By Jimmy Ewing
My grandmother did not know that we shot the neighbor’s duck.
To be fair, she was likely the lone soul in the neighborhood of my grandparents’ estate who didn’t know that we shot that duck—a roster that included God, my 50-year-old Great Aunt Elinor who lived with my Grandparents, had Down’s Syndrome, listened to Elvis 8-tracks and watched Perry Mason every day, and, probably, the neighbors whose duck it was, but for some reason, my grandmother’s disapproval was the only thing that mattered.
But, we did.
Shoot the duck, I mean.
It was a big, glossy bastard of a bull mallard who had been keeping a full harem of hens corralled against the fetid shallow edge of the neighbor’s half-acre pond since spring and we spent the summer plotting to kill his ass and cook him over a bed of coals in the creek. We even had the rocks all piled up and purloined a disposable lighter to start the fire.
I can’t explain what offended us about that duck. Maybe it was his boldness—to carry on in broad daylight like that well-within gun range is an affront to my sporting nature even now. Maybe it was the shine of his head, or his pure pulchritudinous size, but whatever it was, I can still see him preening on the end of the turtle log in the sunshine. And I can still hear the undignified UUAACK (no time for the “Q”) and thick WHOP of the .177 caliber pellet when it flipped him off it.
Looking back, that’s a series of statements you might expect of a desperately hungry, poor, dirt farm Southern child in the 1930s, but we were not that. Perhaps, had we been subsistence farmers, the ignominy of the whole thing might have worn thin, in time, but it hasn’t and I still cringe, just a bit, at the raw broad-daylight boldness of the attack. We weren’t farmers and we did it wearing Nike David Robinson 180 high-top pumps behind the trigger of a fairly modern low-effort Daisy 880 with sights that, in hindsight, I’m pretty sure my grandfather doctored every time we went home after the weekend. After 35 years, I still harbor a number of conflicting emotions regarding the matter.
The impact crumpled the duck backwards off the log, ass over teakettle, in a flurry of flapping and quacking and feathers that startled us, terrified the turtles and, I’m pretty sure, cost him a lover. At least that’s how I interpret the side-eye I saw flicker amongst the hen set tippling about in the shallows, having been party to a similar form of the same glance often in my 20s.
At this point, we had come to the end of our formal plan which involved packing an emergency lunch of 4 strawberry Pop-Tarts, 2 hot Doctor Peppers, and a half-pack of Carlton Menthol Ultra Light 100s stolen from my grandmother (who “did not smoke”), then crawling through the creek, up over the dam, hiding underneath an azalea at the edge of the neighbor’s side lawn, and waiting on the duck posse to make its way around the lake in order to, finally, bring a quick and painless end to the giant glimmering beetle of a green-headed mallard that made his home there.
Unfortunately, Mr. Mallard, we discovered, had developed some kind of supernatural immunity to bullets. When he emerged from underneath the turtle log, enraged, he was nearing Mach 1 and had pointed himself at the neighbor’s house.
By this time in my life, I had already found myself in a number of situations uncommon for an 8-year-old. As a necessary component of self-preservation and the early stages of the maturation process, I had begun to identify the onset of these situations by a particular tingling sensation in my “hurry, run-away” nerve and a certain numbness of smell. For instance: the time Uncle Buster introduced us to Skoal Fine Cut Wintergreen. Or the time we set the backyard on fire. Or the time I said “holy shit” on the Christmas home video. Or the time we put the water snake in the old neighbor lady’s bathing suit hanging in the bathhouse when she complained to my grandparents about our various activities.
So, I found myself remarkably well-prepared for what happened next.
Sometime in eternity later, that duck hit the neighbor’s side porch screen door with a very unique smashing crash kind of a sound that you might be familiar with, followed immediately by his bevy of buxom hens.
I don’t know for sure what happens after a small flock of full-grown, furious, wild American Mallard Ducks gets trapped in your screen porch, because I’ve never seen it. The last thing I saw, for certain, was the old man flailing through the doorway in his v-neck and boxer shorts with the kitchen broom flickering like a lightsaber in the delicate snow of downy feathers floating about him.
And then, I departed.
My Unnamed Associate may be able to tell you what happened next. He might have tarried longer than I, for I am certain I outpaced him back up the hill to Grandma’s house and safety.
We met back up, later on, at the prearranged emergency meeting place (the peak of the roof), marked in a red “x” on our map, in order to evaluate the outcome of the mission.
“You just clipped him,” I grumbled, disapprovingly, around a freshly-lit Carlton. “We won’t get another shot like that all summer. He was right there!”
“Hell – he was 97 yards away and I pumped this thing 112 times! What am I supposed to do? I think Granddad has been messing with the sights again,” fumed my Unnamed Associate.
“I told you that thing was shooting left!”
“But, did you hear that WHOP sound?”
Later on about dusk, after we had polished off the Pop-tarts, Dr. Peppers, and most of my Great Aunt Elinor’s Little Debbie Zebra Cakes (one of the few palatable pre-packaged confections available to a person with a sweet tooth, but no actual teeth), Granddad collected us out by the pool for an evening drive over to the steel shop to check on the week’s progress. About halfway across town, he leaned across the console of his late ‘80s Chevrolet Caprice to help me light my Swisher Sweets Cigar, the smoking of which, like swearing, horribly, to each other in the car, was a thing that we did privately together, knowing that the women in our lives might not understand. Once we were both comfortably lit, he began to wax somewhat poetic as he was wont to do; making a series of oblique references in the direction of “discretion and the better parts of valor” through a cigar cough which, although he seemed a bit muffled and strained at the time and his face was mostly hidden in a roiling cumulus of smoke, ultimately culminated in the suggestion that my Unnamed Associate and I restrict our operations to the active military operating areas “north and west of the creek and well shy of the neighbor’s yard.”
Then, as the smoke began to clear, he cut his eyes over at me kinda hard, and he grinned.
“I’m feeling a mite peckish for supper. You boys had duck before?”
The summer passed on by and we never did settle with that duck. Everything has its moment, and ours passed.
At Christmas that year, we lay on the peak of the roof, hands behind our heads against the rough asphalt shingles, still warm from an unseasonably hot winter’s day in Macon, Georgia, and we gazed, silently, at the spectacle of the Christmas moon, rising through the trees, just out of reach, sure to light old Saint Nick’s way straight down our chimney.
My Unnamed Associate had just begun to pontificate, gesturing broadly with a lit Carlton, regarding the likelihood of discovering a new shotgun under the tree the next morning when we heard the back door open with its unique brass-gasketed shriek—ever our warning bell. As we scattered to disappear over the garage gable (the pitch terminating closest to the ground and an essential component to our “innocent nighttime stroll” strategy), hastily flicked glowing cigarette butts arcing over the roof like two tiny comets, I glimpsed over my shoulder the clear outline of 7 ducks crossing the moon with a big bull mallard in the lead.
I’ve since shot my fair share of ducks—from mallards in Canada to pintails in Mexico and a few other places in between—but to this day I have never seen a big, healthy, greenhead without thinking of Mr. Mallard and the summer he got away.
I figure I’ve been chasing him ever since.