What’s the Point of Rabbits?
The four years I lived in Ithaca, New York, I drove a purple Chevy Vega. I used it to travel back and forth to Boston, and later Toronto, where my son, Andrew, was living with my ex-wife. Despite the fact that the Vega was reputedly one of the worst vehicles ever made – a step up from the Yugo, maybe – and mine did die a dramatic and premature death, enveloped in a belching fog of acrid blue smoke, I have mostly pleasant, even happy, memories of that car. Many involve poking around the environs of Cayuga Lake to go fishing or hiking or to visit friends. But my best – or, at least, deepest – memories are of teaching my son how to steer the car and shift the gears.
Andrew would come and stay with me during elementary and middle school breaks, and for the summer. We would go fishing in one of the streams or ponds nearby, go canoeing on the lake or play baseball catch in the yard. We cooked ourselves feasts and made up silly songs to the guitar. We picked raspberries and tomatoes in the garden. We watched raccoons climb in and out of our chimney. On cloudy days, we laid out my Lionel electric train set all over the second floor of the house. We did a lot of things. And as he grew older and tall enough to see over the dashboard while sitting on my lap, I began to teach him how to operate the car. His legs were still too short to reach the pedals, but he was taking an interest in the skill of driving and often asked if he could steer.
Just up the road from our house sprawled an isolated super market. It stood by itself in a patch of woodland and briars. Few people seemed to shop there. I didn’t, and I did not understand how it could continue in business. But continue it did. Few cars parked there, and no one left their vehicles in the substantial lot behind the building. Only delivery trucks used that space to pull up to the greasy, chipped loading dock, and even they did not tend to show up on Sundays, when we usually came out. As a result, that derelict area suited our purposes well. So every once in a while, if we did not have anything else going on, we would head on up there for an hour or so for him to practice.
A narrow, paved lane led directly from the main road to the unused parking area. I would turn up that little track, pull onto the edge of the delivery zone and brake to a stop. Andrew would climb over the transmission console from the passenger side, maneuver himself into my lap, get settled, reach up to take hold of the wheel, ask a couple of questions to refresh his memory and we would begin.
At first, I worked the pedals and gear shift – it was a stick – and he just concentrated on steering. I would point out the faded parking lines, still faintly visible on the cracked, ice-heaved asphalt, and he would rehearse pulling into a parking place and then backing out using the rear and side view mirrors. He had a good spatial sense and was well coordinated, so he learned fast. After several episodes of doing that, I began to teach him how to shift the gears. I still controlled the clutch, brake and gas, but here, too, he mastered the tasks quickly and ably. Soon, with my instruction and cuing, he could shift through the low gears while steering the moving car, and he could find reverse.
This may not have been our favorite activity, or at least not mine. It wasn’t as much fun as being out in nature afoot or on the water, maybe, but it was an activity together and he seemed to appreciate my encouragement. He had observed that driving a car was part of growing up, and he was eager to prove himself competent at an adult activity.
We had been working at it one overcast, muggy afternoon. The air was sticky. Bunched, rolling, charcoal-gray clouds threatened in the northwest. Damp heat rose from the spalled pavement. Andrew’s small hands gripped sweaty on the wheel, and our clothes were soaked through where our bodies pressed into each other. He was doing well. His skill had increased noticeably and he was pleased with himself. But on such a day, the atmosphere discouraged us, the enterprise grew wearying and we both tired of the sweltering, barren confines. By mutual agreement, we decided to cut the outing short and head for home.
We pulled off to the side of the pavement. Andrew unstuck himself from my lap, laboriously pulled himself over to the passenger seat and flopped down. I praised him. We parked there for a minute to rest, to make the transition and to talk about a plan for the rest of the day. We had rolled all the windows down. The cloying scent of honey clover hung heavy in the humid air. As we talked quietly, with long pauses, I looked out at the grassy bank beside the lot, and at the thorny thicket of wild roses and twisted blackberry stems that teemed beyond. A host of cottontail rabbits hopped here and there, feeding on the low vegetation. Since he and I had spent a lot of time outdoors and were interested in wildlife, large and small, I immediately pointed them out to him. At the same moment, he saw them for himself.
We both exclaimed, then sat in silence for some while, attentive, watching their movements. Andrew’s body came alive. His shoulders twitched now and then. He seemed to be contemplating something. Then he turned his serious, trusting face and blue eyes up to me and asked, “Dad, what’s the point of rabbits?”
“What do you mean?” I replied. “They’re part of nature, just like we are. Like everything is.”
“No,” he said emphatically. “I mean, what is the point of rabbits? They’re born, they hop around and then they die. What’s the point of them?”
I thought of lots of things to say. Such as, “Well, so do we. We’re born, we move around and then we die.” Or, to take it from another angle, rabbits are good to eat, they are part of the balance of nature, without them the world would be poorer. They eat grass, we eat them, worms eat us, to be Shakespearian about it. But he was asking the ultimate question. And I had no answer.
He looked intently, confidently, at me. I had always been able to satisfy his concerns. I looked at my son, then at the rabbits, then back at my son, lost. The sky blackened, looming. All was still. The air was motionless. We could hear the grass crinkle as the rabbits bobbed lazily through it. To tell him there was no point would have been cruel. But I did not believe in God. At that moment, I wished I could believe in an omniscient creator, so I could offer some kind of reassuring explanation, even if the matter was beyond our understanding. I shifted in my seat, peeling my shirt away from the back rest, tugging it out of my armpits.
I remained silent. His expectation grew less confident and his eyes began to dim as the silence lengthened and my uncertainty became evident. To say something, I summoned an explanation about all of nature being alive together, and that the point was to live well and be the best beings we could be; that rabbits had a place in the order of things and it was important to understand them and respect their being, even if, as omnivores, we sometimes killed and ate them. Andrew had enough experience of catching and cooking fish to understand a little about the cycle of life and death. But he was determined. He stuck to his guns and insisted, with a note of desperation in his voice. “But what’s the point, Dad!?” And, all my philosophical thoughts aside, I had no answer for my son.
I don’t recall whether I did it then, but at other times I inquired as to what he thought about such a transcendent issue himself. When I did, he often invoked the idea of God. His mother believed in God, and she influenced him in that way. Sometimes his concept of the divine took a humorous turn. One morning, years earlier back in Providence, he had said something that struck me as powerful – I don’t remember what, exactly – and I had responded that he had a good idea there. He looked at me eagerly and said, “I don’t have ideas; God just sprongs thoughts into my head and I say them.” His vigorous innocence delighted me. How often, indeed, do we come out with something so apt and clear, without mulling it over beforehand, that we could truly say that God spronged the thought into our head and we said it, whether or not we believed in God.
But that day, watching the rabbits, Andrew was not reassured. He gazed at me once more, searchingly, then dropped his eyes, head downcast. I reached forward and turned the key, started the car and moved us on out. He did not speak again on the way home, even when I tried to engage him in conversation. He may just have been trying to make sense of things, to figure out what the point of his life was. He may have been disheartened that, for the first time in his experience, I had no answer. He may have been driven to melancholy by the divorce of his parents. He slumped, wrapped in his own experience, withdrawn from me.
When I was a boy, living with my family in the panhandle of northern Idaho, I shoveled walks and mowed lawns Sometimes, I had a paper route, and occasionally I made and sold leather goods like belts or wallets. All this was to make spending money, except that I didn’t spend it; I saved it. I didn’t buy candy or comic books; I didn’t lust after treats or little things. Every Saturday morning, I walked alone downtown to the bank, my savings passbook in one hand and the weight of silver coin pulling at my trouser pocket. I pushed open the heavy wooden door, crossed the empty, tile-floored lobby, stood in front of the one open teller window and slid the book and my silver dollar, or two or three, under the wire mesh screen behind which perched short, thin, bald-headed, wire-rim-bespectacled, neat, close-shaven, clean, serious but kind Mr. Bailey on his wooden stool. He counted the coins, opened the book, recorded the deposit in ink, folded the book closed carefully and slid it back to me, often with a comment of approbation that I was accumulating a considerable sum.
I wanted two things. I had seen advertisements for Lionel electric trains and for wooden Northland alpine skis with steel edges. Eventually, I bought the skis, although by then we were moving to the southern desert and I rarely got to use them, let alone become an accomplished skier. But the Lionel train was my keenest desire. I pored long and reverently over pictures and alternatives. Multiple steam locomotives drew my eye. I dreamt of light two-four-wheelers and heavier six-eights. I pictured coal cars and tenders and passenger cars and tank cars and cabooses, and transformers and track and switches.
Then came the free catalogue with the picture of the crimson, diesel, Santa Fe twin engines and I fell in love. I counted all my savings and worked and waited. The day finally came when I had accumulated the $102.00 I needed for the whole set. That Saturday, I quietly withdrew it from the bank, explaining to Mr. Bailey my purpose, and sent off for the train.
It arrived quickly and it was beautiful. Rarely have expectation and reality been so closely aligned in my life. That train was more than I had hoped for. The engines shone sleek and lustrous. I spent hours hefting and stroking them, designing the layout of the track, cinching the ties, coupling the cars, building hills out of books, attaching the transformer. I would run the train in the morning before school. I ran it in the evenings after I had finished my homework, if I could. On weekend nights, I would wait until the rest of the family had gone to bed. I would turn off all the lights and run it in the dark, watching the headlights flare, the car windows glow and the flanges spark as the train sped around the bends. I relished the smell of the transformer as it warmed. Those hours stretched lonely, beautiful and romantic. I would sound the engine whistle at all the crossings, my heart aching with longing and a vague desire for some future I could not define.
For three years that train was my friend and comfort. While we lived in Idaho, I did not take it down. When we moved for a year to Utah, I set it up in an old, unused study off the living room. I continued my practice of nighttime runs, and built more elaborate hills and tunnels out of books and old towels. I came to know just how fast I could take the curves without the train derailing. That year, I had no extracurricular activities after school, so on winter evenings after I had finished my homework, I turned to the excitement and romantic escape of my railroad and the dreams it evoked. It became my place of safety, of soothing urgency and yearning adolescent solace.
I did not lay out the train for decades after that. The apartments and houses I lived in provided no space for it, and I myself had outgrown the youthful longings the train had sparked. All the same, I kept it with me through my many moves, carefully wrapped in newspaper and packed in a large cardboard box that had once housed an automobile engine. After my wife and I separated and she took my son away, I bought a house in Ithaca with a room for him and space to set up the train once again. Without examining why, I wanted to pass on to him the pleasure I had known and the reassurance I had found in the midst of my own loneliness. I wanted to offer him that intimate part of myself.
He loved the train. We set it up so that it ran from his bedroom to mine, with curves and straightaways, with stops and slopes. To extend the system, we ordered more cars and track from Lionel. By that time, the company had stopped making the old, solid, metal cars. The new ones were molded of plastic, less sturdy, lighter and less cleanly modeled on real trains. They were harder to couple, followed the rails less reliably and jumped the track more frequently. The new track itself was less sturdy and the ties weaker. It felt to me like the changes in my life. Things were suddenly less substantial and subject to damage and failure. But we made do with the combination of old and new, and we made do well and lovingly. We ran the train in the day and in the night. He mastered all the skills of operating and maintaining the system and devised ways to vary the landscape and roadbed.
That Sunday night, we played with the train after supper, as the rain finally fell, thrumming on the roof and flushing noisily down the drain pipes, freshening and cooling the dusky air. We lay companionably on the floor together, me giving a direction now and then, or answering a question, but mostly entranced and smiling together. The smell of the transformer mingled with the sweet scent of honeysuckle rising to the open windows from lattice on the front porch.
When it was time to stop, I helped him to bed gently. He lay there, snuggled with his dog, his clear eyes open. As we said goodnight, I told him that when he grew up I wanted to give him the train. That it was his, from me. He held my eye. Then he said, “It can be like our religion. It will last forever. I will give it to my son. It will be what we believe in.” He nodded. “It will be our religion.” “Yes, it will,” I replied softly, quelling the catch in my throat. The dog turned his head toward me. I scratched him softly behind the ears. He inched closer to Andrew, reached up and licked his chin. Face swollen, my son wrapped his thin arms around his dog and said desperately, “I love you both the same. I love you both the same.”
Educated on the coasts, Stephen Lottridge is a native of the mountain and sagebrush west. He lives in Jackson, Wyoming. His creative nonfiction has appeared in Blood, Water, Wind and Stone: An Anthology of Wyoming Writers; in Nature’s Healing Spirit: Real Life Stories to Nurture the Soul; in the journals Emerging Voices and Manifest West; and on line with Silver Birch Press. He is an actor, playwright and director, as well as a writer of prose and poetry. He received the 2017 Fellowship in Creative Nonfiction from the Wyoming Arts Council.