Eleven-year-old Paul tells himself that it doesn’t matter that the kids call him Rabbit, or that he doesn’t have any real friends. He’s been living with his grandmother, but one day soon, he knows his mother will call and tell him to come live with her, and then his life can really begin. But somehow it looks more and more like that call may never come.
When the opportunity arises to make some friends, Paul is thrilled—unless it means he’ll have to do something he knows is wrong. But when the unexpected happens, Paul decides it’s time for him to takes charge of his life, no matter what the cost.
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The Unmaking of Rabbit
By Constance C. Greene
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1972 Constance C. Greene
All rights reserved.
Paul pretended not to watch his grandmother as she sucked in her cheeks and salted and peppered the quivering surface of her poached egg. More than anything, Paul hated poached eggs. To him they looked alive.
"If your mother wants to get herself tied down to or up with—whichever way you look it—another ne'erdo-well, that's her business. However, if you think I'm going to offer her any advice, you're very much mistaken.
"If there's one thing I've learned," she said before taking the first bite, "it's not to sit in judgment on other people. Nobody's perfect, I always say. Least of all you"—she pointed her fork at him—"or me," she added, with less conviction.
Paul scooped up a heaping tablespoon of cereal and ate it with his eyes closed, imagining himself blind. It tasted almost like Cracker Jack, he'd put so much sugar in the milk. He kept his eyes closed and ate until he figured he'd reached bottom.
"What on earth are you doing?" Gran asked. "You're spilling all over everything."
"I was pretending I was blind," Paul said, wiping the spilled milk with the back of his sleeve. There were only a few drops left in the bowl, which he put on the floor for Flora to lick. Lots of people didn't like to eat from dishes cats had used, even after they'd been washed, but Paul didn't mind. Gran insisted on using water so hot it practically took off your hand. There was no germ living that could withstand the temperature of that water. She did the washing, Paul the drying.
Gran said, "That's not very nice. Count your blessings."
He waited for her to say, "That really hit the spot." She almost always said it after a meal, especially after eating a poached egg. Gran enjoyed food. Paul could take it or leave it alone. With Gran, mealtime was an important time of the day. She got a certain expression on her face when she sat down at the table that let Paul know how much she was enjoying herself.
Gran got another piece of bread from the breadbox and ran it around the edge of the plate to get the last drop. The plate looked so clean when she'd finished that Paul thought she could have put it back in the cupboard without washing it and no one would ever know.
"The trouble with your mother is she doesn't think things through. She acts on impulse. That and the fact that she is still a child. She will always be a child, I'm afraid. She is selfish and willful, just like a ten-year-old."
I am eleven, Paul thought, so that lets me out. I am almost twelve. I'm pushing twelve and Gran's pushing sixty-six, and I am neither willful nor selfish. It's Gran, mostly, that gets her way.
Gran wiped her mouth with a paper napkin; then, spitting delicately on it, she dotted up the crumbs from the table.
"I like a neat house," she said as if for the first time. Still he waited, and still she didn't say, "That really hit the spot." It was a disappointment but not one he couldn't bear.
"You want me to get your holder, Gran?"
"There's a good boy," she said.
Gran had her first cigarette of the day after breakfast and her last with the gin and ginger ale she drank at night to help her sleep. She didn't believe in smoking in bed. That was a dangerous practice, she said. Set yourself afire that way, you could. Didn't she herself know of at least four people who'd gone that way? And that was a terrible way to go. Burns over seventy per cent of the body. Imagine.
Paul had burned his hand once with hot grease, and the pain of that had been so excruciating he refused to think of it any more.
Gran never smoked without using her holder—a long, thin, elegant black one that she handled jauntily. Paul thought she looked cool with it, like somebody in an old movie. He had never seen anyone else in real life who could use a cigarette holder as if it were part of her.
The holder had been a present from Paul's grandfather, who had died before Paul was born. In Gran's opinion, "the best man who ever lived, even if he was a bit short-tempered at times, God rest his soul."
They went to put flowers on his grave every year on the anniversary of his death. Paul liked to check the other gravestones to see what they said. He was always careful not to run, for fear of disrespect for the dead. He liked the ones that said, Killed in action, Guadalcanal, November 14, 1942, or Lost at sea, July, 1, 1917.
If those people had been killed on Guadalcanal, which Paul found out was one of the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific where the United States had beaten the Japanese in World War II, then who was buried there under the earth? And how about the guys who'd been lost at sea? If you were lost at sea, Paul figured, that was it. They'd never get you up out of there, that's for sure. Were there bones in those coffins, or were they empty? He had asked his grandmother and she'd said, "That's a good question, an interesting question," and changed the subject, which meant she didn't have the answer.
The holder was on the table beside Gran's chair in the living room. She had had the table refinished at great expense and, right after, she'd burned a long, dark, angry-looking ridge into the glossy surface.
"Never again," she had said grimly. Paul suspected she meant that never again would she have the table refinished, not never again would she be so careless as to inflict such a burn.
He sucked on the holder going back into the kitchen. It made a juicy noise and tasted rather unpleasantly of stale smoke.
"Thank you," she said, inserting a cigarette. Paul took the matches from the counter and struck one.
"Never did I see such skin," Gran said as he bent over to light her cigarette. He hated the word skin. He didn't know why. It embarrassed him.
"Even when I was young, I never had such a complexion. Nor your mother either. What skin to be wasted on a boy." She reached out to pat his cheek, and Paul smiled and drew away at the same time. He bent down and picked up Flora from where she sat like a setting hen on the hot-air register, her fur billowing softly. He squeezed her until her slanted eyes popped and her tail waved furiously.
"Old fat Flora," Paul said, squeezing her harder. He often thought of strangling her. It would be so easy if it weren't for the look in her eyes. Probably he'd never forget the look in her eyes if he strangled her, so it wasn't worth it.
A dog would be a much nicer pet than Flora, but Gran didn't want a dog. "There'll never be another like Colonel," she said every time he brought up the subject. Colonel had been her dog before she was married, the only dog in captivity ever to climb a ladder, to hear Gran tell it. Colonel used to climb the ladder up to the second floor of Gran's house and use her bedroom window as his front door. The neighbors would gather to watch. Colonel lived fifteen years, which, if he had been a person, would have made him one hundred and five. No other dog could possibly take Colonel's place. All others paled beside his memory. Gran had fed him brandy to ward off colds. "If my father had known, he'd have had a fit," she had said more than once.
As far as Paul was concerned, a cat was almost like not having a pet at all. With a cat, there was always doubt as to whether it really liked you. If you had a dog, you had a friend. And friends, as Paul well knew, weren't that easy to come by.
"Is she coming this week end?" Paul asked.
"I don't know," his grandmother said after a pause. "With her, it's anybody's guess. It depends on what turns up that she'd rather do. Don't count on it, that's all. It's best not to count on it. That way you won't be disappointed."
Last week end Paul had been scheduled to visit his mother in her apartment in New York. At the last minute, when he was packing an old copy of National Geographic in the BOAC flight bag that served as his suitcase, she'd called.
"I have some kind of a bug, a virus," she said in her breathless voice, which always sounded as if she'd just come from some tremendous adventure. "I wouldn't want you to get it, darling."
Paul imagined how she looked, her long hair untidy, her long fingernails tapping the receiver. "Those nails of hers are like a Chinese mandarin's," Gran had said once. "They grew their nails long to show they never had to do any menial labor. I guess your mother works on the same theory." Paul had never forgotten that.
"I wouldn't care," Paul had cried. "If I got the bug, I could stay with you and take care of you and not go to school."
"Sweetie, I couldn't let you do that. I love you too much. You know that, don't you?" his mother had said, and Paul had looked at himself in the mirror over the telephone table, nodding and smiling like a clown in the circus.
Gran got up and took her plate over to the sink to rinse it in cold water. That was a rule. Egg plates had to be rinsed in cold water.
"Well, listen, Gran," he said. "I'll go straighten out the room anyway, just in case. I don't have anything else to do. I might just as well."
"I thought you said you were going to ask that boy from across the street to play," she said. "That's what you said yesterday. That Gibson boy. He seems like an interesting child. I saw his mother at the store last week, and we had quite a nice chat."
"I did ask him," Paul said, turning away. "He was doing something else, selling stuff for the Boy Scouts or something."
"Maybe you should join the Scouts," she said. "It would give you something to do."
Paul didn't bother to answer her. They'd been through this before.
"You can run a couple of errands for me in a bit. I need a loaf of bread and some margarine."
"Sure," Paul agreed. He got the mop and vacuum cleaner out of the closet and dragged them into the spare room off the kitchen that his mother used when she spent the night.
After he'd got the dust out from under the bed and balanced it in a neat pile in the middle of the thin rug, he thought of something.
"What does 'ne'er-do-well' mean, Gran?" he asked, going back into the kitchen.
She looked up at him from last night's paper, where she was rereading the obituaries in case she might have missed somebody.
"It means a no-good," she said sternly. "It means a person who is just no good."
"I thought so." Paul nodded. "I just wanted to make sure."CHAPTER 2
Paul's father was a ne'er-do-well. He had disappeared, flown the coop, when Paul was two. After all this time, Gran still got furious when she thought of him "just taking off, leaving a wife and baby. A man like that has got to be lower than low."
"I was two. That's not a baby," Paul had protested the first few times he'd heard the story. But Gran, once on her way, was not to be deflected.
"And not one red cent has he contributed, not one. Not too many get away with that, I'll tell you. It's a wonder I don't have a seizure, I get so mad every time I think about it."
Paul's mother had brought him to live with Gran then because she was so upset she didn't know what to do. Plus she had no money so she had to get a job, and there was no one else to take care of him. Plus she wasn't able to cope with him. He had looked up cope in the dictionary, but even when he knew what it meant, things weren't any easier for him.
For about five years now Paul had kept a bag packed under his bed, at the ready for the time his mother might call and say, "I'm all set for you, darling. Come live with me." She never said it. Paul pestered her unmercifully, but still she never said it.
"When can I come, Mom?" he asked every time she called or came to see him. "When can I come live with you?"
Invariably she cried, "Not in this dinky apartment! You'd hate it! I haven't got an elevator or even a TV set. It's much better for you to stay with Gran—in the country with all your friends and all that marvelous fresh air and flowers and yards to play in."
And then she'd say, "Besides, what would Gran do without you? She needs someone to look after her, a man in the house. I couldn't take you away from her."
When he was small, he'd fallen for that. Not now. He knew better. He'd never told his mother that he didn't have any friends to speak of and that on the block where his grandmother lived there weren't that many flowers and trees, and that people didn't like kids playing in their yards, or even cutting through them. Besides, Gran could get along by herself with absolutely no trouble at all.
Once he had found a snapshot of his mother and father when he was rummaging through Gran's desk, looking for a piece of paper to draw on. He knew it was them because on the back it said Anne and Doug—on their honeymoon. He took the picture over to the window and squinted at it the way Gran did when she wanted to see better. She wore glasses only in the privacy of the home because they were disfiguring, she said. The man who was his father was slim and dark and smiling, and the girl standing next to him looked like his mother, only younger.
At night, when he lay in bed watching the shadows move on the ceiling, he sometimes thought he could hear his father's voice. It was deep and pleasant and said, "That's some report card, son" or "How about going fishing, son?" No matter what he said, his father always called him "son."
This had happened less and less frequently, and during the past year Paul could only remember having heard his father's voice once. And then he couldn't remember what he had said.
It wasn't exactly that Paul was ashamed of other kids' finding out he lived with Gran. It wasn't even the way she looked. If only she wouldn't wear those space shoes. But they had cost the earth, she said, and they were comfortable. She looked all right around the house; it was when she got dressed up to go out that she wasn't so good. The black satin suit she had made for herself was what she usually wore, and even that wasn't too bad. But she insisted on putting on her "face," as she called the two bright circles of rouge and the crooked mouth she drew on with lipstick. Then she soaked a handkerchief in perfume and stuffed it in the front of her dress. You could smell her a long way off.
What made Paul ashamed was the fact that he couldn't go to school on Mondays and say, "You see that game yesterday? My father took me. That was some game. You catch that play in the last quarter?"
That was the way most of the guys talked. Or they'd say, "Hey, my mother says you can sleep over Friday, if you want."
It was no good pretending, Paul had decided. His life wasn't like other kids'. Even if it was just that his parents were divorced, it wouldn't have been so bad. He knew plenty of kids who lived with their mother, and whose father took the kids on week ends and summers and beat his brains out trying to make up for all the times he wasn't around, doing nice things to prove he really liked his kids. But Paul was different. He had been deserted, walked out on. His father never sent him a birthday card or even a Christmas card. He didn't care whether Paul was alive or dead. That was what made Paul different. He knew it, the other kids knew it, and that was that.
"I should never have married him," Paul's mother told him when he had asked about his father. "But he was so handsome I fell in love with him, snap!" and she snapped her fingers to show how easy it had been to fall in love. "All the girls were crazy about him. He was spoiled. You're going to look just like him, I'm afraid."
Gran had an expression she used when they passed someone on the street she considered ugly or funny looking. "There's a face only a mother could love," she would say after the person had gone by. Paul figured his mother thought he was handsome because she was his mother. That was the way mothers were. His ears stuck out, his nose, which was faintly pink, dripped even when he didn't have a cold. And when he was nervous, which was pretty often, he not only blinked, he stuttered. At school they called him Rabbit.
"Hey, Rabbit, how come you stutter? Hey, Rabbit, how come you got such big ears?" or "Hey, Rabbit, come out of your burrow and do some tricks! Rabbit, Rabbit, had a habit, lost his mind and couldn't grab it."
To top it off, he was the shortest, weakest kid in the class. Paul walked with his head drawn down and his shoulders hunched. He knew every crack in the sidewalk, every curve in the road, every curb and gutter in town.
Looking sideways at himself in the mirror, Paul asked himself, What is handsome, anyway? Handsome is as handsome does, Gran says, and if his father was a ne'er-do-well who flew the coop leaving a wife and baby behind, what difference did it make if his father was handsome or ugly? Will I be no good too, when I grow up?
Excerpted from The Unmaking of Rabbit by Constance C. Greene. Copyright © 1972 Constance C. Greene. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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