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Fiction

Life Was Ducky In Marginal — Until the Buzzards Barged In
By Kathryn Gurkin

This is the story of how there came into my life a lady who looked-and walked-like a fluffy baby duckling, harmless enough to turn your back on. Later this pretty little duckling turned out to be a tie-dyed, navy-blue bitch with bells on. Getting her out of my life cost me a pretty penny, and my piano got nicked into the bargain.

    But first a brief history leading up to the moment when Donna the Duckling came into my life. Sounds like a song title, doesn't it? At 18, I was sure I wanted to be a concert pianist. At 20, I packed all my music books and a brass floor lamp into a second-hand Chevy and left the conservatory in a fit of pique over some point of honor involving the interpretation of a Mozart sonata, and I've been running ever since. Ten years, I played piano in a lot of classy bars, which meant I usually had pizza for breakfast and omelets for supper.

    Finally I decided to pack it in and get married, so I could eat eggs for breakfast like other women. Dan was an off-and-on customer at the bar where I had been playing for a year. He had a fatherly face-beard, mustache, a little thickening about the middle, fiftyish. A nice guy, really. He took me to live in the suburbs of a small city in a long brick house with a two-car garage where he had lived with his first wife, who had died, not recently. They had no children. We had no children, but I threw myself into the homemaking routine and Dan traveled for his tile-importing business.

    When we had been married for about four years, Dan died of a heart attack in a hotel in San Francisco. It seems that he had been in the company of a 17-year-old hooker who had lost one of her Lucite slippers as she fled, wearing only the top part of a costume one observer thought looked like Cinderella or "something out of a fairy tale."

    I flew out to California, had Dan cremated and flew home with the ashes in a carry-on bag. I left the box of ashes on a shelf in the garage and I guess they're still there or in the local landfill. I sold the house, furnished, to some wealthy Asians and bought a grand piano and a zippy little Audi with some of the proceeds-I had had no idea the house was worth so much-and the rest, combined with my own savings, was enough to buy another house. The life insurance, I invested-and it brings in enough each year for me to live on if I don't get greedy.

    So I was at loose ends again, and I had to live somewhere. I chose Marginal, a town I found by closing my eyes and sticking a pin into a map of the eastern United States. In case you think me shallow and impulsive, I will say this in my defense. My mother tried to teach me common sense but it just never took with me. And yet, I have survived by being flexible, ready to follow my nose wherever it has led me, using my talents as best I could while keeping the people who wrote the rules at bay.

    I packed my music into my new Audi and hired space in a moving van which, for $2,000 and a small insurance fee, would truck my brass lamp and my shiny new piano off to Marginal. Savvy shoppers will say, "Never buy a house in a new place. Rent." But in Marginal there were no rental houses big enough for even a small grand, so it was buy or nothing. But give me credit for not choosing a house by sticking a pin into a real-estate advertisement.

    I had come; I had seen; I had made an offer. To my surprise my first offer was accepted by the seller, who was eager to unload the house and buy another out-of-state. It was hot, July, and I just wanted to get back to the motel and into the air-conditioning. By 10 the next morning, I had a house. My house had neighbors on either side, and thereby hangs a tale.

    In Marginal the houses run the gamut from blah to picturesque. Mine was one of the picturesque ones, with an oversized living room with French doors two-thirds of the way down that could be closed to make a little sitting room. When the movers drove up out of the mists of early morning, I was in the kitchen making coffee better than the coffee offered at the motel's continental breakfast bar.

    "Where you want this here piano, lady?" There were three of them. Two were setting up metal ramps from the van to the doorsteps. They worked fast and in 40 minutes my black Yamaha was gleaming in the corner by the fireplace. The only other piece of furniture I had brought, besides the brass lamp, was a chair I had particularly cherished through the years. The room looked under-furnished but rather elegant because of that.

    "Lucky you hired us, lady. Other day some movers from Parkton dropped a baby grand, broke it all-to-pieces." They all laughed. I suspect it was a tale they told each time they managed to move a grand without smashing it themselves. I paid them off, plugged in the lamp and said out loud "Well, Liberace, we are here."

    When the movers had gone I drove into town and bought a double bed, just a mattress and box springs on a frame, asked them to deliver it at 3 that afternoon, then went to the store next door and bought sheets, pillows and a blanket for the bed.

    I like to travel light. I never have needed many clothes because I slept in the daytime and worked at night, so there was very little to unpack except my books and music. I had sold all Dan's furniture and things to the Asians. It was obvious I would need a table and two chairs and a music system-Dan's had been built-in-and some kitchen things, but that could wait. The house had TV hookups and telephone jacks in every room except the dining room but I had only a portable phone that I had brought with me in the car, and no TV.

    The dining room was big enough to swallow up several large antiques, which I had no intention of buying. I hate to dust and I never entertain, although I can cook well enough when I am in the mood.

    I was standing in the dining room the next morning watching the play of sunlight over the bare plank floors and thinking "What this room needs is a big plant here, a tree, between the windows," when the doorbell rang. Still in my robe and slippers I opened the door and there stood a short blond woman with pale blue eyes holding out a calling card.

Flood art
    I asked her in and she laid the calling card on the piano. I thought My God! There really are women who still carry those things around with them. I looked and it was engraved, not one of those cheap offset-printed ones but with thick letters you could read with your fingertips like Braille. I waved her to the chair and I perched on the piano bench. Her card read "Donna Ramseur" and in parentheses "(Mrs. Frederick Ramseur)" and down in the right-hand corner "Soprano." I'd never seen one like it. She was looking at my piano as if she'd never seen one before.

    "D'you play?"

    Having led a sheltered life in bars, I'd never met a person who had a piano but didn't play. "A little." This was going to be fun. I'd string her along for a while and then admit that I had been a professional.

    She walked over to the piano and, still standing, played a chord and burst into "Indian Love Call" from one of the old Jeanette McDonald-Nelson Eddy movies. It was such a surprise to hear this ingenue-soprano voice coming out of this dumpy aging woman that when she finished, I was speechless. What do you say when confronted by a stranger who waltzes into your living room and bursts into semi-operatic arias without a by-your-leave?

    She stood there waiting for my opinion or applause. "Well, unh, Donna, you have a lovely voice. Won't you sit down?"

    We chatted for ten minutes. She looked pointedly at my robe and said she'd better be getting on back. It probably didn't occur to her that some people wear regular clothes at night and nightclothes in the daytime. I didn't know how to explain without seeming deceitful, since I'd already more or less lied about my piano playing. So that was the gist of our first meeting.

    For several months after that strange visit, Donna and I kept up a next-door-neighborliness that, though not warm, was at least cordial on my part. She asked me over once or twice for a soft drink, explaining that she didn't drink, and I invited her a time or two for coffee. The only alcoholic beverage she drank, she said, was champagne, but I didn't think the relationship had reached the level of intimacy that would justify the broach-ing of a bottle of champagne for just the two of us.

    Finally, after Christmas, I noticed a chirpiness about her that hadn't been obvious before. A brown hatchback-Donna drove a heavy blue sedan-was parked at her place once or twice a week. Donna had been widowed for seven or eight years. She had in fact been widowed twice, having been twice married to wealthy men, both heavy drinkers. Women tell each other the most intimate things in the beginning, then wish they hadn't. I never told her how Dan died, though, fearing it might be too much for her to handle.

    At last, in the middle of a February thaw, Donna told all. She had a suitor with an unpronounceable name who had arrived to pay court to her with his divorce papers in hand. Literally in hand. They had met through correspondence in the "Letters to the Editor" section of a newspaper in a nearby city, and here he was in hot pursuit with marriage on his mind. Gossip had it that Donna had been endowed by both husbands with considerable assets in trust, and Donna herself had told me this was true. The suitor had probably checked it out before driving down to meet her.

    "But, Donna," I pretended to be envious, "how do you do it? You've already been married twice, and I can't even get a date." She was 20 years older, 70 if she was a day.

    It was then I told her that a former lover had come back into my life, but briefly, from 1,000 miles away. I could not make the decision to risk another disillusionment, another man who might be still hung up on characters from animated movies, but of course I didn't tell her about the girl in Lucite slippers and her disappearing act.

    "Well, you know, when I am ready I just ask God to send me someone and He does." She had a way of simpering about her intimacy with God that made me want to wring her neck. That duckling image again.

    So the gentleman caller kept coming and Donna kept trying to teach him to play golf. He was teaching her the national anthem of his native country, which had been overrun by communists, forcing him to flee. One day she brought the music over and asked me to play it for her because she had sold her piano when she moved from the big house, now a bed-and-breakfast, to the smaller one.

    The minute she heard me play, of course, the jig was up. Her blue eyes accused me. "You didn't tell me you could actually play." In her world, apparently, pianos sat in parlors as decoration, status symbols, entertainment at parties. By then I had bought a sofa and a low table to serve coffee on in front of the fire and a television set for the little sitting room with a leather chair I could nod off in late at night. The fluffy duckling was beginning to turn into a swan, one of the most vicious of birds when threatened.

    One night after dinner but before I had settled down to the Arts & Entertainment channel my phone rang. In a heavily accented voice, the man with the unpronounceable name identified himself and asked me for a date. For lunch, he said, the next day, while he was in Marginal. He was eager to meet me. I protested that I couldn't have lunch with him since everyone by then knew that Donna had dibs on his company.

    "Why don't you and Donna come over to my house for coffee tomorrow morning?" I offered. "You can meet me then."

    "That was not what I had in mind" he crooned. "I want to more than meet you. I have heard you very attractive lady."

    Desperate as I was for male company, I turned him down. The next morning, as soon as I saw his car arrive, I called Donna and invited them both over for coffee. They came, stayed about 15 minutes, and left. At a quarter to 12 I was making myself a sandwich when the phone rang. The foreign voice said "I am waiting for you at the res-taurant. Why you late?"

    "I am not coming. Don't you understand? You are Donna's fellow. I am her next-door neighbor. Goodbye."

    "But Donna say you sleep with anybody. Why you not sleep with me?"

    "Donna said what?"

    "She say you sleep around. She not sleep around. She say I sleep with you, be her boyfriend too."

    Had I stumbled into some sort of film noir version of The Three Stooges? He was saying ". . .you very attractive lady," when I hung up on him.

    Three days later Donna rang my bell. I let her in and we sat on the sofa. She said, "I have come to pray with you," and reached for my hand. I had a vision of us kneeling there while she, with missionary zeal, converted me to Methodism and her boyfriend's interpretation of morality. Incensed, I jerked my hand away with such force that Donna lurched into the brass lamp, which fell with enough force to cut a three-inch scar in the lacquer finish of my grand. Tears of fury were running down my face and Donna was breathing hard as I pushed her out the door. Through clenched teeth I hissed at her: "Never come here again!"

    She never did understand my outrage at her evangelical attempt at procurement, if that's what it was, but then perpetual virgins never seem to grasp the idea that there are 10 commandments. I sold my house at a sacrifice and moved away. She married the emigre and divorced him in less than six months. He took her for a hefty settlement, I heard, and is probably living it up on some tropical island with some other desperately lonely widow.

    I thought long and hard about it and decided to leave the scar on my piano as a re-minder of the perfidy of women. I keep mostly to myself now, trusting no one. Yester-day I got a note from someone who had known dear Donna when she was married to the second, richer husband, announcing Donna's death-a heart attack, it said.

    After reading the letter twice, I tossed it in the trashcan. Then I went into the back room where my scarred piano stands and played Rachmaninoff's most crashing preludes long and loud until I was exhausted. Finally I slept and woke up feeling like myself again.
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