And among the ruins were the cages of the English lops. The house had burned, yet the lop cages had been spared as they sat in a shed some fifteen feet from the house. The lops made not a sound as I approached. They all appeared unharmed in their cages. I'd settled on setting them free as it was a terrible thing to be unfree, and they had earned their liberty as far as I was concerned. Their metal cage doors were opened, and I simply coaxed them out with a hand. The lops were so docile that in spite of all that had passed some of them didn't seem particularly moved to secure their freedom. They were all set free but one: a particular English lop who was so dapper in appearance and so amiable that I thought I just had to keep him. In the distance I heard the shotguns blasting as the hunters were returning home.
As I returned to the Ford, I wondered what it meant to transform oneself. If it happened suddenly or slowly and by degrees. In the backseat I set down the cage with Milos inside, as that was what I'd decided to name him, and I revved up the Ford's engine. Ford set in motion, I returned to the interstate and made a path for the office. The top earning employees for the month would be posted in the office window at the real estate company where I worked, and the managers would also have chosen our office's Real Estate Agent of the Month. I didn't find my name there.
When I reached the apartment, I walked into the kitchen where I set Milos's cage down. Milos is an English lop, a breed which some commonly mistake for a wild rabbit. English lops are a distinct breed of rabbit, and like all lops, they are entirely domesticated and have come about by a process of selective breeding. They have floppy long ears, but otherwise have the appearance of rabbits. Milos's cage set down, I marched into the bathroom near the kitchen. I wanted to inspect how my last eight weeks of anabolics were doing. I pulled up the ends of my flannel shirt and I counted eight trapezoidal abs: one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. But I didn't have those muscles that dive under the line of your pants like on the Tommy Hilfiger underwear package. Besides being named Real Estate Agent of the Month at the real estate office, this was another thing I wanted to be completely happy.
I called Max twice on his mobile. He didn't pick up either time, so I left a message after the second try. "Max," I said. "The product from Tijuana you gave me isn't strong enough. I need another box of Anavar. And if you've got Test and Tren, I'll take that too. I don't have those muscles that dive down. You know what I'm talking about. Call me."
I left the bathroom, angrier than when I'd gone in, and I returned to the kitchen where Milos was happily chewy on a long hair of grass I'd given him and regarding me disinterestedly out of the corner of his eye. I turned on the oven, since I'd have the usual three grilled chicken breasts for dinner. I'd have to defrost them, or else I could put them frozen on the grill in the oven, but I didn't like to do that. Max called me right as I was placing the breasts on the grill. I was closing the oven door just as Max was saying: "I got your message." I told Max I was angry because my abs were looking subpar, and earlier that day my grandmother's house had burned down.
"You grandmother's house burned down with you inside?" asked Max. "Jesus Christ."
"No, Max. I got a call from the police and they said there was a fire. This is the house I inherited when my grandmother moved to Florida. Do you have any Anavar, Max?"
"Just more of the Tijuana supply that you don't want," said Max. "Wait, wait. I have a box from Canada, but this is for someone else."
"Max, you stayed at my house when you were going through your divorce," and I convinced Max to sell that box of Anavar to me.
Natalie, one of the partners at my real estate firm, returned to our table at the restaurant after a trip to powder her nose. I was meeting her for dinner as I was adamant about being named Real Estate Agent of the Month for the subsequent month, and I knew that step one toward obtaining that goal was buttering up the right kind of people. Isn't that how life works? Natalie, still relatively young, was known to be one of the primary players in determining who was selected for the office honor.
"I thought we'd order a nice Riesling," Natalie said as she returned to her chair.
The waiter appeared right on time to pull her chair out for her.
"Thank you," said Natalie. "What do you think, Michael?"
"Actually, a Riesling was just what I had in mind," I replied. "You know what they say. Great minds."
"Yes," said Natalie. "I'd prefer an older vintage, if you're okay with that. A 2016 if they have it. I wonder how far back they go."
"Waiter," I shouted, and I pretentiously waved a single finger, as people do when they ask to see the wine list.
The waiter promised to return with the wine list, and Natalie and I got to talking. She intimated that there were all sorts of factors that went into being chosen Real Estate Agent of the Month. There were the top earners. There were the agents who were well-liked by clients and specifically requested for listings and showings. And then there was the simple truth that the person named Real Estate Agent of the Month had their image displayed in the office window, and at times made it onto a billboard. No one wanted to admit it, but it helped if an agent had a particular look that might attract business, or so Natalie told me. The company's largest billboard stood right in view of a busy highway exit. Most people coming into town saw that billboard, along with the name of the company, the company's four-star rating in the industry, and sometimes the Real Estate Agent of the Month.
Natalie and I each enjoyed a glass of our 2016 Riesling when a suitable bottle was finally found. We'd already finished our dinner. The headlights of the cars flashed momentarily in the restaurant windows as the cars drove past, and the light from the streetlamps ambled in, casting fantastic and alarming silhouettes: of English lops that had taken on the shapes of men. Afterward, Natalie and I split the bill and returned to the street to await our cars, brought round by a valet: first Natalie's, then mine. As Natalie stepped into her car, I politely shook her hand and thanked her for the advice, since that was ostensibly what we'd come for.
It was late when I returned home, as I'd driven around aimlessly for a time. I'd noticed the people leaning out of their house windows to yell inexplicably at passersby on the street. Outside my apartment building, a woman was smoking a Lark, which is an old-fashioned kind of cigarette. I found Milos in his cage in the kitchen, and it was unclear to me if he was asleep or awake. His enormous ears mostly covered his face. I'd decided to put him in the spare room I'd designated as an office. I'd set down several sheets of newspaper and hay to remind him of his former home in the country.
The subsequent morning, I awoke twenty minutes before my alarm went off. Shortly afterward, I received a call from Max who suggested I pick up the Anavar before I went to work that morning. I didn't have to be in until nine, but I liked to be early to give the impression that I cared. When I passed the ajar door of the office, I noticed that Milos's cage was open and that he didn't seem to be anywhere in the room. The panic didn't last long. He had to be in the apartment somewhere, and I'd mount a search for him when I returned to the apartment at the end of the day. It would be an uneventful day. There were no property showings on my schedule, and I had to sit and listen to the whines of the other agents who also found themselves in the doldrums. I took an early lunch, ordering a roast beef sandwich in a cafe a short distance away from my office in town. From my usual window seat, I could see the passersby. There were the usual office workers in their suits, and the college students hanging about with nothing much to do. Then I came across something rather strange. I saw an English lop walking on the sidewalk across the street from the cafe. He walked on two legs like a man, wore a business suit, and carried a briefcase. I knew it was Milos, and though I'd stood up suddenly upon seeing him, it required great presence of mind to not shout his name and bang my fist excitedly on the cafe window to get his attention. A woman asked me if anyone had taken the seat beside me, and I turned to speak with her briefly. When I turned round again, Milos was gone.
It was a slow afternoon, though I was contacted by two new clients and managed to arrange several showings for later in the week. In spite of the good fortune, all I could think about was returning home and searching for Milos. As five o'clock neared, I received a phone call at my cubicle from the dentist's office. "We hope you haven't forgotten your appointment for six o'clock," said the dental assistant in a depressing monotone. I had, and the search for Milos would have to wait until I got home. "And make sure you arrive at the office at least fifteen minutes before your appointment." The dentist was some ways outside of town, and I clocked out early for the day.
"What brand of mouth wash do you use?" asked an employee at the dentist's office as I sat in the waiting area.
They were performing surveys on the patients waiting to be seen. A woman with teased brown hair sat in the corner reading "Diary of a Madman and Other Stories," as the survey takers had not yet reached her.
"Mm-hmm. And do you use a toothpaste containing sodium lauryl sulfate?"
"No, should I?" I asked.
As the employee formulated a reply, I noticed a tall figure emerging from a door that led to the examination rooms in back. It was Milos, and he was joking with a female employee who regarded him with rapt attention. Milos had a calm, confident, but also somewhat deliberate mode of ambulating, as if he was conscious of how a man should walk. He affected a posture of being perfectly at ease and managed to give the impression of someone who'd be a natural leader of men.
"Do you know him?" I asked the employee who'd been taking my survey responses, pointing at the English lop.
"That's Milos English," said the woman. "He's a new patient, and all the employees are so taken with him. He's so handsome."
"You think he's handsome?"
"I do. I mean, look at his ears. They're so long and seductive. Like two limp sausages covered in fur."
I left the dentist's office, promising to call later to reschedule. It didn't spare me from running into Milos English, as he called himself, throughout the coming weeks. Firstly, I didn't find any sign of an appropriately-sized English lop during a cursory search of my apartment, so Milos had certainly escaped. And once I'd accepted that fact, I had also to accept that I was likely to be seeing Milos again, in upright form, as he seemed to have set himself to insinuating his way into my life in a fashion both seamless and insidious. And he did it all without acknowledging my existence or the connection that we had hitherto had as owner and pet.
I was baffled when an email was circulated at work announcing that a new employee had been hired named Milos English, and that we might see him at upcoming showings and open houses. He'd be engaged in his own showings once he'd earned his real estate license, which he evidently hadn't obtained yet. I did indeed come across Milos dressed one time in a snugly-fitting suit and another time in a chamois overshirt in the office and at open houses, as I'd been warned. Attempts to speak one-on-one with Natalie or any of the other managers failed. I even attempted to speak with Milos himself. He had developed a habit of enjoying the delights of a French bakery at 2PM every afternoon, and one day I took a late lunch so our paths might cross.
Milos didn't acknowledge my presence behind him on line in the cafe, so I tapped him on the shoulder.
"Milos, what do you think you're doing?" I asked. "I order you to come back home."
"I'm sorry, but you seem to have mistaken me for someone else."
"You're a lop dressed as a human being and working at a real estate office."
"What an absurd thing to say," said Milos. "And if you're wondering what to order, I'd personally go with the croissants. They're made in the traditional Parisian style: flaky, buttery, and aromatic."
"Milos, I used to drive to that shed every day to feed you and the others."
"If you don't leave me alone, sir, I'll have no choice but to alert the police."
I left Milos at the bakery and returned to work. I continued to see Milos in town and around the office. A month passed, and insult was added to injury when on the drive home from a property showing I passed the office, where I learned from an announcement posted in the window that Milos English had been chosen Real Estate Agent of the Month.
I immediately swerved the car off onto a side street, eliciting the ire of the person who'd been driving closely behind me. The driver angrily honked his horn. I called Natalie, and to my surprise she picked up immediately rather than allowing the call to go to voicemail.
"Yes, Michael," she said.
"I don't understand how Milos English could be named Agent of the Month," I remarked without greeting her. "He's not even a human being."
"For all intents and purposes, he is a human being," said Natalie. "At least he speaks and carries himself like one. And the company Standard Operating Procedure doesn't specifically exclude lops from being named Real Estate Agent of the Month."
"That's a specious argument."
"No, it isn't a specious argument," said Natalie. "The SOP states that any agent at the firm can be named Real Estate Agent of the Month. And technically, an agent doesn't actually need to have a real estate license in order to be honored with an award, as the SOP only states that agents have to earn their license within 60 days of being hired."
"But he's a rabbit."
"Lops are distinct from wild rabbits, Michael," said Natalie. "They're perfectly domesticated, and you might say that in many regards they're better than people."
I told Natalie that I knew precisely what lops were, and I ended the call. When I reached home, I preheated the oven to prepare for the chicken breasts, and then I marched into the bathroom. I took off my suit jacket and pulled up my shirt to inspect my abs. They were still subpar. I left a message for Max and returned to the Ford. I kept my composure when I saw that the company billboard was being covered with a new picture that included Milos standing beside the partners. It wasn't long before I reached my grandmother's property. She'd deeded it to me as she was nearly eighty years old and didn't have the energy to look after it. It was a property that she and her husband, my grandfather, had gained through many years of labor. My grandfather had been born in a poor mining camp. He'd been born in a cabin with only three walls of logs as the fourth wall was the mountainside and the floor was of beaten earth.
I returned to the shed where the lops had been before. The bars of the lop cages had rusted after nearly two weeks' worth of rain. The English lops had all gone, or at least I thought they had. Just as I about-faced to leave, I became aware of a lop meekly grazing behind me. It was a female, and she avidly approached me when she gleaned the interest in my eyes. I named her Brenda, which was the name of a character from a book I'd read. I'd place her in a cage and bring her home. She eagerly approached the hand I held out to her. Her ears were preternaturally long, a characteristic desired by lop breeders, and she tripped over them as she neared me. Brenda didn't jump at the far-off blast of the hunting rifles. She was fearless. The hunters had done with their hunting and were returning home. But they continued to fire their rifles as they drove off in their jeeps. Their behavior was entirely absurd and beyond my comprehension.
Dedicated to the memory of Nikolai Vasilyevich Gogol, who died on March 4, 1852 (O.S. February 21)