by Sheila Lamb

Mae gripped her pencil as she watched Jenny Flynn attempt to swim. The girl tiptoed alongside the wall at the shallow end of the pool and inched her way forward until it was too deep to touch bottom. Then she grasped the concrete edge, while the other competitors, separated by lane dividers, splashed through the butterfly round. Mae debated whether to write disqualified on her judging sheet now and raise the dq card, or wait until the girl tiptoed through the entire lap. She tapped the graphite point on her clipboard. No points, not even a score of 1 could be given if a swimmer didn’t swim the proper stroke.

Jenny was autistic. Mae knew about Jenny’s autism because she substitute taught once for Jenny’s class. Her parents were doing the right thing by including her in swim team events, socializing her with other kids her age. Even the gruff Coach Becky was patient and kind with the girl.

Mae sighed as Jenny twirled her way past the five foot mark. At least she had figured out a solution to the depth/tiptoe conundrum; the pirouettes worked like treading water. Coach Becky provided no special instructions for this swimmer. Or water dancer, Mae thought snidely. Jenny Flynn spun. Whirlpools surrounded her chunky body.

How, Mae wondered, was she supposed to judge her in a scored competition? No other ten-year-old was allowed to ballet dance through the lane – a long agonizing dance in ninety-five degree humid, Virginia weather. Two other judges, swim team moms like herself, sat at separate folding card tables, evenly spaced at the end of each three-lane section. The women observed their assigned lanes, giving Mae no help.

If the head referee, an out-of-town import from Richmond due to the impromptu summer meet, would glance in her direction, Mae might be able to quietly get his attention and discuss her predicament. But the ref, like her fellow judges, watched participants who actually swam.

Glare from the sun bounced off the water. Mae squinted. She and Ben had moved to Candlewick Farms last year. In an effort to meet more people, Mae had dragged her son David to swim team practice at the club. Well. She didn’t drag David. He was a great swimmer, and placed in almost every meet. Yet even with his athletic talent, he made few friends. He talked to the other boys on the team, but that was it. No play dates, no sleep over invitations. Her kid was a loner. She wasn’t going to make friends through her son.

She’d accepted the last minute judging position in hopes of interacting with the other team parents. Brief hello’s and goodbyes had been the extent of her conversations. Here, swim team mothers chatted amongst themselves on lawn chairs scattered around the country club poolside. They didn’t acknowledge the special favor she was doing, judging this meet when any of them could have done it.

If only she could find the missing piece to this town, to this club. Ben failed to understand her unhappiness. Host a party, he suggested, a housewarming perhaps, and invite the neighbors, the swim team moms. Ben worked at the firm sixty hours a week, came home and slept. The party, his suggestion, would be her responsibility. She didn’t know if she wanted that burden. What if no one came?

Jenny reached the eight foot depth and clutched the concrete closest to Mae, before turning back, twirling all the while. She ended her pirouette when her feet touched bottom and began her tiptoeing creep toward the finish. If the swimmer was aware of the start and finish points, shouldn’t she be held to the same standards as the other competitors?

Mae’s head pounded in pre-migraine warning. Tension rose up her neck and a dull throb began at the base of her skull. She tried to catch the referee’s eye across the expanse of water. Mae decided she wouldn’t hold up the disqualification card. She didn’t want a scene. She’d just give a slight hand raise to discuss the problem with the head ref.

“No!” Coach Becky caught her movement from across the twenty-five meter pool. “No! Do not dq Jenny Flynn! No!”

Wrong call, wrong call, wrong call. Mae’s hand shot back down to her clipboard. Her newly manicured nail hit the metal spring, chipping the pale pink polish. Wrong call.
Now, they looked at her. Everyone. Now. A gasp. A whisper in a soft Virginia drawl…How could she disqualify that retarded girl…

Autistic, Mae corrected in her head. Not retarded. Jenny was most likely savant. She could probably total up the scores for the entire team in less than a minute.

A shadow blocked Mae’s eyes from the sun. Coach Becky. Her broad shoulders bore down as she pounded a fist on the rickety card table.

“You can’t do this.”

“I wasn’t-”

The referee appeared. Finally. “Don’t worry about it, ladies. Give her a one, she’ll place last.” Problem solved. Just like that.

Becky smirked and walked back to where Jenny Flynn had made her way to the concrete ledge. Jenny’s mother held the girl’s thick wrists as she struggled up the ladder. Coach Becky wrapped her in a snowy white towel.

Mae stared at her clipboard, at the jagged edge of her thumbnail. She pulled Jenny’s score sheet and filed it underneath the alphabetized stack. A new score sheet, pre-typed with the next competitors name, lay blank before her.

  1. Great tensions! I was on the edge of my seat. More than one person is twisting in this story.

  2. Wow, great story! You’ve touched upon a wide variety of the issues swirling around autism in very few words. Nicely done! Can’t wait to read more!

  3. Excellent use of detail to build tension and imply the situation. We know a lot about these characters in a little space. Nicely done!

  4. Great job! I enjoyed the read very much and felt the tension.

  5. Sheila, this was so good . . .are you writing a novel, by chance? 🙂 I have a daughter with autism and can’t tell you how much this depicts reality, for Jenny and for everyone around her. Thank you!

  6. So nicely realized. I could see the scene unfold from different perspectives as I read it. And now I want to know what happened next!

  7. Yes, nicely done! I want you to continue this story too!

  8. Agree, I was drawn immediately I want the story to go on!

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