Play with Me
A stretch of gloomy spring days, with rain about to hit and a humid chill seeping under the front door. But the house is bright with lamps turned on in every room, and the kitchen is filled with the warm scent of coffee and oatmeal.
At the kitchen table the mother and father talk while the children turn their heads this way and that to follow. The boy raises his eyebrows, downy blonde hair over the slightly raised bone of his brow. The girl, older, opens her eyes wide, her way of participating.
There’s going to be a playground built on the empty lot five houses away. It’s what the parents are talking about. They’re not happy. On weekends it’ll get busy. They’ll definitely hear the noise from the backyard, maybe even from the bedrooms. In summer it’ll be even worse.
It’s a done deal, says the father. The equipment has been delivered and they’re setting it up next week. Of all the fathers on the street, he is the most handsome, with his brown hair all slicked back and the dark suits he wears to school events. He calls the girls beautiful and the boys buddy.
Their mother sighs. Playgrounds are great, but still, the noise. She has long hair, shiny and straight, and hands that are always cool and clean.
It’s a day for doing home things. The girl would like to play board games and bake a cake. The boy wants to watch cartoons, maybe lay out all his cars by color and size.
Any of this would be more fun with the mother or the father, but they get up from the kitchen table as if they had agreed on it – one-two-three.
Upstairs there’s the noise of the mother’s shower water, the blow dryer, doors opening and closing. The children join their father in the living room. The boy pulls a sofa cushion to the floor and props his head on it. The girl crawls closer to him and drapes her legs over his. The day stretches before them, and the girl, who usually comes up with their games, is thinking.
I’m going to see the playground, she says, to no one in particular, testing the idea. Her father doesn’t hear, but the boy draws in his breath and turns his small face to her. Me too, he whispers. She nods slowly without looking at him.
It’s easier than she thought, putting on rain boots and a jacket, quickly calling behind her that they’ll be playing in the yard. The father and mother don’t say no, or even make sure you stay there, or don’t go to the playground.
The ground is soggy and the girl feels the soil give under her weight. The grass dampens the hems of her pants which she has forgotten to tuck into her boots. The boy is right behind her, and as soon as they are on the sidewalk, he reaches his hand up and slips it into hers.
We’ll go look and come back before it starts to rain again, she says. Everything she says today sounds inevitable, the way her mother speaks. We’ll be back late. The babysitter is coming. You’ll be taking ballet this year.
From the yard to the playground is a straight line, all sidewalk, four houses. Down the hill, one, two houses. They see one neighbor whose name she doesn’t know so she doesn’t say hello. At the second house she lets go of the boy’s hand and they walk side by side.
Houses three and four look just like theirs but with glossy wood doors instead of red. There is no one else out. Many of the driveways are empty and the windows dark. The girl wonders where her neighbors are. She wonders this often, when she sits on the window seat in her room looking at the street.
The lot for the playground is no larger than those the houses are on, but the empty flat space seems huge. There’s no grass, just dirt with puddles of brown water. To the back of the lot are large piles — dirt? wood? — covered in heavy plastic. The girl looks for a path they could walk on without getting their boots too dirty, but can’t find one.
She pulls one of the plastic covers up and over herself so her entire body is under it, and finds a swing set frame on its side, two swings with plastic seats, and a green slide. The boy’s muffled voice is behind her. Can I see? Let me see. She can tell he doesn’t really care what’s there, he just wants to be under the plastic with her, or for her to come out.
She lifts the cover and pulls him in. See? See? It’s just a play set, she says to him, using her mother voice again. Oh, he says, a little disappointed. He reaches out for one of the swings, and it slips down the pile, its chains making a dull clanking sound, like when their father drops his keys.
She picks up the swing and is surprised by its lightness. She pulls it out of the covered pile and a few feet away. The chains drag on the ground and are getting muddy so she wraps them around the seat. She holds the tight package with both hands as if it were a tray. We’ll take this home, she says. The boy raises his eyebrows.
All day, after eating her cheese sandwich and sliced apple, during the boring parts of a show, while the boy plays with blocks and the parents read and talk, the girl goes to the sliver of yard between the side of the house and the fence, a space where the ground is mossy and stray wildflowers sometimes bloom, a place no one ever sees, to look at the little piece of playground that is now just hers.
Patricia Fuentes Burns has published fiction in TriQuarterly, Quarter After Eight, Another Chicago Magazine, The GSU Review, The Citron Review, and Quarterly West. Her work is included in Grace in Darkness, an Anthology of Fiction by D.C. Women. She earned an MFA from George Mason University and has won several awards in fiction and poetry. She lives in Arlington, Virginia with her husband and three daughters.
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