Pretty Bird

Photo source: https://petcomments.com/parakeet-cage/

Published June 30, 2021, Sierra Nevada Review 32, 127-137

When I was a graduate student in South Florida, I had it in my mind to write a short story about an embalmer who falls in love with a dead woman. But it wasn’t just any dead woman, which would have been creepy. This was a woman the embalmer had been crazy about in high school but, because he was awkward and reticent and pimply, was afraid to approach. He could only admire her from afar back then, thirty or so years ago, but because he never had the nerve to speak to her, he just kept her image locked away in his heart, even though he never knew where she ended up. 

One morning, this embalmer’s life takes a dramatic turn. It’s at this point the story opens, you see, because nobody wants to read a story that begins, “It was a day like every other day.” If that were the first line of a story I opened, I’d close it right away. I don’t want to read about a day like every other day. I want to open on something I wouldn’t see every day, like a woman who wakes up and realizes she’s having a stroke, or a man who looks through his kitchen window and sees a mean ol’ hillbilly stomping up his walk. I’d keep reading for those, just as I would for a lonely embalmer who walks into his chilly prep theater and sees the porcelain blue face of his high school crush. He knows right off who she is, only now she’s thirty years older. But here’s the catch: He recognizes her, but apparently nobody else does. There’s a cargo tag on her big toe that reads “Jane Doe.” 

I was working on this piece in the fall of 1996, about the time I heard Robert Olen Butler read at the Miami Bookfair International. He chose a story from his newly released collection in which every title was culled from the supermarket tabloids, things like “Boy Born with Tattoo of Elvis” and “Titanic Victim Speaks Through Waterbed.” The story I heard him read was “Jealous Husband Returns in Form of Parrot.” It’s about a man who falls from a tree and dies while spying on his unfaithful wife. He is reincarnated as a parrot in a pet store, and wouldn’t you know it but his former wife is the one who brings him home. What are the odds? She puts him in a cage in the den, where if he positions himself just right, he can see down the hallway into a sliver of the master bedroom: “I watch the men go in and I hear the sounds but I can’t quite see. And they drive me crazy.”

The whole collection, Tabloid Dreams, relies on the reader’s willing suspension of disbelief; we’ll accept the absurd if there’s enough truth in it. In fact, we’ll welcome it. The parrot story, once the farfetched premise has been established, is about compulsive jealousy, then evolves into deep regret and the man’s desperate need to communicate his feelings while trapped in a parrot’s body, with a parrot’s brain. “I talk pretty well,” he says, “but none of my words are adequate. I can’t make her understand.” I imagined my lonely embalmer felt the same way, that none of his words were adequate, which is what I was aiming for with the story: a departure from logic that readers might willingly embrace, then recognize as a tale of longing and desperation and the basic human need for connection, no matter how macabre. 

 I was playing tennis with a poet named Mark when I told him my idea: a woman’s death and sudden reappearance, but no family, no identity, no one to claim her. That trope, on its own, is pretty standard fare. Call it “a stranger comes to town” story. But then I told Mark the Poet about the lonely embalmer’s secret feelings for the woman when she was just a girl in high school, about how his torch had burned for her for thirty years, then, boom; there she is. That’s where the willing suspension of disbelief comes in. 

Again, what are the odds? 

“She just washes ashore in Miami one day and winds up on this guy’s table,” I said. “He shoots her full of embalming fluid, takes her to his apartment, and sits her on the sofa where they spend evenings watching sitcoms together.”

In the spirit of Mr. Olen Butler, I thought I’d call it “Lonely Embalmer Purloins Dead Sweetheart.” Who wouldn’t want to keep reading after a title like that?

“So you want to write about a guy who falls in love with a dead woman,” Mark the Poet said. 

“Not just any dead woman,” I reminded him. 

“Right,” he said. “A high school sweetheart.”

“More like love unrequited.” 

Mark the Poet stopped to consider it, dribbling a tennis ball on the face of his racket. “Brother,” he said, “that’s sick.” This was long before the word sick was slang for really cool. Mark the Poet meant that I was sick in the head, that there was something depraved going on in my brain. 

“I love it,” Mark the Poet said. “Tell me more.” 

I guess we sick-in-the-head types flock together.

“It’s a story about our need as humans to connect with other humans,” I said. “It’s not a horror story or anything.” 

“So, nothing about necrophilia,” he said. “I’m not sure you could make him sympathetic that way.”

“No,” I said. “Just a guy looking for someone to hang out with.”

Mark the Poet nodded, as though he completely understood. “Yeah, yeah,” he said. “Two people totally alone in the world who find each other and build a life.”

“Just like a typical love story,” I said. “Only one of the lovers is dead.”

“And embalmed,” Mark the Poet said.

“And propped up on a sofa,” I said.

Mark the Poet said it had an eerie, Silence of the Lambs kind of feel to it. “I think you have something there,” he said.

“Minus the cannibalism,” I said.

***

On a Friday night in August, twenty three years later, Karen and I are out to dinner with friends when a man with curly hair and a touch of rosacea on his cheeks passes by our table. This man is thin as a coat hanger and has a tuft of wiry whiskers sprouting from his chin. He looks remarkably like Mark the Poet, just enough to pry open the lid on the part of my brain where I’ve squirrelled away the lonely embalmer story, which lately I’ve been thinking about again: the last year or two of my life have seemed like one giant departure from logic full of longing and desperation and a need for human connection. 

The occasion is Karen’s birthday and we’re patio dining at a fancy restaurant, the kind where food servers in white dress shirts scrape bread crumbs from your tablecloth and deliver your steak on a five-hundred degree plate. We’re with a periodontist and his wife, which explains the classy venue; periodontists do quite well for themselves, toiling away at gum disease with very sharp micro-knives and lasers, which sounds like a really cool way to make a living. Like a ninja or Buck Rogers. I mean, who wouldn’t want to go to work every day and shoot lasers into someone’s mouth? And then get paid for it! On nights like these I question my squandered twenties, a decade spent meandering through incompetence and one that has, ultimately, sentenced my family to a life in greasy spoons with no possibility of parole. 

Thankfully, the periodontist and his wife are generous and they adore Karen. I should say this about my wife: Despite a mainstream meme that would have you believe otherwise, my Karen is lovely and hospitable. Being around her is like warming your face in the sun. Her hair is on the shorter side, and she does drive a minivan, but she would just as soon scrape the skin from her cheek with a cheese grater than complain to a restaurant manager. It is because of her warmth that we will, once or twice a year, find ourselves dining on sizzling filets afloat in garlic butter. People simply love being around Karen, so much so that they proffer invitations to fancy restaurants, sometimes when it’s not even her birthday. “Oh yeah,” they say. “And feel free to bring your husband.”

“I’ll be quiet and won’t eat a lot,” I’ve said to her. “Kick me under the table if I start, you know.” I have a history, especially after a few glasses of wine, of arbitrary topical outbursts that tend to cloak the table in uncomfortable silence. Like the few times I’ve shared about finding my uncle in a pool of blood on the bathroom floor of his double-wide. I have learned that there’s never really an appropriate time to bring that up. It’s a story that tends to grind normally upbeat chatter to an awkward halt. And I’m sure the same applies to any mention of my inclination, once in my life, to write about a lonely embalmer who finds good company in his dead, albeit preserved, high school beloved. There’s not likely to ever come a time when I can share that in idle conversation.

My poor wife. 

In her crystal ball, Karen foresees me as an old man who shares his maladies with total strangers. When that time comes, she will pray that no one poses the question “How are you today?” because it’s very likely I’ll share news of my rectal polyp with an unsuspecting Perko’s waitress, or my painful shingles rash with a Von’s checkout clerk. 

“Anywho,” Karen will say, because as part of being married to me, she has had to learn the art of skillful redirection. 

We sit down and are greeted by a masked waitress in latex gloves. She looks very much like a phlebotomist in a bow-tie and hands us menus smelling vaguely of bleach. “How are we today?” she asks.

“We,” says the periodontist, “are parched.” It’s seven p.m. but we’re outdoors in Fresno in August, so the sun isn’t down and it’s still in the mid-nineties. “A round of ice waters please,” he says, and just like that, a masked, gloved busboy places perspiring glasses before us, each with a lemon wedge hitched to the rim. The waitress presents a wine menu, which the periodontist dismisses, asking instead for a Coke and a charcuterie board. I am a bit of a wordsmith, but in that instant, I am unmoored by my unfamiliarity with the word charcuterie

I slip my phone from my pocket and punch in charcuterie: French word for cold, cooked meat, derived from the Middle French for pork butcher’s shop, and when presented with artisanal cheeses and organic veggies, it’s fine dining’s version of loaded potato skins or fried mozzarella sticks or jalapeno poppers. Here it is in a sentence: Some of the best charcuterie comes from Parma, where wild pigs have gorged themselves on fallen chestnuts. In other words, charcuterie is an uppity appetizer plate, which our waitress delivers in a matter of minutes. Our board features cheeses, meats, breads, and tomatoes, all masquerading under fancy names. The real celebrity of the plate is the burrata, a soft ball of mozzarella and cream our waitress describes as “seductive,” which is when I know we are in for an extraordinary dining experience. I have never before, not once, been seduced by cheese, so just the thought of it makes my heart flutter. “Burrrrata,” I say, trilling my r’s and doing my very best to sound like Roberto Benigni, a subpar parody that only serves to remind me why I don’t get out much. I even rub my hands together as though warming them over a campfire, at which point Karen’s toe subtly grazes my ankle.

Since our hosts were the ones who ordered the charcuterie, we let them have their way with the board first. “No you go ahead,” Karen says, which I take as my cue to wait until the plate has been adequately scavenged before embezzling from it an oval of bread. Rather than eat it right away, I set it before me on a cocktail napkin and pray for something biblical to happen, for Jesus to take it up, give thanks, and turn it into a platter of steak nachos. When Jesus doesn’t deliver, I prepare myself for a lesson in fasting. 

The piece of bread is, in fact, called a crostini which, if you haven’t tried one, is similar in texture to a crouton. It is meant to serve as a tiny, edible plate atop which you layer delicacies like thin prosciutto, seductive burrata, a charred campari tomato, and some wild arugula. The idea is to let the flavors blend, the textures mingle, the aromas fuse, and the crostini soften, which is what the periodontist and his wife do. I can tell they really know their way around a charcuterie board, especially the periodontist, who with surgical precision cuts into the burrata so that its cheesy innards ooze from the delicate shell, spilling into and pooling with the prosciutto. He moves his elegant fingers in such a way as to fan the aroma to his nose, at which point he closes his eyes and inhales, and there before me begins the aforementioned seduction by cheese.

“Burrrrata,” the periodontist trills, only he sounds exactly like Roberto Benigni, which leaves me feeling churlish and uncultured, like a monkey eating his own dung.

I shoot Karen a little look, something that says, See, he did it too!

Over ice water and charcuterie, we discuss the couple’s daughter, who has announced that she will be married in a matter of months to a boy she met in college. Because I don’t want to disrupt the high, happy spirit of the discussion by asking for the charcuterie board, which remains conspicuously on the other side of the table, I quietly appraise the lonely crostini on my napkin. It is unembellished, without covering or content, but I convince myself that it is stunningly beautiful! Light, golden brown, buttery, au naturel. It is perfect all by itself. Why give the burrata another thought?

“They’re thinking of getting married on one of the islands off the coast of Alabama,” the periodontist’s wife says. As she is talking, she drizzles burrata over arugula and a charred campari tomato, both of which rest provocatively atop her prosciutto crostini. It’s like watching a silk negligee slip to the floor. I take a drink of ice water and vow to change my approach to eating entirely.  

“Alabama, or maybe Georgia,” the periodontist says. “There’s lots of little islands out there that host weddings.”

Karen says, “How pretty.” 

As the father of twin, eighteen-year-old daughters, wedding talk has begun to interest me. I register my stake in this conversation by pursing my lips and nodding my head and knitting a little furrow in my brow. I listen and learn that the periodontist’s daughter, who studied marine biology, will soon be a military wife. This leads me to wonder if one or both of my girls might meet a young man in college, and if he, too, might be in the military. Or, maybe he won’t be in the military at all; maybe he’ll be a citrus grower or a secret service agent or a writer.

On second thought, I hope he’s not a writer.

It’s about this time I realize I’ve been totally ignoring my crostini. It remains where I’d left it, right there on the cocktail napkin next to my glass of sweaty water. I’ve been nodding thoughtfully during the conversation about the soon-to-be-wed-on-an-island Southern couple, and I do not want to betray my wavering attention by actually eating. Nor do I want to appear ungrateful, so with the charcuterie board all but scraped clean, I slip the crostini into my mouth, bite down, and feel an immediate, exquisitely sharp pain in my jaw, which transmits up the side of my face, flashing past my ear and into my temple, where it detonates colorfully. It’s as though I’ve walked into a steel pole I didn’t know was in front of me, smashing my nose in the process. At the same time, there’s an audible pop, like fingers snapping. That’s the moment at which our conversation about Southern island weddings abruptly ends, followed by an urgent, almost ghastly pall. 

“Oh my,” the periodontist’s wife says. “Are you alright?”

Since she’s sitting across from me, she’s the first to see my face contort. 

“Yikes,” the periodontist says. “I heard that.”

Again, my poor wife. I’d been trying so hard to avoid calling attention to myself. How tough would it have been to just sit quietly sipping ice water? 

“Yeah,” I say. “I’ve been meaning to reach out to you.”

The periodontist has counseled me on this before, more than a year ago, when I was suffering from the same problem. I go through periods when I can open my mouth no wider than a Nilla wafer. It’s during these times I eat lots of Jell-O and pudding and mashed bananas, which seems like good practice for living in a nursing home. It also makes talking uncomfortable, as the simple act of my jaw moving up and down agitates that nerve to the point of painful distraction. I find it easier to sit with my mouth closed, which coincidentally serves a convenient secondary purpose: Karen has no reason to kick me under the table.  

“Is it just one side of your face?” the periodontist asks.

I nod yes, that it is just one side.

“And does it always pop like that?” he asks. “Is there always that popping sound?”

Yes, I nod again. The pain is always accompanied by a popping sound. 

“So you can’t even eat that bread,” the periodontist’s wife says. She points to my bare crostini.

“Not unless it’s in tiny pieces,” I say. But it’s more like a mumble, like I’m talking through my teeth. 

Before the masked waitress delivers our half wedge salads, a medical consultation breaks out in which the periodontist, who spent his time in graduate school discussing something other than lonely embalmers and men reincarnated as parrots, tells me in very clear terms that I do not have cancer. 

“This isn’t something you can die from,” he says, which was a great relief to me, because I still hope to live long enough to see at least one of my daughters marry a school psychologist or a dairy farmer or an architect, anything but a writer.

“Whew,” I say. “I was really worried about cancer.”

The periodontist explains to me that temporomandibular joints are complex structures containing muscles, tendons, and bones; he does this while making his hands into a little puppet of a working jaw, then showing with his thumbs how the joint can slip and fall out of alignment. I am really thankful for the jaw hand puppet, because the periodontist lost me at “temporomandibular.” He shares with us a few other very impressive terms for what might be troubling me, things I have to look up the next day since my research in graduate school focused more on beer joints than jaw joints. Because of that, before the age of thirty, I’d explored the lives of a game warden whose teenage daughter gets pregnant, a chain-smoking barmaid with lung cancer, a roadhouse musician who runs out on his girl, and a Jesus-loving grade school boy with a dime-sized hole in his heart. All of this explains how I came very recently to shaking seven dollars in change from a glass jar so one of my daughters could buy herself dinner from a hamburger drive-through.  

“Trigeminal neuralgia is also a possibility here,” the periodontist says, which later–after I look it up–will fill me with dread: jolts of excruciating pain that feel like electric shock, triggered by things like brushing teeth or eating, nicknamed the “suicide disease” by one medical specialist because people with the condition resort to desperate measures to end their suffering. 

Great, I think. This thing’s going to make me want to off myself.

“What kind of doctor should he see for that?” Karen asks. 

The periodontist says I should see a regular dentist, at which point he swipes over his phone and texts me the number of a guy who can outfit me with a mouth guard I’d wear at night to realign my mandible with my maxilla, the bottom thumb knuckle with the top, according to the hand puppet. The text message instructs me to call this regular dentist and tell his receptionist I am a good buddy of the periodontist: “Tell them you’re having really significant TMJ pain and dislocation,” he wrote, and while very grateful for this referral, my thought in the moment is that I cannot recall a time in my life when I have spoken the words, “Tell them you know me.” I imagine how that might sound: “You seem to be struggling with fricatives. Call my friend the linguist, and tell him you know me.”

***

I spend the next few days with an ice pack on my cheek and some ibuprofen every morning, which the periodontist said would bring me comfort until I could get into the regular dentist, a man I wind up never calling. Pain has a way of subsiding for me before I actually seek medical help, and there’s nothing worse than going to the trouble of seeing a doctor, then having to say, “It hasn’t bothered me for a while.” 

The doctor’s imagined answer: Then why are you here? Indeed.

I’ve decided that my misery is temporary and manageable, inconvenient but in no way life-threatening. I thank the evening news for my perspective-taking, where these days it’s clear that people are suffering on a much greater scale: respiratory failure, septic shock, encephalitis. Depression, anxiety, solitude. Compared with things like that, a sharp, transient pain in the jaw is no more noteworthy than a few breadcrumbs on a tablecloth, or a spent lemon wedge on a cocktail napkin beside a water glass. Besides, any affliction that helps me eat and talk less is a win. It’s the direction I should be moving anyway. It’s like having a little personal trainer and life coach lodged right behind my molars, someone who reminds me when I’m opening my mouth too wide or too often. Those of us who struggle with such problems should feel lucky to get this kind of free help. That is, those of us who tend to be impulsive, self-absorbed, boorish, attention-seeking. Those of us who tend to prattle, gossip, and blather. Those of us who are aimless and loquacious. There’s a word: loquacious. Latin for someone who talks a lot, derived from the mid-seventeenth century Latin stem loquax, synonymous with garrulous, prolix, long-winded, wordy. Here it is in a sentence: With his brightly coloured breeches, beaky nose and piercing eyes, he must have resembled a loquacious and quick-witted parrot. In other words, a loquacious man might squawk without filter about whatever pops into his head–about game wardens, barmaids, musicians; about embalmers, rashes, polyps; about bloody, dying uncles; about love, longing, despair. Such a man, without curator or chaperone, might just carry on like this for the rest of his life, spewing amusements to anyone in earshot, so full is he of afflictions and ambitions and feelings, so packed is his birdy little brain with fragmented, unfinished stories.

Published by charleslewisradke

I am a writer and full-time staff member at Fresno State. I run the Dissertation/Thesis Office at the university, and I founded the Fresno State Graduate Writing Studio. My full-length memoir, Stuccoville: Life Without a Net, launched January, 26, 2021 (E.L. Marker/WiDo Publishing). My creative nonfiction has appeared in Hash, Sierra Nevada Review, Stoneboat Literary Journal, and others.

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