SLACKJAW by JIM KNIPFEL
April 10, 2011

Charlotte

 

I never had much luck with pets when I was a kid. My turtle, Strawberry (so-named for the red markings on its strawberry-shaped head) died one Sunday morning when I was six, demolishing forever my belief in a God. The parakeet had a heart attack. A neighbor kid sat on the gerbil. And all the fish died untimely and absurd deaths.

            I remained undaunted, however, and when I saw the white trash family up the street neglecting their rabbit, I decided something needed to be done about it. I’m guessing I was about nine or ten at the time. Maybe slightly older than that, but not much.

            They kept the rabbit—it was white with gray markings and gray ears— on the side of their garage in what amounted to a tube of chicken wire so small the creature couldn’t turn around. Nobody ever seemed to pay the slightest attention to it, apart from occasionally dumping some food on the ground around it. Nobody ever let it out for exercise, and nobody ever cleaned up the shit that was gathering around it. The rabbit was immobilized there all day and night, without any protection from the elements. I don’t know if it was supposed to be a pet or a future meal, but whatever it was, to my undeveloped mind it was wrong.

            I discussed the situation with my dad, who was equally pissed at the way the rabbit was being treated. Together we decided the time had come to liberate it. Or at least steal it.

            He set to work in the garage building a big fancy new hutch, with space to move around and protection from the elements. Meanwhile I began reading books on rabbit care. Then one quiet summer night, we waited for the sun to set and, armed with a pair of wirecutters, we headed out in proper commando fashion, dodging from shadow to shadow up the street a block and a half to our target.

            Nobody was outside that night, and very little traffic was passing on the road. Nobody seemed to be home at the white trash house, either. All the windows were dark. Taking no chances, we darted around the side of the garage and waited. When we were convinced everything was clear we tip-toed over to the tiny cage. I pulled the wirecutters from my pocket, only to find they were unnecessary; the door—what they called a door anyway—was held shut with a simple hook latch.

            My dad unhooked it and swung the door open, The rabbit took a tentative hop outside, at which point I snatched her up and we ran her home to her new hutch in the back yard. Nobody got shot.

            We lived in one of those neighborhoods where everybody knew everybody else, and moreover knew everybody else’s business. It was no secret that the Seymour’s rabbit disappeared one night, and the very next morning a rabbit coincidentally matching the description of the missing Seymour suddenly materialized in that new hutch in the Knipfel’s backyard. But for whatever reason, no one said a word

            I never knew why, but a friend of mine with a bunny fixation insisted the new rabbit be named “Charlotte,” so she was.

            For the next six years Charlotte had what I like to believe was a happy and comfortable life (at least as “happy” as rabbits can get). I fed her every morning and night, cleaned the hutch out weekly, and let her out to hop around a few times a week. She got plenty of exercise, often leading me on merry chases in the rain through the neighbor’s enormous vegetable garden. We even built a second, insulated hutch for the winter months, though the cold never seemed to bother her much. She developed an addiction to candy canes, and grew to be twenty pounds of angry, murderous rabbit. She took to chasing dogs out of the yard and attacking other small creatures. This I found charming, and being in my young filmmaker stage, I made her the star of two eight millimeter epics cleverly entitled Paws and Paws II.

            Then one early winter morning I went out to feed her, and found her missing.

            There were two doors on her hutch—one at either end—and I always kept both padlocked. (I took a lesson from the folks up the street). The night before, however, I must have neglected to lock one of them.

            It’s not like she squeezed out and ran away herself. The doors were heavy, and the hutch was three feet off the ground. Someone must have intentionally let her out. I had my suspicions about who was responsible, but couldn’t prove anything so I kept my mouth shut.

            I scoured the neighborhood for days on end, recruiting friends and family to join in the search.

            I put up signs and took out ads in the local paper. After two weeks with no luck, no sign of her at all, I gave up, accepting the fact that she was gone.

            A couple of weeks later the phone rang while I was in the basement. My dad answered. I didn’t hear what he said, but a minute later he hung up the phone, got in the car, and drove off. He returned half an hour later and walked in the house cradling Charlotte.

            Some people who lived about a mile away found Charlotte in the back of their pickup. Obviously someone had dropped her there, though whether it was a good Samaritan or a cruel prankster, I can’t say. It was cold, so the people who found her brought her inside and put her in the basement until they could decide what to do. That was a very kind move. Unfortunately their German Shepherd was in the basement as well.

            I don’t know if they had seen the ad in the paper or someone just remembered that I had a big white and gray rabbit, but it occurred to one of them to call and ask if we wanted our rabbit back. Which was also a nice thing—though it might’ve been a little nicer had they done that before their dog crippled one of Charlotte’s hind legs. By the time we got her home again, she’d also contracted pneumonia. I cleaned her up and cared for her as best I could, but I think it was pretty obvious to everyone that she didn’t have much time left.

            Two mornings later I went out to feed her. When I unlocked the door and swung it open, she was pretty undeniably dead. Her eyes were glassy and white, and her muscles were knotted beneath her fur. I left the food there, didn’t bother locking the door, and walked back to the house.

            “Charlotte’s dead,” was all I said when I stepped into the kitchen. Then I went to school.

            In the afternoon my dad came home from work and buried her in the garden.

            I avoided pets for a good many years after that.

 

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