Read Long After Midnight Online

Authors: Ray Bradbury

Long After Midnight (6 page)

 
          
"Dear,
dear
Raimundo
." Shelley Capon stirred his drink
with his pinkie. "What makes you think the creature is for sale?"

 
          
"You
sold your mother once, then stole her back and sold her again under another
name. Come off it, Shelley. You're onto something big." I brooded over the
shawled
cage. "How many telegrams have you sent
out in the last four or five hours?"

 
          
"Really!
You horrify me!"

 
          
"How
many long-distance phone calls, reverse charges, have you made since
breakfast?"

 
          
Shelley
Capon mourned a great sigh and pulled a crumpled telegram duplicate from his
velveteen pocket. I took it and read:

 
          
FRIENDS OF PAPA MEETING
HAVANA
TO REMINISCE OVER BIRD AND BOTTLE. WIRE BID OR BRING CHECKBOOKS AND OPEN MINDS.
FIRST COME FIRST SERVED. ALL WHITE MEAT BUT CAVIAR PRICES. INTERNATIONAL
PUBLICATION, BOOK, MAGAZINE, TV, FTLM RIGHTS AVAILABLE. LOVE. SHELLEY
YOU-KNOW-WHO.

 
          
My
God again, I thought, and let the telegram fall to the floor as Shelley handed
me a list of names the telegram had been sent to:

 
          
Time. Life. Newsweek.
Scribner's. Simon
& Schuster.
The New York Times. The
Christian Science Monitor. The Times of
London
.
Le Monde. Paris-Match.
One
of the Rockefellers. Some of the
Kennedys
. CBS. NBC.
MGM. Warner Bros. 20th Century-Fox. And on and on and on. The list was as long
as my deepening melancholy.

 
          
Shelley
Capon tossed an armful of answering telegrams onto the table near the cage. I
leafed through them quickly.

 
          
Everyone,
but everyone, was in the air, right now. Jets were streaming in from all over
the world. In another two hours, four, six at the most,
Cuba
would be swarming with agents, publishers,
fools, and plain damn fools, plus counterespionage kidnapers and blonde
starlets who hoped to be in front-page photographs with the bird on their
shoulders.

 
          
I
figured I had maybe a good half-hour left in which to do something, I didn't
know what.

 
          
Shelley
nudged my arm. "Who sent you, dear boy? You
are
the very first, you know. Make a fine bid and you're in free,
maybe. I must consider other offers, of course. But it might get thick and
nasty here. I begin to panic at what I've done. I may wish to sell cheap and
flee. Because, well, think, there's the problem of getting this bird out of the
country, yes? And, simultaneously, Castro might declare the parrot a national
monument or work of art, or, oh, hell,
Raimundo
, who
did
send you?"

 
          
"Someone,
but now no one," I said, brooding. "I came on behalf of someone else.
I'll go away on my own. From now on, anyway, it's just me and the bird. I've
read Papa all my life. Now I know I came just because I had to."

 
          
"My
God, an altruist!"

 
          
"Sorry
to offend you, Shelley."

 
          
The
phone rang. Shelley got it. He chatted happily for a moment, told someone to
wait downstairs, hung up, and cocked an eyebrow at me: "NBC is in the
lobby. They want an hour's taped interview with El C6rdoba there. They're
talking six figures."

 
          
My
shoulders slumped. The phone rang. This time I picked it up, to my own
surprise. Shelley cried out. But I said, "Hello. Yes?"

 
          
"Senor,"
said a man's voice.
"There is a
Senor
Hob-well here
from
Time,
he says, magazine." I
could see the parrot's face on next week's cover, with six follow-up pages of
text.

 
          
"Tell
him to wait." I hung up.

 
          
"Newsweek?"
guessed Shelley.

 
          
"The
other one," I said.

 
          
"The
snow was fine up in the shadow of the hills," said the voice inside the
cage under the shawl.

 
          
"Shut
up," I said quietly, wearily. "Oh, shut up, damn you."

 
          
Shadows
appeared in the doorway behind us. Shelley Capon's friends were beginning to
assemble and wander into the room. They gathered and I began to tremble and
sweat.

 
          
For
some reason, I began to rise to my feet. My body was going to do something, I
didn't know what. I watched my hands. Suddenly, the right hand reached out. It
knocked the cage over, snapped the wire-frame door wide, and darted in to seize
the parrot.

 
          
"No!"

 
          
There
was a great gasping roar, as if a single thunderous wave had come in on a
shore. Everyone in the room seemed knocked in the stomach by my action.
Everyone exhaled, took a step, began to yell, but by then I had the parrot out.
I had it by the throat.

 
          
"No!
No!" Shelley jumped at me. I kicked him in the shins. He sat down,
screaming.

 
          
"Don't
anyone move!" I said and almost laughed, hearing myself use the old
cliche
". "You ever see a chicken killed? This
parrot has a thin neck. One twist, the head comes off. Nobody move a
hair." Nobody moved.

 
          
"You
son of a bitch," said Shelley Capon, on the floor.

 
          
For
a moment, I thought they were all going to rush me. I saw myself beaten and
chased along the beach, yelling, the cannibals ringing me in and eating me,
Tennessee Williams style, shoes and all. I felt sorry for my skeleton, which
would be found in the main
Havana
plaza at dawn tomorrow.

 
          
But
they did not hit, pummel, or kill. As long as I had my fingers around the neck
of the parrot who met Papa, I knew I could stand there forever.

 
          
I
wanted with all my heart, soul, and guts to wring the bird's neck and throw its
disconnected carcass into those pale and gritty faces. I wanted to stop up the
past and destroy Papa's preserved memory forever, if it was going to be played
with by feeble-minded children like these.

 
          
But
I could not, for two reasons. One dead parrot would mean one dead duck: me. And
I was weeping inside for Papa. I simply could not shut off his voice
transcribed here, held in my hands, still alive, like an old
Edison
record. I could not kill.

 
          
If
these ancient children had known that, they would have swarmed over me like
locusts. But they didn't know. And, I guess, it didn't show in my face.

 
          
"Stand
back!" I cried.

 
          
It
was that beautiful last scene from
The
Phantom of the Opera
where
Loh
Chaney, pursued
through
midnight
Paris
, turns upon the mob, lifts his clenched
fist as if it contained an explosive, and holds the mob at bay for one terrific
instant. He laughs, opens his hand to show it empty, and then is driven to his
death in the river. . . . Only I had no intention of letting them see an empty
hand. I kept it close around El Cordoba's scrawny neck.

 
          
"Clear
a path to the door!" They cleared a path.

 
          
"Not
a move, not a breath. If anyone so much as swoons, this bird is dead forever
and no rights, no movies, no photos. Shelley, bring me the cage and the
shawl."

 
          
Shelley
Capon edged over and brought me the cage and its cover. "Stand off!"
I yelled.

 
          
Everyone
jumped back another foot.

 
          
"Now,
hear this," I said. "After I've got away and have hidden out, one by
one each of you will be called to have his chance to meet Papa's friend here
again and cash in on the headlines."

 
          
I
was lying. I could hear the lie. I hoped they couldn't. I spoke more quickly
now, to cover the lie: "I'm going to start walking now. Look. See? I have
the parrot by the neck. He'll stay alive as long as you play 'Simon says' my
way. Here we go, now. One, two. Halfway to the door." I walked among them
and they did not breathe. "One, two," I said, my heart beating in my
mouth. "At the door. Steady. No sudden moves. Cage in one hand. Bird in
the other—"

 
          
"The
lions ran along the beach on the yellow sand," said the parrot, his throat
moving under my fingers.

 
          
"Oh,
my God," said Shelley, crouched there by the table. Tears began to pour
down his face. Maybe it wasn't all money. Maybe some of it was Papa for him,
too. He put his hands out in a beckoning, come-back gesture to me, the parrot,
the cage. "Oh, God, oh, God." He wept.

 
          
"There
was only the carcass of the great fish lying by the pier, its bones picked
clean in the morning light," said the parrot.

 
          
"Oh,"
said everyone softly.

 
          
I
didn't wait to see if any more of them were weeping. I stepped out. I shut the
door. I ran for the elevator. By a miracle, it was there, the operator
half-asleep inside. No one tried to follow. I guess they knew it was no use.

 
          
On
the way down, I put the parrot inside the cage and put the shawl marked mother
over the cage. And the elevator moved slowly down through the years. I thought
of those years ahead and where I might hide the parrot and keep him warm
against any weather and feed him properly and once a day go in and talk through
the shawl, and nobody ever to see him, no papers, no magazines, no cameramen,
no Shelley Capon, not even Antonio from the Cuba
Libre
.
Days might go by or weeks and sudden fears might come over me that the parrot
had gone dumb. Then, in the middle of the night, I might wake and shuffle in
and stand by his cage and say:

 
          
"
Italy
, 1918 ... ?"

 
          
And
beneath the word mother, an old voice would say: "The snow drifted off the
edges of the mountain in a fine white dust that winter. . . ."

 
          
"
Africa
, 1932."

 
          
"We
got the rifles out and oiled the rifles and they were blue and fine and lay in
our hands and we waited in the tall grass and smiled—"

 
          
"
Cuba
. The
Gulf Stream
."

 
          
"That
fish came out of the water and jumped as high as the sun. Everything I had ever
thought about a fish was in that fish. Everything I had ever thought about a
single leap was in that leap. All of my life was there. It was a day of sun and
water and being alive. I wanted to hold it all still in my hands. I didn't want
it to go away, ever. Yet there, as the fish fell and the waters moved over it
white and then green, there it went.. . ."

 
          
By
that time, we were at the lobby level and the elevator doors opened and I
stepped out with the cage labeled mother and walked quickly across the lobby
and out to a taxicab.

 
          
The
trickiest business—and my greatest danger—remained. I knew that by the time I
got to the airport, the guards and the Castro militia would have been alerted.
I wouldn't put it past Shelley Capon to tell them that a national treasure was
getting away. He might even cut Castro in on some of the Book-of-the-Month Club
revenue and the movie rights. I had to improvise a plan to get through customs.

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