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.

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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.