By Dana Snell
It was my friend John’s birthday. John was also my neighbour, and lived upstairs. His girlfriend had wanted to do something special so she had hired someone called Tiger King to bring a live tiger to the party. I was waiting downstairs in my apartment for John to call and say the tiger was there. I wasn’t really interested in the party, just the tiger. I had images of a wild, roaring thing straining against a chain leash held fast by the brave strong Tiger King. Maybe some tricks involving a whip and a stool, or a flaming hoop. And there was always the chance that the tiger might break free. I liked the idea of a captivity-crazed jungle cat running amok at a crowded birthday party.
I was watching TV to kill the time, idly flipping between National Geographic and Animal Planet. I was hoping for something on tigers. There was a knock on my door.
“The party’s upstairs,” I yelled at the door. My attention was on a shark stalking prey in shallow water. Sharks. The tigers of the sea. There was another knock, which I ignored. They’d figure it out.
Then I heard the door opening. I swiveled around to see what kind of asshole would just open someone’s door. A small child was standing in the doorway. I’ve never been that good at carbon dating children but if I had to guess I’d say he was about 10 years old. He was kind of pudgy, with chubby pale cheeks and dirty blonde hair that feathered out over his ears and hung down long in the back. Like my hair looked in pictures of me as a kid, though back then everybody had their hair like that. He had smears of grey dirt on his face and his faded green sweatshirt was dyed with overlapping layers of multicoloured stains. He was looking at me with big blue eyes.
I stared back at him.
“Can I have a peanut butter sandwich?” he finally said.
I unclenched my fists. It was just a normal dirty kid who had found his way down into my apartment.
“Um, hi, little guy, what are you doing here?” My voice was unusually high.
He took a couple steps into the apartment and looked around. I got off the couch and stood up.
“Who’s upstairs, your parents?”
“My dad is.” He caught sight of my X-box and before I could stop him he had picked it up and was turning it over.
“Hey, cut it out.” I took the X-box out of his probably sticky hands.
“Can I have a peanut butter sandwich?”
“You know you shouldn’t just be walking into people’s apartments like this. I could be a sicko or something.”
“Are you?” He was looking at me with nothing but the mildest curiosity.
“Can I have a peanut butter sandwich?”
The phone rang. The kid was reaching for the X-box again. “Don’t touch that,” I said as I picked up the phone.
“Hey! The tiger is here!” It was John.
“Really? Cool. What’s it look like?”
“It’s huge! Get up here.” I could hear the excited noise of voices in the background, but no roaring.
“OK but there’s this kid here – ” he had hung up.
“Hey! What did I just say?” I grabbed the X-box from him again.
“I hooked up my X-box to my computer. Now I can run flight simulators that are like, 100 times better than the ones NASA has. And I have the new Guitar Hero that’s so new it hasn’t even come out yet.”
“What are you talking about kid? You can’t hook an X-box up to a computer.”
He was flipping through my magazines. He had that kids’ way of turning the pages, where they don’t flip them from the edge but plant their hand in the middle of the page and curl their fingers, so that they half-scrunch the page up and then kind of fling it aside.
“Can I have a peanut butter sandwich?” he said without looking up.
At that very moment there was a real live tiger one floor up, probably jumping through a flaming hoop to the appreciative oohs and aahs of the party crowd.
“Do you wanna go upstairs and see the tiger?” I tried to make it sound really exciting.
“No.” He didn’t say it in a rude way, but I wondered at the lack of “thanks”. “Can I have a peanut butter sandwich?”
“OK, how about I make you a sandwich, then we’ll go up and see the tiger. Huh?” He said nothing to this, just kept on ruining my magazines. I went to the kitchen and made the sandwich, hoping that if I held up my end of the bargain he would hold up his. While slathering peanut butter onto bread I called John’s to see who the jerk was who had
1) brought a kid to an adult party
2) left them to wander the building.
No one answered the phone.
The kid was on the couch when I came back. I sat down beside him while he chewed the sandwich, both of us watching a shark thrashing in slow motion. He had that kid’s way of eating too, both hands gripping the sandwich at 10 and 2. The arms of his loose sweatshirt had fallen down around his elbows and I could see that his forearms were a blotchy red, as if covered with Indian burns. He was getting peanut butter all over his face and crumbs all down his shirt and onto the couch. I could smell a sickly-sweet smell coming from him, probably from his hair, which on closer inspection was really grubby. Whole patches of strands were coated with some kind of dusty goo. I looked away before I saw things crawling.
“This doesn’t have enough peanut butter,” he said when it was half gone.
“Look kid, wouldn’t you like to go back upstairs? I’ll go with you.”
He stopped chewing. “You want to see the tiger.”
“Yeah! Don’t you?”
“Everybody always wants to see the stupid tiger. It’s ugly and smells like piss.”
Suddenly it occurred to me that this child was not the offspring of one of the party guests, but was in fact the son of the Tiger King himself.
“Is the tiger yours?”
“It’s my dad’s.”
“That’s amazing!” I was busy imagining an alternate childhood for myself, one where my father was not an accountant from Barrie but the swarthy and powerful Tiger King. In this imaginary infancy, my oldest friend and companion would be, of course, a full grown Bengal tiger. The tiger would give me rides around the backyard while we plotted a trip to school where I would impress my friends and destroy my enemies.
“All it does all day is lie around. It’s really old. It has cataracts.”
Just then there was a thump from upstairs, followed by the unmistakable sound of relieved laughter and loud chatter as if a crisis had been narrowly averted. The kid was gabbing away about some other feat of electronic wizardry he had accomplished, hooking the CD player up to the blender or something, when he noticed me heading for the door.
“Where are you going?”
“I’ll be back in a second. You just wait here and watch TV.”
He stared at me and gulped down some sandwich, hard. It looked for a second like he was going to cry.
“I’ll be right back. Then I’ll make you another peanut butter sandwich.”
“I hate the tiger.”
Upstairs the party was bustling with happy noise. I pushed through the ringed crowd. There was the tiger, huge, dirty, lying on the floor. Its head and paws looked big and heavy, like large over-stuffed tiger-shaped cushions. It blinked its cloudy, scummy eyes at the floor. It looked like it didn’t know where it was.
Kneeling beside it, with a proprietary hand on its dirty flank, was a sketchy looking guy in a greasy jean jacket. He had a true-blue mullet haircut, and was smoking without using his hands.
“Hey there man,” he said when he saw me push up. He resumed a speech already in progress, something about humanity and civilization. I don’t really remember.
John was sitting beside him, not listening to him but tentatively reaching out his hand and touching the tiger’s back paw, just reaching out and touching it until the tiger finally flicked his tail and twitched his back leg a little, like an annoyed cat, and John laughed and looked up at the crowd like he had just cheated death.
“Hey,” he said when he saw me. “Come here and check this out.”
I moved towards the tiger, getting close to its big heavy head. The smell of urine rose off its body like steam. I knelt down and looked at its face. Its eyes were blank milky disks.
Tiger King was still talking, to no one in particular. John reached out and touched the tiger’s faded coat. I could see its white furry belly, the size and shape of an inflated hockey bag, moving up and down with quick little breaths. This time, the tiger didn’t even bother twitching. It didn’t even look over.
“What’s his name?” I asked.
Tiger King gave the tiger’s flank a quick slap and smiled.
“His name’s Simba.”
“Doesn’t Simba mean lion?” I remembered it from the Lion King.
“No,” he said sharply. He’d obviously been asked that question before. “Simba means ‘great cat'”.
“Did he ever, like, attack anybody?”
“Not that I know of. I’ve only had him for two years. Before that he was in the circus, touring around the world. But he got a bit old for that. So I suppose he could have attacked somebody, when he was in the circus, but the guy who sold him to me said he was docile. Of course, he could have been lying.” As if he could see my disappointment, the Tiger King continued. “I was just telling your friends here about that one time he broke out of his cage at, like, 4 in the morning and wandered all through Belleville. He got all the way downtown. Cops had to nail him with a tranquilizer gun.”
I looked at the tiger in front of me, wondering where it had found the energy.
“What was that noise I heard earlier?”
John’s girlfriend laughed. “John dropped something coming back from the kitchen, and the tiger jumped, like, a foot. I was freaking out.”
I knew right then I had missed what little action was in the cards.
“You know,” I said, suddenly remembering, “your son is downstairs in my apartment.”
“Oh yeah?” he said.
“Yeah. I made him a peanut butter sandwich.”
“A peanut butter sandwich?” Tiger King stared at me, deadly serious. “He’s allergic to peanut butter!”
But before I could say “oh crap!” and run to the phone to dial 911 Tiger King laughed, a hoarse, raspy sound that threatened to but did not quite dislodge the cigarette stuck to his lip.
“I’m just fucking with you man. Nah, he’s a good kid.” He slapped the tiger’s flank again as he said this. The tiger grumbled in complaint. The whole room gasped as if the tiger had let out a mighty roar, then they all started chattering to each other, excited. Photos snapped. Someone, I think it was Chris, yelled “Down in front!” but I ignored him. These people obviously didn’t know what entertainment was. They were the type that would go to see a stand-up comic and laugh even if he wasn’t funny. They were just doing what they were supposed to do. John could be forgiven, because it was his party and he was probably drunk, but the rest of them…
The depressing part was they would all go home and tell their co-workers and friends about the great party they went to with a real live tiger instead of telling them what truly happened – a white-trash child abuser brought a blind old tiger over and it sat on the floor all night stinking like piss.
I was ready to go home. There was a strange child in my apartment, but that didn’t matter really. Like Tiger King said, he wasn’t a bad kid. He was a little dirty and a little rude, but, I mean, just look at the conditions he was raised in. No, it wouldn’t be so bad. We could watch TV, I could make him another sandwich, this time with extra peanut butter. I was even prepared to listen to his stories about hooking things up to other things. We could trade notes on how bad the tiger smelled.
“Hey you,” Tiger King jerked his head at me. “Wanna see something?” He grabbed my arm and pulled it up to the tiger’s mouth.
“Simba, kiss. Come on Simba, kiss.”
The tiger’s thick, grey-pink tongue slowly pushed out of its mouth and rasped all along my forearm. I tried to pull away but Tiger King’s grip was tight. Immediately I felt a painful stinging like I had just fallen off a bike and scraped my arm on dirty asphalt.
Everyone was laughing and the girls were saying “awww” like it was the cutest thing they’d ever seen. I wrenched my arm free. Without looking at any of them, I hurried to the bathroom. I peered at my arm under the mirror light. There was a wide stripe of inflamed, unhealthy pink and some of my arm hair had been pulled off. I carefully washed my arm with hot water and whatever girly smelly soap John’s girlfriend had in there. I prayed against infection. Then I remembered the Indian burns on the kid’s arm.
When I came out, John’s girlfriend was on her knees wiping up a huge puddle of piss with a beach towel. Tiger King and the tiger were gone and the rest of the guests had filled in the room, holding drinks, talking and laughing.
I hurried down the stairs to my apartment. The kid was gone. So was my X-box. I ran to the window and saw Tiger King hoisting the tiger into the backseat of a battered Honda. I couldn’t see the kid.
“Hey,” I yelled.
The Tiger King slammed the door on the tiger, looked up and waved at me, cigarette still dangling, as he went around the car to the driver’s side. I ran down the stairs and out onto the street and reached the car just as it was pulling away.
“Hey,” I yelled again. The car belched a mixture of gray exhaust and jungle cat piss in my face. I tried to make out the back of the kid’s dirty head, but it was dark, and all I could see was the tiger.
Dana Snell is a hardworking musician who plays with The Bicycles, Gentleman Reg, Henri Fabrege and the Adorables and Sheezer: the world’s first all-female Weezer cover band. She is also a fiction writer whose stories have appeared in the Hart House Review, Word Literary Calendar and Two Stories published by Junction Books.