Jim Daniels

Feeding the Ducks

“Don’t let them out there! It’s a big drop off—those kids gonna drown,” Roy said.

“Don’t ruin this,” I said, without looking back at him—half-drunk, sitting on a big rock up near the boat ramp, too far away to help if one of the girls did fall.

I bent over to Rita, the little one, and my cigarettes nearly slipped out of my pocket and into the Mon—the Monongahela River. I grabbed them just as they were tipping. Lost a couple to the water. Picked them up and threw them at the ducks, I don’t know why. They swam and flapped over toward me from where the girls were feeding them the loaf of stale Wonder bread I’d picked up at the Uni-Mart half-price.

“You fool, woman. Ducks don’t smoke!” Roy said, laughing behind me like I was some TV show he was watching.

“Goddamn it, Lil, get those kids out of there,” Roy said again. I lit up a Virginia Slim. I’d switched to the long ones, thinking I’d smoke less of them if each one lasted longer. It wasn’t working.

Of course, I knew ducks didn’t eat cigarettes. Maybe I wanted to fool them for a second, because I could. I don’t get many chances to fool anyone anymore.

“Grandma threw cigarettes,” Rita said.

Sandy, the older one, just stared. She was twelve, going on twenty—it wouldn’t have surprised me if she’d already smoked a few.

“Look, a snapper!” Roy shouted. The girls hopped up back onto the shore. “I got one at home eats twenty goldfish a day!” he turned and shouted to a man in a suit playing with his two boys upstream a ways. The man turned to look at us, then shook his head. There was no turtle in the water.

When the girls ran out of bread, they waded among the rocks near the shore’s edge looking for soggy pieces the ducks had missed. The rocks were just big chunks of busted-up cement the city’d dumped near shore, but the kids didn’t care. The park sat where the old J and L steel mill once stood. My husband Jack used to come down to the river on breaks and smoke and what not—maybe tip a couple. We never talked about that. Whatever got him through his shift. It made me soft and heavy inside, imagining he might’ve stood right here, the big mill on the other side of the tracks behind him, shooting up those wild flames I used to see looking down from our house toward the river.

*     *     *

“Hey, bud, will ya keep an eye on the grandkids? She don’t know how fast it gets deep,” Roy said to the man in the suit, then he turned to me. “I’ll get another loaf from the car.” There were no more loaves, but I didn’t say anything. The day’s sunshine was so sweet I closed my eyes and bathed in it—sweet as the girls giggling at the ducks squawking over the last scraps of bread.

Just then, Sandy slipped off a rock and got a soaker, started bawling. When Sandy cried, it was like she had an amplifier in her chest. The sound carried back over the ramp and into the small picnic area behind us.

“Oh my God!” Roy shouted from the path to the parking lot. The man in the suit jumped up and ran toward us.

“It’s just a soaker,” I said, raising my hand to them both, then taking Sandy in my arms. “You hush now, girl. You’re gonna scare the fish right out of the water.” The ducks stared patiently. They must’ve been ancestors of tough old mill ducks—nothing fazed them.

“Always spoiling everything,” Roy said, shaking his head, turning back toward the car. I could tell his nerves were jangled. He liked the girls as occasional props, but, when it came down to it, he didn’t seem much interested in actually dealing with them. I took off Sandy’s wet shoes and socks, and she calmed down to the sniffles. I rolled up her wet pant legs. “There ya go, honey.”

“Thanks, Grandma,” she says, all sweet and embarrassed now. “The water was so cold it scared me. It wasn’t all deep like Roy said.”

“I know, sweetie, I know. Ain’t much truth come out of that man’s mouth.” Standing near where the mill used to be, in the bright sunshine, no way could I squint up at him and imagine he could be half the man my Jack was.

The stranger backed off, taking his boys further down the shore away from us, like he didn’t want to be responsible for whatever happened next.

It’s funny how the prettiest day in the world can turn with one slip of the foot. It had seemed like a good idea: take the kids down to feed the ducks. Something normal families might do. Like that stranger and his kids. Though what was he doing here on a weekday afternoon, and why was he wearing a suit to feed the ducks, and where was their mother?

A few minutes later, a guy on a big Harley idled up to the edge of the boat ramp. He was shouting, but I couldn’t hear. “What? What?” I kept repeating, cupping my hand around my good ear and staring at him as if, if I looked hard enough, I might be able to read his lips. Finally, he turned off the engine, and I was aware of the sudden silence, the water lapping against the rocks. I turned quickly to check on the girls, but they were simply dangling their feet off a rock into the water.

The man was smiling. He took off his sunglasses. “Your husband in the parking lot—he said he can’t find the bread for the ducks.”

“What?” I said again, though I heard him clear enough.

“Your husband—at the car—can’t find the bread.”

I tried to work up enough saliva to spit, but my mouth was dry. “He ain’t my husband. That’s why I didn’t know what you meant,” I said gruffly. The man on the motorcycle was smiling in a way I wasn’t sure about. Was he laughing at us? In Lenny’s, nobody laughed at us. Lenny’s Home Fries Showtime Lounge. Any time is show time, everybody knowing their parts. Eat some fries. Drink up. Shut up.

The man shrugged, started up his bike again, and roared off.

“My husband!” I snorted, turning back to the girls.

“Grandma, the ducks ate all our bread,” Rita said. She was running water into the bread wrapper, then dumping it out again.

“Yeah, but we ain’t got no more bread, you see,” I answered, holding out my empty hands. I turned to the side to try and light up another cigarette, cupping my hands against the hard wind blowing up off the water.

“Where’d Roy go?” Sandy asked. She didn’t miss a beat. It was getting to be a pain in the ass explaining things to her.

“God only knows, child.” I was worried Roy might’ve driven off without us.

My daughter Sophie’d caught Sandy kissing a boy in the alley last week. It wasn’t that long ago I was catching Sophie out. That Sophie—Sandy and Rita had different fathers, and neither of them was in the picture at the moment. Sophie was waitressing at Dee’s Café, a nice enough place, but the tips weren’t going to get them anywhere.

Roy wanted the kids to call him Grandpap, but Sophie threw a fit when she heard that.

*     *     *

I’d thought Roy’s gruffness was just his kind of love, but it was beginning to seem more like bitterness fueled by booze. Roy and I had been together six months, on and off—heading toward off, it looked like. Seeing as we were both past sixty, really falling in love seemed like an exhausting, impossible proposition, but we’d thrown off some sparks and tried to accommodate each other.

Roy got early retirement disability from the Post Office due to a mysterious ailment he never fully explained. When I asked him about it, he cut me off, accusing me of being a spy for the government. Roy’s got a lot of stories about the people at the post office. Stamp Tramps, he called his fellow workers. The inside jobs were the cushy ones, so when it became clear he wasn’t ever going to get out of the weather, he fell down and hurt some invisible bone.

Whatever disability he had, it didn’t affect him in the sack, and nobody had taken much interest in my body in a long time. Jack died of a heart attack at 56, and he was carrying about eighty extra pounds at the time. Love handles are one thing. He had love air bags hanging over his belt, and that didn’t make me feel much like undoing that belt, if you know what I mean. Now, I loved that man, but the physical side of things had pretty much passed by the time we hit fifty.

Not that Roy had taken care of himself, exactly, but he had one of those skinny, rat-like bodies, all ropey and hard. Having sex again let me overlook a lot of things early on. I’d picked him up in a bar, so I went in with my eyes open, so to speak. I heard Sophie complaining about how hard it is to meet anyone new now that she’s pushing forty with two kids to take care of, but where are people my age supposed to go? The Senior Center? Some church group where they all get on a bus and go up to Frankenmuth to Hozik’s Year-Round Christmas Shoppe and greasy fried chicken at Zender’s? Okay, I did try that. You lose your husband early, you try anything.

Roy wasn’t looking for bread—I’m afraid it was that bottle of whiskey he’d stashed in the glove box.

*     *     *

That afternoon, Roy and I had agreed to meet for lunch down at Lenny’s before getting the girls. Lenny’s was our hangout—where we met, and where we’d continued to meet. Very few customers under fifty, and that’s the way we liked it. Lenny was actually Little Lenny, the son of the original owner. He was under fifty, but he didn’t count. Big Lenny was retired, but he still came in every afternoon to have a drink with his old customers.

Lenny had opened up the front door to help get out last night’s smoke and beer. He was standing on top of the bar, finally taking down the St. Patrick’s Day decorations.

“Hey, Lil,” he said to me when I stepped in. “A little early for you, ain’t it?”

“Meeting Roy here. We’re gonna take my grandkids down to the river.”

“Good day for it, but you should’ve met him at the river, not here.” Lenny motioned with his head to a dark corner, where Roy sat studying the newspaper like it had hidden messages in it.

It was early for me. I wasn’t usually a daytime drinker. Roy -- I don’t know what time he started. He was one of those guys who never seemed drunk, no matter how much he drank, which seemed strange for such a scrawny little guy. Maybe his body was so pickled, the liquor had no effect. The only thing I ever noticed was that his voice got louder. I walked over to him and smacked the paper with my hand.

“Hey, don’t go scaring me now,” he said. We hadn’t slept together in a week, and it’d made him jumpy. I’d picked up a bug from the kids and had been lying low.

“Beautiful day,” I said, feeling upbeat—my health and the weather turning at the same time. When my lunch came, I wolfed it down. The sunshine flooding in the open door was calling me out. It was so clear, I could almost hear it, whispering, crooking its finger at me. Most of the regulars had moved further away into the dark, like vampires—they just wanted to drink their blood in peace. I left the last few bites, and pulled Roy to his feet as he grabbed his last handful of fries, shoving them in his mouth on the way out.

*     *     *

It was one of those great miracle days of spring, up fifty degrees from the day before—early April, when it could still snow if you didn’t watch out. The first day you try to dig out a short-sleeve shirt from the bottom of a drawer. I lived in an apartment above Rocco’s Beauty Salon across from the Iron and Steel Bank where I used to work as a teller after Jack died. They laid me off last year and never called me back. My unemployment had run out, though I still had Jack’s pension, and I didn’t need much to live on. My social security was going to kick in next year. I doubted I’d ever work again, though my sister Dottie worked at Burger King and said she could get me in there. The thought of wearing one of those goofy uniforms and obeying orders from teenagers made me cringe. She said I shouldn’t be a snob, but it’s not about being a snob. It’s about doing the limbo, and I couldn’t get that low anymore. I was out of the contest permanently.

I watched Sophie’s girls four days a week after school while she worked at Dee’s. The kids were on spring break, so I had them early all that week. Dee’s was one of those new upscale places that replaced all the shot-and-beer joints left over from the days of the mill. Sophie wasn’t making enough to pay a sitter. And I was their grandma, their only grandparent around.

Sophie didn’t trust Roy around the girls. No matter what I said, she didn’t like him. One time when we were at his place, he scared the girls half to death feeding live goldfish to that stupid turtle. I thought keeping turtles as pets was against the law.

“Now, why would anyone make such a stupid law?” Roy asked.

“Because people got sick,” I said. “You act like I don’t know anything.”

“A little turtle making people sick?” he said. “You’re crazy, woman.”

But I knew it’s the small things that can sneak up on you and make you the sickest. Like cigarettes. And potato chips. And shots of whiskey.

*     *     *

Does life suck, or does it not? I see the old biddies in black heading into St. Cyril’s every morning while I’m drinking my coffee. It’s like God’s the last option. Everybody else gone, so go hang out in that dark, cold church talking to God. I think He’d get tired of that kind of talk. So early in the morning, Him just nodding, yeah, yeah, I see, yawning, looking at His big watch.

Sitting on the river’s edge, letting the sun soak into my pale, doughy skin, I imagined God sitting beside me, taking his shirt off and sighing. Not Roy yelling at me and the girls, going off like they’re his grandkids. Roy had been married twice before, but no kids—at least that’s what he said. Roy wasn’t sure if he was still technically married to his second wife, or if she was even still alive.

The first true spring day. It’d been two hours since he went to get that invisible bread. I imagined I’d find him hiding in the shadows at Lenny’s. That was going to be it for Roy, I decided. I was guessing he drank more than I ever suspected if he couldn’t take a couple hours off to feed the damn ducks.

Now that our bread was gone, the ducks had abandoned us. They’d moved down by the man in the suit and his kids, who still had bread. Would always still have bread. The wind was sending a nasty chill up from the river. The girls were collecting sticks and wanted to start a fire, though fires weren’t allowed in the park. They knew something was up.

“Where’s Uncle Roy? Sandy asked.

“He ain’t your uncle. You know that. Let’s go home, girls.” Suddenly he disappears, and he’s her uncle. Surprised she wasn’t calling him daddy, for that’s what her daddy did—run off one day and never came back.

The setting sun cast a bright red slice of light across the rippling river like some weird chemical spill. Balanced by the hand of a child on each side of me, all I could do was hang my head against the light. We turned and began walking away from the river, the ducks, the chunks of cement, the pile of wet sticks. I knew the car wouldn’t be in parking lot. Roy wasn’t coming back, and I didn’t know if we had the strength to walk all the way back to my place. I didn’t want Sophie to find out, but I was sure the girls would tell her.

Just then, the kids heard the ice cream man bullying his truck down the path that was supposed to be for walking or riding your bike. And suddenly they’re whining, “C’mon, grandma, the ice cream man’s here!”

They were both shivering, but they wanted—the first ice cream of spring.

“C’mon grandma, ice cream!” And they were up the boat ramp before I could say “No” enough times. And that damn driver, he was idling up on the path waiting for us. Roy must’ve been thinking of dumping me even before I was thinking of dumping him.

You can’t climb out far enough onto the rocks to escape—temptation’s always too close. Or close enough. For Roy, a beautiful day was a great excuse to get drunk, just like a rainy day was, or a snowy day. In a way, he was like those old biddies at St. Cyril’s. Me, I only climbed into that cave to get out of the rain.

*     *     *

When we first got to the park, the girls tore at the loaf wrapped in plastic, and the bread went flying between them, and everybody laughed. Ducks would eat dirty bread, they’d eat squished bread—it didn’t matter. Roy had his arm around me, his sleeves rolled up to show off his old blurry tattoos. Skinny guys like Roy shouldn’t get tattoos—it’s like when a woman wears heavy earrings that pull her earlobe down so they sag. It was like the tattoos had physical weight and were pulling down his flesh. Roy, Roy, he’s my boy, I sang to myself. I put my arm around his waist and closed my eyes, briefly imagining a different life.

The girls took their fistfuls of bread and ran down to the shore.

“You girls wait now. It ain’t safe down there!” Roy shouted.

“Let them be,” I said, squeezing his arm. He shrugged and shook away from me like a wet dog.

Cigarette smoke smells wonderful outside when the temperature is right. I sucked it in my lungs and blew smoke rings. Some pigeons were hanging out near the ducks, hoping to get their share of handouts, though the girls carefully tossed everything toward the ducks, obeying my orders. Pigeons didn’t belong down by the river—plenty of other places for them to get handouts.

Sandy nibbled on a piece of the soft white bread herself, and I didn’t stop her. Who knows what those girls’d had for lunch—Sophie did her own thing in every department, including feeding her kids.

“C’mon, Grandma,” they shouted.

“Let’s go down by the water,” I said, pulling on Roy’s arm. He froze rigid and shook his head, so I went by myself, bouncing down the cement ramp to the river’s edge.

“What’s wrong with you today, big boy?” I turned and shouted. “It’s spring!”

“Yeah, it’s spring, then it’ll be summer, then fall, then winter, I know the routine,” he said, forcing a tight smile. “I’ll keep an eye on things from here. I’ll be the lifeguard,” he said.

“Help, Help, I’m drowning,” I said, and fell to the ground. “Give me some mouth-to-mouth,” I shouted up to him, for the warm day had my blood flowing hot again.

“It’s no joke,” he said.

*     *     *

Don’t get me wrong, I wanted to be in love again, whatever form that love took. I knew it wasn’t going to be me and Jesus, so if it was going to happen, it had to happen soon. I was sad about Roy, and not looking forward to Sophie, of all people, telling me I told you so. “At least I didn’t have his baby,” I’d say if I was feeling mean, or if she wouldn’t let up.

Orange push-ups have been and continue to be the cheapest thing the ice cream man sells. Cardboard and sherbet. We each got one, then continued on up to the street. I was hoping the ice cream would keep the girls from noticing how long we had to walk—a good two miles. I don’t know why I got one, too—I was getting the shivers through my thin shirt. I guess I wanted something sweet.

“Tell your ma all we did was feed the ducks,” I said.

“But that is all we did, grandma,” Rita said, taking my hand.

Sandy pulled her hand away. “I know what grandma means,” she said proudly, though it wasn’t anything to be proud of. We fed the ducks, that’s all.

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