It was pouring rain outside the skate rink, and inside, the line was long and the corridor fogged and sweaty with kids wet from rain. Near the skate rentals, the smell was of rubber mats and dirty socks, and the boy behind the counter pulled out wads of dirty laces before plunking the skates on the counter. The benches were broken wooden things, at one time painted red and green, but now peeled mostly down to boards. Kids sat on them, pulling off their Nikes or K-Mart knock-off shoes, and lacing their brown skates with the frayed strands. Then they walked past the smoking closets, peering in surreptitiously to see what they could see of the older kids, who puffed away at forbidden cigarettes while clouds of smoke drifted out the open doors – a curious, sweet spicy smell of cloves mixed with the staleness of Marlboros and Camels.
Across from the closets was the café, and it was like a beacon – bright lights cast over orange booths and red and blue signs hung from the ceiling. Clutter covered the food counter: a popcorn machine filled with yellow corn, a jar of fat green pickles and another jar of red Twizzlers. The kids ordered hotdogs and fries with ketchup until their skin and pores were penetrated by the sour and sweet and greasy smells; they drank icy Cokes, syrupy sweet and sparkling at them with bubbles.
When they finally scooted over the worn, stained carpeting and back onto the rubber mats, they began to glide. Many of the boys wore special black skates, hockey skates they’d saved their allowance money to buy. Some of the girls wore special white skates, princess skates, but not very many. The timid girls split off and rolled down into the kiddie rink, where they pushed themselves off padded walls, tried to spin and turn, until they hit the other padded wall. The brave girls skated out into the big rink, where they ching-chinged their wheels over the glossy skate floor, taking care to avoid the show-off boys who raced around them before lowering themselves to a balance pose on one leg with the other leg straight out in front of them.
All over both rinks, the disco lights played and the music blasted out tired rock songs they’d heard thousands of times because the music selection was old and out of date. Really, no one listened to Lionel Richie anymore. Didn’t they know that? Some kids approached the DJ’s booth to request newer songs, but most wouldn’t dare to go near that high-up throne. The older boys who worked in the booth were cocky. They could do all the skating tricks the young boys could do, only better and, besides, they were the ones who could hoist you from the rink if you caused trouble.
That was the skate building, a worn building in a bad neighborhood with a big orange skate painted on the side that faced Sunset Highway. It sat next to the railroad tracks – and beyond that were blackberry brambles and cottonwood trees – beyond that were fields filled with rain and shadows. Shadows moved slowly; they seemed to roll along the tracks as though they were composed of the bad characters who roamed over the neighborhood. Crimes happened here and were rarely reported. One summer, a family that moved into a seedy rental unearthed the small skeleton of a young girl, and nobody had a clue that a young girl had ever gone missing.
After that, the police were all over the neighborhood that they normally avoided because it was better to leave well enough alone – let those people live as they would, and they needn’t involve themselves. The skeleton seemed to open something up, a new fear, an acknowledgment of the silent violence. The next thing the police knew, a fourteen-year-old girl reported that a local man had raped her. Everybody knew the man, knew he prowled like a lion at night, searching for prey. And though it seems unlikely that a skeleton should be the first to break the silence, that was the case – and the silence was broken forever.
The police began to roam through the neighborhood, to position themselves in the park at night, where rain and shadows met under enormous pine trees that could have hidden anything – monsters of the deep, instead of shady refuges for young children. Young children didn’t play in the park, hadn’t played there ever in the night, of course, but not in the day either, not for years. Rumors of drug deals and illicit sexual favors floated around. Some reported that, before the police began their own prowl, gang members practiced knife-throwing at the trees, where their blades sank deeply into the barky flesh.
And meanwhile, kids skated at the Skate World. Once they had their hands stamped, the bouncers wouldn’t let them come and go. Security was tight at the skate rink. It was the one place where parents felt they could drop their kids for awhile so they could get away by themselves, have a beer, maybe two or three. It was just odd that, all too often, the cocky young boys who worked in the DJ booth would open the back fire-exit door, the one that faced out on the railroad tracks, open it wide to allow in the fresh night air. Or so they claimed. But make no mistake, and never tell your parents, that the skate rink wasn’t the safe haven it was supposed to be.
p.s. Spotted Owl pen and ink by A. Leon Miler