Chapter 1: A Strange Welcome
The remarkably loud jangle from the string of bells was jarring to Archer and his mother as they pushed open the door. But at least it wasn’t rude.
“Hello stupid!” came a raucous greeting from around the side of what appeared to be the check-out counter.
“Makes you feel all warm and fuzzy inside, doesn’t it,” Clair said to her ten-year-old son.” He just grinned up at her.
“Be down in a sec,” a shout followed from upstairs and a room farther away. At least that explained the need for loud bells. As they took a few steps further into the certainly not modern, but neat enough pet store, the abrasive greeter wasn’t to be seen.
“Hey, a babe!” said the voice and they looked down. To their wonder, a parrot was waddling forward from where the sound had emerged! A tiny microphone was strapped around his neck and two speakers were behind him. “Gimme a kiss!” he added.
After a moment of surprise, they both laughed abruptly.
“I won’t bite…heh, heh, heh,” the talkative bird continued to their fascinated stares. Then the mother pointed above the parrot’s head. A scrawled cardboard arrow pointed down to a roughly drawn word. It read “STOOPID.”
“He must not be too bright if he doesn’t even know how to spell his own name,” she said with a grin, “or maybe we should be concerned about the proprietor’s intelligence.”
“Definitely so!” entered a fit, 40ish man who was carrying some boxes of food for the animals. Slightly embarrassed at having been caught, she began to apologize, but he waved her off, “I know it’s supposed to be s-t-o-o-p-E-d,” he spelled out, putting an emphasis on the ‘E’ “but it’s his sign.” Clair saw a faint smile in his eyes and realized that she was being given a playful literacy test. She decided to accept the challenge. With a small smile of her own she said, “Yes, he does kind of bend forward like an old fellow when he walks.”
The proprietor nodded with a slight smile at having a more-clever-than-usual patron and extended his hand, “Guy Hatchard.” She shook it, “I’m Stoopid, but apparently enough of a babe to deserve a kiss. I have also been known to go by Clair Williams.”
“Has he been flirting again,” said an exasperated sounding Guy. He turned to Stoopid and shook his finger at him, “Be nice!” he admonished. “Buzz off,” responded Stoopid.
“How does he do that!?” suddenly blurted the boy in amazement.
“And this is my usually quite respectful son, Archer.”
“How does he do that, Sir?” Archer grinned.
“Do what?” asked Guy innocently.
“He talks to you!”
“Didn’t you know that parrots could talk?”
“Yeah, but not back-and-forth talk! They only say things like, ‘Polly want a cracker’!”
“Not cracker…rum!” said Stoopid.
“See!!” exclaimed Archer.
“But he apparently likes rum much more than crackers,” said Guy, looking confused. “Of course, I’ve never given him any, because it’s even worse for birds than it is for people. His first owner must have corrupted him.”
As Archer almost began to sputter, his mom said, “We’ll work out this mystery later, hon, but right now, why don’t you look around and see if you can find something you want. Just remember, it has to be small enough for our apartment, so it won’t feel cooped up or make a mess. And I really am sorry that we just can’t handle a dog right now.” He went to look at different animals, but was still shaking his head at a bird that could have a….he thought and then the word came to him…a conversation.
“Quite an interesting bird you have there,” commented his mother as he got out of earshot, “Although isn’t his choice of a greeting a bit harsh?”
“To be honest, I can’t make him stop saying it,” Guy confessed with a slight shake of his head. “Apparently, the old curmudgeon who owned him until he died last year greeted him with ‘Hello Stoopid’ whenever he came home. When his sister offered to let me have him at a very reasonable price, she explained that Stoopid had begun responding in kind to her brother whenever he entered the room. It became a ritual between them. Once he settled in here he began squawking it whenever the bell rang.”
“And the other things he says?” Clair prompted.
“Oh, he’s just kind of picked them up on his own,” Guy said offhandedly.
“That would move him well past interesting into what many would consider remarkable,” Clair said with a wry smile.
“I suppose some would,” he agreed casually.
“I believe even some behaviorists might be a little impressed by him,” she added just as casually.
“Behaviorists?” he asked, sounding only mildly curious.
“Psychologists who use techniques to train animals to respond to certain stimuli,” she clarified.
“Oh, interesting,” he said, not sounding very interested.
“It requires a lot of discipline and time to train animals to do things like he does,” she said.
“Hmmm,” he seemed non-committal, but Clair thought she detected a slight smile in his tone.
“Yes, training animals through classical conditioning is quite challenging, although Pavlov’s discovery of dogs salivating to opening doors in expectation of getting food was the real discovery.”
“Operant,” Guy barely mumbled under his breath.
“Excuse me, but did you just say ‘operant’, as in operant conditioning?” she grinned.
Knowing he had revealed himself, but actually wanting to talk to someone about his unique bird, he grinned back and nodded. “How did I give myself away?” he asked.
“Well, besides falling into my little trap, the first key was when I heard a food pellet drop into his bowl right after he said ‘Hey, a babe!’ I assume you know that if he responds regularly, you should be able to get by with an intermittent reinforcement schedule.
“Yeah, I know,” he said a bit sheepishly.” I initially gave him so much he got sick, but I was afraid he’d revert back to being the stubborn old buzzard he used to be, and sometimes still is.”
“So who is conditioning whom?” she smiled.
“I’ve wondered the same thing many times,” he nodded with a sigh of exasperation, “but before we go on about Stoopid here, how do you know so much about conditioning techniques?”
“I was working towards my doctorate in psychology and my master’s project was to teach a chicken to play tic-tac-toe.” She rolled her eyes. “You don’t know how many times I cursed that damned bird into the depths of KFC hell!”
“Oh, I think I have some idea,” he said compassionately.
“So, I resolved to get into a discipline that was as far away as possible from any creature that squawked, flapped or was full of…crap. Excuse my language, but it’s the word that best fit him, both literally and temperamentally. So I shifted my degree and got doctorate in mathematics.” She paused, and a twinkle came to her eyes, “But in some of our faculty policy meetings, I don’t think I’ve really escaped any of those attributes. And incidentally, many operant conditioning techniques work quite well on mathematicians.” They laughed together, and she then looked at him curiously, “Your turn, tell me about how you came to be a closet behaviorist.”
“Well, to begin my fascinating journey into teaching an avian to talk homo sapian – and I’m not sure the other way around wouldn’t have been easier – my parents met and married in a circus.”
“What fun for you!” she said brightly.
“Not always. Dad used to say that once as a toddler I threatened to run away. But he just laughed and said, ‘Hey, what are you going to run off to join!?’ I don’t know if it really happened, but he liked to tell the story so much, it became family lore. So I stuck around and helped him tend and train many of the animals, which was his job.” He paused and extended his arms meaningfully to indicate his obvious familiarity in working with animals.
“Did your mom also train animals?”
“More as a nurturer than trainer. She had a real empathetic connection with them and knew when they were ailing, usually even before Dad did. But officially she was the beautiful fortune teller. And, by the way, she had an actual gift and helped many people.” He looked at Clair casually yet closely for a moment, but saw that she didn’t look judgmental or skeptical, and relaxed.
“Still, they didn’t like the sleazy side of the greatest show, and could see that traveling circus times might be coming to an end. So, they taught themselves to be ventriloquists, built their puppets and wrote a ‘battle of the sexes’ act.” Guy paused, remembering, and smiled, “Each had an alter ego puppet of the same gender, which tended to side with the hand he or she wore, but eventually brought the squabbling couple back together.
“That sounds charming,” Clair smiled.
“They really were,” he nodded. “While they had a very contemporary act they also conveyed a sweetness not unlike Burns and Allen…a humorous vaudeville couple you probably never heard of…”
“No way! I’ve got DVDs of their best routines, and I love them!” Guy looked impressed.
“Anyway, they booked themselves in clubs where the circus was going to be, and began to develop a following. They also had their own ‘small tent’ performances in the circus, and it became one of the biggest draws, occasionally bringing in more than the ‘big top’ itself. He had been wearing a nostalgic smile as he told Clair this, but now when he turned to her, he looked both proud and regretful as he said theatrically, “Then came their big break!”
“Now, I was just out of diapers at the time, but I swear I remember them laughing and crying while watching TV one night. You see, they had gotten booked to appear on the Ed Sullivan Show in six weeks. They were going to reveal to the world what a witty, insightful, and endearing treat a ventriloquist act could be…on February 9th, 1964.”
He paused and looked at her with a sad smile. She looked back and waited for him to finish. After a moment he said slowly, “The Ed Sullivan Show.” At first, her forehead wrinkled in confusion. Then it was as if a bright light went on, and she simply said, “No!!” He nodded yes.
“Your parents got bumped by the Beatles!?!”
He nodded again, “The British Invasion on the American music scene changed the tone of the show after that, plus Ed wanted 3-minute acts between musicians, and my parents had a nicely developing 10-minute one. They weren’t invited again. Of course, they still had their very popular act, and had an open invitation from the circus. The truth is, I think they were best as a live act in the growing number of comedy clubs, because their love was so obvious then.”
They shared a quiet moment of ‘what might have been’.
“So how did you get interested in expanding Stoopid’s vocabulary?” she asked.
“When his owner died he had a vocabulary of ‘Hello Stoopid’ and…” Guy actually blushed slightly and Clair thought it was very cute. “Let’s just say it was an X-rated, two word assertion.”
“Surely, it wasn’t a verb followed by the second-person pronoun!” she almost gasped as her fingers went in shock to her lips. They both laughed at her mock prudishness.
“As a respectable petologist…” she raised her eyebrows at his dubious title, but he ignored her challenge “…I could not have that phrase greeting all my clientele, although many would of course have loved it. So, I got a book on operant conditioning to learn how to use a bit of punishment to keep him from echoing his greeting through the store every time the door opened.” Guy sighed.
“I tried to ‘remove the appetitive stimulus’, he said in an arrogant, pedantic voice, but Clair just rolled her eyes, and he grinned and dropped it, “but found that taking away his dinner if he cussed didn’t work. So I had to add the ‘ol noxious stimuli. He paused, “I shocked him each time he said it.” Guy looked pained, and Clair patted his hand, “I didn’t like doing that to Foghorn either.”
After a moment, he let out a sad chuckle, “I hated it so much that I apologized every time I did it, and he eventually stopped saying it. But it left a poignant after affect.” Clair looked at him questioningly.
“May I?” he asked. When it came to her what he was asking, she looked to see that Archer was out of earshot and said, “OK, but not too loudly.” They took a few steps over to Stoopid and he said the offending phrase.
“I’m sorry,” Stoopid responded sadly.
Clair’s hand went to just under her throat, “He said it in your voice!”
“A constant reminder,” Guy said quietly with moisture showing in his eyes.
Clair suddenly had the feeling that she might really come to like this interesting man.
Chapter 3: Little Dinosaurs
Meanwhile, Archer was wandering through the store. He didn’t care much about the restrictions his mom had set. He was just excited that he was about to get his first pet. For as long as he remembered, he had imagined what fun it would be to have something alive to play with and take care of.
This pet store had a smell he liked. They had gone to another store about two years before, but it had smelled like a hospital. This felt like animals lived here. It wasn’t dirty or stinky, but just had a clean, natural animal smell. When they went to the other place they had bought some fish, and later came back for lights and shells and other things to put in their tank. His mom let him pick out the deep-sea diver that walked the bottom of their ocean, and he had rigged the hose that made bubbles for the fish so they looked like they were coming out of his helmet.
Sometimes at night he still liked to sit in the dark of the room, with nothing but the blue light of the tank on and watch them fish-gulp their food, glide smoothly through the depths, or just hang in the water with nothing but their side fins twitching. Other times he imagined that he was the man in the deep-sea suit, hunting for treasure or battling sharks, even if his imagined terrors of the deep were really only about three inches big.
Although he liked them, he didn’t think of his fish as pets. His mom had said they were and enough for the small apartment they had moved into. He had finally convinced her to let him get a ‘real pet’ when he made her laugh at his reasoning that “Fish aren’t pets because you can’t pet them.” She had replied, “Yes you can. They just don’t like it!” but she understood what he meant.
Today was the day! As he wandered all through the store, he considered every creature he passed. He talked to some of them to see if they reacted. Others he imagined picking up and playing with or feeding by hand. He was thinking about maybe getting a hamster, although his mom had wrinkled her nose at the thought (or maybe the imagined smell), and suggested a parakeet. Maybe if he asked for a snake – he knew they gave his mom ‘the willies’ – she would agree to the hamster. He started to walk over to the snakes. He passed a tarantula and grinned at the reaction he knew that would get from his mom!
Suddenly, a low growl came from the back wall of the shop. But it wasn’t a familiar growl. A deep vibration, he sensed that it was probably too steady to be a natural, animal noise, although it did increase and decrease slightly in a way that Archer thought sounded a little threatening. But it wasn’t like any sound Archer had ever heard in a pet store before, and he turned towards it.
Over in the corner, away from the other cages and at the end of the fish tanks, was a terrarium. There seemed to be something different about it. He realized that it was vibrating! A flash of white caught his eye. A bright sun lamp was attached to the terrarium and its light shuddered in the vibration, making it glint and flash off a shiny something inside. Everything else in that part of the store was shadowed, and Archer felt a little nervous. He started to back up.
But he paused as his curiosity began to get the better of his concern. Slowly, he began to creep towards the strange tank. It was on a folding card table almost as tall as he was, and he found himself crouched over tensely as he got nearer. Bending even lower, he reached the table with his head completely below the terrarium.
Looking up, he noticed that the tank was quite near the edge of the table, which was also vibrating. Now that he was next to it, he could tell the growl was coming from very close, maybe from inside the terrarium! Very slowly, he began to straighten. His eyes passed the table top and came close to some sand in the tank’s bottom. His face began to reach the top of the sand…
Archer jumped back with a shout as a gigantic jaw with many sharp teeth slammed against the tank’s glass! After a quick breath, he began to laugh, embarrassed at his frightened shout. Because his eye had been almost against the glass and the creature’s head had banged directly on the other side, the mouth of the monster had seemed huge! The fact was that it wasn’t much larger than Archer’s eye.
And it was attached to a small alligator!
On glancing about he counted three more of the little creatures in the tank, boldly stalking their domain like a quartet of miniature dinosaurs. What had reflected the light was one of many shell fragments that littered the terrarium. Archer realized from the size of the eggs and alligators that they must have just hatched.
Then in the middle of the tank, he saw a shell wobble. It wasn’t a fragment – another egg was about to hatch! Fascinated, he watched as a hole appeared in the egg. From the hole came a snout and a head followed the snout. For a moment the head poking from the shell pivoted from side to side, seemingly curious, as if wondering “My, what strange bigger egg is this?”
The creature turned his head toward Archer and their eyes met. Archer’s grin froze. Not in fear, but in wonder! Without knowing how he knew, he was certain the little one was looking at him. And not just with his eyes or scanning his surrounding, as he had been a moment before. He was considering him! As soon as he thought this, the little creature seemed to appreciate it as well. His curious expression changed and, while Archer still couldn’t explain how he knew, he felt him smile at him! Then the small alligator gave him two small, slow nods.
Abruptly, the small alligator’s attention went back to this new world and his fellow reptiles. He pushed within his shell, there was a little ‘crack’ sound, the egg’s hole opened wider, and the youngest ‘gator pranced forth to join his brothers and sisters. Two of them, one being the largest of the batch, immediately came over to check out the new arrival. The smaller of the two touched him gently, nose to nose, and then proceeded to sniff over the rest of his body as if making sure that all legs, scales and other alligator parts were in attendance.
The other, biggest gator…if the size of a finger could be considered big…walked to the side of the newest hatchling and, with what Archer again felt to be a big grin, stuck his snout under his belly and lifted him into the air. With a final twist of his head he flipped the little one into a saucer of water, where he landed with a splash amongst his siblings, and the three commenced to see who could stand on top of the others the longest.
Entranced by their playful antics, he let out a yelp of laughter.
“First a holler, and now laughter. What’s so much fun about a few eggs in the sand,” said the pet store owner as he walked over to him.
“Well, I’ll be danged. They up and hatched while my back was turned. One, two, three, four, why all five of them. Quite a show they’re putting on, isn’t it?” Guy smiled at the young boy. “But what’s this?” he continued, reaching out to touch the vibrating table. “Oh, its leg is up against the air compressor for the fish tanks, which must have just cycled back on.”
He pulled the table away from the machine, and it and the terrarium became quiet.
“Sounded like some kind of growling thing, didn’t it?” the man winked at Archer. Archer nodded and smiled back a bit sheepishly, glad that it wasn’t just his imagination that made a monster out of a bubble maker. Guy picked up the terrarium and put it on the floor.
“Why that’s really strange,” he said, looking more closely at the quintet frisking about in the terrarium. “Even though they’re all from the same batch, since they all just hatched, they’re different sizes. Why that one,” he motioned at the gator Archer had just seen flip the littlest one into the water, “must be twice as big as the littlest one. I wouldn’t think that could be possible.”
“What is it?” asked Clair, coming over to join them. “Oh, how darling, a batch of crocodiles!”
“Actually, they’re alligators,” the store manager corrected, describing snout shapes and egg differences for a moment. “The unusual thing is that they were just sitting in a box on the steps of the store when I came to open up yesterday. Kittens or mongrel puppies sometimes, but I don’t usually get mystery gifts like…”
“Can we buy them, Mom? Please!!” Archer interrupted, unable in his excitement to be as polite as he usually was. He went down on a knee and started talking to the little creatures as his eyes pleaded up to his mom.
“Oh, wait son,” Guy held up his hands quickly, “I didn’t mean for you to think that these are pets! Alligators are carnivores. That means they eat meat. If their mouths were big enough, they wouldn’t think twice of biting off your finger if they were hungry.” He turned to Clair and continued.
“Alligator hunting is permitted in many states during certain times, but it’s illegal to buy or sell the animals. Why, I would need a special permit to even feed an alligator, and the regulations…”
“Guy,” Clair said quietly. Something in the tone of her voice stopped him instantly. He looked at her questioningly, but she just nodded towards the terrarium. As he turned to look an eerie quietness had descended on the pet store. All the little sounds the animals usually made were momentarily silenced.
When Archer had leaned over the terrarium to talk to the alligators he had spread his hand in the sand to keep his balance. The littlest alligator had started walking towards it. The small fellow had then put his front feet on Archer’s middle fingernail. By the time Guy had turned to look, each of the other four alligators had marched to Archer’s hand and had put their front paws on each of his other fingers in the same way. Now, all of them were perfectly still, their heads turned up to the pet store owner.
Guy tried twice unsuccessfully to speak. On the third try he managed to whisper,
“Sometimes, regulations can be overlooked.”