~This story was originally published in The Kenyon Review (2003).
The cockatoo came in wheezing. Its owner, a tall young woman with tired eyes, scooped the bird from a plastic cat carrier and placed it on the table before the vet. “He doesn’t act right,” she said. “Since yesterday. Won’t eat or anything.”
The vet, Dr. Wendy Howard, slim, freckled, and boyish, set her hands on her hips. “Not feeling too good, huh?” she said to the bird, in the expressively sympathetic voice most people reserved for mopey children.
Cassandra, the technician, waited at Wendy’s left shoulder like a pink-smocked soldier at ease, ready in case she were needed. Though trained in numerous technical tasks befitting her title, her primary job, as it turned out, was to restrain the animals for the vet’s examination. This one, an umbrella cockatoo—a common variety the size of a small chicken—appeared too lethargic to need restraint. Otherwise she would have stepped to the table without being beckoned and taken hold, one thumb notched into the crevice beneath the cockatoo’s nutcracker beak and the other hand pinning the wings, leaving the sternum untouched so as not to interfere with breathing. In a year of handling exotics, she had learned to accomplish restraint so that Wendy almost never had to speak a word of instruction, whatever manner of bird, mammal, or reptile awaited her on the table.
She watched now as Wendy slid the towel from the bottom of the bird’s carrier and frowned at the droppings. The owner yawned, pressing at the sockets of her eyes, where the skin was deeply tanned and printed with the remains of yesterday’s mascara. She was maybe thirty, attractive, though she had the sordid, much-handled look of a child’s favorite Barbie. Her ponytail, long and striped with peroxide, looked less like a hairstyle than a convenient handle for dragging her around. Cassandra imagined she must have survived something, escaped and settled into a solitary life with this pet.
“His name’s Oscar,” the owner added, while Wendy set her fingertips along both sides of the bird’s jaw, as if to critically admire a beauty. The bird shifted its gray feet on the table and settled back to torpor. Its eyes, like the woman’s, opened only by half.
The white feathers of the bird’s neck rose as Wendy’s fingers fluttered beneath them, downward along the skin. Her ability to read the body by touch seemed to Cassandra almost mystical, a skill she herself wanted to own. Wendy’s thumbs gently prodded the bird’s chest and abdomen. With the edge of a finger she lifted one wing, then the other, and the bird shuffled for balance. Each, unfolding, revealed skin plucked bare except for the red jewels of a few mangled blood feathers, their stalks bitten before the feathers could mature.
“Plucker,” Wendy said to herself. Cassandra took a step forward so as not to miss anything, however familiar. Below Wendy’s propping finger, a smear of old blood crusted the grayish-pink skin of the bird’s side, spread as thinly as yesterday’s half-rinsed mascara.
“He does that to himself,” the owner said and laughed uncomfortably, as if unsure whether this was amusing. “Gets under there and starts ripping out feathers. They bleed.” She squinted in annoyance against the sun leaking through the blinds. “All the frigging time he’s doing that.”
Wendy nodded. “A lot of cockatoos pluck that way. It’s psychological.” She didn’t say, It’s usually because the bird is lonely—because you made a fuss over it when it was new, and now you’ve become bored and ignore it, as she might have if pressed for explanation. Cassandra fidgeted; the unspoken censure was like an itch she couldn’t get to. But most owners preferred not to know, and Wendy, for the sake of good relations, would allow them to choose ignorance.
“African Grays do it too,” Wendy went on, with her charming head-tilt-and-smile combination, her voice like a southern sorority girl’s. “We got an African Gray back there right now, I’m telling you—looks like a plucked fryer from the Piggly Wiggly, sitting on a perch. Doesn’t it?” She turned to Cassandra, who nodded dutifully.
Clearly, though, feather-plucking was the least of the cockatoo’s problems. The owner agreed to leave it at the clinic for tests. “It can get expensive,” Wendy warned. She listed the tests she might perform and how much each would cost.
“That’s okay,” the owner said. Blinking and wistful, she looked toward the door, rather than at the bird wheezing on the table. “Just find out what’s wrong with him, okay?”
As the woman departed down the clinic hallway to the front door, Cassandra caught Joel, the clinic’s other technician, leaning in another doorway and gazing intently at the woman’s back from the waist down. She wore brief, bone-colored cotton shorts and sneakers without socks, which emphasized the long, brown, glazed length of her legs. Joel tipped his head to catch their last moments beyond the glass door. Not exactly lustful, his brown eyes appeared stricken with wonder and sympathy, as if that pair of slender limbs might have been someone’s dying pet. Cassandra scowled in disgust. It was a mystery why Wendy had hired this extra person, only three weeks before, when the clinic was so small; they were open only four days a week. She and Wendy together had always handled the work load with no trouble.
She carried the cockatoo back to a steel-and-glass incubator once used to house premature human infants. Everyone in the clinic—Wendy, Cassandra, Joel, and Denise, the teenaged receptionist—gathered around the incubator. From the back room came the clinic’s constant chaos of noise: cockatiel whistles, macaw squawks, the ringing thumps of rabbits on steel mesh. In the incubator, the cockatoo stood hunched and sullen in its overcoat of white feathers as if against a cold wind, shifting its feet from time to time in order to stay upright. It seemed unaware of them, as if the effort to go on breathing required all of its attention. Wendy sucked her front teeth, shook her head. Whatever this was, it was bad.
Cassandra and Joel drew blood for a panel analysis—Cassandra holding the bird, Joel locating the vein. Normally, it would have been Wendy bending over the bird with Cassandra, Wendy the one guiding the bevel of the needle so close to her fingers. But Wendy now had Joel to perform these tasks in her stead, since he was certified as a technician, not to mention an “old friend” from her vet school days. Cassandra, with her English degree, her passion for exotics, and a year of spotty, on-the-job training, didn’t yet have the technical skills to rise above the level of Joel’s assistant.
She and Joel smeared blood slides and stool slides. Wendy peered through the microscope, while her assistants ran tests for Pacheco’s disease and psittacosis and tuberculosis. It didn’t take long for Wendy to call for the x-ray, where the problem resolved instantly and without question—a small-caliber bullet lodged up tight under the bird’s ribs.
Wendy was exuberant as she called the others to the room, snapped on the lightbox behind the film to reveal the story: “Look at that! Can you believe that?” If not very exotic, at least it was different.
Cassandra, who was taking her pre-requisites for vet school one by one in night classes, had to admit that generally the medical complexities eluded her. She could perform a reasonable Gram stain on a blood slide but could not read it, no matter how long she stared through the microscope at the stained cells. She needed the shadow of an avian liver pointed out on X-ray film and still didn’t quite see it. But the cockatoo’s diagnosis required no explanation. There—the culprit. The absolute, boundaried Thing Itself. Metal was the only thing that appeared stark white on an x-ray; the blunted little slug marked the film like a flaw, a hole stamped in what should have been the chalky, elusive mystery of the insides of a bird.
Even Denise, a high school drop-out, could read the evidence. “That woman shot her bird?” she asked, gawking. “And she come in here acting like she don’t know what’s wrong with it?”
“This should be a good story!” Wendy said brightly. She went down the hall to call the bird’s owner.
Denise returned to the front desk, and Cassandra felt Joel still lingering in the exam room behind her. Ignoring him, she went on staring at the imprint of the bullet on the film.
“Did you notice that woman’s eyes?” Joel said, presumably to her, since no one else was in the room.
Cassandra, who preferred in general to pretend Joel didn’t exist, turned reluctantly to face him. Don’t you mean her ass? she felt like asking. But the question sounded ridiculous, since Wendy had mentioned Joel was gay. Why would he have been leering at a female rear end?
“Big damp doe-eyes,” he said. “Really stunning, beautiful eyes.”
He leaned both elbows back on the counter behind him, gazing toward the ceiling of the exam room, which had once been someone’s bedroom. Some decades ago, the clinic had been a house. Painted now in bright pastels, the wooden bedroom doors replaced with professional-looking steel and glass, the building was nevertheless caught at some transitional stage between home and business. The exam rooms still had bedroom closets.
“Can’t say I noticed,” Cassandra said, wondering why anyone, gay or straight, would bother to find beauty in such obvious trailer trash, let alone share the discovery. But Joel seemed to enjoy the sound of his own opinions.
“You didn’t?” He turned to look her in the face—to examine her piercingly for a moment with an easy arrogance of assumed authority, as if deciding what her lack of discernment said about her. “And that body—she’s a dancer, I’ll bet you anything.” His tone drifted toward the rhapsodic, as if by “dancer” he meant to designate the woman a member of the Atlanta Ballet. Against the edge of the counter, his body curved at the spine, lithe in its blue smock. He had strong arms, she noticed, though clumsy hands—blunt fingers incapable, for instance, of the fine dexterity required to restrain the small birds. His dark hair was cut short, bleached at the tips.
“You mean a dancer, of course,” she corrected, stamping the word with a hick accent. “And that’s not even Gold Club material. It’s Clermont Lounge.” She smirked, pleased with her own cleverness, before she remembered that Joel was out to steal her job. Joking with him was tantamount to consorting with the enemy.
He smiled, eyebrows lifted in her direction. “Doesn’t mean she’s not really beautiful.” Something in his confiding, approving expression, or in the low timbre of his voice, made her aware of her own appearance—the sharp beak and chin, her staring eyes and the thin, raw angles of her milk-pale arms. What did he, this near-stranger, see when he looked at her? She wondered, irrelevantly, if he had ever considered her at all, let alone stared with longing at her departing legs.
He turned back to examine the x-ray. Since his training was in dogs and cats, he read these avian x-rays no better than she did. Yet he studied the film as if his eyes were as skilled as Wendy’s, bypassing the bullet to trace subtler hints and shadows across the cockatoo’s gray film toward a diagnosis. She felt like shoving him out the door. It takes sensitivity to the animals, she thought. Feeling. What do you know about feeling?
“The boyfriend,” he said, still gazing at the film.
She stared at him. “What boyfriend?”
“Women like her. There’s always a boyfriend. Some brutal little red-neck thug, is what I’m thinking.” He smiled dreamily to himself. “Likes to play with guns.”
At noon, the dancer arrived abruptly through the clinic door, and sure enough, she had the pug-nosed boyfriend in tow. His colorless face was dazed and a little goofy, the ears and Adam’s apple prominent. Cassandra braced herself for Joel to gloat as they spied on the scene. He nearly winced instead, looking offended, and hissed to her, “What is she doing with that wiener?”
Gruff-voiced, closed in the exam room with Wendy and the dancer like a truant kid in the principal’s office, the boyfriend echoed the dancer’s surprise—he didn’t know how that bird might have been shot. Except, well, he had been cleaning his guns. And, oh yeah, come to think, one had gone off, accidentally, but not anywheres near the bird that he knew of. Though the bird had kind of squawked, you know? Like at the noise? Then it must have been the next day they noticed the bird sick.
The clinic staff watched the couple depart in a blindingly new blue truck with tires too big for it. “Cleaning his guns my ass,” Wendy said. “He flat-out shot that bird. You know he did. And probably because of the screaming.”
Cockatoos scream. Cassandra had heard Wendy attempt to explain to owner after owner the mysteries of a pet’s behavior—for instance, the natural way that birds communicate with others of their kind over distances. Cockatoos preferred morning and evening as particular times to shriek their feathered heads off. “Isn’t there anything I can do about it?” owners wanted to know, exasperated that the bird didn’t seem to know it was a cage pet in America and there were no distant flocks of its own kind waiting across the outback to answer those ear-splitting calls.
“Well,” Wendy added, “at least he was guilt-ridden enough to pay for the surgery. Not that it’s likely to do much good at this point.”
“I knew it would be the boyfriend did it.” Joel shook his head in commiseration. “And I knew she’d swallow that bullshit story too—go right back home with him.” His eyes connected meaningfully with Wendy’s—his you-know-what-I’m-talking-about look. We go way back, the look said. Remember how I came before everyone else. “I bet she’ll stay with him. That’s some messed up relationship right there. Next they’ll have kids, you know?”
“Oh, god!” Wendy laughed. “Now there’s a pair that has no business reproducing!”
“Like, we’re talking Burt Harmon and that what’s-her-name girl.”
“Sarah Verner! They were the worst! Talk about co-dependent.” Blue eyes flashing, she turned to Cassandra. “This couple we used to know, well, if you want to call them a couple—”
But before she could explain, Joel thought of another hilarious name that succeeded in roping Wendy back into their shared past. Cassandra turned away with a sour swallow. The talk of coupling and reproduction made her think about the cockatiels that Wendy bred in the clinic basement. Grays, cinnamons, pieds, lutinos—the birds were matched in creative color combinations, Wendy kissing the squeaking birds right on their crested heads before setting them in cages with their new mates. These two should be together. How did she know? Cassandra always watched the pairings closely, hoping to catch some glimmer of whatever vision led Wendy toward one bird and then another. “You just get a feel for it,” Wendy said—like she said of so many other things about exotics. And by the warm encouragement of her voice, Cassandra knew the you had become specific, that Cassandra’s own natural aptitude was being recognized. That was when it had been just the two of them working together among the animals, teacher and apprentice.
Wendy gave Joel a playful poke under the collarbone. “You’re on surgery with me. Cass…” She curled her tongue over her front teeth, looking around the little clinic as if there simply weren’t enough to do. “You can clean that tortoise incubator.”
“I’m sure I can,” Cassandra said grimly. She didn’t think her voice betrayed any of her devastation, her creeping, desperate fear of impending loss.
Singing pieces of a Whitney Houston song, Joel went into the surgery room and adjusted the angle of the light over the table. He set a pack of wrapped instruments—the cooked cloth, Cassandra knew, would still be warm-smelling from the autoclave—on the tray cart, then rolled in the anesthesia machine and plugged the oxygen and isoflourane lines into the wall outlets. Over the bright silver of the table, he spread a heating pad and clean towel and last, arranged with a deliberate curve like a still life, the hose and mask that would fit over the cockatoo’s head for the bullet extraction. He wasn’t dancing, exactly, and yet his motions seemed dance-like on some level just beyond physical reality, as if he were imagining his own higher possibilities. He concluded with a little bow from the waist, his feet in second position, and Cassandra, scrubbing the incubator in the next room, his only audience. She imagined curling to bite herself. Yanking out the hairs on her head one by one.
After lunch, the cockatoo’s procedure began. Since Joel and Wendy needed no assistance, Cassandra took over at the front desk while Denise went out for lunch. The desk sat in the middle of the glassed-in lobby, three steps down from the main clinic in what must have been the former garage of the house. She glanced idly through patient files, then began making random calls—long distance, out of spite. She tried her sister in Michigan—no answer—then an old friend from college, and next a former boyfriend in California whom she hadn’t thought about in years. No answer. But why would she think any of these people would be home for her? The three failures in a row slumped her in the chair. What had happened to her life? Even this pitiful, low-paying job, which didn’t even require her college degree—this job she cared about so deeply that she herself was sometimes baffled by the strength of the attachment—was slipping out of her grasp.
The doorbell tinkled and Cassandra looked up, expecting Denise. It was the dancer again. With the brightness of all the glass behind her, the woman’s face was grayed with soft shadow, and Cassandra couldn’t read her expression. She hesitated there a moment before moving to sit in one of the lobby’s jungle-print rattan chairs. Perched at the edge of the cushion, she lifted a copy of Bird Talk and laid it open across her knees, more like a small blanket than something to read. Her large eyes, drawn to a wide, grim stare, met Cassandra’s in a way that seemed to invoke their shared awareness of dire circumstances.
“He’s in surgery now,” Cassandra said. “You want me to check on him?”
“No. No, I’d really rather you didn’t, if that’s okay.” Her stare shifted to the hallway behind Cassandra’s desk.
Cassandra waited again, finally asked, “Did you just come to wait on him?”
She sighed. “I don’t know. I guess.” Her face was mournfully serious, half in the bright gold afternoon light and half in shadow, with wisps of escaped hair fallen along both sides. Joel was right, Cassandra thought. She really was beautiful in the right light—poignantly so, with eyes out of a pre-Raphaelite painting. The idea of her on a stage obscured by smoke, humping a pole, struck Cassandra now as a pitiful failing of potential. This, at least, was a life worse than her own—performing the same dance every night, naked and miming lust for a room of blanked-out male gazes, and somewhere among the faces, surely, the equally vacuous face of that boyfriend. How did she live that life?
Of course, maybe she wasn’t a dancer at all. Maybe she was a check-out girl at the K-Mart. Or she read tarot cards out of her trailer, a sort of trash visionary. But no, she wouldn’t fit another life. Even now, she glanced down to examine the waxed amber gloss of her own outstretched legs, one lifted to cross over the other. The upper foot, which idly swiveled to flex the calf, remained all the while arched to accommodate an invisible nine-inch heel, like a Barbie foot.
“You can stay here as long as you want,” Cassandra said.
The woman blinked up at her.
“I mean, I can understand why you might not want to go home.”
The boyfriend, she was thinking. At home you have a boyfriend who plays with guns. And you must know, you must be thinking even now though you’d never say it aloud, that next he will shoot you, or he will shoot the child you haven’t borne him yet. This seemed to be the unspoken thing that hung in the room between them.
But the dancer only scratched beneath her streaked ponytail and said, “I’m kind of used to Oscar being there.”
“No, I mean . . .” Cassandra stopped herself, not knowing how to finish the sentence.
“I know what you mean.” The dancer studied her left shin bone. Cassandra had no idea if she understood at all.
“There are people you can call . . .” she began, hopeless for the right words, but the dancer cut her off with a strained, humorless laugh.
“It’d probably be just as well if he died anyway. He’s kind of a pain. You know, all the feathers and dust everywhere, kicking that bird seed all over. And then, it’s like, he screams. Chris can’t stand him sometimes.” She shook her head, staring at a potted palm.
Cassandra frowned. “How long have you had him?” She felt an impertinent itch to launch into her lecture on the evils of a bird-seed diet.
The dancer shrugged. “A year or two. I guess I shouldn’t say mean things at a time like this. He’s really a sweet bird. He just does like is natural to him.” She slumped into the back of the chair, blowing a loose strand of hair from her face. “So, you—you’re like the vet’s assistant?”
“That’s got to be an easy job, huh? You get to hold animals for a living? I could do that.”
Cassandra stiffened. “Well, it’s more than that. I’m just doing this while I’m waiting to get into vet school. I’m planning to specialize in exotic medicine, which is very competitive.” The dancer lifted one leg straight out before her chair, toe pointed; the magazine on her knee slumped to the floor. Cassandra sharpened her voice. “Working here just happens to be really good experience for what I plan to do.”
“You think she needs any more assistants?” The dancer admired her leg.
“No. I’d say we’re full up.”
So many of their clients, in Cassandra’s experience, were exactly like this woman—hopeless idiots. It was the unfortunate lot of exotic animals to attract stupid people, people who saw them as status symbols or amusing decorations. Cassandra’s head buzzed with ten different defensive lectures, on the complexity of avian medicine, on the difficulty of dealing with ignorant clients, of cleaning up the medical messes they created, on the very basics of proper bird care. But she knew it would all be a waste of effort. Instead she took a calming breath and said, carefully, “I wouldn’t put up with that. A man who would pull a gun on a helpless animal. I wouldn’t let him back in the door, if I were you.”
The dancer gave her a level stare. “It was an accident.”
“You believe that?”
“He’s my boyfriend, okay?” She flushed. “Who do you sleep with?”
Cassandra kept quiet. The question struck her as a strange one.
“Well?” The dancer tilted her head with a haughty, injured look. “I bet you have it perfect, huh? I bet you have it all worked out.” She tapped her frosty-pink nails on the chair’s wooden arm.
“Look, maybe it’s not my place.” She braced for the dancer’s return fire and was relieved to see her slump again in the chair, looking tired. The anger had drained from her face as suddenly as it flared. “I take it all back,” Cassandra said.
The dancer turned a mild gaze on her. “No, really. I want to know. Who do you sleep with?” Each word had a crisper edge than the last.
Cassandra was determined now to stay even-tempered, to show no offense. “No one.”
“Oh. Well. I guess you wouldn’t know then.”
“I’ve had boyfriends,” she said.
The dancer peered at her keenly. “When was the last time you had sex?”
“About a month ago,” she said. Actually it had been six months, but what was the difference? She felt herself being pushed farther down this road where she was no longer sure of her footing, but didn’t seem able to stop it. “I realized the relationship wasn’t good for me and I ended it.”
The dancer smiled with closed lips. “And now I guess you’re happy. Well, goody for you then.”
Cassandra wanted to say more. There was something important in her own story, though her boyfriend hadn’t been violent, or stupid, hadn’t owned any guns. His single substantial flaw, in fact, was that he was already married and, as Cassandra had come to realize after many months, was going to stay that way. She thought of him as the one man she’d ever loved, and now her notion of love was embittered with the helplessness of those months, the inertia of need, the fear of having her whole self tangled up in another person who wasn’t really hers and could break their bond in a blink of his eyes.
Now he was back with his wife; probably he never gave Cassandra a thought. And after so many months, it no longer bothered her. She thought of it as a childish phase she had grown out of. “I thought I needed him,” she told the dancer, not knowing if her words made any sense. “I believed that, for a while.”
“I don’t need anyone,” the dancer said, her voice hard, eyes turned toward the glass and filled with the light from outside.
They were silent for several minutes, and Cassandra heard Wendy’s flat-footed, soldier-boy strides tromping down the hall, into the bathroom. Instantly she forgot the dancer, her ears attuned to the beat of those footsteps. Wendy’s mood, always mercurial, had fallen now into an ominous register—Cassandra had learned to sense its clues. Certainly Joel couldn’t tell as much, not even from the same room with her. Of course not. What did he know about anything, Wendy or avian anesthesia or anything else? He still hadn’t learned how to restrain a parrot properly, let alone a chinchilla or a three-foot monitor lizard. But Cassandra was the one trapped at the front desk, shut out, banished.
In the next minute, Denise returned from lunch, and Cassandra stood. “I should check on Oscar,” she said. The dancer looked out the window and didn’t respond.
She went back past the bathroom—cocking an ear toward the water running behind the closed door—back into the surgery suite. The cockatoo still lay on its side, taped to the table with one dingy wing spread back behind it. The gray skin over the bird’s ribs held a row of purple stitches. Joel removed the mask from its head, and it lay beak open, eyes closed, for some time before Cassandra realized that it wasn’t recovering consciousness. “It died?” she asked. “What happened?” She wanted to say, what did you do to it?
Joel shook his head and shrugged, eyes down. “It was just too weak,” he said, matter-of-factly. She wondered for a moment if he was crying, but decided that he wasn’t. “I guess she didn’t have a choice, you know? It would have died without surgery. So what do you do?”
Cassandra touched the bristly row of knots in the stitches—Wendy must have completed the surgery, fully closed the incision before the bird had stopped breathing. Maybe Joel hadn’t been watching closely enough. If it had been Cassandra, she would have monitored the bird’s heart rate and breathing every second, all the way to the end.
“Poor bird,” she said. Its body looked shrunken, abused, and she thought with sudden clarity of how it might have lived another life, screaming in a gum tree in the Australian outback among a hundred others. The dancer was probably right, in her way—he was better off dead. But Wendy would feel awful about it. She expected miracles of herself, would blame herself for failing, even knowing ahead of time the bird had little chance. Probably it died quickly, early in the surgery. It would be like Wendy to stitch carefully closed the wound on a corpse, as if the animal’s modesty were at stake.
Joel untaped the wings and picked up the bird, the head cradled in one hand and the body balanced along his forearm like a miniature dance partner half-lowered into a dip. “Maybe the owner will want to take him home. Do you think?”
Cassandra wasn’t sure he was speaking to her, though no one else was around. He gazed toward the empty doorway, looking lost, abandoned, as if the woman in question should have been waiting there and inexplicably was not. Tonight Wendy would go home to her strange little bearded librarian husband, her dogs and her birds. What did Joel go home to? He had recently moved to the city from Florida, and he owned no pets—but beyond that she realized she knew almost nothing about his life, less even than she knew about the owner of the bird.
“She’s out front,” Cassandra offered, which felt like a big concession on her part. “Wendy will talk to her and find out.”
“That woman?” Denise stood in the doorway behind her. “She took off.”
Cassandra blinked. “How come?”
But Denise had seen the bird. “Aw, it died, huh?” She stepped closer, taking hold of the bird’s limp wings and fanning them though the air. “Fly away, birdie,” she crooned. The gesture struck Cassandra as oddly tender, but Joel frowned and pulled the bird to his chest, out of the girl’s reach.
She listened while Wendy broke the news over the phone. Normally she would have noted the words Wendy chose to translate science, would have monitored the level of restrained emotion in her voice, all worthy of emulation. Now she found herself listening instead as if she herself were the dancer, harried and trapped, her pet newly dead. How would this call come to her? In spite of her basic antipathy for the dancer, who had made her own bed after all, Cassandra nevertheless hoped the call would spark some change. Maybe the change would be visible in her somehow when she returned for the bird.
But the one who showed up to retrieve the body was the boyfriend. Wendy and Joel were closed up in the exam room with another client and his pet, a red-tailed boa constrictor with a runny nose—typical snake complaint. Cassandra was cleaning out the incubator that had housed the cockatoo, making room for the new arrival, when Denise appeared in the door. “Uh, that guy . . .” she began, and the boyfriend pushed into the room behind her. “He’s here for the cockatoo,” she finished rapidly, round-eyed, and bolted out again.
Cassandra faced him with her hands poised a few inches from her sides, gunfighter style, a rag in one hand and the other on the trigger of a disinfectant bottle. The boyfriend matched her stance, holding an empty shoebox and its lid. She wondered if he carried the gun on him even now, perhaps tucked into his jeans at the small of his back, beneath his loose flannel shirt. He stood silent and blinking in a startled way, a flush building in his chalk-white cheeks that might have been rage ready to explode, or it might as easily have been embarrassment, the looming threat of tears.
“I’ll get him,” Cassandra said, surprised at the hardness in her voice—anger on the verge of sarcasm. She felt no fear. She turned her back on him and walked without hurry into the next room, to the freezer where Oscar lay on a shelf, hardening to the shape of the metal rack. He wasn’t yet fully frozen, and his head drooped when she lifted him. The boyfriend, beside her now, held out the box, and she placed the bird inside, arranging him with the purple stitches upward.
“So that’s it, huh?” He studied the white body, then glanced up at her, as if she might have tricked him with a different bird. In his hesitation, he seemed to be truly asking her this question, as if she would advise him on what to do next.
“Denise has your bill,” she said, a little more gently because the bird was dead, after all, and there was something in his expression, a kind of dopey sadness, that seemed to acknowledge his own blame for the contents of the box, which he must now carry home to the dancer. “Up front.”
He set his mouth in a rigid line, left her without another word. Obediently, he stopped at the front to pay the bill, and Cassandra almost wished she could follow him home, witness the scene to follow.
The next day, Wendy got a call. “I just want you to know,” the boyfriend told her, “you ain’t gonna get away with it. It’s malpractice, what you did. And we’re gonna sue you for the value of the bird and the emotional distress we been put through over this, on account of you said it just needed surgery. And any doctor ought to be able to do a surgery without killing a bird. My lawyer’s gonna tear you up.”
Wendy performed the call for her employees a number of times. “Can you believe this guy?” Her tone vacillated between horror and amusement. “First he shoots the bird point-blank…”
Joel scoffed. “That piece of white trash does not have a lawyer.”
“Oh, I know. And he’s got no case. Still, you don’t even want to know the financial trouble I’m in with this clinic right now.” She glanced back and forth from Joel to Cassandra grimly, as if preparing them. “If he really sued . . . that’d be it for this place. Just the legal fees.”
She sat at the desk and began chewing a thumbnail. She wouldn’t tell them all of it, how deeply worried she was about the future of her practice, but Cassandra saw it all in one brief pinch of the vet’s eyebrows. “He’s not going to sue,” she assured Wendy. Joel was out of hearing, rinsing the clean surgical instruments at the sink. She thought about putting a hand on her shoulder but couldn’t bring herself to do it. “He’s just harassing you for the girlfriend’s benefit.”
“Yeah?” Wendy looked up at her hopefully, as if she might really have the future in view.
Cassandra nodded. And she knew this was the truth. In the boyfriend’s tirade was the certain presence of his girlfriend in the background. Someone else, the dancer must be made to understand, was to blame for her loss. Nothing had happened the way she knew in her heart it had. It had been only a small household incident, hardly a scratch, turned to tragedy by some vet’s incompetence. It was the only thing she could believe and still go on being with him, and so she believed, because the unknown of the alternative was too awful to face. Maybe there was nothing else anywhere that would be this good. So when, in the next breath, the boyfriend grew large-hearted and suggested they forgive and forget, just try to get past it together, on their own, she would nod tearfully and love him even more for it.
“Hope you’re right,” Wendy said. She turned to her computer and began to type notes on the boa’s mouth infection.
Joel had removed the boa in heavy, drooping loops from the incubator, and Cassandra, listless, went to take an automatic two-handed grip of the evasive head. She couldn’t help sensing the loss of this job approaching. It would be her, cut loose. The truth at that moment seemed simple, a fact unclouded by emotion, like metal on X-ray film. In a year, she would be someone other than this low-paid tech, duty-bound to pin a snake’s head so that Joel could swab along the seam of its mouth with a culture curette.
“That’s a good snakie,” Joel murmured to it. In the neutral light of Cassandra’s new awareness, he paused—Joel the chosen—to scratch the snake’s flat skull plate with a fingernail, and the dancer’s question came back to her unbidden. Who do you sleep with? It was the wrong question. But they exchanged a brief smile as together they hefted the awkward coils of reptile back into the incubator, and it occurred to her for the first time that this person could be a friend, if she knew how to make him one, if she could bring herself to set aside, for even a brief time, the anxiety of this job.
“Do you ever go dancing?” she asked him.
“Never.” He spoke in Wendy’s usual tone for animals, as if speaking to the snake, which had settled back into stillness in its new home. “Not here, at least. Back in Tampa, I had a boyfriend—we used to go dancing all the time. But that ended.” He glanced at her confidingly. “You know, it always does.”
He began to wrap the clean surgical instruments at the counter, and Cassandra, having no pressing task, wandered back to the incubator. The snake’s broad, raw, blunted nose pressed close to the glass, reptilian breath fogging a small, circular patch every thirty seconds or so. She touched the spot with her fingertips. The snake remained motionless, unaware of her. Its body, mottled in dusky reds and browns, barely fit between the glass walls—coils upon coils in an incubator-shaped block, so fat it might have swallowed the bird so recently in its place.
THE STORY BEHIND THE STORY
I have no memory of when I wrote this story. In graduate school? Sometime after? I know I was teaching at my first tenure-track job in Morehead, Kentucky, when I sent it to The Kenyon Review and received kind responses back from David Lynn and Nancy Zafris. They liked the story but felt the ending wasn’t quite working. Most editors would send a breezy rejection note to that effect, with a request to see other work in the future. They, instead, asked me to rewrite the ending and resubmit. Twice. They didn’t tell me how, just said “Try it again.” I’ve always appreciated that. Journal editors are busy people with a lot of good work to read. I am one now, so I know how easy it is, with an only-pretty-good story, to reject and move on, how dicey and ill-advised it can be to reach out to a new writer who may not have the needed revision in her, assuming she doesn’t respond with defensiveness or hostility. For an editor, it’s a lot safer and simpler to reject, or conversely, to simply accept a piece that’s good enough, when it could be better. David and Nancy took the risk and the time to ask for changes, and I’m immensely grateful for it. I no longer recall exactly how the original was different, but I know it was a limper thing, that I felt the snap in the revision and great relief to have it and not the first version in print.
The inspiration for the story is not too mysterious. I used to work as a technician in a vet clinic specializing in exotic animals. The general situation and the characters are all inventions, but this is one of my rare stories in which the central incident is lifted more or less straight from life as it happened. I once envisioned a whole collection of stories based on crazy true-life incidents from the vet clinic. But I never got around to it, and now I’ve forgotten them all.
ABOUT SHERI JOSEPH
Sheri Joseph is the author of two novels, Where You Can Find Me and Stray, and a cycle of stories, Bear Me Safely Over. She has been awarded a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship and the Grub Street National Book Prize in fiction, as well as numerous residency fellowships including MacDowell and Yaddo. She lives in Atlanta, where she teaches in the creative writing program at Georgia State University and serves as fiction editor of Five Points.