Terri Muldoon

Summer Fiction

Your 2020 Summer Reading List: Samantha Mabry’s ‘Mouth for War’

We couldn't ask local authors to use a local song for the inspiration for a short story without including Pantera.

As Aunt Paula swung her car into a space at the edge of the parking lot, the clock on the dashboard read 10:26, and according to the painted letters on the front of the building in the near distance, the first game of the night started in just four minutes.

“I promise I won’t stay as long as I usually do, OK?” Aunt Paula yanked her key from the ignition and twisted in her seat. “All I need is an hour and a half.” She pushed open her door and grabbed for the long straps of her purse. “Then we’ll go get sodas!” 

The last part was muffled because Paula was already gone, her door slammed shut. I watched her sprint across the lot, her purse smacking in a rhythm against her hip. Once she’d disappeared into the building, I pulled my Discman from the backpack at my feet.

It was 1993, and I was 11—too old for a babysitter, I thought. Earlier that day, I’d been sitting at the kitchen table, eating cornflakes, listening to my mother on the phone with her older sister, practically begging her to help out just this one night because she’d been invited out at the last minute to celebrate a friend’s unexpected promotion.

“She’s too young,” I heard my mother tell Paula. She was me. “I don’t know if I trust her yet.” 

But here’s the thing: Aunt Paula had spent almost every Saturday night of her adult life playing bingo at the hall near the Waffle House off I-30 and Ferguson. So when she told my mother that of course she would look after me and that no, it wasn’t a big deal if she missed out on a night of playing bingo, I knew Paula was lying, and I knew where we’d end up.

But I didn’t care! It was perfect actually. A total lucky break. I’d finally have time to listen to my music by myself, which was literally the only thing I wanted to do when I was 11. 

I hit play on the Discman, and the crunchy chords of Pantera’s “Mouth for War” started up. It was the first song on the CD, but also my favorite because it made me want to run even though I wasn’t a runner, and it made me feel bold and brave even though I was a sixth-grader. 

The song was reaching the chorus, and I was super into it when the tapping started. At first I thought it was a skip in the disc, but then I noticed the woman. She was outside the car, knocking at the window, inches from my face. 

I shot up like a bolt and let out a garbled cry. 

“Sarah!” the woman shouted, once she saw she had my attention. “Hey, Sarah! Come on!” 

I shook my head (my name isn’t Sarah), turned up the volume, and shifted to where my back was facing the window. But the woman didn’t go away. Her voice was still muffled, but the volume of it was rising. Finally, pissed at being ignored, the woman smacked the window—hard enough to make me flinch. When I spun around and glared at her, she did it again, smacked her entire palm against the glass. 

My whole body was chiming. This woman was awful—an awful thief. How dare she steal my time with my music? My headphones were now slanted, but still I could hear the hard chug of the guitars. 

The woman hit the glass again, and I did the same thing. I smacked my hand against the glass, right up near her face. 

“I’m not Sarah!” I shouted. “Go away!” 

Just as I reached over to mash on the horn, a man rushed over and started to guide the woman away. He gave me a pained smile and an apologetic half-wave, but the woman kept scowling. 

By this point, the song was almost over. I still felt like a mess of ringing bells, and I was strangely thrilled by my tiny acts of violence: the yelling, the hitting. When the song finally ended, I readjusted my headphones and started it over from the beginning. 

Almost two hours later, Aunt Paula came back. She was flushed and glowing, her hair puffed up like she’d just ridden a roller coaster. She was sorry she was late, she said. She’d won $65, but then lost it all. 

“It’s such a rush, you know?” she said, collapsing into her seat. “You see all those other people there, and you think: I’m the lucky one.”


Samantha Mabry is a native of Dallas. She teaches English at El Centro College. Her novel All the Wind in the World was nominated for a National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, in 2017. Her most recent novel, Tigers, Not Daughters, was published in March.

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