I got my first assignment for the NYC Midnight flash fiction contest this past weekend. I’m in group #15 and assigned the romance genre. The majority of the story had to include a map as an object/prop and take place in the slums. What follows is my entry plus minor modifications to the structure of a few sentences post-submission. According to Google Docs the piece is 1000 words. Many thanks to Juan, Rachel, and Heather for taking time out of their weekend to give me feedback!
What’s the Chance?
An old map of a decaying neighborhood could lead Tom, burgeoning real estate tycoon, to a new beginning. What’s the chance he’ll take it?
“Hey, Mac, are you going to order a drink or just sit there all night?” The bartender was a stout man, old, and probably looking for any excuse to retire. Over the past several years I had seen it again and again. The Great Recession spawned myriad foreclosures, evicting suffering families from their homes. With their clientele gone, small businesses followed suit. Almost overnight, whole neighborhoods became ghost towns. I’d bet half my 401k this building constituted most of his net worth, unable to sell until the market turned around.
“I’ll have a scotch and soda. Top shelf, whatever passes for that here,” I replied.
The neighborhood wasn’t affluent, even when I grew up here in the Eighties. It hugged the city center, the houses built in the late Forties for GIs returning from World War II. My parents certainly weren’t well-off, my father a city lineman and mother a schoolteacher.
The bartender brought my drink. “We don’t get many dressed like you in here no more,” he said.
“I can see that,” I said, readjusting my tie. The place was a dump, but as a kid I had always wondered what it looked like inside.
“So what brings you here?” he asked. I could tell I was getting on his nerves, but didn’t care.
“My mother died.” It wasn’t true.
“Sorry to hear that.”
A moment passed in blissful silence.
“You looking for some place special?” he asked, and pointed at the old map I had before me.
“No.” I used a highlighter to mark several blocks as future targets.
The map was something I took with me when I struck out on my own, trying to find my way—sometimes walking, sometimes hitching, always carrying a pack holding that map. Later, when I joined the military, I stuck it in a safety deposit box with a few things I couldn’t part with.
While I nursed the scotch, I used my phone to compare Google’s information with the time-beaten Rand McNally. The old corner gas station was now a rotting building with boarded-up windows, the pumps long gone. Next week, I thought.
The door opened behind me—chilly wind swirled around my ankles and blew my map onto the floor. While I crouched to retrieve it, a man approached the stool on my left. Out the corner of my eye I saw him shrug off a heavy flannel shirt, blue plaid, and set it on the bar. Underneath was a white crew-neck, simple but clean. Tight jeans hugged his ass, but not so tight they told me everything I wanted to know.
“Beer,” he said, tapping the bar.
He looked about my age. Short hair swept gently towards his face, blond with a hint of brown. As he turned in my direction, he brought to life a memory, an impossibility.
He caught me staring. I probably hadn’t blinked for a full minute.
“Something the matter?”
“Erm, no. Sorry, it’s just…you…remind me of someone I knew long ago.”
Once in his hands, the guy lifted his beer towards me, “Cheers!” he said.
It was stunning, the similarity: green eyes that promised an end to winter, a strong jawline, broad shoulders, a dimple in his right cheek. The first time I saw eyes like that was twenty years ago in gym class, in the very school I had demolished last week.
Then, I was a soft, pudgy mess. Uncertain. Unsure. Convinced I was alone and had no future.
That first day, back when the neighborhood was clean and still intact, his locker assignment was next to mine. God, I hated gym. Despised the locker room more. Me exposed for all the world to see. I’d postponed the requirement until senior year.
I went early, trying desperately to dress before anyone else arrived. I’d pulled my pants off first since those parts were most embarrassing. As I grabbed my shorts he entered, carrying a duffel bag. Reaching out to shake my hand, he smiled. “Name’s Chance,” he said. “What’s yours?”
I took his hand. “Tom,” I replied.
Gym suddenly became my favorite subject and that year the best of my life. What had been soft and pudgy became hard and defined. In a flash I felt I had always known Chance, and though different, felt we were spun from the same stuff. He was naturally athletic, on the football team, and he loved maps. Going places, he called it. I stuck with my computer and books.
His maps led us everywhere together. My parents didn’t pay attention—too busy making enough money to keep the house. Now junkies live in it.
One night, halfway through the year, I had an opportunity to tell him how I felt.
“Chance,” I said, “girls are fighting over who’ll go to prom with you.”
“Hmph,” he said, not looking up from his book about Route 66. “I haven’t noticed. Tell them to figure it out and let me know, would you?”
Over my dead body. I got so close I could feel his body heating mine.
But heat wasn’t enough—I froze.
Faggot, Father said in my head. You’ll get AIDS and die.
Chance went to prom with some girl. I stayed home and reread Carrie.
The week before graduation, Chance was killed while visiting Chicago. Heartbroken, I couldn’t convince myself to go to his funeral. I didn’t even go to graduation. Instead, I stole money from my parents’ stash and skipped town on a bus. For two years I wandered the country, homeless, until the military straightened me out. I kept quiet, gave them my time, and got a college education.
Today I buy and sell properties. My wallet keeps my bed warm when I want it.
The stranger left for the bathroom. As he returned, he caught me staring at his crotch. I managed not to blush when he smiled at me.
He retrieved his flannel from the bar and gestured at the map. “So, are you ready to go some place or not?”
(Constructive comments/suggestions are always welcome!)