I had read Robert Olen Butler’s Tabloid Dreams when it came out in 1996. I not only still have the book, but tucked inside was the Philadelphia Inquirer review that led me to purchase it. I had forgotten how incredible, funny and sad the story, Jealous Husband Returns in Form of Parrot, is.
The title sums up the story well. While spying on his wife and her lover, the jealous husband has fallen out of a tree and died, and now has been reincarnated as a parrot and purchased by his unknowing wife. The jealous husband lives in a bird cage in the den, suffering in some seventh circle of hell.
What makes this story resonate is the husband/parrot’s first person account of this ordeal. When his wife comes over in the pet store, he can’t believe how lovely she is. “Her touch makes my tail flare.”
Even the bird toys in his cage make him recall his jealous rages. “I look at the very dangle of it and the thing is rough, the rawhide and the knotted rope, and I get this restlessness back in my tail, a burning thrashing feeling, and it’s like all the times when I was sure there was a man naked with my wife.”
The wife sets the bird cage up in her den. “When she keeps the bedroom door open I can see the space at the foot of the bed but not the bed itself. That I can sense to the left, just out of sight. I watch the men go in and I hear the sounds but I can’t quite see. And they drive me crazy.”
As a parrot, his limited use of language adds to his torment. “Her husband, the man that I was, is dead to her. She does not understand all that is behind my “hello.”
But when his wife brings home a cowboy, the parrot cannot hold back. As the cowboy heads to the bedroom, the parrot blurts out “Cracker,” and the man turns back quizzically. The parrot feels sated for a bit, but then the cowboy and his wife “whoop” it up in the bedroom. When the wife appears in the den naked, he is heartbroken.
“I want to pluck some of my own feathers, the feathers from my chest, and give them to her. I love her more in that moment, seeing her terrible nakedness, than I ever have before.”
The absurdity of the situation is offset so well by the sadness of the husband. He comes to understand that he loves his wife, where as previously, as a man, he only felt jealous rage. This underpins the whole story and makes it an extremely satisfying read.
Jealous Husband Returns in Form of Parrot was listed in the long list of One Story’s recent list of top ten favorite short stories. The extended list includes thirty-six stories, of which eleven have been reviewed in this blog to date.
Jim Breslin's debut short story collection features twenty-one stories about loneliness and hope in suburbia. You are invited to the book launch at Oxford, PA's BookPlace this Sunday, June 26th from 4-7pm. For details click here. The book is available now on Amazon and Barnes and Noble.