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Wild Ducks
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I look at our daughter across the restaurant table. Small, pale, thin, sensitive to where meat comes from because we raise sheep, Claire's been a vegetarian for several years. She's stuck a PETA button on our refrigerator back home; the slogan, beside a photo of a fluffy baby chick, says, "Your food had a face."

Now, hunched forward, picking at her salad, her long brown hair on her shoulders, her elbows tucked against her ribs, Claire seems gathered into herself, tensed for a leap. This is her next-to-last moment with us before we leave her at Northwestern University. She's already said goodbye to her brother, who is staying with a friend back home in Ohio. Kathy and I had hoped to linger with her over this meal. But I can barely hear her above the clatter in the "Asian fusion" restaurant she picked. And the dish I ordered is awful—when will I learn I don't really like tofu? I'm eating Kathy's meal, dark bits of beef, tasty but too salty.

"Well, do you feel ready?" Kathy asks Claire.

"Yes. Mom. I'm ready."

"You can probably get your books tomorrow."

Claire nods once, sharply.

I say, "Maybe you and your roommate can go get ice cream tonight."

"Yeah."

"She seems nice," I add. "You love musicals, and she wants to act in them."

Kathy says, "There are lots of fun social activities this week."

"Dad? Mom? You two need to chill." Claire widens her brown eyes for emphasis: we're annoying.

I hadn't gone on any college visits with Claire, and wanted to share this trip. And to redeem myself for also missing her high-school graduation in June. Even though Claire hadn't wanted to attend her own commencement, my absence had seemed indicative to her of my misplaced priorities. For once my day job, not our farm, was the reason I was too busy. When she received her diploma I was in downtown Chicago, not far from where we're dining, at BookExpo America, the world's largest exhibit for book publishers. Promoted to marketing manager of our university's press, I was expected to sell $1.25 million in books a year.

At BookExpo I'd had trouble eating, too. I spent every day in the booth with an ache in my lower abdomen. Finally I called my doctor in southern Ohio. "That sounds like diverticulosis," he said. "An intestinal inflammation. You probably haven't been drinking enough fluids." Gallons of strong coffee had gotten me through my longer office days but had dehydrated me. Yet I'll always trace the pain to guilt over missing Claire's ceremony.

In order for me to come on this trip, Kathy had found a farm sitter—our first in the six years since I'd started raising sheep. Those were the years, as Claire puts it, when I "checked out" as a father. The fact that Kathy sees it differently—"You're good with the kids, Richard"— helps. Yet I agree with Claire. I was a better father in suburban Bloomington, Indiana, before we moved to Appalachian Ohio and I threw myself into farming.

"Where's that Barnes and Noble?" I ask as we leave the restaurant. "We could walk back to campus and go on our way. Do you want to, Claire?" I add that maybe she can find a new novel by "Toyota Camry"— my nickname for her favorite author, Mercedes Lackey. Claire's never found my jibe amusing, but she hesitates. Then she says, "I have a meeting. Remember?"

As Kathy drives us across town, I gape like a rube at prosperous suburban Evanston, drenched in late September light. Lofty maples and honey locusts shade serene Victorian mansions and dot Northwestern's parklike campus; the gracious canopies of the dark trees seem to draw sustenance from the blue waters of Lake Michigan that lap the nearby shore.

"What a great place to walk this would be," I say. "Like Bloomington was. Winter wouldn't be so great. Can you imagine? Two feet of snow, an icy wind off the lake."

"That reminds me, Claire," Kathy says...


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