Now a Fancy Tiger
A. Kendra Greene
When Mr. Dave Twister asks me what kind of balloon animal I want, it’s easy: a tyrannosaurus. He squeaks the blue-eyed, tiny-armed reptile into being, and no sooner is it in my hands than Penny the Clown asks me how I’d like my face painted. This is not easy. I was ready for the first question, knew it would come, and now I’ve used up my favorite animal in the first answer. True, the purple butterfly and her younger brother, the Chocolate Lab from Table 2, will soon demonstrate that there’s no taboo against interpreting a single theme in inflated latex one minute and hypoallergenic body paint the next. But for me it’s a kind of personal responsibility, a matter of pride, to come up with a second idea. Penny is smiling at me. Encouraging. I look back with ever-widening eyes, my eyebrows rising together in a brown peak of optimism and remorse. The worst thing you can do to a clown is arrive at the front of the line unprepared. They hate that. They’re used to it, to kids who incessantly pester isitmyturnisitmyturnisitmyturn and then, when it is their turn, pause to contemplate what, what possible thing in the great wide world, might tickle their fancy. An elephant? A motor boat? You don’t want to be that kid. I give Penny the look one gives a palm reader, as if she will, at any moment, with her special powers, see in my skin something I could never have anticipated yet will be delighted to discover.
“It’s a hard question,” Penny says, still smiling. She is still looking at me.
“Yes,” I agree. “It is.” Oh, god. I'm 29 years old and I am that kid.
“Butterflies are popular,” she mentions casually. “Skeletons, pirates, Darth Maul.”
I try to nod.
“Princess crowns. Spiderman. Cats,” she says. “Or big cats: leopards, tigers. . .”
“Tigers,” I say. Yes, tigers. Obviously tigers. I’d been thinking tigers. “Tiger,” I say, beaming. This isn’t so hard.
Penny lifts a wedge of white sponge.
It had not occurred to me that there would be more questions. I like to prepare for questions. I am often not prepared for questions. In restaurants, I am proud of myself if I make it through the litany of unexpected interrogatives with my confidence intact. Medium rare! Salad, not soup. Ranch? Um, yes. With the meal. Just water. Am I sure? Yes, I think so. Yes. I think so.
Which is to say it does not occur to me that there are orange tigers and white tigers in the world. The clown asks me what color tiger and all I can think of are the green-and-orange stripes of He-Man’s fearless friend, the mighty Battle Cat—“Cringer” as he’s known to Prince Adam—a character I haven’t thought about since it was roaring through my Saturday mornings twenty years ago. But now that I’m thinking of it, I can see myself twenty minutes from now, walking home from Carrow’s Kid’s Night down the arcade and through the park and along the bike trail—a full mile in which I might strike up a conversation with someone old enough to remember, some young man who would hesitate but then stop to ask, “Excuse me, um, but are you, Battle Cat?”
“. . . Green and blue are the hardest to wash off,” Penny is telling me. “We don’t mention that to the parents. We let them go home and find out for themselves.” Her nose wrinkles when she smiles.
“Maybe not green, then,” I venture.
“It just takes some more scrubbing.” She smiles, her pigtails swinging with the quick tilt of her head.
“Orange,” I say, hesitantly, as if asking permission.
She doesn’t move.
I gather my confidence and try again.
“Orange,” I say. And I mean it. Absolutely! Orange!
I am afraid of overripe fruit. I am afraid of arriving too early. I am afraid of what doesn’t heal and things that can’t be fixed. I don’t mind dogs in general, but I am afraid of our dog, the family dog, whatever dog it is at whatever point in time but always something big and slobbering that my father could not resist and which he will never train. I mention this not because of the flapping bloodhound who is waiting for me, who will leap and lick and push me against the door when I get home. I mention this because of the blue-tick coonhound who lept and bit and pushed me against the kitchen cabinets smearing blood when I was eight. I mention this because of the scars.
Dr. Williamson said the cuts were just this side of needing stitches, that by time I was old enough for it to bother me, to be a girl who cared about her looks, that laser technology would be advanced enough to smooth it away, like it had never happened. So I went home with a clutter of butterfly bandages across my jaw and arm and frankly might have forgotten about the inch-long ribbon of scar tissue next to my chin, the shorter crescent-shaped scar next to it climbing up my jaw. I don't notice it in reflections or dressing room mirrors. I might have forgotten, except new classmates and new officemates and first dates always asked, remark on it still. People who know me well never bring it up and strangers don’t bother; it is only the vast population of new acquaintances that takes an interest in my face.
“Close your eyes like you’re sleeping,” Penny tells me. She says that if you tell a child, “close your eyes,” they squeeze them shut and the paint wicks over the creases. They try too hard and it ruins everything. When they open their eyes they have flesh colored wrinkles. It makes them look old. Nobody ever asks to look old.
I squint before complying, not sure if I should also let my head droop to the side and my mouth fall open. I am a single woman sitting on a stool in a room full of families, and I am very aware that I don’t know what to do with my hands, whether to put them in my lap or let them hang limp at my sides, but I know I should sit still. So I try to sit still but not rigid as Penny works from light to dark, pressing white pigment against the middle of my forehead, gliding it over the eyebrows and dabbing the sides and lower cheeks.
“Open your mouth and say ahhhh,” she asks and wipes in the upper lip. Passing the foam wedge over the yellow well of a black case, she sweeps up to my cheek, fills in the middle third of the face—the parts that aren’t already white—and in an instant it’s the next shade, swipes of orange coming in from the sides and blending like a sunrise, a glow of honey oak and butternut and tangerine. Her wrist flicks, the color swept up into one perked ear. Mirroring the stroke, she conjures a second. She says on nights when she’s feeling saucy, she'll go back and add teeth along the chin, a sharp zig zag of canines and incisors. But this isn’t one of those nights. She leaves my chin with the teeth it has already known.
When I was in high school, Carrow’s was as good as we could manage for a hang-out spot. The vinyl booths were worn but not splitting open. We all tipped poorly, the waitstaff was inattentive, and the laminated menus clattered together like racking pool balls. The food was just okay. But in a town with four stop lights where everything closed by six o’clock, Carrow’s was open until midnight, so we ordered Irish nachos and jumpy monkey sundaes and maybe someone got coffee and we all asked for water because it was free. Now, though, my high school friends long scattered and the food not improved, there’s no good reason to be at Carrow’s, except that it’s Wednesday night, the night the clowns come, and Mr. Dave Twister is one of the best in the world.
Two days ago, two days before this particular Carrow’s Wednesday, I was at a clown-less sidewalk cafe in Sydney, eating panna cotta in tiny, rapturous spoonfuls before catching a plane that, by the quirk of time zones, landed in Los Angeles three-and-a-half hours earlier on what was and was not the same Monday I’d left. My mother, in anticipation of the homecoming, had wanted to plan a special welcome home event and, with my consent, called the new boutique in town and booked me a facial, my first. And so accordingly on Tuesday, I went to meet Lisa, went to lie in a room with the lights off and the aromatherapy on while wearing the stylish version of a hospital smock, my clothes folded neatly on a chair in the corner.
It wasn’t relaxing, but it was clear that it was supposed to be relaxing, that that was the point, to relax, so I breathed deeply. I tried to slow my heartbeat. I consciously relaxed the muscles around my eyes, in my jaw, down my neck. I wondered if the Buddhist monk smiling on the CD case propped up on a bureau was meant to correspond to the pine tree whispers piped in from hidden speakers, their murmur punctuated every so often with a tiny metal ching! Lisa came in and out to swab on cool liquids, rub in creams, let things set, and begin again with a new wash of textures and scents. Grainy pastes, then slick oils, then something stinging and bright. Lavender. Olives. She smoothed out her lab coat every time she stood up. She asked about the scar on my chin. I couldn’t tell where things began to go wrong.
When I was ten or so, old enough that it cost the adult price but still young enough that it was my mother who made our appointments and brought me along to the salon, Debbie Million cut my hair. Debbie Million would actually cut my hair well into my twenties, long after I’d left home and moved six states away, but that day when I was ten she blew it dry, a novelty for my curls. She looked intent, but she must have been distracted. Debbie had enormous blue eyes, always wide open, and when she blinked she’d shake the blow drier and move it to a new spot against my scalp. Where the air was too hot or too close or held too long, it hurt. It burned. Not so much that I screamed, but enough that I didn’t know what to say, how to apologize, how to stop the pain without her feeling bad for causing it. I only knew to sit still. She held the barrel to my head, scrunching my damp hair in her fingers, and watched us both in the mirror. She was long and lean, pointy-heeled boots under skinny jeans, the cowl of her green turtleneck drooping as she bent forward. I was a head. A head and the draping tent of gray leopard print fabric snapped at my neck. I couldn’t tell if she was concentrated on my reflection or hers, the mirrors in front and behind us mounted at a slight angle, lifting us up, doubling and redoubling to infinity.
When my face starts to prickle at age twenty-nine, however, I know enough to open my mouth.
“Umm,” I say. “It prickles.”
“Like stinging? That goes away.”
“No, like prickles.”
“Not to worry, we’re almost done.”
“The make-up brush—the bristles—they feel sharp. It hurts.”
“It’s a suncreen powder plus a little shimmer.”
“Like pinpricks. Like sharp and scoring.”
“SPF 15,” Lisa assures me. “You need all the protection you can get.”
It hurts even more when I can see it. My face is ugly red, an agitated flush pooling unevenly over my forehead and cheeks and chin. I feel the abrasions hot as sunburn, stinging like a skinned knee, and am embarrassed that my skin won’t cooperate, ashamed that I did not defend myself, that I circled “sensitive” and “freckles” and “dry” on the new client sheet and closed my eyes to the sound of waterfalls in bamboo forests thinking it would be okay.
It doesn’t help that my mother is coming to pick me up, that it will be hard to be the grateful daughter. I will fail at that, too. I appreciate that she was thinking of me, that she went to some trouble and expense to arrange this treat, but I cannot pretend it came out well. I do not feel pretty. I do not feel like a lady who has spent an hour being pampered at the spa. I do not feel anything I was supposed to.
When my mother arrives I try to explain and Lisa tries to explain. A rising blush is hidden under my already screaming skin, but my diplomacy is crumbling to a stutter. Lisa looks innocently befuddled. They ask me if I want to look in the store next door, send me away so they talk things out like grown-ups. I go, and Lisa puts a tube of cream in my mother’s palm, asks her to have me call tomorrow. Nobody suggests that these things take time. That pain is beauty or beauty is pain. Nobody says that it will look different tomorrow. That the transformation is not yet complete.
Wolfe Brothers black is a particularly opaque paint. It’s as dark as they come. On the broad, flat end of a #12 filbert brush, it licks a cool, wet line from nostril to nostril, runs down from the tip of my nose and, turned to its thin side, paints down the groove to the top of my lip.
“Now you have a tiger nose,” Penny says. “Now you smell like a tiger!”
I can’t tell if I’m allowed to laugh, if a sudden snort might ruin everything, but Penny doesn’t wait for my approval. She has already dropped the filbert in a jar of water, traded it for a #4 round, and causes me to laugh again as she tickles in the outline of a muzzle. She paints the smile in permanently, black curves pulling at the corner of my mouth like a grin, exaggerated up and out in a Cheshire curl.
Facepainting works in broad strokes, in smears of color, in patches and blobs and fades and blends. It’s all rather abstract until just before it’s done. The fancy tiger base would look the same if I were a cheetah or a candy corn or a black-nosed pumpkin. But then some radiating stripes, fluid as calligrapher’s strokes, thin at the ends and pulsing wide with taps of pressure; a quick pepper of whisker dots; and finally the outline, a painted frame of perked ears at the top of the forehead, a jagged fur line at the edges. The finishing steps are done in four quick words. Glitter. Shimmer. Mirror. Applause! And that’s it: I’m a tiger. A fancy tiger. I growl and purr and yawn and preen. I feel twenty years younger.
“Lesson number one in face painting,” Penny tells me, “glitter makes everything better.”
My older brother arrives as Penny points a squeeze tube of Liquid Bling at my temple. It’s not attractive, the mechanical pencil tip jammed on the end of the tube, but the solution itself is elegant, the metal tapering to a fine point at the corner of my eye and a perfect, viscous bead of gold at its tip. My brother, Gavin, has come so we can walk home together. And while he knows I have been hanging around with clowns, he does not know he will be walking a tiger home. He does not know he could be one, too.
My brother is six-foot tall, wears a full beard, and has been balding since high school. He presents a curious surface to facepaint, and anyway he doesn’t know what he wants, can’t begin to imagine, so he waives off Penny’s offer. Instead I show him my tyrannosaurus, which at the moment is wearing the glasses I took off to become a tiger, the glasses I am now afraid to put back on lest they make me something else. My brother studies this little Jurassic librarian, this tyrannosaurus Clark Kent.
It’s just a bit slow at Carrow's, still a little before the dinner rush, and Mister Dave Twister comes over to chat. He doesn’t ask Gavin what kind of balloon he wants, knows Gavin can’t begin to fathom his options, and says instead, “Hold out your arm.”
Most twisters use pumps, either hand pumps with motors or special bivalves that woosh air on both the squeeze and the release. Mouth-inflation is an elite technique, superior to pumps for its speed and showmanship but, like most signs of virtuosity, easy to miss as such because of its very seamlessness, the sudden acceptability of a man spitting five foot tongues of color into the air. With two hands free to manipulate the balloons, Mister Dave then wraps a thin snake of yellow around two fingers, swirls and expands it into a sixty-inch corkscrew with one breath.
“Hold this,” Mister Dave says, slipping the coil around my brother’s outstretched arm. Mister Dave repeats the corkscrew trick. “And this,” he says, adding a matching spring to Gavin’s other arm. Gavin looks like a sonambulist turned coatrack, the way his arms stick out parallel to the floor.
“Oh, and this,” Mister Dave says, as if it just occurred to him, knotting the end of a third coil. My brother, who works for the IRS, is about to question the math. “Wait a minute,” Mister Dave exclaims, “you only have two arms!” My brother looks relieved. “Well that’s okay,” Mister Dave says and wedges the third balloon on Gavin’s head like a cockeyed party hat.
Gavin has taken on the air of a particularly festive zombie, and Mister Dave leaves the three coils there like a marinade while he inflates a green polka dot round, twists a pair of blue googley eyes, and pinches a transparent 160 into a string of bubbles. Then, daintily plucking the adornments off my brother, Mister Dave proceeds to wrestle with the whole thing. He clutches the curls and spheres at chest height, elbows wild, tentacles flailing, both bodies jerking—the air rent with the rude squeal and screech of latex rubbed against itself and set to vibrating—until, suddenly, triumphantly, Mister Dave holds up a squid.
It is absolute magic. Mister Dave makes the gift lightly, so much air and latex, hands it to Gavin where it seems to settle with more weight, as if what my brother held was an actual cephalopod and not just the idea of one.
When we get home, Gavin goes first, opens the door just a little, which sets the thumping to a frenzy. He holds his squid above his head, takes a step in, and uses the other hand to pat and push and prod and block our bloodhound Scarlet as she barks and jumps and lunges and wags. He gets her calm enough that I can follow, tyrannosaurus up in the air, and it all starts up again, her paws slipping and scratching furiously. Gavin is particularly protective today, but my brother’s grip on her collar is not enough to stay her. No matter how deeply his voice rumbles No and Scarlet and Down, her jowls flap and the spittle strings and her long ears get in the way. There is nothing to settle her but time.
My parents built a three-story house and never installed a doorbell, so it’s the commotion that alerts my mother we are home. She comes up the stairs, shoos Scarlet into the basement, and looks us over.
“Oh my,” my mother says. “Oh, my,” she keeps saying. “Oh my!” from one pitch and inflection to another until she has worked her raving and gushing into epiphany: “You must show the neighbors!”
I have never been sent to show the neighbors anything. When I was a girl scout I rang just six doorbells before I realized the nervousness was not going away, would maybe never go away, that my embarrassment for showing up to hawk thin mints uninvited was not worth the occasional sale, much less its accompanying promise that I would have to return later with the goods, ring and re-ring the door until some occupant took mercy and relieved me of the lemon pastry crèmes and the tag-a-longs and the chalky shortbreads no one ever ordered unless they were on a diet but trying to be polite. It was awful, those encounters. No good ever came of them.
“Oh no you have to,” my mother insists. “The Wells have grandchildren now, and Tom and Mary do, too. They should know about this. They’d like to see you.”
I look at my brother. “I think you can do this alone,” he says. I am still looking at him. I think that I will keep looking at him until he gives me an answer I can work with, that I am not leaving the house unless there’s someone to hold the squid, but he moves an eyebrow. The look is quiet and small.
“Okay,” I say. I look to my mother. “Absolutely.”
When my brother and I were kids, when we were both young, I tagged along trick-or-treating with him and the neighbor boys his age. I was Bo Peep the year he was a homicidal clown, the year we knocked on the door of the gray house with the peaked roof and the porch light off. The house was only a few doors down from ours, on the bend where Seafarer jogged north into Harbor, but it came at the end of the long loop we were making through the neighborhood that night. There is a ranking to trick-or-treat booty, a hierarchy from the houses that give out full-size candy bars to the houses with an empty “Take One” bucket out on the steps. This was a penny house. I could feel the disappointment when she opened the door, the sigh of the ninja standing next to me upon seeing a glass candy dish of coins. “Take a handful,” the occupant said.
The dead football player reached in and said, “thank you.” The ninja and my brother did the same. I reached out and she chuckled.
“What small hands you have,” she said. I drew my hand back. It did look small.
“Look at my hands,” she said. “They’re big.”
“Let me help you,” she offered, scooping her own hand deep into the copper pile. It was the most generous thing I had ever seen. “Hold out your hands,” she said. I cupped my hands and the weight filled them, pennies ran over, more wealth than I could hold. Seeing this, the woman stopped, her half-full hand of pennies still in the air. With her empty hand she pinched one cloth handle of the bag hanging from my wrist and pulled it open. Then she tipped the penny hand, let it fall and sweep like a conductor’s, the balance pouring in, glinting as it fell.
A. Kendra Greene is a Jacob K. Javits Fellow at the University of Iowa. She has vaccinated wild boars in Chile and modeled dresses twisted from balloons. She is currently looking for reasons to love Dallas, Texas. A writer and book artist, her work is in The Best Women's Travel Writing 2010, and the special collections of The School of the Art Institute of Chicago and The University of Florida. And even as we speak, she is writing a memoir about museums. More at greeneinkpress.com.