Hugh Behm-Steinberg

Hugh Behm-Steinberg’s prose can be found in X-R-A-Y, Grimoire, Joyland, Jellyfish Review, Atticus Review and Pank. His short story “Taylor Swift” won the 2015 Barthelme Prize from Gulf Coast, and his story “Goodwill” was picked as one of the Wigleaf Top Fifty Very Short Fictions of 2018. A collection of prose poems and microfiction, Animal Children, was published by Nomadic Press in January, 2020. He teaches writing and literature at California College of the Arts.

PATTY by Hugh Behm-Steinberg

The problem with dolls who can do things is that they get bored, you have to keep them busy. If you don’t they get clingy, and it’s so easy to forget to keep the little gold chain on around their neck. They say if you forget about the little gold chain the dolls will chase you everywhere, and then it’s stab, stab, stab. 

But mostly they’re just you, only smaller, which is gross in its own way. As you get older, they become more childish, until finally you have to put them in a shoebox and bury them in the yard. You tell yourself you’re growing up and this is what grownups always eventually do. Look carefully in the backyard of your grandparents’ house if you don’t believe.

But your little brother, when you’re over at your best friend Cindy’s house, he digs your doll up, he throws it like a stick to the dog, he plays fetch with your doll, and when it’s all chewed up and slobbered on, he hides it in your room, where it moans in a voice only you can hear. There’s going to be some curses: on you, your brother, that dog. You buried your doll where he could find it, you didn’t bury your doll deep enough, you didn’t do right by your doll. You’re going to have to rescue what you abandoned, that’s a curse in itself you don’t know just yet.

But you don’t have to be that sort of person, you don’t have to be a jerk. You clean the doll up, you make invisible tea, you bring together all your other dolls, the ones who can’t do things, and you pour out all your apologies. It’s going to take a while to work everything out, so you keep your door locked. “Why should I trust you?” the doll says. “Look me in the eye,” she says, when you promise to be nicer. “Take this gold chain off me,” she says. 

You take a big breath and you do it.

“When I go to sleep,” you say, “you’re not going to stab me, right?”

“Why do you think I would ever want to hurt you?” If she could cry she would, but she’s not that kind of doll.

You and your doll are practically vibratingthis is something raw and new. It feels like you’ve been sobbing for hours, as you tell her everything in your heart and she tells you everything back. You feel a light inside you, a secret light you can’t tell anyone because they won’t know what it’s like and they’ll just laugh and say you’re a kid, what do you know?

She promises to lift all of her curses. To mark this new turn, you give your doll a new name, Patty.

“I like that name,” Patty says.

You and Patty track down your brother. He looks at Patty and notices she’s not wearing her necklace. “That’s right,” you say, as you knock him over and climb on top of him. “Someone owes Patty an apology, or someone is going to get stabbed in the eye.”

He apologizes and apologizes and apologizes. You tell him you don’t believe him and it’s only a matter of time until Patty sneaks into his room with a kitchen knife. “If you mean it,” you say, “You’ll eat dirt. You’ll eat worms.”

You put your knee on one of his arms. You point to the hole he dug Patty out of.

“I’m sorry,” he wails.

“Shake hands with Patty and tell her you’ll never do it again.”

When it’s dinnertime, you bring Patty down with you, and when your mom looks at you with that aren’t you too old to play with dolls look, you put Patty right in the middle of the table, where everyone can see who’s no longer wearing their golden necklace. Patty cuts loose, leaping from the table to do cartwheels around on the floor. Your dad gives your mom the let’s just put up with it for now look, and while the dog is keeping her distance, everyone else goes back to chatting about their day and eating.

The problem with dolls who can do things is that they hate doing chores, just like you, but it’s your turn to wash the dishes, so you grab Patty. You put on your dishwashing gloves, then carefully slip a pair of dolly gloves on Patty’s little hands. 

“We’re friends, right?” 

The dishes, glasses and pans, it’s all so disgusting. “It has everybody’s spit on it,” Patty says, shakily.

“If we both do it,” you say, “then it’ll be over with quicker and it’ll be alright.”

“But I’m going to get spit all over me! It’s going to leak through these gloves and then it’s going to get on my skin and it will be like I was back inside your dog’s mouth!”

Patty’s holding her knees with her little dolly gloves and rocking back and forth.

“I was wearing my necklace and I couldn’t do anything to make it stop.”

“It’s ok, you don’t have to do the dishes,” you say. 

You put Patty on the windowsill and do all the dishes yourself. You sing her a couple of Taylor Swift songs and soon the two of you are singing together. Together, you and Patty ease.

You make a note to remember this—that it’s ok just to sing, that this is something you know how to do, when someone is frightened so badly they don’t even know how scared they are. 

The kitchen knives sit on the drying rack, all in a row, sharp and clean.

Continue Reading...

DCUQ ANGRUQ by Hugh Behm-Steinberg

A discussion in one of my classes, about metafiction, memory and torment, led me to bring up Chuck Jones’s classic cartoon, Duck Amuck. None of my students had heard of it, but that’s typical: they’re students. Still, before showing it in my next class I wanted to see the actual cartoon and not just rely on what I remembered when I first saw it as a kid. I mean who didn’t love the scene where Marvin the Martian takes Daffy aboard his flying saucer so that none of Bugs Bunny’s disintegrator blasts would ever singe his black feathers again?  

But it’s in the nature of memory that details fuzz: without the cartoon in front of you, can you describe the expression upon Marvin’s golden face? Did Daffy weep one tear or two for his good fortune? I wanted to put Duck Amuck in front of my students, so that together we could see the thing itself, and untangle memory from reality.

So I tried looking for it online, first on YouTube, then Amazon, then Pirate Bay. I followed all the links my search engine grudgingly gave me, but no luck. Someone at Warner’s must have been very protective of their past, but I wasn’t going to let that stop me. I mean, it had Daffy traveling to Mars and finally meeting the true love of his life, Desdemona Duck, Queen of all Waterfowl. It was her love that at last broke Daffy from his endless cycle of disintegration/re-integration, of always returning not knowing anyone or anything, and to finally embrace certain death even if it was to be by erasure, the worst way to go out in a cartoon, and at last transcend annihilation to discover joy. It was like a recipe for enlightenment in ten minutes, thirteen seconds. It bothered me that one of the greatest cartoons of all time had been so thoroughly erased, and that no one seemed to notice.

I looked for and found seventeen Daffy Duck lovers subreddits. I got blocked on all of them.

Three thousand two hundred and fifty-one pages deep into my search I found a single pirated copy that cut off in the middle; it wobbled like someone had recorded it while drunk, holding their cellphone in front of a laptop on a speedboat. It was dubbed in Mongolian (I think?), and gave my computer a virus that required bitcoin to fix. There was an airplane in it. I don’t remember Duck Amuck ever having an airplane. Not unlike the original version, I felt like I too was being erased. I didn’t like how that felt.

Not long after that I got a call from my Chair. “I don’t know what you’ve been doing,” she said. “But knock it off.” 

By this point all the ads on my browser were for Mongolian butcher shops and Viagra, and my phone kept buzzing with increasingly menacing texts from Deans and Provosts and People Who Choose to Remain Terrifyingly Anonymous. Don’t get me started on the exploding garbage trucks, or the near total absence of scenery. But the more I got the sense that someone was trying to keep me from the true Duck Amuck, the more I wanted to keep digging, because Daffy would do no less. Didn’t he fight off Bugs Bunny’s million instant Evil Martians with just a wooden practice sword to rescue his beloved Desdemona from the sewers? Surely I could save one cartoon from digital oblivion.

Finally, finally, finally, five thousand, three hundred and twenty-two pages deep into my search, I found a copy of Dcuq Angruq on a dodgy server somewhere in Southern Luxembourg. Despite the name, I knew what I had at last found. With total anticipation, I dropped the file into my video player.

My computer started whistling.

I kept waiting for the flying saucer moment where Daffy finally understands his place in the world; instead it was nothing like how I remembered it. All this version of Duck Amuck contained was just a bunch of grainy scenes where increasingly horrible things kept happening to Daffy, who had no idea why such horrible things were being done to him. No wonder it was so hard to find: it was the cartoon equivalent of a snuff film.

Smoke gushed out from every outlet of my computer, but I couldn’t stop watching.

When the cartoon sputtered to its end, there was no happy duck kissing, only Daffy writhing, crying, “Stop it, just stop it, please!” 

Then the camera pulled back to reveal his tormenter to be Bugs Bunny, who was exactly the same as I remembered.

Looking up from the smoldering pile of feathers where a duck used to be, Bugs says, “Hugh, why are you watching me?”

“Have I been making you laugh?”

My name is Hugh.

The roof of my house is missing.

I see the falling shadow of an anvil approaching me. It moves wherever I move.

Continue Reading...