Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Van Buren

I’m sitting in the back of the room grading student oral presentations thinking I’ll leave South Florida soon or I’ll never leave. Eric works in a fish market, so he skins and fillets a salmon. Cecilia shows us how to fill in a tax form. Baylor repairs a surfboard. Like that.
But it’s the woman, Natalie with the parrot that gets to me. What a beautiful parrot; one of the most, if not the most beautiful parrots I’ve ever seen and I’ve seen a lot of parrots. This is a parrot to marry.

Natalie’s going to show us how to teach your parrot to talk. Her boyfriend is allergic to everything but parrots, she says. This parrot has a gray head and a green body. She says it’s a Quaker Parakeet. I start looking for the hat and the oatmeal. Natalie says that a lot of people think Van Buren is a parakeet, but he’s just perfect for the home. He’s only eleven or twelve inches instead of the usual twenty-six plus and he’s smarter than a parakeet.

She says you have to prep the parrot. Make it get used to you. You should never talk in a loud voice. Always make the parrot feel like you are equal, which is a lot like humans’, but maybe not that hard, if you love your parrot. She says, take your parrot to a quiet place where it can’t get distracted. She says, Van Buren won’t talk in the same room as her finches. I understand that.
I wait to hear Van Buren it has a brother named Hamilton. Anyhow, she says parrots need to hear a high voice. She turns on the tape recorder to show us how she talks to the Van Buren, who sits on her left shoulder with a towel on it and stares at the tape recorder, then glances over at her. I think maybe Van Buren is confused. She says, Hello, hello, hello. Too bad the original Van Buren couldn’t have heard this. She changes her voice to a higher Hello, like hello, hello…Hello and HeLlo and then one that’s tingly, HiLO, HilO and one that’s sing-songy Hellow, Hellow and back to the regular hello.

I watch the bird, Van Buren. It looks at the tape recorder. It looks at her. Nothing. She whips out this magazine, called Parrot Talk that has all kinda good things, even expensive tapes that teach your bird to say Good Morning and I Love You. Available by subscription, she says. Meanwhile Van Buren cocks his head. She turns off the tape recorder. I wait. Van Buren doesn’t say squat.
Van Buren just perches on her shoulder cocking his had back and forth; looking real cool and real parrot-like; acting like he might say something, just to pass the time, or at least after all that work, help her pass the speech part. Nothing.

She wraps up the high points and asks if there are any questions. No questions. She takes Van Buren and her tape recorder back to her seat right in front of me. She doesn’t seem to mind, or let on, that Van Buren said nothing, not a peep, not even a garble. She doesn’t even shoot Van Buren a bad look.

The next woman shows us how to make Key Lime Pie. Then the parrot woman sets Van Buren in her hand while the pie woman puts eggs in the pie filling and shows the Jamaican woman Naomi, across the aisle, how the parrot Van Buren plays dead. Does Van Buren play dead? You bet. Van Buren flops over on his little green back and sticks its claws in the air.

Then class is over. We’re all standing around eating Key Lime pie. The parrot woman has Van Buren on her shoulder. Van Buren is eating Key Lime pie. The parrot woman says he eats spaghetti too, which is nice, but it won’t say hello.

Now I think Van Buren should have talked. That’s the point. I told the class that the object is to show us how to do something and show us that it works. I think I’ll have to give her a B for her speech. The parrot didn’t say a word. I guess that’s all right, but I’m not sure.

Maybe the parrot, Van Buren was stressed out. Maybe he didn’t like his name, although I guess it’s better than Hamilton. Right? Van Buren got the Key Lime pie. Should she pay because Van Buren won’t talk? Who knows? Sometimes, I have to ask myself, what's the point of talking to humans anyhow? Besides, I can't imagine someone sticking me in a dark room and shoving their big face in my beak and starting with the Hello, HELLO, HILO, HELLO.

It's like the summer my father took me to the fair. Along the midway, they stuck these tall miniature white houses with four windows and red hens inside. You put a dime in the slot and the chicken plays the piano. The red hen hears the tinkle, tinkle coming down the chute, she whips her beak around, her little red comb flaps, her wattles wiggle and she pecks the teeny keyboard bink bink bink, two maybe three notes with her beak, until a piece of corn falls down a chute, then the chicken eats the corn. I shoved my dimes in and watched the hens peck out some notes. When I ran out of dimes, I looked up at my dad for more but he shook his head and said, “It doesn’t matter how many dimes you put in the box, you’re ever going to hear the end of the song."

I guess Dad was right. There are no guarantees. It makes me glad I have the job I have, given the circumstances. I have to think, if I was Van Buren, I might mum up and go for the Key Lime Pie. I really would. After all, there's not much chance he'll get out of South Florida either.

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