The man sat on the park bench overlooking the pond and watched the ducks splashing about in the shallow waters. The ducks bobbed their heads down into the water to feed, waggling their tails between dives and quacking enthusiastically amongst themselves.
Just like old friends the man thought. He leaned back on the freshly painted bench and took in his surroundings. Despite the cold concrete offices looming over all sides of the oasis-like park, there were few signs of human life.
Perks of getting out of work early he mused before pushing the thought of work away and, for what felt like the first time since Christmas, cracked a smile. The duck sounds of merriment bounced around him, buoyed by the rustling of leaves; nature’s soundtrack making itself known. Even the smell of new grass springing up around him seemed invigoratingly alive, almost surreal, as if the park were putting on its best for the upcoming mother’s day.
Despite being a man of many talents, the ability to quack couldn’t be listed among them for Calvin Laurens. So he did the next best thing and sighed long and soft, spreading his arms out over the cool wooden bench and letting his eyes drift closed so he could safely reciprocate the sun’s beaming smile. It warmed his face and chest through the fabric of his shirt. He sniffed the air. A hint of laundry detergent snuck between the notes of grass and waterfowl. Curious, yet not unwelcome.
Tac… tac… tac…
Again, the ring came calling. Calvin turned his head to look at the simple gold band pinched between his left thumb and forefinger. He sighed again, this time the breath fell from his lips heavy with old regrets. Every time he was having a peaceful moment, it seemed to appear in his hand. He couldn’t for the life of him give a good reason he kept carrying it around, but the ring was always in his pocket just between wallet and his little notebook. His fingers knew the rings seemingly perfect curve intimately; he’d played with it so long that from any given position he could immediately identify where the three short scratches on the smooth slope of its outer wall were facing. Or maybe it was playing with him? Calvin pursed his lips, rolled the bottom one under his teeth. The three little markings caught the sunshine and glinted up at him. One for each year. Absolutely a coincidence, but one that seemed very pointed to him on this particular day.
He tore his eyes away and sent them over to the building ahead, grunting as he felt the serenity of the moment drain away. Choices, that’s what the ring represented. His jaw pushed a bit off center to the right and he took in the sight of smooth, clean rows of windows on the building in front of him. The images of a few clouds lazily drifting through the sky were perfectly reflected in the panes of glass. He’d made his choice and stuck to it. She on the other hand… she’d made one choice and then another. He slipped the ring into his palm and closed a fist around it.
Really should just chuck it. That’s how the conversation always started. Aaahh, but the money. The cycle started to roll, dependable as clockwork. Not like it bothers me anymore. Denial. Three hundred bucks! I can’t let that go to waste. Anger. Besides, it’s barely damaged. I can buff out the scratches, polish it up ‘til it’s like new! No sense in buying another if the need arises. Bargaining.
His fist drooped, the metal stubbornly braced between his fingers and the tendons in his palm. The ducks quacked again. Calvin grunted. Cycle complete. The ring would live another day, no fires of Mordor this time. And yet, it’s still got me. She’s still got me, got me good. Acceptance. Not what he wanted to admit, but in the safety of his own mind, he knew it was true.
A pattering at his feet brought Calvin back into the moment. He looked down to witness an enthusiastic young duck completing its stroll over to him, just to plop its belly down on the grass and boldly begin poking and pecking at his shoelaces. Calvin blinked and chuckled softly. Prior to his move here to Virginia, Calvin couldn’t recall another time he’d seen a wild animal so comfortable around people. Yet here the pigeons meandered underfoot constantly, fearlessly, and a duck was just casually trying to snack on the cotton worms holding his boots tight. Calvin’s jaw returned to center as his head wobbled in bemusement. Really is a whole different world out here.
“Nice duck! Do you bring him out to play here often?”
Calvin lifted his head and turned it to find the inquiring woman on approach along the footpath. She stood about 5’8”, maybe a little taller. Hard to be sure as she was limping slightly, the uneven wobble of her shoulder-slung purse drawing attention to how her right leg took pressure very gingerly. The few locks of dark mahogany-brown hair not tucked into her neat ponytail hung just short of her shoulders and framed her thin face, which bore distinctly oriental features and a pleasant smile. Calvin matched the smile. A little bit of the day’s springtime warmth found its way back into him as he cleared his throat to reply.
“Ah, naw, He ain’t my mine. We actually just met.” Calvin’s left eyebrow dipped in thought. That came out pretty redneck.
Despite her visible physical discomfort, the woman seemed at ease as she placed a palm on the far edge of the bench. “Oh, then do you mind if I join the two of you?”
“Not at all! Please, make yourself comfortable.” Calvin said, pulling his arms in and scooting over on the bench. He slipped the ring back into his pocket and shuffled his feet over. Remarkably, the duck gave chase to the dangling shoelace, unperturbed by the second pair of feet appearing beside it as the woman took a seat.
“Thank you.” She said, smoothing out the fabric of her pants and lifting the strap of her small purse over her head to set it aside. Calvin nodded in silent welcome and noted a raised band under her right pant leg, just over the thigh. Probably a brace or a bandage.
“It’s about time spring came around.” She continued. He noted her posture, upright and balanced like a musician, yet maintained with no visible effort. Her eyes caught his and a flood of self-consciousness rushed through him. He nodded in agreement.
I’m underdressed for this. Calvin dropped his gaze to the duck still tugging on his shoelace and instantly missed her smile. Wait, what?
Calvin’s eyes widened at the idiotic notion as an unfamiliar pang shot through his chest. He shook his head to clear it and stole another look up at the woman. She had her phone out and was tapping the screen. He blinked, looked back down at the duck and tried to subtly correct his slouch by bending over to watch more closely. In his pocket his notebook pressed the ring into his thigh. Guilt rose up from his stomach, but for the first time something near his heart stopped it.
Maybe it was the duck. After all, it was kind of cute down there, tugging on his shoelace. Smart enough to untie the knot, too. Bird flu be darned, he reasoned. Calvin bent over, ducking beneath the almost imperceptible scent of plums, reached down and offered two fingers to the duck, who yet again defied nature by paying the digits no mind as the human above ran them over its back. A digital shutter snap came from above. Calvin and his new friend raised their heads together to look squarely into the lens of the woman’s iPhone.
The shutter sounded again before her face emerged from behind the phone, angelically half-silhouetted by the dazzling sun and tucked back between her shoulders sheepishly.
“Sorry, do you mind? I should have asked, but I didn’t want to ruin the moment.” Calvin scrambled for a reply. The duck scrambled somewhere under the bench. Calvin sat up and arched his back to relieve some hidden tension.
“Uh- Yeah, no, sure. I mean no! Not a problem.” He said. She offered a hand. He took it, shook it. Introduced himself.
“Calvin Laurens. Pleasure to meet you.” Aside from a few distinct callouses, her hand was smooth and as silken soft as her voice, which lilted from her lips.
“Nakamura Hiromi. And the same to you, Duck Whisperer!”
He released her hand quickly and set it back in his lap. Couldn’t help the grin though, that was here to stay.
“Duck whisperer, I like that. Probably not going to stick though,” he threw in, looking around for the duck, which had snuck out of sight. “My little buddy seems to have run off.” Hiromi giggled.
“Ducks are loyal, I’m sure he’ll be back.” She lifted her phone from her leg and showed Calvin the photo of him petting the duck. “Do you mind if I keep this? I’d like to post it on Facebook, if that’s alright.’” Her tone grew a soft and a bit sheepish. “After all, it’s not something you see everyday.”
Calvin thought about it a moment. Work wouldn’t like it, but what was the harm? He clicked his tongue and voiced his thoughts.
“Why not?” He lifted a single finger and flicked it forward dramatically. “One condition though.”
She turned the phone’s screen back up toward her, and her head to meet his eyes. Another pang shot through his chest like air pressure pinging the valve of an old radiator.
“What is your condition, sir?” Hiromi asked, striking the tone of a dignitary.
“Would you mind tagging me in the post? I think my niece would get a kick out of it.” Calvin said with a shrug and a quick bounce of his chin toward the phone. Hiromi’s posh demeanor evaporated with the return of her captivatingly pleasant smile and her thumb danced over the phone’s screen. She handed it to him, the social media app already loaded and the tagging feature awaiting his input. Calvin took the phone and couldn’t help but linger his gaze on the background, which through the slight fuzz of a softening filter was clearly a picture of the woman beside him taking a knee with the life-sized bronze images of George Washington and Guyasuta of the Senneca found in Pittsburgh.
He typed in his own name, waited a heartbeat for the familiar icon of his ridiculous baseball-cap-and-green-ribbon-cockade pairing to appear, tapped on it and bounced his chin in approval as the phone posted the image. A text box popped up.
“Would you like to send Calvin Herman Laurens a friend request?”
Calvin handed the phone back to Hiromi and thanked her. She glanced down at the screen, let her head tilt aside for a moment then put the phone to sleep mode with a brief button press. Even as she pushed her phone into a pocket of her purse, Hiromi asked “Do you have the time?”
His own phone pinged in his pocket. He checked his watch instead. 1600 hours.
“Four o’clock” his mouth translated. A justifiable time for a snack his stomach commented.
“That late?” Hiromi sighed. Calvin lifted his hand, scratched an itch behind his ear and bent his knee to stand.
“Ye-uppers” Calvin let the word stretch out. Would it be rude to offer food? He wanted an excuse to talk, but between the emptiness of his stomach and the emotional sinkhole opening under his notebook, what was there to say?
His stomach and his gut tussled. Hiromi stared out over the pond, the image of serenity through his mind’s lens of curiosity. She looked a bit tired. He wondered why.
Calvin’s stomach shattered the external peace with a beastly growl. Hiromi’s eyes widened with she glanced over to him with a mixture of concern and perplexion. Calvin’s lower jaw jutted out, sucking in air that only served to fuel the flames burning brightly in his cheeks. She saw. In his peripheral vision Calvin saw an innocent smile appear.
“Are you okay?” Hiromi’s voice bounced over barely restrained giggles. Calvin heaved himself upwards, spirits lifting a laugh up and away from the sinkhole in his pocket. He clapped his hand over his eyes as full-bodied laughter rolled out of him. As it subsided he dragged his palm up over his forehead and hair. He turned on his heel to address Hiromi.
“Fine, fine! Just over here practicing my whale-speak.”
Hiromi shook her head; a few of the giggles made it out. “Oh you speak whale, too?” Calvin rolled his eyes over a wide, open mouthed smile.
“Yeah, and right now the beast says it needs a churro.” He said still rubbing the side of his head with his palm. “Want one?”
Hiromi opened her mouth to answer and instead sneezed so violently she doubled over. A terrified duck shot out from under the bench at incredible speed, caught the hanging strap of her purse with its neck and began dragging it over the grass in a blur of webbed feet and flapping wings.
Hiromi’s voice was behind him by the time Calvin realized he was running. He and the duck were mere yards to pond’s edge, the purse bouncing along the grass. The sole of Calvin’s boot sank into the loose, marshy soil as his fingers got hold of the purse. The ducks momentum carried it over the strap. Calvin’s carried the ground out from under him to deposit him face first into the muddy shore. It tasted like ducks. He tried not to think about that, instead tried to locate the hand holding the purse. It was raised triumphantly above his head. He spat out his cheek full of turf and heaved in a pained breath as he pulled himself up to wipe the mud from his eyes. Several frightened ducks flew frantically away overhead. He groaned and stood up. Legs back under him, he could feel the point in his lower back that had tried to hinge to accommodate the legs flopping up over his back starting to ache. Hiromi reached him a few seconds later.
“Oh gosh, are you all right?”
Calvin blinked repeatedly and nodded, wiped inside his cheek with his tongue and decided he’d let gentlemanly conduct slip for a moment. He spat a bit more mud back to the ground and looked back up at Hiromi.
“I’m fine.” He said. She inhaled, eyes lifting skyward and released the breath in tiny chuckles. Both hands held her purse in front of her hips.
“Thank goodness. That was a nasty spill… you left a landing mark.”
“Was it?” Calvin wiped mud from his chest and shoulder, flinging it down with a flip of his wrist. He was inexplicably trying to play it cool despite his standing in the obvious scar left in the mud where his body had dragged a few square feet of grass and soil closer to the water’s edge. The contents of his pocket had strewn out where he’d landed. A hint of gold peeked out from the hole it had been driven into. “Oh.”
Returning his gaze to the woman in front of him, Calvin pushed grass out from behind his ear and grabbed the first thought to float by.
“So, uh… Churro?” He bent to pick up his fallen notebook and poked blindly around for the fallen ring.
Their eyes met. A smile blossomed on Hiromi’s lips. “Consider it my treat.” Calvin shifted forward and had just started to rise when a half-choked “Uuuack!” came from below and behind. Calvin’s brow knit and his heart dropped. Oh no.
Sure enough, as soon as he looked to the source of the sound, there was the duck gagging. Its little shoulders bounced as it stretched its neck with each attempt to swallow.
Calvin’s inner dialogue burst out.
“No no no no, crap, no!”
He scooped up the duck. The jostling dislodged the ring and the duck swallowed it another inch, quacking frantically and painfully.
“Oh you stupid thing!”
Calvin snatched a glance over at Hiromi, whose smile had vanished and been replaced with open lips, wide eyes and brows raised in concern. His own brows jumped from anger to panic.
“I’ve gotta go. I’m so sorry.”
Hiromi blinked. “No, of course, it needs a vet. Go. Go!” Her voice raised and she waved him off. Calvin’s boot tore up a bit more grass as he dashed away in a mad sprint to his car on the far side of the pond.
*** * * * ***
By the time they made it to the vet, the duck had successfully swallowed its inedible snack and was sitting proudly on Calvin’s lap. It took the veterinarian a solid hour to pump the duck’s stomach and rescue the ring. The duck, though small of stature had a stomach of iron and a set of nerves to match.
Standing alone in the corner of the room Calvin held his arms tight to his chest, face grimly drawn. His nausea was amplified by the stinging scent of antiseptic. When the duck finally yakked up its pilfered trinket, the doctor washed it off and carried both it and the unconscious duck over to Calvin.
“Here you go, Mister. One duck-tested, duck approved choking hazard.” The man said. Calvin thanked him, took the duck in his arms and the ring in his palm and thanked him again. As the vet drew up the bill, Calvin sat in the waiting room, rolling the ring over in his fingers. Unbelievable.
He stared down at that little golden circlet. Thought about the woman in the park. Talk about a first impression. He shook his head. A little dirt sprinkled down from his hair. The vet brought out the forms. Maybe I’ll run into her again? Calvin set duck and ring aside and signed the papers silently. Ah well. Not like there was anything there anyway. He tried to reason away the pangs that had hit him earlier. He reached the date section of the paperwork and paused. Was it the twenty-sixth or twenty-seventh? He checked his phone. A small red circle with a white number ‘1’ sat on the corner of one of the apps. The top confirmed the date as the twenty-seventh. Calvin finished the forms and handed them back to the vet with another round of thanks and most of his wallets contents. Then he gathered up the duck and his ring and headed to his car.
On his way out, the doctor coughed. Calvin looked back.
“I noticed your duck’s not chipped. Might want to get that taken care of.”
Calvin chuckled nervously. He didn’t have a reply for that.
“Unless you’re kidnapping wild ducks, that’d be a misdemeanor.” The veterinarian winked. Calvin laughed.
“He’s the thief. This is justice!” Nonetheless Calvin picked up the pace a little as he exited the clinic.
Once back in the car he set the duck on the passenger seat and the ring on his dashboard. He stared at it intently with longing and hatred, eyes roving over the three little scars in its surface. The scene played in his head again; her face of bitter resolve. He saw the angle of her chin as she turned her head aside, felt her fingertips in his palm as she placed the thin, wire-mounted diamond ring in it. The sting of her slap along his knuckles when he’d tried to take hold of her hand one last time. The wind on his cheek from her turning away echoed through time by the breeze coming through his open car window.
Mind still reliving the sight of her walking away, Calvin swallowed and stroked his thumb over his ring finger and the knuckle of his left middle finger, the one tiny matching scar that the ring hadn’t taken when his hand hit the brick wall. He sniffed. Wiped away the last tear he was willing to shed thinking about it.
His phone pinged in his pocket. Calvin pulled it out and tapped the screen. A notification sprang up.
“Nakamura Hiromi has sent you a friend request.”
Calvin turned on the car, put it in gear and drove off without bothering to hear the clinking song of gold history bouncing down the storm drain.