Ice Blues

by R.T. Smith

Up close, Tonya Harding had the most beautiful eyes you could ask for. I hooked up with her once in a dive just west of Charlottesville—fourteen, fifteen years back maybe—right at the end of my angry period. I really don’t have a clue what she was doing there. Some mysteries will never be revealed. Wild child of the figure skating scandal: there she sure enough was.

The Double Door is one of those places that tells you right away you should be somewhere else. Heavy smoke, drink pricess steep, strobe lights pulsing, the music more back beat and bellow than melodic line. Not the kind of place I like to picture myself in, but a ballistic divorce and a fucked-up economy will send a messed-up man to the closest waterhole like a pony to peppermint. Maybe your life’s just froze up, and you yearn at least to watch the other natives suffer and swirl. Brad Muskap and the Spruce Cones were strumming and gyrating on the stage, screened from their enthusiastic fans by twenty-gauge chicken wire, and they were covering everybody from Z. Z. Topp to the Almans. Garth Brooks and Bob Seeger. J. J. Cale, if you can remember him. There was a bully boy at either side of the band pen, and they had little bats in their hands, smacking one palm with the business end in time to the music, which they could probably feel through the flooring. Another hard case perched on a lifeguard chair with a wooden box just big enough for a riot gun bolted under its armrest. God knows what they had under the bar. I’m not trying to brand it as a rough place. I’m just saying.

I knew some of the regulars from back in school, my old landscaping gigs, trout guiding, softball, there and here. We’d say hey, nod. I might ask about a wife or kids, a windbreak hedge, a Redington reel I’d discounted, but we didn’t converse. Bartender knew my name. That was enough. I was a wallflower, a misfit, and people could tell I was usually in my private space. Nobody asked me why, but secrets seep out. No such thing as confidential anymore. Face Book, Twitter, Reality TV, GPS: we might’s well be wearing electronic parole anklets. And I knew Olivia was still out there somewhere, everywhere, no doubt mouthing about our irreconcilables. Bitch. But no sweat off me. Okay, so it was a bitter time. I wanted the other two-legged creatures to distract me, but I didn’t want to get involved.

If memory serves, it was a Friday. Late spring. I was feeding quarters to the video poker robot when I heard her, “Hello, cowboy,” and turned on my stool. I don’t in any sense resemble a cowboy, and I resented the mistake right away. About forty at the time, built broad but gone soft, longish red hair half gray already, little rimless specs. Clean shaved. I had on zip boots and an Aran sweater, no Stetson, no rodeo buckle. Maybe it was the Wranglers.

But I didn’t recognize her. She was still kind of kinky-cute, a little rough around the edges—rode hard, put up wet. Her hair-do was marginal, make-up a touch off, but those eyes were blue as acetylene flames, chilly and fiery at once, astonishing. I mean, Jodie Foster couldn’t hold a candle. She wasn’t even feigning a smile, but despite all my anti-social aims, those eyes reeled me in. Now bear in mind, this is before her supersizing, before she stepped into the squared ring to jab and uppercut other semi-celebrity gals. She was still fit, any bulk mostly muscle. And those eyes gave me a tingling sensation I thought I’d long ago left behind.

“Buy me a Cuervo sunrise, cowboy?”

“You bet.” I was already beginning to think she resembled somebody famous, but I was on my fourth Wild Turkey, and even things like pool chalk and salt shakers were starting to take on a life of their own. Maybe that’s why I broke my own rules and didn’t show her my back.

I ordered a round, and when I turned to face her again, she’d lit one of those long, thin cigarettes and was wisping trails of smoke from her nostrils.

“You don’t know me, do you?”

“No ma’am, not yet, but I have my aspirations.”

This brought out the smile. Her hair was too short for the trade-mark ponytail, and her black blouse was half-unsnapped, showing a vee of skin that made me think of a sixties peace sign, but only for a second. No bra I could detect, little stream of sweat slipping down her chest. Yellow stretch pants tight as a coat of paint. For some reason I wondered about her footgear, but I’d have to look straight down, and that might seem rude. She could already guess I was studying on her, trying to recall a previous encounter: at the store—I ran a fishing outfitter at the time—or some picking and howling barbecue up at James Leva’s cabin, maybe the dentist’s office or the Maury River bluegrass to-do. Galax. Another juke, maybe. I couldn’t get a fix.

“Think ice.”

I thought she’d said “eyes,” and answered that her eyes were the most beautiful color I’d ever even dreamed, like stained glass in a hoity-toity church. This was half honest, half flirt, as I had set my mind on being entertained.

She sipped her neon-looking drink and batted her lids, then said, “Ice, cowpoke. Ice cubes, ice cream, icicles, ice hockey, ice skating.” She jiggled her tumbler, and the ice chinked against the glass. “Ice skating?” Her eyebrows arching high.

“I’m trying hard, ma’am.”

“No. You’re trying hard…, Tonya.”

When it hit me, my jaw must have dropped open like a chimp’s. “Holy shit. What in the world…?”

“Having a tequila sunrise at the Double-something Inn thanks to the hospitality of Cowboy What’s-is-name.”

The discovery kept rippling over me in waves, chilling me under the knit sweater, but raising the perspiration, and I was blinking like my drink had been doped. I am not accustomed to celebrity types, but before I could warble out a word the lead guitar whanged into the intro to “Cocaine,” and she was doing a little boogie move.

“You have to tell me your name, if you want to dance with me.”

Her voice was smoky, almost a rasp, one hundred percent not-southern, and she fixed those otherworldly eyes on mine. Anybody could see how she mighth get men to do things they oughtn’t, and I had this instinct that telling her my name was one of them, but that didn’t stop me.

“Franklin Moser. You can call me….”

“Yeah, honey, you can be Frank with me.” A little wink. “We need a little exercise. You ready to smolder?” She held the half-smoked cigarette between her lips and hooked a belt loop on either side of my pants with her fingers. Pulling me forward was easier than I’d expected. She’s just over five foot, so when she tugged me to her, her breathing was on my chest, hot, and I was looking right down on her hair, which was darker at the roots. I could smell the tobacco and a gardenia sort of perfume and her sweat, which was the clincher. I knew I was skidding and couldn’t find the brake pedal. Wasn’t trying too hard.

In a flash we were funking and twirling on the floor among the other caution-to-the-winders. Lots of western hats and belly shirts, snakeskin kickers, the works. Good old boot-scooting bucks and does, every one.

I’ve never been a very limber or rhythmic dancer, though I can fling a dry fly and do the wristy roll cast while balancing in mid-stream with the best of them. Just then, though, I was shrugging and bumping and sliding like those smooth guys with Arnold Palmer cardigans I’d envied in high school. And Tonya, eyes shut and mouth pouting, was shaking her head so the yellowed hair whirled out like feathers. While I was keeping my elbows tucked and trying for a kind of hip casualness, hoping not to slip into the chicken strut, she was waving her arms and stepping high, then dervishing like a top. I mean, it brought to mind her trademark triple axle, but in heeled boots. And her outfit made her look like a bumblebee. She was in a damn-the-torpedoes zone and sucking me into the heart of it. Pretty soon, everybody on the floor had to make room, but I could tell from the faces not everybody liked it. I wanted to stop her before things went south. I wanted to get away from all those unfriendly eyes, but I didn’t dare shout out her name, for fear…hell, I don’t know fear of what, but I wanted to protect her. Patrons there held me up for a fool already, but I knew many patriotic Americans loved hating Tonya Harding from a distance and would pay big bucks to do it up close, if they only knew.

I grabbed her left hand with my right, pivoted around her and pulled her back to me, tightening our turn.

“Now you’re talking, cowboy. The earth spins and we’ve got to spin to stay on it. Just follow my lead.”

For a few seconds I thought she was going to swing me into something that would land us in the beer and tobacco-splashed sawdust like a couple of flipping fish, and I could already hear the goons and goonettes cackling and howling, could imagine Olivia’s answering machine filling up with, “Livie, you’ll never guess….” They might even start throwing peanuts and beer cups. But that’s not what happened.

Somehow, we were in sync, snaky, sexy, working the rhythm while old Brad belted out “She don’t lie, she don’t lie, she don’t lie-i-i-i-i…, cocaine.” She was guiding me, every dip and step, bow and slide, whipping through a new-fangled two-step Virginia Reel. It was downright awesome, and I believed I was soaring beyond my own sweat and stiff joints, my whole human body. My problems were way off in a distance I couldn’t even see, and I wondered if this was how ballerina dancers saw the world. My mind held still in the middle of a dizziness I was immune to, above it. I’ve heard people talk about that zone—golfers, Casanova types, the born-agains, water skiers, sea divers. It was better than the fairy dust the band was caterwauling about. Everything came together like a clean river just before it washes over the rocks. No disco ball, no stale Blue Ribbon smell, no gawking faces or Warhog pinball bells and sirens, even the band vanished, just us two, who were akin to one, like swimming in a deep pool, the world a blur, one light, a single note.

What, two minutes? Three? Finesse and force together, then one last spin, us holding hands and leaning back till she curled snug into my arms, and then dipped deep with all her weight, head back in abandon, only me stopping her from falling to the floor, as if I could stop anybody from falling. The song ceased with a big splash cymbal, and I was peering down, her up, our eyes locked in a little trance. I was on unfamiliar ground.

Then the room came back, some folks clapping, some laughing, others tossing their little morsels of scorn or turning away, but it was all the same to me, just background, ghost stuff. Everything real was going on in that fourteen, ten, six inches between our eyes, and I kept drawing her face to mine, aiming to get that diamond blueness closer, but then she took a quick gander around us, stood up straight and squeezed my hand.

“Cowboy, let’s get us some air.”

Past the cracking pool balls, the toilets and disease prevention vending machines, she led me to the back exit, hit the door bar and pulled me into the night, where the waning moon was orange and low in the sky like a sort of caution signal, which was what I needed, still being crazy dizzy.

I don’t normally follow skating, but Tonya’s time was a wild one, ’94, the crippling attempt on America’s Sweetheart Nancy Kerrigan, the whole sordid plot twisting and turning, quickly casting suspicion on Tonya, and TV, TV, TV everywhere. I mean, motive, means, opportunity. Her means were as loony a pair of pussy-smitten losers as late-night satellite shock jocks could have dreamed up. Gillooly, wasn’t he one of them? The whole country was in an outrage to know who was behind the attack. What monster would do such a thing? I’d been changing jobs, going from mowing and leaf blowing to winter shoveling and scraping, and I didn’t follow the drama as close as some. Olivia gave me updates, immediately seeing Kerrigan as Snow White —Nancy and Olivia had hair color in common, that Disney princess look—and sneering at everyone but the downed heroine, who by the way always knew what she was doing, whether performing in a bridal-looking costume or getting rich over the attack publicity. I tried to ignore it all, just to needle Livie. We’d had enough of each other by then, but the nasty scrimmaging was yet to come.

I did remember reading this. The first time Tonya was actually convicted of anything, she was given community service and requested duty teaching blade skating to kids, but the judge said she wasn’t fit and sentenced her to mowing grass in a graveyard. I don’t know if that created a connection or not, but it is some coincidence. Mowing will give you some time to think. And just to be straight on this, nobody could ever proved she told those assholes to attack Snow White. She knew they were up to something, but the rest was circumstantial. Like they say, unfortunate coincidence.

Parking for the Double-Door was up front and on the wings along the highway, so the back was just dumpster, scrubwoods, a couple of picnic tables there for God-knows-what. They had one arc lamp to keep the vandals at a distance.

“Just keep coming, cowboy.” She had me by the wrist tight as a handcuff and was leading me up a little slope to a picnic table, like she was no stranger to the place.

Then she spun me to her and planted a shocker of a kiss, her tongue and lips going wild, her hands all grab-ass and a moan coming from somewhere deep inside.

“I want to ride you till you froth up, Frank. I want us to raise hell and do harm.” Then she pushed me back on the planks, and the next sound I heard was the zipping of my boots. Then the other zip.

Best not to dwell on the intimate details, but ride me she did, like I was in a tornado. I don’t know how she wiggled out of those yellow britches so quick, but she was a-straddle in the saddle before you could say, “Head em up, move em out.” Not to be too indelicate, we jiggered and pumped and shuddered, and she yelped something like “yee-haw” once and said Jesus’ name over and over like an out-of-town Holiness evangelist. When I figured we were about rode out, she pulled me up and leaned herself forward over the table, ass bright in the moonlight.

“Get along little doogie,” was what she said, and I had a woozy moment of thinking I was being made fun of, almost regretting stepping out of the safety of my numb zone and into all this, but what with all the drinks and the rush of excitement, those minutes of wild forever on the dance floor, I just went for it.

That was when the back door swung open again, and two women came tumbling out. I knew my bare ass was now visible in the light even before the giggling and whooping. It was Charlene Kimbrell from the mall and Suzi Beasley, whom I knew from seeing her at the Hallmark shop, where she worked with Olivia.

Tonya reacted faster than I did, scrambling away from me, grabbing up her yellow britches and jumping behind a big slingshot oak.

“Franklin, you scumbag, who is that trash you got up there with you? You ought to be ashamed. Sluuut, I MEAN! I don’t care if she can dance.”

Suddenly Tonya was back in front of the tree, rumpled but dressed, spitting and cussing, leaning down to pick up a rock the size of a muskmelon.

“I’ll slut her. Let me be. Let go, hoss.”

I had her by the crook of the arm, but I couldn’t help myself. I just wanted something to make them retreat. So I said it.

“For your information and none of your damn business, this is Tonya Harding the skating star, you damn minimum wage twit. And you both need to get your flabby asses away from here pronto before I let her at you.”

Truth is, she was strong and I was drunk, and I didn’t think I could hold her a minute more.

Charlene hooted, “Scary Mary.”

Then Suzi’s sharp cat voice joined in. “Hellfire, that’s no Tonya nothing. I competed all over the west coast when I was a girl, pairs and singles, and I went up against the witch three times. Tonya has a different nose and different eyes. And she’s not idiot enough to be bumping uglies out here with the likes of you.”

I tried to shut her off, but the woman’s got lungs like an Angus, and you can’t shout over her.

“Why, this ain’t even a respectable Tonya impersonator, Franklin Moser, but we have been seeing her about for a couple of months, working the joints, sleeking up on the lonelies, wiggling her fanny and bumming drinks. I’ve heard her name is Gretchen Mills and she lives down at the Hollow Farm Trailer Paradise, so if you think you’ve been porking famous tail that’s been on TV and all over the world cutting capers and capades on ice, you just got your little dick twisted in a knot. Again.”

Then they broke out hysterical and banged on the door. When it opened, the band was belting out a flat attempt at “Satisfaction,” and the bar swallowed the bitches up again, as Charlene hollered, “Watch your wallet, stupid.”

I had to hold Tonya from going in after them and kept saying I didn’t believe a word Suzi would say about anything because she hated my guts on behalf of my ex-wife she considered almost a sister. Then Tonya started in to sob, her body heaving like the end of a race, and I hardly knew what was called for but wrapped my arms about her shoulders and held on, feeling the desperation in her. “Now, now,” I kept saying. “Now, now.”

She went limp, and I had to nearly carry her to the picnic bench and hold her from collapsing. This woman, I was convinced, was suffering. She was not a fake, though it was hard to believe she’d hurt a soul.

Pretty soon I phoned a cab from the booth and sat there wiping the teary mascara from under her eyes, neither of us talking for fifteen minutes till the driver roared up, spewing gravel like all get-out. I gave him three twenties and said, “Take this lady wherever she wants to go. She’s a fine person and a celebrity, so treat her nice.” She didn’t even look at me as she slid in, didn’t give me another glimpse of those eyes, and the last thing she said was, “I knew you were a cowboy from the start.” When the cab (yellow, too, nearly daisy), roared off, the tires raised dust like a whirlstorm, and the Ford was just a noise in a smokescreen, then nothing at all. The moon was hung in the ridge pines, white now, and I could hear the whole Double Door pulsing with some stupid country rock song. I felt no call to go back in.

Before long I read in the U.S.A. Today she’d tried for just a spell to make a comeback, but the gawkers and naysayers, paparazzi and scoffers showed up to jeer and throw cups of ice. Just mean. It all was a rough business, but you can’t blame her for trying. She’d had that taste of glory, and even an outlaw craves a last chance in the spotlight, moving to the music, scratching figures into the ice and every now and then maybe doing the impossible, rising into the air while whirling, leaving it all behind.

And that was the last I heard, other than the TV stuff I just ignore now, more desperate than anything before. Likely, though, she’s still out there somewhere in this little world I live in—what, 40 now?—too fleshy to pass as what they call a cougar. It’s all beyond me, as the Double-Door and such places lost have their shine. I’m sober, working steady, fishing more than ever. There’s some that don’t want me to live it down, but no matter what joke they will make at me now and then about Tonya sightings or celebrity apparition, I know what I know. Probably she’s still cruising some off-the-map dive, still pouting and having one too many, maybe doing a few spins and dips for the boozed-up nightowls, a little applause, a little pity and change, and just when somebody’s about to say, “Lady, you’ve had enough,” she’ll raise her head and look at him with those angel eyes so damned blue you almost believe they could heal what ails you, and the latest Samaritan will blush, give her a little smile, say, “Can I give you a lift?” Then for just a spell, the music will end, the whirling will stop and even for her the earth will be what passes for still.

R.T. SMITH is Writer-in-Residence at Washington and Lee University, where he edits Shenandoah. The most recent of his four collections of stories is Sherburne (Stephen F. Austin U Press, 2012). His work has appeared in Best American Short StoriesNew Stories from the SouthVQRSouthern Review and Esquire. A new book of poems, The Red Wolf: A Dream of Flannery O’Connor will appear in 2013. Smith lives in Rockbridge County, VA, with his wife, the writer Sarah Kennedy.