09/27/2021

Daniel Adler ~ The Lion Tamer

This ear­ly, as he pass­es the lla­ma, camel, goats, Shep imag­ines them as feed for Jaco, who’s camped in the back, clos­est to the riv­er, his own pri­vate lion. Jaco’s gold­en eyes catch the dawn like news­pa­per does a match. Shep sets down the buck­et of ground beef and fid­dles with his key ring. “How’s my lit­tle t‑rex this morning?”

Jaco growls in reply.

The smell of large mam­mal is heavy, damp and musty, like wet sand. Jaco’s fur-tipped tail switch­es across the cage floor. Shep swings open the cage and the lion approach­es, purring like a motor­cy­cle, a sound Shep feels in his guts. He emp­ties the buck­et of beef on the floor of the cage halfway between him­self and Jaco. “Breakfast.”

Jaco squats over the meat, his mas­ti­ca­tion a series of clicks, tongue a giant spool of bub­ble gum. Shep retreats and watch­es, sat­is­fied, for the next eighty-four sec­onds as Jaco’s yel­low fangs move over the three pounds of cow. Then Shep leash­es him and leads him into the pur­ple morning.

Birdcall fills the air: Wrens skit­ter and whis­tle in the bush­es along the water, a mock­ing­bird alights on a tree branch with a worm in its beak, car­di­nals hop through the trees, pause and greet each oth­er. Or maybe they’re singing to the earth, to spring, because they sense it’s going to be a beau­ti­ful day.

Jaco shakes his head, clear­ly pleased to be out­side. His mane needs to be washed and con­di­tioned before the next show. It sad­dens Shep to think of a future with­out Jaco, when he’ll have to buy a new big cat. If.

His dad­dy bought Jaco as a large cub from Busch Gardens in Tampa, when his moth­er still read for­tunes and han­dled the fam­i­ly accounts. His dad­dy insist­ed they feed Jaco togeth­er so the lion’d love Shep once he took over; his dad­dy had already been diag­nosed with can­cer, has already been dead six­teen years now, his moth­er parked in her trail­er on Lake Hartwell for almost as long. Beauregard & Co. Family Circus is his alone—Shepherd Beauregard is the last Beauregard left.

Back in those days, in his last bloom of youth, his hunch­back wasn’t bad. He recent­ly bought plat­form shoes to keep some of his declin­ing height, so Jaco still views him as dom­i­nant in the ring. He’s lost an inch a year these past three years. Now he’s bare­ly five feet tall.

His body isn’t all that’s changed. The new hire Cassie is his youngest employ­ee and she’s against the idea of per­form­ing ani­mals, doesn’t think it’s fair that instead of com­pet­ing against hye­nas on the savan­nah Jaco gets fed and watered and groomed and his life expectan­cy is near­ly dou­ble for hav­ing to jump through a flam­ing hoop a few times a week a few months of the year. The way things are going there won’t be cir­cus­es in ten years. Just last week he had to write a let­ter describ­ing the care sched­ule for all of the Beauregard ani­mals to ward off anoth­er fine from the Animal Welfare Act. Even though it’s been years since the last.

Orange peeks its head into their mead­ow as the sky whitens. A cloud­bank floats warm and gen­tle south­ward, cozy as chick­en noo­dle soup. It smells fetid and wild, of big cat and sweet­grass and slow riv­er. It feels like nothing—or maybe everything—is as it should be.

Ever since Shep tried to tame Cass’ lion and she rebuffed him, she’s been rude to him about Jaco. “Come on,” he joked to her yes­ter­day, “if Jaco didn’t love me, don’t you think he’d’ve eat­en me by now?”

Maybe he’s hold­ing off as a sign of his love,” she said.

Shep touch­es his belt where he nor­mal­ly keeps his hol­ster. He doesn’t wear his .45 when he feeds Jaco. Maybe he should. Though it’d take the entire round to lay down a five-hun­dred-pound lion set on escape. The gun’s most­ly to feel safe. Like when he’s come too close to Jaco while he’s eat­ing and he growls, or in the ring when Jaco roars before a jump, and the chil­dren ooh and aah and scream and Shep has to try not to, because he feels that sound in his bow­els and knows the wild­ness in Jaco’s eyes. Better to back down. Let nature lead. His dad­dy used to say if you can’t fol­low your nature you’re doing some­thing wrong.

But nature is only right this spring morn­ing. There comes a sense that every­thing can be born anew—the air high and tight and full, the dis­tant trail­ers sto­ic and heavy. Thing about lions is they have more nature, more instinct than we do, which makes them hard­er to con­trol if their instinct is to kill. Cass thinks Jaco can learn cal­cu­lus if you train him long enough—but she also thinks a cir­cus should be peo­ple only, and ani­mals should be free to roam the jun­gle, get poached by hunters—go extinct if that’s what the Good Lord—

Hey!” Virgil croaks from his trail­er steps. The fad­ed yel­lows and reds and black on his neck are like the spot­ty plumage of an old robin, deep-set eyes like obsid­i­an, skin rough and brown as a dead leaf, ready to crack and reveal all that empti­ness inside: Shep’s most loy­al carnie. Shep still remem­bers the day he showed up almost twen­ty-five years ago, chain­ing Marlbs, all twig­gy in his beat­er, voice already like it’d been run through a cheese grater when he said he came from a carnie fam­i­ly down in Jacksonville, troupe they’d nev­er heard of, his mama the beard­ed lady. Shep still doesn’t know if that’s true. Not that it mat­ters. Think you can find a new hire who can put togeth­er a Tilt-a-Whirl in under five hours—by him­self? For stand­ing bare­ly five-seven—Shep’s height ten years ago—Virgil’s got the strength of some­one twice his size. Unnaturally big hands, extra long arms, knows all the carnie tricks—concrete bot­tles, bent bas­ket­ball hoops, dull-tipped darts. They haven’t giv­en out a big stuffed bear since they bought Jaco. And the way he stays good with the deal­ers to get every­one their drugs—all the drugs. Throws Shep ten per­cent for let­ting him han­dle it. Virgil scratch­es Jaco’s head and Jaco shakes it out. “You heard of that new show Tiger King?”

Unh-unh.”

Makes me think they should make a show about us.”

Now why would they make a show about a lion when they just made one about a tiger?” Shep says and then he remem­bers his father: a com­pos­ite mem­o­ry of those cold, ear­ly morn­ings when they fed the Beauregard lion from his child­hood, the one called Thomas, the musty old tent, his father’s round­ed back, the cage door swing­ing open, his father huck­ing the meat from the steel pail onto the cage floor, and togeth­er how they watched Thomas eat, the lion’s yel­low dinosauri­an eye flick­ing up at them as he licked the ground beef.

~

Daniel Adler was born in Brooklyn and raised in Portland. He has an MFA from U of South Carolina where he was non­fic­tion edi­tor at Yemassee Journal. His work has appeared or is forth­com­ing from J Journal, Storgy, Shark Reef, The Broadkill Review and else­where. He’s @anieldadler.