Matt Muilenburg 



Fade in.


Ext: A fenced-in backyard keeps a toddler and three dogs from exploring the blue-collar neighborhood in which the property—single-level house, single-car garage—is set. The fence surrounding the property gives privacy to the RENTER, a mid-twenties grad student whose WIFE, also in her mid-twenties, is pregnant for the second time in three years. There’s a fire pit and a garden and dandelions aging into white hair, the backyard designed by a paint-by-numbers landscaper. It’s a microcosm of the neighborhood—dull, uninteresting, safe. In a few weeks, that will change, as a man whom the RENTER never met will be murdered a hundred feet or so to the east of the property, but for now, the RENTER, very much unmurdered himself and finishing up his third year of grad school, sits on the deck and grades papers. His SON romps about the backyard, and the three family dogs join him.

The SON spies something in the mulchy flower bed alongside the garage. He investigates.


RENTER [pen clenched between his teeth]: Be careful over there.


SON: No.


RENTER: C’mon now, stay out of the flowers. That’s not a sandbox.


SON: No.


CHORUS [singing]: So sayeth What to Expect: Choose your battles, daddy. Is this really worth a crying fit?


RENTER [sighs, returns to his papers, writes]: Make sure your verb tense is consistent. You’re jumping from… Hey! Put that down.


SON: No.


RENTER [leans forward, squints]: What do you have in your hand?


The son shoves whatever was in his tiny hand—a rock, a flower, a piece of mulch—into his mouth. The renter hurries over and sticks his hand out.


RENTER: Spit it out.


SON [muffled]: No.


RENTER [kneels]: Be a good boy and listen to daddy.


SON: No. Cookie.


The renter tries to pry open his son’s mouth. The toddler whines and pushes away, attempts to run without having yet mastered that ability. The renter scoops him up and, after a brief struggle, plucks out what is certainly not a cookie.


RENTER: Is that—


CHORUS [singing]: Shit!




SON: Shit.


RENTER: Honey!


The renter’s wife hobbles outside. She’d been trying to rest after a long day of substitute teaching, her stomach swollen with thirty-six weeks of gestation. Her back hurts. Her feet hurt. She’s naturally easygoing, but this third trimester has instilled in her a bit of impatience.


WIFE: What’s going on?


RENTER: He ate a chunk of dog shit.


WIFE [not as panicky as the renter thought she’d be]: No, he didn’t.


RENTER [very much panicky]: Yes he did. Look!


The renter sets down their son. He holds out a whetted piece of dog poop, the size of a cocktail weenie, squeezed out of the backside of a Miniature Pinscher days earlier.


CHORUS [singing]: Why are you still holding that?


The renter drops the dog turd and wipes his hand on the grass. He and his wife bend over to have a closer look.


RENTER: What do we do?


WIFE [calm]: I don’t know.


RENTER: What do you mean you don’t know?


WIFE: He didn’t swallow any of it, right? Let’s just rinse his mouth out.


CHORUS [singing]: Get some Listerine!


RENTER: I’ll get some Listerine.


WIFE: He’ll swallow it and burn his throat. Just get water.


RENTER: Listerine!


The renter runs into the bathroom and grabs the bottle of mouthwash. He flips it over, reads the warnings before looking at the instructions.


CHORUS [singing]: Avoid giving to children under the age of twelve.




CHORUS [singing]: We were wrong! You should have chosen to battle!


The renter runs to the kitchen and gets a cup of water. He returns to the backyard. The renter picks up their son again, takes a tiny sip, swishes, and spits.


RENTER: Just like daddy, okay?


The toddler takes a sip and swallows.


RENTER: Shit! He’s going to get sick. Who knows what was in that.


WIFE: Who cares what’s in it. It’s shit.


CHORUS [singing]: So sayeth What to Expect: “Common allergenic substances include mold. Dust mites. Pet dander. Pollen. And foods.” But not shit. So you’re [pauses] good, we guess.


WIFE: He’s going to be fine. I read that there’s almost always some fecal matter in meat. And mushrooms grow in poop. We eat them all the time.


RENTER: That’s not helping.


WIFE: Everything will be fine.


Their son has not waited around for his parents to decide what to do next. He chases around the Min Pin like he’s awaiting a second helping.


RENTER: Are you sure?


WIFE: I’m not one-hundred percent positive, but I really think he’s going to be fine. Please don’t worry.


CHORUS [singing]: Ha! Not worry? You? You’re going to give yourself IBS in a few years, going to go on meds to beat down your depression and anxiety, going to burn holes in your gut, and grind your teeth into halflings. Your neighbor will be murdered, your wife will get cancer, two of those dogs will die before they see old age, and that degree you’re working so hard for right now won’t begin to pay off for more than a decade. Don’t worry about this shit.


RENTER [unsure; forever unsure]: I’ll try.


Fade out.



Matt Muilenburg teaches at the University of Dubuque. His creative nonfiction has been featured in Southern Humanities Review, Superstition Review, Barrelhouse Online, The Doctor T.J. Eckleburg Review, and elsewhere. Matt is an associate editor of fiction for Southern Indiana Review and lives near the Field of Dreams movie site.