When a car crash takes a life, to whom does the tragedy really happen — the wife who dies? The husband who was driving? Or the six-year-old son sitting in the backseat?
Author George Harrar explores this provocative question in his debut novel, set in the arts colony of New Hope, Pennsylvania, on the Delaware River. The book begins 10 years after the accident when Jake Paine, now 16, comes home after almost a year as a runaway. His return sparks painful memories in his father, a man verging on a nervous breakdown. Jake’s appearance also ignites old fears among townspeople about a boy who dances on the edge of craziness.
First Tiger takes the reader inside the head of a teenager who lives by instinct, without considering the risks or consequences. In returning to “No Hope,” as refers to his hometown, Jake struggles to find if he can go home again.
Excerpt from First Tiger
“Imagine being decapitated,” my father said to me once as we were sharpening the kitchen knives in the basement. Flakes of steel floated into the air each time he pressed the tip of the blade to the grindstone. My job was to hand him the next dull knife when he was ready for it. I was only ten at the time, and I didn’t know what “decapitated” meant. Dad always assumed I knew more than I did. “Your head falls to the ground,” he said as he ran his finger over the edge of the meat cleaver, “and you expect to be dead. But your brain still has a few seconds’ worth of oxygen left. You look up and there’s the rest of your body still draped over the chopping block. That, my boy, is the most intense moment of existence I can imagine.”
Dad could be a pretty depressing guy to live with. Whenever I wished for anything when I was little, he’d say, “Expect death, Jake, and you won’t ever be disappointed.” That was his philosophy of life: Expect the worst. The worst did happen to him–Mom dying in the car accident ten years ago. It happened to me, too. I mean, I was in the car. I saw her die. But I was only six at the time, and I believed Dad when he said she’d gone off to a better place.
On my sixteenth birthday I decided it was time for me to find somewhere better to live. I had no name for this place and no picture in my mind of what it would look like. I guess I was so used to Dad imagining different worlds for me that I couldn’t imagine a new one for myself.
I didn’t run because of him or even Jenny, who moved in about a year after the accident. I called her my “mother figure” because she hated me calling her that. She had thick legs and skinny ankles and smelled like beer from serving drinks at The Logan Inn all day. She found something to yell at me about everytime she saw me, but she was mostly harmless. The real reason I ran away was because the teachers, cops, and shrinks in town were starting to talk to each other, which meant they might actually do something about me. They said I was troubled. They said I lacked direction. They said I should be analyzed. Jenny told me all of this as we sat around the kitchen table the night after the “Shocking Canal Attack,” as the Gazette put it in a giant headline. She sipped her whiskey coffee and stared at me with her lips tight, as if about to spit it on me. Dad drank his A&W root beer and picked at the yellow flowers pressed onto the Formica tabletop. My little sister, Krissy, came wandering into the kitchen singing some kid’s rhyme, pretending not to be listening. I pulled Mars up on my lap and rubbed the old cat’s ears to show I had feelings. Jenny liked to tell doctors that I didn’t seem to feel anything. It was her favorite thing to say about me.
We were trying to understand how I had gotten into trouble again. I explained how unavoidable this mess was, like all of the others–the fire in Bantry’s tractor barn, for instance, or Gerenser’s dog drowning. I showed them how easy it was to get into these situations, at least for me. Jenny didn’t like hearing that. She wanted me to be terrifically sorry and promise not to do anything wrong ever again. She wanted Dad to go beyond a simple punishment and on to some long-range plan of handling me. But not being my real mother, Jenny lacked jurisdiction, which made her furious. She pounded the table and grabbed the closest hard object–this time it was the ceramic Santa Claus that never got put away–and she swung it over our heads to make sure we listened to her. She said I had to start taking control of myself, or someone else would. She said I had to change.
That’s when Dad’s face went blank, and I knew something crazy was going through his mind. He said, “Imagine if ice didn’t float.”
Normally, Jenny let such statements pass by like some weird sound you hear in the night and don’t really want to know about. But this time she shook him by the shoulders and yelled in his face, “What does ice have to do with this?”
Dad lifted his glass and rattled the ice cubes. “Water is the strangest thing on earth. When water freezes, it gets lighter. Nothing else in the world does that. Ice floats. If it didn’t, lakes would freeze from the bottom up.”
“So?” Jenny demanded.
“If lakes were to freeze bottom up,” he said slowly, “life would die out in the first big cold spell. Life began in the ocean, so it wouldn’t exist…if ice didn’t float.”
Jenny shook her head and turned away, then remembered something. “But ice does float,” she spit out at him.
Dad nodded that she had finally gotten his point. When he left the kitchen, I followed closely behind him, before Jenny could get her hands on me.
I was thinking about my father as the train slowed into 14th Street. The doors pulled apart, and a woman stumbled on. She looked older than me, maybe 21. Her eyes were cloudy, like old marbles, and her face was a chalky white. There were plenty of empty seats, but she slumped down next to me as if I was something to lean on. I pulled away, but she slid close again. Her fat legs were busting through her slacks. The knees were worn away, like kids’ jeans get from crawling.
She sat quietly for a minute, gripping a red straw handbag the way women do when they’re afraid you might grab it. Suddenly she reached inside the bag and pulled out a penny. She bit it and then flicked the coin onto the train floor. “How old your mother?” she shouted into the air. Nobody riding the subway at midnight was going to answer a question like that. Not far down the aisle, two big black women sat side by side knitting, taking up four seats between them. At the end of the car an old guy was reading a newspaper. There was no one else except me.
The woman’s head jerked up and down. “How old your mother?” she yelled at me. I didn’t know exactly. When somebody dies, you stop counting birthdays. “How old?” the woman shouted again as she pulled a fistful of pennies from her bag and threw them over her head. They rattled on the plastic seats and rolled down the floor. Then her head fell to her knees, and she looked like she was coiling up to explode.
“Thirty-eight,” I said, which was how old my mother was when she died. I figured she might as well stay that age forever.
“Alright,” the woman laughed and stuck her hand between her legs. Then she started chewing pennies. Every few seconds she spit one out. When the train jumped forward she fell away from me and banged into the railing. She shook her head quickly, like a cat does after you rub it.
In a few minutes we reached Grand Central, and two kids got on. I knew they were trouble. The bigger one had scraped his head with a razorblade that left long red marks. A thick purple scar circled his left ear, like someone had tried to slice it off. This skinhead was flying on something and went right for the crazy woman. He dug into her pocketbook and pulled out a comb, a nametag, a knit hat. He held each thing up, and his buddy laughed like this was very funny. Then the kid jammed the bag down over the woman’s head. A few pennies fell on her and bits of paper and crumbs of food. The black women were muttering to each other and looking to either end of the car for help. The old guy folded his paper and left.
The crazy woman jumped to her feet and the kids grabbed her arms and spun her around. Whichever way she moved to get away, one of their hands pulled her back. Each time they touched her she made a strange noise, like the ping of a video game. Then the skinhead lifted her arm and pinched the sagging flesh between his fingers. She squealed and he shoved his hand inside the top of her shirt.
“Let the child be,” one of the black women called out.
The skinhead turned on her with doped-up eyes. He said, “You talking to me?” He stepped closer, rubbing his stomach, and the long bulge of a knife showed beneath his black T-shirt. The women looked away, as if he were a German shepherd you wouldn’t stare at straight in the eyes.
“Leave her alone.”
My voice cut through the screech of the train wheels. The skinhead laughed, and then his buddy did. I stood up and we faced each other, figuring how much we felt like risking on this fucking hot Saturday night in May, somewhere under New York City, over one mental bag lady. She yanked herself free from them and sat in her seat with her hands folded in her lap, like she was in a church. She seemed to forget the bag still squashed on top of her head. The skinhead flicked his thumb at her. “You want to bleed for that?” he said in such a thick accent I could barely understand him. I shrugged–I didn’t need a reason.
The train kept speeding on to the next station, rocking us in the aisle. As the lights blinked, the kid reached under his shirt for the knife. I attacked him with a quick sidekick, but he stepped backward in time. He grinned at me and flashed the shining blade through the air. I could see he was the kind who needed a weapon to feel safe. That was a good sign. I turned my back on him, then whirled with a roundhouse kick to his chest. I caught him with his hands down. There was a cracking sound, maybe a rib breaking. He coughed like he had something stuck in his throat and dropped to his knees. “If they can’t breathe, they can’t fight,” was the first lesson I learned years ago at Rocky’s School of Self-Protection. The skinhead gasped for air, and I jammed my elbow down between his shoulder blades to finish him off. The kid collapsed to the floor like his bones had turned to water.
I stepped over him to take care of his buddy. “Don’t fuck with me,” he said, trying to sound tough. But you can’t be scared and tough at the same time, and he looked scared to me. I faked with my left hand and followed with a short right jab to his nose. He cursed in some language I never heard before and held his face. Bright blood squeezed out between his fingers.
“That’s right, hurt him,” one of the black women called out from behind me. I waved my fist across the kid’s eyes again to keep his brain occupied and then kicked his balls in with one sharp thrust of my knee. The fight ended as fast as Rocky promised when you get the first punch in to someone’s face. He made a lot of money teaching that skill, and I learned fast.
“Hurt him!” the crazy woman yelled, like she was rooting at a hockey game.
I jabbed my fist into the kid’s chin a few times more than strictly necessary because it always felt good hitting someone who deserved it. He dropped to the floor and rolled down the aisle as the train slipped into the station. Flashes of blue passed by the window, telling me there were policemen waiting. For the first time in my 10 months as a runaway, I didn’t run away from them.
Reprinted by permission of The Permanent Press, Sag Harbor, N.Y., 1999.
Copyright 1999 by George Harrar