“Mutts” by Shane Page

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.

Mom had a black tank top on with orange paint stains and specks, and Dad wore his baggy denim shirt, which I sometimes used as an extra blanket. They were both in their underwear. In the summertime they liked to do this after dinner. They’d sit on the porch and drink Doc’s Orders (a bizarre concoction they invented that consisted of vodka, lemonade, and Dr. Pepper), catching Cardinals games on the radio, leaning into and grabbing at each other when it got late, and laughing.

I had been watching Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? because I figured I did. I wanted to be a millionaire. And Mom and Dad did too, so I thought if I studied the show enough we might all have our wish granted. I wrote down the letters of the correct answers in columns of three: AAB, CAB, DCB. I was too young to know any of the answers, but I was convinced it was all fixed and that a hidden pattern could be found, like a treasure map, leading a contestant from A, B, C, and D all the way to X, which would mark the spot.

I can pretend I remember what tie Regis Philbin wore, or what the make-up department had failed to conceal on the contestant’s face, but it’s their arms I can’t forget: Mom’s pale skin, her bicep perked like an egg. Her veins scrawling in lithe, full protrusions—a feature I did not inherit—on her hand and reaching to her shoulder, sticking out like when she mowed the lawn, or pulled on the front door, or cut onions and cried. Dad’s skin was tan—browned and of a whole different palette than Mom’s. His arms and fingers were long. His upper arm, flexed, was the shape of an ear of corn. Both their arms were camouflaged with the scheme of Millionaire’s dusky set: deep-toned purple and blue.

Dad squeezed Mom’s hand with a strange writhing, cracking her knuckles. I wondered how much he’d been drinking, if he was beginning to lose focus, but Mom cracked his knuckles too, signaling the competition was about to start.

I hadn’t followed how they’d gotten to this, really, why it needed to be an arm-wrestling match. At some point, from the kitchen, Mom had said, “But he was my dog. Bill the Dog was mine,” to which Dad said, “Bill was half blind and dumb as a wrench,” which was true, and to which Mom said, “His name was Bill the Dog,” which was also true, though I didn’t get her point.

I didn’t care who won or lost, but I was rooting for Mom, in a way. She was sad, she missed Bill the Dog, but even I knew nothing could bring him back from the dead. Our mailman had a bit of a lead foot, and he tended to drive in cough-like jerks from house to house, and Bill the Dog had been in front of the truck at the top-speed of its lurch. I’d watched from the window while Dad dozed in the recliner with a cigarette held loosely between his middle finger and ringless ring finger. The cigarette fell and burned a hole into the carpet, and the smoke woke up Dad, who stomped it out and went back to sleep. Mom and Dad liked to call all their little carpet burns our house’s special freckles.

Regis Philbin read a question while Dad tried to crack wise. I’d been tuned in and focused before my parents blocked the screen, so I knew this was the last of the easy pickings before the stage went darker and the questions increased in difficulty. The beginning was meant to weed out the fools, to check anyone whose nerves were already breaking them down.

H2O is the chemical compound for what?

“You can still back down,” said Dad. He looked at me again. I held a Beanie Baby he’d brought back for me from a long trucking job. It was a dog with roughly textured fur. I changed its name from Puppy to Bill the Dog 2 after Bill the Dog was killed. Mom tapped her nose. Regis read the option for A.

Water.

Mom said nothing. Regis read the option for B.

Ice.

“You’re setting yourself up to be homeless,” said Dad. He moved his dirty-nailed fingers in sequential taps on Mom’s hand.

Steam.

I didn’t know what H2O was. Regis said the fourth option, this question’s joke answer, which was usually blatantly incorrect and meant to help the contestants become comfortable. Again, I didn’t know this because I knew the answers myself, but rather because one option in each of the beginning questions always made the audience laugh, so I’d picked up the pattern. Dad said something about trick questions, and Mom said D.

All of the Above.

Then they started when, having picked correctly in good nature and recognition of the joke, the contestant moved on to the first slew of harder questions and Millionaire’s indigo flooded our ceiling when the on-set the lights turned down, and my parents’ silhouette elongated in the middle of the Panasonic’s projection, like two gunslingers on opposite sides of a duel, but connected in the middle by their hands.

* * *

It was over in a minute, barely enough time for the contestant to answer a question, but I remember it in slow motion while the world moved on as usual. My parents sitting there in a partitioned, extended sequence where maybe they still are, timeless, and Millionaire proceeding question to question and teasing final answers;

Which titular Shakespeare character is visited by the wraith of his father? 

me, there in

the sunken cushion, writing letters into ostensibly revealing columns;

Which of the following insects are classified as part of the Hymenoptera order?

a group of scouting

ants proceeding up the side of the Panasonic to investigate a half empty can of Dr. Pepper;

The assassination of whom was a catalyst for the start of World War I? 

my father, flinching when the window unit chugged to kick on and whirred for a while but didn’t quite make it;

Months before her suicide, which poet said she was writing the best poems of her life?

                        and my mother, just holding on.

It was strange to think that all of this was for a dead dog.

Bill the Dog and I were not exactly friends, but we got along. Back then, when I wondered what type of dog he was, I settled on “puppy” as a catch-all term, though Bill the Dog was a decrepit mutt who Dad said was easily over ten years old. Mom had found him behind a Dairy Queen eating rotten bananas before I was born, and she always said that after she’d taken care of old Bill the Dog and nursed him to passable health she figured she was ready to have a kid, which was when I came along. And again, Bill the Dog and I were never a picturesque Boy and Dog, and he often ate my socks and nipped at my toes, but I liked his brown and gray fur, and how it hung off him in layered patches, and he seemed to like my laugh and to enjoy chasing me around the backyard, and after a few good laps (which did not take long) we’d collapse in the grass and I’d follow him to his water bowl and drink out of it as he did and pretend I was a dog like him.

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.

His blindness wasn’t exactly the problem. Bill the Dog was vicious. Dad always said he was a street fightin’ dog, that he had probably become a fighter in early puphood while fending for himself, which rendered Bill the Dog loyal to us (entirely to Mom, less to Dad and me) and murderous toward the rest of the world. Our BEWARE OF DOG sign was genuine, and Bill the Dog had to be left in the basement whenever Dad had friends over. By day, before he lost his sight, he’d prowl from window to window and bark in warning at anything or anyone who so much as looked at our house. The barks sounded primal and purposeful, a true warning an animal can only develop undomesticated.

So when Bill the Dog was outside, he needed to be watched. Had the mailman not killed him that day, he may have done so the next. Any mistake in the process, whether it be a loose knot or a moment of distraction, could allow for Bill the Dog to take off in any direction looking for something to kill. And Bill the Dog was stupid, so if his target ended up being a car, as Dad said, sooner or later we were going to have a stupid dead dog on our hands, no matter what.

What happened was Mom had left early that morning going no one knew where. Dad had slept in the recliner the night before and was still there when I came downstairs for breakfast. I fixed myself a bowl of cereal, and Bill the Dog sat next to me where the mid-morning sun came through the backdoor. Dad had slept in the recliner because Mom wouldn’t let him in their room. I wasn’t sure why. Each time he knocked or tried the handle she’d scream until he stopped. She’d thrown her curling iron at his head and met her target.

Dad walked into the kitchen and said hello and that he hadn’t slept well, so us boys were going to have a lazy Tuesday. I liked having lazy weekdays with Dad. When he wasn’t out driving, we got to spend as much time together as we wanted, which was usually all the time. Dad and I never really got tired of each other. He used to say he was lucky to have guys like me around.

Bill the Dog paced the kitchen and whined, so we knew he needed to go outside. Dad said if I let him out, he’d let him in. Then he walked back to the recliner and turned on the television and lit a cigarette.

I led Bill the Dog to the front door and hooked his leash to his collar, then he waited for me to tie his leash to the leg of the table outside. I’d thought I tied it tight enough, so I went inside and sat on the couch and watched television while Dad had already taken to sleeping again. There was an infomercial for a clay-like seal that could permanently mend anything broken. Even granite counter-tops, according to the man in the screen.

Bill the Dog was dead before either of us knew what had happened. I heard him bark, I heard the table on the porch scrape on the ground, and I looked out the window to see Bill the Dog, leash trailing behind him, running toward the mail truck. His blindness led him somewhat astray, but not enough to miss the truck or for the truck to miss him, and as the driver kerplunked from our neighbor’s mailbox to ours, Bill the Dog assailed our home’s attacker and lost. Dad woke up for a moment and closed his eyes, and I waited for the mailman to exit his truck and to look at what had happened.

Bill the Dog returned to life for just a moment. His initial spot on the street had been shaded by a tree, so he lifted himself onto his legs and walked with clear purpose toward our sunlit front yard, where he curled into a ball on a patch of yellow grass and lay down his head, huffed, and closed his eyes.

* * *

At first Dad let Mom bend his arm nearly half way to defeat, again smiling at me and raising his eyebrows as if landing a good punch line. Then he’d send Mom’s hand back to the starting point and play around with her: moving her hand at will to show his strength. Mom looked at him and never looked away. Dad wasn’t sweating yet, but Mom was.

Which Confederate General was shot by his own men, ultimately leading to his death after a bout with pneumonia?

But Dad’s tricks didn’t last long. Eventually he couldn’t move Mom’s arm around wherever he wanted, and Mom leaned in close to the table. Sweat ran down her neck and dripped from her hair. She liked comparing herself to Sigourney Weaver in Alien, though she’d killed the VHS by watching it so many times in the Panasonic, and she messed up her hair by never washing it or cutting it.

Hooker.

(Nervous laughter from the audience.)

“That’s what you are,” said Dad, and Mom didn’t react. One time Alien popped out with its tape gnarled and stuck in the VCR’s teeth. It remained ever since as one of the Panasonic’s many ornaments, alongside half-empty bottles of Dr. Pepper and a spray can for cleaning Bill the Dog’s vomit—Vomi-Way: For Pets! Dad had said, “That’s what you get when you rewind on Pause instead of Stop, you know,” and Mom was madder at that comment then than she was now at this joke (I barely remember—her throwing Bill the Dog’s toys at Dad, a couple shot glasses, maybe, and Dad cowering behind the kitchen table, which he’d flipped and held up as a shield, later on joining me in my bed and lying down next to me and covering us in his large shirt and saying, “Life’s tough stuff, little buddy.”) She looked right through him. For some reason I wish I could see him now, as he was then, and how young he must have looked—just twenty-seven.

Jackson.

“It’s B,” said Mom. Though hard to see from my vantage point (I liked sitting in the couch’s sunken cushion), Mom had Dad’s arm at a forty-five degree angle. Whereas Dad had forced Mom’s arm, Mom seemed to ease Dad’s, like the tortoise against the hare. She’d made the arm-wrestle a battle of attrition, and Dad’s energy at the start had cost him in the late-game.

“You don’t know that,” said Dad, but I believed her. Mom was good at Millionaire, and Jeopardy!, and really any trivia show. She always said shows like these proved you couldn’t just read books to be smart. You had to watch a lot of television and listen to the radio and look at the comics in the newspaper, and stuff like that, which I now recognize as a common sentiment among people, that book smarts carry with them a certain façade of knowledge that supports an undeserved and abused superiority, but I also can’t help but think of the times Mom had me reading labels for her and saying it was her eyesight, yet never wearing glasses and needing help with large print just as much as small, or how she called the Speed Limit sign the Timil’s Deep, for fun but also in resignation of her struggle—her anger, too, which through the years after Dad was gone was always directed at me for what I could and could not read or do, or on the dogs when I managed to hide, like Thomas and Peter and Blue and Marilyn, all of them the Dog, half of them left to die by Mom’s hateful and purposeful negligence (as opposed to Dad’s mistake—my mistake, yes, it was mine), which she nurtured in her room during deep sleeps (leep seeds), covered in a strained, sickly sunlight made caramel by her thick smoke-stained blinds, never leaving her bed and becoming not bad—Mom was good, and Dad was good, I believe this—but tired and confused and trying, I think, to do her best.

And before Millionaire chimed that the contestant had picked correctly (and as Mom sent Dad closer and closer to the table’s top, Dad’s mustache seeming to have entire sweat glands of its own), I had already added Mom’s predicted B to my forming pattern. I compared, quickly, to my piece of paper from the week before and thought I noticed something significant. That every fifth taping—I didn’t know it was a taping, then—supported at least one BBCAD section, and could be tested first by a contestant correctly picking two Bs in a row, and, if the next answer was C, then the contestant could simply pick A and D for the following two, whether or not they had any idea what the question was about.

I started to understand things I had not noticed before.

Dad laughed and exhaled and both sounded nervous and happy and it was hard to tell the difference.

Mom smiled. Dad’s pointed knuckles were an inch from the table. I know now that Mom was beautiful in that moment. Sons recognize this, when they are older, how beautiful their mothers were. She’d lose her dimples at some point. They wouldn’t disappear, but they’d become deep, like wounds, and a split in her bottom lip from being consistently chapped would never pull itself together again. And even her hair, which was unkempt and not really like Sigourney Weaver’s anymore, looked like it was her own, with little leaves and fingers of branches that grew in whatever direction they wanted. She and Bill the Dog were two beautiful mutts. Dad too, maybe, and me.

But Dad stopped her. His arm twitched and his veins finally popped, though still not like Mom’s, and, in lurches like the mail-truck, he worked Mom’s arm back to their starting point, where he would eventually break her ninety-degree angle to eighty, to seventy, to sixty, and overpower her and slam her hand into the table, where her knuckles would make two permanent craters, then apologize profusely and insist he had not meant to do it so hard, but his arm had felt numb, practically, and he was so, so sorry about Bill the Dog, honestly. Really.

And I want to hold them there, their arms equal in the middle, their faces so young. Before Dad apologizes not just for Bill the Dog but for many things—for not fixing the back door, for not letting Mom teach him how to play solitaire, for accidentally shoving me into the kitchen counter the time he was tired and confused, giving me a black eye for my kindergarten picture day. Not that it would be enough for her.

What transpires after—a fatherless home filled with imposters, a six-vehicle crash we see on the news—begins here. They sit in their bubble and time warps around them and brings me in with it (how slow and forever it felt), and she waits for him to leave. And she’s looking to me and asking do I have anything to say about being the new man of the house, and I don’t, I didn’t, and she says are you sure you don’t have anything to say about being the new man of the house, it’s a big responsibility, you know. Then Dad says come on, come on, leave him alone. Jesus. You’re freaking us all out. And Dad standing and stretching and

Both a measure of time and value, the nuclear physical term “half-life” best describes what?

                                                                                                            cracking open another beer

and asking for a best of three, and punching her (lightly) on the shoulder, and Mom standing up and saying no, no, no, in the exact same way she’d whisper to my next dad, whom I was instructed then forced to call as such, when he tickled her. And the one after him when he incorrectly explained the ruling of an in-field fly, or any of the

             Time it takes for prematurely bonded isotopes to die

                                                                                                fathers that followed. And I called all

of them Dad until after a writing assignment in the third grade my teacher became alarmed at the amount of

            Lethal radioactivity in an asexual organism

                        fathers I’d had in such a short time, and after a conference with my mother I never

called any of them Dad again, and still remembered only one as the first, and the truest, but after appeasing Mom he’d leave and die somewhere, a crash on the road that also killed

  The rate of decay of a family of bonded isotopes                  

    (see you around little buddy)

a woman on a

motorcycle, though I would know none of this until I was ten years old. And finally, me, seemingly crawling from the sunken cushion and back toward the surface of earth,

            [Unintelligible]

                                                                                                                                    deciding to

use my brain and my mouth to make letters into words and force them into sounds, feeling my tongue on my teeth, trying to concoct

            Yes, I left the animal to die

the perfect lie that maybe it had been me who opened the screen door and

let the mutt into the yard, and I’d even unhooked his leash with a fanged grin, and my father,

I filled Dad’s morning coffee with gin, as a prank, because of something I’d seen on television, because

standing, looking to me for the final time, and my mother, considering what I might say and how it could save him, her eyes,

                  I was the child who did not understand who left the

time it takes for an isotope’s radioactivity 

                       animal to die because Mom will kill us where we stand

                                                which could not read either words or the expression on my face,

asking me the question that could save our lives,

            Mom wants to kill us

but I did not know the answer.


Shane Page is a writer from Springfield, Missouri. His work has appeared in The Molotov Cocktail, Occulum, Pank, Hobart, and Driftwood Press. https://neutralspaces.co/shane_page/