Short story from the 2012 issue.
By Abe Aamidor
The package rested on the clean snow on my small front porch. Boot tracks from the postman looked fresh; I don’t know how I missed hearing the gravelly whir of his diesel truck engine when he pulled up. I looked through the small pane of glass in my front door, up and down the street, but I only had a shallow angle to view things. Tufted clouds hung suspended from the sky above and the air outside seemed gray, the thin transparent color of cold. No cars moved on the street. No one ever walked here in winter.
It was cold outside. I hadn’t picked up the mail in three days. I sniffled and wiped my nose, then I opened the door, took two steps forward and kicked the cardboard box back toward the threshold. There was six inches of snow outside, just like the weather lady on TV predicted.
From behind the glass in my front door, I had only seen the wind, but I could hear it now. The wind doesn’t whistle like they write in storybooks. It races past you like spirits and you can’t catch it, can’t catch them. I listened to the wind play as I stood on my front porch and I could see a depth to the individual clouds better now that I stood outside. I hadn’t been outside in three days, not since the temperature dropped and snow began to fall. I didn’t care about the mail. But a package? Might be something, I said to myself. This was as close to feeling like Christmas coming as it was ever going to get in my old age.
“Kokomo, Ind.,” read the return address. There was neither a sender’s name nor even a street address. I guessed I was supposed to know who the sender was. The sender was certainly someone who knew me.
I carried the box, one of those 12-inch square jobs you can get at Office Depot for $3.49 and build it yourself, and put it on the table in my dining room, not really a dining room, just a nook between the kitchen and living room where I took my meals. I walked over to the fireplace in the far wall, taking only one look backward at the box, and stoked the fire, then I put on another split log. I returned to the dining room table. Who did I still know in Kokomo, Indiana?
The box was sealed well with quality plastic tape and I couldn’t rip it open easily. I pulled open a drawer in the kitchen and took out a butter knife, then exchanged it for a steak knife. But before returning to the box I pulled down a bottle of Wild Turkey from the cupboard, poured a little in a dirty glass on the counter and took a swig. Let’s just see now who sent me something from Kokomo, Indiana.
Behind the tape, behind the cardboard flaps and under several dry, crumpled newspaper pages were a pair of old-fashion, high top ice skates. The black leather was cracked in places, and as I lifted one skate I saw the sole had begun to separate just a bit from the boot. Somebody had sent me a pair of old, used ice skates. My ice skates.
These were the skates I had loaned Wes Dobbins in middle school. I felt the leather—stiffer than I recalled, with the wrinkles at the ankles now permanent creases—and as I ran my fingers along the blade of one skate I was struck by how wide it felt, and not so sharp. These were beginner’s skates, well used, that’s all. I set the skates on the table top, took out the rest of the crumpled newspaper and turned the box over. There was no letter or explanation, but I didn’t need one.
Wes and I were not really best friends growing up in Kokomo, at least not for long. His dad worked on a line at the Chrysler transmission plant and my dad was an engineer for Delco, salaried not hourly. Dad had worked on the design for the first push button car radio; he used to joke that that’s what helped win the war, which I didn’t understand at all, but he had a kind of self-deprecating Bob and Ray sense of humor. Later, he worked on power window motors. Union guys like Wes’s dad did not really mingle much with salaried employees who wore suits and ties, and ditto for their kids. But Wes and I met one Sunday afternoon out on frozen Wildcat Creek in January, maybe it was February, and I had ice skates, he didn’t. I watched him sliding on the smooth ice several feet at a time on the leather soles of his shoes as I stood at the creek’s edge. The snow had thawed and frozen again and the creek was glassy smooth, very good for skating down its winding ways. You could see bubbles of air caught on the bottom of it, but the ice was a foot thick. We didn’t need anyone to tell us it was safe.
“Hey, kid, where’d you lose your skates,” I yelled at this other boy. Wes just kept sliding away from me before he turned and started pushing back toward me, pushing off more like a cross-country skier might, except he had to take a couple of extra steps each time before pushing off. I’ll always remember his smile the first time I saw him up close. He had coarse red hair that stuck out from the sides of his baseball cap and big teeth. He just seemed like the friendliest kid I ever met.
“Bet I can beat you to the Rexall,” this boy said to me. Didn’t even offer his name. “Got a head start,” he yelled, and he lit out before I could get my skates on. He was just around the bend before I got the laces tied.
I caught up with Wes by the big split in the Wildcat Creek. “What’s your name, kid?” I called out as I swung round his side and made a T-stop in front of him. He looked me over, pouting his lips like he was mulling an answer, and then told me his name was Wes.
I nodded. “I’m Dennis,” I answered, smiling, too, because I knew what the rebuttal would be. I always knew that.
“Whoa,” he crowed, turning his head away from me and scanning the denuded trees along the steep, creekside banks and up at the sound of distant cars on the street overpasses a ways off. “Dennis the Menace. Well, how do you do!”
I had blonde hair then. A cowlick, too. I still have hair, but it’s not blonde.
“Haw, haw, haw,” I said, making an exaggerated guffaw and wrinkling my nose. I put out my hand and we shook.
They still sold sodas at neighborhood drug stores in towns like Kokomo in those days. Wes waited patiently while I unlaced my skates, then hung them over my shoulder. I put on my boots and we climbed the creekside to street level. As I was about to pull open the front door to the Rexall Wes grabbed my arm, startling me just for an instant. “I don’t have any money,” he said. He wasn’t pathetic at all, though I didn’t know that word then. He looked at me almost shyly. He was asking me if I was going to pay. I hit him on the chest with the back of my hand, but not too hard. “Course I’m gonna pay,” I told him. “My dad runs Delco. What does your daddy do?”
We sat at the counter, not a booth, because that felt more like sidling up to the bar inside a tavern. A guy in a white apron and white and red paper hat approached us from behind the counter and held his hand out, palm up, before he took our order. Wes and I both laughed.
“I got money, don’t you worry about that,” I told the soda jerk. “And I’m not gonna be working here when I’m your age, neither.”
Wes’s dad ran a drill press and helped make pinion gears for Chrysler Newports. “Man, I like those cars,” I told Wes. “The hardtops with the really long fins. Jeez.”
“What does your dad drive?” Wes asked me. I delayed answering momentarily. I didn’t want to be too boastful. “Olds 98,” I replied.
“Whoa,” said Wes, flailing his right hand like he had just been burned after touching something. “We got a ‘52 Plymouth Belvedere.” I couldn’t tell if he was ashamed. The Plymouths had a nice plush velour interior, though. There was nothing wrong with them. Then I confessed that my dad only drove an Olds 88 with the straight six, not a V-8 motor at all.
Wes explained that he was going to try out for an ice skating team the UAW sponsored. Kids would travel to Marion and Muncie and Fort Wayne and Indianapolis and Bedford and Connersville and maybe even Detroit itself, or at least Lansing, Michigan, to play other UAW youth teams. “Where does the team practice?” I asked.
The soda jerk brought us our phosphates—me, chocolate, Wes, cherry. I had already paid him. The Rexall counter had a brass National Cash Register at one end and the counter top itself was marble. The back bar, which is all I can call it now, was mirror-lined and I knew that the older kids all liked to muss with their hair while they looked at themselves in it. We sat on stools with fluted chrome rings around the seats and sparkly, red plastic seat covers. The soda fountain was deep in the store and not so well-lit.
“We practice out by Firehouse No. 3,” Wes answered. “They build up a little rink in winter.” I remember very well how they did that— build a little dirt berm about six inches high all around a level lot, then flood everything. It would freeze overnight. This was a big thing to watch in Kokomo in the late 1950s.
“You practice in those shoes?” I asked Wes, winking, but not looking down at his feet.
Chagrined, he laughed, though I’m sure I didn’t know the word chagrined back then either. “Naw. My dad says he’s gonna get me some new skates. Riedell, too.”
Riedell! Whoa, I thought. “They sure know ice in Minnesota,” I said. That’s where Riedell skates were made and they were the best, most expensive skates you could buy. This kid Wes wasn’t going to get Riedell skates. I took the cheap skates I had, which still were slung over my left shoulder with the laces tied together in a kind of bow, and I put them over Wes’s shoulder. His eyes lit up. Wes didn’t expect that. It was better than being blood brothers.
Dad had got a promotion that winter and was transferred out of state. We left right away, didn’t even wait until the end of the school year. I was excited to go to new places back then. I never thought about those skates again, either. Now, 50 years on and more, Wes Dobbins had returned them to me. Or, perhaps, someone else had returned them, someone who knew they were mine, who had at least learned this from Wes.
I sat down on one of the ladder-back chairs at my dining room table and beheld the skates as if on an altar before me. I smiled, then I removed my shoes and tried on each skate. I stood up on the metal blades without lacing the boots and, after steadying myself with one hand on the table, I stretched out my arms fore and aft and leaned forward as if I were a speed skater. The boots fit fine and I didn’t falter. I sat down again, removed the skates and tied the laces together.
I donned an old sweatshirt and a cable knit sweater over that and grabbed a square-tipped shovel from the garage—it took me less than an hour to clear the driveway. When I was finished I tossed the skates onto the passenger seat of my Honda Civic and slowly backed the car into the street. If necessary, I’d drive all the way to Kokomo, Indiana to find an ice rink.