When Ducks Are Actually Tape

Employees try to push a scaled replica of the rubber duck by Dutch conceptual artist Florentijn Hofman away from lakeside at a park in ShenyangThe woman is a very thin woman.
She wears a severe black coat.
The woman hastily enters the train.
She moves between the people like an eel, slithering toward a seat.
The woman glowers into a book.

She is trying to balance a child’s birthday present on her lap.
The train jerks and moves. The train stops.
The train moves again.

The mother and her child are next to the woman.
The child is squirming.
“What is that?” the child asks.
“Oh! I’m glad you asked!”
The woman, looking older now,
Older even than the mother first noticed,
Points to the plastic duck on her package.

“That is a duck tape,” the woman says.
“It’s a measuring tape but it’s also a duck. What more could you ask for?”
Forced laughter. The woman laughs. The mother laughs too.
“I’m on my way to a child’s birthday party, you see,” the woman adds.

The mother profusely compliments the duck tape.
She says it will be a wonderful gift.
The mother is adamant that the child, that all children, will love it.
“Something for the whole family!” The woman nearly shouts.
Again her forced laughter.
“Yes,” the mother agrees. “It is very funny. What a very funny gift.”
The child fidgets and squirms.
She reaches for the duck that is actually a tape.
“Don’t touch that!” the mother scolds.
She is embarrassed.
“Of course,” the woman adds, “I had no idea what to get. Being childless and all.
I don’t know the kinds of gifts I should get. I really have no idea.”
The mother is silent.
“Well, that is a very nice gift,” she says again.

The child, having grown tired of the duck that is actually tape,
begins to press her face to the train window.
She is admonished against pressing her face to the train windows,
against all the bad things that can and do happen
to faces pressed against train windows.
And then a reminder—again—that the next stop is their stop.
That they are nearly there.
“We’ll be there in just a minute,” the mother says to her child.

And the woman tries to go back to reading her book but can’t.
She spins with the strangeness of her pronouncement.
“Childless” is a barren word.
What did she mean by that?
To chastise the mother?
To lament the past?
To express fear?
To gloat?

The mother bundles her child. They prepare to exit the train.
The woman, to the child: “Have a nice day.”
The mother’s quick response: “Thank you.”

They are gone.

The train lurches and moves forward.
The train stops.
The woman gets off.
She walks back six blocks.
For no reason.
She notices children everywhere.
There are no children anywhere.