My first job was at Incredible Pets, an exotic pet store owned and operated by Pete Sherman. The store was nestled between Cici’s Pizza and Winn-Dixie in a shopping center off Wickham Road. The managers of neighboring operations hated Pete and Incredible Pets, because some feeder mice got out a few years back and bred a colony in the walls of the building. The vermin lived off pizza and Winn-Dixie baked goods.
There was a ten foot tall Tyrannosaurus rex statue in front of the store. It was teal with purple polka dots. I assumed Pete kept it out there to attract attention from passersby. He was very proud of that statue and claimed he got it for some kind of bargain at a herpetological convention. Pete petitioned shopping center management to let him screw it right into the concrete, but they shot him down. So, it became my responsibility to move the statue outside in the morning and inside at night because Pete was afraid it would be stolen if left unattended after hours.
The statue was hollow plastic and light, but its height made it hard as hell to finagle through the narrow glass storefront. To get the Tyrannosaur through the door I had to lay it on its back and pull it headfirst over the threshold.
I was 17 and self-conscious. Pulling an enormous plastic dinosaur through a tiny door was bad enough without being watched. But this task happened to coincide with the routine smoke break of the haggard woman who ran Cici’s.
She’d stand there smoking and watching me. I’d throw open the door with a grunt, grab the dinosaur by the head, and pull it with all my might. Sweat dripping from my ill-defined chin and pooling under my pits. Baking under her glare. Turning darker shades of maroon. Sometimes she’d finish her cigarette before the Tyrannosaur was completely out the door and then she’d light another. She never offered a hand.
Incredible Pets had lovebirds, scarlett macaws, cockatoos, cockatiels, parakeets, gerbils, hamsters, rabbits, chinchillas, ferrets, saltwater and freshwater fish (including seahorses, anemones, and piranhas), sugar gliders, a toucan, a pygmy marmoset, a ring-tailed lemur, a sloth. I worked in the reptile department, which had sixty terrariums stacked six feet high, containing all the world’s interesting reptiles. Veiled chameleons, panther chameleons, king snakes, corn snakes, rat snakes, garter snakes, ball pythons, boa constrictors, emerald tree boas, Burmese pythons, green iguanas, day geckos, snapping turtles, and basilisks. The store stunk of feces and pet dander and citrus air freshener.
Sonny the bird guy was my only friend at Incredible Pets. He was in his forties and had been working there for ten years. Wore faded Rolling Stones shirts, khaki shorts, knee socks and combat boots. He got to work about an hour before me each morning because he had to tend to the baby birds. Bottle-feeding them and talking to them and such. He loved the birds and the other animals and Janis Joplin. He played her music each morning before open.
Sonny confided in the birds, was always talking about the past, about the things he did and didn’t do. It was hard for me not to eavesdrop, not to hear him confess his darkest secrets to African Greys and blue-crowned conures and lovebirds. Every now and again he’d notice me listening and stop talking.
On my first day a guy came in and asked for a feeder rat. Rats, mice, and rabbits of various sizes were kept in drawers in the back of the reptile department. I opened the rat drawer, snatched a feisty one by the tail, and dropped him into a paper bag. The customer shook his head and said he wanted the rat terminated.
Sonny had to show me how to do it. He grabbed the rat by the tail and opened a drawer. Then he swung it in a big arc and brought it down against the edge, snapping its back instantly. Dead rat. Happy customer. Before long I was snapping backs left and right.
My first sale was an impressive bearded dragon that was going for a couple of hundred bucks. Pete marked up the price a lot because the lizard was neon orange due to amelanism. He was on display in the window and passersby would stop to watch him gobble up crickets. I convinced a young woman to let her kid handle the docile creature. Didn’t take the boy long to realize he wanted the lizard. Mom capitulated and spent a couple of hundred bucks on bearded dragon and accessories. I was pretty proud of myself.
Then Pete showed up with a guy decked out from head to toe in camouflage. Asked me what had happened to the lizard. Turned out camo guy had put that particular bearded dragon on layaway two weeks prior. There was a giant red sticker on the now-empty tank that said SOLD – LAYAWAY. Somehow, in all of my excitement, I didn’t notice the sign. Pete decided to move me to maintenance, full-time.
My first maintenance project was cleaning the cricket enclosure. I had to relocate all three hundred crickets to a 40 gallon tank. Then, I dragged their permanent enclosure outside and doused it in bleach. Had to crawl inside it to scrub away the grime.
It was pretty obvious nobody had ever cleaned it before. There were several inches of cricket poop caked all over the bottom and sides. Crickets are small and their shits are smaller so accumulating that much poop meant years of cricket traffic and no cleaning. It was a nauseous blend of shit and bleach. But the cage gleamed when I was done with it. Pete was impressed with my performance. Said he knew I’d excel at maintenance.
One time I was doing my rounds and felt a crunch under my foot. Like I’d stepped on a Dorito. But it was actually a leopard gecko. He was writhing in his own blood and viscera. Every bone in his body crushed. An eye dangling from a socket. Brains oozing out of his gaping maw.
Pete and Sonny were examining the waterfall in the koi pond and hadn’t noticed the accident. So I circled the store like nothing had happened and came to stand next to them. They were talking about pipes. I pretended to listen and then exclaimed Oh my GOD! and pointed at the dying lizard.
Pete told us to check our shoes and mine were blood free. We concluded that the gecko had escaped from its terrarium and some oblivious customer had squished it. Pete told me to put the carcass in a ziplock and stick it in the freezer.
On my last day, a man in a Nascar shirt asked for a couple of rabbits. Incredible Pets sold all sorts of rabbits as pets. Lop-ears and Angoras and dwarf bunnies.
And we had feeder rabbits too. I opened the drawer and the bunnies stood on their hind legs, all liquid eyes and wiggly pink noses and big ears that turned this way and that. Indistinguishable from the rabbits being sold as pets not a hundred feet away.
Nascar guy said he wanted the fattest rabbits available since he was feeding a 17 foot reticulated python. They were all pretty plump, so I selected one black rabbit and a white one with rolls. Then, Nascar asked me to terminate the rabbits. He was afraid they were going to injure his snake.
It was easy to kill rats and mice because they were vermin. But killing a pair of bunnies was harder to rationalize. And I didn’t know where to start. I couldn’t swing them around by their tails. Rabbits aren’t born with handles or grips. No kill button or off switch or plug.
So I went to Sonny for assistance. And he said Oh GOD no! Not again! Please no! Sonny was on the verge of tears. Had a tantrum right in front of Nascar guy, who pretended to be reading the foreword in a book about chinchillas.
Sonny composed himself and agreed to help just this once. Not ever, ever again. If Nascar guy ever wanted somebody to kill rabbits again, it would be my job.
We went out back next to the turtle pond. There were several crates with ailing animals. Listless rock iguanas. A cockatiel who’d plucked himself bald. A ferret with eye discharge.
Sonny grabbed the white bunny by the spine and twisted him the way you’d wring out a wet towel. The bunny screamed at the top of his lungs. An ear-piercing whistle with vibrato. More twisting and it squirted piss six feet. The bunny was still alive after that, albeit paralyzed. So, Sonny whacked him against the wall until he was limp. Then he dropped him into a sack and repeated the process with the black bunny.
When it was done, Sonny lit a cigarette and handed me the bloody sack, which I took to Nascar. Told him to pay at the front.
Later, I found Sonny feeding a hatchling lorikeet in the nursery. It was a wrinkly little chick, all head and eyes and stubby wings. Sonny was feeding her with a baby bottle, rocking her back and forth. He was so wrapped up with his little bird that he failed to notice me watching. I apologized and said I’d take care of the rabbits next time. He told me not to worry about it.
I passed Pete on my way out. He mentioned something about repainting the Tyrannosaurus. Burnt sienna, he said. Asked if I could pick up some spray paint and I agreed.
So I got in my car and drove away. Didn’t return with paint. Didn’t finish my shift. Never stepped foot inside Incredible Pets again.
Two weeks later I was bagging groceries at Publix.