Ducklings at the Dam

My wife and I moved to Wilmington, Delaware six months after our wedding. Judy worked at Dupont’s Experimental Station. Armed guards at the entrance only raised the gate after closely inspecting employee IDs. They also conducted spot searches of cars leaving the grounds. A tall fence topped by barbed wire surrounded the compound of brick buildings. White precipitates billowed out of tall chimneys and fell in soft flakes like snow. The company posted “No Smoking” signs everywhere–flammable and explosive experiments were underway.

Angry, status obsessed and pointlessly aggressive people dominated the city, and hostile encounters while driving, shopping, and dealing with service desk clerks became part of our weekly routine. Judy and I escaped whenever possible to a nature preserve or park.

We drove one day to a strip of woods on the outskirts of town. The Brandywine River divided the park in half, and we found a spot to rest along a bank near the edge of a low dam. A flock of ducks escorted a small group of ducklings as they floated down the stream toward us. They came to a stop at the edge of the dam.

The ducks and drakes dipped over one by one, fell two feet, disappeared underwater, and popped up four feet downstream. They turned to the ducklings, flapped their wings and quacked. “Follow us!” they seemed to say.

Four out of the five ducklings complied. They hesitated, swam back and forth along the edge, but soon took the plunge. But one couldn’t muster enough courage. He swam in circles near the edge, came close to taking the dive, but backed off at the last second each time.

The flock squawked, quacked and flapped at the lone duckling, but Junior wanted no part. One duck flew back, demonstrated the task once more, but the stubborn duckling refused to budge.

The ducks and drakes resorted to tough love: they turned their backs on the last duckling and swam downriver. Junior swam in faster and faster circles as the flock drew farther and farther away. When fear of abandonment exceeded fear of drowning, he finally tipped over the edge.

When he resurfaced, he found himself once again in good company. The flock rushed back to greet him with quacks and wing flaps, and the little guy swam along with his head held high as they resumed their journey down the Brandywine River.

Judy left Dupont a year later and took a post doc position at Penn State. I stayed in Delaware to finish my second year of grad school. We met on weekends and phoned every day. Our acquaintances warned us that our marriage would suffer from the separation, but we took the risk and did our best.

We faced many tough decisions in the next few years and sometimes hesitated before making a move. But we knew in the end that there are times when we had to take a plunge while hoping that we would pop up safe and sound on the other side.

Judy and I made difficult decisions over the next few years. We chose to spend nine months apart while I finished my degree. We began a family during uncertain financial times. We bought a house before Judy had qualified for tenure as a professor at Rollins College. We knew the risks and the

The Right Thing

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Sarah Kunkel closed the blinds and pulled back the sheets on her double bed.  She sat down by the pillows, took a damp hand cloth from a bowl on her night stand and lay down.  She gently pressed the cloth to her forehead and closed her eyes.

Her migraine rested like a sleeping porcupine on the right side of her head, but sent out sharp quills to probe the back of her eyes every minute or so.  Sarah felt as though her head would eventually split in two when the malevolent creature woke up and clawed again at the tender connections inside her brain.  She hummed a lullaby in the hope that she might fall asleep.  Her mother sang it to her when she was a sick little girl, and it had worked like magic.  But Sarah stopped when the vibrations on her lips became vibrations in her skull.  Pulsations of dull pain already thudded in time with her heartbeat, and she couldn’t bear adding another rhythm to the mix.

She began to feel blessed sleep descend upon her ten minutes later.  The few remaining unaffected corners of her mind rejoiced as her limbs grew heavy and her breath began to slow.  She saw a vista open up before her of mountains topped with glaciers and Alpine meadows filled with flowers.  She took a deep breath and smelled roses and newly mown grass, honeysuckle and lilacs.  A figure clothed in dazzling white robes walked toward her.

But then the door to the bedroom opened a crack.  A shaft of light from the hall pierced the darkness.  The door swung in, and a man stood in the doorway but didn’t come into the room.  His back lit silhouette looked familiar.  But he wouldn’t dare, would he?  Not again?

The silhouette spoke in a low rumbly voice.  It was Jeff, of course, but she couldn’t quite make out his words.

“Oh for God’s sake, Jeff!  Close the door and a leave me alone.  Can’t you see I’ve got a migraine?”

“Mumble, mumble, mumble.”  He stood there and faltered his apologies.  She couldn’t take it.  He had visited every single night since that horrible day last week when their marriage had fallen and shattered into a thousand splinters of betrayal.  Now the shards were embedded inside her skull, and his visits just pushed them in deeper.

“Jeff!” she screamed and regretted it instantly.  A bloody tsunami swelled in the back of her head and raced forward to tear at the roots of her nerves.  She held her head, moaned and nearly passed out…If only she could pass out she’d praise the gods forever…When she was able to speak again she said, “Come closer so that I can hear you.  You’re killing me.  Tell me what you want and go away.”

He shuffled into the room with his head down and sat near the foot of the bed.  She pulled her hand away when he took it, but he persisted.  She was too weak to fight him.  He leaned closer and whispered, “I did the right thing.”

“I know what you did,” said Sarah.

“Please listen,” whispered Jeff.

“You cheated on me.  That was the wrong thing, stupid.  You can’t talk your way around that.  It’s over and done.  You can’t take it back,” said Sarah.

“I slept with Rhonda, but I did the right thing.”

“Rot in hell, Jeff.  And please, please go away.  Why are you torturing me?  What did I do to you to make you so cruel?”

“You don’t know the whole story,” Jeff insisted.

“What?  You’re going to tell me that it was just a mistake?  She came on to you and you felt sorry for her?  She told the cops that you were the one who wouldn’t leave her alone.”

“I didn’t feel sorry for her.  I just wanted her,” admitted Jeff.

“I see.  Now we’re being honest.  At long last we’re being honest,” said Sarah.

“I didn’t come in here to apologize for the affair.  I know that you’re never going to forgive me for that, and I don’t expect you to,” said Jeff.

“So?”

“I just want you to know that I didn’t want to leave you.  That was never my intention,” said Jeff.

“Bullshit.  The moment you went to bed with her was the moment you left me,” said Sarah.

Jeff released her hand and turned away.  Over his shoulder he said, “You’re not angry because of the affair.  You’re angry because I’m leaving.”

“Shut up Jeff.  Go away.  Make me happy and leave.”

“Not until I tell you the whole story.  I promise I’ll go away and never return after I say what I have to say,” said Jeff.

“That’s a deal, but keep it short.  My head’s about to explode.”

“Rhonda’s husband George interrupted us last Tuesday.  We heard the car pull up, and I managed to run out the back door.  But he saw my wallet on the floor by the bed.  It fell out when I grabbed my pants.  I heard him roar, ‘Whose wallet is this?!’  She screamed.  I crept up to the bedroom window and saw him slap her.  Then he punched her in the stomach and she fell down on the floor.  She tried to crawl away from him on hands and knees, but he kicked her in the ribs.”

“Stop it stop it stop it!  I don’t want to hear any of this!” wailed Sarah.

“I did the right thing,” said Jeff.  “I went back inside and fought with George.  Rhonda got away.”

“Well good for you.  You did the right thing.  You’re my hero.  Are we finished here?”

“Yes, Sarah.  I’m finished.”

He got up off the bed and walked to the door without looking back.  The light from the hall blinded her, and she closed her eyes.  When she opened them again the door was shut and he was gone.

Sarah woke up early the next morning, and the migraine had retreated.  She snapped on a lamp by her bed and saw the wedding photo of her and Jeff framed in gold on top of her dresser.  It was surrounded by an arrangement of white flowers.  She trudged over to the dresser, pried off the cardboard backing and took out the picture.  She stared at it intently for a few seconds and came to a decision:  she tore it in half to separate her image from his and tossed young, still faithful Jeff into the trash can at her feet.

The scrap landed on a thick piece of cream colored paper scrolled with black leaves and flowers.  Beneath the header was a reproduction of a photo of Jeff taken a few months ago when he and Sarah celebrated their twentieth anniversary.  Beneath that a script of heavy gothic letters read, “In memoriam:  Jeffrey Kunkel, beloved son and husband.”