The Queen of Limbo
by Okla Elliott
(from From the Crooked Timber)
When I first saw Sylvie, she was standing on the island of an eight-lane road, no place for a girl of ten maybe twelve to be standing. She was wearing a blue sundress. Cornflower blue, like the crayon from when I was a kid. Traffic flow was heavy, so I had to cross a few lanes and missed the chance to pull a u-turn. I ended up whipping around in a Hardee’s parking lot and getting back on the road. I was worried she’d be gone, or worse, in the time it took. But there she stood, blue sundress on a concrete island. I pulled up beside her and put on my hazard lights. Keri, my ex, would have told me I was crazy to do such a thing.
“You okay? Did you get lost?” She looked at me like I was the weirdest thing she’d ever seen. “Are you scared? Trying to get home?” Still no response. “Why don’t you let me give you a ride?”
“I’m not s’posed to talk to strangers. Mom tells me that.”
“You shouldn’t. Your mom’s right. But not this time,” I said.
She looked me over, considering.
“I’m a school teacher,” I lied. “I’ll give you a lift home.”
By this time, cars were waiting behind me, drivers looking over their shoulders to switch lanes, then turning back to lay on their horns. I know how it must have looked to the other drivers, but I didn’t give a damn about them. Sylvie looked at the cars. She looked at my face. I reached back and unlocked the door just behind me, so she wouldn’t have to walk around the car in traffic. She glanced at the honking cars and jumped in fast and slammed the door.
I started driving but left my hazards on until I got up enough speed to be part of the normal flow of traffic. In the drink holder, a waxed fast food cup had little beads of condensation streaking down its slick surface. I took a gulp of Sunkist and Aristocrat gin through the straw and nearly gagged on the waxy flavor the drink had absorbed from the cup. In the rearview mirror I could see the girl squirming, trying to latch her seatbelt.
“Where do you live?”
“I’m not going there,” she announced, as though talking to a dimwitted younger brother. “I’m going to the Pink’s Skate Rink. Tonight’s the limbo contest and whoever wins gets to skate for free all night.” Then, awed at the prospect, “Even the late skate is free for who wins the limbo contest.”
She fidgeted with the latch of the seatbelt.
“It’s broken,” I said.
The girl tossed the seatbelt away from her and climbed into the front passenger seat. Her sundress rubbed against my face as she passed by. Once settled, she clicked her seatbelt into place. I took in her satisfied look and felt calmer for it.
“You know where the rink is?”
“Yeah. It’s only a couple of miles. A long way to walk though.”
“Not so long,” she said and turned to look out the window. “My name’s Sylvie.”
“My real name’s Sylvia, but I like Sylvie better. My mom hates it,” she said. “Now we’re not strangers anymore.”
“Are you hungry, Sylvie? I saw a Hardee’s back there a bit.” I drank more of my Sunkist and gin. No urge to gag this time.
In the Hardee’s drive-thru, I bought us spicy chicken sandwiches and french fries. Sylvie ate noisily beside me as I drove. We threw the wrappers away in the trash can in front of Pink’s Skate Rink. Sylvie marched straight to the counter and blurted out her skate size. She’d already slipped her shoes off, stepping on each heel with her last two steps to the counter.
“I need a five dollar deposit,” a woman with nicotine-stained fingers and dyed-red hair said.
“But I don’t have five dollars.”
“You got to have money for a deposit, and skating ain’t free.”
“I don’t need money. I’m going to win the limbo contest.”
“I’m sure you will, honey,” the woman said as she lit a cigarette.
Keri would be at home surfing the internet, searching for Soviet-era army medals or propaganda posters. That’s all she really ever did anymore—look for more of her Soviet stuff on the internet—except when she was teaching intro to Russian at the university. You could say she was obsessed. She told me once that a woman in the Ukraine was selling her placenta for a thousand American dollars over the internet. “What sort of international mailing restrictions does that violate?” I joked, but she didn’t laugh, just kept clicking thumbnails of Siberian art and pocket watches engraved with the cityscape of Moscow.
“I’ll pay the deposit.” I peeled a five free from the money clip Keri had given me last Christmas, a nice metal job with engraved Cyrillic letters, another one of her internet finds. Sylvie sat in a hard plastic seat and laced her skates.
“I’ve got to get warmed up.”
She skated round the rink and I went to the snack bar to order a fresh Sunkist. I figured I could slip out to the car for a minute and load it up with gin.
“Don’t have Sunkist, man. Is Slice okay?”
“Same thing. Give me a large.”
On the way to the car, I saw a cigarette machine, and though I’d quit smoking back when Keri was pregnant for a few months, I fed the four dollars in and got a pack of Camel filters. In the parking lot, my legs hanging out of the opened car door, I squeezed the plastic half-gallon jug of gin and hotboxed a Camel. I remembered Keri, the way she’d moped around the house for weeks, and me not knowing what to say or do. My drink tasted different, and I thought maybe Sunkist and Slice aren’t the same after all until I remembered that this was a fresh cup and there hadn’t been time yet for the waxy flavor to seep in.
Back inside the rink I sat in an uncomfortable seat and drank. I was getting drunk. The skin on the back of my hands was warm, and the swoosh of skaters going by and that rattle-whir from the ball bearings in the wheels made me lightheaded. I couldn’t think straight. I wondered if I should call Keri, tell her what I was doing. She’d get a kick out of a skate rink. She’d changed her number again, but through the coming gin fog I could remember most of it. It had fives, nines, and zeros. I’d gotten it from her friend Leigh. I told her that Keri still had my DVDs and I needed to get in touch with her to get them back.
“Ain’t you gonna skate, Jasper?” Sylvie was beside me. I hadn’t roller-skated since I was fourteen.
“You know what? I just remembered. I won the limbo contest the last time I was in a roller rink.”
“You won’t win this time.” She sized up her competition. “You’re too big.”
“Oh, I’m not even going to try. I just remembered. That’s all.” I didn’t mention I might vomit orange if I bent over to go under the limbo stick.
I tied the skates too tight but didn’t bother to fix them. Sylvie grabbed my hand and set our pace. The weightless glide around the rink cleared my head, and I knew nothing good could come of me calling Keri. It was just that every time I saw or did something I thought she might enjoy, I wanted to call her and share it. Like telling her made it better, or that if it was good enough what I told her, she’d love me more for it.
“What do you teach?”
“I said, What do you teach?”
“Oh, that. Math. Middle school. Algebra mostly.” It was a reasonable lie. I was working as an actuary at the time. (Actually, I’m an actuary, shot through my head, and I wanted to laugh at how funny it sounded.)
“I hate math.”
“Me too,” I said.
Back in line at the snack bar I asked for a refill, but the cashier told me there were no free refills, so I paid full price. I unlaced my skates and went to the car in sock feet. The asphalt’s warmth was relaxing, a sort of heat massage for my feet. I gave the gin bottle a couple of hearty squeezes and lit a Camel. I stood beside the car, letting my feet absorb the asphalt’s warmth. I hadn’t felt anything so soothing in a long time. I lay down on my back and dragged on my Camel and watched as I puffed the stars in and out of existence. I found the Big Dipper, or Ursa Major as the astronomy textbooks would have it. Who in hell saw those seven stars and thought of a big bear? I wiggled my toes and knew I’d better get back inside. The limbo contest was about to start, and I wanted to watch Sylvie win it. I’d scoped out the other kids and no one looked like they were better on skates than she was. And no one wanted it as badly.
Two employees—a fat teenage girl and an athletic woman of maybe thirty—held the limbo stick on either end as the kids lined up. The first go everyone made it with room to spare. Then the fat girl and the athletic woman lowered it a few inches. All but one made it that time. And so forth. It came down to Sylvie and a young boy with disheveled clothes and hair, like he hadn’t had a bath for a while and was accustomed to it. Sylvie made it under again, and the limbo stick was lowered. The cashier at the snack bar watched, chewing on a Snickers. The dirty boy went under, but on his way up lost his balance and fell with a bony thud. He kicked the floor with his heels and began to cry. Sylvie skated straight to me and threw her arms around my waist, screeching her joy into my chest. I put my hands on her back and felt her ribs through the cornflower blue sundress. The fabric was nice to rub and I felt each rib and the soft space between each rib as my hands rubbed up and down her back. The athletic woman was helping the crying boy get up. He jerked free from her and began skating around the rink, picking up as much speed as he could manage. He just kept pumping his legs, picking up speed, going in circles. Sylvie was dubbed The Queen of Limbo over the loudspeaker. There was much cheering and flashing of lights.
“My mom picks me up when she gets off work.” Sylvie was worrying a loose thread in the hem of her dress between her thumb and forefinger. “I won’t get to stay for the late skate, but maybe I can tell the lady that I want you to be able to skate it in my place. I might not’ve made it on time, if you hadn’t given me a ride here.” People were crowding back into the rink, and Sylvie went in with them. I looked at my feet and saw I was still in sock feet and decided I should go out and have another cigarette and drink to celebrate Sylvie’s win.
Soon as I crossed the threshold of Pink’s Skate Rink and felt the humid summer air on my arms and face, I pulled out my cell phone and dialed. 5-0-8-4-0…; her number came flooding back to me. It went straight to voice mail, as I had expected. Keri had rarely answered her phone in all the years I knew her. She would go through phases where she would answer “just to prove I’m not crazy,” though I never saw why answering a phone or not answering it was such a big deal. Me, I always answer.
Hello, this is Keri. Leave a message. That voice. I hung up without leaving a message but found her number in my call history and hit the little green button again. Hello, this is Keri. Leave a message. “Hey, I know I probably shouldn’t be calling. Definitely shouldn’t be, I mean, but I wanted to tell you about this little girl I met, named Sylvie, Sylvia really, but Sylvie is much better, don’t you think? Anyway, she just won the limbo contest down here at Pink’s Skate Rink. Bet you’d never think to see me at a skate rink. But, anyway, call me. We could get a beer and talk. I’d really like that, and…” I was cut off by that beep which meant she hadn’t erased any messages for a month or more and there was no space left for me.
Back inside, the rink was thick with skaters, and I couldn’t find Sylvie at first. Then I saw her with the dirty boy who’d come in second. They’d suspended the limbo stick on the backs of two chairs and were practicing. Sylvie took sips from his Coke like it was hers. The boy had a skittish way about him that made me sad, but it looked like Sylvie’s attentions were cheering him up. In front of me in line, a boy ordered a suicide in a thick drawl. He was acting tough like a movie saloon cowboy. “Give me another suicide, light on the ice,” he said, and looked over his shoulder at a group of older kids who stared at him menacingly. I sat there sucking down my own drink and watching Sylvie, thinking how if things had gone different with Keri, we could have had a daughter named Sylvie. She was such a beautiful little girl, the way only smart girls in cornflower blue sundresses can be.
Sylvie rolled over to me and said her mom would be there soon and that she was supposed to wait outside for her. She returned her skates and collected her pass for the late skate. “Can I give it to Jasper to skate?” she asked the smoking woman.
“Sweetie, you can do anything you want to. You’re The Queen of Limbo,” she said and laughed.
Sylvie handed me the pass and we went outside. I don’t know what I was thinking. I guess I figured I could just walk away when her mother showed up. Just before we got to the door, I lifted her up and sat her on my shoulder. “All make way for The Queen of Limbo,” I said, and Sylvie giggled as I kicked the door open with great flourish and walked us into the parking lot. Her skinny legs batted against my chest and the rustle of her dress was in my right ear louder than the rest of the world. The weight of her on my shoulder was pleasant.
“Look up there.” I pointed out the Big Dipper. “That’s not its real name. Ursa Major, which means ‘big bear’ in Greek or maybe Latin, is its real name.”
Sylvie began squirming, trying to get down off my shoulder. A woman dressed in turquoise scrubs was walking toward us. The skin under her eyes was a reddish gray I’d seen in my face the day after a long drunk, or when I’d stay up all night working at the computer. I would probably look like that tomorrow morning. The only thing animating her face was surprise and something else I couldn’t place.
“What the hell is going on here? Sylvia, who is this man?” I sat Sylvie down, and her mother motioned her away from me and under her protective arm. The loose fabric of her shirt half-covered Sylvie’s face, a sight I’ll never forget.
“Who are you?” she asked.
“I picked her up. She was stranded on the island and I thought that was unsafe.”
“Stranded on an island?” she said. “Sylvia, did he hurt you?”
“I was worried she’d get run over,” I said, trying to get the conversation under control. I almost ran to my car and drove off. Then I thought to step closer and try to explain, but I was worried she might smell the gin on my breath, so I backed away, holding my hands palm up, showing her I held no violence in them.
“Hey, Mom, did you know that the Big Dipper isn’t its real name?” Sylvie asked.
“Shut up, Sylvia,” she said. “Now, tell me who you are or I’m calling the cops.”
“God, Mom, he’s my math teacher, Mr. Powell,” she said. “You talked to him last month on the phone about my stupid C-minus in pre-algebra.”
A spark of recognition came across the woman’s face. She really had talked to a Mr. Powell about Sylvie’s grade, I thought. I was proud of Sylvie. The ability to tell a good lie is the sign of true intelligence. I should know; I was married to a woman who graduated cum laude from Duke. Keri used to say how our kid was going to be some kind of genius, and I never doubted it. Sylvie’s mother looked at me, and I smiled, trying to hide my surprise—and trying to look like a math teacher. I smiled the nervous smile I figured a math teacher would have. I shrugged my shoulders, but I still didn’t say anything. My hands were sweaty, and I was worried I’d slur, though Keri used to tell me I didn’t slur, no matter how drunk I got. “Maybe boozing is my calling in life,” I told her, grinning a big dopey grin. “I’m just so damned good at it.”
The woman looked at Sylvie’s face. I figured Sylvie was a handful, always getting into trouble and always finding a slick way out. And that’s when it hit me that I’d probably never see Sylvie again. Her mother would take her home and their lives would continue and so would mine. It wasn’t even that I wanted to see her again. It just seemed sad that I wouldn’t.
“Yeah, I saw Sylvia walking to the roller rink and recognized her from class, so I stopped and gave her a lift,” I said. “And then I thought I should stay around until you got here.”
Sylvie looked up at me, smiling.
“I guess I’ll be seeing you on Monday, Sylvia,” I said.
“I’m . . . sorry,” her mother said, and I felt bad for her. It seemed wrong that she should feel embarrassed.
“You have a wonderful daughter,” I said. “It’s obvious how much she’s loved. I wish all my students were as fortunate as Sylvia.”
“Thank you, Mr. Powell,” her mother said.
I watched them drive off. I stood there as the little sedan shrank into the distance and finally took a left turn out of my view. There were voices behind me in the parking lot, a man and a woman arguing on their way out of the roller rink.
The pass for the late skate was still in my hand. On the way back in I threw what was left of the Camels in the trash. The rink was dull with Sylvie gone. The boy who ordered suicides like a cowboy sat with a pretty, redheaded girl, their hands underneath the table. One of the older kids who were staring at him earlier was fuming. The dirty boy was skating backwards and doing a good job of it. I tapped the pass for the late skate against the palm of my hand and sat down to tie my skates back on.
I floated drunk, the whir and clack of the skates’ wheels rolling the world beneath me, and I didn’t let myself call Keri. I wanted to talk to her so bad the weight of the cell phone in my pocket made my leg tingle, but I knew I would never speak to her again. It had all happened, and there was no reversing it with words. But if things had been different, I would have called her and talked in a voice so stripped down and bare no one could refuse it. “I’m in no condition to drive, baby,” I’d say. “Come down here and get me out of this place.”
"The Queen of Limbo" first appeared in Another Chicago Magazine