As Marcia does the dishes, she hears her daughter call from upstairs. “Mom, Mo-o-o-m . . . ” She races up but Ruthie isn’t in her room or even in the house. “Was that you, Bird?” she says to the parrot in the den. The parrot has learned to mimic all kinds of things—Charlie’s sneezing fits, farts, the beeps of the burglar alarm. Smooching sounds. How did it learn that?
“Grape or peanut?” Marcia says. Grape or peanut. All day long. It was Ruthie who wanted the parrot. She just had to have it after her gerbils died. “Messy creatures,” Marcia said, trying to ward off the inevitable. But Ruthie persisted. She was ten and knew how to persist. “You want a pet that will outlive you? That will outlive us all?” Ruthie nodded vigorously. “Yes,” she said, she did.
Ruthie had planned to be home for the rest of her life, but now she’s hardly here. Out and about with her pack of pals, only rare sightings. Flew the coop, Charlie says. Marcia isn’t exactly mad at her daughter, but she is mad about the bird. Picky eater. Plays with his food. Marcia’s problem now.
Bird bangs on its cage like a prisoner as Marcia tries to find a radio station. He prefers Coltrane to Miles, though he doesn’t seem to mind Eminem or Jay-Z. She gets Z-100, a little contemporary rock, but Bird starts clicking his tongue and dancing. Marcia dances with him, then sniffs the air.
“Let’s clean your cage,” she says. She opens the door and Bird walks out. He sits on his perch, ready to peck her. Marcia heads into the bathroom for the cleaning solvent and a cloth and pauses in front of the mirror.
“Yuck,” she says, poking the bags under her eyes. “Who’s that?”
“Mom,” Bird says. “Mom.”
A few dark hairs appear on her chin and she attacks these with tweezers, rubs Botox cream across her brow. It’s all maintenance now. She sucks in her cheeks and tries to see the girl she once was. She actually sees that girl from time to time, walking down the street, moving through the neighborhood with her friends like a swarm of locusts. When she looks at pictures of her daughter, Marcia thinks, “Oh, that’s a picture of me.”
But of course it isn’t.
Ruthie has gotten so big that sometimes Marcia doesn’t even recognize her. Once Marcia paused in front of the video store and thought, “Who is that woman waving at me?”
A child, she had thought, is forever. Like a diamond. No. Now a bird might be forever. Her daughter grew up and she finds herself with time on her hands. She can go to the gym three days a week, read a book. She’s got hours to stake her roses and talk with friends on the phone. All this time now feels endless. Like one big lump.
One thing adds up to the next slowly until a day is completed, not like before when she rushed to drop Ruthie off at day care, then to work, then grab some food at the supermarket or decide most nights to order in, pick up the kid by six. Bath, feed, bed maybe, collapse. Same thing the next day. But now there’s no more night-night tuck-in; now it’s blab blab blab on the phone, night Mom, night Dad, can I have money for my nails. Peck peck.
Marcia takes some of Ruthie’s cover-up, spreads it under her eyes. She eyes a T-shirt of Ruthie’s and slips it on. Admiring herself, she hears the flapping of wings. Bird is soaring. Rising and flapping through the house. Molting feathers coast through the air. He makes a beeline down the hall, then a sharp turn into the bathroom as Marcia lifts up a finger and he lands.
“Enough of this,” she says.
Marcia is tired of Bird flying around the house. Clip its wings, the parrot book says. Otherwise they grow feral and wild. In the book are instructions. Put a towel over the bird’s head so it doesn’t bite you. Hold its flight feathers in your hand. Clip just the tips where you don’t see a vein. Marcia follows the instructions using Charlie’s beard scissors. Snip snip, now you won’t fly. Snip, snip, now you’re mine.
Suddenly blood gushes. A lot of it. Marcia reads on. Do not clip the blood feathers. They are immature and still connected to venal system. Cradling Bird, red liquid gushing between her fingers, Marcia calls Ruthie on her cell phone, but gets rap music instead. Not knowing what else to do, she races to the kitchen and grabs cornstarch. She powders Bird, dabbing its bleeding feather. When she is done, he sits perched on her finger, white. Ghost Bird.
She takes him back to his cage. “Let go,” he tells her.
“What’re you talking about?” she says.
That afternoon Marcia is in the garden, pruning roses when she hears Ruthie call. “Hey, Mom, Mo-o-o-o-m.” She rushes up from the garden. “Hi, Ruthie, honey. You’re home . . . ” Ruthie is no where. Upstairs Bird ruffles his feathers, a white cloud rising, when he sees her come in.