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  Mr. Quackers
   by Deidre Woollard

Mr. Quackers came into our lives at Easter. A fluffy stuffed toy duck, he perched on top of a basket laden with chocolate eggs on crinkly plastic grass. I have always hated holidays, a response to my mother's insatiable desire for celebration.
     "Mom, aren't chickens supposed to be in an Easter basket. Or bunnies?" I shouldn't have teased her. I should have been glad she wasn't making us hunt for eggs out in the yard anymore. She did that until I was thirty.
     "Saundra, bunnies don't lay eggs. Besides, look how cute he is. Say hello to Mr. Quackers." She brandished him in front of our faces.
     "Hello, Mr. Quackers," said Steve, reaching out to shake Quackers' soft white wing. My husband always humored my mother, leaving me as the heavy. At family dinners, I let him take the lead and I drifted contentedly in the wake of his conversation like a sailboat after a ferry has passed by.
     That night we took Mr. Quackers home along with the rest of our Easter booty, the marshmallow animals and chocolate eggs. I'd been on a no-sugar diet for months and lost twenty pounds (not that Mom noticed except to heap extra candied yams onto my plate).
     When we arrived at home, I insisted that we immediately give the candy away to our neighbors who had children.
     "Can't we wait until tomorrow?" Steve asked.
     "I want that stuff out of here now."
     "We could throw it into the trash."
     "Please, Steven." Hadn't he seen the months of careful avoidance of any sugared food? Sometimes it angered me how hard I had to work for his attention. Men. He could lose ten pounds if he skipped a meal but I starved and bargained for every ounce. Getting older wasn't making it any easier. When I hit thirty, my body just packed on additional weight for no reason at all. As if it were preparing.
     Steve gathered the candy into the basket.
     "We can keep Mr. Quackers though, right? You won't be tempted to eat him."
     "What the hell do we need a stuffed animal for?"
     "Quack, quack, please let me stay, pretty lady, please, please," Steve picked up Mr. Quackers and nuzzled the duck's beak against my neck.
     "Get that thing off me." When Steve acted silly like this it was best to let it be. Any attempts to induce rational behavior would probably only lead to more cutesy maneuvers on his part.
     Steve settled Mr. Quackers into a place of honor on the coffee table and then picked up the Easter basket to remove it from my sight. I went upstairs, took off my Easter-appropriate flowered dress, and poured myself a hot bath. With the CD player on, the phone ringer shut off and the bathroom door firmly locked, I was cut off from the world.
     When I emerged from the bathroom an hour later, the tension headache that had been pinging against my forehead had disappeared. Steve wasn't in the bedroom yet but I knew he would be up soon so I slipped between the cool sheets and reached for my bedside book. Instead of my book, my hands encountered the soft plush of Mr. Quackers. I pulled my book out from beneath the bird and began to read.
     "Did you have a good bath?" Steve asked when he came in a while later.
     "We're not children, we don't need to sleep with a stuffed animal."
     "Mr. Quackers."
     I sighed. "Why did you bring Mr. Quackers up here?"
     "I thought he should get the run of the house."
     I reached over and put Mr. Quackers on Steve's bedside table. "We are not getting a dog."
     "I know."
     "You don't make enough money for us to have a child."
     "It's just a stuffed animal."
     I grumbled low in my throat and shifted my weight fully onto my side of the bed. I turned back to my book, but I was unable to get immersed in Faith Popcorn's latest predictions for the future. I turned off the light.
     "Goodnight, Saundra."
     "Goodnight, Steve."
     "Quack, quack, goodnight pretty lady."
     "Steven, I am not saying goodnight to a stuffed animal."
     I closed my eyes but I am sure that in the darkness, he shrugged. Sometimes his very affability, his unflappable good humor in the face of all annoyances made me want to strangle him. Was this love anymore?
     The next morning, Monday, the usual hectic flurry. I had an important presentation to make so I wore my new Ann Taylor suit, a perfect size eight and even a little gappy around the waist. I preened in front of the mirror, admiring the way the gray suit set off my auburn hair.
     "Quack, quack, that suit is too tight in the back."
     I looked up and narrowed my eyes at Steve who was holding up Mr. Quackers up over his face and puppeteering his wings in authoritative gestures. "You might look thinner if you wore heels."
     I glowered at him but I slipped out of my loafers and into a pair of low-heeled pumps. He was right, the pumps gave me a little extra height. I pulled at the back of the skirt trying to feel if the fabric was straining across my behind.
     "Better," said Steve as he brushed off imaginary lint off my lapels.
     Steve and I never commuted together even though our offices were just a few miles apart. It seemed easier that way, him in his car, me in mine. We even left at different times so we wouldn't look over in traffic and see each other's faces. I liked to leave first, that way if I drove fast, if no unforeseen accidents occurred, there was no possibility I would glance back and catch his car in my rear view mirror.
     Proximity erodes romance; it wears it away. I have a distant memory of a hunger just to see his face and feel the gentle scrape of his fingertips against my cheek. But some days, the way he brushed his teeth—two squirts of toothpaste, brush, brush, spit, spit—would move me to sudden anger. Other days I could be unaccountably charmed by the way he draped his napkin over his knees at dinner.
     Steve and I didn't talk on the phone during the day. Another unspoken rule we made to preserve harmony. If we had information to share, dinner reservations, late-running meetings, we would communicate through e-mail. E-mail was safest. I didn't trust my secretary not to calculate exactly how much time I spent on the phone and communicate it to upper management. Steve never had such worries; no one at his job cared much what he did. He could chat on the phone all afternoon if I allowed it.
     That night, Steve brought Mr. Quackers to the dinner table. I tried to ignore it. Another of Steve's little jokes. My friends always said I was so lucky to have a husband with such a great sense of humor. They didn't understand that it felt like being a laugh track for a sitcom. I wanted him to be serious, just a little serious. I was sure that was why I made more money than he did. After all, he was a man; he could make twice as much as me if he just learned to apply himself. But to Steve being charming was more important than being successful.
     "Brad called me today," said Steve over broiled chicken and baby vegetables. "He and Cindy want to get together this weekend."
     "Not them. I always get stuck listening to her drone on about her drooling toddler." New mothers always made me feel inadequate. Wasn't it enough that I was carrying the financial burden of a house and a husband, did I really have to add a child to the mix to prove I was a real woman?
     "You were sorority sisters in college."
     "We are a long way from Beta Chi." Why were we talking about this? I was close to landing the biggest deal of my career thus far, brokering the sale of a 36,000 square foot block of commercial real estate, and all Steve wanted to talk about was some friend I swapped outfits with ten years ago.
     "Quack, quack, you were more fun back then."
     I glowered at the duck, then at Steve. "I can't this weekend. Too much work."
     Steve sighed and poked at his food like a little kid who just found out he has to visit grandma's house instead of go to the movies. "Mr. Quackers," he said, leaning close to the duck. "Would you like to see a baseball game this weekend?"
     Over the next few days, that duck became a regular feature of our married life. I tried to adapt. If I ignored it for long enough it might go away. Things often happened like that; our marriage cycled and rarely remained constant. In a way, the addition of Mr. Quackers proved beneficial. Steve was much more likely to tell me what he thought or felt if he could add "quack, quack" to the front of it. I was interested to find out that he thought we shouldn't get a home equity loan even though he hadn't told me that when I first brought up the idea. I was less interested in the fact that he hated the frosty lilac paint that I had used when we redecorated the bedroom. Too bad if it "quack, quack, made him feel like a sissy," I liked it.
     For weeks it went on like this, Steve and Mr. Quackers together always. I began to think my husband was losing his mind. That duck, everywhere. I had a sneaking feeling he was taking it to the office with him, setting it up on his desk, flirting with his co-workers in duck voice. I was so busy putting my big real estate deal to bed that I was relieved he had something to occupy his time. Of course it would have been better if he were channeling that energy into something worthwhile but I had learned long ago that ambition wasn't something I could push on Steve. Luckily, I had enough for the both of us.
     "They finally passed papers today." I had a big commission check on the way and it was time to celebrate. "I made reservations at Sandrine's Bistro."
     "Quack, quack, too pretentious."
     "Wear your beige sweater and the Armani Exchange pants. You always look so handsome in those."
     "Quack, quack, boring, boring."
     "Steve, the reservation is at eight, we have to get ready now."
     "I'm taking Mr. Quackers with us. I'll leave him in my pocket but I'm only going if he comes."
     "Just hurry. I'm going to call my mom before we go." At least she would be happy for me that the deal was over. Steve hadn't even said congratulations.
     That night, after we came home, I lay in bed reviewing the events of the past few weeks. Steve was changing. He had become less and less interested in what I had to say. He had stopped asking for sex. While I appreciated not having to have that argument anymore, I missed the sensation of being desired. Something had to be done. Mr. Quackers would have to leave.
     My plan was simple. On Friday night I left work early and ordered in Italian food for us. Candlelight, a bottle of Merlot, and me in a black silk nightgown with laces up the side. How could Mr. Quackers compete with that?
     Steve was impressed by the food and my thoughtfulness. I could tell he was relieved not to have to cook for once. After I poured the wine, we sat down at the table. Steve began to pull Mr. Quackers from his briefcase. I put my hand on top of the case, pressing down slightly on Steve's hand.
     "Let him out."
     "Steve, it is time to get rid of the toy."
     "I'll leave him in the briefcase during dinner."
     "Why don't you let me say hello to him? Mr. Quackers and I never get to talk." I opened the briefcase and took out Mr. Quackers. I pretended affection for the stupid toy as I carried him into the kitchen.
     "Where are you going?" Steve called after me, his voice reedy with panic. He knew me too well. He was in the kitchen before I could get Mr. Quackers shoved down the garbage disposal. I rammed the duck's head halfway in and groped for the switch. Steve pried my hand off the switch and pushed me away. He reached into the disposal for the duck. I put my hand back on the switch. "Let it go."
     "What the hell is wrong with you?" He let go of the duck and grabbed my wrist.
     "You care more about that damn duck than me." My eyes stung with tears.
     "The duck doesn't spend all his time trying to be the next Donald Trump."
     "Too bad you can't fuck Mr. Quackers." I waited for him to reply but he stood silent, watching me. "You think, you're so charming, that everyone just loves easygoing Steve. People walk all over you. You should marry a stuffed animal. It's the only thing that wouldn't push you around."
     His hand was still on my wrist and I felt his fingers tighten. He loomed closer. "That's it isn't it? You want to be pushed. Pretty, powerful Saundra wants to know she isn't so powerful after all."
     "Powerful enough to do this." I twisted my arm out of his grip and flicked the switch. Mr. Quackers met his end in a swirl of yellow and white fluff.
     Steve looked at the disposal and he looked at me. Our eyes locked for a long moment. Then I ran, straight up the stairs and into the bedroom.
     "You're going to pay for that one," Steve said as he shoved me onto the bed. I fumbled with his belt buckle, grateful for his mastery. It had been too long. So often in our marriage, I slipped into the driver's seat. I got comfortable there, forgetting that Steve was waiting, low-crouched like a cat in the grass, ready to shift the power balance. It was his secret weapon, an ability to switch from doormat to dominator whenever he chose.
     "Make me," I said, ready for the first time in weeks, to feel his weight on me.

Copyright©2003 Deidre Woollard


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