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Charles Sternberg

Stuffy the Italian Pizza Rabbit

I check over my shoulder, tiptoe to the door and poke my head out into the hallway, where I catch a bitter whiff of antiseptics. The nurse at the end of the hallway has her feet up on the desk as she files her nails and talks on the phone. The other nurses are nowhere to be seen. The coast is clear. I hold my breath and slowly shut the door to room 314 without making a squeak and then I pull the teal curtain closed around me and my father.

I lean forward and place a cigarette in my father’s mouth, balancing it on his lower lip as he asked. Then, I light it and sit back down in the chair I’ve pulled up next to his hospital bed.

“Thank you.” my father wheezes, breathing in the grey smoke and then puffing it out through the corner of his mouth.

I nod and scratch at the small of my back, which is drenched in sweat. When the nurse called, I was at work and hadn’t had a chance to take off my uniform: a big fluffy brown rabbit costume with floppy ears and a sauce-stained pizza apron. The oversized head of Stuffy the Italian Pizza Rabbit smiles up at me and my father from the floor in the corner of the room.

“Promise me you won’t ever pick up this lousy habit.”

“Of course, Dad.” I try to sound courageous like I’m not ripping apart at my seams.

My father is ashamed of his smoking habit. He’s been a smoker for as long as I can remember, but he never did it in front of me. He always lit up in the backyard behind the shed or in the basement after he thought I had fallen asleep. This feels strange, actually seeing him smoke for the first time.

He’s grown unkempt here in the hospital. Like a garden that’s been neglected, his hair has morphed into a black and grey bramble of untamable cowlicks and he has a beard now. He looks closer to Jerry Garcia than the man who raised me, the man who used to pick me up and swing me around in the air and who could play accordion, trombone, banjo, and five or six other odd instruments. Still, even in this state, I see a sparkle behind his bespectacled eyes like a fading film projector shining through a drab sheet. My father was the original Stuffy the Pizza Rabbit—back before his decline and before he passed the mantle on to me—and I guess some of that spirit is still inside him, permanently sutured to his soul like the cancer that eats his lungs.

I reach out a brown rabbit’s paw and take my father’s veiny pale hand in my own. I start to tell him about my day. He’s too weak to maintain a conversation, but he likes when I talk to him anyway, plus the nurse says it’s a good thing to do.

“Things could be better, but I’m hanging in there.” I hear the words come out of my mouth but they sound hollow like eggshells.

I’ve been lying to my father, but how can I tell him that every single night I come home to the empty house feeling like a lightning bug caught in a glass jar with no air? How can I tell him that after the long shift at Stuffy’s Pizza and after the hospital visits, I slouch home and recline in his lazy boy in the basement and chain-smoke cigarette after cigarette until my lungs feel like tar and my throat burns and the ashtray on the coffee table overflows? I haven’t even bothered to take off the Stuffy costume in five days. I’ve been hiding inside the always-cheerful mascot like a parasite. If it weren’t for the oxygen tube in my father’s nose, he wouldn’t be able to miss the tobacco odor that sticks to the rabbit’s fur like an invisible stain.

Raj, the owner of Stuffy’s Pizza Palace and also the closest thing I have to an uncle, has been begging me to take some time off. He means well, but he doesn’t understand that I don’t want to wear anything but the costume these days.

Inside Stuffy is the only place that I can forget the fact that my father is wilting away and that there’s nothing any doctor, any nurse, any specialist or I can do about it. When I’m myself, everyone approaches me with sad sympathetic eyes, heavy with the weight of condolences and prayers. Suddenly, I’m a puppy with a broken leg, desperately in need of unconditional love and support. Voices become hushed or high-pitched and people who never spoke to me before are offering to drop off dinner at my house or to pick up my shifts. I’ll take their food and even the pats on the back, but I won’t let them take Stuffy away from me.

Stuffy is everything good with the world. When Stuffy performs his dance routine with his animatronic backup band every other hour on the dot, I’m allowed to forget myself for fifteen blissful minutes and smile inside the costume where I don’t have to feel guilty about enjoying myself despite everything. I love being Stuffy because when children approach him, they grin and laugh and look for hugs and high-fives. Even adults can’t help but crack a smile when Stuffy delivers a delicious pizza to their table with his iconic hop. Nobody has to pretend to care about Stuffy, nobody has to worry about him. He’s always happy.

Stuffy is a cornerstone of our community. Every single kid and adult who grew up here in the last eighteen years has celebrated at least one birthday with the loveable bunny, seen him on his calzone float in the annual Memorial Day parade, and had his unreasonably catchy theme song stuck in their head.

My father was Stuffy my whole life. He actually comes from a long line of performers: his parents were clowns in the Capital Circus of Budapest before they immigrated to the U.S. in the forties. He invented the character of Stuffy shortly after I was born and my mother died. Sometimes, God takes something away from you to replace it with something you never imagined you could have, my dad told me once.

He liked to describe the eureka moment like the angel Gabriel appearing to Joseph. He was changing my diaper when suddenly, this Italian Rabbit with a chef’s hat, a sauce-stained pizza apron, and a warm smile appeared to him like a dream, except he was wide awake and the vision was so vivid that it felt real. He immediately grabbed a napkin and hastily sketched what he had witnessed. The next day, he was making phone calls to tailors and ordering fabrics. One month later, after several iterations of the character that didn’t come out quite right, my father finally completed his Sistine Chapel—Stuffy the Italian Pizza Rabbit was born—and he quickly became a part of the family.

My father was always working, which means Stuffy was always around when I was growing up. I was raised in the pizza parlor, weaned on sloppy mozzarella grease and parmesan straight from the shaker. I took my first steps on checkered red and white tiled floors and memorized my times tables sitting up on the counter, swinging my legs as I flipped through the heavy math textbook in between bites of soft hot pizza and sips of cold orange cream soda. I watched Stuffy perform his show up on the stage in the back of the restaurant about ten thousand times, and it never got old, because it was constantly evolving. Dad was always testing new jokes, learning new songs, and busting new moves. He never gave less than 100% to anything.

It was never a question what I was going to be when I grew up. Dad always told me that I could be whatever I wanted, but really, I believe he was training me my whole life to fulfill my destiny. The first time he let me don the fur, I was ten years old. It was my birthday and I had begged for it, so he couldn’t say no. The legs were too long, the fur bunched up around my waist, and the eye holes were too high for me to see properly. I strutted around the living room and ran right into a wall, which dented Stuffy’s nose. I was ready to cry, but my dad wasn’t mad. When I took off the unwieldy head, I saw he was beaming.

“You’ll grow into it,” he said. “When you’re ready, Stuffy’ll be ready for you.” He saw me looking at the floor and picked my chin up. He came down to my level and stared straight into my soul with his kindly blue eyes and put a steady hand on my shoulder. I remember his breath smelled sweet like chocolate birthday cake and coffee. “You won’t only make a great Stuffy,” he told me. “You’ll be even better than me and you’ll keep his spirit alive long after I’m gone.” How? I remember thinking. How could I ever come close to him, let alone better than him?

Nine months ago, the costume finally came off my dad. It was St. Patrick’s Day. My father insisted that the Italian Rabbit should march in the parade and learn a jig for the occasion. He choreographed an elaborate performance involving a lot of kicks and jumps and a fiddle solo written specifically for me. Most people don’t realize that even on a cold March day, mascot costumes can get up to 140 degrees Fahrenheit on the inside—that’s hot enough to slow-cook a brisket. That day, Dad marched the whole parade in costume (all 2.3 miles). He almost made it through the performance too, but about halfway through my fiddle solo, I saw him sway a little like he was struggling to balance. I didn’t think anything of it at first. Then, he flopped over on his side and hit the pavement with a dull thump like a sack of mulch dropped from the back of a pickup truck. Never, never did my father ever break character and take off the Stuffy costume in front of young kids—it’s kind of like how a magician never reveals his or her tricks—but when my dad landed on the asphalt, Stuffy’s head rolled off and there was my father, drenched in sweat and coughing like a fist had been shoved down his throat. I saw a primal fear in his expression like that of a cornered animal. I think he knew right there that this was the beginning of the end. The man behind the curtain was revealed and it wasn’t pretty: little specks of crimson dotted the yellow traffic lines in front of his face where he lay hacking out his lungs. I dropped the fiddle and the neck snapped in half with a screech. Parents pulled their children away and hid their little faces, but it was too late; the kids were already crying.

“Stuffy’s dead!” one girl screamed and her voice scratched the inside of my chest like nails on a chalkboard. I believed her. I thought my dad was dead. But he wasn’t. Not yet.

In the emergency room, my dad begged the medical staff not to cut the costume off him. He was in hysterics, but they did it anyway. From the hallway outside the room, I could hear him howling like they were peeling off his skin with those scissors. When it was done, the nurses and doctors were kind enough to collect the pieces for me to stitch back together.

Today, when the hospice nurse called me at work, she told me that this was “most likely, very probably” it. My dad isn’t going to make it to see another daybreak. He will never again see the dough in the oven rise as life is breathed into the first pizza of the day. The weight of her words sunk into my brain like shoes into wet cement.

I told the nurse I would be right over. I didn’t want to lie to this lady, but I did. Instead of rushing over to the hospital, breaking the speed limit, double parking my car outside, sprinting up the stairs to the third floor, and bursting through the door, I performed the three o’clock Stuffy show all the way through. When it was done, I basked in the ovation from the restaurant-goers, bowing three times, and then I performed an encore. After that, I signed some autographs for the kids. Finally, after giving high-fives to every single child and bouncing a baby on Stuffy’s knee, I went to my car, sat down, took off the rabbit head, and sat there feeling numb and guilty. My hands burned on the steering wheel like I was holding a hot iron.

My dad is dying, I told myself over and over. My dad is dying. What am I doing? I felt like my dad would pass away as soon as I showed up, so maybe if I stayed away, he would never pass on. How can a person ever be prepared for something like this? I sat in my car not making a sound, tears dripping down my cheeks, tasting salty in my mouth and wetting the fur of the costume, but I didn’t sob or cry. I just sat there for ten minutes, my eyes leaking uncontrollably. Eventually, I worked up some courage and composed myself and then I drove to the hospital, methodically and deliberately, following the speed limit exactly. When I got to the room and saw my dad, all drugged out and nodding in and out of consciousness, I knew the nurse was right. This was it.

As I cradle my dad’s weak hand, I wish that I had come here immediately instead of being selfish, but my dad doesn’t know the difference, or he doesn’t care. He doesn’t ask me what took so long. He just looks at me and then at the rabbit head in the corner, and he grins.

“My legacy,” he whispers. I don’t know which one of us he’s talking about.

About the Author

Charles Sternberg is a writer based in the serene and always vibrant Northern New Jersey. He is currently earning his MFA in Creative and Professional Writing from William Paterson University. His short stories have appeared in Zeitgeist Magazine and The Mercury.

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