02 Return Of The Rollergirls
When the first palm blister popped, Iz knew she was way in over her old head. Digging a hole sounded easy enough: shovel goes in – dirt comes out. And there you go. And maybe that’s how it went. And.
And the snow fell. Vertical, then sideways, then from all directions at once. Shit.
The first two inches of soil was frozen hard as cement which was hell enough, and she might have been able to get through it under better circumstances but the cold drew down Izzy’s strength more quickly than the digging itself. Her twiggy arms, buried in the fat waffle sleeves of a church free-box coat, were wiggly and weak. All at once the shattered-ice wind seemed alive and evil, leeching warmth and will from her thin bones. She managed to get the shovel handle wedged under her armpit like a crutch just thin seconds before gravity won out and brought her ass-down in the snow. Her fingers were numb, stupid claws from the cold. Didn’t matter. She knew where the go-go pills were: left outside pocket wrapped in an empty Splenda packet taped over with the remains of a UPC sticker from…from, what? The hammer? The roll of film? God, this fucking cold. She tore the packet with her teeth, shaking the uppers on to her tongue. She let the wind snatch the packet from her fingers. It took a few minutes to generate enough spit to get the pills down, and by then they were almost paste but she got ’em down just the same.
Izz leaned on the shovel waiting for the fresh electricity to zizz into her blood, hoping her old motor would fire on more than one wheezy cylinder. The cold had done its damage, though. She could feel everything, each injury and injustice reciting its place place and time. An elbow shattered in Beaumont, Texas. A concussion in Huntsville, Alabama. A dislocated shoulder in Greeley, Colorado.
The track at the University Of Northern Colorado in Greeley wasn’t too bad for a bit of home-grown engineering. Unlike the track those mafia idiots in Tampa had set up, the track that collapsed fifteen minutes into the match, the collapse that got the Roller League shut down in Florida for over a year. The track those Colorado shit-farmers built was solid, the crowds were loud and their team, dirty. Izz loved that. Dirty was good show business.
From the opening gun, the Greeley Dealies punched, scratched and elbowed. Izz and the rest of the Brooklyn Bombers gave it back and then some. The Dealies principle blocker, a Ma Kettle-looking beast over six-two in socks and easily a hundred and eighty pounds, gave Izz a forearm shiver to the throat that made her gray out. Now that’s some skatin’. But Izz had dosed up on bennies, a margin most skaters allowed themselves in those days. She shook off the black flies that buzzed in her vision and was back on her wheels before the ref could get the whistle in his mouth. “It was nothin’, ” Izz croaked, “She’s a creampuff!” Ma Kettle was looking right at Izz from the Dealie’s bench, cool as cool. She winked.
City life had certainly made the Bombers tough. Their 15-2 record for ’64 proved that beyond any doubt, but these farmgirls – shit – what did they do out here? Milk cows? Lift cows? Wrestle cows? The Bombers had their asses handed to them fair and square. After the crowd cleared out, and the Johnnies were shooed away, someone got the idea that they should all pile into the Bomber’s bus and head to a barn dance twenty minutes to the north on highway 85 in Ault.
Ault, Colorado didn’t have a traffic light or even a paved main street street but apparently barn dances were one thing they could claim. Well, let’s define the terms here. It wasn’t a barn, exactly, it was several barns and what appeared to be part of a grain silo cobbled together with tarpaper and shingles, all lit up like some hillbilly dream-castle. This clearly wasn’t going to be a 4-H Club swing-yer-partner dance. No.
Izz guessed they were at least a half-mile away from the barn but vehicles were already stacked along the sides of the road, which abruptly dead-ended where some eager (or lazy) sodbuster abandoned his John Deere across both lanes, the keys still swinging from the ignition. They left the bus right there and headed towards the lights, towards the sound of Johnny Horton’s “North To Alaska” being beaten within an inch of its life. The girls, who had been eagerly beating each other just a few hours ago, shouted, laughed and slung their arms around each other like old army-buddies. Most of them cleaned up pretty good, too. The skirts were tight, hair was high and necklines low. The only standout was Ma Kettle, who, astonishingly wore overalls, a man’s workshirt and monstrous lace-up clodhoppers. She took huge thumping strides ahead of them, one arm swinging free, the other weighed down with the biggest goddammed jug of whiskey Izz had ever seen. She suspected it was home-made.
The inside of the barn reminded Izz of pictures she’d seen of Times Square when the war ended. It also reminded her of pictures she’d seen of the war itself. From wall-to-wall, skirts, pointy boots and cowboy hats hopped, kicked and twirled underneath an electric spider’s web of bare lightbulbs strung from the rafters on old asbestos-covered wire. On a bandstand made of fieldstones and rough planks, a slicked-back quartet in buckskin and fringe pounded out cornpone jive so loud it made Izzy’s eyes buzz. Near the back, a massive door had been thrown open to the flat prairie night where an Indian family sold blood-runny slabs of barbecued meat served on bread which they fried in a black iron pot suspended over can of burning kerosene. Men scooped up cups of beer from a metal trough set in a pile of ice. It seemed as if everyone, like Ma Kettle, had brought their own personal supply of firewater. The Bombers of Brooklyn, New York thought they’d seen it all and done it all. Chalk it up to youth, blame it on the bravado and arrogance freely owned by most New Yorkers. This definitely took the fucking cake.
As the girls came in all frosted and teased, they were greeted like John Glenn returned from orbit: hugs, hoots, back-slaps and even a few un-Glenn-worthy ass-grabs. Some of the crowd Izz recognized from the match that night but most looked like they’d just rolled out of the cabbage patch. A sunburned fireplug of a man who reeked of tobacco juice and Tres Flores oil grabbed Izzy’s hand and whipped her on to the dance floor as if she were a paper doll. “Wanna see if y’ can dance! ” he yelled. Through “Diggy-Liggy-Lo”, “Go Home”, “Big Midnight” and a bunch of other songs Izz had never heard of, she shook her butt like it was the last night on earth as the barn boomed like a giant heart.
The songs played. The booze flowed. The air became almost unbreathable with smoke from the cooking meat. The shouts and laughter merged into a seamless roar. Izzy’s dancing cowboy seemed coated in oily sweat, his face red, wild and blind. She felt the barn turn and spin. A skinny Navajo holding his bloody mouth stumbled into her, knocking Izz to the dirt floor among the cigarette butts and uneaten food. She looked up and caught a glimpse of a red-spattered axe-handle as it completed an arc into the back of the Indian’s skull with a crack that rang out over the din like a single gunshot. A boot heel dug into her hand as she tried to get up and she was pressed down by the growing mayhem above her. People were falling and grabbing. Through the shifting lattice of legs and arms Izz saw the young Navajo down flat on the earth. He had just the slightest wisp of a mustache on his soft face, eyes like black glass looking past this world and in to the next. Izz went gray for the second time that day.
The pain in her shoulder brought her back, a red-iron explosion at the socket that brought the night back in a violent rush: she was aware that she was moving. Up, it seemed. Her feet dangled above the floor and she thought of Peter Pan. The walls, the lights, the screaming faces and flying hands swept past her face until she saw ice-chip stars hanging in the cold Colorado sky.
Ma Kettle lowered Izz to her feet and slowly let go of her wrist, easing her wrenched arm down to her side. Kettle was smiling broad as a billboard. “You ’bout got squashed like a bug, ” she said. The way she said “bug” had two, maybe three syllables and that was the goddamn funniest thing Izz had ever heard in her entire life. Izz laughed until she peed like a child.
It turned out that Ma Kettle’s real name was almost as bad: Katia Gunders. On the track they sometimes called her Katy Guns but that was a long time ago.
Izz slipped the shovel out from under her armpit and tested her legs. Solid. Her heart was moving again and she felt amphetimine-warmth in her hands. The prairie of Colorado was as flat and unflinching as she remembered it, so far away from the warm beaches of Gulf Shores, Alabama that Izz had called home for almost thirty years. Izz jabbed the shovel into the ice and continued digging. She knew how keep a secret. She knew how to return a favor.
Text and images © Andrew Auten – All Rights Reserved.