JEALOUS HUSBAND RETURNS IN FORM OF PARROT Robert Olen Butler
(from the collection of stories Tabloid Dreams (Henry Holt & Co., 1996); first appeared in The New Yorker, May 22, 1995)
I never can quite say as much as I know. I look at other parrots and I wonder if it’s the same for them, if somebody is trapped in each of them paying some kind of price for living their life in a certain way. For instance, “Hello,” I say, and I’m sitting on a perch in a pet store in Houston and what I’m really thinking is Holy shit. It’s you. And what’s happened is I’m looking at my wife.
“Hello,” she says, and she comes over to me and I can’t believe how beautiful she is. Those great brown eyes, almost as dark as the center of mine. And her nose—I don’t remember her for her nose but its beauty is clear to me now. Her nose is a little too long, but it’s redeemed by the faint hook to it.
She scratches the back of my neck.
Her touch makes my tail flare. I feel the stretch and rustle of me back there. I bend my head to her and she whispers, “Pretty bird.”
For a moment I think she knows it’s me. But she doesn’t, of course. I say “Hello” again and I will eventually pick up “pretty bird.” I can tell that as soon as she says it, but for now I can only give her another hello. Her fingertips move through my feathers and she seems to know about birds. She knows that to pet a bird you don’t smooth his feathers down, you ruffle them.
But of course she did that in my human life, as well. It’s all the same for her. Not that I was complaining, even to myself, at that moment in the pet shop when she found me like I presume she was supposed to. She said it again, “Pretty bird,” and this brain that works like it does now could feel that tiny little voice of mine ready to shape itself around these sounds. But before I could get them out of my beak there was this guy at my wife’s shoulder and all my feathers went slick flat like to make me small enough not to be seen and I backed away. The pupils of my eyes pinned and dilated and pinned again.
He circled around her. A guy that looked like a meat packer, big in the chest and thick with hair, the kind of guy that I always sensed her eyes moving to when I was alive. I had a bare chest and I’d look for little black hairs on the sheets when I’d come home on a day with the whiff of somebody else in the air. She was still in the same goddam rut.
A “hello” wouldn’t do and I’d recently learned “good night” but it was the wrong suggestion altogether, so I said nothing and the guy circled her and he was looking at me with a smug little smile and I fluffed up all my feathers, made myself about twice as big, so big he’d see he couldn’t mess with me. I waited for him to draw close enough for me to take off the tip of his finger.
But she intervened. Those nut-brown eyes were before me and she said, “I want him.”
And that’s how I ended up in my own house once again. She bought me a large black wrought-iron cage, very large, convinced by some young guy who clerked in the bird department and who took her aside and made his voice go much too soft when he was doing the selling job. The meat packer didn’t like it. I didn’t either. I’d missed a lot of chances to take a bite out of this clerk in my stay at the shop and I regretted that suddenly.
But I got my giant cage and I guess I’m happy enough about that. I can pace as much as I want. I can hang upside down. It’s full of bird toys. That dangling thing over there with knots and strips of rawhide and a bell at the bottom needs a good thrashing a couple of times a day and I’m the bird to do it. I look at the very dangle of it and the thing is rough, the rawhide and the knotted rope, and I get this restlessness back in my tail, a burning thrashing feeling, and it’s like all the times when I was sure there was a man naked with my wife. Then I go to this thing that feels so familiar and I bite and bite and it’s very good.
I could have used the thing the last day I went out of this house as a man. I’d found the address of the new guy at my wife’s office. He’d been there a month in the shipping department and three times she’d mentioned him. She didn’t even have to work with him and three times I heard about him, just dropped into the conversation. “Oh,” she’d say when a car commercial came on the television, “that car there is like the one the new man in shipping owns. Just like it.” Hey, I’m not stupid. She said another thing about him and then another and right after the third one I locked myself in the bathroom because I couldn’t rage about this anymore. I felt like a damn fool whenever I actually said anything about this kind of feeling and she looked at me like she could start hating me real easy and so I was working on saying nothing, even if it meant locking myself up. My goal was to hold my tongue about half the time. That would be a good start.
But this guy from shipping. I found out his name and his address and it was one of her typical Saturday afternoons of vague shopping. So I went to his house, and his car that was just like the commercial was outside. Nobody was around in the neighborhood and there was this big tree in the back of the house going up to a second floor window that was making funny little sounds. I went up. The shade was drawn but not quite all the way. I was holding on to a limb with arms and legs wrapped around it like it was her in those times when I could forget the others for a little while. But the crack in the shade was just out of view and I crawled on along till there was no limb left and I fell on my head. Thinking about that now, my wings flap and I feel myself lift up and it all seems so avoidable. Though I know I’m different now. I’m a bird.
Except I’m not. That’s what’s confusing. It’s like those times when she would tell me she loved me and I actually believed her and maybe it was true and we clung to each other in bed and at times like that I was different. I was the man in her life. I was whole with her. Except even at that moment, holding her sweetly, there was this other creature inside me who knew a lot more about it and couldn’t quite put all the evidence together to speak.
My cage sits in the den. My pool table is gone and the cage is sitting in that space and if I come all the way down to one end of my perch I can see through the door and down the back hallway to the master bedroom. When she keeps the bedroom door open I can see the space at the foot of the bed but not the bed itself. That I can sense to the left, just out of sight. I watch the men go in and I hear the sounds but I can’t quite see. And they drive me crazy.
I flap my wings and I squawk and I fluff up and I slick down and I throw seed and I attack that dangly toy as if it was the guy’s balls, but it does no good. It never did any good in the other life either, the thrashing around I did by myself. In that other life I’d have given anything to be standing in this den with her doing this thing with some other guy just down the hall and all I had to do was walk down there and turn the corner and she couldn’t deny it any more.
But now all I can do is try to let it go. I sidestep down to the opposite end of the cage and I look out the big sliding glass doors to the back yard. It’s a pretty yard. There are great placid maple trees with good places to roost. There’s a blue sky that plucks at the feathers on my chest. There are clouds. Other birds. Fly away. I could just fly away.
I tried once and I learned a lesson. She forgot and left the door to my cage open and I climbed beak and foot, beak and foot, along the bars and curled around to stretch sideways out the door and the vast scene of peace was there at the other end of the room. I flew.
And a pain flared through my head and I fell straight down and the room whirled around and the only good thing was she held me. She put her hands under my wings and lifted me and clutched me to her breast and I wish there hadn’t been bees in my head at the time so I could have enjoyed that, but she put me back in the cage and wept awhile. That touched me, her tears. And I looked back to the wall of sky and trees. There was something invisible there between me and that dream of peace. I remembered, eventually, about glass, and I knew I’d been lucky, I knew that for the little fragile-boned skull I was doing all this thinking in, it meant death.
She wept that day but by the night she had another man. A guy with a thick Georgia truck-stop accent and pale white skin and an Adam’s apple big as my seed ball. This guy has been around for a few weeks and he makes a whooping sound down the hallway, just out of my sight. At times like that I want to fly against the bars of the cage, but I don’t. I have to remember how the world has changed.
She’s single now, of course. Her husband, the man that I was, is dead to her. She does not understand all that is behind my “hello.” I know many words, for a parrot. I am a yellow-nape Amazon, a handsome bird, I think, green with a splash of yellow at the back of my neck. I talk pretty well, but none of my words are adequate. I can’t make her understand.
And what would I say if I could? I was jealous in life. I admit it. I would admit it to her. But it was because of my connection to her. I would explain that. When we held each other, I had no past at all, no present but her body, no future but to lie there and not let her go. I was an egg hatched beneath her crouching body, I entered as a chick into her wet sky of a body, and all that I wished was to sit on her shoulder and fluff my feathers and lay my head against her cheek, my neck exposed to her hand. And so the glances that I could see in her troubled me deeply, the movement of her eyes in public to other men, the laughs sent across a room, the tracking of her mind behind her blank eyes, pursuing images of others, her distraction even in our bed, the ghosts that were there of men who’d touched her, perhaps even that very day. I was not part of all those other men who were part of her. I didn’t want to connect to all that. It was only her that I would fluff for but these others were there also and I couldn’t put them aside. I sensed them inside her and so they were inside me. If I had the words, these are the things I would say.
But half an hour ago there was a moment that thrilled me. A word, a word we all knew in the pet shop, was just the right word after all. This guy with his cowboy belt buckle and rattlesnake boots and his pasty face and his twanging words of love trailed after my wife through the den, past my cage, and I said, “Cracker.” He even flipped his head back a little at this in surprise. He’d been called that before to his face, I realized. I said it again, “Cracker.” But to him I was a bird and he let it pass. “Cracker,” I said. “Hello, cracker.” That was even better. They were out of sight through the hall doorway and I hustled along the perch and I caught a glimpse of them before they made the turn to the bed and I said, “Hello, cracker,” and he shot me one last glance.
It made me hopeful. I eased away from that end of the cage, moved toward the scene of peace beyond the far wall. The sky is chalky blue today, blue like the brow of the blue-front Amazon who was on the perch next to me for about a week at the store. She was very sweet, but I watched her carefully for a day or two when she first came in. And it wasn’t long before she nuzzled up to a cockatoo named Gordo and I knew she’d break my heart. But her color now in the sky is sweet, really. I left all those feelings behind me when my wife showed up. I am a faithful man, for all my suspicions. Too faithful, maybe. I am ready to give too much and maybe that’s the problem.
The whooping began down the hall and I focussed on a tree out there. A crow flapped down, his mouth open, his throat throbbing, though I could not hear his sound. I was feeling very odd. At least I’d made my point to the guy in the other room. “Pretty bird,” I said, referring to myself. She called me “pretty bird” and I believed her and I told myself again, “Pretty bird.”
But then something new happened, something very difficult for me. She appeared in the den naked. I have not seen her naked since I fell from the tree and had no wings to fly. She always had a certain tidiness in things. She was naked in the bedroom, clothed in the den. But now she appears from the hallway and I look at her and she is still slim and she is beautiful, I think—at least I clearly remember that as her husband I found her beautiful in this state. Now, though, she seems too naked. Plucked. I find that a sad thing. I am sorry for her and she goes by me and she disappears into the kitchen. I want to pluck some of my own feathers, the feathers from my chest, and give them to her. I love her more in that moment, seeing her terrible nakedness, than I ever have before.
And since I’ve had success in the last few minutes with words, when she comes back I am moved to speak. “Hello,” I say, meaning, You are still connected to me, I still want only you. “Hello,” I say again. Please listen to this tiny heart that beats fast at all times for you.
And she does indeed stop and she comes to me and bends to me. “Pretty bird,” I say and I am saying, You are beautiful, my wife, and your beauty cries out for protection. “Pretty.” I want to cover you with my own nakedness. “Bad bird,” I say. If there are others in your life, even in your mind, then there is nothing I can do. “Bad.” Your nakedness is touched from inside by the others. “Open,” I say. How can we be whole together if you are not empty in the place that I am to fill?
She smiles at this and she opens the door to my cage. “Up,” I say, meaning, Is there no place for me in this world where I can be free of this terrible sense of others?
She reaches in now and offers her hand and I climb onto it and I tremble and she says, “Poor baby.”
“Poor baby,” I say. You have yearned for wholeness too and somehow I failed you. I was not enough. “Bad bird,” I say. I’m sorry.
And then the cracker comes around the corner. He wears only his rattlesnake boots. I take one look at his miserable, featherless body and shake my head. We keep our sexual parts hidden, we parrots, and this man is a pitiful sight. “Peanut,” I say. I presume that my wife simply has not noticed. But that’s foolish, of course. This is, in fact, what she wants. Not me. And she scrapes me off her hand onto the open cage door and she turns her naked back to me and embraces this man and they laugh and stagger in their embrace around the corner.
For a moment I still think I’ve been eloquent. What I’ve said only needs repeating for it to have its transforming effect. “Hello,” I say. “Hello. Pretty bird. Pretty. Bad bird. Bad. Open. Up. Poor baby. Bad bird.” And I am beginning to hear myself as I really sound to her. “Peanut.” I can never say what is in my heart to her. Never.
I stand on my cage door now and my wings stir. I look at the corner to the hallway and down at the end the whooping has begun again. I can fly there and think of things to do about all this.
But I do not. I turn instead and I look at the trees moving just beyond the other end of the room. I look at the sky the color of the brow of a blue-front Amazon. A shadow of birds spanks across the lawn. And I spread my wings. I will fly now. Even though I know there is something between me and that place where I can be free of all these feelings, I will fly. I will throw myself there again and again. Pretty bird. Bad bird. Good night.