Read Long After Midnight Online

Authors: Ray Bradbury

Long After Midnight (5 page)

 
          
Ten
minutes later, my taxi with no brakes dropped me running and spun on to some
ultimate disaster beyond town.

 
          
Still
running, I made the lobby, paused for information, hurried upstairs, and
stopped short before Shelley's door. It pulsed in spasms like a bad heart. I
put my ear to the door. The wild calls and cries from inside might have come
from a flock of birds, feather-stripped in a hurricane. I felt the door. Now it
seemed to tremble like a vast
laundromat
that had
swallowed and was churning an acid-rock group and a lot of very dirty linen.
Listening, my underwear began to crawl on my legs.

 
          
I
knocked. No answer. I touched the door. It drifted open. I stepped in upon a
scene much too dreadful for Bosch to have painted.

 
          
Around
the pigpen living room were strewn various life-size dolls, eyes half-cracked
open, cigarettes smoking in burned, limp fingers, empty Scotch glasses in
hands, and all the while the radio belted them with concussions of music
broadcast from some Stateside asylum. The place was sheer carnage. Not ten
seconds ago, I felt, a large dirty locomotive must have plunged through here.
Its victims had been hurled in all directions and now lay upside down in
various parts of the room, moaning for first aid.

 
          
In
the midst of this hell, seated erect and proper, well dressed in velveteen
jerkin, persimmon bow tie, and bottle-green booties, was, of course, Shelley
Capon. Who with no surprise at all waved a drink at me and cried:

 
          
"I
knew
that was you on the phone. I am
absolutely telepathic! Welcome,
Raimundo
!"

 
          
He
always called me
Raimundo
. Ray was plain bread and
butter.
Raimundo
made me a don with a breeding farm
full of bulls. I let it be
Raimundo
.

 
          
"
Raimundo
, sit down! No . . . fling yourself into an
interesting
position."

 
          
"Sorry,"
I said in my best
Dashiell
Hammett manner, sharpening
my chin and steeling my eyes. "No time."

 
          
I
began to walk around the room among his friends Fester and Soft and
Ripply
and Mild Innocuous and some actor I remembered who,
when asked how he would do a part in a film, had said, "I'll play it like
a doe."

 
          
I
shut off the radio. That made a lot of people in the room stir: I yanked the
radio's roots out of the wall. Some people sat up. I raised a window. I threw
the radio out. They all screamed as if I had thrown their mothers down an
elevator shaft.

 
          
The
radio made a satisfying sound on the cement sidewalk below. I turned, with a
beatific smile on my face. A number of people were on their feet, swaying
toward me with faint menace. I pulled a twenty-dollar bill out of my pocket,
handed it to someone without looking at him, and said, "Go buy a new
one." He ran out the door slowly. The door slammed. I heard him fall down
the stairs as if he were after his morning shot in the arm.

 
          
"All
right, Shelley," I said, "where is it?"

 
          
"Where
is
what,
dear boy?" he said,
eyes wide with innocence.

 
          
"You
know what I mean." I stared at the drink in his tiny hand.

 
          
Which
was a Papa drink, the Cuba
Libre's
very own special
blend of papaya, lime, lemon, and rum. As if to destroy evidence, he drank it
down quickly.

 
          
I
walked over to three doors in a wall and touched one.

 
          
"That's
a closet, dear boy." I put my hand on the second door.

 
          
"Don't
go in. You'll be sorry what you see." I didn't go in.

 
          
I
put my hand on the third door. "Oh, dear, well, go ahead," said
Shelley petulantly. I opened the door.

 
          
Beyond
it was a small anteroom with a mere cot and a table near the window.

 
          
On
the table sat a bird cage with a shawl over it. Under the shawl I could hear
the rustle of feathers and the scrape of a beak on the wires.

 
          
Shelley
Capon came to stand small beside me, looking in at the cage, a fresh drink in
his little fingers.

 
          
"What
a shame you didn't arrive at seven tonight," he said.

 
          
"Why
seven?"

 
          
"Why,
then,
Raimundo
, we would have just finished our
curried fowl stuffed with wild rice. I wonder, is there much white meat, or any
at all, under a parrot's feathers?"

 
          
"You
wouldn't!?" I cried.

 
          
I
stared at him.

 
          
"You
would," I answered myself.

 
          
I
stood for a moment longer at the door. Then, slowly, I walked across the small
room and stopped by the cage with the shawl over it. I saw a single word
embroidered across the top of the shawl: mother.

 
          
I
glanced at Shelley. He shrugged and looked shyly at his boot tips. I took hold
of the shawl. Shelley said, "No. Before you lift it ... ask
something."

 
          
"Like
what?"

 
          
"DiMaggio.
Ask DiMaggio."

 
          
A
small ten-watt bulb clicked on in my head. I nodded. I leaned near the hidden
cage and whispered: "DiMaggio. 1939."

 
          
There
was a sort of animal-computer pause. Beneath the word mother some feathers
stirred, a beak tapped the cage bars. Then a tiny voice said:

 
          
"Home
runs, thirty. Batting average, .381."

 
          
I
was stunned. But then I whispered: "Babe Ruth. 1927."

 
          
Again
the pause, the feathers, the beak, and: "Home runs, sixty. Batting
average, .356.
Awk
."

 
          
"My
God," I said.

 
          
"My
God," echoed Shelley Capon.

 
          
"That's
the parrot who met Papa, all right."

 
          
"That's
who it is."

 
          
And
I lifted the shawl.

 
          
I
don't know what I expected to find underneath the embroidery. Perhaps a
miniature hunter in boots, bush jacket, and wide-brimmed hat. Perhaps a small,
trim fisherman with a beard and turtleneck sweater perched there on a wooden
slat. Something tiny, something literary, something human, something fantastic,
but not really a parrot.

 
          
But
that’s all there was.

 
          
And
not a very handsome parrot, either. It looked as if it had been up all night
for years; one of those disreputable birds that never preens its feathers or
shines its beak. It was a kind of rusty green and black with a dull-amber snout
and rings under its eyes as if it were a secret drinker. You might see it half
flying, half hopping out of cafe"-bars at three in the morning. It was the
bum of the parrot world.

 
          
Shelley
Capon read my mind. "The effect is better," he said, "with the
shawl over the cage."

 
          
I
put the shawl back over the bars.

 
          
I
was thinking very fast. Then I thought very slowly. I bent and whispered by the
cage:

 
          
"Norman
Mailer."

 
          
"Couldn't
remember the alphabet," said the voice beneath the shawl.

 
          
"Gertrude
Stein," I said.

 
          
"Suffered
from
undescended
testicles," said the voice.

 
          
"My
God," I gasped.

 
          
I
stepped back. I stared at the covered cage. I blinked at Shelley Capon.

 
          
"Do
you really
know
what you have here,
Capon?"

 
          
"A
gold
mine, dear
Raimundo
!"
he crowed.

 
          
"A
mint!"
I corrected.

 
          
"Endless
opportunities for blackmail!"

 
          
"Causes
for
murderl
" I added.

 
          
"Think!"
Shelley snorted into his drink. "Think what Mailer's publishers
alone
would pay to shut this bird
up!"

 
          
I
spoke to the cage:

 
          
"F.
Scott Fitzgerald."

 
          
Silence.

 
          
"Try
'Scottie,' " said Shelley.

 
          
"Ah,"
said the voice inside the cage. "Good left jab but couldn't follow
through. Nice contender, but—"

 
          
"Faulkner,"
I said.

 
          
"Batting
average fair, strictly a singles hitter."

 
          
"Steinbeck!"

 
          
"Finished
last at end of season."

 
          
"Ezra
Pound!"

 
          
"Traded
off to the minor leagues in 1932."

 
          
"I
think ... I need . . . one of those drinks." Someone put a drink in my
hand. I gulped it and nodded. I shut my eyes and felt the world give one turn,
then opened my eyes to look at Shelley Capon, the classic son of a bitch of all
time.

 
          
"There
is something even more fantastic," he said. "You've heard only the
first half."

 
          
"You're
lying," I said. "What could there be?"

 
          
He
dimpled at me—in all the world, only Shelley Capon can dimple at you in a
completely evil way. "It was like this," he said. "You remember
that Papa had trouble actually getting his stuff down on paper in those last
years while he lived here? Well, he'd planned another novel after
Islands in the Stream,
but somehow it
just never seemed to get written.

 
          
"Oh,
he had it in his mind, al right—the story was there and lots of people heard
him mention it—but he just couldn't seem to write it. So he would go to the
Cuba
Libre
and drink many drinks and have long
conversations with the parrot.
Raimundo
, what Papa
was telling El C6rdoba all through those long drinking nights was the story of
his last book. And, in the course of time, the bird has memorized it."

 
          
"His very last book!"
I said.
"The final Hemingway novel of all time! Never written but recorded in the
brain of a parrot! Holy Jesus!"

 
          
Shelley
was nodding at me with the smile of a depraved cherub.

 
          
"How
much you want for this bird?"

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