Peter H. Walpole is a former fiction editor at Third Coast. "A Good Day for the Pug" is his first published story.
The man's hands are strange. He's never seen them before. They are someone else's hands, he thinks. Discolored and shaking. He is sitting on his bed at the home, and he puts his hands under his legs to hide them. These hands will break too easily, he thinks—even taped. He could never win a fight with these hands.
His door opens. There, large and white in the doorway, is the nurse he sees everyday. She says the man's youngest son has come to pick him up.. "You're going to see your grandbaby, Walter," she says. His son is behind the nurse. The man recognizes his son not so much with his eyes but with the deep familiar feeling that has suddenly filled his chest. Today will be a good day even though someone has taken his hands.
They are driving. His son is talking. The man understands most of the words make up questions, and he is even able to answer a few. Perhaps correctly, perhaps incorrectly. There's little difference.
"She looks just like you, Pop," his son is saying. "She has your eyes. I know that's something every parent says, but you'll see it. She looks just like you."
The old man is looking at the houses with tall green trees in their yards. They pass too quickly.
"Say something to me, buddy. Come on." His son pats him lightly on the leg. "No? Don't feel like talking? Alright, I don't mind doing the talking. This is going to be great, Pop. Really good for you. You know what Carol told me last week? That she was secretly hoping for a boy. You know why, Pop? She wanted a boy to name after you—she wanted a boy named Walter."
The man looks at his son when he hears his name. "Walter," he says.
"That's right. Walter. We'll have a son one day. They'll be another Walter in the family."
There's a framed fight poster that catches the man's eye when they walk into the house. "Friday, June 12. Madison Square Garden. Muhammad Ali vs. 'Smoking' Joe Frazier."
At the bottom of the fight poster are other bouts. One reads, "Bobby Chisolm vs. Walter Kelley."
"We had it framed, Pop," his son says to him. "You and Ali and Frazier on the same card. That's family history." His son smiles at him. "Carol," he yells, "We're Back."
A strange woman comes from another room. "Shhhh," she says. "The baby's sleeping." Then she says sweetly, "Oh, Walter." She hugs the man, then kisses him on the cheek.
"I don't think he knows me, Michael," she says.
"He'll remember," says his son. "Don't worry. Give him a few minutes."
This woman kisses his son, says she's forgotten some things at the market and that she'll be right back. Then she says to the man, "Think you boys can handle baby-sitting for fifteen minutes, Walter?"
"We'll go have a look at her right now," says his son. His arm is around the man's shoulder.
His son has his arm. They are walking slowly, and the old man thinks that perhaps thieves have taken not only his hands but his legs, too. These are much too slow and heavy to be his legs. When they start climbing the stairs, he is sure someone has taken his legs. The stairs shudder through these legs like slow combination punches, one after another. He is breathing heavily. When is the bell going to ring? he wonders. Where are the ropes? He wants to rest.
"How are you doing, Pop?" his son asks. "We're almost there."
They are in a pink room, now. His son is leading him by the arm. There is a crib, and in it a handful-size person.
"Doesn't she look like a Kelley?" says the man's son. "I can't get over it. She has the Kelley nose, just like you and me. Not so busted up like yours, though."
He can see part of his son in the baby's face. He remembers the day he brought his own baby home, the baby that is now a large man standing next to him. He remembers singing to that baby. He sings the words that are suddenly in his head, "Evening's gone, and night has come, but Popa's by your side. The moon shines on the midnight lake, but we in shadows hide. The call of cold and darkness plain seeks ears low and high. But Popa's by your side tonight, and nothing will come nigh."
"God Pop, I remember that song," says his son. "You used to sing it to Sarah when she was baby."
The old man remembers his daughter Sarah now, but she fades when he sees the tiny hands of the baby, hands balled in fists, like small smooth river rocks. He looks at the strange hands connected to his own arms again. He cannot fist them.
A terrible feeling takes hold of the man as he thinks that maybe he is wrong, that these are the right hands, that he is simply old and he's forgotten that he is old. These hands are crooked and pink and purple. They shake. They are useless in the ring, he understands.
There's the bell.
There it is again.
"Don't worry," says his son when the bell rings a third time, "The machine will answer it."
The bell again. "Michael, if you're there, pick up," says a shaky voice in the hall. "I hit somebody. Rear-ended them. I'm waiting for a tow truck right now. Michael?"
"Jesus," says the son, "Be right back, Pop."
"—don't know, I just wasn't paying attention. Everyone's alright. I'm alright, nobody's hurt. Michael, pick up, please—"
His son is gone, but he hears his voice in the hall, "Baby, I'm here, are you okay?"
A mirror hangs over a small white dresser in the pink room. The man sees an old man in the mirror and faintly recognizes his face. This hits him hard, like clean blow to the ribs. He remembers that he's old. His air is gone. His corner is not helping him at all. He looks down again.
Small eyes are looking at him. They are very clear. They could be his eyes—or they were, once. He looks to the mirror again. The man there has very little hair, and he thinks it is remarkable that the baby has little to speak of, too. He feels his face. It is dry and rough. He reaches down and feels the tiny face. It feels perfect. He breathes hard.
When the small hand takes hold of his finger, he jabs like he's been taught . The baby is screaming now.
His son has the baby in his arms. "Don't worry, Pop. She's probably just hungry." His son is walking around with the baby against his shoulder, hand fully over its head. "It's okay, shhhh," his son is saying, "It's okay, shhhh, it's okay."
He is following his son down the stairs now, breathing easier, feeling light.
"How are you doing?" his son says to him over his shoulder, over the baby's small pink head.
The fighter understands that this is a question, and he knows there is a correct answer this time. He has that answer.
"These are my hands," he says.