The rabbit is sick again.
“He’s listless,” Gwen says.
“Listless? On a good day, the fuckin’ thing spends twenty-three hours sleeping.” Red’s making a fair point, but she isn’t listening. She’s digging through her bag.
Red hates the rabbit. The guys at the plant give him endless shit for keeping a wild thing penned in his kitchen. The rest of them would shoot it, skin it and throw in a stewpot. He’s told them it isn’t from around these parts; it’s some exotic kind she found at the Humane Society. That doesn’t keep them from reminding Red that since he got together with Gwen, he’s turned into a total pussy.
Twice-divorced at forty-five, Red’s not a believer in true love, but the force that pulls him to Gwen is different than what he’s felt before. It’s not just that she’s ten years younger, has eyes the color of cold trout pools, and a walk that reveals curves without any of the taunting sadness of the girls at the strip club. She gets him. She senses when a kiss can pull him out of a funk at the end of a lousy day, a day he got yelled at for a machine breakdown Einstein couldn’t have prevented, and she never mistakes those days for the days when the only thing she can do right is leave him alone to blast his music loud as it’ll go.
When he tells her she knows how to make him happy, she says, “Yeah, I’ve got a PhD in putting up with crap.” They’ve been off-and-on for nearly a year.
Now she says, “If you bring Fred to the vet while I haul my ass to the dentist, I promise, all weekend I won’t ask you to do one other thing.”
Great. Another fuckin’ Saturday standing around only to find out it’ll cost more than his kid’s weekly day care for a treatment that’s maybe gonna add three minutes to ol’ Flopsy’s life. A day he told himself he’d spend working on the Harley sitting in the garage, the bike he has a buyer for, if he can get it in shape in the next couple weeks, before the guy finds another restored Road King that’s ready to ride.
Rage crawls up his throat like bile, sour and choking. Red knows from anger management that this ought to be a stop sign, but he’s run plenty of red lights in his life. He scoops up the rabbit, holding it by the scruff in front of her face. He shakes Flopsy. “I’m just hanging on here,” he says.
She slaps his arm. “Quit that. I can’t lose this guy,” Gwen takes the rabbit from Red and cradles him. “He’s my best friend, the one who stuck with me through it all. I’m clean three weeks. He has to be okay.”
He hears her bossing him, but today isn’t the day for taking Gwen on. She’s just back from a couple nights at her father’s because she discovered Red was still using after he promised he’d quit, so he ducks his head and starts adding up how much he can afford to keep the stupid thing alive. He grabs the rabbit and pulls it close to show her she can trust him to do what it takes to care for Flopsy.
On the highway he grips the clutch lever and presses his foot until he’s doing eighty, air swiping his neck and wrists as the bike stirs up its own breath-warm wind. The rabbit lies still in the fleece-lined side bag, the top vented enough for it to breathe. Red considers how he can refuse, without looking like a total jerk, if the vet offers to MRI the little bugger. If it were up to him, he’d tell the vet to fuck off if she suggested an eight-hundred-dollar test, but Gwen likes the folks at the Humane Society, so it’s in his interest to be Cool Red when he’s there. All this for a creature that lies bumping along in its fleece bed blissfully ignorant of his power over its fate.
He roars into the parking lot, making a sharp turn into a spot between an SUV and a rust-bucket VW. He sets the brake and is bent over reaching for the rabbit when a car door pops open against his ass.
“Christ, are you blind?” Red says, lifting the rabbit as he turns to see an old bag getting out of the Beetle.
She’s carrying a small dog, who starts in yipping. The woman’s eyes are red-rimmed, maybe lack of sleep, maybe something worse. Her thin lips are set firm in what Red reads as determination. She says she’s sorry.
Red gulps a dry breath, lets it out as slowly as he can like the anger gal taught them. He’d love to give the old lady a good shake, but even he knows there’d be hell to pay for that. What you think of doing is only a thought. You don’t have to do it. None of this comes easy once he gets riled, though she didn’t whack him hard, and his butt is plenty padded. Still, it’s all he can do to keep quiet.
“You OK?” she asks.
The longer he stares at her the more familiar she looks, but there’s no recognition in her eyes. He jerks his chin to mean he won’t complain any more, then he presses his fingers into the rabbit’s silk-soft fur to keep himself steady. At this moment, it’d be easy to drop Flopsy back in the bag, get on his bike and get the hell out of here. Instead, he grips the rabbit tighter, slugs down another breath, and heads to the entrance. He expects the woman to follow, but when he turns to hold the door open, she’s back in the VW slowly creeping out of her parking space.
Inside, there’s a musky smell, a half-hearted line, and kids holding leashes, cats in carriers, whining and sniffling. Parents look distracted, talking in lowered voices to children who gaze at them with wrinkled brows, showing they know better than to believe their promises that Bits or Jo-Jo will be just fine. It’s all fingernails going down a chalkboard to Red, his spine being the chalkboard. And him without a single thing inside to take the edge off.
He should never have told Gwen he was clean, but he was desperate to get her to move back in. She did, but only after he swore on his mother’s life, so when she found weed stashed in his sock drawer, she was sure he’d missed it when he cleared everything out, and she felt entitled to flush it. If he’d just had a hit before he drove all the way here, okay, maybe a couple hits, he’d be able to tolerate this.
It comes to him all at once. The woman in the parking lot is Gwen’s mother. Weird she didn’t know him, but he’s grown the beard since she met him that one time months ago outside work when she came to pick up Gwen. Bushy, rust-colored hair now covers the elaborate vine tat on his neck. He inches forward to keep his place among the milling crowd.
He’s thinking it’s rare for anybody to look straight at him without flinching like the old lady did, when either from the loud voices or from Red clutching it too tight, the rabbit begins to move, body twitching, nose sniffing, ears wriggling, trying to make sense of it all.
”It’ll be over soon,” Red whispers. At least he hopes it will. He can’t take much more. The rabbit snuggles tight to Red’s sleeve. “Don’t push it, Flops,” he says.
In the house, Red calls Gwen’s name and she comes into the front room. He kisses her and hands her the rabbit.
“What’d they do?”
“Looked at me like I got two heads.”
“They didn’t give you anything?”
Red follows her into the kitchen, where she puts the limp animal in the pen she had him build.
He has to tell her more or she’ll never get off this. “The vet says, ‘He’s an old rabbit. This is how they are.’”
“Stupid fool,” she says, leaning over the wire mesh, wiggling a carrot in the rabbit’s face.
Red’s hand writhes in his pocket the instant before he recognizes from her staring at the rabbit that she means the vet.
“Fred isn’t right,” she says. “I can see it.” The rabbit nudges its nose against her hand. “You should’ve used a little of that cool you claim to have learned from your anger class to get her to give you something.”
It takes nerve like only she’s got to push at him about the class when she’s the one making him go. He inhales slowly. You can change. Change only takes doing it different one time. He lets out his breath.
“I got doored by your mother in the parking lot,” he says. This isn’t the truth, but it’s not too far from it.
“My mother?” Gwen’s lips purse with doubt.
“Bam. Right in the butt. She had a dog with her, but after she hit me, she got back in the car and drove off.”
“If it was my mother, she was there to leave the dog.”
“It was your mother. Guess she decided to keep it.”
“She can’t. She got stuck with it when her old neighbor moved and left it behind.” Gwen goes on about the manager where her mother lives over at Creekside, but Red is paying the same amount of attention he always does when she talks about her mother, though he does wonder how old you have to be to forget your own dog? Not wanting to prolong her rant, he doesn’t ask. All she needs from him is a grunt here and there to get her through it. He massages his knuckles, but his fingers keep tensing. It’s like time slows with every word she says.
When she finishes, she bends over and strokes the rabbit. Red crosses the kitchen and yanks open the back door. He goes out to sit on the steps. If he could get his weed out of the Road King’s pouch without any chance of her spotting him through the back window rolling a joint, he’d light up even if she could see the smoke and come out to give him what for. He’d tell her the buyer must have dropped it in the pouch on his test drive. She might doubt him, but, like with the vet visit, he can make a lie sound like the only thing that could have happened.
Of course, using is supposed to be off limits these days. You can’t cope with dope. He’s only been going to the class for a month and that idiot woman’s voice is in his head now all the time. It’s like she’s planted a mother inside him, not that his own mother ever gave a shit what Red was up to.
He lights a cigarette and is drawing down the smoke when he hears screaming in the kitchen. “Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god.”
He stands slowly. Gwen’s excitable, especially stone, cold sober. This could be anything from a termite crawling on a coffee mug to gas leaking from the stove. She takes it all the same way. He drops the cigarette, and grinds the butt under his heel.
Inside, Gwen’s standing over the pen peering down at the rabbit, who, Red has to admit, looks pretty darn dead, eyes freeze-framed at the instant its lungs quit.
“I told you,” she says. “I told you.”
She looks up at him, brushes away tears and crosses her arms.
“I think it was just Flopsy’s time to go,” he says.
“What do you know?”
“I know a dying critter when I see one. I’ll bury it out back. It’s for the best.”
“The best? The best?”
He puts his arms around Gwen, who lets him since she’s still crying, and being clean for three weeks, she’s in that condition where this kind of thing compounds all that’s going on inside. It’s good for her that there really is nothing around she can get her hands on. Of course, it’s due to her that there isn’t.
Red tucks her head under his chin. She puts her arms around him, her breasts pushing into him with each sob. He tells her it’s gonna be all right, even though with them not much ever is. He wants it to be all right. He really does. He just doesn’t know how people make that happen.
She’s wiping her nose on her sleeve when he starts to sing softly, “Sweet memories, I never thought it would be like this.” She sniffles and looks up at him.
“You never do listen,” she says.
He’s picked the right song. A knack he developed years ago with ex number two. He continues to sing softly until he’s just humming.
When the crying’s settled out of her, he kisses her neck, then his tongue swirls to her hairline where a trace scent of her cinnamon shampoo lingers. He’s getting hard, so he pushes her with his hip, and then they’re shuffling toward the front room, kicking out of their shoes, until they reach the sofa where he lowers her onto the tufted cushions. They’re naked and doing it before he can get a rubber on.
“Just a sec,” he says.
“Don’t worry,” she says.
He hopes she means she’s on the pill again. He can’t afford the child support he’s paying now, but she’s raising her thigh under his in a way that stops him from thinking about it. She slides around until she’s on top and riding him, pulling every nerve to the surface of his skin. Her eyes bore down at him, then she closes them. Soon she’s making those kittenish grunts that let him feel like, in bed at least, he knows what he’s doing.
When they’re done, he holds her close. She runs her fingernail over his ear, then she wriggles until she’s sitting with his head in her lap. He closes his eyes and nuzzles her belly, his beard brushing her skin. He blows gently on the underside of her breast. She shivers and strokes his hair.
“Let’s go someplace,” she says.
“We’re going to the Ozarks in July.” She’s agreed to come with him when Red and his friends take a few cabins on the Lake during the annual plant closing.
“I mean just us two. That one year I went to college, girls I knew drove down to the Gulf for spring break,” she says. “Neither of my folks would give me a loan for that.”
Going to the Gulf’d be a long, flat two-day ride, and that’s if she could skip a few of her inevitable restroom stops. “It can’t be much different than the Lake.”
“It’s the ocean.” She looks down into his eyes then glances away.
He wants to do what she wants, but he always wants something else.
“Think about it,” she says.
He lets it go at that.
She grabs her pack from the spool table and lights a cigarette.
He sits up and runs his hand down her arm, stopping at three dark patches on her skin: cigar-shaped bruises, the imprint of his fingers just above her elbow. It’s the worst he’s done to her and he’d only done it once before, a few months back. A couple days later she brought him the brochure about anger training.
He rests his thumb gently on her skin. “How’s it feel?”
“Stiff as shit.”
“You know I didn’t mean it.”
“Guess I was a fool to think a class could fix you, set in rough ways like you are.”
He can’t argue with that, even though this time wasn’t his fault. A week ago, she said she was leaving for good, so he grabbed her arm. She can’t threaten to quit him forever and expect him to hold his shit together. He’s told her he loves her and losing her would be the end, that she keeps him steady, that what he offers her, a house she can make her own, no pressure to do anything but be there for him day after day is worth putting up with him losing it now and then. Most times when she’s in his grasp, her hard stare reminds him to release her and grip his hands together like it says to do in his plan. This time she jerked back. Her wrenching pull was what caused the blue-black lines. That and him gripping her tight as he could.
She inhales deeply then stabs out her cigarette, gets up and pulls on her clothes. She takes her bag, and tells him she’s going to her mother’s.
Still warm and sticky, Red closes his eyes and doesn’t consider why she’d head out to see a woman she only visits when she wants something from her. He tries to remember if he swore at her mother. He’s pretty sure he didn’t. Not that her mother’s any kind of saint. From what he knows, she’s one of those old ladies who thinks she makes the town a friendly place by asking everyone she talks to at the pharmacy counter where she works how they’re doing, like she gives a shit, and repeating each piece of gossip she hears.
The women come in the front door, neither one talking. While Gwen was gone, Red buried Flopsy, and showered. Now he’s on the sofa in the front room, cigarette in hand, Passage to Bangkok blaring out of the speakers. Mrs. Backer is carrying her dog, a spindly, rat-nosed runt on a leash. Gwen turns down the music. Her mother puts the dog on the rag rug where it sinks flat on its belly.
“Mrs. B,” Red stands and makes a slight bow. He can be charming when he wants to be. The woman’s scowling face cracks to a near smile.
“I didn’t recognize you with the beard,” Mrs. Backer says.
“It comes in handy when I don’t want to get caught.”
“I’ll bet.” Mrs. Backer tugs on the leash, but the dog continues his nose-to-thread inspection of the rug. “Besides, I’d only seen you the one time.”
This comes across like a complaint. Gwen introduced them that day when her mother picked her up because Gwen’s car was in the shop. Was he supposed to drop by the house for a chat after that?
“Can I get you a drink?”
“I don’t drink.” Mrs. Backer sits in the corner chair.
“Water? Soda?” He tries to redeem himself.
Gwen perches on the sofa. “Let’s just sit a while,” she says.
Red realizes he’s cornered. Not that they’re going to jump him, but he’s used to noticing things like this. His inner systems rev, breath and heartbeat gearing up for what’s coming.
“She wants the dog,” Mrs. Backer says.
This woman does not believe in foreplay. On her own, Gwen would have tried to warm him up before springing it on him.
“I’m not sure anyone who couldn’t keep a rabbit alive ought to take on a dog,” Red says.
“You son of a bitch,” Gwen says.
“Babe, I meant both of us.” Red gives Mrs. Backer his full-tooth grin.
“You don’t want anything I want,” Gwen says.
This may be true. He for sure doesn’t want a dog, but she’s making him seem cruel, and her mother is staring at him like he should have something to say for himself.
“You can’t keep a dog penned in the kitchen all day like Flopsy,” he says.
“Fred. HIs name’s Fred. You call him that to make me sound like a dimwit.”
His fingers clench into a fist. He uncurls his hand and closes it again like he’s stretching.
As if she’s on to him, Mrs. Backer sits forward in the chair. “Why can’t you keep him outside? You have a yard.”
“Or I could come home at noon and take him out.” Gwen rubs her elbow absently, or is she sending him a warning?
He glances at the mother. They’re both leaning toward him in a way that makes him uneasy.
“That’ll get old fast,” he says.
The yipper gets up and wanders over to Red, sticking his snout up against his shin. He doesn’t flinch. Two scrawny paws stretch to his knee. He nudges it off with his boot, but the dog is so puny, and only balanced on its hind legs, so it tumbles across the rug.
“Hey.” Gwen swoops down for the dog as her mother yanks on the leash pulling the animal to her. Gwen’s fingers extend into empty air.
“He’s all right,” Red says.
“You said Fred was all right, you piece of shit. And now he’s dead.”
“Shut up,” Red says, his hands trembling.
“Lay off her.” Mrs. Backer says, eyes boring in on him like a screech owl spotting prey. Her bony fingers crook around the dog’s ribs as she pulls it up on her lap.
Red thinks how easy it would be to grab the women, one in each hand. He huffs down a breath, telling himself he only has to hold on until the mother’s out the door. Still, the look on the old bag’s face roots under his skin. This is his house. Her daughter’s living here because he wants her. Who the hell is she to tell him what to do? He stomps out to the kitchen.
By the time Gwen comes in, he’s pulled apart the pen, the wood frame splintered, the chicken wire in a snarl. He opens the back door and heaves the mangled pieces past the steps onto the grass. He lets the door slam. As he strides toward her, she grabs the water bowl lying on the mat he used as a base for the pen. She lifts the bowl of murky water, aiming it at him. He reaches out for her, but before he can close his fingers, she grimaces and flings the water upward, the bowl still in her grip. A cloud of grey rains on him. He’s drenched in rabbit spit. Eyes closed, he hears the thud of the bowl hitting linoleum.
He swipes his arm across his face, and opens his eyes. Water drips from his hair and beard. His hand twitches with the desire for payback. He takes in a slow breath. A skim of water slides between his lips. He tastes the sour residue of chewed grass on his tongue. He spits on the floor nearly dinging the overturned bowl. He looks at her, a blur through the water on his lashes. He shakes his head violently from side to side, water raining on her.
“Hey,” she says, ducking too late, her cheeks spackled with drops that shine in the fluorescent light.
“You started it.”
“You only got what you deserved.”
Maybe he did. Maybe not. He’s not supposed to think about it like that.
She continues staring up at him, waiting, as if she knows there has to be more. There always is.
He thrusts his fingers in the hair at the nape of her neck and pulls her close, meaning to force her lips open, to spread the last taste of gnawed grass from his tongue to hers. Head back, she looks at him, a crevice of fear in each eye. One time. Each time is only one time. Red releases her.
He squeegees his hands over his face, flicking the water away on either side of Gwen. She doesn’t move until he stops. Then she sees that’s all he’s going to do. She stands up and takes a couple dish rags and tosses them on the floor where they sink into the water. She pulls off a wad of paper towels and throws them into the mess.
For a moment, he can imagine how they’d look if the guys at the plant could see them, water slopped all over, hair and faces dripping. They’d get a kick out of it. All this, over a stupid rabbit. Pick your battles, the anger gal says. He sure didn’t intend to pick this. He leans his head back, closes his eyes, and lets the rest of his thoughts go.