Eddie Would Go - Ben Shahon
The tiger eats the bird slowly, pulling the wings from their sockets with its fangs, not worrying at all about the blood spraying its fur. I watch as the most unholy rainbow unfolds before me: the blood, the fur, the feathers, the grass, the sky, the entrails. The tiger doesn’t look particularly engaged by its own violence. Instead, it looks like it just opened a bag of chips, and it accordingly lies back down as soon as it’s had its fill. The tiger lays there a moment, until it gets a little thirsty, tiptoes to the pond on the other end of the enclosure, takes a sip, and walks back to its shady spot. A kid to my left clicks the shudder on his camera, yelling, “Look mommy! Look at the tiger!”
I don’t know why I’m here. I don’t know why anyone is here. The zoo is really just terrible. It smells, there’s a ton of other people everywhere, half the time the animals are hiding, and the other half of the time they’re genuinely terrifying. Is it some sort of weird domination complex? Like, we conquered you, so suck it. Apex predators my ass!
I realize now that I’m looking down at the kid, and that I’ve been staring for an uncomfortably long amount of time. Other people are starting to look my way, which is not what I wanted at all. The kid’s mom is yelling in my face, asking me what the hell is wrong with me, telling me to leave her kid alone. I must have said all that shit about the zoo out loud. Fuck. I’m still saying it out loud, now.
Shutting my face, I start to wander back out the front gates toward my car. I can hear the mom still yelling at me until I’m almost fifty yards away, but I don’t turn back once. I know at least well enough to keep my head down when I need to.
I unlock the doors, and I sit myself down at the wheel. The keys sit in the ignition, waiting for me to just turn them forward and go. I really am lucky that nobody took it while I was inside; someone would have just had to pull the handle hard enough to realize that the lock’s busted, jump in, and go. There’s a lukewarm cup of coffee sitting open on the dashboard. I pick it up, down the whole thing in one gulp, and knock my head back on the headrest. I’m not going anywhere right now.
I get back out, and I march to the back of the SUV. I’ve got one of those big ones, the ones that are supposed to have three rows of seats, with nothing in the very back. I lay down in the flat of the trunk, sure to close the bungee cord I tied to the hole I punctured in the gate on the bumper, and inhale. Sometimes, I kind of wish that there was a sunroof that led just to the trunk, because I would love to look up right now. Instead, I just inspect the stains that the previous owner left in the gray fabric. How the hell did anything get up there?
My stomach starts to rumble, and I start to think about getting out of here and getting a bite to eat. I know that I can’t really afford it anymore, but part of me really wants to just go to the best place in town, and order a giant fucking porterhouse. I probably couldn’t even finish the thing right now—I’d almost surely throw it up within an hour—but there’s just something in me that wants to tear into the flesh of another animal in the same way that tiger did. Maybe it’s just because of the kind of day I’m having, but I really feel like I need that particular kind of pick me up right now.
Instead, I settle for another afternoon spent at McDonalds. I remember when I was little wanting to go there for every meal. The playhouse, the Happy Meal Chicken Nuggets, and the little toy that always came in the box. If I were to see that again, I might be sick. My parents were good enough to me to keep me from going there quite that often when I was a kid, but by now there’s really nothing holding me back, sense of dignity included.
The acid of the coffee hits my stomach halfway through the drive to the restaurant. I feel my bowels reasserting their presence all the way until I hit a stop light, at which I roll down the window, lean my head over, and really let the street have it. I hear the cars behind me honking that I need to go forward, that the light is green, but I’m not done. They’re just going to have to wait for me.
I’ve had to watch what I eat my whole life. That’s just what happens when you’re a nationally ranked swimmer at ten. Not that it’s really that hard to be one. Most swimmers are really pretty shit when they’re only ten.
I remember the long afternoons spent practicing, diving again and again, hitting the water like a boxer with his heavy bag, or basketball player with his hoop. Does that even make any sense? I never really played any real sports before that. Or after that, for that matter.
The front end of the car nearly rams a family walking out of the McDonalds. I don’t know how I did this, but I ended up driving up the sidewalk separating the restaurant from the parking lot itself. My horn honks as the kid and I snarl at each other.
I walk inside and order a hamburger. It always makes me sick, all that grease, but I don’t really care right now. I just want to taste the salt, the juices, the chewy bread. There’s a hard plastic bench open for me a few feet away from the counter. It assaults my tailbone as I sit down.
Some old pop music blares over the radio, and my head starts to throb to the beat. Thump thump. Thump thump. Thump thump. Thump thump. THUMP THUMP!
Some teenage kid brings my food out to me on a garish red tray. He’s wearing all black, and an apron with a bright yellow trim. His visor tilts slightly off center—he probably thinks that it’s on right. It doesn’t really matter that his shoelaces are untied, or that the mechanically precise placement of food on the tray was probably put there by someone else who works there. Until he trips over them, spilling the food all over the two of us. I wish that I was wearing that apron.
He starts to apologize and wipe me up with the three napkins that they give you standard with every meal. It’s not enough to clean up the full soda that’s running down the bench to the floor. Poor bastard slips and hits his ass hard on the dirty, tile floor. I lean down to offer my hand to help him stand up, but he slips again in the soda anyways. The brown would probably have stained his uniform if he was wearing any other color. Probably why black is standard issue.
The kid comes back a few minutes after he’s done cleaning the mess up with my order. I start to dig into the hamburger, nearly taking a chunk of the paper out with the bun on my first bite. The second bite is a little pulpier than I would have liked.
A mom and her kid step into the restaurant, and they walk up to the counter to order. I keep eating a few fries, looking around the restaurant, and generally minding my own business. The kid runs up to me and says, “Do you like tigers?”
I look down to see the same kid from the zoo standing in front of me. I hate the tigers, especially after what happened at the zoo today. But what the hell am I supposed to say to a kid sitting in front of me, wearing a tiger t-shirt, asking me if I like them?
“Umm, sure kid.”
He keeps talking about all the different things that he likes about tigers, having completely forgotten about watching it tear that bird to pieces earlier today. I take another bite of my hamburger, chew it slowly, making sure to keep my eyes on the kid the whole time, and swallowing that small bite of food by the time the kids’ mom shows up in front of me.
I step out of the parking lot and onto the sand, and immediately my flip flops sink under the grains. My feet kick up small clouds of dust as I trudge my way to the shore. My shorts start to come untied, so I reach down to my crotch and reform the loops. The sun pushes down on me from above as my nose fills with salt. Looking back to my car, and I lose sight of it over the encroaching horizon. I take off my t-shirt and drop in on the shoreline. My feet burn slightly, but as they integrate with the waiting sand below them, a burst of wind hits my face, relieving some of the sun, but knocking me off balance. I trip forward, my knees and heels of my wrists landing on the hollow, flaming earth. I get back up, and keep walking toward the sea. My feet start to feel the reprieve, sinking a little into the firm mud. The waves kiss my toes, my shins, my knees, my hips, my waist. I can’t walk any further. I simply have to dive in.
I swim as strongly as I can, one arm over the other, keeping my face in the surf as long as I can hold my breath, which, admittedly, isn’t that long. I choke a few times trying to come up as the swell crashes over my head. I have to get out farther, faster. I don’t want to see the shore any longer. I just want to be out here, on the sea, alone. I will swim to the edge of the earth. Nothing could be better than to just sit on the cusp of oblivion, look out, realize that there’s still more space to go, and get right back to it.
There’s a small island up ahead, maybe a mile offshore. I’ve been a strong swimmer since I was a kid—my mom used to put me in those swim competitions to show off her little boy’s athletic prowess—but I’m honestly not sure if I can make it out there now. I don’t even know if I really want to make it, or simply keep going beyond.
The sky is broken by a wailing, an unexpected sound for sitting out here in the green and blue by myself. I haven’t heard a siren like that since leaving the city.
The speedboat is black as an orca, with white trim to boot. The lights on the deck flash red and blue as the horn announces the lifeguard’s presence with a pomposity that I really didn’t need today. His red shorts look like someone popped a hundred cherries on a white sheet, then cut it into a child’s boxers for this grown ass man. His sunglasses are just the sporty type that I always used to laugh at, the type that golf dads would always put on top of their sun-visors but never actually wear over their eyes. It was more to show off that they could buy this brand or that than practical use, and it looks like this frosted tip had them for some of the same reasons.
“Sir, you do know that you’re not allowed to be this far offshore, right?”
“What do you mean?”
“We can’t see you from the lifeguard tower. That’s why they called me out here to tell you to get back in toward the shore.”
I take a look behind me, and I realize he’s right. I can’t see where the nearest lifeguard tower is, or even any of the beach for that matter. All I can see is the island, now closer than I like. I turn back to Hasselhoff and say, “So?”
“You’re not allowed to be this far from shore, sir. Please don’t make me ask again.”
“Ask you to either turn back in, or, if you are unable, get on the speedboat so that I can take you back in.”
I don’t want to go back, I just want to float here awhile. I don’t have a particular target in mind, that’s not why I came out for a swim. What’s wrong with just taking a minute to be here?
“What do you mean no thanks?”
“I mean, no thanks.”
“That’s not a choice, sir. I need you to either turn in, or get in the boat, now.”
“I’m good. Have a nice day!”
I turn to my right and begin to swim away, parallel to the shore. I want to get around the island, to keep going, to find a proper place where I’m not quite drowning, but not quite floating either. I just want to sink into the surface of the water, be buoyed for a moment just by my own force of will, leave this cold shudder in my bones behind. The lifeguard has other plans. He dives in after me, toting a solid, red shell of a thing roped across his shoulder in front of him. He seems to be swimming by grabbing onto it and pulling himself toward me, almost like he’s climbing a ladder between the two of us. I stop looking back and power forward as fast as I can, kicking my legs with a speed I didn’t think I could still pull off.
Before I know it, the lifeguard catches me. He grabs me by the ankle as I try to kick away, then pulls me under. I look up to only find a foot of water between me and the sky, look down and find him letting me go. A moment passes where I could push away, but I resurface too quickly and find his arms wrapped across my chest. I’m going nowhere without this stupid can, so he called it. I wonder if he just isn’t smart enough to pronounce “buoy.”
He turns and starts swimming back toward the boat. I notice that he’s no longer wearing his sunglasses, and I wonder whether he took them off before diving in, or if he lost them in our little struggle. The rope cuts his shoulder slightly, and a small trail of blood connects us. At least, I assume it does. I can’t see the stream, it’s so weak.
I struggle to keep up with how hard the lifeguard pulls me in. I thought myself a better swimmer, but I failed to take into account that my legs were never that strong to begin with. People often said I had weak knees growing up, but I was usually able to strongarm past them when I needed to. I don’t have that luxury now, with the fraying plastic cutting my fingertips and palms. He has to give me his hand in order to get me up and in the boat.
My first instinct is to jump out and start swimming again, but I know that he would just jump out and catch me, since he’s faster. Besides, he has a speedboat if he gets tired. All I have is this frail hull of flesh and bone.
“Why do you do this?” I ask.
“Why do I do what?” He itches the mark on his shoulder where the rope was.
“Why are you a lifeguard? Do you actually think that you make a difference every day?”
“Not every day,” he says, patting the injury down with a towel before setting it back down on the steering wheel. “But enough days.”
“Making a difference, what a joke. All you did was spoil my fun.”
“Sir, there’s a large rip that’s set to form about forty minutes from now, and a tropical storm coming in after that.” He points to the horizon, like some kind of goddamn cartoon character, before returning to wrapping his shoulder in gauze and tape from the first aid kit. The stark white of the medical supplies look even more artificial next to his bronzed skin. He seems like a Greek god wearing board shorts and a makeshift bandage, more for effect than out of any necessity.
“Sounds like fun to me.”
I look around the boat and take a moment to appreciate its Spartan stock. The buoy, the towel, and the first aid kit are all I can find. No sunglasses in sight.
“What happened to your sunglasses?”
“I think you know.” He turns the engine over, but it stalls out. He kicks the console, but the engine keeps snoring at him.
“C’mon man, why aren’t you chattier with me? You’re the one who picked me up. The least you could do is provide me with a little bit of decent conversation.”
“You’re not entitled to anything.” He gives it another kick, and this time the engine rolls over. We start to move, slowly at first, then picking up speed.
“Oh no, am I under arrest?”
“Then why am I in the back of your boat, officer?”
He looks out toward the lifeguard station at the nearest pier. It’s at least a ten-minute ride away at this speed.
A gull perches itself on the side of the no-longer-stationary boat, looking me in the eye. It has the kind of face that seems to be asking me why I’m still here, why I don’t simply spread out my wings and fly with him out to the greater sea beyond, why I’m content just sitting on my ass on the back of this weird piece of flotsam. I sneer at it, and it flies away.
The sun starts to drop down the sky, just slightly. Not enough for the light to go away, or for the sky to change its beautiful blue to a menacing collection of oranges and purples, but enough to tinge the serenity with an ounce of the impending nightfall. He itches the bandage, yawns, and takes another look at the clouds rushing to meet us.
I dive out the side of the boat, and it takes the lifeguard several minutes to stop and catch me again.
This time, he uses the buoy to tie my arms behind me, knowing that I’m not a good enough swimmer to be able to kick my way to wherever it is I want to end up. He’s good, this one. He’s good, all right.
All of a sudden, I’m ten years old again. I’m standing on the blocks, still not sure which foot goes in front. My coach always yells at me about that; he says you put the best foot forward, the one from your dominant hand. It always just feels wrong.
“Rising up! Straight to the to-op!”
I tried to picture it, the tiger’s eye. I see it swelling in the distance, coming up over the horizon, dark orange and blotted, giving way to yellow and red speckles, with a black hole in the middle. The phantom comes up on the horizon, spreading out until it just about swallows me whole. I can hear screaming, from my mom, from my coach, telling me my turn in the relay is almost up, telling me to fix my fucking feet, telling me to actually race for once, to fix my form, to get ready, to go.
As I push off into the air, flying briefly, I spin, my left side flipping clockwise over my right. I quickly realize that this is off, somehow. My ankle is caught on my other foot, and I am so distracted that I belly flop down, splashing with more gusto than anyone in the neighboring lanes. My body feels disconnected from my head. My body’s nothing, a piece of meat for my brain to push through this chlorinated soup. My body is no better than a bad hamburger. I rotate to my back, and pray that I’ll see the little plastic flags soon, that I won’t hit my skull on the concrete like the last time I tried to swim the backstroke. That time was the first time I’d really done it at a meet. But I still pulled and pulled, grateful for the water filling my ears and blotting out the inevitable sounds of my incessant mother.
I am at the zoo, watching the tiger dine, staring it right in the eyes.
I am in the boat, looking at the idiot who probably still loves this song.
If it started to rain now, there’s a question if I would even know, much less care, whether or not it was wet outside. I was dripping with salt, from tears, from water, and now from the elements. I push and push and push, trying to get out ahead. There is nothing I want more than to get out of here, because I don’t belong here. I don’t know where it is that I do belong, but it sure isn’t here.
“Hey, I know it’s been a long time since we checked in, but Pete and I were worried. No one has heard from you in months. We don’t know where you’re living, if you’re even still living where you’re working, who you’re spending your time with, what you’re doing with your time, nothing! And still, you give us nothing. This isn’t like you, Anthony, it really isn’t What happened? You were always such a nice, good kid. We thought you were going to do great things, go to the Olympics, make us proud. Not wander off into God knows where to do God knows what with God knows who! I swear, Pete’s been taking good care of me, and he can tell that I’ve been very concerned. Not he has to be, It’s me who has to give a shit about how I’m taking this whole situation. Honestly, I could not tell you what your deal is. It’s almost like you don’t care about either of us. I mean, you claimed in the past to be concerned about us, but if you really did you’d be helping me feel better about reaching out to you after the way we left things last time. I mean, it really was your fault, Anthony, considering those unseemly things you said. I wasn’t a ‘controlling, conniving’ b-word like you said that I was. That really hurt, Anthony, it really did. I know that you and I haven’t always had the easiest time getting along, but I had always thought that you were better than that. There’s no need to be resentful, o.k., you grew up and you’re fine, I presume, since you won’t ever tell me. I swear, Anthony, is this really becoming of a person of our family’s status? I don’t think that it is. Anyways, kisses and hugs.” Puckering lips. Click.
Ben Shahon is a writer whose work has appeared in Adelaide Literary Magazine, Taco Bell Quarterly, The Daily Drunk, and others. He is a candidate in Emerson College's MFA Program in Fiction, and holds BA’s in Philosophy and Creative Writing from ASU. Ben currently lives in Boston.