Upstate Dispatch: Which One Were You?
by Harris Lahti
(photo credit: Eamon McBride)
As I drive, the country highway’s pattern of overgrown campgrounds, boarded-up motels, and stretches of impenetrably dark woods begin to resemble a series of horror movie sets, at last punctuated by a white-steepled church illuminated with halogen lights.
I pull into the parking lot the church shares with an enormous prefab building of black corrugated steel. Skate Time. For over a decade, I have been meeting my friend, Cellar, here—how is that possible?—this skating rink with a skatepark inside.
I drive a few laps around the parking lot, searching for his skate-stickered car. But all the cars are stickered: Fear God and Repent. John 3:16. How long can you ignore the Holy Ghost?
It is hard to differentiate in the dark. Finally, I give up, park.
Sitting there, I try and call Cellar, but my service keeps dropping out. The radio stations continually looping back to the same one: gospel. I wait five more minutes, wait five more, then, reluctantly, get out.
There has always been the same guy behind the counter, this middle-aged man with a soul patch and a solemn demeanor I always associated with what I would call the suicidal tendencies of the Pacific Northwest. Yet, tonight, there is a different man—younger, with ripped off sleeves and precise burns on each joint of his hands like he recently pressed them, or had them pressed, flat to a hot skillet.
What have they got you doing back there!? I try and joke.
Dry skin, he says without laughing. How can I help?
It is hard to imagine where all these people come from having only just driven such a stretch of desolate highway. There must be a hundred teenagers orbiting the rink’s glossy surface while men hang their wrists over the barricade watching the girls (their daughters?) whose lanky John Deere boyfriends tower over them. An old man in a trench coat spins alone at the center like the pivot point of the entire mass.
All of them smile these smiles I associate with a cult.
I sit by the arcade with my skateboard, check my cell phone again: no service, no calls.
With the roller rink packed, the skatepark is empty as usual, save this one little boy with a helmet on and no skateboard I can discern of. His mother watches him from behind the plexiglass wall that hockey players are always being smashed into. He gallops up and down the ramps, braying like a horse.
I text Cellar: Did you hear? Skate Time keeps horses now? Did you hear? The skatepark has been replaced by a bible camp? Did you hear? Did you?
But the texts keep coming back.
Maybe it is the cistern of sweating milk on the concession stand counter? Or my frustration at having to skateboard alongside a child? Maybe it is the apparent growing popularity of roller skates?
Each time a siren goes off in the arcade, I reach for my phone. Cellar is not as late as he feels: only ten minutes now.
The DJ plays Whitney Houston, Diana Ross, The Beach Boys (my nightmare!). Each time I look toward the concession stand, the new guy behind the counter with the burnt knuckles appears to know every word.
I go to the bathroom although I do not have to. I run into the trench-coated old man at the urinal peeing without any hands. He cups the back of his bald head, elbows out, sighing. The stream sounds heavy, and I cannot pee until he is gone.
When I get back, Cellar is there, waiting. Where have you been, he says, completely unaffected by the strangeness of the place. What did they do to you? He laughs. I laugh, too.
Whenever I am alone, I think: I take things too seriously.
We enter the skatepark, an oversized setup of raw plywood meant more for rollerblades and bikes. We ride up and down the ramps on our useless wooden toys, trying to remember the tricks we used to do. We fall and cause minor pain to our bodies.
After a while, the little helmeted boy retreats to the corner.
We read the rules written there on the wall for the thousandth time: Do not spit. We spit. Do not curse. We curse. Do not disrespect. We dance mockingly to the music. And it is suddenly so funny now, hilarious. The best place I have ever been.
And all this time, the little helmeted boy watches us skate and make fun of the place. He no longer gallops up and down the ramps, no longer brays, just stands there in the corner with candy stained lips while, from behind the plexiglass, his mother watches with a cult-like smile.
I say, I wonder if the original cashier killed himself.
I say, You should have heard that little kid braying.
I slash the coping with my skateboard truck and flip my skateboard and sometimes I even land the tricks I intended. It gets so I remember why I drive out here. It gets so I forget everything else.
Afterward, Cellar and I sit in the seating area by the arcade—laughing about old times, remembering when—when the little boy comes up to us. He still has the helmet on. I cannot tell if something is wrong with him or not.
Hello? I say. Hi there.
He toes an invisible rock.
Hi, I say.
Finally, he speaks, barely audible: Which one were you in there?
Which one were you?
Which one was I? I say, laughing. I was me.
Which one were you, he says again, in a way that makes me think my answer insufficient.
His mother stands behind him, smiling with lipstick on her teeth, waiting, too.
What’d he say? Cellar says with a laugh, seeming to notice the little boy for the first time. A siren begins going off in the background, one of the arcade machines paying out.
The little helmeted boy continues staring. I sense the roller-skating orbit slowing to stare at me, too. When I look toward the rink, they look away, keep skating. Did they turn the music down? The new cashier no longer mouths the words to the songs. I open my mouth, close it. A new song: Mambo Number Five.
I do not know what it is about children that has always scared me.
Which one were you, which one were you, which one were you? I look toward the arcade’s flashing lights, thinking how to answer. Blinded. Sirens continuing. Cellar laughing harder now, louder as I pray for the little helmeted boy to gallop away with his mother.
But he just keeps standing there, toeing that invisible rock, awaiting my answer.
A reflective strip on his Velcro sneakers catches the arcade’s strobing light. And I shake my head, blink my eyes, unable to clear my vision. I swear he is lifting off the ground. Levitating right there before me.
A full inch. An inch and a half. Two inches now.
Which one were you?
I shake my head and remind myself about tricks and shadows.
Harris Lahti's work is forthcoming or appeared in Post Road, New York Tyrant, Hobart, Fanzine, Potomac Review, and elsewhere. He edits fiction for FENCE. Read more: harrislahti.com