The Parrot Man
Two years ago, when the Parrot Man beat cancer at the age of seventy-eight, he got a tattoo on his shoulder saying “Wild Child.” This is the first and will be the…only…tattoo of my life, he told me, pointing to it, while his eyes drifted somewhere over my right shoulder, then up and around—before finding their way back to my face. Sometimes it took a while for the Parrot Man to form the words to what he wanted to say, but he was usually good with comprehending, and also sometimes he had no problems speaking at all. He’d asked me to his house that day because he had a job he wanted me to do for him, proofreading documents and organizing emails. I thought it was a job I might be able to do since we’d had a few coffees together before and I’d enjoyed his company in these limited doses and didn’t mind waiting for him to finish sentences since I considered him an interesting character, and also perhaps quite wise in the clichéd way the elderly are sometimes considered.
We were sitting on the Parrot Man’s deck, and he was telling me how his wife died, four years ago. On that bed…over there. He pointed. Through the doorway was a king-sized bed with a black and grey bedspread and old-fashioned headboard, facing a massive flatscreen TV. Apart from the TV, the room was dark, with old, dark, furniture. He told me how his wife’s stomach and liver swelled up and how she turned yellow and had trouble breathing and how she told him not to tell her what was wrong with her or if she was dying or not, and how he had to give the doctor instructions not to tell her either, and how after she died he never wanted anyone else because she was the best, the very best.
All this talk from the Parrot Man was making me very sad and really I was ready to leave, but I could not leave yet because it was rude to leave while the Parrot Man was telling me more about how his wife died, on that bed right there, and also how she was the one who found this beautiful old house, which seemed like nothing from the street, and he didn’t even want to look at it but she insisted, and of course it turned out to be this beautiful old house and they bought it and they lived here, and she was the best, the very best, but then she died, of stomach cancer, on that bed over there.
I was aware of trying to look sympathetic. It wasn’t that I lacked compassion for the Parrot Man, but his story was making me very sad on a day on which I didn’t want to be very sad, and also I had already been in the Parrot Man’s house long enough and I wanted to go home. I sensed what I thought was a natural summary point in his story, murmured in a regretful yet (I hoped) conclusive way, and reached for my purse which was on the table.
But do not go, the Parrot Man said. Enough of my story.… Tell me about your boyfriend? I said but I do not have a boyfriend; we broke up. The Parrot Man said to tell him that story. I did not want to tell the Parrot Man that story, but it was rude to leave when the Parrot Man had just made a direct request for information. I thought for a moment, and then said but there is nothing to tell; we just broke up, which was true. It was also true that in that moment I felt as though I had no clear recollection as to what happened. The Parrot Man leant forward and twitched his head from side to side like a swift eraser, which signified that he did not understand what I just said. Broke up? We ended it, I explained. Hospital? he said. No, I said, nothing like that. We just broke up. Hospital? No.… He’s still here.… I didn’t know how else to say it in English so I tried some Spanish. Se rompío. Se acabó.…
It ended. It didn’t work out.… There were no other ways I could think of to say it.
He leant forward, twitching, eraser-like. I can’t understand you.…
I gazed past the heavy bannisters to the palm trees, the mountains, the white houses with red roofs, the shimmering bay. There was no answer there. I looked back at him. Then felt a hot gush from behind my sunglasses spill out over my cheeks.
The Parrot Man sprang up, put his hand on my shoulder. He was small and surprisingly quick, like the flicker of a shadow. Then just as nimbly, he sat back down. There, there, he said. It’s okay, let it out.
Phew, I said, after a moment, then started laughing. That was wild.… I do not cry in public and much less did I imagine myself bursting into tears in front of the Parrot Man. I said well then, now I should go; goodbye Parrot Man. I reached for my purse which was on the table.
The Parrot Man pushed out his bony claw, said stop. You need to let this stuff out he said; it is poison; it will poison you, and I am saying this because I am your friend who cares about you and probably you are not used to that but it’s true, and I said yes Parrot Man okay then I will, but another time and he said I don’t believe you; you must get it out now. You are exactly like my daughter, the Parrot Man said. And really I needed to leave right now but I could not leave the Parrot Man who was telling me about his daughter who was in a car accident and then a coma and then brain damaged thereafter and how people were very cruel, yes, they were, and no one in this town knew this part but what happened also to this daughter of the Parrot Man was that she wouldn’t talk about anything, just like me, and what happened after that was she got into drugs and committed suicide.
I wondered if the Parrot Man knew that I was in Narcotics Anonymous, since nothing in this town is really anonymous. Then I thought probably not, since he had seen me drinking vodka, which you’re not supposed to do in NA.
The Parrot Man said he thought I was wasting my life and I needed to get this out, about the hospital. I said but Parrot Man there was no hospital, and my ex-boyfriend is fine as far as I know; fit as a fiddle. The Parrot Man leant forward, twitching. I must get it out, he said, all about the hospital, and it was no good to stay in bed all day like I did.
But Parrot Man I do not stay in bed all day! I said.
The Parrot Man said he was trying to help me so I did not commit suicide like his daughter but from what he could see I was well on my way since staying in bed all day was barely living at all. The Parrot Man was suddenly free-flowing in his speech whereas an hour earlier and in trying to explain the proofreading and organizing of emails job he had been taking a long time to construct a sentence. I’d started crying again while the Parrot Man told me more about his daughter and how she was before she killed herself. I wanted to leave but it seemed wrong to leave while the Parrot Man was talking about his dead daughter and transmitting an important and compassionate message also because, as he said, he cared about me.
The Parrot Man was not angry at all, he assured me, that I would not, as it turned out, do this proofreading and organizing of emails job for him. He was not a person who would try to force another person into doing something they didn’t want to do. Oh I know, Parrot Man, I said, of course not.… He had not a mean bone in his body, even if the proofreading and organizing of emails job was in order for him launch an attack website against a local estate agency who had withheld the title of his house for many years. He was in any case, with regards to that action, entirely justified. Still, I did not understand why the Parrot Man was interested in such an action considering it was the sort of action that not infrequently got gringos killed down here, and also the Parrot Man hah had the title for years in fact, and had just last week even sold the house, so what did it matter now? I paused to be disappointed that a person who I had previously considered to be quite wise in various respects—perhaps in the clichéd way the elderly are sometimes considered—would occupy his remaining time on earth with such pettiness. I did not know how to say that part of it to the Parrot Man without offending him though, so I simply expressed ambivalence towards the potential value of the enterprise, which he may or may not have detected, and said I didn’t want to get killed.
The Parrot Man said no way was anyone going to kill a proofreader and email organizer. He asked me what was the real reason I wouldn’t do the job, and I said this was the real reason, but also that I was “overwhelmed,” and didn’t believe I could do the job well since I didn’t know anything about real estate and didn’t understand half the legal terms.
The Parrot Man pointed out that I did not need to understand half the legal terms and told me he was one hundred percent confident that I could do the job and do it well. The Parrot Man told me I lacked confidence and whereas I was this capable and intelligent woman with a lot going for me if it wasn’t for the fact that I stayed in bed all day and and did not deal with what had happened at the hospital. I started sobbing again, through sheer frustration I believed, at being unable to communicate to the Parrot Man that there was no hospital, and what’s more, I did not stay in bed all day, but I could not form the words, and the Parrot Man was whispering “hospital,” and I wanted to leave, but it seemed rude to leave while the Parrot Man was transmitting some important insight he had into how I would almost certainly end up like his daughter, blowing her brains out, although he did not use those words exactly, and the Parrot Man did not tell me the exact method by which the Parrot Man’s daughter committed suicide, I do not believe.
I wanted to leave but the Parrot Man said wait, and told me the reason he wanted to launch this attack website was because of how it affected his wife when she was alive, not having the title to the house. They were still able to live in the house, he clarified; it was no problem in that way, but not having the title caused the Parrot Man’s wife pain. It made her feel insecure. There had been arguments, over this title issue. And whereas she was the best, the very best.… The Parrot Man gazed into the distance. I should help the Parrot Man because I was this capable and intelligent woman with a lot going for me and it wasn’t correct to waste my life like I was doing, and we have seen where that sort of thing leads, through the example of his daughter.
The Parrot Man had a parrot of course, which was how he had gotten the name “The Parrot Man.” The Parrot Man’s parrot was next to us on the deck. It had gunmetal grey feathers with red-tipped wings. “Shitbird,” it said, twitching back and forth. “Shitbird.”
I taught him that, the Parrot Man said.
I mopped up my face and my eyes behind my sunglasses and took a deep breath. Okay then, I said. Parrot Man, I will tell you about the hospital.
The Parrot Man leant forward, steady, waiting.…