The PlaygroundRay Bradbury
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The Playground: Ray Bradbury's terrifying short story, one of the great stories of childhood-as-nightmare, appeared originally in Esquire in October l953; it first appeared in book form in the Ballantine first issue of his famous novel, Fahrenheit 451. Charles Underhill, seeking to protect his young son from the agonies of schoolyard bullying in the playground makes a deal with the playground's mysterious manager but only at the end discovers the true nature of the pact.
Ray Bradbury (l920-) is perhaps the most important and admired living science fiction writer and one of the few writers emerging from science fiction to true literary and critical acceptance. Unable to sell his early science fiction stories to the leading market of the l940's, John W. Campbell's Astounding, Bradbury's short stories appeared in the second-line magazines like Planet Stories and Thrilling Wonder. After the War, however, Bradbury's fantastic and surrealistic fiction began to find a steady market in mainstream magazines like Mademoiselle, Collier's and Harper's Bazaar and he became the first science fiction writer to place work in Martha Foley's Best American Short Stories. The novel, Fahrenheit-451, later the basis for a notable film of Francois Truffaut, secured his reputation. In 2000, Bradbury was awarded a medal for the body of his literary achievement by the National Institute of Arts and Letters.
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A thousand times before and after his wife’s death, Mr. Charles Underhill ignored the Playground on his way to and from his commuter’s limited train. He neither liked nor disliked the Playground; he hardly knew it existed.
But only this morning his sister Carol, who had occupied the empty space across the breakfast table from him each day for six months, quietly broached the subject.
"Jim’s almost three years old now," she said. "So tomorrow I’m going to start him at the Playground."
"Playground?" said Mr. Underhill.
At his office, he underlined a memorandum with black ink: Look at Playground.
That afternoon, the thunder of the train subsiding in his body, Underhill struck up through town on his usual path home, newspaper tucked crisply under his arm to prevent reading himself past the park. So it was, at five-ten in the late day, that he came to the cool iron fence and the open gate of the Playground, and stood for a long, long time, frozen there, gazing in at it all. . . .
At first there seemed absolutely nothing whatever to see. And then as he adjusted his attention outward from his usual interior monologue, the scene before him, a grey, blurred television image, came to a slow focus.
Primarily, he was aware of dim voices, faint underwater cries emerging from a series of vague streaks and zigzag lines and shadows. Then, as if someone had kicked the machine, screams jumped at him in full throat, visions leaped clear. Now he saw the children! They were dashing across the Playground meadow, fighting, pummeling, scratching, falling, every wound bleeding or about to bleed or freshly caked over. A dozen cats thrown among sleeping dogs could not have shrieked as loud! With incredible clarity, Mr. Underhill saw the tiniest cuts and scabs on knees and faces.
He weathered the first blast of sound, blinking. His nostrils took over when his eyes and ears retired in panic.
He sniffed the cutting odors of salve, raw adhesive, camphor, and pink mercurochrome, so strong it lay bitter on his tongue. An iodine wind blew through the steel fence wires which glinted dully in the grey light of the overcast day. The rushing children were hell cut loose in a vast pinball table, a colliding, and banging, and totaling of hits and misses, thrusts and plungings to a grand and as yet unforeseen total of brutalities.
And was he mistaken or was the light within the Playground of a peculiar intensity? Every child seemed to possess four shadows: one dark, and three faint penumbras which made it strategically impossible to tell which way their swift bodies were racing until they bashed their targets. Yes, the oblique, pressing light made the Playground seem deep, far away, and remote from his touching. Or perhaps it was the hard steel wire fence, not unlike those barriers in zoos, beyond which anything might happen.
A pen of misery, thought Underhill. Why do children insist on making life horrible for each other? Oh, the continual torture. He heard himself sigh with immense relief. Thank God, childhood was over and done for him. No more pinchings, bruisings, senseless passions and shattered dreams.
A gust of wind tore the paper from his hand. He ran after it down the Playground steps. Clutching the paper, he retreated hastily. For in that one brief instant, stranded in the Playground’s atmosphere, he had felt his hat grow too large, his coat too cumbersome, his belt too loose, his shoes too big; he had felt like a small boy playing businessman in his father’s clothes; the gate behind him had loomed impossibly tall, while the sky pressed a huge weight of greyness at his eyes, and the scent of iodine, like a tiger’s breath exhaled uponhim, blew his hair. He tripped and almost fell, running back.
He stood outside the Playground, like someone who has just emerged, in shock, from a terrible cold sea.
He heard the voice and turned to see who had called him. There on top a metal slide, a boy of some nine years was waving. "Hello, Charlie . . .!"
Mr. Charles Underhill raised a hand. But I don’t know that boy, he thought. And why should he call me by my first name?
The boy was smiling high in the misty air, and now, jostled by other yelling children, rushed shrieking down the slide.
Underhill stood bemused by what he saw. Now the Playground was an immense iron industry whose sole product was pain, sadism and sorrow. If you watched half an hour there wasn’t a face in the entire enclosure that didn’t wince, cry, redden with anger, pale with fear, one moment or another. Really! Who said childhood was the best time of life? When in reality it was the most terrible, the most merciless era, the barbaric time when there were no police to protect you, only parents preoccupied with themselves and their taller world. No, if he had his way, he touched the cold fence with one hand, they’d nail a new sign here: TORQUEMADA’S GREEN.
And as for that boy, the one who had called out to him, who was he? There was something familiar there, perhaps in the hidden bones, an echo of some old friend; probably the son of a successfully ulcered father.
So this is the playground where my son will play, thought Mr. Underhill. So this is it.
Hanging his hat in the hall, checking his lean image in the watery mirror, Underhill felt wintry and tired. When his sister appeared, and his son came tapping on mouse-feet, he greeted them with something less than full attention. The boy clambered thinly over him, playing KING OF THE HILL. And the father, fixing his gaze to the end of the cigar he was slowly lighting, finally cleared his throat and said, "I’ve been thinking about that playground, Carol."
"I’m taking Jim over tomorrow."
"Not really? That playground?"
His mind rebelled. The smell and look of the place were still vivid. That writhing world with its atmosphere of cuts and beaten noses, the air as full
of pain as a dentist’s office, and those horrid tic-tac-toes and frightening hopscotches under his feet as he picked up his newspaper, horrid and frightening for no reason he could see.
"What’s wrong with that playground?" asked Carol.
"Have you seen it?" He paused in confusion. "Damn it, I mean, the children there. It’s a Black Hole."
"All the children are from well-to-do families."
"Well, they shove and push like little Gestapos," said Underhill. "It’d be like sending a boy to a flour-mill to be crushed into meal by a couple of two-ton grinders! Every time I think of Jim playing in that barbaric pit, I freeze."
"You know very well it’s the only convenient park for miles around."
"I don’t care about that. All I care is I saw a dozen kinds of bats and clubs and air guns. By the end of the first day, Jim would be in splinters. They’d have him barbecued, with an orange in his mouth."
She was beginning to laugh. "How you exaggerate."
"You can’t live Jim’s life for him. He has to learn the hard way. He’s got to take a little beating and beat others up; boys are like that."
"I don’t like boys like that."
"It’s the happiest time of life."
"Nonsense. I used to look back on childhood with great nostalgia. But now I realize I was a sentimental fool. It was nothing but screaming and running in a nightmare and coming home drenched with terror, from head to foot. If I could possibly save Jim from that, I would."
"That’s impractical and, thank God, impossible."
"I won’t have him near that place, I tell you. I’ll have him grow up a neurotic recluse first."
"I will! Those little beasts, you should’ve seen them. Jim’s my son, he is; he’s not yours, remember." He felt the boy’s thin legs about his shoulders, the boy’s delicate fingers rumpling his hair. "I won’t have him butchered."
"He’ll get it in school. Better to let him take a little shoving about now, when he’s three, so he’s prepared for it."
"I’ve thought of that, too." Mr. Underhill held fiercely to his son’s ankles which dangled like warm, thin sausages on either lapel. "I might even get a private tutor for him."
They did not speak during dinner.
After dinner, he took Jim for a brief walk while his sister was washing the dishes. They strolled past the Playground under the dim street lamps. It was a cooling September night, with the first dry spice of autumn in it. Next week, and the children would be raked in off the fields like so many leaves and set to burning in the schools, usingtheir fire and energy for more constructive purposes. But they would be here after school, ramming about, making projectiles of themselves, crashing and exploding, leaving wakes of misery behind every miniature war.
"Want to go in," said Jim, leaning against the high wire fence, watching the late-playing children beat each other and run.
"No, Jim, you don’t want that."
"Play," said Jim, his eyes shining with fascination, as he saw a large boy kick a small boy and the small boy kick a smaller boy to even things up.
"Come along, Jim, you’ll never get in that mess if I can help it." Underhill tugged the small arm firmly.
"I want to play." Jim was beginning to blubber now. His eyes were melting out of his face and his face was becoming a wrinkled orange of color.
Some of the children heard the crying and glanced over. Underhill had the terrible sense of watching a den of foxes suddenly startled and looking up from the white, hairy ruin of a dead rabbit. The mean yellow-glass eyes, the conical chins, the sharp white teeth, the dreadful wiry hair, the brambly sweaters, the iron-colored hands covered with a day’s battle-stains. Their breath moved out to him, dark licorice and mint and juicy-fruit so sickeningly sweet, so combined as to twist his stomach. And over this the hot mustard smell of someone tolerating an early chest cold; the greasy stink of flesh smeared with hot comphorous salves cooking under a flannel sheath. All these cloying, and somehow depressing, odors of pencils, chalk, grass and slateboard erasers, real or imagined, summoned old memory in an instant. Popcorn mortared their teeth, and green jelly showed in their sucking, blowing nostrils. God! God!
They saw Jim, and he was new to them. They said not a word, but a Jim cried louder and Underhill, by main force, dragged him like a cement bag along the walk, the children followed with their glowing eyes. Underhill felt like pushing his fist at them and crying, "You little beasts, you won’t get my son!"
And then, with beautiful irrelevance, the boy at the top of the bluemetal slide, so high he seemed almost in a mist, far away, the boy with the somehow familiar face, called out to him, waving and waving.
"Hello, Charlie . . .!"
Underhill paused and Jim stopped crying.
"See you later, Charlie . . .!"
And the face of the boy way up there on that high and very lonely slide was suddenly like the face of Thomas Marshall, an old business friend who lived just around the block, but whom he hadn’t seen in years.
"See you later, Charlie."
Later, later? What did the fool boy mean?
"I know you, Charlie!" called the boy. "Hi!"
"What?" gasped Underhill.
"Tomorrow night, Charlie, hey!" And the boy fell off the slide and lay choking for breath, face like a white cheese from the fall, while children jumped him and tumbled over.
Underhill stood undecided for five seconds or more, until Jim thought to cry again and then, with the golden fox eyes upon them, in the first chill of autumn, he dragged Jim all the way home.
The next afternoon Mr. Underhill finished at the office early and took the three o’clock train, arriving out in Green Town at three-twenty-five, in plenty of time to drink in the brisk rays of the autumnal sun. Strange how one day it is suddenly autumn, he thought. One day it is summer and the next, how could you measure or tell it? Something about the temperature or the smell? Or the sediment of age knocked loose from your bones during the night and circulating in your blood and heart, giving you a slight tremble and a chill? A year older, a year dying, was that it?
He walked up toward the Playground, planning the future. It seemed you did more planning in autumn than any other season. This had to do with dying, perhaps. You thought of death and you automatically planned. Well, then, there was to be a tutor for Jim, that was positive; none of those horrible schools for him. It would pinch the bank account a bit, but Jim would at least grow up a happy boy. They would pick and choose his friends. Any slambang bullies would be thrown out as soon as they so much as touched Jim. And as for this Playground? Completely out of the question!
"Oh hello, Charles."
He looked up suddenly. Before him, at the entrance to the wire enclosure, stood his sister. He noted instantly that she called him Charles, instead of Charlie. Last night’s unpleasantness had not quite evaporated. "Carol, what’re you doing here?"
She flushed guiltily and glanced in through the fence.
"You didn’t," he said.
His eyes sought among the scrabbling, running, screaming children. "Do you mean to say . . .?"
His sister nodded, half amused. "I thought I’d bring him early—"
"Before I got home, so I wouldn’t know, is that it?"
"That was it."
"Good God, Carol, where is he?"
"I just came to see."
"You mean you left him there all afternoon?"
"Just for five minutes while I shopped."
"And you left him. Good God!" Underhill seized her wrist. "Well, come on, find him, get him out of there!"
They peered in together past the wire to where a dozen boys charged about, girls slapped each other, and a squabbling heap of children took turns at getting off, making a quick run, and crashing one against another.
"That’s where he is, I know it!" said Underhill.
Just then, across the field, sobbing and
wailing, Jim ran, six boys after him. He fell, got up, ran, fell again, shrieking, and the boys behind shot beans through metal blowers.
"I’ll stuff those blowers up their noses!" said Underhill. "Run, Jim! Run!"
Jim made it to the gate. Underhill caught him. It was like catching a rumpled, drenched wad of material. Jim’s nose was bleeding, his pants were ripped, he was covered with grime.
"There’s your playground," said Underhill, on his knees, staring up from his son, holding him, at his sister. "There are your sweet, happy innocents, your well-to-do, piddling Fascists. Let me catch this boy there again and there’ll be hell to pay. Come on, Jim. All right, you little bastards, get back there!" he shouted.
"We didn’t do nothing," said the children.
"What’s the world coming to?" Mr. Underhill questioned the universe.
"Hi! Charlie!" said the strange boy, standing to one side. He waved casually and smiled.
"Who’s that?" asked Carol.
"How in hell do I know?" said Underhill.
"Be seeing you, Charlie. So long," called the boy, fading off.
Mr. Underhill marched his sister and his son home.
"Take your hand off my elbow!" said Carol.
He was trembling; absolutely, continually trembling with rage when he got to bed. He had tried some coffee, but nothing stopped it. He wanted to beat their pulpy little brains out, those gross Cruickshank children; yes, that phrase fit them, those fox-fiend, melancholy Cruickshank children, with all the guile and poison and slyness in their cold faces. In the name of all that was decent, what manner of child was this new generation! A bunch of cutters and hangers and bangers, a drove of bleeding, moronic thumb-screwers,with the sewage of neglect running in their veins? He lay violently jerking his head from one side of his hot pillow to the other, and at last got up and lit a cigarette, but it wasn’t enough. He and Carol had had a huge battle when they got home. He had yelled at her and she had yelled back, peacock and peahen shrieking in a wilderness where law and order were insanities laughed at and quite forgotten.