(her name wasn’t really Clytemnestra)
(also, it wasn’t really called Walmart Memorial)
The worst decision we ever made was to move into the old parsonage of Walmart Memorial United Methodist Church. I became the Music Director at Walmart Memorial in the normal fashion. I had been employed as the organist. When the Music Director of the church had his affair with the previous accompanist, the resultant coup d’etat left me installed as the new leader. I have obtained two Music Director positions in the same manner. Both of the men I followed had the lack of sense to have their affairs in the church building itself. When this happens in a charismatic church, I found that aside from the removal of the leader, there are accompanying purification rituals. The room where the sexual act took place has to be anointed with oil and prayed over in order to exorcize the sexual demons. Walmart Memorial was a run of the mill Methodist Church, so, a church lady with some Lysol handled the only anointing deemed necessary. The unfaithful Music Director had been renting the church’s old parsonage. As he put down the baton, he also decided to leave the house, and Jenn and I asked about renting it. The house was a little nicer than the Mafia house we were renting before. It was in a much better neighborhood, and there was no driving to work. I simply opened the back gate and walked fifty feet to the church.
I hadn’t anticipated that living so close to my workplace also implied that my workplace would also live close to me. People felt free to come through the back gate and knock on the door if they needed to get into the church after hours. I was also put at the head of the list of people that the police would call if the church’s alarm went off at two o’clock in the morning. However, it was within walking distance of Zachariah’s school. It wasn’t perfect, but it was better than what we had.
After we had lived there for a year or so, the president of the church choir casually asked me if I wanted a rabbit. The question began a flood of visual images. I thought of that Veterinarian with his bare finger jammed into the back of Ellafuqenfugal. I thought of our short- lived experiment with Jane, the runaway dog, who managed to crap from one end of our apartment to the other before its rightful owner claimed her. I thought of Ellington, the dog that my sister had dropped off in our back yard when she went to grad school. I thought of the hole that Ellington somehow managed to create by breaking through the boards of the wooden privacy fence in his escape. I thought of the drive around the neighborhood and the call to my sister when he couldn’t be found. I thought of the hamster that died. I said, “No, Clytemnestra. Domestic animals and I…don’t get along so well.” So, Clytemnestra went to Jenn and casually asked her if she wanted a rabbit. Jennifer came to me one day and casually asked me if I wanted a rabbit. I thought of that Veterinarian with his bare finger jammed into the back of Ellafuqenfugal. “Clytemnestra got to you,” I said.
“It would be good. We could teach the boys responsibility.”
“No. You know how we are with domestic animals.”
“But, don’t you want a cute little bunny rabbit.”
“No. We don’t do well with these sorts of things.”
“There’s nothing to do. It’s a rabbit, and the boys would love it.”
“It could be friends with our Guinea pig. You know rabbits and Guinea pigs are cousins.”
The conversation continued until we arrived at a compromise. Normally, one thinks of the word “compromise” as the place where each side gives a little and a new position is formed that is agreeable to both parties. In marriage, “compromise” means something different than what we usually mean when we use that word. She said, “Yes.” I said, “No.” So we “compromised” and got the rabbit.
I am constantly amazed at how the universe works. You do what you can to avoid problems, but, despite your best efforts, you awaken one day to find that you’ve killed your father and married your mother. The most inconsequential decisions can cast you into the hands of God and set into play a course of events that leads to your downfall. I don’t know that stabbing out your eyes with broaches like Oedipus is the best solution, but it seems as good as any other. I have always wanted to write a short story about a person whose whole life was transformed by some insignificant action. They might leave a pen on a desk or drink half a glass of water. Three days later, their entire life has changed because of the event. However, before I had a chance to write the story, I accepted a rabbit.
Of course, the “getting of the rabbit” was done with all the requisite ritual. A car ride, a visitation, a trip to the pet store. Clytemnestra and her daughter couldn’t keep the rabbit anymore, and they were “so delighted” that it could find a loving home. Clytemnestra called the rabbit “Bun Bun,” but Zachariah liked to call it “Hopper.” I don’t like that. If I named our animals after actions that they did or what they were like, I would have named it “Poop-er” or “Die-er.” Instead, I had to resort to the definite article and call it “The Rabbit.” This was a defense mechanism. I have always used the definite article to prevent myself from becoming emotional involved with animals. It was necessary in this case. The rabbit was pretty damned cute. “Hopper” entered our lives and followed the normal track of domestic animal life in our household.
Bun Bun is loved and adored by all. It freely scampers about the living room leaving little droppings on the floor. “Oh look how cute! It has little tiny poops,” they all say. “Let’s clean it up and watch it go again.” “Sweet little Bun Bun.” “I get to clean out the cage today!” “Look, Hopper, treats from the pet store!” I am amazed at the responsibility that the boys are learning.
Bun Bun is loved and adored by all. She stays in the cage next to the television only slightly more often. Three times during the week she is allowed to bounce around the living room and leave her fecal pellet trail. The boys follow driving their little “pooper-scooper” bulldozers along the parade route. There is less arguing over whose day it is to clean the cage.
Bun Bun spends the entire week in the cage. She doesn’t participate in any parades. When she is finally released, the clean up crew is nowhere to be found.
Bun Bun lives in the cage all the time. The joy of cleaning her excrement from the floor has somehow lost its luster. The cage does not get cleaned unless the children are forced to do it. I begin to see sorrow in the rabbit’s eye when I walk past the cage. Hopper begins to communicate with me telepathically when I am in the room. “Kurt, let me out of the cage. Let me poop on your floor. Remember how happy I was jumping and skipping and pooping? Why did you take that away from me? I am an animal from the woods. Woodland creatures like to go to the bathroom in lots of different places. I don’t like to pick a favorite toilet for my bowel movements, and you have made me go in this cage all week. I need to go in different spots. Kurt, you knew they would lose interest in me, but you still agreed. Should I have to suffer because of them? Help me, Kurt. Look into my adorable eyes. Please, please let me poop all over your floor.”
The cage is starting to smell. When it is my turn to feed the rabbit, I develop a routine whereby I can lift the lid of the cage and pour in the food and water without ever making eye contact. It’s very much like following the rules that men abide by in the bathroom using a public urinal. You are allowed to stare down or at the wall in front of you. You may not make eye contact, and conversation should be reserved for the hand washing time. When Bun Bun attempts to communicate with me telepathically, I thwart her efforts in actions that follow the Kubler-Ross stages of grief.
DENIAL – I walk into the other room pretending that I didn’t hear her talking to me.
ANGER – “Look,” I say, “I didn’t want you in the first place. It’s not my fault that you are in this situation. Quit talking to me, and talk to Jennifer and the boys.”
BARGAINING – “If I take you out of the cage, will you promise not to do anything that would risk our relationship? I feel that we are in a cooling off period right now, and physical contact would only damage something that is hanging on by a thread.”
DEPRESSION – “Why does this always happen to me? I should say, ‘No.’ Wait, I did say, ‘No.’ I didn’t really say it though. I ‘compromised.’ Now I have to walk around feeling guilty because I was the only one who knew what would happen, and I didn’t stop it.”
ACCEPTANCE – “Bun Bun?”
“I have come to terms with the fact that I am not a rabbit cage cleaner.”
“If you are going to live here, you will have to live here with someone who does not care for you like he should. It doesn’t mean that I don’t love you. I’m sorry that I can’t treat you in the way that you deserve. I’m sorry that you can’t live like your forest friends and poop wherever and whenever you want, but I have needs too. Right now, at this point in my life, I have a need not to have little pellets of poop all over my floor. The only way I see that happening is if you stay in the cage.”
Her tears begin to flow, and I ask, “Do you still want to stay?”
“Yes,” she answers.
“Even though you know what that means?”
So, Bun Bun stayed and lived next to the TV set. Her cage was cleaned out occasionally, and she did her best not to give me that look with the big eyes and the pouty lip. When she attempted the occasional emotional power play, I simply reminded her of the agreement that she had made. We did our best to continue our tenuous cohabitation with as little drama as possible.
Time went by in its own inimitable way at the parsonage. We lived, ate and drank, went to work, and did all those other things that people do when they take up residence in a domicile. This domicile was different, however, because it was owned by a church. Around two years after we moved into the house, the members of the church’s Board of Trustees began to get nervous. The Trustees got a notion into their collective heads that Kurt and Jennifer’s lifestyle might have been a little more bohemian than they anticipated when they first rented the property to them. I’m not sure if it was neighbors complaining about beer bottles and cigarette butts being left on the front porch or the gigantic pit that had been dug in the back yard. I originally dug the pit to fill sand bags during a hurricane evacuation. The same two engineers that used to drive “pooper-scooper” bulldozers behind “Hopper” subsequently expanded the hole. The canyon in the backyard had reached mammoth proportions. Aside from the neighbors and the pit, I was also received news from an informant that a certain man on the Trustees Committee was very offended that I didn’t tuck in my shirt very often during the week. Whatever the reason for the displeasure, I was informed that the Trustees Committee was forming an inspection team to take a tour of the house. They would make sure that we were keeping our house in a manner that would befit a Methodist Music Director. The inspection team would report back to the Trustees Committee. The Trustees would then assess whether or not the church was being a good steward of its property by renting the house to its rather unkempt Music Director and his family. The inspection team informed us that it would arrive on a Monday night in the near future. We began to make preparations for the arrival of the group that we affectionately called “The House Nazis.”
Our cleaning process followed the pattern we had established early in our marriage. When a great cleaning needs to take place, you wait until the contractions are about two minutes apart, rush out to buy a twelve pack, and stay up for two or three days getting the work done. An entire weekend was spent in a cleaning/sleep depravation experiment. The carpet was in such poor condition that we decided to rip it up and expose the terrazzo. Bedrooms were cleaned, floors were mopped, and extraneous material was piled in the garage. Bun Bun was moved during the process. She was temporarily placed in the back yard in the first phase of a cage relocation project. Monday morning arrived late and found the house cleaned several hours before the inspection that night. The current of people that flowed from the church through the back gate had swollen a little from a mild rain of problems that morning, and I invited them into the house showing off its clean-shaven face. Clytemnestra the Rabbit Giver even meandered through the fence to borrow something from the garage. The church used our garage as a storage facility for old props, chairs, and a large wooden cross. Jenn arrived home from her job managing a bank. We ate dinner and waited in confidence and hatred for the arrival of the House Nazis.
They arrived in a group of six or seven with their uniforms and insignias hidden beneath every day clothes. The women in the group were even nice to us. It was the sickening, saccharine “nice” that people with authority use to assuage their conscience. It was a judge smiling at you and telling you you’re having a good hair day before she passes the sentence of your jail term. The whole inspection only took about half an hour and was handled cordially. Afterward, we shook hands, and they told us they would be in touch with us soon. We knew we had passed inspection as we sat on the couch in relief. The relief was tempered by the feeling that a group of people had been peering into the corners of closets where they weren’t welcome. If your parents see you naked after you’ve reached a certain age, you know that you shouldn’t feel violated. At the same time, you wish they hadn’t seen you. The inspection team was just doing its job for the Trustees, but I wouldn’t trust them to follow the rules at the urinal anymore. They would probably talk and look sideways.
I awoke the next morning to a clean house and the sense of emancipation that accompanies the end of an ordeal. After getting Jennifer off to work and the boys off to school, I walked out the back door to make the fifty-foot trip to work. I turned to the left and looked over at little Bun Bun in her cage. Little Bun Bun was making eye contact, but she wasn’t talking. As I approached the cage, I found that her eye was pressed against the side of the cage in a non-blinking stare. Her eye was surrounded by a body that was lying upside down. Rigormortis had already set into legs that were pointing into the air in a death pose. It looked as trite as a cartoon. When I noticed the first flies accumulating around the hasenpfeffer, I thought to myself, “Oh, no! I have to get rid of that before the boys come home from school.” Fortunately, I had already worked through the Kubler-Ross stages of grief many months before and was emotionally unaffected by the loss. I formulated a plan: Go to work for a few hours, come back, and bury the rabbit during my lunch hour. I continued the remaining forty feet into the narthex of the church. A few seconds later, my life began to change dramatically.
When I opened the church doors, I was surprised to find Clytemnestra waiting for me. “Hi, Kurt,” she said smiling. “When I came over yesterday, I couldn’t help noticing that little Bun Bun’s cage hadn’t been cleaned out in a while. So, yesterday after work, I went to the pet store and bought some fresh bedding and rabbit treats at the pet store. Do you mind if I go into your backyard and clean out her cage and give her some special treats?” The thought of that eye pressed against the side of the cage flashed briefly in my mind before I responded very matter of factly, “Clytemnestra, the rabbit’s dead.” I walked away. It really was no big deal to me. I was never attached to the rabbit. I cared little whether it was alive or dead, and it was probably happier now making little rabbit poops all over the forest in bunny heaven.
I arrived home at lunch and managed with the aid of some gloves to fit the rabbit into an old shoebox. The boys and I buried the now beatified hare near a tree. We sang a truncated requiem and moved on with our lives. On Wednesday, I prepared for choir practice. The leader of the House Nazis who doubled as an alto informed me that we had passed the inspection with one caveat. Our garage wasn’t clean enough. I wondered what the garages of the inspection team looked like. I wondered if the church had stored props from old plays in their garages like they had in ours. I wondered why Clytemnestra had not shown up to choir. She was the president after all. I asked the pastor’s wife about Clytemnestra. “Kurt,” she said, “someone found Clytemnestra in the church yesterday. She couldn’t go to her other job. She had been crying for about two hours over the death of the rabbit. Apparently her daughter also missed a day of work because she developed a migraine after hearing of the rabbit’s death. She is so angry at you that she wouldn’t come to practice.”
I was in shock. Clytemnestra had always been a United Methodist as long as I had known her. How was I to know that hiding underneath that Wesleyan exterior was a smoldering mixture of St. Francis and Ghandi with chunks of the Buddha bubbling up to the surface? I went home and told the whole story to Jenn, and we took turns in an incredulity contest. “She missed work over this?” “Her daughter missed work too?” “Over a rabbit!?” We took turns shaking our heads in amazement and disbelief.
I found Clytemnestra waiting for me again in the narthex when I arrived for work the next day. She said very curtly, “We need to talk.” We agreed to meet on Sunday night. I’m not exactly sure when Jennifer started singing the “Kill the Wabbit” adaptation that Carl Stalling wrote from Wagner’s “Valkyrie” leitmotif for the Warner Bros. Cartoon “What’s Opera, Doc?”, but it probably began around this time. It continued as my personal leitmotif for the next few months. I began to prepare myself, as best I could, for the Sunday night confrontation. I briefly considered a combative approach where I would cite some Protestant source that proved that animals didn’t have eternal life. I eventually decided to gird myself with as much Christian charity as I could pray up on two days notice. I would not argue. I would do nothing but apologize for the wrong I had done. This was a difficult beam to balance. I didn’t think I had done anything wrong. I figured that in some cosmic sense, it would have been better to have one living rabbit in a cage in the back yard of my house than a dead one buried under a tree. I could, therefore, apologize for unbalancing the universe to that degree, and pray that I would be able to patiently bear up under any abuse without overreacting.
I entered the office where we agreed to meet and positioned myself in a chair. I paid careful attention to my body language, attempting to strike a pose that suggested a balance between an eager listener and a remorseful contemplative. I looked up to meet Clytemnestra’s eye and hear her concerns.
Clytemnestra exploded upon me like a wounded animal in a paroxysm of fury. She began screaming at the top of her lungs in anger. The comfortable distance between us quickly eroded as she rushed me and placed her face six inches from my own. Epithets were zooming around the room too quickly for me to anticipate. She was pacing again, but still screaming and not waiting for any response. I used the temporary space between us to brace myself for the next onslaught. Round one dealt with the horror that Bun Bun endured in her final hours. She screeched about how living in the unclean cage had made Bun Bun incontinent. She was six inches from me again and wailing about the suffering that Bun Bun experienced. All was good thus far. I could certainly apologize for the suffering and the incontinence. I wasn’t sure how she had such intimate knowledge of the rabbit’s urinating frequency by simply walking through the back yard, but I felt that asking about it wouldn’t be appropriate at this point. I offered my simple apology for the rabbit’s death. Round 2 began. Her voice came in the short, sharp barks of a dog that has been bread too small. It had to do with the wider implications of the rabbit’s death. You see, the rabbit’s death under my care meant all sorts of things that I never realized when I first accepted the animal by saying “No, Clytemnestra. Domestic animals and I…don’t get along so well.” The rabbit’s death meant, according to Clytemnestra, that I was a bad husband, a terrible father, that I was doing psychological damage to my children, and it even had implications concerning the veracity of my Christian faith. She alternated the space between her face and mine occasionally from six to eighteen inches. The vocal range spanned a dynamic from screaming to yelling.
Rounds three through eight continued over the next forty-five minutes. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you much about the content of those events because of the peculiar form of Walter Midi Syndrome from which I suffer. Unlike Walter himself, I do not go off to hunt elephants in Africa. I am a musician. I first begin to lose interest in what someone has to scream at me when the sound of the voice becomes more interesting than the content of the speech. From there, I become fascinated by simple superficial appearances. As bellowing and berating continued, I escaped into my thoughts.
“Hmm. That sentence was a major third from the highest yell to the lowest – She’s really yelling loudly – I wish I could get her to use that kind of support and diaphragmatic breathing in choir – How could someone get this angry over a rabbit – That sentence spanned a major sixth – She’s really getting angry now – Look how weird people look when they are angry – It’s sort of like when their sad – Perfect fourth, must be settling down – The face contorts and almost doesn’t look human – Look at the spittle in the right corner of her mouth – No! Don’t look at the spittle! Maintain eye contact - Has it really been forty-five minutes? – Is this ever going to end?”
It did end, but Clytemnestra had saved a surprise for round nine. It began, and I prepared myself for the conclusion. Not a great match, but I had at least withstood forty-five minutes of screaming (the likes of which I hadn’t experienced since Mrs. Murray attempted to kick me out of the Junior Beta Club in seventh grade). The bell sounded and Clytemnestra calmed her tone of voice when she left her corner. I relaxed momentarily and she surprised me with an uppercut that jarred me out of my introspection. “So anyway, I’ve been collecting negative comments about you from around the church for the past six months, and I will be presenting them to the Personnel Committee tomorrow night.” With that, she walked out of the room. I walked home and told Jenn who responded with a rousing chorus of “Kill the Wabbit.”
As my informant later reported, the meeting on the following night included a tale of operatic proportions about a savage music director who accepted a rabbit. The plot of the gruesome tale was recited very effectively replete with dramatic pauses and tears. In addition to rabbit killing, I was also guilty of several other sins that, if not mortal, were certainly enough to warrant some sort of action. Clytemnestra had recruited another choir member as well as the ultimate authority of the church – the pastor’s wife. I was guilty of being organizationally challenged, not being friendly enough with some of the singers, and not smiling enough. A few days after the meeting, I received a letter that outlined all of my spiritual maladies. The chief of my problems was that I “didn’t smile enough.” It was from a choir member that agreed with Clytemnestra. The letter included a list of sins of which I was supposedly guilty. Each sin had been deduced and enumerated in Holmesian fashion from the single clue of my “smile-less” countenance. Several weeks later, the letter writer apologized and confessed that she had really only complained to the committee and written the letter because she was upset about the rabbit. Another Methodist bodhisattva had infiltrated the ranks of the church committee to defend the cause of Christ-like conies. The apology was tantric – much appreciated, but it came late. The committee had already decided to take action.
First, they decided to write a job description for me. Second, I was to be put on an action plan. Strangely absent from the action plan were any attempts to curb my callous treatment of rabbits. The action plan had more to do with setting up an extra rehearsal and having regular office hours. The pastor attempted to counsel me about the smiling problem, but his apologetic manner suggested that he found the charge too ridiculous to take seriously. I suggested some kind of joy-o-meter or smile-o-meter to aid in the evaluation process. I even reminded him that the book of Ecclesiastes says that “a sad face is good for the heart,” but the real problem was that the accusation about not smiling was true. I was on an action plan at work because a rabbit died in my back yard. There is almost nothing in the whole world that can drive away your joy like being evaluated as a poor music director because of bad animal husbandry. As the job description portion of the plan progressed, my representative on the committee attempted to get the church to acknowledge that I had been putting in sixty hours a week for over a year. The church had me listed as a part time employee working thirty hours a week. A second meeting took place where my advocate argued that I should be made a full time employee and given a raise. Something good had finally emerged from my insensitivity to long-eared animals. I awaited the results with eager anticipation. I began to see God’s purpose in letting Bun Bun live and die with us. Bun Bun had given her life so that I could get a raise. I felt the smile-o-meter’s needle climbing.
The next day, the pastor called me. “Kurt, something totally unanticipated happened at the meeting last night. They didn’t approve the raise. They decided that you are going to continue at your same salary through November 1st at which point you will no longer be employed by the church.”
“Are you serious,” was the response that erupted from my mouth after several moments of silence spent attempting to process the information.
“Yes. I didn’t see this coming at all. I guess you better let your people know.”
I spent the rest of that day calling all the members of the band at the church and attempting to explain what had happened. It was not very easy.
“Hey, Pythias. Do you have a second?”
“Ummm. I got fired at the church.”
“Yeah. The Personnel Committee decided that I should be employed through November 1st. After that date, I will no longer be employed by the church.”
“I’m not really sure. They didn’t say. We had been working on a job description, and there have been some problems.”
“When did this all start?”
“About a month ago.”
“Well, do you remember that rabbit that Clytemnestra gave me?….”
I received a phone call from the pastor again the following afternoon. He was more agitated than he had been the previous day. “Kurt, the office has been flooded with calls, and I’ve had meetings with people who are extremely angry. Are you telling people that the church fired you?”
“You can’t tell people that!”
“But, you did fire me.”
“You need to tell people that you resigned.”
“But I didn’t resign! You terminated my employment. You don’t get to do that and then tell everyone that I resigned.”
Another personnel committee meeting was assembled. This time, all of the people in the music program that thought I was doing a wonderful job were told about the meeting and were permitted to attend. At the end of a long boring talk where S.P.C.A. members were not allowed to raise issues, the committee decided that I should be re-hired, and my termination date was revoked.
The church and I continued in our relationship only as lovers who have broken up and tried to remain friends. It was like trying to live with a rabbit after you’ve agreed not to clean out her cage very often. It lasted a few short months. Jenn and I bought a house and moved away from the inspection team. Unfortunately, a disgruntled member of the committee (who had worked so hard to get me fired) soon claimed that we had not paid our first and last months rent. He simply garnished my wages without telling me. This resulted in a phone call during which he started screaming at Jennifer. I resigned the next day.
I’m really more bewildered than bitter when I reflect on the fact that I lost a church job by killing a rabbit. I’ve worked through all my forgiveness issues even after the church threatened to sue me for possession of the music that I wrote while I was employed there. As a family, we’ve worked our way through a few more domestic animals as well. After Bun Bun died, we lost Guiness the Guinea Pig, Spike the Florida Scrub Lizard, one mouse that died in a cage, one mouse that crawled out of it’s cage and was accidentally crushed to death by Jennifer during its capture, and Scratcher the Turtle who was released into a local lake. Our short experiment with a family fish tank ended after a trip to the fair. The boys won gold fish as prizes at the ring toss. When inserted into the family tank, the Carny fish consumed the pet store fish in one night. We took our anger out on the Carny fish by putting Scratcher the Turtle in their tank. He finished off the Carny fish faster than the man at the ring toss can take your money. All of these animals have been gathered to their fathers without negative affect on my employment.
After taking two weeks off, I took an interim job at a charismatic Methodist church where the music director had just been terminated for having an affair with the accompanist.