A Short Story
(C) 2006 Icoi Johnson
In the years between preschool and first grade, when everything is new and nothing seems quite fair, comes a moment in every child’s life when it’s ok to be free ⎯ recess. At the appointed time of play, a rush of small feet would hit the schoolyard and make for designated spots. The older girls would group to play rope in one corner, the older boys to play ball in another, and the youngest to climb the cold steel of the monkey bars in the middle. From this lofty position, one would have a wide view of the schoolyard and everything around it. There were the faded orange and red apartment buildings across the street, and directly behind them, the enormous grey stone church that filled the neighborhood with music every Sunday. A small strip of public park divided one side of the boulevard from another. This side also had its own apartment buildings and a school. There was a rumour that this school was better than ours, but it was just that, a rumor.
When someone claimed the spot at the top of the bars, there was little hope of them letting it go. It was one of the most coveted spots on the playground and there was only room for one or two people at the top. This was where you would often find me at recess, but I had my own reasons to be up there than simply being queen of the playground. Everyone had something that they looked forward to the most when going outdoors for the day. Some of the boys looked for their favorite girl to tease, some of the girls looked for their favorite boy to whisper about, and everyone else had some activity that they wanted to be the very best at. I had all those things, but I also had something else.
From my vantage point at the top, I had the best view to see what I was waiting for. Waiting was the hardest part. There were always those nagging ‘what if’ questions to worry about. Like, what if today it didn’t happen? Some days it really didn’t happen and that was always disappointing. I would console myself with the thought: ‘tomorrow it will happen,’ but one could never be sure. I don’t know why I cared so much about this thing, but I did. Something inside me had to see it over and over again; to process it quietly and never let it go.
Like most children, sometimes I would forget about that which was so important to me. An incident would happen in the classroom ⎯ a challenge, a dare, or a promise of a new game — that would spill out onto the schoolyard and consume every inch of you until nothing else mattered. But then it would be there again, all of a sudden, and I would stop to watch and wonder how on earth I had ever forgotten about it in the first place. Once the moment had passed, I would turn back to whatever I was doing and promise myself that tomorrow I wouldn’t forget. I would be ready. And so, as I stood on my perch at the top of the bars, I scanned the street for any sign of what I was waiting for. Suddenly, I was distracted by some chaos from down below and like always, when I found myself straying from the task at hand, the moment had arrived. I could feel it. My head snapped up and my eyes zeroed in on the street corner at the very edge of the playground.
He had come.
He wore the same brown pants and white shirt. He was still very tall and very mysterious. Under each of his arms was a wooden crutch, because where his right leg should have been there was none. The brown pant leg of the missing limp was folded and pinned to keep from dragging the ground. I watched as he hobbled purposely down the street. No one noticed him. No one ever did. I was the only one. And this was all that I had waited for: to watch his crutches and body jump forward in a rhythmic cycle as he appeared at one end of the street and disappeared down the other. And I would wonder about many things, but mostly about the leg. Especially the leg. What had happened to that leg? Had he lost it in an accident? Had a dog bitten it off? And what was his name? Where did he live? Did he have friends? Was he all alone?
When he finally disappeared, there was a release inside of me. I could move again. Somehow, until I saw him, it wasn’t acceptable to go down and play with the others. He would be back the other way soon. Sometimes I saw him, sometimes I didn’t. It didn’t matter so much as the going, because it was the going I looked forward to the most. His arrival and my watch had become as regular as night and day, but not once did I think this routine of ours would someday come to an end. Today that same street is older and colder and I know he doesn’t come by anymore, yet whenever I see that old street again and the schoolyard where I use to play, I remember how I would climb to the top of those hard monkey bars to wait and watch for a man that no else seemed to notice but me. But mostly, I remember the wait.