Ugly Ducklings

Floyd stood holding a cold can of Coors Light. With each drunken wave of his hand, beer splashed from the lip of his can onto the sleeve of his dull-brown coat. He talked about how he was considering a Veterinarian degree now that he’d been fired from the ski lift up on Crested Butte. Apparently a flask of Jack Daniels wasn’t required snow gear.

As Floyd and I talked, Buster listened quietly on a barstool. Aside from the occasional drink, he sat still as a gargoyle. He’d gained weight since I’d seen him last. He had also grown a short, shabby beard and wore a thin, ragged hoodie ill fit for the frosty forecast. He hardly said ‘hello’ and kept his gaze on the floor.

I’d last seen Buster in this same garage, on that same bar stool, two years ago after he’d set himself on fire. The combined effort of every beer in his belly gave him the confidence to leap a burning stack of old chairs and broken doors.

“I’ll jump this fire,” Buster had said.

“Don’t do that,” I warned.

“Whatever. I’m invincible!” He tripped and slapped against the surface of a singed, splintering door in the middle of the heap. He lay in the embers for a moment before pushing himself up. Nodding and stumbling he said, “See? I’m invincible.”

Hardly.

Small flames coiled around Buster’s left pant-leg. He didn’t notice it at first, but when he did he leapt forward into the snow’s arctic embrace. Bulbous blisters occupied his wrists where he’d braced himself on the burning door. Floyd and I couldn’t help but laugh.

The Darnell brothers are my two oldest friends. Floyd Alexander Cruise Darnell and Carl Buster Darnell. We all grew up in the plains of eastern Colorado. Buster was three years older than me, twenty-two-years-old to my nineteen, at the time. Floyd was my age. K through twelve, Floyd and I had nearly every class together. He was an honor student, as was Buster, who was also one of our high school’s lead cross-country runners in the fall; likewise for track in the spring.

I hadn’t seen either of them since I started college. And two years later, here they were. Sitting cold in my dim garage as the snow fell softly outside. This was the first time I’d been back in town in a while and we were catching up over a couple of cool beers.

I asked Buster how he was. He shrugged and took another drink. I turned back to Floyd, and as I moved to speak Buster interrupted.

“I am good, dude.”

The delay in his response was something like a lagged Internet chat. Whether he was slow to comprehend me, slow to articulate his response, or both, I’m not sure. But he yawned and eventually continued.

“I am good, dude. I am good. You?”

I mentioned my classes and the new house I had moved into, and as I went on he nodded and stared forward, then nodded less, and then forgot about me altogether.

Floyd and I stepped out for a cigarette. I wondered about Buster for a moment and asked, “So, what’s up with him?”

Floyd wiped a snowflake from his long, blonde bowl cut and took a drag of his cigarette. He explained that Buster had flunked out of CSU, Fort Collins. A full ride, and he had bailed. Got into drugs, did something he called an “Acid Pyramid.” As to what that was exactly, neither of us was certain. But as Floyd understood it, an Acid Pyramid consisted of a metric shit-ton of LSD soaked into one sheet of paper. It started with only a dose or two every weekend. Simple exploration of perspective. But that small curious flame had ignited something inside of Buster, and soon he was doing multiple doses nearly every day until, well, he burned out.

An ashen replica of his former self, Buster had just moved back into town, into Floyd’s apartment, and was now working at the local Wal-Mart as a bagger.

“There are ducklings for sale at Wal-Mart,” Floyd said.

Ducklings?

“For only five dollars.”

The next day Floyd invited me over. I walked up his steps, tested the doorknob and, sure enough, it was unlocked. I knocked anyway and heard a skittering past the door.

“Hang on,” said Floyd.

A moment later and he called for me to come in. I nudged the door open and peeked around it. Buster lay sprawled across the couch, snoring lightly in the same thin jacket he’d worn the night before. Floyd sat cross-legged on the floor with a skinny, white-feathered duckling on his lap.

The duckling waddled over Floyd’s thighs, struggling to reach the ground. It chirped, which sounded nothing like a quack, and nearly tripped. It moved closer and Floyd invited me to pet it.

Ducklings, in real life, are more charming than one ought to expect. They’re loud, needy, skittish, smelly, fragile little creatures that would gladly bite the hand that feeds them. They squeak and chirp at high pitches and, somewhat like street drunks, are always tripping over themselves into trouble. And yet, their dirty feathers feel downy and soft. Their constant squeaking is adorable in a primal way. They’re the spoiled children of Nature: for all the messes they make, Mother loves them all the more.

I knelt down as it approached and slowly extended an open palm. That worked with dogs and cats, but the duckling panicked. It dashed awkwardly across the kitchen, like it had confused sprinting with hopping, and pitifully hid under the sink cabinet’s overhang.

As evidenced by Floyd’s kitchen tiling and carpet, ducklings were messy. There were already pee stains in his living room. Loose feathers collected in the carpet and occasionally drifted off on the AC’s current.

We played with the duckling for a while before deciding to go on a beer run. With some difficulty Floyd woke up his brother and asked him to take care of the duckling while we were out. He slowly nodded as Floyd plopped the duckling onto his lap. Buster cooed at it and stroked its frizzled back, and it was cutesy. Floyd said to make sure it didn’t shit on the rug again.

Floyd and I headed back to my place for beer, as there was still plenty from the night before, and ended up spending the afternoon getting drunk and playing video games.

As we played I thought back to Buster. The last time I’d seen him he was practically king of the world: smart, charismatic, fit, a real role model—a true bigger brother. Now he was apathetic and fat. That gnawed at me like a hungry, walking corpse.

“So what’s it like living with Buster now that he…”

Burned out?

Floyd took a long drink. “He’s always starting some shit. And he doesn’t do the Goddamn dishes.”

A few days before, he explained, Floyd had stumbled in with a box of Colt-45’s upon Buster smoking a cigarette indoors. Floyd lambasted him for it, and on his way out Buster begrudgingly elbowed Floyd’s shoulder, causing him to drop the box of malt liquor. Floyd bashed Buster’s head into the oven-top.

Floyd called the next day. I parked in front of his house and rang him up. He didn’t answer, but a few minutes later came out the front door, a fresh cut on his forehead, and climbed into the passenger side of my car without a word.

“You okay?” I asked.

He slammed the door shut.

The night before, Buster filled the bathtub up halfway to let the duckling swim around while he enjoyed a beer—or four. When Floyd got home, Buster was passed out on the couch with Titanic playing mutely on the television. Floyd found the duckling floating stilly in its bathwater.

“It drowned,” he told me. “Buster let it go swimming, then got stoned and passed out and forgot about it. It got tired and couldn’t reach the bottom and fucking drowned.”

I asked Floyd about the cut on his forehead. Not surprisingly, he’d sustained it in another brawl with Buster after he discovered the dead duckling. Buster ended up bashing Floyd’s face into the oven-top.

Floyd, in his rage, kicked Buster out of the apartment. Buster, in his rage, rode his bike eighty-two miles south to Trinidad that same winter night. He ended up living in some eighty-year-olds’ backyard shack for a couple of months.

I didn’t see Buster for a year after that. In his brother’s absence, Floyd joined the air force. He was scheduled to deploy in South Korea where he’d spend the next few years fixing helicopters. I visited Floyd before he left and he told me Buster was back in town.

He said Buster had gone through rehab and sobered up. He had gotten a room in an old folk’s home where rent was only fifty dollars, and he spent most of his time tracing old VHS movie covers in a tattered college-rule notebook. He hadn’t changed too much; he was still quiet and sullen. But at least he found a hobby, right?

We visited him. He buzzed us in and we navigated our way through the dim, gray hallways. We rode a rickety elevator to the third floor and met him at his door. He invited us in, offered us drinks. A movie starring Jack Nicholson played on a small, dusty television.

I asked him how he was doing. Buster slowly looked up from the makeshift easel supporting his latest videocassette project.

“I am good, dude. I am good. You?”

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