Only Skin
Jessica Kennedy

 

nero-03-129806-sWhen a customer walks through the doors with a plastic grocery bag in her arms, that means the something inside is dead.

When this happens I try to remember who that customer is, what she bought, if she had kids, and which one of them killed the something inside.

Like the Asian woman who came in with two dead parakeets. She brought them in a cocoon of white paper towels and handed them to me. I knew they couldn’t have been dead for more than twenty minutes. The flopping heads were the giveaway. I asked was it too hot or too cold in your house, did you spray perfume near them, are your windows drafty, but she moved her shoulders up and down and said I don’t know, the only couple of English words she knew. I rewrapped the birds in a plastic fish bag and laid them to rest in the company refrigerator.

I’m glad they don’t bury humans like this, and I’m glad that’s not how you find out that a human is dead. I mean, I’m glad they don’t show up to your house with a plastic grocery bag in their arms and the something inside is a human.

I’m glad they didn’t do that when Bonnie died. They let her come home from the hospital on the condition she stayed lit on painkillers so the cancer could eat her stomach quietly and neither of us would know. The drugs made her pee every three minutes but she told me before they take her out of here in a bag that I need to do something with myself. She said, Jerry, you need to do something with yourself, get out of retirement and find a job, keep the house clean, find some other woman to do the cooking. She pointed right at my crotch when she said this last part. We ate ice cream and watched a Presley film and she was in the ground four days later.

When the animals die in the pet store I don’t put them in the ground. I wrap them in paper towels and knot them inside a plastic fish bag and lay them one by one on the refrigerator shelf like ears of corn for a summer dinner. When the Asian woman brought back the dead parakeets I put them side by side with their faces looking at each other so they could talk like the dead do when they get lonely.

I get lonely at home. I get lonely so bad at night that my stomach hurts and my eyes feel like there’s tape prying my lids open. I feel better at work, when I’m armpit-deep in a fish tank with a toothbrush. She was smart, Bonnie, telling me to get a job. I am a pet-care worker in the pet store and I clean and feed the animals. I work part time and get more hours when the college kids ask me to cover for them so they can go to the beach. I don’t mind working for them and being armpit-deep in a fish tank with a toothbrush. I don’t mind when the parakeets drop green crap in my hair, or when the ball pythons nip at my fingertips at feeding time. It all feels nice. What I mean is it feels nice to have living things want you to take care of them.

Taking care of the fish is my favorite. I feed them first thing every morning, like I’ve done the past two years. My fingers don’t even brush the flakes and they all zip to the glass and watch. I feed her first, my lonely red and white ryukin. Her body’s shaped like an onion bulb, orange on top and white in the belly. All her fins are see-through and shimmy like a dancing woman’s skirt when she swims. I imagine that she’s shimmying to Hound Dog. That’s her favorite Presley song, like me. I love her eyes the most, silver-green globes that rotate in rhythm with her gaping mouth. They remind me of Bonnie’s eyes, and sometimes it feels like they’re Bonnie’s eyes taking me in like where’s-my-breakfast-fool-husband-of-mine but I’m glad I can’t tell Bonnie that because she’d probably swat me up side the head.

The college kids said that my red and white ryukin has been in the pet store since they don’t know when, on account she costs thirty-two dollars and ninety-nine cents. I get why no one wants her, she’s so big and expensive. But she’s all by herself and I want her. I’ve been saving for her, but fish tanks aren’t the price of bread and they need air bubbles and plants and rocks and a castle. But once I get that tank, it’s going right next to my bed by the window and maybe my stomach and eyes won’t hurt so much at night.

I think Bonnie would be ok with my red and white ryukin, since she lives in water and water is the cleanest thing there is on Earth. I think Bonnie would like that I named her Doubloon because everyone names goldfish Goldie and my name is cleverer.

Bonnie said that I was clever and I think this is why she married me. When we were college kids we went on a date to the Museum of Science in Boston. It was in May, so it was warm with dandelion spores floating on the springtime sunbeams. We ate turkey sandwiches and French fries leaning against the railing above the Charles River until a big brown head busted through the water’s surface. I knew by its whiskers that it was just a carp and sprinkled some fries by its face. Bonnie laughed when it gulped them down.

“Hungry sucker, isn’t he,” she said, crumbling some sandwich for him.

“Just like us,” I said. “It’s only skin that makes us different from them.”

Bonnie took me in with her green globe eyes, her mouth all serious.

“That was clever, Jerry,” she said. “Real deep.”

A year after we graduated from being college kids I popped a diamond out of my pocket and asked her to marry me. I made sure I said stuff about her skin in there, since I remembered she liked what I said about skin by the river. Her face looked all confused, but she said yes anyways.

Sometimes it’s hard to say yes at the pet store. The boss says if a customer wants a pet you have to say yes and give it to them. He’s says this because the customer is always right. He says this because we work at a pet store, and we sell pets.

Sometimes I don’t want to say yes. Like if the Asian woman asked to buy two more parakeets I wouldn’t say yes. I might say, I’m sorry ma’am, but I don’t think parakeets are the right pet for you. Or I might say, I’m sorry ma’am, but I think your house isn’t suitable for parakeets. Or I might say, hell no you bird-killing-bitch, you already took out two and you ain’t getting another one from me.

I might not say that. But I feel those words ramming against my teeth.

You can tell by looking at people’s teeth who won’t take care of a pet good. What I mean is if you look at a customer’s face and their lips are tucked between their teeth then they’re lying. They’re lying through their teeth when they say yes, I will keep my water dragons misted, or they say yes, I will keep my hamsters in separate cages, or they say yes, I will put this aquatic frog in a filtered tank while I notice the half gallon fish bowl hiding behind their backs.

But I box the water dragon and hamsters. I know the water dragon will dry up. I know the hamsters will puncture each other’s throats. I scoop up the frog and as it struggles against the green net I think a prayer, please let this frog make it in that fish bowl. I know it’s a goner.

Four days later the customer walks through the doors with a plastic grocery bag in their arms and I know the something inside is all my fault.

What happened with the long-nailed lady was all my fault. She walked through the doors with a boy attached to one hand and a flat phone glued in the other. Her makeup was so dark that she looked like a raccoon-harlot. Her nails were long and curved and neon yellow with gemstones stuck on the tips. She had a gemstone stuck to her cheek and a tattoo on her neck. The tattoo said Ryan and I looked at the boy who had his face pressed against the angelfish tank and his fists pounding waves into the water.

I wanted to say lady, make your kid stop smacking the glass. I wanted to say lady, smack your kid with your long-ass nails so he’ll stop smacking the glass. I wanted to pound waves in the kid’s head and smack the long-nailed lady.

But all I could say was yes, can I help you.

The long-nailed lady dragged her fingertip across the flat cell phone and snapped her gum. Yeah, she said, I need a pet, something that don’t need a lot of attention and work.

I said, each pet needs care in its own way, as nice as I could. I said, I can tell you what each pet needs.

But she didn’t like that hermit crabs were nocturnal. She didn’t like that water dragons needed to be misted, or that birds made noise, or that hamsters have to be housed alone.

I wanted to tell her try a pet rock when the boy squealed big fish and pointed. The long-nailed lady looked up and I looked where he was pointing and there was Doubloon.

The long-nailed lady glanced up and saw Doubloon. I’ll take him, she said.

Her, I said, you don’t want her. I said, goldfish need a filter and air bubbles and plants and rocks and a castle. I said, they need a tank, and tanks aren’t the cost of bread you know.

She said, it’s just a fish. She said, Ryan, go pick out a bowl.

The kid picked a two-gallon super hero bowl off the shelf. It was big enough for Doubloon to swim four inches left then turn around.

My throat felt like I was trying to swallow a whole egg.

I gave the long-nailed lady Doubloon’s feeding schedule and she ripped off an end and spit her gum into it. I grabbed a net and picked a fish bag. The boy squealed again and pulled at the long-nailed lady’s tight black pants and she said, he’s getting your big fish and glowered at me like get-my-fish-fool-pet-store-man.

I felt the net dripping on my shoes. I locked eyes with Doubloon, who danced in the front of the tank. I thought, it’s not feeding time girl. I thought, you’ll be okay, you’re big and tough.

I thought all this with my lips tucked between my teeth.

I caught and bagged Doubloon and handed her over to the long-nailed lady. She dragged her finger on her phone and said give the bag to Ryan. Doubloon’s weight flickered against the plastic as I handed her to him. The boy’s smile was wide and wet, and he shook the bag. The long-nailed lady said no, don’t do that baby, then paid and left.

I looked at Doubloon’s empty tank for a real long time. I looked at it until my eyes felt there was tape prying my lids open and my stomach hurt.

If you look at something for a real long time you start to see things that aren’t there.

Like the morning Bonnie died in bed. The blankets were pushed down to her waist and her nightgown buttons were open and I could see her sternum push against her white skin. Her eyes were shut and her mouth was all serious but I stared at her sternum until I saw it move. What I mean is I thought I saw her chest expand and contract in slow motion. What I mean is I wish I saw her chest expand and contract in slow motion. Then my eyes watered and I had to stop staring.

I stared at the flakes swirling around the surface of Doubloon’s tank and I thought I saw her round body wriggle at the bottom. I heard Hound Dog between my ears and thought I saw her fins swishing up closer to me. Then one of the college kids said Jerry, the rest of the fish need to be fed, and I blinked and all I saw was a cloud of red and green mush sinking into the gravel.

Sometimes if you tuck your lips between your teeth too hard you get bite marks on the insides.

Like the inside of my lips did when the long-nailed lady walked through the doors with a plastic grocery bag in her arms. She walked right up to me popping her gum and dropped the bag into my open palms. She said, damn thing didn’t last a week, and then something else but I didn’t hear her on account of I was staring at the bag. The something inside was a fleshy stone, cold and wet. The plastic stuck to it, taking the shape of orange and white scales. I looked hard at the scales and thought I saw small gills open and close. I looked hard at the scales and wished I saw small gills open and close. I smoothed more of the bag over the something inside, and a silver-green globe stared back at me.

The long-nailed lady was still saying something but left with her finger dragging across her phone and I went to the refrigerator in the back room. I put the grocery bag next to the dead parakeets so it was looking at me the next time I went in there.

I wish the next time I have to go in there with another grocery bag the something inside is the long-nailed lady. I wish when I put her in there Ryan is watching with his whining mouth and I can pound waves into his head and say, see, this is how they bury humans. I wish he’d stare at the way her cold wet face sticks to the plastic until his eyes water, and I could pry his lids open with tape so he had to stare longer until his stomach hurt and I’d say, go find some other woman to do the cooking. Then I’d hear Bonnie’s voice between my ears saying, That was clever, Jerry. She’d say, Real deep, Jerry. She’d say, It’s only skin that makes us different from them.

 

Jessica Kennedy has been writing stories since the third grade. She has a bachelor’s in journalism from Stonehill College, and has been published in the Worcester Telegram & Gazette, Grafton News, and Summer Guide Cape Cod 2012 and 2013. She recently received her MFA in Creative Writing at Pine Manor College, and is working on a speculative fiction novel.