by Joe Miller
“Can’t now,” she says. “You’re going to have to take him.”
He knows an extra shift for Stacey means time and a half, and extra cash for them, but the alternative feels like a prison sentence.
With one hand on the wheel, his phone wedged between his shoulder and his stubbled cheek, he grunts for a way out her proposal.
“You said go get a present. You didn’t say I had to go.” When she doesn’t answer he realizes she wasn’t negotiating. It was settled before he had answered the phone.
“Where’s it at?” he asks. He spiders his hand into the blue plastic Walmart bag tossed on the seat next to him. The bag is pulled tight around the cardboard packaging for a Spiderman car or jet or whatever the hell it is. Just a piece of shit for Jakey to bring to some kid’s birthday party. A hunk of plastic entry fee into a wasted afternoon of screaming energy, half-eaten pizza slices, and one-upping parents. He fiddles around until his fingers squeeze the long narrow Red Bull beneath the can of mint Skoal and the bag of prime cut beef jerky.
“You’re not going to like it,” she says.
“Oh fuck me, it’s not one of those pottery painting places, is it?”
“Seawood Falls Arena. It’s a skating party.”
“Great. Even better.”
“At least you’re familiar with the place.”
“Funny babe,” he says.
He releases his hand off the steering wheel and lets the Silverado drift into the next lane while he wrenches the metal tab on the Red Bull can. Stacey says she has to get back to work. She thanks him, tells him it’ll be good for them, him and Jakey, but he knows he should be thanking her. Nurse money pays more than store supervisor money, and her extra shift probably just allowed him another month without losing his truck. He gulps half the Red Bull and slides back into his lane, drifting down Highway 104, frozen rows of Minnesota dirt on either side. Rows of lengthy scars mark the harvested soil, fertile land settling into months of ice and solitude.
“You’re late, Burnsy,” his mother-in-law tells him holding the side door open while he drags his brown boots across her mudroom floormat.
“Technically Stacey’s late,” he says.
“Mm.” She peels her maroon sweatshirt down, an attempt to cover her denim-tarped backside, the fabric stretching thin like a sheet of fruit roll up swallowing a basketball. He follows her into the den. In one perfected motion, she trustfalls into her brown suede recliner and cranks the handle on the side, popping the foot rest out, her brittle feet sharpened to the edge of the fabric. After a lengthy productive cough, she croaks out to Jakey in a percussive snarl.
“Jakey. Come on down. Your daddy’s here for ya.”
Jakey’s soft footsteps plod lightly on the hollow carpeted stairs. Burnsy sees his son’s eyes are red and puffy. He’s been crying, and he knows his mother-in-law must have already told him that Burnsy, not his mother, would be taking him to the birthday party.
Jakey wrestles with his slick navy down coat and is audibly frustrated with his uncooperative sleeves. Burnsy wants to help, to tell Jakey to calm down and just let him zip him up peacefully. He chews on the stubble in the corner of his mouth and watches, allowing his son to eventually fight through it.
“You ready, bud?”
Jakey doesn’t answer and pokes open the screen door. He gently closes it so that it doesn’t slam behind him, then walks over and crawls into the passenger seat of the truck in the carport.
“Thanks Denise,” Burnsy says before following his son.
His mother-in-law just nods from beneath her glasses, squinting at the remote control in her palm.
Jakey is whimpering before Burnsy can back out of the driveway.
“I’m sure he likes Spiderman too.”
“No.” Jakey sniffs, then says something that sounds like “I said to get Justice League. Not Spiderman.” He heaved and began to exhale long, but his sternum fluttered like he was going to vomit. “You can’t do anything right.”
Burnsy’s instinct was to yell at his son. Tell him to shut up, it’s just a goddamn birthday present for some dipshit kid, quit crabbing, you’re almost a teenager, be a man. He’d yelled that plenty. Jakey is just sensitive, Stacey said. But while he drives along the cul-de-sac he just sits there and wonders how you tell an eleven-year-old that he’s actually right about his dad. He’s got me pegged. Maybe I can’t do anything right.
While Jakey sniffles into his puffy jacket, Burnsy replays in his thoughts every bit of useful fatherly advice he can remember seeing in movies. No one ever told him how to be a dad. He and Stacey had Jakey young, and Burnsy’s dad wasn’t the role model to earning a “Father of the Year” coffee mug. All Burnsy’s knowledge of good fathers came from movies. He presses play on the movie scenes in his mind. The cartoon Mufasa says “Remember who you are” to Simba through some clouds. “Anger clouds the mind. Turned inward, it is an unconquerable enemy,” Master Splinter tells Raphael. “That’s why they call them crushes. If they were easy, they’d call them something else,” Samantha’s dad tells her on the couch in Sixteen Candles. He doesn’t know why he thinks of Sixteen Candles, but soon he’s laughing at Anthony Michael Hall in his head. It takes another sniffle from Jakey to remind him his train of thought had stopped at the station of movie advice.
None of the movie advice seems to fit, but it’s all more advice than he ever got from his father. Burnsy thinks on his own and eventually just tries to make it up himself.
“Sometimes you have to put up with stuff you hate so you can get what you want in the long run.” As his words bump around the cab of the truck and settle into their ears, he isn’t sure if that was for Jakey or for himself. Jakey says nothing. Silence takes hold of the drive.
“Join me, and together we shall rule the galaxy as father and son,” he says finally, breathing the cold metallic snore of Darth Vader and giving up on homemade dad advice, leaning on humor as a crutch.
“Don’t ruin this,” Jakey says. Burnsy taps his knuckles on the steering wheel and stops trying.
It’s quiet until Burnsy rips the stick shift up into park. It’s the same parking spot he used to squeal into with his old grey Cavalier. He shoves the Spiderman whatever into an empty gift bag, no tissue paper, and they make their way in the smudged glass entrance doors of the rink.
Burnsy hasn’t worked at the ice hockey rink in over eight years. He hasn’t been here in almost five, but none of it has changed. The entire building is constantly wet; soaked rubber and soggy ambition, the dank smell of spent motion. The ice a frozen canvas washed over again and again and again.
Burnsy spots Rick, his old rink supervisor, right where he left him eight years ago: plopped on a high-backed stool behind the skate counter, his cane hooked around the back. He’s on the phone. Not a normal cell phone, but a massive plastic brick tethered to a twenty foot slinkied cord.
Burnsy thinks he and Jakey might be able to slip by unseen, but Rick lifts his snout and peers at them from under his glasses. He drops a nod at Burnsy with the faintest hint of serendipity on his face. He could just be holding in drool, but the reception is far warmer than Burnsy would expect from his old boss. He keeps Jakey walking and doesn’t linger.
The father and son pass through heavy swinging doors, dividing the cold fumey air, the hopeful sporting dreams of boys, the desperate hopes of faltered fathers from the stale and serene lobby. Burnsy knows exactly where the rink party room is. He’s scrubbed mashed sheet cake off the rubber floors more times than Jakey’s had birthdays himself. They follow the rink boards to the party room and the door erupts open before Burnsy can knock.
A blonde woman in cuffed denim and painted-on enthusiasm, a mom abandoning ship, escapes the room and leaves the door open. She holds a cordial nod long enough for Jakey to pass and drops it as soon as he does, darting for anywhere else.
The sound of condensed disorder hits Burnsy like the first four bleeps of a pre-dawn alarm clock: you don’t know where it’s coming from, you just know you want it to stop. The room is an active prison riot of ten and eleven-year-olds bounding clumsily from table to table. The prison guards, a broken mingling of mothers huddled together at the corner of a table do nothing to subdue the inmates. An old man in a maroon vest, an obvious outsider, perhaps an involuntary captive held for ransom, is twisting balloon animals in the corner, too slow for the shouts of the riotous inmates. One prison guard, a mom, notices Burnsy and brightens like the doomed kid in a horror movie running past an even slower victim.
“Hey guys,” another mom wails at them. Kayla. She works with Stacey. Her misplaced sympathy is probably the reason they’re there. She bangs her palms together at the swarm of children, an awkward clap. “Jordan, look who’s here baby. It’s Jake and Mr. Burns.” The brutes pause to glare at Jakey and Burnsy, and without acknowledgement, cannonball back into their revelry, sword fighting with inflated balloons. Jakey drops his eyes to the floor.
Burnsy nudges his son’s shoulder. “Go on, bud. Go play.”
Jakey twists in place for a moment, then inches slowly toward the frenzy.
“Nice to see you Kevin. I thought Stacey was bringing Jake,” one of the prison guards offered. None of his friends call him Kevin.
“Hospital needed her to stay,” he said.
“Bless her heart,” rang the chorus of moms. Only one other dad was there. The rest were no doubt out in their fields harvesting their crop of soy. No off days in Minnesota autumns.
The other dad pops up and juts his hand out stiff for Burnsy. He shakes it firm. “Hey Kev. Real glad Jake could make it.” Jordan’s dad talks close. Burnsy can smell the Folgers and Marlboro lights hiding on the back of his tongue. “Jordan’s been pumped for this. Jake bring his hockey skates?”
“Ah. No. Jake didn’t take much to hockey, so we’ll just rent some skates for him.” Burnsy shifts on his heels and leans back away from the coffee breath.
“Huh. Sure. Yeah, I guess that’ll work for him.”
“Oh. This is for Gordan.” Burnsy says lifting the Spiderman thing in a bag.
“Right. Jordan. From Jakey, of course.”
Jordan’s dad takes it and sets it in the corner behind the prison guards, the pile of presents the final bargaining chip the guards possess. Burnsy crams his hands into his jean pockets and tries to tread water in the social setting. He floats for a few minutes before Jordan’s dad, either out of pity or annoyance, stands back up to small talk with Burnsy.
“So where’re you at these days, Kev? Still down at Auto Valu?”
“Yep. Bout seven years now.” Here it comes, Burnsy thinks.
“Well hey, that’s great. Really great.” Jordan’s dad shifts his weight back and forth, flexing his khakied thighs. “Yep. Seven years good luck, am I right?” He chuckles. Burnsy nods. “Yeah we’re coming up on ten years running the MinnBank branch here. Shooo. Time flies, eh Kev?”
Burnsy waits. He’s comfortable without conversation. He’s comfortable blending into the background. He knows that coffee breath bigshot can’t stand not hearing his own voice, so he cultivates the absence of talking. But eventually bigshot gives in.
“Say, that’s too bad about Jake and hockey. You used to play, right?” he doesn’t wait for Burnsy’s nod. “Weren’t you on that ’97 Seawood Falls High team?”
“Whew. I was just a freshman when you guys won, but man. State champs. That was something. That’s just too bad you didn’t go further, you know?”
Burnsy has turned his head to watch Jakey. As Jakey moves around the room, the horde of inmates morphs and evades like an amoeba, leaving him alone no matter where he goes. It’s already happened. They’ve turned on him.
“Kev?” he smells the coffee before he hears the voice.
Jakey finds a chair somewhere in between the prisoners and the guards and plunks himself into. The other kids laugh, throw things at Jakey and pretend they had no idea. He never had a chance. The rink and the party room are chilled cold, but Burnsy can feel the blood pumping from his heart get hotter and hotter.
“I said, didn’t you used to work here in high school? At the rink?”
“Yeah.” He says, the testosterone spiraling through his bloodstream, a conductor for heat in his veins. “Not just high school, though. Worked here til I was twenty-five.” Burnsy turns defiantly into the coffee breath. “Cause I was a fuck up. Then got fired cause I was a fuck up. Still am a fuck up.”
He pulls his hands from his jean pockets and they’re balled fists. He realizes the moms are all turned and staring at him, and the children have stopped to laugh in huddled throngs at the bad words he just said.
“Sorry,” Burnsy says. “I gotta get Jakey some skates.” He backs out of the door, and as the cool air of the ice rink breathes on his neck, his fists flatten, and he raises his palms in forgiveness to the prisoners and prison guards.
The fumes from the ice coils and Zamboni exhaust whips up Burnsy’s nostrils. The cold embraces him like a grandmother savoring family moments, cherishing the slipping time much more than the rest of the family. His pulse slows. As he walks around the boards of the rink he looks through the plexiglass out onto the place where he grew up. That ice was where he learned confidence and hard work. That ice was where he learned to stand up for himself and to fight for others. That ice was where he could dream. He had hoped that his son would find those same things on that ice. It all seems to have melted away to puddles.
He swings the doors open into the lobby, and Rick is still where he left him, sitting on his stool. His eyelids spread and the heavy creases above his brow raise when he sees Burnsy.
“Burnsy. Burnsy.” Rick waves him over, as if Burnsy were going somewhere else anyway. Rick shifts off his stool and plants his cane on the rubber floor, inching up to the counter. When Burnsy last left this place, he and Rick hadn’t been on great terms, so to say Burnsy is suspicious would be calling the race a mile before the finish.
“Hiya Rick. Uh, need to borrow some skates. Size five.”
“Burnsy. Critter’s in jail.” This wasn’t a major shock to Burnsy. Critter probably belonged in jail. He once saw Critter, a former colleague at the rink, if you can call him a colleague, shoot a bottle rocket out of the top of a bong before taking a ten second toke. On the clock.
“Yeah? Who brought him in, Andy or Barney Fife?”
“Goddamn parents from Edina called the cops on him while he was driving the Zamboni. Right before a game this morning. Cops dragged him right off the Zam. He blew a point two.”
“Jesus. How’s the Zamboni?”
“That’s the thing. Ain’t got nobody to drive it today.” Rick burps while he talks, as if the souls of devoured corn dogs are flying up to escape. “Keegan’s working his dad’s fields today and Sex Ed said he’s going to St. Paul tonight for some internet date or somethin’. I’d try on my own but I’m afraid I’ll kill myself climbing up there.”
“Gonna have rough ice, I guess. Size five.”
“Burnsy. Can you drive it for me? Just for today.”
Burnsy pauses just long enough to see himself driving the Zamboni. When he was twenty, his long hair flowing from beneath his hat, he drove the Zam like a god thundering over on a cloud above Mount Olympus. He first saw Stacey from that Zamboni driver’s chair.
But today, he sees himself driving it as an indentured servant, forced to clean the ice for a gaggle of rambunctious heathen children, their parents reveling in his servitude, and Jakey, struggling for a moment to shine, berated by the optics of his worthless father cleaning the ice for those brats to slide on, frolic, and eat.
“Nope. Sorry, Rick.”
“Look, Burnsy. I can pay you,” Rick says. Burnsy’s eyes shifts at the words and he’s angry at himself for giving the world a clue at his terrible hand. “I know we didn’t part on great terms, but I trust you. I could really use the help, Burnsy.”
“Size five. Please.”
Rick hobbles along the shelves of old skates and brings back the most battered pair of size five figure skates he can wrap his wrinkled talons around.
“That’s six bucks.” Rick says.
“I thought it was three.”
“Times have changed. Money don’t grow on trees. If you’re short, your wife could probably pay.”
Burnsy shakes his head and feels the heat simmering inside him again. He flips through his wallet and pins six ones on the counter.
“Or you could just drive that Zam for me, Burnsy. Call it even.”
Burnsy wants to tell Rick to drive that Zam right up his own ass. But he looks down at the battered size five figure skates and thinks of Jakey. He grabs the tattered white leather things and walks back to the party.
When Burnsy gets back, Jakey is on the ground in the far corner of the room, his knees tucked under his arms and his head down on his forearms. As Burnsy approaches him he sees popped balloons littered around him, the wreckage from an outnumbered attack.
“Hey bud, you wanna put your skates on?”
“I wanna go home.” He’s crying again and from the sides of my eyes I can see the corrupt faces of the children around us, stolen glee pilfered from an innocent, his sensitive son. He wants to roar. He wants to flip tables and smash sheetcake into children’s faces. But he doesn’t. He picks up his son and carries him to the door.
He sees the smirk on Jordan’s dad’s face as they pass. Burnsy tries to hold back the hot blood pulsing through him.
“What the hell?” Burnsy says, barking on his way out the party room door.
“Oh, hey, they’re just havin fun, Kev.” Burnsy’s eyes narrow on him. “You know? Boys will be boys.”
If he could think faster he’d say something he would regret, and if Jakey wasn’t in his arms, he’d get two to five years for assault.
Once they are clear of the room, Burnsy sets Jakey down and wipes away the salty trails along his face. Jakey turns his head away from his father. Burnsy feels like he’s lost him. He tries to think of some lasting advice to give, some perfect metaphor that will help his son turn out to be a better person than he is. Nothing comes.
As he kneels in front of his boy, inches from the ice that raised him, he opens his mouth and speaks the only truth he knows.
“Jakey, I’m probably supposed to tell you to turn the other cheek or tell you to be the bigger person or something like that. But I’ve honestly got no clue what any of that even means.” Burnsy looks back. He sees the other kids. Just boys, children. Tomorrow they’ll be high schoolers. And then men. Soon they’ll be coffee breath bigshots. Burnsy looks back at his son.
“Fuck all that, Jakey. Fuck that. Get even.”
Jakey blinks at Burnsy waiting for some advice that Burnsy doesn’t have.
“Me? I don’t know how to do that,” Jakey says, his lip flutters as he whines too loud. Jakey looks like he might burst into tears again at any moment. Burnsy has never known how or when to do the right thing. But he knows how to fight back.
“You gotta pee at all?”
“Um, a little, I guess.”
“Perfect. Go to the water fountain and keep drinking.”
“Where are you going?”
“Trading in these shitty skates for some Zamboni keys.”
Ten minutes later, Burnsy and Jakey are in the Zamboni garage and Burnsy is prepping Rick’s old Zam and providing a lesson.
“You see, Jakey, the Zamboni works by shaving off that top layer of ice. Then you smooth out a layer of warm water on top, warm water that comes from this little tank right here. Now that makes the ice smooth again, covers up all those cuts and scars that build up.”
Burnsy jumps down and looks around the corners of the garage to see if anyone might be watching.
“Just a little warm liquid smooths it all over. See, what I was thinking was, that warm liquid doesn’t have to come from that hose. It’s already pretty full of warm water as it is. We just need to top it off with some kind of warm liquid. Any old warm liquid would probably do it. Hope you had plenty to drink.” Burnsy winks at his son. “Now, I’m going to go look back there by that chem shelf, and if while I’m over there you figure out where to find some warm liquid, you feel free to just drain it all in to that Zamboni water tank, okay?”
The words connect and Burnsy can see for the first time in weeks some fragment of joy peel over Jakey’s face. Burnsy walks around the corner and after pretending to look around for a moment, hears the pattering of a lengthy trickle falling into the Zamboni tank.
When Jakey is done he calls out to Burnsy “It’s all filled up now, Dad.” Jakey laughs a little.
Burnsy climbs up the steel ladder along the side of the Zamboni and plops into the familiar black leather seat. He has Jakey stand beside him as he revs the motor, shifts into reverse and lifts the rear auger. They bump up in the air and bounce when the Zam clears the rink rim. Burnsy shifts to drive and drops the auger. They edge forward on the ice and Jakey’s eyes gleam, anticipating what his young mind has pieced together what comes next.
“You know, Jakey, your old man used to live out on this ice. Grew up here. Worked here a lot too.” As they reached the first corner of the rink, he cranked the wheel to the right with ease, edging the curve perfectly. “I’ve seen a lot of kids skate here. I can spot the types. Those kids?” He points up to the deviants from Jordan’s birthday party swarming by the ice rink door. “Ice eaters for sure.” Jakey puts his hand to his mouth, covering the laugh. “Yep, those boys will shave up this fresh ice with their hockey stops and t-stops. They’ll throw it at each other. They’ll melt it in their hands. And they’ll definitely eat it.”
Hugging the boards, Burnsy and Jakey roll along, the artificial cold wind in their hair, a captain and his first mate, pirates sailing into adventure. They could see the writhing huddle of boys lined up at the rink doors, peering through the plexiglass as Jakey nears them.
“Push this button here, bud. Do the honors.” Burnsy winks and Jakey rears back a brittle right arm and whips it down on the orange button. The warm wash water begins to flow down on the ice. The water that Jakey helped top off.
As Jakey leans into Burnsy, the rear auger beneath them cuts and shaves off the old scars of the ice and behind it, lays down a new, ever-so-faint yellow, layer of mostly water, smoothing out the wounds that lay on the surface. It may only last for a short while, but it’s smooth for this one moment. The Zamboni rolls up to and past the group of boys gawking up at Jakey from the other side of the rink boards. Jakey wraps his arm around Burnsy and they look back at the liquid trailing onto the ice in front of the boys, and their parents. For that one moment, they don’t worry about what direction they’re heading.
About the Author:
Joe Miller lives in a stale cubicle where he ferments stories in his mind and craft brews fiction. He writes noiselessly in the wee, dark hours of the morning before his infant son wakes up. His work has appeared in Drunk Monkeys, Eunoia Review, Five on the Fifth, and others.