The mere thought of viewing the photo made my palms greasy. I supposed even a lion tamer beats back the fear of entering the cage through repetition so I vowed to study if often, until I either understood the intricacies contained within or it lost its power over me. My two older brothers stood on either side of me like bookends—much too well-groomed and handsome for lions. Both of them surely settled now with respectable wives, customary jobs, and promising offspring. One would think sufficient enough new memories to have crowed out the old. Cold as it seemed I would have preferred such an arrangement as expectations of others creates a heavy burden for a traveling man.
My brothers were born better men than most — the type whom after all this time still couldn’t completely enjoy an after dinner drink without the liquor turning bitter against their tongues as an obligatory thought of their younger brother’s whereabouts and latest misadventures danced through their heads. I’m certain the marauding thought prompted a different set of questions as I believe the human mind is comprised of a unique labyrinth of dusty paths, but just as every winding river finds its way to a greater body of water I fear each in their own time arrived at the same destination, the corner of Misunderstanding Lane and Bewilderment Boulevard, completely perplexed and heartbroken as to how their younger brother continued to roam like a tumble-weed.
Momma said from the onset of pregnancy she knew I was different—said she felt it rumbling in her belly like thunder. With each passing birthday I became more aware of this restless thing that churned inside of me—an insatiable appetite for adventure; a wolf that feasts and moves on quickly, afraid that if he settles in one spot for more than a night the desire of pursuit might escape in a dream. He has glimpsed the nightmare before; another warrior too deflated and weak to stand. Even the arrival of dawn cannot stir him; instead she weeps bitterly knowing the power to revive and restore such things lies outside the realm of a rising sun. I fear the warmth of ten-thousand suns cannot loosen the icy grip of a crippling frost; descended under the cover of night, settling heavy on his coat, layer upon layer until it seeps into the marrow of his bones—poisoning from the inside out.
For a man inexplicably drawn to the road the options seemed few; the answer deceptively simple. Unless a man carve out his insides completely or invite the deadly frost (either prospect more appalling than appealing); he must trudge onward, maintain a steady pace, and never look back.
If you consider such an illogical and poorly conceived manner of plotting a man’s course for life a philosophy, it served me well for nearly a decade. I suspect the freedom from being obliged to anyone for anything is what initially draws a man to a nomadic life-style, but it’s the acquired taste of adrenaline that keeps him chained there. Cast into a sea of drowning rats I learned to hold my breath and float to the top. I became skilled in the art of deception, playing the role of whatever would benefit me at the expense of those around me. In my travels I discovered North or South, city or burg; the world is overrun with liars and frauds. A full ninety-nine in one-hundred men would rather spend a week’s time apologizing for, rather than a minute embracing whom it is they truly are and will likely never be. And I have a sneaking suspicion the lone exception nothing more than a figment of an eternal optimist’s imagination. Conservatively I had re-created myself a hundred times over without anyone who could dispute even the smallest detail. Today would be no different.
Perhaps someday gambling would become an acceptable use of one’s spare time and earnings, but for now the God-fearing folks along the Mississippi would sooner invite Beelzebub himself to Sunday dinner. In such matters of deep disagreement and antiquated thinking it is commonplace to assume you are born belonging to one extreme or the other. One party believing that giving an inch to the opposition earns you a one-way ticket to a place of burning damnation, and the other side unable to conceive a haven of eternal rest worth the cost of such closed-minded company. For now the gambling houses peppering the hillsides were boarded up or had been burned to the ground forcing those struck with the ‘illness’ to open water where as of yet no restrictions existed.
The shadowy likeness of chandeliers hung above each table; the sparkle of crystal stifled by a layer of dust produced by a coal-burning engine; gangly fixtures producing enough light to distinguish the ball room from a root-cellar but not enough to discourage the gathering of rodents. Like paper dolls cut from the same flawed stock, each of them saddled with elongated faces; pasty and gaunt—too far removed from a good night’s rest. Their movements were slow and mechanical, feeding on the last fumes of alcohol boiling in their bellies. As I moved throughout the space I discovered a reoccurring theme; it appeared to me everything and everyone had given up the better parts of themselves to come here. Overall, an eclectic collection of zombies, but then I spotted a gentleman of substance with an attractive female dangling from his arm and I smelled opportunity.
From the instant we locked eyes I believe we both recognized the danger in staring too long at another like us. I understood being the first to break the steely exchange constituted a perceived weakness, but I calculated it a better option than allowing him to prove it completely. He flashed a wry grin, pleased that I would surrender a first round so quickly. Despite his genteel disguise the man standing before me was as dangerous and poisonous a creature I’d encountered.
A naïve moment longer and I would have fallen under his spell completely. Disengaged from this silent brand of warfare I observed my adversary in a completely different light. Suit, shoes, and top hat, white as driven snow; a telegraphing of innocence, designed to delay the discovery of a blackened-heart beating beneath. I determined the monocle over his left eye less an ocular necessity than an instrument of war as I could still feel the scorching effects of it like a noon-day sun. Although his movements seemed random, his repositioning about the table was efficient and purposeful designed purely to gain advantage over another; like a boa constrictor ratcheting his grip. A mere three feet separating us suddenly seemed risky.
“I find it quite stuffy down here. Think I’ll go topside for a smoke.”
Over the years I learned self-preservation comes instinctively. I didn’t recall commanding the words that left my lips, only the actions that kept me a man of my word.
I discovered a measure of peace nestled in the muted sounds of a river-boat’s paddle slapping against the current. Without demanding any sort of attention the sun drooped into the shadows of the hickories lining the shore. I toyed with aligning the lit end of my cigarette and drawing hard enough to match her hue. Burrowing deeper into the safety of branches she appeared to smile—perhaps at such foolishness that any man would dabble at reproducing nature. Along with an occasional chuckle was the din of several quiet private conversations melting together, proving to me this place and those who loitered here were in complete contrast of those below. The topsiders were like my brothers. Perhaps by month’s end I would return home. It was always with good conscience I made such plans, perhaps a dozen times or more, never to act upon them. I wondered quietly if I’d reached such a level of decay that my own thoughts could not be trusted.
During a brief exchange with a topsider I ascertained the name of the well-dressed gambler. The stranger hinted that Mr. Cleary came from old money, enough that he felt comfortable wagering a good percentage of it nightly on cards. I had yet to inquire about the female accompanying Mr. Cleary when a disturbance sent the topsiders scattering like mice. I turned to my new acquaintance to find the space on the bench as barren as a winter’s field. I recognized the flashy female slinking across the deck as the very same hanging from the arm of Mr. Cleary only moments earlier. I supposed it under his direction and part of a bigger plan that she approached me now unescorted.
“Is the seat next to you taken?”
Her voice arrived much softer than expected. I wished to respond cleverly and normally weaving a web of words, whether a small smattering of the truth or a complete fabrication, flowed as freely from my lips as water welling from a spring, but it took every ounce of concentration I could summon to ignore the intoxicating aroma of butterflies. I supposed it a costly perfume but the essence rather completely captured what I imagined such an elegant creature of the sky to smell like. Despite the waning light of day the beauty of her classic facial features sparked an aura of radiance, but the manner in which the purple cloth clung to her exquisite frame was perhaps her most disarming feature.
“Feel free to sit, Madam Butterfly.”
She stared at me as if I had two heads. Upon realizing my response I now wished for two—one that might be assigned to stay on point and responsibly carry on a civil and productive conversation, leaving the other glassy-eyed and drooling to shamelessly record her every detail. And when she had left and the three of us settled down for the night we would gladly allow the foolish head to talk us to sleep.
“My sincerest apologies for the foolish speech that follows the consumption of too many drinks. The seat is open and you are welcome to it.”
Unlike others where laughter erupts in choppy and awkward bursts, it flowed from her like a sonnet begging to be written down. Still standing she bent gracefully at the waist and drew within striking distance. No stranger to being slapped sharply across the cheek, I braced myself.
“What would say if I told you that I had my eye on you from the moment you entered the ballroom and not once did I see you order a drink?”
“What if I told you, good lady, that I carry a flask of fine Irish Whisky and it is nearly empty?”
She folded like cotton on the bench next to me, much softer and nearer than expected, then in a sultry manner she drew her lower lip between her teeth and smiled.
“If not for shattering your expectation of an innocent doe I might simply reach inside your jacket and check for myself. But to save us both the discomfort of gossiping mouths I will instead inform you that I’m well within proximity to smell alcohol on your breath, and the absence of such makes you a professional liar!”
I don’t imagine the look of surprise on my face significantly removed from that of Goliath’s expression when struck in the forehead with David’s stone. This woman was either an exceedingly good judge of character or a hound sent to flush a nervous quail from the brambles. I suspected and hoped the latter.
“At the risk of sounding pointed, did your husband send you out here?”
She laughed again, nearly as gracefully as before.
“Yes and no, I suppose. First, Mr. Cleary is definitely not my husband and yes, daddy sent me up to extend an invitation to you.”
Without warning and disclosing a single word more she twirled around on the bench, stretched out on her back, and laid her head in my lap.
I nervously swiveled in both directions. “So much for the gossiping mouths”, I laughed.
“My name is Miranda Cleary. Question of the night—if the world caught fire and you could keep only one would you save the fabulously starry skies along the river or rescue Michael Angelo’s greatest works?”
The warmth of such an attractive woman’s head seeping through the fabric caused my mind to run in circles. The thought of using my fingers to smooth the fabric of her dress flashed through. Only after flushing it completely could I give sufficient answer.
“I’m Henry Carter, pleased to meet you Miranda. Well, ma’am, I suppose that since I know the beauty of one first hand and have only heard tell of the other it would be improper that my vote should count at all. Perhaps you ought to sit upright again; I’d hate for your father to come up and jump to wrong conclusions seeing your head buried in my britches. You said something about extending an invitation did you?”
“What would say if I asked you to kiss me right now?” Miranda probed.
I did my best to brush the question aside.
“I’d inform you that I haven’t been that limber since I was a boy of twelve.”
Undeterred, she popped upright and asked again. Certainly the daughter of a gambler she upped the ante.
“No bending involved. I’m not telling you what daddy sent me for until you kiss me.”
The light of a harvest moon played with the river and then my mind. Striking the surface she then leapt into the abundance of Miranda’s chestnut hair until every strand appeared to emit a tiny stream of light. Miranda’s eye sparkled with anticipation and truth be known I could fill a notepad ten times over with shadier things I’d done or been an accomplice to than simply kissing a woman who asked. As I brushed back her hair to expose the apple of her cheek my breathing picked up pace. Leaning towards my target Miranda pivoted quickly and caught me full on the mouth. Before I could protest, her electric lips devoured mine, transmitting a jolt of energy that caused every hair on my body to stand at attention. I can only assume the tingle extended into the cortex of my brain when my field of vision filled with spindles of colored light splintering from a central point in all directions toward outer space.
Suddenly Miranda pulled away and blurted so quickly I felt the sweetness of her breath in my face.
“You definitely piqued my father’s interest and that occurs on very rare occasions. Daddy noticed your hesitation at the table earlier but would still like the opportunity to get acquainted. He’d be delighted if you’d come to his suite; dinner at 7:30pm sharp—and a private game of cards I’m certain to follow. Oh Henry, won’t you please, please say you’ll come. Don’t think it to forward of me, but already I’ve grown rather fond of your company.”
At first I stared blankly into the darkness seeking answer where there were none to be found. Then I paced about the deck aimlessly for nearly half an hour, attempting to reason with my unreasonable self, exhaling more cigarette smoke than the old vessel belched out the stacks running full-bore upstream. I couldn’t shake the feeling that an innocent nod of acceptance had sealed my fate. ‘Where was you head?’ I scolded audibly before taking notice of the crossways glances and outright glares I was garnering. I shifted to a whisper but kept moving, ‘How could you have put yourself in harm’s way simply to avoid disappointing a woman you barely knew? You used to have a beautifully crafty mind, is it suddenly rendered completely useless as quickly as some woman beyond your reach inadvertently brushes again your heart-strings? Have you forget how intuitive Mr. Cleary had been during your first encounter. Beyond a shadow of a doubt he will know you’ve kissed his daughter. Hell, he probably knows you briefly considered caressing her under the guise of smoothing her dress. You may as well avoid the issue entirely by throwing yourself overboard now. The odds of being fit enough to swim to shore are better than surviving the viper you’ll face below deck.’
I immediately regretted working myself into such a frenzy as a brief glance at my timepiece revealed only five full minutes remained. The only thing more frightening than facing Mr. Cleary in his own surroundings would be the insult of arriving late. I drew an extraordinarily deep breath of fresh air and before descending down the stairs prayed it would not be my last.