It all began the day Margo and Charlie came up from Boston for the weekend. We were drinking martinis on the deck of D’Angelo’s, a boat turned bar. Margo was complaining about the fresh air.
“Really, what does one do here?” She gestured her cigarette towards shore.
Jonathan laughed as I responded, “You join the historical preservation committee!”
We proceeded to explain that our small seaside town was practically a living museum due to the high concentration of old homes and buildings, most of which had been granted protection by the historical review board, a branch of the town’s planning commission. This meant that any changes to the outside, and often to the inside, of any building built before about 1930 had to pass an arduous review process by this group of citizens who clearly had a lot of time on their hands. And our need to change the windows in the condo, the ones I couldn’t get open, had led us to visit their meetings.
“They argued for over two hours and in the end they said they needed more proof that these weren’t the original windows, and until then, our request is denied.” Jonathan shook his head.
“So Jonathan and I spent the whole weekend at the little library here, looking at old newspapers and records on microfiche, looking for pictures of the so called downtown where we are, and you’ll never guess what our building used to be!”
“A brothel?” Margo perked up.
“No. It was a damn roller rink in the 1880s! ” Jonathan sat back in his chair and crossed his arms. “Unbelievable, eh?”
Jonathan likes to think he’s Canadian, but he’s really from upstate Vermont.
“A roller rink? I thought that was purely a 1970s thing.” Margo lit another cigarette.
“Oh sure! It was the highlight of the fifth grade.” I coughed. All of the fresh air was apparently getting to me, too. “What I remember about roller parties was the food: hotdogs and that weird pina colada drink that whirled around in the machine.”
“If they won’t give you the windows, you give them something a little juicier to argue about.” Charlie pounded his fist on the table. “Tell them you want this to be really authentic, you want to return your place to how it really was. You want to make it a public roller rink! After a few rounds of arguing about that, they’ll give you your windows!”
We all burst out laughing as the waitress returned to take our dinner order. And that was how the idea was born.
* * *
Perhaps it really began a few nights later, on a warm summer night with a slightly cooler breeze blowing from the direction of the ocean to our bedroom window, which Jonathan had forced open after about fifteen minutes of effort following the afternoon thunderstorm. I was lying on our futon on the floor, rereading Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble, and Jonathan was in the bathroom washing out his paintbrushes in the sink.
“You know, Charlie kind of had a point,” he yelled out to me.
“Charlie always thinks he has lots of important points. Which one were you referring to?”
“I mean I know we all had a good laugh, and that it is totally ridiculous, but that’s the point isn’t it?” Jonathan came into the bedroom, waving his damp hands as he spoke.
“I mean to show them how absolutely ridiculous it is to try to keep things, or make things, like they used to be. It’s the twenty-first century and they want to maintain things how they were over a hundred years or more ago. Life is change; life is movement. I mean do they want to insist that you wear a corset, or that women can’t vote in this town? Do they want to get rid of their dishwashers and microwaves?
“They want to change what is convenient for them, and maintain whatever they feel like. It’s a power trip. I mean don’t they give any credit to the people in the nineteenth century? If these windows had stopped working then, they would have changed them!”
Once Jonathan gets worked up about something, there’s no stopping him. It’s the downside of being practically married to an artist. We had moved to the little town north of Boston to have a quiet place where I could finish my gender studies dissertation, and he could work on his next show that was to open in fourteen months. But the show would begin right there, in that sleepy little town that had the misfortune of being burdened with us, two young visionaries who had bought a second floor condo in an old brick building on Main Street.
* * *
We lived above a real estate broker and an antique shop. These seemed to be just about the only type of businesses the town had, besides a couple of seafood restaurants, a pizza place, a muffin shop which bragged of thirty varieties of muffins, two competing hardware stores, and a small grocery store. There was nowhere decent to eat out, but you could have your choice of brokers or old rockers. Our building was one of the taller ones in town, at four stories tall. Our condo, which was more like a huge loft, took up the top floor. We bought it with money from my grandmother’s death, because we thought that small-town life would be an adventure, and because we couldn’t afford anything in Boston or its immediate suburbs. We had no idea that all the renovations we had dreamed of would have to be approved by a roomful of conservative concerned citizens that wouldn’t exactly welcome people like us.
It’s not that there weren’t other younger people, people in their late twenties and early thirties, living there. But the women wore maternity clothes in nice floral prints, and all we saw them do was reach past their expanded bellies to push their toddlers about in strollers through the town. Usually the double-wide variety, which always made us wonder if there was something in the water making them all have twins, or if they were simply getting pregnant before they had popped the first baby out. As for the men, they all disappeared to their real estate offices or drove to Boston to work. Jonathan seemed to be the only man under sixty that roamed the streets or the grocery aisles after 9 a.m.
In the city, we are a pretty ordinary couple. Jonathan is tall and skinny, with a dark mop of hair and a goatee. He does have a couple of hoops through his ears, but in a world in which people are piercing eyebrows and lips and tongues, and just about everything else, he’s pretty regular looking as far as I’m concerned. But just as all the men in the town were clean-shaven, all the women under fifty had long hair, which made my short red shaggy cut a little unique. And I dressed in all vintage clothing, which you would think would be acceptable in a town where everyone is ancient or at least into antiques. But I guess you can have old things in your house, but not on your body, because I certainly got stared at all of the time.
So I tried to wear what I considered conservative attire to the historical society meeting that I was attending with Jonathan. It was a navy suit from the 1940s, complete with vintage navy pumps; I thought the shoes were a nice detail. And I made Jonathan put on a clean shirt and that pair of gray slacks his Mother sent him the previous Hanukah.
Our proposal: to turn the majority of our loft temporarily into a public roller rink as part of an interactive art exhibit. Jonathan had decided that this would be the ultimate show for him; he would design and decorate the space and then throw an opening. His vision was a return to the roller rink, with a surreal underwater theme, which would be, he said, a postmodern nod to the antiquated obsession with historical preservation.
I was sure the idea would never pass.
The meeting room at the town hall was hot and crowded.
We had left our presentation materials up at the front of the room, but we stood against one of the side walls, hoping to get a breeze from the open windows. There were no seats left, and the room felt small and church-like with its rows of wooden benches and high ceilings.
Mrs. Hopkins, the chair of the Historical Review Board, began to pound her gavel, her face mottled pink with exertion. She continued to pound as the room fell silent. Mr. McCorckle, who sat to her left, finally placed his shaky hand over hers to get her to stop.
The circle of power consisted of six people. Mrs. Hopkins, who was in her late sixties and quite portly in her pastel suits, was head of the local garden society. The elderly Mr. McCorckle, a gangly man with Parkinson’s disease who always wore a tie and wire spectacles, was usually quiet during the meetings, and he always voted along with the mighty Ella Hopkins. On the other side of Mrs. Hopkins sat Tillie and Martin Shore. Martin was a hopeful for town mayor in the future, and Tillie, ten years his junior at the age of fifty-three, held the social reigns of the town’s more wealthy members, for she was the head of the membership committee at the local yacht club. They were both stocky and broad-chested, with an edge of upper class New England hardness that I, as a native Californian, found to be foreign and uncomfortable.
The last two members were Mrs. Simmons, an ill-tempered widow in her eighties who, it was rumored, had never left the town for a single day in her life, and who knew everything there was to know about the town history during her own lifetime, and the newest member, Sarah Hatfield, a young mother who had been recruited by her neighbor, Tillie Shore. At the start of the meeting, Sarah entered the room with Tillie and sat with her on the other side of Mr. McCorckle.
When it came time for Jonathan’s presentation, I dimmed the lights. Whispers surged through the dark and I heard someone complaining that he didn’t want to hear more about that same boy’s damn windows. I brought the lights back up slowly, as Jonathan gestured dramatically towards a huge blown up copy of a sketch of two young girls, arm in arm, skirts billowing, roller-skating past a large window. He had carefully hand painted the copy of the newspaper sketch, bringing it to life. There were mutters and hisses, and a general sound of what could only be described as confusion.
He lifted up another oversized poster and placed it on the second easel, and this next full-blown picture clarified things. It was unmistakably the front of 15 Main Street, our building. And the hand painted sign above it was clear as Jonathan made his announcement.
“We would like to propose temporarily restoring our home to its original late nineteenth-century use: public roller rink. We are in a commercial zone, and would only need a city license, and, of course, this board’s approval. I have prepared a handout with the newspaper article about the original skating rink, which my partner Tara will be passing out.”
The crowd exploded. It was louder than the outbursts when Charlton Heston spoke about guns at my graduate university; it was more chaotic then when the right-to-lifers stormed the women’s clinic I volunteered at in college. We had opened up something that could never be reeled back in. We had started a war.
Mrs. Hopkins was pounding her gavel again, but no one listened. Even her fellow board members were leaning over the table to each other or to the crowd to shout and argue. The room was growing hotter and people started to stand up from the benches. A baby started crying in the back of the room.
Jonathan slipped his fingers into his mouth and blew; his high whistle brought the room to momentary silence.
“This is ridiculous!” Mrs. Hopkins sputtered. Her face had now turned a deeper pink than her suit, which was soaked with dark circles under her arms. “I move to deny without further discussion and move on to real business!”
“Well, I second that!” Tillie shouted as she patted her carefully sprayed hair. “Just ridiculous!”
Mr. McCorckle was mumbling something, and Jonathan leaned in to listen. Mr. McCorckle repeated it slowly, licking his thin, pale lips.
“My mother. My mother used to skate there. Said those were the best days of her life. That sketch was of her and Maddie Simmons.”
The room fell quiet again. No one had ever really heard him speak more than a yes or a no in the last fifteen years worth of meetings, or at least that was what the woman next to me was whispering to the woman next to her. I caught Jonathan’s eye but he just raised his eyebrow and shook his head: could Mrs. Simmons be old enough to have been friends with Mr. McCorckle’s mother?
“Now Mr. McCorckle,” Tillie began, speaking as if to a small child. “Children were different in those days. Respectful of property. But today, well what if it brings in teenagers from other towns?”
There was a loud whistle and some shouts from the back of the room, where a couple of teenagers were slouched against the wall. A few of the women in the room looked back, blushing and glaring, to see if it had been their own kids. It was unclear why any of them were even there.
Mrs. Hopkins was pounding her gavel again, until she realized it was already quiet. “This is outrageous! I will not allow. . . .”
Mrs. Simmons grabbed the gavel from her, in an act that left Mrs. Hopkins temporarily speechless while Mrs. Simmons said her piece. There was a fleck of what looked like toothpaste on the side of Mrs. Simmons’ mouth.
“You are not alone here, Mrs. Hopkins. I believe this has been opened up for discussion. I’d like to suggest that we vote on this, a yes, based on the plans themselves being subject to a board committee’s approval.”
“I second the motion!” The young woman, Sarah, spoke up quickly.
The vote was up. The Martins and Mrs. Hopkins voted no; Mrs. Simmons, the newest member, and Mr. McCorkle voted yes. It was a tie. The room once again broke out into shouts and whispers. Jonathan had made his way back over to the side towards me, and I grabbed his hand as tightly as I could; I felt his palm sweating under mine. I wasn’t sure which way I was praying the vote would actually go. I leaned towards the open window hoping for a rush of air to clear my own head. Could these people really approve something so ludicrous?
Tillie Martin, who was the secretary, was busy searching through a thick black binder for the bylaws. We would find out later that it was the first tie in thirty years.
“The mayor!” She squealed and once again the room fell into silence.
“The mayor!” She repeated impatiently, pounding her well-manicured hands on the thick notebook in front of her. “When there is a tie, the Mayor breaks it!”
The room fell silent. Mr. Samuels, the current mayor, had recently been admitted to a retirement facility in the neighboring town. As his duties were few, and everyone wanted to spare him the shame of being asked to step down after twenty-five years as mayor, he had been left in place until Mr. Martin’s planned coup in the fall elections.
Mrs. Hopkins was the first to speak.
“Well, this will just have to be tabled until after the fall.”
“Most certainly!” Mr. Martin stood up as he shouted, than sunk back into his chair realizing, I think, that his assumption of his future power was a bit unseemly.
Jonathan let go of my hand and stepped forward to speak. “Can’t we send a committee to talk to the mayor? We make our case, and however he decides, we all agree to abide by it?”
There was a wave of whispering through the room, which was finally interrupted by Mr. McCorckle.
“The boy’s right. It’s the law. Next order of business.” And somehow his relatively long speeches, coming after so many years of silence, quieted the rest of the committee.
And that was how we ended up spending the next Saturday afternoon at the Harbor House Retirement Home.
“We have to go armed!’ Jonathan had declared to me, days before the meeting. “Those old ladies are going to show up with tons of fresh baked goods to win him over, I guarantee it. We have to one-up them.”
“Neither of us can bake.”
“I have a better idea.” And he smiled so hard the small spot of drying plaster of Paris on his face cracked.
So there we were, entering the bedroom of a strange old man with a good sized bottle of Black and White scotch hidden in my bag. Jonathan had wrangled past all of my feminist arguments and made me wear a skirt. A short one. I was still grumbling about it as we entered the home.
“We are not using your body, dear, we are just trying to make an old man’s day.”
“Just for that you are going to the women’s anti -violence rally in the city with me next week. Consider it your way of making amends for pimping me out. To a geriatric no less.”
It was already four o’clock, which is how I try to justify that we had all had a few drinks before the rest of the committee showed up bearing cookies at 4:30. We had all been expected at 5. But by 5, victory was already in our hands. Jonathan attributed it to my short skirt, and I threatened to send him to bed with a rough draft of my dissertation instead of me, at which point he agreed that it was definitely our well-presented plan, and a touch of whiskey, that had done the trick. By six o’clock, we knew much of the town’s ancient gossip, and the nurses had to send us away as visiting hours ended and dinner was about to be served.
We headed right to D’Angelo’s for a celebratory drink. Our glasses were raised, our color was high, and then we caught each other’s eyes, quickly speaking over one other.
“Isn’t it marvelous?”
“What have we done?”
I had sacrificed the imagined domestic bliss, the quiet place to finish my dissertation and turn it into something publishable, for what could only be an undertaking that would take over our lives. But Jonathan was ecstatic, and eager to get home and begin planning the installation.
Within two weeks, the condo was unlivable. Jonathan had begun creating massive paper maché underwater creatures to hang from the high ceilings. The whole space was covered in paint splattered drop cloths, unopened boxes from our move, and cans of paint. I could hardly wait for my weekly trip to the city, where I would meet with my thesis advisor and then have lunch with Margo. We always met at a small café in the North End. That week, we would spend the whole lunch talking about the roller rink.
Margo and I had met during our freshman year at Vassar; we were drawn together by our mutual dislike of everyone else in our dorm. Margo wore all black then, as she did now, and she aspired to be an art critic. After graduation, she had headed to NYU for graduate school, while I had migrated up to Boston. She had stopped with a Masters, and landed a job at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston. We had rekindled our friendship, and had met Jonathan, and his roommate Charlie, at the opening of Jonathan’s first show in the South End. The four of us had become inseparable, that is, until Jonathan had dragged us further north, in search for inspiration from the small-town life. Margo had not approved of the move, and this latest project confirmed all of her fears.
“My God, what have you gotten yourself into?” Margo was horrified.
“I just don’t know how I am supposed to write in all this.” I paused to savor the last drops of my double espresso. There was only regular drip coffee to be found in our new hometown.
“What you need is, well, I hate to say it.” Margo’s mouth puckered up as if she were tasting something bitter. She hated to say anything predictable. Jonathan and I had decided that it must actually physically pain her. I decided to save her.
“A room of my own. Yes, dear, but what, rent an office? God, you saw the place.”
“Write in a café.” Then she frowned. “Do they have cafés there?”
“Well, there’s a muffin shop.”
It was at that moment that I learned what a chortle actually was.
“Perfect,” Margo spit out form her laughter. “You’ll weigh two hundred pound by the time you finish your dissertation.”
As retaliation, I made her walk with me to Mike’s Pastries, where we ordered a box full of pastries and then sat down and ate most of them.
“Il canolo!” I said.
“La sfogliatella!” she said.
“You always remember the hard names,” I said before biting into the cream filled pastry that the rest of us called a lobstertail.
“I’m smarter,” she said. “Because I live in a city.”
I kicked her under the table and vowed to her that I would learn to love small-town life.
I headed home early that evening, fueled by an afternoon of subtitles and expensive caffeine, and loaded down with some books from the library and a box of pastries for Jonathan. I was sure that all would be right in the end.
My optimism did not last long. As I drove up Main Street, I saw a small crowd in front of the antique store. I quickly parked and hurried down the block. The first person I saw was Tillie Martin, dressed in a neatly pressed yellow skirt and jacket set. She was waving a sign on a wooden stick at Mr. Bruger as he drove by in his old truck. He ran the town’s only landscaping business, and appeared to be the only rush hour traffic at 6:30 in the evening.
“Save our town!” She began shouting as she saw me approaching. A chorus of other voices joined in; there must have been about twelve of them, all clumped in front of the entrance to the building. They were mostly women, along with a reluctant looking Mr. Martin, who was smoking a cigar as he leaned against the window frame of the antique shop.
“Save our town!” Mrs. Hopkins seemed to have on the pale blue version of Tillie’s suit today. There were only two ladies’ clothing shops in town, and both appeared to feed off of the tourists but be padded by the town’s own population.
“Save our town.” A teenage girl in a big purple sweatshirt and a baggy blue jean skirt was sitting on the front stoop, picking at her face and muttering along with the rest of the crowd.
I pushed my way through the tightly packed crowd towards the door, fumbling for my keys. Jonathan swore that no one needed to lock his or her doors in this town, and I cursed myself for not listening as I fumbled with the second lock, relieved as the door pulled away from me. Jonathan pulled me in, slamming the door.
“I called the local paper, and the Globe!” He shouted back over his shoulder as I followed him up the stairs.
“This is great publicity for the show!” His face was flushed and he pressed his warm lips briefly on my forehead as we paused in the open door of the apartment.
“Have they been at it all day?”
“Since 3, when school let out. There were more before, all with their kids hollering too. You should have seen it. The town cops had to come and control the traffic.”
“Exactly!” Jonathan smiled
“What’s for dinner?” I asked. In our household, Jonathan was the primary chef.
“Pastries, I guess.” He reached for the box in my hand. “I couldn’t get to the store. The crowds really inspired me. I worked all day. Come see.”
We paused between the kitchen and the open space, as Jonathan gulped down some soymilk from the carton. The whole room was lit up, and a faint murmur of jazz buzzed from the boom box that was shaking on the questionable support of a cardboard box. I wondered briefly if that could be the box where my summer clothes were hidden.
One wall of the loft had been transformed into a watery other world, a mixture of blues and greens punctuated with forests of seaweeds and bizarre oversized shells.
“What do you think?”
“It’s, wow! Hey, do we have any beer left in the fridge? Amazing, Jonathan, really.”
I woke up the next morning ready to put into action my plan to use the local muffin shop as my temporary office. Jonathan had absorbed the entire loft as his own, and I needed to be as far away as possible in order to get anything done. Soon I had acquired a corner table, a tall coffee, and a large, golden cinnamon chip muffin for fuel. The morning crowd had fizzled out; it seemed that most of the town had had their coffee and muffins before 8 a.m., either on the way to work, or taking the kids to school, or just because they were early rising retirees. It seemed like the perfect situation.
There were a handful of older men sitting at a table by the door, all focused on their breakfasts, but the women behind the counter, and the woman with the double stroller who had just bought a large box of muffins, were whispering and turning to stare at me. I tried to ignore them and stared at my laptop screen. I felt safer in the world of theory.
“Excuse me, ma’am.”
At first I didn’t realize they were talking to me. I don’t think I had ever been called a ma’am.
“Ma’am!” The voice was impatient now, and I looked up, surprised to find that I was the culprit, despite the fact that I was really just past my thirtieth birthday. But a young woman in a white apron was standing directly in front of the counter, with her hands on her hips, staring at me.
“This isn’t one of those city coffee shops where they can afford to have a customer taking up space all day. You’ll have to vacate that table for another customer once you’ve finished your muffin.”
I looked around at the almost empty shop and then looked back at her in disbelief. The older woman beside her was nodding her gray curls in agreement. Was I getting run out of town?
“Excuse me, but I am just having my breakfast, is there a problem?”
“Well it looks like you are getting comfortable there and I just wanted to make sure that you weren’t too comfortable because we run a business here. Some of us have to make a real living.”
“Oh I’m sorry!” I stood up quickly and marched to the counter. I suddenly wished I wasn’t wearing Jonathan’s old baggy gray sweatpants and my Stop Rape sweatshirt.
“How much will it cost me to be at your table for the morning? Let me see, it seems each table averages about three customers an hour, so until noon that’s almost four hours, times three that’s twelve, times 60 cents for a regular coffee, which I would assume is your minimum purchase, so that’s $7.20, here’s eight dollars, keep the change.” I flung the bills on the counter and flounced back to my table proudly, albeit regretting the flip-flops I had on.
It was silent for the next half hour, and I typed away furiously. I wasn’t sure what I was even writing, but I wanted them to at least think I was being productive at their expense. My mind was racing from the combination of caffeine and sugar and outrage. And I couldn’t help wishing I’d asked for one of the apple muffins when I gave them all of my cash.
Just as I was beginning to see a point emerge in my new chapter, the stereo kicked in. It was something with a loud fiddle, and a mandolin, and for a moment I thought I couldn’t possibly be in New England. The volume grew louder. A few of the smaller wooden tables even started to shake.
I kept typing furiously.
Then the mixer came on. I was sure all the muffins had been done long ago. It sounded like pure metal against metal. But I kept typing as dishes were slammed, and voices were raised. It sounded like all of the faucets where running, and there was an unfamiliar humming sound whirring beneath the women’s’ laughter. Then there were some sounds that I was sure could only be feet stomping on linoleum.
Finally, I saved my morning’s work on the computer and stood up slowly. It was close enough to noon that I felt like I could leave with pride. Which didn’t stop me from slamming the door on the way out.
The ritual was repeated every morning that week, although I didn’t keep giving them the eight dollars. I couldn’t have afforded it. The women had started singing along to the tapes when there were no other customers but me. For their sake I hoped that they were singing off key intentionally to bother me. There were more and more pages of dribble on my computer; meanwhile, at home, Jonathan had turned our loft into a surrealist aquarium, and the protesters were on our street every day when from when school let out until dinnertime.
“That’s it.” I snapped at Jonathan on Friday afternoon as I passed a long cable up to him on the ladder. “I want you to move up the date of your show. I’ll stay home and help you get this damn thing done, and then we are renting this place out and moving back to the city.”
“You don’t mean it. It’s just a little conflict. This is real small town life. The world of the small schools of fish who are threatened.”
“Save the bad metaphors. I swear there were twice as many of them out there shouting tonight. Don’t these people have anything better to do? Wait, don’t answer that. I’m going to take a bath.”
For the next month we worked nonstop. I took flyers into the city, wrote press releases, arranged the pickup of a large amount of skates of various sizes from Skate Town in the neighboring larger suburb, which had agreed to lend us the skates if we had flyers that told people to come skate with them in the future. I was so busy that I pretended I didn’t notice the regular afternoon crowd chanting in front of our building.
It was two days before the opening, and I was getting nervous. Jonathan’s last show had been an incredible success, and he’d even sold some work and gotten some good reviews. But that had been in the city, and I wasn’t sure how many people were going to even find their way to this. Most of the town members, I imagined, were planning to boycott it. What if no one came?
“Oh please,” Margo leaned over the lunch table as I spilled out my fears at our last lunch date before the event. “We are a generation that grew up on skate parties; there is a nostalgia that will bring all the critics. Besides, the word is out. Going to the suburbs is like a trip to Africa or Thailand or something for these people- it’s a cultural journey, it’s new territory. And the kitsch factor, oh honey, it’ll be a smash.”
* * *
Opening day was cool, and the sky was a bright blue that hurt my eyes. Something about the reflection off the water made things brighter there; maybe it was just being away from the shade of tall city buildings.
There was no sign of anyone an hour before the opening. The streets were empty, like in an old western, right before the gunfight begins. Jonathan sat watching the clock, twisting his long smooth fingers and humming. I watched out the window.
Margo and Charlie were the first to come, a half an hour early.
“I’m not wearing skates!” Margo announced, flinging herself into one of the low-slung beanbag chairs that had been painted like sea plants. There were about forty around the edges of the room, behind the light-wrapped rail Jonathan had constructed to enclose the small skating area.
“Where’s the bar?” Charlie looked around anxiously, and Jonathan tossed him the silver flask that Charlie had given him last Christmas.
“Be subtle, it’s supposed to be a dry event.”
“Give me some, quick.” Margo reached up an arm draped in vintage black silk. “I may never get up from here.”
At that point someone pressed the buzzer on the door, which had been set up to trigger a tape of dolphins’ songs overlapping over a sitar each time it was hit. The evening was about to begin. Johnny and I ran down the steps and opened the door.
Mr. McCorckle and the Mayor, and my thesis advisor, Miriam, all stood together looking equally uncomfortable.
“Miriam! Hi, welcome, come on up. Hello Mr. Mayor, and Mr. McCorckle, so glad to see you.” I nudged Jonathan and he began to talk to them, while I ran up the steps with Miriam and left the men behind to take the steps slowly.
“Quick! Margo, Miriam, put on these skates and start moving before those guys get here! Charlie, you too!”
“That one man could hardly walk on his own- how is he going to skate?” Miriam plopped down on a beanbag and looked around. She was sixty-five and in better shape than I was. “This is where you’re living?”
“Well I certainly hope he isn’t supposed to sit this low to the ground to put on the damn things- you’ll need a crane to get him back up.” Margo yanked off her black shoes and wrinkled up her nose at the skates. “You know how many feet have been in this?”
“Hurry up you guys. I’m going to go grab some real chairs out of the back hall!”
“And disrupt Jonathan’s zone here?”
“He’ll have to live with it!”
The sound of singing dolphins rang out with the men’s footsteps at the top of the stairs. I slammed the chairs down and pasted on a smile.
“Jonathan, go get that. You two can have a seat right here, there’s a great view.”
“I’m a size 10.” The mayor announced, and nudged Mr. McCorckle. “He’s a 10 and a half, I believe. Tried to borrow his ski boots once.”
I caught Margo’s eye and then slipped behind the filmy blue certain that was hiding the boxes of roller skates. The thought of them skiing was no less absurd than what they were about to do in my living room.
There were voices coming up the stairs and then chaos. People came in, oohing and ahhing over the twinkling lights, the mammoth sea animals that seemed to swim through the air on their invisible wires. They lay and sat in the soft chairs, laughing and talking and looking up at the creatures that dwarfed them. Others spun around the room slowly, grabbing at rails and each other.
By eight o’clock there was a line at the door of people waiting for others to leave so that they could get in. Most of the people were from the city: friends, other artists, a few grad students, and a handful of critics. There were some recognizable faces from the town. Mr. Bruger had brought his two young granddaughters, who squealed in delight as they reached the top of the stairs. The children were going crazy, whirling in the middle of the room, mesmerized.
Margo whispered to me that someone needed to introduce them to the word kitsch, as she feared no one else ever would. I left her alone and went to refill the bowls of cheese puffs that were set on shelves mounted on the railings, so that you conceivably grab a puff as you skated by.
It was about half past eight when we heard the first boom. It didn’t faze the locals, who were used to the cannon going off at sundown every evening. A few of the city folk looked up, mildly alarmed, than returned to their conversations or to tackling the knots in the laces of their skates.
Then, a moment later, came the second boom, and a third. They were coming about every ten minutes. People started panicking, screaming, yelling that we were being bombed, that a gas tank was exploding through the town, that a gas truck had exploded, that the terrorists had found their way to small town America, the real heart of the country. They were running to the steps in their skates, sliding down on their bottoms. Someone had found the real light switch, and fluorescent lights flooded the space, showing the crudeness of the hanging sculptures, the garishness of the paint. The doorbell was stuck and dolphins cried out amidst the eerie call of the sitar.
Jonathan was shouting for everyone to stay calm, but his voice barely carried over the screaming and the continual booms. A couple of men were struggling with the windows above the fire escape. They pounded the frame, cursing at it, until one finally yanked down a large fish and rammed it into the glass, sending glass flying out into the night.
That was the moment when I finally found Jonathan in the crowd, as he turned towards the window at the moment of impact, his right hand moving up slowly to tug on his goatee. He was probably wondering which box behind the curtains held his camera.
“What the hell?” Margo shouted to me from across the room, but I just shook my head and gripped Jonathan as the next round of booms began.
* * *
And that is how we moved back to Boston, where Jonathan’s career took off after the chaotic events of our small town hit the front pages of the arts sections of the Boston papers. The young man in charge of the morning cannon revealed to a reporter that Tillie Martin had paid him off to fire the cannon all evening. Tillie had been kicked off the historical society committee for endangering the welfare of a precious artifact, the cannon, and had been charged with disturbing the peace, all of which had taken Martin out of running for the mayor.
We didn’t make any money off the sale of our condo, but we got all of our money back, and I finished my dissertation in a small rented attic apartment in Cambridge. And I found myself suddenly disgusted by all of the old-fashioned clothes that had been my trademark. I put aside my vintage clothing and my politics and took a trip to the Copley mall. It was great to be back in the city again.