Texas Tech University Press, 256 pp.
No one cared that Jack and James Dunkirk were married, or that every Halloween Jack painted his body tan and James his silver with black dots drawn over his nipples and belly button and along every point and seam, Jack a sleek Cowardly Lion and James the Tin Man, their lean musculatures on display every time they opened the door and dumped full-sized Snickers bars into our kids’ plastic pumpkins. We didn’t care that during Pride month they could be seen climbing into their hybrid car in the morning wearing leather harnesses like they were donning suspenders, their shaved legs exposed in bright-colored shorts that cinched around their quads like handcuffs. When we saw them at the public pool, we envied their pectoral muscles and the cut of their hips, and all of us would have probably sacrificed our first-born sons to have James Dunkirk’s shoulders. We may have found their not one or two but three rainbow flags a bit gaudy.
No, the problem was the ducks.
Jack Dunkirk was a sous chef at Moos, this expensive gastropub in the reinvigorated downtown district, surrounded by wine bars and Bikram yoga studios. Prices were whole numbers and the descriptions of dishes were as curt as could be, lists of ingredients but nothing about how they were prepared. Some of us went and were taxed by the pulsing, wordless music and the strange black lights that glowed beneath the tables and revealed every stain and dusting on our pleated pants and every run in our wives’ pantyhose. They did not serve PBR or Anheuser-Bush or Jack Daniels and when we tried to order wines, the options were overwhelming, a sea of reds and roses and blancs that made our eyeballs hurt. Moos was all about farm-to-table cooking, which made us imagine live cows being slaughtered in the kitchen, dragged in directly from a pasture attached to the restaurant. Maybe they kept goats in the industrial fridge for extracting cheeses, strewing the non-skid floor with feed for chickens and lambs soon to be chopped up for masalas and Kievs. When we paid the bill, we mentioned that we knew Jack, who came out to greet us, shaking our hands. His sleeves were rolled up, and his forearms twitched, splattered with fancy sauce. He hoped we liked the granita, and we nodded like we knew what he was talking about.
The Dunkirks’ backyard was a booming garden, vines of Brandywine tomatoes climbing a trellis, blackberry bushes lining their fences, rows of beans and haricots verts and bok choy and radishes bursting from raised beds. These we had no problem with. We oohed and aahed at the magical way vegetables and fruits manifested throughout their property—they were blessed with an apple tree that dropped red delicious down into the grass like rainfall—and more than once we stared as we sweated through mowing our lawns. Our children asked if we could plant our own fruit trees, our wives tsking that they’d love to have their own basil and mint. They dreamed and wished and we ignored them as best we could, even when our children whined about wanting to plant cherry trees after they learned about George Washington, pointing to the Dunkirk yard when we said no, we couldn’t do that. We pretended not to hear the train engine chug of their why, why, why?
Jack Dunkirk decided he wanted to make his own duck confit. And if the Dunkirks could grow their own kohlrabi and pepperoncini, why not living creatures? One day we saw Jack and James kneeling in their backyard near their hammock strung between two Eastern Redbuds. We’d seen them out there before, lazing and reading, often pulling off all but their underwear as they wobbled back and forth, their bodies somehow fitting together like obnoxious, perfect puzzle pieces. They were both bent to the ground, hard at work with shovels. When we asked them later, they explained they were digging out a small pond.
“For what?” we said, sipping the fancy, microbrewed Kolsches they offered us.
“Well,” Jack said, looking at James with sly eyes, as though they were flirting with one another, “we’re going to raise ducks.”
“And koi,” James said. “But mostly ducks.”
They took us into their guest room and showed us the incubator.
“Eggs,” James said. “We’re waiting for them to hatch.”
“Is this a thing?” we said. When they nodded, chests puffed with pride, we said, “What about the mother? Don’t they need a mother to sit on them so they hatch?”
“That’s what the lamp is for,” Jack said, tapping the curved metal of its shade. We imagined the heat stinging at his fingers.
“What are they for? Why would you raise ducks?”
That was when Jack explained. We tried to hide our horror by drinking our beers. We could not imagine raising a thing from a fuzzy little ball of yellow, like a smeary, unfolding sun, into a quacking creature whose head would get whacked off and body butchered into parts for searing and serving. We looked at Jack’s hands, his fingers curled around his beer, eyes shiny with possibility.
“How will they eat? How will they grow?”
“We googled it,” James said. “It’ll take a while, but it’s an adventure. Like going to Venice.”
None of us had been to Venice. We’d taken our kids to Branson a few times, getting photographed at Silver Dollar City. A few had gone to Disney, or maybe the Great Wolf Lodge.
We nodded and let the Dunkirks lead us back into the kitchen, where we were already picturing the slaughter, the dead ducks’ heads laid out on their marble-topped island, blood from severed necks staining their cutting board. We imagined feathers seething through the air, getting stuck in the air vents and clogging the sink drain, as if some sexy pillow fight had gone down but none of the scantily-clad girls were anywhere to be found.
At home we hopped onto our desktop computers and did our homework. We were horrified. Backyard poultry could give us or our kids salmonella or E. coli or bird flu. The ducks’ poop could carry Campylobacteriosis, which could strike our babies and aging parents with Guillain-Barre syndrome. The ducks might even spread West Nile virus thanks to the mosquitos that buzzed through our Missouri climes.
This, we decided, would not do. We washed our hands vigorously after reading all these things. We wiped down our doorknobs and our computer keyboards. When we brushed our teeth, we held our toothbrushes gingerly, between two fingers, convinced little swarms of germs were crawling up and digging into our gumlines. When we went to bed, we told our wives about the Dunkirks’ plans and they clucked. They glared at us over their reading glasses, legs tented to hold onto their magazines and novels, and they told us we were overreacting. They said it was neat, what the Dunkirks were doing.
“Neat?” we said.
“They just do whatever they want,” we said.
“They don’t think about other people.”
Jack and James filled their little pond, then dropped several large goldfish into the water from sealed bags they’d brought home from an artisanal pet shop. We wondered why they couldn’t just adopt a mutt from the shelter like the rest of us and eat frozen chicken strips and toasted ravioli and double cheeseburgers.
They brought us over when the ducklings hatched, and we stood over the brooding box, looking at the smooth, slimy bodies. They waddled around in an old aquarium the Dunkirks had wiped out and filled with wood shavings. The lamp shone with hot, harsh light on the side. Starter crumbs were scattered around the ducks’ tiny feet.
“Aren’t they supposed to be fluffy?” we said. “And yellow?”
“They’ll grow,” James Dunkirk said.
“And what’s with the eggs?” Two cracked-open chicken eggs sat in the corner, yolks swimming in the center like brains.
“It’s for the runts,” Jack explained. He pointed to two tiny ducklings that teetered, smaller and slower than the others. “They need the nutrients.”
“And what is that?” We pointed to the paint roller tray that took up the left half of the box.
“It’s their swimming pool,” James said. “So they can swim.”
Eight ducklings made it to the pond outside; one somehow drowned itself in the makeshift pool and one of the runts died in its sleep. James said Jack was distraught about it. When we pointed out that they were all going to die anyway, James scowled at us and said, “So are you and your kids, but that doesn’t mean you wouldn’t cry if they died young, too, does it?”
We felt punched in the gut, the nose, the groin. We took deep breaths. We thought of our children, how they were growing too fast, shooting past us in athleticism and grace and their understanding of technology, and for a moment we felt the urge to rush home and squeeze them tight and demand they stay young. James apologized and offered us beers, which we drank and clinked together.
The ducklings were born in March, when dew and frost still pebbled and slicked our grass and patios. The Dunkirks’ fruits and veggies were dormant, bushes turned brambly and thin. After nine weeks inside they brought the ducks out to the pond in ceremonial fashion, two at a time, a ball of feathers in each of the Dunkirks’ hands. The sun shone down like the slick yolk of the eggs they had fed the runts, the weather tumid. Flowers were reaching up in awakened bloom.
The ducks were loud. They squawked from early morning until the afternoon. James Dunkirk, who taught at the local liberal arts college in the communication department and took his summers off, spent whole days outside with them, swaying back and forth in the hammock, body roasting to a nutty color. He read books and looked over their spines toward the ducks as they bobbed and waggled in their pond. If they started to stray toward any of the vegetables he would stand up and rush toward them, darting around their little tubes of gray-white poop they left everywhere, and grab the ducks up, redirecting them toward their water supply. We watched him sometimes sway out of the hammock and squat down by the pond. The ducks would waggle up to him, wriggling their bodies so sprays plumed off their feathers. They would sniff at his hands like cats or dogs, and sometimes he would pick one of them up and cradle it between his beefy arms, the stark gray of its plumage matching the stenciled tattoos that drizzled his forearms and left shoulder. We pretended that he’d spent time in the slammer, earning the smudgy, artsy-fartsy shapes because of the men he’d beaten, or killed, or raped, even though we knew he wasn’t the sort to do any of those things.
At first, we liked the sounds the ducks made. We felt in tune with nature. We could picture ourselves on the east coast, standing in Central Park or along Manhattan Beach. We stood on our back decks with steaming coffee mugs in our hands and listened to the quack-quack noises before shuffling back inside to read our newspapers and eat our oat cereals that promised good heart health. We tried to ignore the fact that the ducks would soon be food. Our kids tugged at our shirtsleeves and begged to be allowed over to pet the ducks, feed them from their hands. We shook our heads no, staring toward the Dunkirk yard and feeling tingles of angry jealousy. We batted our kids away and told them to stop pouting.
But then the ducks got louder. Their quacks started to sound like broken car horns or comically-screwy bike bells. It was like when you hear a car alarm start up a block or two away and you imagine the absurd, useless sound crooning for hours and hours and you’re suddenly ready to just knock off the owner, because who sets their car alarm anymore, don’t people know they aren’t deterrents and that instead of everyone pouring out of whatever building is close to a car whose horn is going nuts and its lights are blinkering like something having a seizure everyone nearby just bitches and moans and wonders how long it will take for the blaring to stop, and if it doesn’t stop soon will we have to call the cops to make it stop and what kind of asshole sets one of those things off anyway, what are you doing, touching someone’s car like that, even though we all know it could be just about anything: a twig, a squirrel, a heavy wind, a bicyclist barely nudging the bumper with a tire or handlebar, whatever. Hell, it could be a duck, its bill rapping on the wheel well.
Despite the bloom of berries and flowers, the Dunkirks’ yard started to smell, a rich manure odor we associated with farms and Nebraska. We didn’t like it. We waited for Jack to take the ducks by the throat and chop them into edible pieces, but all summer the ducks waddled about while James cared for them, flinging food through the grass and bringing the squawking creatures inside their garage every evening so they could sleep in the makeshift henhouse the Dunkirks had erected, so large it forced them to park in the driveway.
When we asked when they’d be turned into confit, Jack finally admitted: “I think James is too attached.”
“You’re going to keep them?” we said. “As pets?”
“I think so,” Jack said. He shook his head. “I knew this would happen.”
The idea that we would hear the quacking of those ducks for years—one of us looked it up and said they could live anywhere from five to ten years—just about drove us to madness. Our wives rolled their eyes at our chagrin and told us to feed our dogs and go buy milk. They told us to stop being dramatic, that the ducks were a nice flavorful addition to the neighborhood. We sputtered out angry raspberries of noise and filled rocks glasses with bourbon and sulked in our studies or basements, turning up the volume on baseball games and late-night talk shows to prove how annoyed we were.
The Dunkirks had a reputation for running, often in the early morning or at dusk, when the heat was in its least-pressing form. They would canter out of their garage, already warmed up from stretches they performed by their little duck pond. Some of us watched them get started, their shirtless bodies mean jokes, James with his monster shoulders gathering our jealousy in tight knots that bivouacked in our paunches, which felt even slouchier and droopier in comparison to the tight, serrated squares of muscle twitching on their stomachs. They left the ducks to wander the yard, convinced that now that they were older they couldn’t hurt themselves. During these three-mile bursts the Dunkirks would be gone for at least twenty-five minutes, more if neither of them had gorged on summer shandies or vodka martinis the night before.
So we decided to snatch a duck.
Grabbing the duck took some work. We first had to scramble through the latched gate in the side yard, careful to not nick ourselves on the overgrown brambles of one of the rosebushes lining the fence, which the Dunkirks had let get out of control, their gnarled thorns reaching out at us like the teeth of mutant guard dogs. After that, we had to wend our way past their gardens, where the tomatoes had shot up thanks to the damp air and ample sun; their smell, we worried, would tar us, later signal to the Dunkirks exactly what we’d done. We slipped past the sprouting beans and other stalks of green we couldn’t identify by name. The ducks, whose attention we’d caught, stared at us, suddenly silent. They peered our way with their glossy marble eyes, and we could see the suspicion in their webbed feet. One of them honked at us and hopped into the little pond, and then the others followed.
We darted at them. Soon we were dashing through the grass, circling the little pond like morons. The ducks, smartly, dove into the underbrush surrounding their little paradise, putting most of them immediately out of reach. But one was slower, maybe stupid. We managed to get our fingers around him, even though his feathers were slick. He honked and howled and tried to beat his wings but we came together and held him fast, each of us laying hands on him.
“Now what?” we said to one another.
We would have looked like a cartoon to anyone who was watching. We slithered in a single mass of limbs, the duck quacking and squalling so loud we were briefly convinced the Dunkirks would hear the noise wherever they were on their run and come sprinting back, catching us in the act. But we managed to escape the labyrinth of their yard, even relatching the gate so they wouldn’t know what we’d done. We slid next door, keeping the duck still while the garage door lowered.
We stared down at the duck. It fluffed itself up and padded around, dipping its beak toward an oil slick on the epoxy floor. We left it there, turning away and into the kitchen. Our kids and wives were out doing summer things, swimming at the public pool, working pathetic little jobs at the sno-cone stand, playing meaningless games of pick-up sand volleyball. We stood around drinking beers, ignoring the duck’s noises, trying to figure out what to do next. None of us were sure. We hadn’t thought that far. Would we set the duck free? Would we dispose of it? Maybe we could take it to the pond on the far side of the neighborhood. There were other ducks there, right? We could introduce a foreign duck into a new environment with no problem, yeah? Or maybe, we could make our own duck confit.
What we knew we wanted to do was watch the Dunkirks realize their duck was missing. We slipped outside, arranged ourselves around a frosted-glass patio table so we could all take glances into their yard, and waited. We thought, were sure, that they’d be back soon, but for whatever reason, on this day, they opted to run longer, or further, or whatever. We grew antsy. We worried: were they hurt? Lost? Was one of them dead? We listened for the sound of ambulance sirens, the low honk of a fire engine charging through traffic, the woozy din of a police cruiser. All we heard was the chuff of the larches and maples in our yards as they were shaken by the breeze.
Finally, after what felt like an ice age, the Dunkirks appeared. We saw their bodies flash between the houses one street over, so we sat up straighter in anticipation. We waited. After a typical run, Jack and James would march into their back yard, bodies heaving, arms shimmery with sweat, and they would greet the ducks like we would our children after long days at work. The mallards would pad up toward them in recognition, and one of the Dunkirks—usually James—would dash into the garage and grab their bag of feed, returning to sprinkle it on the grass and near the pond.
None of the ducks materialized. They had scrabbled away from us when we ganked up their friend, but we assumed they would come back, magnetized to the familiar water of their little pond. But as we watched the Dunkirks, we could tell something was wrong. James was turning in frantic circles like a dog, his sweaty head spraying perspiration as though he was a sprinkler. Jack started making a strange clicking sound with his mouth, bending down and snapping his fingers. We couldn’t hear or see any of the ducks. Our backs stiffened. Our cheeks filled with coppery worry. Our stomachs coiled, corkscrewed through with fear. We drank beers in an attempt to settle our nerves.
The Dunkirks saw us. We gave them little hand waves, cocked our beer bottles toward them.
“Have you seen our ducks?” Jack yelled.
We shook our heads no. He yelled louder.
“They’re missing. The ducks are gone.”
We frowned in real, true confusion. They couldn’t be gone. We’d just been in their yard. We’d seen them scatter into the bushes. Some of those bushes bordered our yards, and the ducks weren’t there. Our fences were strong and smart enough to keep the ducks out.
“Huh,” we said to one another, low and grunting so the Dunkirks, still in a tizzy, couldn’t hear us. “I wonder where they are.”
The Dunkirks started calling out absurd names: Batalli, Ray, Guarnaschelli. We realized they’d named them after famous TV chefs.
“That’s sick,” we said, “considering what they were going to do to them.” In that quick finger-snap of time, our sympathy vanished.
James looked as though he might cry, the sweat drying on his face giving him a sickly, shiny pallor.
“It’s okay,” we told them. “Surely they’ll come back.”
The Dunkirks, trembling with awful worry, trudged inside their house to shower. We stared at one another and then rushed to the garage where we’d stored the one, wondering if it, too, might have vanished. But it was there, sitting with an unsettling calm on a bag of to-be-recycled Diet Coke cans. It quacked and stretched its wings, stumbling as it tried to march off the heap of crushed metal. We spent some time getting it in our clutches; it hid behind an old Igloo cooler and then waddled behind the charging station for a DeWalt battery, but we eventually got it, though it let out such a ruckus in our hands that we were sure the Dunkirks would hear it. But again, no, they did not.
“What do we do with it?” we said to one another. “Should we give it back?”
We could not give it back without admitting what we’d done.
“What if we say it wandered over here while they were in the shower?”
We decided that would have to work, so we slipped into their backyard and dumped the duck in its pond. It waffled and kicked in the water to get purchase, then began quacking up a fresh storm, fluffing its feathers like a cat whose tail has gone large in a moment of distress. Its black eyes seemed to follow us as we scrambled back out of the Dunkirk yard, all of us breathing hard, our hearts strumming, sure they would catch us as we dashed away.
They did not see us. But they did come back outside immediately after they were cleaned up, hair combed and gelled, fresh t-shirts tight and monochromatic. James had shaved, even, a day-old scruff whisked away so his chiseled chin could gather the sun. We waved when they appeared on their back patio and waited for them to see the duck. When they did, their faces lit up as though they’d been told they won the lottery or a trip to the Bahamas. They dashed to the duck pond and squatted down in identical postures, hands on their knees. They muttered words we couldn’t make out, but we could hear their joy. James Dunkirk bent lower, one knee in the grass, and snapped his finger toward the duck. He said something to Jack, who dashed into the garage and reappeared with a bag full of food. Slowly, they coaxed the duck from the pond and James cradled it in that fatherly way we’d seen so many times.
And then, like some kind of miracle, the other ducks started squawking in a tinny chorus, appearing from all corners of the Dunkirk yard. Jack actually squealed. We held our fresh beers near our mouths, unable to swallow. From the underbrush they emerged almost as one. We looked at each other, wondering how this could be.
The Dunkirks did not care. The Dunkirks rushed toward their ducks, who seemed nonplussed by the stomping gallop of their feet and the joyous noises erupting from their throats. Jack managed to pull one of them to his chest with one hand, and with the other he dumped half of the duck feed onto the ground, allowing the rest of them to swarm over and take it into their beaks.
We looked at one another. The Dunkirks saw us and gestured with wild gladness. Even from so far away, we could see the joy in their eyes. This was something new. This was something we had not felt in so very long. We forgot the horrible, scratching noise of the ducks’ quacking. We forgot the smell of their scat. Instead we thought of our wives at their book clubs drinking Zinfandel and our kids at their summer camps and their jobs doling out French fries or cleaning up movie theatre popcorn. We thought of how they came home and dismissed us, passing down hallways and up staircases and into bedrooms and bathrooms where they locked themselves away, reappearing only when we beckoned them for dinner, where we served them our clumpy pasta and sad, bland chicken breasts.
The Dunkirks yelled out to us, curling their hands in gestures of invitation.
“We’re celebrating,” Jack said.
“We’re so glad they’re okay,” James said.
They continued beaming. We felt little holes in our chests, as if we’d been shot through with bottle rockets. But we went.
They told us to take our empty beer bottles inside and trade them for fresh drinks, local unfiltered wheats. Jack said to swirl the bottles in a circular motion. James said we should cut ourselves lemon wedges and spray the acid in like dropping limes into Coronas. When we stared at them, Jack said, “Really. Go. Our hands are full.”
They would not drop the ducks. They would not come inside with us. We were assaulted by the cleanliness, the balsa wood, the pots hanging above the kitchen island, twinkling and clean. We did as were told. We thought, for a moment, about fucking with them some more. Maybe we would draw on their fancy shirts with permanent marker or hide one of their Adidas sandals behind the stove. Leave their wine fridge open or uncork one of their expensive reds. But we could hear their cooing laughter, their happiness. So instead we took our drinks, looked at one another, and wondered how long we could hate the Dunkirks, these men imparting such love on their ducks. We peered through the kitchen window and watched them while we drank. They were hugging the ducks, mumbling baby-talk words as the ducks lay impassive against their chests. We felt worry. We felt confusion. Hatred, but also joy, both for the Dunkirks and for their ducks, their fucking ducks: ducks they’d meant to eat, slathering butchered thighs and legs in fat and butter, ducks that were, suddenly and forever, recipients of the kind of affection that spreads and beams and means you finally have what you have always wanted.
Joe Baumann is the author of three collections of short fiction, Sing With Me at the Edge of Paradise, The Plagues, and Hot Lips. His fiction and essays have appeared in Third Coast, Passages North, Phantom Drift, and many others. He holds a PhD in English from the University of Louisiana-Lafayette. He was a 2019 Lambda Literary Fellow in Fiction. His debut novel, I Know You’re Out There Somewhere, is forthcoming from Deep Hearts YA.
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