Scott Lambridis: Doris

Despite what the newspaper said, O’Malley knew the true cause of the accident. Inside the trolley, in the periphery of his consciousness and beyond his recognition, an image had formed of this sort of duck, a white sort of duck whose everything that should have been yellow was instead a pale pink like a young farm girl’s arms in the wind, and had he been interviewed the following day for the morning edition, O’Malley would have sworn that he saw the duck there on the tracks, inviting calamity even before the conductor yanked the brake lever and the trolley wheels squelched and the packed passengers screamed and the head pushed through the glass, and then there was the duck again, sitting on the tracks behind the trolley now, the trolley detached from its grooves, and rather than addressing the forms and noises and confusion behind him, O’Malley scooped the duck into his arms and walked away.

He cradled the duck. He accepted its warmth. He admired the whiteness of its feathers and the pink little beak and floppy pink feet. The tip of one pink little foot was crushed and bleeding. On the sidewalk, O’Malley kicked off one of his loafers. He held the wiggling duck under one arm, and used his other hand to reach down and peel off his black sock. He stumbled and nearly dropped the poor duck. He sat on the curb and wrapped the sock around the duck’s foot, tight but not too tight, and replaced his loafer. Then he noticed the duck’s eyes. They were as red as bloody hell, and O’Malley looked into them, those eyes as red as bloody hell, and called the duck by its new name; he called the duck by the only name it could possibly have. He whispered “Doris” and he looked into those bloody red eyes, and those bloody red eyes took O’Malley in; into those bloody red eyes that looked as if his own eyes looked back instead, as if instead of those eyes of Doris looking all bloody and red and staring into O’Malley’s eyes it was only one set of eyes falling into the other, and back into the first, like a video camera recording its own image, two minds staring at each other, each staring at itself. Those eyes saw O’Malley, yes, he would swear it, those eyes, those bloody red eyes saw him, all of him, all facets and faces, the horror and the hope, all at once, as impossible as it seemed. Doris seeing O’Malley, and O’Malley seeing Doris was the most truthful thing he’d ever known. Then they walked.

O’Malley and Doris, in the cold and the gray and the wet of late morning, Doris snuggled in the warmth of his armpit with her sock-bandaged foot supported by his hand, until they stopped at a restaurant in front of the piers where they were greeted by a squat mid-forties Hispanic in a stock blue suit shaking his head.

“Sorry sir.”

“Is it because I have a duck?”

“No duck.”

“No duck? She’s an albino duck.”

“No albino duck.”

“We’re not communicating,” said O’Malley.

He gave Doris a squeeze to vent some anger and walked down the block until he found a restaurant host who was either more forgiving of ducks, or more impressed by albinos, who could really say?

The dreary restaurant suited the dreary day, and to add to the welcome dreariness, O’Malley heard the excited chuckle of Andy, his associate. Picture Andy joining them, ordering appetizers and wine for breakfast and talking about budgets and timelines, Doris quacking and tenderly waddling on the table with a little limp. Picture Doris knocking Andy’s wine glass over, then leaving her own mess of brown and white liquids on Andy’s omelette. Andy was a sport. Or maybe Andy just didn’t care about Doris. Couldn’t he see Doris’s injury? Wouldn’t he even think to ask? O’Malley was no expert on duck physiology, but he suspected Doris’ digestion was a little on the fritz from all the excitement, yet Andy was still talking about budgets and timelines, and then about milestones and deliverables and all the pedantic details of their profession that threaten to derail creative minds like O’Malley’s, ignoring Doris until the host arrived and asked O’Malley and Doris to leave, which O’Malley did, complying and nodding to Doris in his arms as he slipped back into the cold. He was proud of Doris. She’d left Andy with the check.

In his office with a doorway but no door, O’Malley worked at his computer as Doris waddled beneath his desk. He had carried her the twenty-minute walk to his advertising agency just east of the docks. He found some basic instructions online on how to bandage a broken foot, removed his sock from Doris’s wound (though he forgot to put it back on his own foot), and replaced it with gauze and tape from the supply closet. It was a bit of a challenge. Doris didn’t want to sit still. Once his wrap was complete O’Malley let her play. She played with the wires under his desk. Her foot didn’t seem to bother her much. O’Malley searched online for something that would help him help her. He wanted something that would make him say “Aha!”

His phone rang. Doris left a mess on the floor.

“Poor frightened Doris,” said O’Malley.

He picked her up. He held her in his armpit with one hand while his other lifted the phone.

“It’s Jane,” said the sweet voice of his client Jane.

“I have to postpone,” said O’Malley, referring to their weekly meeting.

Jane said something about deliverables and expectations and scheduling challenges. O’Malley focused on her voice, stimulating as it was, like smoke and peaty fumes filling his lungs and his gut. He pictured Jane naked; he couldn’t help it, nor did he want to. He pictured the face he’d seen during videoconferences. He pictured the pinch of her upper lip, and the pink swell of the lower. They were lips like others, but beauty is not diminished by its own multiplicity. In a rare bout of workplace honesty, O’Malley interrupted Jane.

“A what?” she asked.

“I know, she’s a beaut.”

“It’s albino?”

“And did you know,” he continued, “Doris sleeps with only one brain hemisphere at a time? Evolutionarily speaking, her fear of predators is so strong she can sleep with one eye open and half her brain waiting vigilantly.”

O’Malley had followed the Internet’s knowledge trail from Doris’s relatives to other studies on split brains, those conducted on epileptic patients who’d had their corpus callosum snipped to reduce seizures, cutting the communication between the two halves. O’Malley discovered that when the left visual field (located in the right hemisphere) cannot communicate with the speech-control centers in the left hemisphere, patients couldn’t name what the right side of their brain was seeing, though they could pick it up and draw it with their left hand, and – perhaps akin to what was hidden behind Doris’s own soft quacks – these patients would confabulate explanations for their odd behavior since they couldn’t verbally access the real details in the left hemisphere.

“Confabulate,” said O’Malley to Jane and to Doris, ruffling her feathers to show the word impressed her.

One study said that patients would even show different personalities if they wrote instead of spoke their responses to questions. He lifted Doris to eye-level. She was calm, lit by the glow of his computer and the office’s fluorescent overheads. She might be awake, asleep, or both. Perhaps she had seen some horrors this morning that only came to her sleeping mind, or maybe she saw them when the side of her brain that could cope with them was sleeping and no longer inhibiting them. During those times, maybe there wasn’t only one Doris. Maybe there were two.

O’Malley said as much to Jane, but she cut him off. He imagined her pushing her brown bangs back with a puff from her mouth as she hung up.

“Some people don’t know when to be impressed,” said O’Malley to Doris.

O’Malley was surprised how easy it was to keep the accident from his mind. The squelch of metal. The ripping of brakes. The gasping of wood and the darkness of the power cutting, only the weak sun by which to see the screaming and pleading faces, to identify the forms pulled underfoot, or lifted into the window. The girl sitting below him with her purse pressed against his fly, her face obscured at first by black hair, then pressed to her face by the window. Her flattened lips and the steam of choked breath against the glass. When the back door splintered, O’Malley lunged and squeezed into the fog. He heard glass break behind him. He felt it break against his back. How could one little duck cause so much destruction? This would be a trying time for any duck, let alone an albino with an injured foot.

Agitated, consumed, infatuated, O’Malley took Doris for a walk.

When his legs tired, he sat with Doris on a park bench by the piers so he could see the docks and the water and the sidewalks and the buildings of the city. He tried to take it all in. He tried to achieve absolute clarity of all senses at the same time, but of course that’s impossible, so instead he tried focused on each sense in succession. He smelled the fish in the boats. He saw the dark shimmer of the entrapped ocean. He felt the wind against his cheek and saw its evidence in the whooshing leaves, Doris’s fluttering feathers, the scowling pedestrians, and the plastic baggies occasionally lifted and swirled into the air. He heard passing voices, passing cars, and dogs both curious and irate. He tried fighting off each association as it arrived, and had some success, but he couldn’t say how long he should give each sense or when interruption by a new sense should yield the disappointment of failure, and so he gave up. He had Doris to protect, after all. He focused on the dogs, barking whenever they came close enough to smell the oily meat beneath Doris’s tasteless feathers. A pair of giant bear-like dogs tugged on their leashes as their owner struggled to keep them on the sidewalk. O’Malley held Doris to his chest.

“That’s right! Keep your beasts away,” yelled O’Malley.

The man didn’t seem to hear. O’Malley patted Doris on her downy head. The dogs yanked hard and the man tripped and fell on the curb.

“Ah, my fellow man, such ridiculous creatures,” said O’Malley. He laughed and shook his head and received a sharp nip on the cheek from Doris. “Sheesh, I’m sorry,” he said, and then repeated, “I’m sorry,” and stroked her pink little bill.

O’Malley grabbed a twig from below the bench and used it to draw in the dirt. Holding the twig above his scrawl, he admired the near-perfect heart with its curvy little tip, and then plunged the twig back into the dirt. When he withdrew it next, a blocky D lay in the center. Doris seemed to notice, to wiggle in O’Malley’s arms. He placed Doris on the ground and watched her step on the symbols he’d made, erasing the etchings in the dirt. When the D disappeared, it seemed to O’Malley that Doris was negating herself and that this negation was Doris’s little manifesto, an indication of a secret between them alone, one validated without mark or trace.

O’Malley did not redraw the mark. He sat Doris back on his lap and turned toward the fading sun, staring through the fog until he saw nothing but purple and pink. When the sun was gone, the buildings seemed to come forward, separating themselves from the dark blue gradient behind them. The mix of fog and night and human lighting pushed the buildings closer and higher. The contrast was powerful and stirred reverence in O’Malley. It commanded him to look; this intersection of elements – the natural world’s features emerging from seeming chaos, these feats of architecture from different minds in different times – forming this little snapshot here, for him and Doris alone.

“Beautiful, this city, isn’t it Doris?”

He wiggled his warm hand beneath her. Her breathing had changed. It was slow and rhythmic, and she seemed to respond less to the wind and noises. She was asleep. O’Malley would later fondly remember these hours spent napping with Doris as mere moments; he felt stillness in that way that makes time’s pace impossible to discern.

During the following hours with Doris on the bench, O’Malley was overcome with the general feeling of not being human, or no longer being human. His introduction to Doris was predicated on a horror that he had survived, and if it was so easy for him to ignore those horrors, there might be a condition similar to Doris’s occurring in his own brain, and so he was forced to imagine that – assuming his corpus callosum had not been snipped, and that he was not a duck – that he was something different, perhaps some sort of robot, or, since he couldn’t imagine a robot having so much affection for Doris, that he was an unfinished robot, half a brain at most, so when the morning trolley reentered his wandering mind, it formed an image composed of levers, the pulling of levers, big metal levers.

There he was within the levers, directing the trolley himself, circuits opening and closing behind him, beneath him, between the controllers, resistors, and motors. He felt the rumble of the tracks below, and as he pulled the levers the circuits opened and closed above the tracks. He looked around through robot eyes and saw the tank of little creatures he had left behind, unaware that anything bad could happen to them, sweating in their work shirts, never speaking to each other, staring only at each other’s shoes and focused only on their amount of personal space and the meetings for which they were going to be late, every part of them swelling with little chemicals, hormones and endorphins and corticosteroids, filling them from viscera to skin, and for a moment, before he could stop it, O’Malley once again felt the desire to see all of them burn and split and choke and die.

O’Malley saw the Asian girl again too, her black bangs cut like a scar across her face, and her giant purse taking up all that space, rubbing against the zipper of his slacks as he held his breath. Maybe she hadn’t been hurt at all. She was fine. No one was hurt. Maybe there was no blood on the glass at all. Doris would have been fine there too, uninjured, on the tracks, if he hadn’t picked her up. Maybe. Dread overcame O’Malley. It was the dread of hopelessness. While other people saw emotions and fears and sadness in their fellow humans, it seemed to O’Malley that he saw only levers and circuits, opening and closing, forever automated, robotic and without hope – no hope of acting any better in the future.

O’Malley awoke early on the bench by the piers. His phone had sounded his usual workday alarm. He shivered. His back ached. He could barely turn his head away from the stink of dead fish, and his face and fingers felt desiccated with salt. He didn’t remember falling asleep, only the dread of his inhuman vision mixed with the happiness of the preceding day with Doris.

But she was gone. Not in his lap, not under the bench, not in his immediate vision.

He checked his phone, as if Doris could have called him, but his phone was filled only with the usual messages: wife, mother, Jane. He searched the waters by the piers, then retraced his steps from the day before, first to work, then back towards the restaurant. He tried to think like Doris and searched the ends of the shafts of warm sunlight breaking through the clouds, searched the puddles collecting along the curb, searched the darkness in the nooks of buildings, and the containers filled with dirt and dewy plants. By the time he retraced his steps all the way back to his trolley stop, commuters were pouring over the streets, and there in her usual spot at the top of the subway stairs was the Hispanic woman yelling “Free Examiner!” beside a stack of newspapers. She was dressed like a conductor, or an engineer, or whatever the hell they’re called. He took the newspaper. The cover showed the trolley, and the headline indicated an accident. O’Malley searched the photo for a sign of Doris. A feather, a bill, a foot, anything. When he couldn’t find her, he searched the photo for himself. When he couldn’t find himself, he searched for the Asian girl, and then gave up searching and just scanned the article. It said there had been injuries and a death, but offered no more details and nothing about Doris or O’Malley. He thought about Doris, bloody, on the tracks. He thought about her hobbling, out there all alone. Standing there in the whirlwind of commuters and tourists, he wept. He pictured himself on a billboard and wished he could hoist himself high over the city, advertising his warm arms and companionship to Doris and hoping her memory of yesterday would bring her back to him. But she was gone.

The next trolley pulled up. It seemed like the same trolley as the yesterday, but there were dozens of trolleys, and even if it was the same trolley, it would probably have been fixed, so O’Malley wouldn’t have been able to recognize it anyway. It was packed again, full of tourists and commuters, and once again it seemed to full to board but the rest of those waiting squeezed in and O’Malley did too. The conductor pulled his levers and pressed his buttons and the crunching and grinding was like music found only inside the exoskeletons of insects. O’Malley squeezed towards the back window, holding onto the overhead metal rail as the carriage began to move, and he didn’t stop until he could see the puddles on the blacktop through the back window. He allowed himself to be pressed against the glass of that back window, pressed like the black-haired girl’s face, as the trolley rolled and stopped, rolled and stopped to let on more and more boarders. O’Malley tried to savor the melancholy of Doris receding into his past, but he couldn’t because there she was, waddling towards him on the curb.

His heart jumped.

He could see his bandage on her webbed pink foot, but she was waddling fine. He waved to her, squeezing his hand against the glass, and she shook her feathers for him. The trolley stopped and Doris stopped and the two stared at each other. Then, slowly, the trolley began to move again, but instead of Doris’s red eyes getting smaller – those bloody hell eyes set in that dear fuzzy white head – they became larger.

With every inch the trolley pulled away they got larger and larger, and Doris hadn’t moved but still they grew larger and larger, and gazed back into O’Malley. They seemed to really see him. Not through him, not beyond him, but into him, right into O’Malley’s eyes, enveloping him, consuming him. There was light, and then objects, and O’Malley experienced these things around him receding again, but in the wrong direction, surrounded by wind instead of wood, the ground still instead of vibrating, and from his new vantage point on the curb, O’Malley watched the trolley pull away. He watched it from the curb and he looked into the window of the trolley as it rolled away and he saw his human form staring back from the window, and whether that was still him or if it was Doris, or what was happening, he couldn’t be sure but he saw all the human figures packed together. He saw inside that little tank of frightened creatures.

O’Malley felt the wind ruffling through him. His feet felt wide and webbed and when he looked at them they were pink and, compelled by unknown forces to do as Doris would do, O’Malley flapped and flopped those webbed feet towards the crawling trolley. He wanted only to save them from each other. Faster and faster he waddled towards the trolley, encouraged by those soft Irish eyes in the back window. But how could he stop it? He waddled ahead and overtook the trolley. Soon it would roll beyond him again, gaining speed and rolling beyond where his flapping feet could carry, and so he did the only thing he could possibly have done – he threw himself onto the tracks and the screeching frame tumbled towards him. He heard the copper and the wood and the iron screaming down and saw the fireflies of light sparking between the wheels and the track, and the smell of iron dust igniting, and the trolley’s wheels lifted and slid and crunched onto the concrete, sliding sideways towards him, the sweat on the conductor’s face, the effort in his arms, and then the machine was upon him. O’Malley screamed but what came out was only a hoarse and guttural quack.

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