The Caged Bird
The Caged Bird
Check out more fresh voices in The Fix's new blog section.
Charlie had a brother named Rob. He was quiet, but really big. Not as massive as Chuck, but intimidating, nonetheless. He was unfriendly, but there was a gentle side to him. I couldn't prove it, but there were glimpses here and there - with little kids and old ladies, baby cats. Buried beneath all the mean parts, there was goodness. Charlie was wired similarly, but he wasn't nearly as nice.
Rob kept everyone at arm's length. He took me aside one Christmas and asked, "Is he still hitting you?" He gestured toward Charlie who had his back to us, washing his face at the kitchen sink. "Don't lie."
"It's not so bad," I answered.
"If he lays his hands on you again, you need to tell your father. So he can put two bullets in his chest."
"I can't do that," I told him.
"You're an idiot," he shook his head.
"I love you, Rob." I tried to hug him, but he took a step back with his hand up.
"Stop," he said. "I don't need this."
Rob did two and a half years on a robbery charge in the early 90's. He'd spent enough time in jail to get off the needle. After his release, he stayed clean for the whole time I knew him. The boys smoked crack in the house so he moved into a small Budweiser trailer that was jacked up on cinder blocks in the front yard.
Rob's aluminum home had a door, and he cut a hole on the opposite side to make a window. Winters right on the water always seemed colder than everywhere else, especially in a little metal box. Rob ran a long extension cord across the steps when the temperature dropped so he could power a space heater and not freeze to death in his sleep. Come June, he rigged up a box fan.
I was never inside the trailer. Rob was very private. I also knew he brought prostitutes in there, so I kept my distance. Females called to him all day and night.
"Rob, you in there? Got a cigarette for me?"
"Go 'way, bitch. I'm sleeping," he'd answer.
"C'mon, Rob. Just one."
"You need to wash yourself," he scolded.
"I know, but I need a cigarette."
The girls all along Clason Point scared me. Crack had roughed them up pretty badly. They wandered up and down the road by the jetty, waiting for someone to come along and trade. I'd convinced myself I wasn't like them. I had clothes for work, a place to live and a little money. No one had money in Harding Park, but they all had dope. Every kind you like. That's why I was there.
Mabel was Charlie's mom. She was a tough old lady. The boys broke her leg one night during a fight. They fell on top of her when she was trying to separate them. Mabel owned the house they lived in, and she paid the bills. Her children gave her money here and there, with which she bought groceries and cooked for them all. Stray people and animals, everybody got a meal.
She fed some of the dogs in the kitchen. The ones that fought over food ate on the porch. One night when Mabel was scraping leftovers into their bowls outside, she saw something picking through food in the trash barrel. She called to Rob who grabbed an afghan off the couch.
"What is it?" she whispered.
"I don't know, Ma. Let's catch him first."
When you throw a quilt over a large exotic bird, it sounds just like a lady being murdered. "Get in here before the cops come!" Mabel hissed.
Rob unwrapped the blanket in the bathroom. A blue and yellow macaw flapped its huge wings and crashed into the ceiling several times in efforts to escape its captors. Having shat itself nearly unconscious, the poor thing perched on the shower rod, pink-faced and panting. "Raw! Raw!" It sobbed all night long.
Come morning, Rob went to see a guy he knew who kept cockatiels in the back of his store. He asked some questions but didn't let on what he had found in the yard. You never tell people what you have. They might snatch all your shit when you're not looking. Instead, he bought two packs of Marlboros, glanced around and figured out on his own how to keep the parrot alive.
Mackey couldn't stay in the trailer. It was either too hot or too cold for a tropical creature. Instead, Rob built a five foot pen and chained it to an exposed cross beam in the living room ceiling. He also put a padlock on the door of the cage. There were two keys. He had one, and Mabel wore the other around her neck. Anyway you looked at it, nobody was gonna take that bird. Mackey was a nasty motherfucker. If you got too close, she'd growl menacingly. She hated everyone except Rob. "Rawb! Rawb!" When she saw him, she screeched with delight like a lovesick groupie.
Rob fed Mackey what we ate - sweet potatoes, macaroni and rice. He cut up fresh fruits and vegetables. He made treats from strips of rawhide rolled in peanut butter, some covered with bird seed and others with crushed nuts.
Charlie's cousin, Pete, lived in a tent on his deceased mother's property. Her house had burned to the ground the year before. He pushed a shopping cart around the neighborhood, stealing what he could and trying to sell people's garbage. Pete wasn't long for this world. Crack was digging his grave.
One afternoon, Pete came by to see Rob. He'd been talking to his friend. This friend told Pete that he'd heard some junkies broke into the bird sanctuary at the Bronx Zoo and stole seven or eight parrots. He mentioned that folks suspected that's where Rob got Mackey.
"Pete, you're fucked up. I ain't got no bird," Rob told him.
"Yo, cuz. I'm just saying. That's what they told me. You know me, I ain't said nothing."
"You don't make no sense," Rob shook his head.
"Rawb!" Mackey beckoned through the window when she heard his voice.
"You hear that?" Rob asked as he took one last drag off his cigarette and flicked it toward Pete's shoes. "You tell your friend I got his mother up in my house."
Rob went inside, held the bird down and cut the ID band off her leg. She cried the whole time.
Sometimes, we'd get real high and sit on the couch all day. I'd watch Mackey chew on her feet with her dark black beak. She'd scratch her own face with those giant claws, hurting herself for reasons I couldn't understand and picking at something she'd never find. She'd ring her little bell and climb the rope, calling out for a man to save her. You just knew it wouldn't end well.
Over the years, I've often thought about that strange bird in her homemade cage, loved and kept by an angry man. Raised one way, then suddenly living another and wondering where it all went wrong. I was sad when I found out that Rob had died last year. I don't know how it happened, and it wasn't my place to ask. I had left that world behind and all the people in it.
Everyone in this story is dead, except me. I think about that sometimes, too.
Mary is an alcoholic and an addict who regularly blogs at highwiregirl.blogspot.com.