Fiction, Vol. 7.3, Sept. 2013
They are in the car now, the three of them: Laddy, Dodge, and Dill. Two boys and a girl. Laddy lies across the backseat and pushes her feet slowly out the window, which is broken open, a thin piece of plastic sheeting pulled across making the air cloudish where it should be clear. The brothers are sitting in the front seat, Dodge driving, his best dog resting on Laddy’s lap. The car goes around the corner, the last piece of highway before it begins the climb up Sparrowrise Road to the bunny lady’s house, and the dog digs its yellowing nails into Laddy’s stomach and tears a little the thin white of her dress. She doesn’t complain. They are going on an errand, and they have brought her. This is the first time she has been outside the yard since she was twelve.
Get a good grip on her, honey, Dodge says.
Looks like Clover’s got a good grip on the girl, says Dill.
Laddy stays quiet. Dill has never yet called her by name, and probably never will. Laddy is Colt’s fourth wife, and three healthy girls—Josephine, Kayo, and Larina—stand before her. Josephine has given Colt two children, and Kayo all but runs the yard. Larina only lets him into her room once a month, but when Colt gets in he doesn’t leave until things start to fall apart in his absence. He has yet to spend the night with Laddy.
She was twelve years old when he picked her up in a rest station parking lot in Lima, Montana, and as far as he knows she still is. Thirteen is the birthday Colt’s waiting on, and though she knows she can’t pretend to stay twelve forever, it was the best plan she’d thought of until Dodge came home. He arrived two weeks ago, set up his tent between the high tops of two Cadillacs, and set about training his dogs for the annual fight that would bring the men and all their wilted green money in from the town. He will be gone soon, and when he goes, Laddy swears he will take her with him. He is different from all the men in this family—from Colt and Dill and even their slow-limbed, glass-eyed father—if only because he does not eye her the way a dog eyes a piece of hamburger, staining the hand baby-pink. If this is all he can give her—a not-gift, not-doing, a nothing sweet as sleep—then she will take it. She will take all the nothing he gives.
And now they are hauling up Sparrowrise, a rehearsal for what their lives will be like later on. Laddy wraps her obedient arms around the best dog, and the best dog rests obediently in her lap.
Why’s she gotta live so high up? Dill asks.
It ain’t like you’re walking, champ.
She wants to make any money, she should live on the highway.
Well, maybe she doesn’t want money that bad.
Dill shrugs and looks out the window. He is seventeen and has just one wife, but Colt has taken most of her by now.
Laddy, Dodge says, you like living on the highway?
What do you like about it?
I can hear the cars, sometimes.
Most people don’t like that, Dill says.
Well, I do, says Laddy. If I’m close enough to hear them good. And I can hear when there’s a lot of them, and then when it gets later and there’s less, and you can hear one getting closer and then far away again. I like it when you can hear them like that.
Most people don’t like that sound.
Let her like what she likes, Dodge says quietly, and there is quiet after that.
Laddy looks back down at Clover. She is not just Dodge’s best dog but his oldest, stocky like the rest but warm with fat in some places, joints not willing to move too much, one ear bitten mostly away and one leg gone of fur, the skin thin and scar-white down to the dewclaw. Laddy knows she used to be a fighting dog, and the sight of Clover makes her wonder what a dogfight comes down to, though she thinks she will find out soon enough.
They reach the top of Sparrowrise, past the streets of empty houses and into a place where the sun does not shine but the width of the sky is visible, and then along a narrow drive to a house painted pinker than anything in nature, or at least anything in Rose. Dodge sticks his head out the window and whistles long and low, and a woman steps out onto the porch. Her feet are thin and bare, and her arms are crossed over her pale pink housecoat and the blister of warmth that she has made for herself inside. Her eyes are brown and vacant as a horse’s, and they move straight to Laddy, and do not stray away.
Dodge, still sitting in the driver’s seat, leans out and smiles. Hello, Myrna.
Hello yourself, the bunny lady says. The wind lifts a few strands of her flaxish-gray hair and then lets it fall to her neck again, suddenly, as if it has simply lost interest. You boys want some meat? she asks.
No, Dodge says. Meat we got plenty of. Freezers full of it. Steaks. Salmon. Venison and hot dogs. Even some bear meat from the last trip north. What we need is something we can only get from you.
The bunny lady has drifted farther downward, swayed by the song of his talk. She pulls her coat a little tighter around herself, licking her pale lips. What do you want them for?
The usual business.
She stares at Dodge, and he smiles back. He is not as tall as Colt, and his features are not as fine. His arms are tan but his body is pale and he has a gut that swells a little beneath his shirt. There is a stink about him, not sweat or dirt but something warmer, and he is never quite clean. He isn’t handsome, and Laddy isn’t even sure if she thinks he’s smart, even though he’s the probably smartest person who’s ever paid attention to her. But he lives apart from the world, stopping to look in every so often and then leave again, and that’s how Laddy wants to live, too. She knows he wouldn’t try to touch her, because he never looks at her that way, never leans in longer than he should, or touches her in the regular way. He ignores even Josephine, who presses herself against him whenever he passes by, and is always bringing him little presents: a plate of cake, a glass of milk, a handful of blackberries still sun-warm.
The bunny lady has been considering the usual business, and whatever it is, she seems to decide it’s worth her trouble. She leads Dodge onto the cage-lined porch, and Laddy and Dill follow them up. It’s only when they get closer that Laddy sees the bodies, the rhythm of a fightish breathing, the occasional forcing of one head over another, the pushing outward of eyes. Clover trots from one end of the porch to the other, sniffs at the cage, and finally lifts her paws to rest them, gently, against the wire.
He gonna go after ’em? the bunny lady asks.
No, honey, Dodge says. Same as always. She’s trained. Now, he continues, turning to Laddy. What do you say?
About picking out a few of these rabbits for us.
What kind do you want?
The best ones you can find.
Anyone want a glass of milk? Dill asks. All of a sudden I feel like a glass of milk. Dodge, you want some milk?
Do whatever you want, Dodge says. Just don’t bother the girl.
The bunny lady watches Dill go into the house, then turns back to Laddy. Dodge, standing now at the edge of the porch, is looking out at whatever a man sees when he is in a place like this.
Listen, the bunny lady says. Don’t take the happy ones. All right? Take the ones that need to get away. Take the ones that look like they need to be made happy.
Laddy looks over the bodies, through the cages, and into the browning of the bunny lady’s yard, the bowing branches of the pines, the gravel of the drive. She knows there is nothing to see in this place, nothing different from the places she left behind—Cody, Meeteetsee, Minot, Lovell, Greybull—or the places she was going to. She wanted to go to Los Angeles, but more specifically she wanted to go to Downey, California, where—she read once in a magazine article—the Carpenters own two apartment buildings, Close To You and We’ve Only Just Begun. Laddy wanted to live in We’ve Only Just Begun, but she would have settled for the other. Nothing bad could happen to you, she thought, in a place with a name like that.
Now, Laddy reaches an arm into the cage as far as she can and trails her fingers over the bodies. Hello, she says to them, wondering if they can hear her, if her voice means anything to them. Hello. Hello. Hello.
Give the little thing a hand, the bunny lady says, and before she can turn her head she hears Dodge’s step on the wood beneath her and feels Dodge’s arms around her hard as a father’s. She lets go of her breath and grows a little narrower, and she slips from his grasp and he catches her and lifts her again.
She reaches in deeper. The rabbits pull away, pressing their bodies closer together, and she grabs blindly and pulls out a big one. She feels the folds of its skin in her hand, and beneath its fur the traveling of mites. It is white, with patches age-yellow with urine. Its jaundiced eyes rest stilly on her, then take themselves away.
A perfect buck, Dodge says, and nods to the bunny lady, who takes the rabbit from Laddy’s hands and puts it in a cardboard box. Now, he says to Laddy, seven more like that. Just like that, and we can’t do any wrong.
She reaches in, half wanting to impress him, half wanting to do what the bunny lady says: search for the ones who don’t look happy, the ones who need to get out. She feels for the mangy fur, for bodies unmoving unless pushed by others, for skin thin and ribs pressing through. She thinks they should be relieved to be taken out, but they seem only to want back downward.
She wants to stretch this time out as long as it will go, but the minutes limp away, and finally Dodge sets her down, lightly, on the spring-rotted wood of the porch. Clover wanders over and licks at her feet.
Want some kits? the bunny lady asks. You want I’ll throw a few in for free. They’re good eating, and this one looks thin.
I told you we don’t want meat, Dodge says.
I’d like a kit, says Laddy.
Dodge looks back at Laddy, for a second startled, then smiles. He could pick her up again if he wanted to. Once he wanted to there would be no trouble. He could carry her anywhere.
Dodge turns back to the bunny lady. Show her the way, he says.
The bunny lady takes Laddy’s hand and leads her to the far end of the cages, and Laddy can’t help looking down at the sloping ground and letting her thoughts roll down it, onto Sparrowrise and then down to the highway and into the yard, past the glut of engineless cars and through the hole in the chainlink fence where the blackberries grow thick, along the sidepath past the big house and into the doublewide she shares with Larina, and then into her room—cardboard suitcase still packed, vial of gold dust wrapped in her underwear and a copy of Gone With the Wind page-marked with blades of Wyoming grass—and onto her bed, narrow white, sheets unstained and decorated with rosebuds she picks in her sleep—belonging to some child, once—where Colt will be waiting for her soon.
You can see em in there, the bunny lady is saying as she points at the bottom of the cage, and Laddy lowers herself to look. Four kits still small enough to fit in a hand, even hers. Laddy looks to Dodge to lift her, but he is sitting on the front steps clasping Clover between his knees.
Climb on up there, the bunny lady says.
Laddy grasps the honeycombed wire and hauls herself up. Urine and the stink of breeding knocks her back a moment, but she leans down again, into the thickening heat of staying put too long, through heavy bodies, broken whiskers, kicking legs, and gnawful teeth, until she finds the bodies of the kits. She chooses by touch the one that lingers against her the longest, draws it up with both hands and slips it into the front of her dress. Body boneless-soft. Pulse quickening, then gentling to a hum.
She goes over to the porch steps and sits down on the narrow spot beside Dodge.
You get a good one? he asks.
Let’s see her.
She peels away the collar of her dress, and he reaches out and touches the kit with the tip of one wide finger.
All the way down Sparrowrise she keeps the kit in her dress—all the way back through the yard when they get home, past the glut of engineless cars and through the hole in the chainlink fence where the blackberries grow thick, along the sidepath past the big house and into the doublewide, where Kayo and Larina are standing in the kitchen, decorating a birthday cake. Larina is bent over, squeezing blue roses out of a piece of waxed paper, sheet of black hair pulled back the first time Laddy has seen. Kayo is leaning against the refrigerator, licking more blue frosting from a spoon.
Hello, Miss Priss, Kayo says. And where have you been?
Dodge took me.
Larina looks up. Where?
To the bunny lady.
Kayo smiles, and nudges Larina with her hip. Bait season again.
Whose birthday is it?
Larina looks away from her. Yours.
No it isn’t.
Maybe not that you can remember, Kayo says, but that’s what Colt decided.
How old am I?
How old do you think? Thirteen. You’re not getting younger.
He can’t decide it just like that.
You try to tell him different, says Kayo.
Larina looks up at Laddy again. He’s waiting in your room, she says quietly. You’d better go in.
Laddy walks out the door and lets the screen slam behind her. She thinks of other places, of Los Angeles again, of Downey and We’ve Only Just Begun, and of the money she has hidden in the toe of her shoe. She thinks of the road out of here, and how few cars there are between here and Portland, how soon it will be full dark. She thinks of Cody and Meeteetsee and Minot and Lovell. Then she walks down the slope of the yard toward Dodge’s camp. His tent is empty, but she only has to stand there a moment before his voice stretches toward her through the pines.
Start a little farther off, he is saying. Give him some room to want.
She follows the sound up and into to a clearing where the last of the daylight rests. First she sees the white of Dodge’s shirt, then the white of the dog he is holding by the short hairs: a hound, puppy-soft, and teeth still as white as his fur. Dill stands on the other side of the clearing, clutching something to his chest.
Go, says Dodge.
Dill opens his arms and a dark shape shoots across the field, the white dog already arcing toward it, leaving its brightness behind on the grass. White meets black and swallows. Laddy is behind Dodge now, but he does not see her. The dog runs back into his arms and Dodge meets it like a wife, pulls at its ears and rubs it snout to tail, strong hands sparing none of their force as he sings Good dog, good dog.
The dog drops a black rabbit at his feet. Its throat is torn and its bones are bright in the dusklight, pinkish even where the dog has lapped the blood away.
Hello, Dodge says to Laddy, without quite turning around.
Hello, she says. Near him, she sees now a pile of bodies, only the torn places visible.
I think Colt’s looking for you.
Don’t you think you better find him?
Laddy kneels and looks at the pile. She wants to push her hands into something, to reach into each rabbit through the throat and feel what makes it so soft, so stupid, so willing to run.
We’re done for the day, Dodge says. Dill is gone from the other side of the field, probably to tell Colt what he already knows.
Where are you going now? she asks.
He turns to go, and she follows him.
It’s dark under the canvas, but she knows what surrounds them: the Indian blanket, the pot he uses to make cowboy coffee, the box of old dog collars and tags. The white dog has run off to find its brothers, and Clover is asleep on the blanket, stirring slightly when they come inside. After they sit down, Dodge leans forward, away from Laddy, but she can hear him clearly when he says, I’m sure you don’t like what you saw up there.
She inches a little closer to him and says, I didn’t mind.
I’m sure it seemed strange to you, he says, like he hasn’t been listening. But it’s important to test them that way. Not just to see if they’re fast and strong but to make sure they go after what they want. But even seeing them out there, you don’t know how they’ll act in the ring. Once they’re in the ring, he continues, and he is growing closer to her, close enough for Laddy to reach out and pull him in as close as she needs him to be—but then his voice stops, and he is looking not at her but up at the big house, where the floodlight has flickered on and Josephine is walking down the path.
She is holding out the wide skirt of her dress, the juice of a late picking of Silver Bow plums soaking through. Her dark hair is loose and there is a plum-black bruise on her cheek, and she heads toward them, smiling sweet as ripeness half-rotted, looking only at Dodge.
Hello, Josephine, says Dodge.
I thought you might want some plums, she says.
We’re not hungry.
Josephine turns to Laddy. I hear your husband’s wanting you.
Laddy looks down, tries to see the kit hidden in her dress, but the dark is too thick now. I know, she says.
And yet you’re out here, Josephine says. So, I can’t help but wonder if you know he’s wanting you. Or if you know what happens if he doesn’t get what he wants.
She’ll be along in a few minutes, Dodge says.
See that she is.
Josephine tosses him a plum and walks back up to the house, and Laddy looks up to see him splitting it open, pulling the pit out and slipping it into his mouth.
I don’t have to go up there, Laddy says quietly.
No, says Dodge. You don’t have to. But you should.
You know my brother better than I do by now. I think you can guess.
I don’t have to go back to him, she says, her voice hardening within her and catching at her throat, if I can stay with you.
He looks at her. How old are you?
But how old are you, really?
Thirteen, she says. She can’t tell if it sounds like a lie.
Where are you from?
He looks away from her. Why did you marry him?
I don’t know.
Did you love him?
No. Did any of them?
I think so.
Well, I don’t.
Then why let him take you here?
It seemed better than where I was when he found me.
Is that all?
It felt like a lot.
Was he nice to you, at the beginning?
He took me out and bought me a steak dinner. And a new dress, and a ring. It seemed like enough.
But it’s not anymore?
I knew there would be bad parts, she says, not wanting to sound stupid. I just didn’t know how bad the bad parts would be.
Then why are you still here?
It’s better than wherever I’d end up if I left.
You really think that’s true?
He is quiet for a long time, and she wonders if he believes her, or if she would believe herself if she was a man. She wants him to put his arm around her shoulders, to pull her in and let her rest by his side. But he stays where he is, and when he finally speaks again, what he says is this: Let me tell you about the first time I put Clover in the ring.
Laddy doesn’t say anything. She knows it’s not her job to talk anymore.
The first time, Dodge says, I wasn’t afraid of anything. I knew she was strong and I knew she could bite down and not let go and I knew she wouldn’t stop if she was in pain. I sent her out to fight another bitch—white, bullish, older, and stronger than Clover, but Clover was fast. And at the beginning, she knew what to do. She jumped around, she feinted, she dodged, she ran circles around the other one. But then she got tired. Had to. And she got proud. And the bitch got ahold of her and wouldn’t let her go. She had her by the leg—was tearing the skin clean off, you understand—and had her pushed up against the wall. And every time Clover tries to fight back or just get away the bitch pushes her in a little harder. And you know what she does?
He looks at Laddy, like he really wants an answer from her.
I don’t know, Laddy says. She doesn’t know any possible answer that could be worth knowing. She doesn’t know any answer that could keep her from the place she has to go.
She waits it out, Dodge says. She waits for the bitch to tire like she tired, and finally, she does. And then Clover’s on her. She tears straight in through her chest—through the skin, through the bone, and now her snout is bleeding, because broken bone is sharp as glass, but Clover doesn’t care. She keeps on tearing until there’s nothing left to tear into. That’s what Clover does.
Dodge’s voice falls away, and Laddy turns to him and sees that he is looking not at her but at the dog, the dark shape of her, stillness like stone.
And then what? Laddy asks him.
And we got our five hundred dollars.
Laddy realizes that while Dodge was talking she had taken the kit out of her dress, and is still pressing it gently against her cheek, feeling its heartbeat, feeling its warmth. She loosens her grip, her hands cupped, open. She does not think it would notice if she let go.
Do you still use her in fights? she asks, thinking: talk is better than no talk. Another minute here is better than the walk back to Colt.
Not for a few years now, Dodge says.
She’s too old, for one thing.
Why do you keep her, then?
Because she’s a good dog. She’s been with me a long time.
She keeps me company.
That’s stupid, Laddy says.
It’s not stupid, Dodge says, in a measured, soft voice, like he’s talking to a child. It’s loyalty. Loyalty is worth something these days.
Well, she might not be loyal to you. Did you ever think about that? She’s a dog, you know. You don’t know what she’s thinking. You don’t know if she’s thinking anything at all.
She is hoping for him to get angry, but he doesn’t. There is just more softness.
Loyal, he says, isn’t a big enough word for what she is. She understands everything I say to her. She follows every order. She listens to me. You don’t get that kind of loyalty from a human being. You don’t just throw it away because it can’t make money anymore.
I could be loyal, Laddy says, the words like coins in her throat.
Dodge doesn’t say anything.
I could be that, she says. I could be as good as a dog.
You don’t need to be.
He would take her, she thinks. He would. If he thought she was in trouble. If he thought she was in pain. If he could believe the truth for a clean minute. But he wouldn’t keep her. He would take her to a place and leave her there, and though she could be better to him than anyone else, he would be just like the others to her.
Up at the big house, a window fills with light for a second, then goes to black again. Laddy cannot see the trailer from here, but can imagine the path toward it, the hardpacked ground and the rusted stairs, the blackberry vines that will reach out to scratch her legs as she climbs, and the narrow hallway into her bedroom, the light creeping out from under the door, and Colt sprawled on her mattress, licking the last blue rose from her birthday cake.
The kit is still resting in her cupped hands, and as she closes them around it she thinks of what comes first: the darkness, then the no air, then the heat, and finally the pressure. Its bones are too soft to make a sound, and it is too small to struggle.