Bird, Mother, Son

Trying to connect with his cold and distant mother, a man finds he is left with only one option — and it involves his wife’s new pet bird. New fiction by J.B. Howard

Man with bird under his jacket
JungHyun Lee/Shutterstock

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Part One: Bird

Inside its cage, the bird nibbled at a piece of porous bone. White dust drifted to the kitchen table, where the cage sat, for now.

Cuttlefish, Marla had said. Parrotlets like cuttlefish, not as friends, but as bones, as bones for beak cleaning. Robert grimaced at the feathered blue spot. He leaned down and whistled to clear the bone dust from the table.

“Why did you take it?” he said, displeased. Marla had not consulted him.

“My student insisted,” she said. She was glad. She had always liked birds.

“Where are you going to keep it?”

Marla looked around.

“I think by the TV. I can hang the cage outside by the fuchsia when it’s warm.”

“You are not keeping that bird by the TV.”

This bird? Why?”

They stared at the bird. It was three inches high, day blue on the bottom, night blue on the top. It was perched on a twig, hiding inside a cluster of plastic bells. Marla had already been to the bird shop. A parrotlet playground was sitting in the trunk of her car, complete with swing set and slide.

“How long will it live?” The bird nibbled its cage.

“Isn’t he cute? Parrotlets go for $300 on Craigslist.”

“How long?”

“My book said 25 to 40 years.”

“You’re saying that this bird might outlive me?” “It’s possible.”

Robert left the room.

“Hello, Toulouse.” Marla cut a raspberry in half and fed it to the bird, who wrestled the fruit down, spraying red juices around the bars of its cage.


Part Two: Mother

The road to Vista del Sol was not oak-lined or beautiful. It was short, concrete, and matter-of-fact. Robert never drove to Puesta del Sol without picturing the ghosts of the recently deceased—and there were always one or two recently deceased—floating across the lawn.

Robert hated Puesta del Sol. The facility and grounds smelled like earth and sour fluids. But getting into Puesta del Sol was like getting into Harvard for old people, and his mother loved it. There were yoga classes, which she never attended, and a bridge club, which she didn’t join. There were walking groups, whose members far outpaced her, and weekly Bingo games, which she regularly missed. She mostly sat with her neighbor, Betty, or read. She had dinner at 4:30 and was in bed by seven. Asleep by 8. Up at 6. Weakening, worsening. Moving less, breathing harder.

Robert worried about her. He wore his concern like a mask as he stepped out of his car, braving the August heat for 45 hurried seconds as he dashed from car to building. By the time he passed through the automatic glass doors and plunged into the mildew-scented, air conditioned reception area, he was already sweating.

“Hello, Claudia.”

“Good evening, Robert. Florence just finished her dinner. She should be in her apartment.”

“Thank you.”

Up a flight of steps, which his mother couldn’t climb, down a hall to an open-air corridor. Number 15’s porch was decorated with two pots of silk flowers and one plastic shrub. Robert knocked.

He waited.

The door opened.

“Well, hello, Robert.”

“Hi, Ma.”

He barely recognized her anymore. She had been so sturdy, so social.

“Come in.”

She shuffled — another new development.

She sat.

“Claudia said you just finished your dinner.”

“I did.”

“What did you have tonight?”

“We had lobster, would you believe it?”

“That’s great, Ma. They really take care of you here, don’t they?”

“They sure do.”

Robert sat.

“I brought this for you. An early birthday present —”

Robert handed his mother a book — an anthology of stories for children published in 1926, the year she was born. He had purchased it on eBay.

“Oh, I don’t read anymore.”

She set the book down without looking at it.

“You don’t read? Why not?”

“I can’t see the words.”

“Well, we should get you new reading glasses.”

“They’re looking into it.”

“Who’s they?”

“The doctors. I told the nurse downstairs. They’re looking into it.”

“Has this gotten worse? I could go down to the nurse with you right now.”

“They’re looking into it.”

“Does Michael know?”

“Of course Mikey knows. He took me to the doctor.”

“He never told me about it.”

“Why would he?

“I’m the older brother.”

“I don’t think it matters when you’re both in your 60s, Robert.”

“You know, Ma, there’s that really nice place right by my house —”

“I like it fine here.”

“I know —”

“Did Mikey tell you about Andy?”

“The promotion? Yeah, he mentioned it. What a kid.”

“He’s moving into a new apartment soon — something private.”

“He’s a good kid.”

Robert looked at the book.

“So what are we doing for your birthday?”

His mother stood.

“You don’t turn 90 every day, Ma.”

“I’m going to bed now, Robert.”

“Now? It’s only 6:30.”

“Yeah, well.” She shuffled.

“Do you need any help?”

“No, I don’t need help getting ready for bed.”

Robert stood.

“Well, then I guess I’ll go.”

“Goodnight, Robert.”

Goodnight, Ma.

One hour to work, one hour to his mother’s, one hour home — he spent one-eighth of his life in the car, one half of it at the office, one quarter of it sleeping, one eighth of it in the garage.

When he entered his house, the lights were off. Before he climbed the stairs he noticed the ghost-like cage sitting on a pedestal by the television. A navy shawl had been laid over the bars.

Robert walked thief-like across the carpet and lifted the sham. Toulouse was asleep, nestled amongst his bells.

Hello, Toulouse.


Puesta del Sol had been built in the armpit of a mountain, and Robert could not determine whether the facility’s high hedges were meant to provide privacy to the home’s residents, or to shield the rest of the community from the dispiriting sight of senescence.

“Hi, Ma.”

“Well, hello, Robert.”

Come in. Come in. Shuffle.


“So what did they give you for dinner tonight?”

“Just chicken.”


Cold chicken.”

She pursed her lips, which looked increasingly pleated, like a flesh kilt.

“Don’t they ever give you steak?”


“I could bring you a steak, if you’d like.”

“That would be nice. There’s a Somersteak Grille on Melville.” “I’ll bring one next time I come up.”

“I could do with one now.”


“They only had chicken.”

“Okay, Ma. I’ll be right back.”


Robert ordered a bloody prime rib to-go and sat on a wagon-wheel bench to wait. A young couple arrived after him and was quickly led to a table.

Next, a family of five. This was trickier. The host, freckled and angular, took their name and then disappeared. The husband stood while the wife sat down on the only available bench, a toddler in her arms and a kid to either side — a quiet family. No squirming or whining or crying or biting. Just hushed giggles and library-voice speculations about dinner and dessert and the weekend. Then the mother turned the toddler around in her lap and they rubbed noses. The toddler’s eyes crinkled with delight and he leaned in for another go. Then the other kids took turns rubbing their noses against their younger brother’s, until the game got out of hand — the boy clapping and squealing, the other kids leaning toward their brother at dangerous speeds. The dad stepped in then and distracted them all with a game on his phone. But before the game could get started the host returned with their menus and their table number.

The next moment was so quick that Robert wondered if he only imagined it. As the woman stood up, she whispered something in her little son’s ear:

I love you.

Robert didn’t hear them, but those were the words in the air.


The freckled host with the too-long limbs was holding out a to-go bag.



The door was unlocked. “Ma?”

The bedroom light was on. “Ma? Are you here?”

“I’m in here, Robert.”

His mother was in bed, reading. She was not reading Robert’s book.

“Ma, I have your steak.”

“How did they cook it?”


“Oh, good.”

“Are you going to eat it?”

“Put it in the refrigerator. I’ll have it tomorrow.”

“You’re going to bed? It’s only six o’clock.”

“I had my bath while you were gone.”

Robert paused. The scene from the restaurant was still fresh, still real. “Do you want me to read to you?”

“I have my new glasses.”

“Oh, they came already? How do they work?” “Just fine.”

“Good. Good.”

“See you tomorrow, Robert.”

“Okay. Good night, Ma.”


Marla was sitting on the couch with Toulouse on her shoulder. “Robert, come watch.”

Robert, still carrying his briefcase, approached.


Marla held a finger against Toulouse’s breast. At first the bird nipped at it, but then it climbed. Marla held up another finger, a little higher, and Toulouse ascended. Twelve times the bird hopped from finger to finger before it fluttered hopelessly toward a mirror and, discovering the mirror to be solid, crashed down behind the piano.

“Oh no!”

They fished for the bird with the delicate arm of a birch.

Toulouse emerged, stunned, but uninjured.

“So what are we doing for your mom’s birthday tomorrow?”

“Taking her out to breakfast, I think. Michael has something planned.”

“How’s she doing?”

“She’s really frail. They have her on 12 different medications.”

“For what?”

“Pretty much everything, I think.”

“Geez. I hope they know what they’re doing.”

“They’re doctors.”

“Yeah, well.”

Robert tickled Toulouse’s belly and the bird hopped onto his finger, an unexpected act of trust. Robert couldn’t help it. He raised his voice and said, “Hello, Toulouse.”

“He’s cute isn’t he?” Marla tried not to sound smug.

“Do you think my mom would like him?”



“I don’t know, Robert. Your mother —”

“Yeah, I guess you’re right.”

Marla stifled a yawn. “Will you put Toulouse away when you come up?”

“Sure,” Robert said. He looked at Toulouse, who was listening apprehensively.

Marla headed upstairs.

Robert said, “My mother used to have a dress with a bluebird on it. She wore it all the time. I wonder what happened to it.”

Marla looked down the stairs at Robert. “Did you say something?”

Robert looked at Toulouse, who was not a bluebird, but a South American parrotlet. “No, nothing.”

“Okay. Goodnight, Robert.”

Marla disappeared into their room.

Toulouse chirped quietly, eyeing Robert with timorous understanding. Robert returned Toulouse to his cage, draped the navy sham over the bars, and turned out the lights.


Part Three: Son

Robert slept poorly, first in his bed, then on the couch, and finally on the floor by the television, the floor being the most comfortable surface and the one on which he eventually dreamed of the mother, her happy son, and the words that had hung around the quiet family like a veil.

At the first hint of morning, Robert sat back on his heels — a position so uncomfortable that it threatened to break his legs into several wooden pieces — and stared at Toulouse’s shrouded cage. He crawled forward on all fours and tore down the mantle. Toulouse was awake amongst his bells, watching Robert now and seeming ill at ease.

Without uttering so much as a greeting, Robert slid open the white metal gate and approached the bird with one sleep-swollen, timid finger. Toulouse nipped him twice and then hopped up, chirping softly, sensing that this was a secret assembly.

Robert drew Toulouse out of the cage and sat back again onto his heels. He stayed in that agonizing pose for 24 heartbeats before standing and carefully, unalarmingly, walking through his house toward the yard. He slid open the backdoor and stepped out into the graying, pinking, purpling dawn.

Hello, Toulouse.


Robert stretched his arm up, inviting the bird to fly. Toulouse looked toward the cloud-kissed sun and spread his wings. For one breathless moment Robert prepared himself for the misery of the departure, for the anger of his wife. But then Toulouse turned his beak under and began to preen himself, white bits fluttering to the ground like warm snow.

They stayed like that — man and bird — until Toulouse finished grooming. Toulouse moved first, hopping off the finger to the wrist, then up the arm to the elbow, then up the shirted bicep to the shoulder, around the back of the neck to a place that must have seemed to the miniature fowl exactly right.


Inside, Robert guided Toulouse to the parrotlet playground, which was now situated near the kitchen atop a table on which Marla had painted in bright colors the word Toulouse. The bird played there all morning, while Robert and his wife readied themselves for breakfast with Robert’s mother.

Robert’s temper rose like mercury, as predictably as the sun: Marla was slow; their house was a mess; they were late. Everything everything everything was unsatisfactory.

Marla ignored this, like water on feathers.

“Robert, could you put Toulouse back in his cage?” Marla called as she walked down the stairs, her hands busy with earrings.

Robert looked at Toulouse. Toulouse looked at Robert. Robert reached out his finger. The bird boarded.

Robert hid Toulouse in his coat pocket and hurried out the door.

This remained a secret for nearly 30 miles. Then, chirp.

Marla looked at Robert. She already knew.

As they discussed their options, Robert’s fury — he had not spoken since they got on the freeway; he had clenched his jaw and glared at the road, wearing his anger like another mask — gave away to the sheepish truth: He wanted his mother to meet Toulouse. He imagined the bird would please her.

“But we’re going to a restaurant.” Marla did not understand Robert sometimes. “You can’t take Toulouse into a restaurant.”

“I know.”

“But it’s too hot to leave him in the car.”

“I know.”

“Well, what do you plan to do?”


Toulouse seemed happy enough in Robert’s coat pocket, and as they parked their car they concluded that Toulouse would have to accompany them to breakfast.

Michael, his wife, Pamela, and the 90-year-old birthday girl were already seated at a booth near the back of the restaurant. Robert and Marla approached — Marla carrying a flamboyantly wrapped package (a sweater), Robert carrying the warm body of a pensive parrotlet in the darkness of his left pocket.

“Hi, Ma.”

“Hello, Robert.”

“Hi, Florence.”

“Hello, Marla.”

“Happy birthday.”

“Well, thanks.”

“Hi, Michael. Hi, Pamela.”

“How was traffic?”

“Not bad.”


Only Robert and Marla heard. Only Robert and Marla were listening.

Chirp chirp.

Marla smiled.

Michael talked about Andy.

Pamela talked about Andy.

The birthday girl talked about chicken and lobster and her favorite grandson, Andy. She ordered a steak omelet.

Marla smiled.

Robert’s palms began to sweat.

“Are you okay, Robert?”


The food came.

“Oh, good,” said Florence, the birthday girl.

Chirp chirp, said Toulouse.

Michael looked over his shoulder. “Did anyone else just hear a bird?”

Nervous laughter.

Pamela, “I thought I heard it, too.”

Marla, “Well, actually—”

Robert, “I think it was on the soundtrack.”

Michael, “That’s funny.”

Chirp chirp.

Robert reached into his pocket.

Toulouse watched a hand the size of the known universe grasp for his quivering body, and this time he did more than nip. He bit.


“Are you okay, Robert?”

Toulouse stuck his head out of the pocket.

Robert pushed the bird back inside.

Toulouse wriggled free.


Toulouse landed on Robert’s lap and then fluttered to the floor.

“What the—”

“Be careful!”

Toulouse hopped between the toes and heels and crumbs. He emerged on the far side of the table.

Robert lunged, but Toulouse was too fast. He winged his way onto the neighboring table.

A woman screamed. A man swore something holy.

“Could I get a to-go box?” Marla said to a passing busboy.

Fast footfalls and urgent voices.

Robert lunged again.

His mother’s voice: “Robert, what are you doing?”

Toulouse dodged a handbag and landed in a glass of water.

Chirp chirp chirp chirp chirpchirpchirp chirp chirp.

A fast hand grabbed.


Robert nearly fell against the waiter.

“Is this your bird?”

Robert did not feel veiled words and warm noses. Instead, he felt annoyance and disappointment in so many, many eyes.

He nodded.

Chirp chirp.

Hello, Toulouse.

A warm body again in his coat pocket and a short, ushered walk to the door.

The morning could have proceeded in two ways: Robert and his wife and his brother and his brother’s wife and his mother could have laughed about the scene and swiftly changed their plans, relishing the unique story, the change of pace. Or they could have left the restaurant in grim silence, avoiding one another’s eyes, shunning one another’s touch. Every family of every form and function makes this decision every day — whether to love openly or to keep a safe, censorious distance.

Robert and his wife and his bird drove home alone, the present unopened, the breakfast uneaten, the words of forgiveness and humor unspoken, unconsidered, and when they reached their house they, after some solemn pause, laughed and chirped and ate a lunch of sandwiches and raspberries that tasted, to them, as sweet and sharp and full as the mercurial sun.

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