Curtis Smith


Curtis Smith has published over one hundred stories and essays. His latest books are Beasts and Men (stories, Press 53), Communion (essays, Dock Street Press), and Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, Bookmarked (nonfiction, Ig Publishing).



His shovel patted the dirt. A gentle touch. A period, not an exclamation. Twilight had faded to ash, then black. Fireflies rose above the ragged grass, cicadas in the trees. His son by his side. In the boy’s hand, a flashlight, the beam fixed upon the rectangle of upturned earth. The boy had found the dog behind the shed. For the past week, the dog had been lethargic. The heat, the father figured. The dog older than his son. A beagle mix, a rescue, a network of wounds beneath his black and tan coat. The shelter had named him Dodge. The father wasn’t fond of the name, but he believed changing it wouldn’t be fair. The son had just turned nine, an age in which the world was ruled by giants and myths. The father was deeply aware of the shadow he cast upon his son, and he did his best to live accordingly.

The father hadn’t been a dog person. He reminded his wife of their habit of sleeping in, their impromptu road trips. He thought of vet bills and the stink of wet fur. His wife joked: “If we can’t handle a dog, how can we handle a child?” The man had no answer for that, so his wife made phone calls and signed papers. At first, the dog cowered before the father, its tail between its legs, sometimes pissing. In its dewy eyes, the father saw ghosts of violence. A bond was formed, both father and dog survivors, the keepers of secrets. The dog hiked the woodland trails the father loved, and soon, the father’s misgivings were won over by the beast’s drive, its loyalty. Its soul. The wife, now eight-months round with their son: “You love him more than I do.”

The dog, then his son, and for the next six years, the father hoped the happiness of the moment might be his forever. He breathed freely, unafraid and at peace. He forgot his past. The dog became the infant’s punching bag, ears and tail pulled but barely a yelp. The dog curled, nose to ass, beside the crib, his snout lifted to witness groggy feedings and diaper changes. Then the unraveling. Arthritis gripped the dog. Second grade a quagmire for the boy, playground bullies, the mysteries of math. His wife drifted in thought and gaze. On a warm April Sunday, their backyard cherry tree flush in pink and white, she disappeared only to emerge halfway across the country. A new man, a love she couldn’t live without. Twice a week, she Skyped with the boy, and in two days, the son would fly in his first plane to spend the rest of the summer with her and her new husband.

The father offered a final pat of his shovel. He touched the boy’s shoulder. “Let’s go.”

The boy turned off the flashlight and slid it into his pocket. Above, stars, a half moon; below, a landscape of silver-edged shadows. The boy kept his distance as the father returned to the shed. The father opened the door and fumbled in the darkness. His hands a mystery. The scent of grass and oil. He groped the wall but couldn’t find the spot where he hung the shovel. He called for his son’s flashlight but got no response. The man stepped outside. The boy was gone.

He paled, a sickened heartbeat, his tongue stone. Then a grunt, a flailing branch, and he spotted the boy climbing into the tree house. The father had built the tree house last spring; its origins, though, rooted in winter, a single-digit day. The father and his wife arguing, him still blind, unable to taste the poison in the air, and finally, the boy in tears. The wife left, a slammed door, a squeal of tires. The boy’s sobs deepened, inconsolable, the father’s appeals to calm and logic lost in the boy’s fears. Fresh air, a change in perspective—the father hoped these things would help. He bundled the boy in layers, all the while drying tears and whispering assurances. Outside, the cold still a shock. The sky crystalline and blue, the sun bright without warmth, gutter icicles, some as tall as the boy and which made the father nervous. The father lifted the boy to the cherry tree’s lowest branch then stepped back, his hands never far. The boy found a nook and sat. His boots dangled above the father’s head. Their exhaled breath rose through the naked branches. The boy calmed, and when he was ready, he jumped into his father’s arms. At the back door, the boy turned to his father. His cheeks flushed, snot on his lip. How cool it would be to have a tree house, he said. A place all his own, way up high.

A shine in the tree house’s doorway and window, white rectangles cut from the night. The beam moved, a circling inspection, the boy terrified of spiders. Light spilled over snarls of leaves and branches. Slivers escaped a section of ill-fitted floorboards, and the father waved his hand through the thin shafts. The pieces had arrived in a kit, a project marred by misread blueprints and bent nails. The boy oblivious to the structure’s imperfections. The tree house his fort and frontier, his refuge.

The flashlight clicked off. The wooden box melted back into the tree’s canopy. A breeze, the leaves rustling, the scent of chlorine from a neighbor’s pool. The father laid a hand on one of the crooked rungs he’d screwed into the trunk. The son began to speak, his voice thinned by the humidity and cicadas. He asked his father how being mean was so easy for some people. He asked if what was true now would be true forever. He asked about his airplane ride and what he would see above the clouds. He asked what his room would be like at his mother’s new house. He asked if his father remembered how the dog would yelp in his sleep, his paws twitching as if he were running on air, and what, the son asked, did a dog dream about anyway.

The man stood beneath the tree. He swatted his neck, the mosquitos buzzing. Moths danced around the back porch light. He said nothing, wanting to make sure the boy had no more questions. He spoke, a tone gentle yet full enough to rise into the tree. He apologized for all the answers he’d never be able to give, so much was a mystery after all. He’d long ago stopped trying to understand the why of others; all he could control were the actions of his hands, the kindness of his words. Truth, he believed, existed in all states of matter, as bedrock and water and mist, phase changes rooted in perspective and history. Above the clouds waited a sunshine brighter than any the boy had ever witnessed. His room at his mother’s new home would be different, but every night he stayed there, he would claim it a little more. The dog had dreamed of bones as big as table legs and never-ending fields, but most of all he dreamed of you, his boy.

He fell silent. The cicadas thrummed. Farther off, a dog the father knew by its bark, a howl taken up and echoed, dogs the father recognized (all those walks, the years of small talk and tangled leashes) and others he did not. He looked back to his house. A single light, the moths. On the boy’s bed, a suitcase the father had yet to pack.



“Can I think about what you said?”


“Can I think about it up here?”


“Will you wait there?”

The father brushed down a lawn chair, its back, above and below the seat. He, too, was afraid of spiders. He studied the tree. The sky. He removed his socks, and his toes pulled at the dry grass. He unbuttoned his shirt and let the breeze cool his skin. “Yes,” he said. “I will be here. Waiting.”

I never thought I’d do a dead dog story, but here it is. I justified it to myself by putting the dog in the background—his passing isn’t the focus of the piece, although it helps set the tone. I further justified it by my late-in-life understanding about dogs. I’d never owned a dog before we took in a little stray, and I’m not ashamed to admit how much I love the thing. I’m thankful for this knowledge and for the love he’s brought to our family.