Fiction

After Laughing

By:  Dennis Vannatta

It had been Roger Barr who phoned the office, but it was his wife, Connie, who answered Earl’s knock on the door.

            “Roger can’t talk to you right now, Sheriff,” she said.  “He’s too upset.”

            “He didn’t tell me what the problem was when he called.”

            “Like I said, just too upset.  But I’ll show you.  Come on.”

            Instead of inviting Earl in, she came outside, and Earl followed her around the house to a freestanding garage.  Or at least it had probably once been used as a garage.  Now, whatever doors it had had were gone, and it was filled with boxes and crates, a stack of old tires, a set of box springs leaning against one wall, and right in front some sort of pen made of chicken wire and scrap wood.

            “That’s where Button should be,” she said, indicating the pen.

            “Button?”

            “He’s over here.”

            She led him on around the garage to a big oak tree growing by the back fence.

            “There he is.  Button.  Roger named him that because of his nose.  Actually, it was originally Button Nose, but we cut off the ‘nose.’”

            Then she started to giggle.  “Listen to me—‘cut off the nose.’  Sorry about that.”

            “That’s all right.  Better to laugh than cry.”

            “Oh, I’m not crying, believe me.  It was Roger’s pet, not mine.  The only pet I ever had was a parakeet, and I wasn’t sorry when it died, either.  You wouldn’t believe the mess a little bird like that can make.”

            The rabbit was nailed spread-eagled to the tree.

            Earl stepped close and squinted at the rabbit like he was scrutinizing it for clues.  That’s what folks would expect of a lawman.  But he knew how this was going to go.  The rabbit had been killed by some kid, and he’d never find out who it was, and so what, anyway?  It was just a rabbit.

            “Whew.  That must have hurt,” he said.  “But maybe it was dead before they nailed it up there.”

            Connie shrugged.

            “You never heard anything?  No hammering or anything?”

            “Nope.”

            “Got any idea who’d do this?  Had any run-ins with anybody lately?”

            “Not me.  And Roger never said anything.  My guess is it was kids.  You know how they’ll do.”

            “Yes, ma’am, I do.  Well, I’ll ask around.  Maybe somebody will have heard something.”

            He was edging away from the tree in the process of making his escape when he glanced once more at the rabbit and stopped short.

            “What the . . . ?  What’s that nailed to the tree around the damn rabbit?”

            It was a rectangle of wood.  How had he not noticed it earlier? 

            “Is that a picture frame?”

*

            Earl went back to the office and explained things to Jake Martin.  Jacob.  He liked to be called Jacob, and Earl tried to remember to call him that because he wanted to treat him right.  Jacob was his new deputy.  Lafayette County was poor and could afford only one deputy but fortunately was sparsely populated enough that it really didn’t need more than that.  Since Earl had been sheriff, over twenty years now, he’d had only one deputy before Jacob, Bud Drabble.  Things had gotten too much for Bud, and he’d shot himself last year.  Earl didn’t blame himself for it, but he didn’t give himself high marks for making life easier for Bud, either.  Maybe with just a little consideration, a little kindness, something Earl didn’t have much experience at . . .

            The reason Earl went to the trouble to describe the situation for Jacob was so Jacob could write up the report.  That was a job Earl should have done himself since he’d taken the call, but he liked to include Jacob in as much as he could, even invented stuff for him to do, so he’d feel needed and not up and quit on him.  Odds were that’d happen at the end of the summer anyway.  Jacob had already spent two years at UCA in Conway.  When he applied for the job, he said he was interested in a career in law enforcement, but Earl figured that was fluff and all he really was looking for was a job for the summer.

            “So, OK, let me make sure I’ve got this straight.  Somebody killed this pet rabbit and nailed it to a tree.  And then nailed up a picture frame around it?”

            “A picture frame.”

            Jacob made a note.

            “And what was that owner’s name again?”

            “Roger Barr.”

            Jacob started on another note but then laid his pen down, put his head back, and began to chuckle.  Huh huh huh.  Then he leaned to one side, laughing like it hurt.

            “On no!  Oh no!  Oh Jesus!”

            “What’s so funny?”

            “Don’t you get it?”

            “Get what?”

            “Who framed Roger’s rabbit?”

            “I told you, kids probably.  I doubt—”

            “No.  Who framed Roger’s rabbit.  It’s a joke.  You know, the movie.”

            “Movie?  I don’t . . . .”  Then Earl had a vague recollection.  “A cartoon movie?  Twenty years ago or so?”

            “Part cartoon, part live.  Who Framed Roger Rabbit?  This whole thing’s a joke, a sort of pun, but not a pun in words, a sort of living pun.  Or maybe I should say a dead pun.”

            “A dead rabbit pun.”

            “That’s it,” Jacob said, starting to laugh again.

            “Hell now.  This is what I’m supposed to spend my time on?”

            “You got anything better to do, Earl?”

            It was the kind of wise-ass comeback Bud Drabble would have said, and Earl would have jacked his ass for it, but he held off on Jacob.

            “I guess I don’t,” he said.

            “You want me to investigate?  I could talk to some kids.  Probably every kid in town knows who did it by now.”

            “No.  I want you to go out to Flint Hill’s Baptist Church and talk to the preacher.  He’s got two basement windows broke out over there.  He thinks some kids did it.”

            “Maybe it’s the same bunch that killed the rabbit.”

            “Could be.  We might have a regular crime wave on our hands.”

*

            Later, Earl went over to the Y’All Come Inn for lunch.  Most of the regulars were there occupying most of the tables, but he didn’t have any friends among them, so he sat at the counter.

            A young woman Earl hadn’t seen before came over to take his order.

            “Where’s Nancy?” he asked.

            Nancy had been waitressing at the Y’All Come Inn as long as Earl had been coming there and who knows how long before that.

            “Mrs. Hoagland is sick.”

            Mrs. Hoagland.  Sounded liked a teenager talking about her teacher.

            “Nothing serious, I hope.”

            “It’s not my place to say,” she said, sounding a little offended that he’d ask.

            He ordered a foot-long chili dog, adding, “and throw some onions on there, too,” because he tried to eat at least one vegetable a day.

            He looked around for somebody to wave hi to but didn’t see anybody he thought would be interested in waving back.

            It’s a lonely life being a lawman, he said to himself, then snorted.  It sounded like a bad line from a bad Western.

            He thought about Nancy.  “Mrs. Hoagland.” 

If you’d pressed him he might have thought of her last name, but he wasn’t sure he’d known that she was married.  For sure he’d never seen a Mr. Hoagland, and he knew every person in town—not that difficult considering how tiny Prospect was.  Probably Nancy lived on a farm somewhere and drove in to work.  He’d never thought about it before.

He’d never thought about it before!  Why did that bother him?  Then it came to him:  of all the people in Prospect, Arkansas, a town he’d lived in all his life, Nancy Hoagland was the one he felt closest to.  Not Jeffrey, his son, who’d gone away to college and never come back.  Not his wife, LeeAnn, who’d stuck it out a couple of years longer than Jeffrey but then left and divorced him.  Not Ron, his best and in fact only friend, who’d jumped on and off the wagon with him time and again until he’d finally ridden that wagon out of town.  And not Bud Drabble, poor old Bud, held in contempt by Earl all those years until he finally put a bullet in his own brain.  Nancy closest to him because she was the only one left who’d smile when she saw him, and she’d do the same for any farmer who left her a dollar tip.

The young waitress was standing before him.  She put the chili dog down on the counter.

“Are you OK, sir?”

            “Me?”  Why did she ask that?  What sort of expression did he have on his face? “Sure, I’m fine.  I was just thinking about a joke I heard.  Want to hear it?  Why did the little idiot hit his head against the wall?

            But she was already walking off.

*

            Earl didn’t much care who killed the rabbit or why, but he decided he ought to make at least a little effort to find out so he’d have something to tell the Barrs.  He headed over to the Oliphants’ house.

            The Oliphants lived next door to the Barrs, and they had a teenage son, Sean.  Earl had no reason to suspect that Sean was guilty of anything, but he did live close by and he was a teenager, so that made him capable of anything.  If Lafayette County didn’t have any teenagers, Earl wouldn’t need even one deputy.  Hell, if Lafayette County didn’t have any teenagers, Earl wouldn’t need Earl.

            He’d just about given up ringing the bell when Sean’s mother, Tara Oliphant, came to the door.  He was glad it wasn’t the father, Larry.  Earl had gone all the way through school with Larry.  Larry wasn’t the kind of boy who could take teasing well, tough break for him because the kids called him Larry Elephant and made toroo toroo sounds like an elephant trumpeting until he cried.  He got over crying by the time he was in high school, but he was still Larry Oliphant to everybody, including Earl, and didn’t like it.  Earl didn’t think he’d been any worse with the teasing than anyone else, but he probably hadn’t been any better.

            “Hi, Tara.  Hate to bother you, but I wonder if I could have a word with Sean?”

            “Sean?  What do you want to talk to him about?” she said, wringing her hands on a tea towel.  She had the same look on her face Larry had whenever he saw Earl—like she smelled cabbage burning.

            “Aw, it’s no big deal, Tara, a teenage thing.  I thought Sean might be able to give me some information.”

            “Well, sorry about that.  Sean’s not here.  He’s away at camp this week.”

            “Oh, one of those ‘get straight’ camps for juvenile delinquents?  Probably a good idea.”

            Tara puffed up like an adder.

            “No, church camp, Earl, church camp.”

            “All right, all right, church camp.  You do know I was kidding, don’t you, Tara?” 

“Yeah, well, you need to learn how to kid.  Maybe you could find a camp to go to for that.”

            “I’ll start looking for one right now.”

            “Why don’t you try Idaho?”

*

            He went back to the office.  Jacob was there.  Jacob launched in on an account of going out to Flint Hills Baptist Church  to talk to the preacher. 

            Earl cut him off.  “OK, fine, write it up.  After you finish that, I want you to go talk to some of those teenagers you said you were tight with, you know, about the rabbit thing.”

            “I didn’t say I was tight with any of them.  I’m just closer to them in age than you are, so they might be more willing to talk to me.”

            “Whatever.”

            Earl twiddled his thumbs until five o’clock and then went home.

            He used to look forward to five o’clock because his rule was no drinking until after office hours, but after five and before eight the next morning, Katie bar the door.  He’d been sober for a couple of years now, though, so five o’clock brought no joy, just that empty house.

           Funny, when he’d been drinking, his wife and son had been there, and his friend Ron, too, but now that he was on the wagon, he was all alone.  Leave it to him to get things bass-ackwards.

           He went into the kitchen and took down the bottle of Jim Beam from the cabinet.  It was gray with dust.  Housekeeping wasn’t one of his strengths.

           He set the bottle down on the table and looked at it now and then as he heated up a can of chili.

           He knew a guy—was it Ron?—who’d sworn off drinking but kept a bottle in the house just to show he was strong enough to resist it.  That wasn’t why Earl kept the bottle of Jim Beam.  It had just happened to be in the house when Earl decided to quit drinking because it was either quit or die. 

           He ate the chili, washed the dishes, then sat back down and stared at the bottle.  There was no good reason for him to drink.  There was no good reason for him not to drink, either.

           They hadn’t all left him because he drank.  They might have thought that was the reason, and he might have thought it, too, at one time, but it wasn’t true.  They would have left him eventually anyway, because drunk or sober, Earl was still Earl.  He’d talked to Ron about it, and Ron said you had to look past the drinking because drinking was just a cover to hide the real you.  To find the real you, you had to look deep.  Earl said he’d already tried that.  He’d looked deep, but there wasn’t anything there.  “Ouch,” Ron said.

           Earl watched some old House Hunters episodes on TV until there was a knock on the door.  It was Jacob.

           “I’ve been trying to call you,” Jacob said.

           Earl looked at his cell phone.  Dead.  When was the last time he’d charged it?

           “I’ve been asking around.  Turns out it was the neighbor kid, Sean Oliphant, killed the rabbit.”

           “His mother told me he was away at church camp.”

           “Yeah, that’s where he told her he was going, but he and some friends have been holed up in a cabin out in the boonies with about a pickup-load of beer.  I guess he must have come back to town long enough to do the deed.”

           “So how’d you find out?”

           “A kid heard I’d been asking around and came and told me.  He went out to that cabin, but they wouldn’t let him in on the beer, so he was getting his revenge.”

           “Serves ‘em right, selfish bastards.”

           “What are you going to do about Sean?”

           Earl shrugged.  “I don’t know.  It’ll keep until tomorrow.  Did you go tell the Barrs?”

           “No, I thought you’d want to do that.”

           Why the hell would I want to do it, it was on the tip of Earl’s tongue to say, but instead he said, “Right, OK, good job, Jacob,” because he was still trying to be a human being and treat Jacob right.   He didn’t know how long he could keep that up.

*

           He drove over to the Barrs’ house.  This time Roger came to the door.  He told him it’d been Sean Oliphant who killed his rabbit.

           “Sean?  But why would he do it?  We’ve always gotten along fine with the Oliphants.  Was it just meanness?”

           “Well, that might have been part of it.  Teenagers will get that way.  But mostly I think they were drinking beer, and Sean got the idea that it’d be a good joke.”

           “Joke?  How in the hell is that a joke?”

           “Well, I didn’t get it at first, either, but there was that movie, you know, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?  So, kill the rabbit, put it inside a picture frame, and there it is—Roger’s rabbit.  See?”

           Roger stared at him a long time.  Then he shook his head.

           “Killed him for a joke.  A joke.  He was a pet, Earl.  A pet.  Do you understand that?  He was like a member of the family.”

           “I know, Roger.”

           Roger went back to shaking his head.  Then he sighed and said, “So I guess I can go take him down and bury him now.  I thought I’d better wait until you gave me the word.  Didn’t want to tamper with the evidence.”

           “Sure, we can get him down now.  Why don’t you let me help you?”

           Earl figured Roger would say no, that he’d do it himself, but he just nodded, and the two of them walked around the house to the back yard.

           It was dark.  They were within fifteen feet of the tree before Earl saw something was different and came to a halt.

           “Where Bud?—Where’s Button?”

           The frame was still there but the rabbit was gone.  Earl had to take another couple of steps nearer before he saw the four nails, each with its bloody hank of hair.

           Roger began to cry.

           Awkwardly, as if his whole arm had gone to sleep, Earl patted him on the back.

           “Don’t worry, we’ll find out who did this,” Earl said.  “I’ll get my deputy on it right away.”

*

           He went home and tried to call Jacob, but of course his cell phone was still dead.  He realized he had no idea where Jacob lived.  He wondered why he didn’t know that.

           He went into the kitchen.  The Jim Beam was right there on the table.

           He took out his handkerchief and dusted off the bottle.  Twisted off the top.

           He began to drink.  He drank for a while and then started to think about the Barr case.  Who framed Roger’s rabbit.  Pretty funny, really.  He began to laugh.  He laughed and laughed and laughed.  Then he realized it wasn’t really that funny, that he was just in the laugh at everything stage of drinking.  What followed laughing, though?  He took two more long pulls from the bottle.

           Uh oh, here it comes.

###

 Dennis Vannatta is a Pushcart and Porter Prize winner, with stories published in many magazines and anthologies, including River Styx, Chariton Review, Boulevard, and Antioch Review.  His sixth collection of stories, The Only World You Get¸ was recently published by Et Alia Press.

Categories: Fiction

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