by Rich Glinnen
Bill’s wedding ring was irritating the finger on his left hand, so he switched it to his right hand.
“Means I’m married, but looking,” he joked at the block party.
The bouncy castle was controlled by a chubby seven-year-old, who would someday be an arm-wrestling champion judging by his forearms. He weighed down the center of the castle, drawing the feeble children closer as if he were a black hole, and then jumped, rippling his kingdom and scattering its peasants.
“I think your boy there is getting a little rowdy,” Gardener said to Bill, who steered his Oakley’s to where the kids played.
“Bradley, play nice,” Bill hollered, loud enough so only the nearby adults noticed his admonishing. Bradley continued the tempest. “So how is Maryann?” he suddenly inquired of Gardener, “I don’t see her here.”
“Oh, she’s good. Tired.”
“Yeah, tired of having to deal with you,” Bill bellowed and then promptly exploded into hysterics. Bill laughed into Gardener, forcing his polite chuckle to snowball into believable laughter. The surrounding parents paused their conversations to observe the hubbub; their mouths simultaneously cracked to grins when they gauged they were missing out on something.
“What happened?” Shirley asked, limping over with a cup of potato chips. Gradually more and more of the adults abandoned their original conversations for the boisterous one being conducted by Bill. Most joined him, but there were a few who chose not to follow, those that were familiar enough with Bill. They rejoined their spouses.
Gardener was glad he no longer had to deal with Bill one on one. A crowd of seven or eight had gathered, so now Bill could spread his attention across all those sweaty faces instead of just him.
“Hiya Waltons,” Bill greeted Ben and Denise as they closed the circle, “when did you Mets fans sneak in here?”
The Waltons, in fact, arrived before the block party officially started. They helped set up some tables and tents, and Ben had aided Henry with rolling his basketball hoop into the driveway. But they didn’t mention this to Bill, as it wouldn’t have flowed with the light-hearted tone. Instead, they bashfully laughed, along with the rest of the adults, until the laughs waned into sighs.
“What are you drinking there, Shirley?” Bill gestured to her cup of potato chips. “Careful, don’t you have to drive?” His red face oscillated to those watching him, demanding they match his unhinged fits. And he received it. The crowd acquiesced and became a chorus of laughter. Bill was killing.
The parents that weren’t sucked in ignored the racket and nursed their drinks from a picnic table. They gossiped at a reasonable volume and took in the sun. Their kids were with them and all sat at one end, happily tossing popcorn into each other’s mouths. Whenever a kernel fell onto the street the closest one snatched it up and placed it into the Solo cup in the middle meant for the garbage.
Gardener noticed his boy, Glenn, walking over teary-eyed from the opposite direction with his elbow in his hand. He detached from Bill’s court and tenderly addressed his son: “What happened, Glenn?”
“I hurt my elbow,” he sniffled. Gardener saw it was a pretty bad scrape.
“Who did this?” The father’s voice floated along like a swan, creating neither ripple nor alarm.
“I just fell.” Glenn’s eyes were angled shamefully to the ground.
“Fell out of the bouncy castle?”
As Glenn nodded, his father embraced him and kissed the top of his head—his hair was warm on Gardener’s lips. It was getting hot anyway.
Gardener flowed past the pack with a fin in the air—a communal wave to all the partygoers: “Take care, all!”
The group mutedly waved, daring not to speak lest receiving one of Bill’s scathing quips, one of which clattered after Gardener’s heels: “Better run home to the wife,” he boomed, impersonating a whip.
Shirley noticed Glenn’s arm while tapping the last chip crumbs from her cup into her mouth. She had three grandchildren and was too old to recognize any implied rules from whoever the blabbermouth at the time was. “Is he alright, Gardener?” she hollered after them, interrupting Bill’s criticism over a stranger’s corduroy pants.
Gardener half-turned without halting, his palm gently on his boy’s back. “Just took a spill, that’s all,” he grinned, approaching his gate.
Shirley and the rest looked over to where the kids were playing. The bouncy castle was certainly bouncing. Kids from the neighborhood clung to the netting, panicking; Bradley wouldn’t stop the tumult and stole from them the security of steady ground.
“Hey Bill,” Shirley broke the silent observation, “I think your kid is getting out of hand.”
“Relax Shirley, they’re just playing.” But Denise Walton didn’t agree. Shirley’s proclamation that Bradley was roughhousing snapped her from Bill’s circle and sent her to retrieve her petrified child.
One by one parents went to check on their kids and, discovering a newfound bruise or scrape, collected their offspring—some politely bidding Bill and the rest of the folks adieu, others stomping into their homes without another word.
Denise returned with their girl, pigtails frayed, gasping for air. Her eyes were saucers—she saw things in there, things she’d never forget. “I think she’s had enough for one day, Ben.”
“Take care, Bill,” Ben managed to say before getting yanked away.
“It was a pleasure seeing you today, Shirley, you stay cool,” Denise offered hurriedly. Bill watched the Waltons waltz off.
His court had scattered. His son’s castle was a giant rubber room for one.
“Need anything?” Shirley smirked, as she limped back over to the chips.
“I’m fine,” Bill grunted by himself, watching his son from afar wobble alone. As Bill observed the sprawling asphalt of a once promising kingdom, which separated him from his son’s vacant ruins of a former formidable castle, a bug seemed to have landed in his hair. He reached up to dislodge it and, discovering only a popcorn kernel, overheard the far-off snickering of united families.
Rich Glinnen is a market researcher by day and a writer by night. He enjoys bowling, and eating gruyere with his cats at his home in Bayside, NY. He was nominated for the 2017 Best of the Net Anthology. His work can be read in Kenneth Warren’s Lakewood House Organ, at foliateoak.com, petrichormag.com, underwoodpress.com/ruescribe, and richglinnen.tumblr.com. His wife calls him Taco.