I loved their vacant bivouacs outside my window. The London planetrees lining the street braced under their heft. I loved the emptiness and the colorless shade of their walls. I sat in the window of my rented room cutting my apple into smaller and smaller pieces. I had almost forced myself to eat something since my nightshift started the night before—when my migratory neighbors arrived at home bickering after their trip. My appetite was dashed. They were limegreen parakeets. They flapped down into their nests like tennis balls launched over far off fences.
I lived in a lonesome houseroom in a city of apartments. Not because I’m rich—my job is smiling to deliver drinks while customers drool over plates of finger food. I got the room for cheap because a friend of mine finally cracked under her Ivy League peers (money and influence and Adderall) and retreated to a cabin in the woods. I was quiet—clean—I got home from nightshift and sleep fluttered right down from the exposed rafters.
It was a single room on the third floor of a Victorian. Sometimes on my way in or out I’d run into the landlady in the second floor hallway—the second black woman to graduate Harvard Law. We shared a kitchen I never used but I had my own private stairwell. She was slowmoving and dismembered from family too. She said okay instead of hello or goodbye. A forgiveness for having presented myself.
Monk parakeets are noisy. The way sparrows can be if you smoke too close to their bushes. Online the parakeets’ calls are called metallic squawks or screams. Throaty kurrs and chapeyees. Rasping chapes. I’ve lain in bed while two of them taser back and forth with percussive scrapes. An article on a literary website described this particular habitation of Monk parakeets as sweet and melodic singers. Obviously the writer hadn’t tried to sleep through one of their arguments.
A note on the language—we’re charmed when parakeets learn to speak English. But when they choose to refrain we make up words to describe it anyway.
4:30-5 in the morning I got home from work. The moon barely propped itself above the sill. I was used to birdsong when trying to sleep—the first sound of the rest of the world winding up. But these parakeets had invited the inlaws. Monk parakeets are familiar with the concept of nuclear family. The sky began to diffuse with talcum powder and I still wasn’t asleep.
I heard what sounded like a steel brush against the window. The parakeets never approached the glass—they built additions to their nest so they only went out to forage. The brush went on and I tried to bolt shut my eyes. I squeezed the pillow over my face. Brushing. The sun laid a line across my blanket. Brushing. Finally exasperated I got up to check the sound at my window and found not a parakeet scraping its beak. I found a bottlebrush tail brushing the glass and two yellow eyes slitted around the parakeet nest—a stray cat balanced on my windowsill.
I had fled my lazy hamlet on Lake Michigan because my house was haunted. Formless blackbirds alighted on the windowsills. Starlings knifed their beaks between the shingles. Woodpeckers clung above the door and bored their way inside. My whole nuclear family having been drained of color (a Macktruck crunched overtop of them) nobody stayed at home to hear me speak. Bedsprings popped when I rolled over. Sheets once white soiled by bodyoil. My presence expanded all the way to the walls until the rooms threatened to crack.
I abandoned the family homestead to the birds. I came to this city on the opposite side of the country to live quietly. Instead of taking on more and more air I chained myself to a contained tidiness. I understand that I (like everybody else) can instantaneously fold up into a greying body—the lifeglow drained from the corners of its mouth.
While there was still light in the day I walked outside to see how the cat had climbed to my third floor window. My room looked over the driveway where one arm of a London plane reached between houses. The porch roof overhung streetside but the leap to the windowsill was too high even for a cat—no gutter ran that corner of the house no shutters provided clawholds.
I wriggled into my blackshirt and pants. On my way out (my mask of silence still firmly set) I ran into the landlady on the porch. She leaned back in a lawn chair with a steaming mug of tea. I was almost to the sidewalk when she spoke.
You’re aware I don’t allow pets in my house she asked? I’m allergic. You understand?
It’s probably just a stray she said. O—kay.
By the middle of a sleepless spring a new sound peeped into my room. The parakeets had kept themselves busy. New woven into the walls of their nest was a lattice of plastic and cigarette papers and coffeestraws. The dun color of their nest splintered into a kaleidoscope of garbage. Walls rose so I could no longer see their dinosaur heads jerk back and forth when the parakeets settled down. But I could hear them. Their chatter turned to tender cooing. A third bulb sagged on the far end of the branch.
The addition was a nursery. I couldn’t see the color of the eggs—but while the parakeets foraged for berries their newborns strived above the garbage walls. Black tongues lapped the sky.
When it got summerhot our customers would keep drinking until close—and if the manager felt like it he would ask me to stay after rattling down the shutters. By the time I arrived at home the cat was already gone. One night before work I opened my window a few inches. Just to see what would happen.
By the end of the night exhausted from speaking I had already forgotten about the window. I came in the backdoor and tiptoed up the steps. Coffee gurgled in the kitchen. The shower ran. Quietly I whooshed my bedroom door over the rug but not quietly enough—like brandy touched with flame the cat leapt from the foot of my bed and bolted out the window. She dropped out of sight before I could get a good look at her. A smudge of red and black.
After that night I left the window open out of habit. When I returned in the morning the cat would be curled into a ball in the same place on the bed. Just as soon as I opened my door she dashed through the window. I wanted her to wait a while so I could examine the deadly colors that swirled her chest and back. I even tried leaving cans of fifty cent wetfood to entice her. But she wouldn’t eat them. I carried the untouched cans back to the restaurant to throw them away. No pets (not even a stray) so no evidence.
I almost couldn’t believe in the cat. She disappeared too quickly. I set my phone to record the brushing of her tail but I couldn’t hear anything over the racket of the parakeets.
I don’t hate birds. I’ve had plenty of opportunities to admire them. Right now a sparrow has hopped a couple inches away from my foot. Its feathers are three shades of brown.
1) Its back and wings the color of cedarbark.
2) Its breast tinged with yellow ochre.
3) Ornamentation around its brow and collar so rich it’s almost black.
I uncross my legs and the sparrow flitters off—but I’ve already glutted its color. Gulls gulp on the updraft. Robins with royal breasts peck around the trees. Plenty of birds chatter and chirp and sing woodland songs that no human being can annoy at hearing. None of them complains like the parakeets.
They were the most dire shade of green I’ve ever seen. I could pick them bone from bone until the color swelled inside me.
Sneezes slid beneath my bedroom door. The landlady knew I worked nights so her careful footsteps on my stairwell were a surprise one evening as I collected my waterbottle and eyedrops. Another open can of wetfood stunk up the room. Before slitting the door to her knocking I scooped it into my bag.
Her nose puffed out. Her eyes streaked with discharge. She said your friend assured me you have no pets. I’m—deathly!—allergic.
She craned her neck and peered around my room. The box of catfood was hidden beneath my bed. I had left my window open as always. The landlady noticed. Do you always leave the window open when you go to work?
I stammered. O dear . . . it must have been on accident.
Lots of cats live in this neighborhood she said. If it’s too warm I can loan you the window unit.
It’s all right I said. I’ll be sure to close the window from now on. . . .
I heard my voice like I was eight feet away—eight unreachable feet and curled at the foot of the bed. I sounded a throaty kurr. Chapeyee. What a stupid sound I made. Surprising she understood me. Surprising even more that she believed me.
As sorry as I should have been for causing physical distress to the lonely old lady—I wasn’t. Joy inflated my lungs. Her allergies proved my cat was real.
To customers I smiled and spoke softly. I had to repeat myself because my voice was lost in the din of drunkards. They slurred their words their ears were boxed they couldn’t read the specials board so when the bill arrived they made a fuss. I smiled and spoke softly. I repeated myself.
Wednesday night. The shutters were down. The room too dark to see my feet. Wiry orange bulbs dimmed the walls. Along the bar three middleaged men in sportcoats twirled highballs.
Where are you headed the bartender asked me?
I had thrown everything into my bag ready to go. I hadn’t sat a table in an hour.
I didn’t let you off. I had to cut fruit through the rush. Refill the oranges limes and lemons and you can go.
That isn’t my job.
I had to say it louder. One of the sportcoats chuckled.
The bartender dried a glass with his bluestriped rag. You know what I noticed he said? You’ve been losing tips. It’s like you lost a step. Where’s your smile?
I started to tell him about the parakeets. That they had taken position outside my bedroom. Trying to choke me out. I had to put in eyedrops every hour to keep my eyes from showing sleeplessness. . . .
My voice had dropped so low he didn’t realize I was speaking.
As to the question of what your job is and what it isn’t he said—you don’t have to come back tomorrow night.
Four shotglasses lined up. The sportcoats raised them high.
The house got hungry. Floorboards rumbling with my stomach. Since my conversation with the landlady I had slapped shut my window to keep out the cat. When I arrived at home early that morning the brushing became so violent it chipped the paint on the windowsill.
The bakery I passed on my way home had cleaned out stock. Banana boxes heaped with buns marked free out on the sidewalk. The bread was a pretty beige that lightened when crumbs sprinkled my bedsheets. Starchy sweetness crept across my tastebuds.
I kept cans of fruit in my kitchen cabinet. Syrup dribbled down my chin. The peaches were sunhot yellow in the dark kitchen. I puckered from the brittle orange of the mandarins. I ate them up. A can of refried beans gummed the tip of my finger—they must have been redbeans from the tint of their sludge. I lined up all the empty cans on the counter until they reached the edge and then I started on the landlady’s stock. Moonlight interjected through the window making the labels illegible. Although my stomach bulged the food seemed to evaporate into my body. I pictured the parakeets.
I still had a few cans of catfood left under my bed. I glided up the stairs and slid out the half empty box. I peeled back the lids. Sunk my nails into the meaty pucks. Almostgrey grit dissolved on my gums but I couldn’t stop thinking about the green of the parakeets.
I curled into bed. When I opened my eyes they met a second pair honed in lasersharp on the top of the dresser.
THE CAT’S MAJESTY—She was neither tortoiseshell nor calico. Her back a covering of black and rust. Her breast a fissure of white that spread into a grin on the bottom of her face. Her feet, tubesocked. Her face the color of toasted wheat. Behind her ear a black mask hung over her right eye which blinked yellow and hungry.
We had the same smile. We had the same mask. She perched on top of my dresser watching me. Her tail slithered over the dressertop.
At moonset, the clan of parakeets returned from foraging and the peeps of their chicks wafted in the window. I could picture the delicious young from where I lay—resting in the basin of their eggs they drew out their coffeestraw wings. Their shallow bodies glowed the color of life. The brilliant lime of the parents’ feathers bounced from corner to corner. Their voices broke open the morning.
Hearing them talk dilated the eye of my stomach. The cat pounced down from the dresser. I fell through the bed. I leapt through the unopen window. The cat and I together. I, the cat.
I dig my nails into the windowsill resituating my feet arching my back as I eye out the distance to the treebranch the green smudges dropping ingredients from their beaks into begging mouths I glance down at my own hands mittened in white the fissure of my breast spreading into a hungry smile and before me the exposed feathers cackle a racket swivel toward me and I launch across the great silent void between us bubbling from my very depths down dries my tongue shallow skin tears apart I am a Macktruck of a cat crying and crying out the most incensed yowl—
I kept the door shut between us. The window having been closed for so long my bedroom was stuffy with summer heat. The landlady tapped her fingernails against the wood. I had opened the rest of the catfood cans in different parts of the room—I swept them up into my arms to hide them.
Just another thirty seconds I called.
Midday sunlight dropped in through the window. It was blank and colorless but that was all right.
What’re you doing in there she asked? Someone drank through all my tea—my throat is swollen so tight I can hardly breathe.
I had stacked one too many of the cans into my arms—their tower lost balance clattering to the floor. The heatmelted paté spread out on the hardwood. Cold prickled my skin. A bloom of meatsweat smelled up the room.
Can you come back later I asked?
What have you got in there?
I curled my fingers around the doorknob. Opening just a slit I tried to blow out the boundaries of my body so she couldn’t see past me. I prayed the walls of the bedroom wouldn’t crack.
Two loaves of swollen skin framed either side of her nose. Her eyes almost stuck shut.
Have you seen the parakeets she asked? There’s an article in the newspaper. They can’t seem to locate them.
My tail bottlebrushed. My back arched. My pupils narrowed and I leapt back hissing.
The landlady whispered. You better find a new place to live.
The twig and trash structure resembled again the bivouacs I loved so much when I first arrived—still and silent bobbing on the windy treebranch like a dead seal washed up on shore.
I watched home listings in my area climb. One day I laughed at the offerings—the next they were twice what I was already paying. I didn’t have a plan. Since I lost my job I was afraid of the language necessary to obtain another. I picked up my phone to call help wanted signs but couldn’t make a peep.
No place left to go—so I wailed to those other strays who crowded the neighborhood and decided to join them. As I closed my bedroom door I noticed something on the uncased pillow that hadn’t been there when I straightened the sheets. Grit or crumbs I thought. But when I came closer I recognized the parting gift. Creamy offwhite and speckled kiwi green. Crumbled eggshells.
Let it be known—the landlady was wrong. I never kept a cat in that room.
A cat keeps herself.
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