Fiction 2013 / Volume 43

Hard Shell, Soft Shell — Michael Chaney

It was morning and although I had to get to work my mom drifted in and out of fantasy like a cinder in a snow globe. Except her globe would be filled with bullshit. The same old bullshit to be exact—how my manager at the pet store, Jenks, was smart just like my Daddy back when they were all in high school together, only smarter, which means that Jenks didn’t drop out like most of the ethereal Daddy-Men she brought around. They annoyed me more than the coppery ruins along the bottom of the kitchen sink, cakes of it detaching with each ponderous drop from the broken faucet. Why didn’t the phantom daddies do something about that? What’s the use of having them around rhetorically holding me up if they can’t even fix a faucet? They never did anything but fill up Mom’s talking, reveries brought to you by disability checks, generic anti-depressants, and precious regret.

When I came to the end of the diatribe in my head, I was still late and she was still inventing a backstory for Jenks—God’s goddamned gift to animals.

“Jenks is a jackass,” I said. “All he does is talk a bunch of shit nobody cares about.” I said this part loudly. “People come to buy feeder fish or crickets or to look at the display animals. Nobody’s going to be convinced by some balding forty-year old motor mouth into buying a two thousand dollar python just ’cause he tells you how many teeth the average adult has or how much the mother weighs when she’s pregnant.”

I was standing by the front door, staring at the hinge painted into the spongy wood of the frame. Like me it stayed in its place more out of

habit than hardware. I tapped my black sneaker, wishing they were loafers so the soles would make that satisfying percussive sound of impertinent expectation for what should have been there already.

Mom didn’t get the hint. I tapped, sighed, tapped some more. She just kept watching TV. Violins and a throaty recitation of symptoms including sweating and unusual dreams, which made me laugh a little, forgiving her a little too. But what was she thinking? I only had this job for a week. How was I supposed to take the bus over there, magic beans? Beer bottle caps? I wasn’t exactly proud of being nineteen with a pet store job as the brightest (and only) star in my professional night sky, but I wasn’t going to grovel either. Plus, it’s not like I was the only under-achiever in this neck of Middle America’s urban woods. Was Jenks coming by to pick me up in his animal expert van, a roof-mounted gerbil bobble-heading its way up the driveway? Hell no. Of course not. That dweeb takes the bus, just like me.

Another voice from the TV, this one a woman, described the softness of skin lucky enough to have whatever stupid moisturizer for sale rubbed into it. Mom was settling in to ride the couch all day. It occurred to me that so was I in a different way. Anyone who’s ever done retail knows what it’s like to hand over your soul with a grin on your face so fake you drool like an idiot while handing it over. The drool and the smile are of ritual importance. They infuse the whole transaction with a touch of ceremony, one of capitalism’s many sacraments.

“What the hell, Mom? A new car didn’t come gratis with my Pets People shirt.”

“You know who you remind me of,” she said, “with all your smarty pants complaining?”

“Let me guess. My Daddy?”

“No. Jenks. He was a real talker when we was kids. Just like you.”

“Can this real talker have bus fare, Mom? I’m gonna be late.”

By the time I got to work, business on the upstairs floor of Pets People was thicker than usual, so I wasn’t surprised to see lots of people

gawking the fish tanks in the basement. I was stuck down there for the day doing inventory and learning the ropes of selling non-bird, non-mammal pets from Jenks. He was behind the counter, talking his head off about the new turtles posing under the heat lamps in the terrarium like miniature dinosaur supermodels. That’s it darling, that’s it. Make love to the heat lamp. Good, now hold that pose. Lovely, darling, lovely. Just like that. Don’t move. And the silly, scaly, salmonella-carrying little things would hold those poses for hours, which was fitting, since that’s how long Jenks could talk about them.

“…This pod is six months old, of course, the average tortoise of this variety lives to about seventy or eighty, excuse me a moment, won’t you?” He thought he had to cut things off with the yuppie couple politely, as if they were hanging on every word. You could tell from their body language that they had accidentally fallen into his conversational prison, closing them in with musty facts and unwanted figures, weights and ratios, dates and measures.

“Russ, I need you at station one,” he said.

“It’s Rusty,” I said, though my reminders never took effect.

“We’ll be busy today. All of this is a lead-in to Black Friday. I’ve been saying this would happen for years. It’s a tipping point. An algorithm really. We could practically work backwards on a calendar to derive the formula.” His teeth showed when he chuckled. His lower incisors were coffee beans. “Anyways, people want to give pets as presents, but they need us to work out the logistics for them. It’s as if they don’t know they want a pet-present yet. Unconsciously, they’re here today for us to give them permission to want a pet-present, you see? You remember what I taught you about the aquariums for novice fish lovers?”

“Yeah sure,” I said struggling to take it all seriously when he says things like “fish lovers.” Mom said that I needed this job for more than the money. Without it I’d stay in my room reading those encyclopedias that smell like old garage and complaining about that broken laptop I tinkered with endlessly but could not fix. Not much of a social life. It’s funny, meaning weird as hell, how much she worried about me not getting laid. It’s funnier and thankfully less weird that this scene of thoughtless instruction was all the social life I typically got in a day at work. Masturbation and outdated entries on the Soviet Union would be more exciting but like the man says, we all gotta work.

“And remember about the aquarium classes Thursday evenings?” Jenks pronounced Thursday, Thursdy. 

“I know,” I said. “Should I help customers or am I in class right now?”

“Look, Russ, it’s busy.”

“It’s Rusty,” I said.

“Right. Rusty. It’s busy. I don’t want to have to tell Mr. John about your attitude again.”

I apologized but couldn’t look Jenks in the face. If I were older, I would call the owner John or Mr. Crucio not Mr. John. Mr. John sounds downright idiotic, shameless.

I ventured over to the fish as Jenks worked his way through the store, browsing customers. I could tell he was trying to reclaim that escaped couple and remand them in his conversational custody, which was fine by me. I was here to get through the day, get my money for the soundness of my wallet and the social life for the soundness of my soul (and really for Mom’s peace of mind, I suppose, and she’s been more worried about me since her back went out than about her own situation and I wish she had had more kids so I wouldn’t be the only bulls eye on her spinning target wheel of guilt).

It occurred to me then that guilt worked a lot like sales. I’m not comfortable with a hard sell. If you ask me, that’s how you blow the deal. You’ve got to move slow. Watch a while. See where the eyes go. How much are they willing to shell out? Look for signs. There’s a science to it and Jenks had it all wrong. I’d been studying people. He only ever talked at them. The last thing I would do is blow the deal by letting my brain get in the way of what other people wanted. Algorithms on a calendar? Why couldn’t Jenks see that? What snow globe scenes shook inside his head as he brandished verbal minutiae at bored customers? Algorithms on a freaking calendar for Pete’s fucking sake.

The trick for me was to keep Jenks off my ass, bulldozing in to drone on about Douglass fir shavings with eucalyptus in it, so much better than the same shit without it. That always had the same result. By the time he’d be about five sentences into his monologue, customers would start looking at me imploringly, shifting from one foot to the next, blaming me for the way Jenks abused every opportunity to say things like “sexual dimorphism” in what only appeared to be a casual conversation about tortoises. And why not blame me? We both have the same blue polo shirt. Same tag where a name goes that nobody cares to call us by. We’re about the same height, too, so who cares about technicalities like he’s an old dumb ass and I’m not or that he’s got diarrhea of the mouth and not me? He must be the boy’s father. Is this your boy? Hmm. Chip off the old block, eh? Apples falling real close to brown-toothed, talkapocalypse trees, eh? Whatever. People can’t be bothered with nuance when they’re shopping. That’s why I take it slow.

Three guys, my age but rich, were studying the betta fish. I shadowed them to determine what they wanted. It soon became obvious that they were in college together. I was about to intercept them at the Oscar tank, where they lingered, but that would have been a mistake— something Jenks would have done. It was the turtle pen by the counter that drew them, the creature’s shell-glistening under the lamps as if freshly painted. I watched and waited and then I made my move.

“You guys wanna buy a turtle?”

“Maybe,” said the tall one. “How old are they?”

“Six weeks,” I said, hearing Jenks in my head elaborating on the size of the head relative to the diameter of the shell as a means of gauging the hatch date.

“They sure do run fast,” said a blond guy with an annoyingly perfect smile. “I thought turtles were supposed to be slow.”

“Yeah,” I said. Jenks again: although technically a misconception, the proverbial slowness of the turtle not only allows for a slower heart rate and a longer life, it also allows them to reserve energy for bursts of quick movements as with all ectotherms. 

“Dude,” said the third, “what if you duct taped one to a bunch of helium balloons? That would win the contest for sure.”

The taller one elbowed him and let his eyes come to rest on me. They were vampire brown—so dark they drew what was human about the iris indistinguishably toward what was not about the pupil. Jenks would have begun his speech on animal cruelty at precisely that moment. He would have gotten all grandiose about pet store workers being obligated reporters like social workers or EMTs in cases of domestic abuse. But that kind of overreaction assumes the worst in people. I wasn’t going to do that. And just because Jenks was in my head, hunkered down and phantom- Daddy furtive—didn’t mean I had to give him control.

“That would take a lot of helium balloons,” I said and then chuckled.

The three puffed non-committal laughter. In the middle of the pen, the largest turtle slowly turned to face us. It blinked resignedly and then looked away, curious in slow motion about the sand beneath its right fore claw. That was when Mr. Bright Smile turned to me and said, “How many balloons do you think?”

He was either joking, and I should have laughed right away, or he had a seriously morbid disdain for turtles. And to a man with morbid disdain, everyone else is a turtle. Either way, his pathologies had nothing to do with me. What bothered me as soon as he said it was the automatic way I let another Jenksism slip: “They averaged about seventy grams at their last weigh in.”

“Shit, then,” he said, “that wouldn’t take many balloons at all. Not many at all.”

The other one laughed. The tall one looked at me suspiciously. I feigned a sudden interest in the shelf of dog toys behind me. With everything that had just been said, it was difficult not to imagine the macabre possibilities of squeaky rubber chickens and T-bone steaks while I was re-arranging them needlessly. How many of these could be wedged into a poodle’s mouth? How about its ear? Things were taking on cartoonish dimensions of mayhem in my mind.

The sound of their chittering laughter still at the turtle display behind me got translated instantly in my brain into a tableau—a group of them in letterman cardigans atop a mountain of empty beer bottles with umlauts over the vowels (and not just on the beer labels; maybe the cardigans, too); each one has a turtle in his hands rudely equipped with a makeshift helmet and scarf, beer labels and origami no doubt the source of these tiny props; the young men begin chanting something in Latin as their girls—wearing poodle skirts and tortoise shelled saddle shoes—wheel out the helium canisters.

“Say, Russ…” Jenks had that same robotic, chalky grin on his stubbly face that he used when telling me to check the washrooms, which he pronounced as warsh rooms. His eyes were like buttons sewn in the face, looking past you. I could have been anyone at that moment doing anything, yet the impersonal way it made me feel came as a relief. I was tired of vicariously launching duct-taped turtles into the stratosphere.

“Say, Russ?”

“It’s Rusty.”

“Right, Rusty. Can I get your opinion on the new tarantula biome?”

He walked me and his robotic grin over to the wall of arachnids, where at the very bottom he had recently established a long terrarium of interconnected units that he alone referred to as the biome. He insisted it was because it contained insects that the spiders were not meant to consume. The rest of us had a hard time seeing metallic creatures, big as orange shoes, as insects.

He whispered to me. “Those boys. Are they going to purchase a turtle?”

I did not want him to notice my disappointment. I did not have any opinions about his stupid biome anyways.

“I think they might. Why?”

“Whatever you do, Russ, don’t sell them any of those turtles.”

“Why not?”

There was that grin again. Was his face peeling? Was the air so dry in here? “I’ve dealt with the one young man before. He came in to buy a half dozen snakes a couple of months back. I had my suspicions then, but I’m settled on it now that it would be unethical for us to sell love-worthy animals to a PA.”

PA was store code for Potential Abuser. The “love-worthy animal” phrase was Jenks code for “I’m a big fairy.” All of it was just so stupid. Who cares who buys any of these stupid animals? Wasn’t the whole point to sell inventory, make money, transact desired goods and products for desired returns? All of the rules and feelings were like the factotums scrawled out in childish letters on handwritten notes that Jenks would slip to customers buying a new cage for a parrot or a new hamster wheel:

The Macaw tends to outlive their human caregivers by at least three decades. As you and Jimmy enjoy this bigger home, don’t forget to think about the home he should have for his golden years. 

And from what I already knew about turtles, no amount of bullshit human care would reflect the reality of their real life situation in the wild. I could just imagine my Jenks note if I were to sell these college guys the turtles:

Remember Biffleburt Richbitcher the Third, as you and your new shelled brothers enjoy toga parties in the sand strewn basement of your fraternity house, turtles are left to hatch on their own along the sandy beaches or muddy embankments of rivers and creeks, left to die or live or suffer as they may, sometimes with only a few appendages intact after the otters, snakes, foxes, owls, and even other turtles are through with them. 

How love-worthy does that make the animal? Never mind that it’s the truth. Jenks would rather chop off a hand than admit to the crueler facts of the matter.

I was thinking all of this while he stood there waiting for me to give answer. I shrugged and said, “If they’re PAs, I won’t sell to them.”

He sucked up his lower lip, as if about to rip it from his own face with his teeth, chew it up, and swallow it down in front of me, along with my quiet derision, but he clicked his tongue and walked briskly away.

Maybe that was the moment. I don’t know. Maybe things like that never come down to moments. If they did, that would be it. Jenks could have threatened me again with Mr. John. He could have insisted, pushing his talking onto me the way he did with everyone all the time. But he just walked away, leaving it all to me.

The frat boys were still snickering at the turtle pen. I couldn’t tell if it was because of the overheard anthropological joke of service labor or the stupid turtles again.

I made a decision in an instant. I cleared my throat and said, “You guys can’t buy any of the turtles today.”

“Why not?” asked the tall one. There was menace in his dark eyes, a glare that forgot momentarily about pet shops, frat houses, social contracts, and the long-term consequences of an assault and battery. I thought about Frankie Swanger who grew up down the street from me, a kid with preternaturally greasy hair, like he brushed it with canola oil everyday. At that very moment Frankie was sweating out a stack of calendars in a cell downstate for that exact charge. I could think of no one I grew up with who was going to college—never mind community college— but THE college, their college, the old one up on the hill. Whatever the reason, when I had to say something to dissuade them from buying the turtles, it came out all wrong.

“My manager doesn’t want me to sell them to you guys.”

Two spoke at once. Perfect Teeth suggested that Jenks have intercourse with himself. The tall one asked politely if he could speak with Jenks’s superior. I was shocked by how equally automatic and expletive this latter request was.

I said, “Mr. Crucio is behind the cashier station upstairs. He’s the owner.”

“And what’s the name of your manager?”

I could see Jenks waxing prolix by the spiders again, playing quiz show host for a little girl who couldn’t bend any further away from his pantomimed demonstration of the jack-in-the-box spring of a tarantula’s retractable claws without letting go of her father’s hand.

“Come on man, we’ll make sure you don’t get into any trouble,” said the tall one.

I did not recognize the voice that slipped Jenks’s name from between my lips. It was deep chested, unsubtle. I half expected Jenks to turn in recognition, but he was on to making demented beaver faces for the terrified little girl and her slightly amused father.

“No,” I said. “It’s not that he won’t sell them to you. It’s that you also have to buy the gear that goes along with them. The UV light, the terrarium, the proper—”

“Yeah, but we got all that stuff already,” whined the third one.

“That’s what I mean,” I said. “If you don’t get all that stuff here, my manager won’t let me sell them to you. Store policy.”

An antique cosmic scale cartooned itself in my head. On one side was a broken version of Jenks, unshaven and obese on a city bus without the fare, heading towards the downtown bridge and calculating how many seconds into the free-fall he would remain conscious. On the other side, those college girls with the poodle skirts and the helium canisters were topless now and singing the refrain to the satanic Latin chanting like a pop song, each of them fitting the world’s smallest anesthesia masks over the goggled faces of their balloon-attached pilots of doom.

“Okay, fine,” said the tall one, pretending to smile. “How much for everything? All the turtles and the gear? How much?”

“I don’t know. Probably close to five hundred dollars.”

“We’ll take it,” he said.

“See there. That wasn’t so hard, was it?” laughed the third one.

Jenks was crouching down by the cricket cage, explaining something to the little girl, maybe about the cricket’s song played by the hind legs like a violin and its bow. She looked charmed by him and I knew that he could cage them in that rote performance for a quarter of an hour.

“You have a choice of pod sizes. The regulations require a gallon for every inch of turtle—”

“Well the pod for you Chauncy would be about a half a gallon then, eh?” The third one elbowed the blond with the teeth.

The tall one ignored them. “Why don’t you make the decisions for us. We really do have a home for them already.”

He pulled a credit card from his shirt pocket. No wallet. Thousands congealed into plastic roaming free in a pocket like a stick of gum. I left my post to grab the boxes they would need from the shelves. Although I could no longer see Jenks I could hear him.

“And so that’s why they used to say that the locust swarms were controlled by lunar forces of gravity. That’s the moon pulling on stuff here on planet earth on account of it being so big and so close. Isn’t that something? If something is really huge it pulls on you like when you jump up and then you come down, that’s the bigness of the earth pulling you back to it.”

“But how does it pull me?” asked the little girl.

The father interposed. “So, what about the feeder bugs for our iguana?”

“Yes, sir. Right away sir.”

I knew from experience that the first signs of exasperation are soon ignored by Jenks, who then goes into a pathological mode of over-talking as if in apology for the first wave of information. I had more than enough time to grab the large terrarium deluxe, accouterments included, and I ripped open the top of it so that the individually boxed turtles could go right inside. By the time I lugged the box back to the counter, Jenks was repositioned by the cricket cage this time going into an extended dialogue about Disney’s gentleman cricket and how anatomically correct he is drawn, which had the girl mesmerized and won him a few more minutes of grace from the father.

It was over six hundred dollars when the final barcode was lasered. The tall one spun the card on the counter like a blackjack dealer, doing the math aloud. “That’s less than fifty bucks a brother.”

“Cool. This’ll be cheaper than that time with the chickens.”

The third one nudged the blond. “Those were roosters, dipshit.”

“Whatever, man.”

“Whatever my ass, you lost close to five hundred bucks that time.”

“Whatever,” said the blond again. “This time will be different. I won’t bet until I’m sure of a kill.”

“I also need a name and an address for our aftercare service,” I said.

“You do, or your manager does?”

“My manager does.”

“Fine. In that case, the name’s Buck. With a K. Dodgers. That’s D O D G E R S. Very good. And the address is twenty-four and one half Century Boulevard.”

I wrote it all down and was surprised that I didn’t break the pen in my hand. At least, I had the forethought not to start typing what he said directly into the directory on the computer. I would not have been able to take his smug reporting and the others like demonic children snickering into cupped hands where cloven hooves should be.

They divided up the boxes among them to carry. The tall one took the receipt with an unfriendly snatching gesture and they left. Jenks moved in with the father and daughter trailing reluctantly behind him.

“Where’d the turtles go?”

“Good news,” I said. “Those young men bought the whole lot of them for their fraternity house. They joined the after care program and everything. Even bought all the supplies.”

My words lit a wick attached to Jenks’s face, which was more of a rough sketch of his face made from sand and gun powder. He spoke desperately, quick and quiet, as if he knew there were only a few seconds of civil conversation left before the explosion. “But Russ, I thought I told you about them—”

“I know. I looked into it. They were animal-worthy. Trust me.”

When the ignition happened, I realized that it was an implosive reaction, drawing the world into it not with a bang and lights but with a snapping shut, a closing down. He did not speak anymore to the father who could not be more pleased with that arrangement. And afterwards, we saw more of Jenks’s bald spot than his face for the rest of the day. After my break, an hour or more later, Jenks was still funereal in his silence, a deflated, dejected worm of a man who slogged his body around the aisles, saying as little as possible to customers as a way of making me feel guilty about what I had done. His entire demeanor had become a crooked finger wagging at me with an unexpectedly reptilian twitch, the way the claws of a penguin strike you when you look at it long enough as more dinosaur than duck.

Near closing time I couldn’t take his morose attitude anymore. I sympathized with my mother for calling me Mopey Dopey that summer I didn’t get into the enrichment program. She said I should read the books on my own and not to feel sorry for myself and maybe next year I’d get in. I couldn’t bring myself to admit that I had already read all the books in an effort to improve my chances of getting in this time and that by next summer, I’d be too changed by the resentment to even want to go, which turned out to be true, unfortunately. But I knew what it must have been like for her to see me go through those physical stages of extreme and utter disappointment looking at Jenks. I just couldn’t take it anymore.

I was dusting cans of dog food and he was at the counter organizing his after care lists. Mr. Crucio had been down to give him a rousing speech about how strong their sales were that day, which is what made me hide in the shelves. But I was done hiding from him.

When he left, I said, “So where did you learn so much about animals? My mom says you went off to become a vet back in the day.”

He stopped what he was doing but made no eye contact. Smiling to himself he said, “I came across a statistic the other day that said aside from male police officers of major metropolitan departments, male medical professionals or those seeking degrees to become a medical professional have the highest rate of suicide. And do you know which fields in particular have the highest rates?”

Why wouldn’t you look at a person if you’re asking them a question?

“Dentists first and veterinarians second. What do you think of that?”

I thought lots of things. Most still having to do with his unusual distance, the way his voice and words were like a message coming to me over the PA system.

“Vet school,” he said to himself. “That is a good example of the way our American verbal laziness results in funny confusions. Do you know how often it is that receptionists at any VA hospital have to screen calls about dogs that have eaten a chicken bone that splinters through the esophagus, making them cough up several pints of blood or more with every attempt to swallow it down rupturing the tissue further?”

“Those guys checked out,” I said, feeling accused.

“Do you know the difference between the trauma of a vet and the trauma of a vet school drop out? Nobody openly laughs at the first kind.”

I could not think of anything to do to break the silence that followed so I kept dusting the cans gloomily.

“So they wanted them all except for this one, eh?” Jenks spied a single turtle whose nose peeked up through the hollow plastic branch wedged in the wood chips under the light. “Why didn’t they like you? Too smart for them probably. Hiding under the chips. You’re a lucky duck, aren’t you? Russ, why don’t you make sure this guy has the right amount of food—there’s just him now—and prepare the cage for the night.”

I was so relieved when he left. I rushed over to the enclosure to pick up the crafty survivor, disobeying Jenks’s rubber glove policy. A turtle is a treasure with legs. Muscle memory at the tips of my fingers reminded me of an old cigar box I used for seashells and movie ticket stubs. The belly of the turtle felt like the inside lining of that cigar box. On the rim a cool smooth patch of hardened glue came up to a point so sharp I could use it to swipe out the dirt from under my fingernails. It was the kind of point you could cut yourself on if you shifted your weight too much, lured maybe by the smoothness, but then pierced by the tip.

There was also a clipping in that box from a movie nobody saw with a lead actor nobody liked, who always played the bumbling guy, usually in bit parts except for this one bomb of a movie. That was the first celebrity my mother told me reminded her of my dad. There would be many others after this one, but this was the first. I held onto the image of this actor as an impulse, the way the infant fingers of all primates, all of them, are prone to cling to the chest and belly fur of an assumed parent— or even a stretch of laundry twine as in the photographs of the experiment from the textbook I studied that summer. What a strange surrogate a laundry line is. At least it’s a whole notch better than the parental infamy of the turtle. When the surf or season dictates, or when scared, alone, drowning in self-pity, or just plain hungry, the turtle is known to wander back to the very place where precious eggs were laid in the gentle warming

of the sand, devouring its soft succulent young, shell upon salted shell, until their soft little souls spool back up to turtle heaven as if tethered there by helium balloons.

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