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Flash Fiction by Leigh Allison Wilson
One summer in the 1980s I was briefly a genius. Granted, my grandfather was the kind of man who called everybody a genius or an idiot. And granted, I wasn’t so sure what either word meant. But I was eleven and being something was better than being nothing.
“Jay-zus, Mary and Joseph,” my grandfather crowed one morning. He’d found out at the local OTB that a neighbor had picked the winners of the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont, all in a row. “That Armstrong guy is a bloody genius.”
My mother remarked absently that horses were an odd way for grown men to enjoy themselves. “You’d be a genius too, Molly, if you weren’t a facking idiot,” he told her. She dribbled iced tea over his head, cooling him off, something she did with regularity like cutting the lawn.
It was a puzzle to me why my mother (no idiot) had thought it a good idea for her father to live with us. Those were days when everything was a puzzle to me. Fifth grade had grown unpleasant, an old man had moved into our house, kicking me out of my bedroom, my father was gone for good, and my teeth kept falling out.
After school was out in late June my grandfather took to jumping out at me from behind doors and pretending to throttle me. It was his idea of being nice, I think. I didn’t like being pretend-throttled and so I began to roam the neighborhood during the daylight hours, visiting people in a friendly way, asking for ice cream or comic books, and once a piano lesson. I dropped by Mr. Armstrong’s house often to wonder aloud whether he might have any chocolate, and in this way I began to keep a daily betting log for him. Soon I grew very familiar with the names of racehorses and racetracks. Mr. Armstrong called me a “smart” little girl. I was inclined to agree with him.
One hot July evening at supper, my grandfather holding forth on the recently completed races at Saratoga Springs, I suddenly piped up, “Golden Feather in the sixth.” My grandfather stared at me, astonished.
“Jay-zus, Little Molly,” he said, shaking his newspaper, “you’re a genius. A horse named Golden Feather did win the sixth. Gawd, you’re a bloody fortune teller.”
“I am,” I said. Before supper I’d stepped in to see Mr. Armstrong, who had given me his winners to fill in. But it did not seem incumbent upon me to apprise my family of this.
“What the heck?” asked my mother, reading, not really listening, vaguely disturbed by the oddity of hearing my grandfather speak to me.
“Come-ere, girl.” My grandfather headed toward the back of the house, avoiding my mother who sat innocently lifting her tea to her lips.
“You aren’t allowed to strangle me,” I said, following him, and he said “The fack with that,” and in my old bedroom, the two of us sitting on the side of his bed, he drew out the Daily Racing Form. “What do ya like tomorrow, my girl?”
I told him what Mr. Armstrong liked for Saratoga the next day, without mentioning Mr. Armstrong. Ten races, ten picks. I pointed a finger at the names from Armstrong’s list on my grandfather’s racing form. He circled those names with an indelible pen.
Thus began a month-long collaboration with my grandfather that, even at the beginning, on the first day, I knew would be a short-term enterprise. In this—and in nothing else—I was in fact a fortune teller. Every evening Mr. Armstrong gave me his picks and every morning I gave my grandfather my insights. Mr. Armstrong was an ungodly good picker of horses. I was astonishingly good at feigning supernatural insight.
Sometimes it seemed to me that I was a girl jockey, tapping my whip about the flanks of my grandfather who walked each morning to the OTB with the jauntiness of a thoroughbred down to the gate. And we won and won and won. “You little genius, you baby genius,” my grandfather sang. “Your blessed daddy’d be proud of ya.”
My grandfather was of course betting small sums at first, a dollar a race, and then larger sums as we won most races each day—five, ten, even a twenty sometimes. It is important to say now that Mr. Armstrong never betted. He was a man of no bad habits who once pointed out to me, as I busily transcribed his winners, that the worst habit of all was gambling. Trouble came the day Mr. Armstrong decided that simply picking the winners of races was a bad habit. He was, he said, determined to stop. He offered me a chocolate and shut down his books. Sorry, he said, but come over again any time, my dear.
That night I told my grandfather that picking winners was a bad habit I was determined to stop. His ears twitched like a horse’s. “Say again,” he said, and I did. Rhetoric passed between us, escalating until in the end I swung from my grandfather’s hands like a hanged person. My mother, alarmed by our shouting, came in with her tea and doused him. He let go. After that he did not speak to me for the rest of the summer and well beyond that. I roamed the neighborhood again, the friendly ghost.
When I think of this period of my genius I am struck by how, after my father died, the world suddenly unfurled like a seed for me, full of promise, for a single month. That fall we had a po-faced teacher who “dabbled,” as she said, in poetry. According to her a genius was one who must grow accustomed to loneliness, to misunderstanding, to suffering. I did not believe her, for what she was describing, as far as I was concerned, was not genius but regular life, and I had had my fill of that.
Winner of the Flannery O’Connor Award in short fiction, Leigh Allison Wilson has published two collections of short stories—Wind: Stories and From the Bottom Up. Her flash fiction, stories and essays have appeared in The Georgia Review, Harper’s, The Kenyon Review, Mademoiselle, The Southern Review, The Washington Post. Her flash fiction has appeared online and was read on NPR’s Selected Shorts. She teaches at SUNY Oswego.