I never learned how to roller skate. The one time I tried, I ended up face-down on the concrete of my cookie-cutter tract home’s driveway. I thought I’d knocked a tooth out I fell so hard and so fast. My lip was fat for a week, and I decided then that roller skating was the devil’s activity and work; I would never try it again.
As autumn melts into winter in the southeast, there’s a lot of rain that falls. It’d stop just long enough to get you thinking you didn’t need to build an ark after all, then a new storm would roll in. It was really amazing, the amount of rain. Having grown up in a drought-stricken and rain deprived California anyway, I just wasn’t accustomed to so much water unless it was a river, lake or ocean. It would fall down like these huge, pregnant pods that exploded their payloads into tiny rivulets that ran over all the impervious surface they could find. And when the water couldn’t run off into the drainage ditches or sewer grates, it would collect, rapidly, into deepening pools that spread out over whatever wouldn’t soak it in.
One particularly wet, gray and cool autumn day, we got a rare treat. Money wasn’t growing on trees for us, if you get my meaning, so we didn’t eat out a lot. Occasionally, but not a lot. We could do so more often at Duff’s, which was a smörgåsbord or buffet. I was hitting my teen years, and my body was calorie loading for the growth spurt to come like nobody’s business; I could eat more food than the other three members of my family combined. But, if we kept it cheap – like Krystal Burger, Hardy’s, or Captain D’s – well, then it became more possible more frequently.
Captain D’s, if you don’t know, is – or at least, was – a seafood chain similar to Long John Silver’s. A fried fish and chips sort of dump with decent food and a bit of an eat-in atmosphere, where your food was brought to you if you wanted. So, on that soggy Friday night, we went out for fast food, which was a big deal for me and my brother. I put on my “desert boots” for the evening – which I guess are now called “chukka” boots or something candy-ass like that – and my favorite blue jeans and ran my long, sissy-boy locks under the blow drier for a couple of minutes, and I was ready. We grabbed our jackets and out the door to the car we went.
The trip to the restaurant wasn’t terribly long and was uneventful, because my dad drove. I’m pretty sure the Captain D’s we went to was in Fort Oglethorpe, GA, but I can’t be sure now. There was a couple of them in Chattanooga, too, and who knows how many have come and gone in the last thirty years since I was in the south. At any rate, it was a short jaunt, and we watched the rain clouds dump buckets on us while my parents talked. It must have been one of the times my dad was either off on a weekday, or he was working an early shift, or something like that, because the afternoon still had plenty of sunlight left as we pulled into the parking lot of the little shack. It sat back from the sidewalk a bit, with stout wooden posts poking up to line the walkway of big red tiles that led to the front doors. The posts had a heavy, thick rope running through them all like a makeshift handrail, and those huge tiles, four across, formed a wide entrance to what was a fairly insignificant building.
We walked up the curb and took a couple of stairs onto the tiled area of the entrance, surrounded by rock beds of white and red which sat just beyond the wood post and rope fence. I could hear the rain spattering against the hood of my jacket and was watching my parents lead the way to the door when I saw my mother slip, her hand shooting out to grasp my father’s shoulder. He muttered “Sweet Jeezuz!” and clutched her arm to steady her. “Whoa!” she said in her best I’m-a-cool-parent-who-uses-hip-terms voice, eyes bulging at us as she laughed in relief.
I looked down at the thin skin of water standing over those big red tiles, and I got an idea.
Now, at something like 13 years old, it wasn’t a great idea, I’ll be the first to admit. The front of the building was largely glass, and it was full of diners who had little else to do but watch out the windows at the falling rain and passing traffic. It was a mistake from the get-go, but I was gripped by the idea and it ran with me before I gave it much thought. Like any teenager gives anything much thought, right?
I shoved forward and planted one foot on the smooth tile surface, and skidded gracefully across the tiles almost the full width of the walkway, slowing to a stop just before the rope fencing cut me off at the knees.
My brother Ryan was fascinated, and tried to do it too. His shoes were typical, little kid sneakers, though, and they had too much friction with their rubber soles to work very well. I laughed at him and pushed myself the opposite direction, and again slid along the top of the tiles until I almost tripped over the other rope fence. I went back and forth a couple of times, then I started doing something else …
… I started pretending I was doing an ice ballet.
I put my hands behind me and used just my legs to slide “elegantly” over the makeshift rink, singing “Blue Danube” while I did it.
That’s goofy enough for a 12 or 13 year old to do; but it was far, far goofier when my mother started doing it with me.
She laughed at my antics for a moment, then joined the Danube chorus and began sliding over the “ice” with me, her hands also behind her back. We criss-crossed over each other’s paths a couple of times, and went around my father, who was trying to resist a temptation to tell us we were being stupid and to please knock it off. My brother Ryan was complaining – as usual – about not being able to slide as well, and still struggling to try. He’d push himself forward for a few inches, harder and harder, until finally his weight and momentum would topple him forward when his shoes caught, and he flung his arms wildly to keep from smashing his pudgy face into the ground. I laughed at him, and continued the waltz on “ice”, moving to the time of my vocal orchestra while skidding easily on the smooth, tractionless bottoms of my shoes.
We carried on like fools for maybe five or ten minutes. As the crescendo of Danube approached, I began to get fancier with my maneuvers, spinning and sliding on one foot even. I was actually seeing the crowd, flash bulbs popping, applauding after each increasingly more difficult move. I thought for a moment that maybe not knowing how to roller skate was an erroneous idea of mine; maybe I did know how after all.
As I wound the song up, I launched into the air, spinning around as many times as I could and trying to land on one foot like a bona fide ice skater would, my arms outstretched for balance.
I hit the ground and promptly landed flat on my ass in the rain in front of a restaurant full of people.
The splash of my butt hitting that pavement and the standing water that made the spectacle possible was a lot bigger than I would’ve imagined possible. Water reached all the way to my glasses and speckled them with droplets. My pants soaked through to my drawers in a split second. Despite the greater friction my jeans skidded a couple of feet before stopping so that I was facing toward the windows of the building when I finally came to a stop. I blinked a couple of times, and my parents were laughing hysterically at me.
I laughed too. It was funny. I got up, swatting what water I could from my soggy ass, and we all proceeded into the front doors of Captain D’s for dinner.
I nearly screamed in start when the entire restaurant exploded
into a thunderous round of applause when we walked in. Some of the diners even stood up to ovate us.
When I swallowed my heart back into my chest, I saw my parents were hanging their heads and laughing softly, both of their faces glowing beet red. As we were seated, I tried like hell to hide behind my menu so that no one would see me. It didn’t work; some people told me I put on a great show as they passed our table on their way out of the restaurant.
I guess that was my fifteen minutes of fame.