Excerpt: The Birdman of Saginaw

“This one’s yours, buddy.”

Dave Rogers looked up from the parakeet perched on his index finger and leaned to one side. Through racks of cat leashes and care and feeding of pamphlets he saw Mrs. Veronica Beaumont—a regular customer of Pearson’s Pets and personal friend of Bill Pearson, the proprietor—walking primly through the shop’s glass door. Dave whipped his head around to see Jamie Donoghue’s tilted grin under a cocked eyebrow.

“No way,” Dave said. “I had her last time.” He returned the parakeet to its cage then turned to see Jamie lift his hands over his head and lace his fingers together to lean backward in a stretch. His tee shirt rose to reveal his abs and a reddish-gold treasure trail that ran from his navel to the waistband of his jeans, widening a little as it descended. Dave’s eyes followed it down then fixed on the unfastened button at the top of his fly. He gulped silently and forced his gaze to the side before Jamie caught him looking.

“Well, tough,” he said, groaning. “I’ve got that shipment to unload, and since Debbie’s off today, you’re the only one left.”

He does it on purpose. I know he does.

Jamie’s rough slap on his shoulder startled Dave. He looked up with a frown. “You’ll do fine,” Jamie said. “You’re the charmer here.”

As Jamie headed toward the back of the store, Dave hissed, “Thanks for nothing.” He turned to see Mrs. Beaumont making her way toward him at top speed, which was considerably slower than his own casual ambling tempo. He smoothed the front of his red polo with the shop’s logo and prepared his I’m-here-to-help smile.

“Hey, Dave.” Dave turned to see Jamie at the back door, one foot an inch off the floor, his butt thrust out and up. “Kiss my lily white ass.”

Dave’s eyes narrowed. One corner of his lips lifted in a snarl. He turned and found Mrs. Beaumont within arm’s reach, looking up at him, the top of her lavender perm barely reaching his breastbone. She opened her mouth then snapped it shut. She pursed wrinkled lips and said, “Is something wrong, David?”

Dave immediately tried to reclaim his customers first smile, but found it hard to re-assemble in the wake of Jamie’s taunting. “N—no, ma’am. I was just—I mean—”

“Well, never mind,” Beaumont said curtly. “I’m here because I need a mouse.”

“I’m sorry, ma’am, but there aren’t any mice available.”

Dave held his most empathetic look against the storm cloud forming over Beaumont’s brown-penciled eyebrows. As she drew breath, her high cheekbones reddened beyond the dabs of rouge presiding over the field of fissured pancake that was her makeup. Dave stifled a sigh and willed his nose to stillness as the aroma of talcum powder infused with the scent of funeral flowers advanced.

“Then what,” Beaumont said in a crackly, imperious voice, “are those?”

Dave’s eyes followed the length of a bony index finger to a small cage below the store’s reptile aquarium. “Those are food for our snakes, ma’am.”

One eyebrow rose as the other descended in a squint over faded brown eyes. “You can’t sell me just one?”

Dave started to cross his arms, but then thought better of it. “If I do, Mrs. Beaumont, we’d have to sell them to anyone who asked. We don’t have enough to do that and feed our reptiles before our next shipment arrives.”

Beaumont straightened to her full height and sniffed loudly. “Bill Pearson must be losing his grip to hire a rude young man like you, that’s all I can say.”

Dave’s hands suddenly felt awkward at his sides. He fought the urge to jam them in his pockets. With a half-smile he said, “If you’d like to speak to Mr. Pearson, I can—”

“That won’t be necessary,” Beaumont said dismissively. “I don’t suppose he’d say any different.”

Her shoulders twitched as she looked away. Dave brightened and said, “I can hold one for you. It would be waiting for you the day we receive our shipment. Would that be okay?”

Beaumont faced him and said sharply, “What day?”

“Next Wednesday.”

Movement behind her caught Dave’s eye. He glanced over her shoulder. Jamie had doubled back past the fish tanks to watch his encounter with Pearson’s most demanding patron. He made a fist and gently punched an open palm under an evil grin. Dave looked back at Beaumont.

“Well, I guess that’ll have to do.” Dave drew breath and smiled then froze as Beaumont said, “But what am I going to do about Betsy?” Her voice was suddenly meek and imploring.

Dave’s eyebrows rose. “Ma’am?”

“The one mouse I already have,” Beaumont said with irritation. “She’s bored. I’m afraid she’ll sink into a depression without a friend. Now do you see why it’s so important that I get another mouse as soon as possible?”

Dave spent the next seven minutes patiently plumbing the depths of mouse psychology with Mrs. Beaumont, who finally agreed that Betsy was unlikely to suffer any mental anxiety before next Wednesday. She turned away then back with a gentle smile. “I’m sorry if I seemed a bit flinty, there, David. It’s just I’m so—”

“That’s quite all right, Mrs. Beaumont. I understand.”

“You know,” she said, her eyes brightening, “I believe you do.”

She patted Dave’s chest, her wrinkled palm lingering there a second too long. Dave blushed, but she dropped her hand without noticing it. She turned and marched to the front of the store and onto Washington Street. As soon as she was out the door Jamie immediately approached him.

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