by Mackenzie Gagnier
After dumping the ice shavings from the Zamboni’s bucket, Mr. Berk returned to the small office where he took his lunches. That morning, he had impulsively layered some wild parsley into his typical turkey and Swiss sandwich but now found himself picking it out. He could not remember why he had bought the parsley in the first place.
He wondered if that kid would be hanging around today. Berk recognized him by his forehead more than anything else, as the boy was always watching games while leaning face-first into the glass and as a result usually bore a red splotchy impression just above the brows. He had approached Berk a few times on his rounds, always a bright and focused expression, persistent in his interrogations. He would ask about the daily goings-on of the rink, ice maintenance and even the lighting on one occasion. Often Berk provided brief answers when apprehended, although he tried his best to appear unapproachable. He soon found it difficult to avoid the boy, as he watched nearly every game on Saturdays and lingered around on weeknights as well. Berk had gathered that he played Peewee hockey on Tuesdays at six and that his skates were always the last off the ice during free skate hours. He’d had to yell at the boy on more than one occasion to clear the ice, at which point he always promptly did. And as Berk lumbered onto the ice in the Zamboni during games, he often caught a wave from the boy which he pretended not to see.
Today, however, Berk was feeling agreeable to a chat with just about anyone. He decided that if he saw the boy later, he would perhaps act friendly towards him.
“Mr. Berk!” the boy hollered, quickening to a squeaky jog. Berk watched as the boy accelerated towards him before coming to an abrupt stop, clumsily sliding his feet to the right and nearly crashing forward in imitation of a stop on skates. A few laughs echoed from down the hall where the boy came from.
“Hey, kid. Jake, right?” Berk asked. He felt the muscles in his cheeks straining from his ongoing smile.
“Right.” He held his smile and motioned to leave.
“I know you said no before, but can you please show me how the Zamboni works?” Jules asked, tapping his foot lightly. The rash on his brow had faded into a blotchy pink. “Please?”
“How old are you, kid?” Berk grunted.
“Thirteen in a week.”
Everyone had cleared the hallway but them. Berk shrugged and started walking to the garage behind the rink.
Jules, who had decided not to push his luck by saying anything further, flew past him out of the corridor and around the rink. He was swinging his legs off the Zamboni seat by the time Berk arrived. Berk grimaced and said, “Get off, kid, come on.”
Jules promptly jumped down and stood next to the pile of snow at the front of the machine, bobbing left and right and fiddling with his jacket zipper.
“Alright, I’m gonna explain how this thing works, but there will be no touching—or riding, get it?”
Jules nodded and leaned forward intently.
“Here’s the blade, okay.” He pointed and glanced up. “Over here, on this side. Come here, why you over there? Okay, here are the augers—they scoop up the ice, okay, and bring it into the bucket up front there. You got the wash-water tank, okay, that’s the water that cleans the ice—should refill that soon—okay, you watchin’?” He pointed up to the levers. “This for scraping, this for the water, okay, you get the idea. Look under there, check it out. Very cool machine, lots of movin’ parts.”
Jules took his time eyeing each of the components Berk had pointed out, appearing to be overwhelmed by the information.
Berk sat down and checked his watch.
“Is there anything I can help you with?” Jules asked after a minute. “There isn’t a game for another forty-five minutes, so I got t—”
“Here.” Berk handed him a socket wrench and pointed to the Zamboni. “Tighten all the bolts on the body—haven’t done that in a while.” He sat down in a small reclining chair in the corner of the room.
“And when you’re done with that, you can shovel that snow to the outside. Shovels over there. I’ll open the door when you’re ready.” He crossed his legs, pulled his phone out of his pocket and loaded up a game of online chess.
“Do you like working here?” Jules asked as he struggled to turn the wrench on his first bolt.
“I like the cold,” Berk replied, trading knights with his opponent. “And the hockey, of course.”
“I-I was thinking of being a volunteer here,” Jules stuttered. “If I could. I like it here, too. Could I?”
Berk looked up from his phone at the boy, who had reached his second bolt. “Heh. Really? Does this environment inspire you?” He held his arms up and gestured around the small, damp room, chuckling. “And I’m pretty sure you loosened that first one, by the way. Righty-tighty, lefty-loosey, okay.”
Jules lunged back to the first bolt before answering. “I just figured since I’m here all the time anyway, I might as well help out.” Back to the second bolt. “Sometimes it’s really boring when there isn’t a game.”
Berk quickly looked at his phone. “Shit!” He had blundered a bishop. He made a hasty move and returned to Jules: “Why are you always here, anyway? You’re a kid—you should be doing homework or playing, or something.”
“Well I do play here on—”
“On Tuesdays, I know. I’ve seen ya.”
Jules smiled. “I just like it better here than at home. It’s too loud there sometimes.”
Berk chuckled again. “Boy, I don’t know where you’ve been, but it gets loud as hell here.”
“Different kind of loud.” The boy disappeared behind the other side of the machine, quickening his pace with each bolt. Berk stared unfocused at his phone.
“You ever been called a rink rat before?”
“You get called that?”
“Red Top too”
“Red?—Oh, well, stop leaning your face against the glass like that. Doesn’t it hurt?”
“It’s the best view. Like you’re on the ice with them. What you playing?”
The socket wrench appeared to float a few inches from Berk’s face, who flinched. Jules stood next to him, holding it out expectantly. Berk snatched it and placed it on the table behind him.
“I made a new year’s resolution to try new things, okay, so I’m playing chess. You forget where the shovel is?”
“No—s-sorry,” Jules stuttered, whipping around.
Berk realized that his match had auto-forfeited because he didn’t make a move in time and slammed his phone on the table as well. He stood and pressed the button to open the back door while Jules grabbed the shovel. Lashes of frigid wind and a few scattered snowflakes slithered into the room as the door rolled up. They both squinted from the sun’s afternoon glare surrounded by heavy clouds.
“So who’s calling you a rink rat?”
Jules shoveled forward out the door a few times before answering: “Guys on my—team. I’m trying to take it as—a compliment.” His speech was distorted by each lurch forward with the shovel.
“You should,” Berk responded. “You love the game, so what?” He sat back down in his chair before continuing: “I used to be the same way—well, okay, not with the leaning against the glass stuff—but, you know, I was always loitering around here somewhere. I really liked…the smell, funny enough.”
Berk heard Jules’ laugh beneath the scrape of his shovel. The boy worked in silence for a few minutes, save a few grunts; meanwhile an odd sense of giddiness began to swell in Mr. Berk. A grin spread across his face as he decided to speak his next words:
“You know—you know what I would have done?” Jules stopped shoveling and turned around, leaning against the handle.
Berk continued: “Well, I would’ve played some kinda prank on ’em. Like, okay—maybe fill their skates with melted cheese, or, or, fill their gloves with melted cheese, or somethin’ like that.”
“Seriously?” Jules responded, rubbing his forehead with a faint sardonic smile. “Why do both of your ideas involve cheese?”
“Well, I was trying to incorporate the rat thing, okay? You got somethin’ better?”
“Why would we have to incorporate the rat thing?”
“Well, they have to know it was you!”
“I wouldn’t want them to know it was me, Mr. Berk!”
“You have to show them, kid! You want ’em to have respect for you?” He didn’t wait for an answer and stood abruptly, feeling his skin itch with unspoken rage, throat muscles clenching as his volume rose. “You have to show them that here, a least here, you will always have the upper hand, okay, that you are the king of this rink, okay, you know every nook and cranny, every smell of this place ’cause you got NOTHING ELSE but this place, okay, but at least you got THIS, at least you can tell yourself you got SOMETHING, okay, kid, you’re not gonna let yourself DROWN in your own HOUSE, you’re not gonna let the years go by AGAINST THE GLASS, okay?”
By the time he had finished his rant, Berk had shrunk back into his seat and covered his face with shaky hands. Moisture welled in his eyes, and he strangely felt as if he had just learned who he was for the first time. He heard the shovel clank to the ground and a few retreating shoe squeaks before he opened his eyes to an empty room, and sighed.
❄ ❄ ❄
A strange smell brought Berk’s vision back to reality, and it was not long before he noticed a stuttering gurgle coming from behind him. Every few seconds the noise would grow loud, and with it the back of the Zamboni would shake.
Berk had half a thought about oil but decided that didn’t make sense before turning off the engine mid-ice and clambering down for an inspection.
Before bending down to examine the augers, Berk took a double-take at the oblong ring in the center of the ice which had yet to be resurfaced. It looked like the reflections of the overhead lights on the ice were blocked out by small, square-shaped… somethings. Berk carefully shimmied toward this abnormality and knelt down before peeling what appeared to be a white slice of Swiss cheese from the surface. In horror he squinted his eyes and spun around, counting tens of slices in just a few seconds. He tore back over to the Zamboni, where he could now clearly see that the cheese had melted in with the wash-water and was stretched and coagulated all over the machinery.
“How did he…?” Berk whipped his head around to the boards, closest to the exit, where a familiar outline of condensation slowly dissipated from the glass, and a squeak echoed through a closing door.