Cages

By Erika Brumett


Parrots often outlive people.  Sometimes, parents outlive children.  A parent will inherit, on occasion, a parrot.  Theo’s swung night-watch in a cage above his bed.  Her chest crested bright lemon, and her back molted baby-blue.  Feathers fell toward the pillow.  They drifted through darkness to catch in his stubble like snow.                         

Theo rarely answered the door, and rarely did it knock.  Housekeeping, at The Blue Moon Motel, pushed soap and soiled sheets past the “Do Not Disturb” sign, past the polyester curtain that stretched orange and olive stripes the width of his window.  Maids stopped to thump short, sharp knocks, but only when Theo’s towels went a week unwashed.  Roadtrippers rattled the wrong key into his lock, but only when lost.  Teal Ellis put small fists to his door, double tap-taping, soft and urgent as her name, but only when lonely.

The sound made Theo jump, and the pen drop. 

“Pretty girl!” screamed the parrot.  She rocked her perch to a pendulum, beak-bobbing at the door.  “Pretty pretty!” 

“Shhhh, Ferrah,” shushed Theo.  “Quiet!”  On the edge of the bed, on the edge of a three-day drunk, he recognized Teal’s knock.  And the sound of rain.  Tremors had caused him to draw through the paper napkin, which he folded, now, and slid under his pillow. Dozens.  Daily.  Cocktail canvases.  Small sketchpads delivered with a drink.  Stacks of them, and on each square: Teal’s portrait.  In India ink.  Rimmed with red wine, and shoved behind his motel mirror to remind Theo of love.    

Standing, he staggered two steps.  Then sat again.  He remembered the week’s rent, overdue.  The walls breathed with him, and the design on the carpet refused to hold its pattern.  Ferrah flipped on her swing.  She bird-purred to the “clack-clonk-clack,” of the 1970’s heater.   

Teal rapped again.  Louder.

“What the fuck! Pretty girl!  What the fuck!” the parrot squawked. 

“Just a sec,” answered the old man, reflected- sallow, waxen, twitching in his own skin- above the TV.  The station had fallen off-air, and vertical columns colored the screen.  They casted a strange glow over Theo, over Ferrah biting at her bars.  A hand leapt from his lap.  He finished the inadvertent jerk with intention, shaking a blue-veined wrist toward the nightstand.  Three swigs of syrah.  The bottle wobbled on its coaster, a Gideon’s bible that worked days as a window-prop.

“One second,” he repeated.

“Pretty!  Love my pretty bird!  One second!” repeated Ferrah.  Theo could hear Teal out in the wet, shifting high-heel to high-heel.     

From the moment she moved into The Blue Moon, into the room next to his, Theo felt the need to still her.  The need to freeze her frame.  To pen a new portrait every time she stirred.  Every time she swayed curves under a broken disco-ball.  He tried, nightly.  But even her abdomen moved.  In constant, muscular motion.  It bounced a bellybutton ring, flexing and fluttering, out and in, at the audience. 

Evenings, he waited for stiletto-stomps past his peep-hole, for Ferrah to spread her wings wide with excitement.  On the walk to work, sidestepping potholes and puddles, Teal pressed on longer lashes.  Her makeup ran in the rain.  Theo followed with the dusk.  Past the bus stop, its three-walls, and its bag-lady living there.  Past the Jack n’ the Box, the AM/PM, and the sandwich board that said:  “Manicures, Pedicures, Palm Readings.”  Four blocks, and his drink would be waiting.  Beside a stack of napkins.  Teal knew what he liked.  At the bar entrance, she would turn, hair raven-sleek and dripping, eyes smudged turquoise.  She would scan the street for Theo, who chugged along behind, coughing white breath into January like an old caboose.  

His booth against the back wall was always vacant.  It had a springy seat, and duct-tape seaming the vinyl.  There, he sketched her features.  And the spaces in between.  Tremors tore through napkins, as his ballpoint dreamed: Teal, turning empty-eyed to wink at a regular; Teal, drawn in fast-forward, penned from her pole, arching back brown nipples and sadness.  Theo drew her filtered through him.  Through cognac, music, and cataracts, at the Ribs n’ Racks strip club.  He watched men watch Teal twirl in cigar haze.  They sucked sauce from barbequed bones.  They licked their fingers.  Then their lips.  They tight-fisted single bills, never turning toward one another.   

“Be right there,” Theo projected over his parrot. 

“Busy busy!  Go away!” shrieked Ferrah.  It was the tune Theo had taught her. 

He opened to rain and her body bent.  Teal was righting wine bottles, opaque against the white wall.

“Oh!”  She stood, lengthening in latex, glass glinting in her hand.  He hated what she wore to work.  Even more, he hated that she took it off at work.  Both Theo and Teal kept a safe distance from her body.  He, with a tender, fatherly discretion.  With a fear, lusty and writhing.  She, with a remote restraint.  With a customer’s compliance to the four foot rule.  Teal shivered.  The wind covered her bare arms in bumps.  Theo thought to touch them.  Then he did not.  He thought of his little girl long ago gone.  Then he did not.  The child lived, now, in a star-shaped, ceramic box, in a suitcase, in the silence of his storage unit. 

“Here.”  As if offering a housewarming gift, Teal pressed the cold curve, what had been warm Chianti, into Theo’s palm.  

“Dead soldier,” he said, scanning the line of bottles.  “Executed at dawn.”  The motel’s neon gleamed sapphire in their glass.  Raindrops gave them rhythm.

When she shook dry beside the bed, his room filled with the fragrance of menthols, bubble-gum, and mildew.  The girl approached Ferrah.  Each cooed and clucked tongues at the other.  She reached up a pinkie for the bird to gnaw.  It ducked and danced around Teal’s nail-polish like a boxer.  Ferrah flirted, blinking glass-bead eyes and puffing to twice her size.  Droplets dripped from Teal’s raised elbow.  He was watching one slide down the back of her knee, when she turned.

When she faced Theo and said, “I have something to tell you.”

 

Ever since that night, when streets shone silver with rain and she stood staring too long in her motel window, wearing baby-fat and panties, ever since that one a.m., when the iron lay angry-side down to burn the Virgin Mary through her halter top,  onto her ironing board, and into her dream, Teal knew she had to tell Theo. 

About water oil-slicking the window in sheets.  About the smell like toast browning, and the fire extinguisher, and the ironing board puffing smoke on its three legs.  About the aura that steamed in a sepia-toned semi-circle.  And Mary, faint as a prayer, at its center. 

Teal smiled up at the parrot.  Where the cage screwed into the ceiling, plaster had chunked away.  Dried bird droppings caked the lampshade below. 

“So after, I just folded her back into my little closet,” she said, holding both hands over the heater.  Her dress was nearly dry.

 “But then, I had this amazing dream, Theo, it was so. . .so very beautiful.  And it felt like a kind of relief, you know.  Or release, or something.  But, what’s super weird is, I was feeling it for you.  Oh, and the sky, Theo!  It was- what the hell’re you watching?”  The screen hummed, almost imperceptibly, illuminated by colored bars.  “I don’t even think this is a show,” she added. 

Static buzzed electric.     

He answered with a sip.  It spilled into his mouth, and his face hung heavy, droopy-eyed and mournful as a basset hound’s.  It was always worse this time of year.  His whiskers pushed through in patches, and his coughs came out in clots.  Last week, the bouncer said he found Theo in the “gentleman’s” room.  Quaking so badly by the urinals, he had to help him rezip.  Even his sketches- the most inspired of which were slid beneath her door- had changed.  Shakes rendered Teal’s face grotesque.  She recognized herself in caricature, nude, and sliding off the side of torn bar napkins.

“It’s a miracle.  A real one,” she said.  “It’s Mary, Theo.  And, when I was sleeping, she showed me what to do.”     

“Put the ironing board on e-bay?” suggested Theo.  The bottle returned, drained, to the nightstand.  He twitched around in his bathrobe, and his bald-spot hit the headboard.  Wicked weather did this to him.  Teal could tell.  Her own father was lost, winters ago, to the blues.  It was a protection of him that Teal now projected onto Theo.  Lately, she kept a close watch on her next-door neighbor- the old man who kept a close watch on her.  She stayed late at the bar’s deep fryer, dunking Buffalo wings and cheese sticks.  Extra crispy.  How he liked them.  She held the button that read, “Manager.  Night bell.  Use only in emergency,” until a man opened in glasses and boxer shorts to take her money.  $220, in singles.  So Theo could sleep.   She even brought swizzle-sticks from the bar for Ferrah.  The parrot was crazy about pink plastic, and the old man was crazy about the parrot.  Through their shared wall, when morning showed grey above the curtain, Teal listened for him.  Wheezing on his way to the can.

 “Anyways, the Virgin Mary’s on my ironing board, and she told me how to help.  Are
you even listening, Theo?  Mary’s in my goddamn linen closet!”

Ferrah stopped preening.  “Goddamn linen goddamn!” 

Wiggling ten fingers, warm at last, Teal glanced up.  Her lips puckered, air-smooching at the cage.  She was certain that Ferrah would understand.  The bird knew.  Ferrah could feel freedom, and it was right outside Room 11.  But to Theo, it all had to be explained:   How could she convince him?  How could she show the lighting in her dream, the way it swirled and sifted like dust, coating everything gold?  How could she communicate the way the sky spread wide and hopeful?  The way Mary slumped slightly in her veils, biting her lower-lip above the ironing board, above the bird, working patiently, lovingly, ever-so-careful not to singe Farrah’s wings?     

 

Together, they jostled her house to the floor.  The girl had talons that tapped her food dish.  The man twitched.  His wings jerked.

“I don’t know, I don’t know,” he said, over and over, pacing the room.   

“Don’t know!” shrieked Ferrah.  Even though she did.  She knew the creak of her own door, the swing of its tiny hinges, as well as she knew the newspaper articles that were her carpet.  Midday, when he woke, the man would lift the latch to watch her strut the sink rim and bounce onto the mini-fridge.  This made a “tick-tick” beneath her toenails.  This settled his shakes.  Sometimes, he whistled the child’s song.  It belonged to his baby bird who had gone.  It pooled in the man’s eyes and stood Ferrah’s feathers on end.  

But it was different now.  Her home was unhooked from the ceiling.  There was apprehension all around, and she felt it where her plumage poked into her skin.  The girl’s head pressed huge against the bars.  It coaxed with clucks, with shiny, black quills.  Ferrah nodded on her porch, before hopping out, onto the girl’s crooked perch.  The tip was painted, pretty pretty.   At the opposite end was a band of inlayed blue.  She tapped it twice with her beak.  It was cool on her tongue.  The way turquoise should taste.  

From the girl, Ferrah swooped to the television.  In the columns on the screen, she recognized her own colors.  For a wing-beat, she considered flying smack into them.  Tele-landings were always tricky.  Flight patterns depended upon the direction of the antennae.  She tried to relax, tried to unruffle, but the box whirred up through her legs, vibrating her tail.  The man’s door stood strange.  Open with the night.  Wide with possibility.    

Out fluttered the girl.  Into a neon jungle Ferrah could barely recall.    

The parrot alighted onto the knob, sniffing after the girl at unused air.  Her feet slipped, repositioned, then slipped again.  The view from her swing had given a glimpse of sky, where she swung and sang to the wing fragments that flashed past.  But nothing like this.  Nothing like the unobstructed rush of lights and sensations that made Ferrah’s tail fan from the doorknob.

The man approached.  He trembled on the threshold.  Ferrah flapped to him, finding stable footing on his shoulder.  It had been necessary, of late, to keep a close watch over him.  To assure him it would all be okay.  She budgied up to his neck.  Tremors comforted.

Behind the girl, the man stepped out of his cage.

Air currents made it difficult to hold on, and Ferrah huddled tight to the smell of man-sweat and the sharp nectar he drank.  Rain blew in slants.  She sang, “What the fuck, what the fuck,” again and again into his ear.  A few feathers whiskered out of it, tickling her under the chin. 

“Pretty!  Love my pretty!  Goddamn bird!”  When she opened her beak, in poured the night.  The breeze swallowed cold and new.  It riffled her tail and lifted his collar.  It was too much to resist.           

Ferrah loosened her claws.  One snagged in fabric.  She hovered momentarily.  Winging wildly at rain gusts, flapping at the black, she looked from the man to the girl, then back to the man.  Startled by the exhilaration of simply letting go.   

She gyred above them, above gaping mouths and two faces upturned.  But they did not follow.  As if they had never learned how.  The old man squinted at her, bringing a wing above his beak in salute.  Ferrah cried out once over The Blue Moon Motel, once over the stunned figures who were, finally, stilled.  Ascending, the parrot arced a rainbow against the clouds.  Her blue feathered with falling water.  Far below, she saw the girl lean into the man.  He held onto her as they grew smaller and smaller.

 

Erika Brumett's "Cages" is the winner of the 2010 Coachella Review Fiction Prize.

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