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Lucky Duck

 by Mike O'Mary  

The university in my hometown has a large pond on its grounds.  Locally, it's referred to as "The Lagoon."  As soon as the weather gets warm in the spring, hundreds of ducks fly in to make the pond their temporary home, and people from all over town bring their children to see the baby ducklings.

The ducks know a good thing when they see one, and they cruise the pond, accepting a slice of bread here, leftover french fries there.  The only thing that spoils this otherwise serene setting is that some of the ducks fight with each other over food or chase kids around looking for a handout.  Meanwhile, the smaller, more timid ducks hang back and go hungry.  Some people throw breadcrumbs into the midst of the ducks and let nature take its course.  Others seem to resent the aggressive ducks.  They ignore them and throw crumbs to the timid ducks instead.

The best time at the lagoon comes earlier in the year, before the warm weather and ducks arrive.  In winter, people go to the lagoon to ice skate.  Even on a busy evening you can find a remote spot and skate in solitude.  If you stop skating for a moment, you can hear the fragile sound of ice creaking beneath your feet.  And if the night is clear, you can look up and see a sky full of stars creaking their way across the universe.

Best of all, there are no pesky ducks around.

I go to the lagoon in the winter when I want to be alone.  On a clear winter night in a peaceful Midwestern town, it's a nice place to be.


* * *

I went to the lagoon on the night I heard about Joey Russo.  The lagoon is a long way from Germantown, the blue-collar neighborhood of shotgun houses in Louisville where Joey and I grew up.  In winter, kids were more likely to be dribbling a cold, gritty basketball in the alley behind Louie Schwenker's house than they were to be ice-skating.

Joey Russo lived on the fringes of Germantown, in a little apartment above a bar at the corner of Burnett and Shelby Streets.  Joey was the tough guy in our neighborhood.  The local bully.

I first encountered Joey Russo at St. Elizabeth Elementary School.  He was a year older than the rest of our class, having been held back to repeat the second grade.  I got halfway through the school year without any trouble from him, then one day, a strange thing happened.

Our class was outside for recess after lunch.  I was leaning against the short fence that separated the boy’s side of the playground from the girl’s side, and the next thing I knew, Kathy Johnson was standing a foot or so away from me on the other side of the fence.  It was a pretty unusual for a boy and a girl to be standing so close to each other at recess, but nobody seemed to notice.  Then, suddenly, it happened: Kathy Johnson, very quietly, very calmly, very gently, leaned over and kissed me.

I had no idea how to act in that situation, so I did the only thing that made sense: I turned and ran as fast as I could in the opposite direction.  Not that I minded being kissed by Kathy Johnson.  On the contrary.  She was one of the prettiest and smartest girls in school, and she was to be my girlfriend for the next two years.  But I did mind being kissed in public.  It felt to me that everybody was staring at me after the kiss, but in actuality, it was a nonevent.  No one had noticed--no one except Joey Russo.

Joey cornered me a few days later while I was waiting to walk Kathy Johnson home after school.

"What are you doing here?" he asked.

"Nothing," I said.

Joey smiled.  "You're waiting for Kathy Johnson, ain't ya?"

I hesitated for a moment, then answered, "Yes."

"You like her, don't you?" he asked.


"She likes you, too, don't she?" he asked.

"I guess," I said.

Joey walked around me, sizing me up.

"I like her, too," he said, "but I saw her kiss you the other day."

Upon hearing those words, I prepared myself for the worst: Joey Russo was going to kick my little seven-year-old butt.

"Don't worry.  I ain't going to do nothing to you," he said.  "If she likes you, that's all right."  Then Joey started to walk away.  Before he got very far, he turned and added, "Be nice to her."

His final words struck me as very odd.  They came not so much as a threat or a warning (as in, "Be nice to her or I'll kick your butt"), but more as a piece of friendly advice--and more than that, as a piece of friendly advice that he knew he didn't really need to give.


* * *

    I didn't have any more run-ins with Joey Russo for three years after that.  During that time, he was in and out of trouble--if not for fighting, then for stealing, talking back to the teachers, or skipping school.

Then, when I was 11 years old, I once again found myself face-to-face with Joey Russo.  It was a hot, humid summer night.  I was playing in the front yard when all of a sudden, there was a huge commotion from around the corner at the Gerard family's house.  Somebody was yelling, and I heard a fence gate clang open and shut several times.  I ran toward the noise and as I turned the corner, I ran right into Joey Russo.

There was a black kid with him, but the kid kept on running.  Joey, however, stopped and looked right at me.  He didn’t say anything, but he walked slowly past--staring at me the whole time--then continued on down the middle of the street at a jog.

I watched him run off, then I went to the Gerards' house.  It turned out that some bikes had been stolen.  The Gerard kids were distraught, and Mr. Gerard was ready to kill someone.  I walked up to him and said, "I know who did it."

It occurred to me later that I did not really know who did it.  When I saw Joey Russo, he was on foot, which meant someone else must have stolen the bikes.  But when the police arrived, I told them that I had seen Joey Russo running away.

The police knew who Joey was, and they took me with them to look for him.  At one point, we turned the corner into Schwenker's alley and spotted a kid on a bike.  But before the police could close in, the kid cut through a backyard and disappeared.  After that, the police gave up and took me home.

The whole thing left me with an uneasy feeling.  Had I done the right thing in telling on Joey?  Was it him we saw racing down the alley?  I didn't hear any more about the stolen bikes until that fall.


 * * *

Each Friday during the football season, one of the big high school games is played at Manual Stadium in Germantown.  One particular night, I was hanging out with my friend, Mark Schmid, at his house across the street from the stadium.  Mark's older brother, Matt, was also there with some of his friends.

Matt and the older guys called themselves "The Clique," and they were apparently expecting trouble that night.  Kenny Vessels had been cornered and beaten up earlier that day by several black guys along a stretch of Shelby Street.  One of the black guys, known only as Rodney, had threatened Kenny with a gun.  Tonight, Kenny was prepared: he had his father's gun and he was showing it around.

While the older guys talked on the front porch, Mark was trying to get me to slap box with him.  Slap boxing was like boxing except you were supposed to land your punches with an open hand--a slap.  Mark was pretty quick with his hands, so I tried to avoid slap boxing with him.  Generally speaking, it was the exception rather than the rule when a slap box fight didn't turn into a regular fight.  Mark ended up slap boxing with Vince Metz, one of the older guys.

The guys in the Clique were still talking about Rodney when Joey Russo came by.  Joey knew Rodney.  Shelby Street where Joey lived was more or less the boundary line between black and white neighborhoods.  The guys seemed to be arguing about Rodney.  After a few minutes, Joey walked over to where Mark and Vince were sparring.

"Let me take him on, Vince," said Joey.

"Sure," said Vince.  Vince walked away and Joey stepped in.

You could tell Mark did not really want to slap box Joey Russo, but Joey insisted.  He taunted Mark into attacking, then ducked under Mark's punches, slapping Mark once on the way under the punch and again on the way back up.  This went on over and over again until Matt Schmid quietly observed, "That's enough, Joey."

"No problem," said Joey.  He let Mark walk away.  Then he looked at me.  "How about you?"

"No thanks," I tried.  But everybody was watching, so I took my place for my slap box fight with Joey, thinking for the second time in my life, this is it: I'm gonna get my butt kicked by Joey Russo.

Our fight started with Joey dancing around, feinting punches while I concentrated on defense.  All the while, he was taunting me to throw a punch, which I finally did.  Not only did I fail to land my punch, I found myself getting slapped with a counter punch before my right arm was even fully extended.  It wasn't much of a fight.  Gradually, the other guys lost interest, and our bout eased to the pace of a casual sparring match.  Before I knew it, I found myself in a conversation with Joey Russo.

"You told on me about those bikes, didn't you?" Joey said.

"Yeah, I did," I said. 

"That's what I figured," he said.

"What happened?" I asked.

"Nothing," said Joey.  "The cops tried to blame me for it, but they never found the bikes, so there was nothing they could do."

I didn't say anything.  After a moment, Joey dropped his arms and turned toward the bright lights of the stadium.

I dropped my arms, too, and watched him.  He was only a year older than me, but he had the same worn, expressionless face as the old men that used to shuffle into the Blue Motor Coach bus station to get warm in winter.  That could be Joey, too, I thought.  Shuffling around downtown, looking for warmth, being chased off wherever he went.

I was feeling sorry for Joey, when suddenly, he turned and swung at me, stopping an inch from my face and smiling a nasty smile.

      "You know something?" he said; "sometimes you ain't too smart."

At that moment, Kenny Vessels and the members of the Clique started down the driveway. 

"You coming, Joey?" Kenny asked.

"Rodney's a lot of talk," said Joey.  "Don't go looking for trouble."

"You coming or not?" responded Kenny.

And with that, Joey left me and Mark and went with the older guys.


* * *

There wasn't any trouble that night, but there were more and more clashes between black and white kids in Germantown as the year went on.  That was 1967.  It seemed like every time you looked at the television, Martin Luther King was leading a march somewhere.  When he came to Louisville, my parents took me to my grandmother's house.  We watched on television as Martin Luther King led a march through town.

"Somebody is going to kill that man," declared my grandmother.  It was not a threat.  It was not a wish.  She was simply stating what she felt to be obvious.

When King was shot in 1968, there were fights all over town.  It was nothing compared to the rioting that went on in other cities, but things had changed.  Nobody dribbled basketballs in the alley behind the Schwenkers' house.  It was a dangerous place.  White kids stood at one end of the alley calling names and throwing rocks at black kids, who stood at the other end of the alley and did likewise.  Our neighborhood--our world--was not as nice a place as it had once been.  It was as if the fabric of the whole country had unraveled to the point where we were all living on the fringe.  And I came to realize that for Joey Russo, who had spent his whole life on the fringe, the world had never been a nice place.

I did not see Joey for a long time after our slap box fight, but the memory of that night stuck with me.  Once again, with an opportunity to hurt or humiliate me, Joey Russo had let me off the hook.

Not too long after that, I began to get into trouble myself.  After the sixth grade, I left St. Elizabeth for Highland Junior High School.  While at Highland, I got into progressively more trouble until by the ninth grade, I barely passed, getting six D's and one F after skipping 40 some-odd days of school that year.  My problems at school, combined with an arrest for shoplifting and my parents’ divorce, meant I had enough troubles without worrying about Joey Russo any more.  I ended up moving away to live with my father.

The next time I saw Joey Russo was a few years later when I was back to visit my mother for the holidays.  I saw Mark Schmid and a lot of the other guys I had always hung around with, but I was surprised to find that Joey Russo was now hanging out in our part of Germantown.  Joey had always hung out with the tough guys, the older guys, even some of the black guys.  He didn't really fit in with my mischievous--but not necessarily tough--friends.  Yet there he was, hanging around, trying to fit in.

One night, a bunch of us were in front of my mother's house with nothing to do when somebody suggested that we go ice-skating.  Mark Schmid said he could get his parents' car, so the rest of us went to tell our parents what we were planning to do.  Everybody went their separate ways except Joey, who just kind of hung around in front of my house. 

Inside the house, my mother gave me five dollars--two for admission, three to spend--but rather than wait outside with Joey, I stayed in the house.  I didn't go out until everybody else was back.  Then as we were getting into Mark's car, Joey asked me if I would lend him the money to go ice-skating.  This caught me off guard, but I knew right away that I did not want to lend him the money.  I knew I would never get it back.  I also knew that, although no one had said the words, none of us really wanted Joey to come with us.

"No," I said.  "I only have enough for me."  I said this knowing that I could have given him two dollars for admission and still have had enough left to pay for myself.  I said this also knowing that Joey might simply decide to take my money.

We then waited for Joey to ask the other guys if any of them would lend him the money.  But Joey didn't ask.  He just waited to see if anybody else would speak up.  No one did.  After a moment, we piled into the car without Joey.  As we pulled away, I saw him head back toward his house on Shelby Street, walking right down the middle of the street.

That was the last time I saw Joey Russo.  He didn't come to our neighborhood any more.  Over the years, I heard he was constantly in trouble until finally he ended up in prison.  I never heard why, but I assumed it was for stealing.  A few years later, I heard he was out and that he had a girlfriend over on Mulberry Street.  People said he was trying to straighten out his life.

Then one day, his girlfriend's ex-boyfriend showed up on Mulberry Street and found Joey there and shot Joey in the chest.  Joey died on his girlfriend's front porch, three blocks from where he grew up, two blocks from St. Elizabeth Elementary.  He was 23 years old.


* * *

Sometimes we hear about somebody like Joey and we say, "Well, he was in and out of trouble...he had just gotten out of prison...he was always with the wrong crowd...what did you expect?"  And we're right.  All those things were true.

And yet, at the risk of sounding like his mother, I will say that Joey Russo was not a bad kid.  He deserved better.  He was no saint--he sometimes pushed people around--but maybe that was the only way he knew.  And seeing how reluctant some people (including me) were to do something for him when he asked, it's a wonder he wasn't meaner and nastier and more spiteful than he was.

In the end, living on the fringe must have worn on him.  He wanted a nice girl like Kathy Johnson, or nice friends like some of the guys in my neighborhood, or just a nice place to visit like the ice rink or his girlfriend's house on Mulberry Street.  He wanted out of the tough-guy/bully role, out of our dreary, blue-collar neighborhood.

But he didn't fit in, so when he came around, we told him, "No."

On the night I heard about Joey Russo's death, I went to the lagoon and skated.  And now, when I'm out on clear, crisp nights, I look up at the loose fabric of our universe and think there must be some place in it for people like Joey Russo.  Wherever it is, I hope Joey has found it and that it is a nice place.

Meanwhile, back here on the creaky ice of the lagoon, I realize how lucky I am to have a nice place to visit...a nice life to live.  And while I have difficulty remembering much about the skating rink I visited 25 years ago, I have no trouble at all bringing Joey Russo to mind, recalling that he was, in fact, not a bad person, and wishing things had been better for him in his short life, wishing I had lent him a few dollars to go ice skating when I had the chance to do so, and thinking if I had the opportunity today, I would bring little Joey Russo to this frozen lagoon and ask him to skate with me.

And later this year, when the ice melts and the ducks come, I will feed them all.


© Copyright 2009 Michael O'Mary. All Rights Reserved.

"Lucky Duck" was published in the
Chicago Tribune Sunday Magazine.