Bear in Contradicting Landscape26 min read
I didn’t recognize Eddie at first. He got on the train at Division, sat down opposite me, and every time I glanced up from my book he was staring at me. He wore a trench coat over a bluish gray polo shirt and khakis. Sweat stood out on his brow.
As creeped out as I was, there was something familiar about him. I shut the book and met his gaze. “Do I know you?”
“I’m Eddie,” he said, and then, when I didn’t react, “Eddie Olstrowski.”
It took me a moment. “Eddie from…?” I couldn’t complete the thought.
“Yes.” He offered his hand, and we shook across the aisle of the train.
“How” was too big a question to start with, so I went smaller. “Is Ann here?”
He nodded. “At the house. We have two kids.”
The train was slowing down as it approached the Western stop. “I have to get off here,” I said. “Can we have lunch? Something?”
He dug out his wallet and extracted a business card. “Call me at the office.” He blushed as he said it; I wasn’t sure why. By that time I had to hurry off the train, and a moment later he was gone.
Outside the el station an old man asked me what day it was, and for a second I wasn’t sure. I walked to my apartment, counting the blocks. In an alley two blocks from home, a group of kids were tagging the side of a brick building in the twilight, spraying unrecognizable sigils around a massive portrait of a bipedal rabbit. They stared as I approached and laughed when I walked past.
L was on the couch with a book when I walked in. “How was your day?” she asked.
“I met one of my characters. He gave me his card.” I handed it to her.
“Saint Stanislaus College,” she read. “So, what? You have a character named Eddie Olstrowski?”
“He’s the same guy.” Eddie was the protagonist of “Walk Out,” a story I had written some years before. A story about environmental disaster that no one had ever read but me.
“You’re losing it,” L said, and handed the card back to me. “Could you not lose it tonight? I’m not in the mood.”
L’s full name, Logos Agape Varvara, was her father’s way of protesting Vatican II. It meant something like “the wandering word of divine love.” She’d put up with playground taunts until she was twelve, then started using her initials, LAV, as her name. It didn’t take long, however, for the boys to start calling her “LAV-ia,” so she’d given up and started going simply as L, wearing black and reading books on witchcraft. By the time I’d met her, she was working as an embalmer, prepping cadavers with cosmetics and chemicals.
“I’m serious,” I said. “I saw him.”
“Was this guy from your heroic fantasy phase?” L asked. “Some over-pumped swordsman?”
I was about to say that I never went through a heroic fantasy phase, but L knew better. “He’s a scientist.” In the story, Eddie was the director of Environmental Initiative for the Reno-Carson City complex, which had become part of the West Coast after the Big One hit. The world of the story was a grab bag of worst-case scenarios, everything from crop epidemics to ozone depletion to mass extinctions. What exactly the “Environmental Initiative” was doing about all this, and how Eddie had come to be a regional director for it were just two of many things that the story never explained.
“Where did you meet him?” L put down her book and stood, stretching. She was nearly my height, not thin, but not heavy either. She kept her dark hair in a shag cut, and rarely showed any skin, but not for the reasons you might think.
“On the train,” I said. “I think he was pissed that I didn’t recognize him right away.”
“I’d like to meet him. Can I read the story?” she asked.
“Okay,” I said. “But it’s really bad.”
“Walk Out” begins with Eddie’s 20th high school reunion. I made Eddie a graduate of Hollywood High partly in an attempt to give dramatic weight to the quake that had dumped California into the Pacific, but primarily so I could put the HOLLYWOOD sign on the cake. Two-thirds of Eddie’s graduating class are dead, but those who’ve made it to the reunion spend the evening pretending nothing is wrong. Eventually, though, things disintegrate. Eddie’s estranged wife and high-school sweetheart (Ann or Anne—the name is spelled both ways in the manuscript) presents him with an infant son of whom Eddie has no knowledge (which, even considering their months of separation, seems highly improbable). At this point, Eddie flees into a corridor and vomits up his share of the buffet.
“Dizzily” I’m quoting here “he slid down the cold wall behind him, head between his knees, shivering. He looked up through a hazy black film. The vomit he had splashed about the floor was already being cleared away by a Hoover AutoMaid.” End quote.
“I was trying to draw a parallel between Eddie’s inability to make a difference,” I told L, “and humanity’s ephemeral impact on earth should we manage to make ourselves extinct.”
“Preachy melodrama,” L said. “And the AutoMaid undercuts the point, since it’s man-made. So is the pollution, come to—”
“I get the point,” I said. “It’s bad.”
“Another thing,” she said. “This guy Eddie, he’s an asshole. It’s one thing for him to be depressed, but he takes it out on his wife. He’s emotionally abusive. Not that she’s any prize; she’s a manipulative doormat.”
“How does that work?” I asked.
“Are they still married?”
“I guess so. He said they have two kids now.”
“How is he even alive, considering that he kills himself—at least by implication—at the end of the story?”
Eddie does, in fact, Walk Out (in melodramatic capital letters) of the complex, presumably to die soon afterwards in the desperate conditions above ground. He does this as a protest against the lies and placation of the government, which has already given up on Earth and secretly launched generation starships to search for a new home.
“I’m not buying it as a political statement,” L said. “There’s more going on that you don’t even address. I mean, he goes to this VR studio and runs this thunderstorm program over and over. I think he wants to feel something real outside of this man-made environment.”
“I know that,” I said. “That’s in the story.”
“If you say so. Are you going to have lunch with this guy?”
“I thought I’d call him tomorrow,” I said.
“Take notes.” She slipped a hand underneath my shirt and walked her fingernails up my stomach. “Tell him we’d like to have him and his wife over to dinner.”
“You just said she was a doormat and he was an asshole.”
“They’re also fictional. I’ve never met a fictional person before. Of course, you could just be nuts.” She kissed my eyebrows, left, then right. “Are you nuts?”
I wasn’t, so I took her to bed. If you’d ever seen her naked you’d understand. It’s not that she had an incredible body. She had a great body, but the tattoos were the incredible part.
L hadn’t been satisfied with a dolphin on her ankle or a sunburst on her lower back. She hadn’t gone for a Celtic band around her bicep or a pair of angel wings over her shoulder blades. L was entitled to call my writing melodramatic because she had made at least one seriously dramatic gesture in her life—she was having her life story tattooed on her body.
You’d never know. I hadn’t, when I met her. The ink didn’t show above the collar or below the sleeves, and she always wore jeans, even when it was ninety-nine degrees outside. On our second date we ended up at her apartment, and she went into her bedroom and came out wearing what looked like a skin-tight, multi-colored bodysuit. Only it wasn’t a bodysuit. She was nude.
“This isn’t a come-on,” she said. “I like you, but we’re not having sex tonight. I just wanted to show you.”
It started on her belly. A naked man and woman stood in profile, kissing. In the space below their locked lips, between their throats and their upper chests, was a young girl seated in the lotus position. Despite the nudity of the figures, it was an oddly chaste image.
“That one’s not very good,” she said. “The first few times I wasn’t sure what I wanted, and the guys were just scratchers. That was before I met Ramón.”
Her skin wasn’t completely covered, I realized; strips and small patches were still blank, but they were obviously just unfinished parts of the mural.
I didn’t have a single tattoo. I wasn’t against the idea; I just hadn’t come up with anything profound enough to make permanent.
“Ramón’s a genius,” she said. “Look here.” She touched her left side near the base of her ribcage and turned toward me. The motion shifted her small breasts—one depicting the eastern hemisphere, one the western—and I tried not to stare. The tattoo she pointed to depicted her as a cactus in a desert of gold coins, set against sky-blue trilobites that phased neatly into an ocean above, upon which a single life preserver floated.
“My first Peyote trip,” L said. “Above that is when my shrink broke off our engagement to become a priest. This one is for the time I worked on a cruise ship, and this is for when I got stabbed in Barcelona.”
I almost asked whether she’d been stabbed in a literal or metaphorical Barcelona, but it sounded snide so I didn’t say anything. I had moved closer without realizing it, but I didn’t touch her.
She turned around. “The big one up around my shoulders is church and school all rolled together. It’s a bit unsubtle—it’s pre-Ramón. You know how professors like to preach?”
“Uh-huh.” I wasn’t looking at the tattoo. I was looking at her butt. Ink ran up her legs and down her back, but her cheeks gleamed white and naked in contrast. My face felt hot.
“I know what you’re looking at.” She reached back and slapped her own ass. The sound echoed off the bare walls of her apartment. “I’m saving that for last. The end, you know?”
“What was that you said about not having sex tonight?” I asked.
“Oh, you smooth talker,” she teased, and turned around to kiss me.
I met Eddie for lunch at a sushi place on Milwaukee Avenue, where it met Damen and North. Milwaukee cuts across the orderly north-south grid of Chicago like a scar, creating triangular blocks, sharp turns and rush-hour headaches. But it was there before any of those cross-streets; it was a Native American trail before Chicago even existed, when Milwaukee meant something different.
The restaurant was tucked into a basement space, and Eddie was already there when I arrived. He stood. We shook hands.
“So how is Ann?” I asked.
“Is she working?”
“She does that Avon. Makeup.”
L and I had our first fight when she told me I was boring. She insists that she didn’t mean it badly. What she actually said was, “You know why I like you? Because you’re boring.” She says she meant that she felt safe with me, that I wouldn’t give her any nasty surprises. I tried to explain that no guy likes to be called safe, especially if he’s afraid it might be true. Then she called me fragile, and we were off again.
Eating with Eddie reminded me of that. I couldn’t think of anything to talk about. I wanted to ask about what had happened, how he came to be there, how he had adjusted to this world. But it seemed like the sort of thing he should tell me on his own—and suddenly, he did.
“I had enough food for a couple of days when I Walked Out.” I could hear the capital letters.
“I remember,” I said.
He nodded. “I took a canteen, too. That was about it. I didn’t think I’d live more than a day or so outside.
“Right away it was hard to breathe. The air was thick, and it burned my lungs. But I had already decided I was going to try and climb into the Sierra Nevadas, to get a good look at what was left, so I started up.
“It’s all very hazy. I remember walking through curtains of green like a Mesozoic jungle, and then again I remember endless desert with hot sand like broken glass. It was like walking undecided territory, landscape that contradicted itself.”
It occurred to me that the confusion of Eddie’s world was a direct result of my shortcomings as a writer. His story didn’t know what the world outside the hermetically sealed complexes was really like—was it a greenhouse gone wrong or an irradiated badlands?
Eddie went on. “The first night I just scraped a hole in the dirt and curled up in it. It rained, I think. I woke up and my clothes were soaked. I had a rash, or maybe a sunburn. I’d dreamed about animals. Extinct ones. Bears, mostly.”
I opened my mouth to tell him that bears weren’t extinct, then remembered that for him, they used to be.
“The bears—it seemed like they were around me that whole day. I’d drunk all the water, or poured it out, or something. The food was gone, too. I don’t remember the second night, but the next morning I woke up with a brown bear sitting on my chest. It didn’t hurt. I could still talk. I told him there were no fish in the river. He told me I was the fish, and he was throwing me back.
“Then I was at home. Here, in this world.”
He’d gone hoarse. He asked the waiter for a glass of water, and he drank it all in one go.
“I thought it was a fever dream. I woke up in my bed next to Ann. Eddie Jr. was crying. I remembered growing up here, on the South Side. I remembered meeting Ann at Northwestern. The rest of it—the future, EI, Hollywood High—it was a dream. That was ten years ago. I’d forgotten it all until I saw you on the train.”
I drank the dregs of my cold tea. “What about Ann?”
“I don’t think she remembers anything. We’ve never talked about it.” He looked at his watch. “I have a meeting at the college.”
“Oh. My girlfriend suggested—we’d like to have you over for dinner. You and Ann. And the kids, I guess.” I felt like an idiot.
“The baby is too little,” he said. “Ann won’t even leave her with a babysitter. Why don’t you two come over for a barbecue instead? Saturday?”
“If that works better for you.”
Eddie grabbed the check as I was reaching for my wallet. “Lunch is on me,” he said. “It’s the least I can do.”
I wasn’t sure what he meant by that. Was he genuinely grateful, and for what? Had I created him, or just given him nightmares? I tried to imagine myself in his place, a hapless character at the mercy of some pretentious hack. I wasn’t sure what sort of story I’d like to be in; a boring literary piece where everybody has sex but nobody enjoys it, or an adventure tale where you’re too busy being shot at, shipwrecked, or suspended from rooftops by your ankles to think about existential issues.
By the time L and I left for the Blue Line train on Saturday, darting clouds were trolling swift shadows across the rooftops.
“It’s going to rain,” L said as we rode northwest along Milwaukee Avenue. It was a muggy day, but she wore jeans and a green long-sleeved blouse. I wore khakis and sandals with a gold-colored T-shirt.
“It mustn’t rain,” a fiftyish woman in a blue frock said firmly, as if she believed that L not only had power over the weather, but took her meteorological cues from strangers on the train. “Not today. Today we are having company. Tomorrow would be fine for rain. The garden needs rain. Though, Lord knows, the rabbits get more out of it than we do. Filthy things. I read that they can produce a litter every month. Disgusting little fucking machines. I put the hose down one of their holes, but it didn’t matter. There are too many of them.”
She kept on ranting about the rabbits in her garden until she got off at the Logan Square stop.
“You’re going to use that in a story, aren’t you?” L asked.
L was worried that I would someday write a story about her. We went through periods where we hardly communicated because she was convinced I was filing all our conversations away for later use.
L was convinced that creation only came from death and some deaths more than others. “Fertility figures,” she had told me. “Like Adonis and Balder and Kurt Cobain.”
“Trust me. The point is, the more the person’s death affects people, the more it inspires them. I see it at the funeral home all the time.”
“So does someone have to die for me to write a story?”
“Maybe. Maybe it works the other way around sometimes,” she had said. “Maybe when you write a story, someone dies.”
We had laughed at the time, but I’d been thinking about that conversation ever since Eddie had shown up. Writing, for me, was about being able to control something; but the idea of that much control was terrifying.
L stood. “This is our stop.” When the doors opened, she swept onto the platform and up the stairs so quickly that I didn’t catch up to her until we reached Belmont Avenue.
“What’s bothering you?” I asked, hoisting the case of beer I’d brought onto one shoulder. The clouds had backed away from the sun for the moment, but a wind had come up. We walked west, looking for Spaulding Avenue.
“I asked Ramón about Saint Stanislaus,” she said. “You know he volunteers at the Historical Society.”
“No, I didn’t.” L had lunch with Ramón at least once a week. I always told her I wasn’t jealous. At that time they were talking about tattooing a dragon along her spine to commemorate her training at the Shao-lin temple.
“He said it never was a college in the way we use the word now. It was a Polish Catholic high school, but the building hasn’t been used since the ’50s. So after I talked to him I went down there. It’s on Haddon, right off Milwaukee. Ramón said it was being converted to condos, but I went in and saw bulletin boards, a student lounge, offices. Someone in admissions told me they were still taking applications for fall.”
“I don’t get it. Is it a college or is it condos?”
“When I called Ramón to tell him what I saw, he didn’t remember our conversation. He told me that the college had been there for almost seventy years, that two state representatives and the chair of the Board of Trade were alumni.”
“You think I did something. You think I messed with Ramón’s head?”
“I think you’ve been rewriting things subconsciously. You brought Eddie here, gave him a place to work, then covered your tracks.”
“I didn’t bring Eddie here,” I said. “The bear did.”
“Whatever,” she said. “A half-assed shamanic vision, with nothing concrete to get you in any trouble? That’s exactly how you write.”
“Thanks a lot,” I said.
“Well, you pose a lot of questions, and you don’t seem to know any of the answers. It’d be nice if you believed in something.”
That was an old argument, one I’d had with a succession of girlfriends. I didn’t want to get into it, so I just kept walking.
Eddie and Ann’s house was a two-story frame model, parchment white with matching trim, lilacs and rhubarb growing in front. Ann answered the door with a sleeping infant on her shoulder.
“Hi,” she whispered. I had written her with “long, yellow-blonde hair,” but she had cut it short and streaked it with red. Even so, I knew her immediately.
“Come in,” she said, still speaking in a whisper. “You must be David.” She gave me a one-armed hug, the baby and the case of beer between us.
“Dave,” I said softly. “This is L.”
“Nice to meet you,” L said. “Who’s this?”
“This is Ariadne,” said Ann. “She just fell asleep.”
I glanced around the entry while we talked about the baby. It was lined with dark wood, and daylight filtered through a frosted glass window, highlighting a devotional portrait of Elvis hanging next to a crucifix above the coat rack. All this, combined with the whispering, made me feel as though I were in a church.
“Come into the kitchen,” Ann said. “We’ll put the beer on ice and get you something to drink.” A framed photo of Graceland hung in the hallway. “Eddie’s out back with Junior, getting the grill ready,” she said.
The kitchen was all white wood cabinets and stainless steel appliances. A series of collectible Elvis plates was displayed on the wall, and a Sun Studios coffee mug sat next to the sink.
“Who’s the Elvis fan?” I asked.
“Not Eddie,” Ann said, and smiled. I remembered a line from the story, where Eddie observes that Ann laughed and smiled easily. “He makes me keep most of my collection in the guest room.”
“You have an Elvis collection?” L asked.
“Oh, yes. After a few drinks you won’t be able to get me to shut up about him.” Ann excused herself to put the baby down in another room, and told us to help ourselves to beers from the fridge.
“She seems nice,” L said.
“You’re not convinced.”
“You’re the one who said she was a manipulative doormat.”
In the story, Eddie felt that bringing children into a dying world was immoral. Ann’s insistence had led to their separation, but not before she had stopped using birth control without telling Eddie. The last part of “Walk Out” before Eddie leaves is an exchange of messages between Eddie and Ann. She pleads with him to accept responsibility for his son, and he accuses her of having a child to distract herself from the despair around her.
I was trying to show the impossibility of maintaining a healthy relationship in a sick world, but I was beginning to think that something had been wrong with both of them, something I hadn’t intended to put there. Was it because I’d been such a bad writer then? Or did I still have that little control over what I was doing?
Ann led L and me to the backyard, where Eddie and his ten-year-old son were starting the grill. We hung out drinking beers, talking about movies and watching the clouds. Eddie Jr. was shy at first, but soon he was dragging me around the yard to show me rocks, tomato plants, a spot near the garage where the cats had killed a bird.
The cats in question—three of them—did not appear until the rain L had predicted forced us all to move inside. Thankfully the hamburgers and bratwurst were ready by that time, and we sat in the basement and talked while Eddie Jr. watched Spongebob Squarepants. Inevitably, L asked Ann about Elvis, and Ann told us she had planned on becoming a nun until she saw Elvis perform live.
“You’re not old enough!” L protested.
“This was 1970,” Ann said. One of the cats was curled up at her feet, and Ariadne slept in a playpen next to her chair. The playpen was covered with rabbits in professional dress—police rabbits, fireman rabbits, construction worker rabbits. “I was ten. He was performing in Stateline, at the south end of Lake Tahoe. My parents dragged me there kicking and screaming.”
“You grew up near Lake Tahoe?” I asked.
“Carson City, actually. Anyway, I couldn’t believe it. I felt like I’d touched something—something holy, in a way. Something real.” She smiled again. I could understand why Eddie had fallen in love with her. “I must be drunk. Nine months of abstinence have made me a lightweight.”
“Go on,” L said.
“I bought up a bunch of his records,” Ann said. “His gospel records are my favorite; he sounds so sincere and sad. I imagined that he was thinking about his mother. My own mom died when I was fourteen, and I couldn’t cry for her then. But when Elvis died I cried for them both, for weeks and weeks.”
The rain stopped, and Ariadne woke up. Ann fed her and then she and Eddie Jr. took L to see the Elvis collection while Eddie and I sat in the basement watching baseball. We were both pretty well drunk by that time, and so I said something I wouldn’t have had the guts to otherwise.
“I was surprised that you had another kid. In the story you didn’t think it was right for the child. I mean, you’re not in that world anymore, but things are still fucked up. What changed your mind?”
Eddie didn’t answer right away.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “That was rude. Your kids—”
“It’s a fair question,” Eddie said. “I never wanted kids. But Ann got pregnant, so we got married.”
“I mean here. Things happened differently—lately I’ve been having trouble keeping it straight. Either way, I hadn’t planned on it. I resented her for a while. I wasn’t a very good father at first, but I had sort of a moment of clarity a few years ago. I had pushed God out of my life a long time ago, but I realized that I needed him. Ann and I are both active in the church now. That’s given me back my hope.”
“Oh.” I didn’t know what else to say, so I swallowed the rest of my beer.
“I’m not going to preach,” Eddie said. “But you did ask.”
“It’s just—I was raised Catholic, and I don’t know if I ever believed. If there is a God, he’s got a lot to answer for.”
“I used to feel that way,” said Eddie. “Sometimes—”
I never heard the rest, because suddenly we heard screaming upstairs. It took us both a moment to climb out of the couch and up the stairs.
The living room was a tableau out of a nature show. One of the cats held a paw on the back of something small and furry, facing Ann. Ann held Ariadne, who was screaming red-faced. The other two cats stood poised nearby, as if undecided on whether to back up their fellow or choose the better part of valor. L stood by the kitchen entrance in a defensive stance, the sleeves of her blouse rolled up to show Mt. Kilimanjaro on one forearm and a nude portrait of Allen Ginsberg on the other. Eddie Jr. knelt on the floor beside his mother, saying “Kitty, kitty, kitty, kitty” over and over and over and over.
“They’ve got a rat, Eddie,” Ann said.
“It’s not a rat, Mom,” Eddie Jr. said in that disdainful tone children reserve for their parents. “It’s a little bunny.”
He was right. The bunny was frozen, possibly wounded, its black eyes staring out as if it saw God.
“Eddie, don’t let them kill it,” Ann said.
Eddie Jr. picked a clump of something up off the carpet and handed it to his father.
“Rabbit fur,” he said solemnly.
“Thank you,” said Eddie. He walked in to stand next to his wife. The cats hunched lower, and the orange tabby that was menacing the baby rabbit lifted a paw as if to retreat.
“Get!” Eddie said, and the cat flinched, its mouth opening as if to seize the rabbit again. Eddie lunged and stomped the carpet. The cat darted back, and the rabbit disappeared under the entertainment center.
“Get the cats out of here,” Eddie said, and L and I did so, chasing them out onto the patio and shutting the glass door. They batted at the door, their paws leaving wet marks.
Eddie asked for a broom and a cardboard box. It took a few sweeps, but we managed to spook the rabbit out into the open, where Eddie caught it in his sure hands and set it inside the box.
“Can we keep him?” Eddie Jr. asked.
Eddie glanced at Ann. “We’ll see.” The rabbit huddled in a corner of the box. It didn’t seem to be badly hurt, but it might well be in shock. If it was, it probably wouldn’t last the night. But if we let it go, the cats might find it again.
Even after the excitement was over, Ariadne was inconsolable, and since it was late and looked like rain again, L and I decided to head for the train before the storm hit. Ann hugged L while Eddie and I shook hands. Eddie Jr. slapped me five.
L and I talked the whole way home. We sat on the train talking about Elvis, worrying about the rabbit, speculating on what our own kids might look like.
“They were so normal,” L said. “I didn’t expect that. I showed Ann some of my tattoos. She’s thinking about getting something Elvis-related.”
We crossed Milwaukee Avenue holding hands, soft, warm rain falling on us. When we got home we were so tired that we just fell on the bed in our clothes and slept holding on to each other.
L moved out a week later.
Despite everything, I wasn’t surprised. Angry, inconsolable, but not surprised.
“How do I know that you’re not doing it to me?” she asked.
“For fuck’s sake, Dave, don’t play dumb. It’s creepy, Okay? Reality isn’t supposed to be subject to revision.”
“I’m not doing anything,” I said. “How can you blame me for the fact that the world makes no sense? I’m not doing any of this, I’m really not.”
“What if you made me up? What if you wrote me into your life as some kind of ideal girlfriend? What happens if you get tired of me and decide to write me out of this story like you did Eddie?”
“Don’t say that, please. I don’t understand any of this! I thought there wasn’t anything, but I don’t know anymore.”
“I don’t have time for this,” she said. “You’re not even making sense, and I’m too tired to make you understand.”
That really pissed me off. I swore at her and kicked the couch, and her eyes went wide and she left. The next day she moved all her things out while I was at work. Her note said, “It’s too hard. I’m sorry.”
She wouldn’t answer her cell phone, and none of her friends would tell me where she was. I tried writing a scene in which she came back and told me she wanted to make it work. There was make-up sex and everything. I paced through the apartment reading the manuscript out loud—I even called L and started to read it onto her voice mail before I got scared and tore it up.
Later I called her to apologize, but the phone didn’t even ring. All I heard was a series of clicks before the phone disconnected.
I told Eddie L had left, and he told me he was sorry. I asked him if, when he started believing in God again, he had felt like he was admitting that he couldn’t get through life on his own.
“Yes,” he said. “That’s sort of the point, for me.”
About a month after L left, Eddie and Ann went to Nevada to visit her father and stepmother. They asked me to house-sit for a week. All I had to do was turn on the sprinklers if it didn’t rain, sign for any packages that came and feed the cats. They’d kept the rabbit, too. It lived in a cage in Eddie Jr.’s room. I had to keep the door shut so the cats wouldn’t tease it.
Once they were gone the house was so empty that I could almost believe none of it had been real. I went into Ann’s Elvis room and ran my fingers across a black velvet hanging, trying to convince myself that a real person had bought it and hung it there. I snooped around the house, looking in the closets, checking out the basement and the attic. Everything was very normal and well-adjusted.
I had some strange dreams that night. I dreamt that Smokey the Bear and Fozzie Bear were married, and they invited the Berenstain Bears and the Care Bears and Goldilocks over for a dinner party. I was the entrée. They served me up on a platter, braised and filleted, and passed my giblets around in a crystal dish.
That Sunday I went to mass. I was desperate for something outside of my own self-obsession. I wanted to feel that someone was plotting this all out and at some point it would resolve in a surprising but inevitable way.
The sit/stand/kneel rhythm was comforting, and the droning call and response made me feel at ease. But for his homily the priest turned a parable about Christ’s love into a condemnation of fornicators, homosexuals, and abortionists. I sat thinking that if I put that in a story, no one would believe it.
The rabbit was gone when I got back. I’d left Eddie Jr.’s door open, and the cats had managed to open the cage. It looked like it had been a rousing chase. The grapefruit tree by the patio door lay on its side, its dirt spread everywhere. Amid its branches the rabbit lay, a crumple of blood-stained fur. It looked more like a tiny rabbit-suit than something that used to be alive.
I buried the rabbit in the garden and vacuumed up the dirt as best I could. It was dark by the time I got everything cleaned up, and a storm system was rolling into town. I opened the patio door to watch the rain. The cats licked at the air and looked at me as if I was crazy.
In “Walk Out,” Eddie had gone to a VR studio to experience thunderstorms. “Eddie stood, eyes closed, in the rain. His face lifted, his mouth open to taste the water. It poured from his saturated hair and down his back, and he shivered.” The storms were the only things he let himself feel. I stared out at the rain as it came down hard and then harder and then, in a flash of lightning, it seemed to freeze in terror and then fall still harder. Thunder pounded against my ears until they buzzed from the pressure.
I went to the kitchen and sat down with a piece of paper and a bottle of whiskey. I’m still sitting here, writing and drinking, drinking and writing. It’s still storming out there. I think the power is out. It’s hard, at this point, to be sure what’s real and what’s not.
At this point in this vision I am writing, this story I am dreaming, L stands in a tattoo parlor. The tattoo parlor is in a rabbit hole. A rabbit with a dozen piercings in each ear carefully shaves another rabbit’s belly. The tattoo artist wears latex gloves and goggles and a Janis Joplin T-shirt.
“Have you decided?” it asks her, and from the voice, somehow, I know it is Ramón. Ramón has become a rabbit.
L is still L. It hurts to see her. I have to put down the pen and wipe my eyes. They hurt from the strain of writing by candlelight.
Behind L is a wall of tattoo designs, floor-to-ceiling butterflies and skulls and barbed-wire roses. Roots hang from the ceiling, some of them dripping into plastic buckets on the dirt floor.
Instead of answering rabbit-Ramón, L leaves by the nearest tunnel. The floors are packed and smooth, the walls brown and lined with hemispherical light fixtures. Air whispers from twisted chimney vents. She walks, because if she stops walking she will run. Her legs are still human. She has hands with fingers, not paws.
She wanders the grid of tunnels for hours, passing rabbits arguing, rabbits playing with their children, rabbits managing hydroponic gardens. They stand in arched doorways sucking at clay pipes. None of them gives her a second glance.
Eventually L stumbles down a tunnel that angles off the others, slicing across Rabbit Town toward what L imagines will be its center. She comes upon a gang of rabbits tagging the walls, painting elaborate signs around a portrait of a weirdly proportioned human. They stare, and she hunches into herself, wishing she were invisible. As she passes they begin to laugh.
It is damp and the tunnel floor is uneven. The darkness and the smell of animal intensify. Not rabbit smell, but something else, something she comes closer to with every step down the scar-tunnel.
The intersections with the grid come less frequently, then stop altogether. The light fixtures are gone or burnt out. She stumbles frequently, but keeps on, her hands tracing the tunnel walls. Eventually she comes to the center, and she stops.
There are others here, waiting in the shadows of this vast cathedral of dirt, on the edge of this vast pit. The bear is sleeping here. They are waiting for it to wake. L cannot say how large the bear is anymore than she can say who the others are, rabbit or human or something else. Sometimes the bear is close, so close that she tries to touch it, but although she stands at the edge of the precipice, she cannot reach. She hears it snoring, though, and she is bombarded with its stink. She believes in the bear and is comforted by it. Whereas I, who am watching this, writing this, cannot even be sure it is there.