Mr. Creighton invented an ice-skating rink that fit neatly into a cardboard carton, ready for shipping across the continental United States and Canada. Each kit contained bags of screws, many metal strips—dyed purple, for some reason—and a bundled tarp. After the rink’s perimeter was screwed together, cricket clips on the strips were affixed to the tarp that had been unfolded, forming the big blue surprise of a circle. The direction booklet advised covering the plastic with three inches of water but did not address the tricky question of where liquid would come from during a frigid season when outdoor spigots were ice-clogged. To create the Creightons’ own backyard rink, Mr. Creighton had rigged a garden hose to the kitchen faucet, and he trusted that others would also. After all, Americans were smart customers! The patent was pending in busy Washington DC. An accountant had been retained in the Davenport Bank building, downtown’s lone tower. The largest PO box rented to absorb the expected tides of orders from Minnesota, Wisconsin, Nebraska, Montreal. Mr. Creighton, father of my third-grade classmate Brad, was an active dreamer. He followed through. This mattered an awful lot. Meant everything! A dream unfulfilled often being worse than no dream at all. I loved my own father—the failed politician, unpublished novelist, clientless lawyer—but his inertia put dangerous pressure on the rest of us. Too many crises could be traced to a living room recliner where he sat mashing cigarette butts into a brass ashtray, lost in reveries that were invisible shackles. (And the other crises, they were due to his peculiar actions: for example, wiring together backyard spruce branches to replace an unaffordable Christmas tree.) Mr. Creighton rarely slept, said Brad—not bragging, reporting. Brad had red hair and freckled chipmunk cheeks. He chattered only once a week. Otherwise he was quiet, respecting (maybe fearing?) my daily compulsion to depict cataclysm with crayons—armies atop opposing cliffs, flaming men falling into an abyss, dead moments after they were created. Brad was polite. He tapped my Angel of Death arm and then calmly turreted sentences with info. Mr. Creighton was not going to make a hundred grand from the rink, but $95,786. I did not differ. Brad smiled, the smile slow to grow, but wide, finally. He was stocky like Mr. Creighton, who wore flannel lumberjack shirts and snowflake sweaters out of season. Mr. Creighton had red hair also, inspiring me to imagine what inventor Alexander Graham Bell would have looked like with crimson sideburns. (Not so hot.) Dad, said Brad, pulled all-nighters. Mrs. Creighton trailed right behind that action with checkered thermos, Brillo pad, and cleaners to cut through dream grease. She knew the score. Spouses of the dreamy always did. They must be there with Comet (in her case) or Chagrin (in my mother’s). Some husbands offered wives messy machinations of adoration, while other males remained distant, intent on concealing passion until—voilà!—dramatically unveiling the intricate inner workings of the heart’s mind, with an invention. Did Mrs. Creighton prefer the ordeal of being married to a genius because she had been betrayed by an Iowa Romeo? I knew only so much about her. But from the moment Brad, wearing Aztec-pattern poncho, whispered news of the mail-order ice rink, I was smitten by the concept, its creator, and the family behind him—including older sister Brenda, who had the longest red hair at McKinley Elementary.
It being the 1970s—decade of cultural meltdown and baroque morass—I pictured no epiphany light bulb above Mr. Creighton’s head, but, rather, the globular gleam-soup of a lava lamp. I pictured his blue eyes as battery cells hot-wired to his brain. I pictured a thick wrist twisting in midair, demonstrating invention physics to bespectacled bankers seeking golf gloves in the aisles of Kunkel’s Sporting Goods. Even so, from what Brad said, I gathered that previous inventions were not making money. Commercial prospects could change, however, if Mr. Creighton received patents for the electric pillow, thermostatic kite, motorized dog groomer, blade-less butter spreader, crank-powered rowboat . . . and Skid-Ender boots, which sprayed rock salt across icy sidewalks, heel-to-toe pressure flushing the crystals from multiple hollow chambers in the soles. And if patents were not awarded, well, this stuff was still necessary, or at least vital—or if not vital, without a doubt connected, the fruit of a sprawling American vision. In order for customers to transport a rink order form safely to the corner mailbox in January, Skid-Ender boots must be designed first! Mr. Creighton did his thinking and tinkering in the split-level ranch above Jersey Ridge Road, six winding blocks from my house and just before the asphalt slithered under the Locust Street Bridge and climbed past a tree-concealed apartment complex where our classmate David Van Camp—the touch-football star—lived. Quick I grasped that the rink was the most ambitious Creighton project yet. It addressed deeper problems than did a motorized dog groomer. It far outshone famous late-night-commercial standbys such as the Ginsu knife, the vegetable slicer-dicer, and K-tel’s Pocket Fisherman, sold to thousands of gullible boys and hale men who could afford nothing better and were courageous (i.e., stupid) enough to carry hooks near their privates. The rink was social. An event. An evening to be shared by friends and relatives during the darkest months of the year. It was a recreation that tree-concealed apartment complexes might add, and bereft middle schools, and minimum-security prisons where embezzlers could use an outlet for their creative figuring. (Prisoner #34567, plus the figure eight.) How had Mrs. Creighton reacted to the unfurling of the rink blueprint over morning coffee? I pictured her shawl sliding off, her face an agog tic-tac-toe grid filling in with x’s and o’s. Eureka! This is it! Financial failure did not automatically breed despair. Sometimes it did the opposite, fueling a feeling that success existed around the next corner. Icecapade, Inc. letterhead! Peggy Fleming TV testimonial! Ticker symbol ICE! Crazier than hope would be a cynicism that believed all of Mr. Creighton’s fantastic ideas could disappear into the jaw of the file cabinet. America treasured innovation. Land of the free and the Norelco shave, Playtex bra, Shrinky Dinks, and Tang. Each month new products pounced on reality, changing how citizens lived and viewed themselves. The Ugly prettified by Revlon and—believe it or not, Ripley—beer shampoo. The Unorganized experiencing efficiency thanks to the copier collation button. And when the ice rink cometh to the urbanized Midwest? Backyards would glisten like Dick Button’s Winter Olympics broadcasts, or Hans Christian Andersen fables. The dormant energy in a lethargic population would be liberated! Aprons and ties and spatulas and briefcases on ice. The flashing ice.
To school Brad brought the latest issue of Outdoor Life, or a magazine like it. He paged while silly Libby behind us bound herself to a desk with construction paper chains. “Look,” Brad said, pointing out an ad nestled within a column of classifieds. LIVE THE WINTER WONDERLAND DREAM! BUILD YOUR OWN SKATING RINK! Under the words, a photograph (postage-stamp scale) of the fun behind Brad’s house: skaters, benches, lanterns. Man, what could be neater! I might not be able to skate a living inch—too clumsy, fat, nearsighted—but no matter. In fact, my plight uniquely qualified me to appreciate the statement the rink made about the possibilities of yards, free time, children, adults—a nation’s future. The vision in that tiny, stark ad outshone the thousand-bulb cynicism of a Las Vegas marquee. If just one family named Jones in the Mississippi River Valley ordered a rink, every Smith would also have to send in checks to keep up with those darn Joneses, and from Dubuque to St. Louis skate blades would churn, spin, glitter . . . Want one? Brad’s blue eyes asked—always respectful Brad. I did. I wanted that rink, not any reputation-altering Izod or Adidas shirt. My radical mother, in the grimy blouse and distressed tennies, had taught me to abhor brand-name elitism. That rink—it was what I had learned to value: the startling, unbound, and very organic expression. Mr. Creighton’s crystal poem! Truly I wanted multiple rinks. From the frozen back stoop, I could narrate three-rink action in the twinkling-voice style of Dick Button in Sapporo, Japan. (“Mr. Hickey, retired insurance agent wearing the red polka-dot bow tie and green sweater vest, will now try to leap the mortality table . . . impressive! Rick, neighborhood bully, is disqualified for punching his ice dancing partner, Gail Majors!”) Can you pay? Brad’s cough asked. Pay? In copper wire. Or collected park cans. Or if generous credit terms could be worked out. Say, payments starting a year from next century, no COD charge or other legal vomit that specked the screen during midnight K-tel ads. Brad sniffed twice, and said, “Installation free.” I shrugged. Translation: my mother might wrench greasy dollars from the gullet of Moby Purse if she were getting something free for them. I reached for the magazine and Brad let me have it. With the ad an inch from black plastic eye frames, I looked so closely I saw fingerprints. Brad, Brenda, Mrs. Creighton had been touching the ad like a lucky rabbit’s foot! So much was riding on this invention. Skate-factory jobs, star-spangled-costume designer positions, water-company rate hikes, Chap Stick and scarf and mitten sales, coaching positions, commentator salaries, and—most important—the prospects of the Creighton family. If the checks didn’t pour in this time, certain bad words might occur to family members as they beheld a basement full of dusty tarps and rusty strips, and felt discouraged, then fooled, set up to hurt in the way they were hurting. The word loser. The word fraud. Words I despaired at thinking myself when entering my father’s Davenport Bank building law office (limp flags on wood poles, antiseptic floor cleaners, no phone calls, vibrating La-Z-Boy chair encircled by a blue hive of cig smoke) or while gazing at his unpublished novels, leather-mummified on a steel shelf in the bug-infested basement. The words failure and freak. Followed by a word never uttered by my mother (medieval expert at suffering), but a word that adept Mrs. Creighton might well hang in the spring air—the modern world’s most indispensable noun: Divorce.
The classified ad did not make near the splash at show-and-tell that I had expected it to. What had I expected? Unrealistically, I’d expected classroom excitement akin to that which always swept the country on the final night of the Olympic figure skating competition, when a new Ice Queen was anointed by pouty buzz-cut judges in thick suits resembling rhino hides. Millions of living room hearts leaping as America’s darling leaped! Or falling when she took a spill, as Janet Lynn had in Japan, landing on her tutu, sitting for a second like a party guest taken down by a collapsed ceiling decoration, stunned, near tears . . . How did the class react to Brad’s unprecedented presentation? One student commented that only ants could read the ad and that ants didn’t skate. Others sat behind this wiseass in silent agreement, even Libby—who mostly consisted of lips. Mrs. Davis scolded the heckler and turned to Brad, only Brad was not there to comfort. He had tucked the magazine under his arm and retreated to the back of the circle of chairs. Mrs. Davis—short hair, clean face—ended show-and-tell in a gentle voice. She never yelled or slapped erasers against the board. She understood that elementary school would make or break kids without any help—knew the pink brick building housed a foundry where a nation’s future was being forged by the power of rules, good and bad, rules whose eerie confederate, the hallway air, struck at the senses in a hammer-and-tongs style. Mrs. Davis was the least obvious homeroom teacher. No blinding polyester pattern. Just sedate cotton collars, like sealed business envelopes. She could see that Brad was fine—the clear skies of his big eyes. He had exhibited the magazine not to convince people about the rink’s worth, but to share the wealth. If others did not believe, well, their loss. But me—I felt snubbed for Brad. This was all to do with needing a worthy cause to get behind, instead of just opposing the mainstream and its unrelenting regulations, constrictive labels, rampant hypocrisy, celebrity escapades, and Red Dye No. 2 and other poison additives that my death-affirming mother, in her rummage sale shroud, liked to point out on the boxes she quixotically bought by the cart-full . . . so effective a victim of, and preacher against, “The Status Quo!” that at the end of a long night in her company the well-built Midwest, from Chicago to Kansas City, lay in splintered ruins in my brain, ripe for reconstruction at the sound of the next school buzzer. I needed a life-affirming crusade! And Mr. Creighton’s invention became that on the winter morning the class failed to appreciate the beauty and gem-like rarity of the rink set into 1973’s mishmash. A commercial product not menacingly mundane and/or chemical and/or life-cheapening, like the products satirized by Wacky Packages stickers—Killette Fright Guard deodorant, Peter Pain peanut butter, Blisterine monster mouthwash. A product offering a way out of the labyrinth of consumption, maybe the last chance to escape. Who were these runny-nose snots to sneer at an ice rink that could save them? They were the children of dentists, surgeons, stockbrokers, real estate agents, and the owner of Davenport Pack, a slaughterhouse. They would have sold their souls for an in-ground swimming pool useful for just two months each year. But the sensational glittering Icecapade rink, in service from November’s first freeze to March’s last frost? Nah, no appeal. Because they wore designer sunglasses at recess, hindering their ability to see bandwagons to jump on. And below their wraparound insect lenses: ski lift tickets—five or six pastel tickets dangling from the zippers of their puffy down-filled coats. There could be no clearer statement. The Rholfs, Wissings, Devores, and Quigleys believed that February fun must cost plenty and happen far away at Galena, an altitude-challenged Illinois mountain with a creaking backbone of lifts and a lodge serving soggy fries to chew in front of the weak lukewarm glow of a gas fireplace. And those weekends when they weren’t besieging wondrous Galena? Park sledding was too pedestrian. They might own a Finnish leather-laced toboggan and pronounce that tantalizing verb tobogganing a dozen times each winter, but performing the verb’s action was impossible, since they had been unable to procure killin’ toboggan-wear. They had protective, proactive moms who spread a religion of their own—the belief that paying big money to be cold in Galena prevented the cold from causing frostbite. The Rholfs and the Wissings had Maxwell skis to wax and Dimrod boots to brag to each other about (for no evident reason, every other word joker or ding-dong or turkey) and slope-shattered ankles to heal and Cox Cable television in their bedrooms to watch. They felt the sting of the sun that demanded a backyard pool, but had never experienced severe post-Christmas domestic depression—the fetid gloom of cat litter and bills and broken toys and more bills and tinsel in cat vomit, the disaster man-made and so calling out for human genius with the power to rekindle holiday excitement. Moon-bejeweled rink, pole speakers feeding Pagliacci to the spinning soul of grace, the next Janet Lynn from Rockford, Illinois. Television could not enliven a dead room—only fill it with light mimicking light. Sure, I watched the tube and its hermetically sealed action. There was no way not to. And there were things worth watching—like the last scene in each episode of The Waltons. Night shot of the mountain house, lights blinking out as the family said good night. “Night, Ma.” “Night, Pa.” “Night, John Boy.” “Night, Mary Ellen.” Voices wafting melodically into the forest shadows, love taming whatever evil lurked there. Not morbid, not too hackneyed. But the rest? Green Acres: canned corny jokes and robotic laughter. The Sonny & Cher Show: variety hokum emceed by the most mismatched couple since Nixon had hosted Elvis in the Oval Office. (What chemical did Cher inject in order to get along with Sonny for sixty minutes?) Brian’s Song, or terminal-disease dramas like it, which allowed the audience to feast on a banquet of tears and relax during the commercials—same ads as always—Charlie the Tuna, or a clueless kid on a dock, swinging his legs, singing about how he loved to eat hot dogs all day. But he didn’t! He was thin, energetic. It was me who liked to eat hot dogs all day and look at the result! No, I couldn’t. Instead I blindly fondled the flab fiasco: hip shelves, belly rolls, the breasts—a cellulite avalanche spilling under my school desk and, each night, sliding across stained couch cushions. I tried to get a grip on who exactly I was but kept losing it—a boy-blur swollen with salt and sugar. Upset! Watching whatever! Worst of all the cartoon special Frosty the Snowman. Frosty was made of white stuff that fell from the heavens, right? And that divine stuff—each unique flake—what came of it? Drip, drip, drip, drip . . . Frosty’s annual meltdown while trapped in a greenhouse (murdered by fragrant, humid rose breath!) ended the holiday before it had started. In certain dim Neilsen households, viewing was no set of choices but requisite primordial anesthesia, reducing sensibility to an itchy insensibility, eyes glued to the screen’s lightless light. The chill cave-gleam far removed from civilization.
One big trick of childhood is its concurrent connectedness and separateness from the adult life that follows. The first and oldest experiences can seem to vanish until drawn back to the surface, interwoven with everything, understood or appreciated with new clarity. In recent years, chilly ones for America, I have often revisited the mail-order rink, almost as if the invention counted as a major—albeit unknown—turning point in the country’s history, a pivotal moment when peace might have been attained by the masses at scant cost. When January could have meant healthy outdoor serenity—fresh air and legions of ice queens—rather than debt, petrified butter cookies, post-Frosty depression, Super Bowl madness. Had the rink sold big in 1973 might that sporting event never have grown from a one-blimp wonder into a month-long hyperventilating frolic of formulaic hype? Might the shimmer of millions of backyard rinks have illuminated a better path out of the night of Vietnam, recession, DC corruption? A path that would have left less of the best of us behind, carried more beauty and knowledge forward? Thinking so is fantastic, probably unnecessary, but rooted in the reality of the rink’s revelatory personal meaning. For Mr. Creighton’s bright creation materialized at a moment when I was losing my way, losing vital attachments, and knew it, but could not stop or even slow the process, only watch darkness creep nearer as light dwindled. The smoke-veiled gaze of a broken father. A mother’s conflict-contorted face—smarts that earned a law degree, mysterious emotional wounds that prevented a career—the pain wrinkling her brow, bubbling out jowls that could burst into girly giggles or brilliant fifteen-minute coupon arguments with clerks. The dark of a parking lot where you waited an hour for her to remember to pick you up. The dark and unholy fear in the doorways of the relatives who would not admit you into their “ritzy” houses and condominiums—Great-Grandfather Miller and Grandfather Miller and Uncle Frank and even Great Aunt Olive, otherwise nice . . . Briefly but importantly, the rink was the living embodiment of the wish to regain the innocence that had been lost to family trouble and to those crayon chasms I drew when not talking to Brad, my head down close to flames that cut me off from everything but the pain, anger, and confusion inside. The rink was a gentle solution to screw together in my imagination as I stood at recess, staring at frozen gravel beneath a long gray sigh of January sky. It was a silent lullaby concealed in the frost crusting a bedroom window. It was all I have detailed—an inventor’s improbable and beguiling masterwork, a cure for post-Christmas blahs, a game-changing cultural parlay, my wish to start over—and one more thing. The camaraderie of a backyard rink was the help I had needed when a babysitter’s boyfriend tossed me into a blizzard at age six.
Wearing only socks and pajamas, I stood stunned and disbelieving amid front-porch drifts. It was as though I had been sucked from the living room by a stale tide of escaping heat! But, in actuality, whatever his name was, Boyfriend, had lifted me over his greasy head and spun me around and tossed me out the door. Giggling Sharee, the babysitter, told him to stop—too late. He threw me out of my house at 15 Crestwood Terrace. How could a stranger throw me out of my house? Had he been taking lessons from Grandfather Miller? Was the fiend on LSD? Was he crazy? It was almost funny. Had to be a joke. I laughed, twisted the knob. Door did not open. He had locked it! I pounded on the door. Yelled all the words. Still the door did not open. Wind blew and the porch transformed into a cramped corral of white horses. They leaped over railing rungs, tails flapping in the dark. They reared and pumped crystal hooves in the frigid air. Side-yard evergreen boughs thrashed as if trying and failing to control herds of snow stampeding from the sky’s bleak mystic meadow. A nightmare. Harder I pounded, crying: “Let me in! Open up!” Slush seeped through my socks. Whinnying wind tugged at my pajama legs and arms, numbing my cheeks. What had I done that was so bad? I had reminded Boyfriend that he had no right to order us around. It was our house and I was the oldest and must protect it! What else had I done? Couldn’t remember. I pounded more, crossed my arms across my chest to keep my heart from jumping out, twisted the knob. Mommy! Daddy! HELP ME! They were out in the storm, somewhere. At Investment Club. He sporting fangs of tobacco fumes in the home of a dentist invested in IBM. She who applied lipstick like graffiti—she who vandalized herself!—sneaking napkin-wrapped cheese balls from table to purse. “Back at ten at the latest,” she had told Sharee when handing over the instruction sheet. Frizzy Sharee had nodded and promised to take good care. Sharee, youth-council member at Aunt Carolee’s church. Sharee in a ten-color shirt skimpy in the middle, where there was much to cover, wide in the arms like supercool tablecloths gone amok. Sharee who phoned Boyfriend as soon as the car slid down the alley. He came quick and acted like a chair. She sat on him, tickled and giggling and blurting “Duh!” and “Doy!” to make all of us cootie fearers feel stupid. It worked. Wasn’t that enough revenge? I pounded and pounded. Curly manes of snow settled on the porch floor, sleeping beneath a rodeo turmoil of incoming gusts that bucked against the porch ceiling and its dark lamp globe full of last summer’s bugs. From far away came the metallic keening of tire chains, akin to fifteen cash registers ceaselessly ringing up the same amount. I twisted the cold brass knob, loose from use like all our doorknobs. “Let me in! I’ll freeze out here!” Inside: “Sham-Sham-Sharee,” the toasty non-nanny, belching Boyfriend, belligerent brother Howie, frightened sisters Betsy and Mitzi. Them and my Etch A Sketch, schnauzer magnets, Smith Brothers cough drops, Famous Authors card game, Jimmy Crack Corn record, Spider-Man comics, Wacky Package stickers, miniature magnetic chessboard, spring-action basketball game, panda-bear blanket, Erector Set in the heavy red plastic carrying case that alone gave me so much pleasure I had yet to build anything with girders and joints. Had it all forgotten about me already? I turned, stared down at the low, un-terraced side of the street—buried cars, ice-laced houses, and a few lit windows, whose glare filtered through falling snow, pulsing like lighthouse beams across a violent sea. My soaked feet burned and my cheeks stiffened, far—very far—from the warm and sloppy good-bye kiss my mother had delivered on teetering white heels, an avalanche of hips and lips, Oil of Olay and old blue-green coat collar, a rough unraveling burlap neck bag. This was so much worse than when I’d gotten separated from her at Kresge when I was three and the army man in the parking lot had brought me back inside, lifted me onto the counter! All the army men were now in Laos and Cambodia . . . tiptoeing across minefields. How long could I survive with no coat, no cap, no mother? As long as Ethan Allen in his forest hole camouflaged with leaves? As long as Harriet Tubman in the snake swamp, breathing through reeds? As long as the Boxcar Children in their dank, rusty home? Even before this night, I had sensed they all had something special to teach me. Fight when you can. Move on if winning is impossible. Suddenly, staying put was the worst possible thing. I had to go, get moving, seek or perish. The first steps away from that door were like no others I had ever taken, sterile with strangeness, terrible with the weirdness of walking on air in a tunnel while feeling weight pressing down and into my head and chest. Each step populated by a horde of thoughts too close and loud to be understood. I slipped down six stairs framed by snowcapped flowerpots balanced on the cement shoulders of the porch. Less than three feet separated the bottom step from the short, steep front hill covered with dunes of snow, the sweeping and sprawling surf of changeling snow. My hold on the porch shoulder allowed me to escape a possibly fatal slide to the street below. I reached the narrow side yard at the foot of the neighboring snow-swept terrace—the house of Mr. Hickey, the bow tie man, nearly deleted by storm murk. Gone a welcoming outpost of sweater vests, polka dots, high blood pressure, boards on a bed for back trouble, bouillon cubes, Lipton tea, prunes, nickels for naming state capitals! Our side-yard path gone. Tractor-tire sandbox gone—dragged away by the draft horses from hell! Cantering flanks of snow now. Flakes brushing my face and mixing with my tears. I could die for all Sharee cared. I could freeze like a prairie pioneer disoriented by a whiteout, found dead in front of his own cabin! Sky and Iowa—which was which? Whining gales crushed against vague cliffs, antic white spirals vanishing into gorges a storm had gouged. I could die of frostbite like the Little Match Girl, feeling in my last living moment false warmth spreading over rigid limbs! Must keep moving, must move, move, keep wading through knee-deep drifts, staying right next to the house: iron coal-chute cover, aluminum dryer vent, foundation icicles grazing my bare palms like the bloodless fingers of a fortune-teller, rucked facade finally culminating in a corner and more terrace, the little back stoop caught amid a grotesque ballet of twisting trumpet vine limbs wearing white tights. I stumbled up the back-stoop stairs. Twisted the icy knob. Door did not open. I pounded. “You got to let me in! You got to let me in! Got to!” Kitchen light. Boyfriend at a window visible through the ballerina vines. He taunted. Thumbs on cheeks, hands wagging, pointy harlequin mouth and eyes of a pumpkin. He was not done scaring me. Maybe he had just started. I stood, shivering, knowing that I belonged inside, and something else—that I might belong outside, too. Like Harriet. Like Ethan. Like my mother, searching her purse for coins in the checkout lane—all the checkout lanes—digging for lost dimes. Like my father, marooned on a tan recliner. I slid my red freezing hands under my armpits, the last warmth. Thoughts scattered, scattering more. Even if I did get back inside, would anything be the same as it had been? Or all things familiar but not right, not mine even when touched? Sharee’s poufy hairdo appeared next to Boyfriend. She saw me. Frowned. Tugged Boyfriend. They disappeared but door did not open immediately. They must talk first. Wiping wet hands on wet shirt, bawling, I looked for help nearby. Stoop love seat and its curves of snow. Metal box below, awaiting bottles of milk from the Baker’s Dairy green cow truck. I looked out at the vacant backyard and the empty garage cottage, the slope of terraces across the alley, territory trampled by hooves of snow, with more horses galloping down dark mountains, galloping, galloping through alley spumes and squalls, past garbage cans, ledges, gutters coated with campfire ashes.
Three years later—thanks to Brad and his dad, the eccentric Mr. Creighton—that bad memory swirls into a sweet dream that I can see and feel. Backyard-blizzard turmoil breeding glimmers red, green, and yellow, a faint ring of light, tucked between the concrete retaining wall and the opposite edge of our narrow terrace, growing brighter, getting closer. A rink, and Chinese lanterns, and benches! Figures materialize—sequined skirts, turbaned chins, ear muffs, a whirl of skaters laughing, shouting. “Way to go, Brad!” “Beautiful, Brenda!” “More hot chocolate!” “Dufus!” “Mom, put the Chipmunks’ Christmas on the stereo!” The wind has died, only a few fat lazy flakes drift from the sky’s spent bucket. I remain on the stoop. Though the party is on my property, I am not invited. To be invited requires certain social skills, and skates—Brad perceptively understands I have neither. But I am as close to the action as a kid can get without being invited, and for me that is best. The least stressful. (Stressful: my newest word.) Observing, I am denied what? Nothing except injury. Sharee opens the door behind me, voice nicey-nice fake. “Poor baby. Come inside! Warm up!” Without turning, I suggest what she can do with her heat. Door shudders shut. Bravery pays off. I have grown mittens, boots, wool coat, matching burgundy scarf and cap that Dick Button would envy. I am breathing white kittens. The air has the creamy smell of refrigerated carnations. (So different from the grass-stew odor of cut lawns.) The storm that trampled the terraced neighborhood near to death—what has it done in the end? Sewn every terrace and driveway into an elegant fabric of a gazillion crystals. The rink wears many gowns. Won’t my parents be surprised when their arthritic Ford sedan creeps down the alley bristling with salt! Brenda, the athlete, executes a jump, landing perfectly, red ponytail swishing, swishing. Guests clap and imitate in vain. Back arched, legs crossed, down goes another Katherine on her frilled keister. Brenda offers tips to the fallen. Second attempts, third attempts, even fourth tries—no improvement. But cheers, yes! The rink is a glimmering time machine that does not spin people into the future or back through the past—it flings senses into an endless, evolving present! The answer to changes that were not changes—season after season of the same programming re-cooked to appear fresh—and the furious passivity of consumption. The answer to living rooms smelling of all the Februarys since Eisenhower, a dog biscuit–like reek even when only cats are in residence—carnivorous and vegetal—the fusing of holidays with all that is not a holiday. The rink unwinds the burial stink. It is the luck that unlucky people sometimes make for themselves. It is at once exotic and humble, like a unicorn eating out of a trash can. The festival of scintillating blurs as indecipherable as brothers and sisters. That ice glow, the widening ripples of silver reflections . . . somehow the substance of the rink’s reality. Brad grabs a hockey stick, smacks a puck. Goal! Brenda, the blender rotor, spins at high speed, red ponytail a control switch sticking straight out from the back of her pretty head! What makes this alchemy possible, besides Mr. Creighton’s initial epiphany? Water! Gallons of water added by a rink owner. The democracy of the fact is ravishing. And the science sound. Technology need not be complex to be effective. Galileo’s telescope was a runt and it discovered more than any ponderous planetarium. My paper towel–tube telescope had reach—once I had seen the ball drop in Times Square. The less you have, the more you must make of it. People—what are they made of? Water, mostly! And the earth? Water, mostly! How can a product consisting wholly of stuff vital to life fail? Mr. Creighton lumbers off to heat more cocoa and Mrs. Creighton’s eyes follow him, maybe worried, maybe not. Some bucktoothed peacoat rushes up to her. Friendliest neighbor you’d never want to meet. The paragon of palaver, answerer of his own questions. “Perfect night for it, huh? Rightaroonie! Couldn’t have asked for better. Did I see you working at Jack and Jill last Thursday? Musta been you stacking apples!” Alley telephone poles thrust crossbeams into the night, warding off any demons armed with blow torches who would melt our paradise, warding off every deadly aspect of the coming Super Bowl. (Pregame interview jock-jabberwocky. Taco chips dripping with bean dip that reproduced in the mouth like mutant plaque. Fifty million toilets flushing in apocalyptic unison during commercials. A hundred million television consoles choking on the emerald idiom of artificial turf and restive cheerleaders and wan Fran Tarkenton the scrambling quarterback and the illusory lip-synched halftime unspectacular starring red and blue and pink vapor and chicken feathers and fifty bikinis and rheumy neon-jacketed pancake-dusted commentators looking as sadly shrunken as the snowball I once placed in the freezer, trying and failing to preserve a weapon for later.) Mr. Creighton reappears and thumbs curl around steaming mugs. A girl cries: “I wanna go home!” Already? Already. Mrs. Creighton deals with Lucinda—frowsy at ten—skates dangling from her neck like an albatross and ski cap dragging an ice ball. Ski masks sprout frost stubble. For no reason boys begin to cry the most popular playground phrase: “Big-time!” Then they have a reason. Charmed Brenda makes skating history, carving no figure eight into the ice but a decimal number, to help Americans acclimate to the metric system. “Big-time!” Holiday on Ice times 2.1! I spot a new arrival, the AAA tow truck driver, Mr. Lay-Off-Me-Why-Don’t-You?, a surly pro who jump-starts our loathsome car when it stalls in the Eagle Supermarket parking lot. He smiles at this viable engine of fun running on sugar and ice and caroling choirs. A minister might categorize a rink as a decadent, dangerous luxury . . . but some things are necessary precisely because they are unnecessary and do not fit with preconceived ways of living that merely extend the schedules and routines that breed monstrous disaffection. (Complaints with enough heads to make you wonder if carports were not actually spaceships that delivered to urban Iowans the alienation they commonly expressed about stuff they centered their lives around and claimed to love—like relatives and the Chicago Cubs and that “almighty dollar.”) Now Brad points out the Bobby Hull hockey-stick autograph and, in his bravely hesitant fashion, becomes talkative, informing guests about the registered letter Mr. Creighton has sent to Dick Button of NBC, asking if he will consider appearing in a full-page ad to be placed in Outdoor Life. I know just what the letter said. Dear Mr. Button: Steady yourself. I’ve invented a portable ice rink . . . And I know just what Dick Button will write back. Dear Mr. Creighton: What a wonderful notion. The nation has been on thin ice for too long. I’ll be glad to help in any way possible . . . I inhale the rich oaky odors of cocoa. Beyond the igloo humps of the retaining-wall hedges, I see my favorite lantern color: pale (almost green) blue washed into silver and illuminating an angle of the garage cottage. “Watch out!” Boys crash, then proudly rub their knees as Mr. Creighton comforts them with news of the Skid-Ender boot. For the first time I wonder if the rink comes in a decorated carton. Brad never mentions the carton. He mentions the thrill of packing the rink when a check is received. Icicles on the carton? A photo of Brenda in midair? The rink might help people live outside the box but still it needs good packaging. Every American product requires an impressive container to hide the mean or flimsy makings inside and thereby boost consumer confidence, making it possible to endure the problematic setup. (Or digestion. How much more satisfied I was with the same lumpy un-shrimpy cream of shrimp soup after a rope-slung lifesaver was added to the label, under SEASIDE DELIGHT.) I forget my place and yodel: “What’s the rink box like? If you want, I’ll design it! I’ve already written two poems about parks in the style of Emily Dickinson!” Nobody hears me. Mrs. Creighton is opening more Swiss Miss packets, cutting carefully along the dotted line in order not to end up covered with powder like her husband, who pulls at foil like it’s a rip cord, opening a brown parachute of dust. Most of the cocoa brushed off, he stands with a boot on the rink’s rim, snowflake sweater, gloves, beard and the gaze lifted skyward, toward the universe, so similar to the heavens within, where galaxies of thoughts orbit and feelings streak like asteroids toward unseen targets. “Dad!” calls Brad, and Dad laughs. That is his job now: salesmanship. To joke and cajole and rouse those customers slumbering in their lonesome, sedate groves of concrete and tile.
Reality exists on the back of what isn’t—what might not or cannot ever be. When a rare rink order arrived from Wisconsin or Michigan or Minnesota, the family rushed to the basement and packed a plain carton. Brad handing the many metal strips to Mr. Creighton, who counted out loud. Brenda bending, bagging the screws and the bolts. Mrs. Creighton stapling directions and re-counting everything everyone else had counted. At last they spread out, fanned the big blue tarp, and folded, folded—not wasting one second.
Photo: Holly Kuchera