At the San Francisco airport, I keep my seat near the Crab Pot as the first passengers from Vancouver hurry around the security check. My sister, Mars, will be, as always, the last one off the plane. She’ll drift into the terminal in a shapeless sweater and her Battlestar Galactica cap, blinking as if emerging from a cave.
When I spot her, she’s dressed as usual, but she’s in the middle of the pack, wedged into a posse of suits speed-talking into their headsets—to their families, I hope, since today is Christmas. She sees me and comes running. “Ron!” she whispers, more relief in her voice than joy. She hugs me around the waist, cheek against my chest, her thin body fragile and chilly. I’ve gained twenty pounds since I turned fifty, but Mars seems to have skipped middle-aged spread and passed, in the year since I last saw her, into shrinkage.
I step back. “Mary Margaret?”
Through thick lenses encased in elephantine frames, she stares up at me. “I’m perfectly fine.”
She’s carrying only a blue hemp purse. “Where’s your duffle?” I say. “Did you check it?”
She never checks baggage. “Don’t pack a bag you can’t carry,” our mother has advised us, and Mars, in this one area, has obeyed—although in the past she’s made a point of handing me her carry-on when she arrives and saying, “Don’t pack a bag your little brother can’t carry.”
“I didn’t bring a bag,” Mars says, adjusting her gray ponytail, thrust through the back of her cap.
She’s due to leave at 7:00 this evening for Atlanta, where Mom is dying. “Did you ship your stuff ahead?”
She says nothing. Maybe Wendell, her fiancé, did the shipping.
“Are you hungry?” I say as we cross the pedestrian bridge to short-term parking. “I thought we’d run home—to my place—and eat some turkey with Deborah and the boys.”
“No, Ron. I want to go to the zoo.”
“The zoo? Is it even open on Christmas?”
“It is,” says Mars.
I make a show of checking my watch. 2:00. Mom is expecting Mars tonight, and since it’s the last thing Mom is expecting, I’d hate for my sister to miss the connection.
Mars never wears a watch. “We have plenty of time,” she says.
We head northwest on the freeway. “Why the zoo, Mars?” Why hadn’t I put my foot down?
“I know one of your Siberian tigers,” Mars says. “Valentina. She was a baby four years ago at the Denver zoo during those awful merger negotiations with NBC. Remember how nuts they made me?”
I do. I had to fly to Denver and take her home to Vancouver. “You know this tiger?”
“She’ll remember me. You’ll see. We made a connection.”
“What kind of connection?”
“A sort of . . . mutual recognition.”
“Of what exactly?”
She shakes her head and closes her fingers around the grab handle above her door. “Never mind, Ron.”
Already I’ve disappointed her. My wife, Deborah, believes this is inevitable, since Mars lives in a world she has made up, with rules only she understands. Rich in fantasy, Deborah says, trying not to sound envious, Mars has become fantasy rich. But I disagree. I believe my sister is firmly established in this world, the same one where I have a city job in Berkeley, an oak tree whose roots are invading my sewer pipes, and a soccer league’s books to keep current. Mars counts on this world, the one we all share, to set her apart. Even wild animals, it seems, single her out.
“Deborah sends her best,” I say, although Deborah didn’t, doesn’t, never has. If Mars misses her connection to Atlanta, if she has to stay with us tonight, Deborah won’t like it. Neither will the boys, despite their aunt’s SciFi Channel credentials. The last time she visited, they ganged up and beat her at Clue. She was furious.
“Why didn’t you ask him?” Mars says, choleric now. “Didn’t he call with my flight number?”
We talk about you, I want to say, not each other, but she wouldn’t like that. It would make her feel trapped, as nearly every situation does sooner or later, this time in the almond-shaped section where the Venn diagrams of Wendell’s life and mine intersect.
“Wendell said the SciFi Channel is keeping NBC afloat, and you’re keeping SciFi afloat. The wedding’s still on for June. He’s happy about that. I found out that much.” Wendell did say some of these things.
The diamonds on her engagement ring blink at me. The big ruby in the center swallows light. Wendell is a producer, known for bringing in programs under budget. When it comes to Mars, however, he spares no expense.
“I’ll have to take a week off for the wedding,” Mars says warily. “Three weeks is all I can give you and Mom now. My boss says even that may ‘strain our relationship.’” Finger quoting.
“Isn’t Wendell your boss?”
Mars groans. “No. I’ve explained this. By the time Wendell starts working on something, I’m more or less finished.”
That’s right. Mars “creates” new shows. “Three weeks will help,” I say, “although I was hoping for four.” Mom can’t possibly last four.
I glance at the mole on Mars’s left cheek, remembering how as a toddler I reached out to touch it. Mars let me, as long as I was gentle. White hairs spring from it now. Untrimmed, they curve along her jaw line.
“Do you think it’s possible,” Deborah asked this morning, “that she doesn’t see that hair?”
I study the mole itself to see if it’s getting darker, until an erratic wind careening off the bay makes it hard to keep my Volvo in the middle lane.
Mars switches on the radio, listens for a few seconds. “Who’s that?”
“I know that much. I’ve been on Terry Gross. Who’s she interviewing?”
“Marianne Faithfull,” I say.
“Singer? One-time girlfriend of Mick Jagger? Drug addict, homeless person, comeback artist?” I listened to the Faithfull interview when it was first broadcast last night, but I knew the outlines of her story already.
Mars shakes her head. “Never heard of her.”
“I was reading,” Mars says. “To you.”
More than forty years ago, admitted to Mars’s bedroom, her inner sanctum, I lay on my belly on the empty twin bed, my arms dangling over the foot, my sneakers off so they wouldn’t sully the quilted, pink satin bedspread Mom laid in place like an imperial flag. Mars leaned back against her matching pink headboard and, through many seasons and configurations of braces, read aloud the Oz books, Ivanhoe, Dracula, Frankenstein. My favorites were the Edgar Rice Burroughs’ eleven Mars books, in which Civil War hero John Carter, caught up in the Indian Wars of the 1870s and dying in an Arizona cave, wills himself to the Red Planet, abandoning his earthly frame. Mars read them the summer I was nine and she was twelve. The plots on Barsoom—what Burroughs’ Martians call Mars—are wildly repetitive, but I tuned in for the battles: green Martians whacking giant white apes, bodiless Martians plotting against headless.
We’d start late in the afternoon, break for dinner, and keep going until bedtime. Our mother, a widow since I was a baby, living in a house her rich parents provided, was happy enough for Mars to entertain me. She believed in independence—elective for herself, just good sense for others—and tailored clothing.
When Mars stopped reading for a moment, all those years ago, to take a sip of water or change position, she sometimes forgot what she was doing. She’d stare out her bedroom window for minutes at a time, wishing, I was sure, that she could step free of her body and sail away, diaphanous as her curtains, like John Carter.
Marianne Faithfull introduces her recording of “Pirate Jenny,” from The Threepenny Opera. In a gravelly voice, she pronounces threepenny as thruppny. Jenny washes glasses in a bar, while her comrades’ ship, “the black freighter, with a skull on its masthead,” enters the harbor, prepared to attack.
“I like this song,” Mars says, taking a pistachio from the bag I keep in a cup holder, prying apart the shell and tossing it, not in the bowl I keep under the radio, but onto the floor.
When the song is over, I feel as if a course correction is vital. Pirates are not the figures I need Mars to identify with now. “Mom just wants to close the distance a little,” I say. “Not eliminate it. She knows it’s too late for that.”
“How long has it been since you’ve seen her?” I ask. “Mom won’t tell me.”
Most of what I remember from my early teens, besides John Carter and his faithful beast, Woola, is my mother and sister screaming at each other. When I was with Mom in September, her thinking was getting fuzzy, but many of her memories remained vivid.
“Your sister would never do a lick of housework,” she said, fingering the lace on her bed jacket, “She wouldn’t go to mass after she was eight. In high school, when the other girls got themselves all tarted up, she wouldn’t even wear lipstick.”
Except that Halloween when she showed up at school dressed as a prostitute, in borrowed fishnet stockings, a see-through blouse, white lipstick and blue eye shadow, her mole, hairless then, playing the role of sexy beauty mark. We’re all female impersonators, she told her first-period teacher. It was the early seventies, and Mars was on the cutting edge. Her teacher, a tidy Mormon mother who taught a half-day of typing and bookkeeping, was not. She and the principal gave Mom a lecture on morals.
In midday light Mars’s mole is dark pink, a more benign color than the grays of her hair, slackening skin, and naked lips. Deborah says that the mole’s white crop of hair is an emblem of Mars’s disregard for others, but I think it serves another purpose. It’s a badge of resistance, a Barsoomian talisman, Captain Hook’s hook.
I park south of the zoo, along the Great Highway, the city’s western rim, the only barrier between it and the Pacific breakers. It’s a clear day—no fog—but the wind is more single-minded here than erratic, intent on blowing whatever isn’t tied down out to sea. Before I can pull out the extra jacket I keep in the trunk, Mars has run into the street, dodging her way across four lanes of traffic. “Could you wait?” I shout, but she doesn’t stop until she reaches the zoo entrance. I walk to the crosswalk and press the button to cue the signal.
“They feed the cats at 2:00,” she says when I reach her.
I help her into my old parka. “It’s almost 3:00, Mars.”
I buy our tickets and hand her one. She puts on my jacket, her hands disappearing into the sleeves, and hustles past the gift shop, decorated inside and out with greenery, the carousel, the big café, and the monkeys—to the Lion House, an old white stucco building hunkered down under mossy roof tiles, art deco fillips adorning the entrance. Its red doors, surrounded by Christmas lights, are shut tight.
Mars sinks onto a bench.
“Didn’t you hear me say it’s 3:00?”
“Yes,” she barks. “I heard you.”
When my boys were younger, they also clamored to see the big-cat feeding in the Lion House. They were quiet kids, Lego boys more than light-sword boys, but the tossing of dead rabbits and horsemeat into serial cages filled with roaring animals the size of cars electrified them. I led them in reluctantly, staying as far away from the animals as I could, hugging the opposite wall, keeping Sam in one of the double strollers the zoo rented out while I lifted Ethan onto my shoulders—until Sam started shouting that he couldn’t see. Then I lowered Ethan into the stroller and lifted Sam up.
I don’t remember that Tony, the male Siberian tiger who’s lived at our zoo for years, roared at feeding time, but the male lions’ roars, as loud as the Blue Angels flying overhead but right there in the room with us, rattled me in such a deep place that I asked myself what I was doing there, with my children. My wife, on the other hand, covered her ears and laughed, insanely secure in our little family’s berth at the top of the food chain. Once the boys grew past stroller size, I let her take them to the zoo.
“Closing time is 5:00,” I say, “which is about when we have to head back to the airport anyway. Let’s find your tiger.”
“In the Lion House,” Mars says to no one in particular, “you could get really close to all the big cats.” She stands up and starts walking.
We wander past the pint-sized Magellanic penguins crowded together on a concrete island and two river otters confined to a pool only ten feet square.
Mars averts her eyes and heads in the wrong direction.
“The big cats are that way,” I say, pointing to our right.
“I’m a little nervous,” she says, keeping left. From the minute she deplaned, Mars has seemed more agitated than usual and—this is new, I think—magnetized as well, as if she were being dragged toward some things and away from others. Valentina seems to be both attracting and repelling her.
We stand on a covered bridge with windows set in the sides and look hard at a half-acre of eucalyptus, trying to spot a koala. After a minute I give up, step away, and watch a slick, three-minute video about the animals. When it’s over, I take Mars’s arm. “They get the koalas down from of the trees at night by poking them with sticks.”
“Lucky bears,” she says.
“They aren’t bears, they’re—”
“I know, Ron.”
“Then why did you call them bears?”
“It’s shorthand. Did you want me to say lucky marsupials? You’re talking like some encyclopedic eight-year-old.”
If Mars weren’t standing right next to me, I’d swear that only my mother could have said that last sentence in just that way, with that particular note of disdain.
“Mom is thrilled about Wendell,” I say. “She’ll see that ring and die happy.”
“Maybe I don’t want her to die happy.” Mars points at a clump of trees. “There’s one.” A flat nose, big ears and eyes peek around a trunk.
“He looks like Wendell,” I say, smiling, wishing that I could say something nastier, that I didn’t want so desperately not to return to Atlanta.
“Funny. Have you told Mom that Wendell drinks too much, and that he has three illegitimate kids?”
“I figure you’ll tell her that if you want her to know.”
“Look,” Mars says. “You want me to be okay with death duty. Well, I’m not. Mom will dredge up some nasty argument from the Dark Ages, what she said and what I said.”
“Actually, she’s been on good behavior.“
“With you, maybe,” says Mars. “With me, she’ll be meaner than snakes.”
“You’ll never be alone with her,” I point out.
“And who’s paying for that round-the-clock nursing?” She doesn’t give me a chance to answer. “I am.”
“The last day or two, she’ll go into a coma. That’s what the oncologist told me.”
“So I’m sitting there for three weeks hoping for a coma?” Mars walks out from under the bridge’s roof. A gust of wind hits her in the face, and she grabs her cap to keep it from blowing off.
“Wendell didn’t offer to go with you?” I ask.
“He says you don’t walk in during the last act.”
“Deborah says that if you’ve sat through the first four and can guess the end, you get to skip it.” When Mars says nothing, I force myself to say, “I could go myself, I guess.” In fact, Deborah has said feel free, but she isn’t serious. Mom’s illness has been hard on our marriage. Even so, that’s not what’s keeping me at home. I just don’t think I can walk through my mother’s front door again.
“It’s my turn,” Mars says, “if that’s the way this works.”
“It’s not so much that it’s your turn,” I say, although it is. “But Mom’s asking for you, and if you’re going now, you might as well stay for the end.”
The big cats spend their days in open grottos that arc around the back of the Lion House and connect to it via rear doors. “Naturally” landscaped, the grottos are protected from visitors, and visitors are protected from the animals, by a wide, deep moat, usually dry, a few feet of boxwood at ground level, and a cyclone fence. The distance from the bottom of the moat to the top is about twice my height. The cyclone fence in front of the boxwood is six feet tall. Beyond that is a waist-high railing, where signs about the cats’ origins and habits are hung.
I have to jog to keep up with Mars, who dashes past the Sumatran tigers and their new cubs to the grotto of the Siberian male tiger, Tony. Only his tail is visible, shooting around a boulder like a flame—orange and ivory and smoky black.
“They don’t live together, the two Siberians?”
“Sometimes they do. But they have their own space, too.”
Wendell has also provided separate space for Mars. Before she moved in with him, he built a small house on the back of his weekend property in Victoria—a place for her to work and sleep alone if she wanted to. I’d never seen her as relaxed as she was the weekend Deborah and I flew up to celebrate the engagement.
“I think my sister really loves you,” I said to Wendell.
“Well sure,” he said, “and I love her”—as if this required no special talent, no extraordinary tolerance.
On the flight home, Deborah said, “We should kiss the ground he walks on.”
“Haven’t they had babies, Tony and your Valentina?” I ask Mars. “Isn’t there a mandate for zoos to reproduce species going extinct?”
“Tony’s had a vasectomy. He’s 15, getting up there. I guess that’s the reason.”
There will be no babies for Mars, either, getting married for the first time at 56. But as far as I know, she’s never wanted any.
“It’s just after 4:00, Mars.”
“Valentina’s right around the corner.”
Now Mars walks at a slow, ritualistic pace past the wall that separates the two Siberian tigers. I try to picture her as a bride in white lace, a long train splayed out behind her, Miss Havisham without, God help us, the jilting. But surely she won’t choose a conventional wedding. It would be too much like debuting in Atlanta, a fate she fought tooth and claw to escape when she was 18.
She stops short and whispers, “Awesome.” She sounds like ten-year-old Sam, for whom everything now is awesomundo.
Then I see Valentina, lying on her side in the center of the grotto. She’s impressive all right, six or seven feet long not counting her tail and maybe five feet tall. Her head, surrounded by a short ruff, is big as a tire, and her feet are sphinxlike, the size of serious dictionaries. Tony may be larger, but, as I remember from visits when the boys were young, the expression on his face suggests a certain . . . philosophy. He appears to consider his situation. He’s stupefyingly other, as Valentina is, but he’s self-regulating. Valentina strikes me as pure, uncontainable energy.
“Val-en-teen-a,” Mars shouts over the wind as if summoning a house cat.
The tiger raises her head and gazes directly at my sister.
Mars looks up at me and shouts in my face, “There! Do you see? She knows me!”
Nonsense. A low growl joins the rush of wind through the bare mulberries and dense pines in the big square opposite us. The growl ends in a snarl. “She doesn’t like shouting,” I say.
Mars inches forward, holding on to the waist-high railing on our side of the cyclone fence. “You’re right. She expects to be respected.”
I’ve heard those words before. I believe I said them—during the Battle of the Debut, when Mom and Mars fought like harpies over whether Mars would attend “poise school,” get plucked and polished, don a ball gown and descend a curved staircase accompanied by our cousin Charles. She expects to be respected, I said fruitlessly to both of them. I was fourteen. Mars, enveloped in her struggle with Mom, had stopped reading to me. Mom had stopped seeing me.
My sister did not debut. I still don’t entirely understand how two women could be driven so far apart by arguments over parties and make-up and dresses that they haven’t seen each other for 15 years.
Three teenaged boys stand directly in front of Valentina. One reads the sign that describes her species. “The Siberian, or Amur tiger, is the largest living member of the . . . Fell-i-day family—”
“Fee-li-dee,” says Mars.
She still has the voice of a girl. The boys turn toward her with interest. Whatever they see floods their faces with contempt.
“That ‘grotto,’” Mars says, pointing to the grass and bark expanse in front of us, backed by a hill of concrete poured to look like rock, “is still a cage. Valentina is still a prisoner.”
If the boys hear, they ignore her. The reader continues: “This species may become extinct. Fewer than 500 Amur tigers live in the wild, in small groups in eastern Russia and northern China. Humans are their only enemies, but they rarely eat human flesh.”
The two boys not reading are brothers for sure, maybe even twins, slight bodies in enormous sweatshirts, almost identical stubbly faces. They bend over to pick up pinecones.
Mars doesn’t notice this. She’s staring catatonically at Valentina, who is still and silent, studying the young men in motion.
When the first pinecone hits the asphalt floor of the grotto, Mars staggers sideways, as if it has hit her. She backs up against me and turns away from the tiger, the bill of her cap rubbing against my neck. In spite of the driving wind, she has taken off my jacket and draped it across her arm. Wrapping my arms around her, I feel again how thin she is. Her jeans would fit twelve-year-old Ethan.
“Hey tiger!” shouts the boy who’s been reading. He’s waving his arms over his head, to appear bigger, or feel bigger. “Get up, why don’t you? Get off that lazy ass and do something. You freeloader. You welfare case.”
The twins bounce on the balls of their feet, and then widen their search, picking up sticks and more pinecones, hurling them into the wind. Most of these objects don’t make it across the moat. Valentina hasn’t moved an inch.
“Cut it out!” I shout at the boys. I look around for a zoo guard, but, near closing time on Christmas Day, I see no one but the boys and us.
“Leave her alone, assholes,” Mars yells. My body muffles her voice, and I hope the boys don’t hear her, but they do. Their eyes widen in rage.
“Shut up, lady,” says one brother. “Shut the fuck up.”
Mars’s body stiffens. Valentina, on her feet now, paces a narrow field, taking three or four steps and turning around, snarling rather quietly—talking to herself, or so I imagine.
All three boys shout at once. “I thought you were a hunter.” “Show us what you got, Mama. Hunt us.” “Or are you just a big, dumb bitch?” One of them throws a stick, a hefty one, and it connects, thumping Valentina’s hip. She faces front, shows her incisors, and jumps down into the dry moat.
Now the boys toss more wood, and a rock or two, underhanded, straight up over the fence like kids making free throws. Valentina stands on her hind legs, her front paws stretching up the asphalt wall, and roars, silencing the boys for a moment.
“Jesus,” one of the brothers says at last. He steps back and trips, falling on his ass.
“She can’t get out,” says the reader. “She can’t do anything.” But he looks pale, shaken.
I want to run.
Mars peels my fingers off her shoulder and takes a step away. “Go find Security.”
Thank God. “You come with me.”
“I don’t want to leave Valentina alone with them.”
“Mars, that tiger doesn’t know you from Adam. Come on.”
Valentina jumps from the moat floor, missing the top of the asphalt wall by about two feet, and skids down on her claws until she gives up, pulls away, and falls to the bottom.
One of the boys says what I’m thinking: “They know how high to build these walls, right?”
I pull my cellphone out of my jacket pocket and dial 911. “I’m at the zoo. One of the tigers—I think it might escape.”
“If this is some kind of prank,” says a female voice, “you should know that you can be arrested for wasting responder time.”
My children are safe at home, but my sister’s right here, and something fights my flight response, a hysterical urge to protect. I start yelling into the phone. “Listen. I’m not in the habit of—“ I point the phone toward Valentina, her roars coming one after another now, penetrating and paralyzing.
“Okay. The police are on their way,” says the voice. “They’ll contact zoo security. Get the hell out of there. But don’t hang up.”
I hang up by mistake, grab Mars’s arm and yank her in my direction.
She turns and slaps my face, almost knocking me over. “Jesus, Mars,” I say when I’ve stumbled to standing again.
One of the brothers holds a rock against his chest as big as his head. He squats and heaves it skyward. I hold my breath as its sails up, over the cyclone fence, and all the way down into the moat. Mars screams, “Watch out!” distracting Valentina. The rock grazes her head.
She seems stunned at first, but after a few seconds leans back on her haunches and jumps again, higher than before but still not to the top of the wall. This time her claws get some traction on the asphalt, enough so that she can scramble up into the boxwood. Now she’s eye to eye with the teenagers, separated from them by only a few feet of foliage and the six-foot cyclone fence. She stumbles around in the bushes, finds some footing, and in a second she’s over the fence.
Of the three running boys, she chooses the reader, the one with the loudest mouth, not the one who threw the big rock. She runs to his left to flank him, then turns and runs directly toward him, downs him with her front paws, and rips open his throat.
I’ll tell the police later that the wind must have stopped for a moment because I heard a…bubbling sound.
The other boys don’t stay to watch their friend die. They race across the square toward a café, lit up inside by a big Christmas tree. Valentina lifts her bloody mouth and looks back at Mars and me, and at a zoo employee in a black jacket that is suddenly standing beside us.
“Holy Mary, Mother of God” the man says, “pray for us sinners—“
The remaining words fly from my mouth. “Now and at the hour of our death.”
“Mars, do you want to die here?” I say. “Because I don’t.” I’ll leave her if I have to.
“No,” says Mars, tears streaming down her face. “Not us. She’ll go after the other two.”
“Go! Run!” says the man to my sister and me. I shove Mars a few feet back around the corner, in front of the fence surrounding Tony’s grotto. I glimpse him out of the corner of my eye, jumping down into the moat. Right below us now, he begins roaring as well, crazy with fear or bloodlust or love. I lose control of my bladder.
Cold and wet, I start shaking. I watch as the boys reach the café and pound on the glass wall, but the scene is a little removed now, as if I’m watching a video, a very scary one, but a video nonetheless. Valentina covers the distance between her first kill and what will surely be her second in a few leaps. She brings one of the brothers down, opens her great jaws and closes them around the boy’s head.
I hear the zoo man scream into his cell phone, “She’s killing another one!” and spot three other men wearing black staff jackets on the periphery of the square, two behind the cars of the steam train holding walkie talkies near their faces, the third behind a fence in the capybara’s enclosure, pointing a gun at Valentina.
Mars runs forward and shouts, “Don’t kill her!”
The man shoots. I can’t see whether he hits the tiger or not.
“It’s a tranquillizer gun,” says the man next to me. “But the police are almost here and they’ll kill her.” To Mars he yells, “Step back!”
I’m looking around for the third boy, hoping he’s abandoned his doomed brother and run for his life, but I spot him on the far side of the café squatting behind a garbage can.
Tony is trying to get out of his grotto, jumping as far up the moat wall as he can. Neither as young nor as strong as Valentina, he can’t make it, and part of me regrets this.
Police cars pull up behind us, their sirens silent. Men spring past, keeping their distance from the tiger, all but one, who advances to the mulberry tree in the center of the square and raises his rifle. Valentina senses his presence, lifts her head, and looks right at him. He takes aim. She doesn’t move. Maybe the zoo shooter was able to hit her, and the tranquillizer is working.
“No!” Mars screams, then suddenly collects herself. She says the next words loudly and slowly, as if her mind has cleared: “Don’t kill her. They attacked her. She’s a wild animal. What do you expect?”
I step toward Mars and try one last time to pull her back. She jerks free and runs toward the policeman aiming the gun, screaming, “Stop!”
The cool look on that policeman’s face—he’s been trained to recognize threats to public safety. He’s been prepared to deal with them.
“Officer!” he calls to his colleagues, but he doesn’t lower his rifle, doesn’t remove his eye from the scope.
Two bullets are fired at the same time. One hits the tiger in the neck, where her ruff is thickest. The other hits Mars in the leg.
I watch my sister fall forward onto the concrete. Her glasses skitter across the pavement, broken in half.
The next day I sit in front of the Crab Pot again, waiting for Wendell’s plane to arrive. He’s usually in a rush, but today I see him walking slowly and deliberately, as if hurrying won’t help. In his cashmere coat, with the collar turned up, his peculiarities—gut, goatee, and big ears—are less conspicuous than they might be. This disturbs me. I need Wendell to be Wendell today, to take responsibility for Mars.
He’s carrying her duffle bag, lumpy and half-empty. He’s probably forgotten half of what she needs. He shakes my hand. “When’s your flight to Atlanta?” he asks.
“In an hour and a half.”
We decide to try the bar at the Crab Pot. Wendell orders himself a whiskey and a plate of skewered shrimp, me a beer.
“I knew she was…tired,” he says. “We’re going to premarital counseling—did she tell you that?”
“Mars read to me once upon a time, but we’ve never talked much.” I picture her staring out her bedroom window, trying to will herself free of Mom’s house, Mom, and probably me. I hope there’s a window in her room in the hospital’s psych ward, where she’s about to be transferred.
He reaches inside his shirt and scratches his chest. “A couple of weeks ago, the priest took me aside. He must have seen trouble coming. He suggested we table the wedding plans until Mars has some time to grieve for your mother, or work through her anger, or whatever she’s going to do. So I mentioned to Mars that maybe we ought to wait, and she said—“
“You got it in one.”
“Do you think Mars is going to be all right, Wendell?”
“Sure she is,” he says, then looks shamefaced, as if he’s delivered a line from a script. “I have to believe she is. I’ll find a private hospital. I’ll get her what she needs.”
“What does all right look like for Mars?”
“Working. She’s works harder than anyone I’ve ever known. Going out to dinner, even when she doesn’t eat much. In Victoria, she walks on the beach. Sundays, she tries to sleep in, take it easy.” He picks up a shrimp with his fingers, pops it in his mouth, and wipes the buttery sauce from his goatee with a napkin.
“You must have a lot of household help.”
“We have help, yes.”
Hating myself for keeping score, I think of all the chores Deborah and I have left to do on Sundays—shopping, cleaning, homework with the boys. We can’t afford to take it easy.
The bartender turns up the volume on the TV over the bar. A plane has crashed somewhere. Wendell motions to him to turn it back down. “For Mars,” he says, “any death watch would have been a stretch, but this particular one—”
“Would have been impossible. Is that what you’re saying?”
“Because what she did at the zoo—if you’d been there—if you’d seen how weirdly calm she became before she ran toward that policeman . . . maybe it was crazy calm. Or maybe she has reserves of strength that we don’t know about, that she doesn’t know about. She might have done fine with Mom.”
Wendell says nothing.
“Did Mars really intend to go to Atlanta?” I ask. “She wasn’t carrying a bag when she arrived. Did she check one?”
“I don’t know. She got herself to the airport yesterday morning. She said she was going.”
“Because if she didn’t mean to go,” I say, “why fly this far?”
Wendell appears to consider this. Then he shrugs.
I picture Mars running toward the policeman with the gun, her ponytail flying in the wind like some bespectacled comic book hero’s. She might have come, I guess, to tell me in person that she couldn’t go to Atlanta, couldn’t help Mom die, that she could do almost anything else, but not that.
I check my watch. It’s time to board. Mom awaits.