"Where's Jack?" by Hall Jameson

Categories: ISSUE 04: Eleanor

Where's Jack?

The dewy air hugged the back of Avery's neck as she wandered through the orchard, the trees thick with Cortland apples. She placed her full basket on the ground under a tree with sturdy low branches--a good climbing tree. She ignored the rustic wooden ladder leaning against the trunk and climbed into the tree’s lap, where the branches forked, forming a perfect seat. She marveled at the glossy apples visible only from this intimate spot. She leaned her head against the rough bark and closed her eyes.

"I love you," a voice said.

Avery jumped, nearly falling from the tree.

"Oh!" she exclaimed, looking over her shoulder. A grey parrot peered at her through a thicket of leaves.

"Hello," the bird said. "Where's Jack?"

"Well, hello!" she said. "Jack?"

"You're awesome," the bird said. Avery smiled.

He was a handsome fellow, medium-sized, with silver feathers and eyes, and a bright scarlet tail. She'd seen photographs of these kinds of parrots--African Greys--but this was Maine. He did not belong outside in the damp fall weather.

She tentatively offered the bird her arm. He stepped aboard without hesitation, strong toes curling around her forearm.  The bird watched her silver eyes as she descended the ladder.

"Aren't you a sweet bird?" she murmured, stepping to the ground. Her right foot slid on a rotten apple, but she caught herself. The bird puffed his feathers and flapped his wings once, brushing her cheek, before settling back into place.

"Hello," the bird said. "Where's Jack?"

Avery stared at the bird. "I wish I knew," she mumbled as she carved a chunk from an apple using her house key. Jack had been her boyfriend's name. "I do know one thing though, he would love you." She offered the chunk of apple to the bird. He tilted his head to one side, eyes on the fruit, before extending his talon and plucking the apple from her palm. He brought it up to his beak, sampling it with his gray tongue before biting down.

She pocketed another apple, but left the full basket beneath the tree. The parrot perched on her arm. She navigated the orchard, skirting around trees and ducking behind trunks whenever she heard other pickers, wanting to keep her discovery a secret. Reaching her Nissan Xterra, she opened the driver's side door and paused.

Okay, what do I do now?

The parrot answered the question for her. He hopped into the vehicle, skirting across the driver's seat onto the passenger seat, scaling the wooden beaded seat cushions covering the front bucket seats. When he reached the top, he held out one talon toward her and tilted his head. Avery laughed and broke off another chunk of apple.

"You are a smart bird, aren’t you?" she said.

"Where's Jack?" the bird said, his mouth full. After he finished the apple, he began to gnaw on the wooden beads of the seat cover.

"I don't think you should do that," she said, reaching toward him. He screeched and Avery cringed.

"Sorry!" she said. "It's okay, it's okay," she repeated, as she slid into the driver's seat, watching the bird. She offered him another piece of apple, which he accepted without noise or hesitation. Neither bird nor woman spoke during the drive home, but Avery felt his eyes on her until she pulled into her driveway.

She wondered if he would fly away as she walked to the house, but he remained perched as she unlocked her door. He appeared content with her, so content in fact, she had a generous white dollop on her forearm by the time she got the front door open. She looked at her arm and made a face.

"Gross!" she said.

"I love you," the bird said.

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The parrot was perched on the back of a kitchen chair, newspapers spread below him on the linoleum. Avery arranged apple chunks on a placemat on the table.

Avery, who cares if he poops on the floor?

"You're awesome!" the bird said.

No, I'm not. Avery thought.

A worrier, Avery had the tendency to take life too seriously, to keep things neat and tightly wrapped. She hated this about herself. Jack had kept her in check.

"Take a breath and rewind, Avery," he used to say. "Everything's going to be okay."         

Rewind, Avery!

"You can poop on the floor if you want to," she said as she stepped into the attached garage. Before she shut the door, she poked her head back into the kitchen. "But if you have to go, try to hit the newspaper."

Jack had been a packrat, the opposite of Avery, who kept a sparse, neat home. It had been five months since Jack's death, but she refused to part with any of his things. They had been in the process of moving in together. Everything he owned was in her garage. It was the only place of clutter in her home, but she found comfort in the space.

She had teased Jack about his stuff, but now she treasured it.

Each night, she opened a box, selecting an object of Jack's to bring into the house. It was her way of being with him. Otherwise, he was just gone. That was too much to bear.

Losing a boyfriend was not like losing a husband, brother, or father. At first, others were supportive, but that was short-lived. They weren't being cruel, they just assumed it didn't hurt as much. Others assured her he was nearby, but she did not sense his presence; he simply ceased to be.

She pulled one of his flannel shirts from a box and held it up to her nose, her eyes hot and full.

Rewind, Avery!

Her friends advised her to give away his things to help her move on, make a fresh start, but she disagreed. When her father died, she kept his favorite, well-worn ball cap, and wore it when she missed him. It helped. It had been eight years, but she still had that cap, along with some of his tools, and his leather jacket. She treasured those things. They contained memories of her father she could hold or pull over her shoulders. She intended to do the same thing with Jack. Some things she would keep forever.

"Where is it?" She mumbled, as she rearranged a tall stack of boxes. Then she saw it, shoved in the far corner, packed behind rows of cardboard boxes: a massive cage, white with a peaked roof. It had been home to a beautiful macaw named Rowdy. Rowdy had lived for forty-three years. Jack told her when the bird died ten years ago, it was one of the saddest days of his life, besides losing his parents. He had grown up with that bird. That bird spoke in his mother's voice, with his mother's inflection, had laughed her laugh.

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Avery dragged the heavy cage and rolling stand into the kitchen. She turned to the kitchen table, but the parrot was gone. She ran to the dining room.

No bird.

She poked her head into the bathroom, but he was not there either. She went into the living room, but did not see him. She checked both bedrooms, but they were empty.

"Hello?" she shouted. "Bird? Where are you?"

No answer.

The bowl of decorative glass marbles on the coffee table had been tipped and the marbles were scattered across the table and floor. She looked under the coffee table, but saw only a pair of her sneakers. On the toe of the right shoe was a large white dollop.

"Shit!" she said, sitting back on her piano bench and hanging her head. Between her toes, bits of sheet music—“Moonlight Sonata”--from her piano's music holder were shredded and sprinkled about the carpet.

"Shit!" she repeated. "Where are you, you vandal?" she shouted.

Laughter drifted from behind the drapes covering the bow window. Avery stalked over and pulled the cord. As the drapes drew apart, a screech rang out. Avery screamed and jumped back.

"Ah! You wicked bird! Stop screeching!" she screeched.

The parrot was perched in the middle of the window seat. He had something shiny in his talons: the brass pendulum from the antique clock on her mantel. He released a throaty laugh and bobbed his head. Then he did a curious thing: he stretched his wing out and tucked his head beneath it, and began to count.

"One, two, three," he said, voice muffled by his wing.

"Okay, that's enough," Avery said.

"Four, five, six," the parrot continued.

"Come on boy, I've got a nice cage for you."

"Seven. Eight. Nine. Ten." The bird brought his head out from under his wing, and Avery offered her arm, but he squawked and took to the air, flapping around the living room, into the dining room, through the kitchen, the back into the living room. He swooped over Avery's head.

"Shit!" Avery yelled. She ducked and covered her head with her arms. "You evil bird!"

The bird landed on the curled arm of her ornate pole lamp and tilted his head. He looked at Avery crouched on the floor. "Where’s Jack?" he asked. She glared at him.

"I wish he was here, because he would know what to do with you!" she yelled. The bird laughed again, then began to whistle the theme from The Simpsons. When he finished, he was silent, watching her. She approached slowly. "That's a good bird," she whispered, offering her arm. "Let's start over. You need a name. I'm going to call you Sterling. That's a nice name for a handsome fellow like you, isn't it?"

"Shit!" the parrot said, mimicking her voice perfectly.

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Tucked away in the parrot cage, Sterling explored his new surroundings. Avery watched him as she did housework, opening the door so he could climb on top of the cage, where there was a platform with a swing and rope toy.

"Where did you come from?" she whispered as she watched him wrestle with the toy. In the cage, the brass pendulum stuck out of the apple chunks in his food dish. A wooden bead from the seat cover in her car and a shiny quarter rested on the bottom of the cage.

How had he ended up in the orchard? Was someone missing him? She frowned. Anyone that let a pet bird outside did not deserve to have such a pet.

Sterling crawled along the back of the couch near her head. "Hey, how did you get all the way over here? Sneaky bird!" She giggled as he began to groom her bangs. She offered him a chip from her snack bowl, and they watched a scary movie. Eventually, Sterling climbed into the cage on his own, ducked his head beneath his wing, curling one foot up until it disappeared into his belly feathers.

"Good night, buddy," she whispered, easing the cage door shut. She took one last long look at the sleeping bird and smiled.

Jack had sent him to her. She was sure of it.

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The next week was a happy one. She looked forward to coming home after work, no longer having to come home to an empty house. She worked in the garage each night, Sterling climbing around the boxes, exploring, until Avery selected an item of Jack's to bring inside.

She came across the ad quite accidentally, on Saturday, during her morning run. She decided to take a different route, to break out of her comfortable routine--lately, she was all about shaking things up. As she crested a swell overlooking the town, she paused by a telephone pole, placing one hand on it to steady herself. Her hand landed on smooth paper. When she took her hand away, Sterling looked back at her.

Heartbroken family seeking lost beloved African Grey parrot, the bold type read.

Below that was a telephone number, and the name Patricia. Avery stared at the poster, her mouth open.

"Maybe you should have taken better care of him, Patricia," she muttered, ripping the flyer from the pole and crumpling it up. She shoved the ball into the pocket of her sweatshirt and sprinted home, her lips set in a grim line, thin streams running from the corners of her eyes.

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Avery sat in her vehicle, engine idling, studying the white bungalow with the red shutters. Large planters overflowing with petunias sat on each side of the front door.

She lifted the small travel cage that housed Sterling and walked to the front door. Before she could knock, the door opened. A woman about her age stood there, eyes bright with tears. Sterling squawked.

"I love you!" he said.

Traitor! Avery thought.

"Oh, Toby!" the woman said tearfully. "It's so good to see you! I love you, too!"

She looked at Avery, smiling, eyes glossy. "I'm Patricia. Thank you so much for calling. I can't believe you found him. We thought he was gone. After the break in, everything was such a mess. They left the front door wide open..." she stopped and cleared her throat. "I'm sorry, I'm babbling. This is just such a miracle! You have no idea how happy you are about to make a little boy. He's been so sad since we lost Toby. Please come in. Please." They walked through a cozy family room with a large flat panel television centered on the main wall. Houseplants and hard covered books filled a set of shelves near the window. In front of the window was a cage. In it was another African Grey.

Avery was silent as she followed Patricia through the house, while Sterling whistled the theme from Hawaii Five-O. Avery found her voice. "Someone broke in? That's terrible. I'm sorry."

"Yes. They stole everything they could get their hands on, not that we have much. That's how Toby got out of the house. I think they were trying to steal him, but he got away from them. I spent hours searching for him. Where did you find him?"

"Well, actually he found me," Avery told her about the apple tree and their chance encounter.

"The orchard," Patricia said. "That's over ten miles away from here. It didn't even occur to me to look for him there, but I should have known. He loves apples!" An excited squawk erupted from the cage by the window. Patricia nodded toward the sound. "That's Lila, Toby's mate. Luckily, she didn't get out during the break in. We found her on the chandelier in the dining room," she paused. "Jack's in his room. Would you like to take Toby in?" Patricia asked.

"Sure," Avery said shyly.

Patricia opened the cage door, and Toby hopped onto her wrist. She offered him to Avery. Avery held out her arm and he stepped aboard. "Shit!" he said.

"Well, that's a new one!" Patricia laughed.

"I'm so sorry!" Avery said, blushing. "When I first brought him home, we had a bit of a breaking in period. He picks up things very fast!"

"Don't worry about it. I've been known to say a foul word or two. I'm surprised he didn't pick up anything from me," she laughed. "Jack's right through there."

Patricia pushed the door at the end of the hall open slowly. "Jack? Jackie? I've got a surprise for you," she stood back and nodded at Avery. "This is my friend, Avery."

The room was bright and sunny. A small boy, about seven years old, sat in the corner, knees drawn up to his chest, playing with a toy dinosaur. His straight hair was orange and a splash of freckles fell across the tip of his nose.

"Where's Jack!" Toby said in a bright voice, and the boy blinked, then grinned. He jumped up and ran to Avery. Jack offered his arm to Toby, and though the parrot seemed too large for such a little boy, Jack held him easily, grinning as Toby began to groom his hair, tousling it with his beak. Jack lowered his arm toward the footboard of his twin bed, and Toby stepped onto the footboard, turning back toward the boy. Avery smiled, as Toby spread a wing, tucked his head beneath it, and began to count,

"One. Two. Three."

Jack clapped his hands in delight and ran off.

"Four. Five. Six."

"Hide!" Patricia said, running out of the room, leaving Avery standing there. She slid into the bedroom closet, opening the door a crack, just enough to see Toby.

"Seven. Eight. Nine. Ten." Toby took his head from behind his wing. "Where's Jack?" he asked, flapping from the room.

Moments later, Avery heard Jack say, "I knew you'd find me, Toby!"

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Leaving their house, at first Avery was elated. She had done a good thing, returning a pet to his rightful family, but by the time she pulled into her own driveway, the old feeling of dread had returned. She rested her forehead on the steering wheel and started to cry.

Rewind, Avery.

But, she couldn’t. She was alone again, having lost another thing she loved, because she had loved that bird, even though he had sorted through everything in her house, shredded her sheet music, left snags in her drapes, and pooped on her pillow. The moment she'd seen him peeking through the leaves, she'd loved him. Jack hadn't sent that bird.

Jack was gone.

She wiped her eyes and backed the car out of the driveway. She didn't know where she was going until she was there, slowing down near the familiar grouping of trees. It was nearly dark now. She grabbed the flashlight from the glove box and stalked into the orchard.

Avery, what are you doing? What do you expect to find?

"Maybe another parrot?" she said sardonically to the dark aisles of trees. She walked until she was in the center of the orchard. "Hey Jack, can you send me another fucking parrot?" she shouted. "Where are you? Why did you leave me? I can't do this without you," she yelled. "I don't want to be alone," her voice broke and she sunk to the ground. The rotten flesh of an apple soaked the seat of her jeans. There was scratching and shuffling nearby, and a skunk waddled toward her out of the dark, pausing to paw an apple.

Jack had sent her a skunk. That was so like him.

"Do you want to come home with me, Pepe?" she asked the skunk. The startled animal spun and lifted its fluffy tail. It paused for a moment, tensed, ready, gauging the threat, waiting for her reaction.

Everything's going to be okay, the voice in her head said. Jack's voice. She closed her eyes.

"Rewind, Avery," she said loudly. The skunk's tail twitched.

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Since the night of the skunk, the world had shifted, and Avery shifted with it. She had sorted through Jack's belongings, selected a few treasured things, and donated the rest to Goodwill.

She would never get that smell out of her car, however.

Two months ago, Patricia had mailed her a drawing of Toby, done in colored pencil. The words, Love Jack, were scrawled in childish handwriting across the bottom of the page. She smiled as she hung it on her refrigerator. That was all she had heard from them since she returned Toby, but that was okay. It was probably best to leave them behind.

Then yesterday, out of the blue, she had a voicemail from Patricia.

Her first reaction: Leave me alone! You got your bird back, what else could you possibly want from me? I'm just starting to move on.

Avery ignored the message, but the next day, there was another message. Patricia was insistent. "Please call me," she said. "Jack and I have something for you."

Avery intended to ignore this message as well, but later that day found herself parked in front of their house. Then walking to their front door.

Patricia opened the door, smiling, but Jack snaked past her and grabbed Avery's hand. Giggling, he led her into the living room. Avery saw Toby perched on the back of the couch. When he saw her, he whistled loudly and said, "I love you!" She smiled. Jack towed her over to the cage. He reached in and picked something up, cradling it gently in his cupped hand. He handed it to Avery.

"This is Sterling," he said, grinning. "You can teach him bad words."

Her breath caught in her throat, Avery stared at the tiny creature in the palm of her hand. It was bald and wobbly, with scruffy gray down sprouting from its pink head, eyes half closed, tiny wings folded up against a plump pink body covered with a faint gray down, its slate-colored beak gaped, begging for a snack. Avery made a face. It was an ugly little thing.

It was also the most beautiful thing she had ever seen.

She turned to Jack, but he was no longer there. She saw his feet poking out from beneath the drapes of the front window.

"Where's Jack?" she asked the baby bird. A chorus of giggles erupted from behind the curtain.

Avery smiled, because finally, she knew exactly where Jack was.

--Story by Hall Jameson
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--Foreground photo by Lisa Guidarini