The rock felt chalky. Stein was holding it in his hand, yeah, an irregular light gray lump, but he could feel it on his teeth and in his nostrils. Little granules of something that made his face feel dry and cracked. He wanted to brush his teeth. Or better yet, just drink some water. But that's an excuse, he thought. He had to go through with it. Nick the Prick wasn't answering his phone calls. And whenever Stein would knock or ring the doorbell, no one would ever open up. He'd stand on the low concrete stoop, staring into the wrong end of the peephole, watching for movement in the distorted illegible shadows. Then he'd hear a rustling at the window and look over just in time to see the blinds wavering back and forth. He'd call out that he knew someone was there, but no one would ever come to the door.
So Stein pulled the little folded up piece of paper that bore his hand-scrawled message from his back pocket, and dug out a red rubber band too. He stretched it out in a circle around all five fingers, held the note against the stone, and let the rubber band snap back. The paper crinkled and curved against the rock in a hundred little creases. Stein couldn't decide if that made it look less serious or more sinister. The rock was only as big as a biscuit, but it felt pretty dense as he tossed it up in the air for a test. When he caught it, it knocked against his silver wedding band with a dull empty noise that rattled the bones in his ears. Then he pitched the rock as hard as he could—sidearm, just like Dennis Eckersley used to. It punched through the window like paper and left a jagged hole that struck Stein as funny. After a few minutes, he walked away, pretty sure that Nick the Prick would get the message. "Give me back my glove. You prick."
That was Thursday. On Sunday, Stein waited out front of Nick's ranch house, listening for something, anything, from within. It was nice outside, so he didn't mind. He could hear the liquidy crunch of tires on the street at his back, and he could hear early spring birds chattering unseen in the bare trees. He could even hear the warm buzz of the overhead electrical lines in moments of silence. But nothing stirred inside the house.
Nick the Prick hadn't always been a prick. He used to just be Nick. He used to be Stein's best friend. They were friends in college, sharing an interest in Asian history and seeing girls naked. They had both remained in town after graduation. Stein worked at a bar near campus called the Red Hippo. Nick started working as a teller at the National Fifth branch downtown. The two stayed in contact for a few years—Nick would come by the Hippo often enough, and on his nights off, Stein would play poker at Nick's house. This house, the old flat ranch with green siding. Nick had rented it at first, and then bought it from the dead landlord's estate. It was on the other side of town from the college, and Nick joked to Stein once that he wouldn't want himself from four years ago anywhere near his property now. Stein laughed to be polite, but was upset by the joke. He liked Nick from four years ago more than the man in a blue polo and khaki shorts who had quietly killed him, disposed of the body, and assumed his identity.
The window at Nick the Prick's still had the entry wound from Stein's rock, but it had been covered with clear plastic that fluttered in the breeze, swelling up inside and then puffing back out, and casting sunny rainbows back at Stein, who frowned. The passivity pissed him off. Why would he just cover the hole? He would have known who threw the rock—Stein had signed the note. But the coward, Nick the Cowardly Prick, had just taped it up and ignored it. He didn't even call the police. And that's why Stein was here again: he had to get the glove back. He had bought it when Matty was born.
Stein had a knife in the hip pocket of his jeans, which he thought was kind of weird. It was a cheap thing he had bought in Chinatown, flimsy and dull with a braille dragon on the handle. He could feel it digging into his thigh all the time. In fact, it took effort just to ignore it, to not touch it, to not just rest a finger on it inside his pocket, to not take it out and play with it and stick it into things. Stein worried that this was getting out of hand. But he needed that glove back. He had caught a Mark McGwire home run with it. A before-the-steroids Mark McGwire home run. Plus, he had to get rid of the knife before it drove him nuts.
He pulled a creased and folded piece of unlined paper from his hip pocket and walked quietly and deliberately up the walk to Nick the Prick's front door. The walkway was covered in a thin layer of gravel left by a winter's worth of melted snow, a little sediment bed left by a the smallest and shortest-lived glacier in history. The way the gravel crunched underfoot, Stein imagined himself as a prehistoric giant trekking across newly thawed Norway. Then he reached the door. He unfolded the paper, held the note up, just below the screwed-on brass numbers, and stabbed it with the knife. The vinyl siding shrieked a little. He had kind of expected the knife to break, but it didn't. The blade had sunk in about half an inch, and it stuck out and up like a lever waiting to by pulled. Stein wiggled the silver-dragon hilt to make sure it was secure, and then walked away quickly.
This time, Stein let a week go by. Partly because he was sure that Nick the Prick would respond appropriately, and partly because he wasn't sure how to improve on the note stuck to the wall with a knife. But as the weekend drew near, he began to grow concerned. First of all, what kind of man was this, who would ignore first a rock through the window, and then a stabbed note? He was lucky it was just Stein doing this—anyone else and Nick the Prick would definitely have been putting his household at risk here. Secondly, he still didn't have his glove back. Nick could take everything else, or rather, can take everything because he has the means, but he should at least have the decency to return the glove. It's the only thing Stein asked for. After those first couple of weeks anyway. There had to be a way to make the message about the glove more impressive, more un-ignorable, but Stein couldn't come up with anything that didn't involve direct violence. And then Bernie brought home a dead rabbit.
When Bernie was younger, only a year old or so, he had found a whole den of rabbits. It was in the backyard of the tiny brick bungalow. Matty was five. Stein had been in the garage, doing something, he can't remember what, and Suzanne came crashing in, gurgling and panicky. She was crying, Stein remembered, but she had thrown the door open so hard that it banged against the wall and rattled the shelves. It had surprised her, and she stopped crying and yelling for a second and looked over at the flung-open door thoughtfully. All Suzanne said were the words "Matty," "Bernie," and "blood," and Stein was in the backyard while she was still in the garage doorway. The boy was wailing at the top of his lungs, sitting flat on his butt with his legs spread out. He was covered in blood: dark, dark red on his hands and arms, and purple on his little navy blue shirt.
The whole time, Stein felt removed, like he was buried one layer deeper inside himself and was just a passenger. As he was running across the shallow uneven yard, as he was patting Matty all over, searching for wounds, as he lifted up his son's shirt and inspected his skin for punctures. Only when he saw the mutilated animal in Matty's lap did Stein rejoin himself. He sat down heavily in the grass in front of his son. There were little whitish chunks of pulp in the boy's hair, brown rings now that would turn impossibly blonde under the summer sun in a few months. Most of his clothes were horrifically stained. An explosion of red had soaked into the fabric and turned it black. His white shoes could probably be cleaned, but who would want to? Not him. Not Stein. Stein would never want to be reminded again.
Suzanne came and took Matty away, both still teary. Stein was left sitting on his lawn holding most of a dead rabbit. The grass where Matty had been sitting looked like it had all just laid down in the same direction. It was a paler green than the rest of the yard, except for where there still was rabbit's blood. Stein ran his hand through it, raking his fingers wide to fluff the blades back up and erase the whole thing. Bernie's tags tinkled softly as he crept toward Stein from wherever he had been cowering. His sand-brown jaws and the whitening fur on his forelegs were brown and matted with crusting blood. Stein saw in his mind Bernie shaking his bloody prize in front of Matty, happy to show off and share. The limp limbs and flopping ears slapping back and forth against the dog's head. Blood and flesh flying out in misty puffs. The child terrified and howling as the dog dropped the mangled carcass into his lap.
Stein searched the yard until he found the nest of rabbits under an evergreen bush. Stein grimaced. This was unpleasant. It looked like a whole litter, or whatever you call them, all of them covered in mud and blood. They didn't know enough to take off for thicker brush like the adults. One by one, Stein pulled them up and cradled them in his hands. Some of them were still twitching, flicking their legs, slowly opening and closing their mouths without a sound. Their tiny thin skulls felt so delicate, so unsuspecting in his hands. One by one, he twisted their necks. One by one they went limp and Stein set them back down in a pile next to the bush. By the third one he was crying too.
Bernie had calmed down in the couple of years since then, and the rabbit he brought back this time was older—full grown and probably old or sick if Bernie had managed to catch it. There wasn't as much blood, and only a few bite wounds. He'd left it in a lump at the sliding glass door that led from the kitchen to the back yard. Stein poked at it with his shoe. It didn't look real. If it wasn't for the blood (and the open empty eye socket and the rigid hind legs and the yellowy organ spilling from a tooth wound) Stein wouldn't have known it had ever been alive. Maybe that was more of a testament to how lifelike stuffed animals were these days. Stein picked it up by the back legs since the bite marks were nearer to the head. He was going to bring it inside but the contents of its abdominal cavity shifted and some gummy, syrupy blood-colored liquid began leaking out of the holes so he dropped it back to the concrete. When it landed it sounded wet. Stein figured it would keep another day if he put it in a trash bag or something.
OK, so now it was probably really getting weird. But at least this time he didn't have a knife. You probably can't get into as much legal trouble for carrying a rabbit carcass as you would for carrying a knife. The thing seemed to have gotten heavier overnight though. It weighed more than Stein had expected, but the black plastic bag held. Stein had always insisted on top-shelf trash bags. As he walked along the sidewalk toward Nick the Prick's house, his trepidation faded and he let the bag swing back and forth in time with his footsteps. It was another beautiful day—sunny springtime cool, and little puffs of Bob Ross clouds scooting across the sky. Stein began whistling. He reached out a hand and let his fingers slap loosely against the tall black iron bars of the fences that lined the street. He noticed for the first time that every house on both sides of Nick the Prick's street had the exact same fence. It would have made a beautiful shot in a movie, he thought, all the vertical black lines receding in the distance, and all the little pointed spears like a military parade.
Stein stopped at Nick the Prick's house and dropped the plastic bag at his feet. He watched the windows for a while but again saw no signs of life. Figures. He's probably run away and taken them all to a hotel or somewhere like that, Stein thought. But that's OK. He'd have to come back sooner or later, and the longer he waited, the worse the rabbit would smell. He opened the bag and turned his head away as a puff of hot decomposition steamed up from inside. He could see why the bag had felt heavier—much of the rabbit's blood had drained out of the small bite wounds. The pool in the bottom of the bag was giving it more centrifugal heft. It was a bloody, swampy mess. All the better for Stein's purposes, really.
He reached in and gingerly pulled the carcass out by an ear. He pinched the skin over the rabbit's shoulder and it lifted away from the flesh inside. Stein could feel the contents of the rabbit hide settle down lower into its body. This wasn't working quite like he'd imagined, but he resolved to push forward, to finish. With his other hand he pulled the loose skin out and stretched it as wide as he could, holding it out in front of him like it was a shirt he was considering for purchase. He held the taut hide against one of the little pointed spires at the top of a fence post and pushed down. The skin held. He pushed harder. Where the tip of the spire pressed upward, a veiny white ball raised in relief, testing the skin's limit, but still it held. Finally, with a hard fast jerk, he yanked down on both sides and the fence post tore through into the daylight with a wet meaty slurp.
Stein's hands, and shirt and forearms and shoes, were covered in blood, and it smeared all over the note that he gingerly attached to the hide with a large safety pin. There were a few almost complete fingerprints, so Stein smeared a little more blood on those spots to obscure the details. The palm prints, however, were a nice touch, so he left them, smiling at his good fortune. Whenever Nick the Prick finally came home, he wouldn't be able to ignore this note. It looked like the work of a crazy person! Of course, it said what all the others said: "Give me back my glove. You prick."
Grinning, Stein twisted the hide around to dangle inside the fence and face the front door, and someone shrieked. It's rare to actually hear someone really scream like that—a big horror movie ear piercer—and Stein thought it was exactly that, someone's television turned up too loud near an open window, so he didn't look up right away. Not until he heard Suzanne's voice saying, "Will. Will. William. William!" When he looked up, she was walking toward him, the front door to Nick the Prick's house open behind her. "What on earth are you doing?" She was pointing at the dead rabbit but looking at his bloody shirt. She had bought it for him a long time ago—a white and green striped polo—and he didn't really like it at first. It had grown on him, of course, but it was well and truly ruined now. He suddenly regretted not having the foresight to wear a junky T-shirt instead. Suzanne was repeating herself. "Will. What are you doing? What is that?"
"It's a rabbit. Bernie found it," Stein answered. "You remember that time he found the nest of baby rabbits and brought one to Matty? Oh man. What a mess. I cried, you know. Killing all the injured ones. Did you know that? I cried."
"Why is it on the fence?" Suzanne asked. She wasn't listening. She didn't care anymore. That much was clear. Maybe she never did. She had cut her hair. It used to reach down and sweep forward just below her gentle jaw line. Now it just capped her head. It looked youthful. Stein didn't remember her boobs being as big.
"I was never going to make enough money for you. Was I?" Stein asked.
"Why did you put a rabbit on our fence?"
"Our fence? Already it's our fence? That's what this is about, isn't it. A fence. I could never give you a fence. A place to lock yourself away in, so you could hide from the world. I kept your life too real, huh. You wanted someone to cover it all up 'cause you're too weak to deal with it."
"It's just a fence."
"Fuck your whore fence," Stein spat. And then there was hot shameful pain when Suzanne slapped him. He kept his eyes closed for a little while, listening to his breathing and her breathing and the wind and the other noises the neighborhood made. When he opened his eyes again, everything looked brighter, whiter, and bluer. "I just want my glove back," he said.
"What glove. What are you talking about," Suzanne said, flatly, not a question. A tired, irritated inquiry.
"My baseball glove. I want my baseball glove back. I caught a Mark McGwire ball with it, you know. The first game I took Matty to. I gave him the ball. And the glove too," Stein answered.
"You want Matty's baseball glove," Suzanne said in the same annoyed tone.
"If Nick wants to play baseball with my son, he can buy his own goddamn glove. I'm sure he can afford it. Probably buy one made out of gold, imported, Chinese . . . goat . . . bladder or something."
"What?" Suzanne asked. The aggravation was gone from her face and voice in favor of stark surprise and confusion. She stared at Stein like she had looked at the door in their garage those many years prior. They both said "never mind" at the same time and there was a very uncomfortable silence.
Finally, looking at his feet, Stein said quietly, "I just want the glove back. I just want to keep something." Suzanne didn't answer right away, but Stein could feel her eyes digging into his scalp. "I should have married you, huh?" he said.
Suzanne just said, "I'll get the glove."
"Do you know where it is?" Stein asked. He looked up. It was kind of a stupid question, but he didn't want her to go away yet.
She blinked a few times and wrinkled her nose like she did when she didn't want to say something. Stein was about to prod her, but she said it on her own eventually. "Yeah, I know where it is. He keeps it on his bed stand. Sleeps with it on sometimes. It smells awful, but he won't let me put it in the garage."
Stein waited a few minutes, holding on to the fence like it was a prison cell door. He thought about the smell of old leather, dusty from the sandlots, clutched by his own face as he slept. He thought about the bitter taste of the chewed up strings dangling from the thumb of the glove, about burning his thighs on the searing metal bleachers watching his son draw figures in the dirt base path with his feet. And then the blood from the rabbit was creeping its way down the iron posts and across the back of his hand. It was cold.
He let go of the bars and pulled the dead rabbit back up over the top of the post on which it hung. It got stuck at the very tip though, and splattered Suzanne's face with a mist of congealing blood when it sprang free. Stein panicked, thinking she'd scream or run off or something, but she only recoiled a little, clenched her eyes shut and pursed her lips.
"Sorry," Stein said. "Um. Don't tell Matty about the rabbit, OK?" Suzanne nodded. Stein could feel it in the air that more than anything else that could possibly happen at that moment Suzanne wanted him to go away. So he dropped the rabbit carcass, mutilated and hardly recognizable, back into the plastic bag and said, "You can tell Nick though," as he walked away.
For past fiction issues see chicagoreader.com/fiction.