I met Ellen the night of the homecoming celebration in my freshman year of college. Make no mistake, the rumors were true: she was bat-shit crazy, no question about it.
Some kids and I were listening to the band play in a tent near the massive bonfire. It was early October and the weather had turned unusually cold, even for that time of year. It had started raining just a little, but the water drops were like ice. To keep ourselves warm the five of us were surreptitiously passing a bottle of vodka back and forth and staying as near to the fire as we dared without leaving the shadows, all the while keeping a watchful eye on the faculty, the sisters in their habits, and the student advisors.
“Watch out, here comes Nutty-Bars” said Zam with a sly grin. Thinking this was some term for a professor that I was unaware of (perhaps the health and nutrition teacher), I quickly stuffed the bottle under my coat and scanned the crowd for an authority figure, but saw none that I recognized.
“Who?” I asked.
“Ellen,” said Karin with a derisive laugh. “Ellen Wolford. She’s nuts.” That’s when I saw her. She wasn’t a student. She wasn’t even a member of the faculty. No, she was something else altogether. I judged her to be in her early 40’s with a short professional-looking haircut and a plain, forgettable face. She stood on the outskirts of the major gathering of the student body and she rocked back and forth in an awkward and uncoordinated dance to the music, all the while holding a rabbit to her chest.
“What’s with the bunny?” I asked.
“She never goes anywhere without it,” said Adam.
“Well, what’s she doing here? She’s not a professor or something, is she?”
“No,” said Karin. “She’s just some crazy woman. But she loves that stupid animal. She goes everywhere with it. She even enrolls it in classes here and then carries it all across campus and sits in on lectures while holding the rabbit and whispering to him.” I found this a little hard to swallow and my instincts told me that this was some sort of practical joke my friends were playing on me to see how gullible I was. That was the sort of thing my group did, testing the limits to how far we could stretch a prank and seeing how much we could each put up with in the name of good humor. Even as we spoke there was a plan to get Zam just a little bit too drunk to notice all the powdered sugar we had put in her sheets back in her dorm. I decided to take the cautious route and play along for now while not committing to anything and trying to trip them up in their own story.
“Yeah right,” I said, feigning disbelief. “So does the college actually take this women’s money for the rabbit’s tuition?”
“I don’t know,” chimed in Eric, “but don’t let her catch you. She’ll talk your ear off about the rabbit– she never shuts up.” At this point I couldn’t imagine what they were trying to pull, but I knew that they had to have some sort of end game in mind. I tried diverting. “Huh. She does sound nutty,” I said and then took out the bottle, took a long swing, and passed it to Zam.
“Seriously,” said Eric. He paused to take a drink and then passed it back to Zam again. “She will talk your ear off. Watch out.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” I said with a grin and stared into the fire.
Later that night the five of us were sitting on the play structure in the park right next to campus. The RAs patrolled around the college but never left its borders, so it was a safe place to drink and smoke. The trick was to get back into the dorms without getting caught. This usually meant waiting until around 3:00 A.M. when the RAs went off duty. Tonight, however, there were rumors that the R.A.s were pulling a late shift, so we were stuck in the cold deep into the night. Zam and I were passing a cigarette back and forth. She was pretty drunk at this point and kept giggling and pretending to smoke from the lit end. It was very cold and we had started trying to think of the best way to get back to our beds.
“We could call Luke and see if he would open his window for us,” said Eric.
“It’s 3:30 in the morning,” Karin reminded him. “He let us do it last week, but he was pretty mad about us waking him up in the middle of the night. Besides, I don’t trust him. He’s always brown-nosing Sister Clara. He’d be just as likely to report us as help us…”
“Shhhh! What was that?” whispered Zam.
“Your drunk,” I said.
“Shhhhhhhhhh! I hear something,” she said. Sure enough, she had. There was a figure making its way through the dark towards the playground.
“No, no, no! It’s got to be one of the teachers!” Eric gowned. With fits of giggles we all scrambled to get up and run, but I didn’t get very far. I launched myself onto my feet and tried to take my first step but found myself slammed back onto the wooden planks. Surprised, I looked around for the cause and found to my horror that in a continuation of our practical jokes, one of my companions had tied my shoelace to the metal bars. I’d been too drunk to notice.
I swore loudly as I felt a rising pain in my knee and I tried to untie my laces in the dark. The vodka and the cold made my fingers clumsy and I couldn’t free myself from the bars. Fuming and silently cursing my friends, I continued to try and free myself as I watched them dart over a hedge (Zam falling over it) and then across the street into someone’s yard, disappearing into the dark. And then the dark figure was upon me.
It was Ellen, still clutching the bunny to her chest. This was something of a relief since she was not a school official. However, I also didn’t know how she would behave, but I guessed that it wouldn’t be in my favor. I knew she was crazy and that I reeked of alcohol. The vodka bottle, which had been abandoned, had been knocked over and was spilling with loud gurgling sounds onto the gravel below. I hoped she wouldn’t notice me so I stayed perfectly still, but it seemed pretty unlikely that she could miss me.
Ellen clearly saw me and walked right up beside the play structure. “Hi,” she said as if it were perfectly normal to find college students tied by their shoelaces to the playground structure.
“Erm, hi” I said.
“I just think this playground is wonderful, don’t you?” she said. “I come here all the time with Clive.” She held the rabbit up. “Clive just loves it here. Mostly he likes the monkey bars, but sometimes he just likes to sit on top of the slide.” I was furious that my friends had deserted me. I’d banged up my elbow pretty bad, too, when I fell and it was bleeding. “I’ll laugh about this later” I reassured myself, but there was nothing funny about it now and I was still tied to the bar.
“I imagine that ‘Clive’ does have quite the affinity for the monkey bars,” I snapped, realizing just how crazy Ellen really was.
“Yes, he does,” said Ellen simply, apparently misconstruing my tone for sincerity. Man, that made me mad. There is nothing more aggravating than being an ass to someone who is too stupid to realize they are the butt of the joke. I was mad with my friends and mad that I had to make conversation with this stupid woman, so I decided to try another barb and, this time, I wouldn’t let her miss my meaning. “Yes, I can see that Clive is quite the athlete. I’m guessing he could win all kinds of races and do all sorts of pull-ups.”
“Yes, he was always athletic, even as a small boy,” she said. “He just loved physical activity. I suppose that’s one reason he joined the Marines right out of high school. He was barely 18, but Clive always loved physical challenges.” I finished untying myself and climbed down. “Yes, I can see he is one of those macho military types, but I didn’t think it would be Marines,” I said. “He looks more like a Navy Seal or army Rangers.”
“No. He’s a Marine,” she said firmly. “And a war hero.”
“Well, I’ve got myself untied now. Got to run. Nice meeting you,” I said, indicating I was going to leave one way or another. “Crazy bitch,” I added in an undertone.
“You know, people like you should be grateful for the sacrifices soldiers make for your freedom,” she said. “Clive was in the very first wave of soldier into Baghdad. He got there so early that there was still some of the Republican Guard left to fight off, not to mention the terrorist. Oh! Those terrorists! They just hate freedom. They’re animals– you just can’t reason with them.”
“That’s a really great story,” I said angrily. I knew there was no reason to get heated; she was just a crazy old lady but the situation was bad enough without a lecture on conservative racism and xenophobia. Besides, I was already in a foul mood. To my surprise, however, this time she seemed to understand that I was being disingenuous. What’s more, she didn’t seem perturbed by my anti-war sentiment.
“That’s how I felt, too, when Clive told me he was going to enlist,” she said, clutching the rabbit even closer to her. “And I never wanted him to go into the army, but he just told me, ‘ma, my country needs me.’ Of course, at the time I didn’t know how true that was. I made Clive promise that when he got back he would get a college education. I always told him it was one of the most important things in life. He was always such a good boy, so of course he promised.”
“That’s real great, Lady,” I said, tying my laces back up.
“When they came to my door and told me about the IED, naturally, I was terrified. They gave me some of his things to look after and the medals he’d won. But he was such a good boy. Now he goes to classes and even meets a few girls. He really loves it. I’m just so glad he’s back. War can do strange things to people.”
At this point I started to wonder what I was still doing there. It was time to go. “Well, buh-bye,” I said, fluttering my hand and bowing very low to the ground like an English butler. Then I stalked off without looking back, hopped over the hedge, and crossed the street to look for my friends. I was not at all sure if I would find them. I didn’t know where they had gone or if they had found a way back into the dorms without me. To my surprise, however, they were still on the soccer pitch waiting for me under the bleachers. I told them what happened. They found the story quite amusing and began to swap jokes about my ” romantic midnight rendezvous with the rabbit-lady.”
When they managed to stop laughing long enough to catch their breath Karin asked, “What was she doing on the playground in the middle of the night, anyway?”
“I dunno—she’s crazy. She said something about how much her rabbit liked to swing on the swing-set. It was weird.” They laughed some more at this and then asked if I’d brought back the vodka.
“No. It spilled when you all ran off,” I said.
“Oh, damn. That was out last bottle. We’ll have to get someone to buy more for us.”
I looked back across the street into the park. It was hard to make out from here, but it looked like a solitary dark figure was still there sitting in a swing and rocking back and forth, slowing dragging its feet on the ground.
“Common,” I said, starting to head back to the college. “If we can get back inside I still have a little Jim Beam from last week. No need for the party to end now.” As we headed out I realized that, it was kind of funny after all, and even made a few jokes at my own expense.