This is a tribute to Charlie, who went missing on a Saturday in a downtown neighborhood of Raleigh called Oakwood, where people are particular about pets and people, and paint jobs, too. It's a historic district, so you've got to have approval to paint your house the color you might choose; it's a wealthy area so people are civilized and an unleashed dog can't run a block before neighbors are on the listserv reporting their concerns to each other. But Charlie wasn't a dog, he was my brother's African red- bellied parrot. I lived with Charlie for a year and a half. It was a lot like living with an incorrigible old man. Mostly I swept up the crumbs he'd dropped, scraped his pearly poos off the floorboards, and shielded my kids from his sharp beak. Geez, what is it about loving another creature? I enjoyed chatting with Charlie. He liked to hang out on the kitchen table, so we were often company to each other. He didn't say many actual words, but one of his favorite whistles imitated the microwave perfectly. If my brother wasn't around and Charlie needed affection, he'd precariously swing down the tablecloth then clamber down a table leg and hobble pigeon-toed across the room to me. I usually wouldn't notice him coming but instead feel this pulling on my pant leg. "What the...? Oh God, it's Charlie." He couldn't fly. A bird that can't fly. How could I turn him away? I found the bird's self-regard admirable. And, at five o'clock when my brother returned each evening from work, I loved seeing their reunion. They were mates.
Matthew would never have sought out such a companion. Charlie's first owner, Bill, left him to go to Europe for a holiday. Parrots mate for life, and Charlie was heartbroken. My brother nursed him through his grief, but by the time Bill got back, Charlie had plucked out all his breast feathers. Bill was unsympathetic. "Yuck! What have you done, Charlie? You look awful. I don't want a bird like you!" Luckily, Charlie was recovering anyway with his new love, my brother. Soon enough, like so many married couples, they developed a complex love-hate relationship. Charlie would call out to Matthew until he came over and offered his hand, at which point Charlie would climb up his arm to perch on his shoulder. Charlie could go many places Matthew did; my favorite was seeing the two of them dancing together at Sadlack's. Charlie, perched on Matthew's shoulder, mirrored my brother's sinuous groove to the music. At home they ate together. Charlie enjoyed sharing whatever was going, but seeds, grains and a bit of dressed greens suited him best. His presence at the table was sometimes disconcerting. My 3-year-old daughter couldn't cope with sharing her food with him and would squeal as he eyed her plate. In quieter moments, Matthew would hold Charlie belly up in the palm of his hand, scratching in between his feathers. Charlie would then want to peck at Matthew's teeth, the closest thing he could find to his lover's beak. Matthew could do this for Charlie, with Charlie, despite the fact that sometimes Charlie bit his lip, and a bite from a strong hook beak is especially painful. Matthew was forgiving and forbearing. His logic--it wasn't Charlie's choice to be domesticated--was stronger than his fear of pain.
I wasn't so gallant. For a time I got a kick out of the honor that Charlie cared for me enough to want to sit on my shoulder--what a novelty! But a few too many times I turned my head too quickly and he glimpsed the threatening curve of my tender white ear and immediately bit it. A primal panic would grip me. I'd desperately try to shake him off. This, of course, only resulted in him flapping around holding onto my ear tighter. The convulsing and cursing wasn't great for the kids to witness. It was difficult, Charlie's character, with children. Many were drawn to him and couldn't resist reaching out to him. Matter of factly, Matthew would explain: "That arm looks to him like a snake. He doesn't know you, he will bite you." Often people had to experience it to believe it. Charlie had some enemies.
As soon as spring hit, Matthew was out in his garden, and he was out there most summer weekends and evenings, too. Charlie was with him, perched in a nearby dogwood or crepe myrtle. Charlie enjoyed exploring the garden from tree branch to tree branch. Matthew kept an eye on him, and if he ever couldn't find him he'd call out and then listen for Charlie's distinctive whistle return. Sometimes Charlie would climb so high in a tree Matthew found the only way to get him down was to throw sticks to dislodge him and send him fluttering to the ground. A few times Matthew lost him for a while, finding him yards away, high in a neighbor's willow oak. We talked about the risk. I'd rave: It's like the choice with children--TV (a cage) seems safer than having them exploring the local woods all day, but it rots the soul.
My brother's favorite color is green. His house is green; a friend calls his corner lot the Garden of Eden. He can't bear grass, so it is a lush riot of ferns, hostas, liriope, ivy, all manner of languorous leaf. I remember him saying he'd toss the rest of it in just for the great shady trees. But it hasn't come to that, and in the spring he's got gorgeous azaleas, every shade of pink; last year someone set up an easel in the middle of Lane Street and painted it. Each spring Oakwood hosts a tour of neighborhood gardens, and my brother's garden was on it this year. I don't doubt that most people appreciated the amount of work that went into it. But a comment he made sticks with me. He recalled someone saying, "Ah, this is just the kind of garden I need, low maintenance, everything just grows wild." My brother is prudently polite. He would have smiled, nodded and continued on. I fantasize: What if he were not? What if he had said, "What the hell are you talking about? Go back to your condo and leave me alone." Then he would have decided to have a cup of tea. He would have looked around for Charlie, and maybe he would have found him. But he didn't. And when he looked, many hours and many visitors later, he didn't find Charlie.
His best friend and he searched for hours that night and in the days to come. When I picture my fine, dark-haired, dark-eyed brother searching in vain, tears stream down my face. My children and I had recently moved out, but I went over immediately when someone called me with the news. Matthew was sitting at his desk and looked up at me, nonchalantly. I went over to hug him and wordlessly we cried in each other's arms. Some days later I heard his best friend's son said they'd only seen Matthew cry twice in their long years of friendship: once when they were talking about moving to Richmond, and the second time, this time, with Charlie's disappearance. I've cried myself with him more often than that, but each time this logical man cries is still etched in my memory. The last time was in the parking lot after watching Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11.
"What will we do?" my brother asked. We looked into each other's glassy eyes like children. Each day I notice we do what we can; we work, find the shade of tall trees, delight in the dancing moments, and hold each other in the losses.