He sits in the car while you swing and though at first you don’t see him, I know he is watching. The engine still hums. He’s ready to leave immediately, if he must. Eyes are beat like vast lunar orbs rocked by millennia of collisions. Crumbling brick apartments lean inward above the narrow alley, this old town’s sad protectors. Armless and impotent, they want to reach out, to block his view with a wall of granite. But they cannot. The rusted fence between you and him dangles from dessicated poles, a forgotten lattice of spiky metal hung like a worm-eaten sheet drying in industry’s abandoned backyard.
He watches. It’s like your coat’s wool fuzz shields you from recognition. Push me! Okay. Higher! I don’t think you can swing much higher. There’s a toy in my pocket, a conic plastic jewel you gave me because you were afraid to lose it. We met a half hour ago. I could be anyone, any secret life of shredded innocence and guile, yet in your five-year-old world I represent trust. There is no greater compliment. My hands brush my pocket periodically — compulsively, making sure it is still there. I won’t lose it. I’d like to hold on to trust.
Two men have joined him. They talk. We cannot hear them. Every few moments he swings his gaze through the playground like some desperate soldier bringing his rifle down to bear on potential enemies. As if we threatened him. There’s no way to tell what the three of them are doing. Plotting? Drug deal? Or catching up like old friends, reminiscing about days before every man’s motivation seemed to require the scrutiny of a tribunal. Before mistrust was accompanied by the constant blue flash of starry white boxes on telephone poles guarding street corners from the wraith-like night.
Let’s go somewhere else. I’m scared. Fuck. I’d hoped you wouldn’t notice them. Couldn’t notice them. Your hair clips were supposed to protect you, your jewel was supposed to shield you, these plastic artifacts of youth supposed to hide you within a halo of ignorance. When I was your age, I played in the sandbox and scary was a spider crawling on my foot. Not men in an alley watching with fear and derision, chiseled from lifetimes of survival. We move to the tire swing; it’s safer here. More distance between us and those God damned eyes.
He could be harmless. All three of them could. But one day you will see these haggard forms again, these men and women tempered in injustice and robbed of opportunity. One day you will see danger, see them cause pain. You may become one of them. I sincerely hope you have the choice not to. But I know nothing about your life. This morning I have only glimpsed it.
Supposedly, this is “service” I’m doing, playing with you for half a day. But what have I done to serve you? Tomorrow you will walk the same streets, play amid the same dangers. Nothing changes. The same strangers watch from the same broken alleys.
But you will laugh and fight with the same friends, test the patience of the same teachers. There’s hope in that community. There’s trust. Hang on to chance that the peril will crumble like the sidewalks where you kick rocks on your way to the park. Believe in the possibility that someday playgrounds will be sacrosanct, inviolate from fatigued eyes. Find good, deep pockets for your trust.