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By M. E. Kerr
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1993 M. E. Kerr
All rights reserved.
ONE DAY A HUGE, white, one-eyed parrot with a blue head flew into the kitchen window of my mother's restaurant.
"Am I here?" he asked my mother.
"Are you where?" she said.
"Here. Am I here?"
"You're in The Dream Cafe. Tell me your dream and I'll tell you the scheme against you."
"Are you where?" the parrot said.
"Don't say everything I say."
"Don't say everything I say."
"Chester?" my mother shouted, "Come in here! A talking bird has just arrived."
"Is he lost?" I asked. I never saw such a big bird, never saw one with a single eye the color of a lime and a long white feathery tail. "Can we keep him, Mom?"
My mother said what she always said when I wanted something and she didn't think I should have it.
"We can keep him the day something rhymes with orange."
Nothing rhymed with orange.
"I thought so," I said sadly.
"That day has come because we'll name him Lornge," my mother said.
"Lornge," said the bird.
"Wow!" I said.
"Lornge! Wow!" said the bird.
"He'll be good for business," said my mother. "I'm going to tell the customers this parrot has secret powers."CHAPTER 2
"THAT BIRD NEVER SLEEPS!" my mother complained. "You can cover his cage and he still talks! What kind of a parrot is he!"
"Alert," said the parrot.
"Oh, you're alert, all right!" my mother told him.
"Alert all right!" the parrot answered.
"Chester? You know who this bird reminds me of? Mr. Pye."
"The bird doesn't wear a white suit, and he doesn't eat M&M's, play Randy Travis and Waylon Jennings all day, and prowl through Old Muddy Swamp all night."
"No, but he's always awake!"
"Always awake!" said the parrot.
"Just like Gower Pye!"
My mother's name is Molly Dumbello.
The Dream Cafe was in the downstairs of our house.
Mr. Pye lived next door and he wasn't always awake because one day he told me he dreamed the same dream over and over.
"Tell my mother what your dream is and she'll tell you what schemes there are against you," I told him. "That's what my mother does: she interprets dreams."
"The dream I dream over and over doesn't need interpreting," he said. "Its meaning is as plain as the nose on your face."
"What do you dream all the time?" I asked him.
"I dream that you and your mother are moving away."
"Is it my mother's drum that bothers you?" I asked him.
"Her drum is half the problem."
"And the other half?"
"Your questions, Chester Dumbello. Why this, why that, when will, how come, can a, does the, will it, won't he!"
My mother said she'd heard Mr. Pye went down to Old Muddy Swamp behind our houses nights, poled himself around in his flat-bottomed skiff, and caught cottonmouths to fry for his dinner.
"Snake eaters," she said, "are not a happy breed."
And to Lornge she said, "Is that why you don't ever sleep, Lornge? Are you afraid he'll start catching parrot for dinner some night while you're sleeping?"
Then Lornge said something he'd never heard from us.
"I'll get my zzzzzzz's if you please, I'll get my zzzzzzz's if you don't please."
"By all means, get them!" my mother said, and she said to me, "Where did that parrot learn that?"CHAPTER 3
A WEEK AFTER MY eleventh birthday, on the first day of summer, my mother's sister, Dolly, arrived.
My mother calls Aunt Dolly "Aunt Dollar" because she is so rich.
When Aunt Dolly came from Alabama to visit us in Mississippi, she arrived in a silver limousine that was as long as our front yard, with a chauffeur named Dearheart, who wore a black suit and a white cap and white gloves.
"Don't come in, Dearheart," she always called over her shoulder, "the customers in this place aren't used to chauffeurs. They'll stare at you."
He sat out front reading Time and Life and Sports Illustrated.
All the kids from the neighborhood came running down the block to see the Rolls Royce, and to tease me.
"Hey, Dumbell! Your aunt is a millionaire and your mother's crazy!" they'd shout.
I'd call back, "My aunt's a millionaire all right!"
"And your mother's crazy!" they'd persist.
I ran and they shouted after me, "If your aunt has so much money, why doesn't she buy a straightjacket for your mother?"
One day I told them all this lie, unaware that my mother was inside listening.
What I said was, "Dolly is my real mother. I'm just staying with Aunt Molly until she gets better."
The kids didn't believe me, anyway, but my mother said, "Whether they believe you or not, now they'll think that I embarrass you! Me! Your own mother!"
I said, "Well, it's not easy being your son. Do you have to beat that drum and sing so loud? Nobody else's mother beats a drum and sings!"
"Nobody else's mother has the gift of dream interpretation. I am gifted beyond belief and someday you'll appreciate that, Chester Dumbello."
This summer day when Aunt Dolly arrived it was already getting dark, and there were no customers left in our cafe.
I could hear the kids outside calling out, "Your sister's here, Mrs. D! She's going to take you off to The Funny Farm!"
And, "Dumbell, where are you? Your chauffeur is waiting, Dumbell!"
"Molly," said my aunt to my mother, "I would like to take Chester back to Mobile with me, so he can have a taste of real life."
"You call your life real?" said my mother. "You call living in a house with forty-nine rooms real?"
"Forty-seven rooms. We don't count the kitchen or the pantry since only the servants go in there."
Aunt Dolly, my mother, and I were all blue-eyed blonds.
But Aunt Dolly was always in something silk with a big hat and heels so high birds could nest under them.
She was my mother's twin, married to a man who owned his own plane, had a diamond ring on every finger, and was nicknamed "Tux" because he always wore a tuxedo, day or night.
My mother was the kind of big woman whose dresses looked like tents. She wore a red and white bandanna on her head, and an enormous piece of crystal around her neck on a gold chain. Bracelets lined her arms, and she went barefoot even into the yard where there were pine nuts and evergreen needles that hurt my feet when I walked there without shoes.
In stores at the mall, in the movies, and on the streets of Lucy, the town where we lived, people turned smirking, to see my mother, not only because of her dress, but also because she was very loud and liable to say anything.
"So what? I'm different!" was her reaction when I cringed and sucked in my breath as we were noticed everywhere.
"You don't have to tell me that!" I answered her in a bitter tone, and I thought of my dead father, who'd looked like a lot of other sailors since they all wore the same thing, and who'd done what the others did, since he was in the Navy and he had to.
My own secret plan was to join up myself as soon as I was old enough. Goodbye forever to being pointed out and stared at! When anyone asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I thought to myself: I want to be like everyone else, and I answered by saying, "A sailor."
My mother always said, "If you like marching in step, and coming home from war in a box, think about the Navy for a career," never dreaming that I did.
"Your father was a happy man, glad he had a son and a wife with a gift, so it's not a sad story. Too bad but not sad."
There was a picture of him in his sailor suit on her bureau. Across the bottom was written, I'll sail home so keep a light burning for your husband, Chet.
That's why we always had the front porch light on day and night.
"He can't come home if he's dead," I often complained, tired of being asked if we didn't know day from night over at our place.
My mother said, "Did he say keep a light on unless I'm dead?"
"The light stays on until I die. Then you can turn it off and go live with your Aunt Dollar!"
That early evening at the beginning of summer, when my aunt was trying to talk my mother into taking me with her, and the kids were all outside yelling for me to show myself and be humiliated—here's what I heard from the kitchen.
"You're not getting Chester, Dolly!"
"Ask him why don't you?"
"Why should I?"
"So he can tell you himself he'd like to get away from the barefoot maniac and live with cultured people who have a piano and napkin rings and a swimming pool."
"Dolly," said my mother, "Chester doesn't care a fig for pianos and napkin rings and if he wants to swim in a pool he can walk over to Lucy Park."
Where they called me "dog doo from The Dream Cafe," ducked me, stole my trunks while I was in the water, and made me long to be anyone but me, anywhere but in Lucy, Mississippi.
"Molly," said my aunt, "call Chester in here and we'll see what he wants to do."
"Just because you're so rich, you think my boy will leave his own mother?"
"I'll make him his favorite Boston Cream Pie, and I'll get him his own dog, probably a big, friendly collie. I'll buy him the Suzuki GSXR-750 racing bike he dreams of owning, a pony named Sailor after his father, and Tux will take him up in our silver Aero Commander."
Aunt Dolly knew I could hear her.
Aunt Dolly knew the game show I was watching on television could not compete with mention of Boston Cream Pie, a big, friendly collie, a Suzuki GSXR-750 racing bike, a pony named Sailor after my father, and a silver Aero Commander.
I had to get out of there before I was asked if I wanted to spend the summer in Mississippi or Alabama. If I said Mississippi, lightning would strike me dead for lying, and if I said Alabama my mother's eyes would make me wish I was dead, the way they had when I lied to the neighborhood kids and said my aunt was my real mother.
I slipped on my baseball cap and headed out the back door even as Dolly began calling me.
It was almost dark by then and I ran through the back fields, toward Old Muddy Swamp, little brown bats above me tracing a pattern in the red sky.
Fireflies began dancing in front of me, frogs clunked, and owls hooted from the tupelo trees.
I was just about at Old Muddy when I heard Mr. Pye.
He was singing one of Waylon Jennings old songs, "What Bothers Me Most," in a voice filled with a twangy sadness, sounding like Willie Nelson, or Waylon himself.
The bottle-shaped cypress trees, some of them as tall as sixty feet, had wide spreading tops and banners of Spanish moss draped over their limbs.
But dark as it was past twilight inside that swamp, I caught a glimpse of him in his white suit, poling his boat into shore.
I stopped in my tracks, a little edgy now about where I was, and what he might have caught, and what he could have done to me with no one there to see him, and me even more scared of snakes than being different.
There was a big, full, hot-looking moon hanging above.
When he stopped singing, there was silence except for the night noises and the lip of water kissing the muddy bank where I was standing, and he was heading.
I thought of dark, slippery lengths hidden in the swamp breaks, and I decided not to take another step forward.
I thought of calling out, "Mr. Pye? Is that you?" even though I knew who it was, if not for sure what he was up to. But I didn't trust him. It was one thing me hanging on his porch rail, calling questions into him, The Dream Cafe a few feet away and my mother right inside. It was another to be under this jungle roof with him, a man even more peculiar than Molly Dumbello on her worst days, a loner no one ever visited, said to have had some great tragedy befall him long before he ever settled in Lucy, and said, too, to live on snakes and the legs of frogs ... and M&M's.
Green luna moths with thin long trailing tails on their wings, circled near my nose.
Then—what was it? A big sound. Suddenly a whole piece of the oozy muck in front of me heaved up, and a reptilian head with mad eyes and pointed fangs leapt forward.
I jumped. I slipped. I went into the swamp screaming bloody murder, and "Mr. Pyyyyyyyyyyyyyye!"CHAPTER 4
WHITE TEETH FLASHED IN a grimace under the black mustache.
Strong arms inside the white suit wrapped around me. My jelly legs couldn't stand yet. My heart was hammering at my ribs, and I was turning deep sobs into a hoarse sounding cough.
"What was it?" I asked Mr. Pye. "A snake or an alligator."
"Just a lazy old croc seeing if you'd go good with what he had for supper." Mr. Pye let go of me then and said, "Stand up now. You can."
"Thanks," I said.
"Walk," he said. "You can."
I started to walk, dripping wet, teeth chattering in the muggy night.
He walked beside me. Tall with black hair. His white pants legs were rolled, wet and muddy now from pulling me out. So were his white high-top sneakers.
I wondered what I'd have done if he hadn't been there. If he hadn't been there, would I have gone down to Old Muddy? I doubted it. For although he gave me the creeps—just the sight of him did—if he wasn't in Lucy then my own mother would be the major town crazy.
I liked watching him the same way neighborhood kids came down to stare at us.
He took out a few M&M's and popped them into his mouth, forgetting to offer me any, or maybe never intending to share them with me.
I wouldn't have minded having a couple. I hadn't had dinner yet. I said, "Do you ever eat anything besides M&M's, Mr. Pye," a little hint that was lost on him.
He said, "These things don't melt in my pocket."
"I guess Butterfingers would, and Milky Ways would, and Clark bars would, too."
"All of them would," he agreed.
"And you wear white all the time so you can't be too careful."
"No, you can't be."
We went along through the fireflies and the thousands of little mayflies my mother told me only live a day, don't eat, don't even have mouths, are born just to be food for bigger things. I wouldn't have minded not having a mouth myself that night because mine was watering hearing him suck on those things.
There were crickets singing and ducks and geese squawking and honking from the rice fields. I knew we were surrounded by things that creep and crawl and lay in coils waiting for you.
Still shaken by my spill into the swamp, I said, "How would you like to run into a rattler now?"
"You can smell them if they're around," said Mr. Pye. "They smell like ripe watermelon."
He didn't say more. Mr. Pye never said much, unless you asked him something. The longest thing I ever remember him saying without being asked was about the dream he had that my mother and I would move away.
He didn't ask me what I was doing down by Old Muddy after dark. He never asked me anything.
I didn't question him much anymore, either, ever since he'd complained to me about it.
Nights I'd look over at his house, dark except for the light from the television, or the little bulb above his hi-fi if he was listening to his favorite music. It was country since he said there was no heart in other kinds, and heavy metal didn't have a head or heart, in his opinion, which I'd asked, of course, doing a headstand near his iron glider where he'd sit with his straw hat on, smoking.
I'd wonder if he'd ever had or wished he had a wife, or children. I'd wonder if it was possible that I'd grow up and never marry, since who would marry someone whose mother beat a drum in her dirty feet and said a dream with a pig in it meant there was a butcher knife hidden somewhere in your closet?
I got a spooky feeling us two walking along through the woods together, saying nothing, so I said, "Seen any good TV lately?"
"I only watch sports," said Mr. Pye.
"We watch sitcoms ourselves. You never do?"
"With that canned laughter?"
"I don't like it especially," I said. "Do you like game shows?"
"I said what I liked."
I guess I was just trying to keep him talking so I didn't hear the hoots and howls and squishes and whistles around me. And talking, he seemed more like other people.
There wasn't anything else to say, and I was already starting to worry about the bawling out I'd get when my mother saw me soaking wet.
We got to the field I'd run through behind our houses, and we crossed it, mosquitos nibbling at my legs and arms, and buzzing around my face.
When we got to our yards, I said, "Well, good night, and thanks again, Mr. Pye. You saved my life."
Whippoorwills were calling behind me in the black pines, and a mole was a heaving a run across the lawn.
Mr. Pye said, "Maybe there's nothing to thank me for. How do you know you're going to have a good life?"
Excerpted from The Shuteyes by M. E. Kerr. Copyright © 1993 M. E. Kerr. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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