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

What Do Ducks Do in Winter?

I

[75] “Call me Dob.” That’s what he usually said, and that’s what people called him, except for Ellen. His wife took him at his full name’s worth—Doyle Owen Bond—as though consciously assuming her share of the name’s awkwardness and burden. Before the wedding: Dob. After the wedding: Doyle. The shift was nearly that sudden. Now, however, she hardly called him anything. They spoke when necessary—flatly, neutrally—while other conversation hovered, the conversation Dob wanted to begin but didn’t know how, the conversation for which neither could find enough impetus.

This evening they passed and unavoidably touched from bedroom to bathroom and back as they dressed to go out.

“Here’s your shirt,” she said. “I meant to iron it earlier.”

“I would have—”

He was giving another after dinner speech for a conference group. Better than others he could raise a chuckle among colleagues and their visitors.

Do you mind that? he asked Ellen, without speaking, his eyes meeting hers in the mirror as he tied his tie.

Why should I mind?

She went into the bathroom to comb her hair. She had light [76] brown hair with bits of grey. Like a great deal about her, the gloss had gone.

He put on his jacket. His public self stood before him: “Ole Dob.” He put on his half-lenses, centering them on the lower part of his nose. He had to lift his chin and peer down his nose through the lenses to read. To look out, he had to duck his head, raise his eyebrows, and stare over the tops. No question about it. He did look silly. A little exaggeration and the silliness became comic. Narrow face, balding head, long neck, smooth nose scooping—behold your jester. Add to that his wobbly voice that broke on accented sound—an effect he could manipulate—and he could make you chuckle at a straight declarative sentence.

Hearing Ellen brush her teeth, he became aware of the sound of his own swallowing. The radio, he thought. That was missing—news and music to hold down the gargantuan rattle of their movements. He gathered up his cast-off clothes. Wouldn’t do to have Ellen pick up after him. Debts enough had piled up when his mother was alive.

The local news came in. ” … a traffic fatality on …” Two people had been killed when their car struck one of the highway overpasses south of town. “Names are being withheld pending notification of next-of-kin.” Slippery? The streets were worse than usual this winter. The cold had settled in early and promised to hold long. He would prefer not to go out tonight. He was dangerously susceptible to cold, having had pneumonia three times. Bad lungs. A simple head cold dropping to his chest raised panic. That was another feature of “Ole Dob”: first into winter clothes, last out. Glasses shining above the pile of scarf, under the fur of hood. There goes “Ole Dob.”

” … an accident,” he stammered when Ellen came in. Toothpaste breath touched his nostrils as she edged past.

“Who?” —without looking at him.

“They didn’t say.” He started to tell her where it had happened, but her interest was already turned aside.

[77] You’re full of irrelevant information, she said.

I thought you’d be interested. I thought you’d want to know about the accident.

That’s what makes you so interesting, she said. Your irrelevant information. What’s your topic tonight?

How To Be a Good Victorian Wife.

See?

She pulled on coat, scarf, boots, mittens from the hall closet.

“I’m ready,” she said, “if you are.”

He followed her down the hall past his mother’s old room, the light from the hallway reaching in across the bed. Geoff had taken a small room in the basement for his grandmother’s sake. It was a small house. The rooms were crowded with furniture that was too big for them. Kept getting in each other’s way. When Geoff was here it was worse. Big boy, like his mother, somewhat clumsy like his father. Shy boy and perhaps embarrassed by his father as antic scholar. When Geoff was home, they’d had regular traffic snarls, someone backing up to let another pass, go through a doorway, maneuvering silently, for Geoff scarcely spoke. He was a loner with few friends. He was a bird watcher and said he wanted to be a surgeon. He had powerful steady hands. He was brilliant in science and he’d won a scholarship.

“Has his father’s brains,” said Ellen briefly and without irony to anyone who mentioned Geoff.

At first, he’d laughed self-consciously, desperate to return the compliment. But his shyness—real—sounded feigned, so he took credit for his son’s intelligence and let Ellen win that one. He thought of saying, “He’s got his mother’s hands.” But that didn’t sound right.

The streets were icy, but the car was warm from the garage, and bundled in scarf, hood, coat, and gloves, he didn’t feel the cold. He had placed his notes on the seat between them. For all her size Ellen, huddled in her coat, looked small. Her figure provoked pity.

At least, he said, we get a dinner out of this.

[78] So long as you’re satisfied.

But you? he said.

Whatever you want.

She turned her head to look at the lighted houses and the snowy yards passing. A martyr’s debts were evident in the huddle her shoulders made.

I’m sorry, he said to her. They were in the campus parking lot.

They walked together to the Union Building. He began to shiver. They spit breath like dragons. Inside he began to cough. Ellen waited for him. He wiped his eyes, said, “Sorry,” and they went on to hang their coats.

Ellen complained of the cold to Nora and Brent Wainsworth. She was talkative out of the house. “This dreadful unending winter,” she said.

“Don’t you wish you were a duck,” said Nora.

“Why? What do ducks do in the winter?”

“They go south.”

“No,” she said. “Don’t tempt me.”

He waited for Nora and Brent to go ahead of them into the banquet room. It was easier not to question Ellen in public. As he was helping her off with her coat, he asked, “Is that what you’d like to do?”

“What?”

“Go south for a while.”

She shrugged. “If that’s what you’d like.”

Would things be any better there? he asked.

Could they get any worse?

Ah, he said. Perhaps you’re right. Perhaps we should try it.

II

The dinner included salmon with shrimp sauce, asparagus, baked tomato. He couldn’t eat shrimp so he spooned his on to Ellen’s plate. They were sitting with the Wainsworths, both tanned [79] and sleek from their Christmas holiday in Hawaii. He had once felt intimidated by their handsomeness and ease, by stories of a freewheeling morality and reckless social life. Once he had thought Nora looked on him with some passion. But if so it would derive only from a desire for variation, an eroticism heightened by the bizarre. He was no breaker of laws though, feigned or real. His mother’s demands had kept both Ellen and him occupied. Now spirit and passion were so heavily anaesthetized, he felt no urge toward adventure or lust. But Ellen … It used to be that a large bird slumbered under her skin. He could wake it, and she would be seized. It had been his joy that he roused it, that it found resolution in him. But no more. Perhaps Brent. … Even if he would approve—if! Look at Ellen now, some light in the eyes, glimmer to her mouth as she talked to Nora about Hawaii.

“You should go,” said Nora. “At least get down to some warm weather for awhile.”

“That will be the day,” said Ellen.

Brent turned to him. “You hear about the accident south of town?”

“Only a snatch on the radio.”

“One of the girls,” said Brent, “was Natalie Everett. You had her in class, didn’t you?”

He saw a small pinched face. “Yes, yes. Little Natalie Everett.”

“Oh, Dob,” said Nora, “you know all your students so well. I don’t know how you do it.”

“But not Natalie,” he said, feeling a little dazed, “I didn’t know her.”

“She didn’t come in to talk with you?” asked Brent. “God, she was in to see me after every class.”

“Not me. I was angry with her. I’d see her sitting there with this bored look, this look of disdain even—”

“No, no,” said Brent, “she liked your class. She told me so. That look was just her. She couldn’t help it. You know what she told me once? She was having emotional problems. She said that when she [80] walked on to this campus she shrunk. She felt just half her size. When she was home she was full size again.”

“The poor girl,” he said. “I almost asked her why she didn’t drop the class. Suppose I had. I’m glad I didn’t now.”

“She told me once she wanted to leave here. She wanted to go away and—and—”

“And find something,” said Ellen grimly.

He rattled his fork, but Ellen kept eating as though unaware.

“That’s right,” said Brent. “That’s about the way she put it, you know. But she didn’t have a chance, poor kid. So mixed up.”

Deliberately, he turned his thoughts inward in preparation for his speech. Actually, he would read—or put on the pretense of reading—for with his eyesight that was part of the act. But he couldn’t shape this inner self to match the comic outer form. Even when he was introduced. He heard the scrape of chairs as people arranged themselves. He heard the preparatory chuckles. Even when he rose—the narrow-shouldered, near-sighted, neck-craning self of him—something inside remained withdrawn. Even when he began—pleasure to attend such an august gathering, hesitant to raise his own cracked flute in this melodious Arcady, proposing to promulgate wisdom among those female members of his audience so they might better in this age know their womanly duties (groan, groan)—even as the titters began at the bird-like bobbing of his head from notes to faces, even then that crucial part of himself was separate and he performed on a mechanical and established pattern. “… reading to you from that well-known author—” pause for the right tip of the head, the raised-eyebrow expression, pomposity of voice— “Anonymous.” Ha, ha, ha. His timing was good. They laughed. All except Ellen. She endured—without contempt, without humor. He wondered though if she were holding her own emotional shape. Or did she like Little Natalie Everett shrink on her husband’s arm?

It was a successful speech. Brief enough. Entertaining—funny, ah yes, funny.

[81] “I don’t know how you do it, Dob,” said Nora with a chuckle. “What’s it like having him around the house?”

She spoke directly to Ellen. Ellen said, “We get by.”

The applause had been generous, the laughter copious. Usually, he took time to recover. The hyped-up charge of adrenalin, the dry mouth he couldn’t soon get moist, the going back over—these things usually afflicted him, kept him apart from what immediately followed. But tonight, as soon as he sat down, ducking his head until the applause died, all his senses swung, turning him directly, clear-sightedly to Ellen sitting across from him. Hyper-aware. The curve of bone in her large wrist, the way she twisted the pendant she wore, the movement of her homely but sensuous mouth, the way her lips stuck together at the edges when she half opened her mouth—all these and more struck him.

Did you like it? he asked.

She didn’t answer.

Did you? Did you? he said. Okay, you don’t have to like it. But it was okay, wasn’t it? You can at least say something about that, can’t you?

No answer.

I’m going to make you say something, he told her at last. You wait and see. I’m going to make you.

Her eyes touched his briefly. Whatever you say, she said.

III

They left with the Wainsworths. Ellen’s compatibility with Nora always struck him as peculiar—Nora, fashionable in her pants suit, long rinsed pony tail, elaborate earrings. Younger. Nora was known for her earrings. Ellen was known for … What? For being that large woman with slightly unkempt hair, a good worker on a committee, good to her husband and son. Once interested in pottery. The gallery still held a couple of pots she did. But she gave all that up when Dob’s mother moved in. Gave it up with a vengeance. Doesn’t [82] have any ofher stuff in the house, they said. Got rid of it. Quit—lock, stock, and barrel. Dob’s lucky. Not many women would do that. She had entered competitions when she was active.

And lost, Dob thought. She didn’t get first prize, so for her that meant she lost. He remembered the days of depression afterward, the way she shrugged off his attempts to comfort—threw them off really, telling him to go on about his business. She would start again in the basement, making and destroying, fighting something that wanted her to fail. When Geoff turned to his science … He had no talent in music or art. Go on about your business.

Self-sacrificing. That’s what others called Ellen. Why so compatible with Nora? Not a shy bone in the woman’s body.

Brent said, “I’m sorry about Natalie Everett. I didn’t mean to upset you just before your performance.”

“Did it show?”

“No, no,” said Brent. “The talk was great. You’re always good at those things. I didn’t want to make it harder on you.”

“You didn’t,” he said. “But I’ll have to get used to the idea of—”

His feeling of rancor toward the girl bothered him. She couldn’t help that pinched and bored expression on her face. A register of internal distress he had missed.

He helped Ellen with her coat, then wrapped himself up. She had her back to him, the back of head level with his eyes. Hair greying early, skull plaster-white where it could be seen, and beneath that—mystery. Then she pulled her hood up.

They said goodbye to the Wainsworths who stayed behind a moment. Outside, the air chiseled his eyeballs. Someone had cleared the steps but the sidewalk was icy, and there, just a few feet from the steps, Ellen fell. Her feet went out from under her, and though she must have landed first on her buttocks, it looked as though she struck the sidewalk with her full back. She cried out, and he teetered for a moment as he called, “Ellen,” and bent over her.

She lifted her head, and he knelt to get his hands under her [83] shoulders. She was more intent though on pulling her skirt down. He tried to raise her, but she was heavy, and he felt, as he moved behind to get better leverage, that he could do little good. Leaning on one elbow, she got herself into a sitting position, doing it without any assistance from him.

“Are you all right, dear?” he asked.

She bent her knees without answering, but her boots slipped, failing to grip the ice. He stood, his teeth chattering, jaw machine-gunning beyond control. Words were scarcely formed. Had to help Ellen. He pulled and—though he didn’t realize it at the moment—kept her by his pulling from turning over as she was trying to do to get to her hands and knees.

“Will you please let go!” she said. “Leave me alone!”

It was her tone of voice that struck him, caused him to drop her arm and stand, caused his teeth to stop chattering. Her tone was not just angry—though it was that, too. It was the tone of one who had gone to the limits of forbearance and now spoke and acted with a desperation and recklessness that shunned and spat at consequence. And that desperation and recklessness let spill out pity, disdain, and loathing. To make it worse, as he rose, he found the Wainsworths standing beside him.

Nora exclaimed, and Brent helped Ellen up. True, Ellen was by that time almost on her feet, but it looked as though the telling aid were Brent’s. Dob could barely get to the car with the Wainsworths walking beside them. Brent opened the door, and Nora cooed Ellen in.

As soon as the door closed, Ellen, huddled in her coat, said, “Get the heater going. I’m freezing.”

He didn’t start the car. “You embarrassed me,” he said.

“Start the car. It’s cold.”

“I said you embarrassed me.”

She must have realized she was fighting, forgoing endurance. The edge of urgency left her voice and the old dead tone returned. “I’m sorry if I embarrassed you,” she said.

[84] She shivered, and his legs were chilling. He didn’t know what he intended to do, but he knew he couldn’t stop now.

“Why didn’t you let me help you?”

“I didn’t stop you.”

“You said—”

Her voice lifted a bit. “I couldn’t get up with you tugging on my arm. Now will you start the car?”

He turned the ignition. He sat quietly as the motor was warming up. He had to push this. Since the Wainsworths were involved, it was no longer private. But Ellen was so solid—in endurance, forbearance, obstinacy …

He pulled out of the parking lot. The Wainsworths were ahead of them but turned left onto College. He went straight across.

“What do you want from me?” he asked. He wasn’t sure at first whether he’d spoken aloud or not. He was alarmed, unsure that he’d wanted to. But when Ellen answered, he was glad, because he didn’t feel he could have repeated the question.

Ellen said, “I never said I wanted anything.”

“That is just the point.”

“Look. I’m tired. I’ve had a lousy fall—”

“And you resented my trying to help you.”

“I said I was sorry.”

“That isn’t what I’m interested in.” The car was warm now. The heater blew hot air about their feet and up about the window. “I want to know what you want. Do you want to go to Hawaii, to Mexico—”

“You just passed our turn.”

“I know that.” What he said wasn’t true, so intent was he on making audible his part of the conversation. He said anyway, “I know that.”

“If you feel like joy-riding, will you take me home first?”

“But you don’t like it at home.”

“Oh, my Lord—”

“Deny it if you want. You don’t like it. What do you want? Do [85] you want to go south?”

“Sure let’s go south. Everything will be peachy then.”

“Okay. We’ll go south.”

At first, she hadn’t realized what he meant. It only dawned on him as he said it. The gas tank was full. Not until he turned toward the highway did she show anything. Then she sat straight, rose out of the huddle of clothes.

“Doyle, what are you doing?”

“We’re going south,” he said.

“Doyle—!”

He pushed on the pedal. He was not one who drove rapidly. He disliked and distrusted cars. But now he pushed up the speed. Icy rags pitched under the wheels, and the snowy fields drank the swell of his lights. The night was clear, a three-quarter moon staring from the sky. He had to push his foot down with an effort of will, but when he neared eighty, he found balance. He passed cars, careless of crusted snow, and the other cars ringing up from the opposite direction burned by with scarcely a sound. He was transported on his own sound, held in his own world lighted by the dashboard.

“Stop this car!”

“We’re going south,” he cried, his voice cracking. He laughed. It was a tonal effect he had, for a change, not manipulated.

Relax, relax, Ellen, he said. Think of our younger days. We rode and rode one Halloween evening. We drove without thinking until we reached the border. We had to drive fast the way we are now to get home before my class. Do you remember, Ellen? We had a good time. So just relax, Ellen.

“Doyle!” Her voice was close to a scream. It hit hard against his skull. “Turn around.”

“Shut up!” he yelled.

She looked over her shoulder at him, pushed back her hood, pulling her hair loose. “What’s gotten into you?”

[86] “We’re going south!” he cried exultantly. The car rocked under him.

“You’re going to kill us.”

He looked at her, but she cried at him to watch the road. He drew into himself. Was she thinking of Natalie Everett? I was not thinking of her, he said, whatever you claim. Natalie never entered my mind … Ellen saw what she had done.

“This is the road that girl was killed on, isn’t it?” said Ellen. “You stop.”

“And it won’t do any good going south, will it?” He had to speak loudly to make himself heard. His mouth was dry, and his voice kept cracking. “You said so yourself. Things won’t be any better there.”

“Where was it? At the overpass? Ahead?”

He didn’t answer, his spirit too low for him to answer, pushed too deeply into his belly. Residue clogged his throat. Natalie Everett wasn’t driving the way I am, he told himself. That makes no difference, he replied. Still she had sat there, shrunken into herself, her narrow features unable to register a modest vitality. He didn’t even hear Ellen now, voice touching him like a snarled wind.

Then before he knew how it happened, the engine went off. The wheel locked. They coasted silently.

“Give them here.”

Ellen had taken the keys.

“Doyle, you’re out of your mind.”

“Give them to me.”

He grabbed for them, one hand on the wheel as the car slowed. Ellen called to him to watch where he was going, but he yelled for the keys. She was too strong for his one hand.

As soon as the car stopped, he lunged at her, but she pushed him back. He reached around her. She gasped, even sobbed once. He could scarcely find her body, separate arm from torso to grab the hand through all the clothes the two of them wore. She managed to turn her back to him. He pulled on her shoulder, but [87] it wouldn’t turn. He tried to reach around. A spear of cold air hit him. “What are you doing?” He pulled on her hair, dragging her head back. Rising on his knees, he could see down the plain of her face, tipped back toward him, her hands clawing at the slightly opened window. Her face looked expressionless, the eyes rolled partially back, mouth partly open. He wanted to get her hand. But he wasn’t quick enough, and she dropped the keys through the icy opening to the ground outside.

Then it was her turn to clutch at him as he turned from her, and beat at the handle with his heavily gloved hands to get the door open. He pulled them off. No wonder he couldn’t hold anything. He would have fallen from the seat if he hadn’t gripped the top of the door with his bare fingers as he toppled out. He slipped on ice at the edge of the road, scrambling around the front of the car. But Ellen was out on her side. She had the keys in her hand and threw them into the snow.

For a second he told himself, We’re both mad. For that second he might have stopped, taken his breath, and recovered himself, looking out at the bright snow shining under the moon, at the small dark flower the keys made on the crust where Ellen had thrown them. But the thought came on the run and was gone before he could seize it. Before he knew it he was standing in front of Ellen, grabbing her shoulders. He shook her as hard as he could, but her heavy frame scarcely wavered. He called her names, vile names that weren’t a part of his speech, odd boy that he was. Her rocking face went grim, and she slapped him. But the gloved hand was a fist, not an open palm. He blinked, jaw hurting. He shoved her back against the car and plunged into the snow. His feet came down on the icy crust, hesitated, and then broke through. He struggled, first knee deep, then above the knees, determined to get the car keys she had thrown.

“Doyle,” she shouted. “Doyle.”

He heard her coming after him. She was quicker than he, following his trail. The dark keys lay on the white surface. His breath [88] came not only harshly but with sound—wounded sound, animal sound.

“Doyle!” Gasping. Directly behind him.

Her hands on his shoulders caught him off-balance. He staggered. She pushed. She was even with him. He struck her, and she hit back. They were like two men, two terribly inept and exhausted men, fighting, using their fists on each other. Somehow Dob realized this. Somehow he was shamed by it. But he struck, moaning, wherever he could strike.

Then he fell, and scrambling, trying to get up but falling out of weakness, he saw Ellen snatch the keys and retreat. So quickly she retreated, lumbering, falling in the snow, back to the roadside, back to the car.

He heard the car start. “No—!” Ellen, Ellen, he tried to call. Panic was some primitive creature that seized him, beating wings that sent him riding each gulp of air as he thrashed through the snow. He tried to cry, Don’t leave me! but tongue and lips did not form the sound that heaved raw from his throat. He could die here. He fell to his knees, smitten with self-pity. They were cruel stars above, brittle, glassy, single, and articulate. They should be falling, colliding. But he was scarcely on his knees before something lifted him, pulling him by the shoulders, it seemed, faster than knees or feet could go.

He saw Ellen had started the car and sat in the passenger seat. She waited for him. She was wrapped in a blanket from the back seat. Another lay beside her for him. He got into the car. Hot air blew from the heater. She looked straight ahead. Arms and legs quivering from weariness, bare hands frozen, he managed to shake out his blanket and wrap himself in it.

He was silent until he got his breath. It seemed like a long while.

“We’re mad,” he said at last.

“Not wholly,” she said.

He was silent another moment.

“A couple of cracked pots,” he said, hoping she’d smile.

[89] Later, he reached forward. A tentative crossing of space. He touched her jaw, pushed one thin strand of hair, damp now, back and let his hand stay. From the corner of his vision, he saw the reflex movement in her hand to push him away, but she caught it before the hand left her lap. His knuckles touched her temple at the hairline. He moved them back and forth briefly, not in a caress—the bone was too hard, the skull too prominent—but as a reflex of a purer and older act.