SQUAWK – Mary Portser

Squashed between two clothing racks in the cramped closet, the parrot reached from Annie’s shoulder to pick through her wardrobe. With his smart brown eyes he studied each article of clothing, rejected it, and moved to the next.
“Something professional,” Annie murmured, her voice undercaffeinated. “Yet not too dressy. Because of the dog.”
The parrot—a Blue-Fronted Amazon—let out a displeased grunt.
“I know you’re not crazy for canines, but that’s where the action is.”
He stopped at a dark suit—like all of her clothes, a thrift-shop find—cocked his head, and lifted a sleeve.
“Well…” She folded her lanky arms and pursed her full lips.
He shook the sleeve; the decision was final.
The pencil skirt hung a little loosely on her skinny frame, riding her hips instead of her waist, but the jacket was cut well, a designer label the parrot—Freddie—favored. He studied her from the headboard of the futon, which hogged most of the small room; his claws rescarred the already marked wood. She’d allowed him to curate her wardrobe since the second time he saved her life, soon after they arrived in Los Angeles, when she fell on her back off the Santa Monica pier and he squawked feverishly until someone called an ambulance. He’d fed her pain pills for four weeks and antidepressants for another three. Fortunately, his taste in clothes was excellent.
“Let’s hope this sets us up in nuts and seeds.” Yanking her thick mass of red curls, Annie knotted them at the back of her head. Her eyes, with their slight upturn, slid toward the dresser and the stack of library books devoted to start-ups. Sensing her agitation, Freddie sidled next to her and nuzzled his head against her arm. Her fingers reached for the tender nape of his neck, where the yellow head-feathers mingled with the green of his chunky body.
“No more acting. We’re slamming the door on that ugly chapter.”
He ground his beak in pleasure. He’d hated to watch her exit the house dressed as a waitress or prostitute and had shredded her pink hotpants in protest.
She carried him into the dark living room, past the soft glow of the aquarium, where he fed the fish each morning—a laborious, flake-by-flake process—and stopped at his cage. “Wish me luck.”
He rapped his beak on the face of her wristwatch.
“I’ll be back by five at the latest.”
He rapped again.
“Okay. Four. I’ll be here at four. Maybe I’ll bring a visitor,” she added.
The parrot squawked. His eyes flashed red.
“Kidding, of course. Who would I bring?”
Freddie rubbed his beak gently across her cheekbone. “Hag,” he whispered fondly.

She didn’t mind. The insult was a product of his bad upbringing.

*

From half a block away she heard the incessant yapping. So much pain there. Her first client. Lucky it wasn’t a snake. She parked the Corolla and lifted her hands to her messy chignon, which immediately collapsed, spilling a red cloud of frizz and tangle over her shoulders. Her hands had become cold. She slid them under her skirt, tried to recall a mantra, couldn’t, and began to mutter Psalm Twenty Three. Stymied after “still waters,” she got out of the car.
The house before her loomed, oppressive. What had probably started as a modest home in the thirties or forties had expanded each decade with the addition of a new wing, resulting in a grotesque welter of geometric shapes. The mirrored diamonds across the front door threw her pale face back at her. Her head rang with her parents’ harsh New England voices. “You should have become a vet, a large-animal vet. You’ve the sense of a burro.”

She’d left them for good when she went to college, but their disappointment traveled with her everywhere. “Get thee behind me, Vermonters,” she muttered, and pressed the buzzer.

*

From a raised alcove, atop the snarling head of a leopard-skin rug, a sable Pekingese with a bow at each ear barked at a maid several feet below. The maid cringed and hurried a feather duster across a flat-screen TV. “Por favor, silencio,” she pleaded in a husky whisper. This only infuriated the animal further; it puffed out its small chest, dug its claws into the leopard head, and upped the volume.
“You see what we’re up against!” shouted Veda Martel, the dog’s owner, an enormous woman of middle age, wearing a striped caftan. “Why are you so young?”
“I’m twenty-four,” Annie assured her. “A crone in this town, right?”
With a ragged intake of breath and a curl of her Botoxed lip, Veda flicked her fingers for Annie to follow. “I hope to Shiva you know what you’re doing.”
She sailed into the center of the room, where she anchored herself, hands on hips. The room itself was huge, awash with bright, clashing colors and animal skins. There were paintings too—one of them, of dancing phalluses on a tomato, Annie found quite repulsive.
“Kissy, your therapist’s here!”
Annie winced and straightened her skirt, which wanted to twist around her body. All the ex-actors who didn’t become real-estate agents turned into therapists. She couldn’t be lumped in with that crowd; she was an empath, for God’s sake! The distinction, however, was lost on the dog, whose focus never left the maid.
“Consuela”—Veda pointed to a life-size wax replica of Elvis, in full pelvic gyration—“if I can see webs, you can see webs.”
Annie’s left eye had begun to twitch. How could she have forgotten to factor in the personality of the owner when she came up with her business plan? “Would there be another place we could go?”
“Oh, no. Kissy loves this room. And that alcove’s her womb. It was built specially for her.”
The walls of the alcove were covered in portraits of costumed canines. Most of the dogs looked like clowns, with ruffs and floppy hats. A Yorkshire Terrier wore a red rubber nose. A Beagle sported a fright wig. “So many distractions,” Annie said. “I need Kissy’s full attention.”
“Oh, I get it.” Veda made a u-turn. “Consuela! Por favor, the sala de sleepo—now!”
The relieved maid scurried toward an adjoining bedroom.
“AND NADA DUST BUNNIES LIKE LAST TIME!”
Electrified, the Pekingese leapt off the leopard head and tore after Consuela, who raced to the door and yanked it shut behind her. The dog jumped at the door, barking in fury. It made Annie’s throat hurt.
She fumbled through her backpack, pulled out a small bell, and rang it three times. Not her usual approach, but she’d read about it just last night: props impress. Startled, the dog stopped mid-bark. “Magic bell,” Annie mouthed to Veda, figuring it was probably a good policy to imbue her technique with a sense of mystery. “Good morning,” she added, and offered her hand to the dog.
Kissy sniffed and then licked the hand. Like most animals, she gave special attention to Annie’s left pinkie, missing its top third, lost at the age of six to the liberation of an otter from a trap.
“Look at that.” Veda sounded almost resentful. “Butter wouldn’t melt.”
Just then a team of gardeners arrived on the back patio. They moved cautiously, as though negotiating a mine field. Veda slid the door open. “You’re late! Late, late, late. Just like last week.”
The men mumbled some excuse and hastened to work. But before Veda could shut the door, the Pekingese muscled herself through the gap, twisting, wiggling, stretching in determination. Annie suppressed a laugh of delight. Such a flexible creature!
One of the gardeners, the oldest, with deep pockets under his eyes, stopped to watch Kissy’s endeavor. He nodded grimly, then started to run as the Peke came hurtling after him, sending him past banana trees and a turquoise slick of a swimming pool, all the way to the back of the garden, where she bore down with missile-like precision and sank her teeth into his boot.
“The bell! The magic bell!” Veda screamed.
Annie frantically rang the bell, but it was no-go. “It’s not meant for every situation,” she said, running alongside the woman.
The gardener tried to kick Kissy away, but she held on tight, silky hair flapping in the breeze.
“Don’t you hurt my dog!” Veda shrieked.
Annie maneuvered around garden gnomes with Lenin, Freud, and Ché Guevara heads and got a grip on the Peke’s wriggling torso. In her most soothing voice, she said, “You’re better than this.” The dog continued her hold. “Remember your ancestors.” Kissy relaxed her grip.
“Wow,” said Veda.
“Every week it’s the same thing,” the gardener said. “Why he doesn’t like me?”
“It’s not you.” Annie almost giggled, giddy now that she had control.
“Don’t tell him that.” Veda turned to the gardener. “José—”
“Salvador.”
“Salvador, maybe if you were on time, animals would like you more.”
The dog’s vocal cords tensed under Annie’s hand. Any moment now she’d be barking again. Let the gardener and the hostess duke it out; Annie needed to find a quiet spot. Rhythmically stroking the Peke’s smooth coat, she walked back to the patio and slid open the door.
“I’m going to need new shoes,” she heard the gardener say.
“What a scam.” Veda flounced in behind Annie and flung herself onto the lime leather couch. There would be no respite. “Everybody’s working an angle. Want an Arnold Palmer? My lemonade’s fresh.”
It was clear to Annie that she’d need to charge by the hour to see a profit.
“Kissy’s got race issues,” Veda continued, slinging up her feet and picking at the zircons on her magenta toenails. “People of color—she doesn’t like them. African Americans, Hispanics, especially Guatemalans. I’m a Democrat, so it’s very embarrassing. But where are you going to find Swiss help?” She lifted her feet and did three ankle rolls. “Do you have any idea what kind of crimp this has put on my entertaining? And I’m very social.”
Annie felt she might start yapping herself. Instead, she affected her most severe tone. “I need to be alone with her.”
“Come on, I want to watch. She’s my baby. My everything since that bastard Lou walked out.”
Annie tightened her lips into a straight line. The window of opportunity was creaking shut. The dog in her arms was starting to puff and wriggle. She spoke slowly and clearly. “I have another appointment. He’ll be angry if I’m late.”
“Who’s he? Client or boyfriend?”
The woman’s nosiness was irritating. Annie flashed on Freddie—receptacle of secrets, father confessor, unpaid shrink, fervid suitor during mating season, the one constant in her life as family dropped away, friends didn’t materialize, and lovers didn’t last. He was home alone, shuffling from foot to foot, watching the door for her return, waiting for her report. “Boyfriend,” she replied. She wasn’t on the witness stand.
Veda got up, her chest heaving through the folds of the caftan. “At least you’ve got a man.” She led Annie to the “library,” a small room filled with old videocassettes, CDs, and DVDs. Her voice cracked. “Please don’t hurt her.”
Annie released the dog, who trotted to the window and a view of the garden. She gave Veda a grave look. “You have permission to stab me if I muss one hair on her head.” Not an unreasonable statement, she thought, and shut the door on the woman’s startled face.
At the window, the Peke had begun to whimper.
“Kissy.” Annie took off her heels and knelt on the shag rug. Her gray eyes darkened as she funneled her energy toward the dog. “Is that really how you want to use our time together? Don’t you want to tell me your story? It must be fascinating.”
Kissy looked out at the gardeners, then back at Annie.
All her life Annie had been listening to the animals—ever since she was little and found an injured wren huddled outside the kitchen door. When she squatted to pat the bird, it had said, “Help me,” in a voice as clear as her mother’s or father’s, except she heard it inside her head. She’d squealed the news to her big sister, Fiona, who was busy attaching a “kick me” sign to the back of Annie’s corduroys. “Baloney,” Fiona said, and yanked Annie’s hair. But Annie could hear the wren, and though she couldn’t grasp all it said, something about a cat and a pain in its leg, she’d been helping animals ever since. Until now, though, she had never thought to charge a fee. Please God, it didn’t change anything.
Kissy’s eyes, dark and round, bulged to an enormous size. At any moment they might pop onto its cheeks. The air began to vibrate. A swell of ions washed back and forth between them. Annie caught the familiar whiff of gunpowder in the air and heard a click. She was in. Both she and the dog relaxed. They lay side by side, like girlfriends.
“My ancestors were a lion and a butterfly,” said the dog. “But surely you know this story?”
“Nuh uh. Please go on.”
Kissy arched her back, licked the rug, and sneezed. “Many millennia ago, the lion and the butterfly fell deeply and forever in love. To consummate their union, they knew they must visit the Buddha. Surely you’ve heard of the Buddha?” Her eyes again bulged at Annie, who quickly nodded. With a snort the dog continued. “On the back of a fearsome dragon they traveled betwixt the clouds and the orange blossoms…”
Time became immaterial. Annie’s worries sailed out of her head, and she wafted away to a land of lotus leaves and thunder, where tigers roared from mountaintops and cranes fished in rivers of jade.
“…and so the Foo Dog was born. Always we dwelt in temples and chased away the demons who would dare cross the threshold.” Black lips curled over tiny teeth, and Kissy let out a ferocious series of yaps. “Birthed by the Buddha… Even the lowliest commoner knew we were not of this earth. Sacred. Semi-divine.” She sat up and scratched her chest with her hind leg. “This isn’t the life I was meant for.”
“I understand.” Annie sighed. If pets could choose their owners, the world would be a better place.
Kissy rose to her feet, paced back and forth, chased her tail, and abruptly stopped. “I despise the moniker ‘Kissy.’ It makes me profoundly unhappy.”
“What would you prefer?” Annie rubbed her long neck, sore after lying so long on the floor.
“Xinglong or Kun Yang. But preferably Xinglong.” She began to pace again. “This house…the décor.” Fringed ears trembled.
Annie untied the little bows. “I’ll see what I can do.”
The Pekingese met her eyes, and Annie was touched by the desolation there.
They returned to Veda. Annie sat on the lime couch. Veda slurped her Arnold Palmer as she listened to Annie’s to-do list. The dog watched from the alcove.
“Are you familiar with feng shui?”
“I think my stylist’s sister…” Veda shrugged.
“Get her in here ASAP. You need to redecorate.” Annie softened her tone. “Solids. No patterns. No animal skins. No leather.”
“You mean, like, blah?”
“Why don’t you look at some pictures of the Imperial Palace or go downtown to the big library and xerox photos of the Forbidden City?”
“Downtown?” Veda scrunched her nose as though a stink bomb had exploded. “Why not hop a jet to China?”
“You mean—go to Asia?”
“Why not?”
Annie’s eye twitched. She untwisted her skirt and sank back into the couch. People in Los Angeles were freer with their money than any farm girl could fathom. She should charge more. A lot more. “What a lovely idea. But before you go, you should replace the pictures in the alcove.”
“What?”
“She finds the outfits demeaning.”
“Oh my God!”
“A few simple line drawings—even a couple of Chinese characters on a plain background. As for the leopard rug…” Annie wasn’t sure if the Pekingese had actually mentioned the rug, but it was a loathsome object. “It’s a dead animal.”
Veda tugged at her big hair. “How could I have been so insensitive?”
The dog’s feathery tail was wagging like a flag.
“We don’t all have a pedigree like Xinglong’s,” Annie said.
“Can I just call her Xing?”
“I wouldn’t.”
Veda sighed. “So she won’t bark any more, or bite?”
Annie took a beat. This was the tricky part. “If Xinglong is not overstimulated by her environment…if everyone treats everyone else in a calm, loving manner, no matter their social status or skin color…what reason would she have to be angry?”
As if on cue, Consuela made a tentative entrance from the bedroom. Veda’s immense lips parted, her tongue arched—every component of her mouth readied itself for syllables of abuse—and then she caught Annie’s wary eye. Together they turned toward the alcove. Serene on the leopard head, Xinglong batted away a piece of fluff and yawned.

“I should pay you,” Veda said.

*

Salvador was miserably blowing leaves around the front yard. He stopped Annie before she got to her car. “You were good with that dog.”
She blushed with pleasure.
“I have a ferret. He’s very unhappy. You know Norm’s? On Lincoln?”
She nodded—her local haunt. She knew the waitress.
“We go sometimes. You got a card?”

Grinning madly, she reached into her backpack. Maybe she could make a living in Los Angeles after all.

Portser Image

Author’s Statement

Once upon a time I found myself in the following situation: a man and I were kissing in his apartment when his phone began to ring off the hook. “Persistent,” I said. “It’s not my phone,” he said, “it’s my parrot. He’d like you to go.” Clearly, this relationship was doomed to go nowhere, but twenty years later, and somewhat to my amazement, it became the impetus for my novel.
I decided to write a story about a girl, Annie, who lets her parrot run her life and determine her relationships, particularly with the opposite sex. Like some people, she is more comfortable with animals than humans, and, because she can hear the animals’ thoughts (a gift many of us would like to have) she starts a business as a pet psychic. The animals talk to her, often in great detail, about their lives.
Determined to find a mate of her own species and much to her parrot’s distress, Annie launches an awkward affair with an eccentric young artist. Through a series of strange misadventures in which she is alternately helped and hindered by a variety of creatures, including an embittered ferret, a peacock who wants to add her to his harem, and an African Grey with the soul of a school marm, she learns the unexpected price of loving her own species.

Mary Portser lives in Venice, California. As a playwright, she has won the Otis Guernsey “New Voices in the American Theater Award” and has had plays produced in Dublin, Los Angeles, Toronto, and New York. She is also an actress, working in theater and television and showing up in such movies as Passion Fish, True Love, The Italian Job, and Human Nature, as well as the HBO series True Blood.