Joni got the moniker “Ducky” from the way she swung a softball bat. Her father started it at home. She had a tell. She broadcast when she was about to swing by twirling the bat three times overhead. Father called that her “duck tail.”
She grew harder inside since Robin dumped her. Her tears stopped flowing at every slight. She had Lia, and Lia was strong, and Lia taught her to be strong, to feel the pain and handle it.
Joni was fifteen when Robin burst all around her. Fifteen and naïve about how anything worked, about how love worked. The day she kissed Robin in front of all those cameras at the softball field had all been magical, with the cameras flashing and with microphones in their faces, there were sparkles and glitter. Where Robin was now she didn’t know or didn’t care. Lia tracked her for a while and found out Robin was with a gangster named Gutierrez.
It had been a time of discovery of her sexuality, of her Cadillac body and all its bells and whistles. And yes, Robin took it for a ride, and broke its heart. Her one silly little regret was she impulsively outed herself to the world on the day of her record-breaking homerun. Her biggest regret was she did it so publicly with a girl who duped her, lied to her, and was not who she thought she was, this Robin Randall, or Roberta Cruz, or whoever she was. Robin robbed them, and they discovered she was not Robin, but Roberta Cruz and had her arrested. It was a cause of extreme embarrassment for some time. She tried to push it out of her thoughts and keep it there.
That day Robin came back after the robbery, Robin, in her drunkenness and craziness had sworn oaths of crazy revenge from crazy imagined wrongs that Clarisse and Ducky had done her. It was nonsense. Clarisse had defended her as an attorney, had gotten Robin her emancipation so she could get out of the foster system. Brett and Clarisse had rescued her from the streets and treated her as one of their own. The girl was nuts. Joni didn’t have time for that stuff.
Now, with her other interests – namely the state golf tournament – out of the way, it was time for basketball. She was ready physically and mentally. Through all those troubles she never slowed her training. She ran and worked out in the gym at school and at the PAL gym, or Police Athletic League, across town in Seattle. Joni’s body was as hard as it had ever been in her life.
She had grown an inch to six-feet-two. She was big, broad-shouldered, and a superbly toned young woman. She had a fresh look, with her long blond, frizzy, pony-tail chopped off. Now she wore her hair in a curly, angled bob, shaved at the back of her neck. It was Lia’s idea. Lia told her she looked like a woman now, not the teeny-bopper.
Joni was the starting forward, the captain, and the star of the team. She was growing inside, too. All her heart, and all her love, was in this.
At first, people who came to watch basketball practice trickled in. Even restricted, soon the gym filled with sports writers, photographers, and college scouts. They all came to watch Ducky Donald go through the paces. By the time the season opened in mid-November, Lake Washington High School ranked number one in their division by the Associated Press in Washington, but they also ranked number one in the nation in girls’ basketball. The sports world insiders talked about the combo of Joni Donald and Yolanda Johnson, but mostly about Joni “Ducky” Donald.
They looked around in the WNBA to find someone to compare Ducky to, and found no one. She was unique and special.
Letters of introduction began arriving at the Donald’s house. They were from the University of Connecticut, Duke University, Kentucky, Baylor, Ole Miss, University of Miami, Stanford, and more. They piled up. The Donald’s began to realize how big basketball could be and how much it could do for her. Basketball could propel her through college into history books.
It was the first game, a home game, and the gym was full, standing room only. ESPN was there. Girls’ basketball had never garnered this much press. The Lake Washington High Eagles took on the West Seattle High Wildcats. The West Seattle crowd was small and amazed at the size of the crowd. They had never experienced a crowd like this at a girls’ basketball game.
The Lake Washington down-sized marching band was in a corner section. The lights dimmed and the announcer came over the PA system and asked everyone to stand as the band played the national anthem. After the song ended the lights turned to spotlights and the announcer introduced the visiting team. Everyone applauded politely. When he said, “Now for the Lake Washington Eagles!” everyone stood and roared.
“At guard, a senior, Deirdre Hall!” Deirdre ran out through a double line of second string teammates. People cheered.
“At guard, a junior, Georgia Underwood!” She ran out among high five’s.
“At forward, a senior, Kim Foster!” People cheered. Kim was the same height as Joni, but not as muscular.
“At center, a senior, Yolanda Johnson!” Everyone stood and cheered and applauded. Yolanda, at six-feet four, was a second-team McDonald’s All-American. It was a real big deal.
“At forward,” and before he could say anything the crowd erupted, “Duuucky, Duuucky, Duuuucky!”
“At forward, a junior, Duuuucky Donaaaald!” The crowd roared! They beat on the bleachers with their feet. Joni ran out and high fived all her team mates. She turned, found Brett and Clarisse, her mother and father who were tall and blond and easy to spot, in the row above the team and waved. They were standing and clapping. They waved back. She searched the crowd for Lia – and there! Lia was right behind Clarisse with her face painted half and half with the school colors. Joni pointed to her and Lia cheered.
Joni didn’t see her, but her old love Robin was there. She was a small girl with brown hair and she squatted in the entrance to the gym as throngs of people either stood straining to see, or squeezed by to get to the concessions or the latrine. Robin busied herself assembling a rifle from a case. The last step was to affix the scope. Once she finished she calmly began edging along the side of the bleachers to the front of the crowd.
Yolanda went out to jump center with the post player from West Seattle. The referee stepped between the two girls. Yolanda was several inches taller and getting the tip was no problem. She tipped the ball to Dierdre and they all went to the right side of the floor, Joni circled around the top of the key and Dierdre passed to her. Joni fired a bullet pass underneath the basket to Kim who laid the ball in nicely. The crowd roared. The team ran down to the left side and got into their defense. West Seattle brought the ball down the court. Dierdre and Georgia picked up defense on their guards. Their point guard tried to pass inside but Georgia tipped the ball and Kim grabbed it.
Joni took off down the court at a full run. Kim threw the ball one-handed like a baseball. Joni caught the ball over her shoulder in stride and put it to the floor for one dribble, then two, then three, and she was at the top of the key. She picked up the dribble, took a step with her right, then left, and she went airborne at the foul line. As she lifted, she put the ball as high as she could reach and spun to her left. Cameras flashed underneath the basket and throughout the gym. Joni rotated one complete turn, then two, and the ball was over the rim and she dunked it down! The crowd went wild! The roar was deafening! West Seattle called a time-out, and the crowd screamed louder!
Kim met Joni at mid-court and chest bumped her.
Joni collapsed on the floor. Blood spewed from her knee all over Kim and Georgia. Joni pivoted on the floor holding her knee.
Joni’s body jerked, and she grabbed at her back. She rolled on the floor as blood spewed from her leg and soaked her uniform from her back. She stopped moving. Blood formed a pond around her.
Stunned! The crowd was silent for a second or two.
Before everything went black, Joni saw her mother, Clarisse, leap from the bleachers and ran onto the floor, stumbled on her hands and knees, gathered herself and stumbled toward her daughter. People began to shout and scream. Brett was right behind her, reaching to help her up. Lia jumped and ran behind Brett.
A huge red mist sprayed from the top of Clarisse’s head and she collapsed to the floor. Blood covered Brett and Lia. Blood gushed from her head in great spurts.
Men shouted, the voices all balled together, sounding like gun, she’s got a gun, and sniper and get down!
Bang! Bang! The police shot and killed Roberta Cruz, a.k.a Robin Randall. They bagged and tagged the rifle and passed it out of the gym hand over hand, and out to one of the cruisers outside.
Five years passed.
“Make sure you get the grill scraped down before closing!”
“Got it, boss!” Joni yelled back as she hung the last of the pots up in the kitchen behind the bar at a club called the Just Say What. Outside, above the entrance, was a neon sign with the name and a neon girl in yellow garb pulling a bow and arrow. This was the last lesbian-only club left in Seattle. Joni paused until Margaret, tall, fortyish with red and gray hair, was out of earshot and she mumbled, “I hate it when she tells me to do something I do every night.”
Joni stood on her right foot leaning. It’s how she stood these days, mostly. The artificial knee wasn’t working out. It had been years since she they implanted the thing and it got sorer by the day. She wore a steel, flexible leg brace from hip to ankle, and walked as stiff legged as she could because bending the left knee sent pain up to her hip and beyond. She hobbled out to the grill and worked there, running a steel wool brush over it.
She was twenty-one, soon to be twenty-two and pulled beers and made drinks when she wasn’t doing scullery work. If someone needed a beer she could get it for them, legally. She had been doing it anyway for years, nobody gave a damn. She thought about her twenty-second birthday coming up and remembered her dream of the Olympics. It had been her plan to be there this year.
She scoffed. “Special Olympics,” she said to no one.
The memory of the Olympic goal brought Lia into her head again. They had made all those plans. She grimaced. Lia. She didn’t have time for any more of that pain. Lia was great for about four months after her shooting, and she stopped coming around once she realized there would be no more “Ducky” Donald. All the glitter was gone. Joni was an oversized cripple, a big cow of a girl who struggled to breathe. The college offers dried up. Lia dried up. Her life dried up.
Her family? Ha! Mother had a headstone and Father started drinking, and he started seeing other women way too soon. The way it looked, Clarisse did him a favor by dying.
Joni was tore down over losing her mother. Brett went to shit, and the life insurance money that Brett forgot to share dried up along with Lia, and her dreams. He sold the house, and his business, and disappeared without a word. It turned out the family was in ruin anyway, but neither Clarisse nor Joni knew it. Before the shooting, Brett lost all their money in risky investments. He was a great architect, but a lousy investor. Joni didn’t get squat, except debt forcing her into bankruptcy.
So now, to her, she was a big, poor crippled cow living above a bar, an inch from having to work in the sex trade. If it weren’t for her Social Security Disability check and Snap card, she would be out selling her ass on the corner. The law says if she makes less than eleven hundred a month, she can still draw her disability. So, boss Margaret adjusted her hours to match.
High school dried up, too. She struggled to get her GED, failed it the first time, and passed it the second try. Why? It didn’t seem like much now.
She did the Detroit Serenity Prayer. Fuck it.
Saturday came, and she took the bus to the Seattle’s PAL gym. She loved it there. She worked with young girls in a variety of sports but concentrating on helping the coaches with softball practice. She did what she could, hopping on one foot and struggling with her breath. She would sit for a while until she caught her breath back up, and go again.
This day, she got ready to leave after her long hot shower. It was one of the things she never turned down here, even though it had Lia all over it. This is where they met. She had her gym bag in hand and was limping out when a young girl asked her about a poster on the wall. It was a young woman with a long blond ponytail flexing her arm muscles in an overhead fist pump.
“Who is she?” the girl asked.
“She was a young woman who used to come in here to train on the weekends. She was a real special athlete. Maybe you can grow up and be just like her!”
“Better!” the girl said.
Joni laughed. “I hope so.” She tousled the girl’s hair and limped out of the gym.
She took the bus back to the inner city, back to the bar, back to being nothing.
It was Saturday night and the busiest. Margaret told her to wait tables because one of the real waitresses called in sick. Getting ready was nothing special, Brush her thick blond hair, run on some eyeliner and smear on some lipstick and call it done.
She hated waiting. Her big frame could barely get through the packed tables as it was, but she had to drag her leg with its steel brace and hold the trays steady. Some of the women would have too much to drink and poke fun at her. They yelled at her when she slopped or spilled.
In the dim, noisy bar, the bartender filled her order at the waitress station. She picked up the brown plastic tray and carefully turned. The tray had a cork surface to keep the drinks from sliding, but the long-neck beer bottles would tip. She stepped with her right, drug her left, stepped, drug, and the beer got wobbly. She hated this shit, having to stop and wait for it to balance and continuing step, drag, step, drag – almost to the table. The beer tipped over and she deftly caught it, quick as a cat, but spilled some in the tray.
“I’m so sorry,” Joni said, “I’ll get you another beer.” She looked down and away from her patron, a young woman with dark eyes and short dark hair. Joni turned to go back to the bar and drug her leg around.
“You’ve lost weight. You’re skin and bones. You’re twenty-two and you look… old.”
“Yeah, you ain’t been where I’ve been,” Joni said and stepped toward the bar.
“You don’t recognize me?”
Joni half turned, looking down. “I don’t patronize with the customers, ma’am. I’m just the help.”
“I came here tonight to ask your forgiveness, Ducky.”
“What for? You didn’t do anything to me. Wait, you called me Ducky. Nobody calls me that anymore, not even at the gym. How do you know me?”
“Turn around. Look at me.”
Ducky turned fully facing her. In the dim light Joni saw her old love. “Lia, it’s you. I thought I’d never see you again.” Joni took a deep breath. “You hurt me. I still hurt for you.” Joni hadn’t cried in a long time, but her eyes watered now. She let go. Her head bowed and her face contorted as she cried. Lia stood with a napkin and dabbed at her running eyeliner with cautious motions.
Margaret came over. “What’s going on here?”
“I want to apologize to Joni.”
“You’re Lia?” Margaret asked nodding. “After all this time. Ducky described you to a T. You left her when she was down.” The bar got quiet. “We take care of our own. We don’t abandon them.” Margaret saw the spilled beer and took it off the tray.
Lia mustered all her strength. “I know. I had some growing up to do. I was afraid of…of…”
“Being tied to a loser?” Joni asked.
Lia raised her head knowing now was the time to lay her cards down. “Yes,” she said, “and I regretted every decision I made since. I failed, too, because you were in my mind every minute of every day and the guilt was overwhelming. I could not be successful on the pro tour knowing I left you behind. I washed out.” Lia was on the tennis circuit.
“You married a man. What about your husband?” Lia never made any bones about her bisexuality.
“He left me for another woman. I… hooked up with another woman, too. I couldn’t stand the male attitude anymore.”
“Here, here,” a woman said from somewhere.
Joni nodded. “This other woman, where is she?”
“Gone. She couldn’t compete with you, Ducky.”
“You mean my memory, who I used to be. I loved you with everything I had. You were there for me at first. It got me through the first hard part of my rehab. You found out gimp was all I had. I called and called. You killed my calls.”
“I’ve come to ask you to forgive me. It’s a lot to ask, I know. I need you to forgive me.”
“If I say I forgive you, then what?”
“Come live with me. I still love you, Joni. I wouldn’t be here if I did not.”
“I have nothing to offer you, Lia. I’m a big hunk of dead weight. I drag people down. Nobody wants a cripple. Here, where I live” she said gesturing to her upstairs apartment, “I don’t have to ask for nothing. Go back to Bellevue, to your money. Forget about me.”
“I love you like you are. Please Joni. Please.”
“You love me like I am? Hell, you and I were athletes. I can’t even swing a golf club one-handed. My body is busted up. They gotta take out the rest of my left lung. It’s dead, rotten. Without Medicare and Obamacare, I don’t know how I’d get the operation. I’m broke. I’m overdrawn at the bank. My credit is shit. I had to sell my car. I live above a bar, for shit’s sake….”
Lia took the tray out of her shaking hands, set it on the table, and wrapped her arms around Joni’s neck.
“Yes,” she said, “like you are.”
They kissed. Lia! Joni closed her eyes and savored her soft lips. She dreamed of having Lia in her arms again. She backed away and looked at Lia’s thin watery slits for eyes, long wet eyelashes, and stroked her short dark hair. They cried in one another’s faces. They hugged. The bar applauded as they hugged, and for a minute, she was in the gym and the crowd roared, and she was Ducky Donald again. Joni backed away and shook her head.
“We can’t have stars in our eyes,” she said sniffing. “It is what it is. I’m worthless, and if you’re coming to me, that makes you desperate.”
“There’s a million women out there who shine,” Joni’s said as her chest hitched. “I’m the sloshy shit in the bottom of the beer keg.”
Lia looked up to her. “Shut up and kiss me.”
“You’re have every…”
She put two fingers on Joni’s lips “Shhhh,” Lia said grinning. It was the exact same thing Lia did to her when they first kissed in the PAL gym shower room. Joni grinned. Lia tip-toed up and gently pressed her lips on hers. They kissed, and kissed again.