Parrots

That’s an animal. When I first heard the sound this morning, I labeled it as another upset alarm and let it dissolve into the rumble of New York July. Now it’s 5 p.m., and I understand that can’t be true. No car alarm composer would send something so shrill and throaty into the streets. No vehicle has ever cried so desperately for help.

Still in bed, I peel back the window shade and search for something in distress. Two floors below, the crowds are thickening, voices already swelling with alcohol. Shadows are sliding up from the sidewalks. Nothing is out of place.

My hangover is fading, but I can’t stop sweating—my air conditioner is stored across the river in my aunt’s air-conditioned basement in Queens. This mattress is losing its edges among half-filled garbage bags and clothes I don’t wear but wade through. When the lights come on, the cockroaches stay put.

It’s all compounded, the mess and the heat and the bugs, summing to a lassitude in my solar plexus. I’m pinned like a butterfly in a book. The animal continues to wail at irregular intervals, but I turn up the volume on my laptop, melt into a laugh track.

It’s a Thursday—I should be at work. I’m a customer service liaison for an online pharmacy that ships Viagra all over the world. In a dim office near Penn Station, I answer phones and reassure men who can’t get things to go up or down. My supply of sick days depleted, I recently discovered some untapped bereavement leave. At 9 a.m. this morning, on the bathroom floor, I wrote an email to my boss explaining that my grandfather had died and I was heading to Maine to scatter his ashes in front of a lighthouse, back next week. My grandfather died eight years ago from Parkinsonism, which looks like Parkinson’s but isn’t.

My email went unanswered all day, no condolences sent. My stomach squirmed each time I reread it—how transparent it seemed now. Surely, the higher-ups were debating my future this minute, standing with crossed arms to hide their pit stains amid all that computer heat.

A phalanx of beer bottles is aimed at my bed. Seventeen bottles, I count, though it’s hard to know which were emptied yesterday. I remember drifting to sleep late last night on the F train as I watched a dusty grape roll under the seats. I remember waking up at 169th Street and then at Avenue X. I remember forgetting where I was going, switching uptown to downtown to uptown again.

And later, I snorted cocaine off a toilet seat and wound up on a stage where I wasn’t allowed, in a cavernous basement writhing with shirtless men. I poured a cup of beer directly on to the chest of a bouncer who was trying to escort me out. He wasn’t angry. His eyes were bloodshot and exhausted; I was a gnat. The only clues on my phone are three blurry photos of the shadow of a wrought iron fence I seem to have taken while sitting on the ground. Somehow I made it back to this mattress—I usually make it back.

On a return trip from the bathroom, the animal screeches something like a word, something human, and I decide to investigate. To go out on the fire escape, I must move an empty ceramic pot from the windowsill. The bottom of the pot sticks like it’s been coated in superglue. I yank and pull and twist, but it won’t budge. I end up contorting myself around it.

Somehow there is less air outside. The sun hits my stubbled cheeks, and I scan the street. A group from a historical walking tour is gathered below my fire escape, bovine European tourists under my feet. The guide speaks into a mini megaphone: These apartments used to house up to twelve adults. Sometimes when I hear this line, I miss my eleven roommates. With my hand as a visor, I scan the facades of the neighboring buildings, checking every balcony and sill and railing.

And there she is: a gray macaw, on a ledge, pressing herself into the gray brick of the building across the street. She has matched her color almost exactly, some camouflage instinct fooling pedestrians and predators alike. Her head tilts, and she lets out her cry.

She’s alarmed! She’s paralyzed. I hear her fear. I see it in the undulations of her body. She is right to be alarmed, I think. New York City is alarming. We should all be so alarmed.

She’s led a cloistered life, I bet. She knows the inside of her cage, draped with a blue towel at night. She knows heaping piles of seed and vitamin drops in her water. She knows her owner’s apartment, with seafoam carpets and a marble slab coffee table, her magnetic friend in the mirror. She was never supposed to see all this.

I hold my arm horizontally in front of me and cluck my tongue, instincts from twenty years earlier taking over. She looks at me. For a moment, I think she is going to fly across Orchard Street, around crossed cables to alight on my pale arm, but she presses harder into her corner.


§


My first living friend was an orchid. A deep purple, he was a Valentine’s Day present from my mother. He lived on my nightstand.

My unpruned child brain had conflated the words orchid and oracle; I believed they were one and the same. So I posed questions about the future. When will I get married? Will the sun swallow the earth while I’m alive?

And I got gnomic answers from the plant. He was wiser than me, or I was wiser than I knew, echoing adages I’d learned from sitcoms. Still, he got me through long nights when the pipes teemed with snakes and yetis roamed the neighborhood.

Orchids are delicate, though, and I was overeager, prone to overwatering. By Thanksgiving, his purple was blanched, and brown speckled his leaves. He became less willing to share his axioms with me, stammered when he did. Soon, he was only a dry stick in some dirt.

“My oracle is dead,” I confessed to my mother, though she had known for weeks. I cried into her shoulder and into her sleeve. I could not keep a single plant alive while she cared for hundreds. Every surface of our house was covered with plants: weird plants, tall plants, translucent and maroon-tinted and white-spotted plants, humanoid cacti. My mother had a penchant for going to greenhouses and picking out the saddest plants she could find. Slowly, gently, she would nurse them back to life, singing to them until they were green and reaching for the sun.

In the days following my oracle’s death, I cried so much that my mother took me to a pet store. She tried to usher me toward the hamsters and mice, but I had no interest in Rodentia. A cage of parakeets mesmerized me. I picked out a yellow one with a lime underbelly and sagacious purple eyelids. He seemed unfazed by the tornado of color around him.

They jammed him into a red Animals Crackers box, poked with holes but decidedly too small. The front of the box depicted zoo animals in cages: a zebra, a hippo, a lion, and a giraffe stooped to an acute angle. I could hear his nails scratching on the cardboard. My mother assured me he would be okay, and I assured him in turn. At home, I opened the box, and he flew in big, frantic circles, an electron cut loose. My mother rushed to shut off the ceiling fan.

We were inseparable then. He perched on my shoulder, followed me room to room. At a table full of bickering siblings, I had only to turn my head to speak to him covertly. He’d rub his cheek to mine and trill. His cage took the spot on my nightstand, and I whispered to its house-shaped silhouette whenever I couldn’t sleep.

I longed for him to talk, really talk. My mom warned me that parakeets aren’t really talkers, not like mynas or cockatoos or macaws, but I was undeterred. While other boys were catching pop flies and earning iron-on badges, I was practicing with my bird in front of the mirror. When he couldn’t master cracker or bird, I tried the words I’d first learned, mama, dada, baba. Sometimes, he’d clear his throat, like a timid ahem before a proclamation.

But perhaps I was the problem. Some say that parakeets are constantly mimicking human speech, only they talk too fast, in too high a pitch for us to comprehend. If we could slow down a bit, retune our auditory nerves and slacken our eardrums, maybe we’d understand.


§


I move around my apartment in big, frantic circles. I open cabinets at random and shut them. I slip on my shoes and take them off, kick at Styrofoam containers. Where will I put her cage? In the bathroom, I rip open a package of yellow rubber gloves. My reasoning is fuzzy, talon protection maybe, but I put them on in the toothpaste-flecked mirror, a little confidence as my last finger worms into place.

Shoes back on, I fly down the stairs. On the first floor, a long-haired neighbor in pajamas is taking down Fourth of July bunting she’s had up since Easter. She cannot tolerate a hallway without holiday decorations. We’ll have fake spider webs by tomorrow.

I run across the street, dodging bicyclists and tour groups. Due to the incredibly close quarters, the cholera spread through the community like wildfire. My macaw is invisible from street level. I pace, pause under her ledge. Has she already flown away? But then she caterwauls, and I know she’s up there. I envision myself climbing a tree, performing a trapeze jump onto her ledge, agape bystanders, viral footage. No, I’m skewered on a rusted fence—I’ve got to get inside.

Passive by default, I stand in the doorway of the building she’s perched on and wait for someone to exit or enter. I start enumerating the things I’ll need to buy: seeds, mirrors, toys, a wooden perch for the bathroom. But memories from last night insert themselves between the commas. The list disintegrates as it forms.

The worst part of last night was not the bouncer, no. After work yesterday, I made my way to my preferred dive bar in the East Village. I was reading at a corner table, feeling superior to the drunks falling over the pool table, when a friendly alert from my credit union informed me that my debit account had slid subzero. Two nearly maxed out credit cards and a debit account overdrawn by two hundred dollars—all I had were holes where money should be.

My mother had told me to stop calling, but she seemed unable to resist answering when I did. So I called, sitting on a couch that was really the back seat of a sedan. It was still bright out, but in that area of the bar the only light came from an exit sign and a string of red Christmas lights. I felt like I was inside a toaster oven.

“Your sister, you know she’s just finishing up her rotation in the ICU. She told me she met some celebrity’s dad last night, but she won’t tell me who it is,” my mom said.

This was her favorite strategy to avoid speaking to me, rotating through my siblings and relaying details from their lives. The three of them had been successfully weaned, had married respectable people with respectable jobs. I attended all of their weddings dateless—no one asked if I might bring a plus one. My romantic life was a taboo subject in my family (I wasn’t officially out, but I suspected they suspected). Now they all had new lives, new families, burgeoning careers. Even my mom had a new boyfriend.

“Let me go out back and give that money tree another shake,” my mom said when I eventually blurted out the question we were both waiting for. Her jaw was tight. “You have the nerve to call me from a club and ask for money?”

“Come on, Mom. What do you think a club is?” A seatbelt poked into my back.

“You’re drunk,” she said.

“I’m not,” I half-lied.

“I can’t do this with you anymore, I can’t. Everything you say is just so slippery,” she said. I thought I heard a man talking in the background but it may have been the TV.

“Melodramatic much?” I asked.

“No, I’m not. I’m not. I’m not going to be your copilot as you fly the plane straight into the mountain,” she said, clearly mimicking something her own therapist had said.

“When did you get so cold?” The words slithered out of my mouth, desperate and vicious.

She didn’t answer, just clicked off the phone. There was no dial tone; there are no dial tones anymore, just that eerie cell phone silence. I sat there in the infrared, fuming for a second, but then sad. I understood why she’d prefer a ficus over me. Plants are simple, their equation for care mere arithmetic, sun plus water plus soil. Plants don’t suffer from depression or alcoholism or listlessness. Their problems are fixable.

I left the bartender an IOU on a napkin and headed to a going away party: two friends from college in love and moving to Boston. I’d only seen them once since moving to the city, during my first month here, but they’d sent me a Facebook invite. I popped two Viagra on the way, just in case, from a sample pack I stole from work. Viagra made my veins feel like freeways, left violet afterimages in my eyelids.

It was a party on a rooftop, a smaller affair than I’d anticipated. The boyfriend was from Paris so half the attendees were murmuring French behind their hands. The couple seemed surprised to see me but they were gracious, hugged me, said it’d been too long. To explain my intoxication, I lied and said I was coming from another party.

There was a beautiful, straight French man with a thick beard—Marcel, I think. I kept touching him, following him. We’d just met, but I put my arm around his shoulders like we were old friends. I pinched his nipple through his shirt, broached subjects I shouldn’t have. You’re telling me you’ve never even kissed a guy? I followed him like a hungry pet.

Eventually the hostess pulled me aside to say: “Thank you for coming but I think you should go home.” And of course, she was right. My face was red and swelling like a sun. I tried to hug Marcel goodbye but he pushed me away with a stiff arm. Some dark, magnetic force pulled me out into the hot night, down into the subway, but I wasn’t headed home. I had lower places to go.

The macaw shrieks, and my hero’s urgency returns. I mash buttons with my palm, buzzing every apartment up seven floors. The door clicks open. I estimate that the bird is on the third floor, near the middle. The staircase curls upward sharply, every stair a new color and texture, each extracted from a different case. Someone has taken care to hang mirrors in crucial places so you can see your neighbor barreling down on you.

On the second floor, a head pokes out, hairless and waxy.

“Do you have my food?” he shouts. I freeze on the landing, and we lock eyes. What will the tour guides say about us?


§


I killed my bird on an early summer afternoon, just before my fourteenth birthday. The sun blazed outside, but our house was cool and dim. Only my mother and I were home, plus my grandfather, but he hid in the basement until dinnertime. My mom was moving around the kitchen, opening and closing the refrigerator. I was sprawled on the beige leather couch, watching Ellen on silent. My bird was out of his cage, perched in a spindly evergreen my mom had saved.

My bird liked to sit up there and watch me, watch me all day. He knew me better than anyone. He saw what I did in the privacy of my room, late at night after everyone had gone to sleep. He saw what transpired during my sleepover with that neighborhood boy, the rubbing. I’d been having dreams about my bird lately—nightmares in which he morphed into a feathery megaphone and squawked my secrets for the house to hear.

“I’m going to Luke’s,” my mother proclaimed. She must have been doing math, calculating whether the meal she was preparing contained enough nutrients for her family of six. Luke’s was a small farm across the cemetery. At this time of year, a trip to Luke’s meant a stretched bag of corn and a watermelon.

Now I was doing math. I was at the age when masturbation was still novel, an unbelievable discovery, not yet a morning chore. At my mother’s announcement, I began calculating whether I’d have enough time to masturbate before she returned. I was relying on Luke to hold my mother captive with details from his daughter’s tae kwon do tournaments. As soon as I heard the grumble of the garage door closing, I bolted from my spot on the couch to the home computer.

When I was about to finish, I ran, pants around my ankles, from the computer to the bathroom. My parakeet flew after me. He was getting slow. Now his wings beat with effort, trepidation. As I was slamming the door to the bathroom, my bird, my once best friend, tried to enter. His neck got caught in that shrinking sliver between door and jamb, and he let out a final screech. All the air in his lungs, plus his nine air sacs, released in that one scream.

Then a muted thud, his small weight hitting the tan carpet.

My mother found me sobbing in the doorway shirtless, holding the broken bird, feathers strewn around me. She sunk to the floor, and we took turns placing our thumbs on his chest. We never addressed the shirtlessness.

“Do you want me to call the vet?” she asked.

I could only manage a few honking inhales, but she got up a few minutes later. I heard her speaking to the vet from inside her bedroom with the door shut. I don’t know what the vet said, but it was not encouraging.

My mother returned with a jewelry box she inherited from her mother. It was a mahogany box with a blue velvet interior. Together, on the floor, we emptied it of its tangled mass of necklaces, loose birthstones, and unmatched earrings. We put the dead bird in one of the box’s rectangular compartments, put the box on the kitchen counter, and waited. I waited for my bird to stir, his wings to twitch, his purple eyes to open.

“He looks beautiful on the blue,” my older sister said that evening.

Two whole days passed before I accepted my bird was dead. In those days, I unknotted every knotted necklace from the box. I detangled every tangle, uncoiled every coil, sitting in the mumbled buzz of the television. When I’d unknotted everything, I started to tie new knots for my future fingers to puzzle through.

We buried him on the morning of the Fourth of July, before any fireworks or macaroni salad, me and my mom and my grandfather. Though my siblings were supposed to be in attendance, I was relieved they weren’t there. I wore my mom’s rings on my toes in my socks and a clump of her necklaces under my shirt.

It was one of those days when you can feel the sun haunting you. I dug a small hole and lowered the jewelry box in, compartments filled with sunflower seeds and lemon slices. I held my grandfather’s trembling hand in mine, and we sweated until my mom said it was time to go inside.


§


I knock on the door to apartment 3E. I knock again. No answer. I jiggle the doorknob without thinking, on the verge of committing a felony. A blonde woman with a harsh bowl cut answers the door of 3F. Her cheeks are blotched with rosacea. She’s wearing a floral shirt tucked into oversize jeans. The lights are off in her apartment—she’s been sitting alone in the dark.

“Can I help you?” she asks after I’ve stared too long.

“I…there’s…I think there’s a parrot stuck outside your apartment.” Only when I try to speak do I realize I am out of breath.

“Who are you?” She may be cross-eyed—I can’t quite tell. Her eyes move from my forehead, to my shoulders, down to my hands. I regret the yellow gloves.

“I live across the street. Right there.” I point into her dark apartment.

“A parrot?”

“Have you heard that sound all day? That alarm sound? She’s right outside your window. I’ll show you.” I’m about to stride inside, but I remember that I’m a stranger, and she’s a stranger too. “Can I come in? I just need to look out your window.”

She pauses, weighing the odds that I’m here to murder her against her curiosity about the sound she’s heard all day.

She asks for my name and address, and I give it to her, including my apartment number and the nine-digit version of our zip code. She leaves me at her open door. I’m certain she’s typing my name into a search bar or relaying my information to the police, but she returns smiling.

“There really is a parrot out there.” The fear is gone from her face; she’s somewhere between amused and bemused. I follow her inside through a wall of air-conditioning. She switches on an overhead light in the living room, and I get a flash of her existence: IKEA furniture, torn sheet music, a bottle of Tums, a pot of congealed mac and cheese. On her laptop, an episode of Friends is playing, though there’s a flat screen TV on the wall. She shuts the light off immediately.

“Nice place,” I say reflexively.

“You can go out there,” she says, pointing to the fire escape. The window hasn’t been opened in years, and the peeling white paint has crusted to itself. I push up with all my might until the paint splinters into chips. I crawl through.

Out on the fire escape, I have a better view of her. I can see her neck is textured in dark gray folds, like a hen-of-the-woods mushroom. Her beak is scratched black bone. Still ten feet from her, there’s no way I can reach. I take my gloves off slowly, intuiting now that these will only scare her. I crouch down and stick my hand through the railing. I cluck my tongue and extend a finger for her to perch on. She eyes me, head bent with curiosity, no longer screaming.

“Come on,” I whisper so only she can hear. “Come over here. We’ll get you home.”

At this, she jumps, flutters in a flash onto the railing above me. I’m looking up at her now, into her pale yellow eyes. The dynamic between us has flipped. I’m cowering below her, and she’s looking down on me with what I know is pity. With white sunlight refracting around her, I’m kneeling before an Egyptian goddess asking for mercy. Save me, I think. Forgive me, I think. I see my body bloating facedown among Nile reeds.

Then she’s gone, wings wide, rocketing into a creamsicle sky.

I uncrouch and notice a tour group staring at me. I wave down, smiling involuntarily, eyes squinched with oncoming tears. No one waves back. I scan the buildings around me and find the rectangle of brick that is my apartment. My lights are off, too, my windows curtainless. Somehow my square seems sadder than the other squares, more lonesome. Everyone must think this about their homes, when they know the life led inside.

“She flew away,” I say as I duck through the window. My neighbor offers me a hand, but I’m already in.

“Maybe it knows where it’s going, like a honing pigeon.”

“Hope so,” I say, too drained to correct her.

I leave and amble through the streets of the Lower East Side. I call my mom; she doesn’t answer. She’s home, surrounded by her plants, declining the call. I walk to the Hua Mei garden in Chinatown where sometimes they hang dozens of antique cages filled with songbirds for sale. There are no birds this evening, though, only teens playing soccer and a slow-motion tai chi class. I stop at a bodega and pick out a pitiful, white orchid—my first credit card is declined, but the second goes through. I’m a little proud as I carry it home, up the stairs, and place it in the last parallelogram of sunlight on my windowsill.


 

JON ELOFSON is pursuing an MFA in fiction at UNCW. He grew up in Rhode Island and studied neuroscience at Brown University. A winner of the 2021 AWP Intro Journals Project, he has work forthcoming in Hayden's Ferry Review and Pleiades. Outside of writing, he's a crossword enthusiast and an alto saxophonist.