“The Moon in the Orange Street Skating Rink”
by Alice Munro
from The Progress of Love

Trevor

Before I met my wonderful wife in London, back when I was dating girls I’d never end up with, there were a few long-term relationships that, at the time, seemed to be transitioning to become “my life.” I remember one in particular whom I dated for a couple of years. She was a constant, central part of my life, and I included her in many potential futures. When that relationship started to come apart, a process that was much too slow, after a period of denial I started to fear but also hope for the day when enough time had passed that I didn’t know her anymore, and, heartbreakingly at the time, when I was indifferent to what was no more. It’s a strange thing when long-term relationships cease to be and each person goes their separate way, forging out of nothing a new concrete stream of events. It’s strange when paths converge again, and one realizes how different the life you have lived can be from another life you could have lived. Hopefully one feels, as I do, that providence intervened, that the real tragedy would have been if something diverted you from the life you’ve lived. Hopefully you feels you’ve escaped to a better life. How awful if one feels the opposite. How interesting when one doesn’t know.

While Alice Munro’s “The Moon in the Orange Street Skating Rink” is not simply about diverging paths, it’s the aspect that most stood out to me, only Munro’s story is much darker than my own. Betsy’s thoughts below showcase just how darkly the story can be interpreted, how blessed an escape may be, though I think the story has some beautiful ambiguity.

When the story begins, we meet Sam, an elderly man returning to Gallagher, a provincial Canadian town where he lived when he was seventeen in the 1930s. At the time, he and Edgar, his cousin, lived together in a boarding house while they attended business school. Sam and Edgar were inseparable, so much so that Munro even has them performing acrobatics as a nice way to show how much they functioned as one being. They had general plans for their future (who needs particulars when you’re seventeen?): going to Toronto, working together as acrobats on the street, becoming wealthy, getting away from the life they are currently living.

Though it’s a short story, Munro manages to pack in the textures of two time periods: the 1930s, a time when Sam and Edgar were together and had a lifetime of possibilities ahead of them; and the present day, after Sam and Edgar have spent decades apart, life almost over for each of them.

Why did they separate? Of course, it was inevitable that they should at some time in their life, but even Sam wonders why they separated as they did, at that particular moment . . . and the separation so permanent.

A girl at the boarding house entered their lives, a girl with her own hopes and dreams, named Callie. Callie also has her own disappointments, we glean, though nothing is brought quite to the surface. We simply know that she different, and that cannot but mean things have sometimes been hard. Callie is a couple of years older than the boys, though she is appearance similar to an adolescent boy. She’s small and lacks curves. Later, she fools the YMCA into letting her stay. At first, neither boy pays her much attention: she was a “little slavey, forever out of things, queer-looking, undersized, and compared to her they were in the mainstream, they were fortunate.”

For a time, Callie becomes a part of the life of both boys together. They go skating together at the Orange Street skating rink. They even — here’s how disturbed this tale can get — take turns having sex with her, a kind of experiment they’re all up for, with varying degrees of discomfort. She doesn’t seem to mind. It’s possible that, at 19 and staying in a boarding house, this is nothing particularly unique in her life. However, this is the beginning of what will eventually turn into a life-long separation for Sam and Edgar. All three run away to Toronto together, but Edgar makes the confusing decision to marry Callie. It seemed sudden to Sam, and inexplicable since to his knowledge Callie wasn’t pregnant or anything. So Callie and Edgar go back to Gallagher, only to see Sam again decades later upon his return.

In the meantime, Sam married, had a family, made money, and become a widower. When he gets back to Gallagher, he and Callie recognize each other, and while they reminisce, you can sense Sam sizing up the situation and finding it lacking. He is “learning of the things not to mention.” First and foremost, he cannot mention the past they spent together. His prior inseparable companion Edgar has been reduced through the years and a stroke to an old man (though still attractive) sitting in a chair. Or has he?

At first it may seem that Sam is the one who has triumphed in life (and a part of me believes this is the case). Sam wonders why Edgar married Callie, why he “went ahead and did what nobody was making him do, took what he had run away from.” The story’s final lines are from Callie, telling Sam that Edgar is happy. Is Callie right, or is she equivocating? Either way, “Edgar became a person [Sam] did not know.”

But it could be that Sam is the one who escaped into a lesser world, if one that felt more attractive to the seventeen-year-old back in the 1930s. Callie herself is wondering what Sam wants in coming back to Gallagher? What indeed? Does he feel he left a piece of him behind, that he lost something in his life? Or has he come back to visit and found out how fate has been kind to him. I believe that is what he’s questioning. He’s also questioning Edgar’s happiness, despite what Callie says. Life has moved on. He cannot know for sure whether he should feel any regret. At best he knows that when he was seventeen, with Edgar and Callie, they had a marvelous time together, and then life took off.

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 that all that has happened to us in our lives — or that we’ve made happen — can be dismissed?

I think that’s the heart of this story. A life of possibilities runs down one of many funnels to one point, and this is where we find Sam, wondering. Did Edgar live the better life? Did Sam? And what were the other possibilities?


Betsy

Munro’s “The Moon in the Orange Street Skating Rink” addresses betrayal and what you do with it after a terrific passage of time.

In addition, it is filled with detail about town life in provincial Canada in the 30’s: business school, boarding house, the prospects of farm boys, and those of foundlings. It has a delirious set piece regarding teen-aged acrobats — the daring, the grace, the teamwork. The bones of the story are these: two seventeen-year-old farm boys, Edgar and Sam, go to town to attend business school for a year. They put up lodgings in the attic of a mean boarding house, and they befriend a poor scallywag of a girl named Callie.

She’s older than they — 19 to their 17 — and she’s peculiar. She’s small and queerly made, and in addition, she loves to dress as a boy, and she gets away with it.

The key thing in this story, besides all the entertaining high-jinx, is that Sam, being inexperienced, gets it into his head that they should have sex with Callie. After all, she’s there, she’s the kind of person who is up for anything, and her social position is the bottom of the barrel. She’s a “foundling,” or perhaps she’s their landlady’s bastard daughter, and for sure she’s a “slavey” for her supper. She does all the heavy work at the boarding house, no quaver, no question.

So you have, tucked into a story of acrobatic ambitions, escapades at the skating rink, and slow progress at the business school, a classic story of sexual opportunism by unsupervised young men. It reminds me of the St. Paul’s rape case; it reminds me of Prep, the novel about sex in private boarding schools, and it reminds me of, naturally, Tess of the D’urbervilles. In all three cases the boys have the power, and the girls don’t seem to know what they’re getting into.

Except for this. It is possible that Callie is the real adventurer and the real opportunist. It’s possible she saw her chance with Edgar and grabbed it; it’s possible she’s the one who does all the taking advantage. She was older than he by two years, she was a town girl, no matter how poor, and she did live in a boarding house where she might have had plenty of opportunity for sexual experience.

The decisive thing regarding the possibility that she was the aggressor is that Edgar tried to run away from her.

Secondarily, having gotten discovered as not a boy upon arrival at the YMCA in Toronto, and having then gotten married to Edgar, it turned out she was not pregnant, and never would be.

Sam had gotten sick that first winter in town, and when he got better, he didn’t really seem himself, as if maybe he had suffered some kind of slight brain damage from his infection. We overhear Sam wondering, late in life, about Callie. “Perhaps she really was too small, or not developed in the usual way.” The story feels here as if it is verging on John Irving territory, as if it is ahead of its time, given its consideration of what Callie’s options are, if she isn’t an ordinary girl.

Somehow, maybe Callie realizes that Edgar is her chance. Regardless of what it was that was really wrong with her (and Munro makes it clear that it was something), she realizes she can have love, or companionship, or protection, and she goes for it. So while on the surface, it looked like Sam and Edgar were taking advantage of Callie, the more you think about it, it seems like Edgar got caught in a net that Callie had set.

We know there is something very strange about the whole thing because Sam has never been in touch with them, in all these years.

Weirdly, while it was Edgar, the handsome one, who got roped into marrying Callie, it was Sam who found her bravery thrilling. She had stolen the money to follow them to Toronto, and she had once again dressed as a boy to facilitate her escape. When Sam recognized her sitting opposite them on the train, decked out in her dirty boy’s disguise, he thought:

The moment was flooded with power, it seemed, and possibility.

And Sam acted on that. He got energy from it. He, too, seized power. He seized possibility. He was a great success. He made money. And Callie having stolen Edgar from him, he didn’t intend to ever share it. Under those circumstances, can you go home again? Sort of.

Sam, 69 and widowed, finally pays a visit on Callie and Edgar. Edgar is more handsome than ever and more damaged, having had a stroke a few years before. Callie stands her ground: she says, “He’s happy.”

Speaking of happiness, Sam wonders:

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 that all that has happened to us in our lives — or that we’ve made happen — can be dismissed?

The story is entertaining and it is strange. But I wonder how the story came to be. The description of the skating rink is so loving (with its guys who are the “rinky-dinks” and its hoisted moon) that I wonder if it was the skating rink that Munro found first, and then the boarding house, and then the characters with their topsy-turvy sex.

What you have to love about Munro is that power comes in all shapes and guises.

And you have to love her inquiry into the passage of time. Think of a moment from long ago when everything seemed possible. Think of how often you’ve thought of it and gotten strength from it — just as Sam has seemed to have done. But I do think Munro intends for us to also remember our brutality. That sometimes we just let things go. Even when we shouldn’t.

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