by Joshua Caleb Wilson
Matt was staring at his phone as he walked into the park. His kid had gone ahead on his own. It was hard to say who was more proud of that independence, but Matt was quick to give a disapproving look to the helicopter parents chasing their kids around with a weekend’s worth of knick knacks. Matt wasn’t doing anything important on his phone, just chess and Facebook, and maybe emails. And if he felt ambitious, he might rearrange his to-do list a little.
One time, when his son was younger, maybe four or five, another dad had walked up to him and said something like, “His playground skills are highly developed.” Matt looked up to see his son climbing across the top of the monkey bars. He looked back at the man standing in front of him. Those last two words hung in the air.
Matt noticed the giant bag on the guy’s shoulder. Apparently his kid’s name was Cherokee. Matt looked down at the SAFE-T leash in his hand. It’s a leash, for children.
“That’s not a thing.” Matt said.
“Huh?” the man asked.
“Playground skills, is not a thing.”
The man didn’t respond.
“There’s no such thing as playground skills, much less, highly developed playground skills.” Matt said.
“Well I just meant that he seems to have advanced motor skills for a boy his age,” the man said.
“Oh, are you child psychologist?” Matt asked.
“No, I just thought…”
“But you don’t really know do you?” Matt interrupted.
This was kind of a low blow, but Matt didn’t care. He knew that a dad carrying a leash probably wouldn’t want to get into an argument, and the man chose to concede.
“Look man, I was just trying to say I thought it was cool that he could do that.” he said, glancing back at Matt’s son, now climbing down from the other side of the monkey bars.
“Well,” Matt said, “It’s because I don’t hover over him every inch of the playground. That way he gets to make mistakes. Kids learn by making mistakes.” Matt smiled and the man rolled his eyes as he walked away. Matt looked back down at his phone.
Back then, the iPhone was brand new and everybody wanted one, so just having one might accidentally be a conversation starter. These days, even some of the kids have them, so he could pretty well bury his face in the thing and look busy enough to keep the other parents from talking to him. Though sometimes, a concerned parent might try to get his attention.
“Excuse me, I think your son is going up the slide the wrong way,” they might say. Usually, an unconcerned smile would end this attack. But sometimes he’d have to add something like, “I’m sure they’ll figure it out.”
Today, Matt wandered around the playground until he found an empty bench and sat down in the middle of it. This wasn’t the good bench. That one was on the other side of the jungle-gym, down a little hill behind a tree. It was away from the crowd of hovering parents that gathered to compare car seat strategies or day care waiting lists, competing with their offspring’s accomplishments like farmers at church the week after the county fair.
As usual, a group of teenagers had congregated at the good bench, although he did take one last look to make sure they weren’t gathering up to leave. No such luck. Before he could look down at his phone, but noticed a man on the other side of the playground with his shirt off.
It was a muscly, tan, no body hair type of man. Not a teenager or a college student. A grown man, with his shirt off at the park. Not a scrawny frat-bro that got too hot playing disc golf. Not a good ole’ boy showing off his beer belly. This was a grown man who spent so much time toning and perfecting and shaving his body, that he assumed everyone else at the park would want to look at it too. Sometimes women wore workout clothes to the park, but they didn’t wear bikinis. This was truly bizarre, and Matt was so surprised by this shirtless muscle man that he looked around to see if any of the other parents had noticed it yet.
Matt’s son, Charlie, ran up and asked for a dollar to take to the vending machine.
“What makes you think I have cash?” Matt asked.
“I saw you put some in at church.” Charlie said.
“Yes! Please can I have a dollar?”
“Yeah sure,” Matt said. “If you get me something too.”
Charlie took two dollars and scurried off. Another boy ran beside him, touched his back, and yelled “Tag!”
Charlie looked over his shoulder. “I’m not playing,” he said, and they ran in different directions, Charlie towards the pavilion, and the other towards the shirtless man. The shirtless man was sprinting directly towards the boy. He made a move like a football player, chopping his steps in different directions. The boy dove to the left. The man moved right and sprinted away laughing, one finger pointed towards the sky.
“Not even close,” he shouted.
The boy turned around to chase him again. This time he was closer, but again the man dodged him with an easy aggression.
“Oh! so close,” the man yelled.
Matt again searched the playground for other parents to share this moment with. The boy was becoming visibly frustrated.
“Hey come on now Cody, we’re just having fun,” said the man. “Look I’ll be it these kids are playing too.” He reached out and tagged another boy running past. “You’re it!” he shouted. The newly “it” boy tried chasing the shirtless man for just a couple of steps, then turned to run after his own friend. As soon as he tagged his friend, he was immediately tagged back.
“No tag backs!” the boy shouted.
Since fairness was now the playground’s greatest ruling virtue and rule, enforced by parents above all else and at the expense of common sense, no tag backs generally was the rule. The boy who was still “it”stopped running and surveyed the playground. He saw the shirtless man kneeling down in front of Cody, talking sternly into his face. Cody turned and walked away, and the boy who was “it” took off sprinting towards him, like a lion after an injured gazelle.
Incredibly, Cody almost got away. He looked up just in time to see the boy coming, and used all his energy for one desperate lunge to safety. The hand on his back forced all his momentum to the ground, and he started to cry. At first, just a little, then louder and more dramatic. The other boys started laughing. Matt sat still and wide eyed on his bench and locked his phone without thinking.
“Oh come on, don’t be a little titty-baby,” said the shirtless man. “Who’s a little baby? Do we needa get a little diaper for the little baby? Someone dial 911 and call the WAAAAAMBulance!” Then the other boys joined in.
Cody started crying real tears and ran away to the other side of the playground. The other boys stopped yelling and looked embarrassed. The shirtless man called out the boy’s name and started walking sternly after him.
“Maybe we should go say we’re sorry,” said one of the boys to the other. “I think we hurt his feelings.”
Charlie appeared in front of his dad, out of breath and holding peanut butter crackers.
“Hey thanks,” Matt said.
“Where are we going after this?” Charlie asked, still huffing.
“We’re probably gonna stop and pick up dinner and then head home.”
“Can we leave right now?”
Matt looked past Charlie towards the shirtless man. “No,” he said. “It’s not time to leave yet. Go play.”
Charlie walked off to find the other two boys. The shirtless man was walking by with Cody in the other direction.
“Cody quit,” he said. “It’s just a game and he didn’t push you that hard.”
“He pushed me down,” the boy pleaded.
“You ain’t hurt that bad. Not as much as you’re crying. Quit acting like it’s such a big deal.”
“It hurt a lot!” Cody shouted.
“Get in the car. If that’s how you’re gonna act then we’re just goin’ home.”
Matt let out a short laugh, which made it obvious that he was eavesdropping. The shirtless man turned his head and made eye contact. Matt met his stare with a half smile. The shirtless man stared back for a moment longer, then turned back towards Cody.
“Go on!” he said. “Quit your whining.” They kept walking toward the parking lot. Matt wondered if any of the other parents had seen this exchange. Before he could look around. His phone started buzzing. It was a text from his wife.
What time are you coming home?
Are you picking up dinner?
Matt searched the playground for his son, then started typing a response.
You will not believe this dad at the park.
First of all, he has his shirt off
and he is hard core YELLING at this kid.
Like in his face and stuff
What are you talking about?
He’s like a crazy person.
He’s acting all tough and
macho and playing tag like a
professional athlete and then
yelling at this kid for losing.
His wife started to type, then stopped. Then typed again.
What time are you coming home?
I’m serious this guy is crazy
Will you please get dinner and come home
I wanna get the kids to bed so I can go to the gym
Matt looked over to the parking lot. The shirtless man was kneeling down in front of the boy with the car door open. He had one hand on the boy’s shoulder, and the other was pointing right into his face. Matt stood up and pretended to be wondering around the playground area. He turned his back to the parking lot, and held his phone in front of him and opened the camera.
He turned around slowly to face the parking lot. As the shirtless man came into the frame, he tilted his camera up to an unnatural angle and tried to snap a picture. The picture didn’t take. He tapped the screen again. The shirtless man snapped his head and looked directly at him, like a Big Foot caught on camera.
Matt tried to be cool, standing still. A quick turn would admit his guilt. He shifted his weight, then looked into the sky. He looked over his shoulder and then back down to his phone, casually lowering the angle. He tried to find his son. Maybe he could pretend to be filming him. He glanced back toward the parking lot. The shirtless man had turned his attention back to the boy. Matt quickly turned away and walked back toward the bench. He texted his wife.
I couldn’t get a picture but
I swear this guy is crazy.
He’s got his finger in this kids face yelling at him
over in the parking lot
“Chaaaaaaarlie. It’s almost time to go,” he said, loud enough for the playground to hear.
Charlie appeared from the plastic maze of chutes and ladders. Matt turned to walk toward the parking lot, still texting.
God will you please just hurry home?
Yes we’re coming.
What do you want for dinner?
Doesn’t matter just pick something.
No not today.
Okay pick somewhere.
I don’t care.
Just not taco truck.
“Did you take a picture a’me?”
Matt hadn’t noticed he was walking directly toward the shirtless man.
“What? No.” said Matt. Technically this wasn’t untrue.
“It sure looked like you were taking a picture of me.”
“Why on earth would I be taking a picture of you?”
“I don’t really know. That’s why I’s askin’.
“Maybe I thought you wanted to have your picture taken since you have your shirt off.”
“So you did take my picture?”
“No, I didn’t.”
“I think you did. And I want you to delete it.”
“I didn’t, but I wouldn’t.”
“Show me your phone right now,” said the shirtless man. “I wanna see that you ain’t got pictures of me. I ain’t allowed to have my picture taken.”
The shirtless man took a step closer. Matt’s phone buzzed in his hands. He checked the message.
It’s fine just do whatever you want.
“You gonna boss me around?” Matt asked the shirtless man. “Like your boy Cody here? S’that make you feel tough? To beat a bunch of little kids at tag?”
“Don’t tell me how to raise my kid,” said the shirtless man, moving closer another step.
“Daddy are you uhh… are you ready to go?” Charlie asked. Matt looked over at his big round eyes. The other two boys had gathered near. Their mothers were hovering close behind them. A teenager yelled from behind the tree, “Kick his ass!” and Matt’s phone buzzed in his hand. He scanned the messages he had missed.
I really just don’t want fast food.
What else sounds good?
The latest message buzzed one more time.
It’s fine, just do whatever you want.
Matt looked back at the man in front him, shirtless in a public park, his perfectly shaped chest was puffed out like a cartoon baseball player.
“Dad come on let’s go,” Charlie said.
“Hey dad, let’s play tag. I’ll be it,” said Cody.
The mothers of the other two boys grabbed them by their shoulders and ushered them toward the playground. The shirtless man walked slowly in the direction his son had gone. He continued staring at Matt with his fist clinched tight. Matt’s phone buzzed one more time and he broke away from the angry gaze.
Are you coming home or what?
Joshua Wilson grew up in Johnson County Arkansas. He left town as soon as he could, and lived all over the US for over a decade. Now he has settled down back home to raise his children and support his wife’s career. He works a full time job and writes when he can late at night and early in the morning. This is his first published work.