May 25, 2010

The Dime-Store Parakeet

by Gary Soto

The bird didn't speak
Until the day I dropped my tortilla
And it said, "Ha-Ha."

I dropped other things,
Like my report card in blazing flames.
The parakeet repeated, "Ha-Ha."

Wind rattled the TV antenna on the roof.
Boys with green teeth appeared
At our picture window.

The bird remained silent.

I turned the parakeet upside down—
Boy or girl, I wondered,
And shook it like a salt shaker—
No salt but a dribble of bird turd.

I dropped a spoon—"Ha-Ha."
I dropped a #2 pencil—"Ha-Ha."
I dropped myself into the couch
To eat a bowl of ice cream—"Ha-Ha."

Then it snowed,
The boys with green teeth went away,
And a moose appeared at our picture window.
No comment from the bird.

The parakeet lived in its cage, silent,
Except when I counted my failures
On my fingers and let it put its beak
Like a pipe wrench around my pinkie.

"Bird," I said, "I can count the stars—
What can you do!"
The bird rang its bell with a claw,
And bit its mirror, trying to kiss the image
Of himself, the conceited little shuttlecock!

I dropped a shoe with deadly fumes
And the third orange of my juggler's act.
The bird screamed, "Ha-Ha,"
and raked its dirty beak across the bars.

Then I dropped big ideas,
Like the love for my brother,
Like the love for my country.
Like the love for the nine planets,
Like the love for God because I'm so small,
Like the love for all creatures
Dressed in feathers, fur or little hair.

The bird shed a feather,
And then, like a bat, hung upside down,
The theory that nature speaks to us,
A dumb idea.

"The Dime-Store Parakeet" by Gary Soto, from Human Nature. © Tupelo Press, 2010. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of Ralph Waldo Emerson, (books by this author) born in Boston, Massachusetts (1803). He said, "Meek young men grow up in libraries, believing it their duty to accept the views, which Cicero, which Locke, which Bacon, have given, forgetful that Cicero, Locke, and Bacon were only young men in libraries, when they wrote those books."

It's the birthday of poet and professor Theodore Roethke, (books by this author) born in Saginaw, Michigan (1908), who wrote:
   "I knew a woman, lovely in her bones,
    When small birds sighed, she would sigh back at them;"

It's the birthday of short story writer Raymond Carver, (books by this author) born in Clatskanie, Oregon (1938). His best-known stories include "Are These Actual Miles" (1972), "Put Yourself in My Shoes" (1974), "Are You A Doctor?" (1975), "A Small, Good Thing" (1983), and "Errand" (1988).

He's the subject of a new biography by Carol Sklenicka, Raymond Carver: A Writer's Life (2009), which came out just last November. Sklenicka spent 10 years writing the book, interviewed hundreds of people who knew Carver, visited towns all over the States where'd he spent time, read every story and poem he'd written, and edited her research down to a 578-page book, which the San Francisco Chronicle says "reads like a Raymond Carver story."

Carver once described himself as "hooked on writing short stories" and "inclined toward brevity and intensity." He was also hooked on alcohol, which dominated most of his life. And he felt an inclination toward California, in part because he was fascinated with the life story Jack London, who grew up poor, became alcoholic at a young age, and struck it rich and famous as a writer.

Carver spent much of his adult life in California, though never long in one place. He studied writing at Chico State and at Humboldt State in Arcata, up near the Oregon border. In the 1960s, he worked the night shift at a hospital in Sacramento and took poetry courses at the community college by day. He edited textbooks in Palo Alto until he was fired for his writing style. He worked at a bookstore in San Francisco until he was fired for stealing books. At various times, he and his family lived in San Jose, Santa Cruz, Cupertino, and other places around the Silicon Valley.

He'd taken a job as visiting writer at UC Santa Barbara and his first collection was finally being published. He was beginning to achieve what would be lasting success as a writer. He managed to show up for classes he was teaching on time, if not sober.

But he kept collecting unemployment benefits from the state of California, even though he was gainfully employed. He had a $1,200-a-month alcohol bill to finance, and he was in debt to dozens of people and businesses. Within days of the publication of Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? (1976), which would go on to be short-listed for the National Book Award, Carver was a defendant at the county courthouse, on trial for fraud, for "making a false statement" to collect unemployment benefits.

Fifteen months later, he took his last drink. He said, "If you want the truth, I'm prouder of that, that I quit drinking, than I am of anything in my life." He would only live for another 11 years, dying from lung cancer at the age of 50, but he said those years were "Gravy. Pure gravy."

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




  • “Writers end up writing stories—or rather, stories' shadows—and they're grateful if they can, but it is not enough. Nothing the writer can do is ever enough” —Joy Williams
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