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Duck

This is the fourth of a series of fictional character sketches from the openDemocracy writer’s latest novel, Unimportant People…
Jim Gabour
18 July 2011

IV

Skating by the front door of the Can-Can-Do, soiled wedding gown blowing in the wind and a two-foot-tall partially-defeathered duck squawking madly in tow, Noonie has no idea that the sun is hours from being up.

Noonie does not live on Planet Earth.  She lives in New Orleans.

Historically, Noonie is accompanied for brief periods of time by a succession of solitary ducks who follow her about on a leash.  She actually remembers the last seven -- four hens and three drakes -- and swears that not one was a decent conversationalist.

She suspects the fault could be due to their brief life span.  Or the diet, or maybe even their urban environment.  Before personally encountering her first duck, Noonie believed the adult bird’s only proper environment to be egg & milk batter, white flour and heated vegetable oil.

There are possible exceptions to her fowl theorem.  She has yet to meet a penguin, though there are a few in New Orleans.  Over at the Aquarium.  She can picture the penguins:  black and white birds living in captivity amidst what is probably used cocktail ice from Pat O’Brien’s bar.  The occasional swizzle stick floating by in the Arctic Environment room.

Noonie had heard these particular penguins were born in New Jersey.  She is curious enough to go, but Pets are not allowed in the Aquarium.  Her duck is considered a Pet to ticket-takers.  She has been trying to acquire a white cane and dark glasses.  She figures Seeing-Eye Ducks might be allowed.  Noonie is anxious to try the scam.  Duo-chromed penguins from Hoboken might be worth the effort.  She might even look good in shades.

Noonie, unlike the penguins, was born in New Orleans.  Even a casual observer can tell.  Certain small eccentricities given to the population of the City have been amplified in Noonie into full-blown planetary disturbances.  UFOs have nothing on her.

This may well be true of each and every inhabitant of the Crescent City -- bubbling beneath the polished and polite Southern veneer, absolute madness lurks.  Yearning for release.  Most residents, of course, find this reassuring, and won’t live anywhere else.  No one knows what catalyst releases the demon madness.  Big explosion, small step -- both seem equally potent when it comes to popping Over There.

Noonie had relatives, too, a brother being the last alive.  He passed on a few years ago, though Noonie found out only recently.  She is now the final surviving member of a very old family of very mixed origins.  As the sole heir, she owns a big house over on Toulouse street, though the Quarter grapevine says Noonie hasn’t been inside the house since 1969.  The front door is still supposedly unlocked, but even the toughest Bienville project hoodlums -- the Downtown Mob -- are afraid to go in and ransack the joint.  Noonie has some serious juju riding with her, and the grave-robbers of this City are much more willing to deal with ten burglar alarms and every cop in the Vieux Carré District than to challenge the sort of protection that covers Noonie’s world.

Noonie may be one of those rare instances where the body is born on Earth and the mind is born elsewhere.

She has been working the Streets of the Quarter for two decades, and she is a survivor.  She has also had some actual brushes with reality, however brief and tenuous those brushes may have been.

In the early seventies, she sold LSD.  This was not a bad thing, not like being a drug dealer today.  Hippies who populated the Lower Quarter -- the old Bank bar on Decatur street and The Roach club at Ursulines and Royal -- had given her large quantities of the hallucinogen.  Noonie was their Tibetan guru.  She had no idea what the tablets of LSD were, other than visually interesting little objects, but she soon discovered that people would give her beers and sometimes money for the small colorful pills and shiny “window panes” that filled her pockets.

Then somebody told her “The Police will Get You if they Catch You with this Stuff”, and the amorphous Bust concept was born in Noonie’s mind.


It was then, in one of the more remarkable bits of deranged practicality ever exhibited by Noonie, that the duck entered the equation.  She tied her stash of acid around the neck of her pet duck.  “Cops want to Bust somebody, they can Bust the Duck,” was her logic.  She named it Ellis the Duck, Ellis D for short.

The current Ellis is reckoned to be duck number thirty-two by the most long-lived streetfolk.  The birds have come to her from a variety of sources.  Some were donated from admirers.  Some were convinced that she was their spiritual counterpart in long debates on the essence of reality at the City Park duck pond.  Some were outright filched.  Some were merely befriended.  Last summer Noonie had found number thirty-two coated with diesel fuel on the Mississippi river levee.  After six baths and two bags of cheese doodles, he had decided to hang around.  In spite of the danger.

But the ducks have always been exempt from prosecution.  Everybody, including the police, knew what was going on, but those were simpler and more innocent days -- everybody was considered normal then, and Michael Rennie had the only interstellar saucer -- so Noonie was left to enjoy her little cottage industry with a minimum of harassment.

Nobody could tell if she ever ate any of the drug herself.  That was an index of the depth of her strangeness, and remains so.  It was at about this point in her life, though, that she began wearing white bridal gowns, wide-brimmed straw hats, and roller skates.  Not a properly inconspicuous style of wardrobe for a dangerously notorious drug dealer.  The elements of her outfit have not changed in all the years since, though she mysteriously shows up with a new wedding dress, and the occasional new Ellis D, at sporadic intervals.  She has always preferred sleeping on the floors of benefactor’s shops and bars, but never for more than a single night at a time in any one place.

The LSD she used to supplement her income in former years is long gone, now replaced by posters of Noonie and Ellis.


The posters were her friends’ idea.  They collaborated.  A painter from the Jackson Square Artist Commune rendered the subjects in quick-drying acrylics, faithfully capturing the flowing wedding dress, the roller skates, and the wry look on Ellis’ bill.  Dozens of Quarterites kicked in small amounts of cash to get the first edition printed, and a friendly graphics dealer distributed them to shops.

It ended up wonderfully for everyone concerned.  All the poster shops that sold the piece gave Noonie royalties on each one sold, plus the printer gave her one hundred to sell herself out of each edition.  The “Bride Noonie and Ellis D” poster is currently up to an eighth printing.

Denizens of the street also collect cigarette butts for Noonie.  They present them to her with reverence, in bags or wrapped neatly with bits of string.  She has taken to carrying pockets full of them, and will sometimes sit on a cool storm drain and smoke ten in a row, often three or four at a time.  Noonie likes to enjoy the full nicotine burst.

Other than her ducks, she only occasionally remembers who anyone is, though many people have talked to her daily for years. 

At the moment, now balancing on her skates amidst the gawkers of Bourbon street, Noonie is unabashedly hitting up plain-clothes vice cops for tobacco.  She has long since learned that they enjoy being benevolent to her, and she is quick to take advantage.  Especially as the sight of the roller-skating duck-owner speaking with a police officer has now become photo fodder for dozens of snapshot-gathering tourists.

But even in this low-pressure situation, Noonie never speaks at anything other than the top of her voice:  “Ain’t me Officer.  IT’S THE DAMN DUCK.  MESSING ALL OVER THE CITY STREET.  Duck.  Ellis.  NICE CIGARETTE THOUGH Officer.  Good cigarette.  Good job you doin’, too, guard the duckie.”

And thus she rolls through the night, guarded by the cocoon of her home town.

 

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