The day is warm, and the little neighborhood where Charlie lives is just waking up. Mrs. Garrett is brewing coffee. Her cotton nightgown is tied tight around her frail body, though no one is there to see them if one of her body parts were to be exposed. Her Folgers is percolating in an old G.E. coffee maker, blurping an aroma that always reminds her of life when the kids lived at home and her husband George was alive. But that was a long time ago. She is looking out the window and spies two redbirds chasing each other from tree to tree, their high chirps piercing the air. Across the street, Jack Rogers is watching the morning television news show, not because he cares what’s going on in the world, but because he has a crush on the morning anchorwoman, Joy Sandleman. Jack Roger’s wife, Teresa, suspects his infatuation, but plays along with it, egging him on from the bathroom with, “What’s Sandles got to say this morning?” Jack Rogers mutters, “Nothin’,” and then adjusts himself on his plush recliner and watches his show. On the sidewalk between the two houses, a dog-owner named Ken walks Skimpy, the dachshund born without a tail. Skimpy is a silver-dapple mix and darts in and out of bushes, sporadically straining the leash that Ken delights to hold. Jack Rogers calls the dog without a tail “Stubby,” and wonders how in the hell Ken can bend down every morning and pick up “Stubby shit”—even if Ken’s hand is in a plastic bag. Clearly, Jack Rogers has never had a pet.
In the meantime, Charlie is taking a pair of his favorite jeans and cutting the legs off just above the knees. He is thirty-nine years old and he can’t remember the last time he wore cut-offs. He fishes an old t-shirt out of his dresser drawer and slips it on. It’s a little snug on his six-foot frame, and it flairs out just a little around his middle, though no one would ever consider him out of shape. He puts on his cut-offs, and realizes how white his feet and toes are. His legs are much whiter than his otherwise brown skin, and his lanky legs look especially long in his retro outfit. Charlie seems satisfied and goes out to his backyard and picks up a tire he got from a local service station the day before. He rolls the tire into the front yard, leans it up against a tree, goes to the trunk of his car, and pulls out a length of rope. He goes back to the tree, knots one end of the rope, and throws it over the biggest branch. He ties it off and connects the tire to the other end of the rope, creating a swing. The rope is thick and the sisal burns Charlie’s hands when he pulls the rope to tighten the knots. But he is ready now.
Ken is going back into his house now, but Skimpy really wants to check out the new swing next door. His rump is moving furiously back and forth, but Ken pulls the leash gently and Skimpy, looking back over his shoulder, walks into the house. The door slams shut, and from the bedroom, Ken’s girlfriend, Olivia, asks how the walk went. Ken says, “Fine. Skimpy did his business and the guy across the street made a tire swing.” Olivia thinks to herself, “That’s kinda strange,” and rolls over. Skimpy jumps up into the bed and burrows under the sheets beside her. She snuggles and snoozes, while Ken throws away the plastic bag and washes his hands. He will leave for work soon, leaving the “wife and kid” to sleep as long as they want. Next door, Teresa is ready for work now, too, and has just kissed Jack Rogers on the cheek before picking up her briefcase and driving off in her white Rav-4. She sees Charlie as she drives past, and thinks to herself that she’s never even noticed that tree before, much less the tire swing and that older man in his shorts. Mrs. Garrett is now pouring her coffee into a mug with a painting of the Grand Canyon on it that her oldest son’s family gave her from their last family vacation. Mrs. Garrett stirs in a little Splenda and moves to the table, but not before first noticing that that young man across the way is rocking back and forth in his surprisingly new tire swing. She remembers when she was seven and went to the park with her papa and how he pushed her higher and higher into the air until she thought she was going to go all the way around. She catches her breath and sits down and sips from her mug.
Now that Jack Rogers has the house and bathroom to himself, he finishes his morning routine, shaving and brushing his teeth. He’s a huge guy (so big that he always goes by two names) with broad shoulders and big, thick arms and hands. He’s only forty-two, but people swear he’s really in his late fifties. Some people just look older than they are, he says to them when they act amazed. While he’s brushing, he notices out of the corner of his eye that something is moving outside his bathroom window. He looks out and sees his neighbor swinging in the tire, every now and then kicking the tree to keep him moving. Jack Rogers mutters under his breath, “What the fuck is that guy doing?”
Charlie swings all day long in the shade of his front yard tree. Teresa drives home. Ken and Olivia go about their business and walk Skimpy in the evening. Not long after, they eat some pasta with chicken and a salad. Skimpy hopes that a little bit of something falls to the floor. It does. Jack Rogers and Teresa eat their dinner, an order of take-out barbeque that Teresa picked up on the way home. Mrs. Garrett opens a can of soup for her dinner and watches “Wheel of Fortune” as she eats. Charlie goes inside finally, takes a shower, and has a bowl of SpaghettiOs with meatballs, followed by a bowl of Fruit Loops for dessert. He is surprisingly tired, he thinks to himself, and falls asleep on the couch as the television flickers its prime-time and then late-night shows, unwatched.
For nearly three months, Charlie occupies his days in his cut-offs and t-shirt, one day playing catch with an old ball and glove, one day hiking around, exploring. He sits in his yard, looking at doodle bugs and other tiny creatures that usually go unnoticed. He goes under the house and maps in his mind where the rooms of his house are, where the pipes lead, where the drains drain to. He finds an old Indian head penny in a crack between the floorboards. He will put this in his treasure box later.
Other days, he puts on some roller skates, kicks a soccer ball for hours, plays hacky sack, or flies a diamond-shaped kite made with newspaper and sticks. He uses old dryer sheets stapled to a thin strip of old sheet for the tail. The kite gets off the ground for a while but then gets stuck in his tree after a gust catches him off guard. Sometimes Charlie even knocks on people’s doors to ask if they can come out to play.
Day after day, even in the rain, he goes outside to play.
Near the end of the summer, at Charlie’s invitation, the neighborhood has a block party. Even Jack Rogers finds that he is kind of excited to mingle with his neighbors, who by now have found a common focal point of curiosity in Charlie. And so it goes, that on a hot Saturday in late August, everyone comes out to play.
Finally, as summer winds down, and the promise of autumn whispers from beyond the branches, Charlie ties tire swings to his neighbors’ trees.
And then he goes inside, and readies himself for the days ahead.
Now, Charlie is at his desk, writing a story about Mrs. Garrett, Jack Rogers and Teresa, Ken and Olivia and Skimpy, and how he always wondered what it would be like, as a college professor, to live a life as fun and free of care as everyone thought he lived.