The kitten was wild and skinny, and its tail looked almost broken, kind of hung down crooked. It had been around the neighborhood for several days, darting here and there, dodging traffic sometimes, and Arthur had been trying to catch it, setting the Havahart cage in the yard and baiting it with anchovies, but even though the kitten seemed desperately hungry, it would not enter the trap. It only sat and looked at the bait, and at them. But there was no big rush. Arthur had plenty of money and plenty of time to mess with stuff like that whenever he wasn't sitting in front of the big-screen TV watching westerns. Sometimes he dozed off.
He brought his coffee to the love seat where Helen was watching through the big bay window. Outside was late afternoon, cold and wind, a cloudy sky, no sun. A few cars passed out on South Parkway. She hadn't switched to whiskey yet, was just having some red wine so far, holding her glass in both hands. Arthur sat carefully down with her. Snow was dusting down in the yard, tiny flakes whirling in the chilly breezes. He could see it swirling across the street. It was cozy there next to her and he thought maybe he could get it up today, if he got the chance.
"I think it smells us," she said.
Arthur sipped his coffee and with her looked at the kitten. He kept thinking maybe he could find something that would occupy some of her time. He thought maybe she'd like a cat, so he was trying for one.
"What do you mean 'smells us'? We're in here. It's out there. How can it smell us?"
"I don't mean in here, silly. I mean maybe it smells us on the trap. Our scent."
Scent, Arthur mused. He guessed it was possible. Just about anything was possible, looked like. Even getting to be seventy. He'd charged the trap to his American Express card and he'd seen drinks from the Peabody bar again on last month's statement. She seemed to be going over there a lot lately. He tried to get her to always take cabs since the trouble with the police. Sometimes she did.
"Don't you know anything about trapping?" she said.
"Hm? No," said Arthur. "But I'll bet you do." She knew a bit of information about a lot of things. She could converse on different subjects. She could converse fluently on penile dysfunction. She'd read a booklet about it, and he thought she might have seen a television program about it as well. She could watch the bloodiest show on TV, The Operation, and he didn't want to be in the same room with it. He wondered where else she went to drink besides the Peabody. She never told him anything.
"Well," she said. "I read a book by somebody. Trappers have to cover their scent or the animals will smell them and go away. They have to boil their traps in wood ashes and things like that to remove their scent. They have to wear gloves, and if they're trapping something really smart, like a wolf or a coyote, they can't even touch the ground."
Arthur glanced at her. It was plain to anybody that she was a lot younger than him. He knew other men looked at her. He knew for a fact without having any way of proving it besides hiding in the lobby ferns and spying on her that she talked to strange men at the Peabody.
"Come on. How can they trap if they don't touch the ground?"
"They have to put down something to kneel on."
"I don't know. Some old sacks or something."
"Do they have to boil the sacks?"
"I don't know."
"You think we need to boil our trap?"
"I just think it smells us. Look at the way it keeps watching us."
Arthur watched the kitten watching them for a while.
"You don't even have a pot big enough to boil it in," he said. "That thing's two feet long. How about spraying some Lysol on it?"
Helen gave him her patient look and sipped her wine. He remembered a time when she'd clamp her lovely muscular thighs around his back like the jaws of a new bear trap. She'd be gasping, with her head thrown back and her mouth opening and closing and her fingers in his hair yanking, going, Oh my God, baby! That was a long time ago, true. Way back in Montana. Still.
"Be serious," she said.
"I am serious. I already bought some cat food, didn't I? I already spent fifty-two dollars and fifty cents for the trap, didn't I?"
They sat studying the kitten. It walked around the wire box, looked back at them, sniffed at the contraption. Finally it sat again in the dead grass and stared at the anchovies. Maybe its tail was just deformed.
"Looks like if it was hungry it would go on in there," Arthur said.
"It's got to be hungry. Look how skinny it is."
"How are you going to tame it down even if we catch it?"
"I'll cure it with kindness, I guess."
"What if it claws you? You ever been attacked by a cat?"
"No, but I know you have."
"They can be pretty vicious if they get mad."
"They can whip a grown dog if they make up their mind to."
"I've heard that."
"And if you get scratched, why then you've got that cat-scratch fever to worry about. Like in this Ted Nugent song I heard one time."
"Well, if I get scratched, I'll put some peroxide on it."
"Or alcohol," Arthur said, and sipped his coffee. They stayed there for a quiet period of time, just watching the kitten. Arthur looked at Helen, but Helen didn't look at him. He sat there a little longer. Her slip was sticking out just a bit past her knee. Arthur very smoothly moved his hand over to her knee. He didn't need any Viagra pill to schedule a hard-on for him. She just had to get him in the right mood.
"Now, now," she said, and flipped her skirt down and moved his hand. He returned his gaze to the kitten. It was all about blood, he thought. Pressure up, pressure down. He'd read somewhere that some guys had little rubber bivalves that had been surgically implanted and were hidden back behind their nuts. Pump it up, let it out, like an inner tube. He didn't even want to think about doing something like that to himself.
"I don't think it's going to let us catch it," he said. Damned if he hadn't gotten all upset again, thinking about how everything had turned out. "I think I'll go find a coffee shop and get some fresh ground." Helen didn't say anything. Maybe it was time for him to give it up. But it was hard to let go. So very hard to let go. Probably even when you got as old as old Mr. Stamp.
Copyright ©2003 by Larry Brown
The Rabbit Factory
Set in Memphis and North Mississippi, The Rabbit Factory follows the colliding lives of, among others, Arthur, an older, socially ill-at-ease man of considerable wealth married to the much younger Helen, whose desperate need for satisfaction sweeps her into the arms of other men; Eric, who has run away from home thinking his father doesn't want him and becomes Arthur's unlikely surrogate son; and Anjalee, a big-hearted prostitute with her own set of troubles who crashes into the lives of the others like a one-woman hurricane.
Teeming with pitch-perfect creations that include quirky gangsters, colorful locals, seemingly straitlaced professors, and fast-and-loose police officers, Brown's spellbinding and often hilarious story is about the botched choices and missed chances that separate people -- and the tenuous threads of love and coincidence that connect them. With all the subtlety and surprise of life itself, the story turns on a dime from comical to violent to moving. Masterful, profound, and full of spirit, The Rabbit Factory is literary entertainment of the highest order.