by Helen Sinoradzki
Terrence lifts my binoculars to his face. “I don’t know what I’m supposed to be seeing,” he says. “They’re ducks, right?”
“Not just ducks,” I say. “Wood ducks. Sweep the binoculars left. See how the one on the end is different from the other five?”
“Kinda.” He hands me the binoculars and sticks his hands in his armpits.
It’s more than kind of. The one on the left has shiny green on top of his head, a white chin patch, a red eye. His speculum is blue green. “The one that’s different is a male. He’s getting his breeding plumage, getting ready to woo one of the females.” Every time male waterfowl transform, it wows me. The change is especially wow-worthy in wood ducks. In full breeding plumage, the drakes are an argument for a divine creator. Not that I would tell Terrence that. He’s too good with raised eyebrows.
“Why does he need five of them?”
“He doesn’t. They’re choosing him.”
“Figures. Pretty boys always get the girl.” He waggles his eyebrows at me, Groucho Marx style. They’ve gotten unruly, grey hairs sprouting willy-nilly.
Terrence is one of those good-looking men who enjoys self-deprecation. I’m tempted to give him an eye roll like Alice used to. “Fishing for compliments, Terry?” she’d say and he’d reply, “Any that are on offer,” with a wink. She’d give his butt a squeeze and leer at him and the four of us would laugh.
He lifts one foot. “My feet are getting wet.”
I’m not in the mood to jolly him along. I told him to wear boots. And bring gloves. “Wood ducks like creeks with trees nearby. They nest in the cavities.”
There go the eyebrows. “They climb trees with webbed feet?”
“Well, they’re birds. They can fly. But they have claws, too.” I like them all—shovelers and coots, pintails and wigeons. And teal, although I can never decide whether I like the cinnamon or the green-winged better. Still, wood ducks are my favorites. That question about the creator I can never resolve.
Music sounds, loud in the quiet air. “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner.” Terrence’s ring tone. The wood ducks take off with a flurry of wings and alarm.
“Whoops,” he says.
“You promised,” I say. Geoff’s phone had Warren Zevon, too. His played “Werewolves of London.” He and Terrence coordinated their ring tones right after they got smart phones, high-fiving each other and arguing over the relative merits of each song.
He glances at the screen, taps, and Roland dies. “Last song Zevon ever performed. 2003. On David Letterman.”
As if I don’t know that. “You and Geoff told that story so many times that Alice practically ran out of eye rolls.” Our foursome on their patio sipping her deadly mojitos. She loved the Ernest Hemingway-Havana connection. Havana was on her bucket list.
Terrence goes still. It’s been about six weeks since he moved Alice into White Oaks. She told him it was time. It’s been nine months and five days since Geoff died. I want to believe the howling at night, clutching his pillow phase is almost over. There’s no predicting. There’s no predicting about anything now. Even keel Maggie. Where did she go? Widow is my identity, like wearing a hair shirt I can never take off, and it’s Geoff’s fault.
“Maggie,” Terrence says and pokes my elbow. “I need coffee, and dry socks.” He turns to head back up the path that leads to the edge of the creek from the main trail.
So much for walking the whole trail. We’ve only managed a fourth of it. It’s just a short loop, a bit over a mile. I lift the binoculars and scan the far bank of the creek, hoping for a wood duck that didn’t fly away, lurking in the reeds. Nada.
I make my way to the main trail and back to the parking area. Terrence is standing by the car stamping his feet, hands up his jacket sleeves. I get in the car and fasten my seat belt before I let him in. Roland words are running through my head. “So he set out for Biafra to join the bloody fray.” He’ll be stuck there for the rest of the day unless some stray song from the far reaches of my brain emerges to dispatch him. I’ve never understood how that works. Thoughts are pretty traceable, a train that gets us from one to the other and on down the line. Songs just seem to appear like there’s a random shuffler in our brains.
He unscrews a cup from the thermos he brought and pours coffee into it, sips, and leans his head back. “Sorry. Not sleeping well these days,” he says. His eyes close.
His beard has gotten straggly and his hair is curling over his jacket collar. He stopped trusting Alice with scissors a while ago. It used to be a showy red. Now it’s pale pink shot with grey. She wanted him to shave it off as soon as the grey appeared. He had a nice chin, just square enough with a small cleft. Alice used to say he knew how to use the cleft to his advantage. Geoff never had a beard, just a tidy moustache he stroked when he was anxious or lost in thought.
A northern flicker is watching me from a pin oak. They’re always bigger than I remember. Geoff and I had one that attacked the metal flashing on our roof. The tapping got annoying fast. It drove our dog crazy.
The engine stutters when I start the car. The great blue heron in the grass near the edge of the road stirs from that absolute stillness I could study for hours. What Geoff and I did. Him snapping photos fast, me just watching the heron. Its stillness is a balm I want to rub all over my body. It takes off in a lift that is ungainly for the first few seconds and then turns to elegance so quickly I miss the transformation.
“Look, Terrence,” I say, but he is snoring, his head turned away, hand resting on his thigh.
The first week or so after Geoff died, I stayed with Alice and Terrence. I’d sit on their couch and sob, her on one side of me, him on the other. I take his cup before it spills. The coffee is strong and thick on my tongue. He likes some brand called Death Wish and brags about how much caffeine it has. He told me the numbers once. They didn’t mean anything to me. He teases me about my preference for Rooibos tea, like Geoff did. Sometimes his teasing is a comfort. Sometimes it’s not.
I set the cup in the holder and coffee splashes onto the tender skin between my thumb and index finger. I stifle a curse. I back up and drive the rest of the auto route slowly. In the canal, a small shape emerges from the reeds. A grebe, pied bill. My least favorite. They always dive before you can get a good look at them and bounce up somewhere you’re not expecting them. Geoff would say, “We’re here for them. They’re not here for us.” He could be sententious.
I slow to a crawl where a bittern likes to hang out, peering at the reeds for the slightest sign of its stretched neck and bill pointing straight skywards. They’re nicknamed thunder pumpers. Like a boom in a water pump, resonant, not musical. The first time Geoff and I heard one we had no idea what it was. The docent at the entrance booth clapped her hands and exclaimed, “A bittern!” as if we had been granted a rare gift. We didn’t know that concealment is a bittern’s stock in trade.
Terrence stirs as I start up the bumpy gravel road out of the refuge.
“God, I needed that,” he says and rubs at his eyes with the palms of his hands. He visits Alice every day after work.
I want to see her but they’re not allowing other visitors yet. “Could you take Alice some of my dahlias?”
“I’m not going today. Yesterday they said it would be better for her if I came less often. They said it unsettles her. Unsettles. Now there’s a word. The day before that they told me she was doing well.”
“They’re the ones who see her after you leave.”
He picks up his cup, sips, and makes a face. Turns and roots in the back seat. “Where’d that blasted thermos get to anyway?” He finds it and pours himself more. Steam curls in the air. “God, I didn’t offer you any. My brain went with Alice’s.”
“I tasted it. It’s too strong.”
“No death wish, huh?”
We sit there with those words.
He studies the cup as if looking for the mark of my lips. There won’t be one. I don’t wear lipstick anymore.
“What would you have done?”
“About Alice?” He means about Geoff. If he had survived the stroke. Alice got worse fast. Way faster than the doctors expected. She’s only in her early sixties. At first she joked. We both did—standard stuff—misplaced car keys, forgetting why you came in a room. Then her jokes took on a hard edge. She started tapping her fingers on the table, and there was a not quite there look in her eyes that scared me. I’d put my hand on hers and she’d shake herself and pour us another mojito. She got angry for no reason Terrence could fathom. Locked him out of their bedroom. Such an elemental thing, not getting enough sleep. Her nighttime wandering finally did him in.
“I don’t know what I would have done.”
He gives me a look I’ve never seen before. Naked, guilty, relieved.
I pull up in front of his house and cut the engine. Alice’s garden is looking weedy. I need to get over here.
He caps the thermos, fiddling to get the grooves lined up. “There’s something I want to talk to you about. A business proposition.”
Alice always groaned when he said those three words.
“Don’t you think it’s kind of silly for both of us to be rattling around in our big houses? Our kids won’t be moving back home, thank heavens.” He grins an insurance salesman’s grin.
My left ear starts to itch. I scratch it and it’s warm. Just the left ear.
“Think how much money we could save if we joined households. And no more upkeep for you. Cleaning gutters and raking leaves and all that.”
Of course. It’s my house that would get sold. We’re well past the millennium but some things don’t change. I could use one of Alice’s mojitos. “They say not to make any big decisions until you get through the first year.”
“Well,” he says.
How long has he been planning this? My ear is on fire. I cover it with my hand hoping the cold will calm it down. “I need to get going. I have an appointment.”
The eyebrows inch up. “We could have lunch tomorrow. Talk more about it.”
The day Alice put the frying pan in the freezer she made me promise. The freezer door slammed. She gave a little gasp and her arm stopped in mid-air as if to call back the motion. I put my hand on her arm. “It happens to all of us. Don’t worry,” I said.
She shook her head. “Promise me you’ll look after him.” Her voice was remarkably steady. All I could manage was a nod.
Terrence opens the car door. “Jake’s? One?”
“All right,” I say. Jake’s was Alice’s favorite happy hour haunt. They make a mean Paloma. Our foursome were regulars. Then our threesome. We stopped going there after Alice got sick. Maybe Terrence thinks being there will give him an advantage. Magical thinking.
“Good,” he says and gets out. “I need to get to work. Money doesn’t grow on trees.”
Back home, the house is quiet around me. No Warren Zevon or Hayes Carll welcoming me from Geoff’s study. I fill the kettle, set it on its rest, and flip the switch. Open the container of Rooibos and fill the tea ball. I tap my phone and Joni Mitchell warbles. Joni, Judy, Joan—my go-tos. If I toss my old joke about Hayes Carll’s Texas under the viaduct drunk music into the air, will I hear a ghostly voice make a crack about Joni’s quaver?
The kitchen is immaculate, none of Geoff’s clutter on the island. Just the mail from yesterday in a neat stack. Birds&Beans has a special offer to woo Geoff back. His coffee, organic, fairly traded, bird friendly. ZEISS has new binoculars that they claim provide a 20 percent larger area of observation. Birds&Beans and ZEISS go in the recycling pile.
The next envelope has the jaunty CroisiEurope Cruises logo. The letter inside will confirm two for the February Southern Africa Safari-Cruise. Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia. At over $15k a piece, it would have wiped out our travel budget for several years to come. Geoff didn’t care. He wooed me with the promise of giraffes nibbling the highest branches of acacia trees, right there in Chobe National Park, along with four hundred and fifty species of birds. He was all for making dreams real. If he had regained consciousness, he would have made me promise to go. I had thought to ask Alice. She likes birds.
The next day, when I get to Jake’s, Terrence is already at a table. He stands ceremoniously and pulls out my chair, slides it in as I sit. Jake’s is all tray ceilings and wainscotting. Tented white napkins, silverware placed as if measured by a British butler. I imagine Hudson with his ruler making minute adjustments. There’s almost nothing on the lunch menu I can eat. Even the mac ’n cheese has bacon. There’s that affronted little muscle twitch in our waiter’s cheek when I ask for a Cobb salad with avocado instead of meat. Geoff and I would have laughed after he left. Terrence orders steak, medium rare, to make up for my culinary lapse. He looks around. “I thought it would make me feel better to come here. Old haunts and all.” There’s a note of entreaty in his voice as if I have some stellar wisdom to offer.
I open my starched white napkin and put it on my lap. “And it doesn’t?”
“No.” That bleak single syllable. I know it so well. In the nine months Geoff’s been gone I haven’t been anywhere we loved. Except the refuge. It took me six months to get there. That first time, I had to pull over on the driving route to cry. A couple in an SUV stopped next to me. The woman rolled down her window and called out, “Are you all right?” I wanted to abandon the car and get in with them for the company of strangers who didn’t know.
Terrence pours me wine from the half carafe he must have ordered. His wine looks untouched. “Maggie?”
I sip the wine. A pinot noir. My favorite red. “Lovely,” I say, and take another sip. He lifts his glass and taps it gently against mine. “Happier days,” he says, and takes a big swallow. He’s not pretentious about wine like some men.
“Sláinte,” I say. What the four of us said. I want to believe it’s easier for him. He can see Alice’s face, touch her hand.
Our food arrives, the waiter carefully avoiding my eye as he sets my denuded Cobb salad in front of me and puts a small silver dish of bacon bits next to it.
Terrence starts to laugh. I haven’t heard his laugh in a while. He gives himself over to it as if he doesn’t have a choice and is happy he doesn’t.
“It’s a good thing you’re paying,” I say. I know how to make a tip an insult.
“Am I?” He laughs again.
“I believe you suggested lunch.” I pour dressing on my salad. The hard-boiled egg slices are artfully arranged around the edge of the bowl.
The first bars of Roland sound. Terrence colors, then pulls his phone out and stabs at it. “Sorry,” he says and sounds as if he means it.
There were a few years there in the eighties when he and Geoff would take off for a Zevon concert, driving all night sometimes. Alice nicknamed us the Zevon widows. We’d binge on chick flicks—Terms of Endearment our hands-down favorite. Shirley MacLaine and Debra Winger. A pair of odd ducks. I wonder if the movie would make me cry now. We’d eat Snickers and Ruffles and get drunk on Alice’s mojitos. I’d crash in the spare bedroom and it would be hair of the dog the next morning, the two of us stumbling around the kitchen like a pair of sailors.
Terrence stares at his phone. “The Orlando concert. First time Geoff and I heard ‘Werewolves’ live.”
I can’t listen to those stories right now. The eighties are another planet. “So, your ‘business proposition.’” I halve an avocado slice.
Terrence cuts a bite off the steak. Pale pink liquid oozes across the plate.
I set my fork down, imagine the muscle twitch when I ask the waiter for a box.
“Look, Maggie,” he says. It’s his firm, reasonable businessman’s voice. The art of making a deal. “If you sell your house and move in with me, you’ll have money to burn.”
Beneath the table my hands start pleating the napkin. I will them to be still, think of the heron. They keep pleating. I breathe from my diaphragm twice and force one hand to pick up my wine glass.
“You know I’d charge you a fair rent. You want to travel. That Africa trip, for example. Cost big bucks, right?” He spears another bite and chews. “Can you get your money back for Geoff’s ticket?”
I take a gulp of the wine. I never thought to ask.
“You’d be safer, too.”
He’s played the safety card. My left ear gets hot and itchy. I force myself not to rub it.
“And think of what we’d save on food and utilities.”
How could I not have asked about Geoff’s ticket. “You’re giving up meat?”
He looks at his steak as if he’s a prisoner with his last meal. “C’mon, Maggie, we can work around that. And your house should fetch a good price in the current market. Geoff did a good job keeping it up.”
I don’t want to hear Geoff’s name in his mouth right now. In my mind a great blue gathers itself to lift off, wings stretching.
He plops a big dollop of sour cream onto his baked potato. He doesn’t have to worry about the look Alice would have given him. “I know a great real estate agent.”
Of course he does. Terrence has always been proud of his networking skills. Geoff admired him for that. Unspoken is his worry about the expense of White Oaks. It took my breath away when he told me how much it cost. Alice is relatively young and healthy. It’s just her brain that’s stopped working, or is working on a different plane.
He crosses his knife and fork on his plate. He’s left part of his steak. “I hate coming home to an empty house.”
That naked look is there again. It’s been six weeks. Wait till he’s been doing it for nine months. “I’m not selling my house, Terrence.”
“It’ll need a new roof in a couple of years, Maggie. You know what a new roof costs these days?” There’s frustration in his voice now. He’s always thought I was more malleable than Alice. Geoff knew better. “It’s a win-win, Maggie.”
I shove my chair back and stand. My napkin drops on the floor and I don’t pick it up. I’m not sure which of them I’m most angry at, Terrence or Alice or Geoff. “Give my love to Alice,” I say.
“Promise me you’ll think about it.” He stands.
Ever the gentleman.
How could I have imagined, even for a second, that he could go with me to Africa?
It rained last night, and the road into the refuge is slick. I check the board for sightings. The buffleheads are back. And someone’s seen a hooded merganser pair. The females look like they’re punk rockers. Those feathers standing straight up on their heads always made Geoff laugh. I drive to the trailhead and park, pull on my boots, and sling my binoculars around my neck. The air is crisp with the beginnings of winter, the trail thick with fallen leaves. At the first bend of the creek, a pair of wood ducks paddle. The male’s transformation is complete. He is nothing short of splendid. If I were a female wood duck, I would be wooed. The female is swimming in front of him. I center my binoculars on her. In my fascination with the male, I forgot that the female has a turquoise speculum and an elegant white line of feathers in a tear shape around her eye.
Helen Sinoradzki‘s work has been published in various journals, including Alligator Juniper, Bellingham Review, Pithead Chapel, and Gravel. She has finished a memoir about her experiences in a Catholic cult and is working on a collection of linked short stories. After living in eight different states, she moved to Portland, Oregon, and plans to stay for the rest of her life.
Serge Lecomte has a BA in Russian Studies from the University of Alabama, an MA and PhD from Vanderbilt University in Russian Literature, and a BA from the University of Alaska Fairbanks in Spanish Literature. Among his many adventures, he was in the Medical Corps in the Air Force and was sent to Selma, Alabama during the Civil Rights Movement