Friday, November 12, 2010

Steven Barthelme : Nice Boy

"But," I said, slow, "we didn't order a thousand rabbits." Irresolute, uncertain. People push me around. I remembered a voice, a shabby man in Boston, my boss, saying, when he fired me, "You're a nice boy, Nick. But you're slow."

"They're bunnies," the skinny guy said. He had the brown clothes, the brown truck. "Everyone likes bunnies. For one rabbit, we sell six bunnies. Sign here." He tapped his clipboard with the pen. They were hopping on each other, pinkish, on my porch, crowding the door, open a few inches. The lawn was covered with them, you couldn't see the grass. I kicked one back with my boot.

The guy gave me a look. "That one has a heart condition," he said, and touched his chest. "He can't take much stress." I looked at his name, above his pocket, embroidered: N. But when I looked again, it said: Nikolai. It's my name, I thought.

No, I thought. I said, "What's this, this forty dollars down here?"

"I mowed your lawn," he said. "Look. Don't give me a hard time. We have people for people who give us a hard time." Gestured toward his truck.

There's nobody in that goddamn truck, I thought. I grabbed his throat. "Look," I said, pressing with my thumbs. "I just want you to like me, to think well of me."

But rabbits were streaming past me into my living room. The brown guy started coughing, choking, jerking, and then his eyes rolled back and he fell, ripped from my hand. Dead. My God. I hadn't meant to— He was threatening me, bullying me, with rabbits I didn't order, work I didn't hire. You could see the lawn now, he had mowed it.

Two shadowy people in the brown clothes were coming up the walk. Out by the truck a dozen more, loitering. Oh, Jesus.

"What have you done to your brother?" my mother said, in the shorts and khaki shirt. She held an iron plugged into a fat orange extension cord which rose across the yard, over the house across the street, and out of sight. My father stood there with a flat expression.

I looked down at the dead man. It was Andy, my brother.

Mother pushed the iron at me. Steam was blowing out of it, out of the arc of little holes. Why doesn't she offer me the handle? I thought. Her expression wasn't motherly. "Well, hurry up," she said. "You want him to die?"

My father was whispering to a rabbit on his shoulder. Inside the house rabbits had arranged themselves in three impossibly straight rows on the floor, the seat and back of the couch, murmuring like in a theater before the movie. Others milled around on the carpet making wrinkly faces. Maybe two dozen left in the yard.

I knelt down with the iron. I imagined myself floating in my brother's bloodstream pressing junk back against the walls of his arteries or veins or whatever I was in, crying. The dark blood raced along, carrying me with it, thick and sour-tasting.

"Jesus Christ, not that way," my father said. "Do you want to burn him?" He grabbed the iron from my hand, like always, and drew it gently back and forth over the body, the iron moving like a toy boat riding the bathwater, in slow motion, beautiful, in the expert way my father had done everything his whole life long. Everything stopped.

My brother opened his eyes, stood up uncertainly, an expression blooming on his face.

Rabbits hopped over each other, cheering, in that humming way that rabbits cheer. "Stop that hopulating," my father said, fiercely, but the rabbits ignored him, went right on cheering. Andy, smiling. I was cheering, too. I am a nice boy, but I'm slow.

Gulf Stream #3

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