Porpoise Bay – Rachel Smith
Plate – Rob Walton
Spots – Ben Berman
Separation – Dennis Scott Herbert
Driving Lesson – Anita Arlov
Against the Wall – Allen Forrest (graphic)
Crabapples – Daniel Uncapher
Mae Bird – Hannah Lackoff
Watcher – Iona Winter
A Soft Landing – Alicia Bakewell
The Car on the Hill, in the Night – Marty Beauchamp
Crisis over Clothing Store Closure – Keith Nunes
Seven Causes of my Mother’s Bicycle Accident – Claire Polders
Interview: Chad Miller
Author Focus: Best Small Fictions contributors
Guest Editors Catherine McNamara and K M Elkes
You find out an old friend was having a picnic by the shore, lifting a glass of Cotes du Rhone, when an out-of-control motorboat rockets from the lake and lands right the fuck on him.
The cat is rubbing your leg for those stinky stars which smell like fish, and sunlight is landing on the toaster – one heat turned on, the other off. The shower’s going and your wife is singing opera. Fucking opera. The clock is doing its thing over the fridge, a clock that never skips a beat; the fridge working behind the scenes. Consistent and unassuming, when the phone rings with the news. That the hand of God, or whatever, lifts a boat from the water like a soggy fly swatter and takes out a glass of wine and your best friend from high school. Who told you once he saw a Picasso bull while on acid. Real as shit, but he went with it. Rode it out. Was a demolition expert in Iraq. Still with ten fingers and toes when he left. Took over his father’s pet shop when he got out, but really wanted to be a poet. But metaphors, he said, didn’t pay the bills.
You fill the cat’s bowl. Your wife, with a towel twirled on her head, slips off stage into the bedroom. You put a couple of slices, you’ll never eat, into the toaster. Needing normalcy. They pop up, predictably, transformed.
When I finally looked back, the beach was far enough that if I had to swim for it there’d be as much chance of making it as not. Lumps of sheep were scattered across the soft green hills, her two-women tent partially hidden behind a flank of harakeke.
We’d arrived late the night before, a fingernail of moon scraping at the horizon. I hadn’t planned on going anywhere at all, just doing the usual of drink, sleep, drink, sleep. It was getting tedious though, like pulling on the same pair of jeans day after day until they felt greasy to touch.
So here we were. Her idea, my car, and I was out on a board for the first time in years, looking down into the blue grey ocean following those flickering shadows. The porpoises breached again, sliding up from the dark to weave their way around me. I laid my fingertips into the cold water. They easily slipped by, close enough to make me think I could touch them but always out of reach.
A set rolled in, one big wave after another. She caught the last, eyes forward as she rode it in. The wave crashed onto the sand, rolled up the beach to leave a rind of sea foam. If she’d asked me I would have followed her in, but she didn’t. So I floated out further, wondering where their sleek bodies would lead me, wondering if around the rocks was where the mermaids lived.
About Rachel Smith…
Andrew is doing this school thing where teenagers befriend the older generation, and he’s making a better job of it than some of his friends. Selina, in her new white tracksuit, tells him there is a study showing young people are often the loneliest. He doesn’t know how to answer. Opinions sometimes scare him.
They move on to exchange facts. Selina is happy to listen to his tales of sporting prowess, and shares a tale of a swim round the island. Does he believe her? He’s impressed by the youthful feat or the senior teasing.
He describes a game the children have invented, involving lots of throwing and kicking of a ball of some or other shape. He runs round the dining room table, demonstrating the moves while she makes the tea and puts the best biscuits on the best plate. She may take them through the sliding doors to the little patio Alastair made. She notices the sun shining through on Andrew and thinks today is a better day.
Andrew is now more animated. He describes being rushed by a friend from the opposing team. He shows his skilful sidestep with the ball in one hand, and dives for the line, catching the reflection of a swimming trophy as he crashes into the glass.
Selina drops her best plate, and moves quickly in her new white tracksuit.
Johnny had heard there was a spot on the Ben Franklin Bridge that, if you scaled it after hours, offered a dramatic view of Center City – not that we cared about Center City but we were desperate for drama back then, had seen Trainspotting a few too many times and kept chanting choose life as we climbed higher and higher.
We’d made it just past the tracks when a train passed by and a conductor spotted us and must have assumed we were jumpers, and within minutes all bridge traffic had stopped and there were police cars and searchlights and suddenly Center City had never seemed so far away.
I don’t think I’d ever really chosen life before, had always just kind of lived, until I looked down at that river crashing magnificently against the rocks and felt the most ecstatic of rushes – like I was floating halfway between heaven and earth – then called up to Johnny, pleaded with him to double back and spot me.
About Ben Berman…
Dennis Scott Herbert
Marci’s friends say, “Srsly grl, go ahead, upload without us. There’s a better world waiting for you. We will remember you. We will miss you.” But what they mean is, “Get out of our lives, you rich bitch,” because things are not so good on Earth anymore.
When Marci goes, like the rest of the upper class, to a pure digital realm, she only brings what she wants. Nostalgia becomes the framework and fabric to construct her future.
Her friends forget about Marci as if she died years before she left. They keep nothing and move from cornfield to cornfield, the occasional watering hole.
The poor navigate in herds and are hunted by bearded militias. The poor don’t upload. The poor are distracted, entertained, monitored with twenty-year-old tech. The poor starve while they augment Oregon Trail. The children get cholera, a wife dies of frostbite, the wagon will not forge the river because cities are already underwater.
In her world built of golden memories, Marci is separate. She will never feel grumbling hunger cramps or the euphoric white rush of a splintered bone again. She will never feel cool water on her tongue, a mouth on her skin.
About Dennis Scott Herbert…
He turned my head with his hands.
Wore his shirt sleeves rolled.
Said he needed his hands.
Him, in his Zephyr, beckoning me. I’m at the window, in bald slippers. Dressed all wrong for a boy. But it’s him.
He offered most pickups to teach me how to drive. I kept smiling noes.
”I’d get us both killed!”
But today, my eyes fix on his tanned grown man’s hand on the gear stick. I place mine on his. He turns the key.
The engine hums like a third person.
He pulls over, nowhere special. Gets out. Comes round my side.
I slide over the gearstick to his seat. He’s in my seat.
Now it’s his hand on mine.
First gear. We jerk away from the kerb.
I remember my slipper sliding off and jamming under the clutch. The cold-water-chill of metal on my sole.
He remembers my field-mouse-of-a-hand.
It was one of those backless slippers they call mules.
About Anita Arlov…
Against The Wall
That summer I was on the day-shift cleaning some shelves, one of my janitorial duties at the hospital, when two Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers were escorting a man down the hallway from the morgue. The man must have been in his early thirties, an officer on each side holding his arms. He’s looking down at the floor as they walk. Suddenly the man wrenches himself free, goes over and slams his hand against the wall really hard.
He yells, “That stupid kid! I told him not to swim there.”
One cop seems to get angry about the way the man pulled away so violently and the other cop starts to laugh, as though he’s embarrassed by the sudden emotional display.
It was strange: one angry, the other laughing.
If you saw it in a movie you’d say, “That’s bad acting,”, but this wasn’t a movie, it was real life.
About Allen Forrest…
The farmer caught us in the high grass, playing doctor with a fire-engine red crayon. I wasn’t allowed to come over after that. We met at the boundary anyway and climbed the crabapple trees beneath the power pylons that snapped the elastic in our underwear and stood our hair up on. She insisted that I be her boyfriend, which I found intolerable. I threw crabapples at the back of her head until she went home.
If you stand beneath the pylons holding a fluorescent bulb, it lights up like a lightsaber. No-one ever believes it until they see for themselves.
After the first snowfall of winter, a kid from the trailer park came knocking on my window and made certain demands. I let him into my bedroom and proceeded to understand his terms. I never knew his motivations. He must have learned them from somewhere. Probably from his father.
But I didn’t think about his father at all back then, just as I don’t think about why crabapples taste so bitter now, or why fluorescent bulbs go dark when you break them against each other.
All I can think about lately is red.
About Daniel Uncapher…
Hold this, he said, and into my hands he pushed a bird; small and scared and slippery, its feathered body beating in time to my heart. I made a dome of my hands, an empty bowl, a seashell home, and I began to cry.
Oh Mae, he said, Oh Mae Bird, and he knelt before me in the dirt, in his good pants, and he tried to hold me as I held the bird, but my hands clasped in front made me too big for his arms to go around and I was afraid he would crush us both. I pushed at him with my chin, and when that didn’t worked I ducked out of the circle of his wrists, but without my arms to balance I was clumsy and I tripped. My fingers opened and the bird was gone; tumbling skyward in defiance of gravity.
He looked at me, on my back in the dirt, and I looked at him on his knees, and we began to laugh, again, finally. The bird above us twirled and screamed and I let him pull me to my feet.
About Hannah Lackoff…
Āku whatu notice things.
The dog with chops in the breeze out a car window, freedom. How a woman warms her pregnant puku in the sunshine, hands circling. A broken blackbird in a ditch, silent.
Āku taringa too.The way Porirua travels fluid around my mouth. How ocean waves pound, relentless. And people who wank lyrical – no waxing goes on inside their māngai.
Nan used to say, “You can’t keep a hatpin in a cloth bag for very long.”
I channel her while eating porridge straight from the pot. Wooden spoon melded to twisted fist, and my riri surfaces.
The bitch laid her purchases out on hotel-crisp-snapped white sheets, then stood back to admire them. She liked her wealth plastic wrapped and tidy. She overlooked two flies fucking on the bleached toilet roll, edges pressed and triangulated, as she rushed out to ‘meet friends for lunch’. She didn’t pause when she pulled out onto the busy road; doing what the hell she liked and her white privilege ran over my spine.
In the waiting room I observe a pensioner’s toes marked by years spent in jandals – purple jellybeans. Then am struck by a toddler’s shoes with sparkling lights.
I can smell a woollen jumper imbued with oil, and think about the joy I once felt picking fluff out of my pito.
“Will your chair get through?” says the receptionist.
The same question every time.
“Āe,” I say. “I’ll manage.”
Tāku wairua is forever watching.
About Iona Winter…
A Soft Landing
You always see it happen in slow motion, like dropping something precious and watching helpless as it falls. Me, I never see it until we are both on hands and knees, picking up the shards of it.
“How can you not see?”
“How can you not stop it?”
You wait, always, at the point where you know I will come to rest, in pieces. You scramble, glass slicing skin, as I lie foetal in the middle of the debris, catching my breath. I have been running on empty, but the final swerve felt like just another bend in the road I’ve been travelling breakneck. For weeks? For months? I don’t even remember setting off.
“How did you know it was going to happen?”
“Because in certain ways it looks the same every time.”
We live one life at two speeds, both mine. One life because you have been absorbed into my slipstream. Too high. Too low. Too fast. Too slow. You watch and wait for signs with stubborn vigilance and a deaf ear turned to the voice that tells you to stop trying so hard.
Sometimes – the best times – you run and jump to catch up with me and we coast together, a spreading of wings, weightless. I feel certain it will last forever. You know it’s just for a moment. And soon you will break away and start to prepare a soft landing on the spot where I will fall.
About Alicia Bakewell…
The Car on the Hill, in the Night
He sees the face of the woman in the passenger seat. She follows his approach intently in the wing mirror, her eyes fighting the pinpoints of glare from the truck’s lights behind them. She refuses to blink, refuses to let go until he is with her.
Scattered glass announces him. Putting a hand on the windowsill he looks down to her and then across to the man slumped in the driver’s seat.
Her eyes run over him in waves; he draws on the depth of the night they have traveled, searching out strength.
The cold is so deep it makes the air whole. The world seems beyond the need for sound.
It is late, early. The ballet programme rests in the woman’s lap, the beautiful sweep of the ballerina’s arm stretched across the cover is matched by the arc of deep red that flows upward from the bottom of the glossy paper.
She has raised her hand tentatively to her face, dabbed gently and retreated, not wanting to think of what the slow throbbing pain and warmth might mean. Her hands are placed deliberately back in her lap.
Taking his handkerchief from a deep pocket in one gentle, natural movement, he places his hand against the woman’s temple. The man’s eyes open and lock upon his.
He knows them, this man and this woman. He has been this man, in fragments. He has allowed women to be her, for him, in fragments.
About Marty Beauchamp…
About Nod Ghosh…
Crisis over Clothing Store Closure
The girls’ clothing store in town is closing down.
All thirty-eight teenage girls in the valley signed a petition asking for mercy, but the owner, Mrs Gosworthy, says she’s moving north to be with her pregnant daughter. She says the stockmarket crash and the collapsing economy “has cut this business to ribbons.”
Mrs Gosworthy gave all the girls biscuits and soy lattes while they picked through the sale items.
Mrs Harrison bought the store’s mannequins. She’s starting dressmaking classes to earn some extra money and plans to buy an alpaca for exotic wool to make winter jackets.
Boysie McAllister will lease the shop to sell apps he and his twin have developed for their start-up called McApps Inc. Boysie claims McDonalds is suing but he’s developed an app to fight them in court– calls it The McOffender Defender.
The teenage girls signed another petition asking Pagani to come to town. They’re still waiting to hear.
About Keith Nunes…
Seven Causes of my Mother’s Bicycle Accident
1. The screw-up of an unidentified bureaucrat and/or the sloppiness of an unidentified logistics worker: when our neighbor Miranda Groen parked her broken garbage container on the curb last week, as scheduled, the garbage collectors loaded the lidless thing onto their special vehicle without replacing it with the requested unbroken container, because that one was inconveniently absent on their special vehicle. It was an error that left Groen temporarily without any container whatsoever.
2. Groen’s belief that on the following garbage collection day she had “no other choice” than to put her trash in plastic bags, unprotected, on the curb.
3. The presence, along the Dutch coast, of curious and semi-domesticated seagulls with strong beaks.
4. The unwillingness of people to voluntarily execute an unpleasant task – such as clean the street – when they’re not the only ones capable of performing that task and are actually watching others willfully do nothing: the denial of responsibility when shared. (Unfortunately, this is where I came in.)
5. The overconfidence of people on bicycles: performing a garbage slalom in the dark is no small feat.
6. The presence of cars coupled with the unreliability of car drivers to obey speed limits, resulting in the implementation of neighborhood speed bumps meant to augment traffic safety.
7. The irony of life: when the front wheel of a bicycle hits a speed bump at the wrong angle, the impact can launch a cyclist from her saddle.
About Claire Polders…