By Daniel Ross
The darkly comic story of a retired Las Vegas stage magician and big cat enthusiast, dragged back into the spotlight by the consequences of one huge mistake.
Part One (1985)
Here’s a thing I know for sure about white tigers: the vital absence of key chromosomes gives them a haunted look and a proclivity for unpredictable violence. Siblings for parents can do that to an animal. That gap where the key chromosomes should be doesn’t always give your tiger the placid personality you’d hope for, either. Your de-brained white tiger is nothing more than stampeding insecurity and instinct for self-preservation. In case you think I’m being overly dramatic, I can confirm this through experience. To me, a white tiger is like a disabled kid, by which I mean I don’t know what to do with one when they start acting up. You can train for it, you can plead with whatever spirituality you hold dear that it won’t ever come to this and why God why do I have to behave in this vital manner just to survive, but in the end they’re unexplainable animals. Sometimes animals just flip out and eat their babies.
I loved Dusty, but he was a mean old cat. At times when he wanted to make some fatuous point about commodities, my manager, Leo, called him Six, for no other reason than he was the sixth tiger we ever worked with after a succession of depressed, retired and destroyed forebears. For variety, sometimes he called him Half-Dozen. On the paperwork that accompanied his arrival, Dusty had a hybrid name that implied a pedigree rather than a personality, so we did away with it. Any information apart from that was pretty non-existent, a mix of red pen and typewritten script more like a ten-year-old’s homework than a document of anthropological or legal importance. One sheet definitely contained the words ‘indeterminate origin’, but I’m pretty sure ‘indeterminate’ was spelled incorrectly. We had a hunch the guy who sold him to us knew the origin was pretty damn determinate, but people didn’t ask a lot of questions in that business.
‘Another lump you can turn into an act.’ That’s what Leo said when we unloaded him for the first time. Even then, as he paced nervously in the pen I constructed for him myself, it was clear his stripes were unique. They weren’t quite as black as they were on our previous white tiger, so he looked all dusty to us, like he’d been rolled around in chalk or something. So that’s what I called him. He was meeker than the others, too. Real reticent when I first started training him, a hisser. But in quieter moments he and I could stare at each other and not worry about who blinked first. We communicated, in our way.
In the first couple of years we had him, Dusty was pushed to the limit in a way that I wouldn’t normally allow. Leo was an asshole about it, of course. He said the clicker wasn’t working, so we should scare him into doing the tricks, threaten him and withhold his food, amateur stuff that’ll get you killed. But I never did anything like that. I can safely say that Dusty never did anything he didn’t want to do. I know I can safely say that.
‘I’ve got a sell-out show!’ Leo kept saying to me. ‘We’re rich, like Colonel Tom fuckin’ Parker! The clicker ain’t workin’, Bobby. It’s time to get ferocious.’
Leo was with me on the day that we stopped working with Dusty. The squat little pube in a suit wouldn’t stop laying into me about the show and how Dusty - ‘the cat, y’know, the half-a-dozen cat!’ - wasn’t behaving much like a tiger that truly craved a life on the stage. There was this whole bit in the show where I would hang upside down inside a sack with chains around my feet and Dusty would stand on his back feet and swing at my head with his paws. We jammed pillows into the end of the sack so that it wouldn’t hurt when he clouted me on the head. It was play for him, like when you hold a feather just out of a kitten’s reach. You wiggle it in front of them and they swing for it.
Lashed to the theater ceiling with inch-thick silver cabling, the bag swung back and forth pendulously in the afternoon rehearsal. The sound guys were entrenched in their little booths while pyros licked the edge of the stage. The whole place smelled like sweat and burnt stuff. Dusty was swinging for me and I was feeling like a damn king in a sack because no man is more alive than the escapologist mid-escape. His paw would occasionally pock the top of the bag, a comforting sensation that confirmed there was danger for the audience. If Dusty was missing the bag every time, it looked fake. I’d give a little yowl with every connection he made, a little extra sprinkle of peril. I looked weak, which made Dusty look dangerous, which made the whole thing look like entertainment. That’s a formula you can trademark and take to the bank. We danced through this routine as we always did, but I could sense Dusty’s knocks getting less and less powerful, and after about a minute of me goading him and whistling, he finally stopped batting.
‘Bobby! What’s the damn cat doing?’ In the bag, I closed my eyes. Leo was at the back of the room, shouting from the stalls under the balcony. ‘Why’s he stopped swingin’ for yeh?’
It took a few minutes for me to get out of the bag, spitting the padlock key into my bound palms and wriggling my wrists through the knotted loop of rope. The music stopped, the pyros wheezed. I yelled for the tech guy side-of-stage to lower me down, careful not to disturb Dusty. When I got out of the bag, Dusty was sitting in the middle of the stage, licking his front foot like a house cat. He was so bored it made me want to kick open the stage door and set him loose to guzzle the acre-wide patrons of Caesar’s Palace. I slowly walked towards him and spoke in my big cat voice, which was effectively baby talk. It’s kind of embarrassing, but everyone in the business does it. If we can’t even talk to these things like adults, perhaps it’s no wonder they start mauling people.
‘What’s the problem, bud?’ I started, but he was listless and didn’t look at me. The rage of a yawn took over his eyes and his mouth hinged open like a Delorean door, pushing out an invisible cloud of warmth and a homely raw chicken odor. Normally, I could handle Dusty pretty rough and we would playfight quite a bit between shows, but today he wasn’t going for it. Every time I got near he looked away, not with anger or resentment but with calm belligerence.
I could hear Leo giving birth at the back of the room.
‘You better make him swing for yeh!’ he called, somewhere between town crier and the-end-is-nigh loon. ‘Is he depressed or somethin’?’ I was still talking to Dusty, trying to work out why he’d stopped playing ball, waving my hands in his face like I was trying to cure a blindness, scratching his ears, trying to get to his belly so I could rub it. This time, he got up and turned his whole body around so his slowly pulsing back was facing me.
‘Hey, there’s no need for that,’ I cooed at the stripy fool. Leo was still shouting.
‘Grab him or somethin’! Squeeze him!’
‘Leo,’ I hissed at him. ‘Shut up for a minute.’ Well, it was a stage whisper. I’m a theatrical guy. Leo stage-whispered back.
‘Why’s he doing that?’
Dusty was lying down with his back to me. He was breathing real slow, his stripes slowly growing and shrinking. One last try to get him engaged and then I’m calling time on this rehearsal, I told myself. He knew the routine well enough that he’d be able to do it on the night. Standing behind him, I rubbed the bottom of his back real roughly. I think there’s a pressure point there or something, because rubbing that bit of his back always made him roll over like a little pig. But he didn’t roll over this time. He made this growling sound that I’d never heard before. He would growl all the time when I riled him up rough-housing, but this was the single weirdest fucking noise I ever heard a big cat make. It was so much lower than any other noise he’d ever made. Not louder than usual, but thicker than usual. Wider. I backed off immediately which, when I reflect, was perhaps a poor idea. I don’t think that’s a textbook move, but by all means show me the big cat training manual that recommends fearful pussyfooting as a predominant attitude and I’ll back down. No-one worse to look guilty in front of than a 350-pound tiger.
‘Hey, I didn’t mean anything by it, big guy,’ I said. The panic must’ve quivered my voice, because this was the moment he decided to turn round and look at me for the first time: looming, towering, surly. He looked pissed. I was dressed as a genie, which probably didn’t help.
Then he flew at me. Not like he was going to kill me or anything, but he was definitely out to get me in the face with his paw. I don’t know if you’ve ever been clubbed in the face by a big cat before, but their feet are like goddamn landmines, huge chunks of bone and meat with raptor claws on the end. Dusty didn’t have his claws out but he still got me on the side of the head down I went like a diver overboard.
‘That’s it!’ Leo yelled. He was applauding, actually. I heard him running across the floor, bumping all the cocktail tables as he thundered toward the stage. ‘Get back in the bag, Bobby, he’s got the taste for your blood!’
Finally, I called the end of rehearsal with burning palms and a cold sweat on my chest.