No one wanted to hang out with Janie anymore and I thought that was unfair. It could have been any number of things that turned the group off to her but in my book she was better than alright. Maybe I was being sentimental but Janie was one of ours and I wasn't ready to let her go.
There were times when she would bring around the strangest guys. There was the history professor with the rebel flag tattoo, followed by the married coroner who stared at me over the top of his glasses for an entire dinner. She was collecting them really, logging them in her little book of oddities. The Ugandan prince who showed up to brunch in traditional garb with his two wives was her crowning achievement. Or so we thought at the time. And it's not like we weren't an open-minded bunch. We liked to think of ourselves as real New Yorkers, cosmopolitan and enlightened to the core. We were up for anything, which I maintain emboldened her to these flights of fancy. I defended Janie for as long as I could but even I had my breaking point.
Really it was the pet tiger that drove me over the edge.
I don't know where she got it from. I didn't want to know and anyway how many places are there to get a tiger in New York City? Sure, maybe they're falling from the trees in, say, Kuala Lumpur but the East Village isn't exactly teeming with jungle predators. My money was on Chinatown. You can get anything down there. I knew a fellow who once bought a monkey and a new Kia from the same dealer on Eldridge. "What a time to be alive," I said, when he pulled up to the curb, with the monkey hanging on to the steering wheel and a confused look on its little pre-human face.
That was my theory and I was content to stay in the dark until Samantha asked her point blank the afternoon of Chris's surprise birthday picnic. We were arranged in a circle on a quiet knoll near the Delacorte. Somewhere an actor was warming up his vocals, going through the octave ranges and loosening his jaw. The tiger slumbered next to Janie as peaceful as a napping kitten.
"So, Janie dear, that's some tiger you got there," Sam said, easing into the interrogation we all knew was coming. "Where does one get a pet like that?"
"She's less of a pet than she is a life choice, Sam-O," Janie said with a certain finality. She resumed eating her beet salad but Sam was not yet satisfied.
"What I meant, darling, is that a magnificent creature such as that must have come at a high price," she said. "I'm just curious."
"Curiosity is a virtue, Sam, my love," Janie countered. "But what is cost if not benefit minus labor and in this case, she's no trouble at all. Not when you weigh the life benefits. They say people with companions live longer. Why, they even have better skin."
Janie was good at a lot of things but when it came to being vague she was a first-ballot hall of famer. Sam pressed on and Janie said something about the Bronx, then she mentioned Philly, which was odd because she hated Philly--said the whole city looked like it was populated by mechanics, the women too--until finally, an hour later Sam gave in, exhausted.
There being a strict no pets policy at her work, Janie left her beloved home during the day. And evenings out were no place for her either. Janie thought the heavy bass of a nightclub might irritate her, maybe even trigger some innate killing spree, and I concurred. Being a chronically unemployed actor with nothing but free time, I got roped into walking her.
You don't expect so much intolerance in a liberal town like Manhattan but you'd be surprised how many people are closed off to the idea of walking a tiger. Sometimes people just ran away. Which is probably the worst thing you can do. Toni (this was Janie's attempt at humor) nearly pulled my arm off to get at bike messengers. Skateboards scared the crap out of her and I have to admit it was kind of funny watching hipsters crash to the asphalt when she roared at them.
Kids were an especially bad scene. Toni was a real pussycat most of the time. She liked to be pet and sung to and I fed her a dozen pounds of meat every other day, just to keep her lean and in good spirits. But no amount of Trader Joe's brisket boxes is going to overcome millions of years of evolution, let me tell you. Hungry or no, children were easy pickings to Toni. I learned that on the third day and adjusted her schedule immediately. (Can you imagine the headlines in the Post?) From then on I made sure we were on the street only well after lunchtime and before rush hour. At that point the only trouble we ever had was with delivery guys trying to pet her.
Toni did not like strangers touching her. Even I had to earn her good graces over the course of two weeks but she cottoned to Sam easily enough. By high summer we were in a nice rhythm. Janie left the country suddenly to sail around on someone's private yacht so Sam started pitching in on the caretaking here and there.
"That tiger is drunk," Sam observed during one of our afternoon walks. She'd skipped work or had a holiday or vacation or some excuse for being out with me instead of at her desk writing copy to sell shit for whatever ad agency employed her at the time. It was late July and Toni was still a preteen (I guessed). So far she'd only known winter and I expected the heat was a welcome change to her. It was one of those oppressive New York summers that suffocates skin with wet clothes but never rains.
Sam was right though. That tiger was drunk. Very drunk from the looks of it but we both were, so who was I to judge. I'd been hitting the bourbon since around noon and didn't want to exclude her. Toni kept tripping on the curb edge, which pissed her off and even got scary once or twice. I knew her well enough to know when it was all bluster and when to hit her with the electric zapper.
"Well, yes, Sam. If you must know we're both drunk--very inebriated, thank you very much," I said. Toni grumbled in agreement.
"It's two in the afternoon. What's with the Bukowski routine?"
"You say that every time! Every time someone gets hammered Sam says 'what's with the Bukowski routine.' There were other writers, Sam, and they all drank. All of them. Bukowski didn't invent being a lush. He wasn't even that good at it. Couldn't keep his clothes on half the time. James Joyce ... now there's a classy drunk."
Sam stopped to ask the bouncer at Laundry Service for a rollie. They'd kicked us out a couple of weeks ago, Toni and I. Something about it being bad for business when people's dogs get eaten. As if they had proof!
Sam went on. "Did she say when she was coming back?"
"Ha. Ha. Ha," I said as sarcastically as I could. In retrospect I probably overplayed it but in the moment it felt righteous, truthful.
"Little Ms. Janie did not leave a forwarding address, nor do we know where she can reached," I slurred. "I hazard a guess that she could arrive momentarily or at some time in the sweet bye and bye. All we know for certain is that at this moment she is enjoying the company of a gentleman Gutierrez somewhere far south and west of here. Shouldn't you be working or something?"
"You called me, lush life," she said. "Aren't you going a little above and beyond the calling of an estranged husband here? I like the girl, she's a real good time but you two filed papers like a year ago. Maybe it's time to let it go?"
"Yes but more no when you really consider the options," I said, proud of myself for the vagary.
"Right. And she's ..."
Sam stabbed out her cigarette, rubbed her hands together and took Toni's leash. I was standing there, feeling pointless without the familiar strap in my palm.
"We're going back to the apartment. You go do what you have to do. I'll stay with you two tonight," she said. "Don't eat dinner, just be back before nine."
Unsurprisingly I was allowed back into my favorite bars without the adolescent killing machine at my side. My first stop was B Side, for the jukebox and to see sweet Noreen. She hadn't seen Janie in weeks either. There was this trend toward fancy brews with names that might as well have been short story titles. People seemed to be really impressed with them, always turning the labels around in the light to admire the artwork. But that wasn't my thing, not that afternoon. No thanks to your Barley Legal Ale or your Saganaw Heartbreaker Hefeweisen. I was feeling nostalgic and all I wanted were beers that sounded like high school teachers. Mr. Miller, pleased to see you again. Gutentag Frau Heineken and ?como estas Senor Modelo? Are you and Mrs. Coors still sneaking off to the parking lot to smoke weed where "no one" can see you?
"I hear that pet of yours isn't going to be the only one of her kind on the island anymore," Noreen said long after the sun had set. I checked the clock. It was nearly nine and I had a curfew.
"Let's hear that one again," I said.
Noreen was younger by about five or six years, had a cracked front tooth courtesy of a microphone and a spirited karaoke rendition of "Cherry Bomb," and was almost never alone. That is to say she always had a boyfriend of some kind. I'd never seen someone less capable of solitude. It was sad, really.
"Have a look," Noreen said, flopping down the front page of the Daily News on the bar. A shot of a white cat slipping through an alley behind a Chinese take out joint was under the headline Van Cortlandt Villain Strikes Again: Runaway Beast Eats Illegal Chicken Coop.
The Bronx Zoo's lone Siberian tiger had busted loose, she explained. This was a serious blow to the zoo, which had been losing money since the 80s. Now they were down to a pair of giraffes and a couple of apathetic baboons. Ticket sales were sure to flat line. I took a closer look at the photo. He was a magnificent fellow even in a Bronx alley--had a kind of outlaw swagger that the camera picked up right away.
"He's got a real bad boy look about him, don't you think?" Noreen said.
I knew I had to get back to the apartment. I had to tell Sam about Janie. Tell her what I hadn't the strength to earlier.
"Just be careful out there," Noreen said. "Could be a crackdown coming or worse. That one is a real-ass killer from the frozen tundra, man. Not a domesticated pussycat like yours."
I kissed her goodbye. Maybe I lingered a little too long because before I knew it she was shoving me away and a few steps later I was climbing the stairs to Janie's place and opening the front door. Sam wanted to know where the hell I'd been but before I was sitting on the couch I was practically blubbering.
I hit the button on the answering machine so she could hear what I heard.
The message said, "Mr. Jones, this is so and so from the department of state calling on behalf of director what's his name with an update about Mrs. Janis Jones, registered as missing last month on whatever date in the Republic of Somewhere Hot and Dangerous."
"I called them back," I confessed, wiping away tears. "Or rather, 'Mr. Jones' called them back."
"You didn't ... "
"She never changed her name," I explained. "They need someone to go identify the body. Senor Gutierrez of the policia was very understanding. My flight is tomorrow."
We were quiet for a long time. Sam was holding me very tight when I fell asleep. I remember thinking that she was far too strong for her size.
I woke in the middle of the night. Sam was sleeping in Janie's bed and I had the couch. Neither of us had touched dinner so I was starving and dehydrated by the time I cracked open the Tupperware. Cool air flowed through the windows and worried the silk curtains. The weather was turning and soon Fall would free us from the hot summer. I could tell already it was going to be a tough winter. When I was done I stepped onto the fire escape and rolled a Drum from the pack I kept stashed in the potted plant on the wall. I didn't like to smoke in the house. It seemed like a bad idea with Toni being so young and I figured she was already a far cry from the clean jungle air she was meant to breathe. It was just us now and I had to mind her health. Janie left me everything--the apartment, her savings, jewelry. There were no papers for Toni so that was more of a handshake deal in the end. At least we had a place to live. She sauntered over to me laconic as a soft breeze and watched me smoke silently. Below us four young girls in glittery dresses were levitating down Avenue A. Two of them were singing a new pop tune I recognized. Toni perked up, maybe recalling Janie's voice. The one singing certainly sounded like our girl. I like to think Toni thought so too but who knows what instincts were winning at any given moment.
It was a few weeks later that I lost her for good. We were in the park for a walk and something in the brush caught her eye. Before I knew it she was off leash. I followed the screams for as long as I could but she was in full gallop and there was no catching her. The lasting image in my mind is Toni suspended above the cut grass of the northern baseball fields, her mane flat to the nape of her head in a crown of cloudy white and fire. Sam wanted to look for her but I didn't even know where to begin. Besides it was out of our hands once she was loose. She was on the grid now and it was up to the authorities. In any case there was no telling what time in the wild would do to her. There was no guarantee that the Toni we lost would be the Toni we got back.
The Post ran at least a dozen stories. Monster Island was my favorite. In addition to a "pride of bloodthirsty predators" running loose in the city parks, some unnamed source assured the public that a Bigfoot-type ringmaster was leading them all. It was prize reporting. Maybe I'm naive but I thought the panic was a little overblown. She could be anywhere, sure, but it wasn't like she was a problem child. She even knew how to jay walk properly. Maybe she was in Van Cortlandt with that missing Siberian. I like to think they found each other. That Toni wouldn't have to be alone after all. Maybe that Siberian could teach her a thing or two from his own, snowy, world about surviving the winter. Maybe he could show her how to be wild again.
Alex Ivey is a writer of short fiction, novels, plays, screenplays and poetry. He is a Purchase College, SUNY alumnus, a native New Yorker and is currently making his home on the California coast.