The Dictator

“Hi’ya! Nice to Meet Ya!” The bird called out to nobody in particular, least of all its new owner, Irene Garvey, whom the bird detested.  The bird – Byron was his adopted name – had traveled great distances:  from the terrific heat of a Ugandan rainforest, across heaving oceans, and in and out of once important cities. Byron now lived in a small apartment in East Jersey.

“Hi’ya! Nice to Meet Ya!” Byron chirped out the perky greeting again; he even said it with a noticeable rising exclamation at the end.

“It’s Nice to meet you too Byron,” Irene said the morning before she died. She lit a cigarette, took a long deep drag and blew smoke, like an unexpected, poisonous gas,  through the bars of the bird’s cage. Byron hopped off his little swing and onto the soiled newspaper on the floor of his cage.  He thenbacked himself to the far corner of the cage, as though there was any hope he could escape the stream of smoke that blew out of Irene’s dirty mouth.

*  *  *

“African Greys are very smart you know,” Irene told her nephew when he first brought the bird to her apartment a month before. Charles had put the cage onto his aunt’s coffee table where the bird fluttered up against the steel bars in hysterics. Feathers flew in a maelstrom. It would take a little getting used to.

“Don’t worry Byron, you’ll learn to like it here.” Irene said.  Charles begged to differ, but didn’t say a word. He couldn’t. Charles was mute.

His aunt finished that last of her cigarette and bent down over the cage, exposing a dry wrinkled breast to the bird. She then blew a current of smoke into its cage and the bird tucked its beak down into the folds of his feathers on his chest.

“Did you know Charles, with the right training these birds can learn to speak over a 1000 words? They can even learn to sing songs and mimic the voices of different people? Imagine that!” Irene smiled and put a craggy finger into Byron’s cage, but the bird hopped over to the other side of the cage getting as far away from Irene as it could get, perhaps to escape the smoke, but more likely to escape the sight of the aging breast that sagged before him.

“You can teach African Greys to say almost anything you want. ” Irene said, gathering her bathrobe around her neck in a sudden burst of modesty. She walked over to the kitchen sink, turned on the water and snubbed her cigarette out in the water. The cigarette went out with a determined hiss. The bird did the same. And though this wasn’t really considered talking, Byron had learned how to make the hissing sound of Irene’s cigarettes being put out in water in no less than two hours upon his arrival. Some smart bird indeed, thought Charles. ” Hsssssss,” Byron called out from the sad perch of his dirty cage; his head cocked and his fat viscous tongue settling down in the lower part of his beak. “Hsssss,” it continued. Charles let out a dry, little chuckle.

“Shut up!” Irene said, turning her head around as though she were catching a student in the act of something inappropriate. This was no coincidence.  Irene used to be a third grade teacher, but now bought animals on the black-market and smuggled them into the United States, selling them to rich lonely women up and down the Eastern Seaboard. Irene looked at her nephew and then at the bird. She knew it was Byron who made the hissing sound and not her nephew. Charles couldn’t make his mouth hiss even if he wanted to, but boy how he would have loved to hiss at his aunt, even just once.

And though he couldn’t say a word, Charles could read lips. So, as long as his aunt was looking directly at him, he knew exactly what she was saying. Much of it nasty. Much of it cruel. Irene Garvey was one of those women who rarely had anything valuable, let alone pleasant, to say, which is the reason she no longer taught third grade, but smuggled illegal animals into the States and sold them to anybody willing to pay a good price. As an elementary school teacher, Irene Garvey had hurtled so many unkind and unwise words upon her students, their parents and later the school superintendent that she was eventually fired. It was probably the single hardest earned victory the East Jersey School District ever won. Irene Garvey no longer abused unsuspecting eight-year old children, but unfortunately for Charles he was her new whipping boy – he and whatever animal took up a brief residence in her apartment in the Edgemoor Gardens.

Not only could Charles read her lips, he could between them. So when his aunt squeezed out, “Those birds are lot smarter than idiots like you,” between her thin dry lips, Charles dropped his water glass all over the bird’s cage. It was no accident.

The water, like rain, poured all over the bird. At first, Byron flapped it’s wings as he hopped off its pathetic swing down to the foul newspaper. Byron hopped up and down on the Classifieds and then all over the freakish face of Mommar Ghadafi as though the bird itself was a freedom fighter celebrating the dictator’s death not some smuggled parrot stuck in an apartment in East Jersey. The bird was not celebrating. Byron was not a freedom fighter. It was merely dancing around in the newly formed puddles Charles created much like it would do in those pools of water produced by the monsoon rains in Uganda’s wet season.

The bird bent down, grabbed great gulps of the spilled water into the cave of its mouth and spit it high into the air so that the water would rain back down on him. He would do it over and over again. Like a child, he splashed and danced around in the puddles in pure delight. Charles bent down to peer into the cage and laughed, not at, but with the bird. Byron simply looked back at Charles and spit water in his face. Charles didn’t mind. He was used to it. He laughed again, wiping the water from his eyes.

“You total dimwit,” Irene yelled, boxing her nephew on his ear. “Now look what you have done!”

Charles looked to the parrot and pointed to his faded green t-shirt. On the front was with the perky phrase Hi’ya! Nice to Meet Ya! On the back was simply someone holding up their middle finger. Fortunately, Byron never learned that trick.

Charles pointed to the shirt and mouthed the words to the bird. Charles then opened the cage, and slid his finger inside. At first the bird bit his finger, but when Charles didn’t flinch, Byron decided to hop aboard. Charles brought the bird out of its cage and set it down on the edge of his aunt’s coffee table. Byron hopped off and began walking around the tabletop like he owned the joint. Like he himself was Mommor Ghadafi reveling in his capricious power. Byron was neither scared nor timid; just a little dictator in the making.

Byron traipsed to the edge of the coffee table, where he stood, getting a closer look at Charles. The bird cocked his head. Charles did the same. He then looked first at the boy’s mouth and then at his faded green t-shirt where the boy pulled it taught and leaned it closer towards the bird. The bird stared at Charles’ t-shirt, almost like it was concentrating. His beak began to move and began mouthing the words. Hi’ya! Nice to Meet Ya!

It was almost as though the bird could read – in English no less! Charles thought about this for a while and pulled a few sunflower seeds out of his pocket. He handed them out to the bird who took them, not greedily, – though it had been a very long time since it had eaten – but one at a time. Byron cracked the shells and chewed the soft meat of the seeds. It dropped the shells on the woman’s carpet. Then it took a shit.

“Now look what you have done asshole,” Irene said, lighting another cigarette. It was unclear at first who was the asshole, the bird or her nephew. She then slapped her nephew on this ear again and pointed to the kitchen. Clearly, it was Charles who was the asshole. She waved her boney hands at him and said, “Clean that shit up.” Charles walked into the kitchen and grabbed a stiff towel that hung over his aunt’s faucet, like a dry, dirty hood. Charles got down on the floor and began wiping up the bird’s mess. Above him the bird looked down on him in new found disgust. It was not the first time this had happened to Charles. People always looked down on him. The bird was no different.

“Hi’ya! Nice to Meet Ya!,” the bird whispered down to the boy who was on all fours. Charles looked up and smiled. He even winked at the bird, who simply turned around and waddled back to its cage.

“Like I said Charles, birds are damn smart animals. A lot smarter than you and me, I tell ya.” She took a drag from her cigarette. “That’s for damn sure.”

* * *

A month had gone by since Charles had first brought the bird to her apartment and learned that silly little greeting. It was still the only thing it could say. Hi’ya! Nice to Meet Ya! It said it over and over and over again. He said it to everybody; he said it to the Sparklettes water guy on delivery day, he said it to her nephew, he even said it to Irene Garvey herself. At first, Irene was enamored by the smart phrase.

Hi’ya! Nice to Meet Ya!” Byron would call out to Irene when she got out of the shower. She had to admit that the plucky greeting made her feel good inside; she hadn’t had a man greet her in the morning in a very long time. Even from a bird, it was somehow special in that small apartment, as though, it was spoken from a lover still in bed, not an illegal African Grey that was standing in its cage in a pile of its own shit.

“Good morning Byron,” Irene would say into the mirror as she combed her wet, gray hair. Irene studied herself in the cracked mirror, examining the new lines had formed around her eyes, the bumpy, chicken skin starting to spread along her thin neck and down her sunken chest. The yellow of her eyes matched the color of her biting teeth.

“Hi’ya! Nice to Meet Ya!” Byron would say back to her. How could he not respond that way? It was, after all, the only thing he learned how to say.

By the end of fourth week that the bird had taken up residence in Irene’s apartment, Irene began to regret the fact the bird had learned such an inane phrase. It was starting to get on her nerves. And it was starting to get on the nerves of the tenants whose apartment was right below hers. Sudden bangs from the hard end of a broom handle often shot up through the parquet floor when the bird wouldn’t shut up. The banging had already started that morning.

“Oh for Christ’s sake Byron. Can’t you learn anything else?,” She barked at the bird. She was only slightly annoyed by its persistence though. Irene had ideas. Because she had no buyers for the bird, she decided to keep it. She figured that if it took the parrot only a few days to learn that one phrase, imagine what else she could teach it to say.

She just had to get busy. The bird was going to be her new money-maker. She would take it down to the shore so that the bird could talk to the tourists walking up and down the boardwalk as it stood atop her bony shoulder. Irene would teach the bird to learn clever little things to say about the weather, women, the current political climate. She would even teach it to whistle. After all, Irene figured, guys love it when someone, anyone, even just a damn bird, whistled at their girl. It filled men with some sort of perverted sense of pride.

Irene could just see it. The men would turn back to the bird and Irene and laugh. They might even run back and slip Irene a few extra dollars before turning back to catch up to their girls. Irene would then watch the men slide their thick wandering arms around the waists of their girlfriends, who walked along the boardwalk with giant blue swirls of cotton candy in one arm and an enormous Tweety Bird stuffed animal she had won at the dart toss in the other. Damn men are stupid, thought Irene in front of her mirror.

But none of that happened. There were no trips to the boardwalk. There were no dim-witted men filled with a small amount of egotistical currency from the  cat call of a stupid bird. There was just this fifty-four year old woman who lay dead on her apartment floor; her eyes bulging out like those googlie-eyeball glasses that those same idiotic men might have won on the boardwalk. Irene lay on the floor dead; her worn bathrobe fell off her body showing more leg than Byron could ever want to see.

Irene Garvey hadn’t quite made it to the phone. You could tell she was on her way though and given one more minute, she might have even been able to dial 911. She could have called the police. She could have called Charles’ mother. But she didn’t have that one more minute. She had her cigarettes. She had her apartment. And she had her stupid bird, who could only say Hi’ya! Nice to Meet Ya!. If only she had taught him a few more helpful phrases, like Help! Or Hurry, Come in! Anything other than that inane phrase from the boy’s faded green t-shirt. Hi’ya! Nice to Meet Ya! She might have been saved.

And despite the repeated banging from the broomstick that rang up every morning from the apartment below, the bird just kept at it. He was relentless. Hi’ya! Nice to Meet Ya! Byron would say when the phone rang next to her dead body. Hi’ya! Nice to Meet Ya! It would sing from its cage, standing on a growing mound of shit, like it was standing high upon one of the Galapagos Islands. Hi’ya! Nice to Meet Ya!, the bird said to the woman who lay on the floor next to him turning to liquid while the Sparklettes man rang the doorbell each month, leaving the large jugs of distilled water on her front stoop. He was none the wiser though, as Irene’s nephew carried the heavy jugs of water to his car each month letting his aunt rot under the watch of the apartment’s newly-appointed dictator.

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