The pet shop was overly warm and humid and smelled, not unpleasantly, of fur, rabbit pellets, damp newspaper-lined cages, and wood shavings. It was as dimly lit as a cave. Display windows up front were filled with iguanas and ferrets and an African grey parrot perched high up on a wooden beam. A huge, panting yellow Lab lumbered through the store, switching his tail listlessly and bumping his haunches against the occasional customer. Although the pet shop was located on a busy suburban intersection that was always being thrust into further chaos by infinite rounds of construction work, inside it was strangely tranquil, orderly, and rational in character, for a place full of animals. Jack wouldn’t have it any other way and everybody else who worked there understood this, and understood the consequences if things got out of control. Customers who did not yet know Jack sensed, without being able to put a name to it, the presence of a governing spirit and were at once grateful and relieved.
On this morning in July there were few humans in the store. It was quiet, except for the gentle hum of the aquariums and the whir of the big floor fans. In the aquarium aisle—marine on one side, freshwater on the other—Jack was testing the water for nitrates and ammonia. The morning routine in the lull before the onslaught of customers. One of the thirty-gallon tanks on the second tier had a few sickly fish, and Agnes, the owner, suspected a bacterial infection. Jack agreed. He held up a test-tube to the light and examined it. His forehead—high, pale, and intelligent—wrinkled with concentration. The raised arm was bare, muscular, and decorated from the wrists up with tattoos. A fire-breathing dragon. A snarling dog’s head with fierce canines. A Medusa with snakes writhing around her skull. His back was ramrod straight, the way they’d taught him in the Marines. Here he wore a uniform also: blue jeans and a bright green shirt with the shop’s logo. His legs were short and rather stubby compared to his longer torso, but in the service [End Page 9] he’d learned to move with economy and grace. No waste, ever. No slouching.
He was just thirty, and his reddish brown hair was already thinning. This bothered him, and he was considering shaving his head.
A woman appeared from around the corner that led to the annex, where there were eight-hundred-dollar Dalmatian puppies and Siamese cats with merciless sapphire eyes. “Would you be Jack?” she said. Her voice, tremulous and musical, vibrated at the base of Jack’s spine. Disturbed, he looked up and his frown deepened at being interrupted.
“I would be,” he said, continuing his work.
The woman waited for a moment and then sighed and drew a hand across her forehead, pushing away a strand of tawny hair. “Hot,” she remarked.
“Fucking ac is broken,” said Jack. “And it’s 90 degrees in the shade out there.”
“Oh that’s awful. When is it going to be fixed?”
“Who knows?” he said, gloomily. “The fish are all gasping for air at the top of the tank.”
“They can’t breathe in the heat?” asked the woman. A blonde, maybe late thirties. Petite figure. Delicate ankles and wrists. Nicely put together. Fresh white dress, sandals. Her purse held clutched against her thighs as if for protection from something making her nervous. Those little rays around her eyes. Her cheeks hollow, shadowy. Maybe she was a bit too thin. She had been crying before she came into the store. It was something Jack sensed: a certain dampness in her exhalations, and again that vibration in her voice, which he could still feel in the small of his back. He picked up another test tube and carefully squirted in a few drops from a bottle, not looking at her when he spoke.
“Oxygen levels in the water are depleted when the temperature rises. Causes all sorts of problems.”
“Poor fish. What a precarious existence,” she sighed. Her lilting voice, with darker tones just beneath the surface...