Why Not a Duck?

A man walks into a bar.

He's got a duck on his head.

The bartender steps over. No one else is in the place. "What can I get you?" the bartender asks the duck.

"A draft," says the duck.

"What about you?" the bartender says to the man.

"I'd like a duck," says the man.

The bartender eyes the man. The bartender eyes the duck. The bartender draws a draft and slides it over to the man. The bartop is laminated girlie napkins and foreign matchbooks.

"Hey, that's not a duck, that's a draft!" complains the man.

"Yeah? And maybe that's because this is a bar and not a farm, pally. Besides, you already got a duck," says the bartender.

The man eyes the bartender. Then the man looks across the bar to the MGD mirror, and he sees the duck on his head. So the man pulls out a revolver, sticks it in his ear and fires.

As the man's body plops to the floor, the duck flaps its wings, flies off the man's head and lands on the bar by the draft. A feather floats forever on the warmth of the gunsmoke contrail. The bartender leans over the bar and looks down at the dead body. Then the bartender leans back and eyes the duck.

"What the heck was that about?" asks the bartender.

"Got some beer nuts?" asks the duck.

"Sure thing," says the bartender, sliding over a tin of dark, greasy, salted nuts.

The duck munches some nuts, makes a sour face, and looks up at the bartender. "Could be the only thing worse than seeing your dream go bust, is coming to realize you weren't much of a dreamer in the first place," says the duck.

"He dream of you, or you dream of him?" asks the bartender, gazing blankly into the duck's troilite eyes.

"I don't dream," says the duck, glancing down at the dead man, "He was looking to, and I was there to help, and he neglected to notice."

"Tough," says the bartender, grinning.

"No skin off my bill," says the duck, then looks at the bartender and shrugs, "So, got a place for a roostless duck to roost around here?"

The bartender eyes the duck, then eyes himself in the MGD mirror. The bartender has a bald head, with a fringe of hair from the ears back. His pomade smells like lilacs. "Yeah," he says finally, "yeah, why the fuck not."

The bartender goes over to the front door, bolts the lock and latches the mullioned peepwindow. When he switches the switch, the neon porch sign goes from blackeye blue "OPEN" to goldenrod yellow "CLOSED". For some reason, the goldenrod hums more loudly than the blackeye, and the yellow drizzles in around the door jamb where the blue would not.

"Pickled egg?" asks the duck, not much patient with the bartender's ablutions.

The bartender tiptoe-straddles the body of the man as he reaches to a shelf. "Duck eggs. Made 'em myself," he says proudly, winking as he pops open a mason jar and the brine crust crackles.

The duck's wedge tail shudders in dismission. "Whatever you say," says the duck, "whatever you say."

The rest of the night, the duck sucks up pickled eggs and throws back draft beers and lines up whiskey shooters until last call's come and gone, and the bartender and the duck head upstairs to the bartender's rooms.

Just after dawn, the bartender wakes with a start, sweating in his percale sheets, filled with the nightmare that he's got a duck stuck to his head. From the bartender's pillow, the duck stares at the bartender. It's not clear whether the duck's been asleep or just resting. It's even less clear whether he's happy, sad, or angered. But the bartender smiles, closes his eyes and the rest of his bedtime goes easy.

When the bartender's alarm sounds off mid-morning, he looks for the duck and finds nothing.

Downstairs, in the bar, the duck is squeezing a mop into a bucket. The water is pink. The dead body is gone. There's a six pack and the tin of beer nuts in a plastic go bag on the bar. There's a notepad and a pen nearby. The duck flies up to the bar, starts writing a note. The bartender sits down on the stairs and waits until the duck spots him.

"I thought we had something fantastically real," says the bartender, "Something where real need is replaced by real want."

The duck quits writing. "And that's real enough for you, huh? Not to me. Not much for sentiment. And I hate notes." The duck tears up the note, hops down, carries the bucket to the back door, opens it and splashes the pink water onto the macadam, then comes back toward the bartender. "Sorry about the mess," says the duck.

"It wouldn't have to be like that for us," says the bartender.

"But it is." says the duck. He flies up to the bar, pecks impatiently at the go bag, snorts at the bartender. "You sleep the peace of the just -- I saw it. Just this, just that, just you. When you're awake you think you're in the mood to share, but -- trust me -- that mood'll pass. Nothing much good ever happens when a body's awake. And no one has nothing to share when they're not. You may say you want to want, but you can't want what you don't need."

"Got it all figured, have you?" suggests the bartender.

"Even fantasy has bounds," says the duck, "even when we imagine what we're not, we're still doing it based on what we are. Can't imagine otherwise."

"What do ducks imagine, I wonder?" asks the bartender.

"Can't speak for 'em all," says the duck, "but right now I'm imagining you already know the answer to that question. I'm imagining I'm going to take this go bag and head toward that door, and I'm imagining you're going to grab me and throw me in a locked pen full of ducks. And I'm imagining they're all full of imagination because that's all they've got left."

"Woo hoo," says the bartender slapping his thigh and laughing,

"I don't need you and I can't want you -- so you say -- but still I should go on ahead and lock you up? You think that's how I get all the eggs for my pickled eggs -- that it? You think I'm lying to you, lying to a duck? Too funny! You are one funny ass damn duck!"

"Gotta jake -- see ya," says the duck.

"Sure, why not, see if you can, dare and double-dare," says the bartender, "but then what'll you know?"

"That I imagined right or I imagined wrong," says the duck, "won't be any imagination left in the matter."

"Imagine that," says the bartender. He scratches his head hard enough for anyone to hear; and then he points: "Hand me that jar, funny ass damn duck." The mason jar is full of brine, but eggless after last night's bingeing.

The duck picks up the jar, pauses, eyes the bartender. "Naw, can't be... Suddenly... I am imagining something... Another, more unexpected alternative," says the duck.

"Always more unexpected alternatives. So many, you really ought to expect 'em." says the bartender. "But then it's not your job to expect or to imagine, just your job to be, be there when needed or be there when wanted. And you've never known that not to happen, have you?" The bartender shakes his head, responding to himself.

And the duck quacks, like a sneeze or a sniffle or maybe something else. The duck doesn't know what to say, or what to say about not knowing what to say.

"Never been unemployed before, have you?" The bartender insists on persisting, "Because you're the way to everyone else's fantasies, and yet you come out unchanged. Sad, sad, too sad maybe. But I agree with you that real fantasy isn't really fantasy at all, not really." The bartender's eyes glint.

"And yet we can dream of those who dream," says the duck.

The bartender rises, steps over and takes the mason jar from the duck. "Eyes wide open or eyes wide shut?" asks the bartender.

"Open," says the duck, and it watches as the bartender puts the mason jar behind himself, unscrews the lid, drops his drawers and squats over the jar mouth...

A duck walks into a bar. The duck's got a mason jar full of pickled duck eggs under its wing. The duck climbs up the aluminum stool and stares at the bartender. "Gimme a draft," says the duck, "and some pickled eggs."

The bartender draws a draft, slides it over to the duck. The bartop is lacquered steel, diamond plate, with a black leather elbow bolster.

"What about the eggs?" asks the duck.

"Looks like you already got your eggs," says the bartender.

The duck looks across the bar to the Miller Lite mirror, and sees a duck holding a mason jar full of pickled duck eggs under its wing. The duck sniffs. Its feathers smell like lilacs. "These eggs in this jar?" says the duck, "No, they're not mine, they're not mine at all. Can't lay claim to nothing you don't lay yourself. But... well... you can imagine it. You can. Can't you?"

The duck starts to say something else, but never does. The bartender turns away and contentedly polishes highball glasses. The rest of the evening is a blur of beer with whiskeys back.

Moral: If your muse is not amusing, you are likely stuck with a duck.

About the author:

Brian Alan Lane is a novelist, nonfiction writer, media commentator, attorney, professor, and screenwriter, whose bestselling book, Cat and Mouse, was described as "A masterpiece that could have been concocted by Vladimir Nabokov" (The Boston Book Review). Mr. Lane is Publisher of the renowned literary journal Sweet Fancy Moses; the creator/writer/producer of the SciFi Podvision and Mangacast Novel The Peacemaker; and his day job is Professor of Writing through the College of The Arts at California State University Long Beach, where he helms the sui generis inter-disciplinary MFA Degree Program in Dramatic Writing. Mr. Lane is a member of the State Bar of California, the writers organization PEN USA, the Mystery Writers of America, and the Writers Guild of America (where he has been honored with the award of Lifetime Active Membership and a place on the credits policy board).