Street Macaws

by Angela Pinckard

I wake almost right at dawn, with the sunlight filtering across the horizon, slanting through the car windows. I always wake at sunrise. My friend, Danny, says I've got the best internal clock he's ever seen, that and an internal map and compass; we never seem to get lost. About two years ago, when Danny and I first started hitching together, we got a ride with this mail lady; she drove on the wrong side of the car. Really tripped me out at first, but when she explained that she delivered mail for the tri-county area, I thought it was pretty cool. I asked if she'd let me drive, but of course she said no.

She was driving to Cleveland to trade in her mail car for another one, and to do that you had to go to the headquarters or something. After about an hour of empty conversation and classic rock-n-roll oldies, Danny and I fell asleep in the backseat. When she stopped at a rest stop to use the bathroom, we woke up blinking under the bright, fluorescent streetlights. Danny yawned and said, "Will? Where the hell are we?" Stevie Ray Vaughn's "Couldn't Stand the Weather" filtered through the speakers behind our heads.

It had been a rhetorical question, but I answered it anyway. "North of Cleveland." I uncurled myself from my awkward sleeping position where my foot had fallen asleep.

"What." He blinked at me, with a confused, disbelieving look on his face. "How the hell do you know? Reading highway signs in your sleep?"

I massaged my foot and stared out the passenger side window in the backseat. "I like to know where we've been and where we're going, mostly so I don't end up back home again."

"Fucking Mapquest or something." He mumbled, slouching back down into the seat and pulling his sweatshirt hood around his face.

Danny started calling me "Map" for a while after that, but the nickname never stuck. And even though Danny knows I always wake at sunrise, he never fails to ask me what time it is as soon as he wakes up. Like he's got somewhere to be.

I open my eyes slowly. My dreams are still crisp, so the early morning is foggy and unfamiliar. I've never tried heroin or anything, but I would imagine that if I did, the high would feel a lot like this. Warm, comfortable, floating, happy, where anything might be possible. Where I can wake up and be in a jungle, deep in the South American Mountains.

Or in my grandmother's house, before she died, listening to stories of our Scottish heritage and folklore.

Stretching, I feel the grime and dirt of three days crack and flake on my skin and clothes. I brush my hand through my short, brown hair and yawn, tasting the nicotine of my last cigarette before I fell asleep. I kick the heavy door of the Buick open, startling Danny, in the backseat. "Will?" he calls, sleepily.

"Yeah." I yawn again and slide across the front seat, setting my feet on the paved shoulder of the highway. I don't have to look at Danny to know that he has slight bags under his eyes, and that his cowlick will be standing up in the front of his hair. After seeing a Gorillaz video through the windows of a music store, I'm convinced that they used Danny as the template for their lead singer. With his shaggy, dark hair, and missing teeth, I can't help but think he's the missing link between the cartoon idols and the real band. I set my elbows on my knees and squint out at the sun as cars zoom past sporadically.

"Fuck, what time is it?" Danny wipes his hand across his unshaven face and stretches till his fingertips touch the roof of the car.

"Seven o'clock-ish." We had stolen the Buick in some country town in Arkansas, when our hitching wasn't paying off. It was late when the low fuel light finally flickered on, and it started sputtering and rolled to a stop on the shoulder of Hwy 67. We knew it was a risk, sleeping in the Buick, but the trees lining the highway didn't look all that inviting.

I grab our cigarettes off the dashboard, and push in the car's lighter. The only rule Danny and I have is the cigarette rule: one in the morning, one after we eat, and one before we sleep. Unless we're lucky enough to each have a pack. I stand up and lay my arms across the top of the car, tapping out a cigarette. Although the morning sun is blazing, it's not so hot that the roof is melting my arms; by noon, it will be.

Danny gets out across from me and says, "Toss me one." He uses his wifebeater to wipe the crust out of his eyes.

"We're in Mississippi." I say, sliding the pack across the top of the car. The lighter pops out inside the car and I lean in to get it.

"Yeah. I remember seeing some big ass sign." Danny says, talking around his cigarette. It clings to his lips like a cat afraid of water. "Don't remember seeing anywhere to eat, though."

"How much ya got?" I inhale and feel the smoke burning down my lungs. The first cigarette always hits me this way, like I haven't smoked in years. I can't remember a time I haven't had a cigarette in my hand or near enough to be in my hand. My mom, or Deirdre as I like to call her, had been a smoker of all things plant derived; it was a rite of passage that I would smoke my first cigarette at seven. It wasn't long before I started stealing her cigarettes and then getting high with her. And at thirteen, I left her house with nothing except the carton of cigarettes I took off her dresser; it was like she owed me that.

Danny and I both empty our pockets on the top of the car, lint and change rolling and bouncing across the metal.

"A buck forty-three."

"Two dollars."

"We should get going soon. It's gonna be too hot to walk much this afternoon." It's late September and the humidity and heat rises with every step we take. We came up with the idea of heading to the Gulf a month or so ago, when we left Michigan. It just sounded like a good idea at the time.

Danny nods his head, watching traffic. "Yeah, we'll be melting right into these fucking cracks on the highway."

I flick my cigarette into the grass. "Gotta pee." I disappear into the bushes near the highway. Danny follows suit, walking away from me. I unzip my pants and squat, showering the grass between my feet.

I'd been calling myself Will for a while now, made things easier if people thought I was a guy. They didn't try to take advantage of me, sexually or otherwise, and I could blend in on the street better. Deirdre always said I got my father's good looks, which was true, I guess. I never knew him, but if it was the only gift I got from him, then that was fine with me. It made it easier to pass for a guy, with my square jaw line and small chest. I just threw my shoulders back more and swaggered my walk a little, letting my shoulders move instead of my hips. It had nothing to do with my own sexuality; I was pretty confident about my hetero status. But I could understand how it would be threatening to some people, with my hidden gender. Connecting with people on the streets is harder than just meeting someone in the real world and becoming friends. There are layers of trust and barriers that you learn to respect, but at the same time, there's an acceptance that people come in all shapes and sizes. I guess when you're censored out of reality, nothing is what it seems.

Danny knew I wasn't a guy. I told him after we'd been traveling together for about two weeks, when I was sure about him, but I think he'd already suspected something. He'd just shrugged his shoulders and said, "Whatever, man."

I walk out of the trees before Danny and cross to the car. I start picking through it, pulling out what I want to keep and stuffing my pockets. Danny walks up and I hand him a T-shirt and a comb. "Want anything else?" I ask as I shut the door.

"You search the seats and shit for money?"

"Yeah, only got 60 cents out of it." We start walking with the flow of traffic.

Danny glances back. "That was a damn good ride." He grins. "We got like, six hours with her."

"Yeah." I turn around; start walking backwards so I can look at the car. I feel like we should go back for it, but I just shrug my shoulders and keep walking. It was stolen anyway.

We've been hitching all morning when I start thinking about these nature shows I used to watch when I was a kid. There was something about jungles and wildlife that always fascinated me. My grandmother and I used to spend hours at her house, watching "educational" TV and telling stories. She didn't believe in watching TV unless it taught you something, especially for a kid. But I remember watching this show once about some South American country, and I remember seeing these macaws that lived in the jungle. These birds mated for life, and what was so significant about it was that they lived almost fifty years. Few animals stay paired with their mate longer, except maybe humans. I couldn't imagine being with the same person for fifty years like that. Deirdre never kept any guy around for longer than a few weeks. But when I met Danny, I thought about those macaws.

"Hey, Will. " Danny nudges my shoulder. He points ahead of us where a highway sign for Stuckey's Diner sits in the distance.

The sun has sapped most of my good humor, so I just nod my head in response. We've gone all day without finding food or catching a ride before, so the sight of the sign ahead of us is a little like the miracle of air conditioning. I'm thinking all about comfortable booth seats when I spot something in the grass on my right. I stoop to pick it up; it's an Orioles baseball hat. I turn it over in my hands, knocking some of the dirt off of it. The last time I found anything decent I was searching through the bins at a shelter, and fighting with this old guy for a jacket. Feeling like a kid who just got new clothes for school, I set it on my head. I catch Danny's eye, smiling.

"Naw, man. Like this!" In a spurt of animation, Danny pulls the hat off my head and sets it backward on his head. His hair pokes out from all different directions. He suddenly breaks into song, throwing his hands up and pumping them in the air in front of him. "I'm a joker, I'm a smoker, I'm a midnight to-ker….. I get my lovin on the r-u-n!"

If people had anthems or theme songs, this would be Danny's. When he gets drunk or high, or when he's just happy, he starts singing "The Joker" by the Steve Miller Band. It's usually followed with a description of his old man, and how Danny used to listen to that song over and over when he was younger. It's in those moments, when his deep-set, dark eyes get cloudy, focusing on memories that only he sees, that I feel how strongly I am connected to him. His features soften, and he's not some dirty, old street guy, but this fearless man who's lived life on his own terms.

Most of Danny's past was buried so deep that after two years of hitching with him, his old man encompassed the extent of my knowledge about his life on the inside. People on the street call guys like Danny "forefathers", which means they've been outside so long that it's their life, their only life. As if nothing came before it, and they were born here. Born free.

"I get my lovin on the run!" He shouts out, just as our hitching pays off and a Chevy pulls ahead of us. We forget about Stuckey's Diner and pile in the back.

We ride in the back of the truck all day. We don't ask any questions, but I'm pretty sure the truck belongs to someone's boss, some guy named Martin. Danny and I have a system for when things get too weird, even for us. We can read each other real well, almost to the point of having a conversation without talking.

Once---when we were desperate---we got a ride with this weird old man, who sweated a lot and had piercing blue eyes. He had his hand on the Bible the whole time we were in the car, and made us sit in front with him. Neither Danny nor I said a word to each other the whole time we rode side by side in the front seat, but Danny knew I was waiting for his signal. Danny convinced the weirdo I had to go to the bathroom, so he stopped at the next gas station. Then we bailed.

The guys in the Chevy are blasting Latino music as they drop us at the outskirts of Gulfport, and since Danny and I haven't eaten all day, we decide on McDonald's, opting for the dollar menu.

Danny stands on the sidewalk looking at his reflection in the windows. "I think you should go in and order, man." I stand next to him, studying our warped reflections in the slanting light of dusk, and decide he's right. I look like some dirty street boy with my baggy pants and pair of beat up Reeboks, but Danny looks worse. I take off my baseball hat and start brushing my hands through my hair, smoothing it down. I take my time, goofing around, making a big deal out of tucking in my shirt and using my spit to wipe some of the dirt off my skin. Danny laughs at me, elbowing my side. "Damn---who you tryin' to impress?"

I smile and push past him. "Free food, bitch."----As if I might be able to get a five-finger discount with all my good looks. He lunges for me, but I duck through the door ahead of him.

There's a kid eating a happy meal with his mom, and they pretend not to notice me. The cashier won't look at me as I saunter in and walk up to the counter. I think she's about to say something, but she just looks at me from the corners of her eyes as she gets my food, like she's afraid I might ask her if she'd let me sleep at her house. I grab the bag and load it down with ketchup, already feeling like I've been inside too long.

I make my way to the bathrooms, and meet Danny just as he's walking out. I hand him our food and say, "See you outside, Joker", before walking in. He swipes at me, just catching the side of my head enough to knock my hat sideways. By the time I turn around, he's already crossing to the door.

I use the bathroom and wash as much of my skin as I can reach without climbing into the sink. I dry my hair under the hand dryer and avoid the mirror. I grab a roll of toilet paper and stick it under my shirt. I look around some more, but don't really see anything else of much value. I'm not surprised, though. Public bathrooms like this are the worst place to find good throwaways.

I cross over into the girl's bathroom, glancing around to make sure no one sees me. I'm about to leave empty handed when I see an earring on the floor near the sink. I pick it up, turning it over in my hands, watching as the colored glass catches the light. I feel something catch inside of me, and an unfamiliar image of Danny suddenly pops into my head. I don't recognize this yearning that's crawling up through my stomach, but I push at it, swallowing it down. My heart starts beating furiously, like wings are fluttering in my chest, and it scares me. I've never felt this way before, like my body is revolting against me, and I feel the security of Will, the security I've built in being a boy, sliding away from me. My survival instincts kick in, and I suddenly throw the earring down, where it shatters on the tile floor.

I stumble to the door of the restaurant and push it open. Danny sits on the sidewalk eating, long legs stretched out in front of him, talking to a woman in a dark blue sedan. I make my way to them, unable to meet Danny's eyes. He motions for me to sit next to him. "Hey, Will. This is Lori."

I can tell by Danny's introduction that he doesn't trust her yet. I sit down, keeping an arm's length distance from Danny, and reach for my sandwich. "Whassup." Lori smiles and there's a flicker of understanding across her face, but I don't say anything more. I feel exposed, unsteady.

"Danny says you're headed to the coast." She says, still smiling. Her glasses magnify her eyes, and sweat glistens off her skin. Danny lights a cigarette with the lighter he lifted off the guys in the Chevy, and I know he's waiting for my signal. I let the roll of toilet paper under my shirt slide down to the concrete between my legs.

"Yeah." My heart is slowing its rhythm, and the sandwich in my stomach is slowly tracing away any uneasiness. "You from around here?"

"Oh yeah. Lived here all my life. Something about the water; can't live too far from the waves or I start getting the shakes." She laughs, deep and clear, and I'm reminded of the stories my grandmother used to tell me about the water fairies, the Loireag, in Scottish folklore. A shapeshifting water horse, they guarded bodies of water that were entrances into their realms.

I look away, focusing on the parking lot, and finish my sandwich. I toss the wrapper and the toilet paper in the paper bag and reach for the cigarettes, jumping slightly when Danny's arm brushes against mine.

"You boys look like you could use a ride, at least." She says it like it's a question, but I'm thinking that's pretty obvious. "As long as you don't mind no air conditioning."

I give Danny a sideways glance as I light my cigarette, cupping my hand around the flame to make sure it doesn't blow out in the wind. Headlights glance off her bumper as a car pulls in the parking lot behind her. "C'mon, get in." She reaches behind to push open the car door in the backseat.

Danny gives me a questioning look as I grab the paper bag and stand up. I shrug my shoulders. He tosses his cigarette butt on the pavement and we slide in, pulling the door closed behind us. Lori lays her arm across the back of the front seat and says, "Supposed to be a pretty nasty storm blowing in. You sure you boys still want to head to the beach? "

"We need some damn sand and saltwater. I just wanna play my music in the sun." Danny laughs at his Steve Miller reference, but I'm not paying attention because there's something distracting about Lori. I take a drag off my cigarette and concentrate, trying to figure out what's not right.

In the front seat, Lori takes a swig from a silver flask as she pulls out onto the road. "You boys drink?" Without waiting for an answer she says, "Here try some of this. Metheglin: best stuff on this side of the Atlantic."

I'm still somewhat puzzled----and not necessarily thinking about whether or not it's safe to accept drinks from Lori---- when I reach my fingers out and take the flask from her outstretched hand. It doesn't matter though, because it goes down smooth, with an aftertaste of something like honey and nutmeg. I nod my head in approval and pass the flask to Danny as it settles in my stomach, sending out waves of warmth through my body. As Danny takes a swig, I hear a faint whisper of "Riders on the Storm" on the car radio. I strain, but it's hard to hear, and I wonder if Danny hears it too. I crack my window, and flick my cigarette butt out into the oncoming night.

And there it is. I don't know how I'd missed it, but rising from the crown of her bushy, wavy, long brown hair is a horn. A single, grayish horn---rather short, but definitely a horn. And I don't mean something a tattoo artist or body designer would have. It was crusty, rough looking, like a thick fingernail, and definitely not skin. I glance pointedly at Danny and then back at Lori's horn; he nods slightly. I don't know how I missed it all this time; I would've sworn it wasn't there a moment ago. But now that I've seen it, I can't take my eyes off of it.

"Good stuff." Danny says as he passes the flask over the front seat, and Lori smiles. I nod my head in agreement, watching her horn.

I can smell the salty air as Lori slowly pulls to a stop across from the beach. "That wind is blowing pretty fierce. You sure y'all will be alright?"

I look out into the horizon, mesmerized by the sight of all that dark water, stretching out to infinity. Ominous clouds gather in the sky, covering the stars and shrouding the beach in shadow. It's eerie, and mystical, and I push at Danny, suddenly impatient. "Yeah, we'll be fine. Thanks for the ride." Danny slides out of the backseat as I turn to Lori, smiling. She nods her head, as if she's giving her blessing, or blessing us, I can't be sure.

Danny walks down to the beach ahead of me, and I follow him. I hear her drive off in the distance and realize I've forgotten the paper bag with our toilet paper in it. We make our way down to the shore, and stare out over the black water. The wind blows around us like mad, and it's so dark that it's easy to believe we're at the end of the world. The white, frothy tops of the waves at sea crash into each other, like the sea is brushing its teeth.

I tug my shoes off and run into the surf, splashing and jumping in the water like a kid. "Danny! C'mon!" My chest feels full, and I can't stop smiling.

Danny pulls his shoes off and walks out into the surf. He stands there, waves lapping at his calves, and that unfamiliar image of Danny from the bathroom pops into my head again. But this time I'm not scared, and it doesn't feel so strange. The awkward, fluttering feeling in my chest bubbles up through me, and I don't feel the need to hide anymore.

I start splashing furiously, soaking both of us. I dissolve into laughter, and Danny pushes at me so that I lose my footing. I catch his shirt in my left hand and pull him off balance with me and we both tumble into the sandy tide. I lose my hat in the surf, and my wet shirt clings to my body. Danny sputters in saltwater, and there's an awkward moment of hands and clothes as both of us try to find our footing.

We finally stand up, holding our arms out at our sides and watching each other warily. The wind whips around our wet hair and clothes as I turn away and walk up the beach. I sprawl out in the sand, waiting for Danny to join me because I know he will. I don't know if it's the effects of the drink we shared with Lori or the sound of the approaching thunder, but I feel more wild and alive than I can remember.

Danny collapses on the beach below me leaning back on his elbows, watching the waves and the water. It starts raining; big, fat, heavy drops that make cavernous dents in the sandy beach as they fall. I look out at the water, unsure for a moment if the rain is coming from the clouds above us or the sea in front of us.

"We should get out of the rain." It's the first thing he's said since we got out of Lori's car. I can't see his face, only the back of his head, but I reach for him all the same. I don't know why, but he turns to me, and catches my embrace. I know this can't happen, that there's some ominous consequence looming, but it doesn't feel like I have a choice. Our lips meet, and I can feel the storm all around us, as the waves crash larger and closer to us on the shore. The wind is unforgiving as I hear trees cracking, swaying, creaking above us. And then suddenly there's water everywhere, and I feel us floating, washed out to sea.