An animal trainer
“Don’t eat that!”
By Peter D’Auria
When we asked him what he wanted for his funeral service, my uncle Frank made only one request. We had clustered at the side of his hospital bed in a little knot, my mother, father, and I, and my mother explained how the doctor had said in his delicate doctor-way that it was maybe time to start thinking about the funeral arrangements.
“All I want at the service,” my uncle said, scratching his patchy-bald head, “is for Sean to say a few words.”
“Are you serious?” said my mother.
“Oh no,” said my father. “No no no.”
Uncle Frank shrugged in his hospital gown. “Look. You can stick me in whatever cemetery you want. Burn me, bury me, both, I don’t care. Just let Sean give a little speech.”
“Even if we wanted to do it,” said my mother, “which, for the record, we don’t, there’s absolutely no way they’d allow that.”
“Sorry,” said my uncle. “That’s my dying wish.”
On the drive back to our house, I asked my parents, “Who is Sean?”
Sean, my parents explained, was Uncle Frank’s African Grey parrot, whom he had in his possession when he returned from his yearlong trip to Japan twenty-five years ago. “Parrots live a long time,” said my mother.
“Why does he want a parrot to speak at his funeral?” I asked.
“Beats the heck outta me,” said my father.
“Frank’s always been a little…off,” said my mother.
Ashburn was a small town of about 5,000 people, wrapped on all sides by cornfields and soybeans; it was the kind of town where you grow up knowing everyone in your graduating class, in many cases knowing them a little bit more than you would like. I’d had the same best friends since elementary school, the same crushes since middle school, and the same
Uncle Frank lived across the state, outside of Norwood, but they had transferred him up north because of the oncology department at the Cleveland Clinic.
Except for a yearlong period during which he had gone AWOL in Japan, returning 20 pounds lighter without notice, Uncle Frank had worked with animals his whole life: at a pet store, as a trainer (briefly) at Cirque du Soleil, at the Audubon Society tending wounded birds. My uncle had, over the course of his lifetime, owned (“kept” might be a better word) six hundred and three animals. The first of these had been Harrison, the turtle, whom my uncle had rescued when he saw the reptile about to cross a busy road, an endeavor during which it would have been surely smashed into shards.
“I was in middle school when he brought Harrison home,” my mother told me. “I remember he taught it to shake hands.”
“No way,” I’d said.
“I kid you not,” my mother said.
As Uncle Frank’s only living family, we inherited everything when he died a few days later. He had passed away in his sleep, the nurse told us, very peacefully. The next day my parents drove the pickup down to Norwood and came back with the bed filled with his possessions. Sean rode in the backseat, his square cage covered by a cloth. “I’m hopeful,” my mother said to me, “that the funeral won’t be a disaster after all. Sean didn’t say anything the whole trip.”
I was excited to meet Sean, and to hear what he could say. In his own way, he was sort of regal, with an upright posture and a red tail like a cape. But when I introduced myself, he just bobbed his head and remained silent.
“Can you say anything?” I asked him. “Do you speak English?” Sean just scratched his head with a scaly foot and blinked his little yellow eyes.
“I bet he doesn’t even know how to say anything,” my father said, watching my attempts, “and Frank is just making some joke.”
The funeral was held in Ashburn, my parents reasoning that even if it was held in Norwood, nobody would show up anyway. Including the priest and us, there were only seven people at the funeral (eight if you counted Sean, who spent most of the service in a covered cage by the doughnuts and cookies). We had opted for a modest open casket service. Aladdin’s Bakery, on Buttercup road, had provided refreshments.
It all went smoothly. The priest, who seemed bored, gave a little speech about grief and comfort. My mother went up to the podium and said that Frank had been a man of great kindness and generosity, especially to animals. When she had finished talking, she paused for a moment and I wondered if she was going to adjourn the service then and there and ignore Frank’s wishes. But she leaned down to the microphone again.
“As per Frank’s last request,” she said, nodding to me, “there is someone else who is going to say a few words.”
I brought the covered cage up the aisle, through a wave of murmuring and stifled laughter, and set it on the podium. My mother, a strange look on her face, pulled the cloth off and opened the door.
The audience watched in silence as Sean hopped to the doorway of his cage, looked around, and fluttered onto the podium. I wondered briefly if he was going to fly away. But instead he shuffled up to the microphone. My mother reached over and bent the adjustable microphone neck down towards his beak.
We watched. The audience watched. The whole room was silent.
Sean bobbed his head up and down, and then—
“Rain all this week,” he said. “Rain, rain, rain.”
Prior to his illness, we had heard from Uncle Frank maybe twice a year, through short, businesslike phone calls, and we saw him practically never. I do remember one occasion, though, many many years ago, when we passed through Norwood returning from a road trip and spent the night at his house. I guess that he must have had Sean at that time but I don’t remember seeing him. Frank was working at that point for the Audubon Society and had three injured great horned owls living in his shed. I remembered that my parents, exhausted from driving, had fallen asleep immediately, but I was wide-awake after doing nothing but stare at the passing cornfields all day. Frank had taken me outside to see the owls, which were perched like little statues in the shed, and he had taught me how to mimic their calls. We spent half an hour calling them up at the stars until my father had yelled for us to shut up.
On the way back from the funeral, while Sean, his cage covered again, sat next to me in the backseat, my father said, “You know, I think that was a great success.”
“Frank shouldn’t have let Sean watch the weather report,” said my mother.
“I’m just glad he didn’t teach him how to swear,” said my father.
Sean remained silent for another week (during which, contrary to his prediction, no rain fell) until one morning when he started to speak Japanese. We were sitting down to breakfast when Sean rattled off a long stream of unintelligible syllables.
“Parrot’s broke,” my father said, pointing a thumb towards Sean’s cage.
Sean said it again.
“Quiet, Sean,” my mother said.
“Wait, say it again,” I said.
Sean bobbed his head and repeated himself.
“I think that’s Japanese,” I said.
We went still, spoons of oatmeal halfway to our mouths. Sean rattled off the syllables.
“I’ll be damned,” said my father. “That must be the weather for Japan.”
Sean’s bilingualism was excellent news because it gave me an excuse to invite Lauren Yukimura, who had moved from Japan in the fifth grade and who was hands-down the most beautiful girl in school, over to my house to translate. I intercepted her at lunch the next day, as she was on her way to sit with her friends, all of whom were nearly as beautiful as she was.
“Hey, hey, Lauren,” I said.
Lauren turned and got a strange expression on her face, not unlike the one my mother had had when she uncovered Sean’s cage at the funeral. “Yeah?”
“Can I ask you a favor?” I said.
“What kind of favor?”
“Can you translate something from Japanese for me?”
Lauren frowned. “Well. Okay.” She looked down at her brown paper lunch bag. “I guess. Do you have it with you?”
“Uh, no. It’s…” I explained the situation.
There was a long pause while she stared at me.
“Are you serious?” she said.
“I am. Really.”
“You’re not gonna do something creepy when I get to your house.”
“No! God. I just wanna know what it’s saying.”
She gave me that look again. “All right. Can we do a week from today?”
“That’s fine,” I said. “Perfect.”
“I’m only doing this cause I’ve never seen a parrot before,” she said.
That night I came downstairs for a midnight snack to find my mother sitting at the kitchen table. Sean was there too, outside of his cage, shuffling on the tablecloth and pecking at crumbs.
“Mom?” I said. “Are you all right?”
“Nothing to worry about,” she said. “Just spending some quality time with Sean here.”
I pulled a cookie from the jar and poured a glass of milk. “I hope I’m not interrupting anything.”
“Not at all,” said my mother. “Sean is not really a great conversationalist.” Sean bobbed his head and bit a chunk out of my cookie.
“Hey, don’t eat that!” I said. “You’ll give me bird flu or something.”
Sean cocked his head at me and repeated his Japanese phrase.
“Did Uncle Frank speak Japanese?” I asked.
My mother shrugged. “I don’t know. We were never close.”
“How come he went to Japan for a year and didn’t talk to anyone?”
My mother shrugged again. “That’s Frank for you. Any more of those cookies?”
The next morning the cage door was open and I panicked for a moment before I saw that Sean was sitting on my father’s shoulder.
“There’s a bird on your shoulder,” I told him.
“Yep,” my father said. “I think he likes it.”
“Rain all this week,” said Sean.
“Have you gotten anything else out of him?” I asked.
“Just the weather forecast,” said my father. “And his little haiku.”
I went to the fridge to get the milk. When I got back my father was feeding him little bits of toast from the palm of his hand. “Toast,” my father said loudly. “Sean, toast.”
“Rain, rain, rain,” said Sean.
We started the laborious process of going through Frank’s things. At first it seemed to offer clues to the mysteries of Frank’s life. But eventually it became clear that the clues pointed to one thing: Frank’s life had been as mundane as everybody else’s. He had owned a surprising amount of faded furniture and boring clothing and a few framed pictures of landscapes. I kept expecting a samurai sword, or an ancient Japanese scroll, but they never appeared.
“There’s gotta be something missing,” I said.
“This is it,” my father said. “Sorry.”
“We’ll figure it out when Lauren comes over,” I said.
We discovered that Sean liked most human foods, except for peanut butter, which caused him to shake his head back and forth and clack his beak together. We discovered as well that he could not really fly, but only flutter from one perch to the next. The day before Lauren’s scheduled visit, I got home from school to find my Sean sitting on the back of a chair, bobbing his head, and my father, very excited about something, sitting across from him.
“Stephen,” he called when I came in, “check this out.”
“What?” I said. “What is it?” I imagined Sean spilling the beans on the mysteries of Frank’s life, revealing the location of some hidden Japanese treasure.
“Sean,” said my father, and held up a piece of bread. “Sean, what is this?”
“Rain, rain, rain,” said Sean.
“Sean,” said my father, “what is this?”
Sean rattled off his Japanese phrase.
“No,” said my father. “What is this, Sean?”
Sean shook his head back and forth. “Toast,” he said.
Lauren’s beauty seemed even more extreme in our house, normally messy anyway but especially so that day due to Frank’s possessions scattered throughout the living room. Even my father seemed affected by her radiance. “Nice to meet you,” he said stiffly when I introduced them, and he shook Lauren’s hand.
We took Sean out of his cage and carried him to the kitchen table and we all sat down.
“He’s really pretty,” said Lauren. She held out her index finger and Sean nibbled it. She laughed. Although her beauty was as radiant as ever Lauren seemed different outside of school, less distant. I was suddenly euphoric. There was an electric excitement in the air. We were getting to the bottom of the mystery.
“You just have to get him talking,” my mother said. “Come on, Sean. What have you got to say?”
“Toast,” said Sean. “Rain all week.”
Lauren laughed. “Sean, do you speak Japanese?”
“Rain, rain, rain,” said Sean.
“No, come on, Sean,” I said. “You do speak Japanese.”
“Toast,” said Sean. “Rain. Toast.”
“You can do it, Sean!” said Lauren.
“Rain,” said Sean, and then he finally said it.
We all looked at Lauren.
She stared at Sean for a moment, and then looked up with a sad sort of smile.
“He can count to ten,” she said.
Two nights before he died, Sean revealed that he knew how to say one other thing. It was my father’s fiftieth birthday, about a week after Lauren’s visit, and we were having a party. Sean was wandering up and down the table, pecking at cake crumbs, and my parents were fairly drunk.
“Well, Sean,” said my mother, draining the last of her wine, “do you have a speech to give on this momentous occasion?”
Sean fluttered up and perched on the rim of my mother’s wineglass. He shook his head and then said, “Sorry.”
We stared at him.
“Sorry far away,” he said.
“Sean,” my father said slowly. “Are you giving a speech?”
“Sorry so far away,” said Sean.
“Is that…” I said.
“That must be what Frank taught him to say!” said my mother.
“That’s it?” I said.
“Or part of it,” my mother said. “Maybe he forgot the rest.”
“He must have just messed it up at the funeral!” I said. “Maybe we asked the wrong question, or said the wrong thing.”
“Frank should’ve just written a letter,” my father said. “I mean. Don’t get me wrong, Sean. You’re great. But what kind of speech was that?”
“Sorry,” said Sean.
Sean died the morning after the next. He was an old parrot, the vet reminded us, and we didn’t even know exactly how old. My mother wrapped him in newspaper and tried to put it in a shoebox, but he was too big, so I went to Aladdin’s Bakery and bought half a dozen doughnuts for four dollars and asked them for a big box.
I invited Lauren to the funeral and to my surprise she showed up, arriving in a stunning black dress. She gave me a long hug, after which I had to take a number of deep breaths.
We all congregated at the graveside and watched as my father placed the box into the little hole he had dug.
“You were,” said my father, “by far the best parrot I ever met.”
“We’ll miss you, Sean,” my mother said.
“You were a good bird,” Lauren said.
“Rest in peace,” I said.
We took turns piling dirt into the little grave. When we finished we stood there for a few moments, eating doughnuts, looking at the little pile of earth. It started to rain softly.
© 2013 Peter D’Auria