White Shoulders


Rick Scheideman



            Sweat trickles from his armpits and wets both sides of the button-down shirt. Tommy waits for change from the five dollars he handed to the bubble-gum chewing girl sitting astride a chrome-legged stool. She fumbles through a metal cash box. With the sun not more than a half-an-hour above the mountains to the west, August heat shimmers in pools off of the asphalt parking lot. Eric sits on the passenger side of the car and wipes his ample face with a handkerchief; his three-inch high flattop begins to melt.

                        “How much you got?”

                        “The change back from parking, four-seventy-five.”

                        “Ain’t much.”

                        “It’s enough. How much you got?”

“Sixteen bucks, Daddy-O. I suckered my old man out ten; told him I’d cut the grass for a month without bellyaching. Promised him I’d even pick up the clippings. He’s so easy.”

The girl turns toward Tommy with a pink balloon obscuring all but her eyebrows. When she extends her hand, the Bazooka bursts, her breath, sticky sweet.

                        “Enjoy your day at Elitch’s.”

                        “Thanks. Where’d you get the other six bucks?”

                        “I beg your pardon?”

                        “Sorry. I was talking to him.”

            Embarrassed, Tommy jams the automatic transmission into low and squeals the tires. Eric explains that he liberated the money from his younger sister’s piggy bank. Years ago he figured how to slide bills out with a couple of toothpicks. She wouldn’t notice until she breaks open the bank; he’d pay her back by then.

            Standing alongside the ‘55 Ford, Tommy looks at his reflection in the side window and unbuttons the top button on his shirt then quickly closes it again. The car sports a wax job. The beige and crème two-tone shines in the setting sun. This morning, with a bottle of black shoe polish, he darkened the tires, careful not to touch the thin whitewalls. Now he winces at several dark smudges. He figures he can replace the marred whitewalls; they’re fake. But he dreads the process. Twice he consumed an entire Saturday: jacking up the car a wheel at a time; removing and deflating the tire; placing the flange of the mock whitewall between the rim and the tire; re-inflating the tire; placing the wheel back on the lug bolts; snugging the nuts to get them to seat; reversing the jack. After tightening the bolts, the process repeats three times.

            No amount of scrubbing a smudged whitewall with a rag soaked in gasoline returns it to perfection. He knows this from experience; trying to fix it makes it worse. If he can’t ignore the blemish, he will definitely need to replace the whitewalls. Maybe take them off for good, but he fancies that thin white stripe. Tommy sighs and looks at the coppery glow from the tops of the elms and cottonwoods along 38th Avenue.

            On the opposite side of the car, Eric attends to his own primping in the reflective window. From the front pocket of his belt-in-the back khakis, he retrieves a red plastic cylinder of Butch Hair Wax. Expertly, he daubs the front row of hair and curries a small steel comb through his sticky brown hair. Then he turns his head side-to-side, peers, and spies the enemy, a white tipped pimple. He squeezes and then holds a finger against a bit of blood.

            At last, the actors leave their dressing rooms for the stage. The two young men strut with proud chests and the click of penny loafers against the concrete sidewalk. Colored lights festoon the top of a white picket fence; the sun disappears behind Mt. Evans. Profuse in hanging baskets, petunias, pansies, fire-red geraniums, and sweet william evoke not even a flicker of attention from Tommy or Eric. They fancy different blossoms. 

            At a dime a ride, Eric buys fifty tickets; his companion lays down a dollar for ten. Without counting, Eric tears off a strip and stuffs them in Tommy’s shirt pocket.

                        “Come on, let’s grab a burger.”

“Go ahead. I ain’t hungry yet.”

                        “The hell you ain’t. You’re always hungry. On me.”


                        “You drove, okay? Let me get the eats. You can owe me.”

                        “Buy me a Coke. I’ll eat later.”

                        “Alright, a Coke and fries.”

                        “Yeah, okay.”

Alternating between a paper envelope of hot french fries in one hand and a bottle of Coke in the other, the boys satisfy their hunger but not their excitement. Eric forgets about his pimples and captures another fry between his tongue and teeth. Few rides have lines of waiting people, but soon enough they will on a Saturday night. Eric feints with his left shoulder, pivots a quarter- turn, jumps, and lofts a ten-footer with his crumpled cup toward a green trashcan. He misses, ignores it, and walks toward the Wildcat, a roller coaster of national reputation. Fetching the cup, Tommy tries a hook-shot wide by two feet, fails a second time, so dunks the cup in the green hoop and runs to catch up with Eric.

After riding the Wildcat four times in succession, Tommy notices the taste of greasy fries in the back of his throat. Enough. Maybe too much. As they wind down the stairs of the exit, they hear Patty screeching.

                        “Hey pretty boys, we’ll go on the roller coaster with you!”

Rhonda adds something they can’t hear. Eric’s friends from school.

                        “Hey, pretty mommas.”

                        “Ah no, I’m not up for them.”

                        “They’re alright Tom-old- boy. Come on it’ll be fun.

Feeling ill, Tommy lags behind. A boy named Gil, who graduated last year, is sandwiched between the two girls, an arm dangles around each of their necks. Rhonda is quiet, but Patty blabbers with energy encouraged by Eric’s laughter. Gil lusts after a passing woman.

                        “Woah! man, get a load of the jugs on that chick.”

                        “Falsies, Gilbert. Can’t you tell? Those are pure foam rubber, dumb-ass.”

“Nuh uh. Look at them bounce. Falsies don’t bounce like that. They’re the real thing.”

“Look numb butt, you’re so stupid you wouldn’t know the real things if you laid a hand on them.”

Gil reaches down to squeeze Patty’s breast; but she brushes away his hand and quickly turns her back on him.

                        “Hey, don’t be grabbing me if you know what’s good for you!”

Rhonda lights a cigarette and blows the smoke in Gil’s face.

                        “You make me sick.”

                        “Ah, come on, Miss Prissy, don’t get mad.”

Eric jumps in with a solution.

“Hey, tell you what, let’s ride the last two cars on the roller coaster. I got tickets for everybody. It’ll be a blast. Come on, let’s do it.

As he passes out the tickets, Tommy shakes his head.

                        “I’m going to sit this one out, man.”

Eric slips a ticket in his bulging shirt pocket.

“Come on, buddy. It’ll be a real blast with all of us. We can stand up on the first hill like we did last time, but it’ll be wilder in the back.”

“Nah. My gut’s a little loopy. I’ll catch you later.”

Gilbert mocks him.  No matter. Tommy walks away and finds a familiar pathway under a canopy of trees. He hears horns and woodwinds in close harmony, the sounds of a big band. Even though nauseous, he’s drawn by the music while the evening softens.

Tommy’s mother told him stories about the Trocadero Ballroom. She and her younger sister, Ruth, danced here during the Second World War with airman from Lowry or soldiers posted at Fort Carson. At several canteens all over Denver, the USO sponsored dances on weekends, but the sisters favored the Trocadero.

Built in 1917, the capacious Elitch’s ballroom was of Spanish-Moroccan design. Pale yellow walls were textured of stucco with stripped green and white awnings for accent. Because summer was the Elitch’s only season, a four-foot wall without windows surrounded the dance floor. During World War I, when the ballroom opened, Mrs. Elitch created her Tea Dances. She provided an atmosphere of charm and decorum for war-weary Denverites. Admission was five cents. A clear and strictly enforced behavior code assured parents of the propriety of their young ladies and men on the dance floor. White gloves were required of the women and men wore ties. Each year, the Trocadero receives fresh decorations based on various themes, but in the mid-nineteen-twenties a complete renovation took place. A new tongue-and-groove dance floor was installed with thick squares of woven horsehair that acted like springs. The dancers felt as if they floated.

Though not as formal, Tommy looks in on the whirling women in cocktail dresses and men wearing sport coats and ties. More couples move out on the floor when the band begins to play a fox trot. Tommy leans against the sun-warmed wall. Beyond the dance floor, he notices people beginning to fill the Grille Room, a retreat for food, drink, and noisy chatter. There are more people than usual because tonight because at 8:00 Ralph Flanagan and his orchestra will be broadcast over KOA radio. Tommy recalls reading from the Denver Post a couple of days ago that this might be the last summer for the Troc. Younger dancers want rock-and-roll and management has lost money three straight seasons. But not tonight.

            His breath stops. Tommy looks away and peers above at light bulbs behind tinted gels. Some glow peach, rose, lavender, and dark blue. With a tuft of breeze, he turns back in the girl’s direction. Waves of dark hair frame a winsome face. She half smiles at a companion’s talk and then inadvertently looks his way again—his eyes rivet the floor. He feels a new trickle slip down his right side. Cautiously, he steals another peek. She’s gone.

            A panic swells and that wave lifts Tommy pushes him around to the Trocadero’s ticket counter. With the scent of roses and look of caked furrows under her chin, the lady barks a second time.

                        “Fifty-cents, sonny!”

Tommy fumbles.


                        “You in or you out, kid? People behind you are waiting. Fifty-cents.”

From his back pocket, the boy hands over a dollar. He drops the two bits change, but ignores their tinny clatter and hurries into the noise of the Grille Room.

            Even though a puff of air now and then flits through the open café, the room is stuffy. It smells of onions, hamburgers, French fries, and a mixture of competing perfumes. Chatter crescendos punctuated by laughter. Male faces warmed with alcohol and excitement match the color of their ladies lips. Party dresses, cocktail dresses, and off-the-shoulder formals bloom at each table.

            She stands with gloved hands held in front of her dress. At the table, several women top each other in high-pitched talk. With a menu, she fans herself and joins the conversation only incidentally. By chance, her eyes turn and find Tommy. He does not look away. She smiles. The dance band strikes up Glen Miller’s “String of Pearls.” Weeks later, he marveled at his courage. After a jarring blow against his shoulder from a man hustling with his date to the dance floor, Tommy calmly walks toward beauty.

            How does enchantment work? What draws the heart? Evolutionists theorize that such attraction finds its root in the survival techniques of sexual selection. From the behaviorists comes the notion that repeatedly rewarded stimuli shape desire. The imago dei provides the monotheist with personality as the root and reason for love. Poets sing the terms of enchantment. Whatever its source, the energy of a heart captivated, drawn by desire, fuels powerful human expression. An eleven-year old girl, unconscious of passing hours, creates a scrapbook brimming with newspaper articles, photographs from magazines, and her written musing about her hero who plays right field for the Tigers. A senior accountant slowly paces the gravel at the marina. Only five years until retirement and here he is imagining a wooden sailboat and lazy days on the bay. Chanel Number Five in a miniscule bottle costs a week’s pay for the boy who sacks groceries, but because of her smile, he doesn’t count the cost. Passion brooks no obstacle, renders caution obsolete, and compels the bearer toward whatever ignites attention. The pearl of great price fulfills a great need.

            Arriving at his destination, Tommy announces with uncharacteristic confidence.

                        “My name is Tom Speers. If you wouldn’t mind, I’d like to dance with you.”

Without hesitation and with a slight tilt of her head, she smiles.

                        “My name is Nancy Messenger and I wouldn’t mind at all.”

The young man extends his bent arm; she tucks her hand at his elbow.

            A waltz. He grasps her gloved right hand in his left; his other arm grazes the slick material at her waist as she lightly touches his shoulder with her other hand. Tommy draws in her fragrance. There is no talk.

            Too soon, a flurry of piano glissandos ends the dance. They turn toward the bandstand and clap. Tommy’s bravado thins. He worries. The drummer strikes his sticks four sharp blows and digs into an upbeat solo. Then the horn section blasts and jitterbugging couples take the floor. Nancy curls a smile. Tommy asks.

                        “Want to?”

                        “I’m warm. Let’s walk.”

While couples flood the ballroom from every entrance, Nancy and Tommy find the exit. Tommy looks over his shoulder. This is dancing with sweat. Arms pull bodies tight. Partners fling into space, sometimes slamming into a neighbor with a squeal and apologies. Dear Mary Elitch would gape, scandalized at this precipitous fall from her chaperoned tea dances of forty years ago. Decorum is gone with skinny ties flailing, the litter of corsage petals, and the revelation of girdled hose fasteners.

A line of moisture glistens above Nancy’s lip; her bangs curl damp along her forehead. Tommy teases with,

“Maybe if you took off your sweater and gloves you’d be cooler. I’d be happy to carry them for you.”

                        “No thanks, just some air.”

They stroll side-by-side feeling summer radiate from the dark asphalt, but cool wisps of air between the Chinese elms cool their faces.

“I’ve never been to Elitch’s before. Where can we walk and find a place to sit a little. I feel a little woozy.”

“Must be the altitude. We’ll find a good spot.”

Each summer, at least two or three times, Tommy’s family picnicked here. His impatience—through the cold fried-chicken, mustard tinted potato salad, baked beans, and watermelon—pained him. He could hardly wait until the eating ended and then he could fly to the rides. The favorite picnic spot was on Fryer’s Hill.

“I know a place. It’s just behind the arcade over there. There’s picnic tables and benches. Most of the families will be finishing up and taking their kids to Kiddyland, so there should be a good place for us.”  

“Sounds great to me. Let’s get a drink on the way. I’m thirsty.”

“Uh, I’m sorry, Nancy, I’m not old enough to buy beer.”

“Not beer, silly, Cokes or better, lemonade.”

With lemon slices floating at the top of their plastic cups, they drift along the inclining path of Fryer’s Hill. On each side, alcoves with freshly varnished tables rest among pine trees. One mother scrubs a squalling baby’s face while a re-charged dad races the older children into the glare of adventure. Colored lights on lampstands light the path like jellybeans. Nancy walks with one hand behind her back. Tommy sips lemonade and fiddles with the change in his pocket.

“Up ahead is a good place to sit. You can look down on Kiddyland, but it’s not too noisy.”


            Nancy asks questions. As he answers, Tommy relaxes. He talks easily about school, especially woodshop where he learned to turn spindles on a lathe and crafted a lamp for his mother. He doesn’t like schooling much. He feels as though he doesn’t fit except in the shop classes and sometimes in math. Eric is someone to hang out with, yet, he surmises, that they are only friends for convenience—someone to cruise Sixteenth Street, or grab a hamburger with. After a pause, Tommy turns to her.

“I’ve been gabbing away all night here. Tell me about you. You’re not from Denver, are you?.”

Nancy removes the glove from her right hand. She settles the gloved hand on her lap and smoothes the soft white material with her bare hand.

                        Kansas City, actually. Ever been there?”


“It’s bigger than Denver, I guess. Actually, I live on the Kansas side of the city; a suburb called Shawnee Mission. The Missouri River divides Kansas City in half. The state of Kansas is on the west side and Missouri’s on the east. I graduated from high school in June. I’m going to take a year off from school and work. Then, maybe, I’ll go to college.”

            As he listens, Tommy’s emotions arouse. His senses are alive. Now and then he nods encouragement. His wonders with curiosity at the magic he feels, the excitement inside him as she talks. Nancy’s face, soft and gentle in the dim light; her slender nose slightly upturned; clear eyes and dark. Tommy studies her; knows her.

            She pauses, glances his way, and turns toward the laughter of children in Kiddyland. The silence comforts. Tommy settles on the profile of Nancy’s sensitive lips. He reaches to take her hands.

            Nancy startles. She stands up quickly, her unseeing eyes toward the children playing below. His thoughts tumble.                                               

“I’m really sorry, Nancy. That was a dumb thing to do.”
            “No, not that. You didn’t do anything wrong, nothing at all.”

A horde of teenage girls giggle passed them leaving a pink scent of cotton candy. Tommy swallows, fearful of imminent loss. An evening dove mourns through the nearby shadows. Nancy lifts her head and looks into his eyes.

“Well, here goes. My granddad and grandma live out in the county on a farm near Winfield. They raise some cattle, chickens, and acres that mostly grow corn, or sometimes wheat and alfalfa. I love to go there. Ever since I can remember, Mom and Dad would bundle us three girls into the station wagon and we’d head for Granny’s and Pappy’s. When we got older, they’d let us go on the train to Wichita by our selves. The old folks would meet us and drive us away in Grandpa’s pride and joy, a l947 Chevy five-window businessman’s coupe. We’d stay two or three weeks. Once we were supposed to visit the whole summer. Toward the end of July, I had my accident.”

A tear wanders down one cheek. Tommy has no words; he wants to do something. He sits and waits. Nancy dabs her cheek with the back of her glove.


                        “That’s okay.”

She clears her throat and looks away.

“Just before lunch, the day was getting hot and hazy. The three of us girls were playing dolls alongside the barn in a strip of shade. Pappy was in the barn working on the tractor hooking something up to the back of it while the engine was running. He lay on the ground with the barn door open. Suddenly, Pappy screamed. We ran into the barn. Some part of the machine had a hold of Pappy’s coveralls down by his feet; there was blood. I yelled at my baby sister to go and fetch Granny. While my older sister climbed up on the tractor to shut off the engine, I grabbed at Pappy’s leg and started pulling with all my might. Suddenly, I heard the tractor engine roar. Dust flew and the noise hurt my ears. I blanked out. The next memory I have is the smell of antiseptic and my mom’s fingers petting my hair.”

Overhead, the noise of jet engines, a plane heading east toward the airport. Nancy waits.

                        “I’m glad you’re okay, Nancy.”

                        “Well, I’m not exactly okay.

A gust of wind brings the screams from the Wildcat and the clatter of cascading wheels.

“I lost part of my arm. That’s why the sweater and glove; I cover up the fake parts.”

            Tommy’s face empties of color. From the first, Nancy had stirred his heart: her gray-green eyes, dark hair, clear skin, and perky nose, the easy manner of her voice and the quick laugh. She seemed perfect. No arm. A mechanical hand. Like the shatter of ice from a boot along a winter gutter, Tommy’s portrait cracks. She stands and walks away.

                        “I’m sorry, Tommy.”

The boy leaps to his feet.


Nancy turns back. Only the brief night air separates them. Tiny curls fluff along Nancy’s forehead. Her eyes shine and she drops her gaze. With the soft touch of his finger beneath her chin, Tommy lifts her head. He kisses her on the mouth. Her bare hand finds his. Tom reaches around both arms and holds her.