Sunday, July 18, 2010

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The Jungle Gym

Before he built the fence, Dad used the green mismatched hydraulic bucket on the front end of Grandpa’s tractor to rip our jungle gym from the earth. A plume of black smoke exhaled from the exhaust pipe atop the red machine, as Dad revved the motor, raising the bucket below the blue and white candy cane striped swing set, which was attached to monkey bars, and an aluminum slide.
It was late afternoon and I sat on the trampoline in our backyard. Cows that moments earlier wandered the fields stopped at the sound of grinding metal and screeching hydraulics. Wind came in short bursts and the acres of green pasture that surrounded our home dipped in desert gusts; the sunlight reflected mid-bend turning the tips of the tall grass white like polished metal being tilted back and forth.
As he tugged at the foundations of that jungle gym, Dad finally changed, but he was not weary and raged, but appeared strong, angry, and unfamiliar. He was no longer the Dad who spent a Saturday constructing the play set. Swing saddles and aluminum poles were scattered about the gravel as he told Mom that the legs needed to be held with concrete or the jungle gym might fall over, crushing his two sons, and leaving him without a legacy, a joke that he repeated once while bolting on the slide, and again while hanging the swings. He brought my brother and I out to help him hold bolts and carry hammers. He let us test the slide and the swings. At the end of the day, sweat darkened the large brim of his cap as he nodded with satisfaction, like the gift he was giving his two sons was equivalent to a great statue or monument and should be placed near a museum.
He tugged at the jungle gym and didn’t think about when he built it, or about all the times he gripped my waist, supporting me as I learned to use those monkey bars, or how many Sunday afternoons he sat next to me, the saddle of the swing pinching his hips, waiting for my legs to be long enough to reach the dirt. Instead, he thought about Mom watching him from the side steps, or from behind the woodpile, or through the French door windowpanes. If he couldn’t see her, he had to assume she was there because she watched him so often. He was tired of justifying his adultery to her ever-present eyes. Mom watched him through the windows, holding tightly to their connection while Dad tore the jungle gym from the ground because it stood between him and the fence he needed to block her out.
The bucket of the tractor tugged at the aluminum, tangled the swings, and buckled the cross bar. Mom watched through the French doors of her bedroom, leaning her hand against the glass like she was signaling a driver to stop. She opened the French doors and stepped out with intentions of walking across the lawn, into the gravel, and stopping him, but then she looked at his face somber, cold, and unfamiliar, his right hand smoothly pulling levers like he were part of a demolition crew crushing some bland office park. She walked to the end of the patio, she almost stepped onto the lawn, but then began inching back like a new explorer fearful to enter strange country. The hydraulics pumped and hissed as she stood at the end of the patio, powerless.
Eventually the aluminum poles popped from the ground, cement still clinging to them like fat gray corks. Dirt and gravel slipped into back holes while grass slumped into the front ones. The jungle gym swung on the end of the bucket like a dead rodent being held by the tail. Dad hauled the play set to the southeast corner of the gravel lot. The bucket tipped as he tugged a black lever and the twisted heap of aluminum fell to the ground, stirring up dust. He then extended the bucket, and brought it down like a boot stomping on an over filled garbage can. The jungle gym sat in the corner like a twisted wad of yarn pulled from a sweater for over two years.
That evening, Mom stood on the porch in cut-off sweat pants and a black tank top, gazing at the crushed jungle gym like it was modern art that she would understand if she looked long enough. She pondered on how it reflected his change from the man she loved, to the unfamiliar man capable of ripping his children’s jungle gym from the earth and crushing it. I watched from behind the woodpile as she removed her sneakers and inched onto the lawn, the desert wind ruffling her bleached curls. This was the farthest I’d seen Mom venture towards the shop since Dad left. She tossed her bangs from her face as I crept up behind her, sharing in her curiosity.
Dad exited his shop and saw us both staring at the destroyed jungle gym. He stopped, his eyes drifting from one to the other, his boot toe digging in the gravel. Mom and Dad looked at each other silently for a while like strangers on opposite sides of a battlefield, and despite how much he still resembled her former husband, his actions caused her to feel less comfort in looking at him.
Were I older than nine, I probably would have noticed it sooner, but it was at this moment, after the jungle gym had been ripped from the earth, and as the two of them stood gazing at each other, that I became aware of the invisible border between the grass and the gravel, one that my brother and I crossed fearlessly, and Mom and Dad avoided. After a few moments, Dad shoved his hands in his jeans, and walked back into his shop.