Our bird wanted to die, but we didn’t let him. Not on Christmas Eve. Maybe if it was some lesser holiday (St. Patrick’s Day or Flag Day), but the Christmas spirit had already taken hold of us with its chatter of peace on earth and goodwill toward men, both virtues my family believed surely extended to birds.
The bird in question—a one-year-old African-Grey parrot named Harley—didn’t belong to me, but to my father, a thwarted motorcycle enthusiast who, in place of actually owning a Harley, had taken to naming all things after one, instead. Years prior, my mother had assured him that if he bought anything with two-wheels he would not be long for this world. But that Christmas it was not his life, but his bird’s, that hung in the balance.
Seeming to understand his role as a runner-up to a real motorcycle, upon his entrance into our home, Harley took it upon himself to annoy my mother as much as any bike ever could. No, our auto insurance rates didn’t increase, but what we saved there we invested in trying to keep that bird happy. Mirrors, millet, medical bills—whatever he required. When I first met him I’d dubbed him the “overpriced, neurotic chicken,” a description less comedic than accurate. Still, my father—in complete control of his faculties—willingly forked over a thousand dollars for that bird; a beaked terror with only the slightest genetic variation from the clucking broods he’d raised on his farm as a child.
My mother, brother, and I failed to understand my father’s motives. Was this a mid-life crisis? Would he next buy a capuchin monkey and name it Red Corvette?
Away at college for most of this, I returned that first Christmas to find no monkeys, just that bird trapped in depression’s icy embrace. I, a mere undergraduate with no formal training as a vet or a therapist, failed to note the warning signs. Weight loss, withdrawal, and irritability all just seemed like character traits for Harley.
I’d often heard rumor of the increase in suicides over the holidays, though I was surprised to find that our parrot, too, seemed to have some innate knowledge of the added sadness newly thrust upon his feathered frame. Perhaps he’d seen a statistic while perched in front of the television, his head cocked curiously at the news anchor, momentarily halting his screeching to take in the sobering fact.
While the rest of the family spiraled lights around the Christmas tree, that bird of ours peered out at us, devising his terrible plan.
This was hardly my first experience dealing with dead or dying birds.
Once I employed kitchen tongs to recover the body of a robin caught in the grill of my car.
(Its head fell off.)
Years prior, my baby brother took his first steps and crushed the family parakeet.
(Its everything fell off.)
However, both of these traumas paled in comparison to my stint as a pet store employee. For reasons beyond my understanding, the newly minted manager made her first ill-advised decision of many when she placed me—then a 16-year-old with no animal experience—in charge of the care and well being of every flippered, furried, and feathered beast in the store.
Of all the animals entrusted to me, I felt most like a fraud when dealing with the menagerie of exotic birds—most of them babies—and all of them commanding price tags far higher than Harley. Nowhere on my application had it asked if I felt comfortable managing a menagerie of exotic birds.
Instead, the manager had simply asked if I could stack 20-pound bags of dog food for eight hours straight.
My manager—a bespectacled woman in her mid-forties—seemed far more comfortable bestowing me with the task than I did executing it. She was new to the business, and as I soon discovered, shared many of Harley’s neuroses. I could only reason that her blind faith in my abilities was due to a lack of options. I passed the drug test, I showed up on time, and if I kept at it, she informed me, I’d be a contender for employee of the month. But I didn’t want the honor; all I wanted was to keep from accidently killing those birds.
“Now, when it comes to babies,” the manager said, reading from a manual “the trick is to feed them food warmed somewhere between 98-100 degrees Fahrenheit.”
She handed me a syringe and a batch of bird mash and told me to have at it.
“Not a lot of room for error,” I said, noting the thermometer’s 99 degree reading. “What happens if I slip outside the range?”
“Well let’s see,” she said, scanning the page until she found her answer. “Oh, it says right here they die.”
What it actually said was that if I left the range I’d risk burning holes in the baby birds’ throats, thereby killing them. It seemed a lot of responsibility for minimum wage.
“But hey, you’re a smart kid,” she said. “And you can read a thermometer, right?”
Before I could answer, the manager left me in that aviary, surrounded by half a dozen baby birds that prayed the answer was yes.
There are only so many ways an African-Grey parrot can end its life. It cannot, for instance, jump from a high rise and expect to plummet to the pavement. Nor can it drown itself in its water dish. To end its life properly, the suicidal parrot is restricted to two options: offer itself to a predator or self-mutilate.
Harley had attempted the first option the previous spring. After an afternoon spent bobbing along a branch in a backyard tree, our bird was targeted and dive-bombed by a predatory hawk. Despite the brief struggle that ensued, the hawk’s talons missed their mark, and Harley—having witnessed his life flash before his beady little eyes—hobbled his way shamefully back to the house.
He’d selected Christmas Eve to attempt the second option, and this time, his trouble appeared to be paying off. Sometime before carving the Christmas ham my mother walked into the living room to find Harley burbling blood from his wings, the molt of his plume drifting like snow dust against the backdrop of glowing bulbs.
My dad was nowhere to be found (last minute shopping, perhaps, or entranced in a motorcycle showroom), and so it fell upon me to accompany my mother and Harley to the emergency animal hospital. I sat in the backseat with my hand pressed to the top of the cardboard box, listening to Harley’s claws scratch from within. A peek inside revealed a parrot drunk on blood loss, bobbing his head and pecking at his chest. Every time the car turned, his body skittered across the bottom of the box with the grace of an air hockey puck. His brain may have been the size of a walnut, but he was smart enough not to fight inertia.
Through the square of light at the top of the box, I glanced down at that pitiful creature trapped in his blood-soaked prison.
You did this to yourself, I thought.
But as we pulled into the gray-slushed parking lot of the animal hospital, I realized he’d done it to us as well.
Harley brought no tidings of good cheer, but another message:
Merry Christmas, assholes.
At the end of each shift—once the store doors closed and I’d concluded the nasty business of scooping a few hundred floaters from the rows of glowing tanks—I bypassed the hamsters, gerbils, and guinea pigs, and entered the aviary. Sometimes my fellow employees stopped their restocking to watch me work my magic with the birds, which in truth, was not magic, but an adrenaline-fueled mind game in which I prayed to the God of Birds that tonight would not be the night I massacred them all.
Somehow—perhaps with the God of Birds’ blessing—we always survived the ordeal. Me perched on my stool surrounded by bedding and millet and molt. I’d reach first for the always-agreeable blue and yellow macaw, then the military macaw, until eventually—after buoying myself with a false sense of confidence—I’d make my way to my feathered nemesis, the indignant cockatoo.
One after another I’d stick the syringe down their gullets, pressing the mix into their stomachs as their bodies inflated, their bulging eyes fixed skeptically on my own. Each night they reassessed whether I was the bringer of nourishment or the angel of death, and their verdicts varied with their moods. Only the blue and yellow macaw trusted me fully, squawking merrily before granting me access to her throat. Most of the others dismissed me with a cool coyness, locking their beaks and refusing the key to their survival.
“You need this,” I reasoned with the cockatoo, trying to pry her beak wide with the syringe. “Come on, girl, don’t you want to live?”
This seemed far too existential a question for the indignant cockatoo, whose apparent disinterest in living rivaled Harley’s own less-than-zest for life. Instead, that cockatoo raised her crest into the air like some direct descendent from the God of Birds, chose starvation over any further dealings with me.
The emergency animal hospital was a solemn place that Christmas Eve. After half an hour my mother and I were joined by a few hand-wringing cat owners so lost in their own drama they could hardly pay attention to ours. We didn’t mind the anonymity, though their refusal even to meet our eyes seemed to reinforce what I already knew: that even in the midst of yuletide cheer we are all alone together.
“Haven’t spent Christmas in the animal E.R. for awhile now,” I joked to my mother, which in truth wasn’t a joke at all. A decade prior Santa had seen fit to place a box turtle beneath the tree, though he’d failed to test its temperament prior to doing so. If he had, perhaps he’d have learned that our box turtle fancied himself a snapping turtle and aimed to prove it; mainly by attaching himself to my mother’s finger for most of the morning. That day, my mother celebrated the birth of Jesus by calling out to him (“Jesus Christ! Jesus Christ!”) and when that didn’t work, appealed to God directly: Please Lord, rid this plague from our household.
As my mother and I slouched in the E.R. chairs, I had my own sins to answer for. Perhaps my affectionate “overpriced, neurotic chicken” remarks hadn’t been as affectionate as I’d thought.
And there had been other trespasses.
Such as my brother and I distancing ourselves from that bird the moment we learned there was a chance he could live upwards of 70 years or more. Suddenly, we wanted nothing to do with that everlasting creature, didn’t want to give our parents any excuse to bequeath him to either of us.
I’ll take the china, you take the bird—this became a slogan shared between siblings.
This is not to say Harley hadn’t earned the abuse. At his best, he was innocuous, though far more often he was just plain bad. He became a constant, fluttering threat around the household, a blitzkrieg of feathers who shat mercilessly throughout the living room before crashing beak first into the curtains or getting tangled in the blinds. He was bad at being a bird—bad at being our bird—though my father tried to empathize with his plight, excusing Harley’s poor behavior as a result of his abandonment by previous owners.
“You’re with us now,” Dad assured him. “This will work out for you.”
For months Dad tried to make good on his promise, giving that winged nightmare all the love he could. He was no stranger to mental illness himself, and most everything Harley was feeling he figured he had felt too.
But when I returned home at the end of my freshman year, Dad’s empathy seemed to have reached its limits. Several nights that summer I woke to Dad cursing his bird (“Goddamn it, Harley!”), followed by, “Laurie, where’d you put the Bactine?”
In Harley’s defense, despite being a member of the most communicative animal species on the planet, he’d never once told us his love would come easily or cheap. Rather, he’d kept mostly mum on the matter, at least until he opened his beak to bite.
There was a time in which we hated him as vigorously as he hated us, but in our household, hate always lingered just half a step away from love.
And as my mother and I held vigil for him that Christmas Eve, we failed to keep our feet firmly planted.
In my four-month stint at the pet store, I all but drowned from the blood on my hands. Still, most of my victims were fish (“small inventory”), and likely, they died mostly of natural causes. I always gave those fish a good faith effort, and at the end of the night, when I disposed of their scaled bodies in a mass burial, nobody ever blamed me. There was no farewell—just me and a bag of rainbow-colored bodies plopped to the bottom of the trash.
Far more vigorous were the small-caged critters, all of which refused to die despite my hopes and prayers. They’d earned my spurn. After all, I’d often dedicated full afternoons to capturing one sharp-toothed dwarf hamster after another, shoving their plump, feisty bodies into folded cardboard boxes that resembled Chinese takeout. For hours, parades of little girls and their fathers would stand on the opposite side of the glass, directing me toward one hamster after another.
“No, no, not that one,” the girls would cry. “I want the one that bit you.”
“They both bit me,” I’d smile maniacally, my fingers dripping blood.
“No, stupid! The one that bit you first.”
As it turned out, I actually fared best with the menagerie, and though I only ever sold one parrot—the military macaw—when I reached to retrieve him for his buyer, I did so without incident. His brief skittering back and forth along his pole eventually ended with his tentative leap to my arm.
I’d never sold a bird that large before, and uncertain of protocol, I handed the buyer the price tag (1700.00) and told him to take it to the register while I figured out what to do with his parrot.
The buyer complied, handing over his plastic and dropping more on that bird than I’d earned in the past four months.
I took a moment to say goodbye to my mostly agreeable macaw, stroking his feathers while his neck twisted halfway around to stare at me—the closest thing he had to a mother.
He released a squawk, which I roughly translated as: Thanks for not burning a hole in my throat.
You’re welcome, I thought. Thank you for noticing.
The vet assured us Harley would be fine.
“Maybe not fine,” the vet rephrased, ushering us into the metallic room to be reunited with our bird. “What I mean is, he’s not going to die tonight.”
The vet told us things we mostly already knew—how easy it was for African Greys to become depressed, how we should do all we could to make him feel at home.
But it’s not his home, I thought, staring out at our snow-capped car in the lot. This isn’t even his continent.
As if Harley’s failed suicide attempt wasn’t humiliating enough, the vet fit him with a plastic cone around his neck—a straightjacket for birds—to ensure that he could no longer reach his blood feathers with his beak and inflict further damage.
“Blood fathers?” I asked.
“Feathers connected to the blood stream,” the vet explained. “This bird of yours, he knew what he was doing.”
Stepping into the manager’s dimly lit office, I informed her I was leaving.
“Leaving what?” she asked, clicking inventory into her computer.
She peered at me over the tops of her glasses, cocking her head like a finch.
“This job? You mean your job?”
I’d never quit anything before, and I wasn’t very good at it.
“I got a new job,” I explained. “At a bookstore. I really love books.”
“You really love birds,” she corrected. “And the birds love you.”
I doubted it.
“I mean, this job has been good,” I blathered. “Really good. Good enough. But I just think the bookstore might be better. For me, I mean.”
“How could a bookstore be better than this?” she asked, spreading her arms wide like two stubby wings, slamming her fingers into the filing cabinets on either side.
I refrained from telling her the truth; how the bookstore ensured I wouldn’t come home with pockets filled with parrot shit. And how in a bookstore, I wouldn’t lose any fingers to a dwarf hamster with a taste for flesh.
The manager didn’t need to hear any of this. I had been her faithful sidekick from the start, unloading a few tons of dog food off a semi truck with a smile on my face. I had opened the store with her, had literally built those shelves and stocked them, and most importantly, had seen to it that no animal died unnecessarily.
Sensing my mind was made up, she removed her glasses and began rubbing her eyes.
“Mind if I give you a bit of advice?”
“When you get a bit older,” she said. “You’re going to realize that good enough is good enough. Nothing in this life is ever going to be perfect.”
I started to reply, but she silenced me.
“Now, you may think it might be better elsewhere—greener pastures and what have you—but sticking it out with something ‘good enough’ isn’t the worst way to live. Trust me on this one.”
I didn’t argue but I didn’t trust her either; I just thanked her for giving me my first job.
For two weeks more, I fed those birds faithfully, and then one cold October night, I locked the aviary behind me.
Years later, I tried bestowing this “good enough” advice to Harley, though he didn’t take it. He still hated us far too much. Probably all he wanted for Christmas that year was for a giant hawk to claw out our eyes. Or his.
We tried taking the vet’s advice of including Harley in all family activities, though he wasn’t much for puzzles or gingerbread houses. His favorite pastime continued to be screeching and shitting and tangling himself in the blinds. For a little variety, sometimes he strutted around the house like an angry dinosaur on the verge of extinction, his cone affecting his depth perception so greatly that he was often heard squawking at the stubborn piano bench that refused to move out of his way.
What he learned to love most in the world was the mirror behind the kitchen table. He’d often brave the entire expanse of the living room—past the perils of dogs and cats—for a chance to say hello to his new best friend. They had so much in common after all (even a cone!), but the cruelness of our trick seemed acceptable if it might momentarily ease his pain. We listened as he trilled haunting songs to himself for hours, pressing his beak as close to the glass as his cone allowed. He’d intersperse a few clucks between his warbles, as if sending out an ancient S.O.S. to the God of Birds who’d stopped listening. My family and I never stopped listening, but we never answered, either.
For a while, I thought Harley might just make it in our household, but he didn’t. Our love for one another knew bounds. Eventually, my father persuaded my mother to allow him a real motorcycle, and Dad’s temporary fill-in was handed off to a woman who owned several exotic birds.
Harley scratched fiercely from inside his box as we handed him over to her.
It’s okay, boy, Dad assured him. This will work out for you.
But even Harley knew better than to swallow the lie my father tried to feed him.
B.J. Hollars is the author of two books of nonfiction--Thirteen Loops: Race, Violence and the Last Lynching in America and Opening the Doors: The Desegregation of the University of Alabama and the Fight for Civil Rights in Tuscaloosa—as well as a collection of stories, Sightings. His hybrid text, Dispatches from the Drownings: Reporting the Fiction of Nonfiction will be published in the fall of 2014. He is an assistant professor of creative writing at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.
Q: What surprised you most during the process of composing and revising this piece?
A: The story of Harley defied a simple retelling. It wasn’t until I hit upon my own experiences with exotic birds at the pet store that I began to get a better sense of that bird’s perspective, as well as my father’s loyalties to his bird.
Q: What’s the best writing advice you’ve received? Did you follow it? Why, or why not?
A: Everything Michael Martone ever said. And yes, always. Because it was true.
Q: What three to five authors and/or books have inspired your journey as a writer?
A: Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine
Eula Biss’s Time and Distance Overcome
E.B. White’s Essays of E.B. White
Q: Describe your writing space for us. Are you someone who finds the muse in a public space such as a café, or in a cave of one’s own?
A: I recently acquired a new space, which is a cement-floored basement dungeon complete with a workbench, which I’ve converted into a “workspace.” On it sits a typewriter, a record player, a stack of postcards, and when I’m writing, my laptop. It’s not a place you’d want to spend a lot of time, so when you’re down there, you’re down there to write.