The locals of Orem Crossroads don’t need a calendar to know when July rolls around. Snails shed their shells in the triple digit heat and Jane mows her yard every Wednesday wearing her best house dress, the floral long-sleeved cotton, cinched at the waist. She sweeps her silver hair up into a messy topknot like the young girls do these days and drags her old push along out to the front yard set off the busy highway. People place her age around eighty-five, but long timers will tell you she’s closer to ninety. All morning long she’s out there in the high grass, treading back and forth, pushing her relic of a lawnmower. She stops on the dot at noon to fix lunch for her dog, Alfred. She changed the dog’s name from Bobo after her husband died, just so she could keep saying his name. “Alfred, time for lunch,” she calls out and the old dog comes running, not seeming to mind his new name one bit. Jane picks up mowing from the very spot she left off the previous Wednesday, all the way through to the end of July. Her neighbors are far and few, but on Jane day, one or the other or most mosey down the highway to run an errand in town. They never give Jane any notice or stop to visit, the rumor being she didn’t take kindly to those who arrived unannounced and kept a pistol strapped on her ankle beneath her long hem to greet those so inclined. “She’s a good shot, so I hear,” the owner of the Sinclair will tell you. “A trucker gassed up here and related Jane almost took his ear off when he stopped to offer help.” August brings the sweet breeze and the snails take back to wearing their coats. Jane puts away the lawn mower and takes to rocking away Wednesday mornings on the front porch, a bit of shine mixed in her sweet tea. The grass grows long and her ever loving Alfred spreads out alongside, napping to noon.
Miss Elsie drives the three-quarter mile length to the front gate when she sees the tiger padding down the highway. She edges her big Buick around the big cat and pulls over to the shoulder to snap a photo with the new cell phone her niece mailed her last week for her birthday. The tiger glances her way as she steadies her aim from inside the big tank of a car. He bares his teeth with his fierce mouth tipped up at the corner, more of a smile than a snarl and keeps padding down the yellow line towards town. Sam is never gonna believe this, she thinks and punches the number her niece saved to speed dial.
Sam and Elsie were an item in high school, ancient history Elsie liked to keep front and center in the small-town memory of Orem Crossroads. This irritated the sheriff to no end and drove his wife crazy. No matter where she went on any given day, the Piggly Wiggly, the Dollar General or out for her morning walk, someone shared a tidbit of local intimacy as a conversation starter. “Such a handsome couple, those two. Your husband would’ve married Elsie if he hadn’t been drafted and shipped off to Vietnam. A true-blue sweetheart, she waited for him, wrote him every single day and for what? He comes back home with you.”
“Elsie doesn’t mean anything by it,” he told his wife. “She’s living out in the middle of nowhere, driving her granddaddy’s car. The only family she’s got is that niece of hers and she lives down in Florida. She’s got nothing.”
“You yourself said she’s nuts,” his wife said. “Do something.” So he deputized Elsie, swore her to confidentiality on all things past and present and gave her his private work cell with her own private notification alert.
An air raid horn sounds. He sighs. “Morning, Elsie.”
“There’s a tiger on the loose! Heading towards the Crossroads on Route 40.”
Sam tended not to believe Elsie, deputized or not. Couple days back, she’d called to report, on her way home from Sunday evening church services, the cattle grazing near the power plant glowed orange, the color of turmeric to be exact. Turned out her headlights needed changing. Suspicious persons were her specialty. No matter if FedEx or UPS clearly identified the truck, she’d call it in, to be on the safe side. “Elsie, you sure it wasn’t the Morris dog? The Great Pyrenees? Gets pretty dirty sometimes, keeping guard over the herd.” The glowing herd.
“No, no Sam. I took a picture with the phone Lilly gave me for my birthday.”
“Hold on.” He radioes dispatch. “Sally, call out to the Morris farm and see if the dog’s loose again. Let me know. Over.”
“You don’t believe me.”
“I do, Elsie. It’s seems a little far-fetched, that’s all.”
“On my niece’s life, I’m telling you, there’s a tiger on the loose. He looked right at me when I took his picture. He smiled at me, Sam, smiled, I swear.”
“Well then, send the picture to my phone. You know how to do that, message a picture?”
“Oh Lord, well, it might take a few minutes. Let me get my glasses on and find Lilly’s directions in my purse. Don’t wait for me, Sam. Believe me, a tiger’s heading for town.”
“Take your time, Elsie. I’ll check it out.” The radio crackles. “The Morris dog’s in the tub, Sheriff. Got sprayed by a skunk early this morning.” Sam shakes his head, “10-4” and pulls out on Route 40.
He drives past the Morris place. The kids are out front, dumping the washtub of skunk stink, their mother hanging towel after towel on the line. No sign of the dog, likely out rolling around in the cow patties getting rid of the rest of the stink. Skunk stink had a tendency to stick.
He thought of Elsie, back when she was a tiny chirpy girl. Even then, she knew how to finagle the truth. He’d taken her to the prom and she had them married from that point on. When stationed in Vietnam, his mother wrote him a letter asking why she had to learn from the mailman her only son was engaged to be married. He returned every letter Elsie wrote and when he came back home with his new wife, she left the letters bundled on the front porch. She married an out-of-towner thirty years her senior and Elsie was out of what was left of Sam’s hair for years. After her husband passed, she resumed reliving a past that never happened.
He spots an animal up ahead, large and running the center of the road directly at him. The Morris dog. I knew it. He pulls over and steps out of the car. The dog runs to him, covered in manure, stinking to high heaven.
“Boy,” he says, “I don’t think there’s a single dry towel left at your house.”
The tiger springs from behind and knocks him flat, skittering his cell phone out into the street, air raid horn blasting.
The old woman stuffs the smashed cell phone into the pockets of her floral dress. She catches the county man looking and raises her hem, flashing a pistol strapped to her ankle.
“Avert, man,” his partner hisses. “Jane don’t take much to people.”
“Or tigers,” he said, shaking his head. “One shot. That old woman took down a tiger in one shot.”
“I’ve heard stranger.” The two toss a tarp over the dead tiger. “Gator grabs this itty bitty girl down in Florida. Snatches her up, in water little over ankle deep. The kid—6, 7, 8 years old at best—jams both thumbs into its nostrils. Deep. Gator can’t breathe, lets her go. Kid said she learned it from watching a gator wrangler on TV.”
The men lean against the truck and wait for animal services.
“Sheriff’s a lucky man,” he went on. “He’ll be fine. Tough guy. Vietnam vet. Nice wife. Not the gal everyone around these parts thought he’d end up with, but this lady, she’s a keeper.”
They watch Jane trudge through the high grass and retrieve her old lawnmower from the edge of the highway.
“I’m thinking tigers frequent Vietnam. Gators too, or is it crocs? I’ll have to look that up and get back to you.”
Sheree Shatsky writes wild words. Recent work has appeared in a variety of journals including Wraparound South, Fictive Dream, BLACKCACKLE, The Dead Mule and Saw Palm with found poetry at Harpy Hybrid Review and Heron Tree. Read more of her writing at shereeshatsky.com .
**The first section of “Tiger, Plain to See” was previously published as the flash fiction Jane Day, which can be found here.
***Featured image by Belle Deesse on wallpaperup.com