by Renee Carter Hall
It had once been a summer cottage, a weekend getaway, a place couples might come for a tryst or fathers might bring their boys fishing. It was salt-washed gray now, the wooden stairs uneven, paint blistered around the dull windows. Beyond the house, the sound stretched calm, reflecting the late afternoon light. The driveway was paved with broken clamshells, so I was glad I'd worn flats.
It was hard to believe he was here. It seemed so far away from everything, and I wasn't sure whether to envy him the peace and quiet or wish that somehow he were still out in the middle of everything, out performing where he belonged.
Everyone in my generation had grown up being able to sing the Jungle Jam theme song. We laughed as Terrence Tiger foiled both the poachers and his nemesis, the evil but ultimately inept elephant Lord Longtusk. The show had a couple of bumbling monkeys, a few humanoid toons as the rangers of the wildlife preserve, and a handful of other secondary characters, but Terrence was the star. And the show wasn't just funny, it was smart. It had fans from elementary school to graduate school thanks to its skewering of pop culture, celebrities, political figures, you name it—but still with plenty of sight gags and cartoon comedy to go around. When I watched the series on DVD years later, I was amazed—and delighted—at how much had gone over my head as a child.
I had considered wearing my Terrence T-shirt for the interview, but that seemed a little too desperate-fangirl. Instead, I'd gone for professional but approachable: khaki slacks, pastel blouse, small gold hoop earrings.
There was no doorbell, so I knocked gingerly. The door opened a crack, and a bright black pupil peered out from a field of white. "Yes?"
It was his voice, no doubt of that, but it was quieter and rougher, as if he'd just woken up.
"Terrence?" I hoped I didn't seem too forward calling him by his first name, but somehow 'Mr. Tiger' just sounded silly. "I'm Lauren Mitchell, from ForeverToons.com? We'd scheduled an interview for today."
"Oh. Of course." He opened the door.
He looked... faded. Not merely his colors, though I would have sworn that his orange fur had been brighter. He just seemed smaller, lesser.
That's what the camera does, I told myself.
He did seem tired, though, and a pang of fear went through me. But—maybe I really had woken him up. Toons ate and slept like everyone else, after all.
"Please, come in."
It looked as if he'd kept the furniture from the house's rental days: wicker, glass, well worn honey-colored wood, simple and ordinary. The only signs of his acting life were several framed photographs and an old bookcase of awards. I recognized the Emmys, but none of the others. A thin layer of dust shrouded all of them.
He saw me looking around and gave me a wry smile. "Not what you expected?"
"I—I don't know what I was expecting."
"Can I get you anything to drink? Water, soda, iced tea?"
He led me into the living room, ushering me onto a faded blue couch while he sat in a white wicker chair opposite. I noticed there was a small stereo in the room but no TV.
I powered up my tablet, opened a new file, and turned on the recorder. When I asked if I had his permission to record our interview, a flicker of unease passed across his face, but he agreed.
I settled back on the couch. "You have a lovely place here. It's so quiet."
He laughed dryly. "Listen... Lauren, was it?" I nodded. "I appreciate the white lie, but let's agree to tell each other the truth today, all right? I..." That shadow across his features again. "I expect this will be the last time I'm interviewed by anyone, so I'd rather not waste it being anything but ourselves."
"All right." I glanced at my notes, then decided I'd be better off winging it and turned the display off. "I'm curious as to why you chose this place, then."
"I didn't. It chose me."
He turned his gaze to the sliding glass door to our right, looking out at the water. "We're all drawn somewhere near the end. A lot of us to the water for some reason. Oceans, lakes, islands—nobody knows why. So I came here. It was cheap enough, and people let me be."
"You want to be left alone?"
Another wry smile, but at least this time he looked more like the Terrence I remembered. "Not really. But if it's going to happen, I'd rather it happen quietly."
I knew what the "it" was that we were politely dancing around. Toons aren't born--at least, not in the human fashion. They call it "winking in," and it happens all at once, when they appear more or less fully formed, although their appearance and personality can still be molded to some extent by the role they play—for instance, I don't know if Terrence had that stripe across his throat that's shaped like a bow tie when he first winked in. But for all intents and purposes, toons have no childhood.
The flip side of this is what happens to toons when they wink out. They disappear, but no one's quite sure exactly what decides the time. The best theory at the moment has to do with not how popular or loved they are, but how relevant they are—that is, loved at the moment, not out of pure nostalgia.
As far as I knew, Jungle Jam hadn't been shown on TV in years. Boxer shorts and T-shirts with Terrence's image were still sold, and collectibles went for respectable amounts on the auction sites, but there was no mistaking it for anything but thirtysomethings like me getting suddenly nostalgic for their childhoods.
Well, he wanted honesty, so I went for it. "How long do you think you have?"
He didn't flinch. "I don't know." I was surprised at how matter-of-fact he was being, but I supposed he'd had time to resign himself to fate.
"I think it'll be soon," he added after a moment. "It's just a feeling, but..." He shrugged.
"What about the others from the show? Do you ever see them?"
"They've all been gone for years. Longtusk held out the longest. But I was the star, and the stars are always the last ones left."
This was getting depressing—even though it felt selfish to think that. Where was the wisecracking character I remembered, or even a glimmer of him? I hated myself for it, but I was starting to feel almost cheated.
He studied me for a moment. "Did you watch the show? Or--no, it was probably before your time—"
"Now who's telling white lies?"
He smiled. "It's just—you don't look that old."
"Old enough. Of course I watched it. All the time. I loved you." I felt myself blushing, not only at what I'd said, but at saying it in the past tense. "Jungle Jam was my favorite show. I watched a couple of episodes last week and felt like I was eight years old again. It was great. I'd forgotten how good it was."
"We had good writers."
"And good actors," I pressed. "I wouldn't have thought I'd ever see you this modest."
A familiar impish spark came into his eyes. "Better be careful. I haven't had this much praise in so long, I can get drunk on a thimbleful."
"Maybe that's what I want."
"More interesting reading, you mean?"
"For the five people who read the blog, sure."
"I can see the headline now—'Famous Cartoon Star Tells Lurid Tiger Tales.'"
"Hm. Well, Mort and Morey Monkey weren't really twins."
"I know, it's scandalous." He paused. "Are you sure I can't get you something to drink? I've got a nice Riesling, if you like wine."
"I'm driving, but one glass wouldn't hurt."
While he slipped into the kitchen, I went back to take a closer look at the photographs. One was a shot of the entire cast with everyone grinning at the camera—except the villains, who were scowling appropriately. It was hard to believe the rest of them were all gone.
The other pictures were of Terrence with a variety of cartoon stars; it looked like they'd been taken at parties. I lingered in front of one that showed Terrence with Bugs Bunny, both of them wearing leis, coconut bras, and grass skirts, each toasting the camera with a mai tai.
"He's starting to fade, you know." Terrence spoke quietly behind me. "He doesn't go out much anymore so no one will see. If they don't find something good enough for him soon... I've heard rumors he's looking for a place in Pismo Beach. I hope they're wrong." He held the wine glass out to me, and I took it and sipped, not knowing what to say.
I'd had so many questions ready to ask—what his favorite episode was, what his relationship with Longtusk was really like, what he thought of the cartoons on TV today. But now that I was here with him, those all seemed petty, just trivia to dole out for the fans. All at once, I realized that what I really wanted was to know him as a person instead of the icon I'd watched every day after school. I didn't know if that was even possible. I wanted to help him, to bring him back somehow—but that felt even more farfetched.
Instead, I went back to the couch, and we sipped our wine, and he talked. He told me stories from the show, the practical jokes that went on behind the scenes. He did impressions of the other characters that left me howling with laughter.
A soft beep came from my tablet. Low battery. I'd forgotten about the recording. I couldn't believe the time when I checked it: I'd been there five hours. It had felt like two at most. As Terrence took our wine glasses into the kitchen, I realized sheepishly that it really hadn't been much of an interview. It had been fun, but I had no idea how I was going to get something out of it for the blog.
"I should get going," I said when he returned. "But... I was wondering if I could come back tomorrow. Just... to kind of follow up."
His smile then was the most genuine I'd seen from him all night. "I'd like that."
I wanted to hug him, but that felt too awkward—as did the thought of just leaving. Finally I held out my hand. He clasped it gently in both of his, and I saw something in his expression that I couldn't quite place. It wasn't until I was halfway to the motel, my hand still tingling with the warmth of his touch, that I realized it was gratitude.
I glanced over my notes again the next morning while I ate breakfast at a local diner. The tablet's voice recognition software was a joke, so most of the transcription was garbled, but it was enough to refresh my memory. I sipped my coffee (bitter), nibbled a slice of toast (burned), and finally ditched the runny eggs in favor of a piece of apple pie that was just coming out of the oven. Not exactly the complete breakfast they talked about in the cereal commercials, but close enough.
I guess this is how you know you're an adult—when no one can tell you that you can't have dessert for breakfast. I felt oddly giddy and reckless, and though I tried to chalk it up to being nervous about seeing Terrence again, I finally had to admit that it wasn't anxiety. It was excitement. I hadn't looked forward to seeing someone this much since I'd been in—
No. No way was I going there. This was hero worship for a guy I felt like I knew. Emphasis, I told myself sternly, on felt like. For all I knew, most of that personality I loved so well truly was the product of the writers—or merely the persona of the actor.
You are not going to be an idiot fangirl.
I held tight to that mantra, paid the check, and headed down the road.
Terrence looked brighter this morning—and not just his color. "Coffee?"
"God, yes. Does the health department know that diner in town is serving battery acid?"
He chuckled. "Ah, the Silver Strand; serving cheap food at cheaper prices for over twenty years. But nobody beats their desserts."
I took the thick pottery mug and held it with both hands, savoring the aroma. "That's more like it."
I took my seat on the couch again. For one wild moment I hoped he might sit beside me, but instead he took the same chair as before. "So," he said, "where were we?"
I quickly powered up the tablet and turned the recorder on. "We were talking about the second season, and how they experimented with the format."
"Mm." He nodded. "Well, some of those shows worked, and some didn't." He flashed a quirky grin.
I smiled, too. "'Broomsticks and Butterflies'?"
"By popular agreement—fans and crew—our single worst episode." He looked heavenward and shook his head. "It was all I could do to get through the dialogue. If the whole season had been done that way, we would have been canceled for sure."
"Okay, so I know your least favorite. Which one was your favorite?"
He glanced at his coffee, then back up to me. "'Purr-fect Harmony.'"
"The one with... oh, no wonder." I grinned. That was the episode where the poachers had used a girl tiger from a zoo to lure Terrence out of the preserve.
Terrence's orange cheeks went redder. "Hey, it was a fun show. I liked getting tricked for once and being out of my element for a little while."
That was the only episode she'd been in. "Did you ever see her again, after the show?"
He studied the coffee mug again. "We went out a few times, but it didn't work out. Too complicated."
"Why?" The question was out before I realized I'd said it. "Never mind--you don't have to—"
"It's all right. It's just that... toon relationships are always complicated." He gestured to the framed photos. "Bugs tried it a couple of times. But they just weren't as big as he was, and they didn't last. We just... never know how long the other person will be around."
"Neither do humans," I pointed out gently.
"True. But that shadow's just a bit sharper for us." He switched to a lighter tone. "Besides, Tina looked just like me except for eyelashes and a blue bow over one ear. Not exactly the most attractive of women, when you get right down to it."
There was more there than he was saying, but going any further would have really been prying. Any other time, I would have pushed to get something good for the blog, but this time... I just couldn't. It was more than wanting to respect his privacy. There was pain beneath his words, and I didn't want him to be hurt.
I moved on to another set of questions about what it was like to win the awards, and which ones meant the most to him.
He shrugged. "None of them, really. Oh, it was great at the time, but now look at them. Gathering dust, and here I am, and none of them doing any good when it matters." A bitter note crept into his voice at the end, and I saw a flash of something like anger in his eyes. He paused and took a breath. "I shouldn't complain, though. I've done better than most."
Once again, I wished he were sitting beside me. I wanted to take his hand in mine, to tell him how much joy he'd given me over the years, how much happiness he deserved in return. Instead, the moment passed in awkward silence, and I made a big show of checking the tablet's battery display.
"So what was your favorite episode?" Terrence asked.
"Oh, man, I don't know. Can I give you a top five? Um... maybe the one where you lost your memory and thought you were British royalty."
He held up his coffee mug with pinky extended. "Quite right. Excellent choice."
"I took my stuffed animal and made a monocle for it."
He laughed. "Really? Do you still have it?"
"I wish I did. It got so ratty my mom finally threw it out one day when I was at school."
"Yeah, I'm still working through that in therapy." My coffee had gone cold, but I sipped at it anyway. "I used to have all the playsets. The treehouse, the secret lair, the hot air balloon—everything. I wish I still had them, but..."
A moment passed. "But what?" he asked softly.
I tried to figure out how to explain it. "It's not just wishing I had the toys again. If I had them now, they'd all just be sitting on a shelf. And okay, yeah, I'd look at them and remember, and that'd be nice.” I paused. “But what I really wish is that I could play with them like I used to. Just... sit there for hours and make up stories and move them around. Just get lost in it. And that's what I can't do anymore. That's what I can't get back."
I laughed nervously. "I guess that doesn't make much sense if you've never been little, but—"
"Actually," he said slowly, "it does."
His gaze met mine, and I believed him. All at once I felt something I hadn't felt in a long time: the sensation of being understood, of utter comfort paired with complete freedom. It was only a moment, but there was no mistaking it.
I fumbled for the tablet and had to tap the screen twice to shut off the recorder. "I've taken enough of your time. I'd better get going."
"Are you sure? You're welcome to stay if—"
"No, really. It's all right. I'll send you the link when the article gets posted. Sometime next week. Probably." I powered down the tablet and shoved it clumsily into my bag. My face burned. I'd promised myself I wouldn't be a fangirl, and what was I doing now? Imagining some silly chemistry, some connection I only wished were there.
I picked up my coffee mug with the idea of carrying it to the kitchen, but he reached for it instead, his hands closing over mine, and there it was again: warmth, safety, and an ember of something I hadn't felt in a long time. Or, if I was being honest, something I had never felt.
I tried to remember what I'd planned to say. "It's... it's really been an honor. To talk with you. It's been like a dream, so... thank you."
His voice had a quiet tone I hadn't heard before. "It's been... more than I hoped for." He set the mug gently back on the table, and when he turned back to me, the Terrence I remembered was suddenly there, with his signature blend of mischief and charm. "Let me thank you, then. How about dinner tonight? My treat."
"I promise we won't go to the Silver Strand."
I told myself to be polite. Quick. Simple. A brief apology, an explanation that I had to be back at work the next day, that I really hadn't planned on being in town another night, and—
"Sure," I said. "That'd be... that'd be great."
His eyes lit up. "Wonderful. Just meet me here. Seven o'clock?"
I nodded. "Seven. I'll see you then." I reminded myself to breathe, picked up my bag, crunched my way across the shell driveway, and managed to get into the car before I started grinning like an idiot.
He was just lonely, I told myself as I drove back to the motel. That was all. It didn't really mean anything. He wanted someone to talk to, and I could do that. I understood that.
Because you're lonely, too.
I told myself to shut up.
I spent a couple of hours staring at a blank screen, trying to come up with something for the blog. Every fifteen minutes or so, I would scribble an opening line with the stylus, watch my handwriting fade into text, stare at it for several minutes, and then scrub the stylus over it to erase the whole thing.
Finally, feeling suffocated by the tired little room, I went out for a walk. The tourist season had come and gone, and most of the quaint shops nearby were already closed, with signs in the windows saying things like "See you next Memorial Day!" The emptiness didn't improve my mood, but at least I wasn't forced to make small talk with anyone.
It wasn't fair. That was the stupid, childish thought that kept playing over and over in my mind. It just wasn't fair. At first, I thought I meant it wasn't fair for Terrence, for his very existence to be linked to what other people thought or felt about him. I could be completely alone in the world, no family, no friends, no one to even know I existed, let alone care—and still I would exist.
The farther I walked, though, the more I realized the truth. It wasn't just unfair to him. I was also feeling sorry for myself. After all the years of dating and breaking up, I'd finally met someone wonderful, someone I really cared about, and odds were he wouldn't last out the month.
I checked my watch and headed back toward the motel. The sun was starting to set over the water, sinking slowly into a pool of orange and red. The sight stopped me, held me there. I stood for several minutes just watching it, taking it in.
Appreciating a sunset couldn't keep it from fading. But I couldn't turn away from something beautiful just because it wouldn't last.
At the motel, I unpacked the one dress I'd brought--one of those "just in case, what the hell, it doesn't take up that much room anyway" items. Thankfully, the fabric hadn't wrinkled, so I didn't have to risk the rust-edged iron that was pushed to the back of the closet shelf. The dress was sleeveless, sheer and summery, though the deep crimson color was pure autumn. I hoped the evening wouldn't get too cold, since the only jacket I'd brought was too casual to match.
When he opened his door and saw me, there was a delightful heart-skipping instant as he took in the sight. Did I look that way when I saw him?
"I feel so... underdressed." He thought a moment, then hooked an invisible zipper beneath his chin, unzipped his striped pelt, and stepped out of it wearing a tux.
"Oh, thanks. Now I'm underdressed."
He took my hand. "No, you're beautiful. Ready to go?"
I offered to drive, but he said it wasn't far. We walked along the water, sometimes on boardwalks and along docks, sometimes on a winding trail through sandy grass. Finally we came to a structure that looked like it had once been another vacation cottage, but now it could only be called a shack. It leaned to one side, the lit windows looking more diamond-shaped than square.
Terrence chuckled when he saw my expression. "Don't worry, it's safe. And a lot nicer on the inside, trust me."
He held the door open for me. Inside, it was still plain and a little run down, but at least the walls were straight.
A portly toon alligator in a white apron greeted us. "Evening, Terrence."
"Hey, Al. That table ready?"
"Ready and waiting. Special'll be out in a few."
It wasn't a big dining room, just a half-dozen round tables with plain white tablecloths. But in the back corner, one table was set with bone china and silver, and a bottle of chilled white wine stood beside crystal goblets. Candles shone in silver candlesticks, and a single red rose in a crystal bud vase completed the picture.
From somewhere unseen, Al dimmed the lights as we sat down. Everything caught the candlelight, reflecting it back in a thousand chasing glimmers.
Terrence smiled. "Al's angling for a big tip tonight."
"Is it always this... private?"
"You mean empty? We're being honest, remember." He glanced around the room. "In season, you can wait two hours for a table on a Friday night. This time of year, it's pretty quiet."
"The way you like it?"
He spread the linen napkin in his lap. "The way it suits me."
Al brought out shrimp cocktail for us to share. "I hope seafood's all right," Terrence said.
"Fantastic." I reached for the shrimp. "But what are you going to eat?"
The special turned out to be linguini and broiled scallops in a white wine sauce. "He's outdone himself," Terrence remarked, pouring another glass of wine. "For all I knew, we were going to wind up eating fish and chips off china plates."
The silences were comfortable. I realized neither of us needed, anymore, to fill every space with chatter. I was warm from more than just the wine. Before this evening, all I'd have been able to think about was how I was out on a date that hordes of fangirls—and boys—would have killed for. But now, when I looked at him, he wasn't the Terrence Tiger, star of Jungle Jam. He was just Terrence, himself. It was hard to separate out which one I was falling in love with—but the truth was, I loved them both.
Dessert was raspberry cheesecake drizzled with chocolate.
"Okay, no way Al made this," Terrence said.
Al came out of the kitchen, wiping his hands on a dishtowel. "You doubt my wide range of talents?"
"Many things about you are wide, Al. Talents, not so much." Terrence took another bite of the cheesecake. "Besides, I know the Silver Strand's hot fudge when I taste it."
"Busted." Al laughed. "Anything else for you?"
"Just the check."
"Eh, it's on the house." Al winked at me.
Terrence smiled. "I owe you one."
"I'll add it to your tab." He headed back to the kitchen. "Have a good night, kids."
It was dark when we left, but Terrence whipped out a lantern to light our way back to his house. He also slipped off his jacket and put it around my shoulders. It was warm and smelled faintly of spice and musk.
I smiled at him. "We're just a romantic cliché, aren't we?"
"Maybe. But things only get to be clichés because they work."
At the house, he made coffee. We sat on the couch, set our cups on the table, and ignored them.
On the show, Terrence had been suave and cool and had always found the right thing to say. Now he looked almost nervous, and I loved that. "Remember... we're still being honest," he said.
"I know this is all—kind of sudden. It's just that..." He paused. "I came here not knowing how much time I had left. And I realize now that ever since I've been here, I've just been... waiting for it to happen. That's all. Not living, just waiting."
"But you're not gone yet."
"No. And I'm glad of that now."
"So am I."
He leaned closer. The kiss seemed to happen on its own, inevitable and perfect, deepening slowly, pulling us against each other.
Several long moments later, we broke apart, and I glanced down, then back into his eyes. "So where were you hiding that all this time?"
He gave me a playful smile. "Trade secret." And we kissed again.
When I woke, sunlight was filtering through the gauzy bedroom curtains. The bed was empty beside me, and for an instant I feared the worst, until I heard him in the kitchen.
I called my boss and told her I had a family emergency and would have to be out for the rest of the week. I figured it was close enough to the truth, and she would never have believed the truth anyway. I hardly believed it myself.
Each day blended into the next. We played miniature golf at the boardwalk, with Terrence taking on a new celebrity persona at each hole. He'd sweet-talked the owner, a toon poodle whose pink fur was going gray, into opening up just for us.
I was surprised by how many toons lived and worked close by. Terrence just shrugged when I mentioned it. "I told you; we're all drawn to water eventually."
A purple hippo in a zoot suit ran the single-screen theater downtown. He basically gave Terrence the key to the place, and we sat in the cool darkness for hours, watching Jungle Jam, Tom and Jerry, Top Cat, Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck. Most of the time we watched the screen. Sometimes we didn't.
Dinner was always at Al's. (I had learned that his middle initial was, as I'd suspected, "E.") Once, when Al and I were briefly alone, the gator said suddenly, "Thank you."
"For what you're doing for him. He's a good guy. Always has been. It's good to see him happy again. He deserves that." And he took my empty plate and waddled back to the kitchen.
After dinner one night, back at the house, Terrence presented me with a big red box tied with a white bow.
"What's the occasion?"
He shrugged and smiled. "Just something I thought you'd like."
"This... doesn't explode or anything, does it?"
"Hey, I already learned the hard way not to let Jokey Smurf do my gift-wrapping."
I lifted the lid off gingerly, and there, on a bed of tissue paper, was a new plush Terrence, the tags still on it, the same kind I'd had when I was little.
"It's perfect! Where did you get this?"
"I've had some stuff in storage." He smiled. "Talk about needing therapy. I'm the one giving out stuffed animals of myself."
I hugged the toy. "He's adorable." Then I kissed Terrence, slipping my arms around him. "I like the real thing even better, though," I whispered, and drew him down to me.
All these days, I had been trying not to see it. I had hoped that somehow one person's love could take the place of a thousand fans' admiration. But the next morning, as he stood by the window looking out, I saw the morning sunlight slant through him, and I saw how his orange fur had faded to peach.
Terrence glanced at me, and I was afraid I'd spoken the word aloud. Then he smiled, and I managed to smile back. I tried to hold on to that smile for the rest of the day.
Later that evening, we sat on the small deck out back overlooking the water, watching the terns dive into the smooth, sunset-gold surface, watching the ripples wash all the way to the shore.
"It's going to happen soon," he said.
I swallowed. "How do you know?"
"I know." His voice was strained. "Thank Al for me, will you? I never wanted to embarrass him, but he's been a good friend, and I want him to know that. I want him to know I appreciated it." He was silent for several moments, staring out at the water. "One more thing."
"Anything," I said, and meant it.
He turned back to me, his eyes shining. "Remember me."
I held him as if I could keep him with me by sheer determination. I forced my voice past tears, my jaw clenched against the sob that wanted to rise from my chest. "Always."
He lowered his face to mine, and I closed my eyes. In the kiss, I felt him dissolving, like sand slipping through my fingers. His warmth lingered on my lips, but when I opened my eyes, he was gone.
I never did write that blog post. I couldn't. Sometimes things are cliché because they work, and sometimes words are too small, too weak, to carry what needs to be said.
The plush version of Terrence sits on a shelf in my library, next to the DVDs of the show. Someday I'll watch them again. I'll smile at the jokes I know by heart, and hold the stuffed animal close, and feel as safe as I did when I was a child, as loved as I felt when he held me in that cottage by the sea. For now, the toy sits there, and I look at it, and I remember.
The child I was carried Terrence with her wherever she went. The woman I am now carries him with her still.
© 2011 Renee Carter Hall. May not be reprinted, reposted, or otherwise redistributed without written permission. This story first appeared in ROAR Volume 3, published by Bad Dog Books.