At the entrance to the single-file alleyway there was a small sign that said “No trespassing. All deliveries use front door.” The alley ran to the right of Lila and Larry’s pet shop, but it was not wide enough to properly serve the side door and store room. At the end of the alley was a small employee parking lot, and the row of dumpsters that they shared with the cafe next door. The shopping center was perched on top of a hill east of Randolph City, and featured low white warehouse walls and big glass windows overlooking the highway.
Lila was inside the shop, standing at the register and tapping her sharp pink nails on the counter. Her red hair was pulled in a knot high on her head, and her purple dress was covered with pink swirls and streaks. Larry was in the back of the shop near the aquariums, pushing a broom across the floor. His dark blue shirt blended in against the bubbling tanks of water, and his teeth were yellow in the underwater lights. They hadn’t said anything to each other since they left the house this morning, when Lila said “Are you coming?” and Larry, grabbing his briefcase and trudging along behind her, said “Yes.”
A tall man with a frail face pushed through the swinging double doors. His jeans were low on his hips and his round belly perched on top of the single star of his belt buckle. His nose was painfully thin and his eyelids were heavy and yellow.
“I need a cockatiel!” he said. He straightened his jacket collar with a cupped hand.
Lila set down the box of handi-wipes she was holding. Larry leaned his broom against the leopard fish’s den.
They had cats, dogs, fish, turtles, ferrets, rabbits, spiders, gerbils, hamsters. They even had snakes. Not a single bird.
“What kind?” Lila asked. She tucked a feather of red hair behind her ear and straightened the stack of dog obedience flyers on the counter in front of her.
Larry stepped toward the goldfish. His hands were in his back pockets and his elbows stuck out behind him. He opened and closed his mouth, a quick parting of lips. There were a few empty display cages in the back room, but that was it.
They had inherited the shop from Lila’s galeanthropic mother, whose eyes narrowed at the first note of a bird’s song. The display cages had been a free gift from a distributor.
“Pearl,” the man said.
“Well, that is certainly something I can order for you,” Lila said. “Five to seven business days.” She reached under the counter and pulled out a thick white binder with “Special Orders” written neatly on the front, in Sharpie, all caps. She opened to a clean page and began to write.
The man squinted toward the back of the store. “You don’t have one here?”
“No,” she said.
“Well, I can’t wait,” the man said. “My mother is sick, and her other bird is about to die.”
He pinched and pulled at his bottom lip.
“I’ve already started to fill out the order,” she said.
Lila and the man faced off across the counter at the front of the store and did not hear Larry slip out the side door. He stepped out into the bright alley and let out a deep breath.
It was warm in the small slice of sky. Larry and Lila had moved back to run the shop over two years ago, and he had been stuck in the back with the aquariums the entire time. He was a permanent contestant on Life Swap, forever waiting for his turn to tell the producers what he didn’t like about this little experiment.
He walked toward the back parking lot. There was a fire escape next to the dumpster. A small metal ladder that led to the roof. He put one foot on the bottom rung and stepped up. With careful feet, he climbed. The ladder clung to the side of the building, and Larry clung to the ladder.
When his head crested the top of the building, he stopped. The roof was flat and empty, dotted with silver exhaust fans. Beyond the roof, past the shopping center, green hills spread out in every direction. The highway buzzed somewhere below.
By now, Lila had probably convinced the man that his mother would prefer a kitten, perhaps a fish. With both elbows and one awkward belly hang, Larry pulled his entire body up on top of the roof.
He walked across the roof and when he got to the edge he kneeled down and leaned over. The sidewalk was empty. It needed to be swept.
Two black clouds sliced across the sun. The sky was edged with grey and the grass was pale green. The cars on the highway below twirled like worms, crawling across the thick brown ground. A semi trailer came up over the hill, glistening with bent metal, packed with wrecked cars that crumpled and twisted in the sun.
The door to the shop swung open, and the bald spot of the white-faced man was directly below Larry on the sidewalk.
“No, thank you, but really, I can’t wait for it,” he said. “I’m going to have to go somewhere else.”
“There is nowhere else!” Lila said. “We’re the only pet shop in town!”
She stepped out onto the sidewalk behind him. She was holding a kitten under her arm. The kitten meowed with tiny sharp teeth. “Look, your mother will love it. No one can say no to a kitten,” she said. Her hair was slipping out of its bun, a red starflower.
The man walked off toward the parking lot, shaking his head and holding his keys.
She followed him to the curb. Then stopped and turned back toward the shop.
“Larry, is that you?” she said. “What are you doing up there?”
She was holding one hand in front of her face to block the sun and the other was still wrapped around the squirming kitten.
“What in God’s name are you doing on the roof?”
There was honeysuckle in the breeze. Larry didn’t answer. He stood up and stretched his arms. A small plane buzzed past a cloud. Larry pushed off with his feet and flew away.
He floated down toward the highway, right over her head and past the parking lot. The air was cooler above the trees, and the light blue river below snaked toward the ocean.