Ice Skating on Mars
The last customers on the showroom floor had been fussing with the Haltbar for twenty minutes. They opened the French doors, stuck their heads inside, and pulled out the food bins. She made coffee with the Keurig and sipped from a plastic cup as he studied the freezer compartment. They pushed the refrigerator this way on its rubber wheels, then the other. Joe took a brochure from the counter. “Hey, folks. Thanks for coming in.”

“What, no ice maker?” the man asked.

Joe held out the brochure. “It’s an option. Like the beverage maker? You can fill the tank from the tap or have your plumber connect a line.”

The woman was looking at herself in the stainless-steel doors. The German designers had engineered them to reduce the width of objects they reflected by twelve percent. “You don’t remember us. You were maybe fourteen—Ed, Joey was fourteen?—the last time we saw you. Before you went off to school.”

“You are–”

“The Greenfields. Elmer and Sarah. We knew your parents. We’re so sorry.”

In the twilight the rush hour traffic on Cedar began to flash with headlights.


“You don’t see anything like this at the Home Depot,” Elmer said.

“We have six in stock. Should I save one for you?”

“What's the price?”

“On Once-A-Year-Day it’s fifteen percent off everything in the store. Like always.”

“It’s a pretty big ticket.”

“Well, what did you have in mind?” When they were gone he locked the doors, turned on the alarm, and switched off the lights. Then he walked downstairs to the basement and went to the battered old fridge, where he grabbed a couple cans of Cold Smoke. “Rudy! Time to call in the dogs and piss on the fire.”

Rudy appeared holding needle-nose pliers and a wire. “Okay.”

Joe put the beer on the Formica table and sat down. His foot hurt.

“Long day,” Rudy said. “How did you get the Gillespies out?”

“I offered them twenty-five percent off on the Haltbar.”

“They went for that?”



Tomorrow would be the last annual sale at Maillet Appliance, after six decades of Once-A-Years stretching back to the days when Joe’s grandparents ran the show. When he flew back to Missoula for his parents’ funeral he promised Rudy that he would keep the store open as long as he wanted to work. Thirty years is long enough, Rudy answered. I’ll stay till Thanksgiving.

Joe took a sip. “How’s the house hunt?”

“We put in for a place outside Tucson. Over-fifties only. Beth likes to play pickleball. So there’s that.”

They drank in silence. “Did you see?” Rudy said. “Another tent went up on Cedar.” One of the store’s neighbors was a homeless shelter that had run out of beds. “You think the city should do something.”

“Raise the speed limit on Cedar to 75.”

On the way to the stairs Joe stopped at the freight elevator. He hesitated, then pushed the button that raised the door and stepped inside. As the cage rattled past the loading dock toward the second floor the old childhood smells of varnished wood and household oil conjured up his Sunday afternoons as a boy, when his parents let him play spaceship here, his action figures and sports gear strewn on the floor, as he rode up and down after Mass, on his way to Mars, where he would skate on the canals.

When the elevator stopped he raised the shuddering door and stepped into the apartment. Through the window he saw Eveline sitting at the table in the lighted courtyard between his apartment and hers, talking on her cell. Today the scrubs she was wearing were green. When she put her cell down he went outside.

“Hey,” he said, sitting across from her. Although it was October the air was balmy.

“Hey, yourself.”

“How was your day?”

“Well, no one died.”

“You on shift tomorrow?”

“This was my last twelve till Wednesday.”

“What are you doing for dinner?”

“Got something in mind?”

“I got sirloin.”

“I’ll bring the salad.”

When he woke the next morning she was gone. It was snowing, one of those freak storms that ride in from the north and hang over the city long enough to shut it down. Two feet of powder were already piled in the courtyard. The wind had pushed up deeper drifts.

The showroom lights were on. Rudy was shoveling the sidewalk, a losing battle. Although Joe doubted whether anyone else would brave the weather he ran a duster over the stoves and dryers and dishwashers. Then he joined Rudy at the window to watch the storm. Rudy had traded his overalls for a sports coat because he had planned to help out on the floor today.

“You gonna reschedule?”

Joe checked his cell. It was after ten. There was not a single car in the store’s small lot.

“All this inventory? I’m thinking about a going-out-of-business sale. Maybe Halloween.”

“Our prices have been slashed to the bone.”

“There you go.”

An SUV passed by but didn't slow. “I never figured you for a reporter. How'd you get into that?”

“I wanted a night job so I could surf. One of my roommates said the Star was looking for another guy to take high school sports scores over the phone. After that it was cops and courts. Then I started covering white collar crime.”

“Huh. When you were a kid you wanted to be a pilot.”

“That was before I took a lesson.”

“Going back to Hawaii after you sell?”

“The paper didn’t offer a leave of absence. Maybe I’ll freelance.”

“Any money in that?”

“Not unless I discover somebody with a perpetual motion machine or proof of life after death. But, hey, you get to see your name in print.”

The highlight of the last year at the paper was his story about the Knudsons. Dressing in designer clothes, flashing gold, they passed themselves off as experts in real estate re-financing. They advertised on TV. A family having trouble paying the mortgage signed over their title after the Knudsons explained that a third party would buy their property in name only, allowing the family to continue living in their home while their reduced payments were put into an escrow account. Then after their credit was repaired they could buy back their home.

But buyers began showing up at the house who claimed it had been listed for sale. In fact, the Knudsons had pocketed the family’s payments. The bank had foreclosed, leaving the family homeless. A dozen other homeowners fell victim, as well. The day of the trial the Knudsons were no-shows. Joe got a tip that wingnuts called the Republic of America had flown them off the islands in a private jet after the Knudsons convinced them that they were financial wizards who could leverage them fortune.

Joe had spent most of his workdays chronicling the human wreckage left by predatory dirtbags like the Knudsons. But he set aside an hour every morning tracking the petty thieves, stalkers, trespassers, and street fighters whose names and mugshots showed up time and again in the Honolulu police logs—arrested on a Monday, released on a Friday, arrested again the next Monday. At first he told himself that this reconnaissance was also part of the job.

With his growing skill at ferreting out obscure documents he began compiling what amounted to a collection of scrapbooks. But he had begun to wonder: Was his fixation with people in constant trouble nothing more than schadenfreude? Worse, was he stalking them?

On the other hand, as the only and accidental child of a couple who had him when they were past forty, he had grown up curious about other human beings but too shy to ask them questions about themselves. Some people interpreted this as solipsism. He was surprised when a surfer girlfriend who didn’t mind that he was a haole revealed that this was precisely what her sisters thought about him. It was then that he set about trying to overcome his feeling that expressing interest in the life of another human being was not necessarily an invasion of their privacy. The newspaper job fell into his life about the same time. Later, after moving from the sports desk to his own cubicle it struck him as karmic—or at least droll—that he ended up working at a job that required him to interview complete strangers face to face.

He pitched a piece about a family named Pussett—a Dad, three sons and a daughter—red-heads who bore a strong, big-jawed resemblance to one another. Joe assumed that because of their constant problems with law enforcement they were simply a gang of petty criminals who couldn’t figure out another way to make a living, like the Artful Dodger. He was surprised when his editor went for the idea. He found two of the sons downtown on the street. After promising the Pussets a pair of hundred-dollar bills along with a guarantee that he would not use their real names he was invited to a trailer in Kalihi parked across a weedy lot from another trailer. Over beers and a joint he got a rant about how the cops had it out for them. He came away seeing that the Pussets had mental health problems no jail or balmy Hawaiian days were going to fix. His article drew more than two-hundred rants in the comment section but did nothing to change the city’s policy of jailing the unhinged. He didn’t expect anything else, admitting to no one except himself that serving the common weal had never been his intention.

A city snowplow roared past, burying the parking lot. “Doesn’t look like you’re going to need me up here,” Rudy said. “I’ll be in the shop.”

When Rudy wasn’t working the sales floor or delivering units he made repairs or deconstructed the worn-out appliances customers exchanged for new models. Then he sold the metal to a recycler. Joe’s parents had always let him to keep the cash.

Cedar was soon covered again. Joe was restocking the Keurig pods when the door opened, admitting a swirl of snow and a small, wet man with so much hair he looked like Cousin It. Wrapped in a stained blanket he stared at Joe with darting eyes and backed up a step. He was shivering.

“Stay till you’re warm,” Joe told him. He put a pod in the Keurig and made hot chocolate. The man put both hands around the cup and held it. Joe went back to the refrigerator to make him another. When he turned around the man was gone.

The shadows had shifted from right to left when the door opened again. The thirty-something woman who stepped inside brushed back the hood from her braided hair and unzipped her sheepskin bomber jacket. She was wearing boutique jeans tucked into tall black snow boots. As she peeled the leather gloves from her hands she surveyed the sales floor as if it were her living room.

“Hello,” Joe called.

“Where is Harold?”

Joe assumed everyone in town knew about the Amtrak crash. News of the derailment had been above-the-fold for a week. “I’m sorry to say that Harold has passed away.”

“Huh. Where is Rudy?”

Joe tried to place her accent. Polish? Czech? “Rudy is tied up with a repair. Is there something I can help you with?”

“Who are you?”

He held out his hand. “Joseph Maillet. Harold’s son.”

She studied him for a moment, then touched his hand with her fingers. “Okay, Joseph. Let’s see what you got.”

As he recited the Haltbar’s bullet points her eyes drifted around the store and settled on the ranges. “Too much gizmo. We are needing this.” She ignored the electric model. Instead of opening the door of the five-burner gas model and looking inside as most people did she pulled out the storage drawer under the unit and extracted the wiring schematic from its plastic envelope. When she was finished reading she returned it to the envelope.

“Excuse me for asking,” Joe said. “Are you an electrician?”

She shook her head and pointed at a dishwasher. “Engineer. This is new?” He watched as she extracted a Phillips from her purse, leaned down, and removed the cap from the access panel. “Is okay? Rudy was doing this for me last year.”

“Go ahead.”

She removed the two screws holding the panel, reached into the machine and withdrew the schematic. As she read it she mumbled a few words in what he now guessed was Russian. Her blue eyes were as piercing as a raptor’s.

“Okay,” she said at last. “Four stoves. Four dishwashers.”

He wondered if she meant one of each but had misplaced her English. “Four,” he said.

She tapped the price sticker on the dishwasher with fingernails painted the color of pumpkins. “Discount fifteen percent, yes?”

“That’s right.”

“So, four dishwashers, four stoves, discount twenty percent. Same deal as before.”


She reached into her purse and withdrew an Amex card. “Last year. Harold gives twenty percent for volume.”

He took the card and went to the sales desk. The name on the card was Polina Velikovsky. Even at twenty percent off the store would clear five percent on the sale. He imagined his mother—who had kept the books—mumbling about pretty blondes and star-struck men. But Joe was happy to dispense now with these eight potential problems rather than dealing with them later. Velikovsky signed the slip and pulled on her gloves. She was not wearing a wedding ring. “When is delivery?”

The sun suddenly appeared in the late afternoon sky, flooding the sales floor with a gauzy autumn glow. “How about tomorrow?”

“No good. Sunday is tomorrow.”

“Okay. How about Monday. It’s a holiday.”

“What holiday?”

“Indigenous People’s Day.”

“Day for people,” she said, raising her eyebrows. “Okay. Rudy knows where.”

They drove from downtown past the jail and west to Mullan Road. The cargo truck needed new brakes and tires, but repairs were not in its immediate future because Joe planned to sell it along with everything else. They were headed to the Fifty-Five Ranch, a newish subdivision where Polina Velikovsky and a bunch of these Russkies began moving in a couple years ago, Rudy explained. Last year he delivered units to three of their houses. They were religious, but he didn’t know which flavor. They kept to themselves.

Rudy usually hired a college kid to help make deliveries, but today Joe had volunteered. They turned off Cowboy Way onto Cattle Drive and backed into the driveway of a two-story yellow clapboard. While Rudy opened the bay and lowered the ramp Joe went to the door. Polina Velikovsky opened it. Dressed in a black pants suit, she was holding a clipboard.

“Hello, Joe. I show you.” She motioned for him to follow her down a hallway and into a gleaming kitchen with a butcher block island. The house had new house smell.

“Stove here,” she said, pointing to a gas line and a 220 outlet below an exhaust hood. Turning around, she waved her hand at a plumbed cabinet built under a quartz-topped counter. “Dishwashing here.” She checked her wristwatch, then lifted a sheet from the clipboard and handed it to him. There were four addresses printed on it. “Other houses are same.”

“Other houses?”

“Rudy knows.”

As they were wheeling in the crated dishwasher on a dolly Velikovsky passed them on the sidewalk talking rapidly in Russian on her cell. She hung up, handed Rudy a set of keys and told him to deliver to the other houses without her. Then she unlocked the Dodge Dart parked at the curb and drove away. While Rudy hooked up the wiring and plumbing Joe took the dolly and went back for the range.

After they tested both units they drove to the second house. It looked much like the first, except it was blue. Just before 4:00 pm they drove to the last address. After Joe brought in the range and eased the crate onto the tiled floor he was drawn to the kitchen window by the sound of children. Released from school, they were playing on a jungle gym in a pocket park between the houses, shrieking like howler monkeys. Young women sat on benches and watched.

“Got a problem,” Rudy said behind him. “First thing, this house has no juice.” “Joe turned to look at him. “What’s Thing Two?”

They went to the breaker box. Rudy had removed the six heavy screws on the plate and lowered it to the floor.

The lines from the grid to the breaker box had been disconnected and capped with heavy yellow wire nuts. In their place were connections leading to a black globe the size of a tennis ball.

Rudy poked at the globe with an insulated screwdriver and then his finger.

“What is this?” Joe asked. The globe felt cool and inert. It was made of something that wasn’t exactly metal and wasn’t exactly plastic.

“Damned if I know. What do you want to do?”

The workday could not end until they fired up the units to make sure they would not blow up the house.

They walked back to the third house and removed the plate covering the breaker box. Inside was another black globe. This one, humming softly, was warm to the touch. Joe called Polina Velikovsky from the truck. The call went to voicemail. He left a message explaining that the store’s insurance required her to certify that the appliances were working properly. He didn’t mention the globes. They waited in the truck a half hour. “Let’s bag it,” he said at last.

“Did you see?” Rudy asked on the drive back downtown.


“That Dart? It's electric.”


“Dodge doesn’t make electrics.”

Velikovsky showed up at the store the next morning. “All works fine. Give me papers, I sign.”

“So what was the problem with the power?” Joe asked, as she scribbled on the form.

She shrugged, then turned her hard blue gaze on him. “Power? Oh, electrician forgets to connect wire in box. No big deal.”

Matt Sebow had been Joe’s college roommate before they graduated. After he fathered twins and got married he was compelled to find a job with benefits. What he found was a Civil Service desk at ICE. “Veima, Valente, Velez. Okay, here it is. Velikovsky, Polina Leontievna. She’s been in the U.S. for almost thirty months on an R-1, that’s a non-immigrant religious worker visa. She could apply for an extension if she wanted to stay but I don’t see that she ever did. She’s traveling on a Russian passport. She’s listed as the translator for something called the Reformed Slavic Assembly. Joey, is there any reason ICE should take another look at her?”

“I don’t know. Can you email her application?”

At lunchtime Joe left Rudy in charge of the store and walked under the Indian Summer sun a few blocks to the address Velikovsky had listed on her visa application. This turned out to be an apartment above a deli. He looked up at her windows from the sidewalk but learned nothing from what he saw there. He ordered a muffaletto and a club soda and sat at a table on the sidewalk to eat while he checked the messages on his cell. The first one was from one of Matt Sebow’s contacts. Velikovsky had a degree in physics from St. Petersburg State University—Vladimir Putin’s alma mater—and had worked a couple years for a Russian solar energy company in Siberia. That’s when her paper trail vanished and didn’t resume until the appearance of her visa application. On the pretext of inquiring about whether the appliances at the Fifty-Five Ranch were working properly Joe speed-dialed her number. As before, it went to voicemail. He left a message and walked back to the store.

After work he drove the cargo truck out to the Fifty-Five Ranch and cruised around the streets, thinking how much they resembled the antiseptic sets of The Truman Show. He stopped in front of the yellow house, grabbed his clipboard with the “Customer Satisfaction” form he had withheld from Velikovsky. A woman his age with short auburn hair came to the door. A teenaged boy stood behind her. “I’m looking for Polina Velikovsky,” Joe told her, pointing to the Maillet Appliance logo painted on the side of the truck and showing her his clipboard. “We forgot to have her sign one of the papers we need.” The woman stared at him, then looked at the boy. They spoke in Russian for a moment. “She went home,” he said.


The boy shrugged. “Yeah. Back to Russia.” He seemed to think the thought of it was funny.

The next morning Matt Sibow texted to say that Polina Velikovsky had boarded a flight in Seattle bound for Moscow with a stopover in Amsterdam. That evening Joe drove back to the Fifty-Five Ranch in his parents’ Silverado. In all of the houses that were home to Maillet appliances the lights were brightly burning. He checked Polina’s visa application again and googled her foreign address. It was a house in Moscow’s Arbat district.

He would treat himself to a week in Paris before flying east.

Story and illustration Copyright © 2022 by Bill Vaughn