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[Fiction]

Lucky ducks

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Mack has moved so much in his life that every phone number he comes across seems to him to be one he’s had before. I swear this used to be my number,” he says, putting the car into park and pointing at the guide book. 923-7368. The built-in cadence of a phone number always hits him the same personal way: like something familiar but lost, something momentous yet insignificant—like an act of love with a girl he used to date.

“Just call,” says Quilty. They are off Route 55, at the first McDonald’s outside of Chicago. They are on a vacation, a road trip, a pile-stuff-in-and-go kind of thing. Quilty has been singing movie themes all afternoon, has gotten fixated on “To Sir with Love,” and he and Mack now seemed destined to make each other crazy: Mack passing buses too quickly while fumbling for more gum (chewing the sugar out fast, stick by stick), and Quilty, hunched over the glove compartment, in some purple-faced strain of emotion brought on by the line “Those schoolgirl days of telling tales and biting nails are gone.” “I would be a genius now,” Quilty has said three times already, “if only I’d memorized Shakespeare instead of Lulu.”

“If only,” says Mack. Mack himself would be a genius now if only he had been born a completely different person. But what could you do? He’d read in a magazine once that geniuses were born only to women over thirty; his own mother had been twenty-nine. Damn! So fucking close!

“Let’s just get a hotel reservation someplace and take a bath-oil bath,” Quilty says now. “And don’t dicker. You’re always burning up time trying to get a bargain.”

“That’s so wrong?”

Quilty grimaces. “I don’t like what comes after ‘dicker.'”

“What?”

Quilty sighs. “Dickest. I mean, really: it’s not a contest!” Quilty turns to feel for Guapo, his seeing-eye dog, a chocolate Lab too often left panting in the back seat of the car while they stop for coffee. “Good dog, good dog, yes.” A “bath-oil bath” is Quilty’s idea of how to end a good day as well as a bad. “Tomorrow we’ll head south, along the Mississippi, then to New Orleans, and back up to the ducks at the Peabody hotel at the end. Does that sound okay?”

“If that’s what you want to do, fine,” says Mack.

They had met only two years ago at the Tapston, Indiana, Sobriety Society. Because he was new in town, recently up from some stupid quickie job painting high-voltage towers in the south of the state, and suddenly in need of a lawyer, Mack phoned Quilty the next day. “I was wondering if we could strike a deal,” Mack had said. “One old drunk to another.”

“Perhaps,” said Quilty. He may have been blind and a recovering drinker, but with the help of Martha, his secretary, he had worked up a decent legal practice and did not give his services away for free. Good barter, however, he liked. It made life easier for a blind man. He was, after all, a practical person. Beneath all his eccentricities, he possessed a streak of pragmatism so sharp and deep that others mistook it for sanity.

“I got myself into a predicament,” Mack explained. He told Quilty how difficult it was being a housepainter, new in town to boot, and how some of these damn finicky housewives could never be satisfied with what was true professional work, and how, well, he had a lawsuit on his hands. “I’m being sued for sloppy housepainting, Mr. Stein. But the only way I can pay you is in more housepainting. Do you have a house that needs painting?”

“Bad housepainting as both the accusation and the retainer?” Quilty hooted. He loved a good hoot—it brought Guapo to his side. “That’s like telling me you’re wanted for counterfeiting but you can pay me in cash.”

“I’m sorry,” said Mack.

“It’s all right,” Quilty said. He took Mack’s case, got him out of it as best he could—“the greatest art in the world,” Quilty told the judge at the settlement hearing, “has been known to mumble at the edges”—then had Mack paint his house a clear, compensatory, cornflower blue. Or was it, suggested a neighbor, in certain streaky spots delphinium? At lunchtime Quilty came home from his office up the street and stopped in the driveway, Guapo heeled at his feet, Mack above them on the ladder humming some mournful Appalachian love song or a jazzed-up version of “Taps.” Why “Taps”? “It’s the town we live in,” Mack would later explain, “and it’s the sound of your cane.”

Day is done. Gone the sun.

“How we doing there, Mack?” asked Quilty. His dark hair was long and bristly as rope, and he often pulled on it while speaking. “The neighbors tell me my bushes are all blue.”

“A little dripping couldn’t be avoided,” Mack said unhappily. He never used tarps the way other painters did. He didn’t even own any.

“Well, doesn’t offend me,” said Quilty, tapping meaningfully at his sunglasses.

But afterward, painting the side dormer, Mack kept hearing Quilty inside, on the phone with a friend, snorting in a loud horselaugh: “Hey, what do I know? I have blue bushes!” Or: “I’m having the shrubs dyed blue. The nouveau riche—look out—will always be with you.”

When the house was almost finished, and oak leaves began to accumulate on the ground in gold and ruby piles the color of pears, and the evenings settled in quickly and disappeared into that long solvent that was the beginning of a winter night, Mack began to linger and stall—over coffee, into dinner, then over coffee again. He liked to watch Quilty move deftly about the kitchen, refusing Mack’s help, fixing simple things—pasta, peas, salads, bread and butter. Mack liked talking with him about the Sobriety Society meetings, swapping stories about those few great benders that sat in their memories like gorgeous songs and those others that had just plain wrecked their lives. He watched Quilty’s face as fatigue or fondness spilled and rippled across it. Quilty had been born blind and had never acquired the guise and camouflage of the sighted; his face remained unclenched, untrained, a clean canvas, transparent as a baby’s gas, clear to the bottom of him. In a face so unguarded and unguarding, one saw one’s own innocent self—and one sometimes recoiled.

But Mack found he could not go away—not entirely, not really. He helped Quilty with his long hair, brushing it back for him and gathering it in a leather tie. He brought Quilty gifts lifted from secondhand stores downtown. A geography book in braille. A sweater with a coffee stain on the arm—was that too mean? Cork coasters for Quilty’s endless cups of tea.

“Thank you, my dear,” Quilty had said each time, speaking, as he sometimes did, like a goddamn Victorian valentine and touching Mack’s sleeve. “You are the kindest man I’ve ever had in my house.”

And perhaps because what Quilty knew best was touch and words, or perhaps because Mack had gone through a pig’s life of everything tearing at his feelings, or maybe because the earth had tilted into shadow and cold and the whole damned future seemed dipped in that bad ink, one night in the living room, after a kiss that took only Mack by surprise, and even then only slightly, Mack and Quilty became lovers.

Still it baffled Mack. How had he gotten here? What soft punch in the mouth had sent him reeling to this new place?

Uncertainty makes for shyness, and shyness, Quilty kept saying, is what keeps the world together. Or, rather, is what used to keep the world together, used to keep it from going mad with chaos. Now—now!—was a different story.

A different story? “I don’t like stories,” said Mack. “I like food. I like car keys.” He paused. “I like pretzels.”

“Okaaaay,” said Quilty, tracing the outline of his own shoulder and then Mack’s. “You do this a lot, don’t you?” asked Mack.

“Do what? Upgrade in the handyman department?”

“Yeah. Bring into your bed some big straight guy you think’s a little dumb.”

“I never do that. Never have.” He cocked his head to one side. “Before.” With his flat, almond-shaped fingertips, he played Mack’s arm like a keyboard. “Never before. You are my big sexual experiment.”

“But you see, you’re my big sexual experiment,” insisted Mack. In his life before Quilty he could never have imagined being in bed with a skinny naked guy wearing sunglasses. “So how can that be?”

“Honey, it bes.”

“But someone’s got to be in charge. How can both of us survive on some big experimental adventure? Someone’s got to be steering the ship.”

“Oh, the ship be damned. We’ll be fine. We are in this thing together. It’s luck. It’s God’s will. It’s synchronicity! Serendipity! Kismet! Camelot! Annie, honey, Get Your Fucking Gun!” Quilty was squealing.

“My ex-wife’s name is Annie,” said Mack.

“I know, I know. That’s why I said it,” said Quilty, trying now not to sigh. “Think of it this way: the blind leading the straight. It can work. It’s not impossible.”

In the mornings the phone rang too much, and it sometimes annoyed Mack. Where were the pretzels and the car keys when you really needed them? He could see that Quilty knew the exact arm’s distance to the receiver, picking it up in one swift pluck. “Are you sans or avec?” Quilty’s friends would ask. They spoke loudly and theatrically—as if to a deaf person—and Mack could always hear.

“Avec,” Quilty would say.

“Oooooh,” they would coo. “And how is Mr. Avec today?”

“You should move your stuff in here,” Quilty finally said to Mack one night.

“Is that what you want?” Mack found himself deferring in ways that were unfamiliar to him. He had never slept with a man before, that was probably it, though years ago there had been those nights when Annie’d put on so much makeup and leather her gender seemed up for grabs: it had been oddly attractive to Mack, self-sufficient; it hadn’t required him and so he’d wanted to get close, to get next to it, to learn it, make it need him, take it away, make it die. Those had been strange, bold nights, a starkness between them that was more like an ancient, bone-deep brawl than a marriage. But ultimately it all remained unreadable for him, though reading, he felt, was not a natural thing and should not be done to people. In general, people were not road maps. People were not hieroglyphs or books. They were not stories. A person was a collection of accidents. A person was an infinite pile of rocks with things growing underneath. In general, when you felt a longing for love, you took a woman and possessed her gingerly and not too hopefully until you finally let go, slept, woke up, and she eluded you once more. Then you started over. Or not.

Nothing about Quilty, however, seemed elusive.

“Is that what I want? Of course it’s what I want. Aren’t I a walking pamphlet for desire?” said Quilty. “In braille, of course, but still. Check it out. Move in. Take me.”

“Okay,” said Mack.

Mack had had a child with Annie, their boy, Lou, and just before the end, he’d tried to think up words to say to her, to salvage things. He’d said “okay” a lot. He did not know how to raise a child, a toothless, trickless child, but he knew you had to protect it from the world a little; you could not just hand it over and let the world go at it. “There’s something that with time grows between people,” he said once, in an attempt to keep them together, keep Lou. If he lost Lou, he believed, it would wreck his life completely. “Something that grows whether you like it or not.”

“Gunk,” Annie said.

“What?”

“Gunk!” she shouted. “Gunk grows between people!”

He slammed the door, went drinking with his friends. The bar they all went to—Teem’s Pub—quickly grew smoky and dull. Someone, Bob Bacon, maybe, suggested going to Visions and Sights, a strip joint out near the interstate. But Mack was already missing his wife. “Why would I want to go to a place like that,” Mack said loudly to his friends, “when I’ve got a beautiful wife at home?”

“Well, then,” Bob said, “let’s go to your house.”

“Okay,” he said. “Okay.”

And when they got there, Annie was gone. She had packed fast, taken Lou, and fled.

Now it is two and a half years since Annie left, and here Mack is with Quilty, traveling: their plan is to head through Chicago and St. Louis and then south along the Mississippi. They will check into bed-and-breakfasts, tour the historic sights, like spouses. They have decided on this trip now in October in part because Mack is recuperating from a small procedure. He has had a small benign cyst razored from “an intimate place.”

“The bathroom?” asked Quilty that first day, and reached to feel Mack’s thick black stitches, then sighed. “What’s the unsexiest thing we can do for the next ten days?”

“Take one of our trips,” Mack suggested.

Quilty hummed contentedly. He found the insides of Mack’s wrists, where the veins were stiff cords, and caressed them with his thumbs. “Married men are always the best,” he said. “They’re so grateful and butch.”

“Give me a break,” said Mack.

The next day they bought quart bottles of mineral water and packets of saltines, and drove out of town, along the speedway with the Resurrection Park cemetery on one side and the Sunset Memories Cemetery on the other—a route the cabbies called the “Bone Zone.” When he’d first arrived in Tapston, Mack drove a cab for a week, and he’d gotten to know the layout of the town fast. “I’m in the Bone Zone,” he used to have to say into the radio mouthpiece. But he’d hated that damn phrase and hated waiting at the airport, all the lousy tips and heavy suitcases. And the names of things in Tapston—apartment buildings called Crestview Manor, treeless subdivisions called Arbor Valley, the cemeteries undisguised as Sunset Memories and Resurrection Park—all gave him the creeps. Jesus Christ. Every damn Hoosier twisted words right to death.

But cruising out past the Bone Zone for a road trip in Quilty’s car jazzed them both. “Farewell, you ole stiffs,” Mack said.

“Good-bye, all my clients,” cried Quilty when they passed the county jail. “Good-bye, good-bye!” Then he sank back blissfully in his seat as Mack sped the car toward the interstate, out into farm country, silver-topped silos gleaming like spaceships, the air grassy and thick with hog.

“I’d like to make a reservation for a double room, if possible,” Mack shouts over the noise of the interstate traffic. He looks and sees Quilty getting out of the car, leaving Guapo, feeling and tapping his way with his cane, toward the entrance to McDonald’s.

“Yes, a double room,” says Mack. He looks over his shoulder, keeping an eye on Quilty. “American Express? Yes.” He fumbles through Quilty’s wallet, reads the number out loud. He turns again and sees Quilty ordering a soda and going to pay for it but not finding his wallet, since he’d given it to Mack for the call. Mack sees Quilty tuck his cane under his arm and pat all his pockets, finding nothing there but a red, Howe Caverns handkerchief. 

“You want the number on the card? Three-one-one-two … “

Quilty now turns to leave, without a soda, and heads for the door. But he chooses the wrong door. He wanders into the Playland by mistake, and Mack can see him thrashing around with his cane amidst the plastic cheeseburgers and the french fry swings, lit up at night for the kids. There is no exit from the Playland except back through the restaurant, but Quilty obviously doesn’t know this and first taps then bangs his cane against the forest of garish obstacles.

“… eight-one-zero-zero-six,” repeats the reservations clerk on the phone.

By the time Mack can get to him, Quilty is collapsed on a ceramic chicken breast. “Good-night, Louise. I thought you’d left me,” Quilty says. “I swear, from here on in I’ll do whatever you want. I’ve glimpsed the abyss, and, by God, it’s full of big treacherous pieces of patio furniture.”

“We’ve got a room,” says Mack.

“Fantastic. Can we also get a soda?” Mack lets Quilty take his elbow and then walks Quilty back inside, where they order Cokes and a single apple pie the size of an eyeglass pouch—to split in the car, like children.

“Have a nice day,” says the boy at the counter. “Thanks for the advice,” says Quilty.

They have brought along the game Trivial Pursuit, and at night Quilty likes to play. Although Mack complies, he thinks it’s a dumb game. If you don’t know the answer, you feel stupid. And if you do know the answer, you feel just as stupid. More stupid. What are you doing with that stupid bit of information in your brain? Mack would prefer to lie in the room and stare at the ceiling, thinking about Chicago, thinking about their day. “Name four American state capitals named after presidents,” he reads sleepily from a card. He would rather try to understand the paintings he has seen that afternoon and has almost understood: the Halloween hues of the Lautrecs, the chalky Puvis de Chavannes, the sweet fingerpaints of the Vuillards and Bonnards, all crowded with window light and commodes. Mack had listened to the buzzing voice coming from Quilty’s headphones, but he hadn’t gotten his own headphones. Let a blind man be described to! Mack had his own eyes. But finally, overwhelmed by poor Quilty’s inability either to see or touch the paintings, he had led Quilty downstairs to the statuary, and when no one was looking, he placed Quilty’s hands upon the naked marble figure of a woman. “Ah,” Quilty said, feeling the nose and lips, and then he grew quiet and respectful at her shoulders, at her breasts, and hips, and when he got down past the thighs and knees to her feet, Quilty laughed out loud. Feet! These he knew best. These he liked.

Afterward, they went to a club to hear a skit called “Kuwait Until Dark.”

“Lincoln, Jackson, Madison, Jefferson City,” says Quilty. “Do you think we will have a war?” He seems to have grown impatient with the game. “You were in the service once. Is this the big George Bush showdown?”

“Nah,” says Mack. He had been in the Army only during peacetime, stationed in Texas, then in Germany. He’d been with Annie the whole time: those were good years. Only a little crying. Only a little drinking. Later he’d been in the reserves, but the reserves were never called up, everyone knew that. Until now. “Probably it’s just a sales demo for the weapons.”

“Well, they’ll go off then,” says Quilty. “Won’t they? If it’s a demonstration, things will be demonstrated.”

Mack picks another card. “In the song ‘They Call the Wind Maria,’ what do they call the rain?”

“It’s Mar-eye-a, not Maria,” says Quilty.

“It’s Mar-eye-a?” repeats Mack. “Really?”

“Really,” says Quilty. There is something wicked and scolding that comes over Quilty’s face in this game. “It’s your tum.” He thrusts out his hand. “Now give me the card so you don’t cheat.”

Mack hands him the card. “Mareye-a,” says Mack. The song is almost coming back to him—he recalls it from somewhere. Maybe Annie used to sing it. “They call the wind Mareye-a. They call the rain … Okay. I think it’s coming … ” He presses his fingers to his temples, squinting and thinking. “They call the wind Mareye-ah. They call the rain … Okay. Don’t tell me. The call the rain … Pariah!”

“Pariah?” Quilty guffaws.

“Okay, then,” says Mack, exasperated. “Heavy. They call the rain Heavy Rain.” He reaches aggressively for his mini-bar juice. Next time he’s just going to look quickly at the back of the card.

“Don’t you want to know the right answer?”

“No.”

“Okay, I’ll just go on to the next card.” He picks one up, pretending to read. “It says here, ‘Darling, is there life on Mars?’ Yes or no.”

Mack has gone back to thinking about the paintings. “I say no,” he says absently.

“Hmmm,” says Quilty, putting the card down. “I think the answer is yes. Look at it this way: they’re sure there are ice crystals. And where there is ice, there is water. And where there is water, there is waterfront property. And where there is waterfront property, there are Jews!” He claps his hands and sinks back onto the acrylic quilting of the bedspread. “Where are you?” he asks finally, waving his arms out in the air.

“I’m here,” says Mack. “I’m right here.” But he doesn’t move.

“You’re here? Well, good. At least you’re not at my cousin Esther’s Martian lake house with her appalling husband, Stan. Though sometimes I wonder how they’re doing. How are they? They never come to visit. I frighten them so much.”

Hannibal is like all the river towns that have tried recently to spruce themselves up by making antiques shops and bed-and-breakfasts from the shoreline mansions. It saddens Mack. The few barges that still push this far upriver seem quaint and ridiculous. But Quilty wants to hear what all the signs say—the Mark Twain Diner, the Tom ’n Huck Motel; it amuses him. They take the tour of Sam Clemens’s homes, of Mr. Clemens’s office, of the little jail. They get on a tiny train Quilty calls “Too, Too Twain,” which tours the area and makes the place seem even more spritely and hopeless. Quilty feels along the wide boards of the whitewashed fence. “This is modern paint,” he says.

“Latex,” says Mack.

“Oooh, talk to me, talk to me, baby.”

“Will you stop?”

“Pretty dog,” a large woman in a violet dress says to them in the Twain Diner, which serves BLTs in red plastic baskets with stiff wax paper and fries. Quilty has ordered his usual glass of milk.

“Thank you,” says Quilty to the woman, who then stops to pet Guapo before heading for her car in the parking lot. Quilty looks suddenly annoyed. “He gets all the compliments, and I have to say thank you.”

“You want a compliment?” asks Mack, disgusted. “Okay. You’re pretty, too,” says Mack.

“Am I? Well, how will I ever know, if everyone just keeps complimenting my dog!”

“I can’t believe you’re jealous of your goddamn dog. Here,” Mack says. “I refuse to talk to someone with a milk mustache.” He hands Quilty a napkin, touching the folded edge of it to his cheek.

Quilty takes it and wipes his mouth. “Just when we were getting so good at being boring together,” he says. He reaches over and pats Mack’s arm, then reaches up and roughly pets his head. Mack’s hair is thin and swept back, and Quilty swipes at it from behind.

“Ow,” says Mack.

“I keep forgetting your hair is so Irish and sensitive,” he says. “We’ve gotta get you some good, tough Jew hair.”

“Great,” says Mack. They’ve been on these trips too many times before. They’ve visited Mother Goose’s grave in Boston. They’ve visited the battlefield at Saratoga. They’ve visited Arlington. “Too many cemeteries!” said Mack. They visited the Lincoln Memorial. (“I imagine it’s like a big marble Oz,” said Quilty. “Abraham Oz. A much better name, don’t you think?”) Right next door they visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, mind-numbing in its bloodless catalogue of blood, Mack preferring instead the alternative monument, the buddy statue put up by the vets, something that wanted less to be art than to be human. “It’s about the guys, not just the names of the guys,” he said. “Guys died there. A list didn’t die there.” But Quilty, who had spent an hour feeling for friends who’d died in ’68 and ’70, had sighed in a vaguely disgusted, condescending way.

“You’re missing it totally,” he said. “A list did die. An incredible, heartbreaking list.”

“Sorry I’m not such an intellectual,” said Mack.

“You’re jealous because I was feeling around for other men.”

“Yeah. I’m jealous. I’m jealous I’m not up there.”

Quilty sighed. “I almost went. But I had a high draft number. Plus, guess what? Flat feet!”

At that they both broke, feebly, into loud, exhausted laughter, like two tense lunatics, right there by the wall, until someone in a uniform asked them to leave: other people were trying to pray.

Trying to go someplace without cemeteries, they once flew to Key West, ate a lot of conch chowder, and went to Audubon’s house, which wasn’t Audubon’s house at all but a place where Audubon had stayed once or something, shooting the birds he then painted. “He shot them?” Mack kept asking. “He shot the damn birds?”

“Revolting,” said Quilty loudly. “The poor birds. From now on I’m going to give all my money to the Autobahn Society. Let’s make those Mercedes go fast, fast, fast!”

Later, to prevent Mack’s drinking in despair, they found an AA meeting and dropped in, made friends and confessed to them, though not exactly in that order. The following day, new pals in tow, they strolled through Hemingway’s house in feather boas—“just to taunt Papa.”

“Before he wrote about them,” said Quilty, pretending to read the guidebook out loud, “Hemingway shot his characters. It was considered an unusual but not unheard-of creative method. Still, even within literary circles, it is not that widely discussed.”

The next morning, at the request of a sweet old man named Chuck, they went to an AIDS memorial service. They sat next to Chuck and held his hand. Walt Whitman poems were read. Cello suites were played so exquisitely that people fell forward onto their knees, collapsed by the beauty of grief. After the benediction everyone got solemnly into cars and drove slowly to the gravesite. No matter how Mack and Quilty tried to avoid cemeteries, there they were again. A boneyard had its own insistent call: like rocks to sailors, or sailors to other sailors. “This is all too intense,” whispered Mack, in the middle of a prayer; at the gravesite Mack had positioned them farther off from the mourners than Quilty knew. “This is supposed to be our vacation. When this funeral is over let’s go to the beach and eat cupcakes.” And so they did, letting Guapo run up and down the sand, chasing gulls, while the two of them lay there on a towel, the sea air blasting their faces.

Now, on this trip, Mack is in a hurry. He wants to leave the chipping white brick of Hannibal, the trees and huckleberries, the local cars all parked in the lot of some Tony’s Lounge. He wants to get on to St. Louis, to Memphis, to New Orleans, then back. He wants to be done with this touring they embark on too often, like old ladies testing out their new, sturdy shoes. He wants his stitches removed.

“I hope there won’t be scars,” he says.

“Scars?” says Quilty, in that screechy mockery he sometimes puts on. “I can’t believe I’m with someone who’s worried about having a good-looking dick.”

“Here is your question: What American playwright was imprisoned for her work?”

“Her work. Aha. Lillian Hellman? I doubt it. Thornton Wilder ….”

“Mae West,” blurts out Mack.

“Don’t do that! I hadn’t answered yet!”

“What does it matter?”

“It matters to me!”

There is only one week left.

“In St. Louis,” Quilty pretends again to read from the guidebook, as they take the bumpy ride to the top of the arch, “there is the famous gateway, or ‘arch,’ built by the McDonald Company. Holy Jesus, America, get down on your knees!”

“I am, I am.”

“Actually, that’s true. I heard someone talking about it downstairs. This thing was built by a company named McDonald, an arch of stainless steel. That is the gateway to the West. At sunset, very golden. Very arch.”

“Whaddyaknow.”

“Describe the view to me,” says Quilty, when they get out at the top.

Mack looks out through the windows. “Adequate,” he says.

“I said describe, not rate.”

“Midwestern. Aerial. Green and brown.”

Quilty sighs. “I don’t think blind men should date deaf-mutes until the how-to book has been written.”

Mack is getting hungry. “Are you hungry?”

“It’s too stressful!” adds Quilty. “No, I’m not hungry.”

They make the mistake of going to the aquarium instead of to an early dinner, which causes every sea creature to look delicious to Mack. Quilty makes the tour with a group led by a cute, schoolteacherish guide named Judy, but Mack ventures off on his own. He feels like a dog set loose among schoolchildren: Here are his friends! The elegant nautilus, the electric eel, the sting ray with its wavy cape and idiot grin, silently shrieking against the glass—or is it feeding?

When is a thing shrieking and when is it feeding—and why can’t Mack tell? It is the wrong hour of the day, the wrong hour of life, to be around sea creatures. Shrieking or feeding. Breaded or fried. There is a song Mack’s aunt used to sing to him when he was little: “I am a man upon the land, I am a silkie on the sea.” And he thinks of this now, this song about a half man, half seal or bird—what was it? It was a creature who comes back to fetch his child—his child by a woman on the land. But the woman’s new husband is a hunter, a good shot, and kills him when he tries to escape back to the sea with the child. Perhaps that was best, in the end. Still the song was sad. Stolen love, lost love, amphibious doom—all the transactions of Mack’s own life: I am a silkie on the sea. “My life is lucky and rich,” he used to tell himself when he was painting high-voltage towers in Kentucky and the electric field on those ladders stood the hairs of his arms on end. Lucky and Rich! They sounded like springer spaniels, or two unsavory uncles. Uncle Lucky! Uncle Rich!

I am a man upon the land, he thinks. But here at sea, what am I? Shrieking or feeding?

Quilty comes up behind him, with Guapo. “Let’s go to dinner,” he says.

“Thank you,” says Mack.

After dinner they lie in their motel bed and kiss. “Ah, dear, yes,” murmurs Quilty, his “dears” and “my dears” like sweet compresses in the heat, and then there are no more words. Mack pushes close, his cool belly warming. His heart thumps against Quilty’s like a water balloon shifting and thrusting its liquid from side to side. There is something comforting, thinks Mack, in embracing someone the same size as you. Something exhilarating, even: having your chins over each other’s shoulders, your feet touching, your heads pressed ear to ear. Plus he likes—he loves—Quilty’s mouth on him. A man’s full mouth. There is always something a little desperate and diligent about Quilty, poised there with his lips big and searching and his wild unshaded eyes like the creatures of the aquarium, captive yet wandering free in their enclosures. With the two of them kissing like this—“exculpatory,” “specificity”—words are foreign money here. There is only the soft punch in the mouth, the shrieking and feeding both, which fills Mack’s ears with light. This, he thinks, this is how a blind man sees. This is how a fish walks. This is how rocks sing. There is nothing at all like a man’s strong kiss: apologies to the women of Kentucky.

They eat breakfast at a place called Mama’s that advertises “Throwed Rolls.”

“What are those?” asks Quilty. They turn out merely to be warm buttermilk rolls thrown at the clientele by the waiters. Mack’s roll hits him squarely in the chest, where he continues to clutch it, in shock. “Don’t worry,” says the waiter to Quilty. “Won’t throw one at you, a blind man, but just maybe at your dawg.”

“Good God,” says Quilty. “Let’s get out of here.”

On the way out by the door, Mack stops to read the missing-child posters. He does not look at the girls. He looks at the boys: Graham, age eight; Eric, age five. So that’s what five looks like, thinks Mack. Lou will be five next week.

Mack takes the slow southerly roads. He and Quilty are like birds, reclaiming the summer that left them six weeks before in the north. “I’ll bet in Tapston they’ve all got salt spats on their boots already,” says Mack. “Bet they’ve got ice chunks in their tires.” Quilty hates winter, Mack knows. The frozen air makes things untouchable, unsmellable. When the weather warms, the world comes back. “The sun smells like fire,” Quilty says, and smiles. Past the bleached doormat of old wheat fields, the land grows greener. There is cotton harvested as far north as Missouri, each field spread out like a bolt of dotted swiss.

They come upon a caravan of Jeeps and Hummers painted beige and headed south for a ship that no doubt will take them from one gulf to another. Mack whistles. “Holy shit,” he says.

“What?”

“Right now there’s about two hundred Army vehicles in front of us, freshly painted desert beige.”

“I can’t bear it,” says Quilty. “There’s going to be a war.”

“I could have sworn there wouldn’t be. I could have sworn there was just going to be a television show.”

They drive to Cooter along with the Jeeps, then swing off to Heloise to look at the river, which seems to Mack like a big ticky dog that doesn’t know its own filth and keeps following alongside your car as you drive. They get out of the car to stretch. Mack lights a cigarette, thinking of the Jeeps and the Arabian desert. “So there it is. Brown and more brown. Guess that’s all there is to a river.”

“You’re so … Peggy Lee,” says Quilty. “How about a little Jerome Kern? ‘He don’t plant ’taters, he don’t plant cotton … He just keeps rolling along.’”

Mack doesn’t even look at Quilty.

“Smell the mud and humidity of it,” says Quilty, breathing deeply.

“I do. Great humidity,” says Mack. Mack feels a little weary. He also feels sick of trying, tired of living, and scared of dying. If Quilty wants musical comedy, there it is: musical comedy. Mack drags on his cigarette. The prospect of a war has seized his brain. It engages some old, ongoing terror in him.

“I hear the other side doesn’t even have socks,” says Quilty, when they are back in the car, thinking of the war. “Or rather, they have some socks, but they don’t all match.”

“Probably the military’s been waiting for this for years. Something to ace—at last.”

“Thank God you’re not still in the reserves.” Quilty reaches up under Mack’s shirt and rubs his back. “Young people have been coming into my office all month to have their wills drawn up; you should hear the shock in their voices.”

“The reserves used to be one big camping trip,” says Mack, who was in the reserves for only a year before he was thrown out for drunkenness on one of the retreats.

“Well, now it’s a camping trip gone awry. A camping trip with aspirations. A big hot camping trip. Kamp with a K.”

Outside of Memphis, on the Arkansas side, they stop at a Denny’s, next to a warehouse of dinettes; they let Guapo out to run again.

“I once tried to write a book,” says Quilty, seated cozily in his booth, eating an omelette.

“Oh, yeah?”

“Yeah. I had these paragraphs that were so huge they went on for pages. Sentences that were also just enormous—two or three pages long. I had to shrink things down, I was told.”

Mack smiles. “How about words? Did you use big words too?”

“Huge words. And to top it off, I began the whole thing with a letter I razored off a billboard.” He picks up his water glass. “That’s a joke.”

“I get it.” “I was going to call the book Dating My Sofa: A Blind Man’s Guide to Life.”

Mack is quiet. There is always too much talking on these trips.

“Let’s hit Memphis on the way back,” Quilty says irritably. “For now let’s head straight to New Orleans.”

“That’s what you want to do? Fine.”

“That way, coming back,” adds Quilty, “we can take our time and hit the Peabody when the ducks are out. I want to do the whole duck thing.” And then Quilty begins to sing. “We aren’t the world. We have no children … ”

“Sure,” says Mack. “The duck thing is the thing.” On the way out of Denny’s, Mack pulls slightly away from Quilty to look at another missing-child poster. A boy named Seth, age five.

“What are you looking at?”

“Nothing,” says Mack, “a boy.”

“Really?” says Quilty.

Mack drives fast through the small towns of the Delta: Eudora, Eupora, Tallulah—the poorest ones with names like Hollywood, Banks, Rich. In each of them a Baptist church is nestled against a bait shop or a Tina’s Touch of Class Cocktails. The strawy weeds are tall as people, and the cotton puffs are planted in soils grown sandy, near shacks and burned-out cars, a cottonseed-oil factory towering over the fields. Mack notices the broken-down signs: Eat Maid-Rite Eats and Can’t Beat Dick’s Meat—signs both innocent and old, that peculiar mix, like a baby that looks like a grandmother, or a grandmother that looks like a girl. He and Quilty eat at places that serve hush puppies and batter-fried pickles.

“Someone told me once”—Mack is thinking of Annie now—“that we are all made from stars, that every atom in our bodies was at one time the atom of a star.”

“And you believed them?” Quilty hoots.

“Fuck you,” says Mack.

“I mean, in between, we were probably also some cheese at a sorority tea. Our ancestral relationship to stars!” says Quilty, now far away, making his point before some judge. “It’s the biological equivalent of hearsay.”

They stay in an antebellum mansion with a canopy bed. They sit beneath the canopy and play Trivial Pursuit.

Mack once again reads aloud his own questions. “Who was George Bush referring to when reminiscing: ‘We’ve had triumphs, we’ve made mistakes, we’ve had sex’?”

Out the window he sees a sign across the street that says SPACE FOR LEASE AT ABSOLUTELY YOGURT. Next to it a large white woman is hitting a small black dog with a shopping bag. What is wrong with this country? He turns the card over and looks. “Ronald Reagan,” he says. He has taken to cheating like this.

“Is that your answer?” asks Quilty.

“Yes.”

“Well, you’re probably right,” says Quilty, who often knows the answer before Mack has read it to him. Mack stares at the bed, its canopy like the headdress the Duchess wore in Alice in Wonderland. On the nightstand there are sachets of peach and apricot pits, the sickly sweet smell of a cancer ward.

“What former Pittsburgh Pirates slugger was the only player inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1988?” Mack reads. It is Quilty’s turn.

“I’ve landed on the damn sports category?”

“Yup. What’s your answer?”

Quilty mutters “bastard,” then practically shouts, “Linda Ronstadt. She was in The Pirates of Penzance. I know it went to Pittsburgh, I’m just not sure about the Hall of Fame part.”

“Is that your answer?”

“You never used to do that—land me on those sports questions. You always landed me on the other categories: now you’re getting difficult.”

“Yup,” says Mack.

The next morning they go to a Coca-Cola museum, which the South seems to be full of. “You’d think Coca-Cola was a national treasure,” Mack says.

“It’s not?” says Quilty.

Individual states, Georgia and Mississippi and whichever else, are all competing for claims: first served here, first bottled there—first thirst, first burst—it is one big corporate battle of the bands. There is a strange kind of refuge from this to be found in driving through yet another cemetery, this one at Vicksburg, and so they do it, but quickly, keeping the trip moving so they will not feel, as they might have in Tapston, the irretrievable loss of each afternoon.

“They seem to have all this organized by state,” says Mack, looking out over the Vicksburg grounds, the rolling green dotted as if with aspirins.

“Well, let’s go to the Indiana part,” says Quilty, “and praise the Hoosier dead.”

“Okay,” says Mack, and when he comes upon a single small stone that says Indiana—not the proper section at all—he slows down and says, “Here’s the section,” so that Quilty can roll down the window and shout, “Praise the Hoosier dead!” There are kindnesses one can perform for a blind man more easily than for the sighted.

Guapo barks and Mack lets loose with an incongruous rebel yell.

“Let’s get out of here,” scolds Quilty, rolling his window back up. “It’s too hot.”

They stop at the Civil War museum they saw advertised the day before.

Inside it is dark and cool and lined with glass display cases and mannequins in uniforms. “The city of Vicksburg,” Mack reads aloud, “surrendered to Grant on the Fourth of July and did not celebrate Independence Day again until 1945.”

“When no one cared anymore,” adds Quilty. “I like a place with a strong sense of grudge—which they of course call a keen acquaintance with history.” He clears his throat. “But let’s get on to New Orleans. I also like a place that doesn’t give a shit.” In the dusk they head south, toward the Natchez Trace, through Port Gibson—“‘Too Beautiful to Burn’—Ulysses S. Grant,” says the WELCOME sign. Quilty is dozing. It is getting dark, and the road isn’t wide, but Mack passes all the slow-moving cars: an old VW bus (northern winters have eliminated these in Tapston), a red pickup piled with hay, a Plymouth Duster full of deaf people signing in a fantastic dance of hands. The light is on inside the Duster, and Mack pulls up alongside, watching. Everyone is talking at once—fingers flying, chopping, stretching the air, twining, pointing, touching. It is astonishing and beautiful. If only Quilty weren’t blind, thinks Mack. If only Quilty weren’t blind, he would really like being deaf.

There are, in New Orleans, all manner of oysters Rockefeller. There is the kind with the spinach chopped long and coarse like seaweed, scabs of bacon in a patch on top. Then there is the kind with the spinach moussed to a bright lime and dolloped onto the shell like algae. There is the kind with spinach leaves laid limply on top like socks. There is the kind with cheese. There is the kind without. There is the kind with tofu.

“Whatever happened to clams casino?” asks Mack. “I used to get those in Kentucky. Those were great.”

“Shellfish from a landlocked place? Never a great idea, my dear,” says Quilty. “Stick with Nawlins. A city no longer known for its prostitutes quickly becomes known for its food. Think about it. There’s Paris. There’s here. A city currently known for its prostitutes—Las Vegas, Amsterdam, Washington, D.C.—is seldom a good food city.”

“You should write a travel book.” Was Mack being sarcastic? He couldn’t say whether he was or not.

“That’s what Dating My Sofa was going to be. A kind of armchair travel book. For the blind.”

“I thought Dating My Sofa was going to be a novel.”

“Before it was a novel, it was going to be a travel book.”

They leave behind the wrought-iron cornstalk fence of their little inn for a walk through the quarter. Soon they are at the wharf, and with little else to do they step aboard a glittering paddlewheeler for a Plantation-Battlefield cruise. On the ramp, Quilty trips on a slightly raised plank. “You know, I find this city neither Big nor Easy,” he says. The tour is supposed to be beer and sun and a little jazz band, but there is also a stop at Chalmette, the site of the Battle of New Orleans, so that people can get off and traipse through the cemetery.

Mack falls asleep, and by the time the boat returns to the wharf, ten thousand anesthesiologists have invaded the town. There are buses and crowds. “Uh-oh. Look out. A medical convention,” says Mack to Quilty. “Watch your step.” At a turquoise kiosk near the pier, Mack spots more missing-children posters. There is a heartbreaking nine-year-old named Charlie. There is a three-year-old named Kyle. There is also the same kid from Denny’s up north: Seth, age five.

“Are they cute?” asks Quilty.

“Who?” says Mack.

“All those nice young doctors,” says Quilty. “Are they good-looking?”

“Hell if I know,” says Mack.

“Oh, don’t give me that,” says Quilty. “You forget to whom you are speaking, my dear. I can feel you looking around.”

They speed out of New Orleans the next day—across the incandescent olive milk of the swamps, leafless, burned trees jutting from them like crosses. “You’re going too fast,” says Quilty. “You’re driving like goddamn Sean Penn!” Mack, following no particular route, heads out toward the salt marshes: grebes, blackbirds, sherbet-winged flamingos fly in low over the feathery bulrushes. It is all pretty, in its bleak way. Lone cattle are loose and munching cordgrass amidst the oil rigs.

“Which way are we going?”

Mack suddenly swings north toward Memphis. “North. Memphis.” All he can think of now is getting back.

“What are you thinking of?”

“Nothing.”

“What are you looking at?”

“Nothing. Scenery.”

“Hot bods?”

“Yeah. Just saw a great cow,” says Mack. “And a not-bad possum.”

When they are finally checked into the Peabody hotel, it is already late afternoon. Their room is a little stuffy and lit in a strange, golden way. Mack flops on the bed.

Quilty, beginning to perspire, takes his jacket off and throws it on the floor. “Y’know, what is wrong with you?” he asks.

“What do you mean me? What is wrong with you?”

“You’re so distracted and weird.”

“We’re traveling. I’m sightseeing. I’m tired. Sorry if I seem distant.”

“‘Sightseeing.’ That’s nice! How about me? Yoo-hoo!”

Mack sighs. When Quilty goes on the attack like this he tends to head in five miserable directions at once. He has a brief nervous breakdown and shouts from every different shattered corner of it, then afterward pulls himself together and apologizes. It is all a bit familiar. Mack closes his eyes, to sail away from him. He floats off and, trying not to think of Lou, briefly thinks of Annie, though the sudden bloodrush that stiffens him pulls at his stitches and snaps him awake. He sits up. He kicks off his shoes and socks and looks at his pickled toes: slugs in a box.

Quilty is cross-legged on the floor, trying to do some deep-breathing exercises. He is trying to get chi to his meridians—or something like that. “You think I don’t know you’re attracted to half the people you see?” Quilty is saying. “You think I’m stupid or something? You don’t think I feel your head turn and your gaze stop everywhere we go?”

“What?”

“You’re too much,” Quilty finally says to Mack.

“I’m too much? You are! You’re so damn nervous and territorial,” Mack says.

“I have a highly inflamed sense of yard,” says Quilty. He has given up on the exercises. “Blind people do. I don’t want you sticking your hitchhiker’s thumb out over the property line. It’s a betrayal and an eyesore to the community!”

“What community? What are you talking about?”

“All you sighted people are alike. You think we’re Mr. Magoo! You think I’m not as aware as some guy who paints water towers and’s got cysts on his dick?”

Mack shakes his head. He sits up and starts to put his shoes back on. “You really go for the juggler, don’t you?” he says.

“Juggler?” howls Quilty. “Juggler? No, obviously, I go for the clowns.”

Mack is puzzled. Quilty’s head is tilted in that hyper-alert way that says nothing in the room will get past him. “Juggler,” Mack says. “Isn’t that the word? What is the word?”

“A juggler,” says Quilty, slowly for the jury, “is someone who juggles.”

Mack’s chest tightens around a small emptied space. He feels his own crappy luck returning like a curse. “You don’t even like me, do you,” he says.

“Like you? Is that what you’re really asking?” “I’m not sure,” says Mack. He looks around the hotel room. Not this, not any room with Quilty in it would ever be his home.

“Let me tell you a story,” says Quilty.

“I don’t like stories,” Mack says. It suddenly seems to have cost Mack so much to be here. In his mind, a memory or a premonition—which is it? his mind does not distinguish—he sees himself returning not just to Tapston but to Kentucky or to Illinois, wherever it is Annie lives now, and stealing back his own-blooded boy whom he loves and who is his, and running fast with him toward a car, putting him in, and driving off. It would be the proper thing, in a way. Other men have done it.

Quilty’s story goes like this: “A woman came to my office once very early on in my practice. Her case was a simple divorce that she made complicated by greed and stubbornness, and she worked up quite a bill. When she got the bill, she phoned me, shouting and saying angry things. I said, ‘Look, we’ll work out a payment plan. One hundred dollars a month. How does that sound?’ I was reasonable. My practice was new and struggling. Still, she refused to pay a cent. I had to take out a loan to pay my secretary, and I never forgot that. So, five years later that very same woman’s doctor phones me. She’s got bone cancer, the doctor says, and I’m one of the only German Jews in town and might have the same blood type for a marrow transfusion for her. Would I consider it, at least consider having a blood test? I said, ‘Absolutely not,’ and hung up. The doctor called back. He begged me, but I hung up again. A month later the woman died.”

“What’s your point,” says Mack. Quilty’s voice is flying apart now.

“That that is the truth about me,” he says. “Don’t you see—”

“Yes, I fucking see. I am the one here who does the seeing! Me and Guapo.”

“I don’t forgive anybody anything. That is the point.”

“Y’know what? This whole thing is such a crock,” says Mack, but his voice is thin and diffident, and he puts on his shoes without socks and grabs his coat.

Downstairs the clock says quarter to five, and a crowd is gathering to watch the ducks. A red carpet has already been rolled out from the elevator to the fountain, and this makes the ducks excited, anxious for the evening ritual, their clipped wings fluttering. Mack takes a table in the back and orders a double whiskey with ice. He drinks it fast—it freezes and burns in that great old way; it has been too long. He orders another. The pianist on the other side of the lobby is playing “Street of Dreams”: “Love laughs at a king, kings don’t mean a thing,” the man sings, and it seems to Mack the most beautiful song in the world. Men everywhere are about to die for reasons they don’t know and wouldn’t like if they did—but here is a song to do it by, so that life, in its mad belches and spasms, might not demolish so much this time.

The ducks drink and dive in the fountain.

Probably Mack is already drunk as a horse.

Near the Union Avenue door is a young woman mime, juggling Coke bottles. People waiting for the ducks have gathered to watch. Even in her white pancake makeup, she is attractive. Her red hair is bright as a day lily, and through her black leotards her legs are taut as an archer’s bow.

Go for the juggler, thinks Mack. Go for the juggler. His head hurts like a bruise, though his throat and lungs are hot and clear.

Out of the corner of his eye he suddenly notices Quilty and Guapo, stepping slow and unsure, making their way around the far edge of the crowd. Their expressions are lonely and distraught, even Guapo’s. Mack looks back at the fountain. Soon Guapo will find him—but Mack is not going to move until then, needing the ceremony of Quilty’s effort. He knows Quilty will devise some conciliatory gift. He will come up and touch Mack and whisper, “Come back, don’t be angry, you know this is how the two of us get.”

But for now, Mack will just watch the ducks, watch them summoned by their caretaker, an old uniformed black man who blows a silver whistle and wields a long rod, signaling the ducks out of the water, out onto the carpet in a line. They haven’t had a thing to say about it, these ducks, thinks Mack, haven’t done a thing to deserve it, but there they are, God’s lilies, year round in a giant hotel, someone caring for them the rest of their lives. All the other birds of the world—the mange-hollowed hawks, the lordless hens, the dumb clucks—will live punishing, unblessed lives, winging it north, south, here, there, searching for a place of rest. But not these. Not these rich! lucky! ducks! graced with rug and stairs, upstairs and down, roof to pool to penthouse, always steered, guided, welcomed toward those golden elevator doors like a heaven’s mouth, and although it isn’t really a heaven’s mouth it is maybe the lip of all there is.

Mack sighs. Why must he always take the measure of his own stupid suffering? Why must he always look around and compare his own to others’?

Because God wants people to. Even if you’re comparing yourself to ducks?

Especially if you’re comparing yourself to ducks.

He feels his own head shrink with the hate that is love with no place to go. He will do it: he will go back and get Lou if it kills him. A million soldiers are getting ready to die for less. He will find Annie; maybe it won’t be that hard. And at first he will ask her nicely. But then he will do what a father must: A boy is a father’s. Sons love their fathers like nothing else. Mack read that once in a magazine.

Yet the more he imagines finding Lou, the more greatly he suspects that the whole mad task will kill him. He sees—as if again in a vision (of what he must prevent or of what he cannot prevent, who knew with visions?)—the death of himself and the sorrow of his boy. He sees the wound in his own back, his eyes turning from fish-gray jellies to the plus and minus signs of a comic-book corpse. He sees Lou scratched and crawling back toward a house, the starry sky Mack’s mocking sparkled shroud.

But he will do it anyway, or what was he? Pond scum envying the ducks.

As the birds walk up the red carpet, quacking and honking fussily, a pack of pleased Miss Americas, Mack watches them pause and look up, satisfied but quizzical, into the burst of lights from the tourists’ cameras, the Hollywood explosion of them along the runner. The birds weave a little, stop, then proceed again, seeming uncertain why anyone would want to take these pictures, flash a light, be there at all, why any of this should be happening, though, by God, and sometimes surely not by God, it happened every day.

Quilty, at the edge of the crowd, holds up his fingers, giving each person he passes the peace sign and saying, “Peace.” He comes close to Mack.

“Peace,” he says.

“People don’t say that anymore,” says Mack.

“Well, they should,” says Quilty. His nostrils have begun to flare, in that way that always signals a sob. He sinks to the floor and grabs Mack’s feet. Quilty’s gestures of contrition are like comets: infrequent and brilliant, but with a lot of space garbage. “No more war!” Quilty cries. “No more devastation!”

For the moment, it is only Quilty who is devastated. People are looking. “You’re upstaging the ducks,” says Mack.

Quilty pulls himself up via Mack’s trousers. “Have pity,” he says.

This is Quilty’s audition ritual: whenever he feels it is time for it, he calls upon himself to audition for love. He has no script, no reliable sense of stage, just a faceful of his heart’s own greasepaint and a relentless need for applause.

“Okay, okay,” says Mack, and as the elevator closes on the dozen birds and their bowing trainer, everybody in the hotel lounge claps.

“Thank you,” murmurs Quilty. “You are too kind, too kind.”

is the author, most recently, of the novel Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? and a short story collection to be published by Knopf in September.

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March 1998