Watching the Zamboni

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“Why do I love what fades?”

—Mark Strand

The offices of the University Weekly are socketed within the highest garret of a lonely old hall, once the women’s club, now fallen into ornate disuse above the first floor cinema. One frozen January evening, I ascended the formal staircase to reach this remote suite, the ring of my workboots resonant as I climbed past the wide, empty rooms. I paused at the top, lulled by the wind’s searing flute through the stone finials; threads of snow in the clotted diamonds of my boot treads trailed back the way I’d come, mirrored zigzag in the gleaming black wood of the stairs. I had walked eight blocks to stand here, my unscarved face scoured salmon-pink beneath the glittery night; now I was winded and thin veins of sweat were pooling underneath my red thermal shirt. Two nights previously, I had taken Christine’s hand in the midst of a garish, blaring adventure movie, and afterwards we kissed, me holding her tight in the deserted cinema parking lot, our silhouettes iron beneath the sodium lamps. All today I’d dozed through classes, wandered dazedly, the word “girlfriend” a question on my gummed lips.

An abandoned formal hall lay between the newspaper office and where I stood, lit only by shards and splinters chipped from the street lamps lining the boulevard and the headlights of cars hurrying past the quadrangles, towards the slums. This random illumination broke upon the polished stone floor, snagged in the warped old windows; the open door of the newspaper office was an oblong well of commotion and glare set gemlike into the enormous room’s darkness. Figures jittered back and forth through the lit frame, rattling sheafs of pasteup, their gestures a pantomime of quarrel, insult. Christine was there, white light winking off her round spectacles, poured through her long blonde hair. She was tensely engaged with Joan, the editor-in-chief; there was a crisp viciousness to her movements, her hand slicing the air with a chrome fountain pen, bringing all my thoughts to a stall at the yearning to take her within my arms, to halt that intense motionness, if I even could.

I padded ghostlike through the gloom, meaning to surprise her, but Christine saw me as she whirled away from Joan, her lips icily compressed as if to deny the editor even the dignity of her response. Then her face lit up with an excited smile, the contempt instantly thawing; a warm red glow rose into her cheeks. She stepped from the office to meet me; she was still so new to me that her sudden closeness made me start. She took my hand, tugging off my glove, and led me onto the landing of the narrow back stairwell, steeped in true darkness save for the crimson glow of an EXIT sign. She unzipped my coat, and with her dry palms she pushed me against the broad carved railing. We stared at each other in the bare tinted light; her eyes glinted, and I saw in her grin the same huge anticipation that I felt shuddering within my chest, just beneath where she’d laid her hands.

Christine’s narrow face was graceful as a sailboat’s bow, and charged with the burnished shine of steel silhouetted against night. I opened my mouth to stutter and she leaned forward and kissed me deeply. I awkwardly snaked my arms around her. The unhurried dip of her body towards mine swayed me off balance and charred the memories of every other kiss I’d ever shared with a girl, the best seconds of the past now adolescent groping. I shook with want, my arms itching to tighten and wrench her close to me. My palm rested in her spare lower back, gutless to explore the full map of her curves, as the careless trill of her fingers upon the back of my neck suggested my trembling amused her. When she broke off the kiss, I missed it as I’d miss my own breath.

She leaned back in the sling of my arms. Her spectacles gleamed. “I wanted to do that so bad,” she purred. I smiled dumbly. “I hope it won’t break your heart if I lose my mind tonight,” she said with a definitive flip of her hair, a soft blonde halo in the gloom.

I chuckled uneasily like a virginal punk, then blushed, but she didn’t notice. “Has it been really bad?” I asked.

“Christ,” she said, sneering. Her voice roughened. “Charlie, I could just kill her. Do you know what she tried to do?” she asked, her pretty mouth suddenly a mean gash, eyes wide. I shook my head, almost flinching. “Well, never mind! I’ll tell you later,” she muttered, staring sullenly off over my shoulder.

I wanted to crush her to me then, know her as empirically as everything else I was then surrounded by—ice and snow and stone, the measured rise of quarrel and the silence of the sprawling sonorous hall, reflections of my last days in the classroom. Clenching Christine in that dark stairwell, all I knew trembled like a weight on a wire between stupendous lust and the nearly shameful flood of pride that comes with desire’s impending fulfillment. I had no idea at that moment how much anger and foolish sorrow lay just ahead for me to stumble through, a hailstorm of rage choking the sprint towards the end of this time in my life.

She kissed me once more hard on the lips, quick as the blur of an ascending bird, and turned away. I reached out to hold her a moment more, managing only to brush her smooth blouse; she eluded me like a dream slipped back into the past upon waking. Blinking, I followed her into the harsh light of the office.

The student newsies looked at me curiously, then quickly dropped their eyes to their computer screens or the pocked blue walls. Christine busied herself at a composing table with a splay of flimsy layout sheets, scribbled with pleading blue pencil slashes. She pushed through them, sorting with furious accuracy; the white lamps beneath the table’s glass surface blazed up at her, robbing her cheeks of their flush. Her slim body tensed up as she worked, and she pressed the lips I’d kissed into a seam, faceted and chapped in the light.

Feeling like a loiterer, I wandered across the room. Christine’s friend Sam looked up at me from his desk and grinned. “Hey there, Charles,” he chirped. “You want a beer?”

“Sure,” I said.

He reached over to a little fridge. “Christine?” he called. “Do you want a beer, Chris?”

She looked up, irritated, then glanced at me, her smile flashing quick as a signal lamp’s shutter. “No thanks, Sam,” she said shortly.

Sam opened two Bud longnecks and handed me one. I turned to the narrow leaded-glass window, feeling through the old panes a touch of the brutal winds outside. Below me and across the car-clogged street, the broad boulevard stretched, a sunken field glazed with a glittering crust of accumulated snow, flawless except for a few scraggly trails made by hardy students with boots, punching their way across beneath a galvanized sky. Upon the wind-scoured surface their tracks looked like the last trails left by the drowned and vanished. With winter the boulevard became a place abandoned, except for one portion upon which the university in a rare show of whimsy erected a ragged green shack and then flooded for skating. The crooked shack was dark; the only movement upon the arena’s glassy floor was that of a Zamboni crawling across, bulky and serene as a mammoth in the cold and blown snow.

I wanted to be left alone, but Sam lingered at my side. “Check out that fucker out there on the tractor,” he said. “It sure sucks to be him, right?”

It’s a Zamboni,” I said.

He looked at me, still grinning, but puzzled. “What’d you say?”

“It’s a Zamboni; it’s used to groom ice for skating. It’s not a tractor at all.”

“Oh-h-h-h.” Sam’s head bobbed wisely up and down; he swigged from his bottle to hide his smirk. “Hey, Christine,” he called. “I bet you don’t know what a Zamboni is.”

She glanced up again, her face grooved with impatience. Watching, I saw him wink broadly at her. She looked exasperated. “Shut up, Sam,” she muttered, returning to the composing table’s glare.

Chastened, Sam stepped away, returning to his glowing computer screen. Sipping the dregs of my beer, I turned again to the window. The Zamboni was a few hundred yards away, but the chill filled the night with a sparkling clarity; calm as I was, I sensed the pleasure that comes with seeing and comprehending everything. An old machine, its blue and white metal flanks were pocked from years of grit and ice chips, seams ragged where the paneling barely sheathed the enormous engine. The cab was open, leaving the driver cruelly exposed. Somehow he appeared relaxed, slouched back in the snow-streaked vinyl seat, one hand languidly gripping the tiny wheel, the other on the gearshift. He wore a skewed White Sox cap, and no gloves; his dark skin gleamed against the frozen white night like a vein of something warm and human mined from the snow. Moving at a clip, he swung the Zamboni around in a sharp arc, and I could see his chiseled, impassive face, focused only on piloting the machine forward into the swirling night.

I felt no empathy for the driver as I watched him from that office, hectic with bright light and disembodied hostile chatter. I imagined the surging racket of the wind mixed up with the low churning grind of the giant bladed wheels, slicing fine smooth grooves into the ice, imagined the dissolved ice spraying invisibly all round him with the sting of fine sand; none of it touched me. I was warm and privileged, and halfway to falling in love; I had hope as well that I was approaching the border of being wanted, being loved. I was so glad to not be that man driving the Zamboni across the empty and frozen boulevard. Later that winter I’d remember him, think of him going home after a ten-hour shift to a South Side basement apartment, to a game of whist and a heavy meal cooked by a woman who’d later take him into their bed and hold close to him until he had to leave again.

My good fortune in mind, I turned around. Without wanting to call her name, I very much wanted to see Christine’s face. Her posture stiff, she was gazing down into the composing table’s hot white haze, chipping at the skin of the scrambled pasteup sheet with a small razor knife. Her face was locked up in anger, her jaw square. At that moment she was not beautiful, but to call out to her would have been suddenly awkward, breaching the trust I’d signed on for when we unsteadily embraced, her tongue slid gracefully into my mouth. I looked away from her, again gazed from the frosty window. All round me the fortresslike stone building hummed as though in memorial to the romantic rituals of the museumed past.

 

Mike Newirth has received a Henfield-Transatlantic Review Award and a Pushcart Prize. He teaches composition and creative writing at the University of Illinois-Chicago.

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