Judson Bottom

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Harvey The F**cking Rabbit

If you’ve never been to an auction house, picture a strip club, only packed with cattle instead of dancing girls. If you’ve never been to a strip club, I recommend Cruisin’ Chubby’s on Highways 12 and 16 outside the Dells. Farmers crowd the bleacher stands. An industrial fan tosses the barn-smelling air around. A catwalk has been arranged behind a small pen. Somebody walks the cow in through one of two doors, shows it off, turns it around, models its physique. Meanwhile an auctioneer prattles on till he’s red in the face and coaxes the excitable farmers into dropping small fortunes. The more experienced ones, with sagging bellies and packs of smokes tucked in their T-shirt pockets, sit there impassively, biding their time, keeping a critical eye out for that perfect steer, bull, heifer, or cow. Around back is a large complex where the cattle are stored, similar to what you would find at a state fair, and then there is the office beside the loading bay, where all business is conducted.

Trossen and I pull up that afternoon in an unmarked cruiser. We park behind a blue propane tank shaped like a giant aspirin. He’s a patrol officer, maybe a day over thirty, with one baby girl and a wife who looks like Nicole Kidman. Locally bred. He’s got a sinewy farmboy build with a wide neck, square jaw, and hair that turns platinum in the summer sunshine. This has the effect of emboldening his tan so he resembles a blond Indian.

In the office we shake hands with Bruce Jenkins. The A.C. unit in the window freezes the sweat we’ve accumulated just from walking across the straw-scattered lot; it’s a loud, boxy contraption that juts halfway into the room. Bruce is true to the persona he projects over the phone. His salt and pepper pompadour sprouts sideburns that aspire to be mutton chops one day. His voice is the kind coveted by salesmen and politicians worldwide, warm and amorous, practical and bombastic, friendly and despotic. A voice that could convince you to invest in the comeback of tape cassettes.

“Pleased to meet you fellas. You want a coffee, lemonade, ice water?”

When we decline, he offers us chairs positioned on either side of the A.C. unit. I sit there admiring the false dropped ceiling, the wood-grain wallpaper. Bruce pivots his computer monitor to show us live feed of all the cameras in the facility and blows up the frame pointed at the loading bay, the one which yesterday captured a man and woman dropping off two Herefords and a Black Angus.

“My guess is these two will be pretty punctual,” he says. “It doesn’t take a detective to sense something shifty about their attitudes. I didn’t talk to the lady none, but the fella, he had what I guess you’d call a cocky attitude about him. Real skinny, know what I mean? Not a lot of red meat on his bones.” Such is the life of Bruce Jenkins, always thinking in terms of beef potential. “It ain’t my job to speculate, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they were both feeding a habit with this little caper of theirs.”

“It’s possible,” I allow. “There’s a lot of that going around.”

Bruce nods tragically. “Lost my own niece last year. No one had any idea. They just thought she was overworking herself.”

“My condolences,” I say, waiting to hear how Trossen will respond, but he only echoes my sentiments. I guess he doesn’t feel like mentioning Fletch, his kid cousin who did detailing at the Amherst garage. Trossen was a wreck for weeks after the funeral.

A tractor passes the window lugging a trailer of manure. The smell permeates the room. We sit and make small talk for awhile, twiddling our thumbs, before Bruce asks whether we mind if he makes a few calls.

“Of course not. You’re a busy man.”

I enjoy listening to him wheel and deal over the phone. Within five minutes of meeting the man you feel like you should invite him over to your next family function. His call with an associate by the name of Toader, however, is cut short, when the profile of a silver F-150 glides onto the camera monitor.

“You know what, Toad? I gotta bail right quick, but let’s work out a tee time for next week … Black Wolf, you got it. Take care.” He hangs up. With his hand still on the receiver he asks us, “How you wanna play this?”

I lean in toward the monitor. “The girl’s not with him. He came alone.”

“Is that bad?”

“Doesn’t have to be. We can make him think he’ll get a nice plea bargain if he implicates her in the theft. Let’s just hope he’s not a gentleman.”

“I keep a .45 in my bottom drawer,” Bruce notifies. “In case things go bad.”

“Things won’t go bad.”

We watch the suspect dismount and slam the door. He wears a snapback promoting Monster energy drink, sunglasses, an XL Spurs jersey, and baggy shorts. His lips are puckered like he might be whistling on his way up to the office. As a detective I can go plainclothes if I like, but I choose to be in uniform most days. If he’s guilty, just the sight of us might betray something on his face, and in this respect the young man doesn’t disappoint. When he swings open the door, it’s obvious every nerve in his body is signaling for him to flee. But common sense prevails.

“Afternoon, Lloyd,” Bruce greets him without rising from his chair, probably wanting to be close to that bottom drawer. “Right on schedule.”

“Yeah, well, I got a full day ahead, so . . .”

Trossen and I stand. “I’m Detective Mickey Fontanel. This is Officer Dean Trossen.”

“Okay?” Lloyd jams his hands deep inside his pockets. They look empty, but I ask him to remove them anyway. We were all screened the same chilling montage back in academy of police allotting too much trust or goodwill to an individual and paying the price. A gun can materialize from thin air, and by the time you recognize your oversight, it’s a moot point. All the footage was pulled from body cams and dash cams, lending a first-person culpability. It was enough to give anyone second thoughts. Exactly the point.

“We just want to ask you a few questions about your cows,” I tell him. “Mr. Jenkins here says they went for a good sum. Congratulations.”

“What’s this about?” Lloyd looks to Bruce. “Is this normal?”

Bruce replies, “No, it ain’t.”

Trossen invites Lloyd to take his seat.

“I don’t have a lot of time,” he repeats.

“Neither do we, Lloyd. We’re police officers. You think there aren’t other things we could be doing?” My voice is curt, offended. “Have a seat. We’ll make this quick.”

He and Trossen essentially switch spots, brushing past each other in the cramped space. Trossen now guards the door while the suspect slouches in a metal folding chair. I pull my own away from the wall and angle it toward Lloyd, the A.C. blowing in my face.

“So, what’s the problem?” he wants to know.

“Like I said, we’re interested in your cows.”

“They aren’t my cows.”

“Whose cows are they, Lloyd?”

“A friend of mine. He doesn’t like driving. He’s old.”

“He’s old,” I say. “So you’re doing him a solid by dropping off these cows and picking up the bid for him.”

He nods, fingers interlaced, shoulders hunched, still wearing his sunglasses.

“I’ll get that friend’s name from you in due time. First I want to know about that girl you rode along with yesterday. Does she know this friend of yours, too?”

He nods again, even as his mouth says, “No. She’s got nothing to do with this.”

“Nothing to do with what, Lloyd?”

“Nothing to do with the damn cows.”

“Why you cursing, Lloyd?“”

He shrugs and mutters under his breath, “Didn’t know this was a chapel.”

I grin at Trossen over by the door. “Didn’t know this was a chapel. You’re funny, Lloyd. You remind me of my son. Got a lip on you.” He offers no defense.

“What’s your daddy do, Lloyd?”

“Huh? He’s dead.”

“And your girlfriend? Where’s she at?”

“Home sick.”

“She’s homesick?”

“No, she’s at home not feeling well.”

“Uh-huh, and what’s your friend’s name? The old timer who doesn’t like driving?”

“Look.” Lloyd sits up straight, glaring at Trossen and me behind those ridiculous mirrored lenses. “Aren’t you two outside your jurisdiction anyway? I don’t see what Judson PD’s doing way the hell out here in Chilton. Shouldn’t y’all be like sheriffs or something?”

I cock my head. “Aren’t you getting a little sidetracked, Lloyd?”

“No. I know the system. I know what the rules are.”

“You know the system. Meaning you’ve been through the system?”

He doesn’t answer.

“Done a little time, Lloyd? There’s no shame in it.”

“What’s that got to do with anything? I never stole no cows.”

“When did I accuse you of stealing a cow? Or even a goat or a chicken for that matter?”

“You implied it. What else would you be doing here?”

“You tell me. Why would the Judson Bottom Police want to talk to you, Lloyd?” A question designed to be annoying.

“Beats me.”

“Let’s think of some reasons. Together. Let’s brainstorm why that might be.” I pluck a ball of lint off the knee of my pants. “Would it be because two Herefords and a Black Angus were stolen from a family farm yesterday? Would it be because I want to catch the daddyless dick smoker who decided he could leech off a pair of senior citizens and get away with it?”

“Who’s cursing now?” he scoffs.

I look at him long and hard, as though trying to guess his weight. “Take off those sunglasses, Lloyd. You look like you’ve got something to hide.”

“Maybe I do.”

Mouthy fucker. “Then you better hope whatever it is isn’t inside that truck, because Trossen here is about go and search it.”

“Where’s your warrant?” he demands on cue.

“Probable cause,” I say. “You’re the prime suspect in a larceny case. Thought you knew all the rules, Lloyd.”

“That’s bullshit.”

“You want me to slap cuffs on you right now?”

He leans forward and enunciates each impudent syllable in my face. “You-ain’t-got-nothing.”

“Alright, Lloyd.” I rise out of my chair in no great hurry. “Stand up, face the wall, and spread your legs. You know the drill, I suspect.”

“You’re arresting me?”

“No, I’m just gonna mark your height on the wall.”

He clutches his chair with white knuckles and doesn’t budge. I watch his Adam’s apple do a series of ugly lurches. “This is a joke, you know that? Talk about some ass-backward fuckin’ priorities. Here your town’s full of towelheads running around strapped with C4 and dirty bombs and you’re out here wasting time over a few cows.”

I blink at him, uncomprehending.

“What—you thought it was your little secret?” he laughs. “They’re talking about that shit in Fond du Lac!”

His expression switches from smug to livid as I wrench him off the seat by his collar and throw his under-beefed body against the wall. Trossen runs over. He helps anchor the rustler in place, suffering every obscenity launched in his face while I cinch the cuffs tight. I can feel Bruce immensely enjoying all of this behind me. Next I pat the kid down, feeling for the bulge of his keys, and hand them over to Trossen. “Search the truck,” I say, in the same tone of voice people usually reserve for fuck you.

When Trossen leaves, I manhandle Lloyd back into a sitting position and stand before him at a smart distance in case he lunges. “So, you’re from Fond du Lac then?”

He clams up, glaring off to the side.

“Back to the matter at hand. This friend of yours,” I say. “The one who supposedly owns the cows. I’m curious to hear his name. John Doe? Keyser Soze? Harvey the fucking rabbit? What’s his name, Lloyd?” I propel my words at his face on gobs of spit. “I met the people whose cows you stole. It was their whole livelihood—”

“I didn’t steal nothing.”

“There’s more decency in that old woman’s bunion than there is in a bottom-feeder like you. Anyone who’d throw the elderly out in the street to make a couple grand is liable to do anything in my book.”

Lloyd cracks a smile. “Listen, Detective, I understand you need a big bust right now. Something to distract from that major fuck-up of letting a homegrown terrorist slip away unnoticed. But I don’t think the papers are going to be too impressed by me. I mean, I’m not exactly bin Laden.”

“I’ve got to say, Lloyd, I agree with you there. What you are,” I poke him hard in the chest, “is a shit kicker. A shit kicker who mugs old ladies. And that fourth cow you showed up with on surveillance, I bet deep down she’s pretty disgusted by you.”

“The fuck you just say?” Lloyd pounces, but I’m ready for it and shove him down so hard his head knocks against the wall. I know it must hurt, because his eyes start watering, but he refuses to acknowledge the pain. He sees my hand settle on my TASER and thinks better of trying again. The door opens. Trossen enters. In his left hand he wields a big mean revolver and a baggy full of pills. Lloyd’s face blanches.

“Goddamn, Lloyd,” I whistle. “That’s one gnarly gun. What is that, a .38? Hand me those pills a sec, Trossen.” I roll them over in my hand. They are little red pills that have OP engraved on one side and 60 on the other. Strong stuff, albeit the gel kind you can’t inject or snort. The other stuff, marked OC, is getting harder to find, but they enjoyed a long enough reign turning Judson Bottomers into the walking dead.

Once Lloyd is loaded in the back of the cruiser, I double back and shake Bruce Jenkins’ hand, thanking him for his break in the investigation.

“It’s all part of my job,” he insists, a man of practiced humility, which is more admirable than when it comes naturally. “Goes with the territory.” He points to Lloyd’s profile in the window and says, “Be careful out there, Detective. Maybe I’m watching the news too much—wife says I am—but it seems like the world’s gone nuttier than it used to be.”

“Believe me, I’ve noticed.”

He catches me by the elbow as I’m about to turn and go. Trossen is waiting, leaned against the big blue propane tank. “I just feel like I should say, Detective—it’s none of my business, and I only hear what passes through the rumor mill—but nobody I know blames the police for not catching that Muslim kid. I mean, unless you’d been watching him 24/7, how could you have known?”

A low panicked moo warbles across the plain, along with dirt odors and manure and the sweet smell of grass. The sun warms every follicle on my head down to the root. When Lloyd chose to prevaricate back there by bringing up Ismael, I worried about damage control, but I guess it was nothing Bruce hadn’t heard already. He and how many others? Like I said, secrets are notoriously short-lived in Judson Bottom. Tired of squinting, I put on my sunglasses and give Jenkins a pat on the shoulder. “Take it easy, Bruce.”

Then Trossen and I board the cruiser and we’re off.

Motorcycling has always been a quasi-meditation. Meditation for the restless, I call it. Meditation in motion. It brings the same illusion of transcendence. You can watch yourself spiraling away from whatever lay behind you, and you don’t have to think about turning around for as long as you don’t want to.

I guess I bought my first bike (an ’83 Yamaha 550 Seca, not something I admit to other Harley riders) simply because I knew it would drive the old man nuts. We lived in Wauwatosa, a Milwaukee suburb where Gavin and I grew up and went to school. A car just didn’t have the same appeal, no matter how much more practical it would prove in the wintertime. I could always bum Gavin’s car or hitch a ride from a friend. Our dad was not a gearhead at all. I had never seen him change his own oil. For that reason, Gavin and I gravitated toward monster truck rallies and stock-car derbies and generally anything loud or abrasive. The opposite of our father.

He spent his time writing fiction in the garage study where he could smoke his pot for inspiration and produce works about sordid love affairs he had never experienced, about brooding characters he would flee from in the street if he ever met one of them face to face. Sometimes employment suited him, but only when it entailed his being near other writers, real writers. He was a printer at the Journal Sentinel. He was an editor, anthologist, and essayist touting the virtuosity of better prose. And the whole time he would be slipping his own stories onto someone’s desk, irritating them, making a simpering fool of himself.

Our mother was the one who got her hands dirty. She didn’t have dreams beyond a family of her own, or at least didn’t make them known. That was the sort of woman our dad intentionally sought out. Too much creative ambition might stifle his own. She had a BA in finance and worked in the corporate office of Haversham Systems—coming home, making dinner, listening to my father’s stoned and fanatical blathering about some romantic world he had concocted. Gavin and I snuck into his study regularly to steal pot. He decorated it with a lot of pretentious crap he had no use for. Instead of tool boxes and air compressors, there were 18th century maps of Europe, even a Voltaire bust, I shit you not. At times we would read a few pages for laughs. It would start out as funny, then depressing, then turn downright revolting and we’d stuff the manuscript away, not bothering to check whether the pages were in order. Every protagonist was an idealized version of our father. Better-looking, misunderstood, virile, charismatic, cultured and desired.

One time Gavin decided to write a short horror story for a statewide Halloween contest. It ended up winning third prize, which amounted to fifty bucks worth of pizza coupons. Our father tried his best to beam and fawn over Gavin, but he had never won anything in his entire life, especially not for authorial output, and it sickened me that he couldn’t even be happy, really happy, for his own son.

I remember I would be out weeding or doing some other chore and watch him labor to push the mower across our flat lawn, cigarette dangling in his vermiform lips, whiny creases across his forehead, a pale paunchy figure with rail-thin arms and legs. I saw the way his forearms shook, the sweat blobs that formed around his love handles. In high-school I became something of a gym rat, working out four times a week, joining the wrestling team until I got kicked off for skipping too many practices to get high or take out girls on the Yamaha. In retrospect, I realize who it was I modeled myself after, not my father but one of his characters. I wanted him to see that I didn’t have to invent an alternative, more seductive reality. I could live it, and at the same time I could be a provider. I got a job as a house painter, did a few commercial buildings too, and started bringing in money. After I cashed my check I would give half of it to Mom right in front of him, though he would pretend not to notice, too consumed by his tortured, chin-scratching genius.

Despite the latent animosity between us, there was little confrontation. Gavin and I reserved that for each other. Come puberty, we were competitive over everything down to the slickest haircut. We dripped machismo. In the ninth grade we fell for the same girl. Her name was Sonia and she wanted nothing to do with either of us. She became less and less a person (neither of us knew her likes or dislikes, hobbies or desires) and more and more a status symbol, a prize. We hardly registered or cared that she was dating a handsome point guard. If I could just parlay a few words with her in the hallway, that would be enough to grossly exaggerate in my later telling to Gavin.

It upsets me to think of Sonia today. One reason is that her name has become Tosa lore. Five months before graduation, she went missing. Just up and disappeared. The point guard could provide a hundred alibis. There was a game that night, one at which she was supposed to be cheering him on. I was worried that a student might point out Gavin’s and my unhealthy obsession, but I don’t think anyone had noticed. Wauwatosans, I suppose, go on speculating to this day. That’s all they can do. Sometimes I’ll go online and pull up the State Registry of Missing Persons just to look at her senior portrait. I remember how the image haunted everyone when yearbooks came out. Sonia was already long gone by then. Dahmer was still a fresh horror in all our minds, but the consensus of the police seemed to be human trafficking. There had been a rash of it nationwide. My friend’s dad was a lieutenant, so he was privy to all the official conjecture. A body never turned up.

It’s a hard thing for a community to digest, let alone her parents. How many different wallpapers in how many anonymous bedrooms had Sonia’s eyes taken in before, mercifully, she’d reached her use-by date, before she was of no more profit to her captors? Between sessions, how many closets or trunks or trailers had she been stashed away in, like some Kinky Times apparatus without a soul? Sonia Matterwahl. Missing since: 02/22/94. There were people who viewed her enough as an object to be able to deconstruct her like that, deconstruct her like Gavin and I did.

Which I guess is another reason her memory gnaws at me.

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