Harry Swain sat uneasily in the back of the tour bus, where the view was good. DO NOT GET OUT OF CAR, the sign outside read. DO NOT ROLL DOWN WINDOWS. And: HONK IF IN TROUBLE.
When they ran over the cattle crossing in the road the guide up front was reminded to begin his spiel. The bus crept forward past the gate, then; into an imitation veldt sculptured with grasslands, water holes, and feline hierarchies. Here gazelle grazed, occasionally crossing a paved road which facilitated man’s intrusion into this bogus wilderness. Here, a very realistic September sun burned with a relentlessness as African as any over Kenya. But Swain snickered to see how it even made wavy lines rise out over the whole San Diego valley just like in the TV safari films. Now the same heat also lent its effect to the hoods of the cars that threaded slowly along like shiny snake’s scales.
“And up on the left we have the majestic African Elephant,” the guide announced as they drew near the first man-made water hole. “See how he enjoys the cool water he’s throwing on his back?”
“Yes,” said Harry aloud, despite an old woman in a straw hat scowling next to him. “Oh yes, I see.” And where’s our free drink, anyway?
“See how the baby gnu is wading in for a refreshing drink?”
“Indeed,” he said, wearily wiping his own forehead, “I do.”
“Luckily for us,” said the guide, “we’ve managed to place more and more of these beautiful animals on the endangered species list so they won’t become extinct from poachers.”
“But what about me?” suggested Harry, under his breath.
“Yeah,” said the old woman, tilting the brim of her hat abruptly up. “What about you? Maybe we can stop the bus, let you out, and see if you become extinct.”
It was just like something Stanley might say. Harry was about to let it pass, but then focused on it instead. True, the tourists–and in particular this old biddy in the straw hat–only reminded him of all the people he’d known superficially. Even the guide, who soon lingered inordinately on gestation periods and mating habits, reminded him of a psychiatrist he’d wasted money on, back in Tampa. But the meaning of the old woman’s retort caught his attention, reminded him why he’d come to town, and re-suggested a method to exorcise his personal demon.
What’s eating you, wacko?
Was Stanley Cramer a wacko too, though? Had Stanley gone to a shrink as well? Probably not, the lucky stiff. By contrast–God!–the things he remembered saying about himself to his own shrink. The forced memory of a petty and tedious life lived in search of . . . what? Happiness? Justice? After twenty years as a retail department manager, with the customers always Right even when they were dead Wrong, he’d grown tired of the pretense. Until that bleak Tuesday morning when he got out of bed and something in him snapped. He couldn’t smile at all after that. Not even when they’d said “You’re not happy here, Harry,” and replaced him with a younger face promising automatic have-a-nice-day smiles. The kind they gave you at the takeout window at Taco Bell.
The day before his little breakdown, of course, a man who was a dead ringer for Stanley Cramer had come into the store and bought a drill, then two hours later returned it for another–claiming it had burned out, and stating the guarantee. And then, just before closing, the same man had come back again with the second drill. “Why don’t you buy a commercial model?” he’d asked the fool. “It would fit your needs for years.”
The man had smiled that trademark Stanley Cramer smile, then. And suddenly it was as if Stanley was there again–forever optimistic and confident, ready to continue the battering of other people’s self concepts and senses of sanity. “But I’m finished now,” Cramer’s look-alike had even replied, and then added: “Why should I buy a commercial model anyway, when I can get a new one every time?”
There was no beating them, those saccharin optimists who laughed at logic and whom women adored.
Or was there? Only his dying mother’s words held any hope at all: “Son, you’ve gotta DO something to change your life,” she’d said. “Yer too pessimistic, too withdrawn for your own damn good! Lordie Lordie, if you worked for the post office I’d be hearing about you on the news . . . yer gonna crack up if ya don’t shape up first!”
Do something. Anything. Even something . . . crazy?
* * *
He wondered about that as he walked up to the house. What if it was possible to revenge this symbol of his past? Could his life really begin all over again, at forty-four, a new year with a new life?
As expected, the house was a beautiful split-level in a newly built subdivision that afforded a nice view of the bay. He’d looked Cramer up in the phonebook, and finally–a plan forged after a nervous week of vacillation–had driven out in his rented car.
Stanley Cramer was even fatter. Fat, affluent: a true sanguine, a true optimist. He stood in the doorway, a tight smile on his round face, a live martini in one hand.
“That’s right. Who are you?”
“You mean . . . you don’t recognize me?” Oh God.
Cramer straightened himself. The smile vanished, then flickered on and off–an evanescent smirk, here and gone.
“Junior High,” Swain hinted.
It had no effect. Only a puzzlement came to Cramer’s pudgy Republican face.
“The playground, and later the ball field,” Swain suggested. “Hit and laugh, your favorite game?”
Oh yes. Stanley seemed to remember now. His idiot smile returned briefly, then subtly faded into offense.
“Harry,” Swain pronounced, evenly.
“Harry? Oh, oh . . . Harry!” The puzzlement returned. “Harry, why are you. . .” He waved it away. “Come on in, Harry.”
They talked for an hour about old times. Mostly Cramer’s old times. And Cramer’s new times too. Like how he made eighty grand a year as a procurement buyer to an oil company subsidiary. “We’re the ones who make the barrels,” Cramer joked, and with that same optimistic smile which now suggested that even his jokes were successful.
“Say, listen, Stanley,” Swain heard himself say after the evening was half wasted. “I’m only in town for a few days and was wondering, could you, maybe–“
“–you’re not about to ask me for money, Harry,” Cramer laughed.
Swain was shocked at the thought. “No, no, I was wondering if you could show me around. My kid brother is stationed in the Navy here, but he’s busy and, well. . .”
“I didn’t know you had a kid brother, Harry.”
Sure he didn’t. But he couldn’t mention the gun in his pocket as insurance and last resort, either. That would be too unbelievable. Especially to an optimist like Stanley Cramer.
Cramer stroked his chin. “I’m not working tomorrow. Where would you like to go?”
“Well, I caught Sea World last time,” Swain lied. “And the business district, and the beach . . . and Balboa Park.”
“Been to the Wildlife Park?”
“No,” Swain replied with peaked interest. “What’s it like?”
“Lots of cars, I’m told. Which is why I haven’t been there yet myself.”
“Well, we don’t have to go during peak hours, do we?”
Cramer smiled an optimist’s smile. “No, we could go when it’s just opening.”
“Smart thinking,” Swain replied, venturing a mortician’s smile in return.
* * *
Swain made sure they were early, and inside the park the very instant the gates opened. Insisted they take his rented car too, and not Cramer’s red Mercedes convertible. A car he’d rented with cash and a fake I.D., just in case. He drove quickly, passing the elephants, the ponds, the zebra, and down the narrow winding road to the very center of the park. And then, he suddenly saw them: the lions were all standing around, waiting for feed time in the slanted morning light. Their tongues lolled out of their mouths, like they were sick. But no, it was not sickness. It was hunger that had set in during the night; and wasn’t feed time still half an hour away?
Oh yes. . .
Not wasting time, he pulled as close to the lions as possible, and then, as Cramer was watching them and rattling on about a proposed vacation to South Africa, reached under the dash and parted two wires.
The engine died.
“Hey, the engine quit,” Cramer pointed out.
“So it has,” Harry replied incredulously. He tried several times to start it, using the ignition; he tried to smile. “I think it’s that crazy automatic choke again. It’ll have to be held open before it’ll start. Just take you a second.”
“Who–me?” Cramer found the suggestion amusing. “I’m not going out there. Are you crazy?” You wacko, you.
Swain didn’t reply. He’d been asked the question often enough. Once by his only wife, before she left him. And at least once by a loan officer at the First National Bank of Tampa. But after not getting an answer, Cramer merely reached over to touch the horn.
Dead. Like you’re gonna be to me, Stan, my man. Finally.
Now Cramer was aghast. “What’s wrong with you? Why are you staring at me like that?” What’s eating you, you nut job? “I can’t go out there. You go out there.”
“Me?” Harry chuckled, dryly.
Oh yes. There was only one thing to do now. He hadn’t wanted to show it, in case Cramer survived–luck was always with the optimist. But now he had no choice. As soon as Cramer was out, he would lock the door, connect the wires, and beat a hasty retreat. If he could spook the lions into action, so much the better. If not. . .
Stanley suddenly touched his shoulder, his fingers gently laying there on his shirt. “What’s wrong, anyway?” Cramer now wanted to know, like the father he never had. What’s eating you, son?
What was eating him? Harry wondered. All he wanted was to remember Cramer as he’d last seen him in the rear view mirror, with those lions all around, just like the invisible lions bequeathed him. Was that so wrong? To be free somehow, in a way he’d never been able to be? And when the thing was over, to be able to look on the future as if there really was a bright side to it? Maybe even just like an optimist? Maybe even just like Stanley himself, with all his wonderful childhood memories and easy life? Was that wrong?
He pulled out his gun and placed it against Cramer’s ribs. “Get out,” he said, dully, almost regretfully.
Stanley’s hand left his shoulder. He got out with that same stupid look of perplexed amazement often seen on the faces of the Blessed when they crossed his path and into any shared distress. There was no use trying to explain it, of course. It would be too unbelievable, after thirty years. Too inconceivable to imagine someone flying down in a jet out of the past, obsessed and desperate, and no accounting for it on that smug, self-satisfied ledger called Logic.
Swain locked the door, then bent quickly forward and started reattaching the wires. Before he could complete the connection, though, Cramer somehow got the car’s hood up.
Harold rolled down the window and waved his gun. “Go on, get out of there!”
The lions were getting nervous now. They pranced in widening semi-circles, edging down from the shelter of the trees. There were four of them: two giant discolored males, a panting female, and a cub. Seeing them, Stanley seemed ready to panic. Then the hood slammed down, accidentally. At that, Cramer whirled.
With perfect timing, Harry smiled his old cynic’s smile.
How does it feel, buddy? What’s eating me? No, no. What’s eating YOU. That’s the question this time. What’s eating YOU.
It felt good to smile again, even if it was totally devoid of the kind of charm you needed to make people feel good about you. Better a dead grin than none at all. Still not comprehending it, though, the pudgy man who was Stanley Cramer didn’t run, but merely backed away. Drawing the lions further out. Then, as if on cue, the big felines stopped exactly twenty yards from the car.
Swain finished attaching the ignition wires. Then he turned the key. Nothing. The engine wouldn’t start.
He looked up. Was that a smile playing on Stanley’s own face, or a twisted and nervous tic? Amazingly, Stanley turned and even began to walk away at a measured clip, doubtless to get the police. Peering over the hood, Harold saw something else, too: the main ignition cable–the one that went from the distributor to the starter. It lay on the ground right at the spot where Cramer had stood.
Harry sat and fingered his gun, weighing his choices. Just as the lions waited. . . . Cramer, his own childhood, his empty life, his divorce . . . and now Cramer again? It had come full circle like a bizarre morality play. But why? He was a good person! He paid his taxes, and only had a few vices. Why the bleakness? Why the snooty little snots passing him on the freeway and slowing down? If all you had to do was pretend that people weren’t selfish, or that things would turn out for the best. . . well, it still just wasn’t fair. Not if you couldn’t pretend. No, it just wasn’t fair, this thing that had been eating at him for so long. . . the fact that no one and nothing had ever been fair for him. Not fair at all!
So pretend you’re an optimist then, he told himself. Just for once, pretend that, then.
Easier said than done, but wasn’t that the ticket? If so, could he do it? Could he become like Stanley simply by thinking the way Stanley did?
Maybe, he told himself. Just maybe. It was worth a shot, at least.
Very carefully, he opened the car door, and even smiled a first tentative smile. Yes, this might work, he told himself. Just like Anthony Robbins and all those other success gurus said. See, it’s working already. . .I can pretend too.
He crossed to the hood. At the moment of truth, however, his gun misfired.
* * *
“Well, doc?” said Stanley Cramer, a look of hope in his eyes, when the door to surgery finally opened.
The surgeon stiffened, giving a nod of recognition to the police sergeant. “In all fairness at this point,” the wiry old man said, gravely, “I’ll have to say . . . we’re not too optimistic.”
©1998 as “What’s Eating You?” by Jonathan Lowe