Tuesday, November 20, 2007

"Javier and the White Duck" by Andy Biscontini


Javier and the white duck had finished their chicken salad sandwiches, and Javier quietly worked up the nerve to ask his question. It was unpleasant to ask the duck anything. Once, Javier had asked the duck if it was at all disturbing to eat chicken salad sandwiches, knowing that the chicken had once been a living fowl not unlike himself.

“Fuck you,” the duck had told him, “If it was him sitting here instead of me the two of you would be sucking me out of noodle soup.”

They sat next to each other on the green bench in the middle of the garden that Javier had landscaped and cultivated over the last twenty years on a lot where seventy years before a crowded tenement had burned to the ground.

They sat quietly as the sky above them darkened to blue green and the streetlights flickered orange. The air was thick with salso music and smog and the spicy smell of dinners simmering inside windows.

“My friend,” Javier said, finally ready.

“Cigar?” the duck produced a box of Garcia Vegas from under his wing and offered them to Javier.

“No thank you,” Javier said, tapping his chest, “It’s no good for my health.”

The duck rolled his eyes, “Jesus, Javier. How many cigars have you smoked so far this week?”

“Two,” Javier said.

“Well three cigars in a week ain’t gonna kill you.”

Javier smiled and shrugged and took a cigar.

The duck lit it with a dexterous flip of his zippo, then took a Cuban out from under his other wing and puffed it to life. He leaned back, exhaled a ring through his bill, and said, “I’m definitely a summer person.”

Two young women in scant dresses walked by, on their way to a night on the town. The duck watched them walk away.

“I do love the city in the summer,” he said.

Two winters before, the duck had come up from Florida to visit for New Year’s Eve. He stayed with Javier and his family. It was a disaster. The duck and Javier’s wife wound up hating each other, and he didn’t like the way the duck leered at his daughter and terrorized his son. Nobody was sorry to see the duck get on a southbound Greyhound. Javier accompanied him to the Port Authority. “I’m just not an inside person,” the duck had said.

Their cigar smoke curled up into the night.

“My friend,” Javier began.

“How’s that cigar?” the duck asked him. “You enjoying it?”

“Yes,” Javier said.

“Hey,” the duck said, “I ever tell you about the friend of mine who died?”

“I don’t think so,” Javier said. The duck told him so many stories, and never seemed to mind that Javier didn’t enjoy hearing them.

“So this friend of mine,” the duck said, “His whole life, his policy for everything was ‘Just a little bit.’

“Drugs? Just a little bit. Booze? Just a little bit. Fried food? Just a little bit. You name it, he’d have just a little bit of it.

“So one day he drops dead. Boom. All of the sudden. Terrible. So, being a generally good guy, he goes to heaven. And he asks St. Peter, ‘What was it? What did me in? Was it drugs? Booze? Fried food?’

“Saint Peter checks his chart and tells him, ‘A little bit of everything.’”

Javier looked ruefully at his cigar.

“The moral of the story,” the duck said impatiently, “Is that you’re gonna die one way or another, so you might as well enjoy yourself.”

Javier disagreed with the duck’s interpretation, but didn’t want to argue. Besides. He had something to ask the duck. He gathered all his nerve.

“My friend,” Javier began, as he had rehearsed so many times; in front of the steamy bathroom mirror as he shaved, in the side-view mirror of his delivery truck, in the darkened television set on sleepless nights, after everyone else had gone to sleep.

“My frieind,” he finally said to the duck that evening in the garden, “Things are not good.”

The duck agreed. “These are troubled times,” he said.

Javier, emboldened, continued, “My landlord wants to raise our rent by a thousand dollars a month. He wants us to move out so he can bring in wealthy young people.”

“The neighborhood’s changing,” the duck said.

“My wife,” Javier said, “She cannot work anymore. The carpal tunnel syndrome is so bad in her hands that she can’t sew as fast as she used to, and the arthritis is so bad in her knees that she can barely climb the stairs to the factory every day, and there is no elevator.”

The duck shook his head, “Does that woman do nothing but complain?”

“My daughter,” Javier said, “She is pregnant. The boy she’s dating told her that he loved her and wanted to be with her, but when she became pregnant he re-evaluated his priorities and has gone away to college to improve himself. He doesn’t return her letters anymore.”

“That little prick,” the duck said, “You ought to track him down and kick his ass.”

“My daughter is only sixteen. I don’t want her to have to go through an abortion, but I cannot afford to support a baby and I will have to find a way to pay for the operation.”

“Well,” the duck said, “Maybe from here on out she’ll know to wrap the package before she sticks it in the mail.”

“My son,” Javier said, “He is doing terribly at school. He is tormented by the students and ignored by the teachers. I am afraid he is beginning to take drugs. It is difficult to talk to him anymore. But I cannot afford to send him to a good school, and his grades are slipping so much I’m afraid soon they won’t even accept him. He is a sensitive and intelligent boy.”

“He’s a pussy,” the duck said.

“Please,” Javier said, “My friend,” it was the moment of truth, “Will you lay an egg for me.”

The duck sighed and stretched his neck out from side to side. “Javier, Javier, Javier,” he said, “Is that the only reason you hang around with me?”

Javier didn’t think that was a fair question to ask. It made him feel guilty, and in the twenty years since he’d known the duck, he had never asked anything of him before, while working hard to maintain the garden so the duck had someplace to spend his summers and defending him to the other men in the neighborhood, who didn’t like him.

“Heese noah why dock,” Alvarez the barber had said when Javier tried to explain that the duck had meant no offence when he compared Mrs. Alvarez’s ample thighs to a pair of dancing seals, “Heesa why deek!”

Javier began to resent the way his friendship with the duck had isolated him from his community.

The duck read the frustration in his face.

“Javier, look,” the duck said, putting his wing on Javier’s knee,“Do you remember the first time I laid an egg?”

Javier remembered it well.

It had been the first year after he had planted the garden. The duck, who had been seen around the neighborhood, but hadn’t made any attempts at conversation with anyone, lingered by the garden gate while Javier worked. The duck told Javier that while his knowledge of horticulture was limited, he had an interest in urban gardens. He asked Javier who owned the property.

They went to the hall of records and found out that the lot was owned by a Hassidic Jew named Fleischstein. Later that day, Javier and the white duck and first sat down for chicken salad sandwiches. The duck asked Javier what he wanted from the garden.

Javier told the duck about a dream he’d had shortly after making the decision to move his young family to America. In his dream, he was an old man, strolling through a lush green garden with his grown children, dressed in white linen, singing and laughing and eating fruit from the trees.

The duck told Javier to contact Fleischstein and arrange for a meeting.

So it was that on a cool June morning twenty years before, Javier, the white duck, and Fleischstein the landlord met in the young garden and the duck, under considerable strain, his bill twisted, his brow furrowed, crapped an egg the size of a bocce ball made of solid gold.

Fleischstein had the egg appraised and papers were subsequently drawn up, transferring ownership of the lot to Javier. The duck had declined being named in the paperwork, due to problems with the IRS, but told Javier, “All I want is your solemn promise that I’ll be able to come up and use the garden at my discretion indefinitely.”

Javier remembered how bright the future had seemed in those years, when the garden was young. He looked up past the streetlamps and marveled at how far away such hope now seemed.

“Javier, listen,” the duck said, “Do you have any idea what this lot is worth on the open market these days? Millions. Have you been paying attention to the commodities market? The biggest egg I can crap isn’t going to bring you millions. With that money, you could buy land, Javier. Land. You could have a real garden. You could have an apple orchard. Hell, Javier, you could have a white fuckin’ picket fence!”

“But my friend,” Javier asked, “Where would you go?”

“Don’t worry about me,” the duck said, “I got lots going on. All I ask is a fair cut of the sale due to the fact that it was my egg that you made the initial investment. Say twenty percent.”

“Of course, of course,” Javier said, as the future suddenly brightened again.

“We’ll make some phone calls in the morning,” the duck said.

Javier shook the white duck’s wing and thanked him. That night, he dreamed of a white picket fence surrounding a lush orchard, through which he strolled with his children, dressed in white linen, singing and eating fruit from the trees.

copyright, © 2006, 2007 Andy Biscontini