Written by Elise Newman
The parrot from next door squawks her awake.
Ella rolls onto her side and opens her eyes. Her skin is sticky with sweat. The small square window glows from behind the curtain.
She had tried to make the small apartment homey. Painting, baking, curtain-making. She had dusted off her mother’s old sewing machine, mis-measured the window, found some polka dot fabric tucked in with the tea towels. She had ironed, pinned, and cut. And now a harsh line of light streams in from under the short curtain.
Another hot day.
She kicks the tangled sheet off the bed. It falls to the floor with a feathered thump. Lying half-asleep next to her, Louis lays his hand on her back. “Go back to sleep,” he grumbles. She wriggles out from under the weight of his hand. It’s too hot. She gets out of bed and shuffles to the bathroom.
The parrot screeches.
The kitchen linoleum feels cool under her bare feet.
Ella breathes. She opens the door from the kitchen to the balcony, willing a cool breeze (it does not come). She steps out and looks down into the neighbour’s yard to see the big grey bird in its cage.
She thinks how cruel to keep a wild thing in a wire thing. She thinks how odd it looks there, cooped up, surrounded by tiny pine trees and dandelions coming through the cracks of the concrete patio. She goes back inside and finds a clean glass and pours water from the tap to drink.
Louis comes into the kitchen saying, “I’m going to kill that flipping bird.” She smiles and says, “Don’t swear so early in the morning.” He yawns. He reaches for the tin of coffee, then looks at her and asks, “Should we make the nice stuff today?” Should they grind the beans and fill the machine with water and wait and froth the milk? It’s too hot. So he just boils the water for the instant.
Waking up slowly, silently, they stand in the middle of their small yellow kitchen. Louis in his blue boxers, the elastic a little too tight. Ella in an oversized T-shirt faded to grey by the years.
Louis scoops instant coffee powder into two mugs with a small spoon.
She looks up at him.
“I can’t go to work today,” she says.
The air is oppressive. She wants to call the restaurant, say I’m so sorry I won’t be able to make it in today, I’m a bit under the weather. She can’t imagine bobbing in and out of that steaming kitchen in this heat. She can’t picture herself smiling at the unpleasant, rarely-pleased customers.
Louis doesn’t remind her they have rent to pay. He doesn’t go on about responsibilities and biting bullets. None of his usual, It won’t be so bad once you get there. Today he says, “Don’t go. Stay here. We’ll be on holiday.” The kettle whistles. He raises an eyebrow, attempts a joke: if you can’t stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen. Ella rolls her eyes as she walks over to the phone. “I’m under the weather.” When she hangs up, her squeal reminds him of the parrot next door.
On the balcony, they hold their mismatched mugs and pretend their neighbours can’t see them. Louis and Ella sometimes speculate about the people who own the parrot next door. Sometimes they catch glimpses of the old couple. Perhaps they are deaf.
Sweat drips slowly down their backs, their thighs stick to the cheap chairs. The parrot has quieted (it has done its job; they are awake). Louis whistles a few notes from the song stuck in his head.
“Am I not supposed to drink coffee anymore?”
“I don’t know,” he says.
There’s a lot they don’t know. She will buy a book. When the heat lessens.
She lifts her knees, pulls them to her chest, gives her thighs some air.
“We should go away, just for a bit,” she says, “to get a break from this heat. Before my belly gets big…”
The parrot squawks.
Louis gets up the way he gets up when he has an idea, suddenly and with his mouth half open. He marches through the kitchen and back to the bedroom to slip on the pair of khaki shorts crumpled on the floor. He grabs the neat pile of bills off the bureau. Ella’s tips. He calls, “I’ll be back soon” before slamming the front door shut. It’s too hot to wonder why and where and what and why again. Instead, she goes inside to run a cold bath, to cool herself down. The baby must be sweltering in there.
She sits in the tub as it fills. She had never noticed all that dust nestled where the wall meets the bath. She closes her eyes for a moment.
She turns off the tap and lies back. The cold water sizzles the heat out of her.
She imagines Louis with a sniper gun, shooting the parrot next door from the balcony. The bird would fall with a screech and a thump.
Where would he get a gun?
No. He sneaks into the neighbour’s yard and opens up the cage. The parrot flies off. Flies over the city and the river and the coast, over the Atlantic, home to Africa. But maybe the parrot just sits there. Or maybe it has clipped wings.
Or he might knock on the door next door. His fist might hover in mid-motion, hesitant — should he ring the bell? They have seen the old lady who lives here many mornings. From a distance, from above, from the balcony. A creak of the door and she appears, peeking up at him from under thick white eyebrows. She is small and skinny. Her voice sounds like the door creaking open. Yes. Has he thought of what to say? He’s her neighbour. He just wanted to say hello. Maybe. But why? He tells her he has questions about her parrot. He’s interested in buying it. Too blunt? That’s fine. Louis is blunt.
He says they can see it from their apartment and he wanted to ask her about it. If they could buy it. He wouldn’t tell her they want it so they can put it down, shut it up. A happy coincidence: she needs to get rid of it. She leads him through her dark apartment.
Inside, the old lady’s blinds are drawn to shut out the heat. She shows Louis to her backyard, to see the bird, though she does not understand why he would want to purchase her parrot. Her husband’s parrot. Yes. Her husband has just died and her children are forcing her into an old-folks home. A retirement community. She won’t be able to take the parrot with her. It was her husband’s, bless his soul. The parrot has been singing in mourning since his passing.
So Louis buys it and brings it home and kills it. But they wouldn’t be able to kill it, would they. They’d be too squeamish. Ella sighs. It would end up living in their kitchen or taking over their balcony and waking them up every morning. The parrot would be closer and louder. Much louder.
She hears the front door slam and heavy footsteps up the stairs. She hears him put something down. Thud. She shivers. How long has she been soaking there? The skin on her fingertips is soft and wrinkled.
She wraps herself in a bath towel and goes into the living room. Louis squats there with an opened cardboard box. From the box, he pulls out a fan, sets it on the floor and plugs it in.
“I bought a fan,” he says.
She watches him run his fingers over the buttons. He presses down and the plastic blades begin to spin in their wire cage. Louis, perched in front of the fan, gestures Ella over. The hair on his head flutters about. She sits next to him on the floor, in front of the fan. Beads of water drip slowly from her hair. He lays his hand on her back. The weight and the warmth of his hand feel nice, comforting.
Next door, the parrot squawks. But she barely hears it over the noise of the fan.
featured in our fall 2018 issue