DUCK, DUCK, HORSE by Jeff Frawley
The lumber, I tell Patricia, will soon be a fence. I’ve hired a crew. We’re at the window. She’s pinching the mole on my neck. She asks, But Katrin, what about the cost? The fence will consume what remains of my settlement money, that sum secured by lawyers after I fled from the Fix. But for weeks I’ve told Patricia: There’s still plenty left. Our first night together, four months ago, she went from room to room of my new rental house, stroking the walls, asking, Would a coat of fresh paint kill anyone? She named an expensive acrylic-latex-plus-primer-in-one. Now she claims it’s indulgent to water the garden twice a day.
Tapping the glass, twilight outside, she frowns, says, I thought you liked those neighbor kids playing in your garden. We talked about this, Katrin, rash decisions, hidden plans…
So I tell her. Yes, I’ve enjoyed the kids’ company, two boys, two girls, shy at first, curious. Me waving them over, showing them the garden’s delights: honeybees, hummingbirds, daisies and jewel-boxes, squash, eggplants, toads. But last week, I tell her, I woke to wild shrieking. Late at night. Went to the bedroom window, figuring rabbit. In the Fix we heard similar sounds, but rats, the Man forcing his devotees to kill vermin with shovels.
From my window I surveyed the neighbors’ backyard: hedges, poplars, decrepit swing-set. And, spot-lit by moon, those four children. Linked arm-in-arm. Circling a fat, massive woman. Naked. Three-hundred pounds. One boy broke free, produced a stick, jabbed. The woman shrieked. Her head big as a pumpkin, sagging breasts, quivering stomach. The children took turns with the stick. Each time they jabbed, she shrieked. Upstairs, I gasped. Then, suddenly, they steered her inside, her backside rippling. A broad stain where she’d stood. I collapsed on the bed, remained there until morning. Then I forced myself up, outside, across the lawn. The stain was still there but alive: orange and black insects like boxelder bugs. But boxelder season wasn’t for months.
Patricia, at the window, looks horror-struck. Wants, probably, to say it was a trick of the moonlight. Or my past, the Fix, warping my imagination. I almost say, Don’t. Almost say, This is why I won’t tell you these things. Instead she asks, Maybe it was their mother? Their mother, I reply, is a tiny, wooden thing, flicks Marlboros into my yard, rants that Sikhs are really Arabs taking over the trucking industry—another reason for the fence.
I was once, I tell her, inside their house, the kitchen. A water-stained ceiling, mold-peppered baseboards, spongy linoleum. And a terrible smell: stale shellfish, rotting ocean meat. Those children looked dirty and spooked, hands behind backs, refusing eye contact. The older boy said, Our stepfather keeps barrels in the basement, water and plants, fish nibble the roots—their poop feeds the plants! I told them I’d never seen any stepdad. I covered my mouth, the stench unbearable—how did they live? Show me, I said, stepping towards the basement door. The children went wide-eyed. The younger girl whimpered, looked ready to scream…
Patricia cups her hand on my mouth. Says, Shhh. We kiss, tentatively, which means she’s worried what else I might say. We kiss again, which means it’s time for her to return to the city, for work. Next weekend? she asks. Then she says: Katrin, it was just hydroponics. That Fix stuff is over, long gone. You’re living real life. Another kiss. Stay, I hear myself say, drive back tomorrow, we’ll have gin on the patio, one last time before the fence goes up. I skim her thighs, tight against jeans. She sighs. Air fills my mouth. I don’t like it, she says, fencing yourself off… Then she says goodnight and leaves.
Soon I must tell her the settlement’s gone, spent on the fence, on five months’ rent and acrylic-latex-plus-primer-in-one. Spent on a bed and computer, on colorful clothes that would’ve been forbidden in the Fix. On replacing the house’s deadbolts, plus fees to the lawyer who helped escapees secure settlement money—a firearm, she told us, will bring peace of mind. No guns, I replied. Then pepper spray, she said, or a knife, at the very least a good white-noise machine. Twice, mulching, I’ve whirled around, pepper spray uncapped, to find a neighborhood dog sniffing the hedges.
Patricia cannot fathom: we escapees don’t want that awful cash, another reminder of the Man. Seized by the court from devotees’ savings he’d siphoned for years. Some escapees pooled their settlements to purchase an Airstream, move to Arizona, start a group-camp. This, to me, whiffed too much of the Fix. Instead, for weeks, I stayed at an interstate motel: men with orange teeth, Wonder Bread pizza, a scummy pool in which squirrels would drown. Then I rented this house, met Patricia online. I showed her the motel. My God, she gasped, why put yourself through that? Soon I nurtured a garden thrumming with peace, unlike the Man’s rat-infested “Jardin Infini.” My first night with Patricia, we opened the windows, huddled in bed, listened to wind. My windows, I whispered, my wind, my jardin. I started to sob. Thank you, I sobbed, over and over. Meaning: a miracle, Patricia fine with us laying there, fully clothed, almost touching. I can be patient, she told me. But what will you need? I replied, knowing that everyone, eventually, goes mad with need. (The Man once took away a woman’s child, craving her attention; the woman wailed away in Bunkhouse Four until someone told her to shut it.)
Patricia, that night, answered: Openness and, I suppose, honesty. Earlier, during dinner, I’d told her about the Fix. She stared, swallowed, asked, Was this, like, a choice? For a while, yes, I replied. Funny and fun, wild rules, people strange and beautiful as geckos. Then the Man purchased land outside town, moved us into coed pinewood hutches, and all the rules changed.
Home alone, Patricia gone, I go to the computer, open a browser, click on the link. My job—part-time teacher at the community arts center, six days a week—provides merciful excuse not to visit her in the city, amidst all those angry, leering people.
The broadcast now runs twenty-four-seven, even at night. A camera attached to a radio tower on a faraway coast: darkness, mist, wind booming off sea. During the day, milky sky, steel-blue water. Colorful houses line a thumb-shaped peninsula, a village called Tandquay. Within the year it will break from the mainland and become, claim geologists, a rapidly sinking island. The government has offered relocation funds in exchange for petroleum-rich indigenous land. The feed broadcasts the Tandquayans’ plight: sea-lashed peninsula, protestors with signs, lanterns at night. On the mainland a pack of counter-protestors, pickups glinting, hoist signs of their own—what could possibly be their position?
A nearby Ford factory has offered jobs to Tandquayans if the treaty is signed. Each morning two men climb onto a roof, unfurl a banner: SEND HELP! I donate one-third of each paycheck to help fund the webcast; Tandquayans should not be coerced into working at Ford. Once, during prime-time news—I nearly fell from my chair—a village elder stared into the camera and said, Even as an island, we’ll still fish and crab. His wife beside him added, We can cook cormorant thirteen different ways.
After work I log on, protestors huddled over portable stoves. At night, unable to sleep, I log on again, watch lantern-lights in fog. Patricia, if she’s over, flicks off the screen, says, You need professionally approved coping mechanisms. Not a mechanism, I’ll say. A peninsula, sinking. She dislikes when villagers wave at the camera and I wave back.
A webcast, understand, got us freed from the Fix. One of our requirements was the production of one-act plays the Man liked in lieu of television. His attendants roved the stage filming while we recited, women topless and body-painted, men in thin loincloths. The Man broadcasted the things online, some clandestine forum, for whom we never knew. Eventually something got reported—by who? to whom? Within months, those who wanted were rescued. Others stayed behind, loyal to the Man. His productions, we’ve heard, only grew grander.
Ben, fellow instructor at the community arts center, inspects my cupboard, makes a sound. Tugs out pack after pack of King’s Hawaiian Rolls. Says, We’ve talked about this. I tell him Patricia says the same thing: We talked about this. This is what it means to invite strangers into one’s life—you’re always talking about things, making unforeseen promises.
Those rolls, I tell Ben, are my one fond recollection from the Fix. Delivered once a week to our bunkhouses by the Man’s attendants—saved our lives, I tell Ben. Twice I’ve mailed boxes to the Tandquay P.O. with handwritten notes: These rolls got me through unimaginable times. I know they’ll help you—STAY STRONG, you’ll get your way. Love, Katrin.
The first time a villager waves an orange bag of King’s on the webcast, my breath leaves my body. I collapse. Patricia comes running, presses washcloth to my chest. This guy, I manage to tell her, one of the Man’s attendants, not the Man, made me watch awful videotapes, just he and I, said we’d make one someday. Back in my bunk, King’s Rolls eased my fear. After killing doves in the Man’s Jardin, they were the one food I kept down. Patricia, startled, eyed me, squinting as though glimpsing some far-away light. I didn’t dare tell her I mailed those rolls being waved now on-screen.
Might I sneak, I ask Ben, King’s Hawaiians to that fat woman in the neighbors’ cellar? Ben, like most at the community arts center—struggling artists, damaged locals, weirdos unable to hold nine-to-fives—actually believes such things are possible, obese women kept nude in reeking basements. Perhaps some at the center have survived just such situations. He asks, Why not phone the police? Tried that before, I reply, multiple times, a shady motel—the response you get when you’re off the mark isn’t fun. Some folks, I tell him, don’t want to be freed.
Ben dreams of staging an avant-garde play about the Fix, using students from the arts center. (Are there rules, I’ve asked, about what they can and can’t do onstage?) We meet twice a month to brainstorm a script—it’s healthy, he says, talking about it. (Most people say: You chose to get sucked in.) The production, I told him, must be webcast. Ben, seeing my face, acquiesced—good practice for the students. Didn’t ask, Webcast it where? For whom?
How long, Patricia asks, can I go on doing just this, teaching freeform discursive writing at the community arts center, $500 every two weeks, before I need a second job? There’s work, she says, in the city—I should move into her place, that polished-concrete loft in a repurposed sweatshop with coffee bar and gym, potted cacti in lieu of garden.
During the first meeting each six-week session, a student always asks, What does it mean? “Discursive,” I reply, or “freeform”? They’ll think and answer, Both. Someone exits, mumbling they wanted poetry, detective novels, yoga. A local café, Rodney’s, donates thermoses of pretty-hot coffee. We start each meeting sipping, describing dreams. The younger students, I realize, co-opt recent TV episodes; the elderly describe nightmares, or dreams about dinner parties. The form of writing we’ll practice, I say, draws from meditation and the Beats, from free jazz and new-wave architecture and what I’ve read on psychosis. Always, I say, nonfiction. It will help us through tough times.
An elderly woman recently whispered, She’s all of what, twenty-three? What could she know about tough times? Her name, I’d learn, was Art, short for Artesia. Before I could stop myself, I blurted out: Bitch, don’t worry about that. The mood in the room just died. I began packing up, to go wait for the axe. But Art erupted with laughter, echoed by the class.
The following week, over Rodney’s coffee, I read them my own freeform discursive:
KIDNAP CITY AND ITS MANY MUSEUMS
First thing after we escaped from the Fix, L and I borrowed her uncle’s car for a trip. Lived off gas station eggrolls, King’s Hawaiians. We shuddered for freedom, for safety, for one another’s company. Day three, we reached Utah. A strange town called Blandon. Blandon felt like autumn even in June—slanting sunlight, vacant streets, blizzard of cottonwood spores. We wandered downtown, shouting hello. Suddenly L gasped: the foothills were alive with people linked arm-in-arm, scouring the brush. We knew what that meant. A girl, we’d learn, had been snatched from her home. Beloved by all. Called Lolli by her mom, Binx by her dad. Flyers everywhere: MISSING: BINX JACKSON or MISSING: LOLLI JACKSON, photo of a girl amidst gushing light. Fourth to go missing in just sixteen years. We stayed overnight, told strangers our story. This did the trick: we got Walkie-Talkies, joined the search. Slept in a joint doubling as museum, the Blandon Museum of Route 22 Motor Lodges. There we learned of the town’s improbable number of historical institutions. During breaks in searching for Binx/Lolli Jackson, we visited the Museum of Blandon Settlers, Museum of Blandon Crockery, the Havenweep Pueblo, the Blandon Brush Pig Institute, the Official B and B Museum. Lastly, most remarkably, the Subterranean Baseball Hall of Fame, a mile south of town where the plains turned ragged with red rock. Its director, wearing tuxedo, explained that during railroad-building times the local Chinese took to caverns to escape heat. They discovered that now-famous chamber: one-hundred yards long, one-hundred yards wide, fifty yards high. They strung oil lamps and played baseball, seven to a team, that sport they’d come to love. So many Chinese were being shipped into town, the director said. A league was formed, round-robin tournaments. Before long, of course, railroad bosses had the cave dynamited… I asked if Blandon still had a sizable Chinese population. A question, the director replied, for the Museum of Persecuted Peoples. We planned to visit the following day. But that night our Walkie-Talkies crackled to life: a body had been found in a shack high in the foothills.
I lowered the paper. Odd looks. What’s this Fix? someone asked. Tsk-tsk, I replied. Why’d you and L split? This from a man named Griggs, resoundingly shushed. But when Lars Melroy asked, Where’s L today? they leaned in, expectant. Up north, I replied, co-director of a nonprofit, works with women freed from situations like the Fix. Welcomes them home, fights for fair settlements, gets them to speak—that’s what’s most important, L always said.
Someone asked, If she’s up there, why’re you here? I felt myself clench. Then I started to talk, unable to stop: The Man had a term for people like L, glory whores, but L’s not afraid. She’s doing good work. After Blandon we drove town to town, looking for clues, strange clothing, buildings in fields. But I quickly burned out. Unlike L, I couldn’t take any more—
Art thrust up a hand, interrupted: Underground baseball, how is that possible? Her husband, Eugene, sitting beside her, said, It’s baseball, anything’s possible. That’s right, I replied. Thank you, Eugene. Anything’s possible—this is the beauty from which we must live and write. We must scour for connections. Nonfiction only. Smiling, Eugene patted Art’s head.
Later, everyone gone, Art snuck back into the room while I tidied the coffee cart. She tiptoed up, whispered: I dreamt about you. Startled, I fell against cart, steadied myself, turned. Art clutched in two hands a small furry purse, a weasel-like head where zipper should be. Pine marten, she said, Eugene shot it last month. Sunlight stroked her leathered face. She would, weeks later, read an essay aloud, titled “If My Face Wears My Life Then My Wrinkles Flaunt Death,” her voice quavering, tears wetting flesh.
You’ve been treated, she told me, in a very harmful way. For a long stretch of time. Seen things. Been kept. She continued like this, statements of truth, suppositions of grief, until I was shaking. I finally said, Stop. You can’t keep it in, she said, you must seek help. She pinched the pine marten’s mouth, unzipped, said, Look. I complied. Inside were several conical creatures, ivory-colored, grinning, squinty-eyed. I’d seen these before—Billikens, they’re called. Art’s wrinkles parted with smile. Do you know what these are? she asked, shaking the purse, Billikens clacking. Charms, I replied. Do you know what these are? she asked, louder. I shook my head, whispered, No. For each person, she said, I’ve met rent by the world—by men, always men—I keep one in my purse until the person is healed. Or, in some sad cases, dead. Then she said, Touch. I refused. Touch! she demanded. So, trembling, I poked a Billiken and gasped: some sort of jelly, not ivory or stone. Art laughed, said: Rendered fat and gelatin. Creatures eat our apricots, pounds and pounds of apricots. Eugene shoots them, guts them, we don’t waste their insides. A smell wafted up. Please, I said, close it. Tonight, she said, I’ll add one for you. It will never get better, Miss Katrin, until you open your heart, dump out that shit.
Billikens, I’d learn, lack sacred origins, created by a Missouri schoolteacher, creatures she witnessed in dreams, marketed via magazines—the god of things as they ought to be. To gift them is to help others with life’s petty problems. Soon enterprising Eskimos sold them to tourists, fake walrus tusks, improvised myths. But what Art had suggested hardly seemed petty. Patricia, when I told her, looked aghast. Asked, Isn’t it time to find a real job?
Tandquayans, I’ve read, keep spirits pleased by plucking teeth from the dead, lacquering them, gluing them to houses, so that those oldest homes on the splitting peninsula—visible on-screen if you squint—are popcorned with molars.
The fence-crew arrives, bludgeons posts into earth, hammers up planks. The neighbor children shriek Miss Katrin, Miss Katrin! The crew boss, meat-red from sun, comes over, says, Get those kids under control. Not mine, I reply. Get those shitheads out of here, he shouts, or build it yourself! I ferry them into their kitchen. Don’t kill us! one girl cries. The stench is worse: gassy, sweetly fecal. I touch the basement doorknob. The older boy rips open a drawer like he’s going for knife, only to slam it shut. Stepdad’s got a pig down there now, he says. The children, when I say there’s no damned pig, giggle. If it’s a lady down there, I tell them, good boys and girls would let her go. The boy, giggling, says, Stepdad says we’ll eat the pig for Labor Day, if it doesn’t eat us first.
On day two, they finish the fence. I’m reading an essay by a man who goes by Goad—I’m Goad, he introduced himself, typed only Goad atop his essay, titled “Why God Made Mosquitos and Why I’m Going to Stop Giving Plasma.” The crew boss knocks on my door, unfurls a list of charges. Fine, I say, waving it away. Patricia will ask, to the cent, the sum, spoiling the pleasure of a backyard boxed in, protected from strangers lurking and peering.
The boss takes me out back, his jeans dark with sweat. It’s hot, sunspots strobing, cicadas and lawnmowers, snot-hocking fence-crew. The children, in their yard, scream. I panic, unable to see—but alas, this was the point. The boss, as though calming a pony, clicks his tongue, rubs a fencepost. Knotted, sap-stained, unfinished pine. It’s ugly, I say. He shrugs, says, What you pay is what you get. You’re right, I reply, wanting them out of my yard. I shout to his crew: Bravo, boys. The neighbor kids scream.
Patricia and Ben come for a drink. The first time they’ve met. Patricia eyes Ben, the fence, me. Mouths, How much? I lead her inside, hand on her back, tell her I feel fully safe, the fence worth the price. I’m glad, she replies. Maybe, Katrin, you can finally relax. Then she perks up, says she’s heard of a job—an office job, one town over. Not precisely what you want, she says, but stable, steady hours, with people who won’t need to know about the Fix…
Ben comes in seeking gin. For each one we drink he downs two, face swollen and pink. Under a plummeting sun we pick beetles from pepper plants. Ben, slurring, says the fence is too tall—how will I see those kids séance with the fat woman? Patricia stiffens, says, You told him? Later, many drinks deep, Ben will say he’s found our lead actress for the play, a girl from his classes—a haunted look, he says. I leap up, shouting I have something to show them, desperate to distract Patricia. (A play about the Fix, she’ll say, is unthinkable, the whole town will swear you’ve lost it.) I return with a box, the Billiken I ordered online, bringalaskahome.com. You’re supposed to bury Saint Francis upside-down for luck with house and home. But I like this Billiken better, plant it right-side-up, ivory tip peeking from soil. Make a wish, I say. Patricia, eyeing Ben, whispers, I wish he’d go home. But Ben, oblivious, taps the Billiken’s tip, asks, This from that island, the village you send money to? My stomach drops. I look to Patricia.
The kids, one afternoon, will scream a game. Inane chatter, sudden shrieking. So loud I nearly fall from my patio chair. In the Fix, during Mandatory Reflection, the Man forced us to sit with eyes closed, total silence, his attendants sneaking up to jab our ribs, grab our hair. Screamers got no dinner, or latrine duty, rat-bashing hours. L once asked the point of the game. Not a game, she was told. A challenge, meant to train the cunt out of you. For her question, two hours in the Mosquito House.
The children babble and scream. I drop Lars Melroy’s essay, “I’ve Traveled the County Feeding the Blind,” and creep to the fence. It’s that game, I realize, “Duck, Duck, Goose.” Only they shout horse instead of goose—Duck, duck, horse!—before erupting in howls. Then silence. Gentle babbling. Suddenly: Duck, duck… HORSE!
For three days they’ll play, unbearable screaming, until I’m ready to have the fence torn down. But on the third afternoon, heading out, I find police cars in the street, flashers on, the neighbors’ door ajar. That pitch-black, reeking interior. Everything quiet. I stand in the street, unable to move, until a team of grim-faced men emerges.
Patricia, of course, will soon tire of spooning, need something more than openness and probably-honesty. (Why worry so much? she asks.) Tonight she slides closer. I inch away. She pursues once. I inch away. Okay, she whispers, I get it. Whispers I’d be able to actually sleep at her place—her form-fitting mattress, her loft’s refurbished-industrial white-noise hum. I’d feel at peace, won’t waste my paycheck on that island, won’t need community center productions.
Later she finds me in the kitchen, groggy-eyed, wild-haired, my mouth stuffed with rolls. Peninsula, I tell her, not island, not yet anyway. She sighs, takes away the King’s. Says, Katrin, withholding’s just as bad as lying. She is, naturally, right—were I to tell her how much I’ve mailed to Tandquay, the sum total, she’d slink out of the kitchen, return to bed, be gone in the morning. Her father’s name is Pat. Patricia, at home, goes by Pat too. Her family collie’s Paddy, her brother Patrick. Kind, gentle people. They welcomed me last Easter like I was some milk-starved mammal. I enjoyed calling out Pat? from deep inside their house, having them all come running at once, even the dog.
One morning, soon, I’ll encounter an article. The coincidence snatches my breath. A problem affecting the Navajo Nation, isolated salt flats, arroyos, basalt canyons. First in New Mexico, then Arizona, then just beyond a Four Corners truck-stop. Herds of wild horses found dead in old stock ponds, sunken in quicksand. Dozens of heads sticking out from the earth, lips peeled back, milky eyes wide, muzzles stiff with terror. Dozens more onshore, sand-caked, sun-withered. The worst instance, south of Moenkopi, is seventy-nine, a mountain of corpses. One, incredibly, lived, half-sucked into earth, bucking its forelegs, bludgeoning the dead. The three unlucky men who chanced upon this horror were forced to put it down—four bullets, said the article, side of the head. If only she were human, one man stated, we could ask why. A photo: this man beside stock pond, husks of dead horses, bulldozer at work, tears soaking his face. I will want to read the article to Patricia, but she’s decided, that weekend, to remain in the city. I’ll want, like that man, to ask why—why flock to those pits? why follow others down? Something they smelled? Sounds in the earth? As it stands, the article concluded, teams are scouring the desert in search of more ponds, stringing barbwire to save beasts from themselves.
- Published in Fiction, Issue 16, Uncategorized