Tiger Teeth, Peppermint Eyes

by Steven Wolfe

Home again, finally; everybody was gone and the tread marks were still in the street. The first warm afternoon I could pretend everything had stayed the same; gradually, it all developed a certain soft motionless weight. I lay on my old bed, trying to recall how the dust moved through the sun on those mornings, across the pile of great books promising answers, through the prism of my juice-filled glass. I was willfully, momentarily blind, and mildly nauseated from drinking the tap water, ready for anything. So when a figure clothed in dark tattoos tapped on my bedroom window at one in the morning (attracted to the light, no doubt, like a moth) and motioned me outside, I went.

I had qualms, what with the electric eyes and the sanctioned body hunters, and the new diseases both natural and induced; but I'd heard, up high in the woods in the snow, about the nightcrawlers that prowled the suburbs, and she was one-present, alive and undeniable (as she climbed the footpath through the garden I could see the muscles moving beneath her skin, rippling under a crude tattooed mouth disgorging flame along her spine), and we did the natural thing behind the trees where I used to play Hideout. I could almost hear Dale, Kristin, Beano and Goff trying not to laugh while they told ghost stories under a stretched blanket. Her fingers played in the weeds while my tongue explored her shoulder. Then she was off into the bushes before I could form questions. I went back to my bed and fell asleep to the sound of the oleanders brushing softly along the windows in the breeze.

In the morning there was orange juice squeezed from real fruit, and my mother spooning butter over frying eggs. She didn't speak, but smiled, and seemed to do the dishes with true relish-by hand, now, the dishwasher rusted shut and connected to nothing.

I kicked a few rocks; I visited the shed in back-all the tools were rusted, their rubber handles hardened and crumbling; I waited for lunch. Later we watched the television, listening to speeches, seeing the bright moving images. Nomad exiles and dodgers were picked up every day; furtive, awkward at checkpoints and borders, no papers, ruddy-faced, sweating; they were dragged out of helicopters past the cameras into cinderblock bunkers, to have their veins scoured clean or something equally horror-inducing. But these people were stupid, I knew; they hadn't learned the tricks, they trusted too much, there was too much craving left inside them. Mom looked over at me. I shrugged. Don't worry, I said, I know what I'm doing. It's different with me.

She nodded and turned off the telephones. As night fell I went to my room to read a book I'd found in a drawer. When I spread the pages open the binding cracked, and the sound made me flinch. Eventually there came the tapping on the window. I was waiting.

We went down into the road through the cement foundations and fields and houses, muddy ruts and rolling hills, through a gully with a creek flowing along the bottom and rows of eucalyptus trees gleaming. I tripped and fell onto my knees; the powdery dust on the ground filled my mouth with grit. She bent toward me. When we met it was like margarine melting on toast and despite the wordlessness I was empty of curiosity and devoid of a need for easy answers.

We rested on the bank. Her ribs stood out in the moon's light, her chest barely rising with her breath. I felt no breeze, yet the bushes and trees and flowering weeds swayed to-and-fro in unison. The loose bark rustled on the eucalyptus trees, and I could smell their pungent leaves.

An engine rumbled, coming closer. This is it for me, I thought. This is when I finally become stupid like all the others. But it was just a cattle lorry; the smell was unmistakable. It rolled by and disappeared into the dark. The odor of diesel filled the air. An animal ran through the fallen leaves; I followed it with my ears, and when I turned back she was gone and I was alone. I walked home barefoot along the packed clay banks of the road, toes numb from the dew.

In the light of morning, over muffins and ground bean coffee, I noticed how Mom's skin had creased so deeply, become so rough and slack; how her hair lay dull and straight; how thin her fingers seemed. Age was accreting around her bones like cotton candy. I suppose these reminders of mortality come in little shot-glass doses more strongly than in the final fact of death, and I found myself missing her in advance for the years to come.

She bent over the hot skillet and dropped in a chunk of yellow butter; it sizzled; the living smell filled the kitchen. The eggs waited, but she stood over the pan, looking at nothing. The butter began to pop, then burn into a sputtering glob, sticky and unrecognizable. She shuddered, turned off the heat, put the eggs back into the icebox.

You need money, don't you? she asked. How are you getting by these days? I haven't seen any money for years now.

I forgot, she smiled. But what do you do up there? I've got friends, I replied, up over the border. We stay between the houses and the land, out in the parts of the city where no one ever goes. It's different there. Once you get over, if you get over, the cameras disappear. They still come looking but their machinery isn't so advanced. They use dogs, and the dogs are on our side. We help them escape whenever we can, and they seem to remember from generation to generation.

Just don't waste the rest of your life doing the right thing, she said. You should have told me that years ago, I laughed. I didn't know then, she said, I didn't realize. We were always busy talking about other things then.

The newspaper lay open on the table, upside down to me, and I could see a picture of a parade full of flags and fists, below that another picture, a bright smudge, an explosion, and short words in bold black type standing out from the page as I pushed it away.

It was a beautiful afternoon, clear and sunny, and I went into the garage to see if the bicycles were still there. Both bikes, my father's and my brother's, both were hidden back in a corner behind boxes and furniture and folded curtains, and a thick film of dust, dirt, and cobwebs covered it all.

The dust made me cough as I dragged my brother's bike out into the sun, with its crud-frozen chain and cracked seat and seized cables; I cleaned it right there on the driveway with rags and solvent, made a big filthy stain on the asphalt, and soon, although the bearings were sticky and the rear derailleur was out of line, with a bit of oil it was fit to ride.

But when I got on, the seat was too low-too low for me, anyway, it was still adjusted for my brother-and I took the spanner and raised the seat post about two inches, with great care; gently, as if each inch were precious. And whereas the old steel was brown with rust, the newly exposed steel gleamed unbearably in the light so that I had to wipe it down with a greasy rag, and I marked the spot with a permanent pen so as not to lose the setting-a permanent pen, you understand-and then I slung my leg over and pedaled away.

Down at the Mall they were crowded at the entrances and camped around the sides of the buildings and through the parking lots, and their brightly colored tents and the clotheslines strung from lamp-post to lamp-post made a festive impression against the smooth gray concrete of the structures. It was a horrible circus when one came closer and saw the people themselves so dirty, sick and thin, cooking meager pots of beans, the children not laughing or playing but just sitting with baskets at their feet, ignored utterly by the sleek teeth who were permitted to enter the doors, while smoke from the fires rose into the air. One wondered what they found to burn, and then rode closer and jumped off to walk in the midst of the eyes and feet, and saw piles of shirt cardboards and torn giftwrap and ribbon and dried excrement and rags rubbed on the undersides of cars to wet them with oil, all barely burning hot enough together to boil the water.

Out of the mass came Beano and Dale, wonder of wonders; we embraced, sat on a curbstone, and they warned me solemnly to be careful, the hunt was on, and Dale described their days encamped among different groups, foraging, staying one step ahead of the black vans. I showed them my forged discharge papers, let them feel the false pin planted under the skin of my forehead, demonstrated my blank stare and wet-mouthed stutter.

Dale was worried for me. Those tricks won't work much longer, she said, now they'll take anyone.

It's okay, I said, this is my only trip home. And I told them about the road across the high desert plains and through the mountains to the city spread along the shores of an enormous lake. I told them about the deep drifts of snow, the masses of arctic air that settled against the earth, quietly squeezing the breath out of your chest, and about the springtime flowers blooming out of the soggy ground.

It was good to see them, although it twisted something inside to watch them peer out from wrinkled eyes and gray hair; the time and worry had told on all of us and we glanced discreetly at each other as if at funhouse mirrors. Still, there was a kind of comfort I'd never known with anyone else, and when we said our goodbyes there was a fist in my throat that descended. . . because I saw how Beano limped and I saw the badly set break in his arm and how he held it close to his chest, and I saw how bent-over Dale was, like an old woman, pale and gasping-she painted no pictures these days except with blood and spit, coughing onto the canvas walls of tents-and I heard their own words choking them, for they had been here while I had escaped, they had seen, and look at them now, like birds flapping petroleum-soaked wings, trying to get above the black greasy water.

Mom fixed me a dinner of mashed potatoes and barbecued corn on the cob and rice tea, and then it was sunset-we could sit in perfect contentment on the front steps smoking and watching the cats play in the grass.

Tomorrow it would be time to leave for good, and I had a hard feeling inside, as if my blood were obstructed flowing through my veins. Later on in bed, staring at the ceiling, I tried to let the horror loosen and drain out of me, because I'd wanted being here to be easy like when I was young, but the air itself was poisoned with ash, hazy with the dust of marching, the bloom was off, there was more empty than full, all that kind of thing.

So when the tapping on the window came I meant to get up, but all motive force was gone; I knew there was nowhere left she could take me that I needed to go. Instead I stayed coiled tight, ears drawn forward, pinned to the pillow like a bug; I could hear the very dust drop onto the floor. Then a rustling in the grass and no more tapping. The fist inside pressed until I was sunk deep into the mattress, and that was that. The worst was that I was ready to leave. The glaciers and lakes, the makeshift villages, the lightbulbs glowing in the freezing fog-these were the things that made up my life now. There was hardly anything to remember here; nevertheless, I forgot the ticking clock beside me and did remember:

A field, the dozen of us watching an eclipse from the side of a hill, with the moon hanging orange and seeming very round and close enough to touch; then bit by bit the light came back, filling the dry lunar seas, and afterwards we got each of us into our cars and rushed away in different directions;

And her house standing in the salty ocean air, blue-trimmed like a sailor's cap, a high attic window, a waved hand within, flowers bleeding through the glossy white fenceposts, wind creaking the clapboard, and She, bursting from it, tiger teeth and peppermint eyes, leading me by the hand past succulent-covered dunes to the beach. Across the bay stood a high crumbling cliff; ships broke apart on the reefs at its foot. We watched the townspeople come down to the water with crowbars and burlap sacks to salvage the wrecks. Survivors were bludgeoned, their pockets emptied and their wet clothes used to wrap the booty. We knew what they were doing, everyone knew; at the time, though, watching from a distance, it had seemed only picturesque and charming.

The sun was rushing around the earth toward morning. As the clock ticked away, I listened to the faint roar of an airplane riding along in the sky, and I tried to imagine a whistle, then a concussion, then a rush of air, the clamor and rubble, blood, screaming, praying, the frantic horses stretching their necks, the burning smell-an anonymous sky, eyeless and serene, scattering chaos like raindrops-and the bland voices of the filth in human skin, calmly explaining and explaining, calmly, how blood was air and flesh was cloth and bees flew upside down, explaining it away into shadows and corners where light was muted, colors forgotten, edges blurred, memory eroded.

A bird chirped in the bushes. Plants rested outside, their roots dug into the earth, waiting for sunrise. The pressure in the house changed, as if a door had been opened. I crept out of bed and down the hall, found Mom on the porch in her nightgown, legs folded, the grey cat purring in her lap.

Is that you? she asked. Sometimes I wake up and can't remember where I am.

Her fingers flowed through the cat's silky fur, appearing and disappearing, constantly moving.

You could come with me tomorrow, I said. It's tomorrow already, she replied.

I could get you over the border.

She smiled. Her fingers twined strands of fur around her knuckles, forming grey bands that dissolved between the cracks of her hands.

My alarm clock went off; I could hear it clattering mindlessly in the bedroom. Eventually it stopped. We watched the sun tip the horizon with brilliant color; the cats hunted through the flowers beneath it, oblivious. How easily could come the awe and wonder! But I found myself craving the featureless skies over the lake, and the polar wind that froze all the engines, sheathed the streets in ice, gelled the gasoline. It seemed a blessing - anyone could see it if they really looked - a blessing; soon enough no more sunrises, thank god, no more blue skies or cloudless days, no more enveloping warmth, no more quiet evenings full of frogs, no more lovely, hopeful, nauseating lies-only a weak thunder and a little fog, some crumbs of biscuit on the arm of a chair, the earth sighing in relief, and the thumping dance of animals circling through the leaves, hearing a song that to us was silence, hearing a beat, a celebration; Shiva the Lord of the Dance and Destroyer of Worlds will move among them, bringing more deeply colored rainbows, more crystalline frost, and games infinitely better than any that came before.

Copyright © 1997
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