The Duck (a story in five parts)

Reyna Marder Gentin attended Yale College and Yale Law School. Her fiction and personal essays have been published widely. Her novel, Unreasonable Doubts came, out in November, 2018, is a finalist in the Women's Fiction Writers Association Star Award for Outstanding Debut.

That Day        

Our son Duck passed his road test. The nickname dated from when he was a toddler. That day, we watched from the covered porch as he pulled carefully out of the driveway, headed for his first solo spin. 

It began to pour. We held our mugs while the coffee cooled and looked out at the slick road. Then Jeffrey arrived.

Jeffrey, a mallard — green head, brown feathers — swam in the nearby pond. Duck had named and fed him, and Jeffrey often crossed the street and onto our front lawn looking for his friend.  

He waddled directly toward us and climbed the two stairs onto the porch, staring steadily, quacking loudly. “He’s got bad news,” I said.

“Don’t be ridiculous.” My husband hid his eyes in his newspaper. 

Having said his piece, Jeffrey headed back to the pond. 

I heard the music, loud and thumping, before I saw Duck’s car coming down the street. He turned his head and waved to me, triumphant, as the front tire slammed into Jeffrey, sending him flying.

The Day Before That Day

This conversation is as well-worn as the grooves made by our rocking chairs on the porch, but now picking up urgency. 

“You’ll come with me,” my husband says. 

I nod and smile but my face feels stiff. He has always travelled for his job. In the coming year, he’ll journey to China, India, South Africa.

“What will I do while you’re working?”

“We’ll hire a driver and a guide for you, and we’ll meet up in the evening.”

 He rocks a little faster and then shifts his chair closer. I sit back further in my rocker, hug my recently-complaining knees to my chest.

“If we left this house and this town for good tomorrow,” he says, “who do you think would notice?”

I rattle off the names of women, mothers of our son’s friends. We’re tethered together by the children we’ve raised while our husbands provided for us and saw the world.

Soon it will be my turn, blessed with a spouse who only wants to live life’s adventures together. 

And I just want to sit in this rocking chair, watching Duck and Jeffrey play by the pond.

The Day After That Day

When I hit I-87, I drive north, foot heavy on the pedal. One hundred and forty miles and two plus hours after I stole away, my husband and son sleeping in their beds, I reach the outskirts of Albany. I fill up at the gas station and use the restroom. It’s somewhere between moderately clean and downright filthy, and I wash my hands vigorously before heading into the convenience store. I push open the door with my shoulder to avoid touching anything. My stomach is growling but the muffins in the display case have spots of green mold. I choose a bag of Doritos and a bottle of water.

“That all?” The clerk’s hair is greasy. She looks at me like she can tell. 

I haven’t smoked a cigarette since college, but I point and she hands me a pack of Marlboro Lights. 

“Matches?”

I shake my head. 

Two hours later I see the signs for Lake Placid. Eons ago, before Duck was born and it was just us, we spent a happy weekend there. 

I take the next exit and turn back toward home.

When I pull up, Duck is sitting on the front lawn, elbows on his knees and head in his hands. 

“Dad’s about to call the police.”

I don’t apologize.

Ten Years Before That Day

“This is torture,” Joan says. 

“I hear you,” I respond. 

But I don’t. Joan is like the other moms, complaining about the complete folly of little league, seven-year-olds who can’t catch or hit a ball, who sometimes fall just running the bases. But my entire being is attuned to my son, his compact body jammed with frenetic energy as he takes the mound, his every emotion playing out on his beautiful little face.

I watch intently as Duck faces down the batter. He knows how to throw only one pitch — a slow motion fastball. He’s about to deliver when I notice his shoelace is untied. I jump up and frantically wave at the coach.

“Hey, hey — time out!” I yell and point. Duck’s furious glare is like a punch to my gut. He doesn’t understand that it’s my job — my mission, my purpose — to protect him.

I sit down, aware that the other moms are looking at me. I don’t care. Only the batter wears a helmet; if Duck had tripped on his lace as he propelled the ball forward, he could’ve landed on his head. We’d be in the ambulance right now, me frantically trying to contact my husband, who would undoubtedly be in another time zone, unreachable. I shake the vision off and return my laser focus to my son. Which is why it takes a moment for me to realize that Joan is talking to me.

“Do you ever regret quitting your job?” she asks. “The camaraderie? Putting on decent clothes? Using your brain? Sometimes I miss my old self.” I look down at my sweatpants, and back out at the field, at Duck.  Anywhere but at Joan. 

Ten Years After That Day

I make no sound when I step into the threshold of the room, my footsteps swallowed by the plush carpeting. White living room leads into white dining room leads into white kitchen.  An “open floor plan,” his wife had explained. A wall of glass looks out on the Pacific. The expansiveness of the ocean shames our little pond where my son used to play. 

He has married “up,” my husband says, shrugging. Up and away. 

“Be nice to her, Daniel,” his wife says. They sit close together on the couch, their backs to me, and she musses his hair. “I’m always nice,” Duck says. And it’s true. He is unfailingly nice. 

The baby nurse in her pressed uniform walks past me, carrying my granddaughter. I watch silently as the nurse presents the baby, already bathed and swaddled, to my daughter-in-law. Moments later, she hands the baby back. Whisked away until it’s time for the next bottle. 

I wonder what sort of parents they will be, my little boy and this stranger he has married, padding barefoot and silent on the soft carpet, in this endless whiteness, gazing at the ocean.

They’ve christened her Alexandra. Such a big name for such a tiny girl. If she has a nickname, they haven’t told me.

I call her Peanut. 

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