Chuck has been in the restaurant business more than forty years. He has worked at bars and diners and strip clubs and family restaurants. He has cooked everything from manicotti to country ham to specialty fudge. Except for a period in ’84, when he moonlighted as a janitor after the baby died, Chuck has only ever worked in food prep. He took his first job at sixteen, grilling for a diner on Court Street called Simon’s. Chuck did burgers there, and catfish fillets, and pots of pork barbeque that masked the smell from the persistent cloud of secondhand smoke. When Kennedy was shot Chuck saw a man watch the news on the TV over the bar until the ash that hung from his cigarette became a fragile gray arc as long as a pinky finger. He thinks of the cigarette now, when he is sixty-two. Something has burned away and left the shape of him.
I’m not sure I “got” this story, but fortunately, it’s available online at the Gettysburg Review website, so no one has to depend on my reading. It’s also tinged by a real-life postscript I’ll get to presently.
The unifying structure is the blue trailer next door to Chuck’s. On the morning the story begins, his wife Margo tells him the police arrested the occupants for cooking meth; they’ve left the door open. There’s a very subtle undertone here, I think, about looking inside the lives of other people. But I may be making that up, because otherwise, I got nuthin’ here.
Also on the morning the story starts, co-worker Cindy quits in the middle of biscuit making. Eighteen-year-old Luke is soon hired to replace her.
Chuck has met Luke before. Not Luke specifically, but boys like Luke, and girls too. They pass through kitchens and dish rooms and grill lines in a never-ending flow, their numbers swelling in the summer and during the holidays, dwindling in Septembers and Januaries. They are putting in their time, sometimes out of real need, sometimes at their parents’ insistence; this job, this series of hours spent scraping grease and exchanging dirty jokes, mopping up food scraps and peeling potatoes, this is their initiation to toil. After their stint they depart to fulfill their choice; they graduate from trade schools and universities. They go to their offices, salons, and workshops, leaving behind the world of the restaurant, pouring around it the salt of their joy like a spell cleaving dark and light.
Again, I get this sense of inside and outside; who’s a food prep worker, and who’s just passing through on his way to something better. The story follows Chuck’s life: his cat gets sick (that’s interesting; Chuck definitely seems more like a dog person to me, I wonder why that choice; perhaps to give us a glimpse inside?), and he uses the last of the emergency fund in the Folger coffee can on veterinary bills (been there, done that). Chuck and Margo go to a county fair, find Luke and his girlfriend there. It turns out Luke is very lucky at a duck game, hence the title. He performs a small kindness for Margo as well. But something else is just around the corner.
Light is leaving the yard, and Chuck stands on the porch as night enters the trailer, expanding unseen inside the empty rooms. Curiosity visits him, and he imagines going inside, exploring in darkness the emptied space of his neighbors. He stands for a moment with his hand on the threshold, then he reaches for the knob and swings the door shut, pushing all his weight against it until he hears the muffled latch. He climbs back over the low fence. He walks back across his own yard.
The closing of the door to the blue trailer reeks of significance, but, in spite of the likeability of every character, very little in this story resonates with me. I always appreciate that the prize anthologies include pieces describing a more out-of-the-way kind of life – so much literary fiction is urban or suburban – and sometimes, like with Marc Watkins’ “Two Midnights in a Jug” from Pushcart 2012 or last year’s “Sonny Criss” by Jeanne Shoemaker, the pieces sing. This one just hummed a little for me.
There is a tragic real-life footnote that adds poignancy to the events of the story: Tina Louise Blevins died in December 2012. She was 29 years old.