The Beast in My Jungle
By Robert Ford
When I was a sophomore in college, I took a literature course that was devoted to the extensive novels and short stories of Henry James. Among his many works, I fixated, almost to the point of obsession, on his short story The Beast in the Jungle. The main character is convinced that his life will be defined by some catastrophic or spectacular event and that the event is lying in wait for him like a beast in the jungle waiting to spring. I decided to eliminate the idea that I would suffer a catastrophe. Instead, I became convinced that my life would be defined by a spectacular event and that all I had to do was wait. Some might suggest that my spectacular event had happened early. You see, I came into a great deal of money the old fashion way - the really old-fashioned way. I married it. I'd fallen in love with May Bartram the scion of old money - old and incredibly abundant money. "There's no need for either of us to work,” she announced. “Daddy has given me his country estate. It will be our home, but I want us to travel the world.” And we did.
Even as I grew accustomed and comfortable with my vagabond life of luxury, I continued to believe that the spectacular event - whatever it turned out to be - was lying there in the jungle waiting to leap. Years passed, but no beast appeared. That was of little importance to the ultimate sadness of May’s death at what I consider far too early at 62. During our marriage I was never burdened with being a provider, I was, however, a faithful and attentive husband. Unfortunately, I didn't do as well when it came to our children. I now admit that as a result of my neglect, our children are not a source of parental pride. Our son has gone through life surfing off Oahu. Our oldest daughter has been divorced twice and, last I heard, was living with a man in Arizona who is a walking tattoo advertisement. The youngest daughter is living kumbaya on a commune in California. Maybe, as I think about it now, the beast in the jungle was not a spectacular event, but the catastrophes that my children's lives have become.
My days since May’s passing have been without drama or purpose. The only thing in my life that might qualify as a routine right now - inconsequential as it is - is my Sunday morning brunch at the Fleur De Lis restaurant. Pierre, the owner, always puts me at the same table and has a copy of the Times waiting.
It was one Sunday in June that I first laid eyes on Bob Kitzerow and his family. I looked up as a man and woman and three children - who all looked to be under ten - walked in. They were greeted by the hostess who promptly seated them at a table next to mine. While they were dressed in what my mother would have labeled as their "Sunday best," to be hones,t I immediately regarded the family as an intrusion on what I regarded as my private Sunday space. My god, I thought, so much for a quiet brunch.
I waited for the first screaming and childish outbursts that I knew would come while I considered asking Pierre if he would be merciful and move me to another table. But within a few minutes I changed my mind. The three children were perfectly well behaved. No screams, shouts, loud talk, or behavioral reprimands from embarrassed parents. No, the family was a Norman Rockwell painting.
The mother appeared to be in her early thirties and, beneath what I must describe as a veil of sadness, she appeared to be very pretty. While she was dressed nicely, she wore little make-up, and her hair was pulled back in a casual manner as if she didn't have the time or interest in doing anything more with it. There was something grey about her, almost forlorn even as she looked at her children with the warmth of a woman who took great pride in her issue. The sadness in her expression seemed antithetical to the picture before me.
The father was pleasant looking, an athletic build, brown hair, neatly trimmed. He had the kind of face that looked like people would mistake him for someone they knew, when in fact they did not. He appeared to be making much too much of an effort to remain cheery and buoyant. He talked like one would expect an exceedingly doting father might talk to small children. I could imagine him reading bedtime stories and then tucking them in at night. It pains me to admit that I seldom did either.
I could not help but overhear the mother as she looked at the menu. "Can we afford this?" she asked her husband in hushed tones.
"It's your birthday. and the kids and I did not want you to have to make your own birthday lunch."
"We'll skip any appetizers They're too expensive."
"Betty, honey," he said. "It's ok, we can afford this. At least this one time. Please I know you're concerned about the operation. I am too, but I'll find a way to pay for it beyond what our friends and neighbors are doing for us."
I wondered what he was talking about. Operation? What kind of operation? On whom? One of the children? Him? Her?
"We'll get through this," the man said laying his hand on her arm. "But let's not talk about that today. This is your birthday, and we all want it to be a happy day."
"Daddy ordered you a cake," the youngest one proudly announced.
"You didn't." It was a mild reprimand.
"With candles on it," the child added.
"Hey, Janie, the cake is a surprise. You weren't supposed to tell Mommy,” he said gently.
"Daddy are you rich?" the oldest daughter asked.
"Oh yes, I'm very rich. I've got three children and a wonderful wife who are worth more than their weight in gold."
"We make you rich?" the youngest daughter was intent on clarification.
"Oh yes you do. Very, very rich."
At that moment, I found I envied the man. He was indeed rich. More so than I had ever been. I think I would trade half of everything I own - maybe more - to have been like that man. It was on impulse that I got up and went to the back of the restaurant to find Pierre. "Pierre, do me a favor, will you?" I asked.
"Anytime Mr. Marcher," Pierre responded.
"Do you know the name of the family at the table next to mine?"
"Their reservation is under the name of Kitzerow."
"Here's what I'd like you to do. I want you to tell them that they are your one thousandth customer and that as a result they have won a free brunch for all five of them. Tell them they can order anything they want and it's all free. Don't worry, I'll pay for it."
"He also ordered a cake."
"It's on me," I said.
"Shall I tell them that you're paying for their brunch?"
"No, please don't. Let them believe this is a reward for bing number on thousand.
I went back to my seat and hid behind my newspaper as I listened to Pierre inform the Kitzerows that the brunch would be free. I was able to watch their faces as it appeared the sun had just slipped from behind a cloud and brightened the table.
I listened to their conversation in hope of learning more about the operation and, who it was for. But nothing more was said. When the cake was delivered, Pierre and the waitress led the family in "Happy Birthday," I noticed that tears came to the mother's eyes as she looked first at the cake and then at her children.
"Why is momma crying?" the youngest daughter asked.
"Because she's happy."
I think it was at that moment I mentally adopted them as my surrogate family. I found myself wishing I had the courage to introduce myself and ask to know more about them They looked to be everything my own family should have been but never were.
George, our butler - he’s worked for us for years - was in the car outside the restaurant and I asked him to wait until we saw the Kitzerow family leave. I had George follow them - at a discreet distance. They left Centerport and drove into neighboring Eastport and made their way to Woodbury Lane. It was an unimposing street with cookie cutter houses - neat, but modest.
George parked the car far enough from their house so as not to draw attention to my Mercedes which was certainly well out of character for the street. I watched them go inside and was about to tell George to take me home when Kitzerow and his son came out to play catch in their front yard. I tried a couple of times to play catch with my son. But at ten he was uncoordinated, threw like a girl and I made the mistake of telling him so. He got mad, slammed his glove down and went crying to May. From that point on he would have nothing to do with a baseball. I guess I should have tried to give it another go with him, but I never found the time. I watched the father and son for a few minutes. When my guilt got the better of me, I told George to take me home.
Maybe it was just out of simple curiosity, or maybe because I wanted to know if they were really the Normal Rockwell painting they appeared to be. The next day I called my lawyer and said I wanted him to find out all he could about the Kitzerows. What does he do? Which family member needs an operation?
He got back to me on Thursday.
"I'm not sure this guy is for real."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean he appears to be a really good man. If his life was a movie, they'd bring back Jimmy Stewart to play him. HHHhhe's a teacher - teaches history and social studies and is also the assistant principal at Eastport High School. Everybody we talked to loves the guy. He's the Lacrosse coach, the town recreation director during the summer, volunteers as an auxiliary fireman, plays the banjo in a four-man band that entertains at a retirement home, he's on the vestry of his church and volunteers to help with several charities. And his wife Betty, before she took ill, had a volunteer resume as long as his."
” She’s ill?"
"Heart problem. Needs a heart valve operation. But the cost is way over what their insurance will cover so a bunch of townspeople - school kids included, - have been trying to raise money to help pay for it. Trouble is, the chances of them ever raising enough before it's too late are pretty remote. I think they know that."
The word remote explained the tears the mother had shed when the birthday cake was delivered and it immediately gave me purpose. The Kitzerows were my family now and their problems were mine. "Find me the best heart surgeon in New York. I don't care about cost. Whatever it is, I'll cover it."
"John, you're talking about a great deal of money. And from what you've told me, you don't really know the Kitzerows. Why do you want to do this?"
"Because I can," I said and added only to myself, Because I don't want those kids to lose their mother. "Now please, just make all the arrangements. And if anybody wants to know who's paying the bills, tell them it comes from Mr. Anonymous."
It was two months later that I learned Betty Kitzerow's recuperation from the operation had been a success and that she was doing well. I was also told Bob Kitzerow was making every effort to learn who Mr. Anonymous was. I made sure in that one pursuit he failed.
In the years that followed as I waited for the beast to leap out with the spectacular event that would define my life, I never actually met the Kitzerow family, I became a benign stalker. I was like a proud, but invisible, grandparent attending any public event in which Bob, or his family participated, but always remaining just another face in the crowd. Whenever I learned that Bob and Betty were helping to raise money for some worthwhile cause, money was donated - anonymously. Charitable goals were met and exceeded. The Kitzerows' fund-raising efforts, I learned, had made them kind of celebrities in Eastport. I took a level of satisfaction playing the mysterious Mr. Anonymous that I had not experienced for years.
Once I attended an Eastport school event in which all three of the Kitzerow children participated. Impulse ruled me again, and I spent the next few days setting up a scholarship fund to cover their costs when it came time for college.
Bob Kitzerow was eventually made principal and word had it that if he decided to run for mayor of Eastport he would be elected unanimously. No one would have wanted to run against him.
On my ninety-second birthday I got a call from my children. Their trusts were running low and, though they did not say it in so many words, I understood that they wanted to know why I was still coming down for breakfast. Wasn't it time I croaked and replenished their coffers? Of course, it was time, but to irritate them I decided not to die for a few more years.
The last time I saw the Kitzerows was almost fourteen years to the day when I had seen them first and by chance it was at the Fleur de Lis restaurant. I had just finished my last cup of coffee and was about to leave when they came in and, as fate would have it, they sat at the same table as before. Bob, his wife, their three children - now in their early twenties - and a young woman who appeared to be the son's fiancé, were in a happy animated conversation about the graduation of the middle daughter from Yale. Their voices bubbled with cheerful expectation of the plans they had made for the summer. Bob, I noticed, said little, content just to listen as the proud father and husband. They had ordered wine and once the glasses were filled, he proposed a toast.
"To your mother, my wonderful wife. Happy Birthday Betty. And to whoever it was who made such a difference in our lives."
"To Mr. Anonymous," the middle daughter said, and they all laughed.
"Yes, to wonderful Mr. Anonymous," Betty echoed.
What I wouldn't have given for May to have experienced that moment with me. As I got up to leave, I noticed Betty gave me a quizzical look and, for a moment, I thought she might have recognized me as the family stalker. I was wrong, she was looking at an old man who was searching for his cane and appeared in need of help navigating to the door. I smiled a smile that said thanks, I could manage.
It was on an August evening almost two months later that John Marcher did something he had not done in years. He asked George to help him out to the back terrace so that he could sit in the big, high back Adirondack chair placed so that it maximized his view of his lawn and gardens. The evening air was soft, almost as if the temperature had been dialed to perfect. His eyes followed his great green lawn, past the bordering gardens all the way to the beautiful hand carved figural marble gazebo May had brought back from Italy. The sun was sliding lower in the sky sending shadows from the trees creeping across the small ponds that sang their watery song as the fountains sparkled in the sun light. The cumulus clouds that drifted like wads of cotton against the azure sky were turned into a pallet of color as the sun painted them in many various shades of gold, silver, red and purple.”God this is beautiful," he said aloud, surprised by the sound of his own voice.
Time had diminished his expectation of a life-defining spectacular event leaping from the jungle. In his occasional musings he had essentially dismissed it as a frivolous sophomoric fantasy.
After briefly dozing off in his chair, he awakened when he thought he heard his wife step out on the terrace carrying a tray with two glasses of Chablis, a small block of cheddar and her favorite crackers. Remarkable, he thought, the years have been so good to her. "May, look at our yard," he said with a sweeping gesture. It's beautiful, absolutely beautiful. Why haven't we come out here more often just to sit and enjoy this?" He turned back toward his wife, expecting her to answer. But she was not there. "We should have," he said softly as he turned back to the summer tableaus playing out in front of him. "We should have." His head fell back on the chair's headrest. "Beautiful, just beautiful."
Then, as dusk crept silently over his yard, he imagined it was lifting him softly into the void of oblivion. His last and fleeing conscious thought was the recognition that the beast he had expected to leap and define his life did not exist. Rather he, himself, had been the beast in the jungle and the spectacular defining event began the day he sprang - anonymously - into the lives of the Kitzerows.