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Creative Non-Fiction: The African Grey: A Memory from College by Amber Lanier Nagle


My book signing event at the library in my hometown wound down, and only a handful of family members and friends remained. I hurried around the room spending a few minutes with each individual and expressing how appreciative I was for his or her support and attendance.

I sat with Sandy Gilreath and Marie Amerson engaged in a lovely conversation about antique quilts, silver dollars, and keepsakes when I turned my head and saw her enter the room, her eyes searching for me in the thinning crowd. I lost by breath for a few seconds in confusion. She was not supposed to be there. She wasnt from my hometown. She was a walking memory from another place and time.

Without excusing myself from the conversation, I rushed across the room on autopilot saying, “Oh my God! Oh my God! What are you doing here?”

After a thorough hug, I pulled back, clasping her arms and staring into her eyes—those eyes—those big brown eyes that I remembered from so long ago.

Sherry Love Hicks was my roommate at Georgia Tech from 1986 to 1988. I adored her. The two of us were instant, thick-as-thieves friends, confidants, Thelma-and-Louise-like partners in crime.

I stood there drowning in the flood of memories. Daily walks up the hill to class on a road students now refer to as Bobby Dodd Way. Thousands of conversations over plates of microwaved potatoes, pop tarts, Ramen noodles, and other college delicacies. Dozens of disappointments. Thousands of late-night, rolling-on-the-floor laughs.

“I was in Eastman training a group of school teachers and heard you were going to be here tonight,” she said, waking me from my memory overload. “I got in my car and drove over here to see you. I barely made it in time.”

“Im so glad you did,” I said, still gripping her arms like I was preventing her from falling backward off a cliff.

We tried to summarize two and a half decades in fifteen minutes, which of course, was impossible. I was elated to see her and hear her voice.

“It still blows my mind that you are a writer now,” Sherry said pointing to my books piled on a table in the front of the room. “Who does that? Who switches from engineering to writing?”

“Me—I did,” I said. “I switched. I started writing about family members and memories, and I just kept writing. Ive even written about you—about us—and some of our experiences at school.

There was a pause, and I sensed that she wanted to know more.

“Remember when your dad told you to throw your Calculus book out the window?” I asked. “I was studying at my desk and didnt know what was going on. You got a running start and hurled your text book out the window. Then you casually walked back over to the phone and said, ‘I did it, Daddy. I threw my Calculus book out the window, and youre right—I feel better now. Ive written about that, Sherry.”

She laughed and added to the memory.

“And remember the parrot?” I asked.

“What parrot?”

Janets parrot,” I reminded her. “I wrote a story about us keeping Janets parrot.

A frown line formed on her face as she said she didnt recall a parrot.

“The parrot!” I said again, with a little more urgency in my voice.

Still no memory.

“Ill dig out my story and send it to you,” I said. “Youll remember. Im sure of it. THE PARROT!”

Still nothing.


My sister took a photograph of Sherry and me reminiscing, and then the library blinked its lights to prompt everyone in the building to leave. We vowed to keep in touch, said our goodbyes in the parking lot, then turned and got in our cars and drove away.

All night long, I thought about Sherry’s surprise visit, and all night long, I kept wondering how she had lost grasp of a memory that I will never forget—a memory that changed me forever.
--- 
In 1987, I was one of twelve Resident Assistants—pseudo college counselors—in Glenn Residence Hall, an old dormitory on Techs east campus with no air conditioning and a booming population of cockroaches. Comically, I was charged with the responsibility of caring for more than twenty young women—mostly freshmen from middle class families across the United States. My duties ranged from answering basic questions about campus life to unlocking doors with my master key to planning social activities to rendering occasional advice.

I was a junior at the time, enrolled unhappily in the School of Textile and Polymer Engineering. My roommate, Sherry, was a sophomore in the School of Management Science, if my memory serves me correctly.

The two of us were miserable souls who spent long hours trying to comprehend the complexities of our course material. Sherry hated Calculus. I was tangled in my own upperclassman woes in classes with names such as Deformable Bodies and Fluids. We studied for hours each night, both of us sitting cross-legged at our desks underneath bright desk lamps with extendable arms. Too often, our studies would force us to stay awake well after midnight. Looking beyond the courtyard to Towers Residence Hall, Sherry and I counted the dozens of rooms illuminated at 3 a.m.—a small consolation to know that we were not the only students up at that time.

We silently wished for interruptions—the phone to ring, a knock on the door, a fire, something—to save us from the agony of studying. And one October afternoon that year, our wish came true.

One of my freshman residents burst through our door frenzied and out of breath.

"Come quickly! Come quickly!” Janet shouted.

Sherry and I popped out of our chairs and darted to Janet's room with the speed of Olympians. She guided our attention to the window—the thick, heavy curtains drawn open. As the autumn shadows danced across the window, I saw the haunting image of a large gray bird peacefully perched on the stone sill.

"You've got to pull it in!” exclaimed Janet, her request directed to me. "It's an African Grey Parrot! Amber, I have always wanted an African Grey! You've got to pull it in for me!”

“Me?” I asked.

“Please, Amber, please!”

Her hysterical pleas wore me down, and I reluctantly agreed to attempt the rescue.

Sherry ran to our room and plucked a large tube-shaped athletic sock from her drawer, then raced back and presented it to me as if she were a nurse assisting a surgeon. I pulled it over my hand and forearm, took a deep breath, and stretched my arm out the window.

I flashed-back to my childhood and the hours spent watching Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Animal Kingdom. If Jim Fowler could wrestle alligators into a state of submission, surely I could wrestle a bird into a room. Surely.

I moved my hand slowly toward the parrot as Sherry, Janet, and another girlfriend looked on.

Then, with a swift motion, I grabbed the parrot’s legs and pulled it inside.

The bird flapped and fluttered around the room for several chaotic seconds before landing on the metal frame of the bunk beds. The four of us froze like statues.

“Don’t move,” I whispered as if I were an expert zoologist. “Let’s give the bird time to calm down.”

We stood motionless for a few minutes, all of us a little in disbelief that somehow, I had pulled the bird inside the building. I suddenly realized that in my freshman residents’ eyes, my feat had elevated me to that of a superhero.

Janet beamed—pure joy painted on her face. I’m sure that the experience was traumatic for the bird, but Janet was elated and kept repeating, "I have always wanted an African Grey! I can't believe this! Thank you! Thank you!”

We carefully contained the parrot under a laundry basket, and Janet and one of her friends rushed off to a pet store. Sherry and I lurked back to our dorm room to resume our studies, sad to see such excitement end.

Janet returned later with an array of seeds, nuts, fruits, and berries, and a cage that the pet store lent her temporarily. She told us that she intended to watch the newspapers and bulletin boards for several days to see if anyone reported a lost African Grey, but she hoped that the bird would eventually be hers to keep—to love.

"I have always wanted an African Grey!" she repeated in her blissful state. It was quite uncanny, and I pondered the strength of the coincidence—that the very bird that Janet had always wished for, had landed on her window sill on that fall afternoon.
 --- 
A few hours later, Sherry and I awoke to a sudden knock on our door. I glanced at the digital clock across the room—2 a.m. Through the peep hole, I saw the distorted figures of a man and a police officer. And then I heard the muffled sound of someone crying nearby. I cracked the door.

"What's going on?” I asked.

The police officer introduced Janet's dad to me. His eyes were red and swollen.

“There's been a death in the family—Janet’s sister. Her parents have come to take her home,” the officer said.

Sherry and I followed the men to the room that had pulsed with joy earlier in the day. The walls now enveloped a heavy fog of sadness and pain. Janet and her mother sobbed uncontrollably on the bed, while Sherry and I stuffed some of her clothes and possessions in her suitcase.

As they started out, Janet turned and asked us to care for the parrot until she returned to school.

“Of course!” I said. “Of course!” And Sherry and I moved the cage to our room.

And so my roommate and I babysat Janet’s African Grey—for days. For weeks.

The parrot was a popular topic of conversation among the young women living in our section of the dormitory. Some of the girls said the parrot had been an omen of the tragedy. Others joked that the African Grey was some sort of alien, sent to observe humanity. Dot, a friendly custodial worker stopped by the room one day, peered at the bird, then turned and fled as if she had seen a ghost or witnessed some freakish act of voodoo. A friend told me later that she had heard Dot frantically reciting the Lord’s Prayer as she cleaned the mirrors in the bathroom that afternoon.

For the first several days, the bird was like a quiet, well-behaved third roommate. Then one day, the parrot became restless and began climbing the interior of its cage, screeching loudly, and whistling—the sounds bounced down the tiled hallway. A few of my residents complained about the noise, but I urged them to remember the circumstances and be patient.

Eventually, the parrot’s loud, random calls distracted Sherry and me from our studies, too, and so we began covering the bird's cage with a blanket to quiet it during our key studying hours. During the day, we placed the cage on a micro refrigerator in front of the window so it could see the sky outside.

After returning from our classes one morning, we moved the cage to the window and started settling in. That’s when it happened. The parrot blurted out its first recognizable word—a word that echoed through the halls of the dorm—a word that changed everything.

“ANGEL!”

And then silence.

“ANGEL!” it cried again like it was answering a question.

I sat there in a state of paralysis, trying to wrap my mind around the word, the bird, and everything that had happened in the previous days.

“ANGEL! ANGEL! ANGEL!”

The bird stretched its wings outward and struck a magnificent, ethereal pose for a few moments, then deflated to its usual stance.

Sherry and I looked at each other, but neither of us uttered a word. I knew what she was thinking. I was thinking it, too. The parrot’s word was a simple validation of what we already believed but were too afraid say out loud and share with others.

The courses and professors at Georgia Tech taught me to be Vulcan-like. They molded me into a purely logical thinker giving little credence to the supernatural. Science and fact reigned supreme. But the events surrounding Janet’s bird turned all of my logical thinking upside down.

Up until that day, angels had only existed in my imagination and on the pages of a big blue book of Bible stories I read as a little girl. I saw them as mythical figures—artistic representations of extraordinary beauty, with flawless, feminine faces flying around gracefully, acting as messengers and guardians to earthbound mankind.

But the events that fall precipitated a change in my personal doctrine regarding angels and spiritual beings. I now believe that everyone has spiritual encounters in varied forms though many of us may not recognize the experiences as divine——an incredibly realistic dream, an unusual interaction with a stranger, or perhaps a smell that wafts mysteriously across the room with no explanation. Perhaps not everyone’s mind is open to the immense possibilities.

Some will read this and say with certainty that the parrot’s name was, Angel—a logical explanation. But why that particular type of bird? Why that particular window? Why that particular day? I was there, I sensed something greater at play.

I believe the bird was an angel sent to usher Janet through the most difficult time in her life, and for whatever reason, and I believe Sherry and I were meant to be witnesses. We were supposed to learn something from the experience and pass the lesson onto others, though I’m not exactly sure what the lesson was—is. I have pondered it thousands of times. I just don’t know.


What I do know is this: In the fall of 1987, I pulled an African Grey parrot from a window sill, and in doing so, I touched an angel's wing, and no one can convince me otherwise.


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