Itta Bena Slim ... sounds to a waitress named Trish like the name of a light beer. Or maybe it's a cigarette marketed to women. Or a lullaby, "child's play on the tongue." Or perhaps it's the title of a soft tune for slow dancing.
But no, Itta Bena Slim is the name of a greyhound, and Trish's date for the evening, a middle-aged liquor distributor in Memphis by the name of Duane, thinks Itta Bena Slim is a good bet. Old Willie Graham, who's sitting next to Trish and Duane at the bar of the Kennel Club at Southland in West Memphis, isn't so sure about that bet, and mark his words. A widower and retired dog-trainer himself, Old Willie is an old hand at this: picking a winner — whether it's a first-place finisher on the racetrack or a brief winning moment for Trish and Duane to share.
That's the setup in "Itta Bena Slim," a short story by David Williams, sports editor at The Commercial Appeal and grand-prize winner in this year's Memphis Magazine Fiction Contest. Marilyn Sadler, senior editor at Memphis (sister publication of The Memphis Flyer) and coordinator of the magazine's annual fiction contest, announced the first-place and runner-up winners earlier this week, but it wasn't the first time Williams has won. He took the grand prize (which includes a check for $1,000) in 2011, and as he told Sadler when she let him know of this year's contest results: "Awesome news! The contest is dear to my heart, because it's really the first break I got, the first real sign that what I was writing was worthy." In a phone interview with the Flyer last week, Williams admitted again to being surprised by the win, but he also added: "I get so many rejections I just assume I'll get rejected. But I haven't become jaded at all."
Williams has one novel, Long Gone Daddies, under his belt, and the characters in "Itta Bena Slim" (which you can read in the June issue of Memphis magazine) also figure in the novel he's shopping to agents and publishers now. But what Williams talked about most in our interview was dogs — his own.
Williams and his wife Barbara have adopted two retired greyhounds from Southland, and he didn't know until he got them that he'd be such a dog lover. He didn't have a dog growing up in Kentucky. And Williams didn't follow dog racing either. (Horse racing, yes.) It wasn't until his teenage son, soon to head to college, recommended that Williams and his wife adopt from Southland that the couple got one dog. Eight months later, they adopted another.
"We're empty-nesters, and it was my son who planted the seed," Williams said. "Now we have two greyhounds, and they're such good dogs ... really mild-mannered, not high-maintenance at all."
No surprise then, if you need a strong proponent of Southland's adoption program, that Williams is your man.
"It's a very, very good program," he said. "My wife and I also do meet-and-greets at pet stores once a month. We're involved in fund-raisers. And once a year, the program has a reunion — owners go back to Southland with their dogs for a sit-down banquet for 100, 200 people, the dogs at their feet. The dogs actually seem to enjoy being back. And when they hear the whirl of the lure during a race, they're excited. When we cross the bridge to West Memphis, they even seem to know where they're going. Amazing."
Dogs under foot also describes Williams' early-morning writing routine:
"As sports editor at The Commercial Appeal, I spend a lot of time attending meetings, planning, working with other writers. But all of that is separate from my fiction writing, which I do because I love it. It's my favorite part of the day — every morning from 7 to 8:30 or so, with the dogs there at my feet."
And that closing scene in "Itta Bena Slim," with Trish and Duane, eyes closed and simply listening to the sound of greyhounds racing?
"It's my favorite part of the story," Williams said. "I've stood there too, at the rail to the racetrack, where my characters are standing and being taken by ... it isn't a stampede, like you'd think. You're only a few feet from the dogs. I was amazed at the sound, but it isn't loud. It's more like a heartbeat. It's the image I had before there was even a story."