By: E.E. Blackwood
“Sitting here, thinking about it – talking about it – with you … I dunno, it – it makes me wanna go back. Try it again. Maybe this time, I dunno, maybe this time I could do it. Things were different back then, you know? I dunno. Maybe now it’s something I could do. I mean, it’s right there. Looming. Every time I drive by, there it is, looming at me in the near distance. Like it’s laughing at me, or – I dunno – daring me, or something.”
And that was it: biggest fear, maybe biggest regret of my life, out in the open waters of verbal existence. No going back. Just out there, drifting off with the echo of my own voice between my ears. Nothing else left to do except maybe sit back with my beer, take a nervous swig or two, and wait for a response.
Aunt Dorothy just kinda sat there like, with squinting eyes and an oval mouth, a wilting cigarette at her ear, like the question of the universe was bashing at her front door. It was something to ponder, all right. Something I pondered, and have still been pondering ever since, ten maybe twelve years now. And now it was something ol’ Aunt Dorothy pondered as we sat in our fold-up camping chairs at the open threshold of her two-car garage, filled not with cars, but with decades’ worth of trash and junk she and Rick had been collecting since marriage.
“But it’s just right there, ain’t it?” she asked.
“Every single day, yeah.”
“Every single day.” She took a drag off her dart, eyes squinting deeper than before, and took a good minute for the dragon smoke to rise forth from her forward-jutted lower lip. Aunt Dorothy leaned back in her chair and went for another beer from the cooler between us. “You’re a grown man, now. It’s just a kid’s thing. Does it really bother you that much?”
“Some days, sure. Other days, not so much. But it’s always there with me, hangin’ there. More so now, than ever before.”
“It means that much to you.”
Then that was it. Silence now, for us to imbibe the blessed taste of ice cold beer on a day hotter than the devil’s Sabbath. My pain was out in the open with it, just floating, the echoes a long-forgotten thing.
“Summers make these things feel kind of worse. Thinking about it, yearning for it, makes me want what I could have had back then. The innocent summer, the carefree summer. Yearning for the feeling I once held so easily back then. The butterflies in my stomach, the glow in my heart whenever I think back, ten or twelve years ago. People say sappy things about going back with the wisdom of today’s experiences, but all I want is to go back, way back, and know what it may have been like to climb that Bunkie.”
“Nothing’s stopping you now, you know,” said Aunt Dorothy.
“But I’m an adult now. You said so, yourself.”
“A foolish thing for an adult to do, but who’s going to stop you? Let’s go.”
Aunt Dorothy was giving me this gesture, an excitable little motion as she half-lifted off her chair, a master calling her dog towards an open minivan door.
“Wait, but we’re going to walk?”
“It’s not too far from here.”
“But what about our beer?”
“Where’s it gonna go? Chug what you got and come on.”
I didn’t want to, didn’t feel there was much of a point in it now, I mean, how’d it look, a grown man climbing up a Bunkie – a few beers and maybe a joint in him, especially. But Aunt Dorothy, the adamant thing she is, had herself shuffling down along the drive and into the setting afternoon light, bent over with her left snapping at me to follow, drunk to be had by any of the neighbours around her.
But I dunno, it was one of those things where you regret saying shit to people, like they lord it over you or something, family especially, and I mean, Aunt Dorothy is the only one I have right now – Rick too, I guess, when he’s not swingin’ ‘em back while the Jays and Leafs swing ‘em forward. But I mean, having someone who believes in you more than you do, yourself, that’s a damn thing, in and of itself, and embarrassing.
I sort of felt sorry for her, to be honest, and in spite of myself, rose to scuffle along to satiate this sense of rogue responsibility she likes to have for me so much. Maybe it was kind of exciting, I dunno, thinking about that Bunkie, and climbing up there with someone alongside me, believing I could be a kid again, so long as I aimed for it, myself.
It sounds so stupid, really, but it was happening, and the walk across town felt like a breeze in and of itself. And the closer we got to the Bay, the more it sort of made sense, that climbing that Bunkie was just the right thing to do, no matter the age, and with that came a sense of fear and hopefulness, I guess. A silly thing to admit, I know, but ten or twelve years is a long time to sit on something you wish you did back when those ten or twelve years were available at your disposal.
The dying sun was peeking around a tip of the Spirit Catcher’s wing when we crossed Kempenfelt Drive into Centennial Park. Couldn’t help but think: hey, there’s nothing quite like the setting sun. Many beautiful things in the world, but the setting sun? Eighth wonder of the world.
Then again, if the sun setting over Kempenfelt Bay was the eighth wonder of the world, the Bunkie, standing there just off the playground, had to be no better than the Ninth – as far as I could be concerned, no doubt.
The Bunkie is the tallest thing you’ll see in the playground, I guess apart from the cedar trees, I guess you can say it resembles more of a tree house, but when you’re kid without much of a grasp on the English language yet, it’s expected to call a tree house a “Bunkie” because “Bunkie” is a word that makes you sound like a grownup. To us, it’d always and only ever had been known as the Bunkie.
Or, maybe, I guess it’s more akin to a giant-sized birdhouse. Yeah. You know the ones, they’re made of wood, painted up all folkart-like, and they stick in your garden on tall dowels or pipe. The Bunkie looks just like one of those, except with a ladder up its shaft, and a proper door and windows enclosed by a little wrap-around porch.
“Well there it is,” said Aunt Dorothy. It were like she were in as much awe as any kid seeing it the first time over. And really, I couldn’t blame her.
The Bunkie’s been a thing that’s awed me for years: nothing like it existed except for the littler bird houses I just described, and just gazing up at it with her brought all the excitement and horror and anxious feeling that crept through me back in those ten or twelve years was flooding through me like something I thought I’d long forgotten.
The only thing that kept me from climbing up that ladder back all those years ago was the rickety rungs, no better than flat slabs of splintered wood nailed into the shaft, all the way up, up, up, until the sizable-square-shaped gap directly above allowed for a kid to pull themselves up over the edge of the wrap-around porch.
And damn, I’d not thought in a long, long, time until now just how high up that porch looked.
“Well, what are you waiting for?” Aunt Dorothy sent a hard shove against my shoulder. It was one of those urgings, like she was excited for me to chase after my dreams, but to hurry it up, because the beer back home was getting warm.
“I don’t know if I can.”
“Why? There’s no one around. All you have to do is climb right up that ladder, and you can finally say, I’ve been to the Bunkie. That’s all there is to it, so get going! Go on.”
“I don’t think I can.”
She gave me an astounded look of frustration, but nothing could be helped. I was right. And I proved this by pointing her glowering attention over to a signpost neither of us had noticed upon initial inspection of the Bunkie. It was one of those waist-high black aluminum chalk board signs. You know the ones, they sit outside classy restaurants with the daily specials tied to clever, but forgettable, food puns. This one had white frilly lace that enunciated a cursive-written prohibition written on the rectangular board:
Use for Children Only. Height Restriction 4’8. – Thanks, Mgt.
“Who’s going to stop you?” Aunt Dorothy protested. “Someone gonna call the cops because you’re climbing a tree house? Climbing a tree house that’s smack-dab in the centre of a public park grounds? How is that against the law?”
The sky was dark and brown now, the sun almost completely vanished across the edge of the Kempenfelt Bay. Any daylight left crept with it across the golden sea, leaving all away from it a husk of what daylight kissed.
“It’s too dark now. I don’t want to fall.”
“You don’t want to fall? You don’t want to fall, it can’t be more than a ten foot drop. If you fall, you’ll hit the grass, great big deal?”
“I could break my ankle. What if the rungs are all splintery? What if my pants cuff catches on the edge of some bark, and I lose my balance?”
“So what if it happens? You fall and you get back up and try again. What are you so afraid of?”
Aunt Dorothy didn’t understand. She just didn’t get it. I mean, this was something haunting me for years now, not her, and I mean how could a person like Aunt Dorothy understand so easily from a single conversation?
“I wanna climb it,” I said, “But I don’t know that I can.”
And even if I could climb that Bunkie, the fact was, I wasn’t a kid – I was a grown adult, well past the height requirements, and who’s to say there weren’t cameras set up around the place to ward off your typical A-grade hooligans?
There was a parks grounds office just off the edge of the playground. I thought bathrooms were supposed to be there, and you know, I’m sure that building was, at one point, bathrooms, but it since looked remodelled to suit the needs of a groundskeeper. I headed that way without any kind of hesitation, and Aunt Dorothy was shouting at me from behind about the place being closed up for the night, but I saw lights were on in the windows, and I knew if I wanted to climb that Bunkie tonight, I’d have to talk to whoever ran the park this time of night, so there’d be no mix-ups and possible accusations of trespassings, or what-have-you. I mean, it’s an open park, I’m sure people taller than kids try to climb the Bunkie every night. What’s the trouble in seeking solace for just another stranger wishing to do the same?
So I went into the office expecting to enter into a lobby of some kind, but first step in, and I come face to face with a woman in dark business wear, whose size rivals that of the Buddah, both in girth and height. She’s there behind a desk, her whole body looking like it could spill out over the top of her work area if she took a breath the wrong way. And like, it was clear to me that the bathrooms were renovated to become this office, but for whatever reason, the size of the building itself remained the same, so the walls are so tight that the woman behind that desk looked like her shoulders could reach wall-to-wall easily, and the top of her neatly-tied hair bun nearly brushed the dust off the ceiling’s stucco.
“Can I help you?” She was gazing down at me behind menacing spectacles, like she had more important things to do.
“Yes you can!” Aunt Dorothy was calling out from behind me then. I didn’t even get a word in edge wise, she was so to the point. “We want to climb the Bunkie.”
The Groundskeeper gave us this look, like what the hell. “Why do you want to climb the Bunkie for?”
“Do we need a reason to climb the Bunkie?” Aunt Dorothy sidled up beside me, ready for a gun duel. She was being so stubborn now, and God bless her soul for it, but at the same time if you go in, guns blazing, right out the gate, who knew if I’d ever get a chance like this ever again?
The Groundskeeper thought this whole display was amusing, because she burst out laughing, a wicked and wild sound that shook the walls and made me, for one, almost deaf in one ear.
“What makes you think you can climb my Bunkie? The Bunkie is made for children. Childhood is a thing that has long-since left you in its tracks. So, what gives you the right to try to reclaim it now? If other adults see you climbing the Bunkie, then other adults will try to climb the Bunkie, too. That’s not why the Bunkie is here. What kind of image would I be projecting if I let you go and do that?”
“Because it’s something we’d like to do!” Aunt Dorothy protested.
“And so you come here, seeking approval, seeking permission when you could have gone and done so before?”
“It was the right thing to do,” I finally said. “Every day I pass the Bunkie by, and every day I think about that time when I could have climbed it, but was too scared to. And today, just talking about that fear and desire helped me come back to this place, and now I’d like to climb that Bunkie, just so I can say that I did, and feel proud of myself.”
The Groundskeeper was listening to me, she was nodding away like she completely somehow understood. It became obvious that what I was saying to her – she’d heard this spiel all before. That this hadn’t been the first time someone in my position went to her and told her their woes of regret and desire to climb that Bunkie. The Groundskeeper looked like she really, truly, understood.
But then she let out another wicked laugh and said, “No.”
“What do you mean, no?” asked Aunt Dorothy.
“I have an image to uphold,” said the Groundskeeper. “A reputation, don’t you see? As I said before, if I let you climb the Bunkie, then everyone else will want to climb the Bunkie. And then the Bunkie will be crowded at all hours of the day – no space left for the children to go. Where do you suggest that the brave children, who wish to climb the Bunkie themselves – where do they go? What do they do? Do they grow up, regretting the fact that they could not climb the Bunkie themselves, and come to the next Groundskeeper after me, and beg him or her to climb the Bunkie then?
You see the unfair position you corner me into, don’t you? The never-ending cycle of entitlement and regret. All because you weren’t brave enough to climb the Bunkie when you had every opportunity to. That’s not my problem. It’s yours, and yours alone. Do what you were meant to, and grow up. Move on. Get a hobby, for the sake of your pathetic self. A hobby that does not include climbing Bunkies, that is.”
Aunt Dorothy, she started to protest loud and angry now, but what else could be done? That was it. There was nothing left of it. We left the Groundskeeper’s office with her maniacal cackle in our ringing ears.
As soon as we stepped back outside, a door locked behind us, and when we looked back at the office, a closed sign flipped into view over the sidelight. Then all windows went dark, and there was only silence between us.
When we turned back to face the Bunkie, it was no longer there among the swing sets, and the jungle gym, and the tetherball court, or the picnic grounds, beyond. It was like the Bunkie was never there to start with. But I could see its outline, burned so deeply into the folds of my memory there. But it wasn’t there.
There was just Centennial Park now, and the outline of the Dream Catcher looming in the distant night. It was staring at us as we trod the grass, all alone with nothing to show for doing the right thing. The Dream Catcher just loomed at us. And with it came the lull of the distant waves against the ringing in my ears.
“Oh well,” I said.
And that was it: biggest fear, maybe biggest regret of my life, out in the open waters of verbal existence. No going back. Just out there, drifting off with the echo of my own voice between my ears.
We crossed Kempentfelt Drive out of Centennial Park, and headed back to Aunt Dorothy’s place. The walk was long and quiet between us. What else was there to talk about? Our beer was probably bugger warm now. We’d left the garage door wide open for people to snoop and pick at the ten-or-twelve years’ worth of trash and knickknacks horded away like emotional safety blankets. But what could be done about it now?
Nothing else left to do except maybe sit back with a beer, take a nervous swig or two, and wait for tomorrow to come.