Across The Wire Vol. 2

The Playground

By Matt Rowan

The guy was not a very sociable guy. He walked past a small playground every day. There was never anyone playing. No children. No adults. No dogs, even. In fact, a lot of parks and playgrounds expressly forbid the presence of animals, pets – wild animals could do as they pleased, no one would stop them. (You’d like to see them try!) But no pets, even though it was public property. That didn’t seem very fair. 

This day, while walking by the small playground, he decided he was done with his job. He was done with his old life. He climbed some plastic steps and sat on a slide. He wasn’t coming down. He was wearing his business suit. He had a tie on. 

Not too long after he’d positioned himself there, a little boy and a little girl emerged from a nearby house and walked over to the playground. They had a tiny dog with them. The dog wouldn’t stop barking at the guy. 

“Go home, kids. Places like these, they don’t allow dogs. They only allow people,” the guy said. “People like me. They’re for people like me.” 

The children stared at him in the way children will.

“I said go home. And take the dog. Don’t you know dogs aren’t allowed in places like these?” Raising his voice now. “This is a place for people whose lives are garbage and who’ve got nothing left to give.” 

“You’re in our backyard,” the little girl said. The little boy touched her arm, and he shook his head, no. They went inside. The dog followed after them. The guy stayed where he was. 

Here, all around him, was what his life had amounted to, so little. Friends of the guy had said he was melodramatic. That didn’t mean he wasn’t really and honestly suffering. And greatly. 

The next day, the guy still hadn’t moved. A few more adults were with the guy, sitting on different parts of the swingset and other equipment. The little girl and the little boy began playing in the front yard, deciding that was better than trying to get rid of the adults. 

This time it was the boy who lost his patience. “Get out of here, you people! This is private.” He ran and climbed up to a man in a business suit sprawled out but seated upright on top of the blue plastic tunnel that connected the two wooden structures of the playground apparatus. “Goooo, gooooo,” the boy said, shoving this man. The man moaned but did nothing else to indicate he was aware of the boy’s shoving. “Muuuuuuuh,” the man said. 

The boy kicked the man hard on the spine. The man, overcome by the pain of it, felt his back. He moaned again, this time to convey physical pain. And then, once he’d recovered, he slapped the boy hard on the face. 

The guy looked at the boy, and then looked back down at the woodchips beneath him. Sometimes, in this world, little boys get slapped by men.  

The boy’s eyes welled with tears and he began bawling, running from the man, and the little girl was shouting something incoherent as their dog barked obsessively. 

The guy dragged himself through the wood chips and the distance between that separated the playground apparatus from the swingset. He pulled himself up by the swing’s chains and hoisted his torso over the swing’s seat. He was still facing downward. He crouched back on his toes and pressed off to give himself a bit of forward momentum. It didn’t do much. He moved very slightly. He moved, though. The swing weakly rocked back and forth, but not for long because his feet still skidded against the ground. He kept his arms hovering over the ground for a while but they soon fell. All of his limbs created friction and slowed the swing down. He was back at a relative standstill, twisting the seat left and right and twisting its chains up sort of. He got back on his toes and repeated the process. His clothing was covered in wood chips. 

“I don’t care. Whoever you are. My life has been the worst by far,” the guy said, tugging at his shirt. 

“Are you talking to me?” said a woman wearing a red skirt and white blouse. 

“Sure I am. Why not? I am. You don’t have it like I do.” 

A man in a cowboy hat and a bolo tie interrupted them. “Whoa now, who had it worse than what? Let me tell you who has it worst: me. Yessir. There was a time a man could speak his thoughts out loud without being told not to after he spoke his thoughts out loud.” 

“What sorts of thoughts?” the guy said. 

“You know the sorts, but I’ll tell you — all sorts. And time was I could say them and no one would mind. Hell, people would clap and applaud and tell me I’m great. But then the second I spoke my thoughts to ‘more people’ everyone got all bent out of shape. It isn’t right and it isn’t fair. I blame the leaders of old who didn’t do their jobs. Them and the new leaders, who are terrible.” 

“It’s true. A lot of things are terrible,” the woman said. “Just think about poverty. Poverty could happen to anyone. You wake up and boom: poverty.”

“I tell you this, we ain’t talking about the same thing, girlie.” 

“Don’t call me girlie,” the woman said, and threw a handful of wood chips at the cowboy. The cowboy howled in exaggerated pain as a few of them winged his face. He then sobbed and wilted back into himself.

“I’d fight you for suggesting your life has been worse than mine, if I weren’t so miserable,” the guy said to the cowboy and rolled over on his back, staring up into the sky at nothing specifically. 

More people started filling up the space on the playground equipment. All of them had problems. They looked like birds, all huddled together in masses of humanity. 

The boy and girl’s mother was in the kitchen. She looked out the window that offered a view of their backyard. She was horrified, startled by the many people who’d filled every inch of the available play space. 

She went immediately to her children. “Have you been outside recently? Have either of you been outside in the backyard?” 

“We both have,” the girl said. The boy nodded but looked away from his mother. 

“Did you see all the people? Did you talk to any of them? They’re strangers, so don’t talk to them again, if you did. I’m calling the police and I want you both to stay inside.” She saw the boy now; she saw his face, the red mark. “What happened? What did they do, who did this?” The mark on his cheek seemed to be throbbing. She dialed 911 and, despite what the operator had warned her not to do, she hung up and went outside to confront the adults who had hijacked her children’s backyard playset. 

“Get out of here,” she said, moving briskly toward the adults, resembling a pod of walruses now more than birds. They stayed entirely still, unstirred by her sudden appearance. She raced around the various people in their various positions: supine, recumbent, seated with legs crossed, slumped over, and dangling from various objects and heights. “You all need to get off of my property.” 

They had no intention of leaving. She was beginning to think she could beat one to death and still the rest wouldn’t leave. She tried anyway, a ridiculous looking man in a trenchcoat and wearing the fake “nose, glasses and mustache” combination. He refused to fight back, as though he were in some kind of transitive state. She was furious, who were these people and what had they done to her child? The police might take her in, as well, but she was going to be sure someone answered for their crime. 

She clawed the man’s face. She bit him. She stomped on his neck. Eventually he began stuttering and gurgling up blood. But it was more like a damaged robot expelling some kind of fuel or propellant liquid. Not a man. No longer that, if it ever was. 

“You are not a child!” she shouted as though it were an expletive. “This is not a public playground and even if it were, there is no going back. You think you can just go back? Who are you to think that?” She spat on the man, having finished her attack.

The police arrived, and they saw the mother standing over her victim. The police thought the scene was weird but aware of the only option available to them, they took the mother into custody. The children watched as their mother was escorted into the squad car, learned from this obvious injustice that the world is a complicated, terrible place. 

The guy knew that. He had already arrived at that point. That’s why he was laying where he was laying, blood pooling all around.

Matt Rowan lives in Los Angeles. He edits Untoward and is author of the collections, Big Venerable, Why God Why, and How the Moon Works (Cobalt Press, 2021). His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Split Lip Magazine, Electric Literature, Gigantic Worlds Anthology, Booth Journal, TRNSFR, Barrelhouse, SmokeLong Quarterly, Moon City Review and Necessary Fiction, among others.