The Grooming Salon
By Jay Vera Summer
Most pet parents walking in and out of the Brickyard Petastic! aren’t even aware of the fishbowl, much less what goes on in here. We call our grooming salon the fishbowl because it has glass walls on three sides—all but the back, which is cinderblock with the dungeon door in the middle. We also call it the fishbowl because we’re all stuck in here together, swirling around in angry circles and bumping into each other, like the Cichlids sold out in fish.
Mark walks into the salon as I stand at the computer to look up info about the Poo dog Abbey just checked in for herself. I swear it was supposed to be my dog. “Poo dog” is what I call them now, but not in front of pet parents. Yorkie-poo, Shih-poo, Malti-poo, Cockapoo, Corgi-poo, Bich-poo, Peekapoo. The Poo dog owners act like they have these royal dogs, but I know the real truth: They’re mutts. They’re knock-offs like the Cucci bags you can buy on the corner for seven dollars.
“How’s it going, Jasmine?” Mark asks. I nod at him, but don’t say anything. Mark lives in Wrigleyville because he’s a Cubs fan and has a season pass. He’s about ten years older than I am. He’s also our store manager, but he hardly knows anything about grooming. Mark has this big, blond hair that he loves, but we all say it makes him look like a preppy business man from the ’80s.
I check the book and notice I don’t have any dogs booked for the rest of the night. I squint at the empty slots to try and tell if there are eraser marks. The whole section under my name looks smudged.
I feel Mark’s hand on my lower back and stiffen. I look around to see who I can use as an excuse to get out of this. Through the square window I see Abbey in the dungeon. already washing her dog and dancing with earbuds in. No one else is around. I want to slap his hand away, but instead I step to the side, out of Mark’s reach, and open the drawer full of pens and pencils. There are at least twenty pens I brought in from the Puerto Rican Parade, plus a bunch of highlighters that don’t even work.
“Did you need something?” I ask.
“Just checking in. How is everything?”
When I look up, he smiles at me with his watery blue eyes and then puts his hand on my shoulder. Mark’s boldness is a surprise. I’ve heard rumors about him before, but he’s never been very touchy feely with me.
I’m pretty sure Mark has a girlfriend. At least he had one at Christmas because she came in and decorated our break room. She put a fake tree on the table with tinsel and ornaments and some people moved it to the floor because they needed the table for eating, and then other people accidentally kicked it when they sat down. The tinsel got everywhere and the ornaments fell off and broke.
“Things are fine,” I say, looking Mark in the eyes.
“You know I’m always here if you need anything,” he says.
I nod. What I need is this job. I need it for Aston, my son. I must be nodding extra hard because I can see my curly, black hair bouncing up and down in the corners of my eyes. Maybe I’ll stop curling my hair for work, cut back on the makeup.
“Okay?” Mark asks. He’s been offering me a ride home a lot lately but I keep saying no because I feel weird. Every time he repeats that line: “You know I’m always here if you need anything.”
“I do kinda need something,” I say. “I think someone stole my dogs. I was booked, but the spots are erased.”
I wait to see if Mark is going to ask me to rat anyone out. They’re always looking to fire people here, especially full-timers. But if you name names and the person doesn’t get fired, be prepared for revenge.
Abbey comes up to the fishbowl from the dungeon with the wet Poo dog in her arms. Abbey is the Brickyard’s lone white groomer and she calls herself “Crazy White Girl.” She wants us to call her that too, but we don’t. Even though she is crazy and she is white and she is a girl, it’s just stupid to make up your own nickname. Abbey is short and thick and when she walks she looks like a refrigerator on wheels being pushed quickly. She grew up in Lawndale, but a couple of years ago her car broke down and instead of buying a new one she just moved to the Brickyard so she could walk to the salon. She’s worked here longer than any of us, which is sort of a miracle because she’s not that great at the job.
Mark walks away and says, “We’ll talk later. You’ll have dogs tonight.” He gives me a wink, then the salon door closes behind him. Good, at least now I won’t be here for nothing.
“You don’t have any dogs?” Abbey asks. Her voice sounds way too surprised, so I know there’s a lie inside the question.
“No,” I say, “It’s weird because I did. I need the money.”
“Maybe they canceled?”
Abbey sticks her earbuds back in, which is not allowed at all while you’re cutting fur, and I can hear T.I. blaring out of them. She starts shaving her dog’s fur with a guard comb and is clearly in her own little world. I figure it’s a good time to go to lunch. I don’t tell her I’m leaving and just walk out to the break room. She’ll figure it out.
While I’m eating leftover arroz con pollo, Mark walks into the break room. No one else is in here but me and him. He pretends to examine the labor laws poster on the bulletin board, but keeps looking over at me. He walks behind me and just stands. I say hi and then he says hi. I get up, throw my food and paper plate in the trash, and walk to the time clock a few feet away. Before I can swipe my card, I feel his hand on my shoulder, even though I didn’t hear him move. I swear he can teleport.
“You know it’s illegal to clock back in before your thirty is up, right?” I turn my head and his face is close to mine. His breath smells nice and fresh, like spearmint gum.
“I’ll take a full thirty,” I say, and quickly walk past him out the break room door to the hallway. With the loose change in my pocket, I buy a Snickers from the vending machine real quick then punch the bathroom door code into the silver buttons and slip into a stall. All other Petastic! store bathrooms have regular doors without locks, but someone kept leaving heroin needles on our bathroom floor and people called corporate about it, so the Brickyard bathrooms have lock codes. Now customers have to ask an employee to let them in. Apparently heroin addicts don’t like doing that because the needles stopped showing up.
I eat slowly, counting the times I chew each bite of Snickers. I can’t chew more than about fifteen times without the food just sort of disappearing. When the candy is gone, I figure it’s been a full thirty, or at least Mark has been called to the registers or something. I put the Snickers wrapper in my pocket, leave the bathroom, and clock in.
The second I step into the fishbowl, Abbey and Bella, another groomer, are yelling.
“You got a dog!” Abbey yells to me.
“‘Choke on a dick and die’ is not a saying, right?” Bella yells over her. “It’s not a regular insult like ‘Fuck you’ or something, right?” Bella is from Humboldt Park, too.
I put my hand up to mean “one minute” to Bella, and turn to Abbey. “What dog?”
“Two dogs, isn’t that great?” Abbey says, smiling like a troll under a bridge.
“Are they bad?” I ask. I hate when Abbey checks my dogs in because she doesn’t charge extra if they’re matted. We’re supposed to charge for that because it can take a lot of time if the owner wants the fur brushed out instead of shaved off, and every pet parent wants it brushed out. Sometimes it’s so bad we can’t brush it out and when we shave it, the fur is all stuck in one piece still in the shape of the dog.
“No, they’re fine,” Abbey says.
I look at Bella. She always tells the truth about mats. Even to pet parents she will straight up say, “That is disgusting. Take it to a vet.”
“They’re fine,” Bella says, nodding her head. She sprays dog perfume onto a finished Malti-Poo with a pink and white polka dot bow on each ear. Bella looks up at me with a second thought. “But Abbey is the only one who says, ‘choke on a dick and die,’ right? No one else says that.”
“I don’t say it, but I’ve heard a few people say it before,” I answer.
“Really?” Bella stops spraying the perfume. I walk to the dungeon and push the door open with both hands. Before it swings shut, I hear her ask another groomer, “Have you heard that? ‘Choke on a dick and die?’ What kind of world do we live in?”
I open up the cage for my first dog, Max the puppy. As I check him for mats, I whisper, “It’s okay, you cutie baby sweetie pie baby dog.” I sniff him as I walk back to the front of the salon. I set him on my table—he smells good and there’s not a single mat as far as I can tell.
“I pay sixty-five a month for car insurance through Geico and I think it’s a great deal,” Bella says now. People talk about everything in here.
Once the grooming loop is secured around Max’s neck, I clip his nails. He’s really good for it—sometimes puppies can be a handful. I try the Dremel tool too, to grind a few of his nails. The notes on his cage showed the pet parents hadn’t paid for grinding, but when I want a dog to become my regular I throw in extras for free.
“You need to get hooked up with my guy,” Abbey says. “You’ve never heard of cheaper car insurance than this.”
After grinding Max’s nails, I brush his fur then shave the hair between the paw pads on his feet. Puppy trims are easy money because we just trim the feet and face and sanitary—a fancy grooming salon word for a dog’s crotch—and don’t actually cut the fur on the dog’s body.
“But what company is it?” Bella says.
“He does every company.” Abbey lightly trims a perfect snow cone-looking top knot on a Bich-Poo’s head. “Twenty dollars.”
“Twenty dollars per month? Man, I need to go to him.”
“No, twenty per year—any company,” Abbey says.
I hold Max’s head steady with my left hand and lift the electric clippers in my right in preparation to scoop his eyes. Scooping the eyes is where you shave the hair between the dog’s eyes, on top of his snout, and in front of each eye by holding the clippers up against his face and gently dragging them down toward you. If you’re good, you can usually do it in three shots—left, right, and center. Scoop, scoop, scoop. Scooping alone makes the dog look clean and groomed.
“Twenty dollars can’t be true,” Bella says. “You’re wrong. Or lying.”
“Tomorrow I’ll bring his business card. He has an office.”
As soon as I begin to scoop, Max wriggles in fear. A lot of puppies do this their first groom. I stop and hold the side of the clippers to the top of his head and then against the side of his face. This helps him become used to the buzzing sound and the vibration without having the actual blades anywhere near him.
“Wait, so does this guy just sell a car insurance card and not insurance?” Bella asks.
“I was pulled over and didn’t get a ticket so it’s pretty legit,” Abbey says.
“Yeah, but,” Bella says, sighing, “if you hit someone, will this insurance pay them?”
“Oh, nah. Not for twenty a year. But he can get you plates under someone else’s name so that don’t even matter. They never trace it.”
I begin scooping again, holding Max’s face tighter now so he stays still. Fur falls to the floor in my peripheral vision as I scoop the left then the right sides clean. He jumps a little after I remove the clippers and I pause, waiting for him to calm. I line the clippers above his eyes and begin scooping down the middle and Max jumps again. I feel a push back on the clippers.
He yelps and jumps again and again. There’s blood on the table.
Shit shit shit.
I turn off the clippers and take a deep breath.
“Please help me,” I say quietly. It’s always best to stay calm in these situations. The people who freak out are the people who get fired.
“Take him to the back. Get in the dungeon!” Abbey says.
Max’s eyes fill with blood and he shakes his head frantically to try and see again. My eyes fill with tears as blood splatters onto the grooming table. I carefully loosen the grooming loop and pull it off of his head. I remind myself to stay in control.
“Take him to the dungeon. Now!” Abbey yells.
It’s too late. Mark walks by the salon. His eyes bulge at the sight of blood and he rushes through the door.
“Jasmine, what is this? Straight to the animal hospital.” He stands and holds the door open while I run from behind the counter and out of the glass fishbowl door with Max under my arm. Mark pushes my back as we run together past the registers to the vet area.
The receptionist sees panic in our faces and stands up immediately to get help.
I’m crying now—this is bad.
The receptionist returns with a pretty vet and I feel comforted. I don’t know her name, but I’ve seen her in the break room before. She drinks green shakes for lunch and wears fancy makeup and jewelry even though dogs probably piss on her all day. She will fix this.
“What exactly happened?” the vet asks in a soothing voice. She dabs at Max’s face with a wet towel. I don’t remember handing him over to her or seeing anyone bring her a towel. I blink.
“I was scooping his eyes and he jumped. I thought maybe I just nicked his nose, but I think I cut his eyeball.” I turn my head away and try not to cry too loud. Ever since I was a kid I’ve been embarrassed that I can’t hold it in even when I try. The tears are streaming down my face and I’m sure my eyes are turning all puffy and red.
The vet says a few things I don’t hear all the way and says I must call Max’s pet parents because we’ll need their permission to put him under. As I head toward the grooming salon, Mark grabs my arm. “After you call them, meet me in the cash office.”
I nod and hustle to the salon. The second I walk in the door, everyone shuts up and stares at me. Finally Abbey blurts out, “Well, what happened?”
I cry more and tell them that I think it’s bad and I need to make the phone call. Bella says, “Hold on. Don’t call yet,” and then takes her dog back to the dungeon. Bella is a smoker and for a second I wonder if she’s going to make me smoke a cigarette to calm down. I haven’t had a cigarette forever, not since I found out I was pregnant with Aston three years ago, but right now I would take one. Bella comes back out.
“I’ll call them and pretend to be you,” she says. I hug Bella and say thanks. She just shakes her head. “You’ll scare them anyway. You’ll make it sound worse than it is. I can explain that the groom is now free, and spin it as a good thing. You—go take a break.”
I take a deep breath and steady myself as I walk past the registers to the cash office. I don’t think I’ll be fired. Groomers cut dogs. If you’re lucky, it scabs up before the pet parent comes and you can just act like it was a little scratch you found during the groom.
I knock on the door to the cash office and Mark opens it. I’ve only been in here once before. I step in then the door slams shut and locks automatically so no one from the outside can get in. The cash office is small—practically a closet. A desk takes up half the space and there’s a safe in one wall. The room is meant for one person to sit in at night while counting down the register drawers. I hop on the desk across from the door and pull my knees to my chest as I lean my back against the wall. The wall is cold.
“This is serious, Jasmine,” he says. “We need to figure this out.”
“I’m sorry.” I look up toward the ceiling and then down at my hands. I see I’m tapping my right foot and try to hold it still. “We’ll give the groom for free. I’ll take the hit out of my check.”
“Of course I’m already going to do that, but there’s the vet visit, too,” he says. “It’ll cost the store hundreds. Danford vets aren’t employed by Petastic! We have to pay them.”
“It was an accident.” My voices chokes. I see Aston’s face in my mind, his chubby cheeks.
Mark steps forward and puts his arms out as if to hug me. After looking at his face for a few seconds, I inch off the desk and stand. He pulls me in, then strokes my hair.
“I’m sorry,” he says. “I was being too rough with you. I’ve been too rough lately.”
After a few seconds I relax and allow myself to cry on his shoulder. It feels comforting.
“Stop crying,” Mark says. He steps back and looks at me. “I know a way we can work this out.”
Mark reaches for his fly and unzips his khakis.
Mark looks at me with those blue eyes and says nothing. He unbuttons the top button on his khakis, opens his fly, and waits. My tears stop and my body stiffens.
My head feels like it’s buzzing louder than clippers, but my body is still. I try to breathe deeply and not panic. He’s blocking the door.
I cannot lose this job. I put my hand in my grooming smock pocket and wrap my fingers around the handle of my scissors. They’re cold. I take a deep breath. The air is warm. I know it’s the breath he just exhaled entering me and it disgusts me.
I imagine telling him Sure, I’ll suck your dick, Mark, no problem, thanks for the opportunity to work this out, I appreciate it. I imagine pulling down his stupid pleated khaki pants, getting onto my knees and looking up at him with a smile. I imagine licking my lips while I look up at him and seeing that dumb, blond hair flop around, seeing his stupid blue eyes look so proud about what is about to happen and then BAM!, I stab his dick over and over with my scissors. Stab and pull. I’d probably only get a few shots in before he’d run out of the room, but it’d be enough to rip open that saggy skin. Just enough for his bloody testicles to fall onto the linoleum one after the other as soon as he moved, like eggs being cracked into a pan. I’d laugh as he ran out of the room, as I heard customers scream at the blood he’d splatter everywhere.
“Jasmine?” Mark asks.
Aston might be asking for me right now. My mom says he usually does after a few hours. I hold my head still and move only my eyes to look at Mark’s face. For the first time I realize his nose is sort of long. He kind of looks like the giant, white rats we sell for $5.99.
“I am not to be messed with,” I whisper.
Mark raises an eyebrow and tilts his head to the side like he’s mixed up and trying to identify the sounds he hears.
“You don’t know what I’m capable of,” I say. I shake my head back and forth.
Mark’s expression is frozen in his stock manager’s half-smile and his eyes show that he is waiting to hear more before he makes another move. It’s exactly how the rats freeze when customers tap on their glass.
“You will not mess with me,” I say, no longer whispering. “Not now, not ever.”
“Jasmine, we just have to figure things out,” Mark says with a smile, showing off his straight, white teeth. “We need to make sure this issue is resolved completely so you don’t have to worry about anything.”
“This issue is already figured out.” I pull the scissors out of my pocket and tap them on the desk behind me.
“Whoa, okay!” Mark backs up against the door. The fluorescent ceiling light reflects off of his teeth. He speaks like he’s correcting me for saying something silly. “Calm down! The dog you cut didn’t die. The pet parents aren’t going to sue you. You’ll be fine.”
His tone is reassuring, but I see anger in his eyes. I put the scissors away, and take two steps closer to the door. Mark takes two steps to the side. We do a fucked up dance, stepping back and forth until we’ve switched places without having to touch. I face the door, then turn to look at him once more before walking out. He’s zipping up.
“And if you fire me in a week for not wearing a name tag? You’ll pay.”
“No name tag?” Mark asks, “Well, you know it’s the dress code to—”
“Don’t talk to me about dress code. I know about Evelyn,” I say. “There are people in here every day with tattoos showing, with nose rings, without belts. But you fired Evelyn because she showed up without a name tag, remember?”
Mark says nothing.
“I know about Evelyn,” I repeat.
“Okay,” Mark says, nodding, the smile gone from his face. “Okay.”
I turn the handle on the door and it unlocks automatically. I push it open to free myself and close my eyes as I walk out.
I don’t know shit about Evelyn other than she was fired for the name tag thing, honestly, but I always had a weird feeling and it must’ve been right. Evelyn has a son, too. She had to take a bunch of unpaid time off when he was sick, and right after that things got weird.
As I walk toward the salon I realize I’m shaking, still gripping the scissors in my pocket. I let go of them, straighten up, and open the glass door.
The fish bowl is calmer. Everyone except Abbey and Bella went home. Bella casually mentions that she called Max’s pet parents and it should be fine, and that the vet came in to say his eye wasn’t damaged. It was just a nick on his bottom eyelid that’ll be fixed with one stitch. I thank her and she goes to the dungeon to clean out the cages.
I look at the schedule book, but my eyes can’t focus. Abbey walks up and stands next to me, holding a Malti-Poo that licks tears off of my cheek. Abbey and I both laugh. She says that she’s doing my second dog, but keeping it under my name so I can get the commission. I look at her in surprise. Even though I know just a few hours ago she was trying to scam me out of money, I can’t help but feel grateful right now.
“I also want to tell you,” Abbey says, giving me a long look, “I came to the cash office a few minutes ago.”
“You’re a good kid, Jasmine. Everyone does things their own way, but you’ll be fine. Just know everyone has their own way.”
“Nothing happened,” I say.
“I know,” Abbey says, nodding. She rubs my back with her hand.
“Wait, why are you—”
“Shhhh,” Abbey says. “I have kids, you know? I’ve done more for those kids than they’ll ever realize. Than any of these fuckers will realize.”
With that, Abbey straightens herself up to be as tall as she can, grabs her grooming box, and marches out of the room. For once, I’m happy to be alone in the fishbowl. There are no more appointments for the night, so I sweep the floor and spray down the tables in peace.
At nine, after the store closes, me, Abbey, and Bella stand around, waiting for the okay to go home. We lean against the wall, looking at our phones and not talking. It’s taking longer than usual. Finally, at about 9:15 pm, Mark opens the door, sticks his head in and yells, “Looks good, you can go.” When he turns away, I see a bald patch on the back of his head. It’s about three inches long.
“What happened to your hair?” Bella says right away.
Mark looks back, smiles, and says it’s nothing.
“No, seriously, something happened to you,” Bella says. She walks closer to Mark and puts her hands on his head, examining the jagged spot. “Have you ever seen Jackass? When one guy is sleeping, another guy will run up with hair clippers and shave a hole in his hair.”
“I’ve seen the show,” Mark says. “Let’s go home.”
Abbey smiles straight at me and winks. “Well, I gotta go. My kids are probably waiting for me to cook dinner.” She unzips her plastic smock, grabs her grooming box, and launches herself out of the salon with a bounce in her step.
I pick up my own grooming box and follow behind her. Once outside, Abbey and I turn different ways, her heading home, and me heading to my bus stop. I smile, realizing Mark will never ask to drive me home again.
After walking a block, I notice a guy walking the opposite direction on the other side of the street staring at me. I yell out, “He will never ask to drive me home again!”
“Who you talking to?” he yells back. I see my bus approaching and start running toward the stop.
“Who you talking to?” the man repeats, even louder this time. He looks angry. “What’d you say to me?”
I yell, “Choke on a dick and die, motherfucker!” Exactly after I get my words out, the bus pulls up alongside me, blocking the street, the man’s view of me, and mine of him. The doors open. I step onto the bus and laugh.
About Jay Vera Summer
Jay Vera Summer is a writer and artist living in Florida. She loves animals, plants, and water. Her work may be found in marieclaire.com, Proximity, Luna Luna Magazine, and more. She cofounded the online literary magazine weirderary. Find her at jayverasummer.com or @jayverasummer on social media.