Every so often, Becky 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. It came from the splashed water, hitting the river. It sounded so close, yet far away. It sounded like a fountain of coins spilling onto the floor.
Mrs. Reese’s boy, Jack, squeezed his head between the rails to watch the paddle wheel as it now churned at full speed and pushed the boat towards the middle of the river. She panicked a bit as she thought of the worst thing that could happen. Yet, she told herself to stop being so dramatic. Besides, has anyone ever died 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. How silly of you to think it could, Becky.
She opened her purse just to hear it snap shut; lost herself in the blur of the wheel. She wondered what the other side of it looked like, from under the water. And, what did it sound like? The boy placed his left foot up on the bottom rail guard. Becky stiffened and looked around for Mrs. Reese. She wondered if the woman was truly as stupid as she suspected during those occasions when the know-it-all went on and on about the inevitable troubles that the end of the Prohibition will soon call forth, perhaps, as she claimed, Armageddon itself as soon as Herbert Hoover’s presidency ends and the beginning of “criminality beyond the pale; might as well say your prayers now and keep your children locked in their rooms with their Bible.”
And now this careless thing that’s about to happen and that stupid woman’s attention on the Louisville shore and waving down 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? Jack now had both feet on the bottom guard rail. His butt stuck straight out into the aisle causing passengers to have to squeeze by as the splash of the paddle wheel now soaked the walkway. Enough.
“Jack.” Becky mumbled, and then shook her head at her own weakness. She opened her puse. Snapped it shut. “Step back from the railing, dear.”
Jack only leaned further over the rails. Becky leaned over her own rail on the second landing above him and now clutching her shiny, black leather purse against her stomach, her gloved hand squeezing the metal clasps.
“Jack?” She raised her voice. “Sweetie. You need to 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 clinks of stirred water belatedly splashing against the Ohio River. "Now, you listen to me, Jack! Can someone --”
“Jack Carlton Reese!”
Mrs. Reese scolded her boy and yanked him back with his belt. The boy hit his head on the wooden overhang with a solid thud, but Becky 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 Becky, or even glance up at her. Becky returned to her seat, placed the purse at her side.
“Well, doesn’t that say it all.”
She’s a…. She’s a terrible woman.
Becky must have been a little too brave that one Saturday evening in Barry’s Café when she finally responded to Mrs. Reese after about a ten minute ‘guess what I think about that’ dribble. What about the bad things that Prohibition brought to the new world, Becky had asked, with a nearly empty shot of weak bourbon in her gloved hand. And, what of the Sicilian gangs taking over the cities as a result of the underground booze sales? And, of course, what about their turf wars and their prostitution rings and all those redlight stripping clubs and watering holes and even blind pigs just like Barry's? Al Capone and the free reign of their corruption never seemed to sprout in Mrs. Reese’s perfectly trimmed green lawn of righteousness. Mrs. Reese raised a single brow and looked over at her pompous husband as if expecting him to stand up for her or, maybe, threaten Becky with a lawsuit -- or whatever assault of woman of her class was likened to do when a truth not to their liking is revealed.
Ha! When nothing came from him but a grin…!
Sorry, Mrs. Reese. I guess your husband agrees with me.
Silly of you Becky. To make such a fuss.
And so public. A scene that went around the office for weeks and even generated several whispered accolades.
Becky pressed the side of her hat and then tugged it down tighter; returned her black purse to her stomach. The mist from the paddles never reached up to the second landing, but her skin still felt damp. A storm was brewing off in the distance up north over the Indiana side. Becky heard about the storm forecast and, frankly, she 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 near there?
Of all people!
The witch preferred the other paddle boat – The American – over the Belle of Louisville. How did Becky 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 Bottom Class'. The Belle was gaudy, she said. Too “Ol’ Mississippi” and too Southern for her liking. “A Southern White Trash Hauler.”
If we are white trash, Clara; then you must be Northern trash!
That’s what Becky was thinking at the time. Of course, she dared not say it. Becky did everything she could to not be in the same room as her, let alone breathe that snob’s air. Yet, the witch was like Becky’s shadow as of late. Clara Reese was everywhere that Becky went. Same jeweler… same book club… same hairdresser… same small circle of secretaries and office clerks. Even the same stationary shop! And since the start of May….
The same boss. And now, it was all too surreal. Joey was the man she was to meet at Rose Island Resort.
Becky didn’t need this intrusion. Of all things. Of all people!
She heard something fall to the floor. She looked around her chair and found that her purse had fallen beside the chair.
Good God! Becky, you silly girl.
But, even if she were to lose her purse… whoever found it would have told her.
Of course. Of course.
She was only one of fifteen or twenty other women and a few children heading to Rose Island.
Someone would have told me.
Becky 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. Most people had decided to change their plans. 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, snobby, Bible-thumper Clara Reese might be playing around. Why not? Her husband did the rounds all the time. Everyone knew that. Or, at least, that was what Joey always told her.
"Excuse me, Missus. Lunch will be served in a few minutes. Do you have a ticket?"
"No, I.... No lunch for me, please." Becky grinned, but the clerk stood over her, emotionless, and close enough to block the increasingly cool breeze coming off the storm over at the Indiana side.
“Look here, Missus. I can give you one. We’ve had plenty of cancellations today.”
Becky smiled. "Is it okay if I remain sitting up here? Or, will I need to go down to--"
"If you don't mind. We need to set the tables. I make a couple of rounds downstairs. Please let me know if you need any refreshments, Missus."
Becky’s throat did feel dry. She wanted bourbon. She wouldn’t find any on the Belle. Oh, whatever. She just wanted to get this day over with. She didn’t come to enjoy the afternoon on a river boat ride.
Forty minutes. Surely just forty minutes more.
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 some months back. Couldn’t even remember how the shorelines looked. In those days, time was measured by dinners, rounds of bootleg cocktails, and sets of room numbers and room keys. She was so in love! Joey was such a handsome man and, what was the word she searched for in the dictionary she’d keep next to her typewriter: enigmatic? Yes! If a bit too mysterious. If a bit too… if a bit….
Joey was a bad man. An abusive man, and in so many ways. His darkside was amusing at first… subtle at first.
Did she really think that? She once looked up masochism in her office dictionary when Joey excused himself from one of their secret lunch meets and never returned -- only grinned at her remonstration the next day. Joey made her feel pretty, made her feel desirable and unique. But then, he liked to get a rise out of her and, eventually, to control her, keeping tabs on her every move. He even told her what to drink; and where not to go or be seen with. Of all things! She’d begin to feel more like his property than his lover, especially when he threatened her to – forced her to do the unthinkable.
Oh, goddamn you Joey!
She stopped in the middle of the stairs and opened her purse, making sure it didn’t fall out. A band in the dining hall was preparing for entertainment, and a clarinet was rolling whimsically as a drum rim was tapped firmly. The nightmares that followed the unthinkable event were… all too real. The guilt settled inside her stomach like swallowed bricks; she couldn't throw them up fast enough to rid herself of them. Couldn’t even look at herself nude in the mirror while dressing because -- . Still couldn't. She snapped the purse shut.
Goddamn you Joey.
The clarinet faded away as she continued to the lower landing. And, if he threatened her again? Got the mob involved -- the ones who he had driven her to the country clinic? The boat rolled just enough to lose some balance. Becky grabbed the railing and almost pulled herself towards the paddle wheel; the splash getting louder and louder. She adjusted her hat. Thunder clapped, but she saw no lightning. Belatedly, she looked for Mrs. Reese and her boy. They were nowhere to be seen. They must have gone up to the dining hall. Only two older women were present walking arm in arm as one grasped onto the railing as if a tropical gale might blow them over the edge.
Over the edge!
Joey Bellomo had already done just that to her. Yet, she still had some leverage. Becky felt for the hard bulge behind the thin, shiny leather of her purse. She needed to see Joey Bellomo one more time. Becky heaved a sigh.
“You just need to keep your word just once, Joey.”
She reached her had over the rail, into the mist of the paddle wheel. She watched the drops of water form onto her glove and then thought to wipe her cheek with it. Instead, she wiped her glove down her dress.
“I told you, I have a ticket, sir. Here.”
Becky knew that voice! She needn’t have looked up to know that Mrs. Reese was sitting directly above her in the dining hall and was apparently admonishing the lunch attendant. Of the two hundred chairs available, she had to pick the one closest to her? Becky decided to move.
No. I will not!
Why should she let Mrs. Reese dictate where she could stand on a pleasure boat?
Don’t be silly, Becky!
Becky tried to ignore the loud woman. Good thing Rose Island was vast and had a hundred various places to get lost in; hundreds of people to blend. Besides, even if the witch discovered that she was on the boat, what harm could it do? Why would she assume that Becky was going to the resort? She, too, could be attending the amusement park. Maybe she’s meeting her sister and nieces there.
But who really cares! I can go and do whatever I wish.
Becky was single. If for anything, Mrs. Carlton Reese would have to be the one to explain why she was wandering the halls of Rose Island Resort; not her. Of course, prim and proper Mrs. Reese wouldn’t dare be discovered there.
The paddle wheel grew louder, though the boat’s speed did not seem to change. Still, the noise was more hypnotizing than annoying. Especially the wayward sprays when they would hit the river’s surface in pleasant clinks, like a dozen silver-chain necklaces dropping onto the night stand. She found herself listening for the clinks among the slaps of the blades; now thinking back too far, too painfully far. She conjured up the painful blows. The first time it happened, Becky pinned it on the alcohol. The bourbon. Both she and Joey drank too much of it at the Resort. The second time, however, she saw it as a true misunderstanding, even some twisted romantic fear of losing each other. Again: both were to blame for the beating. By the sixth and the seventh time, Becky succeeded in blaming herself.
Yet, the trip to Indiana, to the country clinic; she blamed only Joey Bellomo.
Becky 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. Wright, but I knew the moment when I saw your ticket at the office what little excursion you had planned for an otherwise boring Saturday. Heading to the Resort, I gather?"
Becky 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. Most people of your kind hide their sinful excursions with cleverness. I suppose you’ll get better eventually."
Becky watched the paddle wheel. Oddly, she thought to count each blade as they rolled, but they were a blur in the greenish-brown turn of river water.
"You give me the impression that you followed me here." Becky turned to look at her, but only her body turned slightly towards the vile Mrs. Reese; her eyes never leaving the paddle wheels.
"Oh- Silly Becky. I have better things to do than to follow in a whore's wake."
Becky gritted her teeth again.
The edge of her purse where the metal lined the opening pressed into her right breast.
"You say that ever again, Clara, and I'll --"
"What is that now? Tell Mr. Bellomo? Silly Becky. Go right ahead. I'd 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 between you two."
A wet rot. Like a pond boiling in the sun.
Becky felt her stomach drop just as Jack grabbed onto Becky's arm and balanced his weight against her as he stepped up on the lower rail guard to look over the rail.
"I imagine only 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 Becky -- You know, they call you Silly Becky at the office for a reason. You leave all kinds of clues."
The boy struggled, and Becky responded, absentmindedly, by gently placing her hand around the boy's shoulder and pulling him back. Jack stepped off the rail but got back up and, again, balanced his weight on Becky’s shoulder.
“Leave me alone, Clara. It’s not any of your business where --.”
"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 onto just won't be running wooden horsies with all this electric in the air.”
She thought to count the red blades. Each one threw the muck water in a fit of --
“I guess Jackie and I will have to skip the park and go dine at the resort, take a stroll along the carpeted halls and gilded sconces, and get a good look at all those beautiful, young, happy couples. Real couples.”
"But maybe this time, you can make some more room for the next unfortunate thing to appear inside your busy chamber -- perhaps keep it there this time and not give into your Italian's insistence to go "''cross river" as they say."
"I think that little jewel has yet to go around the office. Oh, I suppose that I might be convinced to keep my rosy lips sealed with the right kind of help. 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. Interestingly, the red paddles were no longer a blur.
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 fluid; that slogged-down river muck. Always it goes: down the river. Red painted blades; the green and brown spilled over them like a green tea, with cream as the blades rolled over and over like a never-ending set of facts, less a merry-go-round of paddles and more a drowning set of rolling, red blades.
Becky found herself holding onto Jackie’s chest. She 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 pure bones under his pure, thin skin. The boy - the boy Jack -- he stiffened as he straightened his knees against the railing as if he were to crawl onto the warm, lazy sulk of mist that hung over the Ohio River like a late afternoon hammock. Becky felt the edge of her purse stabbing her breast again, sensed her thumb sliding over the two silver knobs; imagined the cold, metal clasps of her purse snapping shut. She heard it, too, the clasps snapping together, even above the thrashing blades of the Belle of Louisville and the clinks of tossed water reconciling with the river. It was lovely. Like a silver chain necklace dropping onto a night stand.
Paddle wheel clip is the property of Randall S. Wireman