Read Parrot Blues Online

Authors: Judith Van Gieson

Parrot Blues (4 page)

He took her back to the cage and sneezed again. The indigo settled onto her perch and hung her head in an exaggerated display until Terrance poured some granola in her dish. “I have to get out of here,” he said to me. “You stick around, make yourself at home. Rick'll show you the lab.” Rick had come into the room and had been observing the events from a distance with his arms crossed. Colloquy drooped as she watched Terrance go.

“She seems to like him,” I said.


She likes granola,” Rick replied. “Her diet in the wild was licuri palm nuts, here it's parrot feed. Granola is a treat. People forget that the vast majority of parrots are—at most—only two generations away from the wild. Colloquy is first generation, but she must have been taken from the nest early and hand raised. Only a hand-raised bird will cuddle the way she does.” He pulled out a drawer at the bottom of the cage and picked up the loose feathers.

“Who named them Perigee and Colloquy?” It didn't sound like Terrance's lingo.

“Deborah.”

Suddenly a couple of voices floated above the lab's cacophony in the way that, even in a chorus, the voices of certain singers reach to the theater's last row. “Goddamn allergies.” I heard Terrance sniff, and then the loud voice of Deborah Dumaine scream, “Terrance, you are
such
an asshole.”

The feathers fell through Rick's fingers. Colloquy squawked and turned her head. I jerked around like a puppet on a string. Terrance, who was bent over at the door trying to squeeze his foot into a boot, dropped it, stood up and snapped, “Shut up, you red-headed bitch.”

Max, who was perched in the window of Deborah's office, watched us, bobbed his large yellow head and laughed, for all I knew. Deborah Dumaine was nowhere in sight.

“Damn you, Max,” Terrance said, pulling on his boot, picking up his briefcase and heading out the door.

“That was Max?” I asked Rick.

“Yeah.”

“What made him do that?”

“Seeing Terrance keyed it. Parrots talk in reference,” he said.

“It's amazing how much he sounded like Deborah. Even Terrance was fooled.”

“People mistake parrots for their mates all the time. Parrots learn very quickly how to imitate humans if they want to. They pick up on sounds with emotional content, and they love the blues.” Rick picked up the feathers he'd dropped. “They're social animals. In the wild they identify each other by their voices. Flocking and interacting are their only defense.” His enthusiasm for his subject had let him forget for the moment that he was talking to Terrance Lewellen's lawyer. He smoothed the feathers. “Macaws mate for life. Colloquy's so unhappy without Perigee. They've been together twenty-five years or more, and they're still lovebirds.” He sighed.

“How long do they live?”

“Thirty to forty-five years in the wild. They have a human life span in captivity when they're treated well.”

“What do you do with the feathers?” I asked. Something that beautiful had to be valuable.

“Give them to the Hopis for their ceremonials.”


Does Colloquy ever talk?”

“Rarely, but Deborah taught Perigee a few words.”

Alice poked her head in the door and smiled at Rick with a smile as bright and perfect as the rest of her. “The man from the DNA lab is here,” she said.

“Excuse me,” Rick said, remembering he had manners now that Terrance was gone. He went into the lab with the feathers still in his hand, and began talking to the DNA man.

While he did, I wandered into Deborah's office, following Terrance's instructions to observe what I could and my own need to observe whatever he'd done in there. The office was full of photographs, and Deborah was in most of them. On the desk was a framed clipping from
Time
magazine of Deborah with Max perched on her shoulder. She smiled for the camera. She was too mature and too confident to be a trophy wife, but she was good-looking, no “still” about it. You wouldn't expect Terrance to have married a little brown bird. Deborah had large features, a prominent nose, a dazzling smile and a mane of scarlet hair that was probably as false in color as Terrance's was in substance. She wore a tight-fitting purple dress with forties movie star shoulder pads and waterfalls of beaded Indian earrings. I could see her wearing high-heeled shoes with that outfit,
red
high-heeled shoes. I could see the flash that had brought her and Terrance together and could imagine the conflicts of will that had driven them apart. Max, who, within the limits of his clipped wings, had the run of the place, perched in the window. A parrot kachina sat on a shelf with real feathers sticking out of its head. Thumbtacked to a bulletin board was a quote from Frank Water's
Book of the Hopi:
“The Fourth World, the present one, is the full expression of man's ruthless materialism and imperialistic will…. With this turn man rises upward, bringing into predominant function each of the higher centers. The door at the crown of the head then opens, and he merges into the wholeness of all creation, whence he sprang. It is a Road of Life he has traveled by his own free will, exhausting every capacity for good or evil, that he may know himself at last as a finite part of infinity.” Beneath that, someone had written, “God is in the details.”

Rick had escorted the DNA man to the door and come into the office while I was reading the quotes. If he noticed anything out of order, he didn't say so. He opened a desk drawer and dropped the feathers in. “The Hopi word for parrot is
Kyaro.
The parrot clan is one of the highest-ranking Hopi clans,” he said. “They emigrated from the south and probably brought parrots with them. They traded macaws along the ancient Indian trade routes, and the feathers were used in all the important ceremonies. Fourteen scarlet macaw skeletons were found in a room at Chaco Canyon.”

“I didn't know that,” I said. He didn't comment; he hadn't expected me to know. He was the scientist, I was the lawyer. But he was a scientist—like so many in New Mexico—who had an artist's passion for his work. His eyes ignited when he talked about it.

“Among the pueblo Indians it was said that only those households in which people of good
character
lived harmoniously could successfully breed macaws,” he said.

“Have Perigee and Colloquy ever been bred?”

“Not since Terrance got them. He had them surgically sexed, so we know they are male and female.”

“Surgically sexed?” I asked.

“There are only two ways to tell the sex of a parrot: to look inside or by DNA testing. DNA testing is becoming more popular. It's less obtrusive to the birds, it's infallible and it can be done with a drop of the bird's blood.”

“How does it work?”

“Chains of DNA wind around their complement, and a torn-apart DNA fragment will seek its mate. The sex chromosome gene is radioactively labeled, separated into its two strands, which then search for each other. The bands on the DNA show the sex of the bird.”

The phone on the desk rang. Someone in the lab answered an extension, but Max had already been prompted to go into phone display. He looked at the phone, looked at us, balanced on one foot and stretched out a wing. “Brrng,” he called, perfectly imitating the sound of the ring. It was hard to believe the sound was emanating from twelve inches of green, yellow and red feathers and not a black receiver. “Hello-o?” Max answered the phone in the same tentative woman's voice I'd heard on the tape. He paused, then, “But, sweetie, I love you so much,” he said, oozing sentiment. “Okay, 'bye.” He completed the cycle by hanging up the phone and cocking his head at Rick for approval or a nut. Rick gave him the nut.

I gave him the approval. “That was a great performance, Max,” I said.

“Grrrrrreat performance, Max,” he repeated in the husky voice of a woman who has a lot of self-confidence or who smokes too much.

“You have to be careful what you say around these guys,” Rick told me. “They're like computers. Garbage in, garbage out.”

“Um,” I said. “Does Max miss Deborah?”

“She's been traveling so much, he's gotten used to her being away, and he considers the rest of us his flock. See how happy he is in this picture?” He pointed to the
Time
photo. “That's because Deborah has her hair down. When he saw it up, he knew she was going away and he got huffy. He wouldn't talk if Deborah's hair was up.” He picked up a pen and began poking at the desk. “I'm going to discover what happened to her, you know, with or without Terrance's help. He's hiding something, and I'll find out what it is. This work is Deborah's life. She would not go off and leave it, or us.”

We were venturing into the confidentiality zone here, so I changed the subject. “Why do Max's pupils contract and expand like that?”


It's a sign of excitement.”

“What is it he's trained to do?”

“Lots of things. For example, he can identify a number of objects.” He showed Max the pen. “What's this, Max?”

“Nut,” Max squawked in a voice I hadn't heard before, maybe even his own voice.

“You know better, Maxamilian. What's this?”

“Pen,” Max said, and then, “nut.”

“Good boy,” Rick said and gave him the nut.

“Max a million,” said the bird.

******

Terrance, hugging his briefcase and his
Wall Street Journal,
waited for me outside. “You learn anything?” he asked.

“I learned that Max has a sense of humor, that he can imitate a phone call and that he likes nuts. I learned that college students still read
The Fountainhead.

“What's that?”

“Never mind,” I said. “I learned that the Pueblo Indians thought macaws would only breed in a harmonious home.”

“Anything else?”

“I learned about parrots; I didn't learn much about Deborah except that she's very attractive.”

“Shoulda seen her when she was thirty-five.”

“What about you?” I asked. He stared back at me with his opaque eyes. “What did you learn?” The cell phone call had struck me as a flimsy excuse to take his briefcase into Deborah's office. I couldn't have called him on it then without making a scene, but I could now.

“That she kept her file somewhere else, but I'll be damned if I know where. My security men have already searched here and her apartment, and they haven't found it yet.”

The next question was why the information in that file was so valuable that he was willing to break federal and state laws and use me as a diversion to get it. I didn't expect the full answer, so I didn't ask, but it wasn't my MO to keep my mouth shut. “Listen, Terrance,” I said, “as your lawyer I advise you not to do anything illegal and, if you want me to remain your lawyer, I'm telling you to never involve me in your fishing expeditions ever again.”

“Okay, okay,” he parroted, hiding behind his one-way eyes. “Never again.”

3

M
Y SINGLE, LATIN AMERICAN
male who liked to play soccer and had no reason to read the Relationships section of the
Journal
moved his auto repair business to the North Valley and then computerized it when his partner, Manny, went back to Mexico. Computers are the way to go in the auto repair business. Cars have gotten computerized, and mechanics who can work on them are scarce. The ones who can do it make as much money as some lawyers.

The North Valley was, until recently, one of New Mexico's best-kept secrets, a rural village at the edge of the state's largest city, one part of Albuquerque that doesn't look like L.A. on the Rio Grande. The Spanish land grants once extended from the peaks of the Sandias to the river. They were divided among the grantees' descendants into long, narrow strips with access to the irrigation ditches. They're too narrow to do much but graze horses and trailers, which has helped to keep the North Valley rural.

A lot of the Valley is still zoned A-l for agricultural, but that is being changed to R-l for residential. These days that means two-hundred-thousand-dollar town homes and gated communities with a sentry at the gate. It costs to keep an area's rural character, but the crumbling adobes, the junk shops, the trailer ranches, the horses and the irrigation ditches still give the Valley a funky charm.

I went to the Kid's shop more often now that he'd moved north and Manny had gone south, Manny having never understood my presence in his partner's life. I stopped there on my way home from work. The shop was on Fourth Street in a cinderblock building that masqueraded as adobe but not well enough to fool anyone. The Kid had brought his flying red horse sign with him, and it marked the spot. Behind the building a long and hard-to-develop field backed onto an irrigation ditch. There was no access to the field but Fourth Street and the ditch, which was not a legal access, but that never stopped anybody from using it. Ancient cottonwoods with huge trunks and wandering limbs grew along the ditch. In the summer they provide shade, in the fall resting arms for migrating birds, and in the winter intrigue, when the exposed branches, twisting and turning like country roads, are silhouetted against the fiery evening sky. The yard behind the Kid's shop was, in the tradition of the rural west, a pile of junked cars and parts, but if you looked beyond the junk, you could see five thousand feet of the Sandia Mountains from the base to the peak. Even on no-burn days, when you're not allowed to burn wood in your fireplace and our sky is most polluted, the entire mountain is visible. Our worst days are the equivalent of California's best days. On their worst days their mountains aren't visible at all except as disembodied white stuff floating like whipped cream on the smog. That's one reason why so many Californians are coming here, and why
the
North Valley is changing from A-l to R-l.

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