Deb Olin Unferth, guest judge for the 2017 Texas Observer Short Story Contest, says that her favorite short stories “ask big questions, sometimes in the smallest spaces,” but try to avoid providing easy answers. “Like life,” she says, “in a good story there are no simple solutions.”
All five of this year’s finalists (listed below) asked the big questions in a small space — after all, our word count maximum is 2,500. But following Deb’s dictum, the solutions are far from simple… if they exist at all.
Throughout September we published the contest runners-up: Kim Henderson’s “Malena,” Randall G. Arnold’s “A Thunder Note in an Angry Sky,” and “Stakes,” by Deirdre Coyle. (A fourth finalist, Yvette Benavides, opted to pursue publication elsewhere for her story “Fallout.”)
When Deb wrote that she looks for “a situation under pressure,” she probably didn’t expect to choose as the winner a story where the narrator does little more than watch YouTube videos and track a UPS package containing an “edible water ball.”
But that’s exactly what she did. “I love how [‘Muriel’] contends with the fears and obsessions of modern life without being frantic,” Deb says. “The calm is almost creepy.”
We agree, and are pleased to present this year’s winning story, “Muriel,” by Wendy Lerner Lym, who lives in Austin and is an English professor at Austin Community College.
After the story, you’ll find Deb’s full write-up on “Muriel,” Wendy’s own thoughts on the story’s origin, and a list of the contest’s finalists and honorable mentions.
She wished her parents had named her something more creative, more clever. I would like to have been called Anemone, she thought. Or Wandering Dove.
Lately, she had taken to morosely staring at videos on screens — some as small as the salmon on her salad and some the approximate size of a toaster or a modest terrarium.
She watched hours of precocious two-year-olds pronouncing ever-harder words.
She watched a variety talent show surprise winner doing a pantomime ukulele ventriloquist act.
She watched countless men spilling off of machines and falling short of the swimming pool onto concrete stoops and base jumping into nothingness.
She watched pudding cakes and poached flounder and mocha and rib roasts being made, as if she were a hummingbird hovering above them.
She watched cat videos and dog videos and piglet videos and bouncing goats and a terrified lizard chased by snakes and the sun setting on the savanna.
She watched politicians wobbling as bobble-headed dolls and late-night talk show hosts doing lip-synch routines and daytime talk show hosts delivering enormous checks and mammoth television sets.
She felt morbid fascination as she watched pimples and whiteheads and blackheads popping, sunburns peeling in ribbons and sheets, and spines reset by a mechanical crank, the virgin skin of the back pried open with tools from what must have been a turn-of-the-century munitions factory.
She filled out quiz after quiz to figure the color of her aura, the animated princess she most resembled, the four letters that would reveal her language of love, her mermaid name, the identities of her past incarnations.
She stared mesmerized by the new brassieres that were un-bras, which promised uplift and seamlessness and comfort, the women’s bodies in all shapes and sizes, their breasts smoothed into candy-colored fabric. She pinched the screen to collapse the pictures, drawing her finger and thumb so close together they nearly touched.
She spent two full days watching a man build a hut with his bare hands: making a fire, digging a pit, creating bricks, weaving branches into a roof.
She saw life-changing products — a suitcase that folds down to the size of a handbag, a plastic pillow cover that turns into a sofa, a kit to conduct science experiments in a kitchen.
And then she saw a ball of water she could hold in her hand.
Stylish Europeans on a picnic tossed the ball to and fro. The video showed the light glinting off its curves as edgy electronic music peppered the background. She could hold it, catch it, drink it. She could sink her teeth into it. She could pack it in her bento box, carry it onto a kayak, careen with it down a waterfall. It was wrapped in algae or guar gum or something faintly familiar, something that she knew existed but had never properly sorted out in her mind. And everyone who held the crystal sphere simply glowed, their mouths caverns of joy.
She had to order it. She had to.
It came from a packaging company in England, River Rocks or Skipping Rope Lab or something. They called it an edible water ball. They called it something else too, some Danish word full of vowels that she couldn’t even begin to pronounce.
Alexa or Siri — she could never guess her computer’s name — remembered her credit card number. Once upon a time, she thought, there had been an actual card to go with that number. She must have the card somewhere. But it didn’t matter, because Sira-Alexi had all the numbers and her address, knew how she preferred to receive her shipments. She only had to remember three little numbers, tagged on at the end. She had written those numbers down, once, and surprisingly they had stuck. She typed them in: one-one-six.
Then she had to wait for the aqueous sphere, the edible water, the liquid globe to arrive.
Waiting was torturous. When she turned on the computer and went back to the place where the videos lived, the rectangles became just dull, moving spots of colored light. She could hardly discern if she was seeing Germany’s greatest indoor swimming pool or an upside-down apple cake baked in a mason jar or a Cambodian slipper made entirely from the leaves of rubber trees. She refreshed and refreshed and refreshed the package tracking site. It’s coming all the way from England, she told herself. It could not be rushed.
She’d been brave, she thought, bold, she thought, ordering only a single sphere, a single edible water ball. She wanted to squeeze it between her fingers, like the smiling woman in the video.
She wondered if it came in bubble wrap. It couldn’t, could it? But how else could it travel? She turned the packaging over in her mind until all possibilities seemed equally unreasonable.
She rechecked the tracking number. Out for delivery by 11 a.m. At the latest, she thought. The green arrow on the screen was almost to her address. She sat by the window. The sky was clear. The sidewalk was chalky white, the sun golden. No one passed by until the man in the brown suit parked the brown van on the street. She watched him tap at a computer tablet that he rested on the steering wheel. Then he climbed out of the van, crossed up to her front door, scanned a small, square cardboard box, and dropped the package with a gentle thud.
It was the size of the box her Magic 8 Ball had come in when she was a child. He rang the bell. He went back to his van.
She turned back to the computer and refreshed it. It showed her package had been delivered. She felt satisfied, closing the computer with a small click, thanking Alexisiri for her service.
She opened the door and picked up the small box with the red return stamp.
She took the box into the kitchen, sat it on the tabletop. How to open it? A key? A scissor blade? What if she sliced through the water ball and lost her one chance today to hold it in her hands?
Carefully, she took a butter knife and eased off the packing tape. She needn’t have worried: the small box was filled with biodegradable peanuts. She dumped them into the left basin of her double sink. Slowly, they would disintegrate. She drizzled a little from the tap and listened to them sizzle, the topmost layer turning a gummy yellow.
Then she took out the amazing edible water ball and held it carefully in her hands. It was smooth. It gave a bit when she pressed it with her fingertip. She’d gotten her money’s worth. She rolled it from hand to hand. It felt cool, cooler than her own skin. Cupping her hands around the ball, she gazed down at it like a blissful Buddha. Then she grinned and held it to her face like a giant apple, baring her teeth like a barracuda, and she imagined breaking the film that held like a pristine seal.
She lifted the clear, impossibly blue bubble up to the window to let the light shine through. She peered beyond the outer covering to the liquid inside. Something aqueous and filmy floated across her gaze. She set the water ball down and rubbed her eyes vigorously. Then she picked it back up again, squinted, held the azure sphere to the light.
This time she knew — it wasn’t something in her eyes. There was a speck. A speck in her immaculate, virgin rondure. A grayish-brownish floating dot. She held the globe dangerously close, her eyelashes scraping the edges. Tiny bubbles trailed the floating speck.
Her hands shook with agitation so she put the edible water ball back down on the table, not carefully enough, and then she skimmed over to the drawer of miscellany she kept near the water heater in the laundry room. After rummaging a bit, she found a magnifying glass. It was large and set in a burnished nickel frame with a wooden handle. She polished the glass against the edge of her shirt and strolled back to the kitchen table.
Just as she reached for the aqueous bubble, she stopped herself — this was edible, and her hands were dirty now from paddling about in the near-empty Scotch tape rolls and the leftover blue tack and the small pack of pads for the feet of her kitchen chairs and the cobwebs and dust and eraser shavings. She turned the faucet so it reached into the right basin of her double sink, avoiding the melting packing peanuts with their creamy, oatmeal smell. She washed her hands, gazing long and hard at the steady stream of water circling the drain. It was clear. She knew it was clear.
Then she dragged the kitchen table so it was right under the window, the light pouring through, illuminating the watery globe so it shone like the sac at the end of a firefly.
She hunkered down, magnifying glass in hand, pushing her eye too close and then just the right distance from the lens, searching through the bubble for the gray-brown dot.
And when she found it, she could not breathe for a moment, and when she exhaled, her breath steamed the eco-plastic algae-agar coating.
In the middle of the edible water sphere, the smallest bubbles flowing behind it, was a nearly microscopic scuba diver, its small green feet in eensy flippers kicking madly, an oxygen tank no wider than an eyelash strapped to its back. It flipped and kicked and spun around, the mask catching the barest glint of sunlight waving through the window and into the ball of water. It hardly seemed to know it was in a bubble at all.
Deb Olin Unferth and Wendy Lerner Lym on “Muriel”
Deb Olin Unferth: “Muriel” is playful, creative, funny and jubilant. The plot takes surprising turns. I love how it contends with the fears and obsessions of modern life without being frantic. The calm is almost creepy. The story opens firmly rooted in sly irony but by the end it has moved away from that and into whimsy and beauty. Think petri dish, isolation tank, the inside of a mind. The final image kills me.
Wendy Lerner Lym: The impulse for “Muriel” came in the safest of all places to write (my own best writing bubble) — in the company of my writing group. When we meet, we read aloud new work, work in its virgin state. What inspired me to develop the story after its conception was the shared laughter and recognition that we’d all seen what Muriel sees. So underlying the piece is the comfort I feel in being connected to real people in real time. The interplay between technology and personhood fascinates me — watching all these little stories all by ourselves on tiny screens. Is that an addiction? A dangerous insularity? A delicious human indulgence? I think, especially now, we’re experiencing a collective inability to know what’s real and what is not. (The edible water ball is real, by the way.) And it was out of those puzzlements that Muriel was born.
2017 Texas Observer Short Story Contest Finalists:
“A Thunder Note in an Angry Sky,” Randall G. Arnold (Keller)
“Stakes,” Deirdre Coyle (Brooklyn, New York)
“Malena,” Kim Henderson (Idyllwild, California)
“Fallout,” Yvette Benavides (San Antonio)
“A Sum of All Fears,” Donna Walker-Nixon (Temple)
“A Trophy Shop,” Christopher Landrum (Austin)
“Abandoned House,” Alice Robinson (Dallas)
“Across the Lake from Minnetonka, MN,” Jacob Robinson (Maypearl)
“Barking Dog Nocturnal,” Bonnie Stufflebeam (Denton)
“Bathroom Bill,” Heath Dollar (Haslet)
“Comer,” Caroline Bock (Potomac, Maryland)
“The Dance of Coconut Grove,” Sarah Toubman (Medfield, Massachusetts)
“Deagle,” Morgan Beatty (Brooklyn, New York)
“Dinner With a Druglord,” Rudy Ruiz (San Antonio)
“Don’t Tell,” Meredith Frazier (Dallas)
“Don’t You Want More?” Albert Haley (Abilene)
“Flame Game,” Judith Stiles (Wellfleet, Massachusetts)
“Halley’s Comet,” Victor McConnell (Golden, Colorado)
“Jack,” Hilary Schuhmacher (Brooklyn, New York)
“Lunch in a Desert Town,” Linda Blackwell Simmons (Fort Worth)
“Maybe It’s Some Things That Do Never Change,” Jason Namey (Jacksonville, Florida)
“Ned Vince, Driver,” Paul Stinson (Austin)
“97 Volts,” Lee Tyler Williams (Flower Mound)
“Padre Mystique,” Jo Virgil (Austin)
“Reuben’s Village,” Marsha Graham (Tyler)
“Running Bear,” Raul Garza (Austin)
“Selena Dolls,” Yvette Benavides (San Antonio)
“She, She,” Gwen Goodkin (Cardiff, California)
“Under a Benign Sky in That Quiet Earth,” Monica Teresa Ortiz (Austin)