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Authors: Lindsey Grant

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BOOK: Sleeps with Dogs
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Wild Birds of the East Bay

he bungalow, with its terra-cotta tiled roof and wide front porch, had a deliberately wild-looking front garden. Fruit trees and bright colors dominated the otherwise tidy space, the recently mowed lawn enclosed by a low, natural wood fence. Still unused to the typical Californian abundance of produce hanging at eye level, so different from the soaring oaks in the south of my childhood, I resisted the urge to pluck a lemon from the branch nearest me before ascending the front steps.

What I knew before meeting Bev: she had seven birds—two cockatiels, two parrots, two budgies, and a conure—plus two vizslas, Hungarian hunting dogs. She was going to Bermuda for her daughter's wedding.

When Bev opened the door, my impression was midsixties, beautiful, and braless. I was even more impressed by how completely the house was given over to the animals. Birdcages lined
the open-plan living room and dining room like furniture, and the couches and chairs were covered in dog blankets and the dogs themselves: lean, with sleek brick-colored coats, mustard yellow eyes, and floppy, velvety looking ears. At only thirty-five pounds or so, their short fur and lithe little bodies conveyed strength and speed. They regarded me with comfortable indifference. Guard dogs they were not.

Bev offered me tea, and a mammoth binder filled with full-color bird biographies, each in its own plastic sleeve. We took a tour of the birds while sipping pungent Lapsang Souchong that tasted like a campfire.

We started in the office in the back corner of the house, which opened out onto an expansive back patio. This was the territory of the budgies—palm-sized, neon-colored noisemakers, from what I'd experienced of these parakeets in the past. They were louder than they were large. According to his profile, Echo—electric green to Bindi's more muted blue—was a biter. He and Bindi shared the office with Nora, a blue-crowned conure.

I can't say I'd ever seen a conure before, or, if I had, I didn't realize I was looking at one. Nora was emerald green up to her neck, where the blue crown took over, her head fully feathered in aquamarine.

“She responds to ‘Be quiet!' Or you can just put a sheet over her cage.” As if on cue, Nora emitted a screech that I feared might sonicate my bones. Bev looked entirely unruffled, while I was pretty sure I'd peed in my pants a little.

In the middle room, which was more of a hallway between the back of the house and the kitchen, lived Aphrodite and Sterling, both cockatiels.

“Aphrodite curses in Spanish. And she is the loudest.” I felt certain that it was scientifically impossible for her to be any louder than Nora, but I nodded.

“She also replies to ‘Be quiet,' but she may mouth off at you,” Bev said with a smirk.

I rested my tea on a shelf in the walk-through to free up my hand to take some notes of my own.
Nora: holy shit, loud. Aphrodite swears.

In college, my thesis advisor had a talking parrot named Liebling, an African gray. At every meeting, Dr. James proudly showed me the updated list of words that she'd taught the bird.

I was writing my thesis on the nonfiction works of Barbara Kingsolver. I fancied myself an ardent nature- and animal-lover and was an enthusiastic captive audience when Dr. James got talking about her pets. In addition to Liebling, she had two outrageously fluffy American Eskimos. By the time I'd submitted the final draft of my thesis, I was addressing her as Sarah, and she was emailing me pictures of the dogs.

My mom, a linguist by training and an audiologist by profession before she ever got into teaching pronunciation, has always been fascinated by animals' ability to speak. When she was a student, she studied apes' ability to sign and communicate with pictures. So whenever my thesis or meetings with my advisor had come up in conversation, she'd always asked about Liebling.

I was already anticipating that this gig would yield plenty of talking-bird gems with which to regale her. And it made me wish I'd kept in touch with Dr. James. Sarah. She'd have surely loved hearing about my talking avian charges and would've wanted a complete list of their vocabulary.

“Sterling is a handful,” Bev continued. “He has to be left out of the cage during the day, but he's a big chewer. He's afraid of brooms, so if you leave it propped against the door jamb, he won't go
into the kitchen.” She gestured toward the broom that we'd passed under as we came into the back of the house.

It was only then that I noticed the extensive damage to the molding, and what little was left of the windowsills. I could see that the woodwork around the windows and doorframes had once been quite lovely—intricate, even—but had since been gnawed to splinters by one, or perhaps a few, very sharp beaks. Just about everything I'd seen so far looked chewed-on, actually. Chunks of wood were scattered across the floor, and they crunched softly underfoot.

“Make sure Aphrodite's cage is flush with the wall and that there are plenty of toys attached to her door, or Sterling will break into her cage.”

“Break in?”

“Yeah, he knows how the door works, so he can open it and let her out. The toys distract him.
I wrote,
watch out!

“This,” she said, turning away from the cages and toward the sideboard, “is the fish. Just a few flakes a day, and he's fine.”
The Fish, few flakes 1x/day.
From what I could tell, he didn't get a page in the massive pet info encyclopedia I was hefting. Or a name, for that matter.

Ducking beneath the broom, Bev led the way through the kitchen, her gauzy tunic trailing behind her. “And then in the front of the house, we have Krishna and Bonsai.” I checked the binder and saw that Krishna was a Red-lored Amazon, Bonsai an African gray, like Sarah's Leibling.

I was trying to do a quick calculation of how many continents these birds and dogs collectively spanned. Australia, Central and South America, Africa, Eastern Europe. With Bev's Asian sensibilities, this was a decidedly worldly household.

Like Nora the conure, Krishna was also bright green in the
body, but her face was brightly accented with red and orange around the polished knuckle of her beak.

“Krishna has a broken wing. She'll come out to sit on your finger and have a pistachio or a cashew, but she doesn't like to be petted.”

I was scribbling furiously as we moved to the last cage, occupied by the surprisingly small and comparatively dull gray parrot.

“Bonsai is a plucker, so he wears this bell to distract him.”

Bonsai jingled as he shifted from one foot to the other, seeming to respond to his name. The bell that hung from his neck looked like an ascot, giving him the dashing air of a dandy. All he needed was a little bird-sized bowler hat.

“He and Sterling don't get on so well, but Bonsai can always hide in the towel hutch—I'll show you in a sec.” We hadn't even gotten to the dogs and their schedule and preferences yet, and I'd already taken two pages' worth of notes.

The dogs hadn't moved since I arrived. I assumed Sasha was the smaller of the two. She was curled in a recliner in the corner by the fireplace. Max, sprawled out on the love seat, raised his head from his paws as we entered the living room.

“The dogs can't take the sun salutation, so they need to go out for their walk.” I discreetly scanned the binder for word on the sun salutation. My mind was going to the yogic practice, which seemed to fit with this woman's aesthetic. I couldn't figure how that applied to the dogs. “Otherwise they go crazy, barking and running around. The birds are loud enough as it is without the dogs' howling along.”

Ah, the birds. The birds' sun salutation. I was no expert, but I felt pretty sure this was when the birds greeted the rising and setting sun with prolonged squawking. No doubt I'd find a thorough explanation somewhere in the tome I carried.

We headed upstairs to see where the dogs and I would be sleeping. At the top of the steps was a narrow wooden hallway with two
rooms to the left and a bathroom at the end. Bev stepped through the first doorway. If I'd expected dog beds or cushions, there were none. It was a small room with two walls of windows, no curtains, and an unmade king-sized bed with mismatched sheets, the flat a plaid and the top sheet a loud Hawaiian print.

“Sasha will sleep up with you. She's a lovebug. And Max'll sleep down at the foot of the bed.”

I'd never slept with a dog in a bed, and it sounded kind of lovely. I'd have enthusiastically slept with Biscuit, but, given her inexplicable insistence on remaining outside, this meant infrequent naps with her on a quilt spread out in the yard. Even during the storms that scared her so much, she would only come so far as the basement or the screened-in porch, where she'd cower on her tattered blanket, shaking visibly at each thunderclap.

Bev exited into the hall, and I followed, catching a glimpse of the room adjacent, which seemed to be filled from floor to ceiling with piles of crap—boxes, clothes, paper, and towering stacks of books.

As Bev descended the stairs, she said over her shoulder, “So, do you have any questions?” I mentally scanned the massive information overload of the last half hour or so. Who curses in which language? Who likes which nuts cracked partially, versus hardly at all, versus completely shelled? Had I seen that one of the birds likes buttered toast?

“I think I have everything I need,” I said, patting the binder with more conviction than I was feeling.

“Great. Then here is the key. You have all the contact numbers and emergency info. And plenty of reading material on these guys.”

Bev didn't own a coffeemaker.

I discovered this on my first morning. I'd made the mistake of pulling the blankets off the birds' cages as soon as I got downstairs,
not fully grasping that this would signal them to wake up at once. Wake up and start cawing.

The dogs were ignoring their breakfast entirely and howling so loudly that I could actually hear them amidst the window-rattling, earth-shaking cacophony of bird calls that was making it hard for me to keep my eyes open and my fingers out of my ears.

I hadn't slept well the night before, no doubt because I was not at all used to sharing a bed—forget the pillow—with dogs. When I'd gone up to the bedroom to turn in for the night, the bed looked just the same as when Bev had showed it to me—same sheets, unmade, Max's nest still intact at the foot of the bed. I couldn't help but feel a little weird about sleeping in already-slept-in sheets. I'd made a mental note to find the washing machine the next morning. Then Sasha had wriggled her way under the covers with me and put her head down on one half of the pillow with a contented-sounding sigh.

Even with Sasha fully tucked in, using the pillow just like a human, she wasn't as cuddly as I'd expected her to be. She didn't invite a snuggle at all, but put her legs out straight in front of her so that she occupied the greater half of the bed. With her at my side and Max at my feet, I'd turned out the light. I found myself holding my breath a little, lying stiff and unmoving, in the same way I did when I shared a bed with another person. Like my breathing, or the slightest movement, would disrupt their sleep.

Contrary to the cozy comfort that I'd anticipated in sleeping with these dogs, the reality was that Sasha was a total pillow hog, unselfconsciously exhaling her meaty-smelling dog breath all over my face in the night. When I turned my back to her, seeking out a corner of the bed that I could claim as my own, she also proved expert at kicking me while she slept, the blows landing right in my left kidney.

In the morning, bleary eyed and a little sore, I woke to find myself nose-to-snout with Sasha, her angular head still on my pillow. Max was awake and inching his way up the bed toward us. It wasn't until I moved to rub his belly that I saw the shiny pink of his raging erection. I threw the covers back without too much regret, in spite of the early hour.

Standing in the kitchen without coffee, wearing my saggy pajamas pants and no bra, listening to a cockatiel demand toast of me, I caved and took the dogs out. They shot from the front door as though I'd packed them into a cannon with a steel rod. I could've sworn there was smoke coming off Max as he landed in the yard, never even touching the front steps on his way down.

I crossed my arms protectively over my unsupported chest, and we ambled down the sidewalk, the dogs growing calmer as we gained distance from the house. They happily wagged their stumpy tails, along with the whole back half of their muscular bodies, sniffing every fence post, shrub, and telephone pole. I counted the number of houses we passed until I could barely hear the birds any longer. Three, four, five. I heard a call that was higher and shriller than the others and wondered if that was in fact Aphrodite, louder than the rest after all. Seven, eight, nine.

BOOK: Sleeps with Dogs
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