In my entire childhood, I only knew one girl who owned her own roller skates. Her name was Darlene Amonnelli, and she came from New Jersey, halfway through the 10th grade.
Darlene’s father worked at an Air Force base in Montgomery. On her first day at school, he drove her to the school yard in a sky-blue Thunderbird with government-issue license plates. When Darlene got out of the Thunderbird, she was wearing pedal pushers. She told her father that he would not need to pick her up in the afternoon. By that time, she said, she would probably have a ride home.
Darlene was right. She got a ride home with the detention hall supervisor. Darlene went home at 11:45. During mid-morning recess, she had gone to the girls’ restroom to take a smoke break. The principal had sent her home with a note that said:
Dear Col. and Mrs. Amonnelli:
We have enjoyed having Darlene with us today. However, she was discovered smoking a Camel in the Young Women’s Rest Room during mid-morning recess. She also arrived this morning wearing slacks.
The faculty and I are sympathetic to the difficulties Darlene faces in changing schools midway through the academic year. We are sure she misses her friends and the unusual experiences of her life in New Jersey.
However, students are not permitted to smoke on the William Partlow Bibb High School campus. Neither, by the way, is it considered appropriate for young ladies to carry prophylactics in their pocketbooks.
We look forward to Darlene’s returning to W.P.Bibb tomorrow (Tuesday). Please see that she wears a skirt.
Alton W. Stripp
(Korean Conflict Veteran)
Darlene arrived on Tuesday wearing penny loafers, white crew socks, a monogrammed windbreaker, an off-the-shoulder señorita blouse and an unpleated tartan-plaid skirt with a kick-pleat. The initials on the windbreaker were JLV. They were not Darlene’s own initials at all.
In homeroom, when the 10th-grade home-room teacher suggested that Darlene take out her chewing gum, Darlene took the gum out of her mouth, held it between her fingertips and announced, “Look, lady, I’m goin’ crazy for a cig.”
At home that evening, all our parents assured us that, given enough time, Darlene would come to love Alabama. Better than that, they promised us, Alabama would come to love Darlene. That, however, was before Wednesday, when Darlene pulled out her roller skates.
Darlene’s skates were made of white leather. She tied them with baby-pink laces, finished off with baby-pink chenille pompon puffs. She brought her skates to school one day in a zip-up carrying bag, appliquéd with felt imitations of 45-rpm records and the name “Darlene” spelled out in baby-pink saddle-stitched sateen.
Darlene plopped down in homeroom, propped her skate bag on top of her remedial algebra book and asked, “Any you kids know where there’s a roller rink?”
Darlene didn’t make it through the week.
Before Darlene Amonnelli, I had never heard anyone use the words “roller rink” in broad daylight. In Alabama “roller rink” boiled down to pretty much the same thing as “dirty movie,” “six pack of Bud” or “out of wedlock.”
A roller rink had nothing to do with exercise or flashing lights or Friday-night church-group socials. A roller rink was a place where not even a Sunday School teacher could maintain control. A roller rink was about girls in blue jeans, falling down and being helped up by boys they had never met before. A roller rink was about stepping out for a slice of American cheese pizza from the snack bar. A roller rink was not about “Ladies Only” or “The Hokey Pokey.” More than anythingmore than the noise and the french fries and the mirrored ball that made the room look like it could throw upa roller rink was about “Couples Only.” It was about girls having to lean against boys in order to keep their balance. It was about 16-year-olds, driven by centripetal force, sailing around a room in a roar of lust and rusty, whirring ball bearings.
It was not about the fear of broken bones or busted shins or floor-burned elbows. It was about the smell of disinfectant and mildewed leather and talcum powder. It was about the fear of the dark corners where even the dappling light from the mirrored ball never scattered sunshine. It was about the fear of music turned up so loud that, through the clattering racket of the skates, nobody could hear anything but the throbbing of the bass. It was the fear of coming home and discovering that something ugly had started growing between your first and second toes.
It was for all these reasons that Darlene Amonnelli could not survive in Alabama. Darlene smoked in the bathroom. Darlene carried rubbers in her pocketbook. Darlene owned her own roller skates. She did not even have to rent.
When she plopped her “Darlene” appliquéd skate bag on her desk in home room, she said everything about herself that anybody in an Alabama 10th-grade homeroom ever needed to know. She announced that she came from a place where there were sidewalks, where children played on scooters and tricycles and grew up to drive souped-up convertibles and motorcycles from which the mufflers had been removed.
Darlene came from a place where, even when they were very young, children were already moving fast, as if they had some place to go to, as if they needed to get away from where they had been. She came from a place where children could go to movies without ever asking permission. She came from a place where, when parents asked their children what the movie had been about, the children felt no need to tell them. If the movie had starred Mamie Van Doren, they could lie and say it starred Annette Funicello. If it had been And God Created Woman, they could lie and say it had been Ben-Hur. They were children who lived in places were there were lots of movie theaters. They had options. They had options that gave them room to lie.
They could say they had been to the roller rink, when, really, they had only stayed outside on the asphalt. If Darlene Amonnelli’s parents said, “Darlene, Mrs. Lozzerino said she saw you smoking and taking your blouse off last night outside the roller rink,” Darlene could say, “Which roller rink was that?”
If her parents said, “Mrs. Lozzerino said it was the Skateriffic,” Darlene could say, “Must have been some other girl. Me and Joyce was skating at the Squeals & Wheels. Where you think I got this bruise?”
In Alabama, no girl would have wanted to go anywhere a pair of roller skates could take her. If she needed to go anywhere, it was not a place where she could get without somebody else driving the car. If it was anywhere she belonged, she was not going to be seen standing around in a parking lot talking to strangers. She was not going to be seen smoking cigarettes with the children of people she knew.
Darlene Amonnelli and her roller skates could never have survived through even one summer in Alabama. In Alabama, people knew about girls who stood around and smoked on the asphalt. They knew better than to trust any girl who can make it around the rink on her own.