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Comedy Stories

The King of Carrion

Although he loved her from afar, she sized him up fairly quickly, determined him to be reliable, then volunteered him to watch her cockatoo for the holiday break.

“I’ll be back next week. Its food is in the plastic bag. If you could, give it some fruit once or twice a day,” she said breezily over her shoulder, as if parenting parrots came naturally.

“What type of fruit—” he tried to ask her. As the door slammed on her way out, the parrot gave an ear-splitting chirp. He looked at the bird, waiting for it to stop. But the bird chirped again, loud and insistent.

The bird appeared unkempt, and its cage was dirty.

Perhaps if he took very good care of the bird, she’d see him in a different light? As neighbors in their apartment building, he had always been so courteous to her, even when she pretended not to see him. He’d picked up her prescriptions and de-iced her windshield and empathetically listened to her endless stories about her mother. He’d changed her lightbulbs and retrieved her packages and caught the tiny vermin which entered her apartment on occasion. He’d seen some of the larger vermin leave her apartment early in the mornings, promising to call.

Now, he looked at the bird thoughtfully. There must be more to taking care of a bird than feeding them nuts and seeds and fruit, he thought. It seemed to want something on his dinette table. Not the stack of library books that needed to be returned. Not the remains of his dinner, Chinese takeout, now cold and congealed in its foam clamshell container. Not the bills that he couldn’t figure out how to pay this month.

He offered the bird the food she had left. He gave the bird fresh water. He even thoroughly cleaned its cage, replacing its filthy liner, wearing large yellow rubber gloves. To each act, the cockatoo puffed up its feathers and hissed at him in annoyance, chirping again loudly, letting him know that each offering was unacceptable.

“What do you want?” he asked the bird in frustration. What more could he possibly do?

“Ted HUGHES,” the bird squawked.

Ted Hughes? Ted Hughes, the marginal poet married to Sylvia Plath? He was such a horrible man that eventually his wife, his mistress, and his son all took their own lives. His mistress even killed their daughter! Ted Hughes? What a request.

“Ted HUGHES,” the bird squawked.

He fumbled with his iPhone, pulling up one of the poet’s works.

“DOOR! DOOR!” the bird called out, a plaintive cry that made him quickly open its cage. The bird immediately rested its head on his shoulder.

“Here’s a short one—”

“Ted HUGHES,” the bird squawked.

“Yes, Ted Hughes. Ready?”

The bird snuggled more fully into his chest, preparing to listen. It looked up at him in a wholly expectant way, head slightly cocked to the side.

“The empty world, from which the last cry / Flapped hugely, hopelessly away . . .”

At the end of the poem, the bird spread its feathers, raised its crest, and flapped its wings as if applauding.

“You liked that?” He said, smiling. He went over to the kitchen, with the cockatoo now curled around his shoulder, looking for an apple to pare for it. The bird’s grateful reaction to the carefully prepared treat was immensely satisfying.

“SHELL-ey!” the bird squawked.

“Say again?” He looked down at the bird, now the cockatoo returning his gaze with one of absolute wonder and trust.

“SHELL-ey.”

Shelley? Percy Bysshe Shelley? The British Romantic poet who cheated on his first wife, Harriet, who then committed suicide while pregnant with their child? Shelley, who took copious amounts of opium and laudanum, while espousing radical views about free love, atheism, and vegetarianism? His second wife was a far better writer!

“SHELL-ey . . . ” the bird said quietly and nuzzled his neck.

He tapped his iPhone in earnest.

“Hail to thee, blithe Spirit! / Bird thou never wert, / That from Heaven, or near it, / Pour thy full heart / In profuse strains of unpremeditated art.”

The bird did its best to kiss him.

He tapped his iPhone again. “It says here that since you don’t have a partner, you might need me to scratch your head.” The bird held its head up from off his chest. He lightly scratched the feathers on top of the bird’s head and neck. The bird seemed far happier, having help with preening the areas he could not reach.

“Let’s see your nails,” he said to the bird. The bird spread out his claws and held a foot up for his inspection. Just as he suspected: overgrown. “Hold on, fella,” he said, while walking to the medicine cabinet in the bathroom. He retrieved a nail file from the small shelf, next to his anxiety medications, and began to file the bird’s claws down a bit.

“EM-Lee,” the bird cooed. “EM-Lee.” The bird flapped over to the dinette table and began to peck at his iPhone.

“I’ll take it from here,” he smiled, rescuing the electronic device from the curious cockatoo. “Who are you researching? Em Lee? Emily? Emily Dickinson?”

The cockatoo bobbed and weaved its affirmation.

“Oh, I have one of Dickinson’s poems memorized from grade school,” he smiled at the bird and dramatically cleared his voice to the bird’s great delight. “Hope is the thing with feathers – / That perches in the soul – / And sings the tune without the words – / And never stops – at all …”

In a burst of joy, the bird fluttered all of its feathers and glided in a tight circle around the small apartment, causing him to laugh. Then the two of them sat and watched television together, sharing a few stale pistachios and slices of apple.

She returned several days later than expected to pick up her bird. At the sight of her, the cockatoo retreated in his clean cage and loudly chirped his displeasure, hissing as she drew near.

“What’s wrong with it?” she said.

“Nothing,” he said. “He’s been wonderful this past week.”

“You know, I’m exhausted from my trip. Would you mind keeping it for one more night?” Eyelashes batted.

“I wouldn’t mind keeping him,” he boldly stated, staring her full in the face.

“POE,” screeched the bird and hissed at her again.

“What’s wrong with it?” she repeated.

“Nothing is wrong with him. He just really likes Edgar Allan Poe.”

“Who?” she asked, looking between her neighbor and the bird. She suddenly felt like an outsider.

“Do you want to go home with this woman?” he asked the cockatoo.

“NEVERMORE,” shrieked the bird.

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