Wildlife

Matthew Lederman

6/1/91

Jack kicked off his running shoes and flopped down on the floor in front on the television. Mary sat on the couch, reading. "How was your run?" she asked without looking up. Jack turned from the television and looked up at the top of her head. "Fine," he mumbled and turned back to the news. Mary looked up at the back of Jack's head and then quickly looked back down at her book. A commercial came on the screen. "I saw a rabbit," Jack volunteered softly. Mary put her book face down on the couch and looked at Jack. "A rabbit?" she asked, skeptically.

Jack swiveled around in the pool of sweat that had dripped off him onto the floor. "A rabbit," he confirmed solemnly. "A little, brown rabbit."

"In the park?"

"In the park."

The news came back on and they watched television in silence for a while. "In Central Park?" Mary asked. Jack nodded. "Have you ever seen one there before?"

Jack turned around and grinned awkwardly. "When I was around seven or eight, my father took me, at my insistence, rabbit hunting. We didn't go to Central Park. Hell, even I knew there were no rabbits there. We went somewhere in Queens, near Richmond Hill, I think. I built an Elmer Fudd box and stick contraption, baited it with a carrot and waited. Never saw a damn rabbit."

Mary frowned and picked up her book. "So, this was the first?"

"No, I've seen a few over the years."

Mary put her book back down on the couch. "When?"

"I spent a lot of my youth in Central Park. You know I wanted to be an ornithologist? I used to watch birds in the ramble. There are chickadees and finches in the ramble. I used to spend hours at the castle on the rocks, the one near that abomination of a theater, surveying my kingdom. I once defended, single handed, my domain from a gang of marauding Puerto Ricans. Well, maybe not my domain, but they tried to swipe a ball I fished out of the water. I chucked it back in so they couldn't have it and their leader and I had to fight for some reason that escaped me even then and still does. Some white-haired guy finally stopped the fight even though I was winning and escorted me away, explaining to me the whole time the problems with 'Nigras,' instilling a profound contempt for tourists in me...."

"What about the rabbit?" Mary interrupts.

Jack ignored the intrusion and leapt to his feet. "I fought on the bridle path with two punks, who initiated the combat by asking my brother and I if we were 'looking for apples?' Another do-gooder broke up that fight after we had been beaten with sticks - of course, honor would not allow us to respond in kind - and one of them had torn the flesh from my right shoulder with his teeth...."

Mary picked up her book and started to read. Jack stopped taking and stared at the top of her head with a theatrical look of deep hurt. After a short silence, Mary looked up. "What about the rabbits?"

"Rabbits?" Jack asked, frowning as if he did not understand. Mary looked down into her book angrily. "Oh," Jack said, then started laughing. "The rabbits." Mary scowled angrily into her book. Jack shrugged. "I still had never seen a rabbit in the park." Mary stood up abruptly and stalked out of the room. Jack watched her leave.

Later that week, Jack ran through the dark on the path along Riverside Park. A large sleek rat sat at the base of the wall and watched him pass. Two wild dogs loped across the drive at Grant's Tomb. Two junkies sat on a bench, chattering loudly while they ritually injected themselves. People, individually and in small groups, watched their dogs foul the narrow strip of park along the drive. A young couple let their Golden Retriever use the sandbox in a small playgrounds for a dog run. A runner stopped to ask them to take it out. They reluctantly called the dog. It ignored them. The runner shouted something about childrening play in the sandbox. The couple looked at each other. The dog shit in the sand. The runner shouted angrily. Jack ran on, the noise blending into the darkness behind him.

Jack bought a bottle of wine on his way home and offered it to Mary in silence. She looked at the bottle suspiciously and made no move toward it. "Is this supposed to mean something?" she asked coldly.

"Yes," Jack mumbled. "I'm trying to apologize."

"For what?"

"Just generally."

"Please be more specific."

"Do I have to?"

"Yes."

"If I forget to forget to ask for forgiveness for a particular transgression, does that mean I'm not forgiven for it?"

"That's right."

"Well, then I'm sorry for.... Well, for the rabbit thing."

"The rabbit thing?"

"Yeah, remember...."

"I remember," Mary scowled. "You don't think I believed any of that, did you?"

"God's honest...."

"You've never won a fight in your life," Mary scoffed.

"I know, I know," Jack agreed vehemently. "Every time I got my ass kicked, there was no one to interfere. Every time, I was winning someone showed up looking to save the world. It's a damn conspiracy."

"Sure."

"Here's proof," Jack grinned triumphantly. "No one shows up when we argue."

Mary laughed. "OK, OK. Let's have a glass of wine. We'll have a brief truce." They slouched on the couch, drank wine out of Coca-Cola glasses and staredat the blank television screen as if it were on. "Jack?" Mary asked softly.

"Yeah?"

"Was any of it true? About the rabbits?"

Jack straightened up. "All of it."

"Tell me the rest."

Jack laughed. "You're drunk."

Mary giggled. "No. Tell me."

Jack shook his head. "If I tell you about the rabbits, you'll know everything. I won't have any secrets."

"You're not supposed to have secrets from me."

Jack shrugged and took a sip of wine. "I went to school on the west side. Every school day for the next nine years, I took the crosstown bus through the park. Sometimes I'd walk home. I was robbed at knife point along Fifth Avenue at Ninety-Second Street by gang led by a kid wearing a jersey with the number eleven on it. He robbed me so often for the next year that he only had to show me his knife occasionally just to assure me that he hadn't lost it. Once I was rolled by an entire baseball team along the north side of the reservoir. They all had trophies...."

"What about the rabbits?"

"In due time, my dear. When I ran cross country in junior high school, gangs of kids used to throw rocks at us as we ran around the reservoir. Huge rats scurried in and out of the water...."

"Rats?" Mary interrupted.

"Yes, Rats."

"Oh, I though you said rabbits?"

"I still had never seen a rabbit in the park."

"Tell me about the rabbits," Mary demanded.

"Let's go to bed," Jack suggested.

"After you tell me about the rabbits."

"No. Once you know about the rabbits, you'll leave me. It's the only thing about me that intrigues you."

Mary frowned and then giggled. "You're right." She hopped up off the couch, steadied herself for an instant and then wobbled out of the room. Jack leapt up off the couch and staggered after her.

Later that week, Jack ran in the darkness along Riverside Drive. A young woman let a German Shepherd off its leash. It bolted out onto the drive and was smacked by a black BMW with New Jersey plates. The dog tumbled along the drive turning over and over rapidly until it stopped in a heap around one- hundred feet from the spot where it was hit. The car slowed down and then sped off. The woman screamed when the dog finally stopped. Loudly.

Jack opened the door and carried his running shoes over to the kitchen sink. He dropped the in and ran hot water over them. Mary entered the room and watched Jack scrub the soles of his left shoe. "What are you doing?"

Jack spun, startled by her voice. "Cleaning my shoes, he muttered darkly.

"Why?"

"One of our dog-loving neighbors neglected to clean up after their baby...."

"You're cleaning it in the sink?" Mary shouted.

"It's only dog shit," Jack shouted back. "I scraped the radioactive waste off on the curb."

"You pig," Mary hissed, turning and stomping out of the room.

"Wasn't my damn dog," Jack muttered to himself.

Jack flopped down on the couch beside Mary. She glanced over then turned back toward the television and watched the news intently. "I'm sorry about the sink," Jack said.

"No, I'm sorry."

"I didn't know it would bother you."

"I don't know why it did. Let's forget about it."

"OK."

Mary leaned over onto Jack's arm. "Did you have a nice run? Otherwise?"

"Yeah."

"See any rabbit?"

"No."

"You never told me rest of your story."

Jack grinned. "It's not that exciting."

"Tell me. Please."

Jack took a deep breath. "Well, after college when I moved back to New York, I lived in a railroad flat along the East River. I used to run up the path along the FDR to Carl Shurz Park and then north to the flagpole at the end of the Finley walk near Gracie Mansion. I used to see hundreds of rats along the river. They're different than the rats in Central Park. Bigger. Uglier. Dirtier. I lived so far from Central Park that I almost forgot it existed. My rabbit hunting really was on hold those years."

"Yes," Mary prodded impatiently.

"I still had never seen a rabbit in the park."

"Well?"

"Well, one day, I was just walking in Central Park, probably contemplating suicide, along the bridle path, just north of the reservoir, and I saw a little brown rabbit, munching contentedly in a little field. I stopped and watched the rabbit for a while, remembering the fascination I had with hunting them and I was a little sad that now that I finally saw one, I couldn't get any pleasure out of it. I felt sorry for the dumb animal. I thought it had been abandoned by to fend for itself in the City by someone who didn't care about it anymore. After a while, I walked away slowly and sadly. I knew that my youth had caught up to me when I could no longer enjoy it."

"Please," Mary scoffed contemptuously.

Jack grinned. "I knew I shouldn't have told you. Women just don't understand emotion."

"Emotion?" Mary laughed.

"Yes. Emotion. And more than emotion. Poetry."

"Poetry?" Mary shrieked.

Jack grinned wider. "You think I should change the ending?"

"No," Mary begged, wiping the tears from her eyes. "Don't change a word."

Jack shrugged. "But, you really didn't go for it."

Mary laughed. "No. I really didn't."

A few nights later, Jack ran into Central Park at West One-Hundredth Street. A group of people, afraid to venture deeper into the darkness, watched their dogs frolic on the hillside just inside that entrance. Jack turned north onto the drive and cut across to the recreation lane. Three rabbits sat beside the road, watching warily as the runners and bicyclists and cars passed. A large black dog shot out of the undergrowth, scattering the rabbits, careened around in a deranged circle and then ran toward Jack. The dog growled. Jack snarled. "Rex! Rex!" A man shouted as he sauntered toward the dog. Jack turned away and ran north up the hill.

The lights of Harlem stretched out beneath the north drive like a blanket of low stars. The lights of the tall buildings that surround the park on the south, east and west and those of the still larger buildings in midtown sparkled like silent fireworks and reflected off surface of the ponds and the reservoir. A flock of ducks sat on the row boat pond, quacking and clucking in a loud but soothing not raucous manner. Christmas lights filled the trees around Tavern on the Green.

A few runners emerged from the darkness in front of Jack, passed silently and were immediately swallowed up in the vast darkness behind. A large pack of bicyclists shot by, their chains and gears whining and clicking, and disappeared almost immediately. A couple with a stroller and two small packs of teenagers approached Jack. Everyone glared suspiciously at each other. Six drug dealers milled around the south end of an ornate stone rail. Three gay men cruised the north end. Twenty feet farther, one man stood alone, smiling tentatively, looking hopefully, huddled over against the imaginary weather.

A large raccoon darted across the drive in front of Jack and disappeared into the darkness. He stopped and stared into the underbrush, unsure that he had really it, then jogged off slowly without looking back.

"I saw a raccoon," Jack announced, flopping down on the floor.

Mary smiled. "Really?"

Jack shrugged. "Looked like one."

A few nights later, Jack startled a raccoon in the grass just off the roadway. It ran to a tree and climbed up about fifteen feet and stopped. Jack jogged over to the tree and stopped and stood and looked up at it. Neither moved for a while, then Jack jogged off.

"See any raccoons?" Mary taunted.

"Yes. A big one."

"Was it the same one?"

"I thought it might be, but I don't know."

"Male or female?"

Jack scowled. "This is New York, dear. We don't make that distinction." Mary smiled. Jack continued. "You know that both times I heard the raccoon before I saw it..."

"Yes?"

"And although I can't repeat the sound, I would recognize it easily."

"That's why I stay with you," Mary sneered sarcastically, "the Great White Hunter."

Jack ran with new purpose, listening for raccoons. A few nights later, he saw three crossing the west drive in single file. He stopped and watched them disappear into the brush on the other side.

Jack flopped on the floor. "I saw three tonight. Together."

Mary looked up from her book. "That's incredible."

"Do you think I should I do something about them?" Jack wondered. "I heard somewhere that raccoons had reintroduced rabies to the dog population upstate...."

"Why not call the Department of Health?"

"No," Jack scowled, "they're incompetent. They botched that poisonous snake thing and they lost all those pap smears and besides, I see their red hazardous waste garbage bags sitting on the curb right across from the police station on One-hundredth Street...."

"Only you would make raccoons political," Mary snarled. " How about the Parks Department?"

"No, they can't even control the dogs. What the hell would they do with real animals. Besides, the raccoons have more claim to the park than the dogs. At least they're wild."

"OK, OK. The ASPCA?"

"No. Another bunch of self-serving cowards and for all their sanctimonious bullshit, they have no qualms about the destruction of animals."

"So, what are you going to do about them?"

"About them?" Jack asked, amazed. "Not about them. For them. I don't know." He shrugged helplessly. "I guess they're doomed."

In January, Jack bought a cheap camera with a built in flash, loaded it film and took it out when he went running. He ran along the north end of the park all the way to the long hill on the east side and stopped on the drive beside the rock with statue of the mountain lion. Jack slid the lens cover to the side and popped the flash open, pointed the camera at the statue and squinted through the viewfinder. No image. A red light. He pressed the shutter button. Nothing. He closed the flash, slid the lens cover closed and jogged away. A raccoon lumbered across the road and stopped and turned to look at Jack. Jack ran past slowly, leaving the raccoon behind in the dark.

Jack tossed the camera onto the couch. Mary looked up from her book. "Did you get one?"

"No. Not enough light."

"I'm sorry."

A few months later, Jack saw another raccoon in the park. He ran home, excited, and burst into the apartment. "I saw one," he shouted. Mary looked up from her book and smiled. Jack flopped down on the floor, flushed and panting. "You know, twenty years after my failed rabbit hunt there are plenty of rabbits in Central Park. In twenty years there'll be plenty of raccoons, too. They're not doomed. We are."

Copyright 2005 Matthew Lederman. All rights reserved
Contact: matt@matthewlederman.com