Standing at the upper end of Ballard Avenue close by the marine supply warehouses, the hotel gave a distinctly dowdy appearance, like a spinster standing in the back of old Victorian family tintypes. The only relief to the unassuming facade of the two story red brick building was the floor to ceiling bay windows on the upper floor.
The first floor of the building had long ago been gutted and converted to self storage. The old rooms on the upper floor were converted to studio apartments. Mine is the studio in the northwest corner. Few years ago I enjoyed some small success with the lottery. So I no longer teach. Now I roast coffee out of one of the storage units below my studio. And I write. Mostly just snarky comments on political blogs. But I try.
From my bay window on the Ballard Avenue side I could look all the way down the tree lined street to the old Ballard City Hall bell tower, taking in the hustle and bustle of bars, restaurants, boutiques, and coffee shops. The trees lining the avenue burst with new buds, giving a green hue of expectancy to the village just coming out of the doldrums of a long dark soggy winter.
I placed the parrot stand, a stainless steel loop supporting a heavy manzanita perch, right in the bay window to allow the parrot an unobstructed view of the street outside. Charlie assured me the manzanita would hold up to the parrot's beak. The stainless steel loop had small rings attached to hang parrot toys. I made a mental note to get on my computer and order some parrot toys.
Tara had been eerily quiet since departing the market. As we drove north up Western Avenue toward Ballard I sipped my iced Americano and surreptitiously peeked to see how Tara was reacting to the ride. She fluffed her feathers out every time I peeked at her. She fixed one of her big black eyes on me as I drank the coffee. I seriously began to think I had been the victim of an elaborate scam.
So now was the time. The parrot stand stood in the window. I placed some of the parrot food in a dish at the end of the manzanita perch. I lifted the pet carrier up to the perch and opened the door.
I looked inside. Tara looked back defiantly.
"Step up," I said, remembering the command that Charlie had used. I waited.
"Step up," I repeated. "My arm's getting tired holding you up here."
"Put the box down," Tara suddenly said. I almost dropped the carrier. I placed the carrier on the floor as commanded. Moments later Tara waddled out, her huge feet giving her the gait of a duck. I remembered Charlie saying something about Tara honking.
I tentatively put my hand down to her and repeated the command, "Step up." Tara turned her head to peer up at me, hesitated, and then hopped on my hand and onto my arm. Her blue feathers fluffed out, glittering cobalt in the late afternoon sun streaming through the bay window.
Stepping back to the play stand I again demanded that she "Step Up."
"What do you want me to do with that?" Tara retorted, so clearly and certainly I almost flung her off my arm. Sensing my alarm, Tara grasped my arm so tightly her nails almost punctured my skin.
"Ouch. Dammit!" Tara ran up onto my shoulder and brushed her beak against my neck. "I love the way you smell," she said. "So much nicer than the bird shit I've been living with."
"What did you say?" I said, knowing perfectly well just what she had said.
"I need a cup of coffee. Bad. Can we?" she pleaded. The afternoon was verging into evening, but still pleasant outside.
"But I'd have to put you back in the carrier."
"No. Please no. I've been stuck in that cage and. . ." Tara fixed one coal black eye on me and gave me a forlorn look, if a parrot can be said to give forlorn looks. "Charlie let me out once after I got dumped in his place. And regretted it. I may have done something out of spite. Think he was scared of me. Think he suspected that I. . ." Tara trailed off. She asserted, "And rightfully so. He never let me out again. Until you showed up."
This conversation was so surreal it hadn't quite registered with me yet. Either I was nuts, or this bird was different. Most likely I was nuts. I know I've developed a bad habit of talking to myself on occasion. Now I was talking to a parrot. At least with the talking to myself part, I manage to keep from answering myself.
"But what's to keep you from flying away?" I asked.
"Why, coffee, silly man." I thought I saw the parrot wink at me. "I promise I won't. Fly away. And if I do I won't go far. Promise. I'll come back. Anyway, birds fly. That's what we do. So what's the big deal?"
The big deal was my suddenly empty bank account.
"So you just sit on my shoulder while I walk down the street?" I asked.
Guess I was going to become one of those crazy parrot people I saw around town. With an emphasis on the crazy. And anyone who caught me conversing with the parrot would be certain of it.
It took Tara and me a good half hour to walk the three or so blocks to Caffe Umbria, right by the old Ballard City Hall bell tower. The afterwork crowd started filling the sidewalks looking for food and drink and entertainment. Or just looking. Plus, I was a bit hesitant about making a spectacle of myself. But that couldn't be helped. Not with a breathtakingly beautiful blue bird on my shoulder.
"Is it real?"
"Is it a parrot?"
"Can I pet it?"
"Will it bite?"
"Does it talk?"
"Polly want a cracker?"
Women seemed particularly attracted to the parrot. Maybe Charlie had been right about that after all. Guys that stopped me generally had parrots of their own. Having a parrot drew parrot people out of the woodwork. Or brickwork in the case of downtown Ballard. Total strangers who wouldn't dream of looking a passing stranger in the eye suddenly demanded your time and attention just because of a parrot on your shoulder.
Thankfully I spotted empty chairs outside the coffee shop. I threw my jacket over one before heading inside to order coffee. My favorite barista worked behind the coffee bar.
"Hi Jean," I said. Linda Jean looked up and smiled with one of those pasty local television news anchor person smiles while pulling an espresso for another customer. Her smile warmed considerably when she recognized me. Her name tag read 'Linda', but she was Jean to her friends. Reasonably tall, her long brunette hair tied back in a ponytail, she looked athletic without looking like an athlete. She was at that age that was hard to guess. Not young. But not older. Her skin, what little was visible from under her clothing, denoted a damp and pallid Seattle winter long without sun. Brown brooding eyes matched her hair and gave her a faintly Slavic mystic. Black boots. Printed flowery leggings under a very short tan canvas skirt. Plain white cashmere sweater. A strange ensemble but Jean had the body to make the ensemble work. She was one of the two reasons I frequented this coffee shop. That and she pulled a very fine shot of espresso.
"Oh. My. God!" Jean's face showed her surprise when she realized what was on my shoulder. "You have a hyacinth macaw!" She laughed. "Of course you know that already. You need to tell me all about it. I'm due for a break. What'll it be?"
"Double tall iced Americano." My drink of choice. I drank iced Americanos summer, winter, spring, and fall. "And for your friend?" she jokingly inquired.
"Coffee," Tara interjected.
"What?" I said, craning my neck to look at Tara. I clearly heard what Tara said.
"And for your friend?" Jean repeated, thinking my question had been directed at her.
"Sorry Jean. I thought I heard Tara say something. You didn't hear her speak just now?"
"Coffee," Tara repeated. More customers got in line behind me.
"You didn't just hear that?" I asked Jean, tentatively. Jean looked at me quizzically.
"You know what, Jean. Give me a double tall latte instead. Hot."
"You'll have to sit outside with the bird. Health regulations and all. Okay, hon? I'll bring the coffee out to you." Jean in all the years I've know her had never before called me hon. I was starting to feel good about my decision to get the parrot.
I sat down outside with Tara. She gave my ear a hard pinch. "Ouch!" Several customers and passersby looked at me.
"What are you drinking? The coffee's mine." Before I could respond, trying to rub the pain out of my ear, Jean came out with my coffee and sat down at our table.
"Where did you ever get a hyacinth macaw?" she asked.
"Charlie's Bird Store, down at the market." Seattleites immediately know what you're talking about when you say, 'the market'.
"Wow. Double wow! My dream bird."
"Oh yeah? How did you know it's a hyacinth? Just this morning I would not have been able to tell you a hyacinth from a velociraptor. I didn't know anything about parrots before I walked into the store."
"I've shopped Charlie's. I have an African Grey parrot named Corky."
"You do? I didn't know that?"
"No reason to. I didn't know you were a parrot person."
"Before today, I didn't know either," I grinned. "I just picked her up this afternoon."
"No shit!" I liked a woman with a loose vocabulary. "The wing's clipped? You have a harness?"
"By clipped you mean shortened? No. She seems to be fully flighted."
"She? And she doesn't fly off? I'd be scared to death to take Corky out."
"Well, she hasn't yet. She promised she wouldn't."
"She what?" Jean asked quizzically. "I like you. You're funny. Does she talk? You haven't told me her name."
"Jean, meet Princess Tara."
"Hello," Tara said. Jean almost knocked over my coffee cup.
"She talks!" Jean exclaimed.
"You heard that?" I queried, hesitantly.
"Yes I did."
"She talks when she wants to. Sometimes I think I imagine her talking, but it's probably just in my head."
"What's with the princess bit?"
"Charlie says she's a real princess. Her parents are a Duke and a Duchess. Don't know if he means name or rank or what."
"Cool. You'll have to tell me more, but I need to get back to work. Sure you don't want some water or juice for Tara. I mean Princess Tara. Excuse me, your highness."
"The coffee will be fine," Tara stated.
"She's joking," I said.
"About what?" Jean asked.
"About drinking coffee," I replied.
"You're funny. I like guys with a sense of humor," she said, with a sly grin on her face. "Birds are so intelligent sometimes I imagine entire conversations with my grey." She got up. "Doubt Charlie told you, but coffee is bad for parrots. Caffeine is a neurotoxin."
"Mind your own business," Tara interjected as Jean hustled back into the shop. I couldn't tell if Jean heard that too. I wanted to be a guy that Jean thought was attractive funny. Not crazy funny.
So people could hear Tara talk. At least some of the time. I hadn't gone totally nuts yet. This was the first time Jean ever took a break with me. I didn't want it to be the last.
"Give me the coffee," Tara said, interrupting my daydream. Before I could respond she ran down my shoulder and plunked her beak in the cup. I had never seen a parrot drinking up close. Her black leathery tongue worked like a miniature paddle wheel, sloshing the coffee into her mandible. Then she raised her head and gurgled the coffee down her gullet. She easily drank two-thirds of the cup before I thought to push it away from her. "I want some of that too," I said.
"Did I ever miss that!" Tara said. And so it began.