Endowed in perpetuity by the Glenna Luschei Fund for Excellence

Sitting Ducks

Kathleen Murray
From Prairie Schooner, Vol. 85, No. 4 (Winter 2011)

He notices the ducks in the charity shop on his way to the hospital. Closing his eyes, he sees them floating on goat’s milk in a marble vat. Their yellowness, warm as sunshine, benign as an egg yolk.

“Do they float?” Carl asks the woman behind the counter.

“Rubber ducks are made for baths,” she says. “Water, et cetera.”

The woman’s smile is the grimy rim on a bathtub, a high-water mark from a previous occupant. Carl pictures his ducks bobbing around a hot tub, wings reflecting buttery moon sheen in the rising steam. His ducks now, for he buys all nine.

 

“What have you got for me today?” Gunny asks when Carl arrives in.

One at a time he takes the ducks out of his rucksack, and hands them to Gunny who lines them up in their supply closet, on top of the bleach containers. The nine ducks sit there, facing the two porters as they clink their shot glasses and light up the first smoke of the shift.

“Beautiful. Collector’s items,” Gunny says.

They keep the ducks in the closet for three days. Carl is fond of each one without preference for any individual bird.

“Pick one,” Gunny says.

“I can’t.”

“It’s like Sophie’s choice. You have to be able to make the tough calls.”

“The fuck is Sophie?”

“Forget it. Different but equal, that’s love too,” Gunny says. “I know where you’re coming from.”

Gunny pours himself another shot and looks to the shelf of his family photos.

“If I had to choose between Hannah and Kylie? No, I couldn’t slip a bee’s wing between them.”

Carl starts hauling sacks of dirty laundry onto the trolley. Gunny is a few rounds ahead of him, all set to go on the break-up with Celia and the barring order and how he never sees his kids. He doesn’t stir off his seat so Carl picks up the nearest duck to hand, the Hawaii Hula one, and throws it at Gunny’s head.

“Duck,” he says.

It’s enough to get things moving.

“That’d be my dream job,” Gunny says on the way down to collect the fresh laundry, winking at his reflection in the lift. “To be yer man on the radio who rings up with the big cash giveaway. Hello stranger, next minute, here’s a thousand bucks.”

“Prefer to be on the other end of that phone,” Carl says.

When they get back up, handover is taking place at the nurses’ station.

“The Giveaway Guy strikes again,” says Gunny. “Let’s get this show on the road.”

They wheel the trolley carrying the laundry onto the floor, the bag of ducks perched on top. Gunny does distribution on the left side and Carl takes the right. All the women are sleeping except for Viv.

“My leg is bleeding,” she says to Gunny when he stops at her locker.

She has rolls of toilet paper wrapped around her left leg.

“I’m destroyed,” she says. “I tried to cover it with a demi-veil.”

“You’ll never walk alone,” Gunny croons, placing a duck on her locker.

Wheeling the patients to the shower room or physiotherapy, Gunny puts the ducks on the wheelchairs or in their laps.

“Knock it off,” Staff Nurse says to Gunny.

“Knock what off?”

“Don’t even make me have to look at you again, you cur,” she says.

“It’s alright for you,” Carl says to him, “but I don’t need trouble, not barely halfway through probation.”

The day after they release the ducks onto the ward, a Filipino agency nurse finds Gunny’s stash behind the mops in the supply closet, an old drugs fridge converted into a mini-bar with Baby Powers, vodka, assorted medications.

Turns out Gunny is on his third warning. Before they leave, Staff Nurse accompanies the two men through the ward, Gunny carrying a see-through plastic bag, the kind they use for patients’ laundry. She makes Carl retrieve all the rubber ducks from the lockers and beds and put them in the bag. When Viv sees them coming, she holds her duck close, like a new-born wrapped in toilet paper.

“He’s my property,” she says. “I was retired on full pension before I died.”

“I know Gunny put that on your locker,” Staff Nurse says. “You don’t know where it’s been.”

“What are you implying?” says Gunny. “I did something perverse with that duck?”

“You said it, not me,” she replies. “Come on, Viv, it’s not hygienic.”

Viv won’t hand it over, a Red Baron kind of duck with flying goggles and a scarf.

“It’s mine,” Viv says. “I bought it in the shop downstairs. I had tea with the Chief Justice in the canteen.”

They all look down at Viv’s legs, twisted as hazel branches.

“Let her keep it,” says Gunny.

“I will,” says Viv. “I died last week. I’m dead a full six days now so anything I have is for eternity.”

“Well happy days. You’ve osteoporosis, a rubber ducky, and a wet nappy for all of eternity so,” says Staff Nurse and leaves it at that.

“We’ll call into Sir Anthony on the way out and get this sorted,” Gunny says to Carl.

 

Mick, an old porter, short on one leg, is sitting on the couch in the porter’s hut.

“He’s expecting you. You better go on in,” he says as he limps the couple of steps over to the door, Head Sorter scrawled dead centre.

“Tony, he’s here,” Mick says. “He’s wired up.”

“How do you know I’m wired?” Gunny says.

“Everyone fucking knows. Why do you think you got canned? You taping me now?”

Gunny ignores his question and goes through, catching his sleeve on the door. He rights his jacket and remains standing. Carl follows.

Anthony O’Reilly sets a nose trimmer back in a small plastic case and motions with his hand for the men to move towards him.

His perma-tan reminds Carl of a man he met inside, from Limerick, obsessed with his body hair, always waxing and plucking, ears and knuckles and nose.

“Anthony, how can we be of help to you?” Gunny starts.

“Is it switched on now?” Anthony says.

“We’ve got all the time in the world,” Gunny sings.

“How fucking small do they make them?” Anthony looks at the bulge in Gunny’s breast pocket. “Is that it?”

“No, it’s a concealed weapon. You know what they say about St. Camillus? Wilder than the west.”

“Jesus, Gunny, that’s fucking rich coming from you. Sit down, I can’t look up. Neck muscles. Paying a small fortune on fucking acupuncture. The lifting gets us all in the end.”

“Lifting large envelopes,” says Gunny, “and the Racing Post.”

Hearing “envelopes,” Carl flinches; this might lead to a discussion of the postal run, Gunny’s for years until Anthony took it over and transferred Gunny up to St. Camillus Ward for Geriatric Women.

He notices a vase of fresh flowers, reds and pinks, on top of the filing cabinet. Maybe Anthony is a fag like that Limerick boss; on the other hand, there’s a rumour he is getting it on with Celia. And a bunch of flowers is different, in a hospital. There are flowers doing the rounds all the time, patients leaving and giving flowers to the nurses or someone dies and their flowers get passed on, even the cleaners get rid of good flowers at will. Once Gunny took a vase from a patient who wasn’t conscious and kept it in the closet until the end of the shift. Because he needed the smell of roses, he said, around his girls.

“Postal duties, a highly responsible fucking role,” Anthony says. “You might not be aware of a very interesting fact about the postal union in the early days of our republic, Gunny. And Simon is it?”

“No. Carl.”

“Right. Carl. What was I saying? Fuck it, it’s gone. Anyway, Gunny, sorry to hear things are turned very sour with Celia.”

“Celia, she’s a sick puppy and still too bloody healthy,” Gunny says.

“Still, nasty fucking business when social services get involved. They say . . .”

Anthony is interrupted by a click in the room.

“Wait,” Gunny says, raising his hand.

“Can I not see the tape?” Anthony says. “It’s a long way from the old reel to fucking reel.”

Gunny half-turns away, fumbling in his pocket.

“Were you using that on the ward?” Anthony asks. “Could be an invasion of privacy issue there, health and fucking safety and all that malarkey.”

Gunny had asked Carl to get him the tape recorder and a few other surveillance devices, to record his kids’ voices on the phone, he said. So far they hadn’t called and he had taken to wearing it in the hospital, in case he bumped into Celia.

“What are you up to?” Carl asked the first time he heard the humming in Gunny’s jacket, on their way to transfer a patient from surgical.

“I’m building up a record,” Gunny said. “Impressions can be given. Or taken for that matter.” He hooked his thumbs in his belt and stuck his chin up: “If a picture paints a thousand words then why can’t I paint you? The words will never show, the you I’ve come to know . . .”

“Look,” Anthony spreads his hands. “I’m not just your union rep. First and foremost we’ve soldiered together a long fucking time. You know what that means?”

Carl is distracted by the whirring in Gunny’s jacket. Maybe the tape is near the end, although it should automatically switch to the second side if the first one runs out.

“Well in the current climate it means fuck all,” Anthony goes on. “But what I do know is, as a consequence of my commitment to our health service, I’m sitting here in this shit hole but in three weeks’ time I’m going to be outside a bar in Cape Town, with a pint in front of me and a ticket for the World Cup Final in my breast pocket. What do you think of that?”

“Give my regards to Nelson.”

“So at the end of the day, there’s fuck all I can do for you.”

The phone on Anthony’s desk flashes red.

“Do you want to make sure that recorder is switched the fuck off when I take this or would you prefer to be on your way?”

Gunny pauses, a man considering his options.

“I’ll head on,” he says. “I’ve a few things to discuss with my colleague.”

As they head out the main gate, Anthony shouts through his window, “I’ll make sure the holiday pay is sorted. Hands are tied, Gunny, hands are fucking tied.”

They set up a couple of pints and chasers in Bolgers, directly across the road from the front gates of the hospital. In the afternoon some of the porters come in to watch the racing but no one comes over to join them. Carl expects a better send off, not for himself but for Gunny.

“I thought you told me when you were in, you were in,” Carl says.

It’s after midnight when he leaves to get his bus. He is waiting a few minutes at the stop when Gunny comes up behind him with the bag of ducks.

“Here you go,” Gunny says. “Compliments of the Giveaway Guy.”

It is only when he is putting the key in his front door that Carl remembers he had bought the ducks in the first place. He carries them with him into the bathroom, a bathroom without a bath. No place for the finer calibrations of beauty, he thinks, swaying on his feet. Leaning the plastic bag of ducks on a stack of torn newspapers he says to the cistern, “No room for ducks at the inn.” That’s a good line, Gunny would appreciate that one.

 

The probation officer tells him about Gunny getting his job back on a technicality but Carl is out for good. The last pay packet is three weeks of drinking and rent.

Packing up his things, he finds the rubber ducks under the bed, still in the see-through plastic bag. He puts them out with the bins at the side gate.

Back at home, his mother puts a Man U duvet cover from years ago on his bed. Then when he gets the new job, in the IKEA store outside the city, the graveyard shift, she waits to have her breakfast with him every morning. Even if he goes for a drink first, she still waits, two bowls and spoons and a box of cornflakes all waiting on the table, a full kettle boiled and boiled again.

Five weeks in, there is an incident. A pallet of flat-pack coffee tables. Badly stacked, that’s what they tell Rurik the supervisor. Not about the football game, warehouse-sized, Latvians versus the Irish, scaling the metal shelves stretching to the roof. Or that Carl had been climbing into a forklift bucket when he fell.

Casualty is quiet. Once they set his hand he has hours to wait until the plastic surgeon can see him about the damage to his ear. It snagged on a hook coming down and the top is torn off. Walking around a bit, he recognises some of the cleaners and a porter. He takes the lift up to Camillus. He can hear someone in the supply closet.

“Gunny?”

“Who’s there?”

When the door opens he recognises Mick.

“I’m looking for Gunny.”

“He’s off the wards.”

“Thought he was taken back.”

“They have him on sick leave,” Mick says. “His drinking was getting very bad and the court case is coming up. Give us a hand with the bags, will ya?”

Carl helps lift the familiar white laundry sacks onto the trolley with his good hand.

There is a lone duck with a top hat and bow tie on the shelf above the bleach containers, a cassette tape balanced on its feet. As Mick rolls the cart out, Carl slips the duck and tape inside his sling.

“Someone do a Mike Tyson on your ear?” Mick says.

“Story with the court case?” Carl asks.

“Kids made some allegations. The usual stuff. I’d say the missus put them up to it. She’s taking him to the cleaners.”

Walking through the ward Carl recognises the figure in the far corner.

“Hang on a minute.”

Viv is sitting out of bed, toilet paper wrapped around her middle like a loose corset. “I’m destroyed,” she says, “my insides are outside in, inside out.”

The Red Baron duck is on her locker behind a bottle of 7-Up and her wardrobe door is covered with photos of two girls.

“Where’d you get those photos?” Carl asks.

“They’re my daughters.”

“They’re Gunny’s kids,” Carl whispers to the old woman.

“They’re my children. Elizabeth and Marie. I’m dead six days now. My children will be travelling with me until I get my pension.”

“How did you get the pictures?” Carl asks again.

“I won them on the radio. He gave me a choice, the Giveaway Guy, a thousand pounds, or a family.”

“He gave them to you?”

“Well, I did have a choice. But you can’t spend hard currency in Hell, that’s why they’re trying to give it all away.”

She twists around in the bed and Carl is afraid she is going to ask him to help her with something, like going to the toilet. But she’s just reaching into the bedside locker for a hairbrush. He takes the duck from his sling and places it on her bed.

 

That evening in his bedroom, he puts the tape into his stereo. As he rolls up a joint the voice of Mick comes through pretty clear, “you can go in, he’s wired up,” then there are footsteps and a squeak, probably a door hinge and that’s it. The microphone must have twisted around when they went into Anthony’s office. The rest of the tape has muffled noises in the background, voices maybe—he can’t make out any words—overlaid with a regular sound like galloping horses in a wind tunnel. Carl realises it’s Gunny’s heart, the whooshing of the chambers opening and closing. It quickens at one point early on and then steadies. He lies back on his bed smoking, trying to remember the last few months sequentially as a way of organising his head. It was easy doing time because it was much the same every day, but since he left, he can’t get a flow going. A force out there arranges his life into a bigger picture he can’t guess at, messing up his days, lining them along an axis that isn’t time.

Carl plays the whole forty-five minutes of tape; eventually his mind lets go of all other sounds and he is just listening to Gunny’s heart sucking the blood in and forcing it out.