The peg-legged parrot leaned from my shoulder and pressed his beak against the Governorís fat nose. Barnacle squawked, "Aarrr Matey! Yeíll be walking the plank if ye donít tell where the treasureís buried." Barnacle had a way with words, but when youíre the imaginary buddy of seven-year old Captain Ken, why not?
Half a lifetime later my most understanding wife, Linda, and I were returning from three weeks in Mexico. Jammed with another couple in a VW poptop, we had loaded the vehicle to the gunnels with everything we could find marked "hecho en Mexìco." We took that last detour to Tepic because the guidebook said we had to. Or did it mention something about wild parrots?
The intense squawk drew me through the mercado to a green conure. The parrot wasnít as large as I had hoped and no peg leg, but he was magnificent. Barnacle puffed his chest and shook his tail in welcome. He screeched what sounded like, "Free Me!"
"How many words does he speak?" I asked the vendor.
"Noventa," the man said, holding out the hand-made bamboo cage. Barnacle chewed on the door.
It must have been a coincidence that the parrot spoke as many words as he cost. Maybe he could teach me a little more Spanish. I put my finger forward to stroke his beak.
"Muy quidado!" the vendor said, stuffing my pesos in his pocket. His grin said I should have bargained, but Barnacle was no discount buddy.
"Damn, he tried to bite me," I yelled, jerking back my bleeding finger.
Barnacle squawked a shrill note. He shook his tail, throwing caca about. The vendor had disappeared.
"I hope he doesnít have parrot fever," Linda said, offering a tissue.
"A kind of pneumonia, but itís usually not too fatal."
"You shouldnít know those things. I hope the alcohol in a cerveza is part of the cure, because the next victory round is on me." I lofted Barnacleís cage high in triumph. He held on with his beak, or was he chewing on the bars?
The next day we skimmed across the desert racing for the border at Yuma. At the farthest place from anywhere, the road ended in a barricade backed up by soldiers in a bunker. A machine gun aimed at us. A mustachioed man in a wilted, brown suit leaned in our window. Displaying a stunning array of white teeth, he asked, "Do you have any agricultural products to declare?"
"We have some avocados," I offered.
He directed us to the inspection area, where the auto if front of us was being dismantled. A dog sniffed at the contents of the vehicle, which lay strewn about. A forlorn Gringo sat on the car seat, but the seat was not in the car. This did not look good.
The inspector probed at our dirty clothes and precious pottery. Barnacle squawked and wagged his tail. The man jumped back, brushing at his spotted suit. "Diablo verde!"
The inspector shook his head at the pile in the VW sardine can. "Get out of here!" he commanded as he waved a guard to lift the barrier.
Just south of the border I bought the biggest wrought-iron cage I could find. It cost ten times as much as Barnacle, but he would love his mansion. We lashed it to the roof and headed across the border.
To the U.S. Customs guardís obvious question, I answered, "We have some avocados."
Barnacle screeched, and the guard motioned. "You canít bring that parrot across here."
"What? Other people import parrots."
"Itís Friday evening. Our veterinary inspector wonít be back until Monday."
"But we have to be at work on Monday." I swear Barnacle chortled.
The guard said, "They have an inspector on 24 hours at Mexicali. But youíll have to drive on the Mexican side."
In all our trip to the Yucatan and back, we had never been on a road as narrow and dark with so many cavernous potholes. Every village blocked our way with a drunken fiesta in the middle of the road. We bounced the hundred miles to our next debacle with U.S. Customs.
How was I supposed to have an import document when I just bought the critter? So I started filling out their stupid forms. "Whatís this about the name of the vet where Iím going to have the parrot quarantined?"
"That bird must be quarantined seventy days for parrot fever."
"Ten weeks?" Separation anxiety squeezed at my bowels. From a phone book I picked the vet closest to our house.
Somewhere in a blur we finally arrived home. Barnacle settled into his beautiful new cage. His beak clamped on a bar, his black eyes wide.
"Bite through that, Matey," I challenged. "Youíll learn to love it here."
On Monday I called the vet from work. Of course it was during my lunch hour and from a pay phone. When the vet stopped laughing, he said, "I donít quarantine parrots."
"What? Itís only a bird."
"Once was enough. Good luck."
"Wait. Who does quarantine parrots?"
"No vet I know." His maniacal laugh caromed around inside my head.
I think I was down to the Xs when I detected interest. The doctor had just graduated from vet school. He liked parrots. Yes, he would love to watch over Barnacle.
After ten weeks, the vetís bill cost ten times the cage, but my parrot was worth it. The vet said he would never keep one of those damned birds again. I ignored his comments about pooping and squawking and the neighbors complaining. I didnít even ask about his bandaged finger.
A healthy Barnacle took his place of honor in the family room. Voice training began with the infamous saltine. "Barnacle want a cracker?" Thatís Captain Ken talking, but the bird ate the cracker. He ignored my attempts at Spanish. I tried to explain that parrots can talk.
Barnacle smacked his beak over sunflower seeds. Then he threw the shells for distance. He also shook his tail for distance. Fortunately the walls were already painted off-white.
"Get that parrot out of here," Linda screamed.
"Iíll spread out more newspapers." It took an entire Sunday edition to cover the family room. I stretched plastic wrap over the TV screen. We had to protect ourselves in rain gear, like sitting in the front row of a Galagher show.
The doorbell rang. I opened the portal to two policemen with their hands on their holsters. They looked at me funny, like they had never seen anyone in yellow slickers in July. The tall one said, "We had a report of someone screaming at this house."
"That was a screech, not a scream. Barnacle must have gotten a bad sunflower seed."
They had to have the grand tour. They peeked under the papers to make sure there were no bloodstains. One policeman really warmed up to Barnacle, until the bird wagged his tail. As he brushed at the white spots, I think he understood my yellow garb. At least the other cop was laughing as they left.
"Get that parrot out of here," Linda screamed.
"Wait. A light bulb just clicked on." I circled the bottom half of the cage with plastic wrap, an impenetrable barrier against the tide. Linda curled her lip as she removed her raincoat.
The white-plastered wrap blurred Barnacleís glare. But my buddy was no dummy. He climbed to his perch, then hung from the top bars to set new distance records.
"Get that parrot out of here," Linda screamed, as she went in to change her clothes.
"Sorry, buddy," I said, as I hung his cage from a rafter in the garage. At least he couldnít do any damage in here. Well, we couldnít park the cars in there. And I had to rummage in the neighborís trash to get enough newspapers. Several days later I realized everywhere in the garage was downwind.
Over the next weeks I built a protective cover in the corner of the back yard. During the day Barnacle hung in the fresh air. He could now poop and squawk to his heartís content. The garden and lawn thrived in that half of the yard. In the evenings it was back to the garage to mute the noise that drifted to irate neighbors.
I donned the Greek fishermanís cap I had bought at Moss Landing, and Barnacleís rigorous training continued. The closest he came to talking was that screech that sounded like, "Free Me!" But I was still working on "Aarrr, Matey!"
Maybe it was time to see if my buddy would perch on my shoulder. I carefully laid a line of sunflower seeds along my arm like the witchís breadcrumbs. Yes, he would follow the goodies to his new roost.
No. It would take three stitches to close the gash on my hand, while the doctor mumbled something about parrot fever.
I had parrot fever, no doubt, but it wasnít infectious. It was only Captain Kenís.
Should I set Barnacle free? I looked at my patched hand and couldnít resist the thought, BBQ. I had paid for half the vetís college education. Was there no honorable way out?
A savior appeared in the guise of friends. You must understand that this was back in the long-gone days of tequila and smoking herbs, and one evening we all partook. They were animal lovers with a menagerie on their small ranch. He was certain that HE could teach the parrot to talk. I knew I had to set Barnacle free, but this smelled of opportunity. "Have another hit," I suggested, passing the clip.
"Wow, man. I gotta have your bird." He wrote the check for more than Barnacle and the cage and the vet had cost. I suggested they take the beast and hurry home while they were still capable of driving.
I spoke with my friend several weeks later. He bragged it took five stitches to repair his hand. Then he had set Barnacle free.
"You are a just master" The bird and I had won.
"Then I sold the empty cage to a pet store for more than I paid you."
"You bastard." I stuffed my captainís cap in the trash.
Now I am much older and even wiser. I figured that bird was an imposter.
But I still canít pass a pet store without going in. Someday thereíll be
a peg-legged parrot squawking, ďAarrr Matey!Ē