When night falls on Niagara I follow her. She stops for coffee every night before her shift starts. “Gloria” is the name scribbled in playful black marker on her coffee cup, but she doesn’t look like a Gloria to me. I don’t know what I would name her, but definitely not Gloria. It must be an alias…or perhaps a nostalgic reference to an old family joke from childhood. When I was a kid my father would make up names for us any time we went for ice cream or smoothies and the person behind the counter asked for our names to identify our soon to be prepared sweet treats. We would then make up the funniest stories about our new identities. Dad was a Spanish clown with robotic arms or an artisanal vegan baker who communicated only in mime. I would be an antique mailbox reclamation artist or a dog hypnotist who could identify your pooch’s past lives. I wondered…who was Gloria? A freelance myna bird trainer whose failed dreams of being a ballerina haunted her? A former music teacher who now taught cats sign language? Did Gloria dream of hitting the jackpot at the casino so she could fly off to Paris and buy that pied-à-terre in Montmartre? Haunted longing hung delicately on her face with her perpetually downturned eyes.
The constant roar of the falls outside drowned out my more fanciful thoughts as I followed her up the hill to that old skinny brick building with the iron fire escape cascading down its long side. Facing the water, it seemed to mirror the river tumbling down into the colorfully lit nighttime abyss. The seven-story building was all dark at 10pm until she entered. I imagined inside there was no working elevator, and I could hear her steps as she walked up to the top floor. Then, on my perfectly timed beat, that single yellow glow would appear in the window on the top left-hand side of the building’s long, sad face, as if it was an eternally tired person who could just barely keep one eye open…the falls before them forever churning like their ennui.
Every night like clockwork I would sit on that bench under that big old tree across the street from Gloria’s office building. I imagined her taking brief melancholic sips of her coffee between long thoughtful breaks as she performed her nightly duties…whatever they were…some type of afterhours monitoring of activity in the city. Perhaps a nightly surveillance of day trip tourists emptying out of the parking lots and crossing the border back to the US or heading back to their homes in Canada. All those souls exiting this place almost as quickly as the water rushing over the cliff making it quiet once again except for the falls’ Zen-like roar. The colored lights cast on the falls finally extinguished, and the darkness settled in beneath the lights of the casino and bars and restaurants still open.
As the city settled into that quiet hum and uneasy darkness, I imagined climbing up that fire escape and peeking in through the window…not like a creeper…but as a child would. I would call to her (Gloria). And she would look up and our eyes would meet.
It always amazed me how quickly the four hours passed, and the last lights of the bars would go out, too, leaving only the casino and streetlights to guide the drunks stumbling out into the black morning. There were always small crowds of them still hot and hearty with laughter that seemed in blissful sync with the roar of the falls always lurking out there in the wide expanse of the pre-dawn. And that would be my cue…to slip away unsuspectingly, sometimes even joining one of the small groups…a stranger slapping me on the shoulder thinking me a friend…”What a night, eh!” And I would head home to the dark suffocation of my little studio apartment further up the hill, leaving Gloria and her still-glowing light behind…wondering…what is she doing now? No matter how cold it was, I would always leave the window by my bed open just a crack…to the let the sound of the falls and my dreams in. And I would sleep full of wondrous and strange imaginings.
Lorraine (Gloria’s real name) was the holder of Niagara Falls’ greatest secret. Every day tourists would learn of the times they strategically turned off the water flow of the falls in the past, but what no one realized was the last time they turned off the water flow, they were never able to turn it back on. Faced with a crisis of having eternally lost one of the world’s greatest natural wonders, officials quickly came up with a plan to erect giant green screens where the falls once dropped to project holographic images of the falls coupled with surround speakers all over the city to play in loop the sound of roaring water. They did this all in one magical and perfectly orchestrated night after 2am while the city slept, and turned on the fake holographic falls at 5am…the early-rising locals and adventurous sunrise tourists never suspecting a thing. But every morning, the holograms had to be shut off for a “cooldown period” before they began again at 5am. It was Lorraine’s job to monitor the flow of people out of the city and the activities of locals every night before flipping the switch to turn off the falls.
You could see the surveillance cameras and speakers everywhere, but no one cared. The cameras were for the safety of tourists and crime prevention. The speakers were for emergency broadcasting. Sometimes there would be locals out past the “Switching Hour” when the falls were turned off, so sleeping gas canisters were soon placed strategically throughout the city to emit just enough gas (playfully colored like the lights on the falls) to send them to sleep right before the switch. The locals who succumbed to this strange sudden narcolepsy didn’t seem to care. It was all part of the charm of living in Niagara Falls. Soon local legends arose of the power of the falls at night to lull people to sleep wherever they stood. It even became a marketing ploy. Come to Niagara Falls…stay up late…and try to resist the power of Niagara to send you to dreamland. No one ever overcame that strange power. There was even a spot in the “Beneath the Falls” walking tour where you could clearly see the edge of one of the green screens. There were pictures of it all over social media…and it was explained away as being part of the “studio” that streamed live footage of the falls over the internet from 6am to 2am. No one questioned why the live stream wasn’t 24/7. “Even Niagara Needs to Sleep” was the cute marketing tagline of the city’s social media feeds. And everyone just accepted these things…these peculiarities.
Nobody wanted to live in a world where Niagara Falls no longer existed.
Millions of people preferred the communal illusion.
So I toiled all day working at the casino and followed Gloria/Lorraine every night. Occasionally there would be a respite from that monotony. A day off. Family members visiting. Children – nieces and nephews – renewing the freshness of the illusion…taking in the majestic awe of the place…even if it was just a hologram on a green screen. I would play that silly alias game with them as I took them out for ice cream just like my father used to play with me. We would all laugh. I would be like a child again. One night I stood out there with my nephew quietly watching the colored light show against the Horseshoe Falls, content and at peace with all those other people on the sidewalk hanging over the railing and enjoying what was all an optical illusion. Walking back to the car where his parents were waiting (having finished a romantic dinner while I entertained him), we talked about what job he would have when he got older.
A cop? A race car driver? A zookeeper?
“Oh, what about the guy who has to sit there and change the colored lights on the falls every night?” I said to him.
“No, that would be kinda boring…and that’s probably automated. Don’t be silly,” he told me.
Yes, what a silly idea to think there was an actual person manning the spotlight that cast those colors on the water. As silly as the idea of a woman named Lorraine who shut off the holographic image of the falls every night.
One night I’ll finally work up the guts to get up off the bench and climb up that fire escape and not just look in through that lit window, but crawl right through it. I’ll call out to her (Gloria). And my eyes and Lorraine’s eyes would meet, and I would take her away as she would know right then that I had her number. The jig was up. As we raced out of town in a convertible with the wind blowing wildly through our hair, the haunted longing on her face would disperse into the dark night around us, the weight of that horrible secret now gone. And in the morning the entire world would heave a collective sigh when they realized Niagara Falls had vanished oh so many years ago.
D. H. Schleicher is the author of the independent novels Then Came Darkness and The Thief Maker, and his writing has appeared in A Million and One Magazine, Underground Voices, Scratch, Lit Noir, and Wonders in the Dark. You can follow his blog The Schleicher Spin where he shares his views on books, movies, and travel. He hails from the South Jersey suburbs of Philadelphia where he lives with his wife and son.