Authors: T. C. Boyle
Tags: #Adult, #Collections
My back began to signal its displeasure and my arms felt as if all the bone and sinew had been cored out of them. Did I mention that I don’t have much respect for Freddie Altamirano? That I don’t like him? That he lives to steal my clients?
“Hey, brother,” he said, treating me to a big wet phony grin,
“where you been keeping? I been here like fifteen minutes and they are pissed up there at the hospital. Come on, come on,” he urged as I worked through the muddy keys, and the grin was gone now.
It took maybe three minutes, no more, before Freddie had the cooler secured—minutes that were ticking down till the donor organ was just a piece of meat you could have laid out on the stainless steel counter at the market—and then he was off, kicking up mud, the blast of his exhaust like the first salvo in a war of attrition. But I didn’t care about any of that. I cared about the liver and where it was going. I cared about the woman who’d taken hold of my wrist and her husband and the little girl I never did get to lay eyes on. And though I was wet through and shivering and my car was stuck and my shoes ruined and my hands so blistered I couldn’t make a fist with either one, I started back up the hill—and not, as you might think, to watch the lucky man emerge from the hole in the ground or to take a bow or anything like that, but just to see if anybody else needed digging out.
She was out in the flower bed, crushing snails—and more on them later—when she happened to glance up into the burning eyes of an optical illusion. Without her glasses and given the looming ob-struction of the brim of her straw gardener’s hat, which kept slipping down the crest of her brow every time she bent forward, she couldn’t be sure what she was seeing at first. She was wearing the hat even though it was overcast because the doctor had removed a basal cell carcinoma from the lobe of her left ear six months ago and she wasn’t taking any chances, not with the hole in the ozone layer and the thinning—or was it thickening?—of the atmosphere. She was wearing sunblock too, though it had been raw and gray all week, grayer than she would have imagined last winter when she was living in Waunakee, Wisconsin, with her sister Anita and thinking of palm trees and a fat glowing postcard sun that melted everything away in its wake. It never rained in Southern California, except that it had been raining all week, all month, and the snails, sliding along on their freeways of slime, loved it. They were everywhere, chewing holes in her nasturtiums, yellowing the tips of her Kaffir lilies and sucking at the bright orange flowers till the delicate petals turned brown and dropped off.
Which was why she was out here this morning, early, before Doug was awake, while the mist clung like gauze to the ground and the L.A. Times landed with a resounding thump in the driveway, down on her hands and knees crushing snails with the garden trowel. She was a vegetarian, like her sister—they’d made a vow when they were in junior high—and she didn’t like to kill anything, not even the flies that gathered in fumbling flotillas on the windowsill, but this was different, this was a kind of war. The snails were an invasive species, the very same escargot people paid fifteen dollars a plate for in the restaurant, brought here at the turn of the last century by a French chef who was a little lax in keeping them in their pens or cages or wherever. They were destroying her plants, so she was destroying them. The tip of the trowel closed over the whorl of the shell and then she pressed down and was rewarded by an audible pop as the shell gave way. She didn’t want to look, didn’t want to see the naked dollop of meat trying to follow its probing antennae out of the ruin of its shell, and so she pressed down again until the thing was buried, each snail following the next to its grave.
And then she looked up. And what she saw didn’t compute, not at first. Right there, right behind the wrought-iron fence Doug had put up to keep the deer out of her garden, there seemed to be a big cat watching her, a big striped cat the size of a pony—a tiger, that was what it was, a tiger from India with a head as wide across as the pewter platter she trucked out each Thanksgiving for the veggie cornucopia. She was startled—who wouldn’t be? She’d seen tigers at the zoo, on the Nature Channel, in cages at the circus, but not in her own backyard in Moorpark, California—might as well expect a polar bear in the Bahamas or a warthog at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. It took her a minute, staring into the yellow eyes and the blistered snout from thirty feet away, her vision blurred, the hat slipping down over her eyebrows, before she thought to be afraid.
“Doug,” she called in a low voice, as if he could hear her across the yard and through the pink stucco wall of the house, “Doug, Doug.”
She wondered if she should move, come out of her crouch and wave her arms and shout—wasn’t that what you were supposed to do, wave your arms and shout? But the tiger, improbable as it was, didn’t lift its lip in a snarl or leap over the fence or drift away into a corner of her imagination. No, it only twitched its tail and lifted its ears at the sound of her voice.
Two thousand miles away, under a sky of hammered granite, Anita Nordgarden was kicking across the frozen expanse of the drive, two bags of groceries clutched in her arms. She was on the midnight shift at the Page Center for Elder Care, midnight to eight a.m., and she’d had a few drinks after work with some of the other nurses, then sifted through the aisles at the supermarket for the things she’d forgotten she needed. Now, the wind in her face, her fingertips stinging with the cold, she wasn’t thinking very clearly, but if she was thinking anything, it was the fish, Lean Cuisine, pop it in the microwave, wash it down with two glasses of chardonnay and then read till she fell away into the deeps of her midday sleep that was all but indistinguishable from a coma. Or maybe she’d watch a movie, because she was exhausted and a movie required less effort than a book, though she’d seen each of the twenty-three cassettes on the shelf over the TV so many times she could have stopped her ears and cinched a blindfold over her eyes and watched them all the same.
She was just mounting the steps to her trailer when a shadow detached itself from the gloom beneath the doorstep and presented a recognizable face to her. This was One-Eye, the feral torn that lived with his various paramours in the secret fastness beneath the trailer, an animal she neither encouraged nor discouraged. She’d never had a cat. Never especially liked them. And Robert, when he was alive, wouldn’t have an animal in the house. Every once in a while, she’d toss a handful of kibble out in the yard, feeling charitable, but the cat was a bird killer—more than once she’d come home to find feathers scattered round the steps—and she probably would have got rid of it if it weren’t for the mice. Since he’d moved in beneath the trailer she’d stopped finding the slick black mouse pellets in the cupboards and scattered across the kitchen counter and she didn’t like to think of the disease they carried. At any rate, there he was, One-Eye, just staring at her as if she’d somehow intruded on him, and she was about to say something, to raise her voice in a soft, silly half-lubricated falsetto and murmur Kitty, kitty, when the cat suddenly darted back under the steps and she looked up to see a man coming round the corner of the trailer opposite hers.
He walked in a jaunty, almost demented way, closing quickly on her with a big artificial grin on his face—he was selling something, that was it—and before she could get her key in the door he was right there. “Good morning,” he boomed, “lovely morning, huh?
Don’t you love the cold?” He was tall, she saw, nearly as tall as she was perched atop the third step, and he was wearing some sort of animal-skin hat with the ragged frizz of a tail dangling in back—coonskin, she wanted to call it, only she saw right away that this wasn’t raccoon but something else. “Need a hand?”
“No,” she said, and she would have closed out the scene right there, but for the look in his eyes: he wanted something, but he didn’t want it desperately and he wasn’t selling anything, she could see that now. There was a mystery here, and at this hour of the morning, with two Dewar’s and sodas in her and nothing to look forward to but the fish and the chardonnay and the sleep of the dead, she felt the prick of it. “No, thanks,” she added, “I can manage,”
and she was pushing open the door when he made his pitch.
“I was just wondering if you might have a minute to spare—? To talk. Just a minute, that’s all?”
A Jesus freak, she was thinking. All I need. She was halfway through the door, looking back at him, down at him, but he must have been six-five, six-six, and his fixed blue eyes were nearly on a level with hers. “No,” she said, “I don’t think so. I work nights and—”
He lifted his eyebrows and the corners of his mouth went up a notch. “Oh, no, no, no,” he said, “I’m not a Bible-thumper or anything like that. I’m not selling anything, nothing at all. I’m your neighbor, is all? Todd Gray? From over on Betts Street?”
The wind was at war with the heater and the soft warm slightly rancid smell of home that emanated from the pillows of the built-in couch and the cheap floorboards and the kitchen counter and the molded plastic strips of the ceiling. She was half-in and half-out and he was standing there on the frozen ground.
“No,” he said, “no,” as if she were protesting, “I just wanted to talk to you about Question 62, that’s all. And I won’t take a minute of your time.”
She was down on her hands and knees for so long her back began to ache—her lower back, right at the base of the spine, where gravity tugged at the bunched muscles there and her stomach sagged beneath them—and she could feel the burden of her torso in her shoulders and wrists. She was there so long the mist began to lift and an oblivious snail slid out from the furls of one of the plants and etched a trail across the knuckles of her right hand. But she didn’t want to move. She couldn’t move. She was beyond fear now and deep into the realm of fascination, of magic and wonder and the compelling strangeness of the moment. A tiger. A tiger in her garden. No one would believe it. No one, not Doug snoring in the bedroom or Anita locked away in her trailer with its frozen skirt of snow and the wind sitting in the north.
The tiger hadn’t moved. It sat there on its haunches like a dog anticipating a treat, braced on its big buff paws, ears erect, tail twitching, watching her. She’d been talking to it in a low voice for some time now, offering up blandishments against the dwindling nugget of her fear, saying, Good boy, good cat, that’s right, yes—and here her voice contracted to a syrupy chirp—he just wants a little love, doesn’t he? A little love, yeah?
The animal made no sign it understood, but it stayed there, pressed to the fence, apparently as fascinated as she, and as the mist clotted round the smooth lanceolate leaves of the oleanders and steamed from the wet shingles of the Hortons’ across the way, she understood that this was somebody’s pet, the ward of some menagerie owner or private collector like that man in the Bronx or Brooklyn or wherever it was with the full-grown tiger in his apartment and the six-foot alligator in the bathtub. Of course it was.
This wasn’t Sumatra or the Sunderbans—aliens hadn’t swooped down overnight in one of their radiant ships and set loose a plague of tigers across the land. The animal was a pet. And it had got loose.
It was probably hungry. Bewildered. Tired. It was probably as surprised to see her in her straw hat and faded green overalls as she was to see it—or him. It was definitely a him—she could see the crease where his equipment lay against his groin and the twin bulbs of his testicles.
But she couldn’t crouch like this forever—her back was killing her. And her wrists. Her wrists had gone numb. Very slowly, as if she were doing yoga to a tape running at half-speed, she lowered her bottom down in the damp soil and felt the pressure ease in her arms, and that was all right, except that her new posture seemed to confound the cat—or excite him.
He moved up off his haunches and slid silkily down the length of the iron fence, then swung round and came back again, the muscles tensed in his shoulders as he rubbed against the bars, and she was sure that he’d been in a cage, that he wanted a cage now—the security of it, the familiarity, probably the only environment he’d ever known—and all she could think of was how to get him in here, inside the fence and maybe into the garage, where she could lock the door and hide him away.
Since Robert died—was killed, that is—she hadn’t had many visitors.
There was Tricia, who lived with her boyfriend three trailers down—she sometimes came in for a cup of tea in the evening when Anita was just waking up and trying to consolidate her physical resources for the shift ahead, but her schedule kept her pretty much to herself. She was only thirty-five, widowed less than a year, the blood still ran in her veins and she liked a good time as much as anybody else. Still, it was hard to find people who wanted to make the rounds of the bars at eight a.m., other than congenital losers and pinch-faced retirees hunched over a double vodka as if it was going to give them back the key to their personalities, and the times she’d tried to go out at night on her days off she’d found herself drifting over her first beer while everybody else got up and danced. And so she invited him in, this man, Todd, and here he was sprawled on the couch in his faded cowboy boots with his legs that ran on forever, and she was offering him some stale Triscuits and a bright orange block of cheddar she’d surreptitiously shaved the mold off of and she was just wondering if he might like a glass of chardonnay.
He’d let his grin flag, but it came back now, a boy’s grin, the grin that had no doubt got him whatever he wanted wherever he went.
He pushed the hat back till the roots of his hair showed in front, squared his shoulders and gathered in his legs. She saw that he was her age, or close enough, and she saw too that he wasn’t wearing a wedding ring. “A little early for me,” he said, and his laugh was genuine. “But if you’re going to have one—”
She was already pouring. “I told you,” she said, “I work nights.”
The wine was one of her few indulgences—it was from a little California vineyard in the Santa Ynez Valley. She and her sister Mae had gone wine-tasting when she was visiting over Christmas and she liked the faint dry echo of the chardonnay so much she had two cases shipped back to Wisconsin. Her impulse was to hoard it, but she was feeling generous this morning, expansive in a way that had nothing to do with the two scotches or the way the trailer ticked and hummed over its heating element and a feeble cone of rinsed-out sunshine poked through the blinds. “This is cocktail hour for me,”
she said, handing him the glass, “my chance to kick back before dinner.”
“Right,” he said, “just about the time everybody else is getting to work with crumbs in their lap and a cardboard cup of lukewarm coffee. I used to work nights,” he said. “At a truck stop. I know how it is.”
She’d eased into the chair opposite him, his legs snaking out again as if he couldn’t contain them, boots crossed at the ankles, then uncrossed and crossed again. “So what do you do now?” she asked, wishing she’d had a chance to put on some lipstick, brush her hair. In time, though. In time she would. Especially if he stayed for a second glass.
His eyes, which had never strayed from hers since he hunched through the door, slipped away and then came back again. He shrugged. “This and that.”