I was born in a laundromat in Paris, Ontario. If you knew Gina you wouldn’t think it was that weird. Gina is my mother. She says she’s a dancer. What that means is she’s a stripper. Sometimes she says exotic dancer if she’s really comfortable with you. Sometimes she goes all the way and there’s another word for that. But I’m not allowed to say it. Not when Gina’s around. Sometimes late at night when Gina’s at work and I can’t sleep and I’m lying in bed in whatever crap-hat motel room we’re in, I whisper it up to the ceiling, whore, hoo-er, hoaaar. And sometimes, I think, that word sounds kind of beautiful.
Gina has a condition. It’s not her fault. She had it before me and it got worse after she had me. It’s called narcolepsy with cataplexy. What happens is she gets a sleep attack and she can’t move. Sometimes she falls asleep while driving and that’s how I learned to drive when I was seven and that’s why we mostly take the bus now. Sometimes she falls asleep when we’re walking down the sidewalk and I have to stay beside her and make sure nobody steals her purse. Sometimes she falls asleep when she’s at work but the managers don’t know about narcolepsy with cataplexy and they think Gina’s on drugs so she gets fired and then we have to get our skinny asses the heck outta Dodge, as Gina says.
I’m eleven years old and I’ve been to thirteen different schools. Last summer we rode the Greyhound from Penetanguishene to Prince George and stopped in all the dumb little towns along the way so Gina could work. Gina says I’ve seen more of the country than most adults.
It’s not so bad, I guess. Sometimes if I start making friends with kids at school, or if I can tell a girl has a crush on me or something, I’ll wish we didn’t have to leave so soon, but sometimes if I don’t like my teacher or the kids are mean, then I’m glad we get to leave, so it’s good but it’s bad, too.
So one night I’m sitting around in my underwear in our room at the Prince Motel, eating salt and vinegar chips, watching The Late Show With David Letterman, and Gina comes in, looking tired, cause she always looks tired, cause she doesn’t sleep properly on account of her condition.
“Hey. How come you’re home so early?”
She sat down on the bed and took a chip out of the bag and ate it. Then she took another one. “How do you feel about Niagara Falls?”
“I don’t know. Have I been there before?” I kept watching Letterman but I could see out of the corner of my eye that she was looking at me with that mushy face she sometimes gets when she’s sad.
“No. You haven’t.”
I shrugged. “Okay.”
Gina figures there’s more people in Ontario so there’s more married business men there and married business men are the best tippers. Also, a woman named Daisy that Gina worked with in Edmonton told her Niagara Falls was a goldmine. So the next morning we packed up all our stuff then went for breakfast at Denny’s. I got the Lumberjack Slam and Gina got what she always gets, the Moons Over My Hammy Omelette because she loves saying it and thinks it’s hilarious.
“Gimme a sip of your chocolate milk.”
I slid my glass over to her.
“Do you want a bite of my Moons Over My Hammy Omelette?” she giggled, then she started laughing. Then it happened.
Her head hit the side of the plate as she slumped over the table. Her eyes were open and she was looking at me, sort of, but I could tell she couldn’t see me. The waiter came over, flapping his arms around like a startled pigeon.
“Oh my God! Is she okay? Do you want me to call 9-1-1?”
“No. Don’t worry.” I reached across the table for the ketchup and squirted a pile of it onto my plate. “This happens all the time.”
He stared at Gina and looked like he might start to cry.
“Do you have any hot sauce?”
The Greyhound bus from Prince George, BC to Niagara Falls, Ontario takes three days, eight hours and fifteen minutes. Gina wanted to get there as soon as possible, and since we didn’t have to stay in a motel for three nights, we’d have a little extra money so we could do some fun stuff like go to Marineland and Ripley’s Believe it or Not and crap like that.
Gina slept for the entire trip. I didn’t even see her get up to go to the bathroom. I tried to wake her up a few times when we’d stop for meal breaks but she’d just turn toward the window and scrunch up more in her seat, her white-blonde hair falling over her face like a curtain. I remember she told me once that the only time she can get a really good sleep is when she’s riding in a car, or on a bus. Something about the motion of the road being like a cradle, rocking her to sleep.
The woman across the aisle from us had curly red hair, enormous boobs, and a leopard print shirt. She did Sudoku puzzles, drank Diet Coke, and smoked one cigarette every time we stopped. She kept her cigarettes in a little silver case. I think they were menthols but I can’t be sure. The first night on the bus, she was sleeping and her blouse kind of fell open and I could see a little bit of her nipple. I stared at her nipple for about two hours until I fell asleep.
The next day we were somewhere in the prairies and she smiled at me. She had put lip gloss on and her lips were all glistening and sparkly pink.
“Do you want a piece of gum?” she held out a stick of Juicy Fruit across the aisle.
“Sure.” I took it and our fingers touched. “Thanks.”
“That your mom?”
“What’s she do?”
“You mean besides sleep?”
She laughed, “Yeah.”
I looked at the woman, clacking her gel-nails against the arm rest. I shrugged. “Same as you, I guess.”
She sniffed. “Oh yeah, what’s that?”
“She’s a touring washed-up stripper.”
She blinked really hard a few times, and I could see the globs of mascara flaking off around her eyes, then she turned toward the window. The next time the bus stopped, she moved all her stuff up to the front, and I didn’t see her or her nipples for the rest of the trip.
Niagara Falls was like one gigantic amusement park. After we got our room at The Niagara Motel and had showers and got chips from the vending machine, we went out to explore our new town. Gina and I went to a wax museum, Screamer’s House of Horrors, and Brick City, where you could build Lego all day, and even though I’m too old for Lego now, it was still pretty cool. We went to an Imax and learned all about the Maid of the Mist and the people who went over the falls in barrels and survived, then we got mini-donuts and hot chocolate and rode the Sky Wheel for about an hour. We were supposed to get off after the wheel went around three times but Gina blew a kiss to the operator and he let us stay on. When we finally got off he asked Gina for her number. She said we didn’t have one yet because we just moved here, which was true.
“Maybe I can take you out for coffee sometime.” He looked down at his boots, then back up at her.
“Oh, I don’t drink coffee. Can’t sleep if I drink it.”
This was also true. But it was kind of sad how his face fell as she said it. She grabbed my hand then and pulled me away. “Thanks for the ride!”
I jerked my hand back and shoved it in my pocket and looked around to make sure no one had seen me holding hands with my mom. Gina laughed at me but I didn’t care. I had to start school here soon and she didn’t.
We walked along the boardwalk and gawked at the falls with everyone else. A family of Japanese tourists asked Gina to take their picture and she made them do all these crazy poses and had everyone cracking up.
I liked Niagara Falls right away because the people we saw kind of looked like us, like they didn’t quite know what they were doing, but they were going to try to have a good time anyway.
The next day, we had breakfast at the Horton’s across the street. Gina read the paper and I dug a hole through my muffin so that it became a duffin. Or a mo-nut. It was my own invention and one day I would sell the idea to Mr. Horton for a billion dollars. Gina circled an ad in the classifieds and I leaned over to read what it said.
“Orchid Indust…Indust –”
“Orchid Industries Escort Services.”
“That sounds kind of nice.”
Gina looked up from the paper. “Do you know what an escort is, Tucker?”
“Sure. It’s like a Taurus but boxier.”
She smiled. “Yeah, that’s a Ford Escort. This is a different kind of escort.”
She popped a Timbit into her mouth, “It’s like a date.”
“Don’t talk with your mouth full, jeez. You know that grosses me out.”
"Sorry,” she said, and covered her mouth. She swallowed, took a sip of her tea. “It’s like a date.”
“It’s very classy. Only really classy ladies can do it.”
“Guess you’re S.O.L. then, hey?”
She rolled up the paper and swatted me on the arm with it while I laughed and choked a little bit on my duffin.
“Are you okay?”
“Yeah,” I coughed.
She unrolled the paper. “Want your horoscope?”
“Even if you don’t have the faintest idea what is going on around you at the moment act
as if you have seen it all before. Create the illusion that you are in control. It’s remarkable how easily most people are fooled.”
“Lame. What’s yours?”
“You may be in the minority as far as certain viewpoints are concerned but according to the planets you are on the side of the angels, so stop worrying about what others might think and do what you know to be right.”
“So what are we doing today?”
“Well, I need to find a job, for one.”
“I think what you meant to say was, we’re going to Marineland.”
“I’m serious. We need to see the whales. Do what you know to be right, Gina.”
“Do you like to eat?”
“Do you like to wear clothes?”
“Then I need to work.”
“But you promised.”
She shook her head and started reading the paper again.
“Killer whales, Gina. Baby belugas. Sea lions!” I clapped my palms together, “Arf! Arf! Arf!”
“Shhh! You’re gonna get us kicked out of here.”
“ARF! ARF! ARF!”
“Okay, I’ll make you a deal. I look for work today and we go to Marineland tomorrow.”
“Hey. Who’s the boss?”
“You little sh–”
“Fifty bucks what?”
“Give me fifty bucks and you’ve got a deal.”
Her mouth twisted up but her eyes were shining. “Twenty.”
“Forty-five. That’s as low as I’ll go.”
She took two twenties out of her wallet and shoved them at me. “Don’t spend it all on candy.”
We went back to our motel so Gina could get ready. I watched The Simpsons and thought about what I would do with my forty bucks. I could take a cab out to Marineland and see the whales myself, but it wouldn’t be as much fun without Gina there. I could go on the Maid of the Mist and get soaking wet, but what’s the point of getting soaking wet when there’s no one around to laugh with? She came out of the bathroom then, big hair, short skirt, makeup, the shoes.
“How do I look?”
She pushed her boobs up and checked herself out in the mirror above the desk. “This is big, Tucker. This is Niagara-fuckin-Falls.”
“When will you be back?”
“I don’t know. I’ll call you.”
“What if I’m not here?”
“Then I’ll leave a message on the motel phone.”
“Okay. Well, break a leg.”
“Thanks, lamb chop.” She kissed me on the forehead, grabbed her purse. “Don’t forget to eat lunch.”
“Don’t forget to eat dinner.”
“Don’t forget to brush your teeth.”
“Don’t forget to wipe your butt.”
“Don’t forget I love you.”
“Don’t forget to close the door behind you.”
She blew me a kiss and left.
I wandered up and down Clifton Hill most of the day. I saw some guys smoking crack in an alley behind the 7-11. I saw a fat man yelling into his phone about losing everything he owned. I watched a dark-haired girl in a too-tight dress pose on the corner and lean into car windows. I thought about going back to Brick City to build some more Lego but I like to try new things so I went to the arcade instead. I saw some kids I thought maybe I could be friends with but then I saw them snickering when I was playing Dance Dance Revolution, even though I’m pretty good at Dance Dance Revolution. I spent twenty bucks at the arcade and then went to a restaurant called Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville. It had gigantic parrots on the outside of it and a real live one inside a golden cage near the bar. Her name was Scarlet and she said, “Make it a double, Pete. BaCAW!” I laughed and told her I thought she was beautiful. I wanted to sit near her but they wouldn’t let me sit at the bar because I’m a minor. So I sat at a booth where I could still see her and ordered a Cheeseburger in Paradise with fries on the side and a chocolate milk. Then my money was gone and it was almost dark so I said goodbye to Scarlet and went back to the motel and watchedCheers. There were no messages on the phone and Gina didn’t call. It took a really long time to fall asleep because there were fireworks and then the people in the next room kept banging against the wall, but finally I did fall asleep and when I woke up in the morning Gina still wasn’t there.
I got dressed and went out to the front desk guy to ask if he’d seen Gina. He had a pock-marked face and a tattoo of a scorpion on his neck. He hadn’t seen her.
“Did she leave a message for me?”
“Do you guys have a continental breakfast here?”
“Oh. Okay. Thanks.”
I was really hungry so I drank a bunch of water and ate two packets of sugar that were in the room with the coffee stuff. Then I walked around for awhile to see if Gina was asleep on the sidewalk or a bench, but she wasn’t anywhere. It had rained the night before and there were worms all over the road. The air stunk of worm. I tried not to step on any of them but most of them had already been squished. You could hear the robins chirping their little heads off, but you couldn’t see them anywhere. They must have been hiding, protecting their babies. A Lincoln Town Car drove by and splashed a huge puddle over me. I was soaked from the knees down. I went to the falls. I was tired and wanted to sit down but everything was wet. Then I realized I was already drenched so it didn’t really matter anyway. I found a place to sit that was so close to the falls it made my heart stutter. I stared at all that green water rushing over and the silver mist shooting up and wondered what would happen if I jumped in. People did it. Some of them died and some of them got famous. Sixteen people have gone over the falls in a barrel or something else. Two of them did it twice. Eleven out of the sixteen survived. That’s pretty good odds. But when you look into the river, you get dizzy, and you can tell that if you step into it, it will kill you.
I could feel the wetness of the bench seeping through my underwear. My stomach growled and I wished I hadn’t spent twenty bucks at the stupid arcade. I wished I knew where Gina was and I wished I knew what to do. I watched the falls for a long, long time. One million bathtubs of water went over every second. I never knew there was so much water in the world. The sound of it blocked out all the other sounds. They were so loud it was overwhelming and I started to get scared. I started to get scared that something real bad had happened to Gina. She had never not come home before without calling. I stared at the falls that I couldn’t turn off and would never ever stop and I felt like crying. But then I remembered my horoscope, and I whispered, I’m in control, I’m in control. I am in control. Instead of crying, I went back to the motel and asked scorpion guy to borrow the phonebook. Then I went to our room and called the Greater Niagara General Hospital.
A lady doctor named Dr. Chopra came to get me in the waiting room. We took the elevator to the third floor and she led me down the hall to a blue room and I saw Gina lying in a bed. She had two black eyes and her nose was all swollen, her head was wrapped in a white bandage and she had tubes and wires going in and out of her arms and a tube coming out of her chest. I started to cry.
“Is this your mother?” Dr. Chopra asked.
I nodded and wiped away some snot that was pouring down my face.
“Can you tell me her name?”
"Gina. Gina Malone.”
She nodded. “Good.” She put her hand on my shoulder. “Tucker, your mom was hit by a car last night. The driver said she was lying in the road and he didn’t see her until it was too late.”
I moved away so her hand wasn’t on my shoulder anymore.
“She’s in serious but stable condition. Her right leg was crushed and she has a fractured pelvis. She has three broken ribs and a collapsed lung. Her nose is broken, too.”
“But, she’s…is she…?”
“She’s going to live, yes. But it will take a long time for her to make a full recovery.” Dr. Chopra opened a tall closet door and took Gina’s purse off a hook. “This was found with her, in case you need anything out of it.”
“Okay.” I hugged the purse against my chest.
“Do you have any family you can call? Anyone you can stay with?”
“Gina’s my family.”
Dr. Chopra nodded. “Well, you’re welcome to stay here tonight and I’ll make sure someone from Children and Family Services comes and sees you first thing tomorrow. Oh, and I’ll give you these meal tickets for the cafeteria downstairs.” She handed me a roll of coupons.
“There are blankets in the closet here and just let the nurses know if you need anything.”
“Right. Well, I’ll be back later to check in on her. Push that buzzer if she wakes up, okay?”
Dr. Chopra left and I stood in the corner and stared at Gina. She looked small and pale. I went over to stand next to her bed and watched the mint-green sheet rise and fall with her breathing machine. The breathing machine was loud and sounded like whooshing water. I got dizzy after awhile and had to sit down. My stomach hurt so I went to the cafeteria to eat.
When I came back I got some blankets out of the closet and set up the chairs so I could sort of stretch out on them and rest my head on the edge of the bed. I fell asleep thinking about the guy who ran over Gina. I wondered where he was now and what he was doing. I wondered if he had ever heard of narcolepsy. I wondered if he had a mom.
In the middle of the night I woke up to Gina’s fingers running through my hair. I sat up.
She smiled at me and my heart burst. She was alive. She was alive and she could talk and she knew who I was and she was broken but she would be okay. I told her everything Dr. Chopra had told me; that she was fractured and crushed and collapsed.
“Should I push the button now to tell them you woke up?”
“Are you scared?”
“Because you’re here now.” She reached for my hand then, and we stayed like that, holding hands, until we both fell asleep.