New Short Fiction Award
Three times a year, we award a writer who submits, in our opinion, the best original, previously unpublished work.
Gabriella Costa of Wood-Ridge, New Jersey is the winner of the twenty-ninth Jerry Jazz Musician New Short Fiction Award, announced and published for the first time on March 8, 2012.
Gabriella Costa lives in Wood-Ridge, New Jersey with her family and a handful of cats. She is currently a high school student at Bergen County Academies, but describes herself as a “seventy-year-old at heart.” In addition to being occupied by the demands of her education, she finds time to read and write short stories. Any other free minute is spent watching Fred Astaire movies and conducting the search for the greatest rice pudding in the Tri-State area. “Inspiration” is her first time being published.
The garden by the sea is just beginning to grow into itself. Its green has started to spill out over the fence and tumble onto the walk that lines the side of the shore house. The weather is warming, and combined with the rich soil of the ground, the plants reap the favor of the earth, led to grow lush and vibrant across the expanse. The tendrils of the cucumbers have travelled far up their trellises, continuing to curl out into the air, while the bushes of basil nearby explode into a happy, bright leafed green. Lines of squash plants have commandeered large spaces of land as they begin to put out big orange blossoms, visited by the fluttering white cabbage moths. They pass over the onions and scallions who, lifting themselves out of the soil, announce their arrival; they are almost ready to be pulled out, their tall vertical leaves starting to show signs of falling over. In the center of the garden there are several bamboo cages, threaded with twine as they hold the prized tomatoes. The yellow flowers of the Brandywine dot along the green, teasingly revealing the places where the juicy summer fruit will grow.
Every year Thomas Walcott attempts to save a few of the seeds of his tomato plants, scooping out the pulp of his favorite varieties and placing each into their own jars. He allows the pulp to ferment and drop its heirloom seeds to the bottom of the glass where he can collect them. Meticulously, he spreads the good seeds out on paper towels where they can dry for next year. When the time comes to plant his tomatoes each June, Walcott sews these seeds along with the other packets he inevitably orders from the planting catalogs left monthly in his mailbox.
The window on the top level of the house is thrown open and the man leans out to survey the garden to his side and the beach to the front. The salt air has done both he and his plots well, the two strong and sun-kissed. His face is tanned and clear, slightly weathered in the fashion of one who spends his time outdoors. The brown hair atop his head is faded from the sun and highlighted with streaks of blonde that suit his face. When the man looks in the mirror, he is pleased by the reflection that stares back as well as with the body below it, strong from daily swims in the sea.
The wind blows into the room where he is standing and rustles the papers on the floor. My next big novel, Walcott laughs to himself. His editors had stopped contacting him some time ago when silence made it clear that there would be no more coming chapters. Yet for his own sanity, the man would force himself to write every day and the habit has become a necessity. Thomas Walcott has the big house all to himself, and the work keeps him from being overwhelmed by the quiet.
“Let me in for a drink you lonely man.”
“You know I don’t keep any in my house, David,” Walcott says, smiling down at his friend travelling up the walk to the door.
“That’s why I brought my own!”
Thomas comes downstairs and opens the door to let David Lennox inside. He pushes past Walcott, raising a bottle of Cognac above him. After slamming it down on the table, he meets Thomas’s eyes, searching for his approval.
There is only a slight distance felt between the two men. David Lennox, with his charming way of handling himself, has always been able to make people feel at ease. For such a reason, this other man has ceaselessly carried with himself a knack for decreasing the sizes of rooms, the language barrier between him and foreign women, and the silence that would hang over friends after his many lengthy absences. Lennox would disappear from Walcott’s life for long periods of time only to return unannounced and expectant. Thomas would pretend to be upset by the randomness of his friend’s visits; yet it’s awfully nice to have someone keep me company, Walcott thinks.
“Drink to my return?”
“You know I shouldn’t.”
“We’ll mix it with something. You have anything besides those damn vegetables in this house?”
Lennox fondly rummages through the cabinets of the kitchen, turning around after looking in each one to smile at Thomas.
“You don’t entertain much do you?”
The two men spend the night around Walcott’s table. The man goes outside and harvests a few cucumbers, their skin prickly and shaded green. He slices them thinly with a knife and sprinkles sea salt and white pepper on top. Alongside he places a few delicate blossoms of the squash, lightly floured and slipped in oil. The other man watches as he moves around the kitchen. Thomas acts as if he does not notice; he is happy to be busying himself. He arranges a plate before Lennox who sets out two glasses and pours the brandy into them.
The other man had been travelling and writing the majority of his next book. He is a relatively well-known author, liked by his editors for his punctuality in delivering each of the chapters of his formulaic best-sellers and loved by his fans for his stories of mystery, sexual deviance, and copious amounts of alcohol. David Lennox uses his writing as an excuse to see the world, setting his novels in exotic places then coercing his publishers to send him there, expenses paid. In the name of inspiration, the other man takes part in a manner of excesses on these trips, returning with a slew of party-friendly stories. Still, his demeanor has always been light-hearted yet surprisingly enlightened, and Thomas has never been unhappy for his company.
“Thanks for all your letters, David. Or lack thereof.”
“So you did miss me then?”
“It’s not like I had much of a choice. There isn’t much else to do alone in this house.”
He laughs. “You should get a cat or something.”
“Right, that’s comparable company.”
The cognac makes Thomas nostalgic. Before any novels were published, he and David used to get drunk on the beach and cast their empty bottles into the ocean. We probably account for half of the sea glass out there, Walcott thinks as he stares out a window towards the water. It makes him smile to think about that glass being tumbled and shaped by the sand and tide. The jagged ends disappearing and the color fading, their glass is becoming a part of the sea.
“Do you remember when we hung out every night on the beach?”
“Of course. I developed my liver there.”
“Do you remember when we would throw our empty liquor bottles into the water? We would scream and toss them in.”
Lennox nods, “We yelled ‘Infinity’… from those rocks.”
“The more I think about it, I can’t believe how reckless we were climbing up there completely drunk. You know, some kids have died falling off those rocks. They hit their heads and drowned. That could have been us.”
“Yes, but don’t you think there are worse ways to die? I don’t believe going that way would have been too bad. I mean, I remember being pretty fucking happy. We thought we had it all.”
“Well we were pretty drunk.” Walcott says, laughing a little.
“No it was more than that.”
Thomas tells David what he was thinking about the sea glass.
“It’s just that if you think about it, we made our mark. One day they will collect us after a storm and place us on their shelves. People will walk by and run their fingers over our edges and be impressed by our frost. They will smile like we did when we threw the bottles in the sea.”
“Do you think we can smile like that now?”
They drink until they do. The sky outside them has turned from a bright blue to black, the color of the soil below it. The stars are easily seen from the porch of the house, although the men never make it out there, and a slight breeze causes the leaves of the plants to sway, their greens rustling against the ground. All of this sets itself to the tune of the waves crashing on the beach.
Walcott listens to these noises as he does every night and is glad someone is there to hear them with him. Lennox is standing by him, looking out the window at the garden. Thomas likes the way the sides of his lips curl when he is contemplating something. The man wants to take a picture of him up against the glass; he is wearing one of Thomas’s shirts to sleep the night, unbuttoned and hanging open. David turns his eyes onto the man.
“Have you written lately? It’s slightly a scandal, you dropping off the face of the earth.”
“I write every day, David. Just nothing worth a novel.”
“Does this have anything to do with her?”
“That’s a stupid question. After she left I wrote my third in record time.”
“Then what has changed?”
He isn’t sure of the answer to that question. It’s not as if writing had come easy to Thomas Walcott before. He used to lock himself in his room for a week to figure out a few pages, trying to find the words to express what was so clear in his head. It was doubt that was his biggest enemy then; now it seems that apathy has come to take its place. He can not bring himself to hold the same emotions that in the past would compel him to write. Instead he has come to fill his days with physical work, his swimming and gardening.
“I don’t miss her anymore.”
“Isn’t that a good thing?”
“Not for me. I never not feel.”
“I don’t feel all the time,” Lennox laughs.
“But writing and feeling are the same thing to me. They used to both come from one place. Now everything I write is emotionless. I can’t find myself in the words.”
The other man looks back out the window and the room quiets. Thomas can hear only their breathing as it mixes with the sounds of the night. The crickets sing from within his garden and the soil hums with the life and unity that endears it to the man. Together with their breaths it makes an ethereal music. He wishes he could record it and play it back for company when he is alone again. I haven’t always been this lost, the man thinks, I just became so quickly accustomed to having another living body with me.
He was fine for a while after she left, producing some of his most accomplished literary work. However, like the vines of his garden, loneliness crept up upon him. It wasn’t her absence that created the emptiness he felt inside; it was the new realization that there was some space within that could be filled. Having her showed him how lonely he had always been, and the feeling of aloneness had numbed him to everything else, especially the meaning in picking up a pen.
The alcohol and nostalgia of the night find Walcott tired. He moves away from Lennox and the window and onto the small couch in the room. It is sage colored with worn patches where the stuffing has begun to spill out, and the arms are slightly dirty from the soiled hands that lean there after Walcott comes in from gardening. Upon it, the man falls into a light sleep, still slightly conscious of the energy flowing in the space the outside breeze and the movements of another in the room. Around him the night closes in as the lights are extinguished and the front door is locked.
The man stirs slightly as David throws a quilt over his curved body. The room is noticeably colder now, but neither man makes a motion to close the window. Instead the other man finds a space for himself on the couch. He leans up against Walcott’s chest in the crevice created by the folding of the man’s knees.
“I’m worried about you, Thomas.”
He feels hands spread out across his shoulders, smoothing the blanket out. They run down his arms and then over his back, a curved spine beneath them. The man lets out a sad, heavy sigh, as if emptying his lungs of all the air within them.
“I’m so tired.”
“You won’t be tomorrow.”
“Don’t you make me feel bad, Tom.”
David leans down and does something and Thomas does it back. Fingers reach over and the man aches inside. The sound of the ocean water crashing against the shore drifts into the apartment. The man moves beneath the body on top of him until they become one with the waves. In the darkness they find each other again and the warmth feels good as it spreads throughout Thomas’s body. The men keep their eyes open, aware of the unity each felt by the other, until they both fall asleep, their bodies still entangled into a singular form.
As the sun rises, the orange and yellow spread across the sky, coloring it as a summer peach. The air is dewy and wet, the condensation pooling upon the leaves of the furred tomato plants. The garden releases its scent and it wakes Walcott up. Lennox opens his eyes feeling the body stretch underneath him and Thomas slips out from his arms. He sets up coffee to brew for the both of them, and while it does so watches David redress in the clothes in which he arrived. Slightly rumpled, the other man winks at Thomas.
“Dearest friend, give me some of that damn coffee.”
Walcott sets two cups down full of the brown liquid, clouded with the cream he adds to bring both to almost overflowing. The two men discuss Lennox’s next move, his plans to collect his suitcase from the nearby hotel and then buy a plane ticket to whichever exotic island catches his attention first. Predictable for David, Thomas thinks. But the other man’s excitement is contagious and Walcott finds himself smiling and encouraging his friend to have fun.
As he walks him out the door, Lennox hands Walcott a note. The two men regard each other with the understanding that develops only between the closest of people. The morning is peaceful and it washes over them as rays of sun. Thomas firmly grasps the hand that is offered to him and shakes it.
“I’ll miss you.”
“Then make sure you come back here soon.”
The man watches his friend walk down the path away from him. Feeling the note in his hand, Thomas enters into his garden and opens it. Upon the paper is an address with a short note scrawled below.
My agent will forward anything to me. I’ll send you letters in exchange for the chapters of your next novel. Always, David.
The vibrancy of the garden seems particularly striking this morning and Thomas Walcott reaches down and feels the soil beneath his hands. A fair trade, he thinks. Smiling, the man turns and heads back into his house to begin writing.