What seems to be a common set up in Alice Munro's work (which I like very much by the way) is a story about the past bookended by events occurring in the present. Such is the manner in which "The Moon in the Orange Street Skating Rink" is told. And she's also very good at evoking the past, what I imagine to be the Depression-era, though it's not stated explicitly in the story. Little hints are dropped to help form an image in the reader's mind, but it's subtly done.
A widower of sixty-nine, Sam has returned to the small town of Gallagher on his way from Vancouver to Pennsylvania. It's been many years since he was last there and a visit to a confectionery shop owned by a woman he once knew is the opening needed for the story to move swiftly back many years.
"Callie Kernaghan was nineteen when Sam and Edgar Grazier first saw her, and she could have passed for twelve. A demon worker. Some people called her a drudge, Miss Kernaghan's little drudge, or they called her slavey--Slavey Kernaghan."
At the time Miss Kernaghan ran a boardinghouse where Sam and his cousin Edgar lived while attending business college. The two were nearly inseparable and seemed almost like brothers than mere cousins. Their real love was acrobatics and they would practice in the evenings to the chagrin of Miss Kernaghan who would lament so much physical activity--no doubt causing an increase in appetite when she served rather frugal meals to her boarders.
The memories of Gallagher and Kernaghan's boardinghouse are filtered through Sam's memory. As young men Edgar was the more attractive and perhaps more daring as well. Neither ever had much money, what little might be used to supplement their meager meals. It certainly wasn't put towards clothes, as what they wore marked them as farm boys. It's the local skating rink that was the big draw for both young men, but admission was steep so they took to sneaking in through a high window and opening a back door from the inside letting in the other boy and Callie who would accompany them.
"Callie's life was work. So anything that wasn't work--that was a thrill for her. But he wondered--how did they persuade her? It must have been a dare. Making friends with a testy and suspicious dog, and later on it had been like making friends with the twelve-year-old she looked to be."
Callie, a foundling, who was taken in by Miss Kernaghan and whose history is revealed in the course of the story becomes friends, and perhaps something more, with the two cousins. She puts on boys' clothes for their skating excursions. In a show of solidarity she follows the two when they decide to abandon Gallagher for Toronto where they believe they'll earn their living through their acrobatics. The impetus for leaving, though, is the fear Edgar has that Callie has become pregnant after the trio experimented sexually one night.
"They didn't feel as if they were caught. Right away they had understood that Callie hadn't come to bring them back. She was joining them in her boy's clothes, she reminded them of the cold nights of luck and cunning, the plan went without a hitch, the free skating, speed and delight, deception and pleasure."
But a wedge has been jammed between the boys, and their friendship will never be the same. Those happy, carefree moments spent in each other's company has passed and will never be quite the same. It's daring Edgar who ends up leading the predictable, quiet life and Sam who goes away for other adventures and successes.
This is a really brilliant story of memory (like so many of her stories seem to often be about) and reality and how closeness can turn into alienation. Once again it's beautifully layered with apparent simplicity, but really quite complex and meaningful.
“The moment of happiness he shared with them remained in his mind, but he never knew what to make of it. Do such moments really mean, as they seem to, that we have a life of happiness with which we only occasionally, knowingly, intersect? Do they shed such light before and after all that has happened to us in our lives - or that we’ve made happen - can be dismissed?”
Next week:"Jesse and Meribeth". Already am halfway through the collection! Check out Buried in Print's take on the story--always nice to read along with someone else and get a different perspective.