Oh, The Things You Will See...
by John Brady
There are few things more awkward than a family whose members obviously and vocally hate one another and are willing to display that fact in public. I can see only two kids; it sounds as though there were twenty. Mom looks exhausted, but her volume and intensity indicate that she is in fact livelier, at least louder, than the kids. And she looks like she smells bad. I know that makes me sound like a bad person. But she does.
I’d guess the kids, a boy and a girl, are around five and three. The kids are shoeless, the bottoms of their feet black from the linoleum on the floor of the store. Each member of the family has a sheen of perspiration. It’s to be expected; it is middle of summer, and it always gets hot around here in summertime.
The only one who is quiet is Dad. His quiet is the saddest part. Dad is short, shorter than Mom. And skinny. His jeans are covered in dark, black stains; they could be motor oil or tar. I can see the dirt crusted on the tops of his feet, even from the end of the aisle, where I’m standing. His flip-flops are the only footwear in the whole family.
The patches in his beard suggest that he couldn’t grow a full beard if he wanted to and that — at least at his present station in life — not shaving is not a big deal. His eyes are glued on something beyond the shelves, never moving. He doesn’t blink. He doesn’t look particularly upset; he doesn’t even really look tired. He looks stunned. Surprised. Maybe he’s just as surprised and baffled as to how this became his life as is anyone watching his family from the end of the aisle.
Mom finally notices me watching them at the head of the housewares aisle. She shoots me a look as if to dare me to accuse her of shoplifting, without any proof. She says nothing. I grin.
It’s almost closing time, and the store has been empty pretty much all day. I want to make sure they can hear me so I don’t have to leave my place at the end of the aisle and get any closer. I take a breath before I call down the aisle to them, “Y’all call for that price check?”
Mom continues to glare. She’s been on the phone since I spotted them. Dad doesn’t even look away from whatever invisible item he’s studying.
Another kid, whose dirty feet and Kool Aid moustache mark him as a member of the pack, turns the corner at the far end of the aisle and darts toward the family. His breathing is so loud that I can hear it even over the flap, flap, flap of his bare feet against the linoleum floor. His eyes are so wide that I initially think there is something wrong with him.
“Mommy, Mommy, Mommy, Mommy, Mommy...” He machine-guns his mother for attention above the family cacophony. Dad doesn’t even seem to register that this new one has arrived, just remains puzzled as to how he got here and who these people around him are.
Brother and Sister don’t seem concerned, either. Mom continues to argue with someone on the phone. Mom is apparently the type of east Tennessee woman who uses the N-word so frequently in conversation that one might reasonably infer she believes the word is some common part of speech, like “this” or “that.” When I first moved down here two years ago, I found it weird how often I heard that word. I guess I got used to it.
“Mommy, Mommy, Mommy, Mommy, Mommy, Mommy...” The wide-eyed boy continues his artillery attack. I imagine he’s used to not being heard. He seems to be getting more agitated, more fidgety, tugging on Mom’s arm, tugging on Mom’s pants; tugging on Dad’s pants, pulling on Dad’s hands. “There’s a tiger in the toy aisle.”
No response. No acknowledgement that he’s even there.
“There’s a tiger in the toy aisle, Mommy. There’s a tiger in the toy aisle.”
Each time he fires off the Gatlin gun — “Mommy, Mommy, Mommy, Mommy” — he gets noticeably louder; still no register of recognition from Mom or Dad. Finally, he realizes that in order to reach Mom and Dad, he’s going to have to speak their language. His face turns an even deeper shade of red than it already was: “THERE IS A GODDAMN TIGER IN THE TOY AISLE.”
In one motion that is both athletically efficient and unnecessarily hard, Mom simultaneously nudges Child Number One and Child Number Two out of the way. The motion reveals Child Number Four, a newborn who has been on her hip the whole time, opposite where I am standing.
She sends Dad some sort of telepathic signal to back up three steps and then smacks Child Number Three with the back of her hand, hard enough that the snap it produces echoes all through the now silent aisle number seven.
I laugh out loud and think about how I can work this into a conversation with Janie when I see her again at the Customer Service desk. I have been trying all summer to get Janie’s attention and, now that I finally worked up the nerve to ask her out, I don’t want to blow our date tonight by freezing up and not having anything to talk about.
A tiger in the toy aisle, I think, and I laugh again, this time under my breath and head back to the Customer Service desk at the front of the store. I reach the end of aisle eight, Hardware, and walk quickly past aisle nine, Toys, on my way back to the front.
I’m almost to aisle ten, Automotive, when, just from a quick glance out of the corner of my eye, all the hairs on my entire body stand straight up. My lower body instantly tightens up, my legs and torso jerking to a stop, as if cement has been secretly poured around me and has magically hardened. I am still facing forward, my body perpendicular to the entrance of aisle ten. I don’t need to look again. I know it’s impossible. But I also know it’s there.
There is a tiger in the toy aisle.
I thought when Kid Number Three started in about the tiger in the toy aisle, he must have meant a toy tiger. Or poster. Or stuffed animal. But it’s not a toy. It’s an actual g-d tiger. From just that initial sideways glance, I know it’s a fully grown, male Bengal tiger. When I was a kid, my Dad used to lie on the couch every night after dinner and watch Wild Kingdom. They did a whole week on tigers. And I grew up in Ohio, where you’re either a Bengals or a Browns fan.
I remember Marlin Perkins telling us that male tigers, when fully grown, can weigh up to 600 pounds. This one has to be male and full-grown; it’s the size of minivan. Okay, it’s bigger.
It’s bigger than anything they ever showed on Wild Kingdom. I should be more freaked out. I should run. I should scream. I should definitely do something. Heck, I haven’t even moved since I first saw him out of the corner of my eye. I’m still facing the side wall of the store, perpendicular to the aisles. But I don’t need to turn my head.
I wonder if he’s hungry. He seems completely unfazed by me. Or by the fact that he’s in the toy aisle in a discount store. He’s lying on the floor, his body diagonal to me, with his head closer to me than his tail. He’s sniffing the bottom shelves of the toy racks, his head on the left side of the aisle and his hindquarters brushing the other side of the aisle. And this is one of the big aisles in the store. You can put five shopping carts end to end, from one side of the aisle to the other, and still have room to squeeze through. He couldn’t possibly fit into the aisle if he were completely perpendicular to the shelves.
Some of the hanging toys fall as his whiskers brush past them. I can see his tail moving back and forth, keeping time, over the curve of his back. His tail never touches anything, which is probably good. His tail is as thick as I am in the waist. I was too skinny to make the freshman team last year, but I’m almost 17. My middle should be thicker than any tiger’s tail, even a full-grown one.
The sound of the falling plastic toy boxes highlights just how quiet he is. Everything seems to be quiet. I can hear my heart beating in my chest. I can hear his slow breathing, even from twenty feet away. I can tell from his breathing that he’s not agitated. His slow breathing means he’s calm. At least I hope that’s what they said on Wild Kingdom.
The more I listen to my breathing, the more I realize I am calm too. I don’t know why. I think that if he were going to eat me, he would have finished by now. Even though I haven’t moved, literally, since I saw him from the corner of my eye, I think I need to stay as still as I can. Praying he doesn’t see or smell me sounds like a good idea, too.
And then I remember more Wild Kingdom. He knows I’m here. He has to. Tigers have a great sense of smell. He knew I was here when I was up at the front of the store. He can smell Janie’s lilac perfume from here, and she never comes to the aisles in the back of the store. He knows that Vanessa is being visited by her redheaded cousin right now, too.
In all fairness, Vanessa is never very pleasant to be around. She has hated me ever since I made employee of the month three months ago, and she didn’t. Why couldn’t Vanessa have gotten the price check in housewares? The tiger would have smelled her from three aisles over and come to eat. Tigers can smell blood can’t they? Maybe that’s just sharks. I think I’ve heard that, I don’t really know; I never watched Shark Week.
I count to ten and get ready to tiptoe forward. For some stupid reason, as I start to walk, I turn my head and look down the aisle. He’s looking directly at me, directly into my eyes, as if he’s been waiting for me to turn and look at him before he turned his head my way. There is, oddly enough, nothing even remotely threatening about this. He has stopped sniffing the floor and shelves and is now looking directly at me.
He has been waiting for me.
His head tilts slightly to the side, like those posters of kittens you see at grade-school book fairs, but his head is the size of the dinner table at home. His head bobs in unison with the horrifically big tail behind him, bigger around than my torso. His mouth creases slightly, the hint of impossibly white teeth barely perceptible underneath the mountain of muscle in his jaw and lips.
There is no threat in this. He is not showing me his teeth to let me know he could, with the nudge of a paw, pull my intestines apart the way kids pull apart cotton candy. His left paw is stretched out toward me. It’s the size of a push mower. Its slightly retracted claws, the size of steak knives, tap gently on the linoleum. There is no threat in this, either.
Something about this seems familiar. It takes a second for me to understand what he is doing. We always had cats when we were growing up. If you get kittens too young, if they are taken from their mother before they are done weaning, when they become cats, they will still knead blankets, pillows, whatever soft, warm item reminds them of their mother. They are trying to find the nipple to nurse. Mom always used to call it making biscuits.
The minivan sized tiger in the toy aisle is making biscuits.
By this point, I am willing to entertain the possibility that I am completely nuts. But I swear that he just winked at me. There it is again. He very, very slowly winks at me, turns his dinner-table sized head slightly, looks at me, and, again, slow-winks at me. Mom taught me this too. Slow winks are a sign that a cat respects you.
And now I’m sure.
I turn from the tiger and quickly, not running but not wasting any time either, walk to the front of the store. As I clear the final row of aisles and make my way into the open display space between the end of the aisles and the checkout lanes, I see Janie sitting at the front of the store at the raised Customer Service desk. She’s been waiting for me to come back from the price check on aisle seven. She smiles at me.
A lot of the girls I go to school with have different smiles for different people and different situations. But Janie has only one smile; she smiles so big that her eyes disappear. When she’s happy, her smile takes over her whole face. It seems silly now that it took me so long to grow the backbone to ask her out.
I’m within earshot of Janie when Vanessa grabs my arm.
“We are going to need you to pull a double.” Vanessa positively beams as she says this. “Milk truck was late getting in and we are going to need you to stay and put it away.”
As Vanessa tells me this, I can see the disappointment in Janie’s eyes. She knows that I have been the employee of the month for the last three months in a row because I always do whatever they ask me to do here, even when I don’t want to. She knows I hardly ever tell anybody no. She knows I’ll cancel our date, work the overtime and still be in to open the deli at six in the morning. All the smile has gone out of Janie’s face before I even have a chance to respond to Vanessa.
As I start to answer Vanessa, I see Dad in the self-check line. The kids are already out the door, but Dad is buying sugarless gum. Mom is yelling at him from the exit. Everyone in the front half of the store can hear her shouting at him but are busy pretending to be interested in the tabloid magazines in the checkout aisles. They’re also trying to pretend that it is completely normal for a woman to, quite loudly, refer to her husband as a “stupid cocksucker” in public.
And then I know.
It is perfectly clear what the tiger has come to tell me.
“Vanessa,” I say, surprised by the calm I hear in my own voice, as if it’s someone else’s voice coming out of my mouth, “I can’t work a double. You can do it for me. And I’m going to be coming in late to work tomorrow, too. I am going to be up late tonight.”
“Oh,” I add, almost as an afterthought that isn’t one. I smile as I say this with just a hint of impossibly white teeth barely perceptible underneath the muscles in my jaw and lips: “You are wanted in the toy aisle.”
Copyright © 2017 by John Brady