Gin Mill Tigers
Jake scrutinized Auntie Claire's expression. Auntie Claire had a tell: when she fibbed, her mouth twitched.
"Auntie Claire." Jake did not attempt to conceal his disapproval.
Through the front window, Jake could see the white sheet tossing in the electric hospital bed that was in the center of the living room. It seemed to signal to Auntie Claire. She crushed out her cigarette with the toe of her foam-bottom slipper, and was careful to kick it into the stalks of last year's peonies where it wouldn't show. She yanked at the storm door, struggling a little when it caught in its aluminum track.
"Auntie Claire!" Jake repeated, more insistently.
"What, baby?" she asked, but not looking.
"Stanky does eat the mice," he declared to her retreating back. "She has them raw."
# # #
Jake tiptoed into his father's room, though tiptoeing was unnecessary in light of Jake's father's condition. The air was thick and sour, and Jake's father was sprawled on his back, snoring.
He wasn't working at the plant this week, but not because he was on vacation. Vacations were different. On previous occasions when Jake's father was off from work, he and Jake's mother would stay in bed until almost lunchtime, while Jake ate messy bowls of cereal in front of the TV. Just when Jake was beginning to worry that they would never get up, he'd hear a low, sneaky snarl, and he would turn around to find his father approaching stealthily from behind, slinking on hands and knees. Jake would run behind the chairs, the ottoman, and the coffee table while his father's big body followed him in feline pursuit. And after he caught him, rolling his big head into Jake's neck and belly like a feasting jungle cat, Jake would squeal, "Let's turn Mommy into butter!"
His mother would be in the kitchen by then, making eggs or pancakes, and Jake and his father would chase her around the kitchen table. It reminded Jake of the story about the boy who lost all of his new clothes to the tigers in the jungle. When the tigers had chased one another around the palm tree in fits of vanity and envy, their bodies had simply dissolved into sweet, golden tiger butter, a delicacy when served with pancakes. When Jake's father finally caught his mother, he would wrestle the spatula from her and spank her bathrobed bottom with it.
No, this time off from the plant was different.
There was to be no running in the house.
His mother, or rather, his mother's body, was in the living room, but the thing that made it his mother seemed to have gone somewhere else.
His aunts were here, but they would not want his father to turn them into tiger butter.
Jake went very close to the bed and peered into his father's cavernous mouth. He carefully noted the rows of silver crowns and fillings--almost every tooth had something. There was a rotten, brown half-tooth in the back that was as wondrous as the feathers in the birdbath.
# # #
Jake crept around the corner of the living room and eyed the mechanical bed warily. Beyond it, his Auntie Lou was arranging the magazines on the coffee table as if company were coming.
Auntie Lou reminded Jake of the cows. Once when Jake's parents took him for a ride in the country, the car turned a bend in the road and there at the side of the road was a spaceship. According to Jake's father it was just a water tower, but to Jake it was as alien as something from outer space out there amongst the rolling green hills. But all around it were brown-and-white cows, chewing and staring, and looking at Jake as if to say, "so what?"
The body in the bed was not moving. Jake thought about hermit crabs, how when they got too big, they would leave their shells to find new ones.
The body in the bed groaned. Jake did not like whomever it was that had taken up residence in his mother's old shell. The new resident was a desecration. She flailed and moaned and shouted scary things. She pooped in the bed.
# # #
Jake had a hiding space in the cabinet under the sink. It was damp in there, which is why it was empty except for the vases his mother used whenever he broke off a lilac branch or one of the peonies. Jake had half a dozen hiding places throughout the house. He could sit still for a very long time and as his reward, he would often overhear an interesting adult conversation.
"Isn't it time you talked to him?" asked Auntie Lou.
"About what?" asked his father.
"You know about what."
"What's there to discuss? It's out of my hands."
"He's going to have questions. He already has questions. It would be nice if you gave him something to hold on to."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"You know. That she'll be with the angels. That sort of thing."
Jake's father snorted. He said something Jake couldn't understand.
"Oh, for God's sake," said Auntie Lou. "It's hard enough as it is. Couldn't you just give him something to hold on to?"
"He's got me to hold on to."
Now it was the auntie's turn to snort.
# # #
This was the story of the boy and the tigers: a little boy gets a brand new outfit--a fancy shirt and shorts, wooden shoes, and even a showy umbrella. Then, while walking through the jungle, he meets a series of hungry tigers. He is clever, and talks them out of eating him by sacrificing his fine wardrobe, piece by piece. Each tiger then thinks that he is the grandest in the jungle, which is how the great chase around the tree begins.
Jake had seen three different versions of this story in books. In every one, the boy had a different name. His father had an old, water-stained version in which the boy's name was Sambo. Then there were newer versions that Jake had gotten from the library; the boys in those were named Babaji and Sam. Jake liked all of the books, but it bothered him that the illustrations were so different and the names had been changed.
Jake couldn't understand why someone had changed the story. Auntie Claire had explained that the Sambo story had made some people feel bad. Some people thought it was making fun of black people, so they used the same idea, but made it nice, so that no one would feel bad about it.
Jake reported this to his father. His father shrugged, which is what he did whenever Jake told of anything that one of his aunts had said.
"I like Babaji, and the boy named Sam, too," said Jake. "But don't you think they shouldn't have changed the story like that?"
"People change their stories all the time," said his father.
"Sometimes it's a good story, but it doesn't quite fit. So they change parts of it to make them better. There are only about ten stories in the whole world. The rest are just variations."
"Same story, different names, different details."
"Which story do you like best?"
"I like them all," said his father.
"But which one do you like best?"
"I don't know. Some things I liked about the old story, and some things I like about the new ones."
"You have to decide, Daddy," said Jake.
"Why?" asked Jake's father.
# # #
The aunties were mad at his father. They told him to take Jake to the park, but instead of turning right at the corner, Jake's father turned left.
"Where are we going, Dad?"
"The gin mill." Jake's father blew a line of cigarette smoke that streamed back over their heads in the balmy breeze, like a locomotive. Jake chugged his legs to keep up.
The gin mill was a disappointment. Jake was expecting a sort of lighthouse with paddles on it. He was expecting blond children with wooden shoes.
Inside, though, things began to shape up. Jake received a bag of chips and a coke with a bright pink cherry impaled on a tiny green sword. He chewed methodically, his eyes fixed on the bright lights of the pinball machine that was the main source of illumination in the dim bar.
"How's Lorraine?" asked the bartender.
Jake stopped chewing and became very still when he heard his mother's name.
"Any day now," said his father.
Jake watched his father cross the room to the doors marked "MEN'S." Jake knew how to read the sign. He looked around the room, trying to read some of the other signs, but most of them were names of beers with lots of K's or W's in them. He began to spin around on his stool. "Hey, now," said the bartender, but it was too late. Jake slid off sideways and landed in a clunky heap between the stools.
The floor was an interesting pattern of tiny geometric tiles, and in some places a tile would be missing, the void filled with the accumulated crud of the dozens of scuffed soles that had passed an aimless afternoon in the gin mill.
"Come on, Jakie, get up off the floor," said his father. He lifted Jake up by the armpits and settled him back on the stool. "One more round, and then we'll go," he said.
"Did you ever hear about heaven, Daddy?" Jake was drawing on the greasy, salted lining of the chip bag with the tip of his sword.
"Can mice go there?"
"Oh, I don't know about the mice."
"How about birds?"
"Sure. I guess birds can go."
"Well if birds can go, mice can go. That would be fair."
His father considered this. "Well, I guess they do, then," he agreed.
"Do they get whole again?" Jake was thinking about all of Stanky's mice milling about--some with no heads and others nothing but head.
"I guess they do."
Jake liked this answer, but it didn't exactly sound authoritative. His aunts talked to him about heaven with much more conviction. Yet, when he asked them questions, they would not meet his gaze, and their mouths would twitch.
"Dad, what's going to happen to the lady in the living room bed?"
Jake's father sucked his mustache. "You mean Mommy?"
"No. The other one. The lady in there now." Jake leveled a knowing look at his father.
"Well. She'll be gone pretty soon," said his father at last.
"And then what happens?"
"Well, Jake, I don't know."
Jake nodded. He was pretty sure his father was telling the truth. "I wish I could go with Mom."
"But then who would stay here with me?"
"Auntie Lou and Aunt Claire?" But even Jake had to laugh at the absurdity of this suggestion. "Or you could come too," he added with hope.
"I don't know who decides these things, Jakie, but I get the feeling you and me are supposed to stick around here a little longer."
Jake nodded. The orange and yellow lights on the jukebox gleamed softly in his father's eyes, and for a few minutes they just sat there. Jake rolled the cherry around on his tongue, feeling the shape of it, the split in its skin where the sword had been.
His father reached over and pawed through Jake's already messy hair. "Who's the grandest tiger in the jungle?" he asked.
Jake felt a laugh burble up from inside him. "I am," he said.
"No, I am," said his father.
Jake slid off the bar stool, momentarily palsied with the thrill of the impending chase. His father palmed some bills onto the bar and followed him slinkily, his head ducked, his shoulder blades winging through his tee-shirt. He growled low in his throat.
Jake let him get halfway across the floor before he fled the gin mill and ran in the direction of home as fast as his legs could carry him. He felt his legs cycling like wheels. He glanced back only once to see his father loping behind him. His father pawed the air and bared his teeth. Jake squealed and with a burst of reserve he had not known he'd had, he ran even faster. The people he passed were just a blur. If he narrowed his eyes, he could almost feel his body churning into butter.
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