Literary Orphans

What People Call Slow by Liz von Klemperer

 

I knew it was dead because I could pick it up. It was just a jumble of bones in the grass, a limb bent in a way it shouldn’t be. Still, inevitable as sky. I carried it inside and put it in a shoebox. It made me feel safe, having it. I can’t explain why.

 

A day later my mother came into the room holding her nose.

 

“Can’t you smell that? Dead things rot. We don’t keep dead things in the house.”

 

Hard as it is to imagine this didn’t occur to me. I looked for a trowel to bury it with, but the closest thing we had was a big metal salad spoon. I put the rabbit in a plastic bag and left it behind some bushes.

 

When I came inside I heard mom on the phone.

 

“She brought one in the house this time. The patio is one thing but…”

 

Silence.

 

“Yes, in the house.”

 

Silence. The phone clicked.

 

I didn’t know the rabbit. It wasn’t my pet or anything. I knew that people put flowers on graves though, so I went to the gas station. They usually had bouquets in plastic bins outside, but today the pickings were slim.

 

“Sorry, all we have is baby’s breath,” Hank said from behind the register. “Looks like it’s rotting to be honest. There are plastic ones in the back.”

 

“That’s ok,” I said. Hank was busy restocking Powerball tickets but I told him what happened anyway.

 

“Many things happen so slow they are what you’d call ‘imperceptible’,” Hank said.

“Maybe that’s why you didn’t smell the rabbit.”

 

I nodded.

 

“Imperceptible means undetectable.”

 

“I’m 12, I know what imperceptible means.” Hank shrugged. “Can I have a Magnum bar?”

 

“Sure. You know the drill.”

 

It was against the rules for Hank to give me free merchandise, but he taught me to slide my hand across the counter like I was giving him money so the security footage wouldn’t give him away.

 

“It’s like the freezer,” he said as I pinched the frosty packaging. “It had a leak. But here I am all day, I didn’t notice. Then Rob came in. He had a fit.” Rob was the manager.

 

“A salad spoon though,” Hank chuckled. “That’s no way to bury the dead. My parents, rest their souls, are buried in Calvary Cemetery in Queens. What a place. It’s got over 3 million people in it! Everyone from mob bosses to saints. They have a database with the names of the deceased in alphabetical order.”

 

His eyes glazed over, thinking about the database, I assumed.

 

“Next time you can use my trowel, the one I use to bury dog turds. Dogs are always getting out of those cars and where do they shit? Right on the concrete,” he said. “Excuse my language.”

 

I finished the Magnum bar and said goodbye to Hank, who was now immersed in explaining the rich history of the i-95 southbound medium to a customer buying a Slushie. I shredded the wooden Popsicle stick with my teeth on the way home.

 

*

 

“Where have you been all day?” mom asked. It was dusk.

 

“The park with some friends.”

 

“I don’t see why you need to hang around Hank all day,” she replied. But I think she knew why. I was halfway up the stairs.

 

“Honey, Hank is what people call slow. He has a hard time talking to people, relating to them.”

 

This didn’t make sense to me because Hank knew quite a few things about I-95 and had all the bus schedules memorized. People came in all mixed up and he’d sort them out.

 

“Your father will be home soon, he got takeout,” I heard her say as I rounded the corner to my room.

 

The front door opened a few minutes later, so I headed back downstairs.

 

“How’re my girls,” dad announced, twisting out of his shoes.

 

“Ok, dad.”

 

Mom was in the kitchen filling glasses of water. Falafel smell seeped from the paper sacks in his hands. He put his hand on my shoulder.

 

“I heard about the rabbit incident, so I got you this on the way home.” He handed me a toy rabbit. It had pink plush fur and cloth buckteeth poking out under its little plastic nose.

 

“Now you can keep one as long as you want. Whatya think?”

 

“Thanks,” I said, stroking its belly. Its insides were probably made of polyester.

 

*

 

Hank was stocking potato chips when I stopped by the gas station in the morning.

 

“Hey kid, you’re here early.”

 

“Well, I wanted to ask you a few things.”

 

“Shoot.”

 

“How do you get to Calvary Cemetery?”

 

“First you take a bus to Port Authority.” Hank squinted, calculating. “There are multiple busses you can take. From here, though, the best bus would be the 126. The stop is about 7 minutes away. It’ll take you approximately 30 minutes, although don’t quote me on that because I haven’t looked at todays traffic reports, not sure how the Lincoln Tunnel is doing.”

 

He took a breath.

 

“The Lincoln Tunnel was designed by Ole Singstad in 1934 and…”

 

“Thanks, Hank.”

 

“Sure thing.”

 

Hank stood back and admired the rows of chips, each facing label out. I turned to leave.

 

*

 

That night I held the toy rabbit while mom watched crime shows. I crumpled its head and released, crumpled and released, watching it restore itself to its original form each time.

 

“I should have buried the rabbit,” I said.

 

“Hmm?” mom grumbled. A detective was grilling a suspect.

 

“It was wrong to bring the rabbit inside. I know that now. I should have buried it instead.”

 

Mom winced like she’d been poked in the rib, but kept her eyes on the screen.

 

“Yes, honey. We bury dead things.”

 

She turned the volume up.

 

After mom went upstairs I reviewed dads MTA maps. I would take the 7 train from Times Square to 46th street and walk half an hour. That’s how I would get to Calvary Cemetery.

 

*

 

I found the rabbit behind the bushes the next morning. When I nudged the dewy plastic bag, maggots scattered out. It smelled.

 

I remembered that sometimes in crime shows there’s no body for the funeral. Someone gets chopped up, for example, or their corpse is cast out to sea. In these cases they put a framed picture of the deceased in a casket. Mourners pay their respects, and then they bury the picture. I didn’t have a picture of the rabbit, so I went back inside and grabbed the toy rabbit by the ears. It would have to do. I headed to the gas station to get supplies: snacks, tissues and flowers.

 

“Mind if I borrow your trowel?” I asked Hank as he rung up my purchases.

 

“Sure, kid. What’s it this time?”

 

“A hedgehog,” I lied.

 

*

 

Hank was right, it took almost exactly seven minutes to walk to the bus stop. I sat on the bench and opened my bag of trail mix. I knew I should be rationing it, so I only ate two peanuts, two raisins, and one M&M. The woman sitting next to me was staring at my hands. I didn’t have enough trail mix to share, so I put it in my backpack.

 

The woman caught my eye and smiled.

 

“And what’s his name?” she said, gesturing to the toy rabbit.

 

“It doesn’t have a name.”

 

“Oh my, poor thing!” she pressed the tips of her fingers gently to her lips and then winked at me.

 

I didn’t understand what she was talking about because this rabbit wasn’t even a real rabbit, it was a toy, and besides, I was going to bury it. Before I could think of a response the bus came. Luckily the woman sat far away from me and I chose a seat next to a sleeping person.

 

Port Authority was overwhelming, but I’d expected that. There were hoards of people trying to get out of the doors and even more trying to get inside. I moved slowly and let the people brush past me. I ate more trail mix. I wasn’t in any rush. Luckily the 7 train was cool and quiet. No one tried to make eye contact with me or ask me about the toy rabbit, which was nice. Everyone was in their seats, their elbows touching a little.

 

The half an hour walk to the cemetery ended up taking forty minutes because I had to keep stopping to pick gravel out of my shoes. When I finally got there I looked out at all the dead people: the mob bosses, the saints, Hanks parents, and everyone else. It was a nice day so there were visitors putting flowers on graves and blowing their noses into tissues. I wandered around a bit until I found an empty spot in the shade of a mausoleum, and I started to dig. When I was tired I took breaks and read names off tombstones. There was no way to tell who was a mob boss, who was a saint, and who were Franks parents, because I realized I didn’t even know his last name.

 

It took me fifteen minutes to bury the toy rabbit. It wasn’t perfect but the soil was packed neatly on top. The rabbit wouldn’t be in the database because the rabbit didn’t have a name, but at least it had flowers. I didn’t cry into the tissues because I didn’t feel sad, so I used them as a plate to eat my trail mix on the ride home.

 

*

 

Sometimes dad asks where the toy rabbit has gone.

 

“It was pink, I think, fuzzy…” he racks his brain.

 

“She probably just left it somewhere,” mom says.

 

“Oh. We’ll get you a new one if you want.”

 

“No thanks, dad,” I say.

 

Weeks go by and there are no more dead animals in the backyard. I wonder if perhaps a predator was killing them, and now the predator is gone. Maybe the animals were being poisoned, and they have eaten all the poison. Mom says she doesn’t have time for these theories, but this morning when I look out my bedroom window I see her standing over a dead squirrel. I watch her pluck the little grey body up with an oven mitt. She has it by the tail and it dangles a moment until she pitches it over the fence and into our neighbors yard.

 

I know it wasn’t a dream, because when I go downstairs for breakfast there’s wet grass on her slippers.

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Liz von Klemperer is a Brooklyn based writer and succulent fosterer.  Liz’s work has been featured in The Establishment, Electric Literature, Autostraddle, Luna Luna and beyond.  You can find more at lizvk.com.

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–Art by Ashley Holloway