The second place finalist from our 2019-2020 Winter Short Story Award is sure to unsettle you. Kimberly King Parsons, guest judge, writes: “From the very first lines, ‘Joe Blake’ fully plunges the reader into new territory. Now that her grown son has left for the United States, Australian empty-nester Vrinda is unmoored and lonely, a ‘woman stuck like a wasp in wax.’ But things get very interesting with the gift of a strange new creature/roommate. This story is delightfully disorienting—from the outback setting to the magical circumstances to the quirky dialogue—but as the plot gets increasingly bizarre, ‘Joe Blake’ manages to be more and more relatable. At its core, this is a story about resilience and independence. Inventive and fresh, it’s truly unlike anything I’ve read.
But she needed their security, the loving obsession with which her husband had kept his belongings. He had taught her that these hills were harsh, unquestionably brutal, that even the most sensitive creatures needed layers and defenses. His belongings had been preserved from droughts and bushfires and even death, as here they were, untouchable, seven months since he had left to the next life all by himself.
In late summer, Vrinda awoke to her phone chiming beside the argabatti.
Her son was off, dropping Ma a few texts, scooting early to the airport with his girl, cheers for the extra vitamin m, cheers for helping his mates host a going-away, soz for the mess, he’d see Ma at Chrissy, he’d call her on the al capone if his girlfriend said yes, he would call, promise promise promise, and hopefully fly home from the States with a beyoncé like Ma’d been praying for.
She dropped her phone in her pocket, swung her feet over the carpet and stretched her toes on the rug. Her ponytail was matted, slick, and the night’s sweat shone off her shoulder blades. A wave of cicadas bellowed from the hillside and blowflies twitched beneath the bed, waning in the heat. She took her mug, twirled the dregs of chai with a forlorn finger and rose to inspect the living room.
The coffee table was covered in beer bottles, cans of spiked seltzer and a coconut husk filled with ash. The carpet had turned brown, the color of lentil masala. An upturned suitcase lay by the rice cooker, filled with collared shirts and leather shoes, and reams of silly-string clung to the bronze Nataraja, like the intestines of a rainbow Shiva.
But mostly Vrinda saw the absence of her son. She could not avert her eyes. His presence lingered in the handprints on the fridge, the indent on his bed, the tinny electro music playing from a cracked iPod in the saucepan. The distance between them had already begun to grow, as if nurtured by the excitement of elsewhere, and not here, to the history of this house, and to this woman stuck like a wasp in wax.
Stepping to the kitchenette, Vrinda found a cola can beside the pot of basmati rice, sawn cleanly across in a line. She unfolded a scrap of newspaper beside the can and found a note.
Ma. Here lies one hectic Joe Blake. RIP. I drowned him in the loo.
She peeked inside the can and backtracked to the fridge, bunching her fingers into fists. She peeked again and yes, there he was, a Joe Blake after all, limp and rubbery, as long as her hand, as thin as her finger, deep black scales on a flat wide head, yellow on his belly and amber in his eyes.
But the poor fellow, she said. The poorest and deadest of fellows.
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