Short Fiction Contest-winning story #2: “Tin Soldiers,” by Kirk Bjornsgaard

February 10th, 2003

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New Short Fiction Award

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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 Three times a year, we award a writer who submits, in our opinion, the best original, previously unpublished work.

Kirk Bjornsgaard of Bixby, Oklahoma is the second recipient of the Jerry Jazz Musician New Short Fiction Award, announced and published for the first time on February 10, 2003.

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The author, 1968

Kirk Bjornsgaard began by writing tales that featured classmates at Doylestown Township (Pa.) Elementary School and he’s been writing for the masses ever since—for newspapers and magazines, and as a radio news reporter, media relations manager for an oil company, and currently as managing editor for PennWell Publishing in Tulsa, OK. Literary influences include hometown hero James Michener, as well as Garrison Keillor, Larry McMurtry, John Dos Passos, and Tom Robbins; his work as a percussionist (influenced by Gene Krupa, Mel Taylor, and Levon Helm) led a musical colleague to pen this poem back at their alma mater, Bard College:

I knew a drummer, Bjornsgaard
He played like an orange.

Bjornsgaard has two children and is married to his college sweetheart. Tin Soldiers is his first work of fiction ever published.

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Tin Soldiers

by Kirk Bjornsgaard

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…..Donna walked into the student union on the evening of the Kent State shootings while thunderheads roiled over the Toledo River. They invoked little-girl notions that God brought storms until she checked herself with the atheism sweeping the Milestone College campus that semester. In the foyer mirror she stroked long chestnut hair and nodded terse approval of her denim mini-skirt, leotards, and khaki jacket.

…..Descending the circular staircase to the basement, Donna replayed the scene in the dining commons–Chris, flanked by his entourage, requesting that she report after dinner; how girl friends had flashed wide-eyed grins that heightened her excitement–“God, Donna! No freshman poly-sci’s ever been invited to work with him before!” Perhaps her 4.0 average enabled Chris to refute the administration’s charge that the political left attracted only losers, she thought now. Maybe Chris and his campus crew dug a renegade who kept her own counsel, remained open to all points of view, and slept alone, as if to emphasize her independence.

…..Chris wasn’t in the dingy, low-ceilinged offices. Another senior put her to work in a phone bank. She quickly grew bored reciting a cold, lifeless script to contacts on other campuses, taking down names and numbers, determining the scope of a planned demonstration in Washington that weekend–and finally called a number she knew by heart.

…..“Yes, I heard about Kent State on Huntley-Brinkley,” Daddy told her. “Kids throwing rocks at National Guard troops–”

…..“They killed four of my students, Daddy!”

…..“Why were Milestone kids at Kent?”

…..“I mean college students everywhere…we’re all in this together!” Donna said.

…..Daddy’s sigh rattled the line. “It was hard enough on your mother and me when the principal reported you for trying to force current events into the high school debate club. When you abandoned our Lutheran faith to go off and join that Quaker Meeting–”

…..“It never affected my grades.” Wasn’t that what he wanted to hear?

…..“That’s not the point!” Daddy snapped. “You’re smart enough for two people and work hard enough for six. I’ve always been proud of you for that. Your mother was, too. But for reasons we never figured out, you’re the moth always drawn to the most dangerous flame.”

…..“What would you have me do?”

…..“Maybe re-enroll in a school here locally, like Ralph Cadwallader did.” Daddy chuckled. “Maybe even re-think his proposal.”

…..“Good-bye, Daddy!”

…..As she cradled the phone, Chris slid into the seat beside her. “Having fun yet?”

…..Donna felt Daddy’s common sense linger. “What if all we do in D.C. this weekend is piss people off?”

…..Rumpled. That’s how Mom would have described Chris, she decided. His dark, curly hair was too long for the part he favored on the left side. Thick, tortoise-shell glasses slid down the long, thin nose as he leaned closer to consider her question. His blue jeans and black tee shirt suited the warm May evening; the pockets of his beige work shirt (subbing for the sports jacket Daddy would have required) bulged with scribbled notes and a pack of Marlboros.

…..“Getting people’s attention is the object of political action,” Chris said. He nodded around the stuffy room where kids worked phones, cranked ditto machines, and inked posters like a pep club getting ready for The Big Game. “In fact, I’m pissed off the Milestone paper and Toledo TV stations aren’t here to see this!”

…..“Why?”

…..Chris’ voice glowed with dark intimacy, like a DJ on an “underground” rock radio station. “If a demonstration falls in an empty town, does it make a headline? What is the sound of one hand clapping, if it’s a Black Power salute raised where no one can see it?”

…..“It takes drama to make our actions effective,” Donna said.

…..Chris smiled. “You dig direct political action for the same reason I do, Donna: Moral conviction without action to support it is as wrong as holding the wrong convictions in the first place.”

…..Daddy’s lecture evaporated in the glow from Chris’ eyes. It took her a moment to realize he was staring at her breasts. When she giggled, Chris slowly resettled his gaze on hers. “You’re a beautiful woman, Donna. I don’t know who’s got your heart locked up, but he’s a lucky guy.”

…..He moved on, and in his musky wake Donna sensed both acceptance and attraction. “You’re so much cooler than Ralphie,” she muttered, turning back to the phones, “even if Ralph Cadwallader was the best Decatur could offer me.”

…..She dug her address book from her purse and dialed another hometown number. “Ralphie–

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…..“Donna? Hey! Outasight! What’s up? Are you at school…?”

…..“Ralph, didn’t you apply to Kent State University?”

…..“They have a great engineering school but my old man forced me to attend his alma mater here.”

…..“So you could be dead right now!”

…..“I don’t think Dad would have taken it that hard.”

…..“No! I mean you could have been one of the kids killed there today!”

…..Ralph’s tone turned as dark as the clouds dimming Toledo’s skyline. “Why does that make you happy?”

….Jesus, Ralph! Don’t go psycho on me.” Donna grabbed her pencil and bent over the yellow legal pad in her lap. “How many Tewksbury College kids are going to Washington this weekend?”

…..“…Washington…?”

…..“For the mobilization!”

…..“I’m not going anywhere. I’ve got a project in rotary mechanics due Monday.”

…..She slapped down the pencil. “Christ, Ralph! They’re killing us this time!”

…..“You think a field trip to D.C. would get me an extension on my project?”

…..Donna gripped the phone tighter. “You don’t remember the hassles in school over your long hair and my short skirts? The draft resistance leaflets we passed out that nearly got us suspended? Don’t you remember what that felt like?”

…..“All I know is, this is the first time in eight months you’ve bothered to call me.”

…..Donna tried to picture a rageful Ralph. She’d seen him drunk, seen him naked, seen his boy-next-door features mature and change over 18 years, but this was the first time she’d experienced Ralph Cadwallader talking back. It intrigued her.

…..“Oh, Ralph. We talked about…about all that before I came out here, last fall. You want an engineering degree and your dad’s business. I want–”

…..“I’m not trying to make you fall in love with me anymore.” His words stung. “I’m asking you to listen to yourself. Your radical politics are eating you alive.”

…..Donna flinched when the senior overseeing the phone bank tapped her shoulder. “Everything all right?” His quizzical grin suggested everyone in the room was listening to her overheated conversation.

…..“Just fine,” she told him, forcing a smile. When he walked on, she glanced around the room. Chris was gone. She closed her eyes. “I’m sorry, Ralph. Ever since we heard about Kent State, it’s been, I dunno…”

…..“Good luck in D.C.” Ralph’s tone eased toward compassion. “Maybe we can connect back here in Decatur this summer.”

…..“Absolutely! I’ll call you if I–”

…..But she was speaking into a dead connection.

 

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…..Ralph shuffled into the apartment’s darkened living room. Angie Riccobono’s weasel eyes shone in the reflected glow of the television. “You oughta be watching this stuff about Kent State,” Angie told him.

…..A lanky boy on the other end of the couch glanced up. “Bad phone call?” Ted Stoddard asked Ralph.

…..Ralph rubbed his hands across his freckled moon face and scratched his thick, Brillo-frizzy curls. “Remember the night we went off on that Romilar bender and I told you guys I proposed to my high school girl friend at the prom?”

…..Both boys’ heads swiveled toward him. “That’s who just called you?” Their voices twisted the knife Donna had plunged into a wound Ralph had thought healed.

…..“I woulda thought you got over her after Ronnie moved in here with you!” Angie chuckled.

…..“The girl on the phone is fish that got away,” Ted told him.

…..Ralph stared at the TV and saw Donna’s face superimposed on news footage of swirling gunfire, helmeted soldiers, and blood-stained tie-dye. “We should go to Washington this weekend,” he said.

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…..Donna stumbled out of bed the following morning and found the eye of the storm in a shower. She was toweled off and grimacing at what gazed back at her from the mirror in the main room when someone opened the door.

…..“Hey–Donna! Can I come in?” Chris swept into the room.

…..“You already have,” she said.

…..Damp, stringy curls weighed on her head and she wished that she wore something less juvenile than a white terry cloth bathrobe. Chris had not forsaken his jeans or motorcycle boots, nor his pastel tee shirt and unbuttoned flannel overshirt. His hair resembled a field of Monkey Grass. He walked to the window and stared at the crimson sunrise through trees that separated the college campus from Milestone.

…..“Red sky at morning, sailors take warning,” he said.

…..Sadly heroic, she decided. Her heart beat faster as she gently swung closed the door. “Have you slept at all?” she asked him.

…..When he turned she felt energized by his crooked smile. “Listen…that was an excellent suggestion you made last night in our meeting,” he said. “We called the charter bus company this morning about a discount rate for an ‘educational institution’ and got a dozen buses for what two woulda normally cost!”

…..“Are we going to need that many?”

…..Chris’ grin hardened. “I just met with the dean. As of noon, he’s closing the college for the weekend–we’re all going to Washington!”

…..Donna felt her breath snatched away. “They’ve joined us!”

…..Chris cackled. “Well, actually…I told the dean, you hold classes–no one’s attending!”

…..“…Oh…”

…..Chris stepped closer. “It’s compromise, Donna! We make demands–they give in!” He lowered his voice to FM-radio intimacy. “I got something more important for you to think about this morning.”

…..The hormonal hope seized her that her roommate would dawdle over breakfast for the next couple of hours.

…..“My organizing committee decided we want you on the platform this afternoon at the rally, before we get on those buses. We want some words out of you!”

…..Donna’s feigned composure evaporated. She felt as if the roof had been peeled back and the rising sun anointed her. “What should I say?”

…..His smile felt holy to her. “Some of the tales you shared last night, about trying to raise the consciousness of your jerkwater Pennsylvania hometown. You have this street-level common sense thing, Donna–this gift–that the rest of us get going too fast to consider. Tap into that.”

…..“I’ll…I’ll pull together some thoughts, then.” She smiled–demurely, she hoped. “And some clothes…”

…..Her hormones sang when Chris gave her an exaggerated once-over, top to toes, and grinned: “I suppose ‘clothes’ are called for. Listen, I got other folks to see…”

…..He slipped from the room, leaving Donna to confront the mirror again. “The bathrobe is why he didn’t stay longer,” she decided.

…..Her eyes fell on a framed color snapshot on her tidy bureau–a picture she decided Chris must have seen: Ralph Cadwallader, dressed in a red velour pullover top and khaki parka, smiling at her. She dropped the picture into her sock drawer. “Chris makes me feel things I’ve gotta check out,” she said.

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…..Stuffing everyone into Ted’s powder blue Mustang reminded Ralph of the classic college trick of cramming a phone booth. “We’ll make like volleyball players,” Ted announced, as he drove south from the Tewksbury campus, “and rotate seats every hunnert miles.”

…..“Sounds good!” his girl friend, Cindy said from the other bucket seat.

…..Squeezed between Ralph and Angie in the back seat, Ronnie yelped, “It’s gonna take a whole volleyball team to pry me outta here!”

…..Angie laughed. “You’ll get out in a heartbeat if Ralph sees this Donna chick.”

…..She clamped a petite hand on Ralph’s knee. “Possession is nine-tenths of the law!”

…..But when Ronnie leaned against him Ralph felt Donna’s presence. What was it she said last night? You want to get an engineering degree and take over your dad’s firm. I want–…what, to earn a political science degree, come back to Decatur, marry, and raise a family? It sounded ludicrous. How could I have been so wrong about her? We were going steady. She became “mom” after her mother died. Wasn’t she training for the role I wanted her to play–the role I thought she wanted?

…..“We’re liberated college students,” Angie lectured Ronnie. “Jealousy is out of fashion.”

…..“And Ralph’s out of circulation!” she chirped.

…..This time, when Ronnie nestled against him, Ralph hugged her. Parading Ronnie in front of Donna might be the best way to finally break the emotional link to a girl who was rapidly becoming a memory.

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…..Donna helped Chris chase kids off the buses and he took her hand as they crossed into the Capitol Ellipse with swarms of other kids and adults dressed in tie-dye, jeans, and beads. His touch carried the message that he wanted her to stay with him. She hoped she looked reasonably presentable. The image reflected in bus stop ladies’ rooms had been that of a Seventeen magazine cover crammed into a too-small mailbox.

…..“The speeches and the songs are for the benefit of the press and the liberals,” Chris told her, gesturing at the massive crowd. “Meanwhile, the White House is surrounded with Metro buses–can you dig it? The cops circled the wagons to try and defend the criminal-in-chief’s palace from the voters, man!”

…..“But you told me you never vote!” she yelled back playfully.

…..“It only encourages ’em!” Chris held her gaze. “Are you with us for what comes next, Donna? Are you ready to take the next step?”

…..“Of course!” she replied, as if she knew what he meant. It didn’t matter. The bug-eyes behind the Coke-bottle glasses, the soothing voice, his attentive manner–it all stirred her awakening sense of drama. She fell in with Chris’ contingent that exited the park, as excited as she’d been when Decatur Regional won the state basketball tournament in a double-overtime squeaker the previous spring.

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…..Ralph’s party drove into the summer-hot steam bath of the nation’s capital just after Donna left the Ellipse. Ted sniffed out a parking space on a side street a half-mile from the White House with what he credited to his north Jersey street smarts.

…..“Who’s got change for the meter?” he sang out.

…..Ralph laughed. “We’re here to confront the police state and you’re worried about the meters?”

…..The Ellipse unfolded before them as a vast sea of humanity moving in eddies and currents along informal corridors.

…..“It looks like a Matthew Brady civil war scene,” Ralph suggested. They settled on a multi-paneled, rainbow-hued quilt Cindy had brought along. “I’ve been to enough demonstrations to know they don’t have box seats,” she explained.

…..Ronnie remained standing. “This is it?”

…..“Come sit down, sweets,” Ralph coaxed from the quilt. But he’d thought exactly what she had voiced: I wish I could remember why I wanted to do this!

…..“There’s supposed to be some really famous people up on stage,” Ted told her.

…..“Too bad we didn’t bring a telescope to be able to see ’em,” Angie grumbled.

…..Ronnie knelt on the quilt. “Like movie stars and things?”

…..“I wanna hear the ‘things’ speak!” Ralph replied.

…..Ronnie sneered but lay beside him, like something he’d plucked from the heavens. It felt good.

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…..Donna followed Chris in vaulting over wooden barricades blocking New York and Pennsylvania avenues. Now she could see the buses–and the cops. Cops and kids shoved one another like random lightning strikes on a hot night. For the first time Donna sensed a darker anticipation. Slowing to a walk she cried, “What’s the plan?”…..

…..Chris’ shriek rattled her nerves. “Heave-ho time!”

…..Her gut contracted as he scooped a pop bottle from the street and hurled it at the buses, parked nose-to-tail across the avenue. It set off a primal dance among the Milestone kids and others who joined them. As they stalked forward, hurling litter, she felt pulled along but flinched with every percussive thunk! of objects striking metal and the high-pitched sound of missiles shattering glass. Another unholy, gangrenous sound finally caused Donna to stop and embrace herself: They’re laughing! The sense that her father was watching all this triggered a wave of nausea.

…..Chris dashed to her side bearing a choice of cobblestones and wearing the smile of a small child.

…..“Stop this!” she barked at him.

…..His expression faded–the small boy heard mom’s admonishing call. “The revolution’s at hand, Donna!”

…..“There’s nothing but rocks in yours!”

…..“You’ve come so far, baby!” He held the rocks at eye level. “Don’t quit now!”

…..“I-I’m not.” She hated the sound of her stammering voice. She took a deep breath–and flinched as another rock pummeled a bus. Looking Chris in the eye, Donna said, “This isn’t the way!”

…..He dropped the stones to the street. “You’re right.” He turned and dashed to the nearest bus, vaulting halfway up the side and hanging on by the windows. “This is he way to do it!” he cried.

…..“Chriiiiiiiiis!” Donna dodged rocks and bottles to reach the bus.

…..Pulling himself to the roof, Chris turned on his belly. Donna saw his excited eyes gleam at her. “They leave us no option, Donna! Flowers and beads won’t change the world!”

…..“How does this change it?” She was unsure he heard her above the joyful screams of kids gathering around the first bus capture. She felt as if she were scolding all of them. “What the hell is so important about a bus?”

…..“This is the drama you crave!” Chris told her as he raised himself to his knees.

…..He stood and raised his arms in a boxer’s triumphant salute, accepting the shouted cheers of the protesters. Donna stifled a scream as a second shadow materialized behind him. When it raised a baton and bashed Chris across the back of the head, the scream was ripped from her throat. Chris executed a half-gainer and struck the street on the back of his neck. His body flopped to stillness like a beached fish. She dropped to his side as the other kids scattered amid terror-filled screams. Sliding her left arm under his head, she cradled it as she had done when Mother needed help in sitting up in the hospital bed. Chris had lost his glasses; his face looked peaceful.

…..“This is what you’ll look like, sleeping beside me,” she told him.

…..Then she jerked her arm away, little noticing how his head smacked the asphalt. Blood, torn skin, the white flotsam of… The warm mixture smeared her hand and forearm like a child’s finger-paints. Romantic fantasy washed away in a flood of revulsion.

…..A linebacker-sized cop yanked Donna to her feet. The scene leaped into jerky, time-lapse photography. Helmeted, uniformed officers flushed kids from the area. Two of them grabbed Chris by the legs and hauled him off, leaving a scarlet snail-trail on the black surface. She yelled obscenities, wriggling against the cop’s hammerlock until her shoulders ached. The open doors of a police van loomed like the horrible jaws of Monstro the Whale. She whirled and stomped the cop’s ankle. His pain-filled shout blasted her ears as he lost his grip.

…..She dashed up New York Avenue, fueled by adrenaline and terror.

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…..Ragged folk music floated up from the distant stage. Cindy chattered with a group on another blanket. Ted snored from beneath a paper hat he’d made from a page of the Washington Post. Ronnie and Ralph necked on the grass under the summer sunshine. The scene offered all the tedium Angie could stand. He struggled to his feet. Cindy glanced up.

…..“I’m going to take a look down front,” Angie told her.

…..She sneered. “Trolling for freshman girls? There’s no room in the car for the ‘new best friends’ you like to accumulate.”

…..He pulled himself up to his five-foot-four height. “I’m a serious political science major assessing the academic climate.”

…..Their banter froze as a first aid team shouldered by. The matronly woman on their stretcher wore a black, ankle-length dress that both conveyed mourning for the dead and wounded at Kent State and how dark clothing can hasten heat stroke. Angie felt the day’s intent and enthusiasm evaporate.…..

…..“On second thought,” he said, “I’m going back to the car and take a nap.”

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…..For a fleeting moment Donna imagined herself back in Decatur on a Saturday afternoon, running to Daddy’s hardware store to walk him home for supper. Then the side street came back into dizzy focus. It was more an alley, really, with cars jammed along both curbs. Bleating sirens and the distant tidal roar of voices rang in her ears to fully chase away the fantasy. The strength in her legs finally quit and she draped herself across the hood of a powder-blue Mustang. Donna no longer cared that her hair was tangled and matted, or that her face was a mask of sweat and grime and that her top, panties, and jeans clung to her with the same musky glue. Nor did it matter that she cried shamelessly, tears mixing with sweat, grief with fatigue. She wished only to be in a hot bath, at home, in a long-ago world whose relationships were as simple as Ralph’s.

…..As she began to force composure–deep breathing, rubbing self-consciously at the dried brown blood smeared on her forearm–Donna saw the parking tickets. There had to be a dozen of them jammed under the car’s driver-side windshield wiper. She burst into riotous laughter–a sound that made her wonder if she’d lost her mind. Then, through her tears, she noticed that she was not alone.

…..A short, stocky kid poked his head through the passenger window like a hand puppet. “Hi, there!” His twinkling gray eyes reflected a mixture of concern, sleep, questions, and the leer Donna expected from all guys.

…..She stood straighter and adjusted her top. “You live in this abandoned car?”

…..The kid neatly vaulted through the window to the pavement. Despite the summery weather he wore black leather boots and a boutique denim jacket over his black tee shirt. “I’m not the one who looks like street people,” he grinned.

…..“I-I’ve been at the White House,” she told him. “At…at the buses.”

…..“The buses?”

…..Her words bubbled out in a ragged voice, directed at a boy who could no longer hear her. “There must have been more to all of that than throwing rocks at buses!”

…..“Of course there was.”

…..The kid’s voice was…comforting. Like Mother assuring her that the knee she scraped while trying out new roller skates was not a fatal injury. Again, distant sounds of chanted political slogans and storm-trooper boots fractured the memory.

…..“Do you need to go to a hospital? he asked. “Find someone? Is that it?”

…..The word hospital launched another mother-memory across Donna’s mind, leaving a queasy feeling. “It’s my boy friend,” she said. “He got clubbed pretty badly.” For the first time she sought out the gaze of the kid standing in front of her. They were kind eyes, after all, blue-gray and sane. She slapped the hood of the car. “Does thing run?”

…..The kid laughed. “Yeah, it runs.” His eyes narrowed. She sensed decisions being made behind them. “You wouldn’t have a pencil in your jeans, would you?”

…..“Isn’t that supposed to be my line?”

…..“I have to leave a message for the guy who owns the car so he doesn’t think it’s been towed.” The kid reached over and grabbed a fistful of pink parking tickets. “Writing a note on the back of a ticket and leaving it spiked to the meter seems appropriate to the tone of the day.”

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…..The kid screeched to a halt beside a cop in the first intersection he entered against a red light. “Where they takin’ people who get hurt?” he barked. The cop snapped off a reply and pointed, and the kid floored the car and drove on.

…..“You could have grown up in Decatur!” Donna told him.

…..“…Where…?”

…..“This little town between Philly and Allentown, where I grew up. It’s full of wise-ass engine-men who can hot-wire a car in 30 seconds and drive it under the nose of the boys in blue without dropping the ash off their Marlboros.”

…..“Suppose I told you I know one of your fellow citizens?”

…..Donna stared hard at him. “Not that I believe you…but who?”

…..Again, the kid seemed to think things through. He favored her with an aw-shucks smile. “Wait–you said Pennsylvania? Naw, it’s Decatur, Illinois I’m thinking of…”

…..The car bounced across a manhole cover. The rear-view mirror fell into Donna’s lap. The kid reached for it. Donna snatched it up. She felt him study her harshly. “Don’t,” he said, and turned back to his driving.

…..From the moment she had climbed into the car the mirror had tempted her–dared her– to assess the damage. Now she slowly turned it over and blinked into the shiny surface. The pale, grimy face and swollen eyes staring back sent a chill up her spine. A moan escaped her lips. She dropped the mirror to the floor.

…..“At least I’m alive,” she said.

…..The kid rolled to a stop in the semi-circular driveway of the emergency room. “Thanks for the ride,” she stuttered as she opened the door.

…..“Some of us still like to play the white knight.” The kid patted the dashboard. “Even if the charger isn’t what it used to be. I hope your boy friend’s all right.”

…..“Thanks.”

…..“If I were you,” he called after her, “I’d slip into a bathroom and get rid of the horror film look.”…..

…..“Oh…! The arm. Thanks. I will, uh…Christ! I don’t even know your name…!”

…..“Angie Riccobono. At your service.”

…..“I’m Donna Vincent…”

…..Again, he flashed a curious grin. “Yeah, I know,” he said, and drove away.

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…..In the waiting room, the Milestone students honored Donna with one of the few chairs. It couldn’t have been because of her injuries; several of the others looked worse off.. She didn’t sense she was being honored for exploits on the battlefield, either; though some had witnessed how she had stayed behind to comfort Chris–and then escape. When they asked her how doctors could contact Chris’ family, Donna finally understood: They wanted her to be The Grieving Widow in their morality play. It was such an oddly old-fashioned touch from a group that claimed to disdain tradition that Donna almost laughed.

…..Almost. Because just as Donna realized she had been accepted as a tried-by-fire radical, she no longer desired it.

…..A white-jacketed doctor strode into the waiting room and shared the bad news. Donna didn’t listen. She was thinking about her mother again–and, finally, understood why. She blinked around the room when a sudden silence distracted her. The doc, the kids–the police officers who had materialized at the door–she had apparently been given the floor but because she had not been listening, had no idea what was expected of her. It didn’t matter.

…..“I watched my mother die when I was 14,” she said. “Daddy dragged me to a hospital very much like this one every single evening, towards the end. The hospital room smelled like disinfectant–I called it ‘the death smell.’ Daddy sat and held her hand, dozing off every now and then ’cause Mom was pretty much out of it. After awhile I learned to imagine it was Saturday morning when I was really small and I would sneak into their bedroom and cuddle between them. I’d sit in the hospital room and tell them ‘It’s just like that now!’ but they were asleep and couldn’t hear, and besides…”

…..Donna felt tears roll from her eyes. She willed her voice calm.

…..“The night that the end came…I never understood how Daddy knew. He ran to the doorway and screamed for a doctor. He looked like Olive Oyl, screaming for Popeye. They all came running but it was finally over. He held Mom for a long time and told me to kiss her good-bye but he didn’t notice when I left the room full of death smells because I just couldn’t take it.”

…..Donna saw shock and horror on each face. She was pleased when she also saw the same plea for understanding she had felt all afternoon.

…..“Despite the waste of her death, Mom had a pretty good life. She and Daddy grew up together and married and made some time for themselves before they had my sister and me. She left behind two kids and a pretty neat man who loved her a lot and still does. But what Mom and Daddy had is what attracted me to Chris’ revolution, too–caring people making the most of the time they have with one another. Working to leave behind a slightly better world. We’re more like them than we want to believe.

…..“So now I’ve witnessed two people close to me die and the principal difference is that when Mom died, she had something to show for her life.

…..“I hope to God that what we’ve done today isn’t the best we can do.”

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Short Fiction Contest Details

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“What are 4 or 5 of your all-time favorite Blue Note albums?”

"What are 4 or 5 of your all-time favorite Blue Note albums?"
Dianne Reeves, Nate Chinen, Gary Giddins, Michael Cuscuna, Eliane Elias and Ashley Kahn are among the 12 writers, musicians, and music executives who list and write about their favorite Blue Note albums

Pressed for All Time

In this edition, Michael Jarrett interviews producer Nat Hentoff about the experience of working with Charles Mingus at the time of Mingus’ 1961 album. Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus — recorded for Hentoff’s short-lived label Candid Records

Art

"Dreaming of Bird at Billy Bergs" - by Charles Ingham
“Charles Ingham’s Jazz Narratives” — a continuing series

Poetry

Painting of John Coltrane by Tim Hussey
“broken embouchure” — a poem by M.T. Whitington

Art

photo of Chet Baker by Veryl Oakland

Jerry Jazz Musician regularly publishes a series of posts featuring excerpts of the photography and stories/captions found in Jazz in Available Light by Veryl Oakland. In this edition, Mr. Oakland's photographs and stories feature Yusef Lateef and Chet Baker

Interviews

photo by Francis Wolff, courtesy of Mosaic Records
Maxine Gordon, author of Sophisticated Giant: The Life and Legacy of Dexter Gordon, discusses her late husband’s complex, fascinating life.

Poetry

photo from Pixabay
“The Fibonacci Quartet Plays Improv” — a poem by Gerard Furey

Short Fiction

“The Stories of Strange Melodies” a story by Vivien Li , was a finalist in our recently concluded 51st Short Fiction Contest.

In the previous issue

Michael Cuscuna
Michael Cuscuna, Mosaic Records co-founder, is interviewed about his successful career as a jazz producer, discographer, and entrepreneur...

Contributing writers

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