Robert Olen Butler

Jealous Husband Returns in Form of Parrot

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Jealous Husband Returns in Form of Parrot Summary

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The curious, often outlandish headlines of supermarket tabloids inspired Robert Olen Butler’s 1996 short story collection, Tabloid Dreams. Each of its twelve stories sports a title fit for the front page of a sensationalist, weird-news weekly. Such is the case with the collection’s story, “Jealous Husband Returns in Form of Parrot.” Just how the man becomes a parrot is left to speculation, as the story is most interested in why it happens.

Narrated by the husband-turned-bird, the story begins in a Houston pet shop, where he’s on display. His now widowed wife walks in the door and approaches him. While he retains the human faculty for complex thinking, the husband’s parrot form hampers his ability to verbalize his thoughts. Thus, all he can say to her is “Hello” as she coos, “Pretty bird,” at him. He understands he’ll soon pick up these words, thinking, “This brain that works like it does now could feel that tiny little voice of mine ready to shape itself around these sounds.” When a burly man appears beside his wife, jealousy swells in the husband as he reflects that this is the type of “meat packer” man his wife’s eyes always strayed to when he was still her husband.

The wife buys the parrot and takes him home. Confined to a large cage in the den of the house where he had lived as a man, the husband imagines his wife with other men. As a parrot, he channels his jealous rages into attacks on a toy dangling in his cage: “I bite and bite and it’s very good.”

He remembers his last day as a man. His wife had mentioned a new co-worker several times, provoking his suspicions. He tried not to voice his jealousy, as it irritated her, so he locked himself in the bathroom when his anger overwhelmed him. One Saturday afternoon, his wife went out on the pretext of shopping, but the husband was convinced she was meeting her lover. He found the co-worker’s address and snuck to his house. Hearing activity in a second-floor room, the husband climbed a tree to peek in the window. He went out on the limb too far, fell on his head, and died. This memory makes the wings of the husband-now-parrot flap, as if to save himself from falling. He muses that he’s different now, no longer a man, but also concedes that there was always a jealous creature inside him despite his wife’s assurances of her love.

Stuck in his cage in the den, the husband has a view of the bedroom door and the foot of the bed. As his wife takes various men into the bedroom, the husband squawks with jealousy and attacks his bird toys. He broods about how, as a man, he longed for such an opportunity to catch his wife betraying him to finally debunk her denials. Now, as a parrot, he yearns to fly away from it, into the blue sky outside. When the wife inadvertently leaves his cage door open, the husband flies toward the sky, but collides with the glass window, nearly killing himself. The wife picks him up, hugging him and weeping. Back in his cage, the husband looks again at the sky and thinks, “there was something invisible there between me and that dream of peace.”

Pondering his relationship with his wife when he was alive, the husband admits he was so consumed with jealousy he couldn’t enjoy their intimate moments without thoughts of her infidelities intruding. He considers the intensity of his attachment to her (which he likens to that of a hatched baby bird imprinting on its caregiver) the excuse for the extreme jealousy he feels. He wishes he could talk to his wife again as a man, thinking, “If I had the words, these are the things I would say.”

When a man with a “Georgia truck-stop” accent and rattlesnake boots starts to visit regularly, the husband-parrot reminds himself that his wife is single now. He’s thrilled, however, when he can say the right word to mock the phony cowboy. “Cracker,” he quips as the man walks by. “Hello, cracker,” he repeats as his wife and the man turn into the bedroom, and the man glares at him. After a good deal of whooping in the bedroom, during which time the parrot recalls a blue-front Amazon he was sweet on at the pet store, his wife emerges from the bedroom naked. She is beautiful, the husband thinks, but as he’s now a parrot, he reacts to her nudity with pity, not desire. She appears “plucked” to him, and he’d like to cover her vulnerability with his own feathers.

“Hello,” the parrot says to his naked wife, and she comes to his cage. He wants to tell her that she’s beautiful, that he wishes to protect her, that he understands he failed to make her feel complete, and he’s sorry. But all he actually says is, “Hello. Pretty bird. Pretty. Bad bird. Bad. Open. Up. Poor baby. Bad bird.” He cannot say what’s in his heart. Then the “cracker” walks into the den, wearing only his boots. “Peanut,” the parrot remarks, thinking the man “is a pitiful sight” without the dignity of feathers to hide his “sexual parts.” The wife turns from the parrot to embrace the man, and the parrot realizes she doesn’t see the man as pathetic.

The couple returns to the bedroom, leaving the cage door open. The parrot flies out, resolving to throw himself against the window to get to that peaceful place where he’s “free of all these feelings.”

In an interview with Powell’s Books, Butler says each story in Tabloid Dreams explores “the central character behind this [tabloid] headline, and what is the deeply true and real human yearning that exists at the core of the character.” The “Jealous Husband” yearns for freedom from the powerful feelings that confine him, like a cage. After jealousy kills him, he returns as a bird, a symbol of freedom. He finally accepts his wife’s yearnings, and he flies to his death.