Too Close to the Falls

Too Close to the Falls

3.9 18
by Catherine Gildiner
     
 

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Welcome to the childhood of Catherine McClure Gildiner. It is the mid-1950s in Lewiston, New York, a sleepy town near Niagara Falls. Divorce is unheard of, mothers wear high heels to the beauty salon, and television has only just arrived.

At the tender age of four, Cathy accompanies Roy, the deliveryman at her father's pharmacy, on his routes. She shares some…  See more details below

Overview

Welcome to the childhood of Catherine McClure Gildiner. It is the mid-1950s in Lewiston, New York, a sleepy town near Niagara Falls. Divorce is unheard of, mothers wear high heels to the beauty salon, and television has only just arrived.

At the tender age of four, Cathy accompanies Roy, the deliveryman at her father's pharmacy, on his routes. She shares some of their memorable deliveries-sleeping pills to Marilyn Monroe (in town filming Niagara), sedatives to Mad Bear, a violent Tuscarora chief, and fungus cream to Warty, the gentle operator of the town dump. As she reaches her teenage years, Cathy's irrepressible spirit spurs her from dangerous sled rides that take her "too close to the Falls" to tipsy dances with the town priest.

Editorial Reviews

Rocky Mountain News
Gildiner keeps us wondering and, therefore, eagerly turning pages to the end.
Gildiner's new memoir, set in Lewiston, New York, during the 1950s, recounts the colorful events of the author's unusual childhood. By the age of four, Gildiner had successfully swung the 360-degree loop over the playground swing set and had twice been knocked unconscious. Years later, the family pediatrician (after concluding that the hyperactivity wasn't caused by worms) suggests Gildiner's father employ her at his pharmacy to burn off some energy. At work, she befriends Roy, the wry delivery driver and accompanies him on his routes. Many of the book's finest moments result from their delivery adventures, including the time they visited the movie set of Niagara to bring sleeping pills to a restless Marilyn Monroe. By turns humorous and poignant, Gildiner recalls the events of her youth with a child's inquisitive excitement, only occasionally allowing her mature perspective to enter into the telling. While initially endearing, the narrator's charm and innocence eventually fails to compensate for the lack of introspection in the prose, and readers may feel slighted by the omission.
—Bret Anthony Johnston

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Now a successful clinical psychologist with a monthly advice column in the popular Canadian magazine Chatelaine, Gildiner tells of her childhood in 1950s Lewiston, N.Y., a small town near Niagara Falls, in this hilarious and moving coming-of-age memoir. Deemed hyperactive by the town's pediatrician, at age four Gildiner was put to work at her father's pharmacy in an effort to harness her energy. Her stories of delivering prescriptions with her father's black deliveryman, Roy, are the most affecting parts of this book, with young Cathy serving as map reader for the illiterate but streetwise fellow, who acted as both protector and fellow adventurer. In a style reminiscent of the late Jean Shepherd, Gildiner tells her tales with a sharp humor that rarely misses a beat and underscores the dark side of what at first seems a Norman Rockwell existence. Mired in a land dispute, the local Native American population has a chief who requires sedatives to subdue his violent moods. Meanwhile, the feared "monster" who maintains the town dump is simply afflicted with "Elephant Man" syndrome. And Cathy's mother--with her intellectual preoccupations and aversion to housework and visiting neighbors--is an emblem of prefeminist frustration. The book's vaunted celebrity dish--Gildiner delivered sleeping pills to Marilyn Monroe on the set of Niagara--pales in comparison to such ordinary adult pathos. By book's end, Cathy, too, gets her share, as beloved Roy mysteriously exits and an entanglement with a confused young priest brings her literally and figuratively "too close to the falls." (Feb. 19) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Clinical psychologist Gildiner's well-crafted memoir describes her 1950s childhood in Lewiston, "a small town in western New York, a few miles north of Niagara Falls." Hers was no ordinary childhood but that of a precocious, headstrong, and intelligent girl whose parents provided a uniquely unconventional upbringing. Because of her lively temperament, her pediatrician recommended to her older and devoutly Catholic parents that she work in her father's pharmacy to channel her energies. Thus, at the age of four, she was teamed with a black male employee to deliver prescription drugs when not in school. She had a wide range of experiences with her co-worker, stopping in bars and making deliveries to both the wealthiest and the poorest members of the community. In each eventful chapter, Gildiner focuses on a particular adult who strongly influenced her understanding of the world. Often dangerous, her experiences, as related here, are also amusing, charming, and relevant. Highly recommended.--Sue Samson, Univ. of Montana Lib., Missoula Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A Canadian psychologist reconstructs her precocious girlhood near Niagara Falls. The author immediately establishes that the Niagara River is more than mere water. It is Life:"While it seems calm, rarely making waves, it has deadly whirlpools swirling on its surface which can suck anything into their vortices in seconds." Throughout this uneven memoir, the river and its celebrated cataract reappear to remind us that life is both capricious and dangerous. In the winter, a boy nearly drowns when—on a dare—he rides his sled out onto the uncertain ice and slips into a whirlpool. Near the end, the adolescent Gildiner—giddy with sexual desire and drunk with wine (supplied by a young, charming, and concupiscent priest)—descends into the gorge and stands on the brink of destruction:"The Falls roared and the whirlpools made sucking noises, as though everything were being pulled under." (No, she doesn't do it with the priest, though her lubricious girlfriend does ... repeatedly.) The author's considerable narrative gifts help her bring to life numerous eccentric characters—most notably her unconventional mother (who uses her oven only to warm mittens), her father (a druggist with a soul), Roy (an illiterate but wise African-American who works for her father), and Mother Agnes (her principal antagonist in the parish school). The most affecting segment concerns a woman named Warty who worked at the local junkyard and suffered from Elephant Man's disease, whom Gildiner visited and interviewed for a school project on saintliness. For all the atmosphere, however, this account is often factually inaccurate—e.g., Davy Crockett fought the CreekIndians,notthe Apaches, on his first television appearance; and one man, not two, froze to death in"To Build a Fire." And there are pages of dialogue rendered verbatim from her early childhood, requiring of the reader an eager suspension of disbelief. A messy portrait of a messy childhood, but rather moving in spite of itself. Author tour

From the Publisher
"Anyone who appreciates a good story, well told, will find it in Too Close to the Falls." —St. Louis Post-Dispatch

"Gildiner beautifully portrays her outrageous youth through the innocent, yet sometimes frighteningly worldly eyes of a child." —The Quill & Quire

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781101043950
Publisher:
Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
02/26/2002
Sold by:
Penguin Group
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
400
Sales rank:
229,241
File size:
458 KB
Age Range:
18 Years

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

Roy

Over half a century ago I grew up in Lewiston, a small town in western New York, a few miles north of Niagara Falls on the Canadian border. As the Falls can be seen from the Canadian and American sides from different perspectives, so can Lewiston. It is a sleepy town, protected from the rest of the world geographically, nestled at the bottom of the steep shale Niagara Escarpment on one side and the Niagara River on the other. The river's appearance, however, is deceptive. While it seems calm, rarely making waves, it has deadly whirlpools swirling on its surface, which can suck anything into their vortices in seconds.

My father, a pharmacist, owned a drugstore in the nearby honeymoon capital of Niagara Falls. My mother, a math teacher by training rather than inclination, was an active participant in the historical society. Lewiston actually had a few historical claims to fame, which my mother eagerly hyped. The word "cocktail" was invented there, Charles Dickens stayed overnight at the Frontier House, the local inn, and Lafayette gave a speech from a balcony on the main street. Our home, which had thirteen trees in the yard that were planted when there were thirteen states, was used to billet soldiers in the War of 1812. It was called into action by history yet again for the Underground Railroad to smuggle slaves across the Niagara River to freedom in Canada.

My parents longed for a child for many years; however, when they were not blessed, they gracefully settled into an orderly life of community service. Then I unexpectedly arrived, the only child of suddenly bewildered older, conservative, devoutly Catholic parents.

I seem to have been "born eccentric"—a phrase my mother uttered frequently as a way of absolving herself of responsibility. By today's standards I would have been labeled with attention deficit disorder, a hyperactive child born with some adrenal problem that made her more prone to rough-and-tumble play than was normal for a girl. Fortunately I was born fifty years ago and simply called "busy" and "bossy," the possessor of an Irish temper.

I was at the hub of the town because I worked in my father's drugstore from the age of four. This was not exploitative child labor but rather what the town pediatrician prescribed. When my mother explained to him that I had gone over the top of the playground swings making a 360-degree loop and had been knocked unconscious twice, had to be removed from a cherry tree the previous summer by the fire department, done Ed Sullivan imitations for money at Helms's Dry Goods Store, all before I'd hit kindergarten, Dr. Laughton dutifully wrote down all this information, laid down his clipboard with certainty, and said that I had worms and needed Fletcher's Castoria. His fallback position (in case when I was dewormed no hyperactive worms crept from any orifice) was for me to burn off my energy by working at manual labor in my father's store. He explained that we all had metronomes inside our bodies and mine was simply ticking faster than most; I had to do more work than others to burn it off.

Being in the full-time workforce at four gave me a unique perspective on life, and I was exposed to situations I later realized were unusual for a child. For over ten years I never once had a meal at home, and that included Christmas. I worked and went to restaurants and delivered everything from Band-Aids to morphine in the Niagara Frontier. I had to tell people whether makeup looked good or bad, point out what cough medicines had sedatives, count and bottle pills. I also had to sound as though I knew what I was talking about in order to pull it off. I was surrounded by adults, and my peer group became my coworkers at the store.

My father worked behind a counter which had a glass separating it from the rest of the store. He and the other pharmacists wore starched white shirts, which buttoned on the side with mcclure's drugs monogrammed in red above the pocket. The rest of us wore plastic ink guards in our breast pockets which had printed in script letters mcclure's has free delivery. (The word "delivery" had wheels and a forward slant.) I worked there full-time when I was four and five and I suspected that when I went to school next year I would work a split shift from 6:00 to 9:00 a.m. and then again after school until closing time at 10:00 p.m. Of course I would always work full-time on Saturday and Sunday when my mother did her important work with the historical board. I restocked the candy and makeup counters, loaded the newspaper racks, and replenished the supplies of magazines and comics. I read the comics aloud in different voices, jumped out of the pay-phone booth as Superman and acted out Brenda Starr "in her ruthless search for truth," and every morning at 6:00 a.m. I equipped the outdoor newsstand of blue wood with its tiered layers with the Niagara Falls Gazette.

My parents were removed from the hurly-burly of my everyday existence. My father was my employer, and I called him "boss," which is what everyone else called him. My mother provided no rules nor did she ever make a meal, nor did I have brothers or sisters to offer me any normal childlike role models. While other four-year-olds spent their time behind fences at home with their moms and dads, stuck in their own backyards making pretend cakes in hot metal sandboxes or going to stagnant events like girls' birthday parties where you sat motionless as the birthday girl opened her presents and then you waited in line to stick a pin into a wall while blindfolded, hoping it would hit the rear end of a jackass, I was out doing really exciting work. I spent my time in the workforce delivering prescriptions with Roy, my co-worker.

One thing about a drugstore: it's a great leveler. Everyone from the rich to the poor needs prescriptions and it was my job to deliver them. Roy, the driver, and I, the assistant who read the road maps and prescription labels, were dogged as we plowed through snowstorms and ice jams to make our deliveries. The job took us into mansions on the Niagara Escarpment, to the home of Dupont, who invented nylon, to deliver hypodermic needles to a new doctor on the block, Dr. Jonas Salk, an upstart who thought he had a cure for polio, to Marilyn Monroe on the set of Niagara, to the poor Indians on the Tuscarora reservation, and to Warty, who lived in a refrigerator box in the town dump. The people we delivered to felt like my "family," and my soulmate in this experience was Roy.

He was different from my father, the other pharmacists, and Irene, the salmon-frocked cosmetician. He was always in a good mood and laughed at all the things I found funny and never told me to "calm down." He made chestnuts into jewels, bottle tops into art, music into part of our joy together, and he always saw the comedy in tragedy.

He never put off a good time, yet he always got his work done. To me that was amazing, a stunning high-wire act done without a net. He effortlessly jumped into the skin of whomever he was addressing. He made each life we entered, no matter where it was pinned on the social hierarchy, seem not only plausible, but inevitable, even enviable.

Every town has its elaborate social hierarchy and cast of characters. Maybe all children are fascinated by the idiosyncratic, those who have difficulty walking the tightrope of acceptable behavior in a small town where the social stratification is so explicit and the rules feel so inviolable. Those who opt out of the social order are as terrifying as they are enviable. Maybe I identified with these people because I was trying, even at four, to work out how and why I was different. Whatever the reasons, my interest in whatever it took to be different, or to be the same, began early and has persisted. They say architects always played with Legos. Well, I'm a psychologist who was always interested in what the social psychologists refer to as "individual differences," or the statisticians refer to as "the extremes of the bell curve," or what we colloquially refer to as "the edge."

Roy and I made up complicated systems for working together efficiently. He threw magazines to me. I printed "Return" on them if they were past a certain date, threw them on the bright red upright dolly, and we whipped out to pile them on the return truck when it beeped. I always rode on top of the magazines and Roy pushed the dolly, tearing around corners of the store. (We set an egg timer and always tried to beat our last time.)

Roy loved to bet, and after I got the hang of it from him, I found it gave life just that bit of edge it needed. Our days were packed with exciting wagers. For example, we never just rolled the dolly back from the truck; instead we played a game called "dolly-trust." Roy would drop the dolly backward with me standing upright on it and then he would grab it one tiny second before it hit the cement. I felt my stomach dropping and my knees would go weak but I had to trust him. If I twitched or stiffened one muscle, I lost the bet and had to line up all the new magazines and he got to be boss. If I never made a peep, I got to be boss and he had to do the job. The winner was merciless in extracting obeisance from the other. The magazines had to be arranged exactly as the "boss" suggested. If one was not equidistant from the next or, God forbid, hidden behind another, the "assistant" had to pile them up and start all over again.

At precisely 10:30 a.m. each Saturday all the employees had a break. We sat around the large red Coke cooler where the ice had melted and we fished out our Cokes. I had to stand on a wooden bottle crate to reach inside. Roy had a game, of course, to make it more interesting. Each twisted green Coke bottle had the name of a city on the bottom, indicating which bottling plant it had come from. Roy would yell out a city and whoever had the bottle with the closest city had to pay for all seven of the Cokes. Roy knew every city and what cities were closest to it. Whenever anyone challenged him and we looked at the map of the United States in the toy section, he was right. Once I lost my whole salary when he yelled out "Tulsa" and I had Wichita and Irene had Oklahoma City.

When I was in grade one Sister Timothy, my teacher, told my mother that she had never met a child who knew more about geography than I did and that one of the advantages of having an only child is you can give her so much in terms of travel. My mother was perplexed since I had never been more than thirty miles from Lewiston. Roy said people learn best when the stakes are high.

I liked looking at things Roy-style. When my mother's best friend's son finally died after being in an iron lung for years, my mother said it was so unfair to die at the age of six. When I told Roy that Roland had died, he seemed happy and said, "I'll bet he was glad to get out of that iron caterpillar and move around."

He also knew things that were interesting to me. My father dabbled in chemistry as a hobby and my mother was devoted to history, neither of which interested me. One smelled and the other had already happened. Roy had been all over the United States. He had driven semis and been a cowpoke. When we loaded Borden's Milk Chocolate with the cow on the package, he would tell me about his sojourn out west when he branded cattle and birthed calves. If some of the calves had "hard times gettin' out" (I wasn't exactly sure where they came out) they had to have their little legs handcuffed together and then the cowboys pulled them out with all of their strength. The poor critters who lost oxygen at birth were so dumb they couldn't learn to stay away from the electric fence and had to be tied up.

At exactly 12:30 p.m. each Saturday, Roy and I headed out for an afternoon of prescription deliveries. My mother taught me to read when I was four but Roy's mother had never taught him to read because, as Roy said, she had so many children she didn't know what to do. Roy had to quit school and go out and work from the age of eight. I told him to stop "bellyaching" (a word I got from him) since I was only four at the time. Roy said he could top me in two ways: he had brothers and sisters in fourteen states of the Union and he had what I longed for—a driver's license. It was a match made in heaven. I read the address aloud, and Roy drove to it.

Music was not a part of my life. My father listened to the news and my mother sang in the church choir and my mother's friend Mrs. Aungier taught piano. I was going to start piano lessons when I was six. I had no idea that there were ways to make music other than through the piano or the church organ, until I met Roy. He always blasted a radio listening to Bessie Smith, Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton. Roy and I would perform duets and I would be Ella Fitzgerald and he would be Louis Armstrong. I remember the seasons by the songs we sang. We drove our green Rambler into the sun with burnt-orange maple leaves gracefully floating over the gorge in the cool air and we sang "What a Wonderful World." Sometimes we'd forage along the gorge for the best specimens of acorns and chestnuts for jewelry-making and Roy would make glittering necklaces, which I wore till they shriveled in the winter. For the employee Christmas party we sang a duet of "Mean to Me" in Loretta's Italian-American restaurant, called The Horseshoe, and even Loretta's husband came out of the kitchen to clap.

Sometimes we would have deliveries that were far away. My father specialized in rare medicine that only a few people needed, so he had customers in other cities and on Indian reservations and even in Canada. Roy and I would have lunch on the road. My parents would never let me play the jukebox, saying it was a waste of money—"Five plays and you could have bought the record" was my father's take on leased fun. Roy always plied me with nickels and we played everything right from the machine in our booth. As usual, we shared our mania for time management and we would bet how many songs we could hear before our hamburgers arrived and how many while we were eating. He was right the first few times and won money off me, but I began to catch on and learned to eat with great speed or to languish over my pie.

I was amazed that everyone from Batavia to Fort Erie knew Roy. There wasn't one truck stop where people didn't wave and call out his name, especially the waitresses. I guess Roy stood out, with Tootsie Roll fingers that looked bleached on the palm side, and a funny accent that I figured was Western. He also had a laugh, which shook his whole body and filled any room we were in—even our church with its vaulted ceilings.

One day I said that I'd seen Annette Funicello on Spin and Marty wearing a T-shirt with decorations on it. "No problem," he said, "leave me a T-shirt and I'll make somethin' you've never seen or ever will see." Within a week he presented me with a T-shirt that was covered in bottle caps that made a clinking sound when I walked. He had taken the cork out of the inside of the bottle caps and squeezed the material in between holding the cap in place. I had 144 bottle caps on my shirt and a photographer took my picture and it appeared in the Niagara Falls Gazette. I never went anywhere that kids wouldn't ask if they could read all the caps. I loved that shirt that clinked when I walked and wore it till it fell apart. The best part was it could never be washed. Roy said, "Just pitch it out like a Kleenex." My mother had trouble with this disposable concept.

The most exciting event of my childhood occurred on a winter's day in January 1953. I was going to go to a birthday party at the Cataract Theatre in Niagara Falls to see Cinderella. My mother had a big day at the historical board so I went to work with my dad in my red organza party dress, ankle socks with lace trim and black patent leather Mary Janes. My blond braids were forgone and I wore my hair down my back with a red taffetta ribbon in the front. I also carried a strawberry-shaped purse which zipped open under the green felt stem. When I arrived at work I made a grand entrance and Roy screamed in a high-pitched voice and got out his sunglasses, saying he couldn't take so much dazzle so early in the morning. I told him my mother's warning, which was I couldn't get dirty with newsprint and he had to drive me to the theater at exactly 2:00 p.m.

It had been snowing all day and we had trouble driving the few blocks to the cinema. As I looked out of the delivery car window I saw all the girls huddled under the marquee in their matching hats, coats and muffs. The party had been organized by Mr. Reno (Roy called him Mr. Richo), the Cadillac salesman whose dealership was next to my father's store. I really didn't know the stuck-up daughter, Eleanor (Roy called her El Dorado), that well. Now that I saw her with her friends I realized she was older and I was out of my league. Those girls went to school together and I was going to be the baby who didn't go to school. Who would I sit with? What would I say when they asked whose class I was in? Another girl arrived and I watched as all the girls ran up to her and crowded around her. I knew it was time to get out of the car. I could hear my mother's voice beating in my head, "You've accepted the invitation, now it would be rude not to attend," or my father who would say, "Just go over and introduce yourself."

I told Roy I was a little worried about how he would find the addresses for the deliveries without me and that maybe I should skip the party. He looked through the window, nodded, and said, "Those are some alley cats!" I remember feeling relief that he also found them scary and I wasn't being a total baby. I suddenly felt like crying and I got mad, "carrying on," as my mother would say, claiming I didn't want to go to the party because the girls were huge and looked like monsters, and I hated my dress and I tore the ribbon out of my hair. Roy leaned back, put the car in park, and said, "It's your call." I continued sitting. Finally Roy said, "I got a bet for ya...." When I didn't bite he continued. "I bet when we walk up there together all those young ladies will run up to you wantin' one of them fruit pocketbooks. If they don't I'll owe you a Coke and a magazine-rack boss." I jumped out of the car knowing he didn't like losing a bet. I held his hand tightly as we headed under the marquee and I leaned on him a bit. The girls ran over and admired my strawberry-replica purse and chatted and I dropped Roy's hand and he waved goodbye.

After the party the snow was worse. It was hard to see across the street. The windshield wipers couldn't keep up with the downfall and the plows were nowhere to be seen. Roy turned off the radio, which was a first, and said, "We have to get all the way out to LaSalle to drop off this insulin. Read the map and give me new directions because we'll have to stick to the main streets." (I knew they were the red lines.) "We just doin' the emergencies—leave the rest till tomorrow. This the worst squall I see'd since panning up Alaska way."

I looked around. We were the only car on Niagara Falls's busiest street. It got windy on the way to LaSalle and we had whiteouts on the road that felt as though we were sewn into a moving cloud so thick we couldn't fight our way out. Suddenly there was no more road, so we pulled over to a spot we hoped was the shoulder and heard the wind whistle through the window tops and sway the car. We watched the wet snow freeze on the windshield faster than the wipers could snap it away, and the trees glistened exactly as they had in Cinderella. I recounted the whole plot to Roy and he asked all kinds of questions about the glass slipper and how they got all around the town. He said they needed our delivery services instead of a pumpkin. We were laughing about the ugly stepsisters, saying the king was betting two-to-one the shoe wouldn't fit their feet. We really killed ourselves laughing about my preparty temper tantrum and he imitated me pulling off my ribbon and hurling it on the dash.

Finally the car couldn't move at all and I had to drive out and Roy had to push. That was the most fun. We howled with laughter as I sat on our coats, moved the seat all the way forward, grabbed the knob on the steering wheel, looked out the slit of the windshield I could see if I stretched my neck over the leather-tied steering wheel, and floored it while Roy pushed. Finally we pulled out of the drift and gave each other the high five and jumped up and down. After that episode we decided to keep going and not stop at all, so we drove slowly through red lights. Mr. Heinrich was shaking when we got there because he needed his insulin and was really worried. He seemed truly amazed we made it at all, saying it was "a tribute to our pioneer spirit." Roy tried to call my father from Mr. Heinrich's home but ice had pulled down the phone lines.

It was dark when we got to the top of the steep Lewiston hill with its narrow road carved into the Niagara Escarpment. The beginning of the descent was blocked by a police cruiser with a red pulsing light making the snow look like red dream dust from Cinderella. He shone a flashlight into the car as he stopped us. I noticed that Roy was not his usual cheery self and Mr. Lombardy, who was sometimes a policeman in emergencies, usually parades, said, "No one is goin' down that sheet of ice. Even the sanding truck couldn't make it with chains on its caterpillar wheels."

"I got Jim McClure's girl in the car here and I got to get her home."

"Where were you three hours ago, Roy?"

Roy didn't answer. I didn't think Mr. Lombardy was being as polite as he usually was. I leaned over and told Mr. Lombardy that Roy had to wait for me during the birthday party and then we had to get out to LaSalle to drop off some emergency medication before coming home.

"Not to worry, little lady. I'll call on my radio and let your dad know you're staying up in the Falls and we'll have 'er cleared in the morning." Someone yelled for Mr. Lombardy from across the road and he ran over to a big tow truck.

"I don't like the smell of this," Roy said while rubbing his chin. I noticed he did this when he got nervous. "I guess I shoulda gone into that movie and got ya out. I didn't want to embarrass ya in front of all them big gals. But none of 'em had to get down the Lewiston hill. They all live in the heights."

I'd never seen Roy show concern for things that had happened already. What was the big deal here! Why was Mr. Lombardy grouchy and why did Roy care? I was happy that I had the chance to be nice to Roy because he was always nice to me. "Don't worry, you did your best. I'll stay overnight at your house and tomorrow I'll go home."

I'd never thought of Roy as having a life outside of my father's store. He never mentioned a mom or a wife or children. As we inched along I asked him if he lived with his mom and dad. He told me his mamma lived in Alabama. I figured that's why he often guessed Mobile in the Coke game. Maybe he missed her. When I asked if he had a wife he said, "No way!" I knew then that he wouldn't have children. As far as I could see God only gave children to people who were married. He was a little late with my parents but He did finally make me. I wondered aloud who made Roy's dinner but he said he ate "'round town," mostly just across the street where we were to dine this very evening. I was surprised to find that Roy lived alone. He was so much fun I pictured him being part of a big happy family like the Canavans, who went to family picnics at Brock's monument. I'd never met anyone who lived alone. Even Father Flanagan had priests from the missions boarding there so he wouldn't be lonely.

We began traveling in a part of the city that I'd never seen before. As we turned into a parking lot I could see he lived in a long ranch-style house with lots of doors and a pink light that flashed his address: rainbow inn—24 rooms—vacancy. He had more than one driveway. He had arranged for guest parking with white lines demarcating all the extra parking spots. In fact, there was one in front of each of his doors. I had no idea why Roy was worried about having me over, because his house was big. He even had a hot plate in his bedroom—I guessed it was there so when he was tired he wouldn't have to go to the kitchen. Typical of Roy, when he opened his closet a bed fell out! I couldn't wait to see the rest of the place. We made hot chocolate with milk he took in from between the storm windows. He was always efficient. Roy went in to the bathroom and got dressed up in a starched shirt and pinstriped trousers. When I asked him if this was a fancy restaurant like a country club he said that he had to dress up to go out on the town with a girl in red taffeta.

We crossed a big slippery street, which was deserted and lined with huge piles of snow on each side. When we climbed one mound we came upon orange flashing lights and I sounded out the name of the restaurant in my usual loud voice—Hot and Sassy's.

"There's where we goin' for one big meal," Roy said, and we agreed we had never been so hungry and that we deserved a good meal for the overtime we'd put in as "pioneers" in the storm.

As we entered I was flabbergasted to see a sea of faces that looked a lot like Roy's. I had never seen anyone who looked like Roy before, had his hair style or his accent. I was amazed on two counts: first, that he had such a large extended family, even the waiters and waitresses looked related, and, second, I was shocked that I had lived near this city for my entire life yet I had never run into any of his relatives before. I would have known in a second that they were related to Roy. I asked if this was a family reunion and Roy only laughed, later saying it was the first time he had ever seen me speechless.

When I got over the shock of seeing his huge family I realized they lived in the rest of his house across the street. I was so glad because I didn't want to think of him as being lonely. It was an odd restaurant with no small tables but only one long high table with stools for his big family and Hots was the waiter for everyone. It must have still been cocktail hour because he was busy serving drinks and people stood up three deep at the long table. "Well, well, look what Roy brought out of the storm, mmmmmmm," Hots said, shaking his head. Lots of Roy's friends came over and Roy lifted me up and put me on a stool and I remember exactly what he said to the crowd that had assembled. "This is my date for tonight. Her name is Dale Evans and we been out beatin' the trails today at work and we're mighty thirsty for a Shirley Temple and a Johnny Walker, so clear the way for Hots to move." Hots yelled for Sass—his wife, I think—to come out of the kitchen. Sass was a fat woman who didn't buy into my mother's theory that overweight women should wear dull colors. It was amazing to me that someone would be named "Sassy" since it was such a bad thing to be; but when I thought about names, it was not as bad as my father's aunt Fanny.

I was marooned outside of my life for a night and it was great. While swiveling on my stool, I had lots of pink Shirley Temples in cocktail glasses, with maraschino cherries and pineapple speared on tiny swords. I took the swords home for my dollhouse. Between Shirleys, Roy and I had a great dinner, a crispy chicken I'd never eaten before, which Roy called "Sassy-fried." I was amazed at how friendly everyone was and how much fun people seemed to be having. They were laughing really hard at things my parents failed to find even a little amusing. One guy was killing himself describing how his car slid on the ice and was wrapped around a pole like a donut. Things that had always seemed like big disasters were only funny events that were no longer threatening. It was a "we're-all-alive-so-what's-the-problem" attitude. I shared our disaster and how I'd driven out of the snowbank sitting on Roy's coat so I could see out the window and how Roy got covered in snow when I spun the wheels. We cried, we were laughing so hard.

Roy asked me to dance and I giggled, telling him I was too little, but he picked me up and we flew all over the dance floor, and I also danced with the bartender and his fat wife, who taught me some dance steps. I was relieved I was wearing my Mary Janes for the dance and because everyone else seemed to be dressed up in bright clothes so I was appropriately dressed in my red taffeta. I'd always liked bright colors and I never bought into my mother's concept of dressing up, which was changing from black-watch navy plaid to solid navy.

Finally it was time to go home and Roy and I trudged across the street and waved to the snowplow as it passed. Roy pulled down the closet bed for me and when I asked him for extra pajamas he said I was going to sleep in my clothes. He put me to bed in my party dress and Mary Janes. When I suggested I take off my shoes, he said we were going to leave everything "as is." I woke up in the night with foot cramps and had to jump up and down to get them to stop. I saw Roy asleep in a chair with his party clothes still on.

The next day was sunny and clear as a bell when we got up and Roy told me to brush my teeth with my finger, a new maneuver, which worked surprisingly well. I tried to use his comb for my tangled hair but it was shaped like a tiny pitchfork and didn't catch any snarls. It worked for his hair and his relatives'. I wondered how he'd found a comb that worked so well for his family and their unique hair. I was sure we didn't have them in the drugstore.

We grabbed a donut at Freddies' (a donut shop owned by two brothers both named Freddy: my father said they must've been from the Ozarks, not to be able to come up with another name) and ate as we buzzed along. Roy had little bumps on his face where he hadn't shaved and the whites of his eyes looked yellow as his cigarette dangled from his upper lip. The plows had sanded the escarpment hill and it was hard to believe that yesterday had been treacherous enough to knock me right out of my regular life.

As we turned onto my street we saw Mr. Lombardy's cruiser parked in our driveway. I opened the large oak door and the first thing I saw was something I'd never witnessed before; my mother was sitting on the couch crying, clutching a wad of scrunched-up Kleenexes. My father looked mad and worried at the same time. I'd never seen either of them mildly upset before. I was speechless. My father crouched down to my eye level and said through cigar breath, "We were very worried about you, young lady." Then there was a big mess where everyone started talking at once and Mr. Lombardy said he had been going to get me and bring me down or put me in the police station for the night and had only moved away from our car for a minute to talk to someone when Roy had driven away. Roy said he had no choice but to take me to where he lived and there was no working phone. I had no idea why my mother was crying. What was the problem? I suddenly wished they'd lighten up and told them there was no problem. My father snapped to and actually agreed, saying emotions were running high at the moment and it was best to call it a day. He thanked Roy for his trouble and escorted him to the door, saying he was sorry for the misunderstanding. Mr. Lombardy tried to go on a bit more but my mother's crying drowned him out. Finally he and Roy left.

As I told my mother about my adventure, she cried at every new detail. As I got to dancing at Hot and Sassy's she was sobbing. My father said as long as I was safe it was best to save the details for another time when my mother was "not so under the weather." She was weepy for two days and sat with me on her lap, something she never did, even before I was working! At last she was "in the pink" again and ready to return to her important work at the historical society.

The following week when Sam Noyes, the wrinkled, pipe-smoking editor of the local paper, heard that Roy and I had made it all the way to LaSalle in that gale, he wrote an editorial about it. He marveled that despite the storm (in which two hundred people died), the school closings, and what he referred to as "the infestation of the National Guard," McClure's Drugs still managed same-day delivery, even in LaSalle. He wrote that he wished he could count on getting to heaven with as much certainty as he counted on our "intrepid" delivery service. I cut this out, taped it to our dashboard, and Roy and I laughed every time we read it. I referred to him as "intrepid" (a word I liked because they used it on The Lone Ranger to introduce the intrepid Tonto during the William Tell Overture) and he referred to me as "intrepidette."

Roy was my best friend for a number of years. We went through rough times on the Tuscarora reservation, dined with millionaires when they visited the Falls, had lunch with Joseph Cotten, witnessed birth and death together, and helped each other out of scrapes—although now I realize he helped me out of more. Finally one day in grade six I went to work and Roy didn't show up. No one ever saw him again. Irene said that a few men had been in looking for him the day before. She said they didn't seem any too pleasant and she was sure gambling was involved. My father suggested to Irene that it was uncharitable to gossip about Roy's departure and told me if Roy could have said goodbye he would have. It was not like him to be rude and he must have had a good reason. When Irene "started up on him"—as Roy used to refer to her bossiness—my father said we would only remember Roy at his best. To me Roy was always at his best.

I went to Roy's office in the storage room. It was really a cove, separated by orange crates. He had a bulletin board with delivery dates on a clipboard and a picture from Ebony of Louis Armstrong smiling and waving from a white Cadillac. I carefully untacked it, knowing that it was Roy's goodbye note to me.

—Reprinted from Too Close to the Falls by Catherine Gildiner by permission of Viking Books, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright (c) 2001 by Catherine Gildiner. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.

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From the Publisher
"Anyone who appreciates a good story, well told, will find it in Too Close to the Falls." —St. Louis Post-Dispatch

"Gildiner beautifully portrays her outrageous youth through the innocent, yet sometimes frighteningly worldly eyes of a child." —The Quill & Quire

Meet the Author

Catherine Gildiner has been in private practice in clinical psychology for nearly twenty years. She writes a monthly advice column for Chatelaine, a popular Canadian magazine, and contributes regularly to countless other Canadian newspapers and magazines. She lives in Toronto with her husband and three sons.

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Too Close to the Falls 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 18 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The first part of the book was excellent. Very humorous. The author describes events, people and Niagara Falls very well. But the ending was disturbing and that seemed to "spoil" the entire book for me. It resembled "The Glass Castle".However, I'm sharing the book with my book club group, so we shall see how they review the book.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I wanted so much to like this book. But I just could not get into it. I grew up in the Buffalo/Niagara Falls area which is what drew me to this book initially. And the references to local places are about the only thing that remotely held my interest after a while. The story started out ok but grew tired very fast. I found myself skipping ahead alot because it was just too boring. I did finish it but was very disappointed.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Having been raised in the area where the story was written I found it to be a fairly entertaining and nostalgic glimpse into the past. I highly doubt the author was as capable of doing all that she relates at the tender age of four but it is her story so who am I to argue. I felt there was a lot of missing information and can truly tell the author is a novice writer. I was glad to read the book and slide down memory lane. I would not recommend this to persons not from the area as it tends to ramble like I am doing now.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
This book was a hit from page one. Very well written & humorous. Amazing how accomplished Cathy was at such a young age. Will definitely recommend it to my book club.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Fabulous book, written so well you can envision the characters and scenes. I was inspired by the heroine's spunkiness, and found myself wanting to step inside the book to join her. This book is definitely one of my favorites!
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is an amazing memoir that I found even better reading the second time around. The real-life characters are so well developed and likeable that one would wish to have known them. Her interesting and well educated mother managed to pull off in the 'traditional' fifties, non-conforming behavior with conformity. Check that out! Each chapter presents rich characters and young Cathy McClure's insights are impressive. Our book club chose this book to discuss because it presents a delightful and refreshing outlook through the eyes of a bright, innocent child. Her significant and sometimes heart-rending experiences, give the reader a renewed sense of the good in human nature.