Fiction Contest Runner-Up
Ren Holloway wanted the presidency of the South Florida Parrot Society so badly he wasn’t beyond poisoning John and Judy Conure’s birds. John was the current acting president of the club, but Ren planned a sweep as January elections approached. He had already begun a smear campaign. He told Molly O’Connell, the club’s past secretary, that John’s flock was infected with Psittacine Beak-and-Feather Disease. He told Ozzie Gonzalez that he witnessed John pouring bleach into Dr. Duran’s lovebirds’ water at the spring bird competition and expo in Sarasota.
Accusations like these often buzzed through the membership of the SFPS, but never about John. He and his wife, Judy, the acting treasurer, were the most respected members of the club. They offered their home for the club’s annual holiday party and donated bird toys to the monthly raffle. Judy made them herself from coconut halves, plastic pacifiers, rawhide, and sisal twine. John had been president for five years and always ran unopposed.
But this wasn’t why the members of the SFPS respected the Conures. The club members respected the couple because John and Judy owned a hyacinth macaw. Most people in the bird club had only seen this rare species in the local zoo, a ten-thousand-dollar parrot, more than most of their annual mortgage payments. The giant, iridescent blue parrot stood on John’s shoulder through every club meeting, preening John’s hair and eyebrows. The bird had fleshy yellow rings around its eyes and at the corners of its mouth, and its shiny black beak could exert enough pressure to crush someone’s finger right off her hand, but the bird was gentle, a result of John’s love and careful upbringing. Judy bred lovebirds, but the macaw was John’s baby.
The one bird that garnered more respect was a black palm cockatoo, but the only private individual who owned one within a thousand miles was Mr. Carl Lipman, a paranoid recluse who owned a dozen McDonald’s restaurants. He allowed club members to visit his vast bird collection once a year, after passing through two barbed-wire-crowned gates and past four guards armed with Uzi submachine guns.
Ren headed to Kinko’s to make 300 copies of his campaign flyer. The monthly meeting was in a few hours, and he planned to let the air out of John’s high-flying balloon. Among the points why he should be president, or rather, why John shouldn’t, included the following:
- Since last year, membership has dropped from 303 members to 294 (not including children under 12).
- In April of this year, President Conure allowed rabbits on the seller’s table. The SFPS’s bylaws strictly state that mammals will not be sold in any month but November.
- At the SFPS’s yearly show, President Conure’s orange-faced double-recessive pied lovebird took high honors. The judge, one Mr. Ira Stern, is Mr. Conure’s barber.
- President Conure was late in his dues by four days in this calendar year.
- The embroidered jacket awarded to President Conure last Christmas for his leadership was bought with club funds by one Mrs. Judy Conure. The receipt was handwritten and highly suspect.
- The bylaws strictly state that visitors are allowed to attend three free meetings before they must pay dues. President Conure allowed his former neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. Keppler, to attend four meetings before paying dues. (Feb-May) The club lost $5.00 as a result of this “oversight.”
- Last month, a child of one of the members was bitten by a blue mutation Indian ringnecked parakeet, which was left unattended. President Conure was standing five feet from said incident and claimed not to have seen that the bird was alone while the “here-nameless” member used the toilet.
- The coffee has gotten worse this year, as have the cookies.
He copied half the flyers on light blue paper and the other half on light green, stacked them on the counter, and placed them into a manila folder. He couldn’t afford a ten-thousand-dollar hyacinth macaw, sure, but he’d run that club with his little African red-bellied parrot on his shoulder, and he’d do it better than John ever could.
The flyers were phase one. In phase two, he’d put ant poison into John’s birds’ water. It would make John and Judy wish they never got into birds in the first place, and they’d have no reason to come back to the club.
The hyacinth macaw, Big Blue, lived in the Conure’s living room. He would be the easiest target. Everyone petted and smooched and fed the bird at the holiday party, and Ren would do the same, then add a packet of powder to the water during Secret Santa, when no one was looking.
The lovebirds, a hundred or so of them, lived on the screened patio. Judy bred them for show, and she owned rare colors that no one else in the club had, like white-faced violets and par-yellow black-eyed masked pieds. But Ren didn’t respect her for it. He didn’t ooh and ahh at the shows like the others. She bought those birds from breeders out of state. She didn’t use complicated genetic formulas and selective pairings to develop the fancy mutations the way he did. She didn’t line-breed and agonize over each clutch of babies. He was a master at lovebird genetics. Still, he couldn’t place more than third at the circuit shows when the Conures were in attendance. But that would change once he took office.
He didn’t want to poison Judy’s lovebirds, but he felt a burning in his gut every time he saw her take home another blue ribbon. He hated Judy’s smug humility when she talked about her lovebirds, or brought hatchlings to the meetings to show them off. He suffered an ocular migraine and lost his appetite when he thought about how Judy emblazoned all of John’s t-shirts, neckties, and ball caps with the image of Big Blue, the bird a badge of superiority in puff paint and acrylic. The other thing that made his stomach ache was that he was in love with Judy. He didn’t want to be, but he was. She had wings in his dreams and could fly like a hummingbird.
Judy had gone to high school with Ren and graduated one class ahead of him. She wasn’t a cheerleader or the prom queen. She wore horn-rimmed glasses, and had a fine, pointed nose, and flitted to her seat in the cafeteria wearing long, dark peasant skirts. Ren selected the locker under hers so he could accidentally touch her arm each morning and afternoon as he reached for his lock. Judy was a polite teenager, quiet, and she always looked a little worried, like she was afraid of turning to ash and blowing away. It gave her creases in her forehead twenty years later. Ren wondered what she was so concerned about. Certainly not him.
Ren arrived at the VFW hall where the SFPS held meetings on the third Sunday of every month. Members usually brought their birds. The meeting room was dark and cool, with a small kitchen to the right and a rectangular, raised stage in the back. A clutch of half-heliumed balloons wilted in one corner, probably from a dance the night before. The place was squawking with dozens of species of parrots, some talking, some cat-calling. A yellow-naped Amazon parrot sang “Happy Birthday” over and over, out of tune, and the ratcheting cry of baby birds radiated from a glass fish tank on the seller’s table.
Ren recognized every one of the hundred plus members in attendance. He knew what they did for a living and what species of birds they kept. He doubted John knew as much.
The meeting came to order at 12:30 pm with old business. As usual, Arma Caviness couldn’t read her own handwriting, so she skipped the motions from last month’s meeting. Ren jotted this down in the notepad he kept to record discrepancies and wrong-doings.
After old business came new business. Molly O’Connell suggested that they turn off the fans in the room so everyone could hear better. They took a vote and the motion passed. Ozzie Gonzalez made a motion that the club allocate three hundred dollars to the holiday party this year, fifty dollars more than last year. Judy seconded the motion. The rest of the members shouted aye. Ren abstained and wrote in his notebook.
Most of the membership disliked Ren for reasons they couldn’t identify. He had a strange, dark energy that surrounded him like feather-dust. He stood too close and invaded people’s personal space, and he spit a little when he spoke about things that excited him, like his lovebirds—and he was always talking about his lovebirds. The little parrot he carried on his shoulder was named Adolf, and that caused concern with some of the older members. What they didn’t know was that he named the bird after Adolf Wilhelm Mueller-Welt, the man who invented contact lenses, his mother’s fourth cousin thrice removed. Ren had met the man once, and was impressed with his poise and graciousness, his diplomacy and confidence.
Ren raised his hand. “I have new business,” he said. All heads turned, except for the flushed Hannah Hoffmanbeck, who had begun to nurse her infant, Danny, whose father was in the Army and hadn’t met the baby yet.
Ren stood, nearly knocking over the metal folding chair. He handed out flyers as he spoke. The rattle of paper overtook the room.
“As you know, elections are in six weeks, and I’ve decided to run for office. Our current president has run unopposed for too long, and we need changes in the club. On this flyer, you’ll see why our current president should step down.”
Hannah Hoffmanbeck turned away from infant Danny to glare at Ren. Even the parrots fell quiet. In anyone’s memory, no one had ever challenged the elected officers. At election time, people in the membership nominated one capable person for a position, then voted with little slips of paper dropped into a coffee can.
John stood behind a podium on the stage. He wore a dark work shirt with Big Blue hand-painted on the pocket. Everyone watched him. His lips moved slightly as he read the flyer. Big Blue, who stood on a towel draped over John’s shoulder, bobbed his head and shrieked. Some people laughed. Others averted their eyes and folded the flyer, embarrassed for Ren.
“Ren, are you making a motion?” John asked.
“Yes,” Ren said. “I’m nominating myself for the position of president.”
“You can’t nominate yourself, Ren.”
“Bylaw 3.C was amended two years ago and states that I can.” No one could argue with Ren’s knowledge of the bylaws and amendments.
“Anyone want to second that motion?” asked John. Big Blue shrieked again. “Besides you, Blue.”
Ren scanned the members. Most looked uncomfortable. A few people left their chairs for the coffee maker. A few went to the lavatory. Others tended to their birds.
“I second,” Ren said.
“You can’t second your own motion.” John scratched the back of Big Blue’s neck. The bird yawned.
“Bylaw 6.F states . . .”
Molly O’Connell stood and raised her voice before Ren could finish his sentence.
“Ren, we’d like to get to the raffle today. I have a copy of the bylaws, and 6.F is about club field trips, not seconding motions.”
He didn’t expect anyone to have the bylaws at their fingertips. Molly had them stored in her phone.
Ren stepped onto the stage with John and turned to the members. “Doesn’t anyone want a fair election this year? Doesn’t anyone want fresh blood in office? Come on, people. I’ll bring back the Milano cookies.”
After a few moments of human silence and chittering birds, a female voice rose above the murmuring crowd and birdsong.
All heads turned to Judy Conure. Her hand was raised, her words seeming to echo around the room. Everything went silent for Ren. He watched a pair of colossal, white wings unfurl from between Judy’s shoulder blades. She was shiny and radiant, and she floated in her spot, ready to rise and hover above him.
“You second?” John asked.
“I second,” Judy said. She lifted from her chair with one flap of those gleaming wings.
John shook his head. “All in favor?”
Bill Rankin raised his hand, but his hearing aids weren’t working and he thought he was voting to turn the fans off so he could hear better.
“All opposed?” asked John.
A few raised hands pocked the room.
Thirty or so hands rose.
“Who’s abstaining from abstaining?” asked John.
Another thirty hands rose. Judy floated near the ceiling, waving her wings like a flag caught in a slow, swirling draft, fanning Ren’s face. He felt hot and everything seemed made of plastic, even himself.
He turned his attentions away from Judy. “This isn’t a democracy,” he shouted. “This is a dictatorship.”
Ren grabbed Big Blue around the neck and pulled him off John’s shoulder. The room gasped and chairs crashed to the floor as people stood, a clamor like disharmonic cymbals on the concrete floor. No one knew what to do. Tom O’Connell, Molly’s husband, who had been watching Hannah Hoffmanbeck breastfeed her infant, sprung from his chair and approached Ren, but stopped before he reached him, feeling that tackling Ren could be deadly for Big Blue.
“Ren, give me back Blue,” he said. He held his hands in front of him as if he could contain the moment using nothing but his will. “Come on, Ren. I’ll say aye to your motion, okay? Give me Big Blue. Let’s handle this like gentlemen.”
Ren held tight to the bird’s neck as it squirmed and gripped his forearm with its claws. Adolf, not used to such commotion, snuggled into the shoulder of Ren’s collared piquet shirt. Adolf’s nails were sharp, but Ren barely felt them.
“It’s my bird now,” Ren said. What he really wanted was to snatch Judy down from the ceiling and hold her around the neck and kiss her and pet her wings.
“Put the bird down, Ren.” John’s gaze shifted from Ren’s face to over his shoulder.
Judy was behind Ren, and he couldn’t figure out how she arrived there so quickly. Her wings were gone. He noticed for the first time that her printed t-shirt said, “Did You Eat a Bowl of Brilliant for Breakfast?” Ren was confused. Big Blue’s claws cut into his skin and he felt Adolf digging in to his shoulder. Ren moved slowly toward the double doors. His car was parked close to the building, next to the handicapped spot where Simran Kuhnar, who didn’t even own birds anymore, always parked, though Ren was certain her hip was fine by now.
The members parted as he walked backwards through them, toward the door, into the sunlight with Big Blue, who squawked and squirmed in Ren’s fist. Ren fished his car keys out of his pocket and unlocked his car door. His cell phone rang. There was no way to answer it, hold the bird, and put the key in the ignition at the same time. Good try, John, he thought.
The members poured out of the VFW hall, many of them on the phone with 911. Ren started the car, still holding Big Blue by the neck. He screeched out of the parking lot and let the bird loose in the back seat. Big Blue stood panting on the fabric cover, then defecated. Ren didn’t care. It wasn’t anything Adolf hadn’t done before. He pulled the little parrot out of his shirt and popped him into his carrier, buckled for safety in the front seat. Big Blue shook himself, unruffling his feathers, then climbed on the passenger seat and perched on the headrest. Feather dust swirled inside the car, riding on sunbeams, making Ren conscious of his own breathing. Big Blue smelled sweet, like carnations. Ren wanted to press his nose underneath the bird’s wing, where the feathers were downy and white. But he had to concentrate on the road. He felt pressure building in his head.
John had Ren’s car in sight, driving behind him and catching up fast. He thought he saw Big Blue through the rear-window, but wasn’t sure. The fierce afternoon sun reflected off of the glass, blinding him. He put on his sunglasses and thought about the day when the doctor told him and Judy that they wouldn’t have kids of their own. John didn’t know why that scene came so vividly now, the antiseptic smell of the office, the Cuban nurse who plastered photos of her own kids around the reception desk.
Ren turned onto the highway that led to Dania Beach. He didn’t know where else to go. He hadn’t planned this. He hadn’t meant to kidnap Big Blue. Sure, he was going to poison the bird—eventually—but now that plan was ruined. His phone rang again and he fumbled to answer it.
“Ren? Are you there?” Ren couldn’t place the voice. “It’s Judy.”
Ren dropped the phone and swerved, almost colliding with a gasoline truck. He recovered the phone and placed it to his ear again.
“Ren, what are you doing?”
“I don’t know. I really don’t.”
“Why don’t you come back? We’ll pretend this never happened.”
Ren doubted that. “Listen, Judy, your husband isn’t as familiar with the bylaws as I am. Do you understand?” What he really wanted to say was that he loved her and hated her and that he could read her mind and knew what she was like inside, where it counted.
“None of that matters now. Come back. Or stop the car where you are.”
Ren saw John’s car in the rear view mirror. It looked mean.
“Judy, I want to tell you something.” He swallowed hard. “I love your wings.” There was silence on the other end of the phone. “Judy?”
“Ren, I don’t know what you’re doing or where you’re taking Blue, but so help me I will make your life a living hell if something bad happens to him.”
“Judy, is that you?” He thought he recognized her voice, but figured someone else was on the line too.
“I’m not kidding around, Ren.”
Ren pulled off the highway onto the causeway toward the beach. At the pinnacle of the bridge he saw the ocean ahead. The water was the same color as Big Blue. Ren relaxed. The ocean was beautiful and giant and awesome, like the bird. Big Blue stared at the ocean too, and Ren thought the parrot had probably never seen it before.
“Ren, are you on medication? Seriously. Did you take it today?”
“I’m taking your bird to the beach.”
“Excuse me, where?”
“Judy, why did you second me?”
“You’re taking Blue where?”
“Why did you second me? Back there, in the club?”
There was a pause on the line and Ren thought he heard fingernails drumming the phone. The noise stopped and Judy sighed. “I don’t know, Ren. You seemed to have wanted it and no one else was helping you.”
“I knew you were one of a kind. Rare.”
“If I’m so rare and wonderful, can you please bring my bird back? I have a bad feeling about this. Ren, are you listening? Something ugly could happen here.”
“Hold on, I have another call.” Ren pressed the green button on his phone.
“Ren, you jerkoff, I’m behind you and when I catch you I’m going to kick your freaking ass,” John said.
“Please hold.” Ren swapped calls. “Judy, I have your husband on the other line.”
“Ren, bring the bird back. We love that bird. He’s like a kid to us. Do you understand? Like a child. Big Blue is special.”
“He’s the color of the sea, Judy. Did you know that?”
“What is this about? It’s not about the club, is it?” Judy’s voice sounded like birdsong to Ren, but sad too, like a Bach fugue or the sea at ebb tide. He didn’t want to drive anymore. He wanted to go home and sit in his comfortable chair and watch game shows with Adolf.
Ren pulled into the parking lot next to the Muni Meter. He’d have to feed the machine, then put the white ticket it spit out onto his dashboard or risk a parking violation.
“Hang on, Judy.” Ren put the phone on his lap and fished for his wallet in his back pocket. He opened the wallet and his gaze settled on a photo of his daughter. He hadn’t seen her in seven years, not since her mother left. The girl was a toddler then. He picked up the phone and swapped calls again.
“Hey, John, do you have any singles? The machine only takes singles.”
John had pulled his car into the spot next to Ren’s. He wanted to take the tire iron from his trunk, bust Ren’s windows, then crack his head open. But there was Big Blue, unhurt, perched on the passenger seat, preening his chest feathers.
“Ren, please let me have my bird back. I don’t know what this is about. You can be president. I don’t care at this point.”
Tom and Molly O’Connell parked their truck on the other side of Ren’s car, and the parking lot began to fill with members of the SFPS. Tom wanted to crawl on his belly toward the car and slash Ren’s tires. Ozzie figured someone should park behind Ren’s car, keeping him in the spot. All agreed that a drastic move might cause Ren to hurt Blue. The members loved that parrot. It was the last bird that Shelly Tomahawk’s daughter held before the girl was hit by a van and killed one Sunday after a club meeting. Big Blue precipitated Jeff and Sally Hemingway’s autistic child, Lukas, to speak his first and only word, ever: want.
“I have to go.” Ren dropped the phone into his lap. The rearview mirror was filling up with people he knew, but he forgot how he knew them. He studied Blue.
“What are you doing here?” he asked the bird.
Ren unlocked the door and stepped out of the car. He recognized someone in the crowd. He knew the guy. Yes, it was John Conure. Ren had gone to the guy’s wedding. John married Judy. Judy with the translucent wings and the lovebirds. Judy floating like a hummingbird. Judy with feathers so polished, they made Ren’s eyes ache.
John approached Ren. The rest of the members stepped back. Overhead, a seagull cried into the wind. The ocean rolled in its bed and the sky painted itself cerulean with invisible brushstrokes. Palm trees at the edge of the beach gestured over the scene like a magician. The men stood a few feet apart for a long minute, staring. John could see Big Blue in his periphery. He saw that the bird was the color of the sea and it struck him as amazing. How could something be so beautiful? He remembered Ren’s daughter’s christening, how content Ren was then, how happy. He remembered how Ren rocked the little girl in his lap and how he looked at her like she was the sun after a long winter.
Everyone thought John was going to strike Ren when he stepped forward. Instead, John wrapped his arms around Ren and held him. Some people in the crowd thought John held Ren the way a parrot holds her nestlings under her wings to keep them safe. Others thought it was more like the way a father holds an infant daughter—gently, and a little afraid.