The snakes are fine; they sleep under the heat lamps and lift their heads to eat the blind baby mice with the human-colored skin. The cockatoo isn’t so great. His owner died and he was turned over to us. He tears his feathers out and shows the bald black skin beneath. The cats are usually okay, except for the one we lost, the polydactyl. That extra thumb made her an especially good climber. She got up into the ceiling and fell through a panel into the hairdresser’s next door—shampoo went everywhere. Now that she’s back in her cage, we’re extra careful when we empty the litter box or refill her food. Other than that, the gerbils are really the only problem. Sometimes they eat each other, or bits of each other. Apparently, the mix of dried lima beans and mangos isn’t enough for them. But no one wants a footless, tailless, earless gerbil, so we let them go here, out by the patch of trees behind the dumpsters.
“What are you doing?” someone asks me.
A boy in a black hooded sweatshirt stands on the curb by the store’s back door. A backpack hangs from his shoulder.
“What can we get you today?” I ask him, walking towards the back door where I had exited the store.
“The sign on the front door said you’d be back in five minutes.”
“We can head in here.”
I key into the back door that leads to the grooming room. It smells of shampoo and detangler and there’s a faint whiff of shit. The boy follows me. We enter the back of the store by the dog food and the blue-tongued skink. I check to see if it’s still in there; it is. Once, it had escaped through a gap between the lamp and the vent and I found it slinking down aisle four, flicking its tongue at the pig ears and dog treats. I take the sign with the clock face off the hook and unlock the front door again. In aisle two, the reptile section, the boy is running his fingers over a fake log.
“Looking for anything specific?” I ask.
The boy is looking for something specific. I can tell. It shows on his face when he scans the shelves and doesn’t find it. The store owner has said I have an uncanny sense of knowing if someone is here to buy or to browse, or worse, to let their kids work off the pizza and soda they gorged on next door at Pizza Peddler. The boy moves into the next aisle and peers into one of the fish tanks that lines the wall. He gingerly places the bag beside him. He peeks inside just for a moment.
“What kind of fish are these?”
“Those are called feeder fish.”
The tank shimmers with reds and whites. It’s crowded, and all the fish swim in the same direction.
“Why are so many of them in the same tank?”
“Because they’re feeder fish. They’re food, for snakes and some turtles, sometimes for bigger fish.”
He stares, puts his finger on the glass and taps. None of the fish stop their manic circling. Something moves in his backpack.
“What’s in there?”
He opens the bag and reaches inside. The bell clangs on the front door, and the dogs start barking from their open-top cubicles.
“Be right back.”
In the front of the store, a woman instructs her children to not touch the dogs but if they do to wash their hands. She tells one daughter not to tap on the glass between herself and the sleeping kittens. She doesn’t tell the oldest child, a boy, not to stick his fingers in the cockatoo’s cage; she shouldn’t have to, but once, one of our macaws nipped a six-year-old’s finger and severed a tendon. We display a big sign that clearly warns all patrons of potential dangers, so we weren’t to blame that time, even though they tried to sue.
“What can we do for you today?”
The younger boy leans his forehead against the glass of a cubicle, eye to eye with a Pomeranian. He’s a yapper.
“I need the stuff for the bottom of a rabbit cage,” says the woman—the mother—who looks frazzled.
“What kind would you like? We have cedar and pine bedding, synthetic bedding, and even a kiln-dried pine.”
“Which do you recommend?”
We’re staring at the bedding on the shelf. I notice the boy with the backpack; he is watching the anole lizards as they twitch and dart across their terrarium.
“The synthetic bedding is best; it stays fresher longer.”
“It’s six dollars more than this cedar bedding.”
“Well, yes, but cedar bedding contains aromatic oils that can cause respiratory problems in some pets.”
“Then why do you sell it?”
“Some people like the way it smells.”
I think about showing her the kitty litter that we have that smells like fresh rain; we carry many products to make it seem like pet owners have no pets at all.
“I’ll take the synthetic.”
After the woman leaves, I take a spray bottle of glass cleaner from behind the desk. Her kids have left nose and finger prints all over the glass. As I clean, the Pomeranian follows the paper towel from inside of the cubicle. Between barks, he snaps his needle-tooth snout shut. The boy with the backpack comes over to the cubicles. He looks down at a collie puppy that’s chewing on a squeaky toy.
“So, what’s in that bag?”
He places the backpack on the floor, reaches inside, and pulls out a golden-haired guinea pig. It’s wrapped in a pale green towel. He cradles it in his arms. Its breathing is irregular; it expands and deflates rapidly.
“Do you have any medicine for him? He’s sick.”
“Oh, we don’t have medicine. You could try a vet?”
The boy wraps up the guinea pig. He scratches the little animal beneath its chin and there’s that squeaking sound guinea pigs make. The collie drops his toy and looks up to find the sound.
“The vet said he’s too old to do anything for him.”
“How long have you had him?”
“The average lifespan is between four and seven years.”
The boy lifts the guinea pig to his cheek. It reaches its nose to sniff the boy.
“So, he’s dying?”
Another customer comes in; she’s interested in the parakeets. She’s had seven before, she says, but it’s been a while. Her first were named after the seven dwarves, though she didn’t have them all at once. She doesn’t know what she’ll name this one, now that she’s run out of dwarves.
She spends some time watching the birds flit from one branch to the next.
“I like the ones with a little personality,” she says. She takes a tissue from her purse and waves it in front of the glass. A few birds hop from one perch to the next and a blue and white parakeet tilts its head, chirps a bit, and then sidles down to peck at a bell and mirror toy.
“That’s the one; she’s my girl!”
“This one?” I ask, holding the box in my hand. I pull on a leather glove. She nods.
I tell the owner that we should have a rule that you can’t pick your own parakeet. We clip their wings when they first arrive but it’s hard to say how long each bird can be here before they’re bought. This one has been here long enough for its feathers to grow back and it takes several tries before I get a hold of it.
“She’s beautiful,” she coos.
“It’s a male, actually,” I say. “You see the blue bit on the beak?”
“Interesting,” she says.
“Would you like to purchase a cage and some toys?”
“No, I have two at home. He can decide which one he likes better. Just the food and the little guy.”
I put the bird in a box, which is about the size of half of a shoebox with some holes in the top.
“Is that safe? Can’t you put him in a bigger box?”
“If I put it in a bigger box, it’ll fly around and crash into the sides.”
As she pays, the boy stands by the front counter with his guinea pig. He tries to feed it something from his pocket, but it won’t eat. The towel rises and falls as the guinea pig continues to pant.
“You can name it Rudolph.”
The woman turns to the boy, who has just spoken. She sees the little guinea pig in his hands and reaches out to pet it.
“What’s this little guy’s name?”
“That’s a very grown-up name for a guinea pig.”
“He’s seven, so he’s actually really old. In guinea pig years.”
“The name suits him.”
“If you name your bird Rudolph, then you’ll have eight more reindeer for your other birds.”
The woman smiles. She peeks through the holes of the little box with the parakeet inside. The bird screeches from inside of the box.
“You hear that?” she asks. “Can I call you Rudolph?”
The bird keeps screeching, and the woman laughs. “That’s settled then.”
When she leaves, the boy comes to the front desk and looks up to me.
“It’s feeding time,” I tell him.
“Can I help?” he asks.
He follows me to the closet where we keep bags of pet food. We have a trash can on wheels; I push it out into the store. The boy is still watching me.
“You can’t work and hold your, uh…”
The boy opens his bag, scratches the guinea pig’s head, then lowers him into the backpack.
“Wait,” I say.
On a shelf in the closet, there’s an aquarium with one cracked window. I put some newspapers at the bottom then take the aquarium off the shelf. The boy lowers the guinea pig, swaddled in its green towel, into the tank.
I place the tank on the front counter, beside the cash register.
“Thanks,” says the boy.
“Can you reach into the dog cubes? Take the bowls out and dump the leftover food into the trash. Then put them on this.”
I wheel out the tray table. As the boy places the empty bowls on the top shelf, I pour a scoop of puppy food into each bowl. On top of each, I put a spoonful of cottage cheese.
“Is that dessert?”
“Yeah, I guess it’s like dessert.”
The boy places the bowls back into the cubicles. First, he gives the food to the Pomeranians, then the dachshund and beagle that live together, then the collie and the white and black spotted poodle. The cottage cheese is really meant to fill them up so they don’t want so much dry food, which is expensive. I watch the little dachshund lick the cottage cheese off his nose.
Next, I teach the boy how to feed the rodents and the rabbits. He helps me feed the kittens and the fish, but he doesn’t want to help when I feed the pinkies to the snakes. The small python needs two pinkies every week. I choose two that look like they might start opening their eyes soon; when they do, we’ll have to make room for them in the mouse cages. They haven’t grown little claws yet, and they have only just started growing a bit of fuzzy white hair, so they won’t be so difficult for the python to digest. When I lower them into the tank, they squeak, which brings the python’s head up. I drop the little pinkies by his mouth and pull my hand out quickly; I don’t want to risk getting nipped. Pythons aren’t poisonous, but they’ve got fangs that can leave a nasty bite.
The boy is standing by a shelf of plastic fish tanks. “Want to see?” I ask him.
“Is he going to eat them?”
The python’s tongue flickers towards a tiny mouse huddled by the fake log with the fake moss.
“Everyone needs to eat.”
The python swallows the first pinky.
The boy comes over to look only after they’re little lumps under the brown and green scales. He doesn’t mind so much when I feed the crickets to the lizards or even the goldfish to the turtles.
On our way back to the front of the store, he stops to look at the guinea pigs. Two young ones are huddled together in the corner. One’s calico, the other a muddy brown with a white face.
“Do you want another one? I can give you a special deal for all your hard work.”
The boy shakes his head. “I don’t want another one.”
I sit behind the counter, and he stands in front of it and watches his guinea pig inside the aquarium. I turn the cracked side to me so he can see his pet clearly. The kittens are waking up from their nap; we can hear them whining through the doors to their cubicles. The dogs’ cubicles are on the floor with open tops, so people can reach in and pet them. It helps to get them socialized. They can’t climb out like the cats can; the cats have to be closed in—especially the polydactyl.
The guinea pig’s breathing is getting worse, the little squeaks and grunts come less and less often.
“You know, if you wrap him up and put him in the freezer, he’ll drift off to sleep and then he won’t feel any more pain.”
“I can’t put Stephen in a freezer. That’d be killing him.”
“Okay. He just doesn’t look comfortable. I thought it might be easier. Like going to sleep.”
We had done it before for a squirrel. The squirrel had been brought to us by two kids who’d seen him get hit by a car in the parking lot. We told the boys to wash their hands while they were in the bathroom, and we took the squirrel into our storage room. We told them we would do what we could, but the squirrel was making a terrible sound without even moving. After ten minutes in the freezer it just drifted off. When we opened the door again, it was still wrapped in its little towel, so we thought it hadn’t tried to escape. For the guinea pig, it’d be the same.
“Have you done that before?”
He looks at me, and I can see the tiny red capillaries spiderwebbing out from the dark brown irises. There’s an eyelash on his cheek. He places a protective hand over his pet.
“No, I haven’t, I just read about it.”
“That’d be terrible.”
I can’t decide if he means it would be terrible for me to do it, or for his guinea pig. The boy dangles his arm into the aquarium to pet the top of the guinea pig’s head. It reaches its nose up to sniff his fingertip; there’s a little grunt. For a moment, I imagine the squirrel when the light disappeared as we closed the freezer door.
A few customers come in, and I move the aquarium off the front desk. I tell the boy he’s welcome to sit in the closet with his guinea pig if he wishes. He doesn’t want to leave yet, so he pulls himself up onto a pile of dog food bags. I leave him there to help a customer find an angelfish that must look just like her daughter’s angelfish.
“No, see, this one has black on the top.”
She points out the coloring of the previous angelfish, which she’s brought in with her in a cardboard box from Macy’s. The box probably held a necklace or earrings before she used it for the angelfish. She found the fish attached to the tank filter in the morning. Luckily her daughter forgot to feed it, or she’d have noticed. We find one that seems a perfect match; I scoop it into a bag and take it to the front counter. I remind her how she needs to leave the bag floating in the tank for some time to allow the temperature to regulate. Even a small difference can shock a fish. She puts the Macy’s box on top of the counter and pushes the angelfish bag into the bag of her groceries. The fish swims about in front of some magnified label of a milk carton.
“Do you mind, taking care of this?” the woman asks.
“I just don’t want to risk my daughter…”
“It’s fine. Have a nice day.”
I take the Macy’s box and as the woman closes the door, I drop the box into the trash behind the counter.
A handful of customers come in afterward, but when it’s time to close, I remember the boy is still in the storage closet.
In the aquarium, the guinea pig is still.
“It just happened.”
“Do you want to bury him out back?”
He slides off the dog food bags, but hesitates over the tank. I point at a shovel leaning on the wall behind the mop and brooms. Reaching into the aquarium, I pick up the guinea pig in the green towel.
He’s still warm; I slip my hand under the towel feeling his little chest. Just checking for any breath but there’s nothing more than warmth. I put the sign back up on the glass door and lock it and as we walk out back, I notice he has little white feet and white spots on his back.
The boy stops at the place under the trees where I let the gerbils go earlier in the day. He starts to dig into the mulch bed. It takes a while since the shovel is meant for snow removal. I offer to dig, but he doesn’t stop so I hold the guinea pig in my arms. When the hole is deep enough, I hand him Stephen; he holds him for a few moments, then wraps him up in the towel and lays him in the hole. I help him push the dirt over. He wipes his tears away with the sleeve of his sweatshirt and brushes his hands off on his jeans.
The boy follows me back into the store. I offer him a can of soda from the fridge where we keep the cottage cheese. He takes one and offers to help me clean up for the day.
“Shouldn’t you be heading home?”
He lifts a fluffy white dog from one of the cubicles.
“What kind of dog is this?”
“An American Eskimo.”
The dog squirms in his arms and licks his face and neck.
“He looks like a Toasty, doesn’t he?”
“Toasty? Where do you get that?”
“The brown little spots on his belly, you see?”
He holds the dog out then puts him back into the cubicle. I lift the dachshund from his cubicle where his roommate, the beagle, is sleeping.
“Well, that’s fine, but this guy definitely looks like a Bernie.”
We continue in this way as we clean the shredded paper from the bottom of their cubicles. The collie is Deirdre, and the two Pomeranians are Sean and Doodles. Doodles is the more free-spirited of the two.
As the boy tries to name all the feeder fish shimmering by, I can’t keep my eyes off the gerbils. I try to picture the one that disappeared into the bushes behind the dumpster. He was missing most of his tail, and one of his ears had been nibbled down to a jagged little flap of skin. He would’ve made a perfect Terrence. One white gerbil climbs onto the back of another, and I wonder if he’s about to take a bite of an ear, or scratch out an eye.
“What are you looking at?” asks the boy.
“Did you know gerbils sometimes fight each other?”
The boy leaves the betta fish in their tiny bowls and comes to my side.
“For no reason.”
We watch as three of the brown gerbils climb all over the exercise wheel. Four others are shoving into one purple plastic igloo.
“Well, do you stop them?”
“We let them go,” I tell him. “Outside.”
“I’d rather live outside in the woods than in a tiny igloo,” he says.
Gerbils are social creatures; they can get depressed if they’re alone, so depressed that they sicken and die. I imagine Terrence spending his first cold night in the woods, huddled under a fallen log, looking for dried mango squares in a bed of dead leaves.
“You should probably head home,” I tell the boy. The spotlights are turning on in the parking lot. “You’ll have dinner soon, right?”
“Yeah,” he says looking over his shoulder at the shop window in front. He goes to the closet to get his knapsack; when he comes back out, he lingers over the Pomeranians.
“Bye, Sean,” he says. “Bye, Doodles.”
“Can you make it home okay by yourself?”
“Yeah, I have my bike. It’s locked up outside.”
“You sure you don’t want another guinea pig, or a hamster or something? I can put it in a box for you, and give you some food for it.”
“No,” he says. “No, I can’t.”
He pushes the front door open; the bells ring behind him. I watch as he unlocks the bike lock from a lamppost and rides off, disappearing behind the big specials sign propped up outside the pizza parlor.
I count out the cash register. All the dogs’ cubicles are clean, and they’re mostly asleep. The kittens have enough water. The birds are settling down and squawking less. The fish tank lights are off.
I stop in front of the gerbils. Two crawl over each other to get to the bowl of food. It looks as though one is nipping the other. I tap on the glass. They stand on their back legs and look at me. Opening the top of the cage, I take the tan one in my hand, circling my thumb and forefinger around his little chest so he can’t escape. I feel his heart fluttering under my fingers. He’s warm. The other one watches us both through the glass, following us as I walk away towards the back room.
I place the tan gerbil into the aquarium with the cracked window, crumple up some more newspaper for him to make a little bed, and push a handful of dried lima-bean gerbil food in the corner. He keeps watching me through the cracked glass. This is the only extra tank; if another gerbil nips or chews at one of his brothers or sisters, there’s nowhere else for him to go. But this one who looks like a Gregory might have a chance.
I lock the back door and head to my car. Something rustles beneath the dumpster; I stop and wait for it to move again. Maybe Terrence hasn’t gone too far at all. It’s not him, though; it’s a plastic bag catching the wind. I search the base of the trees for movement or a flicker of beady eyes reflecting the streetlamps. I imagine Terrence nervously tearing bits of leaves for a bed. It’s dark. I wonder how the world appears to him without the hum of the aquarium filters, the soft light from the heat lamps, the warmth of his unpredictable brothers and sisters.
I climb into my car and close the door behind me. The light from the inside of my car spills out onto the grass in front and the pavement on either side of me.
It’s cold enough to see my breath in puffs ahead of me. I think about Terrence and all the others. I think about the squirrel. Then the overhead light silently goes out.
Rumpus original art by Lauren Kaelin.