‘I know where a weird playground is, Scooter.’
My little sister Patsy gave me that look of wisdom that always scared me because she was younger than me and shouldn’t have any wisdom at all, much less the kind of look in her big olive green eyes that screamed I’m an old wise woman! But still, I couldn’t resist. If I, Captain Hong Wong Sliver, couldn’t resist enslaving five ready and willing neighborhood girls in my daddy’s old chicken coup, then I certainly wasn’t going to be able to resist the temptation of a weird playground. My imagination whirled at the thought. A swing-set that wasn’t really a swing-set but a launchpad into Outer Space–if you could get yourself high enough in the air. Jumping boards that you could not only jump up and down on but you could also paint by using your thoughts, and even make them talk and say hilarious things. Then, to the left of those were a set of steel monkey-bars that doubled as a demon-jail. The monsters were already trapped there and seeing that they should easily be able to climb out but somehow not being able to unless I strolled over and sang them a song or just told them they were free–neither of which I was going to do. I had always hated demons, but ever since the Almond Street Incident, as I liked to call it, I had gone from hatred to perfect hatred. For me, when that happened, there was no turning back. I’d set my face like a piece of flint, strike, and let the fires begin. It’s true enough that my inner spirit did not match my outer chubbiness. But the fact that it would one day was enough to mollify me as a child. As a very small boy I had seen myself in a dream as a teenager and I believed that dream would come to pass one day. It finally did, but that’s another story altogether. Anyway, like I said, I couldn’t resist an uncanny playground, no matter how hard I tried.
‘This is dumb. I know where all the playgrounds are, Patsy. There aren’t any except down the Little Dirt Road and I don’t like going down there. Or at Ferry Pass Middle School, but that’s too far to walk–and anyway, there’s a giant rapist who lives in the woods around the school.’
‘The playground’s not at a school. I said it was weird. That makes it not at a school.’
I went through several decades of life where that kind of logic became something I loved to deride along with the person who said it. During those years it was below me to think like a child. I was educated. I was wise. Truth is, I was more of a wise-ass than anybody worthy of social praise.
I felt agitated–probably hungry or something. ‘Okay then, where is this playground if it ain’t at one of the schools?’
‘It’s in Misty’s backyard.’
‘Oh. Wait. What? We don’t even know a Misty. There’s no Misty living anywhere around here!’
‘I know that. She lives in my mind.’
Not again. Not another wild goose chase around my little sister’s wild, wild world. When she was about four, which made me around six–we’re twenty-two months apart–we were playing together on the carport at our house in New Orleans. I was eating a can of potted meat (don’t ask) and she had a can of Vienna sausages, which my parents, being Southerners, called ‘vyanners.’ Anyway, we were munching along with our mid-afternoon snack, me with my handful of crackers to dip into the little can of potted meat and Patsy with her baby fork spearing sausage after sausage and eating each one in such a slow and delighted way that you’d think they were her all-time favorite food and that this was the last can of them in the whole world. Halfway into my fifth bite of potted-meat-on-cracker, Patsy looked at me with a strange eye and peculiar smile that jumped around her face like a three-year-old high on fruit punch and a basket full of Easter candy. Then she pointed at my food.
‘That’s somebody’s meat.’ Her emphasis on the ‘t’ in meat made her sentence almost nauseating.
I went cold all over. What was this thing they were calling my baby sister?
Then Patsy held up one of the sausages she had gigged. ‘And this is somebody’s finger.’ As if that idea wasn’t horrifying enough, the way she pronounced finger opened up a pit to Hell right where I stood and dropped me in feet first. Feeeen-gerrr. It was winter time, but a cold sweat washed over me with such malevolence that I had to rush back inside and find my mama. Notice I say my mama, and the reason for that is because I wasn’t sure at all that the little girl who still stood out on the carport was altogether human, and she certainly was not my sister!
So now that you know what kind of bizarre sibling I was dealing with, fast forward with me a few years to the ‘Day of the Playground of Patsy’s Mind.’
‘Are you coming, Scooter? It might not be there for much longer if we don’t get there soon and stop it from disappearing.’
Was I still asleep and merely having a nightmare? Maybe, I thought, so I tried to turn over and fluff my pillow. I bumped my head on Patsy’s pint-size red broom she always carried around with her. You know, in case she needed to clear away a mess of cobwebs or maybe tidy up the floor a bit. I have no clue. I do know that one day, not long after the ‘Meat and Finger Incident,’ Patsy saved my life by risking her own and pulling me and my tricycle out of the heavily trafficked exurban road where we lived for most of our childhood. When that happened, for the first time in my life I could see her as my precious little sister, and I’ve never since changed my opinion on the matter. Not even when–well, I’ll save that story for another time.
So anyway, here we are a few years older and now she’s telling me about this weird playground that’s in Misty’s backyard which also happens to be in her mind. Her not being the nonexistent Misty, but my sister Patsy who is telling me to hurry up before the damned thing disappears, of course suggesting that if we didn’t get there in time, we wouldn’t get to play. And for me, at least, not playing on a Saturday afternoon after having spent all week in the elementary school of an ultra-conservative cult was equivalent to an eternal state of dying but never actually reaching the finality of death. Okay, so you call that Hell, and I agree. And that’s what not playing on a Saturday–after cartoons from 6 AM to Noon–was like for me. So, I was having nothing to do with not having fun that afternoon, even if my sister was, yet again, scaring me beyond belief with her seemingly innocent mind games.
‘How do we get to this Misty girl’s backyard then?’ I felt stupid for asking–for playing along. I knew there was no Misty. I knew there was no backyard. I knew there was no playground. But again, it was Saturday afternoon, none of the neighborhood kids were to be seen, and I had already shot off all my firecrackers and the three M-80s the kid across the street had traded me for a comic book he liked because in the back he could order a whoopee cushion and x-ray glasses. He did. The whoopee cushion worked wonders. The x-ray glasses were a scam. He wanted two of his M-80s back. I told him that I had already blown them up. I even showed him the metal garbage can–the kind everybody had back then–with the big dent in it made from an explosion on the inside. He still didn’t believe me and started throwing rocks at me until I turned the garden hose on him, which seemed to cool him off. Especially since it was mid-January.
My little sister’s friendly body language was always the sweetest thing when she wanted to play. ‘You just close your eyes, Scooter, and hold my hand and I’ll take you. It’s easy. C’mon!’
I did as I was told. I grabbed Patsy’s hand, closed my eyes, and knew without doubt that she was going to let me trip over something–a dead toad-frog or a drainage grate or an abandoned bicycle–before we got to where we were going, wherever that was.
‘You hafta trust me, Scooter, or it won’t work!’
How did she know I wasn’t trusting her as far as I could throw her–which wouldn’t have been very far. Patsy was petite, but every last part of her was athletic to the bone. I guess that’s what eating only vyanners, three bites of spaghetti a month, a few apple slices a week, a ham sandwich every now and again (sometimes with a slice of American cheese), and a continuous supply of chocolate cake mixed up in vanilla ice-cream got her. How? I don’t know. My diet was similar, and I weighed 93 pounds when I turned seven years. Some kids get all the breaks.
‘Just don’t forget , Scooter, that I love you, Scooter.’
Oh God! What did she just say? It sounded so–you know–definite. Like we had come to the end of something. The end of our childhood together? The end of our lives? I froze. She pulled. I stayed frozen. She yanked. My right foot moved a half inch. She wrenched. My eyes popped open.
‘C’mon Scooter! It’ll close maybe for forever and then we won’t get to play! I wanna swing! C’mon! And shut your eyes again!’
This was all too ludicrous, but I kept walking, my eyes shut, my grip on her fingers fairly tight (she complained once as we stumbled along), and my own mind buzzing like a hive of bees.
‘Open your eyes! We’re here!’
I was too afraid to open my eyes. So I didn’t.
‘Open your eyes, Scooter! We’re here! And there’s Misty!’
My eyes sprang wide. Lo and behold, there was a little girl standing several yards away. But I could see right through her!
‘She’s a ghost, Patsy! Run!’
‘Run? Run for what? She’s nice. Misty, c’mere! This is my brother, Scooter.’
This girl, Misty, who was about my sister’s age, smiled and came up to us. I could see everything that was behind her–the green grass she floated over, a few happy dandelions in bloom, a caramel-brown puppy romping around trying to catch a yellow butterfly and, failing that, trying to catch his own wiggly tail. I was beyond spooked. I felt like I wanted to cry, but this was the early 70s, and an exurban boy didn’t cry. Ever. Not even if he broke his arm slap dab in two. Not even if he tore all the skin off his kneecaps and had to wait six weeks for it to grow back. Not even if he fell off the back of a U.S. mail truck, did three somersaults head over heels, and sliced his chest open so you could see his white shiny ribs. So he certainly wasn’t going to shed a tear over seeing a girl ghost, as terrifying a fact as it happened to be.
‘Hi. Nice backyard.’ My greeting sounded like it came out of an old lady who had smoked cigarettes since she was my age. Smooth and debonair.
‘Hi,’ Misty the Ghost replied. ‘Do you have a cold?’
Patsy stepped forward to give her friend a hug, which seemed to sort of work, but not really. ‘Misty! Where’s your swing-set we swung on last time?’
‘It’s in the top of the tree now.’ Misty looked up into the high branches of a majestic old oak that had humongous plastic oranges hung in all of its branches, making it appear to be the biggest citrus tree in the world. Sure enough, there was a swing-set perched as pretty as you please in the topmost limbs of the three-hundred-year-old giant.
‘So y’all came over to play with me?’
‘Yeah!’ cried Patsy. ‘Let’s climb!’
Misty heard me. ‘What’s wrong, Scooter? Tummy ache?’
‘I, uh, I can’t climb things. Trees and things.’
‘Oh, that’s okay. Take my hand. While Patsy climbs, we’ll fly!’
Fly? Wait a minute, I thought. Is Misty really Tinkerbell or somebody like that? As I mused, I realized, probably far beyond my years, that I had never been a rabid fan of celebrities like most people were. I had always just been introduced to famous people–or cartoons–and either liked them or didn’t like them. Whatever the case, I perceived them, registered them, either added them to my world or didn’t, and then proceeded forth deeper into this dream we call ‘Life on Earth,’, always knowing it would end one day–maybe even sooner than I imagined. With all that, the idea of soaring to the very top of a fake citrus oak tree with a ghost girl to swing on her industrial size swing-set didn’t seem like a bad idea after all–even if she and her backyard were only a pigment of my little sister’s imagination.
So, I took Misty’s hand. It was cold. She was blue. I was frightened out of my mind. But we flew.
‘Pick your swing, Scooter! Patsy’ll be up in a minute. There are’s some baby blue jays in their nest about halfway up, so I bet she’ll stop to look at them, but she’ll get here by-and-by.
I said not a word. I had no words to say. I felt elated. I picked a swing, got settled in, and began swinging. Misty took the one next to me. I went so high that I started going crooked. I nearly hit Misty. She laughed a lot like my mama when she felt great, which wasn’t often. When I shot up, Misty came down, when I swung down, she shot up. We almost crashed quite a few times. We squealed like happy well-fed babies. Then Patsy was on the other side of me. This was one of those huge solid steel swing-sets with strong iron chains and seats made out of what looked like wide pieces of rubber tires, but I’m sure they were made to be swings. Nothing was going to break. The only way to die on one of these things was to fall out of it somehow, whether it was firmly planted in the ground like normal or abnormally teetering in the top of a tree. It wouldn’t have mattered. Either way, a fall from one of these masterfully crafted things would spell certain, and most likely instant, death. Which in a real way would be good, because, if you think about it, a child with a broken neck and irreversible internal bleeding is far better than one who has a skull fracture and lies in a coma for six months before passing away.
‘What other kinds of things do you have to play on?’ I screamed from the highest point I could reach. I felt like a spaceman in orbit. Misty was screaming so loud she couldn’t answer me. I waited. Then she answered my question.
Nothing? What did she mean by nothing? What kind of a playground was this?
‘Patsy! Imagine something else to play with!’ See, I was on to her. I knew she could control the situation if she wanted to. After all, hadn’t she thought it all up? ‘Patsy! Make something!’
‘Shhhh! You’ll upset Misty!’
‘Your brother won’t upset me, Patsy. I like him. He’s nice.’
‘You don’t know him good enough then! Sometimes he’s so mean he won’t even play with me!’
‘That’s pretty mean. Scooter, are you really that mean sometimes?’
Rrrrrrrrrrrrrr! The sound of tires screeching to a halt! Never, and I mean never, ask a boy if he’s mean. First, he’ll always deny it out-of-hand. The question is just too pointed. Second, he’ll never believe he’s mean even if he is mean. So, it’s better to never ask. I felt so frustrated by the question that while I was on a flight up I grabbed Misty’s chain and yanked so hard it made her jam into Patsy, and both girls fell out and down into the lower branches of the oak, jumbo oranges bobbing this way and that, and one or two falling off their branches and to the grass below. I guess I was mean. I felt bad about what I had just done, so I slowed down and hopped out. Then I realized where I was, and panicked, because not only couldn’t I climb things going up, I didn’t usually climb things going down either. Maybe, I thought, I can monkey myself down, but it might hurt–especially if I fall. Then again, I’m in my little sister’s mind, so maybe it will be floaty if I fall and it’ll feel like I’m landing on a cloud or maybe a feather bed or something.
Somehow I got down out of that tree, but not without quite a few scrapes and bruises to go along with my multiple skinned knees and broken left arm. Patsy and Misty were waiting for me at the bottom. Misty seemed as sweet as she had been, but Patsy was near tears.
‘I wanna go home, Scooter!’
‘Me too, I guess. Bye, Misty.’
‘Bye-bye Scooter. Bye-bye Patsy. See y’all again I hope. It was fun!’
I was sorry about how I had acted on our adventure, but I had the sense that my selfish attitude about life wouldn’t change until things got really hard for me, and my idea about that was that I would be already in my twenties before anything hard happened to me. So everybody was stuck with me for the time being, whether they liked it or not. Most didn’t. When I was fourteen and had just started high school, I started to write my thoughts down, mostly in poetry form. People said I had talent. Their words encouraged me. I kept writing. Oh, and Patsy and I also kept exploring her uncanny mind. Misty wasn’t the only friend she had in there. Not by a long shot.