The online magazine Clapboard House features this month a “flash fiction” story by NewSouth author Gerald Duff. In Duff’s story “Win/Place/Show,” a teenage boy and his aunt and uncle gamble at a dog-racing track in Arkansas. While the boy longs for Florida, and something else he cannot quite articulate, his aunt spends the afternoon considering her husband’s infidelity and the precarious nature of human relationships.
From the author:
When I lived in Memphis for several years, at times I accompanied a friend to the greyhound racetrack across the Mississippi River from the city called Southland Greyhound. I’m not a gambler or a lover of dogs, but I liked to watch the people who went to the races in West Memphis, where the track is located. It came to me one hot steamy night at the dogtrack that the people who bet on the greyhounds did their choosing of the likely winners by either studying past performances of the animals as reported in a track publication or they looked at the parade of dogs before each race and placed their bets upon the basis of estimating the energy and promise of individual animals or they decided, as I did, by choosing on the basis of what the dogs were named. My way was the least likely way to win, of course. But how can you resist picking a dog named “RoverGotOver” as opposed to “My Rusty?”How you bet (whether to win, place, or show) speaks to your boldness, your optimism, your chance-taking, your character. Gambling is about an act of faith and belief, often betrayed.
In my story, which is about marital betrayal, heartbreak, and the dispelling of dreams, the way the characters place their bets and speak to each other is the tip-off to their natures. I wanted to show this situation, find a way to give it tension, and give it resolution, all in about three pages. My problem was one of working within compression, setting a scene, sketching an environment, and having one character show some significant change. If a work of fiction succeeds, the reader must feel some meaningful change has taken place. Aristotle said it, and I believe it
I decided to use present tense, rather than past, in order to heighten immediacy, and to shift to future tense at the end of the story to show the significant change to come. I used three characters and presented the environment of the moment by having the crowd at the dogtrack scream with one voice, as their hopes ride on the racing success of a group of dumb animals.
One character had to show change, and that I attempted to show by having the nephew in the story forecast by the narrator as lying in bed at his aunt’s and uncle’s home listening to these “kind” and “loving” relatives fight over the betrayal and loss of trust between them. I made the narrator completely omniscient in point of view and utterly cold in describing what takes place. No one gets any sympathy.
I meant for the story to capture something of the ethos of Memphis and the New South: that of corporations, commerce financial and emotional, and the breakdown of old verities and familial relationships. I spent as much time writing this story as I typically do in writing one ten times longer.
Gerald Duff is the author of the acclaimed novel Coasters (NewSouth, 2001), which chronicles the ups and downs of the middle-aged, divorcee Waylon Mcphee’s move back home to the company of his widowed father. Duff’s recent short story collection Fire Ants (NewSouth, 2007) juxtaposes striking characters struggling for redemption against the back drop of various Southern locales, from the marshes and pine barrens of East Texas to the row houses of Baltimore, and in time from the Civil War to the present day. The Texas Institute of Arts and Letters named Fire Ants a finalist for the Jesse Jones Award for Best Book of Fiction in 2007.
Read the full text of “Win/Place/Show” at the Clapboard House website. Clapboard House is an online literary journal that samples short stories and poetry that depict the South, its culture, and its people.
Both Fire Ants and Coasters are available from NewSouth Books, Amazon.com, or your favorite online and local booksellers.