TC's of Durham
Regina was a painter with a parrot who imitated her ex-boyfriend’s laughter. The boyfriend had left the parrot behind when he’d left Regina, just packed a bag and took off, no warning, no goodbye. Regina’s coworker at the municipal pool shook her head and told Regina, “He ghosted you,” which was apparently what young people said to describe what Bill had done, the quiet leaving, the feeling that he’d never been there at all. It was ghostly, Regina had to admit, when she walked into the house to the sound of Bill’s laughter. With a towel over its cage, the parrot wasn’t supposed to make any noise at all, but it did. She could hear it laughing from beneath the towels she draped there every night and sometimes during the day, too. “Bill,” Regina would say through gritted teeth as she tried to paint, “will you please shut the fuck up.”
Regina had moved to the desert to be an artist. At first she’d painted landscapes — red-hued sunsets over craters of dust and stone. But they were depressing. No one wanted to buy them, which didn’t surprise Regina, since she hardly wanted to look at them herself. Then, after Bill left, she started painting still lifes, mostly fruit. Long, elegant bananas, rosy apples with gold glowing through their skin, deeply dimpled oranges, iridescent plums. “Why,” her mother asked from her living room in Wisconsin, “did you have to move to the desert to paint fruit?” It was true, of course, that one could paint fruit anywhere. But the fruit had come to her in the desert, like a miracle growing out of dry, infertile ground, and she was grateful for it. Bill had called her paintings boring, but after she left, Regina figured it was her he had thought boring, not her paintings, and that had been a relief. People loved Regina’s fruit. They paid three or four hundred dollars per painting, and she painted voraciously, two or three paintings per day, Bill cackling in the background. Soon, she had enough money to cover her rent and groceries without her paycheck from the municipal pool. She quit, but still walked there twice a week in the desert sun to swim laps.
Things were looking up for Regina. But then, Bill the parrot started getting sick. First, he refused his food. Then he started pulling out his own feathers with his beak. Then he started doing strange things, like dropping seeds through the bars of his cage so that they fell onto the floor in little heaps. He sat on the floor of his cage instead of on his swinging bar. His laughter became maniacal. The vet said nothing was physically wrong with him. It was a behavioral problem, she said. Regina called around to pet stores and children’s museum and zoos. No one wanted a parrot. In the evenings, Regina and Bill stared at each other across the half-light of the small kitchen. “Bill,” Regina asked, “What are we going to do with you?” Bill just laughed.
Eventually, through a long ago mutual friend, Regina was able to track down human Bill. He was living in a southern town, smack dab in the center of North Carolina. You couldn’t fly with a parrot, at least not as far as Regina knew, so she put Bill’s cage in the car and drove a thousand miles across the country with Bill chuckling in her ear, what was left of his green feathers blowing around the car as he plucked them out, one by one. The North Carolina where human Bill lived was nothing special. Red clay; pines; wet, ungodly heat without the shade of mountains or the cool of the sea. The smell of fresh tobacco wafted through the air outside the downtown apartment where she finally tracked him down. She carried Bill’s cage on her hip, up to a third floor apartment, number 27. When Bill answered, he was stunned, his face losing all its color. Regina had to smile. He really did look like a ghost. But then he said, “He’s bald!” and she remembered that Bill the parrot was sick. “I think he missed you,” she said, walking into the apartment and setting Bill down on the table. A woman in red underwear and one of human Bill’s undershirts was sitting on the couch, looking back and forth between Regina and the parrot. “Hi,” Regina said, and she suddenly had the overwhelming urge to paint a pomegranate. Maybe it was the smell of sex in the air, or the thrill of finally letting go of something that had been haunting her. The sweet sourness of it all.
On the way out of town, Regina pulled into a car wash on a whim. It would feel good, she thought, to be rinsed clean of that southern dust. She pulled around back, told a man in a ball cap what sort of wash she wanted (“Supreme”), and then went inside where she could watch her car being washed through a little window in the wall. First the suds, then the slapping sponges, then the rinse. Just before the enormous drying machine began its beast-like roar, Regina heard a noise behind her and spun around. It was a parrot. Green like Bill before he’d lost his feathers, in a glossy black cage taller than Regina herself. Regina was an artist. She knew that sometimes life was stranger than art. She knew that uncanny coincidences were built into every second, if you paid attention. But this. The sense of somehow coming full circle swelled in Regina. The parrot cocked his head and said, “Hello! My name is Paco!” Regina tried to return the greeting, but laughed instead. The parrot did not laugh back.