Today I’m going to tell you a story. Because Alice asked me to, and it’s her birthday. Happy birthday, Alice! You don’t know her? Oh, you should! She’s funny and so, so smart. I love her posts. Sometimes her posts make me laugh, sometimes they make me cry. Sometimes it’s both. Read her. You just might love her.
I’ve gone back and forth about which story to tell. Fiction? Not fiction? Embellished not-fiction? I want to come up with a good one. For the last week, my internal dialog has gone something like this:
There was the time that… no, that’s no good.
How about… nope. Funny only to me.
I’ve got it! Yes! Um, are you kidding me? You can’t admit to that in a public setting.
So here you go.
Sharon slid the box across the counter. It didn’t look like much. About eighteen inches square, it had been white at one time, but trotting the globe had acquired a layer of grime. One corner was dinged, and the shipping label had begun to peel, but the packing tape held fast. That bit was all that mattered to Sharon.
“Here,” she said with a furtive glance at the ceiling. “Better hurry. Dad’ll be down in a minute.”
Thad’s eyes glowed. He pulled the box to himself and began to dig at the packing tape with his thumbnail.
“Don’t open it here!” Sharon hissed, terror in her eyes. She flung an arm toward the door. “GO!” she cried. “And don’t tell Dad!”
Thad dropped a pile of cash on the counter without bothering to count it and gathered his precious box gently, mindful of its delicate cargo. Balancing the box on his arm, he was gone with the jingling of the shop door.
Sharon watched him go, not daring to breathe until she heard him climb the stone steps to street level and saw his feet pass by the basement window. She turned to the new girl.
“I can’t believe I did that,” she whispered hoarsely. “Dad will kill me if he finds out.”
The new girl said nothing. She simply wondered. Then she turned back to sorting the shipment of live fish that had just been delivered to the little basement shop.
“Okay,” Sharon said, collecting herself. “Let’s see what we have here.” She lifted a gallon-sized bag teeming with tiny, colorful fish. “Guppies,” she announced. “We’ll put those in one of the 20-longs in the back.”
The new girl did as she was told. She collected the bag of fish from Sharon. It was surprisingly heavy, but she did not drop it. She upended it gently, pouring fish and water carefully into a waiting bucket. She shook out the corners of the bag to dislodge any remaining fish and then discarded it and dropped an air hose into the bucket.
Shipment days were the best days, every available surface in the tiny shop stacked with cardboard boxes and Styrofoam coolers. She liked sorting it all out, seeing order come from the chaos, but mostly, she liked the new fish. Shipments from Florida were the best. Not only did they require a trip to the airport to collect, but they contained the greatest surprises.
In the mid-1980s, few fish species beyond basic livebearers and a few cichlids were regularly bred in captivity. It was easier, and usually cheaper, to import animals freshly caught from the wilds of Africa and the Amazon. Sometimes, swimming right alongside the common side-sucking plecostamus they had ordered, she would find something weird.
When one of these tiny mysteries appeared, she snagged it, put it in a catch box and ran for the books. Sometimes even after studying Axelrod and Practical Fishkeeping, she came up short. It was her first introduction to the enormity of the world and its diversity. She could barely comprehend she was holding a creature that Herbert Axelrod, that demigod of fish keeping, had never even seen. On those occasions, she put down her money and carted her new treasure home. Sometimes it died. More often, she kept i a few months until she grew bored with it and returned it for something newer and more exciting.
So many weird and interesting things came into the shop unexpectedly that it never occurred to her to ask Sharon to special-order things for her. It did, however, occur to Thad.
“You can order it! It’s right here on their inventory list,” he’d said, thumping his index finger on the paper for emphasis. Sharon looked at him doubtfully.
“I don’t know,” she answered, frowning. “Dad wouldn’t like it. He said no. He told me, and he told you, and he’d fire us both if he knew.”
“He doesn’t have to know.” The new girl hated his wheedling tone, hated how many girls caved to it, hated that Sharon, who was an adult and supposed to know better, was no exception.
“Alright,” she said. “But you have to pay for it, dead or alive, and Dad can’t know. Dad hates snakes.”
Harry, her father was the owner and namesake of the little aquarium shop. He had started it with just a few aquariums in his basement twenty years previously. The business had grown over the years until he was forced to either quit his full time job or hand over the reins to Sharon, his youngest daughter. He still lived upstairs, but she managed the place on her own. He would likely never see the invoice.
Sharon placed the order against her better judgement. When the shipment arrived, she called Thad immediately, and the transaction went down with neither hitch nor Harry’s knowledge. She thought she was out of the woods, but then the snake, a Haitian Vine Boa, escaped into Thad’s apartment and was gone for good, likely cooked in the heating vents, and he was back on her doorstep begging her to order another. And then another. Today’s shipment was his third.
The new girl worked the following day by herself. Sundays were usually slow and sleepy, and this day was no exception.
She stood at the sink scraping the hard water line from an aquarium with salt and a razor blade. She looked up when she heard the jingle of the door and was surprised to see Thad. He never came around on his days off. It was one of the many things she disapproved of when it came to Thad. She had a list.
She was even more surprised to see him holding a pillowcase, or more correctly, holding something inside a pillowcase. She frowned.
“What’s that?” she asked.
“My new snake,” he said proudly.
“Why is it here?” she asked haughtily, pretending disapproval to mask her terror. She had never seen a living snake up close, and she was pretty sure she didn’t want to now.
He laughed, seeing right through her and making her hate him more. “Is Harry home?”
“No,” she said, stuffing down her fear and turning back to attack the hard water line with new zeal.
“Good,” Thad said gleefully. She looked up to find him reaching into the bag.
“What are you doing?” she demanded, her voice an odd point somewhere between a his and a squeal.
“Hang on,” he said, furrowing his brows in concentration. “Relax. It’s a ball python. When they get scared, they roll up in a ball.”
She didn’t answer, her blade squeaking on the aquarium glass like fingernails on a chalkboard.
She didn’t look up until she heard him say “Oh, no.” The snake, a wild-caught, thin specimen about three feet long, had clearly not read the manuals on typical ball python behavior. It showed no inclination whatsoever to roll into a ball but a rather strong desire to bite Thad somewhere in the vicinity of his face. He managed to pin the snake’s head, pressing the animal’s mouth closed with the balls of this thumbs while the snake twined its back end all the way up his arm.
The new girl took a step back, away from crazed snake and handler. She looked over her shoulder to plan the best escape route should Thad drop the snake at the same time the snake dropped him. A thump from above stopped them both in their tracks. Harry was home.
Thad said a word the new girl had only read on bathroom walls. “Help me!” he squeaked, gesturing as if he thought she might actually step forward and assist him in his snake-handling endeavors. His hand was turning purple.
“No way,” she said, shaking her head fiercely. He frowned at her. She frowned back. Another thump and the shuffling footsteps of a knee replacement from above. Harry was coming down to the shop.
Thad said another word unfamiliar to the new girl. She was pretty sure it was German, and totally certain it was bad. He did a little dance on the spot to loosen the coils constricting his arm. By some great miracle, he was able to shake the snake into the pillowcase and tie it off. Thump-thump. Harry descended slowly down the basement steps.
Thad thrust the bag at the new girl. “We have to hide it!”
“Washer?” she suggested?
“What if he’s doing laundry? Closet?”
“He might be getting fish food for upstairs!”
Out of time and optionsThad dropped the bag into the empty display aquarium at the front of the store beside the counter just as Harry rounded the corner and appeared behind the counter, scratching his grizzled head and looking at least as grumpy as the snake.
“Thad?” he said with a frown. Men, it seemed, were immune to Thad’s charm. “What are you doing here?”
“I, uh, I just came by,” Thad squeaked, standing in front of the aquarium to block Harry’s view from the contents.
Harry walked around the counter. Thad took a step back, pressing himself against the aquarium as Harry walked toward him. Thad shot a look at the new girl over Harry’s shoulder, a look of sheer hopelessness. It was all over. Harry was going to find the snake and learn that both Sharon and Thad had disobeyed his orders. Thad would lose his job on the spot.
With the look of a hunted man, Thad darted around the corner and out of Harry’s reach. He could fire Thad, but he’d have to catch him to hit him. And hit he might. Harry hated snakes.
Harry stopped in his tracks and turned on his heel to face the new girl, his back to the aquarium and his expression inscrutable. She thought she might soil herself. Did he think her complicit.
“I thought I made myself clear,” he said sternly. Her knees felt weak. Would he fire her, too? She gulped.
“Yes?” she whispered.
“You’re listening to television.”
“What?” she asked, genuinely puzzled.
“The radio,” he barked. “The radio! You’re listening to Judge Wapner. I told you and told you, the radio is for classical. It makes customers spend more money!”
The radio! She felt positively wobbly with relief. He hadn’t seen the snake bag in the aquarium. But she could. She watched in horrified fascination as, behind Harry, the snake bag came to life and slowly rose up the side of the aquarium. Thad had not tied the pillowcase down very far, giving the snake plenty of room to stretch out.
The new girl did not hear a word Harry said, so focused was she on the snake making its slow and careful way up the front of the empty aquarium, impeded only by its pillowcase. Harry, oblivious, continued to chastise her radio choices while the snake bag danced behind him.
The new girl didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. It seemed impossible that he did not see the bag contorting and stretching itself… stretching itself to the top of the tank! Oh, dear God! It was going to climb out, pillowcase and all! The snake pushed up on the lid of the aquarium and it rose a fraction of an inch. She stood transfixed, terrified. The snake pressed the lid a little further. Its head, covered by the knot in the pillowcase, was an inch from Harry’s arm. One tiny poke, and Harry would undoubtedly suffer heart attack, aneurysm, or stroke, maybe all three at once. The new girl silently lamented skipping CPR class when she was a Campfire Girl.
The snake, hampered in its exploration, fell on its side with a hollow thud as loud as a gong. Harry didn’t hear it over the radio. He made a few more points, and she nodded her head in blind agreement, eyes fixed on the snake so determined to announce its presence. Finally, he walked over to the radio, changed the station, and heaved himself back upstairs.
As soon as Harry was out of sight, Thad snatched the snake out of the aquarium and beat a hasty retreat himself, leaving the new girl to fall into helpless, hysterical giggles on the counter. Harry never found out about his close encounter of the reptilian kind, but the new girl learned that she never, in fact, hated Thad. Or snakes, and in fact went on to work with reptiles herself 20 years later.
Happy birthday, Alice! Your present will be there later this week. And no, it’s not a snake in a bag.