Peering up at me from a nest of damp cotton wadding was a bizarre naked creature, all eyes and beak and bare puckered skin.
Oh, man! I said, looking up at Steve and Lorena. You dont mean... oh, man! Dont tell me this is a...
Its a parrot! Steve cried joyously. Its a baby parrot! He wrung his hands with excitement. Beside him, Lorena grinned foolishly.
Oh, no! I said, shaking my head at her in disbelief. You promised!
Hey, what can I say? Lorena shrugged. It only cost a dollar.
A dollar! Steve crowed delightedly. Can you believe that! We bought a parrot for a dollar? A real parrot!
Thats not a real parrot! I protested. Its some kind of mutant chicken. It doesnt even have feathers! My god, its pathetic!
We stared in fascination as the bug-eyed creature stirred uneasily in the bottom of the basket. Slowly blinking its enormous brown eyes, its beak opened in a cavernous pink yawn.
Shes hungry again! Steve cried gleefully. Snatching the basket from Lorenas hands, he stuck his face just inches from the startled birds. Without so much as a blush, Steve began cooing a kind of bilingual Gerber speak. This, I recognized, was his way of introducing the creature to its new family.
Once the saccharine formalities were completed, Steve looked up at us with shining eyes. Okay, you guys. He said hoarsely. Now, lets go make this baby a nice glass of atole. Nestling the basket protectively in his arms, he hurried off toward the kitchen.
The days slid by. In that idyllic time before parrot fever struck us, we often wandered into the kitchen as late as eight or nine a.m. for our first quiet cups of coffee. Now, with jungle creatures living in our midst, the morning began just before dawn, with an eye-opening chorus of shrieks, curses and crashing, traffic-like honks. To the best of his abilities which were considerable Arturo woke us with a vivid audio portrait of morning activity in the Guatemala City market.
Hey, customer! Come here! Try it! Take it! Take it! Gloria? A kilo? No change! Bastard! This tirade was accompanied by a clamorous frenzy of babbling voices, whistles, catcalls and sirens. All the performance lacked for complete sensory overload was the fragrant perfume of rotting produce and a cloud of diesel fumes.
On the chair beside Arturo, our fast-growing fledgling raised her voice in an ear-splitting echo. Steve had christened her Far Out, for the inevitable exclamations visitors made when they saw the baby parrot cuddled in his lap, taking greedy gulps of atole until its soft, naked body was as swollen as a sock. Far out! Its a baby parrot! Thats really far out!
After breakfast more atole for Far Out, fruit and bread dunked in coffee for Steve and Arturo the birds would move to chairs placed on the porch in the early morning sun. While Lorena caught up on her journal, Steve would accompany the birds on his guitar, entertaining the puzzled Mayan fishermen with an hour or two of rousing parrot jazz.
In the meantime, I retreated to my bedroom-office to write. It was understood, of course, that I was not to be interrupted, disturbed or in any way distracted from my search for the elusive Muse. It was also a rare day when Steve didnt come quietly tapping at my door, unable to resist sharing some precious moment hed just spent with the parrots.
Carl, I really hate to bother you but.... followed by such fascinating developments as Arturos uncanny, pitch-perfect rendition of the opening bars of The Orange Blossom Special. Well... it was almost perfect. Steve bragged, But he still needs to do some work on those early chord changes.
On another occasion the interruption announced Far Outs memorable attempt to scratch her head. Carl, I really hate to bother you but this is just too much! Far Out forgets shes already standing on one leg, so when she picks up that leg to scratch with, she falls over!
Carl, I really hate to bother you but... Arturo just spoke English!
He did? What did he say?
I swear! He was sitting on a chair eating a banana and we were listening to some Merle Haggard tapes. Far Out was in the kitchen and ...
Okay, okay! What did he say?
Steve looked at me and the laughter rose in his chest like huge trembling waves. With one hand clamped over his mouth, his eyes widened into dark pools of childlike wonder. When I thought he might literally explode with the glee of it all, Steve finally began spluttering. Arturo said... I mean he sang, If I had the wings of an angel! And then get this! Its hard to believe but he actually did some Merle Haggard riffs. Im telling you, he sounded exactly like a steel guitar. Steves eyes were glazed with excitement. But thats not the best part. When he got done, he looked over at me, and, Carl, I swear this is true, he looked over at me and he said in this weird growlly kind of voice, Oh, God, Steve! Oh, Lordy God!
Poleaxed and momentarily exhausted by the significance of what hed heard, Steve sagged against the door frame, shaking his head in total and utter astonishment.
Thats pretty amazing, Steve, I gotta admit. A few days earlier Steve had reported with almost equal excitement that Arturo could perfectly mimic the sound of urine as it streamed into the toilet. A few days before that Arturo barked like a dog. And gobbled like a turkey. It was suspected, but as yet unconfirmed, that he could also buzz like a bee.
There was no doubt about it, the parrots talents were both varied and amazing. On the other hand, I was not only getting a little weary of life in the Animal Kingdom, but it frequently occurred to me that the worlds zoos and pet shops were overflowing with appealing, talented creatures.
It was thoughts such as these, in fact, which foolishly led me to blurt, Steve, do you think speaking English will increase his resale value very much?
Steve stiffened instantly. Youre not serious? You gotta be kidding, right? He sounded as though Id proposed a bank heist or a suicide pact.
Well, I said. We actually bought the birds to make some money, remember?
With his back to the door and one hand on the knob, Steve hissed angrily. Man, I never thought youd sink that low. Sell Arturo? My god! I cant believe this! Thats sick!
Sick? I protested, pushing my chair back from the typewriter. Hey, youre the one whos sick. You dont see me reading James Michener novels to a bird. Come to think of it, I never realized until now that parrot fever is probably some kind of a mental disease!
Very funny. Steve shouted. Carl, thats really very, very funny. Now I suppose youre gonna tell me you want to sell Far Out, too?
To the highest bidder. I shot back. Money talks and Chicken Little walks!
Steves lips trembled. There was silence for a moment and then we both burst out laughing.
Chicken Little walks! Steve laughed appreciatively. Hey, thats pretty good! You better write that one down, you may be able to use it.
I thought thatd get to you. I grinned, tearing the paper from my typewriter and tossing it into the wastebasket. With the tension eased, Steve opened the door and started to leave. His smile suddenly dissolved.
Just one thing. he added. I know you like to tease about selling the parrots. But do me a favor, all right? The bantering tone was now edged with steel. Dont say anything like that in front of the birds, okay? You never know. Steve warned. They just might take it wrong.