I've always been a small town photographer with a small lens. I take pictures of small people with small dreams—weddings, baptisms, family portraits. But there was a time when someone from Thorold South—this tiny, industrial dumping pit of a Canadian town—made me believe I could find bigger, better things to live for. And there was a time that the possibility really existed for me. As I disassemble my cheap camera, parts scattered all over my desk, a fleeting image of Sarah Mallory comes to mind. I wonder where she might be. The local disapprovers once called her the "canal girl" because she had the face to launch a thousand ships, and she was sixteen. If you were lucky, you could have found Sarah Mallory standing atop the stone stairway overlooking Lock 7, like a statue of liberty.
"At least I'm as good as out of here," she often claimed. She knew her calling, and the dream spread like an epidemic through my veins.
I remember an occasion in 1983 when Sarah approached me as my friends and I stood on the corner near the paper mill, where it snowed ash late at night. Jimmy had this idea that if we were to head on down the service road, near the tunnel, we could sneak into the car junkyard, hop the fence and jump-start a clunker. He said it was easy, and the appeal that the phrase "smash-up derby" had on the others was evident.
Jimmy was our leader, and he owned the textbook on all of us. He was one of those kids that went through puberty early. He had black hair on his face and chest, and wore his shirts wide open so that we could see what we lacked. At present, he's employed by the same mill where his father worked. Last I heard, he'd been suspected of assaulting a sixteen-year-old girl near St. Mary's school. The news didn't surprise me, or anyone around here.
But before we left for the junkyard, Sarah appeared from out of a streetlight shadow, walking down the potholed road by herself. She was wearing her brother's old high-top basketball shoes, the ones he set the trend for prior to his death the year before. He and a few other guys were jumping hydro towers near Beaver Dams, a water basin secretly used by local factories for waste removal, and by tourists for bird watching. Frustrated fishermen often complained that the fish were four-eyed in Beaver Dams, but we were young and didn't care much.
What we usually did in the summer, when the heat was barbecue-blazing and the pollution from the mill made the air smell like burnt tar, was head on down to the hydro towers. We would climb to the very top and jump into Beaver Dams. Sarah's brother was wet and he slipped up top grabbing a split cable. He got electrocuted and died before he hit the ground. Jimmy was there, so was Nix— a.k.a Nicholas Six. They said his face was blue and he had purple bruises on his neck and wrists.
Sarah used to wear all of her brother's clothes, and right after he died she cut her hair to look like his. She told everyone he was still alive and living within her. She told everyone that he wanted her to wear his clothes because he wasn't supposed to die. He was supposed to find their mother.
The dirty tongues of the shoes were curled outward. Her hair was an oily blond. Her make-up was thick enough to chisel away at. And her eyes were blue lanterns with tiny flames flickering just enough to start a fire. She was wearing her father's mill jacket overtop the miniskirt, and stretch pants underneath because it was a bit nippy.
"What are you guys doing?"
"Hanging?" Jimmy would always speak up for us first.
"Looks like you're hanging onto nothing."
"What are you doing?"
"From where, the canal?"
"No, not the canal. Crooked Jeffrey's."
Crooked Jeffrey was a grizzled truck driver, widowed, who received a disability check but drove trucks to the States for American money under the table. All of us giggled when she mentioned the name. The image of him permanently leaning to one side like a street sign allowed us to feel good about our invincibility. And we supported our leader in an attempt to probe into the suspicion that Sarah was screwing crooked Jeffrey, despite his age, despite his curved spinal cord, despite our inability to imagine them in bed together.
"At least he has hair on his balls."
"You would know."
"That's right, I would know because I suck them every night, which is more than I'll ever do to any of you."
She looked at me and winked. She knew I bought every exaggerated word she sold. She sensed my admiration and perhaps she also sensed my cowardice to speak up, or the fact that I had little hair on my balls, as she suggested.
The rest of the guys were disgusted by the remark, except for Jimmy, who realized he had lost the veneration of the group. He attempted to reclaim it.
"I think I hear a boat, Canal Girl, shouldn't you be at your post."
The guys gloated with "oooohs!"
"Why? Is you're father cleaning the shit off of boats these days. Maybe I'll give him a freebie."
"Take it easy, Jimmy." I spoke up and the group sensed mutiny.
Sarah sensed it as well. She melodramatically tried to hide a condescending smirk of victory so that Jimmy could see her trying to hide it. Jimmy was visibly upset. But I didn't care. It bothered me that he thought I needed him to speak for me. I was pretty smart, although I hid my grades from everyone. They thought I didn't give a shit about anything, like them, but I was playing them for the same fools Sarah was playing all of us. They also didn't realize that I was an accomplice to her adventures on the weekend. Although, I suspected that the rumor was getting around.
When the boats reach Lock 7 on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays, there is a brief five-minute interval when a boat stalls just enough to get through the tight squeeze of the approach wall. If Sarah had intrigued any of the shipmen on board they would wave her on. She would scurry to the platform and jump onto the forecastle, near the bollard, while I got riding on my bike. It was an easy race to the next lock, which was about a five-minute bike ride but a 15-20 minute boat ride. When I got there, I waited to give her a ride back to Lock 7 and the next boat. While I waited, I had time to think and let my imagination run wild.
Where did they take her on the boat, I wondered. Did they take turns with her? Was she telling me the truth of her earnings when she slipped me a ten for the ride? Did she imagine me expecting her with these overflowing questions and a million more?
As I waited for her one weekend, I watched the cars appear and then disappear from the tunnel below the canal. In a flash they exploded from the darkness. On the other side, they vanished into thin air. I imagined myself taking the Russian roulette plunge.
Kids used to drink and smoke weed at Lock 8. They would sometimes fish, sometimes fight over whether one felt a tug on the line or not. Bored of the same routine, somebody decided to try something more risky. He termed it the Russian roulette plunge, where one person would jump down from the lower bridge, late at night of course, and land right at the exit of the tunnel. They performed this ritual every weekend until one of them landed at the same time a car was racing through the tunnel at 130km/hr. The kid died instantly, and that's why the white cross was placed there.
The same boat I had seen Sarah board at Lock 7 sloshed slowly to Lock 8, but Sarah was not on the deck of the boat just yet. She was maximizing her potential, as some might say. Foreshadowed by waves, the boat rocked slowly to the dock and locked in the canal bed, and there she was with perfect timing, escorted by a smirking, older man. She was fluffing her hair and tugging at the striped jeans that stuck to her sweaty skin. He was patting down the dispersed chunks of gray hair he had left on his head. When she jumped onto the platform and saw me it was all business. Before I took her back, she took out a pen and paper and began to write. She hid this information from me, but I suspected it was a name and possibly a number, or better yet, a foreign address. She had an affinity for the names of foreign places, and they way they sounded. I remember her favorite to be Santorini.
When she was finished she raised her head, stuffed the paper in a tight back pocket and sat on the banana seat of my bike.
"Are you going to take me back?"
"Not without my cut first."
"You're an expensive taxi, you know that?"
"You know how much mileage I've put on this bike?"
"Okay, but I think we should negotiate a flat weekend rate or something."
"We average about a dozen trips a weekend, give or take a few, plus the time spent waiting for boats. And I usually ask for ten bucks a trip, but I guess I could settle for one hundred dollars a weekend, flat rate."
"One hundred dollars a weekend! Are you crazy?"
"I want to get out of here as badly as you do, trust me." I wanted to impress her with this but I think I knew, as far as back then, that I would never leave Thorold. "But I'm the one who's selling my ass here, not you."
"I'll settle for ninety but not a penny less."
She put out her hand and I shook it not fully realizing where it might have been. I got on the seat and peddled her back to Lock 7. It was easy money because I enjoyed every second of it. I enjoyed having her put her arms around my scrawny little frame, although I was embarrassed to have her feel my bony rib cage. I wondered whether she compared my poor excuse of a body to that of a burly, rugged sailor, or better yet, Crooked Jeffrey. I also liked it when she rested her face on my back. She did that on busier days. I often felt her drool penetrating my T-shirt.
I peddled the back roads to avoid the downtown area. Riddled with dank storefronts and dirty overhanging apartments, everyone knew everyone else's business in Thorold. And guilt by association was just as bad as guilt, my mother would always say, which is why she would have killed me if she ever found out I more or less pimped the canal girl. The only time I ventured downtown was on my trips from Lock 7 to Lock 8. I would drop by the 7-11 where I would get Sarah a box of cheap chocolates, or one of those single roses, and almost always a little carton of milk with a box of sugar cookies. I knew she could afford those little luxuries herself but she was too proud to ask me to ride her downtown when she was hungry. I humored her because she wanted to believe it was still a secret, even though a number of older people, who made their retirement near the canal, knew and spread the word. These old people continue to sit there with their binoculars and watch whatever boat might float through, even if it's an old, rusted, steel-carrying cargo boat.
When the weekend was over we were back at school. Sarah wasn't too good in school. She had little patience with teachers she made more money than. They scolded her but I admired her. She knew she could never be the best student, no matter how hard she worked, so why not maximize what else was given to her. She was in my class because she had failed a year. I helped her with her homework, which only improved our business relationship. It made her believe she was getting more for her money, while it made me feel like I was getting the company of a beautiful, older woman for free.
Some days, she would invite me over to her house. Her father, who was never there, was a workaholic, mainly because he liked the bottle. He assumed that no one knew, but she did. She was well aware that he worked double shifts so that he could have double the booze at this bar called The Watering Hole. Since then, it's been called Jersey's, Canal City Slickers, Barzoonies, and The Looney Booze. Sarah avoided it even though I'm sure they would have let her in when she was all dolled up. She avoided her father's drinking problems, and she talked little about her mother, who had left mysteriously one weekend. There was a rumor she had fallen in love with a sailor and left on a boat with no word to her family, but that rumor only seemed to flourish after Sarah's disappearance.
As I sat in the TV room in her father's house one day after school, waiting for her to find her books, I noticed this old picture of a canal boat that intrigued me. It was framed by this thick, light colored wood, which looked fake because it was peeling. I remember that picture because it was a disaster and partially responsible for making me believe I could do better as a photographer. The water in the picture was cut by the frame and the boat appeared as if it was floating in a bathtub, which made it look even faker. It made me wonder about Sarah's dreams. She had never mentioned to me when she would leave, or how much she had saved, or what she planned to do with it. I was curious, of course. She had been doing this for the better part of a year and I had seen no evidence of additional wealth in her house or on her body. She was saving it for a better day, I was sure, except I could never guess when she would stop or what she wanted from the future. All I knew is that she had bigger balls than any guy I'd ever known.
She asked me what I did with my cut. I told her I was saving it so that I could buy a camera and become a professional photographer. She was fascinated.
"What do you want to take pictures of?"
"Beautiful places and beautiful people." That was obvious and I was worried it was too corny an admission. But she showed an interest.
I left her alone promising to meet her at Lock 7 Friday night, and met Jimmy and the rest of the gang at the junkyard, where I knew they would be. We had a smash-up derby until a relentless guard dog forced us to leave.
We walked home along the service road toward the tunnel. Jimmy started to get on my nerves. He was trying to goad me into a fight. He wanted me to bite so that he could prove to the other guys that he was still the undisputed leader of the group. It meant so much to him.
"So, does Sarah give you some?"
The line of guys walking assembled into a group like a swarm of bees, so that everyone could hear.
"Some of what?"
"Some tail, what else?"
"What's it your business?" Our secrets were mine and Sarah's, I thought to myself, and I was going to die, and die valiantly, to protect them.
"You think we don't know you ride her back on your bike. What, you think she likes you because you take her back. She's using you."
I refused to say anything in retaliation. I realized what he was trying to do and it wasn't really working, although it did bother me to know that the rest of the idiots believed his interpretation of our relationship. So I spoke up for once.
"What makes you think it's her using me?"
"Because you got no coin. She only does the guys with coin."
"Is that what you try to convince yourself because she ain't putting out for you?"
The group laughed. Jimmy lit a cigarette. He sucked in a little smoke, and then let the cigarette bounce at the side of his mouth. He didn't retaliate as quickly as I would have thought. He took his time.
"Listen, you little shit, you think I don't know what you're doing? You act like you're in there with her but she wouldn't give your ugly ass the time of day. And what's more pathetic is that you love the dirty slut. At least the rest of the town knows to stay away. But you want to marry her or something, or else you would have got some by now."
"You're right," I said, "I would be pretty stupid to do it for nothing." And then I gave them lurid details to appease their libidinous curiosity. I told them stories of sexual favors and kinky sex, how I thought I had a disease once but then got it checked only to find out the test results were negative. That impressed them all because it gave them a dose of reality to balance the fantasy. I told them how we did it in her father's bed, went as far to tell them how she wanted to do it in her dead brother's bed, which, when I think about it, makes me sick to my stomach. I told them everything I could think of so that by the time we reached the tunnel, I had usurped the role of leader. More importantly, and more ashamedly, Jimmy had willfully given it up to me. I asked him for a cigarette, at which point I knew I had become him and he had escaped the responsibility of being a fraud day in and day out. I could see how his eyes changed when I revealed everything to him and the other boys. His eyes widened with interest so much that I felt sorry for him. I felt sorry that he needed to rely on my lies to help him jerk off that night. He stared at me like I was his older brother and he was receiving a tutorial on the Kama Sutra. Worst of all, I knew by the time we split up, after having walked through the tunnel, that he knew more of me, even though they were all lies, than I had ever revealed to him before.
Friday arrived and I was supposed to meet Sarah at Lock 7. I waited there for about an hour but she didn't show. I rode to her house but she wasn't there. I searched around Thorold, which didn't take me long, but I couldn't find her. Finally, I decided to check Lock 8 where there was little sign of life. I didn't see her until I looked across the dirty bath water to the other side. She was sitting at the edge of the bordering walkway, on the cement divider before the drop. Her arms and face were resting on the railing and her legs were dangling. I called out to her but she didn't answer me. It was about six thirty or seven o'clock. I rode my bike to that side, thinking she had fallen asleep, or I had missed my assignment and not understood the times.
"Sarah, are you all right?"
She offered me a solemn look and then lost herself in the distance again. I heard the sound of rushing cars disappearing and reappearing through the tunnel below.
"Sarah, what's wrong?"
" I can walk back if I want or I could get Crooked Jeffrey to pick me up and drive me around."
"What do you mean? We're a team."
"You're a little boy and I'm the town slut. What kind of team is that?"
"Sarah, are you mad at me?"
"Nothing some kinky sex in my brother's bedroom wouldn't help, I'm sure."
"Sarah, you've got to listen to me. I didn't mean..."
Sarah stood up. She was much taller than me and at that instant she felt like my sister, or my mother.
"I always thought you could see past the reality of what we are here. Sometimes I catch you staring at me when I'm doing my homework, or in class. You seem to see more of me than anyone else. But I guess I was just stupid."
She turned around and leaned over the railing.
"If I were to do the plunge there would be no one to put a cross down there for me. Not even you."
"Sarah, please. I made a big mistake. I was stupid. I feel the same way, I think, and that's why I lied."
"I'm sorry, but I can't do this anymore. It's time for me to go."
"Sarah, please. Don't jump! Don't jump!"
She turned around and smiled.
"Jump?" She giggled in a devious way, like when she stole the cherry from the sundae.
"You didn't think I would jump… over you, did you?"
I wanted to say yes. I wanted to believe yes because that would have meant that she found me worthy. But she didn't believe in me like I believed in her. She walked by me and I had nothing more to say to her. She walked on not once looking back to see my reaction, while I imagined her in a big city waiting tables, or tending bar, or better yet, snatched up by a sailor who could take her to beautiful, exotic places. I watched her and regretted not having my camera to take my first picture.
Dean Serravalle is a young writer who has published stories in Zygote Magazine, Urban Graffiti, and The Canadian Ethnic Studies Journal. He earned his M.A. in English Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Windsor and is now teaching secondary school in Niagara Falls, Ontario. He is currently working on his second novel, which he hopes to finish by year's end; a screenplay; and a collection of short stories.