Jerry cuts the engine and a news report about teens eating tide pods disappears. They let the heaviness settle over them. Some things never become routine. Anticipation makes mouths water and bodies hunger. Tom feels his fingertips tingle but refuses to let the energy manifest into anything visible. He sets his jaw. Flexes his fingers until they’re stone. Swallows anything that tries to crawl out his throat.
Jerry cracks his knuckles, patters the steering wheel to the beat of a song playing in his head and starts taking off his right shoe and sock.
“You’re kidding. Is that hygienic?” says Tom.
“It was either here or in my butt. Consider yourself lucky,” answers Jerry.
Tom concedes this point by remaining quiet.
Jerry shakes a small plastic bag out of his sock. At the sight of the baggy both drop their petty feud in support of their shared goal. Nothing paints over spats like a clear manifestation of a future. Wedding rings can smooth over irreconcilable differences for years.
Tom shakes two pills into his hand. He smells them, looks uncertain and then smells his armpits for comparison. Whatever the similarities, it doesn’t suppress his appetite.
He grinds the tablets into dust with his hammer thumbs and snorts it up from an uneven pile off the dashboard. Jerry looks much more regal and untheatrical sucking down his tablets dry.
Jerry turns to Tom seriously, “Are you ready for this?”
“It sounds like a sex shop,” says Tom.
Jerry glances at the neon lights of the roller rink, briefly registering THE LUCKY GLIDE but doesn’t react to the absurdity. “Don’t deflect. This is going to be awesome.”
“Give me 5 to get my head on.”
“Alright. Then let’s roll.” Finally, Jerry’s veneer cracks as the unintentional pun announces itself tardily in his logic. “This place. It’s amazing.”
They enter. There’s more to touch. More to think. More to believe. The lightness of the doors surprises Tom and he stumbles forward, landing in another world as if he’s fallen through a black hole. Minutes gain seconds, accumulating weight. Tom feels younger. Lasers and strobe lights reflect unevenly off a cascading disco ball, puking designs onto the roller rink floor which expand and collapse in on themselves, forging infinite moments of creation and simultaneous destruction.
Tom watches a star being born. Then he remembers to close his mouth. He wipes away a spittle of drool. The music is relentless. They have to push through it to get to the counter. Both stand before the teenage employee panting from the exertion.
“You want skates?” she tries. “SKATES?” She emphasizes her repeated question with a visual prop.
“Skates?” wonders Jerry.
“You know, to skate with,” she tries.
Jerry nods. Tom has to turn away.
They’re quick with the laces. The task focuses and calms them and before they realize it, they’ve transformed themselves into wheeled inventions capable of capricious destruction or beauty.
They enter the rink on baby giraffe legs. The floor dances below them. Only a grandfather and granddaughter are skating, and they quickly abandon their memory making as the two full grown men start scrambling around like unbridled gorillas.
Tom clings to Jerry like someone drowning. Jerry is actively discovering he’s a strong skater before quickly learning that braking is not in his repertoire. They glide unevenly like broken figurines. A group of teens watch them from small wooden bleachers. Their eyes are cracked and mouths dry. They whisper to each other in half-shouts and yell sporadically like braying donkeys.
Tom is concentrated and athletic. He gains confidence and takes bigger risks. The pair interlace hands and spin. “A Real Hero” by College and Electric Youth burrows into their consciousness, replacing thoughts. The song directs their bodies in inspired and absurd ways. They move. Free of their tired feet and tired, repetitive minds. Jerry does a hair’s breadth jump. His limbs flutter like malfunctioning wings. Tom spins until he’s sitting on the floor. The final chord buzzes through them and they hear a kid yell, “Douchebags!”
It breaks the spell. The world expands quickly, incorporating the room’s details. It takes Tom an exaggerated amount of time to realize the kids are yelling at them. The kids laugh and kick their feet in the air, letting joy shiver down their limbs and out their fingers, escaping into the atmosphere. Tom and Jerry blow around the outskirts of the rink. Neither speak. Jerry stops. Tom stumbles behind him, undermining his intimidation.
Before Jerry can begin one of the kids interjects.
“Sorry, man. We were just messin with you.”
They’re all wearing black hoodies and colorful stocking hats, which makes them difficult to count or distinguish.
“We didn’t mean nothing by it,” says the kid.
“How about as a peace offering you sell us a quarter of whatever you’re smoking?” says Jerry.
“Haha. Ok. I can happily arrange that. Why don’t you meet us around back in 10?”
Jerry nods and skates away gingerly, picking up speed until he reaches the center of the rink where he performs a flowing pirouette. Tom slips while mean mugging the teens.
They meet the teenagers outside the roller rink, around the back. They are huddled in a shadowy space on the edge of a grove of trees.
The one that speaks greets them, “Little taste?”
“Please,” answers Jerry.
The boy passes around a lit stick, and they take turns with it.
“What are you two called?” asks the teen.
Tom sucks from the joint and makes a sour face at Jerry before passing it along.
“I’m Jerry and this is my friend Tom.”
“Where do you come from? Nobody new comes through here”
“Awesome. Why the fuck are you here? I’m busting out of this shithole as soon as I graduate.”
“We’re just passing through. But we like it here.” Jerry sees an opportunity to answer a burning curiosity, “Can I ask you and your quiet friends a question.”
“You guys ever try Tide Pods?”
“What the fuck are you talking about?” splutters the kid through a puff of smoke.
“The news said kids are eating those detergent packets to get high. I was just wondering what it’s like.”
“That sounds fucked up.”
“My turn to ask a question,” counters the boy. “Do you believe in aliens?”
“Don’t know. Sure. Why not.”
“And you?” the boy asks turning toward Tom.
The teen shakes his head. “I don’t think your appreciating the weight of the question. I am literally asking; do you believe we are alone. In an infinitely expanding universe are we so special that there is nothing else like us. And which is scarier, that there are unknown conscious beings out there watching us, waiting, or that there is nothing and we are alone. Endlessly alone in all this infinity.”
He exhales smoke directly above him and takes a step away from the group, locking his gaze on the stars.
“Personally, I believe in them. There has to be more out there. Otherwise, what’s the point,” says the boy.
Tom rolls his eyes at Jerry and signals to him to move things along.
“That makes a lot of sense when the rest of existence seems so captivating from your little prison here in Virginia. Everything is big and wild and undiscovered. Why don’t you check back in with us after you’ve been out in the world for a while? But thanks for that little tidbit to chew on. Now, can we score a quarter? Something for the drive?”
“Right. Right. Business.”
The boy unslings his backpack and goes to open it. At the same moment Tom kicks the blue stocking cap in the crotch and puts the main kid in a headlock. He snaps the bag from his hands and tosses it to Jerry who rummages quickly through the contents before pulling out a large plastic bag of weed. The other teens are frozen. One spins in a circle, trying to execute 12 thoughts simultaneously and then puts his hands up.
“Look what I found,” announces Jerry.
The boy wrestles in Tom’s embrace. “What the fuck? You can’t do that.”
Tom gives the boy a hard push toward Jerry who kicks him in the leg, flipping him backwards onto the ground.
“Go tell your daddy on us. And by the way, you aren’t special. Nobody is out there watching you. Your life isn’t a movie. You are alone. And now I have your weed, you spoiled brat.”
Tom feints a punch toward another teen who ducks and covers his head. The others step back and look at their feet. Then the two men make their way back to the car, throw the weed under the passenger’s seat and start driving north, disappearing from the tiny town, quickly forgetting they were ever there.
The teens can’t look each other in the eye for a good long while. There is plenty of blame to go around. They had thought they were tough. Thought toughness was all they had. But these two men showed them what truly having nothing but toughness meant. It was more about the nothing than it was the toughness, more about what you couldn’t lose than being anything at all. Eventually, they dusted themselves off, cursed the men with a vibrant celebration of teenage profanity and moved on, a little angrier. For some this anger dissipated by the time they were home. For others, it clung to them like a shadow which slowly elongated with every slight until nothing remained except themselves against the winds of the ever turning bitter world.