Bad enough Eddie’s separated from Colette, out of work and having to wait in those long lines at the unemployment office with the wretched of the earth. Bad enough he’s back living with Mona, his stepmother, in her ramshackle house on Cos Bay Bluffs, having to put up with his buddies at the fire station needling him on how he’s tied to the old lady’s apron strings, and with her always ragging him to get a job. Now he’s gone and let Presley, Mona’s precious cockatoo escape.
He’s glad in a way. At the same time, he knows he’s in torrent of water, what with Mona already threatening to throw him out on his ear.
He would have liked emptying his old Rem pump action 20-gauge shotgun into Presley’s cage. Would have been fun to see feathers fly, like those blitzkrieg pillow fights he used to have with his brother Buddy when the old man was just dating Mona, a woman fifteen years younger than him, the two of them, Mona and the old man, out at the Blue Moon Tavern, sucking up JD through a swizzle until they were as pickled as gherkins at the bottom of the barrel.
When they’d come home, he and his brother would listen at the top of the attic landing to the fracas coming from the old man’s bedroom. It was like he was racing a buckboard, Mona whinnying, the headboard slapping the wall sounding like a whip. That was before Mona got religion and became a Celestial Seasons teetotaler, before the old man died of cirrhosis of the liver for drinking his and Mona’s share, snorkeling up the sauce with a garden hose.
Now, Mona believes her late husband’s soul has transmigrated into Presley’s, and Eddie’s beginning to believe it’s true. The cockatoo has been ragging him lately, and never worse than since winter when he moved down from the unheated attic and started sharing Mona’s bed.
Eddie had always had a thing for Mona. Ever since he’d danced with her at the old man’s wedding, the band playing “Jalousie,” her clove-sweet breath on his neck, her insinuating thighs bumping against his invitingly to the strains of the violin.
It all seemed so appropriate somehow. Didn’t his psychology professor at Hemiston Community—this is before he dropped out–say that the driving force behind civilization was the child’s desire to surpass the father, to displace him in the mother’s affection? Every boy back to old Oedipus dreamt of sleeping with his mother. Well, it wasn’t like you dreamt of sleeping with your mother. It was like, you have a dream in which you sleep with this mysterious wall-eyed woman. And then the psychologist would say, “But isn’t your mother wall-eyed?” It was symbolic, like.
Except in Eddie’s case, he was actually sleeping with his mother. Well, his stepmother. And he wasn’t repressing anything. Not like his up-tight brother Buddy, a successful orthodontist up in Portland. Eddie was more a slacker, like his father.
And then there was the guilt–even though Mona wasn’t his mother. And that cockatoo ruffling its feathers, cackling, “Ho, boy, yer in big trouble.” Who taught Presley that? Not Mona, with her stern sanctimoniousness.
He’d slept with her anyway. Eddie knew she’d started drinking again, those pretended evening meetings in which she dressed fetchingly and did the bar scene, her breath tart and smoky behind the breath mints. The way she negotiated the kitchen with a syrupy puckishness, as if she were the homecoming queen.
Don’t put on false appearances for me, he’d thought to say. He did not. Instead, he bought her a fifth of Johnny Walker for her birthday, three long-stemmed roses, brooding scarlet, a nondescript greetings card in which he wrote “For my favorite gal.” He didn’t bother to sign it. He half knew he was striking a match in a tinderbox.
From the loft where Eddie lay curled up on his bed under a sleeping bag reading an Erskine Caldwell novel, the space heater churning out its red-hot magma against the chill winter, he heard her come in. Her heels clicking across the linoleum, stopping, clicking again, in and out of her bedroom. Finally, she stood at the bottom of the landing. “How thoughtful of you, Eddie,” she shouted up to him. She climbed the ladder until she was half in his bedroom. “I know I’ve been short with you, hon,” she said. She expressed her concern, his brooding all the time, his separation from Colette. “Would he like to have dinner with me? Help me celebrate? My treat.”
Mona had gotten herself all gussied up, stockings and heels, a cranberry knit dress that hugged her body and showed off all her curves. He’d pulled on a clean pair of jeans, his Western shirt with the pearl snaps, lizard boots.
They ate little that evening. They went to Joe’s Steak House where the sirloins were gristly and the drinks cheap. At first, she was reluctant to drink. “What’s the problem,” Eddie said. “It’s only one. It’s your birthday.” After she’d nursed the first, the second went down like she was a sailor on shore leave. She started looking at him rapaciously. Or maybe it was the thought of that fifth waiting for her at home.
They continued partying at the kitchen table. Mona sitting there, crossing and crossing her lovely gams, smoking a cigarette like a starlet, making large airy gestures, leaning forward showing off her cleavage teasingly from behind her lacy bra, sipping at her tumbler full of JW, straight up. He, slouched low in his chair, smoking a blunt, taking her in. The kitchen was dimly lit by the yellowish stove hood lamp; the only other light, the reflection through the window of the security flood on freshly fallen snow. It was quiet, except for their empty prattle, and the hiss and thud of the gravity furnace.
“You were sweet to me tonight,” she said, her voice deep, a little slurred.
He laughed. He leaned forward in his chair, one elbow on the table, fist to his cheek. He let the back of his other hand brush her leg, right above her knee. By then his old neurons were flickering like a shorted Christmas tree.
She looked downward at his hand, her lips parted, her eyes shadowy. Was this the look of longing? reproval? He couldn’t tell. Even if he could, he didn’t care. Everything felt unreal, like they were making a movie. Just what he thought he was doing, he didn’t know. She didn’t withdraw, and his hand slid higher up her thigh.
She uncrossed her legs. The quiet rasp of her stockings raised the hair on the back of his neck. His heart thudded against his chest like a nine-pound hammer.
He followed her towards her bedroom, her taking small wobbly steps, looking back over her shoulder, her eyes large, her face blushed, her mouth open as if she wished to chasten him for his sauciness but just couldn’t find the words.
At the doorway she made a show of resistance, mewing and complaining, her arms locked against the door jam. He didn’t pay her any heed and when he fell on top of her, he felt himself falling forever.
When he finally rolled off her, Mona was asleep, or maybe unconscious. He listened and in the distance he heard the muffled roar of breakers on Cos Bay slamming against the bluffs. Eddie felt a deep nausea buffeting his intestines. He eased himself off Mona’s bed, hoping to slip back to his room. Mona started up, grabbed him by the elbow. She rolled over to his side of the bed, hissed into his ears, “Things are going to be different around here, sweetheart.” She bit his ear lobe and straddled him. Mona was no Colette. Colette had been all holding hands, cotton candy at the state fair, strolls in the moonlight, modest, shy, almost virginal.
As she took her fill of him and Eddie realized why his pop took to drink, why he called Mona the widow maker. Mona was not at all the demure creature she pretended to be, the sensible pumps and starchy high-collared prim dresses she wore to Sunday services, the prayer book clutched to her breast; or the house coat-frocked homemaker, her hair pinned up, sitting at the kitchen table with her coral-framed reading glasses cutting out coupons. Her passion unleashed, Mona was fiery, insatiable. He had miscalculated, unlatched the cage door, freeing a feral creature.
Their affair went on all that winter, into the spring and summer. Mona used him for her pleasure, then remonstrated against him: that he didn’t contribute to the kitty, didn’t help her around the house, hung out with his do-nothing friends at the fire station. Strangely, the more she chided him, the more he worshiped Mona.
Was it in the summertime he first noticed the bird haranguing him? Was it because he had too much free time? He’d just been furloughed from Northwood Mill. “Fire in the hole, fire in the hole,” Presley would screech, squaring its shoulders, staring fiercely at him, taking agitated crab-like steps along its perch, sometimes lifting a leg and dropping a load.
Eddie hated that bird, saw in its blood-red eyes his father’s mean spiritedness, the endless preachments. Its cackle was like the sharp report of his father’s barber’s strap across his hindquarter, the endless lickings he got for no good reason.
How many times, Mona off to work, he’d wake to that cackling sound, clammy and feverish, all tangled in the sheets, suffocating in the midmorning heat, Mona’s cloying perfume still lingering in the air.
He had to leave the house else he was sure he’d strangle that bird. But sometimes, he didn’t. Instead, Eddie’d get himself a Miller’s High Life. He’d grab up one of Mona’s cats, feral toms that in the summer Mona left out to fend in the wild. He’d sit back in her sewing chair, put the cat up on the armoire, or the sewing machine, or the boxes piled in the corner, let the cat exercise Presley who, with hackled crown, would suffer the cat batting at his cage while staring at it imperiously, evilly, as if he were wishing some unspeakable horror befall the cat. He hated that bird so much, he even put buckshot in his feed, looking in on him every day to see if he’d died of lead poisoning. The ugly wretch would cackle, “Ho, boy. Yer in trouble now!” while picking up buckshot in its beak, spitting it back at Eddie.
This morning he’d just about had it with that damned bird. Presley woke him out of a monstrous- sized hangover with its cawing. He’d gotten himself a High Life out of the frig, pulled out Mona’s sewing machine into the center of the room so as it was right under the cage, then brought in one of the toms. Presley was not making a peep, but staring out defiantly at the cat, which was standing on its hind legs, pawing at that cage, like Presley was lobster and cooked just right. Eddie was blowing cigarette smoke into the cage. After a second brewski and a third, he got bored. He unlatched the cage. Thought he’d raise the stakes.
This was great. He felt like he was on one of those Animal Kingdom specials, one of those zoologists. He wished he had a video recorder so as he could show his buddies down at the Hemiston FD.
In fact, he was thinking he might just rent himself one over at Video City and do a documentary. He’d get one of those camcorders that allows you to caption. He’d call it “Safari in the Sewing Room.” Maybe they’d feature Eddie’s video on the Animal Planet station. Enthused by this stroke of genius, Eddie let his chair fall on all fours. This distracted the cat’s concentration. Soon as the cat took its eyes off the cage, Presley, with a loud flutter, flew out the opened cage.
The cat took right off after him as if born to the hunt. Eddie found this immensely entertaining. Only, shit-brained that he was, he’d forgotten to put up the accordion stairway that led to his bedroom. There was that big gaping hole where he’d taken out the ceiling fan, the one Mona had been nagging him to fix for weeks and which was now sitting up against the tool shed in the tall grass, going to rust.
Presley reconnoitered the kitchen and the living room and Mona’s bedroom with the cat in hot pursuit, doing flips and twists and double half gainers in the air like he was on the Olympic gymnastics team. Then Presley flew up through the attic loft, saw daylight through the ceiling fan vent, and, as the expression goes, flew the coop.
Just like that. And Eddie’s thinking, Good riddance, I hope you get eaten by turkey vultures. Except he knows that when Mona gets home, surely she’ll kick him out on his butt. Lately, since he’s not been performing what she calls his nightly duties, he’s noticed she’s not drinking as much; she’s been reading in her 24 Hours a Day, that twelve-step program, acting righteous with him. He’s not regular, a bad influence on her, besides being a wastrel drunk. Eddie can’t afford to get kicked out just yet, his unemployment benefits barely enough to keep up his Camaro payments, and the cooler in the trunk filled with beer.
Which is why for the last hour, he’s chasing after that goddamned Presley, his face slathered with sweat, milkweed spores stuck to his hair and shirt, his clothes glued to him with the late morning heat, his ankles chaffed and torn up, even through socks, with thistle, his head throbbing something awful because he’s drank his breakfast.
Then they’re at Oswald’s Overhead, a sheer forty-foot drop onto jagged rocks, the pounding surf below. This is where, long ago, after his father had beaten him for taking his air pump apart, he’d run the old man’s whippet off the cliff, throwing a stick for the bitch to fetch. That dog, his father’s favorite, was stupid as sin. He’d just hightailed after that stick, leapt out over the cliff’s edge, as if this were a steeplechase.
Eddie, by now, is feeling like he’s about to have a heart attack. Maybe the bird’s smarter than him, he’s thinking. Presley keeps lighting in the low branches of a chokecherry or hawthorn where he could easily bag him with his fishing net. Except soon as he’s underneath the branch, Presley flies up, cackling in that scoffing voice, “Ho, boy. Yer in big trouble.”
Then they’re at cliff’s edge. Presley perches on an old juniper tree that leans out over the precipice, practically horizontally, gnarled and stunted from the salt breeze. He has his back towards Eddie. Presley keeps looking out over the ocean, then turning his head sidewise. Strong gusts of wind puff up its feathers, practically dislodging Presley’s grip. Eddie can smell its fear.
Eddie makes sure of his footing, wrapping an arm around the juniper trunk. He reaches out with the net. Presley flaps his wings in protest. Eddie has Presley trapped. There’s nowhere for the bird to go. Next stop, Singapore, he thinks.
Then just as he’s lowering the net over it, Presley drops out the bottom where two branches form a “V.” Eddie tries to whip the net around and underneath the bird and just misses. Instead, he catches the net on a broken branch. Pulling too strenuously, Eddie loses his foothold. He swings underneath the tree, his arm slipping from around the trunk until he’s holding himself up with one hand clutching at the trunk, the other the long pole handle, the hoop still snagged on the branch.
He looks down at that dizzying drop beneath him, jagged rocks, the crashing surge of breakers. His heart palpitates in his throat. He can barely breathe, and he’s wet himself.
Presley falls like a stone, then opens its wings, catches an updraft.
Presley floats upward until the bird is only inches away, its wings flapping noisily, its malevolent red eyes glowering at him. It lights in the juniper tree between Eddie’s hand and where the hoop is snagged. First it starts pecking at his hand, piercing jabs that feel like someone is pounding asphalt nails through Eddie’s wrist. Eddie lets go of the trunk and grabs the net handle. He makes one last effort to shimmy himself up the handle. As he does so, the hoop opens into a horseshoe, only the strong nylon netting holding it together. Presley starts pecking at that too. It’s funny how when you’re about to die you can see so clearly how every lapse, every misstep, led you to perdition. Eddie watches with cool detachment as the netting unravels. He’s going to miss Mona, he thinks. Meanwhile, Presley leaps into the air, silent wings flapping, the ocean breeze carrying the bird inland, a sailor returning to his bride.
Len notes: “Previously published in Shenandoah, Tampa Review, Painted Bride Quarterly, The New Novel Review, The Sun: Journal of Ideas and other magazines, I am a former recipient of the Hugh Luke Award and my stories have twice been nominated for inclusion in the Pushcart Prize anthology. I teach at Writers and Books of Rochester and head up the Artisan Jazz Trio which performs throughout Upstate New York.”