Chapter 17: Tiger Tiger
School Year End, June 2025
Carrie Mather’s graduation party gossip swept Pandolf High School social media. Pictures showed a banquet room on the top floor of Pandolf’s tallest building with sweeping views of the California countryside. George clicked open a surprise invitation to the festivities.
Euphoric, he blurted the news to Shelly. “She asked the entire ‘Waitress’ cast and crew, even freshmen like me. Did you know we sold out every night?”
Later, he gushed to Michaela. “What an amazing lead Carrie was. I wish you had come to see one of the performances.
“What a party it’ll be — live band, food, dancing and even a photo station — she’s so creative. Actresses are artists too, you know.
“But I need a suit. The only one I have is the one I bought in Chicago for one of my uncle’s art openings.” He laughed self-consciously. “My arms and legs now poke out of it.”
The threesome visited the local thrift shop and found a dark blue suit with a burgundy blazer. Michaela’s mother measured George for the alterations.
“Hey, Macklemore, can we go thrift shopping?” she hummed the song lyrics.
“I’m going to pop some tag, only got twenty dollars in my pocket,” sang George.
“Hey man, why so quiet?” he said to Charlie.
“Honestly, I have never been inside a place that sells ‘gently-used’ stuff before.”
Charlie wore with flair a purple, green and yellow beret from the same shop. He examined photos on the refrigerator door.
”Michaela,” he said, “look at this class photo of you in first grade — so many of these kids are now with us at Pandolf HIgh. Good thing their names are underneath. Or I wouldn’t know who they were.”
“Did Carrie Mather go to the same grade school too?” George asked.
Michaela did not reply.
Friday night before the Big Party on Saturday, the trio partied. Videos streamed on the living room screen to boisterous laughter. A speaker blared the pop hit, Shebubu’s “BrikeItUp,” then the oldie, Britney Spears “Toxic” and finally dolefully sang Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven.” Papers and packaging, an empty pizza box and dirty socks lay on the floor. A trashcan overflowed. Michaela dozed on the couch.
Charlie interrupted the playlist. “Thrift Shop” soon blared. He danced with George merrily around the room, hopping over and around the clutter on the floor.
The door swung open. In green scrubs, Shelly entered in fury, looking only half-awake. “Do you know it’s 1AM. The neighbor is complaining about your music again.”
Looking around, she added, “And Marla’s coming in a few hours.”
With two clattering buckets, the cleaning woman’s prompt arrival at 11 AM every Saturday morning was a nuisance to the still sleeping teenagers. “Evil Lady” was only five feet tall and had once even threatened Charlie’s Genie phone with a broom. The cleaning woman had explicit instructions from Campbell: “complete authority to keep up the place.”
“Guys!” Shelly raised her voice over the music. “I don’t want to hear complaints about how you can’t find anything after Marla’s done.”
“Yes Mom.” Charlie grinned sweetly.
Shelly tapped a dozing Michaela firmly on the shoulder. The startled girl awoke, laced on her boots and sheepishly followed Shelly out of the apartment. Charlie turned off the lights and music.
“Sucks,” he said, busily texting on his phone. “I’m going for a walk and well, I want to make sure Michaela gets home OK.”
George stayed behind in the common area in front of his laptop, clicking the trackpad down a solitary path he took on Friday nights to a travel website that flickered on and off maddeningly.
Today, his father, who had just flown into Saburia, told him on the screen to plan for an “exciting family adventure” over the summer. Then Garcia’s picture disappeared from the DelightDoorway homepage which now asked for a login and password. George turned it off.
He had asked Shelly for help to stay at Pandolf for the next school year. “I don’t want to go back to my aunt and uncle in Chicago.”
“What does your uncle do?” she inquired.
“He’s an artist.”
“What does your aunt do?”
Six years ago, George’s aunt, then 21 years old, was living with her mother in Paris. The two women had moved to France from Argentina after another political upheaval.
Next, after a stint as another American in Paris, Max Herman returned to the United States with AnnaMaria as his new wife. Eighteen years older than her, he had been married before with a young son in New York City.
Arriving in May, 2023, George had lived with his aunt and uncle in one of the many distant dreary Chicago suburbs which spread like wallpaper, repeating patterns, housing and strip malls that faded into endless rows of corn and soybeans in Illinois.
“I went to school in Chicago for a year and a half. It was awful,” he told Shelly.
Sitting alone in the dark apartment, Charlie would be gone for a while, he remembered that April, over two years ago, when he first met Uncle Max at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport after arriving there from Paris. His uncle held up a sign with George’s name and then wanted to practice his Spanish during the car ride home. George found his accent terrible but politely went along.
“It’s too late for you to start school this semester,” Uncle Max said in English. “Still, you came at a good time. This is spring in Chicago, a special season after a long, dreary winter.
“So for an artist like me, there’s no time for morbid thoughts. This is a magical time, a storybook beginning, the sunlight is crystal, the flower blossoms are fragrant, the cool breeze caresses…”
Uncle Max gestured with his hands, both now off the steering wheel. His tall frame leaned forward, foot pushing the accelerator hard as they sped down the left lane. Even the vehicle seemed to vibrate with excitement.
They parked inside the building that his aunt and uncle lived in. Then the two entered a dingy elevator to their floor. Inside the apartment, on the table in the entry hall, a jumbled bouquet of purple and white flowers lay next to a red book, face-down with a cracking spine, and a face-up hand-mirror.
An artist’s canvas was stretched next to the table showing a partly-finished painting of the arrangement in which the mirror reflected his aunt’s sunny face and her sea-green eyes.
“I gave your aunt those flowers,” his uncle said, his round face briefly reflected in the mirror. “That book’s her journal. I guess she finished the grapes.”
He tapped his head. “Doesn’t matter, the image is in here.”
Outside, George heard distant voices on the main street, high flute notes above the muted hum of dawn traffic.
“Veils,” said Uncle Max, describing the grey morning clouds and the cold drizzle they had just walked through.
“They’ll part soon for sunshine.” He drew open the thin curtain of the small window.
Outside, George saw a white building with many windows, many with closed blinds. Behind them, other people had stories as jumbled as the one that had led him here today.
Beyond, thousands of miles away in his beloved Paris, George imagined the Eiffel tower. When he had first visited France as a child on vacation from Argentina, a vivacious teenage AnnaMaria had taken him to a traveling circus. It had trapeze artists, performers in wild, international costumes and a music show.
At the time, AnnaMaria was living with her mother, his grandmother. Then and now in Chicago, he smelled her lovely fragrance. He now heard her light step but the fairy smoke dissolved when he saw her, looking restrained and older.
“George, welcome!” she said in accented English and hugged him. “I’m sorry I couldn’t come to the airport with Max. I don’t drive in Chicago traffic — she shuddered — and had to wait here in the apartment for our new dryer to be delivered.”
Max nodded and turned to George. “Now that you’re here, George, I must tell you that I have to leave soon for an important meeting. Business first. Your aunt understands that to be successful, I must take practical steps. Or I’ll become another artist whose big dreams die little deaths.”
They went into the little kitchen, where AnnaMaria emptied a package of fresh, buttery croissants onto a plate on the table.
“These are all for you, George.” She poured him chocolate milk. “I remembered how much you like this. Also, the orange juice is fresh-squeezed just like in Paris.”
George washed his hands. AnnaMaria set out utensils and a bunch of bananas. Then she poured her husband coffee which he quickly gulped down, still standing.
“Thanks,” he said. Then he described his persistent sense of “myopia as an artist,” how he saw his paintings as “lenses into the greater world” or ideas to share with others that he could not shape any other way. His expression was pained.
Aunt AnnaMaria looked earnest, his pupil-muse, her eyes growing dark and her blue dress tingeing the shadows in her face.
George focused on the flaky croissants, slathering them with butter while thinking critically about how Uncle Max acted like he was twenty-something again with his twenty-something aunt.
His grandmother had said AnnaMaria liked older men, because “her own father had left us when she was young.”
Uncle Max opened an email on his laptop and read it aloud. It said that a new gallery had accepted two of his paintings: one of a woman named Callie and the other of AnnaMaria.
Anger rising in his voice, his uncle then said, “Nick just sent this. Notice how there’s no mention about where my paintings will be hung? Or why the others weren’t accepted? Those are loud omissions. As soon as I got this, I called Nick to meet.”
Uncle Max’s thick, bristly black brows drew together. His eyes almost closed. Then he went and opened the window to take deep breaths.
“Oh, Anna,” he said, “I want to see Callie framed by the cubic angles in the back room with the low ceiling. You remember?”
He turned around to face her. “And I want your portrait, you flowering tall, a blossom of auburn hair on a stem so slender — you greeting my audience in the entry hall, you next to the grand window that goes almost to the ceiling high high high, overlooking Chicago.”
He raised his hands dramatically above his head. “Have to scheme my way around that exclusive contract.
“What would Nick do anyway if I broke our deal? I’m going to ask him who else is showing at the opening.“
He pulled his cap back down over his ears, retrieved his wet umbrella and abruptly stormed out.
“Jorge.” His aunt approached him, her arms extended. He got up and she squeezed him in a teary, tight and long hug.
Talking in Spanish again, she poured herself some coffee. “Nick’s your uncle’s agent. They’re always fighting.
“It’s not hot anymore. Do you want some coffee too? I can warm it up in the microwave.”
George shook his head.
There were still two croissants left on his plate. He pushed it aside. “I’m done, this was all really good, thanks,” he said.
Hesitating, Aunt AnnaMaria tore a strip off one croissant and ate it, then again one more piece and soon she had eaten the whole thing. She continued to sip her cold coffee.
“Do you want to finish that last croissant?” she asked.
“No, I’m full.”
He watched her put it in the garbage so as not to be tempted to eat it. What a shame. He would be hungry again soon.
His aunt then settled him into their small guest room.
“Do you like it?” There was a bright new purple and white comforter on which lay a pamphlet about a summer school sailing camp on Lake Michigan.
“Shall we go for a walk so I can show you around the neighborhood?” she offered, “and your new school too.”
Outside, the sun was smiling brightly just as Uncle Max had promised, driving away the swampy waters of his misgivings, reigning over a fresh spring with bright colors and abundant green.
On the sidewalk, two children walked ahead, their calves plump, clothes fresh and clean. Backpacks hung over their left shoulders in an unconscious symmetry.
Memories of even younger years, morning freshness, excitement about some new adventure, now ignited his mood. He danced a few steps down the sidewalk and then abashedly looked back at his smiling aunt.
“Jorge,” she said with a smile, “Those kids that just walked by, their mom is a model for your uncle. His painting of her will be in that exhibit.”
“The woman with them, she didn’t look like she was related.”
“Honey, that was their nanny, not Callie.”
His aunt and uncle took him to the opening at Mr. Kochanski’s art gallery. For that, they had bought George a suit.
His uncle questioned whether George should even come.
“Honey,” he said to AnnaMaria, “I think this is really an adult event — not really for kids George’s age.”
“George will enjoy it,” AnnaMaria insisted in English. “He listens to us talking about your art world day in and out. It’ll help it to come alive for him.”
“George,” his uncle said, “Michael Kochanski is a man from Eastern Europe. Listen for his accent. He owns the Pierre Building with the new art gallery. it’s just a few small rooms. But they are prized for their location — the Gold Coast — and the scenic views.”
Uncle Max also liked to talk about a Mr. Jim Sichet, a lawyer who was a “business enemy” of Mr. Kochanski. His details of their rivalry — properties and dollar numbers — bored his aunt, except the part that Mr. Sichet was buying his uncle’s painting of Callie.
The Gold Coast — riding to the opening on Lake Shore Drive, he was disappointed to see no gold. His aunt looked ethereally beautiful with mature grace, no longer the carefree and playful Paris teenager he remembered. Her smooth hair was freshly styled and her peach dress was “one of the latest designs.”
They arrived punctually and displayed their invitation to the guard who looked skeptically at George but did not turn him away. George watched as his aunt and uncle wandered around the crowd, excitedly talking to many people there.
As it turned out, George was the only person his age there. There was no one to talk to. He made many trips to the tables laden with food and tried to be discreet about sampling everything from avocado toast to strawberry cheesecake.
For entertainment, he watched the adults return again and again to the carafes of wine, which never seemed to empty, growing louder, happier and more flushed as the evening went by.
Aunt AnnaMaria found him next to the “Sweets and Treats” sign.
“George, these are people here that come regularly: other artists, patrons, media critics, buyers. What do you think about some of the art here?”
“Pretty cool,” George said, turning his head toward a bank of corner windows. “And those views are awesome: tall buildings, the Chicago River and Lake Michigan to the east.”
“Which one is your favorite?”
“Oh the chocolate brownies for sure.”
Her Paris giggle, he hadn’t heard it since his arrival, then she said, “I was asking about your favorite art piece, George. Maybe Max was right about no one else your age here to hang out with.”
He decided to go watch Uncle Max in action.
His uncle stayed close to his two paintings, smoothly answering questions and interjecting jokes. His portrait of AnnaMaria received an enthusiastic reception. He said he was hoping for positive media attention in the next few weeks.
Uncle Max then looked surprised as a couple approached him.
“Who’s this young visitor?” the tall man asked, looking curiously at George.
“This is my nephew,” Uncle Max said. “George just arrived from Paris. George, this is Mr. Jim Sichet, and his wife, Frances. Wow Jim, Michael invited you?”
“I’m not crashing his party,” Sichet replied. “Michael’s my competition — so of course— he’s showing off his new art gallery to me.”
Examining the painting of Callie, Sichet added “I’m going to hang this in the lobby of our office building.”
George noticed the slightest grimace on Mrs. Sichet’s face.
“Thank you, Jim,” Max said. “My agent is around here.”
Sichet smiled. “I’ve already transferred the funds. Or Nick would charge me an exorbitant interest rate.”
He then nodded to AnnaMaria, “Is this your wife?”
Uncle Max looked flustered. “Of course, this is indeed my wife, AnnaMaria. I’m sorry. I thought you had met.”
AnnaMaria smiled brightly at Sichet. “You must meet so many people, Jim.”
George felt puzzled. How could Mr. Sichet not remember his aunt?
“My wife would love to hear about what it’s like to be married to Max,” Mr. Sichet next said.
“Tell me, Max, I need your advice. I do a little painting myself— a hobby. you remember that I’m having that portrait done of the family…”
Uncle Max and Mr. Sichet moved away from them. His aunt commented lightly on life with Uncle Max to Mrs. Sichet who gave terse responses to AnnaMaria’s attempts to converse.
Helplessly, increasingly angry, he watched his aunt, the wife of a poor artist for whom English was not even her native language, speaking with her thick accent to this wealthy, refined lady, whose husband had not even remembered who she was.
When another visitor eagerly greeted AnnaMaria, Mrs. Sichet slipped away, leaving his aunt looking surprised and hurt when she turned back to where Mrs. Sichet had been standing.
Later that evening, George saw Mrs. Sichet again, martini in hand, next to the food table, chatting with a group of women who looked old and fancy like her. Her step was uncertain but her smile was one of the widest he had seen that evening.
Wide smiles like this used to happen at his grandmother’s apartment in Paris, where flushed women had attended her wine get-togethers. As their Spanish grew louder, he would hear them in the kitchen as he silently ate dinner.
It appeared that his grandmother was upset that his aunt and uncle did not plan on children.
“My daughter says Max loves her ‘girlish shape,’” his grandmother complained, “ to quote him: — her voice grew mocking — he loves my child’s ‘personality, its light champagne to drink endlessly and her intelligence so devoted to him.’“
Her tone shifted to helpless. “But she says she loves him.”
Then his grandmother breathily continued, “And AnnaMaria tells me: ‘Even at moments in Chicago when I feel so empty without Max and the day’s blackness lies before me until he gets home, I love him, Mom. There is no need to fill that void with our children.’”
Her cadre of expatriate friends then murmured their sympathy as she continued, “AnnaMaria says she does not sing anymore except to her husband. That voice of hers was made for the stage. What a loss, like some caged songbird trapped exclusively for Mr. Max Herman’s pleasure, that’s what my daughter has become.”
Before George had left for Chicago, his grandmother told him, “I’m worried about your aunt. Someday, she’ll regret not having kids. Still, Max is not much of a father to his son in New York City from his first marriage — that boy, what’s his name? Max says he feels guilty about not spending more time with his son. But then I don’t see him doing anything about it.”
After the art exhibit, George sat in the back seat as his uncle and aunt drove home.
AnnaMaria murmured, “I feel sad for Frances Sichet in an empty marriage like that. Do you really think her husband would be so shameless as to put Callie’s portrait in the lobby of a corporate building?”
Max laughed. “Jim’s shameless all right as a liar. Of course he won’t. Anna, that comment was just a dig at his Mrs. Maybe it was Frances’ bad luck to marry him. Still, I’m sure it was for the money — for both of them.”
Silence followed. That happened a lot with Uncle Max and his aunt, the way they stopped discussing some topics if he was there.
He had searched for the Callie nude in the apartment before that day. Peeking under the drape, he wondered what secrets lay in the delicate shadows, painted on and around the face, shoulders and body — following its curves down — of that beautiful young woman.
He hadn’t liked eighth-grade in Chicago, bored because he already knew the math and science that they were teaching. Then he had been teased and bullied, made no friends, sitting alone every day at lunch in the cafeteria.
In English, an assignment was to perform poetry. He memorized a poem by William Blake.
In front of the class, he recited:
Tiger, tiger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
Proudly, he finished. He had recorded himself at home, practicing it to remove any Spanish accent in his American English.
At the parent-teacher conference, the teacher told his aunt afterwards, “This is eighth grade. That piece was not a good fit for his age or his peers.”
It was AnnaMaria who had suggested that poem to George.
“I’m sorry, George,” she apologized later. “Your teacher suggested this contemporary poet instead.”
He looked the name up on his phone. “Stupid stuff.”
So when George first started ninth grade at Pandolf, he feared it would be just as miserable as the Chicago school. Things had turned out so differently.
There was Shelly, Lucky, Charlie, and Michaela, his “peeps.” Even Carrie Mather had invited him to her party.
The next morning, Michaela came over on to bring him the pants her mother had taken in at the waist.
“George, what’s bothering you?” she asked. “You were so happy yesterday, going on-and-on about how Carrie had invited the entire cast and crew of ‘Waitress.’”
“Michaela, it’s looking more and more like I may have to return to Chicago this fall to live with my aunt and uncle. My dad’s now in Africa. I may have to go there this summer.
“I don’t want to leave here. I’ll miss you guys.
“Thanks for your help with the suit,” he added softly. “Carrie’s such a performer. ‘Waitress’ was her finale at Pandolf. I think we’ll be seeing Carrie on screens all over the world in the future, even in Africa.”
“I doubt that about Carrie Mather,” Michaela said dryly.
He did not press her for an explanation.
She continued, “But it’s breaking my heart that you may be leaving … and that Charlie is also going home soon. His parents are putting him in a new private school.
“But you know, Charlie and I have talked a lot about this. We’re both very young. We can’t get too serious with each other. But we hope our friendship continues.”
They sat down on the couch, sharing a large bag of potato chips.
“That sounds like your mom talking, Michaela.
“Still,” said George, “I’ve been thinking, a dangerous thing for me.” He laughed at his own joke. She put her head on his shoulder and smiled.
He went on. “Our lease here is month-to-month, and Dr. Campbell said he could renew it through July at least. I will just have to try to drag it out as long as I can — to try to stay here through most if not all of July.”
Michaela nodded. “And George, I need to not fall asleep on the couch next time. When Shelly came in Friday night, I felt so embarrassed.”
“That’s grown-ups,” George agreed, “assuming the worst of us. Maybe it’s practical for them, you know, to keep their expectations low.”
“My mom’s not like that at all,” Michaela said indignantly.
“I’ll talk to Shelly,” George said, “that you’re different. You don’t vape, smoke, drink, do drugs, you’re a good student. But Michaela, to be fair, not everyone is like that at our school.”
After a silence, Michaela whispered, “Were you invited to Carrie Mather’s after-party?”
“Didn’t know there was one.”
“Yeah,” Michaela said. “I’m sure that will be something, Carrie staggering around her parents’ pool and that’s just the beginning…”
“Now Michaela,” George reproved her. “That’s gossip. You don’t like Carrie because she’s one of the popular girls.”
“I don’t like her because I’ve known her forever and she’s mean,” Michaela shot back. “But you can’t see that because you’re a guy.”
Charlie entered the room. “OK, peeps, stop the squabbling. I have Dr. Campbell here on my phone calling from Africa.”
“Hey!” Campbell was now projected on the wall screen.
“Hi, Dr. Campbell!” Michaela and George said in unison excitedly. “How’s Saburia?”
“Great! Hot hot hot. You’ll see, George. After talking to your dad, I’m trying to line up airline tickets for you to come here. But your father and I had an idea. How would you and Charlie like to meet up with me in Athens and spend a few days there first?”
George nodded. “Yeah, I know, Dad told me he couldn’t come to Athens to meet me. Too much work at the lab in Saburia.”
“But what about me coming to Athens?” Michaela interrupted.
Campbell shook his head on the screen. “Michaela, I’m very sorry, you’re too young for me to be responsible for you.”
“You’re saying that because I’m a girl. It’s not fair.”
She slumped deeper into the couch. “Besides, the travel would probably be too expensive anyway.”
“Wow!” Charlie said to Michaela. “Dr. Campbell, are you sure we can’t figure out a way Michaela can come? I could loan her money for the tickets.”
Campbell’s face was expressionless. “As a girl, things are different. Michaela’s right.”
Michaela’s face was a picture of fury.
Charlie changed the subject. “Hey Dr. Campbell, I have some news. Lucky is now engaged to Harry!”
The screen dissolved into static.
“Are we disconnected?” Charlie asked.
“Please give the happy couple my congratulations. Charlie, check with your parents about Athens and then if it’s a go, I can talk to them and book tickets.
“I’ve to jump off now.”
George heard the catch in Campbell’s voice.
Man, that news broke your heart. Just like Carrie is impossible in my life.
While Michaela was probably correct about the pool festivities at the vast Mather estate, he didn’t like Carrie any less for it. He too wanted to have awesome parties and a brazenly chic girlfriend like Carrie.
He didn’t want to go to Athens or see his father in Saburia. Also — his father had warned him that coming back to the United States in the fall might no longer be possible due to their immigration status.
His father could lose his job and move again. Every time he saw his dad now after another long absence, the man looked older and smaller with more flaws like his receding hairline.
He had been looking into running away. But it wasn’t yet time to tell anyone. First, as with any project that he undertook, he had to do some research. Chicago might be the right city to get lost in. But showing up at Aunt AnnaMaria’s door with his suitcase would be a bad idea.
Michaela reached over and squeezed George’s hand. “You look so sad. I’m going to talk to my mom to see if you can come back and stay with us this fall. Now go change and let’s see how you look in your suit. My mom worked hard on it.”
Charlie sat down on the couch on her other side and held her hand. “I kind of want to go to Athens. But I also want to spend my last few weeks at Pandolf with you.”
“Yeah,” George said. “I’m going to talk to my dad and Dr. Campbell about all of us just hanging out together our last few weeks here in Pandolf instead of traveling. Athens is someplace I’ve always wanted to visit, but you know, I have the rest of my life ahead of me for that.”
On his ear Dots, he turned up the volume on the music before walking out to try on his suit.