Short Fiction ~ Tim Tomlinson
Second Prize, Strands International Flash Fiction Competition - 17
Lou Reed was on line ahead of me at Zabar’s. That might not sound remarkable, but listen: Lou Reed. On line. At Zabar’s. Not the Zabar’s food emporium, but its annex, the little café one door south, corner of 80th and Broadway. That, too, might not seem remarkable, but check the time: 7:55 AM on a weekday, and Lou-walk-on-wild-side-Reed waits on line with a bunch of working stiffs heading off to the office for another day of drudgery? No, Lou-Reed-plus-offices, Lou-Reed-plus-morning, or Lou-Reed-plus-coffee-and-pastry lines: these do not compute. Lou-Reed-plus-bran-muffins equals cognitive dissonance.
Cognitive dissonance plus Lou Reed: that computes. The disaffected monotone in the midst of catastrophe so routine it becomes dull. Candy says I’ve come to hate my body—oh, how that computed, especially this morning. I’d had at most three hours of sleep. Unconsciousness might be more precise. At around 2:00 AM I’d gone home, drunk on chartreuse, with The Italian, a visiting film school student with the pinned eyes of a Velvet Underground fan and the harried affect of a user in withdrawal. She had a startling asymmetry to her breasts, the musical equivalent of a key shift: D-major to B-flat. And she had a chihuahua named Rocco after the Alain Delon character in Visconti’s neorealist boxing classic. Rocco took an instant dislike to me—it was mutual—and anytime I moved beneath the sheets, he pounced on the offending body part and sunk his ridiculous little teeth through 1200-thread-count Egyptian cotton. I suggested the fire escape for Rocco, at least long enough for me and The Italian to complete our business. (I envisioned Rocco, in his disquietude, slipping off the landing and dangling by the collar, his toothpick legs kicking their final three-inch spasms.) The Italian said, No, is OK, he fall asleep soon. But The Italian fell asleep sooner and Rocco was so aggressively anti-pleasure that I couldn’t even jerk myself off to dreamland. I don’t know exactly when I passed out, but when I came to it was light and I was due at work in forty-five minutes. I had just enough time to drop a piss in Rocco’s chow bowl and scurry down the five flights to the street where I discovered that my legs, knees to ankles, resembled a game board for Chinese Checkers. At the sight of all those red teeth marks, I experienced such deep sympathy for my skin, which underwent a kind of toxic shock of the stratum corneum. By the time I reached Zabar’s I needed something as cognitively dissonant as Lou Reed on a muffin line to snap me into my day game. And I’d heard all the rumors—he was sardonic, nasty, hostile—but I risked a comment. I said, Lou—Lou Reed? Slowly he turned like, yeah, what? And I said, Right, sorry, nothing. Blankly, Lou Reed stared.
I resisted further risk—the hey-Lou-it’s-a-perfect-day kind of thing—but I did register what he ordered: a double macchiato plus blueberry scone. No bag, he told the counter girl when she delivered his coffee. Turning to me he said, And you have a perfect day, then sunk his teeth into the scone. At the register I copied his order, the double-macch-blueberry-scone, which became for me the Lou Reed Special. I reached for my wallet to pay and the counter girl said, No, is OK, Mr. Reed he pay. And wow, that was cognitive dissonance. That was cognitive dissonance squared. I’d heard rumors he’d gone clean and sober, not that he’d gone, I don’t know, Minnesota nice. I followed his crumb trail out to Broadway, where already a used book vendor glowered behind a table. No eating over the books, he said. Oo, I told him, you’re so vicious.
That day, my job was apartment-painting for The Editor. The Editor was becoming big—she’d signed a couple of those writers who began publishing in paperback first, no hardcover—you know, the Bright Lights, Big City crowd. It was time for home improvement. She reminded me of Bette Midler, if Bette Midler had no mirth. You’re late, The Editor said. I said, Lou Reed bought my breakfast. I showed her the scone. She said, Maybe he’ll pay for your first hour, too, because I’m not. From a bay window I watched her exit the building. When I was sure she wasn’t coming back, I called The Italian. There was some struggle with the phone before she picked up and muttered a confused hu-hullo. I hung up, and repeated the harassment three more times until she star-69’d and left a tirade of curses on The Editor’s machine, mostly in Italian. I was laughing so hard I almost dumped a paint pan full of “China White” Benjamin Moore on a rug from Uzbekistan. I thought, if Rocco could be crushed beneath a falling safe, this would be such a perfect day.
But that’s not what where it ended.
It shouldn’t have surprised me that the Editor spoke Italian. When she picked up her messages she star-69’d The Italian and they went at it like a pair of Sicilians until they both broke down laughing about the absurdity of the situation. That evening, over drinks at Teacher’s, The Italian shook hands on a two book deal. Turned out, The Editor was a fool for Italian neorealism and The Italian, she learned, was the daughter of screenwriter Suso Cecchi D’Amico, a founding mother of the movement whose credits included Rocco and His Brothers. The Italian’s childhood, filled with polvere di stelle and trauma, made great melodrama. Her memoir and the novel, a roman à clef, were both optioned by Hollywood studios. She went on to make a fortune, The Editor got her own imprint, and Rocco and his ridiculous little teeth got to feast on a lot more raw human.
I got the Lou Reed Special.
First Published in Live Encounters
Tim Tomlinson is the author of the chapbook Yolanda: An Oral History in Verse, the poetry collection, Requiem for the Tree Fort I Set on Fire, and the short story collection, This Is Not Happening to You. Recent work appears in Bangalore Literary Review, Live Encounters, Tin Can Literary Review, and the anthology, Best Asian Short Stories 2023. A new collection, Listening to Fish: meditations from the wet world, will appear on Nirala Publications early next year. Tim is the director of New York Writers Workshop, and co-author of its popular text, The Portable MFA in Creative Writing. He teaches writing in NYU’s Global Liberal Studies.