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 outside!” 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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