Hungry Tiger - James Hanna
My wife, Mary, and I are celebrating our thirtieth anniversary. We sit at our dining room table and eat by candlelight. We dine on fries and baby back ribs, which I fetched from an Outback Steakhouse. We chose not to dine in the restaurant because a pandemic has reached a new peak.
After taking a sip from a glass of iced tea, Mary asks me a question. She asks, “If you could relive any day of your life, what day would you go back to?”
“What day would you go back to?” I parry. I am not very good with questions like this, so I want her to take the lead.
Mary says she would return to the day when her eldest child was born. “It was unbelievable,” she gushes. “My whole life changed in such a profound way that it felt like a miracle.”
“Sounds like a pretty good day,” I say lamely.
“Joyful would better describe it,” she says as her eyes begin to sparkle. “I wanted everyone I knew to come see this perfect little human I’d made.”
“I’m glad you had that day,” I say. “I wish I had known you back then.”
“So what day would you go back to?”
I think for about a minute, and then the answer is obvious. “I would like to go back to that school I attended when I was twelve years old. The one for State Department brats in Rio de Janeiro. Any day will do me—I’m not particular.”
“Weren’t you bullied there?” Mary asks.
“That’s why I would like to go back.”
“Why? So you could get picked on again?”
“That wouldn’t happen again. Not after I cornered a few of those kids and beat the shit out of them.”
Mary stares at me as though the candlelight has reduced me to a ghost. “I can’t believe what you just told me,” she says. “How can you be so shallow? Why not go back to our wedding day or the day that your first book was published? Why would you go back to some middle school just to beat up a couple of kids?”
“They have it coming.”
“Do they?” says Mary. “What if they grew up to be wonderful people? What if they regret what they’d done?”
“They’ll regret it a whole lot more,” I reply, “when I kick the shit out of them.”
“That’s so immature,” Mary sighs. “I was expecting much more out of you. Maybe you had a rough childhood, but shouldn’t you have evolved by now?”
As an author and a former probation officer, I consider myself evolved. But the memory of being a whipping boy requires a stronger balm. I particularly recall being trapped in a bathroom where they jumped me in a pack. I remember crouching on the floor, curling myself into a ball, and protecting my head with my hands while they rained kicks and blows onto me.
Mary is frowning like a judge, so I carefully choose my next words. “I’ll only beat up three of them. The rest I’ll leave alone. I think it’s pretty mature of me not to hammer every one.”
She slowly swirls her glass, and the ice rattles like ancient bones. “What I want to know,” she says, “is why they picked on you so much.”
Although Mary’s comment annoys me, I give her my best answer. “Well, I sat in the library reading Oz books while the others played basketball.”
“They picked on you for reading fairy tales?”
“They thought those books were for mama’s boys, but you can enjoy them at different levels. I think my writing career began when I fell in love with those books.”
“Would it have hurt you to have put down those books long enough to play some basketball?”
I ponder this untimely question, and then I shake my head. “Are you familiar with the Oz books? It’s hard to put them down? My favorite was The Hungry Tiger of Oz—I read that seven times.”
“If you had shot a few baskets,” says Mary, “you may not have needed those books.”
The conversation is becoming circular. I take a moment to think. “No,” I say to her finally. “I’d have been happier with the books.”
“I guess that shouldn’t surprise me,” says Mary.
“Oz was my refuge,” I say.
Mary rolls her eyes and takes another sip of tea. “How could Oz have been your refuge if it was the reason you got beat up?”
Mary is getting too logical. I try to change the subject. “On our next anniversary,” I say, “we’ll go to our favorite French restaurant. The pandemic will have probably ended by then, so I’ll take you back to Miguel’s.”
“That will be nice,” Mary says, “but will they serve you at Miguel’s?”
“Why wouldn’t they serve me?”
“It’s a coat-and-tie restaurant. I doubt that they’d serve a brute.”
“Am I a brute?”
“Apparently so. I just didn’t know it until now. You were a decorated peace officer, you’ve received awards for your books. But instead of reliving one of your glory days, you’re plotting a childish revenge.”
Mary is right, I should live up to my billing. I should be more evolved by now. But I remember Jack Grover, an honor student, slugging me in the stomach. I remember Chuck Breman, our class president, peeing into my gym bag. And how could I ever forget Mike Clark whose dad was a missionary? Mike threw spitballs at me in class whenever the teacher’s back was turned? These kids were not uncultured, yet they picked on me just the same. So why should the pleasure of being a brute be limited to them?
Mary’s face is still full of concern, so I try to put her at ease. “I think that one day I’ll get over it.”
“Sixty years isn’t enough?”
“Perhaps I should try meditation,” I say.
“Perhaps you should start going to church. If you gave some thought to Jesus, you might not be talking this way.”
“All right,” I say. “I’ll go to church if you think it will help me forgive. But Jesus trashed a whole temple. I only want to beat up three brats.”
“Please go to church,” says Mary, “if only to give me peace of mind.”
I nod my head like a marionette—I don’t want her to stay upset. But my mind drifts back to those miserable days and the havoc I now could wreak. I made too little use of the self-defense tactics I learned when I wore a badge—moves I could have made real use of if I had applied them to those three kids. Jack Grover, I’d have dropped with a wrist lock, my favorite come-along hold, and once he was down I’d have kicked him right in his solar plexus. I’d have used an arm drag on Chuck Breman then snapped him into a bear hug, and while he was struggling to free himself, I’d have driven my knee into his balls. As for Mike Clark, I’d have locked his head in a crushing guillotine, and before I released him, I’d have forced him to eat every spitball he threw at me.
“Church it is,” I say to Mary, and I smile and pat her wrist. There is no need to further remind her that I am a lurking beast.
James Hanna is a retired probation officer and a former fiction editor. His work has appeared in over thirty journals, including Sixfold, Crack the Spine, and The Literary Review. His books, all of which have won awards, are available on Amazon.