Big Cats

by Cody Greene

After school, Nick is able to catch a ride with Courtney into the city. She has an internship at a gallery downtown, and Nick volunteers at Mill Mountain Zoo painting a mural on the side of their gift shop. Courtney found out today that she’s been accepted to her top-choice art school in New York for the fall, so she plays the Yeah Yeah Yeahs really loud and drives a little fast, but Nick is somewhere else. Since earlier this week, his mom has been in the hospital fighting off infection after having her rotted gallbladder taken out, and though she seems all right now he worries. From the passenger seat of Courtney’s car Nick texts Benjy, asking what gallbladders are even for, who answers, I don’t actually know, but a lot of birds don’t have them at all. It can be said Nick’s mom has bird-like features. Then, Can’t wait to see you.

When Nick was little, when spring would coat the valley in pollen, his mom would take him to the zoo. Then, it felt bigger, the animals more wild. Then, the snow leopards had just been installed, the fishing cat had a fresh pine hutch and a new concrete-lined pond, and Ruby the tiger wasn’t dying. Then, the half-Siberian, half Bengal tiger—especially—was a force, a permanence. Nick knew the world was full of wonder because Jack Hanna’s Animal Adventures said so, because his mom pointed to the animals he couldn’t see because they were hiding.

Benjy is something else Nick doesn’t talk about with his friends. Whatever he and Benjy have together is still new, just since the two of them started the mural earlier this month, and it feels exciting and fragile. Benjy doesn’t even live in Roanoke County; he drives in each day from Vinton—20 miles away—so the zoo is the only time Nick gets to see him. Once, Courtney knew everything about Nick. Now, he can’t remember the last time he shared something, and he counts the weeks until he and his friends are graduated and disappeared from memory.

“How are things with the zoo?” Courtney asks. She pulls off the interstate and on to the highway that heads up Mill Mountain. From the road, Nick can see the hospital where his mom is. Then the road turns.

“It’s okay,” he says. “Ruby is sick. They might have to put her down soon. Everyone’s sad about it.” The yellow quality of sunlight as it filters through the treetops reminds him of the afternoon light cast on the back wall of his mom’s room the first night he visited the hospital, something too sheer to paint. Maybe he’d be going to art school if he could.

“Jesus,” Courtney says. “It’s gotta be tough working there now.”

Nick says, “I guess so.” Soon her car pulls into the parking lot. Orange lilies along path to the main entrance have opened and bob on thick stems. Already Nick’s halfway through another day this week.


Benjy looks something like a badger, solid in a way Nick can’t measure other than by holding him. There’s a softness to his face, a placid expression he always has, as if he’s just waking up, as if the world still holds good surprises. He’s stocky, from a contact sport sometime in his past. His favorite animal at the Mill Mountain Zoo is Bo, the wolverine. Nick can see that; they have the same brown hair that lifts some in a breeze, the same build. He told Benjy this about a week after they’d started on the mural together, and Benjy took his hand coolly. Bo was rambunctious that afternoon, throwing his weight around the enclosure, off rocks and tree trunks and into his shallow pool, and Nick tried not too worry about whether he was holding Benjy’s hand too tightly or not tightly enough.

Nick and Benjy are settled into the work of adding shadow and dimension to the mural on the side of the zoo’s gift shop. Today there are more zookeepers in the park than either of them can remember seeing, and they quietly attend to tasks around the park. Some they’ve never even met tell them, “Whooey, Buddy. Sure looks great. Looks done to me!” But it isn’t, and they are taking their time with the finishing touches. At the center of the mural, a tiger they’ve only roughed in with pencil. None of the lines are convincing. The proportions are wrong. But that’s part of a work-in-progress. Nick can’t imagine being with Benjy without the zoo, without Ruby, whom they visit on their break to practice sketches, without the wild breeze that carries with it a hundred intermingled animal smells—matted lemur fur; the heavy, hot breath of a snow leopard; delicate crane musk.

Their mural is expansive—a plunging jungle ravine hemmed with exotic fruit trees and vaulted, broad trunked palms. It’s a “Where’s Waldo” of the zoo’s most famous residents, red pandas and red wolves, the hornbill and the great-horned owl. They have both gotten passable with feline anatomy there are so many cats. Their current project is to render the plant life as realistic as they’re able, Benjy is on a stepladder now, Nick is below him, and when he looks up, Benjy appears to him like a kind of tropical farmer, though he is painting bananas, not harvesting them. He has a smooth concentration, which Nick likes watching, and the muscles contracting along Benjy’s forearm as he paints gives Nick a new kind of thrill. He wishes you could blink your eyes and take a picture. He wishes memory could be as visual and as reliable as photography, that he could in fact keep a moment safe.

Nick checks his phone, again—he wishes his dad would text him more about his mom, or anything—but it’s quiet as the bloated hogs in the low-fenced petting zoo. The zoo itself feels quiet, as though some phantasmal, mountain-sized predator is stalking this end of Appalachia, the animals holding their breath until it passes. Or else it was like the preemptive sobriety of a wake. Even Benjy has hunkered down into the quiet, is not answering the red-capped cranes’ calls of utter surprise with his usual conversational, “Oh, yeah?” or “I see.” The cranes seem defeated, and Nick feels it too. He imagines what sort of day Benjy may have had, in Vinton, who his friends are, what his parents do. He has no idea how to ask Benjy much of anything. The bright face of the cat Nick’s working on now—a generic enough lynx to pass as something surely roaming hills somewhere in the world—begins to run, thick beads of paint leaving trails as they sink, and he watches their paths. He is just now too warm, the painting is arduous and without novelty, and ice cream seems like a simple enough solution. He hopes to remember to fix the lynx later.

“Chocolate? Vanilla?” he says, looking up at Benjy.

“You know me,” he says kindly. Nick puts a hand to his brow, and for moment it feels as though he’s shading himself from Benjy, not the sun, and he thinks he understands why people want to pin and keep butterflies in boxes.

“I know you.” He heads for concessions, nestled neatly in the center of the park, next to the lemurs and Japanese macaques, where he knows he’ll buy both flavors, and eat whichever Benjy does not.

He passes the snow leopard enclosure, where he and Benjy made out for the first time, the big cats nuzzling up against the fence, more interested in the boys than the steak popsicles melting in their pen. And Nick thinks, How do you tell someone you think you could buy flowers for him, that he reminds you of summers when you were younger? How do you tell someone you wish you were better at living in the moment, that your mom is in the hospital, that these are only some reasons you aren’t dating him in a more meaningful way? A crane yells its surprise to the mountainside and Nick finds himself saying out loud, “I think we’re all having that kind of day.”

Meghan, who works the concession stand when the concession stand is open, has a face like a Japanese macaque, round and pink, flat and polished. On a nearby bench, a young dad tries to get his little girl to sit down, to put her shoes back on. Nick has never considered fatherhood before, but there is something about this dad’s age, the easy moves of his body. His own dad seems another species. Meghan sets two paper cups of ice cream on the counter, the kind that come with wooden spoons tucked into the lid, and Nick pulls out the last few bills of his allowance.

“End of an era, Nick,” say Meghan. She uses his name as often as she can now that she’s learned it, is one of those kinds of people, and Nick is immodest enough to not know what to do with that. “I said it’s the end of an era, Nick,” she repeats, jerking her head to the path leading to Ruby’s enclosure.

“Oh. Yeah.”

“I hear it’s going to be Cougar-town by next fall.” Nick cocks his head, unsure what she means. “That’s the rumor going around. Once the old girl’s gone, the powers-that-be are bringing in a mountain lion.” The whole world, he expects, will be lifted and changed by next fall. There’s nothing for it. “Everyone’s paying their respects before close. I can’t though. Man alive, do I get weepy!”

He raises the paper cups, as if in answer. “Thanks, Meg.”

The mural does look pretty good from a distance. It’s only close up that there are things to fix. He’s never worked on an art project with anyone else before, has been wholly convinced until now that Benjy’s parts of the mural put his to shame, expressed actual talent, but now he sees it all working out. It does not look like high school work. Benjy isn’t there, so Nick heads down a well-beaten trail to the other end of the zoo, past the cobra and pythons behind their plexiglas, past the prairie dog’s pit and their curious eyes.

The trees grow taller and the path opens to an overlook made from thick lumber. Benjy leans over the railing of Ruby’s enclosure. Nick can almost hear him saying something, though it’s just above a hum. He can imagine letting the ice cream melt and listening to the small sounds of this boy until nightfall, until anything that might or could happen on this day has already happened, without him. But Nick sets the ice cream on the railing, runs a hand down Benjy’s back. Below, Ruby lies on her side, skinny, her back legs and tail trailing into her watering hole. She’s more gray than orange now, and tough to look at. Ruby has lost fifty pounds in her nineteenth year. Her hips all but given out. Her breathing is shallow, but Nick can see her body still working, bones holding shape, muscles that don’t know what else to do. Nick has trouble imagining what a healthy tiger ought to look like. A placard on the railing has a faded picture of a much younger Ruby, a memory. Whatever Benjy was saying, he’s stopped, looks happy to see Nick.

“When we were kids, I felt like this zoo was the whole world,” Benjy says. Nick had never stopped to imagine that they’d even lived in the same world before they’d met, that there might be shared part of childhood.

“I thought she was the biggest animal I’d ever seen,” Nick says, cautious. “I thought she was twenty feet big.” Nick isn’t sure if Benjy smiling now is sincere or another expression, a language Nick still has to learn.

“Dad would say that’s part of growing up.” Benjy looks down and away, and Nick knows he has to say something, has to save this part of Benjy, that’s hurting, whatever it is.

“We’re already grown up, I think,” Nick says. They eat ice cream, say little else. Tomorrow, if Ruby’s euthanized, Nick will still wake up in the morning, and since it will be Saturday, he’ll have not much to do, and it will be exactly the same as any other Saturday, and that’s how they will learn to live without Ruby. Nick takes Benjy’s arm and wraps it around his waist. On the first night of his Mom’s hospital stay, after the gallbladder was out and after the first bad reaction to the antibiotics, Nick’s dad went back to the hospital to read her a novel she was upset about not finishing. Nick spent a night at home, watching reruns of ER and reality surgery shows, not feeling any better. He tried making one of his mom’s easiest recipes—sausage with pepper and onion—but when he botched it and had to fish the batteries out of the fire alarm, he was surprised at how he could fail at something so small. How do other people get through days without even thinking about it, without burning something?

Benjy is still holding Nick when a pair of kids come running down the ramp to the overlook, a mother following closely, fanning her face with a zoo map. The girl shouts, “Mom, a tiger! What’s she doing? Is she sleeping?” as she climbs onto the bottom rung of the railing. The wind picks up. Nick’s phone vibrates against his leg, his father, saying, Getting off work regular time. Meet you in the parking lot. Will try not to be late.  There is a sound: Ruby making a small puff or purr; or maybe just the wind knocking in the trees. Nick holds Benjy’s hand as they head away and feels the mother’s eyes on them, nothing in it, just watching them, and maybe he loosens his grip, but Benjy doesn’t let go.


Tina, their supervisor, waves to the few straggling visitors at the park’s exit just after close. She’s been on the phone all day and is just now seeing the boys and the mural for the first time today. She seems almost transparent to Nick. She gives them both overstocked key chains from the gift shop as a sort of thanks, heavy pewter Mill Mountain Zoo logos with etched tiger stripes. There’s a second where she looks at Nick expectantly, as if he knows the answer to something. She sighs.

“We’re so lucky to have you boys on this. We think you’re so talented.”

“Not long now,” says Benjy. They just have to finish off some details, and get around to doing the tiger, doing it right, giving the cat muscle and life. Realistically there’s just a few more days of solid work before the painting is done and they return to normally scheduled days in different towns.

“Well, thank you. Really. We’ve truly needed something—” she hesitates, searching the outline of the mountain range for it, “—bright, around here.” Past her, along the trail leading partway down the mountainside from the zoo entrance to the parking lot, the wildflowers are in heavy, violent bloom. She claps them both on the shoulder, each in turn. Surely, Nick thinks, she is the tallest woman he has ever known.

They say goodbye, and then they’re off, Benjy kicking rocks down the path. They can see the high chain link fence rising to the right of the trail, the edge of the largest enclosure at Mill Mountain, the Red Wolf habitat, so huge and dense the visitor rarely sees the canines in question.

“Are you all right, Nick?” Benjy juggles a piece of granite down the hill, passing it from one worn sneaker to the other. Nick isn’t sure how to answer. He nods some, thinks he is smiling while rolling his shoulders, as if winding some clockworks inside his body. They can hear playful yapping from in the wolves’ pen.

“You know that twenty years ago there were only 17 Red Wolves left? Worldwide?” Nick says. He feels as though he’s outside and above himself, like he’s a weather balloon relaying important information to the earth below, as long as someone below can decode it. “Now there’s almost two hundred? I think that’s crazy.”

“I think that’s the most you’ve said today.” Benjy says this with a kindness that’s hard to place, his hands deep in his pockets, looking as small as he can.

“I’m fine.”

Benjy’s red Subaru looks tired, almost like part of the landscape. There’s a ritual to unlocking the door, precision that’s required so the hurt, wailing alarm won’t go off. Benjy goes through the motions, glances just past Nick before the locks pop up. “Would you want to do something sometime? No tigers. No paint. You know, just us?”

“Yes.” Nick wants to ask more of himself. “Yes, absolutely.”

“Good. Me too. And soon?”

Once, Nick and his mom found an abandoned bird’s nest in the bush outside their house, and Nick learned that some things are too perfect, too fragile and vital to touch, even when all you want is to make it yours. When he and Benjy hug, their whole bodies pressed together, Nick holds onto it. Benjy’s smell has become precious—coffee, pot smoke, corn and laundry detergent. Warm.

The car starts—“Always a small miracle,” Benjy says—and he’s off, waving to Nick in an easy, nearly sensual way. Nick parks himself on a parking lot railroad tie, watching until a bend in the mountain road swallows Benjy’s car.

A wolf howls deep in its pen. Nick wonders if he’ll ever actually see one of the red wolves, wonders if he’d have something to ask it like Benjy does with the cats. But then it isn’t long before  Nick’s dad pulls into the parking lot. He steps out, blinking in the last orange light of the day, maybe needing a shave, but Nick can see that here is someone who is trying. A Neil Young song pours out like gravel into the cooling evening. Nick shrugs on his backpack and hoists himself up.


The hospital hallways have floor-to-ceiling windows, polished and sterile, and Nick can see their reflections, his and his father’s. They look so alike, eerily so, though this other Nick in the window seems a stranger, but one he’s certain he’s met before. The fluorescence of the hall is exceptional, turning white to blue, to yellow. They’re following a nurse who met them in waiting room, her blotchy face earnest when she said, “Everything is fine. Everything is fine now, but there have been complications. But trust me, she is in fine hands.” Nick thinks about all the times he’s ever said, “I’m fine,” and he grows more worried with each vending machine they pass, each empty examination room.

The nurse smiles, holding open the door, her face sympathetic and tucked away. Nick’s dad stands in the entry, a solid door himself smelling deeply of spun tweed, of starch, and though Nick’s tall enough to see past him he doesn’t; this buzzing hospital light is a fixative. Another impossible moment to paint or draw or photograph.

“There’s my boys!” he hears her say.

All day, he realizes now, he’s wanted something like this moment. He sees in her body something he’s seen already today, a loss of color, the way sickness presents as a desaturation, and though he recognizes her, feels a physical need to touch her, Nick knows his only strength right now will be to stand in the doorway.

His dad sits in the small chair by her bedside, takes her hand and holds it though her index finger is clamped in the mouth of an alligator clip connecting her to the monitor, and he’s made small by the white of all the furniture and instruments around him. Nick knows that his parents are at the very least in a general kind of love, but here was the postcard. He says, “Hi, Mom,” and they spend an hour there. The antibiotics are working. Everyone is smiling. There were complications, but miraculously, everything would be fine.

She gets excited. “I ate ham!” she says. Nick and his dad exchange looks, but it’s a relief that she’s eating real food. Nick’s dad tells her that he did the dishes, and Nick hears a scoff roll in his mom’s throat.

“Well, we’ve been eating take out mostly, so not a ton of dishes,” his dad says. And that’s how it goes. Nick’s mom asks him how school is, how the zoo work is going. Nick can almost hear the braying the of the petting zoo goats. He can almost smell the loamy fur stink that sometimes clings to him and Benjy. He can almost talk about some of this, almost has words for it in his mother’s hospital room.

But the moment passes, and his parents talk absently about their own projects, how there’s still so much to do before they call a realtor, how “it’s about time we replaced that deck. You wouldn’t believe the size of some of the splinters I’ve gotten.”

Nick smiles and holds his mom’s cool hand. The three of them make a list of all the food that should be in the house when his mom gets discharged in the near future. Bakery cake, Diet Pepsi, the nachos his dad is good at making.

The drive home takes them back along the interstate through downtown, streetlights buzzing in the spring dark. The city blazes around them, a wash of neon signs, advertisements for things you can’t buy any longer, reminders of what everyone used to want. The H&C Coffee kettle still pours steaming cups of coffee atop a building at the corner of Salem and Williamson. The Mill Mountain Star—that illuminated fifty foot monolith perched on the mountain where just today he’d watched over the final hours of an old tiger with a boy he’d very much like to see now—shines like a sentinel, the lighthouse for their tiny part of the world. Nick’s phone lights up and it’s Courtney, saying, A bunch of us are getting together out at Brick’s barn. BYOB. Come celebrate with me! He can see himself going, though now he is less and less sure how to be with his friends. Another few days and he’s done at the zoo. Maybe this much change can be good. James Taylor comes on and his dad turns up the volume. They’ll drive another half-hour until it is far too dark to see if the wind is still beating the tops of trees together, to see anything beyond the headlights.


His arms crossed behind his head, beneath his pillow, Nick does not feel hungry, but he feels something. For dinner, his father who is a competent home cook, heated up some questionable Chinese food, and they watched Unforgiven on TCM. His dad finished somewhere between two to three glasses of bourbon and let Nick—just this one time—match him in cheap but passable beers. Now, buzz passed and sleep too far off to feel reasonable, Nick relives some of the day’s stinging moments, needles driving him further and further away from tired. Once Nick is out of school, his folks will sell this house and the room already no longer feels like his, everything “personal” packed away into boxes so potential buyers can see themselves in the space. Staring at the walls in the blue light of nighttime isn’t comforting in the ways it used to be. Nick feels a little guilty about how he’s been with Courtney. Maybe he could have a beer with her and the others in a field outside of town. Maybe it would be nice to celebrate home in this way, to think about the future, even if it’s uncertain.

Instead, he calls Benjy, who’s just as awake as he is, and now here is a reason to break an undeclared curfew, to test the floorboards of a house soon not to be his. Nick pulls on jeans, a fresh T-shirt, and is sitting on the peeling front stoop when Benjy’s Subaru makes reckless revving noises in the night. Who is still awake in the neighborhood to notice, or care?

It is their first real date. Nick learns that Benjy tells everything to his friend Dakota, everything about Nick—what he’s told Benjy his favorite movies are, what work he’s done on the mural, how cute he is, that he brought Benjy his favorite ice cream, chocolate, when he knew that Benjy’s favorite tiger was dying. Nick doesn’t know if Dakota is a boy or a girl. He knows so little.

Benjy takes Nick to Sonic. “They have the best fries.” Nick is pretty sure he’s ready to do more than hold hands, and kiss when no one’s looking, ready to have more than Ruby the tiger and Bo the wolverine know that he does, in fact, love this boy. Tomorrow, if the world is changed, if the tiger is dead, if his mother’s hospital stay remains inexplicably terrifying, he’ll still have Benjy, which is more than he’s ever been able to say. There’s a feeling like flying in a plane for the first time, Nick thinks, as Benjy turns the Subaru off the highway and onto the Blue Ridge Parkway, the scenic route, a trail at the edge of the known world.

Benjy listens to bands Nick has never even heard of, but he’s hearing them now, the speakers of the Subaru screeching a little on the high notes. As he hugs the lines of the road, Benjy fiddles a small knob until the bass and treble frequencies even into something like a song, filling the cabin with sound, maybe a song Nick will hold as theirs. He’s pleased by this small maneuver, curious, impressed, and smitten.

There is road kill off on the shoulder of the Parkway every few miles, and at the first overlook—what would be a brutal vista of the Appalachian range during the daytime—they pull over, mess around some, more than they’ve done before, even with the gearshift in their way. No one has kissed Nick’s neck before, held him this way. When they jostle the car, Nick hears Benjy’s car keys sway against the dash, the pendulum swing of the new pewter keychain. His car smells like him, like fries, but more than that, there’s a wild hint of the tiger enclosure. How much time does Benjy spend with Ruby without Nick, and should Nick have said or done something more for him?

“There’s still something I want to show you,” Benjy says, restarting the engine.

He drives Nick farther on. The magnolia blossoms along the road reflect brilliant white fires. They’re on the Vinton side of the city now, and Benjy says, “I think this is it,” and he pulls off onto a shoulder where there’s no overlook, no pull off. “It’s fine,” says Benjy. “What’s the worst that could happen?” Nick is beginning to learn how to read the small smile Benjy has for mild rebellion.

They cross the dark stretch of road, toward a bluff of packed clay and granite, dense pine and rhododendron, hugging, pressed to one another until they start climbing into the forest. Back home, most of property around Nick’s house is steep, steep hill and forest. He is good at climbing. Benjy says, “Head straight up. I’m right behind you.” And it’s good Nick wore jeans because there are snagging briars, other bushes he doesn’t know the name of. But then there is the top, opening up suddenly and sweetly, like part of an onion left too long in the refrigerator. Benjy must still be somewhere behind him. Before Nick: home—the downtown core bright and blurring together. He can even see little red taillights of cars heading off into counties out in the hills. It’s everything, the only world he’s known. And beyond it, black outlines of yet other mountain ranges. Beyond them, perhaps the great slinking panther, the gigantic beast, itself a chain of unnamed mountain, that heaving, quiet ghost.

“Holy shit,” Nick says quietly, then shouting, “Benge!” He’s turned now, and there’s only forest. He sees, or imagines, a fragile pair of glittering eyes, something in the moonlight, too quiet for deer and too big for raccoon or possum. There is the crunching of leaves, and Nick feels something close to fear that he can’t place, imagines the weight of Ruby’s paws. But it’s Benjy shuffling out of the underbrush, and now he’s caught up with Nick, kissing him. They watch the flashing of airplanes, cars, and radio towers until the night begins to cool even the space between them and as Benjy leads Nick back to the car, Nick can feel the same eyes, sees them again, just above the rock face, golden and patient, something else there with them.

Cody Greene was born and raised in the Appalachian Mountains of southwest Virginia, and is currently pursuing his MFA at Western Michigan University. His work has previously been awarded the Bennington Fiction Prize, appearing in plain china and The Roanoke Review.