Welcome to The Madison Review's web series, The Extended Cut, where we showcase exceptional work that was not selected for the fall or spring editions of our journal. This week we will be sharing 'Fowl Language' a short story by Timothy Reilly. 'Fowl Language' has a pleasantly engaging style which fully immersed our fiction staff into the trials and tribulations of Edmond and Lillian Vogel's encounter with local police.
Timothy Reilly had been a professional tubaist (including a stint with the Teatro Regio of Torino, Italy) until around 1980, when a condition called “Embouchure Dystonia” put an end to his music career. He gratefully retired from substitute teaching in 2014. He has published widely, most recently in Iron Horse Literary Review, Zone 3, Fictive Dream, Bluestem, The MacGuffin, and Superstition Review. He has twice been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Timothy Reilly lives in Southern California with his wife, Jo-Anne Cappeluti: a published poet and scholar.
The myna bird’s perch was near an open window, from which phrases like “What are you looking at, asshole?” and the ever-popular “Fuck you” could be heard from a distance of at least twelve yards. The bird’s soliloquy lasted only about a minute, but after a brief interval, the show repeated verbatim. The myna bird’s tinny soprano was similar to the voice of the woman inside the house, shouting at her children.
Edmond Vogel stood on the sidewalk, wondering about the kind of parent who would teach a family pet to swear that way. He didn’t need to wait long for an answer, as a young woman—dressed in a bright-red top and black “Skinny Pants” —walked out to the driveway, followed by two young children: a girl and a boy. The woman noticed Edmond staring from the sidewalk.
“What are you looking at, asshole?” she said.
Edmond was stunned but managed to scold her: “You shouldn’t talk that way in front of children.”
“Fuck you,” she said, emphasizing with her middle finger.
“Fuck you,” the myna bird reiterated from the open window.
The children said nothing. They were huddled and cowering like Hansel and Gretel.
“Get in the fucking car,” the woman commanded the children.
The woman slammed shut her car door and then recklessly backed the SUV out the driveway and raced down the street. Edmond made a mental note of the license plate number and the house address but would forget both before returning home.
Edmond had been walking home, after purchasing a Sunday newspaper from a local supermarket. He and his wife Lillian were determined to maintain the archaic regimen of reading the Sunday paper. Of course, the Sunday Times had degenerated greatly, in both quality and quantity, and the price had increased to the better part of four dollars, but there was still a nostalgic comfort in the sound of fluttering open a page and reading the printed word in the light from an east-facing window.
When he returned home, Edmond told Lillian the details of his experience, including his memory lapse with the address and license numbers.
“Was she beating her children?” asked Lillian.
“Not in front of me. But if you saw their faces . . .”
“We should report this to the police.”
“I agree. But we’ll need to get the exact address.”
Edmond drove to the house of the abusive mother and stopped at the curb. Lillian rolled down her window to read the address on the mailbox. As she wrote on a notepad, muffled cries for help came from inside the house. Edmond got out of the car and ran to the front door and began to knock with authority. When no one came to the door, he went to the open living room window and peered in. He then realized that it was the myna bird pleading for help. There were no humans inside the house. The bird delivered an F-word parting shot.
Edmond and Lillian returned home and saw two police cars, a K-9 unit and an SUV, parked in front of their house. The officers met them as they walked to their front door. The dog inside the K-9 unit barked excitedly, as if it couldn’t wait to get in on the fun.
“Are you Edmond R. and Lillian C. Vogel?” said the tallest of the two officers. His shaved head and large tortoiseshell glasses gave him the appearance of a giant Gingerbread Boy.
“Yes,” said Lillian. “Is something wrong?”
The cops smiled at each other. “I don’t think so,” said the short cop, who had slick dark hair and a Captain Kangaroo mustache. “But we need to ask a few questions.”
“Please come inside,” Lillian said.
After politely turning down offers of bottled water and coffee, the tall cop told the Vogels that a member of the Lark Ellen Neighborhood Watch had phoned the police and reported a man knocking on a neighbor’s door and looking in a window. The caller said she thought the man was a “Knock-knock” burglar, and she gave the dispatcher the Vogel’s license plate number.
“Knock-knock burglar?” said Lillian.
The short cop said: “It’s a burglar who knocks on the door to see if anyone’s home. If nobody answers, the Knock-knock burglar breaks in and steals money and jewelry and stuff.”
“We can see that you’re definitely not burglars,” said the tall cop (again, exchanging smiles with his colleague). “But the caller said she didn’t recognize you or your car. Why were you there?”
“There’s really no simple answer to that question,” Edmond said.
The cops stood their ground, waiting for an explanation.
“Well,” Edmond said, “to start with, I never walk down that street.”
“Lark Ellen?” said the tall cop.
“Yes. Usually, when I pick up the Sunday paper from Albertsons—”
“Ralphs,” said Lillian.
The cops couldn’t stifle their patronizing grins. Edmond heard their thoughts: Old folks. Senior moment.
“That’s right,” said Edmond, giving them the knowing eye. “We used to shop at Albertsons; now we shop at Ralphs. Something funny?”
“No-no,” said the tall cop. “Please continue.”
“Anyway. I usually walk down Lakeview. But today—for no particular reason—I decided to take Lark Ellen.”
“The neighbor said you were in a car,” said the short cop.
“That was later. I went first on foot—by myself. My wife and I later returned in our car.”
“We were concerned for the welfare of the children of the house.”
“Why were you concerned?” said the tall cop.
“Their mother was using foul language and seemed overly aggressive.I saw her bully her children into a car and drive off—way too fast.”
“What were you planning on doing when you went back to the woman’s house?”
“We returned so we could record the address and then report the incident to the police,” said Lillian.
“Why didn’t you get the address the first time you were there?”
“It slipped my mind,” Edmond said with a touch of sarcasm.
“Since you’re here,” Lillian said, “we’d like to file a report about possible child abuse.”
Small radios, attached above the officers’ hearts, began to hiss garbled sentences. The short cop turned his back, took a few steps, and said something into his radio.
“Tell us again how the woman was abusing her kids?” said the tall cop.“Give me details.”
Lillian stared at the tall cop but her vision turned inward. She was sent back forty-two years: the time when their house was filled with police and paramedics, drilling grief-stricken parents for details concerning their infant daughter’s crib death.
Edmond stepped in. “I was the one who witnessed the woman’s abusive behavior.”
“I’m all ears.”
Edmond choked back an easy one-liner.
“As I said before: the woman was shouting at her children, slinging the F-word like confetti. That kind of language is harmful to children, for a number of reasons. She was also bullying the children into an SUV, and she drove away at an unsafe speed—before the children could secure their seatbelts.”
“What do you mean by bullying?”
“Shoving them, swearing at them. She cussed me out when she noticed me watching from the sidewalk.”
“Did you see the woman hit the kids?”
“I didn’t see her hit the children.”
“Did the kids fall down or hit their head when she pushed them?”
“Did the kids have any cuts or bruises?”
“I couldn’t tell from where I was standing.”
The short cop—who had been listening for a while—chimed in: “I’m concerned about the woman’s reckless driving. But really—without catching her in the act—there’s not much we can do about it.”
“And there’s no concrete evidence that the kids were physically abused,” said the tall cop. “And ... come on. Every parent loses their temper every now and then. She probably doesn’t use that kind of language all the time.”
“That’s where you’re wrong,” said Edmond. “I’m absolutely certain she uses vulgar and inappropriate language on a regular basis.”
“How do you know that?”
“Her myna bird.”
“Her myna bird told you?”
“In a manner of speaking,” said Edmond. He realized he was now in danger of losing all credibility.
“When did the myna bird come in?” said the short cop. “You didn’t mention anything about a myna bird before.”
Edmond explained how he heard the myna bird swearing through an open window. “It was using the exact phrases that the woman used,” he said.
“Isn’t that what myna birds do?” said the tall cop. “Repeat what they hear?”
“Exactly! They repeat what they hear. But they require a lot of repetition before they can learn words and phrases. They don’t just repeat something after hearing it once; they have to hear it continually, before it becomes part of their repertoire. Believe me: That woman swears in front of her children—and the bird—all the time. The bird is the proof. It was also calling for help when I looked in the window.”
The cops looked at each other without smiling. “The bird was calling for help,” said the short cop, as if questioning someone about seeing flying saucers. “What are you saying?”
“I’m saying that the myna bird must have heard the children pleading for help—on numerous occasions. Can’t you see the relevance?”
The tall cop took a deep breath. “I’ll tell you what we can do,Mr. Vogel,” he said. “We can start a paper trail—file a report with what you said about the woman pushing her kids and swearing at them. Driving recklessly. Then, if other people call in with similar complaints, we can maybe do something about it. In the meantime, I suggest you stay away from Lark Ellen and the house in question.”
As the police were leaving, the short one pointed to a framed photograph in the entrance hall. “Your granddaughter?” he asked.
“Our daughter,” Lillian said.
The cops left single file. The K-9 officer barked for joy at the sight of its comrades.
Edmond served coffee and Lillian put on a recording of Mozart’s Piano Concerto in G Major (K 453). They both sat reading sections of the paper and listening to the music. During the pause between the concerto’s second and third movements, a bird contributed an interlude through an open window.
“Mozart’s starling,” said Lillian.
Edmond looked up from his paper and smiled. Lillian was referring to the story about a pet starling who honored Mozart by learning and singing the melody from the last movement of the great composer’s G major piano concerto. Mozart’s starling even made a few variations of his own: He added a fermata, deleted grace notes, and changed the G-naturals, in the second measure, to G-sharps. Mozart was absolutely thrilled. He transcribed in his diary the bird’s take on his melody. Next to the music notation, he wrote the words Das war schön! (It was beautiful!)