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