Sunday, February 23, 2014

California Fable by Jeff Burt

Jeff Burt's eccentric character Stephen Pocket dates a shopkeeper because he is fascinated by her parrot - but he and the parrot bring out the worst in each other.

Stephen Pocket curled his fingers within the doorbell of the jewelry store attempting to silence the brassy ring. It was ten o’clock, already humid and irritatingly hot. He had an apple vodka and conversation hangover. His Panama suit was creased as if he’d slept in it. He removed his straw hat and ruffled the black hair beginning to sprout white shoots near the temples and a spume near the crown. With his index fingers he smoothed his mustache, and then adjusted his sunglasses.

A self-labeled pretty boy, Stephen loved his image. He recognized that if he had travelled with the wealthy he would have been absorbed in the eccentric circles and never stood out. So he had associated himself with sailors, short haul truck drivers, musicians, and a host of mediocre artisans to get the attention he desired. With meticulous care he chose his wardrobe to be a display of ostentatiousness that no person in his circle of acquaintances could match. His colors were pastels and subtle, his shirts European, his shoes Yugoslavian. He drove a Jaguar convertible, black, the product and profit of a brief marriage to a woman who had won a personal injury suit worth half a million dollars.

In the store Stephen immersed himself in necklaces and lockets. He was looking for a cheaper and less shocking entrance into a woman’s life after she had thrown diamond earrings back in his face—which had actually made him happy, since creditors were calling him daily and maitre d’s at restaurants were displaying his bounced checks on the hidden boards underneath the hostess lectern. He was imaging what a small white gold locket would look like on this woman’s neck when the doorbell tinkled again. As he doubled over the display case, the young female shopkeeper uttered a sigh of acknowledgment and hurried toward the entrance. Stephen stopped looking at the lockets and caught himself gazing at his own reflection.

“Peanuts,” a parrot squawked. “Peanuts.”

A shrill caw rang the plate of glass Stephen had his hands on. A second caw seemed to ring every bit of glass, brass, ruby, and diamond, plus Stephen’s brain against the inside of his skull. The parrot perched on the right shoulder of the shopkeeper who was stroking the bird’s belly with the backside of her hand. She was peppering the parrot with baby talk, designed, apparently, to engage the parrot in a conversation.

“Diamonds and girls, diamonds and girls,” the parrot repeated.

Stephen, never one to desire a pet because it distracted from his attention, was magnetized by the bird. It stood in all its green-feathered glory wearing a natural Aztec headdress like an ancient wizard. Stephen saw the tiny head of a wise old man sitting on a bird’s body. The bird walked back and forth in a half-dignified, half-comical manner.

He coveted it. The bird would be another successful novelty with his friends, at least for a few weeks, and they could think, “That crazy Stephen,” once again.

The shopkeeper stood by the front window, with streaming light and a brittle, harsh reflection from the Jaguar’s window silhouetting her body. Stephen found her trim, of sufficient height, about five-foot-six-inches, and noticed she was not wearing a slip, her cream-colored cotton dress with brown flowers a transparent cover to the thighs. He liked her erect posture. Her ears were visible, hair tucked behind them, and they were devoid of earrings. In fact, her body lacked any ornament, bare of bracelet, necklace, ring, or locket. She swayed as if she heard music.

Stephen closed his eyes, then opened them. The parrot and woman still shimmered.

“Peanuts, peanuts,” the parrot squawked.

They laughed. The parrot sidestepped over the woman’s shoulder to her neck and nipped at Stephen’s hand when he tried to touch it.

“Broca,” the woman admonished the bird, “be nice to the man. He says peanuts to every customer who is not standing at the high-priced glass. I apologize for his manners.” She turned to Stephen. “He’s never nipped at anyone before. I am so sorry. I hope he didn’t hurt you. He is usually very keen on being stroked.”

Stephen smiled. “I’m fine. I reached back just at the last second. I never get hurt.” He watched how the woman’s lips rose to a smile and bared her spectacularly white teeth. He liked that.

“Did you name him Broca?” he asked, positioning himself between the glass and the shopkeeper.

“No. I bought him from a college student who was a trivia buff. Broca’s rather strange. He sometimes yokes together two rhymes that make no sense. His enunciation is quite good.”

“Can you make him say anything?”

“He may try to repeat what you say,” she said. The parrot did a full pivot on her shoulder and turned his back to Stephen. “Diamonds and girls, diamonds and girls.”

Stephen snorted his pleasure. He was enthralled. The bird was perfect for him, and the woman wasn’t bad either. “Do you close for lunch? I was thinking of cooling off with a drive in my Jag,” he said, jangling his keys.



Professor Tommy Toney, trained in classical music and composer of advertising jingles, soared through ragtime tunes at 1919, a small Italian restaurant whose house specialty was a red wine fermented and kept in casks beneath the dining room. Toney, on request, could play almost any song, though more often than not would change the melody as he proceeded to provide some perverse pleasure known only to him. He was a professional drunk as well, as many of the restaurant’s adherents, preferring the bar to the dining area.

Stephen, who frequented 1919 often enough to be considered a regular, and certain to pay cash rather than try to pass a check, sat with his back to Toney, giving him a vantage point from which to watch the entire spectrum of faces. Dana, the shopkeeper, absent the parrot of Stephen’s affections, sat kitty-corner to him, silent, bored, and slumped into a red velvet stuff chair.

When Toney completed his set, the buzz of conversation rose and Stephen turned to his date. “Do you like selling clothes?”

“My, he talks,” Dana said softly, lifting the house wine to her lips and turning her eyes away from Stephen’s. “Yes, I do like it. It’s fun.”

“But the clothes are not like the jewelry you sell, unique, appreciating. Expensive clothes are ten percent material and labor and ninety percent hype. It’s borderline unethical, don’t you think?”

“Unethical? Hardly. I’m not pushing stolen goods. I’m selling fabrics, cloth that people stitch together. And herringbone and wool and silk aren’t faddish and certainly not purchased because of hype.”

Stephen took a drink and picked at his half-finished ziti. “No offense, but it’s way too much cost for the style over the substance.”

“And your Jaguar is not?”

Stephen laughed loudly. “A Jaguar? A Jaguar has a twelve-piston engine that’s the envy of the world. See, there is a great example of substance and style meshing in a truly valuable way.”

“Maybe for a man. For a woman, it is a dress.”

Stephen laughed loudly again and looked away.

“You haven’t told me anything about what you do,” Dana asked. “I’m beginning to be fascinated by a man who remains a total mystery. You haven’t told me anything about what you feel emotionally or what you truly value.”

“I like Broca.”

“And you like money and diamonds and expensive cars.”

Stephen smiled. “I like things of quality.”

“And what do you like in people?”

He smiled again. “Interesting people. Deep, complex people. People I can’t comprehend in thirty minutes.”

“Oh dear. I’m afraid I won’t last too long. I’m very simple.”

“Keep your parrot and you’ll last long enough,” Stephen said again turning his head away from Dana.

Toney returned to the piano to sparse handclaps and Stephen returned to his silent vigil, occasionally questioning Dana about her childhood, her family back in England, her education, how she lost her accent, her best friend, Broca, and old lovers. Dana did not answer the question on old lovers.

Stephen enjoyed Dana’s company. She did not push him for his life story, which bored him. When he was busy with his own thoughts, she left him alone. And she was simple, simple enough not to understand that he was asking rudimentary questions to get her to tell him her stories to entertain him, stories he would remember and retell to others, always looking for a humorous or weird angle. He imagined himself a fabulist, a collector of fables, and Dana was his latest source.

Dana was also physically complementary. Her dresses fell straight from her shoulders, breasts breaking the fall evenly and without significance. Her earrings were always plain if she wore any. When the two went out, he was the peacock. At thirty-five, she had found the wisdom of dividing sex from romance, and it seemed satisfying to both.



They had been dating for six weeks, having sex for three, when Stephen demanded that Dana live with him. They were sitting in her apartment on a hot afternoon, shades and drapes drawn, a tangled metal wind chime of owls tingling dully in the breeze. Glasses of ice tea were forming pools that mirrored their own limpidity and nakedness.

“We have to live together,” Stephen said, attempting to maintain decorum by wrapping a white towel around his waist. “We’ve been through an extensive communication and I think it’s time we heightened the intensity, truly learn about each other, and we can only do that if we are together day and night.”

Dana hesitated. “I have learned so little about you, though. I learn about gifts for this woman, what car some jerk owned in 2003, what your friend Tommy did in Cincinnati the night he got married, but I don’t learn about you.”

“You who? You who?” Broca interrupted.

“Precisely,” Dana said.

Stephen frowned. “You keep pressing me,” he began, his body instantly rigid with anger. “You press me for stuff I don’t have to give. You ask me how I feel and I tell you. What more do you want?”

“I want more than a dissertation and a question-and-answer period on life as an ideal, Stephen. I want more than the lines from Romeo and Juliet. That doesn’t tell me how you feel. I want to know more about your family, how you grew up, what you thought about and dreamed about as a boy.”

Stephen stammered and rose quickly, grabbed Dana and shook her. “I’ve told you. I’ve told you fifty times. Haven’t you listened? I led a boring life. My parents were normal and boring. They still are. My brother and sister grew up and were gone before I knew who they were. None of us keep contact with each other except for Christmas phone calls.”

“You grew up in Japan and then Arizona,” Dana countered. “Tell me what it was like. I need to know about Stephen and Arizona, not Arizona. What kind of house you lived in. What type of bike you rode,” Dana said, biting her lip and rubbing her forearms where Stephen had grabbed her.

Stephen looked at his hands as if he could not believe he had grabbed her, surprised to have found himself leaving distinct impressions in the arms of a woman. “I’ve told you all of that,” he yelled. “It was a one-level Spanish style. I never rode a bike.”

“Why?”

“Why what?”

“Why didn’t you ever ride a bike?”

“Because I never owned one. Now are you satisfied?”

“No, no,” Dana whispered. “Don’t be offended. Don’t be afraid.”

“Is it really important to know why I didn’t own a bike? Okay, it’s important. I don’t know why. I never thought about it.”

“Were you too poor?”

“No.”

“Too clumsy?”

“No.”

“Too afraid?”

“No.

“Too proud? You like uncommon, expensive things. Did you see a bike as beneath you? Did your dreams of cars mean you would accept a bike? You wanted to wait? It’s all right to say it was. We all have things that don’t fit our self-image and we won’t do. I won’t wear makeup. I won’t wear makeup because my mother wore so much I thought it all looked garish. You try to give me diamonds but I can’t see myself in them without thinking I’m one of the Hilton sisters.”

Stephen stood, letting the towel slowly unwind from his waist and fall. He threw it ahead of himself into the bathroom. While he was showering, Dana chased Broca around the room until he settled on her shoulder.

Broca had learned to sit so quietly and comfortably on her bare shoulders that she could hardly tell he was there. Since Stephen had been dating Dana, Broca had eaten less. Dana first had thought it was due to the hot summer, but had come to realize it was because of Stephen’s temper. Stephen had tried to convince her that the parrot was male and therefore jealous, and that when they became daily acquaintances the fasting and feather loss would stop.

“Hit the road, hit the road,” Broca squawked when Stephen came out of the shower. Dana gave a complicit look to the bird.

“You aren’t gonna listen to a parrot, are you?” Stephen said, moving to the head of the bed. “It’s just a bird,” he said, reaching for Broca, only to the repelled by a violent snap of the beak and a fluttering of the wings. Enraged, Stephen swiped at the parrot but missed, slapping Dana crisply on the chin. Stephen retreated, both horrified and slightly pleased with the accident, a tiny and evil joy rising inside him. He was tempted to portray the slap as calculated, but Dana stole his thunder.

“I forgive you. I don’t care if you intended that for me or for Broca. I forgive you.”

“I’m sorry, I really am,” Stephen said, but snickered as he spoke. “I didn’t mean to hit you and I didn’t mean to hit your bird.”

Dana rose and walked to the living room and let him simper and whine his apologies as he dressed. He in turn mocked himself, then her, then turned the discussion into how would they tell it to their friends. She let him ramble and soon he wandered to stories of other people who had similar accidents with pets or worse accidents involving unintentional violence. She did not speak until his apology came in the form of an act of contriteness, which included a necklace which she liked, simple pooka shells that he had gathered from Hawaii.

“You don’t need to give me anything,” she said, but taking the necklace and trying it on. “A sincere note of apology is all I have asked you to sing.”

“One note? I’m singing you a songbook full.”

“I don’t want a songbook. I want one clear, true note, like a bell.”

Stephen scoffed. “I’m offering the world at your feet and you talk about a boring bell. I’m trying to give you romance and dreams and you’re telling me about a boring bell.”

“I’m talking about a measured response from your heart, from your heart, and not your wallet or your imagination. I love you. I love you not as Valentino, or a polo player, or Prince Charming, or Brad Pitt, but as Stephen Pocket, a handsome short man with a quick tongue, a fast lifestyle and a heart so tender he’s afraid to show it even to himself. I want to be your friend, if you’d let me. I don’t want you to give me the romance of my life. I want you to share your heart with me. I want to watch it unfold.”

Stephen sat on a chair with his back to Dana putting on his sandals. The air from the fan cooled him, and heavy with the flush of emotion gone down, he sat back, began to cry, and then just as quickly, as if drugged, fell asleep. When he awoke Dana was gone.



“I could change,” Stephen told Tommy. “I could become the man she wants me to be. But I don’t desire that. I desire my self, however damaged that is, even a tortured one like she thinks it is. And I want that parrot.”

“It seems to me,” Tommy started, sudsing the deck of the dilapidated sailboat he called home, “that Dana desires a different you or none at all. Your options are limited. It’s either good old Stephen Pocket, or a new Stephen Pocket who’s got Dana.” He paused, stopped sudsing, and looked at Stephen. “It seems to me you’d be better off with her.”

Stephen lowered his shades to the bridge of his nose. He watched the seagulls swirl and the bodies swelter on the beach.

“She’s a beautiful woman,” Tommy added, “something I’ll never have the chance to be with, but she’s more than beautiful, she’s good for you. You’re a better man with her than without her. Face it, you’ve never really grown up and you’re getting old, and there’s benefits to being an adult. Plus she’s got a steady income, something both of us lack.” Tommy laughed.

“Now you sound like Dana,” Stephen interrupted. “Stop talking about everyone else’s life and live your own. That’s what she tells me. And what she means is live with her in her life.”

“Good advice. Better grab her while she’s available.”

Stephen turned to watch the light and water slap the sides of the numerous boats in the harbor. The water appeared to be as deep as the trough of a single wave, the glistening, blinding reflection on the tip of the wave the extremity of its dimension, as if, in reaching that farthest point, water had begun to change into another element. All of his life Stephen had believed and lived as if the appearance of a thing, the face value, the words plain and cold without intonation, were the reality, and that any inner workings, causes, motivations, and tones, were color, as light dispersed by a prism. Every thing, every thought, was expressed in its final form at each moment. You were what you wore, what you said, what job you had. That was it. But Dana required that he believe and live a different conception, that he pursue the subconscious as if it controlled his destiny. To know thyself, the old Delphic wisdom. And more, she required a relationship with him where their subconscious selves were open to each other, which wasn’t possible if he escaped into his fabling. Dana had said if he could not love himself, then she could not love him either, not a love that would sustain her and provide him with more than a sisterly affection.

“So what are you going to do?” asked Tommy, standing one stride away from Stephen.

“Take that frickin’ parrot,” Stephen laughed. “Yesterday he nearly bit off my pinkie. I -” Stephen cut himself off. “I don’t know what I’ll do.”

Stephen jumped off the sailboat into three feet of water, but did not look back despite Tommy’s laugh and admonition to stay dry. He stripped off his shoes and socks, rolled up his white slacks, and vaulted into his Jaguar. As he drove through the city he imagined, as he always did, what he looked like to other people, rich, sporty, not garish, subtle, graceful, eccentric. Then he imagined what Tommy saw, a harmless mouse, a scurrying rodent who used money to maintain friendships, a funny man, but a funny man bordering on pity, funny as in off-balance, unbalanced. And what did Dana see?

He hated and he drove, drove and hated. The sun beat on his face and he could feel the skin drying and cracking, his forehead like an eggshell. He drove at sixty, seventy, eighty, ninety, and no state trooper or traffic to stop him. Down the coast he drove, passing the magnificent bays and inlets the highway bridged without a glance. Soon the heat sucked the fog onto to the coast and into the inner coastal valleys. The sun had been swallowed by the marine layer like a yellow candy in the mouth of a child. The fog chilled him, but he refused to stop and pull the top of his Jaguar over. During a vision of himself as an old sailor in a park swapping fish stories with other sailors, he drove his Jaguar up the side of a cliff and into a grove of cedars.



“She gave me the bird,” Stephen squealed in triumph, pointing to Broca caged in the corner of the bedroom. “She apologized for pushing me too hard and gave me the bird.”

“You know, I think you’re right,“ Tommy said, sitting by his bedside. “She really did give you the bird. You always said you wanted a good-looking bird and you finally got your wish, though this one is a little shorter than I think you bargained for.”

Stephen squinted through his bandages at Broca. “He’s lovely, isn’t he? I never thought I’d have to kill myself to get that bird.”

“You could have bought one, but this is a much better story.”

Stephen giggled. Tommy was holding his left hand and it felt strangely wonderful.

“Don’t tell anyone she went back to England,” Stephen demanded.

“No, I wouldn’t dream of telling the whole truth. So what to you do for an encore? Dana’s heartbroken, thinking she caused your suicide attempt, and you’ve lost a good woman, the tips of four toes. You’ve lost a lot of hair, and your Jag. What’s next?”

Stephen did not answer. He pretended to be falling asleep and did not acknowledge his friend’s farewell. Silly and filled with painkiller, he passed the afternoon lying in bed talking sappily and happily, periodically rising to pester the parrot, who returned his pokes with lunges that shook the cage and split the air with a metallic ping. During the night, as Stephen dozed in and out of consciousness, the parrot grew more passive, until by morning it perched on the crook on the center of the cage barely blinking. Stephen, gleeful over the bird’s inaction, repeatedly poked and prodded the parrot with the handle of a brass candlesnuffer. The less the bird reacted, the greater his wickedness grew. Finally, he reached inside the cage and drew the parrot out.

“Say something. Say I love you. Say pray for rain. Diamonds and girls. Diamonds and girls. Peanuts. Peanuts.”

But the bird remained silent, motionless. All morning and well into the afternoon Stephen cajoled Broca to speak, but the bird refused, refused the entreaties of cashews and dried berries and white grapes, impervious to the slaps of the snuffer that broke his plumage.

“Talk to me, fancy pigeon,” Stephen yelled, deciding to break a feather at the skin with a wire cutter. “Talk to me or I’ll make you a featherless freak.” He pushed the wire cutter around a broad quill. “Talk. Say one word. Say Diamonds. Say Peanuts.” His voice trailed off.

He broke a feather and Broca squawked so loudly it rang in Stephen’s ear, and in the time it took the feather to fall Stephen had snapped the parrot’s neck. He laid it back in the cage and, exhausted, fell back on the bed, still hearing the final squawk, and slept. He dreamed that Broca spoke to him endlessly, though he could not understand him.

When he woke he checked the cage but Broca was gone. He had left the cage open, one window in the anteroom by the door was open, and surely the bird must have escaped. Yet had he not clipped the neck with his cutter?

Then he heard a squawk, and another, first in the kitchen, then on the patio, then in a tree, then in his bedroom, then back on the patio, and up in a tree. Everywhere he turned he heard Broca. So he grabbed the keys to his rental Mazda and drove and kept on driving, but the bird flew after him, turn for turn, mile for mile, and hours down the highway he could still hear Broca incessantly crying out “Pocket, Pocket.”

3 comments:

  1. really good Story, characters and descriptions. Stephen got what he wanted, but he´ll never get rid of it!
    Well done

    Michael McCarthy

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  2. I like how you build character and commentary through detail. Broca is a perfect kind of Chorus and the ending was wicked.

    --Wendy Hammer

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  3. Poe would love the ending. A wonderful dynamic between man and bird--really enjoyed reading.

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