New Short Fiction Award
Three times a year, we award a writer who submits, in our opinion, the best original, previously unpublished work.
Jocelyn Crawley of Evans, Georgia is the winner of the twentieth Jerry Jazz Musician New Short Fiction Award, announced and published for the first time on March 15, 2009.
Jocelyn Crawley is a 24-year-old pursuing a career in writing. When she’s not eagerly and anxiously submitting works to reputable publishers, she enjoys reading subversive literature, analyzing pop culture, and making smoothies. In addition to winning several regional and school-sponsored writing competitions, she published her first novel, Erudition, in April of 2007. She is currently completing the manuscript for her second novel.
Wedding, by Marc Chagall (1910)
Maybe Marrying Margaret
There’s this painting she keeps staring at.
She imbibes it, absorbs everything it has to offer. A lilting shade of lavender, it features fourteen flawless flowers arranged with a meandering dissonance that flies in the face of the frame’s four square corners. They make its math seem maddening, symmetry superfluous.
“I like it,” she says quietly, tucking long brown strands of slightly curly hair behind her ears. She turns towards me slowly then, notes the slight adversarial something in my eyes. Intimately familiar with my proclivity for irreverent mocking, she now offers a slight smirk that seems just one shade shy of sly. Aware of my antagonism, watching it envelope the stale air, she breathes it in and lets it go with one accepting exhalation. She knows me, understands my tendency to be difficult.
Except with her and except when it came to this painting. I love Margaret, really love her in the unique way which precludes description through metaphor or simile. I revere her, gaze upon every crevice about which I’m aware with continually renewed fascination, awe. And yet between us there is no strange and awkward distance, no feeling of superiority or idol worship. We’re equals, or as close as two people with a slew of sociocultural and political idiosyncrasies can come to being equal.
And that is why. That is why I am fiddling with the ring in my pocket as she analyzes the purple painting. I bought it two weeks ago, having asked the sales associate several trivial insignificant questions with hopes that Margaret would get the very best. But she may not because all I’ve done thus far is fiddle with it in my pocket while wondering what her facial expression would be like if I got down on one knee and tried to propose in a way that defies the prototypical heterosexual script. And I can’t. I’m uncertain and anxious, the very state of being one should not be in when contemplating an institution as serious and insane as marriage. I should be stable, staid. And I’m not. I’m not.
But the painting. This painting remains the source for the sort of mild antipathy that leaves people feeling vaguely alienated from each other. Generally, I am always opposed to something, embedded in a raw rebellion rooted in my need for independence and the agency that accompanies it. I can almost see an identity stitched through each one of my assertions, find some sort of personhood which functions as my firm foundation. With vehement interference it invades everything, makes mere suggestions and suppositions intolerable abominations. I have to sense that things are certain, then say so in serious tones suggesting something sure and solid. I have to. I have to make and state ideas because otherwise I’m just a mindless machine. Robotic, mechanical. At least that’s what Descartes seemed to be saying, and I’m inclined to believe him.
And I had to be certain, know for sure. Ever since my father died. He passed in gradual garrulous stages, seasons that were sordid speech. Each day brought new sounds and syllables, words that ruined, warped me. They morphed and grew and spoke then stopped, invaded and created silence. Sharp and defined, erudite elocution brought with it a strange parallel order that enslaved the observer. Slightly dazedindeed, confusedI watched my father pass with mounting horror, listened to the language fill the space that became his absence. I felt lost, sensed I was lying limp in the arms of a silent nameless faceless force that kept me out of my own clutches, made me mirror for a mask. That’s what my father’s death did. Left me wondering who I was. Made me meander through a matrix in search of something sure and solid.
My mother knew immediately, saw a certain shifting come alive inside me. I became impatient with the world, grew indignant toward my seemingly enigmatic existence. I had to know, understand. The acquisition of knowledge became my chief aim, ultimate goal. I remember watching the Discovery channel with my mother immediately after occasions when she caught me aimlessly wandering through the halls.
“Come on, dear,” she’d say then, deftly scooping me out of a corner.
“Come where?” I’d murmur, interested. She smiled at me then, imbibed the oscillating oceans that were my open eyes.
“Come where?” she’d say, repeating my words in a way that left me confused as to whether she was mocking or merely restating the question for clarification. Then she’d smile and I knew it was neither, was just her suturing our sentences together to create the sort of continuity that breeds love, familiarity. Then her lips would part, more words would emerge. “Come somewhere where you can be both positive and productive.”
I smiled and nodded then, familiar with my mother’s mantra. We watched an in-depth episode about sharks, one that left me rattled with questions that precluded sleep, prevented serenity. I wrote about it every day, noted questions as they careened into my unconscious. When spring quarter of school necessitated that I compose a paper about animals, I had no qualms or hesitations about analyzing sharks.
Excellent interrogation! my teacher scribbled on the final product. Viewing these bright red bleeding words as both enthusiastic and encouraging, I read them with mounting confidence yet also felt unnerved. Pleased that she’d found my paper thorough and intriguing, I also noted that my obsession with certainty had increased after my most recent interrogation. Remembering the question that continually surfaced in my subconscioushow fast could a swift shark swim if unencumbered by the sea?I realized my question remained unanswered.
Staring at the painting now, I contemplated everything that had occurred since the conception of my curiosity. Having involved myself with the intellectual world, I realized knowledge was my passion and thus pursued philosophy. Graduating at the top of my class and accepting a position as professor, I felt the world of academia was and always would be my home.
And Margaret, I thought now, fiddling with the ring again. Swallowing silently, I tried to focus on the impending doom which waswhich would bea slightly heated argument. The ring felt cool against my finger and, enjoying the relaxed feeling that came upon me as I stroked the band, I did this for several seconds. I moved onto the diamond then, felt the slightly sharp and jagged edge greet the center of my pointer finger. Tapping it lightly, I thought of the vague yet very real thing commonly called the future.
I turned to Margaret then, noted in her eyes the keen perspicacity that appeared when she observed the work of other artists. Wide, as open as a field unimpeded by wood fences, her orbs flew across the canvas, enveloped all it had to offer. I realized we’d certainly argue soon, saw in her stance and posture the slight antipodal comportment that signaled her desire to debate.
She was going to defend the painting. I knew why.
It was all about her father. For a long while, he controlled her life, dictated and determined everything. An established and successful businessman, his life and work revolved around one resonating mantra: win. To him this meant making decisions that guaranteed profit and progress. Margaret, like life, was a project to him. Directing his daughter into sales management when she began high school, her nights and evenings revolved around his company. Pleased with her progress, he determined she’d go to business school and afterwards could work for him. He pressed her, pushed her with the incessant paternal quality that only self-deceived and selfish parents have. Attempting to convince themselves that their goal is producing a bright and brilliant child, their aims remain centered in the desire to perpetuate a legacy that often exists only in their minds, a legacy skewed by their myopic vision and unwillingness to acknowledge their perennial inefficacy. Shrewd and suave, Margaret’s father had determined what her place in the worldhis worldwould be. Resolute, unwilling to relent when she expressed interest in the art world, he pushed with the tenacity and temerity of an unbridled storm. Stallins was a solid company. Safe. Secure. Solid.
Margaret was none of these things, nothing like him. Possessing the sort of ethereal aura that reminds one of air and absence, her temperament had always seemed quite tantamount to time. Both firmly set and subject to change, she had about her the slightly schismatic something that yielded nothing certain. Expressing a proclivity for all things avant garde, her predilection for iconoclastic thought and artistic freedom made her entirely unsuitable for Stallins Incorporated. She tried to tell her father this, showed him the acceptance letter from the Rockford School of Art and Design with the hope that he would understand. He did not, could not. Would not. Expressing both firm disapproval and flagrant disavowal, he watched her leave his home entirely convinced that she had made the worst decision of her life. She called periodically and, after exchanging stories with her mother, asked if she could speak with her father. After the woman’s soft sighs evolved into silence, Mrs. Stallings handed the phone to her husband, winced at his remonstrance.
“I see you aren’t done being dumb,” he said, unpleased upon learning she’d been admitted to grad school.
I knew he’d deeply wounded her, heard the forlorn fury in her tone every time she spoke of him. Staring at Margaret’s favorite painting now, I concluded that her father’s presence was the cause of her somewhat paradoxical personhood. Embodying and evincing a simultaneously vulnerable and valiant spirit, her life and mind seemed a sort of metaphysical dualism. Both strong and sensitive, everything in and around her conveyed the sort of sturdy frailty of an adolescent. Here and nother presence having about it an evanescent airiness that almost equaled absenceMargaret seemed the personification of peculiar personhood. Although continually faced with the quite probable proposition that nothing was really certain, I felt safe concluding that Margaret and her father would never be close. She was too evolved for him, possessed the sort of paradoxical complexities that he couldn’t comprehend. Their eroding relationship made this evident. Secretly, I suspect Margaret hates her father.
“I love this movement,” she says now, stepping closer to the painting.
I suppress an almost accepting sigh.
“The period depicted in the painting,” she adds. In case I hadn’t understood.
“I’m familiar with the hippie movement.”
So now we were here and there again, in the invisible palpable sphere where abstract thoughts first formed and finally fought. Or converged, coalesced.
“Margaret,” I say carefully, words and tone as delicate as dinner forks tapping wine glasses.
“That era was about drugs.”
She shakes her head quietly then, pushes away the argument with which she’d grown familiar.
“No,” she says softly, affection for the era obvious.
“It was all about the audacity and efficacy of rebellion and renascence. It was about power.”
I eye the painting again then, ingest the flowers that supposedly symbolize what she’s said.
“I don’t see it.”
“Then look again,” she says quietly, tracing the outline of a petal with her eyes. “Look at all the painting says, suggests. See the chaos and order implicit in it. Note all of the inversions. This was the era of impositions, the period when conventional thought ruled and regulated everything. That’s what the sharp shapes of the flowers signify.”
“I don’t see it.”
“You’re not looking. See how the shape of the petals are too pointed, almost square? Flower petals don’t look like that. The artist is highlighting how guided by restricting paradigms this period really was.”
Unconvinced, I shrug.
“People see what they want to see.”
“No, I see it because it’s there. Look at the stems of the flowers. See how symmetrical and square the tips are? Stem edges don’t look like that. They’re asymmetrical and cut off, especially if they’ve been pruned for public display. The most expert florist can’t cut the tips to look like that.”
“I don’t see.”
“Look,” she says, insistent. Slightly sharp, a quiet intensity in her tone. Moved by a sense of urgency the injunction engenders, I look again. Try to see.
“Yes,” I consent finally, slowly. “Yes, the flowers do look a little too symmetrical and one can argue that the artist did all of it on purpose.”
“Exactly. Now,” she goes on, eyes all over the painting still. “See how they’re all arranged. All the flowers are moving away from the center and towards the four corners of the frame.”
“Yes,” I murmur quietly, observing this again. Attempting to understand her train of thought, follow this line of reasoning.
“The arrangement of the flowers symbolizes dissatisfaction with the dictates of the era. The center of philosophical, political, and personal discourse. The suppositions and social statutes that served as the foundation for belief systems and the mode of existence resulting from it stifled people, silenced them. The era was the embodiment of convention and oppression. Thus, the hippie movement is symbolized by the flowers moving towards all four corners of the frame.”
“That could just be interpretation,” I offer finally.
“The artist stated this was her purpose in a 30-page bio last year.”
“And so I stand corrected,” I say quietly, thinking now.
“That may have been a minor element,” I offer after a brief pause. “But for the most part, it was about a bunch of druggies having irresponsible sex.”
I saw one of her several smiles, this one designed to entertain, amuse me. It disappeared as quickly as it slipped onto her face, her lips evolving into the same inquisitive shape they assumed whenever she read art theory. She turned to me then and I observed her eyes. Entirely interrogative, she seemed to be seeking answers.
“Finally,” she continues, orbs slightly round and wide now. “The color. Lavender. Do you know why the artist chose all the shades of purple for the flowers?”
“Because it’s pretty,” I say, mock-enjoying her protesting sigh.
“No. Lavender is metaphorical. In the author’s mind, it symbolized the embodiment of oppositions and was thus the perfect color to portray the hippie movement. During the era, the antithetical and antipodal were forced to dwell together. Commonplace with unconventional, ordinary with unorthodox. As you know, hippies were intentionally iconoclastic, sought out clandestine convoluted sensations and experiences. Yet in this very act one comes to understand the dualism in these thoughts, behaviors. Indeed, the search for ambiguity and obscurity was rooted in one irrefutably clear fact. One knows for certain, is entirely convinced that absolutely nothing can be known.”
We pause together then, dwell in the dormant desultory sphere that is disagreement.
“Do you know how thematic the color lavender became as a result of this painting?”
I do. She had both told and shown me several times, pointed out the paragraphs in beatnik books where writers spoke of love and hate with almost eery elocution. I recalled her favorite piece of prose then, remembered her pointer finger moving over each line she read, ingested. Gazing at her now, I saw her eyes envelope the flower closest to the painting’s edge. Her eyes moved away and towards me now, became cerulean circles absorbing my ambivalence. Undaunted, she adopted the professional poised demeanor she always assumed before reciting something.
“Margaret, no,” I moan softly, aimlessly running my hands through my hair, attempting to involve myself in some meaningless distraction. But she has already begun, has moved her hair out of her face and forced her features into an expression of slight serenity.
“Our love was lavender, light and alive as the flowers we gazed upon with open eyes. Infinitely perceptive, she noted all my faults and flaws, disregarded them with quiet care. Aware of her every mood, I sometimes spoke and moved with caution. Periodically requesting my absence, she made her need for solace known with an amatory tact I had seen and heard in no one else. Yes, our love was lavender, immensely complex, colorful. The you and I that became us produced a sort of purple parallel to interlocking shifting shapes, so that our ever-evolving relationship was the making of a matrix.”
She smiled, waited for my response.
“That’s nice if you like trite romance.”
Releasing a tolerant sigh, she turns to me again.
“What about the last line of the novel that won the big literary prize. Remember?”
“Yeah,” I murmur, ready for another recital.
“I came to pause then, pondered purple. Tried to draw concrete conclusions. I saw all that it stood for, viewed things through another lens. An epiphany-like feeling came over me then, invited then enveloped me. Under the spell of a sensation similar to the pain of production, I felt reality wilt, then die. Perhaps this was infallible truth. These purple flowers flying towards the frame, these far too symmetrical stems. These diametric oppositions forced to coalesce, coexist. These shades of lavender symbolizing the metaphysically impossible, physically embodying a sort of form and order that was mere myth of mind. This illustration of the illusory, this image making evident that there was no such thing as certainty. This was purple purified, the essence of existence. It both denied and embodied the dualities that damned the world, made it worse. This was what the painting did.”
She tucked brown strands behind her ears, gazed at me with mounting confidence.
“That was fair, albeit cheesy.”
Apparently ignoring the glass half-empty element of my statement, she went on. “Or what about the song that came out in the middle of the Vietnam War about social change? Remember that one?”
“I do,” I say suggestively, hoping she won’t recite the words.
“The purple meant a call to power. Our tears were wet water at war with something.”
“I never really cared for that song,” I murmur, eyeing the stems of the flowers again.
“The point is the author made purple popular. Powerful. Pure. The use of lavender brought to life our understanding that the esoteric enigmatic dimensions of life are real, absolute. Very valid.”
“No,” I say, shaking my head again. “We can know things. We have to know things.”
“I don’t think you really believe that, Michael.”
“Margaret,” I begin again. “If it was such a great movement, why did it die? Why did the flowers and fury disappear never to be seen again? I’ll tell you why. There was never a firm foundation, nothing one could truly cleave to. That was the whole reason they were acting in the irrational absurd fashion that they did. They didn’t know what the hell to think or do. And people don’t want to embrace vague vacuous ideas that offer nothing substantive. They want something certain, substantial. I want something certain, substantial.”
There was a long pause then, one in which she seemed engrossed in deep thought or something similar.
“I think that’s because of your father.”
Immediately I’m offended. I knew she knew me, understood. Grasped the inner workings of my psyche and spirit, comprehended all the ruptures and sutures my subconscious suggested. Yes, she apprehended all my anger and anxiety. Early on, I had given her access to all that lay within me, allowed her entry into an existence that included frailness, fragility.
And yet I could not bear her words, tolerate what they implied.
“I resent that statement, Margaret.”
Noting the inclusive sarcastic tone which I now took, Margaret loosens her lips a little, slowly breathes through the small space created by this act. She does this when she’s nervous, whenever something bothers her. Making silent determinations about something, I watch her chest rise and fall, almost see the air move through her mouth and finally out. Having apparently decided something, she turns to me now.
“But that’s really what I think,” she says. Softly, slowly. As if aware she was the bearer of bad news, yet had to relay it anyway.
“I would like to discuss it,” she says finally, interrupting the silence that sunk into our skin.
“All right,” I offer carefully.
“You haveever since I’ve known youyou’ve always needed some sort of order, found life difficult and worthless if it did not possess a pattern you could understand.”
This is true and we both know it. Silent, I nod her on.
“It’s that very need that this painting interrogates, interrupts.”
This I had begun to see, fully fathom. Understand.
“The era’s insistence on formal meaning and order flew in the face of everything understood on a subconscious level.”
“Order is a myth, a construct made by men determined to regulate reality. It proves itself both farce and fiction everywhere, in many ways. The audacity and indecency of the system-its attempts to negate the human need for freedom-manifests itself through laws and legislation as well as the restrictions placed on love. And all because in reality, everything is essentially unstable and contained behind a curtain we have no access to. If there even is reality, it’s this purple painting, it’s the human understanding that we can’t know everything, that we might in actuality know nothing at all. The human fear that anything unbridled will bite gives rise to the constructed thinking we call reason. And you”
She breaks off momentarily, decides how to phrase her thoughts.
“Youlost your father. I believe the entire ordeal wreaked both intellectual and emotional havoc on you and I would never attempt to subject you to some sort of subjugating psychoanalysis. However, I’ve come to believe that his death engendered your unceasing desire to attain complete certainty.”
“That’s entirely clear. Absolute truth.”
She caught the self-mockery in my tone, noted the I’m-not-offended in my eyes. Smiling softly now, she pecks my cheek.
“Just something I noticed,” she says quietly, turning back to the painting now.
And it was true. This I knew, understood completely. I just preferred that she kept this fact to herself, allowed it to be one of the many elephants in our room. Saying it aloud had a certain audacity, authority, made ugly realities far too evident and plain. The truth made me both foe and fool in my own eyes, source of unwarranted resistance. With my unending search for infallible truth and certitude, I became the rules and regulations that insisted upon confining everything into a neat frame with four corners. I was the enemy of existence, stupid enough to try to put parameters around something infinitely esoteric. I was obtuse, an idiot.
“I like the painting,” I say finally, squeezing Margaret’s hand with my own.
She squeezes mine back, pecks my cheek again. She’s done this at least four times now. Encouraged, I finger the ring again.
“I like it, too” she offers. Then we laugh because this is obvious. Still fiddling with the ring, I speak, say the first thing that comes to mind.
“I think that’s because of your father.”
I hear the sharp shallow inhalation, sense her body tense, grow taut.
“Why would you say that?” she asks now, steel-like frailty in the words.
“Because he tried to rule you, Margaret. Rope you into his little world.”
“Yes, he did,” she says calmly, eyes narrowing in sullen acknowledgment of this fact.
“It’s great that you didn’t conform,” I rush on, placing my hand on her waist then. I squeeze slightly, feel her relax.
“Let’s go,” she says. Soft smile evident again, all traces of anger gone.
Placing my hands in my pocket as we turn to leave, I feel the cool comfort of the ring’s band against my finger. It soothes, suggests sapient things. Sighing softly, I determine that I should do it. I should definitely do it. Marry. Marry Margaret. Scrape the remains of scrambled eggs from frying pans designed with thermo-resin handles for comfort and a better grip. Twice weekly wash and iron sheets as Margaret determines whether or not we should invest in highly questionable but potentially lucrative stock. Feed the cat we’d purchased upon her request because sometimes the kitchen was too quiet, sometimes she wanted to watch a disheveled animal invade her space. Yes. Yes. I want to read the newspaper with an individual who offers ambiguous remarks that prove their intelligence, show their awareness that we really couldn’t trust information put forth by the media. Margaret was just the person to do these things with. Yes. Yes.
We move out of the gallery and to the exit, turning left to enter the coat room. I help her into her leather jacket, determine that the sound made as she struggles into the coat is similar to rustling leaves. Slightly undone by the conflation of nature and culture this metaphor suggests, I feel a present-absent feeling envelope me again. I seem both here and not. Moving out of the gallery and onto the street, I note the passing cars, see the sapphire-colored stop signs, observe the antsy unsatisfied expressions on the faces of tourists and natives as they wander into bookstores and coffeehouses. Tugging idly at my scarf, I turn and see a woman with rose-colored lips swearing at the man who has just sold her a newspaper. Motioning with her hands now, she points to the page, shakes the thin gray sheets in his face as she explains the absurdity of globalization. A quiet stirring emerges within me then. For several seconds, everything seems the same, each moving moment parallel to all the purple painting contains, displays. All other eras were not some separate season disparate and divorced from current discourse, culture. It was all unending, universal. Evident in demeanors marked by dissatisfaction, dissonance. Apparent in the arrant phrases that fell from florid-colored lips. Under the spell of something, I feel enveloped by the same ethereal transcendent force that appeared and evanesced in the flowers. Amalgamating everything alive, the invisible eternal thing seemed to move and breathe through paintings, settle itself into poignant prose, stitch itself through every sentence. It was everywhere, all and nothing, and this among other intangible things. I turn to stare at Margaret then, wonder if she senses the same as she struggles with the zipper of her coat. Succeeding finally, she releases a satisfied exhalation. I watch it appear in the air before us, see it suture everything.
I turn away from the wind then, focus on the sharp steady sound my feet make as they kiss the concrete. Intimately aware of my vague yet very present sense of discontent aversion, I question what I’ve touched and tasted. So, the purple painting. Transcendence stitched through immanence. Subjecting my ostensibly supernatural awareness to subjective scrutiny, I think perhaps it’s all a lie. Or could this be too harsh, determinate? Maybe it’s verisimilitude, or something like it. Perhaps the coalescence and convergence was real, but had limits. Some sort of stopping point. Surely two could not be one, despite the profundity of the paradox. Surely everyone was indeed an idiosyncratic individual, locked into their own variegated space. Separate, segregated. And perhaps I couldn’t really know, fully understand anything. What if I were to interrogate the interior, attempt to make meaning of another’s inner world? Couldn’t it just be fiction, farce? Couldn’t seemingly shy behavior mask a rebellious, rambunctious spirit? What was real, where was truth? How did interpersonal relations parallel or push-pull anything? Couldn’t what appeared to be the acceptance of my personhood veil animosity, ire? I didn’t know, couldn’t tell.
Even about Margaret. How could I say I really knew her, understood the depth and scope of her spirit? Perhaps I saw only shades and shadows of her, grasped just pieces and fragments of her life, mind. And again, the lie. What if all was untruth? Perhaps she didn’t even love me. Perhaps I was subject to a slew of belittling derogations in her mental world. Perhaps the gaze I thought indicated interest and intrigue was but unalloyed indifference, arrant apathy. Perhaps I was deluded, dumb. Entirely mislead. Maybe. What if. Well. Well, the brown curls were beautiful. Her smile surpassed all others. But I could never really know what took place in the empire of her imagination. Perhaps she’d think my eggs were nasty, find the almost nasal sound of me scraping the remains into the trash infinitely annoying. Perhaps the sound of the washing machine cleansing the sheets would bother her, create a montage of memories she wanted to forget. Maybe the stock I suggested that we purchase would fall, thrust us into the clutches of irreversible poverty. Perhaps she wouldn’t want to read the paper, couldn’t stomach the propaganda. Turning to stare at Margaret now, I caught her profile at the same time I saw the tacky red letters of a bookstore invade my narrowing eyes. Squinting so I could see inside, I noted an ostensibly happy couple reading passages to each other on a sofa in the corner. He scooped whipped cream off a raspberry tart while I watched her mouth move, recite lines from a medieval play. Nodding, smiling, apparently in tune, he opened his mouth now, spoke. Leaning forward, she tucked several strands of slightly curly brown hair behind her ears and kissed his cheek.
This doesn’t necessarily mean anything. Nor does the purple painting. Indecisive, I keep walking, place my hand around Margaret’s waist as the autumn air arrests us.
I have choices, options. My shoe soles can keep kissing concretethere’s a rhythmic cadence in it. I can kiss the concrete and nurse the incertitude that keeps burgeoning in my brain. Or. Or I can stop in the middle of the street and sequester her into silence with thoughtful propositions. I can’t know the outcome, can’t even comprehend an ending. Against my will, I conclude that one can never really know. Perhaps because of thisor in spite of itI reach into my pocket and, with ambivalent resolve, continue fiddling with the ring.