Concrete Swans

An excerpt.

Summer, 2015 / No. 35
Illustration by Matthew Daley
Matthew Daley

In Agatha’s Ballet for Adult Beginners class, they are learning “Dance of the Little Swans.” She and the other women link hands in two human chains, the teacher presses Play on the stereo system, and they all hop and clomp sporadically, in and out of sync, trying to remember the steps and keep in time to the stabbing notes of the flutes. Agatha is the tallest in the class. They watch themselves in the long mirror. She also is the spindliest of them all in this “Dance of the Little Swans.” Her own hands and the two hands she is desperately holding on to are slippery and hot. She accidentally kicks another little swan in the ankle. Maybe she should take up basketball instead, she thinks, but what a cliché that would be—another tall woman playing basketball—plus she doesn’t even care about basketball. She tries not to judge her gangly, angular flamingo self in the long mirror reflected in the high sparkling windows. Her quads and buttocks ache, her neck sweats. She sweats between her small and prematurely drooping breasts (her breasts failed the pencil test when she was only nineteen), while the ballet teacher counts out loud, tells them, —Don’t flop around like dolls! Move with propulsive strength and purpose!

—I want to see the electricity crackling out of your toes! shouts the teacher.

Agatha chugs her breaths like a train, the inside of the windows veiled in condensation. Her joints strain until they tear and pop.

A swan collides into Agatha’s shoulder, the teacher claps, shouting, the sweat from being so focused trickling down around Agatha’s ears. The puffy fingers of the other women clutch hers, they clump their feet across the shiny wooden floor. They are all women at the brink of “a certain age,” doing this for their “health.” The ceilings in this room are very high. The building once was an old train station and she wonders what part of the station she is now galumphing around in. The old waiting room? A suitcase storage space? Did the train once rush through here? Agatha can hear the whistle of the train as it crashes toward her while she flops from side to side pretending to crackle electricity from her webbed swan toes, the train’s scream splitting her open. Just like the building where she works, Mawley Hall. That building, the new job, are splitting her open too. She will not cry. She will not. She will concentrate on her health; she will try to ignore the train screeching through her head.

The teacher claps one last time, and the women separate. Agatha packs away her towel and water bottle, pulls on her boots. She pushes open the shiny wooden railway station door and plunges into the dank fall air, kicking through scattered piles of fallen leaves in the tiny park between her and the street where she’s parked her car. Grazing jackrabbits the size of spaniels lope away when she approaches. Hares, oversized and stringy, studding the brown grass. They were here last week too. She should remember to bring carrots for them next time. Lettuce. How much lettuce? Lettuce gets expensive in winter. Four jackrabbits are tucked around the one tree, feeding out in the dying grass, and two of them leap up to swipe and jump at each other in a boxing match, clumps of hair drifting. She’s looked it up: a drove of hares, or a down or mute or husk of hares. In the half-dark they’re turning into smudges against the brown grass, their eyes bulging and silver when the beams of her headlights hit them in the snouts as she manoeuvres out of her parking space. She swears she drives by another hare feeding on a dead squirrel splayed in the road. Do hares eat meat? A hare gnawing on red bone, snuffling through entrails. Agatha fights her tears. Tomorrow she has to be at work early for a meeting. She pushes down on the gas pedal.

When she stops at a 7-Eleven on the way home to buy Aspirin she sees Angus Fella, in his grey fedora, using tongs to pick up a hot dog from the rolling rows of greasy, withered wieners in the corner of the store.

Agatha has never seen him outside Mawley Hall. She is like one of those children who believe their teachers live at school, are shocked to hear that teachers do things like shop for packets of French onion soup mix or tinfoil.

—Dr. Fella, she says. She corrects herself. She’s forgotten she’s not a student anymore—she is a professor now too. She is his equal. —Angus! she calls.

Dr. Fella fumbles his hot dog, startled. It squelches to the floor and rolls, picking up layers of dust and dirt.

—You’ll have to pay for that, sir, says the pimply clerk.

—No, interrupts Agatha. —I’ll get it! But even as she says it, she remembers she only has small change left over from buying the Aspirin.

—That would be super, says Dr. Fella.

Agatha fingers the change in her pocket, pointlessly: two quarters and a nickel.

—I can’t get it, she says. —I don’t have enough money on me.

—Well that’s just great! says Dr. Fella. He claps together his thick, wrinkled hands in frustration.

—I’ll buy you a hot dog another time. Tomorrow. Will you be at the university tomorrow?

—Someone’s going to have to pay for that hot dog, pipes the clerk.

—I’ll pay for it, you ninny, says Dr. Fella. —A hot dog isn’t even real food. Really, you should be paying me to eat it.

—It’s not company practice to pay customers to buy food, sir, says the clerk, barricaded behind the counter. —That’ll be three ninety-nine.

—I haven’t had a chance to put it in a bun, says Dr. Fella. – I haven’t put any ketchup on it yet.

He scoops up the dog from the floor with his fingers, jams it into a bun. He holds the ketchup container upside down over the dusty hot dog and squeezes. A glob of ketchup blats out of the container. He takes a giant bite.

—Dr. Fella! squeals Agatha. She gags.

—That’ll be three ninety-nine, sir! yelps the clerk.

Here, says Agatha to the clerk, digging her new bottle of Aspirin out of its plastic bag. —I’d like to return my Aspirin and get my money back and pay for a new hot dog. Dr. Fella, please put that thing down. I’m buying you a new hot dog.

Dr. Fella, still chewing, takes another extravagant bite, pink hot dog particles and wet bits of white bun spilling from his mouth.

—Has the Aspirin bottle been opened? asks the clerk. —I can’t accept a return if the bottle has been opened. I will also need the receipt as proof of purchase.

—I haven’t opened the bottle! I haven’t even opened the box.

—I’m afraid I have to disagree, says the clerk. —The cardboard flap has been unglued.

—Someone else must have done that. I didn’t even— You’ve seen me standing—

—Have you ever considered a job in government? Dr. Fella asks the clerk.

—I am completing my degree in business administration, as a matter of fact, the clerk says.

—Even better. Even better, a fine law-abiding young man like yourself. My hot dog tastes great, by the way, says Dr. Fella, chewing with his mouth open, his lips glossy and a dust mouse hanging from the corner of his mouth, waving the hot dog in Agatha’s direction.

The clerk pokes at his monitor and fishes out Agatha’s change from the cash drawer.

—Did you find everything you needed? the clerk asks as he hands Agatha her change.

—Jumping Jesus, I’ve gotta get out of here, growls Dr. Fella, hurling himself at the grubby glass door.

—Dr. Fella! calls Agatha. —Angus!

She chases him to the curb.

—I’m so sorry about that.

—You’re the new hire, aren’t you? asks Dr. Fella, swiveling toward her.

—Yes, she pants. —My office is 504. Next door to the washroom.

—Oof! he says, biting into his new hot dog. —That’s too bad. That’s not a good place.

—Yes, the first few months have been hard, but I know it will get better, Agatha says, trying to sound peppy.

—No, says Dr. Fella. —I repeat: It’s not a good place. Spittle flies from his mouth as he enunciates the “p.”

—What do you mean?

—Where did you get your degree? Canada Post? What do you mean, what do I mean? He snorts. —I mean there’s good offices in Mawley Hall and then there’s bad offices. Next to the washroom on the fifth floor? That’s the worst.

She gapes at him.

—Well, she says, —The toilet flushing can be rather noisy.

—Oh come on! he says. —What I’m saying is, and maybe this time you’ll hear me loud and clear: That building’s not just concrete and rebar. Mawley Hall has bones. Do you know the story about the woman who was in your office before you were? All the offices in that corner of the hallway?


—Well find out because you, junior professor, have drawn the shit card in the shit office lottery. Or don’t find out. Whatever, he says, and turns away, stumbling as he steps down off the lip of the sidewalk. —You don’t seem that bright. Did they hire you on purpose?

—I’m trying, Agatha says. —I’m really trying to fit in, and none of you people will help me fit in.

—Do you know what the architectural style of our building is called? he asks her suddenly. —Brutalist architecture, he says, wiping his nose with this thumb. —It’s the same style they use for jails and insane asylums.

He blinks at her in the half-light, panting, as though he’s just finished a long run.

—Doesn’t that bother you? Didn’t you hear what I said?

Agatha has nothing to say about jails or insane asylums. He says “jails” and “insane asylums” like they’re bad things. Like they’re not connected to the common good.

Dr. Fella throws up his hands, mumbles as he plods away from her and into the crosswalk, the hot dog’s foil envelope scrunched in his hand like he has forgotten he is even holding it.

—If it’s so bad then why are you still there? she shouts, her words evaporating in cooling mist. —Why haven’t you quit?

—Because I don’t have anything left! He spins toward her. —Mawley Hall took it all away from me.

Dr. Fella waddles across the street in a fury, white scraps of hair fluttering out from under his hat. He marches past a clump of pines. A hare hunched among the tree trunks flattens its ears against its back. Freezes.

Suzette Mayr is the author of four novels. Her most recent, Monoceros, won the ReLit Award and the W. O. Mitchell Book Prize, and was long-listed for the Giller Prize. Last updated summer, 2015.