Old Man Rabbitte’s Grapefruit
Old Man Rabbitte lived in the Grapefruit House. It was called the Grapefruit House because he had painted the outside orange and the inside pink. He lived in the Grapefruit House with an ever-fluctuating number of dogs, whom he named after tropical diseases and the secret identities of Golden Age super heroes. Old Man Rabbitte was unhinged in the way a door bashed in with a battering ram is unhinged.
Old Man Rabbitte was my history teacher in secondary school. My first year was his last year. A stern after-class talk was enough to make us friends, and subsequent visits to his home made us Jedi Master and Padawan. I started out bringing him seven different flavours of Pot Noodles every week, one for each day. First I only dropped them off. Later, I prepared them for him. In the last six months, I fed them to him.
To give you an idea about Old Man Rabbitte, here’s the story of how he helped me get over Muriel, and by extension everyone and everything I’ve ever wanted but could never have.
When my application for romance left Muriel charmed but unconvinced, he asked me did I have a picture of her. What I had was a creepshot. Taken while pretending to text. She was sitting two rows in front of me, doodling what looked to me like illustrations for an H.P. Lovecraft novella, but occasionally lifting her head to watch dust specks flurry in the projector beam. I caught a perfect slice of her face, all of my own.
When Old Man Rabbitte heard this, the shutter of his brow came all the way down. I instantly felt horrible. “You could have asked her,” he said. “You never know, she might’ve said yes. And you’d have her looking at you, in your picture.” His brow lifted a bit. “It’s for shining the old barrel, isn’t it?”
I looked away from him at that, down at the wooden floorboards, covered in paw marks. Donald, Kate and Measles perked up, heads tilted, eyeballing me. Billy (short for Bilharzia) was too comfortable resting his head on Old Man Rabbitte’s lap, but a flick of his ears gave away that he too was paying close attention. For a moment, it felt like my entire face was trying to escape into my mouth. But then Old Man Rabbitte laughed that clean open laugh of his, and I laughed with him.
“It’s alright to long,” he said. “It’s alright to ask if you can have what you long for. It’s alright to be sad when you don’t get it. What isn’t alright is taking it anyway. Even little bits of it. Don’t think that’s romance. They sell you all manners of things as romance. When they tell you to be a knight . . . well, go grab a history book and look up what sorts of things the knights got up to.”
The next day, I asked Muriel. I told her I wanted the picture because her beauty was Lucozade to me. I didn’t mention shining the barrel. She smiled, she frowned, she said no.
“Maybe you get the picture,” Old Man Rabbitte said, “but you’d still not have her. Maybe you’d get her, but she still wouldn’t be yours. Where does that desire lead you, and her? It leads you to a cave. Don’t go there. She exists. That’s all you’ll ever need from her. Or anyone.”
These were some of the last things Old Man Rabbitte said to me (the exact last thing was: “Listen, I don’t care what you do, but putting your shirt on before your trousers is just asking for a bad day!”) Shortly after, the big old power plant in his chest stopped hammering and the grand fair in his skull went dark. I miss the Ferris wheel in there. The cotton candy. The ghost ride. Even the constant rain. I was at his side, together with Diana, Measles and Billy, who had rested their heads on his chest and belly. When they stopped bobbing up and down, I knew Old Man Rabbitte was gone.
It’s the night after his funeral, and I’m sitting on the floorboards of the Grapefruit House, with my back against the bottom of his armchair. On the seat, Billy is curled up, his head drooping over my shoulder. Every so often, his cold nose nudges my cheek and leaves a damp patch there. Measles and Diana are wrestling on the faded Mandala rug, on which I always imagined Young Man Rabbitte sitting cross-legged and barefoot, puffing a bong and nodding his head to a Kris Kristofferson song.
Donald is out in the garden, sniffing for something new. The day Old Man Rabbitte weighed anchor, Donald was away on one of his suburban scouting missions. A few years ago, he returned after nearly a fortnight on the streets, famished, crusty and with a steel chain digging into his neck. Old Man Rabbitte whispered to him, cupping his chin with one hand and gently loosening the chain with the other. Dog fighters, he explained to me. They operate out of that abandoned brewery just a couple bus stops from here. How did he know this? He bought a number of micro GPS transmitters over the Internet and would attach them to the inside of the dogs’ collars. Most of the dogs he lost, he’d trace their whereabouts via Google Earth. He told the guards about it and they pencilled in a visit for next month. So he went there by himself. Got a broken rib and severe lacerations across the scalp for his trouble, although, in his own words, he “socked one of them in the kisser so hard he’ll never be able to brush the back of his teeth again.”
“When you see something that’s not right,” said Old Man Rabbitte, “and there’s nothing you can do, go ahead and do something anyway. Doesn’t matter how little, how vanishing. Do something, because if you don’t, once the opportunity to really do something presents itself, you’ll have stopped caring.”
Outside, I can hear Donald beginning to whine. He has just understood Old Man Rabbitte is not coming back.
He left the Grapefruit House to me. I never knew it was his to begin with.
I decide to cheer up Donald and the other dogs by banging a spoon against one of their feeding bowls. Old Man Rabbitte trained them like a North Korean military parade. They line up in front of the kitchen counter, all four of them, their tails swiping the floor and whipping into each other. I fill their bowls and snap my fingers, the signal that feasting may commence. As the dogs dig in, I noticed the unopened Bombay Bad Boy on the shelf. Old Man Rabbitte’s Sunday flavour. I tear off the lid and pour in boiling water, watching the nest of noodles and dry peas soak, bloat and unfurl. I rip open the little sauce pouch with my teeth, squeeze it into the pot and stir.
Donald and Billy are nuzzling the backs of my shins. Measles, standing on her hind legs, has wrapped herself around my knee. Diana is squeezing herself into the space between the counter and my legs, looking up at me and panting.
They have noticed I’m crying before I do.
The doorbell rings. It’s a muffled, faraway sound that if you didn’t know better would fool you into thinking it’s just a really loud doorbell somewhere next door. This was because Old Man Rabbitte found the unsuppressed sound so heart-stoppingly shrill that the first visitor to the Grapefruit House had to spot him on a little stepladder while he crucified an old teddy bear over the bell housing.
The dogs have already tumbled yapping and howling into the hallway, where they assume their customary defensive formation in front of the door. “Easy, troopers,” I say, taken straight from Old Man Rabbitte’s phrasebook.
I open the door to Alfie and Esther Rabbitte, the Old Man’s brother and sister, both over two decades his junior (Old Man Rabbitte liked to speculate that after producing him, his parents determined it was best to go back to the drawing board and rework all of their schematics before trying again.) Esther rents cubical bedsits to middle class students. She uses crushed beetles and garlic powder for make-up. Her hair is a frozen ash puff. Alfie is a Guru of Tantric Healing, whose disciples create CG renderings of him levitating over roiling oceans, on top of their weekly pecuniary offerings. He is wearing a knee-long coat embroidered with golden curlicues, the kind Indian men only dust off for weddings.
Neither of them spoke at the funeral. Neither of them cried.
“The world,” said Old Man Rabbitte, “is the way it is because of The Great Myths of Power. God is one, obviously. Marketing is another. But the most insidious one, more insidious even than God and Marketing, is Family. You’re brainwashed into thinking there’s this shower of people you owe your loyalty to, your love even. Think about how many people we could set free if we made it known that there isn’t any law that says you’ve got to give your love to your relatives, that the truth is you can give it to anybody you bloody well please.”
From between the dry scabs of her lips (I had to fight the urge to scratch them off), Esther inquires about the arrangements for handing over the Grapefruit House. I inform her that there are to be no such arrangements and take from the blackened sauce pan Old Man Rabbitte used as a repository for keys and letters the copy of the will he instructed me to present to his siblings when they would predictably resurface with the intention to scavenge his worldly possessions.
“Why would he leave his house to a . . .” Alfie pauses, looking for an uncompromising euphemism for any of the words he is thinking of, “. . . to you?
Billy and Kate start growling. Donald is gingerly sniffing the lavish hem of Alfie’s coat, his curiosity tempered by a healthy suspicion. Measles is wagging her tail in case there’s a bickie going.
“Because,” I reply, “and I’m somewhat paraphrasing my late friend here, you are the most noxious, suffocating, vitamin-leeching flock of fascist cunts that ever polluted his life and he wouldn’t take a shit on you no matter how badly you needed the money. Love the sherwani.”
I slap my thigh to rally the dogs back inside and close the door.
This time, I sit down in Old Man Rabbitte’s armchair. Billy and Kate immediately scramble up the armrests and lie down lengthwise, for me to tickle them behind the ears. Donald takes first watch and begins patrolling the perimeter around the armchair (he naturally assumes I intend to take a snooze). Measles has still not fully given up on the prospect of a treat and performs expectant pirouettes, which soon tire her out so much that she lets herself slump down on her flank in temporary surrender.
I’ve made a decision. It’s one of these decisions you have already made when you start going through the requisite deliberations, but you go through them anyway, as a mental formality.
I will stay in the Grapefruit House, and I will make it stay the Grapefruit House. A cell of fertile madness in the high-functioning urban organism. A base of operations for capeless superheroes and a sanctuary for strays, like myself.
“To survive life,” said Old Man Rabbitte, “there’s really only two things you need: Beauty, and a nice pink grapefruit. Beauty you don’t actually need to have. It’s enough to look at it, or even just hear about it. But the grapefruit,” he said, rubbing Diana’s head with his knuckles, “you gotta hold on tight to that grapefruit.”
Robin is a Galway-based writer of plays, short stories, liberal propaganda and the occasional scrap of poetry. A few times, people have agreed to speak the words he wrote, and that felt pretty good. One of his best friends and most useful critics once remarked that Robin’s politics will always get in the way of his stories. This is probably true. Stay tuned next for my inspiring novella about a lamb-loving opponent of food stamps and abortion, who, after losing his job, home and wife, grudgingly bunks up with a commune of socialist vegan squatters . . .