flash fiction

Rabelais by Tim Tomlinson

Rabelais | By Tim Tomlinson

I once had a writing teacher who told me you can’t write about shit and piss and farts and vomit and I said oh yeah, why not? Didn’t Rabelais’s Gargantua let loose a torrent of piss over the city of Paris? And didn’t that piss drown “two hundred and sixty thousand, four hundred and eighteen, not counting the women and small children”? And, in fact, didn’t that gargantuan piss give the city of Paris its name? The City of Lights, and the Louvre, and haute cuisine, and the ballet. But none of that was the point, I told this writing teacher. The point was: what I wanted to write about had nothing to do with shit or piss or farts or vomit. Well, maybe shit somewhat, but only incidentally, because, I explained, what I wanted to write about was this time I was in bed with a Barnard girl who would later become a famous psychiatrist. She made elaborate drawings of dragons and did extensive NSSI skin cutting up and down her forearms—she showed me their red, razor thin lines and it looked like a bunch of railroad tracks linking her wrist to her elbow. So we’re in bed, me and this Barnard girl, and, excuse the French, I have my finger up her ass, I mean buried in her ass, but that, too, wasn’t what I wanted to write about, but it was an important detail because at one point the tip of my finger encountered something like the tip of another finger, only it couldn’t have been a finger, I realized, unless this future shrink had been eating hand sandwiches, a thought that led to the understanding that what I was feeling was the tapered tip of this afternoon’s lunch—the turd first in line for her next evacuation and that really twisted me up. It was like the tip of a long carrot and I didn’t like imagining, no less feeling, the formation of a shit carrot in the digestive tract of this really lovely Barnard girl who at that time hadn’t ever professed an interest in a career in psychiatry. At that time she wanted to be a dancer. I met her in ballet class, and in a way she resembled New York City Ballet’s Suzanne Farrell, everybody’s ingenue, and that’s probably half or more than half of the reason I was in bed with her with my finger circling around the tip of her shit. I saw this living Degas in a tutu, en pointe, her arms en haut. I was attracted to her external grace, not her tube digestif, the contents of which, I had to admit, took me moderately aback, and the fact that I was taken aback took me further aback. I was aback squared, and I flashed on the postscript D.H. Lawrence added to Lady Chatterley’s Lover, in which he dissects Jonathan Swift’s lamentation about his divine Celia’s evacuatory habits. Was I some Swiftian reactionary, some delicate English toff recoiling at reminders of life’s funkier facts? Was I searching for the kind of woman who farts perfume and pisses champagne? But that’s not what I wanted to write about either, not even the part that still kind of amazes me of when I took out the finger and wiped it on the corner of the contour sheet covering my mattress, which was on the floor in that way we had back then of signifying we were in college, or grad school, which was the case with me, and where I met the annoying teacher who said I can’t or one can’t write about shit or piss or farts or vomit, not understanding that none of those things was even close to the point. And then later, once the Barnard girl had gone home and it was after four in the morning and my head was on the pillow maybe eighteen inches away from where my finger had wiped off her shit, how I just kept my head on the pillow as if actual shit wasn’t less than two feet away. In a way that surprised me. In a way I learned something about myself. I was the kind of motherfucker who would keep his head on a pillow eighteen inches away from shit. Not a pile of shit, a shit streak, shit residue, but shit nonetheless. If you did a chemical analysis of it, it would register as fecal matter, that’s the point, unless I was just compensating for being taken aback upon discovery of the shit’s existence. But that was still not the point I wanted to write about. Because what can you say of any interest about a callow graduate student with his head on a pillow eighteen inches away from the fecal residue of a pretty ballerina with his eyes half open half closed, halfway between sleep and unconsciousness, moderately buzzed on cocaine and gin and unable, therefore, fully to drift off and then it’s sunrise and the dawn is gray and blue then almost dazzlingly yellow, this dazzling yellow sunlight spilling down the hill from Broadway and I say fuck it and throw off the sheets and go to the window where, outside, I see a guy open the trunk of a Ford LTD and stare into the back of it. And I mean stare, like transfixed. At least that’s the way I remember him, that’s the way I see him in my mind’s eye: this guy staring into the trunk of the LTD transfixed, not moving, like he’s almost a picture, like he’s almost aware that’s he’s a picture not a real thing, just frozen in time and space, staring, staring, staring. And that’s what I want to write about: that guy, that light, that car, that morning, that paralysis. I mean, what in the world could he have been looking at for so long?

About the Author:

Tim Tomlinson is the author of Requiem for the Tree Fort I Set on Fire (poetry) and This Is Not Happening to You (short fiction). His prize-winning story, “Another Lydia Davis Story,” appears in Columbia Journal, August 2020. Other recent work appears in CHILLFiltr Review, Passengers Journal, Text (Australia), Poet Sounds: An Anthology Inspired by the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, and A Feast of Narrative: Stories by Italian-American Writers. He’s a co-founder of New York Writers Workshop, and a professor in NYU’s Global Liberal Studies. Visit Tim at