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Jürgen Fauth

Tiger

Let me tell you about Tiger, and what happened when he came back from America. See, Tiger's mom died in an accident when he was seventeen. When her tiny Opel hit the garbage truck, the impact caused one of Tiger's U2 tapes to slip into the tape deck. The firemen cut her body out of the car to the B-side of Joshua Tree. After the accident, Tiger's dad spent his days sitting at home, drinking blueberry schnaps and playing video games. Within two years, he had ruined his liver and died in a hospital bed. Everybody in the family agreed Tiger should live with Onkel Richard and Tante Regine, his godparents, but instead, he sold his father's car and the apartment, gave everybody a different Sartre hardcover as a present, and left for New York.

Tiger's real name was Thomas. When he was about eight, he made his parents take him to the zoo every weekend so he could watch the tigers. He imitated their pace, matching the steps exactly as they trod up and down the length of the cage with hunched shoulders. Little Thomas timed the turns perfectly, swinging one leg over the other, his head bobbing along with the tigers'. His parents watched from under the beer garden's white-and-gold Warsteiner umbrellas, pretending they were alone. After one of the tigers was moved to the Berlin Zoo, Thomas didn't want to go back. Everybody gave him tiger dolls and tiger posters and tiger pillow cases. I don't think he ever finished the thousand-piece tiger jigsaw puzzle, but he kept the name.

I got a call from Tiger on Easter Sunday of his second year in New York. It must have been past three in the morning over there, and he sounded slurry. "Hey Ralf," he said. "Tell me why I should go on with this shit." I didn't say anything; it sounded like a joke so I waited, but then he made a sobbing sound back in that New York night, and I said, "Easter morning is still coming up over there." I thought we had been disconnected. Then Tiger said, "I got to go, this is expensive." I went back outside where my parents were preparing breakfast. I didn't tell them about the call.

So anyway, in the year before I was graduating from high school, after my dad died from the stroke, there was news that Tiger would be coming back. His postcard said he had run out of money and gave an arrival date and a flight number. Onkel Richard, who is Mom's brother, came by to ask if Tiger could move in with us: they had the twins now, and not enough room. He and Mom sat across from each other at the kitchen table and kept quiet whenever I came in to get something from the fridge. "It might be good for you, too, Andrea," I heard Onkel Richard say at one point. Later, Mom explained to me that she thought it was a good idea, and Richard would pay an allowance, and would I mind? No, I told her, not at all. In the months since Dad's death, she had been talking less and less. When I was at home, I usually turned on the TV, to keep the silence out of the house. I spent a lot of time at my girlfriend Laura's.

When Tiger came back that rainy Tuesday morning, Mom and Onkel Richard and Tante Regine and I drove to the airport to greet him. His arms were still too long and thin. In my memory, his face was puffier, not just the cheeks but also the eyebrows, his chin. His face had grown sharper over there. He looked at me as if we had a secret, which I guess we did if that Easter phone call counts, and he gave me a firm hug. Later we had brunch at Richard and Regine's house. Tante Regine always made brunch. She asked Tiger if he had a lot of brunch in America because that's where that comes from, brunch, and he said, "Never seen it" and got more biscuits and gravy. He told some funny stories on the porch, about how he worked in a bookstore and his friends all wore crazy wigs when they went out. He said he was tired from the flight, that he hadn't really eaten since JFK. Every now and then, he searched for a German word, couldn't find it, and said it in English instead. Großonkel Claudius and Großtante Margot were also there--Claudius leaning way back in a green chair to the side, both fists closed around his walking stick. Großtante Margot brought him a plate with cheese and grapes, but he didn't eat any.

When Tiger mentioned his jet lag again and how he needed a nap, Claudius said, "I hope you can sleep off all that American nonsense and go out in the morning and find yourself honest work in this country. A young man like you--"

"Claudius," Richard said, "Not now."

"It's not right that Andrea has to give free room and board to a young, healthy man like him."

My mom put her tea down. "Thomas just got back. We'll give him some time to find his way around again, and--"

"That's okay," Tiger said. "Großonkel Claudius is right. I'll start looking for a job tomorrow."

Claudius nodded gravely but it was obvious that he didn't believe Tiger. He always found something wrong with anything. After retirement, Dad had told me, he sat at his window all day and took down the number of every car that made an illegal left turn coming out of the hardware store across the street. On the first of every month, he turned the lists in to the police station, until the cops told him to go away, and then he wrote long letters of complaint to the newspaper, the city commissioner and the Bundeskriminalamt. Claudius was disgusted with the world, and to him, Tiger was just one of the many things wrong with it. At the time, I could tell that Claudius thought he was always right and that he was used to lying. I knew that much.

Tiger moved into the party cellar that Dad had been building in the basement. He showed me a letter he was writing to his friends in New York, about how he lived in a room with a bar and a disco ball and a poster of the Bay City Rollers. I understood most of the letter, except for some slang words. He played his American records for me, and I helped him put up shelves for his tape collection. He didn't look for a job the whole week, but instead he slept late and cooked linguini for me and Mom. On Saturday, we went to the Kurpark. Tiger and Mom fed the ducks. I got bored and went inside the Kurhaus to call Laura. Back outside, they were drinking beer and Mom was telling Tiger about her part-time job at the law firm. Tiger told a lawyer joke. Then for a couple of minutes, the three of us sat there without saying anything. We were just looking at the park all around us, the tulips, the willows, a girl on a pink bike, the crumbled Roman columns by the entrance. We were looking at each other: there was nothing to be said. When we came home, there was a message from Onkel Richard. Großtante Margot had choked on an apple and died. Großonkel Claudius was on heavy tranquilizers.

The funeral was three days later. Mom held herself together well--Margot was her aunt, but she didn't cry until it was time to shovel dirt on the coffin. That always gets everybody. I cried a little, mostly because I was thinking about Dad. His grave was two blocks over, where they put last spring's dead.

Großonkel Claudius stood a little toward the side. Every now and then, he touched his forehead with a handkerchief and wiped the corners of his eyes. Then, this weird thing happened. Everybody remembered it differently, but this is the way I saw it: while the pastor was reading a Psalm, a fat grey cloud moved up and covered everything around us in its shade. Then, a hole opened up in it--a beam of sunlight passed through and shone right on Tiger. There was no dust in the air, so you couldn't see the beam itself like you can in old oil paintings of angels and so on. But there was no doubt: Tiger stood between us shining, as if he were the last colored thing left in a world gone black-and-white. I don't think he noticed; it lasted but a second. Of course, later, there were embellishments. Tante Regine thought she heard a high-pitched sound, like a violin or a harp, Teresa from Saarbrücken saw the light move out from the grave over the tombstone toward Tiger, and Großonkel Claudius--well, Großonkel Claudius thought he saw the image of the apple that killed his wife suspended over Tiger's head, and Tiger's face distorted by the shadows until he looked like the devil himself. At the wake, Claudius guzzled glass after glass of Spätlese, dropped his handkerchief on the floor and refused to talk to anybody. He waited for Tiger in the hallway to the bathroom and grabbed him by the elbow. He said, "I've got your number, son."

Tiger redesigned the party cellar. He draped big black sheets over all the walls, the high small window, and the doorway. He asked Mom for the cushions from the living room sofa and put them on the floor. I went down there every day after school and hung out with him. He told me about the summer he drove a businessman's Oldsmobile to South Dakota. "You just go straight for days and days. You step outside and you're on top of everything: nothing is taller than you. I dropped the car off at a meat factory in Sioux City, and a butcher with big hands gave me a ride over to the Greyhound station. I'll never forget that."

I had no idea what he was talking about then. I've seen it now, and wish I hadn't: it's just another place. Sprawled out on Tiger's cushions, I imagined an alien landscape where the horizon is just steps away, and gravity is dense but gentle. I could listen to Tiger's stories for hours. At night, I went out with Laura, at least until she left me for that guy Lupp, and Mom and Tiger sat together upstairs, watching TV, talking, drinking cider.

Yes: it must have been in the week right after Großtante Margot's funeral that I walked over to Laura's unannounced and saw Lupp's Golf GTI parked downstairs. In the streetlights, I could just barely make out their shapes in the car. I knocked on the window. Lupp and Laura straightened up in their seats, running hands through their hair. Lupp glared at me and started the car. Laura got out and marched right past me to her door, keys ready. "Laura, what's going on?" I said. She opened the door, told me it was over, just like that, and closed it behind her. When I turned, Lupp was pulling away, his left arm high out the window, flipping me off.

Tiger found a job at the foil factory. He worked night shifts. His job was to add paint to the machines that printed chip bags and candy bar wrappers and Sunkists. Every hour or so, he had to change the roll of plastic foil, slashing it with a razor blade while the machine was running. Several workers had lost fingers when the blade got stuck and their hands were pulled into the rolling cylinders. Tiger told me he loved doing it: "It's a real thrill," he said. "Pretty extreme."

"I wouldn't want to work in a factory," I said. "Sounds really risky." We were drinking beer although it was only two thirty. This was a week or so after Laura left me, and I felt there were no rules anymore.

"If that's what it takes," Tiger said. We were listening to Blood Gutter.

"What do you really want to do?"

Tiger gave me this look, like, what the fuck? "Make enough money to go back over there," he said.

I ran into Großonkel Claudius at the supermarket. He cornered me with his cart full of canned beans, mint chocolate, and Weizenbier and asked me all these questions about Tiger. If he had a job yet. What kind. How much did it pay. Did he drink too much. Did Mom have to cook for him. Was he rude. Was there a strange smell. Wasn't Mom scared everybody would die? I hurried home without buying anything. Mom told me, "Großonkel Claudius is just a lonely old man. Since Margot died, he hides out in his apartment like a caveman. He's sad, that's all."

Martin from physics told me he saw Laura and Lupp fight in front of the movie theater. He said Lupp looked like always: greasy hair and stupid pale blue jeans with zippers. I kept hoping Laura would figure out that nobody liked him, but Tiger said that never mattered to women. I wasn't sure whether to believe him: he seemed to know only about American girls.

"Why don't you have a German girlfriend?" I asked him.

"Because German girls aren't anything like Americans. They're stiff and boring. Over there, when they hear a German accent, they lose their shit. It's wild."

Lupp was from Frauenstein: he talked like a pig farmer, mashing every "sch" and "ig" like overcooked Knödel. His family made wine out there, but I knew they added sugar. How could Laura lose her shit over a guy like that?

Mom was talking more again, and she laughed at Tiger's jokes. I started to wonder if Tiger wasn't wrong about German women--Mom didn't seem stiff and boring at all. On Wednesdays, Tiger was off, and the three of us went for walks a lot, rode the cable car up Neroberg, looked at dinosaur bones in Frankfurt.

And then Tiger met Iska and quit his job. She was working at the foil factory too, and one night during their two-thirty coffee break, they decided to go to her house and not come back. They spent a lot of time together. Iska often stayed at our house. She was tall and had broad shoulders, and her hair was black and just long enough to stand up when she put gel in it. When Mom invited her for a Rippchen dinner one time, she said, "Eech, meat." Me, she ignored altogether. Tiger told me he liked her because she reminded him of a girl he knew in America. Mom said, in her day, girls like Iska were called "Arschkrampen." I didn't think Mom knew words like that.

Großonkel Claudius started calling our house. At first, he just talked, about the weather, the socialists, the police. He still called East Germany the Russian Sector. After a while, he always asked about Tiger. If it was true he lost his job and went around with a short-haired factory girl. If we felt ill. If we had witnessed more omens. He called two, three times a day, and once we started to get annoyed with him, he got straight to the point every time: did we realize there was more death to follow? He really frightened me with that rasping voice of his that sounded like he was sitting in the dark. One time when Mom picked up the phone, she talked to him for a long time. From behind the living room door, I heard her tell him things like "Sometimes it's nobody's fault" and "That's not going to bring her back." After she hung up, I heard her cry to herself. For a moment, I thought about going in and holding her, but I couldn't get myself to do it.

I think it was that same night when Iska and Tiger made all that noise--it sounded like they were going back and forth between fighting and having sex, and they were listening to loud music. Sometime after midnight, I heard Mom go downstairs. There was yelling, and after a while she came back up. Tiger and Iska quieted down, but then the music started again, and the banging too. In the morning, I found Dad's disco ball in the garbage, busted open like a broken egg. It looked dangerous, as if it would bite your hand off if you came too close. Nobody said anything, but I saw the look on Mom's face when she saw it. I think she went to the cemetery that afternoon, to talk to Dad.

Mom was shutting the world out again: there was nothing she liked anymore. I asked Tiger if we could go out, on Wednesdays, to Frankfurt or the vineyards.

"Maybe," Tiger said. He was busy making a tape for Iska and labeling the j-card.

"Do you still want to go back to America?"

"I've changed my plans. Iska's brother's best friend has a house in Papua New Guinea. You can live there for a whole year on a hundred marks."

"What about us?"

"I'm not sure if there'd be room," he said. "It think it's really more a hut than a house."

He jumped up to stop the tape deck, but he recorded part of the next song and he had to rewind and fast forward and rewind again and he was cussing and I snuck out.

I sat in my room a lot and thought about Laura.

Großonkel Claudius called one Tuesday morning and got Tiger on the phone. Tiger winked at me and flipped the speaker on. Onkel Claudius was saying, "Have you found a job yet? My good Margot never harmed a soul. She was in best health until you came back. I am watching you, boy. I am paying attention."

"Ooh, I'm scared," Tiger said. "Go freak some first graders. It's not my fault your wife is dead. Get over it."

"You are not of my blood. Someone like you would not have lived. We would have taken care of you."

"Fucking crazy-ass Nazi," Tiger said back into the phone; it was out before I could press the hook.

"I hope he didn't hear that," I said.

Tiger said, "What a fucker."

That morning, there was a flurry of phone calls among the relatives. When Mom came home, before we had chance to explain anything to her, Onkel Richard called. I could hear his voice through the receiver all across the kitchen. After Mom hung up, she sat Tiger and me down at the kitchen table.

"I don't want to believe you said that," she said, both arms on the table.

"I did," Tiger said. "I called him a Nazi, and I'll do it again, because that's what he is. He wants to gas me."

"That's terrible, but that's just the way he is. It's too late to change him. He lost his wife, and he's looking for someone to blame it on. The family wants you to apologize."

Tiger didn't say anything.

"They're going to cut off all support if you don't."

"Onkel Richard's payments?"

I tried not to breathe. This was one of Mom's kitchen conversations, and I didn't want to be there. I didn't like how they were sitting across from each other, looking straight up. I imagined myself invisible.

"I'd have to kick you out. That's what they want."

"When?"

"You have to apologize today or leave. I'm sorry."

"Pffh," Tiger said. He got up and looked at his feet, balanced his weight back and forth, said "Pffh" again.

"Sorry," Mom said.

"Shit," Tiger said and walked out of the kitchen.

"Mom," I said.

She turned to me. She looked tired.

"That's not fair," I said. "You know he's going to leave. Can't we just let him stay?"

"No," she said. "I can't." She was about to cry. She put her hand on my elbow. "You don't think he'll apologize?"

I shook my head wide and hard. That's when Mom started to cry and I came over and stood by her chair and held her head against my chest.

Tiger spent the rest of the afternoon on the phone, trying to get a hold of Iska, or Iska's brother, or Iska's brother's best friend, the one with the hut in Papua. Mom had gone to her bedroom. I watched a movie about the Fall of Rome on TV. The movie was over three hours long. Tiger sat down with me during the final scene. A whole bunch of Christians was about to go up in flames.

"I think Iska is avoiding me. I haven't talked to her in a week." He didn't take his eyes off the TV. "I've been thinking. I've got a plan. Can you help me with this?"

The big chariot race was coming up. I nodded, of course.

"There's a friend I know in Hamburg. I need about five hundred marks and a ride to the train station. Can you do that for me?" He was looking at me then.

I told him yes. He went downstairs to pack. Mom was still locked in her bedroom. I called Onkel Richard and told him to come to the park with Großonkel Claudius. I had made up my mind: I wasn't going to let Tiger leave.

On our way out, Tiger said Mom's name once in the direction of her bedroom and waved his long arm, knowing that she couldn't hear or see him. In the car, I told him we'd have to drive by the bank. He nodded, half-listening. He was staring out the window. I took a left and parked second row outside the Kurpark's main entrance.

"Can you do me a favor?" I asked. "Can we feed the ducks one more time, like when you first got here?"

Tiger bought it. I think he noticed my hands shaking when I opened the door, but he came with me.

Richard and Claudius were sitting on white iron chairs by the pond, facing the entrance: they had noticed us long before Tiger saw them. When I waved, Claudius lifted his cane. He was grinning as if the entire Wehrmacht was parading by to salute him. Richard pushed his chest out and tried to look bored.

Tiger said to me, "You little bastard."

I said, "Please?"

And that was that. I'd rather not think about it much, to be honest. Großonkel Claudius talked for over an hour about respect for your elders and how Hitler built the Autobahn and gave everybody work, but that it was true about him being a little too power hungry. We had to stand there in front of them and listen--all this stuff about his wife, what a good girl she was, digging for potatoes after the war, never complaining, and that story about Hermine's suitcase the night they got bombed out of their house, how he refused the orders to shell the monastery on the retreat from Stalingrad. He dumped his whole life on us. Then he made Tiger say, "I apologize, Großonkel Claudius," and Tiger did, and then he and Richard were smiling and nodding at each other, and we were dismissed. There was a ticket on the car for parking second row.

"I hate you for that," Tiger said.

Tiger stayed with us for another month or so, and then he found a well-paying job at the library and moved into an apartment of his own in Biebrich. I redecorated the party cellar again. Mom helped me sponge-paint it. Tiger still came by every now and then, for dinner, or to watch a movie.

 

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