Playground Story
Kevin Spaide

We live on the fourth floor. That’s not too bad, really, but it’s the highest we’ve ever been. I get vertigo if I stray near the window. Then I lie on the bed and look at the tops of the trees. The doves that live in the trees shit all over our car—yes, we have a car—as they shift around in their nests, ceaselessly, like fat old women in broken chairs. My wife wants to buy a rifle and shoot the doves out of the trees because of the awful mess they make of her car. I’ve never seen her handle a weapon but I can easily picture her shooting a rifle from a fourth story window. She’s that angry about things. I see her hunched over the windowsill, peering down the barrel. Peering? Maybe that’s not the right word. But if you knew her like I know her, well, you’d know what I mean. Or maybe not. These things are complicated.

I was talking about the window. What I was really thinking when I first mentioned the window, before I even wrote “We live on the fourth floor,” was how my son can hear the kids in the playground. There’s a playground just below our window now. A few days after moving in I heard a truck backing up, so I looked (chancing vertigo) out the window: a gang of South Americans with shovels and rakes were laying out a brand spanking new playground. You could tell they were South Americans because of their wide faces and black hair. It took them about eight hours. Swings, a slide, little racehorses and motorcycles on wobbly springs, everything still wrapped in plastic from the manufacturer. I thought, Wonderful. Our own playground. That’ll come in handy now that we have this baby. How lucky we are. For some reason, however, my wife and I got into an argument about it, but I don’t remember why. It was probably over nothing serious since most of our arguments are over nothing at all. We rarely argue over important things for the simple reason that they’re too important to be arguing about. So we argue about birds and playgrounds instead. You’ve got to argue about something when you’re married.

Anyway, my son is too small to see out the window (he’s only fifteen months old) but he can hear the kids hollering down there and he knows what it means. He knows they’re having a good time, and he’s stuck up here on the fourth floor, unable to get the door open. He points at the window. This is disturbing. Ever since he started shifting chairs around I think, My God! We live on the fourth floor, and now he’s moving the furniture around. He points at the window. It’s hotter than shit out there. If we close the window we’ll go crazy. We’ll suffocate. My wife’ll commit murder. But no matter what, we cannot allow our son to fall out the window. That’s the worst thing imaginable and I imagine it forty times a day. That window is a source of anxiety the likes of which people without unruly toddlers cannot possibly imagine. It’s a special anxiety without a moment of release, and you only experience it if you are worried your son or daughter might fall out a fourth story window. We’ll have to get some safety latches put on. Make sure he can’t open the thing. Watch him every second of the day, which we already do anyway.

In the meantime I carry him down four floors to the playground, saying buenos dias to any neighbors we happen to meet on the stairway. They’re all pretty old so they don’t pay much attention to me. No, they talk directly to my son. Which is strange if you don’t speak the language. What are you supposed to do? Just stand there? Until they stop talking? That’s usually what I do. When my son gets a little older he’ll probably notice the way I don’t talk much to people, and I worry that this will affect the way he views strangers. In fact, before I started writing about the birds and my fears regarding the window, I was lying on my bed, thinking about myself in the playground unable to communicate with the other people in the playground. Maybe this is what I was originally trying to get at: this fear about being unable to communicate with other people in the presence of my son.

(But now I’m thinking about that Richard Brautigan story where he takes his daughter to the playground. I just swiveled in my chair and pulled the book off the shelf searching for the title: “April in God-damn.” The guy in the story has trouble getting out of bed because he’s twenty-nine years old and a “young lady” left a note on his door. This story is nothing like that story.)

When we get to the playground all the other parents are women and they’re all sitting together like they’ve known each other for years and are on several committees together. They kind of look at me, but not really. I get my son into one of those harness swings for little kids. He’s uncooperative. We’ve done this about fifty times but he still gets upset. It’s like he resents the indignity of it, being manhandled into a swing. The look he gives me: Why don’t you just leave me alone, you awful bastard? As I’m wrestling with him he starts slapping my face and yelling ut! ut! ut! directly into my left ear. But as soon as he’s in the swing he forgets about his anger and he’s all right. More than all right. He’s ecstatic. The first time I ever drew him forward in the swing and let him go he gave me a look of pure wonder. It was the most thrilling experience he had ever had, and it was a revelation to him: You knew about this all along? And you’re only sharing it with me now? He was enjoying himself more than I am able to enjoy anything. And putting it that way makes me feel like I’m only half in the world, but it’s the truth. Anything that could possibly happen in my life would not give me as much pleasure as he experienced in that swing. Nothing touches me like that—except maybe the sight of him enjoying himself so much.

Then the mothers start coming over. A couple of grandmothers too. The grandmothers I can deal with. I even feel a kind of camaraderie with the grandmothers that just doesn’t exist between me and the mothers. First of all, the mothers seem vaguely curious about me, which I find vaguely threatening, while the grandmothers obviously don’t give two shits. Why? Who knows? Maybe they don’t have the energy to be curious about some guy just trying to get along in the playground. Maybe they’ve seen it all before, back in another era, when the mothers were still in knee socks and frilly dresses. For whatever reason, the grandmothers do not view me as some sort of brutish interloper, a potential werewolf to be driven back into the wilderness. This is helpful. Also, when I look at the grandmothers I am not burdened with wonder about what it would be like to have sex with them. And this, too, is a tremendous relief. It’s not as if I’m secretly slobbering over the mothers in the playground, concocting elaborate sexual fantasies behind my eyes. That, of course, would be wrong. No, it’s just the normal dire predicament of constant sexual appraisal. I don’t need it just then. Between the language difficulties (more like outright impossibilities) and scrambling around after a one-year-old, I’ve already got enough on my plate.

I push my son in the swing for, I don’t know, ten minutes. Then I really want to stop but he won’t let me. The motion of the swing is making me dizzy. As soon as I stop he screeches. If I try prying him out of the harness he screeches louder and stiffens his legs so I can’t get them through the holes. Even his face stiffens as it goes red and he clenches his fingers around the plastic handles on the harness. It’s pretty awful. One of the grandmothers is pushing an Asian baby in the next swing. For some reason you see a lot of grandmothers with Asian babies, usually girls, in our neighborhood. She smirks at me and says something. I’m not sure what she says. I think it was something about singing. I distinctly heard the word cantando. But why would she say that? All I can do is smile and nod like a simpleton. The grandmother doesn’t know I don’t speak her language (that’s the thing about not speaking the language: the other people have no idea until after they’ve said something which requires a response and you say nothing) so my reaction probably baffles her a little, but she doesn’t seem put off. Just goes on pushing the chubby baby in the next swing.

Suddenly my son looks like he might vomit if I don’t get him out of the swing right away. He clings to my arm as I lift him from the harness, and it’s one of the nicest feelings in the world. How to describe it? I won’t even try, because I wouldn’t get it right. Anyone who hasn’t experienced it probably wouldn’t understand, and anyone who has knows exactly what I mean. I only know I will miss that feeling when he is older. I already miss it, and it’s not even gone.

I set my son in the sand, doing a quick inspection of the area to make sure there are no cigarette butts nearby and then I look up at our window, wondering if my wife is out of bed yet. She has a headache. To my surprise she’s watching us from the window, four floors up. She waves and kind of smiles. Then she points frantically at something behind me and I turn around to find my son eating sand. I had my eyes off him for what? Four and a half seconds? He sticks his tongue out, disgusted by the taste of the sand, and I scrape as much out as I can with my finger. He seems grateful. But I know if I don’t watch him he’ll turn around and do the same thing again. That’s the way it is with a one-year-old. They’re like small mad scientists. Everything they do is an experiment. They do crazy things more than once because maybe things will be different the second time around. Often they do things—and this is unfortunate—just to see how adults react. What happens if I lob these keys out that window? People lunge out of chairs. And what if I tear this cloth off that table? Dishes crash to the floor, people lunge out of chairs and stammer like cartoon characters. Great!

Usually, though, they’re just trying to figure things out, and you can’t blame them for that. Last week my wife bought a pumpkin while we were drunk because she wanted to make some soup (which sounded insane to me considering it was about ninety degrees, but that’s a different story.) When my son found it a day or two later, this bizarre orange globe sitting on the kitchen floor, he wrapped his arms around it and tried hoisting it up. I was thinking, Now what would you go and do that for? But I didn’t say anything. What was there to say? He’d never seen a pumpkin before. What would you think if you’d never seen a pumpkin and suddenly found one on the floor in your house? I couldn’t imagine it. After a while he understood he would not be able to lift the thing so he leaned over and sank his teeth into it. Of course. He didn’t know yet that you can’t eat a pumpkin like it’s an apple. That’s why he had to try it.

When he recovers from eating the sand we rush over to the slide. He’s too small to climb the ladder so I set him at the top of the chute and hold his hands as he goes down. Weeeee! If I let go he’d bang his head and cry so I have to hold his hands. We do this over and over again. Weeeee! Most of the other kids are on the swings, or watching the kids on the swings, or digging holes, so we have the slide to ourselves.

Then one of the mothers approaches and says something. What? She’s pointing at my son and she’s not smiling. No, there is obviously something wrong. Are we breaking some sort of playground rule? She even looks a little angry. She has thick brown wiry hair that looks as if it would spring out forcefully in all directions if it weren’t restrained in a ponytail. I catch myself looking at her lips and then her ears. She’s actually very attractive in her anger. Her face reminds me of a line from a book I’ve just read by J. Robert Lennon, something like: her face invites touch like a tennis ball invites picking up. This woman’s face has that quality. I would like to touch her face. My son points at the woman and says, in a quizzical tone he uses sometimes, Mama? Mama? He can tell that this woman is one of the mothers, perhaps even the leader of the mothers. I steal a quick glance up at our window but my wife is gone. Maybe she will appear soon and rescue me?

Feeling like a moron, I stammer a few words to this wiry-haired mother, just enough to let her know how hopeless it is talking to me. Right away she grows visibly uncomfortable, actually squinting at me as if I’ve become less distinct, a blurry figure mumbling at her in the playground—which is how I feel. She stands there for a moment, watching me from the other side of the gaping airless hole that has opened up between us, maybe having some sort of inward fit of xenophobia, and then she wanders away without another word. But then she comes back and puts a hat on my son’s head. And this really pisses me off. He was fine without the hat. Between 1 and 4 the playground is in the shadow of a tower block, and it’s just after 1. That’s why we’re here. There is no risk of sunburn. My son pulls the hat off and examines it very seriously as if this woman has played some sort of awful practical joke on him. It’s an orange sunhat for babies, a demented-looking mouse or turtle grinning out over the brim. He turns it over and over in his small fat hands, assimilating the idea of this hat into his life. Then, his curiosity satisfied, he chucks it onto the sand and scrambles toward the slide. The woman goes back to the other mothers, hat in hand.

At the slide we are intercepted by a small girl, maybe seven years old, wearing large round sunglasses with white plastic rims. They have that outer-space insectoid quality which kids sunglasses tend to have. They give her an alarming authority as she blocks our way to the slide.

Now what, I say.

Taking me by surprise, the girl responds in perfect English. He’s too little for the slide, she says, jabbing a finger into my son’s face. He goggles at her finger, trying to grab it.

The slide’s for big kids, not little kids!

She speaks with all the pedantic humorlessness of a seven-year-old for whom the rules are the rules are the rules. She actually has her arms out, physically blocking our way. My son, paying no attention, tries walking around her, but she leaps in front of him, stretching her arms even wider, corralling him away from the slide. And now he looks so helpless, this giant of a girl towering over him on the playground, his forehead pressed against her yellow plastic belt buckle. He isn’t looking up at her face but directly at her belt buckle because for him she is simply an obstacle he has to get around. It bothers me more than it should. He’s so small and unsuspecting, and people can be so cruel and idiotic. He still has this to learn, probably over and over again, and I really don’t want him to.

I tell the girl he’s all right, I’ll hold onto him.

He’s just a baby, she says.

I pick my son up and lift him to the top of the slide.

No! says the girl, on the verge of tears.


The slide is for big kids!

I can see she is not about to let up. In fact, she’s about to climb the ladder and sit at the top of the slide, preventing us from using it. I want to tell her about catastrophic global climate change, or skin cancer, or what it’s like being hated by everyone in the room, but instead I lift my son to the top of the slide one more time and hold his hands as he shoots down, absolutely delighted with the world. Then I scoop him up and we exit the playground. The grandmother with the Asian baby waves goodbye and says something I don’t understand, but I don’t care: I’ve made a friend, an ally, a playground buddy.

I meet my wife in the stairway. She’s wearing a long skirt and a floppy hat I haven’t seen before. She looks glamorous and unapproachable like a movie star in disguise. My son points and says, Mama? Mama?

Let’s walk to the palace, she says. You’ve never seen the royal gardens.

If you want, I say.

She knows I find it strange and confusing living down the road from a king. It seems impossible, like living near a mountain infested with dragons.

I say, Maybe we’ll meet the king in his garden.

No, says my wife. The king is not allowed in the garden. The garden is for tourists.

I look at her, half-expecting to see a pair of those white-rimmed plastic sunglasses. Instead I see her eyes, puffy and red from lack of sleep. She smiles at me from under the brim of her floppy hat and reaches for my hand. Then my son twists in my arm and, grinning with all of his eight perfect teeth, like the teeth of a cat, he wallops me across the face and howls, Papa? Papa? Papa!

Some stories arrive like a slightly crazy neighbor or weird uncle at your door. You let them into the house and they do all the talking. Other stories, I find, work in pretty much the opposite direction. They’re more like a conversation with a stranger on a bus or a plane in which you do most of the talking, and you find yourself saying things to this complete stranger that you might never have said to anyone else—not in an insane, whispering, confessional way but more like the sudden revelation of a hope or idea that you hardly knew you had before you said it. Later on you might wonder where those words came from. “Playground Story” was one of these second kind of stories. Rather than getting an idea and going with it—or letting it go—I felt like I was having a conversation with a stranger as I wrote it. The stranger was polite and inquisitive but also knew just when to ask the right questions to open me up. My answers were the story.

The odd thing about it, though—and writing a story can be very odd—was that the stranger was, of course, only myself in disguise.

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