by Jesse Waters

WHEN my grandfather was thirteen and came to this country from Russia, he carried with him a tiny church mouse in his pocket. He fed it what he could, named it Mishka, and it lived all the way to America. Walking off the boat, the Imaro Lokesi, a bit sea-leggy still, my grandfather stumbled at the dock, Mishka stuck his little head out a bit too far, and splash – end of Mishka. At least that’s the story he told about why he started the pet store he owned most of his life, and it was a good story, good enough for my father, and now almost good enough for me, but I’d yet hadn’t decided.

Brooklyn is not a terrible place to grow up, but it has its pitfalls like any other place. I say the city is just like the country, only smaller, tighter, smellier, louder, more dangerous and with more people. It’s all perspective. When I was eighteen and out of school, the Seagate neighborhood I’d come up in seemed as good a place as any to spin my wheels, and after my father’d dropped some hints about leaving me both property and building, I saw some potential in the hanging around. I was the last of four kids, an unexpected gift, my folks had tagged me, what I called an oxymoron and they called god’s will. My siblings had long graduated from college and gotten on in their own ways. None of them had pets. I might own this store in three, say, five years, I told myself, not a little cold bloodedly. My girlfriend Lonnie, a garbage driver who makes real money, and knows the city, well – like a garbage driver, says the building and property could get maybe seven, eight hundred grand. And it was a pretty slow place.

You’d be surprised how quick it takes the nose to get used to all those animal smells, especially after you do it day after day. It takes longer than you think is what I’m saying, you’d be that surprised, you’d think the nose would start to develop its own desensitivity to that kind of thing, but it doesn’t. You can put Vaporub under your nose, use a gallon of Boraxo, nothing – nothing – repels, destroys, removes, covers or even clouds the smells of calico, terrier, parakeet, hamster, garden snake, chinchilla, gecko, cedar chips, piss, shit, hair, toy rubber, catnip, flea spray and old lady perfume. The only people that ever really come in the shop, Gregor’s Pets, are old, old ladies. They either want their poodles groomed (we’ve got this lady Jeanette, with one ear missing, who’s apparently the best in the city), or a turtle for their nephews, or a leash for the son-in-law’s Doberman for when they run in the park. It’s easy stuff, but it’s annoying. My dad comes in once every two weeks, loves having me around full-time now that high school’s over. Claps me on the back with these big whooping slaps that almost knock me down, then he goes golfing. Lonnie says to just suck it up, it’ll be all worth it, it’ll pay off for us, she says. This coming from a gal who doils around in slop all day may not be the best spin on the situation. When we gripe about it, she says, “Troy, the fucking I’m getting isn’t worth the fucking I’m getting,” and I go out on the stoop for a smoke, and we don’t talk for a day or two. She’s tough, and sometimes more than a little scary.

Just as I open the place on Tuesday morning I’m going over these things in my head, weighing this store against, say, Jr. college welding or machine plate shop, or maybe cooking school. I’m dwelling on this with the smells of the store and the barking and meowing and hissing and scratching of all the animals waking up making me a bit batty, when the bell on the front door goes off, and in walks the biggest human man I’ve ever seen, dressed in a dark, dark navy blue suit with his hair slicked back. White-collar shirt, no tie. We sell those seven and a half foot high carpeted kitty trees cats can climb all over and scratch up with their claws, and this guy was about a half foot from the top of the damn things. And he had to turn sideways to walk up and down the aisles, which he began doing, up and down, looking at all the animals with this sort of disgusted look on his face. Then he got to the bird row, and stooped down to look into one of the cages.

I usually don’t get up in the morning until I’ve come home from going to bed at night, so for the first few hours of the day I just kind of drift, feed all the pets, make some coffee, rub Vaporub under my nose and sweep the store. It’s a pretty slow place, like I said. Most mornings I just walk dogs back and forth from Jeanette to blue-hairs, and it’s all just rigmarole. “How much for this boid right here’s?” and he taps the cage on top with one of his big meaty fingers. I’m about four aisles away and can’t see what he’s pointing at, so I put down the broom and walk over. He’s standing in front of a cage of canaries.

We carry maybe five or six different kinds of birds, parakeets, canaries, a few parrots, one or two Macaws. All birds act differently when you take their night blankets off in the morning, and while canaries usually perk right up and start to chirp and sing a bit, these little guys hadn’t gotten going yet, and were looking around the shop and at us with a sort of lost look, like what are we doing here? “These boids right here’s,” he said again. “Two of ‘em. How’s much?” He kept calling them Boids, like Boyds, like they were a family he knew.

“The canaries?”

“No, the goddamn parrots across the way.” He gestured to Mike and Marge, the two sole tropicals. “Whataya, blind? Of course the canaries. How much?” The phone rang. I said I’d be right back.

It was Mrs. Dinelli saying she’d been in a wreck, and that she wouldn’t be in with Pfifer for his trim and bath. I rang back to Jeanette who, like a premonition, already had her coat on and was heading for the door. I hung up the phone at the front counter, she pulled her scarf down over her head, and I could see Mr. Big crossing his arms and frowning at me as she left. Now we were alone. “Sorry,” I called over, “we usually don’t have customers this early.”

“Hey – the sign says open, so how much. I gotta go, mack, I got stuff to attend to.”

I looked up the price. We don’t sell too many birds, it’s a slow place, like I said. “They’re $10.95 a piece.” I grabbed up a temp cage, these little boxes with holes and a plastic window, that I could put his birds in. The boxes have these sayings on the front in a fancy cursive script: I’m Going To A Happy New Home! on one side, and Keep A Song In Your Heart! on the other. “Are these a gift?” I asked, “because we can always give you a gift certificate if you’re not sure what color – “

“They ain’t no gift, mack, I can figure the color easy.” Then he got this puzzled look. “Why ain’t they all yellow?”

“That’s a common misconception, that all canaries are yellow, they actually come in all colors.”

He was pointing to two of the closest, a bronze-crown with yellow cheeks and a bright brown with red cheeks and a yellow-spotted tail. “You got any with more yellow that this?” I looked back and forth – they were are all starting to get chirpy, and bounce around, some – they get like that when one’s about to get bought, they can tell – but I couldn’t see any that had any more solid yellow coloring. Most were like these two he’d pointed at, darker with colored spotting and head feathers. “Sorry, I don’t see any right now. I’d be happy to order you some, that’s no sweat.”

“You sell yellow die here?”

“No – no, we don’t. Look, it wouldn’t be but a day or two, I can get –”

“Sorry, buddy, I need two yellow canaries, right here, right now. Not tomorrow – today.” He slapped the back of his hand palm side up in his other hand while he spoke. “Look, gimme the boids – I’ll find a hardware store somewheres.” He pulled out his billfold and handed me a twenty and ten. “There you go, there you go, keep the change,” and he waived back at the cage, “just get me any two you can you get your hands on, chop chop.”

The monies were two of the new bills, crisp and sharp with holograms, and they smelled a little perfumey, not like human sweat, or parfum, but like the ground-up scent that money makes when you rub it a bit and hold it under your nose. I had my back turned to the guy when I smelled his bills, I had walked back and was facing the register when I did it, but the starchy paper smelled another way too, in my head anyway. I tried to think as quick as I could. I’m no lover of birds don’t get me wrong, but I wake up every morning and put the scoop in the food for these animals, I’ve seen some of them from birth to death. I’m no usher of creatures, but something in my gut’d started to ache.

“How ‘bout food, and wood chips? Have you already got a set up?” He looked at me like I had antennae sticking out of my head. He started to walk toward the register.

“What’s the matter with you? You tryin’ to get funny?”

I wanted to look as perplexed as possible, and I was getting kind of scared. He came to the front counter, looked down at me, and did this thing with his neck and head where he cocked them both up and back to the right where they made this terrible krick. “No, not at all, I mean, I was just curious – “

“—which some times it pays very well not to be, if you get my drift.”

I thought of my grandfather, who I really never knew that well, but I thought about him and Mishka getting off that boat, and I don’t know why I thought of that right then, because I tried as hard as I could to feel something, but that ache in my gut had sort of passed; what the hell did I care what this guy did with these birds? If they lived two years or ten, what difference could it possibly make? Sparing these birds would not make the slightest difference to me, Mr. Big, the two people they were meant for, or anyone who loved them, or their pets, or whatever. I looked back toward the birds, and couldn’t really see them from the counter, but it struck me as odd that for what I thought was the first time I could make out those canaries’ particular call, like a signal or something. I slid on the elbow-length gloves we use so you don’t get all pecked up, and walked back with Mr. Big to the bird aisle. They didn’t look a bit afraid – two or three even jumped on my arm, and I thought about how stupid they were, and what dumb animals they all were, in their cages all locked up and stinking. I put two birds in the box and closed the lid. Mr. Big straightened his lapels, took the box, and left.

I stepped out back to have a smoke, and I could feel the city coming to full roar around me, the cabs blaring along and the subways rumbling underneath, and I thought for the millionth time in my life how strange it was that in a city of strays, you could never find one mulling around our pet shop. I guess the pizza joint across the street smelled better. I felt bad that I didn’t know how to feel bad about things, and I put it off to my youngness, and tossing my butt out onto the street I made a promise to myself that once I’d gotten rid of this dump, I’d be nicer to people, and try to be compassionate about something, and as I turned to throw that butt out into the street, the sun was coming into full rise, and about ten feet from me a bright round turquoise glinted up from the pavement. I jumped up off the steps, and reached down to grab it, but it was just a splot of pigeon shit the light had turned brilliant for a second. I brought my hand up to my nose, and feeling like I owed the animal world something, I smelled the iron taint of whatever that bird had eaten last, and the smell was everything and nothing like the smells I’d been washing away. I wiped my hands off as best I could on the pavement. The sun moved west like always.