from “Big White Birds”

I’m not supposed to see this: A woman is stopped behind me at an intersection, cellphone pressed to her face, her free hand chopping the air while she gives someone what for. It’s a sunny Tuesday morning in June. The grass is green, the trees are in full gorgeous leaf, and this woman’s face is breaking into jagged pieces as she pours out her anger. I fix my mirror, the better to see her. It’s a private moment, but I can’t help but watch because some years ago, on this very corner, my wife and I were having such an argument, and I was chopping the air, too, a grotesque mask of anger on my face, and we were being watched.

But on that day my wife was in the car with me, and the person watching was beside us, not in front of us, watching us with a bemused look on her face, not unlike the look on my face right now. When I stopped fulminating and took a breath, my wife turned and looked out the window at the woman spectator.

She jerked a thumb in the woman’s direction. “What’s that bitch looking at?” she said.

The light changed, and we both burst out laughing, which meant whatever the conflict was, in all likelihood, we were going to get through it.

When the light changes, things are getting worse for the woman behind me. I drive through the intersection, watching her complete a left turn behind me. It is then I see a male mallard standing by the side of the road. Never a good sign. I slow down and see, flattened on the centerline, a female duck. But for the orange feet, it looks like a savaged sofa pillow. I feel this tightening in my chest. Who wouldn’t? Who doesn’t love a duck?

For a month or two every year, we have ducks in the neighborhood, in our yard, in our ditch. We have two ducks, a male and a female. We’d like to think that, like us, they mate for life. They squabble, they bully each other and shut each other out, but they hang in there and make things work. This idealized notion of duck love, it turns out, is a fantasy. Termites mate for life. Wolves and swans mate for life. Ducks do not.

We’ll look out an east window of the house and see two heads bobbing in the ditch, or see the two of them squeezing through the fence to get to the neighbor’s bird feeder. Sometimes they sit under one of our apple trees and have a conversation. She says, “Quack.” And if my sources are correct, he answers, when he does, with a soft, low-pitched, slightly uxorious “Rhab-rhab.” Wherever they go, she goes first. He follows, more brilliantly colored, slightly wider, possibly dumber, possibly mesmerized by her tail. And wherever they go, they almost always walk.

Why on earth do they walk?

Why would they squeeze through a fence when they can fly over it? Why walk across the road when you can fly over it? Maybe it’s a relief not to fly. Flying is hard work. In seasonal migration, ducks fly 50 mph at altitudes up to 4000 feet. With a 50 mph tailwind, they cover 800 miles a day, a trek so demanding they then take 3-7 days to rest and feed and recover. But in the case of these ducks, our yard ducks, my belief is they don’t fly because when they fly, they don’t really know where they’re going. They know our yard and Beverly’s yard. They’ve been to John’s yard across the street. Let’s waddle over to Beverly’s and see if she put out some of that corn. They know the Mississippi flyway and their flightplan between here and Arkansas and Louisiana. But otherwise, I think they must be pretty much lost most of the time. When they take off and get above tree level, how do they know where they’re going? Do they think, Hey, I saw some water over by the library. Or, Let’s fly over to Drayton Plains. I don’t think so. They must think, Where the hell are we going? And, Whatta ya say we head back to the ditch and chill? It’s not like they’re looking for other ducks to hang out with. Unlike geese, which get mobbed up, ducks seem to pair up, find their little bowers of delight, and lie low.

We refer to these two as “our ducks.” My wife refers to them as Mr. and Mrs. Mallard. We have the idea, probably ridiculous, that the same ducks come back to us year after year. Like our ditch is their Poconos, and the lovin is easy.

So seeing the dead female, even if it’s not our female (and how can I be sure?), and her swain by the side of the road, even if they don’t mate for life, is a shock. I feel vicarious mallard grief.

The dead duck, and our fantasy of the two of them mating for life, reminds me of the miraculous appearance of swans in Freeland one year.

###

“Let’s go for a ride,” my father said one Sunday.

As a kid, I remember having a sense of total disorientation, usually in the car, usually at night, my father driving, my mother sitting next to him, me and my brother in the back. I would wonder, a pit of fear in my stomach, How can we not be lost? How do they know where to go?

We took lots of rides on Sundays, usually late afternoons. While my parents talked in the front seat, my brother and I looked out the car windows, hoping the ride would lead to Mooney’s Ice Cream Shop in Saginaw. Some days my father would take circuitous routes to fool us, so we would have that moment of surprise when we recognized at last where we were. If we found ourselves on Brockway, that odd hypotenuse in mostly perpendicular Saginaw, we sat forward in our seats, eager for sweets. But this particular day, I knew Mooney’s was not in the picture. We were going the wrong way. As I monitored our left and right turns, the farms and barns and bean fields, I got the idea we were going to Breckenridge. Which should have meant a visit to my grandparents. No such announcement was made. The mood in the car was somber. My parents talked, when they talked at all, in hushed tones. Something was wrong…

 

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