portion of the artwork for Nancy Au's short story

Louise
Nancy Au


May Li and her wife, Lin, ate lunch every Friday on a grassy corner of a city park two blocks from Oakland Community College where they worked in the bursar’s office as accountants. Today they’d met for an early lunch, an hour before noon, but the day was already boiling. A thin haze hung in the air, smothering May’s appetite.

Lin peeled back the bread on her sandwich and sighed. “I wanted banana on my peanut butter.”

“You already ate all the bananas.”

May watched as her wife folded the sandwich in half and took a bite out of the center. Lin lifted the sandwich up to her face and peered at May through the bread’s oozing hole. May wondered how Lin, who had the spirited appetite of a teenage girl, and who would eat the horn off a rhino if she was hungry enough, remained so slender while her own small frame had begun to widen the moment she turned 30, so that she resembled a shrimp dumpling.

Lost in self-consciousness, May did not notice the duck that approached the couple until Lin squealed.

“Oh my god! A duck! Look at it!” Lin’s brown, almond-shaped eyes were wide with excitement, her long black hair spilled over her pink shoulders. She tossed her unfinished sandwich into their shared lunch cooler as she bent down to get closer to the bird.

“It has one eye. And … god. One toe. It’s got one toe.” May took a picture with her cell phone. She focused the camera on the scabby, bald patch of skin on the bird’s head where only one iridescent green feather clung. She imagined the bloody, beak-cracking fights it must have been in. Was this duck the bully or the victim?

“Ducks don’t have toes. That’s web. I’m going to name her. Louise,” Lin said softly. “Little Louise. Come. Come.” She tried to tempt the bird with her peanut butter sandwich, giggled each time the duck inched toward her.

“What are we going to do with half a duck?”

“She’s all healed.”

“Its eye socket looks like a … a peach pit!” May said. But Lin did not hear because the bird had walked into her outstretched arms.

“Oh my god. This is so amazing,” Lin whispered loudly, trembling with excitement.

“Something is wrong with that duck, Lin. Can birds get rabies? Mange?”

“Nothing’s wrong with her. She’s perfect.”

“We don’t have room for a duck.”

“You said it. She’s only half a duck.”

“This is just crazy.”

“She looks sad. Look, she looks so sad,” said Lin.

“It’s fine. It belongs out here … in nature.”

“This isn’t nature,” said Lin. “I’ve seen golf courses more wild than this. Besides. Look. She only has one eye. She can’t see cars coming from her left! Or dogs or cats or anything else that eats ducks, for that matter. Here.” She tipped her chin at May’s pocket. “Take a picture of us.”

* * *

“How many lamp posts have you walked into, little one?” Lin asked the bird as she stroked its bent feathers.

May rolled her eyes.

“And see how tame she is? She’s so tame! I think she already loves me!”

“We can’t take care of a wild animal. You understand, don’t you?”

Hey, Little Ducky Bird,” sang Lin. “Little Duck Bird is flapping its wings and singing a song for me, for me. Little Duck Bird is quacking a song and wagging its tail for me, for meeeee!

“Lin?”

Lin cooed into the bird’s face.

“Lin?”

Lin gently set the duck into the cooler, used the remainder of her peanut butter sandwich as a mattress for the animal. She tickled its back. “Hi, Happiness. Hi, my birdy beast.”

May frowned even though she was secretly impressed by the way the duck responded to her wife by opening and closing its wings slowly and giving a gentle squawk. Why was the bird so tame? Was it sick? Would it get Lin sick? How did Lin get this far in life acting like a child, always in awe of everything? Didn’t she understand that it undermined all the work May put into making people—their supervisor at the bursar’s office, their families, the mechanic, their landlord—take them seriously?

The sun was high in the sky, reflecting off the pond filled with curdles of algae. May felt drowsy and overheated. “Look. I’ve never had a pet before. And there’s nothing appealing about having a bird that’s missing half its body parts. Can you blame me? And what about diseases? Don’t birds have bird diseases? What if you get sick?”

“I won’t get sick.”

“You don’t know how to take care of anything,” said May.

“Just picture it. You and me would come home from work and Louise would waddle to the front door, nip at our pant legs, hop up on the hall tree, bleat her wings, and squawk and wiggle her feathery tail until we pet her little bald spot. We’d be a family!”

“You kill cactuses. If I weren’t around, you’d probably kill our rock garden.”

“You know,” Lin said, squinting into the glare, “I dreamed last night I was right here … and I was looking for something … and the pond was melted butter, and full of breadcrumbs. Crumbs crumbs crumbs. Bread all over the place. Soggy, salty, buttery. And I think, now, maybe I was looking for our duck.”

“Mmmmm, sounds good. Now I want to go home and eat something greasy.”

“Stop it. Anyway, I dreamed that I went in the pond, and I thought it would be warm but it was cold. Cold. And I couldn’t see through the yellow …”

“You are not its mom,” said May.

“And I saw …”

“You don’t know how to take care of a duck,” said May.

“I saw you. Underwater. I wanted you to climb up. But you were … down deep. Down and in the dark and you failed.”

“Failed?”

“I don’t know.” Lin picked an iridescent green feather off her lap, twirled it. “Yeah. I just got this sense that you failed.”

“I’m not sorry that I don’t want a duck.”

“You should be. Is taking care of a duck so difficult?”

“It’s more than just bread crumbs, Lin. It’s taking time off work for visits to the vet. It’s duck-proofing our entire house. You don’t know how to take care of anything. You just go through life jumping from one thing to the next. First, it was training to swim the English Channel. Then, it was cooking classes. Then, piano. Then, you wanted to move to Ireland, Japan, Spain … I’m the longest term anything that you’ve ever had. We take this duck in … but who’s going to be taking care of it in two months?”

“You don’t even have siblings. You don’t know love ’til you have a duck. You won’t know ’til you know,” said Lin.

“I don’t know love because I was an only child?” responded May, trying to control the heat rising in her cheeks. “I feel love. I feel it every time I hug my friends … or you.”

“I didn’t mean that you don’t know love. I just mean …”

“I take care of you. I listen to you. I comfort you.”

“Louise needs us and you can’t bend.”

“Are you telling me that I don’t know love because I don’t give a shit about this duck? Do you ever listen to yourself? What do you really want? Why do you need this duck?”

“Nothing! I just want something more.” Lin threw her hands up in the air.

“All you’re talking about is ego. You find a little Louise. So what! She eats, shits, shits and eats. Then she resents you for the next 18 years and expects you to fork out $200k for her college and down payment. If that’s love …”

“That’s not what I mean.”

“I don’t want it. … My life is full. Full.”

* * *

May was too hot to walk anywhere. After their argument, she looked around for the ice cream vendor that circled the park on hot days. She wanted a decadent It’s-It ice cream sandwich, or a slice of frozen cheesecake, something regretful to keep her mind off what Lin had said. She wanted desperately to dip her feet in the water despite being disgusted by the coating of lime-green algae. And, although she was certain that at least two feet of the pond’s depth was due to the thick underwater carpet of bird shit, she started to take off her shoes. Suddenly, she spotted a figure in green walking with purpose toward them. It was a park ranger.

“Uh oh. Hide the duck, Lin,” said May in a frantic whisper.

“What?”

“Hide the duck! Look,” she gestured with her eyes, “it’s a ranger.”

“Maybe he’s here to give us a medal for saving the duck.”

“No. He’s here to take the duck.”

As the ranger got closer, May could see that he was broad-shouldered, with a deep tan, perhaps Filipino. He stopped a few feet away, near enough that May caught a whiff of the man’s aftershave, a peculiar blend of sweet pickle, metal, and rose.

Lin smiled crookedly at him.

“Excuse me,” the ranger began, “are you leaving with that duck?”

May cleared her throat. “Is there a problem, officer?”

“Is that your duck?” The ranger reached for a notepad in his back pocket.

“This is our duck,” chimed in Lin, straight-faced, her eyes bright, brown mirrors.

“Were you planning to leave with that duck?” asked the ranger as he started to write in the notepad.

May, terrified of lying outright now that she was certain her wife’s doggedness might really get them in trouble, responded, “Not exactly.”

“I don’t see what’s wrong about that. What did we do wrong?” said Lin.

The ranger stopped writing to look at Lin.

“Geez. All right, look.” Lin placed the duck into the cooler, and closed the lid. May knew that her wife was employing her useless out-of-sight-out-of-mind tactic. “We are saving this duck. It would die without us. And this one here,” Lin jutted her thumb at May, “thinks I have no maternal instincts!”

“Look, it’s a serious crime to take wildlife out of the park.” The ranger clicked his ballpoint pen a few times, studied what he’d written.

Lin furrowed her brow. “If we take the duck, maybe you can ask us for something that you want. Do you like ice cream? This park has great ice cream.”

The ranger looked up from his notepad. “You can’t take the duck.”

“My wife, the ever-forever right, missus with a plan. You can’t marry someone and then tell them you don’t want a baby and then take away their only duck.”

“I’m sorry, Lin,” said May, who was now sweating profusely.

“You take over my life and you say you’re sorry!”

“Lin, this isn’t the time,” said May under her breath.

The ranger cleared his throat to get the couple’s attention. “Look, it’s a felony.”

“Really? A felony?” May asked, alarmed.

“You’ve got to leave the duck. If you leave the duck, we can just forget everything. I won’t even write you a ticket.”

“No, you look,” said Lin, her voice low, steady. “Louise is the victim here. We are saving her.” She took the duck out of the cooler and cradled it. People in the park had started to gather around them to watch the drama: an old man holding a red balloon, two toddlers clutching their mother’s hands and stepping clumsily like drunkards, a teenage couple. May glanced nervously at their audience. How could her wife make such a fool of them in such a public way?

“I wish you could see yourself,” said May as she took her wife’s picture with her cell phone, “how idiotic you look when you act like this.” The teenagers cheered. May took their picture.

“Stop it.” Lin grabbed at May’s phone.

She dodged her wife’s grasp. “No! I want everyone to remember you like this.”

“Who is everyone?”

“EVERYONE!” May gestured around at the strangers circled around them.

Lin tried to grab the phone again. “This is my Louise!”

May took another picture. Click.

“Go ahead! Take my picture! If you don’t have proof, then we didn’t have this fight. Right? Is that what you need? Do you want proof that we had this fight?” Lin turned to the crowd. “You’re all sheep! You want to be like everyone else!”

“Stop this now!” exploded the ranger.

Lin crossed her arms over her chest. May slid the phone into her pocket.

The ranger took a different notepad out of a pocket, one with yellow and alternating black carbon pages, and began to write. May could not see what he was writing, but glimpsed the word nuisance.

Lin uncrossed her arms, laughed as she mimicked writing on the bird’s back. “Look, May. Look. Who am I? Who am I?”

“Are you crazy, Lin?” said May. “Just let go of the duck!”

Lin, undeterred, used a deep, authoritative voice to mock the ranger. “Look at me. I’m an officer in charge, dressed like asparagus.”

The ranger paused writing to ask, “Are you on drugs?”

“Sometimes,” said Lin.

May jumped in, “No. No, she’s not. No. No. Look, we’re sorry. We won’t take the duck. We don’t even like duck, birds, really anything with feathers. I’m a vegetarian. Look! These shoes are pleather. There’s so much plastic in them you could drink a cup of water out of ’em! Please … Lin? Can you just grow up and apologize to the ranger?”

Lin did not look at either of them; instead, she continued to cradle her duck.

“Lin. Let go of the duck.”

The ranger began to lecture Lin on the sanctity of city laws used to protect animals from people like Lin, pointed out the irony that her manhandling the duck was more harmful to the bird’s survival than the wilderness it lived in. As he tried to pry the bird out of Lin’s arms, the duck stretched out its neck, puffed its chest, then defecated; green-white goo leaked through Lin’s fingers, onto the ranger’s boot.

“Shit!” the ranger shouted, his face turning crimson.

“Literally!” Lin laughed hysterically. “There’s poo on your shoe!”

The ranger, who was at least six inches taller than Lin, tried to grab the duck and accidentally scratched Lin’s arm in the process. May’s wife held tightly to the bird’s trembling, feathery body. The duck squawked loudly when Lin’s finger poked its mangled eye socket.

May pictured jackals, coyotes, rabid dogs—all the things that ate injured ducks. And when she saw the scratches on her wife’s arm turn from pink to red, she reached into the tangle of authority and feather and squawk.

“Stay back!” roared the ranger as he yanked the bird roughly out of Lin’s hands.

* * *

The park “jail” was a hot tin office in a converted metal railroad car on the other side of the pond. While the ranger charged Lin’s credit card to pay for her $250 fine, Lin sat calmly on a hard, wooden bench, studying the room. “This place needs a different look … something a little less … industrial,” she said, looking around at the corrugated walls and tiny window behind the ranger’s head.

“Industrial? That’s what you have to say?” asked May. “We missed a half day of work, 50 deadlines. No one knows where we are. For all they know, we fell into that disgusting pond and died! I’m starving. And we were almost arrested because you couldn’t let go … and you’re worried about how they decorate?”

“My parents taught me how to decorate for a party. It’s got to be festive. It’s got to have ambiance. When my family got together, we’d have music. We’d do menu planning, nice lights. We’d do all the cleaning and setting up the flowers. We’d do ambiance. You can’t have awful food and good ambiance. And you can’t have awful ambiance and good food. But with your parents, god, there’s no ambiance and there’s no good food. When we go there, it’s always so messy. How could you grow up living like that? That’s why I don’t like going there. There’s no ambiance. It’s always the same thing. BBQ chicken, couscous, and salad.”

“Lin. Life isn’t a party.”

Lin signed the receipt, bent down to pick up the empty cooler, and gave the ranger a tired wave before heading for the door.

The sun was lower in the sky, and the park was now filled with families setting up for evening BBQs.

“When my family gets together,” said Lin, “we have fun, we have dance parties. We make fun of each other. We want to enjoy the time and have fun and we do it successfully.”

“A duck wasn’t going to change that.”

“I just wanted to bring home something magical. I want there to be magic in our home.”

“We have magic. Isn’t it enough that we’re together?”

Lin placed the cooler back on the ground. “It’s not enough.”

“We’ve been together for … how long has it been? And look what we’ve gone through.”

“I know,” said Lin.

“My dad stopped speaking to me. Your best friend from college dropped you when you came out. Fuck. My hands still shake when we go home for Christmas together.”

Lin hugged May. When she spoke, her breath was warm and smelled of milk. “Don’t you want to give your mom grandkids?”

“Does it matter? I’m not the son. You’re not the son. And our parents are too Chinese. That shit matters.”

“Why are you so Chinese?”

“You know what we’ve fought … to be here … together,” said May. “And I like my alone time. I like my quiet at night. I like to eat and sleep and shit when I want to. I like spending my time with you.”

“Is that enough?”

“I threw my birth control pills in the trash the day I came out. I never wanted kids.”

“Maybe you just need time to see what it might be like.”

“To be like what?”

“To be a family,” said Lin.

“I don’t need more time. I already have that when I’m with you.”

“Give it more time.”

“It’s been seven years.” May sighed heavily, rested her chin on Lin’s shoulder.

“It’s just time.”

* * *

Lin and May returned home. The women sat on their front step in the growing dusk. May passed her wife a lit joint, looked up into the sky. “What a nightmare.”

“There’s something I want to say,” said Lin after taking a deep inhale from the joint.

“Not now.”

Lin released the smoke. “Me and the duck.”

“I didn’t know who you were today.”

“We were outlaws! Like Bonnie and Clyde.”

“Clyde’s a dude.” May took a drag off the joint.

“Fine. We were like Thelma and Louise. Whatever. … But I miss my duck. I already miss her,” said Lin.

“I hate that name. Thelma.”

“OK. Fine. We were Louise and Louise. Lou. Does it matter?”

The two women sat in silence for a few minutes. Lin put her arm around May’s shoulder. May leaned in, pressed her nose into Lin’s soft cheek, breathed in deeply, admired the lingering scent of salty sweat, the park’s grassiness, and their passionate, feathery day. She kissed Lin’s ear, gently tugged her earlobe with her teeth. Lin laughed, gently pushed her away, and sighed. “Do you think I’m a fuckup?”

“No. I keep thinking about Louise shitting on the ranger’s boot.”

Lin laughed. “No. I mean. What are we doing?”

“We learn from our fuckups.”

“I don’t like to think about the past. I believe in Future,” said Lin.

“How can you believe in something that doesn’t exist yet? That’s …”

“Remember I gave you that earthquake preparedness kit last Christmas?” asked Lin.

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. And you loved it.”

“So?”

That’s preparing for Future. That’s Future. Right now, there’s no shaking. No trembling. Nothing. Everything flat and level. Clear skies.” Lin smiled generously at May.

“What does that have to do with anything?” May wrinkled her brow.

“It means that there will be cracked sidewalks, collapsed bridges in our future. That’s what. You can’t see it?”

“No.”

“Why not?” asked Lin.

“I can’t. All I see right now is your sick duck.”

Our sick duck.”

“No. Just a duck. A half-blind, limping, lame duck.”

Lin tried to give May a playful kiss, licked her lips dramatically.

May turned away. “Let’s go inside.”

Lin smacked the step with her palm. “Not until you tell me that you can see it.”

“See what?”

“What our family could’ve been.”

“With a duck?”

“Yes. No. Well … just … a family. I guess … our family.”

May thought about Louise, her tattered feathers, her scab and eye and toe. She thought about her wife cradling the mangled bird, about Lin’s desire for the uncertainty of motherhood, filling up their lives with motherly duties and birdie pleasures. She thought about having to take care of another living thing that she didn’t understand, that she wasn’t sure if she would ever understand, that would fill her own life with more unanswerable questions.

“May?” Lin bumped her shoulder against May’s.

“OK. Yeah, OK. Let’s go inside.”

“You saw it, didn’t you! You saw it.” Lin clapped her hands in miniature cheer.

“And so what? What does that make me? What am I supposed to do now?”

“You can … be up in the air! Turn any way you want!”

“And?” asked May.

“And. Whatever. As long as you’re doing something. Bending. Something! OK?”

May started to stand until Lin tugged her shirt hem.

“Loma Prieta. You remember it?” asked Lin.

May sat back down. “Of course.”

“It was 1989. In the parking lot. I was 9. Just skipping and skipping. And there’s this man. He has no fucking clue what’s happening. He sees me, leaps out of his Volvo, shouts, ‘Stop jumping on my car!’ But I was skipping … didn’t feel the earthquake … up in the air.” Lin took a long drag from the joint, held her breath like a champion swimmer. She closed her eyes to exhale, and leaned into May’s shoulder. “Think about our whole life as being up in the air. And we are Thelma and Thelma.”

“Louise, Louise.”

“You are you. In the air. Big and light.”



Nancy Au’s Comments

I want to express how much I enjoyed the revision process, responding to several editors’ truly insightful questions and comments, and working with them to deepen the story. I am so thankful to Carolina (who was my faculty advisor at SFSU, and who helped me with an early version of this story), and the FRiGG editors for pushing me to explore the minds of May and Lin, to force myself to really sit with the characters’ fears and desires, to stop myself from running away from the difficult issues that arise in their relationship. What resulted in the end are four motley characters (if you include the duck) who are pieces of who I am, as well as pieces of my friends who have struggled through making similar types of life-altering decisions. For myself, I relate to May’s desire for solitude and steadiness, to Lin’s impetuousness, the park ranger’s reliance on rules, the duck’s silence. But I do not relate to the idea of adding banana slices to peanut butter sandwiches. The only acceptable addition is warm honey drizzled in a symmetrical, even, zigzag pattern.


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FRiGG: A Magazine of Fiction and Poetry | Issue 49 | Spring/Summer 2017