There had been rain and everything was washed clean, colored knife-sharp and throwing back hard sunshine. There was still the cupboard smell of potatoes—dank and dark—from the dirt that hadn't dried between the yellowed patches of grass that were trying to get a foothold in the gravel. My mother was leaning into the open yawn of the hood of my car, pointing at colored wires with a filed nail, careful to poke without touching so she wouldn't spoil her manicure with sticky grease. I didn't have to look at her to know that she was doing this. There was a man standing beside her, a tall man in dirty jeans, and I knew what kind of show she'd be putting on for his benefit. I knew she was asking questions in her high-fret guitar-string voice, and that she wasn't listening for the answers. What she knew about cars I could fit into the corner of my eye, pick out with my finger, and wipe across my pants, and I was glad that I didn't have to listen to her.
Ruby touched my arm as she spoke. "This is my favorite rabbit," she said.
Ruby had taken it upon herself to tell me her name without asking for mine and walk me over to the sheet-metal garage so she could show me the badly weathered and leaning rabbit hutches that had been built along the outer wall. On this side of the garage I couldn't see the driveway; the sun was blocked and the air was cooler. I could open my eyes without trying to rub the glare out of them. The separated cages were faced with thick, dense wire mesh that was too tightly bunched to squeeze a finger through, but Ruby put her hand up to the front of the third cage and tried to coax the rabbit forward with a weak wiggle of her pinkie through a hole.
"How old are you?" she asked.
"I turned sixteen last month," I said. "What about you?"
"Twelve," she said. "I wish I was thirteen."
"There's nothing great about being thirteen," I said. I could remember being thirteen and in eighth grade, afraid of having to take a shower in PE, but being forced to anyway, standing naked in a group under a shower and trying not to look down.
"I just don't want to be twelve anymore. I feel like I should be older. I look older, don't I?"
She turned to face me and my eyes landed on her chest for a second, on the small bumps under her T-shirt that weren't quite boobs, but were bigger than what my friend Robbie called "mosquito bites." Robbie had told me that he'd had his hand on some mosquito bites once and when he'd tried to rub the nipples between his fingers, he'd gotten lost, slid off the mark without realizing it, and had spent the next several minutes trying to find his way back to second base.
"Never again," he'd said. "I could've been pinching at a mole for all I knew."
"Well?" she said.
I leaned down and tried to look through the wire at the rabbit in the corner of the cage. "You could be older, I guess," I said.
Ruby turned toward the cage and pushed in next to me so that our shoulders were touching. She smelled like maple syrup. "Her name is Thumper," she said.
"That's a great name," I said. Original, I thought, but I didn't say it. Maybe out here in the middle of Podunk they didn't have a copy of Bambi. I looked at Ruby and the bulk of bra under her shirt, and I knew she was too old to really have an attachment to a rabbit's name from a baby's cartoon. Maybe she didn't know that Thumper was a boy rabbit, what with his absence of animated balls and the whine in his voice through the entire movie—it was easy to be confused. Maybe she had hoped for a boy rabbit, mistaken a wad of fur between his legs, and had been strapped with a girl.
"I've had her for over a year now," Ruby said. "She's had a lot of babies. Mostly we sold them, but some of them we kept. These all belong to her. That one right there is her son, Blackie." She pointed at the last cage, where a big black rabbit sat on its haunches and rubbed at its head with its front paws.
"Let me guess," I said, "that one right there is Whitie." I pointed at the white rabbit sleeping in the first cage.
Ruby laughed and pulled her finger free from Thumper's wire. "No, silly. That's Jezebel. She likes to get out of her cage and run around loose. I think her boyfriend is one of the wild rabbits from the field. A jackrabbit, you know."
I grinned and kicked at the damp dirt around the legs of the hutch. There were green pellets spilled on the ground and swollen fat like sow bugs. "Let me guess. Jack, right? You call her boyfriend Jack."
She looked at me and squinted hard, so that wrinkles nearly swallowed her narrowed eyes. "I don't name the wild ones," she said. "That would be dumb." Her eyelashes were dark and longand kissed the tops of her cheeks as she talked. She made a clicking sound with her tongue and Blackie hopped to the side of his cage so he could be closer to her. "Quit begging for food," she said. "He eats way too much."
I looked at Thumper lying on her side against the hay bottom and saw that she was panting despite the cool air in the shadows. Her nose kept up its steady twitch, testing the wind with whiskers stiff as broom straw. She rolled her eyes without lifting her head to watch us. I put my finger up to the wire like Ruby had done, but my finger was too fat to poke through.
"I'd let you hold her," she said, "but she's gonna have babies any day now and it's not a good idea to touch her. Sometimes she bites when she gets like this." There was weak green diarrhea puddled under her and the entire cage smelled like a grass stain. I dropped my hand.
Ruby unclipped the water bottle from the front of the cage and unscrewed the top. "I take care of all the rabbits," she said. "I get up before school and feed them, check their water, and then when I get home, I do it again. Casper says it's my responsibility, taking care of the animals. These are all that are left."
I looked at the small row of cages. The hutches had rope knotted around their legs in places, and the rope was attached to various car parts that lay discarded on the ground—a rusted bumper with a headlight still attached, a red door without a window.
"We used to have a dog," Ruby said. "But Casper had to let him go. He got the taste for chickens." Behind us the grass crept up toward the garage, long grass with tall furry blades that looked like they'd be rough if you tried to roll around in them. "The chickens are gone, too."
I stepped out of the shadow and looked toward the driveway. The man in jeans had
straightened up from poking at the engine of my car and now he was leaning sideways against the front fender, lighting a cigarette. My mom had her hip pressed against the driver's side door and was laughing at something the man said. He was smiling, the cigarette pressed into the corner of his mouth, his eyes squinted against the smoke. My mom waved her arm toward me."Sonny, come here," she called.
Ruby was around the back corner of the garage where a pipe rose out of the ground. She was holding the water bottle under a hose and trying to force a thick stream through the narrow opening without getting back-spray on her pants.
"Gotta go," I said.
She looked up from the hose and smiled at me. Her shoes were shiny with water. I walked back across the gravel. My mother was telling a story about the time her fan belt broke on the highway and the man who pulled over to help her asked if she was wearing pantyhose stockings, which she was, and she sat in the car and took one off and the man knotted it and used it as a fan belt for her, so that she could drive the rest of the way home without paying for a tow.
"Have you ever heard of anything like that? He saved me at least a hundred dollars," she said. "Maybe more. A three-dollar pair of stockings was well worth the cost, but I never would've thought of doing that. Not in a million years."
The man held his cigarette up and blew ash off the tip so that the cherry glowed. "The heat from the engine binds it together somehow," he said. "Makes it solid and keeps it from tearing. It's an old trick." He watched me walk up from the garage.
My mother threw her arm around my shoulders and pulled me into her even though I tried to step back and get beyond her reach. I could smell the sweat in the underarm of her T-shirt, and her body was all around me so that I felt smothered and short of breath. "And this is my son, Sonny. He's the lucky one I bought the car for—all of this is for him." She pulled me closer to her so she could sweep her hand over the trunk, the dusty blue paint thick with Bondo where the rust had bubbled through.
"Sonny, this is Casper," she said. I looked at the man in jeans. He was younger than my mother, or maybe the same age, it was hard to tell. His face was windburned and peppered with scruff beard, as though he didn't shave often or well. He had long eyelashes, like Ruby, and those sharp eyes, and when he hit his cigarette, he curled back his lips and held the butt with his teeth so that I could see that they were straight, but not very clean. "He's our savior, no doubt about it, we're damn lucky we pulled in here. Of all the driveways we could've turned down, he's the one who happens to be a mechanic. I'm telling you, my luck is always too goddamn good to believe."
"Except for the fact that you bought a car that broke down," I said.
"Oh, you," she laughed. She pushed me away from her so that my tennis shoes kicked up loose gravel. "Always quick to point out every little thing. Mr. Negative. That's what I should call you. Don't you think, Casper? Mr. Negative right here, with his ungratitude and giving his mom a hard time when all she did was buy him a classic car just like he wanted."
Casper looked at me and blew smoke up toward the watery sky. I wanted to tell her that this wasn't the car I wanted. I wanted a '69 Camaro and what I ended up with was a 1970 GTO. It wasn't even the right color. But the worst part about the whole thing was that I didn't care about having a car at all. It had been her idea and I had been forced to go along with it.
"Well, broke down can be fixed," Casper said. "This is one hell of a car. If I was a kid, I'd give up my left nut for one of these." My mother covered her mouth and laughed like she was still in school and had never heard the word "nut" said out loud before. He flicked his cigarette and it landed at the edge of the gravel near a pile of bald tires. I watched the smoke trail and weaken and die. Casper turned back around and leaned over the open hood. "You've got the four-hundred cube engine that should put you at three hundred and fifty horses." He leaned over farther so that his left work boot lifted from the ground and I could see that the laces were untied. ''And a sixteen-valve VS." He dropped back down and turned on me. His eyes measured me from my ragged shoes to the too-long hair that touched the collar of my shirt, and I knew the distance came up short. "One hell of a muscle car for a boy."
"But can it be fixed?" my mother asked. Her arm was raised against the hardtop and I could see the sweat I'd smelled.
Casper cleared his sinuses and tipped his greasy auto-parts cap back on his head. "To be honest with you, I don't know much about Muncie transmissions. Don't see 'em anymore, and never worked on one. But that's where your grind is. The trannie's dropped and you're running stripped."
Reverse had gone out on us first, and then we were trapped in second gear for somewhere near forty miles, the engine wound high and my mother talking too loud, and me trying to keep my right foot balanced at forty miles per hour. That's when we'd rolled up to Casper's, looking for a phone, and instead we'd found a mechanic with a garage in the middle of acres of farmland, almost like a reverse mirage, the shimmering sheet metal throwing back solid sunshine in lush, green, water-heavy flatland—only to find that he didn't know about my transmission and couldn't fix the car.
"Too good to be true," my mother said. "The catch at last."
"See, I wasn't being negative," I said.
"Now hold up." Casper eased back against the fender again and put a hand in his front pocket so that I could see him fingering loose change or scratching the left nut he was willing to give up for a car like mine. "I said I maybe couldn't fix it. I didn't say that it couldn't be fixed. My boy, Boone, he's real good with cars and knows a hell of a lot about these older ones. That's all them guys drive up in Lincoln. I can get him to come over and take a look and maybe between the two of us we can get you back out on the road again."
My mother clapped her hands together and then brought them up to her face in a gesture of prayer. "Thank you, Casper. Thank you and thank you again. I don't care what it costs. I just want the car fixed so we can get home."
"We should be able to get her back on the road," Casper said. "There ain't a reason in hell this car shouldn't make it home."
Fifteen hundred miles to go, I thought. Not fucking likely. I seriously doubted that I would see asphalt, streetlights, and the comfort of my bedroom anytime soon.
Ruby came out from the side of the garage and walked to where we were standing."Thumper's getting close," she said to Casper. "I bet the babies come tonight."
"Babies?" my mother said. "You got a cat out there in the barn?" I looked out at the empty green field behind the garage, at the nothingness.
"Rabbits," I said. "She's got rabbits in cages over there against the garage."
"That is so sweet," my mother said. "Baby bunnies. I just love little bunnies. They make me think of Easter, and all that candy everybody gets, those little chocolate bunnies and those hard candy eggs ... "
"Why are your shoes all wet?" Casper said. The sharpness in his voice came out of nowhere, like the bottom of a broken bottle overturned in the sand.
Ruby looked down at her shoes and the darkened hem of her pants where the water had crept up the fabric. "Thumper's water was empty so I had to fill it up. I guess I had the hose on too hard."
"I don't pay money for you to wear your good shoes out here to tend the animals," Casper said. He looked at Ruby and she flinched, but only a little.
"I'm sorry," she said. "I'll go take them off."
Casper's hands were gripped around the fender and his knuckles were white. "Go take out some more chicken to thaw for dinner while you're up at the house."
Ruby walked past us. "We don't want to impose on you," my mother said. "Sonny and I can get a taxi and find a room in town." She looked down the driveway toward the road and the fences and the grass that had started to bend in the rising wind. "There is a town here, isn't there?"
Casper loosened his hands from the fender and I half expected to see blue paint on his palms. He shook another cigarette from the crumpled soft pack in the front pocket of his shirt. "It ain't a problem for both of you to stay until my boy can get over here. Me and Ruby could use the company," he said. "It'd be a real good change:'
I sat on the porch and watched the light change colors until dinner was ready, and we ate around a big oak table—Casper's fried chicken with too much salt and my mother's mashed potatoes with dirty gravy that Casper had made from the drippings left in the pan. He drank beer while they cooked, and didn't slow down with dinner. My mother joined him, bottle for bottle, and the conversation started to seep like the grease. Casper tried to call Boone several times, but there was no answer. "It's not likely that he's home if it's dark outside," he said. "Him and his buddies are probably on the hunt for girls." He looked over at me while he talked. "You know how boys are. Always sniffing around."
"Sonny'll be at that age someday," my mother said. "Right now he just cares about being in his bedroom. That's it. Just him alone in his room, building things. Isn't that what you do, Sonny? Put things together?" When I was younger, I had put together models, classic cars, and I wanted to tell her this, remind her that it had been years since then, but she didn't pause for an answer. "I had to buy him something in order to get him to spend time with his own mother." She hiccupped and laughed. "I mean, I found him a car, flew us out to pick it up, and I am paying for the road trip to drive it home. The experience of a lifetime. And look at him. Nothing." She paused while everyone stared at me. "Anyway, you ever seen that cop movie where the bad guys crash that helicopter into the Golden Gate Bridge?" She had both elbows on the table and was leaning forward over her plate so that she could hold her beer with both hands. Her cheeks were pink, as though she had just stepped inside from the cold. "You know, and there's the car that catches on fire and when the people jump from the bridge they don't realize that they're jumping into shark water?" She looked around the table. I picked the dark meat from a small window I had torn in the crisp skin of a thigh. My mother had fucked somebody famous when she was younger. He hadn't been famous then, but he used to hang out at her apartment and drink red wine and talk about foreign films. Whenever she met new people, she couldn't keep from dropping his name, even though it had all happened eighteen years ago—a few weeks in the summer—when he was still in college and she thought his lips were too thin to date him seriously.
She drew out the pause longer than necessary to build the dramatic finish. "The actor who played the cop was my boyfriend," she said.
"Really?" Casper said. "That guy with the dark hair—kinda short, but built real good?" I could tell that he was genuinely impressed, like most people were. "That's something. It's like you're practically famous then."
The pink in my mother's cheeks spread to her ears and brightened like the glow of brake lights on wet pavement. "Well, it was years ago, you know, but we were close." She winked and put her mouth over the rim of the bottle so she could drink from it without lifting her arms. She swallowed and looked over at Casper. "Very close," she said.
He pushed his almost-untouched plate away from him and tipped back in his chair so that the front legs rose off the floor. His shoulders were wide and 1 could see hard muscle under his shirt. My mother was watching him, and from across the table 1 saw all the places where her eyes could land. "You want another beer?" he said.
"I'll get them," Ruby said. "I want to go check on Thumper, if it's okay."
"You can clear these plates up first. Put the food away."
My mother stood up and pushed her chair back. She was unsteady on her feet and the top of her thigh knocked against the edge of the table and made the empty bottles rock. We all reached out our hands to hold everything in place, but the table settled and she sat back down. "Why don't we let them go out and check on the bunnies, Casper? Me and you can clear the table and get the dishes done. I'm very good at washing, and you look like a man who knows his way around a dish towel." My mother picked up a boiled carrot with her fork and bit into it, then set it down.
Ruby sucked in her lower lip and started gathering the silverware from around her plate. Casper held his balance backward in the chair and was quiet. Finally he cleared his throat and dropped the chair back to all fours. "I guess that'd be okay for one night," he said. Ruby let go of a deep breath. She piled her wadded napkin onto her plate and pushed back from the table.
"You can take your own plate to the sink," Casper said.
I gathered up my things and followed Ruby to the kitchen. I scraped what was left on my plate into the trash like she had done and set it on the counter. She grabbed a flashlight from a drawer and I followed her out of the kitchen and toward the front door.
"Ruby," Casper's voice caught us. "Did you forget something?"
She turned and looked at me, and I shrugged my shoulders.
"The beers, Ruby. You said you'd bring them."
I could see her wince in the darkness. "Sorry," she yelled. "I'll get them right now." She handed me the flashlight. "Wait for me," she said.
I leaned my weight against the arm of the couch and looked at the bare walls. There were picture hooks but no pictures. Casper's voice carried through the room. "So I see them, you know, five or six of them sittin' on the tailgate of this pickup truck instead of working like I was paying them to do, and they got the engine running, burning up the gas so in case I show up, one of them can jump in the front and act like they were just finishing up with a load. So I just let them keep sitting there, you know, I don't say nothing. I just creep around to the front and slide onto the seat and I put the truck in gear really gentle, so they can't feel it, and then I hit the gas as hard as I can—I mean hard enough to put my boot through the floorboard almost, and that truck just shoots right out from under them. All of 'em hit the ground, ass over teakettle, you know? Rolling through the dirt. Busted one guy's lip pretty good ... "
My mother was laughing so hard she could barely catch her breath between words. "You're terrible, Casper, I love it. That's too much."
I didn't have to look at my mother to know that she had her hand gripped to Casper's arm while she was laughing, her fingers pressed into his skin.
We had been around the table for what seemed like hours, long enough for the sun to set and throw the evening into night, and when we were outside, Ruby took the flashlight and aimed the beam toward the garage. The night was cool, but not cold, and I could hear crickets all around us, chirping in different pitches like an orchestra tuning up before a show. I could smell the dampness again, but it was stronger, as though my face was pressed against ground. The sound of the crickets muffled the crisp shift of gravel under our shoes. The weak light from a bulb above the garage shined across the hood of my car, but otherwise it was dark and useless in the driveway.
"I like your car," Ruby said. "Is it really yours?"
I thought about my mother's overexcitement when she told me that she'd bought the car for me and we were going to fly out and pick it up and drive it home—a real road trip, both of us together and on our own. I had been standing in the kitchen with a glass of milk in my hand and she was talking about what to pack and when we were leaving and how this car was like a dream, and I didn't feel anything. I just dug a calendar out of a drawer and tried to figure out how many miles we could cover each day and how long it would take for it to be over with.
"It's okay, I guess," I said. "I just want it fixed so that we can drive it home."
We walked past the car and around the corner of the garage. In the darkness the scrap parts were odd and hard to identify. The stacks of tires were humped shapes pressed against the flat wings of unhinged hoods so that their combined shadows looked like giant insects. Ruby pointed the light at the hutches and I could hear the rabbits change positions inside, shift around and come forward to watch us. We both pressed our faces against Thumper's cage. My eyes strained to see something that hadn't been there before.
"I don't know what I'm looking for," I said.
"Here, take the light."
I held the beam at an angle. Thumper looked at us with wide and wild black eyes, but she did not turn her head away. I ran the light the length of her and we could see her side heaving with her breath, and every now and then it would stop, tense, shudder, and begin again.
"Wait," Ruby whispered. "Move the light forward a little."
I pointed the flashlight at the alfalfa hay that was threaded with tufts of light fur, and we saw darkness and something thick like snot. "She's doing it," Ruby whispered. "Look at that."
I pushed my face closer and then I saw it, something wet moving the green stalks, a tiny paw with nails so thin I could see through them. The newborn rolled and writhed like a worm pulled from under a rock. It looked like a fat severed finger under the light. Its head seemed too big for its body and its eyes were shut tight with its tiny ears flat against its head. It was hairless, naked, pink, bloody, and blind.
"What's wrong with it?" I said.
"Shhhh, I think there's another one coming," she said.
Thumper's side heaved and strained and tightened. There was more blood, and the mucus. I looked away. "They're deformed," I said. "There's something wrong:'
Ruby stood up. She was smiling. "That's what they look like," she said. "They get hair later, and their eyes open, too. Haven't you ever seen something get born before?"
I pointed the flashlight at the ground and we stepped back from the cages. "No, I guess not," I said.
"Well, all babies are different when they come out, just like us. They change as they get older."
I started walking around the edge of the garage back toward the house, but Ruby took my arm and pulled me toward the tall sheet-metal door that was open wide enough for us to step through sideways. "I don't want to go back yet," she said. "I want to wait until Thumper is done." The breeze caught stride and I shivered. "We can sit in there for a while." She pulled me through the opening in the garage door and what little light there had been was suddenly cut to nothing.
Ruby took the flashlight from me and pointed it at a couple of milk crates that were turned upside down on the floor. We walked over and sat on them. I could smell oil and grease and sweet gasoline. There was a window in the wall and after a few minutes my eyes adjusted and I could see shapes in the darkness. Ruby turned off the flashlight.
"Casper is out here most days," she said. "This is where he spends all his time." Her voice echoed in the small building.
"He works on a lot of cars, I bet. Stays pretty busy, huh?"
Ruby cleared her throat and I could hear her shoes scrape on the cement floor as she shifted her weight. "He hasn't worked on a car in a long time," she said. "A really long time."
I waited for her to say something to change that statement, but when she stayed quiet I shook my head a little and turned so that I could try to see her. "Wait a second. I thought he was a mechanic. That's what he said."
"Oh, he was a mechanic. Now he just works on this." She pushed the button on the flashlight and suddenly I could see a lawn mower in front of us, its engine split open, the parts pulled free and dangling like guts. The light went off again and my eyes could still see the negative image of the lawn mower in the dark.
"I don't get it," I said.
"Well, it's not the whole lawn mower that he works on. It's just the carburetor. He keeps it over there on the workbench under the window, and he sits out here with a stopwatch so he can time how fast he can take it apart and put it back together again." I could hear her thumb rattling the switch on the flashlight but she didn't push it hard enough to turn on. "When he was in Vietnam, they used to do it with a gun, you know, take it apart, lay out the pieces, and see how fast they could put it back together. Now he does it with a carburetor."
I tried to imagine Casper out here in his dirty jeans and unlaced work boots, clicking the button on a stopwatch so he could beat his best time.
"He was in Vietnam?" I said.
"That's where he got his name. He says he was like a ghost." Ruby set the flashlight in her lap. "He is still like a ghost, I think," she said. "Sometimes I wake up at night and he's
standing in my room, against the wall by the door, and I never heard him. Even when he walks up to the bed, I don't hear him, and I even try to hold my breath, but there's nothing."
I tried to picture Casper's dark shape in my bedroom, and I could feel the hairs on the back of my neck stand up a little. "Can I ask you something?" I said. "Where's your mother?"
Ruby was quiet for a minute. Through the window I could see thin clouds cross the moon. "She left," Ruby said. ''About six months ago."
"Where'd she go?"
"She never told me."
"Really?" I said. "Don't you miss her?"
''A lot," she said. "But if I need to, I think I can find her. She once told me that if something bad happens, I should walk down the road toward town and find the bus." Ruby paused and in the half darkness I could see her tuck her hair behind her ear. "She showed me a picture of the bus, the one with the grey dog on the side. And she told me I should catch the grey dog and ride until I got to the first town that starts with an L." She looked straight at my face without blinking.
"Wait a second;" I said. "So you take a bus and get off at a town that starts with the letter L, and you think you're going to find her? I mean, you don't know which bus or which direction to go. That's impossible."
I felt Ruby's hand on my jeans, just above my knee. She leaned in close to me so that I could smell her breath, buttery with dinner's potatoes. "The point is to leave, Sonny. First I leave here as fast as I can, and then I can be free to start looking."
"So why did your mother leave you in the first place?" The hand felt warm on my leg.
"Because maybe something bad happened, and she had to go."
I thought about that for a second, but her hand was distracting me. "Did something happen with her and your dad?" My own father had left years ago to be with a dark-haired woman he'd met on a layover in Vegas.
"Casper is my stepdad," she said. "My real dad died when I was a baby."
We were both quiet for a while. I listened to the wind outside as it tried to force its way in. "Can I ask you something?" she said. "Have you ever done it?"
I laughed suddenly and choked on my own spit so that I couldn't answer until the coughing stopped. "No," I said. "I've never done it."
"Casper thinks that I've done it," she said. "I haven't, but he doesn't believe me. He's always looking at me funny, you know, watching me. And I get in trouble for everything. I can't help it. I'm worse than Boone, but he won't ever come back anyway."
"Your brother? I thought he was coming out here to fix my car? That's what Casper told us."
"Boone won't speak to Casper. He hates him."
"Then how is somebody going to fix my car? Your dad ... Casper, whatever, he said he can't fix it, but Boone can, and he was calling him all night and he said that Boone would probably be here in the morning." I realized my voice had risen to a whine and I forced myself to stop talking.
"It's not true," Ruby said. "Boone won't ever come back, Casper says that Boone is weak and that's why my mom always favored him. Casper says that maybe Boone is queer, you know, and that's why he ran off." I could hear the sound of metal rubbing metal outside in the wind. "Boone put a lock on the inside of my bedroom door before he left. I don't use it, but Boone told me maybe sometime I should."
I took three deep breaths of fumes and closed my eyes. All I could see was a dark blank wall and changing shadows and my broken car outside. "If Boone really isn't coming, I guess we'll have to figure something else out tomorrow," I said. "We can get a tow into town."
Ruby's hand moved higher on my thigh. "It's been kind of nice to have you and your mom here, though. It's been really good." Her small bony fingers squeezed at my jeans.
I wanted to tell her that when I was eleven, I heard my parents having sex in the middle of the night, and it was a terrible sound that I will never forget—worse than crying, and empty, and sad. I went into the kitchen and opened the cupboard and started throwing our dinner plates against the floor, as hard as I could.
"Maybe we should go check on Thumper," I said. I stood up and her hand slid from my leg. "It's getting late."
I waited near the entrance to the garage while Ruby took the flashlight and went to check the rabbits. I stood against the door to block the wind, half of me in the darkness and half of me in the yellow light from above. There were bugs swarming the bulb, and every now and then I
could hear one hit the glass with a solid-sounding ping.
When she came back, she was swinging the light and smiling. "There's four," she said. "Maybe more will come, but right now there's four. Thumper's got them all lined up against her."
We went back to the house, where everything was dark and quiet, but after being outside our eyes were adjusted and we didn't bother turning on the lights. I thought that I could hear voices somewhere in the back, but Ruby said it was probably Casper's television, which he liked to run late into the night. They had made a bed for my mother in one of the extra rooms, but I didn't try to find her. Ruby brought me blankets for the couch, crocheted afghans and a quilt that someone had sewn together from pieces of the clothes she had worn as a baby. She took my finger and ran it over the corduroy from her first pair of overalls. She covered the couch with a sheet and spread the blankets out while I sat and watched her and undid the laces on my shoes. When she was finished, I thought she might sit down and keep talking, or maybe I was afraid that she might, and I realized that we were alone and out of the wind with blankets and a place to lie down. Instead she fluffed up a pillow and put it on the makeshift bed, and then she touched my arm gently, almost like my mother would, and told me that she hoped I would sleep well. When she was gone, I slipped off my socks and pulled the covers around me, suddenly conscious that I hadn't brushed my teeth, but too tired to do anything about it.
It was the screaming that woke me up before the sunshine did. At first I was unsure about where I was, the strange smell of the pillow under my head and the heavy bulk of blankets did not belong to me. I sat up and everything clicked back into place, except for the screaming outside, which was high-pitched and very loud.
I walked out the front door and held my arm across my face to block out the too-bright light. My mother was leaning against my car with a mug in her hand. She turned around when the door slammed behind me. "It's about time you decided to get up," she said. "I thought you were going for one of your noon wake-up calls."
I stepped off the porch and walked across the driveway. The gravel was sharp and I tried not to put all of my weight on my bare feet. "What's going on?" I said.
When I got closer to my mother, I could see that the mug was chipped and had the name Susan written in flowered script across the front. She was wearing a button-down men's shirt that did not belong to her. "Casper says that sometimes this happens." She pointed the mug in the direction of the garage and I saw that the door was pulled open. Inside, Ruby was crying hard, her face red and smeared, and Casper had a beer in one hand, and with the other hand he was pulling on an end of rope and yelling something about a hammer. Ruby stepped back and I could see a rabbit noosed by its hind legs to the end of a rope that went up toward the dark ceiling of the garage. I could tell it was Thumper. She was trying to kick her back legs free, and every time she did, her body would spin and make the rope jump like a pit bull was giving it a good shake. And when the kicking slowed down, she would open her mouth and scream like nothing I had ever heard before, like a girl, or maybe ten girls, something human and too afraid to feel pain.
"Jesus Christ," I said. "What in the hell is going on?"
My mother sipped at the coffee and shifted her weight back against the car. "I guess she ate her babies, mostly all of them, anyway. Ruby has one of them wrapped in a towel over there, but it won't live past tonight without a mother. Casper says that once a rabbit gets a taste for something like that, it's no good anymore. It'll never be right again."
"So he's hanging her for it?" I asked. I couldn't take my eyes off the body spinning at the end of the rope, all of her stretched out long while her ears hung down toward the floor, and her front legs pawed at the air around her head while she screamed.
Suddenly Casper swung something and there was a soft sound that I could not describe, but would probably remember for the rest of my life, and then there was quiet in the yard. Even Ruby's crying had scaled down to something like a whimper between breaths.
"I can't stay here," I said. "We need to get the car towed and go."
My mother turned on me then, and she was smiling but there was nothing light in her eyes. "We can't judge what they do here, Sonny. This is farm life, something we know nothing about."
I looked around at the garage with the tires and car parts and dented sheet-metal sides, and beyond that a wire fence with leaning posts, and then grass and more grass and empty sky that was too blue to consider. "This is not a farm," I said. "He isn't even a mechanic. Do you know that? He can't even fix the car, and no one is coming to help him. Ruby told me." I turned to walk back to the house but my mother caught my arm and her fingers sank into the place between the muscle and the bone.
"Ruby told you that? I wouldn't believe anything she says if I were you. Casper told me that ever since his wife left him, she's gotten into trouble at school, started telling lies and running around with boys that are almost twice her age. He says it started even before his wife left, all this troublemaking, but now she's out of control and it's all he can do to keep her in line anymore."
I could see Ruby crying in the garage. She looked as though she was miles away from the age of thirteen. "I don't believe him," I said. "And I can't believe that you do."
Her hand tightened on my arm and I knew that when she let go there would be marks. "I like it here, Sonny. I like Casper. I haven't met a man in a long time who makes me laugh and feel good inside. And I'm not in any hurry to lose that feeling. We're gonna stay here awhile and see what happens. So get used to it." She loosened her grip on my arm and I pulled away from her. She let me go, but when I looked back at her, she was staring at me, trying to swallow me with her eyes.
Casper set a bucket under the swinging rabbit and I saw him take a knife from his back pocket and open it to the longest blade. I turned away from the garage and scanned down the drive toward the road. My mother once had a boyfriend who could play the drums and when he was drinking he'd hit them hard. He used to call it "Jake Brake"—the sound of a semi on a steep grade, and if I closed my eyes I could hear the sound again coming up from my chest in a solid beat. For a minute I lost my sense of direction, but I knew which way I had to turn. The grass was high, but I thought that I could see the black strip of asphalt rising up through the green.
© Jodi Angel
This electronic version of “Catch the Grey Dog” appears in The Barcelona Review with kind permission of the author and publisher. It appears in the short-story collection You Only Get Letters from Jail by Jodi Angel, published by Tin House Books, 2013. Book ordering available through amazon.com and amazon.co.uk
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Jodi Angel’s first collection of stories, The History of Vegas, was published in 2005 and was named a San Francisco Chronicle Best Book of 2005 as well as an LA Times Book Review Discovery. Her work has appeared in Tin House, Zoetrope: All-Story, One Story, the Sycamore Review, and Esquire/Byliner, among other publications and anthologies. Her latest collection, You Only Get Letters from Jail (2013), has drawn praise from both critics and the reading public.
photo: Kevin F. McKenna