2020 Summer Contest fiction Issue 26

A Lamentation of Swans

by Marlene Olin

Sixteen by Turner Hilliker

A lock and a key. A nut and a bolt. A child and its mother. Alone they’re nothing, their bearings unmoored, their future adrift. It was Nettie’s greatest fear that they’d be separated. And once the pandemic hit, her fears came true. 

She and Henry were fixtures in their South Miami neighborhood, their days spooned out in careful allotments. Mornings they went to Fit and Fantastic! Lifted dumbbells. Ran in place. Then every afternoon Nettie drove Henry to and from his job. For over twenty years the routine stayed the same. First, we exercise our bodies! said Nettie. Then we exercise our minds!

Henry was just out of high school when the South Miami Publix put him on the payroll. At first, they hid him in the back room. Unboxing. Sorting. Shelving. But in no time Henry thrived. He liked the repetition, the way he worked up a rhythm, his muscles soon acting on memory alone. By the time he hit forty, they graduated him to bag boy. My son’s a bag boy! Nettie would brag. Oh, how he loved being a bag boy! He’d cradle eggs like they were precious gems.

After work, their routine never varied. Henry would hang up his apron. Punch out the time clock and wait for Nettie outside the store. Always in the same spot, of course. Under the Shop Here, Save Now sign. She’d pull up in the identical parking space at four o’clock on the dot. Then she’d slip in a CD⁠—Henry loved Yellow Submarine, she’d tell anyone who’d listen, he’d just die for the Beatles, just die⁠—and take her time driving home.

Their return route always meandered through the same neighborhoods and the same blocks. There was the housekeeper walking the two white poodles, the housekeeper thumbing her phone, the poodles majestic, their snouts raised, their paws high-stepping along the sidewalk. On Hardee Road, a life-sized statue of a duck always greeted them. The homeowner—how Nettie craved to meet this mystery person—changed its clothes daily. On rainy days, the duck would wear a yellow raincoat.  On hot days, sunglasses and a hat. Doll clothes, she supposed. Nettie always pulled over so Henry could get a good look.

What’s the forecast, Henry, she’d say. And Henry would prattle like the weatherman on TV. He’d glance at the duck and say, Sunny with a chance of showers. Or there’s a front coming in. Sweater weather. As if the duck, not God, controlled the skies.

Minutes later, just a block or two from their home, they would see them. Nettie’s heart would start thumping. Like clockwork, the three would be waiting, sitting at the bus stop like books on a shelf. The woman in the middle gripping their hands, the child on one side, the old lady on the other. All three of them varying shades of brown. The woman chocolate-colored. The old lady black as licorice. The child like caramel. The child—she must have been ten or eleven or twelve—was on the cusp of sprouting.

Usually, Nettie hated rush hour. The bumper to bumper traffic, the school zones, the inching up and down the streets. But she enjoyed the bus stop. She’d ease down on the brakes every time she passed. Oh, how she prayed for a red light!  After a while, she got to know all three. Their clothes. Their gestures. Soon they weren’t strangers anymore.

The child, for instance, grew like an overfed puppy. Thin arms. Thin legs. Then as you worked your way down, two enormous feet in the world’s largest sneakers.

She was always well-kept. Her hair neatly plaited, her tee shirt tucked into her dungarees. The old lady was a different story. A ratty housecoat. Her hair a wild nest. Though she probably weighed no more than a hundred pounds, a huge messenger bag was slung over a shoulder. Like a potato sack, that messenger bag. Sitting on the bench, the old lady gripped that bag with iron fists. Three generations, Nettie supposed. Like me and Henry, going about their business, making do with what God doled out.    

A bat and ball.  A needle and thread.

Day by day, Nettie noticed more peculiar things. The Velcro straps on the child’s shoes. The way her jaw would slacken, the way a spool of spit rode down that child’s chin.

But then one afternoon that red light lasted two three minutes longer than it should. And it was then that Nettie noticed the child’s fingers.  The mother would open and close her mouth theatrically, over-emphasizing each sound. And after staring at the mother’s lips, the child would talk back with her hands.

Whether or not the mother knew how to sign remained a mystery. Not for one second did she loosen her grip.  To scratch her nose. To open her purse. To swat a mosquito. For while the child sat with her jaw slack and mouth open, as if her bottom were glued to her seat, the old lady looked ready to bolt. Nettie knew that look. Nettie’s mother had been senile, and she had that look, too. It’s like they’ve beamed in from another planet and can’t wait to get home.

A hammer and nail. A toothbrush and toothpaste.    

They say that God only gives what you can handle. But Nettie knew different. Her husband, a perfectly healthy fifty-year-old, went to sleep one day and never woke up. Nettie cried for an entire year. Then she went back to school and learned bookkeeping.  At first it was hard. Impossible! No man. No prospects. Then inch by inch, she pulled herself forward. It took a lifetime to learn that life wasn’t fair. Time doesn’t heal all wounds. Time scoops you out and leaves you hollow. What doesn’t kill you leaves you limping. You’re never really you again.

A brush and paint. A mop and pail.

After passing the bus top, she and Henry would follow their schedule until bedtime. Dinner at 5:30. A shower at 7:00. Then Nettie would shave Henry’s beard, trim his nails, and if he were good, read him a book. A whole shelf in his room was filled with duck stories. The Story About Ping. Duck Duck Goose. His favorite was The Ugly Duckling. Nettie would read it over and over. And every night his questions were the same.

“So the duckling wasn’t a duck. It was a swan?”

“Yes, Henry. It was really a swan.”


“Yes, always.”

“It just didn’t know it was a swan?”

“That’s right.”

“And now that it’s a swan, it’s happy?”

“Very happy.”

“One day it’s a duck. Then one day it’s a swan?”

“That’s right,” Nettie would say. “Like a miracle. Poof.”

Then she’d turn out the light and in a soft voice, reassure him as best as she could. “You see ducks have many many friends. Good friends. Bad friends. Work friends. Play friends. They have so many friends they can change them like shoes. But swans are special. Swans stay in twos. When they make a friend, it’s a friend for life.”

A cup and saucer.  A knife and fork.

When the pandemic hit, their life was upended. For people like Henry, the smallest surprise throws you off-track. The grocery store called Nettie the first week.

Nettie recognized the number. And when she answered the phone, she knew the voice. It was Hank McLaren, Henry’s supervisor.

Her pulse racing, she sputtered the words. “Is Henry all right?”

In the background were the usual supermarket sounds. Pick up in aisle eight. Pick up in aisle eight. Did someone leave an umbrella near Customer Service?

“Number one he won’t wear a mask,” said Mr. McLaren. “Number two he gives people hugs. He can’t give people hugs. He’s what? Six feet tall. Two hundred? Two hundred and twenty pounds? Jesus Christ, we’re in a pandemic now. Can’t you stop the hugs?”

Nettie was in the kitchen and gazed out the window. Can you tell the sun not to shine?

“I’ll work on it,” she told him.

But for Henry, touch was all or nothing. He liked to squeeze and he liked to hug. Masks had been categorized with all the other clothing he hated. The shirts with the scratchy labels on the back of the necks. The buttons that bothered his belly. Every time Nettie took out a mask he screamed. Itchy, Mom! They’re itchy!

Another phone call ensued.

“I think the boy needs a vacation. It’s safer this way,” said Mr. McLaren. “For Henry and for us.”

Their world got smaller. Fit and Fantastic closed its doors. Soon their life was reduced to their home and their television. Of course, Nettie tried to duplicate the schedule. In the mornings, they walked around the block. In the afternoons, they cruised the neighborhood, driving to and from the grocery store. They spotted the poodles, visited the duck, slowed down by the bus stop. But Nettie now kept her eye on the gas tank. Every gallon of gas was like a dagger in her heart.

The nozzle at the gas station. The slot where she slipped her credit card. If you listened to the people yakking on the TV screen—and Nettie listened like it was homework—every surface was suspect. Just like the virus, panic was contagious, too. Unfolding the newspaper. Bringing in the mail. Anxiety was amplified. Every worry looped.

And her biggest fear of all was getting sick. The news announced it loud and clear. Visitors weren’t allowed in hospitals. People were simply dropped at the door and left alone to die. Good Lord! Whatever would happen to Henry?   

Just the thought of him alone on a gurney made her ill. Then another worst-case scenario popped into her head. Whatever would happen if she got sick? For despite her best intentions, Nettie had no backup. There was a cousin somewhere in Boca. A few friends scattered here and there. But when her husband died, their true colors surfaced. Of course, they made a show of caring. A few Hallmark cards. A casserole or two. But when the bills piled up and collectors started calling, the cavalry was nowhere to be found.

The weeks passed by. It was a Monday when it happened. Nettie looked in her medicine cabinet and realized she was clean out of heart pills. When she called the doctor’s office, they said he’d get in touch. Hours later, the phone rang. To her shock, there was Dr. Newman’s face, pulled and stretched like taffy, shrunk on her phone’s screen. He sounded like he was in a tunnel.

“I hear you need your prescription refilled refilled refilled,” he said.

She closed her eyes and pictured his office. The vast lobby. The crowded elevator. The waiting room filled with hacking coughs. “Do you think you can maybe call it in?” said Nettie.

His fingers were busy clacking on a computer. “You got a blood pressure cuff at home? You got one of those pulse oximeters?”

Nettie was lucky if she had a quart of milk.

The doctor sighed. “Any palpitations? You know. Do you feel your pulse pounding?”

Like a drum, she wanted to say. Boom. Boom. Boom. 

“Okay,” said Dr. Newman. “I’ll call it in right now.”

When she hung up the phone, Nettie took a deep breath. Then she walked into the living room and turned off the television. Henry had a Yoo-hoo in one hand and a bag of chips in the other.

 “What happened?” said Henry. Then he pointed to the screen. “The TV’s dead.”

“We’re heading to the drugstore, Henry.  I don’t like it any more than you. We’re putting on our masks and walking like soldiers. Back straight. Hands by our sides. In and out in five minutes. If you’re good, I’ll buy you a treat.  A comic book. Or maybe some Skittles.”

She had taken him to the drugstore many times before. But like the supermarket, this once familiar place now seemed booby-trapped with hidden dangers. She snaked a pair of yellow dishwashing gloves on his hands for good measure. And when she pulled up to the parking lot, she warned him once again not to touch anyone or anything.

There was a crowd of people at the pickup counter. Turning to Henry, Nettie improvised her plan. “How about we get you a treat first?” she said.  They were heading toward the candy aisle when she saw them.  At first Nettie’s mind didn’t compute who they were.  All this time, she had only seen them in the same place and same position. At the bus stop. Sitting on a bench.       

But now they looked different. The mother had released her grip.  Instead she held a basket brimming with supplies. A quart of orange juice. A bottle of antiseptic cleanser. Those protein shakes advertised for seniors.

The girl was licking a lollipop, her tongue busy as a cat’s, her face tense with concentration. It was like the whole world resided in that pop. The old lady was still holding her messenger bag. But now that she was standing up, the tote looked like it weighed a ton. Her feet were splayed. Her long wrinkled neck bent forward. Her nose was sniffing to the left and the right like she was sampling the air.

For once, Nettie was speechless. They were and weren’t strangers. Yet they were and weren’t friends. Then suddenly, without any warning, the old lady’s hand flew out, grabbed a bottle of shampoo off the shelf and stuck it in the bag.

Nettie looked around. Aside from Henry and herself, there was no one else in the aisle.

“I see Oil of Olay,” said Henry. “And I see Palmolive Plus. But I don’t see any Skittles.”

Though the mother was wearing a mask, the girl’s mask had fallen to her neck while the old lady hadn’t one at all. Nettie grabbed Henry’s hand and backed up. She had no idea that a police officer stood directly behind her. It was like hitting a concrete wall. A gun on his hip. A black mask on his face. A big guy who took up a lot of room.

He was no manners and all business. He marched up to the mother holding the basket. Then he pointed to the ceiling. “Jou see the cameras? We got someone watching those cameras. For the last fifteen minutes they’ve been watching jou.”

Nettie wasn’t sure she was hearing right. Plus, the guy had some sort of Spanish accent.

The woman held out the basket. “I’m gonna pay when we’re done.  Whatever’s in my mother’s bag, we’re paying for that, too. She’s got Alzheimer’s. You ever try to shop with someone with Alzheimer’s?”

Out of nowhere, another cop showed up. Good grief, thought Nettie. There are riots in the streets and contagion in our homes. Don’t they have something better to do? Her mind whirred while her hands sprang into action.

Reaching into her purse, Nettie pulled out two twenty-dollar bills. “I’ve got money. Plenty of money. This woman got her hands full. Can’t you see?”

“I want Skittles,” said Henry. “I don’t see any Skittles.”

The policemen seemed to be working from a playbook Nettie neither recognized nor understood. He grabbed the old lady’s tote, nearing wringing off her neck in the process. Then cop number two turned to the little girl. “That lollypop hasn’t been paid for. Where I come from, we don’t start eating till we pay.”

Once again Nettie stepped forward. “She can’t hear you. She’s deaf. And she can’t read your lips because you’re wearing a mask.”

It all happened quickly. The old woman howled while the little girl started to cry. Nettie felt the ground beneath her feet sink. There was nothing her son hated worse than howling and crying. Nettie knew it was going to get bad fast.

By now Henry was shifting from foot to foot, holding his crotch and doing a little dance. “I want Skittles, Mom.”

The Black mother walked up to the cop. “What are you? Some kind of asshole?”

 “I want Skittles,” said Henry. “And I’m going to get my Skittles now.”

Then Henry marched forward like that little engine in his bedtime books. The candy shelves were just around the corner. He wanted that candy. He needed that candy. With both hands he pushed the two policemen out of his way. Then he chugged chugged chugged down the aisle.

A knitting needle. A cufflink. A mitten. A sock.  When paired, they serve a purpose. It takes two to make them whole.

In seconds, Nettie took it all in. The mother. The daughter. The old lady. The cops. Then in a corner of her eye, she saw a glint of metal. She had no time to hesitate and no time to think. Nettie knew crazy. And here it was! Served on a silver platter! Christ Almighty, she thought. These men are going to shoot my son! 

By instinct she threw herself in front of them. The taser, when it hit, was meant to stun her. They had no idea that it would break her heart.

Marlene Olin was born in Brooklyn, raised in Miami, and educated at the University of Michigan. Her short stories have been published or are forthcoming in journals such as The Massachusetts Review, Catapult, The Baltimore Review, and Arts and Letters. She is the recipient of both the 2015 Rick DeMarinis Fiction Award and the 2018 So To Speak Fiction Prize.

Turner Hilliker is a visual artist from Northern Virginia. He received his MFA in Book Arts and Printmaking from the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Under the moniker Holiday Pay Press, he has celebrated over a decade of self-publishing zines, comics, artist books. Two volumes of his comic anthology, Days Off, were successfully funded via Kickstarter in 2016 and 2019.