The Swing Set
The slide comes off easy. It’s the first piece I toss aside.
My brother haphazardly erected this swing set in my parent’s backyard when he was in his twenties. He wanted to use the monkey bars for pull-ups. His construction was slipshod. Four holes dug in the ground with posts rammed in, nothing packed to stabilize the structure except loose dirt. He didn’t have a use for the slide, so he never properly attached it. By the time he put the set together, I was already a young teen-ager, no longer interested in slides and swings.
The play structure arrived several years before that in a flat cardboard box, unassembled, appearing like an offering from heaven. Dad slid it from the bed of his dented pick-up truck, addressing me, Hey, punks. Look at what we have here.
A depiction of a little blonde girl, hair in ponytail, descending the slide, and a boy with a baseball cap being pushed on the swing by a father-type figure plastered the front of the box. The structure would be incredible – a twelve-foot slide, monkey bars, two new swings and a set of hanging rings! I couldn’t wait to start playing on it, to be as carefree as the little girl, to have a dad who enjoyed spending time with me. With my parents’ procurement of this set, we took a step towards becoming something more like the idyllic family pictured on the box, more like the family I wished we were.
But then, the unopened box, with the unassembled set still inside, just sat out by the barn. Until the photo on the front faded from view and the cardboard rotted into the earth. Until I realized the purchase of a playset couldn’t change who we really were.
Dad was a burst of crazy, impetuous ideas, followed by complete and utter inertia. Like when he was going to start a Christmas tree farm and planted dozens of trees but never tended to them, letting them grow to towering heights, overtaking our whole back field. Or when he left home to learn how to be a truck driver, just days before Mom had major surgery, leaving me to sit in the hospital, alone, awaiting the outcome – only for him to quit the whole endeavor after a week, realizing he didn’t much care for life on the road after all.
He liked acquiring things, but not taking care of them – like the dozens of dysfunctional, beat-up cars scattered around the yard, like the above ground swimming pool brimming with algae and water skippers, like the multitude of rusted tools in his workshop, like the forgotten swing set, like the five children who lacked their father’s attention – only one of whom would care enough to clean up his mess when he died.
And now, here the swing set still stands, slap-dashed together, decades later. As I touch my hand to the discolored metal, I find many parts, like where the swings conjoin to the rest of the structure, have already rusted through and break off with little effort. I’m able to twist the steps leading up to the monkey bars with my bare hands, bending them into submission. The more resilient metal must be unscrewed using a wrench.
With the bulk of the frame dismantled, two of the four posts slip noiselessly out of the ground. The other two have taken root in their makeshift holes, unready to leave. I strong-arm them with my body weight, wrangle with them. Their obstinance frustrates me; it’s curious how something so carelessly constructed could become so entrenched.
To dislodge the posts from the hardened earth, I strike them with a hammer. The cheap metal cries out a pained “Clang!” that reverberates through the neighboring pastures.
The absurdity of the moment is not lost on me. This set was supposed to transform me into a happy-go-lucky young girl whose biggest concern was navigating the monkey bars successfully. Instead, I appear like a crazed maniac, assaulting a child’s play thing.
Staring at the mutilated heap, it makes me wonder whatever motivated Dad to bring the set home in the first place. Was it just something else to acquire? Had someone cast it off and given it to him for free? Was it his feeble display of love?
Then, inhaling a full, deep breath, I take another blow.
Melissent Zumwalt is an artist, advocate and administrator who lives in Portland, Oregon. Her written work has appeared or is forthcoming in the Whisk(e)y Tit Journal, Full Grown People, Atticus Review, Pithead Chapel, and elsewhere. Read more at: melissentzumwalt.com