by Ronald L. Grimes
We had no choice. Uncle Oscar wouldn’t loan our family enough money to drill an irrigation well, so we were forced off our land. Our parents, Miles and Nelda Kleeman, traded our mortgaged sandy farm for Hillcrest Skateland in Clovis, New Mexico. We kids were delighted to move into town. We hated shoveling cow shit from the barn, stomping mice so they wouldn’t eat the grain, and gathering eggs from the henhouse. Bullsnakes hid in the nests so they could slurp the slimy goop from cracked eggs.
We took our dog Smoky into town. On the farm he would put himself between us and rattlesnakes. When the Sunday School teacher was trying to teach us about Jesus the Savior, I said Smoky was my savior. She didn’t think the joke was funny.
Hillcrest Skateland was a dump, but we loved being there. Dad said, “You young ones are short, so your noses are close to the floor, not much distance between you and the wood. Don’t worry about falling.” We didn’t. Soon we could skate without smashing into the rails or falling on our asses. We loved the smooth sound of the wheels on the old maple floor. Whistling and singing, we would sashay around the rink when no one was there. At night or during afternoon matinees the rink was filled with organ music—sounded too much like church music to me. Occasionally, Dad would play the “Tennessee Waltz” on his harmonica through a microphone. Skaters would cheer him. Encouraged, he’d play old cowboy songs. “Red River Valley,” “Happy Trails,” “Cool Water.” I remember skating to Connie Francis’s Spanish version of “Malaguena.” I had a crush on her. She wrapped that song around my heart.
Mom and Dad were usually behind the counter, polishing or fixing skates, selling candy and pop. Uncle Foggie managed a bottling company on Prince Street. He gave us kids free Dr. Peppers, Cokes, Pepsis. Peanut Patties were a Skateland favorite. We liked to watch the Patties being made at the Leslie Candy Company on Seventh Street. For a contest the company made the largest, heaviest peanut patty. It was six and a half feet in diameter and weighed three hundred and fifty pounds.
Mom warned us, “Candy is a tooth-rotter.” Back then, we got free sweet stuff. Now we have mouths full of fillings.
Since our parents owned the rink, they expected us to be the best skaters. None of us had ever been on skates, so our only choice was to learn from others. The best skaters were airmen from Cannon Air Force Base.
Our parents pounded “practice, practice, practice” into our kid brains. They made us practice, even when we didn’t want to. Scarlett and Tobin were four years younger than me. They became fine dance skaters and won gold medals in Southwest Skating Championships.
I was the middle kid. Ramsey was the oldest. He was a fundamentalist Christian. At school bullies called him a Jesus-Jerk. I’ve never known him to lie. He swore on the Bible that for his entire life he had been in love with Karen Boone, but she wouldn’t skate with him. At first I believed the bit about his “entire life.” He was twelve and I was eight. What did I know?
Later he said, “Even in the womb I loved her. God told me in a dream that she’s my soulmate.”
“Ramsey,” I said, “Love in our mama’s belly? Come on.”
I was young but not stupid.
“That’s right. Shut your mouth. What do you know?”
I said nothing, although I knew he was bullshitting.
Ramsey was a consummate bullshitter.
Ramsey was fourteen and I was ten when Karen Boone told me that Ramsey was the king of roller skates. She said, “Ramsey’s heart has wheels, that’s why I won’t marry him.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean that he would run away, be unfaithful.”
Maybe she was right. By the time Ramsey was sixteen, he had won racing medals, dancing medals, trick medals, and was popular among teenage girls. He would date a girl, dump her, then go back to the same girl again. He couldn’t make up his mind, couldn’t settle down.
Ramsey was the best skater I knew, so I asked if he would let me dub him, like a knight. He agreed. We sneaked out at midnight. I wore a paper crown. He knelt on the skating rink floor. I touched his shoulder with a wooden sword I carved and declared him, “Ramsey, Super-Christian Roller Skater King.”
He stood up, flexed his muscles, and said, “You are the most fantabulous brother anyone could have.”
I was so proud I cried.
I’m the family weeper.
Karen Boone was gorgeous, but I was just a kid, not yet a teenager. Besides, she was Ramsey’s wannabe girlfriend. Margie told me Karen had seduced Ramsey. When I looked up the word in the dictionary I knew Margie had lied. Ramsey said he was a virgin—a word I knew from Sunday School, where they taught us that without sex the virgin Mary gave birth to Jesus. I never believed that, but my big brother did.
He believed every word in the Bible. “God wrote it,” he claimed.
Even as a kid I had no use for religion.
Be a good and kind person. That’s enough.
Ramsey could skate forward and backward but also sideways. I’m not sure how he did that. He could dance skate, race skate, trick skate. He was the master of four wheels, all with quiet precision bearings, the best you can buy. Our father told us, “No loose ball bearings, only the best. Your skating should be as quiet and smooth as those precision bearings.”
Wherever Ramsey went, the wheels led him. “My wheels are hooked to my heart,” he said, “they are hooked to my feet and brain—even to my six-inch dick. That’s what told me, but I never saw it. Mine was two inches. I guess that makes sense. Four years, four inches. If you are a kid, that’s what you assume.
An Air Force corporal from Cannon Air Force Base named Red Rossen used to hold Ramsey by the trucks of his skates and spin tight circles with Ramsey’s nose close to the floor and his arms flared out like eagle wings. Ellen Giles, Ramsey’s skating partner, was amazed, “I’m completely flabbergasted at his skill. That’s a miracle.”
“Not a miracle,” I said, “but a cool trick performed by my smartass big brother.” Ellen was a Seventh Day Adventist and told me kids my age shouldn’t say the word ass. I called her an asshole and ran. Ramsey and I knew a huge number of swear words, some in English, some in Spanish. The word ass—that was minor league.
Ramsey and Rossen played basketball on roller skates. Jump shots, hook shots, slam dunks. Soon they recruited an entire team called the New Mexico Blues. Ramsey and Rossen were the forwards for the Blues. They could jump shoot, and, while spinning in the air, land backwards, zip around behind the basket and take a second shot in case they missed the first one. The New Mexico Blues taught others to play roller skate basketball and helped to create two other teams, the Arizona Reds and Texas Purples. In a year there was a regional contest, and the Blues won.
Why not, when the King is on your side?
When the sport began to spread to Colorado and Utah, Ramsey lost interest. He became an Explorer Scout and within a couple of years had achieved the rank of Eagle. Ramsey always wanted to be the best.
That was his virtue. And his failing.
He told me a story about a Scouting trek though the Gila Wilderness. He saw naked Girl Scouts bathing in a river and realized that his zipper was bulging. He said, “Derrek, I know I shouldn’t have sex before marriage. Still, God made me this way. What am I to do?”
Ramsey was seventeen. As an experiment, he suspended all his Christian convictions and began trying to seduce every girl who would succumb to his “manly wiles.” A few Christians thought he was a pervert. He said, “Derrick, I want to experience everything my buddies experience, so I will understand what the Lord has saved me from.”
Even though I was only thirteen, I knew that was complete bullshit.
Ramsey began to imitate his friend Herbert Norman, who called himself Master Fucker. Ramsey told me that he imagined getting inside Herbert’s skin. Then he would imitate Herbert for two months. Fuck everything in sight, then claw his way out of Herbert’s skin, knowing who he himself really was.
Every attempt to get laid failed. My guess, he was far too eager. I admired his willingness to fail. I’ve always been afraid to fail. I’d sometimes fudge the truth to keep the peace. I am the Kleeman family peacemaker. Maybe I could work for the United Nations and help prevent wars? A big idea for a kid.
Ramsey rode a red and black ’57 Cushman Eagle that Dad hauled back in his candyapple red pickup from Amarillo. Ramsey wore a black motorcycle jacket with “Ramsey, Boone-Lover” written in yellow cursive on the back. When Karen saw it, she was embarrassed and avoided my brother like the plague.
There’s a picture of Ramsey and me standing by his Cushman Eagle. It’s Sunday. We’re on our way to church. Mom forces me to wear one of Dad’s old ties. It chokes me and hangs down to my belt. I have a four-inch tall flattop haircut. I look like a dork and have tried to buy the picture from Ramsey. “Nope,” he said, “it’s a treasure.” In that picture he’s wearing cufflinks and a stiffly starched white shirt. Inside his shirt is a bolo tie made by a Navajo silversmith. My parents allowed the bolo to pass as a tie.
Ramsey was always full of tricks. I sometimes called him King Coyote.
In ’61, the year Ramsey graduated from Clovis High School, he told Karen that it was his destiny to marry her. He asked her to go steady. She turned him down. He wanted to engage her. “No,” she said.
For a month his face was a soggy piece of wet leather hanging on a clothesline.
I’ve never seen him so sad.
At age eighteen Karen became engaged to Daniel Shockley, one of Ramsey’s friends. Daniel was a Pentecostal with curly red hair. Ramsey went to church with him, hoping to learn his secret, but Ramsey said the descent of the Holy Spirit left people in trance with people shouting and writhing on the floor. He said the scene scared the shit out of him, so he left.
Having lost the battle to win Karen Boone, Ramsey decided to attract other cute girls, so he became a weightlifter, “Maybe if I have big muscles and a super-masculine build, with my stomach pulled in, they’ll love me. Maybe if I wear size 30 pants instead of 32, they’ll go for me.”
So Ramsey settled for second best. He dated Delia O’Dell, a skating partner, but then dumped her after two weeks. “You are so, so selfish,” said our mom. Our dad didn’t think so. Neither did I. Ramsey was doing what many boys do—making mistakes, saying he’s sorry, then getting on with his life.
Once Ramsey double-dated with me. We went to see “April Love.” Ramsey imagined Pat Boone as Karen Boone’s uncle. Pat was a Super-Christian like Ramsey. We went with two sisters, Agatha and Crystal. After the movie Ramsey tried to sing with a Boone-like voice. The sound was dreadful.
A month later the four of us bought matching steady shirts with horizontal black and white stripes. We gave the sisters going-steady rings, wrapped in fuzzy pink yarn. The sisters’ mother knew our mother. Mrs. Bohannon would show up two or three times a week wanting to have coffee with our mom, who was too kind to turn her away.
Mrs. Bohannon wanted us to marry her two daughters. A stupid notion since I wasn’t old enough to marry. She thought we were a perfect match. She fretted about pregnancy. I was hoping we’d get to have “intercourse” with the girls. I had just learned the term in a junior high health course. I jacked off (health-class term: “masturbated”) once a day while imagining a naked Agatha with her boobs bouncing like Jell-O, although in real life she was flat-chested.
Good thing I didn’t get in bed with her. Back then I didn’t know what a condom was.
One summer, a year before Ramsey graduated from high school, he took a job as a radio announcer in Texas. Because of the time difference between Central and Mountain Time, he got up early to disk jockey the 5 a.m. show. In Muleshoe, he played country music for the cotton farmers, who got up at sunrise and listened to KMUL. The show was called “Catching the Boll Weevil.” Ramsey got to pick his own theme song, “Cattle Call” by Eddie Arnold. Ramsey hated country music and couldn’t imagine that anyone was listening, so he occasionally fell asleep at the turntable. A kind farmer, Lee-Bob Frampton, would call and wake him up. Ramsey had no use for the music, but the job helped pay for his Cushman Eagle.
On weekends Ramsey played rock and roll at KZOL in Farwell, Texas. He got to name the show, so he called it “Rockin’ with Ramsey.” The theme song was “Sandstorm” by Johnny and the Hurricanes. Listen to it. You can hear our farm blowing away in the wind. Rockin’ Ramsey had a huge teenage following in Clovis, Texico, Farwell, Portales, and Muleshoe. The radio station was swamped with fan letters. I admired my nonconformist big brother. My tendency was to blend in.
Ramsey met Roy Orbison at KZOL. “I want to be cool like Roy,” he told me, so he ditched his cowboy boots, wore dark sunglasses, bright red socks with yellow stars, and black shoes with white lightning bolts down the sides.
Crystal Bohannon kept her ear glued to the radio. She was a devoted fan and would call in requests and tell Ramsey how much she loved the music, hoping to convince him to marry her. Her busy-body mother kept bugging us, so we decided to dump the two girls.
Our mother was relieved.
Ramsey and I decided to ignore girls for a while. We shared a pet instead. Ellison Green, the manager of Hillcrest Zoo, gave Ramsey and me a de-fumed skunk. Ramsey and I loved El Stinko, a pet better than a dog. Certainly, better than a cat. We would squabble over who got to walk it on a leash down Sycamore Street.
Late one night, we let El Stinko run around the skating rink floor. It cleared quickly. Dad thought the trick was hilarious. Mom thought it was outrageous. She began to pray for us. This time in Spanish, so I knew she was serious. She spoke Spanish like a native speaker even though she was a Gringo. Her prayers, usually Methodist and calm, included crying this time. I felt so sad. She worried about both of us, “Ramsey is a bad influence on you Derrick.”
Buddy Balder, a shit-stomping cowboy from a big ranch outside of Clovis, threw a huge rock through our grandmother’s expensive stained-glass window on Gidding Street. Granny Luella’s home was one of the three brick houses in Clovis. It felt like a mansion to us Kleemans. Ramsey was across the street, in the alley behind the Clovis News Journal when he heard the glass shatter.
Ramsey was taking martial arts and had earned a green belt. He hoped a bully would find him so he could put his skills to use. Ramsey’s instructor told him, “The best strategy is to avoid fighting. If you must fight, stomp the aggressor’s kneecap down to the ankle. That will put an end to the conflict.”
Ramsey heard me crying and yelling. He ran across the street. Buddy raised a fist, Ramsey pointed to the sky, Buddy looked up, down came Ramsey’s right foot. Kneecap made a deep dive to ankle. Buddy was howling like a wounded coyote when the ambulance arrived. From then on, I lionized Ramsey. He was a hero, not like the ones in the movies but a real-life hero, worthy of respect. I told him that.
Ramsey said, “Derrick, cut the crap. If you were older, you would have done the same thing.”
“I guess so,” I said.
“For sure you would,” said Ramsey.
When Ramsey turned eighteen, he drove off in his black ’57 Mercury to some Methodist college in Kentucky. I longed to hear from him. Occasionally he would write to Mom and Dad, and I would pressure them to read the letters out loud to me. “Read them the way he would. Use his voice.” Both parents tried, failed.
I missed him a lot.
Four years later I turned eighteen and decided to see the world. Uncle Foggie had been in the Navy. He bought me a kid’s navy uniform when I was eight. That was the stupid reason I used to join the Navy in San Diego. I was shipped to Hawaii and learned to surfboard and scuba dive.
For a while, I had a pet baby octopus. I called it October the Eight-Legged. I would meet it in a shallow pool where we would play. To this day I still dream of fantastically colored fish and a grown-up October.
One night I went to a hula dance for tourists. I met Kula Kahuna, one of the dancers. That was her stage name. She wouldn’t tell me her real name. I paid her to teach me about sex. She taught me the details about female anatomy. I had never heard the word clitoris. I thought men just stuck it in and pulled it out. I loved copulating with her, but in a month I was shipped out to Guam on a training mission.
We Americans had already experienced Pearl Harbor and didn’t want a repeat in the Pacific.
We Americans imagine that we are masters of the world.
After eight months in Guam, I went to the Navy dental office in San Diego. A dentist had to fill four teeth—too many Peanut Patties—but he said I should see a naval optometrist to give me a visual test. The optometrist said I was almost blind and prescribed some very thick glasses. I couldn’t believe what the world looked like when everything was in focus.
Because of my bad eyes, the Navy discharged me, so I went to New Mexico Highlands University to study political science. With my world in clear focus, I decided to work hard and graduated with a straight A transcript and then entered a two-year MA program in international relations.
Even so, all I could think about were naked women. Like Ramsey, when he was a high school student, I began to chase skirts, didn’t care what color or size they were, all I wanted to do was take their clothes off and see naked females. Didn’t matter whether they were skinny or fat, I just wanted to lick that little button, then slip my male member into something quivery and wet. Back then I called it heavenly nectar and wished Methodist communion would use lady nectar instead of Welch’s grape juice.
After I finished my MA, I was sick of myself, tired of lusting, tired of my preoccupation with female bodies. Important things were happening in the world. The Vietnam War was raging. Ramsey was involved in protests, got bloodied up by NYPD officers on horseback at Columbia University.
I applied to several Ph.D. programs, got into Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and hoped to become a diplomat and work for the United Nations.
Back then I imagined the UN could stop wars.
Granny Luella told me the UN was full of Communists and Catholics. She wasn’t sure which ones were the worst, but I talked with Ramsey. He told me to ignore Granny and said her mother had been a member of the Ku Klux Klan.
During my first year in the doctoral program, I took a bus to New York City. Ramsey was about to graduate in anthropology from Columbia University. He was a teaching assistant for Dr. Mills Gaster, a famous anthropologist. Ramsey’s called his dissertation “The Squeaky Wheels of the Oil Industry among Native People of the Southwest.” I asked if “squeaky” had anything to do with roller skate bearings. He laughed and said that I would be the only one to understand the reference. His advisors wanted him to remove the word, but he refused. After he graduated, his dissertation became a best-selling book.
Ramsey said, “Religious institutions aren’t critical of big oil, even though fossil fuels are destroying the planet. Religion causes as much conflict as it prevents.”
I could hardly believe what he was saying. No longer a fundamentalist, he was an agnostic, “Let’s be honest. I don’t know. You don’t know. We don’t know. No apology, no guilt, Derrick.”
Ramsey had grown a bushy mustache, said it made him look like he belonged in New York City. I said that his southwestern accent would always give him away to taxi customers. He drove part-time, so he had a bit of extra money and would send me as much as he could to help with tuition.
Ramsey and I visited the United Nations building. When we walked through it and listened to debates, I imagined that was my calling. Later that day, as we were strolling through Riverside Park, I asked Ramsey about roller skating. He said he had given it up except as a metaphor for his dissertation title. “Why the metaphor?” I asked.
He said, “The sound of skate wheels on a maple floor is paradoxical.”
I thought—but didn’t say—graduate school makes you think you need to use big words.
“On the one hand,” said Ramsey, “the sound kept me writing. On the other, it put me to sleep.”
Ramsey finished his PhD with honors, quickly married, and had two children. He divorced after the birth of the last child. I asked him why. He said he didn’t know. My guess? Probably too focused on his career. After a few years he was a full professor of anthropology at New Mexico Western University.
Despite his promotions, Ramsey became sad and sullen. I felt sorry for him, tried to comfort him, but he yelled at me to stay out of his business, so I kept my mouth shut.
Ramsey had just started doing fieldwork on coal and uranium mines on the Navaho reservation. He was studying how the mines destroyed the health of Native Americans.
Ramsey sent me an email, asking if he could come see me for advice. He said he was desperate. He flew to New York City, where I had just started to work as a translator for the Peruvian consulate. Desperate? I could hardly believe him. An older brother needs the advice of his younger brother. I am still flattered even though I am well qualified to offer advice. When he arrived, he said he didn’t need advice. He just missed me, wanted to see me, to hug me.
We both cried.
When our parents decided to retire and sell Hillcrest Skateland, Ramsey and I decided this was a huge moment in their lives, so we agreed to meet in Clovis. By the time we got there, the rink had been sold. It was now a Pentecostal Church. The church made our parents a good offer, so they quickly accepted it. We were disappointed but begged the pastor to let us go inside. It was the same ugly old Quonset hut that our parents had bought twenty-six years ago. Bullsnakes were still crawling up through holes in the floor. But the Pentecostals treated them as pets, picked them up and kissed them to show that Jesus could save them from the Devil. When Ramsey suggested the Devil was a symbol, they said no, the Devil was real.
The next year our mother died of breast cancer. Dad loved Mom but also felt guilty for killing her with secondary smoke. He died two years later. We could tell from Mom’s diary that she died feeling alone even though she was surrounded by a huge family of sisters and brothers. Mom and I were close. When Ramsey showed me the dreams that she had written into her black diary, I was unbelievably sad. I admired her. She was a liberal Democrat in a very conservative Republican town. She knew Spanish when almost no white folks did.
When I turned sixty, I was sent to Peru as a consultant for the International Relief Fund. Even though I was fluent in Spanish, that didn’t help me up in the mountains, so I learned Quechua. In those lofty mountains I learned about an ancient civilization that made American civilization look like child’s play. In the high, dry Andes Mountains the Aymara had learned how to bring water up from deep and winding tunnels in the mountains—no machines, no irrigation wells—just the wind plowing down into the tunnel would force water up to the surface and into pools.
We Americans are idiots.
We imagine we know everything.
For three years Ramsey and I hardly saw one another. He retired in 2015, having divorced and lost touch with his two children. I flew out to New Mexico. He lived alone in an old trailer house outside Portales and looked like a skeleton from a Day of the Dead altar. He was lonely, hardly talked, stared at the horizon, ate almost nothing. Under the trailer were mangy dogs, maybe even a coyote. Inside the trailer was a black and white dog that looked like Smoky. It was clean. I could see a horse comb that Ramsey used to brush the dog’s hair. The new Smoky kept pushing aside the gun lying on the straw mat, just as the old Smoky had done with rattlesnakes.
Ramsey had lost interest in life and was on the edge of suicide.
“Come with me,” I said.
“No. Who cares?”
“No one else does.”
I said, “I know some who might care. Karen Boone’s husband died last year.”
Ramsey looked up at me from the straw mat. He stood up straight, stared at me, picked up the horse comb, ran it through his white hair and long beard. He asked where Karen was. I said I didn’t know. I could see that old twinkle beginning to return to his eyes.
Ever since Ramsey was a child, he had wanted to climb the Andes. Scouting instinct I suppose. I said I would take him to Machu Picchu. He agreed, provided he could bring Smoky, and I would help him find Karen. I said, “Bringing Smoky is a pain in the ass, but, okay, provided you train for a month. Run, lift weights, regain your health.”
He did. His had regained his self-discipline and self-respect.
The mountain climb was difficult for him. We took it slow. Smoky followed Ramsey gently pushing him on with his nose. I had to carry Ramsey up one very steep ascent, but as soon as he caught his breath, he insisted on walking. “I’m too full of pride,” he said.
I said, “No, you are full of self-respect.”
We found Karen Boone in a retirement village in Farwell, Texas. She was in her seventies but still quite beautiful, perched like a tiny yellow canary sitting in her wheelchair. Smoky sniffed her, licked her ankle. When Karen stood up, she used a wooden cane, said she bought it a decade ago when she took vacationed in Peru. When she saw Ramsey, she winked and whispered, “Ah, the roller skate king has come to save me.”
Ramsey said, “Karen, I am no longer the king of anything, just a poor peasant.” He looked into Karen’s deep brown eyes, “So beautiful,” he said. He kissed her then picked up her wheelchair, spun a wheel, listened to the sound and said, “Ah, this must be top of the line, a wheelchair with precision bearings.”
I laughed. Karen had no idea what he was talking about, “Spinning wheels? That’s the best you can do, Ramsey?”
He picked her up, danced around like they were kids and kissed her again, this time for a long time, their tongues flicking and licking.
Ramsey, “Not much of my life is left, but will you marry me?”
Karen, “Yes, yes, yes.”
They held each other and wept. I couldn’t help crying with them.
Ramsey and Karen were married in the sandhills by Isabella Danforth, a Presbyterian pastor I met at the Woman’s March on Washington, DC in 2017. She and I married in 2018. We have a daughter, Jolene (Joy, for short). Smoky is now her dog. She loves to run her fingers through his silky black and white hair. Joy is a year old and has a rollerskate fetish. When she cries at night, Smoky cuddles up to her. I spin
the wheels of her baby roller skates. She falls asleep listening to the quiet sound of precision bearings.