The Rush of Water

C.J. Spataro

Dolores drums her fingers on the steering wheel as she sits in her car. The early morning sun bakes her skin through the filter of the windshield. In other cars, other drivers and passengers are waiting their turn just like she is. Welcome to Canada, the sign up ahead reads, Bienvenue.

To her left are both the American and Canadian Falls. Rising columns of thunder and mist reach for the sky. To her right, the churning waters of the Niagara River course north and east to Lake Ontario. She imagines she can feel the vibrations of the Falls as they pound against the rocks below.   

She inches her car closer to the customs booth. It won’t be long now, she thinks as she surveys the interior of the car for any signs that might give her away. The backseat is empty, except for some discarded fast food bags and Coke cans. Her purse is on the seat beside her. The gun she’s taken from Charlie is wrapped in her underwear and buried in her suitcase, which is stowed safely in the trunk.

Outside Buffalo, she tuned the radio to CBC 2, because the DJ she had been listening to was droning on and on about Columbine—the carnage, the mayhem. She’s had enough of men’s voices for now. At first, the classical music soothed her jangled nerves, but now the music is harsh and jarring. The Rite of Spring, the announcer says. It sounds more like the pounding on the gates of hell. The throbbing drumbeats keep time with the blinking brake lights of the cars in front of her. Red. Red. Red. Red.

Dolores switches off the radio and closes her eyes but the vision comes anyway, as it has several times since she left Kansas City: splotches of bright crimson splash against the stark white porcelain, then cool relief as the water comes and washes it all away.

A car horn blares behind her and she looks up, the vision fades, and she sees the customs officer waving her on. She smiles at him, blinking in the sunlight as she rolls down her window. Her teeth feel sticky, her mouth dry. Unlike the last time, she’s had no time to plan.

“You all right there, miss?” the customs officer asks.

“Fine,” Dolores says. “I guess I was daydreaming.”

The officer nods to her. “Beautiful day for it, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” she says, studying him sitting in his booth, young and smooth, fresh. Unlike the American officers, he isn’t wearing a gun. Dolores thinks he looks clean, untainted, but she knows this can’t be true. Everyone is tainted by something. She touches a fading bruise at the corner of her mouth.

“Where are you from?” he asks.

“New York City,” she lies. She takes a breath, looks the officer directly in the eye, and smiles again.

“What’s your destination?”

“Niagara Falls.” She sits up a little straighter. Maybe she will blend in here, where there are so many people from so many different places.

She wasn’t sure where she should go. For days she’d found herself driving east, then north—not knowing why, just knowing that when she found the place that felt right she would stop. That had worked the last time.

“What’s the planned length of your stay?” he asks.

“A few days.”

“Your name?”

She runs her hand through her hair, hoping she looks relaxed, not like a fugitive with blood-splattered clothes and a gun in her trunk. “Sunny. Sunny Sant’angelo.”

“Welcome to Canada, Miss Sant’angelo. Have a good day.”

Dolores pulls away from the customs booth, twisting to her left so she can see the Falls. She hasn’t been to Niagara since her childhood. Charlie always talked about taking her, but like so many things with Charlie, he just never delivered. Now she’s here, on her own again, no longer Dolores Hobbs or Betty-Ann Tucker but Sunny Sant’angelo. That mess with Charlie Hobbs all behind her.

As Dolores nears the end of the bridge, she turns left onto the Niagara Parkway so she can get a clear view of the water. It’s early still, but hundreds of tourists crowd the walkways and railings along the parkway. Families cluster together in shiny blue and yellow rain ponchos wet with mist from the Falls. The right side of the road is covered with flowerbeds bursting with the flushed and buttery hues of spring. Dolores rolls down her window, lets the mist fill the car as she nears a sign that reads Table Rock Complex. She wants to get out of her car, let the mist spill over her, but she decides not to. There will be time enough later. What she needs to do now is find a hotel room. She’s been traveling for days and she’s tired.

She makes a right off the parkway and eventually finds herself driving down Lundy’s Lane, a benign strip of motels and restaurants. She settles on the Bonaventure Inn, partly because she likes the name but mostly because it’s right next to a liquor store.

She registers for the room, writing the name Sunny Sant’angelo for the first time and admiring the femininity of the swirling S’s, the wink of the apostrophe. Smiling to herself, she pays for three days in advance with cash so the clerk won’t ask her for a credit card. Then she walks across the parking lot to the liquor store, where she buys a liter of Crown Royal instead of her usual. Why not splurge? She should celebrate.

Before unloading the car, Dolores pops into the drug store on the other side of the parking lot with the whisky under her arm. She’s thinking a new hair color might be in order, maybe some new lipstick. At the counter, she piles toothpaste, shampoo, deodorant, Butternut Blonde no. 80, and Cherry-Luscious red lipstick in front of the sales clerk.

“This’ll look good on you,” the sales clerk says, lifting the box of dye into the shopping bag.

“You think so?” Dolores asks. “I just thought it would be fun to do something different.”

The girl nods. “Don’t worry, it’ll be great. That’ll be twenty-seven fifty. Forty percent discount for U.S.”

Dolores digs in her purse and hands the girl U.S. currency. She’s going to have to exchange her money later, she thinks, absorb some Canadian culture, learn the lingo.

***

She struggles with her suitcases, her purse, the whisky, and the shopping bag. She manages to drag it all down the hall to her room and slips the key into the lock. The room is spare but clean, the television bolted to the dresser, the remote wired to the nightstand next to the bed. In the corner of the room, a gas fireplace is sealed behind a large rectangle of glass. Dolores walks over and flips the switch then watches as the flames lick the edges of the glass, first orange, then red, then blue. Blue, like the flash from a revolver in the dark, she thinks.

Dolores fills a plastic cup from the bathroom with whisky. “Here’s to you, Charlie Hobbs,” she says, raising the cup to the fireplace, “but mostly, here’s to Sunny.”

Dolores drains the rest of her drink, refills her cup, then moves to the bathroom to dye her hair. She puts on the plastic gloves included with the kit and smears the dye all over her head, making sure it reaches all the way to her roots. The smell of ammonia permeates the room and she sits on the edge of the tub and sips her drink. Later she will go for a walk down by the Falls, see the colored lights dancing in the darkness, feel the mist on her skin, imagine the rush of water as it plunges over the edge of the Falls and crushes the rocks below. It will all be so beautiful.

Dolores strips off her clothes and decides to get into the shower to rinse out the hair dye. Steam fills the bathroom and she steps under the spray. As she watches the rust-colored pools and rivulets course at her feet, it occurs to her that maybe Charlie’s only been stunned. Maybe right now he’s stumbling around the house, pissed as hell that she isn’t there to pick up the mess or wipe the blood off his favorite bowling trophy. That would be funny, she thinks, to see him like that. Maybe he wouldn’t even remember what happened, like on one of those stupid TV shows, where the person gets amnesia from a whack on the head.

***

Dolores falls asleep on the scratchy hotel bedspread with the plastic cup half filled with whisky in her hand and a travel brochure tucked under her chin. She doesn’t wake up until early in the evening. Her sleep has been deep and dreamless and she wakes hungry. After dressing, she decides to go for a drive, see the Falls, get something to eat. Before she leaves the room she takes Charlie’s gun, still wrapped in a pair of her underwear, and shoves it in her purse.

Outside, the air is cool and she pulls her coat around her tightly as she slides behind the wheel of her car. She makes her way down Lundy’s Lane toward Clifton Hill, following the signs directing her to the Falls. The gaudy lights of the tourist attractions amuse and repulse her at the same time. There are so many people—like downtown Kansas City at lunchtime—all of them pushing and laughing. She can hear music blaring from loudspeakers through the closed windows of her car. She licks her lips and turns right at the Falls. The colors are spectacular, just as she imagined they would be. The thunder of the water rumbles above the din of the crowd and she wants to stop, to reach her hand down into the rushing stream, to be so close she can feel its weight, but there are just too many people.

She decides to see where the road will take her, remembering from the brochure that the Parkway stretches east and west along the length of the Niagara River. Dolores heads west through Chippawa, toward Lake Erie. Once she passes an old power plant, the river quiets and she marvels at the beautiful mansions facing the water. Docked boats rock gently as she passes by and she wonders what kinds of people—what kinds of men—live in these elaborate homes.

It seems she is alone on the road. She wonders why more people aren’t out for a drive—the scenery is so beautiful. The dark sky is heavy with stars. Like her last night in Alabama, she thinks. Like so many nights in Kansas.

Overland Park had certainly been a step up from Tuscaloosa, where she’d lived in a rickety doublewide with Mickey, her husband before Charlie. But Overland Park was nothing compared to what she sees now. She hasn’t thought about Mickey for some time. Mickey had been worse than Charlie—he never had a job, would steal money out of her purse for beer. In the end, like Charlie, he hadn’t left her any choices. Maybe a Canadian man would be different.

Not far from Fort Erie, Dolores spots a small bar with a miniature lighthouse out front. The sign advertises the best ribs in Niagara. Still a little unsure of herself, she wants to try some things out, see what it feels like to be Sunny Sant’angelo.

Dolores finds a parking spot in back. She lingers for a moment at the channel that runs alongside the bar and counts the number of docked boats before walking inside. Boat oars and old life preservers hang on the rough-hewn barn paneling covering the walls. Couples hunch over their dinners in corner booths and at the bar. Dolores smiles. No one even looks up when she enters the room, and she’s glad for the moment to remain inconspicuous.

She stands in the doorway and scans the bar for a strategically placed empty seat. At the end of the bar she sees a man sitting alone. It’s hard for her to tell if he’ll be worth any effort, but his gestures are grand and he seems to be engaging other patrons in conversation. She flashes him a smile as she slides onto the stool next to him, imagining that this is something someone named Sunny would do.

The man sitting next to her has pushed his dirty plate of consumed ribs off to one side and Dolores nods to them as the bartender approaches.

“So, are the ribs here really the best in Niagara?” she asks.

“They are.” His skin glows in the candlelight and she thinks of the customs officer—so young and fresh. This kid is probably right out of college, still living at home with Mom and Dad. When she was his age she was still Betty-Ann and on her way to Kansas City.

“Great, I’m famished,” she says, setting her purse on the bar. “I’ll take a full rack with an order of fries and a Crown Royal, neat.”

He nods and starts to walk away.

“Make it a double, would you, sugar?” Dolores calls after him.

“Sure, no problem,” the kid says from the register.

Dolores pulls a compact from her purse, careful not to reveal the underwear, and checks her make-up. That Cherry-Luscious looks delicious, she thinks, and she reapplies it for good measure. Then she blots her lips on a cocktail napkin, leaving the imprint of a kiss over a blue lighthouse. She steals a sideways glance at the man sitting next to her. He’s been checking her out. She can feel it and now it’s her turn: navy topsiders, expensive jeans, a calfskin leather jacket. She wonders which fancy house on the Parkway is his. She needs to think bigger, better. Better men, bigger money.

The bartender slides her drink and some silverware in front of her. She lays her hand on top of his before he can pull it away.

“What’s your name, sugar? I always like to know my bartender’s name.” She can tell he’s uncomfortable, so she lets go of his hand.

He smiles at her anyway. “Jeremy.”

“Jeremy,” she says. “That’s a nice name. I had a boyfriend named Jeremy once.” She’s never known anyone named Jeremy, but she likes making the kid nervous.

“Have you ever had a boyfriend named Claude?” says the man sitting next to her. When he speaks his voice is thick with drink and he has an accent Dolores doesn’t recognize.

“No,” she says, pushing a blonde wisp of hair behind her ear. “But there’s always a first time.”

He smiles as she speaks, revealing rows of straight white teeth. “You must be an American,” he says.

She swallows, licks her lips. What would Sunny say? Something witty. “It’s that obvious?”

He pats her arm. “My second wife and I traveled extensively through the American South. Are you from Georgia?”

“Alabama, actually.” She answers too quickly. She hasn’t planned for Sunny to be from Alabama. She looks down the bar, hoping the bartender will come back and distract him so she has a little more time to think.

“Ah, Birmingham, the Pittsburgh of the South.”

She takes a sip of her drink, tries to relax. “More like the armpit of the South.”

His laugh is throaty and a little too loud. Dolores watches him light a cigarette and asks him for one, even though she hasn’t smoked since high school.

“So, where are you from?” she asks.

“Isn’t it obvious?” he says.

She shakes her head.

“You are an American.”

Both of her hands close around her glass. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

He shifts his body toward her. “I didn’t mean to offend you. It’s just that I always forget how Americans have so little knowledge of the world outside their own.”

Dolores doesn’t answer.

“For instance, who is Jean Chrétien?”

She shrugs. She doesn’t like this. It feels like he’s mocking her. “I don’t know. A hockey player?”

Claude laughs, slaps his hands on the bar. He looks to the other patrons sitting around them. “See, this is what I mean. I can name all the American presidents of the twentieth century and you don’t even know the name of the Canadian Prime Minister.”

Dolores turns away, looks at him over her shoulder. “I’m sure he played hockey at some point.”

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” he says, still chuckling. “I’m sure he did. Everyone in Canada does, eh?”

Dolores shrugs again. Her dinner has arrived and she digs into the ribs. Maybe it’s too soon, she thinks. Maybe she just needs a little more time for Sunny to emerge.

Claude touches her bare shoulder. Her blouse is sleeveless and his fingers are rough against her skin.

“You must forgive my bad manners,” he says. “Let me buy you a drink, please.” He signals to the bartender for another round.

“I should probably just walk away,” she says, wiping her mouth. “But I’ve never been very good at that.”

The bartender produces their drinks and Claude raises his in a toast.

“Here’s to improved diplomatic relations.”

Dolores feels herself giving in and clinks her glass up against his. “So where are you from?” she says, turning back to her dinner.

“I grew up in a small town in northern Quebec.” He lays his hand on his chest, lowers his eyes. “I’m a not so humble man from very humble beginnings.”

“Really?” This seems unlikely to her but she shrugs it off.

“Really,” Claude says, slapping his thigh for emphasis. “I was so poor as a child that we used to eat squirrel for dinner.”

“My granddaddy used to love—” she stops herself. Sunny wasn’t supposed to have a granddaddy.

Claude looks at her intently and she shifts in her seat.

“Your granddaddy what?”

“Oh, nothing.” She waves her hand at him. “So what do you do, now that you can afford to eat something besides squirrel?”

“I’m the CEO of one of the largest insurance companies in Canada.”

Dolores looks at him closely. His face is creased and worn but still handsome. Tanned from days on his boat, she thinks.

“You think I’m arrogant, don’t you?”

“Humility is overrated,” she says. “Being good is boring.”

He laughs. “I agree. Too bad none of my wives ever saw it that way.”

“Sounds to me like you never married the right woman.”

“Ah, too true, I’m afraid.” He looks away from her, his shoulders are slack as he sips his drink. “You’re just trying to get even with me.”

“Trust me, sugar, I have my ways of getting even,” she says, reaching out for her handbag.

“I’m sure you do,” he says. He turns to her and looks into her eyes. “A woman as beautiful as you must have all kinds of ways of getting even with men.”

Dolores looks away. “I’ll never eat all this,” she says, pushing the plate of ribs between them. “Please, help yourself.”

“You’re sweet, chère.”

Dolores sets her purse on the chair next to her. “So how many times have you been married?”

“I’m ashamed to say.”

“Come on now, a big CEO of a company and all?” She moves in a little closer. “You can tell me.”

“You are teasing me.” He stares into his empty glass.

“Seriously, sugar,” Dolores says, running a finger along his forearm. “It’s no big deal.”

“Four.”

She leans her elbow on the bar, sips her drink. “Four times, huh?”

“How about you?” he says and takes a French fry off her plate.

“Me?” Dolores flicks some barbeque sauce from the corner of her mouth with her tongue. “I was married once when I was very young, but my husband died.”

He touches her hand and she likes how warm it feels against her own, but she gently pulls it away, lowers her eyes.

“One night, drunk as a skunk, he decides to walk home from the bar.” Well, not home, Dolores thinks, not to where they lived. She swallows, picturing the night, the lonely dirt road, her granddaddy’s old beat-up ‘67 pickup.

“Well, you know how it goes with drunks,” she says, looking up at Claude. “It was dark and someone just ran him over. They never did find out who.”

“I’m so sorry.”

She shrugs. “Don’t be.”

Claude stares straight ahead. She can see he doesn’t know what to say and she’s afraid she’s said too much.

“Sometimes, I think it would have been better if my wives had died,” Claude says. “I know that must sound cruel or crazy.” He reaches for her hand. “I don’t mean to be insensitive. I’m sure you loved your husband very much.”

Dolores puts her hand on top of his and she sees that there is barbeque sauce under her fingernails.

“It’s just that whenever I have to see one of them, it reminds me of my failure,” he says. “I don’t like to fail.”

His face is close to her now and she can see for the first time that his eyes are blue. She can smell his sweet whisky breath mixed with expensive cologne. She finds herself nodding in agreement, not sure if this is what Sunny would do at all.

“I know, I know. When someone dies, you can mourn them and then move on.” She squeezes his hand. “Sometimes it is easier.”

“I don’t even know your name.”

Dolores smiles. “Sunny. Sunny Sant’angelo.”

“Sunny. That is a perfect name for you, so beautiful.” He waves to the bartender, who walks over, frowning. “Another round for myself and the lady.”

“I don’t know, Mr. Germaine,” the bartender says.

“What is that supposed to mean?”

The bartender stands mute, his arms folded across his chest.

Claude stands up and sways into Dolores as he fumbles for his wallet. The weight of his body feels nicer than she expects.

“With all the money I spend in this place.” He shakes his head. “Can I at least buy the lady a drink?”

Dolores slides off her bar stool. Claude is tall, she thinks, taller even than Charlie. “I really should be getting back to my hotel. I’d like to see the Falls tonight before they switch off the lights.”

“If you’re sure, Madame,” Claude says.

“Absolutely.” But she’s not sure about anything.

Claude shrugs and opens his wallet.

“I’ll just put it on your tab,” the bartender says.

Claude mumbles something in French and shoves his wallet in his back pocket.

“Maybe I should give you a ride home?” Dolores says. “You turned out to be kind of nice.”

“A ride would be lovely,” Claude says, leaning over her. “Just let me use the men’s room first.”

As he shuffles off to the restroom, Dolores gathers her things together, slips on her coat.

The bartender leans in over the bar. “Don’t worry about your dinner. I’ll put that on the tab, too.”

“Thank you, Jeremy.” She reaches into her purse, pulls out a twenty, and puts it in his hand. “You’ve been very sweet.”

“Thanks,” he says as he crumples the bill into his palm.

Dolores watches the bartender’s expression change as they both see Claude standing in the doorway waiting.

“Are you sure you want to take him home? I’ve seen him like this before. It might be better to just let him walk.”

“And let the same thing happen to him that happened to my poor old Mickey?” Dolores smiles and pulls her handbag closed. “Don’t worry about me, sugar. I can take care of myself.”

#

C.J. Spataro is the MFA program director at Rosemont College and the editorial director of Philadelphia Stories and PS Books. She is a Pennsylvania Council on the Arts grant winner, and her short fiction has appeared in or is forthcoming in Iron Horse Literary Review, Switchgrass Review, Cahoodadoodaling, Permafrost, The Baltimore Review, Painted Bride Quarterly, and others. Poetry is forthcoming in Ovunque Siamo. Her work has also been anthologized in Another Breath, Forgotten Philadelphia, Extraordinary Gifts, and 50 Over 50.