[img_assist|nid=4327|title=”Early Bird,” David Aronson © 2005|desc=|link=node|align=right|width=150|height=163]
I care for small animals.
Once a week, I smuggle mice out of work. I stuff my jacket pockets with three sometimes four mice and deliver them from their overpopulated cages to freedom. It is a non-profit, non-political, non-religious, even-the-smallest-animals-count campaign that I started three weeks ago. It is a fact that mice can swim up to a mile and a half before they exhaust their energy and drown. With a highly acute sense of smell, they can also find their way home from up to five miles away. At the start of my campaign, I had a minor set back, when I freed the mice too close to work and found them the next morning waiting by the door of the shop. I had to secretly return them to their cages so Dave wouldn’t figure out what I had been doing. Now I let them go in more remote parts of the city.
I am not a fast runner.
I cannot bench press or squat my own weight.
I am not a team player.
I am not on a path to enlightenment.
In Positive Thinking Equals Positive Living, they suggested making a list of unique qualities and skills that only "you" possess, characteristics that make "you" an individual. I started it but ran out of ideas so started a negative list instead. Jesse freaked, she thought I was self loathing. She said it might help my self esteem if I stuck to the original list. But since she dumped me, I’ve had a hard time coming up with anything positive.
This morning I discovered a soft spot in the linoleum floor of my kitchen pantry. I suspect there is rotten wood underneath or just a hole that opens up to the downstairs neighbor’s kitchen. My neighbors are a family who has lived in the building for fifty-five years. I have met the son and the mother but have never seen the father. They say he is very sick, bedridden. When Jesse and I had sex, we would wonder if the sick father, dying in his bed below, could hear us. We thought maybe the sounds of young people making love would heal him.
Sam my co-worker has been trying hard to cheer me up since Jesse left. He only owns two pair of pants: one blue and one tan, both corduroys. He says they talk to him when he walks.
I’m filling a sixty gallon aquarium with wood chips in preparation for the arrival of two dozen Plated Yellow Throats, the recent best selling lizard, when Sam walks up.
"Look," Sam says.
I’m afraid to look up but know if I don’t Sam will stand there for hours. Sam has small squirming tumors bulging all over the thighs of his blue corduroys, where he has probably stuffed ten gerbils. The bulges are slowly moving down his leg as he lets out a soundless laugh.
" That’s animal cruelty," I say smiling.
"Oh, it feels good," Sam says forgetting that this was supposed to be a joke.
Animal cruelty is familiar territory at Petland Discounts. If I don’t skim the gold fish tanks for a week, the amount of floating carnage looks like a small massacre. The geckos and iguanas share a cage, lying on top of one another. The parakeets are always huddled together in efforts to stay warm, and the love birds keep passing a cough between the two of them. The snakes have it the best. They are in spacious aquariums with heat lamps and live food. Even the smaller snakes like the North American garters have a clean, roomy environment. Then there are the mice all in one cage, where they breed, eat, shit, and piss on top of each other. Mice are not equipped with the instinct to take care of their overpopulation problems. Dave thinks he helps them out by feeding them to the snakes. To further my campaign and to spite Dave, I take great pleasure in feeding rats to the snakes. Jesse liked the rats. She respected their strong survival instinct. Rats naturally control their overpopulation by eating their young and their elders. I refuse to clean their cage and it’s not just because the smell of shit and piss is so overwhelming or that the small piles of bones left over from eating each other are stacked in the corners like firewood. I refuse to clean the rat cage because the last time I was taken by a sudden urge to squeeze each one of them to death. I wanted to squeeze until I felt their bones snap and their miniature bodies collapse. I wanted to feel them thrash about trying to get free.
I care for Jesse.
This was the second skill on my list. When Jesse saw this she smiled wide displaying the massive size of her teeth. The first time I saw her, I thought she looked like a horse. Not in a bad way. It was her strong jaw line, large teeth, and the sudden urge to ride her to my apartment. From my perspective of five foot three, Jesse’s six foot height was monumental. She came in with a bowl of twenty gold fish and an orange Tabby in a cage. Her first words weren’t directed at me but at Sam.
"I want to trade in my pets," she said with a straight face.
Sam just walked into the back. Dave doesn’t like him speaking to the customers. I was tangled on the inside and wanted to follow Sam. There was a two second pause as she looked down at me, wondering if I was also going to leave abruptly. I gave her two bucks for the gold fish, three of which were floaters, and told her that she could post an adoption sign for her cat. Every day after that, she came in to see if anyone had inquired about the sign. I ended up buying her cat myself and she took me out to dinner.
The other night the son of the downstairs neighbor asked where Jesse was. He said he hadn’t seen "my girl" around. He has one good tooth; the others have all rotted out. It is hard to think of him as someone’s son since he is fifty years old, grey, balding, and walks like an old man. He came out of his door as I was going upstairs. Past him I could see into their decrepit apartment. There were large holes in the ceiling plaster and the wiring and light bulbs were exposed. I told him I didn’t see Jesse much anymore like it was something out of my hands, as if she had been transferred to another city.
No true animal lover would ever shop here. Our customers are not so much animal lovers as collectors. And Dave, my boss, is not just a store owner but a buyer. Dave buys, sells, trades, barters, and occasionally steals, swindles, and abducts creatures of unusual status. Not unusual as in animals of exotic origins from far off lands but common animals afflicted with some abnormality. This chain pet store with the normal fare of small, harmless, caged animals is only a facade. Past the lizard and fish aquariums and the short haired dwarf hamsters and their squeaky exercise wheel, in the hallway with the bathroom, next to the closet with the cleaning supplies, there is a set of cages and an aquarium which are reserved for the freaks. It is separate from the other animals; away from the cute pets and their adoring customers. It is where the oversized, mutant, genetic deviants, disfigured, crippled, sick, mutilated, flukes of mother-nature, tests of science, and tragedies of the modern world are celebrated. Where the animal world has shunned and estranged, we at Petland Discounts accept with open arms. These are the animals that would have been killed by their peers for their extreme differences. There is a very lucrative market for these animals in private underground collections and museums around the world. Dave thinks we are the one place where these animals are appreciated. Dave’s moral is "No Impostors." Impostors are animals that have been altered for the sole purpose of making money off of them. It is easy to spot impostors as they usually have missing appendages or broken and reset bones so their stature and gait is awkward. We do not take these animals. It is against our policy. It is seen as unusually cruel behavior towards animals which we don’t condone. We walk the fine line like the perimeter of a drained swimming pool in winter.
I do not have a social life.
Two days after discovering the soft spot in my kitchen floor I investigated it. Out of boredom, curiosity, and a small sense of destruction, I used a knife to make a small square cut in the linoleum. Just as I had suspected, part of the floor was missing leaving a hole that looked down through to my neighbor’s kitchen. Like a child looking through a key hole, I lay on my kitchen floor and looked through it. My view was partially obscured by pipes, but I could still see most of the kitchen. There were empty plastic soda bottles and half full trash bags lining one wall. And like the small glimpse I had into their front hall, the kitchen was equally dilapidated. The linoleum of the kitchen was worn away to the wood like a well traveled path in the forest. Then the son walked into the kitchen with his mom. I watched them make dinner together and then carry it on trays to another room. The son came back in and did the dishes. The drain was clogged and tomato and meat colored water rose to the top of the sink. It seemed like he was going to let it overflow, but, at the last minute, he cleared the drain and it went down. A residue of red colored suds covered his hands and the sink.
I do not have washboard abs.
Sack of oats is how Jesse referred to my stomach. It is pale and sagging and has a strange pock marked surface that reminds me more of oatmeal than dry oats. The first night that we arrived at her parents’ summer house for the weekend, she declared her love for my ugly stomach. We had been going out for four months and decided to get out of the city for the weekend.
My ex-girlfriend’s dad hates me.
This negative statement although not relevant anymore is true no matter what Jesse says. When we got to the house that first night, we had a great time. But then her parents arrived the next morning, and they argued with Jesse the whole time. It started that first morning while I was still in bed. After greeting each other and saying how good it was to see her, Mr. Morgan asked about a sweater and shirt on the chair by the television.
"Could you please clean up after yourself," Mr. Morgan said. "We’ve been over this before. This house is not a closet."
"Lower your voice," Jesse said. "Bill is still sleeping. And it’s his sweater."
"Great, he thinks he owns the place," Mr. Morgan said.
"Please, Peter, don’t start now," Mrs. Morgan said.
"Who sleeps this late anyway," Mr. Morgan said.
And then I heard the door slam as Jesse went out onto the porch.
"Nice way to start the weekend," Mrs. Morgan said to her husband.
It was silent, and I stayed in bed afraid to come out of the guest room. When I did come out, everyone was reading. Jesse obviously got her size from her father, who has hands like baseball gloves. As we shook, he seemed taken aback by my short stature. He looked at me as if my height was something perverted next to his towering daughter. We had lunch on the back porch, and another argument broke out. After helping with the dishes, I thought Jesse and I could go to town and get away.
"I need some time alone," she said. "We’ll do something in a little bit."
So I went for a walk in the woods behind the house. It wasn’t so much woods as low shrubs, pricker bushes, and burrs. I came upon a soft patch of earth. The soil was dark and moist as if it might be someone’s compost pile. With a stick, I made a hole and gathering just below the soil were dozens of slimy worms. I hit what looked like a root at first but was actually an enormous worm the size of a snake. It was big enough that I had to grab it with my whole hand and not just my fingers. It was not only extraordinarily thick but the length was three times that of any normally large earth worm. I wanted to rush it back to Petland Discounts and show everyone. I also didn’t want Jesse’s parents to see me with it but couldn’t stand to let it go. Cupping both of my hands around, I tried to conceal it as I walked back through the woods to the Morgan’s. When I got back to their house, I put it on the floor of the outdoor shower, where it was damp and mossy. I grabbed a large drinking glass from the kitchen and filled it with soil from Mrs. Morgan’s garden. The worm had made its way to the other side of the shower when I picked it up and put it in the soil filled glass. I used tinfoil with poked air holes to seal the glass. Like a banished heretic, I hid the worm in its new home, in the back of the guest bedroom closet, next to the spare blankets and pillows. Jesse and her parents argued the rest of the weekend. Their disagreements erupted from the smallest things: a remote control, misplaced milk, unfolded towels. Every time there was an outbreak, I would slowly make my way to the guest bedroom and check on my worm.
Dave has a couple of sources for animal anomalies besides trading and buying from other collectors, and the occasional stray brought in by kids playing in the swamps, at the edge of the city. His big money making sources are a couple of medical laboratories that give him their used experiments. There is also a guy who lives in the country who supplies us with wholesome freaks, farm animal types such as a chicken with long wiry fur like bristles instead of feathers. He also gave us a hairless rabbit with one ear and fully advanced cataracts that made its eyes look like smoke blown into water. The laboratory animals are sick in comparison. They stagger around the cage with hair loss from radiation or mutated from gene splicing. They are always mice, rats, hamsters, guinea pigs, cats, and some pigs. Dave has passed up numerous chimpanzees with much regret. He says the store is too small; it would attract too much attention to our Museum, as Dave calls it.
Dave also encourages us, his employees, to catch and hunt any freakish animals we can get our hands on. We get forty percent commission on any sale of the animals we catch. Sam spends a lot of his time trying to catch animals over the weekend without much success. He comes up short of any kind of oddity and catches the usual city pests: mice, rats, and pigeons. My worm was the first and only contribution that I ever made, and it was just slightly better than anything Sam has brought in.
On our way back from Jesse’s parents’ house, I carefully packed my worm on top of my duffel bag and secured it in the back seat of the car. The first twenty minutes of the car ride was silent until Jesse turned the radio down.
"Did you catch an insect or a worm of some sort?"
"Yeah, did you see me pack it?"
"Jesus Christ, Bill," she said, yelling at me. "What’s the matter with you? Can’t you be normal just for one weekend? Just leave the fucking animals alone."
"I’m sorry. I didn’t think anyone saw it."
"My Dad saw it. He found it in the closet when he went to get an extra blanket. He had a fit."
"I’m sorry. I was just going to…" I didn’t know what to say.
"It’s okay. It’s not your fault. It’s just my dad is so uptight it stresses me out. We don’t get along well, if that’s not obvious enough."
"Your Dad hates me. Doesn’t he?"
"No, he doesn’t hate you. He’s disappointed with me and won’t give you a chance."
She rested her hand on my stomach as we made our way back on the highway. At the time I thought it was a sign of love and understanding. It was really a goodbye, a gesture of consolation for the break up to come.
That Monday I brought my worm into work and no one was very impressed. Dave let me put it in the back with the rest of the oddities only because he approved of my effort. I put him in a soil filled aquarium lined with contact paper decorated with green leaves and ferns. It took a little research to figure out what worms eat but I have it down to a science now. I feed the soil with nutrients that in turn the worm extracts and feeds on himself. The worm still hasn’t sold. Dave is thinking about putting it up front and selling it as a rare African snake. The heat lamps would kill it in a day.
Later that same Monday Sam came in, wearing his tan corduroys, carrying a black garbage bag over his shoulder. I remembered, he had told me he was going fishing in the river that weekend. He was hoping to find some sort of three eyed fish.
"This is the only thing I caught that I thought we could sell," Sam said. "I hooked an old tire and a bag full of trash. That was before I found this beaut."
He untied the bag releasing an overpowering odor. Dave gave me a look of fear. Sam’s hand disappeared into the bag and then came out holding high in the air some sort of dead furry animal. The smell was unbearable, and Dave and I stepped back several feet with our hands over our nose and mouth. "It’s a gigantic squirrel," Sam said.
It was a dead bloated squirrel with a mangled ratty tail and missing patches of fur exposing raw white skin and the stench of rotting flesh,
"Get it out immediately," Dave said pointing at the door.
Sam looked hurt as he walked out carrying the squirrel by his side like a stuffed animal.
This week I made another hole in the floor in the far corner of my living room. I was tired of watching the mother and son make dinner. I wanted more. I wanted to see the sick father. I approximated where I thought he might be. With a hammer and a small crow bar, I took out a couple planks of my hard wood floor. This hole is smaller than the one in the kitchen but I am able to see better because there are no pipes obstructing my view. There he was, the father, withered and shrunken with long, grey hair, sleeping in a bed with layers of blankets. To the side of him was a small nightstand with a light, a clock, and bottles upon bottles of pills. There was an empty chair to the side of the bed and also a chair folded up against the wall. I put the pieces of wood back in their place so there wasn’t a gaping hole in my living room and concealed it with a small rug.
I am not happy.
This is on the top of my negative list. Two weeks after the weekend with her parents, Jesse broke up with me, right outside the shop on a Tuesday night. She told me she wanted to be single. She needed time alone. She said she loved me but wasn’t ready for me. She said she would miss my sack of oats and to take care of her cat. Then she disappeared. That was three weeks ago. Today, while releasing some mice in a small park, in a remote area of the city, I saw her on the other side of the street. She was with a tall guy with long dark hair and a trench coat. He looked like a superhero in disguise. From where I was standing, it looked like they were holding hands.
I am a small man with a big heart.
I am lonely and do not have anyone.
Tonight, as I closed the store, I decided to expand my mouse freedom campaign to include all creatures big and small. In celebration of my new campaign, I fit seven mice into my pockets, and in two separate cages, I brought home five parakeets, three finches, two canaries, three gerbils, six small iguanas, an assortment of geckos, chameleons, and the worm I found that weekend with Jesse. I ate my dinner in the living room and watched through the hole in the floor. The mother and son ate their dinners on trays next to the father’s bed. The father drank juice and ate vegetables. I watched for hours as they ate and watched television. The mother and son finally left the room, saying good night as they went to their own beds. I waited another fifteen minutes until my eyes adjusted to the dark and the father was asleep. Then I got the animals out and ready. Starting with the mice and gerbils, I dropped them into the room with a small lob so they landed softly at the end of the father’s bed. Before I let each one go, I quietly said a positive phrase as if I were assigning it to each animal. You are a good person. You are not a coward. You can get through this. You are strong. You are a willful and powerful individual. And most importantly, you are not alone; we are here to help. The mice and gerbils slowly moved from the soft landing pad and worked their way up the bed moving cautiously over the hilly landscape made by the old sleeping man. Some of them climbed down the blankets onto the floor where they found left over crumbs from dinner. Then I let the birds loose with the same motion but they never touched the bed. Instead they flew and found perches on window sills, door frames, and lamp shades. The lizards followed the same flight pattern as the rodents, but, when they landed on the bed, they moved very slowly, hesitant to explore. Then finally I dropped the worm. When it landed on the bed the dark dirt that was on it came off onto the light colored blanket. When it landed, it squirmed violently back and forth like a dying fish. Slowly extending and contracting it slithered off the blanket, the rough wool fibers clung to its fragile, damp skin. I watched as the animals moved around the room in the dark, exploring different corners, mapping out their new home. It was a new habitat, something to which they would all be able to adapt. The old man woke up at one point and heard the small noises of animals moving around.
"Who’s there? Hello? Karry? Charlie?" he said confused. Then he fell back asleep.
I fell asleep next to the hole but woke the next morning as the sun was rising. I looked down into the room and saw the old man still asleep. All the animals had found hiding places and new homes. It seemed as if they belonged as much as anything else in the room. The old man opened his eyes suddenly and sat up. One of the birds flew across the room to find a new perch and his eyes followed the bird to the far corner of the room, the same corner I was looking down from. His confused gaze stopped on the bird. Then he saw my face looking through his ceiling, staring at him. I was afraid that if I moved too quickly he might get scared. And, without warning, he smiled at me and raised his hand in a friendly wave.
Serge Shea is a writer and photographer who grew up in and is based out of Philadelphia. A graduate of the NYU creative writing program, he is currently finishing a collection of short stories.