Leslie Maslow

Let me keep going. Donít try to stop me. You, nurse. Let go of my blouse. Iím going over here to look under these lids at whatís in there. Maybe thereís something good, like a plate of cookies or some bread I can give to the birds. I like to watch them peck at the crumbs. I like to feed things. The ducks walk funny. Theyíre like little people who donít know as well as I do whatís needed. Theyíre dignified, and theyíre trying their best, but without my help they wouldnít make it. Yet look at the way they float, how upright! We should take a lesson from them. We donít try hard enough, which is why you nurses should let me keep going. Let me go, donít pinch at my sleeve! Iím trying to help the ducks so they can keep being tidy, which is more than I can say for you.

I havenít seen my favorite duck, the lady with the tag on her ankle. Mrs. Lovitz says my duck is at the hairdressers. I know she means well, but I donít feel any better.

Some of them have tufts of white feathers against their blackness, as if they havenít groomed themselves well. This isnít for lack of trying, but because itís hard out there. They canít do it. They need help. Maybe they have lice or some other bug. Theyíre trying, with dignity, to keep going but opportunists get under their feathers. This gentleman duck looks like the elder statesman of the group, so itís all the more upsetting that thereís something ruffling his feathers. He carries on, and they all seem to respect him because in some way or another, all the ducks have been disheveled. Itís not right. They donít deserve it.

When a car or a golf cart comes along the road, they waddle out of the way just as fast as they can, which isnít very fast, like the people that eat too much pushing their carts at the supermarket. When was that? I used to tell them, donít eat so much. After my dinners, I walked around the track at the high school so I wouldnít be like them. When was that? Before here.

There are tan ducks and there are white ducks, and there are white and tan ducks. This is how it should be. It wasnít always this way. White ducks used to have to be over there and tan ducks used to have to be over there and God forbid you would have them together. Things are better now. Only, most of the nurses that lift me at night are tan and most of the ones that take my temperature in the daytime are white.

The man in the blue shorts tried to help me find my duck with the tag this morning. He said donít worry, sometimes the ducks spend time at the pond at the golf course.

Once a duck walked through the doors that open and close. Everybody talked about that for days. I tried to walk the other way through the same doors but alarms went off. You have to be supervised. Everyone who lives here who can walk on two feet has tried to go on their own. They just make a U-turn when the siren goes off, like itís no big deal. They try again and again and again, and the siren doesnít say ďDanger!Ē It seems to say ďHa-ha you fool, better luck next time.Ē

My daughters hung a mobile of old photographs near my bed.

Some pictures I wish they would take down.

In one picture Iím holding a brand new, red-faced daughter and smiling for the camera. He is next to me, holding a ham swaddled in a dishtowel. His lips are puckered, like heís going to kiss it. Everyone laughs when they see that picture. They think the punch line is the ham, but it isnít. Itís the kiss. In the morning when I count the tiles in the ceiling, air from the vent twirls the picture towards me. I squint my eyes closed, so I donít start to think God damn him, God damn him. Thatís no way to start a day.

As long as I am angry, maybe my duck stays away.

At lunch Mrs. Lovitz said her grace. Sheís a good girl and Iím a bad girl. I must try harder. Instead of grace, I put my hands together and say, ďStudy, study until you are old. A good education is better than gold. Gold and silver may wither away, but a good education will never decay.Ē

She asked me politely what we were eating. I said duck and she said ďNo,Ē like she believed me. I meant chicken, but now my words come out wrong when they come out at all. Only the old sayings are all right. I hope she didnít believe me about the duck. We wouldnít eat that here. Good thing, with them outside, staring in through the windows, hoping for scraps.

Itís not right, to stop me from doing what I do. Theyíre out there waiting. If I canít open lids, I wonít fill my bag, and then what will happen to the poor things? We sit in a semi-circle watching the cooking lady on TV or the man in the vest who comes with his electric piano. I canít stop thinking about my ducks. I have work to do, and all the nurses want is for us to sit here. When we wave our arms to music, I try to make excuses so I can go but they stop me.

Some days of the week, Iím saved. A nice, loud, tan nurse comes to walk with me outside. She talks so close to my face, I blink. I bring the bags of bread I have hidden in my drawers and under my pillow and in the corners of my room. She helps me.

Others donít.

ďYouíre fooling no one,Ē the big nurse said.

Sometimes she opens my drawers and starts messing my things.

I couldnít stop myself from yelling at her the last time she did it.

ďExcuse me! Excuse me!Ē

She kept going. I took my nail and put it across her arm. She pushed a button on the wall and other nurses came and tried to hold me. All the bags went into the trash. Four days of work. Foraging, searching. The bagel the nice man brought me. The piece of roll I found, what a prize it was. Untouched. I grabbed and they pulled the bags away. I heard the word ďunsanitary,Ē I heard the word ďdaughter.Ē

The big nurse had them all around her, swabbing her arm like I was a vampire bat.

I marched down the hall and straight through the doors but not dignified and slow, like a duck. No easy U-turn like it was only a joke when the alarm went off. Two nurses grabbed me and stuck me in the arm with a needle. I had a terrible headache after.

It takes me a long time to build back up to what would be right for the ducks. On the days when my head hurts and there are no savings for them, I feel like Iím suffocating. I lose heart. The last time I had a headache, I skipped lunch. Mrs. Lovitz came up to me and held out her shiny, big-knuckled hand and pressed something crinkly towards me. Oyster crackers. She was already down the hall when I could finally close my mouth and look up after her and try to call out.

My ducks are an audience. Theyíre a following. The group of them, first the sharp ones, seeing me coming out of the sliding doors, but then even the slower ones, the dim-witted ones, bringing up the rear, following suit, being led by the leaders, over the arched bridge of the pond, a promenade, of pomp and circumstance, a procession toward what they are rightfully entitled to. I give. I reach my hand in and I grab crumbs and I give, I give.

Two people have come today. Theyíre female, they look like one another, they speak in the same voice. They smile at me and talk to me like I won the lottery. One needs to eat more bread and the other should not eat so much bread. Itís not healthy to eat that much bread. The one that needs more, itís not healthy to eat that little. You can see the green long things running under her arms. I think I might offer her some of my savings for the ducks, but in my heart I canít do it. The ducks stand upright with long necks and silly human little nostrils in their beaks and self-respect and ridiculousness and they must be taken care of. The thin one here, she talks like itís all cause for celebration. I can remember that sheíll take her foot and push it against the pedal of her car and, zip, why should I give her what she can get herself? The other one, the round one, sheís more like the ducks because she canít see how silly she is. Maybe I will slide her a crumb when the fast, hungry one isnít looking.

The nurses say to me how nice it is to see both of my children in one day, ďthe oldestĒ and ďthe babyĒ but I know this isnít true. They donít understand. The thin one is the oldest, but the round, younger one is in the middle. I wish they would stop calling her my baby. I can only blow a long breath out from my mouth.

In the gazebo where my nurse and I go some afternoons, there are leavings from the ducks. The man in blue shorts has a hose that makes a loud sound and we canít go in it today. We watch the people on the putting green. I look for my duck but I donít see her. Clouds as big as Broward County hover above the men with their putters. The white ball rolls and Iím told not to pick it up. I clam up because I wasnít going to pick it up, does she think Iím stupid, I wouldnít pick it up. I only pick them up if theyíre forgotten. I have a drawer that is so heavy with them it slides out sometimes in the night while Iím sleeping. She tells me all about a thing that will solve the problem, a shim. She keeps saying weíll get one. I donít know what that is but it must be hard to find.

Sometimes the ducks get snippy with each other. They bicker. But they never fight, not like dogs or bears or other bad animals that deserve no bread. Bears forcing themselves against each other with the flapping of blubber in their legs, pushing and biting. Iíve seen it on television. Animals, to behave that way. I would send them to bed without supper.

A duck will turn its head away from you in order to look at you better with one eye or the other. It is not snubbing you, itís trying to see you. Sometimes a duck will pull its head back and grow tall in the neck like itís showing you it has self-respect, like you have offended it. When youíve spoken to the girl in the kitchen on their behalf. When youíve been scolded again and again for their sake. You learn not to expect gratitude. They are only ducks. They donít know how.

The pond stops shimmering. The sky rumbles a little, but no one goes inside.

Little ones! Little ones! And who is leading the way down the bank? My own special lady! Onto the water and fanning out. Powder puffs gliding on the surface of the water. Not even making a mistake, not even going the wrong way. They fan out behind her, perfectly, without tooting their own horn, without asking for praise. Is it a joke to you now, you nurses who throw away what I store?

Where are the witnesses? Itís not enough that itís just the loud one and me. There have to be more! I can show them. And when she holds her silver gizmo up to take a picture, I veer off and go inside as fast as I can. My middle girl is sitting in a small pink room with a nurse. The nurse is showing her pieces of paper. I tug at the sleeve of my middle girl to come see.

ďWhat?Ē she says.

Nothing is more important than that she come with me right now to see the little ones. She sits there doing something dumb, something stupid, her glasses on, leaning over to look at the papers the nurse has and itís just a game sheís playing to exclude me, to make me feel dumb, but itís the game thatís dumb and if she doesnít hurry up and come she wonít get to see the great thing! She is laughing a little and glancing at the nurse like the two of them understand something I donít.

But if she wonít come, I may never get the chance again. Maybe there were times I wanted her to come places that werenít important. Maybe I pulled too hard sometimes and now she wonít come. If I could tell her in words I would, but I donít have them anymore.

Thank God the thin, oldest girl comes in because she takes me by the shoulders and says, in a voice like I just painted the Mona Lisa, ďWhat is it, Mom?Ē

ďShe wonít go,Ē I say.

ďHow about I go with you?Ē she says.

I hate the fat, middle one. She doesnít listen to me. She looks down on me. But I love the oldest, the thin one, so much and pull her through the doors while my nurse pushes on a button to stop the alarm and we are outside in the new wind, crossing in front of a golf cart and over the arched bridge and theyíre still there! One in front and now we are counting together, there are sixteen in all.

Itís a miracle. Itís a miracle. No one gets eaten or lost or loses tufts of feathers to bugs. No oneís hungry, and it isnít cold. No one clamors for a Dad, who sneaks them candy that rots their teeth and plays their buddy so that the mother duck is the bad guy. God in heaven has not taken any of them, as Mrs. Lovitz would say.

Iím glad she is not here to say it and make me mad and then feel sorry. The mother duck leads them through the black satin water. God isnít the one who kept them from the hawks and the hurricanes. My lady duck did it with her natural goodness. Look how silent she is. Not having to say drink your milk in order to live. Not having to say donít eat too much candy. Not failing to find the right place between too much and too little. Not touching her baby with infected fingers.

Sheís her own miracle. No one else to thank. She did it all herself.

After weíve counted the ducklings again and taken many pictures, after the middle one has come and seen, the two of them kiss me on the cheek and say, like itís a good thing, ďGoodbye, Mom.Ē I donít understand their meaning or their smiles or the nurseís treating them like they were the one given a bad shot and deserved sympathy, bread crumbs. But theyíve both seen my ducklings, and that was more than I could have hoped for, waking up to a man with a ham, turning. They wonít blame me for what I must do anymore. They have seen my ducklings.

The wind blows my hair.

ďLetís get you inside,Ē my nurse says.

I feel like Iíve climbed Mount Everest.

At night I count the tiles on the ceiling. One two three four, and then Iím asleep. But tonight is different. The wind moans in the palm trees. Mine is not the only room that hears it. The thunder goes on and on. It covers the humming of the refrigerator, the beeping of my neighborís machine, and the mumbling of the loud dreamer across the hall. When you canít hear the black silence between those things, it is not as lonely.

Hard rain now. It sounds like applause.

When it rains they pull down the plastic flaps on the golf carts so the people can get from building to building without getting wet. They are crinkly from being rolled up and smell sharp and clean and I donít like it. Tonight I can almost feel it, the clear thick crinkly plastic. I dream Iím in my bed and theyíre putting it over me, like a tent. And then itís not me inside the plastic anymore but a little doll with porcelain skin and bright blue eyes that Iím not allowed to touch. In the dream I want to touch her but I also donít want to touch her, I want to go away from her, I donít want to even look at her. They let me go away.

I went away from a daughter once. I know Iím not dreaming now because my eyes are open. When the lightning flashes I see the tiles on the ceiling, and the pictures of the mobile, turning. I went away from my baby. I played tennis and drank gimlets and talked about a person named Linus Pauling so that the people in white shorts and shirts, holding racquets, would know I cared about the world. I talked like I was interested in the world so they would not put their hands on my back and make me feel like a little thing that needed help, like a duck. While the little doll daughter lay in plastic in a hospital, I spoke of the Nobel Peace Prize so they wouldnít put their hands on my shoulder. Please. No talk about God. No hands touching me, no hands that I canít stop myself from pushing off me while the warmth rises in my face. I talked so they wouldnít see me knowing the hands of nurses reaching into plastic gloves built into the sides of the tent, feeding her, wiping her, scratching the soft skin of her forehead with their plastic kindness. Linus Pauling, Linus Pauling, so the people in white would not comfort me like they knew I would never touch my baby again.

In the morning, when I wake, I look up at the tiles and feel like Iím wearing half of the porcelain mask of my bright, blue-eyed doll. The nurse comes to lower the railing. She canít tell I am wearing a half-mask, because my daughter and I look so alike, except that my daughterís eye always looked toward something to come and mine does not look at anything at all.

Bright today. She puts a hat on me, and sunglasses. Because of it, I get the thumbs-up from all the nurses.

There is only one duck by the bridge. I drop bread around her. The sun dances on the water, blinding her. She turns like the needle of a compass, to the North and to the South and to the East and to the West, wondering where everybody has gone.

Leslie Maslow grew up in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. Her short story "Mum" won the 2009 RRofihe Trophy Short Story Contest and was published in Open City Magazine. Her short essay on the Pšr Lagerkvist novella, The Difficult Journey: Guest of Reality II, was published in the summer 2010 issue of Tin House. She has had fellowships to the Sewanee Writers' Conference, the Djerassi Resident Artist Program and Vermont Studio Center. She is currently enrolled in the MFA writing program at Bennington College.

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