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Entrances and Exits
by Phil Geusz and J.(Channing)Wells
Some of the opinions expressed herein may belong only to Phil Geusz's character or to Mr. Geusz himself.
It was a slow, lazy Summer Friday evening at the Blind Pig Gin Mill. I sat at my usual stool, down at the end so as to keep the crowds at a distance. I was drinking a caffeine-free cola, but expected to shift to various vegetable juices with vodka as the evening progressed. It had NOT been a good day. Donnie, telepathic as always, filled my paw cup and kept his silence. I needed to unwind from frustrating, repeated failure, and he could tell. I was left alone.
I had started the day by waking up with one of my cage cases, as Splendor refers to the patients I sometimes spend weeks living with in an effort to return some degree of functionality to their lives. This was a fellow lagomorph, someone who until a few months back had been a schoolteacher of exceptional skill and dedication by all accounts. But, having spent weeks caged with what SCABS had left of him, I had finally been forced to agree that there was no longer anyone home. And I had watched as they hauled him off to a lapine colony, muzzle pressed against the wire of his cage as he nervously but helplessly contemplated the trauma of a ride.
It had sent shivers down my spine. Even now, I sometimes regressed to that state myself for minutes or hours or perhaps under exceptional conditions a day or two. We rabbits have a lot of trouble with that. Someday, could I fail to return, and face the future that I had just watched begin to unfold for what had once been an exceptionally decent human being? It had happened to many of my fellow lapines, many indeed.
I hated SCABS, and I hated the colonies. Most of all though, rabbit or not, I hated losing. And I had lost today, a big one. No doubt about it.
His wife hadn't even been there to see him go. I didn't blame her for filing for divorce so quickly, or even for being so nervous and jumpy at the idea of meeting with me. But she could have been there to say goodbye- Jim had really been scared of the truck...
Yes, there would definitely be some vodka in the mix tonight.
Then, as the day had progressed it hadn't gotten much better. A cage case takes a lot of time. I have to spend seven days a week, damned near 24 hours a day living as an animal myself in order to make the whole thing work. It's incredibly boring usually, and when I do it off-site among norms or even a with lot of SCABs who are unfamiliar with my methods it can be demeaning. The results are often worth it, but even after a successful session I need to relax, catch up with the news, socialize a little with Shortcake and just good ordinary people. Usually I take a few days off. But not today, naturally, not after one of the must gut-wrenching emotional experiences of my life. Today there had to be an emergency call from Mrs. Swindell...
I signaled Donnie and asked him to start adding vodka. If I was going to go over it again and again, I had no intention of doing it sober.
Mrs. Swindell was a SCAB, sure enough. And one who suffered from all the SCAB-related psycho-complexes of insignificant self-worth, instinctual influences intruding into her daily life, feelings of inhumanity, the whole shebang. In fact, every time a new SCAB-related psycho-complex was catalogued, she suffered from it within days. Unemployed and having lots of free time, I figured she had better knowledge of the SCABS databases than I did. She needed extensive counseling on a regular basis.
Because she had two square inches of sparse fur on her lower back. That was all SCABS had done to her.
It was very hard to take her histrionics after seeing what I had with Jim that morning. She was so traumatized, she said, when she realized her energy levels had dropped yet again. I explained to her for the thousandth time that she had so little three-toed sloth in her makeup that it was impossible for her behavior to be instinct driven. It was purely psychological, I earnestly assured her, but she was certain I just didn't understand.
Yeah, I understood alright. "Mrs. Swindell," I asked, "how's your job going down at Dudson's?"
"Oh!" she exclaimed, "that's why I came by today! I was feeling so dreadfully tired, so, well, slow if you know what I mean, that I called in sick again. And they fired me! It's discrimination, I tell you! Dudson's is owned by Norms, you know."
Right. I was getting better at this counseling thing- I'd nailed her in one guess. "Yes, Dudson's is owned by a Norm. Alex Dudson is his name. His youngest daughter died of the Flu, and his eldest son is living in the Caribbean because as a Komodo dragon SCAB he can't tolerate our climate. He's one of the Shelter's biggest donors, and he gives to SCABS victims in other ways, too."
I watched the dreams of a lawsuit die in her eyes. It wasn't pretty. "Well, humph, be that as it may it just didn't work out. I need you to restart my subsidy until you can find me something more suitable to a person with my handicaps."
My temperament has been much more patient since SCABS gave me my ears and fur and tail. It really has. But even a lapine has his limits. Splendor would back me on this one, I was sure. "Mrs. Swindell, I don't think I CAN find anything suitable for a person with your handicaps."
This pleased her- I was finally giving up and she could quit worrying about that dreary work stuff. She tried to stroke me to reinforce her victory. "I know you've tried, Phil. Really you have. Seven different jobs you've found for me- who could ask more! You're such a dear..." And she reached across my desk and scratched my ear.
My skin crawled. Therapy books be damned- I knew from the shop floor how to handle a genuine malingerer. Carefully I brushed her hand away before she got too intimate, and explained. "But your handicaps have nothing to do with SCABS."
She pulled back abruptly. "What do you mean?"
"Mrs. Swindell, we have limited resources here. Your subsidy does not come from government funds, and it is paid entirely at the discretion of the management of the West Street Shelter. I am officially determining in your case that your handicap consists of congenital laziness and mercenary instincts that predate your bout with the Flu. Probably by many years. If you wish to appeal this decision, you may speak to Splendor. Good day, Ma'am."
First she screamed a bit. That was bad enough. Then she attacked me.
I have the smallest office in the shelter, by choice. I feel safer in small places. And my desk is carefully placed at a diagonal across the corner by the door to make me feel that I have a place to hide if I need it. In the past, this had served me well by giving me a most-welcome boost in confidence, even if it did make some of my larger clients a bit claustrophobic. When she came for me I dropped down from my chair, and hit a panic button. Then I went for the little trap door I had designed for the desk so that I could have a clear shot into the corridor. I like hidden trap doors- it's a rabbit thing.
But this time it didn't work. The silly cow had put her leg across my secret exit, either by cunning or dumb luck. And she was shouting and beating on me and cursing...
I panicked before help arrived, wresting myself from Swindell's surprisingly powerful grip and dodging about the office as she chased me. Help arrived in under a minute, but it was too late for me- I was every bit as much a scared rabbit as Jim had been that morning. Splendor hauled Swindell away, while Paul the custodian and sheep unamorph tried to lure me out from under my desk.
Eventually, Paul got me down the corridor and into my apartment/closet with Shortcake, who I hadn't made time for in over a week. She was overjoyed to see me, and in my current mood I was more pleased to see her than any human.
I didn't come out for hours. And when I finally did, it was to snag a ride to the Pig.
Where I currently sat, planning a nice little drunk.
Things had not been going well at all, lately.
I was into my second real drink when Copernicus and Wanderer came bustling up, accompanied by a couple of the lupines. I was easier around the carnivore types now, probably because with a job and a purpose in life I was just generally a happier person. But there still was and probably always would be a certain underlying tension. Wanderer handled it by blithely ignoring it of course, and I wouldn't have it any other way. Copernicus had also become a close friend and sometimes drinking buddy, but the other lupines kept their distance. I appreciated the gesture.
"Phil," Wanderer exclaimed in his false but pleasing English accent. "Can we borrow you a moment to settle a dispute?"
A dispute? Involving Coops? This I had to hear about. "Of course. What can I do?"
"Hop down on the floor a moment."
Mystified, I complied.
"Would you be so kind as to sit on your haunches?"
"Sure." I dropped to all fours, and sat comfortably on the floor. You never need a cushion when you're a rabbit. At least there are a FEW positives...
'Now, please hold still". Wander got out a tape measure. I looked up at Coops, but he shrugged. He was as mystified as I was. Wanderer fiddled a bit, decided I was widest across the hips, and measured. "He's 20 inches wide. I think that should explain everything, Copernicus."
The huge lizard was still as mystified as I was. "I just don't get it" he finally said.
Wanderer looked pained. "Look, you're the one who complained that I was exaggerating while telling my boys here how close I came to beating you at darts, right?"
"And a bullseye would have beaten you. Am I right again?"
"You are," he conceded.
"And I missed it by less than 20 inches, certainly. So I did indeed come within a hare's breadth of victory, sir. You owe me an apology."
Copernicus groaned and rolled his reptilian eyes as the lupines howled in victory. In sympathy I shook my head dramatically and hopped back up to my drink as the crowd dispersed. Only at the Pig...
Business slowed a bit, and Donnie came over to visit. He signed that he was sorry to hear that I'd had such a rough day. But he liked the way I'd handled Mrs. Swindell.
I rocked my ears forward by way of thanking him for the compliment. I'd never be half the social worker Donnie was.
Donnie went on a bit about how people like Swindell could destroy the good names of us all if we didn't have the guts to deal with them ourselves. But there were a lot of folks who genuinely needed help out there.
I knew what he was doing. Maybe I wasn't in his league, but I was in the business too. I needed some reinforcement, though, so I let him go on. He surprised me.
Had I ever met a Dalmatian SCAB named Michael Bix?
No, I replied, not that I recalled. I was a regular at the Pig mostly by courtesy, as cage work took up a lot of my life.
Donnie explained that he'd only been in two or three times. His first time he'd shown up in some kind of theatrical getup and been tossed out drunk after trying to punch out the bartender, but that since then he'd been strictly non alcoholic and mostly quietly stayed to himself.
Damn, I thought, you'd have to be REALLY drunk to take a swing at Donnie. He was what, in excess of 600 pounds of muscle? And why would you want to hit him in the first place? I said as much.
Donnie smiled, and went on. This Bix guy really HAD lost a major Shakespearean role that night, one with a troupe of Norms even, according to Wanderer. The lupine would know, too, given his own ambitions. It was the kind of break that a Norm actor would kill for, much less a SCAB. No wonder he'd hit the sauce so hard. Since then, Bix was working down at Archie's Automotive, a tire and repair shop where a lot of SCABs did business. Donnie had run into him there, pricing tires for the heavy-duty pickup he needed to haul himself around. Bix had been pleasant, just as he always was in the bar. But never close, never open. And the pain had never left his eyes...
I sighed and looked into my drink. The world was full of SCABs trying to get by. And this one had a decent job and obviously some skills he could still use. Why should I stick my nose into his business?
The answer to that question topped off my drink with carrot juice, no vodka. Unasked, he had sensed I was approaching my reasonable limit and was giving me a gentle hint. Donnie is the most remarkable judge of human character I have ever met. If he thought I should do something, I would be wrong not to listen. And why was he telling me this if not to introduce us? I said, simply, "All right. I'll try." And smiling, he had signed that he was picking up his new tires around noon tomorrow...
He swung by the Shelter on the way, and I hopped up into the high cab. I still avoided walking in public as much as I could, improved confidence or no. The danger of my going out into the world was real, not imagined. Especially in a neighborhood like that around West Street...
Still, it was good to see some new territory. I hadn't been this way in months, and I realized I'd forgotten how nice it was to cross the river and smell the living green, and roll through the small park with its fresh-cut grass and planted flowerboxes. The scents made me hungry, good breakfast or no. I was on the verge of asking to stop for a quick nibble when we pulled up to an older dilapidated-looking 4-bay garage. Recognizing the truck, a billy-goat SCAB of low degree waved Donnie to an unoccupied slot. This was Archie, I soon discovered, and he told me it was fine by him if I wandered around a bit, as long as I was careful. Kindly, he added that he very rarely saw any stray dogs in the neighborhood, but that if I needed to deal with any sort of threat his mechanics would be glad to help, as all were SCABs. They understood.
I liked Archie.
Saturday is the busiest day in almost any garage, and this was no exception. Michael was there as I expected; being the newest employee he was least likely to rate the day off. He was beneath a very familiar looking sedan, muttering under his breath. I looked the car over with proud eyes- my plant had built it while I was still working there. It was one of mine. Wondering what was wrong, I glanced about and saw a rebuilt starter still in its box, waiting for installation. Uh-oh, Michael was in for a bad time. I got up on my toes and looked inside the passenger compartment, and sure enough the vehicle was equipped with an automatic. Changing the starter was, to use the factory technical term, a bitch.
Unless you knew a little factory trick...
Underneath the car, Michael was figuring this out for himself. Judging by the sound, he had the old starter disconnected and was flopping it around to get it out. I knew he would be at it a long time- it would not clear the exhaust pipe, even though it looked like it should. I could picture the whole setup in my mind's eye. Carefully, trying to keep my fur motor oil and grease-free I dropped to the ground and stuck my head underneath the raised car. "Give it up," I said. "It won't clear. Trust me on this one."
He looked up, annoyed. Then he took in my lapine form and stared just a second before realizing what he was doing. It was OK with me, I was used to it. There aren't all that many rabbit SCABs out walking the streets, after all. Especially high-degree white furred ones.
"Yeah, I think you're right. I'm going to have to pull the exhaust. It'll take at least an extra hour, damnit. And the owner's waiting out front."
"If you do that, you're liable to mess it up. You know how it is with exhausts- once you start to take it apart, the whole thing can go to pieces. You're as likely as not to end up replacing the whole thing. It costs money as well as time."
He closed his eyes and seemed to use some kind of relaxing technique. "I'm new here, and new to doing this for a living. Archie will kill me." I doubted that from what I'd seen. But I understood his concern if he still felt he was proving himself.
"Tell you what. I think we can work around it. Have you got an old broom?"
He looked at me like I'd lost my mind. As a lapine, I'd gotten used to that, too. Finally he spoke. "Leaning in the corner."
I retrieved it and went to the back of the car. Everything was just like I remembered it there. With awkward paws I slid the broom's handle a foot and a half or so up the tailpipe, and told Bix to have the new starter ready. Mystified, he did what he was told. Then I told him to get clear, and applied a familiar pressure and twist, just SO. It was hard with my new body, and I had to use my teeth for the twist, but I got it right and the old starter "clunked" to the ground as the exhaust warped under the pressure I was exerting. "Urgh!" I mumbled around the broom handle, encouraging Bix to hurry. I was having trouble maintaining my leverage with my poorly suited forelimbs and low body weight...
Bix was in motion instantly, popping the new starter through the gap I'd opened. "OK!" he shouted, and I relaxed in relief. I had been really afraid I could no longer do that trick, but I'd still had it in me.
He bolted it in and wired it up in a jiffy, and it worked properly on the first try. I listened contentedly to the twin camshaft motor humming away, and felt a warm glow I hadn't known in ages.
I had helped fix something, forepaws and all...
We talked for a bit, naturally, and I had explained how I'd been a union rep at the plant the car had come from. Once we'd gotten a bad shipment of starters in, and hadn't realized it until almost 8,000 cars had been built. About 6,000 of them were equipped with automatics, and management had gone ape over the costs of pulling that many exhausts on top of all their other troubles. A close friend of many years had an inspiration, and came to me to present it to management for her, as she was very shy. I had demonstrated the proposed procedure at least a dozen times to progressively higher ranking executives, until I became very proficient. The company had saved a fortune, and my friend had gotten a substantial bonus. That was how things were supposed to work. Everyone walked away happy.
Bix seemed to enjoy our little talk. The legendary Paul Newman excepted, it was unusual to find an actor or for that matter any "artsy" type with an appreciation of automobiles. When I mentioned this, Michael had abruptly clammed up, and left to tell Archie the job was done.
Donnie was right. I had seen an enormous amount of pain descend on him, and his eyes had shuttered right over. This guy was really suffering. I didn't usually do carnivores, but somehow Bix seemed less threatening than most. Maybe it was because we both had domesticated roots...
When he'd come back to clean up, there being no more cars in line, I explained who I was and what I did. He was trying to ignore me, in a polite way, but I wouldn't be brushed off. Finally, I got blunt.
"Look, I can't even drive anymore. I don't own a car. The reason I'm here is that Donnie thinks we ought to talk, and I'm inclined to agree with him. You're wound as tight as a three-day alarm clock. You want to talk about it, fine. Look me up at the West Street shelter. You don't, it's your business and your life. But I happen to think you're a fool if you believe that you can deny what's going on inside you. And a bigger fool if you don't trust Donnie's judgement." And with that, I turned on my heel and walked- I had intruded enough.
"Hey, Phil!" Bix called. I stopped and turned.
"Thanks for that tip on the exhaust."
I wished I could smile. Instead I rocked my ears. "That's OK. I enjoyed working with my hands again, even if I don't have them any more."
He smiled, despite himself. And I went to meet Donnie, who looked to be just finishing up.
I had earned a few days off. I would use part of them to pump whatever passed for Wanderer's brain. And maybe make a few phone calls.
Somehow, I figured I'd see Bix again, even if he didn't know it yet...