A failure in life — but always remembered by me
One evening in Arizona returns to my thoughts again and again. On that evening, so many years ago, I saw Joe for the first time and the last time. Or did I?
It was October of 1978, in Scottsdale, Arizona. The crowd of summer tourists had departed. The winter visitors had not yet arrived. The days where still sunny and warm, but the evenings became refreshingly cool. My old colleague, George, and I had met at the Grapevine Restaurant. Many went there in those years to see the young waitresses, but we just wanted to sit under the clear night sky on the open terrace on the roof and have the specialty of the house, Greek pizza.
George was close to seventy at that time, and he appeared tired. He talked about his great project. He wanted to write a book—more than that, an analysis and a comprehensive theory, many volumes long—of the whole human society. I suggested that he proceed in small steps, beginning with a short article on one aspect of the subject. I urged him to do it soon, while he still had the energy to think and write. Life passes so quickly.
It became too noisy at the restaurant, so we drove out of town, north, toward a small place beyond the town of Care Free. We soon left the endless suburban developments behind. We passed Raw Hide, the recreated Western town and a movie set for many cowboy films, with hourly shoot-outs every evening. As the road climbed through the darkness to the distant hills, the thousands of lights of Scottsdale were still visible in the lowlands, spread out as if on a jeweler’s tray. The sky, with its brilliant stars, extended far above us and the dark desert. A rabbit ran across the road and the beam of the car’s headlights, and then took cover behind a cactus.
Soon we approached Care Free and its enormous red boulders. We crossed the town, passed the elegant winter homes of wealthy Northerners, finally reaching the older houses of Cave Creek. Right in front of us was a big building, like a low barn, made of gray, old wooden boards—“Chuck’s Corral”—at that time lit only by a single street lantern and a red neon beer advertisement at the door. We decided to stop and go in for a drink.
The hinges of the old door squeaked as we entered. The inside was just as dark as the outside. The large room was furnished with dining tables, but nobody was sitting at them. An old jukebox with typical multi-colored lights stood at the back wall. Along the right wall, at the back, was the long bar. Was that a single bulb hanging from the ceiling to provide some light? Two old men sat at the bar, wearing cowboy jackets and hats, as if they were in a Western movie. The bartender, bald-headed and with a dark mustache, was reading a newspaper. He glanced at us only briefly as we entered.
George and I ordered beer.
After a lengthy silence, I mentioned to one of the old-timers, “It’s getting cool outside.”
“Yep,” was the concise answer.
“It’s quiet around here,” I said.
After some hesitation, the answer came, “Yep.”
Another long silence was broken by the surprising question, “Where are you guys from?”
We had been accepted, and those old-timers at the bar were ready to communicate with us.
Soon we learned that both men were retired and had lived here alone for some time, since both had lost their families. What else did they do up here?
“Not much,” they said.
Silence fell again.
Finally, one of them said, glancing at his partner, “Joe has his tigers.”
Now, it was my turn to remain silent for a while.
Then I said, “That’s good.”
“That is not good,” the man said. “It costs quite a bit to feed them.”
After the appropriate time, I agreed, “No, that is not good.”
I had swallowed the bait; now came the hook, “For a donation, Joe might show them to you.”
They had found a use for us and hoped for some entertainment, it seemed.
The one addressed as “Joe” was short and very thin, with a wrinkled, unshaven face, as if the desert heat had dried him out. He looked at us with dark, tired eyes, as if pleading.
I looked at George, and he looked at me. Silently, we acknowledged to each other that we were in for something. Tigers at Chuck’s Corral in Cave Creek—certainly a very safe arrangement in this oversized chicken coop with these guardians. Or were they only paper tigers?
Finally, I pulled out five dollars and put them on the bar next to Joe.
“That much for each of you,” said the other old-timer. What a character! He must have been a businessman, in his day, or a horse trader—or he knew a “dude” when he saw one.
It was worth it just to have some fun. I put the second five-dollar bill on the bar.
Joe almost smiled. He finished his beer and got up.
We thought it made sense that we also finish our beers and follow him.
Joe walked to the far end of the bar, to a door on the back wall. It squeaked as much as the front door when Joe stepped outside. We followed.
Outside, the night was as black as ever. Joe disappeared into the darkness. Then, with a click, five lights came on. Mounted on high poles, they provided unexpected brightness. But even that amount of light was meager for the large sand court that we now saw. To the left, an old wrecked car—a Chevy—then a low, rusted corrugated metal shack, and then another wreck—a brown pick-up truck—between some tires and abandoned car parts. Behind the sand court and to the right, we saw huge rock formations, totally enclosing this space.
To our surprise, a circular chain-link fence occupied the center of the court, less than twenty feet in diameter and about twelve feet tall. A low chain-link tunnel led from the circular fence to the corrugated metal shack. We noticed high stools, like those in a circus, in the circular fence.
Joe looked at us to see whether we believed him now. His buddy looked upon all this with an expression of great pride—it was he who had told us about the tigers. The bartender appeared at the door to watch our reaction.
I said, “Where are the tigers?”
Joe gave me an offended look. Did I still not believe him?
He walked to the back of the shack. I followed him in three big steps.
“Don’t scare them!” he said. “They don’t like to get up at night.”
He opened the door to the shack. An intensive stink emanated … as of tigers!
Inside, Joe turned on a weak light. Behind a grill, I slowly made out four long piles on the floor.
“Hey!” Joe called, “Hey, hey!”
He grabbed a long pole and poked the piles. The head of a tiger came up, then a second.
It took some time, but eventually four tigers were up on their feet.
They were tigers. Or were they only tiger skins, loosely hanging from some long bars in folds? Those were certainly the oldest and skinniest tigers ever seen, something for the Guinness Book of World Records.
Joe kept poking at the tigers, poking and poking, calling each by its name, until the first one slowly walked over to the opening leading out to the fenced tunnel. And this was real tiger walk—inaudible, elastic, almost flowing, but in slow-motion, resigned, no longer prowling.
The other tigers followed, assessing us furtively as they passed. The last one got an extra poke from Joe and turned around with a deep, threatening growl—an echo of times past, a recall of the life of his ancestors in the wild, of his own youth in the circus arena—like thunder waning in the distance.
We left the shack to observe the progression of the four big cats through the fenced tunnel. Could it be that some green light still glimmered in their eyes? Once inside the ring, each tiger jumped up onto a stool, smoothly and swiftly, in this brief moment showing its enormous size and remaining power. Then, all four of them sat quietly.
Joe entered the ring through a small door and locked it carefully behind him. He had left his hat outside. Now he held a whip and a large hoop in his hands. The show was ready to start.
Joe stood upright now, tense, as if a younger version of himself. His voice was strong, clear, determined. The whip snapped. The tigers cowered. Suddenly, two tigers on opposing sides jumped at the same time, one above, the other below, from their stools to the stool just vacated by the other tiger. The remaining two tigers became nervous. Growling, they showed their paws. One snap of the whip from Joe, one short command, and they, too, jumped and exchanged seats. Joe turned slowly and carefully toward us, not taking his eyes off the tigers. George and I, the only guests, applauded vigorously. But the sound was lost in the large sand court. Only a ghostly echo returned from the rocks, as though from a larger audience of a faded past, no longer living.
“Hey!” Joe called in the ring, “Hey, hey!” He held the hoop up. “No fire any more!” he called over.
“Not permitted here, you know,” added his buddy, who was standing next to us. But how did Joe mean that? Joe, you are still what you once were! At this moment, your fire of life is still within you!
One tiger jumped through the hoop, then a second. Then Joe waved them off.
“They’re getting tired,” he said, throwing a morsel of food to each one. While the tigers gnawed greedily at the tiny chunks, Joe turned to us. With a sweeping motion of his arm, he bowed to indicate the end of the show, then he stood up straight and tall. We applauded again, longer and louder than before.
The tigers moved back through the tunnel. It appeared as if they held their heads a little higher, as if their walk were a little fresher. They hesitated at the opening to the shack. But then the first one glided in, followed by the second one, then the third, and, finally, after a last look back at us, with his head lowered, the last tiger disappeared. I will not forget that last look back of this tiger before he walked into the darkness of the old shack.
Joe remained alone in the ring, holding on to his whip and hoop. He put them down slowly, came out of the ring, and locked the door carefully, seeming to hesitate.
Joe’s buddy turned to us. “Very good!” he said with pride in his voice. Joe looked at us insecurely.
“Excellent tigers!” I said.
“Excellent show!” said George … for Joe.
We went back into the bar.
I was still in the doorway when Joe switched off the lights in the court.
Total darkness and silence surrounded us again. Had all this been a dream?
At the bar, I ordered a round of beer for everyone. Joe appeared more lively.
“What do you feed them?” I asked. After all, my $10 was meant for food for the tigers.
“Heads and wings,” he answered.
“Whose heads and wings?”
We learned that Joe obtained any quantity of chicken heads and wings he wanted from a friend at a poultry company. That was what the tigers ate every day—every morning and every evening, sometimes only once a day—nothing else, except when Joe had some money. On such occasions the tigers got real meat—discarded by a meatpacking company. But that company wanted money, even for discarded meat; that’s what our $10 was for.
Who else came to see the tigers?
“Many visitors,” said Joe.
“Occasionally some school children,” said his buddy.
“Not occasionally—all the time!” said Joe. “I will still open my zoo and circus. Soon. Maybe next year.”
Joe then talked about his life, his big dream for the future, his plan, his project. The tigers came from a circus that had gone bankrupt just when it had passed through Scottsdale many years ago. The owner had disappeared across the border to Mexico with all the money. The auction for the tent, wagons, and animals did not even bring enough to pay the creditors. Nobody wanted the tigers; they needed too much meat. Joe, the caretaker for the tigers, could not leave them behind. He could not abandon “his” animals. So he took them in and made it his life’s work to care for them.
After some wandering around, he found a refuge for his tigers in the court behind an abandoned garage in a side street of Cave Creek behind Chuck’s Corral. He had observed enough of the original tiger tamer’s work to now put on a modest show himself. The tigers worked with him because they had known him for so many years, and because he had always saved them from starvation.
This had gone on for many years. The plan for the big zoo and circus had also been discussed for many years. Many more animals would be needed for really big shows.
“He always talks about it,” interrupted the bartender.
“I’ll do it,” Joe said. “Next year … if I have enough money by then.”
“He should have done it years ago, when he was younger and had more money,” said the bartender.
“I will do it,” said Joe, “But I need some money first. Maybe more school children will come this year. Maybe I’ll ask them to pay a little to see the show.”
Now we learned that school children could see the tiger show for free. Occasionally, the children made voluntary donations of some dimes or quarters. Joe used these to get real meat—for his tigers.
And the tigers got old.
So many years have passed since.
Last year, I had some business in Arizona, again. Chuck’s Corral was still there, had become a fancy restaurant. This time, there were more than just two guests. I learned that Joe had died several years earlier. And his tigers? The Humane Society came and took them away. Only the old chain-link ring still stood in that court in back where nobody went any more.
I telephoned George. He had just turned seventy-eight. His book, his large report, was still in the making. He still hoped to finish the final draft soon.
I am getting older, too. As soon as I find the time, I will start writing a story. I have a great idea: the story of Joe and his tigers! But I should start writing now. Soon. Maybe next year.
When I’m finished with the story, I will step outside one night, when the stars are brilliantly clear in the dark sky above, extending far over the wide open land. I will marvel at the constellations of the stars where ancient people saw fabled animals and recognized the actors of their stories.
Isn’t that the constellation called the “Tiger” there?
And what do I see in those stars right next to it?