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

Zina’s Version

[1] Zina thought, Ha, what now? She peered through her front door window at the old man crossing Lizzy’s backyard. He was skinny as a bunch of sticks, splotchy, wrinkled as a raisin. His hair was white as alkali flats. He was her brother, and when he pushed aside the oleander branches to get to her door, her energy bugled at the prospect of a new quarrel. What else when he entered fresh from Lizzy’s back door?

“Come in.”

She didn’t add his name: “Frank.” She didn’t hold the door open for him but turned and let it shut behind her. By the time he reopened it, she was back at her typewriter. Let him think she’d been there the whole time he talked to Lizzy. Let him think she hadn’t gotten up and watched him from her window the whole time he sat in Lizzy’s house. She straightened her papers, noticing her hands, as wrinkled and splotched as his. When he failed to speak, she turned.

“Sit down.”

Even then he was quiet, leaning forward, his elbows on his knees, his large bony hands locked together. An old scar crawled out of his shirt collar and across his neck. Finally he said, “Where do you want to move to now?”

“Move to?” She concealed her surprise. How could she quarrel with that question? “What do you mean move to?”

“Lizzy says you got to leave.”

[2] “What does Loren say?”

“The same thing.” When she snorted Frank said, “What do you expect him to say, Zina? He’s Lizzy’s only son, and you’ve been a strain on his mother. Both of them tried to be nice to you.”

Foothold at last. “I’ve been a strain on her? On Lizzy? And how do you think she treats me?”

Frank took from his pocket a piece of paper and held it toward her. For a moment she wanted someone to speak to, to consult, but drew back from the wish in the same way she might jerk herself out of sleep. Since when had she ever needed anyone to lean on? She had looked after herself all her life—managed her own money, travelled once to Hawaii alone, once to the World’s Fair in New York, recognized and countered the ploys of those out to trick her. She needed no one to rise up for her now. But she wouldn’t touch the paper. It was a testing she refused to face.

“That,” she said, “is a private document. Where did you get it?”

“I got it from Loren. He got it from his mother—”

“And where did she get it?”

“Lizzy found it on her front porch. You must have dropped it by the mailbox.”

“It’s like her to read a person’s private mail. I told her before that I want my own mailbox.”

He read aloud: “I’m so sorry, Zina, that you have to live with such a terrible woman. One needs privacy. To have her snooping about your house when you’re gone, to have her charging so much rent for the wretched little shack you live in—I don’t know how you tolerate it.” He stopped. She lifted her chin. “You going to tell me that what you told your friend is the truth?”

How did he know it wasn’t true? It depended on how you saw it.

“You can’t come back to my place,” he went on, frowning at her silence. “You got Glenna so upset she won’t have you around. Doesn’t make sense. You even got Billy’s and Roger’s wives to [3] pulling hair with your stories. When Lizzy offered to let you take this little place of hers—”

“Everybody likes Lizzy.”

I’ll look around for something else. Lizzy says you can stay here till we find something, but the sooner you go the better, she says. Loren too.”

“And me,” said Zina. “I say the same.”

“I don’t know why you despise anyone who does you a good turn. The same monkeyshines all over again … What sense does it make—acting spiteful?”

From behind the curtain she watched him cross to Lizzy’s door, spine stiff as a broom handle. She had a good straight back herself, as though she’d been raised in the Czar’s court. She never let her back touch a chair. The Corliss girls had marvelled at that when they were small.

For a moment she felt homesick for California, for the Corliss girls and their families, for their compliments. But the fibers of her body, reflecting the tension of battle, stiffened and knotted. She was among equals here and could think of conquered cities. She had her own story to tell. She put a clean sheet of paper in her typewriter. Tek, tek, tek, went the machine, her fingers slowed by arthritis. Dear Jean and family, she typed. She hardly ever hit the wrong key. Would you like to guess what she’s done now?

The Corliss girls wouldn’t question what she’d said. She’d stood in the Corliss house years ago—the Spanish hacienda with an inside courtyard and pool, balconies with wrought-iron railings, tall palm trees rising above its second story—she’d stood there when the girls’ mother brought them home from the hospital. She let herself think of them as her children—almost. Years after she left the Corlisses, she still kept in touch. The girls remembered her on her birthday and at Christmas time, whether she was working at the Meekins, the Days, or with whatever family. The girls liked her. And she? She had sat in the second row of the Baptist church when each one was [4] married and seen their children in the hospital nursery almost as soon as Mr. and Mrs. Corliss did.

Now it gave her pleasure to think of them. All the way to California, Zina had sat stiffly against the rocking of the train, staring out at the desert, open and flat under the sun, stony with the sense of injustice. The ratcheting wheels, the sage growing out of sandy earth, the mountains pale and emaciated in the distance scarcely impinged on her own cut-out memories. Paper-doll number one: her father. Number two: Frank, sick in bed, badly burned, long convalescence before him. Number three: Zina herself. And then, features scarcely definite enough to be recognized: John Young. Her fiancé.

“It will be necessary,” said her father with awkward formality, “to delay your marriage to John. It will be necessary to help nurse Frank. I have explained the need to John.”

“And?”

“He agrees of course.”

Of course. “And me?”

“You are Frank’s sister. What else would you do?”

He was surprised that she argued with him. What else would she do? he asked. She would marry John Young today and relieve herself of her twenty-seven-year-old spinsterhood. That’s what she’d do. Six years her brother Roy had been married to Lizzy. Children came like rabbits out of fat Lizzy, but all dead—all dead but for Loren. When would she stop trying to have children? Why shouldn’t Zina marry? She continued the argument. Her father resisted.

“Either I marry now,” she said, “or I don’t marry at all.”

Too long her father resisted, saying at last, “Have it your own way,” and that’s what she did, leaving behind her young Frank with his bandages and potato poultices and pain, sitting in the thudding passenger car on her way across the southwestern desert. Sitting there with flaming anger and the exquisite pleasure of knowing her father’s anguish, his punishment for destroying her prospects. It [5] was like a victory. It was like an escape too—that unyielding pressure on her, the fact of her Mormon maidenhood. Who would marry Zina and propagate his line through her? No man now, she thought, and tossed her head as though at God himself because she’d escaped the impossible. Something she’d never have to face now, multiplying and replenishing. She would have done it, she thought, if—! They were to blame. Even John Young for being so spineless, pleading with her at the train depot: “Please, Zina.” Such big feet and hands. It wasn’t her fault. It was theirs for what they’d done to her.

She found her job with the Corlisses. When the girls were little, she let them comb her hair, listened to them marvel that, like Rapunzel’s, it was so long she could sit on it. She was frugal. By the time Mr. Corliss became a state senator in the thirties, she had saved money enough to buy desert property on his advice. It was only right that he should advise her. Didn’t he and Mrs. Corliss owe it to her after their distrust? “Zina, you just can’t say those kinds of things to the girls. Don’t look at me that way. You know what I’m talking about. You’ve even got them questioning us …” And when she left for the Orstad’s, the couple with the nearly-grown children, they said, “The girls will miss you,” but not a word, she thought, about being sorry. If only they’d say they were sorry to see her go … “You’ll come back and visit, won’t you? Now and then? Come and see us and the girls?” She wouldn’t promise, but of course she went back. What would she do without the Corliss girls?

When she started work, one of the first things she bought for herself in her room off the kitchen was a typewriter. She used it for letters, memos, and page after page of her genealogy. When her father wanted her to return home, she answered on the typewriter: When you wouldn’t let me marry John Young … That was how she put it. She knew she could say: When you made me postpone … But the ache and anger were more firmly supported by her version. An oldest daughter deserved some consideration after all. If her mother had demands, that would have been one thing. She would [6] have expected that. But her father … everyone said she resembled her father. Oughtn’t he to have understood? She bore proudly the abuse, and though she would never admit it—thinking of her father—the more she hurt herself through them, the prouder, the stronger, the happier she became. She wrote home infrequently, but she wanted to keep channels open, memories alive.

As Zina grew older, all that dark Rapunzel hair grayed. Her skin wrinkled like a deflated balloon. Her voice shrivelled. John Young married a girl half Zina’s age. When she heard about it, she shuddered at the thought of his big hands, big feet, and then thought no more about him. Her father died in the flu epidemic, and she cried at his funeral, angry at the tears furrowing among the wrinkles dug in so early. Roy collapsed in the field one day and spent six hours under the summer sun before Lizzy, boiling fig jam, had sense enough to send Loren for supper-call. He spent the next two years paralysed and speechless, then died. She felt sorry for fat Lizzy and spent her vacation that year with her. Lizzy had tried and lost as wife and mother.

Her fingers punched the keys slowly, evenly … running me out, she wrote. I pay good rent, but of course that makes no difference. No difference that she could afford better. When she retired, Mr. Corliss had helped her invest her money. “We want you to have a good income, Zina,” he said. Mr. Corliss was good to her. It was his wife, she thought, who was the troublemaker. Other women always were. When she sat in Lizzy’s house with Frank and heard Frank tell Lizzy, “It’s crowded out at our place, and it would be nice if Zina had a house of her own,” she thought—all those silly women.

Lizzy said she would enjoy Zina’s company.

“She’d pay you rent of course,” said Frank, as though she were an object in another room.

“That’s not necessary,” said Lizzy. “The house is just sitting. If she could take care of her utilities …”

“I’ll pay,” said Zina, “I’ll pay—” and she quoted a sum perversely beyond the little house’s worth.

[7] “That’s too much,” said Lizzy.

“—or I don’t stay at all.”

She had something immediate to write about. She always had something to write about. She wrote now after Frank’s visit: It’s just as well she wants me to leave. For the money I pay, this house is anything but satisfactory. And do you know what else? Do you remember your letter—

Struck by a new idea, she drew up her hands. Why not? she thought. She changed her dress, tidied her hair resting on her head like a great gray cushion. After talking with Frank she needed a walk.

He was just stepping off Lizzy’s porch when she came up the driveway from the oleanders.

“Going to town?” he asked.

“Yes.”

“Hop in. I’ll give you a ride.”

Chin high, she walked on. It was hot, but she was accustomed to heat. “Zina,” she heard Frank say, “I can’t make any sense out of you.”

Her shadow was dark and sharp behind her on the sidewalk. The sun burned her eyes. She stayed as near the buildings as she could to avoid the sun. Ordinarily, it didn’t bother her. What bothered today was the way it glared in her eyes. She held her back straighter, imagining Frank following in the car, his burn scar pale.

She was relieved to get inside the hardware store, safe from Frank, safe from the sun. With the air-conditioning the air made little icicles on her arms. After the glare she stood in the doorway, uncertain which way to move, unable to see clearly her way.

“Is anything the matter, ma’am?”

She couldn’t make out the man’s features. She squinted. He wasn’t much taller than she was, but his face was all shadow.

“Of course, nothing’s the matter.”

He took her arm anyway. “Sit over here,” he said. “It’s a real hot one today.”

She wanted to protest, but she was beside the chair and then [8] in it before she could muster denial. Tired, she felt her limbs relax until she made herself sit forward, back straight. The man came near—piggy face, red hands. She tightened her muscles, withdrawing.

Fat red hands.

“I want a mailbox,” she said.

“Yes, ma’am,” he said. “If you sit there, I’ll find someone to wait on you.”

She looked about the store at lawn mowers, bags of lawn fertilizer, lawn chairs … She sat in a lawn chair. It reminded her of the way Mrs. Corliss used to sit beside their pool in her chair. Relaxed. Or Lizzy on her daybed … She lay on her daybed listening to soap operas, silly things, but she relaxed too until Zina came. Although starch packed her bones as she thought of the snit she’d thrown Lizzy into, the idea of relaxing couldn’t help but appeal to her. For the first time, the prospect of moving into another place discomforted her.

Here was the mailbox. She bought a hammer and some nails. With the sun behind her, the walk back on McPherson was less trying. She was eager to get back, and the eagerness made the pavement less warm under her feet, the still air less hot as she moved through it, stepping—tap, tap, tap—on her own shadow.

At home, her face showed no strain. In the mirror, it looked as impassive as ever—wrinkled, Roman-nosed, slope-chinned. Hard to tell what Zina was thinking. Just like her father. She changed back into her housedress, glanced at the uncompleted letter in the typewriter. She already knew what she would write. She scarcel needed to go through with the action, for it couldn’t change what she wanted to write. Lizzy in a snit. She took up mailbox, hammer, and nails, and went forth to perform what had already been written in her mind.

The oleanders had overgrown her doorway, and in her rush she ran her hair against them, snagging a strand loose. She’d told Lizzy to have them trimmed. But that was after the quarrel started, [9] and Lizzy had ignored her. She let her hair go untouched, saying to herself, “Drat!” and moved on up the driveway, wishing she could sweep down the whole row. She couldn’t see Lizzy watching, peering from behind one of her windows. In a spell with her soap operas, no doubt. She’d failed these last years, Lizzy had, after Loren’s oldest boy was killed in Korea. Feeble old woman. Zina felt sorry. She’d liked Loren’s children, what she saw of them, but Lizzy had taken those risks and had to live with what they brought.

Nailed to the house beneath the front porch roof was the mailbox Lizzy insisted they both use. The hammer trembling in her hand, Zina spotted a place for her boxjust where Lizzy would see it each time she pulled out her own mail. She drew a scratch with a nail. She wanted to place it higher, but she grew short of breath when she raised her arms too high. That’s what getting old did to you, she thought grimly. It wasn’t easy to hold up the box, the nail through the hole, levy the hammer. But she would do it. Bang, bang, bang. She almost hit her own hand. The nail split into two nails as her sight blurred. Determined, she waited for them to draw back together. Bang, bang, bang. With that nail in far enough to hold the box, she was free to get another for the other side.

And here came Lizzy.

Zina ignored her, stared at the sun-brightened wall in front of her. She put the nail through the other hole, straightening the box. It was warm under her fingers.

“What are you doing?”

She missed the nail and it fell.

“Zina, get out of my flowers.”

She wouldn’t look at Lizzy. She stood there in her patterned housedress supporting herself with an arm on the corner of her house, there in the fullness of her side vision. Not fat Lizzy anymore, Lizzy with the firm white arms, the bright rose petal cheeks. Now Lizzy’s skin had failed her, shrivelling on her arms. Her eyes, pale and washed blue, had cataracts. Her hair was white and thin. She [10] couldn’t hobble to town anymore. Fat bouncy Lizzy had nothing on her.

Bang, bang, bang. The other nail held.

Lizzy reached over and pulled on her arm, but she batted her away. She struck at the nail but missed. Lizzy stepped off the porch.

“Out of my flowers. Now.”

Zina aimed at the nail. And, then—! Lizzy reached up to pull on the box and the hammer struck Lizzy’s hand. Lizzy cried out, a low pale cry, and clutched her hand against her stomach, a hand as old as Zina’s and a body as unsupple. She released her hand to glance at it, then pulled it and its pain into her dress again. The mailbox clattered to the ground.

“You knocked it down,” said Zina. Only now—without wanting to—did she look directly at Lizzy. She looked at Lizzy, and in her mind the memory nudged the roots of her hair so that her scalp tingled. She saw Lizzy again—fat dimpled Lizzy—saw her in a kind of double vision when the first dead baby was born and then when Loren came, saw the round face as it was then squeezed and sucked with pain. She had looked grimly on at Lizzy’s taut body, held bitterly the sweating hand, when the pains took hold. Lizzy had gambled and this was what she got. This pain. And for what? Dead children. Zina could not tolerate physical pain. She saw this, remembered it, as she looked at Lizzy, all the lines of her face drawn above to the shut eyes and below to the O of her mouth. Shrivelled Lizzy in pain. “Keep your hands to yourself and you don’t get hurt,” she said.

Lizzy stepped back up on her porch. “Cantankerous old woman,” she said, half-mutter, half-moan, holding her hand to her mouth.

Zina let the mailbox lie. The oleanders loosened more of her hair. In the house she laid the hammer on the bed. Then she sat at her typewriter. She felt too shaken to type. Her assault and what should have been her victory, and should have buoyed her in the stress she’d stirred up, had failed, had mustered her feelings and [11] turned them back on her. Much in her mind seemed to be in pieces. She closed her eyes and saw Lizzy’s hand slip in underneath. She knew she couldn’t change the hammer’s direction. It was too late.

With her lids shut over her dry eyes, she saw Lizzy’s house too, dusty and hot in the sun. Yellow frame house with untrimmed honeysuckle climbing over the porch. Floors sagging. Doorways uneven. She thought of the Corliss’s house with longing, its large Spanish lines, the long circular drive through manicured lawns, immense palm trees. Lizzy’s house was drab. She’d lived in it ever since Roy died. Sold the farm and moved into town. In the Corliss house there was little pain, and that little easily soothed.

Zina noticed that she had slumped in the chair. Straightening, she thought. Just like Lizzy to put her hand in … She took a fresh sheet of paper. Do you know what she did when I tried to put up my own mailbox? She stopped, uncertain what to add. Just like Lizzy, she muttered.

Frank arrived before long. First at Lizzy’s. Then entering her own house without knocking, he stood in the doorway, heaving a big sigh as though he were sorely put upon. Twice in one day.

“Get some stuff together,” he said. “Lizzy wants you out now. I’ll have to come back later and pack up for you.”

“Because of her hand—”

“Why can’t you use the same mailbox?”

“How is her hand?” she said stiffly, resenting her own worry.

“Oh, her hand is all right. Be a bruise on it. It’s a good thing you’re so poor with a hammer. Where you going to go? That’s the problem. I suppose we can get you a motel room for a couple of days till we find something.”

She lifted her chin. “A motel, you say?”

“I’m afraid so,” he said. “I told you Glenna don’t want you at our place—”

“I see.”

The indignity of it braced her like a fresh wind. A motel … [12] Her fingers flexed, anxious for the typewriter. Frank wanted her to leave it behind until later, but she insisted on taking it. He carried it to the car while she was packing.

A motel, she thought.

As they drove out the driveway past Lizzy’s house, Zina looked straight at Lizzy’s window. The curtain, sure enough, was lifted back. That same hurt hand. She thought of Lizzy’s angry mutter: “Cantankerous old woman!”—and held her head a little higher.