by Steve Himmer
You ran out of milk so you went to the store -- your story begins as simply that.
Maybe that's not quite the beginning: you lived thirty-three years before you went to the store, before you went to the store that particular time (you'd been to other stores, other times, even to the same store before, many times, many more gallons and pints, even, of milk) but it wasn't until this last trip to the store that your life became interesting. And isn't that the point of this story, that your life had not been interesting, and that all of a sudden, fast as a shark, it became otherwise?
Fast as a shark? Better: fast as a tiger, fast as the tiger that was lurking outside, shadowed in the trees between yourself and the store, between your before and your after.
You ran out milk so you went to the store. We can fill in a few more of the blanks if you'd prefer they were filled, though it's neither here nor there to the tiger.
You spent the hours after work stretched out on the couch, your legs draped over the arm at one end, eating cookies out of a bag (a bag you'd just opened and already, so soon, almost gone) and watching a movie in which things blew up one after another and brought about the explosions of other things, or perhaps you were watching baseball, or porn. The cookies were chocolate chip, the crunchy kind or else the soft if that is your preference. After eating almost all of the cookies you wanted some milk to wash the crumbs down but there wasn't any left in the fridge -- you'd finished it off with your coffee that morning, and there indeed was the rinsed, empty jug on top of the heap in your recycling bin or instead in the trash if you're that sort of that person, the sort of person who doesn't recycle.
The store wasn't far from your house -- condominum, really -- and walking between them didn't take long. The longest leg of the trip was from your unit at the back of a long row of identical units to the front gate of the complex in which that row and several others just like it housed other people like you, more or less, who may or may not have eaten cookies and run out of their own milk that evening. The front gate of your condo complex was only a block from the store but a long walk from your front door.
How did you walk? What were you wearing? What kind of image might we imagine of you on your way to the store? Did nylon trackpants swish with each step you took? Did you wear sneakers worth more than your watch, and did that make you flashy regarding your shoes or did it make you cheap when it comes to watches? Perhaps you spent eight hours each day -- often more! -- calculating risk on investments. Perhaps you worked in a high-security building downtown, but how could we possibly see all of that in your walk to the store? Maybe your eyes were tired and dry after staring into a monitor full of numbers all day, bloodshot enough for your squint to be just a bit tighter than it might be otherwise as three pairs of headlights and perhaps a padiddle passed by.
And maybe it wasn't. Who knows?
You bought milk, two percent because you lived near the edge but not on it, and at the last second you grabbed a beef jerky, unable to resist the counter display, and you left the store. (Why linger, why drag it out, when the store and what you bought there are beside the point? Why dawdle when a tiger is waiting outside?)
You'd had a long way from your couch to the store, you'd followed the road, but a dense but not deep copse of trees ran between the back of the store and the farthest end of your condo complex, the end where your happened to live. The trees were just thick enough to pass for a forest in the background if a TV show were shooting nearby (which it wasn't and never had been), but they weren't very thick at all, really, and they offered a much quicker way (so you thought) to get home instead of walking all the way round by the road.
You'd run out of milk and you'd gone to the store, and you chose to walk home through the trees -- there's not much more to you that matters than that. The rest of what matters belongs to the tiger just big enough to hide in those trees: the white flash of teeth, the rumbling roar, the bristly fur coarse as an elementary school carpet you once burnt your face on dragged along the floor by a bully, the hurky-jerk swing back and forth clamped in cat jaws. The hot meaty breath, the hot sticky drool, the hot tiger body and hot tiger eyes, all of it much more important than where did you work? what did you wear? how much did you pay for that milk you so needed to have even after the cookies were gone, and why didn't you pick up more cookies as long as you'd gone to the store?
Then those cookies, too, like the half-gallon of milk, could have been tossed against one of the trees as you lost your grip. If only the milk had burst open, if it had only bled like white blood from its jug, pooling and puddling and blending to pink as it met with the puddles of you, but it didn't. The marvels of modern machining, the power of packaging plastic, ensured that the only vessel burst open was you.
Never mind why a tiger was there; never mind whether he escaped from the circus, the zoo, the mysterious warehouse on the far side of town without any signage in which, rumor had it, horrible things were gotten up to. Never mind if the tiger is real and you are not, or if the reverse, never mind even neither or both. Maybe the tiger was radioactive, maybe full of disease or of metaphor for some vague dissatisfaction with your placid life, but none of that matters much to you or your story since radiation can't kill you nor can disease nor metaphor even because a tiger has gotten there first.
About the author:
Steve Himmer's stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Monkeybicycle, Juked, Ghoti, Brevity and Echo (Rose Metal Press), A Field Guide to Surreal Botany (Two Cranes Press), and elsewhere.