Hell, I don't know exactly what it was. Because sometimes the drugs (more on that later) and the mess with sweet Cressida (I wish there was more on that) don't seem to matter as much.
And for me up there under the cloverleaf in the heat of this Texas city at dusk the other night, playing roller-hockey with those crazy Mexican boys, I seemed to be lighter than oxygen, floating in the golden air and the aroma of diesel exhaust from the semis banging above—and nobody, but nobody, could touch me.(Professor Norman at the university would like that "lighter than oxygen" stuff, the "golden air" too—he said I could write, I had talent). Big Enrique lobbed me a pass of the special orange ball that you do have for roller hockey, the day-glo orange thing that bounces about as much as a beanbag, what makes it like a puck, and it was as if I was sure of, maybe even reborn with the sudden knowledge of, the fact nobody could touch me. I have these shitty no-name in-lines I bought at the Target Store. And though the rest of the guys all have top-of-the-line K-2's or Boxcars with competition wheels, what they probably had to steal and then pawn a fresh load of mountain bikes to pay for, it was as if I, on my shitty thirty-five-buck Target Store specials with the scuffed black plastic pods of them and the goofy rainbow-braid laces, I could cut and spin the way players used to really cut and spin, like in the old films I've seen of Gordie Howe and Bobby Orr. I was for a minute just the idea of hockey, and when you were the idea of something, nothing as stupidly substantial as the grimed asphalt meant anything, or those semis racing to Houston or Dallas or anywhere else that suddenly didn't mean anything either. The rest of them lunging to poke-check that little puff of day-glo orange away from me didn't have a chance, while I continued to wheel and cut, even do this crazy thing I had once seen a kid do on pond ice back when I was growing up in Massachusetts—a sort of drop pass to yourself where you tuck the puck between your legs then fake turning your head this way and that, looking around like everybody else to see who has it, until you leave the confused rest of them still gawking around too, and faster than fast you just turn to pick the thing up on your own blade and pump off with it.
I scored with a little flip backhander that hit the back of the net like a strong fist trying to poke through it. I felt that same something, that lightness, a couple of more times that evening, but I knew I better not indulge in more hot-dogging; these guys are proud Mexicans, after all, and I'm a pasty-faced Anglo who talks with a funny Northern accent. So, for me to get carried away with such a show of my special moves might be taken the wrong way, might challenge their manliness. And maybe it's part of my own wimpdom in thinking that these guys are obsessed with manliness, but wasn't it true that when we were just sitting around on the plastic milkcrates that pass for our benches afterwards, when the first stars were starting to brighten and then brighten some more in the Texas sky that really can turn purple, maniliness was the issue then. They alternated chugging on quart bottles of Gatorade and Budweiser, passing them around, and they complimented me on that dizzying charge.
"How do you feel, amigo, strong?" Grinning Danny said that. He's a little guy, and when he said the word "strong," he accompanied it with the mandatory clenched fist and pumped wrist salute, hard.
"Strong," Angel echoed him.
"Strong," Roberto did the same.
It is an important word for them, and I knew some of them had seen me with sweet Cressida a couple of times.
I'm looking at what I've written so far, and I see all those parentheses in the first couple of paragraphs. I gave too much information too fast there, and if this were a story for Professor Norman, most of that would get X-ed out. But the more I look at that information, the more I know it has to be worked in some way, and possibly I could reduce it to a triangle:
But that wouldn't work. Because in a way the drugs are behind me, I hope, but I do think about crack-cocaine a lot, not to mention the good heroin I enjoyed more than a few times. And I suspect my career at the university will be well behind me after my attempt at exams later this spring. Cressida at least stops by to, as she says, check up on me, and if it were a triangle Cressida would have to be at the apex, or maybe it isn't a triangle.
It's a square:
It's a circle:
It's one of those weird amoeba shapes:
"Well, what do you think?" Cressida asks me.
"I think what I always think," I tell her. "You're beautiful. It wouldn't make any difference if somebody dressed you in a big dishcloth, you would still be the knockout you are."
"That isn't what I asked you," she says.
"Though that would be cool, now that I think of it, to see you in a big dishcloth, but like one of those classic dishcloths. You know, just white, with the red stripes at the ends or something."
"Shut up, Rickie," she says.
Cressida is at my apartment, or what passes for a studio apartment in the budget co-op not far from campus. She has stopped again, yes, to check up on me, and just the way she asks me to comment on her new outfit probably announces as loud as anything else what our relationship has ended up as, almost a brother-sister deal at this stage. Cressida is on her way to an evening lecture by the usual kind of famous historian who is often on campus to spiel an evening lecture, and you would have to see her to believe her. Honestly. Cressida is slim and tall. She has the kind of posture that makes her mile-long legs look as if they're a couple of steps ahead of the rest of her, like she's trying to hold her ground as an imaginary feisty pooch on a stretched leash tugs her along, whenever she strides across campus. Her honey hair is set in a pageboy bob and her gray eyes are giant, her lips full the way that French girls' lips are full, though Cressida is anything but French, a Dallas Southern Methodist, actually. I think the only reason I got anywhere with her to begin with was because (she confessed this) she thought that my Massachusetts accent was cute, plus I was brighter than most of those sorority and fraternity idiots who ended up in the sophomore lit class where we met—for once in my life, in that particular company, I was an intellectual. We dated for two years before it all fell apart (before I fell apart?), and looking at her now I wonder again how I could have been so stupid as to outrightly lose her like that.
Because Cressida is now twisting her neck to stare over her shoulder and check the line of her slacks in back, looking in the tarnished mirror over the painted dresser fringed with cigarette burns here among the general debris of my attempt at living quarters. It is not as if Cressida is affected in her cultivation of the 60's look (that pageboy bob, and some aqua eyeshadow and even white lipstick tonight because she is going out with a bunch of other history majors afterward), it is not so much affectation as it is more so how the whole message of that so-called other era simply seems right for her, including the new pedal-pusher slacks, a powder blue, and the sleeveless summer blouse, a pale pink—like I told her, the outfit has Jackie Bouvier written all over it. Actually, Cressida did a paper anayalyzing this book about the 60's called The Best and the Brightest by David Halberstam, and her grad student TA, her section leader for the course, said the paper was good enough to be published— which I believe, while I suspect too that the guy is trying to hit on her. Cressida wants to get a Ph. D. in history at some place good like Rice or Berkeley. I forgot to mention that Cressida is smart, not just lucky like me in how it's easy to put words together sometimes so I do well in the creative writing classes, but smart-smart, the kind of intelligence that can get her a Ph. D.
When she leaves, she comes over to the unmade bed, where I sit on the edge, and she pecks a kiss on my forehead. She mouths a put-on movie-star's pout and coos in a phony Italian accent, "Ciao, darling, as they say in the Purina dog food ads." Cressida can be really funny too.
And at least this time she didn't give me a lecture. I think that for her it's a triumph alone to find me without a crack pipe in my mitts. And there came none of her gently questioning me again concerning whether the best way to be trying to academically salvage the semester was to be spending every evening—evenings I should be in the library—playing roller hockey with "a bunch of East Side guys." Not that Cressida has anything against such East Side guys ("Are they really gang members?" she once asked me), but, she knows, the library and some serious cramming, plus more classes attended, that's the salvage job I could use at the moment.
As if I have any real idea what I need at the moment. And, to be frank, I got more than sad after what was supposed to be this blast of an outing with Big Enrique and Danny and Angel and Roberto and Birdy and the rest of them, a trip to the County Rodeo and Exposition Center, where what passes for the new very minor league professional ice hockey team plays here in the city where the university is.
This was right after the night I felt so good, so perfectly balanced on the asphalt. I hadn't previously spent any time with the Mexican boys except for the hockey, and how that all started was more chance than anything too. You see, having played a lot of ice hockey as a kid and having been a starter for my supposed country day school (believe me, that league of teams from other supposed country day schools wasn't much), I took to the in-lines immediately, and except for learning some new starts and stops, adjusting to the biting wheels not having the easy skid of a blade, the motion of pumping from the hip is just about the same. I used to take a stick and dribble a tennis ball around on my own, keeping to the red border on the outside of the dozen green tennis courts in a park nearby so I wouldn't get in the tennis players' way, letting loose with a few hard slappers against the chain-link there. Which is where they spotted me, eventually Big Enrique being the one who got up the nerve and loped over to ask me if I wanted to play in their evening pick-up games under that freeway overpass. I don't know, maybe I have been losing myself, avoiding everything else, in banging around with them every other night, but at least I don't have all that nowhere time to get me started again dreaming about the chilly warmth of crack (yeah, it is a chilly warmth), the nowhere time sometimes looming as the giant monster and bona fide danger for me.(Would Professor Norman ever rake me over the briquets for that one, stuff like "giant monster" and "bona fide danger," and in class he kept insisting that you be true to your own voice. But what if you have a dozen voices? Or what if you sometimes hear yourself talking, like looking at yourself in the mirror, and say, honestly wondering, "Who the fuck is that?") Anyway, I got the call from Big Enrique, who never called me about anything, except if there was a problem and they wouldn't be playing again that night.
"You've seen them, man?" he said on the phone.
"I went a half-dozen times," I said, "you know, when everybody was going to those games, when they first came to town."
He was inviting me to go with the rest of them out to the Ice Lizards game at that County Rodeo and Exposition Center. I think he was disappointed that I didn't sound more excited, that, as I told him, I had seen them play. It's a good thing I didn't go on with him about how the level of competition in the mongrel Southwestern Professional (that's a laugh) League wasn't much better than that for second-rate Eastern college hockey, not exactly what would excite somebody like me raised in my cozy Boston suburb (think Thoreau, Emerson), where it's easy enough to go see the Bruins in their famous black-and-yellow uniforms play or to watch them as served up almost every night on Channel 38, making an honest run for that beautifully dented old Stanley Cup most years.
"We've got a ticket for you, man," Big Enrique said.
"Really?" I said. "No, I mean, I'd love to see them again."
If nothing else, the team from Beaumont, the Oil Barons, had a line of recently imported young Czechs who obviously weren't destined for much time out here in prickly-pear land before they moved up in the minors. I savored their sweet precision passing, something all the Europeans are good at. As for my own pals, the Mexican boys, they took turns going down below the rumbling aluminum bleachers in the place smelling half of the fine refrigeration aroma I loved so and half of the manure-hay fragrance that attested to the building's principal use, going down there and returning with trays full of wobbling cardboard cups of overpriced Shiner Bock draft, the only beer offered and what they all heartily agreed was "donkey piss" compared to their beloved Budweiser. They hooted and cheered in ranchero whelps, never tiring of calling the efficient line of down-faced Czechs "Maricóns!" through cupped palms. Danny, his smile so white like a bunch of broken seashells, was particularly enamored with the goalies in their masks enameled bright, like the finish on a customized low-rider—a big-fanged dinosauric lizard design on the mask of the hometown netminder and one of a spouting petroleum well for the mask of the Oil Barons goalie. Danny stared and stared at them—first one for a while and then the other—as if they were somehow special and by birth different than the rest, a thoroughbred breed. He called them "Mascareros," and he somehow, I guess, was giving to them the same mythical aura attached in Mexico to the masked wrestlers who seemed to be on TV there 99 percent of the time, for their matches and for about all of the full-length feature films too, where they played the serious dramatic leading roles in, yeah, masks. And the whole thing would have been a good night indeed, if I didn't get scared as hell after the final siren sounded (Oil Barons 12, Ice Lizards 2), and the guys wanted to hang around for a while, while everybody else was tramping out of the place.
I got that kind of electric anxiety that I used to get when it was 11 or 12 o'clock, when I thought that I might not be able to score another rock to smoke that night. Because before I knew it, they were down at the plexiglas, waiting for their best chance to jump onto the ice themselves in their baggy jeans and backwards rap caps, and it seemed at that very moment I spotted the oafish red-faced bubba of a city cop—holster the size of a valise, his polished nightstick obscenely dangling—who was watching their every move, probably just waiting for "those little fucking wiseass wetbacks" to do just that, so he could bully them around in the grand tradition of the only thing cops are really world class at—bullying. When the guys finally did step onto the ghostly gray-whiteness at the center red line, started sliding around some and pushing each other in their happy horsing, I thought it was all over—until I noticed that somehow the cop was gone and he must have been called away to bully like the blockhead he was somewhere else. They might have been not much younger than me, but out there they were 10-year-olds, goofing and shoving each other some more—Birdy soon landed flat on his ass. The entire ride back they talked about "ice" and how smooth it was, how it was "really strange, but really nice, man." Jammed in the back seat of the primer-painted Chevy coupe that belonged to Angel's older brother, I think, I got sad, or heartbreakingly sad, like I said.
That lead-cloud sadness, just to listen to how they kept making a major deal out of something as everyday and lousy as ice at a rink.
I still can't remember if it was then or when we played again up at the overpass that they first mentioned that some black guys from a gang called the Gland Boys over there on the East Side might at last be willing to play them in a match to see who really ruled the roller-hockey pavement, or whatever.
And, of course, they wanted me to be a member of their team for that surely momentous event.
Do you want to hear a couple of Amazing Stories?
One Amazing Story is that the woman who is so big on TV now called Martha Stewart is not Martha Stewart at all. No kidding, she's really my mother, and I was once just flipping around the crummy little TV set that somehow hasn't fallen prey to being sold to the creepy albino guy who runs the E-Z Pawn, and I saw this woman showing somebody how to make your own cookie cutters out of pieces of linoleum, then how to make a festive autumn bouquet with dried leaves and dime-store nut ornaments that were "readily available and adorable," I looked at the woman arranging things on a long table, her casual clothes surely without a speck of lint on them and her gray-blond hair with a set that wouldn't move in a 40-mile-an-hour wind off the coast of Nantucket, and I just said aloud to nobody here in my apartment: "Hey, lady, what the hell do you think you're doing! How did you ever get a TV show like this, get to rake in all this money, when it's obvious that your whole act is a rip-off of what my own mother has been doing for years! I've got a good mind to hire a lawyer, to sue, and haven't you ever in that makeup-encased noggin of yours ever heard of plagiarism, or violation of the copyright law, or something!" Because, believe me, my mother has been living that Martha Stewart life, quietly lost in her Burpee's seed catalogs and her perpetual "homemaking," always completely, well, dedicated to raising my sisters and me "full-time" rather than ever taking a job after college, my mother has been doing that, even looking exactly like that Martha Stewart, before Martha Stewart ever thought of any of it. So, either, to repeat, my mother has what they call a Doppelganger or that Martha Stewart is an outright thief. Something is really very fishy there. And my father? How about another Amazing Story.
My father (like all the males on his side of the family, he first went to their beloved Williams College, then, naturally, Harvard Law), my father to this day still does this special thing every morning. You have to understand that our house is a sprawling enterprise that a real estate agent would label neo-colonial, I guess, what you would expect in such a woodsy, and almost famous, suburb, and there are three full bathrooms in it. But you have to understand too that with three sisters and then the rest of us, there was always a log jam (I know, Professor Norman, a real cliché if ever there was one) when it came time to get ready for work and school in the morning. None of which had any effect on my always mild-mannered, truly gentlemanly father, tall and slim, with his lie-down haircut leftover from the time when all guys up at Williams College in those purple mountains must have had lie-down haircuts, and maybe some others sported shiny gold belt buckles as well. Because, be it a workday in a neat glen-plaid or pinstripe suit for him, or the weekend in corduroys and a soft turtleneck, the buckle was a major part of the reason why my father logged a ton of time in the bathroom, the one adjoining my parents bedroom specifically. There was, of course, time on his lengthy shower, then time on his careful shaving with a new yellow-handled Bic sensitive-skin razor, then time on his meticulous brushing and flossing of his teeth, then time on his putting on the fresh clothes brought in there and surely still smelling like the Men's Department (maybe Brooks Brothers, or the little overcharging haberdashery place in our town), then time on his combing of his hair so that probably by mid-morning you could still see the comb marks, then time, above all, time on his polishing the belt buckle. It was a single slab, a dressy specialty-store thing that the tongue of the belt was slid through and that he always wore everywhere, while, understandably, the leather belts themselves varied, being changed or replaced, over the years. It had been the buckle of his father before him, and it bore in the central square on the face, surrounded by straight-edged lines in a sort of 1920's art deco pattern, the engraved initials of his father: RBL. They were also his initials and my initials. You see, it wasn't that my father was anything near vain, and, as I said, he is quiet and almost shy, custom made for the kind of understated corporation law he does, I guess. But the morning in the bathroom for him had its ritual, and as a little kid I always took pride in seeing him finally emerge, the whole of him newly minted and that belt buckle near glowing its honey brightness. Later on, when we found out that our father was having an affair with Mrs. Thayer, the rather dumpy-looking divorced mom of kids we knew in our neighborhood, one of my sisters, Emily, the oldest, insisted on a Kids' Pow Wow. It was something she used to organize when we were planning to chip in on a Christmas present for our parents, let's say. But now it had an uneasy, serious tone, because while we kids sat there and discussed our father's behavior among ourselves, we had to admit that the worst thing about it was how none of it really affected our mother (the real Martha Stewart) who just kept working and working and working away on some new homemade Christmas wreaths, started in August, or something. My sisters were devasted, and I, as usual, soon proved to be the wild card in the group. I said that as bad as the situation was, we should be grateful that our father saw something to like in dumpy Mrs. Thayer, who always looked and acted so defeated, and it wasn't as if he was like Neddy Cummington's father. (Neddy's dad took off with a New England Patriots' cheerleader, then there came the whackier than whacky details of her eventually losing the cheerleading job because she had posed for certain photographs in—get this—not in Playboy but in Easy Riders.) But my sisters really didn't want to listen to me, and Margaret and Anne, the twins, now sang a duet about how they always would get so mad with our father for hogging a whole bathroom for so long in the morning, yet I suspect they were only searching for an issue to generate anger toward the otherwise kind and entirely considerate man. I soon found myself defending him on the bathroom business, saying that I didn't know quite how to put it, but that one of the most important moments in my life, what I could almost believe in, was how beautifully shining that belt buckle looked whenever our father finally stepped out of that bathroom, fresh from his soap and after shave—the pure gold of that buckle, which for me had always been just about the truest and most beautiful and most significant entity in possibly the whole giant blue-and-green globe, to put it mildly. That in turn brought rare consensus from them at the meeting—my sisters all told each other that I was, and always had been, weird.
Of course, my sisters have always been better students than me. My going to the university in Texas rather than to the "right kind" of Eastern school was the best salvage job the chirpy college counselor at the country-day school could manage, considering my hopeless grades but good SAT scores. For a state university the place sounded good, maybe not the ritzy University of Virginia, but definitely not the everyday University of Massachusetts, which would have been considered an outright disaster, the big Titanic going down fast or a rumbling earthquake wiping out an entire town in the Andes, as far as people at my particular school were concerned. Being a Yankee, I right away fell in with a set of guys in black T-shirts and black jeans at the university, the New York City contingent, and they thought crack was so cool, using it as a valid statement saying that you were light years beyond the squareness of the sorority and fraternity lobotomy victims who seemed to rule the campus. So I dabbled.
But, unlike them, I kept dabbling. Until I finally bottomed out with a little heroin for six months (OK, more than a little), then did the rehab program. Which worked on one level, I suppose, but which isn't rehabbing my grades. Which isn't rehabbing how much I goddman love Cressida either.
Listen to today's news.
In today's news the automobile strike spreads and several major American cities announce significantly lower deaths from AIDS. There was a terrible fire at Disneyworld in Orlando, Florida. Also in today's news, I made a major effort to function normally and attend classes in the English department building.
There I somehow managed to stay awake through this self-satisfied younger assistant professor pleasing nobody but himself as he stood behind the desk going through various scholarly poses—he surely considered himself very cool with the tweed sportjacket with, believe it or not, the requisite fake suede elbow patches. He kept pretending to be talking about Milton. I just sat there and kept thinking how lanky, vaguely broken-down Professor Norman in his old sweaters and no-name jeans and utterly no-name sneakers, his mane of gray hair probably once a Keith Richard shag, told me in his office one day that he himself knew that most of the department's literature teachers were idiots who really didn't know anything important about life, though they spent their own lives studying Milton or Shakespeare or Faulkner, who knew all the most important things about life. He admitted too that he could be the biggest idiot of the lot for hanging around the university as long as he had, but he had to think it was a better way to support himself than the newspaper work he did when younger, which almost killed him because it stole so much of his time. And the university job allowed him that time to write his short stories and novels, plus he always kept foremost in his mind that the students were "holy" (that was his word), and focusing on them and their holiness one could easily forget about the cretins who loudly talked only of themselves, the professors, incessantly referring to each other as (Professor Norman really hated this word) "colleagues." I was just thinking that, when I sleepwalked out of the classroom and onto the green hallway linoleum after the buzzing bell—and ran smack into Professor Norman, coming out of the classroom where he had been teaching. I hadn't seen him for a while, or since I had taken his fiction-writing workshop last term. He seemed happy to see me, but he wanted to know, concerned, why I hadn't turned in anything to the main office for the annual creative writing contest—certainly the main office had sent me a copy of his letter nominating me, with the instructions on how to submit.
"Come on, Rickie," he said with that easy smile of his. "We might not be talking about Art with the old capital "A," but I say that if you hand in something you can win the thing palms down."
I lied outright that I never got the letter. Then I pivoted and bolted through the between-classes crowd to head to the men's room, to hide.
And also in today's news, or tonight's news, Cressida stopped by my apartment again. She said she had been there the last three nights looking for me. She suspected I was off goofing around, playing roller hockey again. She was wearing a black miniskirt and a black sweater, study clothes, her bob haircut not set that morning and looking pretty ratty, like a kid's hair would look after time at the playground—nice.
"What the heck is the deal, Rickie? What have you done now, joined the gang yourself? What are they, the Latin Ice Kings or something?"
"Don't say that," I told her, "and don't make fun of them."
It was the usual stage blocking, me on the bed's sagging edge, Cressida pacing around the room while she talked. She apologized for making fun of them, didn't mean to have it sound like that. But she told me that she had to say that she didn't think it was a particularly bright idea to be doing what I had lately been doing: giving them my credit card so they could rent a yellow Ryder van now and then, when I once told her that I knew fully well that they worked a little ring of stealing bicycles around the city, then selling them down in San Antonio. She said that my doing that was, plain and simple, dumb, and I tried to explain to her again (I had already told her about their infatuation with ice), reiterate how I saw that redneck cop hungrily waiting to bust them as they were about to step onto the ice at the arena that night, how I spotted dignified, proud Big Enrique himself look up and notice the cop too, now that I remembered it, and how it crunched what I suspect is my heart to see him suddenly no more than a dog, cowering and scared. I told her that after that I knew I would do anything for those guys, and otherwise, I really didn't care. They were real right now, at a time for me when nothing was seeming real anymore.
"I'm real, Rickie," she said. "I'm real, and it's important to me that you come with me to this reception tomorrow night. Just put on a blazer, make an effort, because I wouldn't have been looking all over for you, here and who knows where else, for the last three nights if it wasn't important to me. Please, Rickie."
"I told you, not tomorrow night. These guys have been planning this thing for weeks. Enrique said this will be their chance to show these Gland Boys who they are, once and for all, and they need me to do it."
"Gland Boys? Ricky, will you listen to yourself?"
It went on like that. With Cressida crying some. I should say that Cressida owned her own sadnesses, and though she was the outstanding student—always, back in her Dallas suburb and now here at the university—her hard working mother had raised her, an only child, on her own and, to complicate matters, her mother had recently had a brush with breast cancer. And it didn't help when Cressida bucked her mother for a while, after her mother had learned of my drugging and Cressida continued to date me, her mother not at all impressed that I eventually did graduate from the endless checker games and the endless folding-chair rap sessions of the rehab program.(I suppose her mother thought differently at first. When I would show up for a weekend in Dallas wearing the aforementioned blazer and pressed chinos too, apparently her mother considered me such a "preppy catch," my Boston accent darling.) Now Cressida flatly told me that the reception, an affair for selected students at the Dean's own home, wasn't merely a reception—and it could be the start of our new life together, from now on and for always, and, besides, she tried to joke, she didn't want to resort to doing the thing that the coed having an argument with her boyfriend always does in the movies: turn to the nerdy graduate teaching assistant, in this case the guy who said her paper should be published, and go to the reception with him. But neither of us laughed. If truth be known, Cressida of the giant eyes and her beautiful, beautiful honey hair, every which way right now, just sat down on the bed's edge beside me, hunched her shoulders, and cried some more.
"I love you so much, Rickie," she said, "I can't help it."
"I told you," I said, "not tomorrow night." I had to be strong.
That night I scored a supply of jumbo rocks from my old dealer over at the dorm on top of the mall beside the campus, a strange dorm, I suppose, sitting on top of a McDonald's and Cinema Fourplex like that. I smoked away most of the night, must have slept a bit and juggled a few unraveling reels of the usual nightmares, then stumbled over to the highrise dorm in the very weird dawning daylight of scorching heat and birds singing too loud, to score a couple of more rocks.
A dozen hours later, I was up at that spot of smooth asphalt. I was under the cloverleaf again, half-amazed that these Gland Boys had even agreed to meet us on what amounted to our home rink and half-amazed that I could feel any better on those Target Store specials than I did that one particular night when I seemed to be rolling on veritable air. But I did feel better—a hell of a load better. Who cared if it was drizzling now, or if these Gland Boys were not just serious but damned good to boot. Big Enrique, square-jawed and his brow low, could hold his own out there on defense. It was probably a matter of his overweight noseguard's bulk, and he had this way of simply grimmacing and digging in with his wheels as if they were horseshoe stakes whenever one of their speedsters returned on another charge, jutting out the bulk of his rump in the baggy jeans with the thick chrome chain looping from belt to wallet in the back pocket, and knocking the legs clean out from under the guy. But somebody like little, usually smiling (not now) Danny couldn't keep up, was proving close to useless. There were no set goalies in that kind of play, and it was an unstated etiquette that whoever was lingering behind the action would assume the guarding of the nets. Still, after they scored twice on us, quickly, I made it my business to do whatever I could on another one of our sloppy attacks then immediately reverse direction, to try to hustle back and at least make a show out of tucking myself tight against the red pipe of one of those flimsy Toys-R-Us cages that we always lugged out there for our own play.(Which might have been a sign early on that we were in trouble, and when the game-pussed black Gland Boys first saw the nets, they apparently didn't know whether to chew us out for using such things or just bellylaugh outright at our naivete, anticipating the fun to come, for providing the, yeah, toys—good indication that we weren't anywhere near being in their league.) Angel and Roberto took turns yelling at Danny for "dogging it," and Danny by this point was wheezing like a dumpster violin, as the Gland Boys scored a third time. The sticks knocked in exaggerated echoes in what was sort of a huge concrete box there under the freeway, and though the semis still ground above, still poured out their black soot, they didn't sound half as loud as the hiss of skate wheels that could have been played through ten-foot stage speakers at a rock show. I could swear I could soon smell the very, very best bearings (ABEC 3's, definitely) on everybody else's skates melting down, but, needless to add, I had been high for close to a day, sleep-starved, and my senses like that made for a different brand of perception altogether. Or, put it like this, as I cleanly braked on the asphalt, I first thought that it too was only another imagining in my hollowed-out skull trying to suggest that action.
We hadn't come close to scoring. To make matters worse, so confident had my Mexican guys been, so believing in the basic truth that after hours and hours of playing hard among themselves in the bruised plum-and-mustard-yellow twilights for months and months, they were invincible. And why not have a crew of girls from their territory over on Chicon Street, by the graffiti-splattered beige-brick housing projects, come to witness their moment of triumph? So, there in rap caps too, those rosary-bead necklaces that I hadn't seen for a while, a half-dozen of them were sitting around on the low concrete road dividers that a public works crew must have recently dropped off for storage. They girls were, from the looks of it, not much out of junior high, even if Big Enrique, the oldest of the guys, was about my age. Sure, they were squealing at first, but now they lost interest in the game, jabbering more in Spanish than in English, comparing problems with their fingernail polish and such, I guess. Until it all happened.
No, I wasn't imaging it. Wired, crazed, deep-fried, or whatever whacky adjective you want to use, what I suddenly knew, for certain, was that my line of wheels on each blade was skidding when I turned the two of them perpendicular to my direction of momentum for a blade-style, hockey-skate stop. It has been the age-old problem with in-lines since their invention, reportedly by a couple of hockey-nut brothers up in Minnesota who first rigged up wheels to their ancient leather CCM's so they could log some pseudo puck action when even that oversize iceberg of Mineapolis went emerald for the few months every year—to stop you have to use any number of awkward rubber-heel stoppers that nobody has ever perfected, emergency-brake stuff at best. A good steel blade on a hockey skate does provide that cross skid, what sends the surf of ice shavings up like rhinestones tossed to the air in the publicity shots of the NHL stars screeching to a fast stop for the camera. And recently, high-tech experiments ventured as far as coming up with mysterious compounds for the substance of the wheels, developed with the kind of research money usually reserved only for pharmaceutical and defense companies. Without any measurable success. No success either in another attempt by a company out on the West Coast to feather the wheels, slicing them along the outer edge in a shallow fringe, to allow give rather than bite. But here I was, twisting my hips to a full ice-hockey stop and feeling the beloved skid, the little goldmine of give, which instantly rendered me outright better than everybody else, on shitty Target Store specials too. It must have been the drizzle, the asphalt itself slick and a little oil-iridescent, in the bleak dampness that is rare for this city, an announced Sunbelt success story, and never mind sensing myself in synch the way I had done that one night earlier when the guys had asked me afterwards if I felt "strong," I had this particular night perpetrated a major breakthrough in the whole fucking history of the sport. And probably the rest of them, from the swift Gland Boys to now-stumbling Danny, could have cashed in on it. But only I had it, because only I knew. Only I could accelerate rocket-fast to also realize I could stop on half-a-dime, only I was suddenly the True Emperor of Maneuverability (was there some poem I read like that, Professor Norman? The title? Eliot? Stevens? One of those guys with a ton of magic in their lines, because magic in poetry or anything else makes all the difference), only I had the Secret.
My last vaguely rational thought went something along the lines of: "Man, is this ever going to be fu-un."
If I had a measure of the extra the other night, already documented, I had it a thousandfold this night. I seemed to always have the day-glo orange ball on the black-plastic blade of my equally cheesy Target Store stick now. Granted that some of the Gland Boys could skate, they were nothing compared to a guy who had been on the ice in Massachusetts since he had been three, maybe two, and if the ball wasn't there on my stick, it wasn't because it was being deftly lobbed, tucked, or rifled into the goal by me, the Acknowledged Holder of the Secret. The girls were watching now, they were alive in yelps and jumps, little baby-pat clapping of their hands, genuine cheerleaders. The harder the Gland Boys labored to double- and triple-team me, the more fun I had in leaving them in my wake, putting us in the lead before long. I scored again, I held my stick raised like the enormous spear of an Apache warrior, and with the other arm I clenched my fist, bent it at the elbow, and thrust it repeatedly into the air for the old power salute, ramming.
"I feel strong!" I yelled to my teammates.
The girls shrieked, giggled energetically, and I shouted over to them, "I feel strong, mis chicas lindas, I feel strong!"
It got crazier.
I think Danny tried to warn me. "Be careful, Rickie," because he probably sensed my boys weren't as pleased with me as they should have been. I scored again, more of the "I feel strong!" shouting, principally for the benefit of the girls. Once I didn't even wait for Birdy to pass it to me, and I galloped over to him and poked the ball away, before letting myself loose on another rush, and score, after which I not only announced my obvious strength to the girls, but grabbed the crotch of my cut-offs a couple of times to neatly make my point. That rendered the girls near helpless in their wild yelping. After that, the whole package gets blurred, as the man, whoever he is, says.
I do know that Big Enrique was the first to roll up to me and slap me hard on the side of my head, his big brown hand pancaking my ear. I don't know if it was him or one of the others who growled "Stupid pachuco!" to me, because somewhere between the electric jolt of Enrique's first blow (two-hundred-and-twenty pure volts clean through me, rendering my knee cartilage soup) then that shout, I fell to the asphalt and the whole crowd of my teammates were on me in a heap, socking me hard and kicking me hard, a couple of the Gland Boys joining in too. Each kick of a solid skate toe to the peach basket of my ribs, each detonating punch to my face, with each I seemed to float farther and farther away. My breath gone, I gulped for oxygen in the deadened air, and—I'm sure of this—I tried to picture the triangle I mentioned earlier, maybe the amoeba, and how some geometry like that might be the solution.
And then I saw the brightest of gold, the vision of my father's polished belt buckle, glowing, shining, emanating its utter purity, something to really believe in and something to assure me (before the heavy purple velvet theater curtain dropped for the formal blacking-out) that I might have a chance of growing up and becoming a man, after all.
1 I know Professor Norman would see this as gimmicky, using footnotes, but here goes, because I never will get to use them anywhere else, like on any of my end-of-the-semester papers, which I know I will blow off. In this footnote I can say aloud that in that men's room I cried and cried. I can say it, knowing I'm safe, because nobody ever reads footnotes. Right?
2I waited until she left, and, man, did I ever bawl like a baby myself.