When my mother died, I inherited fifty wild birds, and an over sexed parakeet named Tony. When I stayed in her apartment the night after the funeral, I wondered if my mother’s ghost was still in that kitchen that smelled of dead chickens. Was she still flipping a pancake on the griddle of the woodburning stove, rising at dawn to make coffee and feed her animals? Tony sulked in the corner of his cage as six o’clock approached, a green, sleek male with furious beady, black eyes and a sharp beak that once grabbed my mother’s fingers when she reached in to feed him. He flew from perch to swing to his mirror with a rush of long tapering feathers and spiked claws. He scolded and bit his cage when he could hear a tea pot being filled in the kitchen. Or the squeak of the metal utility cabinet door. Even the faint whir of the gigantic Westinghouse refrigerator might set him off.
On her sixtieth birthday, I gave my mother a Philco refrigerator with a compressor top and a drawer that pulled out to store vegetables and meat. I felt it was time for her to get away from emptying ice pans from the two oak ice boxes kept on the back porch. But when the Philco began to sweat and groan under the weight of time, I bought her a twenty-five cubic ft., frost-free Westinghouse with the motor inside. Was I trying to ease my conscience I wonder with some guilt? Whenever I had tried to show my mother my love by up-scaling her life, it always backfired. The goldfish tank and canary were moved from the warm kitchen to the dining room, which was never heated, and used mostly to store birdseed and old National Geographic magazines. The Westinghouse stuck out in the kitchen like the Great Wall of China, with a nearly imperceptible whir instead of the familiar hubbub and fuss the old Philco made when it turned on.
In her eighties, I could see her age when I visited her apartment. I watched her struggle down three flights of stairs to pick up her mail, saw her hands shake as she scattered seed for her birds with a small muster of energy. Her shoulders were stooped, and she had to grasp the railing to hoist her body from one step to the next.
She grew up in Tracy Creek, and after my father died, she headed back from Detroit to care for her parents and be near me. I never understood her need to live in a fourth floor apartment in an old derelict building. The eleven railroad-straight rooms on the top floor had an exposed roof that leaked during hard rainstorms. Plaster fell on her when she was on the toilet. A crow got stuck in the chimney and cried pitifully for help. The church bats considered her roof their home too, and at night clusters of winged mice floated over from the church against the black-purple sky. But the roof allowed her to grow vegetables and feed the birds flocking over from the church steeple across the street. My mother would look up at the Dracula faces and say, “That’s Raymond. You can tell by the wings… Raymond, I haven’t seen Marilyn since she had the babies.” The babies, five smudges of gray yawning wings, she kept in a jar and fed until they were able to fly.
While I nearby, I kept the place in decent repair. But after I took a job two hours away, her sanctuary threatened to return to an Eden state. Cats found their way up the stairs and started families, and even pigeons roosting on the rafters of the back porch were multiplying in mounting numbers. The white pigeons were her favorites, so she released only the grays, and the back porch became an inbreeding of white pigeon impostors except for two mourning doves who cooed. “Now there’s a nice respectable married couple,” my mother would say, wiping her hands on her apron.
I sat in the kitchen after the funeral. I wanted to be alone, but Mrs. Fahey knocked and brought in a dinner plate with chicken and mashed potatoes and gravy. Her shoulders were straight as coat hangers and she smiled with attractive white piano-key teeth, but I had a feeling she laughed behind my mother’s back. Still, she was just trying to be neighborly. I wished she’d go home, but I said “Thank you, how thoughtful.” I wanted this time to submerge myself in remorse over all the dumb animals I asked my mother to get rid of so she could live like normal people. Back home I lived with people who walked dogs on leashes. I hated pigeons and their filth.
“What are you going to do?” Mrs. Fahey said. “If I can be of help…” The sun spilled through the windows, and her eyes took in everything: the dusty floor where Tony’s seeds lay scattered, the dishes still unwashed from the breakfast my mother had never finished, and the shabby sofa with the imprint of my mother’s head still in the sheets and pillow. A month’s collection of newspapers took up most of the dining room table.
Tony squawked and hit the mirror my mother had put in the cage. Kiss, swat, peck, he’d give the mirror a kiss before he began his gyrations. Mrs. Fahey twitched in her chair, and I put a towel over the cage. I sat down to think. I needed to go through her clothes, although, sadly, I knew nobody wanted them. As she grew older, my contributions, plus her social security and small pension had been barely adequate to sustain her.
“Well now, she loved her birds and she put a lot of money into feeding them. Lord knows how much. I’d help her up the stairs with her bird food. Helped her into the kitchen,” Mrs. Fahey said reading my thoughts.
“Thank you, Mrs. Fahey. I guess you’re the daughter I should’ve been.”
“Well, we never knew what to do with Tony, though. She’d bring home special treats and he’d bite her finger.”
Mrs. Fahey agreed to feed the animals while I returned to work for the week since the estate still needed attention. “Tony’s crazy,” she said. “If I come near the cage he sits with his back to me.” Mrs. Fahey moved closer. “I personally think the bird has some kind of sex problem. I think he’s mixed up.” She shifted, one foot to the other. “She had a pet mouse, too, you know. I even think she fed the rats.” I shuddered. I knew my mother was strange, but I had a feeling Mrs. Fahey thought she was crazy.
“I could get a shot of poison and accidentally spike Tony’s water-dish. I ‘d put on gloves,” she said. “I could do the same with the rest.”
“Oh, that might be the way to go, but that’s a lot of trouble, Mrs. Fahey. I do have to get back to my job, though,” I said. I had witnessed my mother swing an ax at a chicken once for our supper when it was that or starve. She cried when she did it, but she set her priorities. “I’ve called the Ross Park Zoo and the Humane Society, and they don’t handle these animals. I certainly would appreciate any help,” I said.
But as soon as she left Tony began to attack his mirror again with loud gyrations. In my embarrassment I searched the yellow pages for a mating service. I wanted to get rid of the parakeet as fast as I could.
“My god, this parakeet’s bigger than any of mine,” he said squinting at Tony. “Biggest damned love bird I ever saw. I have fifty females panting for him.” Harry wore mirrored sunglasses, a buttoned visor, white leather boots, and heavy gloves. He was a tight, brisk, man of at least six feet. “I turn off all the lights, let them get acquainted. This guy’s good for twenty-five wives. Some birds mate for life, but I got more females than males.”
“How long does it take?” I frowned. I wondered if Tony’s passion would satisfy these over-sexed females, desperate for a date.
“Oh, Ma’am, I’d say this bird’s ripe, but don’t worry, your bird needs this experience. Trust me, I’m a bird-man.” He took off his sunglasses. “You O.K.? Excuse me, ma’am, but you look a little pale, can I get you some water?” At the beginning I couldn’t have said why, but it was a relief to talk to a man so much like an Eagle Scout I knew in High School. “My mother died a few days ago and I’m a bit worn out with settling the estate. Tony’s just a tip of the iceberg.”
“Oh, geez, that’s a bummer all right. I’ve been through it.” He touched my hand and nodded his head in “I know what you’ve been through” sympathy.
Lamely I insisted, “It’s really nothing, just a bad migraine.”
He took a card from his pocket, slipped it into my hand. His hand was cool and dry. He slid Tony into a carrying cage, with scarcely a squawk from Tony. “Why don’t you come over tomorrow morning, watch Tony at work?” He rushed away, taking the stairs two at a time with Tony unusually silent in his temporary home.
The next morning I went to the roof at dawn. A pink-gray sky full of birds flew in with three-point landings, chirping, tilting their heads. “Yes, yes, I know, I know, but your mother’s dead. I have to get back to Philadelphia. Better enjoy this, my darlings,” I told them. I frowned seeing the trusting mourning doves and hurried along to the back porch and the white pigeons. They flew on my shoulder, demanding immediate attention. “D-Day for you, kiddos. No more dole,” I said. They were beautiful flapping about, sitting on my head, dropping filthy soft messes on the sleeve of my jacket, one eye on their babies safe on the loft.
This Harry Cary, with his understanding and gentleness, had invited me out of pity, but I didn’t mind. The gray building had two curved wings like an eagle’s, and one of the wings had broken boards for a window. I rang the bell. No answer, except a rush of wind, a tiny twitter, a movement, a feeling more than a sound. I rang again. I was on the first step leaving when the door opened a crack.
“Hi, I’m here to observe you birds,” I said.
“It’s you.” Now I heard the flapping of wings, squawks, and tweaks. I could smell the choking dust of a hundred of birds in the coal black room.
“Come here.” He dragged me into a room with black shades, twinkling ceiling lights, and a swarm of birds flying free. “They usually sleep now, but the bell woke them. I keep the day and night mixed up to confuse them.” He huckled wickedly, insane sounds in the dark.
He pulled me to him there in the dark and pointed to Tony’s cage. “He won’t mate with real birds. He’s in love with himself.” Harry smelled male and musk. His hardness was against me, and his arms tightened around my shoulders. “There,” he said. “I wanted to do that.” He kissed me, his tongue inside my mouth, my mouth responding. His hands went down my legs, and I didn’t protest. The birds flew above us like ghosts. Tony silently watched.
“You don’t have to do this.” I said between deep kisses, our tongues mating like uninhibited birds. I pushed at him, but I enjoyed it too. In his mad bird sanctuary, it seemed right.
“I know I don’t have to. I want to.” I could hear his pedantic answer as he kissed my ear. “I have a boat at Lake Ontario. Think about it.” I finally pulled away, grabbed Tony’s cage, and said, “Right now I have another appointment.” I ran.
“I’ll name my boat after you.” he hollered.
I was down the stairs, Tony squawking. “Shut up, bird. Just shut up.”
I checked in on Tony. He struggled to his perch, pecked at my finger, and feebly croaked out a squawk. His tail feather drooped, his eyes slits glazed over with a film, one eye kept closing. He shrunk down into his body which shook slightly.
Driving the straight line of the Pennsylvania Turnpike to Philadelphia, I set the cruise control to 60. I watched birds flying over fields and thought of the birds on the roof, the pigeons, on the back porch, the mourning doves, all corpses by now. A plane flew across a meadow and the shadows flickered and moved like swooping bats. In the weeks to come, I’d be forced to finish, to go back to the home I sadly admitted I never loved, but for now I needed the security of conventional order. I needed to go home.
In my own townhouse with maid service and quiet colors, I set Tony next to a window. I fed him from a box of special seeds I’d read about, a gift I had meant to take to my mother some months ago. Tony grabbed my finger when I put the treat in the cage. He thought I was my mother, but I knew I wasn’t.