible and clear as a red dawn. Each blade was thick, long, yet worn down along the edges with their never-ending mechanical strife; their broad faces pot-marked where the soul rotted away and disintegrated into the muck, into the rolling, greenish brown muck down that slogged down river. Always downriver. Red paint colored the blades in an attempt, no doubt, to preserve what was left of a never-ending set of rules. A merry-go-round of red blades.

Ten. Eleven.


Sally felt the bulges under the boy's thin skin; sensed the boy's bones and the smoothness of youth through her glove as she rubbed her thumb against his youthful muscles under his youthful thin skin. The boy - the boy Jack -- he stiffened as he straightened his knees against the railing, as if he were to take flight over the warm, Ohio River like a lone gull. Sally felt the edge of her purse stabbing her breast, sensed her thumb sliding over the two silver knobs; imagined the cold, metal clasps of her purse snapping shut as if in a hug. A permanent hug. She heard it, too, the clasps snapping together, even above the thrashing blades of the Belle of Louisville and a thousand clinks of tossed water reconciling with the river.



Paddle wheel clip is the property of Randall S. Wireman

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