Animal Cruelty

by Tom Hazuka

On their second date Yantz goes to Karen’s house for dinner, which he doesn’t consider the best possible option. The first date was tremendous, a spirited segue from overpriced caffeine at Starbucks to chilled chardonnay and two hours of nakedness at his apartment. Dinner’s not the problem; Karen’s probably a great cook, and Yantz loves salmon. He brought the same wine she liked so much last weekend.

But isn’t it too soon to meet her kid?

Karen thinks ten-year-old Natalie is adorable, and said so during the public portion of date number one, though the child was never mentioned again once their clothes hit the floor.

Natalie looks like a clone of Shirley Temple—Shirley Temple with braces and a pink iPhone. Yantz half-expects to be subjected to “The Good Ship Lollipop.”

“Do you like school?” Yantz asks, figuring he‘s obligated to pretend to care.

“I love school,” Natalie says, blonde curls bouncing as she starts hopping up and down for no apparent reason.

“Oh really?” Yantz could gag at how phony he sounds, but Karen is beaming at him.

“Yes. For Language Arts I’m doing a report on animal cruelty.”

Yantz can’t help himself. “For or against?”

Natalie’s jaw quivers like a fish with no flop left in it. Though his chances of ever kissing that birthmark on Karen’s thigh again have probably plummeted to zero, Yantz only semi-regrets the remark.

Then Karen starts to laugh, so hard it’s almost unnerving. “That’s hilarious! I didn’t know you were so funny!”

Yantz didn’t know it either. His sense of humor is usually described as dry to the point of aridity. “Saharan,” the previous woman he had been dating called it.

“Isn’t Kenny funny, Nat?”

Kenny? He’s been Ken to her up till now. Yantz is no grammar expert, but in his experience when women call you by a diminutive, for them it’s a form of the possessive. The weird thing is that he doesn’t resent it. It feels borderline wonderful to be wanted by a woman who thinks he’s funny, who uses a diminutive for her daughter in the same sentence she uses one for him.

Natalie’s smile is tentative but still pure Shirley Temple, right down to the dimples that are, if not adorable, certainly cute.

Karen pops the wine cork.

“So, Natalie,” Yantz says, “your report sounds pretty interesting.”

Her smile grows and glows. Yantz imagines reading the report, nodding thoughtfully, maybe even helping her. He imagines reading stories to a kid on the couch with her weary head on his shoulder.

Where the hell did that come from? Can life actually work this way?

Karen hands him a glass. “Cheers,” she says, their eyes meeting for a long time, but nowhere near as long as Yantz suddenly wants to be familiar with her hidden birthmark and other secrets.

Natalie eyes them both, caught somewhere between wisdom and wonder. “My report’s mostly about cruelty to chickens.”

Karen’s hand gently squeezes his shoulder. Yantz closes his eyes.

“That’s terrible, Nat,” he says. “Tell me more.”

Tom Hazuka has published three novels, over sixty short stories, a book of nonfiction (A Method to March Madness: An Insider’s Look at the Final Four), and has edited or co-edited six anthologies of short stories, including Flash Fiction and Sudden Flash Youth. He teaches fiction writing at Central Connecticut State University. Links to his writing and original songs can be found at tomhazuka.com.

What surprising, fascinating stuff can you tell us about the origin, drafting, and/or final version of “Animal Cruelty”?

    As is the case with virtually all my fiction, be it a 50-word story or a novel, I wrote “Animal Cruelty” with only the vaguest idea of what the story was about and where it was going. I knew from experience that there was inherent tension in the situation: meeting a new lover’s child, of whatever age. (For the record, I met my stepdaughter when she was twelve.) I can’t recall why I decided that Natalie should be ten years old, but if history is any guide I experimented with several ages in different drafts.

    The one thing I did expect to use in the story somewhere was the quip about animal cruelty, which I had courtesy of my friend, the excellent poet Dan Donaghy. Evidently I said it to Dan’s daughter at their house years ago, which I only know because Dan reminded me of it much later over beers. I still don’t recall saying it, but I’m sure glad he told me.

    The first version of “Animal Cruelty” was just under 750 words, the limit I give myself for writing flash fiction because that’s the length we used for the original Flash Fiction anthology. I subsequently pared it to 600- and 500-word versions. Please help me out—which version did I send you? My record-keeping is letting me down. [Editor’s Note: the 500-word version.] The hopeful ending surprised me somewhat at first, but it makes perfect sense in light of how much my stepdaughter Maggie and ward Grace (who came to live with my wife and me four years ago) have added to my life.

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