The duck followed me home.

I heard him before I saw him, a cheerful “pwuk wuk wuk?” behind me on the country road. I’d begun to take a walk every evening after work. Otherwise I’d sit and brood about my job and eat too many cookies.

“Where did you come from?” I asked the duck, who had paddled up to me, tilted its head, and was considering me out of a bright little eye. There’s a farm up the road from me, but I’d never seen ducks there, just fat black cows and a bunch of idiotic fluffy chickens. The only other house on my street is an rundown place that no one lives in. The duck had appeared as I passed that house.

“Do you live over there?” I asked, waving at the rundown building.

The duck didn’t answer my question. Instead, it followed me all the way to my tiny red house, right up to the door.

“Goodbye duck,” I told it, and went inside to make dinner. After my divorce, I found this house, near my job at the university; just a living-room-kitchen space and a bedroom.

Dashing out the door the next morning, late for work as usual, I almost stepped on the duck. “Hey!” I yelled, and the duck said “Quack!” I couldn’t deal with livestock at 7:30 a.m., so I just ran for my Honda and gunned off.

When I got home, the duck was sitting on my front step. He’s an unusual color for a duck, sort of a blue-gray, with some wing feathers as bright as a bluejay’s. I went inside and called the farm down the road.

They didn’t have any ducks. They didn’t know anyone around who had ducks.

I got on my laptop and researched ducks. This one was a male, I learned, because females have louder voices. I got excited when I found the Blue Swedish Duck, but it was gray, not blue. I learned where to buy duck kibble, and that they like any kind of green stuff. I dug some wilted lettuce out of the refrigerator, and opened the door to give it to the duck.

He shot right between my legs into the house. I had no idea ducks could move so fast. He ate some lettuce out of my hand, but when I tried to use it to lure him back outside, he ignored me. Instead, he paddled all around the room, remarking on what he found, before sitting down on my blue rug, looking like he was floating on a pond.

With visions of duck poop sliming up my rug, I snuck over to him, worried about that long dark beak. He stood up, smiled at me, and nibbled my shoelaces.

Yes, he smiled at me. Yes, I’m a crazy lady. I scratched his head, and he leaned into my hand. I let him stay.

I did put down a bunch of old newspapers on the rug. I fed him the rest of the wilted lettuce, and some cut up bits of apple. He gobbled them up, then went to sleep between my feet. When I got up to go to bed, he woke up, waddled to the door, and said “PWACK.” Just like my friend Ruthie’s dog, when she wants to go out.

I let him out, brushed my teeth, put on my pajamas, and opened the door. In he came, gave me an affectionate nibble, and went back to sleep on the part of the rug without newspapers.

But the next morning, I didn’t find any duck poop, on the rug or the newspapers. He came outside with me as I left for work and began to forage around in my raggedy grass. All day, I worried about him. Would a dog or coyote get him? After work, I bought some duck kibble and a dog crate.

As I drove in, the duck was nowhere to be seen. Depressed, I left the cage and kibble in the car and went to open my door.

“QUACK!” The duck came rushing around the corner of the house, wings flapping to give him more speed. I sat down on my crumbling concrete doorstep and hugged him while he nibbled my hair.

I dug out some old blankets from one of the boxes in the cellar, and set up his crate. He checked it out, making appreciative comments. Then we went for a walk. We ate together; I had hot dogs, he had kibble. Before bed, he quacked to go out, came back in, and settled down in his crate.

My friend Ruthie, who now lives on the west coast, thought it was weird but wonderful. “You needed a pet,” she told me on the phone. “You spend too much time by yourself.” I miss Ruthie a lot. We went to college together. I got married and stayed in the college town; she went off to make her fortune in Silicon Valley.

A month or so later, on our walk, Mr. Duck and I got soaked in a sudden thunderstorm. He didn’t seem to mind, but I had to peel off my sodden clothes and put on a warm sweater; I was frozen.

“I wish I’d bought some cocoa,” I told him, as he preened all his wet feathers back into place. I put on water for tea, When I opened the cupboard for teabags, there was a round container of cocoa mix.

 “Wow,” I told Mr. Duck. “Losing my memory already.” He came over and quacked for his kibble. After we ate, I made a grocery list. Clearly my memory needed some help.

Probably job stress, I thought. Working as an administrative assistant can be boring but stupid. If I see a problem, I point it out. My boss thinks that’s negative behavior, and that I need to have a better attitude. At least it’s almost impossible to be fired at the university.

“Don’t complain about it; get a better job!” Ruthie tells me. “Come out here; we need good people.”

“I can’t afford it,” I say. Silicon Valley rents are impossible. Besides, now I had Mr. Duck. How could I drive across the country with a duck?

“I hate that Ruthie moved away,” I told Mr. Duck. “I wish I had another friend like her who lived here.”

University employees get a long break for Christmas. I always visit my parents in Cincinnati. But I worried about leaving Mr. Duck.

“I wish I knew someone who would feed you,” I told him, one November evening. Most of my friends are also friends of my ex-husband, and I haven’t kept in touch with them.

About a week later, my boss called me into her office. “This is Sharon Martinez, our new administrative assistant. Show her around the office.”

Sharon caught on fast. We started having lunch together, so I could answer her questions.

 “So,” she said, “what is with this place? I asked Marcy why we can’t improve the database, and she looked at me like I’d farted in the chapel!”

After I’d finished choking on my noodles, I explained about how identifying problems was considered negative behavior.

“We gotta end run these people,” Sharon said. “For their own good!”

We re-did the database together, and no one even noticed. “They know they screwed up,” Sharon said. “They just don’t wanna admit it!”

I found myself telling her all about Mr. Duck. She wanted to meet him. So on the weekend, she drove out to my little red house for lunch.

The day was unusually warm for early December, so Mr. Duck was outside hunting for some green grass. When Sharon’s car pulled in, he came flapping up to see her, pwack-wacking a greeting. She sat right down on the ground to meet him. “Hello, Mr. Duck,” she said. “Aren’t you one gorgeous guy!”

Sharon’s family lived near the town. She was delighted to take care of Mr. Duck while I was in Cincinnati. And she was the first friend I’d made on my own since the divorce.

Once the March rain had washed the salt off our road, Mr. Duck resumed walking with me, nibbling his way along the ditches where bugs were hatching. A bunch of construction trucks had appeared at the rundown house. Mr. Duck and I watched as they fixed the place up.

In June, a silver Lexis drove into the driveway of the old house. Its owner was a tall, beautiful woman, with tailored jeans and leather boots that must have cost four hundred dollars. I couldn’t imagine why a woman like that wanted to live way out here. I turned to ask Mr. Duck that question, but he’d disappeared, probably in search of crickets.

The next day, the rich lady knocked on my door.

“Hi,” she said. “I’m your new neighbor, Ingrid Kalmar.”

I invited her in and offered her coffee. She sat at my cheap kitchen table and told me about her house.

“It belonged to an aunt,” she told me. “She’s been in a nursing home for years. When she died last year, I came to look at her house. It has great bones, and this close to the university, it’s perfect for a professor. I decided to have it renovated. I’ll be living here for most of the summer, supervising the work.”

Mr. Duck had been outside eating bugs. He now had his own duck door, a little flap which, with Sharon’s help, I’d put into my kitchen door.

Now Mr. Duck slid through into the kitchen, where he stood very tall, eyeing Ms. Kalmar with unusual suspicion.

“He’s such an uncommon color,” Ms. Kalmar said. “He must be worth some money. Have you ever looked into showing him?”

Mr. Duck marched right past her and went into his crate. I said that he was a pet duck and I didn’t really want to get into showing ducks. Ms. Kalmar finished her coffee and went back to her house with the great bones.

The next weekend, however, she visited us again. She wanted to purchase Mr. Duck.

 “No one has ever heard of a duck with this coloring,” she said. “I’ve found a reputable duck breeder who’d like to see what would happen if he crossed your duck with a New Zealand Blue Duck. If he could get this bright blue color, we could make good money from the offspring.”

I said that I’d have to think about her offer. Not that I meant to take it.

She reached in her purse and brought out a check for $1,000. “My breeder is very excited about your duck,” she said. “I hope you’ll consider this offer.” A thousand dollars would pay for much-needed repairs to my Honda. Or a new refrigerator; mine was making noises like it was on its last ice cube.

 “I’m sorry,” I said. “ I can’t take your offer.”

A few days later, coming home from work, I saw Mr. Duck flying wildly across my lawn and into the scrubby trees behind the house. I’d never seen him fly. Flap his wings in excitement, or when running to meet me, yes, but had no idea that he could fly.

Mr. Duck seemed so fearless, so able to take care of himself, that I’d stopped worrying about dogs or coyotes. Now I leaped out of the car and dashed around the house, holding my purse ready to swing at whatever was chasing Mr. Duck.

Nothing was there. No dogs, no coyotes, no Mr. Duck. Heedless of ticks and mosquitoes, I waded into the long weeds and brush, terrified that I’d find him chewed up and lifeless. He suddenly flapped down from a cedar tree, landing awkwardly at my feet. Snatching him up, I held him like a baby, looking for broken wings or blood, and crying with relief.

He was fine, but his little heart banged against my hands, and he was happy to be cuddled and carried home. Once we were safely inside, I checked him all over again, then gave him a big bowl of water to splash in and his special hot mash.

I belatedly checked myself for ticks. Then I got a box full of old textbooks from the basement and used it to block the duck flap. I didn’t want so much as a chipmunk to get inside.

I got a crowbar from the basement, locked everything up tight, sprayed myself with Deet, and went outside to find and kill whatever had chased my duck. Inch by inch, I hunted the little scrubby woods, glared into the cornfield behind them. Nothing.

Maybe Ms. Kalmar had some purebred dog that ate ducks. I headed back past my house toward hers. Walking up the carefully raked gravel driveway, I belatedly realized that I probably looked like a lunatic, with my socks pulled up over my pants to keep ticks away, and my hair sticking up in all directions from crawling under bushes.

Ms.Kalmar in her yard, talking to a couple of big guys. Each one of them carried a butterfly net. It was so incongruous, these tough guys carrying such silly things, that I snorted out a laugh. Ms. Kalmar turned around.

“Is something wrong?” she asked, frowning at my crowbar.

“Something chased Mr. Duck,” I said. “I wondered if you’d got a new dog that isn’t very well trained.”

“Certainly not,” she said, miffed. “That farmer down the street has dogs.”

“They protect chickens. They think Mr. Duck is a chicken. What are those guys doing with butterfly nets?”

“I found bats in my attic,” said Ms. Kalmar. “They’re exterminators. If you’ll excuse me, I need to talk with them.”

She was lying. I had bats in my attic once, and you do not catch them with butterfly nets. You might, however, try to catch a rare blue duck with a butterfly net.

Back home, Mr. Duck came quacking out of his crate, his usual cheerful self. I got on the laptop, looking for duck breeders. And I learned that the blue New Zealand duck is endangered, and only lives in New Zealand. Did she plan to ship Mr. Duck there?

The next day, I told Sharon about what happened. “I thought Google around and call some breeders,” I said. “See if we could find the one Ms. Kalmar knows.”

Sharon came over for supper and we spent the evening calling. None of the breeders had ever heard of an Ingrid Kalmar, or anyone who had offered an unusual duck for breeding.

Mr. Duck helped by sitting on us, in our laps or on our feet. He didn’t go near the box that was blocking his duck door, or ask to be let out. He just pooped in his crate.

“I wish I knew what the hell that woman wanted,” I said, when we’d both developed sore ears and throats from all the calls we’d made. “I know those men were chasing Mr. Duck.”

Just as Sharon was about to leave, someone banged on the door. It wasn’t a knock, it was a bang. We stared at each other. Then she picked up the crowbar, which I’d left by the sofa, and handed it to me. Mr. Duck had become a foot taller and was glaring at the door.

Crowbar in hand, I opened the door. The two tough guys stood there.

“Give us the duck,” said one of them.

“Why?” I said. “Why do you want him?”

“I wish you’d give us the duck,” said the other one loudly. He wished I’d give him Mr. Duck? That was too weird.

Mr. Duck dashed out of the bedroom, across the living room, and flew straight at the men. One of them tried to grab him, but I whacked his arm with my crowbar. Then Mr. Duck got his webbed feet into the other man’s beard, hitting the man’s face with his wings. I whacked that man in the butt with my crowbar. Sharon helped me shove both of men out the door. I shot the bolt. Panting, we listened as the men groaned and cursed. They tried banging on the door again. “I’m calling the police,” I yelled, grabbed my phone, and started punching in numbers. The phone cheeped along. The banging stopped.

Sharon peeked through the curtains. “They’re leaving,” she said. “Both of them are limping.” She grinned. “One of them has duck poop in his beard.”

Mr. Duck flapped his wings, refolded them carefully, wiggled his tail, and looked pleased with himself. Sharon and I regarded him in amazement.

“I knew you were one tough duck,” I told him, “but that was a very brave thing to do.”

“The Kalmar lady must have sent them,” said Sharon. “Why is she so excited about a duck? Even a blue duck? And what if she sues us for unauthorized use of a crowbar?”

I thought it over. Mr. Duck tilted his head to peer at me with one knowing eye.

“I wish,” I said carefully, “that Ingrid Kalmar would leave this town forever, and leave us alone forever.”

Sharon stared at me like I was nuts. “You’re kidding,” she said. “You think the duck grants wishes? How would the Kalmar lady know that?”

“I think Mr. Duck lived at her house,” I said. “Maybe with her old aunt.”

“Then why didn’t the old aunt wish for money to fix up the place?”

“Wishes are complicated,” I said. “You saw what happened to those men when they wished that I’d give them Mr. Duck.”

“What if I wished for a million dollars?”

Mr. Duck marched over and bit one of Sharon’s toes where it stuck out of her sandal.

“Ow!” she said.

Mr. Duck smiled at us. “Pwack,” he said.

May 08, 2020 19:06

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