Tales From the Pet Shop
When I was in my late teens, I went off to dog grooming school, graduated, and got a job as a groomer in the back of Pet Palace. The year was 1988 and I was eager to start building my business and embrace my new career path.
In those early days, I didn’t have many customers to start and so Roger, the owner of Pet Palace, gave me some shifts in the pet shop to help me make ends meet while I built my clientele.
Managing the store, was a rather quirky and unique middle-aged dude named Harold. Now Harold was a veteran who used to regale his young coworkers with tales of serving in the Canadian Armed Forces in Vietnam. To this day, I will never forget the horror of some of what he relayed. I’d never met anyone like Harold before.
No doubt, because of what he had lived through, he had a wry, almost sardonic sense of humour. Whenever he told a story, whether it be of the horrors of war or of something funny and unbelievable that happened to him, he’d plaster a toothy grin on his face and kind of vibrate as he told his tale, almost always following it up with “What a rush!” I took an instant liking to this unusual man, and we built a fast friendship in spite of our age difference.
Life in the pet store was the highlight of my life at the time. Dog grooming was hard, physical labour but working with Harold was extremely entertaining. We’d find reasons to laugh at everything: the antics and quirks of not only the animals we were entrusted to care for and sell, but also those of the customers, the suppliers, and people we knew in the industry. Trust me, you meet a lot of “interesting” people in the pet trade.
In the moments between customers and discussing our pet shop tasks, Harold and I would take every opportunity to shoot the breeze and make each other laugh. It made the days go by so much quicker. One day, Harold came to me and told me that some months before, when he had received a shipment of small lizards, one of them had slipped away from him and scurried off into the darker regions of the pet store.
Now, Pet Palace was housed in an eighty-year-old building. Over the years, this building had rooms added onto it by people who by no stretch of the imagination could be called professional contractors. As such, things were not plumb, giving the pet shop a tumble down appearance. The pet shop was also home to wild mice who would chew their way through walls to get into the birdseed we offered for sale.
The building contained high ceilings, and towards the back of the building was a loft that you needed a tall ladder to access. Up in the loft, we had fish tanks full of feeder rats that served as food for larger reptiles like snakes and lizards.
I recall the conversation one morning as Harold came into my dog grooming room to chat after serving a spat of customers.
“Do you know what a Tokay Gecko is?” He asked.
“Um, nope,” I responded while scrubbing a small dog.
“It’s a blue and red spotted lizard, comes from South East Asia. It grows about this big.” Harold held up his two index fingers spaced approximately six inches apart. “It’s one mean son-of-a-bitch!” He said in his grinning, vibrating way. “Its bite feels like the worst road rash you’ve ever had and the only way to get it off you is to submerge your arm in water until it lets go. What a rush!”
I thought Harold’s eyes were going to pop out of his head, in the telling.
“Oh, wow,” I said. By this time, I’d known Harold long enough to tell when he was joking and when he wasn’t. He wasn’t joking.
“When I’ve been here at night, I’ve heard it call. It sounds like ‘Toe-kay! Toe-Kay!’
I raised an eyebrow. “Really?”
“Oh, really!” He responded. Nope, he wasn’t joking at all.
“You mean this… this thing… is wandering around the pet store?”
“Yep. It’s got to be full grown by now, what with unlimited access to the mice and rats upstairs.”
I shuddered. “You mean it could be behind that wall right there?” I pointed a soapy finger toward the back wall of my dog grooming room.
“Yes, but don’t worry, they are nocturnal. They only come out at night.”
“Oh. Whew!” I said.
“Yes. And I’m going to catch the bugger.”
This I did not doubt.
Months went by and I’d all but forgotten about the nightmare lizard lurking in the dark recesses of the pet shop. That is, until one morning in the fall when Harold greeted me at the door with eyes popping, lips grinning, and yes, you guessed it, body vibrating with excitement.
“I caught the son-of-bitch. I actually caught him!” he said, and he held up a large fish net with a huge rip in the once-intact netting. “And look what he did to the net!”
“What? How? How in the world?”
“Well, I came at 6:00 am,” Harold started. During the budding of our friendship, he had confided that he often had flashbacks during the night and if woken, couldn’t get back to sleep, so he would sometimes head down to the pet shop early. “…and as I opened the door, I heard the damned thing calling “Toe-kay. Toe-Kay. So I followed the sound and there he was, clinging to the glass of the reptile room,” Harold continued. I’d never seen him grinning so hard.
“Oh my God,” I managed, mouth hanging open.
“I went into full ambush mode, everything I’d learned in the jungle came flooding back and grabbing the net, I crept up on the bastard and ambushed him. Boy, did he put up a fight, but I wrestled him into that empty tank there. What a rush!”
Harold gleefully led me into one of the makeshift rooms, the one where we kept the reptiles, all separated into their own terrariums. There, pacing back and forth behind glass was the Tokay Gecko that had, before this moment, only lived in legend. I’d never seen a lizard looking so pissed off before. But my, it was a fascinating colour… I leaned in to get a better look. The scowling lizard cocked it’s head briefly before barking and leaping at the glass, intent on lopping my nose off.
I jumped back a foot, heart in my throat and yelled out “Holy shit!”
“Yessssss!” Harold laughed and vibrated. “He’s a mean bastard!” And he wiped a trickle of sweat off his brow.
“What are we going to do with him?” I asked, incredulous.
“Why, sell him, of course.” Harold smiled.
“Sell him? Who’s going to buy that asshole?”
“Just you wait.” Harold smiled.
For the next few weeks, I reveled in the sounds that trickled through my thin dog grooming room walls: the low melodic tones of customers talking, followed by a sharp bark and then loud gasps and the occasional screams of startled customers. It never failed to give me a chuckle, knowing that they had been leaning in to see the “pretty lizard,” and had been ambushed. It was the best jump-scare ever invented.
Occasionally, if I happened to be working in the pet store, I was lucky enough to witness the customers leap back as “Jaws” struck at the glass. It was hard to suppress the laughter as Harold and I exchanged glances and wry smiles behind the customers’ backs.
One afternoon Harold proudly walked into my dog grooming room.
“Guess what?” He asked, barely containing his vibrations. He didn’t wait for my guess. “We sold him.”
“You sold him? The gecko?” I asked, now my eyeballs were popping. “To whom?”
“A lovely Hell’s Angel couple. What a rush!”