It begins with Dan buying a parrot five days before Christmas. He brings it in in a cage. It’s gray, with a band of red feathers streaking its belly, a sharp curved beak, and small watchful eyes.
“That’s a parrot,” Dana says. “We are now a parrot-friendly workplace. We are inclusive of the parrot.”
Dan grins. "We are known for our inclusiveness to all our friends. Particularly the feathered ones." There are chunks of papaya at the bottom of the cage.
Jeremy enters, stage left, and does a double-take at the bird.
“The parrot is a noble and majestic bird,” Jeremy says. “It’s known for its nobility. And its majesty.”
“You’re out of parrot-related trivia?” Natalie asks, looking a bit surprised.
“I skipped that section of the Encyclopedia Britannica. It’s their beady eyes,” Jeremy says. “Reminds me of paintings where the eyes follow you.”
“You know that parrots’ eyes actually follow you, right, honey?” Dana says.
“When Dana says, ‘honey,’ she means, ‘dumbass,’” Natalie says, helpfully.
“We know,” Dan says. “We know.”
It’s an African Grey Parrot, and it squawks in five languages, none useful. They’re all crowded in Danny and Casey’s office, doing nothing really. It’s too early in the day to be seriously thinking about the show, and the sports news four days before Christmas tends to run to the ‘look at the athletes giving toys to underprivileged youth,’ angle, which gets old after the first few hundred times.
Jeremy is attempting to get the parrot to play with a cuttlebone. So far, the parrot is far more interested in Kim’s sparkly holiday tights, and keeps saying, “Shiny penny, shiny penny,” while tipping its beak at Kim, then babbling in what sounds like Spanish mixed with Italian mixed with absolute nonsense.
“Who even teaches a parrot Esperanto?” Casey asks.
“You’re just mad the parrot knows one more language than you do,” Dana says. “Anyway, who tries for meaningful conversation with their pets?”
“Who tries for meaningful conversation in Lower Manhattan?” Kim says.
‘Dumped,’ Casey mouths.
“Oh,” Dan mouths back. "The pet store guy tells me he's a good listener. He listens. Well."
"What have you been telling him?" Dana asks.
"Oh," Danny says. "Things."
There's a moment of uncomfortable silence, which the parrot interrupts with a sharp whistle. "Rubik's cube," he squeaks. "Color-matching."
“We should name it Alex,” Jeremy says. “After the famous African Grey.”
“I thought you found parrots creepy,” Natalie says.
“Internet search, no images,” Jeremy says, shrugging.
It’s three days before “Pagan Tree Day.” A memo from the network asks for a greater degree of inclusiveness. Dan interprets this to mean that he will not be included in gifts. He buys everyone gifts anyway, though many of the gifts are parrot-treats. His office becomes a mill of production-crew avoiding editing, make-up crew bemoaning dry winter skin, and Dana avoiding the former two, albeit unsuccessfully. She does play “White Christmas” for Alex over and over.
“All the best Christmas songs were written by Jews,” Dan says.
“All the best Christs were Jews,” Jeremy says, feeding Alex a treat.
“Touche,” Dana says, and ushers them into the meeting room for another rundown. This one includes a piece on the Sports Night official ‘nog’ recipe, which appears to be little more than an excuse to add brandy and rum to whiskey and consume while wearing festive mittens. Casey, it seems, has brought everyone mittens. They’re blue, with big white snowflake patterns.
“This is discriminatory against the thumbless community,” Dan says. “What of the people with no thumbs? They are resigned to be paddle-handed.”
Natalie giggles from the end of the table. “When I was a kid, I wanted to be a dolphin.”
“That dream can be yours,” Dan says.
“Danny, is this why Charlie wants to grow up to be a basketball? Not a basketball player, but a basketball.”
“Kids can be anything they want to be,” Dan says.
“Even inanimate objects?” Casey says.
“Especially those,” Dan says.
The rundown is the rundown. Everyone talks; some people listen. Dan and Casey only threaten each other with noogie-wars the once. Dana sighs, and leaves Natalie to untangle the boys.
Then, the sqawking starts.
“Is your parrot cursing?” Jeremy asks. “In Portuguese?”
“Esperanto,” Danny says. “I think.”
Alex won’t be soothed by anything but new cuttlebones and classic college football games played at high volume. And Dana’s singing, which is loud and off-key in turn, and is an anathema to getting anything resembling work done. Jeremy and Natalie disappear into various office closets to ‘take inventory,’ which in practice involves a lot of rattling noises that no one cares to investigate.
When Dan gets into the office the morning before the morning before Pagan Tree Day, he finds Dana singing to Alex.
“I’m dreaming of a red-bellied Christmas,” she croons, offering Alex yet another toy. He’s already ripped through the squeaky rubber ducks Kim brought him. They were wearing Santa hats, but he’s ripped off their heads, and scattered little bits of them on the floor of his cage.
“It’s just wrong to have a bird rip up other birds,” Dan says, pausing in the doorway. “Even if they are of the bathtub toy variety. Seems downright unbrotherly. Not in the spirit of the season.”
“Who doesn’t want to tear something up during Christmas?” Dana asks. “Rubber ducks, producers who can’t schedule their camera usage properly, holiday shoppers.” Her eyes look red, puffy, like she’s been crying. There are wadded-up tissues in the trashcan.
“You’re a very violent woman,” Dan says.
“I get that,” she says, cuffing him gently on the arm. “A lot.”
They don’t broadcast on Christmas that year - the ratings aren’t high enough to justify the expense - the network says something about belt tightening that makes everyone grimace and Isaac look even older for a minute. They’ll let SportsCenter have the Christmas Day games, just this once.
Not having a Christmas show doesn’t preclude having a Christmas - or Pagan Tree Day - party. Kim wears sparkly tights and tries to lure various production crew-members near her mistletoe hat. Casey gets tipsy enough on the nog that he insists that everyone wear mittens. Natalie has on a skirt that is really a belt with ambitions of greatness. Jeremy can’t seem to finish a complete sentence, even when the topic turns to classic boardgames.
Dan finds Dana talking to Alex again. She has set his cage on a side table, and is sitting on the couch with her stockinged legs tucked under her, high heels paired neatly on the floor.
“I finally found a man who listens,” she says. There’s a cup of nog in her hands, though she’s not wearing the snowflake mittens.
“Repeating what you say in a slightly different cadence isn’t listening, Dana,” Dan says. He sits down on the couch next to her. She stretches her feet out, on his lap. He rubs the left one, doesn’t say anything about the texture of her hose, the chipping polish on her big toe.
“Who says I was talking about the parrot?” Dana says. She’s got dark smudges under her eyes, and the lines on her forehead don’t relax all the way away anymore. Dan knows he has those too, even when the make-up ladies paint over them.
I’m not going home this year,” Dana says.
”I figured,” Dan says. “Since you’re, you know, here and not somewhere that’s not here.”
”My father. He’s … not well. We thought he was in remission.” Dana says. “And he’s not. He’s not up to visitors. I found out the other day, when I was doing Christmas shopping. I cried. In front of an Aunt Annie’s Pretzels. I dropped all my bags on the ground, and one spilled, and there are pretzel topping crumbs all over the kids’ gifts.”
She sniffles, and there’s snot dripping a little.
Danny doesn’t say anything, rubs her feet.
“There are so many of us,” Dana says. “And the kids, well, other people’s kids, not mine. It can be exhausting.”
”We could get you some kids. If you wanted.”
”Danny, did you just offer to give me a baby?” Dana says, smiling fondly. She puts her cocoa down, and wipes her eyes with the ball of Kleenex that was sitting on the table next to Alex’s cage.
“Shhh ... ” he says. “Don’t let Casey hear that. He’ll never forgive me. And I meant more steal you one. From a market. Or something.”
“Danny, you might just be made of sugar,” Dana laughs. “We could feed you to the parrot as a treat.”
“Then where would you be?” he says. “Without me?”
“Nowhere,” Dana says, leaning over to kiss him on the cheek, once, chastely. “Without you all, I would be nowhere. I'd be at the edges. I'd be off the map.”
“Me too,” Dan says.
Dana smiles, a real smile, and Alex begins to sing of a white Christmas, just like the ones he used to know.