Fiction · 12/23/2020

The Kilroy Barrel

Norman stood knee-deep in the Niagara River with his hand on the custom-made barrel as it bobbed in the shallow water, its anvil ballast resting against the rocky bottom. Toward the middle of the river, water crashed and slapped violently against jagged rocks.

“You ready?” Bill yelled over the sound of the river.

Norman nodded. Bill pulled on the rim of the barrel and titled it down. Norman climbed in, settled on top of the wadded up cot mattress, and wrapped his arms through the leather straps in front of him. Bill let go of the barrel and it righted itself again. Then, Norman popped his head and shoulders out and said, “You think it’ll hold?”

Bill shrugged. “It’s put together right.” He ran his hand along the outside, over the sanded wood and the iron rings circumventing the staves.

The noise of the whitewater made it hard for Norman to focus. If he survived and played it right, this could pay for everything his kid would need. Death was a risk too. All or nothing. Finality either way.

“Maybe we should have used more metal instead of wood,” said Norman.

“Nah. It’s more flexible this way,” said Bill. “It’s perfect.”

“Okay,” said Norman. He ducked down into the barrel.

“Wait, hold on,” said Bill.

Norman poked his head back out. Bill picked a pint of black paint off a nearby rock. He dipped a brush in.

“What are you writing?” Norman asked.

“Kilroy was here,” he said.

Norman looked over the side of the barrel and read the upside down lettering. “Should have done that yesterday,” said Norman.

“Thought you might wipe it off. Today, you’re wedged in a barrel.” Bill added the impish, big-nosed character G.I.s had painted all over the world.

“Why do you love Kilroy so much?”

He shrugged. “Makes everything ours.”

“The paint’ll wash off in the water,” Norman said.

“And the whole barrel could explode into a soup of toothpicks and blood.”

“That’s true too,” Norman said.

“Wouldn’t be the first time Kilroy exploded on impact.”

Bill drank too much. His hands shook when he worked. He claimed to have seen a gremlin, a mythical creature British Air Force pilots said messed with their planes. Before the war, Bill had worked with his dad, a furniture maker. Bill also owned an eight millimeter camera and didn’t think death seemed all that bad.

Norman crouched down into the barrel. Bill called out, “I’m closing up the lid.”

“You’re going to film from that ridge, right?” said Norman.

“I’ll have to hustle, but the bend in the river is working with me,” said Bill.

“Make sure. Can’t do this twice.”

“Got it,” he said.

“I’ll see you later,” said Norman.

“Well, I’ll see you. You might not see me back depending on how this all goes,” said Bill.

“That’s true,” said Norman.

Blackness replaced the bright sky above Norman as Bill closed the lid. Norman realized this might be the last conversation he ever had, and he wished it’d been meaningful, maybe a profound goodbye to Marjorie and a thoughtful declaration of love for her and their unborn baby. This, he knew, was a fantasy. They’d run out of things to say to each other weeks ago.

He heard a hiss, hiss, hiss as Bill forced air into the barrel with a bicycle pump. Annie Taylor, a sixty-three-year-old teacher, had been the first one to make the trip over Niagara Falls in a barrel. Like him, she’d done it on a shoestring budget. Norman had asked Bill to copy her barrel design including the mattress pad on the inside, the leather straps, the anvil ballast, and the bicycle pump to inflate the barrel for buoyancy and extra oxygen.

The hissing stopped. Norman heard Bill’s hands fumble around the outside of the barrel. A narrow breathing tube came down from the lid and tickled Norman’s nose. He put it in his mouth like a snorkel. He heard Bill’s muffled voice say, “Good luck, Norman.” Then, the barrel titled and swayed. Bill grunted as he pulled and dragged the barrel into deeper water.

Soon, the barrel floated free and bobbed up and down. Waves lapped against the wood. The roar of the water grew. Norman zoomed through the currents, his stomach rising with each dip, then falling again.

He had a quarter mile’s worth of time before taking the plunge. He’d envisioned a meditative focus. Locked in the darkness of the barrel, he’d close his eyes and give himself up to the flow of the river like a fallen leaf floating on the surface. Instead, the rough current jerked the barrel violently. He knocked against its sides and pulled on the leather straps for stability. The relentless pounding of water conjured in his mind’s eye the twisted, wrecked bodies he’d seen in the war, and his heart sped up. He could barely breathe. The sound of the river grew louder, and the barrel moved faster.

How long had he been on the water already? Twenty seconds? Two minutes?

Weeks earlier, while sanding the planks of the barrel, Bill had suggested that death was Norman’s true goal and said, “I’m not sure if I’m building you a barrel or a cylindrical coffin.” Once Bill had said it, Norman had considered that maybe this was an elaborate justification for suicide.

Ever since coming home, he moved through each day like a zombie. He saw, heard, and smelled the war when he closed his eyes at night. No one should have to endure something like that, and yet there were things about it he missed too, even longed for. He’d had friends and purpose. Now, everything was lonely and frivolous. He imagined his own body broken and twisted, wrecked on the rocks. Someone would find his body and carry that grotesque image forever. Or, if he survived the falls, he’d be on the front page of the paper, earn a spot in the Niagara Museum, land speaking engagements, appearances, and endorsements. He pictured himself in a new suit with oiled hair signing autographs at the grocery store.

The barrel creaked and moaned as it sailed through the water. He tried to stay calm, take even breaths, and settle against the bulk of the old, moth-eaten mattress. He thought of Bill shaping and sanding the sides of the barrel with his lip curled in concentration, a bottle of whiskey nearby on the workbench. When focused so intently, Bill didn’t see or hear anything else. This was the gift Norman had given him. When the barrel had looked ready to Norman’s eyes, Bill always had a reason to wait longer for the wood to settle or the pitch to seal.

Once, they’d gotten good and drunk together at the Fathead Saloon. Bill had pointed at his skull, frowned, and in a quiet voice confessed that the army docs had proclaimed him “sick in the head.” He’d spent about three months in the V.A. hospital near Buffalo.

The noise of crashing water grew louder, but the barrel’s pace slowed, and it began to spin. Norman pictured a jetty in a small inlet, and had just enough time to worry about getting stuck there, about Bill running out of film. Then, the barrel shot forward as if out of a cannon and raced along smoothly, no more heavy up and down movements. The noise of the rapids waned to a quiet hush. Is this it? he thought. The approach to the falls? Am I being pulled toward it?

The crashing noises grew again, steady, loud, the sound of endless cascades of water, infinite weight, pouring down over and over forever. The barrel gathered speed. Faster. Louder. His heart beat so hard it hurt his chest wall. Then, his stomach lifted into his neck the way it does on the first drop of a roller coaster ride. Weightless. Suspended. Terror and relief. Survival or death. Gravity. Clarity. Finality. Marjorie could move on either way. The kid would be born, and when it grew older, they’d tell him about this day, a distant romantic tale of something that happened long ago. Too remote to be horrific, the story would sound magical, almost unbelievable. Inside the barrel, Norman rose off the mattress and floated in midair. He held tight to the leather straps and waited for impact.

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Theodore Carter (www.theodorecarter.com) is the author of Stealing The Scream, a fictionalized account of the 2004 theft of Edvard Munch’s famous painting. His other books are Frida Sex Dreams and Other Unnerving Disruptions and The Life Story of a Chilean Sea Blob and Other Matters of Importance. Sometimes you can see his guerilla art projects on the streets of Washington, DC.