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Swinging

I hoped the rain would wash away my confusion. It was a warm spring night and my hair was plastered to my head, my dad's t-shirt clung to my body. It was probably about midnight or one, and the neighborhood was quiet, the rain soft. Even though it was so late, or early, there was that eerie light that lets you see things very clearly. There was no moon. Maybe the light came off the white t-shirt I wore, reflecting from some unseen source and brightening the world. I wasn't sure if I was crying or not, my face was wet to be sure, and crying had been a natural state for me this past year, but now I didn't think I was.

"Sunshine, blue sky, please go away . . ." I remember my mother playing her old Motown hits as she danced around the house cleaning on Saturday mornings. "'Cause raindrops will hide my teardrops and no one will ever know that I'm crying, crying . . ." But I wasn't. I was like a well run dry.

I looked at the house I had lived in for close to nine years. The big wooden sign looked so out of place spiked into the front lawn where I had turned cartwheels all these years. I walked over to it. The white square post was taller than I was. The red "For Sale" sign boasted a picture of a smiling husband and wife. It struck me at that moment how fake they looked, their smiles, gleaming white teeth, and hair so perfectly placed. The wet grass was so cool on my feet, so real.

I heard a train off in the distance. Before, not long ago, I would have imagined that train taking its passengers to some exotic place. I would have imagined a man and woman deeper in love than a man and woman could be, traveling somewhere sunnier than any place on earth. Now I saw in my mind cargo and black smoke going somewhere dirty like Gary, Indiana.

It began to rain a bit harder. Just enough to make me feel fresh. The smell was intoxicating. I had to chuckle because that was a vocabulary word from this week and I remembered thinking, when am I ever going to use that word? But it was, intoxicating that is; that spring rain smell that seems to rise up from the ground and purge the earth of--what? Evil? Toxins? Or was it just winter?

The Ashburys' light was the only one on on the whole street. I think they just leave their living room light on all night, all the time. I wondered if their TV was on, too. It seemed to be on a lot. What would they do when I moved away? Who would baby sit Jana and Lori? Maybe Christie McPherson from over one block. I walked down a few houses so I was standing in front of the lit-up house. Didn't they know about saving electricity? I heard soft moaning coming from an open upstairs window, and somehow I couldn't imagine Mr. and Mrs. Ashbury doing it, but I knew they must be. I walked further up the block, the way I had gone to school for seven years. Past the Walters and the Waters, the Odelias and Johnsons. Millie Johnson had left her bike and helmet out, and a puddle was forming in the helmet.

I didn't realize how chilly I was until I noticed I had wrapped my arms across my chest and goose bumps had raised up on my arms. I looked down at my small breasts just beginning to rise from my chest. I wondered what my life would be like. What kind of person would I marry. Would I die like my mother had, leaving behind a man who deeply loved me and two daughters who never really got to know me? A lost home? Changed lives?

I looked back up the street to where my house was, and knew I should turn and go back, but I continued on toward my old elementary school. I stayed off Hamline, where I thought there might be some cars whose drivers might wonder at the sight of me. I knew this was not a safe thing to be doing, but it wasn't safety I had in mind. I don't know exactly what it was.

The sand in the play area was wet, cool, and soft as I squirmed my toes in it. The curved plastic swing was wet. I found myself pumping higher and higher before I even realized I was swinging. My toes were grasping for the leaves of the tree each time I went up, grabbing off a fresh shoot of green every other try or so. My hair was really too wet to fly behind me but I felt it trying to lift off my back each time I swung forward. As I went back, a piece came forward and found its way into my mouth. I sucked on the end and played with it with my tongue.  

God, I thought, I'm too young to be revisiting my youth, I'm still in my youth. But as I slowed and stopped I realized this playground, these times, were gone for me. I didn't remember the last time I had swung, or even come here. Dad had taken our swingset down two summers ago and neither Maggie nor I had cared. I wanted it back now. I headed home thinking about my swingset and how Dad shouldn't have taken it down. How he had taken away something so precious, so . . . old and rusty is what it had become. Old and rusty. The walk home seemed to go faster, and I saw the red and white sign in my yard from the end of the block. The raindrops were really big now, and I was really cold, though it couldn't have been less then fifty degrees.

I pushed at the sign from one side and then the other until it started to move. I rocked it back and forth. I remembered when the truck filled with many red and white signs had parked in front of our house and the dirty man had gotten out to dig the hole in my front yard. He had a wart on his nose and limped a little as he carried the big sign on his shoulder. I realized now how heavy it was.

"It won't take long," Mr. and Mrs. Spartus, the smiling real-estate couple, had told my dad. "Houses in this neighborhood only last about a week on the market."

"Mmm, hmm," My father had replied, nodding his head, pursing his lips.

I felt he didn't want to sell the house. I could see it in his eyes, and hear it in the way he talked. I didn't understand why he had to sell. Was it too sad for him to go upstairs to an empty bedroom? Was it that on his teacher's salary it would be too expensive? I knew there were problems with the life-insurance policy. My father wouldn't share those problems with me. I guess he didn't want to burden me with adult matters, but I was burdened anyway; couldn't he see that?

My mom had died from cancer--from smoking cigarettes--and the policy had listed her as a nonsmoker, so the company had flatly refused to pay. Which seemed fair to me.

"But you see," my dad had told me one night, "we paid money in for twenty-two years. At least they should give us that back."

Which also seemed pretty fair to me.

My hands were a little raw now; I'm not sure how I got it out, but I looked down at the rain splashing on Mr. and Mrs. Spartus. I dragged the sign to the backyard and let it drop where my swingset used to be.

"Thanks."

My dad's voice startled me. He was sitting in one of the adirondack chairs he had made for Mother's Day a few years back. My mother had adored those chairs; she had sat and read in them, legs kicked up over the arm, for what seemed like all summer. She would sip her iced tea, smoke, and watch my dad putter in the garden on weekends. I could see her there now, beautiful golden hair dappled by sun through the elm, little scar above her left eyebrow, pale freckled legs crossed at the ankles, and smiling. Smiling.

"I can't sell it Lindsey."

I was sitting in Mom's chair, next to my father, the cool rain sprinkling on my head, making my eyelashes heavy.

"Sadness only takes you so far, you know, grief isn't much of a comfort."

He paused. I wasn't sure if I was supposed to answer or not.

"But you've got to feel it, you know. I read somewhere that without grief, without sadness, we wouldn't know happiness."

"I guess."

"I adored your mom."

"I know, Dad."

"I would've done anything for her."

"You did."

"Some people may have thought. . . . You know Linds, she loved you two so much, she just wasn't always sure . . ."

"What to do."

"Yes, that's right."

He looked at me as though for the first time he realized I understood so much more than he had thought. His face was wet, his eyes puffy and red, and he smiled at me. Through my mind flashed a series of pictures from around the house, in albums and the recesses of my mind. The wedding. Each of my parents holding a small child and smiling, real smiles, not Realtor smiles. At the lake. The pool. My dad in the garden, my mom sitting in the chair I was sitting in, legs crossed, head thrown slightly back, laughing loud enough for me to hear, even through the space of time.  

Flint Keller is a single father of two daughters in St. Paul, and a frequent contributor to Minnesota Parent.


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