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There’s more to Thanksgiving than Norman Rockwell’s Freedom from Want. There’s also poetic justice.
by Rich Chiappone
From the November/December 2008 issue.
It was Thanksgiving and we were 16, and Eddy V. was going to have his father’s Malibu for the whole long weekend. This meant we could hunt anywhere on the planet that had roads and gas stations. And liquor stores. I don’t know—maybe it was the line of deep blue death-camp numbers burned into his beautiful mother’s dark forearm. Or maybe it was that every blood relative on his father’s side of the family had been slaughtered by one tyrant or another. But Eddy Vartagian believed that it was simply un-American to let yourself be oppressed by arbitrary rules like drinking ages and speed limits. And I believed whatever Eddy believed.
Now Eddy was getting the car. We were going to drive fast. And drink. And hunt. On Thanksgiving, yet. What could be more American than that?
I was down in the Vartagians’ basement packing up the decoys with Eddy the night before. He was an only child and lived next door, and I spent much of my free time at his house in those days. My own home was filling up with younger brothers and sisters to the bursting point, it seemed to me: a teenager not wanting to be among children any longer. We were making plans for the next day. Eddy would have the Malibu then because his folks had to go to Chicago, where a cancer specialist was going to look at some female portion of his mother’s anatomy I didn’t want to think about.
“If this guy can’t help her—,” Eddy started to say. He stopped when his father came down the cellar stairs, a tall, balding man with a thin mustache and sad, foreign-looking eyes.
Eddy was as American as Positraction and Pork & Beans. His folks were still working on it. Mr. Vartagian had been a professor of some kind in the old country. Now he was the vice president of a bank in our town. Mrs. V. was that most American of words: a housewife. They were both fanatics about putting the Old World, the old terrors, and the old suffering behind them: assimilating—she with her pedal pushers and boat-neck sweaters, her black black hair fixed however Jackie Kennedy was doing hers that week; he in his three-button cardigans and pleated trousers that made him look like a swarthy Ward Cleaver. She read decorating and fashion magazines my mother had no time for. He played golf and belonged to the country club, which my father had painted one summer. Mr. V. was talking about learning to sail. But most important to me: In his quest to become a true U.S. male, Eddy Vartagian’s father hunted and fished, and mine didn’t.
“I wish I was also going tomorrow,” Mr. V. said, watching as Eddy and I knelt on the basement floor and secured the lines and weights on a dozen mallard decoys and placed them in a large canvas bag. “The hunting of ducks!” he said, smiling.
Eddy looked up at him from the floor and said, “Duck hunting, Pop. Not ‘the hunting of ducks.’” “Oh, yes. The duck hunting,” his father said. “Of course.”
I said, “Thanks for letting us do this, Mr. Vartagian. My father doesn’t like guns. He—”
Mr. V.’s smile vanished. He cut me off. “Your father was in the war. Never forget that.” More gently he said, “Never forget what your father has done for you. Or your mother! Always working so hard, those people.”
He started back up the stairs and then stopped.
“When my wife and I come back from Chicago,” he said to me, “she will cook the ducks you have shot. And then you and your whole family will come to eat the food you boys have gathered!” He beamed with pleasure at that thought.
We watched him disappear up the stairwell. The basement door closed with a click.
“Yeah, right. Never mind that my mom can’t eat anything,” Eddy said. He looked up at the floor joists above us and shook his head. “She’s up there now making pies, getting ready for the big day. Those two are the Armenian Ozzie and Harriet.”
“She’s cooking a whole turkey dinner?” I asked. “Sick as she is?”
I had a terrible crush on Mrs. Vartagian, who was as tiny as a girl, no taller than me. Even with the cancer, she was still a classic Eurasian beauty, exotic and mysteriously foreign in my eyes, despite her attempts to be as typically suburban as possible.
“Are you kidding?” Eddy said. “My mother would sell me to the Turks before she missed cooking Thanksgiving dinner. They didn’t get a lot to eat when they were young.” He closed his eyes and sighed. “And she’s a little scared now, too. So am I.”
“Me too,” I said before realizing it. I felt myself blush. But Eddy was lost in his own thoughts. He nodded, but couldn’t speak. For a ballbusting teenage maniac, Eddy V. was a bit of a baby when it came to his mother. I think all us boys were.
The next day, after the huge dinner his mother would prepare but not eat, Eddy would drive his folks to the train station in Buffalo to catch the westbound to Chicago, then swing back to the neighborhood and pick me up. That was the plan. We were going to hunt out of an old cottage on the Lake Ontario shore, 30 miles north of town, a cottage Mr. V. had just acquired in a foreclosure auction at the bank. Neither Eddy nor his mother had seen the place yet. Mr. V. had wanted to take Eddy and me hunting there. But then Mrs. V.’s cancer had flared up.
Now we would be on our own with the car, the guns, the beer. No parents, no siblings. No rules.
Thanksgiving Day, after dinner, I stood on the curb, happy to be out of my crowded, noisy house. I felt the bite of hard frost on the wind coming off the river, and yanked the collar of my big orange hunting coat up to my ears. It hadn’t snowed yet, but it was coming. I could smell it. I shoved my hands in my pockets thinking of the next three days, the mysterious lakeshore cottage.
I heard the Malibu’s squealing tires before I saw the big car round the corner at Buffalo Avenue, a block away. Eddy drove at only one speed: deathwish fast. He roared up, tires shrieking to a stop. Music blared from the dashboard: something about cars and girls—and love, of course. He jumped out in a cloud of cigarette smoke, yelling, “Could you find a brighter orange coat? We’re hunting ducks, nimrod. Not Ray Charles!”
He stuck a key in the trunk lock.
“It was a birthday present from my folks,” I said, looking down at my coat. “They don’t want me to get shot.”
Eddy said, “If I call ducks in, and they flare from that coat, you are definitely going to get shot.”
I set my shotgun in the trunk next to Eddy’s and the big canvas sack of decoys. There was a Coleman lantern, a coffeepot, and four six-packs of Carling Black Label. Our front door opened. Eddy cupped his cigarette against his leg, closed the trunk lid. “Mrs. DeStefano!” he called out cheerfully. “Happy Turkey Day!”
My mother braced the door open against the wind with one elbow, my baby brother Johnny on her other arm, my little sister Gloria clinging to her apron sucking a thumb. Eddy went around to the driver’s side. My mother shouted, “Eddy, how’s your mom?”
Eddy grinned broadly over the roof of the car, his dark and handsome face the smooth liar’s mask he wore to buy us beer. “She’s doing better,” he said.
I got in the passenger side. Eddy slid behind the wheel. The backseat of the Malibu was lined with bags exuding the aroma of turkey. There was a bowl of sweet potatoes, a whole pumpkin pie covered with Saran Wrap. I said, “You weren’t kidding.”
He stood on the brake with his left foot and slipped the T-bar into drive. He said, “She did everything but invite Indians.”
My mother yelled, “Tell her I’m saying a novena for her at church!”
Eddy leaned low against the steering wheel to shout out the passenger door. “Thanks, Mrs. DeStefano!” He floored the gas and came off the brake, and the Malibu screamed away from the curb so fast I almost flew out. We were halfway to Buffalo Avenue before I got the door latched.
Eddy said, “She threw her guts up all afternoon. That’s all she can do now.”
We fishtailed up the block.
“I’m sorry, man,” I said over the howling engine.
“Forget it,” he said. “It will be good if I bring her a bird to cook. She’ll feel like Pocahontas or Margaret Washington or something.” We screeched to a halt at the corner. “Those ducks better be saying a novena.” He reached under his seat and pulled out two beers. “Opener’s in the glove box.”
“Martha Washington,” I said. Eddy cranked up the radio and drove.
The last of the factories flew past, their smokestacks dwindling to nothing in the rearview mirror as we crossed into the Tuscarora Reservation on the edge of the Niagara Escarpment. From up on the ridge we were looking down on the flat pan of orchards and farms that had once formed the bottom of an ancient sea. Lake Ontario, all that remained of that receding ocean, glinted in the distance. Beyond that, over the north shore of the huge lake, we could see the faint form of the Toronto skyline, and above that snow clouds building up in Canada.
We dropped over the ridge and the radio went staticky, the Top 40 station from Buffalo giving way to something progressive and folky out of Toronto. Eddy lived for surf and car music. He actually owned an album called Sounds of the Drags, featuring the roaring of large engines and exploding transmissions. He was not amused by Gordon Lightfoot. “Canadians!” he snarled, and twisted the radio off. If he thought we could have made it to California and back over the weekend, we would have been somewhere in Iowa by now.
These were the short days. The sun was sinking fast behind us when, minutes later, we turned onto Lake Road and flew eastward. On our right, picked-over cornfields sped past, zebra-striped with the shadows of leafless windrows. On our left, the big wind-whipped lake sprawled like a huge sheet of corrugated steel. All along the bluff overhanging the water, small bereft-looking cottages perched a few yards apart and hundreds of feet from the road at the ends of absurdly long and narrow lots.
The cottages were closed up for winter, their long, long driveways empty but for an occasional skiff on a trailer covered with a tarp. Most of the places had close-cropped yards stretching to the road. But when Eddy slowed to the speed limit and checked the odometer against his father’s map, and I saw the ragged forest of dead weeds approaching on the left, I knew before he made the turn that it was our destination.
The entire lot was a sea of wild grasses, sumac, and milkweed. Eddy hit the gas, flying up the overgrown two-track driveway. Goldenrod stalks, heavy with worm galls, hammered the Malibu’s hood like a drum solo. We came to a stop with the headlights resting on a sagging porch clinging to the front of a similarly sagging cottage. It was dark now.
“Did you think to bring a flashlight?” Eddy asked. “My dad warned me the electric doesn’t work.”
These places had been built back in the 1930s, before the war, when people believed the Lake Ontario shore was going to be an important resort area. In the harsh glare of the headlights, the cottage looked every bit its age. “Did he mention anything about the place caving in on us?” I said.
We set the Coleman lantern on the porch and started ferrying our stuff inside. Arms loaded with my shotgun and sleeping bag, I ran into the screen door and it clattered off its hinges. A tremendous gust sent it cartwheeling across the porch and out into the darkness.
“Too cold for bugs anyway,” Eddy yelled over the blasting wind. “Let’s have a beer.”
We walked through the cold dark cottage sipping our beers, carrying the lantern overhead like ghouls in a Frankenstein movie. There was a living room–kitchen area, one bedroom, and a little bathroom with a dried-up toilet and a rust-streaked bathtub. In the jumpy flaring light, jittery cobwebs loomed from corners, dust balls and mouse droppings lunged at us from the cracked linoleum floors. In the bedroom was a bed frame with a disreputable bare mattress, one corner gnawed by some animal. We decided we would sleep on the two matching plaid couches in the living room.
“Welcome to the Vartagian summer home,” Eddy muttered. “Tennis is at nine sharp.”
He tried the knob on the kitchen stove and put a match to the burner, and it went up with a whump that made us both jump back, laughing nervously. “Well, if we get too cold, we can always burn the place down around us,” he said.
Off the kitchen, a porch overlooked the lake. Eddy held the lantern out over the railing. We could see a dinghy lying keel-up in the narrow band of weedy yard between the cottage and the edge of the bluff. Mr. V. had told us we could use it to set the decoys and retrieve any ducks we shot. We paused a moment listening to the roar of the waves crashing on the beach in the darkness below.
“Christ,” Eddy said. “Surf’s up.”
“You always wanted to be a Beach Boy,” I said.
“Well. I’d look good with bleached blond hair.”
“Sure,” I said. “You could be Brian Wilson’s secret Armenian brother.”
On the porch was a neat stack of firewood, gray with age but dry. We got a blaze going in the small woodstove in the living room; swept most of the mouse droppings under the couches. With turkey sandwiches and several Black Labels under our belts, spirits were soaring by the time we attacked the pumpkin pie.
Even when the wind ramped up to near hurricane strength and the windows shrieked and the whole cottage seemed ready to vibrate off its posts and sail off the bluff, we just laughed and put more wood in the stove and opened more beers. We talked about the decoy pattern we’d lay out, debated how far we should lead a bird crossing before us. We studied the migration maps in our Field Guide to the Ducks of North America and wondered whether there might be anything exotic on the wing in the morning: canvasbacks, black ducks, brant, snow geese. Eventually the turkey and the beer took their toll, and we killed the lantern. I crawled into my sleeping bag, the dark room spinning madly in a satisfyingly adult way.
From the blackness, Eddy said, “I’d like to bring her a goose.” There was a long pause. “Something good.”
“We’ll get something, “ I said. “We have to.”
As my eyes adjusted, I lay there looking at the dark window rattling in the wind, thinking about Mrs. Vartagian. Sometimes, when I came home from Eddy’s house late in the evening, I would lie in my bunk above my brother Anthony, trying to imagine her at my age, a high-school girl with friends and schoolbooks and whatever else teenagers in her country had in those days—or should have had. I saw her in a scene from our geography book, walking on an always-sunny beach with vaguely Greek-looking architecture in the background. But now, lying in the drafty cottage, experiencing my first taste of alcohol-induced minor depression, all I could see was Mrs. V. the way she had really been at 16, her tiny face peering at me from one of those Life magazine photos of prisoners behind barbed wire, head shaved, arms like twigs, her fingers locked around the fence wire, her eyes hungry.
I must have dozed. Some time later I realized I was looking at headlights crawling up the driveway next door. “Eddy!” I said. But all I got was a snore.
Staggering to the window, I had the semi-drunk insight that I was, in fact, still semi-drunk. The headlights stopped next door and went out. The dome light went on and then off again. A powerful flashlight beam moved from the car to the cottage. The porch light went on, followed by lights in the cottage windows; they had electricity. Nothing happened for a moment, and I was about to turn away when I saw a man walk out onto the porch. He looked my way. I ducked from the window, although I knew it was impossible for him to see me. When I looked back, the porch was empty and the flashlight beam was hovering over the license plate on Eddy’s Malibu. It swiveled at me.
I dived onto the couch and lay still. Footsteps sounded on our porch. The powerful beam moved across the table, across the many empty beer bottles, across Eddy on his couch. It jerked back and held on his sleeping face. When it swung my way, I pulled my bag over my head and felt the room gyrate again as I waited for the man with the flashlight to depart.
I awoke to the hissing of the Coleman lantern, the clanging of a pot on the stovetop. My breath clouded out before me as the cold room came into focus through the pain chiseling at the inside of my skull. Eddy was boiling water for coffee. He saw me stir and threw a bottle of aspirin at me.
“Eat some,” he said. “No whining in the blind.”
I was sitting up, fumbling with the pill bottle, when I remembered the man with the flashlight. I told Eddy what I could recall of it. He looked at me like it might have been a drunken hallucination—a thought that occurred to me, too. Then he opened the front door and peered out. It was still dark, the sky in the south-facing window barely beginning to show a pale brightening along its eastern edge.
“Yeah, there’s a car over there,” Eddy said. “A Ford, I think. I hope they like the sound of shotguns in the morning.”
At first light we struggled to lower the dinghy over the bluff by its bowline. Then we hauled the oars, guns, the decoy bag, and a big canvas tarp down a narrow root-tangled path to the beach where the two properties came together. Overnight the wind had died, and the sky had filled with ominous black clouds that squatted just above the lake now, blocking any evidence of Toronto’s existence and creating the impression that the leaden water went on, ocean-like, forever. The air was still, but the lake continued to slosh with swells from the Thanksgiving Day blow.
The rollers rocked us wildly as we set the decoys, Eddy rowing to keep the boat pointed into them, me dangling over the side, the beer and the turkey in my gut churning, the pain in my head surging behind my eyeballs every time the boat dropped. Dark curtains of snow hung from the heavy lid of clouds to the north. My fingers were numb by the time we beached the dinghy again in the gravel above the waves.
The beach was strewn with dead fish: sheepshead and carp and suckers, catfish dried a leathery blue. Along the storm line, a knee-deep pile of desiccated alewives stretched as far as I could see in both directions. Jumbles of water-blunted planks and driftwood, nests of snarled fishing line, decades of rusted cans and beer bottles at the foot of the bluff, dumped by previous owners of the property. Looking up, I could barely make out the the cottage on the bluff in the dense low clouds.
We found a section of a wooden dock, waterlogged and mossy green, and we tipped it up on its side and leaned it against the root wad of a beached tree stump, almost directly behind the neighboring cottage where the guy with the powerful flashlight was. I had nearly forgotten him with the excitement of hunting in my blood. We pulled the canvas tarp up over the wooden dock section and huddled under it, peering out over the driftwood stump at our decoys and the vast surface of the lake and the snow-threatening sky.
We waited, shotguns in hand. I was cold and hungover, and happier than I could remember ever being.
As the first snow squalls moved in from the north, rafts of ducks lifted off far out on the open water. They flew along the edge of the advancing snow, vibrating black dots against the gray water and the grayer sky. They seemed to be miles away. Eddy studied them with his father’s huge binoculars. “Buffleheads,” he’d announce. “Whistlers.” But really, at that distance you’d need an astronomer’s scope to identify anything.
Birds passed high overhead, quacking somewhere up in the dense de- scending clouds. We sighted into the sky, cold wooden stocks snug to our cheeks, whispering, “Can you see anything?” Of course we couldn’t. Then Eddy quacked and chortled hopefully on the duck call. But nothing came down out of the dark clouds except snow.
By midmorning it began to stick to the tops of the larger beach rocks. I fretted about it coating the decoys, and almost suggested we call it a day when a pair of birds suddenly materialized from a wall of snow, coming straight at us, unmistakably zeroing in on the decoys. Guns at our shoulders, we watched them veer to the right and circle back around. They set their webbed landing gear and reared back on open wings: easy shots, hanging there like that, one for each of us.
They were also mergansers.
“Sawbills! Damn!” Eddy moaned. “What luck.”
“Nuts,” I said, holding the bead on one of the mergansers as it swam among the decoys, oblivious of our chatter. It dived and came back up a few yards away, its weird hairdo dripping with lake water, a small fish wriggling in its fiercely serrated bill. “How bad can they really taste?” I asked, lowering the gun.
“Like every fish they ever ate,” Eddy said. “Anyhow, now we have some live decoys.” And as though on cue, a lone mallard drake dropped out of the clouds from behind us, maybe coming from one of the cornfields. It passed over us so low I could hear its wing beats and its soft muttering chuckle as it tipped one wing and dropped in. I was so surprised I didn’t shoot. Eddy must have been just as stunned. We both stood there and watched it heading straight away.
There was a blast from above and behind us, and the startled mergansers ran across the surface and leapt into the air as the mallard passed over low. On the second blast the mallard pitched into the lake, tail over iridescent green head, and feathers exploded off the unfortunate nearby merganser. It flapped wildly and lost altitude, landing with a splash but upright, just beyond the dead mallard.
I hadn’t pulled the trigger. Neither had Eddy.
We jumped up and tore back the canvas tarp. A man was scurrying down the bluff, shotgun held high with one hand as he grabbed at roots with his other. He skidded to a stop a few yards away. He was in his mid-30s, broad shouldered and athletic, though going heavy around the middle like an aging jock. Trim blond sideburns showed from under his camo hat, and he was meticulously clean-shaven. He looked like a cop. That’s because he was a cop. And we knew him: Deputy Miles Pender, Town of Niagara Sheriff’s Department. And he knew us.
“Eddy Fart-fartian!” he shouted like a man discovering a long-lost friend. “I’d recognize that stupid look anywhere. What’s the matter? You never seen anyone get two ducks with one shot like that? What are you boys doing down here, anyway? Bird-watching?”
“Vartagian,” Eddy said. “And that’s our duck.”
Deputy Pender hooted as he set his gun in the dinghy and pushed the boat into the water. “You Lebanese moron. It’s only your duck if you shoot it,” he said. “You desert people! Honestly.” He pulled on the oars. “I’ll tell you what. If you two girls want to go after that crippled sawbill, you can have it.” He laughed all the way out to the floating mallard.
“We did all the work,” Eddy hissed to me. “That mallard would have come back around. It’s ours.”
“I know,” I said, not really knowing any such thing.
Eddy, addicted as he was to the thrills only internal combustion can provide, was no stranger to Pender. The deputy had an uncanny knack for being just out of sight whenever the Malibu came around a curve at 20 over the limit. Eddy was no match for him. It wasn’t even cat and mouse; it was more like cat and toilet paper. And now we found out that Miles Pender owned the cottage next door. This wasn’t what Eddy Vartagian needed at this time in his life.
Pender stood at the foot of the snowy path with the gorgeous drake in one hand, his shotgun in the other. “Okay, Dumbassian, here’s the deal: You stop whining about my duck and I don’t haul you in for trespassing.”
“We have permission to be here,” Eddy said, not yet willing to admit they were neighbors now.
“Oh really? And to provide alcohol to fellow minors, too?”
Eddy opened his mouth to say something, but Pender stared him down. Then he shifted his law enforcement gaze onto me. I looked at the toes of my boots, then out at the crippled merganser swimming back into the decoys, maybe wanting company.
“Now,” Pender said. “I’m going up and have a nice hot breakfast and a cup of coffee. You children be sure to call me if any more real ducks show up asking to be shot.”
We watched him disappear up the bluff into the falling snow, the big mallard in hand.
“Come on,” Eddy said. “We have to put that cripple out of its misery.”
“What about ours?” I said.
It took us forever to shoot the wounded merganser, which dived every time we got within range. Finally it weakened and let us row right up to it.
“You want to do it?” I asked, my hangover hitting its low point now.
The merganser paddled around in a confused circle, 20 feet from the boat, its toothy bill slack and half open.
Eddy looked over his shoulder at me, oars in hands. He grimaced and shook his head. “Kill something that’s already dying?”
“It’s mercy,” I said. “You’re the one who said we had to—”
“Just do it!” he said. He turned back to the oars.
I put the bead on the bird’s crested head and felt the shotgun punch me in the shoulder. When I opened my eyes, the merganser was lying still on the water in the falling snow.
We picked up the decoys. Neither of us felt much like hunting anymore. We beached the boat and carried the merganser up the path between the cottages. Pender had left the mallard on his porch, trussed in a bulging cloth sack, its big webbed feet sticking out from the drawstring. I nudged Eddy. He looked at it bitterly and turned away.
“Two hundred miles of lakeshore and my father buys the place next to Pender’s?” he said. “I’m going to shoot myself as soon as I have a beer.”
He threw the merganser on our porch without even field-dressing it, planning to dump it in the garbage at home. I stood for a moment and studied it lying there, its tawny brown feathers streaked with blood, its goofy crest crumpled, the jagged sawtoothed bill even uglier in death than it had been in life.
Eddy said, “Here, Mom. I brought you a fish duck.”
He managed to resist suicide, but the thought of the fat, corn-fed mallard going to Pender gnawed at us all afternoon as we played lethargic knock rummy and drank beer and tried without success to have a good time. Outside, the snow fell without pause. The fields were a foot deep with it as the sun began to set around four, and we tired of cards and beer and leftover turkey. I couldn’t even begin to imagine what we would do until bedtime.
“Are we going to hunt in the morning again?” I asked Eddy.
“I don’t know,” he said. “See how we feel.”
But I knew we weren’t going to hunt again.
I said, “Are you going to call Chi-cago, check on your mom?”
“I guess I should,” he said without enthusiasm. He held his wrist up to the waning window light and looked at his watch. “What do you think?”
“I think we should go home,” I said quickly, before I found a way to avoid suggesting it. “We could get snowed-in here.”
We stood up from the table in time to see a car turning off Lake Road, a little Chevy Corvair. It struggled up Pender’s driveway, wipers slashing at the heavy falling flakes.
“Pender must have a friend,” Eddy said. “That’s hard to believe.”
Through the window we watched the Corvair plow to a stop in the snow behind Pender’s Ford. A woman got out wearing one of the sheepskin-lined coats popular with young women at that time. She glared up at the falling snow and yanked a kerchief up over a heap of teased hair, also popular at that time.
“That’s not a hunting buddy,” Eddy said. “It looks like Jonette Panevino.”
Pender came out the door as the woman climbed the stairs. She jumped into his arms and pinned him against the wall. They shared a long kiss under the porch light.
Eddy said, “It is Jonette Panevino.” He shook his head. “The creep gets the duck and Jonette, too? Where’s my gun? I can’t live with this.”
Jonette Panevino had been a senior the year we entered the school as freshmen. Even back then she looked about 37, clacking down the halls with heels like daggers, fishnet stockings, lipstick as hard as automotive enamel, that hair. Rumor was that she spent more time staring at the ceilings of the Bit o’ Paris Motel, out on Niagara Falls Boulevard, than the guys who’d plastered them.
“I always thought she was a little scary,” I admitted.
“Scary?” Eddy said. “Well then we better hurry and get out of here before she attacks us next, huh?”
By the last light of day, we picked up the empties and food scraps and straightened the place up as well as we could. Eddy was really subdued now with Pender and the town’s sure thing a few yards away, doing God only knew what, while we packed our bags and skulked off with nothing but a dead merganser for our trouble. And Eddy still had to call Chicago and get the news he was dreading.
He pulled the cottage door closed behind us and locked it with his father’s key, bent, and picked up the stiff merganser. He paused at the top of the stairs, peering through the snowy dark at Pender’s place next door. I followed his gaze to the sack with the protruding mallard feet lying under the porch light.
Suddenly I remembered something.
“Give me that,” I said. I took the merganser from Eddy. “Start the car.” I went down the stairs and plowed through the snow-covered weeds. I was back in a minute. “Let’s go,” I said. I hopped into the Malibu.
Eddy stared at me, astounded. “Are you mentally sick?”
“You want to stay here and talk about it?” I asked.
He punched it, and the tires spun madly in the new snow. We were out onto Lake Road before either of us spoke again. Snowflakes hurled themselves at the windshield like a swarm of cold white insects. “Like I haven’t got enough problems with this guy!” he shouted.
I ignored him. “There’s a phone coming up at the Lake Shore Market,” I said. “Look, right there! Stop!“
The phone booth glowed in the darkness of the empty parking lot.
“Are we turning ourselves in before Pender shoots us?” Eddy asked. But he swerved into the lot and skidded to a halt in front of the phone booth. “You do realize it’s only a matter of time before he wanders out onto the porch. He can’t stay stuck to Jonette Panevino all weekend.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” I said. “In my fantasies she never gets tired of it.”
“DeStefano! I’m serious! I gotta drive in this county!”
“Eddy, those webbed feet sticking out of that sack look like every pair of duck feet in the world. He can walk past that bird for the next two days.”
Eddy thought about that. “I guess,” he said. “But still, when he—”
“When he what?” I said. “When he gets home and hands the sack to his wife? Is that what you were going to say?”
“Wife? Pender’s married?”
I nodded. “To Vincent Magavaro’s sister, Clara. She used to babysit me. My mother saw the announcement in the paper this past summer and clipped it out for Mrs. Magavaro. They’re in the Sacred Heart Society together.”
“Married,” Eddy said. “Pender?”
“Yeah, there’s hope for all of us,” I said. “Now, go call your mother and tell her we got her a duck.”
I sat in the idling Malibu with the defroster blowing hard, watching Eddy in the phone booth through the rivulets of melted snow running down the windshield. In the rearview mirror, headlights appeared coming up Lake Road behind us. Deputy Pender looking for his mallard already? The headlights grew larger.
I looked to see if Eddy had noticed, and saw him slump against the door of the booth as though his knees had given out. He hung up the receiver, pressed his forehead against the glass.
I checked the mirror again. But in it, what I saw was my family and the Vartagians together, sitting around a food-covered table like Pilgrims. Eddy’s mother came out of her kitchen carrying a serving dish with the mallard breasts sliced and covered with pan drippings. She was healthy again and smiling, positively radiant. She had on a pleated dress like the housewives wore on the TV shows, a string of pearls glowing around her dark neck. She held the dish out to us, and I could see that the tattooed numbers on her arm had vanished somehow. But there was only one duck to feed a dozen people. It would take a miracle.
The car came closer.
We were just 16. Drinking and speeding had the logic of the familiar about them. Blackmailing a grown man, a man with a badge and the authority to make our lives as miserable as he cared to for as long as he wanted . . . That was unfamiliar territory altogether, a strange new land.
Eddy V. staggered out of the phone booth, hunched under the weight of the news from Chicago. He looked past me at the approaching car.
The snow fell harder.
The mirror filled with light. ■
Rich Chiappone lives in Anchor Point, Alaska, where he teaches writing in the graduate program for the University of Alaska Anchorage. He has given up hunting because the fall fishing in Alaska is too good to miss. He is working on a novel set near Niagara Falls, and compiling his second collection of stories and essays about fishing, many of which were first published here in GSJ.