Editor’s Note: StoryBoard Memphis is proud to introduce to our readers the Southern writer Niles Reddick. Niles, while not new to Southern readers, may be new to many Memphis readers. We are honored to have his contributions.
~Mark Fleischer, Publisher
Mud Island Monorail
by Niles Reddick
Poplar Avenue dead-ended at Front Street in Memphis, and the parking lot was the last concrete to be seen before the mighty Mississippi. After paying the six-dollar fee, we parked, walked in to the visitor center, and purchased tickets to Mud Island. We took the escalator up to the third floor to board the monorail rather than walk the enclosed bridge above the monorail. The red monorail reminded me of the one at Disney, moving quickly across land and above a portion of the river to Mud Island, a river park with a first class museum, where tourists learn the history of the river–the battles fought, the ecological life, the influence on culture from blues and rock and roll to great literature.
As I glanced out the window, I noted that once the monorail left the concrete boarding station, there didn’t seem to be any tracks. My heart thumped and I turned to the guide and asked if it was suspended.
“Nah. Goes right out there,” she said.
“Yes,” I said. “But where is the track?”
She pointed up, and I looked out the window about the time the doors closed with a swoosh and locked tight. I sat down and gripped the metal pole, my hands sliding because of sweat. “Dear God,” I muttered. I felt dizzy, sick to my stomach, and looked only at the floor, taking deep breaths. It only took a few minutes before it stopped and the doors opened.
“You okay?” my wife asked.
“Of course, I am. Just tired.”
“Well, I’m surprised you rode this. We’re pretty high up and I know you don’t like heights.”
“It doesn’t seem high up, maybe only three or four stories, but it’s just hanging there, suspended, like a zip line, not like the one at Disney World or even the Marta in Atlanta.”
She laughed. “Come on.”
After enjoying the museum and taking photos of great river vistas, the metal “M” over the I-40 Bridge between Arkansas and Tennessee, and tug boats and barges, we walked the scale model of the river, complete with running water that was clear and cold, not like the muddy Mississippi. We were impressed with the signage built into the model describing cities and towns along the river and offering tidbits of interesting information. I noted a school teacher with a group of students scribbling notes on a pad. When we removed our shoes to dip our feet into the cool waters, I pointed her way and said, “Those poor kids are gonna have a quiz and they aren’t paying attention at all.” We both laughed.
After a couple of hours, we decided to go and find the Peabody Hotel, check in to our room, watch the infamous duck march, visit Elvis’ house, and enjoy some blues and barbecue on Beale Street. I didn’t feel comfortable riding the monorail back and told my wife maybe we should just walk back. If the monorail had been supported by a bridge or tracks, I might have felt a tiny bit better.
“Oh, come on; it’ll be fine. Plus, I’m getting tired and would prefer not to walk any more than we already have.”
“Okay,” I agreed.
On the monorail, there was an elderly couple, a mother and two children, and an employee I remembered from the gift shop who must have finished her shift. The doors closed, again with a swoosh and locked tight. As the monorail left the concrete deck, there was a slight dip, followed by a loud pop, a boing-boing sound. I gripped the pole, and then watched a portion of the car come unattached and move downward, dangling. Our portion was still connected, but I felt it was a matter of time before it plummeted into the mighty Mississippi River below, a river that runs two thousand plus miles across ten states and has taken countless lives and become the final resting place for many as a result of flooding, accidental drowning, suicide, and even murder.
“Everyone move to this end,” I yelled, and amid the sudden crying and praying, they listened. I already had 911 on my cell and explained to the dispatcher our grim situation. Apparently, there were other calls, too, from high rise offices with a view of the monorail and river, from relatives of passengers who had received texts, from people driving down Front Street who glanced sideways, from lucky people who didn’t make this ride and were waiting on the next; they would all, fortunately, walk the bridge.
“Sir, is everyone inside the monorail all right?”
“I think so. Just scared.”
“Help is on the way,” she said. I didn’t, however, feel reassured how a midair rescue might would take place with the monorail dangling over a portion of the Mississippi, and between rapid fire thoughts in my mind, I, too, prayed.
The guide did not have life preservers and didn’t know what to do. She kept texting and wiping tears. A flurry of onlookers over at Mud Island and then back at Front St. gathered, cupping hands to block the sun, so they could watch our disaster unfold. I kept looking in both directions for a boat that would throw out a self-inflating raft, but the only thing I saw were firemen, police officers, and emergency medical technicians running on the bridge above the monorail system that seemed to create a slight vibration I didn’t think was good for our situation. Next, ropes and climbers’ gear were lowered and instructions were yelled through a bullhorn with a directive: “Women and children first.”
Since the doors would not open, I busted out the window with a metal fire extinguisher. I was glad it didn’t explode. It was large enough to get everyone through without discomfort. The mother and her two children were first, followed by my wife and the elderly woman. The guide and gift shop worker were next.
The elderly man said, “Son, I just don’t know if I can do this. I didn’t want to ride this damned thing to begin with.”
“Me neither,” I said. “This thing’s not going to hold much longer. Let’s just do it.”
He nodded, and I hooked him up, pushed him out and they pulled him up. As I hooked myself up and shoved off, the monorail crashed into the river below, and I hung there a moment, like a catfish on a line a fisherman had yet to reel, hearing screams, followed by, “I think we’ve got him.” I was pulled to the bridge. I didn’t want to stand. I wanted to stay curled in a fetal position on the concrete and cry, but I wondered if the accident might have been the result of a tremor from the New Madrid seismic zone and I wanted off the bridge, too.
“You okay?” my wife asked.
“I told you we shouldn’t have ridden that thing.”
“Well, we won’t next time.”
“There won’t be a next time.”
In the hustle and bustle after that included kids telling their dad via cell how cool it all was, the elderly couple calling their adult children and reassuring them before it made the nightly news, I forgot to thank the rescue workers for helping and thought I would send an email later. All I wanted was to get into my room at the Peabody, take a shower, and sleep. I didn’t care about the Peabody ducks, Elvis, barbecue on Beale Street, or the blues.
“Mud Island Monorail” was first published in Southern Reader in Atlanta and will be part of Niles’ new collection Reading the Coffee Grounds and Other Stories.
Niles Reddick is featured in author Susan Cushman’s Southern Writers on Writing, which was released May 16, 2018. Niles’ work has been featured in over a hundred and fifty literary magazines all over the world, and his new collection Reading the Coffee Grounds debuts spring of 2018. Read his full bio in StoryBoard’s contributors.