Once upon a time there lived a certain rabbit by the name of Count Vronski. The Count was a champion Himalayan buck who lived with my next-door neighbors, Bill and Lucy Murdock, in Providence, Rhode Island. Bill and Lucy had spent the last decade driving him to exhibitions and Easter functions from Boston to Bangor. Their house was a museum of the rabbit's trophies, ribbons, and publicity photos.
Though twelve-years-old now, Vronski still, according to Lucy, serviced does "with the zest of an adolescent." One of the Murdocks' many boasts about the Count, also, was that they had neverin spite of the susceptibility of purebred bucks to germs, chills, and cardiac arresthad to take him to the vet.
My neighbors kept twenty other Himalayans in a back wing of their house. The rabbitry was equipped with a breeding and grooming parlor, whelping room, dormitory, and an exercise paddock. The Count's own facilities, separate from the others, consisted of a jumbo hutch with automatic water, cabana fans, piped-in music (easy listening), and a run with astro-turf.
On sunny afternoons, Lucy let Vronski loose in the backyard. But the liberty was curtailed last spring when my black Lab, Sneakers, jumped him. Before going into this, let me say a word or two about my dog, in contrast to the Count.
There's nothing extraordinary about Sneakie. I take him to the vet for an annual stool check. Since I got him fixed, he has not, as far as I know, bred anybody with "the zest of an adolescent." The only thing that is remotely noteworthy about my dog is that, at the age six months, he ate my ex-wife, Shirley's, diaphragm. (How this event related to our divorce and my custody battle for Sneakie, soon afterward, is beyond the humble scope of this tale.) Just before that, the diaphragm episode, he chewed up my favorite Nikes. Thus his name.
By the time we moved next to the Murdocks, Sneakers' second teeth were in, he had graduated from eating prophylactics and footwear to more productive pastimes. The three most important to him were (in reverse order):
3. Dropping his rubber Barnie in front of the lawnmower when I cut the grass.
2. Continuing his archaeological dig for King Tut's tomb in the backyard, weekdays while I was at work (I am a junior claims adjuster for the Hartford).
1. Keeping CIA surveillance on Vronski.
Since our arrival in the neighborhood, Sneakers had gotten into the habit of stationing himself at the Cyclone fence that separated our backyards, mine from the Murdocks'. He took his post at the end of Oprah! when Lucy let the Count out for his afternoon R&R.
As soon as she opened the door to the hutch, Sneakers would turn to stone at the Cyclone. For the next thirty minutes, ignoring all distractionsrobins, squirrels, and even my other neighbors', the Bandinis' cat, toohe would track the rabbit's meanderings with the single-mindedness of a Zen Buddhist.
As for the Count, well aware that he was under scrutiny, he did nothing to discourage it. Far from it. After hopping from place to place on the Murdocks' lawnstopping, smelling the grass, taking a nibble, gazing thoughtfully into the sky while munching a dandelion blossom, then hopping onhe often wound up only feet away from Sneakers' post at the fence. Here Vronski would sniff the grass again, gaze back up into the wild blue yonder, then, with those candy cane pink eyes of his, he would, as if by sheer coincidence, look down at Sneakers.
Except he didn't really look at Sneakers. Vronski never really looked at anybody. He looked through you. Like you weren't there, a piece of the sky, the shrubbery, or something equally unimportant, or at least by comparison to him, Vronski. That was my impression at least, maybe I shouldn't speak for my dog. Anyway, Sneakers would gamely meet his gaze and a stare-down would follow. But not a simple stare-down. Because, within seconds, it was clear that Sneakers was not just watching Vronski: he was watching Vronski watching him watching Vronski. And Vronski was not just watching Sneakers: he was watching Sneakers watching him watching Sneakers watching... You get the idea.
During the stare-downs, not a single part of the rabbit movedexcept for the very tip of his licorice gumdrop of a nose. It had an almost microscopic twitch, his nose. And not a single part of my dog movedexcept for stalactites of slobber which began to swell, smidgen by smidgen, from his jowls. By the time Lucy let Vronski back indoors at 4:30, Sneakers' face looked like it had been draped with two gigantic pieces of Christmas tinsel.
As for Sneakers' salivation during Count-watch, it never really occurred to me that he wanted to eat Vronski. Nose him a little maybe. But eat him? My dog is a complete pacifist, he wouldn't survive a day in the wild.
Still, the two of them obviously couldn't go on like this for long. Not that I realized it until one otherwise quiet Sunday morning.
I was reading the Sports section at the kitchen table when all of a sudden an ungodly screech from the Murdocks' backyard rang out. Dashing to the porch, I saw my dog on the other side of the fence hot on the Count's tail, Lucy hot on his, making a sound with her larynx like locomotive brakes.
Soon I had Sneakie in a rodeo lock. Feet away, Lucy was administering what appeared to be CPR to the Count, throwing up her head every few seconds, crying to her husband:
"Oh, my God!... Oh, my baby!... Bill!"
The rabbit was only a little shaken up and had maybe a tiny bit of Christmas tinsel on him.
"Is he OK? Is he alive!" I was a little shook up, too. Also, even then, I was wondering if they had a Lloyd's or Prudential policy on him.
I tried to explain to Lucy later that Sneakers hadn't meant to hurt Vronski, just to introduce himself. When Bill arrived everything piped down and the Count was returned to his facilities, none the less for wear. And, after a spanking, I marched my dog back to our yard and tied him up.
That afternoon while I filled in Sneakie's hole and Bill turned Vronski's pen into Fort Knox, he called over: "Forget about it, for Pete's sake, Jack, jeezthese things will happen!"
Bill, who runs a Toyota dealership in Pawtucket, has always been the diplomat. But from that day on, he and Lucy didn't look at my dog the same way or let the Count out for his R & R without supervision.
I kept Sneakie on the chain for about a week. Then, afterwards, scolded him every time he went near the fence. Finally, he stopped looking directly at the Count and I thought the whole thing was history.
Little did I know.
* * *
I took a short ski vacation to Vermont last spring and when I got back I picked Sneakers up at the kennel, dropped him off at home, then went out to grab a few groceries.
On return, I noticed that the Murdocks' car wasn't in their drive. But they regularly spent Sunday afternoons at the mall. So, as I carried my bags in, I figured I'd say hi and catch up on neighborhood news later.
The world, I've always felt, is divided into two kinds of people: people who always have news because things always seem to be happening in their lives; and people who don't have any news because things never seem to happen in their lives. Sneakers and I are in the second group: nothing to speak of had happened to us over vacation. The Murdocks and their rabbits were in the first group: I was sure that when they got back from shopping, Lucy and Bill would have a whopper ready for me, even if it only covered the domestic highlights of Vronski's week.
As for myself, I had a quiet, post-vacation afternoon planned. It involved the couch, some major league action, and possibly a snooze.
I unpacked the groceries, thumbed through the junk mail, popped a beer, and, on my way to the TV, gave a whistle. I'd left Sneakers out in the backyard, as you recall. He has a pet door in the kitchen so he can come in any time, and one of his favorite things is having nachos with me on the couch in front of the tube.
He didn't seem to hear my first whistle, so I gave another toward the open window, then sat down to the game. Red Sox versus Orioles.
McDonald was on the mound for Baltimore, Marshall up, top of the third, two outs. Marshall popped deep to right, it was taken against the wall and as the sides retired, I hit the mute on the remote.
Just then I heard a kind of scraping sound out back, behind the porch. I stopped chewing the nachos for a sec for a better listen... Yes, this funny scraping soundout back.
I made for the back door. "Sneakers, what the hell are you....?"
I was now standing in the doorway with my beer; my dog was fifteen feet away at the corner of the porch, front paws in a holewith something in his jaws... large, heavenly white, and very limp.
Feeling a little light-headed, I teetered back against the wall. Then I charged out to the porch.
No hammerlock on Sneakers was needed this time. He had already dropped his quarry and taken cover under the house by the time I reached the scene of the crime.
I looked down at my feet: big pink eyes glassed over, fur covered with dirt and Christmas tinselthe victim was unmistakably Vronski. Dead as a doornail. Sneakers had either broken the Count's neck or given him heart failure. Either way there wasn't time for autopsy.
The important facts were in: 1. I saw Sneakers' hole under the Cyclone into the Murdocks' yard, plus a another just beyond that I didn't have time to quite figure out just now, because: 2. The Murdocks could be back home any minute.
Kneeling down at the edge of the porch, I met the two eyeballs underneath, in the crawlspace.
"Get your tail out here, Sneakers!"
But my dog tends to ignore requests like this if he suspectsbased on tone of voiceyou intend to do him bodily harm when he does. (I learned this after he ate Shirley's diaphragm and refused to come out from under the bed.)
Finally, he gave a whimper and started out in an Army crawl. Then, together, my dog and I took cover in the house.
After depositing Vronski on the top of the refrigerator, I checked the windows. The coast appeared to be clear: no witnesses. I paced for a minute, draining the rest of my Rolling Rock.
I can't say that what I did next was exactly premeditated. Those who have experienced even lesser emergencies involving accidental death or dismemberment of pets do not have to be told about the wondrous effects of adrenalin.
Other than that, even to this day, I have no explanation for my action. My folks taught me to be honest, to tell the truth, to do what's right. Still, one thing was crystal clear to me that afternoon: I could not tell the Murdocks my dog had snuffed their rabbit. It wasn't just the possibility that they would never talk to me again, or sue me for the few cents I was worth. Confessing somehow had larger implications, or so it seemed to me that afternoon.
As soon as I made up my mind that honesty was not the best policy here, I was taken over by a second personality: cold, resolute, methodical.
I put down my beer and proceeded to the bathroom. Plugged the tub. Turned on the hot water. Went into the kitchen. Removed Vronski from the refrigerator. Wrapped him in the Sunday sports section. Carried him to the bathroom. Laid him out on the vanity. Reached over to the tub and turned off the hot water. And rolled up my sleeves.
Then I put the rabbit in the bath anddelicately but without dawdlingshampooed his remains.
While lathering up the Count, I spied Sneakers at the bathroom door, head at a forty-five like the RCA dog, following developments closely.
"When this is over," I told him, "I'm going to kill you."
A minute later, holding Vronski upside down, drip-drying him, I noticed to my relief that there were no telltale dental marks on the body. (That's the beauty of a retriever with papers: the soft mouth.)
I wrapped the Count in a towel and reached under the sink for my blow drier.
Laying his cadaver on the hamperdrier in one hand, brush in the otherI fluffed him out like I'd seen Lucy do when getting him ready for an Easter special. Soon, though I hadn't had time to condition him, Vronski looked ready for the Garden.
Returning to the kitchen, I slipped the champion into a Safeway bag. On the way out the back door, I caught Sneakers' eye. My dog was now stationed under the living room coffee table, ears down, tail between his legs, as if a thunderstorm was on its way.
"STAY HERE," I told him, "I'll be right back."
I scaled the Cyclone, the Count's corpse under my sport jacket, in the grocery bag.
The Murdocks had asked me to babysit Vronski from time to time when they were out on the road, campaigning his progeny. I used my caretaker key to unlock Fort Knoxthe Count's pen. Inside it, his widows watching me from next door, I slid his remains through the pet door and into the royal hutch. I took a moment to arrange him in what seemed a plausible, if not dignified, heart attack position.
A second later, I was out of the pen, filling in Sneakers' holes, scattering leaves over top for the windblown effect.
Back in the house, I did a little straightening up. Ditched the bag, scrubbed the tub, threw Vronski's shroud in the hamper, changed my shirt, and doublechecked Sneakers for signs of the carnage. Finally I grabbed another beer from the frig and returned to the ballgame.
The next half hour was the closest I've ever come to experiencing eternity while following major league action.
I was on my fifth Rolling Rock and umpteenth alibi, when all at once Sneakers' ears went up in the bottom of the ninth.
Outside the window, in the Murdocks' drive, a stationwagon engine died... Doors slammed... Footsteps hurried up the front walk.... The front door opened, closed... Then: silence....
Suddenly, breaking it:
Lucy is quite a high-strung person. I'm not sure I mentioned that before.
I took a sip of beer, Sneakers swallowed too, and we eyed each other.
The Murdocks' front door flew open. More footsteps, a little faster than before. Direction: my house. Then, a knock
"Jack, are you home? JACK!"
I stood up. Took in some oxygen. Opened the door.
Hardly had I bid my neighbors a cheery hello, than, looking down, I found Lucy's white-knuckled hand attached to the forearm of my clean shirt. "Jack, thank God you're home! "
Bill was behind her, looking a little pale himself. "Jesus Christ, Jack. When did you get back?"
Not so much as a "How were the slopes?" or "Great to see you!" The Murdocks know nothing ever happens to me.
Gingerly, I tried to recover my arm from Lucy. "Couple hours ago. Why? Something wrong?"
Bill leaned toward me confidentially. (I'd never noticed the veins in his forehead before. They have tiny little tributaries, like radish roots. Bill is quite high-strung, too. The Murdocks are a high-strung couple.) "Have you seen anyone around the hutches since you got back, Jack?"
"No, I ahwhat the dickens is going on?"
"Vronski's in his hutch," stammered Lucy.
Bill took my elbow. "... Jack?"
He leaned closer. His upper lip was trembling slightly. "He's ahdead."
"Dead! Jeezno! "
"We've called the police."
I shifted myself in the doorway so they couldn't see Sneakie. When it comes to crime, my dog is an open book. "Police?" I already saw us in the line-up downtown.
Lucy grabbed Bill. "My baby's in bed."
Bill patted her hastily, then turned back to me. "Jack, this is very important. You haven't seen anything ?"
"Swear to Christ, Bill." I knew I was going to Hell now.
"My baby's in BED!" continued Lucy.
Somehow I felt I was missing something. "Where else would he be?"
They stared at me, puzzled, as if they were missing something now themselves.
Suddenly Bill gripped his forehead. "Good God, you don't know. Vronski passed away yesterday."
"Pneumonia. We buried him out back."
I tipped back against the door, Bill reached for me. "Jack?... You OK, fella?"
I caught Sneakers in the corner of my eye. Ears down, he wagged his tail once. I'd always known my dog was a digger, but never a ghoul. He'd exhumed the Count. That second hole.
I glanced back at Bill. "Yeah, fine."
Lucy grabbed her husband. "It's a miracle, honey. He came home! Did you see his coat?not a spot, gleaming!"
I'd just used Head & Shoulders on him, no cream rinse.
Bill hugged her tight. "All right, dear, easy!" Just then, Providence's finest swung into the street. "Don't say anything about this, will you?" panted Bill.
I threw up both hands. "Not a word! "
The Murdocks hurried down to their driveway where the squad car was now pulling in. Lucy was still stammering, "It's a miracle. Gleaming !"
Bill stopped at the fence. He looked all around, above and below, as if for the telltale tracks of the great Poohka angel.
"Keep your eyes out, Jack!"
"You bet, Bill!"
* * *
The sergeant questioned every neighbor. But no one had seen anything out of the ordinary that afternoon. Finally, deciding the event was beyond the scope of the police department, the Murdocks dropped the investigation.
Since then Lucy has taken the demise of Vronski far better than I thought she would: whenever his name is mentioned at barbecues she gets that glow in her eye. Bill quickly retires to the grill to check the steaks again. As for Sneakers, he doesn't report to the fence after Oprah! any more. He hardly even bothers to look through it now.
And sometimes in the evening the two of us sit out on the porch and think back on that fateful afternoon. Looking at the place where Sneakers dug his holes, I remember Vronski in my tub, as well as his solemn procession in the Safeway bagand I wonder to myself for the hundredth time, should I confess to the Murdocks? Then I look at Sneakers, he looks back at me,
I see that glow in Lucy's eye again, I consult my conscience honestly and say to myself:
Were Sneakie and I not just the humble instruments in the final glorification of a creature far more magical than we had ever imagined?
- David Rigsbee reviews Blue Rust
by Joseph Millar
- David Rigsbee reviews Blue Rust