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.