Flash Fiction by Tim Tomlinson
Greenwich Avenue, between 12th and Jane. The Bicentennial. Sailors in magnesium white uniforms, laughing, drinking. The flat white caps. Women follow them, and some men—it’s Greenwich Avenue. The boys don’t judge, they observe. They’re outsiders, visitors from Long Island suburbs, which is the same as saying Kansas, Idaho, the backyard of Purgatory. They know next to nothing. They believe they know less. They drink Ballantine Ale on the stoop. They go upstairs every hour for a piss. It’s not their apartment. It’s an old friend’s. He used to be an altar boy. His father was killed in a construction site accident. His mother took in orphans. He gave the boys keys. They sleep on the floor on blankets with a fan on and the windows open. They need sleep. They look like they need sleep. But they’re wide awake. They don’t want to miss anything. A woman with a pit bull. The smell of marijuana. Jazz from an open window, and bye-bye Miss American Pie. What was ironic? What was dangerous? Each of them with his heart broken by the same woman, who’s now insane at her grandmother’s in New Mexico. On Greenwich Avenue there’s a hundred pretty girls per minute and all they think about is her, poking snakes caught in the chicken wire around her grandma’s garden patch. Later there’s fireworks, tall ships in the river. Who cares? A woman in a jumpsuit with a monkey on her shoulder asks them for a light. For my monkey, she says. It feels like they’ve landed in a movie with subtitles in a language they don’t speak. Upstairs they write postcards. I’m sorry, they tell her. For what? Sorry in general. We’re Americans, they write, two hundred years later, and we still don’t know the truth. We don’t know what the truth is, but we’re certain we don’t know it. We want to find out. Then it’s tomorrow.
She was sent to live with her grandparents in New Mexico. The grandfather sat at a ham radio set all night, talking to the world in code. He wore nothing but pajamas that stunk of sleep. The grandmother toiled in the backyard, a rock-and-weed-filled lot with a patch of garden surrounded by chicken wire. It wasn’t unusual for rattlesnakes to get caught up in the chicken wire. In through one hexagon, out another, curling and bending and figure-eighting like stitching in some crazy quilt. Before long, they’d criss-cross themselves so much they couldn’t figure out which hole was out. When they were good and knotted, the grandmother appeared at the screen door like the mother in Psycho, tongs in one hand, kitchen shears in the other. She clicked them as she crossed the backyard. That’s how she explained the necklace, thick leather twine from which a dozen rattles hung. When she shook it, it sounded like maracas. It was cruel, she thought, for the grandmother to cut off their tails like that, while they were still alive. You could at least wait until they die, she said, couldn’t you? The grandmother pointed to crows, a whole murder of them, lined up on the fence’s top rail. You think they’re gonna wait? To have nature defined as such, indifferently cruel in broad daylight, gave her some insight as to why her grandfather rose only at night. Don’t kid yourself, the grandmother told her, washing snake blood off the shears. He don’t get up cause he’s lazy. And the night, she said, trust me, the brightest one is twice as dark as any day.
They found the house she thought she’d lived in growing up. It was on a cul-de-sac cut into what used to be woods. Now it formed the backdrop to the parking lot of a strip mall on Nesconset Highway. W.T. Grants, Pizza Carnival, a card shop. The lawn was dry weeds that crackled under their shoes. In there, she said, her hands around her eyes and her face pressed against a window. Right by where that sofa is, that’s where it happened. Your father, they asked her. Him, she said. My uncle. One of their friends. But why do you think you only remember it now, they asked. She said my therapist says that’s common. Sometimes you need help to recall. Like amnesia, they said. No, she said, like trauma. Later, they dropped her back at her hotel. She was visiting from Sedona, where she lived now. She had a practice counseling survivors. On the drive home they were quiet. In their adolescence they’d taken boatloads of acid. They were accustomed to seeing things that weren’t there, things that were only suggested. But no matter how hard they’d looked through that dirty window, they couldn’t see anything except a sofa, some old newspaper, and a Styrofoam cup on the floor. It made them both think the same thing. They were hoping the other would be the first to speak it.
Tim Tomlinson is the author of Yolanda: An Oral History in Verse (chapbook), Requiem for the Tree Fort I Set on Fire (poetry), and This is Not Happening to You (stories). He is a founder and director of New York Writers Workshop, and co-author of its popular text, The Portable MFA in Creative Writing. Recent work appears in Another Chicago Magazine, Columbia Journal, Litro, Live Encounters, and the anthology Surviving Suicide: A Collection of Poems that May Save a Life. He lives in Brooklyn, NY, and teaches in NYU’s Global Liberal Studies.
Flash Boulevard is edited by Francine Witte. Banner photograph Wes Candela.