“We’re going a bit too much to the left, hon’,” says Mrs. Hollis. Her wheelchair creaks as it bumps along over the cobblestone. I tighten my grip – it’s an empty effort to ensure that she doesn’t fall out and roll the rest of the way down the hill, right into the Mississippi River about twenty feet away.
“Don’t worry, ma’am, I’ve got you,” I respond, trying to hide my wheezing. A drop of sweat rolls down my forehead, mocking me as it settles on the tip of my nose.
It’s not the first time that day that I’ve helped an elderly person down a hill. In fact, it’ s one of the main components of my job. Every time the Queen of the Mississippi docks and lets off it’s 152 passengers – depending on the week, they average seventy to eighty years old – it’s my responsibility to help them get from the boat to the bus that will get them to whatever Southern fried destination they’re visiting.
For some reason, the Queen never seems to stop at docking areas with flat surfaces. Hills can be challenging for older folks. Mrs. Hollis won’t be the last person that I help today; she is by the most interesting, however.
“It’s a little embarrassing needing help down this hill,” she says, and I swear I can see her face redden.
“But it’s worth it since I’m getting help from such a handsome man.”
I nod politely and keep going, thanking her for the kind words. It’s the fifth or sixth time this week that she’s commented on how good-looking I am and I can’t help but enjoy the ego boost, no matter how much I disagree.
“Louisiana is so interesting. Have you been to the gardens at that place?” she asks, referring to the latest plantation.
“I have, ma’am, they’re amazing.”
And they really are. A burst of swampy color amid tragic historical accuracy.
We’ve gotten to the bottom of the hill, and the walkway onto the boat is right in front of us. Thankfully, it’s just wide enough to get her wheelchair onto it. My co-worker stands at the end, watching out for any more passengers that might need help getting on board. He waves us past.
“You’re so nice and helpful and that baby face,” she says, as we slowly make our across the walkway. “You know, I have granddaughter. She lives very comfortably in New York City. And she’s very beautiful. I think you two would make a great couple.”
“Oh?” I say, as noncommittally as possible. She’s just a friendly old lady making conversation.
“I’ve been looking for a husband for her.”
“Oh,” I chuckle, thinking it’s a joke. The woman can’t possibly be serious. I’ve known her for a week, and I’ve never even heard of her granddaughter before this moment.
But Mrs. Hollis is serious. She looks me pointedly in the eye over the top of sunglasses. She wants an answer.
“Well, Ma’am, I don’t think so,” I respond slowly, trying to think of the kindest way to let her down. “I don’t really want to settle down right now.”
She bristles at that, and I try to recover.
“I-I don’t mean that literally,” I stammer. “I just don’t want to stay in one place right now. This is the perfect job for me. As a deckhand, I’m constantly on the move. I can’t imagine anything better. It’d be unfair to anyone I try to settle down with.” I sigh mentally. “Oh, I meant that last part figuratively that time.”
She nods. “I understand, I suppose.”
Her husband shows up in the nick of time – he had opted to stay aboard the boat for their daily adventure and helps her inside. I turn and see my co-worker, now sporting a giant grin. He’s obviously heard the entire thing.
“Not a word,” I say, pointing fake-threateningly. His smile gets bigger.
I realize that I’ve regained my breath, far faster than I did in the first week I did this. I’m in the best shape of my life, and it’s thanks to all these hills that I’ve had to climb up and down.
I’ve been to places I never expected to go: Hannibal, the birthplace of Samuel Clemens; Nashville, home to the best country music scene imaginable; the French Quarter and all its debauchery; even the Mall of America.
I hear a yell and turn to my co-worker. He points to the top of the hill, where a man is starting to hobble down with no help but a cane that looks like it’s about to break in half.
I make my way up to help him. It’s a good deal – he gets the help he needs, and I get some exercise, and if I’m lucky, another great story to share later.
About the Author: Max Kelley is an author currently working on his first novel and sailing the world.
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