Please Hold Your Tongue in Front of the Duck a l’Orange
by Dennis Carey
You’re sitting out there on the lawn, not far from the marsh, but I can’t see you. Everyone is filing out, kissing cheeks and fishing for car keys – everyone says to say goodbye. The shadows spill off our front porch while I’m waving goodbye, a stark framing of departure.
The duck was a safe choice but no less a masterstroke. A deft move against criticism and adulation both. I may compliment you for years afterwards, something we might share a smile for in remembrance.
I was flirting with lofty expectations for the evening too. From the rafters, I swooped down into the kitchen on a gnarled vine of hope; hope that our son would show with a suitable date. I landed on my son, sullen and alone.
Yes, our son has become a man; we are standing in front of the proverbial footpath, a precipice, and it’s time to go. I was reckless at his age – we can walk across with hopes of a pleasant, or at least an acceptable other side. You drank too much and you gained about 15 pounds between the ages of twenty and twenty-five but now you run marathons.
Now you sit on the side of the house, waiting for our guests to leave.
Earlier today I walked from our home in the woods to the store on the highway, the store with a generalized sense of everything. Along the sandy shoulder of the road, pavement to my left, moss and foliage to my right; the woods give way to the yellow-curbed boundary of the super-store. The majesty of our peninsula, interrupted by the crude interpretation of life drawn by hand - not the hand of an artist but that of a vapid engineer; a template imagination.
For a moment inside the store I feel disoriented or rather, unoriented. I am not lost; I am just about anywhere in North America. The uniform décor of the super-store erases any indication that just outside lays the musk of the upper cape, the dune’s whiskers swaying in the briny wind of the Atlantic. I’m in Bozeman, Montana or Roselle Park, New Jersey – hell, I could probably be in Canada.
I bought a dozen eggs, a box of nails and a professional mixing bowl, and I hightailed it back home. Women stared askew at the old man clamoring over the guardrail as they piled bags of groceries and tube socks into their minivans.
There are days when I long for it to click; the familiar pulse of New York. Before Saul, we lived in Jersey City for a year under the auspices of poverty. How do you remember it? For me, every disparate language was boiled down to the discourse of the street – absurdity with a backbeat. Stand up, take turns spitting, commence with patting on the back, and forget. Buy something, spit a bit, and I’m back out on the sidewalk with a smoke. I’m taking in the atmosphere.
How do you remember it?
I built a mailbox for the party. The mail finds its way to the front patio everyday, but for this party I built a mailbox. As I pieced together the mailbox, from instructions I found on the Internet, I felt whole. A metal box on the side of the road, supported by three two-by-fours implying a ‘tepee’ and I’m complete. In the company of the quiet pines, I tip my cap to the mailbox – after all, we’re all living on borrowed sand
And the sand and wood is speckled with ponds, the sweat of ancient glaciers and it’s all fenced in by the cold salt-water froth of the ages.
Like you said, it’s never easy to get the friends and family together. Might as well throw a bunch of magnets in a box, feed ‘em liquor and shake the box around. I thought the mailbox would somehow send a message to our guests – we are holding it together, we have a mailbox for Christ’s sake, so behave yourself.
Too many acquaintances acting like high schoolers; your mother, our son, my cousin Tristan, all incorrigible. Everyone wonders if we’ll be swimming, just because we live on a pond. Swim out to the sun-dock if you like – doesn’t bother me. All I could ever ask for is a civil evening. Drip water through the kitchen but be sure to check your hard look in the mudroom because we will not be serving debacle tonight.
You think about food, I think about music – it wasn’t always so rigid. With the soft patter of domesticity come the unnamed roles. I was stuck between down tempo muted trumpet ala Miles leaning against a card table in some smoky, downtown studio and the sleepy, whispered rock our son tends to favor. My days of starting parties with Parliament and/or Funkadelic have gone the way of the Dodo.
One would hope conversation to remain in the softball format, much like a scandalized President on Meet the Press. Let’s all be civil – questions and comments pertaining to war, religion, social status and past lives stay in the mudroom with the dirty looks and blood-feud grudges. Feel free to recommend your favorite falafel spot but please do refrain from any lengthy dissertations on the nature of Islam. Thanks.
Eleven people attending dinner, two extra leaves in the dining room table, and not a one can make the claim that they know someone – intimate or otherwise – involved in The War. Of course, this fact does not disqualify the numerous fierce opinions ready to erupt the moment a lull steers conversation towards the political.
Pre-emptivists and pacifists chewing duck fat, faux French cuisine holding all tongues, for the moment.
There is a world where people pray before dinner, for the safety of their husbands and brothers and daughters who stand to get cut down by a roadside bomb or a fanatic’s blade. They might as well breathe carbon dioxide; their pious souls are alien to us.
Saul came down from Provincetown sometime after noon to help prepare for the evening. Even now, twenty-seven years after the fact, I have regrets about naming our son Saul. His was a bright hope snuffed out, doomed to a life of chronic old age.
The boy sure knows how to shuck oysters. We prepared appetizers, a cheese plate and the oysters, conveniently skirting the topic of his datelessness.
‘I’ve been allotted a small space in a new gallery, off main street behind that ice cream shop you like. Three of my paintings – one of those murals you saw.’
His enthusiasm warms me and I always fear my praise to be inadequate, thus rendering it to a subtext of conversation.
‘So, will they be selling the paintings for you?’
‘That’s the idea. The gallery takes a good chunk of the sale, but the exposure will really help me out. All the foot traffic, plenty of tourists and folks like you and mom who would never see my work otherwise.’
Oh, the stiff jab to the square status I’ve been trying so hard to ignore.
‘Bob will be here tonight. You should talk to him, I think he’d like to commission you to do some work. You should see his new house – plenty of walls to fill. And he’s got the pockets to fill ‘em, believe me.’
I know that Saul will never ask Bob on his own – the artist is not a salesman. He can shuck with the deft hand of a surgeon, he can paint the dunes and magnify their beauty to the point where it physically hurts the eyes, really, but our son is hopeless when it comes to self-promotion.
‘Thing is - if I don’t start selling paintings on the Cape soon, well, I think I’m heading back to New York.’
‘You’ll play music again?’
‘In some form or another – I was part of a family there. A community. Finding work is not the issue. It’s about the community for me.’
‘That’s your decision but we’re up here as a family. I think that with what New York has become and the memories we’ve left there, I think our home is here now.’
Home is where we are, geography is an afterthought. Our family is here and this is our home. In my silence, I long for the city more than anyone. In this silence, I wonder how men ate oysters before some bright one curved the knife, optimizing the arc of the blade for bivalve shucking.
Our son, our boy, is a man. Standing with his shoulders jutting out, shucking oysters – the face of a man, a few days’ stubble, and a cigarette hanging from the corner of his mouth because he knows you will not come outside yet. We built this deck together; we’re out here getting ready for a party.
There is no tipping point, no discernable moment when things go bad. Coats are piled up on our bed, folks bump around the deck and living room with drinks in hand, people’s eyes tell as much as their words. I try to pick your words out of the air, hoping that you can at least enjoy the company. You can and yet, you cannot.
It was so nice of you to buy flowers for tonight.
Sometimes we just can’t do it. We can push ourselves along, tell ourselves whatever it takes to get there, but we just can’t do it. I understand. Our friends and family, louts and lovers gather around your duck but it’s still hard to smile. I can laugh all night long – that doesn’t mean shit. We’re all coping, slack-jawed in awe of each other’s coping skills.
‘What the U.S. is doing right now is unprecedented. Never in history has an administration shown such contempt for the…’
Please. Fucking. Stop it. I say this to myself, willing my plea into the minds of our guests. I hear Abu Graib this and Guantanmo that and I see my plea gasping for air on the lacquered hardwood.
You’re shut off – political lobotomy. I fear that any words leaving your mouth from this point on will be nothing more than the verbal equivalent of drool. I’m sorry it came to this but nobody wants to sit around with idle chitchat anymore. It’s not a discussion unless it’s discourse. We don’t talk about feelings and we certainly don’t talk about little Billy’s soccer team. You want pleasant, mindless banter, go watch reality TV.
Dinner is a telling illustration of the subtle art of repression. Outburst flare up only to be smothered in a vacuum, tucked away for postprandial conversations back home. For a while there, I thought you might pull through.
‘Thank you. It’s a simple glaze, really. Some orange juice, some stock that I bought at the store.’ Just there, yeah, you were actually smiling. ‘And some red wine and finely minced shallots. I think that’s the key, you make the shallots almost like a paste, almost. Just keep dicing and mincing until you have a paste.’
After dinner we move out to the deck – it’ll soak up a few drinks on this night. I’m surprised that now, in this day and age, a considerable number of us still smoke, Saul and myself included, but it certainly keeps the mosquitoes away.
I’m talking to Ned Hawthorn, who is drunk, about water law and I see Saul standing above you. He wraps his arms around your neck and rests his scruffy head on your shoulder. You take his smoke out of his mouth, holding it like the novice you are, and cautiously take a drag. He just kisses your hair and takes his smoke back.
You’re down for the count. Before I can even respond to Ned’s blathering, you’re sitting out there on the lawn, not far from the marsh, but I can’t see you.
About the author:
Dennis Carey lives in Boulder, Colorado. This is his first published piece of fiction.