Wendy Oleson


Wendy is a Senior Fiction Reader for Prairie Schooner. Her recent work appears in Copper Nickel, Fifth Wednesday Journal, and Rattle.

Man Skate

From the outside the roller rink looked like the warehouse where my father had stocked office supplies before he left my mother and me. But inside the rink pulsed muscle and meat, sugar and syrup, a maze of what ifs like I’d never seen. It smelled of sweaty socks and licorice whips and nighttime. The air was as cool inside as out, and I was surprised by the twirling lights, the taffy and cotton candy, the quarter play Pac Man, Asteroid, and Mario Bros next to a machine dispensing a rubber ball for a nickel.

The colored lights of the rink reminded me of the rock we’d cracked open in Mrs. Rothby’s science class. She never said there would be another world inside, so when she unscrewed the vise, I fell in love with her and the network of crystals she held up to her chest. A geode over Mrs. Rothby’s heart, the flickering of deep purple jewels: I wanted her to take me home and tuck me into bed with the sheets pulled up to my chin.

But it was Uncle Roy who held my hand at the skate rental counter. I had a fresh scrape on my left palm from a skateboarding fall, so I turned and gave him my right. It was the two of us, Roy taking me on my first trip to the roller rink. I remember getting boy’s skates because I had a wide foot. Uncle Roy brought his own skates: black boots with neon wheels. My rentals, size four, were a dirty naugahyde—not quite vinyl, not quite animal—with pumpkin orange wheels. Chocolate brown laces. I looked at Uncle Roy squatting in his tight acid jeans, lacing me up as I sat on a large, carpeted stool shaped like a mushroom. These mushrooms were everywhere, along with more kids than I’d ever seen: bigger kids, better kids, kids flashing glittered wrist bands and heavy metal t-shirts. The boys, I watched the boys pull off their high tops, shed sweatshirts to reveal tanks and flesh—biceps, triceps—I wanted to touch the skin over those muscles. I wanted it to be silly putty so I could leave fingerprints.

The rink played the same song we’d heard in Uncle Roy’s car. Poison, they were his favorite band. Uncle Roy had freckles along his temples and forehead that never made it to his nose. He began to lace me up even though I asked to do it myself. I saw my father a couple times a year then, and he let me do everything myself. But Uncle Roy insisted helping me into the skates, his cupped palm against my arch, then his fingers running up my heel like a shoehorn. He had dry lips. He’d laced me up too tight and had to wrap the extra length of the laces around my ankle before tying them in one bow, then another. The skates pressed on the round bone on the inside of my ankles.

“You’re ready, Erin.” He grinned up at me like I was the most fabulous person he’d ever seen. “You’re gonna blaze a trail.”

He got up to sit next to me. I had to watch him put on his own skates, and I think he took extra time fooling with eyelets, re-lacing, because he liked feeling my eyes on him.

Roy was my mother’s younger brother. He was a secretary at the dairy plant. The first time we were truly alone together (my mother busy taking her final nursing exam), he’d brought me to the plant's “dairy museum," where I saw the evolution of pasteurization equipment and photographs of a life-sized Holstein sculpted in butter. At the end of the tour I drank a pint of chocolate milk; Roy tipped the corner of his into mine. "Cheers," he'd said.

Uncle Roy and Grandma had encouraged my mother to attend nursing school after my father left. Mom got a job at a nursing home while she worked toward her degree. After school I'd take the city bus to the home to watch television with the residents who liked westerns and I Love Lucy. I could barely see the TV because a blind, retarded woman sat right in front of it. The old people felt sorry for her—she still had creamy-smooth skin—so they let her press her palms to the screen.

Government cuts took my mother’s job at the home, so she settled for the night shift at a hospital. I stayed at Grandma’s, then with Uncle Roy. My mother tried to make it so we had dinner together. We ate from a can, but she always heated it on the stove. I loved her, and I knew she was good because one day I asked her about the commercials with the starving black kids and their huge stomachs. Give seventy-two cents a day, the TV said. Less than the cost of one cup of coffee. My mother told me those kids' bellies weren’t fat. Bad bacteria produced gas that blew up their stomachs like balloons. She said it was very painful; one day when we had a little money she would call the number. I'd already asked Uncle Roy that same question. He didn’t know why starving kids were fat, just that the flies on their faces made him want to puke.


“Don’t be afraid to grab me if you lose your balance,” Uncle Roy said. I wasn’t afraid, and I wouldn't fall. In gym class I was the best: the first girl picked for teams and second-best of all the forth graders for chin ups—seventeen. We stood at the edge of the rink, where carpet met wood, waiting for an opening in the stream of skaters. A breeze found my face as people whooshed by. That air smelled different, a little like fruit punch. Boys held girls’ hands.

“Should we do it?” he asked.

We stepped onto the rink. He grabbed at my hand but missed and held my fingers. I didn’t want to look like a baby. There were some other kids with dads holding their hands, but they looked like toddlers in glorified Fischer Price skates. That wasn’t me.

I pulled my hand away.

Uncle Roy grabbed for it again, but I kept it out of reach until he gave up.

Roller-skating wasn’t any harder than skateboarding. I had the neighbor kid’s old Santa Cruz and sometimes rode it down Grandma’s driveway. She told me I’d break my neck. I loved her, but she was all cigarette smoke and hype. She promised to crack my head open if I didn’t wear the jumpers my mother sewed me. There wasn’t anything better than the couple times a year I saw my dad because he pulled the dresses out of my overnight bag and laughed at them. Flowers? Rosebuds? We’d make gagging noises together, then go to the hardware store to buy screws and drill-bits.

There was a DJ booth built into the far wall. Inside a man wearing a camouflage jacket spoke into a microphone. He said things like: “Here’s a song for city folk,” and “If you know how to live it up on Friday night, this is for you.” He didn’t annoy me, but I kept thinking that if I had a microphone, I’d say something that mattered: why the starving kids' stomachs looked fat or that it's stupid to make people wear dresses.

I was skating better—I even managed to vary my speed—but Roy stayed next to me. He probably didn’t have many friends if he’d volunteered to baby-sit. He wasn’t cool, so I pretended he wasn’t right there, smelling a little like onions. I thought about who I’d like to be skating with, whose hand I would want to hold. Mrs. Rothby’s. But she wore fancy shoes with heels, and I couldn’t imagine her in skates. I surveyed the skaters around me, eventually spotting a cute girl. She looked about thirteen and wore a ponytail with a pink ribbon. Girls needed pretty things. Colored spots of light revolved around the rink, blurring the walls blue, red, and green. They stained the skaters too. My girl turned purple—her blouse and skin—then yellow, orange. I skated just behind her. Her boyfriend wore a baseball cap for Detroit. I had that hat. But Grandma didn’t like me to wear it.

When the DJ announced the Man Skate, I felt a crawling in my stomach. To think of it now, it was like those seconds when you’re scratching a lottery ticket—when the first two boxes show ten thousand dollars, and you only have to match a third. It’s that rush of excitement that sours as soon as the third box gets scratched.

What was a Man Skate? It sounded reptilian. Even though the composition of the rink was changing—it looked like just the girls were getting off—I stayed my course, kept skating.

“Wait over there.” Roy shoved me toward the mushrooms. “You can’t skate."

I wasn’t stupid, but I wanted to know why. I tied for second most chin-ups. At recess I raced with the boys. “I’m better than him.” I pointed at a skinny kid on the rink waving to someone by the mushrooms.

“Here,” Uncle Roy wormed his hand into his jeans’ pocket. “Buy some candy.” He gave me a wad of paper money.

Since my allowance came in quarters, the dollars distracted me. I cupped the bills and went to the mushrooms to count the money. Most of the mushrooms were full by now. Girls. They giggled together and grabbed each other's hands. I stood at the edge of a forest, the smells and sounds thick and unfamiliar. They weren’t paying attention to me, but I felt as conspicuous as the buzzing neon over the snack bar.

The men still hadn’t started to skate; the sound system had malfunctioned, and the camouflage guy messed with it. I found a partially-open mushroom with a view of the rink. I didn’t notice at first, but my girl sat opposite, legs crossed. A head taller than me, she had her hand in her ponytail, was brushing it with her fingers. She wasn’t as pretty from the front; her mouth was crooked and hungry, like my old goldfish, Bob. But her eyes were nice. I couldn’t tell the color because she sort of squinted, like she really wanted to see stuff. I opened my hand to count the money. It had seemed like more, but the bills were crunchy and mangled, bulkier that way: three dollars.

Still, the roller rink was mine with three dollars: sixty bouncy balls, twelve arcade game credits, and cotton candy or pop wouldn’t cost more than a dollar: three pops. I was about to walk to the snack counter when I noticed my girl looking at me. I wore brown corduroy pants—I didn’t complain about those—but my shirt had a white doily bit at the collar. She looked at me like she didn’t know why I had a doily around my neck. I didn’t know, except that if I tried to rip it out, Grandma would rant about cracking my head.

I thought to shrug at my girl to show her I was cool, but the music for the Man Skate began. She turned to watch the rink. My eyes followed. I found Uncle Roy in the mass of skaters; he looked like a Poindexter—too tall and thin to be any good at skating.

Uncle Roy skated near the front of the pack like it was a race. My girl’s boyfriend strained to keep up. Red and blue lights spun like police warnings. The bills in my hand dampened with sweat. I wanted my chin-length hair to blow back; I wanted to pump my arms and cross my legs one over another around the rink’s curves; I wanted my veins to stand out from my forearms and neck like they did on my dad when he worked on the roof. My girl would see me and wonder how I could skate so fast without falling. I would wave and keep my balance. I’d even describe the Man Skate to Dad: the speed and lights, the loudest music I’d ever heard. I would tell him I was out there skating, the fastest of all.

It lasted for a couple songs, enough time for the dads to impress their kids and the boys to impress their girls. I clenched my jaw the whole time.

“Last time I was here a guy broke his arm.” My heart raced at the surprise—my girl had spoken to me! Now I saw she had braces, and they made her mouth hungrier even though they made it full.

“Really?” I said, scratching my chin like Dad did.

“Yeah, I’d never want to go out there.” She shook her head as she got up; her ponytail swayed.

“I would,” I said.

She stopped. She hadn’t expected me to say anything. She’d started the conversation out of boredom, and I told her I wanted to Man Skate. She stood there looking down at me. Her eyes really looked, squinted like she was figuring something out. Then she smiled with her lips together. A smile that closed off her face. It seemed like it would be hard to smile like that with so much metal on your teeth.

She returned to the rink, but I stayed on the mushroom. She'd peeled something away from me. And though I hadn't begun to understand what I'd lost, I knew to be thankful for the darkness and noise of the rink, for its thick, musty smell; I hoped it would hide me if I kept still.


When Uncle Roy found me at the mushroom, he was breathing hard. Sweat held his t-shirt to his skin and soaked the hair at the nape of his neck. He asked if I’d spent the money. I lied. I thought about what I could do with those three dollars. Last time I visited my dad he had his eye on a circular saw. But that was too expensive.

I didn’t want to skate anymore, but Roy pulled me back to the rink. We slipped into the flow though I hardly moved my legs. Sometimes I stopped skating completely, let him drag me around the corners. As Roy’s hands began to sweat, the salt made the scrape on my palm sting.

The DJ announced a song for “People who like to dance,” even one for “People who have dreams.” I thought I saw my girl playing Pac Man in the distance, but by the time Roy wanted to leave, she wasn't there.

I sat on the mushroom; Uncle Roy crouched below. He was trying to get my skate off, but I didn’t want him to. He struggled, determined to do it even though he hadn’t properly loosened the laces. My foot was wedged inside. The more he pulled, I pushed. Then, I thought I saw my girl watching; adrenalin pumped through me. Roy swore now: Jesus and shit. His fair skin pulsed a sick pink. He let go. Without his resistance, my leg swung through his face. The toe of my skate bashed his nose, and the wheels rolled over his eyes. I felt it through my whole body. He brought his hand to his face; blood flowed. “I can do it myself,” I said. And I did, while he went to the snack bar to get napkins.

No one seemed to notice what had happened. I looked for my girl. Had she witnessed my glory? As I unlaced my other skate, I squinted to see her. She was gone.

Uncle Roy returned, the napkins a bloody blossom under his nose. He glared at me as we returned my skates. My skates with the pumpkin wheels and chocolate brown laces. Just walking through the parking lot I felt like I was still rolling; my legs were not my legs anymore. It was time to get into his car again, his smelly Buick, clunky as a battleship, with cigarette burns on the dash. Uncle Roy leaned over to fasten my seatbelt, then tugged to make sure it was taut. The car soon filled with his sweaty onion smell. He turned on the radio, but I didn’t know the song.

Man skates really do happen. At least they used to. I've never witnessed one, but within a week of hearing of their existence, I had typed up a draft of this story. Usually, my work skews toward humor, and usually I begin with a character; but this time everything followed from the action and setting. It was 2006 when I wrote that first draft. I remember little about my process, but the thrumming ambivalence—the longing for childhood all mixed up with the relief of being through with it—I still feel it now.