The Early Bird Specialby Alison Lowenstein
The tour guide tells our group that in domestic households macaws are masters of mimicry, but in the wild they are not known for these qualities. Her southern drawl distracts me as I wonder how the macaw perched on her left shoulder would imitate the sound of her voice.
Why do birds acquire this habit in captivity? Is it because the human voice fascinates them so much that they feel they must replicate it? Or is it something they do to simply pass the time? As the tour guide asks us if we want to have our picture taken with the macaw on our shoulder, she warns us to be mindful of birds. Although we might think of the bird as a domestic household pet, they are wild. She compares the macaw to a cat, an animal, which can never really be tamed. As she says this, I think about how Glen and I don’t have screens on our windows. Are birds that wild? Might pigeons just one day fly into our bedroom and attack us? In the past I had always given them the benefit of the doubt.
I look over at Glen and catch him glancing at his watch. I tap his shoulder, and tell him that I need to go over to the Parrot Café to get a bottle of water. At the Café, Glen slowly pulls the bun off a hamburger and drowns the patty in ketchup. I sip my water, as I notice the tour guide sitting at the table across from us eating a chicken sandwich.
"Doesn’t she get tired of this?" I say, tilting my head in the direction of the tour guide, "Day after day giving the same tour with the same macaw."
"Why? She is surrounded by beautiful birds, she must love it." He bites into his burger and a dollop of ketchup drips onto his chin.
I think of the birds that I come across on my way to work. Those dull, filthy Manhattan pigeons that fly down from rooftops too close to my head. Every time I encounter one, I am convinced it will give me a disease. I could never do her job. I would be the guide who came down with a case of parrot fever. I had read about that disease, there had been an outbreak in some small town in Florida. It’s like pneumonia, and even worse on your respiratory system. I remember when I read the article that the words, parrot fever, sounded so colorful, like the title of a Jimmy Buffet song or the name of a bar in some tropical tourist destination. But when I read that the disease was transmitted by all varieties of birds, even the pigeon, and through their droppings, the words, parrot fever, lost all meaning to me.
"Well, I couldn’t do it." I say and then finish the water in the bottle.
"Of course you could Sharon." Glen says taking a tone, which he would usually use to defend me.
"But I wouldn’t want too."
"That’s something different." Glen finishes his hamburger, and takes out a bright red brochure from his pocket. "There is a show at The Parrot Theater in ten minutes. Do you want to go?" He studies the brochure, "Or do you want to head back to your grandmothers?"
"I had enough of this place." I say as we both get up from the table and head toward the exit. "It was a good break though."
"I would have preferred a Miami Heat game, you know." Glen remarks.
"I know you would, and you know that I don’t like to leave her at night." I say as we get our hand stamped so we can return to the Parrot Park for the remainder of the day, as if that would ever occur.
We are staying with my grandmother in her condo in Miami Beach. My grandfather passed away the winter before and ever since my sister, my parents and Glen and I have been cramming in as many visits as we can financially. I’m afraid my Grandmother thinks our sudden interest in seeing her is nothing more than a convenient way to alleviate the guilt we have for not visiting often enough before my grandfather passed away. She doesn’t seem to mind though; she loves our visits, and every time a rental car pulls up in front of her condo and a family member gets out, my grandmother is waiting to greet them. There is always a big smile plastered on her face, as we carry our bags into the aqua marine colored tiled lobby. En route from the elevator to her apartment, she stops every person on the way, to introduce us.
"You don’t want to leave her at night?" Glen questions as we pull out of the parking lot.
"I don’t feel comfortable coming in late at night and waking her up or maybe she would stay up waiting and worrying."
What I say isn’t true. I don’t mind leaving my grandmother at night. It’s just that I don’t know how to do it. The second night we were there, I had casually mentioned that Glen and I wanted to see a movie that evening and she responded, "You’re going out again today?"
"Just for a few hours." I replied.
"But it’s after six."
We spent that night in her living room, eating the cantaloupe she had cut into squares which we picked up with toothpicks, watching a Murder She Wrote episode on TV and during the commercials my grandmother would switch to the Weather Channel. After an hour, when Angela Lansbury had neatly solved a crime, Glen and I started playing gin rummy. I could read the disappointment in his expression. When Glen and I came to visit before my grandfather passed away, we stayed in hotels. My grandfather wanted his privacy. So Glen and I would book a room in the resorts on the beach directly across from my grandparent’s complex.
We had promised my grandmother that we’d get back early to drive her to the grocery store. When we enter her apartment, a woman sitting on the couch with curly unkempt gray hair and a floral housedress stands up.
"You remember Rose, don’t you Sharon?" My grandmother takes my hand and walks me over towards Rose. My grandmother has become affectionate in her old age she touches me more.
"Oh Shari, I haven’t seen you in about ten years. I am always in Portland when you come to visit." She leans over and gives me a kiss.
I find it odd how little I am involved with my grandmother’s life compared to how much she and her friends seem to remember about me. I can’t believe that Rose remembers seeing me a decade ago. Why am I so removed? Is it the distance? I feel as if I should appreciate my grandmother more. To momentarily appease myself, I promise that I will remember to send her flowers when we get back to the city.
Glen introduces himself to Rose. He has never met her, although Rose is telling him that she loved the wedding photos we sent my grandmother. As Rose and my husband talk, my grandmother whispers in my ear, "She has really been here for me since your grandfather died. She lost her husband not even a year before me. So did Charlotte on the second floor. We all have been meeting every Sunday for breakfast at Dennys. It’s been nice."
I imagine my grandmother, Rose and Charlotte as the Golden Girls, sitting in Denny’s over Grand Slam Breakfasts discussing the widowers in the building as their potential suitors. I try to imagine which character my grandmother would play. She wouldn’t be Blanche, the playgirl. The only man my grandmother has mentioned since we have been here was when we were getting mail the morning before and she pointed at a man with a cane who had just walked out of the building.
"See that man?" She said as she opened the mailbox, "That’s Al. Last month he came to my door with a bottle of scotch and asked if I wanted to drink it with him. And I told him no thank you. We don’t drink that stuff here."
I remember thinking how awkward the "we" in my grandmother’s sentence sounded to me. ‘We don’t drink that stuff here.’ As if when Al was knocking on the door my grandfather was just sleeping in their bedroom instead of buried fourteen hundred miles away in a cemetery in Elmont, Long Island. As we walked toward her apartment, I carried the mail and she held on to my arm.
In the apartment my grandmother asks if it is okay if Rose joins us.
"No problem. We have plenty of room in the car." I say as we all head out.
"Is it also okay if we eat before we go to the supermarket?" She says in the elevator.
I look over at Glen, who had just eaten a hamburger. He grins and says, "Great, I love the early bird special."
"Yes, there is a good surf and turf special at the restaurant down the road. Rose and I go there about once a week."
"We love it." Rose chimes in.
I don’t how Rose and my grandmother manage to stay alive the way they eat. Constantly eating out at restaurants with enormous servings. Spending their Sunday mornings in Denny’s. I subside on salad, celery sticks and fat free cool whip. As we walk toward the car, I notice a box in Rose’s hand. I try and make out what it is and she catches me staring at it.
"Here," Rose hands me the box, "This is for you."
"For me?" I am surprised.
"Yes, you are your husband are nice enough to take me to the grocery store. I felt I should do something. I usually have to pay a man to take me."
"We all do." My grandmother says.
I wonder who this man is who drives my grandmother and her friends to the grocery store. Should I trust him? How did he get hooked up with this job? Driving the elderly to the supermarket to get their goods. Does he put the food away for them? Is my grandmother alone with him in her apartment?
I ask her, "What’s the name of this man who takes you to the grocery store?" As if knowing his name would give me any insight into his moral character.
"Lou." My grandmother answers abruptly, "He’s a nice man."
"How old is he?"
"Young. I guess in his forties or so." My grandmother leans against the rental car as she speaks.
"He’s very religious." Rose adds.
Although I am not religious at all, knowing this fact about Lou seems to ease my suspicions about him. I open the car door for my grandmother and Rose, and help them into the backseat. It’s hard for them to get in, and it takes a few minutes before I feel comfortable enough to close the door. In fact, I ask them over three times if it’s okay if I close the door until Rose screams from the backseat, "Yes, we’re in. We can handle the seatbelts on our own, so don’t worry."
I wonder if Lou is this careful with my grandmother and Rose or does he rush them into the backseat? I question if he sits in the driver’s seat like Glen is doing now, trying to adjust all the air conditioning vents before we leave, so they get enough air in the backseat during the trip. I tell myself that a religious man would take all of these matters into consideration.
When we are all in the car my grandmother says, "Open the present."
Glen grabs the box from me and unwraps it. He holds the box up for everyone to see. It’s a Whitman Sampler.
"Well, open it and offer us some." My grandmother says eyeing the box.
Glen opens the box, takes a couple of chocolates and puts them in his mouth. He wisely doesn’t offer one to me, and passes the box back to Rose, and then pulls out of the complex toward The Fish Shanty, as my grandmother and Rose both chew away at caramel chocolate in the back seat.
I try to imagine what they must have been like when they were teenagers. Would they have been friends back then?
"Turn left. And keep the speed down." My grandmother says and then goes back to her conversation with Rose.
We pull into the parking lot, and I rush out of the car so I could help both of them get out. I notice they are moving faster than they were at the complex. They seem more self-conscious, as if they might run into someone they know at the Fish Shanty parking lot and they want to appear younger, healthier. They refuse my help, and my grandmother doesn’t even take my hand as we walk the few feet toward the entrance.
Although it’s four pm on a Tuesday, the lobby is already full. Glen speaks to the hostess, a woman dressed in a pirate’s costume, and she puts our name on a list. A couple of adult grandchildren, I assume from the party in front of us, give up their seat for my grandmother and Rose.
I stand by the door and stare at the crab grass and palm trees. As a child when I came to visit I used to be so impressed when I saw coconuts growing from trees. Now I am impressed with my grandmother and how strong she seems since my grandfather’s death. Sitting with Rose, they could very well be two women waiting for some suitors at a dance, her mood is so jovial. I don’t think I could be as together as my grandmother is right now if my husband had passed away just the year before. In fact, I am still not used to the fact that my grandfather isn’t here with us, making a fuss that we have to wait for a table. I haven’t even come to terms with his passing. But maybe when you’re younger, periods of mourning last longer, perhaps because you have more time to reflect.
The pirate hostess calls our name and we are seated. My grandmother sits beneath a large swordfish hanging on the wall behind her.
"Is that real?" I ask Glen.
"I guess so." He says.
"Yes, it is." Rose says, "I used to fish a lot with my husband. He loved to fish, that’s why we moved down here. When he retired he wanted to fish all year round."
"I remember when you and Herman used to fish." My grandmother says.
The waitress comes over. She is dressed as a sailor. This restaurant could only exist in Florida. She looks straight at Rose and my grandmother, "What do you ladies want?"
"Well Nancy," my grandmother says after reading the nametag, "we would both like the salmon special."
I am surprised that she orders for Rose. I also feel pressure to order quickly although I haven’t even opened the menu. They must have it memorized. I am relieved when I hear Rose strike up a conversation with the waitress, since it gives Glen and I a few minutes to look at the menu.
Rose asks, "Is Jack working tonight? We come here every Thursday and he’s our waiter."
"No, I’m afraid that he isn’t working this evening."
Nancy then looks over at me, and without thinking I order the salmon special, and so does Glen. But unlike my grandmother and Rose, we both order cokes.
"Coke isn’t good for you." Rose tells us, "I heard on the news that it’s powerful enough to remove paint from a car."
Glen laughs, and I just nod.
As Nancy comes back with the drinks, there is a commotion at the other end of the restaurant. I hear someone yelling and I can make out the words, "Call an ambulance, please."
My grandmother and Rose ask at once, "Nancy," they say to the waitress who is trying to make out what is happening at the other end of the restaurant. "What is going on, darling?" My grandmother says. Nancy doesn’t answer them.
"Nancy, is everything okay over there?" Rose asks.
I don’t know if they are exceptionally well prepared for these sorts of situations given the abundance of elderly people that comprise their neighborhood, but within seconds EMT workers are rushing through the crowd that is waiting in front of the hostess. Nancy leaves us and walks over to see what is going on. Glen and I don’t leave the table. I assume Glen is like me, and he wants to shelter Rose and my grandmother from whatever is happening at the other side of the restaurant.
"I’m sure everything is going to be fine."
I say to my grandmother and Rose, as Glen agrees.
"I hope so." My grandmother says and Rose nods her head in agreement.
It’s then that Rose raises her voice and says, "Sadie." And a woman with black hair comes over looking very pale.
"Do you know what happened?" Sadie says before taking a deep breath. "I think Nat in building four just had a heart attack. We were sitting at a table across from them, " she points to her friend who is standing behind her, "And we heard his wife scream and then he tried to stand up."
"Oh my." My grandmother says as she puts her hand over her mouth. In the background behind Sadie, Nat is being taken off in a stretcher.
"Oh his poor wife." Sadie says, "I know how she feels."
"Who doesn’t?" Rose says.
I wait for them to look at me, but they don’t. As they talk I see Nat’s wife walking out of the restaurant with a woman beside her holding her up by the arm, and talking to her. Sadie and Rose start to talk about how they lost their husbands. As my grandmother talks, I remember the last vision I had of my grandfather. We were on the beach two years ago. He was talking about getting a dog. "Walking will keep me young." I wasn’t there when he died. He died in the hospital a few miles down the road from the Fish Shanty. But I remember when he was very sick and refused to eat I sent him Junior’s cheesecakes through over night mail, it was the only food I was told he could stomach.
My grandmother is now telling Rose and Sadie the story of his death as Nancy comes over with our plates. Nancy looks shaken up, and the straws she keeps in the pocket of her apron look as if they are about to fall to the floor. My grandmother, Sadie and Rose don’t even take notice that the food has arrived, because they are so caught up in their stories. I don’t know how many times they have probably heard each other talk about it. It makes me think of the macaw mimicking, constantly repeating human talk. But unlike the macaw, which solely mimics sound, my grandmother and her friends repeat stories to enforce their meaning. They go over facts about their husbands, presenting each other with detailed descriptions of the outfits their husbands used to wear, and jokes they used to tell. They do this to keep their memories fresh, so they won’t forget any details. They want to keep every inch of them intact.
As Sadie says goodbye to us, I look over at Glen. He gets up from his seat and gives Sadie a kiss goodbye. She says, "thank you."
"Thank me?" Glen responds jokingly, "For what?"
Sadie walks away smiling, and in the background I can hear the sirens. It is then I picture Nat’s wife sitting at our table next year. We will be at a different restaurant. She will be telling us how her husband passed away at the Fish Shanty on Collins Avenue. I will nod my head and say, "I’m sorry." And Glen, my grandmother, and I won’t ever mention that we were there, because it’s her story.
Alison Lowenstein has published stories in The Portland Review and The Melic Review, and has a story forthcoming in Fiction. She taught fiction at The Writer?s Voice in Manhattan. She lives in Brooklyn.