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Everything Else Was Forgettable
By Corin Cummings

That was the summer my mother started working from home. I was seventeen, and we fought about something almost every day. Most of the words between us that summer were screamed or sarcastically sneered. She was stressed out about quitting her job and starting all over, and I wasn’t any help. 

She had set up an office, had a fax machine. She got a second phone line that I was forbidden to use, even if she was on the other line. We were living in a condo next to the lake then, and all I did was watch TV and hang out with a couple friends by the pool. I pretty much wore sweat pants with a bathing suit every day. There was a guy, Matt, that I was going out with. 

My mom paid me to run to Kinkos to make copies for her and occasionally had me type something, but since she just had her one computer, I could only work when she was out. She’d say that I should get a job, but she didn’t really want me to. She’d have to make copies herself, and there’d be no one to make grilled cheese for lunch. I was the master of grilled cheese and canned soup--although I only liked minestrone (except for the kidney beans which I picked out) and chicken vegetable (except for the dark meat which piled on a napkin next to my bowl).

I may have been a bratty teenager who dressed like trailer trash, but I was my mother’s only company. I was her only child, and I may have been her only friend. Sometimes when I think about how lonely she must have been then, I don’t know how she kept it--us--together as well as she did.

Day after day I told her about the guests on talk shows. I told her about my friends and Matt and once she told me that her boss at the job she quit had been a prick. I think that she had been seeing him. There had been a guy she'd been seeing before she quit. They had even gone away for a weekend. I think it’d been him. 

I wasn’t bored. I don’t remember ever getting tired of doing nothing. In fact, with my mom home all the time, I had a lot more company than I was used to. I was an only child with a workaholic mother. I was my own babysitter, entertainment center, nurse. Or maybe I had just learned not to need much. I could quite happily watch paint dry.

Okay, I hope I have impressed on you how uneventful that summer was. There was just one occurrence that sticks out, and for me it is a troubling memory. It’s nothing traumatic. It was just about an hour of my life, and when I think back to it, I’m not exactly sad, but I know that something about it--this occurrence--wasn’t right. I know I’ll be a lucky person if I’m still looking back at this in another 10 years and still having the same vague, troubling feeling. But this is what happened:

I was out by the pool with Matt. He and I hardly ever actually talked about anything. We also hardly ever touched each other. I don’t know why we spent so much time together not saying anything. I guess we didn’t have anything else to do, so we just hung out. When I think back to that time I wonder why I didn’t use my imagination more, why I didn’t explore or play or really even dream very much. Just a little while ago, I was at a party and a guy I know introduced me to his girlfriend from Wyoming. She told stories about her Huckleberry-Finn childhood, and it got me thinking about it. Why wasn’t I like that? I could have floated in the lake on an inner tube. I could have turned over rocks looking for crayfish, but I didn’t. Instead, I had a handful of what I thought were problems, and I lived by watching the absurd shit on TV.

Back to Matt and me by the skim-milk-blue pool: We heard ducks. That wasn’t so unusual because we were next to the lake, but we heard ducks and baby ducks, and they were right around the pool somewhere. We heard soft mama-duck quacking and little wee baby-duck peeping. We followed the sounds and found them under a bush near the fence around the pool. They were nested in the cedar chips, ten or twelve chicks.

I ran inside, all girlie, and told my mom I was worried about our cat or the neighbors son who I’d seen shooting pigeons with a BB-gun. I was acting cute for Matt, which annoyed my Mother. She snapped at me to leave the ducks alone, but I went on and on, and she finally yelled at me to bring the ducks back down to the lake if I was so concerned.

That was what I wanted to hear. That’s why I had pestered her. Eager to save the duckies from cats and boys, I was going to put them back where they were supposed to be. 

I emptied my laundry basket and put a towel in the bottom. Matt made a joke about me and "ducklings in the mist." I told him to shut up, and I hurried over to the nest. As I got close, the mother started making noise, as backed away from the nest. But the instant I picked up one of the chicks, she went crazy flapping her wings and making noise. The chicks panicked, too. At first I felt like a nurse giving a needed shot to a little kid. You know what I mean, “I know you’re scared, but this is for your own good.” I even thought it was a little funny at first. Matt thought it was funny. I could hear him laughing behind me. 
The mother duck thought I was hurting her chicks, of course, as I fed them into the laundry basket, and she screamed. There was no space between her quacks, just a long breast full of terrified sound. She flew at me and knocked my hair out of its neat little braid. I suddenly became aware that I might be doing something wrong, but it seemed too late to stop. I put the chicks in the basket as fast as I could.

Just as I picked up the basket, a male duck showed up, and started attacking the mother, pulling out her feathers. 

“Why is he doing that?” I screamed at Matt as the mother duck tried to flee the male and chase the monster (me) at the same time. I could see that Matt was scared too. I ran down to the lake. I was worried that I might drop the basket, but I couldn’t keep myself from running. I could feel everyone looking at me, seeing me do something really wrong.

On the boardwalk, I dumped the chicks out on the wood-plank walkway. I should have been more careful and taken them out one by one, but I dumped them, and they immediately headed for the water. There was a 6-foot drop to the water, and they fell like dry yellow sponges. The mother landed next to them and started to gather them together. The male duck went after the chicks now. I picked up a handful of gravel and tried to chase him away. 

The mother and chicks swam beneath the boardwalk. I lay on my stomach and hung over the side to see them. I should have left them alone. I remembered hearing that birds won’t take back their young if they’re handled be people. I wish I had remembered that sooner. I wish that my mother had thought of that.

I told myself that it wasn't my fault, that I didn't know, but I felt sick. I'd been yanked into something a little more real than what I was used to, a little more substantial than my usual days in front of the TV. I had to push from my mind the image of dead chicks on the rocks beneath the boardwalk.

Matt went home. I was relieved that he didn’t joke about it. He must have known I was upset, but he didn’t have anything to say about it. I stayed in my room the rest of the day. Mom said she had a Kinkos run for me, but I said I didn’t feel like it. I didn’t tell her about anything, and she didn’t ask. 

Corin Cummings [] lives in Toronto and works on the Internet.