A Midsummer Tale ~ Third Place
We didn’t get to Franklinton very often, and a new pet store was a pleasant surprise, but the three dead guppies in the first aquarium I checked were a bad sign. There was no one to tell except a man at the cash register who was on the phone. He was old, maybe thirty-five, and so thin he was almost skinny, but he had great eyebrows. When he saw me he smiled and held up one finger, universal sign language for, “Be with you in a minute.”
My mother was up the street looking for clothes to fit my surprise baby sister. In the little lake town where we lived in the early 1960s, there was a post office and a great ice cream store, but the only clothing available was fancy stuff for the summer people. To get reasonably priced things you had to drive to Franklinton where there was a department store. I went along that day because I knew that store had a pet department in the basement and I had fourteenth birthday money from my grandmother. When the department store fish proved uninteresting, I left to explore town and that was how I accidentally found the pet store.
I had just over an hour before I was supposed to meet Mom at the car, so while I waited for the man, I peered into the tanks one by one. There were some fish I could identify and even distinguish males from females, but there were others I’d only seen in books. I took my time. As soon as the man was done talking, he came over and said, “Hi,” but nothing more. I learned later that “hi” was how he wanted his employees to greet customers, considering the usual “Can I help you?” unfriendly and pushy.
“You’ve got a couple dead guppies,” I said and pointed. His smile faded and he turned toward the guppy tank, but then the phone rang again.
“There’s a net in that methylene blue wash,” he said on his way back to the counter. “Over there in the corner, see it? Go ahead and scoop them out and bring them here.” He indicated the glass counter where the register was, and then picked up the receiver. “Franklinton Pet.”
Really? I was perfectly capable of that little task, but it seemed a strange thing to ask a customer to do. Why not, I thought, and picked up one of the nets. I shook it a little to get the excess off, and then fished out the dead guppies. The man nodded to me and mouthed “thank you” when I put the whole thing, wet net and dead fish, on the counter.
It wasn’t until I was inspecting the baby Jack Dempseys that I noticed the nickel-sized blue stain on the yellow T-shirt I’d just gotten for my birthday. I groaned, knowing how methylene blue stains—I’d used it before to cure itch. But my new shirt! I didn’t get many new clothes, not with the way things were at home. The baby clothes Mom was buying that day were going to be the big splurge for the month.
Behind me, I heard the phone being replaced in the cradle, and then a ripping sound. When I turned, I saw the guy put a long strip of masking tape across the front of the tank where the dead fish had been and write NOT FOR SALE on the tape. “Mouth rot,” he said to me. From his pocket he pulled a blister pack of capsules and emptied two of them into the tank. They turned the water orange. Then he reached in and pulled out the box filter, leaving the air hose to bubble, and dried his hands on his pants. When he saw me watching he explained, “Charcoal deactivates tetracycline so you have to take the filter out.”
I nodded, though that was new information. Apparently this guy wouldn’t sell fish from an infected tank. That impressed me, and I thought maybe I’d get fish from him after all if I could find some I liked that would get along with what I already had. I figured I’d have to go back and look at prices, though.
He surprised me by saying, “Oh, no,” while he was looking at my chest. I didn’t know what to think and felt myself blush. I was used to guys at school looking there, but not most grown men. As far as I was concerned, my new shape was mostly a good thing, but sometimes my cup size was an embarrassment. Everything I ate or drank seemed to land on that shelf.
“I feel responsible,” he said. “Vinegar and vitamin C.”
I had no idea what he was talking about but was grateful he was looking at my eyes. “What?”
“It gets methylene blue out of clothes.” He nodded at the stain on my chest and then found my eyes again. “I know because I’ve done that a hundred times. Crush up a vitamin C tablet in one part vinegar and five parts water and soak the spot as soon as you get home.”
I don’t even remember exactly how it happened, but by the time I left with a trio of killifish, I had a summer job working for Richard at Franklinton Pet. I didn’t even have to spend any birthday money because the killies were my pay for an hour of cleaning water spots off the aquarium fronts. This would be my first job that didn’t involve mowing or painting. I knew the hour bus ride each way would be a pain, but I was looking forward to all the money I could save for college. Plus I’d be learning new things.
It was June, so I figured I’d have the rest of the month and then all of July and most of August to work as many hours as Richard would let me. His wife had just had their third child, all girls he said, and the baby made it harder for her to come in to help like she used to.
I guess her having the three kids made other things problematic, too, because by the middle of August, Richard was showing more than a casual interest in what I was wearing and how I did my hair. In those days, you dressed up for a job, even if it was one that involved catching snakes and chameleons, and cleaning hamster runs and bird cages. I even learned how to put my hair up in a twist because he said he liked it and I thought it made me look older. I was a good worker, and he always complimented me, but not just for doing a good job. Honestly, I liked the attention, and I don’t know, maybe I needed it. My only boyfriend so far—albeit a rather platonic one—had dumped me for a senior girl, and nobody else was asking me out. I had come to believe I must not be girlfriend material—that my first boyfriend had been a fluke, and I was destined to be alone for the rest of my life. Maybe that was why Richard’s approval was important, why I wanted to believe it meant something.
My job was supposed to be just for the summer, so my parents were surprised in September when I asked if I could keep working during the school year. My grades were excellent, and I was involved in everything from student government and debate club to all the sports they would let girls play in those days, and Mom and Dad said they thought working would be too much. I argued that my friends managed that same kind of busy schedule as well as boyfriends, and that since I didn’t have one, I had extra time especially on weekends and vacations. I told them how much I’d saved for college that summer and they were surprised. After they finally agreed and I had time to think, I considered looking for a different job. The truth was that despite Richard’s interest in me being exciting and affirming, it confused me. But I stayed.
It was the month before Christmas that year when we started keeping the store open on Sundays, and Richard’s wife offered to let me stay over at their house on Saturday nights because as she said, it made better sense. Being open that extra day made a big difference in the weekly take, something I knew because a few basic accounting duties were added to my responsibilities. But as the month wore on, it seemed there was more and more to do after Richard and I closed the store on Saturday nights. At least I assume that was what he told his wife. I knew it was wrong, and I blamed myself, believing that I must be a truly bad person to get involved with him at all, and worse for not calling a halt to what was going on. It was my first experience with guilt that ran so deep, and it changed how I saw myself. I was two people, the honor roll student during the week and something else the rest of the time. All the time.
“Tawdry” was a word I came to understand that first year, and over the next two I found myself thinking of men quite differently than I had before Richard. I lost myself for a while, who I was and who I wanted to be. Still, I kept working there and I kept up those relationships—the one with Richard and the one with his wife and children—until right before I graduated and left for college.
Even after I was far away I felt guilty enough to wonder if I’d ever feel good again. The longer I was gone, the less I understood how I could have let myself be used like that, and I hated myself for being so stupid. After the self-loathing came fear that I’d ruined my chances of ever having an authentic relationship with a man. It was the 1960s, and though attitudes about how women should behave were supposedly changing in the cities, most of the same old expectations held for women where I lived and where I went to college. How could anyone love a woman who’d done what I did? I couldn’t expect that anyone else would respect me when I didn’t respect myself.
But someone did, and that changed everything again, this time for the better.
By the end of my freshman year when I went home for the summer, I wasn’t much older, but I was a more savvy girl than the one who’d left ten months earlier. I was more confident and outspoken, and in some ways harder. I was also angry. There had been no contact between us after I left, but I intended to see Richard, not for the reason I knew he’d expect, but to confront him. What he’d done was wrong and I wanted to tell him so. I wasn’t without blame; I wasn’t exactly a child when it started and I let it go on. But I’d also been clueless… and he was the adult.
I went in the propped-open front door of his store and stopped with my back to it, about ten feet from where he stood at the counter. No one else was in the store.
“Look at you!” Richard grinned. He didn’t approach me as I expected, and instead leaned back against the wall behind the register.
He looked older than I remembered, with dark circles under his eyes, and his hair looked oily. Even from a distance I could see the dirt under his too-long fingernails and realized there had always been that black line where the white of his nails stopped.
“With that long hair and your clothes, you’re a cute little hippy girl, aren’t you.” He said it like it was a fact and not a question.
All that I planned to say to him, every stinging and freeing thing I wanted to say to him, flew out of my head and I just stood there mute.
“We hoped we’d hear from you, but then I guess you had lots going on.” He cocked one knee forward and put his hands in his pockets.
We? Really? I thought. And what is “going on” supposed to mean? All in my head, but then I knew where to start. “You had no right,” I blurted. “Back then, you had no right.” If he’d looked ashamed or angry, I would have known how to continue, but the quizzical expression on his face and the crooked half-smile shut me up.
“No right about what?” he asked me. “I can see you’re pissed about something, kiddo, but I have no idea what you mean. What’s up?”
Anyone watching would have thought he was innocent. My throat closed up and made that choking sound it always does when I’m caught off guard and try to talk, so I stopped. I’m not sure how long I stood there before I heard someone’s footsteps behind me. When I turned, I saw her, a young girl in a purple pleated skirt and sweater. Her blonde hair was piled up on top of her head making her look like she was playing dress-up, and she carried a bag with a familiar logo. Tony’s Place was where we used to get meatball subs.
“Hi,” she said to me as she passed by on her way to the counter, and then to Richard she said, “Ready for some lunch, Ricky?”
Gail Webber taught science, middle school through college, for thirty-two years, and then worked with children and teenagers considered at-risk. Since retiring, she has returned to her old love, writing fiction. She lives and works on a tiny farm in western Maryland. Gail is new to the publishing arena, with one middle grade novel published three years ago, and short stories appearing in The Tower Journal and Persimmon Tree. A second novel is out for consideration, and she says that a third is keeping her up nights. Email: gail_webber[at]hotmail.com