Waiting Canals – 7

When they reached the waterfront Jameson turned to the right and headed towards the best-looking boat along the dock, a four-seat runabout, coated with a resplendent, dark mahogany, with three lines of darker wood veneered on the top half. Not even a scratch, and recently polished, named “The Savior.”

Walters had lingered behind, still at the verge of the park, at first contemplating one of the benches, then the undulating water in the center of the Cross Pool. Only two small boats were traversing the Pool now, one behind the other, marching slowly in their way towards downtown, possibly to the river.

Jameson turned his head and saw Walters standing by a bench, looking at the distance. Instead of yelling at him, this time he waited by the runabout for a minute. He also looked towards the area that Walters was fixated upon. There was nothing of interest there that he could identify, but he enjoyed the shining surface, he thought how nice it could be not worrying about the enemies he didn’t know in the city these days, all the random disappearances people kept talking about.

When Walters snapped out of his trance and started to walk towards him, Jameson untied one of the two ropes securing the runabout to the dock and threw the bundled mass of rope inside the boat. He was going to deal with the second rope, but Walters, in a swift and effortless move, untied the rope and, as he stepped in the runabout, rolled the rope and secured it neatly into what Jameson thought that could be the appropriate spot. Jameson almost felt inclined to compliment him, but he just jumped in and turned the engine on. Seeing that Walters was already seated next to him, waiting, Jameson engaged the forward gears, pushed the throttles only a few inches and, without having to turn the wheel too much, slowly directed the boat in a semicircle towards the center of the Pool and then accelerated into the main canal that run towards the East, away from the Mississippi, in direction to the university district, an area in which impoverished, middle-class and affluent blocks were all mixed together in a chaotic and constantly surprising mosaic. Even further to the East, the last tendrils of the canal system reached to their ends and Memphis proper transitioned into soulless house developments separated by marshy fields where only alien brambles seemed able to grow.

“Would you mind if I ask you what’s your religious inclination?” Jameson asked after a few minutes of silence between them.

“What?”

“Your religious inclination, your faction?”

Walters shook his head with an unclear motion, then pulled out his notebook and placed it on his thigh.

“Not a religious man?” Jameson insisted.

“Not really,” Walters answered.

“That’s an interesting strategy, isn’t it?” Jameson said. “That way you are not a direct enemy of the other faction.”

“I guess,” Walters said.

“Although both factions can see you as the enemy,” Jameson continued.

“I don’t have enemies. I think,” Walters said.

“I am not sure that’s something you can decide.”

“What do you mean?” Walters added without any interest, already looking at the water, deriving into an state of absent-mindedness, of waiting.

“Well, it’s your enemies that decide that for you, right?”

Walters didn’t reply. He looked at a seagull standing on the first step out of the water of a bricked flight of stairs that went into the canal, and a few seconds later they passed by a man in a rickety boat, bucketing water from inside the boat back into the canal.

Not having a clear idea of where they were by now, Walters had the impulse to ask Jameson about their location. He decided to wait, at some point he should see some canalsign, hanging from a chain stretched between buildings or bolted on a canal wall at an intersection, maybe with a canal name he would recognize. In the meantime, he opened his notebook and reread the last pages.

“What’s the name of your employer again?” he asked.

“Doctor Harry Pomme,” Jameson replied. “That’s P-O-M-M-E,” he added when he saw that Walters was writing in his notebook.

“I’m very suspicious about this job,” Walters said after putting his notebook away.

“I cannot say I blame you,” Jameson said, looking ahead at a series of stopped boats blocking the way further ahead. He couldn’t determine the reason of the blockade. Some of the smallest boats were trying to squeeze between the larger boats, an impatience that possibly meant they had been waiting for a long time. Jameson turned his head to see what the situation was behind them, and not seeing any boats approaching, decelerated while turning the wheel to the left, entering into a smaller side canal. Some blocks later, Jameson turned to the right, proceeding slowly along a narrow canal that seemed to run parallel to the main canal that had been blocked by the traffic jam. After two more turns, they were back into a main canal. They progressed at the slow speed mandated by oversized signs hanging over the canal from ropes stretched between buildings. Walters pulled his notebook out again and wrote “Willow Canal. Intersection with Bonfire Way. Some old mansions. Occupied but some low levels seem flooded. Rotten boards covering some canal entrances, shouldn’t reach bottom.”

Walters had never been in this section of the city, although he had some idea about where to start looking in a map. As they advanced, the number of mansions and other buildings with more than two stories increased. Most of the side canals were now private, some blocked by wooden doors, others with signs hanging from a chain stating the names of the properties at the end of those service canals. Walters paid more attention to the few public side canals that interconnected the main canals or ended in now neglected parking lots at the fringes of the city. He told himself again that he had never been here before. He wanted to come back, explore with time. There were many possibilities, forgotten secrets covered under meters of water and undisturbed silt, there should be flooded rooms to be prospected; melting drawers to be opened; plates, lacquered boxes, glass tables, and knick knacks layered by the sediment, a light brush with the fingertips and the intense whiteness of the torch rescuing them back to human eyes before the muck and darkness muttered them again. Walters saw the stopping signs for several lines of water buses, so this could easily become his new working area. As lately, the docks had turned out to be disappointing as far as net profit, although he still enjoyed his challenging times negotiating with the steamboats, the motorboats and the unpredictable currents of the Mississippi.

Seeing the blue sign of a chop-suey restaurant, Walters remembered a recent glimpse of a blue fox in some alleyway downtown, a skinny fox suddenly disappearing as if flying into the darkening sky. Did that happen recently? Did it even happen? Perhaps something he imagined, that evening. He seemed to be imagining more things these days. Like swimming into a cabin in a submerged shipwreck, fifty meters under water, no bodies, a cloud of minuscule fish and plankton throbbing between him and the bunk beds, a chest in a corner. Again and again, there, looking at that chest, until he found himself crossing the curtain of plankton, the hand trying to reach the chest, a desire to turn around and swim as fast as possible out of the ship before it keeled over, but the hand had to open the chest.

Walters blotted his forehead with a hand that he then dried on his T-shirt. They were approaching now a gothic, weed-covered church, the past grandeur of most windows dulled with wood planks nailed from the inside to cover the broken pieces of glass. There were two side canals running along both sides of the church. As with most churches in Memphis, these two side canals were likely to meet at the back of the building, the church standing in its own island, more often than not an islet of a ridiculously small size. The front door, black and white but otherwise unassuming, was closed and chains hang across it. The seven steps that led from the frothy waters of the canal to the closed door, built with long blocks of granite, were carpeted by a variety of mosses and short flowering plants. Several buttresses emerged from the front walls and plunged directly into the canal. Between two of these buttresses, a pallet with the logo of the Down Brewery woodburned into the sides had been lodged for days, creating a platform over the water, with pieces of trash and plant material accumulating between the pallet and the church wall. There were three dogfrogs over the pallet. Walters had seen the dogfrogs at some distance as they approached the church. He found them as fascinating as the blue foxes. The sun was hitting a section of the pallet and the three dogfrogs were huddling together, basking, immobile but with their eyes wide open. This was the first time that Walters had seen any of them out of the water. He could only remember, although vividly, two other instances in which he had seen these creatures, so typically Memphian, even if rare, only found in Memphis and in the surrounding swamps. In those two occasions Walters had thought how inadequate their local name was, no resemblance whatsoever with a dog; or a frog, for that matter. Maybe they barked or run like dogs when out of the water. The first time, soon after arriving to Memphis, a dogfrog, under a docked boat, had its head buried in the mud, shaking its body as if trying to dislodge a gigantic bone (like a dog, actually, he thought), pieces of algae and a succession of clouds of silt blowing up around the agitated body. Months later, he was having a breather under a fishing dock, sitting on a mass of decaying reeds, and he saw two of them floating on the surface in the center of the canal, only the top of their heads with their bulgy eyes and part of their backs out of the water, being dragged by the low current, their large eyes seeming to follow the movements of passersby walking along the narrow canalsides. Walters sunk underwater again, stretched his body and dived towards the center of the canal, turning his face up to observe the creatures, now at the reach of his fingers. The underbodies of the two dogfrogs were grayish with blue spots lined by black circles. Their duck-like legs were tucked under skin folds, their flat and short tails constantly vibrating. From underneath one could appreciate the massive proportion of their heads, almost the same size as their bodies, the two parts connected by a thick and stubby neck. The lower jaw was shorter than the top one, so Walters could see their ample grimaces, from one side of the neck to the other, circling the outline of the head, sharp teeth sticking out in all directions.

“I was baptized in that church,” Jameson said. Walters moved his attention from the dogfrogs to the chained door of the church that was already behind them, then faced Jameson. “I’m hungry,” he said.

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