We descended a long elevator down to the Niagara River where we would board the Maid of the Mist. As we already knew, there was not just one boat with that name—but several, each with a Roman numeral after it. They were up to Maid of the Mist VI when we were there.
When we got to the bottom, we found Gil and his mother waiting for us, and joined them in line. “I’ve been watching down here,” he said, “and you want to try to be among the first on the boat.”
“Why’s that?” I asked.
“You want to get up toward the front—”
“The bow,” I said before I realized I was once again saying too much. This thought arrived just about the time Harriet’s elbow hit my ribs and she was coughing eruptively.
“Yes,” said Gil, “the bow.” He looked at me and smiled thinly. “And here’s why. The boats get so crowded that unless you’re right up against the rail—”
“Gunwale,” I said. Another elbow, more coughing.
Gil was laughing.
“Rhymes with funnel,” I said.
And now we were all laughing. “Who needs a dictionary,” asked Harriet, “when you’re friends with Vickie Stone.”
“Anyway,” said Gil. “If it looks like we’re going to be among the last to board one of the boats, we should step aside and wait for the next one.”
We agreed that would be a good idea. But we were lucky. We were among the very first to board one of the Maid of the Mist vessels. I was amazed at the variety of human beings in line with us—it was like attending a riverside session of the United Nations.
As we boarded, they gave each of us a blue plastic slicker to pull over our clothing. “It gets a little wet,” said one of the employees. (He was wrong. It gets very wet.) Gil and his mother hurried to very bow of the boat, and Harriet and I were right behind them. We had a spectacular view as we swung over toward American Falls, then out into the center of the river and then seemed to head right in to Horseshoe Falls—something almost suicidal.
But, of course, we weren’t. We steered to the portside (left) at the last moment and followed the contour of the Falls, so close that we were all getting soaked, slickers or no. It’s astonishing, being at the edge of death while at the same time saying to yourself This is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.
And then we were pulling away. Conversation had been impossible—not just because of the noise of the Falls but because I don’t think anyone even wanted to say anything. We just wanted to look. And think. And feel.
Back at the dock, we four were among the last off the boat, of course (first on, last off). I found myself beside Gil, his mother and Harriet in front of us. I felt his thin hand clutch mine, and I clutched right back. I looked over at him. He was staring back at me, and his face was wet with Niagara, red with tears.