Oliver was a fine black and white jack rabbit. He lived in a cage in an apartment in the Projects, a tiny rural slum plunked down like a set of shabby two-storey dentures around a parking lot on the outskirts of Barre, Vermont. Oliver’s cage had been about the right size for him when he was a baby, but he was full-grown now, and barely had room to turn around. That was annoying enough, but even worse was the fact that there was nowhere to piss and poop except in his own soggy straw bed. Hubert was supposed to let him out every day, but when he got out, Hubert would cuss him for trying to leave his scent around the living room. Oliver would take advantage of his moment of freedom to rapid-fire as many poops as he could before Hubert grabbed him by the scruff of his neck and flung him back in his cage. Sometimes Hubert got too stoned to remember Oliver for days at a time, until the stench became unbearable. Oliver didn’t know any other life, but even so, he suspected he’d been short-changed.
Hubert Bartlett didn’t have much of a life either. The apartment in the Projects was under Denise’s name, and since they weren’t married and she was on Section 8, she was not supposed to have anyone living with her. That meant she had the power to turf him out at any time, and she would remind him of this whenever they argued. They had two disability checks coming in, so they should have been alright; where did it all go?
Hubert spent most of his time in a closet he’d fixed up as a shrine to the Delta Force, who had discharged him honorably. He was in his closet now. He’d been in and out of hospital ever since his last stint where the grunts called him Granddad. He was bald except for a straggle of mouse-colored hair around the base of his skull, and his eyes were sunk in their sockets. He was only forty-nine, but he looked about eighty.
His hands shook as he fired up his bowl, and he cursed as the flame burned his blackened fingertips. He’d flirted with crack and smack and LSD, but in the end he was loyal to his good old weed, which was just as well, because his son, Bert Jr., was a dealer. Hubert had a lot on his mind, and he was glad his woman had gone off shopping, so he had the place to himself. The apartment had been small when it was for just the two of them, but then Denise’s sixteen-year-old daughter, Amber, had moved in, with Oliver. And do you think she would clean up after him? Hell, she never cleaned up after herself – she left bloody tampons dripping all over.
I’ll kick both those whoring bitches out, he fantasized. And that damn rabbit!
He breathed out a plume of undulating smoke, watching it curl over the updraft from the heater. Outside snow was falling, big floppy flakes that merged with the slush on the ground. The Projects were swathed in gray: the empty swings, the token sycamore. Crows were the only birds that stayed through the winter, crowding around the open dumpster, fighting over blocks of territory like teenage gangs.
Inside was gray too. All the apartments were painted gray inside and out, so that none would be better than others. To paint your walls any other color would be ruled defacement. Gray was supposed to stay clean, but that’s only because it was dirty to begin with. Hubert was wrapped up in a khaki blanket in his closet, staring at a rack of khaki and camouflage uniforms. Further adornments of his sanctum sanctorum included a peg-board with war medals, his greasy beret on a milliner’s blockhead, a fat-bellied Buddha, an American flag with a fringe made by bullet holes, and a four-inch scrap of metal they’d pulled out of his left arm.
This weed was a waste of time. He was remembering the blast they used to get from that hashish, a mellow blast that left you bouncing on pink fleecy clouds, defying gravity. But what could you expect? Barre was a long way from Kabul.
And then it started in again; faces coming in and out of focus. The phantasmagoria. Most of them were dead. Some of them were still alive, living ghosts. Boys younger than his son was now had died, and he survived. Survived, that is, in a closet in an apartment that wasn’t his own, in the Projects which should have been a prison, breathing the sour milk sweat from the dairy. What for? Hell, he thought, I’d go back now if they called me up. Get out of this shit-hole. Women. I’d like to see how long Denise could get along without me.
Just then the front door opened, and he heard Denise’s clumpy boots scuffing the mat. Her dyed-red hair escaped from her woolen cap in frizzy Brunhilda braids; her bulbous eyes were blotted with mascara. She thumped her bags down on the lowest step of the stairs and called out “Shroom?” (Hubert was her little mushroom.)
Hubert stashed his pipe, jerkily batting at the swirl of smoke, and called down, “I’m in here, Hon.”
They were broke as smoke, threatened with having the phone and electric cut off, and that damn woman couldn’t stop shopping. Like she was addicted to Walmart. But Hubert wisely said nothing; he went down and gathered up the shopping bags. He greeted her with a cracked blistery smile that showed half his teeth missing, the remainder rotted and yellow. His smile twisted into a frown when he saw Oliver.
“Who let that damn rabbit out?”
“Oh, let Ollie run around for a bit.”
It was a small gesture of rebellion against patriarchal authority on her part, to trip the hook open with her toe on the way in. And anyway, she wanted to be Oliver’s friend. It was her favorite game to let Oliver dance a figure-eight around her ankles. Oliver had scampered behind the couch, where Hubert grabbed him and hauled him out by the hind leg. It was back in the cage for him, and the top clamped down good and tight again. Oliver pawed the bars, but there was no point in protest. He whirled around three times, but then settled resignedly into a corner and eyed Hubert with reproach.
Denise was humming, also eying Hubert reproachfully, as she emptied her shopping bags in the kitchen. Only then did she take off her coat and shake off the snow. She smelled her hat – damp wool and hair spray – and draped it over the heater in the kitchen. Then she snuck up behind Hubert to throw her arms around his bony shoulders. He cut off the embrace by leaning forward to turn on the television. He flipped through the channels on the remote till he came upon a mosaic of indigenous faces; it was a show about the Maya on the Discovery Channel.
Hubert settled in to watch the turning of a gigantic calendar wheel, while Denise retreated to the kitchen. She would have preferred to watch The Price is Right, but the Andean panpipes in the background were both cheery and soothing. Hubert slouched on the overstuffed sofa, looking beyond the television screen to focus just short of infinity.
The phantasmagoria was running its endless loop of faces in his brain again. The lucky ones were dead; the ones who were still alive – broken, like him. The strong ones who never cracked in Afghanistan, cracked when they got home. He foreshortened his focus enough to see Denise’s back to him in the kitchen. What did she know about real life, he sneered. Playing at being a housewife as if she’d never been a crack-head, playing at being a mother as if she’d always wanted that kid, playing at being her daughter’s sister. Who was she kidding? She’d never been under fire. Never been put up against a wall to be shot, only to have the blindfold taken off her eyes at the last second, to find a circle of towel-heads laughing at her. He had. He had scars, inside and out. He’d tortured his share of towel-heads though, right back at you. But who would understand that?
“You want pork chops for dinner, Hube?”
“Don’t burn them like you did last time.”
His smell-brain was indelibly impressed with the stench of burning flesh. Kandahar. He’d frisked the bodies.
Hell, I’m getting bad, he mused in a sane moment. It wasn’t any of it her fault. A compassionate impulse got him up to lurch into the kitchen, squeezing Denise so tight she squealed in protest. He nuzzled her neck and uttered the greatest compliment he could think of: “How’s my little veteran?”
She pushed him away. Pork chops, frozen peas and instant mashed potatoes lined themselves up on the counter obligingly as if waiting to be shot.
“Amber’s going out to a movie with Doug,” she said.
“So we can have a nice evening to ourselves.”
“That stud of hers is a waster. Waste-of-time asshole. If it were up to me he’d have no balls left to play with.”
“Well, it’s not up to you. Anyway, he’s better than most of them that’s been snuffling around. And he’s got a good job.”
“You call driving a van for Capitol Candy a good job?”
“It’s better than no job,” she said pointedly. (Half of Barre’s youth worked for Capitol Candy. The other half didn’t.)
“The end of the world is coming, don’cha know?” snarled Hubert.
“Oh? When’s that then, Hube?”
“What do you mean, ‘one rabbit?’”
“I mean that’s the day the world ends, on the Mayan calendar, at midwinter. They just said that on the television. It’s the end of a cycle.”
“Well, in that case it’s the beginning of a cycle, too,” she said optimistically. “What goes around, comes around.”
They were playing at being grownups, playing at being man and wife. One time he had woken up to find his gnarled fingers tightening around Denise’s plump neck. She was mewling. Like a kitten. Amber came hammering on the door asking what was going on. Just a dream, go back to sleep. He couldn’t remember the dream, just a shadow-shape he was wrestling with, swarthy, bearded and alien, like those pop-up figures the rookies used for target practice. Usually his dreams weren’t as bad as his waking fantasies. She’d threatened to leave him if he ever did that again.
The pork chops were sizzling nicely now, making everything real. Soon he was eating them, favoring the good teeth on his left side. “You got them right this time, for once, Hon,” he admitted grudgingly.
They settled in to watch a video. The curtains were drawn tight and the heater was on full blast. The video ended and they sat there not talking. Denise didn’t even ask Hubert if he liked it. She took out her knitting, and Hubert was lulled by the click of her needles. He settled in to a rerun of the apocalypse, without a plot. The clock was digitating dumbly on the wall: 9:00, 9:30, 10:00, 10:30. At 11:00 Amber burst in with a blast of damp air, chattering inanely. “And isn’t Doug cute?”
Denise had tried to get her to call Hubert “Dad,” but Amber had made a pukey-face and called him “Dickhead” instead. He wanted to go upstairs and hit his bowl again, but Denise would complain if he fired up in front of Amber, and the closet was off-limits when she was home – part of their little charade of being a happily married couple. So he sat there sucking his tooth-gaps instead of his pipe. At 11:30 they went to bed.
But the house stayed awake. The heater hissed, the pipes hummed, the fridge coughed its death-rattle. Oliver was alone in the dark room with its appliances glowing like fireflies. This was the worst time for Oliver, when his legs jerked of themselves, and his paws furiously scraped at the iron mesh, and his sharp teeth ground at the metal. His jiggling of the cage drowned out the hiss of the heater, the hum of the pipes and the rasp of the fridge. Somewhere out there, beyond the bars of his cage, beyond the inward-pressing walls, far beyond the dull overarch of clouds, there was a moon. A moon big and round, with rabbit features etched on it like a Mayan glyph. The night was his by right.
Morning came, dull and gray, and Oliver heard the shuffle of Denise’s slippers on the stairs. She switched on the light in the kitchen and turned up the thermostat. Oliver heard the coffeemaker start to burble. He heard Denise cursing as she burned the toast. Gray light suffused the living room as she drew the curtains back to reveal a row of identical gray apartments across the parking lot. He pawed furiously at the mesh again, this time to signal that he was hungry. But Denise had a hundred things to do before she remembered she wanted to be Oliver’s friend.
Hubert came down next, grumpy as always in the mornings, and plopped himself down on the sofa. There he sat unblinking as Denise brought him a mug of black coffee with two heaping tablespoons of sugar. He wore a khaki undershirt and light blue pajama bottoms, slightly open at the fly, just showing a fringe of pale brown pubic hair. He lit up a cigarette, one of the cheap ones called Garni, but which he called “gurneys.” He left it burning on the edge of the side table while he lit up another. Denise scolded him and put out the first gurney. Hubert shrugged.
Last to arise was Amber, in a second-hand nylon negligee with purple pom poms, yawning and stroking a large teddy bear. She aimed a twisted smile in the direction of Hubert’s open fly. Ignoring the burnt toast and scrambled eggs, she poured herself a bowl of cornflakes and heaped it with sugar.
“Euugh,” she winced, “that rabbit cage stinks!”
“Well whose job is it to keep it clean?” asked Denise. Hubert had learned long since to leave any attempt at discipline to Amber’s mother.
“I can’t do it. You know it makes me feel sick.” It was no wonder it should make her sick, because she’d just found out she was six weeks pregnant. So no one was going to change the straw in the cage, and Oliver had kicked most of the soiled stuff out. Little round pellets had rolled all over the floor, under the television and behind the couch and even as far as the stairs. Some were already trodden into the carpet.
Hubert chained another gurney, muttering, “Goddamn liberals,” apropos of nothing.
“George is coming by to take me shopping,” announced Denise.
“What the hell for? You went shopping yesterday,” growled Hubert. “What’s up with you and George, anyway?” It was curious how George was always there to do favors for Denise.
“But I didn’t get new curtains. That was what I went out for.”
“We don’t need fucking new curtains.”
“Well, I say we do. Anyway, it’ll come out of my check.”
“So who’s going to pay the gas and electric?”
“Oh come on, Shroom!” She ingratiated herself by slipping a plump arm through his bony one. “It’s only five more days ’til the Social comes through. Kiss, kiss?”
“Kiss, kiss,” he harrumphed.
But they had a shock that day; the gas was cut off. They realized it only when it started to get cooler and cooler, and the heater failed to hiss. Hubert went to turn the thermostat up. Denise called George to bring his Coleman stove for them to cook on. The water heater was gas, so no showers, but they weren’t in the habit of taking showers every day anyway. But if the electric were turned off, there would be no television, which would be a disaster. Not even the radio. And they would be needing candles later, Denise was thinking out loud. But Denise would still go shopping and get her new curtains.
Oliver didn’t mind it getting cooler, in fact he welcomed it. But nobody remembered to feed him all day long, much less clean out his cage and let him run around. Amber went off with her boyfriend (Doug, or maybe Larry). Denise went shopping (actually she was huddled over the woodstove in George’s trailer running her mouth about how bad Hubert was getting, forgetting things and not knowing where he was and they never made love any more).
Hubert was left alone with Oliver. He glowered at the rabbit and then slunk off to his closet to toke the last of his weed. That was bad, not just because he was now out himself, but he had smoked all the pot his son had supplied for him to sell, and now he owed Bert Jr. money. Bert Jr. had gone off to live with his mother all those years, so it had been a way to reach out to his dad to do business with him. Well, damn that little prick anyway, he’d tried to call him twenty times and the little asshole hadn’t called back all week. Hell, he owes me!
Hubert went on scraping his pipe, getting out the last of the clinker; you know you’re hard up when you’re down to smoking clinker. Some reward for all he’d done for his country. Who got the shakes every night? Who reran a loop of the apocalypse in his brain?
The whores in Kabul were useless. Filthy, ugly, pathetic limp dolls. They moved like molasses and looked like mules’ asses. What’s worse, they tried to make you feel guilty for stealing what was left of their virginity, which wasn’t much. But behind every one of those stinking virgins you could see a whole clan of angry towel-heads. Afghanistan is fucked up the asshole. This country is fucked up the asshole. Goddamn liberals! Afghanistan was a quagmire. Every army since Alexander the Great had sunk into it like millstones. Those wretched mountains ate men. Think of all those Ruskie tanks up to the gunwales in sand – that should have told us something. He reached for his beret and pulled it down over his eyes. Had his head shrunk? Damn that headshrinker at the V.A.!
Oliver settled down to a troubled sleep, but was awakened by the unusual cold. It was past dark and no one was there. No hiss from the heater, no rasp from the fridge, no rumbling snores. The electric was on strike in sympathy with the gas; all the little electronic fireflies were dark. The stillness was uncanny. He blinked to make sure he was awake. Everything seemed new, full of possibilities. What did it mean? He crouched very still, but there was nary a sound.
When his ears bobbed up, something felt funny; the top of his cage was loose! Oliver didn’t wait to be told that this was his big opportunity. Boldly, like he’d always known just what to do, he pushed open the lid, twisting the hook with his nose. His heart thumped. He froze with just his nose sticking out of the cage, listening for the thud of footsteps. Softly he kept on pushing, and before he knew what was happening, he was over the top and onto the floor. He padded quickly behind the sofa, and listened to the eerie silence from this new hidey-hole. Still no sound. He crept out onto the carpet. Ecstatically he sprayed and pooped and ran in little circles. A chill wind was sweeping into the room, like someone had left the door open . . .
The clouds had thinned to small scudding wisps, and through the wide-open door a moonbeam beckoned. Oliver poised on his back legs, paws up in prayer. His ears made the V sign at the moon, and with a hop and a skip he was gone.
“How should I know where that damn rabbit went?” sputtered Hubert. “Who left the fucking door open?”
“Oh, poor Ollie! He’ll never survive out there.” Denise wrung her hands.
Amber hid her guilt for leaving the door open, with sobs. “You let my rabbit out, you dickhead! I hate you!”
“Oh, for Chrissake, when did you ever give a hoot about that fucking rabbit?” grumbled Hubert. “Who always ended up mucking out that shit-hole? All that rabbit ever did was piss and shit anyway. If we do find him, he’s going straight to the fucking Shelter.”
“But think of all those dogs out there,” wailed Denise. “And there’s the road! He’ll get run over, for sure.”
The morning was crisp and clear. It was midwinter day; dog tracks criss-crossed everywhere, but a fresh blanket of snow had buried Oliver’s footprints. A crow cawed mockingly from the bare branches of the lone sycamore. The Projects suddenly seemed a vast labyrinth, and the surrounding fields beyond even vaster. A rabbit could be anywhere.
The night had been magical for Oliver. He had heard the dogs howling at the moon, but oddly enough he had no fear, even when one came snuffling up to him. They were creatures of the moon, like him. They sang to the moon; he danced to their singing. Zigzagging among the parked cars, in and out and around the children’s swings, he tired himself out. He found some vegetable parings, delightful, much better than his dry pellets. Then he hunkered down under a moldy discarded armchair behind the dumpster and fell asleep, safe and warm.
Amber made a sign to stick on the telephone pole outside their front door: “Lost – Black and White Rabbit – $10 Reward.” Then she flounced up to her room, lay down on her flower print bedspread with a pink quilt over her, and put on her headphones to listen to Usher.
Denise had bought a frozen chicken, forgetting that they only had the Coleman stove to cook on, and now she had cooked up some spicy Italian sausages instead, the thawed remains from the defunct freezer. They were burnt on the outside and raw inside; no one could eat them. Hubert went back to his closet to stare at his flag, and Amber helped herself to cornflakes.
Alone in his cubicle Hubert was back fighting the war. It was dirty. No one knew just how dirty. This new army they were supposed to be training, of Afghanis just out of diapers. Hopeless. They should have been training the Taliban, they at least had a will to fight. The Taliban were the sons of the Mujahedin, who had whupped the asses of the Ruskies. There were still rusting Ruskie tanks half-buried in the skree from the mountains, sprouting desert brush.
But his job was not to locate and annihilate the Taliban, his job was to pretend to eradicate the opium fields, while seeing that the profits were diverted from the Taliban to certain characters behind the scenes in the U. S. This was an op even his buddies in Delta Force didn’t know about. He was the linkman for a certain Mr. Wally, who was raking off an awesome profit from the farmers and keeping the troops supplied with heroin. Hubert rode the crest; he used but he didn’t let himself get hooked more than a little course of methodone couldn’t fix.
Samy was a middleman. He looked like those pop-up targets, swarthy and mean, with a puffy pendulous lower lip. There was no doubt he was double-dealing – he was in bed with the Taliban, literally; Samy liked boys. Hubert’s job was to wipe him out, orders straight from the head honcho, Wally. Hubert looked a lot younger then, and still had most of his hair; he’d mentioned to Wally that Samy had come on to him. Off the base there was a warehouse with a back room stocked with a tank of whiskey, where officers and a few privileged Afghanis hung out. The Afghanis got more of a buzz from the whiskey than they did from the heroin; just the way they were constituted, Hubert guessed.
The plan was to lure Samy there. He’d been there many times, making deals, shooting up and drinking whiskey. Taliban boys or Yankee boys, it was all just more variety to Samy. Hubert had a syringe full of sodium thiopental to waste him with, and a private room where they wouldn’t be disturbed. It was pretty sordid – not up to the standards of your typical brothel – but there was a siphon for the whiskey, and two needles full of smack, a dingy divan with an assortment of oversized pillows, and a spittoon.
All went according to plan; they shot up, and Hubert let that slimy little fag butt-fuck him. Then he returned the favor. It was better than the best sex to slide through that sleazy flesh, knowing all the time he had his victim’s death right there in his kit. He chuckled to himself, to think how Joe Public in the States would be shocked to know what the special forces were doing to preserve their freedom.
He looked at the sleeping form of Samy. His skin was sallow and ghostly where it had been covered up by clothing. Hubert pretended it was Osama bin Laden. Something to boast about. He took out the syringe, whispering “This is for 9/11, motherfucker,” and shot him up for good. But he couldn’t quite manage to get the slimy butt-fucking out of his head long enough to gloat. He vomited voluptuously, like a dog.
Dawn. He was in that zone where good and evil are confounded, like there is no difference – it’s all the same thing – it just is. But some slender thread of consciousness brought him back to his body, which was lying there naked and limed with shit, still in the embrace of that naked corpse. He saw the trail of vomit between the divan and the spittoon, shimmering silver like a river seen from the top of a distant mountain by moonlight.
What happened next was surreal; he looked up to see the face of a little Afghani girl, about five years old, staring at him from the doorway with big brown eyes. Where the hell did she come from? She stood there solemnly, just looking at him. She was human.
No one called about the rabbit. It didn’t take them long to forget about Oliver. Even the “Lost” sign that Amber had tacked on the telephone pole got soggy and ran in the early spring rain. The snow was reduced to grayish jigsaw pieces around the Projects. Hubert threw the rabbit cage in the dumpster. The old armchair where Oliver had hidden had been hauled away long ago. The first crocuses came up through the tag ends of snow.
Denise baked herself a cake out of a box to celebrate her thirty-ninth birthday, but there was just her and Amber to eat it. Amber was over her morning sickness and was eating ravenously now; she had broken up with Larry when he was caught stealing baseball cards from Capitol Candy, so now Doug could be the sole dad for her little boy. She dyed her hair red to match her mom’s.
Hubert was in hospital again after another attempt to strangle Denise in her sleep, and she was determined not to let him back in the house. But now that she had declared herself available, George stopped coming round, and she was stuck in the Projects without wheels; George had promised to teach her to drive, too, the rat. Still, she thought, it was good to be just her and Amber and the baby, and somehow they would get by.
Oliver never once looked back. He made it across the highway, past the stinking dairy to the big meadow, and disappeared into the woods. He dug himself a burrow under a pile of birch logs. Many times he went hungry, but never as hungry as he had been in his cage in the Projects. He had the whole world to piss and poop in, so he was joyous and free. But Oliver’s joy ran over whenever he saw the moon in full; etched on the moon’s mottled face he could just make out the glyph for One Rabbit, laughing down at him. For one rabbit at least a new cycle had begun.
Kristin Ohman has an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. “One Rabbit” is her first publication.
Kristen, this is brilliant. I remember you reading part of it (in PR?). What an excellent commentary on life in the US at poverty level, the quagmired wars, and the inside of one veteran’s mind and life. Thank you for writing so well on such important issues!