The way Duck saw it, the trick was to figure out what you wanted, and then how to go about getting it. That sounded a lot easier than it was, though.
Duck knew early on what he liked. One of his first childhood memories was standing in the doorway to the kitchen, looking at his mum standing by the sink with her back turned, saying “I like Joel, mum – mum, I like Joel,” and getting no response. He must have been around six then, and already used to it. What Duck learned at home was to be invisible. He was always well dressed, well fed, well behaved, but it was an awfully quiet childhood.
Duck didn’t like school. He learned to stay in the background, made sure to sit in the back row. He was good at being quiet. Buddy was quiet, too. They skipped classes to go to the Watch and collect butt ends of cigarettes which they smoked down to the filter. When the teachers found out and sent notes to their parents, Buddy got grounded for a week. Duck’s parents sent a polite note back with Duck to thank the teacher for informing them. “You really shouldn’t skip classes, Walter,” his mum said.
At sixteen, Duck had sex with Sandra Anderson on a blanket in the patch of forest on the Stewarts’ land, and didn’t like it. “It’s okay,” Sandra said, raising herself up on her elbows, unselfconscious even though her skirt was still bunched up around her waist, “a lot of people don’t like it the first time.” At the look on Duck’s face, Sandra sat up and pulled her skirt down, pulled her panties on still sitting, “We don’t have to do it again.” Duck had been mortally ashamed back then, although later he thought that Sandra was way too young to already be so casual about it.
Duck knew what he liked, but there was no room for that on Wilby. He never approached anyone, although he guessed that there had to be others out there, somewhere. He jerked off quietly in the half-dark of his room, with the sound of canned laughter drifting up from downstairs. He was rough with himself, made it quick, tried not to think too much about it.
He was twenty-one before he figured out he liked it too much to let it go.
The thing was, he liked Wilby, too. He liked taking his dog for a walk on the beach, watching him chase indignant seagulls fat from Wilby clams. He liked the forest slowly creeping into their back yard at home. He’d gotten the painting apprenticeship that he wanted. He liked bumping into Sandra in the bar when he came there with his mentor to get a beer after work, or running into Buddy at the diner.
When he’d finished his apprenticeship he found a job in Halifax. His mother drove him to the ferry; she surprised him by touching his cheek gently and saying “You’re a good boy, Walter, take care of yourself." She surprised him even more by sending brief but regular letters to him in his rented one room flat. He read them carefully and responded by sending postcards of every single Halifax tourist attraction, telling her work was fine, everything was fine.
Duck had thought he’d like the city. He had thought he’d feel more at home there, feel more accepted. But he sat in the bar in his overalls with his beer - bottle no glass - and looked at the other guys with their dyed hair and low riding jeans, drinking Tequila Sunrises, and he felt terribly out of place. He liked the sex; he liked licking into another man's mouth, tasting sugar and alcohol and rasping his lips on stubble, turning blindly into frantic kisses in bathroom stalls or alleyways. He liked the feel of a hot hand or a mouth on his cock. Liked listening to guys moaning above him while he brought them off. Once or twice bringing guys home late at night, to fuck or get fucked; he liked that, no problem.
One night he stood in line for the Pink Flamingo and the doorman looked him over and said: “Are you sure you’re at the right place, cowboy?” Another time, a bartender brought him a drink with slices of pineapple and tinfoil umbrellas, “compliments of the house.” Duck sat staring at it for a long time, trying to figure out whether he was being laughed at. He got up and left; the drink stood untouched on the counter. Soon after he stopped coming to those bars, the bars with the cocktails, the dance music and the pretty boys – and the weird looks and disbelief.
Duck found out he liked drinking, too much for his own good. He started going to the pub instead. Had a couple of beers, a couple of whiskeys. Talked to older guys who thought they knew what he was doing there, who bought him beer and talked to him about lost girlfriends and broken marriages. He spent several years like that.
One day he went to work hammered, fell down a scaffold and broke his wrist. He got fired without notice. When he got home he drank half a bottle of bourbon, got out his work knife and made a nice even cut all the way from the crease of his elbow to the compression around his wrist. He sat staring at it for a few seconds before getting up and wrapping a towel tightly around his arm, and calling an ambulance. He woke up in the E.R. and felt stupidly happy to be alive. When he got discharged he decided to go back home.
Wilby seemed unchanged, but his parents looked old, and Buddy and Sandra were gone. His parents didn’t comment on the bandage on his arm, or how he sweated and shook through the first couple of days, but his mum brought him grilled cheese sandwiches and his dad let the dog come upstairs to lie beside his bed. He was in his old room with his bed by the window, and he could smell the seawater, hear the pine trees creaking in the night wind.
He rented the apartment above the general store. Sometimes at night he would sit in his living room in the dark and go through entire packs of cigarettes, wanting a drink so badly he couldn’t think about anything else. On those nights he missed the pubs and all night diners, the friendships that were built on shared desperation, a good clean fight to make his body ache, someone’s hot breath on his face while he jerked them off.
In the daytime he was fine. People greeted him in the street, told him it was good to have him back. He told them it was good to be back, and it was.
He got a job with a restoration crew that the real estate company hired to fix up some of the old ocean view houses from the turn of the century. He was working with Henry Stromberg, Jim Laroche and Doug Hill; islanders who were glad to have jobs again after a long dry spell. He didn’t go with them to the bar after work, but they didn’t give him crap for it. Sometimes he ran into Henry and his wife when he took his dog to the beach on Sundays. Once in a while he went out with Jim and his son Martin on their boat, to fish for Atlantic salmon.
He went on a couple of polite dates with Stacy Bramming; took her out for movies and coffee, held her hand and kissed her chastely, until she broke it off, three months in. He didn’t try it again.
He found out about the Watch and what it had turned into from the guys at work: “Now we’ve got those damn queers down at the Watch, only piece of nice shoreline left and they go and ruin it with their filth.” Duck shrugged and took another sip of his coffee.
He went down there the next Saturday, half expecting to get mugged. He ran into Peter Scully, who he remembered as a red haired kid from grade school. Peter was down by the cliffs, looking out at the water, his beige coat specked with drops blowing in from the waves. Duck was so unprepared for it that he misunderstood Peter’s clumsy come-on at first. Peter had red chest hair, and red pubic hair - and he was nervous, very nervous. He was gasping, his freckled chest and belly moving shallowly. Duck couldn’t help grabbing his face and kissing him deeply to somehow convey that it was alright, even though he knew that Peter had married Shelley Smith and that they had two kids together: Billy, four years old, and Bryan, one and a half.
He never saw Peter Scully down there again, although he saw other faces he recognised, and some that he didn’t. He liked the Watch better than public bathrooms and back rooms of clubs. He liked the dark and the quiet, the sound of waves crashing and of broken-off moans, kneeling down on the forest floor or getting fucked in the warm summer nights, exposed to the wind, surrounded by the smell of saltwater and dirt and sex.
A few years after Duck had returned, Buddy came back as a trained police officer, with a beautiful mainland wife. Duck heard the talk but didn’t think much of it; he knew it took years for mainlanders to work their way into the islanders’ hearts, if ever.
Duck’s father died unexpectedly from a stroke in the winter of 1997. Their neighbour who worked in the nursing home came over and arranged his body, folded his hands in prayer before the stiffness set in. Duck had never seen his dad pray in life. He had nothing to say, nothing at all. He held his mother’s cold, limp hand at the funeral.
He started visiting her after work, to mow the lawn or mend something broken. His visits were much like her letters: brief, but regular.
In the summer of 2001 the vote went through in the city council to build the new school gym that had been proposed five years earlier. Henry called to ask if Duck wanted in on it. Duck had been working on his own for a couple of years; doing paint jobs mostly, but other stuff, too. He said yes -- big jobs meant big money and he’d been thinking about buying a place of his own. Henry also brought in his brother who lived on the mainland, and his crew: Burt, Nils, Dave and Samir.
Samir was a Bosnian refugee, twenty-eight and in university. He was a plumber, but he was studying to become an engineer and only worked his trade on summer breaks. His English was good, but he was a quiet guy. He didn’t drink, so he and Duck had coke or iced tea when the others had beer on breaks.
The other guys quickly realised that Duck and Samir worked well together, so more often than not the two of them got teamed up. Samir was strong, and he worked hard. He was even-tempered and had an easy smile. For weeks Duck was going crazy wondering if he was imagining things.
Samir was the only one of the mainland guys who didn’t have family there. When he complained about the time and money he spent communing, and talked about renting a room at the motel, Duck said, “Why don’t you just stay at my place? I’ve got a fold out couch. Give me twenty dollars a week, I’ll even throw in breakfast.” He kept his face carefully neutral.
Samir slept on the couch for the first week. The rest of the summer he slept with Duck in his bed. Samir had acne scars on his back, and thick black body hair although his chest was smooth. He had a loud laugh that startled Duck sometimes. He cooked Duck something called cevapi which they ate with fried beef tomatoes. He boiled the coffee grounds. He didn’t want to talk about what they did in bed, but he’d still kiss Duck in the kitchen.
Duck felt out of his depth half of the time, but also pretty happy. His only concern was not giving anything away at the job, or elsewhere. They split up at work, half-avoiding each other, so that after a while Henry’s brother said “If he’s getting on your nerves, just tell him to move out, okay?” They never went anywhere together on the island, and Samir went home on Sundays.
The sex was amazing. They’d build it up slowly, kissing languidly, moving against each other. Samir liked to fuck him on his back, and Duck’d convulse around his thick, perfect cock, kiss his soft mouth breathlessly. Sometimes he’d watch Samir, home or at work, and he’d feel suddenly overwhelmed to be able to have this.
When the job was done and the new gym had been opened by the mayor and broken in by the girls’ junior basketball team, Samir packed up his things. Duck stood in the living room, his hands in fists by his sides. “I wish you could stay,” he said, because he wanted to say it even though he knew it wouldn’t change anything.
He didn’t go to the Watch for a long time
Sandra came back with her girl Emily, who was the spitting image of Kenny Weissman. The Weissmans had moved away eleven years ago, but people still remembered. Duck for one was happy to see her.
The first time he met Dan Jarvis at the Watch, he didn’t realise who he was. He figured it out the second time, on a Sunday. On Sundays the last ferry left at eight, so they didn’t usually get any mainlanders, or the four or five guys who sometimes came over from Southersby and Hamlin. Local guys only, which meant Dan had to be an islander. The only newcomers that Duck had heard about – apart from Sandra and her daughter – was the married couple who bought the Collins house five months before. Duck hadn’t seen them, but he’d heard about them. They were a nice looking couple in their late thirties who didn’t have any children.
Some guys who came to the Watch looked broken - looked like they wanted it to go on forever and forget all about it at the same time. Dan Jarvis had that look on his face. He had long slim fingers and avoided kissing. Duck liked that Dan was taller than him; he liked the sight of him with his long torso exposed, shirt and jacket pushed aside, his pants open, his cock dark against his pale belly. He liked the careless hand that Dan placed on his throat while he touched him. Duck had been very careful before, never to single someone out at the Watch, but with Dan he couldn’t help it.
He knew that Dan didn’t know who he was, because Valerie Jarvis hired him for a paint job and when Dan answered the door at their house he looked haunted.
When the Watch scandal went down it set off small landslides all across Wilby. Duck wasn’t there himself that night, but he could pretty much guess who had been: Mike Beecher went back to university a month early, Pete Vanderveer and Cliff Sutton also left. Valerie Jarvis left the island two days after; a week later the house was emptied by movers.
Duck spent a lot of time telling himself that he was lucky to have escaped, that he had better keep his head down for a while. But when he heard that Dan Jarvis had stayed on the island he started worrying for him - because any sane, thinking person would’ve gotten the hell out. He had a feeling something bad was going to happen.
He tried to stop it the best he could, but a bad thing happened anyway.
He visited Dan in hospital. He stopped his car by the wayside and picked him some flowers on a whim. He knew that there was going to be talk, but he suddenly couldn’t bring himself to care. When Dan tried to explain to him what happened, he stuttered and looked like it pained him. Duck cut him off and pointed to the faint white scar that ran down the inside of his left arm. He'd told everyone it was from surgery. “Only tried it the once. I’ve never been so happy to be alive as when I woke up in the E.R.,” he said. Dan nodded and smiled faintly, looking grateful.
When he asked Dan if he had anywhere to go, Dan mentioned a sister on the mainland. Duck offered him to stay at his place, just for a while, until the rope burns faded. Dan slept on the couch. He offered Duck money, which Duck refused. He then left dollar bills on the table which Duck stuffed into Dan’s jacket pockets. It made Dan laugh a couple of times, which pleased Duck to no end.
Duck got odd looks when he went shopping, and at work. He ran into Jim Laroche who greeted him looking down at the ground. Duck had spent so long fearing exposure; he couldn’t believe how little it affected him now.
Dan had two or three phone conversations with Valerie. He always went for a long walk afterwards. He looked shaken up for days after each phone call.
It may have been time passing, or maybe it was the antidepressants kicking in, but after a couple of weeks Dan started sleeping better and eating better. He started doing the cooking and some of the shopping; he commented on the food or the news or the weather. His wry, sarcastic sense of humour surfaced – it had Duck laughing out loud in surprised bursts at the sheer bluntness of his words the first couple of times.
One month in Duck kissed Dan in the hallway, his open palms hovering close to his shoulders. Dan kissed him back shortly before telling him that it was too much, too soon. Duck tried to respect that, because he could understand it; but for himself, this had been a long time coming, and now that it was here it felt long overdue.
Dan moved out into a small flat close to the video store. He said he’d changed his mind about moving off-island, that he thought he’d give the video store a second go, see if he could get back the money he’d invested. He said, “I’d like to… If you want to, I’d like to give this a chance, too.” He was standing close to Duck, and he looked awkward and earnest, and there was no mistaking what he meant.
At first Duck had liked Dan for all the ways they were similar, but later on he came to appreciate all the ways that they were different. Dan hadn’t spent most of his life holding back on touches; after a while he’d lean in close, kiss Duck casually, hug him. He made no effort to hide how happy he was to see Duck, every time. He’d bring Duck movies from the video store, telling him that this one made him think of him, or that he really thought he’d like this one.
Duck sometimes wondered if it made it easier or harder for Dan that he was a mainlander. They didn’t talk about it much, but Duck knew that Dan had to get it, too: the disdainful stares, the feeling walking out of stores that you wanted to shake yourself. One time Duck was waiting at a bus stop for the rain to clear, and an elderly woman he only knew by sight moved away from him in the booth, and murmured “faggot” when she left to get on the bus. He lost a couple of regular customers.
The first time he went to Iggy’s Diner he made Irene Stromberg get up and leave. Sandra and Emily cut off his apologies, both of them laughing, “No, no, no – thank you!” He got coffee on the house. When he told Dan about it, he was surprised to learn that Dan already knew who Sandra was.
Duck started going there for lunch. After a couple of weeks, Emily started making him return her rentals. “You sure watch a lot of movies,” he said, but he smiled as he said it.
Dan had loved his wife very much. They had their first real argument when Duck naturally assumed otherwise. It kind of stung, kind of hurt. He asked Dan why he had gone to the Watch then. Dan looked down at his hands, “I couldn’t help it.”
Some things Duck got used to easily, like having Dan is his bed. The smell of him was now intimately familiar, the hum of his voice; the emotion on his face easy to read. It was not just the sex, but him being there, a warm body next to his. Having time - at the Watch there had never been enough time, it was always hurried and anonymous, and half scared. With Dan it was so different that Duck sometimes wished he’d never gone to the city, or hadn’t found the Watch.
Some things were harder to get used to. Dan had lived much of his life in relationships and he navigated this territory easily. He would say: “You really like Johnny Cash, huh?” or “How come you don’t do that?” or “Have you ever…” And Duck was not used to being seen like that, constantly being taken into account. He was damned happy about what they had together, but sometimes he felt like he was struggling to keep up.
In the summer, Duck went over to help his mother put garden nets over her berry bushes. She asked him if he reckoned that Dan Jarvis had any older movies at his store, because she had been thinking about a few she would like to watch again. Duck took his time stretching the fine meshed net over a blueberry bush; he’d kept quiet about things because he hadn’t known what to say – he knew this was as close as they were going to get. He said he didn’t know, but if she wanted him to, he would ask. She told him yes, please.
In 2006, he and Dan had been together for two years. The video store was scraping through, still demanding long hours, but making enough profit that Dan could afford one under-eighteen employee – Emily. Over the summer there had been a big restoration job on a cottage, but Henry hadn’t called. Duck made enough money on his own, and he was sick of having to care.
One day Dan said, “I want to live with you, and I want to go out to eat with you, and for movies and coffee. I’m sick and tired of hiding when everybody knows, anyway.”
They bought a house together. Shortly after, Duck ran into Jim Laroche on the main street. Jim offered to come help them out if they needed a carpenter for anything; he could bring his son, too – Martin was an electrician now. Jim made it sound like it wasn’t a big deal; Duck tried to follow his lead.
Duck cooked most days. After dinner he went outside to smoke a cigarette while Dan did the dishes. He leaned against the door. He could hear Dan moving inside the house, the faint murmur of the radio playing. He knew there’d be coffee brewing in ten minutes time. He thought about how lucky he was, to have gotten everything he liked.