Game Face by Russell Reece

She died in his arms, right there on the table. It happened before the vet even finished the exam. Todd was holding her and she collapsed against him. Gone.

“Sorry to hear that,” I said when they called, or maybe it was, “Too bad.” I don’t remember. I needed to wash it out of my mind while I was at work. I couldn’t let something like losing the family dog take me away from my job. I put on my game face and kept going, but during the drive home, it began to consume me.

Cricket was twelve. She looked like an Irish setter, but jet black with a small streak of gray on her chest. “She’s a jumper,” the guy had said when we picked her up. That’s how she got her name and it turned out to be well deserved. Her joy was catching Frisbees, often by leaping acrobatically into the air. She would go until exhaustion set in or the Frisbee was so chewed-up it wouldn’t fly. We finally began using lids from five-gallon plastic buckets – they lasted forever and it was all the same to her.

She’d been sick for several days, but last night in the den we realized it was serious. She could barely move, just stood in the middle of the room wearing a frightened, glazed look. At one point, she hobbled over and leaned her head against my knee, closed her eyes and fell asleep. I’ll never forget that.  

I turned into our lane as the sun disappeared behind the tree line. My tires crunched down the long gravel drive. Poor Todd, I thought. It’s always tough to lose a dog, but at fifteen, and having grown up with her – it must have been very hard for him today.

The brakes gave off a quiet squeal as the car rolled to a stop against the fence. I pushed open the door and grabbed my briefcase off the back seat. Daylight was fading and dark shadows had formed along the hedgerow. In the western sky, towering clouds were backlit with traces of orange and red. Rarely home this early, I paused to enjoy the grandeur of it all.

Then I heard the sound of digging

Beyond the garden, the lamp on the barn flooded a small portion of the yard with yellow light. Todd was there, bent over a dark hole, jabbing a long-handled shovel into the ground. Cricket’s body and a rumpled old sheet lay next to him. My heart went still for a moment.

Except for the scraping, clinking sounds from the shovel, the evening seemed unusually quiet. I took off my jacket, laid it over the briefcase and started across the yard. My throat tightened as I rolled up my sleeves and tried to think of what to say – something comforting, appropriate. Words never came easily.

Dry leaves crackled under my feet and Todd hesitated. He didn’t look up, just started digging again.

The grave was deep and better than a fifteen-year-old would normally do. He was finishing, widening it to the right size. A large pile of soil had formed at the edge.

“Rough day,” I said. “Can I give you a hand?”

He shook his head and kept working. “I’ll do it,” he said, lifting out another shovelful. 

I squatted next to Cricket’s body and stroked the hair on her neck. “She was the best,” I said.

Todd stopped and looked at me for the first time. His cheek was dirty where he had brushed back tears. But it was the face of a man I saw, resolved, hard at the edge, ready to throw down a challenge. And then his face softened, and there was the boy again, hesitant and insecure. His lips parted and his tongue moved into his cheek as he struggled to hold something inside. He turned and jabbed the shovel into the dirt. A clunk. He levered and pried until something came loose. Reaching down, he pulled out a large rock and tossed it onto the pile.

“I didn’t think you liked her,” he said, and resumed digging.

My God, where did that come from? “Why do you say that, son?”

A shovelful of sand landed on the pile and spilled down the side. He took a broken breath and shook his head. “I don’t know.” He leaned on the handle, looked out across the neighbor’s field. 

“Todd?”

“You’re always so busy. You never cared about her, never paid any attention to her.” He shifted his gaze back and glared as the man stirred and the boy carefully raised his voice. “You yelled at her, and hit her sometimes.”

I looked away and saw Cricket asleep with her head resting on my knee. I wanted to cry out loud, for the dog, for my son, but he was watching and I had to stay composed. I couldn’t act like a child.  

“There are times I’ve yelled at you, Todd. But I love you to death.” He looked down. Wind rustled dry leaves in the oak tree next to the barn.

“I’m going to miss Cricket.” I added. “I’m going to miss her a lot.”

We both stared at the hole and listened to the soft electrical hum from the barn lamp. I struggled for something else to say, something that would fulfill my responsibility as the wise parent and somehow offer comfort and understanding to my son, but the words just wouldn’t come.

Todd wiped his eyes and scraped up the loose gravel at the bottom of the grave. “Do you think it’s big enough?” he said.

“Looks like it to me. You did a good job.”

I got down and lined the moist bottom with part of the sheet. As I smoothed the wrinkles, sand spilled off the pile. Todd scooped it out with his hand.

Together we lowered Cricket’s body into the grave. Todd covered her with the sheet and tucked it in around the edges. Then we both stood for a moment and looked down at the bundle. “Anything you want to do before we fill it in?” I said.

He shook his head.

“How ’bout if I get it started?”

He nodded.

I pushed the shovel into the soft pile of dirt and dropped a load into the hole. Maybe it was my imagination or wishful thinking, but with each successive shovelful the tension that surrounded my son and me seemed to fade a little, and I was grateful for that.

Todd finished filling in, leaving nothing but a few scrapes and scratches in the soft earth and a neat, firmly packed mound.  

We walked back to the house together, neither speaking, lost in our own thoughts. He went inside and I returned the shovel to the garage. Cricket’s bucket-lid Frisbee lay ready on the concrete floor. I picked it up and ran my finger along the chewed edge. Too bad we didn’t think to bury it with her.

I walked across the driveway waving the Frisbee around, thinking how excited Cricket would be, how she would be urging me to throw it for her if she were still here. I sailed her beloved disk out into the darkness.

As I picked up my jacket I glanced back at the barn and the portion of yard illuminated by the lamp. It looked like an empty stage at the end of a performance. I folded the jacket over my arms and leaned against the car. Todd didn’t think I liked her. I guess I didn’t show it like everyone else did, but I liked her a lot. She was the best dog we ever had.

She knew how I felt. I hope she did anyway. She wouldn’t have rested her head against me if she didn’t think I liked her – unless she was trying one last time.

I stared at my briefcase. “You’re always so busy.” That’s what he said, and he was right. I am always busy and never around. And when I am around I don’t know what to say or do. All I could think about, as I stood by that grave, was the pain of everything – of Cricket dying, of seeing my son torn up inside and being so brave, and of my own awkward uncertainty.

I wanted to put my arms around my boy, hug him as hard as I could, and let everything go. That’s what I wanted to do. But I was his dad and needed to help him through it. I had to be steady and wise, chin up and all that. Didn’t I?

I looked out into the darkness, feeling inept and alone. I imagined Cricket bounding toward me, happily chomping on the bucket-lid Frisbee. I imagined calling her to me, and putting my arms around her neck to show her I loved her. It wouldn’t matter if anyone were around. That’s what I would do, right now, if I could.

Back at the barn, at the edge of the lighted yard, the fresh mound cast an eerie shadow. I picked up my briefcase and headed to the house. I needed to find my son.


Russell Reece has received Best of the Net nominations, and awards from the Delaware Press Association and the Faulkner-Wisdom competition. In 2019 he won the Pat Herold Nielsen Poetry Prize. His work recently appeared in Blueline, Under the Gum Tree, The 3288 Review and Proud to Be: Writing by American Warriors. In 2015 he was granted fellowships in literature from both The Delaware Division of the Arts and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts.

The male tragedy, then, is that showing our love by providing takes us away from showing our love by connecting. Thus, loving our sons has taken us away from loving our sons. – Warren Farrell, from his landmark book, The Myth of Male Power.

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4 thoughts on “Game Face by Russell Reece”

  1. Beautiful writing. Just enough sentiment and not too much. The descriptions ring true: I know a dog just like Cricket, and we’ve all seen sunsets like that one.
    The only detail that grates (in these plastic-conscious days) is the flinging away of the plastic bucket-lid.
    I’m reminded of the fact that few dying men say they wish they had spent more time at work. Many say they wish they had not worked so hard. It’s a hard balance to get right.

    1. Thanks again for your comments, Ms. Bolton.
      “Just enough sentiment and not too much,” says a lot about Russ’s writing, and I agree.
      I’m very glad to include this piece in the anthology.

      As to your note about dying men, I found this on the web:
      “Nobody on their deathbed has ever said ‘I wish I had spent more time at the office’.”
      — Heard from Rabbi Harold Kushner; Attributed by some to Senator Paul Tsongas.

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