It was Wednesday---Tall Tales Night---at Callahan's bar, and most of the regulars and a few increasingly familiar faces were stinking up the place with shaggy dog stories.
Yul Oolu, an interior decorator who'd recently emigrated from Sweden, had just elicited polite groans with a story about a shipwrecked man and woman. His accent was so thick and his turn of phrase so baffling that I'm still not sure if he was talking about cannibalism or cunnilingus. Judging by the lack of glasses hitting the fireplace---in accordance with time-honored tradition, the worse the pun, the more glasses get tossed into the hearth---there was similar puzzlement among the rest of the clientele.
Tom Hauptman easily topped it with a mock-news story about California seceding from the rest of the US to become the world’s first non-smoking country: The No-Tar Republic.
“Smoke ‘em if ya got ‘em!” Fast Eddie said as he banged out a few bars of “Smoke on the Water” as the rest of us lobbed our libations toward the grate.
It seemed like it was all over but the drinking when the door banged open and Doc Webster ambled in. He'd been away visiting friends for the last couple weeks, and while he usually looks like a basset hound, tonight he looked like a well-rested basset hound with a suntan.
Even if we hadn't known he was going to Mexico on vacation, we could have guessed, because he was dressed liked he'd snagged Juan Valdez's carry-on bag by mistake. Huarache sandals aren't typical Long-Island-in-November footwear, and he'd paired them with drawstring linen parts, well-wrinkled, and a flowing white shirt that had a brilliant red-orange feather of some kind stuck through one of the buttonholes.
"What's with the feather, Doc?" Fast Eddie wanted to know as Callahan handed him a pint of Peter Dawson. "Since when do you doctor birdies?"
“I’ve occasionally improved a sick birdie into an illegal eagle on the golf course,” he replied, "although I don’t bill them. But this souvenir is not from any common avian specimen---this is from a Quetzalcoatl."
"Seriously, Doc," I protested, rolling my eyes. "There is no such thing!"
"That's where you're wrong, Jake." Doc whipped out a packet of Polaroid snapshots and thrust the top one into my face. I almost went cross-eyed focusing on the photo, which showed Doc sitting at a table on a patio somewhere with a lot of tropical-looking foliage in the background, and coiled around his arm was...well, I'd never seen anything like it.
"Behold, the feathered serpent!" he proclaimed, displaying the next picture. This shot showed the critter more clearly. Like I said, it coiled around him like a snake, but had bright plumes atop its scaly head, droopy whiskers like a catfish, and little feathery protrusions that didn't seem to know whether they were fins or wings.
If they were faked, there's a really good, really warped taxidermist out there somewhere, because the Quetzalcoatl was posed differently in every picture
The photos made their way around the bar from hand to hand, all of us studying the creature and trying to decide whether we believed Doc, or if it was the set-up for some joke. Some of the photos featured a man and a woman, together and separately, posing with the serpentine creature, and they all seemed casual, not staged.
There were a couple shots of the alleged Quetzalcoatl flying, and if there were strings attached, they’d been expertly Photo-Shopped out. With the wings unfurled, I could see that they were small in proportion to the snake-like body, and seemed to have feathers on the top and reptilian skin underneath with tiny little pinfeathers where they met its torso. A bit farther back were knots of sinew with vestigial claws clutching something amber-colored.
"What's that in his claws?" I asked.
"Well you might ask!" Doc said beaming. "That picture is what solved the mystery."
"What mystery?" we chorused, because he expected it of us..
“Well you see, I was visiting my old buddy Roy and his wife Dolores down in old Mexico.” Doc pronounced it ‘Meh-hee-co’. “Roy supervised me as a resident, back in the day, and ended up specializing in plastic surgery, himself. He made a nice living doing nose jobs and boob jobs in a posh little suburb outside Chicago, except his retirement fund took a few hits from some unscrupulous investment advisors along the way.
“Then Dolores had a bad slip-and-fall on a patch of ice and racked up her back. Wanting to get away from the trecherous Illinois winters and to live in a better style than their nest egg would’ve allowed in the You-Es-of-Aye, they retired to the Gulf Coast a couple years ago in a little town south of Cancun. Their ‘honkers and hooters’ money, as they called it, set them up in a pretty little tropical villa.”
He paused to take a belt of his drink. “The first night I got there, we were sitting out on the patio enjoying margaritas and empanadas. The villa has the rainforest coming practically right up to the patio, and I could hear exotic bird calls coming from its green depths.
“As they were telling me about all the features that made their locale such a sweet corner of paradise, something swooped out of the trees and snatched the slice of lime out of my drink. That was my introduction to Cervantes.”
“Dat’s da birdie?” Fast Eddie asked, just to make sure.
“That’s the Quetzalcoatl,” Doc corrected. “Feathers alone do not a bird made. I was somewhat taken aback---I confess, I’d never seen the like!---but Roy chuckled and Dolores explained that they’d spotted him not long after they’d moved in to the villa. Just as a flutter of wings at first, then more often, they’d come out and catch him on the patio, driven by curiosity and acquisitiveness.
“Like several other species, winged as well as mammalian, Cervantes likes to make off with little trophies. Sometimes shiny things like a ring of keys or sunglasses, other times whatever’s lying around---a salt shaker, a pencil, cutlery…and as he proved when I met him, he’s omnivorous. Mind you, he’s no more ornery than a common parrot---Dolores and Roy have made a pet of him---but they haven’t been able to curb him of his larcenous habits. Fortunately for their good flatware, he usually conceals it in the nearby landscaped border and their gardening service is forever turning up trinkets and tchotchkes as they’re trimming the hibiscus.
“The first few days I was there, they were determined to show me a good time. We saw Cancun, we saw temples and ruins, churches and the Gulf of Mexico. Now, Dolores has her good days and her bad ones. On the good days, she and Roy golf together, they dance, they’re active. On the bad days, she gets by with a regimen of muscle relaxers and a cane.
“In her zeal to be a vivacious hostess, she overdid it a bit, and came limping down to breakfast one morning. She insisted that Roy and I carry on, that she’d be fine with a little rest, so we left her ensconced on the patio with a book of crossword puzzles and went off to play a round of golf.
“When we returned to the villa several hours later, we found Dolores in hysterics and Cervantes lying on the table, barely moving.
“’I knocked over my drink,’ she told us, 'and went into the house to get a cloth to mop it up. I can’t move very fast, and I answered a call of nature while I was inside, to save myself a trip. I came back out, and there he was, just like that, with his head inside the overturned glass!’”
“Was it booze?” Long-Drink MacGonnigle interrupted to ask. “Alcohol poisoning?”
“Nope, just grapefruit juice,” Doc sighed. “And besides, I’ve seen Cervantes slurp down an unguarded margarita and spend the next half-hour chasing his own tail---if he has a drinking problem, it’s that we silly people don’t give him enough of it.
“Roy and Dolores were both upset by their pet’s condition, and having gotten fond of the little guy, I was distressed as well. His once-proud feathers drooped, the luster of his scales had dimmed. His coils were completely limp, with only a faint twitching of his whiskers to show he was still alive,
“Since I’d taken some pictures of him before we’d left for our golf game, I reviewed those to see if there was any forewarning, anything indication that we might have missed…and I noticed the same thing you did, Jake. I’d captured Cervantes in the act of purloining something.
“Knowing his habits by now, I began parting the bushes that bordered the patio, and I found it! The amber object in the picture was the bottle that Dolores’s muscle relaxers came in. Now, Cervantes was doped to the gills, and it was a wonder he wasn’t dead. I had to do something, fast, before the overdose finished him off.
“Fortunately, rummaging through the medicine cabinets in the house gave me an antidote. I administered it, and before long, Cervantes was his old, playful self.”
“What was it, ipecac?” Tommy Jannsen asked. “Can snakes puke?”
“Yes, they can, but no, it wasn’t,” Doc answered. “It was the pharmacological opposite of a muscle relaxer---Viagra.”
“Viagra?” we chorused.
Doc Webster smiled. “Of course. It’s a well-known cure for a reptile dysfunction.”