by Terry Hargrove
When we were kids, one of the things we looked forward to every Easter was the chicken wire pen in the basement of Kuhn’s Five and Dime. For a quarter, you could buy a blue, red or purple baby chicken. Easter Chicks was stenciled above the cage, and we were suckers for them every year. My older sisters would give the Easter Chicks grandiose names pulled from great literature they were supposed to be reading in high school, and we’d sneak them into the house after supper. Those were happy times. Not for us or the Easter Chicks, but for the neighborhood cats.
We tried keeping the Easter Chicks inside, but a person only spends one night in bed with a baby chicken. It’s a relationship doomed to end in disgusting fashion, and the screams mom made on laundry day still haunt me. But outside, the Easter Chicks had an average life span of seven minutes before a stray tom or hungry ma-kitty descended upon Heathcliff or Katherine or, for when we had 75 whole cents, the Brothers Karamazov. Afterwards, we’d weep for the cruelty of nature, then sweep the neighborhood for lost change or soft drink bottles we could return for refund, because we loved animals, even as we led them to certain death.
But Nature is dynamic. In 1964, the Easter Chicks had company behind the wire cages. Ducks! They were beautiful. Their faces weren’t the same as the poor, dull-minded chicks. The ducks looked animated and clever, so we scooped up the first one we could catch, dropped him into the free cardboard container, and whisked him home. Once we hit Fourth Avenue North, the cats greeted us with happy eyes and dangerous teeth, while inside the box we could hear a gentle “peep” of concern. My oldest sister fell to her knees in despair.
“What’s the use?” she cried. “Momma won’t let us keep a duck in the house and the cats will get him if we leave it outside! Oh, how I wish I’d never seen the poor thing!”
“Let’s call him Quack,” I suggested.
“No,” said my other older sister. “We’ve already decided on Colonel Kurtz.”
“Colonel is a good name for an eagle,” said my brother, “but not a duck. Besides, he’ll be gone before we learn how to spell Colonel Kurtz. I like Quack. I can spell that now. Quack it is.”
And so, we dumped Quack out on the back porch. He wobbled slightly, then began to make a home for himself by defecating on everything. The cats elbowed their way into our circle and licked their lips in anticipation. One of them, a large yellow grumpy beast called Oliver, slinked toward Quack to see how close he could get before one of us kicked him. His emerald cat eyes seemed to say:
“Hello, Lunch. It is Lunch, isn’t it? My, don’t you look flightless and tasty. Would you mind if I put my teeth right here for just a moment? Relax, this won’t hurt at a…”
Quack exploded onto the cat’s face. His little beak was a jackhammer, whacking the cat’s head 30 times in the span of a second and a half. The yellow cat ran for his life and quack was right behind him, full of fury. That wasn’t a clever look on Quack’s face, it was a psychotic look, the countenance of total anger and relentless indignation. “Call me flightless, will you? Like I need to know how to fly to kick your furry ass, Mr. Whiskers. Come back here and I’ll beak your eyes out!”
The other cats disappeared the way cats do when they’re really embarrassed. Quack waddled back to the porch, made another mess, and sat down with his back to the wall. Like a pinball machine, he challenged the whole world.
Of course, Quack lived longer than seven minutes. He ruled the porch until he was over eight, getting fouler as he aged, and eventually terrorizing dogs as well as cats. We think Quack killed a poodle in 1970, but we could never be sure. The poodle’s owner showed up to complain and Quack attacked him, too. Certainly there was nary a cat in the neighborhood who didn’t have at least one scar from an intimate encounter with Quack, and once our duck discovered the miracle of flight, he forgot the miracle of disengaging. Any animal that wanted trouble had to clear its schedule for at least three days, because Quack never gave up a good thrashing until its victim was safely inside a car, house, or outbuilding with locking doors.
But ducks don’t make good pets. The closest Quack ever came to showing us any affection was not attacking us as often as he attacked other mammals. My mom, who loves animals, hated Quack. She hated the mess he made on the porch, hated the cat owners who called and complained, and hated the look Quack gave her through the screen door. He would tilt his head and stare at mom with one eye, while making a low waaaaaaaaaak sound. Mom thought Quack was possessed.
Well, he wasn’t possessed, probably, but he was about to bring a new and exotic type of trouble to the Hargrove home. One hot, July day, Quack watched a neighborhood dog chase a car down the street. Quack found the whole episode fascinating, although the ending wasn’t satisfactory. Not unlike French cinema, really. Quack stood, stretched, and waddled to the street. The dog, being inherently smarter than a cat, took off. A huge Chevrolet rumbled down the road, its driver hanging a well-muscled and sunburned arm out the window. Quack waddled in the car’s direction, took flight, caught up with the car, then bit the driver on the cheek. The car went through a stop sign and into Herb’s Buy Rite. Fortunately, nobody was hurt.
Officer Williamson was at our front door in minutes looking for the duck. He had no trouble believing the driver’s story since he was also the first responder of the poodle incident, (a code 666. Really.) Quack sat at the end of the porch, casting a single eye in the officer’s direction, hoping for trouble. When the policeman moved toward Quack, the sound of “waaaaaaaaaak” stopped him in his tracks, and he left with a promise to return with suitable back up.
There are no happy endings in Nature, only endings. Quack chased cars for almost a week and caused two more accidents before his end. He was a mean duck, but not a very smart duck, and he never learned the lesson that was burned into us by the time we were four: always look both ways before crossing a street. As Quack was giving chase to a Buick, he never saw the school bus coming from the opposite direction. There was a thud, some feathers, and that was that. Mom and I buried Quack in the front yard, surrounded by a menagerie of neighborhood animals who showed up to watch and breathed a collective sigh that things were finally back to normal.
By then, I was 17. My sisters were married, and my older brother was in the army, so I didn’t think about replacing Quack. But I had a younger brother who was only seven, and Quack’s demise had a profound effect on him. Mom felt so bad that she bought him a chicken, a little yellow one who we dubbed Macbeth. My brother introduced Macbeth to our cat, Macduff, and…well, it’s still kind of hard to talk about, although the irony was wonderful. My brother still has bad dreams about it. Let’s save that tale for another time.
Quack was gone, but as is the nature of all great things, his influence continued long after his passing. Until school started, we sat on the porch in the stifling Tennessee heat and heard the screeching tires and distant curses, as drivers who were looking nervously for a large white flying bird ran into each other for the rest of the summer.