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Robert Rice

Just Because There’s a Roof Over Your Head Doesn’t Mean You’re Not Floating Upside Down

I remember it like this: I was twelve and we were at Arlee Piero’s funeral sitting in a pew near the front of the church when Uncle Harry glanced around at the crowd—the service was starting and the church was full, but people were still trying to shoehorn themselves into corners and back pews—and he shook his head, then began muttering.
          Aunt Edith elbowed him in the ribs and he stopped long enough for the priest to eulogize Mr. Piero. But Uncle Harry, who’d looked cheerful going into the church (he’d never liked Arlee Piero) was totally bummed out the rest of the day.
          Aunt Edith started in on him as soon as we got to the car. “Why didn’t you shake hands with Irl Cavanagh, you walked right past him.” That kind of thing.
          Uncle Harry didn’t rise to the bait like he usually did, just drove hunched over not saying anything until he stopped at the light at Lincoln and 23rd, where McDonald’s is on one corner and Arby’s is on the other, and I was thinking about asking him to stop at Arby’s because I was hungry. But Uncle Harry was in such a weird mood I didn’t.
          As he braked behind a semi truck he said, “I want you to give away a free duck decoy to everyone who comes to my funeral.”
          “Decoy,” Aunt Edith said. She was looking out the window at Arby’s, herself, and I knew she’d like to stop, too, but she was supposed to be on a diet and she couldn’t suggest it.
          “Start with the small ones,” he said. “I’ll try to have enough mallards and canvasbacks. If you have to, go to the mergansers. But don’t give away the harlequin.”
          Aunt Edith turned and looked at him.
          “I’m saving it,” he said.
          “Who for?”
          “Nobody you know.”
          “What’s going on with you and her?”
          “Nothing. Don’t start. You hear what I said? About the decoys?”
          “That’s the silliest thing I ever heard of, Harry. Nobody gives away things at a funeral.” Aunt Edith looked back at me, wanting me to suggest we stop and eat, but I decided I wasn’t hungry after all.
          “Biggest crowd I ever saw,” Uncle Harry said. The semi roared and blew black smoke out the stacks and crept away from the light. We followed.
          “Get in the other lane, for God’s sake,” Aunt Edith said. “Go around him.”
          “They’ll have to know ahead of time there’ll be freebees of course,” Uncle Harry said, “or it won’t work.” He stayed behind the semi.
          “Is that what this is about?” Aunt Edith said. “A door prize? You think more people will come to your funeral if you offer a door prize?”
          Uncle Harry shrugged his deep, one-shouldered shrug.
          “If people wanted your duck decoys,” she said, “they’d buy them. You can’t get rid of them now, what makes you think anybody would want them when you’re dead?”
          “Art always increases in value after the artist is dead.”
          “You want people to come to your funeral, try making a few friends.”
          “Maybe I could throw in a continental breakfast,” he said. “Donuts and coffee.”
          “That’s cheap, Harry. Most funerals have real food after, ham and roast beef. We’re missing it right now because you didn’t want to stay.”
          “So that’s why there was such a good crowd.”
          “There was a crowd because Arlee did things. He was an Elk. His life meant something.”
          After that Uncle Harry was quiet until we got home. As he got out of the car he said, “I don’t want to be disturbed,” and hurried into the garage.
          To work on the decoys, I knew. They sat in long rows on metal shelves, and between them and his lathe there was no room in the garage to park the car. It drove Aunt Edith nuts, and she was constantly threatening to throw everything out. “They’re no good anyway. Why take up the space?”
          It’s true Uncle Harry wasn’t a very good carver. Even I could see that. He told me he carved eight different kinds of ducks, but he was the only person who could tell the difference. Some of them looked more like muskrats.
          “Muskrats!?” he said when I mentioned it. “Why the hell would anyone carve a muskrat?”

For the next two weeks Uncle Harry spent every spare minute in the garage. We could hear the lathe spinning and smell the sawdust, and every now and then we’d hear a “Shit!” or “Goddamn, that hurts!” Aunt Edith could barely get him to come in for dinner.
          I’d go out to the garage sometimes and watch, and Uncle Harry didn’t seem to mind. Once I asked him why he was working so hard, and he said, “Funeral.”
          “Why?” I said. “You won’t know how many people are there, will you?”
          “Nobody likes a smartass.” He stopped brushing green paint on the tail of a mallard. “Thirty years I was a roofer. What do I have to show for it?”
          “You kept a roof over our heads.” It was Aunt Edith’s joke and when she said it he usually smiled a sad smile and changed the subject.
          “Don’t you start.” He carried the new decoy over to the harlequin and held them next to each other. There was no comparison. Slate blue, with white stripes and chestnut sides, the harlequin had an elegance Uncle Harry had never been able to reproduce. It looked almost alive.
          With a disgusted look he tossed the new decoy on a shelf.
          “Is that for your friend?” I pointed to the harlequin.
          “What friend?”
          “The one you mentioned in the car after Mr. Piero’s funeral.”
          “No idea what you’re talking about.”
          One morning Uncle Harry stood up from breakfast, put on his cap with the wood duck on it, and went out to carve as usual. A few minutes later we heard a crash and ran into the garage. He was sprawled on the concrete under a pile of decoys.
          Aunt Edith called 911, and a few minutes later an ambulance came and rushed him to the hospital. Aunt Edith and I followed.
          When we finally got into his room to see him, his face looked as gray as freezer-burned meat. But a doctor who seemed bored with the whole thing told us he’d be okay, the infarction wasn’t as serious as he’d first feared, and with the right meds and diet Harry would recover and lead a normal life.
          Uncle Harry was still convinced he was dying. When Aunt Edith stepped out of the room for a smoke, he waved me over to his bed. “I want you to do something for me.”
          “The doctor says you’ll be okay.”
          “Check those decoys. Any broken ones, glue them back together. If you can’t, throw them out, but only if you have to. If they need touching up, you know where the paint is.”
          “The doctor says you’ll be fine.”
          “And count them. I think there’s about a hundred and eighty, but I want to know exactly.”
          So when Aunt Edith and I got home, I went into the garage, picked up the shelves, and set the ducks back on them. Most of the decoys were okay, but a couple of beaks were broken off and one, a canvasback, I think, was split at the neck. A few needed paint. I wasn’t very good at painting, but neither was Uncle Harry, so I figured I could do about as well as he had.
          As I went into the kitchen for the glue I heard Aunt Edith talking on the phone. “… every last one of them,” she said. “How soon can you get here?”
          When she saw me she hung up.
          “Who was that?” I said.
          “Some chores I need done now Harry’s laid up.”
          “I can do them.”
          “You already have a paper route. And you should be looking for another job after school.”
          When she left the kitchen I sneaked a look at the phone book. It was open to a page of trash-hauling companies. She’d made a check mark beside one called “We Do Anything.”
          I had to act fast.
          My friend Ethan was better at ideas than I was, so I rode my bike over to his house.
          Ethan was practicing his piano lesson and couldn’t come out until he was finished. I sat and watched, jealous of him because I wanted to learn piano, too. When I’d asked for lessons, Uncle Harry thought it was a good idea. But Aunt Edith said, “Harry, we don’t have the money, you know that.” He turned away and didn’t say anything for awhile, but finally he said, “Yeah, you’re right.”
          Ethan was playing something by someone named Brahms, and it sounded like he was getting most of the notes right. But his mother kept yelling from another room, “Do it again! Put some feeling into it this time!”
          I was getting worried about the trash company hauling off the decoys before we could get back, so I told Ethan, “Scootch over,” and sat on the piano bench with him. I couldn’t read the notes, but I could hear the music in my head and I played what he’d been playing.
          His mother shouted, “That’s more like it, Ethan! Excellent!”
          “Can I go now, ma?” he said.
          “Be home in time for dinner.”
          We rode our bikes back to Uncle Harry’s. “Where are we gonna hide them?” I said as we stared at all the decoys.
          “We can’t use my house,” Ethan said. “Ma has the eyes of a raptor. She found my Playboy even after I stuffed it behind a sewer pipe in the crawl space. What’s that one?”
          “I think it’s a merganser,” I said. “So where can we put them?”
          He thought. “They’re supposed to be ducks, right?”
          “Yeah?”
          “We’ll throw them in the lake. Your aunt won’t look there in a million years.”
          “How would we get them there?”
          “My brother’s car. He owes me for not snitching when I found his weed.”
          “That’s brilliant, Ethan.”
          “I know,” he said. “Now you owe me.”
          The lake was at the edge of town, with fancy houses on one side and a golf course on the other. Ethan’s brother wasn’t happy about having to drive us anywhere, let alone cram his car full of duck decoys, but he did it.
          It was dusk when we got to the lake and no one was around to see us. Ethan’s brother backed the car down the concrete boat ramp to the water line and we opened the doors. Decoys fell out on both sides. We heaved the decoys into the lake.
          Ethan grabbed a decoy and drew back to throw it.
          “Wait, wait!” I grabbed his arm. “That one’s special. Let me put it in.”
          He looked down at it. “What’s special about it?”
          “It’s a harlequin.”
          “What’s that?”
          “Some kind of duck.” I took it from him and set it gently in the water.
          Pretty soon they were all floating. Some of them floated upside down, it’s true, but they all floated, a huge bunch of decoys bobbing near the boat ramp.
          When I got back to Uncle Harry’s house, Aunt Edith was standing in the garage and I thought I was busted. “Now that’s what I call service,” she said. “The mailman should be so prompt.”
          Next morning was Saturday, and after I finished my paper route I rode down to the lake to check. The decoys were still in the water and a few real ducks were swimming among them. People stood at the shoreline watching and talking. It occurred to me we might have a problem getting the decoys back.
          When Uncle Harry came home from the hospital I was at school and I hadn’t had a chance to warn him what I’d done. By the time I got home Aunt Edith had already told him how she’d cleaned out the garage and now he could park the car in it, wasn’t that nice?
          Uncle Harry was slumped down in his La-Z-Boy. With stubble on his cheeks and surrender in his eyes he looked like a prisoner of war.
          While Aunt Edith cooked dinner, I whispered to him what had really happened to the decoys. He stared at me a long time, his face slowly brightening until he looked almost healthy again.
          “She was right,” he said. “I have to admit.”
          “Who?”
          “Edith.”
          “About the decoys?”
          “About taking you in when her sister died. I didn’t want kids, but she said where else could you go? And she was right. You’re a good boy.”
          It was the only compliment Uncle Harry ever gave me, and I glowed for days.
          He said not to worry about getting the ducks out of the water, he’d take care of that. What he did was borrow Charlie Steinman’s boat and row around the lake—I asked him if he was sure it was okay to row so soon after the heart attack and he said, “Who cares?”—and scoop them into the boat with a fishing net. All but a handful. The ones that floated upside down were harder to see, I guess. But he found the harlequin so he was happy.
          As we were setting the decoys back on the garage shelves, Aunt Edith walked in. She glanced at us, then at the decoys, and her eyes went steely. “You!” She aimed her finger at me. “Get to your room.”
          I went into the kitchen and closed the door behind me, but stood and listened as Aunt Edith lit into him. I couldn’t hear everything, but the gist was pretty clear. He loved those stupid ducks more than he loved her, especially that blue and tan one. In fact, she didn’t think he’d ever loved her. She began to cry.
          I went to my room. But an hour later when she drove to the grocery store, I went back into the garage to find Uncle Harry. He was standing in front of the decoys. “She’s right,” he said. “What have I ever done that’s worth a shit?”
          “You kept a roof over our heads,” I said.
          He scowled. “Just because there’s a roof over your head doesn’t mean you’re not floating upside down.”
          The only thing I could think of to say was, “Thanks for taking me in, Uncle Harry.”
          “Yeah yeah,” he said. But he seemed to think about it, and his eyes cleared slowly like he was coming out of a fogbank. “Sure,” he said more softly. “Sure.”
          As I left he started whistling.

Uncle Harry lived another six years. He died, not from a heart attack, but from cancer. Not many people came to his funeral. Aunt Edith didn’t give out duck decoys or anything else.
          Most of the decoys were gone by then, anyway. After that day in the garage he hadn’t carved any more, and had gradually gotten rid of the ones on the shelves. A few he managed to give away, the rest he set free again. I still see one now and then, bobbing far out in the lake.
          Aunt Edith wandered around for months looking dazed and lost. It surprised me how much she loved him.
          The harlequin Uncle Harry kept. Just before he died, he asked me to deliver it.
          “To who?” I said.
          “Her name is Olwen Turner.”
          “Where does she live?”
          “I don’t know,” he said, “but she used to have a studio over on Windsor. Maybe she still does.”
          By then I had my driver’s license, and with the two jobs I was working to help support Aunt Edith—I’d put my plans for piano lessons on hold—I’d been able to buy an old Ford Taurus to get to work. One Saturday morning I drove over to Windsor. The harlequin was in my trunk, where Aunt Edith wouldn’t bother to look.
          The studio was in a newer high rise. Gilt lettering in the directory said “314, Olwen Turner Ballet.”
          As I stepped out of the elevator, the door to 314 burst open and a flock of chattering eight- and ten-year-old girls in tights, and a few boys, came running out. When they were past, I walked into an enormous room with a polished tongue-and-groove floor, metal bars along two of the walls, and floor-to-ceiling mirrors behind the bars.
          Near the doorway a woman was squatting down beside a little girl, wiping tears from the girl’s eyes. The woman had streaky blond hair in an expensive-looking haircut, and wore black tights. She said, “You’ll get it, sweetie. Don’t worry.”
          When she saw me, she stood. “I’m sorry, the class is full.” She had a yoga-straight back and a trellis-work of wrinkles around her eyes. “And I’m afraid you’re too old anyway.”
          “Oh,” I said. “No. I’m just delivering something. Are you Olwen Turner?”
          “Yes?”
          “I brought you this.” I pulled the harlequin decoy from behind my back and held it out.
          “What is it?”
          “It’s from my Uncle Harry.”
          “Who?”
          The little girl had stopped crying and was watching me.
          “Harry Fulton,” I said. This was a mistake. I couldn’t imagine my uncle ever knowing a woman like this. Maybe he’d seen her once and imagined a life with her. Maybe he’d even stalked her, who knows.
          “He died,” I said. “He wanted you to have this.”
          Her perfectly clipped eyebrows lifted. “Is that a duck decoy?”
          That she recognized it was gratifying, at least. “He carved them. This was his best one.” I held it out.
          She didn’t offer to take it. “What did you say his name was?”
          I told her again.
          “Fulton.” She looked puzzled, then thoughtful. Then a little gasp escaped. “Oh!” She bit down on one side of her lower lip. “Oh.”
          “Did you know him?”
          “Hank Fulton?” A wistful smile slowly bloomed.
          “You knew each other?”
          “He died, you say?”
          “Last month. He kept this for years. He made it for you. My Aunt Edith wanted to throw it away.”
          “He got married?” She closed her eyes, and her chest rose and fell as she took a long, deep breath. “Good for him.”
          When she opened her eyes I held out the harlequin to her again, and she accepted it, raising it high for a moment like the host, then lowering it and studying the top. “What kind is it?
          “Uncle Harry called it a harlequin. They’re rare, I guess.”
          She gazed up from the decoy and explored my face. “You look a little like him.” She leaned forward and kissed me on the top of my head.
          I felt myself blushing. “You can throw it away if you want.”
          “What did he do?” she said. “Your uncle. For a living?”
          “He was a roofer.”
          Her shoulders seemed to slump a little. “So his father won.”
         “What happened?” I said. “If I can ask.”
         She shook her head. “After he dropped out of class I never saw him. I guess he was embarrassed.”
         “Ms. Turner,” the little girl said. “Can I go now?”
         The woman was still studying the decoy and didn’t answer. It felt like I was intruding and I turned to leave.
         Behind me she said, “Did he still dance?”
         “Uncle Harry? Dance?”
         “He could have been professional. He was that much better than I. Did he keep dancing?”
         I thought about that.
         “No,” I said. “Uncle Harry never danced.”


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