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
“How much you got?”
“The change back from parking, four-seventy-five.”
“It’s enough. How much you got?”
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
“Come on, let’s grab a burger.”
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
“Buy me a Coke. I’ll eat later.”
“Alright, a Coke and fries.”
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.
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
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
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.”
uh. Look at them bounce. Falsies don’t bounce like that.
They’re the real thing.”
numb butt, you’re so stupid you wouldn’t know the real
things if you laid a hand on them.”
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
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.
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.
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.”
My gut’s a little loopy. I’ll catch you later.”
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.
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 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.
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
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.
“You in or you out, kid? People behind you are
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
“My name is Tom Speers. If you wouldn’t mind, I’d
like to dance with you.”
and with a slight tilt of her head, she smiles.
“My name is Nancy Messenger and I wouldn’t mind
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
curls a smile. Tommy asks.
“I’m warm. Let’s walk.”
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
line of moisture glistens above Nancy’s
lip; her bangs curl damp along her forehead. Tommy teases
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.”
side-by-side feeling summer radiate from the dark asphalt,
but cool wisps of air between the Chinese elms cool their
never been to Elitch’s before. Where can we walk and find
a place to sit a little. I feel a little woozy.”
be the altitude. We’ll find a good spot.”
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.
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.”
great to me. Let’s get a drink on the way. I’m thirsty.”
I’m sorry, Nancy,
I’m not old enough to buy beer.”
beer, silly, Cokes or better, lemonade.”
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.
ahead is a good place to sit. You can look down on Kiddyland,
but it’s not too noisy.”
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
been gabbing away all night here. Tell me about you. You’re
not from Denver,
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.
actually. Ever been there?”
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.
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.”
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.
her head and looks into his eyes.
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.”
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.
clears her throat and looks away.
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
the noise of jet engines, a plane heading east toward
the airport. Nancy
“I’m glad you’re okay,
“Well, I’m not exactly
gust of wind brings the screams from the Wildcat and the
clatter of cascading wheels.
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
“I’m sorry, Tommy.”
boy leaps to his feet.
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.