Kim Silveira Wolterbeek: Watch Me Now!


Watch Me Now!

The first theft, right after my husband Denny died, took me by surprise. Other than a few minor traffic violations, I’d never broken the law in my life. Then one day I reached into a bargain bin and palmed a tube of lipstick. Dazed and gratified, I slipped the loot into my pocket, strolled past the Rite Aid checker and out the sliding glass doors. My God, what a rush! Invariably there was a bit of a let down—post-klepto depression, I called it. But it didn’t last. A few days later I was planning my next heist.

Except for the business of stealing, I’m not the least bit eccentric, although I’ve heard myself described that way, probably because of Buster and the playhouse brooms. Buster was Denny’s bird, an annoying cherry-headed conure who loves to dive bomb guests and drop seeds on the carpet. The brooms were a gift from my sister, Lenore, who teaches third grade at Star of the Sea.

“I’m hosting a potluck for the prayer group,” she said. “So I was wondering if you would like to…”

“Attend?” I ventured. Lenore is the type of person who relies on other people to finish her thoughts. Talking with her is a lot like playing charades. “This isn’t some kind of intervention is it?” I pictured Lenore’s dining room crowded with boisterous Catholics sharing platters of Salvation Chicken and Lamb of God Potatoes.

“Oh, for heaven’s sake, Roxanne …” she said.

On the night of the party, Lenore served goblets of chardonnay and handed out miniature brooms. “Let’s sweep out the old hurts and raise a toast to…”

“The new ones?” I suggested. Lenore narrowed her eyes and frowned.

“To hope,” her husband said. “To moving on.” The members of the prayer group lifted their goblets and swept their brooms through the air.

At the end of the party, Lenore enigmatically handed me two of the Lilliputian brooms. “Here, why don’t you…”

“Take them home?” I said, admiring the colorful handles.

That night I leaned the brooms against a wall in my entryway and pretty much forgot about them until Jody from accounting paid me a visit. And then, what the hell, I grabbed the purple one and wielded it against Buster, who was headed straight for Jody’s rhinestone buckle. I call my response practical, but if eccentric makes me sound more interesting, then I’m all for it. The fact is people are more comfortable with eccentricity than they are with grief.

Most of the time my grief takes the form of inertia. I drag through the days in slow motion. Ironically, the exhaustion disappears as soon as I climb into bed at night, at which point my limbs twitch and my mind shifts into overdrive. I regret mocking Denny for taping his slender ankles before a run; I regret my drawn out sighs and sullen pouts. If you think about all the petty mean-spirited acts of a lifetime, it will drive you insane.

Eventually I doze off, only to awaken a few hours later with a bad case of brain freeze. “Mourning brain freeze,” I tell Buster “As in grieving. Get it?”

Like me, Buster wakes before dawn and calls out for Denny. “My Guy! My Guy!” she screeches, swooping the hall, her head swiveling left to right. Denny called Buster’s racket “spirited vocalizing,” but then he always had a way of spinning the truth. Conures are fairly small parrots, but they are noisy.

Buster’s previous owner, a local musician of some renown, taught her to squawk Motown. Denny claimed that once he’d heard Buster belt out the refrain from Baby Love, he made the musician an offer he couldn’t refuse. I’m supposed to believe Denny didn’t notice Buster’s bright green feathers and pale, elongated eye rings. Did I mention that conures are monogamous by nature and have a lifespan of thirty years?

Denny and I were well into our thirties when we met. He worked for a company that built semiconductors, but his real passions were jogging and flirting, not necessarily in that order. He was methodical, kept a runner’s journal and a BlackBerry full of suspicious appointments. This much is certain. He died alone during an early morning run up Telegraph Hill.

I think Denny knew all along that our life together would be brief. Maybe not in a conscious way, but in the way some people know they’re about to fall in love. Prescient knowledge, insight they feel in their molars. “Care to dance?” he’d ask, placing Buster on his shoulder and scooping me up in his arms. The three of us would two-step the hall like there was no tomorrow. But even dancing nose to beak, I ignored Buster, which is something else that I regret. Parrots live in family groups, and I could have been a member of their flock. I could have shared their joy.

My little Love Bug, he called her. She’d fold her wings, stretch her neck, and pirouette like a ballerina on point. Buster will talk to anyone, but she only spun for Denny. Once a week he’d spritz her with a bottle of warm water, smiling when she shuddered in ecstasy. And now—who cares how I feel about her?—Buster’s my inheritance.

What I miss most about Denny is visceral and difficult to explain. His whole body was a laugh arcing the air. When he said my name his voice deepened and lingered over both syllables.

More than a year after Denny’s death my language is still peppered with if onlies. If only I wasn’t the jealous type. If only I’d agreed to the Rain Forest vacation. If only I’d gotten my lazy ass out of bed and accompanied Denny on his final run. The bearded grief counselor I saw briefly insisted that reinventing the past was the absolute worst response to loss. Actually, what he said was “Don’t go there,” like regret was a place with its own geography. “Instead of looking back, you should be preparing yourself for the future. Happiness,” he said, “is the capacity to open your heart to new possibilities.” The only possibility I could see was never ending sorrow, but I soldiered on, filling the endless days with work and gardening.

I own a home in the Sunset District, a modest cottage with a glass solarium that proved ideal for raising orchids and, more recently, tabletop topiary. I spend most of every weekend coaxing ivy runners onto moss-filled wire frames that I’ve bent into unexpected shapes—rabbits, unicorns, a diminutive Titanic before the iceberg. Sunny-bright even when the fog rolls in, the porch smells earthy and private.

A pine table mounded high with bags of sphagnum moss and potting soil rests beside a basket of fern pins and a cylinder of systemic poison. The poison has a colorful label that features spider mites and mealy bugs keeled over on their backs. Hand-woven steel frames and clay pots glazed in Easter pastels—resurrection colors, Denny called them—are stacked one atop the other on the floor beside the table. Everything except the topiary, which I display throughout the house, is hidden behind a rice paper screen. At night when I turn on the floor lamp, a warped silhouette looms monstrous or mundane, depending on my state of mind. Mostly I’m reminded of the confessional, the slide of the sash and the priest’s sudden profile.

This past Sunday afternoon Buster hopped onto the table and watched me work my magic, cutting and twisting a frame into the shape of a giraffe. “Prefabricated forms are for cheaters,” I explained. “Believe me, there’s no joy in taking the easy way out.” The table was studded with damp moss. Buster picked up a chunk in her beak and dropped it onto the carpet. I had the feeling she would gladly fly the coop if she could only be certain that Denny was gone for good.

When Monday morning rolled around, I arrived early for work and got busy preparing the first pot of coffee. I sell body shapers and figure enhancers at Feldman’s Department Store in Daly City. Denny would not approve of my thievery or my peddling padded bras. He used to claim I was the most honest person he knew. We both took comfort in his words. Now I think he had me all wrong. It’s easy to mistake bluntness for honesty, fear for virtue. Maybe I’ve always had it in me to deceive. The bras don’t keep me awake at night, but I’m not entirely without remorse regarding the thefts.

While the coffee brewed I tidied up after Mona Stoddard, who works the evening shift and never fails to leave a trail of Sweet & Low on the counter. Mona’s young and careless, a serial dater who falls in and out of love at the drop of a hat. A frivolous bore with the mind of a wood tick, Mona can sell satin camis and flyaway baby dolls like no body’s business, but she’d be hard-pressed to name the Speaker of the House or locate Afghanistan on a map. My fingers were still sticky with sweetener when I located the Sunshine Fund in the bottom drawer of her desk. Without a moment’s hesitation, I picked up the cashbox and stashed the booty in my locker. A jolt of excitement shot through my body, but it was short lived.

That evening I felt more bereft than usual. “Buster,” I said, “I’m a criminal. They should lock me up and throw away the key.” I held the cashbox aloft and gave it a little shake so that she could hear the coins rattle. Buster fixed me with one brown eye. Denny, who put his faith in facts the way Lenore puts her faith in the Holy Trinity, once told me that parrots’ facial feathers are as unique as human fingerprints. I could see how that might be true. For certain, there’s something reassuring about Buster’s face, which is actually quite lovely in an avian sort of way.

Buster trailed after me when I carried the cashbox into the kitchen. She perched on the back of Denny’s chair while I rummaged through drawers looking for something I could use to jimmy the lock. I tried an ice pick, which I’ve seen work in movies. In real life, it’s more complicated. I jammed the pick into the keyhole and jiggled it, but nothing happened. Buster, who always had the uncanny ability to select the most appropriate tune, belted out the refrain from Chain of Fools. I ignored her heckling and grabbed a ball-peen hammer inexplicably stashed in a drawer with serving spoons. Three hard smacks and the lock snapped in two. A muddled urgency sloshed against my chest, insistent as a full bladder. Without hesitation, I lifted the lid and emptied the contents. Fistfuls of bills and coins tumbled onto the tabletop.

“Here’s your share.” I said, sliding coins across the table. Buster ignored the shiny offering and flew to her cage, a majestic antique with mahogany spindles and a brass cornice that Denny had picked up cheap at a garage sale. She landed on her perch and twirled the bar like an Olympic gymnast. “Jerk!” Buster squawked, ring-a dinging her bell. “Cool Jerk!”

“Yea?” I said, slipping the bills into a drawer crammed with oven mitts and kitchen towels. “Well Buster, I didn’t see you doing anything to stop me. Technically, that makes you an accessory.”

I sounded tough, but I knew I’d stepped over a moral divide. Diane Dunlap in Bridal deserved only the best of luck, and now, when she had her twins, there’d be no Sunshine fund to buy her a gift. My fingers tingled and I felt lightheaded. “I’m going out,” I told Buster, changing into nylon running shorts.

Originally I took up jogging to spend more time with Denny, but I kept it up because I enjoyed it, and now, even though my face is showing its age, my body’s muscular and strong. When my neighbor, Lily, saw me doing stretches, she slid open the window and yelled, “You’ve got thighs to die for!”

I smiled to acknowledge the compliment and answered honestly, “Too bad my head’s old.”

“Oh, Roxanne,” she laughed, “I should be so lucky to have your head.”

Inside the house Buster swooped the hallway. “Mista Big Shot!” she screeched, “who do ya think ya are!”

The following morning I found a note from Kevin Mullins, Head of Security, taped to my locker: Please drop by my office at your convenience. I showed the summons to my supervisor, Estelle, who fumbled for her half glasses and read it through twice. Estelle, who’s worked at Feldman’s most of her life, favors Joy perfume, tight-perms, and loose-knit mohair sweaters. She enters a dressing room with the confidence of a surgeon and believes there are practical solutions to most problems. “The world,” she is fond of saying, “would be a better place if people wore properly-fitted foundations garments.” And she’s a childless widow. We have that in common.

“Go on then,” Estelle said, peering over the top of her tortoise shell frames.

“Are you sure?” I asked. “I don’t want you to be short-handed. Maybe I should wait a few minutes until Linda clocks in.”

“I can handle things,” she said, pushing her sleeves up past her elbows.

I descended the stairs to the basement where Security is located. I didn’t feel particularly nervous, which I thought was odd given the fact that I might lose my job. Then again, I hate my job. When I strolled into Kevin’s office he greeted me with a tight smile. “Good to see you,” he said, smoothing the sparse hair on the crown of his head. Only last week I ran into Kevin at Leroy’s Bar and Grill where he complimented me on my earrings and bought me a beer. He’s a nice man, with a rabbity face and ears that blush pink. “Please have a seat,” he said, easing into a swivel chair tucked behind his desk. His folded hands formed a temple. “Recently there’ve been a number of thefts. All of them have occurred during your shift,” he said, tapping one forefinger against the other. “The thefts have been minor, but they seem to be escalating. I’m hoping that you might know something that would help us with our investigation.” His voice trailed off.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “But I don’t know a thing. Nothing.” I furrowed my forehead in bewilderment. “I would help you if I could, believe me.” He didn’t, but he let me go. After all, what did he have to go on but suspicion?

Back in lingerie, I was straightening a sales table when my hands begin to tremble. I slid them under a mound of black silk and willed my body to behave.

Estelle, who misses very little, didn’t ask what I was doing up to my elbows in teddies. “Don’t let life get you down,” she said, squeezing my shoulder. “Tonight when you get home, take a nice soak in a hot bath.” She pulled a scented tea candle from the pocket of her sweater. “For you,” she said. The candle and the kindness were such lovely, unexpected gifts that I dropped my guard, said aloud what I’d been thinking. “I wonder if my husband would still be alive if I’d if it weren’t for the bacon and eggs I served up every morning?”

Estelle sighed. “Unless you held a gun to his head and forced him to eat, you have no business blaming yourself.”

A large woman appeared on our left and began pawing through a rounder of push-up bras. Estelle shook her head. “Some people lead such deluded lives,” she whispered, redirecting the woman to a wall of minimizers clearly labeled For the Full-Figured Woman.

“I’m getting one of my migraines,” I lied, massaging my left temple. I clocked out at noon, but not before I’d stopped in cosmetics to pick up a clutch of make-up samples Clinique was giving away free. Toting my purse and a Feldman’s shopping bag, I cruised through hosiery, pilfering three pairs of running socks before exiting the store. I didn’t set off any alarms, but there was an exquisite heart-pounding moment when a security guard glanced my way and I thought he might ask to search my bag.

I drove straight to Leroy’s where I hit the lady’s room first, applying lash-thickening mascara and lip shine. On the way to the bar my hands starting trembling again, so I stopped in the dim hallway, retrieved my cell from the bottom of my purse and called home. When the answering machine clicked on, I listened to my voice issue its terse directive: Leave your name and number, and I’ll get back to you.

“Buster,” I said, “It’s me.” I turned to the wall, pressing my mouth closer to the phone. “They know.” In the silence that followed, I wondered what Lenore would say about my life of crime. To act with such reckless disregard was beyond her understanding, but I imagined she’d relate to my gnawing desire to confess. “Okay then,” I mumbled, “I’ll be home in a bit.”

At the bar I ordered a beer and asked the bartender if he had any cheddar gold fish.

“Sure, love,” he said, pouring a fresh bowl.

I slipped a handful of crackers into my shopping bag for Buster and was into some serious munching when a guy wearing Frye boots and a cotton work shirt with mother of pearl buttons took the stool beside me.

“I’m Sam,” he said, talking to the mirror above the bar. His eyes moved between my lips and his own good-looking mug. I figured I could use a little harmless diversion, so I smiled in accord with his reflection.

“I once owned a pair of boots for about five minutes,” I said, pointing to his. “But they pinched my toes, so I returned them to the store and got a refund.” What really happened was Lenore claimed the boots made me look like one of Disney’s Mouseketeers dressed for Roundup Day, not the cute one, not Annette Funicello, but Darlene—the one with the thick braids and gummy grin who grew into a horsy woman and was convicted of grand larceny. “I’m Darlene,” I said. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

Sam gestured to his tooled belt. “Western day,” he explained, doffing his black Stetson and ordering a Rob Roy straight up. “In real life, I’m a business man.”

“Ah,” I said, “another desperado with an MBA.”

He laughed, but he looked a little less sure of himself. “Pretty much,” he said, rolling his sleeves so that I could see the ripple of his well-toned muscles. “I’m not a real cowboy, but I’m a hunter of sorts,” he told the mirror. His teeth were bone white and even. He ran his tongue over his incisors and told a protracted tale involving an enormous bonus and an African Safari. I was thinking Sam wasn’t nearly as distracting as I’d hoped. I was thinking it was time he rounded up his little doggies and headed back to the O.K. Corral when he puffed out his chest and announced, “And then I shot the bugger right through the eye.”

“What?” I asked.

“Dead with a single shot.” He notched his thumb and aimed his trigger finger at my reflection.

“What kind of a person shoots an animal through the eye?” I said.

Sam swiveled his barstool and looked directly at me.

“If you think I’m judging you, you’re right,” I said and stood up. “Jerk,” I said. “Cool jerk.”

He shrugged, reached for his drink and mumbled an insult of his own.

In the lady’s room I threw cold water on my face, ran a comb through my hair, and gave the cowboy hunter time to move on to other venues. I was getting ready to reapply fresh make-up when I realized I’d left the Feldman’s bag on the bar.

I hurried back, but Sam was gone and so was my shopping bag—the cosmetics, the hosiery and Estelle’s candle—all gone. What I felt was not so much loss as defilement, like a stranger had slid a furtive hand between my thighs.

On Interstate 280, a maniac in a red Le Baron cut in front of me. Then, get this—he flipped me off! I should have been relieved that I didn’t lose control of my car and careen into the guardrail, but I wasn’t. I punched the horn with my fist, long after he’d left me in the dust. Rage, I discovered, is as fundamental as despair. When I arrived home I parked too close to the garage wall. Rather than back out and take another stab at it, I climbed out the passenger’s door, bruising my right knee on the gearshift. “Son of a bitch!” I said.

My knee was still smarting when I stacked the mail on the kitchen counter and called out to Buster. “Hey, beak face,” I yelled. “Where are you?” My mind galloped with possibilities. She’d choked on a sunflower seed, flown into a wall, drowned in a bowl of water. The house was inordinately quiet. I could hear the hum of the refrigerator and the measured beat of the grandfather clock. I tiptoed down the hall, shocked to find the door to my bedroom open and the ivy Titanic upside down on the floor, twin stacks pleated like accordions. My hands curled into fists and I barreled down the hall to the sunroom. When I flipped the light switch, Buster’s silhouette climbed the rice paper screen. “Come here, you little demon,” I screamed.

Buster squawked and flew from behind the screen, circling the ceiling above my head.

“Get your tiny ass down here right now!” I picked up one of the miniature brooms and swung blindly, recklessly. It felt good, this anger rumbling up from my toes and stampeding through my body. “Not fair,” I yelled. “Not fair!” I swung the broom and howled like a banshee, knocking over the lamp, the box of frames and a crystal vase I’d always loved. But I swear I had my eyes closed when I nailed Buster.

She hit the floor with a muffled thud that sounded like a fist hitting a pillow. Woozy with trepidation, I dropped the broom, and fell to my knees. “I didn’t mean it,” I cried. “Oh, God, I didn’t mean it.” Buster’s eyes stared, fixed and unblinking. “Don’t you dare die on me!” I yelled, lowering my ear to her silent chest. My own heart thumped furiously.

Placing two fingers against her sternum, I began to pump, pausing only to blow shallow breaths into her unresponsive beak. My throat tightened. I felt exposed, as though an essential membrane had been torn away. I doubted every decision I’d ever made, including my decision to resuscitate Buster. For all I knew, my clumsy efforts were doing more harm than good. I was about to give up the ghost when she came to with a squawk. I felt such relief that I started laughing, an uncontrollable hysterical wheeze that frightened the both of us.

Buster stumble-flapped to a corner of the room. I crawled over and tried to smooth her feathers, but she was too fast, hopping onto the potting table and darting behind the room divider. I closed my eyes, exhausted by her industry, her commitment to whatever.

“I’m sorry. Swear to God, I didn’t mean to hurt you.”

Buster didn’t move or make a sound.

“Okay, I understand. You need some time to yourself,” I said. “I’ll just go make us a late lunch.” I threw together a salad, tossing in slices of Buster’s favorite red bell peppers and vine-ripened tomatoes. I was mixing the dressing when she flew into the room and perched on the back of Denny’s chair.

“I’ll get rid of the brooms if you want. We can burn them in the fireplace. We can have a little ceremony, watch them go up in flames,” I said.

Buster flew to the window ledge where she pecked the molding and stared longingly at the cypress tree in the back yard. I retrieved a bag of Buster’s favorite parrot seed from the cupboard and served the salad. And then, even though I don’t normally drink hard liquor, I poured myself a shot of Denny’s bourbon. On a whim, I splashed a thimble into Buster’s water.

She glided into her cage. Ignoring the bowl of sliced peppers and tomatoes, she went directly to her water. “To us,” I said, raising my glass. “Two old birds!” Buster took a sip, bobbed her head and took another.

It turns out Buster is a quiet drunk, the kind whose inebriated walk is oddly dignified, the kind who turns a lurch into a curtsey. Finally, inevitably, she passed out on the floor of her cage.

I monitored Buster’s breathing while I ate my meal. Afterwards. I wandered into the living room where I decided to watch the documentary Denny had ordered shortly before his death. The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill arrived in the mail the day we buried him, and while I thought the timing was an eerily mean cosmic joke, Lenore insisted it was nothing short of a miracle. “Don’t you see? It’s Denny’s way of letting you know…”

What?” I said. “Letting me know what? That he’s okay? That he’s in a better place?” I personally had a hard time picturing this better place, and an even harder time imagining that I’d ever again step foot on Telegraph Hill. I didn’t actually see Denny sprawled out dead on the Greenwich Stairs, but the cops took a photo for me to ID, so I know that when the pavement rose up to meet him, Denny’s eyes were wide open.

I understand that avoidance is unhealthy. Certainly the bearded grief counselor was clear on that score. I’m aware that my emotional default is anger and that I respond to loss of any kind with frenetic activity and willful denial of pain. Clearly this behavior was getting me nowhere, so while I’ve always preferred a good romantic comedy to hard facts, I hoped that watching the documentary might be a way of facing the unimaginable. I could visit the scene of Denny’s death through the safe distance of a camera lens.

The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill is about Mark Bittner, a homeless street musician who befriends a flock of feral parrots and their offspring, over 200 beautiful South American conures. The first time the camera panned the Greenwich Stairway I thought my chest would explode. I had to put the DVD on pause and breathe into a paper bag. The bag inflated and collapsed with the raspy sound of a ventilator. Even after I got my breathing under control, I felt vaguely nauseous. But I was determined, come hell or high water, to finish what I’d started.

After a while I got caught up in the story. In addition to cherry-heads, the flock is made up of blue-crowns and parakeets. The bright green hatchlings are carefully tended until they are strong enough to push past their parents’ protective wings. Most astonishing of all, when a conure’s mate dies, the survivor undergoes a protracted period of grieving, sometimes plucking out her feathers and disappearing from the flock for weeks at a time. The film made me change my mind about documentaries. It was so good, I didn’t even care that it was factual. Oh, and it has a surprise ending which I won’t give away, but believe me, it’s better than any romantic comedy.

Lenore would have all sorts of spiritual explanations for what I did next, but I’m not sure it was anything but simple kindness. I draped one of Denny’s wool jackets over Buster’s cage, molding it with my fingers until it was snug against the spindles. If she woke up during the drive, I wanted her to be surrounded by the familiar.

I was wrong to think the documentary would prepare me. When I parked the car near the top of the stairway, loss and regret flapped against my chest, whirled round my belly, and erupted in a keening wail that crashed like a wave. I clung to the steering wheel, sobbing until I was drained. You can only soldier on for so long before the truth rips you wide open. My life would never be the same, and pretending otherwise was just bad faith.

About this time I heard the click of Buster’s claws. I gave her a few minutes to pull herself together, marveling at the beauty all around me. Below Coit Tower and flowing the entire length of the brick stairs, terraced gardens of ornamental shrubs, fruit trees, and cascading bougainvillea flourished in splendor. There’s a second set of cement stairs where a nameless paperboy found Denny’s body, but I looked beyond it to a fleet of sailboats passing under the Golden Gate Bridge.

When I lifted Buster’s cage out of the car, I heard the tinkle of wind chimes, a discordant, hollow sound that filled me with longing. Placing the cage on the hood, I removed Denny’s jacket and unlatched the door. I held my breath when Buster hopped free.

Out of nowhere dozens and dozens of parrots appeared, swooping the Bay and calling out to one another. For all her loud noise and posturing, Buster is a bit of a coward, so I half expected her to scurry back into her cage. But she stood firm. When the flock dispersed into the palm trees, Buster shuddered.

“I know,” I said. “It’s amazing.”

Without forewarning of any kind, she spun into a pirouette. “Oh, Buster,” I whispered. Offering my forearm as a perch, I held my breath until she climbed aboard. Even then I knew that one false move, a centimeter in one direction or the other, would ruin everything. I waited a long time before transferring her to my shoulder. “Good,” I said, taking a deep breath, “That’s good.” The air smelled fruity and sweet.

Telegraph Hill is primarily a quiet, residential neighborhood. I could hear tires rubber against the pavement and the catch and whirl of electric garage doors opening and closing. Someone cracked a window, and the strains of an old Stevie Wonder song pulsed the air. Buster bobbed her head in time to the beat and I joined in. Before I knew it, we were dancing.

A couple walking their dog paused to watch the parrot and the old head sway in counterpoint. “Lovely,” one of the men said. “Absolutely lovely.” I smiled but stayed focused on the dance until I sensed Buster’s readiness and again offered her my arm. This time she didn’t hesitate. “Thank you,” I said, lowering her onto the hood of the car.

A blue crown, with a feisty attitude and an enormous wingspan, looped the sky above our heads. At the sound of his call, a harsh two-syllable screech, Buster dipped to the right and to the left, like she was tying a bow on a package.

“I’ll be all right,” I said. “You do what you have to do.”

More surprising than my kleptomania was Buster’s courage. With a shallow flap of her wings, she caught a draft of air and took to the sky like a pro. “Watch me now! Watch me now!” she squawked. Parrots flew from every direction, coming together like whirling water. Astonished and sad, I watched Buster dissolve into the blur. The wind picked up, molding my t-shirt against my chest and raising goose bumps on my arms. I grabbed Denny’s jacket off the hood, draping it over my shoulders and stroking the collar. And afterwards I could smell the scent of him on my fingers when I drove home.

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