out back by the rabbit pen

Calder Lorenz

Alias awoke to the sound of rusted brakes.  The bus lurched as it crawled like a tank over the curb of an empty desert gas station.    

“Pardon me,” he said to the woman next to him. “Where are we?”

“Eastern, Eastern Washington,” she said flatly. 

Her face blotched and tired. Her blonde hair tied back.  Her arms were bare and freckled, as brittle as a dead branch.  

“You’d rather be somewhere else?” she asked. 

The familiarity of this new space horrified him.  The town looked as exciting as the one he’d left for good.  Southern Oregon, Medford.  Methford. 

The woman stood and removed her belongings from the overhead bin.  She leaned towards him.

“You snore,” she said. “In your sleep.”

She said, “Ain’t no one gonna share a bed with you if you don’t get that fixed.” 

She smiled a bright tight smile that shook him up.  

“Sorry,” he said, unsure of what else to say.  

"We all got flaws,” she said.

“I’m pretty sure,” he said.

“Did you sleep the entire way?”

“I’m pretty sure,” he said.  

            “I’d thought about waking you at the last gas station.  We all ate sandwiches at the sandwich shop, but the heat got the best of me.”  She hiked up two large suitcases as if they were a pair of loose pants.  The worn skin of the cases peeled out from the dried and cracked corners.  “If you walk past the bookstore, you can get a bite to eat at my son’s diner.” 

He bought a pouch of rolling tobacco at the gas station.  On the register there was a laminated sun bleached sign that read, America still Open for Business.  He figured that the man behind the counter with tobacco streaks in his teeth had made the amendment.  

She waited for him on the corner.  They walked past the bookstore and the woman paused.  Her shoulders dipped with the weight of the suitcases and lines of sweat ran into her dyed eyebrows.  She was incredibly thin with a frame that would have easily supported more.  The bookstore’s front door was closed and blocked by a wooden bin.  A small printed sign read, Free Books.

“That’s Donnie’s,” she said, puffing up at her thin curled bangs. “Don’t listen to a word that boy says. I told him a bookstore is something. Maybe not even that bad of an investment. But, hell, a Christian bookstore. Who’ll buy more than two bibles?”

Alias had once imagined owning his own space while he was in Seattle.  He’d have liked to have nothing to do but serve up cold drinks, talk to friends about music and books.  He’d play his guitar for folks on a small stage.  Everyday filled with certainty.  Faces you knew, people you liked to please.   

“Maybe, it’s not such a bad idea,” he said. “I know a few people who’d buy more than two.” 

He thought of his tall, athletic uncle down there in Central Florida, a minister with sculpted hair that could withstand hurricane strength winds.  Sculpted calves that supported tan pressed shorts.  He thought of his grandmother’s funeral, the last time the entire family had gathered together.  How he’d seen no one since.  How his aunt, her makeup-riddled face as tight as plastic, her alien voice speaking in tongues, danced about the stage.  His Catholic grandmother, in her best green dress, dead on St. Patrick’s Day, luck of the Irish, who sent him a birthday card for every year of his life, pronounced a sinner before god and the humidity of March.  Sinner! boomed from the church’s surround sound system and off the screened windows and into the raised casket.  The entire family trapped like bugs in an electric zapper.

“Do they live around here?” the woman asked.

“No,” he said. “They don’t.”

“That’s right,” she said. “They don’t.”

Alias’ lower back itched as his shirt stuck to his skin.  He suddenly felt taxed by the heat.  He needed a cold drink.  There was a thin breeze but it was as refreshing as a blowdryer.  A plastic bag tumbled at their feet and then danced like a mosquito around one of the store’s dust-caked windows.              

The diner was empty and Donnie, his cotton blue shirt stained at the armpits, poured Alias a glass of water with no ice.

“Machines broken,” he said. “Sorry about that.”

“Do you have anything cold?” Alias asked. “Cereal or something.”

“We can make eggs any way you like em, or pancakes,” he said. “Sorry about that.”

Donnie’s mother lounged in one of the booths with her bare feet propped up.  She fanned herself with a folded paper plate.  She read from a magazine.

Donnie stood behind the counter with a rag wrapped around his hands, his large curly black hair like a protective helmet.  He looked expectantly at his mother.  She went right on reading.

Donnie fumbled around in the kitchen.  He brought out a burned frying pan.  Threw in half a stick of butter. 

“Can I catch a bus later today?” Alias asked.

"Tomorrow morning,” the woman answered. “Where are you supposed to be?”

“Thought I’d head on down to California. Thought I’d try out San Francisco.”

“Should’ve taken the coast if you wanted to get down to San Francisco,” Donnie said. “Now you’ll really have to go way out of your way.  Back to Pasco or somewhere near the border with Oregon.” 

“I’m not worried,” Alias said. “I’m trying out new routes. Quieter ones.”

“I guess you’re right,” Donnie said. “I bet the ocean can be as loud as a son of a bitch.”

Donnie stirred the butter around the pan.  He pulled a small container from a tray next to the grill and poured out a thick liquid.  The pan sizzled.

“Looks like you’ll be here for the night then,” Donnie said. “You know I could use some help with this new venture I’m getting off the ground.”

A chuckle came from behind the magazine in the booth.

“It’s a good idea mom,” Donnie said.  He bent his head towards the pan and scratched his knee with his warped spatula. 

“What’s the plan,” he said to Donnie. “Let me hear it.”

“It’s real simple.”  Donnie waved his spatula like a conductor. “I’ve got a van. And in a few hours, the last bus will arrive from Seattle.  There’s a concert up the road tonight.  It’s a good walk to the venue where the kids all camp, like five miles.  Some kids will walk it but most just try and hitch rides. It’s still kind of hot after the sun goes down. So, I figure why not be waiting for them when they get off the bus.  We can tie their stuff to the roof and fit maybe six or seven kids in there. Sell them a few cold drinks. Charge them a good rate. Plus, we can try and sell them some of the items I got in my bookstore.”

Donnie’s mother slapped her magazine against the table.

“No kids would want to buy those damn religious books,” she said. “Get some sense in your head.”

Donnie turned back to flip the pancakes.  He lowered his head. 

Alias thought the boy might start to cry but he just went right on pushing the cakes around the pan. 

They had made a deal.  Alias would drive and Donnie, who was well on his way, would continue to drink.  They pulled into the gas station and parked next to a broken down gas pump.  The light was off in the service office.  Donnie’s van had no radio just red and blue and green wires that extended out stiffly in every direction.

“Want a beer?” Donnie asked.

Alias snapped a beer from the six-pack.  Donnie drank his beer fast.  He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and then cracked another. 

"It’s cool to have a couple of beers and drive. There’s only one cop on duty here at night and he’s down the road at Ralphs waiting for the drunks."

“Don’t people know that he’s waiting for them?”

“Sure,” Donnie said with a wide grin. “They aren’t stupid, just having a little fun. The cop, Ken, he’s younger than me and most of the folks would have taught him in school or sold his parents groceries or umpired for his t-ball team. No, no, his job is to escort them home with his lights on so they don’t hurt anyone or drive off into a pile of rocks. That’s why they leave in shifts. Cuss him, make a show of it and then they pretend they’re out on their own like he’s not there, in total control of the situation.” 

Over the course of a few hours, Donnie had polished off nine or ten beers.  But, he’d also managed to convince twelve kids to catch a ride to the concert, sold four cold soft drinks from the cooler in the back of the van and even found a home for three pornographic magazines he’d brought from his bookstore.  He had business cards ready when they collected their belongings.  In all he’d netted about seventy-five dollars. 

He was passed out on a cot in the bookstore when Alias walked into the diner.  Donnie’s mother was still reading in one of the booths. 

"Shut that door tight,” she said from behind her magazine. “My blanket is in the house.”  

Alias turned the lock on the glass door. 

“You can flip the sign. We’re closed.”

“Can I buy something to drink?” he asked.

“Help yourself,” she said. “There’s a cooler around the counter.”  She lowered the magazine. “Officially,” she said with a sordid smile, “it’s after hours. So it’s free.”

Alias found the cooler and picked out the coldest bottle he could find.  He stood behind the counter and drank. 

Donnie’s mother sat down on a stool across from him. 

“You got a purpose?” she asked. “Do you love something?”

“I play guitar,” he said. “That’s about all. But I screwed that up.”   

“One more thing than my boy can do,” she said.  She laughed but it was soft and abrupt.  

"I don’t know about that,” Alias said. “He did pretty good tonight. He wants to drive me to the border with some of the money he made.”

“I didn’t say he wasn’t good natured.”

Alias walked back around.  Sat at the rounded end of the counter near the door.  

She untied her hair and pulled it back tight.  Pressed her bangs flat.  She pulled lipstick from her pocket and drew it around her lips as slow as the desert dusk fades to dark and stars.   

“Let’s make ourselves a deal,” she said.

Alias stayed quiet. 

“Donnie gets these wild ideas in his head,” she said. “California will sound like nothing that’s ever touched his big ears. But there ain’t nothing there for him. Ain’t nothing there for you in case you haven’t heard the good word. But, that’s for you to figure out. So, I’m going to show you something special and you can have a taste of it and when it comes time, I want my boy back.” 

Alias popped his knuckles. 

They walked together behind the diner out across the dry ground of her backyard.  On a hillside off in the distance, light burned from a cross the size of a phone tower.  Near the edge of a shed he could make out small dark lumps huddled together in a pen.  His eyes adjusted with the help of the stars and as they grew closer he realized they were rabbits, a few hopping to greet them.  

She opened the door to the shed.  Flipped on the light and led him by the hand inside. 

And there above him, hung from the shed’s metal roof like varnished stalactites, were an assortment of guitars unlike anything he’d ever seen.  There was a small couch and an amp and a table with an ashtray.  Twenty, thirty, hand crafted guitars: a banjo, a twelve string, steel and wood, a double neck. 

The instruments filling the silent space like moss on a tree.   

“We got a deal?” she asked.

“I’m pretty sure,” he said.    






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