Mr. Owens introduces us to the penultimate petulant child.
Four wheels and checkers
By Simon Owens
They first showed up in Saturday morning cartoons, but I was the only one to take the idea seriously. Think Dick Van Dyke in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang with the skis and the rocket pack. You can find profound inventions in even the most absurd places.
You ever know someone who has parents that just seem to be behind on everything? The boy still forced to wear red sneakers while every kid on the block has the new surfer sandals, fresh and hot from Europe. The teenager with the ten o’clock curfew when all his other friends don’t need to be in until midnight. The nerd who can’t do this or that, can’t sleep over at this person’s house or any number of imaginable things while every other person in the universe gets away with it. That kid is me, and that parent is my mom.
Roller skates. Two with checkers on them and strings to tie in a bow nice as pie. I wasn’t even aware they still sold the old-fashioned kind until I pulled the string away and the smiley face wrapping paper parted to reveal its hidden treasure.
“Happy Birthday,” my mom smiled. Surprise, I had asked for roller blades and after the words had gone into my mother’s ears and bounced around the gray matter of her brain, processing through filters tiny enough to stop a mosquito, this was the end result. A pair of roller skates. Stopper brakes in the front to boot. “Well, don’t look too excited.”
“Told you I’d remember. Now go try them on.”
What’s worse, I was small for my age and had a big mouth. Hair always in need of a hair cut, you’d want to pick a fight with me, too. And I’d be the one never to back down. A week later I was in a predicament.
Dr. Carol had a cot I loaned him. If he had been a good little scientist it wouldn’t be mildewed. I fed him regularly, more than you can say for some kids who own dogs and cats. He always got the smelly end of the deal when I got in trouble. There was a glare on the plastic bubble but I could see him just fine on his cot. He had no pillow because he had been bad.
“I accepted a challenge, Mister.” I had that smile on my face that made him want to punch me, I could tell just by looking at him.
“Let me out of this place, Kid. Please.” He wasn’t crying, last week he broke down for the first time in awhile and I couldn’t understand the begging coming out of his mouth. Kind of like a little kid but funny because of the gray in his hair.
“These guys with roller blades, like the ones I was supposed to get. I told them I could beat them. In a race.” I lifted up my skates by the string. I hadn’t put them on since my birthday. “I can’t win with these. I need you to build something to give them a little boost. Don’t tell me you can’t do it.” With those words his eyes went to the red button on the wall. Classic conditioning at its best.
“I can do it, Kid.” He looked like he wanted to say something more against his better judgment. “There are things I’ll need. Shouldn’t cost you too much, maybe you could steal the stuff from your school science department.”
“Just make a list,” I said, and then saw his dirty secret. He saw me see it too, his eyes went wide. I walked up to the plastic bubble and knelt down. Little tiny bumps along its right side, almost invisible from the sun’s glare. “You dirty little doctor.”
“You’ve been biting the plastic again. Trying to escape.” I ran my fingers over them. Sometimes people just never learn. “You were trying to bite out of your bubble.” I stood up.
“My name’s not Kid.”
“Billy, Billy. C’mon now, cut me a break.” There’s nothing like a grown man trying to keep his cool. I kept my pace slow to be melodramatic.
The red button had a timer under it. I set it for two hours and then pushed it in. The plastic gave a slight twitch as the pumps activated and the water started to come up from the drain in the floor. The bad doctor jumped onto his cot so that his head was close to the ventilation ducts above him. He knew the routine. In a matter of minutes the water was slightly above his chin, less than six inches from the ducts before the water shut off. The end result was a scientist standing on the tips of his toes with nothing but his mouth and nose sticking out of the water. I took a Polaroid.
“I’ll be back for that list,” I said, even though he couldn’t hear me. I left the room right before he started pleading. I didn’t feel like being around when the panic set in.
“What’s all that noise?” my mom asked.
“The good doctor, again.” She frowned at me.
“Go on now and empty the water, I have a headache.”
“Yes, Mom.” I hated when she undermined my authority with him. “You’re lucky,” I informed him once it got down to his waist. “Now, how about that list?”
It was simple enough for anyone who had been through a middle school science course. Do you remember building rockets and launching them? If your teacher was good he taught you how to make it so a parachute would pop out and it’d float back down to you. It was the same concept with the black and red checkered roller skates. First some protection had to be put on the heel so the blast wouldn’t melt the back of my feet. Then a simple rocket on each skate with a hollow tube providing a drip to both. Finally, Carol tried on the fuel cell that strapped onto the back. He looked kind of like the Rocketeer. Excellent, and a button attached to the cell to activate it. He handed it over to my greedy little twelve-year-old hands.
“Can I eat now?”
“Later,” I replied and ran. Sixth street next to the deli, at the top of the hill.
“I got one thing to say,” Brad said when he saw the skates. “You’re a freak.”
I was unmoved. “Let’s race,” I said, coldly. Brad had his blades hanging over his shoulders, he looked stylish. His friends snickered, they were missing skates so I guessed Brad was it. I wondered what he’d look like behind a plastic bubble.
They didn’t tie, they snapped on for his. I put the fuel cell on and tied the skates. The doctor had taken the time to remove the rubber brakes in the front. The checkers gleamed. We didn’t stretch, kids rarely do. Just got our heart rates up as a friend started us off.
Ready, set, go!
Speed is a funny thing, except I wasn’t laughing. I didn’t look back at Brad as I went zero to thirty in five point two. It was surreal, horrifying, I had to remind myself to breathe. And it was getting faster too, I was giving the button a push for all that it was worth, all downhill. The crazy mind of a twelve-year-old must have thought that if I went long enough I’d reach the speed of light. Everything melted into a blur of wind, and my cap flew off behind me as I began to swerve in and out between cars. Babies waved at me out windows and parents did a double-take. At some point I think a pimple-faced teenager in a blue truck tried to race me.
But not all good things last. Somewhere between Queen and Burd I heard something pop, followed by a loud hissing sound. By the time I passed Burd I didn’t even have enough momentum to make it over the hill. The skates rolled to a stop in front of the Beurello Café.
That pesky scientist, Dr. Carol. His creation was flawed. I paid no mind to the people gaping out of the café’s windows as I removed the skates. The wheels were smoothed down and soft. I set off for my house on foot. I had quite a way to go.
Dr. Carol was a fast talker, I’ll give him that. He somehow convinced me not to push the red button and I sent the invention through to him, fuel cell and all. The checkers were somewhat darkened from the heat. I still felt like I was rolling.
Carol took it into his hands and examined it closely. His lab coat was still damp and his hair was in disarray. His glasses rested on the tip of his nose as he fingered this and that. I had a memory of the Rocketeer removing the gum from the fuel tank so that the antagonist would explode. I sat in a chair across from him and just watched.
After a few minutes he looked up. “The tube to the cell sprung off from the pressure. No fuel was able to reach the skates.”
“So fix it.”
“I can’t like it is. You’ll have to run and fetch me some things.”
I stood up. “What do you need?”
“Just some glue and some tape,” he said. “No big deal, just need to make sure I have it on tighter this time.” He lifted the tube as if to emphasize his point.
“Alright, don’t go anywhere.” I smiled at my own joke and left the room. I headed down to the downstairs bathroom and flipped on the switch. Nothing under the sink, I headed into the kitchen and went through the drawers. Just as my hand closed in on the glue I heard a small explosion from upstairs.
Glue back down and I slammed the drawer shut. Below it was another drawer and in that hid my mom’s gun. I grabbed it and ran out of the kitchen. I took the stairs three at a time and stumbled into an empty bedroom. There was a large hole in the plastic where it had melted. The bastard had used one of the rockets to get out, and behind me I heard him make a run for it through the hallway and down the stairs.
The sneak, I’d take him down. I ran out of the room just in time to see his head disappearing behind the banister. The son of a bitch was determined but I wasn’t going to let him get away. I swung down the railing in a way only a twelve-year-old could and landed on my feet. To my right I heard him in the kitchen and I went in for the catch.
He was already at the door, fumbling at the deadbolt my mom had remembered to lock before she went to the grocery store. You have to push a little bit on it to get it to budge and it was the only thing between Dr. Carol and the rest of the world. For a brief second I considered letting him go, letting him escape back into society, but as soon as the lock clicked I brought the gun up and aimed. The door swung open and I knew I only had one shot before he slammed it shut behind him. The fuel cell was still on his back. I better make this one count.
I picked out the ointment specifically because I knew it stung. Dr. Carol moaned as I applied it to the burn scars on his back. The explosion had propelled him all the way to the neighbor’s yard and knocked him unconscious. Needless to say, the burns weren’t pretty.
The new bubble had a blue tint to it, I hoped that he would perhaps enjoy a change in scenery. I even had the blinds open for when the sun came up. I stood and exited the bubble. It was almost midnight and I was tired.
“Goodnight Dr. Carol.”
“Goodnight Kid,” he mumbled.
My name’s not kid, I though but didn’t say, and then switched off the light. He was snoring as I closed the door.