Palo Alto Weekly 27th Annual Short Story Contest
Third Place Adult

Captive-Bred Birds
by Jane Moorman

 “You’re lucky you’re a minor. They dropped the charges this time,” said the
Youth-At-Risk counselor.  All Ricky could think of was that the pimple on the guy’s nostril had finally pressured up to a head and someone should just pop it. “You’ve got to get your High School Equivalency Diploma,” said the counselor, “and, you’ve got to get a job.”
Ricky changed out of his court clothes into a sleeveless shirt that would show off the Eagle tattoo on the back of his neck, its scalloped blue wings curving over the tops of his shoulders. For his court appearance, his mother had cut off his trademark red-dyed pony tail. She tried to use the buzz clippers to trim his hair in the latest style, but she wasn’t in such a good state to operate machinery, so he made her just shave his head.
He picked up a couple of beers and some cookies at the corner store and headed over to see who was hanging at their spot in the White Lady’s overgrown backyard.
The Lady’s dog ate his shut-up cookie and followed Ricky through the hedge, way back to the dilapidated chicken coop built long ago, before the white people moved away. It was overgrown with brambles and shaded by a grove of trees, very tall pines, the only ones around that hadn’t been cut down to make way for housing and shopping centers and the freeway. The White Lady never complained about her yard being used as a social club for drinking, smoking, and planning activities. She only came out of her house to hang her laundry out to dry.
The beer top popped with a whoosh and Ricky let out his own sigh. “That was close, man,” he told the dog who licked old burrito wrappers. “Where do you think everyone is?  Aren’t they coming to celebrate that I got off the rap?” Ricky heard his cousin’s misfiring Chevrolet engine and car stereo’s thumping bass woofer. The car passed by and the sound faded into the dull growl of the freeway. The dog lay down while Ricky finished his beer and opened the second can.
Ricky decided to go find his friends but knew it would be better not to be on the street with an open container. He knew his Youth-At- Risk counselor would be impressed that he was showing such maturity. He guzzled the beer, wound-up his pitching arm, and threw the beer can at a flowered apron hanging on the clothesline.

For the first three months Ricky worked at the court appointed job at the pet store, he was just a sweep-up boy. He hoisted sacks of pet food and collected the trash bags of soggy, smelly shredded paper from the bottoms of the bird cages left by Albert, the bird handler.  He got to know the squawks of each bird. The Blue Amazon Parrot spoke some French, and the African Gray knew some baseball jargon. Montezuma, the Mexican Red-Headed Parrot could imitate a barking dog, which reminded Ricky of the code his friends used as a warning that the cops were coming.
Ricky’s counselor told him to stop skipping high school equivalency classes. But, he seemed pleased when Ricky reported that he was learning to do inventory. He wrote in Ricky’s file, “Willingness to increase Math skills.”
Behind the stockroom next to the loading dock was an area that customers never saw. Puppies were exercised on artificial grass. A huge aquarium with a loud industrial pump was divided into compartments for each species of fish. There were no cute figurines of mermaids or sunken treasure decorating the tank. Along the wall in glass cages warmed by bright lights, were the snakes. Within sight of the snakes, were the cages of feeder mice.
Ricky saw Tina, an after school employee, leaning over a cage of squirming mice. She twirled the squeaky exercise wheel and picked up a mouse with markings like a pinto pony and perched it on one shoulder.  Ricky saw a white mouse on her other shoulder peeking through her long dark hair.
“Here, Ricky,” she reached into the cage and offered him a black mouse. “Would you like to hold him?”
“No thanks,” he said with a grimace. Her shiny bangs usually hid her eyes, but when she looked up, he saw that she had one blue eye and one greenish eye flecked with gold. Slowly, he extended his arm and let her put the mouse in his hand. The soft whiskers tickled. “Why bother playing with them?” he asked. “Aren’t they just going to get eaten by those snakes?”
“The mice deserve a normal life until then,” she said opening her notebook. “These mice are almost mature. I’ve got to decide which ones to breed.”
“Why do you decide? They know how to have babies.” Ricky smiled.
“It’s not that simple.  If your black mouse mated with this white mouse, what color would the babies be?”
“Gray.”
“No, it’s more complicated. Some traits are dominant and some are recessive. Some characteristics are linked with others. I’ve been tracking these breeding lines for generations to produce the best mice for the snakes. I have calculated the probabilities and know which ones will mature the fastest. A certain percent of offspring of the white mouse and the black mouse will be white, some black, and a few will be spotted.”
“Listen, Girl,” said Ricky raising his voice, “My mother is light skinned and she says my father was dark, but I’m no pinto.” He held the mouse by its tail and dropped it in the cage. “Keep your vermin.” He walked off lugging a carton of rhinestone kitty collars to display in the pet accessories department.
The next day, he found Tina and offered her half of his sandwich he had saved from his lunch. “Sorry I got so fumed yesterday.”  He pulled out his high school equivalency workbook. “Maybe you could help me with Math?”

The counselor had told Ricky’s boss to keep him away from the cash register. But after a few months he was allowed to greet customers. “And,” said his boss, “I think you’ve got a knack for bird handling. Albert will train you.”
Ricky followed Albert into the Mexican Parrot’s cage. “Look him in the eye and say his name,” Albert instructed.
“Montezuma.” Ricky said.
He watched the parrot’s black slug-like tongue twist as it formed the sounds and repeated, “Montezuma.” Ricky scratched his neck feathers and slid his hand down the length of his long red tail to the curl at the end. If Montezuma had hatched in the Mexican jungle, instead of having been bred in captivity, he probably would have been killed for his magnificent feathers.
Albert showed Ricky how to set up the water bottle and how to clean the bars of the cage.  “Montezuma’s main entertainment is untying this old rope, so tie it up in a more difficult configuration every day.” Albert said as he left the cage.
Montezuma put one foot on Ricky’s shoulder and gently pecked at his unevenly grown out hair, grooming and flattening the strands as if they were feathers.
When the customer entry bell chimed its over amplified ding-dong, Montezuma squawked and imitated the sound exactly.  Ricky recognized the new customer who used to hang out on the corner before all the bad stuff went down.  His red- dyed pony tail was gelled into a spike down his back. A thick key chain weighed his pants down on the right side, revealing a scar that was not from an appendix operation.
Without a glint of recognition, Ricky said, “May I help you?”
“I thought you were locked up. Oh, yeah,” the customer said as he jangled his keys, “now I remember, you snitched and got let off.”
Ricky continued as his boss had instructed, “May I help you with some pet supplies?”
 “I need a dog,” he said stroll-walking towards the puppy pens.
Ricky narrowed his eyes. “We don’t sell pit bulls.” 
 “Don’t get excited, man. I want a tiny dog for my girl to carry in her purse. It’s called Petite size.” He rapped his knuckles on the cage. “Let me hold that Wizard of Oz Dog.”
“Toto was a Cairn Terrier,” said Ricky clearly. “This dog is a Brussels Griffon. We can’t let anyone hold the dogs. For health reasons.”
“I’m not afraid of a bitty dog bite.”
“We’re not worried about you.”
The customer put his hand on his eagle shaped earring, pinching it slowly, up and down. “You remember what this signal means, don’t you?” He ambled to the doorway, his chains rattling, and then stood still, causing the ding-dong to repeat in a constant scratchy rhythm.
Montezuma imitated the repeated two note pulse of the ding-dong after the customer left. He flapped his wings exciting the other birds.  The African gray parrot piped in with, “It’s Babe Ruth, and the bases are loaded.” 
“C’est si Bon,” sang the Amazon Blue Parrot. The other caged birds called and screeched.  The pet shop erupted into jungle storm of shrieks and raucous hoots. When the puppies began yelping, Montezuma copied the barking.  Above the frenzy, Ricky could hear the wail of a terrified child who had been choosing his first bunny.

The pet store manager said “Ricky, we’ll keep you away from the customers for a while longer. But you’re getting good at handling the birds.  A new shipment of Zebra Finches is coming in next week. Albert is leaving to manage the other store. Can you handle the bird release?”
Ricky went straight home after work to read his bird care manual while his mother soaked her sore feet. He told her about the baby Zebra Finch that had hatched at the store a couple of months before, but had been rejected by its mother. Albert had shown Ricky how to hand-feed the fragile bird.  Ricky watched him grow into a healthy adult with a striking black and white pattern and red cheeks. Ricky had learned to imitate his call, a series of clicks ending in a silvery trill, before he was sold to a blond lady with twins daughters.
 When Albert released the previous month’s shipment of Zebra finches into the large aviary, only nine had lived. Five died. Ricky knew that was not a good survival percentage.  He had felt helpless watching two males fly toward the light of the summer day shining through the storefront window. They hit their heads and dropped dead. A female had a heart attack when two stronger birds swooped at her with their tails widespread, pecking her with their flame orange beaks. Two others were found dead the following morning. “I’ve got to do better this time.  I don’t want any losses,” Ricky told his mother while she watched TV.
On Wednesday morning, ten Zebra finches were delivered in separate cartons. Ricky fed and watered each bird and placed the cartons in the aviary to give them some time to get familiar and communicate with their new flock.  In the late afternoon, he lowered the store’s window shade and tied some tufts of dried grass to the bars of the cage so the new birds could hide if the alpha birds attempted an ousting. He set up some extra branches he had collected from the White Lady’s yard.
He had read that in captivity, there should always be more females than males, otherwise the males will fight each other to the death. He opened one box and gently held a female, letting her beak peak out between his fingers. He could feel the tiny heartbeat as he released her.  She fluttered her wings creating a draught of air as she tried to escape the dives of three older females before she hid in a clump of grass.  When he released the other female, she perched first on the lowest branch, then flew to next highest. With a racket of cackles, a large male swooped down on her back in mating posture for a few seconds and flew away.   Ricky was relieved that both birds would survive.
He heard chirping coming from the remaining containers. The birds wanted their freedom to fly in the aviary. If he released too many at a time, it could all go wrong. Ricky knew, at least for the moment, they were safe in their dark boxes.  I’ll release the rest tomorrow, he thought.
Tina spoke to him through the bars of the aviary, “There’s nothing you can do, Ricky. One bird might die. More than one might die. You can’t keep them protected in tiny boxes. Release them all. Go home. Let the birds determine their own pecking order.”

*

When the bus left him on his corner, only a couple of the younger boys were smoking in the parking lot. The hems of their pants dragged in oil and brake fluid stains. The boys’ bored chubby faces looked up at him, hoping for action. Ricky walked on to the White Lady’s where no one congregated anymore.   
He gave the dog a high protein biscuit for medium dogs. He heard the crack of a baseball bat and children’s cheers at the schoolyard. The ice cream truck was circling the block, and he hummed along with the nursery rhyme melody.
He recognized the calls of two male crows marking their territory. A pine branch dipped when one flew away. He took out his binoculars and watched five snowy plovers fly over the treetops towards the dump. The White Lady’s pine trees were so tall people from all over could see them before the Furniture Depot was built, blocking the view.
Ricky heard chirping and rustling in the branches. He saw occasional flashes of yellow and heard twittering and short calls combined with long zweeeeeeet sounds. He tried to imitate the call and checked his bird identification book. Could these birds be Pine Siskins? Their habitat was much farther north, he read. They are in the same family as the Zebra finches with powerful beaks specially adapted to extracting seeds from pine cones. 
 “These birds have come to feed here in the White Lady’s little pine grove in the middle of all these buildings,” Ricky whispered to the dog.
A gust of wind rocked the branches. He watched the birds take wing and swoop out of the trees. They veered in unison, a curtain of birds, banking towards the bay, their bodies diminishing into slim curves as they circled, soaring over apartment buildings, past the Furniture Depot, flying away, across the freeway.