5.10 / October 2010

Sugar The Tiger

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I told him not to worry, that my favorite word is dyke, and my second favorite word is cunt. I told him that I left the army on good terms, considering, although I didn’t tell him considering what. And anyway, I figure Boxer hired me mostly because of my pickup. You can’t run a fence business with just two shit-ass trucks and a pair of shit-ass in-laws. I’m grateful for the job, but it’s a long haul from protecting our nation to protecting the Baumgarten’s cockapoo from coyotes.

My truck bed’s full of rolls of chain link, and I’m heading out in the rain to the Killbuck Exotic Animal Sanctuary. I’m good at riding these hills and the highway. I drive around all weekend. What else am I gonna do? I listen to NASCAR and imagine the announcers are talking about me. They say, “She’s pulling away from the pack.” When the driver I’m pretending to be burns out, I can’t help drifting toward the median. But this morning, I’m listening to nothing but the rain and my loose windshield wiper.

Boxer and his boys-in-law beat me to the Sanctuary. I get a nod from Boxer, nothing from the boys, and I don’t offer them anything.

The property owners’ daughter, Della, waves a muddy glove at me, and I smile at her. She’s my age, maybe a little younger, maybe a college girl, and she looks like a cartoon princess covered in mud. The girl gets down to business. She walks us through the acreage, and I trail behind her, not minding the view.

It’s barely raining, but it’s humid as a motherfuck. I can’t see far in the soup, but the land doesn’t look worth shit. Downhill, the Killbuck River’s bending, swelled-up, around a spray of dead spruces. Beyond the river, patches of tore-up trees dot a scrabbly field.

“The river’s up like five feet,” Della says. “It’s putting on a show for you.”

The pens and the fences are pretty messed up. Limbs are hanging off the shade trees by flaps, and plastic bags are stuck to the chain link. Empty two-gallon jugs roll by like tumbleweed.

“Jesus. Looks like you guys really got the tornado,” Boxer says.

“Our windbreaker trees died. It normally doesn’t look like this,” Della says. “The fancy rescues have double-layer fences that spring back if a tree crashes into them. If my parents had the money,” she says.

This is gonna be one big ass job. Della shows us the lock-outs, which look like dog crates to me, outside the tarp-covered pens attached to larger enclosures, plus the fence around the entire property. For the perimeter fence, she’ll need the six-foot woven wire, but today, we’ll just get started on the approximately one thousand miles of twelve-foot galvanized chain link. I can imagine the bill Boxer’s gonna slap this girl with. He’s gonna start whistling soon.

I skid twice trying to keep up with Della, and I end up with mud up to my socks. The boys are barely listening to her and are even too stupid to stare. I walk by her side. We go by a pen with these skinny, dust-colored monkeys, all of them talking at once, probably about me.

Della tells us the alligators were pets people set free.

“But it’s not like they know they’re not allowed to eat wiener dogs, right?” she says.

Boxer deals with the utility lines. I ask Della about the turtles so we’ll have something to talk about. She says the tortoises were dumped, cause they got too big and too old. They’re in their twenties and the size of deflated beach balls.

“Breeders lie. They say tortoises like Munch and Munchkin will stay small. Deceptive advertising,” she says. “Not the animal’s fault. Petals is another pet someone got tired of. Normally, ferret rescues take skunks, but she has major attitude issues. Don’t you, Petals? Yes, you do. Yes, you do.”

I push up the brim of my “Boxer Fencing” cap and crouch. A skunk’s cuter close up than I expected. Kind of like a skinny guinea pig.

“She’s not much of a lap skunk, which sucks, cause she’s been totally destinked.”

“That’s smart,” I say.

“A skunk’s got a right to stink,” she says and shoots me this sharp little look that makes my stomach jump.   “Those sheep were downers, and they were being dragged into the slaughterhouse by one leg, and Mom and Dad rescued them, and nursed them back to health. The ones that made it are totally fine now, except, sometimes, Luisa will run sideways, really fast, into the gate. And somebody tried to set the goats on fire.”

Then she takes us to the tiger.

“Sugar,” Della says. “Visitors.”

The tiger ignores us. With its back to us, it just looks like a tiger-striped sofa. Scattered between the high grasses, the crabgrass, and the rock wall, I spot a soccer ball, a basketball, a plastic backyard pool, and an overturned log in the center of the pen lined with deep gashes.

“It takes five thousand dollars a year to feed her alone. The dental bills are through the roof, okay? Majorly ridiculous. She used to be named Snaggletooth, but we call her Sugar. Sug, come on over. Okay, so, she’ll meet you sometime,” Della says. “I promise.”

It’s my turn to pick the radio station. The boys, D-bag and JB, play cock rock, and Boxer plays old school country. I like it quiet. I let Della pick, and she steps right into my pickup, one foot flat and one in the air for balance. She leans way over my seat and fiddles till she finds one of the queer-boy public radio voices.

He’s going, “—and the waters ran red with whale blood.”

Della reminds me of a pinup with her huge eyes and brown skin with no pores. Her hair is long, and black, and sun-streaked reddish. Short, thin wisps are stuck to her neck by sweat, and her baby hairs are clumping together. Like I said, a pin-up.

Myself, I’ve looked better. Today, I’ve got my puke-green shirt and my sports bra uniboob, but at least the rain’ll cover up my pit stains. I lived for years as a slug, then, senior year, I cut my hair, started dressing how I wanted instead of how I was supposed to, and—BAM—I’m a stud. It almost made me angry once I realized how much pussy I’d been missing out on. So, I help girls discover that girls make the best boyfriends. Or, I did. For like, one year, then the army, and, now—well, now I’m nobody’s anything.

The water starts creeping up my jeans, and Della gives me her mother’s waders and Boxer her father’s. The boys get to slip and slide. Boxer’s marking the utilities, and the rest of us unload the tubes and chainlink. This lifting of this mud and wire makes me feel at home.

The river’s thick with silt, moving fast, and carrying branches. The banks are matted with beat-down, fat blades. The water is bright brown.

At lunchtime, Della goes into the trailer and comes out with a freezer bag of what look like busted ping pong balls and turn out to be frozen mice. I take my break in time to watch her feed the tortoises lettuce. The one opens its mouth so big it looks like a happy baby.

Della says her folks are gonna kill her if she doesn’t get these fences up by the time they get back with the new tiger. The new tiger is supposed to be a mate for the first tiger, someone it knew from before.

I get extra tarps from a little cellar carved out of the slope above the pens. The stairs are too steep, too narrow, and too slippery, and the cool smells so sweet and dirty it makes me hungry. We set the terminal posts in concrete, and we measure out the line posts, but we lose the light early, so the guys head out. Friday means Boxer, JB, and D-bag will head to the bar. But any day means that.

The name D-bag probably started out as Dimebag, but now it has got to stand for Douchebag. He’s only a little older than I am, but he’s married and mortgaged. D-bag is the normalish brother, and JB is the slow one, but I bet you couldn’t tell the difference right away. When JB gets frustrated, he turns red and sits in the back of Boxer’s truck. When D-bag gets frustrated, he goes after cinder blocks with sledgehammers. He’s a toddler with superpowers. They’re not at all like my army guys.

What I mean to say is, it doesn’t bother me they don’t invite me along.

I watch the boys and Boxer drive away, and I give the waders back to Della.

“This rain’s gonna be hell. You want me to swing by tomorrow, give you a hand?”

She smiles. “What about your boss?”

“Fuck my boss.”

She blushes, and looks down, and I don’t curse again.

***

I keep the radio to her tuning as I drive home. The asphalt and the clouds are the exact same color. In my headlights, the rain turns into mercury.

This show’s about some experiment where scientists ask people embarrassing questions to see what happens when your brain says one thing, and your mouth goes the other way. They ask, “You ever enjoy a bowel movement? Ever thought you were bad in bed? Ever thought about suicide? How about raping someone or being raped?” And these are all questions these sick scientists think an honest person would answer affirmative to. But, turns out, people just lie. “No, I can’t stand taking a shit. No, I have never thought about raping my landlady.” They talked to a bunch of swimmers, and at the end of their season, they checked back, and all the goddamn lying dipshits were top seed. First, they trick you into admitting you’re a nasty, filthy human being after all, and then, you come in dead last. So, it’s the liars who win. It’s the liars who swim the best.

I drive through the drive-through liquor store, which is better at least than when I’d walk through the drive-through liquor store. The Pig’s Tail keeps their fridges warm, and they’ll stick you if you’re not careful, but I like it there. They’re good people, and they smile at me all the time.

When I pull into my parking spot next to the dumpster, the world is black, but the rain’s stopped. The dogwood outside the back stoop drips fat, cold drops of water on my scalp, which feels amazing. I like the sound of the gravel underneath me. Dainty. I like the soft crinkle of the wet paper bag, and I like the snap of the beer can, and the shush of the foam. I don’t mind warm beer. Never have.

I’m nervous for tomorrow.

When I went back to being a civilian, I started by getting a six-pack, and then I’d get a twelve pack, and then I ended up with a minifridge full of forties, and then I started to wonder why they don’t sell beer in two-liters.

If I could rent a bed in a barrack, I’d do it. I have a room because I don’t think I could stand a whole apartment alone, never mind the money. The cell people turned off my phone, and that’s fine by me.

I lie on my bed with the warm beer on and in my belly. Now, the army probably can’t get enough dykes. Cause fuck they care who I fuck if they need me? They just didn’t need me.

I bet they wish they had my ass now.

But I don’t take it personal.

For two years, the army gave me a real life, a real family, and real friends. It’s hard not to miss it. So, I sit around at night and drink things that taste fucking awful. By the end of the night, everything doubles, then fades.

In the morning, on the road to the Sanctuary, I listen for the weather on the radio. Normally, I don’t mind the clouds, and normally, I like having the lights dimmed. The dark clouds are moving fast, but I’m faster.

Public radio librarian lady is talking about people shown a picture of a bridge. If their language says “bridge” is a feminine word, they say the bridge is beautiful and stable. If “bridge” is masculine in their language, they say the same bridge is strong and, I don’t know, a mean drunk. Who needs a scientist to figure this out? Way back, they tried to teach me French, but my mouth won’t make those sounds. I wonder who I’d think Sugar was if I didn’t know her name was Sugar. I wonder if Della is short for anything.

Della’s got on jeans and an orange and red tee-shirt. She’s a jeans and tee-shirt kind of girl, which is fine by me, cause Elvis fucking Christ does she know how to wear them.

“We can only do what we can do,” I tell her. I show her how to unscrew the end wires of the chain link. When she lifts, she bites her lip and leaves half a ring of dents. Has anyone but me noticed this before? Has Sugar even noticed?

It’s so windy it’s hard not to take it personal. I feel like I’m being blowdried.

“Too hot today,” is all I come up with.

“They say it’ll be nice Monday,” Della says.

“Too hot for a weekend.”

“Thanks again, really,” she says. “Like all we need is the USDA on our backs. They don’t even want to help animals, they just want to catch us out.”

“No problem,” I say. “How often do you have an excuse to go fence shopping?”

She smiles.

Against the far side of the pen, the tiger stretches out in the tall grass. Della whistles, and I follow her around the perimeter. We get closer, and I see that Sugar is a small country. It is a big girl. It is four or five big girls stuffed into a bag. So large it seems fake, like maybe it’s only a special effect.

Sugar turns toward us. It snuffs and twitches its velvet orange nose. I watch Sugar’s whiskers ripple. It’s strange to think of a tiger looking at me. It makes me feel important.

“Field trip kids love her.”

“Can we feed it a rabbit?”

“You can’t watch her eat a live rabbit. No.”

There’s this heavy scraping, and I realize it’s the sound of a tiger breathing. I notice Sugar’s got the same goop along its eyes as most of the cats I’ve ever had.

Sugar sighs and turns its head away from us a little.  That tiger could take a shit and seem thoughtful.

“Does it hate us?” I say.

“No, she doesn’t hate us.”

“Why not?”

Della doesn’t answer me. She just says, “They don’t need help. They need for us to have never noticed them.”

I’m still sort of awe-struck, like how I might feel if I ever met a celebrity. Sugar blinks, and a trail of gray water runs down the side of its nose.

As we clear brush, Della talks to the animals in Spanish. Or Portuguese. Or Chinese, for all I know. I’m so tired I stop paying attention to Della’s soaked shirt.

Except then there’s this mad moan.

It sounds like someone yelling through her throat. When you’re wrecked in bed, and you’ve given up on crying, the kind of sound that comes out then.

It’s the tiger. It must be the tiger. I try to picture that noise coming out of Sugar. Della stands up, faces the pen. After a quiet moment, she walks the perimeter of the tiger enclosure, then goes back to work.

She says to me, “Let me know if you see anything strange.”

Public radio guy keeps getting the time wrong, keeps switching the numbers. He can’t talk about stagnant pressure systems fast enough. The warnings and watches are flying, and the radio keeps breaking into squeals and squelches. But there aren’t any sirens, and sometimes, that’s all you can ask for.

At eight in the morning, Della’s hair was in a tight ponytail. By noon, her hair frizzed out in the sticky heat, and now, it’s a slick cattail stuck to her shirt.

The sun hasn’t really set, it’s just dark all of a sudden except for some heat lightning at the top of the clouds.

She says I should come in.

I’m too tired to drive or to be nervous.

Sugar has nicer digs than Della. In the old single-wide, Della switches on this little golden lamp with a brown shade. The gentle yellow light makes me even sleepier.

Still, all I can see is what I can fix. I can do that screen door up, I can put the handles back on those drawers, I can stick on new laminate. This girl should be living like a princess, with a toucan hanging off her canopy bed and goddamn unicorn on the balcony.

She wonders if I could grab us some beers. I tell her I think I could.

“We’re out of cups,’ she says. “See what happens when I’m in charge?”

“Can’s good.”

The fridge is full of grapes, and ketchup packets, and monkey antibiotics. The two-by-four foot kitchen counter is covered in papers and pink and yellow carbon copies, dollar signs everywhere. Along one wall of the living room is a row of metal filing cabinets, like in the principal’s office. The handles catch the light.   There’s a woolly loveseat and a brown leather recliner with doilies and duct tape, but Della’s sitting cross-legged on the cool tile. I open her beer before I hand it to her.

The radio’s on, and the British are talking. Their murmur doesn’t reach far above the rain. The fan is buzzing, and the beer is cold and buttery. Della sets the bottle on her forearm, which is dotted with bug bites scratched to scab. She has long, narrow hands and torn-up nails with half-circles of dirt above the pink. She is prettier than a person ought to be, though I don’t tell her this. In this dim light, the coffee table glows between us.

“Sorry about the mess,” she says.

“You should see my apartment,” I say. “I’m a slob since I left the service.”

“One day, all of this will be mine,” she says. “It sucks being stuck.”

“Well, not being stuck sucks, too,” I say.

Della doesn’t ask why I’m not in the army anymore. Instead, she says, “Do you miss it?”

“Like crazy,” I say. “I loved all of it. I loved that they loved me. I mean, they loved a version of me. So, that’s not so bad.” I drink. “I have never gotten along with male human beings as well as I got along with those guys. Then they were deployed, so.”

I stop the story there. I don’t tell her that when they asked what I was up to, I had nada. I started making shit up. I told Omar I was applying to college. I told RC I was gonna be an upholsterer, cause that’s where all the money is. I don’t tell her that after I stopped getting thanked for the care packages, I stopped sending them. They’re out fighting. What do we have in common anymore?

RC said when they get back, he’s gonna buy me a lap dance at the Oasis. I don’t know if the offer still stands. And I don’t know why it still feels like it’s my fault, like I’m the one who betrayed them or some horseshit.

I don’t hate the military. Do you hate the friend who decides you’re not good enough? These people liked me. They were my friends. What else can I say.

“Your boss seems all right,” Della says.

“Yeah, he is.”

Last week, I heard Boxer say to the boys, “That ugly bitch does more work than you two shitheads combined.” If he knew I was listening, he’d never said something so nice.

“And the other guys, they seem cool,” Della says.

“They are trashballs.”

She has the kind of laugh that makes you want to be funnier. I’m afraid to stare at her, so I turn to some framed photos on a filing cabinet. There’s Della in a cap and gown, her parents at her side, on the banks of the Killbuck.

“Did you go to college?” she says.

“Not ever. I don’t want to learn what they want to teach.”

“Some people enlist to pay for school.”

“Some people do.”

In a plain brown frame, there’s tiny Della, holding this ginormous lizard.

“That was my fifth birthday. Do you love those puffy sleeves?”

“When I was little, my mom and aunts crammed me in all these lacy, pink dresses with big sleeves,” I say. “The bigger the better.”

“Aw.”

“With headbands and bows.”

“Aw.”

“No,” I say. “I look like a troll doll in a dress.”

“Aw!” She covers her mouth as she laughs.

“With a smile like that, I bet you could get away with murder.”

“Are you kidding me?” she says, smiling half this time. “I don’t even get away with the things I don’t do.” She finishes her beer. “Hippos kill more people than lions, did you know that? And it’s way more dangerous to get between a cow moose and her calf than to poke a boar bear in the eye.”

“What’s a cow moose?”

“Because the bear might run away.”

“What’s a boar bear?”

“But no way the mama moose will. People always ask me if I’m frightened of the alligators. I mean, can you imagine? I’m frightened of people.”

“Me, too.”

“And fireworks.”

“Me, too.”

“But frightened of an alligator? Have you ever heard anything so stupid?”

“Never.”

The beer is making me thirsty, so I get another beer. I catch the chain link throwing itself against the posts. Sometimes, I feel the trailer sway, or maybe it’s just me.

“I don’t need nice things,” Della’s saying, looking around. “A pearl is just sand covered in oyster snot.”

I’d like to buy her a convertible, and a pony, and a farmhouse mansion at the top of a hill, and some more beer, for starters.

She has movie cases in piles. The movies are all black and white, and I remember a few from the cheapo afternoon movies I’d go to before Boxer hired me. It was just me and a couple dozen old people. Clark Gable, or some other formal bastard, would grab this soft, small woman by the upper arm and she’d seize—I mean, her hair would almost move—and he’d smash his closed mouth directly on top of hers. She’d go limp, like a hooked fish giving up. I guessed it meant they were in love. The old women around me would dab at their eyeballs with napkins. Then all the old folks and me, we’d shuffle out into the middle of the afternoon and have to figure out what the hell else to do with the day.

I start to tell her this, but I look at her and forget everything.

Della finishes her third beer and smiles at me with her eyes shut.

She says, “Remember when that rock climber got his arm wedged between boulders? And he cut it off, and everyone was so impressed. Like, they flew him all over for talk shows. But it’s like, what’s the big deal? You know who cuts their arm off when they’re trapped? Badgers, and wolves, and teeny-tiny weasels. Like, all the time. With their teeth. And he’s so brave because he used a knife? Please. What a crock. What a bunch of dummies, right? What a crock of dummies. I don’t know, you know?”

She falls asleep in her clothes on the floor.

The wind wakes us up. The wind has become huge. I’m beer-bleary, and my situational awareness is zero. The trailer feels small and open air. It’s a diorama.

I’m after Della. The door slams itself open. There’s this metal ripping sound, like tearing aluminum foil, but I can’t tell what’s ripping. Maybe everything.

The rain’s going sideways, I think, although it could be going straight up. It feels like being under water.

Della is gone. I can only see when the sky goes neon violet.

There’s a crash, but it’s only the house tipping over.

The biggest noise gets bigger.

Della’s dragging me against the wet tangle of grass and weeds. I slip down stairs. The cellar doors rip open, and I can’t tell whether I’m screaming or not.

Then quiet. And not much light, although the quiet is a kind of light. All I can hear is the rain, and even that’s gentle. Della has something in her arms, she has someone in her arms. I look down and discover I’m holding the skunk, who is curled tightly into the nook of my arm. When did she give me Petals?

Della’s crawling up the stairs. All I do is follow her.

She’s crossing through the Sanctuary, down to the cages, where the water is high and the trees are broken. We pass the food shed stacked on top of her house and a tree that took out some of the chain link. The monkeys are on top of what’s left of their pen, and every one of them is screaming at the water.

I trip over a tangle of roots not attached to any tree.

We’re at the river. I stop at a birch with half its limbs stripped. Della wades in, pointing, waving her arms. I squint into the dark beyond her, and I start making something out. I’m watching, through the early morning mist, a tiger swimming for a grove of locust on the far banks of the Killbuck.