The People Who Live in the Feeney Flats by Michael Cooney

Photo by Emiliano Vittoriosi on Unsplash

My father always told me to avoid the people who lived in the Feeney Flats and I usually listened to him, except Ronnie van Vranken needed my help getting his rabbit back. The thing was he and his mom had been evicted from the Feeney Flats for not paying their rent and were staying in his grandmother’s basement across from us on Monroe Street.

I knew Ronnie pretty good. One time he told me my dog King was the father of his dog Cocoa’s eight puppies and I could have some if I wanted, but my mum said one dog was more than enough. I bought King with my own birthday money from a lady on Diamond Street without telling my parents so they were kind of forced to let me keep him. I wanted him to sleep in my bed but my mum said no, he was too filthy for that. He had to stay in the basement, which was pretty cold and damp.

“How do you know King is the father?” I asked Ronnie.

“Don’t you remember how King was climbing up on Cocoa that time? Like this?” He tried to grab me from behind but I smacked him in the face. “That’s how dogs make babies,” he cried. “Don’t you know anything?”       

“Of course I know that. Everybody knows that.”

“It’s called sexing.”

I told him he was a stupid idiot.

Later on, my father had to shoot King. He did it when I was in school but I never knew he shot him until a few years later when my brother told me what really happened. All I knew was King wasn’t there when I came home. My mom told me he went to a farm where he would be happy. King had the mange really bad and was biting away at his fur all the time. It made him mean. He bit me a couple times but I never told my parents, then he bit the mailman. My father couldn’t allow that because he worked in the post office even though he didn’t deliver mail anymore.

By the time we stole back the rabbit, Ronnie’s dog Cocoa was dead, too. She was hit by a car. She chased cars, which is a dangerous habit for dogs. “Too bad you gave away the puppies,” I said to him. “Now you don’t have any dog at all.”

“I got a rabbit. Do you want to see it?”

I didn’t really because he was always pulling something like he did with the thing about how dogs make babies. But I went to see the rabbit because there was nothing else going on. It was summer and summer got pretty boring after the first few weeks.

The rabbit was peeking out of a wooden box in Ronnie’s grandmother’s back yard. The box was filled with straw and there were pieces of carrots and lettuce scattered around, and lots of little balls of rabbit shit. There was a chicken wire fence around the box to keep the bunny from running away.

“Do you want to pick her up?”

“Not really. He smells bad.”

“It’s a she. Go ahead. Pick her up.”

So, I picked the rabbit up. He was nice and soft and he seemed pretty friendly. “What’s his name?” I asked.

“It’s a she. I named her Cocoa,” Ronnie said.

“That’s a stupid name to call him. Cocoa is a dog’s name.”

“She’s the same colour as my dog Cocoa. That’s why I called her that.” That made some kind of sense so I stopped giving Ronnie a hard time over the name. I started going over to Ronnie’s house every day. We’d feed the rabbit and play with her and let her run around outside the chicken wire. She always came back and never tried to escape.

“She’s used to me now,” Ronnie said. “Cocoa knows I’m her family and she’ll never run away. At first she didn’t know me and I had to watch her really close.”

A few days later, Ronnie went out one morning to see his rabbit and it was gone.

“I thought you said she’d never run away,” I said to him. “I thought she knew you were her family.” Ronnie didn’t want to hear that and he told me to shut up. I stopped going over to his house because the only reason I ever went there was to see the rabbit, to tell you the truth.

A few weeks after school started in September, a little kid named Alexander Ellice and I were trying out an experiment in my basement. He was a couple grades behind me but Alexander was very smart. He had read in the World Book about how to make wine. “They get some grapes and smash them up,” he told me. “Then they mix the mashed up grapes with some yeast and leave it in a barrel for a long time.”

“Ferment means that the sugar turns into alcohol,” Alexander explained. “When it’s ready, we can drink it and we’ll get drunk.”

“But where are we going to get grapes?”

“I got lots of grape juice.” Alexander showed me six cans of Welch’s Concentrated Concord Grape Juice. “You’re supposed to mix this with water to make grape juice, but we can use it in the concentrated form. That will make the wine have a higher proof.”

“Proof. Like in a crime story?”

“No, one hundred proof means it will have more alcohol in it and we’ll get drunk faster.”

We were shaking up the whole purple mess in an old gallon jug when I heard a tapping on the basement door. Our house is on a hill so the basement has an outside door into the back yard.

Opening the door, I saw it was Ronnie van Vranken. His face was dirty and it looked like somebody might have punched him. I did not feel like being friendly to him. “What do you want, van Vranken?”

“You know my rabbit disappeared, right?”

“Yeah, your rabbit disappeared. So what?”

“Cocoa didn’t run away. I knew she wouldn’t run away.”

Alexander finished shaking up the wine mixture and put it behind some snow shovels where my father wouldn’t see it.

“So what happened? Did aliens kidnap her?” I thought that was pretty funny but nobody laughed.

“The Salerno brothers stole her!”

Everyone knew the Salernos. There were five or six brothers but only the two youngest ones still lived at home. The older ones were away somewhere, in jail or the army. They were a mean bunch and used to slick up their hair like real greasers. Kids said they carried knives.

“I found out they have Cocoa in a cage and they told me they’re just fattening her up and then they’re going to kill her and eat her.”

“Don’t they live up in that dump where you and your mom used to live?”

That sounds mean but everybody knew the Feeney Flats were a dump. The crappy old apartment house was built right on the edge of a cliff and people who lived there used to throw all kinds of garbage out their windows and it would fall down into the woods next to the back yards of people on Monroe Street.

“I was looking around on the bottom of the cliff,” Ronnie explained. “You know, where there’s all kinds of good junk you can find. I thought maybe there might be better stuff up closer to the Feeney Flats. Stuff could have gotten stuck in the bushes and not fallen all the way down so I went up that path on the side of the cliff where it isn’t too steep.”

“What were you looking for?” It was the first thing Alexander had said to him.

“Just good stuff. Things I could sell to the guy at the second hand store. Old watches, maybe.”

“Okay, so I get why you were over there,” I said to him. “What about the Salernos?”

“I went all the way up to the woods right behind the Salernos’ backyard. Only it’s not really their yard because nobody who lives in apartments has a back yard. It’s just a little space with grass and that’s when I saw Cocoa.”

“In a cage, right?”

“Yes, like I just told you.”


“So I went over and was looking at her when the bigger Salerno, the really mean one, came up behind me and told me to get the fuck out. I told him that rabbit looked just like a rabbit I lost. He said you mean that rabbit. I said yes. He said that’s the rabbit we’re getting nice and fat so we can eat her. I was afraid to tell him to give me back my rabbit. Then he hit me anyway.”

“He hit you?” Alexander found this amazing, probably because he was younger and also because his parents didn’t let him run all over the place.

“He shoved me and I fell down. Then he rubbed my face in the dirt.”

“What are you going to do about it?” Alexander asked.

“I don’t know.” Ronnie looked from me to Alexander and back again. He rubbed his nose. “What can I do?”

“Tell your Mom” was Alexander’s advice. 

“She won’t do anything. She’s glad the rabbit is gone.”

Just then my sister Elizabeth came down the stairs. “What are you little punks plotting?”

She came past us, patting Alexander on the head, which he couldn’t stand, and went straight out to shoot some baskets in the hoop over the garage door.

“And you say they have it outside in a cage?” I asked him. “What kind of cage? Does it have a lock on it?”

“It’s some kind of cage, I don’t know.”

“Let’s wait until it starts to get dark,” I told him. “Then we’ll do it.”

“Do what?” Ronnie looked at Alexander as if he had the answer.

“Then we’ll get your bunny back. We’ll rescue her.”

“Can I come, too?” Alexander was eager and how could I say no, even though he was just a little kid.

“Sure, you can come. We’ll meet behind Ronnie’s house.”

My mother was calling from upstairs. I couldn’t really hear the words but I knew she meant that dinner was ready. I opened the basement door and shouted to Elizabeth that it was time to eat.

I don’t know why I remember that we had Salisbury steak with mashed potatoes and carrots. It wasn’t that unusual a meal or anything but sitting there with my mum and Elizabeth is still a clear picture in my mind.

It was getting dark by the time we left Ronnie’s yard and crept through the woods. An animal, maybe a raccoon, went crashing around us in the bushes. Ronnie almost jumped out of his skin. He thought it was one of the Salernos, but Alexander didn’t even flinch. I was impressed by the little kid.

“So where’s the cage?” The three of us crouched down in the woods right next to the Feeney Flats. There was a little piece of grass and some old bikes and a couple garbage pails but no cage and no rabbit. We heard shouting from somewhere nearby.

“We’re on the wrong side of the apartment house,” Ronnie whispered.

“Great! Why didn’t you say that before?”

“I thought you knew where you were going.”

“If we go out on Diamond Street and walk around to the other side, the Salernos will probably see us coming.” I stood up to get a better look at the front of the apartment house. It was made out of four old houses kind of stuck together and all chopped up into small rooms for people who were too poor to live anywhere else.

“We’ll chalk this one up. Let’s get out of here.”

“But they’re going to eat Cocoa!” Ronnie really loved that rabbit.

I turned around and started back down the path toward our street when Alexander said something that made me stop.

“Look!” he was pointing toward the cliff. “We can go behind the Feeney Flats. See! There’s plenty of space between the back of the building and the cliff. We can sneak right around and get Ronnie’s rabbit without going out in the street where they could spot us.”

Much as he loved that rabbit, Ronnie looked scared. “That’s right next to the cliff. If you fell off, you’d get killed.” But Alexander had already crossed the little yard and was heading for the narrow space between the flats and the cliff. I couldn’t let a little guy like him go alone.

“Come on!” I pulled Ronnie to his feet. “Do you want your rabbit or not?” With Alexander leading the way, we made it to the other side. There turned out to be just enough space between the apartment house and the cliff for us to walk. We had to climb over a bunch of old tires and other garbage. There was even a toilet just sitting there. Ronnie was too scared of falling off the cliff to even make a dirty joke about it which otherwise he would have done.

Alexander was first to get to the cage. He moved a little latch, reached in and picked up the rabbit. By the time Ronnie and I caught up, we could barely see Alexander and the rabbit. There wasn’t much light because the street lamp had burned out or maybe one of the Salernos shot it out with a BB gun.

“Are you sure that’s your bunny?” I reached out to pet the soft fur. “The colour seems different. This one has more white and not so much brown.”

“She’s fatter. That’s why she looks different.” Ronnie practically grabbed the rabbit out of Alexander’s arms. “I told you the Salernos were fattening her up so they could eat her.”

Just then a light went on in one of the windows. We heard more shouting, louder this time. “It’s the Salernos!” Ronnie sounded like he was about to piss his pants.

“No.” Alexander was listening carefully, his hand cupping his ear just like something you’d see in a book. “That lady sounds like she’s very upset.”

Ronnie was just starting to calm down when we really did hear the Salernos. They were coming back through the woods along the only other path out of the yard. Through the trees I could see the red glow of their cigarettes. All three of us ran back toward the old toilet that marked where the little trail led back to safety. We were scrambling as fast as we could and if it wasn’t so dark I’m sure the Salernos would have seen us. They must have been drinking beer because we could hear as they threw empty bottles against the rocks on the bottom of the cliff. The voice of the woman ahead of us was getting louder. She was practically screaming by the time we were under her window. There was a man’s voice, too.

I don’t know about Ronnie but nobody could ever accuse Alexander or me of being a Peeping Tom. The thing is, though, we were right under her window and it was a first floor apartment so we had to look. Ronnie was squeezing the rabbit so tight I thought he was going to crush the life out of her.

We heard the Salernos shouting “What the fuck?” and other curses. That’s how we knew they had discovered the rabbit was gone. That’s why we stopped under the window of that first floor apartment, not because we were Peeping Toms but because we weren’t sure which way the Salernos would go if they came after us.

A lady was holding a baby tightly against herself, kind of same way Ronnie was holding the rabbit. Her hair was very curly, reddish coloured. She was wearing only ladies’ underwear and she was crying and shouting. A man was screaming into her face. He needed a shave and, to me, his eyes looked a little crazy. There was another little kid grabbing on his father’s arm, trying to keep him from hurting his mother, I guess.

“I swear to God I’m walking out that door and never coming back!” That’s the one thing I clearly remember the lady saying. She must have said it more loudly than all the rest of the things she was crying and shouting about.

“Over my dead body!” That’s what I remember the man saying. He wasn’t even talking very loudly by then but I heard every word he said. The window was probably open. Just then while I was watching the argument between the man and woman, Ronnie screamed “Oh no!”

“You stupid…” I wheeled around. “You stupid idiot! You want them to hear us?”

“Cocoa!” He was practically moaning. I could see he wasn’t holding the rabbit anymore. “I was holding her so tight but she kept trying to get away. Then she jumped right out of my arms.”

“So where’d she go?” I looked around and all I saw were old tires. She could have been anywhere.

“I think she jumped straight over the cliff.” Alexander’s eyes were wide.

At that very moment there was a crash of broken glass from the apartment. The man or the lady had thrown something through the window. I was telling Ronnie that bunnies have almost as many lives as cats and they always land on their feet. He kept leaning over the edge of the cliff trying to see the rabbit. “It probably ran off somewhere. Let’s get out of here.”

Alexander was waiting for us at the edge of the woods. “Come on, guys!” I could see he was getting scared.

There was a loud bang right near us. I swear, we all jumped ten feet in the air. “They’re throwing cherry bombs at us! I knew they had cherry bombs!”

There was a second loud bang behind us as we ran into the woods. It was so dark I fell down once and had to pick up Alexander when he fell over the top of me. When we thrashed through the last of the bushes and branches and got into Ronnie’s grandmother’s backyard, he ran straight in without even saying thanks or see you tomorrow.

I made sure that Alexander got back to his house and even brushed off some of the leaves and dirt from his clothes. His mom was waiting for him but I could see she was more worried than angry. He had the protective kind of parents.

If Ronnie had not lost his grip on the rabbit and if Alexander hadn’t turned around to see what happened, he might have recognised the family in the apartment because there was a boy who was in his grade at Monroe Street School.

That little boy who was in Alexander’s class went to school the next morning and the teacher asked why he was still in his pyjamas and why there was blood on his sleeve. Alexander told me that every kid in the class heard the boy say “Daddy shot Mommy.”

The lady we saw through the window was already dead when the cops found her. Her little baby, the one she was holding, was in a crib sound asleep. The guy who was doing all the shouting was dead too.

Alexander didn’t want to hang around with me and Ronnie after that.

About The Author

Michael Cooney has taught English in the New York City public high schools and community colleges and currently works as a facilitator with the New York Writers Coalition. A few years ago, he began writing novels inspired by the history and legends of the Hudson and Mohawk Valleys. He has also published short fiction, poetry and flash fiction in a variety of journals.

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One response

  1. Angela Wilson

    I love this story. It’s funny and troubling, and the voice stays true to the end. Yeah, you did well with the voice.


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