Breathing for Two by Allison Light
We’re often asked what earns a submission upvotes, and we often respond: a good hook, clear writing, and believable characters. This debut short story, Allison Light’s “Breathing for Two,” has these elements and more. Our team was smitten with the characters, and the small moments of verisimilitude. Look for Patrick complaining about the cabinet door and the bathroom door, and the way he parks in the grass. The pacing is strong, as is the hint of mystery. Information is handled well here: what is given and when, and what is withheld. In the craft essay “Mystery vs. Confusion,” Sarah Stone describes “avoiding the dreaded exposition junk pile at the beginning”—something Light controls deftly (see her author’s note for more of a discussion about earlier drafts and “front-loading” information).
This piece also uses objects—specifically rubber ducks—symbolically to create tension. As Laura van den Berg explains in the craft essay “Objects Lessons: An Exploration,” “If orienting details ground our readers, then granular details often work to startle and destabilize. The friction between these two approaches to concrete detail can create a certain weather on the page. A tension. A charge.” Light’s ducks are this granular detail, and they also serve as objective correlative for the characters of Dana and Hal to each explore universal themes of belonging, collecting, and agency. —CRAFT
I want to bring the rubber ducks. Patrick wants me to leave the rubber ducks behind. We bicker about it for days, before the move, and when our closets have been emptied and we’ve packed the essentials and there is only one box left in the entryway, it’s the one box full of ducks.
“Fate wants me to have them,” I reason with Patrick. “I’m not in control.”
“Dana, you hate the ducks,” Patrick says, standing by the minivan that my sister Caroline was kind enough to trade for our sedan, to fit our three months’ worth of stuff.
His legs are planted wide, like a protestor blocking a tree marked for cutting. He is in cargo shorts and a tank top because he thinks they are “moving clothes,” his exposed arms and legs white, white, white.
“They’re growing on me,” I tell him, defensive. There are pirate ducks, Santa ducks, Batman ducks, basketball ducks, cowboy ducks. There are ducks that aren’t even ducks, that are really rubber unicorns or penguins or sheep vaguely shaped like ducks. “It’s just something silly. To make the new place feel more familiar.”
He is skeptical of this, and rightly so—I have done nothing but complain about my own rubber duck collection in the time we’ve been together. But before I’ve had the chance to decide how far I’m going to push this, he picks up the box and takes it to the car. I am both warmed by his willingness to let me win, and disappointed that he is enabling my most inexplicable attachment.
I briefly abandon my family, my friends, and my life for a man named Hal. Hal is Patrick’s dying father, and Patrick is my fiancé, so it might be less misleading to say that I’m doing it for Patrick. But Patrick never directly asked me to come with him to rural Pennsylvania for the summer. Patrick just decided to go, and I decided to not be left behind.
We drive from Providence to the rolling farmlands of central Pennsylvania, just before the Appalachian Mountains. We drive past cities, past water towers and pretty fields neatly striped, like flattened green candy canes. Our temporary home is a quaint little town within a cluster of quaint little towns, population 4,000.
The short-term apartment Patrick found is above a wine store owned by our landlady. The floorboards are good and creaky, the curtains an odd mauve velvet. I am one of four daughters, so I don’t mind cramped quarters, but Patrick is funny about space, as if the air in a room is a finite resource. He feels like the place was falsely advertised, but here we are, minivan parked illegally out front.
Once the suitcases and boxes are upstairs, I stretch out like a starfish on the bed. In, out, in out: the sheets smell of lemon. I tell Patrick to come here but he is in the bathroom, opening and closing the mirror cabinet over the sink while also opening and closing the bathroom door. “See how they hit when you try to open both?” He demonstrates, trapping himself in the room. “Why doesn’t the cabinet just open the other way? It’s so obvious.” He squints at me expectantly through the crack, as if to ask, well, what do you have to say about it?
After graduating from college, I got a teaching job at a middle school in Providence, where I took over in January for a Mrs. Gloria Maldonado who died suddenly from a heart attack. She had a modest rubber duck collection when I arrived—twenty or so, of various sizes and styles—lined up in a row on her desk. I disliked the garish mustard color, hated hearing the wheezy squawk when I would accidentally knock one to the floor. When I asked our principal how to get them back to her family, I was told that they didn’t want anything from the classroom.
Then students started bringing more ducks in. It began as a tribute to Mrs. Maldonado, classroom moms posthumously continuing her collection, sending their fourth graders in with little notes to accompany the squeaky additions. Twenty rubber ducks became thirty, then forty the next year. The notes stopped being addressed, creepily, to Mrs. Maldonado—may she smile down upon us—and started being addressed to me. Soon I had students who had never known Mrs. Maldonado, who thought that I was just the fun, young social studies teacher obsessed with rubber ducks.
I didn’t have the heart to debunk the rumor. So they accumulated. I ran out of space on my desk and began winding them around the room on the chalkboard ledges. Guarding the perimeter. Keeping watch. And over the summer, when my classroom decorations come home with me, so do the ducks.
I’ve justified my complacency by telling myself that if I’m going to be “rubber duck lady,” it’s time I embrace it. My students love the ducks. My coworkers love the ducks. I, too, can learn to love the ducks. But I know the real reason. I can’t get rid of them because I know I may never have so much of one thing again.
Left to my own devices, I would live out of boxes and suitcases for five to ten days, but Patrick insists we unpack the morning after the move. Our Polish landlady, Judyta, comes out from the wine store to meet us; she is warm and compact, around forty years old. She gifts us a bottle of chardonnay.
In the evening, we go out to the farm to meet Hal. Patrick gets worked up over little things, like the cabinet or the ducks, yet prides himself on being totally unaffected when it comes to the big things. I can only sense his anxiety from his increasingly watery eyes. When he gets nervous, he forgets to blink for long stretches.
We navigate with two lines of directions Hal gave Patrick over the phone. “Turn here,” I say when a dirt road appears on our right. Past two minutes of trees, we find a square white box of a house, with a classic red barn visible in the back. There is a fenced enclosure with two goats and a cow. “Wow,” I remark. “He is a legitimate farmer.” Patrick parks slightly in the grass to avoid blocking the pick-up in the driveway, as if today, while seeing his only child for the first time in over a decade and still recovering from major surgery, Hal might need to back out in a hurry.
Hal is a kleptomaniac. And not the had-a-shoplifting-phase-as-a-teenager kind, or the takes-a-bunch-of-peppermints-from-the-bowl-at-the-Chinese-restaurant kind. Hal took things, for as long as Patrick could remember: packets of mini-donuts, children’s scissors, clothes that didn’t fit him, gift cards for stores he didn’t shop at.
For every six or seven things he stole, someone noticed one, and he racked up the petty-theft misdemeanors. The first time Patrick remembers him being caught, a mall security officer saw him drop a home décor magazine into a plastic bag holding items he’d already purchased. Next it was four CDs, slipped into two back pockets and two vest pockets. They set off the electronic sensors at the exit, and the judge prohibited him from entering retail stores unaccompanied.
As the incidents continued, judges started taking Hal’s record more seriously. He went to jail three times when Patrick was growing up, potentially more after they lost contact. First, it was two months, then probation, for taking a pair of expensive headphones from the backseat of an unlocked car parked outside his therapist’s office. While out on probation, the family took a trip to Disney World, and Hal ended up with a dozen “I ♥ Orlando” trinkets and baubles in his carry-on, lifted from various gift shops and stands across the airport. Back he went—six months this time.
But the last straw for Patrick’s mom had been a routine family dinner at her parents’ house, pleasant and uneventful as far as Patrick remembered. Her father called the next day, voice tentative, already forgiving. He led with: it’s just strange, is all. The magnets from their fridge had somehow all disappeared; the photos and lists they had been holding up were tucked neatly in the nearest drawer. Patrick’s mother filed for divorce. Patrick was thirteen, and hadn’t seen Hal since.
This past May, Patrick got a call from his mother saying, your father is sick. Pancreatic cancer. One of the deadliest. He is living on a farm in rural Pennsylvania, and he is getting his pancreas removed, and he wants you to visit.
My family, unlike Patrick’s, is big and loud and together. I’m the fourth of four girls, and none of us have strayed too far from home, held fast in an orbit around our childhood house where our parents still live. Between my two eldest sisters I have three nephews and two nieces; my sister Caroline, the second youngest, is pregnant with her first, due in September. We have too many cousins to keep track of.
Caroline and I met up for dinner in Providence before Patrick and I left for the summer, at a seafood restaurant she was thrilled about while ordering and disgusted by shortly after. We’d run the calculations, and I would be back to start school two weeks before the baby was due. “But things happen,” I reminded her, unnecessarily. “You have to call me if she’s coming early.”
She flipped a shrimp with her fork. “I’m not going to make you speed across the countryside to catch this baby.”
“But then how will I be godmother?”
She glowered at me. The naming of godmother is both a contentious subject and an inexact science in this family; I somehow have booked the role for three of the five existing children.
I’m used to new additions to the family at this point, but it’s different now that it’s Caroline. Now, the sisters are split evenly, the two mothers, and the two not-mothers. Once this baby comes, I will be alone in the latter category. “Promise me you’ll tell me when you go into labor,” I said. “Or I won’t agree to switch entrees.”
“Oh my God, thank you,” she said, pushing her plate towards me.
Hal is white, white, white like his son. He walks gingerly from his pancreatectomy, the bulge of a feeding tube visible under his thin shirt. He has a full head of gray curls and a voice as rough as his beard.
“I’m Dana,” I say, extending a hand. Hal and I shake.
Patrick is doing the no-blinking thing. I elbow him. “Hey, Dad.” He hadn’t planned on calling him ‘Dad,’ was going to let things warm up, but these things happen.
Hal grips his forearms and grins. “It’s good to see you, boy. I’ve turned it all around. You’ll see.”
Inside, we meet the round-cheeked home care nurse who has been checking in on Hal since the surgery. She gives us a folder of explanatory paperwork and shows us how to help him with his feeding tube and insulin shots. He tells us he’s got things under control, and Patrick mouths along her instructions to commit them to memory, but when the nurse leaves she looks at me and squeezes my shoulder, like, Honey, we both know this is gonna fall on you.
Though it’s getting dark, Hal wants to introduce us to all the animals. We help him down the front steps to the fence. The evening air fills with cricket chirps, just like I imagined. I comment on it, and Hal holds up a finger. “Did you know,” he says, “that most female crickets don’t chirp? It’s usually the males trying to attract a mate.” His finger lingers and we listen. If I strain, I swear I can hear the wind on the dirt, the movement of ants. It feels like we are waiting for him to say more, but after a few expectant seconds, he continues walking.
Hal has six chickens and one rooster, in addition to the goats and cow. He ushers the chickens and rooster from the pasture into the barn, then gently half-guides-half-tosses them one by one into the coop, saying their names as he goes. Mozart, whoosh. Beethoven, whoosh. Chopin, whoosh. Debussy, Bach, Tchaikovsky—whoosh, whoosh, whoosh. Then the rooster: Thelonious Monk. Squawk.
“So, when’s the wedding?” Hal asks.
I look down at my ring, then to Patrick. “Not for a while, we’re thinking,” I say.
Hal scratches his head. “You could have it here, you know. People are all about barn weddings these days.”
Patrick’s eyes go wide. “We’re not really—”
“And it’d save you a lot of money, of course. I’d give you a good discount.” Hal laughs to himself. “I see it in all the magazines. People love a barn wedding.”
I want to give Patrick some privacy with his father. When they head inside, I insist that I want to stay in the barn a bit longer. This is, of course, ludicrous. But there I remain, afraid to step inside and interrupt, testing if the chickens respond to their names, disappointed that they don’t. I consider what it would be like to marry Patrick here, the officiant standing on a bale of hay. It’s not my fairytale image by a long shot, but the light isn’t bad. It streams through the slats in the walls, makes everything a little golden.
Forty-five minutes pass. Eventually I sit down against a wall and run straw through my fingers. I raise a strand to my neck, surprised when it tickles.
Five things I knew about Hal before today:
(1) He is sixty-two years old.
(2) Patrick found his stash of stolen goods in the toolshed outside when he was eight, most still in the packaging, unused.
(3) Hal was trained as a piano tuner. That’s how it started, Patrick said. Piano tuners go into rich people’s houses. “It’s like a cleaning lady, or a bug guy, or a plumber,” he explained. “No one likes having to invite a stranger in. They were always suspicious. And then they were right.”
(4) Hal loves baseball, and briefly coached Patrick’s T-ball team, before the jail-time.
(5) When Patrick was fifteen, after the divorce, Patrick had saved up his money and taken a taxi to the county jail to visit. He didn’t know what Hal had stolen this time, only that he was back inside, from eavesdropping on his mom’s phone calls. He’d been turned away at the door—minors can’t just walk into prisons without supervision, he was told. Which made sense. He never tried again.
Patrick is hired at an electronics store within a week. His plan is to stay as long as Hal can stick it out, but I’m teaching in Providence again in the fall, so I don’t look for any jobs. My days’ two constants are dropping Patrick off at nine and picking him up at five. In the meantime, I read and work on lesson plans. I sketch, sometimes. I video call Caroline, and she makes fun of me when I touch her belly on the screen. And I check on Hal.
At first, while Hal is still weak and hooked to a feeding tube, I mainly restock the feed in the barn and collect any fresh eggs. I am briefly stricken by panic when I think I might need to milk the cow—Clara, for Clara Schumann, I’m told—but he says that the day he can’t sit on a bucket and pull some teats is the day we should just let him go, and I don’t argue.
After a couple of weeks, I take him to the hospital to get the tubes out. I go from nurse to chef. Because getting your pancreas removed typically gives you diabetes, I have to throw out most things in his kitchen. I find and prepare the blandest, most inoffensive recipes dreamt up by humankind, and he asks me about teaching. It takes a little while before he convinces me that he actually does want to hear about why I think that girls are better at cursive than boys, or that the math teacher at my school has a gambling problem. He tells me about the things he’s heard while in people’s homes, tuning their pianos. A teenager admitting to his father that he put a dent in the car. A couple who chatted pleasantly with Hal while he worked, until they realized that neither had picked up their child from school.
I don’t ask him about jail, and instead invent my own wild stories while watching him tenderly spoon beans into his mouth.
Patrick unpacks the ducks one Saturday morning before work. I wake up and they are everywhere—on our windowsills, lining the kitchen counters, teetering on the snake radiator, on top of the box TV. I am doubly impressed, first that he could bring himself to put out the ducks, then that he set them all out without waking me. I take stock of them in a way I haven’t before. Five years in that classroom and they’d become part of the wallpaper. I walk around the apartment and count them. Eighty-five. God, I think.
When I pick Patrick up from the electronics store, I place a duck in the passenger seat. “I’m sorry, that seat’s taken,” I say when he sits down on it.
He digs between his thighs and groans. “And to think, I wanted to leave them behind.”
“Should’ve left you,” I retort.
The apartment looks ridiculous, but I’m glad to have the ducks. Eighty-five familiar faces in a town full of strangers. However, a new problem arises, one that wasn’t relevant when they were in the classroom. That night, when Patrick gets in bed and reaches for my silk pajama shorts, I start giggling. Controllably at first, then less so.
He retreats and looks nervous. No blinking. “What’s so funny?”
I jerk my head to the windowsill.
“You’re kidding me.”
I shake my head. “Tell your men to stand down.”
“They’re not my men!”
Patrick gets up and turns each duck around, then crawls back in bed, where I am still laughing. The next morning I wake up too late to put on real clothes, so I drop him off for work in my pajamas. I feel like a soccer mom, and think of my sister Caroline, breathing for two.
“Don’t bother having wine with bad food,” our landlady Judyta tells me one day. I’ve just come from the grocery store and stopped in her store to pick up a bottle of wine to pair with dinner. Through the thin plastic bags in my hands, she can see that dinner is frozen chicken wings. She scowls.
“Not even bad wine?” I ask hopefully.
“Wine is meant to enhance food,” she explains in a strong accent. “If the food you’re eating isn’t worth enhancing, wine will make it even worse.”
“Okay,” I say. “Do you carry any beer?”
I stop by the store more and more frequently after running errands, or checking on Hal. Some days I come down just to get out of the apartment. Judyta takes a liking to me. After a while, she teaches me how to use the cash register so I can help ring people up when she’s hit with multiple customers. Poland is not known for its wine production, she says, but it’s getting better now. She has a special shelf for Polish wines in the store. “I like them, though they are not the best,” she says. “They are Polish, like me. What can you do?”
A couple of weeks after the surgery, Hal is cleared to drive, and he insists he’s well enough to visit our apartment. As I prepare a nice, diabetic-friendly dinner, I watch Patrick tidying the living room, and I choose my words carefully.
“Maybe,” I say, “we should put some things in the bedroom.”
Patrick pauses over the coffee table. “I don’t think that’s necessary.”
“It’s to protect him, Patrick. You don’t leave out a bottle of whiskey when an alcoholic is coming over.”
“This is different,” he says.
“You’re right. It’s a lot more unpredictable.”
“So what do we do?” he demands. “Hide everything we own?”
I come over to him and rub a hand down his back. “Of course not. Just…the valuables. Just to be extra careful. To make this easy on him.”
I can tell Patrick isn’t pleased, but he begins scooping things up. It’s surprisingly quick work; we brought very few belongings of monetary or sentimental value. I clear books and dirty glasses off the coffee table, leaving just a candle, and take our laptops and good pens to the bedroom.
“Well,” he says, rubbing his forehead. “That was depressingly easy.”
When Hal arrives, he seems disoriented. Some of his strangeness emerges. He is a quieter guest than he is a host, seemingly out of place here in town, in our temporary home. He keeps his hands in his pockets even while sitting in the armchair in the living room, waiting as Patrick and I flurry about the kitchen. I keep an eye on him throughout the evening, curious how someone so fragile and slow-moving could ever have pick-pocketed his way across New England.
“So you’re probably wondering about the ducks,” I say at one point, and explain. He nods along, distracted, and by the end I’m not convinced he understood the story.
Hal starts coming over in the evenings two or three times a week. Patrick worries at first that this is overkill, but I remind him that if we’re not spending time with Hal, then why are we here? He brings over a chessboard and Patrick and I play him as a team and lose every time. Sometimes he brings DVDs and we watch together.
I can’t help but wonder, every time he pulls something else out, if he stole it somewhere. After Hal drives home, Patrick catches me scanning the room.
“What’s he going to take, Dana?” he asks. “We don’t have anything.”
“It’s not about the value. I’ve been reading about kleptomania. It’s just about the rush. And I know you think he’s better, but it doesn’t just go away all of a sudden,” I say.
“It’s not all of a sudden. He’s been working on it for my entire adult life.” Patrick stands up and heads to the bedroom. “The old man can barely breathe and eat. He’s not robbing us blind under our noses,” he says. He shuts the door behind him.
Though I think he’s being irrational, I’m secretly pleased to see him emoting over Hal, and I don’t want to get in the way of that. So I stop wondering aloud, and start just wondering to myself. Hal keeps coming over week after week, and I can never point to anything missing, so eventually I stop wondering at all.
Six things I learn from Judyta while helping in the shop all summer:
(1) Never fill your wine glass more than one-third, otherwise it can’t swirl or aerate.
(2) The word for “cheapskate” in Polish is dusigrosz.
(3) Champagne should be served around forty °F, merlot around sixty-six °F.
(4) I should never try to teach here because the teenagers are all vagrants anyway.
(5) Never let the neck of the bottle rest on the rim of the glass as you pour.
(6) People in this town know of Hal, or at least know that a reclusive elderly man bought the farm about a decade ago, but not a soul in town knew that he tuned pianos. “I have a piano that could be tuned,” she says. “Tell him if he comes I will give him my favorite Barolo.”
Hal seems to get better and worse each day. He moves faster but with less control, takes his pain medication less frequently but in greater doses, complains less but sleeps more. One doctor thinks he’s handling the surgery well, and another reminds us every visit that it’s a brutal procedure.
I’m slicing tomatoes in the kitchen after a day of lesson-planning when I notice the gap. Between astronaut duck and skeleton duck, towards the edge of the row on the counter, there used to be two plain yellow ducks. Now there’s only one, and this gap. I know the spot because it’s within my line of vision when I watch TV while cooking dinner. I walk around the counter to check that it hasn’t fallen, looking under the nearby armchair and end table.
Patrick watches me. “What are you doing?”
I straighten up. “Nothing.”
Later, when he gets in bed with his laptop to read the day’s news (“I don’t have time in the morning, okay?”) I go back into the living room and rotate 360 degrees, counting the ducks. I track them at the edge of the kitchen counter, then follow them into the bedroom. Then I count them again. Seventy-nine. There should be eighty-five.
“Are you missing something?” Patrick calls from the bedroom.
“Just my phone.” I pull it from my pocket and join him in bed.
I try to tell Caroline about the missing ducks, but she has little patience for my paranoia. “You know what, great,” she says through my computer, fanning herself with what looks like a packet of crib assembly instructions. “Let him take them all. Why does it matter? I’ll buy them in bulk and you can share them with the baby, if she ever comes.”
“That’s not the point. The point is that he told Patrick he’s all better. Patrick thinks it’s different now.”
“So he told a little lie to reunite with his only son before he dies—that’s about the best excuse for lying I can think of,” she says. Then, changing gears: “I know you want to be godmother, but you were the only sister not at the baby shower, so it’s not looking good.” I scowl through the screen.
I start inviting Judyta up to the apartment during our lunch breaks, where she is naturally confused by the ducks, which is my excuse to let everything about Hal come spilling out. I feel a pang of shame for gossiping like this, but Caroline isn’t giving me what I need, and Patrick isn’t ready to hear it, and that leaves Judyta.
I leave nothing out—the kleptomania, the prison time, the pancreatectomy, now the ducks—and she listens, inscrutable. When I finish, I wait for her to say something. She takes a breath and shakes her head. “I tried to start collecting pin cushions when I was a young girl, you know—for sewing,” she says. “But when my mother found them, she said that purposeless collection was gluttony, and she sold them all.” I wonder if Mrs. Maldonado thought of the ducks as a purposeful collection. It occurs to me that maybe she has an opinion, somewhere, about what has happened to them since her passing—that maybe she’s up there rooting for Hal.
The next two nights Hal comes over, I watch him carefully the whole time. Or I think I do. But when he leaves and Patrick gets ready for bed, I count and another duck is missing each time. I can’t tell which ones—I can only get a vague sense of where they were taken from, because of the little gaps left behind—but my inventory shrinks to seventy-seven.
The third visit, we’re watching Pulp Fiction. The lights are off, and Patrick and I are close on the couch when Hal gets up to go to the bathroom. That’s where I see it. Right before he turns into the hallway, just at the corner. He brushes up against the kitchen island, and wraps a fist around one of the ducks. Bubblegum pink, right on the edge.
I feel my heart rate spike, vindicated. When he comes back and sits down in the armchair, I stealthily examine him. There, zipped in the right breast pocket of his vest: a duck-sized bulge. I feel it against my shoulder when hug him goodbye after the movie.
Patrick talks about how well Hal is doing while I check that nothing else is missing from the bedroom. “He taught me how to skateboard, you know, even though my mom thought it was too dangerous.” Both wallets: check. “I fell so many times, but he was so patient.” Jewelry: check. “I can’t even remember my parents ever fighting. She just cut him out.” I think I’m missing a notepad from the desk, but I remember that I had slipped it in my purse this morning.
I count after, and sure enough, I’m down to seventy-six. I readjust the ducks to fill the space previously occupied by their bubblegum pink neighbor so that Patrick won’t notice, not that he would regardless. Damn you, Mrs. Maldonado, I think. Damn you PTA moms. All this time insisting that I wasn’t the crazy duck lady, and look at me now.
The next day, I tell Judyta about the bubblegum duck while I help her stock this week’s delivery. She casually mentions that Hal came over to tune her piano the other day.
I straighten up and gawk at her over the shelf. “Is anything missing? You should check.”
“Nothing’s missing,” she whispers. “I was curious, so I set out traps.”
“What are you talking about?”
She shrugs with an armful of malbec. “I wondered what kind of things he might want to take, so I set out a bunch of little knick-knacks before, and took pictures to remind myself. Then I left him alone in the piano room.”
I imagine Hal, in the home of my only friend in this town, dropping Polish heirlooms into his vest pocket. “Why would you do that?”
“Maybe it is true that he is taking all of your ducks,” she says, rotating the bottles so all of the labels face out. “But he did not take a single thing of mine. I checked, with the pictures. Disappointing.” She adds: “And my piano sounds great.”
It’s easy to tell when Hal starts dying. It’s the end of August, just as I’ve passed Judyta’s blind taste-test of identifying cabernet sauvignon, merlot, and pinot noir. I come to the farm after dropping Patrick off for work and as soon as I get out of the car I can hear the cow baying and stomping in pain from the enclosure. I go inside the house; it takes me a few minutes to find Hal. Usually if he doesn’t respond when I call, he’s sleeping, but the bed is empty. I find him in the bathroom, sitting up, propped against the wall next to the toilet. His eyes are closed; when I enter they open, and he insists that he did not pass out, just decided to take a quick rest.
“You forgot to milk Clara,” I tell him.
He stands up, creaking. “Help me downstairs.”
“You told me that ‘the day you can’t pull on some teats is the day that’—”
“That was a stupid joke,” he snaps.
Hal refuses to go to hospice, wants to die right here on this land, he says. “This land?” Patrick scoffs. “This isn’t Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry. He talks like this farm has been in our family for generations. He doesn’t know anyone here.”
“You can’t tell someone how to die,” I say, but Patrick is dialing the number of a real estate agent Judyta recommended, to start figuring out how to sell the farm.
The friendly round-faced nurse is replaced by another woman, younger and more clinical, who is better suited for this kind of care. Hal calls her by the name of the last nurse and she takes it like a champ. Patrick and I go over at night to cook and check on him, and while the men watch baseball, I search for the ducks under the pretense of tidying up the house. It doesn’t matter if he stole them. I don’t plan to take them back, or say anything to him. But they have to be somewhere.
I go through every drawer upstairs. I check in closets and under sinks and even search the barn, plunging my hands into piles of straw. If my count is correct, we’re up to nineteen. Nineteen rubber ducks is not a negligible number of rubber ducks. They have mass and occupy space. I remember Patrick’s story of finding the stash in the toolshed, and I realize that they are probably hidden with other things from over the years, other stupid trinkets or knick-knacks or God-knows-what, tucked away God-knows-where. But I’ve combed every inch of this house—unless all the loot is actually buried under the ground outside, I don’t understand where he could be keeping them.
At a certain point I give up looking. Patrick and I come over every night; the nurse says Hal could go any day now. He learns that I play the piano and is horrified I didn’t mention it before. I remind myself how to sight-read with whatever we find in the bench—mostly classical books, unsurprisingly, but also dozens of pages of loose sheet music, from children’s songs to Christmas carols. I play as long as I can stand while he dozes on the couch, and I when I go home for the night, Patrick stays.
Caroline has her baby the night Hal dies, three weeks early. She Skypes me the next day and I take the call in the barn, where Hal’s absence is the dullest. I start crying when I realize I missed it. The baby girl is fresh and red and splotchy, and the mother too. Caroline has trouble holding the camera at the right angle, so for much of the call I see only the right side of the baby’s head, the folds of her ear like the spiral of a conch shell.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” I blubber at Caroline. “I was supposed to be there for you.”
“You can’t be everywhere,” she says, rocking the baby, soothing both of us. “It’s been an unpopular opinion up here, but you still got godmother.” I cry harder.
I go up to Hal’s bedroom and find Patrick sitting on the edge of the bed. His eyes are wells, unblinking. “He called me on my birthday and Christmas every year,” he whispers. “He sent me things and I threw them away because I was afraid he’d stolen them.”
“Shhh,” I say into his palms, my cheeks wet, his hands shaking. “You fixed it in the end. You were there.”
We leave Pennsylvania the next week. A few days after we’ve settled back into our apartment, I go to the Post Office to collect the mail they’ve held for us while we’ve been gone. The employee brings out an assortment of small packages, spreading them on the counter. There are nineteen boxes and padded envelopes. I pick up the first package; it is addressed from Hal. They are all addressed from Hal, dated throughout the summer, one or two per week. The final one is marked ten days before Hal died.
I ask for a box cutter, slice through the packing tape, and turn the box upside down. A single, classic yellow duck tumbles out. Nineteen packages for nineteen ducks.
When Patrick talks about how Hal turned it all around in the end, I will not correct him. When the next ten-year-old shyly hands me a new addition for my collection, I will gasp in delight. I think about how Hal and I are the same. How we kept ending up with these things we never intended to have. How, defying all logic, we couldn’t make it stop.
ALLISON LIGHT is an audiobook producer, writer, performer, and Spanish-to-English translator living in New York City. She studied creative writing at Princeton University, and is currently enrolled as a lyricist in the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop. She is originally from Little Rock, Arkansas, and this is her first literary publication.