Duck Variations

Ron MacLean


Where to begin? He took a duck in the face, but that was secondary. More to the point, she walked in; he, an unprepared pear playing the accordion of hope.

Close your eyes and pick another face (hers). A familiar tune: a man walks into a date (checked cloths, accordions). His energy infectious; his cards unmarked. A woman smiles: his efforts are not entirely unwelcome. Love evolves. Sneaks in. Occasional comfort, i.e., moments not spent considering what might whack them.

Close your eyes. Pick another duck. Begin with a face in a minor key. A watermelon, hope-towed across a Finnish lake in a tin canoe. A (not yet lived) memory registers. A sunny Tuesday, after 200 miles on a tense train, neither fully believing the effort would pan out. 1 chocolate bar. 1 orange. 1 bottle of (spring) water.

When you begin with an accordion, conjuring Finland—or some equally resonant outpost—is inevitable.

There is a lake.
There is a train, pulling out.
There is a canoe.

Connect the dots and win. Moments of transport. Years of unstained grins. Take two (marked) cards from the register, then close your eyes and pick another fish. Harness yourself to hope and see what memory makes of you.

Where to begin?
1. a man walks into a (registered) fish
2. he (we) must learn to live a (secondary) life in an unmarked world
3. his (our) efforts are not entirely unwelcome


2. (simile)

(S)he took a diagnosis in the face at 200 miles an hour. No time to duck. (S)he must learn to close our eyes. To duck and cover.

Like an accordion eating a pear by the (river) water on a spring day, change your tune. Make the effort. Vary the angle of approach and fish for a different result. Pick another date. It had already begun when s(he) walked in. (Seemingly) innocent. It's amazing how fully we get filleted. Memory is a card trick. Blame, toxic.

Work against the current. He: I know that river. He: close my eyes and face the lake where memory (Finland) is not entirely registered. Fish for unmarked dates and rain(bow trout). Duck to avoid flying debris. Blame the diagnosis.

1. eat a melon by the water (make it real)
2. change your tune
3. make an effort to hail from sweden
4. pick a different memory (keep it real)


3. (it gets personal)

A think tank. An unmarked fish. What I know and what I act on—the accordion of my days. It didn't miss her (you) (me).

Ride a bike by the river. Notice anything. No, you won’t stop what's coming. Radiation, global warming, one lake turned toxic. Face it: you (we) won’t do enough—no one does (can). Close your eyes and duck another fish. What I did do: I memorized you.

I thought the geese were floating trash.

A man walks into a river—the river has been (up)graded, B-plus, clean enough to tow a watermelon. Smile. Pedal. Take a fish in the face at eleven miles per hour. Conjure a Finnish lake, a chocolate bar grin.

Where to begin (again):
1. close your eyes and pick another duck (less lame)
2. the accordion of hope (squeeze)(play)(listen)
3. tow a watermelon across a lake (a – bring a friend, or two; b – create your own harness; c – savor)


4. (think tank)

Every fish in the face, every unducked heartache makes you more alive. So the song says. I’m game.

Who’s got the gauze to hold guts together while wounds heal? Was a time not long ago a fish couldn’t live in this river, and tykes got sick if they fell in. It’s better now, a B-plus.

Yes, I took it, but as tribute, not thievery. Finland can be a point of origin; memory a toxic spring. All depends on your mode of transport. A thought at fifty: elusiveness is overrated, abstraction a device to duck engagement. Want something honest, concrete? I couldn’t stop staring at her ass. Didn’t want to.

To restate: we took a fish in the face at eleven o’clock. Eyes on the afternoon. She always out front. I bruise easily – a pear. My bravery busted at the drop of a (dead) duck. I find courage contagious, but tough to trigger.

1. a fish walks into a memory bank
2. a man flails in a think tank
3. a trio of (wet) tykes tries to cauterize the flank


5. (fishface: sing slow, in a minor key)

What conclusions do we draw – what unducked (engagement) evolves? I'm a lake man on a B-plus river. Not lonely. Got an orange, a chocolate bar, a bicycle. Who knows better than us, love, how a slap in the face can feel invigorating. Pedal. Eat fish by the water. Take stock of supplies: 1 canoe. 1 unseeded accordion, water(melon)-logged. 1 Finnish train to forever.

Ron MacLean

Ron MacLean is author of the story collection Why the Long Face? (2008) and the novel Blue Winnetka Skies (2004). His fiction has appeared in GQ, Greensboro Review, Fiction International, Night Train, Other Voices. His story "The Night Dentist" from DB 11 was included in Best Online Fiction 2010. and many more publications. He is a recipient of the Frederick Exley Award for Short Fiction and a multiple Pushcart Prize nominee. He holds a Doctor of Arts from the University at Albany, SUNY, and is a former executive director at Grub Street, Boston’s independent creative writing center, where he still teaches.