I’ve been watching my best friend’s parrot for the last three weeks. The bird’s name is Charlie. My friend’s name is Nickels. The animal got the human name, the human got the animal name, and that means something, but I don’t know what.
Charlie is gray with a little red tail and Nickels is the only one who can get him to talk. Nickels got him in a trade for an old XBox and back then the bird could only say stupid shit, like “Top o’ the morning,” which is like the lamest thing you can teach a parrot to say. So Nickels taught him to sing 90s gangsta rap, which is like the best thing you can teach a parrot to say. When people walked into his apartment the bird would yell, “Check yo self.” He would bob his head a little. Then cock an eyeball in your direction. What else can I tell you about Nickels? We’ve been friends for 29 years and the bird is the best thing he’s ever done.
When I took him, Charlie stopped talking. I would say, “Cruising down the street in my 6-fo’.” But instead of singing “Jockin’ the freaks, slappin’ the ho’s,” Charlie cocked his little black eyeball up at me. Then he tried to bite me. Not like a real bite, but some sort of warning bite. A definite, like, don’t-rap bite. I didn’t let him out of his cage much after that and later he pulled out some of his feathers, in protest. He’s got these pink pimply skin patches all down his stomach and the floor of his cage is covered in shit-crusted gray feathers.
Being friends with Nickels is like listening to a CD with a scratch in it. You always hope that it won’t be that bad. But I am not that stupid. I know that bird suffered.
Yesterday I sold his furniture and most everything else to a lady who needed to furnish a rental. I did this because Nickels told me to. “Everything must go,” he told me from a phone located in the community area of the rehab center. “Price it to sell man. I don’t want to see any of that shit ever again. Too many negative associations.” He would probably be talking about triggers or some shit next. In the background, I thought I heard all those other addicts playing cards and trying to grab each other’s asses.
I put the furniture for sale on Craigslist and sold it to a bulldog of a lady who drove over in some sort of survival vehicle. She stamped around the apartment in goddamn construction boots and lifted the cushions on the faux leather futon and frowned at the stains.
“How does one stain faux leather?” she asked.
“One spills,” I said. I could have said one vomits, or one bleeds, but I didn’t.
She had cropped hair and wore billowy camouflage pants and a t-shirt that advertised a goat farm. Her face had a goat-like shape to it–kind of snouty, with a little mouth and little teeth. The orange sunglasses–the firing range kind–didn’t make her look any more human. I realized that this woman was likely packing serious heat and that made me want to rip her off even harder.
While she put her hands on all the furniture, I looked for other stuff to sell to her. In a closet I found a pile of empty bottles. Mostly vodka. Some duster. More under the sink. They were piled like a shrine to the animal god of intoxication, each empty the body of a sacrificed virgin. I closed the cabinet before the goat woman wandered in and tried to touch them.
She offered me three hundred for the couch, a chair the size of a throne, a coffee table, the bed, the dresser and a box full of mismatched frying pans, silverware, and one long gray-bladed knife with a broken handle that Nickels got from his grandfather’s estate. No one would give him money anymore, so when they died they left him knives.
I knew Nickels would have taken her offer, but I felt insulted. I hadn’t always been the friend I’d hoped to be for Nickels, and I wanted her to overpay for his crap. I could be there for him this time.
“I can do the mattress for that,” I said. “And that knife isn’t for sale.”
“Can you do three fifty for the whole lot?” she said. “I thought it was priced to sell.”
I looked at the woman’s eyes all goaty behind the orange shades. In my life I have sold most of your everyday illicit substances, weed, coke, all that shit. I have a Bachelors in Hospitality, Restaurant and Tourism Management but those classes didn’t teach me anything I hadn’t already learned from all the coked up frat boys of the world trying to rip me off. “I’ve got ten more people who have emailed me about this,” I said, “so either get serious or stop wasting my time.”
“$350,” she said. “Is it meth? Cause the chemicals stay in the couches and get people sick. Last thing I need is a bunch of sick renters suing me.” She squinted at me behind the orange shades.
“$500,” I countered. Want to kick my friend while he’s down? Nickels bought this furniture off this discount warehouse specializing in used/repurposed hotel furnishings. At least that’s where he got the throne–something suited for a hotel lobby, but when he sat in it here he looked like the king of the land of poorly lit apartments. It fit him so well I almost couldn’t bring myself to sell it. I wanted him to have that life back even though I knew it was gone. “And that’s only if you cook it,” I added. I noticed the sweat on my palms and the sound of my heart. “Nickels couldn’t cook ramen.”
She looked at the kitchen and scratched her neck.
“You need stuff. I need to move. C’mon,” I said.
She counted four crisp $100 bills into my hand. That’s right, goat fucker. I helped her load the stuff into the back of her camouflage pickup.
“Is he dead?” she asked. “Your friend.”
“Moving to New Mexico.” I grinned at her.
“Ug,” she said. “Even worse.”
So why say yes to a parrot? That’s harder.
I hadn’t been good to Nickels. He had a bad stretch and I abandoned him. End of story.
I stopped letting people call me Head and started introducing myself as Michael, not Mike, not Mikey, but Michael. I saw Nickels less and less. He found new friends and so did I. But I still called him my friend. I know he called me his best friend. And that’s how you end up with a parrot.
One night I ran into him on my way to a bar after work. He looked bad. His t-shirt couldn’t hide how skinny he was, or his jaw grinding. He hugged me long and hard. It felt good. It felt like someone in this world still loved me even if I hadn’t called him in a while. He walked with me to the happy hour and for those five minutes I felt free and easy with him as if time didn’t exist. We came to a bar with basketball games on big televisions screens and old men in ties with younger men in ties taking shots of whiskey backed by Coors Light. We had always hated this shit–these fucking people–and now here we were. We used to promise to kill each other if we ever joined their ranks. Nickels, I knew, meant it.
“Whoa,” he said. “Check this place out.” He was fucked up–talking too fast; red eyes parting droopy lids. “It’s like a hideout for the corporate executioners, man. I’ll bet these people wipe their mouths with people’s retirement accounts and shit. That’s the general economic welfare of this country and it’s going down that fat fuck’s gullet.” He pointed to a fat fuck whose tie squeezed his neck like a noose.
“See?” he said.
I smiled at him and shook my head like unbelievable.
We found my work friends and Nickels introduced himself as Nickels, not by his real name, and I wished he wasn’t here. I didn’t want to call him Nickels any more. I wanted to shake him and say: Nickels was your high school nickname. It sounds stupid now. Go by your real name. I wanted to keep shaking him and say: For the love of god buy better shoes.
But Nickels was Nickels. My work friends sipped at craft beers. They paid in cash. They tipped exactly one dollar each time never less never more and they would go on tipping this way for the rest of their lives. The men talked about their fantasy football teams. The women talked about weddings upcoming, weddings attended, and how it seemed like all we did was go to weddings anymore. They all held phones in front of their faces. Nickels followed the lead of the corporate executioners and ordered a round of Jaegermeister for the table. The bartender gave him the total and Nickels pulled the last bill from his wallet. He handed it over and he had this look that only his best friend would recognize–it’s the smile you get when earlier you promised yourself you wouldn’t do exactly what you just did. That smile. The bartender gave him his change–a single dollar bill and a few coins. Nickels left no tip. He winked.
I wondered if he was doing this only so he could be with me.
It was his empty wallet that made me the saddest. The look of it. No credit cards. A driver’s license and the old school ID he still carried even though he hadn’t graced a classroom in years. That empty money slot where he stuffed the one dollar bill and the coins. It was made of red fabric, the velcro fastener only had a few working hooks left in it. Black Sharpied “MFS” on the side–our high school crew. A wallet is the true window into a man’s soul and Nickels’ was empty but for some phone numbers on torn strips of paper, some worthless cards, and one dollar and some change.
He and I clinked shot glasses. He held his aloft to the group who only briefly glanced up from their cell phones.
“Champagne for my real friends,” he said, as he had said every time we’d drunk together, “real pain for my sham friends.”
He downed his shot. I did mine. The others took little nips from theirs and made frowny faces and shivered. A few of the bigger troopers in our group choked them down, but at least two stayed on the table–sipped and then ignored.
Nickels, my friend, my bro, my hero, charmed the group, got one of the girl’s numbers, lied to them all and said that he managed a car dealership in Fort Worth. (“Is that in Texas?” the assistant manager asked. “Maybe,” Nickels said. “You should look it up on your phone there”).
“Are you going to drink that shot I bought you?” he said to this prick named Darryl who worked in marketing.
“Sorry,” the prick said. “I stopped using Jaeger in college.”
“Cool,” Nickels said. He grabbed the shot glass. “I hope you don’t have any like mouth funguses or anything.” He slammed it. He slammed the other abandoned shot, too. He rubbed his belly.
“So who’s up for another round?” he said. No one answered him. “I’ll tell you what,” he said to the Jaeger-hater, “think of a number between one and ten, write it on the back of this napkin. If I can guess it, you buy the next one. If I can’t, I will.”
“No thanks,” the prick said.
“C’mon,” Nickels said. “It’s supposed to be fun. Let yourself enjoy life, man.”
The man shrugged, the table was quiet.
“I said no thanks,” the prick said. Then he looked at me. For a second I thought about smashing my craft beer into one of his smug eyeballs and watching him bleed. I thought about getting fired and running through the oncoming night with Nickels.
“Thank you,” said Melissa, who was the nicest person I had ever met and who was quietly becoming my girlfriend. She reached out and squeezed his forearm and her eyes looked like she really meant whatever it is that a squeeze communicates.
“Cheers,” he said and flashed that smile.
Nickels looked in his wallet to see if more money had materialized so he could buy a beer. It hadn’t. He slid it into his front pocket and sat back on a stool and peered up at one of the televisions and studied it like he was trying to figure out what could possibly be interesting about men in uniforms playing organized games.
He went to the bathroom and I went with him. As he peed, he said, “I stopped drinking Jaeger in college,” in a nasally-baby voice. “God, I’d like to dome rock that little bitch,” he said.
I told him I, too, wanted to dome-rock Daryl.
“Your new friends are nice,” he said. “Especially that Melissa chick.”
“They are just some people I work with,” I said. “I barely know them.” I knew he was disappointed in me, in my life. We used to go to parties where people jumped from balconies and did drugs and Nickels was the most reckless, the biggest badass.
He pulled a plastic pint bottle from inside the belt of his pants and when he was done he held it out to me. I took it and let the liquid touch my lips. I did not drink.
“You don’t have to stay here,” I said. “This place pretty much sucks.” I wondered where he got the money for coke. More so, how. Then I realized it was meth. I knew where he was, like as a person, then.
“I’m cool to go if you are,” he said. His night, I knew, was just starting. Mine, ending.
“You go,” I said. “I gotta work tomorrow. And I’m trying to get with Melissa.” Melissa would kick my ass if she heard me say “get with” but I knew there was only one acceptable excuse that would allow him to leave and allow me to stay here in this horrible bar: pussy.
“Pimp, bro. Good luck with that.” He slapped my shoulder. “Hey,” he said. “It was really nice to see you.” He hugged me and I felt that everything I knew about him might be wrong. It was that kind of hug.
And he left. I remember his back walking through those glass doors and leaving behind all that dark wood and brass interior–he was just this red shirt shuffling into the end of a day. I went back to the table and the others made wide eyes at me. “Your friend was exciting,” Melissa said. I hated these people. And myself. Fuck you I wanted to say to all of us, both middle fingers extended and in our faces. I wanted to run after Nickels and do something that I could be arrested for. Instead, I joined in the conversation about fantasy football teams. I had one now myself.
That was a year or two ago. When his mom called me and told me he was missing, I didn’t know what to tell her. She asked me to go look for him and I told her I would but I never did, so when he asked me to watch Charlie, all I could say was yes. Of course I’ll watch your bird.
In addition to being the unofficial guardian of his parrot, he asked me to pick him up from rehab. It was a hot Saturday and I spent an hour or two down at my complex’s pool. I had a rule against drinking before noon, but it was too hot and I’d never been to a rehab before so I had three beers and went from pool to hot tub back to pool. I thought about how this–showing up to rehab three beers in–was the sort of thing we used to take pride in. There was some girl in the jacuzzi who was not my girlfriend and I told her how I thought rehab was a BIG waste of money, that my friend just needed to get his shit together and she showed me her tattoo of a skull with a key between its teeth on her lower back.
I put Charlie in the back and poured another beer into a red plastic cup and drank it on the drive to get Nickels.
And then there he was. My friend. When I hugged him, his muscles were back. His hair had been cut like the European soccer stars–slicked back and to the side. He had some product in it that made the hair shine, like it was wet or greasy. He had gained a little weight and cleaned up, but something was off. They got him some new glasses.
Rehab looked like a cross between a medical facility and a college dormitory. Nickels hugged a bunch of people, shook some doctor’s hand, and was his usual charming self.
They said: “You can do this.”
They said. “Be strong, brother.”
They said: “Don’t forget–one day a fuckin’ time, man.”
The brownish-mustardy walls were flecked with faded red sailboats. It made me want three more beers and the swimming pool.
He gave more hugs in ten minutes than I had received in the last two months.
One lady, whom I suspected was Nickels’ therapist, punched him in the arm, pretty hard. “I better not see you back in here, damn it,” she said to him. Then she hugged him. He smiled that Nickels smile at her. I almost wanted to warn her about it–that lethal fucking smile.
He shook hands with the cleaning staff; he posed for a photo with the cafeteria lady who hugged him and said “Dime con quién andas, y te diré quién eres” and looked at me and then put her hand on Nickels’ chest, closed her eyes and prayed. Nickels, the atheist, closed his eyes and put his hands over hers and I guess he prayed, too. Nickels came in two shades–really happy or suicidal. When he was happy, he could run for president. People loved his ass. He made his worst decisions when he was happy. He was happy now.
No one here said, “I have no doubt that you are going to be fine.”
It reminded me of Picasso. I had to take an Art History class for my degree. I was a sixth year Senior and trying like hell to finish because I was tired of selling coke. We looked at paintings all day, which mostly sucked, but one day the teacher told us how poor artists used to paint over their other paintings because they couldn’t afford new canvases. They just took a painting that they didn’t like much and started a new one over the top of it. Made sense to me. Now, there are all these famous paintings with other paintings no one knows underneath them. There was this one by Picasso–a man with a beard but a smudged out face like Picasso got all frustrated and started scribbling. But you could still see the beard. That was my favorite painting that semester–the one under the other painting. Seeing Nickels reminded me of that bearded man. That’s what he looked like. A man with a smudged out face.
If he could get his face straight, I figured, he would be fine. I didn’t know how to tell him that, so I made a joke about his haircut.
“Good one,” he said.
In the car, Charlie started talking as soon as he heard Nickels’ voice.
“Wiggity, wiggity, wiggity, whack,”” he said.
Nickels lifted the door to the cage and Charlie climbed onto his hand and then fluttered around the car, slapping against the windshield, looking to land on something and finding nothing and eventually flapping into Nickels’ lap.
“What the fuck did you do to my bird, bro?”
“I don’t know. He’s a shedder, I guess.”
“Wiggity, wiggity, wiggity, whack,” Charlie said. “Check yo’ self,” the bird said. “Jockin freaks,” he said. He turned his head and bobbed it up and down. “Jockin freaks,” he said. “Jockin freaks,” he said.
I had a genuine moment of animal connection. The bird couldn’t understand rehab. He thought he had to live with me for the rest of his shitty life and then, wham, holy fuck, there’s Nickels and you are happy but you also like don’t trust it. You had already accepted that this new, awful way of being was it, there was no going back. Then the awful thing is removed but not awful is not the same as how it used to be. What I am saying is I know that feeling.
As we drove, Nickels wouldn’t stop twisting a length of his hair. He wound it around and around a finger until it sprung free, then did it again. He stared at the dashboard like he wasn’t really looking at it–lost in thought with a slight smile at the corners of his mouth. I had seen this look before but I only now noticed it and I felt that I had no clue where he was, much less who. It was the kind of look I’d find on the face of someone who just got away with something. Charlie stood tall on his shoulder and for a while we didn’t talk, we all just looked at the road in front of us.
I asked him how he was doing.
“I’m doing great man. Fucking came through some dark shit there, but just glad to be moving in a positive direction.” More buzzwords.
“So how was it?”
“Fucking awful, ” he said.
He told me how he’d arrived at the idea of moving back to Dennison. Staying with his mom for a while then getting back to Denver.
I told him that sounded like a good plan.
“I didn’t think you were that bad, man. Still don’t.”
“Yeah,” he said. “We talked about that.”
“About you, man.”
“Oh, yeah. We got into you. And my mom.”
“Really?” I said. “And what’d they figure out for you. Am I a monster?”
“Dude, are you drunk right now?” he asked.
“What?” I said. “No.”
“Your breath smells like beer. There’s fucking beer in this cup.” He tapped the red plastic cup in the center console. “Fucking Head,” he said. He laughed and nodded in disbelief.
“Some girl gave it to me while I was out by the pool. You would like her tattoo. It’s a key, but it’s right above her ass.”
“Are you sure you should be driving?”
“I’m fine,” I said. I was not too drunk to drive. “So what’s up? You’re all sober now or what?” I wanted to sound encouraging. Hopeful. But as I said these words I knew I didn’t sound that way and never had.
“Yep,” he said.
I waited for more of an answer.
“Sweet,” I said.
“Just doing the steps.” He looked out the window, picking dead skin from his lip.
Nickels was never one to weave intricate lies. He dealt in increments of three or four words of complete bullshit.
“So you’re good, huh?” I didn’t want to talk about it. I wanted it to be free and easy for the next fifteen minutes.
“I’m great, man,” he said. He left his lips alone and started thumping his fingers against his knees.
When I got Nickels to the empty apartment, our voices echoed off the bare walls.
“Man,” he said. “It’s crazy to see all my shit gone.”
I raised my eyebrows and looked over all that bare linoleum. I nodded yes. We both shook our heads together at the emptiness.
Charlie put his head into the crook of the Nickels’ neck. He nuzzled him. Nickels reached up and stroked the bird’s head. Charlie took the neck of Nickels’ t-shirt in his beak and bit down, like he was afraid that he was going to be left with me again.
We sifted through the remaining piles of clothes and kid’s toys into four bags–three that he could take on a Greyhound that evening and one for Goodwill. He picked up the heirloom knife and tested the blade against his thumb. Then he drew it along his wrist and sliced away a few tiny black hairs. “She didn’t want this piece of shit, huh?” he asked.
“I figured you wanted it,” I said. “That knife is badass.” I had his money in my shirt pocket. He hadn’t asked. I hadn’t offered. But we were both thinking about it. We both grew up learning that you don’t just ask for your money straight away. You have to find the right moment, the soft underbelly, to do your business.
“Why would my grandpa give me this?” he said. “I don’t cook.” He put it in the pile set for Goodwill. It hurt me to see it there.
Nickels flipped through a stack of mail, all bills from the people he owed money to and weekly ad mailers announcing the price of strawberries and steak. He glanced at the letters and their figures and balances and then held them up to Charlie who took them in his beak and dropped them on the floor.
I could see the horrors of his life, so easily escaped in rehab, being pulled out of each envelope, scanned in each ad.
“What are you going to do with Charlie?”
“I thought maybe you would want him?”
“That bird hates me.”
“He only hates you because you suck at animals.”
“I like dogs.”
“No. You don’t. You definitely don’t like dogs.” He looked at me with big eyes, like holy shit do you really believe yourself.
“I can’t have pets at my place anyway.”
He said: “Just until I can figure out how to come get him from you.”
“I can’t,” I lied. “They are strict as hell about that shit, too.”
The bird bobbed its head.
“Are you an original gangster, Charlie?” Nickels asked.
The bird looked at him.
“Charlie,” he said, a bit more forcibly this time, “are you an original gangster?”
The bird tilted his head and crooked his black eye up at Nickles. Then he spit a past due notice to the floor.
“Do you remember that time we went to the Sundowner with this bird on my shoulder and the bartender wouldn’t serve us because he thought we were clowns in the circus?”
“That bird fucking loves you man. You should take it with you.”
“Can’t,” he said. “Birds can’t ride on the bus. I mean it’s illegal to refuse service to clowns, right? It’s racist against the circus.”
“What about underneath the bus?”
“No way, man. Charlie’s too good for that. I’m not putting him down there with those little fucking lap dogs and shit.” Once Nickels’ mind was made up about a thing, he didn’t change it. He could poke holes in airtight alternatives because his way was the only option before him. I never liked this quality in him.
“You gonna take him to a pet store?”
“Fuck pet stores, man. Those places are like concentration camps for animals.”
“So what are you going to do with him, then?”
“I have an idea,” he said.
Nickels had to knock loudly because inside the apartment two people were scream-fighting. These were his upstairs neighbors–a single mom and her pubescent children. He had this glee to him. Nothing that Nickels needed to do was done. The beer had worn off some but I decided I needed to stay with him, to help him out, because I wanted to see this through and I wanted him gone tomorrow.
I knew that Nickels slept with this single mother for a while because he called her Baby Mama.
“These guys are totally going to take him, trust me,” he said.
He kicked the bottom of the door when no one answered. Between the screams, we could hear a television playing toy commercials.
Charlie walked back and forth along Nickels’ shoulder. He stopped pacing and crained his neck forward to get a look at Nickles’ face, trying to verify the whole situation in a kind of “you serious?” way.
The yelling stopped, we heard those shuffling noises from inside and then the door opened to a room full of children watching television and eating rainbow cereal from plastic bowls. The apartment was even less clean than Nickels’ and smelled like a tart cleanser trying to hide the fact of too many bodies in one place.
“Oh Jesus,” said the tired woman who opened the door. She had the pulled back hair and t-shirt of a person who is used to her life being unshowered and out of control. She was Hispanic, or Latino, or maybe Native American. “Yes?” she said. “I mean, you’re back?”
The kids all watched us–two thousand eyes staring out of the dark living room, their faces illuminated occasionally by the television set.
“I brought you guys a present.” Nickels turned from the woman to address the room as a whole.
“I want you to have my parrot.”
One of the kids, a little hellion named Marcos, fished a Fruit Loop out of his bowl and held it up to Charlie, who bobbed a little and then puffed all his feathers out.
“We can’t take Charlie,” the woman said. She was kind, I noticed. “That bird loves you,” she said.
After we left, Nickels stroked a finger down Charlie’s neck. “Those kids are a bunch of bird murderers, anyway,” he said. “Like literally. I saw them kill a goose once.”
We walked. I didn’t know where we were going and I didn’t ask, I just let him lead me. He stopped a woman pushing one of those jogging strollers. A gentrifier. She was close to our age and looked vaguely familiar and/or attractive. She had twin toddler boys strapped into the thing and they pointed at Charlie and grunted. Babies are no better than drunks.
One of them finally formed his grunts into the word, “birdy.”
“Yes,” the mother said, like he’d just won a spelling bee or walked or some shit. “Can you say parrot? Par-rot.”
The kid said something, but it wasn’t parrot. His twin brother just sat there dumbfounded, horrified, looking up at me like a car accident had happened on my face.
Nickels took Charlie off his shoulder.
“He’s nice, don’t worry,” Nickels said to the mother. I envisioned Charlie’s claws biting into the face of one of these babies and flying off, toddler in tow. Would I run if that happened? “He’s been trained to be with children.” Nickels the liar. Of course, I would run.
“Can he talk?” the woman asked.
“Of course,” Nickels said. “He’s just being shy right now.”
“What does he say?”
“You know, we just found him in a tree over there. Is he yours?”
“If you just found him how do you know he is nice?”
“Do you want him? I mean, I guess he’s like a free parrot. Free to a good home and all that? You look good.”
She smiled in a way that was more of a wince. “Oh my god, no,” she said. “My husband would kill me.”
“I hope not,” Nickles said. “You know what they say: men love parrots.”
The kid was still looking at me. His hand was in his mouth now and he slowly chewed on it. Drool hung from his bottom lip.
“Say bye-bye to the birdie,” she said to her sons, who turned, not waving, and watched us as she pushed past.
“Goddamn,” he said. “I’m horny.”
I realized then where we were going.
We used to joke that the bartenders at Jennifer’s were all part of a human trafficking ring. Every few months a new crop of mostly young, mostly blonde, mostly Polish women would be tending bar and the former crop of young, blonde Poles had vanished. The name, Jennifer’s, was a ploy to make it sound not-Communist. The bartenders wore nametags that read Jennifer, but Nickels told me their real names were Jaska, Malwina, and that there were two Agnieszkas, Short Agnieszka and Scary Agnieszka. Nickels had worked here for a while–mostly as a bar back slicing limes and fetching ice. As we walked, Nickels had this gleam in his eyes. When he had a plan–even a horrifyingly bad one–and he was happy, he became electric. Just as long as you are on that bus tomorrow. “You know Jenny’s storage room is probably full of illegal black market pythons,” he told me. He told me that at closing time the Polish bartenders locked the front door and then the real alcoholism began. “Like people pissing their pants drunk. Real shady shit,” he said. The owner had converted an old house, re-zoned for commercial, so that the bar was in the old living room, but one could walk around and take a seat in a former bedroom if he/she so wanted. It was a weird place. Nickels loved it.
“If anyone can move a parrot, it’s Jenny,” he said. I admitted there was a certain logic to it.
“They told you it’s okay to go in a bar?” I asked. I knew how this would end. Fed by the young Polish go-go dancer bartenders we would miss his bus and he would be stranded here with an empty apartment, a parrot, and nothing else. Except maybe me to abandon him all over again. He would sleep behind the dumpsters at Wendy’s, and some sort of cycle would start over, like a decapitated snake eating its own tail.
“Dude, don’t worry about it. I am not even tempted right now to drink. They like train you for this shit.” I forced myself to believe him.
“See,” I said, “that’s what I am saying. You don’t have a problem.”
We sat at the bar atop two red vinyl stools, both split down the center exposing their tan fluffy entrails. The bartender had long straight blonde hair and too much bright red lipstick to look American.
“Nickels!” she cheered. She came around the bar and leapt up on him, wrapping her arms around his neck and her thin bare legs around his waist, causing Charlie to flutter down to the bar. She kissed him on the cheek. “We have missed you.” It left a big red kiss print.
He didn’t remember her name, I could tell. “You remember my friend, Head, right?” he said. She put her tiny hand in mine like I was supposed to kiss it.
“Michael,” I said. I lifted her hand towards my lips but she pulled it away before it got to my chin.
She told me her name was Agnieska, and I wondered if she was the scary or the short one.
“Dude, are you already kissing-hands drunk?” Nickels said. He laughed and then he pursed his lips and shook his head like I had just farted. “How many beers did you have with your skeleton key girlfriend?”
We ordered two coffees.
“Coffee?” Agnieska said. She was confused. “You are so funny,” she said, but she didn’t smile.
“With no alcohol,” he said.
A group of four young men played an arcade game that required them to answer questions to reveal the image of a naked woman, puzzle piece by puzzle piece. They were working on her breasts. Two men threw darts, not keeping score. The place smelled of pine-scented air freshener. What happens when you go back to a place like this? Nickels and I have been kicked out of here, we’ve been excited, bored, lost and broke on these stools, back when this was still fun.
“We don’t have coffee,” she said. “You don’t want?” she said. “Why? I’ll buy.” She frowned. She didn’t wait for our protests.
She brought two beers in frosty pint glasses and left them before us. She didn’t bring any coffee. We deserved this, I thought. This is why you don’t go into a bar on the way back from rehab.
“Don’t worry,” Nickels said. “This is totally fine.”
I believed him. I felt in my pocket for his cash–still there–but I didn’t take it out. Not yet.
After serving the boys playing the arcade game, the woman came back.
“Bird?” she said. “Why?” she nodded at Charlie. She gave Nickels a look a mother would give to a child who had disappointed her.
“That will all become clear in good time,” he said. He winked.
“No birds,” she said. “I don’t think.”
“He’s mine,” Nickels said. “ I need to find him a new home because I’m leaving.”
“You are leaving,” she said. Her lips formed a big O. Her brow lifted. Her eyes went sad.
“This place definitely needs a new parrot,” Nickels said. He flashed his smile. The Nickels’ smile that made you love him, that made you consider taking his bird. “He talks. He sings, even. You could probably train it to talk in Polish.”
“I’m not Polish,” she said.
“Still,” he said. “I’m just saying you could if you wanted.”
Charlie shifted his weight from one foot to the other and looked like he might fly off, like he knew what was going down and was going to flee, to finally give up on Nickels to strike out on his own.
“It’d be good for business,” Nickels said. “Check this out.” He tried to get Charlie to talk, but again the bird just opened his mouth to the halfway mark and left it hanging.
A text message from Melissa: “We are free for the Fourth, right?”
The beers stayed where they were, sweating, still cold.
“I think I’m going to have to drink this,” I said. It wouldn’t be the worst thing I had ever done, to drink a free cold beer.
The bartender walked off to see if the establishment wanted to adopt a parrot. The beer was good, some sort of European lager.
“Hey,” he said. He put his arm over my shoulder. “I really appreciate you, bro.”
“Is this like one of the steps?” I said. I slid the beer the bartender had left for him over to my side.
“Fuck you,” he said. “And fuck them. They don’t work anyway.” He laughed. Nickels. I’d found him crying in an alleyway once. He only showed what cards he wanted you to see, never his whole hand. The queen of blank. The nine of blank. The blank of blank. I’d know him for my entire life, but there was this whole dictionary of the words we didn’t say to each other. We didn’t know what they were or what words to use to say them so we resorted to the ones we had always used. The vocabulary of our life together–jokes, sarcasm, fuck this and fuck that.
“So how’s your fantasy team?” he asked.
“It’s summer,” I said.
Charlie fluttered down onto the bar and sauntered up to a bowl of popcorn. He stole a few kernels and ate them. I ordered another beer. I tipped one dollar.
“Dude,” he said. “You know you drink a lot, right? Shit, you’re fucking drinking before and after springing me from rehab.” He laughed like a kind-of-actually-mad laugh.
“Hey, you brought me here,” I said. “You know my limits.”
“Now you are judging me,” he said, still laughing. We could say anything so long as it stayed a joke.
At some point, his beer was gone, too.
The bartender came back out and frowned again at Nickels. I wondered what it would be like to be so disappointing to so many different and unrelated people. It’s one thing to let your mom down. It’s another when the Kazakh immigrant who probably fled gang rape and genocide to pull these beers for you feels sorry for you.
He climbed up on the stool. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he announced. “Please look over here. Quick announcement. Are any of you interested in buying a lion? Okay, good.”
He explained Charlie and the move. He asked for takers.
“I’d really appreciate it if one of you could help out. He’s priced to sell. You’ll actually be making money on this deal.”
One of the boys from the group in the corner said something and the rest laughed.
“Yeah, it’s real funny,” Nickels said. The stool he was standing on rotated a bit and he had to look over his shoulder at the boys. “We’re talking about a living, breathing like exotic animal, here. Who can fucking rap. Can you rap? Yeah, I didn’t think so.”
One of the group clapped slowly. Then the others joined in. This made Charlie squawk.
“Sit down,” one of them said.
The bartender came back. “You,” she said, pointing in Nickels’ face. “Behave or 86.”
There was a sense of how avoidable all of this could have been but also a sense of how completely unavoidable every single instant of my life was.
Charlie squawked louder and then Charlie was rapping. His head bobbed and he stepped from foot to foot like the Kris Kross dance. The bar froze. Charlie belted the whole catalog. Nickels waved his spread-fingered hands in time above the bird. I heard Nickels’ voice in the words of the parrot. When he was done, Jennifer’s cheered. Charlie did it again. They cheered again. I was glad for Nickels. “Did you teach him that?” one of the breast-quizzers asked. Nickels only smiled. I put my arm over his shoulders.
I was proud of him.
“Things done changed,” Charlie rapped. “Things done changed.”
Our friendship still existed somewhere in the past. We were still somewhere and it was past midnight and that glow of the city at night spread itself upward. Back when we were always walking towards something or away from something worse and nothing could ever end, but we were always too drunk to drive. Our wildness–our intoxicated arms draped over each other’s shoulders, our throats screaming the national anthem to the empty streets as the sun came up–they were purer now, those memories. And from here, on a stool at Jennifer’s, I could still see us. I could look out and there we were. Two young men. Two friends.
“I love how these bartenders talk, man. They just say it. They don’t know enough English to be confusing.”
“Blaaah.” Charlie made the barfing sound and bobbed his head up and down.
“By the way,” he said. “You got my money?”
You never know exactly when a thing ends. It just happens.
I gave him half the money he was owed and I left the man and bird in the bar before I got too drunk to drive. I couldn’t spend the night on Nickel’s vacant floor. I loved him too much to watch him spend the last of his wealth in a place like this.
I picked him up the next morning to drive him to the bus station. I parked next to the dumpster and there was Charlie’s cage, now a pile of twisted wire. It was stuffed into the blue recycling bin so that the top of the bin popped up, like a monster that was all mouth and ate wire like spaghetti. I looked for the bird in the trees and felt stupid for hoping that it would see me and flutter down.
I called his name one time, but not loudly. No bird. Charlie hated me anyway.
Nickels must have found someone to take him, I told myself. Someone who didn’t need the cage. Someone who was a responsible pet owner. I don’t know what happened in my head then, but I think it was prayer. I was hungover and holding an orange Gatorade. And maybe I was praying.
The apartment’s emptiness echoed our voices back at us. We nodded again at its blank floor.
“What happened to Charlie?” I asked.
“He’s gone, man” Nickels said. “Off to a better home.” Friendship means knowing when the other person did something he regrets and can’t look at and not knowing what to do about it and then handing him an ice-cold orange Gatorade.
“Who took him?”
“I just gave him away”
“Why is his cage in the trash?”
“Well,” he said. He smiled that bullshit smile he gets. The Nickels’ smile–the smile that makes you hate him. “So after you left, I got this idea. He actually seemed cool with it. I didn’t actually give him to anyone. I like gave him back to himself, man. It was kind of beautiful.”
Nickels was drunk. Cheap-vodka-by-the-pint-glass-at-sunrise drunk.
I didn’t know what to say.
“Didn’t you love that bird?”
“Yeah,” he said. “I guess. Sometimes you gotta let go what you love. How’s that song go?”
I told him I didn’t know what song he was talking about.
He told me he released Charlie in the night. “He’ll be safe here,” Nickels said. “He can live in those trees and steal people’s picnics and shit.”
“What about the winter?” I said. “He’ll freeze.”
“Not Charlie, man. He’s a survivor. He’s industrious.”
“I would have taken him,” I said, but I was lying.
He told me the story.
I listened but I saw the whole scene through Charlie’s eyes.
This is what it feels like to be let go, to be set free by the thing you love most. You are at the bottom of a tree and it is night and the moon is nearly full and making everything visible and blue. Your cage rests in the jaws of a recycling bin and maybe you fly down to it and like perch on it and bite the wire with your amazingly strong beak. The man you love takes you in his hands and you give him a love bite on the wrist because even though you are confused and scared you can’t not like him enough to break skin. You are on his shoulder now and he is climbing. He has done things in the past. Questionable things. You have seen him passed out. You have seen him seizing. Puking. Breaking. You have seen him cry for days and forget to water you so that you had to bend part of the cage and escape and feed from the dirty plates in the sink. You have seen him smile and laugh when you talk. You have bitten the motherfucker. He has deserved it.
But now the two of you climb.
Elm trees line the parking lot and he uses the dumpster to get up to the first set of branches. He sweats through his red shirt in the blue night and you can feel the heat from where you hold onto his shoulder. He shimmies and pulls himself up until you come to a little clearing in the leaves near the top. Look at the city, the ground so far below, the moon and the blue light and maybe two or three of the stronger stars still out. The air smells like rain.
Does some instinct click on like he says it does? Does the memory of your ancestors, free and flying unencumbered through jungles pulse through you? Probably not.
He takes you from his shoulder, he sets you on a branch. He sits next to you, almost falling. You stay. You are free. You are alone.
He says: “Well, Charlie.”
He says: “We had a good run, but you stay here now.”
You want him to say more, but he doesn’t.
He says you’ll be able to feed yourself and migrate and probably find whole flocks of abandoned parrots down in New Mexico or somewhere.
But for now you sit next to Nickels and wonder how he will ever get back down this tree. He’s drunk and swaying like a limb in the breeze.
Somewhere in the distance a screaming child. Or the babbling brook of interstate traffic.
He says you talk to him. He says you say something he has never taught you. But what do you say?
You try to speak but nothing will come out.
You try to speak and your beak just hangs there.
You say, Please.
You say, what If I taught you how to fly?
You say don’t leave. Please. You say, maybe this time. You say let’s please be birds together. Where are your wings? Let’s fly towards the moon, let’s fly past the point when we can no longer breathe. Above the ashes of rainforests. Please. Let’s see what happens when we get too high come back. We owe it, you say, to each other.
Maybe that’s what happened.
We scanned the apartment one last time, leaving the the empties under the sink.
I had the rest of his money–the $200 I didn’t give him last night–but I didn’t take it out of my pocket. I don’t know why. Maybe I was now one of the group who didn’t trust Nickel’s with what was rightly owed to him. He looked at me like he knew this and that he forgave me for it, like he was a part of that same group now, too.
Later, we hugged our bro-hug and he got on the bus and I drove away. I haven’t seen him in a long time, just a text-message every now and then. Once in while I look at the trees. It’s stupid, I know. I’ll be on I-25 or looking for a place to parallel park and there’s Charlie. He’s up there, bobbing his head, hating me, rapping his fucking ass off. I almost go for a closer look but instead I turn my head and convince myself that it’s just another mourning dove.
Jeff Becker holds an MFA from New Mexico State University. A native of New Mexico, he now lives in Colorado, where he teaches creative writing at the Community College of Denver.