Skim Coats by Amy Barnes

There’s a beach ball in the apartment toilet. The realtor lady points at anything but the stuffed potty. I’m three-years-old and have never seen a beach. White paint blankets everything but the smells: urine and strangers and strangers’ urine, a refrigerator of no-longer-cold food, flop-stacked musty mattresses, cigarette ash piles of confused ants and flies, under underwear piles and moldy green ghosts behind builder white paint. We exit to paper mill and refinery air as my parents argue how much smells cost and the realtor rolls her nose. They decide we’ll live with grandparents who leak smoke and coffee crystals.

***

Hello the grandparents say in cartoon smoke balloons. My not-so-grand parents stand reduced to a suitcase and rummage sale remnant coats. There is money for two things: coffee and cigarettes. They grind at black collar jobs topay for grinds and Virginia Slims unfiltered, but not always heat. I shiver and steal my grandma’s purse lighter because my parents have money for no things.

***

Grandma leaves heavy heart ashtrays as love notes and inhales grandpa’s every o’clock shadow when her day’s cigarettes are gone. There’s a reddish smoking dog on her dresser that guards us as grandpa drives his semi truck, a semi husband home only a few months. He brings me green beans I hold like long-filtered cigarettes, a TV commercial lady, not granddaughter in a cold two-bedroom.

***

My grandmother was a smoking hot woman who chain smoked white shoes to charcoal gray. A magic bottle hung on the bathroom door to warm ashy feet. I chain run from home to buy her cigarettes from a 1970s plastic vending machine. No one asks how old I am or where the dollar comes from. We live surrounded by white cigarette pickets until my sister arrives. Her lungs are declared too new for us to stay.

***

My grandfather sneaks a chain of silver cigarette packs in his last hospital suitcase. The wrappers whisper as they steal his voice. Don’t let anyone take those from me. He begs. What’s left of my grandpa’s lungs would fit in my palm, a black card deck of smoking Jacks. Lungs regenerate like starfish. I tell him as he pleads for one cigarette. I’m nine and know cigarettes and oxygen aren’t a good combination but I buy him a crushed vending machine pack. He lights up for his favorite granddaughter.

***

I’m nineteen when the pastor says ashes to ashes, dust to dust. My grandma blows smoke roses on my grandpa. We scatter her in snow six months later. That day is hard but my mother is harder and stomp stamps her mother into winter ground. She smells money. I smell Prince Albert cherry pipe tobacco in a carved pipe I sneak in my purse. We take pictures off walls, curtains off rods and housecoats off hangers leaving yellow Marlboro ghosts etched in newly skimmed white plaster. A realtor walks in a new family. Their noses twitch even after we spray Lysol in every empty room.


My flash is inspired by Meg’s “Love Street Blues” published at Fractured Lit. I found her powerful use of more intrinsic things like a sense of place/space and love to be great building blocks. The more concrete mentions of stealing, smoking and a dog further illuminated her story (and mine) for me. As I read through Meg’s flashes again, I found that the combination of tangible and less concrete, imagination-filled details also color and define her visual artwork. When I wrote this flash, all of those factors lead me into including sensory elements and character grounding.


Amy Barnes has words at sites including: FlashBack Fiction, Popshot Quarterly, Flash Fiction Magazine, X-Ray Lit, Stymie Lit, No Contact Mag, Streetcake Magazine, JMMW, The Molotov Cocktail, Lucent Dreaming, TunaFish Journal, Reckon Review, Anti-Heroin Chic, Flash Frog, Janus Literary, Leon Review, Perhappened, Cabinet of Heed, Spartan Lit and others. Her work has been listed at NFFD, Reflex Press (3rd place), Retreat West, Bath Flash Fiction, and TSS Publishing and nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best Microfiction. She’s a Fractured Lit Associate Editor and reads for CRAFT, Taco Bell Quarterly, Retreat West, NFFD, The MacGuffin, and Narratively. Her flash collection “Mother Figures” is forthcoming at ELJ Editions, Ltd. in May, 2021.