Short Story Contest-winning story #11: “Stalking Bella,” by Hope Payson

March 8th, 2006

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 Three times a year, we award a writer who submits, in our opinion, the best original, previously unpublished work.

Hope Payson of Winsted, Connecticut is the eleventh recipient of the Jerry Jazz Musician New Short Fiction Award, announced and published for the first time on March 8, 2006.

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Hope Payson

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Hope Payson lives in a drafty Victorian house in Winsted, CT with her partner Christeli and their pit bull terrier, Etta James. Turning forty prompted her to revisit her childhood dream of becoming a singer or a writer. Since the latter seemed a more feasible aspiration, she began to attend writing classes at Northwestern Connecticut Community College. Supportive professors encouraged her to write and address her punctuation phobia – assuring her that recovery is possible. Five years later, she continues to write with enthusiasm (yet remains somewhat queasy about comma placement).

Hope works as a clinical social worker, specializing in the treatment of mood disorders, trauma, and addiction, helping people engineer critical life decisions. Her work explores the concept of healing, more specifically the various ways in which individuals transcend their dose of life’s pain. Her brave and talented clients are a source of endless inspiration.

She would like to thank two talented musicians – Carla Payson and Kenny Gray – for their assistance in the creation of “Stalking Bella.”

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Stalking Bella

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Hope Payson

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…..The whole stalking thing started with the footprints. They were so large that his size twelve’s fit easily into the indents in the snow, and the space between them was so wide that following them forced him into an awkward little step-jump. Large paw prints ran parallel to the human prints. He assumed that they belonged to a dog. What else could they be? Yet, what did he know about the customs or recreational habits of these Northern Maine people? For all he knew they strutted through the pines chatting with bears.

….. Wil hadn’t planned on walking or even venturing outside of the rustic cabin much at all. In fact, for the first two weeks of his stay, he rarely left his bed except for an occasional foray to the bathroom or kitchen. Physical malaise wasn’t sequestering him, he had been cleared of bodily ailments or lingering withdrawal symptoms during his thirty-day stay at the lovely “Golden Hills Hospital” in Connecticut (no “Gold,” minimal “Hills,” no “Hospital” – just a comfy dry-out joint for junkies with the resources to foot the hefty tab). Steadily decreased doses of legal drugs had cured him of the shakes, vomiting, and living-death feeling. A more insidious menace trapped him within the cabin – the twisted workings of his own mind. Every neuron in his brain was whining for a boost of adrenaline. Being stuck in the middle of nowhere only intensified his longing for drugs, alcohol, the frenzied throb of the city, women who didn’t consider long underwear a fashion necessity, a raucous fight, or anything that could deliver him a dose of chaos. Worse yet, when he wasn’t thrashing in the grasp of his various desires, he was transfixed by a mental home video that looped repeatedly within his mind, one that portrayed him careening down the highway of his life leaving an endless series of twenty-car pile-ups in his wake. Two weeks of feeling like a living, breathing, want. Two weeks of living with himself with little diversion and nowhere to run.

…..His parents and therapist Number 5 – the one he had been seeing prior to his rehab stay – had arranged this unplanned trip to the polar cap of the East Coast. He arrived the second week of March, the end of winter in Boston, yet somehow, mid-winter here. Prior to this he had never been to Maine, nor had he ever planned to visit, especially to this tiny town perched on the edge of Canada – a place virtually untouched by the modern world, yet besieged by snow and ice. He didn’t even have a decent car to use except for the old un-registered Jeep that came with the cabin. It was a pathetic old horse of a vehicle that Wil only used when he needed groceries, as he feared it would not survive a longer excursion and he didn’t want to risk any further legal attention.

…..“It will be a fresh start,” was how his mother marketed this Maine adventure. Number 5 said that it would be a great place to “sort out his issues.”  “It’ll get your asshole-self out of my hair,” was just one of his father’s helpful musings on the topic. “I don’t care where you go, just as long you can show up for practice when you get back,” had been the leader of his jazz trio’s take on it. Marty went on to add, “For Christ’s sake Wil, you’ve become a freakin’ living cliche, a dope-fiending horn player. Get yourself right, man.”   His fellow inmates at Golden Hills called it a “geographical cure.”   He thought of it as “forced isolation therapy.”   He was basically confined here until he fulfilled the following tasks: complete his written “4th step work” – an inane system of self-psycho exploration that was supposed to help him remain permanently drug and alcohol free; and finish his dissertation, the disorganized dark tunnel of paperwork that, when complete, would transition him from a perpetual student to an employable member of society. There was one more item on the agenda, unspoken yet clearly present – grow up. No one was willing to put up with any more of his antics or fund any future screw-ups. He was thirty years old, flat broke, and trapped.

…..He used sleep as his initial mode of escape until it turned on him. Eventually, a solid period of rest altered his sleep pattern. While in the past he would just be arriving home at 7:00 a.m. after a long night of partying, now he was up, wide awake and with no place to go. That’s when the whole walking thing started.

….. Wil had never been an outdoor enthusiast, and the concept of exercise was as foreign to him as a regular job. Yet, one morning after muck-wrestling with a particularly nasty memory – a festive episode of slam-dancing with the front row of his audience after teetering off the stage – he jumped out of bed, shucked on a pair of boots he found in the closet, and burst out of the cabin. He noticed a narrow winding trail of unidentifiable animal prints in the snow and followed it steadily uphill. Wil had not walked up an incline in years, and the deep snow increased the difficulty. He stopped frequently to cough and gasp for air. Eventually, the slender trail led him to the top of a ridge and to a wider well-packed path which he followed until it circled him back to where he had originally entered – a loop of about four miles. He arrived back at the cabin physically exhausted, yet mentally calm. For the first time in years he didn’t have to contend with the chatter of his internal self-criticism. He was hooked.

…..Walking the loop became a daily habit. Depending upon the weather, the amount of new snow and his ambition, it took him two to three hours to hike it. Five days into the routine he realized why the ridge trail was so defined – someone else was hiking it. Every day, no matter how early he rose and no matter the conditions, someone had already been there. Every day he found the fresh, bigger-than-size-twelve tracks, and the companion paw prints.

…..Pitiful as it was, this mystery was a welcome distraction, and he started to get up a little earlier each day in the hopes of catching a glimpse of the hiker. He wondered who was out there with him and imagined a young teenager, forced to wander the woods dragging along an annoying family dog – maybe even a St. Bernard. He scrapped that one, deciding that no teen – Maine-born or not – would be up so consistently early. Next, he considered a spry older gentleman walking off his morning restlessness, perhaps with a placid greyhound trotting along by his side, but passed that one over to settle on what he believed to be the most probable scenario – a camo-clad hunter with his bird-fetching hound. Not long after deciding this, he caught a glimpse of her.

…..It happened on day eleven of hiking. (He kept a record of his daily walks, thinking it might earn him credit with Number 5 if he never got around to the actual assignment). He had just reached the ridge and paused to catch his breath when a flicker of movement caught his eye. A woman was walking on the trail ahead of him, which completely shocked him, as female was the one trait he had not considered. She had black curly hair that fell to her waist and a tall, sturdy-looking frame. She wore a red and black checkered wool jacket, a black fleece hat, knee-high leather boots with lamb’s wool peeking out of the top, and an orange scarf. A leash connected her to a huge black dog.

…..He was far enough away to watch her and avoid detection. She walked with a bouncy gait and moved briskly.  She hesitated for a moment and he followed her gaze upwards. A large black and white bird with a red-crested head was clinging to the side of a tree, pounding away at it with its beak. As she watched, splinters of wood rained down around her and settled in her hair. When the bird moved, she turned and he had the chance to study her profile – a strong nose and chin, dark skin, and a slight smile. The steadiness of her stance gave her an aura of calm. He, on the other hand, felt jumpy. He called a “Hello” out to her.

…..She turned her head in his direction and showed him an angry look, then whipped around and began to walk away. Her dog turned in circles to make a full appraisal of Wil, and pulled her to a halt. He had a pushed-in, snarling face, a muscled chest and a guard-dog attitude. They both glared at Wil with dark brown eyes. Her caramel colored skin, which closely matched his own, challenged his innate tendency to decipher ethnicity. She appeared to be Hispanic, or perhaps even Italian. Before he could speak again, she yanked the dog’s leash and stomped away. They rounded the corner and were quickly out of sight.

…..When he arrived at the corner he was surprised to see she had broken from their customary route. Her footprints veered off the trail and into the thick brush – small branches bent into odd angles marked the place she pushed herself through. He plucked a small orange thread from a thorny branch and held it in his fingers, tangible proof she had not been an hallucination. As he stood examining it, he detected a whiff of her scent in the air – a mix of ivory soap, musty wool and wet dog.

…..As he stood among the remnants of her departure, he considered the evidence he left behind – how his sloppy footprints would detail his daily wanderings, his frequent stops, and his failed attempts to create new paths. Also, what olfactory clues did he leave? Could others smell the moldy odor of the cabin or the greasy aroma of confinement, loneliness, and regret that blanketed him? Certainly a trace of curry would be unavoidable, as would the intertwined scent of cinnamon, cardamom, turmeric, cumin and garlic – the ever-present aroma of his childhood so much a part of him that any movement could cause it to escape his pores.

…..He mentally shook off the thoughts of himself and re-focused on what he had just learned about the trail-walker. The discovery caused his previous assumptions to crash and burn. The fact she was female made the whole thing much more interesting. She rose from the ashes, a fresh new vision for him to fixate upon. While he felt mildly stung by her rejection and flight, moments later he found himself smiling as a cloud of fantasy mushroomed within his mind.

…..This woman was nothing like the vaporous women he favored in the city – pale wispy girls clad in black. Instead, she appeared robust and self-sufficient. He imagined walking the trail with her, their arms linked and their heads so close they practically touched as they talked. She would gaze at him in adoration, make love to him, cook for him, and provide him with the buoyancy he so needed. Perhaps with her love and attention he would finally feel better about himself. Then, like an obnoxious announcement in a cavernous Wal-Mart, he heard the voice of Number 5 pontificate: “Wil, happiness doesn’t come from outside of you; you can’t find it through drugs, sex or relationships. Real happiness only comes from the inside.”   That’s what he hated so much about therapy – how it haunted you years after your co-pay checks were cashed and spent, and how it had the potential to corrupt even the most potent daydream. What do therapists really know about life, anyway? Most of his had seemed far too serious and controlling; gravely repressed intellectuals out to curtail the lives of people who only wanted to eek out a little joy. He stuck with his fantasy.

…..Each morning he hoped to meet up with her again. The desire to see her became a part of his morning walk ritual. He thought of her often as he hiked; that is, when he wasn’t thinking about what got him sent to Maine to begin with.

…..In retrospect, he realized how many of his problems were related to his mother’s job. She worked as a secretary to a shrink – a drug-prescribing shrink. One visit to her at work, one casual yawn and grab, and he could flee her office with the blank prescription slips that enabled him to keep flying for days. That had been one of the good aspects of her job. The other was the door her boss could open for him once he got too strung out. Upgrading from prescription drugs to a more powerful and costly propellant sent him spiraling into some very uncomfortable landings. Uncomfortable quickly morphs into intolerable when one has bathed in lulling chemicals for years. He would crawl to his mother for help, begging for a place to go where he could clean up, pleading for a respite that would only reinvigorate him for his next run. The doctor’s resources had given him access to rehab-resorts, facilities with golf courses, good food, easy passage to the city, and lots of other interesting connections – including Golden Hills, an institution he never would have seen had it not been for the free bed that was arranged for him.

…..More recently he had experienced the downside of her mother’s relationship with her boss. It seems that super-shrink had been giving her “limit setting” lessons and convinced her that pressing charges against him would be in his “best interest.”  Worse yet, a friend of his owned the cabin and persuaded Wil’s mother to send him there for his “last chance.” They even talked his probation officer into allowing him to leave Boston to go there. Now he wished that she would quit her job. He wondered why she invited so many controlling Indian men into her life – after all, wasn’t his father enough?

…..Actually, it was all his family’s fault. His name, Wilhelm Patel, said it all – Wilhelm, the name of his maternal grandfather, and Patel, his father’s family name. Wil had been struggling to stay afloat in his tumultuous familial waters since birth. The conflict between his silent, emotionally frozen German mother and the heated, angry tempest of emotion that was his Indian father allowed for little calm. The differing heritage streams of his immigrant parents fought against the tidal-like pull of his American childhood. Throughout his youth he had often felt close to drowning in the confusion of it all – his identity, the identities of each of his parents, the opposing nature of who they each wanted him to be, and the war of their combined blood within him. Clearly, his drug use was the result of genetic confusion, the ill-matched marriage of his parents, and the impossibility of ever resolving any of it.

…..He explained to his therapists that drugs were a necessity – a life-raft for him. While they all expressed some level of sympathy, eventually they told him that he would need to abandon the flotation devices and learn how to swim on his own. Even the counselors who were courageous enough to hold and endure the unmanageable family meetings would cast him adrift in that rolling surf again, looking for land – snow covered land for now, acres and acres in which he walked for days, and without the respite of chemical comfort. Throwing the colorful mess of his life onto this white canvas made him acutely aware of just how much had been troubling him.

…..Yet somehow the walks helped, and stalking the mystery woman motivated him to get out there every day. As the weeks slowly passed, the snow melted and the rain started – relentless, daily downpours that he learned to weather. Her footprints remained a daily presence for him, no longer indents in the snow, but gaping water-filled holes in the sucking mud. Each day the push up to the ridge was just a little bit easier. His body – once a vehicle for self destruction – became a means to explore his environment. The more time he spent outdoors, the more porous and open he felt. He became a sponge for his serene surroundings, and the wounded parts of him that had never been exposed to the curative properties of fresh air and sunshine started to itch towards a mend. The silent woods, the pristine quality of his current existence, and his new discovery of nature soothed him like balm.

….. Wil had few experiences with any animal other than an occasional city-dwelling squirrel or the sullenly resigned captives at the zoo. Here on his daily hikes, nature was different. One morning after following a slender wavering trail of dog-like paw prints for about a mile, he caught a glimpse of three coyotes running on the trail ahead of him. They hesitated and turned their heads back to gaze at him, their ash-colored fur ruffling in the breeze. Wil’s breath caught in his throat as he experienced this moment of unadulterated awe. He also regularly hesitated at the bedding-down spots of the local deer to regard their smooth, circular indentations in the melting snow, and wondered at their ability to find warmth and comfort in the tight ball of themselves despite this inhospitable terrain. One day he spent over an hour watching a porcupine methodically climb a tree. It ascended with ease despite the ungainliness of his spine-coated armor. After conquering each new branch he would casually glance down at Wil before choosing the next one to pull himself up to. When he finally settled upon a place he deemed suitable, he calmly regarded Wil from his perch. His smooth face appreared youthful yet wise, his brown-eyed gaze plain and frank.

…..After his morning walk he would return to the cabin able to concentrate, and he eventually started to tackle the dreaded step-work. He had been directed to take a “fearless moral inventory” in order to fully explore both his negative and positive attributes. The process required that he start at childhood and work his way back to the present. As it grew warmer, he moved out onto the porch to write, where he befriended the locals – several squawking blue jays and a pack of rambunctious chipmunks – who witnessed his frantic typing and occasional bouts of tears. They carried on with their daily routines, ignoring his snorts of frustration and foot-stomping tantrums. As much as he hated to admit it, writing it all down allowed him the ability to rise above his life’s map and study it. From this new elevation, he could see how hurt and sadness dragged him off the path he had chosen for himself, and how his drug addiction and manipulative nature had led him to territory so far removed that it would be impossible to backtrack. By the end of the step-work, he knew he needed to forge a new way for himself. For once in his life, the idea of a labor-intensive undertaking seemed exciting rather than frightening. If he wanted to plan his future, his next destination was obvious – he would need to revisit his relationship with music.

…..Music had always been there for him. It was there in the crowded house of pain he was raised in – the three bedroom flat where he had lived with his parents, two younger sisters and his paternal grandparents. There had been a second hand record store near their flat, and Wil’s father regularly culled the stacks to create a substantial blues and jazz collection. Throughout his childhood he listened to his father’s story of immigration, how he had fought to get to the land of freedom only to find that it was a land of unending struggle, as his limited education, dark skin and strong accent narrowed his employment opportunities and made supporting his family difficult. Yet Wil’s father was drawn to the music organic to the land he had moved to, and felt a kinship with it. He said that the songs were “the anthem of anyone who has had to fight to survive here, the background music of the daily brawl.”  Wil turned to music for similar reasons.

…..Music-filled earphones sheltered Wil from the turmoil of his household. Coltrane’s liberating melodies drowned out the harsh words his mother and father hurled at each other. The gut-level candor of Robert Johnson helped him stare unflinchingly into the face of his mother’s struggles with alcohol. By focusing on the pure beauty in the voices of Dinah, Ella, and Sarah, Wil learned that anguish could be transcended. Lady Day’s inimitable approach to song urged him to seek his own true voice. In a home where it was rarely experienced, the fearless swinging commotion of Armstrong’s solos brought him face-to-face with joy. The performances of people he came to call his friends sweetened the bitter atmosphere of the cramped and agitated confines of his youth.

…..Music did more than comfort him, it gave him a calling in life. It lured him off the street and eventually into college. He learned to play, listen, and more fully understand the object of his affection. Yet, just like anything lovely that Wil had ever encountered, it was soon contaminated by his need for more. Wil had never grasped the concept of enough. He had no ability to bask peacefully in a moment of fulfillment without ruminating about how empty he might feel when the moment ended. He always needed and wanted more. In college, he experimented with drugs and found the soaring highs more compelling than any tune he had ever lost himself in. Music couldn’t compete with the jagged glitter of this new suitor. The allure of artificially-induced ecstasy distracted him from his studies and cleaved him from his emotional interior. He lost his ability to dip into the sweet nectar of a song, and lost access to any of the feelings that used to arise within him whenever he was in the presence of a melody. Prior to his stay at Golden Hills, he buried his saxophone deep in a closet and started to duck and dodge the calls from his mentors at school.

…..Yet, over time, as the maple buds started to unfurl into green umbrellas, he returned to his dissertation. What had become a leaden discord on the lost art of improvisation in jazz education now became a heartfelt plea for allowing and promoting innovation in learning and performance. He challenged educators to teach their students to craft their own greatness rather than carbon-copying the style of others, to grab for the essence of what they want to tell the world and harness it to a tune of their own creation. By the time sucking-mud-season had turned into full-blown-Spring, he had organized and nearly completed most of his dissertation. Something else happened in the process – he was once again infatuated with his first true love, and he unearthed his saxophone.

…..Fear of failure had always dictated Wil’s approach to playing music, and he stuck closely to what the sheet music seemed to prescribe. Technically he was a sound player, but he had a wooden approach that allowed for little playfulness. Yet, here on the porch, scraped raw from digging through the debris of his life and fired up by his writing, he no longer had the energy to be so unyielding. He put his lips on the mouthpiece, and while his fingers fumbled and his mouth felt hard and unpracticed, the full body memory of playing soon returned. Notes stumbled out slowly but quickly built momentum. Tears rolled down his cheeks as Wil played the lullabies of his childhood. He began with a slow, plaintive version of I’ll Close My Eyes and then slid into an upbeat I’ll Remember April, yet soon stopped as neither song seemed appropriate to the occasion. He sat quietly and called up every sensation he had experienced over the last four weeks, then picked up his instrument and played it out. He blew out the isolation and anguish of the first two weeks, then added the hush that falling snow throws over a landscape, the twirling wonder of a cobalt feather as it spirals towards earth, how the first intake of icy morning air can kick you in the lungs, the redemptive quality of a good night’s rest and the ease one feels when they wake up clean – no messes created, none to fix.

…..Notes poured out and pirouetted around him as the sun warmed his face. Flashes of memory flew across the forefront of his consciousness like sailing comets, leaving trails of emotion too dense to fully comprehend – the look of admiration on his father’s face at Wil’s first recital, his father’s speech to him about music and freedom, and the concern in his mother’s eyes before she drove away from the cabin. Suddenly it was clear to him that his parents loved him to their very limits of loving, and that their greatest wish for him was that he fully experience the freedom that they had only sampled. He understood that they had been watching him slowly enslave himself for years, and that he needed to stop – for them and for him. Finally, he saw the woman on the trail, standing still and gazing upwards. He knew that somehow she had played a part in his ability to heal. He threw his song into the air for his parents and then tossed it up towards the ridge to his walking companion, hoping that they all could hear the rhythm of his newfound liberation.

…..It was funny how often he thought about her each morning as he hiked the trail. Seeing her prints reminded him that she was out there ahead of him, that he was always in her wake, trailing her. Yet, somewhere in the ragged line between the two interchanging seasons, he had become less obsessed with the chase. While he first imagined that he would find some way of forcing her to acknowledge him, he no longer needed to. He was content to walk with the knowledge that they were walking the same path at different times. From time to time she would cross his mind and cause him to wonder who she was, what her story was, and why she too walked that trail each morning. She did not appear to be a local. Her skin was far too dark, her manner of dress was slightly off, and her dog was not the shepherd and husky blend favored by his neighbors. She, like him, had come from elsewhere, and had her own story.

…..At one point he decided to do some research on her, using his mailman Rocky as a source. Almost daily Wil would meet him out at the mailbox to chat. Rocky taught Wil about the animals he encountered – their names, habits, and the significance of the different tracks he found. While he assumed Rocky delivered her mail and would therefore know a little about her, he decided to simply let it alone, to leave this a mystery. He determined that, perhaps this was one small gift he could give himself – the ability to carry a small pleasure without contaminating it by his need to possess it.

…..Besides, he had already named her and didn’t want reality to spoil the one fantasy he allowed for himself. He called her “Bella,” as she represented someone who was joyful and unencumbered, someone he perceived as determinatively wild, a person who could never be tied down or tamed. He did not need to know her — following her was enough.

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photo by C. Brunner

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Short Fiction Contest Details

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