Swing Set for Adults
Daniel Miller is a Texas-based writer and teacher. He holds degrees from the University of Edinburgh and Duke University. He has published one book, Animal Ethics & Theology (Routledge). His short fiction and nonfiction have most recently appeared in The Tishman Review, Short Story Sunday, New Blackfriars, and Modern Theology.
“Why not?” she thought as she neared it. Mary paid the daycare to keep Ben until 6:00 and they would keep her full monthly check regardless of whether she picked him up thirty minutes early. Ben probably wouldn’t notice if she arrived at 6:00 instead of 5:30. In fact, he might resent being taken away from his friends early. She knew that he enjoyed free play center time in the afternoon the best because he could then rotate to the blocks center. Yesterday he built a castle. Unfortunately, its strong blue, yellow, and red walls had failed to withstand the trollish assault of Jessica Manske, the six-year-old girl who had recently made it the purpose of her four-foot-two-inch life to systematically destroy every structure Ben could build. That, at least, was the impression Mary had formed from Ben’s retelling of the devastating fall of the once proud and prosperous kingdom of Benjalot. If his eyes shone red from wiped away tears again today, she would talk to the staff of the Kiddie Korral about putting Ben in a different play group. Maybe she didn’t have time after all.
She almost passed it when her feet stopped her. Just this once she would be selfish. She would think about herself first–her own needs and extravagances. And this was only a small extravagance. The half-lot playground lay just beyond the No. 6 city bus stop at 6th and Sycamore St. She passed it every day as she walked the four blocks from the bus stop to Kiddie Korral on Rosewood Cr. to pick up Ben. A closer stop sat just one block from Kiddie Korral in the opposite direction, but that one let out at the corner of a supermarket. Mary preferred the solitary though longer walk from Sycamore St. to forcing her way through elbows and plastic shopping bags. “Yes,” she said. She half cupped her mouth with her gloved hand and looked around to see if anyone had heard her unintentional declaration. The street appeared deserted. Had fellow pedestrians heard her, however, they would have thought the self utterance no less strange than the following sight of a grown woman walking into an empty playground, placing her purse in her lap, sitting down on the rubber sling seat, and pushing off with her low heel shoes.
During her grade school days, she had loved to swing. Every day during recess Mary, her best friend Jenny, and Logan, who insisted on being Mary’s boyfriend despite her embarrassed pleas to the contrary, raced out to the set of swings at the far corner of the school playground. They held contests to see who could swing the highest or counted how many back and forth rounds they could go before one fell out of synch with the others. Logan inevitably tried to impress her by demonstrating how far he could jump out of his swing when he reached the peak of its frontward arc. She felt more pity than pride watching him flail through the air and then land painfully on the sandy pit in front of the swings. Mary’s grownup stomach winced at the thought of her own Ben doing the same in a few short years.
Her body instantly erased the decades separating the little girl who had loved to swing and the woman who had walked past the half-lot playground for nearly four months without noticing it. Like riding a bike, her muscles remembered. Push off with your feet, lean back slightly with loose arms; now pull with legs held prostrate; close your eyes and feel the air rush past your face and through your hair as you swoosh forward; still weightlessness for a moment; then tuck your knees, hold on tight, and laugh as your hair flaps against your cheeks in backward descent. The tips of Mary’s shoes scraped the worn ground as she oscillated back and forth. The rubber hugged her hips tighter than it had when she was nine. “Hope this dusty old seat doesn’t rub off on my skirt,” she thought. The skirt was not new, but it would be a hassle to replace; Ben was so impatient at the department store—not to mention the cost. She inhaled deeply as her arms pulled her forward. Thoughts of stains and budgets had never entered her nine-year-old mind. Back then she had simply wanted to fly. No thought or worry required.
“Richard would know how to do this right. One little check a month—or most months—that’s all the worry he has.” Mary had received the paper evidence of Richard’s fatherhood by post the previous day and still needed to deposit it. The drive-through at the bank stayed open until 6:30, but Kiddie Korral wouldn’t keep Ben past six and that didn’t leave enough time after catching the 6:15 bus at the corner, which usually arrived late anyway. “Well, drive-through wouldn’t do much good without a car. Maybe I could skip lunch tomorrow.” Mary’s 1997 Ford Focus had lain dead in her parking space for the past four months. The sweet, acid smell coming from the engine had long faded along with the oily, green liquid that had leaked from it. She imagined it had left a stain on the pavement now perpetually shaded by the car’s midsize bulk. The extra money required to tow and fix the engine, however, had yet to materialize. Ben had needed new school clothes; their air conditioner had used more electricity than she had budgeted for July.
“Stop!” she thought. “I’m not thinking about a broken car right now, or banks, or bills. I’m swinging. Just swinging.” Mary leaned back, pulled with her arms, soared forward, glided back, forward, back, forward, back. She tried to swing away her heavy responsibility. She pictured sparrows flitting lightly on power lines or the small oval window of an airplane overlooking clumpy mountains of white cloud.
Then she felt guilty. Her five-year-old son was waiting for her. She hadn’t seen him since 7:30 that morning when she’d dropped him off at daycare. By now Mrs. Langdon would probably be drying tears from his flushed cheeks and reassuring him that Jessica was sorry for knocking over his skyscraper. He would be pulling at his coat trying to free it from a hook on the wall and asking why she wasn’t there. Several of the other parents would have already arrived. She should be there. She should be consoling her son and helping him pull on his coat—he always had trouble with the left arm—not some woman she gave a check to once a month to care for him. She thought of Richard. Mary stopped pumping her arms and let her pendulum gently wind down. She dusted the adolescent dirt from the toes of her shoes, returned her purse to its usual place on her shoulder, straightened her skirt, and continued her walk from the No. 6 bus stop at 6th and Sycamore St. to Kiddie Korral on Rosewood Cr.
When Mary opened the bright yellow door of the daycare, she saw Ben standing with his coat already on. That did not surprise her—the staff at Kiddie Korral had separate lives and families to attend to. But she was only five minutes late. “Surely,” she thought, “this is over overkill. I know I’m late and I know you want to go home, but you don’t have to bundle up my kid and toss him out the door!” She remembered a diner she and Richard had frequented before they were married. Ten minutes before closing, the kitchen staff exited the kitchen, traded their aprons and plastic gloves for brooms and mops, and began sweeping the dining area. Richard thought it amusing to see how long they could remain seated and fain obliviousness to the staff’s not so subtle hints before someone finally asked them to leave. After one of the greasy-haired, teenage mop wielders slushed a tangled brown mess of turbid mop water onto her new high heels, Richard’s crude game had played out its final match. So many years later Mary felt surprise at the vividness with which old memories sometimes snuck up on her. Her right foot gave a little shake to dislodge the remembered mop water.
She absently glanced down at her feet and uttered a blithe snort. At least two good things had come from her divorce—Ben and more practical footwear. She looked at Ben. He was smiling. “Thank goodness for that,” she thought. “Hi, Sweetie! All ready to go?” Mary smiled and waved at Mrs. Langdon. “It looks like he had a better day than yesterday.”
“Yes, I kept an eye on him and Jessica, but they didn’t seem to have any problems today. See you tomorrow, Benji.” Mrs. Langdon waved goodbye to Ben and Mary. Mary hated how she called him Benji. If she was going to shorten his name, she could at least pick something less reminiscent of a scruffy looking dog from the 1970s.
Mary took Ben’s small hand in hers. She felt warmed by his happy grasp, despite the cold in his thin fingers. “Whoa, your fingers are ice! Where are your mittens? I put them on you this morning. Do you need to go back and ask Mrs. Langdon pretty please to let you back in and get them?”
“They’re not at Kiddie Korral. I gave them to Jessica.”
“Jessica stole your mittens?! I can’t believe that little girl. First the blocks and now this! I’m talking to Mrs. Langdon about moving you to a different play group tomorrow morning.”
“No! I like Jessica now. We’re friends. I asked her to help me build the Empire State Building and then we smashed it up! It was fun.” Ben stomped on the pavement, crunching dried leaves under his Incredible Hulk high-tops.
Mary pictured Ben jumping out of a swing for Jessica. The day before, when he had walked home with still salty, red cheeks, Mary had talked to him about the importance of sharing. “Sometimes you have to be the change that you want to see in other people,” she told him. Ben’s newfound bulldozer buddy was not exactly what she had intended, but she would take the simple fact that he had listened to her as a victory. Where had she even heard that phrase she wondered—Gandhi, the Bible, a bumper sticker? “Nice, Mary—bumper sticker parenting. Next you’ll be telling him with a yellow smiley face that Shit Happens.”
When she could get out of her own head, Mary enjoyed her talks with Ben as they walked to the stop where the No. 8 bus would eventually drop them off within a block of their apartment. Ever since her car had given up on them, she felt that she was getting to know him better. Something about walking hand in hand encouraged conversation better than rush hour traffic and a Game Boy in the back seat. She enjoyed the way he skip-walked and swung her hand when he was in a good mood. How had she not noticed that before? She indulged herself in his vivid imagination. The plot lines to his made up stories about knights and wizards or superhero soccer stars were rarely easy to follow, but they were always entertaining.
“Ben, let’s do something different today before we go home. There’s someplace I want to show you.”
“Oh, there’ll be another. Come on!” Mary tugged Ben’s arm in the opposite direction. Surprise at the change in routine and the sudden gaiety in his mother’s voice hit Ben with such equal force that his legs unconsciously skipped a step. They reached the half-lot playground a few minutes later. Despite its sun-bleaching, the color of the red tube slide diverted Ben’s attention. Mary let go of Ben and repositioned herself at the bottom of the tube so she could watch him as he slid down and catch him if she needed. After the slide, Mary sat down on the rubber sling seat and placed her purse on the sandy ground near her feet.
“Ben, come swing with me!” she called. Ben skipped the few steps to the swing set and looked at the empty seat next to her. “No, come sit on my lap. We can swing together.” She lifted Ben up. The metal chains creaked and the rubber hugged tighter around Mary’s hips. “Now you’ll have to help Mommy. Hold on tight here and pull forward after we go backward.” Ben gripped a chain in each hand. Mary secured one arm around Ben and held herself to the swing with the other. She leaned lightly back and pushed off—gently at first so that she and Ben could adjust to the cadence. She found that holding the chain with only one arm threw off her balance. She had to accommodate Ben’s extra weight, slight as he was, as well as the strange torque that now wanted to swing them in a more diagonal trajectory. She tried shifting her legs in the opposite direction to compensate.
“Ok, Ben, let’s fly!” she whispered into his ear. Mary leaned back further and pumped her one arm harder. They increased in both speed and altitude. Ben squealed the infectious laugh of a child fully engrossed in amusement—bursts of excited laughter interrupted by swift breaths. Mary’s hold on Ben tightened and she laughed loudly, no free hand to cup over her mouth and guard their merriment from passersby. She was careful, however, not to lose herself in Ben’s merry abandon. As they swung away from the metal frame, she was as free as he, yet on their return journeys Mary regained her focus. She assured her grip on the chain and tensed the muscles in her legs to counter their diagonal swing. Mary glanced down at Ben, sitting on her lap, never questioning the security of his mother’s hold, unaware of all that it took for her to keep them straight.