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.
“I know you all know what a dick is,” Rosie said to the sixth-grade girls. “Well, here’s mine.”
From the open zipper in his jeans, Rosie fished his little eraser of a penis.
Some of the girls gasped and covered their mouths with their hands. Some laughed. Some pretended to look away, but few actually could.
They were in the woods just off the recess field, their perimeter guarded by fourth and fifth grade boys.
Rosie said, “You can look closer if you want.”
Kathy Christmas pulled the hair from her face and leaned closer. Maria Bella and Debbie Fancy followed.
Debbie said, “Is it . . . is it getting bigger?”
The soft little pink thing had lengthened, the wrinkles in its shaft smoothed and hardened.
“Probably,” Rosie said. “It sometimes does that.”
Kneeling now, looking more closely, Kathy Christmas said, “Weird.”
Rosie said, “It’s okay to touch it.”
“I’m not touching that,” Kathy said, laughing.
Maria Bella knelt alongside her. “I will,” she said.
She placed the tip of her index finger on the shaft and the penis hardened further.
“Why is it doing that?” Maria asked.
Rosie said he didn’t know.
Maria said, “It’s so smooth.”
Debby Fancy leaned forward. She put her finger on, too, right at the tip.
“Ewww,” she said, “it’s all gooey.” But she didn’t take her finger away.
Then Billy Kanes, a fourth grader, came racing through the scrub.
“Morawski,” he shouted once, and vanished up the path.
Violently, the girls on the periphery scattered into the woods. They disappeared quickly up the paths through the low scrub. Before they could be identified, they would all find hidden exits onto the playing field. But Kathy and Maria were slow getting up from where they knelt. Soil stuck to the knees they exposed between mini-skirts and the tops of white go-go boots. And Rosie was having trouble pressing his erection back into his jeans.
Then Mrs. Morawski appeared.
“Do not a single one of you move,” she said.
Rosie was a new kid. His mother married Chris Hulse’s father, and they arrived in town from Nassau County some place close to the city. They lived at the edge of a sod field stadiums wide. You could see their house all the way from 25A. It looked like a red Monopoly hotel at the corner of a ping-pong table.
Rumors preceded Rosie’s appearance in school. He’d been left back at least once—he should have been in the seventh grade, maybe even eighth. There may have been some trouble in his last school, something to do with Rosie in the shower after gym class. Chris Hulse told his friends he wouldn’t sleep in the same room as Rosie, but he didn’t fully explain why. He moved into the basement where he slept on the couch, and he acted like he preferred that, but there was more to the story. No one, not even Rosie when he arrived, could explain why Rosie was called Rosie. His real name was John Scratchley. One thing Chris said: “My father better not adopt him. I don’t want the same last name as that fat freak.”
Rosie wasn’t really fat, he was chubby. He wore size 32” jeans, and his freckled face was puffy at the cheeks and under the chin. His hair was very short, a crew cut, the kind boys got when they got into trouble, but you could see that it was blond.
In the office, Kathy and Maria and Rosie stood, hands folded, in front of Principal Siegel’s desk. Principal Siegel was new, too, but not as new as Rosie. He was supposed to be strict, but all he did now was look from Kathy’s face to Maria’s to Rosie’s and back again. He drummed the fingers of one hand on his desk and continued to watch their faces. You could hear a watch tick, and sounds from the hall filtered in like echoes in a tunnel.
Finally, Kathy said, “Are we gonna just, like, stand here?”
Rosie snorted, and Maria bit hard on her lower lip.
“I mean,” Kathy said, “we’re missing I think social studies or some crap.”
The three of them, then, led by Rosie, burst out laughing. They laughed against their efforts to hold in the laughter. Tears leaked from their eyes onto the floor of Principal Siegel’s office where they splotched and darkened the gray and white tiles. They tried to suck back their guffaws, they tried to straighten from their waists, but they couldn’t. It seemed almost like the harder they tried to stop, the more the laughter poured forth. But slowly, painfully, they gulped it back, they swallowed it down, until they mastered it and they all three stared at the floor and avoided each other’s moist reddened eyes.
Principal Siegel continued drumming his fingers, for a minute, another minute, an eternity.
Kathy said, “Dude,” and their laughter exploded again.
Rosie said, “I’m gonna piss my fucking pants,” and they laughed harder and harder, their stomachs twisting into knots, and they pleaded with each other to stop, but they couldn’t, again, for a very long time.
When they looked up this time, Principal Siegel was reaching for the phone.
Maria Bella’s mother arrived second.
“He just showed it to us, Mama,” Maria said, ducking blows. “How were we supposed to know?”
To Rosie’s mother, Mrs. Bella said, “I’m gonna have that freak of yours locked up, you hear me?”
Mrs. Hulse stood behind Rosie holding his shoulders, sniffling back tears.
“We’re both sorry,” she told Mrs. Bella.
Mrs. Bella pushed Maria out the door. “Sorry my ass,” she said over her shoulder. “You can tell it to the judge.”
Kathy Christmas’s mother wasn’t home. Kathy was sent to spend the rest of the day in the nurse’s office.
“What were you thinking,” Nurse Meadows asked her.
“I dunno,” Kathy said. “Just how funny and little it looked.”
Nurse Meadows was taken aback. She fixed the glasses hanging round her neck onto the bridge of her nose.
“Funny and little,” she repeated. “Young lady, do you have any idea what you have done?”
“Yeah,” Kathy said, “I, like, looked at a dick. What’s the big deal?”
Nurse Bellows sent Kathy back to Principal Siegel’s office, but on the way she ducked into the unfinished wing of the new school. She entered an empty classroom whose unlocked doors opened onto a staircase to the side drive. She flashed across the drive faster than a squirrel, and back home she ignored the ringing telephone and watched cartoons.
When she got bored, she went outside and walked through the woods to Maria Bella’s house on John Street. She tapped at Maria’s window.
“My mother’s gonna kill me,” Maria said, pulling her friend over the sill.
“Fuck your mother,” Kathy said.
Kathy was something of a leader. Of all the girls, she developed noticeable breasts first, early in the fifth grade. By early sixth, which she was in now, she’d hung out with seventh and eighth grade boys, and she’d been felt up seven times. Maria had been felt up once. Debby Fancy wanted to be, but Kathy told her she needed to wait until there was something to feel.
“What did it feel like,” Kathy asked, “when you, like, touched it.”
“I don’t know,” Maria said, “kind of soft and smooth like velour.”
Kathy said, “Really?”
“Even when it got hard,” Maria said.
Kathy said, “Wow.”
Maria said, “I know.”
“But it didn’t feel gooey? Debby said it was gooey.”
“It didn’t feel gooey to me.”
Kathy said, “You think we should call her?”
“I can’t call anyone,” Maria said. “My mother would kill me.”
“How would she know.”
“That bitch knows everything.”
“You should come to my house,” Kathy said. “My mother lets us alone.”
Maria said, “Yeah, well my mother loves me.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Just she loves me, that’s all.”
“And what, my mother doesn’t?”
From another part of the house, Maria’s mother shouted.
“What’s all that noise in there?”
Maria said, “You better get out of here.”
Kathy said, “You’re such a wuss.”
Maria said, “Okay, I’m a wuss. But I know more than you.”
Kathy took the other woods, the woods that led away from home. She felt unsettled. She felt something had changed. She was the leader, the first one with a bra, the first one with a boyfriend, the first one French kissed, the first one felt up. It was like a shelf full of trophies. Then, all of a sudden, one shitty recess, and she’s the one asking questions. What the hell did Debby mean, all gooey?
Rosie stood in front of the mirror looking at the way his little dick must have looked when he pulled it out. He thought about how it had lengthened and how good that felt, like something really good was about to happen. Had to happen. And he thought about how much fun it was in Principal Siegel’s office, to laugh right in his face. No matter how much trouble he was in, it was worth it finally to laugh right in one of their faces.
He was in a lot of trouble, he knew that. He didn’t know exactly how much, but the phone had been ringing nearly non-stop since the school buses dropped the kids back home. He could hear his mother crying, sighing, apologizing. And once his step-brother came in, without knocking, and said, “Dad’s gonna send you to a home.”
“This is my home,” Rosie told him.
His brother said, “This is our home, you fat freak,” and he slammed the door.
Rosie liked Chris. He was a fast runner, good at math, but he was so uptight.
In the mirror, he could see the distant traffic rolling on 25A. It was almost thirty minutes to the nearest town, a town with a luncheonette and a pharmacy and a candy store. He felt like he was living nowhere, at the edge of a huge lawn that didn’t even have houses.
The school buses were just heading back out to pick up the late kids, the kids who stayed after for sports or clubs. Rosie had wanted to join a club. He thought he could do cross-country, but his step-brother told him they don’t accept fat freaks. Then he thought he could do quilting, but Mrs. Morawski told him that was only for girls.
Something in the mirror caught his eye. He went to the window, and there . . . halfway across the sod field . . . was a figure . . . a girl . . . in a skirt . . . a mini-skirt . . . and white go-go boots . . . Kathy . . . Kathy Christmas. And she was coming toward his house. She was coming closer. And closer. So close she saw him. She saw him and waved. She indicated with her hands that he should lift up his window.
He looked down. He was still unzipped.
He wondered if he should raise his zipper. He guessed Kathy could tell him.
He raised the window.