It was a lot to absorb. Too much, in fact, and even after two weeks in his dad’s new home in Dalcette, Keenan still didn’t feel like he’d absorbed anything. His dad had gotten a job in a factory 20 miles away, just south of a nearby town called Multioak, but Keenan hadn’t even unpacked. He spent his days reclining on a bare mattress in his room playing computer games on his laptop and dreading the moment when his dad would come home from work and discover that Keenan had wasted another day.
On one such evening, when Keenan’s dad came home from work, he came into Keenan’s room and said, “Like it or not, you live here.”
“I know,” said Keenan, not looking up from the screen of his laptop. He wasn’t actually playing a game at the moment, but he didn’t want to look his dad in the eye.
“You’re getting a job,” said Keenan’s dad. “Tomorrow I want you to go turn in an application at Newsworthy Burger. They hire everyone.”
“Why do I need a job?” asked Keenan. “I don’t need money. It’s not like I ask you for money.”
“Because you’re sixteen and it irritates me to come home from work and find you here knowing you didn’t do one productive thing all day. It makes me want to punish you. And I don’t want to spend the rest of our summer trying to make up legitimate-sounding reasons to punish you.” Keenan’s dad turned and left the room. Keenan heard him walk down the hallway to the bathroom and close the door behind him. A minute later, the shower started.
The next day, after sleeping for another four hours after his dad left for work and eating lunch at home, Keenan walked the six blocks to Newsworthy Burger under a cloud of resentment. He didn’t believe that Newsworthy Burger really hired everyone who applied. He was already thinking of details he could include on his application that would all but guarantee he wouldn’t be hired.
When Keenan arrived, there were no other customers in Newsworthy Burger. The interior of the restaurant looked much different than Keenan had expected. There were red and black rugs on the floor and drapes in the windows. At each empty booth, a small television was playing shaky home video footage of mountains shot through the windshield of a moving car. There were no employees to be seen. The front counter was deserted, but Keenan heard loud voices coming from the kitchen.
“Eat it! Hurry up!”
“Dude, that’s disgusting. Don’t eat it.”
“Shut up, Gavin! He’s gonna eat it.”
“Hello?” called Keenan, standing at one of the cash registers. “Hello? Is there a manager here?”
The voices stopped for a moment but no one appeared from the back.
Then Keenan heard a horrible retching sound and someone shouted, “You have to keep it down! You have to keep it down or it doesn’t count!”
Then there was a crash and a loud hiss. Someone shouted in pain, there was a frantic scuffling of shoes on tile, and then a door slammed and the restaurant was silent except for a continued hissing, sizzling sound. “Hello?” called Keenan. He leaned on the counter, trying to peer into the kitchen, and immediately regretted it when his right hand touched something cool, red and sticky smeared on the counter’s surface. Keenan jerked back in disgust and looked at his hand. There was a straw wrapper stuck to the red blotch on his palm. He plucked it off with his left hand and dropped it on the ground. Then he hurried through the dining area to the men’s bathroom, eager to wash his hand as quickly as possible.
The bathroom was well lit and there were bits of graffiti here and there on the walls. There was a female Newsworthy Burger employee in a red and black polo shirt taking rolls of toilet paper out of a cabinet under one of the sinks and loading them into a backpack. She didn’t look up when Keenan came into the bathroom. Keenan went to the sink and used soap to scrub at the red goop on his hand as he ran it under the tap.
The employee zipped up her backpack and left the bathroom. Keenan looked at himself in the mirror. He wondered if he looked like himself. On one side of the mirror, at eye level, someone had scratched a message into the glass. Keenan squinted at it as he dried his hand with a paper towel. It read, “For a good time call Sandy 555-8080.”
Keenan had seen similar messages in public bathrooms before and they’d always sparked his curiosity, but he’d never actually considered calling the numbers. There was something ominously vague about the phrase “a good time.” There were so many things it could mean and there was no way to know if the person who had written the message actually had the people who read the message’s best interests in mind. But Keenan hadn’t had a good time since he arrived in Dalcette and all the fighting leading up to his parents’ divorce had made good times pretty scarce even before the move. And the looming possibility that he would be employed at Newsworthy Burger for the remainder of the summer didn’t seem to promise many good times ahead. So he pulled his cell phone out of his pocket and dialed the number from the mirror.
After four rings, a tired-sounding girl’s voice answered with a curt, “Who is this?”
“Is this Sandy?” asked Keenan. Nervous, he paced back in forth in the bathroom, stalked every step by his reflection in the mirrors over the sinks.
“Yeah,” said the girl. “I’m Sandy.”
“I got your number from the mirror?” said Keenan. “In the Newsworthy Burger men’s room?”
“Oh,” said the girl. “Oh! It’s been a long time since someone called about that.”
“I’m new to Dalcette,” said Keenan. “I just moved here with my dad.”
“Welcome to the area,” said Sandy, her voice suddenly bright and lively as if someone had flipped a switch. Keenan heard a child start crying in the background on Sandy’s end.
“I don’t have anything to do,” said Keenan. “I don’t know anyone. But the message on the mirror said that if I called you, you’d show me a good time? Or tell me how to have a good time? It’s not very specific on that point.”
“It’s gonna be at least fifteen minutes before I can pick you up,” said Sandy.
“That’s fine,” said Keenan. “Or you don’t have to if you don’t want to.”
“No, no,” said Sandy. “You called the number. I’m sure I can still do this. I’m just a little rusty. Meet me out front of the restaurant in fifteen minutes, OK? I’ve got black hair. I’ll be in a black car.”
“All right,” said Keenan.
“Bye for now,” said Sandy and she hung up.
Keenan left the bathroom and found another employee sitting at a booth and staring out a window. When she looked up, Keenan saw that her nametag identified her as a manager and that her name was Darla. She held Keenan’s gaze without speaking. “I don’t need anything,” said Keenan. “I’m just meeting someone out front.”
Darla, satisfied, went back to her thoughts. Keenan went outside and sat on the sidewalk facing the empty parking lot. The awning on the front of the restaurant shielded him from the sun but he could feel his shirt beginning to cling to the sweat on his back. It wasn’t until half an hour after he’d hung up with Sandy that a dirty, noisy, black car pulled into the parking lot and stopped at the curb in front of Keenan.
He stood up as the driver, a girl no more than five feet tall with dyed black hair and cheap sunglasses balanced at the end of her nose, got out of the car and said, “Are you Keenan? I’m Sandy.”
Keenan walked over to her and shook her hand. “Yeah, I’m Keenan. I called about the good time?”
“Mm-hmm,” said Sandy. “Sorry it took me so long. I couldn’t find anyone to watch Grassy. Grassy’s my daughter. That’s not her real name. She’s in the back seat there, see her? Hi, Grassy! Anyway, we have to run her by her dad’s place and see if he’ll take her for a while. You don’t mind, do you?”
“I don’t mind,” said Keenan. He was struggling to keep up with Sandy and starting to feel uneasy about getting into the car with her. “I didn’t mean to cause a hassle.”
“Nah,” said Sandy. “I think it’ll be fine. It was a lot easier to show people a good time when I didn’t have a kid and stuff, but I’m sure I can still do it. It’s been a few years, though. I used to be skinnier. Not as skinny as you, though.” She was wearing denim shorts and a purple tank top that didn’t quite cover her pudgy hips and midriff. As she turned to get back into the car, Keenan saw that Sandy had a crude tattoo of lips on her left shoulder blade. They were thinner than the lips one usually sees depicted in a tattoo.
The drive over to Grassy’s father’s house was very short. He only lived a few blocks from Newsworthy Burger in a tiny white house with a freshly mowed lawn. There were six motorcycles in the driveway. “Don’t worry,” said Sandy as she pulled the car into the driveway behind the motorcycles. “They’re all his.” She shut the car off and got out. “Just stay here with Grassy and I’ll go make sure it’s OK to leave her here.” Then she crossed the lawn and entered the house without knocking.
In the back seat, Grassy, a pale little girl who couldn’t have been older than one, slept in her car seat. Keenan turned to look at her and she looked hot and uncomfortable. To the outside observer, it didn’t seem like her nap would turn out to be very refreshing. When Keenan turned to face forward again, there were two young boys standing next to the car and staring in at him through his open window. They were both freckled and their pink heads had been shaved almost to the skin. One was slightly taller and had an earring.
“How’s it going, guys?” asked Keenan.
“Not bad,” said the shorter one. “Guess which one of us is older.”
“You are,” said Keenan.
“Nope,” said the shorter boy. “That was a dumb guess. Taller kids are usually older.”
Keenan looked back at the front door of the house. He wondered if he should get out of the car and walk home. “Do you boys live here?”
“Our dad does,” said the shorter boy. “That’s our half sister Grassy in the back seat there. That’s not her real name.”
“Did you guys have fun setting off fireworks for the 4th of July?” asked Keenan.
The boys, scandalized, frowned and shook their heads. “No!” said the shorter one. “Fireworks are illegal in the city limits!”
The front door of the house swung open and Sandy came down the steps in a hurry, stumbling on the last step, and stalking across the lawn to the car, swinging her arms. She slammed the door behind her when she got in and sat seething behind the steering wheel, her arms crossed over her chest.
“What’s wrong?” asked Keenan.
“He won’t take her,” said Sandy. She spat out the window.
“He says it’s useless.”
“Trying to show you a good time. He says I can’t do it anymore. He says I’m boring. How old are you?”
“16,” said Keenan. He glanced over at the boys, who were still watching him.
“I’m 23,” said Sandy. “You should have seen me when I was sixteen. We would have had so much fun. I would have shown you such a good time. There was this spot back in the woods where this old cement platform stretched over the river and you could jump off into the water but someone got hurt and they tore down the platform and now there’s just a bunch of garbage out there. Plus I hate the sight of myself in a bathing suit now.”
“That does sound fun,” said Keenan. He didn’t know what else to say. “Maybe it just isn’t possible to have that good of a time in Dalcette anymore.”
“Yes it is,” said Sandy, smacking the steering wheel with one hand. “You just have to know where to look. That’s why you need me.”
“You?” said the shorter boy, his brow furrowed in amazement.
“Dad says you’re no fun at all,” said the taller boy. It was the first time Keenan had heard him speak. “He says you’re in denial. He says you’re welcome to move back in as soon as you admit you aren’t Miss Goodtime.”
“I never called myself Miss Goodtime,” said Sandy, starting the car with an angry twist of the key in the ignition. “I always hated that name.” Then she backed the car into the street without looking, accidentally shifted into neutral, pressed the accelerator and went nowhere, cursed, shifted into drive, and roared away. Keenan was beginning to wonder if a distinctly bad time was the more likely outcome of his phone call.
The next ten minutes consisted of Sandy driving in one direction through Dalcette, changing her mind, turning around in a driveway or a parking lot, driving in another direction, changing her mind again, and all the while talking out loud to herself in half-formed thoughts. “Oh, we could…no. Well, maybe. No. What if we went…if we went…no! Oh, that’s closed anyway. Wait, where was...? Hmm, well, I know we used to…”
She didn’t ask Keenan for any input or inquire about his tastes concerning good times. Apparently, in her self-appointed role, the burden of producing a good time for Keenan rested entirely upon her shoulders. Keenan was worried about her, but every time he tried to explain that he was easy to please or that having a good time wasn’t actually that important to him, Sandy shushed him angrily. Through all this, Grassy slept, looking just as uncomfortable as she had earlier, if not more so. Finally, having just turned around in another driveway, Sandy said, “Ovoid Skate. We’ll give it a try. OK? But if you aren’t having a good time, we’ll leave right away. Got it?”
Keenan didn’t know what Ovoid Skate was, but he was relieved that a decision had been made. “Got it,” he said. “I’m sure it’ll be great.”
Ovoid Skate turned out to be a huge, windowless structure a mile outside of Dalcette with an empty dirt and gravel parking lot. Keenan had seen it before but he never would have guessed it was a roller skating rink. Sandy wrestled Grassy out of her car seat and carried her across the parking lot to the front door, Grassy’s head resting on her mother’s shoulder, her eyes closed. Keenan followed a few steps behind, insects ticking in the weeds encroaching along the edges of the lot.
Ovoid Skate’s glass front door was locked and it was dark inside. There were no hours posted on the door. It looked as if it had been closed for years. “Don’t worry,” said Sandy. “He’s here. Just wait.” She pressed a button next to the door and Keenan heard a faint buzz inside the building. Then they waited.
After a minute, a small, old man in a t-shirt and baggy shorts appeared in the door and, after unlocking it, he swung it open and said, “Hello, hello, welcome to Ovoid Skate. Don’t let my eyes upset you. I’m blind, that’s all.” Keenan saw that the man’s eyes were completely milk white, like eyes he’d only seen on very old dogs.
“It’s me, Mr. Capsig,” said Sandy, using her free hand to grasp his wrinkled forearm.
“Sandy? Did you bring Grassy?”
“I did, I’ve got her right here. She’s kind of asleep, though.”
“Let me have her,” said Mr. Capsig, holding out his hands. Sandy grunted as she transferred Grassy into Mr. Capsig’s arms. Grassy opened her eyes for a moment, rested her head on Mr. Capsig’s shoulder, and went back to sleep.
“I brought someone else,” said Sandy. “His name’s Keenan. He called me looking for a good time so I brought him here.”
Mr. Capsig nodded and extended his free hand. Keenan shook it. “Not many people coming around here looking for good times anymore,” said Mr. Capsig. “But if you two want to skate, you’re more than welcome.”
Inside the skating rink it was completely dark other than a little island of light coming through the front door that Sandy and Keenan stood in while Mr. Capsig, still carrying Grassy, disappeared into the blackness. “Hold on,” he called to them, his voice echoing in the huge room. A moment later there was a click and a buzz and two rows of dim fluorescent lights on the high ceiling of the rink blinked on. The name Ovoid Skate finally made sense to Keenan when he saw that the actual skating surface of the rink was indeed egg-shaped. There was a brick wall just under three feet high that ran all the way around the skating surface with narrow gaps on each end to allow skaters to enter and exit the floor. There were two white dogs asleep out in the middle of the floor, their heads resting on each other’s haunches. Along one side of the rink, on the carpeted floor outside the low wall, there was a row of dark, silent arcade games.
“You two need to borrow skates?” asked Mr. Capsig.
“We do,” said Sandy.
“I remember the skates for you,” said Mr. Capsig. “But I’ll need to check Keenan’s feet.” He handed Grassy back to Sandy and motioned for Keenan to sit in a chair against the front wall. Keenan sat and Mr. Capsig knelt down in front of him and took his right foot in his hands, feeling all the way around the sole of the shoe. Then he undid the laces and took the shoe off, feeling Keenan’s foot through his sock. “I think I have something that’ll work,” said Mr. Capsig, and he got back to his feet and disappeared through a door marked “Private Room: Only for Owners.”
While Keenan waited for Mr. Capsig to return, he noticed that the two dogs out on the skating surface had woken up. They were still lying down, but they were looking at him with interest, their ears perked up. Then Mr. Capsig returned with a pair of ancient roller skates in each outstretched hand. Keenan took his and Sandy and Mr. Capsig executed an awkward maneuver exchanging Grassy for Sandy’s skates.
When Keenan put on the roller skates, he was amazed at how well they fit. They were more comfortable than his sneakers. Two minutes later, he and Sandy were skating clockwise around the egg-shaped floor while Mr. Capsig sat smiling on the edge of the low wall at the front of the rink, Grassy groggy but awake on his lap. The dogs watched the roller-skaters warily from their spot in the middle of the floor and one of them barked when Keenan, an unpracticed skater, accidentally veered towards it, but Mr. Capsig screamed “Shut up, mutt!” and neither dog made another sound.
Sandy was a much better skater than Keenan, but she stayed close, always beside him or just a little ahead of him. Neither of them said much, but every once in a while, Sandy would ask, “Are you having a good time?” and Keenan would say, “I am,” and Sandy would smile uncertainly so that Keenan knew it wouldn’t be long before she’d ask again. He supposed he was having a good time, but he didn’t know how to make her believe it, and the more he thought about it, the less confident he felt that he even knew what was meant by the phrase “a good time.”
“Sandy,” called Mr. Capsig from the wall. “Do a front flip!”
“OK,” said Sandy, smiling and winking at Keenan. “Here I go!” She skated ahead of Keenan, picking up speed, and then executed a sharp turn toward the wall. When she got to the wall, she stopped herself by putting her hands on top of it and leaning forward, lifting her skates off of the ground for a moment before slamming them back down onto the slick cement. “Whew!” She called. “I landed it!”
“Good job!” said Mr. Capsig. “How did it look, Keenan?”
“Really good,” said Keenan. “She was so high. I don’t know how she did it.”
“Amazing,” said Mr. Capsig. Keenan couldn’t tell if he really believed Sandy had done a flip or if they were all just playing a game together. He decided it didn’t really matter one way or the other. He didn’t want to ruin anything by asking questions.
“Maybe I’ll try a flip,” said Keenan.
“You should!” said Mr. Capsig.
“Go for it,” said Sandy, skating backwards in front of Keenan.
“All right, then,” said Keenan. He faked his flip just like he’d seen Sandy fake hers.
When Keenan slammed his skates back to the floor and skated away from the wall, Mr. Capsig shouted, “Wow! Did he do it, Sandy? How was it?”
“It was really good,” said Sandy, trying not to laugh. “The form was a little loose, but very good for a first attempt.”
“Bravo,” shouted Mr. Capsig, and his applause rang out through the rink.
Later, after returning the borrowed skates, slipping back into their shoes, and saying goodbye to Mr. Capsig as he turned the lights off and locked the door to Ovoid Skate behind them, Keenan, Sandy and Grassy returned to the car to find that someone had used white paint that was probably not water-soluble to scrawl “Miss Goodtime’s Boringmobile” on the car’s back window.
Sandy stared at the message for a few seconds, and then sat back against the trunk of the car, hugged Grassy to her breast and began to weep. “He put those boys up to it,” she said between sobs. “I don’t know why he’s so mean. I don’t know why he thinks it’s so important to convince me that I can’t show people a good time anymore. I know everything changes, but it doesn’t have to change so much.”
“I had a good time,” said Keenan, although he wasn’t absolutely certain of that.
“Will you call again?” asked Sandy, looking at him with wet, hopeful eyes. “I’ll come up with more things to do. I know this town. I know good times. I can do this again, even better than I used to.”
“I don’t know if I’ll be able to call again,” said Keenan. “My dad says I have to get a job.”
“What about other people?” asked Sandy. “Will you tell them to call?”
“If I meet anyone who’s looking for a good time,” said Keenan. “I’ll know where to send them.”
After Sandy dropped him off, Keenan stood in the Newsworthy Burger parking lot and waved at her until her car turned a corner and was gone. Then Keenan went inside the restaurant and headed straight for the men’s room. He walked past a man at the front counter telling a manager what fish should taste like and another man at a booth picking something out of an ice cream sundae with a fork, a look of revulsion on his face.
In the bathroom, Keenan took his Swiss Army knife out of his pocket and scratched at the message on the mirror until Sandy’s name and number were completely illegible. The message now read, “For a good time call,” which still made more sense than a lot of the other graffiti in the bathroom.
When Keenan left the bathroom, the restaurant was empty again. The two customers had left and there was no one at the front counter. But Keenan was resolved. He would stand there until someone gave him an application.