by Hugh Behm-Steinberg
I posted a link on Facebook. “I am very pleased to announce my short story, ‘Buster,’ has been published! It’s about why you shouldn’t drink and play with power tools.” The link had the tagline, “Don’t drink and fuck around with power tools; that’s how I lost three fingers. One the doctors were able to sew back on, one they couldn’t, and one was eaten …”
Ten minutes later my dad posted a sad faced reaction, and ten minutes after that my mom did too, plus the comment, “Hope this is a story.” She PM’d me. “Do you still have all your fingers?”
I called her.
“You know this is a short story, it’s fiction. Of course I still have all my fingers.”
“How should I know that? You say it’s fiction but it could be an experiment, you could be mixing in elements from your real life and nobody would be able to tell the difference.”
“I don’t even own any power tools. And you know I don’t have a dog, let alone one named Buster who has acquired magic powers from eating one of my fingers.”
“That’s besides the point,” my mom said. “Look, you know all of us love you, but when you decided to major in writing and started publishing your work, you had no idea what you put the rest of us through.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, every time you published something, all of us wondered, is he writing about us? Even if it was clear you weren’t, like you were writing about a bird or something, there was always the possibility of symbolism.”
“But I’m writing fiction. You shouldn’t take what I write so literally.”
“By refusing to write about us you trained us to always plunge deeper into the meaning of texts. The more you didn’t write about us, the more we looked for signs that you were writing about us. Because even when you make everything up, there’s always a grain of truth, and nobody can say where in the story you’ve hid it. Least of all you.”
“Mom,” I said. “I teach critical theory, you don’t have to explain it to me.”
“You know you come from a family of very close readers; you should have known this would happen. Losing your fingers is a metaphor for losing control. Buster is your father, who wants to help you but you are terrified to accept his help because you fear losing your own sense of adulthood.”
I couldn’t say anything. I was too busy rereading the story to see what I missed. But it was so obvious.
“You think we just skim what you write? We’re sending you a check, and next story you stick to realism, or write about deer. Deer symbolize good things. So do arms. You still have both your arms, yes?”
“Yes, Mom,” I said, not sure if I should ever take anything for granted again.
“Good. Keep it that way.”
Hugh Behm-Steinberg’s prose can be found or forthcoming in Gravel (where “Buster” was first published), Sand, Joyland, Vestal Review, Gigantic and Pank. His short story Taylor Swift won the 2015 Barthelme Prize from Gulf Coast. He is a shop steward for the adjunct faculty union at California College of the Arts in San Francisco, where for ten years he edited the journal Eleven Eleven.