Miriam Cook Your Best Bet
When George died in a crash on the interstate in September, he left Beth the mortgaged house on the hill overlooking the Columbia River, a little less than six-thousand dollars in savings, and a three-hundred pound Sumatran tiger in the backyard. It was a last gift from her almost ex-husband, but what the hell do you do with a tiger?
George had told her about the tiger during a tense phone call, but Beth had never seen it and did not want to now. There were many things she did not want to do: identify the body, sign the papers for his transport to the funeral home, call George’s mother. She’d still been listed on all of George’s paperwork as next of kin. Probably he’d planned to change it later. He was still relatively young and healthy, a careful driver, always so careful. No one would have guessed that he might fall asleep at the wheel and drift into the median. Now she needed to arrange for George’s body to be sent to his family in Montana and also for the small service at a church in town. The lawyer wanted to meet to go over the details of the will, finances, and the house mortgage. He said George had left special instructions for the tiger. She wanted to tell the lawyer to find someone else to take care of it. She wanted to close her eyes for a couple hours and forget this had happened. But George had given her the tiger. The least she could do was go feed it.
The day after George died, she bought a bunch of beef scraps at the supermarket and drove up the hill. The house hadn’t changed. Same tarp-covered woodpile out front. Her hand knew exactly where the light switch was on the wall inside the door. George’s hunting rifle still hung on the gun rack in the hall. The house was clean and orderly. George clearly hadn’t gone to pieces in her absence, and she was glad. A couple of dishes were sitting in the sink. She took the trash out to the bins in the driveway and washed the dishes. Then she supposed she’d better take care of the tiger too.
His enclosure was about fifty feet from the back door, right at the edge of the forest. George had built it out of rebar and chain-link fence. Half of it was floored with a concrete slab, the other half was grass and rock with a solitary pine tree. At the back of the concrete, George had built a sturdy lean-to of thick beams and corrugated tin. The fence was tall, maybe fifteen or twenty feet high. He’d made the enclosure long enough that when the tiger paced, which it was doing right now, walking from one side to the other and back took a whole minute. She stood about ten feet back to look at it. At this distance the ammonia and warmth of its tiger smell was faint, barely perceptible.
The tiger was smaller than she’d expected, thin, with ribs showing under its stripes and its legs too skinny. When it saw her, the tiger approached the fence. It reared up, hooked its sharp claws in the chain-link, and barked at her. She took a couple involuntary steps back. Stretched out like that, the tiger was nearly a foot taller than her. Its teeth were yellow and pointed, with two canine teeth that curved wickedly down from the top of its mouth to meet two matching teeth curving up from its lower jaw. The top canines were long enough to pierce her hand and come out the other side. Its paws were level with her face and just as wide. She could see the raised knot of a scar on its left foreleg and the thin lines of scars along its head and neck. George had said something about its past when he’d first told her over the phone.
“He’s been through a lot, and I’m giving him a good home,” he said. They’d been talking weekly since she moved out, part of a plan to try to work things out. George had found the tiger at a circus in Yakima. “His trainer left, and they needed someone to take him. And I have all this land.”
“George, why are you buying a tiger?”
“I thought you liked tigers,” he said.
She couldn’t remember ever saying this. They had never even been to a zoo together. “I hope you didn’t do this for me,” she said.
He was quiet for a long moment. “I’ll be happy to have the company. You should stop by to see him sometime.”
She’d meant to, she really had. But the small things always got in the way—there were bills to pay and there was laundry to do. And whenever she had thought about driving up the hill to visit, she couldn’t quite summon the energy. Next week, she told herself. Now, looking at the tiger, she wondered how George had fed it. The entrance to the cage was partitioned, with a space like a mudroom between two doors. The first door closed with a thick sliding bolt. Another door led from the partitioned area into the enclosure itself. In the end, she decided not to risk it, settling instead on pitching the beef bones over the fence. The tiger seized one, teeth cracking the bone. When she was sure it was distracted, Beth pushed the rest of the scraps through the fence. Then she sat down to watch. The chill in the air raised goosebumps on her arms. On the other side of the river, the evening light rolled over the yellow hills. The tiger looked up at her, its eyes golden. She wondered what it was thinking and whether it wanted to eat her. She needed to talk to the lawyer and find out what George wanted her to do with it.
When Monday rolled around, she went back to work. Everyone had heard about George, and they were too nice. They wouldn’t let her take any calls. She proofread paperwork all day. She’d taken the job at the cruise line call center five years before. The company had located the call center in Oregon because of the purity of the accent. Northwesterners were clear and true with their vowels, softening their consonants only a little—Allen, her manager, had explained this during the orientation. Beth didn’t tell him that she grew up in Montana.
She worked in the customer service department. Allen told them to resolve all calls in two minutes, an impossibility. In person, she had always found conflict deeply upsetting, but somehow with the distance provided by a phone line she acquired greater patience and calm. She learned early on that angry people just need to yell themselves out sometimes. A note pinned up on her cubicle reminded her “It’s not about you.” She kept tissues by her computer. On good days she could solve problems. On bad days she got called “a lying bitch” or “the rudest person I’ve ever talked to.”
She asked Maureen what she thought about the tiger. Maureen worked in the next cubicle over. They’d developed a sort of comrade-in-arms friendship over the years, united against the angry callers.
“What did the will say about it?” Maureen asked.
“I’m meeting with the lawyer this week to find out. None too soon. Feeding it is already costing me about thirty bucks a day.”
“What do tigers even eat?”
Beth had looked this up online. “They eat guar, whatever that is, and wild boar and deer. Here, though, people usually feed them horse. It’s a good nutritional match.”
Maureen made a face. “What’s it look like?”
“Like a tiger,” Beth said.
Every evening after work, she bought beef at the butcher, or venison and horse meat when they could find it for her, and drove up to see the tiger. While it ate, she used the hose to spray water into a trough George had constructed along the side of the enclosure. Once, feeling playful, she sprayed the tiger. She’d read that tigers love water. But he snarled and flung himself at the chain link. The sight of those teeth bared and those claws extended wiped Beth’s mind blank. She screamed as he hit the fence. Then she stumbled backwards and sat down hard on the ground, the hose still running. After hanging on the fence for a moment, the tiger retreated to the lean-to and licked his fur.
Cleaning the floor of the concrete half of his enclosure proved a challenge. The slab was covered in a thin layer of compacted feces, probably more to blame for the smell than the tiger itself. George hadn’t engineered the enclosure very well. The only way to restrain the tiger was in the partitioned area by the door, but then how was she supposed to get into the enclosure to clean it? In the end, she bought a small pressure washer and aimed it through the fence. The tiger had been skittish since she sprayed him with the hose, and he slunk around the corners of the enclosure while she worked, staying as far away from the water as he could. She spent nearly a whole Saturday afternoon pressure washing. When it was done, the concrete was a clean grey and steamed in the sun. The tiger picked his way cautiously through the puddles.
Caring for the tiger took so much time that she started spending nights at the house. When the title was transferred to her name, she let go of her apartment over the yoga studio and moved back in. It felt a little lonely living there without George. Often after the tiger was fed and watered, she would drag a chair outside to sit with it until dark.
She had met George in high school in Great Falls, Montana. When Beth’s mother had mentioned seeing them together, her stepfather had put down his fork and knife and told her that she wasn’t allowed to go out with this boy again.
Beth’s mother had been well into her third or fourth glass of wine. “Oh, it’s all right,” she’d said mildly.
“If you want your daughter making a fool of herself all over town, then she can go right ahead,” Beth’s stepfather had said. He’d gone outside then, to smoke. After her mother passed out, he’d come into Beth’s room smelling of cigarettes, his hands hot and shaky. He was strong and knew how to hurt her.
George didn’t smoke. He was kind and patient. When she told him about her stepfather, he held her and stroked her hair. He said, “Come stay in my sister’s room. My parents will understand.” And George’s parents did understand, although they never really warmed up to her.
They were married the summer after they graduated from high school. Then they packed everything into George’s car and drove until they hit the Columbia River Gorge. George got a job in construction and they rented a small apartment. With him beside her, Beth slept soundly and without dreams.
They went on one vacation just two years after they were married. Beth wanted to drive to the coast and stay in a hotel, but George said hotels were too expensive. They were saving up for a house at the time and every penny counted. He suggested elk hunting instead. He had all the equipment already. And if they were lucky, they’d come out with enough meat to last a year. Beth wasn’t sure she wanted to eat elk for a year, but she gave in.
They staked out a promising meadow in the Coast Range. George roused her at dawn to sit in the bushes in an orange vest. While she might have preferred a hotel on the coast, Beth had thought the hunting itself would be thrilling. She hadn’t known how much waiting was involved. The morning was cold, and her fingers and toes soon went numb. She nodded off a couple times and almost missed the arrival of the herd.
They stepped cautiously from the trees. The meadow filled, maybe twenty or thirty of them, it was hard to tell. Steam rose from their noses. The morning was so quiet she could hear them tearing the grass with their teeth. George slid the rifle from his shoulder. She watched him load it. He leaned forward to whisper in her ear. “Pick a bull. Make sure he has at least three points on his antlers.”
She looked at the herd and pointed to an elk with a scarred back. George offered her the rifle. “Your first elk.” He put the rifle in her hands. Her fingers were stiff with cold. She’d never held a gun before. He showed her where to place her hands, helped her bring the elk into the sight.
She was trembling. “You do it, George. I’ll mess up.”
He explained about breathing evenly. She took deep gulps of air, so cold her lungs hurt. She looked through the sight at the elk. She wondered if she could switch her choice.
“Okay, now fire,” George said. Her finger obediently squeezed the trigger.
The recoil nearly knocked her over. The herd startled at the sound. Her elk sank to its knees. It struggled up again and staggered a few steps. George took the rifle and fired another shot. The herd scattered and ran. Her elk fell over.
George clapped her on the shoulder. “Good shot, sweetheart.” He waded through the brush towards the meadow. She blinked. He was standing over her elk. She went to stand with him. The elk’s eye was clouded. Blood soaked its side and head. It breathed in shuddering sighs.
“Please,” she said. “Please make it stop.”
George raised the rifle and fired. He pulled out his hunting knife. Beth left him there and went back to their camp.
Later, on the way home, George took her hand. “I’ll teach our kids to hunt.”
“I’m not sure I want kids.”
“Not right now, but someday. When we’re older.”
Beth let go of his hand. “We should take a real trip. Go somewhere exotic, like Mexico.”
“Maybe after we buy a house,” George said.
They ate elk all winter. In the evenings, she sat at the kitchen table and read the travel section of the paper. She cut out articles on Lisbon, Nepal, and the Yunnan Rice Terraces.
The lawyer said that in the event of his death, George had wanted the tiger to become part of a Species Survival Program. “Specifically the Sumatran tiger program.”
“What is that?” Beth said.
The lawyer said he’d looked into it. The programs in the United States were run by the American Zoo Association, and aimed to maintain a sustainable, genetically diverse population of certain tiger species in captivity. “Do you have any documentation of the tiger’s pedigree? We’ll need to establish through pedigree, or maybe genetic testing, if he really is Sumatran, or whether he’s generic.”
“Generic?” Beth said. She’d just thought tigers were tigers.
The lawyer saw her face and changed direction. She could take as much time as she needed, he reassured her. Think about it and decide what to do next.
Beth worried that the tiger might be lonely. He’d become shy, and wouldn’t come to the fence when she approached the enclosure. He watched her warily from a distance. He’d wait for her to back away before snatching at his meals. She still sat with him in the evenings, but she wondered what he did with so much time alone. So she watched him through the kitchen window while washing dishes, or from the dimness of the bedroom. Sometimes he slept, or sat and stared out across the river. Other times he paced in a restless line until Beth couldn’t sit still any longer.
She found she could watch him for hours on weekend mornings through the bedroom window, propped up on her side of the double bed. Watching the tiger distracted her from the smooth covers and untouched pillow next to her, the ring sitting in a saucer on George’s beside table. The tiger had a habit of digging up small stones and carrying them around in his mouth. He liked to gnaw on them. She was afraid of what it would do to his teeth, but she didn’t know how to stop him. She couldn’t just yell at him like she used to yell at her mother’s dog when he chewed her shoes.
Instead, she brought the tiger other, softer things to chew: branches, rawhide dog toys, pumpkins. When she chucked them over the fence, the tiger shied away. His reluctance weighed on her. The way he flinched reminded her of how she still avoided smokers. She’d even been touchy and afraid at first with George. He’d had to draw her out gently. He’d held her hand for weeks before he kissed her. Then when he had, he’d been so tender, so careful to make sure she felt safe. She was used to being the one who needed coaxing, and didn’t know what to do.
She started to visit the enclosure in the morning, as well as in the evening. Some days, she threw a beef bone over the fence. The tiger wouldn’t touch it while she was there, but later she’d find the pieces pulled apart and licked clean.
One cold autumn morning she went out back. The tiger lifted his head and walked deliberately to the center of the concrete pad. Then he sat on his haunches and looked at her. Beth held very still. The tiger dropped to his stomach. He rolled over. Then he rolled over again. He sat up and lifted a paw, like a dog asked to shake. Who had taught him these tricks? The tiger heaved himself up onto his hind legs and balanced. She didn’t know what it meant, what he wanted. The tiger took a step back, then another. He walked backwards in a circle. She thought he looked like he was dancing with an invisible partner, an absence the size of a person who waltzed him around the enclosure. Then he dropped back onto all fours. He bowed, legs stretched out in front of him. He approached the fence.
They regarded each other. Beth reached out a hand. The tiger’s whiskers twitched, so she stopped an inch short of the fence. He pushed his nose forward, then stopped, just touching the fence. She could feel the tiger’s breath hot against her palm.
Then he snorted and turned back to the enclosure. Beth closed her hand around the fading warmth. She watched him dig up another stone. She did not know if she could let him go.
The winter before she left George, the paper ran an article on teaching English abroad. The rains had closed in and recently the call center had gone through a round of layoffs. Beth had begun to feel restiveness accumulating in her bones.
“I could teach,” she told George. “I speak English.”
“You’d have to quit your job. Besides, some of those places probably don’t even have bathrooms.”
Beth looked up at him. After nearly ten years he looked even better than when they’d married. A little sharper around the chin, just a few laugh lines at the corners of his eyes. He smiled and she wanted to smile back.
“You wouldn’t come with me, would you?” Beth said.
“Would you go without me?”
She didn’t know. She ran her fingers across the names of the countries: Peru, Indonesia, Ecuador, Vietnam, India. “India has tigers,” she said.
He stood and held out his hand. “Come to bed.”
That night she lay awake beside him and thought about strange cities and languages she didn’t know. She thought about mountains and jungles, dense forests of unfamiliar trees. In the gloom there was a flicker of color, a snarl, a flash of motion.
She thought that the tiger knew her now. He stood up when she opened the back door. He watched her move around the yard. She’d begun to talk out loud to him, like she used to talk to her mother’s dog.
“Are you generic or Sumatran?” she said. “George didn’t keep any records from when he got you, but the lawyer says we have to prove you’re Sumatran or we won’t be able to do what George wanted.”
The tiger looked at her.
“I’m sorry about the meat,” she said. “I know it hasn’t been the best lately, but it’s expensive. That’s why you can’t stay with me. It’ll be better if you go to a zoo. You’ll be happier. They’ll know what to feed you and you’ll probably have more room. There might even be other tigers.”
The tiger looked at her.
“I bet you miss George,” she said.
The tiger yawned, showing an expanse of black gum and pink tongue.
“Do you ever wonder what it would be like if you were released into the wild?” she said. “Like if they flew you back to Sumatra and just let you go. Of course, you probably wouldn’t know how to take care of yourself. You’d probably starve or get eaten or something. You might not even go. If I opened the enclosure door right now, you’d be too scared to actually leave, wouldn’t you?”
The tiger blinked both golden eyes. His gaze was hungry. She stood hurriedly and backed up a couple steps. His eyes followed her. She went inside and shut the door.
In the end it wasn’t that George wanted kids and she didn’t, or that she wanted to travel and he didn’t. They were both patient and thought that at some point they would come to a solution. In the end, Beth left because it felt like they were two strangers living in the same house, sleeping in the same bed, eating breakfast and dinner together. They had forgotten how to talk to each other. George cleared trees to expand their backyard and planned additions to the house. On weekends he went out in his aluminum fishing boat for hours and stocked their freezer with salmon. Beth took long solitary drives, up to the mountain or out to the coast. She experimented with cooking new recipes: curries and fresh noodle salads and savory stews with yogurt sauces. In the evenings they sat in separate rooms and did separate things. Even with George’s arms around her, Beth felt vast, unbridgeable space between them. Finally she packed her suitcase. She sat him down at the kitchen table after work one day and told him she was going to move out. He didn’t say anything for a couple minutes. Despite the hunting and fishing, George wasn’t a fighter, which was one of the reasons she had married him in the first place. After a while he looked up at her. “What’s this about?” he said.
She twisted her ring on her finger. “I think we both need time to figure out what we want.”
“Is this about housework? I can help out with that. I can vacuum.”
“No, it’s not about that,” she said.
“If it’s about how much I make, I can take on extra projects. You don’t have to work anymore, if you don’t want to. I know how much your job wears you out.” He lifted a hand to touch her cheek, then seemed to think better of it.
“It’s not about you,” she said.
He slammed his hands down on the table. Beth jumped. “Come on, Beth. Give me a clue here, so I can work on whatever it is.”
She said, “I’m just not sure I want to be married anymore.”
He put his head in his hands. She immediately hated herself, because this was George and she loved George. He asked her where she was going to go. She said she’d stay at Maureen’s until she could find a place of her own. He didn’t speak after that, just stood at the door as she loaded her suitcase into her car. Her whole body ached to comfort him. She had to wrap her fingers tightly around the steering wheel to keep herself from reaching out.
The call center always threw a big Christmas party sometime in December, but before that Allen treated the customer service department to drinks. This year they went to McCall’s, the bar right off Main Street where the tourists usually gathered. When Beth got home, flushed with too many margaritas, she went out back to feed the tiger. The light over the back door didn’t reach very far. She stumbled over the dark, uneven ground towards the enclosure. As she got closer, she saw the tiger come toward her out of the dark, shaking his head and pawing at his face. She hooked her fingers into the chain link and pressed her face against the fence trying to see.
“Tiger?” she said. The tiger whined. She shoved the meat through the fence. When he opened his mouth to pick up a piece, the weak light glinted off the jagged stump of his upper right canine. He ate one, two pieces of meat. Then he rubbed his face on the ground, got up, and paced off into the cage. He’d never left a meal unfinished. She ran back to the house to look up the number for the emergency vet clinic.
“You have a what?” the on-call veterinarian said, when someone finally put him on the phone.
“A tiger. His tooth is broken. He won’t eat. I think he’s in pain.”
“I’m sorry, ma’am, I don’t have any experience treating large cats,” the veterinarian said. “But I can refer you to someone who does.”
The exotic animal veterinarian he referred her to lived in Portland. When Beth called the next morning, a technician answered the phone and said the exotic animal veterinarian had been called down to San Diego to work on a sick leopard. She might not be back for a couple of days. Beth hung up. This was not part of the deal.
Over the next week he seemed to get better, and then worse. On Wednesday evening he ate only a couple pieces of meat before again turning away. By Friday he had grown even thinner and more lethargic. Beth took the day off from work and called the veterinarian in Portland again. She was still in San Diego with the leopard, and although the technician gave her the names of other exotic animal veterinarians, the closest was in Montana. Beth tried the local clinic again, and they put her on with the same veterinarian. He said he was no expert, but agreed to help her however he could. He was fairly sure that breaking a tooth wasn’t necessarily fatal. But it would certainly put the tiger in great pain, he said. If the pain was bad enough, the tiger might not eat and could die of starvation. “I can try to manage the tiger’s pain,” he said. “But if you can’t find someone to fix the tooth, his quality of life is going to decrease steadily. At some point, your best bet may be to put him down. Or you could see if you can place him somewhere with good veterinary care. But that could take some time, maybe longer than he’s got.”
The veterinarian came by and together they laced a steak with painkillers. When she pushed it through the fence, the tiger wouldn’t touch it. The fur on the side of his head was starting to wear off where he’d been rubbing his jaw against the ground. Beth wrote the vet a check for the painkillers. Then she wrapped herself in some blankets and went to sit next to the fence. As night fell she tried to coax the tiger to eat the steak. Soon he was just a black shape in the dark. He keened.
“You’re going to be all right. I’m here. You’re going to be just fine,” Beth said. She leaned her cheek against the chain-link and repeated this at intervals. The cold from the ground seeped up through her legs and body. In the night, for a moment, she thought George was beside her. But the next moment she was aware that this couldn’t be right because George was dead. He was dead, and he’d wanted her to have this tiger and also to give it away.
At dawn the steak was frozen to the concrete, limned with frost. Across the enclosure the tiger shook his head and whined. Beth knew she had to do something. His suffering could not be allowed to continue. She rose, shedding blankets, and went into the house. She tried the veterinarian in Portland one last time, but the woman was still in San Diego, and now they said she might be there even longer. The ammunition was on a shelf in the garage. She took the rifle down off the gun rack. She loaded it and put on the safety. Outside the sun had just breached the hills. The tiger’s stripes stood out starkly, his fur stretched tight over ribs. She tried to get a good angle through the fence. Nothing quite lined up right. So she slid back the first bolt and stepped into the partitioned part of the enclosure. Her heart was galloping. She fiddled with the mechanism, and got the second door open, just a little. The tiger was lying at the edge of the grass. He raised his head. She lifted the rifle and centered the crosshairs on his forehead. The tiger’s yellow eyes were focused on her. Or maybe he was looking beyond her, out the open door.
She tried to close her finger on the trigger. The action was simple, didn’t even require much pressure. Come on, she told herself, this is a good death. A fierce, swift death. George had died fast, in a flashing skid of wheels. His tiger deserved the same.
She stared at the tiger and the tiger stared at her. She saw his scars standing out on his shoulders, the lump of scar tissue on his leg. The early sun struck the tiger’s bulk and his muscles stood out in stark relief. She took a shuddering breath and looked away, out across the river gorge. The wind hadn’t picked up yet, and the water was glassy, reflecting the hills. Everything was still and quiet. Even the distant murmur of cars on the interstate was muffled. Beth’s chest felt tight. She turned and looked back into the tiger’s eyes. The rifle was heavy against her shoulder. She braced her legs.
Allow for the breeze, she thought. Breathe.
Originally published in Moss: Volume One.