Thursday, December 8, 2016

Revelations on the river from A Lifetime Again

Alternative cover concept by Robert J. Higgins
      Déjà vu.  Literally translated, the term means "already seen", having the strong sensation that a current event or experience has happened before.  In this excerpt from the fourth installment of the Orphans and Inmates series, A Lifetime Again, Maude Travers experiences intense déjà vu.  Her feelings actually conjure flashbacks of an ominous past, leaving Maude both unsettled and intrigued.

From Chapter Three of A Lifetime Again...

     Maude and Don wasted no time after their foil-wrapped breakfast renting kayaks, and spent a lovely afternoon paddling around what had once been called Big Buffalo Creek, now known as the Buffalo River.  They made their way along the river and around the grain elevators.  Prior to this ingenious invention perfected by Joseph Dart, surplus grain traveled from the Midwest on ships large enough to withstand the tempestuous weather the Great Lakes could wreak.  Upon its arrival in Buffalo, the grain would be unloaded by hand, an arduous chore taken on largely by Irish immigrants.  They reloaded it onto the smaller canal boats in order to continue its journey along the Erie Canal to the east coast.  With the invention of the grain elevator, ships could be unloaded by steam-powered conveyor belt, at the rate of 1,000 bushels per hour, thus making Buffalo the largest grain port in the world.
            Paddling along a bend in the river, Maude’s attention was drawn across a narrow stretch of land separating the river from the larger body of Lake Erie, toward one of the lakeside bars which had changed hands recently and was closed for renovations.  Although she could not see the actual bar, she felt compelled to look out toward it anyway, squinting for better focus. A large wake rocked the kayak and she looked around to find its source, but saw nobody on the water, not even Don, who had previously been paddling just behind her.  
Bringing her attention back toward the lakeside bar, she could not believe her own eyes.  Instead of the brick and iron skeletons of Buffalo’s industrial past that had just been in her line of sight, she now saw almost nothing.  Instead, there were only two sets of railroad tracks that merged at the bend in Big Buffalo Creek.  The details were so vivid, but impossible because those particular tracks were long gone.  It was such a quick flashback, but it brought a sense of foreboding that made her stop paddling and stare up at the spot where she was sure the railroad tracks had been.
            Don paddled up behind her.  “Ready to call it a day?”
            Maude blinked and looked again to find that the vision had passed and she was once again looking at the modern landscape.  “Yeah, I’m ready.”  She paddled alongside Don, but glanced behind her one last time.  “Hey, you know that place by the marina that’s under renovation?”  He nodded and she continued speaking.  “Wouldn’t it be just over there?”  She pointed across the industrial ghost town on the narrow stretch of land between the river and the lake.
            Don looked behind him, considering the question.  “Yeah, that looks about right.  Why?”
            “Oh, I don’t know. I was thinking when it finally opens maybe we could give date night one more try.”  Her smile was strained and she knew it did not fool him.
“Sure, but I don’t think they will be reopening any time soon.”  He noticed she hadn’t taken her attention away from that spot.  “Everything okay?”  
            Now that he was focused in that direction, the spot just out of their line of sight on the shore of the lake held his fascination too.  Don continued to look in the direction of the marina as if he was trying to remember something important, but couldn’t quite put his finger on it.  The wind came up behind him and he felt a chill run down his spine.  With a shiver, he turned his attention back to Maude.  “C’mon, let’s head back.”
             “Good idea.”  Maude decided it was too nice a day for overthinking and paddled away.  By now, there were other kayaks, water bikes and motor boats around them and it became necessary to pay close attention to the traffic on the river as they made their way along.  As Maude approached the Commercial Slip, which had been the access point into the canal system, she experienced another flashback, this time at the spot where the bridge crossed Canal Street.   The distillery of Jay Pettibone and Company loomed off to the right.  “What the hell?” she mumbled.  How could she possibly know what businesses crowded around the Commercial Slip back in the day?  The intricacies of the Erie Canal district in Buffalo had never been something about which Maude knew much, so it surprised her that she would zero in on such an unusual detail. 
            “Did you say something?”  Don asked her as they paddled up to the Central Wharf to return their kayaks.
            “No, just talking to myself.”  
            Don climbed out and secured his vessel before turning to help his wife.  Maude reached for his hand and allowed herself to be hoisted topside.  She stumbled as she took a step forward, unaccustomed to solid land after hours on the river.  She grabbed for the arm that had reached to steady her, but it was not the bare, tanned upper limb of her husband. It was a wet shirt-sleeve of rough calico.  She could hear the shouts of the men on the docks and the sounds of the nightlife not far off.  The air around her smelled of horse manure, rotting river debris and dead fish.  Startled, Maude looked up expecting to see the bustle of the nineteenth-century Canal District late in the evening when the hardworking folks blew off steam after a long day, but instead it was Don again, and the few people waiting in line for kayaks.  
            Like the glimpse of the railroad tracks and Mr. Pettibones’ distillery, it happened so quickly she wasn’t sure it actually had happened.  This was different, though, because she had experienced more than just a visual hallucination; other inner and outer senses had contributed to the scene.  Maude had felt a distinct sense of conflicting emotions: fear and hope all in the same heartbeat.  Even the air was different when she had exited the river.  Instead of the touristy aromas of cotton candy and sunscreen, the decaying stench of the docks and the people and animals who worked them was evident.

            Don pulled Maude firmly to her feet.  “I’ve got you.”  Maude stopped and took a minute to collect herself.  She resisted the unsettling urge to embrace Don and hold on for dear life, which did not go unnoticed.  “Hey, are you okay?  You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”  He realized the truth of those words as they exited his mouth.  “Let’s sit down for a minute.”