Short Fiction Contest-winning story #21: “Parker’s Mood,” by Leland Thoburn

July 15th, 2009

 

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New Short Fiction Award

 Three times a year, we award a writer who submits, in our opinion, the best original, previously unpublished work.

     Leland Thoburn of Foresthill, California is the winner of the twenty-first Jerry Jazz Musician New Short Fiction Award, announced and published for the first time on July 15, 2009.

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Leland Thoburn

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      Leland Thoburn is 56 years old, married, and the father of two. In addition to writing, he plays jazz saxophone and flute, and has a hobby of exploring old ghost towns and mines in the California desert. Mr. Thoburn is working on one novel, one memoir, and a gaggle of short stories.

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Faun Playing Flute, by Franz Von Stuck

Parker’s Mood

by

Leland Thoburn

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…..In the fall of 1991 I believed I would be the next Charlie Parker. Few of the bands on campus had even heard of Bird, and the few that had did not want a flute player. This did not deter me. I was out on the commons at UCLA riffing on “Confirmation” when Nadine found me.

…..“That makes my nipples hard.” She smiled.

…..I lowered my flute and stared. She was wearing a man’s dress shirt, as if she’d spent the night away. The shirt did little to hide the truth of her statement. But that wasn’t what got my attention. It was her face. She had the knack of smiling with her whole face – eyes, cheeks, lips, nose. Everything got into the act.

…..“What were you playing?”

…..“Confirmation. Bird.”

…..“Bird?”

…..“Charlie Parker. Greatest musician that ever lived.”

…..She pushed her glasses up on her nose. “He was black, right?”

…..“Yeah, why?”

…..“That’s something a white man could only say about a black man.”

…..Danger Will Robinson. Deep in my genetic imprint my ancestors were warning me about a woman who could be sexually aroused and intellectual at the same time. I ignored their warning. “How’s that?”

…..“The myth of superman. It’s impossible to idolize someone of your own race. There’s too much in common.”

…..“I didn’t say he was superman.”

…..“You did, in a way.”

…..Her nipples were still hard. The upshot was that I invited her to dinner.

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…..The walk to Paulini’s in the village was always pleasant. More so this evening. I held the door open for her.

…..“Nobody’s ever taken me out to a real restaurant before.”

…..“Oh come on, never?” She hesitated, her eyes flicking between me and the door. I gestured, and she walked in. This gave me a chance to observe her jeans from the proper angle.

…..“The boys I grew up with were only interested in fast and cheap.”

…..“We were talking about restaurants.”

…..She blushed all the way to our table.

…..“For someone who introduces herself nipples first, you sure are sensitive.”

…..There went that smile again. “I’m sorry, that was crude of me.”

…..“At least you were honest. What’s your major?”

…..“Anthropology. You?”

…..“English lit.”

…..“Oh. Undecided.”

…..“Cute. Life without literature is like-”

…..“A submarine without screen doors.”

…..I decided I shouldn’t like her. Then she asked for help with the menu, so I ordered for her.

…..“What’s your thesis?” I asked after the food had been served.

…..“The myth of the black man as sexual superman.”

…..She was carrying maybe an extra ten pounds. Some of it was pleasantly displayed under a different dress shirt than she’d worn that afternoon. Maybe she collected them, like trophies.

…..“I bet you’re enjoying the field research.”

…..“Very funny. I’m still a virgin.”

…..“How did you get involved in that?”

…..“It came naturally.”

…..“I meant black men.”

…..She blushed again, and picked at her scallops as if she didn’t know what to do with them. “Ever hear of Wilt Chamberlain?” she asked.

…..“Who hasn’t? Only the greatest basketball player to ever live.”

…..She looked up. Her eyes were wide with outrage. “He claims he slept with twenty thousand women.”

…..“Jesus.”

…..“Black Jesus maybe. He was fifty-five when he made the claim. So assume forty years. That means five hundred women a year, or more than one woman a day, everyday – Christmas, New Years. Even Labor Day for Christ’s sake.”

…..“That explains it.”

…..“Explains what?”

…..“His nickname.”

…..She raised her eyebrows.

…..“The Big Dipper.”

…..“That’s not even funny.” She smiled anyway.

…..“Wilt the Stilt?”

…..“Even worse.”

…..“You think he was lying?”

…..“That’s what I want to find out.”

…..“How you going to do that?” I reached for her hand, but she pulled it away.

…..“Field research.”

…..I changed the subject, deciding that maybe she was worth a little field research herself. The result was that we headed back to my dorm room after dinner.

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…..The only advantage of dorm rooms is that they aren’t common areas. There’s nowhere to sit except the beds, and if you have a roommate there’s no privacy. Fortunately, my roommate had a girlfriend, so he was never home. And the beds – I’d learned long ago that if a woman sat with you on the bed, you were as good as home.

…..Nadine sat with me on the bed.

…..“How far have you gotten on your research?”

…..She uncrossed her legs. “It’s hard. He traveled around the country, so his liaisons could have been anywhere. But I’ve found thirty seven women who claim to have known him.”

…..“That’s quaint. ‘Known.'”

…..This time, it was only the lips that smiled. “I doubt you’d have gotten even one of them to open up.”

…..“Not the way you mean.”

…..“The myth of sexual conquest again.”

…..“It’s only a myth if you’re a virgin.”

…..She ignored that one. “There’s another angle.”

…..I tried to look studious.

…..“Most birth control is supposed to be around ninety-nine percent effective. At that rate, he still would have fathered two hundred children. It’s an anthropologist’s dream – like Galapagos island all over again.”

…..I put my arm down on the bed behind her back, and leaned towards her. She may have thought I was interested in Galapagos. She continued.

…..“What if he’s unleashed a tidal wave of sexually precocious progeny, all of whom mate as ferociously as their father? He could have forty thousand grandchildren. Eight million great grandchildren. His genetics could be spreading exponentially as we speak. Generations from now two strains of mankind could evolve, like the Neanderthals and the Cro-Magnons.”

…..I leaned closer and reached for her glasses. “You make me feel like it’s my sacred duty to-”

…..“Procreate dorky white males?” She pulled away.

…..“I’ll play ‘Confirmation’ again, if that’ll help.”

…..She laughed, but this time she let me kiss her. A few minutes later, we both broke the clinch at the same time.

…..“Ben, you’re cute, really you are. But there’s something you need to know about me.” She was staring at and playing with my shirt button.

…..“Tell me. I’d love to know everything there is to know about you.” It seemed like a clever thing to say at the time. But I kind of meant it.

…..She looked up. “I’m only really attracted to gay men.”

…..“That thoundth like a catth-22.”

…..“Not bi-. Gay. And anyway, you’re not gay.”

…..“What, is it your duty to reform them? To herd them back into the light?”

…..“No, I just…I just don’t feel the same way about straight men.”

…..I looked down. Her nipples seemed to have their own idea. She saw me looking at them.

…..“Stop it, Ben. You’re making me feel so-”

…..“Alluring?”

…..She giggled.

…..“Musical?” I was getting desperate.

…..“Exposed.” She stood up. “I thank you for dinner. Really I do. You’re very sweet.” I knew that tune. Only nephews, cripples and hopeless nerds were “sweet.” The kiss of death was coming. I steeled myself.

…..She stooped down and planted it lightly on my cheek. I didn’t bother to move and anyway she was gone.

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…..Over the next few weeks I kept seeing Nadine around campus. Every time we’d stop and chat. Always that smile. And always a different man’s shirt. I decided to try again.

…..“They miss you over at Paulini’s. Every time I go in they ask me about you.”

…..“You’re lying.”

…..“There’s one way to find out. Join me tonight?”

…..She said she would, and so seven o’clock found us at a booth along the back wall, the linguini and clams making up for her lack of perfume.

…..“How’s Wilt?”

…..“I tried to interview him.”

…..“Why?”

…..“I thought I could find out if he was lying.”

…..“Does it turn you on you to think you almost met the greatest lothario in history?”

…..“‘Lothario.’ That’s cute.”

…..“I read his book.” The back cover at least. She raised her eyebrows. I pressed the advantage. “Do you realize that here’s a man who screwed twenty thousand women, and there’s not been one paternity suit, not one mention of STDs, no angry husbands, not one breath of scandal – nothing. Magic Johnson was a piker compared to Wilt, and look what happened to him.”

…..“You make it sound like he’s a saint.”

…..“Maybe a god. The Greeks had their Eros. We have our Wilt. Listen, I admire anybody with that much control. It’s like his basketball career – do you know he never fouled out of a game?”

…..“I don’t follow basketball.”

…..“You should. At least enough to appreciate him. One hundred points in a game. Nobody’s ever done that. Some teams can’t even do that.” I was waving my arms about as I spoke. “In high school he used to dunk his free throws. The man was superman.” Nadine waited patiently until I was done.

…..“He’s also done more to perpetuate the myth of manimal supremacy than any male alive. Sexual domination. Brute strength. But what did he ever do for mankind?”

…..“He wasn’t Charlie Parker.”

…..That stopped her.

…..“Charlie begged, borrowed, stole from, or betrayed everyone who knew him. He did more to perpetuate the myth of drugs as a lever for creativity than any man in history. He single-handedly destroyed jazz. He was also the greatest musician who ever lived.”

…..“What does that have to do with Wilt?”

…..“At least Wilt made twenty thousand women happy.”

…..“What an altruist.”

…..“Tonight, I’d settle for making one woman happy.”

…..“If I see her, I’ll let her know.”

…..She’d meant it to bite, but instead she started giggling. I stared at her with mock ferocity, which only sent us both into hysterics. My hand reached for hers and this time she met me. We sat there, silently holding hands for a few moments. I knew it would be a mistake to say anything, so I did.

…..“I was thinking of you.” She pulled away. Once again, it was the anthropologist who spoke.

…..“I did some figuring. If you count only the cities with NBA teams, and if he limited himself to women between eighteen and thirty-five, there’s about four million eligible women. That means he scored about one out of every two hundred, married or single. Christian, Buddhist, Atheist, Prostitute. One out of every two hundred. Can you believe it?”

…..“His technique alone could be worth millions.” To me at least.

…..“To hell with technique – do you realize how many men may be wondering if Wilt knew their Mom?”

…..“Or wife,” I added.

…..She nodded. “Or daughter. Family units everywhere will shatter. This could spell the end of civilization as we know it.”

…..Our hands met again. We sat there silently, brooding in the knowledge that only we were aware of the impending end of civilization as we knew it. Then we ate.

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…..“I’ve found forty-eight more women who knew him. And one of them has a son.” She told this to me over the Tiramisu.

…..“Where?”

…..“San Francisco.”

…..“What’s his name?”

…..She shook her head. “I can’t say. It’s confidential.” She lowered her eyes and picked up her silverware. “I’m going to interview him next week.”

…..“If he starts to hypnotize you, run.”

…..“He’s only fifteen.”

…..“So if he’s his father’s son, he’s only got about two hundred under his belt by now. There’s probably nothing to worry about.”

…..She slammed her silverware down on the table. “Ben, that’s horrible. He’s only a boy.” Her eyes were avoiding mine. It took me a while, but I got it.

…..“You’ve met him already.”

…..“So what if I have. Yes, I have.”

…..“It’s none of my business.”

…..“God damned right it’s none of your business.” The anger brought color to her face. That part of the effect was pleasant.

…..“Time to change the subject,” I said.

…..“Good idea. You’re a liar.”

…..“What?”

…..“I said you’re a liar.”

…..“That’s not the subject I had in mind.”

…..“Doesn’t matter. You’re a liar.”

…..I stared at her. I didn’t know what to say.

…..“Nobody here has expressed the slightest interest in me.”

…..I smiled.

…..“And you said they were asking about me. You’re a liar.”

…..“Well, maybe just this once-”

…..“And I don’t sleep with liars.”

…..With that, she stood up and walked out on me.

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…..Two weeks passed. I called her twice, but she never called back. I knew where she lived so, one day, I taped a single red rose to her door, with a card with just my name. It took two days for her to call.

…..“Thank you.”

…..“You’re-”

…..“For proving me right.”

…..“What?”

…..“I said you were sweet. You proved me right.”

…..The only thing worse than the kiss of death was the kiss of death by phone. “Wait, Nadine, there’s something I need to tell you-”

…..Too late. She hung up.

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…..Five weeks passed. I called her seven more times, but she never called back. Three was normally my limit. I decided to dangle some bait.

…..I was out on the commons, this time practicing Parker’s “Ornithology.” I took along a little stuffed bear that almost always attracted women, even when the flute didn’t. But instead of radaring pussy, I was in a zone. I really got what Bird was saying, and I was on. My eyes were closed, and I was in the middle of the ninth bar of the best improvisation I’d ever done when Nadine broke the spell.

…..“Take me to bed.” It wasn’t a suggestion. It was a plea.

…..I opened my eyes.

…..If I didn’t know better, I’d have said she was strung out. Just like when she smiled, her whole face got into being sad. Even her ears looked sad.

…..“Fuck me, Ben.”

…..“You sure you don’t want me to buy you dinner first?” I was packing up my flute as fast as I could.

…..“Goddamit Ben. I mean it.”

…..Of course I was too clever to know when to shut up. “Or maybe a dozen roses, or some chocolate -”

…..I’d lost my audience. She’d turned and was walking away. It was mid-afternoon, and the commons was packed with students moving between classes. Apparently she was crying, because some of the students looked at her as if she had a gaping chest wound. She was twenty feet away. I was about to lose her again, so I shouted for everyone to hear, “For five weeks I’ve been trying to tell you I love you. Don’t walk away from me now!”

…..Nadine stopped. When I ran up beside her, she looked at me. Her face was still sad. All except the eyes. I put my arm around her shoulders and turned her around.

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…..“What’s wrong?”

…..We were back in my dorm room. She held her arms tight across her chest, which raised the devil with my trying to undress her. I had started on myself first, so now I was in the awkward position of wearing only my briefs, pitched out as they were, while Nadine remained fully clothed.

…..“Hold me Ben.”

…..“Okay, but it’ll mean more if you take off-”

…..“Just hold me.” She uncrossed her arms and put them around my neck. Then, she buried her face into my shoulder and began to cry. There was a six inch barrier keeping us apart at waist level, but she didn’t seem to mind.

…..When it soon became apparent this wasn’t going to be the tryst I’d expected, the barrier wilted, and I maneuvered Nadine onto the bed where we could lie down and embrace for the long haul.

…..“What’s wrong?”

…..She shook her head, and kept her face buried in my shoulder for over two hours. They were two of the most serene hours of my life.

…..Finally, she became hungry. I dressed and we returned to Paulini’s. After dinner, we returned to my room. This time, there was no difficulty getting her clothes off.

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…..The next morning, I was whistling Bird’s “My Little Suede Shoes” in the shower. It was that kind of morning. Nadine joined me. This delayed the conclusion of the shower, however agreeably. When we returned to bathing, she spoke.

…..“What was that?”

…..“That was my dick.”

…..She gave me that look of disapproval that seems to be part of their genetic imprint. “No, I meant what were you whistling?”

…..“My Little Suede Shoes.”

…..“More Bird?”

…..I nodded.

…..“He really was special, wasn’t he?” She turned to wash her hair.

…..“What was that all about yesterday?” I asked.

…..“I realized you probably were gay after all.”

…..“Bullshit. Before that.”

…..“Nothing.”

…..“Bullshit squared.”

…..“Don’t question me, Ben.”

…..“You mean a lot more to me than just another fuck. You know that.”

…..She turned back to me. Those eyes.

…..“I’m not-”

…..“Stop lying to me, Nadine.”

…..She turned away and started crying in earnest. I turned her back around and held her tight. The hot water splashed over us, but none found its way between us. Eventually, I loosened up and kissed her forehead. She looked up at me.

…..“I fucked him, Ben.”

…..“Who?”

…..“Wilt’s boy.”

…..“You’ve done him a great service. There’s a special place in every man’s heart for his first fuck.”

…..“It’s not like that. It was like you said. He knew what he was doing.”

…..“Who would have guessed-”

…..“I’m pregnant, Ben.”

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…..Nadine and I moved into a small apartment in the village, where she could bloom in peace. She gave up on Wilt and decided that Charlie Parker represented the turning point in western civilization. “Yardbird Suite” became our song. I taught her to hum harmony while I whistled the melody. As her belly grew larger, it became more difficult to make love, but not to love her.

…..It was September 3rd. The school year was due to start next Monday. Nadine woke me with a whisper. “Baby, it’s time.” The clock read 3:22.

…..As much as we’d prepared, I wasn’t ready. I stumbled about, turning on the lights, grabbing the keys and knowing I was forgetting something. I picked up her bag and maneuvered her out to the car. We both almost forgot her glasses.

…..I really had no idea what she was about to go through. I had packed a book. On the way out the door I asked her if she wanted one. “I’m going to be kind of busy,” she said, smiling, and I regretted even asking.

…..We didn’t talk in the car. All I heard from her were gasps when she had a contraction. There was no traffic, so we were at the hospital in ten minutes.

…..She was holding her stomach while the nurse put the ID band around her wrist. “Ben, I-.” The contraction took her breath away.

…..I touched my finger to her lips. “Shhhh.” I kissed her, and she was gone.

…..I sat in the waiting room with three other men. They were all older than I, and when they looked at me, which wasn’t often, they scowled as if I was a gate crasher – a boy in a man’s club. I scowled back, secure in the knowledge that they probably thought Mariah Carey was a great musician.

…..I put my earphones on and tried reading my book, but the radio interrupted. KKGO chose that moment to play Bird’s “Parker’s Mood.” Whatever I’d been thinking about before was gone. Now I was only thinking of Nadine.

…..I tried reading again, but my eyes just stared. I don’t think I turned a page. After an hour, I put the book down and looked up. The hospital seemed to echo with lost cries. A doctor loomed.

…..“Mr. Parker? Ben Parker?”

…..“Yes.”

…..“Please come with me.”

…..We retreated to his office.

…..The doctor looked down at his pen, which was working little circles on the blotter. “Nadine’s your…”

…..“Girlfriend.”

…..He nodded and looked up. “I’m sorry to have to tell you this. Nadine died in childbirth. The boy was too big. We did the best we could, but we couldn’t do the cesarean in time. I’m sorry.”

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…..Her parents took charge of the boy. Nadine and I had not been married, and the boy was not mine, so my legal rights ended the moment she died. But not my interest. The boy became my link to my time with Nadine, like a medium.

…..He was very black. I don’t know how this affected her parents, but I do know they put him up for adoption quickly. They invited me to the funeral, but they didn’t speak to me. Then, or since. That was sixteen years ago.

…..Because I happen to know someone who works at the adoption agency, I found out where the boy went. He’s grown tall. Like his grandfather. And yes, he plays ball. They say he’s a prodigy, one of the best high school players in the State. They say he may jump to the pros straight out of high school. Nobody knows his lineage except me.

…..I quit playing Bird. Now I do Coltrane, Monk, maybe Dizzy. Except on September 3rd. Wherever I am on September 3rd, I always play “Parker’s Mood.”

…..Alone.

…..Because all of the bands I audition for want a sax, not a flute, so I’m still looking for a permanent gig.

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