Swan Song

Swan Song

by

Phillip McCollum

The drums lacked punch. The bass guitar was fuzzy and thin. And the vocals? Meh. Barely the growl she was looking for. Still, seventy-one-year-old Hazel McAllister sat in the driver’s seat of her nine-year-old Ford Focus, whipping her thinning silver hair back and forth to the newest release from Satan’s Seed.

Any metal was good metal.

A pair of teenage boys in a raised pick-up truck pulled up next to her at the stoplight. She stopped thrashing long enough to catch their wide eyes and uproarious laughter. The passenger rolled his window all the way down and leaned out. Hazel hit the switch to roll down her’s.

“Hell yeah, grandma!” The boy gave her the devil horns.

Hazel stuck out her tongue and returned the gesture. The light turned green.

“Don’t break a hip!” he said before the duo sped off into the sunset.

Hazel’s heart sank as her Ford crept through the crosswalk.

#

“Where’s the Lisinopril?”

“In the bag.”

“I don’t see it.”

“Keep looking.”

“It’s not there. Did you forget it?”

“Are you going blind now too?” Hazel hurried into the kitchen, bumping into her husband’s walker as she did so. She dug through the plastic bag, past the packs of pocket kleenex and the anti-snoring nasal strips.

“Here,” she said. She slapped the little brown bottle onto the speckled formica counter.

“Oh. They musta changed the bottle.”

“It’s the same bottle, Gerald.”

He muttered something that Hazel ignored. She leaned back with her arms crossed, watching him struggle to open the lid. His shoulders seemed to slump forward a little more each day and he was almost out of breath on a regular basis. It was COPD. Unfortunately, he also had high blood pressure and while he could take a pill and eat his vegetables, the usual suggested level of exercise was at odds with his lung capacity.

Hanging on a wall beside the kitchen cabinets, just above the wheezing Gerald, was a photo of the two of them–leaner, taller–standing like ants beneath a giant Sequoia tree. They’d hiked thirty miles over three days during that trip twenty years ago. Now, Gerald would occasionally quip that getting from the living room to the bedroom was akin to climbing Mount Everest.

It took Hazel only five minutes to reheat leftovers for dinner. Dry chicken breast with sodium-free seasoning and a side of steamed cauliflower for both of them, though Hazel kept a bottle of tangy hot sauce hidden in the back of the cabinet which she applied liberally when Gerald wasn’t looking.

Halfway through Wheel of Fortune, Gerald was snoring in his well-worn recliner, the tray of half-eaten dinner pushed aside. Rapidly spinning colors reflected off his eyeglasses which rested beside the plate. The wheel’s click-click-click came to a stop and a slide whistle sounded off. The contestant threw her hands in the air.

Bankrupt.

Hazel snuck off to the guest bedroom and went through the closet, pulling out an old dress box. She tossed the lid to the ground and pulled out a pair of black leather pants. They felt stiff as she laid them on the comforter next to a matching jacket and magenta crop top.

Arthritis around her knuckles flared as she tried to button the tight jeans, forcing her to stop a few times until the snap took hold. After putting on the crop top, she turned back and forth in the mirror. Scars from gallbladder surgery were visible when the light hit her waist just right, as were the results of bearing three children, so she traded in the shirt for a longer blouse which she barely managed to tuck into her pants.

After applying violet lipstick and green eyeshadow, she checked on Gerald. His chin was on his left shoulder now. She gently removed his shoes and turned down the volume on the television before closing the front door behind her.

#

The bouncer was a large black man, two Hazels wide and two Hazels tall, with a slick bald head and a septum ring that only increased the don’t-mess-with-me factor. He looked her up and down.

“You in the right place, lady?”

Hazel stared into his eyes and gave him the finger.

“Yeah, you’re in the right place,” he said, waving her through.

#

The odor of cloves and cannabis floated out from a group of kids packed into one corner of the floor.

Puke Sticks, the opening band, was playing its heart out. The lead singer looked like he’d been running a marathon. While he screamed into the microphone, sweat poured from his long hair and shirtless torso onto three scantily-clad girls crowded together at the front of the stage. About twenty or so kids were spread out into cliques, most of them standing still with either their arms crossed or hands in their pockets while they rocked their heads up and down in synch with the kick drum. Some of them had bright orange earplugs. Hazel benefited from years of deteriorated hearing.

She thought about heading out there, trying to blend in, but she was already conspicuous enough. Instead, she made for the bar packed with people waiting for the headliner. It was filled with all types–one couple had matching tunnel plugs in their earlobes that left six-inch gaps. Then there was the guy wearing eight-inch-heels and tattered, sleeveless black t-shirt with a red, upside-down pentagram silk-screened across the middle.

Hazel found an empty bar stool at the far end near the restroom. She tried to flag down the bartender for a drink, but no matter how loud she shouted or how much she waved her hand, it was as if she were a ghost without a voice.

“What are you drinking?”

The voice came from over her right shoulder. Inserting himself to her right was a young man who looked to be about the age of Hazel’s second grandson–maybe second or third year of college, assuming this guy went. His eyeshadow matched Hazel’s, but he didn’t have the lipstick. His hands rested on the top of the bar where his black nail polish sucked in the colorful lights swirling out from the stage.

“Apparently, the air,” Hazel said, unsure if he even heard her. She brought her chin to rest on her fist as she gazed downward at his hands. They were so pure, free of wrinkles and liver spots.

The man stuck a pair of fingers in his mouth and let out a whistle that somehow cut through the distorted guitars pumping out of the venue speakers. The bartender finished pouring a foamy beer and walked over.

Hazel perked up.

“Gin Rickey,” she said, quickly realizing by the bartender’s narrowing eyes that she was probably the only person in the building old enough to know what that was.

“Two gins with lime and soda water,” her new neighbor said without a moment’s hesitation. The bartender turned and got to work.

“Unfortunately, this club’s mixologist,” the young man said with air quotes, “is clueless as to decent cocktails. We’ll see if he doesn’t bork this one up.”

“Thank you,” she said.

The boy smiled. Not a sign of crow’s feet around his eyes.

“You remind me of someone,” he said.

“You better not say your grandmother,” Hazel replied.

The boy chuckled. “Actually, I was going to say my ex.”

Hazel leaned back as if to appraise him. “Oh? Into older women, huh? I guess I should have seen that coming.”

“I’m into beautiful minds,” he said. “She was actually a year younger than me. It’s just that she put out the same vibe as you. Had the same attitude. The same lust for life that I see on your face.”

Hazel held back a chuckle of her own. “A lust for life. I just want to make it to tomorrow,” she said.

“I don’t believe that for a second.”

Hazel wasn’t sure she wanted to get into this conversation, but she stayed put, waiting for her cocktail.

“No, you want to make the most of every day, even if others might think they know what’s better for you.”

“So why is she your ex?” Hazel asked, steering the conversation topic back to him.

“It was my fault. I was holding her back.”

“You?” she said, not trying to hide the incredulity in her voice.

“I wasn’t always such a free spirit,” he said. “Or at least I was afraid to admit it.” It was him now, staring off into space like he was trying to find something he’d lost.

“I get it,” Hazel said. She felt an immediate need to comfort him. She got him. He apparently got her.

They drank and talked about their favorite bands, their dreams, and their experiences until Puke Sticks cleared the stage and God’s Bane launched into their first song.

“Wanna dance?” the boy asked, standing up and over her now.

“I’ll probably break my hip.”

“Why would you say something like that?”

Hazel didn’t have a good answer. Over the past thirty or so minutes, she felt better than she had in a long time. It was as if time paused to give her rest. She had tried for so long on her own, gave it an effort, but it was hard to do it all alone.

“Hey, what’s your name?” she asked, jumping on her feet.

He extended his polished fingers. “Jerry. But my mom calls me Gerald, so please don’t call me that.”

Hazel looked into his face and tried to transpose it with the man who was sleeping in her house. The eyebrows were a little more wiry. The nose was almost the same. Maybe thicker lips. But it was the flaming fuel behind Jerry’s light brown eyes that reminded her of things past.

“Alright, Jerry. Let’s hit the mosh pit,” she said.

He craned his neck. “I don’t see one.”

“Not yet,” Hazel said, grabbing his hand, pulling him toward the center of the floor.

2 thoughts on “Swan Song”

    1. Thank you so much, Linda! The idea behind her popped into my head as I was at a stop light, listening to my music cranked up… wondering if I’d be doing the same thing when I’m in my 70s and 80s.?

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