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Laura, Toucan Editrice

Friday, December 2, 2011

Photos of the Dead, Continued

Mrs. Campos pokes with a wooden spoon at something in the frying pan. It smells of pepper: maybe hamburgers again, or crabcakes. A dishrag is draped over her shoulder, and her ponytail is coming undone in the humidity. Elena has set the kitchen table, and now kneels in her chair to watch her mother.

“Where's Amanda tonight?” Mrs. Campos asks.

“I'm mad at her,” Elena says. “We had a cartwheel contest and she cheated.”

“That's too bad,” her mother says, smiling to herself.

“But Mr. McConnell let me feed the ducks.”

“Again? He really cares for those things, doesn't he.”

“He said he was going to eat one of them.”

Mrs. Campos laughs. “I'm sure he was kidding, honey. Look at the water those ducks swim in. That's disgusting.”

Elena shrugs. She pulls at the backrest, rocking the chair, and her mother scolds her.

“Is he lonely?” Elena says.

“What do you mean, sweetheart?”

The girl shrugs again.

“He's probably a little lonely,” her mother says, as she stirs pan. “He's been married quite a few times, and now he's got nobody to keep him company. Nobody but the ducks, anyway.” She looks over her shoulder at Elena. “I'll bet he appreciates you stopping by, though.”

Darkness finally settles during the nine o'clock news. Two men were shot dead this morning in a robbery in the city. Later, there is a human interest story about a fourth grader collecting soup can lids to raise money for leukemia research, the disease which killed his brother. The old man watches with the TV on mute; he can surmise as much about the dead from the grainy school photographs that flash onto the screen, zooming out quickly and then moving on, as if to drop the pictures onto a desk and walk away.

One such picture is on his mind tonight. In it is a young man in a short-sleeved Air Force uniform and sunglasses, American, with his arm around a smiling Lao woman. It is in a tarnished pewter frame in a shoebox in the man's closet. On the back of the picture is a date: January 1958, Korat Base, Thailand.

His upstairs neighbor is still finishing a six-pack and a joint out on the balcony. Vladmir has made this a regular habit in the months since his wife left him. His vicious coughing fits punctuate the silence. Before long there is the sound of Vladmir's television upstairs, and the old man's time has come. He switches off his own TV set and retrieves a loaf of bread from the kitchen cupboard.

The breeze outside is neither cool nor warm: it is just movement, tickling the hairs on his arm. He rolls tiny balls of bread-stuff. He is thinking about pictures of the dead, of how tempting it is to read vacancy and obliviousness into their faces, how he finds himself always counting backward from the day he lost someone to the date the picture was taken. You have seven more years, perhaps, or you will never see that Chrysler coming on your left.

The atrium is still. Light pollution from the city creates an unearthly glow in the southern sky, above building 744. Many apartments have gone dark and the spray fountain has shut off, leaving a glassy pool on which sit the familiar silhouettes. The old man whistles once and they stir, then squawk and climb the slope to him.

The ducks are not fazed, even at this odd hour. The old man squats and the ducks encircle him, webbed feet stomping with delight. They flutter in excitement, wings and necks stretched skyward as if in a prayer posture, then scrambling for communion among fissures in the concrete. It is a strange kind of gaiety: a duck's face is expressionless, the man notes, not like that of a dog or cat. The beaks open and close mechanically. No pain, no fear, no joy. Vacancy and obliviousness.

“Here, boy,” the old man whispers to the bird he calls Ozzie. He holds out a closed fist. “Come get it, boy.”

The bird obeys. When it comes close enough, the old man's hand snaps open like a switchblade and seizes the animal by the neck. The other ducks flee at once, as if warned by a projected thought, and take flight toward the spectral glow in the south.

He squeezes the bird's throat so that the only noise it makes is a pathetic hiss, and clutches it to his chest to stop the beating of its frantic wings. He half expects to see terror in Ozzie's face at last, but there is nothing there, just two eyes like amber pebbles and a beak wrenched open.

The necessary utensils are already laid out on the kitchen counter. The sink has been cleaned thoroughly for the first time in months; in it is a bowl with lemongrass and a small pool of fish sauce. The old man selects a long, thin knife and pins the duck face-down on the edge of the sink, where it squirms with pitiful effort. He pierces the flesh beneath the wing, as he was taught years ago, and holds the bird in place as it bleeds into the bowl. When it is dead, he sets it into the other sink basin and runs hot water over it. He stirs the blood.

The dish is called duck larb luert. The work is difficult for a single cook, although the dish calls for a much larger type of duck than the common mallard. Once it is plucked, the old man flays the carcass with care, the sleeves of his only dress shirt rolled up past his elbows. His hands become soiled, the vibrant red of the blood running like watercolor into greenish bile. Memories flutter past his senses like dandelion spores on the breeze. He removes the gall bladder and touches his fingertips to the end of his tongue. Sharp and bitter, the taste brings him back forty-seven years, though only for a moment, to a woman and a life that he once had. Not the first woman and not the last, but the only one he lost.

The entrails, finely chopped, are fried with coriander and mint. The skin and fat of the duck are cooked separately until they begin to shrivel, then topped with fish sauce and garlic. He is careful not to overseason the larb. Moderation is key, she taught him. Restraint. The blood is stirred with water and poured onto a plate to congeal. When it is thick as jelly he spoons the larb over it, a little stringy maybe, but acceptable for a novice. The salt in the seasoning causes the blood to reliquify in tiny puddles.

The old man sets the table for himself and retrieves a picture in a tarnished pewter frame from his closet. The picture sits across from him. He opens a five dollar bottle of wine and lays a napkin over his lap. He's sweating, he notices, and returns again from the bedroom with a clean shirt.

After so much time and another marriage her face is almost gone from his mind's eye. The smell of the larb luert brings it back to him for a fleeting second, borrows a memory of a birthday dinner in their tiny Bridgeport kitchen from a place so deep in his heart he cannot reach it consciously. Blood smells only like blood, he thinks, sweet and metallic. He tastes a spoonful. A little salty, but not bad. Rolling the thickened blood over his tongue, he greets memories like lost friends: sharing drinks at a bar on-base, awake in bed naming children they would never have together.

Like photographs of the dead, these memories are lanterns without light. That flame was put out by a drunk driver forty-seven years ago, on her way home from night school. If the person is only a shade, then what good is the memory. He raises his glass, and wishes the photograph a happy anniversary.

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