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Me and the Ducks

a college student’s story by Jacquée Thomas

photo by Patty Cash Rink

© 2010 by Detour Productions, LLC all rights reserved

Me and the Ducks
a college student’s story by Jacquée Thomas

It was the end of another semester and I had made it through my final exams
without going insane. Instead of a wild celebration, all I wanted was to have a beer at the Memorial Student Union terrace, and to sit by the Union property lakeside and wallow in relief. No more exams for the entire summer! That’s all I wanted for the evening of my last exam before I set out the next day to seek a summer job, and that’s all I did. That evening I realized they were back – the ducks. I recalled previous summers with the ducks at the Union. I had gone to the trouble of popping popcorn by stovetop on several occasions, packing saltless, butterless popcorn in a brown paper bag and walking to the Union to feed those ducks. Every summer it was the same. At the end of May and beginning of June, the ducks were filled with appreciation; they gathered around quacking in gratitude. If they were on shore they followed wherever I went, flapping their wings and quacking as I tossed popcorn at their feet. Yet, after I threw the last handful of popcorn they were gone, bumming off someone else. I hoped the ducks might recognize me whenever I returned, as one who had generously fed them before. That never happened. By July so many people had been

Me and the Ducks

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feeding them they had no interest in what I offered. The ducks would often ignore me and the popcorn I threw because they were already sated. No appreciation. Every summer it was the same pattern. Occasionally I tried to throw something different. Once I tried to feed them lettuce from a sandwich I was eating. They had no interest in that. So I started to toss french fries from my lunch. Suddenly I was popular among the ducks again. Junk food junkies. I felt used. I should have learned my lesson years ago with my pet duck, Disco. I had grown up in the country, and had raised Disco from a fuzzy duckling to a shiny drake. When he was a baby he was tiny. Wherever I walked he waddled at my heels, flapping his tiny wings and quacking. When Disco was an adult my family brought in other ducks. Disco no longer knew me. He was too busy being king of his duck clan. Once I stormed up and cried, “Disco, it’s me! Remember me?” My beloved Disco didn’t acknowledge me. He quacked to his clan members, they quacked back, and they all waddled away. I was crushed. So that particular evening of the last exam I reminisced my tragedy with Disco, and recalled previous summers with the Memorial Union ducks. I decided not to feed the ducks ever again; to their little eyes, I’d only be a speck in the crowd. But I couldn’t refrain from watching them, clusters of ducks wading by the people at shore, numerous voices quacking – not just duck voices. I observed that most people couldn’t lounge near so many ducks without imitating them. When there was a lull in

Me and the Ducks folks’ conversation they would hear the ducks and respond with their own, “Quack! Quack!” What these people didn’t realize, I thought, was that ducks have a language that

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must be spoken precisely. Human imitations of duck talk were clumsy. Who knows what they were saying to the ducks. My visits to the Union became more frequent. At first I came for everything, the people the beautiful lake waves rippling into the distance, watching the wind surfers, the sailboats, the ducks. Slowly, without my realizing it, I came to the Union for one single purpose – the ducks. I had decreasing concern for finding a summer job and increasing concern for the ducks, their language, their lifestyle. Why did they come to our student union? Their life here must have been a great contrast to country ducks.’ I counted 19 ducklings wading in the water while one adult female duck supervised them. “Quack! Quack!” she called to them like a drill sergeant. She couldn’t be the mother of all 19 ducklings. She must have been a school teacher taking them on a field trip. “Quack, quaack!” translated, “Come children, to a place we ducks go to see drunk college students. Look how people feed us. Suckers!” I discovered that ducks too, had personalities. One pair, male and female, seemed like an elderly couple. They waded together along the shoreline. The female looked directly at people, her gaze clearly asking if they had food to share. The male floated close behind, in support of her cause. Both gracefully lifted tossed food in their beaks,

Me and the Ducks then waded to new prospects. Rent was overdue. My food cabinets were barren. I couldn’t even afford to buy Old Milwaukee beer. Still no job. Every day I found myself wandering to the student

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union to sit near the lapping waves and watch the ducks. I began to analyze them. As one day meshed into another, I came to detest them. They could swim all day, and when they felt hungry, take a detour to the Union lakeshore. They could remain in the water, or leap with their wet webbed feet to the concrete shore, to have a feast thrown at them. There they were before my eyes, spending little energy on manipulation techniques and getting everything they wanted. They didn’t know what it was like to work for their food. One hot, humid day I sat by the lake, my bloodshot eyes on the ducks, my mind drowning in depression because I was sweating, jobless, hungry, and inclined to watch ducks. I refused to feed them. I hardly had enough money to feed myself. “Here duckies!” a tiny voice called out. The ducks gathered to an area next to me. I gazed up to see a dark-haired, blue-eyed little boy standing, cramming his pudgy fingers into a bag of cheese popcorn. He pulled out handfuls and sprinkled kernels into the lake. He giggled every time, as the ducklings darted to snatch up the kernels. Between tosses the boy shoved popcorn into his mouth. “Baby duckies!” he squealed. His father stood by and smiled down at the boy. Sweat beads formed on my forehead. That cheese popcorn sure looked good. The boy’s pudgy, orange-stained fingers reached in the bag to grasp more. My dry

Me and the Ducks mouth began to water. My empty stomach began to churn. “Little baby duckies!” the boy’s voice rang.

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He tossed cheese-powdered kernels into the air; they tumbled downward, turning, turning, turning. Fair game it seemed, yet each kernel fell into the custody of the ducks. Suddenly I found myself squatting in front of the little boy, my fists crammed into my armpits, attempting my own duck imitation. “Quaack! Quaack!” The boys mouth fell open. He stopped tossing popcorn. He was intelligent enough to know I wasn’t a duck. His father grabbed the boy’s hand, “Come on, Petie!” He led the kid farther down to continue the duck feeding. The ducks followed, flapping their wings. Quack-quaack! I realized that the people nearby had backed away, leaving a significant radius around me. I stood, and wiped my wet forehead. Ashamed, I decided to apologize to Petie and his father. I trudged over to them. Yet, all I saw was the cheese popcorn. I was mesmerized by the little orange puffs being flung into the air ... turning. turning, and releasing tiny orange grains. I noticed one big kernel being tossed high and reached to catch it. But I missed and a duckling at my heels caught it. I could take no more. I pounced down and grabbed the tiny creature, one hand holding its little body, the other clasping the popcorn kernel. I tried desperately to pull the two apart. “Give me the popcorn!” I demanded. Petie’s shrill screams pierced through my delirium. I realized where I was, and

Me and the Ducks that I wasn’t a duck. I released the poor duckling and found myself staring into the angry face of the drill sergeant duck as she scolded me. Petie cried and rubbed his eyes with orange-stained fingers. “Petie, I ...” I began. Petie’s father led him away. Humiliated, I stood straight, brushed my palms and scuffled home.

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I didn’t leave my apartment for days, and stayed away from the Union for weeks. I dreamed about ducks every night. It was always the same dream. Marvin and Mathilda were flying over the Bermuda Triangle when Mathilda was sucked into a mysterious whirlwind that opened up and disappeared, taking her with it. Poor Marvin was destined to wander alone, from one lake to the next, imploring if anyone had seen Mathilda. He couldn’t accept that she was gone forever. The dreams ended the same, with Marvin wading toward the sunset. “Quaaack? ...” It wasn’t until after I finally got a job that I returned the Memorial Union. Fearing people might recognize me at the vicious, duckling attacker, I wore sunglasses The ducks were still there; the ducklings were bigger, and growing feathers. I could afford to buy myself a beer and cheese popcorn. As the sun set I took off my sunglasses and gazed over the lake. It was a still night. The water moved in gentle ripples. Pink and orange smeared the sky, and reflected in lines across the dark water. Ducks were scattered about in little groups. A drake drifted in from somewhere deep in the lake. His wading hardly disturbed the smooth water. He looked far ahead, I think at me, and quacked sadly. He seemed forlorn.

Me and the Ducks “Marvin?” I whispered. I watched his silhouette as he turned away and waded alone toward the sunset, here and again letting out a sad and desperate, “Quaaack ...” The elderly couple ducks made their way to me. The female looked at me, inquiring if I intended to share my food. I smiled. “Oh, what the hell!” Several ducks gathered around as I tossed handfuls of cheese popcorn.

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