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Swing Sets Were Never Essential
by Joseph Johnston

In my mask I’m dismantling a swing set. It was once steel but is now rust and I’ve counted many times around the sun since any kids have laughed amidst this rubble.

I was proud as a sneak-thief when I bought this swing set. I’d leveraged everything I had in the middle of the Great Recession to move my family out of danger and into better opportunity. A faker the whole way. But I did it, wearing an invisible mask to fit in and play the part and act out the game for the creditors.

Two hundred bucks available on the last credit card of my Great Recession Mask and I plopped it on the counter of the Toys R Us and said “I’ll take the HappyFunScape. WITH the optional five-foot slide.” It was the evening before we moved, and I stayed up all night putting it together so my kids would see it first thing and know we’d arrived. Two swings and a see-saw and a plastic slide + a yard big enough for it to rust = deliverance. That was the cold equation then. Fake it, and perhaps make it.

Now it’s the Great Pandemic and there is no equation and the mask is visible and uncomfortable. I can’t see and I can’t breathe and I’m sawing through swing set rust because I need the money.

In my mask I’m not concerned with tetanus. I’m concerned with scrapyard policies and viral load. Will they be wearing masks? Is there a scrapyard workers union? Is it as powerful as the gravediggers union? Will their droplets become mine, or my droplets theirs?

I think I prefer the pretend masks of yore. At least the phony intangibles were controllable. Swing sets were never essential, but lungs are.

NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR: For me, the most bizarre aspect of the pandemic is the masking of faces. That’s something our culture, however that can be defined, usually reserves for Halloween and Mardi Gras. In other cultures they’ve always been far more ubiquitous, so it’s strange to see them all over the place now. It’s good, but it’s frustrating to know now that if we’d been utilizing them in February things might look a lot more positive today. It’s even more frustrating that they’ve now taken on symbolic political meaning. Something so simple as a tool to prevent the spread of disease shouldn’t carry political weight. Hand-washing isn’t political; masks shouldn’t be either. I have a vision of a post-pandemic future where the clever masks we made to help prevent the spread of the virus are sewn into scrapbooks or quilts, mementos of a most bizarre time. My story is an attempt to relate the physical masks of the present with the pretend masks we sometimes wear out in society.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Writer and filmmaker Joseph Johnston made his first movie at the age of 11, an industrial espionage thriller that continues to play to excited crowds in his parents’ living room every Christmas. His prose, poetry, and video literature have appeared in Atticus Review, Matador Review, and Iron Horse Literary Review. He currently resides in Michigan, where he is working on a feature-length play about a dystopic suburban road rally.