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Charlie’s moustache smelled like bug spray when he kissed me. Of course, he was fucked up. He’d been in the Bronx all day, doing what he always did whenever he had money. Spent it on dope.
Charlie had tons of reasons for going back to his old neighborhood. This guy he knew had a job for him, somebody else needed a favor. He had to check on his mother. He made like he was this good son who took care of business, but he wasn’t. Mabel couldn’t really depend on her children.
It was the drugs that pulled Charlie toward Harding Park – every time. They sucked me in too. I hated being down there, but I made excuses, same as him.
“Whaddya mean, ‘What is it?'” Charlie asked. “It’s a duck. I think.” But neither of us knew for sure.
“Why is it here?”
“I thought you might want it,” he said.
“Want it for what?”
“I don’t know. Just to have.”
I had no interest in whatever this was standing in my kitchen, with its bulging eyeballs and beak hanging wide open. It took a few steps backward and slid across the linoleum in its own shit.
Charlie’s thing was angel dust. He’d been smoking it since he was a teenager. He dabbled in coke and weed over the years, but he always came back to his beloved zootie. I never understood why he loved the shit so much. It took him on the most disturbing trips in his mind and turned him into a violent monster that terrified everyone. Charlie’s drug of choice never looked like it was any fun.
He tried to explain what happened that afternoon and how he came upon this strange creature. He’d wandered onto the jetty after he got high, like he usually did. He stood there for a long while, just staring at the river. He described how this time, when the waves rolled toward the edge of the sky, they burst into flames. And how a demon emerged from the fire, chasing an angel that carried something in her wings.
When she flew past the clouds and tumbled to the ground, Charlie ran to where she had collapsed in the snow. As he reached out to help, she reeled back with such force, he was knocked off his feet. That’s when he saw the bird, struggling in the icy water just beyond the pier. He scooped him up by his neck, wrapped him in a dirty blanket he found in somebody’s boat and returned to Queens on the subway.
“What’s the matter with him?” I asked. “He looks sick.” With big, red welts all over his face, some of which dangled from his forehead and drooped across the bridge of his nose, I wondered out loud if he had cancer.
“He ain’t sick,” Charlie insisted. “He’s just ugly. Help me figure out a place for him to sleep.”
Between the two of us, we understood very little about living things and their requirements. I suppose I should have known better, being a mother, but I couldn’t take care of my child. I wanted to. I barely made the rent every month on our basement shit hole. Charlie kept breaking stuff neither of us knew how to fix. We both had drug problems that governed our decisions. I hated admitting that my son was better off with his dad. So instead, I resented everyone who hassled me about my behavior. I disappeared whenever things got heavy.
Reluctantly, I emptied out the bottom drawer of a bureau and lined it with old shirts. This was a stupid idea. “He can’t live in the furniture forever, you know.”
“My cousin, Harry’s got a doghouse he ain’t using. That’ll work.”
I wished Cancer Duck looked more like a normal, healthy bird. The rest of his body was okay, but that face. Plus he had these thin, red ribbons with tiny bells tied to each of his ankles. They were all caught up in knots, and he could barely walk. Charlie explained what he knew about Santeria, which was big in the Caribbean communities around where he grew up. Animal sacrifice was part of certain religious rituals.
“I need something to cut these with,” Charlie said. I brought him the sharpest knife I could find.
“Maybe he was in a duck fight, like what they do with roosters,” I suggested.
“Ducks ain’t like that. They’re gentle.” Like Charlie would know. “Let’s name him ‘Romeo,'” he said. “He’s a lover, not a fighter.”
Our houseguest seemed quite content swaddled in his makeshift bed of stale laundry.
“Goodnight, Romeo,” I whispered as I eased the drawer closed a little bit. I guess I was glad that one of us could sleep.
I returned to the kitchen and the baggie full of cross tops I kept in my bra. I licked my finger and pressed it into the sack, so that seven or eight pills stuck to my skin. I scraped them onto my tongue. I poured another tumbler of wine and got back to what had become my life’s work.
The next day at lunchtime, I went to the bookstore near my job and read everything I could find on ducks. I found out that Romeo was a for real breed called a Muscovy. Muscovies are born resembling most other ducklings, but they get more banged-up looking as life goes on. I understood what that was like.
Relieved by the news that he wasn’t dying after all, I stopped at the Petland Discount on my way home from work. I approached a teenager dangling from a step ladder, his arm submerged up to his elbow in murky fish tank water. I tried not to stare at the boxer shorts that held up his pants.
“Excuse me. Can you tell me what ducks eat?”
At first, I thought maybe I’d made a mistake, that this young man wasn’t an employee. But then, I realized he just didn’t want to deal with me. I stood there for a moment, trying to figure out what to do. I glanced around the store for clues. I drifted toward the birdseed display and examined a few bags, hoping to find a picture of a duck, smiling and eating his favorite meal.
“There’s a feed store up on Metropolitan,” he said as he dried his hands on his saggy jeans. “They probably have what you need.”
“Is it far?” I asked. “I’m on foot.”
“Don’t know.” That was the end of our conversation. Positioning himself on a stool by the window, he reached under the counter for a bag of Skittles, signifying that he was officially on his break.
I went home and wheeled my shopping wagon all the way to the place he’d mentioned and back, about seventy five blocks. When I got back to the basement, I showed Charlie the fifty pound bag of duck chow that I’d bought. He wasn’t happy, probably because he wasn’t high.
“We don’t need that expensive shit. The swans down Harding Park eat garbage, and they do just fine.”
“But this is really good for him. It has a lot of vitamins in it. Plus, corn and stuff.”
“I’m gonna need twenty dollars,” Charlie said. He had to go see somebody about a job.
Romeo loved his new diet, and he seemed to enjoy living in the fenced in area behind our house. He was a pleasant companion. Muscovies do not quack, but he communicated in other ways. He wagged his tail whenever he saw me. He made good-natured huffing and puffing sounds. He pecked at my shoes to get attention.
It was no surprise that Romeo did not care for Charlie. As soon as the bird saw him, he disappeared inside his plastic Igloo. I could not let on that Romeo brought me so much joy, or Charlie would surely get rid of him. Some nights, I wished there was enough room in the doghouse for me.
A few weeks later, the man who owned the feed store asked how my duck was doing.
“He couldn’t be better,” I said.
“Glad to hear that, young lady.” Mr. Lee smiled as he rang up my order. “You’re over there by Flushing Meadow, aren’t you?”
“I’m off Yellowstone Boulevard, by the Roy Rogers.”
“For some reason, I thought you were on the pond. Let me ask you, then. Where’s your water source?” He sounded concerned.
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“Well, ducks need to be near water, you see, so they can wash their heads and faces. It prevents infection and cataracts and such. My dear, your duck’s gotta exercise so he can thrive.”
I ran all the way back to the house, clutching my bag of hay. Actually, I stopped at the liquor store to buy wine, and the bodega for beer. But then, I walked really fast the rest of the way. Charlie was shaving his head in the bathroom when I got there.
“Romeo needs water or he’s gonna die!” I repeated what Mr. Lee had told me.
“He gets wet when it rains. That’s good enough.”
“Mr. Lee said ducks have to swim and moisturize so they can stay healthy.”
“I’m sick of hearing about this fucking bird. And who the fuck is this guy?” Charlie got himself so worked up, he cut the tIp of his ear with the straight razor. When he pounded on the sink, the corner snapped off and broke into several pieces. Great, something else that was my fault.
I went outside and dragged my next door neighbor’s hose across the yard, Romeo waddled from his enclosure and stepped into the metal lasagna pan I began filling with cool water. His mouth was open, and I could see his tongue. I swear, it looked like he was saying, “Aaaah.”
A few days later, Charlie approached me with a proposition. So many of Charlie’s best ideas began with me handing over money and ended with him needing an ambulance.
“So, I could use about thirty dollars,” he said.
“Alls I have is enough to get me back and forth to work,” I told him, which wasn’t true. I also had my liquor and drug money. Let him get his own.
“C’mon, please.” I hated when he begged. It made him sound like such a baby. “I’ll have a surprise by the time you come home.”
I worried when i didn’t hear from him all day and grew increasingly nervous when I got off the train later that evening. I could hear music as I turned the corner onto our street – Guns N Roses, Appetite for Destruction – one of the only two cassette tapes Charlie owned. The other was Metallica.
When I reached the driveway, I saw Charlie’s brother, Ned and his best pal, Stevie. They were super stoned and covered in mud, surrounded by empty beer cans. Charlie emerged from the basement, holding a set of pliers and what was left of the tooth he’d just yanked out of his own mouth. Blood dripped from his chin when he smiled.
“I knew I could do it. I told you I didn’t need a dentist.”
I stepped over the shovels that littered the sidewalk. I ran to the fence to check on my duck. And there was Romeo, peacefully paddling back and forth in an old porcelain bathtub the boys had confiscated from a junkyard earlier in the day. They’d strapped it into the back of Stevie’s Datsun pick-up, drove it quietly over the bridge and sunk it in a large hole they dug in the rocky ground near the doghouse. They ran a trench out the bottom so it could be drained and refilled as necessary. As crazy as it looked and as dangerously high as these guys were, they did a really fine job. Romeo was thrilled.
Stevie got to his feet and gave me a sweaty hug. “That bird is lonely, Mare. He needs a girlfriend.”
“I need a girlfriend.” Ned said, as he wiped the dirt from his face with the front of his shirt. “And a wife.”
“I’m glad I got a wife. I love my Rose,” There was pride in Stevie’s voice.
“I love Rose, too,” Ned added, throwing a playful arm over his friend’s shoulder.
“Keep your fucking hands off my wife, Ned. I mean it.” And Stevie was serious. “I’ll slit your throat.”
“I’m going in,” I told them both. I needed a drink. Charlie had thrown up at the bottom of the basement stairs. He wasn’t grinning anymore, but at least the color had returned to his cheeks.
“They’re gonna need money for gas,” he said. Stevie was in no condition to drive and I knew they weren’t gonna buy gas. I just wanted them to leave, so I could get my load on in peace.
In a month, it was my birthday and Mabel called, all excited. She had a special gift. Charlie’s brother, Rob drove her out to Queens to come and see us. She stood at my screen door, clutching a similar looking Muscovy as Romeo, only smaller, bundled up in a beach towel.
“This one’s a girl,” she said. “Call her Juliet.”
“Where’d you get her, Mom?”
“Hunts Point Market. She was gonna be somebody’s dinner.”
I was so moved by Mabel’s thoughtful gesture and glad for Romeo to have company.
Romeo and Juliet really hit it off. I loved that they got along so well. Most evenings, they were waiting for me at the gate. I brought my wine and pills out back while I changed their bedding and water. They nibbled raisins and Cheerios from the palm of my hand. I stayed with them until it got dark and the mosquitoes started biting.
Everybody needs somebody. And I had Charlie, but it was a terrible thought. I wondered if I could ever get away. He would never let me leave, and I had nowhere to go. I was so stuck. Some nights when he was sleeping, I let myself consider what might happen if I took a hammer to the back of his head. It wasn’t a real plan or anything, just a drunken, desperate idea. But I knew I’d never be able to do it, to keep hammering until he was dead. Charlie was too strong. He’d get up and finish me off, for sure.
The lovebirds continued to thrive. They took turns swimming in their bathtub and sitting on the eggs that came as a result of their coupling. We ate omelets with cheese until the weather got cold.
During this time, Charlie was in and out of jail. Mostly, I was the one who called the police. When he punched me in the face as we walked along Ascan Avenue, I crossed the street with a hand cupped over my eye and told two cops on bicycles. They rode around and found him. The night he broke my nose and knocked my tooth out, back in, he went. The ducks and I were always grateful to see him go and anxious when he returned.
Life was peaceful whenever Charlie got locked up, but having him gone seemed to underscore my own drinking and drug use. I hated thinking about it, so I dropped the charges, and the chaos continued.
“Charlie, wake up! The ducks are gone!”
I was scared to go back outside. I’d been awake all night, as usual, drinking and snorting and pilling myself into a frenzy. I waited until the sky started to brighten before I transferred my empty bottles to the outside garbage cans. That’s when I noticed both gates were pushed open the wrong way. There were footprints of varying shapes and sizes, heading in different directions.
“Get up, Charlie. Something bad happened.”
“I don’t care,” he said, rolling over on the mattress and facing the wall.
“Please come. Somebody stole my ducks.” I tugged at his arm like a child.
“I hate you. I hate this shit,” he muttered under his breath.
I believed him, but I needed his help. I stood over the bed, pleading until he sat up and reached for his boots. I clung to the back of his sweatshirt as we followed the tracks over to the far side of the property where nobody ever went. Clumps of bloody feathers were strewn everywhere, so many that it seemed unlikely there’d be anything left worth saving.
I was right. Jammed into a break in the fence was what remained of Romeo’s body. Something had tried to pull hi,. through the chain link, tearing his head clean off in the process.
“Find the other one,” Charlie called over his shoulder. I just stood there in the snow, in my dirty clothes from the night before, unable to think or move. The sound of the phone ringing pulled me back inside the house where none of this horror existed. Whoever was calling kept hanging up when the machine came on.
“Hello,” I sobbed into the receiver when it rang the next time, my hands still trembling from the cold and carnage.
“Mary, it’s Artie from next door. I don’t know how to say this, but there’s been an accident.”
“Yeah. I know.” At least I thought I knew.
“So you’ve already seen her? I’m sorry. It must have been a truck.”
“Her? Wait. What do you mean?”
“Out front,” Artie said. “Tell Charlie to bring a shovel.”
Nothing good could ever have come from my time with the ducks. My actions only led to their suffering. Besides, Charlie was gonna kill them eventually, anyway.
A glooming peace this morning with it brings;
The sun, for sorrow, will not show his head.
Go hence, to have more talk of these sad things;
Some shall be pardon’d, and some punished.
For never was a story of more woe,
Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.
– William Shakespeare