My dad was not the type to buy an animal on impulse. When I was in elementary school, his companion, which he dutifully let out to pee at increasingly narrow intervals, was an old English bulldog named Sir Atlee Elmont. He’d owned the dog since before I was born, and its stench permeated all of our furniture. By the fireplace was a small statue of my dad’s long-deceased Bassett hound, Goldie. We did not have cats, or ferrets, or hamsters or anything else furred or feathered but might consider a new dog when Atlee died. I fantasized about a Jack Russell terrier, like Wishbone on PBS, that would trail me around the neighborhood; as it was, I had to drag Atlee down the front steps to defecate, his nails scraping the wood of the porch as he locked his thick legs in protest of even the most vanishing amount of exercise.
He had been a beloved pet at one point. I’d seen the grainy Betamax videos of Atlee gallivanting about the yard after a blue rubber ball, my dad wearing bright white 1980s denim shorts and me toddling behind a wagon. By the time I got to the middle of elementary school, Atlee spent his days urinating on beds, knocking my preschool-age brother onto the ground and humping him, and stealing pillowcases full of Halloween candy. He lived his last days as anyone could wish, in rambunctious freedom unheeding of the cold steel table that awaited him.
Humans aren’t so fortunate, and we knew that the end was nigh. It might seem like I’m reading too much into my dad’s decision to buy a baby-blue parakeet in the midst of this funereal atmosphere, but he was not a man who did things spontaneously. It was a glass of Bolla brand wine with Jeopardy! or the nightly news, and then off to bed so that he could be up at 4 a.m. for another shift on the local country radio station. Afterward, a nap from noon to three and then a few-hour window before dinner (cube steak or spaghetti with Ragu sauce) in which he could get things done. The post office, the grocery store, in the summer maybe even the pool. Occasionally a trip to Maru Pets to buy an enormous bag of dry dog food so as to avoid going back there until the season changed. He might balance his checkbook or lie in bed listening to a golden-era radio show on tape or reading a Dean Koontz novel. Habits ingrained so that he could put all of his cheer into waking up the denizens of the small Virginia city in which we lived by singing his regionally famous “Doobie-Doo” song.
I in no way pestered him for a bird; I had no consciousness of them as anything other than fleeting visions at the tops of trees, their songs a harbinger of spring and by extension the long school-free summer. For that reason, I liked to see flocks of robins pecking among our neighbor’s obsessively manicured lawn, but had no reason to believe that one of them could be purchased and caged for observation or pleasure. I don’t recall how the bird appeared, but one day it was there pacing along a stick in its cage of slim white bars, which stood on top of the old turntable stand in the living room. My dad explained that he had been taken with a pair of love birds at the pet shop until he’d heard the price; and so, a parakeet was the compromise between a love bird and nothing. If I could, I would ask him now, “Why not nothing?” But that’s how everything came to be. First there was nothing, then something.
The bird had a small gnarled beak that looked weathered and dirty, a vestige of the eons that separated it from its dinosaur past. Its tongue was small but fat, a raspberry ice cream black in the middle of its face when it squawked. We went back to Maru to buy its accoutrements: a mirror so that it wouldn’t be lonely, another stick so that it wouldn’t get bored, a small bag of white pellets so that it wouldn’t starve. At some point, between the placing of newspaper at the bottom of the cage and the setup of the plastic food bowl, I got to name the bird. I chose Uncle Feather, from a chapter book that I was reading. Uncle Feather and Sir Atlee Elmont had no consciousness of one another’s existence, except for maybe a vague lizard-brain awareness of a changed musk in the air. It smelled like pale bird droppings on yesterday’s sports section.
A few months later, the bird had settled into the family, been woven into the fabric of our mornings. Before school, I would wolf down a pair of Pop Tarts while watching SportsCenter and my mom would remove the pale-pink sheet that hung over his cage to prevent him from singing at first light, which came after my dad left for work. Uncle Feather’s song, full-throated always, mingled with my dad’s baritone coming through the radio in the kitchen. Atlee scrabbled along the linoleum floor sniffing for crumbs that my brother may have dropped. We were a motley but functioning crew, doing as nature or society commanded.
Things got a little off kilter with the arrival of Petey John Doughnut, although he was acquired to lend a sense of balance, to serve as a bright-green and pineapple-yellow offset to his blue companion. It seemed natural that everything in the house should be paired, with Sir Atlee Elmont alone presiding. At Maru Pets, my mom, brother, and I stood in front of the cage that flapped with many wings as the woman snapped on a pair of latex gloves and reached in. We only got to pick the color, not the bird. She was able to grab Petey John Doughnut because his head got stuck in his food dish while he was trying to get away. She tied down his wings and put him in a box. It was my brother’s turn to name a pet. The Petey part was easy; it had been a bird name since time immemorial, like Fido for a dog. The origin of “John Doughnut” remains shrouded in mystery.
But the name fit. Petey was dimwitted and ill-constructed, which should have been obvious from the start. His stumpy wings could barely lift him up to his perch, and so spent most of his time toddling along the bottom of the cage, his claws gripping the bars lest he stumble over a dried dropping. He had to be nudged toward his bowl with a finger. Still, Uncle Feather abandoned his mirror and would swoop down to preen Petey. Their beaks clicked as they kissed. They were in love, it seemed, or at least enjoying domestic partnership.
My mom found Petey’s body one morning as she whisked the sheet off; he was lying on his side on the bottom of the cage, probably fallen precisely where he had been standing on one leg to sleep. I don’t know what kills individual birds. Masses of bird deaths are easy enough to explain: plague, hunting, windmills, sliding glass doors. Do birds have heart attacks? Or are their inner workings so delicate that the snapping of one tendon can shut down the whole contraption, like a wire inside a pocket watch? Uncle Feather stood a few inches away from Petey, mourning, we thought. Then he flapped his wings and landed in front of the food bowl.
Atlee died around this time, too. One morning before school I noticed that he was having trouble catching his breath, more so than usual. His pink tongue lolled over his jowls. When I came back that afternoon, he was gone. My mom told me that she’d thanked him for being kind to her kids and given him an entire chicken to eat before my dad placed him in the back seat of the minivan to meet his executioner. A few weeks later, we got a box in the mail filled with thick gray ashes and a certificate of authenticity stating that these most certainly were our English bulldog’s cremains, not a random scoop of deceased pet. Petey got no such honorable treatment. We probably buried him somewhere in the backyard, but I can’t say for sure. I like to imagine that there is still a collection of bird bones resting somewhere in the dirt.
Of course, Uncle Feather eventually died, too, when my dad was home alone one evening most likely watching the news with a glass of wine in his hand. I only heard about that night thirdhand; he called my mom at work and told her that Uncle Feather had died and so he’d put the bird in the freezer, among the popsicles and frozen peas, to be dealt with later. Maybe, in the dozen or so steps between the living room and the kitchen that my dad had to take with a limp, still-warm parakeet body in his hand, he pondered the fleeting nature of beauty, considered the spirit that compelled him to undertake the bold flourish of buying a bird in the first place. But he was probably just thinking about the next morning’s show, when he would sing as he knew how and afterward come home to rest.
Nathan Strobel is an editor of corporate risk reports who lives in Roanoke, Virginia. His work has appeared on the BREVITY Blog.