Fiction — July 17, 2015 16:23 — 0 Comments

Alex’s Parrot – Sara Brody

I am beginning to worry that my parrot is ill, but he dodges interrogation. I’ll say, “How are you feeling today?” and he’ll say, “How are you feeling today?” I’ll say, “Do you want a Ritz Bit?” and he’ll quote Nietzsche. He once belonged to my brother Alex, who is dead. A lot of people I know are dead.

This happened when I was sixteen. That night I sat up in Alex’s room with the parrot, watching the lava lamp. At around three in the morning I tucked the cage under my arm and crept downstairs, intending to take my mother’s car and leave, but halfway down the stairs the parrot started shrieking and woke everyone up. My mother didn’t ask what I was doing. She stood at the top of the stairs in a floral-print nightgown and said, “Tim, you’re so tired. Tim, go back to bed.” She was an ugly crier. Her face would swell like a blowfish and she never bothered to wipe away the snot from her upper lip. Under the circumstances I endured it and slunk back upstairs.

My parrot has gray feathers and black eyes and looks so proud when he puffs out his chest, the little bastard. That year we ran away from home a total of seven times; the furthest we ever got was San Luis Obispo, when we took the train instead of my mother’s car. It was he who doomed me, of course. My mother told the police that her son had run away in the company of a parrot who never shut up. We escaped, finally, when I was eighteen, and no one could stop us anymore.


When I was a child, my mother liked to vacuum the living room. The rest of the house, like so much else, was a chore, but in the living room her lips twisted into what we knew was a smile, what others mistook for a grimace. The television on. People dying someplace strange and hot. Politicians in hats. She couldn’t hear it over the roar of the vacuum, but stared.

Almost no one in San Francisco was born here and I think we all have stories like this, something that sent us running. My father in pinstriped pajamas; I remember that. He’s dead. He had a flushed, bloated face, like a drunk, but he never drank. I have his hands, enormous, thick-knuckled hands with great blue veins that snake down the wrists. My friend Emma says, “No one notices. I promise, no one ever notices.”

She sits now at my kitchen table, on which the birdcage sits, and says, “Claire, I think your parrot is dead.”

“He’s just sick,” I say. “He’s fine.”

It is a Sunday in June, and fog shrouds the city in pale, weighty light. It is the time of year when things vanish. The parrot hunches on his perch and pants. I join Emma at the table and say, “We tried to teach him to deliver letters. Alex and me.”

“Fun,” Emma says.

“He jumped into an empty swimming pool. Headfirst. Did I ever tell you that?”


“A swan-dive. Splat. What a way to go. He didn’t leave a note. The guy couldn’t string together a sentence, at least not on paper. I guess we had fun. We tried to teach the parrot to deliver letters.”

“You just said that.”

“When I was a kid,” I say, “my family used to rent this cabin up in Yosemite. Yosemite in the summer—the light shoots between the redwoods in stripes. Cold nights. My mother made sun tea every morning. She was a regular sun tea wino. My father wore a panama hat. I honestly liked them all—on those trips, at least. I kept telling myself—you know—if I could just throw harder, if I could catch the biggest fish…”


“I’m talking. Anyway, this one summer—I was fourteen, I think—I met this boy. His name was Greg and he was a little older, a grade between me and Alex. Blonde, skinny. Jesus Christ. I wonder what happened to him. He was the kind of kid that you could tell was queer, but not for any particular reason. There was just something about him. So I started hanging out with him, and we started fooling around, and—well, I was terrified, but at the same time I felt so relieved. I thought, Okay, I’m gay, this is what we’re dealing with. This is what’s wrong. Emma. Don’t give me that look. I know it’s not easy to be gay—I’m not saying that—but I knew what it was, you know? One day Greg and I went in my family’s cabin while everyone else was on a hike. My mom was a slow hiker. She took pictures of everything, and brought binoculars to look at the birds, and little guidebooks that had the names of trees. She had to know what the trees were called. We figured, all right, it’s going to take them a million years, we’ll be fine. But Alex—goddamn Alex—he came back early. He hurt his knee or something and walked right in on us. I was an altar boy, Emma. I was. So Alex looks at me and I look at him, and he just turns on his heels and leaves, without even closing the door. I ran the hell out of there. I figured I’d climb a tree and stay there until I starved to death. Night came. The stars were bright and so big; when you grow up in Los Angeles, you really notice them. It got cold and I got scared, and all of a sudden I heard this rustling below me and I thought, This is it. I have to jump. I have to die now. It was Alex, of course. He climbed onto the branch right next to me and said, ‘Do you want to hear a joke?’ I thought it must be a trick. He said, ‘What did the big chimney say to the little chimney?’ The little chimney is too young to smoke. I said, ‘Damnit, Alex, that’s the worst joke I’ve ever heard.’ He said, ‘Come down. Everyone’s looking for you.’ I knew him. I guess I knew him. He used to laugh at Leave it to Beaver reruns. Who laughs at Leave it to Beaver? He would say, Hey, Tim, I’ll give you ten bucks if you write my English paper. Hey, Timmy. T-Bone. I knew him in the way you can know a stranger, someone you’ll never know. Like maybe you see some old lady at the farmer’s market, just staring at the tomatoes. Picking them up and feeling them. She has to get the right tomato, the plumpest and juiciest. You look at her and for some reason she seems so beautiful for doing that, and maybe your eyes meet. Maybe her eyes are blue, or brown. And in the evening she comes to mind again, and you think: I wonder how it would be if we ever really met.”


When I was fifteen, my father caught me trying to strangle myself in my bedroom. He said, “You want to know what pain is? I’ll show you what pain is.” He never once hit us and his voice, when he spoke these words, was firm but unconvincing. Mostly he was confused. I could tell from how he squinted at me, as though I was far away.

Emma has left and my parrot is dying. I take him from the cage and hold him to my chest. The dishwasher hums. He looks at it and whirrs back, feebly.

To this day I have no idea why I wanted him. I don’t drag around my childhood on purpose. Long ago my brother got a parrot. Often I ask myself: What did he know about pain? In the empty pool his skull cracked on impact; the coffin was closed. I wore a black suit to his funeral and cried, not for him, but because I caught my reflection in the windshield of the hearse.

No clap of thunder can overwhelm the echo of lost years. A body can’t trap you; it’s something else that does. On nights like these I look out the window and tell myself that somewhere, someplace, the world must be easy and kind.


Sara Brody is an MFA candidate at San Francisco State University and bookseller in the SF Bay Area. This is her first publication worth bringing up at dinner parties.

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The answer isn't poetry, but rather language

- Richard Kenney