Jackie was being a brat—no doubt—but she had had it. At Christmas her mother had invited her to spend an all-expense-paid summer three-day weekend at a centennial celebration in St. Paul filled with hotel amenities, riverfront strolls, artists’ booths, one-of-a-kind items, fireworks, pre-planned entertainment including bands from Jackie’s youth. Herman’s Hermits were scheduled, Eric Burdon and the Animals, too. The whole event culminated in a Mississippi River paddle boat sunset dinner cruise from St. Paul to Fort Snelling. But Jackie just wasn’t in any mood to party now that the actual event had arrived.
Admittedly when her mom had invited Jackie, the weekend sounded wonderful, but at Christmastime only postcard memories of summer marinaded in Jackie’s mind—the idyllic halcyon days of blue water, a slower pace, dream temperatures, time to enjoy life drinking large lemonades while sitting on picturesque patios, gentle cooling breezes just enough to lighten the warmth of the sun when it became too much, and color! More than the white, gray, and brown-black of winter. Vibrant colors from petunias, pansies, peonies, gardenias, geraniums bursting from window boxes, clay pots, and flower gardens, perfectly punctuated by bright birdsong or street musicians’ merry melodies in makeshift venues.
However, the reality of a St. Paul summer had hit hard by the time of the actual celebration—the beginning of July, roadwork, detours, the smell of fresh tar, migraine headaches, tourists everywhere, so little shade that even the slightest of a heavy person took up most of one spot of it. Mosquitos and gnats and multitudinous other species of insects hummed and zoomed everywhere. Minnesota relied heavily on the summer tourist trade but that weekend Jackie was convinced hat most of the tourists were bugs. And talk about muggy! Whew! The first few paragraphs of Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes ran through Jackie’s mind. How he’d described the weather in Ireland and ended the description with something like, “and most of all it was wet.” Well, in Minnesota most of all it was muggy which meant humidity. The air was so heavy and sticky with damp that it hung onto Jackie like cheap bargain lotion. Breathing was such a task that a woman younger than fifty had to labor for breath as if she were suffering from asthma. It tired Jackie out so much that her whole body ached and every muscle seemed to yell, “If you take one more step, I’ll never work for you again.” A couple times she felt like she was going to collapse on the sidewalk. Not to mention, mugginess had a depressing bad-breath, unbrushed teeth smell that permeated every breath and poisoned all the summer flower fragrances. It caused the river to reek rancid. And it produced sweat—tickle down the back and drip into the eyes sweat! How could anyone stand this hell? Jackie thought.
Another important fact Jackie had forgotten when she had accepted her mother’s generous invitation was what a walker and go-getter her mother actually was. Her healthy “can-do” attitude and perky “get up and go” two of her mother’s most admirable qualities were best admired from afar, Jackie remembered too late. Jackie couldn’t keep up, and the truth was, she didn’t want to. She had just spent one of the most grueling teaching years in her long career, evaluating 120 mostly mediocre essays every week, teaching to overcrowded classes that didn’t have enough textbooks for each student, studying at graduate school Wednesday nights and weekends, working on her capstone, learning a new grading system (which actually meant recording the grades three places in the computer—two more times than necessary—but she was told it was better for the people in the office, so . . .). Her health hadn’t been good either she’d been doctoring for fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, and irritable bowel syndrome and had been poked and prodded in places she hadn’t known existed. Really her attitude was quite juvenile, she knew, but she wanted to be left alone. She longed to be away from people and noise and time schedules, but that wasn’t possible during a St. Paul Centennial Celebration. Heck, Jackie didn’t even know what they were celebrating. Her mom wasn’t really sure either. The tickets had been a well-meant Christmas gift. Mom was just here to enjoy herself, have a good time with Jackie, which Jackie understood. She appreciated that, but she just wasn’t the person for a trip like this.
From the very beginning Jackie should have seen the foreboding signs. She and her mom had driven to the Radisson on the Mississippi River, excited about the room they’d have with a breathtaking river view. They’d lugged their suitcases to the desk on the second floor, only to find out that they were at the wrong Radisson. Their hotel was in the middle of a block on a hill three blocks up and two blocks over. (No view of the river—just bricks.)
That had put them farther away from the festival than they thought. “Hey, no problem,” Jackie’s mom had reassured her. She had read in a brochure that the city would provide shuttles to the festival site. But, thank God for walking shoes, because no one at the hotel seemed to know where those shuttle sites were. No one working at the hotel, none of the myriads of bus drivers her mother had flagged down and asked. (“Don’t worry. I’m not embarrassed to do this.” she encouraged Jackie.) Even the two police officers on their beat hadn’t heard of the shuttles. Okay, that was all right they had their walking shoes, and if the shoes are made for walking . . . why not? Jackie just wasn’t prepared for the hill, the steep hill. After one walk her calf muscles felt like some bulldog had chomped onto them, determined never to let go.
The weather forecast wasn’t hopeful either, above-average temperatures, possibly 100, and severe thunderstorms. “Don’t worry about the weather, Jackie. Those reports are wrong more often than not,” her mom had reassured her. “We’ll bring umbrellas. We’ll be fine.” Wouldn’t you know it, for once, the weather report was accurate. The umbrellas weren’t “fine.” So like the boy Frank McCourt in Ireland, Jackie and her mom learned to be wet. Their clothes stuck to them like soggy wash rags most of the days, and during the rare times when they were “dry,” the mugginess kept their garments stuck to them anyway. Until that weekend the practice had seemed a cute quirk, but Jackie began to understand why so many, mostly older, women kept a kleenex or handkerchief stuck between their breasts and their bra. Anything to keep the wet at bay helped.
People in Minnesota are quite resilient, so when a celebration is on, they go. They’re not always chipper about it, but they go. And this was true of the Centennial Celebration. The grounds were packed. Jackie became used to the jostling about and the bruises she received because of it, but the crowds made her as confused as a kid stuck in a turnstile. She couldn’t focus well on the exhibits and demonstrations. Once, out of frustration Jackie suggested . . . okay, whined to her mom, “Let’s just go home.”
But her mother, true to her “sunny-side” bent even in the worst of weather answered, “Don’t be silly! We’re not going home! These tickets were a gift. Rachel and David spent all that money. They’d be upset if we left early. We’re just going to accept things and have a good time.”
“Let me know when that starts,” Jackie said, swiping the wet bangs from her eyes.
“Now, Jackie,” said her mom, “Don’t be like that. Boy, honey, your hair is really wet. I wish I knew how to make one of those hats out of newspaper. Do you know how to make one of those hats?”
“No, Mom, I don’t.”
“I just wish I knew how. Maybe somebody at one of the booths knows.”
“No, Mom. Don’t ask. I’m fine really. Thanks anyway,” came out of Jackie’s mouth harsher than she wanted it to. The pain, wet and yearning to be home resting dryly with a good book spoke for her.
“Okay, honey, but I’ll ask if you need one,” her mom reassured Jackie while rubbing her back.
By the third day, Jackie was morose. The skies had cleared before the fireworks, so the show went on and it was dazzling! Jackie had hoped she had made up to her mom for some of her miserable attitude then. But by morning, thunder, lightning and showers had returned. They survived another dreary day and by dinner cruise time, Jackie’s mom had called a cab to drive them to the paddle boat. Unfortunately, the rain was crashing down like shards of glass. The cabby knew where the boat was docked, but there were two entrances, one at the first entrance and one at the last entrance at the other end of the grounds. “I’ll leave you off here. This is usually where the boats are,” said the cabby as they came to the first entrance. Jackie weighed the options and the trip’s bad odds, nearly asking the cabby to drive to the last entrance, but her mom was paying and already out of the car.
“Come on, Jackie.Give my your umbrella. I’ll open it before you get out.”
Reluctantly, Jackie did as her mom asked. The umbrellas were absolutely useless against the hard rain, no boat was in sight, and the cab had already pulled away. “Well, I guess we’ll just have to run fast to get to the other side,” her mom said between bits of laughter.
Jackie’s anger overflowed like the gutters in the buildings on the grounds, “How can you laugh, Mom? This is terrible.”
“Well, what else is there to do?” her mom asked giving Jackie a friendly nudge.
“Get angry?” Jackie responded, teeth clenched.
“Oh, you sound like your dad. Come on. We aren’t getting there any faster talking here.”
When Jackie and her mom finally reached the paddle cruiser, the line was long and boarding was overdue, some problem on the boat was delaying things. By this time, Jackie’s bladder felt like it had filled with rain. “Oh, I hope they have a bathroom,” she gasped wiggling back and forth.
“Oh they, do,” said a young woman in front of Jackie. “We’ve been here before.”
“Finally some good news,” Jackie said as she gave a weak smile to her mother.
“See, things will be better from here on. Our luck’s changing,” her mom reassured Jackie rubbing her back again comfortingly.
Finally, the line began to move and Jackie and her mom stepped into the dining room.
“You pick out our seats, Jackie—someplace with a view,” her mom offered.
Jackie smiled weakly again, hoping her mom’s attitude was catchy.
Jackie scanned the dining room, spotting two window seats on the opposite side of the room. A good spot. She started moving toward it, keeping her eyes on the desired seats. That’s why she didn’t see the hole. She didn’t see that the hatch to the engine hold was open. Suddenly Jackie wasn’t walking toward a window seat anymore. In a hazy nauseating daze she felt herself falling, hitting something metal on her way down. A flash of Alice tumbling down the rabbit hole, oddly flashed in Jackie’s mind. Then she felt something hard—concrete—smash into her feet, her legs, her back.
When her eyes could focus, she saw a man looking down at her. “Ma’am, no one’s supposed to be down here,” he said.
Oh my, newsflash!
Jackie looked up at a round opening. Her mother’s face, aghast, along with others she didn’t recognize, rimmed the hole, gawking down at her. Breathing deeply, Jackie moved her legs more comfortably to the side. The man below heaved her to the top and she plopped onto the ship’s floor like a beached beluga and bawled.
*Title from song by Kool and the Gang