Playdate

Drallmeier listened as the voice on his phone directed him to the elementary school’s playground. His four-year-old nephew, Jackson, whined for a cold juice box.

“Not now, man.” He took a wrong turn and the app on the phone recalibrated. He squeegeed his bald, sweating scalp with the palm of his hand. “When we get to the playground. Now keep it down so I can follow the phone’s directions.”

He was driving from West Duluth, where he lived with his sister, Tina, and Jackson, to a school’s playground in some residential area of Superior. Over state lines. Minnesota to Wisconsin. He was hoping Clifton’s plan was a good one, that the man had turned a corner. Drallmeier hoped.

***

It was late June. Summer vacation. From the curb, he could see the playground, empty except for the swings, the jungle gym, a merry-go-round—Drallmeier remembered a curl of puke flaring from his mouth when he rode one for the first time as a kid—and cartoonish creatures attached to thick springs embedded in the ground. All of the equipment was in primary colors, the ground beneath padded with a layer of wood chips.

Drallmeier let Jackson run free and wild. Clouds blew across the sky, their shadows raced across the beaten down grass.

Clifton hadn’t arrived yet.

He glanced at his Minnesota plates. It bothered him, but Drallmeier knew no one would really care. Residents of the two port cities swapped around easy enough, no one paid attention that oil and water never truly mixed.

Clifton had said, “My plates are from Michigan. Big deal.”

Drallmeier hoped he’d turned a corner.

He popped the trunk, pulled out Jackson’s backpack, and set it on top of his car. Clifton said he wanted to take his kid to the U.P., the Upper Peninsula. Who was Drallmeier to say no? It did bother him that Clifton wanted the hand-off of the kid done on the sly.

“Don’t mention it to Tina. Just throw some of Jackson’s clothes together, toothbrush and what have you. It’ll be a surprise, like a Mother’s Day present for her.”

“Mother’s Day was over a month ago, man.”

“Okay, so the present’s late.”

To meditate on Clifton made him so. He pulled up in his Suburban, a firetruck red vehicle pushing twenty years, rust detailing around the wheel wells. Drallmeier knew Clifton had nothing to speak of—Tina let him know—depending on temp jobs in the U.P., maybe his mother, maybe even less on his brothers and sisters, a catch-as-catch-can crowd up near Ishpeming.

Apparently the Suburban had no AC; the windows were all rolled down. Drallmeier bent to look in—four sweaty, rowdy kids. Clifton barked at them as he clambered out and they quieted. His canine demeanor didn’t change for Drallmeier.

“Where’s Jackson?”

The little boy was enjoying himself, boinging back and forth on a yellow frog attached to a tough spring with a lot whang power. Clifton paid no attention to the racket.

“Where is he?”

“These yours too?” Drallmeier was joking.

“Yes. What of it?”

Drallmeier nodded at the children. They ignored him. How many women was Clifton involved with in the Twin Ports?

A neighborhood mom and her kids joined Jackson by the equipment.

“You taking them all to the U.P.?”

Clifton glanced around. “You son of a bitch. You didn’t bring him, did you?”

Clutching the backpack, Drallmeier said, “I got as far as filling this, then I couldn’t go any farther.”

Clifton looked at the woman with the kids, then back at Drallmeier. “I should knock you on your ass.”

Drallmeier waved at the kids. “Their moms know where they’re going?”

Clifton strode back to the driver’s side of the Suburban. “Fuck you.” Exhaust fanned the street, the red vehicle with Michigan plates took the corner, likely on its way to Highway 2.

Drallmeier tapped the plate number into his phone. Jackson came running.

“Is my daddy coming?”

“Change of plans, man. When’d you last see him, anyway?”

Jackson shrugged, the concept foreign to him, as it would be for the rest of his life.