It Needs to Look Like We Tried: A Novel

It Needs to Look Like We Tried: A Novel

by Todd Robert Petersen


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"Todd Robert Petersen is crazy-talented, and the wild, weird, hilarious stories of It Needs to Look Like We Tried are just what’s called for in these bizarre, frightening times." —Richard Russo, author of Empire Falls and Trajectory

A domino chain of failures draws Todd Robert Petersen's characters together in these interconnected stories, despite hopes, dreams, and their best-laid plans

Everyone has a dream, an idea, a goal. But what happens when those desires are thwarted, when dreams and goals fall apart? In It Needs to Look Like We Tried, Todd Robert Petersen explores the ways in which our failures work on the lives of others, weaving an intricate web of interconnected stories.

A fastidious man takes a detour on the way to his father’s wedding and kicks off a series of events that ricochets from the bride to her real estate clients; to a crazed former homeowner and his sister-in-law’s reality TV lover; to a hoarding family whose lives are wrecked by their appearance on the second-rate show. Their daughter decides to escape the gravity of her tiny town with the help of her boyfriend who has a not-quite-legal plan to scrape together enough money to fund their departure.

On their way across the country, these star-crossed lovers encounter our fastidious man, and the Rube Goldberg machine of life continues. Their fling has petered out, and they are driving home, whatever home is left after walking away from everything they abandoned months before.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781640090651
Publisher: Counterpoint Press
Publication date: 05/01/2018
Pages: 224
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

TODD ROBERT PETERSEN lives in Cedar City, Utah, with his wife and three children. He is a professor of English and the director of Southern Utah University’s project-based learning program. His recent academic work focuses on film and television.

Read an Excerpt


Doyle got an early start. Nothing in that motel would make a person want to linger: loud wall-mounted AC, brittle sheets, heavy polyester blankets, and a prime view of the Arizona frontage road. Behind that was tan haze and undulating utility lines. Then, open horizon.

He left the onramp with a bland breakfast sandwich squatting in his belly and half a thing of purple Gatorade swirling in its bottle. Ten minutes later, Doyle was bored of his music, bored of the unchanging landscape, bored of the whole trip. He was bored of the wedding he was driving to, and it was still two days away, but it didn't matter, it was his father's wedding, no way out of it. When he gassed up at a truck stop on the east side of Winslow, Doyle decided his real problem was the interstate, which had all the charm of a tract home.

He leaned against a white steel pipe that seemed like it was once important but now just stuck out of the ground and pointed to the plain blue sky. He pulled out his phone and tapped, swiped, and pinched a map. A trucker in cutoff sweatpants and a Pittsburgh Steelers cap stopped alongside Doyle with a giant mug of soda in each hand and a disapproving look on his face.

"Government tracks your phone, brother," he said.

Doyle scrunched up his face subconsciously. "Excuse me," he said.

"All your locational data goes to a building in Utah. They can use it against you in court. Ain't constitutional, but nobody cares."

"Okay," Doyle said. "Thanks."

"Digital money? Digital maps? Digital porn? Brother, once you insert yourself into the grid, you don't ever come out."

"I'll be careful," Doyle said.

"You'll be dead," the trucker said, laughing.

Doyle squinted at him and wanted to run away, but he was trapped by the steel pipe.

"Seriously, though," the trucker said. "Those itty-bitty little phone maps don't show the new roads." He started walking, "Follow me."

Doyle stayed put, nervous to follow this guy anywhere. What if he was a serial killer? It was broad daylight though, and his truck was right here in the open.

"Fear not, I promise not to eat your liver. I got a couple of paper maps I'm not using. I don't feel good about having you drive the interstate with that thing in your hand," he said, pointing to his phone.

Doyle agreed and followed the trucker, who exposed most of his butt climbing into the cab. He rifled around the space and threw two maps down to him: one of Arizona, one of all the western states.

"Won't you need these?" Doyle asked.

"I know where I'm going," he said. "I'm not so sure about you, brother."

Doyle went back into the gas station, got a cup of ice, and unfolded the map. He looked at the route he planned for himself back in Texas, thought about how much he hated it all, and without controlling things, he let his imagination drift across the paper.


At Flagstaff, as part of his new plan, he left the interstate by disappearing into the Ponderosas. The road took him through a narrow canyon full of trees and hairpin turns. A smile uncurled across Doyle's face. On his phone, he thumbed away from the "Dad's Wedding" playlist and hit the shuffle button. First song: Van Halen, "Panama." Next thing he knew his Gatorade was gone, the bottle tossed in the back. The pines gave way to oaks, which gave way to the red rock amphitheaters of old cowboy matinees, which transitioned to a view of open desert.

He crossed the red mesas and ramparts of Sedona quickly, then climbed out of the valley, and wound through the old mining town of Jerome. After that more pines, more songs: ELO, Pearl Jam, U2. He was in a flowstate: not thinking about work, not thinking about his father's wedding, not thinking about being in his thirties, not even thinking about eating a whole bag of red Twizzler bites until it was empty, crumpled, and thrown over his shoulder.

The animal appeared and exploded against his bumper in the same instant. Doyle's car screamed to a stop. "Bullet in the Blue Sky" roared in the sudden silence. He pulled the auxiliary cord out of his phone and quiet filled the air around him.

Doyle glanced behind to see if any cars were coming, then he checked the state of the car's interior: things were scattered everywhere. He yanked the parking brake, threw open his door, and scrambled out to investigate.

Thirty feet behind the car, a small white and tan straight-haired lay perpendicular to the center line, its legs splayed in all directions. Doyle stepped closer and crouched. The dog's eyes were wide open, a shallow, a small pool of blood collecting under its belly and running toward the far side of the road. Otherwise the creature was in shock.

The desert air seared Doyle's skin, sweat evaporating before it could bead up on his brow. He braced his hands against the waistband of his jeans and slowly bent over to quell the waves of nausea that were filling his body.

He twisted around, looking past a phone booth that stood monolithically against the sky. Beyond that, there wasn't much in his field of vision but some old forklift pallets and a cloud of dust lifting in the desert wind. The sun burned on Doyle's forehead while he paced the length of his rear bumper.

"Eighteen accident-free years on the road, and then you," he said, pointing at the dog, who tried to lift its head. The struggle was too much, so it lay back down and looked up at Doyle, who would not look back.

Doyle tried to comfort himself, thinking back to the days when his father taught him the "road rules." "You have to keep three things in mind when you put a vehicle on the road, son. One, the size of your rig versus the size of the road you've got it on. Two, the size of the other guy's rig versus the size of the road you're sharing with him. And three, the size of his rig versus the size of yours.

They were fine rules in the abstract, but they had nothing to do with the unpredictability of an animal. Doyle stooped a little to see if he could understand the condition the dog was in. It stared straight into the desert now, like it couldn't bear to look at Doyle or his car. Doyle was close enough now to the dog to hear its wet, labored breathing. He squatted down, and when it didn't flinch, he put his hand out. When it didn't growl, he stroked the bridge of its nose with his thumb and forefinger.

This dog was a goner. Doyle knew it, and it seemed like the dog knew it, too. There was no scenario in which he could drive away and live with the decision. If he had a gun with him, this could just be over. But he had no gun, in this he had broken with the traditions of his family.

Before, Doyle's mind was blank, now he was thinking about everything at once. The dog, his life, this trip, his dad, and his dad's fiancée. He thought about Santa Barbara, where he'd never been before, his mother, dead now for half his life. He was thinking about how kids don't go to their parent's wedding. It's all in the wrong order. Sure the old guy was lonely, and sure he needed to get out of Texas before he shot someone to beat the boredom. He thought about how death just gives people a free pass.

Doyle watched and waited for something else to happen, but nothing in the scene changed. A vastness settled over things. He noticed an abandoned town out there that was pretty much the same color as everything else. He looked back toward his car and walked over to see if there was any damage. There wasn't. He stared into the distance, and, as far as he could see in each direction, there was no one coming or going.

He walked over to the dog and knelt again, cupping his hand in front of the dog's nose. He then reached across the head and stroked the dog's ear. This time, when he touched the dog, it started to seize. Doyle stood quickly and stepped back. The dog made rapid rasping barking noises and thrashed about on the pavement. Its tags tinkled on the pavement. Its eyes rolled up, and the dog's mouth snapped like a windup monster. After another thirty seconds of thrashing the dog went still.

Again, the world filled with the silence of the world unspooling. He stood and looked toward the abandoned buildings and the convergence of the road in one direction and then the other. With the dog gone, Doyle felt even more alone.

Even this late, the wind was hot, and in the distance, to the southwest toward California and Mexico, he saw thunderheads piling up, promising a storm by evening. Doyle gripped his forehead and mumbled, then, remembering the tinkling of the dog tags, he reached past the animal's ear, and brought the metal tags around front. The first one read:



(982) 555-4442

The other was a Yavapai County dog license.

Why couldn't they have named you Duke? Doyle thought. You can't roadkill a dog named Princess and have anyone believe you. Shaking his head, he pulled out his phone and took a picture of the license tag, then one of his car. He thought about taking a picture of the dog but realized there was no one for him to show it to.

There was no noticeable damage to the fender, so he would not file an insurance claim. He got in the car and pulled it to the shoulder. After checking for traffic, Doyle went back, grabbed Princess by her collar and dragged it off the road, painting blood across the pavement. A single fly buzzed around the dog and landed a couple of times on Doyle's forearm. It was the loudest thing for miles.

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