Tim Tomlinson was born in Brooklyn, and raised on Long Island, where he was educated by jukeboxes and juvenile delinquents. He quit high school in 1971 and began a life of purposeless wandering that led to purpose. He’s lived in Boston, Miami, New Orleans, London, Florence, Shanghai, Manila, Andros Island in the Bahamas, and Cha-am, Thailand. Currently, he lives in Brooklyn with his wife, Deedle. He is a co-founder of New York Writers Workshop, and co-author of its popular text, The Portable MFA in Creative Writing. He 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 forthcoming collection of short fiction, This Is Not Happening to You (due late summer, 2017). He is a Professor of Writing at New York University’s Global Liberal Studies Program. He’s an avid scuba diver with just under 300 logged dives, and a 200-hr Yoga Alliance certified yoga instructor.
This is Not Happening to You
You are now in the proximity of Extra-Strength Tylenol caplets. Don’t trust your shaking hands, bend to the kitchen counter, dip to the spilled caplets like a dog to a puddle. Tongue several up, a half-dozen, never mind the recommended dosage. At this point, to consider recommended dosages would be a category mistake. Recommended dosages apply to children or adults and you, you remember head-poundingly, belong to neither category. You are a headache, an extra-strength headache, nothing more. Focus, do not multi-task, be here now.
The fridge, the half-quart of Old Milwaukee, crack it . . . and linger briefly in that reassuring skershsh, the audio anesthetic of it, the promise of its wet sizzle. Lift the can, tilt back your head, and pour the lager heavily over your tongue and onto your sawdust-dry throat. Feel the caplets pebble past the uvula, scraping the parched ringlets of the esophagus, hear them “plip” into that vast vat of Saturday night stewing in your guts on top of Friday’s vat, Thursday’s vat, the vats of your weeks and months and lifetimes in New Orleans. The Old Milwaukee chills your sternum, its crisp cold bubbles ping wetly in your skull. Slowly it stills your trembling fingers until they hang from your wrists inert as gloves. In your eyes gather pools of relief.
With relief begins perspective. Rather than unpuzzling the night, better to consider where you just were, only minutes before the Tylenol accomplishment: the dining room floor amidst overturned furniture and scattered Tylenol caplets. Many good people have been found on floors: William Holden, Lenny Bruce, Janis Joplin. Good company, all, and isn’t Sunday a day for company?
Company requires food. On the kitchen counter, an avocado, or what remains of it. How quaint: you—or someone—had taken pains to militate against hunger, a condition that would arise only in the future. Evidence that some level of maturity’s been achieved. You are not hungry now, at this very moment, but this object, this avocado, it intrigues, it calls to you. On inspection you discover that one side of this avocado is grooved, its green skin gouged, its soft yellow flesh ridged. Ridged, you speculate, by what appears to be a pair of teeth not your own. A rodent’s teeth? You measure the groove against a book of matches. It is a wide groove, matchbook wide. You are not an orthodontist, not an oral surgeon, nor have you earned any graduate credits in zoology. Still, you feel qualified to venture a second speculation: this groove was not made by the teeth of a mouse, or Bugs Bunny. Find the flashlight. Is it under the sink? Poking about, banging into objects, you imagine rat teeth sinking into your knuckles. Forget the flashlight, light a match. Light two matches. Now poke past the insecticide canisters and find a rat trap. The rat trap made with glue. Many French Quarter rentals come replete with rat traps. Peel open carefully, set the trap glue face up (not like the last time) where the avocado had been, there where a patina of rat fur subtle as tooth plaque laminates the formica. Set it snugly against the formica ledge, but allow the crack between ledge and counter to breathe. In order for the trap to succeed, everything around the trap’s milieu must appear normal, so you must provide passage to your housemates the cockroaches, who will press up through the crack onto the ledge and scitter-scatter across the rat trap, leaving at least their scent, perhaps the coffee-ground speckles of their droppings, and these reassuring signs will encourage the rat to venture into the sticky shallow La Brea of his destiny. You are thinking like a rat, cautiously, selfishly, and horizontally sniffing out possibilities in front of your bloodshot beady eyes. Satisfied, you can anticipate results.
Now: you have worked. You have arisen to find a problem in your home, two problems—your head, the avocado—you have addressed them, and they have been dispatched, with prejudice: a thirst has been raised. This thirst creeps up from your stomach and down from your lips, two separate thirst-fronts creeping, creeping, creeping like desert sand in steady wind until they join at the throat and provide a satisfying discomfort—satisfying in that this fresh discomfort introduces a new challenge, a challenge you now meet with the new Old Milwaukee you are cracking. Oh, that stinging in the throat, that dry desert sand washing back whence it came, cool oases irrigating your eyes. Ahhhhhh, you think, the poetry of ahhhhhh. So very fucking ahhhhhh. You are confronting problems. You are meeting them on the playing field of life and the problems are trailing, nil to three.
Like life, you find Sunday, too, is a problem and you have constructed strategies to address it. On the surface, one might find your strategies formless, shapeless, random. But isn’t that precisely the point? Form is emptiness, emptiness form. Bodhi swaha! On Sunday one awakens to problems one can count on—blue laws, headaches, the crossword puzzle; and problems particular to each specific calendar occurrence of Sunday—today’s grooved avocado comes to mind. In this sense, Sunday is both a comfort and a challenge. A character is defined, you recall reading, by its struggles with challenge.
Now there is the challenge of your hunger, a vestigial drive at this point, a habit more than an urgency, but there is strength in ritual, comfort in repetition, meaning in tradition. What tradition might you employ then against your hunger?
Inspect the avocado. Can you salvage the ungrooved portion? Can you cut the groove out from the soft ripe yellow flesh, excavate it in a sense, then scrape your own choppers against the flesh’s green shell? You can’t see why not, can you, and you’re the only one looking (unless, unaware, you are observed by the rat or its minions). So ask yourself: should you be reluctant to place your teeth near where the rat dragged his?
All god’s chilluns gots teeth, you’re thinking, even Mr. Rat.
And don’t you hear the rats each night, gnawing their teeth clean on the rafters in your attic? Wouldn’t dirty teeth fail to leave clean grooves?
Convinced of the viability of said avocado, you look for a clean spoon, a clean knife, anything to avoid actual contact with the remnants of Mr. Rat’s spittle. A bit squeamish, perhaps, but you don’t know Mr. Rat personally, you don’t know his habits with floss. With spoon in hand, look for the dish soap. Failing that, look for a scrub. Where might a scrub be? Ask yourself, and be honest, are you really that hungry?
Reschedule the avocado.
Wash down more Tylenol.
Engage the outdoors.
Up Dauphine Street, paw through the late afternoon humidity, a humidity that hangs like a shower curtain.
Ah, Vieux Carré, you talk a lot, let’s have a look at you. Think I busted a button on me trousers, hope they don’t fall down.
On the sidewalk the hymn of flies on redolent dog droppings baking in the sun with a metallic aromaticity. Consider the regularity of said dogs, the solidity of their stools, the satisfactions the dogs must anticipate every time they assume their pinched posture. Try to recall the last solid stool you passed. Is it your bipedality, you wonder, or your booze that prevents you from experiencing the pleasure of that most canine release?
Avoid the carcasses of roaches the size of harmonicas. Avoid carcasses.
Approaching the corner of Dauphine and Touro, you discern the sickening deposits of last night’s bacchanal percolating throatwards. Clutching the sticky trunk of a banana tree, you hurl. Violently, agonizingly, remedially. Even as you discharge, you think. You are thinking, you are a thought machine. It’s a juxtaposition this time that commands your ideation, the juxtaposition “pink-green vomit and brown-black Louisiana loam.” You are not certain if “loam” is the correct term, horticulturally speaking. You are not certain if horticulture is the correct term. You are certain that you don’t give a fuck because although your gastro-intestinal distress has been somewhat alleviated by the reverse peristalsis, your head now hurts worse. A bit of a pain in the Gulliver . . . And there in the pink-green, brown-black gloop of yester-eve you spy the barely dissolved, barely discolored Extra-Strength Tylenol caplets, the very things that enabled this excursion. Two conflicting impulses obtain: disgust at the puke and desire for the objects of relief that lie therein.
Some persons, you reflect, many even—that vast horde of unstout souls, might, at this time, experience the first stirrings of remorse, depression, self-recrimination. Not you. This is not happening to you, it is happening to the Undiscovered Genius, the character you’ve created to play you in the tragicomic farce you know as “your life.” The talents of this Undiscovered Genius have yet to manifest in any recognizable form that might ultimately be remunerated by an institution, a governing body, a critical faculty, a network or publishing house, or rewarded by an adoring public. Its nebulosity, you understand, is part of its genius: the suspense! What form will it finally take, you imagine the public you have yet to seduce wondering? As far as forms are concerned, you have already conceded painting; painting is a form for which you demonstrated little if any aptitude. This was evidenced early on and most acutely by the F you took, and deserved, in ninth-grade Studio Art, the year you gave painting the brush. Singing, dancing, the violin . . . these, too, have been purged from your schema. You are practicing the process of discovery through elimination, one step at a time.
Baby steps, increments, walk before you run. These are the building blocks of emotional maturity, psychological wellbeing, if not wisdom. You are, for the moment, satisfied, undissuaded. You retrieve the Tylenol caplets. Demurely, you palm the caplets along your shorts, then mouth them. And you take comfort in the fact that there is nothing that hasn’t been seen in New Orleans, nothing that hasn’t been done. You proceed, head held high, the caplets dissolving, toward the avenue.
At the Li’l General, the beer is buried in the back. Grab two forties. Rip a bag of pork rinds from the wire rack. Rip another. Pinch some hot sauce from a shelf, deliver it to the transvestite who works the register. Do not acknowledge her wink. Do not acknowledge the privileged glimpse she affords you of her newly acquired and, objectively speaking and all context removed, perfectly lovely cleavage, cleavage that, you must admit, sometimes has you imagining improper intimacies. Do not acknowledge the warm stirrings of your loins. You are a man, you come from an era before sex drives became gendered norms. You have no norms. You are instinct. Instinct with boundaries, and this realization carries you back to your earlier speculations re: maturity, psychological wellbeing, wisdom.
With a look of concern, she says, “Sugar Pie, are you going under?”
You tell her a man’s gotta have breakfast.
“It’s suppertime, Sugar,” she says, ringing you up, her long nails clacking on the register’s keys. “Besides, pork rinds and hot sauce do not a breakfast make.”
Technically, you tell her, it’s brunch.
Ignore her offer of brunch.
The New York Times is stacked by the door. Grab one.
On Esplanade, you field strip the paper. The News, the Region, the Week in Review, Business—they all join the beer cans and go-cups and chewed ears of corn bulging from the wire mesh trash basket. Garbage you are happy to leave behind.
Ah but time will tell just who has fell, and who’s been left behind . . .
The rest awaits your scorn at home.
On the avenue’s median, a bearded man walks two giant schnauzers in the shade of the sycamores. This would be you, you reflect, if you had a beard. You, If you Had a Beard, you think: there is a title. You, if you had two schnauzers, you if you had a life. You if there were living things whose welfare depended on you.
The leaves of the banana trees hang like wet towels over the heads of the frail humans who pass below in the fogs of their own biographies. Slow traffic idles by as if it’s arriving from the 1950s. You have arrived from the late 1960s by way of the Reagan ’80s. A life bracketed at one end by Question Mark and the Mysterians, Debbie Gibson at the other. Your once reckless idealism slowly turned to cynicism and that, you can’t for the life of you remember when, turned into despair. Despair was the last feeling-state you recall inhabiting. You recall it, like your long-lost evacuations, with a certain physiological nostalgia. Now you are a drunk, and the feeling-range that that lifestyle affords is either: working well, or not working well. When it’s not working well, its failures are the issue. When it is working well, there are no issues. And isn’t that a reasonable definition of freedom? Not that you’re a particular advocate of reason. Or freedom, for that matter. You may have been once, one, or the other, or both, since, in your thinking they don’t appear to be mutually exclusive. But these are Sunday afternoon ideations under the sagging banana trees of the Vieux Carré, two years into Reagan’s second term, a tickertape of monkey-mind nonsense, really, something to occupy the restless coconut on your shoulders while you step around dog droppings and over the thick roots pressing up sidewalks.
On Frenchmen St., the pedestrian traffic lingers before pottery shops and thrift shops and schedules for bands at Snug Harbor. On a lamppost, the announcement of a new play: I Found a Brain Inside My Boyfriend’s Head. Check the name of the playwright—do you know her? Have you balled her? Balling—that other vestigial drive. A woman is just a woman, you’re thinking, but an ale, a cold ale, even a warm flat stagnant ale, an ale with a fly floating in its scuzz, an ale torpedoed by cigarette butts, an ale impossible to distinguish in color and general rancidity from the urinal in Coop’s, that ale can save your life, and has.
You start at the Arts & Leisure, and the groans begin. That should have been you in the “Conversation with the Filmmaker,” you in the “Profile: Up and Coming”—if you had had the connections. Just look at the names: Redgrave, Coppola, Lennon . . . does anyone start out on their own anymore? Who the fuck did, like, Adam know, back in the garden? Fucking Yawveh?
Sauce up a pork rind, swallow some ale, turn the page.
Move on to the Book Review.
The groans resume.
That should have been you doing the review. No: you being reviewed, you creeping up the “New & Noteworthy,” responding to earnest questions with transcendent irony. If you hadn’t been stuck in a public school. If you hadn’t quit the public school. If your parents read books instead of watched television. Toss the Book Review, toss Arts & Leisure, toss them the fuck across the floor to . . . ah, yes, the TV.
Surf the narrow range of TV channels. A gospel show, an evangelical event, local news figures chatting, a couple of Cajuns fishing, reruns of reruns. You mute the box and stand in front of your record collection, that vast catalogue of the best of mankind. What music do you need to hear? What gnossiènne, what ètude, what Concerto in H-moll will create the correct adjustment to the afternoon’s numbing malaise? But now you discern another noise . . .
. . . a scraping . . . from the direction of the kitchen . . . et voila!
Monsieur Rat (suddenly, you hope momentarily, he has become French), asquirm upon his bed of glue, pinned from the narrow underbite all the way to the asshole. Only the tail and one rear leg, working furiously, remain unstuck.
He is long, slender, gray. Obviously guilty. Still, you interrogate indirectly.
“So tell me,” you begin, “you like avocados?”
The rat wriggles with a violence that vibrates the trap, its fear rippling from ass over ribs.
You wonder at its slender physique. Wouldn’t the meat of an avocado, with its generous fat content and abundance of carbohydrates, wouldn’t it flesh out a little rodent, fill in the valleys between the ribs?
“Maybe you’re the wrong rat?” you say, and the rat just wriggles. “Still,” you suggest, “you wouldn’t be in a fix like this if you hadn’t done something wrong, sometime somewhere. Am I right?”
You turn on the faucet, and the sound of the water rushing further animates the rat’s anxiety.
“Relax,” you tell it. “You’re not guilty, you won’t drown. How do you like it, warm? Hot? Cold?”
With a broomstick you nudge the rat closer to the sink. Its contractions become more violent.
You watch the sink fill. It is dirty. It will be dirtier. Make a note to move before it needs to be cleaned.
“What do you think?” you ask the rat. “You ready? Meet this shit head-on, get it over with?”
The rat’s spasms cause the trap to bounce slightly along the formica.
“Ah come on,” you say with exasperation, “work with me on this.”
Now it is shitting.
It continues to shit when it hits the water, a dirty ink the color of charcoal trailing out its ass like a streamer from a party favor.
“Hey,” you tell it, comfortingly, “you gotta go, you gotta go.”
You watch it struggle, watch it wrestle its fur from the glue—a shoulder, maybe a leg—but as soon as one part’s free another is stuck. You place the broom handle at the trap’s corner and press the trap under. The struggle slows, becomes smaller. Spasms, shudders, tiny bubbles. No disrespect intended, but a measure or two of Don Ho cross the endless jukebox of your mind.
“Aloha,” you tell it.
Et voila—Monsieur Rat est mort.
You look at it there below the surface, its sharp tiny teeth, its long black whiskers, its innocent eyes, and damn if that’s not a grimace of horror you see on its face.
Suddenly there’s a part of you that’s not so glib. You can feel it, there, just under your ribs. A kind of mammalian identification, a kind of dread, a kind of premonition. But in the same instant that you feel it, it disappears. Poof! Gone. It’s not happening to you.
You grab your hat, the crossword puzzle, a pen.
“Be cool,” you tell Mr. Rat.
You’re ready to go out.