Their Country House
The force of her wings, as she flaps down from the fence, pushes over a nearly empty cup of beer. I've never seen a duck this close. In the city, we have pigeons. And I would never let a pigeon eat a piece of cheese from my hand."Don't be afraid," Jenny says. "She won't hurt you." I jerk my hand back anyway. Jenny and Tara laugh. The larger of the two, the male, I assume, is watching territorially from his perch on the gate. He's bobbing his head violently in my direction. I drop the cheese onto the ground and get up for another beer. The female watches me walk into the house.The two ducks belong to the neighbors. They're kept in a pen at night for protection. There were six ducks when Geoff and Jenny moved into this house. The other four were found in the neighbors' yard with their heads gone, but their bodies fully intact.
"Neighborhood kids?" I offered.
Geoff leaned in, making the most of his anecdote. "The wounds weren't clean. The heads had been ripped off."
The neighbors had accused Brewster of killing them, but Brewster's not that kind of dog, Geoff says. And I agree. He's not aggressive enough. He doesn't even chase the ducks when they flap down into the yard. He sits there with an annoyed look on his face, like he can't be bothered.
Through the kitchen window, I watch Tara and her sister in the backyard, feeding cheese to the female. I wonder how easily a duck could snap a finger off a woman. And would it just swallow it down with the cheese? The view, framed through the window, is like a painting of some made-up place. The entire yard slopes down on a thirty-degree angle from the northwest side toward the house. The back corner post is so high, it's nearly level with the second story windows. The fence, like something rustic from a pioneers book, winds around the property with thick forest pressing against its edge along the north. If you follow the hill downward, southeast, past the house and through the neighbor's yard, it falls to a deep brown cedar brook. You can hear it gurgling at night. Tara wants to walk to it, to take some pictures. I told her she can go by herself.
The hiss from my beer bottle opening startles Brewster momentarily. He lowers his head again and relaxes back into a lazy half-sleep by the cabinet.
"How can they afford this place?" I ask Tara up in the guest room. She has her shirt up over her head, changing into a t-shirt for the hike.
"Keep it down," she warns me.
"They can't hear me. They're outside."
"I don't care. Keep it down."
"Geoff can't make that much, and I know that Jenny's not paying for this place with her piano lessons."
"They made investments."
"Bullshit," I say.
"Keep it down," she says, standing there in her bra.
The two sisters go off to find the brook, and Geoff warns them to be careful because the neighbors are still mad about the ducks. The breeze is cool after a hot day. I'm finishing another beer and imagining those headless ducks sprawled out across the grass, like sleeping children.
When asked for his opinion, Geoff leans back on two legs of his wooden chair and thinks carefully, as though this were the first time he considered it. "A dog, probably. A wild dog," he says. "Either that or a cougar."
"You get cougars around here?" I ask.
"From time to time, I think," he says. "They're all over the place. In the country." He has his bare feet pressed against the table, balancing himself in the chair. I can see the calluses on his soles. His calves are thick and hairy. I'm surprised by the size of his biceps when he rests his hands behind his head. He's stronger than I'd remembered. If it ever came down to it, I'm sure he could take me out.
"So, Aaron," he says, "How about you and Tara?"
"What about us?"
"That's not really in our plans right now." Just now, just as he is now, I could knock him over with one push.
Tara and Jenny return from the brook soaking wet and smelling of pungent cedar. Jenny slipped and pulled Tara in with her. Tara's bra is clearly visible through her t-shirt, and it appears that Jenny is not wearing one. I grab the camera from Tara's hand and inspect it closely for water damage. I wipe the lens clean with my t-shirt.
"It's just a camera," Jenny says. Her nipple is pointing at me.
Geoff laughs. It's a five-hundred-dollar camera. Tara walks past me, into the house. Jenny flops down onto Geoff's lap, wet and all.
I knock on the bedroom door and Tara tells me to come in. She's sitting naked on the bed, staring out the window. Her wet clothes are in a bunch on the floor.
"Why are you naked?" I say.
"My clothes are wet."
"You have other clothes."
She turns to look at me for a moment--I can see that she has been crying or is about to cry--and then turns back to the window. I love the way the knuckles of her backbone press out from her skin. I love to feel the soft hairs just beneath her neck. When I first met her, I thought she looked a little like Ingrid Bergman. I don't think that so much anymore.
I was going to sit on the bed, but I've ended up on my back somehow. The room turns a pleasant dusk blue. Tara asks me a question, but I don't fully grasp what it is she's trying to say.
When I wake up, the room is completely dark. I feel around for Tara, but I'm alone. I'm still wearing my shoes, and my head is throbbing. When I flick the switch in the bathroom, I'm blinded. My urine is clear, almost like water. I drink for a long time directly from the faucet.
Downstairs, in the kitchen, are the remains of dinner, still on the table. Two mostly eaten fish in congealed oil and lemon, rice stuck to the bottom of a pot and three string beans in a bowl. There are two empty bottles of white wine and the cap to a bottle of scotch. I can hear faint laughter coming from the living room.
Tara and Geoff are dimly lit by a number of candles. Jenny is curled up asleep in a chair with Brewster on the floor beside her. I stand in the doorway for a full minute before they notice. They're talking about something I can't quite understand. They're drunk and I'm dazed. It has something to do with Jenny.
Tara turns in my direction just enough to catch me in the corner of her eye. She's startled.
"Jesus, Aaron. It's you."
"The dead has arisen," Geoff says.
"What are you guys talking about," I say.
"Nothing," Tara laughs.
"You want a nightcap, Aaron?" Geoff displays the bottle for me. "You can have Jenny's glass or you can go in the kitchen--"
Tara's toes are curled up beneath her thighs on the couch. Her hair is hanging in front of her eyes.
"I have a headache," I say. "How come you didn't wake me for dinner?"
"We tried," Geoff says.
"You were out of it, Aaron," Tara says.
"There's still some food," Geoff says.
Geoff and Tara stay awake with me for about a half hour. They make pleasant conversation, but no laughing. I don't say anything. I just sit there. Geoff nudges Jenny awake, and they all stumble upstairs. The scotch is still on the floor. Tara tells me not to stay up too late. We have to leave in the morning.
So, it's just me and Brewster and the bottle of scotch. I have the impression that there's no air left in this room. I grab the bottle.
Brewster follows me outside and lies down at my feet. I don't feel like drinking, but it's there. The trees are dark and the sky is full of stars. We don't get these stars in the city. The breeze is cool and carries on it the faint smell of autumn approaching. The scotch is warm going down.
I know that I was dreaming upstairs, when I was starting to come out of sleep. I could see it clearly in the bathroom, but now it's faded. I'm certain that it had something to do with those ducks. They're somewhere off in their pen now, probably sleeping.
When I was a kid, I murdered a pigeon. Its foot was stuck to a glue trap in an alleyway, and I brought a brick down on its head. I don't know why the image of that just came to me. Its brains were a swirl of yellow and red. Brewster is up, growling into the dark. There's something coming through the fence at the top of the hill. It's impossible to see what it is. Only movement. It's not a dog. I don't think so. The air is suddenly still, and Brewster is barking loudly at this thing, which is, even now, skulking low to the ground across the lawn. It's moving slowly down the hill in our direction.