BLACK ICE



Copterport on Cowell's Mountain

by Cris Mazza






She's trying to pinpoint the truthful portions of a memory -- because there must've been something more sensational. Didn't she surrender to him: finally give in and dash hysterically out the door, dancing and singing, into rain or snow or heavy traffic? Or was that someone else, somewhere else?

Eventually Stacey gets a part in the chorus of a summer musical a year after she quit her job as Tony Herald's all-purpose girl-friday. He stays in her mind like a tune. She's going back to see which quality of him was real, complete dauntlessness or listless apprehension. She seems to recall glimmers of genuine moments in between other times that might've never happened, probably didn't. Then why does she remember them?

Still, she's trying to remember correctly without letting any of it be distorted by the helplessness with which (she knows) it ended. She quit her transient job: she doesn't know why she feels the melancholy of deserting a passion.

He had given her a simple clerking position, and, so it seems, right from the beginning he audaciously pushed for her departure. Inevitable. She would go on to her true occupation.

In the meantime, and it started at the beginning, he often said, "What are you doing here?"

"You hired me, remember?"

"I didn't hire a singer."

Possibly the first time -- yes, it seems during the first week -- she answered, "I'll be a singer someday. Meanwhile I'll do this job.

"Do you know what my job really is?"

"You're a therapist."

"Actually I see other people's anxiety, see through them to the timidness which is in reality the biggest part of their lives. But luckily it's not a very contagious condition -- timidness. You have to know a carrier in order to catch it."

"Are you worried about me being one?"

"Maybe."

It was August and her nose was peeling. His skin, despite sandy hair and lightly scattered freckles, pale eyes and white-blond eyebrows, was all over the same sunny brown.

"How will we ever know?" She smiled impishly, expecting the subject to drop. Expecting him to laugh gently, say "Ah, Stacey," and bend to sign his name to a patient's chart spread over his desk. Yes, in all certainty, that's where they were -- that's where they always talked. He was seated in a plush office chair, and she would stand in front, on the other side of his desk, or sit in the chair reserved for the patient, having just been called from her own tiny table in the outer office. In between patients he often called her. Sometimes to sharpen pencils or to find something he'd lost, but always to talk.

But the subject didn't drop.

"I know." He looked up. She knows he was across the desk from her, she wishes she could remember if she ever touched him to make sure.

"What do you know?"

"I saw your resume. You've been a waitress, an ice-cream store clerk, a typist in a pool, and a public relations gofer."

"I needed money."

"Yet these jobs have nothing to do with the other portions of your resume: singing lessons, dancing classes, drama school. Isn't -- or wasn't --your intention to be some kind of entertainer?"

"I guess. Yes. It still is."

"So I ask again, what're you doing here? Why aren't you out there dancing and singing?"

There must've been a pause, she can't imagine answering right away. She can't recall exactly what she did say -- there's a pause in the memory -- but she can reconstruct her line by working backwards from what he said afterwards. So she might've said, "I'm not ready to audition."

He definitely said, "Oh? I think it's something different. I think you're not ready to take a chance. Tell me if I'm wrong. You're afraid to starve, to be uncomfortable for a while, to give it everything you've got. Most off all, aren't you afraid to give up your excuse of having to work and make money so you can go on saying you haven't time to prepare for an audition. Am I right?"

She looked at him. She can guess what he saw: her mouth felt small and pouty, her brow (she knew) creased in the middle, her cheeks hot and probably pink. She looked out the window. His office was six stories up.

The buzzer on his desk clicked, and the receptionist, calmly from the outer office, reported that someone, a Mrs. Something, was there. She was unexpected.

"She's usually suicidal," he said, and the woman entered, burst in, flung herself into the room, shapeless in a Hawaiian print dress -- did she wear a necklace of flowers? She might've. Probably not. Stacey must not've looked long; most of what she remembers is the woman spread-eagle coming through the door, spittle on her cheek and chin, fat hands, fat feet in sandals, red polish on the nails of fingers and toes. But razor blades in her hands? Blood at her throat? A gun? Poison? She might remember those. But probably not. She recalls him coming around from behind the desk. To disarm the woman? Mostly she remembers the word, suicidal, his fearless voice. She left the room and shut the door.

He called to her later. After she'd already seen the Hawaiian-print woman leave the office, smile at the receptionist, exit softly, click the door shut gently. He called to her. He needed something. Couldn't find a pen or had no blank paper or needed a new incident report for the housewife's file. He needed something.

"Look at that mountain in the middle of the city." He was at the window, hands in pockets, undaunted, unwrinkled, hair still combed.

"That's not a mountain, it's a hill."

She must've helped him quickly, found whatever it was, tidied the office, (stood the furniture back upright?). She remembers clearly only the rapist when she was standing still, watching him while they spoke.

"I like it, though, because there are no buildings or houses on it."

"Nor trees." She saw his profile as he looked out the window. She also saw the reflection, his face looking back in. His eyes were soft and unfocused, not watching with scrutiny for something hard to see or invisible. Not looking through anything. To his eyes, she knew, the glass had vanished.

"What's it called?" he asked.

"Cowell's Mountain."

"Ah ha! A mountain. I want to be up there. I'd like to live there, on the very top."

"Hard to come to work."

"Maybe I wouldn't." Perhaps she noticed, she thinks she did, his shoulders slacken, slump a little. He shut his eyes. "I'd sit at home and see over everyone's heads."

"Why?"

He looked at her. From Cowell's Mountain to her. She doesn't remember what she was wearing -- she always wore pants and a shirt, and her hair was short.

"Well, for one, I wouldn't have to feel guilty about you."

"Then don't."

"You're bringing me coffee when you should be pursuing your calling. If it is one."

He sat on the edge of his desk. His smile so faint. She noticed that. She remembers, for certain, the smile which faltered a little. Very little.

"I'll buy you the top of that mountain," she said, "and put a copterport there so you can go home without climbing. When I get rich from my first real gig."

Then he was brash again and turned with a grin. "But you're not going to get anywhere else hanging around here. Go starve. It's a requirement."

"No, it's not. But being ready is."

She swears she doesn't know what she was waiting for. It might be what she's trying to remember. She keeps dreaming about him. Then why did she leave him?

She made him a fresh pot of coffee. He cupped his mug in two hands, closed his eyes, inhaling the sweet steam. He smiled up at her.

At first she wonders if maybe she shouldn't even try to remember the bravery stories, shouldn't bother to include them. Like whenever she retells herself the story of the old maintenance engineer in the building who stormed the outer office with a shotgun, holding the receptionist hostage, barrel pressed against the back of her neck, demanding that everyone leave. He was old and wanted to be alone with his building. He blew a hole in the ceiling and Tony Herald climbed through from the seventh floor to swiftly disarm the engineer. Afterward, the old man sobbed on Tony's shoulder. That whole story, in the end, always turns out to be a movie she'd seen, which had been adapted from a book.

Mostly the office was a little dull. He called her in for odd jobs. Sometimes he told her about a patient, how he calmly handled crisis and hysteria and didn't merely stay seated behind his desk. During these times, it seems she sees herself in a different costume: a short skirt, a higher voice, hands folded on pressed-together knees, sensible heeled shoes. And one time he, with larger teeth in his grin, took out a sea captain's hat, set it gingerly on his head, smoothing it down in back. Stood next to his chair with one foot in the seat. He drank coffee from a beer stein. With gusto. He said, "Listen. This may inspire you. I was sailing my boat over to the island last weekend. The wind was north to south. Takes about five hours to get across, but we made it in three. We were drinking beer the whole way. There was no place to tie up, and we wanted dinner on the island, so we put the anchor down and swam ashore." He pushed the hat back on his head, his hair ruffled over his broad forehead. His dimples showed. She pressed her knees closer together and leaned forward.

"Later it was dark. My crew were all a little plastered --inexperienced drinkers. We got back to the beach and didn't see the boat. They panicked of course, too much root beer, and they started dashing back and forth, bumping into each other, jumping up and down, rolling around on the ground, wrestling, fighting, blaming each other, punching, squirming, some of them probably started to screw while they were down there. I wasn't watching them. While they groveled, I scanned the water. I have cat's eyes in the dark. I found the boat. It was pulling the anchor as it drifted."

Did she gasp? She might've. Raised her eyebrows, widened her eyes, a staring china doll.

"The anchor rope was tangled with two other boats' anchors, slowing it a little, but my boat had its mind set on reaching the rocks, so it pulled harder, taking he two other boats with it. All three at least 24-foot yachts. One of my crew had squeezed out of the wiggling crowd and was grasping my ankle. I shook my foot before diving into the water, but he came with me a little while, still holding my leg, then he dropped off. Maybe it was my wife, or maybe she was in a clench with one of the other guys on the sand. While they shouted and snorted on the beach, I had to go get the boat. Insurance is skyrocketing. I went under and found the anchor rope."

"Wasn't it dark?" Her voice piped like a flute.

"Very. But I had to see -- no excuses would save the boat. I took the rope and swam backwards, pulling the boats, all three of them. The rope slithered in my hands, trying to get away. All three boats fought and splashed like hooked marlin, spinning, trying to get to the rocks where they could saw through the ropes and get away."

"Did you make it?"

"Of course." He smiled. "You see, someone had to get into the water and just do what was necessary to save the boat. Someone had to see clearly enough, calmly enough over the heads of everyone who panics and freezes or struggles."

"And you were the one."

"I'm always the one."

She thinks hard, trying to remember how she managed the quick-change in an off-stage wing to get back into her pants and shirt and shoes with laces. He, without the captain's hat, seemed smaller sitting behind the desk. He propped his head up with a fist on his cheek, which nearly closed one eye. Still, he looked at her, with all of one eye and some of the other. "That's what I do around here, you know." He glanced out the window, toward Cowell's Mountain -- a small, lazy propeller plane circling the peak. "Think you can quit yet?"

"Not yet." She tap-danced out the door with the empty coffee pot.

For another story, she thinks she wore a checkered pinafore over a white blouse, very short, her petticoat almost showed. Her nails had grown, especially while listening to the story, and she painted them with rose polish to match the rose blush on her cheeks. Her nylons were sheer, her legs trim, her sandals were Italian leather with little heels. She carried a white patent leather purse with a gold chain. She sat and crossed her ankles only. She served him tea and cookies on his oak desk. She wet her lips and he began: "I was getting married the next day. I was driving somewhere in my old convertible sports car."

His hands were steady. He took a cookie without spilling any powdered sugar from the top. He bit and no crumbs fell. "I'm still not sure what happened, it probably doesn't even matter. Someone made a left turn in front of me, I think, as I went through an intersection, someone jumped the curb and came at me, gunning for me, a demolition-derby car with a number 76 on the side. That was the year, also the month and day of the wedding. Probably one of her old boyfriends." His hands were not nervous and he didn't touch himself anywhere. He barely moved. His mouth told the story.

"When he hit me, my car rolled over. I'm not sure how many times. I tumbled through the intersection, end over end, made a left, still rolling, slowed and rolled into a driveway. It was my wife's mother's house. I woke up on the front lawn."

"Were you hurt?" she breathed.

He stood up for the scar at the end of the show. "My car was flat. Even the wheels, flat. It was upside-down in their rose garden. One tire on the roof. One tire caught on my foot. I still had the steering wheel when they found me. See this?" He began to roll up his pant leg but couldn't roll it far enough, so he took a knife from his desk drawer and slit the pants, tore them to his crotch. His thigh flexed, tight muscles like cables rose under his skin. The whole thigh was blue. "Fifteen years ago, maybe close to twenty, and still bruised. You should've seen it then. Go ahead, touch it."

Like wide bands of steel under his blue skin. He sat down and began to sew his pants. He had the needle and thread on a cardboard in his shirt pocket. He had to remove her hand twice.

"I still got married. I got up and said, let's go! It was the wedding day. Everyone was crying, but I was laughing and said, Look! I did jumping jacks for them, and push-ups and sit-ups. I ran a mile. My wife sobbed, You've ruined the honeymoon. But I hadn't. I came through."

Stacey clasped her hands under her chin.

She stood to clean the desk, pick up the cookie tray, tea pot and china mugs. He spilled his last cup. "Whoops!" The coffee trickled off the desk and onto her pants, but it was okay because they were brown anyway.

"So whadda'ya think? Get the message?"

"I think so."

"Go ahead, crash, get it over with. It won't be fatal."

She punched out the bottom of his paper cup, made it into a glider and sailed it out the window.

She seems to definitely recall her costume for the last story he told, although she doesn't think she ever owned such a thing. A pure white nightshirt dress, tied at the waist with a white cord. She doesn't remember any shoes. She may've been barefoot. It was simple, and she wasn't made up at all. Her face was early morning pale. She doesn't think she was actually tired. The story brought back bloom to her cheeks.

"There was a code green in this mental hospital where I worked -- that means someone went nuts." He sat on top of his desk, leaned his back against the window glass, drew his knees up and circled them with his arms. "It was three a.m. Some kid decided to go home. A big kid. He was walking down the hall with a chess game balanced on a board, all set up and half played. I was the only man on the staff that night. I locked all the nurses in the ward at the end. I could see them through the tiny window in the door, about fifty of them squirming and wiggling behind the door, jousting to get their faces in the window. I still remember it clearly, when one was looking through the window, another would put her hand on top of the first one's head and push her under like dunking her in water. They pounded on the door. Yelled like murder."

"People are always milling around hysterically in your stories."

"That's how people are. I saw the guy way up the hall, at the other end, backed up against the locked door there. All the doors were locked. Just he and I were in a long hall. The nurses booed. He was sitting on the floor, back against the door, sucking each of the chess pieces, then tossing them away. Know what I did?"

"No."

"I let him out."

"Huh?"

"See, all those nurses were frantic about a committed patient getting away, all the implications and punishment, news articles, blame, revenge, reprisals. They were crazy. Out of their minds. But I knew he'd be back the next day. They cackled like hens at me all night. Tied me to a chair and surrounded me, chattered at me all night and told me stories about the vile punishments I would get in the hospital employees' union hall torture chamber. In the morning, there he was, waiting at the door with a chess board. He might've never gone off the front porch all night. See, I had thought clearly and made a rational decision and wasn't preoccupied with thoughts of death."

He stretched. His forearms flexed to twice their size. He leaped from the desk and landed lightly on his toes. He twirled like an ice dancer until he was a vertical blur, and stopped, without slowing first, facing the window and Cowell's Mountain.

"I'm not succeeding, am I?" he said.

"I've listened to every word." But now it was just getting interesting. She rubbed her saddle shoes against the rug, stood and straightened her jeans. She seems to think there might've been a rule about not wearing denim. Perhaps it was her rule. It was unlikely that he ever told her what to wear in his office.

"But I'm not succeeding."

"With what?"

"You." He turned from the window. "Making you tough enough."

"I just can't leave until I'm ready." She'd been there over a year. Heard many more stories than she can now call to mind.

He looked at her, gazed at her, stared through her, passed his eyes swiftly over, looked at her a long while. Then back out the window. "You have an awful strong weakness."

She was still. She watched his back. Watched him the same way she thinks she'd watched him during each story, the way she remembers concentrating, carefully sorting details, waiting for the clues. But that time -- as though finally there was something obvious enough for her to catch -- his back flinched. He rested his forehead against the window glass. Just for a second.

She touched his coat. "Don't worry. Someday I'll be successful and rich and you can retire from saving lives 'cause I'll buy you the top of Cowell's Mountain. You can sit and watch the sun set over everyone's floundering heads."

He turned. His pale eyes almost lost inside his sockets. Yellow-leather skin. Crow's feet at his eyes and sweat on his brow. He passed a hand across his mouth. It may as well be a photograph, as many times as this sight has been called for retrospect.

"Bring me my tape recorder, then go home."

It was the next day, Friday, nearly five, when he finally called her in again. He was watching the sun lower itself over the ocean. Everything in the view was growing shadows. Except the western side of Cowell's Mountain which stood upright to face the sun almost directly. It was still midday there.

"I have something for you," he said. From his leather coat pocket he took a cassette tape. She didn't hesitate, like in movies, watching his eyes in either bewilderment or tenderness, making him continue to hold the tape out to her. She took it and checked the label. Nothing written there. When she looked up, he was pushing a large glass jar at her across the desk. "And this. It has special meaning for me because of the time it was given to me. I'm sure I told you the story. Now I'm giving it to you."

It actually wasn't a jar. She of course knows that now (no need to remember) because it still sits on her bedroom shelf. It's a beer mug, clear glass, one-half gallon, printing on the side: I Bet You Can't.

He leaned across the desk to put his eyes on the same axis as hers, so he wasn't looking up from under his brows nor glancing down his cheeks at her. She remembers well those dull pewter eyes. "You've been here over a year, and I've never taken the time to do this."

"What?"

"Go listen to the tape. Go home. Get comfortable. Don't do anything else. Just listen. Go on."

So she lay on her bed and pushed the tape into her little recorder, held the mug on her stomach, reading it while looking through it to her wall of theater posters and movie advertisements.

"Actually, Stacey," he began. The voice was gruff. Possibly a cheap tape, or poor play-back. "Time wasn't the reason I was never completely straight with you. A person always has time." She doesn't need to remember: preserved on tape, it can't be considered unreliable remembrance. This is memorization, line by line, his words, a tinny voice on synthetic tape, more real than reminiscence. She's never had to wonder, Is it really you?

"Ah Stacey, you're afraid, but not of the right thing. You should be afraid of your own weakness which may prevent you from taking action to pursue your mission. Trying to get you to quit wasn't a game to me. All these months I've tried to be an example of personal fortitude. And when it comes down to the bottom line, none of it really mattered to you. You listened and listened, and then you only saw the real me. Seeing through people makes me tired. I love my job, but it makes me tired. I wouldn't mind quitting and renting out my boat, being a charter captain for tourists. You saw it, you must've, because finally instead of responding with bizarre gawking admiration, you showed both intelligence and emotion. I don't want you serving me coffee anymore, sharpening my pencils, keeping me organized. You'll be happier, I know it, doing what you ... should ... want to do. I--" The voice broke. He cleared his throat. She has run back and forth over this inch of tape thousands of times. He coughed again, lightly. She smiled softly and listened with gentle confidence. His voice began again: "I know I told you how calm I am when people are hysterical how cool I always was in making all the decisions and acting on them. Well, it's inevitable, someday I'm not gonna do it -- everyone'll be disappointed. Or maybe dead. Just like you're afraid to try, I can't ever let down and stop. I've never told anyone else. I'm glad ... also sorry ... I told you." His voice wobbled. The tape could've been warped. But it wasn't. She checked once. The faltering voice gave her something to stand on, an oddly realistic comfort. She heard him breathe deeply, exhale slowly. He waited. Then stopped the tape.

She quit after that. This part she knows. This is authentic.

He came into the office on Monday, stooped, thinner. He didn't stop in the reception area. He closed the door of his office quickly. Stacey followed, without being called, entered without knocking. He was seated, looking down at the bare top of his desk where he'd flattened his hands, palms down. His knuckles were skinned, bruised. There were stitches across one thumb, curving around toward the underside. Bruises splotched at intervals up his arms. One cheek was scraped raw. His eyelids were red, puffy, half closed. "I had an accident with the boat," he said. "We almost lost it."

"But you didn't."

''No."

"I'm giving two weeks notice."

"I know." He closed his eyes. He held his temples in his fingertips.

She was still standing just inside the closed door. She never stepped forward. Not even when he sat up and said, "I hurt all over." He pressed a hand against his ribs. His mouth turned down at the corners. "I want you to stay."

"You mean until the first of the month?"

"No, I want you to stay. I don't want you to quit." He leaned on again. "I shouldn't have said that. I never would have, except I'm so sore."

She smiled and was able to say, "I'm leaving anyway."

"I know. I'm glad."

He didn't reach out to her, and they never shook hands.

What seems like the bare bones of something that happened is actually everything that happened.

She never wrote a letter of resignation, but a year later finally knows what to say. She talks back to the tape, after his voice is finished, she says into the machine, I kept thinking I was impressed by someones strength, but now realize I was only waiting -- hoping -- to see weakness. Doesnt everyone do that? But you weren't. I was just the opposite of you."

Then she leaves the playbill -- where her tiny part doesn't even have a name with the receptionist to give to him later. Shell never be able to buy him a heliport.