Age: 16, Grade: 11
School Name: Saint Ann’s School, Brooklyn, NY
Educator: Angelo Bellfatto
Category: Short Story
Forty-nine-car pileup on the radio. Hum of the empty drive-thru in the right ear, the working one, like being underwater. Absence of sound, not just silence, printed on the left ear. Junior can’t even hear his own heartbeat with it. Headset, broken, is on backwards so he can hear, unless it’s an ugly voice, in which case he doesn’t bother listening. Just sticks a burger and a warm packet of relish out the window, no matter what the order was. Junior lost his hearing in 1998 when his brother was born, 12 years younger than him. His mama’s little accident. His mama’s little trip to San Antonio. Little Accident Antonio, not on the birth certificate but everywhere else. His mama handed little Double A over to him in the hospital so she could sleep. The baby stuck a finger straight into Junior’s left ear, bam bam bam and out again. His mama stayed sleeping so Junior put Accident on the end of the bed and took the bus back home, holding his bloodied t-shirt up to the side of his head.Telephone ring spills into the quiet so he picks it up. He grunts. There’s breath on the other end.
“It’s A,” the phone says.
Junior lifts a bottle of ketchup and holds it to his eye like a rifle.
“Double A. I’m working,” He squirts the ketchup across the kitchen. It arcs, like piss, and lands in the fryer. A small spattering decorates the floor so Junior slides low in his spinning chair and wipes it with the bottom of his red Keds.“Yeah. Hey, tell them you gotta get off early.”
“I got customers right now, A.”
“What, ‘nah’? There’s a line.”
“No one’s ordering from you, dude. I can see you.” Junior stands to peek out of the window. He sees his brother’s car parked on the edge of the exit. He leans out of the window a little to get a closer look and slips on the ketchup, dropping the phone. His pants come unzipped when he bends to pick it up.“Dumbass. Ketchup?” Junior grunts. He holds the phone with his shoulder and zips his pants.“Come on, man. Just close up and come out. We gotta do something.”
“I won’t get paid for the night.”
“Take a five from the register. They won’t count it.”
Junior jogs to the car, five dollars in his back pocket. Accident pops the passenger side’s door. The car’s pristine––white leather, blue floor mats. There’s still a thin sheet of peeling plastic stuck to the front of the steering wheel from when the car was new. There’s a little laminated photograph of Gonzo the muppet hanging from his rearview mirror.
“See my lips?” Accident winks at Junior and puts the car in drive. They swing out onto the highway, hips of the car moving side to side as they pick up speed, white Honda flash dancer in the night with tail lights like streamers in the wind. The lips. Junior looks at the passenger side window. There’s a smattering of silvery pink and red lipstick stains on the glass. Some look old and crusted, other fresh and gleaming. Little fangirls pressing their mouths up against the outside of the car, let us in! “How many?”
“Sixteen, baby. Rosalie’s that new one by the sticker. This morning.” “How do you get them to do it?” Junior rubs his pinky finger against the stain. It smudges, leaves red under his nail. He wipes his finger on his pants.
Accident chuckles. “I don’t know, man. Sometimes, when I ask, they just do it. Sometimes I tell them it’s an art project. You know.” “Huh.” “Anyway, we got shit to do. Look back there.” Junior swivels around in his chair. There’s a brown cardboard box on the backseat. It’s edges are dented and the top is bulging. There’s a green feather on the seat next to it, floating on the white leather. It’s edges are greying, the spine translucent. “Open it.” Junior reaches back and opens the box. Inside, more feathers, blue and red and green and yellow, primary colors and spilling out over the edges of the box. Accident snickers and the road goes black and white in the rear window when the light hits the feathers, projecting the colors in kaleidoscope fragments on the roof of the car. They’re birds. Dead ones, wings bent and curled around their bodies, their holiday shawls, their shields. They have eyes, too. At least 20 black beads, strawberry seeds, peering up at him from their feather bed. They’re parrots, he realizes, some little baby ones, some with growths on their heads, some with smiling beaks and silver claws, curled up in this box like it’s a nest and they’re full of food and tired and ready for sleep like Junior on Christmas when the grocery store sells those half-off hams.
“Pet store can’t sell ‘em. They get gassed and dumped out back at the end of the month. I was supposed to get rid of them today but I had an idea.”
Junior turned back around and looked at his brother. The car went screeching down the road, burning over potholes, veering over double lines.
“Remember Ms. Diane?”
Ms. Diane. Parrot lady down the street from home and just a couple yards from school, with bird shit on her lawn like snow and green feathers braided into her hair and something like a hundred parrots living inside with her. 2004, Junior’s graduation, and Ms. Diane still had a 9/11 memorial in her front yard. Two little replicas of the towers, on stakes like pink flamingos, sitting on her lawn right next to her outdoor birdcage and “Never Forget” spelled out in big juicy red letters taped to the cage. Junior tried to steal a tower when he was only four because he said they looked like chocolate bars, tall and silver like the parrot’s feet and so so delicious. And then Junior’s graduation when he and his boys got a little high, just a little, they said, enough that the towers really did look like chocolate bars, and they went and sat on the lawn, poking at the towers and passing a blunt back and forth like notes under a desk, blowing ashes at the parrots. Out came Ms. Diane, parrot on her shoulder and screaming, screaming, screaming hands off my ‘scrapers! Hands off my ‘scrapers! and the parrot echoing ‘scrapers! so they sprinted back toward home, ditching the blunt in a storm drain on their way, whooping and laughing and kicking in mailboxes and then bam, bam like the finger in Junior’s ear, the second tower flew smack like a parrot into Junior’s buddy’s head and the kid was out cold on the sidewalk with his blood like mud. Ms. Diane and her parrot now circling, parrot shedding green and screaming ‘scrapers! like it’s September 11th again. “Gonna egg her,” Accident said.
“Got no eggs,” Junior said.
“Yeah we do. They just have feathers.” Junior smiled and rolled down his window and the car jumped the exit.
They step out of the car, soldier boys in a line. Box open on the street, little strawberry seeds peering up at the sky. There’s Ms. Diane’s house, and the bird shit all the same as it used to be, only now the 9/11 memorial is all gone except for the red “Forget.” Accident leaves the car door open so they can hear the music because the car is singing some good song, some song they’ve never heard before, some original by someone or other, and the voice is crying, Over the mountain, my Jane, my Jane, my Jane, my Jane, my Jane, my Jane. Accident squints, he’s gripping a parrot in one hand and he winds up that ear-stabbing arm and then the bird is flying out over the lawn and it almost looks alive but its wings are still clamped shut and then it’s thwack against the asphalt shingles in a firework of green and blue feathers—, but there’s no blood or guts, and the thing just falls to the ground. Thwack. Junior likes to throw and he likes to feel the places where the feathers curve over the ribs. Thwack. Thwack. The brothers double fist the birds and in the bursting of green and purple and blue some shingles come flying, and then a light comes on. Ms. Diane. She’s on the lawn like lightning, so fast, and takes a look at the sea of birds in front of her. She screams, a shriek so loud the pileup of dead parrots seems to jump in the vibration and the parrots on her shoulders flap up away from her. Accident squeals and the boys make a break for it. “Antonio! Run!”“Junior!” Out of the corner of Junior’s eye is Ms. Diane, strapping herself into her husband’s old electric wheelchair turned up high and picking up speed behind them, and my Jane, my Jane still pumping in the distance.
“Double A! You! Murderer!” she shrieks, and she’s got a cloak of birds behind her and there’s flapping in the brothers’ ears, and Accident grinning like a fool and Junior’s lungs feel electrified.
He’s flying through the lawns and crashing up against the mailboxes feeling eighteen all over again with his baby brother a streak by his side. Junior’s bleeding through the street, red Keds leaving skid marks to beat Formula 1, and just as he’s turning into the lawn of his childhood home, he hears it. Hears it before he feels it. A beak to the drum of his right ear.