Giants of West End Park
Rob and Kim walked side-by-side through the park, keeping just enough space between their bodies so Kim's cigarette smoke wouldn't offend Rob's lungs or sense of smell. The couple passed wordlessly by childhood attractions in the dark autumn night-time: a line of wobbly animals for toddlers to bobble around on the backs of, paint chipped and worn to give every animal disfigured, dripping eyes; a horizontal tire-swing hanging from great wooden poles upon which teenagers scratched messages of love or hate or both; a sandbox with a depleting supply of sand, where Rob stopped to excavate a lost Iron Giant action figure from the discolored grime.
Kim stopped in front of a something unfamiliar: a garishly-bright playground structure comprised of slides, steps, and tiny tunnels. Rob stopped, too, and they stood and stared as if some important sense of meaning could be found.
“Shit,” Rob said. He stuck his hands deep into jacket pockets, pulling warmth closer. “What are we doing here?”
Kim crouched down low, looking into the pit of black rubber chips from which this modern-day jungle gym sprouted. “We're having fun.”
“It's the middle of the night.” His voice grew higher. “We're 22 years old. This is weird.”
Kim ignored him. With her empty hand she scooped up a palmful of black flakes, then let them fall through her fingers. What were they made of? She had always associated them with discarded tires.
“They used to have wood chips instead,” she said. “And this whole thing used to be different. The old one wasn't so bright.”
Rob sighed in his pronounced fashion. “I know. I grew up here, too. Wood chips. Great. Let's go.”
“Why are you so freaked out?” Kim asked. She still crouched for no particular reason. “Did this park kill your parents or something?”
“Shut up, okay?” Having gotten higher with each word, his voice now plateaued. “Maybe I got beat up here. Maybe some asshole fat kid held me down and made me eat out of the sandbox. Does it matter? I thought we were gonna watch a movie or something.”
“Your Netflix expired.” Kim stood, wiped off her jeans though she hadn't gotten dirty, and kept her back to Rob. “Maybe I lost my virginity under the monkey bars that used to be here.” She knew his eyes would cartoon-bug out of their sockets, and they did.
“You're just messing with me.”
“We had a blanket, but I could still feel the wood chips digging into my back.”
Something caught Kim's wandering eye and she strode away. Rob followed, and together they left the bright reds and yellows of the modern playset behind. After crossing to the park's approximate middle, Rob, Kim, and their stagnant relationship stood at the base of something recognizable and unchanged: a tall metal slide, deep purple ladder-paint chipped and weather-worn to reveal more gray underbelly than childish color. Kim's nail-bitten fingers traced one unimportant rung as she stared up at the great piece of play-equipment. She looked back toward the mess of perfect primary colors, struck by how out-of-place the beginnings of renovation appeared among tarnished childhood classics.
“You remember what they called this?” Kim asked with some amount of wist.
“Did you put it out on the ground?”
“I'm sure it's not the only cigarette in the grass. Do you remember what they called it?”
“The Giant Slide,” Rob said, and despite his I-don't-cares, Kim heard a smile in his voice. “That moniker seems inaccurate.” He paused in a feeble attempt to hold something in, then burst: “Kids play here, Kim. You should've thrown it out.”
“Only you.” She grabbed the ladder with both hands, pulling her body up and her feet onto one low rung. “Only you would come to a park and use the word moniker. Climb this slide with me.”
She remained there, mid-climb, and looked back toward her boyfriend with expectant eyes. Rob looked at the beaten grass, the moon, a lit-up house across the street, and a fire hydrant before meeting her glance. He blinked insect-eyes. “What?”
“Climb ladder. See stars. Slide.” She ascended another step. “Don't tell me you've added heights to your list of phobias.” And another.
“I don't need vertigo to know this is a stupid idea.” Rob semi-circled the ladder, pacing, paws pocket-jammed. “How old do you think this thing is? It's decrepit. I can see the whole slide sway in the wind.”
Kim skipped over a rung. “What're you afraid of?”
“What do you think will happen to us if we climb this slide? Some bolt is going to come unscrewed under our weight and the whole thing will collapse, burying us until some ugly kids find our bodies in the morning?”
“Well, it's built to support the weight of children. And that's children of, like, the '70s, not of today.” Rob wasn't sure when Kim had gotten away from him, but now she neared the top.
“It doesn't matter if you think it will fall. I still need you to climb.”
He gave no response.
Kim reached the top and settled in on the slide's peak, fingers tapping the rails, heart beat-beating in a way she associated with roller coasters and family dinners and other events of terror. The slide sloped out ahead long and narrow, threatening an escalation of speed ending with a hard drop-off in a dirt rut carved out by many children before her. Farther in the distance, lit up by a streetlight in front of the corner's dead convenience store, two teenagers clad in hoodies and ambivlence smoked cigarettes and laughed about something. Rob had asked her to give up cigarettes and she had asked him to take up laughing.
Down on Earth, Rob stared up the ladder-length, blinked and cursed, and didn't go anywhere. He produced from his pocket the found Iron Giant, admiring its worn-away pain applications and single-jointed arms of limited articulation. He held the toy in hand and moved one of its toothpick arms up and forward, pointed ahead, prepared to shoot forth laser beams and save the day. But he couldn't remember if the Iron Giant shot lasers any more than he could remember the dull colors of the park's play-places past, or what Kim had worn on their first date, some other night in some other park. He considered keeping the sandbox's treasure for himself, taking the action figure home to place on a desk and glance at now and then, but knew the toy would gather cobwebs.
He opened his mouth to say, “I'm coming,” only to find himself too late.
Kim hit the dirt indent within a minute, unchanged upon landing. She stood and looked back toward Rob, but found she couldn't really see him.