The only place where anything fun ever seems to happen in the Acme language course book Forward with English! is in the section known as Everyday Accidents and Domestic Mishaps. To illustrate what an everyday accident or domestic mishap might consist of, various familiar and generally very careful picture book characters volunteer themselves as the unwitting victims of a moment’s dapper imprudence. We wince at the sight of a chin getting scratched by a razor in a bathroom mirror, we gasp at fingers straying too near the burner of a kitchen stove, we chuckle at the picture of a fedora hat (Br. Eng: “trilby”) getting whisked off into a neighbor’s hedge by a freak gust of wind; while the sight of a parrot suddenly turning into a man and falling off its perch will give many reason for pause. I think what makes those cheeky pastel-and-ink cartoons in the mishap section so interesting is that for a brief, tantalizing moment they offer the only clue that there might exist another dimension outside the world of scheduled routines and codified speech bubbles that reign elsewhere in Forward with English! Of course, by the Repairs and Rectifications section that follows, the regular world of clockwork expectations is securely back in place, if not quite quickly enough to have stopped us catching a glimpse of that other somewhat whacked-out dimension beyond. We are left now pondering a parallel world of heady misadventures and fabulous picaresque; a world where, time standing still—unchecked, benignly—events might one day run amok.
Actually, that last little inconvenience—the parrot turning into a man and falling from its perch—hasn’t quite made it into the picture book yet (which is not to say that it won’t appear in the forthcoming edition of the course, due out next fall). But otherwise, it was those vignettes of chin, fingers, and hat that flashed through my mind when, on the morning of Bob T. Hash III’s madcap elopement, I found myself crashing toward the parquet tiles on his living room floor, parrot stand in tow.
In its career as parrot stand so far, the T-shaped branch of local elm wood (anchored vertically in a pail of cement, and to which cage, perch, mirror, and so forth, were affixed) had, without ever toppling, survived numerous unintended knocks with caster-propelled items of interior furniture, been leaned on by umpteen tipsy houseguests, withstood a score of disoriented somnambulists, and brushed off sundry blitzkriegs of indoor Frisbee. Till that morning, however, its ability to support the weight of a fully grown adult human being attempting to balance himself on the extremity of one of its prongs had yet to be put to the test. When, mentally, I ran events backward and in slow motion replay, I watched in fascinated horror as the parrot stand restored itself to the vertical, dragging in its wake an almost biblical multitude of birdseed that appeared to spring off the carpet—like a tiny tornado passing over a field of golden ripe wheat in The Wizard of Oz—to funnel itself, unspilled, back into the little seed trough. I watched an assortment of primary-colored plastic amusements from Astor’s, the pet shop, hop, skip, and jump into the air and clip themselves trimly to the bars of the cage, which, itself having become detached on impact, had thrice cartwheeled across the living room floor.
For a few dazed moments, among a freshly laid bedlam of birdseed, I lay there flat on my back, staring at the ceiling in amazement. A halo of cartoon stars spinning round my head and a watery bird whistle twittering inside it, I found myself wondering how the picture book artist might try to depict my own misadventure for some future edition of Forward with English!, thereby admitting it too to that select pantheon of mishaps. In the “before” picture, for example, you could have an African gray parrot, sensibly perched at the living room window, with nothing, barring a wink, to suggest an impending disaster. Beside it, in the “after” vignette, you could then have a man in a suit—necktie floating into the air like in an astronaut’s weightlessness experiment, businessman’s glasses dancing off the bridge of his nose, staring at us with that look of mild astonishment, as if someone had just played a practical joke on the departmental manager by announcing an unexpected downturn in the quarterly sales figures while he was practicing on the office trampoline during lunch break.
So, mishaps occur. And yet, with a little more care, how easily disaster might often be averted: shaving more slowly, keeping one’s eyes peeled for banana skins under a window—in my case, repairing to a more reliably solid piece of furniture the next time I’m about to switch from the psittacine form to the so-called Homo sapiens. The only other time this happened I also ended up stranded on the parquet floor of the Hashes’ front living room. The main difference being that then, on my first metamorphosis, it was night, and the house was sound asleep. Another difference was that (purely by chance, having not the faintest inkling of the little miracle that was about to occur) I had happened to be stationed on a magazine rack—that is, one of several “low altitude” secondary perches positioned around the house for me to fly to. Under my newly acquired bulk on that occasion, the news rack simply toppled over onto its side—rather than crashing to its doom like the parrot stand was to do on my second transformation. One minute there I was, a parrot minding my own business, quietly perched on the magazine rack; the next, out of the blue, I was a fully grown man, platypussing about on the floor amid an assortment of back issues of the Belmont Gazette and the Grammarian’s Quarterly!
My state of human-hood on that maiden transformation was to last just a couple of hours or so—long enough, nevertheless, to take a nocturnal spin in the family convertible, top down for the stars and the soft warm air of night. More to the point, it was long enough to give me a taste for the life lived by humans, as opposed to the life I had led as a parrot. Till that fateful night I’d been content with my lot. Of course, I’d heard lots of good things about being a human, don’t get me wrong, many good things, but I had yet to be convinced. Did humans wink at little round mirrors, or ting little bells as often as I did? How often did the average human get the chance to imitate an interlocutor’s question word for word in a loud, screechy parrot voice—to the delight of lady company especially? In short, why take the car when you can run up and down the little multicolored ladder? Of course, it might seem a little sweeping, a little bit reductive, to equate being human with driving an automobile, when you consider that even in our own picture book town of Belmont there are many other things besides driving a car that its inhabitants can do to show that they’re human, and therefore many other ways I myself might have made use of my humanoid hours. But, let’s face it, there were good reasons for my going for a spin in the car that night.
One reason was that my sudden, serendipitous possession of a cat burglar’s arms and legs was perhaps a window of opportunity to do things not normally open to one in possession of mere talons and wings. While a variety of human gadgetry was already within my parrot’s range (light switches, microwaves, I’d long ago mastered), a whole gamut of more sophisticated large-scale machines had till that moment been beyond my control. To coordinate at the same time, for example, not just a steering wheel but a gearshift and a set of pedals (not to mention a mirror or two!) clearly requires the ability and reach of a full set of humanoid limbs. A second and perhaps even better reason was the avoidance of any potential alarm my newly acquired human form might give to an insomniac Hash, if one of them were struck by a midnight pang of hunger and came downstairs in their slippers to fetch a bowl of Froot Loops. All in all, it seemed a good idea to spend whatever man-hours I was going to get off the premises and away from the house.
I took to driving like a duck takes to water—no need for lessons! I just turned the key in the ignition—and with it the irrepressible dashboard audio cassette of Forward with English!: “Taking a Trip in the Car.” I pulled out of the Hashes’ white picket fence estate with all the graceful carbon-friendly tact of a milk cart. I drove through sleeping suburb till I reached Duck Pond where suburb turned into field with the volume down low.
Picturing myself as a very tall parrot in monocle and cra- vat on the turnpike for neighboring Bellville, I admired moon-lumined farmlands—fields of grain, a collection of cows, the odd In Cold Blood-ish barn.
Roadside signs and instructions were as helpful as the most limpid of phrase books from the Acme collection: pass through flashing amber with caution,—cry-wolf-ish spring-loaded antlers—snowflake.
Presently, some ten miles short of Bellville, no doubt due to the meagre parrot proportions of my last meal being insufficient to supply my new, inflated humanoid energy needs, I began to feel rather peckish. So, when I saw the neon sign of an anonymous but conveniently located roadside diner, I decided to pull into its neat little car lot divested at that hour of patrons.
I strolled inside that diner like a John Wayne plonked on the moon; and I asked the nice waitress for a fish burger please. I leaned on the long zinc counter with tall toadstool stools and the waitress (presumably having recognized the trademark Bob T. Hash III Plymouth Fury as it swung into her empty car lot and jumped to conclusions.)—when I asked her if she would mind putting it in a takeout receptacle—said not to worry Mr. Hash, you get a takeout box whether you stay inside the diner or eat it out in your car with the roof down open to the stars and the soft warm air of night. It was not until some time later, to my own great shock and amazement, that her mistake made a great deal more sense.
Back in the car, under the stars, the burger turned out to be woefully short on the sesame front and, to be frank, was a great disappointment (see Lodging a Complaint, Forward with English!). I’m not eating at that place again, thank you very much. On the other hand, by sticking the drinks straw into the roof of the little carton, I was able to produce a crude sort of sailboat—which at least made up for not getting some wee free toy such as a hand-painted dragon-slaying medieval knight in armor or a bleeping limbo martian with irreplaceable batteries in the first place. Against the now setting moon, pendulous and yellow over a cornfield, sailed my little Medusa like a pedaling E.T., bobbing at the end of an outstretched wing (or should I say, arm), its passengers doomed. Right then, as I was watching this, I got a funny sensation. It was a sixth sense, a kind of inner gas gauge, warning me that my trial stint as human was already nearing its end—and that it was perhaps now a very good idea to get myself, and Bob T. Hash III’s Plymouth Fury, back to Belmont before this event actually happened.
The green grass joys of neighboring Bellville, where I’ve heard there’s a mall, have to wait for another occasion. A wise twit-awoo perching in a tree watched me turn the car round in the burger lot—swiveling its head the way owls do to stare at my taillights—back toward the way I had come from. From the east the dark ink of the sky was already starting to drain and already I could make out the fond shadowed silhouette of Belmont. By the time Bob’s alarm clock went off at a quarter to seven (unseen birds atwitter with song), the car had been returned undamaged to the pea-stone drive and I, once more an African gray parrot and picture book mascot had been returned to my living room perch as if nothing had happened.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Defenestration of Bob T. Hash III by David Deans. Copyright © 2008 by David Deans. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.