The Loopby Joe Coomer
Lyman, a thirty-year-old orphan, is sipping coffee on the front steps of the trailer he calls home one morning, when a ninety-year-old parrot arrives with a beakful of cryptic sayings -- such as "That which hath wings shall tell the matter" -- and a mysterious past. Convinced that heeding the bird's wisdom will lead him to answers about himself he so desperately seeks, Lyman combines his night job as a courtesy patrolman, circling the highway that loops around Fort Worth, with days in the library. Together with Fiona, the loquacious librarian, he traces his adopted pet's origins, and while what Lyman ultimately discovers may not help him piece together his own past, it paves the way for a future he never imagined.
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Read an Excerpt
From Chapter 1
It was winter now. The dry leaves ticked past, scudding across the rusting wire of the screen door. He sat here every morning, a few feet from the open door, looking out into his backyard through the screen, challenging his memory. What's changed since yesterday? The wire divided the world into units and by sitting in the same spot at the same time each morning he was sure he'd someday net the moment, notice that point of departure where the future left the past. There were times when he stared so intently that the screen dissolved everything behind it and became a soft blankness of emotion. The wire would expand, float, hang so fluidly that fish were caught, brilliant gills of scarlet. Then there seemed a bewildering urgency, a writhing moment of opportunity, and he reached for the lip of the fish as if he were retreating from a burn, or an electric shock, or the barb of a hook. He almost dropped his coffee.
The grass beyond the door was sparse, brown, the weathered stockade fence grey, and the leaves so dry they cartwheeled to powder. It was winter now, he thought. When did that happen?
The parrot came then, lit on the handle of the screen door, but soon swung like a stone on a string beneath the handle, and finally rested there upside down. The bird looked into the kitchen. For a moment Lyman was so startled he felt as if he were hanging upside down rather than the parrot. He opened his mouth. The bird opened his mouth. The parrot's green and yellow was almost arrogant against the grey of the backyard. But he was weathered too: a tuft of down torn from his breast, a spot of blood between his eyes, a wing feather broken and thrust up under his beak as if he were trying to scratch his chin. Lyman stuttered, trying to snare the moment. He fought against the obvious but finally couldn't help himself, and said, "P -- P -- P -- Polly want a..."
"Shut up!" the bird screeched.
Lyman was immediately convinced of the parrot's sincerity. But he wavered when the bird didn't continue, didn't fly away. He was mesmerized by the brilliant green plumage, the yellow eye, the lolling of the body in the breeze. He asked again, "Polly want a..."
The bird's voice grated through the screen shrilly and slapped him. The moment, the moment, the moment, he thought. But the parrot interrupted Lyman again. He righted himself on the door handle, tearing triangular holes in the screen with his beak. The feathers on the nape of his neck bristled and he dropped his head between the shoulders of his wings. Then he turned to Lyman directly.
"I'm an eagle," he said. The parrot said it again, "I'm an eagle."
Lyman, speechless, nodded slowly and put his coffee cup on the floor. He rose and walked to the door and opened it gently. The parrot, windblown, grabbed the edge of the door with his beak and swung one foot around to the inside handle, then the other, then released the edge of the door. Lyman let it come softly to and backed away.
For the longest time there had been only the burying of dogs, his shadow flung full-length into the roadside night by the headlights of his truck and passing cars, his shadow shoveling out shallow graves for the bodies of smashed and disemboweled and quartered animals.
Lyman began taking notes, writing on a Texas State Department of Highways pad the things the parrot said. In a small neat hand: "Shut Up." Beneath this: "I'm an eagle." He went back and capitalized "Eagle." Beneath this: "Speak for Yourself." The parrot had said this to him many times, with a conviction surpassing anything Lyman himself had ever had. The bird seemed sure.
Lyman took a single Polaroid of the bird sitting on the back of a kitchen chair. A single portrait because the flash caused the bird to utter a piercing scream and fly directly into the refrigerator door. He didn't seem to see very well. Lyman felt the bird staring, narrowing his field of vision, trying one eye then the other. He'd tried to speak occasionally, Lyman had, but his first syllables brought back the same shrill "Shut up" or the even more irritating "Speak for yourself." So he was silent and moved only slowly through the kitchen. Each time Lyman walked across the room, even though he stayed well away from that startling greenness and tilting head, the bird shifted nervously from foot to foot on the back of the chair. He shut the open door and pulled the curtains across the windows, then turned off the light hanging above the table. He wanted to calm this large flying beast, and he'd seen cloth covers hung over cages to put birds to sleep. The darkness seemed to help. Both of them were lulled. The bird lowered his bill to preen a feather, and Lyman, yawning, poured his coffee into the sink. He'll want something to eat, he thought. What does a tropical bird eat? From the cupboard he mixed a variety bowl: Captain Crunch cereal, pretzels, cheese balls, onion and garlic croutons. The parrot was on the chair in the far corner of the room. Lyman walked slowly to the kitchen table and slid the bowl across the formica toward the bird. He was shocked when the parrot jumped immediately from the chair to the bowl, lowering one eye to the level of the croutons and pretzels. A four-toed foot, almost a hand, lingered forward and lifted a pretzel from the bowl, brought it to the bird's beak. The beak dropped the pretzel back to the bowl, and the bird returned with a short hop and flap to the chair.
"What then?" Lyman asked.
The parrot looked up at him. Suddenly Lyman realized the bird had let him speak.
"You let me speak."
The bird brought a long-clawed toe up between his heavily lidded eyes and scratched at the scab there. Lyman moved back to the refrigerator, opened the door, and bent low to see what else he might have to offer the bird. He heard the rush of wings then, beating hard, flapping down on him, and all his thoughts were of the long claws and the thick, curved beak. He screamed, ducked lower, and covered his head with his arms. The parrot screamed too, coming in low, screaming in mid-flight, screaming out of the darkness toward the forty-watt bulb.
The bird screamed, "Give some to the parrot!" and lit on a shelf in the refrigerator. Lyman looked out from underneath his arms, squinting, ready to cover himself again. The parrot was rooting among the contents of his refrigerator, pushing bottles aside with his head and beak, moving from shelf to shelf. Behind a gallon of milk he found a plum and began making stabs at it with foot and beak.
"OK," Lyman said, "OK." He reached around the far side of the milk carton and snatched the plum, showed it to the parrot and carried it back to the table. The bird followed him, but this time made his way back across the kitchen on the floor, waddling over the linoleum, hopping up to a chair seat and then to the tabletop. Lyman moved away, and the bird began to eat. It gave him a warm shiver of pleasure, watching this foreign creature eating a plum on his kitchen table.
"Speak for yourself," Lyman said. "I'm an eagle," he said. But he couldn't get the parrot to respond. He'd have to find out who he belonged to. Somebody must be missing him. Who had taught him to say such extravagant things? He went back to the refrigerator and took more plums from the fruit and vegetable drawer. He washed them, yawning, and placed two more on the edge of the table. He thought that might be enough till the afternoon. He didn't have a cage, until he thought of the whole trailer as a cage. It would only be for the one day anyway. He watched the bird eat for a while longer, feeling the pleasure again, but it had been another long night, so he closed the kitchen door on the big green bird, and walked the length of the trailer to his bedroom. Just before he fell asleep he remembered the last thing the bird had said and wrote this down at the bottom of his list: "Give some to the parrot."
He dreamed there was a parrot in his kitchen and that the parrot called his name.
Lyman woke at 2:30 in the afternoon thinking not of the parrot but of Fiona at the library, the thing she'd said to him. She worked at the library of the northwest campus of Tarrant County Junior College. Lyman spent many nights there before work, catching up on his homework. He'd been studying there long before she'd come. The thing she'd said in a hot whisper that swabbed the convolutions of his ear, that made him feel as if she were tucking the hem of his shirt into his already buttoned pants, the thing she'd said: "Lyman, underneath this skirt my legs are almost miraculously transformed into my ass."
And Lyman had leaned away from her slightly, putting his finger in his ear, and said, "Why're you telling me this?"
"Because to everyone else it's obvious." And she straightened up then and walked back to the return counter. What was she trying to say?
The phone rang, rang, rang again, and Lyman looked at it beside his bed, but it did not ring. Then he remembered the parrot. Things never seemed to be what they seemed. He peed and the phone rang again, three short "brrriingggs." At the kitchen door he paused for a moment, then opened it slowly, following the arc of the door in a quick scan, but he couldn't see him. Then the bird lifted his head above the rim of the sink, where he'd been drinking water out of a dirty cereal bowl.
"MA17," the parrot said, and climbed out of the sink.
"MA17?" Lyman said queryingly.
"MA17," the bird assured him.
Lyman wrote it down. Then, surveying the kitchen, he noticed the long chalky streaks of feces ringing the room like some stranded bead curtain from the sixties. It was an amazing amount of feces for a bird, he thought. It dripped from every conceivable perch, down the front of the refrigerator, along the cabinets and chair backs, from the very doorknob he now held in his hand. The bowlful of pretzels and cereal lay scattered across the table with the remains of the plums. The parrot took flight then, lighting on the hood above the stove, and shat on Lyman's skillet.
"This won't do," Lyman said, but again he had an almost queer bodily pleasure in this animal's physical presence. It actually pleased him to watch the bird defecate. They looked at each other for a few moments and then, wetting the corner of a dish towel, Lyman approached the bird with the intention of rubbing the dried blood from between his eyes. When the towel was inches from the wound the parrot spread his wings and, snipping forward, drew fresh blood from the meaty part of Lyman's thumb. Lyman retreated, consoling his thumb by surrounding it with his healthy hand, and concurrently shouting, "Goddamn it!"
The bird shouted back, "Goddamn pinch-faced buttlick!"
Lyman smiled broadly at the bird for the first time. "Who made you?" he said. He looked at his torn thumb, ran water over it, wondered distractedly about rabies. There was a positive need for a cage. He'd have to see to that. He bandaged his wound, then thought of not writing down the bird's last outburst, but did so anyway. He'd never written down the word "buttlick" before. But it might prove useful in determining the bird's owner. Beside "MA17" he wrote: "Could it be the bird's name?" Had he escaped from some sort of scientific experiment? Lyman ruled out the possibility that he'd flown north from the tropics because he hadn't spoken any Spanish or Portuguese.
"¿Habla Español?" Lyman asked. The parrot didn't answer, but nearly bent himself double on the stove hood so he could look at Lyman upside down. Lyman took this for a no. He decided the only course would be to put a "pet found" ad in the Star-Telegram. Perhaps someone had already placed an ad looking for him. Whoever claimed the bird would sure as hell have to describe him.
But he couldn't imagine the person behind this bird. He looked at his list again, occasionally glancing up at the parrot to make sure he wasn't about to be attacked. I'm an eagle. What a preposterous and wonderful thing to say about yourself. Lyman said it out loud. "I'm an eagle." Then he said it again, assuming the bird's tone of authority. "I'm an eagle." He already understood it made him feel good to say it. He said it many more times, placing the emphasis first on "I'm" then on "eagle," then whispering the entire phrase under his breath as if it were a secret. He glanced up at the bird again. The parrot had one foot behind his head, smoothing the feathers on his nape. Lyman took this opportunity to squeeze open the refrigerator door and snatch the last plum. He washed it, then rolled it to the center of the kitchen table. The parrot watched him but didn't move.
Lyman took the far path to the door, and as he slid through it, heard the flapping of great wings. The sound made his heart beat wildly. He walked down the hall, past his living room and past the room with all his trophies, to his slope-roofed bedroom, and he dressed. He took down one of his ten fluorescent orange-and-yellow jumpsuits, and climbed into it, zipping himself in. His cap was fluorescent as well, orange with a long yellow bill. There was much to do before work at ten that night. As the screen door on his trailer slammed to he heard the phone ringing again. And although it was hard for him to control his hands, he kept on walking.
Copyright © 1992 by Joe Coomer
Meet the Author
Joe Coomer is the author of Apologizing to Dogs, Beachcombing for a Shipwrecked God, Sailing in a Spoonful of Water, and an award-winning book of nonfiction Dream House. He lives in Azle, Texas, and Eliot, Maine.
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This book was a total surprise for me. I bought it because it said NY Times Notable book and now I can see why. It has a rare quality of combining human suffering with redemption and humor. This book will remain in my mind for a long time.
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