The River Queen

A Memoir

Mary Morris

Henry Holt and Co.

Excerpt
 
~ 1 ~
 
It’s four in the morning and I’m sitting upright in bed. I’ve been awakened by a fork of lightning that illumines the sky; thunder rattles the boat. I’m lying on top of my sleeping bag in a nook near the engines and next to the head. The bed is on wheels and, as water strikes the hull, it rolls into the wall, then bangs back into the nook. I was hoping that by September I’d feel a hint of fall. But it’s pouring out and hot and muggy on board. My clothes, the sleeping bag, everything is damp.
 
My river pilot, Jerry, who has gone to his other houseboat for the night, says I’m safe unless there’s an electric storm—which there is. I’ve got my river planner open to the page that reads: “Lightning: Not the Type of Electricity to Mess With.” I read a brief description of something called a dielectric breakdown and a tale of an exploding boat. The advice under these circumstances is quite specific: Get off the river. But I’ve got nowhere to go.
 
I am in a place called Richmond Bay at a marina located on the Black River. Four miles downstream the Black merges with the Mississippi. There is an Ojibwa saying: At the place where the three rivers meet, there will be no wind. That place is La Crosse, Wisconsin, where this marina is located. According to the Ojibwa, there will never be a tornado in La Crosse and there never has been.
 
But there is a great deal of lightning and thunder. And there’s also a deluge. In the heaviness of the air mosquitos buzz. In the morning we are supposed to sail down the Mississippi on this houseboat. But when I arrived last night from New York, where I live, it was obvious that a good deal remained to be done. We have no running water. No electricity. The refrigerator isn’t hooked up. Neither is the stove.
 
There are no screens on the windows above my bed. If I crack one, the cabin fills with bugs. Our marine toilet lies in pieces on the bathroom floor, along with the instructions for assembly, which I have briefly perused. I’m not sure what else we don’t have, but I believe there is an issue with the starboard engine.
 
The drugs I’ve been taking these past few months for sleep and anxiety have worn off. Since my father’s death last May, I’ve awakened in the night, short of breath. Now it is the storm that frightens me. I hear strange noises—footsteps, and, I think, voices. Maybe it’s a radio. Someone or something runs along the pier.
 
In the shower stall, which is being used for storage, there’s an axe and a baseball bat, which Jerry showed me before he and Tom, our mechanic, left for the night. For now I’m alone as bolts shoot from the sky and waves slap the hull. My bed rolls as other houseboats clang into the dock.
 
In the flashes of light I see a mist rising, blending with the fog and rain into a gray soup. An electric palm tree, which marks this harbor, glows green in the night. There’s a gun on board, but Jerry didn’t say where.
 
 
When I look at the Mississippi and all its tributaries, I see the left hand of a musician with a twelve-note reach. A big hand that stretches clear across the country with its palm covering the Midwest. The thumb comes down somewhere in upstate New York, not far from Lake Ontario, first knuckle in Pittsburgh. The little finger keeps the beat in Helena, Montana, while the middle fingers play the blues up north in Bismarck, Minneapolis, Chicago. The wrist narrows at New Orleans.
 
My father played jazz piano years before I was born. He played house parties, bar mitzvahs, and for his friends. He never played on the South Side of Chicago, though he went to the “black and tans” on a Saturday night. He used to tell me he wasn’t very good, but that’s not how I remember it.
 
He still did what he called “fiddling” when I was a girl. He accompanied himself to corny tunes like “Smile” or “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” or lively ones like “I’m Looking Over a Four-Leaf Clover” with a little Art Tatum or Eddie Duchin swing. My mother claims, for reasons of her own, that I never heard my father play. He was a businessman, she’ll tell me, not a musician. But I recall the wide reach of his fingers. His foot tapping and head shaking as he kept the beat.
 
In the 1920s my father lived on the banks of the Mississippi and I was raised on his river tales. He sold ladies’ garments at Klein’s Department Store in Hannibal, Missouri, and my childhood was peppered with stories of the bucolic life. He had friends who kept a farm in the middle of the river on an island between Hannibal and Quincy, Illinois, and he spent his weekends there. For a time he told me he lived next door to Mark Twain’s boyhood home and that Twain’s house wasn’t any bigger “than a shoe box.” He said you could throw a stone into the river from his front porch.
 
The Mississippi, if you include its major branch, the Missouri, is over four thousand miles long, making it the longest river in the world. Only the Amazon and the Congo have as large a drainage basin—over 1,250,000 square miles. On a normal day the Mississippi carries one hundred thousand cubic feet downstream per second. At the peak of the great floods of 1993, which I witnessed from the vantage point of a hotel room in Kansas City, it carried one million cubic feet per second.
 
All my life I’ve thought about the river. I grew up in Illinois, and the Mississippi was its western border. I imagined that cowboys, Indians, and pioneers fought bloody battles on the other side. The first time I crossed the river was on a train going to Idaho. I was no more than five or six, but I had the run of that train, which had a dome car where I spent hours up high, watching the prairie zip by. That evening we sat in the dining car as the orange sun was disappearing behind the grassy plains. I’d never had dinner on a train before and I remember the white linen tablecloth, a red carnation in a vase, the Illinois towns speeding past.
 
We were going for a summer vacation, but my father wasn’t with us. He had stayed in Chicago for work and would join us in a week or two. My mother sat primly, riding backward, across from my brother, John, and me. In her blue dress with patent leather purse and white gloves resting in her lap, my mother puffed on a Pall Mall, wishing she was heading to Paris or Rome instead of to Idaho with her two rowdy children. Trains and dust and horses weren’t her idea of a dream holiday, but they were certainly, for a time at least, mine.
 
My brother and I were amazed that we could eat a hamburger on a moving train. We kept our eyes glued to the miles and miles of fields as they sped by. We pointed, shouting, “Cows, a barn!” Suddenly we clanged onto a bridge and there it was—wide and blue and churning. The river seemed to go on forever, and we were silent as we crossed it. As soon as we were on the other side, my mother turned to us and said, “Well, that’s it. We’re in the West now.” Then she glanced at the menu and ordered Dover sole and a Rob Roy.
 
After that I traveled back and forth across the Mississippi many times—going to Idaho in the summers, to camp in Colorado, driving with a rather wild cousin to her college in St. Louis—but the river never lost its allure. It became part of my landscape, my natural terrain. My father’s stories of living in Hannibal and his friend’s farm on the river took hold of my imagination. It became a piece of what I called home.
 
Unlike my mother who hungered for the big cities of Europe, and a man who’d take her there, my father always wanted a farm, and he spoke longingly of this one. Cattle grazed on these islands and the scent of apples filled the air. The house was white and clean and there wasn’t a sound except for rushing water and laundry flapping on a line. In the winter the water froze and you could put on your skates and glide across. He’d put his hands behind his back and slide along the carpet of our suburban home to show me.
 
At my house in Brooklyn I have a picture of him, taken in the 1920s. He is wearing a linen suit, a fedora, leaning against a Model T. The car is stopped on what looks like a dirt road and my father has a woman in a flapper dress on each arm and a cigarette dangling from his lips. He looks dashing with a slightly gangster air.
 
I hardly recognize him. I like to think he’s on his way to a speakeasy or a private club on the Indiana Dunes. He’ll stay until the wee hours, listening to the great cornet player Bix Beiderbecke and the Wolverines. I’ll never know who those women were hanging on his arms.
 
 
~ 2 ~
 
In the morning I wake to the sound of hammer on metal and someone shuffling on deck. Peering out from behind my green curtain, I see Jerry, who looks a bit like an aging Jimmy Buffett in his khakis, Hawaiian shirt, and baseball cap, carting provisions on board. He must hear me rummaging about. “Aloha,” he says. I gaze at my watch and it is just past six.
 
“Good morning,” I mutter back, still half asleep. The banging gets louder and seems nearby. Pulling the curtain on the aft door, I find myself staring at Tom’s burly back in a sleeveless, red Harley-Davidson T-shirt, muscles bulging, bent over the engine, not two feet from my sleeping nook. Grunting to himself, Tom stands inside the engine pit. At any moment I expect his girlfriend, Kim, will show up as well.
 
Tom’s big hands dip into the bowels of the engine, as he shakes his head. Around him are assorted wrenches, bolts, screws, things that look like fan belts. He’s got a can of diet Dew and about a dozen Chips Ahoy sitting on a rag. I hear a loud bang. “Hey, Tom,” Jerry shouts, “what’s happening?”
 
“Hole in the exhaust manifold, Sir,” Tom shouts back across the nook as I pretend to sleep.
 
“Hmm,” I hear Jerry mutter. “Can you fix her?”
 
“Gonna try.”
 
There is a yanking noise, like the guts of something being ripped out. “Violation!” Jerry shouts.
 
“Only way to do it, Sir.”
 
I am not a mechanic, but I know this does not look good. My head is reeling from the drugs I finally took to get back to sleep. Ativan, half an Ambien. Whatever the doctor would allow. I never used to do this. Pop pills. But after my father died, I found myself with my heart pounding in my chest. When my doctor asked how I was doing, I told him, “I don’t know how to explain it, but it’s as if something keeps jumping out from behind a door and shouting ‘boo!’”
 
He sent me to a therapist who sent me to a psychopharmacologist. A very nice man. The first time I met him I cried for two straight hours. “It hasn’t been a good summer,” I said. I told him that my father had just died and I wasn’t speaking to my mother, who refused to mourn his passing. My daughter, Kate, was leaving for college, and my last book hadn’t done very well. I told him I was heading down the Mississippi River in a houseboat with two strangers, and my husband was planning on spending his weekends doing road trips with our dog and some Creedence Clearwater Revival tapes.
 
When he asked how I was dealing with my anxiety, I replied, “With vodka.” He made a special note of this.
 
Since then I have been on an assortment of medications. Zoloft to make me happy, Ativan to calm me down. Ambien to make me sleep. I’m trying to wake up, but the cocktail is taking its toll. I’m groggy. I’m also desperate to pee into something that is not a jelly jar and have a cup of coffee, none of which seem imminent.
 
I ease my way out of my nook into a pair of flip-flops and my Uncle Sidney’s hospital robe from thirty years ago, which for some reason I have brought along, and pull aside the lime green curtain that separates me from the galley and the helm. Jerry greets me with a double shot of mocha from a machine in town and a copy of USA Today.
 
“Thanks,” I say.
 
He mentions that Tom’s girlfriend, Kim, has “aborted the mission.” The night before I had dinner with Kim as she made her case for going down the river with us. She ambushed me over sauteed trout, telling me she’d worked hard on the boat and wanted to come with us. When I said no, there wasn’t really room, she asked if she could just sail with us for a day or two. I couldn’t say no to that.
 
“I got a note from her,” he explains. “She’s not coming with.”
 
“Really?” I could still see Kim, a blue-eyed woman with a mane of auburn hair, talking nonstop about her five children and the farm they all live on. Kim told me, “I’ve got pigs, cows, and lambs. I raise them by hand. I cuddle and give them names. They come when I call. When it’s time to harvest, I take out my .44 and shoot them right between the eyes.”
 
“Maybe it’s for the best,” I reply.
 
Jerry shrugs. “Kim’s a good woman. She worked hard to get this boat into the water.” He pauses, “But, as they say in Norwegian, less to worry about.”
 
I glance at the headlines of USA Today. It is September 12, 2005, just two weeks after Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast. “Some Say Congress Is Going Too Far on Aid; Officials: Rush May Encourage Waste, Fraud.” And “Disaster Stays on New Yorkers’ Minds.” An image of people sleeping on cots in the Astrodome catches my eye. This journey was to take me to New Orleans. But nothing is certain now.
 
Clutching my towel and cosmetic bag, I clasp my robe around me. “I think I’ll get a shower.”
 
“Oh, take your time,” Jerry says, and I have a feeling he means it.
 
 
The boathouse up the hill is a kind of warehouse filled with machines, pumps, a message board, assorted boating manuals, sporting-life magazines, a refrigerator, showers, and a toilet. In the shower I put the water on full blast. I slip out of my Uncle Sidney’s robe, though I am careful to keep my flip-flops on (athlete’s foot, my daughter swears, loves communal showers). Hot water spills over my body.
 
As I walk out, towel-drying my hair, I find Tom with a large metal object that resembles a horse’s stomach in a vise. He’s poking a finger through a rusty hole. “I’ve gotta fix this manifold before we can sail,” he says.
 
“Yes.” I’m standing on the concrete floor in my bathrobe, looking at his grease-stained finger. “I can see the problem.”
 
“Well, you know, Mary, you sleep right next to the engines.” He looks at me with his dark, serious eyes. “I don’t want you to die of exhaustion.”
 
It takes me a moment. “Right, thanks. I wouldn’t want to either.” Tom turns back to the manifold with his soldering iron. Carly Simon is singing the words “Don’t go away” on his boom box. On the wall there’s a poster of half a dozen golden retriever puppies and a sign that reads if this is the first day of the rest of my life, then i’m in real trouble.
 
In the parking lot I walk by a pickup truck. A little black dog with beady eyes and wiry hair sits in the driver’s seat. It looks just like Toto. When I go up to say hello, the dog goes nuts, barking, flipping in the seat, baring its teeth, ready to rip my throat out. “Jesus,” I say, backing away.
 
“Hey!” Tom shouts as he comes out of the boathouse. “Samantha Jean, cut that out!”
 
“That’s Samantha Jean?” I recognize the name of Tom’s houseboat, and I know it’s named after the dog who will be traveling with us.
 
“Yeah,” Tom says. “She’s a little territorial about the car.” He goes over and bends his face toward the rat terrier. “Aw, she’ll get used to you after a while. Just don’t go near her or try and pet her or anything like that until she comes to you. Sammy, you be a good girl now. That’s right. Gimme five.”
 
And the dog slaps his hand with her paw.
 
As I head back down to the boat, I ponder why I am doing this. I have a nice house, a loving husband, a dog that doesn’t want to kill me. Surely I could have stayed home. But for whatever reason, this river has gotten under my skin. Shuffling through a shaded picnic area, I pass two old guys, one pudgy, one thin, pouring their morning coffee from a thermos. I smell the rich, dark liquid steaming in their plastic mugs.
 
I’m sniffing the air and trying to sneak by when one of the men—moon-faced with glasses—says, “So you going downriver with those fellows?”
 
“Yes, I am,” I say. He takes a big sip of coffee. If he offered me some, I wouldn’t say no. But he doesn’t.
 
“And that dog?”
 
“That’s right.”
 
He raises his mug at me. “Well, I wish you luck.” He goes back to looking out at the river. “I used to keep a boat and a slip here.”
 
I sit down at a table a few feet from theirs. “You don’t take her out anymore?”
 
He shakes his head. “My wife’s got Alzheimer’s. She’ll tell you the day of the week when our daughter was born, but she can’t remember if she left the gas on. Can’t leave her alone anymore.” His eyes gaze down the bank and settle on our boat. A pair of swans with their cygnets swim by. “I’m gonna sell mine soon.”
 
“You ever been downstream?” I ask them.
 
“Oh, yeah,” the thin man says. “But I like it up here between Wabasha and Dubuque.”
 
“Naw, I like it further south,” his friend chimes in. “From Davenport to Alton. There’s more to see.”
 
“It’s God’s Country where we are,” the other replies. “Hey, that big guy, Tom, he used to work on boats before, didn’t he?”
 
“Before what?” I ask.
 
“I don’t know. I think something happened. . . .”
 
“What happened?” I ask.
 
He waves it off with his hand. “Oh, if he’s going downriver with Jerry, I’m sure he’s a good guy.”
 
“Yeah,” the thin man nods as if he’s trying to convince himself. Suddenly Tom emerges from the boathouse, holding up the manifold in a clenched fist like a barbarian with his spoils. He shouts down to the boat to Jerry, “I think she’ll hold for now!”
 
“For now?” I ask, “What does that mean?”
 
Tom looks at me through disgruntled eyes. “For as long as she holds.”
 
This seems to satisfy Jerry, who begins transporting the food he’s been keeping in the marina workshop fridge onto the boat and into the cooler on the deck. Eggs, orange juice, the largest loaf of Wonder Bread I’ve ever seen. Milk, a two-pound slab of Wisconsin cheddar. A family-size package of Chips Ahoy, which Tom stows above the fridge and devours by the fistful. There’s also two loaves of chocolate bread and a huge tin of molasses cookies.
 
One of the cronies turns to me and says, “I’ve never seen so much food going into Jerry’s boat. Lotsa beer. But never that much food.”
 
Jerry carts cases of diet Mountain Dew, diet Coke, and La Crosse beer in a wheelbarrow, and I follow in my flip-flops and robe. “Beer’s for ballast,” Jerry quips as he dumps a case into the cooler and smothers it with ice.
 
My husband, Larry, suggested running a background check on these guys, but I resisted. I was seeing myself as Katharine Hepburn in the African Queen, but Larry was thinking Natalie Wood. Traveling with two river pilots named Tom and Jerry seemed like a safe bet to me. I envisioned a cartoon cat chasing around a savvy mouse. Now I’m not so sure.
 
I’ve read stories of pilots who, for one reason or another, needed to lighten their loads. Before the river was managed and dredged, ships often ran aground. About a hundred years ago in the late fall when the river runs low, a packet ship filled with German immigrants got wedged onto a sandbar. In order to get off, the packet boat unloaded the sixty or so immigrants and their families. They unloaded their luggage. Then, as the boat floated off the sandbar, the crew left them in the middle of winter on Island 65 with minimum provisions, never to be heard from again.
 
The river is filled with hundreds of nameless islands and secluded backwaters, those dark spaces on the navigational maps only experienced river pilots know. Ideal for depositing human remains. If I complain about the coffee or if I don’t want to swab the deck, what’s to stop them? The eagles would pick me down to the bones. The truth is, I don’t know these guys from Adam. I’m going on instinct and, as my husband is quick to point out, I’ve been wrong before.
 
Copyright © 2007 by Mary Morris. All rights reserved.