Cuckoo for cockatoos

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Lori K., Redford

If she tells me to turn left one more time, I'm gonna pull over and knock her teeth in. I see the goddamn sign! Willow Run Airport, turn left. How many times I gotta tell her I can read. What the hell's she doing now? Muttering ’bout what, my driving? She's muttering ’bout my driving? I told her earlier that I'm having second thoughts, yet she insists I drive. She's got balls to tell me left when I saw the sign before her, when I'm driving when I don't want to.

"If you wanna drive, hon, be my guest!" I pull over to the shoulder. She turns from the window, grunts or laughs, I can't tell which, and pitches me a gruesome look to reaffirm I won't be bunking with her tonight.

"Feel better, sweetie?" she condescends. "Can we pick up the birds now, or do I have to tell Hank we couldn't do our job ’cause poor Lenny hates to be given directions by a girl?"

I'm gonna kill her. But not today.

Instead, I turn left. Willow Run's pumping with deliveries and I want nothing more than to blend in with the bustling of small business proprietors. I almost wore a suit today, a nice sports jacket I picked up at Sears with a dark pair of Dockers. But hell, Bettes didn't even brush her hair for the occasion, so I decided on jeans instead. As I dressed, I wondered what kinda punishment awaited an international bird smuggler? One, 2 ... 5 years? If I got pinched, I'd take the fall and keep my mouth shut ’bout Hank. I ain't a rat fink, but moreover, I don't know what kind've connections the man has. He's got nearly 200 birds in his house, and I ain't the only one making runs. In fact, this is my first time, but if it goes smooth, I'll make a habit of it. Shit, I haven't worked in 8 months, and die only thing I got going for me right now is a disability settlement I ain't too sure's gonna fly. A 50 lb. bag of dry cement fell on my chest at work, breaking a couple of ribs and ripping the cartilage in my knees. In a matter of days, they had quickly swept me into the congested vacuum of unemployment. I was just a small part in the working whole, anyhow. The fellas and I constituted one body with replaceable parts. The only connection between us was our need for work, if not that rotten cavity of employment, then another. Twenty years of service flushed down the crapper. Now I can't sit for too long or stand for too long, and my goddamn wife steals my pain pills.

Maybe this bird swindle will change things for me. It ain't the income; the wife'll eat that up. She's got a bird fetish that started with a parakeet 10 months ago, followed by finches, canaries, cockatiels. Bettes has 15 birds in her bedroom alone! We don't have a checking account anymore, and I've nearly depleted my mother's, but damn, we've got birds coming outta our asses!

I want only the thrill of being paid in cash Hank never messed with drugs, so he said. "Birds go for more than drugs," he told me privately during our first business transaction, "and they're just as addictive." I interpreted his confession as a solicitation for work, but I was whole-heartedly against it then. I'll in just buyin', Hank I'm not dealin'," was my response. But I saw how Hank's neighborhood respected him. At 65 years old, even the young thugs peddling crack with more diligence than a Persian salesman haggling secondhand junk to a tourist, respect the boundaries of Hank's yard. In fact, I have to meet him at a local Coney afterward so he can escort Bettes and me safely to his house for the drop off. I wanna belong to his ensemble of scoundrels, a cockatoo under each arm. and the respect bequeathed only to a petty crook.

"I ain't going in, Lenny. You better buck up, ’cause this is man's work." My wife folds her arms over her flat chest, and I swear, I don't remember my knees aching so badly. As I open the car door, a malodorous breeze smacks my face. A lean, shirtless young man in a bandana pulls open the door wall, gives me the once-over, and then peers into my car.

"What're you here for?" he hollers to me, skeptically.

"I got a pick up for Winston Smith," I announce with more pride than intended.

He nods his head for me to follow him, "Okay, dude, come this way."

I follow him into the hanger where a small, twin-engine DC-3 is unloading. It's not as big of an operation as I'd hoped for. In the corner there are a couple dozen cages containing a handful of monkeys, snakes, birds upon birds, and is that a fuckin' koala? None of the men carry guns. I want guns, tables with poker players, at least a Cuban cigar. My wife could've done this, I think. Just then, a man taps me on my shoulder.

"You're the Winston Smith pickup, right?"

I turn to face a man in his early thirties wearing a San Francisco Giants baseball cap. He scratches his beard before making a mark on his clipboard.

"The pilot ran a little late. Seems customs gave him some trouble in Australia." He divulges, but I'm more interested in the product.

"How much ..." I don't know how to lead this conversation.

"Oh, yeah. That'll be $1,800 for the 3 birds. Cash only."

I'll never get over these prices. I've seen my wife drop nearly $500 at a pet store before she found independent dealers, such as Hank. Even after the bargain deals, I still think the birds are an exquisite meal for a supercilious palate. I told Bettes last Sunday, "No more birds." Not only can I not afford it, but they outnumber us, 26 to 2. Before long they'll revolt, I'll lose an eye, and we'll be the ones in cages. But this is Hank's money; I get mine when he gets the birds.

"Tell Winston we appreciate his business, and let him know we'll have another shipment of birds in 2 weeks," baseball cap informs me. He makes a check at his clipboard and continues, "Your birds are in the two cages by the door. If you need help carrying them, James'll get them for you."

"No, I got ’em." I reassure him. I grab both the cages and hoist either one on a shoulder. They're so heavy, my legs quake. It amuses James and baseball cap to watch me struggle. I can't move fast enough.

"What took you so long?" Bettes snaps as I drop the cages by the backdoor. She doesn't turn to unlock the car while I rummage for keys. I secure two cockatoos and an African Grey in the backseat while she ogles them like a doting mother.

Bettes insists I don't know the freeways, as I take 94 east to the Southfield Freeway. She claims 275 is faster to Eight Mile. I don't argue because she's probably right. Every move I've ever made has been indiscriminately wrong. For instance, my old work was at Fenkell and Schaefer, and I used to drive there every morning at different times so as not to have a routine a thug could set his clock to. But I got jacked anyway, at home while changing a burnt taillight in my driveway. I was robbed of $7 at 10 a.m. with 4 guns to my head. I ain't good with math, so I didn't see it coming. All these years living and working in Detroit with midnight knocks at the door for a cup of sugar, or having to replace my license plates monthly, I still thought I could outsmart poverty. But poverty only drives us further into its depths. After the robbery, I realized that every move we make, every decision we internalized, has been manipulated according to our significance. We are where we're supposed to be, and any tactics used to alter our significance is ineffectual. I was doomed to be robbed, just as my neighbors are or will be. We're placed in a consumptive wasteland with a sick notion that if we work harder, things'll improve. So I'm certain my wife knows the right roads to take, more so than I do. But it's idiotic to think I'm actually driving.

I get off at Eight Mile and drive towards Livernois, looking for a Coney Island at the crossroads. I hate cryptic directions. I pass up 3 Coneys before settling on this one. I pull into the parking lot. Hank's not here. I turn off my engine and wait as whiffs of greasy chili seep into my car. I could go for some hash browns right ’bout now, I think. I look over at row after row of bungalows so tired, they sink into themselves; abandoned strip malls surrounded by overgrown undergrowth; of a war that speculatively happened. My wife, loquacious and lackluster, has been rambling the entire car ride. I see her lips move, but her voice fades in and out. Why did I get married? I chose Bettes as my wife 15 years ago for reasons I don't remember. Maybe just to be married or maybe I found her company to be amicable. God knows it wasn't for the lovin'; licking a stamp is more erotic. In all fairness, I can't guess why she chose me.

"... look thirsty. I bet those assholes didn't spray them down once during the flight!" She pokes a finger through the cage with the cockatoos. One of them grabs her finger with its foot and licks it.

"Did you see that? Lenny? Are you listening?'

Without answering, I point to a group of kids crossing the street: "Look Bettes, see those kids going to the party store? I call 'em the 'outcomes of capricious opportunities.' See, their folks came here to better themselves not knowing opportunities are fickle and too damn far in-between."

"What the hell you talking ’bout, Len? What does that have to do with my finger?"

"Nothing Bettes, it's that sometimes I wonder whether we made the choice to be in this shit hole or not. I mean, a few of us get out, but it's like they're designated social climbers. But who designates them? What do we actually chose, and what is chosen for us?"

"I don't know, Lenny." Bettes snorts, "Maybe you're poppin' too many Vicodins."

Before I can respond, Hank comes out of nowhere and greets me with a slap on my back.

"Lenny, my man! You were supposed to meet across the street." I spy another Coney in the rearview mirror. "Luckily, I kept an eye out for you. How'd it go today? Any trouble, man?" Hank hasn't looked at me once in the face, instead has kept one eye on the backseat, and a crooked eye on Bette;. He's got a hand up his 'Number I Grandpa' T-shirt, rubbing his belly.

"How you feelin', baby?' he asks my wife. She's coy, whispers a response.

"I think these birds need some water," I interrupt. "Didn't you say they looked thirsty, Hon?" I turn to Bettes who nods automatically.

"Well let's bring these birds home, then. Follow me," he instructs. He drives a sky blue LTD, the uncle of sedans. He rides low, his left arm dangling out the window. Hank leads me down Piccadilly Street to his home. It's a small, 2 bedroom house. A couple of little kids sit on the porch, throwing garbage at the neighbor's pitbull. "Quit botherin' Katie!" the neighbor yells out the back door. Hank waves at the situation as he pulls into his driveway. I pull in after him and open my door as he opens his, keeping in synch with his cool semblance.

My wife disappears into the house as I haul both cages into Hank's international smuggling pad, which is just a living room overrun by bird cages, seeds and shit. But hell, a lucrative career doesn't have to look pretty. The birds squawk as I drop them, and Bettes winces at my lack of appreciation. Hank's in his kitchen counting up my pay. I holler to him about the next shipment in 2 weeks when my wife tugs my shirt

"I want this one, Lenny, the one that licked my finger. It's got the orange Mohawk." She's not looking at me, rather the weightless quintessence of why I can't move ahead. Even Hank rids himself of all birds before the end of the month. But my wife must have it.

"Here's your $200, Lenny. I'll keep in touch." Hank hands over a wad of cash.

"Hank, Lenny wants to buy the Moluccan cockatoo," Bettes pipes up.

Hank grins, my wife looks up at me, and the billfold burns my palm. I don't want another goddamn bird. I don't want to be in this predicament anymore. As I glance at the reflective gold of Hank's front tooth, it becomes quite clear that either refusing or accepting the bird is just part of a plan I never initiated, nor could control. Whether I work or don't work, whether I stay with Bettes or move, whatever I choose, I'm still fucked. Someone else decided this for me a long time ago; the same someone who made the same decision for everyone in this room. I've only begun to understand how this sole decree renders all other decisions inconsequential If I'm fucked, I'm stuck fucked, so at least I'll shoot for a peaceful car ride home. "How much for the bird, Hank? I ask.

"One grand," he doesn't hesitate.

"But you paid only $1,800 for 3."

"Yeah, but the delivery charge is what kills me," he states smiling, not smiling.

"Hold the bird for me," I request, the $200 in my hand passes back to his, " the orange headed one."

"Whatever you like Lenny. I got birds to sell." Hank pats my shoulder and walks us to the door.

I drive away, knowing the bird is as good as mine. Tomorrow I'll ask my mother for the rest, promising her my settlement as I have done 10 times before. Bettes beams. Tomorrow, we get the bird.

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