When Roy said he was marrying Irene, he meant his own idea of marriage. He bought a ring at the souvenir shop next to the motel, a five-dollar hunk of glass with an adjustable band. He got down on one knee, put the ring on her finger and said, “There, now we’re married.” Irene couldn’t see the Falls from where she was standing, but she could hear the low, urgent pounding, like the beating of some enormous heart.
He had shown up the night before with this ridiculous car and said he was taking her to Niagara Falls. Niagara Falls, he said, was the honeymoon capital of the world, the only place besides Vegas where anyone ought to consider tying the knot. When she asked about the car, he told her he borrowed it from a friend, but she knew none of his friends owned a thing like that. The only person dumb enough to lend Roy a car was Hank over at the bowling alley, and he drove a beat-up van that smelled like skunk. This car was pristine, a massive butterscotch-colored Oldsmobile with white leather seats and shiny chrome trim. It looked like something her grandfather would drive. It even smelled like her grandfather, a heady fog of cigars, egg salad, and menthol rub.
According to the saleslady at the gift shop, the best view of the Falls was from the overlook at Terrapin Point. They followed her directions across a stone footbridge and found themselves on a small wooded island wedged between thundering walls of water. As they neared the observation area, the summer air grew dank. The gorge threw up roiling clouds of mist that covered everything in a glistening sheen. To the right were the Bridal Veil and American Falls. To the left was the Canadian Falls, which was also called the Horseshoe Falls on account of its bowed crest. The fact that the Canadian Falls was three times bigger than the American Falls pissed Roy off. He said someone must have been asleep at the wheel to let a thing like that happen.
All around them tourists snapped photos and marveled at the gushing cataract. At first Irene couldn’t quite grasp what she was looking at. It was like the first time she ever got high with Roy, the cold rush of it, the way something could be so beautiful and at the same time so terrible. She approached the guardrail and peered down at the raging confusion of rocks and foam and spray. The motion of it, the endless way it tumbled, spooked her. She backed away from the edge and turned to look for Roy.
It took her a moment to spot him. He was at the far end of the overlook, bumming a cigarette from a pretty blonde. Irene could tell from the way the woman smiled that she liked Roy. Most women liked Roy. It didn’t matter that his hair was thinning and his teeth were a mess. He possessed a certain appeal, a slick sort of charm that momentarily dazzled a person while distracting from his imperfections.
The woman hunched in close and kissed Roy’s cigarette with her own. She let her free hand fall against his arm and left it there, like she was laying claim to it. “Hey,” Irene shouted, her voice swallowed by the tremendous sound of the river. She shoved her way across the overlook, thrust her ring in the woman’s face and told her to get lost.
Twin clouds of smoke erupted from the woman’s nostrils. She looked Irene up and down, her eyes mean and small. The mist had wreaked havoc with Irene’s makeup and hair. Mascara ran in inky streams down her cheeks. A mass of auburn frizz drifted around her head. She was wearing the same outfit she had slept in on the way to the Falls, a pair of shredded jeans and a faded Metallica t-shirt. Roy had been in such a hurry to get out of Dayton, he didn’t give her a chance to pack a bag or even change her clothes.
Irene lunged at the woman, ready to knock the smug look from her face, but Roy stepped in before she could do any harm. He thanked the woman for the cigarette and then hauled Irene up the trail and back across the bridge to the mainland.
They spent the rest of the day sightseeing and wound up in a place called the Daredevil Museum, which wasn’t really a museum at all, just the back room of a convenience store full of displays about all the people who had gone over the Falls in pickle barrels and homemade contraptions.
“Nothing to it,” Roy said, “it just takes guts.” He showed Irene a photograph of a man who had gone over in a raft made from inner tubes and fishing wire. “Hell,” he said, “I don’t even need a barrel.”
Irene pointed out that the guy had been smashed to pieces on the rocks at the bottom, but Roy said that was only because he hadn’t planned it out properly. There were mathematics involved, calculations concerning the point of entry and the velocity with which you plummeted. The key, he told her, was to get stoned first. That way your body was more pliable at the moment of impact. Then he went on about getting a cape, like Evel Knievel, and maybe even a mask, and how Irene could sell t-shirts with his name on them. Roy had lots of ideas that involved her selling t-shirts with his name on them.
They hadn’t eaten anything since the night before and Irene was starting to feel light-headed. Roy said he was going to take her to a restaurant that sat in a tower high above the Falls. You got to ride in an elevator made of glass, all the way up to the top, where you could see for miles. The dining room spun slowly, he told her, so slowly you couldn’t even feel it moving. A magic wheel full of food, way up in the clouds.
Instead, he dragged her into the closest bar. Just one drink, he promised, and spent the rest of the evening telling everyone he was a daredevil, buying round after round of cheap beer for all the old guys with bad breath and watery eyes, who patted him on the back and told him he was a great man.
After thinking it over, Roy decided to go with the barrel. “It’s a classic,” he said.
“But it has to be airtight, and girded with steel.” He sketched the plans out on a napkin. “And we need to get our hands on a video camera. There’s no point to doing it if we don’t have proof.”
Irene nodded and uh-huhed him and played with her ring. She liked the way it caught the light and threw rainbows onto the dirty wall. What she wanted was pancakes. She remembered seeing a diner across the street from the motel, the kind of place that would serve breakfast all day long.
“Roy, I’m hungry,” she said.
He got out of the booth and went to the back of the bar where the bathrooms were. When he came back, he handed her a bowl of pretzels and told her to settle in for a while, that they were waiting on a couple of buddies of his from Buffalo.
She kicked him under the table.
“Shit, Irene.” He scowled and rubbed his shin.
“I’m not spending my honeymoon with a couple of junkies,” she said.
He shook his head and laughed. “Come on babe, it’s not what you think. They’re connected.” Roy was forever going on about connections. “It’s not about money or talent,” he liked to say, “it’s about who you know.” It didn’t matter that the only people he knew were hustlers and addicts. Roy was an optimist. He was thirty-two years old and worked part-time at a bowling alley, but that didn’t stop him from dreaming. He saw his future as something bright and boundless. It was only a matter of time before he hit on something big.
He drummed the table with his fingers. Empty glasses jumped. His gaze skidded around the room. He must have scored something in the bathroom, thought Irene. As soon as Roy found out about the baby, he got her into the methadone program at the clinic, made her swear she’d stay clean. He swore he’d stay clean too, but he’d slipped more than once.
The Stones played on the jukebox. Roy took Irene’s hand and danced her around the room. “You make a grown man cry,” he sang in her ear.
They had been living together for about a year when Irene got pregnant. She was eighteen when she met Roy and already had an oxy habit she picked up her junior year in high school. Painkillers were popular and easy to get, usually raided from a parent’s medicine cabinet and sold for about thirty dollars a tablet. Pot and beer were a cheaper high, but Irene liked the way the pills filled her insides with warm, glowing light. Her parents didn’t have a clue until they noticed that money and jewelry were disappearing from the house. When she eventually dropped out of school, they forced her into rehab. She had just returned from a three-month stint when Roy came along with his crazy dreams and his heroin, and Irene fell instantly in love.
Sometimes she wondered which one she was more addicted to, the heroin or Roy. The two were somehow interchangeable, the way they both consumed her, left her hollowed out and full of longing. Being off heroin was like losing a limb, like forgetting to breathe. She wrapped her arms around Roy’s shoulders and held on tight. She wanted a drink. She wanted whatever he was on.
“I want to go back to the motel,” she said.
“In a minute, ” he said.
The song ended and he dropped into a chair. The place stank of mildew and smoke. Irene hugged herself and hovered next to the table. “I’m serious,” she insisted. “I need to get out of here.”
Just then a couple of guys in motorcycle gear hailed Roy from across the bar. He waved them over to the table and introduced Irene as his wife. The newness of this word, the ease with which it fell from his mouth made her smile, and for a moment she forgot to be upset. The men congratulated Roy and ordered shots to celebrate. The bigger of the two squeezed up next to Irene. He pressed his fleshy stomach against her and kissed her on the mouth. He tasted like raw onions and leather.