Runner Up: Playing Possum

by Ian Gillespie

A retired print journalist and former actor, Ian Gillespie graduated from York University with a BFA, and later obtained a BA in journalism at Ryerson University. He spent more than 30 years working as a reporter, columnist, and editor at the London Free Press newspaper. Married, with three grown children, Gillespie lives in London, Ontario with his wife and a growing collection of typewriters.

“Playing Possum” unfolds masterfully. With well-calculated restraint Gillespie explores depths of emotional tension; the space and silence of unmentioned details sheds just as much light on the characters’ inner lives as the dialogues between them. The author weaves through themes of family relationships and dysfunction, mental illness, the mundane, and formative childhood experiences with striking imagery.  This story and my curiosity about its characters and their futures has stayed with me long after reading.

—francesca ekwuyasi

Even before they killed that momma and her babies, Scott felt bad. Not sick-with-the-flu bad, just weird-and-worried bad. Because the day they hit that possum—his mother behind the wheel, not braking or swerving, those skinny snout babies spilled all up and down that nowhere road—was the same day he found that picture beneath the hankies in their father’s dresser drawer. A black-and-white shot of a topless lady, smiling, with great big pointy breasts.

It was Mrs. Mason, stupid Eric’s mom, from over on Cherryhill.

Scott was thinking about that dumb photo—why did Mrs. Mason let somebody take her picture when she wasn’t wearing all her clothes?—when Doug yelled from the front seat. Scott glanced up and saw something lumpy vanish beneath the car. He heard strange bumping sounds, then turned and through the rear window saw something dark explode, black blobs pinwheeling every which way.

“We hit an animal!” yelled his brother, and without a word their mother pulled onto the gravel shoulder, and all three clambered out.

The grey beast lay bent and glistening in the middle of the road, a handful of dead babies strewn about, some leaking liquid. Five others, apparently unhurt, wandered along the asphalt, squeaks falling like pebbles from their gaping mouths.

As his brother skittered toward the confusion, Scott followed his mother to the front of the car, where she stood and stared at the gleaming grill.

“See any damage, Scotty?” she asked. “Any dents or scratches?”

Scott dropped to his knees, studied the grill and its checkered-flag emblem. The day his dad had bought the new Impala, just one month earlier, he’d pointed to the fancy crest on the front grill and told Scott the car was a sport model, not some boring sedan.

“Don’t see anything,” said Scott, brushing his bare knees as he stood. “Looks good to me.”

His mother nodded, then stepped carefully to the rear of the car and watched Scott’s brother, who was down the road yelling something about tongues and blood.

“Hon, go get my doomers.”

His mother’s du Maurier cigarettes came in red boxes gilded with lines of silver. At home, she kept them in a chrome canister on the kitchen counter; in the car she stashed them in the glove box. Although he wasn’t allowed to hold one—his mother had made it clear that merely touching a single cigarette virtually guaranteed a lifetime of regret—it was Scott’s job, when near, to fetch the fancy packets.

Scott grabbed the smokes from the car, then watched his mother pluck one out along with her sparkly lighter. She lit one of the elegant sticks, inhaled deeply, then released a swirl of white as her shoulders settled into a place of ease.

Together, they watched Doug try to corral the animals, sweeping them together with his feet like soccer balls.

“What are they?” Scott asked.

“Possums,” she said. “Won’t live long without their momma.”

“What about their father?”

His mother gave him a weary smile, motioned with her cigarette. “Go help your brother.”

Scott scooted past five or six dead babies lying limp on the tarmac like deflated balloons, then sidled up to his brother.

“Look at these things!” yelled Doug, his face red with delight. “Prehistoric little fuckers!”

It was true; the creatures looked like they belonged to some ancient era when monsters ruled. One of the black-eyed beasts was quicker than the rest, and Doug lofted it back toward the others with a sweeping kick.

“Wait!” said Scott. He’d remembered their father had left their baseball gear in a big box inside the trunk, and when he returned, he held the box steady while Doug grabbed each survivor by its tail and dropped it in. Back at the car, they watched the clumps of fur try to scrabble up the walls of slippery cardboard.

But when Doug lifted the box into the trunk, their mother frowned and narrowed her eyes like she was staring at the sun.

“These things are wild. They belong”—and here she paused, as if stumped by a word—“out here.” She swivelled one hand in the air to acknowledge the great outdoors, which Scott knew was as foreign to his mother as leaving the house without lipstick.

“But we can’t just let ’em go,” said Doug. “They’ll get eaten by a bear.”

“No bears around here,” said their mother.

“They won’t survive,” Scott said. “Not without a mom. Not without a family.”

“We can take care of ’em!” said Doug. “Give ’em names, tie strings to their necks, take ’em for walks.”

Scott watched his mother bite her lower lip; like her, he knew Doug was prone to quickly losing interest in things.

“Mom, it’s our fault,” said Scott. “We wrecked their family, and now we have to fix it.”

Their mother looked at her watch, glanced up and down the country road, cocked her head as if straining to hear something far away.

The point of this strange, sudden errand had never been clear to Scott. Right before supper, just minutes before their father was due home from work, their mother had burst into the boys’ bedroom and yelled, “Get in the car!” Then she’d driven with angry impatience, cursing every red light and dawdling driver until they cleared the city and were speeding down a string of bumpy rural roads. Neither brother had dared to question where they were going, or why.

But now, Scott could see the skin around his mother’s mouth had lost its ropey tightness. She stared for a while at the dark pines bordering the road, her chin quivering, and for a few scary moments Scott wondered if she might cry.

“Alright boys, let’s turn around and take these babies home,” she said, then slammed the trunk shut. “Your plan sounds better than mine.”

He’d once heard a teacher say there were no stupid questions, but he wasn’t so sure.

Scott nearly asked what her plan had been, but swallowed his words. He’d once heard a teacher say there were no stupid questions, but he wasn’t so sure. Questions seemed to annoy his parents, and asking almost anything made Scott nervous, like he’d get in trouble for missing something. Plus, the answers rarely helped. He’d once asked his father why they never played catch together, and his father had given him a steely look and said, “Because I’m not your friend.”

They drove in silence. Back home there were no signs of their father, and they ate crusty tuna casserole gone cold.

During the TV show there was no talking. That was one of the rules. Also, they were permitted one can of Canada Dry ginger ale, reminded to keep their feet off the couch, and allowed to watch one grownup show with their father.

That was the routine every Wednesday evening when their mother went bowling. The show they watched was called Then Came Bronson; it was about a guy travelling around on a Harley-Davidson he’d gotten from his best friend, who’d killed himself. At the start of every episode, a station wagon pulled up beside Bronson’s motorcycle at a stoplight, and the weary commuter behind the wheel asked where he was headed. “Oh, I don’t know,” Bronson always answered. “Wherever I end up, I guess.”

Scott thought it was dumb to drive around without a plan, but Doug and their dad seemed to like the show. A commercial started, and for the first time that evening their father spoke.

“Doug,” he said. “Water rings.”

From his perch at one end of the itchy couch, Scott watched his brother at the other end lift his sweaty glass from the thick-legged coffee table, dry the circle of water with his sleeve, then set the glass on a plastic coaster decorated with an illustration of an antique car.

The TV voices droned on about instant coffee, and Scott found himself staring at the rotor box atop the set; you twisted the knob to S for Buffalo stations, aimed it halfway between N and W to tune in Hamilton. Beside the rotor sat the glass ashtray he’d bought for his mom last Christmas, one of its golden curves sheared flat after his father bounced it off the floor during an argument.

The commercial ended, and when the show came back on Bronson was sitting in a bar talking to a bearded guy. Scott ignored the words from the TV, focused instead on the coldness of the ginger ale in his hand; he drank straight from the can because he figured it made him look tough. The actors droned on, and Scott let his gaze drift to the living-room walls, which were covered with wallpaper designed to resemble old, red bricks; mounted on the flat fake bricks, above the TV, was a framed print of a rustic barn hanging crooked, left-side low. Their father hung all the pictures in the house like that, insisting they were straight.

The sound of the TV was split by the shrill ring of the phone.

“I’ll get it,” said Scott. Clutching his can of soda, he slid off the couch, ducked into the kitchen and lifted the green receiver from its chrome cradle on the wall.

“Wilson residence, Scott speaking.”

There was a pause, then a woman’s voice asked if she could speak to his father.

“Sure thing,” he said. “Dad, it’s for you!” He almost added, “It’s a lady,” but didn’t.

Back on the couch with his brother, Scott strained to hear the words of their father, but he’d moved to the far end of the kitchen, the coiled phone cord stretched taut. On the TV screen, Bronson was getting punched. From the kitchen, Scott could hear his father’s voice, low and insistent. Now Bronson was lying on the ground getting kicked, and the voice of Scott’s dad spiked in volume.

“I told you, no. Not again. No more!”

Scott turned to his brother. “I’m going to check the possums,” he said, and then slipped out the front door toward the garage, pushed open its side door and flicked on the lights.

The possums were kept in an old hamster cage their mother had found in somebody’s garbage; inside the cage there was a plastic bowl filled with fruit and lettuce, and a drinking bottle wired to one corner. Their dad had promised to buy cat foot for their new pets, but never did, so Scott and Doug had been dropping all sorts of things into the cage: grapes and pieces of apple, hunks of sliced white bread, even bugs and flies and worms they’d caught. The possums swallowed everything with disinterest.

As he neared the cage, a stinging smell pricked his nose. Holding his breath, he inched his face closer.

Under its sibling’s weight, the smallest possum seemed to fold inward, its mouth open, head trembling, eyes dulling more every day.

Four of the animals were growing quickly, their fur thickening, claws lengthening, teeth jutting higher from bright pink gums. But as soon as they’d brought the possums home, the biggest one had climbed atop the smallest one’s back. It had clung there fiercely ever since, its claws curved into the little one’s fluttering sides. Under its sibling’s weight, the smallest possum seemed to fold inward, its mouth open, head trembling, eyes dulling more every day.

The side door opened, and Doug entered the garage. “Dad’s being weird,” he said, then approached the cage and flicked its bars with one finger.

“We have to help the weak one,” said Scott. “On the bottom.”

Doug flicked the bars again, this time harder. “The big one’s just being friendly.”

Scott didn’t think it had anything to do with friendliness. He thought it was meanness, plain and simple, the big one stealing the other one’s strength just because it could. “The bottom one’s going to die.”

Doug shrugged. “That’s life. The strong ones survive, the weak ones don’t.”

Doug jolted the cage with his palm, then grabbed it with both hands and jerked it back and forth. “If you’re so worried, just pull ’em apart.”

Scott tried to sound nonchalant. “I don’t want to hurt the little one.”

Doug regarded his younger brother. “You’re afraid to touch ’em, aren’t you?”


“Wimp ass.”

“Their claws are designed to dig into bark when climbing trees,” said Scott. “It’ll tear the little one to shreds. I read all about it.”

“Yeah? Well, watch this Shakespeare.” And with that, Doug flipped open the top of the cage, grabbed the big possum by its back fur and shook the pair hard, up and down, again and again, like he was breaking ice cubes from a tray. But the animals didn’t separate, and Doug had closed both hands round the squirming pair when he shrieked, leapt back and dropped them to the floor.

“It bit me!” he yelled. “The fucking thing bit me!”

Doug spun round, and Scott figured he was headed back into the house. Instead, Doug grabbed the long wooden handle of a garden edger from a wall rack, and with a keening wail slammed the curved steel blade into the hissing clump on the concrete floor. After a dozen downward thrusts, his right thumb leaking red and both eyes blurred by tears, Doug finally dropped the edger and sprinted out the door.

Scott shut the top of the cage and latched it tight. For several minutes amid the silence of the garage, he turned his back to the jumbled wetness on the floor and watched the three remaining possums in their cage. Then, breathing through his mouth, Scott picked up the edger, and with the help of a piece of plywood, scraped up the dark deadness.

Back in the house a few minutes later, Scott found Doug in his familiar spot on the couch, his right hand wrapped in a towel. Another ad blared from the TV, and their father shot Scott an angry look.

“I took care of it,” Scott said.

His father’s face softened. “That’s what I like to hear,” he said. “That’s what a man does. Takes care of things.”

Behind his ribs, Scott felt something surge. On the TV screen Bronson sped toward the horizon, his Harley rumbling.

The next day at school everyone was talking about Eric Mason’s mother. She’d gone missing, and police were searching. In the yard at recess, knots of kids jabbered quick but quiet, heads bobbing and twisting to make sure Eric wasn’t nearby. A pretty girl from Scott’s 4D homeroom told him Mrs. Mason was a “partier” who liked to stay out late at bars. During lunch-hour a police car rolled into the parking lot, and near the end of final period Scott’s English teacher leaned against the front of his desk and told them bad things sometimes happened, and they should pray for Eric’s mother. After the final bell, while passing a small crowd near the gym, Scott heard a girl say Mrs. Mason was “sad a lot” and often walked by herself late at night along the canal.

Later, as the hallways emptied, Scott was trying to wrestle his bulky backpack out of the bottom of his locker when something darkened the thin light leaking from the fluorescent tubes overhead.

“You gotta come to my house, get your dad’s stuff.”

Scott twisted around and peered up at Eric Mason looming close, his bookless hands clenched tight.

“What stuff?” Scott asked.

“Some tools. Pair of sunglasses. Pile of clothes.”

As he squatted on the floor, Scott stared at the frayed bottoms of Eric’s pant legs; Scott’s mom would’ve hemmed those blue jeans, kept them from dragging on the ground.

“Why are my dad’s tools at your house?” He didn’t want to ask about the clothes.

“He tried to fix our washing machine,” Eric said.

Scott nodded, like his father was always fixing things. “I can get them, I guess. How about Saturday morning?”

Eric shook his head. “Now would be better. You need to come right now.”

With a final tug, Scott ripped the backpack from his locker and rose to his feet. “Okay.”

The two boys left the school and, without speaking, walked down Morrison Street toward Fourth Avenue, where Eric lived. Eric was an eighth-grader, four years older and bigger, and Scott had to hustle to keep up. Eric’s place was what Scott’s dad called “wartime housing”—cramped bungalows jammed close together, their rows of vinyl siding warped and faded. They climbed four flimsy wooden steps into a screened porch jammed with junk, including half a dozen old tires, several broken chairs and a one-handed wall-clock discarded in a corner, its plug-less cord wrapped round its face.

“Wait here,” said Eric, and disappeared into the house.

There was no place to sit so Scott stood in the middle of the porch, which was stuffy despite its broken screens. Yellowed newspapers sat in stacks along the back, blocking the big front window. He peered closer and saw the papers were foreign, their words thick with letters flipped backward and upside down.

Eric returned with a stuffed garbage bag and set it on the floor. “Carry it from the bottom,” he said, “or the tools will rip right through.”

Scott grabbed the knotted top of the bag but didn’t lift it. “Where do you think your mother is?”

Eric lowered his head, and for a second Scott thought the boy might head-butt him. “Maybe you should ask your dad.”

Scott looked away, let his eyes linger on a rusty rake, its bent teeth tangled with dead leaves.

“We’ve got possums,” he said.


Scott nodded. “Five of them. Well, three now. We hit a momma possum with our car, killed her dead. She must’ve had babies in her pouch, maybe on her back. Most of them died, but we brought home the ones that didn’t, and put them in a cage. We feed them every day. You should see them.”

Eric turned his face, stared toward the street, then slid his hand back along his dark hair and held it there, his palm pressed atop the crown of his head like he was holding down a hat in some fierce wind.

“Your dad’s okay,” he said. “Better than most. He liked her ups, but not her downs.”

Scott nodded. “If you come see the possums, you can take one.”

Eric stared at the younger boy, narrowed his eyes. “Possums are mean and ugly. Don’t know why you’d keep them.”

Scott answered quickly. “Because they’re a family.” Then, embarrassed, he forced a smile. “No reason I guess.”

Eric shook his head. “It’s not your father’s fault. He couldn’t help her. Nobody could. Now take that shit and go.”

It was later than normal when Scott got home. He stashed the bag with his dad’s belongings behind the garage, then made his way to the kitchen where he found Doug sitting at the table, still and silent, while their mother stirred a pot of something on the stove.

He expected his mom to mention his lateness, ask him where he’d been. But she just smiled. “I’m making nice soup,” she said. “Creamy tomato. Your favourite.”

Scott turned to the sink for a glass of water, then stopped short. The Formica counter, with the speckled yellow pattern his mother had agonized over for months before finally choosing, had been gouged into an ugly mess, its once-smooth surface pitted and scarred by grooves and scrapes and holes.

“Hope you’re hungry, hon,” said his mother.

Just then their father came through the back door into the kitchen, set his briefcase on the floor. Their mother turned back to the stove, and their father, with an audible sigh, left the kitchen and headed down the hallway to the bathroom, where he closed the door.

Scott plucked a clean glass from the cupboard, turned the faucet handle, and watched the water swirl into the drain around a big, black-handled carving knife, its point bent and twisted back.

Scott couldn’t wield a garden tool like a weapon, couldn’t drive a blade into the flesh of some wide-eyed wriggling thing. So after supper, as the daylight dimmed and the edges of things began to bleed into shadow, he dug a hole in the field behind the Chef Boyardee factory at the end of their street. When the hole was deep enough, he dropped in the picture of Mrs. Mason, and then the bulging bag of possums, which quickly vanished beneath hurried shovelfuls of clay.

When done he tamped the dirt down, then sat in the stiff, hard weeds listening to the popping sounds punched out by the factory. For years they’d argued about those noises; at first Scott wondered if it was popcorn, but that was just plain silly. Doug finally decided the staccato explosions were coming from pressure valves on the big machines that rolled out the cans of Beefaroni, a smiling chef in a big white hat on every label. But the boys never asked anyone about the noises, so they never really knew.

Scott watched the dirt for movement but there was nothing, so he spread sticks and leaves atop the mound and started walking home, the shovel balanced on one shoulder just like soldiers carried their rifles, safe and harmless, but ready in an instant to take deadly aim.


A retired print journalist and former actor, Ian Gillespie graduated from York University with a BFA, and later obtained a BA in journalism at Ryerson University. He spent more than 30 years working as a reporter, columnist, and editor at the London Free Press newspaper. Married, with three grown children, Gillespie lives in London, Ontario with his wife and a growing collection of typewriters.