Most people who go into pet stores don’t really know what pet they want. They gawk over the hamsters, leaping in eternal circles along their running wheels, and say, “look how cute!” and “I want to cuddle it!” without even knowing the first thing about rodents. They’ve never been bit on the finger by a hamster. They’ve never tried to catch one in their hands while it’s wiggling like a spaghetti noodle.
But I’m patient. I listen to the sucker explain how “oh my god, I’ve always wanted a hamster, I’ve wanted one since I was two, today I can finally get one,”—usually some pre-teen with a braceface and a penchant for layered lace topped camisoles.
That’s when I secure my hair back into a ponytail and put on some gloves. The parents and their children (already nearly weeping with excitement at the thought of a hamster) watch with dimming joy as I use a food dish to lift the hamster from the depths of the purple substrate. The hamster always curls into one side, aggravated, as I tilt the food dish into another food dish, gently rocking the hamster into a busy lull. It feels like I am separating a yolk, using the two eggshell halves, tipping the hamster back and forth slowly.
“Can I hold him?” the kid might ask, and I say no, you can’t, he’ll bite. And at this point the parents begin to look at one another, their eyes wide, their mouths unmoving but still speaking the silent words “maybe we didn’t know as much about hamsters as we thought.”
“Can I hold him?” the kid might ask, and I say no, you can’t, he’ll bite.
The family will walk away with a cat, inevitably.
The people who come in wanting birds will leave with fish, because they just wanted something pretty to look at. Cages, tanks, same thing.
The people who want tarantulas or scorpions end up adopting the snakes. They’re always brave enough to accept my challenge to touch one (they did think they wanted a scorpion, after all), and once their fingers graze the soft and smooth body of a python, they are sold.
So when I’m working late one evening, and a man strolls in and makes a beeline for the reptile department, I figure he’ll end up with a snake or a tank of hermit crabs.
“I’m looking for the beardies,” he says to me. Based upon his words, I know he either a) means business and already has one, or b) spends a hell of a lot of time on bearded dragon care websites, because no normal customer calls them “beardies.”
“Yeah, sure, right here,” I say, and I walk to the tanks with him.
There are a few normal bearded dragons out on display, and some fancies are on sale. One of the regular beardies is gargantuan. He must have been returned to the store last weekend when I wasn’t working, because no bearded dragons grow that fast. I point out that one.
“See, you know he’s a good one, ‘cause he’s fat,” I say.
“Do you know it’s a boy?” Asks the man.
“No no,” I laugh, and I realize he is the type b. The website reader. The never-owned-a-lizard-before kind of guy.
“You can maybe figure it out when they get a bit older, if you feel like really getting intimate with your buddy, but I just call them whatever I’m feeling.”
“Getting intimate with my lizard?”
I raise my eyebrows. “You can’t tell their gender until they’re fully grown, and even then, it’s a guessing game.”
“But you think this one is a ‘he’?”
“Could be a she, depends on what you pick for a name.”
He stands for a moment with his hand on his chin, contemplating. He stares at the fat bearded dragon with its pancake belly, flattened on a sunning rock.
“I think Smaug would be a good name,” he says.
I think to myself, wow, how original, but I offer him a smile instead.
“Tolkien approves,” I say.
He nods and continues to look at the lizard. The newly-dubbed-Smaug pounces from his sunning rock onto one of the unsuspecting live crickets sneaking around the perimeter of the small tank. The customer’s face widens into a grin.
“I like him,” the man says. “I’ll take him!”
“Whoa now, hold your horses,” I say. “I need to make sure you can take care of this fella. Do you have supplies?”
“That’s what I’m here for!”
I know this is it. This is the moment that I’ll lose him and lose the sale.
“You don’t have your tank set up already?” I ask.
He shakes his head, eyebrows clenched.
“Then this little guy is staying right here. You should have your tank set up and ready before you bring him home, so the temperature and humidity are already perfect.”
The man looks like he wants to protest, to argue, to say something, but he doesn’t. He nods and says “lead the way.”
I take him to the supplies section and help him pick out a kit with the tank, substrate, lamps, and bulbs. He purchases the same sunning rock from the display tank.
I’m a bit surprised by the items he’s willing to purchase. He shells out for the nicer tank with the front-closing glass doors, and he promises to buy some tiles at Home Depot to put under the substrate. He doesn’t look more than 30. Why is he so determined to buy a beardie?
I decide to pitch the special cricket box to him. It’s a carrying case of plastic with attached feeding tubes.
“It keeps your crickets alive longer. If you keep them in the bags we put them in for transport, they’ll suffocate. With a box, you won’t have to make as many trips here for more live crickets.”
But he shakes his head.
“I don’t mind coming to the pet store,” he says.
I shrug and smile and ring him up. He’ll come around in a few weeks and end up buying one. They all do.
“Will you be working tomorrow?” he asks. “I’d like to come back in and get Smaug.”
“I will be here,” I say, “and I already tagged the cage to note that the fat guy is all yours.”
He thanks me and takes his bags. As he walks toward the exit, I call out after him.
“Make sure you bring pictures of your set-up. It’s gonna be great.”
He promises he will.
The next evening, I take my earrings out in order to socialize the jenday conure. It’s essential that conures are socialized for at least one hour each day, at minimum. They are chatty little parrots with big personalities. Sweet and friendly, but they love to nibble on shiny things. I’ve almost lost one pair of hoops to this one’s beak already.
I keep the bird on my shoulder, and he periodically squawks in my ear. I’ve almost learned to tune out the sudden, ear-shattering cries.
It’s been a busy afternoon. A priest came in to purchase goldfish to swallow for a church “fear factor” competition, and a milk snake pooped all over my arm in terror when I showed it to a young boy with a tight grip. I almost forgot about the bearded dragon man and Smaug.
When the man comes back in for his bearded dragon, he walks right up to me at the register, cell phone in hand, pictures at the ready.
“I’ve got the temperature steady and everything is ready for Smaug,” he says. He’s thrilled.
The conure takes this moment to poop all over the back of my shirt, and I sigh.
“I’ve been shit on twice today, by different animals,” I explain to the man.
“Sounds like a shitty day,” he says.
“Let me put this handsome gentleman away and we can get you your dragon.”
“Thanks Bridget,” he says, and I realize he knows my name. And then I remember I’m wearing a nametag.
I place the conure back in his cage, where he unhappily paces back and forth on a branch, already missing my company.
I remove Smaug from his prime spot under the heat lamp and place him in a container. A cluster of three baby beardies quickly jump to take his vacated spot, absorbing the warmth.
Instead of walking to the register, the man holds the container in his hands and stares down at it in wonder.
“I’ve wanted one for so long,” he says, “I decided to just finally do it.”
“Why a beardie?”
“Little lonely. Can’t have a dog or a cat in the apartment. Not much of a snake person. Nobody has a bearded dragon. Besides, they are so cool. Have you ever seen a fully grown one?”
I smile, broad and toothy, and do something I never do. I take out my phone while at work.
I flip to my photos and hold up the pictures for the man to see.
“I have one,” I say, “his name’s Elliott.”
The man’s cheeks dimple as he flips through the images. “He’s cute.”
“He’s fat,” I reply, and he chuckles.
“That’s why you’ve got good beardie advice!” he says.
“If you ever need help, I’m here!”
He pulls his own phone out of his pocket and opens it to the contacts page, and asks for my information, so he can reach out with questions about Smaug.
The man has a name, revealed in the text I receive that evening. It’s a photo of Smaug enjoying his new home, captioned, “Smaug seems to dig his new digs. Thanks for your help. -Clayton”
I smile at the thought of the dragon finally enjoying some peace. No more baby dragons clambering on top of him to be close to the heat lamp. Free to become old and eat and sunbathe. Living the dream.
I fish my earrings from my stained work shirt pocket, rescuing them from the certain doom that would have ensued had they made it into the washing machine.
Clayton texts me every so often, once every couple of days, usually just a picture of Smaug making a cute face, doing lizard things as lizards do.
He appears in the evenings during my shifts. Sometimes he texts me in advance, “You on the clock today?” or “What time are you working?”
He buys the crickets in the bags, which he has to continually return for since he refuses to purchase the cricket keeper.
On one such evening, he’s leaning against the rabbit feed shelves as I straighten and organize the bags. “You aren’t scared of spiders?” he says.
I snort, waving my hand.
“I’m terrified of them. I won’t touch them.”
“But you have tarantulas here sometimes!”
“I sure as hell don’t handle them!”
“So you’ve never touched one?” he asks.
“Do you want to?”
I stop facing the bags and turn to him, mystified. He pulls a flyer out of his coat pocket.
“Halloween event next week. Creepy crawlies and cocktails. You can hold a tarantula,” he says, “snakes, too.”
I read over the flyer, and he interrupts my thoughts with a friendly, “I’m thinking about going, let me know if you go and maybe I’ll meet you there.”
He leaves me with the flyer after he purchases his crickets, and he mentions nothing about a “date,” nothing about picking me up, nothing about anything. Just a fellow bearded dragon owner who wants to visit an exhibit.
I realize, as I wait in line for the exhibit with Clayton, that I have only ever seen him in business clothes before because he comes to the shop straight from work. He has skinny arms. I haven’t seen them before. They are always hidden in a dress shirt. Now, they are exposed by a tee shirt, his arm hairs sticking up a bit in the cold October air. He seems a little more like a stranger, now that we are out of our routine. He is handsome, with dark hair, dark eyes. I wonder what he thinks of me, no longer in my khaki pants and polo shirt.
I’m wearing jeans and a sweater, but I still have my hair in a ponytail. I still have on tennis shoes.
We go into the venue and Clayton immediately heads to the spider table. I glare at him. I’ve held snakes and lizards and been bitten by pythons and chinchillas and even turtles with snapping mouths, but this fuzzy eight-legged demon is a bit much.
“I haven’t even had a drink yet and I’m supposed to wrangle a tarantula?”
I’m frustrated. I was hoping I could get out of the spider walk, perhaps by luring him to the snake handlers, or by feigning hunger. I haven’t held one before and I sure as hell don’t want to hold one now.
“You got this,” Clayton says, and I’m about ready to slink back into the crowd, but he has positioned himself so that he is in the way.
The woman behind the counter smiles politely and instructs me to place my hands on the table, palms face up, relaxed.
“We’re going to let the tarantula walk across your hands naturally,” the woman says, “so that it does not feel threatened.”
“What happens if it feels threatened?” I hiss at Clayton, but I have no time to concern myself with the question, because the woman is already leading the tarantula across my hands.
The legs tickle a little bit as they venture across my skin, and I hold my breath. Each step is a small light tap, a collective drumming of baby fingers.
I look down at the hairy thing, scuttling, and my mouth retracts into a grimace. Clayton rests a light hand on my shoulder, a soft presence.
And then it’s over, the spider has crossed.
“Your earrings are really beautiful,” he says, and I forget for a moment that my hands are still face up on the table, waiting.
Later, we drink cocktails and look at museum paintings, and I say, “that wasn’t bad at all!” and, “I should have been handling them all this time!” and, “I think it liked me!” even though I never want to touch a spider again.
And later later, he walks me back to my apartment, just blocks from the museum. He continues to talk about the reptiles, the spiders, the dragons.
As he says goodbye, he hugs me. It is a light cup of my shoulders, the delicate touch I am familiar with using myself on hamsters, parrots, breakables.
He says to me in the doorway, “You know I think you’re cute, right?”
And I reply, “You’re never going to buy the cricket keeper, are you?”
“No,” he says, and he squeezes my hands. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Kathryn Draney holds a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Queens University of Charlotte. Her stories have appeared in The Write Launch and AU: Straying From Reality. Her essay, “Writing Terror Without Terrorizing Your Reader,” is forthcoming in The Bangalore Review. Kathryn has served as the Genre Editor for Qu Literary Journal and lives in Redondo Beach where she works as a web content manager and bar trivia emcee.
Cagibi Issue 7