My Mostly Happy Life: Autobiography of a Climbing Tree

Updated 1 year ago By Shelly Reuben

My Mostly Happy Life - Autobiography of a Climbing Tree CHAPTER FIVE

Chapter 6 – Ethan’s Best Friend

 Illustrations by Ruth McGraw


Now I have to tell you a story about a fictional bird named Pal and a mother and daughter who looked very much alike.

Both had bright red hair.

Both had freckles.

Both had big hazel eyes.

And both were very pretty.

The mother’s name was Pegeen Fitzgerald, and her ten-year-old daughter was named


They used to sit on one of my lower branches and read aloud (they took turns) from Meg’s favorite book, Ethan’s Best Friend.

It was an old book, one that Meg’s mother had read during her own childhood. It was not very long, but it was jam-packed with illustrations and partially written in verse.

Since others, too, had loved that book, including Esther’s mother Donna, who was a successful sculptress, the last two-lines of the story were engraved on a brass plaque and embedded in a brick wall that surrounds the Children’s Garden in the Samuel Swerling Park. Sam had commissioned his daughter Donna to design and create the plaque herself.

I’ll tell you more about the Children’s Garden later.

The book’s main character was a twenty-one year-old poet named Ethan. Ethan’s purpose in life was to re-popularize the kind of rhyming poetry that was written by his English and American heroes, Robert Browning, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Edgar Alan Poe, and Rudyard Kipling.

He intended to accomplish this goal by writing the poems himself.

Ethan was a nice looking man. Not particularly handsome, because his mouth was a little too small, his teeth were a little too large, and his face was a little lopsided, but he was tall and well-made. He had light brown hair, compassionate brown eyes, and a sweetly romantic disposition. Ethan was the kind of a fellow who would walk across the street to give a donut to a vagrant; he always surrendered his seats to women on buses; and he held open doors for just about everybody, because it seemed to him to be the right thing to do.

His parents lived on a faraway farm halfway across the country, and they did not earn enough money to help pay his rent; but they did have a beloved cockatiel named Pal who had been in the family since before Ethan was born. So they gave Pal to Ethan to keep him company in the big city where he had moved to achieve his dreams.

Pal was a beautiful bird with a plump grey chest, white wings, an elegant long tail, and a bright yellow head, from which sprung a crown of grey feathers as graceful as a festive salute. His

cheeks were emblazoned with vivid orange patches. These patches made him look like he was blushing from acute embarrassment and added a comical aspect to his otherwise forbidding beauty.

Ethan rented a small apartment on the sixth floor of a tired old tenement in the tired old neighborhood of an ever-changing city. He worked eight hours a day, five days a week in the stock room of an advertising agency, so that at night and on weekends, he could compose his verses. But every evening before he picked up his pen, he spent an hour playing with his pet cockatiel, Pal, and telling him what had happened during the day.

Ethan taught Pal new melodies (the cockatiel could whistle fifteen songs and sing the lyrics of five), and he confided his hopes about the poems that he wanted to write, and the life that he wanted to live.

In return, Pal would nestle up against Ethan’s fingers, dance on his shoulder, and sing while Ethan diced vegetables, grilled chicken (his mother had taught him to be a very good cook), and dined. When Ethan was busy writing, Pal would fly around the room, collect unasked for items – a penny, a paperclip, a packet of sugar – and lay them on Ethan’s desk as if offering bits and pieces of inspiration. Sometimes a poem about a penny or a paperclip or a packet of sugar would emerge.

Such were their lives together.

Until two things occurred.

The first was that Ethan fell in love, which meant that most of his conversations with Pal now concerned Nancy Sue, an illustrator with whom he worked at his advertising agency, and who also seemed to like him very much.

The second was that a magazine expressed interest in publishing and paying for a lighthearted poem he had written called “Ode to a Hiccup.” Nancy Sue thought it was funny, and

when Ethan read it aloud to Pal, the cockatiel emitted a staccato whistle that sounded very much like a laugh.

Then, as so often happens in books about poets, everything went wrong.

Nancy Sue disappeared from the office, did not return Ethan’s telephone calls, and did not answer his letters.

That very same day, Ethan received a letter from his new editor stating that her magazine had been acquired by a major publishing conglomerate, and she was being fired. Therefore, her offer to publish “Ode to a Hiccup” had to be withdrawn.

Ethan was depressed.

Ethan was in despair.

If he had been a mere twenty-years-old, youth would have invigorated him to meet the challenge.

If he had been forty-years-old, maturity would have fortified him against disappointment.

But he was twenty-one years old.

His childhood’s body-armor of oblivion has disappeared, but wisdom and stamina had not yet kick in.

Ethan had started to write poetry when he was six-years-old. He’d begun to submit poems to magazines when he was eleven. Five of his poems had been printed in his grammar school newsletter, and during his high school years, four were printed in the local newspaper.

After that, nothing.

When Ethan once complained to an editor about the difficulty of getting published, she snapped back that he shouldn’t feel sorry for himself until he had received over one hundred rejections.

He had long since surpassed that benchmark.

He sat at his small desk in his small apartment, staring out his small window at the blank brick wall of the building across the alley.

For over half an hour, he did not move.

Pal was perched atop a Thesaurus on a bookshelf beside Ethan’s desk.


He watched his best friend not-move and not-say anything, and he waited patiently for an explanation. None was forthcoming. After fifteen minutes, Pal began to sing a lullaby that Ethan’s father had taught him when he was a baby bird (and when Ethan was a baby boy). The words were meaningless, but soothing.

Pal sang, “My baby bye boom boom.”

He sang it over and over again, waiting for Ethan to turn his head, to smile, to reach out a hand, and to gently rub the cockatiel’s head.

But that did not happen.

So Pal stopped singing and continued to observe.

After many minutes, Ethan finally moved.

He began to rifle through his desk drawers and to pull out publisher rejection letters. It took him about an hour, but eventually, he found three hundred and sixteen rejections. He gathered them into a pile, stuffed them in a plastic bag, and tossed the bag into the trash. Then Ethan dived back into his drawers. This time, though, to retrieve his poems.

He pulled them out, one at a time.

Pal hopped from the Thesaurus to Ethan’s shoulder. He dug his toes into the fabric of Ethan’s shirt and rode the rollercoaster of arm movements back and forth as Ethan reached for a sonnet, a couplet, a ballad, or an ode, musing sadly over each before he gently placed it atop the others on his desk.

When all of his poems had been thus gathered, Ethan cleaned the debris out of his metal wastebasket and ran a damp paper towel over its bottom to make sure that it was clean.

Then he began to place the verses inside the wastebasket, each loosely positioned at an odd angle on top of the one beneath it, so that there would be ample oxygen between the sheets to feed the fire.

Pal hopped off Ethan’s shoulder and perched on the edge of the wastebasket.

Ethan did not notice.

He was focused exclusively on the funeral pyre of poetry he was creating, his self-absorption and self-pity all consuming.

The cockatiel, however, was older and wiser.

Pal waited, alert to Ethan’s every moment.

Pal watched, ready to protect his friend from a foolish and impetuous act.

He did not have long to wait.

With tears streaming from his eyes, Ethan reached for a box of kitchen matches.

As if in slow motion, he struck a match.

As if in slow motion, it flared into a flame.

Ethan raised his hand and tossed the match.

It arched languidly over the metal container packed with combustible pages filled with rhyming words that had come from a good man’s heart.

The match began to descend.

Pal leaped off the edge of the wastebasket.

He soared into the air, snatched the match by its wooden stub, and jerked it off its trajectory.




Then, dodging hungry flames, the brave cockatiel flew to the window and dropped the match into a puddle in the alley below, where it sizzled, hissed, sputtered, and died.

Ethan never allowed himself such an indulgence again.

Pal, his cockatiel and his very best friend, had burned his feathers and risked his life to rescue Ethan from the folly of self-pity.

And he had almost died in the process.

The veterinarian’s initial prognosis was grim. But he underestimated Ethan’s nursing skills, and he underestimated Pal’s will to survive.

In the same way that Ethan had underestimated Nancy Sue.

For she had not quit her job, run off, and abandon him, but was called out of town on a family emergency; the letters that Ethan had written to her were mistakenly delivered to the wrong address.

There was even a happy ending at the magazine that was purchased by the big conglomerate, for their chairman of the board decided to continue publishing and to rehire the editor who was already working there. And the editor decided that she still wanted to buy Ethan’s poem.

Pal recovered completely. Except for his crown of feather, which never regained its former elegance and grew back short and stubby like a crew cut. But Pal’s spirits were undamaged, and

by the end of the book, Nancy Sue had taught him four new songs, and Pal had taught Nancy Sue how to sing “My Baby Bye Boom Boom.”

And that is how the story ends.

What makes Ethan’s Best Friend relevant to Samuel Swerling’s park, to Esther, and to me, however, were the last two lines of the book.


Twix man and bird in such a way,

Did love and friendship save the day.


As I said before, these lines are engraved on a brass plaque located on a brick wall in the Children’s Garden section of the park.


Copyright © 2017, Shelly Reuben

Shelly Reuben’s novels have been nominated for Edgar, Prometheus, and Falcon awards. For more about her books, visit

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