Duck Tray

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Duck Tray

[The auction for this Significant Object, with story by Stewart O’Nan, has ended. Original price: $3. Final price: $71.]

Every evening when Henry came home from work, without fail, he set his briefcase on the marble-topped table in the front hall, climbed the stairs to their room, faced the dresser and emptied his pockets before hanging up his jacket and tie and washing for supper. Occasionally one or the other of the children shadowed him as he performed this ritual, eager to obtain a final, binding permission or appeal an earlier verdict of hers, but Emily actively discouraged this, as she discouraged outright lobbying at the table. She tried to make his transition from office to hearth as relaxing as possible, to the extent that she refrained from following him up, even if she’d spent the afternoon fretting over some pressing domestic issue only his considered input could resolve.

The tray in which he deposited his wallet and keyring and change had been his father’s, a period piece which seemed by its design to represent a bygone and overblown masculinity she associated with Anglophile prep schools and stuffy hunt clubs. A painstakingly detailed mallard’s head, forged from some cheap metal, rose from the partitioned rosewood dish, as if half of it might be employed as a decoy. Emily had never liked the duck, as they called it, despite its sentimental origins, but now that Henry was gone, she couldn’t part with it.

Neither could she use it. The change, which Betty dusted every other Wednesday, had resided there since Henry had gone into the hospital, eight years ago, and while Emily took no great pleasure or comfort in the meager hoard, every other Wednesday after Betty left, she made a sober reconnaissance of the duck. Only then, reassured of the order of things, could she sleep.

So it was with more than mild surprise, the week after Easter, that she noticed the two quarters which sat on top (one heads, the other tails) were gone. Kenneth and Lisa had visited the weekend prior. Immediately she suspected Sam, and just as quickly chided herself, knowing his sensitivity about his troubled history. The possibilities weren’t numberless, though, and as she lingered in her nightgown with a soothing Bach prelude playing by her bedside, she realized that whether she wanted to or not, she would never know the solution to this mystery, and rather than let this new arrangement stand, she scooped up the remaining coins, shook them in her fist like dice and dropped them back in the dish, thinking, already, of what she would tell Betty if she happened to ask.


Stewart O'Nan was the recipient of the 1993 Drue Heinz Prize for his story collection In the Walled City. His dozen novels include Snow Angels, A Prayer for the Dying, and Last Night at the Lobster.

10 thoughts on “Duck Tray

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  2. Perhaps because it is a simple but touching story, one that many women can identify with, I would imagine. I certainly did. 🙂

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