|The Skate Key
stands there looking up at the craftsman house. It is a
cloudless day, the first in months, in the spring of the
year. She will begin public school in the fall.
Her thoughts of the dark winter times have faded. She
is out of doors, in the shadow of the parkway tree,
looking to her right and left, up at the branches of the
tree, then down to see a pair of roller skates dangling
in her right hand, her fingers wrapped around the
leather straps. On the end of each strap is a buckle.
The straps are attached to her skates. The shiny metal
ball-bearing wheels are still, waiting. On her feet are
loose-laced Buster Brown heavy-duty shoes: reinforced
metal tips covering the toes, metal plates on the soles,
both front and back. But, something is missing.
She reaches up and touches her chest. Her skate key!
It should be on a string hanging around her neck. In a
flash she knows who has it. Where was he? He was not
anywhere around! Not in the house, or the back yard, or
in the garage. No! He is skating! She is not!
She is furious, so furious that she begins shouting
and continues to shout his name, "Shelly! Shelóly, where
are you? Bring back my skate key! Shelly, I know you
took it, bring it back! Now! SHELLY!"
She looks at the unscreened window of the house;
expecting to see a face, see the front door open. She
waits, she looks, and when no face appears, she sees
each of the three faces that could appear.
Now if a brown face, with black hair
appears it would smile at me, disappear, open the front
door, walk to my side with soft said wise words. If a
brown haired white face appears, there would be a smile,
a nod, the front door would open gently, and this one
would also move to me, to comfort and embrace me with
reassuring arms. But, if a white face with blond hair
appears there would be no smile. The pale face would
disappear, the front door would be thrown open, and I
would hear the sound of my name shouted from the porch
in accusing tones.
Her first choice, the one she hoped to see at the
window, was the brown face of Mae. Mae would move to
open the front door, step across the porch, down the
grassy path, to the sidewalk, and say, "Child, what are
you squalling Ďbout? If you needs somethiní, go and get
it direct, your shoutiní wonít do a thing but exercise
Your mom wonít have none of this shoutiní neither.
Donít wake her up, make her upset."
Then I would say, "Iíll quit shouting! But, Shelly
has the skate key. My skate key! I know he does. He
canít find his. He is so stupid but he knows that
without a skate key I canít keep the skates on my shoes.
Heís mean and selfish. Besides that he walks funny, big
flat feet that point out like a ducks. I donít know why
he has to live with us. You and Mommy and I should be on
our own. Shelly and his mom donít need to live here."
And Mae would say, "Child, just get on with your
Second choice was the white face with the brown hair.
Not only would she smile from the window --- it would be
a worried smile, but still a smile--- she would come out
of the house, down the steps to the sidewalk, consoling,
"Sh, sh, sh, donít shout, youíll wake your mother.
Tell Aunt Willa whatís wrong." I would tell her and then
she would say, "Take my hand, baby, weíll walk together.
Letís go and find Shelly and your skate key. Here, let
me carry your skates. Youíre so little to be skating let
alone searching around the block by yourself."
Her non-choice was the face she did not want to see:
the white face with the blond hair; and no telling what
would happen if she came out of the house. Look out me
and look out Shelly!
Someone is home. Someone is always home: But no face
comes to the window, no one opens the door, and nobody
comes out onto the front porch, or down the path. "Skate
key" has become more important then any other word; it
is the only meaningful word that relates to an object of
the highest value in her right-now life. Without it she
is stranded. With it she could travel--- going every
place in general, but no place in particular. Her mouth
is set in a tight, determined expression. She knows what
she must do, what she expects of herself: The plan is
simple. Find Shelly! Get the "skate key!"
First she puts her skates on the cement sidewalk.
With both hands free she pulls up her socks, reties and
double-bows her shoe laces, smoothes down her dress,
sweeps her long dark curls away from her face grabs her
skates by their straps and sets out marching along the
sidewalk, down the street, moving toward the corner,
chanting "Step on the cracks, Step on the cracks!"
Pauses. Or is it "Donít step on the cracks?"
She is kicking at stones with her steel tipped shoes,
swinging her skates by their long buckle ended straps
trying to remember the rest of the verse.
Even before she can reach the corner she hears the
sound of a truck. It must be Wednesday! And there it
comes. Moving along. Stopping at each homeís curbside.
The two black garbage collector men are about their
business; one is driving, the other standing on a shelf
that is attached to the right side of the tailgate.
Gracefully he reaches out with his right arm, his hand
grabs the bail of the bucket; in a nimble effortless
movement the bucket is swinging in an arc over the back
of the truck, the contents spilling out on the already
high pile of garbage, disturbing only the flies that
follow and ride along for the entire trip, and the pail,
back on the curb only inches from its original position.
She is always amazed watching their skill and
efficiency. The men are her friends. Each week she helps
to put the garbage pail at the curb. Each week she waves
to the men and each week they shout at her, smiling
She remembers her focus, her mission: Finding Shelly
and the skate key. Now, where would he be? Not at the
corner house. No. The German family lives there. I like
the lady; she makes pickled pigís feet. Weíre not
supposed to go into the house. Not to reach into the
giant brine filled jar with our hands. Not to eat the
pigís feet. I donít know why. I do talk to the lady, I
reach into the jar, get one of the pigís feet, that is
whenever no one is around to tell on meĺ
and that no one is Shelly. And where is that big
She walks on and on, up the street, peering into each
yard. There are trees in the front yards and shade, lots
of shade. Cool dark shade. She decides to rest and think
away from the glare of the cement sidewalk. She puts her
skates down by the Elm tree trunk, plops down, sitting
with her legs crossed Indian fashion, all but
disappearing into the shadows.
She reasons. I need to be ready. When I find
Shelly, how will I get my skate key? What would Mae say?
I know, "Take care of your business. Do what you have to
do." Aunt Willa would tell me that kindness is the best
way. Be polite. Just walk up to him and say please, that
you need the skate key and that we can share.
But, what if that doesnít work? I will be like
mother. I will step out in front of him, plant my feet,
my hands on my hips, give him the hard eye, put out my
hand and wiggle my finger. Just stand, stare, wiggle
that finger and wait. Which one?
And, then, she hears the sound of metal skate wheels
grinding on the sidewalk. There he is! She does not
move. She is watching him come closer. He rolls down the
sidewalk. The key is dangling from its cord in his hand.
She waits. Silently, she moves. Now she is standing.
She has picked up her skates. They are hanging from
her hands at the end on their straps. He is just about
to whiz past. Out she jumps, yelling
ĺ "Shelly, you stop right here, give me back my
skate key!" He is so startled that he doesnít see the
crack in the sidewalk. It catches one of the skate
wheels and, zippo; he turns into a sack of spilled
beans, all over the place, on his back like a turtle.
One skate is flopping around his ankle. The other is
still attached to his shoe. She is standing over him.
Her tiny figure is hovering over his large body. He
twists and turns and manages to rise to a standing,
"Give it to me!" She points to the object of her
desire. The next moment she is on the ground.
Darkness overwhelms her: Stars flash, oceans roar,
bells ring. Then silence. She regains her senses. She is
surprised to find the sidewalk so close. Her head is
throbbing. Her mouth hurts. She puts her free hand to
the back of her head. There is an egg-size lump. She
rubs the lump. She licks her lips. The taste is awful.
She rolls over to her left side and manages to get
herself to a sitting position. She moves her head from
side to side, looks around. She is alone. It comes back.
She had been reaching for her skate key. Shelly had
pushed her. Where was he? She crawls over to the grass
and into the shade. Her head is throbbing.
She thinks. If I were Shelly where would I be
right now? What would I be doing? Hum, if I were Shelly.
IĎd be hiding. Not too far away, but close by. Close
enough to see me but unseen by me. So. She
looked around and she saw a perfect place for
observation and concealment. It had to be the porch of
Thatís where she wouldíve hidden. But, she knew what
he did not; that this front porch had only one entrance
and one exit to the street. It would be a trap. If he
were hiding there she would have to surprise him. He
mustnít get away. He still had the skate key and now she
had another score to settle.
She got up without even a glance at the porch, walked
a bit further up the street. Then, hidden by big bushes,
she dashed up the neighboring driveway, crouching in the
protection of the dense shrubs. Nothing hurt! She
surveyed the lay of the land between herself and the
porch. Figured that crawling next to the house, screened
behind the bushes, would conceal her until the final
She begins a careful, sightless, soundless move back
through the skate key battlefield and closer to the
Shellycave. She is stealth itself.
When she reaches the edge of the porch she pauses.
Peeks over from behind the red Camellia and let her eyes
become accustomed to the darker interior ─ she could see
She could make out his crouched figure at the far end
of the porch, his attention directed toward the street
side. Just keep it that way, fool, she is thinking as
she picked up a dirt clod and then, barely moving her
body, tossed it out to the street side of the house.
Shelly leaned forward, peering in the direction that
he heard the sound. She made her move!
Stooped over, feet moving, head low; she scurried
around from the corner of the porch, to the entrance. Up
the steps, to his corner, it took her just a few
seconds, now she was the one hovering. Her hand was out.
"Give me my skate key!" He tried to get to his feet. Not
Swish! Womp! Smack! Somehow the skates still gripped
by their ankle straps in her hand have come to life.
They know how to "take care of their business." His head
is bowed and bloody, his feet are moving, the skate key
is on the ground. Heís crying. Heís running. Heís
bleeding. Heís screaming. "Iím gonna tell, Iím telling.
My mom, your mom, theyíre gonna get you. Just wait Ďtill
you get home. You be sorry!" Heís down the steps of the
porch, across the yard and up the street; she had never
seen him move so fast. She hadnít thought that it was
possible with flat duck feet.
With great calm, dignity and pleasure she retrieves
the dropped skate key. Sitting on the top step of the
porch steps: she places her skates on the ground, slips
her heavy-duty shoes onto the metal platforms. She
positions the closed wrench end of the skate key on the
toe-tightening bolt. The toe holders glide into position
between the shoe tops where they meet the sole.
She turns the mechanism until she is sure that the
skates are on for the duration. She looks down at her
feet. She smiles and thinks aloud, Iím on my way!
She slides her bottom down one step; she stands;
looks up as she suspends the skate key necklace over her
head. The string becomes a rainbow colored ribbon; the
skate key a silver star that glistens in the sunlight.
She lowers her medal of valor, lets the ribbon settle on
her shoulders, runs her fingers along the material, the
emblem comes to rest on her chest. With great ceremony
she strokes her medal and then, as she has been taught,
transfers the key from front to back. She takes her
first steps and then glides onto the surface of the
smooth pavement, feeling like the winged horse in her
But, she didnít get far before the picture of Shelly
his face covered with blood floats up before her. She
had, no, the skates had, cut his forehead
open above his right eye. The magic skates became heavy,
her feet and legs became wooden, uncooperative.
She tumbled off of her raceway onto the grass:
didnít want to hurt him so much. The skates did it! I
did it too. We did it.
She can feel her legs and feet come back to life. She
zips up the street, around the corner; waves to no one,
stops for no one. And there she is, in front of her
house and there he is. Crying, bleeding, pointing.
Mother, Aunt Jean, Aunt Willa and Mae appear.
There is enough ice for the both of them. They sat on
the sofa nursing their wounds, he on one end and she on
the other. An ice pack on the front of his head, an ice
pack on the back of hers.
They sat there alone for a long time. Boredom. He
looked miserable, the girl thoughtful. So, then, she
glanced over to his defeated figure and said softly:
"Shelly, hey, Shelly, want to go skating?"