By Michael Gutgsell
The work was numbing. I pulled products to the front of the shelves, turning them label-forward. When it was really slow, I would open a book about dog breeds and try to study. The Owner/Wife would waddle out of the back and tell me to do something productive, so I would take a feather duster and shift grime around. I hated how boring it was, and I hated that I was denied the opportunity to actually learn anything. A job like that dulls you, it blunts the edge of your mind. The summer slipped by, blank and uninspiring.
The store was usually dead, and the employees shuffled about, attempting to look busy – Barbara by the birds, Mike, the owners’ son, in reptiles and fish, the squinty-eyed manager Dave near the puppies, and me in accessories. The shelves were just tall enough that I could only see the tops of everyone’s heads. Barbara’s dyed hair was always piled high on her head in the same way, with a couple inches of gray getting longer every day. Barbara had a smoker’s wrinkled-paper-bag face and long fingers with brightly painted nails. She once told me, in a deadpan, defeated voice, that she “couldn’t afford to work here, but she couldn’t afford not to work.” She used to be a hostess at “the nice restaurants,” but now she couldn’t get a job at any of those places anymore. She was a woman of quiet tragedy, living in a crumbling carriage house somewhere, still breathless from the sudden loss of her husband. She would stand over the crowded cage of finches, cooing softly to them.
Despite my efforts to be friendly with everyone, there was one employee I couldn’t stand. Her name was Deirdre, a huge black woman who was sugary sweet when you met her, and only gradually got worse. It was a well-known secret that she stole from the register, but no one seemed to really care. She half-assed everything she did, leaving more work for me. My nice veneer slipped away one day when she teased me for the care I took in mopping or something, and to whatever I said, she looked me up and down mockingly and said: “Oo, you spicy.”
I’ve blocked out now what I said or how I reacted, but we were never, ever scheduled to work together again. She was fired later for screaming at a customer, I heard.
There was the occasional excitement. One woman came in to have her long-haired cat groomed, asking for a lion cut. Instead of telling her that there was no one there that day to do it, Dave took the cat and told her to be back in an hour. And then, with absolutely no training, he attempted to shave her cat. Barbara, Mike, and I listened in horror as cat screams – which sound like a distressed baby – came from the back. We could only see Dave’s face, grim with pig-headed concentration.
When the woman came back, she took one look at her cat and his patchy coat, and screamed, “What did you do to my cat?!” Dave responded, stubborn to the last, “I gave it a lion cut,” and then demanded that she pay for the haircut.
Not to say that I was above such idiocy. One lady wanted an ID tag for her boyfriend’s pet. “I want to propose to him by putting our names on the tag,” she said, and picked out the last heart-shaped tag we had in stock. I took down her info and put it into our ancient, barely functioning machine. When, inevitably, the tag was marred, I pulled it out, showed it to her, and said: “Is this ok? Do you want me just to write it on the other side?” She looked at me in shock and walked out. I slipped the marred heart into my khaki pocket. Unfinished, it said: “I belong.”
I mopped the floor in the mornings (it never looked clean, even after mopping and before anyone came in) and sang songs from In the Heights, which I was obsessed with that summer. I pretended I was downtrodden and poor, and then I went home to my parents’ enormous Tudor-style home and drank their wine.
One day the owner, Carlos, asked me to help him find something in the basement. Under the store was a dark, crowded maze, full of boxes of limp Christmas decorations. I had heard that they bred white mice down there to feed the snakes, but I hadn’t seen them. Carlos abandoned the pretense that we were actually looking for anything, and turned to face me in the dim yellow light, arm resting on a box full of smudged Santas. He asked me if I had any tattoos. I told him no, and he said he had one.
“Where?” I asked. I looked him directly in the eyes. I knew what this game was about and I wasn’t going to be the one to back down. He lifted his shirt, revealing his smooth belly and a snake choking a rose on his flank. I reached out a hand and touched the head of the snake with a finger. “Wow,” I said. “It’s beautiful.” He dropped the edges of his shirt and took my face in his hands, planting his thick lips against mine. I was excited and sick and thrilled with the risk. He didn’t have to tell me not to tell anyone, I knew.
It had started and there was no going back. The kiss spawned meetings in the basement once the store was closed, a naked mattress on the floor beside the cage full of sacrificial mice. I was invited to their house to enjoy the hot tub with the managers and the owners. Underneath the rolling bubbles, Carlos would put his foot against my crotch while his wife looked out at the trees, and towards the house where their three children slept. Carlos and I would stay in the hot tub until everyone left, and then he’d take me inside and suck my cock in his living room. The affair, like the job, was unreal. I remember it hazily, like it happened to somebody else. It wasn’t love. He talked like it was, but I knew better. He told me about his friend from the Marines, who lived in a small house on his property in another life, until his wife said no more. He talked and talked, as we drove around Cleveland and I looked out the passenger window. He said we understood each other, that I “got him.” I sat quiet, my mind untouched. I grew to despise his confessions, with a hard-heartedness I now (in my old age of twenty-six!) think of as the casual cruelty of youth, the intolerance of someone with so many more options ahead of him. Carlos told me he planned to tattoo my initials on his arm, in a secret, disguised way, and we would be the only ones to know. Though he thought he knew me, he didn’t know my thoughts, he couldn’t, because I was just a fantasy to him. I hated that.
I didn’t know how to end it. There was no way out, not until the summer ended, but that seemed so far away. I had my ticket out, my trip to England. Though my life was going to be so different in just a few months, it seemed like all my life was just this.
At some point during the summer, the owners announced to the staff the happy news that they were expecting their fourth child. Their son Mike, who was my age, turned to me and shrugged. His friendliness hadn’t changed towards me, but I monitored him obsessively, wondering always if he somehow knew about me and his father.
To be continued…
Michael Gutgsell is a regular writer for Tumbleweed Diaries. You can read more of him on his weekly blog, Making a Mess of It, or on the blog for Tree House Humane Society, the no-kill stray cat shelter where he works.