Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Palomar The Duck-excerpt from The Zuni Motel

Benjamin Bean stepped out of the motel office to the highway where the rush of an occasional car punctuated the night. The gas station across the street stood cold, empty and closed. Benjamin worked the night shift. He understood the night.

Daylight promised the Super Bowl to come! The Sugar Bowl while you wait! A little Shiatsu thrown in. Twenty four kinds of virgin olive oil. America promised war in Iraq. America clapped. Horoscopes read at 974 numbers-$4.50 a minute. America murdered between commercials. AIDS wiped out thousands. Luscious leggy blonds ambled through sand dune dreams of forever California with perfect pouted lips. The President shook his fist and said he'd be home tomorrow. Perch-fingered, beautiful, sweet-breathed Americans drove BMWs over turtles and tricycles all over everywhere. America rounded third, slid home, and went back in the dugout smiling, knowing full well a five dollar box of popcorn really cost eleven cents. America let the air out of its tires. Benjamin made $8.00 an hour.

The VACANCY sign hummed in its red neon. Beyond the halo of the office lights, darkness, so very dark he stepped into it like the ghost of himself lost momentarily beneath the incredible stars.

Where the tail of the Big Dipper dropped off to Arcturus, Benjamin began drawing Palomar the duck, letting the square beak feed down around the Sickle of Leo. Palomar ran with hot, fat feet, his eyes ablaze. Palomar thumped across the sky and his insides filled with bunny rabbits and fluffy blankets, Teddies and cash, big green guitars and ice cream sandwiches, roast beef. A long red carpet flooded down Palomar's neck, settling just below Draco the Dragon's head.

His vision of Palomar began when he was four. Someone left the screen door open and the neighbor's Muscovey duck waddled in and up the stairs. Benjamin stood at the bottom of the stairs watching the big duck climb to the top landing and turn around. For several long minutes he and the duck went eye to eye in the dimly lit hallway. What a big duck! Maybe the duck could be his friend. He thought he could hear the duck breathing. Then his father came in the house and saw the duck. Up the stairs he went, his rubber boots leaving puffs of dust on the green runner carpet. Benjamin was afraid of what might happen to the duck and maybe what might happen to him, although he wasn't sure why. For several long minutes the duck ran amuck.

Benjamin heard wings scrape the walls and his father's big feet thump the wooden floors. He heard the duck fly at the Venetian blinds in the bathroom and small bottles fell everywhere. Finally it half-flew back downstairs, bouncing once, landing on one leg in front of him and banging its wings along the floor to the porch, where it took to low flight off to the left and out of sight. Benjamin walked out on the porch, but there was nothing to see but morning. Not even a feather.

Palomar reappeared the first week Benjamin Bean worked at the Zuni Motel. He and Jack Fry, who lived with Maggie and her daughter, Camille down in Unit 3 got to drinking Coors Light in the front office. They got to talking about chickens. Jack could talk about chickens all night, all day. Jack planned on having show birds if he could get over the idea of having to shampoo and blow dry the chickens. He'd heard about a Rhode Island Red that had been housebroken although he'd never seen it. Fry had a penchant for silver penciled Wyandottes and bantam Golden Sebrights, none of which Benjamin had ever seen, despite the fact he'd grown up in the country. They agreed turkeys were a royal pain unless you got the brown ones or chocolate which weren't as inbred and stupid. Fry wanted Runner Ducks.

Benjamin told Fry about the lost Muscovey duck. He said he couldn't figure out why the duck was so important other than the fact he and the duck had gone eye to eye that morning. No one, not even the neighbor who owned it ever saw it again. It made Benjamin spooky and he wandered around for weeks trying to find that big beautiful scary duck, then school started. Sometimes he'd get up in the middle of the night and wander around the house looking for the duck. Sometimes he was sure it was in the house and it terrified him, but he didn't dare tell anybody.

Before he met Palomar, whenever his dark side appeared in a vast wasteland of broken machinery and burned off soil, he just tore into it. He wandered in this desert for hours. He stopped and talked to people, who stared at him in befuddlement and sorrow, their voices rising in long painful whines that echoed. A wretched woman with long gray hair, who on close inspection was much younger than Benjamin thought, often met him at the intersection of two roads with crossed wooden arrows that said DOLLAR and UMBRELLA CITY. She carried a full tray of vegetables and soup, bread and salad and a small pile of almonds. She seldom spoke. Once she asked him when dinner was being served. Over time he learned that she had been in India where her teeth had become abscessed. She'd gone to a dentist, who pulled all of her teeth and broke the bones in her mouth. Benjamin saw blood at the corners of her mouth when he walked away, going in the direction of neither arrow, turning back to see her, staring after him for a moment, before moving off toward Umbrella City in a slow shuffle.

Benjamin’s feet pounded along the hot earth burning off all around him. He saw bodies, naked and torn, panting, wanting him, or just standing there waiting. He ran from body to body looking for the one he wanted. There were men and women and children in all sizes and shapes. Giants and dwarfs, ladies in wheelchairs and fat uncles with huge soft penises they swung like lariats. Sometimes he wanted to blow their brains out. Sometimes he'd lie on a stretch of ground after taking off his clothes and simply wait for them to do what they wanted, thinking it would be easier.

He drew Palomar. Its beak sharpened, became more duck-like and the big bird took over the whole damn sky. Suddenly Benjamin could place all the parts of his day inside the duck. Palomar soared. Palomar was magnificent and there was more Palomar than Benjamin could ever imagine. He stuck a bill on Palomar's head. He dabbled with the feet and he plugged the red eye in, but it didn't feel right. It felt right, but it didn’t feel right. Nothing felt right. Maybe Palomar was just another pile of nothing.

Now, years later, Palomar stood in half-drawn broken lines across the Northwest sky. The stillness of this electric sky seemed to betray Benjamin and yet it looked like the same sky. It left him crazy and ashen in the blue night, feeling grayer than the dust about his shadow, thinner than his silent, cold bones, almost as quiet as the soft and tender breath he knew as a child. It felt raw and foreboding, sinking deep into his chest as if a strange sickness circled his lungs like a vulture. He raised his eyes to the sky knowing the duck had to be finished. Somehow.

"Palomar," he whispered. "I need your itty bitty red eye up here. I can't go home to Texas anymore and I can't stay here. I need you big ole duck in the sky. I need you to fill up the night when I'm crazy, so I don't go over there in the desert and get all messed up. I need you like a warm stream and an inner tube floating on top of the stream and me in the inner tube, just floating along. I need rest, Palomar. I can't run crazy anymore. It sounds funny when I talk to people. I can't even be straight with myself, or Spring, or Jack Fry. I just wait for night when I can rest and I can't rest because I work nights. I tried drawing you in the daytime and that doesn't work. Where am I going to go? Ole Palomar, you got to come through. Or else I'm_____

"Or else what? Who are you talking to Benjamin?" Camille said, stepping out in the starlight.

Benjamin said. "Your mother will have a fit. Never mind if Jack finds you out here."

"She's sleeping. Besides, it's beautiful out here and I heard you talking all the way down in my bed."

“Where’s Jack?”

“I hope he’s sleeping. He has to work.”

"I'm sorry," Benjamin said, softly, thinking he might have woken up the whole place. "Did I wake you?"

"Not exactly. I had a dream and woke up and I didn't want to wake Jack or Mommy up, so I went for a walk. So who were you talking to?”

Benjamin pointed to the sky.

"What's that?" Camille said.

"It's a duck. It's Palomar. I believe there's a duck up in the sky that goes along with the other constellations. Only it's my duck. And I trace this duck all over the sky and put all the things I think about inside. Like what I smell and eat and what I hear or a person maybe."

"Can you make me a duck?" Camille asked.

"I don't know," Benjamin sighed. "I've been having a hard time lately. Let's see
now. Let's go up and take a look. See the stars way up there to the North?”

"Yes." Camille said.

"Well that's Cassiopeia, the lady in the chair.”


"Up there where the Big Dipper is. No, look, see where it looks like a ladle? There. Like a soup ladle.”

“Yes, I see,” Camille said. "

“Now see where the handle is and how it comes down into the scoop part and then goes up to the end? Well on the end of the ladle. Here. Spread your fingers and put them up so they re the width of the end of the ladle.”

“Like this?”

“Like that. Now, walk your hand up from the ladle, only keep the same distance. Walk it up five and half times.”

“Like this?”

“Like that. Now you should be on the Little Dipper, which looks a little bit like the Big Dipper.”

"I see. I see. I see it!"

"The second star in the handle is Polaris, the North Star," Benjamin said. "Follow my finger up up up and there's a bright star. There! Polaris. See that?"

"Where do we go now?"

"Now, follow my hand," Benjamin said, and he held her hand. He drew the duck's belly under the Big Dipper tracing the neck outside the Little Dipper to the beak, to the head and then a sweep over the crest of Palomar’s head and down the back of his neck and around the outside of the Big Dipper again. He drew two webbed feet right into the tail of Draco the Dragon sweeping the skies below.
"And now you can put the eye in it,” he said.

"How do I do that?”

He held her hand and pointed to a place just behind the bill and up. Make it round or square or oblong."

"I'll make an egg with a dot," Camille said.

"Good. Now that's Palomar the Duck.

"Hi Palomar."

"Now you get to put anything inside the duck you want," Benjamin said.

"You mean pretend?" Camille asked.

"I mean put anything up there that makes you feel good. Or even if it doesn't feel good."

"Like what?"

"How about your cat, Spider?"

"Sadie's her name now. I'll put Montezuma, the rooster up there too even though he's been mean lately. Where should I put him?"

"Anywhere you want. In his belly. On his tail. In his neck."

"Ok, I get it. I'll put Montezuma the Rooster up there. Let me see. On top of Palomar's head,” she giggled.

"Now you've got it," Benjamin said."

"And Radar and the Princess.

"Who's Radar and the Princess?" Benjamin said.

"They're my secret friends. And then I'll put Archie, my boyfriend on Palomar's back."

"What a great idea. I never thought of putting things on him. How come I never thought of that?"

"Mommy can stand on Palomar's feet so he won't get away."

"Don't you want to be free and just fly away?"

“I do. I do, but just in case. And we can put all the other chickens in his belly."

"Does he eat them?"

"Of course not," Camille said, looking up at Benjamin's face now bright in the starlight. "What are you going to put in Palomar?"

"Let's see," Benjamin said, folding his hands at his thighs and gazing childlike at the duck, who began to glow at the edges. "I'll put Spring up there and Jack and I'll put Tommy up there. He's my brother and he's dead, but I'd put him up there."

"I'm sorry," Camille said.

"It's ok. And maybe fat old Elmer, my old friend from home. I loved to hear him laugh. He laughed like Jell-O and he shook when he ran and laughed at the same time. He was my friend," Benjamin repeated, pausing momentarily to remember Howell's round cheeks and his big thick teeth in the moonlight on Love Field. "And maybe Lenny, a guy I used to know. Lenny used to tell me all about the beautiful places to go even though his life wasn't very beautiful. And Cindy, she lived down the road from us in Dollar, Texas; that's where I'm from. I used to go over and sit on her porch after school when I was eight, but then Daddy wanted me to come home. I never did figure that one out."

"I know what you mean," Camille said. "I had a boyfriend in Sacramento when I was seven and you'd thought we were going to get married the way Mommy told it. He said all kinds of stupid things. His mind was warped. At least Mommy said it. Warped is a funny word. I think he was just jealous."

"And think I’ll put a nice old farmhouse up there. Not a big one, but big enough to have a porch to sit on, on summer nights."

"With a screen to keep out the mosquitoes and a fat cat,” Camille said.

"But you've got a cat."

"But it's not a fat cat." Camille said.

"Well maybe you can feed it more."

"Maybe," she said thoughtfully. "And a swing for Mommy and a little door for
the cat to go in and out. And a big soft puffy mattress with big pillows."

"I'll put a pound of peace of mind up there."

"I'd like to put God up there where I can see her," Camille said.

"How do you know it's a her?" Benjamin said.

"Because I said so,” Camille said. “And I can see Palomar right now."

"So can I, Camille. So can I.

For a few moments Benjamin and Camille watched the sky stand still and then it seemed to shift, perhaps a hair, perhaps a slight nod to the East. Camille pointed to Palomar again.


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