September 1, 2014

Fiction: "Music Outside A Roller Rink" by William Cass

 William Cass has had a little over sixty-five short stories accepted for publication in a variety of literary magazines and anthologies, including the winning selection in The Examined Life Journal's writing contest.  He is a former resident of the Midwest, and now lives and works as an educator in San Diego, California.


   The movie theater’s old doors were made of oak. Rain fell in big drops in the muck that had formed in front of the ticket window. It wasn’t yet five o’clock, but the evening’s gloaming had already begun to descend.
      Bernard was sixty-seven years old, about the same age as the theater. He swept and mopped its aisles, as well as the floors of the grocery and department stores nearby in the small town center. He also hired out on farms in season. He lived in the basement of the theater in a room where discarded seats were stored. He had one of those to sit in at his table and another by his bed. They were made of red velveteen material that had worn bare on the cushion. Bernard also had a radio, a hot plate, a small television, and a bed. There were two electric ceiling lights under tin shades, a cupboard, and a bookshelf that held a clock, some magazines, and a fishbowl with a goldfish.
      The road the theater was on was blacktop. It was narrow and rutted with potholes, just down from the main street. After the theater, the road angled out to the river and the expanse of woods surrounding it. A park with swings, grass, and a small cement pond with late season ducks perched across from the theater. The grocery and department stores, a few other businesses, and the post office were within sight around the corner
       Bernard stood inside the warm lobby next to the ticket window leaning on a broom. He watched the rain add to the puddles in the muddy road through the open doors. Miss Donohue was watching the same thing inside the ticket window. The curtain between them was ajar. There was a light on over the refreshment counter in the lobby, and another in the ticket window. The matinee had started a long time ago, so no one was buying tickets or snacks; there weren’t many people who came on a Sunday afternoon, and there was no show at all that evening.
      Miss Donohue was a bit older than Bernard. She had been selling tickets for thirty-six years. She was a big woman who wore imitation pearl earrings, polka-dot dresses, and black shoes with thick rubber soles.
      “It’s dark early now,” she said looking out through the ticket window.
      “You’re right,” Bernard said.
      “I can’t remember it getting so dark this early in October, can you, Bernard?”
      He shrugged. “No, I guess not.”
      The rain had begun to lighten. In the warmth of the lobby, droplets of condensation had formed on the bottom of the ticket window. Bernard was aware of the smell of popcorn and the heavy, sweet aroma of Miss Donohue.
      “When was the last time you went up to Marquette Park?” Miss Donohue asked.
      “Oh, I go up there quite a lot.”
      “Yes, I know. When did you go last?” Miss Donohue was rolling tickets in a big spool on her lap, but she wasn’t looking at them.
      “Well, I went up there last week,” Bernard said.
      “Where did you go?”
      “Well, I went out and walked along the beach.”
      “It’s been years since I was up there,” Miss Donohue said. “Was it raining?”
      “Oh, I guess so,” said Bernard. “Seems like it was somewhere along, and the wind was sure blowing. It was blowing the waves around and my trousers back against my legs. That’s how windy it was.”
      “Good Lord, why did you go up there if the weather was like that?”
      “Well, I don’t know.”
      “Was the pavilion open?”
      “I didn’t check.”
      “How did you get up there this time, Bernard?”
      “Well, I took the bus. The one to Gary.”
      “You didn’t drive?”
      “No, I like the bus. There’s a local connection in Gary to the park.”
      “I heard the pavilion has been renovated. Did you take a look?” Miss Donohue looked away from the window and at Bernard for the first time.
      “No, I just went up there,” Bernard said.
      Miss Donohue turned back to the window and they resumed their study of the rain. Puddles had become large enough that some were beginning to join.
      Bernard looked across the street to the park where a teenage girl swung on the swings. She had her head back and appeared to be trying to catch raindrops on her tongue. From the light of a streetlamp, he could see that she was wearing a white dress with flowered print under a blue cloth coat and that her knees were muddy. Her brown hair hung stringy, wet and slick against her head. She seemed to be smiling with her mouth open and the rain hitting her face.
      “Look at that,” Bernard said.
      Miss Donohue followed his gaze. “She’s going to catch cold. I’ll tell you that much.”
      The girl hopped off the swing, picked up a paper bag, and walked over to the edge of the pond. She squatted next the water, took bread crusts from the bag, and tossed them in an awkward motion out among the ducks. They began dipping their heads furiously into the water. The girl put the bag and her hands between her knees, and covered her lower lip with her upper teeth. After they’d finished with the bread, the ducks, as if in flight, swam back around the outside of the pond, and a few pigeons crept onto the bank and pecked at crumbs that had scattered there.
      “Who is she?” Bernard asked.
      “The plumber’s daughter.”
      The girl stuffed the wet bag into her coat pocket and stood up. She walked over to a little bed of dying flowers next to some trees. She picked a few small, orange chrysanthemums that had passed bloom.
      “Where does she live?”
      “They used to live by the Catholic church, but after her father was killed, her mother moved them out of there.”
      “Her father, the plumber? She’s Bud Simoni’s daughter?”
      “You remember, he was hit by a truck last year near those taverns by the factory.”
      “Sure, I heard about that.”
      “I don’t know what he was doing down there,” Miss Donohue said. “Maybe he was doing something he shouldn’t have been. It was late at night.”
      The girl left the park along the road. She walked past the stores and the police station holding the flowers in her hand. Her face was down and the rain fell on the back of her head.
      “Why don’t I go and have her come in out of the rain?” Bernard asked.
       “No, let’s leave her alone. She’s probably going home.”
      “She can’t be fourteen years old.”
      “That’s all right. We’ve all been that age once. I was.”
      Bernard looked at her sitting with the roll of tickets like a heavy weight in her lap. They watched the girl walk down the street in the rain, with the quiet rhythm of it on the roof, the hum of the clock over the refreshment counter, and the murmur of soundtrack from the movie inside the theater. They said nothing for several moments until muffled noise rose from the theater and people began to emerge through the exits talking. Some were laughing because the movie had been a comedy. Miss Donohue walked up the little staircase behind the ticket window to the projection booth.
      Bernard waited for the theater to empty and then turned out the lights in the ticket window. He left the little lamp over the refreshment counter on. Miss Donohue came back downstairs and pulled the curtain to the ticket window. She put on her raincoat and locked the lobby doors from the inside.
      As she had every night they’d been together over those many years, she said, “Goodnight, Bernard.”
     They nodded to one another, and then Miss Donohue went out the front doors, closed them, and shook them hard to be sure they’d locked. Bernard pulled open a corner of the curtain and looked through the ticket window so he could see her open her umbrella under the awning. He watched her walk across the road to her car and drive away. He leaned into the ticket booth until he could no longer see the red glow of her taillights.
      Bernard went into the empty theater and swept all the rows to the middle, then swept everything up to the front. He swept all the trash onto a thin cardboard, an old movie poster that he kept under the stage. He pushed open the back alley door and threw the trash into the blue dumpster outside.
      It was full dusk, and he could smell the rain. The air was cold and full of its thick, dank odor and of the mud.   Across the alley behind the roller rink, he could see the girl who had been in the park and two boys standing under the dimly lit landing of the roller rink, smoking. One of the boys had his arm around the girl, and she was laughing, huddled close to him. Bernard could hear their muffled voices and the taped organ music coming from inside the roller rink. He watched the ashes spray out in the murky light as they flicked their cigarettes.
      “What a shame,” he whispered to himself.
      A car crawled by slowly in the alley with its headlights on. The headlights in the rain swept over the young people who stepped away from the glare. They crept closer together in the rain as it passed and continued down the hill towards the park.
      Bernard waited until he could no longer hear the car before he called, “Hey, how about some hot chocolate over there?”
      The three of them looked over at once. Bernard stood holding the cardboard in the rain.
      “No,” one of the boys said.
      There was a pause as they regarded one another, and the low sound of their muffled laughter followed. Bernard watched the girl shaking and laughing into the boy’s chest.
      “No, we sure don’t,” the boy holding her said loudly.
      Bernard watched them laughing quietly across the alley with their cigarettes glowing dimly in the soft darkness. He pushed back through the door into the theater and turned off the small, high, shaded lights along the walls. He slid the cardboard under the stage and walked back towards the lobby where he sat in the second seat in the last aisle. It was quiet; he could scarcely hear the rain on the roof. But, he could hear well the sound of the organ music at the rink across the alley, jolly and hopeful. He thought of Miss Donohue, his basement room, and the girl. He wondered what had become of the flowers she’d been carrying. He thought of the years behind him and those ahead. He sat very still and looked for the broom in his hands, but couldn’t see it in the darkness. 

~William Cass 
"Music Outside A Roller Rink" first appeared in The Rusty Nail.

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