The King of the Playground by Annis Cassells
James felt like a circus acrobat, propelling his ten-year-old body skyward as he took his swing back and forth with the speed of a raptor. He was the “king” of Avery Street Rec Center, which took up an entire city block in this working class neighborhood.
Spellbound, older kids would gather around, holding their breath while James executed daredevil feats. Spontaneous applause and cheers would pierce the sultry air as he risked shattered bones and wounded pride. James made it look so easy other kids occasionally attempted to repeat his tricks. None possessed his skill, style, or fearless attitude. A few cocky hopefuls dared to challenge him. As if they got a chance, he thought. King of the playground, he relished his crown and the respect and accolades from his playground peers.
At home, things were different. James felt invisible, a scrawny boy sandwiched between two sisters his parents considered perfect. There was teenaged Maddie, smart, but self-centered, strewed library books all over the house, even in the bathroom and five-year-old Marsha, a pesky little thing who had usurped his spot as the youngest in the family.
One July afternoon, James was working to sharpen his flying trapeze stunt. Determined to succeed, he kept getting up from the ground and returning to his swing after each failed attempt. He glanced over at the sandbox where he saw Marsha in her bright yellow sun suit. She was sitting where he’d told her to stay after their Mom had dropped her off and instructed him to keep an eye on his sister.
Feeling like he was close to perfecting the stunt, he thought Wait ‘til everybody sees this, as he hopped back onto the middle swing, his favorite. He climbed higher, getting his legs and torso into the pumping, and two younger boys rushed to the swings on each side of him. James soared above the bystanders’ heads, almost even with the creaking crossbar, and yelled at the two swinging wannabes. “Watch this!” He stretched his arms to reach higher up on the chain. James was about to lift his bottom from the seat and push his legs out behind him when a blaze of yellow beyond the chain-link fence caught his attention.
He hesitated. Is that Marsha? Who’s in that car? For all his disdain for Marsha, his heart clenched. She might be in danger! When the swing flew forward, James bailed to the ground. He landed in the sand, struggling to keep his balance as he jetted forward. What he saw happening at the curb caused his heart to almost burst from his chest. Oh God! With winged feet, he ran toward the gate that led onto Avery Street.
Marsha leaned into the window of an unfamiliar dark blue four-door sedan that was still running. James couldn’t see who was inside. She knows she’s not supposed to talk to strangers! What’s she doing? Propelled by fear — and something else he couldn’t name — he rushed toward her. “Marsha!” he shouted. “Marsha!”
She stepped backward and turned toward him, her hands on her hips, her chin jutting forward. “What?” Irritation filled her voice and contorted her face.
When Marsha moved, James pulled up short, recognizing the person in the passenger seat. It was Aunt Rose. Just Aunt Rose. Her narrow, nut-brown face was framed in tortoise shell glasses, and she’d wrapped her hair in a sky blue colored scarf. Aunt Rose lifted her hand and waved, calling, “Hey, Jamey. How’s my boy today? Marsha says Mom’s gone to the store. We’re just out for a drive, trying out this new Caddie. Isn’t it fine?”
James finally let the air escape from his lungs. Flustered and embarrassed, he raised his hand and forced a tentative smile in Aunt Rose’s direction.
“What?” Marsha demanded, stomping her foot, her hands never leaving her slender, side-cocked hips.
“Nothin’,” James said, a thick, low growl straining past the lump blocking his throat. Then, in his big brother voice, “You just better get back on this playground. You hear?”
He gave a slight nod to Aunt Rose, and like an on-duty soldier, made an abrupt about face. Unable to hold back the threatening tears, James trudged away, through the gate and past Avery Street Rec Center’s main building. He shoved his fists into his eyes then rubbed his wet knuckles down the coarse fabric of his Levi’s and kept walking.
Around the back of the building, James braced his hands on his knees and took a few deep breaths. It was only Aunt Rose. It could’a been somebody bad. Confusion flooded in. Before, he welcomed the idea of somebody whisking Marsha out of his life. But now he felt, well, different.
He stood erect and shook himself then sprinted off to reclaim his center swing.
“Okay, see if y’all can do this trick!” James hollered at the two now-reluctant flyers who sat dragging the toes of their sneakers through the sand beneath their swings. They looked up, surprised at the change in his voice and tone.
“Look. You start like this,” Gesturing with his head, he said, “Come on. I’ll show you.” His feet apart, planted on the swing seat, James bent his knees, and with the power of his thrusts, the swing began its ascent.