Literature

Short Fiction Contest-winning story #7: “Inheritance,” Diana Spechler

New Short Fiction Award

We value creative writing and wish to encourage writers of short fiction to pursue their dream of being published. Jerry Jazz Musician would like to provide another step in the career of an aspiring writer. Three times a year, we award a writer who submits, in our opinion, the best original, previously unpublished work.

Diana Spechler of San Jose, California is the seventh recipient of the Jerry Jazz Musician New Short Fiction Award, announced and published for the first time on November 1, 2004.

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photo by Daniel Kimmel

Diana Spechler

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Diana Spechler is a Steinbeck Fellow at San Jose State University, where she is at work on her first novel. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in a variety of magazines and literary journals, including on McSweeney’s, in The Greensboro Review, and in Moment Magazine. She is the recent recipient of the Chris O’Malley Fiction Prize from the Madison Review.

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“4th and A, NYC, 2004,” by Joshua Shamsi

Inheritance

by

Diana Spechler

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     The workers at Jackson’s favorite record store wear bumble-bee striped tights, black plastic glasses, leather boots that lace straight up their thighs. Jackson’s wearing the purple beret he always wears, with his blond hair sticking out in back, and his cords, and his corduroy jacket that smells like him. It’s April, too warm for corduroy, but Jackson always wears corduroy, along with T-shirts that tell the world he’s been to every blues concert and jazz festival you could think of.

     To me, it all sounds the same — jazz, the blues, whatever — it’s all horns, but Jackson’s got two hundred seventeen records — vinyl, he calls them — and a saxophone, too. Clearly, he’s got music in his blood. His dad also plays the saxophone, at bars in Harvard Square, and they kind of look alike, only Jackson’s dad has eyes like power drills that would tear your clothes clean-open if you didn’t look away in time.

     I follow Jackson as he runs his fingertips along the tops of albums. When he finds the rack he wants, he starts flipping through, his eyes glittering like the music’s already dancing around inside them.

     “Come on,” he mutters. “Please be here.”

     I move closer to him. I almost say, I am here, but then he says, “Sometimes I think the records can hear me. Before I get to listen to them, they know how much I want them.”

     Jackson’s three years younger than I am, but he’s brilliant. I’m older than everyone at our high school, since I missed my senior year and turned nineteen in February. So until I started hanging out with Jackson two weeks ago, after having the biggest crush on him for, like, three months in our photography class, I was kind of a loner. I didn’t want to hang out with a bunch of babies. But Jackson’s special. So I got really brave one day in the dark room, braver than I could ever be in daylight and said, “Hey, Jackson, do you have any BB King?” all casual, as if I’d known who BB King even was before I started going to blues chat rooms on the internet.

     Jackson was like, “‘course I do, my dad’s a musician, you know.”

     I acted all relieved like I’d been asking everyone on earth about BB King, but no one, until Jackson, had heard of the guy. I said I’d heard an incredible BB King song on the radio, but I hadn’t caught the name. Jackson started rattling off song titles and I was like, “No….No, that’s not it, either….maybe that’s it, I’m not sure,” until he finally invited me over to listen to his records. It was pretty dishonest, but if I had to go back in time, I’d do it over the exact same way.

     Jackson’s still not quite my boyfriend since we’ve never used those words (boyfriend, girlfriend), but I wouldn’t touch another guy for a million dollars. My mom says, “Don’t let him live rent-free in your head, Wendy,” but she just worries I’ll have low standards, since her standards at my age were so low they were practically underground. Honestly, though, Jackson’s high-quality. He’s passionate. And we have a lot in common, like for example we each only have one parent and we both really think about things, in a deep way. You should have seen the first roll of film he developed back in January. A whole roll of his dad playing the saxophone, cigarette smoke wisping up around his head, like a magician who’d just magically appeared somewhere. Jackson was pinning the wet prints to the line and telling the teacher, “My dad’ll love these. He looks like a whole different person, you know?” Then he said, “I love how photography can make something look like something else.” And that was when I felt a flicker in my stomach, right then as he stood on that foot stool, reaching his arms up, his T-shirt raised a little so you could see his belly button.

     “Found it,” Jackson says, and he lifts an album by its corners with his fingertips. There’s a man on the front with his eyes squeezed shut and wrinkled like peach pits and a saxophone between his lips. He’s got sweat on his hairline and he’s totally feeling the music, just like Jackson, only he’s black.

     “Cool.” I smile, and Jackson smiles, and even though he’s smiling at the record and not at me, I could practically faint over that dimple in his right cheek and his crooked front tooth.

*          *          *          *

     Jackson’s family’s different from mine in that his mom was the one who bolted. She walked out when Jackson was four. Fine by me, because Jackson and I can hole up in his bedroom now since there’s no chance of his mom barging in, and since his dad’s asleep because he had a gig last night. I lie on the bed, staring at the posters of saxophone players all over the walls, and Jackson sets his new record in the player, and lifts the arm so gently, you’d think he was handling an injured bird. I can practically feel his fingers on my arm. My skin tingles. A saxophone starts whining, and there’s that old-record crackling sound like a fire snapping.

     “My dad’ll be so psyched I got this,” Jackson says.

     “Totally,” I say, but I sort of doubt it. The one time I saw Jackson’s dad, when his eyes were all over me, giving me goose bumps, he was smoking a cigarette without holding it — it just dangled from his mouth — and he had no shirt on and his hair was a mess. He told Jackson, “I feel like shit today. Keep it down,” so you could see they weren’t much for communicating.

     Jackson takes off his beret and rakes his fingers through his greasy blond hair, leaving furrows, then sits beside me with a sad, faraway look on his face. “Man,” he says, “it’s like, I practically can’t even enjoy music anymore, because I’m a musician myself. I listen and my mind separates all the different instruments out.” He closes his eyes. “Check it out: there’s the sax, right? Then there’s the bass line, you hear that?”

     “I don’t know,” I admit. “I guess I can’t.”

     He opens his eyes and looks down at me. He frowns. “Think of it like this,” he says. “You’re making a cake. What do you need…eggs, sugar, butter. Flour. Right? You mix everything together and bake it and everyone thinks it tastes like cake. Only me…” he touches his chest. “I still taste all the separate ingredients. Raw eggs,” he says. “Pure sugar.”

     We listen through to the end of the song. I try to hear what he hears, to separate one instrument from another. I can make out the drums, but that’s about it.

     “You know, on second thought,” Jackson says, “maybe it’s nice to keep the things you love separate.” It’s such a Jackson thing to say, so mysterious and deep.

     “Did you get to listen to music in rehab?” he asks.

     “Sure,” I say.

     “People could just listen to their old drug music?”

     “Music was allowed,” I say vaguely.

     That’s where everyone thinks I was last year: rehab. I let them believe it. In fact, maybe I even started the rumor myself. So sue me. Dr. Shipley always says that if I don’t tell people the truth about things, they’ll stop listening. Then when I’m ready to tell my stories, I won’t have anyone to tell. She doesn’t know what she’s talking about, though, because I’ll never tell anyone anything. Who would I tell about the night I threw everything in my bedroom out the window, or about my schizophrenic roommate in the loony bin, or about the sign on our door that said, “Warning: patient spits if irritated”? I don’t know why you’re supposed to constantly talk about yourself. If you ask me, it just makes you weaker.

     “Want me to draw on your back?” Jackson asks.

     “Okay,” I say, flipping over onto my stomach and unzipping the back of my sundress. He unhooks my bra and I shiver. He still hasn’t seen the scar on my stomach, which my mom says is nothing — it’s one thick line, shiny and raised like a caterpillar — but I think it’s something. I got it from a bad burn when I was a year old. I don’t remember it happening, but it wasn’t an accident on the part of the person who burned me, and it gave my mom a permanent worry line between her eyebrows. Of course, I don’t know for sure when exactly she got that worry line, but I’d bet she got it the same day I got my scar. I just feel it, okay? I can’t really explain.

     “I’m drawing Lucille,” Jackson says.

     I don’t know who Lucille is. I don’t ask. The pen on my skin reminds me of getting lice checks in elementary school, where although I was scared to death I’d have lice, the real-life tangible version of cooties, I was also hoping the nurse would never stop sliding those chopstick things through my hair.

*          *          *          *

     I go home in the afternoon because Jackson’s going to a jam session. My mother’s sitting on the front steps, soaking her feet in a tub of hot water. Her jeans are rolled up to her knees. She looks at me suspiciously. “Have you done your homework?” she asks. “Are you planning to socialize tonight?”

     “I’m going out,” I say. “I don’t have much homework.”

     She sighs. “I’m not comfortable with this, all this gallivanting. Did you call Dr. Shipley back?”

     “I will.”

     “Wendy.” She rubs at her eyes with the heels of her hands.

     I step around her and open the door. “You’re stressing me out,” I say. “I’m fine.”

*          *          *          *

     At night, I go back to Jackson’s house and knock and Jackson’s dad appears on the other side of the screen door, smoking without holding the cigarette. He needs to shave. He has something like tomato sauce on his jaw line. “Jackson’s not here.” He grins through a cloud of smoke. “Guess he ditched you.” He opens the door and steps outside, pushes a clay pot of cigarette butts aside with his foot. He smells stale and has sweat stains in the armpits of his undershirt. His belly pooches over the top of his jeans.

     He wags a finger at me. Chuckles a little. “I know about girls like you,” he says.

     “Will you tell him I–“

     “You’re one of those bad girls.” He reaches out with one hand and touches my hair, as if to check if I’m wearing a wig. “I can tell. Do the music circuit like I have, you see it all: groupies, junkies, plain old crazies. Gals are more likely to spiral.” He twirls his finger like a whirlpool, clucks his tongue. “Don’t know why that is.” He lays the hand on top of my head. It’s heavy like a lid. Nearby, beer-can wind chimes tinkle awkwardly.

     “I guess I’ll come back,” I say.

     “Nothing wrong with bad girls,” he says, touching my cheek.

     My head jerks away involuntarily. Jackson’s dad laughs. Wheezes.

     I’ll run. If he touches me again, I swear to God I’ll kick him in the nuts and run. He sucks at his cigarette, then glances past me for a second, squints, and without another word, he opens the door and steps back inside.

     I hear Jackson’s voice in the dark: “Wendy?”

     He’s behind me, leaning his bike against the oak tree. When I turn back to the door, his dad’s gone. Jackson never saw him.

     “Where have you been?” I say. “You said eight. Eight at the latest.”

     He pushes his eyebrows together for a second. “Easy there,” he says. “Relax….Hey. You still straight-edge?”

     “Me?” I press a palm to my chest; my heart thuds against it.

     “You still straight from rehab?”

     “Oh,” I say. “Not really.”

     “You want to drop acid? I’ve got some upstairs.”

     I glance inside. The hallway’s empty. I wipe my hands on my dress and smile.

*          *          *          *

     Once the acid comes on, I want to go to the golf course and sit by the stream, but Jackson wants to stay in his room so we can listen to his new record. “But your dad’s home,” I say.

     “My dad and I respect each other’s privacy. He never even comes into my room. My stuff’s mine. His is his. We’re like friends, you know? Roommates. Besides, it’s just white blotter.”

     Whatever it is, my fingers feel like rubber and when I flick my hair off my shoulder, it’s like slow motion and I can see the trail that my arm left as it moved. After a few minutes, I think even Jackson would agree that white blotter is still acid, because we’re on three hits apiece that might be double-dipped and we’re really going good. We’re doing what I wish we could always do: lying on his bed, staring into each other’s eyes.

     “I see music in your irises,” he tells me.

     “What does it look like?” I ask.

     “Like tie-dye,” he says. His eyebrows look like pipe cleaners. “Man!” he says. “I love acid, don’t you? It’s like, with pot, everything gets all confused. But on acid, all my thoughts are perfectly lined up. I can see them so clearly….And music feels thin instead of thick.”

     I listen to the music for a minute. I’m starting to memorize the record because we’ve heard it like twenty times now and he’s right: the music is thinner than usual, clearer, the way the sea might be without salt. I tell him that.

     “Totally,” he says. He smiles and his teeth look fake, like cartoon teeth. “Can I kiss you?” he asks. “Would that freak you out?”

     “It’s okay,” I say. “Kiss me.”

     It’s hard to concentrate on the kissing because of the acid, which makes me concentrate on eight-five things at once, the sandpapery feel of Jackson’s hair, the ticking of his pulse, the snake-like pattern slithering through the carpet. But I do notice this: he kisses the way guys kissed three years ago. Slow and careful. I run my fingernail down a groove in the corduroy of his pants. I don’t notice at first that he’s reaching under my dress.

     “Wait,” I say.

     “What’s that?” he asks.

     I grab his wrist and pull his hand away.

     “What is that?” he asks. He sounds afraid. He wipes his hand on his pants like I’m contagious.

     I look past his head and the wall melts into a puddle. I smooth my dress over my legs and say, “It’s just a scar. Okay? It’s not anything.”

     Jackson’s quiet for a second, then he laughs like he’s relieved. “A scar? I thought it was, like, a tiny tape recorder or something, embedded in your skin. I thought you were a narc. Don’t scare me like that.” He lays a hand on my hip. “Hey. Can I see?” he asks.”That’s totally cool.”

     When I look back at him, his face is covered in green speckles. But I can tell that everything’s fine again because his eyes sparkle. I take a deep breath. No one’s ever touched my scar before. I hardly even touch it. “All right,” I say. I can’t believe I said all right. My heart pounds.

     “Really?”

     “You can see,” I say like it’s nothing. I lift my dress to my bellybutton.

     He moves his fingertips over the scar, down to where it dips below the line of my underpants. “How’d you get it?” he asks.

     “It’s…from a long time ago.”

     “Yeah? How–“

     “You can get them removed,” I say quickly. “With lasers or something.”

     “My dad’s friend got a tattoo removed that way.”

     “I saw a brochure a couple years ago, and my mom and I looked into it and everything, but…” I shrug. “It’s expensive. So…no big deal.”

     If you ask Dr. Shipley, it’s a very big deal. Couple hours after my mom called the number on the brochure to find out how much the surgery cost, I went into my room and threw everything I owned out the window, my jewelry box, my pillow, my clothes. In my opinion, there was no connection between the two events, but Dr. Shipley gets things in her head and you can’t change her mind. She calls that brochure a “trigger.”

     “Everyone has scars,” Jackson says, “whether you can see them or not.”

     He’s suddenly grown a beard. I reach out to stroke it, but it’s just his bare chin. Then I notice something new on his wall, pictures he must have put up this afternoon while I was at home. They’re the pictures of his dad from back in January, three in a row, thumb-tacked at the corners.

     I nod at them. “Why didn’t you give those to your dad?” I ask.

     Jackson glances behind him. “I just thought they looked good here.” He shrugs his shoulders. “My dad has a lot of pictures in his room already.” He looks away, then grabs a pencil eraser from his desk, the rectangular pink kind you use in math class. “I have an idea,” he says, his face brightening. He lifts my dress again and starts rubbing the eraser over my scar.

     “You can’t erase it,” I say and I’m bubbling over with laughter now, laughing so hard, it feels like I’m going to fall off a building, like I’m going to drown in my laughter. He erases and erases until the eraser breaks in his hand.

*          *          *          *

     My mom makes this total production when I get home in the morning because I never told her I was planning to sleep out and she’s been “frantic” — this is what she says — “frantic all night!” Then she wants to know if I’m on drugs.

     “Not right this second,” I tell her, which is honest, only she thinks I’m being a smart-ass.

     “Wendy,” she says, “I’ve had it up to here,” but she’s not showing me where; she’s just sitting at the kitchen table in her pink robe, her face in her hands, her hair on top of her head in a scrunchy. “I can’t turn back the clock. I can’t give you a father. I’m not perfect.”

     “I don’t want a father.”

     “Dr. Shipley says you don’t trust men. You don’t trust anyone. She thinks I turned you against men. Well, I’m sorry if I did, but that doesn’t give you the right–“

     “Dr. Shipley is a stupid bitch,” I say.

    “She tells me you have trust issues.”

    “Really? She tells me I have Bipolar Disorder.”

    “You won’t call her. You skip your appointments. You’re headed for a fall,” she says.

     “I’m fine,” I say.

     “You’re not fine, Wendy. You’re not fine. I don’t want to see you go through this again.”

*          *          *          *

     Night comes and I sneak out as soon as my mother goes to bed. I run the three blocks to Jackson’s house. Again, his dad opens the door. Again, he’s got that cigarette between his lips. He’s not wearing a shirt. He has a circle of hair around each nipple like the frames of glasses.

    “He’s not here, girl.”

     I look past him into the dusty, smoky house. I see blue TV light from the living room. I hear a laugh track. And music. There’s always music. I try to separate the sax from the bass line. I don’t even know where to begin. And then Jackson’s dad is touching my hair again.

     “Will you tell him I stopped by?” My tongue is a thick, braided rope.

     He tucks a piece of my hair behind my ear. “You’re real pretty,” he says. “My boy’s just a kid.” He runs a finger down my cheek. “You’re too pretty,” he says, and I think he’s joking so I laugh, but when you think about it, it’s not funny at all, it’s a totally gross thing for a middle-aged guy to say to his son’s girlfriend or whatever I am, so I cut the laugh off abruptly.

     He’s leaning in the doorway, holding the screen door open with his bare foot. His toenails are big and yellow. “You want to come in?” he asks, and it occurs to me for the first time that Jackson’s dad is a drunk. I smell it. I hear it in the slur of his words.

     I can see into the living room, where the coffee table is covered with beer cans and newspapers. “No,” I say. “Thank you.”

     He moves his rough hand to my neck. It burns like a cattle brand. I can feel his pulse. Or maybe it’s mine. “You hear that?” he asks. His eyes are half-closed. “You hear that rhythm?” He presses harder. I do feel that pulse. I feel it racing like a jack rabbit. But I don’t hear any rhythm.

     “I’m not good at that sort of thing,” I mumble, and Jackson’s dad laughs wheezily, coughing great white puffs of smoke. I’m starting to think we’ll stay like this forever, like we’ll mold this way and freeze like a statue, when Jackson appears right behind him in the doorway.

     “Dad?”

     The dad takes his sweet time dropping his hand to his side and turning around. He’s not embarrassed. His eyes are    indifferent. “Guess he is home,” he says. He pulls the cigarette from his mouth and rolls it a few times between his thumb and index finger, looking past me into the night. Then he stretches his arms up over his head and half yawns, half growls. “Tired,” he says, and he turns, brushes past Jackson, and disappears into the livingroom.

     The screen door claps shut. Jackson and I stare at each other through the screen. A second later, I hear the couch groan and squeak under the weight of a body.

     “What are you doing here?” Jackson asks. He looks so vulnerable, so small, in his corduroy pants and his stretched-out white socks.

     I untuck the hair from behind my ear. “Saying hi.”

     He crosses his arms over his chest, so I can’t see which concert tour he has printed on his T-shirt. “I have to go to bed,” he says. He backs up a few steps. “I’m beat.” His eyes are hard like callouses, his lips thin. His beret casts a shadow over one eye. “See you in class,” he says.

     “Wait,” I say. My whole body is shaking.

      Jackson lifts his arms in a shrug, then lets them drop to his sides.

      “I have to tell you something,” I say. “I have to tell you…something about my scar.” The words come out in a rush. “I have to tell you about my dad. He was a total fuck-up,” I say. I don’t say alcoholic. I don’t say just like your dad. “Total nut,” I say. “While my mom was pregnant with me, he held a gun to her belly. He was always doing completely fucked-up things, then apologizing. My mom was twenty-one,” I say, even though it annoys me how she always says that: “I was twenty-one,” like that’s the same as being in a coma. “She was twenty-one and she kept forgiving him, and then when I was a year old, she was boiling a pot of water to make corn on the cob, and my dad pinned me down on the counter and poured it on me. Then went out in the garage and shot himself in the mouth.”

     Jackson rubs his eyes with his fists.

     “This is no joke,” I tell him. He isn’t laughing. I laugh. I laugh the laugh of a crazy person. I stop and clear my throat. “It’s one hundred percent true. My mother swears she would have left him anyway if he hadn’t killed himself. Pouring boiling water on me was the last straw, she says, but who knows.” I take a deep breath and let it out. It trembles. “I just wanted to tell you,” I say.

     Jackson frowns.

     “I feel comfortable with you,” I say, “so I wanted you to know. About me.” I think of other things I might want him to know. Suddenly, it seems like I could fill a book. There are so many things I’ve never told Jackson.

     “So…” Jackson looks down at the floor, then up at the ceiling. “So you have, like, a father thing?”

     I wrap a chunk of hair around one finger. “What?” I wrap tighter and tighter until my scalp hurts.

     “Like, you’re looking for a father or something? Anyone’s father?”

     I shake my head. Let go of my hair.

     “Look,” says Jackson, glancing over his shoulder. “I think you’ve got some shit you need to deal with.”

     “No,” I say. “That’s the whole point. I’m okay now.”

    “I don’t think I should…do that with you. Deal with your shit. I mean, I’ve got my own shit sort of.”

     “I’m fine,” I say. “What are you talking about? I’m fine.”

     “I’m tired,” Jackson says. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

     I touch the screen with my fingertips. “Wait,” I say. “Please just listen for a second.”

     “We’ll talk some other time or something,” Jackson says and the door is already closing, and now it’s closed, staring back at me blankly, telling me nothing.

     I hold my breath and wait, hoping I’ll at least hear him scream at his dad, throw a plate at the wall. Something. But I hear nothing. Minutes braid together. I stare at the knocker, a brass treble clef. I trace the ear-like curve of it, and whisper to it: “Listen.”

*          *          *          *

     On Monday, our photography teacher says, “Take pictures inside the school. Don’t let your subjects know you’re there.” I look at Jackson, who’s wearing all corduroy and a purple beret, clutching his camera to his chest, looking everywhere but at me. “Hide,” says the teacher. “Catch people in moments. Catch them in shadows.”

     Everyone scatters. Jackson hurries out of the room with his head down. I go to the girl’s bathroom and lock myself in a stall. I unbutton my jeans and take off my T-shirt, and even though it’s awkward and difficult and I don’t know if it’ll come out, I shoot a whole roll of my scar. I’ll hang the prints in a row and call the installation “Inheritance” or “Thanks For Nothing.” Maybe just, “Daddy.” Or maybe I’ll call it “Mom.” Because this is her fault, too. If you can believe it, she didn’t even take me to the doctor at first after the boiling water incident — too embarrassing, too overwhelming, too unimportant compared to the man in her garage who’d just blown his brains out, who knows? — and the burn got infected. And that’s how I got a scar.

     But I don’t blame her, I really don’t, for my scar or for how loose the screws in my head are. She was dazzled by my father. He looked just like John Voigt, she always says, like that’s some great thing. She loved him. And you can’t leave someone you love. Some people can, I guess, but a lot of people can’t.

*          *          *          *

     I don’t expect my mom to be home after school, but she’s baking brownies in the kitchen when I walk in, and the house smells warm like chocolate. She has her hair back in a ponytail; there’s gray coming in at the roots. She starts to give me one of her suspicious eyebrow raises, but then she looks at my face and I can see her start to get scared. She thinks any time I’m upset I might throw a bunch of stuff out the window. Even though I wasn’t upset when I did that. Not exactly. No one understands: I had just wanted to get rid of things.

     “Want some brownie batter?” she asks. She holds up a spoonful and I take it like medicine. I wiggle out of my backpack. The stereo’s on in the living room, tuned to a jazz station. I can tell it’s jazz and not the blues because it’s not sad. It kind of lifts my heart a little, like a hand fluffing a pillow. Or maybe it is the blues. Maybe the blues don’t have to be sad. Maybe I’ve got it all wrong.

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