I excavated a short story…

I wrote this around 40 years ago and decided to spruce it up (solely to refresh a few dated references) and post it here for you.

This one goes out to all the people who are the victims of easy gift giving – you know, when the people you know latch on to one thing you like and make that the sole scope of every gift you receive. This happened to me in my early twenties after I made an off-hand remark about liking penguins. Took four years to squash the penguin-themed gift giving.

The Collection

Helen’s friend Sandy squinted as she studied the details of a tiny porcelain duck. This miniature was one of a set of sixteen different animals Helen had purchased from a website which touted them as a limited edition set, each one a faithful reproduction of a handcrafted original. She received one animal every other month at the low price of only $24.95 plus shipping and handling, so that after nearly three years Helen’s set was finally complete. The last one, a Shetland pony, had just arrived and Helen had deemed it time to unveil the collection to her other twelve year-old buddies: Sandy, Lisa, and Robin.

“Helen,” Lisa said breathlessly, breaking the awe-filled silence, “these are so great. In fact, they’re greater than great.”

“They’re, like, totally great,” added Robin definitively.

“Hey, I didn’t know you liked ducks,” Sandy said, finally ending her fixation on the ceramic replica of a Mallard.

“Oh, ducks are okay, I guess,” Helen answered, not quite sure what to say.

Lisa cut in. “Helen, how ever did you keep these a secret?”

“Yeah,” added Robin, “how long has this been going on?”

“Actually, I think a duck collection would be rather cool,” threw in Sandy.

Helen didn’t know exactly how to respond to this last comment. I wish she’d drop the stupid ducks. Doesn’t she realize this is about the whole collection? What’s her problem? Well sorry, everything just can’t be about Sandy, Sandy, Sandy, she thought, and took the easy way out by ignoring both Sandy and her non-sequiturs. Answering her two other friends, she said “Almost three years, and there were a gazillion times that I wanted to burst out and tell you.”

And so, as weeks passed, Helen continued to garner many “oohs” and “ahs” from her sundry acquaintances over her figurines. Enough, in fact, that she soon lost interest in the miniatures. When her thirteenth birthday arrived she did pretty well, receiving most of the items she hoped for. There was, however, one awkward moment when she opened Sandy’s gift, revealing it to be a large ceramic duck.

During the moment’s hesitation as Helen groped for a reaction, Sandy jumped in, “It’s a duck… To go with your other duck.” Immediately, Helen remembered her collection of miniatures and suddenly this gift seemed to make sense. Unlike her figurines, this one was rather cheap-looking. Its design was cartoonish, with big rolling eyes, a bright orange beak, and a body colored in what could only be called ‘plastic yellow’. This thing was not only five times the size of her other miniatures, but it also sported a blue and white sailor’s cap. Looking up at all the people at her party, with their smile-frozen faces, Helen felt trapped by convention and responded in an appropriately graceful manner, “Oh, thanks so much Sandy! I’m sure it’ll look great with the other pieces.” She leaned forward to give Sandy a peck on the cheek, but as she sunk back into her chair, her eyes caught the hideous yellow thing once more. Ugh, I’m going to have to keep that thing on my shelf in case Sandy ever drops over, she realized. Before she moved on to the next present, she placed the duck back into its white box and closed the cover.

When Christmas arrived, Helen was rather surprised to find a plush toy duck, with a bright red bow tied around its neck, sitting amongst her gifts.

“Don’t you think it’s just the most adorable thing,” said her mother, who seemed to come from nowhere. When her daughter didn’t respond immediately, she continued. “You do like ducks, don’t you? I mean, I saw the two you have on your shelf.”

Helen thought about this for a moment. Do I like ducks? Well, I don’t hate them, but then I’m not particularly fond about them. She was about to relay these thoughts but noticed how happy her mother seemed. Well, she means well, and it is Christmas. I should be content with what I get no matter what it is, she reasoned.

“Of course I like it mother. It’s adorable.”

By the end of the next year she surveyed her new collection among the old. There was the original hand crafted duck, the yellow atrocity that Sandy gave her, a rubber ducky – the new atrocity – the plush Christmas duck, a plastic Daffy Duck, a plush Donald Duck, and a monstrous cookie jar duck.

Over the next eight years, Helen’s family relocated three times. The first two were a direct result of her father’s mid-life crisis, as he changed careers twice in one year. Along the way, Helen made new friends and lost track of old ones, yet her duck collection steadily increased. There were three from Timmy, her first crush, five from Pam her best

friend in high school, and the yearly contributions from family members. She had amassed so many in college that her dorm room was nicknamed “The Duck Pond”. In all these years she never bought one, she never asked for one, and she never really wanted one. She had, though, allowed herself to be brainwashed into believing she liked them. Indeed, they even helped her land a man she had her eye on for the entire semester.

One sunny afternoon the dark-eyed Robert, who sent shivers down Helen’s back every time he read his poetry, offered to walk her back to her dorm. When he entered the room, he was amazed not just in the shear number of ducks, but in the variety of materials. There were plush ducks, ceramic ducks, stone ducks, plastic ducks, rubber ducks, wooden ducks, pictures of ducks, news items about ducks, headlines with the word ‘duck’, paintings of duck, tiles with ducks and duck portraits made of tiles, wind-up ducks, books about ducks, a copy of Ibsen’s “The Wild Duck”, cartoons and comics with ducks, a movie poster for “Howard the Duck”, and ties, blouses, sheets, pillowcases, blankets, and towels emblazoned with ducks.

“Man,” he said as he eyed the collection, ” you really love ducks don’t you?”

She suddenly felt like a geek in front of the eternally cool Robert.  Damn! He must think you’re some maladjusted woman who never grew up. Better be nonchalant. “Actually, I couldn’t possibly care less about them,” she said as she ran a finger down the spine of her copy of Leaves of Grass.

“You mean, you have all these ducks and you don’t even like them.”

“No,” and here she took a leap and hoped it wouldn’t sound too pretentious, “it’s a personal statement about counter-culture – being lost in the sameness of everything. I’m sorry if that sounds weird.”

“Don’t apologize. I think that’s really inspired.”


“Yeah, impressively so. Like, what can an original mind offer in a world of commercialism; and a disdain for the trappings of modern man’s desire to aggregate things of little or no value.”

She semi-faked shock and blurted out “Oh my god! That’s exactly the statement I wanted to make and no one ever got it… Until now.”

They stared into each others eyes as he reached out for her hand.

The man she eventually married was Paul Garret. She loved Paul enough to overlook – or failing that, suppress – many of his “little character flaws”. He seemed to have a roving eye, but she attributed that to the last minute panic of losing bachelorhood. He also had the irritating habit of buying her nothing but duck gifts. Assuming, as did everyone but her old flame Robert, she liked ducks. So, on their first substantial date, he gave her a duck pendant. Ever after, he bought duck “things” in remembrance of that moment. At the beginning, despite the ensuing ducks, she considered them very romantic gestures.

But it wasn’t as if Helen consistently stifled her feelings about the ducks to others, it was just that she learned early on that the effort would be in vain. Once, she explicitly told her then closest friend Rachel that she was getting quite sick of them, that she never wanted to see another again. Helen practically begged Rachel not to get her an object d’uck for her birthday. Unfortunately, Rachel passed Helen’s behavior off as modesty – just an act to keep Rachel from buying her a birthday gift. Helen even ventured to tell her fiancé Paul, but he dismissed her statement with a wave of his hand, saying, “Nonsense. Anyone, who had as large a collection of ducks as you, must like them.”

Internal frustration grew with each passing year. One of her darkest memories was of her bridal shower. Despite the hours she spent picking and registering just the right patterns, family and friends heeded not. With minds of their own, the majority managed to dig up plates, linens, silverware and even appliances adorned with the Anatidaen creatures. The crowning achievement was a set of Waterford crystal goblets, each with a hand etched escutcheon sporting a Mallard drake rampant. She began to cry, but the sentiment was taken for its opposite. It was rare thing for Helen to bring negative emotions to the surface. Perhaps it was because of the mixed feelings she felt, trying not to hurt those who meant well; or perhaps it was a sense of guilt – she felt partly responsible for letting it get so out of hand. Whatever the reason, it was one of only two times that she showed any emotion on the subject. The other time came on her day of great realization, or as Paul later referred to it, “The day my ex went freaking nuts”.

This fermentation of her hidden, inner duck angst had reached a frothy peak coinciding with her discovery of Paul’s affair. That evening, after confronting him with her accusations, they began an all-out screaming match, each hurling angry recriminations at the other. There were all the usual tirades: “You were never there for me”, “You act like I don’t exist” “You never loved me”, and so on. But the moment of her schism from reality, the moment of blinding revelation, descended when Helen demanded Paul tell her the other woman’s name.

“What difference does it make who she is?” he snapped at her.

“It make all the difference! I want to know,” she shot back.

“All right, all right, her name’s Christine Merganser. See. Big deal. You don’t know her. It changes nothing!”

Actually, it changed everything. For as any good birder or duck collector knows, a merganser is a species of duck. Suddenly, Helen’s mind lost coherence. All of her thoughts, all the words she had yet to say to Paul, shattered. Her mind filled with jumbled, random flashes of images of ducks. She careened back through time and all the doormat frustration of her life rose within her with a bitterness that blinded her with tears.

“I HATE THEM!” she screamed, piercingly holding the last word long enough for the final ‘m’ to be nearly lost in pronunciation. I HATE THEM ALL!” she screamed again and began to wail in a classic banshee fashion violently pulling at her hair.

“What the hell are you talking about?”

Paul backed away towards the front door as his instinctual survival mechanism switched and locked into the on position.

“This,” Helen spit her words out. She dropped a clump of hair in favor of the nearest, heaviest ceramic duck and hurtled it in his direction. “It has everything to do with you – everything to do with her – everything to do with everything. To hell with you both!”

She began to lash out, smashing and hurling every item of the duck collection that was in her path, punctuating each act of destruction with a statement of her consuming fury.

“I wish I never see another god-damned duck again for as long as I live!”

(splintering crash – a glass duck)

“I never, ever got anything I ever wanted!”

(bouncing thuds – a wooden duck)

“Only what people like you wanted me to have!”

(shattering smash – a ceramic duck)

“And now it’s all gone and wasted. A life wasted!”

(squeakysqueaky – a rubber duck)

She fell to her knees and sobbed heavily – sentences being emitted between heavy intakes of air. “Right now, I could kill Christine Merganser. I could kill you. I could kill the person who introduced you to me. I could kill the person who -“

And then fell a silence made ghastly by the cacophony which had preceded it. Helen put one hand up to cover her mouth and made no further movement.

Taking her sudden silence and frozen body as an opportunity, Paul darted from the house. He considered making some parting remark, but fear got the better part of him and he fled. Let the lawyers take it from here, he thought.

Cassandra Kellogg nee Robinson woke up late one morning. Her husband Luke had taken the day off allowing the two to sleep in. They both headed downstairs in slippers and robes, bleary-eyed, feeling more tired than if they had arisen at their usual time. Luke stretched in the doorway of the house as Cassandra headed down the walk to retrieve the morning paper.

She stopped dead in her tracks as her eyes became fixated on something grisly and gruesome. At first it could only be identified as a bloody mass, but then the details of feathers and a bill helped her identify it as an eviscerated, mangled duck. Before she could call Luke, a piercing cry grabbed her attention. A wild-eyed, disheveled, unrecognizable Helen staggered from behind the hedges. Wearing a muddy, torn bathrobe embroidered with the cutest little ducks, the ungainly mess of a human being brandished a bloodied knife and began to charge straight for Cassandra. As the deranged stranger sprinted across the lawn her foot caught in the loop of a garden hose, causing her to fall and her knife to fly out and skid across the driveway, finally rested somewhere under the Kellogg’s BMW. Luke sprang, leaping across the lawn and pinned down the would-be assailant. “Honey, I’ve got a good hold on her,” he yelled to Cassandra, “go in and call the police – quickly!”

Later that evening, Cassandra had the thrill of watching herself on television, being questioned by a reporter. The assailant had no identification on her, so police had yet to come up with a motive.

“…And you’re certain, , Mrs. Kellogg ” the reporter was saying, “that you have no idea who this mad person is?”

“Well it’s hard to say. But with her dirty clothes and wild hair, we figured it must be a homeless person.”

“You must have been extremely frightened Mrs. Kellogg when -“

“Oh,” she interrupted him, “please, call me Sandy – everyone else does.”