He's not slow and he's not stupid. He can read just fine. It's just that sometimes the words get tangled up in his head. Maybe he's thinking about something else. Sometimes the colors and the shapes of the letters distract him, the curve of an O and how it's thick in some places and thin in others, and he forgets to pay attention to what the words actually mean.
But in this case he's pretty sure he got it right. Not that it matters: Wilby wonderful, wonderful Wilby, doesn't mean anything either way. Just marketing talk from a real-estate agent who wants to market Wilby, turn the working boats into scenery, the rocks on the beach into dollars. Now she thinks he's stupid, but that's okay. He'd rather have her screaming at him than screaming at Deena for writing it the wrong way in the first place. Because it doesn't bother him what people think about him. Not any more.
He's always wanted to have children. Maybe that's the worst thing about being gay, that he's not going to ever have children. Gay women have it easier, he guesses: all they need is a male friend and a turkey baster. But nine months of pregnancy followed by childbirth would be a lot more to ask of any woman he knows.
Sandra had figured it out, somehow. Sandra was a lot smarter than people gave her credit for; just because she wasn't smart about herself didn't mean she couldn't be smart about other people. He'd been talking quietly with Emily about Kingston; she was thinking about applying to the university there and he told her about the parks and the prison, about the waterfront that was so different from Wilby's, all sailboats and pleasure yachts instead of the trawlers and skiffs of working fishermen.
After Emily had left his table, Sandra came by and slid into the seat across the table from him. "She listens to you better than she listens to me."
"You'd make a good father," she said. "Not that I'm asking you to marry me, or anything," she added, and they both laughed. "But she likes you."
"She's a good kid."
Maybe it was something in his voice, because her face went all still and sad, and she reached out and laid her hand over his, just for a moment. Her fingers were warm. "You could adopt."
He shook his head, looked out the window.
"I'm sure Dan would—"
"Sandra," he said, quietly and firmly. She knew when to shut up, he'd give her that; she touched the back of his hand again, then rose from the booth and went back to the kitchen.
He was probably too old now, anyway.
The truth was that even if he'd been straight—even if he'd married some islander, or some girl he'd met while traveling, brought back to Wilby—he wasn't sure he'd have had children. Because what if he turned out like his own father? No kid deserved that.
So he did what he could for Emily, because she was a good kid, and he wasn't going to have any of his own.
He doesn't hate his name; he's just not used to it. When he hears someone call "Walter," for a moment he always thinks someone wants to talk to his father.
His dad only hit him when he was drunk. Problem was, that got to be more and more often. The fishing was getting poorer every year, so it took more hours on the water to fill the hold. Then it was down so much you just had to go home with less, and then the government said you weren't allowed to catch even that many.
The house started looking run-down. His mother looked more worn, more fragile, like she was getting older faster than the years were going by. His father just got drunker.
Duck helped out where he could, but it was never enough. And he knew that if word ever got back to Walter MacDonald about what his son was doing, and with whom, nothing could ever be enough.
So he left the island, traveled around some. Went to places like Kingston and Toronto and Chicago, places that had gay communities that actually called themselves "gay communities" right out loud, places where you didn't have to pretend to be anyone you weren't.
There were parties. There was beer and wine and drinks with names like Screaming Orgasm and Sex on the Beach, pink and orange drinks that went down sweet and smooth. One or two drinks and everything was sweet and smooth: Bob Marley on the stereo, the smell of pot and cigarettes, boys from the college and men who worked in the city, talking, laughing, fucking.
But he never stopped after one or two drinks. Sweet and smooth became loud and angry. Fucking became fighting. He didn't mean to break the guy's nose, but he glared up at Duck from the floor, his face covered in blood.
He'd like to say that was the last time he drank, but it wasn't. Every time after that, he remembered the blood and the anger, the tears and the guilt afterward. How he felt lying on the cool tiles of the bathroom the next day, achy and not wanting to move. He remembered his dad. It didn't take too many more times.
"I'm happy about it," Sandra had insisted. And maybe she was and maybe she wasn't. It was true she'd been close to dropping out of school anyway.
She wouldn't name the father, even when Duck asked her if there was anybody whose ass she wanted kicked.
"It's mine, and that's all it's going to be. About time I had something of my own, anyway."
Could have been any one of a whole lot of people. There were rumors, but nobody ever knew for sure; the one thing they knew was that Sandra had a bulge in her belly and no ring on her finger, and that was all they needed to know to set them talking. The islanders loved to talk.
Maybe that's why she left before the baby was born. Too much talk.
He didn't care to listen but he couldn't help hearing it. They talked about the new guy who smashed the ferry into the dock on his first run; they talked about Deena's sister, who had to be taken to the mental hospital on the mainland, and they talked about how the Loyalist had really gone downhill since the old days. They talked about Sandra's bulge. Duck could tell when they were talking about his parents by the way their voices dropped when he came close.
Duck never talked much, and maybe that's why. With everybody else talking all the time, he never saw much reason to say anything.
Now he doesn't care any more. He is what he is. But he's grateful, if only for his mother's sake, that he had left before they started talking about him.
Alex worked in Vandervoort's Pro Hardware. He was skinny, even skinnier than Duck, and had shaggy dark hair and a shaggy dark mustache. His eyes drooped at the corners, like a dog's. He played guitar sometimes, at parties, and he rode his bicycle everywhere.
Duck's not sure why things didn't work out. They didn't have a big fight, or anything. One day they were lovers, and the next day they weren't, and a week later, Duck packed his things in his truck and headed down the road.
The first time he went to the Wilby Watch he was fifteen. He and Buddy and Charlie hid in the trees and watched the men smoking cigarettes on the rocky beach. One man would approach another, and they'd talk, both looking out over the water and not at each other. Usually then they'd go to one of the cars in the parking lot, because it was spring, the air cold and damp; but then two men walked into the woods, not far from their hiding place.
Duck recognized Mr. Ellison from the grocery. He didn't know the other guy. Maybe he was a mainlander. Duck stood as still as he could behind his tree.
Mr. Ellison leaned back against a tree, his eyes closed, and the other man unzipped him, stuck his hands in, then bent down and put his mouth…there.
"That's gross," hissed Charlie into Duck's ear.
"I guess," he whispered back. He was hard and it was uncomfortable. Buddy was standing awfully close to him. He wondered if Buddy thought it was gross. He wondered what Buddy would think if he knew that Duck sometimes imagined doing that to him. Not that Duck would ever, ever tell him. It was enough to just look at him sometimes, in class, or while they were skipping stones on the water to see who could make the most jumps. He would listen to Buddy telling him about the girls he liked, and nod his head and say yeah, she's pretty. It was okay. It was fine.
Duck was glad of the darkness; Buddy wouldn't be able to see him.
Mr. Ellison made some noises, and the other man made some noises, and then Charlie said, "Ewww!" loud enough that Mr. Ellison and the guy with him looked up, and then the three of them were running through the woods, running back to the parking lot. Charlie was laughing. Buddy wasn't, though, and Duck was grateful for that, because if he'd been the only one of them that wasn't laughing, maybe they would have noticed.
"Did you see that? Ellison! Fuck," said Charlie. "I'm never buying anything from him again."
"Like you have a choice?" asked Buddy mildly. There was only one grocery on the island.
"He's a fucking homo! That's gross."
Buddy shrugged and lit a cigarette. He glanced at Duck, who nodded, and he lit another off that one and gave it to Duck. "It's boring. I'd rather look at girls."
"Got that right," said Charlie, and he looked at Duck.
"Yeah, me too," he mumbled, turning the cigarette in his fingers.
Duck paints houses, and he'll paint a sign for a business if the owner doesn't want to order one from the mainland. He does a good job, nothing fancy. It's just work.
He made a new sign for Viewpoints, the small art gallery on Front Street. He painted the background first, swirls of different shades of blue all fading into each other, and then the store's name in big gold letters, standing out like a sunrise. Rick took one look at it, smiled, and said, "Have you tried watercolors?"
He shrugged. "I don't do that kind of painting."
"You should try. You've got quite a talent with detail."
"Not really my thing, thanks," Duck said, and Rick didn't press him. It wasn't that he didn't like art. It was just that he spent all day with a paintbrush in his hand. He didn't want to do more work for a hobby.
What he would do, if he could, would be pottery. For a while he rented a room in Naperville from a couple, and the woman, Karin, had a potter's wheel in a shed out back. She showed him how to throw pots, how to shape them on the wheel, how to fire and glaze them.
He liked that. He liked getting his hands damp and dirty, liked making a lump of clay take shape under his hands into something useful, a mug or a bowl. Karin was a good teacher. When his first piece came out of the kiln, he couldn't stop looking at it, couldn't keep himself from touching it over and over. I made this, he thought to himself as he slid his fingers across the smooth, hard glaze. I made this.
He still keeps it in his house: a wide, shallow bowl, glazed in blues and greens, colors of sky and ocean.
When he left Wilby, it was for good. He was never coming back, not ever.
When he returned to Wilby, it was for good.
He never thought much about love, when he was younger. He saw the deep affection of his parents turn pale and ugly, and he saw the unemotional transactions at the Watch, and he thought: not for me, thanks.
The first time he fell in love it was exciting and scary, like being out in his dad's boat when a storm far out in the Atlantic had whipped up the waves into a gray-green froth, sliding over the tops of the waves and then smashing into the troughs. Like standing in the bow and feeling the spray on your face, the lurch upward, the sudden plunge. The second time he was warier, because being seasick was no fun. But you were stuck on the boat, like it or not, and you just had to hang on for the ride.
When he first met Dan, at the video store, the fluttery feeling started up in his stomach. When he saw him at the Watch, the boat started to rock.
But he hasn't gotten seasick yet. Maybe it's because he's older now, maybe it's because they did it backwards: they fucked first and then they became friends, and then finally they became lovers. Maybe it's because of the way Dan looks at him, like Duck doesn't have to prove anything, he likes him the way he is.
It doesn't matter why. All that matters is that he knocks on the door of Dan's new apartment, and Dan smiles when he sees who it is. It makes him feel peaceful, happy. Like the storm is over, and the boat's safe, coming into the marina, coming home.