Thousand-Dollar Decoy by Becky Mandelbaum, short story book cover artwork

“Thousand-Dollar Decoy” by Becky Mandelbaum

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It isn’t the first time Elliot has had a nightmare that sent him into a blind rage, but it’s the first time he’s endangered the woman he loves. They’d only been in the new apartment for a day and, fearful for her life, Alice is already gone. Elliot has never been confrontational, but he’s desperate for Alice to return home, and that may soon change.

About the Author
Becky Mandelbaum is from Kansas but is currently living and working in Mount Rainier National Park. She is the winner of the 2016 Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction and the Lawrence Art Center's 2013 Langston Hughes Award for Fiction. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Juked, Salt Hill, Midwestern Gothic, and McSweeney's Internet Tendency.
Thousand-Dollar Decoy

In the dream, the mallard on Elliot’s chest weighs a hundred pounds, if not a thousand. It is crushing his lungs. He cannot breath. He tries to turn, but he cannot turn. He cannot even move–the mallard is too heavy. It smells of algae and cut grass and is not without a hint of cuteness, the curve of its yellow beak forming a timid smile. Its eyes are liquid black and in them Elliot’s terror is reflected back to him. In time, he discovers that his hands are free. With great effort, he brings them to the mallard’s green neck. The iridescent feathers are smooth as skin beneath his grip. Elliot squeezes as hard as he can. He knows his life depends on it.

When he wakes, he finds that he is strangling his girlfriend, Alice. A low gurgling noise bubbles up from her throat and fills their dark studio apartment. This is only their first night in the apartment. Most of their possessions are still in the cardboard boxes that line the wall opposite their bed. Before they went to sleep, Alice had listed off all the things she wanted to do in the morning: hang pictures, assemble the closet organizer, locate her mother’s china to make sure nothing had broken. Then, they had made love. Elliot had felt light with happiness as he drifted into sleep, Alice in his arms. Everything was exactly as he wanted it to be, down to the placement of the bed, which was centered against a wall instead of pressed into a corner to economize space. He’d never lived with a woman before, but now he was with Alice–living with Alice–and the bed belonged to both of them, an equal possession that required equal access. They were adults, and they were in love. They were sharing a bed. They each had their own nightstand.

They’d chosen the apartment because it was located exactly between their two jobs. Alice was a nurse in an oncology ward and Elliot inspected children’s toys. When he told people what he did, they imagined him wearing overalls and a hardhat, examining racecars and baby dolls as they passed by on a conveyor belt. In truth, he had a PhD and worked in a lab. The winter before, he’d detected a potentially lethal amount of lead in a popular play food set. Alice liked to see him dressed for work, in his white lab coat and plastic goggles.

They’d met at a wedding, a fact Alice hated. If she had it her way, they would have met somewhere more interesting, perhaps at a symposium on fireflies or a hostel in Cambodia–anything for a better story. The wedding was painfully average. Alice’s friend Heather was marrying a cousin of Elliot’s, and both bride and groom were known for being boring, to the point where it was a sort of joke among their friends. A few people had even gone in on a gift card to Applebee’s. The wedding was nearly unbearable–the Catholic ceremony was an hour too long and filled with the steady weeping of a large woman who held a silk handkerchief to her face, as if it might contain the sound. When the guests finally gathered for the apology of dinner, a sigh of disappointment circled the room when it was discovered that it would be a dry reception. What a treat, then, to find Alice. She was seated beside Elliot, who could not help but smile as her knee occasionally knocked against his. She told joke after joke, glowing like a lantern in the otherwise dreary reception hall. One man–a ruddy, balding creature with thick glasses that magnified his eyes–laughed so hard at one of her stories that he coughed a mass of green food back onto his plate, as if he were a giant baby. After dinner, Elliot mustered the courage to ask Alice to dance.

That was more than two years ago. Now he struggles in the comfort of their bed–really her bed, brought over from her apartment upon the agreement that hers was more comfortable than his–his hands clasped around her perfect throat. When he lets go, she whimpers. He knows it is the sound of everything he loves coming to a close.

After a moment of paralysis, she scrambles from the bed and runs to the bathroom and shuts the door. In the dark, Elliot sees only the strip of light coming from the bottom of the door and the shadow of her feet moving on the other side. He pulls himself from bed and goes to the door. He knocks.

"Go away," she says.

"Alice. I was dreaming."

"I said go away."

"Please, Alice. There was a mallard–it was suffocating me." He realizes how ridiculous this sounds. Why mallard? Why not duck? "I would never hurt you."

There is only silence, and then the sound of running water. Unsure what to do, Elliot goes back to bed, where he pinches the skin on his arms over and over again. Without meaning to, he falls asleep.

In the morning, there is still the strip of light under the bathroom door. Alice has slept in the tub, using a balled up bath towel as a pillow. She tells him this as she sits across from him at the breakfast table. He has made her French toast, her favorite, but she refuses to eat. She is not hungry. There are purple bags beneath her eyes and she smells sour, like curdled milk. Still, Elliot wants to kiss her, to suck the bruise from her neck and into his own body, to have it settle into the muscle of his heart. He would endure this bruise forever if it meant the one on her neck would disappear.

"I can’t be here today," she tells him.

He tries to stay calm. "Okay. But what about the apartment? They’re delivering the couch today." This is a lie–the couch is not set to arrive for another couple of days, but for a moment he believes that the couch can save them. It is their most expensive purchase–a horrendous red sectional from Pottery Barn. It took them weeks to finally choose one. He’d wanted something dark and leather, but Alice said she would rather go back to living alone than have to look at leather every day. To prove her point, she started looking up studios on Craigslist. She went so far as to tour two apartments, one of which she rather liked, before Elliot finally gave in.

"I’m going out," she says. "I’ll come home when I’m ready."

He has no choice but to watch as she gathers her things. He is not the type to beg or make a fuss, a characteristic Alice has always faulted him for. She herself is quick to argue with others–family, friends, baristas and bank tellers–and expects Elliot to back her up, even if he doesn’t agree with her point. Of course, it’s never about defending her point, but about defending her. "You’d sit back in the trenches and watch me get shot up," Alice once told him, after a particularly bad argument she’d had with one of their mutual friends in which Elliot stood by, eating a plateful of miniature hotdogs. Elliot argued that he wouldn’t even be on the battlefield to begin with. He’d be off somewhere else–in a neutral country, like Sweden, eating cream puffs or watching a peace parade. She then compared him to the Germans who ignored the smell of smoke from the crematoriums. "You’d let millions of people die to avoid being bothered," she’d said, emphasizing this last word–bothered.

Now, he follows her into their bedroom, where she packs a duffel bag with T-shirts and pajama pants and underwear. She then goes to the bathroom. He knows he is in trouble if she takes her shaving cream; she only shaves once a week, on Sunday nights. When she is finally packed and gone–out of the apartment without even a kiss good-bye–he inspects the bathroom. The shaving cream is gone, as is the shampoo and conditioner and the little contraption she uses to curl her eyelashes. Even the bath towel is missing.

Elliot has called Alice sixteen times since she left the day before. It is the weekend, and so he has nothing to do but wait for the phone to ring, for the door to open, for time to rewind so he can undream his dream. Why couldn’t the mallard have been a butterfly? Or a kitten? Why, for that matter, had there been a mallard at all? The only mallard he can even think of is the wooden one his stepfather, Roy, keeps on the highest shelf of his home office. It was an expensive mallard, hand painted by a popular folk artist in Jackson Hole, where Roy and his first wife, Barbie, lived before she was diagnosed with leukemia. The artist had given them a discount, but even then it was pricey. A thousand dollars. Elliot’s mother has always loved the mallard, which she often refers to as "the avian sculpture." She once asked Roy to put it on the dining room table so that they could enjoy it during meals. Roy refused, saying a thousand-dollar decoy had no place on a dining room table. Once, Elliot caught him whispering to the decoy, "Barbie Doll, I miss you."

Now that he has remembered Roy’s wooden mallard, Elliot cannot stop thinking about it. He wants to see the mallard, to hold it in his hands and feel whether it is heavy or light, smooth or textured. What kind of person buys a thousand-dollar decoy?

Elliot wishes he had the distraction of work to look forward to, but it is the weekend before Thanksgiving and he’s taken the whole week off. Alice and he made plans to spend the holiday with his parents in Wichita. He wonders if this little stint will last until Thursday morning, when they are due to drive out. He cannot believe that it will, and so he waits. He tells himself he is virtuous for being patient.

To pass the time, he arranges the apartment without her. He goes through his own boxes first, organizing his books on the bookshelf and putting his dishes into their proper cabinets. He constructs two matching IKEA end tables and puts them on either side of where the couch will eventually go, once it is delivered. He can imagine the couch taking the place of the emptiness, just as he can imagine Alice returning, replacing the quiet apartment with the sound of her voice, her laughter. She is the kind of woman who sings when she is happy–any song that comes to her mind. Pop Goes the Weasel. Sometimes When We Touch. The jingle for the Starlight Drive-In. Sometimes her singing drives Elliot crazy, but he does not remember this now. Nor does he remember the time he put a hand over her mouth and told her to be silent. Or how she bit his finger in response.

This is not the first time something like the mallard dream has happened, but Alice does not know this. It happened once before, when Elliot was only a boy. He’d been taking a nap with his cousin, Olivia, on their grandmother’s living room floor. He remembers the green shag carpet and his grandmother’s shih tzu, Dolly, sniffing the perimeter of where he and Olivia lay belly up on an old down comforter. His mother had turned out the lights and forced the adults from the living room so the children could rest. They had to sleep in the living room because Elliot was frightened of the bedrooms. His father had died in one of them when Elliot was only a baby–which room, he was never told, but he knew it had happened in this house, in one of the beds, while his father was sleeping. And so it was on the floor of his grandmother’s living room that Elliot had woken to find that he was pummeling Olivia’s face with the palms of his hands. The adults had come in screaming–they pulled him off his cousin and made him sit alone in the master bedroom, perhaps the most haunted of all the rooms. Alone, he was forced to recall the dream. There had been a man sitting on his chest, his head bloated to the size of a pumpkin. The man had a skinny white tongue that he kept running across his lips, as if he were thirsty. He was wearing the same plaid button-down Elliot’s father wore in the picture his mother kept above the fireplace.

And now there was this, the mallard. How could he ever trust himself again? He wonders what else he might do in his sleep, what other crimes he might commit. Of course, Alice must be thinking the same thing. And so he is not entirely surprised when she does not come home that day, or the next. She does not answer his calls. Desperate, he calls her sister, who picks up and says, "Hello?" only to then hang up when a male voice in the background shouts, "She explicitly told us not to talk to him, Marta. Can’t you do anything right?"

He has loved Alice thoroughly since he met her, and the idea of living without her is almost too difficult a thought to bear. Outside of this, her absence also poses several logistical problems. The most immediate of these is Thanksgiving with his parents. The second is how he will pay rent, which is affordable if split between the two of them but which will drain him if he has to carry the burden alone.

And so he goes to the only place he thinks she could be hiding.

Alice’s ex-girlfriend’s name is Ramona, and she is the kind of woman who makes Elliot want to join a gym. She is not a beautiful woman–her face is acne scarred and dominated by a large, crooked nose–but she danced for the Kansas City ballet before settling into a career as a physical therapist. When she answers the door, she does so wearing sweatpants rolled down to reveal the blades of her hipbones. There in the background, sitting on the couch in her favorite pair of flannel pajamas, is Alice. Her hair is done up in a messy ponytail and she is wearing her glasses, the ones he spent hours helping her pick out at the optometrist’s office. She’d been a pain that day, making absurd claims about her appearance. My face is too small. I just don’t have the same eyebrows I used to.

He knows Ramona’s address because Alice commented on the building every time they drove by. She had made a point not to look at apartments near it, claiming she’d rather pay higher rent than see Ramona every time she went for a jog.

Elliot does not know exactly how or why Alice and Ramona’s relationship ended. From what he’s gathered, they were deeply in love until one day, while they were walking downtown, Alice saw Ramona kick an empty soda can toward a homeless man who was sitting on the corner. Perhaps it had been an accident–Alice never did ask Ramona about it–but Alice couldn’t shake the feeling that Ramona had kicked the can on purpose. Was it possible she’d spent years of her life loving a woman who was capable of such a simple cruelty? Eventually, Alice asked for a break. She needed space, some time to think and unremember the sound of the can skipping across concrete. It was during this break that she met Elliot.

"Let me talk to her," he says to Ramona, who is trying to block Elliot’s view into the apartment.

"She doesn’t want to talk to you. If she did, she would have called you. Or answered one of your thousands of calls."

"Alice," Elliot calls from the doorway. "Alice, just give me five minutes. I think you at least owe me five minutes."

Ramona begins to close the door, but Alice finally appears behind her. "What do you want?" she asks.

Ramona gives up and retreats into the apartment. Now it is just him and Alice in the doorway. He wants to grab her, to kiss her and reclaim her as his own. But deep down, he knows that it is too late for this. He knows without knowing that his time with Alice is over.

"I want you to come to Thanksgiving," he says. "My parents are still expecting you."

She looks down to her bare feet. "I’m not coming anymore," she says. "I’m sorry."

"Will you at least come home so we can talk about it? I understand if you don’t want to sleep with me for a while, but we can go slow, step by step. I want you to come home. You don’t have to come to Thanksgiving, but I want you to come home. Please. All of our stuff–they’ve delivered the couch. It’s a good couch. You should at least come back to see it. I only got it because of you, you know. I wanted the other one. The leather. But I did it for you. Because I love you."

Alice looks back into the apartment, where Ramona has taken her place on the couch, which is shabby and a horrendous shade of green. Her bare feet are up on the coffee table and she’s drinking a cup of coffee, watching the two of them at her door. In the corner is an armchair. Tan leather.

"I’m sorry," Alice says.

"But your stuff."

"I don’t even want to think about it. Not yet."

"But everything was fine," he manages to say. "Everything was so good–you didn’t even give it a chance. The apartment is still ours. And the couch–"

She reaches up and rubs her neck, which is bruised a faint purple. "I just can’t," she says. "I’m sorry. I really am, even if you don’t believe me."

"But it was only a dream," he says.

"I know," she says. "But I was there. I was really there."

"What about the apartment?" he says. It is all he can find to say.

"I’m sorry," she says, and then gently shuts the door.

Back at the apartment, he unpacks the rest of her things. He hangs her blouses in the closet and puts her shoes on the shoe rack, allowing each item to fill his head with a different memory. Her perfumes go on a little mirrored tray she inherited from her grandmother the spring before. He cannot help but spray some of her favorite scent onto his wrist, which he brings to his nose for the remainder of the day. Soon, the apartment belongs to the both of them again. Her favorite coffee mug sits on the end table, arguing for her imminent return. Her notebooks are stacked on the kitchen table. Her mother’s china is in the display cabinet.

Thursday arrives too soon. When he leaves the apartment, he does so reluctantly. He has grown fond of the space, of seeing his and Alice’s things comingling on the shelves and in the cabinets and the drawers. He’s sprayed the couch cushions with her perfume, and every afternoon he takes a long, dreamless nap.

When he arrives at his parents’ house, they are alarmed to find that Alice is not with him; he has not told them about the dream, about Ramona. He is, in turn, alarmed to find that his parents have both grown younger since he last saw them. His mother has dyed her hair the color of a rose and found a new kind of makeup that makes her skin look dewy and soft. Roy has lost fifteen pounds by eliminating desserts–a fact that his mother brings up at random intervals, chanting, Fifteen pounds! Fifteen pounds! Can you believe it? as she pats Roy’s stomach. Roy is back in the clothes he wore when Elliot was in high school, the plaid shirts tucked into tight blue jeans, a kind of urban cowboy look that Elliot tried and failed to mimic as an adult, opting instead for an endless combination of earth-tone T-shirts and khakis, wool sweaters, and boat shoes.

"So is Alice coming later in the weekend?" his mother eventually asks. She has never liked Alice, whom she once caught checking the price tag on a bottle of wine Roy bought for dinner. Elliot tried to convince her that Alice had merely liked the wine and was checking to see if it was something they could afford for themselves, but of course his mother didn’t buy this. If there was one thing his mother believed in, it was her ability to read other people. As the story went, she’d known his father was sick before he’d even felt symptoms; she was the one who told him to go to the doctor, to get the scans. She had also known that Roy, one of Elliot’s father’s best friends, would wait exactly a year before confessing his love to her.
"No, she’s not coming," Elliot says, and something in his tone must tell her not to ask any more questions, because Alice is not brought up again until after the Thanksgiving meal. He and his parents have eaten nearly an entire turkey between the three of them, along with most of a large porcelain bowl full of sweet potatoes that Elliot notices are not actually sweet this year but instead taste like earth with a hint of nutmeg. Still, he eats two servings, along with three buttered rolls, a mountain of green bean casserole, and a portion of glazed ham that would have satisfied an entire table of children. He is sleepy and morose and uncomfortably full when his mother directs him to the living room couch and sits down beside him. "Okay," she says. "Where’s Alice?"

Caught off guard, Elliot cannot help but begin to cry. It is the first time he’s shared his grief with anyone, and the fact that it is his mother makes him return to his boyhood, when something as small as a splinter would send him running into her arms. "I had a dream," he begins, and then explains the rest. As he talks, he wonders if his stepfather is somewhere nearby, listening. While his mother and Roy were setting the table, he’d snuck into Roy’s study to confront the mallard. He hadn’t intended to do anything–he just wanted to look at it–but the sight of the mallard enraged him. He’d grabbed the mallard and gone to the yard, where he’d hurled it over the fence. There was a satisfying plop as it landed in the McBrides’ swimming pool. His mother had found him just moments after, standing by the fence. When she asked what he was doing he told her he was checking to see if a carving he’d done as a boy was still in the fence. "Well, is it?" she’d asked. He’d frozen, unsure of how to answer. "No," he’d said. "It’s gone."

When he finishes explaining about Alice–about the dream and the mallard and Ramona–his mother begins to laugh. "I’m sorry," she says, still laughing. "I just can’t help it. You blame Roy? And his avian sculpture?"

"Yes," he says, only now realizing that it’s the truth. "I do."

"All right," his mother says, and pats his knee as if he is once again just a young boy with a boo-boo. "All right. I won’t take that from you."

"You’re making it sound like there’s something I’m not accepting."

"You were dreaming," she says, her tone suddenly serious. "You were asleep, Elliot. Who could blame you for something you did while you were sleeping?"

"I left bruises on her neck. She’s terrified of me."

"Love isn’t a china doll," she says. "It’s a monster. If it was that easy to get out of it, we’d all be alone."

"You’re saying she never loved me."

"Not that she never loved you, but that maybe she hasn’t for awhile. That’s all. I know it hurts." She pats his leg again.

"You don’t care at all, do you?"

"Of course I do, I’m your mother." She pauses, gives his leg a final squeeze. "Do you want pie? There’s pumpkin pie."

"You’re so frustrating sometimes," he says. "I could get in my car and go home right now if I really wanted to." As soon as he says it, he wonders how he didn’t think of it earlier. What had he been thinking, coming all this way, leaving the apartment unattended? What if Alice decided to return? What if, knowing he wouldn’t be there, she came and collected her things?

"Don’t be dramatic," his mother says. With this she gets up and goes to the kitchen, leaving Elliot alone on the couch. A moment later she calls from the kitchen, "Do you want a big slice or a little slice?"

"Big," Elliot says. "And whipped cream."

He then goes to his room–his childhood room, with the twin bed and the ugly alien spaceship Roy painted above his window long ago, without Elliot’s permission–and gets his bag in order. Soon, he will be back in the apartment with Alice’s things–her necklaces, her toaster oven, her collection of miniature animal figurines. Where he will put the mallard, he still hasn’t decided. For now, he hurries to the bathroom to gather his toiletries. He flushes the toilet so that his mother will think he has simply gone to the bathroom, that this is why he is not still sitting on the couch, waiting patiently for her to return with his pie. Neither she nor Roy will think about the mallard until they run into Mr. McBride, perhaps while getting the mail or pumping gas at the QuikTrip. "Elliot came by to get some kind of duck thing," Mr. McBride will tell them. "Still don’t understand how it got in my pool, but stranger things have happened."

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