Honorable Mention, J.F. Powers Prize for Short Fiction
The house was ready for the wedding guests. She had cleaned it, literally, from top to bottom, starting with the cobwebs in the ceiling corners. She had put fresh sheets on all the beds, even her own, and the kitchen floor, freshly mopped, was so shiny it looked like a piece of polished jewelry. The bride was an intern at the church, her family among its longest and most upstanding members, and Bev had offered spare rooms to whichever out-of-town guests needed to be housed. She was doing this out of the goodness of her heart.
That night she walked from room to room imagining the groomsmen who would fill it and feeling satisfied with the preparations she’d made. It wasn’t often it felt good being in this big empty house. Long ago she’d painted the walls in the house bright colors—the living room lemonade yellow, the dining room red as grapes, the bedrooms green like the Atlantic Ocean—but she seldom noticed the colors anymore. The kitchen was sapphire. She walked into the kitchen and admired it. The chairs were spaced perfectly around the table in the breakfast nook. And then she stepped in it: a soft brown curlicue of dog shit on her clean kitchen floor.
She grabbed the dog by the collar and thrust him into the car. Enough was enough. She drove to the top of the hill, where the woods were alive with the electric hum of insects in the summertime. The air was warm. The moon was ominously and appropriately full. Without unclicking her seatbelt, Bev reached over and threw open the passenger side door. The dog hopped out. He was a small fox terrier, woolly haired and yappy as all get out, not much bigger than the microwave. He jaunted toward the woods, then paused to look over his shoulder at her. The dog smiled, wagged its tail. Bev shouted, “Go away! Go away, you godforsaken beast!” The dog gave a laughing bark and then tore off into the brush, and that was that. There were predators in those woods and the dog was not smart. He never came when Bev called his name. Most likely his fox terrier instincts would make him stick his snout into some snake’s hole and that would be the end of him. She felt a twinge of guilt, a half teaspoon’s worth and then no more.
She looked at the moon and then drove back down the hill. She told herself that she would now be able to enjoy a little peace and quiet, but she didn’t really believe that. Not-barking was one thing. Silence was a different thing. The emptiness of the house was one of the hardest things.
The phone was ringing in the kitchen when Bev unlocked the side door. It was Amelia Johnson from up the road. She said, “Bev, we found your dog! He hopped right up into the cab of Kurt’s truck when we called to him. We’re gonna drive him
The groom arrived first, in gym shorts and a t-shirt, all smiles—the bride had dropped him off—and then the groomsmen trickled in that evening, in ones and twos, and by Friday morning the house was full of them. They were northern boys, tall and loud but, for the most part, very polite. They darted, shower-pinked and half-naked, between the bedrooms and the bathroom while Bev fixed them breakfast. It was the morning before the big day, and the boys were in high spirits, loud and full of jokes. She cooked two pounds of bacon, and they ate it all. It was good to have the smell of boy in the house again.
They were sipping at the last of their coffees when one of the groomsmen, the insurance salesman, asked, “What’s your
“I don’t call him anything,” Bev said without looking up from the suds in the sink. The dog, penned up all morning in the dining room, had been barking for so long she’d stopped hearing it. Now the barking came back into focus, shrill. “He’s my son’s dog. My son named him Bark Obama, but I just call him Git. Git!” she shouted, and the dog got quiet. “My son got a job in a recording studio down in Atlanta, moved into a no-pets apartment, so I got stuck with the dog. My children don’t come by much anymore—”
“Thank you for breakfast, Bev,” the groom said loudly as he stood. He stretched, scraping his knuckles on the ceiling, and then patted his stomach. The groomsmen echoed his thanks as they scooted from their chairs. They were heading to the church to set up tables for the reception, then it was off to laser tag and mini golf before the rehearsal dinner.
They were good boys. The weekend at her house was supposed to be a gift to them, not some desperate bid to staunch her own gaping loneliness. Not entirely. She shouldn’t have mentioned her family. She dipped their coffee cups into the dishwater, washed them out, and then sat down at the kitchen table. She opened her prayer book and began to pray from the Psalms as she did each morning, slowly, in a whisper: “Let us give thanks to the Lord, for his mercy and for the wonders he does for his children.”
For fifteen hours a week, Bev volunteered with an end-of-life care organization, reading to people who were dying. She read all sorts of things: newspaper articles, e-mails, mystery novels, inscriptions in old yearbooks, whatever the patient wanted. The organization didn’t tell her what each person was dying of, but often the patients would and sometimes she could guess. She had no idea what ailed Mr. Perkins, a small brittle man of almost ninety. He was a retired high school English teacher, and the only thing he wanted read was The Old Man and the Sea. They were on their fourth time through and would have been on their fifth or sixth except Mr. Perkins liked to interrupt with little lectures. He had spent his whole life going back and forth on the question of whether or not Santiago died at the end and wanted to reach a definitive conclusion before he reached the end of his own story. On her last visit, he had confided to Bev that he felt they were close to a breakthrough.
Bev picked up where they had left off last week: “‘Fish,’ he said, ‘I love you and respect you very much. But I will kill you dead before this day ends.’”
Mr. Perkins interjected. “Santiago’s struggle with the fish is, of course, his struggle with himself.”
“Of course,” said Bev, and she read on.
Each time she read the book she liked it a little bit more than the time before. She was invested in Santiago. She wanted to believe that there was a certain sort of dignity, heroism even, that could emerge after you’ve fought and fought and lost. The sentences were becoming old and familiar like the Psalms in her prayer book, and it felt good to form them with her tongue. She knew how the story ended, but each time she read it aloud she found herself hoping Santiago would overcome. She flashed with anger every time she got to the part with the sharks.
When the groomsmen returned that evening, they bunched up around the kitchen island (where she had strategically set out a dish of candy) and gave her dramatic accounts of their laser tag battle. They spoke warmly of the food served at the rehearsal dinner, and the groom just smiled. Bev showed the boys pictures on her phone of a snake she’d found the week before, just outside the back door, a red snake draped across the back step with his head buried in the flowerbed. He was thick as Bev’s wrist and bloated in the middle with a lump of eaten animal, possibly a small cat. With a shovel she’d tried to pull him out of his hole, but the snake was like one long muscle. He held fast, so she let him live. She would have crushed his head, but she didn’t have the heart to cut him in half.
The insurance salesman shifted nervously. “He’s still
“There’s a lot of snakes out there.”
After her snake story, none of the groomsmen wanted to go out and bring in their rented tuxes from the cars, but they did anyway. Bev sat down in bed with a book she’d borrowed from Mr. Perkins, another Hemingway one called The Nick Adams Stories, but she kept the book folded in her lap, her eyes closed, and enjoyed the sound of the screen door creaking open and banging shut as the boys went in and out. The mingle of their voices was pleasant until the jokes gave way to calls—“Here boy! Hey, come here! Here boy!”—and there was a knock at her bedroom door. “We accidentally let the dog out.”
She joined the boys on the back steps.
“He did a lap around the house, and we thought we could grab him, but then he shot into the woods,” the insurance salesman explained as the others walked around the yard, calling into the trees. The night air was warm and thick and humming with insects. It smothered their voices.
“It’s no use,” she said. “He doesn’t come when he’s called. He won’t come back.” The groomsmen looked guilty and distressed, ready to tramp through the brush to retrieve the sorry creature, snakes or no. Bev said, “It’s okay. I was tired of him anyway. Either he’ll be back in the morning or he won’t.” She was sounding passive aggressive again, she could hear it in her voice, but it was true, she didn’t care. The dog didn’t love her, and she didn’t love the dog. So why couldn’t she sound like she wasn’t upset? The groom hung his head. He looked like a
Bev sighed. “I suppose I could drive up the hill and see if he’s there.”
She got in her car and drove up the hill, and she shouted the dog’s stupid name: “Bark! Bark! Get your sorry hide up here in this car!” She shouted into the woods, and all she heard were the insects and beyond the insects the sound of the creek. She drew in a breath and raised her voice an octave. “Dog, I swear, I will kill you dead before this day ends!”
And the dog came crashing through the trees. He leapt onto the passenger seat, turned in a circle, and sat down. His tail beat happily against the seat back.
“You stupid creature,” Bev said as she shut his door and slid back into the driver’s seat. She started the engine, then reached over and scratched him behind his ear.
The wedding was a traditional affair, with organ music and the age-old vows, all of it beautiful because it was so rightly solemn. The only disappointing thing was that the mother of the groom had not introduced herself to Bev at the reception. Lord knew the woman had more pressing things than to meet the woman who had (lovingly) housed her son and his friends these past two days, but there was something about the way her fingers curled so delicately around her water glass that made Bev feel dismissed. She left the reception before the bride and groom made their big exit and snapped a picture of the groomsmen in the parking lot writing “Just Married” on the windows of the groom’s car.
At home she cleaned up a dog turd in the kitchen, gave the dog a dog treat, and then sealed herself in the master bathroom with a glass of red wine. She soaked in hot, bubbly water for an hour and tuned out the sharp shrieking barks of the dog. The scripture Pastor Folgers had preached from at the wedding had surprised her: the story of Jesus turning the water into wine at the wedding in Cana, the point being that with Jesus around things were better, especially in marriages. She took another sip of wine. There were mornings when she believed it, that with Jesus things were better, mornings when she could feel the Spirit coursing through her like blood. On the mornings she didn’t there were the Psalms, read slowly, a word at a time, rolled in the taste of coffee on her tongue. Lord, sometimes this life seems so long.
She had tried online dating, but she did not have the strength of Santiago, eighty-four days without a fish. No. She had received a few messages and sent none. The most promising prospects always turned out to be Baptists, and Bev had long ago had her fill of Baptist men. She was Presbyterian. And besides, she wasn’t even sure that she wanted a man. Maybe all she really wanted was a roommate. Her late husband (as she sometimes liked to think of him) had had much success in the realm of internet romance: He had reconnected with an old high school sweetheart through Facebook, and Bev had caught him. There were times when Bev felt that the internet had betrayed her. It wasn’t all eBay and cat pictures.
The groom was, by now, in the air, off with his bride on a flight to Cozumel, where his stepfather owned a condo, but the groomsmen were coming back, filing through the side door and into the kitchen. They were staying one more night and leaving early in the morning to catch flights or to make the long drive back north. She cinched her robe and went out to meet them.
In the morning, when she woke, the groomsmen were gone and the house was quiet (the dog being a late riser). But their smell lingered. She thought she could feel something of their energy still hanging in the dust in the air. One of them had left his tie hanging on the towel bar in the bathroom, and there was one slice of pizza left in the pizza box on the island. Mostly, though, they were gone. She stripped the sheets from the bed and put them in the washer before she stepped outside to go to church.
The snake—because surely it was the same fat red snake she’d seen in the flowerbed—was sunning itself on the gravel of the driveway. It didn’t even look at her when she came out the door. She crushed his skull with a shovel, killing him with one blow, and then scooped him up. The body hung limp and lifeless on the shovel as Bev carried it to the woods.
She arrived at church late, but in time for the message. Pastor Folgers continued his sermon series on the fruits of the Spirit by preaching about peace, peace being not the absence of conflict, but the presence of a steadfast inner tranquility. He preached about the difference between acceptance and resignation. He made Bev feel as though it was her own fault that she was unhappy. She wondered if Mr. Perkins was unhappy. Whenever she read to him he seemed too preoccupied to be happy or sad.
Bev almost always remained after church to talk with the others who remained after church to talk, but today she went straight home. She went straight home and transferred the bed sheets from the washer to the dryer and then walked through the rooms of the house feeling dissatisfied, looking for coasters to collect and tables that had shifted out of place. Several minutes went by before she realized the dog was gone.
How had she not noticed those tendrils of silence all through the house? How had the dog gotten out? He had snuck out, she was certain, with the groomsmen, when it was dark, and now he was gone. She went from room to room, checking behind sofas and the washing machine, calling out to him, and each empty room, each unanswered shout, made her feel a little more frantic, a little more alone in the house. She drove up to the top of the hill and cried out into the woods, “Dog! Dog, come back!” But the dog did not come back. It occurred to her that perhaps there was too much pleading in her voice, that the dog was remaining away to make her suffer. It occurred to her that she was attributing too much intelligence to the dog. The dog out there with all those snakes. It occurred to her that the dog could already be dead. The dog was not dead—in fact, the phone would be ringing when she walked back into the house. It would be Amelia Johnson with the dog in Kurt’s truck. Bev did and did not believe this.
The phone was not ringing when she returned to the house, so she removed the sheets from the dryer and folded them as neatly as she could. She stored them in the linen closet. There was no point in making the beds. She sat down at the kitchen table, opened her prayer book, and began to pray, slowly, a word at a time, while her ears strained for the sound of a dog barking in the distance.