by Toni Stauffer
Memphis, Summer of 1971
I closed my eyes and stretched out my arms, my shoulder-length blonde hair flying behind me. Pulling my right leg up like a flamingo, I practically flew down my mother’s driveway, wobbling side-to-side. When I reached the end of the driveway, I lost my balance, fell and skinned my knee.
A boy across the street laughed. “She only got one roller skate, ya’ll.”
Other kids laughed, but most just ignored or pitied me. I stubbornly skate-walked back up the driveway, refusing to cry. I was seven.
In the backyard there was a garage with a one-bedroom apartment above. A tall, wooden fence separated the property from the neighbors. On the other side of that fence, was the neighbor’s shed.
I’d always been a fearless kid, the crazy tomboy hanging at the top of an oak tree during a nasty thunderstorm, the kid who continued to play with the mouse traps even after getting her fingers snapped. I don’t remember climbing to the roof of the garage. I do vaguely remember the launch, jumping up in the air, my legs pin wheeling with my arms. I missed the roof, but not the fence. Obviously, I didn’t die. I don’t remember what happened after I fell, but I have a large scar on my left lower leg.
I’d found the skate rusting at the edge of the fence in the backyard. I cleaned it off as best I could. Uncle Bill, my mother’s live-in boyfriend, oiled it for me. I doted on Uncle Bill, even up to the point of greasing my hair with Vaseline like him. He drove a Yellow cab and thought a six-year-old greaser girl hilarious. My mother wasn’t amused.
My mother had a problem with heartburn. She kept boxes of Alka-Seltzer in the kitchen. The effervescent bubbles fascinated me. I snuck some of the tablets and dropped them in the birdbath, watched them bubble and hiss, turning the birdbath into a cauldron. My mother spanked me. I don’t remember if it was because carbonating the birdbath was bad for the birds, or my wasting the tablets were bad for my mother’s wallet. Maybe it was both. Years later, I sent that story into an Alka-Seltzer online contest and won ten dollars.
The fact that I didn’t have two skates bothered me at first, because skates are supposed to come in pairs. The wheels on the skate intrigued me. Bikes had wheels. Wheels let you move. It wasn’t long before I rocked back and forth, leg up and arms out, like some strange skate-fu.
I ran around barefoot. I stepped on a honey bee and screamed bloody murder; a neighbor pulled the stinger out, chewed up a wad of tobacco and rubbed brown spit onto the sting to take the swelling down.
Out on the front lawn, I caught brilliant-green June beetles and tied cotton string around one of their back legs, let them go and laughed as they buzzed in circles above my head. I had three at one time and that’s a record, I think. I always let them go after a few minutes. My little brother and I also chased fireflies in the evening, gathered them in a jar. Our mother always made sure we let them go before we came in for bed.
I put away my desire for a second skate because I’d learned in my short life that what I wanted mattered little, and most everything seemed nearly impossible in my small world. The skate became my favorite toy, but I lost it. Like I lost everything from my childhood after we left the house on Woodlawn Drive. But another skate wouldn’t have stopped my mother’s drinking, the state taking custody of us, or my family dissolving just like the Alka-Seltzer. The one skate taught me to make do with what I have and to be an optimist. I could have chosen not to skate at all, but I didn’t. I took a chance and discovered that one skate was better than none.
Two neighborhood dogs died violently that summer: one hit by a car and another beaten to death with a baseball bat. My mother chased a stray dog off after I fed it crackers and a feral cat had kittens in the attic. And on a hot summer night, I drank strawberry soda with the kid next door and watched the high school across the street burn. The adults blamed teenagers for the fire. The neighborhood kids were just happy for a show.