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Three Stories by Larry French

The Parakeet Lounge

It had been raining for days. A slow gentle steamy rain. He saw the neon sign through the mist. It was the only building for miles and the neon spelled out THE PARAKEET LOUNGE in blue and green. Behind the red brick building was a cornfield. There were fields of something in every direction. The man recognized it as one of those isolated country bars that exist for farmers and ranch hands to go for drinks and a sandwich at lunch. On weekends they would dress up and take their wives to the bar. There would be a country singer and maybe they would dance. They all knew each other.

The man was hungry so he pulled into the parking lot next to the bar. He took his jacket and tie off and threw them in the back seat. He took his wallet but left his briefcase in the passenger seat. Once inside he saw it was like every bar. A worn pool table, beer signs with waterfalls that looked like they were moving. There was a woman behind the bar. She could have been forty or sixty-five. There was some kind of pie on the bar with a plastic cover over it. There were beer nuts. The woman was wiping the bar in a circular motion. "So where're the parakeets?" he said.

"Gone. All dead." She kept wiping the counter.

"What kind of beer you got?" he said.

"There were sixty-two at one time."

"That's some selection. Do you just have a Heineken?"

"Parakeets," she said. "Sixty-two parakeets. I had names for most of 'em. Taught 'em to talk. Then that son of a bitch from the health department came round."

"You really had sixty-two parakeets in here?"

"Seven cages. One up by the T.V. One at each end of the bar. One over the pool table. The other three over by the dinner tables. Kept sunflower seeds on the bar. Customers could eat 'em or feed 'em to the birds."

"That was a nice touch," he said. He ordered a cold ham and cheese sandwich and she brought the Heineken.

"Then that little bastard from the county health department came in one afternoon," she said. "Just like you right now. He was really a little man. Not much over five feet and I could tell he hated them birds right off."

The woman was back wiping. The man had the feeling she never stopped moving.

"Said they were a health hazard," she said. "Said they carried exotic diseases. Said the shit attracted flies. Said more stuff than you can remember. I told him none of these farm boys ever got sick. Not even from parakeets but it didn't do no good. He said get rid of 'em or he'd close us down. So I just had the boys do it."

The man wiped the salt from the potato chips on the napkin. He ordered another beer. He guessed that was why the chips were free.

"Do what?" he asked.

"Get rid of 'em."

"You mean you killed them! You killed all sixty-two parakeets?"

She stopped wiping and walked over to where he was sitting.

"Mister, it would have killed me to see my birds flying around these fields and nobody feeding them. Finding 'em dead one by one. Knowing the winter would kill 'em anyway. So the boys did it for me."

"Jesus," said the man. "That must have been something to see."

"Well, I can tell you this. I been watching 'em do hogs all my life. Every year four or five hogs and I will tell you hogs was easier."

The man was feeling the beer. He ordered a Jack Daniels and another Heineken. He had a long way to drive but he could stop along the way and take a nap in the car. He killed the Jack Daniels in two swallows then asked the old lady, "Does the guy from the health department still come around?"

"Nah, he had some kind of accident. You can't blame me for not feeling too bad about it."

"Why don't you change the name?"

"What do you mean?" she asked.

"That parakeet stuff. Why don't you call it something else? How long ago did all this happen?"

"Last week. Mister, you can go now. You done finished your meal. You can just go now."

He put some money on the bar and walked out. It had stopped raining. He saw three boys in their late teens. They were leaning against the red brick wall of the tavern. Two of them were picking their teeth with something. They were all looking at the spot where his car had been. "Where's my car? You boys take my car? You know who did?"

They just looked at the dry imprint where the car had stood.

"Well, that's it. I'm calling the police."

He went back to the bar but the door was locked. He beat on it with his fists. She had put the closed sign in the window. He looked around the edge of the sign and saw her. She had come out from behind the bar and was sitting at the bar stool where he had been. He knocked louder and shouted but she wouldn't turn around. He turned back to where the three boys were standing. One of them was urinating against the wall and smiling at him. He finished and turned towards the man. He leaned back slightly, held his penis in his fist, and shook it at the man. The man could feel them watching him. He looked beyond them to the fields and saw the dark clouds of the next front moving across the sky. He knew the rain was only a matter of minutes away.

The Awful Billboard of Sharks

"My God," she said. "Did you see that?"

"You mean that billboard?" the man asked, turning around from his driving to look at the children in the back seat.

"Of course the billboard. It was awful. They shouldn't allow advertisements like that. I thank God the kids didn't see it. That's all they need. More nightmares than they got already with us."

The man drove awhile in the dark countryside, then said, "I thought this vacation was supposed to patch things up. Remember? We're gonna let the past go. No negative talk."

"I know," she said, still thinking of the billboard. "I know, I know."

The billboard itself was very large and stood alone near the road in a wheat field. It was late at night and it stood out lit in the darkness. It showed the head and upper body of a shark coming out of the water. The shark had bitten a surfer and his board in half. Part of the board and the upper body of the surfer were still in the shark's jaws. The rest were in mid air over the water. Blood spread from the jaws of the shark and gushed across the billboard from the lower half of the body of the surfer.

"We could have made it," she said.

"You mean you're still writing it off?" he asked.

"We've gone too far to turn back," she said.

The man drove for a few minutes in silence then turned to look at her. The lights from the dash made her face glow green in the darkness and he could see tears running down her cheeks.

"I guess we're committed, right?" he said. "You always wanted us to be committed. Now it's just you and me against the world. That's what you wanted and now I've given it to you. Now you say you don't want it. Well, it's too late now to tell me you don't want it!"

The woman was sobbing loudly now. She held her head in her hands and rocked back and forth in the seat.

The man pulled the car off the highway and onto a gravel road and slid to a stop. He forgot to push the clutch in and the engine died. The car sat there in the dark with its headlights on and dust catching up and passing it. It was very quiet except for the sounds of the crickets and frogs from the nearby swamp.

She knew he was screaming but her ears were tight and he sounded far away. She could hardly hear him. The only thing she could hear was the frogs. Somehow they sounded right inside the car. The woman looked over the back of the seat at the children. They had fallen forward off the back seat onto the floor with the force of the stop. Their legs and arms were twisted awkwardly together but still they almost looked as if they were asleep.

Meat

They were looking for a small neighborhood market. Something with a good meat department. They had moved down from a large southern town several weeks earlier and now they were settling in. Frank and his wife, Edith. Frank was going to sell insurance, mostly to farmers, and Edith hoped to open a small beauty parlor. Maybe someday have two or three girls working for her. They had opened bank accounts, found a dry cleaners nearby, and a service station where they opened an account. Now they needed a market.

"Meat," said Edith, "is the key. A market has good meat and a lot of it and I will make allowances for all the rest."

They had tried several of the chain stores but Edith was not satisfied.

"Too plastic," she said. "We're in a small town now. We should find us a family kind of store."

Several nights later they were out for a drive and saw a small grocery store with the lights still on. It had a sign above it, HUMBOLT'S CORNER GROCERY in faded red block letters.

"Pull over, Frank. This looks like a nice little place. Hell, we could walk here from our house."

They walked in and saw the floors were faded wood and the lights were dim.

"I think I like this," said Edith. "It's homey."

It was a small store. Two large ceiling fans moved slowly at each end. Various kinds of liquor were lined up behind the check out counter. The fruit and vegetables were along the left, cereals and breads in the center aisle, and the beverages on the right side of the store. The back wall was personal hygiene and some basic hardware.

"Look there," said Frank. "They got flies on the vegetables."

"Don't worry, honey. I wash everything real good. You know I do."

A man came by carrying empty cardboard boxes.

"Excuse us," said Edith.

"I'm sorry, folks. I didn't see you there. Welcome to Humbolt's. I'm Ralph Humbolt."

Humbolt's face was unshaven. His stomach hung out past his belt and his t-shirt was stained with his sweat. His arms were large and must have been muscular at one time. Now they were loose and flabby and swayed when he moved and gestured.

"Well now," said Edith. "It's a good feeling to talk to the owner. Not like those big chain stores with their fluorescent lights. They got computers for cash registers and nobody gives a damn."

"I can tell you right now, ma'am, that Ralph Humbolt gives a damn."

"That's good to know, Mr. Humbolt," said Edith.

"Meat," said Frank.

"Meat?"

"We came to see your meat department."

"That's right," said Edith. "We need us a good meat department."

"Meat?" said Mr. Humbolt. "I usually deliver the meat myself. People just call up and tell me what they want and I deliver it on out to them."

"That's a wonderful service, Mr. Humbolt," said Edith, "but Frank and me really like to pick it out ourselves."

Humbolt scratched his head and looked embarrassed.

"He doesn't carry meat," said Frank. "He doesn't have a meat counter."

"We're sorry, Mr. Humbolt," said Edith. "We'll still stop by for the basics."

Humbolt fidgeted nervously and said, "Now wait. Wait a minute. I got fine meat. The best steaks around, chops too! I even got Dover Sole. I just usually deliver it myself. I keep a large cooler down in the cellar. I got a little room fixed up down there."

"We don't mind walking down a few steps," said Frank.

Mr. Humbolt led the way down a dark stairway. The walls on either side were cement and wet with condensation. It smelled like earth and fungus. Humbolt reached up in the darkness and pulled the chain on a hanging light bulb.

"Oh, wow!" said Edith.

Frank shook his head and said, "Jesus Christ."

The left hand side of the cellar was completely taken up by the massive cooler. From where they were standing they could see it contained large steaks, chops, and poultry. In the far corner they could see the pink claws of a lobster sticking up. The rest of the cellar had been converted into a very authentic country French bedroom. There was a high poster wooden bed with a blue and yellow flowered comforter and throw pillows. There was an end table with pewter mugs containing dried flower arrangements. There were straw mats on the floor. An artist of some talent had painted a garden scene as though looking through a window, and curtains hung on either side. There were old family pictures in paisley frames.

"Mr. Humbolt," said Edith, "this is wonderful what you've done here."

"I just wanted a little place to hide from the pressure. You don't think it's dumb or anything?"

"Lord, no," said Edith. "More people take a little time and fix up their places, this world would be a better place."

"You folks are from the city, aren't you?" said Humbolt.

Frank was picking his teeth and looking into the freezer.

"Yes," he said. "We just moved down several weeks ago."

"I knew it. The minute my bedroom didn't shake you up or anything. I like people with open minds."

"We're liberal people," said Edith. "Believe me, we've seen some sights in the city."

"You can say that again," said Frank.

"Listen," said Humbolt, "I'm going to show you something I do. I think you kids will understand."

Humbolt walked through a narrow wooden door near the freezer. He was gone several minutes and when he came back he was wearing a bright yellow wig, a blue chiffon evening gown and he was barefoot. His feet were very dirty. The gown was very low cut and just barely came to his nipples. The rest of the way up his neck was bare and covered with black and gray chest hairs.

"It's just something I do," said Humbolt.

He had put rouge on his cheeks and it stood up on his whiskers. His lipstick was badly smeared and there was a smell of very expensive perfume in the room. Frank and Edith looked at Humbolt. Frank turned and stared intently into the cooler. Edith walked over and stood next to him holding his hand. They could hear Humbolt moving around behind them. After several minutes they turned around and saw that he had climbed up on the bed. He was curled up into a fetal position and his feet were tucked under his dress.

He had his thumb in his mouth and his eyes closed. He was rocking slightly and making little moaning sounds. They could see the black from the mascara making streaks down his cheeks. Frank watched him for a few seconds then turned back to the cooler. He reached in and got two very large porterhouse steaks.

"Come on," he said. "Let's get out of here."

He carried the steaks upstairs then handed them to Edith.

"Hold these," he said.

He grabbed two large potatoes and put one in each coat pocket. He stopped at the liquor counter and took a bottle of Johnny Walker Red and a Cabernet Sauvignon.

It was raining when they stepped outside. A very light mist. Edith slipped carrying the steaks and nearly fell.

"Careful there," said Frank.

There was a light switch near the door and when he flipped it the store went dark. Then he reached inside the door and turned the lock to the vertical position. He pulled the door firmly towards him until he heard it click and he knew for sure that it had locked.

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