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international librarian of mystery

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

A quack of anguish

Bertel and I arrived in Memphis in the early afternoon on Good Friday. We found an internet cafe and spent a useful half hour on Google Maps, before heading to Goner Records, a store a few miles east of downtown that Bertel (a fanatical vinyl collector) had been informed was the best place to satisfy his vinyl habit. Before too long I was aching from standing around listening to Bertel discuss obscure 7 inches and rare new vinyl releases with the cheerful record store dude. Bertel's a gentle man, in all senses of the word, and generally retiring by nature, but when you get him talking ... Jesus he can rabbit on. After talking music for an inordinate amount of time, the guys at Goner gave us hints where to stay and what to do. As it turned out, we only had a couple of days in Memphis and their ideas proved invaluable. They scrawled the names and directions for bars and restaurants on our laser-printed Google Maps.

Anyway, Tennessee is the 'buckle of the bible belt', a label I found ample proof of. I've never encountered so many religious advertisements in one place: every second billboard was advertising a church or a Christian radio station. Terri Schaivo was literally the only news we saw while we were in town, and opinions on the situation even managed to supersede the usual chit-chat that Bertel and I attract as funny-speaking foreigners.

I ducked out of such conversations, but Bertel, a self-professed secular humanist, got drawn into what was destined to be an epic debate while we breakfasted at the Arcade. Bertel's mostly lucid approach to the dilemma in Florida did nothing but raise the ire of a couple of the more bible-educated men he had got talking to on the issue. In his sweetly oblivious way, he persevered in his efforts to convince the particularly fierce-looking god-fearing duo of the sensible and honorable approach that Schaivo's husband had taken so far, and how cruel Terri's parents were being in prolonging the inevitable. The guys' jaws just about dropped from their faces. Sensing a potential impasse, I left the immovable and unstoppable to it, and slipped outside to enjoy the dewy spring morning air. Spring in March! How bizarre. As I stood on the footpath, my eyes met those of a young duckling sitting forlornly in a cardboard box, in the back of a pickup truck parked nearby.

the ducklingHe quacked at me furiously. Naturally, I suspected the duckling was in some sort of mortal peril. I took a photo, thinking it might be useful for evidence of cruelty later on, and then, as I hummed and hahhed as to what to do, the duckling let out a particularly pitiful quack of anguish, convincing me my initial suspicion of mistreatment was correct. I scooped it out of the box, and ran round the corner to where we'd parked, and stashed the wee feller inside the rental.

I returned to the entrance to wait for Bertel, and to identify (and perhaps photograph) the duck-nappers.

Bertel came out with the Christians, their voices still full of argumentative tones.

It turned out the pick-up truck belonged to the Christians.

"Hey!" yelled the first to reach the truck. "Where's the duckling gone!"

He looked around, and saw me, loitering guiltily nearby.

"Excuse me ma'am, did you see where the duckling in here went?"
"I, uh, he went, that-a-way," I said, pointing him up the street, the opposite direction to where I'd actually taken him.
"How'd he get out?"
"I have no idea. I didn't even realise he'd come from your truck. I just saw him waddling off. That-a-way," I said again, pointing, starting to feel bad that I had stolen some poor Christians' duck, and was lying to them about it. My sins were mounting up.
"Thanks," he said.

The Christians consulted, then one of them jumped in the pick-up and drove off down the street, while the other started walking briskly up the footpath in the direction I had indicated.

Bertel and I returned to the car, where, naturally, my 'liberated' duckling had relieved himself of a quite mind-boggling amount of foul-smelling duck-poo on my seat. I sacrificed one souvenir motel bath-towel cleaning up the mess as best I could, used another to cover the remaining stain up with, then scooped the duck up, and got Bertel to drive us around the block until we caught site of the Christian on foot. I jumped out.

"Is this the one?" I asked, proffering the duck his way.
"Well yes, ma'am, it is. How'd you...? Where'd it...?"

He looked up and down the street, obviously suspicious that we'd come from the opposite direction I had initially pointed him in.

"He must have, um, walked around the block?" I suggested.

I handed it over, the Christian thanked me, and Bertel and I drove away, him laughing merrily at my mis-guided animal liberation effort.

We later learned that giving cute animals (bunnies, ducklings, chicks) to each other is an old Southern Easter tradition. New life and all that. And, as we had discovered, it's a practice that is alive and well. When googling it, I also read how the Humane Society is encouraging people to carefully consider whether any recipient of such a gift wanted to look after an cute furry animal for 10 or more years.
"Unfortunately, each year after Easter animal shelters are inundated with bunnies, ducklings, and chicks relinquished by people who bought them on a whim. Many must be euthanized due to a lack of available homes."
At which point, I must admit, I got a bit emotional thinking about my poor wee duckling getting euthanised when whoever the Christians were going to give 'my' duckling to got tired of caring for it (and, more pertinently, cleaning up after its disproportionate bowel movements). The ducklings sad little quack of anguish came back to haunt me.

Thankfully, Bertel helped me overcome my melancholy by taking me to a nice Thai restaurant for dinner, where, yes, we had a red curry roast duck.