Winters in Texas are strange: during the day, the weather is warm and comfortable—the way everyone knows Texas. But at night, the heat dissipates, and sometimes temperatures drop below freezing, creating a stark contrast between day and night, warmth and cold.
Tom was here on a business trip. He hadn’t run in several days and he needed the exercise. The night before he left, he decided to run in that little park over on the south side of town. He set his alarm and went to bed early.
The alarm woke him at 6:10. He washed his face, brushed his teeth, and took his pills. He put on sweatpants, a tee-shirt, and threw on a jacket, and was out the door by 6:27. It was only a six minute drive to the park, but he drove around it first to scope it out. Tom was from the city: he had spent twelve years in New York City, four in Philadelphia, and now lived in Kansas City. Small towns, like this one, made him uncomfortable. He drove around the park, suspicious. (Of what?) As he drove he noticed the railroads to the west, connecting this dusty, industrial town with a host of other dusty little ghost towns along the great southwestern edge of America. The houses in the surrounding neighborhoods were beaten, run-down, tattered. Tom thought of an American flag he’d once seen torn to shreds in the wind. At this hour, before the sun was up, the houses felt desolate and lost.
Tom resolutely parked, got out, and began stretching. He looked at his watch as he took his first strides: the digital face read 6:41. At first all he saw was that it was cold; his breath made little grey flower puffs that dissipated behind him as he ran. Since when is Texas cold? The sky was cloudy as the sun began to illuminate his dim world. Was it going to rain? He could feel the moisture in the air. The path he ran was worn in, as though feet had been here before, but the grass along the sides was dying, and there was no one else around.
6:57. The path took Tom by a little pavilion; he liked its smallness. The paint was beginning to peel, but there was trash on the ground here, and crumbs left over on the tables from a picnic. These, at least, were signs of life. He was comforted by the empty wrappers, but then he reminded himself that it was litter–probably just left over from some dumb kids, too lazy to throw their stuff in the trash can. He wondered how long the path was, and how far he had run.
7:14. He found himself on the south side of the park, by those crummy, unkempt houses he had passed in the car. He frowned. There was a dog barking somewhere—a deep, rough bark that matched the gruffness of the chill morning air. He felt a drop on his face: water. Then another, and a third. It was drizzling. The dog stopped barking. He hadn’t seen anyone since he had gotten out of his car. Through the rising mist, he saw a playground… but what was it made of? It looked like steel and iron, scrap metal from factories and old buildings.
Tom ran off the path and through the grass; he felt the wetness squeak against the rubber of his tennis shoes. The ground was firm but springy; it hadn’t been raining long enough to make it soggy. His clothes were getting wet, he noticed. It mingled with his sweat as he felt chills up and down his spine. The playground was sweet torn metal—old I-beams, pipes of all sizes, steel fencing, chains—that had been molded tenderly into a slide, a few swings, and a set of monkey bars. The paint was blue, orange, and yellow, but it had been worn off where children’s hands had sweated as they grasped the metal. Tom thought how his daughter would have loved this discovery; he would have lifted her up and helped her grab the monkey bars; he would have pushed her on the swings. He felt the sweaty rain begin to seep through his hat and brush his hair. Whose fathers had cared enough to build this melancholy little playground from mechanical scrap, cans of spray paint, hot summer days, and love.
He touched the chains holding the swings up—cold and wet. He ran his hands along the old pipes and felt the moisture against his fingertips. The cloth on his shirt clung to him, wet through, and his jacket was heavy with liquid. A drop of rain hung uncertainly on his nose, then fell, making the long, fatal trek to the ground. His eyelashes matted together and he blinked to keep the rain out of his eyes. The droplets ran down the slide, swishing against the metal lyrically. He could see his reflection in the burnished steel, blurred by the rivulets of rainwater on the metal—a lorn and faceless shape. He leaned against the slide, touched a fingertip to his lip and tasted the rain—salty from his sweat but pure and fresh and sweet. It was cold, and it refreshed him.
Above, a thunderclap. He was jolted back to life and realized he was shivering, and he had to dry off. 7:22. He jogged back to the path and finished the remainder of the trail quickly, getting to his car. 7:45. He drove back to his motel. By 8:20 he was clean and dry, and the storm clouds were clearing. By noon that day, the water had evaporated from the sidewalks, concrete, and trees, leaving nothing but fresh, damp ground to remind him that the little playground really existed.