Fiction — From the March 1998 issue

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.

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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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