An animal trainer
“Don’t eat that!”
The Main Attraction
By Becky Benson
I’m not sure one really sets out to ‘run away and join the circus’. Well, not usually a thirty-four year old many anyway, at least not a sane one. Not that it was really a circus, some would consider Wall Street more of a circus than this. The funny thing is, I think about running away now more as an adult that I ever did as a child. Anyway, I guess some would say I was running away. To me though, it feels like coming home.
Robin Bixly was growing tired of his posh penthouse office. Growing sick of steak tartare luncheons and late night business meetings entertaining potential clients. Even though everyone said it suited him, much like his custom made Armani, he always felt out of place. His sixteen by sixteen foot, window lined walls were closing in on him. His own persona was strangling the life out of him. It’s not the he didn’t recognize himself when he looked in the mirror, it’s that this guy was all he could see, he didn’t recognize the person he used to be. He was an outsider in an inside world who’d somehow managed to worm his way in. In the rise of the late 90’s dot com boom he was in and out before the collapse and suddenly had a tract record of achievement behind his name. It wasn’t long before the start-up investment firm; Steinbeck House took notice the young prodigy and snatched him up. In the fourteen years he’d been with the company he’d changed.
The final straw (or so he thought) was being backed into a corner by his boss, who’d agreed to entertain one of their newest potential clients by escorting her to P. T. Barnum’s Live Siberian Extravaganza in Las Vegas (by her request, and definitively one of the more eccentric they’d encountered). Just imagine how coincidental it seemed that Andrew Steinbeck’s Hampton cottage had been the only house along that particular stretch of shore hit by a rogue tidal wave the very day before the trip, and as such he’d passed along the escorting duty to his “Star Player”.
Now, at five o’clock Robin found himself packing little more than three garment bags and an overnight kit, and hailing a cab to take him to JFK for the eight o’clock flight to Las Vegas. Truth be told, he wasn’t that out of sorts over the trip itself. The reason was though, that he’d let Andrew know he’d be staying out of town an extra two days to make a visit back home since he was coming practically all the way across country anyway (in reality he just needed to clear his head away from the perpetually fast paced noise that was Manhattan).
Portland, OR had always been home. His center. His rock. The quaint farm house he’d grown up in and the pine crisp air always refreshed his senses. Once he got there he’d venture down to the Burnside Bridge to meander through the market, then over to Voodoo Doughnuts for the classic bacon maple bar. Then he’d end up back home with mom for some of her Sunday night goulash. By far better than any steak tartare or yellow fin sushi he’d ever had.
The house was old, built in the 1920’s as a dairy farm. His parents had owned it for forty years now. They’d long since sold off the herd of cows that came with the twenty four acres once Tillamook stopped putting out small local orders, and for the last thirty five years it had been a sort of wild life refuge/abandoned animal shelter. He didn’t mind the discolored wood floors or the dirt driveway. It felt real to him, better than suits and high -rises. He wondered how a boy from the Great Northwest ever got mixed up in any of that Manhattan High-rise mumbo-jumbo anyway.
The house, the trees, the doughnuts would have to wait. First he had to meet Mrs. Evangeline Wallis at the New York New York. See, even when he was getting away from New York he couldn’t get away from New York. He’d be in and out. Wheel her, deal her, wine her, dine her, seal the investment, and he’d be off.
“Mom”, he chirped. “I’ve got great news! How’d you like to get a look at your long-lost son in a couple days?”
“Oh Robbie, are you visiting?”, she squealed. “I can’t wait. When will you be here?”
“Sunday afternoon, I’ll fly in at four o’clock.”
“Perfect, I’ll make-”
“Goulash, right, mom?”
“How’d you know?”
“Just a wild guess. See you soon.”
“See you soon, Robbie.”
He handed his ticket to the airline attendant and proceeded to take his seat in row 2, seat B.
“When the company pays”, he mused to himself as he ordered a vodka tonic.
Ok, there were some things about this corporate life that weren’t all that bad.
Four and a half hours later they landed in Las Vegas and after he’d picked up his bags he was off to his room for what was left of the night. He would meet Mrs. Wallis for brunch at the Belagio and then remain with her throughout the day and evening discussing business (which meant flattering her in every way possible), then ending their day of business by escorting her the tiger show. What was it about Vegas and tigers? Why in the world did the two seem to go hand-in-hand? For right now though, he was tired, and parched. Not that he didn’t get his fill of vodka tonics on the plane, dehydrated was more like it. He looked around his room. The bottle of Figi would have to do, although truth be told, he didn’t mind spending $4.00 on a bottle of water when, once again, it was on the company tab.
Awakening the next morning, Robin got up, showered, dressed, and strolled his way down to the Belagio where, having never seen her before, he instantly recognized Evangeline Wallis immediately. Wearing a long leopard print tunic over ankle length black leggings, her red cat-eye sunglasses stuck out along the edges of her face almost as far as her hot pink nails grew past her fingertips.
“Vegas, baby!”, he muttered to himself with a chuckle. He could see, now how the tigers fit in.
“Dahling, today you are my best friend!”, she quipped with a raspy excitment, and stretched her arms open wide to embrace this man she’d only just laid eyes on for the very first time.
“Mrs. Wallis, it’s good to meet you.”
“Oh, you must call me Evvie. I’m so happy to have you accompany me today. Tell your Andrew how sorry I am to hear of the issues with his home. I hope it will all be alright, but today we will not let anything dampen our spirits. I am excited for you to see the show this evening.”
“Thank you, Evvie. I’ll make sure to let him know of your concern. I also want you to know that Steinbeck House we will take care of-”
“Oh, no no no no no. No business just yet. We have all day, let us enjoy the atmosphere of each other’s company. We have so much to see today.”
“Certainly. Shall we eat? You must be famished.”
“Wonderful idea”, she agreed.
It was quite late into the day, and although they were going for brunch it was really lunch time by now. Robin had a feeling Evvie kept these hours in general though. They took their window seats in full view of the fountains that were just beginning their dance for the day. It really was a spectacular sight. He ordered the eggs benedict, and found out then that Evvie sustained herself on little more than the decorative fruit that accompanied her seltzer water.
“Do you know why we are going to see the Siberian Extravaganza this evening?”, she asked.
“Well, I assume it’s a wonderful show”, he replied.
“It is! But that’s not why.”
“No?”, he asked.
“No. It is because my husband trained those majestic creatures himself. He worked for many years as an animal trainer and he contributed to the production of this show, and many others. He loved the tigers. They were more than just animals to him. They were his passion. He brought some of them over to the United States many years ago on a cargo ship when he came from Russia as a boy. They once belonged to a Czar, but he had grown tired of theme and cast them off. Others he rescued from the wealthy who thought they could own a creature such as these as merely a pet. You simply cannot do such a thing with this beauties. They have their own ideas, their own thoughts and feelings. You cannot control them, only seek to understand them, and my Yuri did. He would get them healthy again, but these tigers can never go back into the wild. It’s sad for them, living such a life they were not meant to live. They cannot change their stripes, you know. ”
“That’s amazing”, Robin genuinely replied. “I had no idea. What a wonderful story. What an interesting life I can imagine it has been. My family owns it’s own little animal rescue/sanctuary outside Portland, Oregon. We’re a much smaller operation though. Mostly dogs, cats, horses. We did have an owl for a while. She had a broken wing when we found her. My mom nursed her back to health and she was like a pet for a while, but when she was strong enough we had to let her go. I was only six and my brother was eight so it was hard for us. We wanted to keep her. My mom explained that she wouldn’t be happy here and she needed to fly.”
“Your mother is a very intelligent woman. She understands these creatures are not here to be our possessions. And your father?”
“My father is the one who turned our farm into the animal retreat. He was kind of an animal whisperer himself. It was a dairy farm when my parents bought the place. He passed away six years ago. It was pancreatic cancer. Advanced and aggressive.”
“I am sorry for your loss. Loss is hard. No matter what or who you have lost, loss is hard. It’s been two years since my Yuri passed. Two years and everyone is telling me that it’s time to tie up the loose ends with his business affairs. I don’t want any part of it, to be honest. I just want someone who can handle it for me and let me know how it’s going from time to time. Speaking of such affairs, Manhattan is a long way from Oregon, Robin. How does a boy raised on a farm get to Wall Street?”
“I have a gift for numbers.”
“And do you have a passion for it?”
His inner self imploded. He suddenly realized that in fourteen years, he had never once asked himself that question. He guessed that he’d just assumed that having a gift for something begat a passion for it. He knew right then and there that this is where his discontent came from. It had been a kettle bubbling up to scream since the beginning. He admired Evvie. He could tell, knowing her now for little more than an hour, that she lived deliberately, and that everything she did was with passion. It seemed like a wonderful life to him. Although, it also occurred to him that he was there to secure her as a client.
“I think I have many passions. Well rounded, I hope.”
“And these numbers, they are one of those passions?”
Geez, she really was backing him into a corner. How to address this, he wondered.
“I suppose in a way, they are. I like many things about numbers, most of all, what I can do with them.”
Good, he thought. That sounds like something a money-hungry Wall Streeter would quip. It sounded like someone who would invest wisely, right?
“I’d imagine so”, she replied with a slight airy laugh. “Now, when we meet again this evening I do so hope you will be ready to be thoroughly entertained.”
“Of course”, he replied, “But there is still the matter of us discussing the business we are meeting here for”.
“Already done, my dahling. I now know everything I need to know. See you at six.”
With that she floated up from the table and sauntered away.
Had she really just called him out on his career choice? Was she calling him a fake? He wasn’t sure, but he did think that she seemed to like him. Now that he had the majority of the afternoon to himself he decided that while he waited out the hours until his final meeting with Evvie Wallis, he should do a little more research into those business affairs so he would properly understand how to woo her into investing them with Steinbeck House. Now that he’d met her he would figure out exactly what needed to be said to meet the demands of her personality in just the right way so that the firm would win her over and she would comfortably trust them to take care of her assets.
The problem was, that he didn’t care about it now. Now that she had pointed out that he had no passion for the life he had created he ultimately realized the facade was sucking the real life right out of him. He thought of his father. His father, who had told him many times while he was growing up the stories of riding the rails. One day he just decided to ride. What today many would call an aimless drifter, to him, it sounded so romantically exciting. He remembered the tales of the salt air bristling his father’s face as the train steamed along the coast. He remembered how he told of the dessert so vast you couldn’t see a beginning or end, and how magnificent it was that they could have built all these railways through such a seemingly desolate place. His mind wandered to the acres of waving wheat in Nebraska and forest like storied cornfields of Iowa where, as everyone in his family knew, was when he’d hopped off looking for a piece of apple pie in a diner and wound up meeting the waitress he’d wed just three months later.
That was passion. He wanted to run away just like his father and find himself in the middle of nowhere. To create a life he could be proud of in terms of anything other than numbers. Not only did he not have a passion for numbers, but he was beginning to despise them. Even his brother, Mark who, though he had no interest in animals still wasn’t selling his soul the way he was. Mark lived somewhere near Berkley and was a professional beat poet. Suddenly, he couldn’t wait to be back home and with the animals he’d loved so when he was growing up. His mother had recently told him how she’d found a fawn with a broken leg on the edge of the property lying in a ditch. Most likely the little doe had tried, unsuccessfully to cross the road. Then there were the rabbits, and the chickens, and the horses, most of which had been turned over to them, some anonymously when the price of feed got too high for people look after them any longer. Thank goodness the mortgage had been paid off for years, but still, he knew that even with the 4-H clubs, bake sales, donation cans, and ‘suggested’ care offerings for anyone surrendering an animal, his mother was running out of options in keeping the growing number of the needy furry friends.
He decided to stroll around the stores that the world famous shopping area of Vegas has to offer. Maybe he’d bring something back for his mom. Still feeling a little guilty for missing out on Thanksgiving last year, no doubt. In his defense, he did think spending time with Fiona’s family and getting to know them better seemed like a good idea. At least when he thought they were moving in the direction of marriage. Turns out she was, just not with him. Not two weeks later he received a modern day ‘it’s not you, it’s me’ in the form of an email, nonetheless.
He took a look around. Ferigamo, Tiffany’s, Coach; this was clearly not prime shopping for a farm woman in her late sixties. Maybe he’d ask Evvie what a nice haven’t seen you in a while/coming home present for his mother would be. She looked about ten years older than Nancy Bixly, but he assumed that she’d have a better idea than he, and that she’d appreciate the question. Speaking of Evvie, it was time to head back to his room and change into proper dinner attire.
Even tying his bowtie nauseated him now. He was actually looking forward to the evening at hand, because to be honest, it was the most interesting thing he’d done in, well he couldn’t remember since when. He felt oddly like high society about to attend an opera, and reminded himself that he was actually in Las Vegas about to go see the Live Siberian Tiger Extravaganza.
Upon meeting Evvie he wasn’t surprised to see her in her flowing lime green Grecian garb complete with some sort of silver loafer. Interestingly enough, it set off the silver in her hair quite nicely. This woman knew who she was, he thought, and she makes no apologies for it.
The ate rather quickly, her of her watercress salad, and he of the croque au vin, and spoke mostly of the impending show. Soon thereafter, they made their way to the entrance and took their seats. Robin was expecting more of a circus like ambiance. There was no tent and surprisingly, the whole arena was quite sophistically decorated with wine colored drapes, complete with gold tassels, and tables, not rows of bleachers. There were balconies and servers, and even programs like it was a broadway show. There was still a curtain, and in the center of the stage, as the lights dimmed, the crowd hushed, and the announcer called for the opening, was the main attraction.
Six white Siberian tigers sat perfectly still in pyramid formation while the Grand Marshal (complete with top hat) quickened his pace as he ran around them gesturing for applause from the crowd. The magnificent creatures each got heir turn in the spotlight entertaining the crowd with acts of juggling, leaping, and growing with open mouths. They were beautiful and well cared for. Their coats shined under the lights, and their eyes glistened.
Robin peered over at Evvie to see her watching with baited breath in complete amazement and adoration. She gasp along with the rest of the crowd at every amazing feat the regal animals displayed. Again and again she grinned widely in appreciation. He saw her love for these tigers, and her love for her husband. When the show was over the crowd sprang to their feet and the applause was near deafening.
“Marvelous”, Evvie cheered. “Bravo, bravo”.
They left the show and Evvie glowed. Robin wished he had such a spark, a zeal in life for anything the way this woman did.
“You must tell me, Mr. Bixly. What made you decide to escort me to this show this evening, aside from being assigned the duty by your firm, of course?”
“I thought it seemed so outrageous that it would be astronomically entertaining.”
“Wonderful! And how do you feel now?”, she asked.
“That is was more entertaining, and informative than I ever could have imagined”, he replied.
“I’m glad you came she let him know.”
“Me too”, he said. ” There’s just one problem”, he told her.
“Problem?”, she asked. I thought our meeting was going very well.
“It is”, he laughed. “Too well, in fact. You see Evvie, I’ve decided I’m not going back to Steinbeck House after this trip. Actually, I don’t think I’ll be going back to New York at all. I’ve decided to stay in Oregon and help my mother with running the sanctuary, and tending to the farm itself. I was thinking we could turn it into a hobby farm. Sell the eggs, and have birthday parties, and a petting zoo. I think I could really help her revitalize the place. I did want to ask you on thing though. I was looking for a little coming home present to bring to my mother. What would you suggest?”
“Are you kidding, dahling? You, of course! All a mother needs is her children, and maybe a tiger!”
They both erupted in laughter.
“Well how fitting that you are not returning to New York. I was going to have to tell Steinbeck House that I have decided not to invest my money with them anyway.”
“You were?”, he asked with an air of shock.
“Yes, you see I have enough money to last me eons and I’ve recently decided I don’t need to the using it to help the Ritchie Rich’s of Wall Street get any righter, especially since I’ve found out about a nice little business I think I can partner in creating which would allow me to indulge my passion. Furthermore, the young gentleman who is starting it is quite passionate about animals they way I am and I think he will be able to pour his heart into his work and do some good with is new hobby farm. Now we shall celebrate! Let us go and eat. How about steak tartare? I’ve always wanted to try it.”
“No Evvie, don’t eat that! Don’t ever eat that!”
© 2013 Becky Benson