We used to go there nearly everyday, traipsing across the cable car tracks and ringing imaginary bells on the way. I held Emmeline in my arms and trundled downhill, waving to the corner store clerks and the coffee shop baristas. We’d get to within a block or two and Emme would start to squirm and point.
“The park, the park,” she’d say, a cuter, smaller version of Herve Villechaize.
The playground was relatively new and littered with colorful metal structures — a yellow pirate ship, a green twisty slide, a red maze of ramps. Emme learned to swing here, as if being forced into a hot black plastic bucket, her inert body slumped forward, was difficult to learn — but she drooled a lot and seemed to like it. She learned to slide here, and when she got bigger, she wanted to climb the pirate ship all damn day, raising an imaginary flag and mumbling like poor Ben Gunn about being “maroooonneeddd!” Robert Louis Stevenson’s house was around the corner, and I told her all about Treasure Island and the Hispaniola and what happens to aging pirates when they’re left behind. I whispered these tales into her ear nearly every day, thinking she was so young what would she ever remember about a guy with one leg and a talking parrot. Maybe, I thought, maybe when she’s older she’ll love these tales as much as I did.
We moved away from the neighborhood when she was about 2, just about the same time she was beginning to master the ramps and the slide ladders and the ship. I used to stand under her whenever she climbed into the ship’s crow’s nest; she had a powerful grip and never slipped off, but it was a long fall and I could imagine the worst. In the end, however, it turned out I was the one who got hurt on the contraption, when I pulled myself up quickly and slammed my head on a yellow bar; the doctor said he had seen a lot of playground injuries in his time, although they usually involved 4-year-olds but rest easy, the concussion was slight.
The other day, after swim class, Dana dropped us off in the old neighborhood and we went back to the playground for the first time in six months. In our new neighborhood, we had been frequenting a weed-tangled pocket park that sported rust-colored 1970s playground equipment and wooden block steps that were thrown akimbo by earthquakes and age. Looking around our former playground, it was a wonder anyone got hurt at all. I didn’t remember it being so small — I felt like a college student visiting his childhood home, thinking the one-story ranch used to feel like a mansion. The slides could be measured with a single yard stick. And the swings, with their two-foot arc, were practically made for fetuses. It was like a playground built by the International Union of Oompah-Loompahs.
But Emme saw the pirate ship right away and scrambled to the top in two seconds flat, while I was still hiding the backpack behind a pole. My heart caught for a moment when I couldn’t find her, but I soon discovered her in the crow’s nest, raising another flag and forcing shipmates to walk the plank if they refused to share or slighted her in any fashion — it was best to get on the good side of Pirate Emme. I watched her for a moment, all flailing limbs and frantic energy against a squall on the raging horizon, and I felt silly for all those months dawdling underneath the ship as she climbed, my arms occasionally jumping out as if to catch her. The ship seemed so small now, or maybe she just seemed so big. I backed away from the crow’s nest and held a hand over my eyes, squinting against a hard sun rising from the imaginary sea. Through the streaks of yellow and fading ochre, I could see her load a cannon and fire at the tennis courts. She raised yet another flag and seemed to bark orders at something invisible on her shoulder. And was she walking with a limp now?
“Avast!” she shouted to no one in particular, while I faded into the background and sighed onto a tiny concrete bench, feeling so suddenly marooned.