“What is it?” I asked.
“A duck, I think,” replied Charlie.
“How come it’s here?” I figured that was a reasonable question.
“I thought you might want it,” he said.
“For what?” I swear, I was at a loss.
“I don’t know. Just to have.”
Charlie’s voice was thick and compromised. When he kissed me, his mustache smelled like bug spray. He’d been in Harding Park all day. He said he was going to check on his mother, to make sure Mabel was all right. But that was bullshit. The drugs always pulled him back. They sucked me in, too. I hated going down there; it was depressing, but I loved getting high. So I made up excuses, just like he did.
My man liked to smoke PCP and wander around. That was his thing. The sherm took him on turbulent trips in his mind. On this particular occasion, he ambled along the jetty and stared at the frozen water. The waves rolled across the edge of the sky and burst into flames. A monster emerged from the fire, chasing a giant angel who carried something bundled in her wings. She flew past the clouds and tumbled violently to the ground.
Charlie ran to where she’d collapsed in the snow. When he reached out to touch her shoulder, she swirled past his legs and knocked him to the ground. That’s when he saw the bird, struggling in the icy water beside the pier. He scooped the animal up by its neck, wrapped it in a dirty tablecloth that he found in somebody’s boat and returned to Queens on the subway.
“What’s wrong with him?” I scrunched up my nose and made a face. With big, red bumps all over its head and beak, it looked evil and unwell.
“Maybe it’s tumors,” I wondered out loud. “Is he gonna die?”
“Hope not,” Charlie slurred. “I almost couldn’t catch him.”
Just then, Cancer Duck hissed and startled us both.
“Where should we put him?” Chuck looked at me, like I would know.
Between the two of us, we understood very little about living things and their requirements. I already had a kid, and he was eight years old. I probably should have had slightly more on the ball, but I did not. We lived in a damp basement in Rego Park. We both had drug problems that governed our decisions. Hardly the ideal environment for children or game fowl to flourish.
White and red ribbons with tiny little bells were tied to each of the animal’s ankles. “Get me a knife, will you?” Charlie asked. “I bet this guy’s on the run from somebody,” he decided. This guess made slightly more sense than the magnificence of his earlier hallucination.
“Maybe he was in a duck fight,” I proposed, handing him a pair of scissors.
“Ducks ain’t like that,” he said. “They’re gentle.”
Santeria was big in certain areas of Soundview, a growing Caribbean community. It is a faith where the deities descend to earth to assist and bless their followers. Animal sacrifice plays a part in certain rituals that pertain to spiritual cleansing. Chances are this poor thing was next in the queue to have his proverbial goose cooked.
“Let’s call him Romeo,” Charlie proposed. “He looks like a lover, not a fighter.”
I emptied out the bottom drawer of a bureau and lined it with old shirts. “He can’t live in the furniture forever,” I warned.
“Relax,” he said. “My cousin’s got a doghouse he ain’t using. That’ll work.”
Charlie saw nothing wrong with this suggestion. The dumbest shit makes perfect sense when you’re zooted out. Every thought is perfect, initially. Until the arrival of the demons that grow from the soft and tender meat of a poisoned brain. I had learned to not challenge him.
Our house-guest appeared to be quite content, swaddled in his makeshift cradle of stale laundry.
“Goodnight, Romeo,” I whispered as I eased the drawer closed a little bit. I guess I was glad that somebody could sleep.
I returned to the kitchen and the baggie full of cross tops I kept in my bra. I licked my finger and pressed it into the little sack. Seven or eight pills stuck to it, and I scraped them onto my tongue. I poured another tumbler of wine, resuming my life’s work.
* * *
The next day at lunchtime, I went to the bookstore near my job and read everything I could find on ducks. Apparently, Romeo was supposed to look the way he did. He was a Muscovy, which is an actual type of bird. Muscovies are born resembling other ducklings, but they get uglier as life goes on. I understood what that was like.
Relieved by the news that our science project wasn’t sick after all, I stopped at the Petland Discount on my way home from work. I approached a young man who was dangling from a step ladder, his arm submerged in a murky fish tank up to his elbow.
“Can you tell me what ducks eat?” I tried to look past the waistband of his underwear.
“No,” he stated, honestly.
At first, I thought maybe he wasn’t an employee. Then I realized he undoubtedly wished that were the case. I stood there for a minute, trying to decide what to do. I looked around the store for an answer. I drifted toward the birdseed display and examined a few bags, hoping to find a picture of something useful, like a duck, smiling and eating his favorite meal.
“You know there’s a feed store on Metropolitan Avenue,” the boy offered as he dried his hands on his saggy pants. “I bet they have what you need.”
“How far up?” I appreciated the information. “‘Cause I ain’t got no car.”
“I don’t know,” he said. There would be no further conversation. It seemed as though he’d given me as much help as he could manage. Positioning himself on a stool by the window, he reached under the counter for a bag of Skittles, signifying that he was officially on his break.
I went home and wheeled my shopping wagon all the way to the farm supply place and back, about three and a half miles. When I returned to the basement, I showed Charlie the fifty-pound bag of chow that I’d bought.
“We don’t need that expensive crap,” he snapped. “The swans down Classon Point eat garbage, and they do just fine,” he said.
“Yeah, but this is really good for him.” I protested, quietly. “Plus, I got some lettuce.” And more wine.
Romeo liked his little shed out back, and he seemed to be enjoying his new diet. As birds go, he was a pleasant one. Muscovies do not quack, but he communicated in other ways. He wagged his tail happily whenever he saw me. He made good-natured huffing and puffing sounds. I think we were building a lovely relationship.
It came as no surprise that Romeo did not care for Charlie. Whenever the bird saw him, he quickly disappeared into his plastic Igloo. I could not let on that this creature brought me so much joy, or Chuck would surely kill it. Some nights, I wished there was enough room in the doghouse for me, as well.
* * *
A few weeks later, the owner of the feed store asked how my duck was doing.
“He couldn’t be better!” I exclaimed.
“Well, I’m glad to hear that, young lady.” He smiled as he rang up my order. “Where are you anyway, over by Flushing Meadow?”
I didn’t even question why he asked where I lived. Mr. Lee was a very nice man. And hey, maybe he wanted to give me a ride home.
“I’m off Yellowstone Boulevard,” I volunteered.
“Oh, I thought you were on the pond.” He looked concerned. “Then, where’s your water source?”
“I guess I don’t have any,” I told him. Immediately, I was embarrassed. “My bird drinks from a bowl.”
“That’s not right,” he shook his head. “Ducks have to be able to wash their heads and faces, to prevent infection and cataracts. Plus, they need exercise.”
I ran all the way home, clutching my bag of hay. And some vodka.
Charlie was shaving his head in the bathroom when I arrived.
“Romeo needs a pool or he’s gonna die!” As usual, anger intensified his facial features.
“I’m sick of hearing about this bird. He gets wet when it rains,” he growled.
“No, like a lot of water—for swimming and moisturizing.” I explained what Mr. Lee had shared with me.
“Don’t believe that asshole,” Charlie said. “He knows you’re an idiot and you’ll buy shit.”
With that, he cut the top of his ear with the straight razor. He pounded on the sink and the corner snapped off, breaking into several additional pieces when it hit the floor. Of course, it was my fault.
I got an aluminum baking dish from the stove. I turned on the outside faucet and dragged the hose across the yard. Romeo waddled from his enclosure and stood in the lasagna pan while I filled it with cool, fresh water. His beak was opened slightly, and he was panting. It almost looked like he was saying, “Aaah.”
* * *
The following day, Charlie had another “great idea.” Most of Charlie’s brainstorms involved me giving him cash, him scoring a few bags of dust and occasionally, needing an ambulance.
“I could use thirty dollars,” he pleaded.
“All’s I got is train fare,” I told him.
“C’mon, please.” I hated when he begged. “I’ll have a surprise by the time you get home.”
I left twenty bucks on the table and went to work. I wasn’t gonna give him all my money. I needed to buy my own dope.
I was nervous when I showed up at the house later that evening. I heard music coming from the driveway as I turned the corner—Guns-N-Roses. It was one of only two cassettes that Charlie owned. The other was Metallica. My brother-in-law, Ned and their friend, Stevie were laying on the ground between the buildings, surrounded by empty beer cans. They were super stoned and covered in mud. Charlie came out of the basement holding a set of pliers and the tooth he’d just yanked out of his own head. Blood dripped down the side of his mouth when he smiled.
“I knew I could do it,” he said.
I stepped over the shovels that littered the sidewalk. I ran to the fence to check on my duck…
And there was Romeo, peacefully paddling back and forth in an old porcelain bathtub that the three of them had robbed from a junkyard earlier that day. They strapped it into the back of Stevie’s Datsun pick-up and quietly drove it over the bridge. They dipped a few joints in their beloved zootie and started digging a giant hole. Then, they sunk the tub and ran a trench out the bottom, so it could be drained and refilled whenever the water got skunky. I couldn’t believe it. As absurd as it looked and as wasted as these dudes were, they did a really fine job.
Stevie got to his feet and came over to where I was standing. “That bird looks lonely, Mare,” he said. “You should get him a girlfriend.”
Ned spit into the front of his shirt and wiped the dirt from his eyes with it. “I need a girlfriend,” he commented. “I could use a wife, too.”
“I’m glad I got a wife,” Stevie thought for a minute and struggled to recall her name. “Rose.”
“Rose is the greatest,” Ned grabbed Stevie by the shoulder, lovingly.
“Keep your fuckin’ hands off my wife, Ned. I mean it, man. I’ll slit your throat.”
I turned around just as Charlie threw up on the stairs. “Are you okay?” I called down to where he was bent over. He was still grinning, and the color was returning to his cheeks.
“I told the guys you’d give them gas money, so they can go home.”
Stevie nodded. “Yeah, I need to go home.” He and Ned exchanged a look. I knew they weren’t gonna buy gas, but I really wanted them gone. I needed to get with my shit, too.
* * *
That weekend was my birthday, and Mabel was very excited. She had something special for me. Charlie’s brother Rob drove her to the house to come see us. Clutching an identical-looking Muscovy wrapped in a beach towel, the boys helped her down the stairs and into the apartment.
“Where’d you get her, Mom?”
“The Chinese butcher shop in Hunts Point,” she exclaimed. “Seven dollars!”
Mabel was so proud of her acquisition. Although I would have preferred cash in a card, as I could have easily converted it into something snortable, I was moved by her gesture.
“Call her Juliet,” she pleaded. “She’ll lay eggs, you know. Charlie love eggs.”
Romeo and Juliet really hit it off. It was nice to see them get along so well. Most evenings, they waited for me at the gate. I brought my wine and pills out back while I changed their bedding and water. They nibbled raisins and Cheerios right from my hand. I stayed with them until it got dark. I was glad they had each other.
Everybody needs somebody. I have Charlie.I tried to reassure myself, but it was a terrible thought. Sometimes, I wondered if I could ever get away. Charlie would never let me leave. I’d have to kill him, and I didn’t know if I could pull that off. Maybe if I took a hammer to the back of his head while he was sleeping… But I’d have to be certain to hit him just right. If he got up, that’d be the end of me.
The lovebirds continued to thrive. They took turns, swimming in their bathtub and sitting on the eggs that came as a result of their coupling. Mabel was right—we ate omelets for the rest of the summer.
Throughout October and early November, Charlie was in and out of jail. Both times, I was the one who called the cops. When he punched me in the face, I had him arrested. And the time he knocked my tooth out, back in, he went. The ducks and I were always grateful to see him go and tense when he returned.
The most upsetting thing about having Charlie locked up was that it lent me the opportunity to examine my drinking and drug use more seriously. I preferred to not think about it. I quickly dropped the charges, and the chaos continued.
* * *
“Chuck, you have to wake up! The ducks are gone.”
“I don’t care,” he said, rolling over on the mattress and facing the wall.
“Charlie, please come,” I cried.
I was frightened to go back out there by myself. I’d just thrown away the garbage, and I noticed that both gates were pushed open the wrong way. The doghouse was empty. I knew something bad had happened, but I couldn’t figure out what. The tracks in the snow were various shapes and heading in different directions. Romeo and Juliet were nowhere to be seen.
“I hate these fucking birds,” Charlie muttered under his breath. He carried his boots into the kitchen and lit a cigarette at the stove. I clung to the back of his sweatshirt as we followed the webbed footprints over to a broken part of the railing. Clumps of bloody feathers were everywhere. So many that I was surprised there was anything left when we got there.
It was clear that some kind of animal had gotten hold of Romeo. It tried to pull him through the fence and into the woods, taking his head clean off in the process. Then it came back to eat what was left.
“What the fuck? What the FUCK?” Charlie whispered into the quiet of a morning filled with carnage. He turned to me and asked, “Where’s the girl?”
“I don’t know,” I replied, completely beside myself.
“We gotta find that stupid bitch.” He meant it in the nicest way.
I realized the phone was ringing and probably had been for several minutes.
“Goddamn it. See who that is,” Charlie said. “I’ll clean this up.”
“Hello?” I sobbed into the receiver, my hands still trembling from the cold and the subsequent horror.
“Mary, it’s Artie from next door. There’s been an accident.”
“Yes, I know.” At least I thought I knew.
“So, you’ve already seen her?” he asked.
“Wait. What do you mean?” My turn.
“What do you mean?” His turn.
“I’m confused,” I told him.
Our conversation felt like parallel universe shit.
“Out front,” Artie continued. “Tell Charlie to bring a shovel.”
* * *
Addiction is an unforeseen beast that devours and destroys everything it touches. Sometimes, it can pull you from the warmth of a regular life. It thinks nothing of sinking its teeth into your throat and dragging you silently through the darkness until have no more fight in you. And you give up.
Addiction will chase you down the driveway of your own home. It will nip at your heels as you run in terror. It will fill you with such ungodly panic, you’ll dart right in front of a large truck and be crushed by its wheels.
Addiction is a monster that tells you it’s reasonable to rinse a plastic tumbler and fill it with wine at 7:30 in the morning. It encourages you to lick your fingers and dip them into a baggie full of pills, over and over again. It convinces you that your sorrow is relief.
Nothing good could come of this. Charlie was gonna kill them anyway.
Tragic tale aside, the facts remain. Addiction wants everybody dead, but it’ll settle for miserable.
For never was a story of more woe,
Than this, of Juliet and her Romeo.
– William Shakespeare