The Jungle Gym

In this surreal fiction, a father strives to reconnect with his wife after a devastating loss.

A jungle gym in a playground

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The neighbors said the jungle gym was great for our block. I told them it was just the beginning and showed them the picture of my wife’s childhood yard. I told them I would duplicate the Tennessee homestead down to the smallest detail. Honeysuckles would cover the Los Angeles city fire hydrant, and the chicken coop would be built on the dead section of yard. I told them the cow would rotate grazing between the front and backyard.

“A cow?” they asked.

A Brown Swiss, I told them, the same breed my wife had when she was a child. I told them and told them and told them and those neighbors, those naive souls, nodded their stupid heads with their sympathetic smiles as if they understood. They said their children would love the jungle gym.

And their children would have loved the jungle gym if my wife and Todd had ever let them play on it. Instead, their children fled in terror as my wife fired honeysuckle berries at them whenever they approached. And really, to be honest, two full-sized adults climbing all over the jungle gym and canoodling in the middle must have ruined the jungle gym’s appeal.

And why Todd was still around when the jungle gym went up is a mystery. Todd’s time was past. When the jungle gym went up, my wife was focused on princess dolls and sequins, not high school boyfriends. She was growing younger, in spirit if not in body, and the jungle gym was needed, emotionally if not practically.

True, erecting the jungle gym was good for me too. It felt good to provide. To father up the Everest of jungle gyms. To watch my little girl who was, and wasn’t, a little girl dance around the yard in anticipation. It was the part I had most been looking forward to. It made me a lot happier than Todd’s arrival ever did. But Todd had helped during my wife’s recent adolescent period.

Todd had arrived right after my wife sent out college applications. To “assist,” he said. And given the age she had been pretending to be, my wife preferred an immature taxidermist to an introspective tax attorney. Todd had pretended not to be thrilled at my wife’s regression. He told me he was willing to sacrifice.

“I’ll do whatever I can,” he said, winking at me, mistaking my wife’s and my coping fantasy for another couple’s everyday fetish.

I welcomed my wife’s high school boyfriend into our house but instituted a no bed-sharing policy. I would be the cool parent with some steadfast boundaries. I had calculated my wife’s rate of deterioration and figured Todd had a week at most. But I did not know teenage girls and backwater rebels. That first night, I woke to the creaks of my wife tiptoeing from the former nursery where she slept to the guest bedroom. My nights filled with giggles, sheet roving and young Tennessee petting. I didn’t want to embarrass my little girl. I told myself this too shall pass.

“A neurologist, a psychiatrist, maybe a neuropsychiatrist,” Todd said after my wife regressed into tween years, and he was left racked with guilt. “She needs help.”

Not long after the jungle gym went up, my wife called the police to report two creepy old men loitering around her house. This was when boys had reverted to cooties and she was yammering for a pony. Which, of course, would have been too small because she was a grown woman, but which as a notion, I admit I did enjoy entertaining. I liked to imagine giving my little girl a pony. Over and over, I imagined it. Because imagining her happiness made me happy.

Unlike Todd, my name was on the deed. The cops looked at my wife with her pigtails, and I told them and told them and told them and just like everyone else they nodded their oversized noggins, as if they understood.

Todd, however, had to skedaddle back to Tennessee where I imagine he grafted squirrel heads onto raccoon carcasses. He tried to hug my wife goodbye, but she head-butted him. She was much too young for polite farewells anymore. I told her she was being a bad girl.

Overtaken by some sudden urge, I thanked Todd because maybe he had been a little help or maybe because as a taxidermist he understood loss. He nodded and wished me luck.

A week later, my wife gave up the jungle gym. And the honeysuckle died — the transplanted bushes never took to our barren lot. The cow and chickens were gone before that. The cow to animal control and the chickens to … well, they were given proper rites and a lot more respect than they would have gotten in East Tennessee.

Shortly after giving up on forks and knives, my wife gave up speaking. This phase was good for both of us. I peek-a-booed, and she laughed and laughed. I rattled my keys and she batted them. She depended on me for food, story time, dressing herself, and surviving this deadly world. And for the first time in a long time we were both happy. But then I’d accidentally ogle her shaking breasts or the crib would break or a stranger would ask why my wife was sucking on a pacifier.

Our illusion cannot hold.

When she starts to pee her pants, I have to ask, how much further?

“How much further can you really go?” I ask as she eats her green Play-Doh on the living room floor.

I keep asking till finally she cracks.

“To inception,” she says, “to understand what went wrong.”

“Can’t you just stop at some point after potty training?” I ask.

“Sarah wasn’t potty trained,” she says.

And it’s true. And maybe she has learned in heaven, but it seems unlikely. I sit down on the floor and take a swatch of our daughter’s pink blanket from my pocket. I smell it before offering my wife a sniff.

“It still smells like her,” I say.

My wife stares at me with her big blue eyes and gurgles a laugh. Green Play-Doh soars by my head and flap-jacks the wall.

She tips onto all fours.

Her heavy breasts sway from side to side as she crawls. She crashes into the sofa, pushing it back like a drunken bear. She continues to lumber towards me. I scoot back against the chair at her approach. My wife climbs me till her feet rest on my shoulders. Climbing skills no doubt perfected from the jungle gym. I grasp the chair’s legs to support both our weights. I lean back against the chair to help her balance as she perches on my shoulders, gargoyling over our miserable lives.

“I’ll do it,” I say, “Just tell me what to do. “

Her finger grazes my cheek.

“Open up,” she says.

I shake my head.

“No,” I say, closing my eyes and opening my mouth.

“Wider,” she says.

She adjusts. I open my mouth wider and her foot drops in.

Her toes kneed my tongue, wiggling towards my throat. Her foot eases down my esophagus. I open my eyes to her white shins.

I salivate to lubricate her descent. Anything to help. Anything to fix what needs to be fixed, emotionally and practically. Anything to make my little girl happy.

Her other foot fills my mouth. Her curled toes scratch my Adam’s apple.

I open wider and wider.

I choke at her hips, but eventually they clear. Her knees and feet collect in the chest cavity left empty by our daughter, then slip lower. She kicks my stomach, but I can take it.

Finally, her arms slide in like eels. Then her breasts and shoulders.

For a second, her blue eyes stare into mine. Her wispy hair passes shortly after that. And then she is gone. And all I can think is that she had our daughter’s eyes.

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