Willow Lake Press
Tiger, from the Lobby
by Les Pfennig © 1997
Tiger from the Lobby My girlfriend and I broke up last weekend and I am kind of depressed. So, I pick up todayís Saturday afternoon paper and see if there is anything to do.

After my older brother was convicted, for raping and beating to death a girl who lived in the next neighborhood, my father made me take the bus to live with my uncle in Los Angeles. He thought maybe the girlís family would want to get even.

I donít understand why I had to leave. I never hurt anyone.

When I was young my father would come home late at night after being out. He would grab me with his strong hands and slap me. Then he would say, "Come on you little cry baby. Quit yer bawliní. I didnít hurt you. Take it like a man." He did that on purpose because he knew what would happen.

My mother would rush out of their room and move between us, standing directly in front of him. She would say, "You leave him alone. Heís just a little boy. Pick on someone your own size."

Then my fatherís eyes would light up and his smile turned into a snarl. He would weave a little on his feet and grab my mother by the arm, dragging her down the hall. He would shout about things I didnít understand and call her a bad name.

In my mind I can now hear them struggling behind their door.

I would run to my room and get into bed and count out loud until I was no longer awake.

In the morning I often had crescent shaped finger nail marks on the palms of my little hands from clenching them during the night. Sometimes they bled.

Down the hall I could see their door ajar. He had left, but would be back. I would reach out and press my hand on the pealing beige paint.

She would be laying on her bed. The blinds were drawn and the room was dark. There would be a thick, curious smell in the air. Next to the bed I would stand holding her hand. I could see that her face was wet behind her big sun glasses. Her long dark hair spread out across her pillow.

She would say, without looking at me, "Be a good boy and get Mommy a glass of water."

I would run to the kitchen and return with a tumbler of water to place next to her, among the little orange plastic bottles. I let the tap run so the water was cold.

She would thank me saying, "You are Mommyís favorite. Now give Mommy a kiss and close the door so I can rest." I would kiss her lightly on the cheek and quietly close the door. I would make a lunch and walk to school.

When my bus trip to Los Angeles was finally over I was glad to stretch my legs. I arrived at my Uncleís address about three hours later. I asked the rooming house landlady about my Uncle. She said he had moved away over a year ago.

I paid the landlady two dollars to call my father back in New York. He told me it was too bad my Uncle had moved. He said that since I was out here I might as well stay. Then he said good-bye and hung up.

I was lucky. I rented a room from the landlady with the fifty dollars my mother had secretly given to me several months before. Within a few days I was able to get a job running for tools in construction. I was only half-way through high school. I hated having to quit.

After five years I received a call from the City telling me my father was sick. He had lost his house and was living in a home for dying people. They wanted money. I started sending most of my paychecks to New York City. After two years he died. He had had problems with his heart.

My brother was executed the following year.

It was at an end-of-summer party where I met her. When she told me her name she also spelled it in a rhyme. Why canít girls out here have decent names like back in the City. Something nice like Rosemary or Helen or maybe Marie. Out here all girlís names end with an ĎI.í

She said, "Itís Syndi. Starts with an ĎSí like ĎSee ya.í And ĎYí before the ĎIí."

Then she poked me in the chest with her finger and said, "Donít forget it."

We started seeing each other on a regular basis. Sheís the girlfriend I broke up with last weekend.

She wasnít kidding either about the ĎYí before the ĎIí."

I remember her saying, "Why do I always have to go with you to boring places? You never take me any place cool!" And, "Why do I always have to sit here in your shitty room? Canít you get a good apartment?" And my all time favorite, "Why canít I ever find a decent man? I always get losers like you!"

I think it would have been easier to take those words if we were having sex. I know sheís done it before because she tells me of others. Iím not sure how many there were.

If I started kissing and holding her too much she would turn her head and say, "No, I donít feel like it. Get your hands off me!" If I ask "Why" she threatened to leave. Then Iíd be alone. I kept quiet. Someday, I thought, Iíd really like to have sex.

Last weekend was her birthday. She had been reminding me all that week that her birthday was Saturday and she wanted it to be special. She poked me in the chest with her finger and said, "Donít forget."

A guy at work had some outfield tickets to the ball game he had stolen from his step-father. He knew I was desperate to take my girlfriend someplace special for her birthday so he gave them to me for free. I did have to clean the bed of his pickup though. He had been hauling manure for a company that grows roses.

Yesterday was Friday and Iím healing up nicely. Now that Iím without a girlfriend I thought Iíd look in the newspaper for something to do. There is only the scary "Elm Street" movies at the Orpheus.

Today is Saturday. It is exactly one week after we broke up. An anniversary I guess. Iím looking in the paper again and not expecting to find anything. But I am wrong. Next to the scary movie marathon is an ad for a play called "Tiger from the Lobby." I think that the title sounds funny and the ad says itís free so I decide to go. The play is in a theatre named "Twilight Haven."

I look out my window. Itís a cool October night.

Last weekend, on the night of my girlfriendís birthday, I gave her the card and a flower I picked special from the supermarket. Inside the card were the tickets. In my back pocket was a bus schedule taking us to the game.

I was so excited. My favorite team, the Mets, were playing and I was taking my best girl. I hadnít seen the Mets since leaving New York. They were almost like family.

When I handed her the card and flower she looked at me, then around the room and back at the card. A thought must have occurred to her because she smiled and her eyes lit up. She tore into the envelope.

When the tickets spilled out she looked at them and slowly picked them up.

"Baseball?" Her smile turned into a snarl. "You got me baseball tickets for my birthday, you little shit?" she said.

"Oh, youíll love them," I said. "Itís the Mets from back in the City!"

"You idiot. You damn loser," she said. "You are the most pathetic excuse for a man that I have ever met!"

I felt really bad. I couldnít stand it. I couldnít take her constant complaining anymore. I lost my head. I stood up and said, "You shut your yap. Iím doing the best I can! You . . ."

I was trying to think of a name to call her. I wanted to be mean, really tough. I thought of the name my father used to call my mother. I would never call a girl that. I saw how my mother got a strange look in her eyes when my father used it. I had sworn to my mother that I would never call a girl that name.

I had said to my mother, when we were alone and no one else could hear, "Mother," I said, "I swear, for the rest of my life, I will never ever call a girl that bad name. Honest, as long as I live." Then I had gently thrown down a handful of dirt onto her coffin.

I couldnít think of anything really mean to say. My girlfriend sat there with this stunned look on her face like sheíd never been spoken to like that before. Her eyes were locked on mine as she rose to full height. I held her stare as long as I could, but then looked down on the table and at the Mets tickets.

When I looked down she punched me in the face. There were little explosions popping ferociously in front of my eyes. My legs felt weak and I went down on my knees. I thought I was going to pass out so I leaned forward onto my hands.

Blood was pouring from my nose onto the newspaper on the floor. It was open to the Entertainment section. Thatís when I saw there was a movie marathon at the old Orpheus Theatre down the street. All the "Nightmare on Elm Street" movies were playing.

I didnít throw up until she kicked me in the stomach. I was a real mess then. The spaghetti I had had for breakfast went all over my shirt.

She picked up my head by my hair and held me at arms length. "Hey, you awake in there you sack of shit," she said.

I held my hands in front of my face to try and keep the blood and spaghetti from going everywhere.

"It doesnít look like youíll be needing these baseball tickets tonight does it," she said while shaking my head back and forth by my hair. I could feel my pants getting wet.

"Iíll tell you what. Iíll take these tickets down to the trash for you, O.K.?" She nodded my head up and down twice then bounced my head on the floor once.

She opened the door and pointed at me. "Hey, youíre a good sport," she said. "Iíll call you sometime." Then she left, slamming the door.

I had heard my fatherís voice in my head. "Damn it, you little shit. When are you gonnaí grow up. You act like a little sissy. Maybe we oughtaí put you in a dress." And I remember nodding my head.

I got a cold glass of water, closed the blinds and laid down on my bed.

I only threw up a few more times. A little past midnight I felt better so I opened another can of spaghetti and had dinner.

I was hurt, sure, but it wasnít so bad. Iíd had a lot worse. I mean I didnít have to go to the hospital. That is always so expensive.

I called in sick at work on Monday. On Tuesday the guys at work were teasing me, asking me if I had been sitting on my face again. I told them that I had been drinking heavy over the weekend and had bumped my nose when I was opening the refrigerator, to get another beer.

They laughed at my weak excuse. They knew I didnít drink. They walked past me laughing and pushing me. One of them flicked my nose with his finger. I had to go in the restroom and pack my nose with paper towels.

I am closing the Saturday newspaper. I lock my window and then my door and walk into the cool evening air.

I walk past the decaying drug store with it's fly-blown windows. Dust covers merchandise laid out for view. The dark openings of hollow brick buildings watch as I pass. I think I see movement deep in the building shadows. I turn my head. Whatever it was is gone. I pat the pepper spray in my pocket.

The pavement is uneven. I pass the empty, closed beauty shop. I think I see movement out the side of my eye. I look quickly and see a person looking at me. I am frightened and I stumble. I look again. It is only an old mirror left behind.

I walk quickly past the Orpheus theater. The movie posters are bloody and gruesome.

The Twilight Haven is up ahead. Next to it is a bar, "The Red Room." It has a suspended neon bar sign. I look up. A bongo playerís hands blink on and off. They play a buzzing silent beat. Next to him, on the sign, is a red neon martini glass. In the glass are two bulging olives. They are looking down at me.

The name "Red Room" reminds me of that Stephen King movie. The one where the little boy hallucinates the bloody words "redrum" scrawled across a wall. The word is "murder" spelled backwards. Most of the people in the movie were murdered.

Sometimes I go into the corner store. They used to sell shoes there. Now they sell and rent videos. Above faded awnings, pealing beige paint exposes the old name. It says "You're Shoe Source." The orange "oís" in the words look swollen and painful.

There are usually people at the video store. I like being around people. There is no cover charge to get in so I go there often.

On the back wall of the video store there is a large video screen. Below the screen is a sign stating the current movie. One time the sign read "Stephen Kingís, The Shining."

I wandered through the aisles where comedy and childrenís videos were kept. I like looking at those. The covers are funny and the children are always laughing and happy.

My attention kept being drawn to the big screen and the dripping word "redrum." When the man who was the boyís Daddy took out an ax and hacked through the bathroom door I thought my pants would get wet, but they didnít. When he stuck his head through the splintered door and said he was home it reminded me of late at night when I was a boy.

Here is the Twilight Haven. High in the clear night sky above, I see twinkling stars and the new rising moon. The faint sliver of light is tipped into a crescent shape like a smile or the sharp horns of an animal.

I walk in.

The theatre is in the decorative style of old buildings. There are fat columns holding up special moldings where the walls meet the ceiling. The musty paint has been applied thickly over the layers of lost time. There are thick vines on the walls and lush leaves on the floor. The speakers in the ceiling play the sounds of far-off birds.

To my right is a staircase going up and a door marked "Comfort Stations." To my left is a concession stand. Behind the counter is a bald, muscular man in some kind of ragged brown leather uniform. There is a string of animal teeth around his neck. He is polishing a glass candy case with his strong hands, ignoring my presence. Popcorn pops ferociously in the machine behind him. There is a thick curious smell in the air.

The lobby doors going to the seats are closed. There is a round window in each of the crimson painted double-doors. Between the left and right aisle doors, in the center of the room, is a tiger. Like it said in the newspaper ad, the lobby has a tiger. It stands unmoving on a low wheeled platform.

The tiger is like nothing I have ever seen before. I move warily towards it for a better look. It is powerful and hungry. The paws look bloody, but I realize it is not blood. Someone has painted the claws red.

I am along the tigerís side. I carefully stroke the dangerous fur. It is wiry to the touch. The colors thread through my fingers. I can feel strength beneath the taut skin.

I am now in front. I take a deep breath and move down. I am looking into the tigerís eyes. The curling snarl smiles, showing long teeth. I am afraid. I place my hands on the open mouth.

I look into itís demanding eyes. The eyes are hypnotizing me. Itís eyes are locked on mine. It holds my stare and I canít look away. I am being drawn in. It is unstoppable. I am being taken into the tiger.

"Hey, Tiger. Are you gonnaí eat that thing or what," a voice says.

My senses return and I look to my right, toward the voice. I am staring at a personís crotch. It is covered with a Zebra patterned pelt. I stand up.

"Excuse me? What?" I say as I rise.

"You donít need an excuse, Tiger," she says smiling. "The show is about to start. Letís I show you the way?" She strokes my chin with her finger and I return a smile.

"Youíre kinda cute, Tiger," she says moving to stand directly in front of me. "You wanna come with me?"

She is very pretty. Her long dark hair is done up high and twisted around a thick stick of wood from a tree. She has smokey dark eyes. Her face is painted with stripes of different colors. She is chewing gum.

Around her long elegant neck is a string of sharp looking animal teeth like the strong man polishing the candy case. The Zebra patterned pelt she wears is very short and hangs loosely from her smooth shoulders. She has blue eye shadow.

"Yeah," I say. "I never been here before. I do not, as a habit, usually partake in theatre type plays."

"Well then you leave it to me," she says and strokes her hand down my arm, taking my hand. Her fingers are soft and warm. Her finger nails are bright scarlet. Around her wrist is a beaded bracelet.

"You sound like youíre from my old neighborhood," she says. "You from the City?"

"Yeah," I say proudly. "Queens."

"Yeah?" she says. "Me too! Near Brooklyn."

"Yeah?" I say. My smile gets even bigger.

"Come this way," she says winking at me. She leads me through the door and into the darkness.

Following her down the aisle, she holds a flashlight low and points where she wants me to go. Itís quiet. I get comfortable. The show begins.

Low lights illuminate the stage as two people walk out. It is a woman and a man. They are wearing the tight fitting clothes of ballet performers. I do not see any seams or buttons or belts. They are barefoot.

Music begins as the dancers move. As the dancers move faster the music begins to throb like a droning engine. The dancers slip past each other and then back together again, embracing then pushing apart.

The movements increase with speed. The music is pounding. Both dancers are inhaling and exhaling deep, laboring breaths. I can smell a strange and faint musky aroma as sweat pours from their bodies.

Suddenly bright blinding lights of all colors burst into my eyes. The barely visible dancers become rigid, standing erect on their toes, hands and arms entwined reaching high above. They are sheened with brilliant bright light. I am tensing my entire body. The dancers collapse. I am suddenly weak. I let my eyes close.

Quickly, I open my eyes. The lights are off, only a faint light-glow on the floral patterned floor. The dancers are no longer present. No music is heard. I look quickly right then left.

"Hey," I shout. "Is there anyone out there?" I hear only silence. My senses then pick out a musky aroma. It is behind me. I quickly turn.

I can see light showing through the two lobby door port holes. They throw beams of light down the aisle toward my seat. No one is leaving the theatre. It occurs to me that Iíve been the only one here this whole time. I wonder how come I didnít notice before?

My hands feel sticky like paste. I hold them into the sallow light. On one hand I see deep little crescents made by my fingernails and black streaks. The muscles in both my hands and fingers are sore and tired. I wipe them on my pants leg.

The beams of light beginning to change color cause me to look again at the doorís circles. They have turned red. The room I am in is bathed in a red light. I am standing alone in a red room.

The doors are moving very slowly, opening. I canít move. The beast moves toward me down the aisle. All I can do is watch. I should face this like a man, but all I have is a childish frightened reaction to what I see coming towards me. I canít run. I donít want to run.

"Yeah, be afraid, you little shit." My father says to me in my head. "Youíve been asking for it for a long time, havenít you?" He says to me. I slowly nod my head. "Then, now your gonnaí get it. So quit with yer whininí. Take it like a man," my father says.

Yes, itís true. I have been asking for it. I know I have been wanting this. Yearning. Needing this.

My eyes are dry, my vision is clear. I can see plain enough. I am resigned to this fate. I see the striped patterned fur and the sharp teeth. I can see the flash of long blood-red talons. I can see, but I donít understand how the beast could be doing this to my body. I seem to be standing outside of myself but I can feel everything and everything is being stripped away.

This is it. I know. Soon it will be over for good. No more needing to endure. I am finally being released. I take this last chance gladly. With all I have left I grab the beast. I use the strength in my arms like itís the last thing I will ever do. And I embrace the beast.

* * *

It is four a.m. The Red Roomís bar sign grows dim then sputters out. It closes itís doors for the night. Next to the late-night lounge, beneath the twinkling stars and the setting, horned shaped, crescent moon, stands a vacant, weed covered lot.

Passing that empty lot, he walks the deserted street. A satisfying smooth strike of pavement greets his heels. He smiles. Things have changed. He is different now. Now he knows the beast. Now he is the beast.

Itís Tiger from the lobby.

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