A man named Rabbit who’s missing a pinky finger wakes up in his garage apartment in West Texas. Just outside of Marfa off Route 90, in a compound surrounded by tall metal fencing. A cigarette from the night before has burned a hole in a dirty comforter laid over a mattress on the floor. The sun shines through the window at a slant that suggests early afternoon. Across the room, a Mr. Coffee maker sits half-full of old sludge. A stale bowl of mac-and-cheese teeters on the edge of the sink. Beside it, a bong. Rabbit’s mouth is dry. It hasn’t rained in months.
Rabbit pulls himself out of bed. Every cell in his aging body is screaming at him to lie back down, but Rabbit doesn’t listen. He never has, not even to his better sense. For proof, just look at where he lives. Out here at the end of the Earth, three hours from the closest city. No streams. No lakes. No visible life. At night, though, there are stars. Beautiful stars. Plentiful. That’s the one redeeming aspect of living in the middle of nowhere. Otherwise, this is no land for the sound of mind. No wonder Rabbit has moved here.
He pours a cup of cold coffee sludge. Collapses onto a scratchy Goodwill couch he bought when he moved in, alone, two months ago. He’s wearing a single tube sock full of holes, and stained briefs. A shredded t-shirt from Willie Nelson’s 1987 tour. His beard is greasy white. He runs his fingers through it, extracting a dry elbow of macaroni. Sunlight through the window illuminates the dust, making the room hotter by degrees.
Rabbit had been getting used to life in the desert. Learning to love the punishing heat, the desolation. At first, he hadn’t known what to do with himself. All that free time and empty space. Time and space that had been filled with a wife (Isabella) and child (Scarlett) for so many years. His days once packed from morning to night with work and dance recitals and camping trips. Juice boxes and birthday parties. Isabella and Scarlett demanding all of his energy, all of his attention. Then Scarlett went off to college, Hawaii Pacific University, and that’s when Rabbit’s marriage started to crumble. A rift had been growing between him and Isabella, year after year, without either of them fully noticing it. Their daughter’s departure revealed the extent of the marital corrosion, but by that point, it was too late for amicable reconciliation.
When Rabbit first arrived in West Texas, from a small parish outside New Orleans, he spent a couple weeks aimlessly floating in the emptiness. His apartment was a sad, mostly empty space, so he spent a lot of time outside, exploring Marfa on foot, taking photographs, trying to unearth new meanings. The streets were usually barren, but Rabbit was able to spot small moments of beauty inside all that nothingness. Here are three things he took pictures of:
(1) A rusty race car in a backyard, the words DALE THE SNAIL spray-painted on the side.
(2) A pale yellow beach cruiser bike leaned against a turquoise wall reading BAR DE JUGOS.
(3) An abandoned gas station with the diesel price listed at 98-cents per gallon.
Rabbit would walk for miles, snap hundreds of pictures, and when he returned to his apartment in the evening, legs wobbly and shirt transparent from sweat, he’d review his bounty. Dispose of the bad pictures like weeds. Savor the good ones. It was a way for him to order his strange new life. One weekend, he took an excursion out to Big Bend. Rabbit thought it looked like Mars, in its orange emptiness. The temperature had reached 110 degrees one afternoon, just punishingly hot, as cactuses pricked his skin with their tiny teeth. He’d loved every minute of that sweat-drenched excursion.
But now, sitting on his scratchy couch, drinking old coffee, three days unshowered, his world has been upended. The air conditioner rattles to a start, blows freezing air on Rabbit’s arms. The temperature can’t seem to find an equilibrium: too hot, then way too cold. Outside, grackles shriek. The vast desert is closing in. Rabbit rubs the nub where his right pinky used to be. He tries, but fails, to devise a reason to leave his apartment. To do anything at all.
It’s been three days since he got the call from his daughter, who graduated college four years ago and now lives in Costa Rica, right on the coast. Rabbit had just returned from one of his day-long photography journeys when he received the news. He was making a pot of macaroni and listening to Waylon Jennings on his iPhone, dancing around the kitchen like a fool, when the music stopped and his daughter’s name appeared on the screen.
Are you sitting down? she said.
She finally did it.
She finally went through with it.
Rabbit collapsed onto the couch and tried to process what Scarlett had told him. He hadn’t left his apartment since, moving only from the kitchen to the bathroom to the mattress, like some depressed devout monk. Enduring only the most basic motions, those necessary for survival.
Things had not ended well between him and Isabella. Even so, they had shared a lot, and the fact that she was no longer in the world made him feel lonely. He hadn’t expected to feel this way. He hadn’t spoken to her since everything had been finalized. Yet, there it was, that terrible lonesome feeling, swimming through Rabbit’s blood like a bloated eel.
Junior barrels east on Route 90 in a ‘98 Honda Accord. Around the license plate is a UNIVERSITY OF NEW MEXICO frame. The flat desert on either side of the road stretches to the edges of the Earth. The windows are rolled down, circulating hot April air through the cab as Willie Nelson blares from the stereo. Junior taps his left palm on the wheel to keep time with the music. A small metallic cross dangles from his neck. He passes a joint to the girl in the passenger seat.
“Hey, C,” he says, smiling from behind aviators. “I love you.”
The girl with tan skin smiles. A brilliant smile containing all newly born things. Butterflies and honeybees.
“Love you, too, babe,” she says, taking a long hit. “How much further we got?”
“I don’t have service,” Junior says. “But if I had to guess I’d say, ehhhh, maybe two hours to Terlingua? And Big Bend isn’t much further after that.”
“I’m gonna take a nap,” she says. “Wake me up whenever to drive.”
Junior smiles as his girlfriend rolls over and starts snoring. Suddenly a loud BOOM thunders from underneath the car. Followed by a repetitive thumping noise, like someone banging rubber with a hammer. Junior grips the wheel with both hands and muscles the Accord onto the shoulder. The thumping slows, then stops altogether.
“What the hell?” Cecilia says.
“Fuck if I know,” Junior says. “Didn’t see anything on the road.”
Junior steps out of the car. Instantly, he’s sweating. He pulls down his sunglasses to inspect the damage. The deflated tire glares at him like an alcoholic clown.
“Motherfucker’s flat,” he shouts through the window.
“What the hell,” Cecilia yells, throwing back her head. “I told you we should have changed tires before we left.”
“With what money?”
“You know my parents would’ve helped.”
“I don’t want your parents’ help. Plus, I don’t think new tires would’ve done anything with whatever the hell we just hit.”
Junior checks his phone. No service. He gazes up the road, hoping to spot a sign of civilization. The sun reflects off a large metal fence in the distance. Junior climbs back into the driver’s seat and sighs.
“There’s a house or something up the road,” he says. “Guess we could see if they can take us to a tire shop.”
“Why don’t you put the spare on first?” Cecilia asks.
“Do you know how to do that?”
“Do you even know if we have a spare? Or where such a thing might be? Cause I don’t.”
“Great,” Junior says.
“Just fucking great,” Cecilia says, crossing her arms.
Junior clenches his jaw. Suddenly it feels like everything – this trip, their relationship – is disintegrating like a buried corpse.
“I’m sorry I don’t meet your standards of manliness. Sorry I didn’t have a dad to teach me all that,” he says. “It’s the 21st century, babe. Maybe you should learn to change one, too.”
He exhales forcefully.
“Look, we’ll just drive up there and see what we’re working with. I’m sure we can find someone to help.”
Junior puts the Accord in drive. It limps down the hot Texas highway. Thwomp, thwomp, thwomping away. The rim grinds on the scorching pavement. Willie is still playing on the stereo, but the music now feels like nuisance instead of drug. So Junior turns it off. Cecilia crosses her arms ho-hummedly and remains silent until the car reaches that gleaming metal fence. In the driveway, a rusty maroon Aerostar is parked in front of what appears to be a living quarters of some kind. Cecilia softens.
“I’m sorry I went off back there,” she says. “That wasn’t cool. You know I love you.”
“It’s alright,” Junior says. “I’m sorry, too. We were both just super stressed.”
Junior pulls the half-finished joint from the door pocket. Lights it up and inhales. Then he and Cecilia clasp hands, forming a sort of tunnel into which Junior exhales a burst of smoke. Cecilia inhales, holds it in, then starts coughing like hell.
“Blast off!” Junior says, smiling.
Cecilia coughs some more then stops. In an otherworldly voice, she says:
“Ground control to Major Tom.”
“Take your protein pills and put your helmet on,” Junior says. He laughs, eyes glowing with a love only the young can feel.
“C’mon,” he says. “Let’s go see if this Aerostar-driving motherfucker can help us out. ”
Rabbit is only half-dressed when he hears a knock on the door. It surprises him, because knocks aren’t the norm in West Texas. Howls? Yes. Screeches? Sure. But knocks? Putting on clothes is the last thing he feels like doing, but he figures he should probably do it.
“Give me a second,” he hollers, pulling on a pair of dirty jeans. He begins searching for his missing sock, looking in the living room, then under a pile of clothes in the corner of the bedroom. He inexplicably locates it next to the toilet, then heads to the kitchen for a bong rip. A huge pull. Big enough to turn the lungs black. He tries to cough quietly under his breath, but ends up wheezing like a dying man in hospice. Feeling sufficiently stoned, he moves toward the door, catching a glimpse of himself in the window along the way. The man looking back appears to have weathered some great tragedy. Haggard, Rabbit thinks.
He swings open the door. Two kids stare back at him. A black guy with dreadlocks in a tank top and a Hispanic girl in yoga pants. They smell strongly of weed. Neither seems interested in making eye contact. Yet Rabbit immediately notices their beauty. Their youth. Feels dual twinges of admiration and disgust.
“What can I do ya for?” Rabbit asks in a tone belying his heartbreak.
“Good afternoon, sir,” starts Junior. “We…”
“Call me Rabbit.”
“OK…Rabbit.” Junior scratches his muscular right bicep. “We’re students at New Mexico and we got a, um, flat tire about a half-mile back and figured we’d see if you could, like, help out, or something. Maybe give us a ride to a tire shop.”
Rabbit runs his fingers through his scraggly beard. Makes brief eye contact with the girl. Her reddened eyes shoot to the floor. Rabbit notices the cross around Junior’s neck and feels mischievous.
“It’s Sunday,” Rabbit says. “Shouldn’t ya’ll be in church? Or at least resting?”
Rabbit immediately notices their beauty. Their youth. Feels dual twinges of admiration and disgust.
The two college students look at him with mouths agape. Junior tries to mutter something to explain away his sacrilege, but the words sputter then disappear under his breath. Rabbit grins through yellow teeth.
“I’m just fuckin’ with ya’ll,” he says. “About the church thing, anyway. No tire shop’s gonna be open on Sunday. If you got a spare, I could help you put it on.”
Junior stares blankly at Rabbit’s sternum. He blinks, then looks at his girlfriend.
“Do you know if we have a spare?” Junior asks.
Cecilia rolls her eyes.
“You know I don’t.”
“I’m sure you do,” he says. “Most people do. Let’s take a look.”
Rabbit steps into the heat, shutting the creaky door behind him. As the three of them walk across the dusty front yard, Junior inspects Rabbit through the haze of his high, trying to deduce whether this guy is capable of chopping them into small pieces and burying them in the middle of the desert. Junior concludes, in a vague stoned sort of way, that this lanky black man in front of them, this man with a circle of sweat forming on the back of his white t-shirt, just might be capable of murder.
Before long, Rabbit is down on the gravel, twisting lugnuts, levering the jack. Sliding the dwarf tire into place. Sweating like a javelina in heat.
“You know, ya’ll should probably learn how to do this,” he says, wiping his forehead. “It might come in handy one day. Like today.”
The two college kids nod, embarrassed at their uselessness. It takes Rabbit 10 minutes to finish the job. He rises and dusts off his hands.
“That’ll get you maybe 100 miles,” he says. “You should probably find a place to stay tonight, though. Get it changed first thing in the morning.”
Cecilia smiles and places a thankful hand on Rabbit’s sweaty shoulder. Rabbit is stunned by how much she resembles Isabella, back when she and Rabbit were seniors at Chalmette High School in New Orleans. Before Scarlett was born, before age changed everything, before it all turned ugly.
“Thank you so much,” Cecilia says. “We don’t have any cash, but we could run to an ATM.”
“Shit, you don’t owe me anything,” Rabbit says.
“Let us get you something,” Junior says. “You like beer?”
“Don’t know many people who don’t.”
“We’ll run up to the store and grab a 12-pack,” Junior says. “What kind do you like?”
“Cold,” Junior says. “Got it.”
The two kids climb into the Accord and drive off slowly, not quite trusting the dwarf tire. Rabbit collapses into a green plastic chair next to his front door. Pulls a pack of Newports from his pocket and lights one up. Taps his right foot on the dirt like he’s playing a bass drum. Gazes out over the rusty open expanse. The powerlines, the cactuses.
The nicotine activates his mind. They probably ain’t coming back, he thinks. Old weirdo like me. They’ll probably just drive on until they find a hotel. Or, whadda they call it nowadays, an RbnB. Cigarette smoke curls in the air as Rabbit settles into the Texas heat like a desert veteran.
His mind turns to Isabella. Poor Isabella. Her siblings, Rabbit recalls, were all fucked up. Bipolar, schizophrenia, heaven knows what else. Homelessness. Alcoholism. Et cetera. Her brother, Don, a schizoid, the worst of the bunch. Arrested once for attacking a cab driver with a hatchet after the driver asked him to pay the $31 fare. Don told the cops the driver was a “heart-eating Jew trying to steal his soul.” That was an actual quote in the newspaper article. A heart-eating jew.
Her oldest sister, Darling, bipolar, changed her name to Zandra Marxis IV and left her husband and three kids in her late-20s for a guy who amassed a small fortune selling kidneys on the black market. When the kidney guy left her, she killed herself by cutting out one of her own kidneys and bleeding out on his bed.
Isabella, though, had been different. Tougher. More resilient. The only one of her siblings to get married, raise a family and keep it somewhat between the lines. She had issues, of course. A violent anger problem like intermittent shotgun blasts. She was a manager at Red Lobster for years, where her employees called her the Dragon Lady because she’d be so sweet one second only to fly into a blind rage the next. Depression, too, sank its teeth into her. When an episode hit, she’d stay in bed for a week, sometimes longer, barely able to move, staring at faces in the ceiling. Faces only visible to her, faces always frowning. Rabbit would bring her soup and crackers. Coffee and water. Run his fingers through her long black hair.
Now she was gone. Damn, Rabbit thought. Now she’s gone. And for what? We all have to go at some point, of course, but there are right and wrong ways to go. Rabbit could understand why she’d gone through with it, even if he didn’t condone what she’d done. It must have been a way for her to wrest back control from a tyrannical universe. A way for her to choose when, where and how. That made sense to him on some level, because he’d been in a similar mindset more than a few times himself. Like that two-week period after Scarlett was born when he just up and left. Quit his job at Sonic and abandoned his burgeoning family. He and Isabella hadn’t been getting along. She’d had bad post-partum depression, and her deep sadness beat him down. He was so young, besides. Only 20. He was young and stupid so he just left. Put a pistol under the front seat of his Bronco and drove away to the beach.
Who could blame him? People make mistakes when they’re young. Sometimes when they’re old, too. Rabbit was no different. He found a cruddy motel in Holly Beach for 30 dollars a night and stayed there for as long as his money would last. He’d walk down to the sand in the evenings to watch the sun set. Pistol always tucked in his right pant leg, cold metal pressed against his skin. The sun was so beautiful. If it wasn’t for those orange and yellow rays, things probably would’ve ended differently. Thank goodness for the sun.
Rabbit usually slept through the hot days. He’d pulled back the blackout curtains and let the noisy air conditioner turn the room into an icebox. He’d wake up not knowing what day, or even what month. His goal was to push Isabella and Scarlett out of his mind. He loved them, sure, but he was not well, and because he was so twisted up, he truly believed his life was over. He couldn’t spend the rest of his Earthly days taking care of a kid. Not a chance in hell. And how would he do it, anyway, on a fast-food worker’s salary?
The air conditioner would hum and his feet would get so cold and he’d think about the pistol lying next to the TV. He’d think about what he could do with it, what it could do to him. It was the thought of eternal blackness on the other side that kept him from going through with it. That, and the sun. If something could be as beautiful as those yellows and oranges cast out over the ocean, he thought, maybe there were other beautiful things out there. Other things worth living for. Transcendent things he might one day see.
Back in Marfa, Rabbit takes one last drag from the cigarette and crams the butt into an old soda can. Exhales forcefully. Leans back in the cracked plastic chair and looks across the road at the desert. His high is wearing off. Where does it all go? he thinks, spitting into the sand and watching the glob dry instantly. He’s about to go inside when he notices a small fuzzy creature struggling on the hot asphalt. So instead he moves toward the road. His ankles pop. His knees feel like they’re held together by mildewed rope.
It’s a javelina. Rabbit’s never seen one up close. It looks like a possum and pig got it on and plopped this thing out. The pig-possum is half-flattened and dying. Its ass-end and two back legs are shattered. It’s trying to pull itself around with its front half, desperately attempting to flee the road, to reach whatever safety exists out here in the heat. The creature is quiet throughout its struggle. You’d assume the poor thing would be, like, howling in pain, with its ass-end so broken. But no. Pure silence. Almost holy, in its way. Rabbit thinks he recognizes a soul in the javelina’s beady eyes, though it’s hard to tell with things like that. Nature is nature and out here in the desert there ain’t no love, only eat or be eaten. Kill or be killed. All those dreadful universal truths you often hear about. But even animals, in their most vulnerable moments, can make concessions to the Gods. Can plead for mercy.
A couple of turkey vultures circle overhead. Rabbit looks at them with his wrinkled face. He knows what he has to do, being a compassionate man with the means for mercy. “Don’t worry, little buddy,” Rabbit says to the dying javelina. “It won’t be much longer.”
But before he can move inside to fetch his pistol, the thing just dies. Takes one last breath and flops its fat head onto the asphalt. Rabbit waits for it to move again. Waits a good long while. Then he gets a shovel from his apartment and chucks the thing off the side of the road. There’s a stark sadness in the air that Rabbit feels deeply, yet he knows too much about existence to get too wrapped up the gloom. He realizes that, at his age, the end could come for him at any moment, too, and just as unexpectedly as it had for the javelina. Just strolling through the desert one day, minding his own, when…SPLAT. Blasted into eternal darkness. Not a bad way to go, given the alternatives. Out of the blue and mostly painless. It hadn’t been painless for the javelina. But maybe it would be for Rabbit. Maybe it was for Isabella, too. Rabbit couldn’t believe she was gone.
Rabbit is sitting in the plastic chair smoking another cigarette when he thinks, you know, those kids definitely aren’t coming back. The sun is setting and there’s just no way I’ll see them again. He tries to garner enough energy to walk into town for some pictures, an action that would likely keep his sadness at bay, when lo and behold, the Accord pulls in. The green car with its awkward dwarf tire rolls to a stop. The boy leans across the center console and kisses the girl on her full lips. It makes Rabbit feel something timeless and golden deep in his heart, but this feeling is too much to bear so he pushes it far down, where he doesn’t have to suffer its beauty. He cracks his neck and sits up straight as the kids approach. They reek of marijuana and body odor. Rabbit smiles through the pain.
“Here’s your cold beer,” Junior says, placing the 12-pack on the ground next to Rabbit. “Hope you like Tecate.”
“Long as it’s cold,” Rabbit says. “Thank you kindly.”
“No, thank you,” Junior says. “We would’ve been totally screwed without you.”
“I suppose I’m pretty good at unscrewin’ things, sometimes.”
Rabbit reaches down, rips open the cardboard and cracks open a beer. He starts to drink it, but stops to look at Junior, who’s so muscular he could pass for a pro athlete.
“Say,” Rabbit says. “Ya’ll wouldn’t be interested in coming upstairs and sharing a beer or two with an old man, would you?”
Junior looks hesitantly at Cecilia, who’s shuffling her feet and staring at the ground. He turns his gaze to the old man sitting before him, this strange old black man with a stained white beard and no left pinky finger. It’s the first time Junior has noticed the missing digit. A red flag, he thinks. What kind of man lives in the middle of nowhere by himself? And with no pinky finger, to boot? Only reckless men were missing minor body parts. Reckless men or weird ones.
“What if I sweeten the pot?” Rabbit says, taking a sip.
“I got a bong upstairs,” he says, smiling. “And enough weed for every stoner jackrabbit in this desert. If you partake, of course.”
Only reckless men were missing minor body parts. Reckless men or weird ones.
Cecilia’s eyes light up. Rabbit can’t stand to look at her, much as she resembles a young Isabella. Way back when, when things were all right. Before the Saints won a Super Bowl. Before Katrina knocked that region into the stone age. Before Scarlett. Before he left, then returned. It’s all so unknowable, the way things constantly go on. Foolishly go on. Like a hog limping into the fire.
“I think we’ve got some time,” Cecilia says, nudging her muscular boyfriend. “Don’t we, hun?”
“Yeah,” Junior says. “Yeah, I guess we do. But you’ve already been so generous. I don’t want to take your weed, too.”
“Son,” Rabbit says. “I thought youd’ve learned by now. Never turn down free weed. That’s Stoner 101.”
“Yeah,” Cecilia says. “It’s free weed.”
“Alright,” Junior says. “We’ll come up for a little bit. But I don’t want to be a burden.”
Rabbit finishes his beer and places it on the ground.
“Don’t worry,” he says. “You’ll be anything but.”
There’s a certain otherworldly, almost cosmic, feeling one gets when being stoned in a strange place. This is the feeling Junior has after his third bong rip in Rabbit’s apartment. It’s as if he’s seated not in some divorcee’s dirty bachelor pad in West Texas, but in the cockpit of a spaceship soaring through Andromeda. Junior’s certain that, if he opens the door, he’ll float out into deep space, never to be heard from again. Junior is miles away when he hears the old man talking about the javelina.
“The thing didn’t deserve that,” he says, pulling from the bong and setting it on the ground. “Crushed all to shit. And for what?”
“Did you have to kill it?” Junior asks.
“I was going to. But then the thing just died. Didn’t even make a sound.”
“Shit,” Junior says, eyeing the missing pinky finger. “Really makes you wonder, doesn’t?”
Junior picks up the bong and takes a healthy rip. His fourth one. Water bubbles as smooth smoke fills his lungs. An exhale, a cough. His anxiety about this strange old man are melting away like raindrops down a windowpane. Now he’s certain he’s in a spaceship, and for some reason, the thought soothes him. Weed’ll bring on those strange soothing thoughts sometimes. Other times, it’s the opposite. All that cosmic horror crushes you.
“So I gotta ask,” Junior says. “What happened to your finger?”
“I mean, the one that’s not there.”
Rabbit looks down at his hand, feigning surprise.
“Oh my, what the hell, holy shit. It’s gone!”
Rabbit’s acting is good enough to momentarily fool two stoned college juniors. They’re sitting on the scratchy Goodwill couch with mouths agape when Rabbit finally drops the act.
“Man, you stoners are gullible,” he says. “Been so long since it happened, I forget it isn’t there.”
“So what happened? If you don’t mind saying,” Junior says.
Rabbit rubs the nub and leans forward.
“I wasn’t much older than ya’ll,” he says. “Might’ve been younger. My wife and I had just had a kid. She was depressed. Overwhelmed, I guess. So I went to the coast by myself for a couple weeks. I didn’t know how to handle everything so I just…left. Didn’t tell anyone where I was going. I’m not proud of it.”
Rabbit winces at the memory. Shame flashes across his face, then recedes.
“I was trying to find myself. You probably know exactly what I mean, being college kids and all. I’d sleep during the day. Get up, watch the sunset. That’s what I remember most. Those sunsets. I drank a lot, too.”
Cecilia is sitting with her legs crossed, one arm draped over Junior’s shoulder. Her eyes are in themselves setting suns.
“Sunlight can be good,” she says.
“Yeah, it can,” Rabbit says. “I was out there on the beach by myself one evening as the sun was goin’ down. Messed on liquor. When all of a sudden, I see this huge turtle in the shallow water. I’m drunk and looking for a connection to anything. Human, turtle, doesn’t matter. So I think, what the hell. And reach out my hand.”
“Ahhh,” Junior says
“Holy shit,” Cecilia mumbles.
“That sobered me up like that,” Rabbit says, snapping his fingers. “In more ways than one. Part of me thinks that turtle did me a favor. It was like that bite somehow, I don’t know, proved that life wasn’t nothin’ to mess with. I went home to my wife and kid a couple days later and never did anything that stupid again.”
“Stupid things, sure,” he adds. “But never anything that stupid. Or selfish.”
Rabbit is surprised when tears come to his eyes. They’re so subtle the kids on the couch don’t notice them. But the tremble in his voice makes their existence clear.
“Don’t wait,” he continues, out of the blue. “I know you probably think I’m some crazy old man living by himself in the middle of nowhere. But I’ve been through a lot. Right now, it probably feels like you have a lot of time. You don’t. Trust me. You never did.”
Rabbit is crying now.
“I’m sorry,” he says, wiping his eyes. “I just lost someone I used to be real close with.”
The air conditioner kicks on from across the room.
“Oh gosh,” Cecilia says. “That’s terrible.”
Rabbit motions with his hand as if to say it is what it is. Junior rubs his moist palms on his thighs, then stands up and meanders around the sparse room. Looks from its dirty walls to its dirty floors to its dirty windows and wonders is this what life has in store for me? He notices a camera on the kitchen table. Picks it up, turns it this way and that.
“You a photographer?” he asks.
“Amateur, I suppose,” Rabbit says, running his palm across his face. “Helps me cope.”
“Mind if I check these out?”
Rabbit shakes his head.
The pictures Junior sees are quite beautiful. Hundreds of street photographs from around Marfa. Rusty cars and beach cruisers and the dark orange desert stretching far off into nowhere. He also sees towering orange cliffs on either side of a wide muddy river. The landscape looks Martian.
“Big Bend?” he asks.
“Went there a couple weeks ago,” he says. “You think Marfa’s lonesome? Pshhh. Go to Big Bend.”
“That’s where we’re headed.”
“No kiddin’,” Rabbit says. “More stars than you ever knew existed. Like seein’ the whole damn universe.”
Junior keeps flipping through pictures, stoned out of his mind, captivated by the images of divine desolation. Rabbit turns his gaze to Cecilia. When she glances at him, he quickly looks away and rubs his bicep.
“How’d you end up out here, anyway?” Junior asks, putting down the camera.
“Circumstances,” Rabbit says, vaguely.
“Yeah, well, I got divorced, if you must know. Didn’t have anything keeping me in New Orleans anymore. My daughter lives down in Costa Rica now. And the city has changed so much I didn’t feel a connection to it. Ain’t what it used to be.”
“I wanted to go where I could be nobody. Somewhere where people would leave me alone, and I could just exist. Without the pressure to be certain things to certain people.”
“How’s that working out?” Cecilia asks.
“Good, ‘til a couple days ago.”
The air conditioner clicks off. The room starts filling with heat again.
“Oh yeah?” Cecilia asks.
Rabbit leans back and gazes toward the window. Junior puts the camera down on the table and walks back to the couch. He collapses into it and places a hand on Cecilia’s thigh.
“My ex-wife, she…she…,” Rabbit says. He forms a gun with his right hand, places it to his temple and pulls the trigger. Then drops his head.
“Oh my gosh,” Cecilia says, drawing her hands to her mouth. “That’s terrible.”
“Yeah,” Rabbit says. “Yeah, it is.”
A thick silence hangs in the air. Rabbit looks toward the floor, scratches the back of his neck. It’s nearly dark outside and the desert has been cast in a dark blue anti-light. The nightly symphony of insect chirps and mammalian howls is beginning. Rabbit’s apartment feels like a cocoon, a cockpit.
“Never thought she’d do it,” he says. “She’s always had issues, don’t get me wrong. There were times when I thought she might. But I never thought she actually would.”
“I can’t imagine,” Cecilia says.
Junior repositions himself on the couch. He looks toward the window, sees yellow lights shining out there in space.
“I wish I could say I don’t know how you feel,” Junior says.
Rabbit looks at him quizically.
“Everyone’s different, of course. But my dad did the same thing,” he says. “I was super young, only eight or so. But I…I was the one who found him.”
“God,” Rabbit says.
“I didn’t know what it was at first,” Junior says, fingering his cross necklace. “Couldn’t recognize anything.”
“I can’t imagine,” Rabbit says, shaking his head. “Just a little kid, too.”
“Small,” Junior says. “Too small for that sort of thing. I’ve done a lot of praying on it. That seems to have helped.”
Junior looks away, unable to comprehend. There’s no cross around his neck to finger.
“Whatever helps,” he says. “Whatever helps.”
Cecilia, who’s been quiet for some time, places her hand on her boyfriend’s thigh and leans forward.
“Well, since we’re on this cheery subject,” she says, taking a deep breath. “My sister tried when we were in high school. We had a tough childhood, so I understand. Sort of. Took a bunch of pills and walked out on the interstate. Passed out on the shoulder. They pumped her stomach at the hospital.”
Everyone in the room is looking at the floor.
“She’s better now,” Cecilia says, looking up. “Went to therapy. Got on the right meds. She teaches elementary school in Albuquerque. She’s doing better now.”
Rabbit musters a half-smile.
“Things can get better,” he says.
“Yeah,” Cecilia says. “They always can.”
Today Rabbit is getting up early. His aging bones ache and crack like they didn’t 10 years ago, but today he’s moving like a younger man. He climbs out of his mattress, and for the first time in a long time, pulls the comforter over all four corners of the bed. He fluffs the pillows and nods subtly, proud of his work. Proud of himself.
Rabbit doesn’t stop there. He goes into the kitchen and dumps the old mac-and-cheese. Sweeps the empty cans of beer into a recycling bin. Tosses out the balled-up paper towels that have somehow accumulated in a single corner. Pours out the gross green bong water. He thinks, you know, all this work could use a soundtrack. So he cues up “Red-Headed Stranger” by ol’ Willie. Then he busts out the cleaning spray and goes to town. Soaks every surface, lets the stuff do its magic, fizzing as it breaks down weeks-old stains. Then he takes a rag and scrubs the hell out of counters, his heart growing lighter as the red, orange, yellow crud disappears.
All this work deserves a cigarette, so he steps outside to light one, unapologetically. The sun is barely up. Rabbit hasn’t seen this part of the morning in months. The desert air is cool, almost cold, and Rabbit shivers as he takes a drag in the old plastic chair. The previous day’s events feel like a dream, Junior and Cecilia like ghosts created by his unconscious mind. Thinking about it makes him feel like he’s living in a time long past, in some far away country. A time before modern amenities, when weary travelers would stop at inns in the middle of the night, needing a rest from a long day out on the road. Rabbit had been an innkeeper for those two college kids. He had done everything he could to help him, and he hoped that was enough.
His mind turns, inexplicably, to the day Scarlett left for college. Boarded a jet plane with one big suitcase and flew halfway across the Pacific, to Hawaii, and out of Rabbit and Isabella’s home forever. Rabbit cannot forget that day. Will not forget it. She looked so much like her mother on that hot fall afternoon, standing at the airport gate in front of her parents for the last time as a girl, her brown hair pulled back into a ponytail against her light brown skin, her eyes making those little annoyed movements typical of teenagers, movements that saoid it’s not that big of a deal, mom and dad. It’s just Hawaii. Rabbit couldn’t believe that this creature he once held in his arms, this creature who wouldn’t have known how to talk had it not been for him and Isabella, this creature who used to cry out for Mama and Papa, was standing in front of them as a woman capable of making those annoyed little movements with her big brown eyes. Rabbit cannot fathom how he almost abandoned her. Of course, neither he nor Isabella ever told her about that incident.
On that afternoon in the Louis Armstrong International Airport, Scarlett recoiled in semi-disgust as her father wrapped her in the tightest hug he’d ever doled out. She looked like a squashed teddy bear in his vice grip, her eyes bulging and her chubby cheeks contorted in an awkward manner. But Rabbit only hugged tighter, like he was trying to transfer all pure love from his soul to hers. She didn’t have time for any of that sappy crap, of course, ready as she was to break out on her own. But many years later, after she bore her own child, Joy, she would think back to that embrace and realize what it all meant. She felt it every time she hugged her own daughter, every time she gently tucked Joy’s soft blonde hair behind her tiny ears, every time she heard her daughter’s full lips form the words: I love you, Mommy.
When Rabbit had his only daughter wrapped up in his arms that day at the New Orleans aiport, he whispered something that didn’t make any sense to her. I’m sorry, he said. I’m sorry, I’m sorry. She felt his warm tears on her neck as he held her there for what felt like an eternity, the chaos of the airport swirling around them. People rushing this way and that, announcements booming over the intercom system.
Scarlett Couldn’t possibly understand. She pulled back from the embrace and held her father at arms length, staring at him quizzically.
“Sorry for what, dad?” she asked.
Rabbit wiped away the tears with the heel of his palm.
“Ah,” he said, sniffling. “Nothing, honey. Just know we love you. And we’re going to miss you like crazy.”
Later that evening, back inside his dingy apartment, Rabbit gets a call from Scarlett. He wonders if, through the inexplicable machinations of the universe, she somehow sensed him thinking about her. Somehow knew he needed to talk to his only child. He scratches his smooth face before picking up the phone.
“Hey dad,” she says. “How are you?”
“It’s good to hear your voice, honey. How are you doing?”
There’s a long silence. Rabbit hears the television in the background playing some bubbly kids show for Joy.
“Not great, dad,” she says. She feels like she should say more, but doesn’t.
“Me neither,” Rabbit says. “Guess you have to take it one day at a time,” Rabbit cringes at the cliche, wishes he had something more poignant to say.
“Mmmm,” Scarlett mumbles.
Rabbit looks around his apartment, suddenly seeing the place from a fresh perspective. The barren walls. The sad single mattress on the floor. The thrift store couch sagging in the middle. Is this how he wants to die, in the middle of all this? Out here, in the desert, alone? This is a land where the birds pick your bones clean. Where faceless men shovel your corpse to the side of the road and say to hell with it. Out here, you are roadkill. Out here, you die alone in an apartment and your body just lies there for weeks, festering in the Texas heat, the air conditioner kicking on and off, meaninglessly.
“I hear Costa Rica’s nice this time of year,” Rabbit says.
“Yup, it’s still the dry season.”
“Well, I’ve never been to Central America,” he says. “I’d like to photograph some of those howlers ya’ll got down there. Plus, I haven’t seen my daughter in a while.”
Rabbit can’t see it, of course, but Scarlett is smiling on the other end of the line.
“I’d have to talk to Miguel,” she says. “But we’ve got that guesthouse. I don’t think it’d be a problem.”
“You just say the word and I’ll be there.”
“It’ll be nice,” Scarlett says. “I think it’ll be really nice.”
Junior and Cecilia are lying on a picnic table at night in the middle of nowhere. To get here, to this pop-up camper AirBnB, they had to manuever the freshly-tired Accord through miles of nearly-abandoned desert roads, led only by their highlights, which every so often lit up a terrified jackrabbit. The road just kept going and going. Shoddy fences on either side. For an hour they drove until the headlights finally illuminated a rusty old camper. In this desert, just outside the ghost town of Terlingua, only a few miles from the majesty of Big Bend, Junior and Cecilia have decided to spend one night. “You know, for an authentic Texas experience,” as Junior put it. This area’s nickname is Tin Valley because the few people who live here reside not in proper houses, but Airstream trailers.
The two college students have laid their backs on a splintery old picnic table, gazing up at the gaping mouth of the universe. Seeing the billions of stars that’ve been above their heads their entire lives, yet were hidden from view because of the scourge of human cities. Now, all that brilliance is being revealed to them. A veil has been pulled back, revealing the blue glow of the Milky Way. A shooting star splits the dark sky every 20 seconds or so. At first, Junior and Cecilia point them out to each other, but the streaking comets come with such regularity that eventually they go quiet.
The silence seems to swallow everything. Can you imagine this silence? The non-sound of a sleeping desert? Hundreds of miles from a metropolis, or even an interstate. No cars whooshing in the distance. No jackhammering or horns or noise pollution of any kind. Deep silence like this dissolves into your bloodstream, like a opioid, until the silence Out There is reflected in your own body, your own mind. Muscles you didn’t realize were tense, relax. The ceaseless carousel of thoughts just stops. This is it. The epitome of nothingness. The very heart of peace.
“You never told me about your sister,” Junior says, squeezing Cecilia’s hand tighter.
“Yeah, I guess I just never really thought about it,” Cecilia says. “She was in a really dark place. But she kept going. You just have to keep going. I mean, you of all people know that.”
“You’d never know it, from talking to her,” Russell says.
“No,” she says. “But that’s true of a lot of people.”
Junior takes a deep breath and contemplates the unspecific vastness of the universe, the measurable vastness of the desert. Two more comets streak across the darkness, then fizzle out. His eyes grow heavier and heavier, and in the next moment he wakes up, alone, on the picnic table. He panics, unsure of where he is, or where Cecilia has gone. It takes him a moment to regain composure in the quivering darkness. When he does, he quietly enters the rusted-out camper, where Cecilia is snoring loudly enough to drown out the chirps and howls. Junior snuggles up to her on the single bed, kisses her neck and closes his eyes.
While Junior is dreaming about floating weightlessly in the universe, a giant desert spider crawls across his chest. It sits there for a moment, insidiously, contemplating the virtues of plunging its teeth into his soft flesh. But in the end, it chooses pacifism, crawling off Junior’s body and back out into the cold desert night. Unaware of the billions of stars overhead. Tomorrow, Junior and Cecilia will wake up, and they will go to Big Bend. Years from now, when they’re married to other people on opposite sides of the country, they’ll remember each other, and they’ll remember Rabbit, too, though most of the details will be completely wrong. That’s what time does to things: it moves them forward, breaks them down, returns them to the Earth in an entirely different form. Turns out Rabbit was right.
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