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Hugo

From: Colorado Review
Volume 40, Number 2, Summer 2013
pp. 94-105 | 10.1353/col.2013.0041

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Winner of the 2013 AWP Intro Journals Project in Creative Nonfiction, selected by Rigoberto Gonzalez

After working at a family-owned pet store in Ohio for a number of years, I took to entertaining my self by predicting, within moments of their walking in the door, what customers would buy. At first it was a matter of demographics and statistical probability. For example, slightly underweight males aged eighteen to twenty-four demonstrated a marginally higher interest in iguanas than the average customer, whereas slightly overweight males in the same age bracket expressed more interest in bearded dragons. White females aged thirty to forty-five with small children in tow gravitated toward hamsters or other small, easily squashable, unexpectedly hazardous pets, while white females aged fifty-five to seventy with small grandsons in tow often left with a bloodthirsty reptile, unassuming in appearance, that would be returned, for a full refund, later the same afternoon.

After a while, my successes convinced me that I could not only predict what people would buy, but also intuit why they would buy it, and I divided the customers purchasing pets for themselves into two categories: mirrorers and acquirers. A mirrorer is a prospective pet owner who, knowingly or not, worships a particular aspect of his or her own personality or appearance and wishes to see the same characteristic in his or her animal companion—the combative ferret owner, for example, or the nihilistic scorpion enthusiast. Acquirers, on the other hand, select pets based on a perceived lack and what they want others to assume about them. A young wallflower might, for example, purchase a corn snake as a way of suggesting that her isolation is by choice, a symptom of her elusive and dangerous nature.

During the time I was doing all of this sizing up of others, my own pet was a blue betta fish named Hugo who suffered from debilitating scoliosis. Viewed from above, he resembled a teal sperm, but he rarely could be viewed from this angle thanks to the unusual buoyancy provided by the gas and food matter perpetually blocked by the S curve of his body. He drifted on his side, at the surface of the water, one glassy eye forever fixed on heaven. It didn’t occur to me then to consider what owning Hugo might say about me. Rather than placing myself in either the category of mirrorer or acquirer, I believed myself to be of a rarer and better class, that of the true animal lovers, and I assumed that others would share this perception of me.

When I found him, he had been sequestered in a cubbyhole under the cash register, deemed too hideous for public view. In all fairness, it was true that his appearance didn’t inspire confidence in our store, or in his species. Healthy bettas were a sad enough sight. Customers often lamented the drinking cups they were shipped and stored in, to which my coworkers and I would reply, “In the wild, they live in the shallow rice paddies of Thailand,” as though there existed no greater horror. Hugo was the greater horror.

For several weeks I checked his cup daily, shook it to make sure he wasn’t dead, dropped in a dried bloodworm or two, and watched him spin in wild circles around and around the food. When I decided to take him home, my manager charged me full price and said, “Are you sure you want that thing?” It felt good to spend forty dollars on a two-gallon aquarium, colorful pebbles, a miniature Atlantean castle, and a plastic clump of seaweed, knowing that Hugo would have a better life with me; it felt even better to do so knowing that it would leave others perplexed and maybe a bit awed.

I’d like to think that I wasn’t aware of the latter effect until after I’d already decided to buy Hugo, that I ’d thought initially only of his benefit and not my own, but I can’t remember now. I might have bought him because I felt an affinity for him, seeing in him a feebleness I find harder to face in myself...



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