From 'Parrot Fever'

by Jan Kerouac

(Illustration by Malcolm Humes)

CHAPTER 3

Jacob

Jacob Luna stretched and yawned luxuriously in the King-sized bed. He had momentarily forgotten where he was, but then remembered--Ah yes ... thank God for old girlfriends who go on trips to Paris and need parrot-sitting. He listened for a moment to see if the bird was making any noises--but no, not with the Madras bedspread covering her cage. Lavender light bathed the bedroom, and Jacob reveled in it. This was his favorite time to sleep. He let himself fall back into a dreamscape.

Suddenly, he was in front of the building with a gang of guys all dressed in black leather, and all climbing onto Harley Davidsons. Jacob was one of them, evidently, and as he climbed onto the black leather seat of his Harley--there was a baby in swaddling clothes lying there ... a very tiny baby. Then he noticed that the baby was blue--an unearthly shade of blue, like Tibetan deities he had seen on Buddhist tapestries. But this infant was by no means helpless, in fact it was very wise, and began giving Jacob advice. Now the dream took on an extremely important tone, ... as the dreamer clung intently to the telepathic admonishments of the blue baby.

But a ringing sound invaded his reverie--the phone--that's what it was! He struggled with the sheets to pick up the receiver--still in a dream daze..."Is dis Sister Mary Elyse?" asked a stupid-sounding female voice. "No, Goddamn it!" Jacob bellowed and slammed down the phone ... What an idiotic interruption of his fantastic dream! He desperately wanted to crawl back and find out what the wise blue baby was trying to tell him.

Veronica's king-sized bed was so deliciously comfortable, that Jacob began to drift again--only to be jarred awake by:

"EXTOIMENAYTAAA-AH!" at the door. Alright, that's it ... grumbled Jacob, resignedly getting up, and throwing on a woman's pink flowered robe.

He flung open the door and the exterminator looked him up and down with a noticeable smirk, which Jacob chose not to notice. The exterminator followed him through the railroad apartment to the kitchen where he wasted no time in beginning to squirt his evil-looking nozzle all around the floor.

Now the parrot, still in her cage and still covered with the blue Madras bedspread, sensed something was amiss and commenced shrieking an ear-splitting alarm--all the worse for bouncing off the walls of the tiny kitchen. To Jacob's delight, the intruder fled in terror. And now, finally, he could make coffee in peace-!

He flung the cover off the cage like a matador, and Voila! There was the BIRD ... a bright green tiny winged being. He unlatched the cage door and out she burst with a screech of triumph, landing on her perch. At first she continued the screeching, and Jacob was run out of the kitchen holding his ears. He was beginning to think that maybe this parrot-sitting wasn't such a good idea after all. He flicked on the radio, hoping to drown her out, or better yet, distract her. He found a note from Veronica stuck to the refrigerator door with a magnetized tiny tea kettle:

INSTRUCTIONS ON THE CARE AND FEEDING OF MACKI

Hi Jake--(Jacob winced. He hated that nick-name) ... This bird is from Africa, and she was born in the wild and captured. She is accustomed to flying through towering jungle canopies and foraging for tropical fruits, and ripping up tree bark with her beak. Perhaps that's why she loves to swoop freely through the apartment and chew the edges of books. Please, if you see her doing this, shoo her away! She likes to eat a variety of fruit ... apples, Kiwis, seeded grapes--(The prize is the pit inside) ... peaches, cherries. The only thing you must not give her is avocado--deadly poison for a parrot! Give Macki (short for Macadamia) a bath once a week by filling a bowl with water and leaving it on the kitchen table ... she'll wait til she's alone and hop in. Any bowl will do-anything but the crystal punchbowl, that is. Well, Good Luck--Love, Veronica.

So--Macki... that's your name huh, Birdy? I like Bird better. He approached the parrot and she screeched out a warning ... flapped her chartreuse wings. "Alright, alright--I'm not gonna eat you!" He suddenly remembered Veronica once having said that Macki was afraid of beards--he went into the bathroom and, sure enough, he was taking on a decidedly Mr. Hyde look. This combined with curly black chest hairs peeking through pink lace was too ridiculous. "Oh my God!" Jacob gasped ... no wonder the exterminator had given him that look! He would have to get his box of clothes sent down from Maine. He threw the robe in a heap and yanked on brown corduroy pants. "OK Birdy--keep your pants on!" Jacob projected, "I'm gonna feed ya." As he rummaged for fruit in the crisper, Veronica's voice kept repeating: Anything but the crystal punchbowl...

He stood up with an armload of kiwis, grapes and apples, and focused on the forbidden bowl; it was all dusty with disuse sitting forlornly atop the refrigerator. Jacob couldn't think of a more magnificent purpose for the bowl than to serve as the glittering sturdy receptacle for Madam Macadamia's ablutions. "Sorry, Veronica." He chuckled, getting down the heavy thing and blowing the dust out. He filled it half full of New York City tap water and set it on the table. Macki cocked her tiny green head to one side and made an appreciative tweet ... and she seemed to be aware that food was being prepared. Jacob approached her slowly and held out a piece of kiwi. She took it with her beak and proceeded to snap all the little black seeds, one by one. It was a pleasing sound.

Jacob poured coffee beans into the grinder ... he winced in anticipation, pressed down, causing a tremendous din, which caused the bird to fling her kiwi SPLAT! onto the linoleum and exit the kitchen with a drowned-out screech and great flapping of wings. Well, at least now he knew how to get her out of the kitchen! Maybe he could finally get some work done on his play. Jacob felt the rare tingle of inspiration. He shoved the crystal bird bath off to one side of the table to make room for his typewriter, and got himself situated with a cup of coffee.

Whole heaps of cumulus clouds mocked Jacob through the window. He had hoped to see the usual panorama of slate-grey smog to match his mood this morning, but no ... even the clouds were more creative than he. It seemed that some giant aproned mother in the sky had whipped them up like cream topping in a cosmic mixmaster. She had been up and busy for hours, whereas he had only just rolled out of bed. The fluffy stuff was not for him. Because he was a bad boy ... lazy, cranky, flippant and therefore, unworthy. No doubt it was all meant for some guy down the block--some disgustingly industrious Yuppie who at this very moment was completing a book or a screenplay, or a symphony ... pulling the last page out of the typewriter with a satisfied sigh. Someone who deserved a reward ... someone who heaven could approve of.

Ah well, at least there was coffee.... Thank God for coffee! When all was grim and hopeless, one could still count on the venerable Bean for consolation.

He sat there for over half an hour with the typewriter humming, his hands poised above the keys, imagining great elaborations of sentences ... but time and again, doubt would enter in, making him scratch his head and take another gulp of coffee. Then, all of a sudden, the tension in his fingers was just too much, and they tapped out:

kftjgjghgffigo8hudriyuitujrhifhgj!

Now Jacob found himself in a strange vacuum of silence ... the bird-that's what it was ... she was conspicuously absent--and suspiciously quiet. He tiptoed into the front room, looking high and low--could she have escaped? A flash of dread zipped through him at the thought of it. But no, there she was, up on a book shelf by the ceiling--doing just what Veronica had warned she might do: chewing on books. He shoed her away and assessed the damage; a pile of chewed book binding had cascaded to the floor from one particular book ... he climbed up to see what it was. THE PAINTED BIRD by JERZY KOSINSKI ... the D and B chewed clean off! Jacob stared at the book in awe for some moments...Why had she chosen this one?? Could the parrot read? Was she a psychic bird? Wow ... he'd have to write Veronica about this.

But now he was feeling a certain panic; he had to get out of the apartment ... the sun was streaming in the windows and he could hear voices and traffic outside--the world was going on without him! This was probably a hangover from nap time as a boy, when he had been tortured by the sounds of his buddies playing outside while he was forced to stay in bed with shades drawn ... kind of like being dead.

Jacob bounded out the door into hazy Brooklyn sunshine. He felt so energetic, he wanted to skip ... but he didn't dare do it in view of the Italian guys playing stick ball--they'd probably yell out; "Aye! Looka da fuckin' fairy homo!" And he couldn't have that. Zipping along Court Street toward the subway station he stopped for a moment, remembering that in his haste he had forgotten the check he wanted to deposit, and the very thing that was most important to his mission; the first act of his play! He smacked himself in the forehead ... some passing teenage girls stared at him and giggled. Damn! He had wanted to show it to his agent in Manhattan! But to go back and retrieve it now was unthinkable: it would ruin his momentum, which at this point was all-consuming. He scurried past the Pakistani in the newsstand--and time to buy gum today--and quick-stepped down into the Carrol Garden subway, token poised for the bright yellow turnstile. He could hear the horrific subterranean rumble of the train below--and yes! What luck, it was the "F" and not the "G". Even though the G train went through the same tunnel it always seemed bound for some hellish dimension, and gave Jacob the shivers. But he knew exactly where this one went. He swooped in with shades on, claimed an edge seat by the door, and buried his face in the Daily News. Of course he wasn't reading ... just using it as a shield. He pulled his jacket collar up unevenly, scratched his scruffy brown hair, and put his sunglasses askew, then concentrated on the dark aura: a deeply disturbed, desperate attitude which said, "Yeah, I'm your fellow New Yorker, and I'm pissed. I might be a junkie or some kind of a psycho, you never know--so stay away from me."

This worked splendidly, and had for many years now. He had never been mugged, and if someone approached him menacingly, he simply began muttering and picking his nose. Tough guys, he'd observed, were easily grossed out.

Between York Street and East Broadway, as the train was thundering from Brooklyn to Manhattan beneath the East River--the door between cars opened, and in staggered a grimy character with a crazed took in his eyes; just the sort who struck terror into everyone's hearts. Each passenger responded by cringing deeper into his respective shell. Jacob was getting ready to mumble-Then, to everyone's surprise, the door at the opposite end of the car opened, and there stood another bummish weirdo. Bracing themselves awkwardly against the madly lurching train, each began his panhandling spiel at the same moment--and then--they saw each other. It must have been a frightening mirror image, for they both backed up through the doors--seeming to melt into an uncertain crashing darkness beyond. All the passengers breathed an inaudible sigh of relief, and a few let out little explosions of suppressed laughter. What an unprecedented event! thought Jacob ... There were so many beggars in the city now, that they were already stepping on each others' toes! His spirits were lifted as he bounded up the urinaceous steps to 42nd Street.

Jacob was ready for a frenetic foot race up Fifth Avenue to the Park--with stops on the way. The first would be his ritual restroom pit stop in Trump Towers ... what better place to relieve oneself than in the belly of that gleaming gold palace?

But as luck would have it, there was a crew of uniformed maintenance men spewing mountains of white foam all over the golden floors from some kind of a reverse vacuum cleaner. And the restrooms were cordoned off.

Even the escalators were stopped so he couldn't take his favorite golden staircase ride. Oh well, he sighed and re-emerged on the street, merging quickly into the teaming rapids of humanity.

As Jacob lurched along with the frenetic crowd of secretaries, business men, delivery boys and assorted bums, he tried to think what to do next: should he duck into some old restaurant and order "Coffee and a Danish," with an exaggerated New York accent ... go for a browse in Barnes & Noble? Or did he dare to drop in on his agent, even though he had nothing to show him? And why not? A rebellious voice inside him argued--as if responding to an authority -figure ... after all, they were friends. He could buy his agent a drink and they could discuss the structure of the play. But maybe he should call first ... he approached a couple of pay phones on the corner of 55th, but two guys beat him to it--plus, he couldn't find a quarter. Ahhh. What the hell ... better to be spontaneous.

In the ritzy lobby, the doorman looked him up and down suspiciously. On the thirteenth floor he knocked on 13F. A chubby-faced be-robed fellow opened the door. "Hey Wally!" said Jacob hopefully. "Oh, hi buddy (Wally always called him 'buddy') you know--I'm right in the middle of a very important meeting--it's Damon Knight..." Wally whispered into the plush hallway. "He's got another bestseller." "That's OK, I was just in the neighborhood and-- " said Jacob. As an afterthought it seemed, before closing the door, Wally asked, "So how's the play coming?"

"Oh, fine, fine ... I was just working on it this morning-- " called Jacob as he walked toward the elevator.

Once alone, he felt truly sheepish ... What would Wally think of him if he could see the gibberish he had typed this morning? He shook his head. He was beginning to think he would always be a kid at heart ... while all his peers had no trouble embracing adulthood, there Jacob would be--skipping along, forgetting worthless manuscripts, stealing white-out, mismanaging his taxes, going on silly, spur-of-the-moment canoe rides with women he'd never met in flooded rivers...

He was entering the green leafy beginnings of Central Park--and his thoughts turned to Maxine. It was that certain raciness of deciduous trees peculiar to Eastern forests that summoned up the memory of the interlude in Maine. Although, come to think of it, there were mostly birch trees up there ... a narrow row of white-barked sentinels through which they had squeezed the canoe.

He sat down on a park bench, and began to absent-mindedly scratch the bare dirt with a stick. Odd, he thought, how that one very brief adventure stood out in his life as such a quintessential experience. In the canoe ... floating down the flooded Penobscott with his raven-haired companion, past the birches, Jacob had for once felt that he was doing the right thing ... Everything had been 'just right', like the proverbial bowl of porridge. The only other time he had felt anything like t was in the Bayou of Louisiana with his father at age twelve.

Superimposed on his reverie was the M A I N E drawn by his stick in the dirt at his feet. Then, he discovered, if he put in an X it became MAXINE. Perhaps the reason for this special feeling was that they were both part American native ... she had said she was part Algonquin, and he knew that he was part Cherokee. Could they have been running a DNA movie reel? Something harkening back to fur trappers on the Saint Lawrence a hundred years ago? He wondered what she was doing now...

Just then, a homeless guy, reeking of urine, tumbled over holding out a styrofoam cup--"Spare change?" he chanted. "No thanx," Said Jacob, getting up. It was time to go. He was tired now, after his whole day of doing nothing, and decided on the spur of the moment to hail a cab. It was getting towards twilight, and he had never outgrown the thrill of looking through the rear window of a cab at the eternally magnificent New York skyline while being driven across the Brooklyn Bridge. Especially when it was all dark and twinkling. But now, none of the cabs wanted to take him to Brooklyn, since all the action was in Manhattan. When he finally found a willing driver, the problem was that he didn't know how to go to Brooklyn--nor, for that matter, did he speak any English. The guy had on a huge, really weird hat with all sorts of tassels. Jacob squinted to make out his name which was truly unpronounceable; something like,

GNUNH KITABLUJABBHE

Next, to what looked like a Wanted by the FBI photo. All the way home Jacob had to point which way to go, so he didn't get to sit back and watch the skyline reeling by.

Jacob fumbled with the keys, cursing and sneezing and dropping the pile of letters in the hallway. Once inside the railroad apartment, he dumped everything on the floor in a trail; mail, paper bag with typewriter ribbon sponge and lime Jell-O, flowers, Daily News, keys ... he was heading straight for the bathroom, panting "Sanctuary!" like the Hunchback of Notre Dame. Then he took a long, luxurious leek. He was still daydreaming about Maxine, as he stared vacantly into the toilet bowl. Sitting in the canoe -in their heavy wool coats, stabbing at small icebergs with the oars, he had felt a rare childlike simplicity shared with Maxine ... rare indeed nowadays to find someone who will gleefully go out with you in a borrowed canoe in floodwaters just for the sheer heck of it! Anyone else would have been riddled with all sorts of "Adult" concerns, such as, Is it a leaky canoe? and What if we capsize? or, shame on you Jacob-- you're older, you should know better! How terribly irresponsible! But that was just it--they were being irresponsible, and loving every minute of it.

Jacob picked up the trail of stuff he had dropped, and sorted through his mail ... he had let the bird out of her cage again and she flew back and forth through the apartment now, getting closer and closer to the top of his head each time. My God--she's divebombing me! he thought. As he crumpled up the junk mail and hurled it toward the garbage, he felt the wind whoosh from her green wing in his hair. Goddamn it! More Xeroxed crap from my mother's groupies! He hardly remembered his mother, since she had committed suicide when he was eight, but plenty of other people seemed to feel they knew her quite well. Carmen Luna had been a Vogue model in the 50's--her uniquely beautiful high-cheek-boned face plastered all over the fashion world for three years running when Jacob was but a toddler. The only thing he'd inherited from her was a carbon copy DNA stamp; her face, which had made him quite an interesting-looking guy. But he didn't even own a photo of himself with his mother. Yet this cult following of hers kept deluging him with pamphlets, flyers, crummy mimeographed newsletters, and all kinds of annoying paper reproductions of his mother's haunting countenance, as if they did him any good!

He let out an exasperated sigh, suddenly feeling worn out from all the events of the day--even though he'd done absolutely nothing. This realization made him feel guilty and hollow. He flipped on the TV and instantly was barraged by the theme music of "Live at Five", which sounded to him like an army of cockroaches dancing the Merengue on crack. "An out-of-work actor was decapitated today on 57th and Broadway when an iron beam fell from a construction site.$"

Wow! He thought ... that could have been me! I was only a few blocks from there! Ahh...what a great thing it was to live in New York--and come home every evening to watch the local news, and find out how close you came to being killed that day in Manhattan. Ha! Missed me again, you bastards ... it was like a giant pinball game, and Jacob was really racking up points.

But soon the frenetic voice of the announcer faded away, as did the whooshing bird and the shouts outside the airshaft window. Jacob had sunk into the couch, completely unaware of the blurry transition from waking to sleeping, and there he lay in a paralyzed stupor against the pile of crumpled black and white photos of his mother.

When he came to an hour and a half later, he found his subconscious mind was being invaded by a cheesy Western. The madam of a brothel had just poisoned one of her whores ... the small ornate glass had fallen out of her hand as she collapsed, making a tinkling crunch as it broke on the floor. It was an odd thing, how this crunch-tinkling noise affected 1-6m. He didn't feel cranky or itchy, like he usually felt when waking up in the evening from a nap ... in fact this time, he had an amazing sensation of smoothness and calm. And all because of that sound--...the sound of that glass breaking.

Jacob rose gingerly from the couch, afraid to jar himself out of this new-found serenity. He'd never felt anything like it before. It was almost as if his brain had manufactured some sort of drug while he was sleeping ... a tranquilizer or endorphin to take the edge off everything ... he carefully bent over to gather up the heap of junk mail, as though he were balancing a fishbowl on his head. He wanted this sensation to last as long as possible. As he was stuffing junk mail into the trash, a piece of valuable-looking correspondence caught his eye; a postcard which had been hidden inside a supermarket circular ... it was a card from the coast of Maine--from Maxine ... and to think--he almost hadn't seen it! He squatted in the kitchen, squinting at the spastic scrawl.

Hi Jacob--So what's up with you? Scarlet and I are painting the boat ... almost got attacked by warbs--wands [ WHAT?? He couldn't make out the word ... he ran and got his magnifying glass, but it only made the unintelligible scribble bigger. So he read on.] ... we had taken out the radio and disturbed their rest ... Oh, WASPS! That's what she was saying. He shook his head. He would have to remind her to improve her penmanship.
He now glanced up at the kitchen table, and was shocked to see in place of the bouquet of carnations he had placed in a vase, earlier ... a bare bundle of stems surrounded by a devastation of pink petals strewn everywhere ... even floating in the crystal punchbowl birdbath. He stood there smiling and shaking his head for some moments, still with the special feeling saturating his being. Some very fluid inspiration beckoned, and he went to the piano.

He began to play Maurice Ravel's Oiseaus Tristes. Effortlessly. As he sat there on the bench making magical bell-like tones, the bird came and lit upon his surprised head. The-little claws on her bird feet dug into his scalp ever-so-gently, and he was aware of the tiny five ounce body shifting its weight to keep balanced. She was actually preening his hair ... taking each strand with her beak and pulling it up separately. It was a marvelous exercise--trying to concentrate on playing while getting this micro massage. Just then he caught sight of the reflection in the mirror across the room--a man playing the piano with a bird standing on his head. Life here in Veronica's place was beginning to seem decidedly Edgar Allen Poeish--except that this raven was green.

Copyright Jan Kerouac 1995. All rights reserved.

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