Joyland

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Tiger’s Got Teeth

by Ethel Rohan

Ethel Rohan's new collection of fiction, Goodnight Nobody, is now available for preorder from Queen's Ferry Press. Here's a repost of Rohan's 2011 Joyland story.

Roberta refused to move past the antiques shop, its grimy front window crowded with Korean furniture, ornaments and bric-a-brac. Anna protested her immovable mother; they were on a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Seoul and en-route to Chanddokkung Palace, why delay in a creepy antiques shop? Roberta pulled Anna past the colossal stone creatures on either side of the shop entrance. Anna couldn’t decide if the bizarre-looking statues were supposed to be dogs or lions. She and her mother separated immediately, Anna drawn to the rustic urns and Roberta elsewhere.

Minutes later, Roberta called to Anna, excited. Anna found her mother standing before a full-length mirror, its frame mahogany and the feet enormous and clawed. A fierce, yellow-eyed dragon’s head crowned the mirror.

Roberta laughed. “Isn’t that something?”

“It’s hideous,” Anna said.

Roberta haggled with the storeowner, demanding his best price. Anna tried to reason with her mother, but she wouldn’t be swayed.

Four weeks after Roberta and Anna’s return to Seattle, UPS delivered the mirror. Roberta sliced through the packing tape with a steak knife and ripped the box open. Anna popped the bubblewrap between her fingers and demanded to know where Roberta planned to put the awful mirror. Her mother ordered her to stop messing with the plastic. Anna enjoyed one last pop and ignored her mother’s withering look. Roberta carried the mirror to the far corner of the entryway, next to the stairs and in plain view of the front door.

“You’re kidding?” Anna said.

Their neighbor, Maggie, tottered into the hallway during the worst of the argument, curious to know the contents of the big box.

Maggie drew back from the mirror. “Don’t get a good feeling from that thing.”

“See,” Anna said to her mother.

“You two.” Roberta waved away their complaints.

Maggie refused to stay. She turned around on the front steps, her bird-like head deep in her shoulders. “I didn’t get to tell you my news with all the fuss. My Jimmy is coming up next weekend, for my birthday.”

“That’s wonderful,” Roberta said. “We’ll have you both over for dinner.”

“That’d be nice,” Maggie said. “I don’t think he was too keen to fly up. I had to remind him I won’t always be around.”

“They’re all quick to forget that,” Roberta said.

Anna held her sigh in her mouth, the stale air puffing out her cheeks.

“Poor thing,” Roberta continued as soon as she closed the door. “That Jimmy always was useless.”

Roberta started up the stairs.

Anna turned the mirror about, facing its dragon’s head at the wall.

Roberta looked down at her daughter over the banister. “You need to open your eyes and appreciate things more, especially around here.”

 Anna placed another library book atop the mounting stack on her nightstand. It was already early afternoon and she’d yet to get out of bed, but couldn’t convince herself there was anything to get up for.

Her mother shouted. “Anna! Whatever are you doing up there all day? How am I supposed to get this dinner ready on my own?”

Maggie inched into the house and visibly relaxed once she saw they’d removed the mirror. Anna had hid the mirror in the basement. She’d have liked to leave the eyesore down there permanently, not just for Maggie’s sake, but Roberta balked at the idea.

“What’s wrong with you?” she had said. “The thing’s a work of art.”

Maggie half-turned to Jimmy, still standing on the front steps.

“It’s all right, dear. That mirror’s gone.”

Jimmy stepped into the hall, red-faced, and patted down his sparse brown hair. “Really, Mother.”

He’d aged, Anna noticed, his brown beard flecked with white and the large silver-framed spectacles shrinking his wrinkled face. A heaviness pressed Anna’s chest. She was only a year or two Jimmy’s junior. He gave her little more than a cursory glance.

Anna offered to take Maggie’s wool coat, a vivid purple.

“I’ll keep it on,” Maggie said, “my birthday present from Jimmy.”

“Take it off, Mother,” Jimmy said.

The foursome moved into the living room, Maggie still inside her coat. Anna offered iced tea. Jimmy asked if she hadn’t something stronger. Anna offered gin. She apologized, they’d no tonic or soda, but she’d homemade lemonade?

Roberta’s voice reached Anna in the kitchen. “She’s such a help. I don’t know what I’d do without her.”

Anna whacked the ice tray against the counter and let the cubes crash into the sink.

While the three women made small talk, Jimmy stared into the fire, his expression dazed.

“It’s to rain all weekend,” Maggie said. “You won’t like that, Jimmy.”

Jimmy roused himself and looked over at the rain-splattered window.

“It never lets up here,” he said.

He looked hard at Anna. “I don’t know how you can stand it?”

Anna’s gaze dropped to her iced tea. She thought to remark on LA’s stifling heat, oppressive at the other extreme, but the moment passed.

Jimmy held out his empty glass. “Could I get another? A tall one.”

“Jimmy, you know that stuff’s not good for you,” Maggie said.

“We’re celebrating, aren’t we?” Jimmy said.

He raised his replenished glass. “To Mom! Happy Birthday!”

“Happy Birthday, Maggie,” Roberta and Anna chorused.

Maggie’s shriveled face grinned out at them, the rest of her tiny and sweating inside the purple coat.

Dinner passed painfully. Jimmy spoke in monosyllables and only when prodded. The women discussed the food, weather, and presidential candidates to death. Palin can’t police her own daughter, Roberta said, never mind a country. She and Maggie cackled. Then Maggie repeated how delicious everything tasted. Roberta apologized again, she’d overcooked the beef and left lumps in the creamed potatoes. Maggie, knowing her role well, repeated a string of compliments.

Jimmy pushed his plate away, the food largely untouched.

“Someone’s ready for dessert,” Maggie said.

“Anna, go get the cake,” Roberta said.

“He can wait until everyone finishes,” Anna said.

“Anna!” Roberta said.

Jimmy laughed, eyeing Anna with something like interest.

Despite herself, she warmed under his attention.

Immediately following dessert, Roberta moved out to the back porch to smoke. Maggie shuffled after her, letting in a cold draft. The back door clanged closed. Maggie’s coat would serve her well out there, Jimmy mumbled. He drained his third gin and lemonade and crunched the ice between his back teeth, the smattering on his tongue like broken glass.

Anna cleared the table and attempted to wipe down its surface. Jimmy’s large freckled arms remained on the table, hindering her work. She wondered what her dead father’s arms had looked like and if he’d be the kind of man to shift himself so that a person could clean a table.

“So where’s the infamous mirror?” Jimmy asked.

“I put it downstairs,” Anna said. “It really spooked your mother.”

Jimmy sniggered. “I like it already.”

Anna shot him a look.

“Martyrs, yours and mine both,” Jimmy said.

Anna turned on the tap full blast.

“I’d really like to see that mirror,” Jimmy said.

Anna turned to him. “It’s all the way down in the garage.”

He leaned into the table, his look mischievous. “I think we’ll manage.”

 

Anna shivered inside the cold basement. Its stale smell and weak light reminded her of the eerie antiques shop in Seoul.

Jimmy ran his hand over the mirror’s frame and its dragon’s head. “I could do so much with this.”

Anna imagined he meant for those Hollywood commercials he made.

Jimmy walked around the mirror, admiring.

“We really should get back upstairs, they’ll miss us,” Anna said.

Jimmy’s mouth twisted. “Afraid of Mommy, are we?”

Anna turned for the stairs.

“Have you seen yourself naked in this?” Jimmy asked.

Anna whirled about. “Excuse me?”

“I’d like to see you naked in here,” Jimmy said, sounding a challenge.

He struggled out of his navy sports jacket, and unbuttoned his blue-striped shirt.

“What are you doing?” Anna demanded.

Anna watched as he unbuckled the belt of his trousers and fiddled with his zipper, helpless to look away. He removed his socks last, the articles patterned with red diamonds and suddenly lifeless. Naked, Jimmy stood sideways in the mirror and sucked-in his gut. His penis stirred. He faced the mirror, his surprisingly high, firm buttocks now in full view.

“Come on,” Jimmy said, “get naked with me. Please.”

Anna tensed, rigid, even her throat constricted.

The basement door opened.

“Anna? Are you down there?” Roberta called.

Anna hurried up the stairs, but paused in the doorway to look back at Jimmy, his smirk and penis large in the mirror.

The next morning, Anna awoke sleep deprived and groggy. She felt almost ill, cold to her bones and sick in her stomach. Throughout the night she tried, but could not unsee Jimmy naked in the mirror. She’d fantasized about Jimmy straddling her on the cold garage floor and pumping himself into her. He’d cried out, shuddering on top of her, and she’d cried out louder. She was never loud. She’d never thought of something so shameful before—Jimmy married, with kids—and yet she’d turned and twisted for hours, touching and squeezing herself, afraid Roberta would hear her moans through the bedroom wall.

She skimmed the titles in the tower of books on her nightstand, desperate to distract herself. A tome on auras and auric colors caught her attention. The author claimed people transmitted revelatory colors through their energy field and, more, we all had the capability to see these auric colors in each other if we’d only resurrect the sixth sense. The author went on to list the connotative values attached to auric colors. Reds, Anna’s favorites hues, revealed passion, anxiety, jealousy, and repressed anger. Anna considered the colors she and Jimmy might have created in the mirror if they’d made love together the previous night. She imagined flashes of orange, yellow, blue, purple, and deep red. The longing inside her built and built, turning relentless, primal, until she silently screamed into her pillow.

She’d had so few love interests and only one lover, Ben. He’d left her to take his Ph.D. in literature at Notre Dame. To her mother’s horror, Anna had toyed with the idea of relocating with him, but in the end she couldn’t make the break away, not after all the sacrifices her mother had made, widowed so young. The last Anna’d heard, Ben had married.

Roberta called upstairs. “Whatever are you doing, child?”

Anna flinched.

“Anna? Don’t pretend you can’t hear me.”

Roberta’s tread sounded on the stairs.

Anna rushed to get dressed, pushed past her mother, and continued out onto the street. She walked and walked, with no place to go.

 

The next afternoon, Jimmy called at Anna’s front door. Anna turned her head in the doorway, about to call to her mother.

 “I want to take you out tonight,” Jimmy said.

Roberta called from somewhere deep in the house, “Who is it, Anna?”

Jimmy continued in a rush. “I’ll take you to dinner, some place fancy, and after dinner we’ll go to a nice club. We’ll have vodka-martinis in proper glasses and I’ll twirl you around the dance floor till you’re dizzy.” He finished, gasping.

Anna shook his head, strangely afraid. “I can’t … no … I mean you’re married and I’m … No, I’m sorry, I can’t.”

“Anna?” Roberta shouted, her voice sounding closer. “Who is it?”

“You need to go,” Anna said, closing over the door.

Jimmy’s steel-gray eyes narrowed behind his glasses. “I’m heading back to Los Angeles tomorrow afternoon.” His voice dropped. “Thought I could bring that mirror with me, make your mother an offer she can’t refuse. You’d like to get rid of that thing, wouldn’t you?”

Roberta demanded to know where Anna thought she was going to in that get-up, and on a Sunday night too, with work the next morning. Anna ignored her. She’d already decided to call in sick to school tomorrow. The library and small percentage of the students who actually cared about books could do without her for one day. She held her breath at her bedroom window, watching Jimmy reverse his black Range Rover out of Maggie’s driveway. After the agreed five minutes, she exited the house and hurried around the corner. Her mother’s shrill voice chased her.

Jimmy looked twice when she opened the passenger door, his eyes wide and face animated, as if pleased by her makeover. She couldn’t ever remember feeling so sexy.

The restaurant, an Italian diner with red and white vinyl tablecloths and crowded, soggy pizzas, wasn’t fancy like Jimmy had promised. Anna swallowed her disappointment along with the limp food and syrupy wine and chose to savor the flickering candles, crimson walls, and buzz of people about them. She also tried to ignore how often the conversation stalled and how uncomfortable Jimmy appeared. Sweat broke on his brow and upper lip and he repeatedly tugged on his shirt cuffs. No matter what she thought to say, he watched the room instead of her. They both refused dessert.

As they exited the restaurant, Jimmy asked if they couldn’t forget dancing and just go to the bar next door for cocktails. From the bar, a TV football game blared and out front scantily dressed women and men in cowboy boots stood around smoking. Several of the smokers, men and women both, were dressed in plaid shirts with plunging necklines, as if someone sent a memo. Jimmy pulled Anna to him and kissed her hard on the mouth.

She pushed him away and insisted he take her dancing like he’d promised. “No mirror,” she threatened.

“You hate that mirror.”

“Maybe I hate you more.”

He laughed. “Well, well, there’s a tiger inside after all.”

The Stardust was a popular, hip nightclub on the top floor of the Crowne Plaza Hotel that even people like Anna knew about. She paused on exiting the elevators, stunned by the plush décor and noisy crush of revelers. Jimmy grabbed her wrist and pulled her through the throng and across the dance floor. They stood at the wall of sheer glass and watched the Seattle night sky, the city below a sea of neon and traffic. The Big Band orchestra blasted “Walking On Sunshine.” Anna felt her bones stir to the music, her skeleton wanting to get out of her skin and move. She glanced sideways at Jimmy, wishing he’d ask her to dance.

While Jimmy gulped his vodka-martini, Anna pretended not to study her reflection in the wall-to-wall window. She appeared tall and lean thanks to her stilettos and the forgiving black dress. What would Ben say if he could see her now? What would he do? Her heartbeat hurt her ribcage. She turned to Jimmy and the demand came out of her in a whoosh. Jimmy seemed to hesitate, but then obliged, bringing his chapped lips to hers. She closed her eyes and tried to lose herself in the press of his kiss. He tasted of bottled Italian dressing. She broke away, breathless, and told Jimmy she wanted to dance. They slow-danced, Jimmy’s fingers low in her vertebrae, and she hoped somebody she knew would see her, a parent or teacher from the school, someone from book club, swim class, or her mother’s bridge club. Anyone.

Jimmy parked at the far end of Magnis Beach, away from the dark scatter of other vehicles that rocked tellingly. As the engine cooled, Anna smoothed her hair. Her mind reeled, drenched with vodka-martini. She repeated to herself she could do this. Jimmy unbuckled his seat belt and Anna’s breath caught. She wondered about the color of her aura right then, imagined it to be a spectacular rainbow.

Jimmy blinked hard and wiped his hand over his face.

“Right,” he repeated.

Anna’s heart felt like a bird trying to get out of her. She should never have agreed to this. “Maybe we should go?

“Let’s leave,” she continued. “This was a mistake.”

“Just give me a minute, okay?” he snapped.

“Forget it, take me home,” Anna said.

“It’s okay, I’m all right.” Jimmy pawed at her breasts.

She pushed him away. “Get off me.”

“I can do this, course I can,” he said.

He pressed his thumbs to her cheeks and kissed her. She didn’t kiss him back. He persisted, his wet mouth on hers. His hands moved down her chest and fingers traced her hard nipples. Her mind filled with Ben. Ben! She almost cried out. Jimmy’s tongue stroked the inside of her mouth. She returned his kisses and pushed her breasts against his palms, staggered by the force of her arousal.

He chuckled. “The tiger’s found her teeth.”

He struggled across the confines of the car and stretched his body over hers. She felt a tiny flutter of panic in her chest, but again her mind conjured Ben and she relaxed.

Aroused now, emboldened, Anna’s body thrummed with want and her tongue darted inside Jimmy’s mouth. Jimmy pulled back, gagging, and lunged at the driver’s door.

“I’m sorry,” he said between retches.

She wanted to run from the SUV, but they were at the end of the beach, the night inky black and sand wet and inconstant. All she could do was wait while Jimmy righted himself and closed the driver’s door. He apologized again. Anna quivered with humiliation. She wanted to fly at him, scratch at bug eyes and rip out his sparse hair.

He continued. “I warned my wife. Told her something like this would happen. She’s never in the mood, you know? I can’t remember the last time I got some. A man has needs—”

“Shut up,” Anna said.

 

Just as Anna arrived home, Roberta flung open the front door. “Where have you been?”

Roberta followed Anna down the hall. “You were out with that Jimmy, weren’t you? Maggie said. Tell me you weren’t with that …”

Anna spun around. “I don’t have to tell you anything!”

“That man’s married with a family! I raised you better than that.”

Anna flew at her, feeling her face twist horribly. “You didn’t raise me. You’ve kept me a child!”

Roberta recoiled, her hand at her heaving bosom.

Anna locked the basement door behind her and ignored Roberta’s frantic calling. She struggled down the stairs, and then stripped naked. She studied herself in the mirror, goosebumps distorting her skin. She touched her thighs, stomach, and breasts, and relived the long ago thrill of Ben’s thumbs moving back and forth over her nipples, then his fingers inside her, then his filling her.

She stepped back from the mirror, breathing hard. All that with Jimmy—what was she thinking? She hurried across the cold basement floor to her father’s old toolbox, wiping tears and snot from her face.

She brought the hammer down hard on the mirror and smashed its glass into smithereens. Her mother rattled the basement door handle, calling, hysterical. Anna continued to hack at the mirror, dismantling its mahogany frame and crushing its claw feet. She set about destroying the dragon’s head.

Just as the hammer hit the dragon’s eye, the orb reflected Anna’s face and shone yellow-gold. She dropped back onto her heels, stunned. The same yellow-gold of the sun, the tiger, and, according to that library book upstairs, a newly risen consciousness.