Riviere the gondolier stands in his boat, his knee bent as his foot rests on the seat. One hand clutches his long paddle in a fist, the other swings from side to side as he sings to a crowd gathered along the narrow sidewalks on either side of the canal. Up ahead, a small iron bridge humps over the dark water. A crowd has gathered there, too.
Standing in a single-occupant gondola is a risky venture for a man of Riviere’s carriage. Flesh bulges not just at his middle, but under his arms and chin as well. The harder and louder he sings, the more it shakes, to the ascendant delight of the assembled crowd. Some of these people are tourists, but many of them work in the silt houses and scrapyards and rely on singing gondoliers like Riviere for inexpensive entertainment.
Riviere’s voice fills the air as he bellows out songs in a jolly baritone. He waggles his bushy eyebrows at specific points during each song to amuse the adults. As he sings for the crowd, he scans their faces. Smiles of a certain width guarantee a coin—or better yet, a colorful bank note—tossed underhand into his boat.
He also wriggles his nose, making his bristly mustache move to amuse the children, particularly a set of three pug-nosed little girls in dirty white dresses. They watch him the way only children can, as if the rest of the world has fallen away. There are a few other children scattered throughout the audience with their parents, but these three have no obvious adult supervision at all, nor are they smiling and clapping. The girl on the right is pulling the middle girl’s hair to the rhythm of the song, and Riviere stumbles when he sees it, but incorporates it into his routine.
Most of the other singers perform seated; Riviere is one of the few, and certainly the heaviest, who dares to stand. He rocks his gondola from side to side with his legs, teasing the possibility that he might fall into the filthy canal. The crowd buzzes with anticipation, then breaks into applause when he holds his balance. He takes a bow as coins drop into his boat.
In a corner cafe, Mrs. Grenier pours Riviere a glass of red wine, then drops an ice cube into it with her bare hand. Silver is creeping through the thin blond hair gathered into a bun behind her head.
“I don’t understand why you drink it this way,” she says. Her hand briefly touches his.
“Neither do I,” Riviere says, before sipping. “But every man should have one thing about himself that he doesn’t understand.”
“Oh?” Mrs. Grenier perches her chin in her hand, ignoring the man to Riviere’s left, whom Riviere recognizes as another singing gondolier. “Is there anything else a man should have?” Aside from them and an elderly couple playing stone-a-pig at a lamp-lit rear table, the cafe is empty.
“Yes,” Riviere says, after spitting the ice cube back into his glass. “A fitted shirt and some good cologne.”
“Who fitted that shirt for you?” the other gondolier snorts. “A tent-maker?” He leans on his elbows and doesn’t look up from the bar when he speaks.
“I borrowed this shirt from your mother,” Riviere says, “so you’ll have to ask her.” He smiles a rosy smile and toasts the other gondolier, who responds by shoving him right off his barstool.
Mrs. Grenier rolls away from Rivere’s pale chest to light a cigarette.
“It’s a secret,” she says, “but I actually own the cafe. There’s a man’s name on the paperwork, but he’s a ghost.” She exhales smoke and scoots back toward Riviere. “Been dead for years. He was a friend of my father’s.”
Riviere extends an arm, making room for her as she lengthens herself against his side. “Thank god for that,” he says. “If you were a man, that would make me terribly unobservant.”
She laughs, nudges him with her elbow. They share a cigarette and she explains the frustrations of a woman trying to open a business on her own. On paper, her father’s friend owns the cafe, and she is his nurse and secretary handling his affairs.
Riviere listens to her and watches her arm resting on the hill his stomach makes under the sheets. He wonders if Mr. Grenier enjoys the sound of her raspy voice. Her head anchors in the slope of his neck. When the cigarette is finished, Riviere flicks it out the open bedroom window and into the water. Her bedroom faces the canal, and Riviere tenses every time a boat passes by.
“Why open a cafe at all,” he asks, “when it is such a hassle?”
“So that I can sell it,” she says, “and travel. Maybe go Overseas before I get too old to move around.” She rolls out of bed. Her body is tan and lean, and he pulls the sheets around him to cover his pale, flabby chest and limbs.
A saltfish man paddles his snub-nosed boat through the canals, calling out his wares in a voice that skips across the water. When someone obliges, they throw money into his boat and he extends a thick white strip of salted fish to them on the end of a pointed stick. Customers mostly pull it off with their hands, but a few use their teeth, which the saltfish man regards as barbaric.
His boat passes Riviere’s gondola, and they greet each other with genial suspicion. The saltfish man asks if Riviere would like one on the house, and the singer obliges. The stick is not necessary for this transaction.
“Delicious,” Riviere says, licking his fingers. “What kind of fish is this?”
“Do you write your own songs?” replies the saltfish man. They both laugh at questions they are too professional to answer.
“You should use tongs to pass that fish around,” Rivere says. “That stick will scare people.”
“Tongs cut the meat,” the saltfish man says. He is small, with curly auburn hair and a beard to match, and he hefts the stick so Riviere can see its full construction. “This is perfect. And look, it’s weighted at my end so I can pull people into the canal if they try to cross me.” Some of the humor drains from the his voice.
Riviere nods, and is about to comment on the day’s heat when he catches his reflection in the water. He coughs and spits.
“See anything down there?” the saltfish man asks.
“I did,” Riviere says. “Something unpleasant. It’s gone now.” He leaves it at that.
The midday sun pulls sweat from Riviere’s body as he paddles down the canal, singing to a small but responsive group on the sidewalk.
When the bow of Riviere’s boat nudges a collapsed building, he steps onto the ruins, holding his gondola in place with his paddle as he sings to them. On the spot, he launches into one of his parents’ favorite songs about a building that collapses because the newlyweds on the top floor enjoy each others’ company so vigorously.
Riviere is halfway into the bawdiest verse when he sees those three girls again, staring at him from the crowd. He stutters a little, only having a split second to decide whether or not to continue the song, but soldiers on. He even waves at them, and they wave back. One of them has a red, sticky-looking hand.
Gripping each brick with his toes, Riviere walks along the spine of the collapsed building. They are not uncommon in town; over time, the water laps away at the foundations of houses and other structures. This building, whatever it was, has fallen across the alley and made itself a stage for Riviere.
When his song is finished, the crowd tosses coins into his gondola. One of the little girls is smiling as her sister tosses something that lands with a thud near the gondola’s stern.
Later, Riviere finds a dead bird in his boat.
A white bicycle leans against a weathered brick house cornering an alley. Had it not caught the edge of the lamp light, Riviere wouldn’t have seen it at all. Bicycles were uncommon, and useless, in a town on the water. The only reason he recognizes it at all is because he grew up on land.
A candle is still burning inside this corner house, and Riviere holds his boat still, obeying the whim of some low-humming curiosity. The house is four stories and wider than average, and some of the masonry near the water has been repaired. A trash barrel sits by the front steps. Besides the candle, there is no other light within the house.
Riviere waits there for a half hour, letting his attention slowly wander until the front door opens. An old woman, dressed smartly in city clothes, steps out onto the sidewalk with one fist clenched.
“Evening, madam,” Riviere says, smiling at her. She turns to him with a look he reads as either disbelief or surprise.
“Good evening,” she says.
“Lovely night, wouldn’t you agree?” Riviere smooths his mustache with his fingers.
“I wouldn’t know.”
“No? Are you a visitor, then?” Riviere smiles. “If you’re still here tomorrow, come back and I’ll sing for you.”
The old lady’s eyes harden. “Hopefully you won’t see me at all the next time I’m here.” She pedals away and Riviere lets himself float in the opposite direction.
The following day, he paddles back to that house and sees funeral shrouds across the door. Several people stand outside, their heads bowed. Deep red bells sound from upstream, signaling the black pontoon that will float the deceased to the man-made lake designated as the town cemetery.
Riviere quickly reroutes, deciding to sing elsewhere.
Riviere bathes three times a week in the common washroom above his basement apartment. He prefers bathing at night with his eyes closed, standing in the stone stall under a brass shower nozzle. He will not open his eyes until he has thrown a shirt over his body, and bathes with the door and window shut to fog up the mirror near the sink.
Fat idiot, he mutters to himself as his steam-pressed soap turns to lather in his hands. Whatever devil’s bargain you struck to bed Mrs. Grenier will come back to find you. He thinks of her and wonders how she is not insulted by the sight of him expanding in her bed like a pool of water.
The three little girls appear outside the cafe as Riviere ties his gondola to a cleat. They make a triangle on the narrow sidewalk, all facing one another, shuffling their little hands behind their backs. Riviere watches them as he climbs up onto the sidewalk. The exertion makes him grunt, and breaks the girls’ concentration. They open their eyes in unison and turn toward him. One of them is smiling.
“I’m Clara,” she says, “and this is Beatrice, and Alice.” She gestures to the other two, who glare at her.
“Shhhh,” Alice says, pressing her finger to her lips. “Don’t talk to strangers.”
Riviere smiles. “Wise counsel, but I’m not a stranger. You saw me singing yesterday.” He introduces himself. The girls’ faces soften, but not much. “What are you playing?” Riviere asks.
“We’re playing pass the slipper,” Clara says, wiping her hands on her white dress. Her eyes are large and bright, and entirely black, and she wears her hair low on her forehead, unlike the other two. “Do you want to play?”
“I’m not sure I know how,” Riviere says.
“Don’t tell him,” Alice says. “He won’t do it right.”
“Two of us sing and pass the slipper behind our backs, and the third has to guess which one has it when we stop,” Clara says, beaming up at Riviere until Alice punches her in the arm.
“You should push her in the canal,” Beatrice says to Alice.
“Girls, please!” Riviere steps away from them. The last thing he wants to be associated with is children fighting. His reputation would suffer. “I tell you what, the three of you can play and I’ll just sing.”
Alice nods, but also pouts. “Fine,” she says. “One game.” She moves next to Beatrice, and Clara stands in front of them. She closes her eyes when Riviere starts to sing; he picks a short nursery rhyme, not knowing how long the song was supposed to be. When he stops, Clara opens her eyes, studies the other two girls for a moment, then points to Beatrice. Beatrice produces the slipper from behind her back and throws it to the ground in disgust.
“It’s not fair,” she says. “He didn’t sing long enough.” Clara protests this, and in an instant they’re bickering and shoving each other again. Riviere tries to calm things down and gets his foot stomped on for his troubles.
An older woman in working clothes comes out of the cafe, jabbing her cane at the girls. “Go on! Get! Get out of here!” she growls as they run away. Riviere leans against the cafe’s facade again, putting his weight on his unstomped foot.
“Don’t pay those girls any mind,” the old woman tells him. Her voice and movements are urgent, as if she were a heavy spring verging on harmonic motion. “They’re nothing but trouble. Wild, all three of ’em.”
“Someone should talk with their parents, then,” Riviere said.
“Never seen ’em. My guess is debtor’s prison. They wouldn’t be the only unclaimed children in town.” The old woman spits into the canal. “Just the worst of ’em.” She shuffles back into the cafe, and this time, Riviere follows her. Mrs. Grenier greets him with a glass of chilled red wine, and they leave for her house as soon as he’s finished.
This time, it is Riviere who rolls away from Mrs. Grenier, folding into himself once he is safely on his side. He had been running his hand along the flatness of her stomach until pangs of self-consciousness about his own stayed his hand. He felt her hand trailing up and down his back.
“Are you all right?” she asks.
“Your husband is real, yes?” Riviere stares at the window, but not through it. His eyes trace the muntin bars over and over.
“Yes,” Mrs. Grenier says. “Of course he is.”
“Real like the man’s name on your paperwork, or actually real?
“What is this?” she asks, annoyed. “You’re sulking.”
“I’ve never met him,” Riviere says, “or even heard his name outside this bedroom.”
“My husband doesn’t make friends easily,” Mrs. Grenier says. “It’s stifling. He works at the silt house and drinks alone in the kitchen. That is his life.”
“Then why marry him?”
Mrs. Grenier sighs. “Because I had to marry someone.”
“No you didn’t—
“To have options? Yes, I did.” Mrs. Grenier pulls the sheets up over her breasts. “Having his name attached to mine has gotten me a lot farther than honesty would have.”
“That makes me sad,” is all Riviere can say. Four boats pass by the window before he speaks again. “I’m sorry about the sheets.”
“They must take forever to clean after I’ve been here.” He bows his head.
“There’s nothing wrong with the sheets. What has gotten into you?”
Riviere’s tongue darts across his teeth. “Are you attracted to me?”
“You’re being a child,” is her response. More silence follows, during which Mrs. Grenier dozes off. Riviere listens to her snore and compares her body to his. The way the sheets bulge around him, his body looks like two uneven scoops of sherbet. He feels like sherbet, a palate cleanser between what Mrs. Grenier has already been served, and what she really wants.
He gets dressed without waking her and leaves through the kitchen door.
Riviere sings twice that evening, picking melancholy songs about unrequited love both times; if he must cry, he might as well do it for money. Among the volley of coins tossed into his boat is the limp body of a seagull, its neck broken. He lifts it up to throw it back on the sidewalk and sees the three little girls, the orphans, staring down at him.
“Did you do this?” he asks.
“You already ruined one game for us,” Alice says. “Don’t ruin another one.” Blood is smeared down the front of her white dress.
He waits until they leave to drop the bird in the water.
The next day, Riviere sings only once. He tethers his boat at the cathedral, knotting his tie-line in the mouth of one of the fearsome saltstone lions at the base of the steps. His mighty voice cracks a few times and his brain burns in his head with shame. To compensate, he pours on the theatrics, jiggling the loose skin under his chin and arms to make the crowd laugh.
This crowd is looser, more reactive than most, probably because they are younger. A lot of the older townspeople who’ve been toiling in the silt house and scrapyards for years are often too tired to do much besides passively enjoy a song or two before dinner. The young, though, want to carouse, and they bring that energy with them everywhere, even to singers on the canal. They cheer, whistle, and throw money without prompt as they dance on the sidewalks and steps.
The three girls—Alice, Beatrice, and Clara—appear at the front of the crowd. They are all smiles, smeared head to toe with dirt. Beatrice has a bruise around her eye, and Alice has a swollen lip. Riviere shakes his head as Clara tosses something at his boat; it banks off the side and into the canal.
Alice and Beatrice turn on Clara, and beat on her with their little fists before anyone can intervene. The crowd hollows out around them, and someone runs off to find a policeman while others try and pull the girls apart.
“Give the coin back!” Alice keeps shouting, even as her partnership with Beatrice dissolves and the three girls swing on each other without discrimination.
Riviere’s stomach buckles and he dives into the water without thinking. His eyes are clenched tight as he smacks his way to the greasy bottom of the canal. He only has a few moments to find a coin and hope they accept it. His lungs already hurt. His hands scramble over sunken things, half-eaten away by the water.
He stirs a coin up from the grime and makes a fist around it, then pushes himself up to the surface again. Taking big, greedy gulps of air, he drops the coin—coated with river sludge and impossible to identify—on the sidewalk. Most of the crowd has dispersed, and a policeman has helped three other onlookers separate the girls. He releases Clara so she can pick up the coin.
As she leans down, her hair falls loose, exposing two more eyes in her forehead. Riviere’s eyes dart away from that, and he sees Beatrice winding the flower garland, now torn and bloody, back around her head. Riviere only catches a glimpse of a third eye, red enough to mimic the setting sun, as the garland covers it.
The policeman loads the girls into his patrol boat and takes them away while Riviere climbs back into his gondola. The puddle he leaves around the seat is black.
Riviere paddles past Mrs. Grenier’s cafe, his hat drawn low over his face, and he docks in a neighborhood he rarely visits. He walks into the first public house whose door is open, sits down at the bar, and calls for red wine.
“I used to drink this stuff cold,” he says to the barkeep. “Can you imagine? I don’t do that anymore.” The barkeep snorts a response and goes back to rinsing out pint glasses.
After one glass of wine, Riviere returns to his gondola. He sees people milling around up ahead, and small boats for hire ferrying people down the canal. He takes a deep breath and paddles toward them, hoping the red wine will enrich his voice. He must sing. There is nothing else to do.
Dave K's fiction/essays/poetry have appeared in Front Porch Journal, Cobalt, The Avenue, Welter, TRUCK, and on the LED billboard in the Station North Arts District of Baltimore, MD. He is the author of The Bong-Ripping Brides of Count Drogado (2017). He is also a seasonal Japanese dessert made from ripe hakuto peaches.
Featured artwork by Niki Koch.