It’s twenty minutes to close when the doorbell chimes and two middle-school-aged boys enter the shop. Newt, the chinchilla, is frenzied, running on his wheel as fast as he possibly can.
Mack looks up from the cutting board, where he’s chopping bananas and lettuce for the day’s last feeding. He’ll close up soon, feed the animals, and then ride home. He scratches his thick, gray, yellow-stained mustache, revealing forearms marked with tattoos that say “Goodness Snakes” and “Boa-lieve it”.
In the fish aisle a little girl in a pink skirt is sitting on a man’s shoulders and tapping on the beta’s bowls.
“Hey,” Mack barks. “Cut it out.”
The girl looks hurt and the man glares. But she stops and they move over to the geckos.
The store smells like pet food and torn newspaper, lizard skin and rat fur. Mack first leased the space in 1978, when the street was decrepit after thirty years of white flight and urban ‘renewal’. All the cornices had been ripped off the old brick buildings. The boulevard trees had mostly succumbed to disease, and the street-scape had turned gray and hopeless. The few remaining storefronts belonged to vacuum repairmen, liquor shops, and pawn brokers.
Now the avenue is under construction, and everything’s turning back into lofts and office space for kids wearing tight jeans and laptop shoulder bags. Rent’s going up, and Mack’s convinced the owner of the building, Ernie, wants to sell out to a developer. At 83, you can’t blame him. Esther died in 2002 and he’s been lugging around an oxygen tank ever since.
The man and the little girl walk out, stopping to tap on the glass front of the rat hotel, where the little creatures are arranged in cubicles according to size. Mack wants to tell the girl to quit it; these animals are feed for the snakes and komodos, they don’t deserve to be tapped at before they die. But she stops on her own and the dad says, “Goodnight!” in an annoying, friendly tone.
Mack forces out something like a smile.
He scrapes the cuttings into a plastic bowl and walks out from behind the counter to start his rounds. This food is for the small reptiles; the little snakes, the salamanders, geckos, and turtles. He’s done this chore a million times. It’s rote, but he enjoys the sequence of it, and always walks the same route through the aisles, mentally greeting each animal by name, if it has one, and calling the others “Little man” or “Little lady.”
What he doesn’t realize is that, for some reason – maybe he was distracted by the girl and her father – he left his ring of keys sitting on the countertop. And although this isn’t the first time that’s ever happened, it is the first time it ever happened while two shitty, mean seventh-graders are skulking around the shop, looking for an outlet for their raging, mysterious adolescent impulses.
The shorter boy waits until Mack is out of sight, then swipes the keys.
Mack passes the giant tank holding his two albinos anacondas, Oscar and Bizzz. They’re curled up in the corner under the red heat lamp, bodies tangled and indistinguishable. Oscar’s thirteen, and weighs 230 pounds. Bizzz is his little brother (not really, they’re not related), and at two years old it’s already clear he’ll end up the bigger of the two. Neither is for sale.
Mack pats the top of the tank affectionately with his left hand as he walks by.
In the next tank are the pythons; Hugo and Fernie. They hate the their neighbors, something Mack has gleaned from watching them neck-dancing at each other through the glass. He keeps meaning to separate them, but moving a six-by-four glass tank holding two enormous snakes is an easy thing to procrastinate.
Hugo’s in the back, but Fernie notices her friend walking by and follows him along the front of the cage. Mack leans down and puts a hand on the glass, saying “Hey girl.”
At home he’ll leave the Harley in front and grab a quick shower. His date’s at Neumann’s at 8:30, and he’ll rinse off the pet-store smell and change into his club colors before he goes. The woman’s name is Tracey and she rides a Sportster. He hasn’t been out with anyone in three years.
The phone rings, and he goes to the back room to get it. It’s Rachel, his daughter, calling to reminder him he promised to watch Ella this evening, and did he remember? He didn’t, but he tells her of course he remembered and he’ll head straight there after close.
By this time, the two boys have managed to unlock and push open the lids on the tanks of the giant tortoise, the big snakes, and several of the small tarantulas. Mack sees them rush past the cash register on their way out the front door. One boy leaves the key ring back on the countertop, but it doesn’t register in the shop owner’s peripheral vision. He’s listening to his thirty-one-year-old daughter explain his granddaughter’s bedtime routine.
With the phone cradled against his ear he locks the front entrance and switches off the neon ‘Open’ sign. Then he hangs up and grabs his keys and a battered shoebox marked ‘Rats’ from under the counter. With a nod to the still-spinning chinchilla, he unlocks the top of the rat hotel and reaches in for two mediums and one large.
He drops them, squirming, in the shoebox, and turns around, crossing the hall to the glass-doored room where the komodos, Frank and Molly, are kept. The room used to be a cluttered office space until the giant dragons moved in. Now the chairs and office stuff are gone, but the desk and bookshelves remain, covered in wood shavings.
He reaches for the door and stops when he sees it’s open; unlocked and swung in about a six inches. He steps in and immediately sees Fernie, the Timor Python, wrapped around Molly’s torso.
He drops the rats. There’s a shock-stick behind the desk he hasn’t used in years. It’s probably not even charged, but there isn’t much time.
Mack turns to go get it when he sees Oscar, Hugo, and Bizzz blocking the doorway. Oscar, the biggest of the three, is standing up out of his curl almost to the height of a man. His yellow skin flickers under the fluorescent lights, and he looks at Mack with soft, red, expressionless eyes.
Reflexively, Mack takes a step back, and realizes Fernie has let go of the young Komodo, and has, instead, quietly wrapped her thick tail end around his feet. Losing his balance, he worries the situation is getting serious.
That’s when he sees Newt across the hallway in his cage. He’s standing on his wheel on hind legs and staring right at Mack, holding his two little front paws up to his face. He looks alarmed.
And then he starts running again.