Niagara Falls All Over Again

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Authors: Elizabeth McCracken
Tags: Fiction
her in his office off the stockroom; he prayed for her at B’nai Jeshurun. He would not have bargained her life away, he would not have considered it for a moment. God makes his own bargains. God is a businessman, and God loves those in His store, and God does not give things away. You may go from one end of this world to the other, from the plains by the Nemen River in Lithuania to the plains by the Raccoon River in America: there are prices for everything. You do not live without paying terrible, terrible prices for the flimsiest of pleasures, the smallest rewards. So your bargain with God is arranged by God, and afterward you can only walk away, and look at what you have closed in your fist, and use that as best you can.

    Enter Mimi
    I was fired from the melodrama when the middle-aged lady who played my disappointed mother fell in love with an out-of-work actor who wanted my role. “He’s too fat,” she said, “he’s too old, but love is blind, eh?” It surely is, I told her. Then I worked for three weeks as a straight man for a trained seal named Boris—its owner had wrenched his back and needed a sub—and I tossed chopped fish into its humid mouth and tolerated the baleful looks and occasional nips it gave me when I missed a line, not to mention its body odor: you could hardly believe a live thing could stink that badly. Then the seal fired me with a chomp to my fingers and a slap of its tail. “He doesn’t like you, I guess,” said Boris’s owner, lying on the floor next to his boarding room bed. “But at least your hand won’t smell of fish. After a while”—he sniffed his own fingers, wincing at the effort—“it’s permanent.” Boris and I were appearing in a small theater in Duluth, and I convinced the house manager to give me a spot by myself. “What do you do?” he asked, and I told him I could sing and dance. Well, I could, even though for years all I’d sung was duets. He was dubious, but let me finish the week because he hated my old partner, the seal.
    What kept me going was Hattie. In the few moments before I stepped on the stage, I imagined she was in the audience. Somehow, my journey had brought me here, to this midwestern backwater where she’d moved instead of dying. She’d seen my name on the bill or had spotted me going through a stage door or had simply been bored and had come to the theater. I could see her, amid the alien elbows of the audience. The woman behind her is upset to be sitting behind such a tall girl, with such distracting red hair, but Hattie doesn’t notice. She is waiting for her only brother to step onstage. She is ready to applaud.
    And then, every night, I would lose heart, because she was supposed to be beside me onstage. Even Boris was better than no one. Though inhuman and hateful, at least he looked in my direction once in a while, for herring and straight lines. I needed a partner. I had always needed a partner.
    So I found one, or she found me.
    Hattie had been my first partner, of course, and later Rocky and I would claim he was my second, that I wandered lonely as a cloud until he appeared by my side. We said this the way long-married parents never mention first loves to the children, or if they do, as a joke—
Your mother was set to marry Chuck O’Neill, bucktoothed kid, ears out to here, nice enough, did I mention his nose?
I always felt bad about that, because before I had Rocky, I had Miriam.
    We met in Duluth, at the end of my disastrous week as a single act. For all I know, Boris pointed me out to Miriam:
See that guy? He’s lonely. He smells of fish. Chances are he’ll do anything for you if you’re nice to him.
She was a child comic, a woman dressed as a girl, à la Baby Snooks except sexy: miles of crinolines, corkscrew blond curls, glossy Mary Janes that she stared at, toes in, when she started to say something tinged with innuendo. By

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