Pushcart 2011: Susan Perabo, “Shelter” from The Iowa Review, Spring 2009

I’ve gotten through a lot by not over-thinking things, by being able to keep certain matters out of my mind. You busy yourself with living, however it is you choose to busy yourself – dogs or kids or broken cars or numbers in a book – and you might well forget that after a year of anticipation your father decided not to move the family to Florida after all, or that the man you almost married had a change of heart at the last minute and traded you in for another. My sister, who lives down in Boston, thinks all the time about everything and as a result takes a half-dozen pills every morning. Last year I watched her suffer every detail of her daughter’s wedding and I thought: you can have it.

This story is available online. It’s not very long, and it’s easy to read.

One of the things this first-person narrator (a 62-year-old woman who takes in unwanted dogs and places them with families who want them) has not thought about is the acorn-sized lump she found one day in the shower. She doesn’t want to get sucked into the medical machinery, so she focuses on placing the nineteen dogs she has waiting for homes, as quickly as possible. She thinks she has enough time for that.

It’s a dance of intimacy without intimacy between the narrator and Jerry, who wants a dog. They are both careful to stay distant. And yet, they end up perhaps closer to each other than to anyone else in their lives. While the characters aren’t sentimental at all (“I did not want there to be a single sentimental moment with a dog in this story, because neither character would tolerate such a thing.” Perabo says in an interview with The Iowa Review), it’s a story that’s quite sentimental about how non-sentimental they are.

It’s another story that took a long time to take shape:

It grew (as my stories often do) from the collision of two separate stories that had been knocking around in my head for some time: the story of a lonely woman doing “home visits” to place stray dogs, and the story of the strange old man in Cornish. Even after I realized these two stories were actually one, it took me probably three years to complete the piece, and I gave up on it numerous times….
Winning [a Pushcart prize] for a story like “Shelter,” which was so long in coming, confirms my belief that the stories you really care about – even when you give them up for dead, and abandon them for months and years at a time — are always worth returning to.

While it didn’t astound me the way some of the other stories in this volume did, it’s a truly interesting approach to these two people, and I enjoyed it very much.

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