WARS DISTANT AND NEAR, COLD AND HOT (Pt.1) by Mark Brazaitis

May 15, 2015

When Alice Maravicious–aka Alice Marvelous–left her skating director job at the Sherman Ice Arena to visit her former boyfriend in Buenos Aires, she left behind a kingdom suddenly at risk of civil war. If Alice hadn’t spent the previous three weeks in a pre-trip, hopeful romantic swoon, she might have foreseen a problem. A decade removed from high school and her last kiss with Mariano “The King” Rey, Alice had been preoccupied with brushing up on her Spanish, studying Argentine wines by sampling a new variety every night, and listening obsessively to the soundtrack from Evita.

Her substitutes, Beth and Liza, were twenty-year-old college students who both used to be known as Elizabeth. Beth was tall and dark-haired, Liza was short and blond. If their differences had only been cosmetic, everything would have been fine. But days after they’d come to the rink the previous month to offer their services as instructors, their mutual distaste grew so strong they opted to rename themselves with diminutives.

Beth, who was from Cleveland, was a vegetarian, rode a bicycle even in the dead of winter in order to combat global warming, and voted Democratic only because socialists never appeared on the ballot. Liza, who was from Cincinnati, held a yearly pig roast in the backyard of her sorority, drove a pickup truck so jacked up she had once run over a dear on Two-Mile Road without injuring it, and voted for political candidates, when she voted at all, who said “God” loudest and most often. At Ohio Eastern University, Beth was majoring in Eastern religions, Liza in macroeconomics.

They might have overcome these differences had they seen eye-to-eye on proper skating technique. But Beth subscribed to the Russian style of skating, Liza to the American. Although the principal difference in the two styles boiled down to whether prior to jumps skaters swung their arms (Russian), or didn’t (American), the disdain each felt toward the other was too palpable to be called a cold war.

The young women’s mutual animosity surfaced only occasionally, however, usually in the form of glowering glances exchanged across the rink. For the most part, they operated in separate circles. But with Alice out of the country, Beth and Liza found themselves the interim co-directors of both the rink’s Skate With Us program and the Sherman Figure Skating Club’s upcoming performance of “Cinderella on Ice.” It was as if Khrushchev and Kennedy had been required to share the job of secretary general of the United Nations. Or to run a restaurant together.

The first fracture in the kingdom occurred on the opening night of the six-week Skate With Us session. Two dozen preschoolers and kindergartners had signed up, along with a smattering of elementary school-aged children and adults. They were all gathered in the lobby of the Sherman Ice Arena prior to Sunday’s four p.m. start. Beth and Liza were standing on opposite ends of the room, Beth near the gas fireplace, Liza by the Duck-and-Deer-Hunting video game. Liza began by announcing the rules that would govern participants’ behavior on the ice. Beth interrupted to say, “The only rule is to learn and have fun.” She pointed to the door to the ice. “Let’s go!”

The children, laced up in their rental skates and shivering with anticipation (and, in one five-year-old’s case, because he was cold), walked, stumbled, and crab-crawled out to the ice. There to greet them were six volunteers, the middle-school and high-school members of the Sherman Figure Skating Club who had signed up to assist with Skate With Us lessons. None had been told what to do, but at least one duty became quickly clear: to assist fallen skaters to their feet. As soon as they’d stepped on the ice, the tiny novices had tumbled faster than countries in a red-baiter’s nightmare of the domino theory.

Alice Marvelous traditionally broke Skate With Us participants into groups according to their talents, which she discerned within minutes of seeing them on the ice. Liza, however, wanted to split participants into groups of boys and girls; Beth thought it best to assign participants to groups randomly, believing this would encourage understanding and acceptance of different abilities. In the end, participants drifted to the volunteer closest to them.

As volunteers instructed their charges, Beth and Liza skated between groups, offering encouragement and advice, the latter’s always the opposite of the former’s. Most of the young skaters were too busy falling to notice the contradictions. The four adult skaters, however, felt the tension, which reminded them, sadly, of the tensions past and present in their own lives. Two of the adult skaters were divorced, two on the brink of divorce, and they understood to what depths of rage and revenge relationships could fall. They wanted to offer their services as peacekeepers, but accustomed lately to the roles of combatants, they elected only to watch.

If the Skate With Us session had ended merely with adult skaters re-traumatized and child skaters confused and muttering phrases in Russian about collective farming, it would have been a mere minor failure. But one of the volunteers, Peter Marcus, remembering one of Alice Marvelous’s opening-night activities, delivered a laundry basket full of red-and-blue plastic balls to the center of the rink and dumped them onto the ice. The skaters were supposed to pick them up and return them to the basket, an exercise in bending one’s knees and balance. Instead they became the first weapons in a battle.

It wasn’t clear who threw the first ball. Or, rather, it wasn’t clear whether Beth or Liza threw the first ball. But within seconds, the skaters, misinterpreting the purpose of the activity, began hurling the balls at each other. Although the balls were light, their hard plastic exteriors made them sting when they connected with forearms and wrists and faces. Especially faces.

Worried about their children’s safety, parents rushed the ice. The slick surface was no friend to footwear without blades, and parents slipped, slid, and fell, their yelps, groans, and moans joining the aggrieved hubbub. But a mother in high heels, whose Olympic figure skating dreams had died reluctantly and recently, treated the ice as no slicker than a catwalk. As she headed toward her son, who lay sprawled and sobbing near center-ice, she pulled her cell phone from the pocket of her knee-length coat and dialed three numbers.

Unable to resist a melee, hockey players who had been waiting to take the ice after the Skate With Us session had ended leaped, hopped, and blundered into the chaos, checking random toddlers and parents against the boards and using their sticks to shoot the plastic balls high and hard in every direction.

Soon, above the squeals and shrieks, a siren could be heard. A second siren joined in, a duet of distress. Meanwhile, Robert Williams, the rink manager, brought his referee’s whistle to his lips and blew like a steam train.

In the next day’s Sherman Advocate and Post, Liza blamed the melee on an “unnamed instructor” who “doesn’t know the difference between skating and baseball.” Beth, meanwhile, pointed her finger at an “unnamed instructor” who “believes it’s okay to use five-year-old skaters as foot soldiers in an ideological war in which colored balls substitute for reason and peaceful dialogue.”

All but two parents withdrew their children from the Skate With Us program. Several threatened lawsuits. One father whose child remained in the program told the Advocate and Post he’d debated between signing up his son for skating lessons or kickboxing lessons. Said the father, “Who knew he’d be able to do both?”

Although reluctant to disturb Alice Marvelous in Argentina, Robert Williams felt the situation warranted an emergency intervention. With the Skate With Us program in peril, he feared an entire generation of Sherman skaters might flee to gymnastics or ballet. Damn the cost of an international phone call.

On the rink’s ancient rotary phone, above static and someone singing “Besame Mucho,” he heard Alice’s familiar, sweet, diplomatic voice. Or perhaps it was the voice of a cigar-smoker who’d been awoken from a nap. “Hello?”

“Hello, Alice?” Robert said and launched into a three-minute summary of the disastrous opening night of Skate With Us. “Will you talk to Beth and Liza?” he said. “Or, better, will you please come home?”

“Hello?” A new song played in the background. It sounded like a tango or Frank Sinatra two days after he’d died. The static remained. “Hello?”

“Alice?”

“Hello?”

“Alice? Hello, Alice? Help, Alice! Help!”

To be continued…

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Mark Brazaitis is the author of six books of fiction, including The River of Lost Voices: Stories From Guatemala, winner of the 1998 Iowa Short Fiction Award, The Incurables: Stories, winner of the 2012 Richard Sullivan Prize and the 2013 Devil’s Kitchen Reading Award in Prose, and Julia & Rodrigo, winner of the 2012 Gival Press Novel Award. His latest book, Truth Poker: Stories, won the 2014 Autumn House Press Fiction Competition.

Mark was a featured guest on the Diane Rehm Show in 2012.

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