I was looking at the guitar amps in the Cumberland Street Pawn when Janie Sizemore crashed her car into the front of the shop. She’d struck two American Pekin ducks waddling through the main intersection. She’d tried swerving to miss them but ended up running them over anyway and hopping the curb and smashing the pawn shop’s only front window. I dropped the weed eater I was checking out. White feathers flew everywhere. One duck was dead and stuck hanging in the grill of her Focus. They never did find the other duck.
Janie’s accident was one of several incidents caused by a massive tribe of ducks that had taken up residence in the downtown area. A canal as old as town ran across the backside of Cumberland Street. The city had established a series of linear parks along that canal and ducks were everywhere. Had been for decades. But it was getting worse lately if you can believe it.
People just loved those ducks. Until they didn’t.
They were in the water, where you’d expect. Along the canal banks. In the low trees. On the back stoops of people’s apartments along the alleys. Hanging out, quacking, napping, snacking. Running in mini flocks all over the city parking lot, up and down the sidewalks along the main drag. Nesting over the weekend like comfy hobos on the front doors of businesses. Swimming around in park fountains. Kids and grandparents fed them bread all the time. They pooped. Everywhere. On everything. They were cute pooping machines.
Gordon Sutton was about through his first two-year term as a city council member. He had four months to go and was running for re-election in November. Gordon was loudly outspoken with his opinions and people generally liked that. Liked his matter-of-fact honesty, especially as a newcomer to city leadership. He’d become one of the more popular of the seven-member council, in fact. That is, until a citizen brought a bunch of pictures of the veteran’s memorials covered with little disrespectful plops of duck poop.
This enraged Gordon. He was a fifteen-year army veteran. He had helped fundraise when the city started the war memorials and veterans’ projects. He’d seen the ducks but didn’t know they’d invaded Veteran’s Memorial Park in such a way as to insult the memory of our troops. He promised the city would get right on it. He’d bring it up at the very next council meeting, sure there’d be fast support for an issue so simple.
I was at that council meeting. I didn’t have anything else to do that night. If a meeting lasted longer than five to seven minutes where nothing but the minutes of the last meeting were read and some bills were paid (that’s including saying the pledge and the Lord’s Prayer), then something juicy was happening to keep the councilmen and women there beyond tradition. The meeting Gordon broached the duck issue would be no five-minute meeting.
“I think we need to do something about all the ducks in the parks and all over town. It’s been brought to my attention they’re causing problems,” Gordon began.
Someone giggled in the audience.
Allen Dolittle, the city manager, chimed in. “What seems to be the issue with our ducks Gordon?”
“Well, a citizen brought me these photos – I’m passing copies down – of duck droppings all over the memorials in the park. There’s duck poop all over the place, I’m told. Then there was that Sizemore girl’s accident last month…”
“That’s still under investigation, Gordon,” Able Sanders, the Chief of Police, interrupted from out in the audience.
“She swerved to miss two ducks, y’all.”
“Only found one.”
“Still under investigation!”
Someone else laughed.
“Why don’t we just get the city clean-up team to hose it all off? What, once a month or so?”
Gordon tried to continue.
A lady in the audience spoke up. “One of them ugly ones bit my granddaughter’s finger! We were out there trying to feed them. Oh, they just love bread!”
“That’s another matter, y’all. Bread is a terrible thing to feed ducks. Did you know that?” Gordon asked.
The crowd grumbled. Who’d heard of such a thing? Someone booed. Another nodded. I wasn’t sure of an opinion yet, either on the ducks as a whole or on the bread.
“It has no nutritional value. It’s like feeding candy to the ducks all the time. We’re actually making them sick by carbing them up with bread.”
“Bullshit!” someone leaning on the back wall whispered just loud enough to be heard. That’s usually where city appointees and employees hung out.
“More like duckshit,” another added. More giggles.
Allen cleared his throat real loud. He preferred doing that to slapping his gavel to shut people up.
“Now, Gordon, a lot of people enjoy the ducks, ya know, so getting rid of the lot of them might not be so good an idea.”
“Thought of that, Allen,” Gordon said. “I know we’ve got to be sensitive to people’s emotions on this, but there’s a health issue here.”
The local newspaper writer, Tracy Bridgewater, had moved up to the first row and was leaning up close to Gordon so she could hear better by this point, jotting down notes in her flip pad as fast as her rumored carpel tunnel allowed.
Rick “Uncle Pap” Jackson, a fourth termer, down the council table spoke up. Didn’t seem like any hint of Robert’s Rules of Order were needed at these meetings.
“Why don’t we just look into this a little between now and next meeting, y’all. Do us a little homework about all this bread and health and ducks and poop and stuff. What about that, huh?”
Jackson was stalling. Gordon knew it.
“I don’t mind that at all,” Gordon replied, perturbed, “but I don’t appreciate being made out as if I’ve brought something silly to the council’s attention, or that I’m making up what research I’m presenting.”
He was looking Jackson straight in the eye. That flustered Jackson.
“Now look here, Gordon, I wasn’t implying anything…”
Dolittle cleared his throat. Then again.
“You sure about that,” Gordon countered.
The city manager finally had to use his gavel.
“Order.” He was always trying to not raise his voice.
Sue Baker, a second termer, raised her hand and waited to be recognized. She was always very polite and usually putting everyone in their proper place when she tried using procedure, but failed, though it sometimes worked, if only to calm things.
“Sue, go ahead.”
“I’d like to make a motion to assign the Parks, Recreation, & Events Committee to research this issue between now and our next meeting in two weeks and that they report back with a plan.”
“Discussion? Hearing none, all in favor say aye…”
There were some ayes.
There were a few nos.
By the end there were five for and two against the idea of researching the problem.
“I just don’t see any problem with the ducks!” Bailey North shouted out all of a sudden.
“Now, Bailey, that’s what I meant when I asked about ‘discussion’…”
“Well, I’ve never understood all these motions and seconds and such, and you never have brought in that lady from the state to give us that class on Robby’s Rules for Ordering…”
“It’s called Robert’s Rules of Order! Jeez,” Sue huffed. There was a lot of eye-rolling at this point.
Tracy, with the paper, asked if there might be time for the public to express their opinion on the topic.
“Yes, yes, always. We invite citizens to contact their representative council members, as usual, or attend the next meeting to express their opinion on the issue,” Dolittle reminded everyone.
I was in the elevator when Katherine Maxwell, whose husband, Charles, had finally lost in the last race after being on the council for most of his adult life, cornered Gordon against the faux metal paneling. We were all going from the third floor to the ground floor. I regretted immediately not taking the stairs. She was managing a lot in the slow descent, like a good hobbiest politician can.
“My husband, Charlie, you know him, don’t tell me you don’t now, Gordon, was one of the first to bring in those blamed ducks. It was his idea. They were supposed to eat up all those silly Japanese beetles that were eating on the rose bushes in town. I warned him about them ducks, but he didn’t listen. He loved those things, so I supported him anyway and kept my mouth shut and I’ll tell you this Mr. Sutton, I’m not letting you or anyone sully his good memory. He can’t get out anymore and defend his legacy on this here council cause of his gout, but I’ll do it for him whether I thought it was a good idea back then or not and whether it’s gone to hell since. You hear me?”
I saw Gordon glance at the lit numbers switching over to floor two. Only floor two? There was a ding. We couldn’t get to the ground floor fast enough.
“And another thing, I think you’re gonna find that the good people of this town have bigger problems on their minds than some silly ass duck shit.”
Ding. Ground floor.
“Have a good evening, Mrs. Maxwell. Say hey to Charles for us.”
She just humph’d and stomped out of the elevator leaving Gordon, me, and two others.
I looked at Gordon.
“That lady’s on the warpath, man.”
“She’s got a busy week ahead of her. She’ll have this whole town worked into a frenzy by Wednesday, I guarantee.”
“And it’s only Monday,” I reminded myself.
She did, though it took until more like Thursday afternoon. By then this woman had about split the town in two over this duck issue. She’d called in to the local “Swap & Talk?” radio show on Tuesday morning angrier than a wet hornet promoting a “Save the Ducks” rally to be held on Thursday afternoon at the Canal Street Park. Said she hadn’t slept a wink all night after that crazy city council meeting. Her or her hero of a husband, Charlie. She claimed that “Albert,” a fourteen-year-old Muscovy duck, son of “Harold,” one of the original founder ducks of the colony, would be on hand for photos at the rally. Charlie, who didn’t get out much with that gout, would be there, too, “the good Lord willing,” cooking up his famous hotdogs with that “chili everybody loves so much.” She was a near unstoppable force.
The first hint that something was afoot that Saturday was a two-story inflatable yellow duck with Ralph’s Motors across each wing. The thing wore a big Lincoln top-hat. There must have been a hole allowing a slow leak. The top-hat head would bend over from its own weight occasionally until the motor caught up and pushed enough air, making it appear like someone had woke the duck up out of a nice nap. There was a walking cane clamped under one wing.
The air smelled like charcoal, spent lighter fluid, charred hotdogs, stagnant canal water, car exhaust, armpit sweat, and duck excrement. A bunch of kids were chanting with their homemade signs.
Save our ducks!
Save the ducks!
Ducks deserve love!
Opposing viewpoints had shown up looking for a showdown.
Public health over park foul!
Save our veteran’s memorials!
Say no to duck poop!
The combined chants were deafening.
Charlie Maxwell was set up at one of the park barbeque pits grilling hotdogs and filling buns as fast as people lined up. He was on crutches, one foot elevated. His wife was on mustard, ketchup, and relish condiment duty doing most of the talking.
“Hotdogs! Two dollars each! Two for three! Save the ducks!”
Charlie was in his element, like he was running for something again.
Ducks waddled between and around legs. Amongst little groups of protesters. Duck heads were petted. Rows of chicks tried keeping up with mamas. People threw bags and bags of saved-up bread.
“Now, you folks don’t forget to head over by the seesaw and get your pictures taken with sweet little old ‘Albert’ before you leave, OK. Here, have some old hotdog bun crumbs to give to the ducks. They love it, no matter what anybody says.”
It was the most people I’d ever seen at this park. It was a shame it took a protest gathering – about ducks of all things – to bring so many out. But guess who I didn’t see anywhere? Yep. Council members. Not a one. Not even Gordon. Not even the city manager.
There was a terrible uproar unfolding as I made my way through the crowd to where they had “Albert” set up. He was in a woman’s arms for safekeeping, and she was sitting in a rocker up on a tiny stage. Behind her was a painted backdrop of a US flag and a pumped-up duck resembling a bald eagle sailing overhead. In fully capitalized old German calligraphy across the top were the words LONG LIVE ALBERT.
An argument was happening.
“That’s the ugly duck that bit my finger, mamaw!”
“That’s the creature that tried to take off my poor granddaughter’s finger, officer!”
They were accusing “Albert.” The animal looked confused and was squawking something terrible, its one good wing flapping as its minder tried calming him. “Albert” had lost half a wing in a fight with a coyote years before. The crowd was restless. The counterprotesters were working in closer now. Tempers were flaring.
“They’re dangerous! Look at them eyes! Just look!”
I wondered if “Albert” was safe. What a shame it would be to live past the average duck lifespan, including surviving the coyote incident, only to get lynched at an event celebrating him and his ancestry, the one settling this colony in the first place.
Officer Roland Perkins intervened.
“Calm the heck down, everyone!” he yelled. “Just back the heck off! Heck fire!”
By then Mrs. Maxwell had seen what was happening and was running up to embrace poor “Albert” just as fast as her legs could carry her. Perkins was a fairly new officer, unfortunately, and wasn’t too privy to the history of what was happening and mistook her for an overly aggressive hostile. He’d lodged a taser barb square between her shoulder blades just as she reached the stage step. She collapsed forward in a violent body spasm, full-bodied into the prized duck and handler. Mrs. Maxwell, the duck keeper, and “Albert” tangled into a ball of bodies and crashed back into the bedsheet backdrop which cocooned them up tight as they slammed off the back of the stage and started rolling.
Some in the crowd gasped. I know I did. It was impressive. They couldn’t have performed it better had they choreographed it, with the duck, since Tuesday.
Everything went still. The tumble of painted sheets didn’t move for a moment. I listened for signs of consciousness, though the crowd noise grew louder and louder, hemming in on the situation.
Then a hand popped out of the mess, along with a floating black feather. Then the rest of an arm. It was the duck minder. She was stunned, but probably fine.
She called out. “Hey, help my Aunt Katie! She’s out cold.” She spat out a feather. “I think Albert’s injured something awful!”
Part of the crowd gasped again. I think I did again. What a spectacle.
Charlie Maxwell was hobbling down the park walk as fast as he could on crutches, screaming at the top of his lungs.
“Katherine, honey! Albert! Nicole! Oh, oh!” The rhythmic clink / scrap of his crutches was audible and only added to racket.
By the time he arrived at the stage, people were untangling it all. Officer Perkins had figured out what he’d done and was mumbling something about the last day of his job. Nicole, the duck handler and niece of Mrs. Maxwell, was pulling her aunt from the material and rolling her limp body to one shoulder. She yanked the barb from the skin, pulling it away from the yellow T-shirt she’d had made for the event. The barb had stuck between the words bless and our within the phrase God Bless Our Ducks stretched along her upper back. Mrs. Maxwell gave a little moan as the barb popped from the skin.
The crowd let out a groan, along with a shriek from the closest little girl as Mrs. Maxwell’s shifting torso revealed “Albert's” body, limp necked and unnaturally flat.
They carted off the “Albert’s” carcass before Mrs. Maxwell came to enough to recognize what happened.
Charlie and Nicole hurried her off the best they could so she wouldn’t hear what everyone was saying about “Albert’s” probable demise.
I heard the rumors.
The juice from that taser in her back did it. Run through her and killed that old duck as soon as she touched it.
Fact is, that’s not how electricity works. You can’t get tased through another person getting tased.
Charlie insisted on an autopsy.
It showed “Albert” possessed finger impressions around his neck and breast. Apparently, Mrs. Maxwell choked the animal to death. She’d tripped forward on the stage as Roland got her with the taser. She was reaching to help with the duck, but once she got her hands on him, the electricity stiffened her whole body up along with tightening her grip, not to mention how she and her niece had fallen into a heavy pile and rolled out what life might have been left in the creature. Charlie demanded the details of the autopsy never get into his wife’s hands.
Once the ambulance had taken Mrs. Maxwell away, the gathering lost a bit of its pizazz. The death of a dignitary will do that. Not to mention some self-styled anarchist had knifed a larger hole in the blowup duck, and it was caving in on itself and Ralph and his boys from Ralph’s Motors were threatening to go home. The counterprotestors figured there wasn’t much more to be said after “Albert” was dead, so they hushed up and went home. Charlie had toughed it out after his wife’s injury saying he ought to at least stay until the wieners run out. Those in support of the ducks stuck around for a while, though they seemed bored with no one to shout back at them. Everyone ran out of old bread to feed the ducks.
I heard later that Chief Sanders had made a deal with Officer Perkins, that if he could get the crowds calmed down and dispersed and home without another incident, he might could find reason to let him keep his job after tasing a town elder and secondarily causing a famous duck’s death. Perkins did manage getting everyone to go home. All but the ducks, of course. They were already home.
I wondered if they’d felt bothered that day, with the crowd and the chanting and photography flashing and all, whether any had recognized “Albert” and felt a pang of jealousy at his stardom, if they’d been disturbed by the angry energy or the ambulance sirens and lights. If they’d felt like their space was invaded like the town did by their numbers. Had they felt the least sympathy toward these lumbering beings stepping over and around them all day, paying them such a strange attention, and making such a loud racket at each other as well? Had they realized the day was all for them? And did they miss that attention when all that strange and loud human quacking had calmed down by that evening? More than anything, I wondered if they’d miss “Albert.”