by Barb Natividad
When Max came and went from his apartment, one of his neighbors was usually in the tiny front yard of their building, sitting on a plastic lawn chair next to a cooler. His hands dangled from the arm rests. His left hand was missing three fingers.
The neighbor always nodded at Max who would nod back then rub the blue rabbit’s foot that was attached by a short ball chain onto his belt loop. The man looked to be in his thirties and had long, shaggy hair he sometimes wore in a messy ponytail. He was thin and usually wore faded East Bridge University t-shirts and dirty jeans. Max’s hair was close-cropped and although he wore the same red shirts, his were new. And his jeans were clean.
One morning, Max returned from the corner diner. He regularly ate breakfast there and listened to the chatter that satisfied his fondness for sounds. He wasn’t a talker. He was a listener. The background noise was soothing and reminded him of meals with his grandfather at the Crawley Diner back home.
This time, instead of nodding, the man said, “You go to East Bridge?”
Max hesitated. He rarely talked to anyone and appreciated the man’s normally wordless greetings.
“This fall,” said Max.
“So he does talk. I went there. Never finished. Still, I like the Mammoths okay. You like football?”
“Ever been to a game?”
“No,” he said.
“I can get tickets easy enough.” The man winked and extended a hand—the one that wasn’t missing fingers. “I’m Billy.”
“Max.” He stuffed both hands into his pockets.
Billy set his hand back on the armrest and looked Max up and down. He gestured at Max’s waist with his chin. “That a rabbit’s foot?”
“It’s my lucky charm.”
“Does it bring you luck?”
“Grandpa gave it to me.”
“I had one. They were popular in the seventies,” said Billy.
He drank from a can in a blue koozie, the logo of which was cracked and unreadable. Max touched his rabbit’s foot. He wasn’t used to making conversation except with his grandfather and some of his teachers. This man intrigued him. Maybe it was in the way his jeans were dirty and his hair unkempt. Maybe it was the fingers. There was a lawlessness about him. Max knew a few people like that in Crawley, but he had never talked to them.
Billy reached into the cooler for a beer and offered it to Max, who had never tasted one. He took it. The can was wet but looked clean. Max appreciated the hiss it made when he opened it. He took a sip and made a face. The beer tasted the way yeast smelled.
Billy chuckled. “You’ll get used to it.” He pointed at the grass in front of him. “Have a seat.”
Max was going to demur, then reached for his lucky charm. Touching the soft blue fur soothed him, and he sat cross-legged on the ground in front of his neighbor.
“You from the burbs?” Billy asked.
“Where you from?”
“That’s in the sticks.”
Max shrugged and sipped his beer.
Billy seemed deep in thought. “You know,” he said, “you’re a good-looking kid. You’d make a good chick magnet. We could have a lot of fun together.” He snickered.
Max continued drinking.
It wasn’t long before Max and Billy were sitting on the lawn and drinking nearly every day. This went on for the rest of the summer. Billy even brought down a chair for Max but occasionally pulled it out from under him when he was about to sit. Billy laughed every time. Max didn’t like it and it made him angry after a while, but he liked the free beer as well as listening to the city’s noise: car alarms, sirens, the piercing screech of tires. He could hear them better outside rather than inside the four walls of his studio apartment. He rarely heard these sounds in Crawley.
Billy’s apartment was identical to his. Billy invited him over and Max saw that where he had a desk, Billy had an indoor bunny hutch. He bred rabbits for a butcher. Max thought the set-up was unsanitary but wondered how it would feel to pet the rabbits. Would it produce the calming sensation he felt when running his fingers over the fur of his rabbit’s foot?
Max liked to listen to Billy talk, which he did. A lot.
“Man, the bus keeps me up every single night with those squealing brakes. Why can’t they fix that?” Billy would say at least once a day.
He complained about a neighbor’s dog barking and a couple whose apartment was nestled between Max’s and Billy’s. “Do they ever stop fighting? Break up, already!”
Max loved the city’s sounds, even the neighbors’ arguments. They made him feel less lonely without having to talk. All he had to do was listen.
“I used to be a butcher,” Billy once said, which reminded Max of the bunny hutch. Billy’s boss threatened to fire him for drinking on the job. The final straw was when he accidentally chopped off three fingers. He was so soused that he didn’t feel anything. Or maybe he passed out. He couldn’t remember. The rabbits he bred were, he said, for “walking-around money.” He didn’t seem to have a job but always had money for beer.
Besides Max’s grandfather, Billy grew to be the only person that Max could talk to. Before meeting Billy, Max didn’t have friends. In kindergarten, his grandfather sent him to the Lancasters’ house at the end of the block. “You should be playing with kids your own age instead of hanging around an old fart like me,” he said.
His grandfather walked him to the Lancasters’ where twin boys greeted Max. He recognized them from school but couldn’t tell them apart. They were eager to show him their toys. The three were playing with Matchbox cars when Ryan, the twins’ older brother, showed up. He was a third grader. Max clutched his rabbit’s foot.
“Aren’t you a little weirdo,” Ryan said.
Danny and Dennis worshipped their older brother and immediately joined him in taunting Max, who stood up to leave. Ryan stepped towards Max, pried Max’s fingers from the rabbit’s foot, and snatched it. He held it over his head. Max jumped, trying to get his lucky charm back, but Ryan was too tall. Max’s face heated up and his fists clenched. He punched Ryan’s torso. The older boy laughed. Max continued to hit him even after the twins brought Mr. Lancaster into the room. Ryan was still laughing.
Mr. Lancaster pulled Max away and returned his lucky charm.
“I’ll deal with you boys later,” he said and walked Max home.
He told Max’s grandfather what happened, that Ryan seized the rabbit’s foot.
“It used to be mine and then it was his father’s,” Max’s grandfather said. He explained to Mr. Lancaster that Max’s parents were killed in a car accident, and that Max was left in his care.
Mr. Lancaster’s face turned red. He said he would send the boys over to apologize. He also expressed concern about Max’s reaction.
At dinner, Max’s grandpa talked about violence. “Kicking, hitting, punching aren’t good ways of solving problems.”
“What do you mean?”
“You should use words to solve your problems, you know, talk things over.”
Max wasn’t good with words. He usually stumbled over them, so he said very little. He didn’t talk to his classmates, especially after the Lancaster incident. He avoided others so that conversations and problems didn’t arise. He barely talked when his teachers spoke to him. They didn’t like it because they knew the boy was smart. Still, he was exempt from group projects because they didn’t want him to fail.
When the weather cooled, Billy took Max to Murray’s bar. Billy knew the owner. Max had walked past it on his way to school but never paid attention to it. A sign featuring a colorful, neon toucan balancing two pint glasses of Guinness on its beak glowed like fireflies in the tinted, plate glass window. A heavy oak door led to a long and narrow space. Tables lined the wall opposite the oak bar. The TVs above each end of the bar were tuned to ESPN. Max loved listening to the sports analysts barking at each other.
Billy introduced Max to the owner, who had a shaved head and was leaning against the bar top. “Sam here won this place from a guy named Murray,” explained Billy. The two older men laughed.
Max and Billy began going to Murray’s most nights. Young women wearing East Bridge University sweatshirts were lured by Max’s presence because he was their age and, presumably, for his “good looks,” which Billy never let him forget when the women were around. But Max never talked to them so Billy would swoop in and buy them drinks.
Max was content listening to the empty glasses tinkling in the sink and the banter between Sam and the regulars. Sam was always friendly and greeted Max by name. Max also liked that the bartender knew he wasn’t a talker. Sam simply served him draft beers and shots of whiskey and left him alone.
When school started, instead of studying, Max continued to hang out with Billy. They drank late into the night, every night. Max began sleeping through his alarm and missing his morning classes. He turned in his assignments late to the professors who were still willing to accept them. Max sometimes made half-hearted attempts to study but the pull of drinking with Billy was strong. Studying took concentration, which had become a struggle. Hanging out with Billy was relaxing and didn’t require much thinking.
Billy showed up at Max’s one Saturday afternoon with a case of beer under his arm. “I got tickets to tonight’s game,” he said.
“I should study,” said Max. His grandfather called regularly to ask about his grades. He wasn’t happy with how Max was doing in his engineering classes and kept reminding him that he was the first in their family to go to college.
Billy shrugged. “Suit yourself.”
The next night, Max and Billy walked to Murray’s and took two seats at the end of the bar. It felt like Sam had reserved the stools just for them, which was lucky because the place was packed more than usual. Max caressed his rabbit’s foot, which made him feel warm, like the shot of whiskey in front of him. He belonged. He was safe sitting at the familiar bar instead of standing among the other patrons.
A young woman dressed in a red pullover hoodie with “East Bridge University” emblazoned on the front tapped Max on the shoulder. He flinched, then turned to face her.
“Did you see the game yesterday?” she asked.
Max looked from her to Billy who lied. “We were there.”
“Amazing, right?” she said and talked about the highlights. Billy was able to hold up his end of the conversation because he had watched the game on TV. Max remained quiet. But she addressed him directly. “I’m Joanne and this is my friend, Liz.” She tugged at Liz’s sleeve to pull her closer.
Max nodded but didn’t offer his name. Billy introduced himself and Max and bought a round of drinks.
Joanne asked Max what his major was. Hers was biology. She still lived at home near campus but badly wanted to move out. Max liked listening to her chatter and occasionally grasped his rabbit’s foot because he didn’t know how to respond. So he drank his beers and shots and stared at the TV. He snuck a few glances her way but remained silent.
When Joanne ran out of questions, she turned away from Max and looked at her friend. “I’m ready to leave,” she said.
Liz was sitting in Billy’s lap. “I’m not.”
“Let’s party some more at my place,” he said.
“Are you roommates?” Liz’s arm snaked around Billy’s neck.
“We live in the same building.”
In a bitter tone, Joanne said, “I’m going home. I have an early class.”
“So does Max,” said Billy, winking at Liz. “Looks like it’s just you and me.”
She stepped away from him. “Another time. Joanne and I go everywhere together. Sorry.”
“Besides,” Joanne said, pointing at Max’s lucky charm, “he’s obviously into animal cruelty.”
Billy grabbed Max’s shirt and pulled him close. “Thanks a lot, buddy,” he hissed. “You and that damned paw of yours.” He grumbled during the short walk home.
Early in the morning, the couple next door woke Max with their fighting. He reached for his rabbit’s foot on the bedside table. It wasn’t there. He jumped out of bed and searched his desk. It was gone.
Max ran straight to Billy’s, still wearing the shorts and t-shirt he slept in. Billy’s door was never locked because the deadbolt didn’t align with the faceplate. Sometimes the door stuck because it was thick with several coats of paint that the maintenance man applied over the years without scraping off the previous layers. Although the doorframe was white now, Max could see a shade of blue peeking through, like the skies in Crawley when the clouds were thin and breaking apart.
Billy was in bed. Max shook him awake. Billy didn’t appear surprised to see him, though he asked, “Shouldn’t you be in school?”
“No, Max. It’s Monday.”
“My rabbit’s foot.”
“What about it?”
“What did it do, hop away?” Billy laughed.
“No,” Max said, slamming a palm against the wall.
“I can always make you a new one.” Billy nodded at the bunny hutch and grinned.
“I want the one my grandpa gave me,” Max said. He didn’t stumble. His words were clear.
Billy eased himself off the bed. He picked up a pair of jeans from the floor and stepped into them. “Let’s go look for that ‘lucky charm’ of yours.”
They entered Max’s apartment and while he looked in the space between the bed and the nightstand, Billy only pretended to search. After a few moments, Billy reached into his pocket and said, “Hey, what’s this?” He pulled out the rabbit’s foot, holding the chain between thumb and index finger so it dangled.
Max tried to grab it but Billy held it out of reach, laughing. Max’s face grew hot. “Give it back,” he said. He felt sure of himself.
Billy held it above his head.
Max clenched his fists. He threw a quick punch and connected with Billy’s wide grin. The man fell.
Max snatched his lucky charm from Billy’s hand. He opened the door and pointed outside. Billy pushed himself up and, muttering an apology, picked his way through Max’s textbooks and clothes scattered on the floor.
Max shut the door. He looked at the furry blue object in his hand and wondered if the rabbit’s foot was worth losing a friendship over. He tossed it onto his bed then opened the fridge where he found part of a six-pack Billy had left previously. He grabbed a can and opened it. Max downed the whole thing while listening to the neighbors fighting.