Messing About In Boats
(A Demeter’s Bar Story)
By Jeff Baker
The balding man sipped on his Bloody Mary and looked around Demeter’s Bar.
“I don’t care what the city fathers are trying to do. I’m not going anywhere near the old boathouse at Riverside Park. Not again.”
Mrs. DeLeon had heard a lot of people at the bar talk about politics or government, especially regarding LGBT issues. But something in this man’s tone seemed different.
“You weren’t mugged were you?” she asked.
“No,” the man said. “But I was kidnapped, I think. Sort of. Almost.” He sipped his drink and explained.
My name (he said) is Jonathan Rutherford-Briggs. If that last name sounds familiar, my Great-Grandfather Henry Rutherford-Briggs donated part of the land the park sits on. The old stone boathouse at the river, not the new one, used to be his. It’s all that is left of his property; his old house was torn down in the fifties. But the boathouse is still there with his name carved above the doorway. Nobody has been in it for a long time, as the floorboards probably aren’t safe anymore. But the family, meaning me, still has the key. And this morning, I got curious.
My business keeps me out of town but I came back to Wichita for a few weeks and got nostalgic. My sisters and I used to play in the park; my Grandmother had a house over on Lieuenett Street when I was a boy. We ran races; re-enacted movies went out on the boats from the new boathouse with appropriate adult supervision. And we pretended the old stone boathouse was a castle or a space station, but we had never been inside. And I made out with a boy my age in the bushes in the shadows of the boathouse when I was about sixteen.
Great-Grandfather Henry had gotten rich of his inventions back at the turn of the last century and as a kid I had wondered what he might have left in the boathouse. Family legend had it that he used it as his laboratory until he disappeared sometime before the First World War. I stood there this morning. Looking at the steel door and the big lock, which was supposedly of Henry’s own design. It took me a moment to find the keyhole. After a moment’s effort the key turned and the old door opened with a push.
The room was small, about the size of a one-car garage and I could see light through two narrow windows at the top of the west and east facing walls. I glanced around. There was a workbench against one wall and a small wooden stool that looked to shaky to sit on. There was a corner at the far end of the room and I walked over and found another door. I turned the handle and with a creak and snap it opened and I stepped out into bright sunlight. I was momentarily blinded and I felt slightly dizzy. I was standing near the riverbank and I stared up at the green leaves of the trees and the green plants growing at the edge of the river. Then I suddenly realized; it was October, leaves were either turning orange or falling from the trees. I looked around. I sat a few buildings rising over the trees in the distance but instead of the familiar buildings of downtown I only recognized clock tower of the old County Courthouse and the spire of St. Anne’s Church. I pulled out my cellphone, it read: no service. I heard laughing voices and I saw a boat with a number of people riding, the ladies in long dresses and big hats, the young men wearing white pants, bow ties and jackets, of a style I’d only seen in old pictures and on the internet.
Then, I heard singing. A canoe paddled by, a young man in a red and white striped jacket was rowing the canoe while a girl in a white, frilled dress, wearing a large flowered hat laughed, the term would have been gaily in Henry’s day. The boy paddling the canoe was singing an old song I recognized; “A Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight,” badly out of tune. The girl laughed harder and the boy smiled broader. I saw the street in the distance on the other side of the river. Trees blocked my view but I was sure I saw a horse hitched to one of the stone hitching posts they had torn out when I had been a boy in the 1960s.
I had seen enough movies to realize what happened to me. Great-Great-Grandfather Henry had opened up some time warp, maybe he’d built a time machine in the boathouse and that was a side effect. I reached for the door, I had no desire to lose myself in 1910 or 1900 or 1896 or whenever this was. I ducked back into the boathouse, pulled the back door shut behind me and was locking it again when another wave of dizziness overcame me and I passed out on the floor. When I awoke, I left the boathouse the way I had first came in, vowing never to return.
Rutherford-Briggs sipped his drink and stared wistfully into the mirror. “This world isn’t perfect, but I have no desire to forsake it for another era.”
Mrs. DeLeon had dealt with enough inebriated customers to know that Rutherford-Biggs wasn’t one. Plus, she’d heard some very odd stories in her tenure as bar owner.
“Do you think you’ll ever go, well, back…through the boathouse?” Mrs. DeLeon asked.
“If fiction has taught us nothing, it’s that the past and the present should not be mixed,” Rutherford-Briggs said, finishing his drink. “After I locked the boathouse for the last time, I bent the key and tossed it in the river. Let the past stay the past.”
Nonetheless, when the song the boy in the canoe was singing would sometimes play in his head, he would think of the looks on the boy and girl’s faces and smile.