Category Archives: Issue #16

Julia Strayer

Walruses on a Beach

A couple months after Buddy’s funeral, his brother and I are staring at stars, from inside an old bath tub someone dragged to the beach, pretending we’re at an ocean instead of a lake by drinking rum and Cokes from old yogurt containers.

We both slump against opposite ends of the tub and watch the sky, my legs resting on his. The tub is cold and there’s a breeze off the lake pushing waves over the sand, but the sky is crowded with stars so it’s worth the chill. I pull my coat around me tighter. We don’t talk for a while because there’s nothing much to say after someone dies. I twist the ring on my left hand wondering if the family will expect it back since Buddy and I didn’t get to the wedding day.

I kick my legs, “Let’s pedal to the bar for a fill up.”

He says, “This tub doesn’t have wheels.”

“Maybe it should,” I say. “Imagine where we could go.”

The star-jammed sky expands above us, domed and magical like the planetarium Buddy and I visited after graduation. I had leaned against Buddy as we both looked up, his arms around me. But that was just a movie on the ceiling. This is real sky.

I hold up my empty yogurt container for a refill. He reaches over the edge of the tub for the bottles he shoved in the sand and refills us both. I say thanks, but maybe I don’t. His face looks a lot like Buddy’s, and my fingertips tingle, but that could be the rum.

“What about the people?” He points his yogurt container toward a large lump down the beach.

I turn around. “Looks like a walrus, or several. Can’t you hear them mooing?” But I can’t hear anything.

“There are no walruses in this part of the country. And they don’t moo. More likely a couple of stray cows.” He laughs the way Buddy laughed.

And that’s when a stray dog walks by. He calls to him, “Hey dog,” but the dog keeps walking, like it’s late for something important.

“Probably going to join his cow friends,” he says.

I nod. “You think Buddy’s watching?”

“He never could take his eyes off you.”

“Heard you were thinking about the army.”

“Maybe.”

I drink the rest of my rum and Coke, forgetting how many I’ve had, and lean my head back. The sky spins. “You ever noticed how messy the stars are?”

He stares at me a little too long, like he’s waiting for me to do something, but it’s dark and I don’t know if I’m too drunk to tell.

I say, “You could wait a while.”

“You mean stay here and pretend to be Buddy for you and my parents?”

Waves climb the beach and retreat. They make me dizzy.

“You think if there was a nuclear war we’d be protected in this tub?”

He laughs. “I think you’re crazy drunk.”

I stare at him, at whatever the stars and moon let me see. That’s when I climb over to his side of the tub, between his legs, and get my face up close to his, and we’re breathing the same air, the heat from him burning me up, or maybe I am drunk. He grabs my arms like he’s going to bench press me, and I hope he’s going to kiss me, but he doesn’t. He waits, still the both of us nose to nose.

I say, “You’re nothing like him.” But I’m lying. They could be twins if they weren’t a year apart.

“Those walruses aren’t cows. They’re just rocks.”

But neither of us moves. That’s when the dog walks back the other direction, stops by the tub.

I say, “Hey buddy,” and the dog sniffs at us, licks my ear, then his. And we’re laughing and laughing because we’ll laugh at anything since Buddy died just to prove to ourselves we’re still alive. And I fall against him, turn myself so I’m leaning against his chest and his arms fold around me and he feels like Buddy, and it’s good enough for now.

##

Julia Strayer has stories in Glimmer Train, Post Road, SmokeLong Quarterly, Mid-American Review, and others, including The Best Small Fictions anthology. She teaches at New York University, and is completing a linked story collection.

Sandra Arnold

Tom Thumb

He slid into the world with no warning, landing on the bathmat as I stepped out of a hot shower. He was so small his skin hung off his twiggy limbs like an oversized suit. He stared at me with wide astonished eyes. I wrapped him in a towel, held him to my heart and crawled on my hands and knees into the bedroom to phone an ambulance.

From the hospital I phoned Laurie to tell him he had a son. He came rushing into the room in such excitement he forgot to duck his head under the door frame and almost cracked it open. Rubbing the bruise on his brow he gazed at the tiny scrap in my arms. His face clouded over. “He looks like a sausage with the stuffing taken out,” he said. “Is this the best you could manage? This … Tom Thumb?”

I started telling him that babies do grow into their skin, but my words drifted on the space between us as he shot out the door. Ah well. At least he had suggested a name.

 

Before I brought Tom home two weeks later, I went to the local craft shop and bought dolls clothes as everything I’d knitted and sewn were far too big. Laurie wasn’t impressed with the dolls clothes even though they fitted perfectly. He was even less impressed when we had to cover all the furniture in plastic shower curtains to protect them from Tom’s projectile vomiting. After trials with different kinds of cow and goat milk the doctors concluded he was lactose intolerant and the only milk he could keep in his little belly was soy. That stopped his incessant crying, but by then Laurie was in the habit of working late at the office, or so he said, and he saw no reason to stop. I didn’t mind. I preferred evenings with just Tom and me.

Tom grew oh so slowly. When he started school he was head and shoulders smaller than the smallest girl in the class. Despite the fact that he was the sweetest child imaginable, no one would play with him and he spent lunchtimes alone in a corner of the playground collecting ladybirds in a matchbox and then setting them free on a leaf when the bell rang. The teacher told me the other children were afraid he would break so she was going to bring him into the classroom during playtimes and teach him to knit. He practised this at home and looked so happy and content with this activity that I had to hide my tears. He knitted dolls hats, cardigans and booties and took them to school to show the teacher. The girls in the class were so impressed they asked him to teach them how to knit like that.  A few of the boys also joined their group. Their finished projects were donated to the local maternity hospital for premature babies. There was a write-up in the local paper, which I hid from Laurie.

One of Tom’s new friends invited him to her birthday party. I was glad Laurie was working away from home all weekend so he wouldn’t know about the party, or the fact that when I picked Tom up he and the six little girls were dressed in princess clothes with make-up on their faces and sparkly crowns on their heads.

On the way home Tom’s smile spread the width of his face as he chatted about the party. I had never seen him so animated. I turned the key in the front door, opened it and saw Laurie standing in the hall taking his coat off. Tom piped up in his tiny sweet voice, “Daddy, look at me, I’ve been to the best party in the world. I won a prize for best costume.” Laurie’s mouth dropped open and the veins that sprang up around his beetroot red face threatened to burst.

After Tom was in bed I returned to the lounge to see Laurie pacing up and down with a bottle of beer in his hand. He rounded on me, glaring as though his eyes would pop out of their sockets. For a second I thought he was going to smash the bottle over my head. He didn’t, but the words that streamed from the mouth of this man I’d once loved were so vile I wouldn’t have believed any civilized human being capable of uttering them. I asked him if he would have said those things if Tom had been a girl. He turned away and the only thing he said was that he would sleep on the sofa and I had to make sure he was awake before six next morning because his boss was going to pick him up at seven as they had a vitally important meeting to go to.

In the middle of the night I woke up and crept back into the lounge. As I suspected, there were now more than a dozen empty beer bottles and half-smoked cigarettes on the floor and Laurie was comatose on the sofa. I picked up one of the still burning cigarette ends and thought how easy it would be to drop it on the sofa. I could say afterwards that Tom and I had already left the house after Laurie had threatened us in a drunken rage. But what I did instead was find my make-up bag.

By the time I’d finished with him Laurie actually looked a great deal better than I’d ever seen him. I packed a bag for Tom and myself and we left the house just before seven. We waited in my car out on the street until we saw Laurie’s boss arrive. I watched him park his Mercedes in our drive, walk up to the front door and ring the bell. On the third ring the door opened.

##

Sandra Arnold is a novelist, short story writer and essayist. Her work appears in numerous international journals and anthologies, most recently in Bonsai: Best Small Stories from Aotearoa New Zealand (Canterbury University Press, NZ, 2018). In 2019 her third novel Ash will be published by Mākaro Press (NZ)  and her first flash fiction collection Soul Etchings by Retreat West Books (UK). She is on the advisory board and is a guest editor for Meniscus: The Australasian Association of Writing Programmes.

www.sandraarnold.co.nz

Hugh Behm-Steinberg

The Names of Things

It’s good when you go on walks to know the names of things. That tree on your left, what kind of tree? Or that bird, even if it’s just a sparrow, what sort? There are so many different kinds, maybe that sparrow is part of an endangered species, and you’re never going to see another one like it ever again. Maybe it’s not even a sparrow at all.

So you get an app for your phone where you can snap a picture of something and it’ll tell you what it is, and you use it all the time. That tree’s a sycamore, specifically a Platanus racemosa, the California Sycamore. That dull green largish bird hopping around its branches? A California Towhee, and that butterfly with the orange spots on its wings is a California Sister. You feel assured by your findings that you are indeed in California, and haven’t slipped across the border into some other state where everything is named Nevada.

While snapping a picture of a Rubus laciniatus, a blackberry vine that’s feral where you live, the app identifies another shape in the picture, a brownish blob of something in the background of your shot. You tap on that and the app refocuses the blob and digs through its databases before it spits out Homo sapiens cognatus, aka Bigfoot. Bigfoot!

Almost immediately your phone buzzes with texts: “Don’t make any sudden moves,” one reads, “but could you get closer?”

“Could you take some more pictures?

“Could you take some more pictures and post them?”

“Could you post them as soon as you can to the app?”

“Could you please take some more pictures, or even better, turn the video recorder on?”

Texts flood your phone, each more urgent than the last. Of course you do what they request – for Bigfoot you’d do anything.

Carefully you move towards the blob, which looks more and more like just a person, and take some more pictures. The app slurps them up, spitting out Bigfoot with each and every one: your phone is practically vibrating with excitement. You’re thinking of uploading them directly to your newsfeed with visions of superstardom (maybe even your own reality TV show) dancing in your head.

“Hey,” the person who your app’s just tagged as Bigfoot says, “Are you taking pictures of me?”

She’s definitely a Bigfoot, but to be honest, she doesn’t look all that different from everybody else. She’s tall, but not giant tall, more like power forward on a decent college basketball team tall. She has light brown hair, a bunch of it but not so much she wouldn’t look out of place at a tech firm, which makes sense because she’s wearing one of those goofy t-shirts they hand out at developer conferences. Maybe she waxes? But the feet? The feet are amazing, you just want to stare at them for days.

Just as you’re about to apologize profusely, your phone rings. You hold your hand up in the just a minute gesture.

“Are you far enough away to take this call?” asks the guy on the phone.

You take four significant steps back. “I am now,” you say, even while Bigfoot is still staring at you.

“Does she look upset?”

“That I’m taking pictures of her?” you say, quietly and calmly, trying not to disturb anyone.

“No, no, just in general. Is she with someone? Does she look unhappy? Does she look lonely?”

Bigfoot, taking only two significant steps, walks right up to you. “Are you talking to Steve? Steve, is that you on the phone?” She’s more towering up close, and her hands look like they could cup all of you in one of them.

“Don’t tell her you’re talking to me!” Steve says, but Bigfoot already has her hand out and you pass her the phone. She has little jewels set in each of her fingernails; they’re so sparkly and cool.

“How many times have I told you to take me out of your App, Steve?” Bigfoot turns her back for privacy and all you hear are increasingly heated arguments, curse words and the phrase “restraining order” before she ends the call. She looks sort of crumpled; it’s not the first time she’s had to deal with this situation, or even the tenth.

She hands the phone back to you. “I’m so sorry to get you dragged into all of this. Steve’s been stalking me.”

“No, no,” you say, awash in awkwardness. Even though you’ve barely met all you want to do is help. You’re wondering if it would be ok to give Bigfoot a hug.

“I feel so stupid,” Bigfoot says, sniffling a little. “He had all the signs, but I thought, ‘be brave, maybe it’s love, maybe he’s really the one.’”

You’re tempted to tell her about your own horrible breakups, all the ten foot tall women who dumped you for twenty foot tall men, and maybe you want to ask her out yourself, before common sense breaks into your rescue fantasy. You don’t think you could handle a relationship at this point in your life, and you’re not sure Bigfoot would be into you anyway. You’re just a person who still needs an app to learn the names of things.

“I’m just going to delete everything,” you say.

“Thanks,” she says.

It’s awkward, but you have to do it because this moment might never happen again. “Are you really Bigfoot?” you ask, “Or did Steve just rig the app?”

Bigfoot stares at you with brown eyes that make whatever’s hard in your soul soften just a little. “Give me your phone,” she says. “There’s something I want to show you.”

She opens up the app and takes a picture of you.

The dial in the center of the app swirls around and around; after awhile it becomes clear it will never stop. No one knows who or what you are it seems.

So you decide to ask her out after all.

##

Hugh Behm-Steinberg’s prose can be found or forthcoming in Gravel, Sand, Grimoire, Joyland, Jellyfish Review, Atticus Review and Pank. His short story “Taylor Swift” won the 2015 Barthelme Prize from Gulf Coast. An e-chapbook, The Society of the Recently Escaped, is forthcoming from The Fabulist, and a collection of microfiction, Animal Children, is forthcoming from Nomadic Press in 2019. He is chief steward of the adjunct faculty union at California College of the Arts.

Lori Sambol Brody

Visiting Day

 

My mother rolls curlers in her hair, makes me wear my apple-green High Holy Days dress, and we cross the Golden Gate Bridge in her Buick Regal to see Charles Manson. Storm clouds shroud the Marin hills. “Charles is a Scorpio,” she says. “We need a Scorpio in the family.” She’s told me this before, ever since she started writing to Manson. “It’s time for you to meet him,” she says, although I’d wanted to stay home with my library books. Mom hasn’t even met him. She pulls into the lot at San Quentin, parks next to a white van. She unrolls and fluffs her curls, pats her lips with Maybelline Dandy lipstick, although her first application is still brilliant red. I follow Mom as she lugs the litigation bag Manson told her to bring, full with empty legal pads, across the parking lot and sets it down to talk to the guard.

The guard says, “He can’t have visitors.”

“Are you denying him his constitutional right to an attorney?”

“Sorry – no – ma’am, I wasn’t expecting a lady attorney.”

“Well, get used to it young man.”

“Don’t tell me that kid is Manson’s attorney also.”

“It’s Mr. Manson to you. She’s my daughter.”

The guard’s voice cracks. “You can’t bring your kid to death row.”

“I don’t see why not.”

“Rules, ma’am.”

“Fine.” She turns to me. “Hon, go sit in the car.”

Electricity sings in the air. I run back to the car, untying the bow in my hair.

A guy leans against the van, in the narrow space between our car and his. He’s a couple of years older than me, fifteen or sixteen, long-haired and sucking on a cigarette.

“Hey,” he says in a Southern accent.

Mom always taught me to be polite. I nod.

“Watchya in for?” He’s one of those hippies who hang out in the Haight that Mom warns me about.

I tell him Mom’s visiting Manson, that she’s his attorney.

He lets out a low whistle, exhales skunky smoke. “Your mom’s the one with the huge rack?” I didn’t expect a hippie to talk like a fifty-year-old. He hands me the joint; I hold it carefully, between my thumb and forefinger, like I actually know how to smoke it.

“It’s not gonna kill you.”

I inhale, cough, choke. What will he think, that I’m so inexperienced?

We pass the joint back and forth until he drops it on the cracked asphalt. Grinds it with the worn-down heel of a cowboy boot.

He touches my face. I shiver, want him to touch me more. But he doesn’t. “You’d be so pretty without your glasses.” His accent intensifies. “You know about Manson, how women would do anything for him?”

“No.” Mom told me that Manson was misunderstood.

Thunder crashes. “You like me right?”

“Sure.”

“Let’s go to my place near the Park.”

“Gotta wait for my mom.”

“We’ll call her later.”

“Maybe tomorrow? Give me your address.”

From inside the van, laughter.

I blush. I hadn’t known anyone was there. I take a step back, feel the Buick’s solid steel behind me.

“Didn’t your momma ever tell you to not talk to strangers?” says a woman’s voice from inside the van.

Shame settles in my stomach. “Excuse me.” I dive into the Buick’s back seat. Lock the doors. Mom’s foam rollers, pale yellow, lie on the floor.

The guy peeks in each window, presses against the glass. I pull my knees in closer, hope that Mom comes soon. “Who’s protecting you sweetheart?” he hisses.

And then the storm hits. His face withdraws and a door slams. The van’s tires screech as it peels out of the lot.

The car rocks with waves of rain.

Mom throws open the front driver’s door. The rain has uncurled her hair. She turns to me in the back and wiggles her fingers. A cigar ring circles her ring finger. The band is red and gold, with a man’s head like a cameo, a swastika lined on his forehead with a ball point pen. “Look what Charles gave me.”

“I thought he couldn’t even touch you.”

“I brought it,” she says. “I so wish you met him.”

##

Lori Sambol Brody lives in the mountains of Southern California. Her short fiction has been published in Smokelong Quarterly, Tin House Flash Fridays, The Rumpus, Little Fiction, Necessary Fiction, Sundog Lit, and elsewhere. One of her stories is in Best Small Fictions 2018. She can be found on Twitter at @LoriSambolBrody and her website is lorisambolbrody.wordpress.com.

Leonora Desar

Words

 

I’m in bed and then I fall right through the floor. It happens without warning. One minute I’m in bed with my husband, not having sex, and then I’m in bed with the new neighbors. They live downstairs. They always look like they are having sex. Even when they’re not, the sex is in their eyes. I look up at their window, wistfully, at their four-poster bed that’s home to all their sex-making. I say it to my dog, I say do you think they’re having sex. And he says, well what do you think. And now I know. Not only are the neighbors having sex they’re doing the crossword. They’re just that competent. It’s all me and my husband can do to do the sex thing by itself. The crossword would be too much. It would explode our brains. Doing it on Sundays alone is enough. Looking at each other across the table, at all the words we never say.

##

Leonora Desar’s writing has recently appeared in River Styx, Passages North, Black Warrior Review Online, SmokeLong Quarterly, New Flash Fiction Review, and Quarter After Eight, among others. She won third place in River Styx’s microfiction contest and TSS Publishing’s Flash 400, and was a finalist/runner-up in Quarter After Eight’s Robert J. DeMott Short Prose contest, judged by Stuart Dybek. She lives in Brooklyn and writes a column for New Flash Fiction Review—DEAR LEO.