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Me and Tiger had a difference of opinion. I thought itwould be worth it to go out surfing. Tiger just looked off and shook his head. A late season hurricane was passing offshore about one hundred and fifty miles east of Cape Lookout. The whole day had been squally while we worked trying to finish staking out a new sub-division. We weren't able to get much done. It seemed like every time we got the transit set up and got going good, we'd get bitch-slapped by feeder bands of rain. With the winds gusting up stronger and stronger, I couldn't keep the prism pole still enough for him to get accurate shots. Finally, Tiger called it quits.
"Man, I can't control the weather," he said as he packed up the transit for the third time that day. The sudden shower had stopped, but the air was dense with the low pressure. I pulled my sodden T-shirt over my head and threw it in with the equipment in the back of the Bronco.
"Let's check out the waves, Tiger," I said as he locked down the lid of the transit case.
Tiger looked over to the dune line, up the street. We both could hear the waves over the wind. They had to be huge. Tiger looked at me and grinned. "Boy, they aren't going to be anything but slop. The wind's going to have to shift and clean them up some before they're going to be worth a damn."
I shrugged and looked toward the beach. We got pelted by a short burst of fat raindrops that stung my face and chest.
"Shit," Tiger said and pulled off his T-shirt as well. The wind was warm on bare skin, but surprisingly chilling against the damp cotton.
"C'mon then," Tiger said as he tossed his T-shirt in the back with mine and then twisted the key to make the rear window go up. "I'd hate to cheat you out of your first hurricane." He started off toward the beach.
"Don't you want to bring the boards?" I called after him. We kept our boards strapped to racks on top of the Bronco. All summer, if it started going off at a break near where we were working, we'd quit work for an hour or so to catch a few sets. That was one great thing about surveying, especially if your boss was a surfer.
"Hell no, Matt," Tiger yelled back. His voice carried in the wind. "C'mon. You'll see why."
I looked up at the boards strapped to the racks on the roof of the Bronco and reluctantly took off after Tiger. Since I came to live and work with him in the spring, surfing and surveying had become all I wanted to do. Well, surfing probably more than surveying. Tiger said I'd go out and sit on my board if the ocean was dead flat. He was right. Even if I had just started surfing, I didn't intend to stay a kook forever. I caught up with Tiger on the crest of the dune. The wind's heavy, wet hand was trying as hard as it could to push me back. Stretching out in front of us, the ocean seemed to be fighting with itself. The waves reared up and dumped out sideways on each other. Ugly gray-ish brown foam rolled up the sand from the shore break and then took off in the wind. Tiger looked at me and raised one eyebrow, figuring he didn't have to say anything else.
I squinted my eyes to search out over the water for a break we had surfed not two weeks before. No doubt, this storm was scouring the bottom, reconfiguring the sandbars and changing every break I'd learned over the summer. The ocean could be a stingy bitch with her favors and fickle as hell, but at least she was always there. She didn't just pick up and take off, leaving you scratching your head and wondering why.
I thought about Chris, my first boyfriend and lover. It was over and I knew it. We lied when he left after his last visit down. I didn't share any pretty college campus up North. No crunching leaves and keg parties here. That was his. Mine was this raw stretch of sand, wind that forced the breath back down into your lungs and an ocean full of waves wrestling with each other. Hell, it was the perfect place for me. I was right at home. I guess when Chris added up everything, I was as contradictory as his wind to my sea.
I found the break.
A couple of hundred yards up the beach, the waves were breaking cleaner and more consistently. They were thick, but had a niceish shape every couple of sets or so. I put my hand on Tiger's shoulder and pointed down the beach.
His eyes followed. After years in the sun, they were beginning to radiate a shallow fan of creases out from their corners. The wind pulled back his bleached hair, and his fine gold brows knitted over the bony ridge of his nose. Only twenty-six years old, Tiger already looked as elemental as any part of the scene around us.
I watched him studying the waves where the old break was wearing down, transforming. His topaz-colored eyes were flecked with green and gray. They seemed to cut like a lighthouse beam through the salt spray and spitting rain.
His eyes used to scare me when I was little. I'd seen eyes like that in a cat, but they were weird in a human being. Even knowing him for years, they still made me flinch every now and again. Tiger's eyes held a history of storms. One long look from him and it seemed like he knew your own dark weather as good as his own.
Fair and blond as he was, it was funny that I'd think of storms when I thought of Tiger; he looked more like a sunny beach boy, his bright head flashing in the summer sun. But behind those bright and beam-ing eyes, inside that tanned gold skin, I knew there were secrets and mysteries that came and went like tropical depressions.
Tiger blew into my life like a building squall at the end of the summer before my senior year. School had started, but it was still too hot for the sport coat and dress slacks I had to wear for Grandmama's funeral. We were all sitting around in the air-conditioned viewing room at Hampton Funeral Home. Aunt Heloise was crying, but most everybody else was standing around talking.
I was real sad about Grandmama and everything, but I was bored as hell. There's nothing worse than being cooped up with a bunch of aunts and cousins that haven't had anything interesting to say for as long as you can remember. But every once in a while they can still shock you. I was only about three feet away from Aunt Ethel and Aunt Dordeen when they started talking to my oldest cousin Rachel about Tiger.
"It just ain't right, Tiger not being here," Aunt Ethel said. "He always was so close with Mama."
"Why, he hain't bothered to drag down from the beach is beyond me," Rachel said.
"You'd think he'd have some respect for her, considering she put a roof over his head and raised him," Aunt Dordeen said smugly. "But then again, there ain't no telling what he thinks or does, slung up way off yonder."
"Why in the world that young'un felt like he had to move off so far away is beyond me," Aunt Ethel said.
"It weren't far enough, if you ask me," my mama said as she passed by on her way back from the ladies room to the sofa where my daddy was sitting. Rachel snickered and Aunt Ethel shook her head.
"Ethel, you knowdurn well why," Aunt Dordeen said, managing to sound annoyed and know-it-all at the same time.
"Well, Mama, I got my suspicions, but I don't know exactly why myself," Rachel said, sounding just as smug as her mama. "Considering nobody would have nothing to do with him after he run off with that-"
"Rachel, hush." Aunt Ethel interrupted while looking around to see who might be listening. I acted like I was looking for somebody and stepped away only to double around as quick as I could to hear more of what they were saying about Tiger.
I was younger than Tiger by eight years, and he'd been gone since I was ten years old. First he went off to college, then he moved to Nags Head. I didn't ever see him enough to know him very well, but the way I remembered him was nice. But Tiger always had something strange about him.
He always was as different from the rest of us as night and day. The rest of our people are fairly dark. Daddy told me Grandmama's great-grandmama was Tuscarora Indian. Of course, nobody wanted to talk about it much since Indians were considered to be only one step above black people, but it was so far back it didn't seem to matter now.
Tiger was fair complectioned and had blond hair and odd yellow-colored eyes. Daddy said that's why Grandmama named him what she did. Tiger was his real name, not a nickname. Daddy had a story how Grandmama said she had named her other children names as common as dirt and there wasn't much special about them. She made Tiger different from the start. Besides that, nobody would say how Tiger came to be Grandmama's last young'un. Granddaddy had been dead for years when he was born. If you asked, they'd tell you Grandmama was just a pure saint and change the subject.
I had maneuvered back near Aunt Dordeen and them, when a hush went over the viewing room. I looked around and saw Tiger in the doorway. His hair was down to his shoulders in back, with bangs cut short in front. It was sun-streaked, almost white, and he was tanned and looked more like my age than twenty-five in his clean white button-down shirt, faded jeans and high-top Nikes. He lingered at the door a minute, glancing around the room until he saw the coffin.
My older brother, Tommy, and Daddy got up to greet him, but he acted like he didn't even see them. Tiger just walked as if in a trance toward the open coffin, like not a one of us was even in the room. He stood by the coffin and looked down at Grandmama. He smiled slightly and seemed to speak to her but no noise came out. He just stood there looking down at her for the longest time, moving his mouth just a little, like he was sharing a secret with her.
Daddy started to walk over to him. Tommy started toward him too, but Daddy waved him off as he went to Tiger. He came up beside him and put his arm over his shoulder. Tiger looked at him and smiled the saddest smile in the world, like a dog would look at someone who might kick him.
"Why didn't anybody call me, Henry? I would have come," he asked my dad. For a minute Daddy looked confused as he patted Tiger on the shoulder.
"Dordeen said she'd called you herself, but it don't matter, son. The last few weeks Mama didn't know she was in the world," Daddy said.
Tiger shook his head. "Dordeen's full of shit. Missus Gurley, Granny's neighbor, called me this morning and chewed me out for being so sorry. I ain't heard one word from Dordeen."
His voice echoed sharply over the few sniffles in the stiff, suddenly silent room. I looked over and could see Aunt Dordeen's face freeze and then tighten in anger as she rose to defend herself. She walked briskly up to the coffin to confront Tiger.
"I did so try to call you! It's not my fault you won't home," she hissed.
Tiger looked at her. "I have an answering machine. Are you too stupid to leave a message?" he asked calmly, but there was no mistaking his rage.
Aunt Dordeen quivered with righteous indignation in her too-small organza dress. "I didn't want the news of Mama's death to reach you over a machine. I thought you were human enough to want to hear it from family. Well, I guess I was wrong. People like you don't even want to act like they got family."
Tiger looked her slowly up and down and narrowed his yellow eyes. "Get out of my face, you lazy, ignorant cow."
A collective gasp went up over the whole room. I looked over at my cousin Wayne. His mouth was wide open, too shocked to even smirk. He and I both remembered that Grandmama always said that Dordeen was a lazy heifer, and we still could laugh till our ribs hurt talking about it.
Reverend Winslow made his way cautiously to the little triangle by Grandmama's coffin. Daddy gripped Tiger by the shoulder, while Tiger and Aunt Dordeen glared at each other. Reverend Winslow stood by Aunt Dordeen's side and said sternly, "Son, remember where you are. This is no time for all this carrying on. Have some respect for your grandmother laying there."
Tiger turned his glare from Aunt Dordeen to the preacher, who flinched a bit when Tiger's eyes hit him. "Who the hell are you?" Tiger said, as he shook off Daddy's arm and took a step closer to the blown-up Reverend Winslow.
The preacher was a biggish man, an ex-football player, and pulpit pounder. "I am Reverend Winslow, your grandmother's pastor, " he said, making himself up to be large and intimidating.
Tiger snorted, "Where the hell did they drag you up from? Mama hadn't been in a church in twenty years."
I looked over at Wayne, who couldn't hold it back anymore; he started to snicker and so did I. I heard Daddy say to Tiger, "Come on outside now; it's okay."
Daddy put his arm back over Tiger's shoulder and half pulled, half walked him out the door. When they had made it into the hallway the room sounded a little like a teakettle with so many people letting out their breath all at once. Then it hissed like a bunch of snakes with all the whispering going on. Aunt Dordeen broke it up by letting out a wail and sinking to her knees by the edge of the coffin. Reverend Winslow bent down to comfort her, saying, "An ungrateful child stingeth like a viper."
Aunt Dordeen sobbed, "He ain't mine; he ain't nobody's but the devil's."
Somewhere, I thought I heard a somebody say "Amen." I barely had a moment to think about what Aunt Dordeen had said to Tiger . . . something like "You people act like you don't have family." I felt a trickle of sweat collect between my shoulder blades and run down to the hollow at the bottom of my back. Even in the air-conditioning, hearing all that, and just what it might mean, made me feel kind of hot and sick and excited, all at the same time.
Before I could sort it out, Wayne punched me on the arm and motioned for me to follow him outside. I concentrated hard following him out the door so I wouldn't forget, so I could think about it all later.
My brother Tommy was standing on the porch looking out to where Daddy and Tiger were leaning on our car, talking in the parking lot. "Damn, Tiger's a pisser, ain't he?" Wayne said. Tommy looked at him and laughed. "Did you see Aunt Dordeen's face when he called her a cow?"
Wayne shook his head. "Tiger ain't nothing but trouble; never has been."
Tommy looked back out over the parking lot at Tiger and Daddy laughing. He said, "Daddy never thought so."
Something in Tommy's voice caused another bell to go off in my head, but Tommy never missed an opportunity to make me look stupid so I didn't say anything.
"I got some killer sinse bud, but I need to go down to the 7-Eleven to get some rolling papers," Wayne said. Y'all want ride around and catch a buzz?"
"I got my pipe with me," Tommy said. "I don't reckon nobody'll miss us if we ride around some, but you got to drive."
"Cool," Wayne said. They started walking off. Tommy looked back and said, "C'mon. Mama and Daddy ain't gonna want to stay that much longer."
I looked over to where Daddy and Tiger were talking. "Nah, y'all go on. I'm going to stick around."
"Figures," Tommy said.
Wayne snickered as he began tossing his keys in the air. "See you, wuss."
"Yeah. Fuck you." I said.
"You wish, faggot," Wayne laughed, not even looking back.
Tommy snatched his keys in mid-toss and took off running down the rows of parked cars with Wayne chasing after him.
I felt kind of shy about barging in on Daddy and Tiger's conversation, but I didn't want to go back inside either. Hampton Funeral Home was the same one my baby brother Henry Junior was buried out of a few years back. Even the new plush wine-colored carpet and velvet cushions hadn't changed the fact the place was hateful, scary, and sad.
Grandmama, laid out for the viewing, looked like she was made of wax. The relatives and folks inside were weird to begin with, and worse right now, walking around with Jesus and death and heaven all stuck out of their mouths. I walked over to where Daddy and Tiger were talking instead of just leaving them to visit and going back in-side. They stopped talking when I walked up. Tiger looked me up and down slowly and said, "You near 'bout a weed, ain't you, hoss?" I was embarrassed. I had grown to over six feet tall in what seemed about a week and I felt like I would never get used to my own body. Daddy said, "We tried to cut down on his feed, but he takes after his mama's side."
Tiger looked at me and said, "Have you ever seen any paintings by an artist named Mantegna?" I shook my head no, amazed that he would ever think that I had. "You look just like a figure at the foot of the cross in one of his crucifixions."
"I don't know whether that's good or bad," I said. Tiger nodded, "It's a compliment," then he asked Daddy, "How's the building moratorium affecting your sales?" Daddy started in on a lengthy complaint on the economy and the government, leaving me with my hands in my pockets, staring up at the old pin oak limbs, trying to figure out how to spell Mantegna.
After a while Daddy offered that Tiger stay over with us. Tiger smiled and said no thanks politely. I offered him my room even, suddenly wanting him to stay just so I could listen to him talk.
He shook his head and told Daddy, "You know Sharon Ann likes me 'bout as much as Dordeen does."
Daddy nodded to him and said to me, "Son, go find your mama and tell her to come on; I'm ready to go."
I started to leave but Tiger told me to hold it a minute. He looked back at Daddy and asked, "Henry, can I use your key to get in over at Mama's? I want to take Matt and go get some things that mean a lot to me."
Daddy looked puzzled. "Can't that wait till after the funeral?"
"No," Tiger said sharply. He looked off a minute down George Street and then looked Daddy in the eye. "I'm not staying for the funeral. I'm driving back to the beach tonight."
I was surprised when Daddy just nodded and reached in his pocket for his keys. He found the one he was looking for and began working it off the ring. "Why come you need Matt to go with you?" he asked as he handed the key to Tiger.
Tiger laughed. "You know why. When my so-called sisters find out I was in that house, they'll say I stole. Matt here is going to be able to tell them all I took is Mama's old blue tea pitcher and the pictures of me when I was little," Tiger explained. He looked down at his feet and nudged a small rock gently, then kicked it spinning into the street. He looked up at Daddy and said calmly, "If I ask Dordeen for them I'll never get them, period. They all act like it was never my home, even though I lived there for eighteen years."
Daddy nodded, and then did an odd thing, considering he wasn't a real huggy-type guy. He turned to Tiger and put his arms around him, hugged hard and told him to take care of himself, then letting Tiger loose, he turned abruptly to go. He didn't even say good-bye. Tiger fingered the key and watched him walk between the cars and onto the front steps of the funeral home.
After a moment, Tiger turned and started walking into the parking lot. Confused, I hesitated for awhile before following him to his car. When I caught up, he threw me his keys.
"You look like you're man enough to drive this thing," he said. He had a brand-new, white-on-blue, full-sized Ford Bronco. I unlockedthe door and climbed in. He got in on the passenger side and rolled down the window.
Tiger lit a cigarette, and smoked quietly watching George Street turn into the bypass as we headed out to Grandmama's place. I just drove. Tiger rode looking out the window like a lost little boy. We turned off 117 onto 70 and he just stared at the small houses and the churches that had grown schools.
Finally I said, "How do you spell Mantegna?" Tiger looked at me quizzically with his cat eyes and then laughed. "M-A-N-T-E-G-N-A. Man tain ya. You should find the painting I was talking about in an art history book."