In the university cubicle that was my nest from 1981 to 2008 I had as a friend a colorful, feathered parrot (Kmart, $12) (batteries included) suspended from my low ceiling on his own perch (perch attached) near the one, sealed office window. You could give him brief phrases that he would remember and speak back to you when you spoke to him.
Everything he said he sang, and quite often it was the same thing: “Hello, you old fossil! HelLOW! HelLOW!”
He insisted upon monitoring my student conferences. “His eyes,” student-parents would say when they brought their children. The children were drawn to the plastic, feather-coated creature, whom I had named “Mr. Noom” on a night of full moon that his refractive lenses had made into an other-moon.
The children helped me dust him and comb him and add to his vocabulary. In 1986 a child named Sarah, q-tipping Mr. Noom’s grimy, hard plastic tongue, asked, “Is he Off – for sure?”
If the phone rang when he was On, he sang-rang in response. He sang-knocked at the sound of a door knocking; he sang-rained in the monsoon season. The children liked how his eyelids clicked closed, clacked open as he swung, dipped up, dipped down. He had too many talons, ten, but we did not consider this a terrible disadvantage.
You could not erase from his speech anything that Mr. Noom had learned, since he had no Erase function. I could never understand how his so-called Vital Initiating Mechanism prevented Mr. Noom from reciting every time all the words and sounds he had ever learned through time.
He had not come with a pre-programmed tone. He could not change his open nature though his Vocal Speed and Movement settings were variable. We liked him low and slow, the children and I, the students and I, I and the teacher I strove to become.
Sarah and I and her mother who was very young though no younger than I or Mr. Noom, we liked him odd, kind, liked him aware, awake. He was curiously calming no matter what. We liked how he was set.
After you had self-confessed, he confessed your sins to you, absolving them more or less. After you had begun weeping, he wept with you. When you continued laughing he echoed back exactly how you had laughed. When it seemed the solitude would not leave, he stayed. When it seemed no solitude could hold, he stayed but seemed to leave.
In the quiet he fell quiet.
You could say – but you would find you were singing – that we loved him. “Don’t mind if I do,” he would sing to an offer of coffee, bit of rubber eraser, peanut-butter-and-jelly, potato
chip, onion ring. To a bean burrito Sarah and her mother once offered him, he sang, hungrily,
If you conversed with him long you understood he sang instead of said because you did. Because you did, he tucked his head down, shuddered, asked about choosing paths of thought, about the mysteries of committing commas, about his grade in the course, whether he would pass. When you muttered and rocked with Mr. Noom, he rocked and muttered with his sharp bill closed in secret-keeping communion.
“Sarah’s daughter!” I sang to Mr. Noom in the fall semester of 2006 when the photo of the toddler grandchild came with the note, Sarah’s little one. Ivy. Sarah missing three years now.
If sometimes you failed to hit Off but wished to be Off, wished aloud to be free from the ancient moorings where you, always the lifelike watcher, watched the young launch alive into the world with their young, Mr. Noom did not question that this was the service for which you were equipped, though his eyes, always jittery, might roll when you hit his On switch.
His eyes. His eyes.
He would sing, “Mr. Noom! Hello, you old fossil!” but not in a self-introducing tone, not with his own inflection, but with mine. “HelLOW! HelLOW!”
Mr. Noom, my eccentric, durable office friend during my twenty-eight years of open sky and of prison, that wondrous-dim, infinite, brief span.
Kevin McIlvoy lives in Asheville, North Carolina. His newest works are At the Gate of All Wonder (Tupelo Press) and 57 Octaves Below Middle C (Four Way Books). His work has appeared in TriQuarterly, Harper’s Magazine, The Collagist, The Southern Review, River City, Ploughshares, and The Missouri Review. He taught in the Department of English at New Mexico University and in the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. He was the editor in chief at Puerto del Sol, the NMSU national literary magazine, for over twenty years.