I don’t remember if this was before or after the fumigator accidentally lit our house on fire in 2002, which turned out to be sort of a mixed bag in the long run, but I have this picture in my head where Bunny is running toward me down a hallway and then she’s in my arms, and that smell, her vestigial baby scent mixed with the pee in her diaper. But it’s wonderful because it’s her, and she chatters away at me, you know. Just a bunch of nonsense really.
That was how her world worked—our home a crime scene of primary crayon colors, labyrinths of yarn pinned to the floor by old candies as if to extrapolate the direction and velocity of oatmeal splatter. This being what attracted an insect population in the first place.
I would don my rubber gloves and bag old plastic cups like evidence from under the couch. Forgotten milk must be the most diversely odorous of all fluids; this depends on when you catch it. Bunny would try to sip the rotten dregs, sneak a gulp when I wasn’t looking. You think of bed that night, off-duty. You think of when they will outgrow the intuition to poison themselves. You think, those will be the days.
The fumigation company sent a letter of sincere apology to the charcoal ruin where Cynthia had once stoically birthed our daughter in the bathtub. There no longer being a recognizable box, this letter never left the mail truck and I only discovered it after visiting the post office. I worked to convince them that I was the guy on the blackened ID card, which gave me seventies-style sideburns on one side only. We stayed in a yellow pop-up tent those first few nights before Fred invited us to live in his yurt down the little dirt road behind the wreckage.
I let him read the letter that explained it was a cigarette-in-the-wastebasket issue and then offered a settlement and a lifetime discount. It also promised that our fumigator would kick his very bad habit.
“That’s why I live with the creatures of the Earth,” Fred said as I hauled the camping equipment from the car. Cynthia cradled Bunny warily in a blanket, like another fire was going to start. If Fred spoke to her, she would turn sideways and point her feet toward me, which he didn’t notice. Cynthia needing me—what a treasure. Fred never registered on my creep-o-meter, but he did use the opportunity to wax philosophical. Back then I considered myself a methodological naturalist—Fred was a naturalist of a different color.
In the yurt one night I woke up and saw a caterpillar cocooning itself in his right ear.
Cynthia was wrapped like a dark crescent moon around Bunny. Fred ended up keeping the bug there until insurance finally coughed up and we were able to lay down on some real estate north of the freeway where Cynthia had been telling me for some time that things were on the up and up.
Anyway, that was how I knew Fred was serious about his philosophy. He told us he would send a polaroid of the butterfly after we left, but instead he just mailed us a butterfly wing because he had missed his window. It turns out butterflies only live for, like, a day. They don’t mention that part in The Very Hungry Caterpillar.
At the strip mall copy store, the clerk had a red goatee and a soul patch that only grew from a thin little cluster below his chin, so that he could twirl all of the long hairs into a tall wet shiv after sucking on his thumb and middle finger. He looked at the photos and whistled like he was serenading Snow White from a tree. “Damn.”
Pretty much not appropriate considering, but I ignored it. He fiddled with his faux tattoo sleeves, and I stacked the several dozen color sheets with Bunny’s face on every one-the same expression. Cynthia and I had argued all morning about which photo to use. She said that Bunny’s smile was most characteristic of her on the whole. She wanted the senior photos in front of the babbling brook, like anyone wore nice jeans onto a backwoods bridge.
I told her that was stupid, because I got angry. I don’t normally say things like that to my wife. Transition here. The truth is that your face is normally at rest when you’re just going about your business. “Do you suppose she’s walking around with a big grin on her face? A needle in her?”
In the end we went with mine, where Bunny was watching TV with her girlfriends and I had snuck in with the camera. It cost me in that way arguing does. It also cost me seventy-seven fifty. “Money up, fish,” the copyist said. I was getting an idea of him now, ex-con tough guy. Maybe not enough to afford real sleeves. Then he and I argued for some minutes because I was still thinking of when I left the house and Cynthia had her head between her knees. He called me a tubby bubby. I asked him if the Aryan boys lubed him up first. I’m not really like this.
I left without paying but I couldn’t get out the door before spilling several sheets from the adrenaline. I didn’t pick them up right away—I got to the car and thought about how one of the pictures from the floor might have been the one that brought Bunny home, and I couldn’t excuse myself for that.
I crossed the room again to pick up the spare sheets while goatee guy punched the phone dial. “Sorry,” I said, and pulled out my wallet. That got his finger off the dial.
The rest of that day was staples and rotted wood posts, old gum and little fragments of permanently forgotten advertisements for events come and gone in their time. My legs ached, and my stomach flopped over my waist like a wad of dough. Sweat dappled my forehead and stung my eyes. Cynthia and I agreed that one of us ought to stay at home, just in case Bunny came back. She manned her post at the kitchen island with a coffee pot and four open screens in front of her, everything plugged quickly into an electrical nest of extension blocks and thick wiring. We were developing a new route through the house to account for this, which led directly past Bunny’s room every time you had to take a leak.
I had since begun hoarding dispensary bottles to minimize these painful trips, and Cynthia wound up sleeping on the couch due to the smell in our bedroom. At least, that’s how we chose to explain the new sleeping arrangement. It sounds sick, but the odor reminded me of Bunny’s diapers back in the day.
Bunny wore mostly long sleeves, which I wouldn’t notice until later. She was blonde like her mother and sometimes I even thought she loved me. I cherished her hugs, no kisses. I would put a box of Fruit Loops on the counter next to a bowl so that when she walked in the door she had just caught me in the middle of getting a snack for myself, what a coincidence. And since we were in the same room, how was her day?
No joke too cheesy, no opportunity too brief. Cynthia tried activities, which was very Cynthia and not very Bunny. I hoped Bunny remembered all the things. I hoped she remembered when she had tried on youth group like an itchy sweater and I drove her every Saturday night, there and back, until the other girl had chosen a Bible instead. I hoped she remembered, in particular, the ice cream we had on the way home and how I didn’t say that there were always other fish in the sea, and just listened.
I wanted her to remember when she and Cynthia sewed family voodoo dolls and, breathless, watched me get beat up by an invisible stalker. When we played “red light green light” and how when it was my turn to run I got about ninety percent red lights even though I wasn’t moving. When she was fourteen, she got me a custom-printed bath towel from a mall station with an image of the two of us practically retching to taste green bean soup. She couldn’t have remembered the first time we ran in the rain and I covered her head with my coat in the parking lot, found the car before my arms gave out.
Now the towel had white splotches where her face used to be—bleach incident. And her phone was probably dead, or traffic was no good. Probably, we agreed too emphatically, there was a long line at the mall. Probably she was on her way right now. At 9:15 on a Thursday night, Cynthia and I waited by an unsliced birthday cake brainstorming explanations.
Cynthia took up making Christmas ornaments. They were everywhere so that you couldn’t move without sleigh bells ring-jing-jingling—how I guess the song went. I had it memorized at the time. I had a lot of kids’ tunes memorized then. Bunny danced to Christmas music in July. I built her pillow forts and she crawled into the hanging blanket entryways.
In our new home on the northern property, there was a little woodsy stretch across the street. You could see it from the Christopher Mickelsen Balcony, which we had honored with the name of one benevolently stupid fumigator.
Cynthia liked to walk out there for kicks. “I don’t believe it!” she’d say of the view. It was a really nice view. “Pinch me, not the ass though.” Cynthia didn’t like it anymore when I did that. Kids are a trade-off. The two of them had their own issues. “I just cannot,” Cynthia would say. Code for, I’m very much regretting creating my own worst nemesis right now-with your enthusiastic contribution, I almost felt buried in there, an accusation leveled at me. But I hadn’t lugged Bunny around for nine long ones. What Cynthia would not do was give up, abort mission.
Motherhood had also reawakened her gentle side, and I watched their soft whisper sessions from the table while I ate and Cynthia fasted. She ate vicariously through the tribulation of nourishing a capricious cherub, and I reheated her own dinners in the microwave for my part. Cynthia made a relatively clean job of Bunny’s meals with, I thought a bit dejectedly, an energy once directed to me. I assuaged this with a confidence in the dullness of masculinity; I must have been dead to the mysticality of a mother’s devotion. Don’t be petty, I told myself.
After dinners I used to ask Bunny, “Want nature walk?” This was before we bothered to maintain proper grammar. It’s funny how efficient language can be when you eschew pronouns and auxiliary verbs. In the woods I carried her on my shoulders and she pointed out the bugs and the leaves. She used to reiterate to me the rules of consumption: “We don’t eat a mushroom from the ground,” she’d say.
“Oh,” I’d say. This was our routine.
“What can you eat?” “You can eat a fresh mushroom.”
“Can we eat…raw meat?”
“No!” She seemed to know when I was joking by my tone, which made me so proud. She was so young. In the woods we found an old dock once, covered in bird droppings. I thought Bunny would like a view of the water.
I don’t remember if she did or not. It’s always hit and miss with kids. You can show them the moon landing and they’re trying to wrench an old jellybean from inside a piggy bank. A mean goose got territorial and waddled after us. I think that was when I knew I could kill a goose. I didn’t have to, but Bunny’s fear was like my primal battery: I kicked at the goose and whipped Bunny up in my arms. We ran away, because she was priority one. Back then I could run for miles.
I wish Cynthia had told me about Big-Lips. I mean before. The phone records were more help than my wife, who hadn’t imagined a connection. The texting logs came too late.
Bunny’s boyfriend was etiolated, his flesh gray and sticky. The lips weren’t right on his face. “I dunno, man,” he was saying. He didn’t know. Right. I kept telling myself I could play bad cop. I tried to remember the goose.
“Buster,” I said, “you don’t want the coppos involved.” Coppos? Jesus Christ.
“Sounds like you saw her after I did. Maybe she’s under the bed.” He had a sense of humor. Bunny knew how to pick them.
“What say you and I go on a walk?” Want nature walk?
“I’m good,” he rubbed his nose.
“What’s that in the crook of your arm? That looks like it hurt.”
“Yeah, you kept doing it too. Give me something man, come on. Please give me something. I don’t care about you, just give me something, man to man, come on.”
When I left Chateau Big-Lips, it was noon. A part of me was glad he didn’t have anything for me. The smell from the den was overwhelming, milk left out to film over in the dark—I would know. Cynthia and I hadn’t understood how bad it was until Bunny didn’t come home. Until the burnt spoons under her bed, until we learned where my leather belt had actually gotten off to—she had used Cynthia’s hair cutting scissors to get it down to length, which also explained that mystery. After that I just grew my hair out, which I tied in a man bun to keep my vision clear while we scoured the text records of Bunny’s degradation. “I never met him,” Cynthia promised. Meaning the boyfriend. But she knew, and I hadn’t known.
I don’t remember how it came to me shaking down a skeletal whore with gas station cigar breath. It was like waking up after sleepwalking and her purse was emptying used tampons and bill clips all over the sidewalk. She cursed me in about every way you’d imagine. I took a step back then and she was like a starved cat. High heels over thick white socks that stretched up her chicken legs, hissing and groping for her purse’s innards. “I’m sorry,” I said. I was apologizing a lot lately. Then I pitied her; that blouse could have come from her grandmother. This was her best attempt at sex appeal, at chic.
I don’t remember the world being like this. I was forty-seven years old, sex-starved and thick in the middle, red in the face. Even I wouldn’t have gone for this remaindered woman-thing. An officer pumped his knee into my back and twisted my arm. Thank god someone was finally here.
Eighteen years ago, Cynthia groped me in the dark and told me she was my special delivery girl. I was royalty. Eighteen years ago, I made secret withdrawals from our joint checking to cross items off the checklist. Anything I saw her eyeing, it went on the list. When she ballooned out like a fertility idol, I couldn’t tell love from coitus anymore. In retrospect, I see only her frenetic drive to maternity.
“Have you seen my daughter?” I asked the cement while one spindly prostitute scuttled away. “She loves her froggy and she’s probably got it with her,” I said.
I squirmed for a bit and Officer Brent closed a car door in my face. I kept imagining Bunny curled up on a dirty mattress somewhere with old planks for walls and spare insulation fluffing the corners in a chilly draft. “Bunny loves cotton candy,” I remembered aloud. “Officer!” I banged my head on the window.
Bunny had on her Shirley Temple dress. She had chosen the shoes to go with it. And the socks. Nothing matched, there was only her little intuition for effeminate garb—her best attempt at chic. She twirled for Cynthia and me, sang out of tune about animal crackers and soup. I told her she was beautiful.
In my cell, a schizophrenic career prisoner named Wallace twirled for me. He had tied his wife beater around his waist and it rippled around his love handles in the heavy sweat-smogged air of the police station. I told him he was beautiful because he clearly expected some kind of response.
When Cynthia showed up, I had to do a double-take. She looked so much like Bunny. I sort of winced to anticipate her frustration in having to leave Home Base to extricate me, but instead she put her hands through the bars for me to squeeze. Her eyes had bags under them and she was about thirty pounds over when we used to snuggle Bunny together in the rabbit’s den, which was what we called the toddler room we had put up together. “I was called in for a conjugal visit,” she said.
I nodded toward my cellmate. “He’s surprisingly tender.”
“Do you want out of here or not?”
“You look beautiful,” I told her.
On the way out of the county jail I was trying to remember the passcode to Bunny’s preschool. It was only four digits long, how could I forget? I hoped it wasn’t too late to pick her up. Cynthia said, “It’s going to be alright.” She didn’t smell bad, but unwashed. I knew things were askew for her when the metallic odor was available, concentrated in the hair, but like her blood was extra thick. If she were lacerated, I thought it would clot instantly and Cynthia would continue on, none the worse and smelling inexplicably like spare change. Woman of steel.
In the car we buckled up and didn’t move. “You’re so sure it’s my fault,” she said.
“No.” Only our home was fraught with the ghosts of their vicious bitching. “Maybe. You knew about Big-Lips,” I said.
“I knew,” she sniffed. “But I didn’t know.” Hidden from me like their old mealtime kibitzing.
I could only think to ask, “What is wrong with those lips?”
Cynthia had her face on the steering wheel and she laughed. Her tears dolloped the leather grip. Then I noticed Bunny’s car seat was missing. I hoped Cynthia didn’t expect me to reinstall that thing.
What I wanted to say was, no, fuck you. I didn’t say that. What I actually said was mostly exhalation and not overly verbal. Bunny looked surprised by her own mouth.
Cynthia stood in front of the door. “You won’t go,” she said with pharaonic authority, only Bunny was not like Moses at all and didn’t give a horse’s ass about the Hebrews. There was of course nothing Cynthia would let go.
“Move!” Bunny shrieked. She decked Cynthia in the face and time stopped. Bunny said, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” She did a kind of weird dance of indecisiveness. Animal crackers in my soup. Maybe the stairs, maybe the door again. Monkeys and rabbits loop-da-loop.
“Am I not home enough for you?” Cynthia asked. She let the blood drip from her nose onto a sensible white business blouse. “I tried working at home, it wasn’t me.” Cynthia at home all the time wasn’t me either. Just hear those sleigh bells ring-a-ling.
Bunny decided on the stairs and locked the door to her bedroom. I looked at Cynthia. “You want me to…”
“What happened to my monkey dunk?” she asked, a name which I thought no longer applied to our revolting new offspring. It occurred to me to ask her if the grief of the whole thing was what she’d wanted. Was she happy now? Bunny was the final item off the checklist. Instead I held Cynthia and told her I didn’t know what happened to her monkey dunk. It wasn’t the time, but I noticed the slope of my wife’s waist under my hands. Where they were meant to be, she used to say. Now I used them to hike up my pants because my belt had gone missing.
Cynthia the Stalwart called this Bunny’s “chrysalis phase”—her only admission things were currently tough as a cocoon. The screaming and crying and no sleeping. Bunny was wailing in her stroller instead of wailing in her crib or wailing in the car. I’m sorry to say that every now and then I thought about cashing out, if you catch my drift. Life would never be better, and fatherhood had been a terrible mistake.
I wheeled a tortured infant down a mud slope and into a long stretch of grass. Then I sat and scooped wriggling Bunny out of her seat, out of the folds of blankets stitched with happy little critters for happy little girls. No one ever figured out what was wrong; face in a soaked and salty stasis, always gasping to find fuel for the next peal. This is when you learn whether you’re the sort of person who would shake a baby.
I sang the only Shirley Temple line I knew right in Bunny’s ear until the screaming stopped. “Animal crackers in my soup,” I whispered. “Monkeys and rabbits loop-da-loop.” I drew out the final syllable in a way I was pretty confident Shirley had never done, looking at Bunny with my eyes wide. She touched my face with her fat dimpled hand.
“I’m sorry I’m a bad Dad,” I said. She sneezed in my face, which made her laugh so hard that she tried endlessly to replicate it, as though she could marshal her body in such a way by growling at me. I pretended to be surprised and distressed a dozen times, until it was no longer comedy gold.
Then the Lord spoke, and it was good—Bunny yawned and I laid her in the grass. With one hand hovering over her face to block the sun, my other hand stroked her forehead until she fell asleep. I don’t know how I kept my arm hovering like that the whole time, but I did it.