What Do Ducks Do in Winter?
by Lewis B. Horne

Secrets

That unabsorbed and cheerful look attracted Parley. Knowing that she was Dr. Gardner’s youngest child and his only daughter made him nervous. Parley lived on the south side of town. The houses were small, most of them frame. Some had scrubby yards with a single chinaberry tree, an old car parked on what would have been the lawn. But in season small beds of zinnias, calendulas, larkspurs, and a row of hollyhocks or an oleander bush in bloom brightened lawns as green as the heat would allow. Sweet peas grew on wire fences. In the back, many had a clothesline, a small chicken pen, and even a cow.

Once when Dr. Gardner made a house call to Parley’s younger brother, Faith came with him but waited in the car. Parley happened to look out the window that evening. He slipped his hands into his corduroys and sauntered down the short path to the gate.

“Hi,” he said.

Standing beside Dr. Gardner’s big dark Buick with Faith smiling inside, Parley looked as bright and fresh as Faith had ever seen him.

“You always go with your dad on house calls?” he asked.

“Sometimes in the evening if he feels like company.”

“And you wait outside?”

“He doesn’t want me to catch anything. Sometimes I wait a long time. But I don’t mind.”

“You really don’t mind?”

“No. I think. And I wonder. What my dad’s doing. What I’m going to be doing eight or ten or twelve years from now. I wonder [51] if my mom wonders what my dad is doing.”

“He’s checking Orson now.”

“I bet it’s the measles.”

“I hope not,” said Parley. “I don’t want to get measles. I’d go buggy having to lie in a dark room all day.”

“If you get measles, that’s all you can do. Lie in a dark room. I bet it’s the measles.”

That was the evening Parley decided he was in love with Faith Gardner. Four days after their short talk, Parley came down with the measles.

“You should have had them a long time ago,” his mother said, “when you were Orson’s age. Some people are too healthy for their own good.”

Parley groaned. Two weeks home with his mother, her talking, her screwy ideas, her noises. Parley wondered how he could ever ask Faith Gardner home to meet his mother.

It was a bit of a surprise to many that Parley went after a teaching certificate when he graduated. Most of the boys who didn’t farm seemed to get on with the telephone company or post office or one of the city departments. The luckier ones had fathers in retail. Only the rare one went away to become a doctor or dentist or accountant or teacher. Parley’s decision was his own. Faith shrugged: “Whatever you want to do.” Nor did she seem nonplussed to find herself pregnant, though Parley’s eyes widened, and his rounded, protruding jaw hardened.

Parley never knew what Faith’s parents thought of her marrying him. He would sometimes say to Faith, “I bet your folk wish you were marrying someone else.” Or: “I bet your folks wonder what you see in me.” She would pat his cheek. What does it matter? He hoped winning a football scholarship would impress them. He hoped his desire to be a teacher would impress them. Faith never said. It did not seem important to her what her parents thought about him. As Parley looked on the rosiness of her face after they married in 1931, the high and healthy color her pregnancy had [52] brought, he felt like an animal. He could scarcely keep his hands off her. He felt the baby kick. With his ear to her tummy, he listened to its heart beat.

Dr. Gardner gave them a portion of the Ikeda farm. The house under the cottonwood trees next to the irrigation ditch was small and somewhat beaten in, but Parley could do carpentry. He bought two cows to run in the pasture. He built a chicken pen with nesting troughs. Milking sometimes in the evening, long-sleeved to protect himself from the mosquitoes, his head nudged sideways against the cow’s flank, he peered across the field to the house and felt like singing. Life was so good to him. He could thank the Lord in prayer, and he wished he could sing.

One Sunday in 1943 when Dr. Gardner was working the morning at the hospital, Parley was driving his mother-in-law home from church.

Mrs. Gardner said, “I hope things are going all right with your mother, Parley. I’m so sorry.”

“Well—” he said. He needed to get his bearings. Most other people would hop and skip about the matter, never bringing it up—and all the while you knew they were thinking about it. But Mrs. Gardner could mention it quietly, showing her concern and leaving him the chance to talk about it if he wished.

“Well … I got her an apartment not far from where the old house was. But she misses her flowers. And the house.”

“Of course. And then the worry about Orson in the navy. Not knowing where his carrier is.”

She meant to let him know she understood how much the worry was on Parley’s shoulders alone, the full burden of it. How could he write Orson out in the Pacific somewhere: Mom burned down the house? Not by accident. Mom set fire to the house.

“I just didn’t believe it,” he said, glad for the chance to speak to someone besides Faith. “When the fire chief said arson, I just couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t imagine who’d want to set fire to my [53] mother’s house. Of course Mom is a bit strange. But who would do that? Naturally she told me she had her own suspicions.”

“Of course.”

His mother had a list of neighbors to blame. Besides them there was the paper boy. There was the Negro switchman who had looked at her the last time she walked to town.

“I think I’ve got things under control now,” he said.

Dr. Gardner’s black Buick was parked near the pumphouse. He came out the kitchen door, shirt sleeves rolled to his elbows, collar unbuttoned, to walk with his wife, hand in hand, back inside.

At home Faith had slipped into one of her dresses. She was barefoot and carried a large white rag to keep her nose wiped. She had a great pile of rags stuffed into old gunny sacks that she’d washed and filled and thrown into a corner.

In seventh grade I developed my crush on Cass Riggs. I remember the moment, can almost visualize it. She and her father were out of school the day of Dr. Gardner’s funeral. One of the Boyle boys, returning from a date, recognized the Buick. Inside, Dr. Gardner lay sideways on the front seat, both shoes removed and sitting next to each other on the floor of the passenger side. (He always took his shoes off. “By golly, it’s a joy to get out of those things.”) His horn-rimmed glasses sat folded on the dashboard. His coat was folded under his head. The Boyle boy, nervous, touched him, he said, to see if the doctor was asleep, to see if he could wake him. When he felt how cold his hand was and then his forehead, he knew he was dead. He didn’t doubt it at all. The doctor’s picture was in the newspaper. He was a member of various associations, an active member of the Lions Club, had served on the local schoolboard for years. A distinguished man.

I don’t believe Cass looked any different at school the next day. Parley went ahead with math and science and reading as usual. But I believe I saw something different in Cass’s round face, her brown eyes. She always had tightly woven braids, and the part in her hair [54] was clearly marked. But something about her on that day wrung my heart. I didn’t feel sorry for her. By that time all of us had experienced death, but my emotions were so strong, so fully directed, that I could hardly take my eyes off her.

Her round figure, the puffed sleeves of her dress circling her pink upper arms, the plumpness of her breasts, her shyness, it all enthralled me. I wanted to tell my friends, “Look at Cass. Doesn’t she look—” How? Beautiful? No, not that. Then I was afraid one of them might notice the way she held her pencil as she worked her math problems, the way she chewed the end of one of her braids like a fourth grader.

Since I’d gone all the way through school with her, we were no strangers, had no secrets to tell. One spring evening the class had a hayrack ride and wiener roast. On the trailer, an older boy necked with Betty Lou Billings the whole time. Necked wildly, holding her back in his arms at times the way men did with women in movies. I walked in the darkness outside the campfire with Cass, where for a few minutes we held hands.

Much later, after returning from college, I first saw what people meant when they talked about Faith Riggs being a bit off her rocker. Cass sounded strange on the telephone, and when I drove out to see her I understood why. The Riggs’s porch was piled with boxes, tables, chairs, sofas—”bargains” Faith had found. Against one side of the house was a pile covered with a tarp fastened to stakes in the ground. Parley and Faith seemed glad to see me. They didn’t appear embarrassed by the objects stacked against the walls, the sofa and chairs pulled out to make room for them. The house seemed much smaller inside.

Cass was in a hurry to be gone. In the car she said, “Don’t ask me. Please don’t ask me.”

“How’s your grandmother?” I said as we passed the Gardner place.

“She’s wonderful. Ed Wellington still looks after the place. He must be nearly seventy. And Wilma Rogers—you remember Wilma [55] Rogers?—she lives with her now. Mama stops in twice a week.”

It was after Cass and I married and moved to Provo that long patient and uncomplaining Parley finally broke down. Suddenly, without warning. He’d had it, he cried one evening. He was being crowded out of his own house.

“Don’t be silly,” said Faith.

“Don’t be silly?” he said. “Don’t be silly? You’re the one who’s crazy. That’s what people say, you know. Do you know what they say about you?”

Faith sighed. Why should she care about what people say? She had come home with fifteen black metal ice cream chairs. She’d found them in the attic of an old store. The new manager, a young, long-haired, beaded fellow who wanted to turn it into something “far out” or whatever, wanted to get rid of them. He didn’t know it, said Faith, but the chairs had value.

“And where do you figure to put fifteen ice cream chairs?”

“I’ll figure something out.”

“You’ll figure something out.”

“You don’t need to worry. They were a bargain. I’ll figure it out.”

Parley threw open the door of Cass’s bedroom. He began carrying boxes, lamps, drop leaf tables into Cass’s room, stacking them methodically, grunting and gasping. Matched and unmatched kitchen chairs. He worked a two-piece cupboard through the door. For two or three hours he worked until his shirt was spotted with sweat.

“Now, at least,” he panted, finished, “we’ll have some room to move and breathe.”

Faith watched without speaking. Until that moment, until she saw Parley squeeze the last card table through the half open door to Cass’s bedroom, she had never thought of using the children’s rooms that way. With the living room cleared, sofa and chairs pushed back against the wall, it too had more space if she should want to use it.

[56] When Mrs. Gardner died, quietly, as one would expect, and in her sleep, Cass went home for the funeral. We were in Ann Arbor by then and had a six-month-old daughter.

Cass said that Mama was always busy—or else she was tired, exhausted. She seemed happy enough just to watch Daddy. Cass had to sleep in town at Thomas’s. “Poor Daddy. There wasn’t room for us at home. Not in the house. There’s hardly room for him.”

So we weren’t surprised to hear that Parley and Faith were moving. “What a job that will be,” I told Cass, glad I was far away, unable to help.

But the move was easy. Straight across the field to the Gardner house. They gathered up their clothes and what few things they felt they needed and drove the car out the driveway. Parley drove back with Thomas the next day to hammer boards across the outer screen doors.

“There,” he said. “If anybody wants the stuff bad enough to break in, more power to them.” Then: “Maybe someone will burn the damn thing down.”

Three years after Faith died, Parley remarried. His new wife was a widow, an elegant lady, modest and neat. From their honeymoon in Tonga, he wrote:

We’re having a wonderful time. Can’t believe I’m here. It’s such a spacious world. Isn’t the Lord generous.
 

 

Both Cass and I returned for Faith’s funeral. We were surprised at Parley’s mood. “I should never have moved her from the old house,” he said, “where she had all her things. She did it for my sake. She was happy. She’s the only one who had any idea what’s in the old place.”

Cass and I walked across the field to see it. The path that had been worn between the two houses still showed in the pasture. Cass, Thomas, and the twins had set it, crossing back and forth, as they were growing up, and it was still there.

[57] “I liked to visit Grandma,” Cass said. She told me about a talk she had with her grandmother after Dr. Gardner had died.

“I was in the seventh grade,” Cass said, “the year I was in Daddy’s class. I never told Mama about it. I haven’t told Thomas and the twins. Maybe I never will. I don’t know why she told me.”

Her grandmother asked her if she remembered a certain Halloween. Faith had wanted to take the kids trick-or-treating into town where there were more doors to knock on. Cass didn’t want to go. Some of her girlfriends in school were having a party at Betty Lou Billings’s house. She wanted to go to that—and yes, Betty Lou’s parents would both be there. No need to worry. Besides, she was too old to go trick-or-treating.

“Keep the sheet over you,” Faith said. “If you’re so anxious about the party, I’ll drop you off afterward.”

“Oh, Mama—!” Cass couldn’t help stamping her foot.

They stopped to let Mrs. Gardner see them in their costumes.

“Oh, you look so scary. And Faith—” she laughed— “my goodness, you’re going, too? Five spooky ghosts.”

Cass didn’t enjoy herself at all. She was afraid they’d run into people she knew. So they visited Dr. Gardner’s friends. “Mama!” Cass heard herself whining. “Hush.” Cass wailed that she didn’t want to be out all night. “Do we have to see everybody Grandpa knew?”

By the time Faith let Cass off at the Billings’s house, each paper bag was nearly full of candy, fruit, cookies. Cass tossed her crumpled sheet into the back seat of the car and ran.

“The Billings will bring me home,” she cried.

When Faith got back to her mother’s house, she sent Thomas home, giving him a flashlight to show his way across the dark field. Faith helped get the twins into the bed in her old room where they were spending the night.

Yes, Cass told her grandmother, she remembered that Halloween. How could she forget? “It was the last night I went trick-or-treating—ever,” she said.

[58] “Your mother was so insistent, wasn’t she?”

“Yes,” said Cass, surprised that her grandmother knew.

After she got the twins to bed, said Mrs. Gardner, Faith spoke to her of Parley. “Do you know how we first started talking, Parley and me?” Faith asked. She told about the time Orson had the measles. “Why didn’t you go on house calls with him?” Faith asked.

“I had my own house to look after. I had three children who needed my attention. I couldn’t very well go off with your father, especially in the evening.”

“But you didn’t mind that I went?”

“Why should I? You seemed to enjoy it so. Your two brothers went a bit early on. But they were too restless. They didn’t like to wait in the car.”

“Mom, what shall I do?”

The abrupt change startled Mrs. Gardner.

“I went to a year of college after the twins started school. I didn’t like it. I go to church. I don’t like it. I look at my kids in bed. I don’t like them. I get in bed with Parley. I don’t like it.”

“Faith—I”

“What shall I do? I don’t like it. I don’t like—I don’t like life, whatever that is.”

“Faith, what is wrong?”

Mrs. Gardner reached out as though to touch Faith’s arm and then pulled back as though she didn’t know what it was she was touching.

“I’m a ghost,” Faith said. “Trick-or-treat. I’m a ghost. I’m haunted. Parley would let me do anything I wanted to do. I’m sure he would. But I don’t know what I should do.”

Mrs. Gardner said something about prayer, about rest. She said that she had always kept a journal.

“Since you were sixteen,” said Faith. “Yes, Mom. I know.”

She stood, holding the white sheets.

“We went to Marjorie Stapleton’s house. The widow—a widow all those years. You remember her? We went trick-or-treating [59] there.”

“The lady on the schoolboard, wasn’t she? But isn’t her place hard to find—on that back road, in the trees? At night?”

“I know the way. I’ve been there with Dad often enough. I used to wait for him. I’d wait a long time sometimes.”

Mrs. Gardner started to speak. Then she decided not to.

“Sometimes a long time.”

Silence was better, she thought.

In silence Faith turned and let the screen door slam behind her.

“Why did your mother tell me that?” Mrs. Gardner asked.

Twelve-year-old Cass didn’t know.

“Did your mother think I was not aware? Did she think I didn’t know about Marjorie Stapleton? That I didn’t know that Faith must have waited in the car outside? The night he died, driving home in the car—did any of the right people think I didn’t know he had been with Marjorie Stapleton then? But for Faith to think that I was unwitting! If she believed that, why did she want me to know? Did she want to hurt me? Why did she want to do that? Did she think I would deny it? It was no secret to me. Secrets breed more secrets. Oh, Cassie dear, there are so many things I don’t know. But about your grandfather and Marjorie Stapleton, I did know that. Without your grandfather’s knowledge, I knew that. I kept it a secret. Some things are best kept secret. Believe me, dear.”

Cass found it difficult to look at her face.

“I’m a fine one to talk about keeping secrets, aren’t I? I hope you can do better than I, such a young thing as you. But why did your mother tell me? That’s a real secret. I don’t think I’ll ever know.”

Cass and I walked around the outside of the house. The grass had grown tall. Weeds were filling in around the edges of the lawn. A couple of windows on the house were broken, but the boards Parley had hammered on with six-penny nails were still there, weathered a bit, but not disturbed. It was full of what Faith had gathered—after she sat waiting in her father’s old Buick, after she [60] married Parley, after her children were born. Gathered from all over the valley.

Shading our eyes, we could see through the window some of what Faith had assembled, some of it appearing to teeter, about to fall.

“I think sometimes secrets are better kept as secrets,” Cass said.