We call him Doc because he gets us most of our pills but he’s not really a doctor. He’s just a junkie like the rest of us. He looks in his 50s although he’s barely 30. His plan, as he’s currently telling us, is to take the tiger --
“Do you mean tiger like in the animal?” I ask.
The three of us are squatting in this house on the south side of the river, abandoned houses all around us because of the flood plain, and most of the owners have relocated or abandoned. This place smells like a dead body, and a black slime grows up the walls around us. We’ve been in worse places. We once lived with a family of cat-sized rats for almost a year. They were nice.
“Yeah, you know a tiger tiger,” Doc says. Doc’s body tends to shake, especially his hands. “T-y-g-e-r.”
“That’s not how you spell tiger. What’re you on?” She says.
“Nothing yet! But I bet it’s eaten some of us.”
We’re like – “What’re you talking about? We’re in the middle of the city. There’s no tigers in the city, you crazy fool.”
“I’m telling you,” he replies, sticking a crushed butt into his mouth, burning it with a blue plastic lighter. “I saw it live, pacing in this straw cage in an old house over on 7th Ave.”
“Man, ain’t nobody living over on 7th Ave.,” I say. “All those houses are empty, except for maybe a few people like us.”
“Wasn’t no one living in the house,” he says. “Just the tiger.”
“What’re you doing over there any way?” She claws at her arm, scratching. “You gonna get yourself killed over that. That’s all that happens over there. Death.”
“What’re you doing over there to begin with?”
“Looking for some stuff,” Doc says.
I like Doc but I don’t trust him.
“What if he’s right?” She says to me. Her lips look blue in this light. “What if there really is a tiger?”
“Seriously?” I say.
“What do you think we could get for it?”
Doc’s nodding his head like a good hit.
“You mean sell it?” I say. “Okay. If it’s real.”
“It is!” Doc says. He leaves his mouth open, revealing the pink inside.
I shake my head. These two sometimes. “And where we going to sell it?”
“Take it to Ernie at his shop and get some, you know.” She forgets to stop nodding. Some of her hair is missing on the right side of her head, but she doesn’t want to talk about it.
“What the hell is he going to do with a tiger?”
“Maybe he knows someone,” Doc says. “Ernie knows everybody.”
I turn to Doc. “So you’re saying, that in this big urban city, there’s a real tiger trapped in an abandoned house, in the middle of this big urban city.”
“It’s like in a cage made of chicken fence and duct tape.”
We saunter down the center of the dark street. Trash blows across the empty lanes and sidewalks, the summer fields taking back what they had, rows and rows of boarded up houses with crushed faces and burned second stories, browned grass and fierce weeds claim empty lots. Children with guns stand in the shadows, whispering sweet words we can’t afford as we walk toward 7th. A cool breeze skates in off the river, warning of a night indoor. Odor of dead fish hangs in the air like a curtain. We pass the stripped shell of a four-door car, black, maybe an old Cadillac, hard to tell from its burned metal bones. I tighten my hoodie over my head, tying the neck, to keep warm. She, that’s the only name she’ll tell us, hums a song I think I know but it was a long time ago. Doc marches forward, his lips moving but silent, telling himself a story that he already knows.
I don’t think there’s really a tiger, but I didn’t want those two walking these streets alone.
Doc takes us about halfway down 7th, until almost the middle, and stops in front of a decaying green Victorian house, every window boarded up and graffitied as if planned together. The blue and black names of those here before us tattoo the plywood. Doc points up at the house and says that there’s a loose board on one of the kitchen windows. He was probably looking for something to sell. Doc has these fine, long, pale hairs stuck to his ripped black sweater, long like cat fur. He heads around the back and I look at her and she at me and we follow Doc, who disappears.
I nervously hunch down and step inside the window and as I’m crawling in, I hear something big crashing around. She hears it too because she freezes. I step in and I see it, behind Doc, who says, “Tiger, tiger,” a real tiger pacing, pacing, pacing, larger than me, larger than all of us, its mouth open, spike white teeth, the catch of rotting meat, its body hidden behind a ten dollar wire fence with dirty straw. The tiger sticks its angry snout into the air with a sound that trembles in my stomach. The roar drifts across the house, the neighborhood, to the north of the city, where all the rich people live, the Grand River separating the north from the south, the cry that sends the dark exciting chill up their spines, if it can be heard out on the river, where a long yacht brightly floats, filled with dancing guests, backlit by strings of lights, gods of their own design, in formal wear dancing, the wordless lament drowned out by the sampled Dixieland music as the yacht slowly motors away from us and we move towards the tiger still as death.