“The number’s thirty,” says the man. “They’re brown wing tips like I already told you. And what are yours again, Donna?”
“White sandals, with a daisy on the strap.” Donna is a typical Roller Palace patron: greasy graying ponytail, harlequin eyeglasses and a magenta felt skating skirt that says DONNA in black sequins around the hem.”
“Okay,” says Anne. “I’ll try and get it right this time.” She turns away and follows a runner of filthy, ochre carpet to the back room, where five rows of scuffed shoes confront her, tongues lolling. The air in the tiny stall is hot and damp, redolent of feet, as if Anne herself is inside a shoe. After three panicky surveys she spots number thirty, dingy and sullen as their owners. She grabs them and dashes back to the window.
“Why, here they are!” The man grunts and passes his ticket across the counter. Donna inspects her sandals top and sole, giving Anne a final glare.
Anne crumples their ticket with her left hand and flicks the tape recorder onto rewind with her right. The Beautiful Blue Danube becomes a soft whine. Out on the rink, the skaters falter, looking around stupidly for the music. Anne pushes the public address button.
“Let’s have a snowball, folks,” her voice bellows out across the floor. “Gents on one side, ladies on the other. C’mon kids, let’s sit this one out and give Mom and Pop the limelight.” Children of all sizes home in unsteadily on the gates and clop through to the bench area. “How about Esther and Bill Nyberg leading off, since tonight’s their anniversary? A squeal of delight from the southeast corner. “Let’s have a spot on Esther and Bill.”
“Shit,” says Andy. “Whyn’t you tell me in advance? The bulb’s out. You’re supposed to check these things out with me first, not just go blastin’ out announcements without findin’ out if they’re possible even.”
“Sorry, folks, I’ve just been informed by our engineer that there’s a malfunction in the spotlight system. But I’ll bet Esther’s eyes are shinin’ brighter than an ol’ spotlight anyway.” A scraggly cheer goes up. “Let’s have a little “Wonderland by Night.”
“Well we’re together on one thing, at least,” grumbles Andy, starting the tape. Esther and Bill glide off into a fluorescent glare.
“Dim the lights at least. It’s a little more romantic.”
“Okay, okay.” Andy flicks off every other light on the panel and surveys the arena glumly. “That’s the nearest I can come. It looks like a checkerboard. I wished you’d of checked it out with me.”
“Oh they’re loving it,” says Anne. She watches Esther and Bill make a circuit of the arena, nodding and bowing grandly to sparse applause.
Beneath her window, Anne spots a benchful of teenagers lighting up a joint. Gleeful and conspiratorial, they spraddle out their skate-laden feet before them and pass the flattened reefer, casting white-eyed glances over their shoulders. Their pert little buttocks, encased in denim, look functional and muscular. Anne shifts on her wheeled stool, passing a hand over her own rear end; twin, toneless masses of chilly cellulite, poorly contained by pink doubleknit capris. How, she muses bitterly, did she ever aspire to a job with travel and glamor? Where did she think a rump like hers belonged, on a yacht?
Esther and Bill Nyberg, defying Anne’s second order to “snowball” and choose new partners, skate on before a dumbly staring captive audience. They perform a series of wobbly pas de deux.
“Assholes,” says Andy. “Tell ‘em all skate.”
“All skate,” Anne sings out. “ All skate.” The grateful masses surge across the rink, inundating Esther and Bill, who shoot a look of eternal hatred at Anne as their figures disappear in the throng. Andy grins.
“People pays their money, they wanna skate.” He guffaws. “Lord, ain’t they mad! Serves ya right, ya show-offs.” Andy is a couple of inches over five feet tall, a plump, crew-cut gnome with white hair and small blue eyes nearly buried in fat. Occasionally, he dons a pair of worn black skates and hurtles around the rink, a compact little mass, head tucked well down, chubby fists at sides. “Still the fastest,” he proclaims as he slides into the office, face burgundy.
“You like your job, don’t you, Andy?” Anne asks, chin in palm, gazing ahead at the men’s lavatory. Each time the door opens, she sees the sink, and sometimes a man rinsing his hands as he appraises himself in the mirror above.
“Hell, wouldn’ta stayed here thirty-two years if I didn’t,” Andy replies. He inserts his pinky into his right ear and rummages energetically, extricating it with a pop, to emphasize his job satisfaction. “Back when I started, this place was called the Park Avenue Roller Ballroom, and it was class, let me tell you. You got all duded up to come and skate, like ladies and gentlemen. None of that.” He jerks his thumb at the teenagers, now rocking back and forth, arms entwined. The boy on the end sports a chain of livid hickeys above the collar of a T-shirt that commands “Suck ‘em up” on the back. “Good, clean fun, everybody sober and respectable. And you saw some skatin’ back then too. Now it’s 1975 and nobody gives a damn anymore.”
Thirty-two years, Anne thinks. He must have been about my age when he started.
“I used to what they call tend the floor,” says Andy. “Just keep an eye on things, watch for spills, keep the traffic flowing. What Adam does now.” Adam is a tall, thin young man with glittering, lidless eyes and lank black hair. He glides along in the shadows of the rink, arms folded neatly behind him, vigilant, inexorable. At intervals, he swoops into the flow with astounding speed and agility to seize the errant, the flagging, or the fallen with a remorseless talon and carry them off. Adam rarely speaks.
“And didn’t the ladies used to flirt.”
“I’ll bet you were quite the beau, Andy.”
“I’ll say. Not that I was ever anything but a gentleman. I had my own girl.”
“And did you get married and live happily ever after?”
“Nope. The War came along and I got drafted, and my gal married another fella. One she met right here.” Andy sounds proud. “He was a captain in the Army Air Corps. Flew a B-29.”
“Well, she was too, I guess. They kept my job open for me, though. That was the Vanderveers, the first owners. Nice folks. Loyal. Now Gypsie, that was the girl before Mae, the gal you replaced, they kept her on seven, eight years, even though everybody knew she was on the bottle. Sometimes she’d be drinking right on duty here. She didn’t fool nobody.”
“And what became of her?”
“Dunno. She just didn’t show up one Wednesday night for the family skate and that was it. Never saw her again. She had back pay comin’ too. So they finally give it to the March of Dimes. Then Mae, she wasn’t but thirty when she took over the window from waitressing. That was when they served food over where the johns are now. And she was here ever since, till she passed on. You heard about that, her droppin’ dead in the middle of the Easter Hop. Nice kid, Mae. Big girl, though.”
“So I’m told.” Mae had weighed nearly 400 pounds when she had sunk like a stone into death, thud.
I think I’m going to kill myself, Anne thinks. All that work to get my equivalency diploma and then to end up here anyway with the losers. I’m a loser too, that’s what it means. At least I have Ellie, though. I should probably figure out some way to bring her nights instead of just having the neighbors look in, that’s no good. I could always tell them I was married when I had her and my husband got killed in Vietnam. Now why didn’t I think of that in the interview? I wonder how much insurance those widows get, and what could his name be then? It could still be Ed, he’d never know, wherever he is.
Anne turns her eyes to the circle of skaters, most of them expressionless, hypnotized by the sonorous taped organ music and the hollow whirr of their own wheels. Their feet stroke the floor monotonously: rolling, flowing, rolling.
The teenager Anne mentally named Mr. Hickeys is a wheeled satyr. He bears down on his giggling date, his tangled hair streaming out behind him like a blond banner. The girl takes halfhearted and futile evasive action, hemmed in by three small boys on her left and the Nybergs on her right. Hickeys closes with her and locks her arms to her sides, forcing her out of the flow, up against the splintery wooden rails on the side wall, inserting his leg between hers, holding her in a taut, denim vise.
She throws her head back at first to escape his mouth, but then her arms go around him to pluck weakly at the thin cotton of his T-shirt and then to stroke beneath, the tense, damp skin of his back.
“You might close yer jaws, Annie. You’ll see worse, believe me, you stick around here. This ain’t the place it was.” Andy pushes her aside and obtrudes his torso from the ticket window. “No free love in this rink, you two,” he bellows. “This here’s a skatin’ place. Move on, move on. C’mon with you.”
The two spring apart, and the girl is off with a laughing toss of her head, running on her skates to catch up with friends across the rink. But the boy stands dazed, turning slowly to follow her with his eyes. At last, he faces the ticket window, and his eyes meet Anne’s. Her mouth quivers apologetically and she shrugs, trying to smile. She looks away. But when she looks back, he is still watching her.
He’s mad, she decides. Oh God, he thinks it was me told on him. Her heart begins to thump, and she remembers that the Gosses are in Seattle for the week, so she is stuck walking home. What if he follows her? What if they all do? What if they hang around after she closes up and jump her after Andy leaves on his big tricycle? Why can’t he drive a car like normal people?
Oh stop that! She tells herself. Why would they? They wouldn’t bother. That’s why you’re going to live to be a hundred, remember? Nobody would bother, even cancer. She sighs.
“I’m getting some more coffee, Andy.”
“Suit yerself.” Anne slides off the metal stool and takes two quarters from her purse. She should start bringing a thermos: nearly an hour’s pay a night on coffee, and bad coffee at that.
She makes her way through the milling skaters and drops her money into the beige machine, which responds with a little metallic gulp. A paper cup cartooned with jubilant roller skaters descends unsteadily into an aluminum well. Seconds later, a tobacco-colored stream hisses into it. Anne lifts the plexiglass window and removes her cup, already limp. With difficulty, she frees two circular ears from its midriff and presses them together to form a handle.
“You know, you ought to bring a thermos, all the coffee you drink. And that stuff’s really nasty.” Hickeys! Anne swallows a mouthful of lukewarm coffee, redolent of cardboard and metal.
“Oh, it’s not so bad.” She’d better be friendly. “But you’re right about the thermos. I was just thinking that myself.”
“Hard keeping awake, huh?”
“Well, sometimes. A little.”
“Don’t sleep too well at night, do you?”
“No, of course I do. It’s just that I just started this job. I have to be pretty alert.”
“No, really. Andy’s trying to train me, and I’m afraid I’m not too quick.”
“Whaddya have to do besides give people their shoes back?”
“Well, not too much. Announce the special events.”
“Like that snowball? That was really a bust.” He throws his head back and laughs. “Those two lovebirds are so pissed off at you they’re still talking about it. You’d better watch out.” Despite her efforts to maintain a cool distance, Anne laughs too.
“It wasn’t my idea. It was Andy’s. I didn’t care if they had the floor all night.”
“Andy. That old fart’s really something. My parents used to bring me here when I could barely walk, and he was here then, and he looked exactly the same.”
“Well, that can’t have been too long ago,” says Anne. He is really a nice-looking kid. Kind of hormonal, like all adolescents, but tall and well-muscled; tanned arms with blond hair on them. Anne decides she is no longer frightened of him.
“I guess you get kind of lonely, just having him to associate with,”
“That’s not true. I have a very full life, my daughter and I.”
“Oh yeah, I remember.”
“You were a junior when my brother was a sophomore. You got pregnant by that guy Eddie Ericson and then he split for Europe. His old man gave him money or something.”
“I’m so glad my private life is an open book.” Anne puts down her coffee on a bench, her hand tremulous. She didn’t know Eddie’s father gave him money to go away. She thought he sold his car; that his father tried to stop him.
“Hey, don’t get all upset, like. I’m sorry if I brought up any bad trips. You want me to split?”
“No.” Anne puts her hand on his arm. “No, I didn’t mean. it’s all in the past now anyway. Who’s your brother?”
“Was. Harry Fleming. That was my brother. He was killed in Vietnam in ‘72.”
“Oh no.” Anne could not remember Harry Fleming. “I’m sorry. So many, I guess.” They stand looking at one another. “What’s your name?”
“Art Fleming.” Anne realizes that her hand is still on his arm. She snatches it away. “You don’t have to do that,” he says, moving closer. “You know, I could take you out for a real cup of coffee when you’re through here.” He puts his arm around her.
“No, don’t,” Anne says. “Not here. What’s wrong with you?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean where?”
* * *
From his window Andy watches and shakes his head. I wonder why they always get the weird ones in, he ponders. First Gypsie with her drinkin’, and then Mae eatin’ herself to death like that. And now this one’s bound an’ determined to end up a hoor. He passes a hand over his crew-cut and checks each ear with a pinky. Oh well, he decides, so long as nothing actually goes on in the Palace here, it’s none of my business what she does. If she starts taking them into the back room, now that’s another thing.