short story (2177 wc) | setting: modern | form: Southern fiction
[originally published under the pen name John Avalréadd in the WVSC Kanawha Review literary magazine, 1992]
It was never hard to find Old Duck. When he wasn’t in Ayers’ store buying worms and ice he was always fishing down at the pond.
Once, I was looking through some topos at Ayers’ and decided to take a look at the Mechanicstown map even though it wasn’t as interesting as the maps of other places. There was the pond, just marked “Old Duck Pond,” but I knew what it meant. Old Duck’s pond. Duck had been there so long he was on the map.
Another strange thing was that the pond was dead center of the three towns. It didn’t seem that way from the ground, I guess because there was a mountain between the pond and Orchard Falls, but on the map the three towns made a perfect triangle with Old Duck’s pond at the very center.
Actually, I wasn’t sure if Old Duck was always at the pond or not. I saw him there fishing by the dam once when I was sixteen, but I was on the steep side coming over the ridge from Orchard Falls. The only time I ever talked to him was in Ayers’ when he was buying worms and ice, and he was always talking about the things he did when he was younger.
Of course, that’s what old people do. That’s the definition of being old, when you start talking more than doing.
Anyway, Old Duck’s talk was never about the three towns, always about somewhere no one believed he’d ever been, even though everyone knew he had disappeared for fifteen years.
I was driving from Mechanicstown where I picked up a new carburetor at Ayers’, and I was thinking about something the two Henries (Big Henry and Little Henry even though Old Man Ayers was two feet shorter than Little Henry) were talking about.
Actually, the only thing they said to me was that I should work at the store since I spent so much time in there anyway, and I knew Big Henry was serious, but I joked that I would have to change my name to Henry Ayers and laughed. That’s when they started talking about what people should do, just between the two of them, and when Little Henry started losing the argument I left.
Passing through the woods that separated Mechanicstown from Meadows, I kept thinking about what people should do, since Big Henry sometimes talked like a dust-swirl hardly giving you a chance to think about one thing before he drops it and picks up something else and then drops that and picks up something he dropped five minutes ago. It normally took a while to figure out exactly what it was he said, if you could make sense of it at all.
That whole argument was still throwing up dust in my head when I saw the old shell of a Nova by the road that marked the path to Duck’s pond. Duck had known Old Man Ayers since he was born so I parked on the gravel shoulder and went looking for him.
Old Duck was hard to see.
He looked like a tree stump or big rock. I didn’t see him until he heard me crunching the grass and turned around. He was sitting right by the water on a bucket seat from the old Nova, his greyed leather boots sunk into the mud. His fishing pole looked like a reed growing out of his leg.
“Chip,” he said and turned back to the pond.
“I need to ask you something, Ducky.”
“You come down here an awful lot.” Old Duck laughed like an engine grumbling to a halt. He knew I didn’t.
“What’s the best thing a man can do with his life?”
“That’s easy enough,” he said and scratched the round tip of his nose. He seemed to be gathering his thoughts so I watched his line for nibbles. The sun had just come over the mountain and it was still cool. I wondered if that’s why Old Duck spent so much of his time down here in the summer.
I noticed the dam, and listened, but the water didn’t make any sound that I could hear. The pond must have been low. The clay mud was still wet on the shore, and there was a line of sand where the grass started.
What was taking him so long? I thought maybe he didn’t really hear me, so I started to ask him again.
“Quiet. You interrupt this place enough by leaning like that.”
The voice was a scratchy whisper that made my ears buzz trying to find it. I thought someone had sneaked up behind me. That’s when I realized I was leaning over Old Duck, almost falling on him. I stood straight and tried again.
He sighed before I could get it out and set down his pole. “What’s going on, Chip?”
“I want to know, what’s the best thing — I mean, to be a good — umm…” I knew I sounded like a fool.
“You know, Chip, if you’re not gonna ask me I’m gonna fish, okay?” He scooped up the pole and settled.
“I asked you twice. Almost twice.”
Old Duck looked up for the first time since we’d been talking, with his mud·brown eyes, same color as his thick, crumpled eyelids. His eyes seemed huge, blending into his face, his face blending into the background of mud and dried grass.
I thought he was going to bark, then I thought he was going to spit over his shoulder, then I thought crazily that maybe he hadn’t turned around at all, but Old Duck sighed a big sigh and said, “Go get a chair and sit down and while you’re gone maybe you’ll figure out what you want to ask….”
I slipped in the mud a little as I turned and ran off trying to think of where the nearest chair was. Running up the path, I caught my foot on the corner of an old trailer hitch rooted in the dirt and stopped.
I stood thinking Old Duck was maybe going senile, he couldn’t remember I’d asked once, almost twice, and he said “That’s easy” like he knew the answer, then nothing, and I shook a little and thought Where is a chair?
There was that old Nova, no doors and one seat missing. The other front seat was loose so I dragged it out.
“Did you figure out what you wanted to ask me?”
I set the seat down beside Old Duck and took a deep breath. That seat was heavy. I leaned with my hands on my knees, resting for a second. I was still panting when I started, “I asked you —”
“What is best for a man to do with his life.” When he said man it was maaan, like he was talking about some uuugly catfish he’d yanked up out the sludge. I was embarrassed, thinking he was making fun of me.
“Hop in.” He patted the seat I’d dragged down from the Nova. I sat down and he smiled with a yellow, flowery gap between the wet and dry browns of his eyes and eyelids.
“Where you wanna go, Chip?”
I stiffened up and wanted to say “Hmmm?” but knew it wouldn’t sound right, so I waited and Old Duck bent his root-like fingers in the air like he was driving the Nova. I laughed and it sounded the way I was afraid it would.
“You took your pole out of the water.”
“Fishing.. driving, breathing.. and answering some question,” he chuckled like a frog. “Tire me out and I’ll have to sleep right here.”
I felt I should apologize, but Old duck braked the Nova and dropped the imaginary gear into park. My seat slid a little and I braced myself, heels buried in the mud.
“This old pond wants a little back from me for all the fish I’ve taken out of it,” and we both laughed.
“How many fish?” I finished my laugh.
He looked at his wood-brown flannel shirt and the boulder-like mound that tested its buttons. “Too many,” he whispered like a secret. He nodded sideways at the pond.
I pushed the seat back away from the water, burying my shoes in the mud. The sun flashed suddenly from a gap in the clouds, a beige flicker on the pond.
“Henry says he wants you to work at the store.”
“Yeah, that would be okay,” I said and he held back a laugh. “I know everything about it anyway, I guess.”
“I know what a man should do with his life,” he stated, and I thought it was an introduction to something, but he lifted his pole to rest on his knee and tossed the worm out with his other hand. I took a deep breath to let him know I was ready for the answer.
“I couldn’t make no bird calls, not like real birds, tree birds, you know.” What was he talking about? “Everyone called me Ducky ’cause how I laughed.”
I almost fell out of the seat imagining a quack-laugh coming out of Old Duck. His voice was grumbly and deep, like a rock slide. He smiled and chuckled, not like a duck at all, and I shoved against the mud to keep from slipping into the water.
“That’s funny, I think,” he said, “but I tried my best to whistle like a real bird. I got pretty good too.” He stopped and frowned, squinting at the pond like he was looking for something.
“What is it?”
“I was pretty good, except that I only whistled at night. Me and my uncle Isa would sit on the front porch and watch the sky roll over to night and I would whistle like a bird.”
He stopped to hold back a chuckle that nearly burst his shirt. “I never thought about it then, but it must have made Isa craaazy. I was just trying to let him know I could whistle like a real bird. When I think about it, right after I started whistling at night, Isa stopped talking about work and just went back inside after the stars came out.”
He looked at me. “Do you think that’s funny?”
“Sorta,” I said. I didn’t want to interrupt if he was getting to an answer.
“Well, I can see you’re in a hurry,” chuckling at some joke between him and the pond.
“Crazy can be made up by people, but mostly it just gets passed around. I was making up crazy with my whistles and Isa could have handed it right back to me with a good swing of his arm, but he didn’t. He just went back inside. He’d been sitting there at night for twenty some years before I started whistling. I must have made up a lot of crazy for him,” and he laughed loud, blending with the dry hum of the breeze and the scratchy purr of crows.
I thought about Duck trying to prove he wasn’t really a duck and Isa gritting his teeth at every whistle and it was funny, so I laughed with him. There was a shudder of branches as the crows flew off into the dying breeze.
“Isa never handed out crazy to anybody, even though he got handed a lot. I’d say Isa took seven or eight tons of crazy with him when he died.”
I shifted my shoes in the mud and pushed back against the seat. Old Duck reeled in the worm and cast it out further up the pond from the dam.
“You should let that seat go before it takes you into the pond with it.”
My legs were cramping with the effort of holding myself back, so I stood up and dragged the seat into the grass. Old Duck’s boots were still rooted solid in the mud.
“Is that the answer?” I asked.
Old Duck looked back with his impish grin and blinked, then turned back to his fishing.
“The best thing a maaan can do, little Chip, is to take all his crazy with him when he dies. Don’t pass it around. That’s the only way to get rid of crazy.”
I thought about that and watched his line float on the water to where the worm’s weight pulled it down. He’d answered, I knew, but I still leaned over the muddy bank, even though I was hungry and needed to work on the car.
The crows had come back and were watching Old Duck, probably for him to leave them a fish. He hadn’t caught a fish the whole time I’d been there.
“Still,” he continued, “I guess if I’d known anything about birds, Isa would never have gotten any crazy from me. Birds sing and fly around all day long and then sleep at the nest at night.”
I started to say something, I can’t remember what it was, but he went on, “That’s just common sense, huh, Chip? So get out of here so I can catch some fish.”