October 31, 2011 by The Citron Review
by Dennis Fulgoni
Harold wiggles into position at the top of the slide. He scoots his skinny butt forward, grabs the rails. He’s only three, but he holds on with such force his knuckles go white. That’s how he gets momentum. The push-off, so he can rocket into our backs.
“Mommy’s turn,” he says.
My wife shakes her head, looks around the yard. We have a plastic basketball hoop set up by the shed, a pitching screen by the hollyhock. But Harold is hell-bent on this new game he’s discovered. He’s itching for a little physical hurt tonight, and we play along.
“Don’t chicken out now,” I tell my wife, rubbing my back in pancake-circles to sooth the last blow.
Dark, wildebeest-shaped clouds crowd the horizon. The sun has just gone down, and in its place a Harvest moon, pale as old hay, hangs above the hills to the west. My wife’s just come home from work. She’s still wearing the black pleated skirt; silk stockings shroud her calves. Her hair is out of the corporate bun and rakes past her shoulders in a way that breaks my heart. Since her confession, I don’t want to find her attractive. But that’s nearly impossible tonight.
She bends down, slips into her seat at the base of the slide. Her hips brush metal. She braces for impact.
Harold pushes off and the slide shakes. He lays flat, his feet pointed straight for his target, and bullets into my wife’s back. She leans forward, drops her head between her knees. “Christ,” she moans.
For a moment, I feel pity.
“Daddy’s turn,” Harold says. He giggles and runs back around to the ladder.
I sit down again on the slide. My legs—long and bony—are bent at the knee. The knobby curves of my knee caps poke at my pant legs. Never hungry now, I spend too much time on our front porch smoking, and then wake in the middle of the night, breathless. You’d think all of this wouldn’t take its toll on me as severely as it has. After all, it wasn’t that long ago I had my own sins to confess.
“Go easy on Daddy, Harry,” I say.
Harold looks like a little gray gnome up there in the twilight. He holds onto the sides of the slide, rocks back and forth with menacing fluidity. “No go easy,” he says.
My wife laughs, a little sardonically I think.
Harold shouts, “Here I come!” The base of the slide rumbles, and when his feet hit, I moan and try to hold in most of the pain. But he’s gotten me good. Hacksaw to the spine.
“Time to go in,” I snap. Still sitting, I manage to pull Harry out from behind me. I’m not sure if it’s anger, pain, or both, but I drop him onto the Saint Augustine a little too hard. He loses his balance and tumbles.
“You okay, Harry?” I ask.
He ignores me, gets up un-phased the way kids do, and starts running circles around the avocado tree we planted when we first got married and moved into the house four years ago. My turn is over but I still don’t want to get up. It isn’t just the pain in my back. It’s an overall feeling of weight.
“What say we go in and eat?” I say.
“Let him play,” my wife says.
“How was your day?” I ask.
“Okay,” she says, but she doesn’t make eye contact.
Harold comes rushing back around to the slide. “Mommy’s turn,” he says again.
“Want to go in now?” I ask my wife. I stand and pull my arm around and rub at my tailbone.
“I want him to be outside. We’ve kept him cooped up too long.” She’s referring to the seemingly endless conversations we have lately, some beginning placidly, some not, but very few ending with resolution; Harold, through all of it, left to his own devices: cartoons, books, or playing in his room by himself.
“I suppose that’s my fault?”
“Partly,” she says. “And partly mine.”
“We’ve lost track of things.”
“Priorities,” she says.
“Love,” I say.
“I never lost track of that,” my wife says, taking her seat. “It just hasn’t had the right target lately.”
Harold climbs the ladder. At the top of the slide he stands up and spreads his arms out so far he begins to teeter.
“Be careful,” I say.
“You want Mommy and Daddy’s turn?” he asks, moving his outstretched arms up and down, tipping airplane wings.
“Just mommy,” I say. “Daddy needs a break.”
“Mommy and Daddy together,” Harold says.
He sits back down, pounds the sides of the slide with his fists.
It’s not easy, but I manage to straddle the slide and push in behind her. We haven’t been too big on proximity these days, and I wait for her to tense up, or blow air from her cheeks. But she seems to take Harold’s request in stride. Mostly, I guess, because I’ll take the brunt of the blow. I reach up and place my hand lightly on her shoulder. A smell lifts off of her, something new and yet familiar, a breezy, salty scent that lingers a moment, then turns musty, earthy. It’s pleasant, whatever it is, and I drop my hands down around her waist; before I know it, there’s a lifting in my pants. I try to shift, but it’s no use. Then I give into it, let it rise, almost hope she feels it. I wrap my arms tighter around her. Even as the slide begins to rumble and I get ready for what’s coming, I know that I will hold on a good deal longer, the three of us down at the bottom of the slide, entangled in the wreckage.
There is so much in these 965 words. Regret, heartache, pain, responsibility, hope, longing, anger, remorse, little bits of forgiveness, a child’s happiness superimposed on adult sorrow. Adultery may be a theme that is pretty over played, but Fulgoni approaches it from a different angle by giving us Harold and the image of him smashing into his parents. This image was key for me, as it gave the piece physicality and motion and allowed me to be in the space with the character instead of trapped inside someone’s head. The fact that the parents take the loving abuse of their child so willingly, as a self-inflicted penance for their joint crimes, is a testament to their shared guilt and hope for redemption. I love that Fulgoni leaves so much ultimately unknown and that he forces the reader to dwell in just that moment with the family – so that everyone is held captive together waiting for Harold, the collision, and the possibility of a future that includes reconciliation. But what makes this piece of flash-fiction resonant, what separates from many other similarly themed works, is the punch to the gut last line. The kind of line that pops up and recites itself over and over again in my head, then nestles back down, but won’t leave.