When April and I had first moved into the house on Bacon Street, my best friend and ex-housemate, Allan, stayed in our spare bedroom for a year. Allan brought Sam with him. Sam lived in the corner at the top of the stairs in a big wrought iron cage. Sam was an African Grey Parrot. Sam and I had an ambivalent relationship that extended back to when he, Allan, and I had all shared a house together in Lemon Grove. Lemon Grove, by the way, is the exact opposite of what it sounds like. There are no groves there, lemon or otherwise.
In Lemon Grove, Sam talked, mimicked sounds, and sometimes he even spoke my name—mostly with affection, I thought. When Allan allowed Sam out of his cage and placed him on his portable parrot stand near the front door, Sam was more likely to speak my name then, than at any other time. “Hey, Quill,” he said softly, fetchingly. “Hey, Quill,” he repeated, rubbing the sides of his beak on the stand’s perch, like a knife’s blade on a whetstone. Smiling, I neared Sam with my hand out to stroke his attractive gray feathers. He allowed me to pat him—most of the time. But on rare occasions, just as my hand was about to make contact with him, he’d let me have it. His sharp beak bit down on the side or back of my hand with a force that didn’t seem possible from an animal that couldn’t have weighed much more than a kaiser roll. "Jesus Christ!" I shouted in pain. "Let go of me you little bastard!"
But Sam didn't let go, as a matter of fact he took it up a notch and bit down harder. A sizable fold of my flesh vanished inside his beak as if it were a fleece blanket stuck deep between a mattress and a box spring. Ratcheting tighter and tighter, his beak continued to clamp down, and if I didn't know better I would have sworn he was smiling. After another long moment of my cursing and Sam biting, he finally released me. Surrounded by red pinched skin, the cut Sam left on my hand could easily rival that left by a pair of channel locks.
One day I realized that Sam only bit me when Allan wasn’t in the room. Furnished with this knowledge, I only touched Sam when Allan was present, and I was never bitten again. Even after I’d caught on to him, Sam continued to whisper my name, but it seemed sarcastic.
Sam had an impressive vocabulary, but sounds rather than words seemed to be his true forte. In Lemon Grove we lived across the street from a fire station. When a fire was underway, an alarm sounded, alerting the firemen to prepare themselves for duty. The alarm was three progressive tones sandwiched together in an abrasive cacophony of obnoxiousness. First, a muddled bass tone bellowed out across the neighborhood, this was followed by a jarring midrange howl, and then the entire thing concluded with a shrill fingernails-on-a-chalkboard screech. Sam could imitate the entire alarm to perfection, and he did. Often.
The telephone was another wonderful thing for him to imitate. Personally, I refused to answer the phone when it rang (this practice still continues for me today). I always waited for the machine or Allan to answer it. It’s not that I’m antisocial, it’s just that I don’t want to get into a whole big thing with whoever is on the other end. If people would just keep it short and cut to the chase, then things would be fine. If all my phone conversations went as follows, I’d have no qualms about answering the phone.
Other person: “Hey, it’s me.”
Me: “How’s it going?”
Other person: “Great.”
Me: “Still going to the movies?”
Other person: “Yeah.”
Me: “At five, right?”
Other person: “Yeah.”
Me: “Cool. I’ll see you then, okay?”
Other person: “Sounds good. Later on.”
Me: “Yeah, later on.”
But this isn’t the way phone conversations go. They’re long, drawn out affairs that can last anywhere from ten minutes, if you’re lucky, to an hour or beyond. Even at the hair salon where I used to work, if I answered the phone and it was one of my own clients calling to see if I was in that day, I’d pretend I wasn’t me. “Uh, yes, he’s here today,” I’d say without bothering to disguise my voice. “Would you like to make an appointment with him?” No one ever challenged me on this (although I often heard hesitating confirmations, “Uh … yes, I ‘would’ like to make an appointment with him,” and I knew the question: “Is ‘this’ Quill?” was at the tip of their tongues, and if they “had” asked I would have continued the lie by quickly scanning the shop for the first male hairdresser that was there that day besides me, “No, this is, uh—Michael,” thereby taking me to a bolder and more advanced level of deception), but, obviously, some of my clients who called were suspicious.
Parrots imitate what they hear. Since I never answered the phone, this is what Sam heard and was soon able to mimic flawlessly, phone included:
Allan: “Hello? Yeah, just a second. Hey, Quill!” Then I’d come into the room and talk to whoever happened to be on the line.
This always amused our visiting friends. Three or four of us would be sitting around the living room, drinking beer, when Sam, who had remained silent for the past hour, would then, with no provocation, say: “Ring! Ring! Hello? Yeah, just a second. Hey, Quill!”
When Sam imitated Allan and the phone, I didn’t really believe that he associated what he was saying with my actually coming into the room. But this wasn’t true, and it was proven to me. One morning, not long after Sam had begun imitating Allan answering the phone, Sam and I were alone in the house. I was watching The Price Is Right on TV in my room, and Sam was in his cage by the large window in the living room. Suddenly Sam began to scream and flap his wings excitedly. “Hey, Quill!” he cried. “Hey, Quill!” Wondering what was the matter I went into the living room. One of the gardeners was near the large window trimming the nearby shrubs with a loud gas-powered edger. When I entered the room Sam stopped calling my name. The fact that Sam hadn’t included the ringing of the telephone or the, “Hello? Yeah, just a second,” part proved to me that Sam understood, at least vaguely, what he was saying. Sam looked at me, pleadingly, to save him. I felt bad, and I approached his cage to let him out and put him on his portable parrot stand away from the gardener’s loud machine. My fingers touched the latch on his cage, but then, at the last minute, I pulled away … that glint in his eye, was it fear or cunning? I made my decision. Nice try, Sam, I thought, but you’re not biting me today. Then I walked out of the room to finish watching Bob Barker demonstrate his putting skills on The Price Is Right stage.