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?"
"There were sixty-two at one
"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
"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
"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
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
"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
"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
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
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
"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,"
"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
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.
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
"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
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
"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
"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,"
"Meat," said Frank.
"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
"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
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,"
"Listen," said Humbolt,
"I'm going to show you something I do. I think you kids will
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
"It's just something I do,"
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
"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.