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Friday, December 2, 2011

Photos of the Dead, Benjamin Spies

Elena comes out of a cartwheel and finds a bruise forming on the pad of flesh at the top of her palm. She must have rolled over a rock. She calls time-out, but the other girl keeps cartwheeling, not quite in a straight line, but steadily inward like a rolling coin that will come to rest. The other kids cheer and declare Amanda the winner. Elena protests, and when the younger brothers and sisters rush out to the green to try for themselves, she drops to an obtrusive seat in the grass. She is barefoot, like most of the children, in a summer tank top and polyester capris. Shivani, the young girl from the apartment next door, tumbles out of a failed cartwheel and nearly collides with Elena. Mrs. Patel pokes her head out of a sliding glass door in building 744 and calls Shivani and her brother to dinner. The warm and savory smell of masala drifts from their kitchen, the taste of which Elena could not quite appreciate the last time she ate dinner there.

The atrium in the center of the Oak Glen apartment complex is a long stretch of apple-green grass, heavily treated with lawn chemicals and intersected at the thirds by concrete walks. In the center of the green is a small pond, the area perhaps of one of the apartments. It was dug out of the earth by a bulldozer and filled with bright, blue-green water, which is dyed again every few years to remain picturesque. A length of PVC pipe runs under the water, from the stony shore to a small spray fountain. Ducks congregate on this pond during the summer months, so long as they are not pushed out by the larger Canada Geese. Oak Glen's buildings are of emphatically practical design, squarish three-story edifices with fifteen units each, faced with rose-colored brick and topped with canted, gray-shingled gables. The apartments face outward so that the balconies and back patios face the atrium, giving the impression of an exact and angular town square.

Elena continues to pull up grass and throw it into the wind, even as the other children go in for dinner. The Camposes eat later because Dad works later. The sun is waning in a halcyon slowness. She resumes her cartwheels now, practicing for a rematch.

Another patio door opens, this one in front of the pond in building 742, and Mr. McConnell emerges. In his arms are a loaf of white bread and a glass of milk. Almost as soon as the door opens, the ducks totter toward him from the pond, shaking their feathers free of the bluish muck. Mr. McConnell sits down in a plastic lawn chair, sets his glass of milk on the patio next to him, and begins to tear off pieces of bread. His eyebrows are thick and black, as is most of his hair even still. The clues to his real age lie in the creases worn at his lips and beneath his eyes, the wine colored spot on his neck, the pair of errant hairs among the pores at the tip of his nose. He sees Elena and waves.

“It's dinnertime for the ducks, Elena,” he says. His voice is terse with friendly discipline. “You want to help?”

The girl nods and skips over to him. “There's a lot of them,” she says, counting. Already a half-dozen mallards make their way up the sloping green to Mr. McConnell's patio, with more swimming to shore and a few fluttering in from elsewhere. The males' heads gleam with brilliant green feathers; the spotty, brown hens squawk quietly with each step.

“Word must be getting out,” Mr. McConnell says. He laughs. He gives Elena a handful of bread pieces. She rolls them into tiny bullets with her fingertips.

“Okay,” he says, “now start by throwing some out a few feet ahead of you, out of your reach. You have to earn their trust before they'll get close.”

Elena flings the handful over their heads. They whirl around and swarm the scant pieces, wings wide in a gentle frenzy. Mr. McConnell laughs again.

“But you want to bring them in closer, honey. Here, watch.”

He tosses out a single piece of bread, picked clean of the crust and rolled carefully into a ball. The nearest to him, a fat female with its head half-sunk into its neck feathers, takes cautious steps forward and snatches it up. Its eyes are like little black beads of glass, exactly like those of a stuffed duck, with which Elena is more familiar. The hen watches them with one of those eyes, in three-quarter profile, betraying nothing of its thoughts or misgivings.

“Is it scared?” Elena asks.

“Maybe a little. She's new. But see that little guy, over there?” Mr. McConnell points. “That's Ozzie. Nothing scares him.”

He drops a piece between his shoes, and Ozzie waddles right onto the patio and eats it.

“You have names for them?” Elena says.

“Sure. There's Ozzie, and that one's Matilda, and that slender guy in back is Pete.”

“How can you tell them apart?”

“Oh, I know them and they know me. We do this often enough.”

He holds another ball out in the palm of his hand which Ozzie swallows quickly. The other ducks, a dozen or more now, see that there is no danger here. They form a half-circle closing on the girl and the old man, gulping down and sometimes scuffling over the bread Mr. McConnell throws to them. Elena is frightened; she backs up to his chair and stands on her tiptoes.

“It's all right,” he says to her. “They're gentle. They won't bite you. Look.”

He lays a piece just on top of the girl's foot. A drake with a crooked wing eats it, barely grazing her skin and sending a ticklish chill up her leg. She smiles. Mr. McConnell hands her more bread and she gingerly doles it out, mindful of fairness to each. The birds seem to shuffle in time with her, yapping happily, beads of water glistening on their waxy feathers. Elena feels for a moment gracious and essential, like a mother bird.

“They trust you,” Mr. McConnell says.

Elena sees that his patio door is still open.

“What if one of them goes inside your apartment?” she says.

“Ha, I hope I'm that lucky,” he says. “I'm fixing to catch one of them and eat him.”

The girl's mouth drops in giddy surprise. “No, you aren't!”

“Oh, you bet I am. Going to fatten one up and eat him. Like maybe this little fella here,” he says, pointing with his shoe to the bird he calls Winston. “He looks tasty.”

“Mr. McConnell, you can't eat these ducks!”

He laughs. “No, I suppose I can't.” He rises from his chair and brushes the front of his windbreaker with his hand. The ducks around him do not flinch, but scan the patio for crumbs. “But it is time for dinner. You'd better get home, Elena. Thanks for helping.”

He kicks at the air, scattering the ducks.



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