There is a duck that comes to the pond. It likes to sit on the shore to watch the white swan.
Minshu is an early-riser, a bird that likes to get the blood moving by circling the middle of the pond, where he saw a boat once and glanced against the edge of a paddle as two young girls took photographs of him. The duck is a watcher; and Minshu is just a bird, but he gets confused sometimes and starts to look left and right, as though expecting someone to be there. He forgets and remembers, and then he goes around in another circle, trying to shed the sleepiness, trying to displace the feeling of glancing against something warm, someone with a heartbeat. There is no boat today. But there is a duck on the shore, watching him, and he sees the little creature there, staring. It’s rude to stare, he wants to tell the duck, but Minshu is just a swan, and as a swan he swims closer to the duck, who walks backwards up the slope of the grass, past the sidewalk, up the hill and alarmingly close to the road where cars are moving. But I am not going to hurt you, Minshu says to the duck that is nearing the curb, as a truck bears down on him, ready to end a story.
That night, Minshu is freezing. There is a sleeping spot under the bridge at the end of the pond. This is not winter, but it’s not like if he had a sweater available to him that he wouldn’t wear it. He wonders where he learned the word ‘sweater’, or even the concept of it, but he knows it. He does. Tonight he’s freezing. Under the bridge, he makes noises, like a child’s, like a child might make if he had ever had one, had known what that would be like – but he never did, and these are just the noises that are natural to him. They come out and walk onto the hard dirt at the edge of the creek, onto the packed earth where people have slept before, over the gravel until they reach the hard stone under the bridge and creep up it. These noises are flying, like he has been known to do. They haul themselves up the stone and make an echo under the bridge, Minshu’s own sounds coming back to him, there as he gets colder and colder.
The doorbell rings. Hank is in a suit. Gao is wearing a dress. Outside, she takes his arm as though he’s a proper gentleman.
“This will be very good for you,” she says.
Gao is in college, and Hanks sometimes wonders if he is a project in a class entitled “Taking Care of Elderly Alcoholics”. It’s possible, he thinks. Somewhere out there, a professor has developed a curriculum centred around old men, their frailties, their tendencies to dip back into the drink behind closed doors, their inability to remember the face and shape of dead life partners through any other means. Thank God for academia, he thinks to himself, although Hank himself never went to school and has no idea if any of this is plausible. However, he does know that Gao has him by the arm and is talking about the people he is about to meet, as though Hank needs a primer on humanity.
“I’m, um, highly human myself,” he tells her.
“They have coffee and snacks, but don’t take too much.”
“It’s not like I’ve never been to one of these before.”
“When everyone sings, please stand but don’t participate. If you want, you can move your lips and coo.”
“I’m actually not a bird,” says Hank, and at once is unsure of himself. Am I a bird, he wonders? Or is Gao the bird? Or is everyone a bird, and reality an illusion made of whiskey fumes and grass clippings and cracks in the concrete leading approximately nowhere?
“It’s possible,” he mutters, as they reach the church. It’s shaped like a UFO, glass everywhere, and has the largest parking lot imaginable. Cars are lining up to run him down. Hank shakes hands and even receives a kiss from a few women – the first kisses he’s had in a decade. When saliva dries on your skin, it should feel cool, but this is very warm, and it’s not just the sunshine. He feels something stirring inside him, a reverse-expulsion as of taking something in and burying it in organs and fleshy matter, some worm that is cascading through him as Gao introduces him to more people, others of whom are also up for the kissing. The next Hank knows, he has an erection in the church lobby, and while he wants to be mortified by it, he is mostly proud that that stubby little piece of flesh still works.
“You seem like you’re having fun,” says Gao, smiling.
“Uh-huh,” returns Hank.
When she walks away to get a drink from the water fountain, he watches her. She’s thin, but her hips are strained by the green dress, and her calves are tense above the heels, and her butt… And her hair, dropping down to that butt, and then she bends over to take a drink, drawing her hair aside, and suddenly Hank wants to be a water fountain, looking down her dress into her cleavage, the sight of which only water fountains could ever know.
“Hello, I’m Nancy,” says a short woman with curls of red hair.
He groans. “I’m with Gao.”
The short woman leans in and smiles. It’s going to be a kiss, he thinks. Somehow, she knows Gao, is familiar with the name, and though the shape of this little figure is so different from Gao’s, Hank abruptly feels mixed up between the two. Nancy beckons him down so that she can kiss him, so he lets her. But she’s not done there, and pushes close for a hug. Hanks accepts it, because why not? Takes her body inwards, and closes his eyes so that he can pretend that this short little thing is Gao one second, but then the next it’s May, and for a moment an image flashes across his closed eyes of his wife and her smile.
“Oh my,” whispers the little woman, who by now must feel the strength of Hank’s erection.
“My God,” says Hank, keeping her close. “You smell really fine.”