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.

Roy showed them the napkin with the sketches and explained what he wanted. The men nodded. The big one said that they could procure the items, said it just like that, and Irene burst out laughing. Roy hushed her with a look.

As the night wore on, Roy’s scheme grew more elaborate. He wanted girls in bikinis and a fireworks display, maybe a rock band to play him over the Falls. Two hundred up front, he told them and placed a wad of crumpled bills on the table. He promised them another five when they showed up with the barrel and video camera. They all shook hands and agreed to meet at the motel in the morning. Irene was getting a queasy feeling in her gut, like the time she was ten and rode the tilt-a-whirl at the state fair and threw up all over herself. As soon as they were back at the motel, she let Roy have it.

“Crazy son of a bitch,” she yelled. She launched her shoe at him. It bounced off his shoulder and left a scuffmark on the wall. She made a grab for the alarm clock, but Roy tackled her and pinned her to the bed before she could throw it. She tried to wiggle free, but he held her down, one hand on her breast, the other working its way into her pants.

“Don’t touch me!”

“I’m doing it for us,” he insisted, “for you and the baby.” He worked his fingers deep inside her, and she moaned despite wanting to kill him.

The thing about Roy was, he could be very persuasive. There had been times when she’d gone with other men because he’d asked her to. The first time she had been too messed up on junk to know what was going on. When it was over, Roy started crying and hitting his head against the wall until it bled. He swore she’d never have to do anything like that again, but she had, whenever they ran out of money and he was too strung out to work. She mostly just gave them hand jobs in bar bathrooms or parked cars, but sometimes, if they were really hard up for cash, she did other things. Roy was always just outside the door in case someone got rough with her.

Irene stared up at the ceiling. Murmuring voices called out from the television in the next room. She was too hungry to sleep. She fished around under the sheets for her panties, found them snagged on Roy’s ankle and yanked them free. His hands fluttered in the air like startled pigeons. He mumbled something she didn’t catch.

“Shhh.” She stroked his hair until he settled back down.

Outside, a door slammed and a woman laughed. Irene got up off the bed and peeked out the window. Roy had been careless, leaving the Oldsmobile parked right out front for the whole world to see. She had told him earlier to move it, that he was tempting fate, but he pretended not to know what she was talking about, so she let it go.

Her stomach growled and she wondered if there was a snack machine in the lobby. She dug around in her purse and came up with only a handful of pennies. On the dresser next to the bed was Roy’s wallet. She opened it, expecting to find it full of cash, but found only a twenty and a couple singles. She pulled the money out and counted it twice, and then once more to make sure. She snatched his jeans from the floor and rooted through the pockets. She even searched his socks and shoes.

“Goddamn it, Roy,” she whispered. He’d spent everything they had back at the bar. Twenty dollars wasn’t enough for the barrel, it wasn’t even enough for gas back to Ohio.

Irene gathered her clothes together and finished getting dressed. The task of getting her jeans on was becoming problematic. She had to suck in her gut and bully the zipper closed. Soon nothing would fit her anymore. She placed her hand against her belly and felt the stubborn way it bulged. When she first found out she was pregnant, she had wanted to get rid of it. With the two of them for parents, the kid was doomed. But Roy convinced her that having a baby would make things better. He said it was a tiny world growing inside of her, made of bits of her and bits of him. But only the good bits, he promised. Without looking at him, she shoved the twenty in her pocket and slipped out the door.

Every morning, Irene stood in line at the clinic to exchange a urine sample for a cup of cherry-flavored methadone. She had missed one dose already and could last another day, maybe two, before the shakes set in. As she headed toward the footbridge, she fingered the cash in her pocket and tried not to think about how badly she wanted a fix. The need moved through her, shadowy and restless. She shook it away and walked faster, hoping she could outrun it before it took hold.

Once she reached the island, she took a trail that branched away from the overlook and ran along the shoreline, where the upper rapids fed the Horseshoe Falls. It ended at a chain-link fence that was only about three feet high. Just beyond that was a weathered set of stairs that led down to the water. Someone had placed carnations and a makeshift cross on the rocks at the foot of the stairs. The man at the museum had told them that the Horseshoe Falls was a popular spot for suicides, more jumpers than even the Golden Gate Bridge or the Eiffel Tower.

The Falls were bathed in trippy-colored lights. Neon pink faded into electric blue into acid yellow. Irene looked first to see if anyone else was around, then hopped the fence and moved quickly down the steps. She took off her shoes, rolled up her jeans and waded into the frigid water. She just wanted to feel the pull of it, to see if it matched what she felt for Roy.

The drop was only about thirty feet from where she stood. Mist ghosted up from the edge and caught the moonlight. Waves humped and collapsed around her. Out near the middle, the river ran smooth. It slid past like a sheet of black glass while lunatic currents and whirlpools lurked just below the surface.

She stood there, waiting for something to come to her, an answer maybe, a way out. It didn’t matter now if Roy’s friends showed up with the barrel or not, the two of them were stranded. When Roy sobered up and realized he’d given everything away, he’d laugh like it was all some kind of joke. He’d cover her in kisses and beg her to forgive him. But when it came down to finding more cash, he’d expect Irene to earn it for them, even with the baby inside of her. Just one more time, he’d promise, just this once and then never again.

She inched forward up to her knees, her arms out for balance, like she was about to take flight. The ring Roy gave her shimmered on her finger like a star. Maybe he was right, she thought. Maybe it didn’t take much to be a daredevil. All she had to do was let go. The river would do the rest. She took another step forward and then another until the river had her to the waist. She felt herself lift from the bottom, felt everything slip away as the current twirled her around in what felt like a dance, and for a second she was gone. But then something shifted within her, like an eye opening, some other consciousness awakening.

Dim, dreamy images surfaced in the water before her. She saw Roy tucked inside his barrel spinning away from her. The barrel changed, and there was Roy again, this time sitting in the driver’s seat of the Oldsmobile. The vision was so real that Irene lifted her hand and waved, expecting him to wave back. The car dipped and swayed in the rapids. When it reached the edge, it paused like it was taking a breath. Its backside tipped skywards, and then it plunged.

Irene scrambled back until her feet found the bottom and she heaved herself onto the shore. She could still feel the water rushing against her legs as she wobbled back up the stairs. She let the momentum of it carry her along the path to the base of the bridge, where a pay phone sat in the glow of a streetlamp. Irene picked up the receiver and held it to her ear. The dial tone sounded mournful and she almost hung up, but she pictured the baby inside her, curled round like a comma, listening, waiting to see what she would do. The phone rang several times before a man finally answered, and when he asked Irene what her emergency was, she told him where to find a stolen car the color of butterscotch candy.

Outside the diner, the air smelled of bacon grease and coffee. A police car sped by, followed by a second. Irene stood in the entrance and waited for the hostess to seat her. Water dripped down her legs and pooled at her feet. The hostess eyed the puddle on the floor, but didn’t say anything about it. She called Irene honey and steered her to a booth by the window. Her soft, white shoes squeaked like tiny mice as she drifted back to the counter. She returned a moment later with silverware and a couple of clean dishtowels for Irene to dry herself with.

From her seat, Irene had a perfect view of the motel parking lot. The two police cars had pulled up alongside the Oldsmobile. Their sirens threw fierce shadows against the motel wall. Occupants from neighboring rooms poked their heads out to see what all the commotion was about. They gathered around in their robes and boxer shorts as the car was hooked up to an impound truck.

When the police led Roy from the room in handcuffs, Irene buried her face in the menu and studied her choices: blueberry, banana, buckwheat, or apple cinnamon. She decided on apple cinnamon, like her mother used to make. She hadn’t seen her mother in over a year. Her father came looking for Irene once. He tracked her down and stood outside their apartment building, raging at the door, hollering he was going to murder Roy for ruining his little girl. She hid in the bathtub until he finally went away. He wrote letters to her, but she never answered any of them. They were all the same. Come home, they said.

Inside the diner it was quiet, but the Falls still roared in her ears. The waitress set the order in front of her, and Irene gazed down at the thick, steaming mattress of pancakes. She picked up a bottle of maple syrup and poured. She kept pouring until the bottle was empty, until syrup flowed over the edge of the plate and onto the table. She began to eat and didn’t stop until her plate was clean.

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