It was Friday night. The television illuminated an empty living room. I shut the door silently and stepped into the snowy night.
Never would I have dreamed death would find welcome in my heart. Deep within I felt a bitter acid gnawing away my soul. There were no cedars offering solace, only a blizzard night. Instead of mountains, there loomed the Sears Tower.
Fingers frozen, I understood the drunkard. Instead, I had tried to walk my pain off, but now I was exhausted. I sat down in an empty park. I closed my eyes and imagined a secluded field, but the vision was shattered with a car horn. I cried into the bosom of memory. She whispered softly. "Eddie, what happened to your Legos?"
I laughed bitterly. "I grew up."
"Remember the tower? You wanted to make it tall as your house. You labored while Dad slept on the living room couch--"
"Donít talk about it."
She persisted. "The television was playing as Mom sewed a patch on your pants--"
"Why did it fall?"
"It was my first. I stacked the bricks in straight rows. We built another."
"Mom and Dad helped me."
"Where are they now?" I stood up and ran, heedless of danger. Regardless of my efforts, my pain was ever before me. Lifeless houses frowned in silence as I crunched through the virgin snow.
"Eddie, why did you love Friday nights?"
I clapped my hands over my ears and fell to my knees. "Shut up! I cannot take anymore. I wish they were dead."
Memory ignored my plea. "How you cried when the tower fell, so many pieces. Red, yellow, and blue--"
I stared beyond the starless sky. "Why did you give me life? To deprive me of everything and leave me bleeding? What have I done?" My well of tears ran dry, leaving me isolated in the gathering snow. As I walked, my emotions were numb as my limbs.
I balanced upon the cold steel of the railroad tracks. With each tottering step I could feel the distant rumble of a train. Through a muffled city I maintained this course, coming upon a set of large footprints. Snowshoe rabbits couldnít live here -- but what else could make tracks even half that big? Burning with curiosity, I followed the trail.
I had a purpose. Death must wait. These tracks steamed with warmth. Like a hound, I didnít care whether I met with bear or bunny. I retraced the steps through yards and down alleys, until they ended upon the steps of an old building.
Graffitied boards masked its windows. A flickering lamppost down the street called attention like a neon light to a tattered billboard above the steps. Between flickers I deciphered the words, "To . . . ave . . . Have not. . .ogart . . . Bacall." Below it, "Itís a Gif. . . C. Fields."
The pain returned. How could I not recognize these words? W. C. Fields, Humphrey Bogart -- I was practically weaned on them. How often had we gathered round the popcorn bowl to watch Harold Lloyd defy death?
"This place canít be that old." I knelt and lifted a sign from the snow. I held it to the light and read the words aloud. "Ever miss the old days? Grandparent or grandchild youíll enjoy Charlieís Retro Theater. . . same old movies for the same old price." I dropped the sign as the words stung me. "Too bad they didnít make it."
One of the boards had been forced open; cold and tired, I entered. Stale darkness engulfed me. Deep within I sensed heat. I felt my way toward it, stumbling through debris. I rounded the corner into a large room. Warm, I seated myself against the wall and slept.
I awoke to a whirring sound, yet the room was still dark, and much colder. I sat up and listened to a muffled conversation. I only heard one speaker, his voice familiar. The voice whispered. "Hey, heís awake."
"Who said that?" A long silence followed. Then a bright white square illuminated the room before me. I stood beneath a balcony in an aisle dividing rows of tattered seats. A scene of a man rocking gently on his front porch appeared.
I was shocked to see him on the big screen, but even more so when he replied. "No, the name is Elwood--Elwood P. Dowd." He cocked his head as if listening to someone, then he motioned for me to come closer. "I have a very dear friend I would like you to meet. Donít be shy."
Throughout my mind the name resounded dread. "You mean the big rabbit?"
"Yes," he said with a slow uncertainty, "if thatís what you want to call him."
I stopped at the edge of the screen. "This is crazy, I must be dreaming."
"Are you? One step, but donít look back." Cautiously I put forth my hand. It pierced the screen like running water. With a swallow I stepped forward and was enveloped in a gray tint. I stood in front of a cabin among green-less oaks.
"Right beside me."
"I donít see him."
"As you get to know him you will." Elwood cocked his head to the side. "What was that?" He nodded his head, and turned to me. "You look starved, would you like to be our guest?"
"I would be privileged."
"Fine," he said with a smile as wide as his legs were long. "Come right in." I stopped upon the threshold, struck with awe. I stepped back for another look at the cabin. Small and humble, yet within as majestic in size and beauty as Yosemiteís Half Dome. A druid palace with ivy covered walls and granite stairs that wound round a trickling waterfall.
Amidst the grove-like colors, I held my hand to my face. "Why am I gray, and youíre not?"
"Youíre a stranger to this house."
"What does that have to do with it?"
"Wait here while Harvey and I prepare breakfast. Then we can all talk." I wandered about and came into a room lit by a fire. Above the fireplace hung a portrait of Dowd sitting in a chair. Beside him, with one hand resting on Dowdís shoulder and the other holding a fedora hat, was a giant white rabbit. In the bottom right corner of the portrait, sprawled a signature, "Wally Brown." I wasnít sure, but in the corner of my eye, I thought I saw Harveyís ear wiggle.
"Harry, is that you?" whispered a voice.
"Donít you remember? Itís me, Eddy. Quick, in the shadows, Harry."
"My name is Eddie -- not Harry."
"This house. Itís changed you, Harry."
"Iím not Harry."
"Donít be cross, Harry -- I quit drinking. I donít have to no more." He glanced about nervously. "Quickly now, before they find us." He grabbed my hand and yanked me from the cabin into the gray forest.
"Before who finds us?"
"The rabbit." He grasped my shoulder and stared into my eyes. "You didnít see him did you?"
"Is he real?"
"Of course not, Harry."
"Then why are we running?"
"Weíre going to miss it."
"Miss what? Slow down and explain."
"First, answer the riddle: how can you have, and have not?"
"I donít follow you."
He reached into his coat and smiled with a wink. "Hold out your hand." He opened a jar and dumped a mass of angry bees into my hand.
I recoiled. "Are you trying to get me stung?"
"Oh Harry." He reached down to pick them up. "What did you do that for? Trust me. Try it again."
"If it makes you happy."
"Squeeze." His hands shook as he stared into my eyes. "What do you notice?"
"No pain." As I examined my hand I observed swelling, yet felt no sting. "I donít understand."
"Itís the answer to the riddle. You have it, but you donít." He laughed, then whispered into my ear. "Itís the dead bees you have to worry about."
"Yes." He shook his head emphatically. "They can sting you just as bad as if they were alive. Especially if they was kind of mad when they got killed." He reached into his pocket, and pulled out a gold-chain watch. "We better hurry, or weíll miss her."
He stopped and turned with an ominous look. "The Fat Lady. Who else, Harry?" His words troubled me as I followed him through a windless orchard. The trees were laden with fruit, yet frozen in winterís sleep.
Hungry, I plucked an apple and bit. It was like chewing stale bread. Unsatisfied, I tried other fruits, but they were all tasteless and dry.
"Whatís wrong with this fruit?"
"Itís part of the riddle, Harry." Ahead, I faintly heard the melody of trumpets. As we drew near I felt the ground rumble. "Quickly now, or weíll miss her."
I stopped at the edge of the orchard and gazed in wonder. Lions as gray as elephants roared from their cages near the entrance to the striped Big Top. I followed Eddy inside the tent. I stopped to watch a a man juggling on the outskirts of the center ring. With ease he narrated, as an acrobat with straw hat and round glasses balanced upon the tightrope. With brass buttons as big as his nose, the juggler was unmistakable.
"Arenít you W.C. Fields?"
"Go away, you bother me."
"Only W.C. Fields could say it like that."
He turned to me, muttering from the corner of his mouth. "If it is of any interest to you," he said, pausing for a deep breath, "I am the Great McGonigle." He glanced around, and whispered confidentially, "In case you didnít notice, Iím a little busy right now. Scram." He shooed me away with a gloved hand. "Get."
I found a seat beside Eddy in the front row. As I watched, I felt something missing. No clapping, no cheering from the crowd. The only smiles were those painted upon the clowns. Within myself, I felt neither sad nor happy.
"Ladies and gentlemen," began McGonigle, "I am deeply moved by your enthusiasm. . ."
Eddy nudged me. "There she is." I followed his gaze to a woman standing upon the outskirts of the arena. She paced like a bull in its pen waiting for her moment of glory. I wondered why Eddy anticipated her part with such zeal. It could only mean the end of the show.
"In closing," continued McGonigle, "I would like to present one who speaks more with paint than he does words. The one and only. . . Wally Brown."
The crowd murmured as a bright figure entered the arena with a wave. Few could bear to look upon him. His red hair stirred such painful memory. His smile was like water to a parched throat.
I nudged Eddy. "Isnít that Red Skelton?" He didnít respond. His eyes were fixed upon the Fat Lady. Two gray clowns carried a large canvas and set it up on an easel beside Wally Brown. He held a brush to the air and gestured with a flourish, then dipped it and began painting.
As he placed his first strokes upon the canvas, the Fat Lady entered the arena. She tapped her foot impatiently. The ground rumbled slightly as the crowd began to leave. I was amazed with the speed of each skilled stroke. Eyes emerged from the canvas, then a clownís face. Beneath this, a body with hands held in invitation. They pointed to a small black doorway in the bottom corner of the canvas.
Wally Brown stepped back from the painting and shook his head. He turned and his eyes met mine. He motioned for me to come forward. Hesitatingly, I obeyed. He pulled a hammer from his coat and placed it in my hand.
He pointed at me, the hammer, and then his hand. He motioned as if he were pounding a nail.
"I donít understand. I have no nails." He reached into his coat and held a nail to the light. He placed it in my hand and glanced up at the Fat Lady. He dipped his brush and painted an "x" on the back of his hand. He motioned again. "You mean you want me to hit your hand?" He nodded and held up two fingers. "Twice? Okay, you asked for it."
I restrained the first blow, but Wally shook his head in disapproval. He motioned for a harder blow. I raised the hammer and heard the crack of bone upon impact. He smiled with approval as his hand began to bleed.
He mixed his blood into the paint and returned to the canvas. Upon the first stroke the colorless clown was transformed with green shoes, yellow pants and bright red buttons. The stadium gasped. Living tears streamed from the clown painted on canvas.
Wally Brown pointed to the black door in the painting and smiled. With eyes fixed upon me he awaited my response.
"I donít know what you mean."
He glanced anxiously at the Fat Lady, just now clearing her throat. He held his arm up and walked his two fingers across the top. He again pointed to the door.
"You mean walk through it?" He nodded. "How?" He pointed to the Fat Lady and then to his wrist. His antics clouded my heart with fear. "How can I fit? Itís no bigger than a rabbit hole." His smile was gone. He pointed firmly.
The lights focused upon me as I knelt forward into the corner of the canvas. As I reached into the darkness of the painted doorway, my swollen hand regained color. A venomous fire burned within it. Tears welled in my eyes. My body quaked like a volcano as laughter erupted from my mouth.
The Fat Lady began to hum. I crossed the threshold and was enveloped in silent darkness. I awoke stiff with cold. I stood up and rubbed my arms. As I felt my way around, I realized I was still in Charlieís Retro Theater. My hand burned with pain.
I saw light coming from the entrance. I stepped through the board into a pre-dawn sky. In the stillness of the air I rubbed my hands together and blew. All the tracks Iíd followed were filled with snow. I took a deep breath. The world was fresh, and full of color.
At the base of the stairs, I saw something brown buried beneath the snow. I reached down and wiped the snow from the object. Upon examination, I realized it was a fedora hat. Nothing spectacular, except for two holes cut through the top on either side. I stuck my hand through one and wiggled my finger. "What could these be for?"
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