Renée Ashley

I am at least thirty-five, not a kid any more. I've held a variety of jobs: car hop, burger flipper, salesperson, envelope stuffer, telephone operator, off-set press operator, bindery worker, gas station attendant, gal Friday, bookstore clerk, tutor, researcher, ghost writer, secretary and ipso facto editor for non-profit electric power research, as well as secretary for a company that, if I remember correctly, made titanium replacement knees. I have been a duster-of-battleship-filters. And once, I transcribed some tapes for the singer Connie Francis on an old manual typewriter in her unfinished basement; the tin table that was my sole working surface had one leg stove in, and the old cassette recorder I was transcribing from crashed to the concrete every time I swung the carriage.
        Now I work in The Cheese Shop located in the larger of two small strip malls that constitute the town center of my mountain borough. I do this because I've discovered through long experience that driving over the mountain and busting my bum adjuncting at state colleges doesn't pay my bills. I can, however, just make ends meet by driving a very short way down the mountain, wearing an apron, wielding a knife, working odd and very long hours, and by being always – even on my scrupulously scrubbed and cologne-daubed days off — identifiable by a heady miasma of Stilton. I work, as they say, under the table, because the shop is an ambitious venture for this town and is barely making it, because I'll work all night and into the day and then the night again because the women who own the shop are friends of a friend, because they really need the help, because the work is easy compared to some and seems to have nothing to do with my real life which, at the time, is not so easy, and because I just plain need the money.
        I've been on the East coast about three years. I know just a few folks in town, but the handful I know are willing to come in and buy cheese for the pleasure of seeing me in an apron. They like to watch me struggle with the big wheels of Jarlesburg, the crocks of mozzarella. They like to see me wrestle the plastic wrap, fumble the knife, and cut the tips of the fingers off my plastic gloves.
        The experience is a proverbial cheese roller coaster ride every day: gruyere, Danish blue, gorgonzola, French brie and domestic, goat and buffalo cheeses, herbed and herbless soft cheeses, Vermont cheddar, English cheddar, gouda, Swiss, often a rather handsome, layered huntsman, and champagne, jalapeno, bacon, port, vegetable, and salmon spreads. Patés, mousses, relishes, you get the idea. And now, during the Easter season, we have a selection of domestic cheddars in spring-type shapes, sealed in painted wax: geese with yellow bills and red bows, pink-eyed rabbits crouched in tufts of green grass, cows with black spots and cows with brown spots, and Easter eggs decorated like … Easter eggs.
        Hannah White is a real estate woman, and my favorite customer. She brings her clients in to the shop in a genial selling effort to introduce them to the town's one posh point. She tells them Look! Look at this! It's a great little store, isn't it? Upscale. Convenient. I have them cater my parties, she says: the patés are perfect, the peppers are roasted in the back of the store, and the spreads are delicious, particularly the sundried tomato, but stay away from the Florentine — it gets watery unless you use it the same day. Then she points to me and says “This lady here behind the counter is a published author” in a voice that makes it clear, even to browsing strangers, that I'm another funny sort of cheese, a domestic that may, if they're very lucky, have an interesting shelf life while they're around. The intro is a good ice-breaker and everyone laughs because they don't know whether to believe her or not because – and we all know this to be true – all books are written by dead white men. “Really?” they ask, and I say “Uh huh.” So, now they've met a woman who can, if she's very careful, use both hands at once and can speak the local language. I'm good for the cheese business. I'm not wild about cheese, myself, but they love me here in these small, fragrant quarters. The incongruity and my consistent ineptness somehow cheer us all.
        The store is narrow and long, like a railroad flat or a Victorian shotgun house. The front door is aligned almost perfectly with the beaded curtain at the back that goes into the cramped work area, storage and kitchen, and which, in turn, is directly aligned with the back door that leads to the dumpster and the low yellow hill beyond that which gathers blown trash. As you enter, bells strung from the center of the door rattle against the glass. To your right are the big clear glass bins of pita chips, bagel chips, and wine crackers. There's the display for the jelly beans, lollypops, and chocolate foil-covered kittens. The refrigerated cases continue from that point and reach nearly all the way back to the beaded curtain. To your left, narrow shelves line the walls, crammed precariously with jars of delicacies (brandied cherries, pickled gherkins, flavored oils, salsas made with fruit and not with fruit, and olive pastes, anchovies, coffee concentrates, teas, and imported vinegars), kitchen accoutrements (British tea pots made to resemble either Westminster Abbey or a tobacconist's shop, hand-thrown potteries, wine glasses, cheese knives, cheese wires, cheese graters of at least a dozen sorts, spread knives, measuring cups, demitasses, and French press coffee pots, along with occasional sets of European-seeming pot holders and tea towels) and, interlaced throughout them all, my favorites, the stuffed teddies and bunnies and monkeys and dogs. Cramped as the store is, however, if you were to open all the doors, and your arm were true, you could throw a mozzarella ball straight through from front door to garbage pit and give it a fleeting glimpse of the store's entire inventory on the way.
        Easter is two weeks away. I've had three days straight off during which I've worked on my moody novel in the five by five furnace room of our house on the main road of town. I've been living in a shadowy, imaginary place, but out in the world, in the mall lot, the sun is bright, the sky is blue with just a suspicion of cloud. I'm rested, pleased with the work I've done in the last somewhat claustrophobic half-week. I park the car, glance in the windows of the video store, the drug store, and the closed Chinese take-out with the notice from the health department taped to the front door. A modest crowd has gathered in front of The Cheese Store and a small boy in blue corduroy overalls and a striped tee-shirt is throwing a crying fit and banging his head against the glass of the front window. His apparent mother is reading and re-reading — out loud — the poster in the window:

Meet the Easter Bunny
2:00 pm Saturday

        I remember now: Linden's son, the college basketball star and physics major is going to dress up like the rabbit and pass out candy to the kids who come by. I look at my watch: it's 2:10. The kids around me swarm like termites and the headbanger stops long enough for me to slip past him and through the doorway.
        There's a palpable tension in the air inside thickening the already dense scents of cheese, coffee, and chocolate. I make my way past two customers, who seem to be buying time in front of the glass cases, and into the back room. The rattle of the bead curtain makes a dull, dry sound, something like a low fire in dry grass. There is shredded cellophane everywhere and, now, a marshmallow chick is holding strong to the bottom of my shoe. Linden is at the small workspace. Before her are piled masses of mismatched papers: bills from vendors, orders, menus, borough reports. Her small, pointy elbows are on the desk, her head with her short-cropped hair is in her hands. There's music coming through the speakers: someone is singing about the Easter Bunny to the tune of “I've Been Working on the Railroad” and there's a base line accompanying the music: Linden's one-word-like growl, an approximation of an exclamation she learned from a mystery novel and has been quoting roughly ever since: “Shit-fuck-god-damn-kid-shit-oh-mother-crap.” She hasn't looked up yet. To her right, draped over a chair and another mass of unruly papers is the body of the rented bunny costume, a pair of bunny-hand mittens the size of large pizzas, and two, maybe, sixteen-inch long bunny booties. On the floor beside that is the largest head I have ever seen in my life with two upright ears that could stand in for the pickets in a picket fence. Georgia, the other, even more diminutive, partner, is leaning against the door of the giant fridge, thin arms crossed, with a Well-what-are-you-going-to-do-now-Miss-Smarty? look on her face. The kitchen is ringing with unspoken I told you so's.
        You could cut the air with a cheese knife.
        There's a voice from the front of the store, Mary, the high school girl they've hired for the holiday, a tinge of panic in her voice. “People are starting to leave . . .”
        In front of me Linden has one last snort of grief, “Son of a bitch.” She looks up at me and before I can say, “Hey, what's up?” she says “Get in the suit.”
        I turn but there's no one behind me. She can't have been talking to me. What did she say? Those aren't your boots? Where is the loot? The question is moot? Ain't life a hoot? Get to the root? Did you hear that toot? “What?” I say, puzzled.
        “Get in the suit.” It's the tone of voice a person uses when he's told his dog three times to “Sit” and the dog has merely stared off into the distance standing on all fours, his tongue dangling from his mouth.
        “Suit?” It's dawning on me now what she's really saying. I scan the area. This has never happened before: I am the tallest person in the room.
        Linden is pointing her chin toward the flaccid, furry thing on the chair to her right. “Get in the suit,” she says again.
        I'm laughing now. “I can't get in the suit!” I look around again. “Where's Simon? He's supposed to be in the suit.”
        “Simon's …” I don't hear the rest.
        The voice from the front of the store has thinly threaded the back room with panic now. I hear the word “going” and the words “losing customers.” And then, clearly, a frustrated young Mary shouts, “At least get some goddamned candy out there!”
        “Just until he comes,” Linden says to me. “He'll be here any minute.”
        So I get in the suit — which is intended for a giant. I am 5'2” when I correct my posture. The neckline, supposed to be up close to the neck base is below my clavicle and sagging. The arms are easily eight inches too long. When I slide on the bunny-mittens, the sleeves bunch up above the wrists and nearly eliminate any flexibility I might have otherwise had. The legs are … a nightmare: because my own legs are so short, there are none. My bunny-crotch is dragging on the floor. I push up the puddles of fluffy legs and step into the bunny feet. I shuffle, can't take a normal step: my ankles are bound by the reach of my bunny-crotch, my feet will fall off if I lift them from the floor.
        Linden grabs the enormous head, crawls up on her desk chair, stands, and drops it over my own head. It settles awkwardly and with an echo inside. It is, maybe, papier maché, something like that. It is a universe unto itself. I'm looking through a mesh screen at the bunny's mouth, but I have to look up to do it. I have no peripheral vision. I can't see down, can't see the floor or my giant, flopping feet. So I waddle towards the beaded curtain and the public area of the store, legless and nearly armless, and for all intents and purposes blind. Linden loops a basket handle over my stumpy arm and says, “Go!” and starts pushing me down the main aisle. She calls from behind and I turn and feel only the faintest dreamlike resistance and then hear glass breaking. Linden says, “Forget it. Just keep going!” and all the way up the aisle I hear packages and hard goods being swept off shelves. It is a long, long walk; the room has tripled in length since I arrived. I hear the bells on the front door jingle when my bunny face smacks the glass and it seems, at the time, like the sound of freedom. I push it open and hobble out. The door closes behind me with a whiffly sound.
        The basket on my arm is being pulled sidewalk-ways by children reaching for candy. It's fun for a while. I'm pulled this way and that. I'm petted and cooed at. I'm not supposed to say a word and I don't. But it's amazing. These kids are willing to see what they want to see despite the fact that it's just me in this deranged get-up.
        After the initial flurry of kids, a little blonde girl in a crisp dress approaches — I can make out the look on her face and it's already unpleasant. I hold the basket out to her. Unfortunately, it's empty, but I can't see that from inside my bunny head. She stomps her foot, shakes with fury, and screams “Bad Bunny!” I think, at the time, she sounds like a furious Joan Crawford. “Bad, bad Bunny!” I do the best I can. I waddle over and knock on the window of the store, hold the basket up, and within moments Mary has come out and given me a refill but by the time I turn around, restocked, the little blonde girl is gone. Bad bunny, I think. Bad bunny, bad bunny. I'm going to use that some day.
        Mary has refilled my basket twice now with the cheap, hard candies they're giving away before I'm tackled from the rear. A small boy has evidently seen me from a distance and started running. He hits me at the back of my invisible knees as he throws his arms around my Bunny-middle and I buckle but do not fall. He's screaming in paroxysms of joy: “E-e-e-e-easter Bunny!” and he's not grabbing for the basket full of candy, he's grabbing for me. I turn and squat down so I can see him. He's quite beautiful, this little boy: dark, almost black hair, enormous brown eyes. I'm thinking maybe kids aren't so bad, this genuine thrill in the air, this love, this non-greedy appreciation. He grabs me a second time, but this time a bit less enthusiastically, and then his arms drop heavily to his side; the corners of his mouth drop nearly as far. His voice is filled with heart-rending sorrow. “You're not real,” he says to me. He backs away … and for a fraction of a second I am heartbroken for him, poor child, disillusioned, disappointed, beautiful child. Then, something I have always suspected but never articulated presses the air from my lungs and there is no Bunny left in me. I am something large and cumbersome, amorphous, awkward, and hurt. I hear myself say it, but am both astonished and appalled that I am real enough to do so. I step forward and grasp the young boy's shoulders firmly in my fingerless hands. It is some pissy matron's voice I hear echo in the cavern of maché rabbit's head. “I may not be the Easter Bunny,” the voice says, “but I'm real.”
        It doesn't faze the kid. He has already written me off — had, in fact, written me off before I'd finished my half-protest/half-plea. His disgust is more real than I am. His attention is elsewhere at this point: his mother's pocketbook, the suckers he snatched from my basket as he turned away.
        So, when the Harleys pull into the lot with their sun-lit flashes of chrome and their loud, reverberating mechanical growls, I'm relieved of being the center of attention.
        Until, of course, the three of them, men of the black-leather-and-bandanna-club-emblem-on-the-backs-of-their-jackets type, come rolling up to me. There's a radio on one bike, blasting country western music, and I, for a moment, I wonder if I should be frightened, but, somehow, the idea of three tough guy bikers shaking down an Easter Bunny for candy seems a bit far-fetched. The two to my left get off their bikes, give the stands a kick, and park them there by the curb illegally. They head for Dairy Queen leaving the third guy right there in front of me. He can't seem to take his eyes off of me. He's still on his bike, engine and radio running, and he's smiling. He has clearly, in his past, had a good experience with a very large rabbit.
        He turns off the bike but leaves the radio on and shouts to me over some tune with a good beat. “You dance?”
        I don't believe I've heard him right. Between the giant head having its own weather system, my blindness, and this startling address from the not-bad-looking biker, I'm thinking neither quickly nor clearly.
        He gets off his bike and comes closer. “Dance?” he says into my screen.
        I shake my head no. I can't tell whether it's just my head moving inside the globe of the bunny head or whether the bunny head has, too, acknowledged his question. I hold my basket out towards him, offering candy.
        He smiles. “No thanks,” he says. “I'm diabetic.”
        We stand there looking at each other, both seemingly smitten with what we've found in front of us, but, as far as I can tell, anyone who was standing around for a different kind of bunny-attention has fled. Nobody inside the store shows concern, nobody's coming out to see if I'm being bothered by the man or the seismic interruption. I just stand there swinging my basket while he rocks back and forth to the music. Then, he moves up next to me, bumps his hip against the approximate area of mine, and says, “It's easy. Look.” and his right boot moves to the side and then his left slides over to meet it.
        I like bikes. I like to dance. I'm forgetting this guy doesn't see me at all. I'm thinking: Cool! But the truth is, this dude's trying to pick up the Easter Bunny. I set my basket down on the sidewalk. I can do this. Or at least I can try: the limited step the bunny crotch allows me, the floppy, dangerous feet, all not good, but I do it. Then he leads me into a similar movement to the left when the left foot, which follows the right, touches the sidewalk beside the right — and he claps his hands. We're not quite dancing to the music, but it's ok. There I am: no legs, stunted arms, a head I can barely balance — weebles wobble but they don't fall down. I'm starting to like it. By the time we get to the “move back” part, despite my handicaps, I'm getting very good.
        When I do take the time, between moves, to look around, I see we've drawn a small crowd, adults and children, ten maybe twelve in all. Cars slow down as they pass in the lot.
        It doesn't take long before the biker and I gather steam and are sliding to the beat. People are laughing and clapping; the biker's smiling hugely. It's great! We're moving to the right, to the left, to the back; we're rocking forward, rocking back, stepping and turning. Periodically, when I see a mom or a child looking bewildered, I point to the basket with my fingerless hand, telling them, silently, to help themselves.
        And way, way too soon, the other two bikers return, each with an enormous paper cup with Dennis the Menace on the side. They're slurping something thick through straws. I can see their cheeks and throats struggle to suck it up. And then they're leaning up against the window of The Cheese Shop and watching me and my man.
        We finish our dance and, again way too soon, his friends finish their drinks and toss their cups into the refuse bin next to a half-barrel of pansies. My biker waits a moment while he watches them move towards their bikes and then he bends at the waist, kisses my paw, and remounts his own shiny Harley. As he pulls away, he mouths “Thank you for the dance.”
        They're long gone before the police arrive. Someone has reported a disturbance. When the tall cop asks me about the men and the music, I put my face grill as close to his face as I'm able. “I can't take my head off,” I say, “but there was no problem. They were fine.”
        “Friends?” he asks.
        I give him a quick, muffled summary, the cop shakes his head, leaves, half-laughing, and then Linden, who evidently has neither seen nor heard any of this comes out to tell me it's time to come in. I've been out on the sidewalk doing bunny-duty for an hour and a half. That's sufficient. But she doesn't let me take off my head until we get to the back of the store.
        The next few days are unremarkable except that I begin to develop a taste for cheese and the roasted peppers. When the customers come in, I listen to their stories, mostly secondhand, about the drunken rabbit and the bikers. A long haired, lithe young woman says she heard the police had to rough them up. I just shake my head. I don't know: I saw nothing, know nothing. Shrug my shoulders. “I just can't imagine . . . ,” I say.
        I'm dying to confess, or to make up stories too: how the Easter Bunny wielded a wire cheese cutter and scared off the bad guys, or how the Bunny just leaned over, whispered something in one of the bikers' ears and those bad bikers fled. I want to tell them the bikers ate too much candy, got stomach aches, and had to go home to their mothers. Nobody mentions to me that the Bunny had no legs or that its arms were severely compromised; nobody tells me the Bunny danced brilliantly considering the circumstances — which stinks. But these are the stories myth are made of and when they laugh and ask who was in the suit I just smile and say I have no idea. It was my day off. They must have hired a professional, I say. I was home writing my moody novel in the cramped furnace room, but, I tell them, these stories that I've been hearing are great. I can't believe I missed it all. Maybe, I tell them, I'll write about this. What do you think? I say. A noir children's book? a cautionary tale like “Struwwelpeter”? Or how about a sestina or a villanelle about some cheese, some bikers, and a very bad, bad bunny?

RENÉE ASHLEY's awards include the Brittingham Prize in Poetry from the University of Wisconsin Press for her book Salt, the Ruth Lake Memorial and Robert H. Winner Awards from the Poetry Society of America, and the Award for Emerging Writers and the Award for Literary Excellence from the Kenyon Review. Her second collection, The Various Reasons of Light, was the inaugural poetry volume for Avocet Press, which also published her third collection, The Revisionist's Dream. Her novel, Someplace Like This, was published by The Permanent Press in 2003. She received the 1996 American Literary Review Award in Poetry, three fellowships from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts, and a 1997-98 fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. She is a member of the MFA creative writing faculty at Fairleigh Dickinson University and poetry editor of Tiferet: A Journal of Spiritual Literature.

                                [copyright 2005, Renée Ashley]