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.