So we passed the jug and Jack told stories of the canal; famous fights, collisions, exploits of legendary canallers. He had a way of telling the most horrifying tales in a way that had me rolling with laughter. Even when he described the tricks he played on passengers it all seemed like harmless sport, and downright funny when played upon someone other than me. It was clear that Jack loved life on the canal; it was his home;
“But it ain’t gonna last,” he said, “my brothers want me off the boat, the end of this trip or sooner. I been a hoggee since I could hold a rope, leading the mules down the towpath, hauling the Mary Claire back and forth from Troy to Buffalo, for more years than I can say. This year I said no more; I’m not a child leading mules; I am part of the crew on board.
“Well, because of family, and because of a hundred reasons I can’t begin to tell you, they agreed. And for just as many reasons, it will not last beyond this trip. Jason is going to buy the boat from that man in Rochester; he has the money saved and ready. By Jason’s reckoning, the Mary Claire will earn enough to support him and Caleb, and no more. I’m off the boat. They’ll hire me season by season, as a hoggee or a cook, if I want. I told him, ‘Goddam that, I want my share of the boat,’ but there’s no use. “
This touched me deeply. It wasn’t so long ago I was forced to leave the only home I had ever known for the good of the family. “What will you do?” I asked.
“Oh, I have plans,” Jack said, grabbing the jug from me and taking several large gulps. “I’ve been up and down this canal enough time to know it ain’t the canalers making the money. Listen, Pratt, come fall I can buy all the apples I want for a nickel a bushel. Take’em down to New York City, where people buy apples for two cents apiece. That’s real profit.”
This was unexpected. I followed the logic, but it did not feel right. “Is no one doing this now?” I asked.
“Sure,” he said, “farmers and merchants, spending all the profit on transportation, but I know how to move cargo; I can get apples to New York for next to nothing. Then when I have the apple business running I’ll branch out— apple butter, apple pies,” He lifted the jug, “And what about cider? See, up here we have too many apples; in New York City, not enough. That’s how you make your fortune. Now I just need enough money to buy the damned apples and a cart in New York.”
Jack got quiet then. Maybe he was thinking about apples, I know I was.
“What about you, Pratt?” Jack said at last. “If you ain’t a preacher, why’re you traveling with one?”
So I told him the story of leaving the farm escaping the cooperage and my role in the religious revivals. I did not have Jack’s flair for storytelling, but I had him laughing once or twice.
“Why you’re just a will-o-the-wisp, Pratt, going wherever the wind blows you.”
“I suppose you’re right.”
“But it don’t make you happy. Why don’t you blow in your own direction? You in love with that Bible girl?”
This brought on a wave of melancholy. I didn’t know how I felt about Mirabile anymore. She was so delicate but so strong; so comforting but so elusive. Nights alone I still felt her kiss upon my check, but there would be no more kisses, how could there be?
“C’mon sport, have another drink. I didn’t mean to make you downhearted. Say, why don’t we go swimming, cool down a bit?”
It was unseasonably hot, and the cider had warmed me to the bone. The water did look awfully inviting. “Can we swim here?” I asked.
“Who says we can’t?”
Jack went up behind the trees. I thought it funny that the tough canal boy was too modest to undress in front of me. As I stood up to disrobe the world seemed to swirl around me, I thought I was going to fall back down. I was dizzy from the cider; it was not a disagreeable feeling but certainly disorienting. With some difficulty, I removed all my clothes and started toward the water.
“Hey, Pratt,” Jack called from behind me.
I turned to see Jack standing before me, arms akimbo, stark naked. And miraculously transformed.
“My God! You’re a girl!”
I was aghast; had the cider made me delusional? Beneath layers of rough and dirty canaller’s clothing had emerged the body of a lithe and slender young woman, like a butterfly from a cocoon. I didn’t know whether to stare or look away. I stared. I tried to cover my manhood with my hand, but it had grown beyond covering. Jack moved closer and replaced my hand with her own.
“You don’t seem to mind it that much.” she said.
So that afternoon, on the mossy bank of a stream, near a waterfall, somewhere in the great state of New York, I learned more about life than I had in weeks of Bible study.