An animal trainer
“Don’t eat that!”
By Eva Sylwester
April was nervous about her blind date. But weren’t blind dates all small talk anyway? Being brand new in the big city, she hadn’t had much but small talk for a while, so at least she was up to speed on that. The office busybody do-gooder, however, had managed to find out after a lot of focused effort that April was single and a lesbian, and had immediately concluded from there, “You should date my friend’s daughter. She is a real hoot. Real colorful, eccentric young lady — very Portland. It would be like an opposites attract thing. She actually seems to like the quiet types best.”
April was so shocked by the request that she went silent and blushed really obviously. “So you’ll think about it?” the busybody said.
“Sure, I’ll think about it,” she said. She thought she had managed to look embarrassed enough by the request for the busybody to shut up about it permanently, but the next day, the busybody brought it up again.
“Have you thought any more about dating my friend’s daughter?”
“I don’t know.”
“You should do it. She’s been on a lot of first dates, so she’d be fine with one more.”
Other people in the office were starting to gather around to eavesdrop, so April said, “Okay, okay, fine,” to quickly end the conversation.
Anyway, here they were in a coffee shop. The date, Corinne, was easy to find. As an icebreaker, Corinne had a huge bird, probably an owl, on her shoulder. That made it easier for April, as it was normal human curiosity, not a weird awkward date question, to ask about the bird.
“So, what’s the bird about?” April said.
“I’m an animal trainer specializing in owls,” Corinne said.
“Okay. You’re allowed to bring her in the restaurant?”
“We’re regulars here.”
They were up to order. April had been so distracted with the bird that she hadn’t even been looking at the menu. “What’s good here?” she asked.
“I personally like the soy cappuccino for the coffee, and you can’t pass up the doughnuts. But we’re going Dutch, so you can get whatever you want.”
April realized she did not want to spend $4 on coffee, so that narrowed her options. She finally ordered a plain coffee and a plain doughnut, $4 total.
“So you’re new in town, I heard,” Corinne said.
“I know somebody who used to live there,” Corinne said. “He said it was a place where injured people go to heal.”
“Really? I’d never heard that before.”
“Were you from there?”
“Yeah, I lived there my whole life.”
“Maybe it’s different for people who are from there. He just lived there for a while after college, and he said he heard it from someone else who lived there.”
“What was he healing from?”
“I know he and I talked about it a long time ago, but it was so long ago that a lot of things have happened since then — like I’ve processed it, you know?”
April noticed the owl shaking her head a bit, maybe like a cough or a hiccup. Then the owl fluffed her feathers. Corinne extended her arm onto the table, and the owl waddled down. April was too busy noticing the clacking of the owl’s claws on the tabletop to notice the owl eating off her plate until Corinne called out, “Don’t eat that!”
The owl shook her head as though willfully disobeying Corinne. “Sorry, she’s new,” Corinne told April.
“Birds eat doughnuts?”
“The owls mainly eat mice at their designated feeding times, but, when they’re socializing with me, they eat what I eat,” she said. “Maybe they’re not really supposed to eat doughnuts, but I guess we’re not really supposed to eat doughnuts, either.”
“They come down on the table and eat with you at every meal?”
“Oh, yeah.” Turning to the bird, Corinne said, “Here, sweetie, you can have some of my doughnut.”
Dating was supposed to be about planning a future with someone. Though it was early to be thinking about that, could April really see having a bird eat off her plate at every meal for the rest of her life? She didn’t know much about birds, but she had heard they could live a long time. “So what are you training them for, then? I mean, when I hear animal trainer, I think like, obedience school, that kind of thing — like keeping the animals off the table.”
“I’m more interested in the cognitive capabilities of owls. If I were interested in having them do physical tricks, then, yeah, I would want to establish the standard dominance relationship with them, but the birds actually open up more mentally when you spoil them.”
The owl seemed to be returning to Corinne’s shoulder. “So what are their cognitive capabilities?” April asked.
“Well, they aren’t called wise for nothing. Anyway, enough about me for now. Now I’m really curious about your hometown. How long did your family live there?”
“My grandparents transferred there for work when my dad was in high school, so that was about 45 years ago.”
“Where were they from?”
“I drove through there once on a really crazy road trip in college. Nothing but miles and miles of cornfields, right?”
“You’ve been there?”
“Still have some family there. I’ve been back a couple of times.”
“So they just transferred for work? No big injury?”
“Well, my dad wasn’t happy about the move, enough that he still talks about it. He was popular at his old school, not so much at the new one. But that was after the move.”
The owl then looked really uncomfortable, appearing to seize and twitch.
“Is she okay?” April said. “The doughnut didn’t kill her, did it?”
“It’s just an owl pellet, like a cat coughing up a hairball. She’s fine.”
“That looks pretty nasty.”
“I’m used to it by now. You know, the funny thing is, a few years back I sold owl pellets from my birds to Urban Outfitters for a while.”
“How did you get them to buy owl pellets?”
“It was their idea. They looked for people with owls to be their suppliers, and they sought me out. Go look it up on your phone. It’s real.”
April looked it up on her phone. “Oh my god, it’s real. What were they thinking?”
“Hipsters apparently thought displaying the vomited-up mouse skeletons in their homes made them look rugged. Maybe in a few years I can find a place in Portland that will get the same idea again.”
“It looks like there’s more in the pellet than mouse bones,” April said. “Is that a piece of corn in there?”
“That’s so weird. We were just talking about corn. Wouldn’t it be weird if the owl knew what we were talking about?”
“When I first got owls, I used to wonder what they would say if they could speak in English. I don’t wonder that any more. They communicate what they want to tell me without words, and I’m sure they find out what they need to know from me and from other humans around them. In addition to their intellect, they’re very wise emotionally.”
“I can see why you’d spoil a creature that smart,” April said. “I wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of that. But what exactly are you training them to do?”
“Everyone always asks me about my owls,” Corinne said. “I want to talk about something else for once. I really want to dig deeper into this rumor about Placid Valley.”
“Why don’t you just ask the guy who told you the rumor?”
“I’m trying to get validation from multiple sources, and I don’t meet that many people who are from there.”
“He told me there was a big drug scene in Placid Valley.”
“People who really want to get in that kind of trouble will find it wherever they are. Maybe there are a few potheads in Placid Valley who get more attention than they deserve, but people abuse, for instance, prescription drugs all over the country.”
“You know something about that?”
Before April could voice a reply, the owl shuddered and hacked up another pellet. This one had a pharmaceutical pill on top too obvious to miss.
“My dad said his mom used too many prescription drugs after the move,” April said. “Valium and that kind of thing, like a lot of women did in the 1970s. How did your bird know?”
“She’s good at processing.”
April got up, leaving a lot of her doughnut behind. “I can see why you have a lot of first dates,” she told Corinne, walking out of the coffee shop.
It would have been really interesting to see the owl pellet exercise done on someone else. But April knew the national corporation her grandfather worked for arranged his transfer and substantial promotion to Placid Valley not primarily on the merits of his work, but primarily to discourage him from reporting to police that his boss had raped April’s grandmother, and she couldn’t bear to see the next owl pellet come out with two mouse skeletons intertwined in that act — even though she knew Corinne could get a lot of money selling it to Urban Outfitters.
© 2013 Eva Sylwester