WARS DISTANT AND NEAR, COLD AND HOT (Pt.2) by Mark Brazaitis

July 7, 2015

Continued from pt. 1

As the stand-in co-directors of “Cinderella on Ice,” Beth and Liza were supposed to adhere to Alice’s master plan. The music had been cut and each scene choreographed months before. All Beth and Liza had to do, as Alice had told them before she left the country, was “tweak.”

But one woman’s tweak was another’s revolution. Beth rewrote the ending so the evil stepsisters and Cinderella declined the prince’s invitation to slip on the glass slipper and instead rallied the peasantry (as yet to be cast) in a successful coup d’etat. Liza’s tweaks included turning the ballroom dance into a hoedown, complete with live fiddle music (her brothers played), and inserting a scene in which Cinderella and the prince become born again after, in Liza’s words, “a long-haired man with a beard and beautiful eyes” serves them breakfast the morning after their wedding night.

Beth and Liza had divvied up directing duties by day, with Beth directing on Monday and Wednesday and Liza on Tuesday and Thursday. Because the endings were incompatible, the skaters, only one of whom was older than fourteen and none of whom were familiar with the terms “Marxism” or “rapture,” naturally became confused. In the middle of Liza’s rehearsal of the slipper scene, for example, thirteen-year-old Tanya, as Cinderella, shouted, “Down with the hereditary monarchy! Sisterhood trumps blood!” and smacked the prince, played by eight-year-old Michael Khan (he was the only male skater who would agree to perform in the show) with a hardback copy of The Second Sex.

On a day Beth was directing, six-year-old Rachel Steinberg chirped, “Jesus loves you!” every twenty seconds until Rachel’s father, Sherman’s only rabbi, pulled her from the show. “But he does!” the other skaters heard Rachel exclaim as her father hauled her to the parking lot. “Miss Liza told me so. And it’s on the bumper sticker on her pickup truck!”

On the evening of the dress rehearsal, both Beth and Liza arrived simultaneously and aimed their vehicles at Alice Marvelous’s parking spot. If the crunch of metal on metal could be heard in the next block, the insults the two skating instructors fired at each other thereafter could be heard in the next county. Fearing a bloody showdown, Robert Williams punched in 911 on his cell phone. Police were on the scene in seconds to pull apart the two women, who stood toe-to-toe, spitting venomous words into each other’s faces: “Tree hugger.” “Global-warming denier.” “Atheist.” “Jesus groupie.” Both women were hauled to the station, where a judge slapped them each with a restraining order. For the next week, they couldn’t come within 100 yards of each other or the Sherman Ice Arena.

The dress rehearsal proceeded without them, although chaos reigned five minutes in when a trio of ten-year-old suffragists crashed a meeting, chaired by Cinderella’s fairy godmother, of the Future Homemakers of America. Seizing an opportunity, hockey players stormed the ice. Before Jenna Raymond, a gawky, shy, and painfully polite 13-year-old miscast as the evil stepmother, could be cross-checked by the two defensemen bearing down on her, Robert Williams pulled the fire alarm.

Immediately afterward, he called Alice Marvelous.

“Hello?” she said. Or someone said.

“Alice?”

“Hello?”

“Alice, this is Robert.” And he filled her in on the latest.

“Hello?” she said again and again. “Hello?”

He hung up and tried to text her, but his fingers trembled. Instead of writing, “Please come back,” he wrote, “Peace some lack.” Good enough, he thought, and hit send.

Perhaps Alice should have been suspicious of the return address on the dozens of letters she received from Mariano Rey, the Argentine exchange student she’d dated during her junior year in high school. Perhaps she should have been suspicious of all the time he had in his life to compose the letters. Perhaps she should have questioned why he couldn’t come to the Ministro Pistarini International Airport to pick her up but instead was sending his sister.

But love, or its promise, is an intoxicating tide, sweeping aside doubts and misgivings and a dispassionate appraisal of a return address accompanied by a number too long to be a zip code and preceded by the word “prisionero.”

Luminosa, Mariano’s sister, met Alice in baggage claim. She was an attractive woman, with radiant black hair halfway down her back and enormous blue-brown eyes.  She had four children, a full-time job, and little time to suffer fools. The second sentence out of her mouth was: “You do know my brother’s in prison, don’t you?”

He had schemed to bomb the Casa Rosada in an attempt to assassinate Argentina’s president, she explained. His plan had gone only so far as the testing stage, in which he had blown off his right pinkie. He had written a manifesto of his planned revolution, titled Poor No More, and police discovered this as well as a detailed description of his assassination plot in his bomb-damaged basement.

“How long is his sentence?” Alice asked.

“Life,” said Luminosa. “Times six.”

The prison, several miles south of Buenos Aires, wasn’t as horrible as Alice imagined, although its lone golf hole, with its torn red flag shivering in the breeze behind a twelve-foot, barbed-wire fence, seemed an odd and forlorn touch. The inside of the prison smelled like cherry soda and broken dreams.

Behind the bulletproof glass in the visiting area, Mariano was as handsome as she’d remembered him, his hair thick and dark, his eyes warm and kind. She felt her heart summersault and leap and dance. She caught her breath. Her heart hadn’t had this kind of exercise in years.

After they’d said hello, Alice asked, “Why?”

“Because the government is corrupt. Because it claims the allegiance of the people but rewards the elite. Because it will doom our great country to more poverty and more despair.” He stopped. “And,” he added, with obvious reluctance, “because the president’s daughter, Florencia, and I used to dance in rival ballet companies.”

“I didn’t know you were a professional dancer.”

“I’m not,” he said. “This was when we were in the third grade.”

“Oh,” she said.

She asked him the real why of her earlier question—why, given his circumstances, he had invited her here.

“If I said it was because eight of my more recent girlfriends didn’t offer me any help whatsoever, would it offend you?”

She thought about this. “Yes,” she said.

“Good,” he said. “Because the real reason is I loved you the most of anyone I ever kissed.”

He suggested she contact, on his behalf, her senators, her congressional representative, and the U.S. Secretary of State.

“What should I tell them?”

He thought about it. “Tell them I am unrepentant. Tell them I would do it again in a heartbeat—but this time successfully! Tell them I do not play golf. What about a volleyball court here instead?” He smiled sadly. “There’s nothing you can do for me. I have brought you here and I cannot even hold your hand.”

He smiled, and although she recognized the despair in his smile, it radiated warmth. She placed her hand on the glass where his was. With her fingers aligned with his, she felt tears storm her eyes.

“Save whatever you can,” he said. “You cannot save me.”

Alice never received Robert’s phone calls or text. He had written down her phone number incorrectly and had actually been in touch with an 83-year-old, near deaf man in Columbus. (To Robert’s “Peace some lack” text, the octogenarian had responded, “I live in the Golden Meadows Retirement Home. Peace I don’t lack. Excitement I do. What are you doing tonight?”)

Upon returning from Argentina, Alice found her world upturned. But if she couldn’t save her long-lost love from jail, she could save skating in Sherman. She phoned parents whose children had withdrawn from the Skate With Us program and promised them peace. For those parents who weren’t satisfied with peace, she offered free private, one-on-one lessons. Gradually, all the young skaters returned to the rink. The adults were a tougher sell, but eventually, they, too, returned, licking their psychological wounds with an antidepressant garnish. Alice postponed “Cinderella on Ice” by a month and commenced rehearsals anew, restoring everything her assistants had altered save Beth’s ending. Somewhere, she thought, the revolution deserved to succeed.

“Cinderella on Ice” was a resounding success, drawing standing-room-only audiences. The show inspired a renewed interest in Skate with Us, and Alice oversaw a local renaissance of the sport. Grateful skaters and their parents no longer called her Alice Marvelous but Alice the Marvelous.

She reigned—happily, for the most part—although sometimes she imagined the glass in front of her palm disappearing and her hand clasping Mariano’s and the two of them slipping off to a kingdom or workers’ paradise—a place, anyway, with only two citizens and no barriers to bliss.

*****************************

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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