Handshakes and Calicos

I stared at the mirror, with the idea emblazoned
in my twelve-year-old mind, that a firm handshake and eye contact
were of utmost importance. Handshakes always worried me, and the
worry made my hands sweat and the sweat made me worry. I knew the
all-important handshake, the key to everything in my future, would
be as squirmy and wet as a squid. I racked my brain and came up
with a solution. Talcum powder! Ah, sleep at last.

The morning came. I donned my shirt, tie and slacks—hopeful
yet nervous. My palms responded with their usual slick expectorant.
No worries, powder to the rescue. I doused them and my hands were
as smooth and dry as a pool shark’s. Just in case, I stuffed
the container of powder into my back pocket and rushed out the door.
As I approached, my nerves released another torrent of sweat, so
I filled my hands with powder and charged in the front door of the
snowboard shop. The skater kid that worked there looked at me. I
glared back, not forgetting the all-important eye contact. “May
I speak to your manager,” my voice rang out, clipped to match
the shine of my shoes and desperation for a summer job.

Silence, as the clerk pointed absently to another, slightly older
skater kid.

I pounced with my hand outstretched and bellowed, “Hello!”

He looked at me. All I could see were his eyeballs, brown amidst
white orbs. We shook hands firmly. A cloud of powder punctuated
our embrace.

“What kind of experience do you have working in retail?”
he began.

I blurted out not ready for the depth of the interrogation, “I
fed my neighbor’s rabbit and hamster for the summer.”
Not really sure how I could relate that to retail experience, I
charged on, “Oh yes, I also handed out fliers for a store
nearby.” It was a tenuous link but perhaps one moving in the
right direction.

He continued, “What do you know about snowboards?”

Here, I had to lie. I was a kid from NYC, we didn’t ski,
let alone snowboard, and rarely did any sledding in the slushy gray
winters of the city. “Quite a bit actually.”

The manager waited for me to expand on my snowboard expertise.
My mind was a blank, so I waited, hoping for something to rescue
me from the awkward silence. His eyes squinted like Clint Eastwood.
He broke eye contact and brushed the powder from his hands.

He closed the interview, “Thanks, we’ll let you know.”

I started to head home, but veered east, to the park. Hoops and
sunshine filled my day. No, I didn’t get the job. Still, life’s
not bad; no more coagulated talcum powder.

The road wound on and eventually I did get jobs from janitor to
counselor. Much like when I was twelve looking for work in a snowboard
shop, things are still a bit odd. My present job is a good illustration.
It is a noble endeavor. I work at a public high school in a small
town in western New York. Recently, my colleague and I took some
kids to volunteer at a local animal shelter. We walked dogs, cleaned
the place, and groomed cats.

The dogs hunched in their small cages. They leaned their paws out
and stared mournfully at the dirty walls. Each cage had a label
with a description of the inhabitant. A red marking indicated which
dog could be walked. I surveyed the cellblock and began my tour.
The dogs flipped out as I examined their labels. Cats in an adjacent
room looked on, through a glass window. They yawned and seemed to
say, “Hey pal, come pet us. We’re quiet and don’t
crap on the walls.”

Avoiding the pit bulls and Dobermans, who looked like they could
to do me real damage, I found a match. It was some kind of mutt,
smallish and scruffy. Contrary to its bared teeth, the label enthusiastically
read, “Friendly and wait till you see its real personality
!” Intrigued to find out what butterfly hid within
this wild-eyed dog, I made my choice.

I walked into the cage. The dog was bursting with energy and hard
to pin down without a collar or leash on. I tried baby talk. That
didn’t work. Perhaps I only lost the dog’s respect.
Next, I tried to distract the dog by clapping my hands to the dog’s
right, while feinting to the left and slyly slipping the collar
around its neck. The dog, confused and enraged at what I suppose
it thought was an attempt on its life, sprouted no butterfly wings.
Instead, it began snapping at my hands. The growling and perhaps
my clapping alerted a worker at the shelter. She looked at me with
a mixture of confusion and contempt. I tried to smile, but probably
bared my teeth like the dog. Next, as the dog was tearing at my
fleece and splurting saliva all over the cage, I asked redundantly,
“Is the dog going to bite me?” The woman said no, and
to my surprise walked away. Abandoned to my fate, I was determined
not to call for help. The kids had done fine. They had walked all
sorts of dogs, pit bulls and Dobermans included. I was the adult.
I could not fail. I would walk the dog. I would see the butterfly.

The leash somehow caught. There was a moment of triumph, but it
was short lived as the dog began to leap wildly at my throat. My
indignant “no’s” were to no avail, and my stern
index finger was simply another target for its teeth. I surrendered
and in a panic rushed out of the cage. As I left, I whacked my head
on the cage-latch, which kept the monster bound. I left bruised
and beaten. I said nothing of my escapade as I joined the kids and
my coworker in the cat room. The cats welcomed me despite my incessant
sneezing, and I imagine saw the whole sorry incident. I settled
with a Calico, who probably thought me a fool for not being a cat
person all along.

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