Mrs. Hutchinson died from a pet store robbery a few months ago. She couldn’t afford parrot food, so she’d hoofed it to the PetPal, slung a bag of pellets over her shoulder and booked it. The toxicology revealed she’d had a couple Bloodys that morning. The heist was a success. No cop chase. No weapons. In and out, a burglar’s dream. Really, she should have made it home safe. And yet, with a few blocks to go, she croaked.
She’d lived on our block my whole life, but I only started seeing her when her husband passed, and she went batshit, dressing in shawls and long johns, and bought a parrot and started walking around with it. On garbage night she patrolled our block and opened people’s trash while her parrot shrieked “Hi!” She never kept anything. My dad said it was maybe “a weird way to deal with loneliness”—getting to know other people from their trash. My mom abbreviated my dad’s theory: it was weird.
The Parrot Lady, which was what I called Mrs. Hutchinson, often emerged at dusk and watched as Dad and I played catch in the street. All my childhood, he and I did that after dinner. On nights Dad ate a lot, he was tough to pry from his chair. He would grunt dramatically and push himself up as if he were attached to skis. After grabbing two Keystones from the fridge, he would descend the stairs. We would toss the baseball until the sky looked like a bruise and the cold bit our ears. Dad was barely taller than me even back then. He had the posture of kids who know they’re getting picked last for kickball. But to me, he was Dad.
He played guitar for a living in San Francisco, which all the other grownups raved about. “In this city, it is impossible to do what you love nowadays,” I’d overhear them say. He had some high-paying weddings, gave private lessons and also ran a jam session down in the Mission. I went to most, especially when I was too young to stay home. I watched him play My Funny Valentine and How High the Moon for a decade. Mom and I sat in the front row. She sipped her tea and nodded during his solos. Sometimes she looked curious, other times caught off guard. Always, she looked busy in thought. I tried the cultured nods at Dad’s solos from time to time. I liked his jokes in the car after, and the sour wine breath associated with them. By the time I was a senior, I was starting pitcher on varsity. Dad was proud that I got the ball in big games, for he hailed from lineage that hadn’t ever played in a big game of anything. He wore my Jefferson High cap everywhere, to doctor’s appointments and, sometimes after warm beers, to bed. When I got out of big bases-loaded jams, he’d whistle through his fingers from his heap of peanut shells in the stands.
We didn’t play catch anymore, hadn’t in years; his vision was bad at night and his knees were too stiff to get in the crouch. Arthritis had burrowed inside the nooks of his fingers. It had gotten so it hurt to even pinch a guitar pick. He began to cancel his lessons. Students quietly found other teachers, and his private practice closed except for one student, an estranged attorney who came over stoned and talked about A Love Supreme. Occasionally, Dad mumbled visions of surgery while my mom worked extra shifts at the bakery and refused to buy anything that could be considered inessential. Our house took on the mood of famine without actual hunger. Mom worried about college tuition. She talked about Dad’s social security and life insurance and retirement and other stuff that made his head spin.
I was failing geometry mid-spring, and if I didn’t find a way to pull a C, I would be kicked off the baseball team for my senior season. To me, this would not have been catastrophic. I was a small lefty with a thick trunk; good enough for high school but not beyond. I would not have minded having my afternoons free that spring semester. But my dad—if I stopped playing ball—would have been ruined.
So I snuck into my teacher’s classroom one afternoon after school. I waited till she left and jammed myself through an open window. We had a test the next day, and in class I had watched which shelf she put the master copy. Laki, our Samoan security guard who brought his lunch in a roller-suitcase, caught me. He took me to the office, at which point I was sent home. The teacher flunked me; I was booted from the team.
“We feed you,” my mom said. “We drive you through traffic to your little games. I’m trying to get your father to quit drinking. But now? He’s got nothing to do. He’s moping again, Finn.”
Dad was downstairs. From the basement, I could hear Stan Getz, the trebly twang of Dad’s unplugged guitar as he strummed to a slow song.
“Can you please go get him for dinner? He’s not even supposed to be playing with his thumbs.”
Seinfeld that night was the one where Kramer winds up with “ASS MAN” license plates. Dad chortled from his chair, covered his mouth in guilt. I cracked a laugh too. Mom turned it off.
“What the hell?” I said.
I looked at my dad who watched his bowl.
“We’re not going to be one of those TV-at-dinner families. You don’t like it, Finn?” She let out a rhetorical laugh, then stabbed pasta. Dad opened his mouth to say something. It hung open.
“If we don’t want to talk as a family, silence is fine with me,” Mom said.
Why she had turned off Seinfeld to make available this moment, I had no idea. It was one of those things—like eating Brussels sprouts, or taking the stairs—that adults pretended to enjoy for health reasons.
“Come on kid,” Dad said. “Let’s play some catch.”
He pushed out his seat, grabbed two beers and disappeared through the archway in our kitchen. I wasn’t sure whether he was serious. Mom held my stare. For a moment, I felt resentment toward my parents. But then I didn’t like the feeling. I needed an older brother or sister to show me how. I toyed momentarily with my pasta, looked up at Mom. Her face had slackened.
“It’s not fun having to be the bitch all the time,” she said.
“I know, Mom.”
Without the strength to look her in the eye, I scooted my chair and headed down to the basement. I couldn’t bear the image of my dad down there, waiting with two gloves in his hand, shrugging to himself when he realized I wasn’t coming.
“Since when do you want to play catch?” I asked when we got to the middle of the street.
My first toss was underhand; he couldn’t even read the overhead menu at taquerias now, let alone track a fastball at dusk. He rolled his eyes, offended. In the kitchen window, my mom appeared, peeking through curtains. Wispy. Ghostlike. I couldn’t tell if I saw a scowl. I lobbed it again.
“Will you throw the damn thing?”
I put some grease into the next one; Dad leapt out of the way. He walked after the ball. I looked gingerly at Mom. I thought I saw her giggle. Perhaps she had. Dad’s antics. The way his shorts started to fall when he walked. How he wore my old skate shoes—puffy and ludicrous on a short middle-aged man—because he was too lazy to tie the laces of his own. Yes, I was certain, she was smiling. Dad tossed the ball back.
“Throw it that hard until I catch it.”
I tossed the next one firm, making sure to aim away from his head, and once again he let it fly. The ball bounced off a car bumper a few houses down. I started jogging but he waved me off, reached into the truck for his beer, and walked the walk. I looked at the window again. Mom looked like she was experiencing a quirky memory as Dad crawled around under the car like a mechanic. The knots in my stomach loosened. When Dad returned, he brushed himself off and threw his empty in his truck.
“Again,” he said.
Mom leaned out the window.
“Yes, me love?”
He farted and winked at me.
“Do you think you should be doing this?”
“Yes. This is exactly what I should be doing.”
In English, we were reading Moby Dick, and in this moment, I couldn’t shake the image of Dad as a schlubby Ahab, deciding he needed to catch the ball, or die trying.
“Hi!” I heard from down the block, The Parrot Lady and her confidante. Dad caught the next ball, nodded to himself.
“Car,” he said and we shifted to the side of the road as it whished past.
When The Parrot Lady reached us, I saw a wart on her lip that hung down, looking like a missing tooth when she spoke.
“Haven’t seen you two out here in years!”
She gave a gummy smile. I walked into the street, waiting for my dad to do the same. There was about five or ten minutes worth of daylight left.
“Francis,” said The Parrot Lady. “I was going to ask you.”
I didn’t care to hear, figuring it was about chauffeuring her across town to the vet, or his thoughts on the District Supervisor. I flipped the ball, seeing how high I could toss it without hitting electrical wires. Then I counted how many times I could twirl before the ball landed. I worked up to three and a half twirls before I fell over dizzy. Dad found me out of breath in the middle of the street, staring into a marbleish dusk.
“Few more,” I said.
I heard the window slide open. Mom was leaned out, her hair stiff like straw in the breeze.
“There’s a little bit of Ben and Jerry’s in the back of the freezer,” she said. Dad squinted.
“Not much,” she said; I could tell she didn’t like that being kind sent the family into shock. We had ice cream inside, my mom, my dad, and me.
“That parrot. Such pretty colors, no?” Mom asked.
“Bastards live to be like ninety, will probably outlive Mrs. Hutchinson.”
“What did you two talk about?”
“Didn’t seem like nothing.”
“I guess her backyard’s out of hand. She asked about me maybe doing a little weeding. And then haul it off with my truck.”
“Poor woman,” she said.
But I could tell Mom didn’t actually feel that way. She’d had a similar tone during the great recession when Wall Street people with yachts started going down. She tried to sound concerned, but it came out as satisfied. Satisfied to not be them. Satisfied someone else was suffering.
“Did she offer to pay?” Mom asked.
“I told her thanks, but my arthritis.”
“And what about Finn?”
“Finn doesn’t want any part of that thicket.”
She looked at me as if I’d played a part in this. Her cheeks changed color like a science experiment.
“Oh he doesn’t? He sure didn’t want any part of being a good student,” she said. “He no longer has a choice as far as I’m concerned. And you! Your thumbs, your thumbs. Everyone feels so bad for your thumbs.”
Mom left the table and slammed her bedroom door. Dad and I sat there, our eyes meeting then darting, like kids in detention. He had this what-can-you-do sagging face. I longed for just minutes before. Later, when my mom was asleep or locked in her room flipping through books she couldn’t focus on, Dad walked down to The Parrot Lady’s house. He told her he’d changed his mind.
That Saturday, the sun was out, but the grass and pine needles dewy. It was the kind of weather where you left the house in long sleeves but took them off shortly after. That’s how I imagined it would be for Dad. Mom watched him walk down the block as if seeing her child off on his first day of kindergarten. She actually gave him a lunch pail. Sometime after Dad was gone, she knocked on my bedroom door. She stood there, tired, reptile-dry.
“He doesn’t like working without them,” she said.
She showed me his gardening gloves. They were worn out. There didn’t seem to be any redeeming quality about them, which meant they were the kind of thing my dad found a way to cherish.
“He forgot them. Shocker. Bring them over?”
“That father of yours,” she said, almost dreamily. “He’s an idiot.”
I felt a warmth spread through me like an Alka Seltzer commercial, a little fizzing tablet of something good. I decided to bring his gloves from the backyard, hopping one fence at a time until I was at The Parrot Lady’s. I wanted to sneak up on Dad, whip the gloves one at a time at his face from behind a bush. He would be hit with one, address it quizzically, then get plunked once more for a most bewildering ambush. He’d look up, and smile. The chirping birds would inspire him to pause from work and eat a snack. He’d spot a hawk in a tree and be fascinated.
As I advanced yard to yard, I noticed a lot of backyards needed upkeep—overgrown hollies, sprawling blackberries, oceans of iceplant and curry-colored weeds. I thought, maybe this could be my dad’s new work, to clean backyards and haul away the waste. He could be outdoors. He could take and turn down work as he pleased.
I was one yard away from The Parrot Lady’s. I expected to hear the rustled sounds of weeding.
“Francis!” was the next sound I heard. The parrot squawked abruptly, as though startled.
When I was in The Parrot Lady’s yard, I looked up at her window. Shadows moved behind a curtain.
Then I heard a noise that was distinctly Dad’s. The noise he made when he got up after being seated. I watched the silhouettes. When I accepted what this was, I didn’t think it was as revolting as I should have. Impossible, but not revolting. I thought about the Dad I knew, the one who, after rainfall when snails inched across sidewalks, would crouch down, pick them up and place them safely in gardens.
I headed home, one fence at a time. The yards I’d just passed through now appeared different. The weeds looked vast and unconquerable. It struck me that people who let their yards look like this would never pay Dad to make them better.
At home, Mom had set out a sandwich for me, salami. She was in the kitchen, busy with another. Tomato and mayonnaise, Dad’s favorite, with the olive oil mayo for his cholesterol. The day The Parrot Lady died, my parents were out walking, and I was still grounded for cheating. From our kitchen window, a glitter outside caught my eye, and I saw that Dad had left his keys in the door of his truck. Which wasn’t the first time. I didn’t have a license yet. I hadn’t ever been behind a wheel. But my head had been spinning. Months after that day, I still felt cooped up in our small house. I got nauseous when Mom and Dad were reading the paper next to each other on the couch. When Dad made her laugh, the air I breathed got humid.
I pulled the keys, opened the door and seated myself in the truck. I wheeled the window down, then pushed the key into the ignition and turned it. Sports talk promptly filled the car. The adrenaline was refreshing. Slow and calm, I reversed down the driveway. I was honked at. I lowered myself down to the road, put the car in drive, and pushed the gas. I’d hoped to feel the air on my face, but that was not happening; I was driving at a slowness that bordered dangerous. The needle quivered at five mph. My adrenaline was spiked. And I was smiling for a change.
At the end of the block I made an endless stop, looked both ways and even behind. In my periphery, I saw a blur of rainbow, like a beach ball. I made one of those beginner mistakes of, instead of hitting the brakes, slamming the gas. The rainbow object disappeared next to my truck, followed by a Doppler-affected squawk. There was no bump, no collision, not to my recollection. Just, as quick as the colorful thing appeared, it was gone. I jerked the wheel and corrected the truck, missing a parked car by inches.
In my rear view, I glanced and saw the parrot, perched alertly atop the splayed body of Mrs. Hutchinson. The image shrank in the coffinshape of the mirror. That was where The Parrot Lady eventually died. I didn’t stop or turn around. Mostly because I was scared of the law. But also, because fuck her.
In the local news, it came out she had shoplifted from Petpal, was a widow with no money and a drinking problem, which led her to heist ten pounds of birdfeed. They said she died of a heart attack from exertion at an old age. The bird was found clamped to her collarbone. And wouldn’t you know it: Dad wanted to adopt it.
You can get used to just about anything. Enough days go by and you forget what life was like before. For example, summer school. In order to graduate, they are making me retake the math class. Mom is a big fan of this.
“You do something dumb, you pay for it, and you learn,” she yelled over the blender on my first day of class. She poured me a smoothie and put it in a Thermos.
“Hurry to the bus stop. Finn, I love you.”
On the way, I punched a fence and screamed fuck into my collar.
Now, I’m so used to waking up early I’ve forgotten it’s summer. Something else I’ve gotten used to is coming home to the parrot. My dad lying on the couch, the parrot shifting laterally across his clavicle. Dad pets it and winces as it claws into his chest.
Emil DeAndreis has published two books, Beyond Folly (2013) and Hard to Grip (2017), which was a Foreword Reviews INDY Finalist. He received an MFA from San Francisco State, and he teaches English at College of San Mateo. He lives in the Bay Area with his wife.