Wading River Dogs and More
by Michael Kandel
First thing she says, “Where were you? Meatball threw up again last night, and Billy didn’t show, no phone call or anything. I’ve had it with him, I am definitely reading him the riot act. Get the mop, now that you’re here, and use some of that wintergreen too, the place stinks. Who’s going to come in, with a stink like that?” I say, huffed up because of “Where were you?” like she’s accusing me: “Excuse me, Susan? Do you have any idea how long it takes to get to the shop now with the em-effin traffic?” Susan doesn’t like me to use language in the presence of the animals, she’s funny that way, but when I’m in a bad mood sometimes, it’s hard not to use a little language. The traffic has always been bad, it was bad when I was a kid, but hey, I’m sorry, this is a whole new ball of wax bad. I mean, it’s the em-effin LIE out here these days, from all the tourists and government people and scientists coming to see the alien. Our little windy uphill-downhill roads on the North Shore just can’t handle the cars and charter buses. I mean, I had to sit at Echo Avenue and Miller Place Road for half an hour because of the backup all the way to 25A. And there didn’t even used to be a light there. I timed it: half an hour to go one lousy block. People are on their way to Shoreham, though the cops won’t let you near it, not even near enough to use your binoculars, unless you have a VIP pass, or else people are on their way to Brookhaven Labs, where there are shows now like Epcot telling the public about the alien. Forget the East End, no one goes there anymore. It’s one detour after another. From all the car fumes, sitting in that god-awful traffic, I came down with one of the worst headaches I ever had, that’s the reason I’m in a mood today. I hate headaches more than colds or fevers. With me, a headache works its way into the center of the head and stays there all day.
Anyhow, after I say em-effin to Susan, I quiet down and behave myself. I know that if I give her any more lip than the em-effin, she’ll give me ten times over and in spades. When she starts, you want to take cover. Susan’s only five-two and I bet she doesn’t weigh more than a hundred and ten, but don’t anybody mess with her. Even her kids don’t give her lip, and little Barry’s in the eighth grade already and getting those adolescent zits on his face. I used to call him Barry-um, after the enema. Susan told me to stop, because he was calling himself that in school. But that was when he was in the fourth grade. He used to play with me then, but as a teenager he’s ashamed of me. That’s natural. Teenagers are ashamed of everything including themselves. My point, anyhow, is this: Ain’t many eighth-graders who don’t give their mother lip. Boys in particular.
So there I am mopping up after Meatball—poor thing, Meatball has his tail between his legs—when a guy comes in, and you can tell he’s a scientist from his bad posture and the way he squints at everything. He makes a face because of the smell. Well, excuse me, Jack, but what do you expect a pet shop to smell like, even when we use wintergreen, Alpine freshener, and cedar chips? “Can you tell me how to get to Oscar’s German Deli?” he asks. I tell him, while I’m mopping, that it used to be at the post office shopping center but now it’s in that new mall where the peach farm was, on 25A after Rocky Point, but the peach farm isn’t there anymore because they sold out and moved to Florida. A lot of people around here are doing that, moving to Florida, but it’s not for me. The man doesn’t know what I’m talking about. He says, “Is that a parrot?” Daisy’s making a racket because she’s excited. She always gets excited when I use the mop. Susan thinks she was abused as a kid parrot, but I can’t imagine anybody hauling off and hitting a bird with a mop, can you? On the other hand, it’s true there are a lot of crummy people in the world. Look at those Schmidts and what they did to their own little daughter, on the front page last week and in the eleven o’clock news. It was really disgusting. I must have read the story in
“It’s a parrot,” I say. “I didn’t know they were so loud,” says the man. “That’s how they talk,” I say. The man says: “It would drive me up the wall.” I shrug, meaning: Different strokes for different folks. “If he’s talking, what’s he saying?” asks the man then. You can tell he likes the parrot even though it would drive him up the wall if he had it in his house. People take to parrots, I think it’s because parrots have more dog or cat in them than bird. “It’s a she,” I say as I wring out the mop head, “and she’s saying a lot of things at the same time. First, she’s saying that I’m using the mop again. Susan—that’s the owner—thinks that someone bopped Daisy with a mop once. That’s Susan’s theory.” The scientist smiles. I smile too and go on: “Me, I think that Daisy’s just interested in the mop. Parrots are intelligent. They have the most IQ of all the birds. I read that somewhere, it might have been in an encyclopedia. Crows are intelligent, too, I grant you that, but they don’t even come a close second. Some people think crows are smarter than parrots, but that’s because they know zip about parrots. So my opinion is, Daisy here is just interested in the way the mop works, you know, with this handle when you squeeze it out? When I do that, she crooks her head and looks.” She is crooking her head and looking right now, to show the man what I mean. Sometimes I think parrots understand every word we’re saying.
I go on: “What else is she saying? That she wants a little excitement. She’s telling us to let her out of the cage for a while, but we can’t do that on account of the customers.” “Oh, does she bite?” asks the scientist, looking at Daisy, respectful and interested. Daisy’s looking back, but it’s hard to say if she’s interested in the scientist. “Bite? Not exactly. She nips a little,” I say, “but parrots have these strong beaks on them, so a nip for them might be a bite for you, it might even draw blood, and Susan doesn’t want lawsuits. Susan’s careful about the shop. It’s got to pay for her kids’ college and she doesn’t want anything happening, if you know what I mean.”
“What else is Daisy saying?” asks the scientist with another smile. He’s amused with me, but I don’t mind. Not everyone amused with me means harm, I’ve learned that. I used to get huffed and hurt a lot, when I was younger, because I’m so sensitive, like I have radar. This guy squints and there’s a nervous twitch sometimes under his left eye, but he doesn’t mean any harm. If he meant harm, I’d know it by now. “Daisy’s saying that you’re a stranger,” I say, “and not even from around here on the Island but out of state. Parrots have good ears, you know, they can pick up all kinds of things about you from your voice.” “Well, she’s right,” says the scientist, “I’m from Washington, DC.” “Oh,” I say, “I bet you’re one of those alien people. I figured that.” He nods but with tired disgust, like someone who has to work on a weekend when everyone else gets to go to the beach. He says with a sigh, “Yes, I’m one of those alien people.” “Some say it’s green like peas,” I say. “And others that it’s green like spinach. So which is it, peas or spinach? I mean, if that’s not classified.” There was an argument about this subject at the bar only yesterday. It lasted more than an hour. I was keeping track of the time, because I knew it would be a long argument. The scientist says, frowning, as if he never considered the kind of green it was before: “I don’t know. Maybe more peas than spinach.” “No kidding,” I say.
I’m pleased with myself, because I learned something important today, almost like finding money. I’ll tell Joe this evening. Joe will be impressed that I found out something about the alien that he doesn’t know. Joe’s nuts about the alien, reads whatever he can find on the subject and talks about it until you wish he’d stop. I say to myself: You never can tell, Marty my boy, when you’re going to learn something useful. Even while you’re mopping up puke from a stupid Dalmatian—and they don’t come any stupider than Meatball, that’s why we call him Meatball, but even so he’s not a bad dog and, frankly, I have to confess I like him better than most. Meatball’s comfortable company, he knows how to be quiet, which is one of your most important things in a dog. Anyhow, to get back to what I was saying, even while you’re mopping up puke in a pet shop you can learn something useful if you keep your ears open.
The scientist laughs. He has a thin, hardly noticeable laugh, more like a polite cough than a laugh. “You know, you could probably help us,” he says. He is heading for the door now, I guess to ask at another shop where Oscar’s German Deli is, but he isn’t going to have any better luck, believe me. It’s hard to give directions around here. There are no major roads. “We could use someone who understands the talk of other species,” the scientist says, his hand on the door. “Anytime,” I say, though I’m not a hundred percent sure what he means by other species. Does he mean the alien? Scientists don’t think the way we do, they think technical, so the words they use may seem like normal words to us but mean things totally different. But I’m always ready to help people out, it’s in my nature. If you ask me to help you, I put down what I’m doing right away. I was always like that, too. Not that I get much chance th ...