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

One of the Kippers

[29] Say you have a parade—and a young man in a dentist’s chair. In the distance the marching band is warming up. Whenever drill buzzes molar, it grinds out the sound of scales, of trumpets, drums. Travis stiffens his toes, trying not to show how tense he—manly and fifteen—feels.

“That tickle a bit?” asks Jim Watford. Cotton rolls absorb moisture. Janey Rogers mixes amalgam. “You’ll see some of the parade yet. Tell Von and Shirl to get in for a check-up now. Von would let his teeth rot through, give him a chance.”

As Jim Watford tamps the filling, Travis hears the roll-off. Jaw dropped, he regrets the cavity was worse than Jim Watford had expected. His little warning about Von—Travis knows—was only his way of making up for his earlier snapping. “Why the hell d’you wait till it’s like this? Six months—every six months. Didn’t I tell you last time? You and your brother—you’re grown men mighty near. Can’t depend on Von.”

He can only keep his ears tuned to the progress of the parade and hope that the enormity ofhis tooth rot doesn’t take too much of Jim Watford’s time. The dentist is not Mormon so the 24th of July has no meaning for him—and a parade is a parade is a parade as far as he is concerned, which is what he told Travis when he made the emergency appointment. But he has not, married man that he [30] is, fallen freshly in love. He is not fifteen years old, hairy-ankled, and gangly.

Say you were that fifteen-year-old as he closed the door of the dentist’s office, trying not to show his hurry by slamming too hard. Wouldn’t you too take the flight of narrow stairs three or four at a bound, swinging on the railings under each hand, knees popping sideways to give your long feet landing room?

That’s the way Travis did it, bursting out of the office into the hot downtown, putting himself into a sweat before he reached Main, leaping to look over heads at what was passing. Like his brother Anson, he could run like a deer, but not with so many spectators to dodge. He saw soon enough the glitter of the drum major’s baton, lifting and falling, and knew he’d never make it. Half a parade was better than none. They’d circle and come back on the north side of Main, the newspaper had said, before they set off for the park.

So he slid quickly through the crowd, ”’Scuse me, ‘scuse me,” trying to indicate with his haste that he had no intention of usurping anyone’s spot. The Fourth Ward float representing Mormons in Norway passed with classmates he knew and waved to quickly, ducking for a run after the Knights of Columbus clattered by on their horses. Three or four leaps took him to the crowd drawing back from the divider as the parade approached for another turn on the other side of the street.

And if you were fifteen and in love, your tongue thick with Novocaine and sweat tickling your skinny ribs, you’d not note the “Washington Post March,” but watch for the two rows of high school cowgirls twirling lariats in their short fringed skirts of imitation leather and white boots, brown thighs and knees lustrous under the sun.

“Rony,” he called. Not very loud.

[31] She flashed a smile before casting her eyes self-consciously to the happy accord of her knees.

Smitten with dreams of what lay between the glimpse of brown underpants, he bounced backward up the sidewalk for another angle. The sun filled her face, the white cowgirl hat tipped far back on her head.

He glanced over his shoulder to avoid the crowd scattered from curb to shop window. But in spite of his caution, he bumped into a pocket of spectators and nearly fell. Fortunately, it was only his father and Shirl.

“Travis—!” The cutback jaw snapped as Von hooked hands on hips. “What you think you’re doing?”

“Hi, Von. I’m watching the parade. Like you.”

“Not like me, you ain’t. Shirl and me ain’t dancing ass backward—”

“I don’t think we got reason,” said Shirl, “not if I got him figured. Third from the right twirling that lariat like fatigue never entered her mind.”

Travis grinned, and Von shook his head with a small hopeless tchh. “First Anson. Now you. What the sam hill we gonna do, Shirl?”

“First thing,” she said, “is find Anson so we get home in time to milk the cows.”

Travis leaned shoulder to shoulder with his brother against the back of the rattly pickup cab.

“Whooeee,” said Anson, knees drawn up, hands on his crotch, “Don’t I got me a date tonight. You see Angene Fuller and all those blonde curls? How’d you like to mess up those curls, little brother?”

Travis smiled as Anson kicked his booted feet toward the sun, held them a moment, and let them drop.

“You never messed those curls before?” Travis asked because Anson was seventeen and had his driver’s license.

“You better believe it, little brother. I’m going step by step.”

“Toward what?”

[32] “Oh, little brother, you asking a man what ain’t a man that kind of question?”

“Come on, Anson, I might be younger, but I’m taller—”

“You got to be more than tall.”

Travis laughed, but he shifted with discomfort all the same—the way Anson twitched his feet. The “little brother” act.

“What we going to do with two horny boys?” Shirl had asked Von, though she wasn’t their mother and she wasn’t Von’s wife. Still she’d lived with them so many years she was the only mother they knew, her and Von farming their two places together, sharing the same bed.

“But Angene Fuller, Anson? From the Second Ward? Not Angene Fuller!” Travis chided.

“Oh yes, Angene Fuller. Her father’s on the high council, and he’s built hisself a new shiny house and opened up two more tractor stores in Chandler and Tucson. That don’t scare me because Angene—! I never met anybody like Angene, Travis.”

“But Anson,” he said, aching with longing, “do you love her—Angene Fuller?”

“Love her?” The play went out of his voice. He peered over his shoulder, sitting so close that Travis could see his damp pores in the sunlight. He could see too in the dark eyes and the way the upper lip rested slightly back from dry teeth how Anson had turned serious. “Yes,” he said. “I do.”

II

Big Von was scared of dentists. He wouldn’t admit it, even when Shirl accused him.

“They’re your teeth, Von,” said Anson.

“You know what they call that tooth rot?” said Travis.

“What fancy book you two reading now?”

“It’s called ‘caries.’ It means ‘goddess of death.’ It’s in the dictionary.”

[33] “You trying to scare me? What about some teenager staying out all night so he works like a mental retard the next day? If I get me a phone call from Elmo Fuller in town, the consequence is yours, Anson. Not mine.”

“I’m prepared,” said Anson.

“She a nice girl?” said Von, suddenly serious.

“Sure she is, Von—”

“You listen to me. If she’s a nice girl, you treat her that way. No need to show what hot stuff you are by getting a nice girl into trouble.”

The kitchen fell silent except for the hiss of steaks Shirl had in the frying pan. Both Travis and Anson knew that the memory of their own mother stirred in Big Von’s mind. Travis shifted his eyes to Anson, thinking of his brother’s desire to be a man. Yet he had his own desire, no different, except that he’d yet to kiss, though he’d held Rony’s hand one Saturday afternoon in the movie theater.

“You’d rather I got myself drafted,” Anson said finally, “and shipped out to Korea?”

“You want to force a marriage so you won’t get drafted?”

Worse and worse!

“Dang it, Von—! I’m not a bad fellow. What you trying to do? I got me a girl friend and she makes me feel horny and she makes me feel good and I like to be around her—”

“You sound like a normal young fellow to me,” said Shirl. She pushed Anson’s elbows off the table. “Why don’t we have supper?”

Von said he’d go to the dentist if Shirl would. Travis rode into town when they went for their check-up, intending to walk out to Claridge Estates, the new subdivision where Rony Nelson lived. She said he could bring his swimming suit and try out their new pool.

The Nelsons’ house stood in what was once an alfalfa field but was now full of shiny houses with red tile roofs. Travis changed in what Rony called “the downstairs bathroom” and found the pool [34] smaller than he’d expected but freshly painted like a piece of the sky. And Rony, who came behind him, was like a ripple out of the pool the way he could see so much of her skin, though he wished she’d worn one of those two-piecers. Yet her one-piece left her legs high and visible, and a shiny sliver of white skin shimmered at the top.

“I’m used to swimming in the canal,” he said.

“Try the pool,” she said with a little laugh as though she wanted to cover herself.

With a couple of strokes, his shallow dive took him to the far end of the pool. She eased in gasping and swam toward him as though swimming were not easy, at least not with him watching. Still, before long, they were splashing each other, tagging, Travis going under to grab her feet. He trapped her in the corner of the deep end, her round face rippled with sunlight, illuminating the freckles on her nose and two teeth that didn’t fit together.

He kissed her and, as he did, so much taller than she, pressed himself against her. He tried to twine his leg with hers.

“No, Travis,” she said. So earnestly that he drew back.

But she let him kiss her again. From a distance.

A moment later, the kitchen door slammed, and Mrs. Nelson stepped out from under the arbor where grape vines were starting to sit in one of the lawn chairs, the book she carried and the tray of lemonade showing she had come to stay. She’d seen him then, his lechery. He felt ashamed. One of the Kippers. A phrase he’d noted as he and Anson reached high school age, becoming not just the Kipper boys, as they’d been for so long, but now, as though each were distinctive enough, one of the Kippers, a phrase that sometimes meant good, something to be proud of as he was when he was valedictorian of the eighth grade class, but could also mean something unsavory. Suppose Mrs. Nelson mentioned Rony’s boy friend to someone in her Relief Society? “Who’d you say?” And then, as she repeated his name, “Oh, one of the Kippers, you mean.”

[35] Deciding to face the matter head on, Travis surfaced at the other end of the pool.

“You swim very well, Travis,” Mrs. Nelson said, an older version of Rony, herself freckled and round faced and brown haired. She offered lemonade.

“It’s a nice pool,” he said, and thought of the contrast of the quiet here with the genial raucousness of Big Von and Shirl on the farm—along with Anson and himself.

“I suggested that Rony invite you to go to church with us. But I guess you don’t do that very often.”

“Oh, I go to church. Von lets me drive. Every Sunday. But I’m the only one in—in our family that goes.”

“You’d still be welcome. Weren’t you the valedictorian for your school graduation?”

Von was bellowing in the dentist’s chair when, springing across town and fearing he was late, Travis slipped into the office. Shirl sat in the waiting room, her face, amidst tangled curls, full of exasperation.

“He’s barely been touched,” she said to Travis. “Dr. Watford found a tooth that has to be pulled so he asked us to stay on while he’s got Von in the chair.”

“I’m going to church with the Nelsons next Sunday. Stay for dinner afterwards.”

“Good boy.”

Von let out a yell.

“How’s your teeth?”

Shirl grinned. “Good. I never had but one cavity in my life. Von’s furious.”

“Put some ice on it,” said Jim Watford when he and Von were finished, “if you don’t want a swollen jaw. And you can get some pain pills with this prescription.”

“Don’t want any,” muttered Von.

“Suit yourself.”

[36] Travis and Anson did all the milking that evening. Anson left soon after for a date with Angene Fuller. When Anson came in toward morning, he grabbed Travis’s ankle in the dark. “Hey,” he said, and Anson knew with excitement and despair what he was about to hear. “I’m a man.”

What followed had to be.

“You could at least have covered it. Ever hear of a rubber?”

“We was trying for the right time, the rhythm—”

“A hellion like you getting a nice Mormon girl—”

“She wasn’t unwilling, Von.”

“You trying to tell me she wants a baby, you with another year of high school, her—what is she?—a sophomore?—a freshman?—”

Anson sat at the kitchen table, Travis across from him, as Big Von stomped the linoleum in rubber irrigation boots. Shirl stood with a mop, waiting to swab up the water as soon as Von calmed enough to take off his boots.

Travis thought of Rony Nelson, whom he’d accompanied to church three times now. He could hear the gossip about Anson (“Who—?” he imagined the words winging from mouth to ear—”you mean Angene Fuller?”) and the Nelsons would lock Rony away. The word would go out—Angene Fuller knocked up by one of the Kippers.

“What do I do with Rony now? Anson—!”

Big Von roared. “Rony! Travis, you mean you got—”

“No, not that. But you think the Nelsons will let me see her after this—?”

Shirl told Von to get out of his boots before he splashed the walls.

“What about Rony?” Travis protested.

“What about Angene Fuller?” said Big Von. “That’s the question. The whole lot of you shut up. Take a nice little gal, who wouldn’t be that willing less some heathen who ain’t been to church in years got her so willing through his pretty talk—”

[37] “I intend to marry her.”

Shirl stopped mopping. Big Von sat down to pull off his wet socks.

“You think it’s that easy?”

“I’m not such a dumb ass. Don’t look at me that way. I told her I’d marry her and she’s willing. There wasn’t no sweet talk either. She’s scared stiff.”

“And so are you,” said Shirl. “You don’t fool nobody.”

Von groaned. “She told her mom and dad yet?”

“She’s going to today.”

“If they call,” said Von to Shirl, “say we’ll see them anytime, wherever they say.”

Shirl nodded.

“Travis, you finish irrigating. And Anson—”

“I’ll help Travis.”

They walked through the wet orchard in the wallowy rubber boots, shut off one opening and opened two more.

“Big hot stuff,” grumbled Travis. “Be a man.”

“Lay off, Travis. Von’s one thing. You’re another. I’m sorry if this messes you up. But who’s gonna tell? I’m not.”

“Word gets around. How many times?”

Anson’s eyes took on a glitter and his teeth took up his lower lip. “It ain’t something I regret, Travis. Angene Fuller—think of it.

And after we’re married … Would you say no if you and Rony was in our place? Every day?”

Travis thought of marching, of swimming, of his own springy peeker. “Anson,” he said, “you think you’re the devil.”

III

Days went by with no word from the Fullers, and Big Von stewed. Jim Watford pulled another tooth. Shirl forced soup and ice cream down him. He didn’t want to stay in bed, he didn’t want to lie on the couch, he didn’t want to get up. “I ain’t flirting with [38] Travis’s goddess of death,” he said. He was cleaning ditch day after the tooth was yanked, spitting blood and cussing the pain he wouldn’t take pills for.

“I don’t understand Elmo Fuller. If she was my girl”—he glared at Anson—”I’d take a whip to the randy bastard—”

“You want me to call them?” Anson said.

“Call them! What the hell you talking about?”

“Well, lay off, Von. I’m not no happier than you.”

Elmo Fuller did call finally. Von’s tooth still had some bleeding when he took the telephone, Anson upright at the kitchen table not taking his eyes off Von, Travis peeling potatoes for Shirl.

“What did he say?” asked Anson.

“Not much,” said Von, frowning his puzzlement. “He’s coming out. Wants us to know what him and his wife and Angene have decided to do after talking with their bishop.”

“But I’m going to marry her.”

“If they’re coming tonight,” said Shirl, “we better get the front room cleaned.”

They didn’t hear his car, and they might not have heard his knock if Big Von didn’t watch out the window and at last see the shiny big Lincoln park behind the pickup as though it had come straight off the showroom floor. Mr. Fuller—or Brother Fuller as most people in town called him—nodded quietly, looking as shiny as the car in his fresh white shirt and tie, sleeves rolled back two licks above hairy wrists, a pen and pencil resting in his shirt pocket. On his square scrubbed-looking face, his quick smile made a white rectangle, two lines dropping across the corners like marks of pain. It didn’t sit long on his face, the smile, because one of his red cheeks had a small tic. As he took the chair Von offered, he pushed his hand back over his thinning hair.

“I’m sorry about this,” Big Von said, “and take the blame since it was my boy—”

“I want to marry her,” Anson said. “I love her.”

The smile flashed. And pain. A strand of Mr. Fuller’s hair lifted [39] when he ran his hand through so it looked out of place, like a weed in a flower bed or a spill on a clean floor. Travis had heard him speak in church, always beginning with deep sighs as though he felt exhausted, so the softness of his voice, low words seeming barely to pass his lips, didn’t surprise.

“It’s unpleasant … surprise … Mrs. Fuller is home, but we’ve talked about … She’s only sixteen, you know. Angene is.”

“Anson’s not long been seventeen.”

“We’ve talked about it, and we’ve decided to send her to Salt Lake. She has a grandmother there and Virginia’s—Mrs. Fuller’s sister. The baby—we’ll put it up for adoption.”

“But I want to marry Angene!”

“Hold off, Anson,” said Big Von.

“I told her that, I’ve told everybody that,” said Anson.

“Everybody?” said Mr. Fuller. The smile showed panic. The large hands clenched and opened.

“Von and Travis and Shirl—”

“That’s all you told?” said Big Von.

“I told Angene.”

“Because,” said Mr. Fuller, “the reason I came … Something like this get out about Angene, a young girl like her … That’s why we thought Salt Lake. Mrs. Fuller would go up when the baby’s born and help with the adoption. We want to keep it quiet.”

“Sure, sure,” said Von. “I think about this boy of mine—and big as he is I’d whip him if I thought—”

“No, no. What’s done is … We just have to take care of Angene.

But if … keep this as quiet as possible …”

Mr. Fuller shook hands with them all, even Anson, a handshake almost as bonecrunching as Big Von’s.

Big Von started to follow him out, but Mr. Fuller said, “No, no. I can find my way”—the way people said in movies—and Shirl held Von’s arm.

“But I want to marry her, ” said Anson as the car backed out the drive.

[40] “One word from anybody—!” threatened Big Von. “That poor little girl,” he said. “That poor little girl.” Looking almost as pained as Mr. Fuller. As though his teeth still hurt.

IV

Say you have a young man brooding because, as he says, “It’s my fault her tummy’s about to swell.” Wouldn’t you too take long walks, drive off in the night, lie sleepless so your fifteen-year-old brother complains, “Anson, if you got to make so much noise, sleep on the couch.” Say that days pass and the strain shows on your face. Wouldn’t you too insist, “But I love her. Travis, I want to marry Angene”?

That’s the way Anson did, eating bits of the food Shirl cooked, milking with a fury that piled the pail with foam.

Travis shifted between sympathy and anger, feeling some relief that the Nelsons invited him again to go to church after Mr. Fuller’s visit. He even swam in the pool, this time with Rony’s two younger sisters splashing as well.

Then one night Anson stumbled straight for Travis’s bed.

“What you got there?” Travis asked.

“Shh.”

“You ain’t shoving it under my bed. What you got in that suitcase?”

“Be quiet or you’ll wake Von and Shirl. These are Angene’s things.”

“You aren’t supposed to see her again.”

“You keep talking—” Anson’s nose inched close— “you keep talking and I don’t tell you nothing. The suitcase don’t fit under mine. I’m going to marry Angene.”

“I’m tired of hearing that, Anson—”

“But I am. Why else do you think she snuck out the back door and give me this suitcase? Travis, it’s me inside her too. They didn’t [41] think to ask me could they get my baby adopted. Don’t I get some say? We’re going to Tucson tomorrow—her and me and you.”

Travis swung his feet to the floor. “Anson, I won’t have nothing to do with it.”

“Travis, you’re my brother. I can’t do it alone. And I can’t let Angene go to her grandma’s in Salt Lake.”

“Big Von will roar—”

“Big Von will be hurt and disappointed,” said Anson. “And I’m sorry as hell about that. That’s why you got to come. You can bring Rony along—”

“Oh, no—!”

“Okay then, just you. But you know if Angene’s folks wanted us to marry, Big Von would be happy.”

“Anson, you’re causing a hell of a lot of trouble.”

“I know it. But you got to help me, Travis. You know you do.”

Say you were Travis and your love-sick brother urged you nose to nose in the darkness while Big Von and Shirl dreamed their dreams. If you saw your brother trying to face up to something and you were fifteen and in love and you knew that what you were doing probably spelled the end of that love since after this no mother or father would want their daughter going with one of the Kippers—well, you too would have nodded your head, however reluctantly, just as Travis did, nodded your head wishing you didn’t have to but knowing that Anson would do the same for you if you were trying to face up.

Your commitment would carry you through breakfast the next morning, hard as it was, because you had no reason the way Anson did to act strange and because deceit made your belly slosh.

Trying to do the good thing, Big Von said, “How’d you like to go to the mountains, you and Travis? Me and Shirl will look after things here. You could visit the Adams for a week. You’ve always liked that. Even Travis is starting to look hangdog.”

Anson shook his head.

[42] Travis, shrinking with his guilt, said, “I’m okay, Von. It’s just Anson tossing and turning, keeping me awake—”

Anson stuffed clothes and shaving gear in a paperbag.

“You going to ask for the car?” said Travis.

“I wish I could, but the pickup will be less suspicious. Hey, if no one’s in the kitchen, get my bank passbook out of the cupboard. I have to draw some savings.”

“You sure you know what you’re doing?”

“C’mon, Travis. Me and Angene talked this whole thing out. We know.”

“And after you’re married,” he said, rehearsing, “I take the bus back from Tucson. Right?”

“Right. You can tell Big Von. Let him call Mr. Fuller—if we ain’t done it already. What time is it?”

Von was discing at Shirl’s place by the river. Anson insisted they wait for Shirl to come back so it would look less suspicious. “While I’m asking for the pickup, you can sneak out the suitcase.”

“I ain’t touching that suitcase,” said Travis. “I’ll tell them you’re driving me to Rony’s. But I ain’t touching your things or Angene’s. I ache bad enough, Anson, as it is.”

Anson blinked his eyes. “I know you do.”

After they backed out the drive, Anson sighed. “Now if there ain’t a big line-up at the bank, we’ll be right on time.”

Travis sat in the heat, staring at the parking meter, while Anson ran into the bank, stride long and springy. But even if he was a man, his limbs hairy and his peeker already experienced, Anson didn’t look any older than Travis felt, especially lying to Von and Shirl the way they did, the first time in Travis’s memory.

But he could believe in Anson’s love, given his own feelings, lustful and tender.

“I hope Angene’s not waiting,” said Anson, shoving his billfold into his rear pocket. “It’s almost eleven o’clock.”

They parked at the Dairy Queen across the highway from Claridge Estates, the same subdivision the Nelsons lived in. “We [43] won’t look so suspicious sitting here,” said Anson. He sounded smug about his plans. “And it won’t look funny if Angene walks over.”

“It’s going to be hot.”

“It’s going to be worth it, Travis, believe me.”

Say you are waiting with your brother for his runaway bride-to-be, staring across the highway for the first sight of her curly blonde hair as she hurries past the houses, trying not to look rushed. Say the minutes tick beyond the time and you watch the sweat on your brother’s face change from the sweat of summer heat to the sweat of worry. “Where is she, Travis?” he asks. “What’s keeping her?” He orders a root beer, but he can’t drink it and passes it over to you and you don’t want it either. You know your brother is trying to face up, trying to do the right thing. But who’s to say what’s right? You keep doing the best you can, that’s all—like Anson was—and it’s sad when that best isn’t showing itself to be good enough.

At last Anson gets out of the pickup. “Eleven-thirty. She’d never be half an hour late.” He crosses the highway, looks both ways for signs of her. You see him returning, decide to join him, and climb out, dropping your feet to the gravel to find them landed right alongside Big Von’s. Anson approaches slowly.

Big Von leans against the pickup, his arms folded across his chest. Shirl is sitting in the Chevy, her face wrinkled with concern and pain.

“She ain’t coming, Anson,” Big Von says. Jim Watford has cleaned Von’s teeth, and they shine as the grimace clutches his features. He adds, “I’m sorry.”

For a minute Anson looks as if he’s going to cry.

“Me and Shirl thought something was up so I asked her while we was milking to check your room. I guess it was a sneaky thing to do. I’m sorry about that.”

Anson says in a quick loud voice, “I didn’t want to be sneaky neither,” that breaks off in a sob.

[44] “Travis, why don’t you ride home with Shirl. I’ll drive Anson.”

Sadness and relief pile his shoulders as he slips into the car beside Shirl. She smiles, and he smiles back as best he can feeling Anson’s pain. As they follow the pickup to the farm, he isn’t surprised when Shirl tells him she and Von think he ought not see so much of Rony Nelson for a while. “Von called the Nelsons, and they agreed. He didn’t say nothing about Anson and Angene. But they agreed.”

“Sure,” he says. “Okay.”

And if you’re feeling the pain Travis feels, you think you’ll never be so much in love again. Whatever the best thing is you can do.