now picture that

Fiction, 2/12/12

Jacob Jacobsen awoke and wondered if today would be the day. He had been fantasizing about this occasion for more than a year—the day he would walk out of MacVey’s Pets a free man—and on this morning he sensed a certain fatefulness in his bearing. Could this be it? He got up from his bed and walked to the bathroom. In the mirror above the sink he regarded himself: dark moppy hair, sallow skin, a large, pockmarked nose, fat neck, pudgy torso. Jacob put on his most resolute face and stared at it. It would have to do. He took out his razor and began to shave his double chin.

On the drive to work Jacob listened to the radio. It was tuned to a morning talk show called “The Grist” and on it a woman was complaining about her coworkers. “So anyway, she brings in these donuts from her mom’s shop every morning, and there’s like a dozen of them, and she never eats any! She doesn’t touch them! It’s like, sadistic, you know? I swear she’s trying to get us all fat…” Jacob scoffed. He wished he had a coworker that brought in donuts. The male host interrupted her: “Well, ok, hold on. It’s not as if she’s forcing you to eat the donuts, right? I mean, really…” Jacob changed the station. Now rap music assaulted his ears, and he grimaced and tried another. Country, then classical—both not quite right. Eventually he settled on an inoffensive rotation of soft-rock favorites played by someone named Carrie, and he mentally rehearsed his plan.

Jacob pulled into his customary spot next to the newspaper kiosk and killed the ignition. He had been parking here, and working here, for the last four years. MacVey’s Pets was a “natural” pet store, meaning they sold only “natural” products that were purportedly eco-friendly and maximally healthful for pets. Yuppies and new-agers kept the place afloat. The store also sold fish—the only pets kept on the premises—and it was in this area that Jacob specialized. He cleaned the tanks, ordered and sorted the fish, and kept inventory of the aquarium supplies. He knew far more about the fishy parts of the store than anyone else, including his boss, Pat. As a result, he possessed an encyclopedic knowledge of aquaculture. He kept fish of his own in six different tanks in his house. Jacob could recall from memory the location of every species MacVey’s carried in their wall-to-wall displays, a battery of more than two hundred tanks, all told. The pet store had become his life.

But Jacob was not happy, and had not been happy for some time now. His boss, a Class-A caviler, often berated him for his apathy. “Jacob, look alive! Quit hanging your head. And move faster!” He urged Jacob to sell more dog food, a task he was more than happy to forgo. Jacob usually left this to his coworkers, but lately Pat was cracking down. Until the sales quota was consistently met for the expensive, raw, vegetable-based kibble MacVey’s peddled, there would be no raises, Pat warned. Also, the shoplifting was apparently getting out of hand. “We’re bleeding money, guys. People are ripping us off,” Pat fumed one day. “I mean, Jesus, I caught two kids stealing neon tetras the other day! Live fish! It’s goddamn ridiculous. I need you all to really be vigilant, really shadow some of the people who come in here, especially the younger ones. You guys are my eyes here.” To Jacob, this was merely the latest in a series of injustices leveled at him by Pat the Overlord. It was possible that the majority of these injustices were not leveled at Jacob directly, but he felt oppressed all the same.

Jacob sighed and walked into the store, mustering his resolve. He would tell Pat first thing, before his momentum left him. His coworker Amanda waved at him from the front counter. “Hi Jake.”

“Hey Amanda. Have you seen Pat yet?”

“Nope. But I’m pretty sure he’s coming in today. He usually does. What’s up?”

“Uh, nothing. I just needed to ask him something. It’ll have to wait, I guess.”

Jacob trudged upstairs to put his lunch in the fridge and removed his coat. He cursed his rotten luck. Working on a Saturday morning was bad enough, but working with the anticipation of his chat later with Pat was even worse. He numbly went through the banalities of a weekend opening shift, turning on the lights for all the tanks, checking for floaters and fishing them out, and feeding the living inhabitants a pinch of fish flake or a couple algae wafers. The mostly diurnal fish were excited to eat and be active. Jacob tallied the dead ones and then started on his water changes. With the two hundred-plus tanks needing about a quarter of their water changed weekly, Jacob was constantly falling behind.

______

Like most decent people in the world, Hank Leary worked for a living. He was forty-three and he drove a city bus along the 513 route from Marlowe to White Eagle, eleven hours a day, four days a week. Hank had driven this bus since he was twenty-seven years old, after his father’s camera shop went under for the fourth and final time and was replaced by a shiny new Kinko’s. At the terminal, the other drivers knew Hank to be a laconic, clean-shaven guy who kept to himself and was never seen without a digital camera dangling from a lanyard on his wrist.

Hank considered himself to be eidetic—that is, an individual with a photographic memory. He would snap pictures through the driver’s side window of various scenes: traffic snarls, mostly, but sometimes storefronts, bistros, promenades, busy downtown corners. Studying the scene right as he opened the shutter, Hank mentally noted as much visual stimuli as his eyes would perceive and then filed these observations away. He took perhaps a dozen pictures a day, rehearsing their details in his head as he drove from stop to stop. Only at home, after his shift, would he look at the pictures on his camera, checking each against his memory for disparities. He was rarely mistaken. Of the things Hank had noticed—four men, three women; five pairs of black shoes, two white; two umbrellas; four shopping bags, etc.—the counts were unerringly true to the photograph, even down to eye color and the make and manufacture of each car parked along the street.

Normally Hank did not work on Saturdays, but Benny Lefton, one of the other 513 drivers, had called in sick with the flu. Despite the short notice, Hank relished the opportunity. Driving on Saturday would be an unfamiliar experience—almost like being on a new route, he imagined—filled with new tableaux to test his recall.

______

Jacob was bicep-deep in the saltwater display, scrubbing algae with a scouring pad, when Pat strode in and nodded curtly to him. “We get that saltwater shipment today?” The display tank was home to an octopus pair, dubbed Bonnie and Clyde, which cost a fortune to acquire but drew the customers in.

“No, not yet. It should be here by Monday, I think.” Jacob dried his arm off on a towel. Pat nodded again and had started to walk toward his office. “Hey Pat? I need to talk to you.”

Pat turned and carefully studied Jacob’s face. “About what?”

“Well, actually, can we go into your office? It’s kind of important.” Pat just stared, his features hardening ever so slightly. “Alright,” he said. “Come on in.”

They walked into the cramped room and Jacob shut the door. The walls were covered in glossy photos of fish and corals, and everywhere on the floor were boxes containing issues of Fishkeeping Monthly. Jacob cleared his throat and forced himself to meet his boss’s eye. “I am putting in my two weeks’ notice today. I’ve been thinking about it for a while now, and I finally have made up my mind.”

Pat was silent for a moment. “Well, I can’t say I’m surprised. You’ve been slacking off for months, moping around, forgetting things. You haven’t sold one goddamn bag of NutraChow all week, for Christ’s sake.” This was the brand name of the dog food Pat was pushing.

“You know what, Jacob? You are a lazy, shiftless…I thought you were all right at first, but apparently you’re too good for this job now, is that what I’m hearing?” Pat’s watery blue eyes bore down on Jacob with malice.

“Um…no, I never said that…” Things for Jacob were going south, fast.

“Well that’s what it seems like you’re telling me, with your behavior and your goddamned moping around! I swear, boy, you’re gonna have a hard time finding work if this is how you treat your job. No one is gonna hire a little snot who can’t even man up and demand what he wants…”

“But, when we were discussing the raises…” Pat slammed the table. “You did not deserve a raise then,” he spat. “And you know goddamn well why not. You know what, Jacob? I don’t even want to see you dragging your feet around here a minute longer. Forget the two weeks. I’ll put your last check in the mail. Get out, now.” Pat glared at Jacob and pointed to the door.

Jacob rose and walked out the door, closing it behind him. “Asshole,” he muttered, hurt and embittered by the outcome. But it was done. Jacob went upstairs to grab his things, and then was struck by an idea. It was actually an idea that had occurred to him years ago, but he never had the gall to act on it. It was time. He galloped down the stairs and walked over to the saltwater display.

______

As Hank Leary pulled the 513 up to the stoplight at 4th and Forest Street, he saw that the newspaper kiosk in front of MacVey’s was shuttered. Was it closed every Saturday, he wondered, and if so, why on Saturday? His camera sat uselessly in his pocket. So far, the day had not been fruitful, photo-wise. Suddenly the entrance to MacVey’s burst open and a young, fattish man hurried out, clutching a coat in his arms. Hank observed his scuffed Pumas, the small shaving nick on his chin. The man went straight to a blue Corolla parked by the kiosk and opened the trunk. In that instant, just as the light turned green, Hank watched the man shrug the coat off his arms, revealing two small, clear plastic bags filled with water. In each was an octopus, one pearly white, the other a deep maroon.

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