The Duck Knows How to Make the Most of Things. That’s the name of his stage show, so it must be true.
“Sometimes I cry when I’m lonely,” he sings, and the little ducks sing backup, doo-wop, ah-ah-ah-ha-ah-ah, ay-ay-ay, la-la. “Sometimes I laugh when I’m blue.” Ah-ha-ah-ah-ha-ah. He didn’t write the song. It is one of the few in his show that he didn’t write. But he sings it like he sings them all.
He’s not an actual duck. A duck can’t sing, let alone make the most of things. The Duck is a man, a rather large man at that, and the little ducks are his children. They are not his actual children. They are students who are enrolled in his music school, the Gifford E. Tannhauser Academy of Vocal Performance. He is Gifford E. Tannhauser.
The Duck’s not married. He was, but after a few years filled with regret and recrimination his wife finally picked up and went elsewhere. This pained him tremendously, but that pain was mitigated by the fact that she moved only five minutes away. They’re on good terms, the Duck and the former Mrs. Tannhauser. They have no actual children. They have dinner together once a week at least, just like when they lived together. “Getting a spare tire, Gifford,” she says, pointing at his stomach. She’s the only one who calls him Gifford.
“Getting a flat, former Mrs. Tannhauser,” he says, pointing at her breasts. “Age is doing us both in. Remember when we were in our prime?”
“Of course I do,” she says. “We were flippin’ miserable.” This always gets a laugh.
The former Mrs. Tannhauser has not remarried. She tells the Duck that she is done with men except for the occasional roll. “I’ll tumble but I won’t fall,” she says. “Isn’t there a song like that?”
“Yes ma’am,” the Duck says. It is one of the mainstays of The Duck Knows How to Make the Most of Things. He begins to sing. “I will tumble but I will not fall/I may crumble but I will not crawl/There are things I’ll do for you and things I can’t abide/I can’t go on forever but I want it said I tried.” He gives a bravura performance, tugging on each line of the verse and swelling magnificently for the chorus: “Let’s go to the store/I’ll buy one, then buy more/Follow my lead/You know what I need/Close the door.”
The former Mrs. Tannhauser applauds. “It’s not a very good song, is it?” she says.
The Duck turns his palms up in surrender. “Not at all.”
The Duck befriended a woman while he was still married to the former Mrs. Tannhauser. This woman’s name was June (“like the month”) but she preferred to be called J. “Like the letter,” the Duck said.
J didn’t have an answer for this. The Duck thought she was insulted or, worse, indifferent, but he has since learned that she will sometimes sink into moods where, even though she is experiencing satisfaction or elation, she will not, or cannot, respond to him. Of course, he has also seen her exhibit the same behavior when she feels insulted or indifferent. He once mentioned in passing that he had written a song about her. He thought it would make her happy but instead it made her miserable. “I don’t want to be in someone else’s song,” she said. “I can’t bear it.”
Many of these moods occurred during the first months of the Duck’s friendship with J. “You know what I mean?” he said. “What can I do?”
“You can shut the fuck up.” She saw the hurt in his eyes. “You know what? There is something you can do. You can sing me a song or two, softly.”
That got him going. He sang “Somewhere Safe to Bury My Bone.” He sang “Water Lace.” He sang “I Got Big and Fat in a Coldwater Flat.” There were more songs in The Duck Knows How to Make the Most of Things, but those were the ones he sang.
The singing always worked. One song would bring the first tear and more would follow: more songs and more tears. “The Satisfaction and Elation Flowed Out of Her (Saltily)” was the name of the song that the Duck ended up writing about the effect of the other songs.
The crying sometimes took a while.
After J finished crying, the Duck stopped singing and the two of them went for a walk. At first, the walks were just walks but they evolved over time into something else. They adjourned to a nearby playground and commenced to romp in a decidedly adult manner. The playground was the safest place for miles around. There were guards to keep out the drug dealers and stick-up kids. The Duck knew one of the guards, Alberto. He was once one of the little ducks. When the Duck told Alberto to take a walk, Alberto took a walk, and the Duck and J
had their pick: the slides, the swings, the climbing bars.
One day J goes off sometimes and comes back with her hair disarranged. He does not ask her questions because he does not believe in jumping to conclusions. The next day she goes off in the other direction and comes back with her hair disarranged and one earring missing. He does not ask her questions because he believes in giving her a chance to come clean. The next day she goes off in an entirely new direction and comes back with the Bootblack in tow. He does not ask her questions because now it is too late.
The Bootblack is a young man. When he was born the Duck was already teaching a flock of little ducks to sing “Mainsail on the Adriatic,” an extremely simple chantey that he wrote as an exercise during his first year as a songwriter. The Bootblack has never sailed. He has never seen the ocean. He lives in a city a few hours to the north, where he has a television show, which makes sense given that he is significantly more handsome than the Duck. The Bootblack is a man of many talents, but one in particular has preceded him: he can swallow a handful of change and bring up specific amounts on command. “Thirty-seven cents,” a guest on his show might say, and he will grimace slightly and produce it in descending order: quarter, dime, penny, penny. Sometimes if he’s in a fancy mood he’ll follow the quarter directly with a penny, and the studio audience will begin to boo. Then he socks it to them: penny, penny, penny, penny, penny, and so forth, one after the other in quick coppery succession. He’ll make them flip end to end on his tongue to give the appearance that they’re walking out onto the black mat he has spread before him for his performance. There are many men who can bring up change on
command but this is his move and the one that has made him famous. It’s called “pennying.” Lined up the way they are, the pennies look, the Duck thinks, like ducklings.
J met the Bootblack at a hotel. She had met him once before, through a friend, and at that time the two of them had not gotten along. They had argued about the distance from the moon to the sun. The Bootblack said that it was a very short distance, and J insisted, correctly, that he was thinking of the distance from the moon to the earth. The sun was as far away from both as a… she could not think of a way to express herself with clarity and force. “It’s far,” she told him and told the Duck later, when she was relating the story. In the retelling she was incensed. Her nightshirt was unbuttoned and the Duck was beginning to make the most of it. Her anger gave a slight flush to her face and the skin on her chest and the Duck was grateful to this Bootblack, this nickel-vomiter, this astronomical idiot, for greasing the rails a little bit.
It was the last time he felt that way about him. One day the Bootblack was just a guy you saw when you were flipping from porn to The Weather Channel, a guy who warmed your friend up inadvertently, and the next day he was sitting next to her in the car as she pulled into the driveway, her hair disarranged. The transformation was so quick that the music that played behind it when the Duck remembered how things had gone was melodramatic soundtrack music, without any vocals. There was no place in it for him to sing. It could not have been included in The Duck Knows How to Make The Most of Things.
J skips to the door. Skips! She greets the Duck with a hug and introduces the Bootblack. It is too far for him to drive home, J says, and she tells the Duck that the Bootblack will be eating dinner with them. “It’s my night to eat with the former Mrs. Tannhauser,” the Duck says. “We’re having chicken.”
“Wonderful,” J says. “We can all four eat.”
It is the worst meal of the Duck’s life, with the possible exception of the Indigestibly Dry Turkey Incident of ’77, which was served up by a very young, very optimistic former Mrs. Tannhauser. The poor food is matched by the poor seating; the four adults have resolved into the most awkward arrangement possible. When the Bootblack does not think anyone is looking, he whispers to J, sometimes directly into her ear. The word “skin” leaks out of the whisper, as does the word “thigh.” It is faintly possible that he is discussing the chicken.
That leaves the Duck and the former Mrs. Tannhauser, who are and may always be on estimable terms, to talk about the world, which is what they do and have always done. They spend ten minutes explaining to each other that the vaunted ability of one particular candidate to pick up momentum and power late in his campaign is something of a ruse, as the previous race in which he demonstrated this power should never have been as close as it was to begin with, and in fact is more an illustration of the candidate’s ability to nearly lose an election that he should have won handily. The former Mrs. Tannhauser grasps this with both hands, as she likes to say.
After dinner, the Duck goes out back to smoke a cigarette. He takes work with him to calm him down. It’s only for a few minutes but he can make some headway in picking songs for the little ducks to sing the following week. The Duck hears some noise and peers around the side of the house, where he sees J and the Bootblack standing there next to the car. They are arguing. The Bootblack strikes the signpost with his bicycle lock. It gives a clang that is similar to the sound of a belt buckle striking a jungle gym bar that is damped by the soft hand of a naked woman who is hanging there while she is being worked over consensually by a man of her acquaintance.
The Duck’s memory for noises is very precise.
The Bootblack says something that maligns the chicken. Then he says something that maligns J. He says that she is insufferable in most ways and good for only a few things and that, to prove it, he is going to take her car and drive to a hotel and stay there. “I’ll return it in the morning before you wake up,” he says. “That way I don’t have to see you, which means that I don’t have to be disappointed in you.” J cannot or will not respond to this. The Duck can detect her sadness from where he stands. He wants to run out and do violence to the Bootblack, maybe take the keys and stuff them down his stupid mouth, the mouth that only moments ago was eating his chicken and propositioning his friend under his roof. But the Duck is a reasonable man and surmises that the Bootblack would just bring the keys up, one by one.
Back in the house, J is chagrined. The former Mrs. Tannhauser gives her special attention in the interest of healing her. Clearly, there is a wound. The former Mrs. Tannhauser’s special attention consists of the kind of diverting small talk that is her forte. “I was reading about the head of Interpol,” she says. “A Frenchman named François Zolan. He is a singer and songwriter just like someone else I know.”
“Is that so?” J says coldly.
It seems that the former Mrs. Tannhauser may have misread the situation but she presses on. “One of his songs
has to do with the work he does. It’s a long, long piece called Incident Team. Wouldn’t you think that something like that would compromise security?”
J does not answer.
“What do you think, Gifford?”
The Duck is not present in the conversation though he is present in the room. He is thinking about the little ducks and about the vocal arrangements for one of his favorite recent compositions, which is called “Born Inside the Baker’s Head.” The first two lines, “Born inside the baker’s head/Are many kinds of baker’s bread”, buoy his heart whenever he hears them. He thinks that the little ducks should do an “oh-ah-ah-oh-ah-ah” after the first line and a “ah-ha-aha” after the second. J’s sullenness does not bring him to attention; neither does the former Mrs. Tannhauser’s attempts to mitigate that sullenness. What does, finally, is the sound of J storming out without a word.
The Duck follows. He catches up to her outside. She has no car and as a result no way to leave. “I just want to take a walk,” she says. “Alone.”
“There was a time when we were tied to one another,” he says.
“Is that the opening line of one of your stupid songs?”
“No. I am actually talking about a time when we were tied to one another. Remember? With rawhide.”
“I can’t think about those things now,” she says. The implication is that she has other things to think about, and though her tone is hard she is crying underneath: ah-ah-ah-ha-ah-ah.
The Duck has an idea. “Can I interest you in a slow waltz?”
“A slow waltz. A tennis match. A trip to the supermarket.” He hopes he does not have to spell out the double entendre.
“I think we have to talk.”
“Penny for your thoughts.”
“That’s not funny.”
“Tell me what you want to tell me. That’s all I’m saying.”
She inhales compositionally. “You know that song you wrote, Serving You Lunch Is a Betrayal Given the Fact that I Am Planning On Eating With Somebody Else?”
“I know it,” he says. “I wrote it. I can sing a verse if you want.”
“No, no,” she says. “I’m describing the situation, not making a request. I’m going to call a cab and head over to the hotel.”
“Oh.” He steadies himself on the side of the house. “I think I am going to be sick.”
“Don’t be so dramatic.”
But the Duck is not being dramatic. He is being predictive. He is sick. He moves past the former Mrs. Tannhauser in a state of disrepair and retires to his bed. His heart slowly jellies. He dies at half-past ten. He is buried in a fat man’s coffin, as he once requested, both because he is somewhat fat and because he superstitiously wants to leave room for a companion, whether J or the former Mrs. Tannhauser or someone he has not yet met.
The Duck breaks apart there under the earth, the minerals in him going one way, the water going the other way.
He wakes up at five in the morning, his heart thrumming like a lawnmower engine. The former Mrs. Tannhauser has not stayed over, as she will do now and again, but has left a note telling him to call her when he feels better, or if he does not.
He calls J. “Hello,” she says. It is neither question nor statement. The phone is a wall between them.
He strains to hear the Bootblack in the background and he thinks he does: a laugh and a coffee cup clinking awfully. “I am going to stop singing for you,” he says to J. He hopes this will break her. “I may even close up The Duck Knows How to Make The Most of Things. The little ducks will be out of a job, but who cares?” But he cannot make good on the threat, not even the first part of it, not even for a minute. He sings right then and there, with diminished force but a greater sense of risk. He knows she can hear him over the wall. This is what he has to offer. He hopes it is enough. He does not care if it is enough. It will have to be enough. Enough.