She trotted down the railroad ties, adjusting her stride so she could skip one and land on the next. The rails slithered ahead of her in the bright moonlight, a pair of silver snakes. Her younger cousin Louie, who she pressed into going along with her or she would not have been allowed to go at all, wheezed and snuffled behind her whining at her to slow down. They passed the Epworth League dock where the sing-along was in full voice on the flat roof of the expansive boathouse. Singers fanning themselves, hoping for a light breeze off the lake, were seated facing in one direction like gulls. Beyond that her grandfather’s dock, and then next the one she had looked at longingly last summer where Paul Courtier came to swim, to wash his father’s Chris Craft, to fix the swimming ladder at the dock’s side with hammer and nails. He was so handsome. Slender and tanned with dark hair that glistened when he pulled himself up the ladder after a swim and shook the water out of his ears. He died in the South Pacific at the start of this year, now the war was ending, and everyone else who made it through would come home. Paul never seemed to be aware of her, but she could not forget him.
Louie called to her that he had a cinder in his shoe; he sat down on a rail, grumbling and making moist sounds, while she tapped her foot in wild impatience with him. Such an unattractive kid! He resembled no one in his family or the rest of the family whose looks she was used to. Instead of being lithe and lean, long legged and narrow faced, he was soft and white with sparse blond hair and bulging eyes, for all the world like a newly hatched chick. He was twelve, four years younger, but if she wanted to skate tonight, she was stuck with him, her unlikely escort.
There wouldn’t be a train tonight. Early in the morning the chuffing engine pulling maybe two cars would come along this side of Silver Lake carrying milk and mail. It came back in the late afternoon spewing smoke and steam and flattening the pennies kids put on the rails. The train was a fact of life like the lake and the cottages around it, the trees that gave shade and the weather beaten general store with its aged chest freezer out on the sagging porch, full of fudgesicles and popsicles for a nickel.
Before they left the tracks, they could hear the Wurlitzer organ music spread out over the quiet summer night and the weedy field they needed to cross. The rink must have been painted white at some point in its history, and because of the midsummer mugginess, all the upper sides were propped open with long poles. The sparkling ball suspended from the ceiling flashed like heat lightning.
When they arrived at the rink, she pulled a crumpled dollar bill out of her pocket for Louie and herself and put her hand out to be stamped with the day of the week in red ink. Louie fretted about the rented skates that had been on so many other feet, and she was disappointed that the whites were all taken; she had settle for the clunky black ones. The cranky old man at the window of the shoe room said, “You want white ones, young lady, you better come early.”
She looked around for the boy, the sailor she’d skated with two nights ago, the one who’d taught her how to move and glide and given her confidence. Actually, he was not really a boy. He was older, more assured, comfortable with himself and the way he could skate. She had been struggling along on the outer edges of the rink, sticking close to the sides where she could avoid the traffic whizzing past her, when he came up to her, stopped on a dime, and asked her if she’d care to skate. She was stunned, but enormously flattered. She told him she had no idea how to skate double, and he said, “I know. I have been watching you. You don’t know how to skate single!” He swept her out into the stream of skaters, expertly guiding and controlling her direction, showing her how to relax into a comfortable stride, crossing foot over foot on the turns. It was like leaving the earth and gliding, gliding in air while the piped in Wurlitzer music played on.
She learned he was on leave, visiting his parents who summered on the lake, she learned little else, and aside from his sturdy frame and sandy hair, she remembered only that he smelled clean like fresh laundry off the line. That night her older cousin George had signaled to her that he was leaving. Period! She had no choice but, like Cinderella, to make a hurried exit. The sailor, Ed, she thought his name was, helped her out of the skates, and when she turned to wave goodbye, running along after her cousin, he had turned away.
Maybe he was back tonight. She shoved Louie ahead of her onto the floor where he set out, arms flailing, his legs moving in choppy strokes. Hopeless! She watched him plow through the crowd with mindless determination, and then she spotted Ed. She started toward him until she realized he was skating with someone who moved so elegantly along with him that she knew they had done this many times before. Someone beautiful who turned her face toward him and smiled just before Ed swung them around in a graceful dance step.
She looked impatiently for struggling Louie, and when he wove near her, she hissed at him, “Get your skates off. We’re going home.”
Impossible Louie who hadn’t wanted to come was now whinnying that he wanted to stay. “This is fun, and I don’t wanna go back!” She grabbed him by the elbow and propelled him to a bench where they both took off their skates wordlessly. She shoved them at the old guy sucking on his toothpick and strode out of the music and dancing lights with Louie in tow. “But we didn’t even stay half an hour,” he complained. “I’m gonna tell my mother you aren’t very nice!”
“You do,” she threatened in her darkest voice, “and there’ll be no more fudgesicles for you, because I’ll tell your mother you’re buying more than one a day!”
“That’s not fair,” he said, his voice trailing off in defeat.
She walked slowly taking one tie at a time so that Louie could keep up with her, back the way they’d come past Courtiers’ dock and grandpa’s dock and the Epworth League boathouse where two men were stacking up the wooden chairs. The big impassive moon still shown white on the water and lit the leaves on the shady old tree that marked the dusty lane leading uphill to grandpa’s cottage. She stood on the porch and watched Louie home to his parent’s place further on. Inside, her parents and her Toronto uncle and aunt were playing bridge and drinking highballs in the yellow light of an ancient floor lamp. She sat on the swing in the half darkness pushing herself back and forth with one foot, soothing herself to the monotonous squeak of its rusty springs until her mother called her to bed.
Tomorrow might be better.
Jean Casey’s Bio: I was born in Buffalo, NY, grew up on Lake Winnebago facing the beacon at High Cliff across the water, and I will die here in Door County where we came to buy a piece of land with a cherry orchard, build a house, and learn an abiding love for this place, the western edge of the Niagara Escarpment around which I’ve lived my life.