Instead of a big send up, I will share with you what Jo wrote Brooke in her acceptance letter: ‘Jo here, it reminded me of a story from an old anthology we used to get in the school library. It was great to see this style enter into RBY!’. Anything that can bring back memories of that first magical entry into reading definitely belongs in RBY. We bring you….
Jerry Fed the Tigers
by Brooke Reynolds
Jerry pushed the stainless-steel dinner cart toward the tiger’s enclosure. The front left wheel jiggled back and forth, causing the covered plates to rattle and vibrate, stirring the tigers from their slumber. Three Bengals, sisters, paced back and forth, rubbing their stripes across the metal bars. The smell of rendered fat drippings poured over freshly cooked meat wafted toward them causing ropey strands of drool to hang from the corners of their mouths. Their eyes glowed yellow against the security lights that lit Jerry’s path, the sun still hidden below the horizon. It was always best to make sure the tigers were well fed before any visitors arrived. Each tiger chuffed their greeting as they eyed the covered dishes. At fifty-three, Jerry never pictured a life working as head personal chef to three very large predators.
Young Jerry always knew he would one day become a chef. When boys his age were out exploring, he was inventing unique creations in the kitchen. He dabbled in pastry, soups, and side dishes, but his specialty was always meat. Jerry loved to hear the sizzle of fat and watch as raw meat oozed blood until the flesh transformed into a chewy delicacy. His greatest pleasure was serving others. Watching a satisfied patron bite into a perfectly cooked steak was a delight. But there was one person he could never please, no matter how many years of culinary school. That person was his mother.
Growing up without siblings or a father, Jerry made it his goal to make his mother proud. However, attempts at breakfast in bed composed of steak and eggs, cooked in a tiny studio apartment, were met with looks of disgust. At the time, Jerry was the age where most parents offered a cooked meal took a polite bite, smiled, raved how delicious it was by uttering a few satisfied groans, and then secretly spat it out in a napkin. But not Jerry’s mother. She would sniff the prepared dish, jab at the steak, scowl, then say she wasn’t hungry.
During high school, he worked as a chef at a local chain restaurant to save money for college. On off days, he practiced his skills, offering his mother dishes containing fish, chicken, or beef. The answer was always the same; “Not Hungry”. Jerry received rave reviews from the local food critics, rare for a chain restaurant chef, but still, his mother refused to taste a single morsel. Baked, fried, smoked, stewed, poached, steamed, or grilled, she never even licked the sauce. He once served her tofu in case his mother was a closet vegetarian. He regretted that decision and felt he cheated on his one true love; animal protein.
For a woman who was never hungry, Jerry’s mother had a body condition score similar to a fatted steer ready for slaughter. She constantly complained about her dietary restrictions and kept her own assortment of snacks with her at all times. He would catch her gnawing on salty strips of beef jerky, a long stick of Slim Jim, or packaged rubber bacon that was supposedly “pre-cooked”. She’d sit in her chair and suck the processed meat, smack her lips, then chew her cud until it disintegrated, all the while causing brown tinged saliva to pool at the corner of her lips which he was forced to wipe away with a handkerchief. Once, he made her homemade jerky and served it in an empty name brand package. She finally tasted something he made. It worked, briefly. Jerry’s smile changed to despair as his mother spat out her bite, complaining that it was a bad batch with not enough salt. He didn’t expect she could detect the difference between real and heavily processed meat if it was in jerky form. Jerry was a purest. He never served or ate anything unless he knew where it came from. This rule even applied to his tigers.
The three Bengals lined up in a row, each waiting by their respective feeding area. Celeste, the largest of the three, pawed at the latch, her claws flipping the lock. She laid down and pushed her face into the bars, her tongue dancing back and forth to taste the meat-scented air. Her eyes, dilated like saucers, darted back and forth from the approaching feeding cart and back to the cage. The other sisters, Zara and Fran, jostled for position, one pushing in front of the other that escalated to a paw slap to the face. Fran’s claws dug into Zara’s hide, leaving an imprint similar to grill marks left in fresh hamburger meat. Zara roared back her protest and pinned Fran to the ground. She hovered over top of her sister with ears pinned back and her mouth open to show teeth as long as Jerry’s favorite chef knife.
After high school, Jerry went on to train at the top culinary institute in the state, located three hours away. This not only gave him a perfect opportunity to advance his career, but it also provided an escape from his mother. He hoped the distance would dull the constant loop of nagging and negative comments that played on repeat in his head. He went on to open his own five-star restaurant. The reviews poured in, all of them stellar. For years, he was the best in the business until he got the call that his mother was sick and would need to move in with him.
Jerry wheeled past the scuffling sisters and over to his favorite, Celeste. She pressed her head against the bars, close enough where he could reach up to pat her silky fur. He didn’t dare reach his hands completely through the bars, just hovered on his side. For as beautiful as these creatures were, Jerry never forgot their true predatory nature. He pulled his hand away and lifted the lid off the first plate. Underneath was an assortment of the best cuts, a petite filet, two rib eyes, and three large T-bones. These particular cuts had some of the best marbling Jerry had ever seen. The spiderweb of fat that wove itself between the meat fibers melted and dissolved in the pan.
Jerry lifted the plate and carried it slowly toward Celeste, careful not to spill any of the bloody juices that leaked from the meat. While all the other employees wore brown jumpsuits similar to a famous postal delivery service, Jerry insisted on wearing his crisp white chefs uniform. The other employees laughed at him, not only for his work attire but especially since he bothered to cook the tigers’ meals. Tigers had stomachs designed to handle raw meat, but Jerry believed his three Bengals loved the extra service none of the other carnivores at the zoo were offered. Despite all the chuckles and snide comments, Jerry never lost his love of cooking even after he was banned from cooking at any public restaurant again.
When his mother first moved in, Jerry was overwhelmed. He was working longer hours, managing his own as well as two additional restaurants. The doctor provided Jerry with a list of all his mother’s food restrictions, salt being at the top of the list. Her heart couldn’t handle it. He hoped that the years away from each other had changed his mother’s opinion on his cooking. He began with serving her the top dishes from his restaurant. Every single bite she refused. Without access to her normal assortment of snacks, the pounds of her stored fat began to melt away, leaving her skin to hang and sag.
As his mother withered away, Jerry slipped into a manic cooking frenzy. He mixed ground up caffeine pills with Xyience energy drinks which he chugged one after the other. He stayed up all hours of the night searching for new food sources. His coworkers questioned the erratic switches to the menu. He cut all the old favorites to add new dishes with exotic meats from all corners of the world. He tested each item on customers first. If the customer finished their plate, that dish was reserved for his starving mother. When he placed the plates in front of her, he could hear her stomach grumble. No matter how much he begged, she still wouldn’t eat.
Complaints escalated, not only from employees but customers as well. Employees complained they didn’t know how to cook half the food Jerry had on the menu. His sous-chef complained of the meat having foul odors and questioned Jerry’s supplier. The customers complained of foodborne illness that caused tremors, incoordination, and overall progressive loss of nerve function. After one complaint too many and a surprise visit from the Board of Health, Jerry’s restaurant closed for good.
Due to the shame of losing his restaurant, Jerry moved away with his dying mother. He applied for a few chef positions but word spread of Jerry’s extreme experimentation. Tight on cash due to his mother’s overdue medical bills, he extended his search for employment to other careers. He finally landed a job as a zookeeper, or “personal hired chef to the tigers” as Jerry liked to be called. This job brought him happiness and allowed him to experiment all he wanted. His mother became so frail that Jerry finally gave in, serving her all her old favorite snacks. He was thankful to see her eat again.
Life calmed down. They moved into a tiny one-bedroom apartment just two blocks from the zoo’s entrance. Jerry cooked for the tigers while his mother sat and sucked her processed meat. While his mother complained, Jerry kept silent, telling himself she would only be around a few more weeks. He fattened her up with assorted snack cakes and all the jerky she could muster. He tenderly massaged her old aching muscles while she spat insult after insult at him. Once a day, he measured her girth, testing and calculating to determine her percentage of body fat until she reached a desirable level.
Jerry sat the plate down in front of Celeste the tiger and withdrew his hand just as her mouth opened wide. She grabbed the filet, throwing it into the back of her throat and swallowing it in one gulp. The t-bone she picked up with her canines and placed it between her paws as she laid on the ground. Jerry heard the crunch of her powerful jaws as they obliterated bone. Her claws reached out toward the plate, snatching another piece and dragging it toward her across the dirt of the enclosure floor. Bloody-juices spilled off the plate and mixed with the dirt, creating a special earthy Bordelaise sauce.
Jerry smiled as he watched Celeste lick all his problems away.
Brooke Reynolds is a veterinarian from Charlotte, North Carolina. When she isn’t saving animals, she enjoys writing fiction. Her stories have appeared at such online and print markets as Massacre Magazine, Fantasia Divinity, The Airgonaut, The Literary Hatchet, Ghost Parachute, Every Day Fiction, and Defenestration. Her story ‘Dr. Google’ won 2nd place in the 2016 Short Story Contest for Channillo and her story ‘Bang Bang’ was runner up for the 2018 Flash Fiction Suite Contest at Defenestrationism. You can follow her on twitter @psubamit or check out her website reynoldswrites.org