Andrew Battershill is the co-editor of Dragnet Magazine, a quarterly publication of short fiction. He lives in Toronto.
Fungible Smith never did find the perfect moment to ask her parents about her name. In this way she was fortunate because, whatever reasons her parents may have had for naming her as they did, it is almost impossible that their reasons were as varied, charitable, or whimsical as the ones Fungible imagined over the course of her long and varied youth.
After a hard day of work tagging frogs in Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park, our hero called her friend James on the way back to her vehicle and, after a couple of non-starts, Betty rumbled to life. Betty was a 20-year-old pickup that Fungible had bought for $435 on Craigslist. The truck was a faded red, its paint bubbled up with rust. It had no internal heating whatsoever, but Fungible loved the car, in part because Betty’s constant overachievements, like starting on cold days, reinforced her good feelings.
As she slowly made her way toward James’ house, our hero smoked a king-size Player’s out the window and mentally re-checked the fact that she was not a cynical person. Several of Fungible’s close friends had recently been taken in by a particularly obnoxious strain of doomsday prophecy and historical revisionism. When Fungible disagreed with their certainty about aliens having built the pyramids and a dark Cabal of (mostly) Jewish people running all the world’s affairs, she had tried to communicate to her friends that it was (mostly) the strength of their certainty that troubled her. Her friends had not understood what she was saying, and by the end of the conversation had all decided that she was just too cynical to believe their truths. She had dropped the issue, but had been deeply troubled by their use of “the c word” for several days after. As she passed the “Welcome to Medicine Hat!” sign the correct response occurred to her, and she told it to the open road in front of her, waving her cigarette in a sinuous pattern that corresponded with the dips and rises in her tone:
“I’m not cynical. Let’s get that clear. I am not a cynic, I believe in complexity. I believe that the world is a beautiful, challenging, wonderful place, and to think that you have, or need, anything more than a guess about how or why things are the way they are is just disrespectful. It’s disrespectful to the confusing things that make life worthwhile. So don’t call me a fucking cynic because I don’t believe something you read on a forum, when you’re the one talking about aliens and Armageddon, and I’m the one talking about how nice it is to sleep in freshly washed sheets, and how pretty the trees are.” She paused and took a long drag. “Motherfuckers.” She laughed into her softening filter and flicked it out the window. She patted Bumpy, her stuffed elephant purse, twice on the head, and then rubbed his stomach before using the lighter, which was attached to her bag with a tiny retractable cord, to start another cigarette.
Cypress Hills was the home of North America’s largest dark sky preserve, no artificial lights were permitted in the area. And almost every night after work Fungible would drive into town, pick up a friend, head right back to the preserve and smoke perfectly rolled joints under the dark, glittering sky.
They were re-paving the highway into town, and a thin layer of dirt floating up from the gravel was always in the air. As Fungible rolled cautiously by she saw Karen, a girl she had known but not spoken to in high school, walking along the road and pulling marked pieces of rebar out of the ground before the paving machine came by. Karen pulled as hard as she could on one rebar, and it didn’t move. She lost her grip and fell down, and when she hit the ground her helmet flew off, her bangs fell into her eyes and she started laughing. And then, without moving any other part of her body, she blew upward and got the hair out of her eyes.
Fungible didn’t own anything that she considered replaceable. Her room was filled with garage-sale trunks and hard-sided suitcases, each suitcase stuffed with artisanal crafts, clothes, and other objects that reminded her of someone or something. To her, every object represented its own unique set of memories and people, and each suitcase represented its own cobbled-together universe, memories grouped together as living creatures are grouped together: randomly and with a deep, unspecific care. Even the stuffed animal purses she switched between were not interchangeable. They were carefully chosen observers of different distinct eras of her life.
Although she’d only been using Bumpy for a week, tufts of his fur were already congealed in hard clumps along his side. But Bumpy was an exceptionally reliable stuffed animal purse, he had an incredible amount of storage space, and his trunk curved upwards and slightly to the side in a way that Fungible found endearing.
By the time she arrived at James’ house she felt calm and glad to be spending the evening with, by far, her most relaxed friend. When she pulled up he was pacing, happily, and inspecting his apartment building’s plants. He saw her and, as if it was part of his pacing plan, shifted his direction toward her car, his limbs hanging customarily loosely. He struggled with the door for a second before getting in the car with the sheepish, contented grin with which Fungible had become familiar.
“Hi!” He reached over to hug her and Fungible stopped him with a straight arm and leaned back to her window.
“No hug unless you finished your painting.”
James’ smile grew slightly wider as he dropped his head to his chest. “Umm, I’ve thought about it, but, uh, yeah. Not done.”
Fungible cocked her head to the side, to look him in the eyes. “You remember what this means? What you asked me to do?”
His smile reached full capacity. “I remember.”
“Are you ready?”
He raised his head and turned to face her, spreading his hands down to his sides. Fungible wound up and slapped him with an open hand across the face, and immediately afterward dove into a warm, firm hug. She pulled back and rested against her window again and watched in the streetlamp light as a slight pink flush went through his right cheek. James paused, looking at the floor for a few seconds, before he looked back at her.
“Wow, that was nice. I might not ever finish this painting, if I have that sort of cheap thrill to look forward to every week.”
Fungible laughed, put the key in the ignition, and started Betty. “You be careful smart-ass, or I’ll pink your other cheek.”
“I’m always careful.” He shifted in his seat, as Fungible shifted Betty’s only partially willing gears. James rolled down his window and poked his head out, looking at the stretching land beyond the roof of the car. He swung back in, with both cheeks appropriately flushed. This was one of Fungible’s favorite things about James, his cheeks flushed reliably at the perfect moments, which she took as evidence of genuine feeling. He ran a hand through his hair. “Now let’s go look at some STARS!”
Although Fungible had a very slight frame, and was about five foot four, she had an uncommonly rugged quality about her. She wore vintage dresses on most days, but would not hesitate to hike them up aggressively and climb a rock, or pull them up and pee behind a dumpster. She was in the habit of spitting strong, tightly packed balls of phlegm into the air. Her hair changed colour about once a month, and was at this time a gentle, faded green. She was not a vain woman, but was intensely proud of her calves, and would take any opportunity to point her toes and highlight the strong, curving line of her muscle, or to rest their sturdy sinew in someone’s lap.
She pushed Bumpy towards James. “Hey, get Snowflake ready.”
James took the elephant and started rummaging through it’s back. He removed her pipe case and bent-up pot-tin and started hand picking a bud into the bowl. Snowflake was a pipe Fungible had bought at an Arts Fair. It had a brown, dotted body, but the very top was white and sparkling.
James began to shake his head slowly. “I’m still pissed you didn’t take my name for this pipe, it was perfect.”
“What was that again?”
“Old Man with a Bowl Cut. Perfect fucking name, I’m telling you.”
Fungible laughed. “Well, Snowflake is a nicer sounding, and less long, name. Plus the fun I get in seeing you get mad every time we use that pipe is way better than the five chuckles I would probably get out of naming my beautiful glass-work Old Man with a Bowl Cut.”
James nodded his head from side to side. “Fairsies.”
As they got into the preserve light gradually disappeared. She turned off her headlights, and drove her car, illegally, into the empty park. The stars and moon were fairly bright, and the two friends were close enough together that their movements and facial expressions were still clear to one another, but it was impossible to make out their own feet under the dash. Fungible drove directly to her favorite part of the reserve, an area below a tall layered cliff that was sheltered from the wind but still allowed a perfect view of the sky.
Our hero tried to swing out her window and into the bed of her truck in one smooth motion, and on the way she hit her head against the outside of the window. She settled in beside James in the bed of the truck.
“I remembered a funny story just now. I hit my head and it reminded me.”
“Is your head OK?”
“Yes, yes, but so not the point. So, anyways, I got this text from a guy I knew from work inviting me to a party at his place. So I decided to go and I went at like eleven, because I thought it would be a house-party type deal.” She wagged her eyebrows. “But I got there and it turned out that that it was more of a gathering than a party. Annnnd obviously not such a good gathering because everybody was gone by the time I got there, so it was just me and this guy in his house, and whatever. So, he offers me a Coke and I drink it and then I get up to go and he gets all nervous. He’s like: ‘Can I have a kiss?” And I’m like: ‘fuck no, buddy,’ then he leans in and I pull back and hit my head on this weird stickyouty statue and he says: ‘Are you serious?’ So I just peaced the scene and then halfway home I realize I’ve forgotten my cell phone in the hallway. So I have to go back. I show up, and he opens the front door, and… Oh James” — she reached over and grabbed him, rolling her face into his shoulder — “you should have seen the look on this guy’s face. He really, truly, looked like he thought he was getting laid, like there was no way I could resist his question and lean technique. And I could see my phone, and I, gingerly is the perfect word, I gingerly step around him and pick up my phone, and back out without saying anything.”
“Well, after that I went home and knitted until like 3:30 in the morning.”
“That is not something that should happen to anyone over 15, and even then.”
“Dude, he was 35.”
They both started laughing, and James began tapping Fungible’s shoulder with an open hand. “No more, no more. I can’t even hear shit like that, it just kills me.”
They sat up, resting their backs against the cab of the truck, and looked up as they casually passed Snowflake back and forth. There were no clouds in the sky, but if there had been Fungible would not have begrudged them.
They sat in this manner for about an hour, smoking several bowls and talking about things they had noticed or thought about since the last time they saw each other. Afterward they both lay down flat in the bed of the truck and looked up. Fungible thought it was important to think about the world that was spinning underneath her as she looked up. She did not think about aliens, or astronauts, or the pyramids. After several minutes of silence James leaned over and kissed the top of her head, and they looked each other in the eyes for a beat, before he rolled back over and stretched his arms to their full length in front of him. Fungible looked over and laughed. She poked him once in the ribs and then raised her legs straight out. Her patterned polyester summer dress dropped down, exposing her whole legs and her conservatively proportioned tie-dyed underwear. She felt the summer’s cool night air against the back of her thighs, and then she lowered her legs and James lowered his arms. Fungible felt his arms bump against the metal of the truck as he brought them to rest behind his head. She reached down, straightened and smoothed her dress and took a long, slow breath.
A few days later she bought a small, pink snake, and named him Snakey.