Introducing the third place finalist from our 2019 Summer Short Story Award for New Writers, selected by Tope Folarin: “Mutts” by Shane Page! Page was awarded publication and agency review for this breathtaking story. About the story, Tope Folarin said, “This story does what the best short stories do–it locates an entire universe of emotion and memory within a single scene. It’s a heartbreaking story, and so attentive to the various ways that humans can hurt others and be hurt by others. I won’t forget this one.” Dive in:
Bill the Dog required either attention or a well-tied leash (the usual spot being a leg of the table on the front porch, then being sure to place three to four bricks on the tabletop) when outside. We weren’t sure if he was entirely blind, but his eyes were clouded with cataracts, and he seemed to make his way around the house by following the warmth of the sunlight on the carpet. When night came, he’d curl up in a corner and did not like to be pet.
Bill the Dog had been killed, run down by the mailman, and Mom said Dad was to blame, so she dragged our kitchen table out in front of the television, set two stools on either side, and called to Dad that they needed to settle this. They were going to sit down like adults and arm-wrestle.
Dad walked in from the kitchen and smiled at me, setting a 16 oz. Coors on the table as Mom wiped off dinner scraps with her hand. He didn’t sit down right away but cracked a window and lit a cigarette and rolled up his sleeves, knocking his boot against the table as Mom tried to steady it. He looked at me again and asked what the rules were, if the loser had to do the dishes for a week.
“Loser moves out,” said Mom, and when Dad leaned over the table to light her cigarette for her, she reeled back on her stool and removed it from the corner of her mouth. She set it on top of our television and Dad shrugged. Mom said stuff like this all the time.
Our television was a little white Panasonic, barely more than twelve inches, with a VCR built in—a VHS cassette hanging out the front with its tape all tangled and chewed. Our table was flimsy and insectile and made with what felt like hollow tin, and its four legs were insolvably off-balance.
Mom and Dad blocked my view as they sat down and locked hands. I remember Mom’s hair, which reached to each of the cardinal directions in neatly matted tufts, and Dad’s tied back in a ponytail, some clusters of strands sprawled and stuck across his cheeks. The way their jaws actually clenched like characters in movies, in close-up shots, in diners for truckers where people crowded the table and threw down money.
I knew it wasn’t entirely Dad’s fault. I’d been there when it happened. We all knew Bill the Dog was hard to control. But I didn’t talk much or really at all back then, so Mom never asked me anything. I never spoke unless prompted, and even then not necessarily. I was seven, and it was strange, but that’s how I was.
As they played with each other’s fingers I noticed this was their first physical altercation that seemed to follow rules. They adjusted their postures and bent their elbows, Mom trying to find a pace in her breath and Dad still thinking this was a joke. He just kept smiling and looking around the room, his teeth sticking out from his lips like the keys of a smashed piano. He loved to play games, and to toy with Mom, and when he wasn’t tired or angry he loved to make us laugh.
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