(From the 2018 book of short stories work@home)
My mother-in-law, rest her soul, was a compact bundle of contradictions. She never denied her African-American heritage but straightened her hair weekly. She often lectured her grandsons on the struggles she had endured because of the color of her skin, but she took every opportunity to rub bleaching cream onto the boys to lighten their skin. She was not fond of white people, but reveled in being part of an elite circle of wealthy people, most of whom were white.
Mayme was icily polite and a stickler for manners and language. She loved haggling over a few dollars when buying jewelry or some other high dollar item even though she could easily afford anything she wanted. She was, after all, the wife of a prominent New York physician whose clients included the elite of the jazz community and the occasional heavyweight boxing champion. Mayme believed that she had always been destined for this life and would accept nothing less than the proper respect her position afforded her.
Every now and then, her blackness would show. She and I had this running argument about singers. She believed that black singers were, bar none, the best vocalists in the world and the proof was in people like Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday and Nancy Wilson. I liked to believe that I was more open minded, citing artists that included Barbara Streisand, Patsy Cline and Cass Elliott.
One fall afternoon, while she and my father-in-law Joe, or Doc, as I called him, were visiting us on their way to a private jazz party in Denver, we were watching a program that featured a group who called themselves “Women Who Cook”. Included in this multi-cultural vocal group was a young white woman named Prudence Johnson who belted out some incredible tunes. I turned to Mayme and said, “Now there’s a white girl that can sing.” Without missing a beat, she responded, “Yeah, but she’s been hanging with some sistas.” (Mayme almost never used colloquialisms like sistas. That would put her into a lower class of people.)
Mayme never cursed. Ever. Her sense of decorum would not allow it. No matter how much she disliked a person, she never spoke ill of them and never, ever used a vulgar term to describe them. It simply was not done. And that’s when she got Chico.
Chico was an African Grey parrot. By nature, they are smart, learn easily even though they can be somewhat temperamental. They also live a long time, up to 60 years, and can be wonderful companions. With Doc away at the office all day and making rounds at the hospital on Thursday nights, Mayme found herself teaching Chico how to say “hello”, to say “please” and “thank you” when asking for a treat and a few phrases to entertain guests who happened to drop by. Mostly, though, she taught Chico how to curse.
There were people that Mayme simply didn’t like. Chief among these was her sister. In truth, the two had never gotten along and had competed for most of their lives. They were always stealing each other’s boyfriends, measuring their accomplishments with the size of their cars, the cost of their jewelry and the success of their respective children. Mayme had won the marriage sweepstakes by landing the better husband, but lost the parenting contest when her daughters both decided to become artists rather than the briefcase of lawyers that came from her sister’s family.
And so, Mayme’s sister became the target of harassment by Chico. Whenever she entered the house, Chico would squawk “High yella nigga. High yella nigga,” as Mayme’s sister was light skinned. (So was Mayme, but that didn’t matter, really. She was always colorblind when it came to her own color.) When her sister climbed the stairs, Chico would taunt her with “I see your ass.” If she used the downstairs bathroom, Chico let out a long string of “Pee-eewwww.”
Anytime Chico let out one of his rants, especially in front of innocent bystanders, Mayme would apologize profusely, exclaiming “Oh my! I don’t know where he learned that. He must have picked that up from Joe.” Of course, everybody knew where Chico had learned his colorful turns of phrase, but nobody ever challenged Mayme.
Mayme’s sister wasn’t the only recipient of Chico’s verbal barrages. Chico would wolf whistle at almost every woman who crossed the threshold. The maid would get hoots of “Sister. Sister. Sister.” There were endless chants of “Who are you,” when a new face graced the doorstep and “Go away” to those people that Chico decided he did not like. Delivery men, plumbers, furnace maintenance men and others that entered into Mayme’s domain all suffered under Chico’s ill-mannered onslaught.
Chico was incredibly accurate. If you were fat, he would tell you so in no uncertain terms. Those of small stature were berated with taunts of “Hey, short stuff,” and “Tiny.” If you bent over, Chico would imitate somebody blowing a raspberry. When the delivery boy from the A&P dropped off groceries, he would be greeted with shouts of “White boy! White boy!” All the while, Mayme blushed in delight. We suspect that when no one was around, Mayme fed him treats and insults in equal manner, calling him pretty boy. “I’m a pretty boy,” Chico would boast to anyone in earshot.
Chico’s training was not the only thing she kept hidden from everyone. Mayme suffered from massive headaches which clouded her vision. She kept cases of aspirin stashed throughout her three-story home. One day, Doc came home to find her unconscious. Chico sat in his cage, somber and repeating the phrase “Mama, wake up.” It was later discovered that the cause of her headaches was a cerebral aneurysm which had finally ruptured. She died within hours of Doc finding her.
My wife, Cynthia, went out to help her father through the process of burying his wife. Without her, he had no reason to work anymore and so, sold his practice and home and moved to New Mexico to be nearer to his youngest daughter. When it came time to close the home, Doc could not let go of Chico. Not that anyone would have wanted him, of course. Excellent mimics as they are, Chico sounded eerily like Mayme. Until she passed, I don’t think that anyone ever noticed.
Once the estate was settled, Chico was flown to New Mexico via American Airlines first class accommodations for pets and lived with Doc who taught the bird a few new phrases, most notably, “I love you.” Chico would sit in his large cage staring out Doc’s patio door for hours upon end insulting passersby and those gathered around the community pool. Doc passed away a few years later.
Because Cynthia and I were living in a small apartment at the time, we didn’t have room for Chico and all of his accouterments. When it came time to find a place for Chico to spend the rest of his life, both Cynthia and I knew that we might run into problems the minute he opened his beak. He would likely insult his new owner.
Local pet stores would not take him because of the risk of Avion borne diseases from birds of unknown source and we had no paperwork to prove Chico’s heritage. One day, we decided that we would take him to the weekly flea market held in the parking lot of St. Therese of the Little Flower
church. At this point we were willing to give him away. Maybe someone would take an interest in Chico.
Chico sat shaded in his cage, nervous from the crowd and not saying much. This was going better than we had planned. Kids would come by and offer him a treat and ask “Polly want a cracker,” to which Chico would respond “Shaddup” to their delight. Still, Chico’s occasional loud shrieks and squawks were enough to drive away any potential customers.
Toward the end of the day as the crowd began to thin out, Chico began to loosen up a bit. (Always dangerous.) Sister Cornelius, a Franciscan nun and principal of the Little Flower School came by to thank us for our participation at the flea market. (Proceeds from the sale of items at the flea market always went to the school.) Then it happened. “Sister. Sister. Sister,” Chico piped up. This caught us all by surprise. “Oh, my,” Sister Cornelius said. “Who is this?”
“Uh, this is Chico. He’s an African Grey parrot and he’s about 25 years old,” I responded as I began to cover the cage to keep Chico’s insults at bay. This had the reverse effect, making him more rambunctious. He let out a long wolf whistle.
“Goodness,” sister exclaimed. “I hear that they are quite expensive. Where did you get him?”
“He belonged to my father-in-law who passed away recently.” Chico blew a raspberry. Cynthia hid her face to keep from laughing. Chico then let out a machine gun barrage of “High yella nigga. High yella nigga.” I thought Cynthia would explode.
“Did he just say…?
“I’m sorry, sister,” I said. “Chico gets a little bit vocal when he’s nervous and tends to repeat things that he’s picked up.” I was backpedaling as fast as I could.
“I don’t believe that I have ever heard a parrot say Hallelujah,” sister exclaimed. “Your father-in-law must have been a religious man.” By now, Cynthia had plunged her head into the cab of the truck pretending to search for something on the floor. I could see her whole-body heaving.
“Shaddapp,” Chico croaked.
“Yes…well…my father-in-law was a Baptist and went to one of those Hallelujah churches here in Albuquerque, you know, with the big choir and all of the shouting.
“Oh my, what a delightful creature. What a shame that you couldn’t find someone to take him off of your hands,” sister said with a little disappointment in her voice.
“Would you like him sister,” I asked. “He’s well trained and he comes with this cage and plenty of food. We just want him to have a good home and I can’t think of a better place for him. He’d be comfortable in any corner of the convent. He likes to look out of the window and he really needs people around him all the time.” I was talking as fast as I could.
“Well….I don’t know. Do you think Monsignor would allow it?”
“Monsignor LOVES animals,” I speculated. “Besides, the convent is a whole block away. He won’t even know Chico’s there.”
“Oh, my. It would be fun to have this lovely bird for company,” sister gushed a bit. “…and it might be educational for the children as well.
“You’re FAAAAAATTTTT,” Chico said to no one in particular. Sister didn’t seem to notice.
“I’ll tell you what. Why don’t we bring Chico over to the convent right now? I can set him up wherever you want and you won’t have to do a thing.” Cynthia had disappeared completely, either curled up in a ball on the seat of the truck biting her lip or abandoning me to the eventual wrath of the Sisters of the Little Flower.
After strapping down Chico’s cage to the bed of the truck and reviving Cynthia who was near death from suppressing her laughter, we drove down the alley toward the convent a block away and pulled up to the side door that faced the school. Cynthia stayed in the truck, not wanting to risk going into convulsions again.
I put on my canvass gloves to keep Chico from biting my fingers as I carried the three foot by three foot by five-foot steel cage through the double doors and into the reception area where the nuns were gathered. They had placed newspapers on the floor in a five-foot square in front of the big picture window that faced the playground. The nuns were in awe, as if they had seen the Virgin Mary. To a couple of the smaller nuns Chico said “Hey, short stuff,” and to the rest he went on a short tirade of “Who are You? Who are you?” They squealed with glee.
I joined a new parish shortly after we made a gift of Chico to the Sisters of the Little Flower. He is probably still there, looking out the window onto the playground and, with any luck, the sisters have taught him to say the rosary. Amen.