As the sun went down, the temperature dipped below twenty degrees under a light snow, so Denny had the bench all to himself. In fact, he had several benches he could choose from. Like anyone, he knew cold, but cold didn't bother him. When they dealt out the super powers, that's the one he drew, indifference to cold.
His foot prints were the only tracks in the snow leading to the bench. In the summer, an old fart -- not unlike Denny himself, he thought -- would probably sit here and toss bread crumbs to the ducks and geese. That wasn't such a popular pastime at this time of year.
Two dozen skaters -- now thirty, now forty, two dozen again -- slid by in endless laps on the frozen pond, weaving and looping in and out of the reach of the floodlights. Their ranks swelled and ebbed as reinforcements came, and as some finished their rounds, or paused for cocoa and hot pretzels at the concession truck. The air was still, but from time to time he fancied that the scent of the chocolate or a hot dog with mustard wafted his way. Maybe the draft of the skaters delivered it to him. Probably just his imagination.
The slight cloud of his breath issued and disappeared before him. He watched it again. And again. And they were all the same. And he thought back to his first cigarette, when he was nine. After a few coughs, he was able to send out good, healthy -- well, respectable -- clouds, as his head spun. Within a few weeks, he'd perfected smoke rings.
Denny had bought a book called Amaze Your Friends with Magic, filled with tricks involving cigarettes, coins and tumblers. He took it to the store with his thirty-five cents and showed it to the woman as he told her he needed a pack of Camels to practice his magic tricks.
The next time, he forged a note from his imaginary brother saying the cigarettes were for "Bob" and it was okay to sell them to a nine-year-old.
Finally, he'd found a vending machine at a gas station with lax surveillance. From that point on, he had his supply line. He could smoke all he wanted and mark up singles for the kids who passed for friends at ten times cost. Those were the days.
Now Denny stretched his legs a bit and felt the weight of the gun shift in his coat pocket.
The skaters kept changing. They came in all shapes and ages. They wore wool coats and raspy plastic jackets and ski masks and scarves and six layers of under garments, in the colors of nature or bearing the marks of some day-glo gods.
A young man in form-fitting sweater and pants glided forward smoothly with long, confident strides, flipping backwards without breaking his momentum. A young woman outdid him in grace, clipping up from the ice to spin and continue.
A chubby kid in glasses, wearing red plaid on the outside, sliced over twenty yards, wobbled and crashed, then gathered himself up again for another try. This happened over and over while Denny watched, and the poor child never came any closer to his goal, yet never lost his gusto. Multiple layers of clothing swaddled him against both the cold and the bruising so that his arms hung out, away from his body, like a couple of tubes he'd found by the railroad tracks.
That would have been Denny a long time ago. You could rent skates at the pond when he was a kid, but he'd gotten his own flashy pair with dual blades for Christmas. So his sister laced him up, walked him to the ice, gave him a shove, and shot away to hang with her friends.
Stiff in his cocoon of clothing, young Denny wobbled and crashed. He was certain that skaters all across the pond were howling with laughter at his difficulty, although he didn't actually hear them, and no other evidence of their ridicule presented itself. He looked around, gathered himself up, and tried again.
With the same result.
So he realized at an early age that he would never be a skater. He went back into the pavilion that used to stand at the end of the pond and sat on the bench and listened to his teeth chatter until his sister finally came to take him home.
"You don't even know how to have fun, do you?" she asked, exasperated.
That pavilion was nice, with long, wooden benches, and an indoor concession stand, where you could blow the steam off your hot chocolate, safe from the wind. It had a public address system that would pump music out over the ice: waltzes, Top 40, Sinatra and Sousa -- God knows who they had for a deejay. But at least it kept the quiet away.
The structure burned down on Denny's thirteenth birthday, and they never rebuilt it. Sometime after that, the concession truck started coming in to fill the void.
They never caught the little pyromaniac, either.
The Parks Department used to have someone -- probably that year's newest hire -- drive a tractor across the pond to make sure the ice would hold at the beginning of skating season. Young Denny and his peers in the neighborhood held vigil each year as the days grew colder, to be sure they could witness this awesome trial.
When the day came, the juvenile grapevine drew a horde of kids to the edge of the pond. The noisy, ancient John Deere belched smoke as it came to life. Its giant wheels crushed the frozen grass and cattails like Godzilla on a mission of destruction as it headed down to test the frozen surface.
To Denny and the gang, this spectacle of trial by tractor was more fun than actually trying to skate. There was always the chance that a spider's web of cracks would shoot out from beneath the tractor, the ice would groan and give way and the frigid water would swallow it whole. Steam would hiss off the exhaust pipe, and the novice driver's last, desperate cry would be cut short in the chill.
Never mind that the water was just a couple feet deep and that the tractor never did break through. Denny doubted if they even bothered with that ritual anymore. They probably just plug so many days at such-and-such a temperature into a spreadsheet, and the ice was certified good to go.
It was getting late, and some kids had started a fire in one of the drums that served as a trash bin over near the concession truck. They warmed themselves as the flames crackled, sending sparks into the sky. What were they burning in there? Their voices rose and fell. They laughed and shouted, so loud that it might annoy someone beyond their special circle.
Denny thought of the time he'd infiltrated a band around such a fire. The jokes and banter seemed to pass around counter-clockwise, but you had to speak up, or you'd miss your chance to make your mark on the evening. The narrative skipped Denny on two or three rotations, and when he finally threw out his bit, he was referencing something long forgotten.
"Oh, shut up, you," the kid on his left said, delivering a right hook to his nose. "Who do you think you are, anyway?"
The big kid's brown mitten offered little cushion, and the blood flowed freely over Denny's chin and onto his coat. And that got him into even more trouble when he finally got home.
"Mom's going to kill you," his sister said, when he tried to sneak in the back door.
But she didn't, although her words came awfully close to it. And neither did anyone else after all these years. And here he was, pretty much back where he started, sitting in the cold that didn't really bother him.
At ten to ten, a recording somewhere said, "The park will close in ten minutes." Ten minutes later, the floodlights went dark, and the stragglers among the skaters made their way to the parking lot.
Another fifteen minutes passed before the kids left their dwindling trash can fire and disappeared in the night.
The nagging weight in his coat pocket was getting to him. So in the dark, Denny scooted his butt forward on the bench and rolled his head around to work out the kink in his neck.
And as he looked up, he could see the glimmer of a few stars through a break in the clouds.