Short Fiction Contest-winning story #30: “So What,” by Arya Jenkins

July 15th, 2012

 

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Three times a year, we award a writer who submits, in our opinion, the best original, previously unpublished work.

Arya Jenkins of Fort Lee, New Jersey is the winner of the thirtieth Jerry Jazz Musician New Short Fiction Award, announced and published for the first time on July 15, 2012.

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Arya Jenkins

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Arya F. Jenkins is a poet and writer whose work has appeared in numerous publications. Most recently, her short story, “The Man at Walrite,” was included in an anthology, The River Poets Journal Special Edition -2012 – The Hopeless Romantic. A section of a memoir, “Broken Dreams in a Promised Land,” appeared in the 2011 spring edition of Solstice Literary Magazine, and an essay on the process of writing that memoir in the spring 2011 issue of Mandala Journal. In 2011, a Buddhist-inspired poetry chapbook collection, Jewel Fire, was published by Allbook Books. Arya is a long-time lover of jazz, particularly hard bop, and blogs on the subject at Beboptimes.blogspot. She works as an editor and resides in Fort Lee, NJ.

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So What

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Arya Jenkins

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Whenever I’m pissed off, I escape to the pit. Out the kitchen door, fists deep in the pockets of my tight ass jeans, I head towards the woods back of the house.

I cross the backyard, past Moreno, the poor chained up son-of-a-bitch boxer. Rosa clinches his leash, pulling him close like a kid. The poor son-of-a-bitch tenses as I go by, his spindly legs and stubby tail shivering at my wrath, ears perked, head cocked – Was up girl, grounded again?

Fuck you, you pig, I say, cause what is going on in my mind is getting bigger and bigger, and I cannot be interrupted by this canine nonsense. You dig?

I stare at the ground, as leaves scatter to escape my ire. My shoulders hunch and I steel myself like a football player, letting nothing get in my way, snapping branches as I strut the path, a mesh of leaves and branches closing tighter, sealing everything out. I pop a cig butt into my mouth.

When I get to my place, I light up ’cause it’s freedom there, it is home. Taking a deep drag, I crouch at the edge of a circle of dead leaves. One lone tree rises from the debris.

My mind goes over how they abuse me. I offer them my truth, and what do they do?

“Shut up, fool,” my brother James, the football queen, always says to me. Always running up and down the stairs, his helmet on, trying to get in shape for games. The football queen.

Flaca” or “Mexican Jumping Bean” is my mother’s name for me. “A donde vas, Flaca?

“Nowhere. Mind your P’s and Q’s ma,” I say, just to fuck with her.

“What does that mean? Why you so disrespectful to me, Bean? What’s wrong with you? You becoming, so, so American,” she says, as if that is the worst thing. Since she found out her husband is not the man she thought she married, being an American is an offense. In marriage, you promise to be there. My father is never there. His appointments are with the world, not with us.

My mother and grandmama came to Washington Heights from Cartagena when my mother was 17. My abuelo had already been in the Heights for years – a musician, trying to make it. By the time his family arrived, he had fallen out of sync with them, or they with him. He and my grandmama spent years trying to sort things out, keep it together. Eventually, my grandpapi stopped playing his music and just drifted into mindlessness, and that is how he died, a loco. By then, my parents had married and moved to the Connecticut burbs, where I was born. I never met El Capitan, which is what they used to call Grandpapi. Cartagenans are wild, made crazy by the sea, my grandmama used to say, by way of explaining my grandfather’s erratic ways.

My father grew up on a Midwestern farm in the wake of the Depression, an only child, driven to succeed. Work was like a god to him, and because of this, he pushes my brother too. One day, I overheard him trying to bribe James to run for president of his class. Mind you, James was in the fourth grade. I don’t think James took the bribe. I saw them sitting together in my father’s study, James on the footstool at my father’s feet, nodding a big yes, which to me looked like a big no. What did my father expect, asking him to do that, and did my brother only pretend to go along with his dreams and expectations? As far as I know, the only thing my brother ever chased is a football.

If we were talking, which we are not, I would say to my mother –”So, you don’t want me to chew gum, dye my hair, put on tight jeans, what do you want?” But I already know.

Respetame.” “Calmate.” She wants me to be like the “Little Flower,” the saint, no joke.

To her, a gringa is no good. American girls smoke, drink, swear, and basically defy everything that is traditional and conventional – in other words, everything that she represents. That is not me. So, I am no good, a fracaso.

Not that I am my father’s kid either. Do NOT think of me as his seed, that bullshit gringo who keeps trying to be like the BIG authority in the house. Ha. What bullshit.

Once, at dinner, I nearly caused World War III, saying Nixon is a pig, just to test my father, El Macho. He jumped from his seat, so pissed, his blue eyes bugged and his right hand did the one two, up and back like he was going to hit me. His one-two made my mother spit a mouthful of rice and peas onto her blouse, she was so scared of him then. Of course, I just smiled at him. The fool.

“You better get right,” says Frieda. My sister imitates our mother and would do anything to please her. She wears our mother’s lipstick and puffs out her chest like she has something to show. Like who would look at her? She is just a kid, younger than me. She lets Rosa braid her hair. She is so caught up in doing what Rosa wants, she has like no personality. I feel sorry for her.

I imagine these accidents of fate, my so-called family, are like the little leaf I hold in my hand, a crusty little insignificant thing with tiny veins and nothing to show for itself. The thing I set fire to, watching its edges burn, holding it between my fingers until I can hold it no more.

I hold on until it burns. Then I stamp it out and go home. There are only two constants in my life, two things I must do. Home and school, and this is what defines my youth, being impregnated with bullshit.

At school, Sister P has us write a poem about the sea. I take my time, as this is not just about finding the right words, but an exercise in music. A few days later, Sister P tells us she tossed out our poems, as she believes we had our parents write them for us.

I try to remember what I wrote, my belly burning with resentment and rage:

The waves surge

Breaking into uneven lines

Of white dust

That disappear into infinity.

That is all I can recall, ‘surge’ being my new word, found in the Thesaurus dictionary. So you can go to school, but you can’t be a poet. That’s what I learned from that lesson, Sister P.

Betrayal is everywhere, and I have to get this into my head. But every once in a while I am the fool too. Like, go figure what I chose for wallpaper. My mother took me shopping for it, and who knows why, possessed by some kind of nationalistic fervor, or maybe just a masochistic impulse, a desire to feel entrapped, I chose a psychedelic red, white and blue wallpaper design – fat, red flowers in-between blue vertical bars on a white background. Now, I have this to stare at, and I swear to god, I feel like I am in jail.

Which, of course, I am. It’s all I can do to keep from being driven nuts by my family. My mother takes my sister Frieda out to buy her a bathing suit and gets her a tacky tiger skin design. Frieda is only 11 for Chrissakes, and it looks stupid on her, so when Rosa has Frieda model the bathing suit for me, and asks me what I think, I tell her: “It looks stupid. Too old for her.”

This was not the answer my mother expected to get, and so she turns to me, black eyes beading, and says, “I hate you!”

Just like that.

I go to my room and sit on the bed, thinking of what she, my mother, has just said, hot tears welling, thinking: Man, if your mother hates you, you are done. No mother is supposed to hate her child.

But I know what I have done and why I am paying. I have abandoned my mother to become a gringa. To her that is the worst thing, unforgiveable, and she has let me know it.

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        So, that is how it is, with everyone being under somebody’s thumb in my house. Only once in a rare while do I feel like I have escaped. Like when I am with Tommy, my best friend who is like me. He is of age, has wiry hair and wears shades day and night. Skinny as a reed, his mama calls him. He brought Quaaludes back from Mexico, and gives me two to take with the gin and tonics he makes for me. We hop on his bike and go see Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, me closing my eyes and holding onto his narrow hips like rain. Wind sears my face and we ride so fast, my bandana flies off my head, but I say, “No, don’t stop. Keep going, keep going.”

At the movies, I get up to get some popcorn and try sliding my hand inside my pockets for some change, but can’t. I can’t even find my pockets.

I can’t believe what I’m seeing either. That creep with crazy eye make-up, the giant penises, the whipping in the rain. What does it all mean?

This world is full of incomprehensible images and things. On TV, I watch a soldier in what looks like blackface on a stretcher weep into another soldier’s arm. Bullets ring through the air and there is fire everywhere in Vietnam and it gets to me. I can’t bear to hear Marvin Gaye’s song, What’s Goin’ On, because it feels true. Because of this, because of all these incomprehensibilities, I want to go far away, where there is no news, nothing depressing. I don’t want to know about the war, or see suffering. I want only music and soul. And finally, when I find my father’s special gift to me, a gift I take, I realize what I have always been walking around the house trying to find, like something lost. It is music.

This is where my father lives when he is home, downstairs, where, next to his desk sits a box of old records. On his desk, an ashtray full of cigarette stubs that obscures his college insignia is proof he was here, listening, his records taking him far away to a place and time he remembers. His music, I think, must bring him relief.

The album covers bear faces I don’t recognize from another time. Thelonious Monk. Miles Davis. John Coltrane. Dexter Gordon. Why has my father never told me about them, or about this music? Was this what my father escaped into when he was my age? I read the liner notes and listen, and close my eyes, trying to imagine him through the years, feeling him out through the music.

Who was my father before he stopped listening to his music, then to my mother, then to me? Maybe, I tell myself, it was when all the shoulds came into his life. The shoulds of a wife, a job and children. I realize I too make up part of the wall of his bullshit. Time passes forward and backward as I listen.

For my 16th birthday, my mother gives me a peach blouse and a cake, with fewer candles than the year before. I swear she takes a candle off every year. She doesn’t want me to grow up, only backward, until I become an infant again, needing her.

But my father’s music, his secret gift to me, gives me a fresh understanding of how things are. Even if nothing changes and the reality of the world is the reality of home too. I stand in the hallway staring through the open door, as my father, wearing only his tennis shorts, straddles my mother on the bed, holding back her arms. Rosa screams, “I can’t take it, I can’t take it anymore!” My father shakes her by the shoulders, the holy medals on the silver chain around his neck dangling before her face.

“Get a hold of yourself, Rosa. Get a hold of yourself.”

It’s one long scream between them, a song I don’t understand, a strange jazz cacophony.

But so what, I tell myself. So what. I am just a kid, not meant to understand everything, not even how it is between them.

Sitting in my father’s study, staring at the ashtray of stumped out cigarettes, his worries, his loves and his pain, I sail on Coltrane, as if that’s all there is, through A Love Supreme, investigating God with him. I read about the man, about bebop and swing.

But there are others too, and I get to know them. Nights, where there used to be poetry, there is now this. Now I escape on notes, the music in my father’s study that takes me out to street continents, and makes me feel brave and hopeful again.

I realize what jazz does is make me think – not about separateness, but how things connect, interrelate. In my mind, fresh associations spring, all inspired by the music. In school, I listen to the music in my head. It jives with Sister P’s clinking rosary and the sound of her clicker snapping the class into order. It jives with her hard-heeled step, and the cracking of pencils between her fisted hands when she’s upset, and the sound of erasers smacking the chalkboard.

I hear jazz in everything, even the weather. There is a time in late winter, just before I split from home, when all I can hear is Miles playing “So What” as I follow my own footsteps back and forth in the snow.

One day after school, I put on my Converse high tops and my father’s trench coat and just take off, keep walking until I can’t anymore. I hitch a ride to New York City and spend the night in a gas station bathroom, hunched in a corner, wondering what it would be like to be free.

I try to see my father as he used to be, as I have seen him since in snapshots, lean and blonde, before his hair thinned, when he looked a lot like Chet Baker, a pretty boy.

What do his silences mean?

I’m in Harlem, hanging by The Apollo Theater in the rain when my father finds me. B. B. King’s name is on the marquee. I don’t know him or the blues, not yet. My father walks right up to me, and ushers me into a cafe and buys us both coffee. His eyes are red; his face, ashen. He doesn’t take his eyes off me, and lights a Raleigh, his fingers trembling, and pours milk into my cup of coffee, which I don’t drink. Who does he think I am?

“You okay kiddo? You’re soaked with rain.”

What does he mean? Who does he think I am?

“I’m leaving your mother,” he says. “I’m sorry, kiddo. I’m sorry to have to tell you now, this way. I figure you’ll find out soon enough. It’s hard to explain why a man and woman separate.”

I am shutting out his words, listening to “So What,” the beat, in my head, the place where Miles’ horn starts struttin’.

“Did you ever love her?”

“Of course I did. It’s not about that. You have to understand. Things are complicated. I’m going away, I’ve got to sort things out.”

“You always go away,” I say, noticing a small fingernail-sized scar for the first time over his brow. Was it always there? Did he get it during the Korean War? When did that scar happen?

“Listen. Kiddo.”

“That’s not my name.”

“After the war, when I came home, I wanted so many things. I remember one night, there was a bar called The Royal Roost, where all the great artists played. They would record for radio, but if you could go, you went. It was huge. A bunch of us went. Miles was playing, his back to the audience. It was something. It was real cool.”

“You’re just saying that. So then what.”

“That’s where I met your mother. That’s where we met. She came with her father. He was so cool, handsome like a movie star. He loved jazz, and I assumed Rosa did too, but she just came with him that one night. I don’t know who or what I fell in love with that night, but Rosa didn’t let go.”

He looks into my eyes, turning his head. “It’s because of you.”

“Because of me, you stayed.”

“Because of you I feel I should go.”

“That doesn’t make sense.”

“You need a father.”

“And what does she need,” I say, thinking of her for once, my mother.

“She needs somebody too.”

“I understand, Dad,” I lie to him.

“Do you?”

He takes my hands, searching my eyes, not seeing, his blue eyes watering. He’s a different kind of man now than the one I have known, vulnerable, and a part of me wants to turn away, forget him. I don’t want to see him like this. Not now, not ever.

“It’s okay, Dad. I want to go, let’s go home.”

My father squeezes my hands, and he takes me home. A few days later, he goes away and never returns, and I imagine him, going on alone, lost in his music. And in his absence, the silence and resistance that he was become my own song.

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Short Fiction Contest Details

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6 comments on “Short Fiction Contest-winning story #30: “So What,” by Arya Jenkins”

  1. Arya Jenkins has a unique and beautiful gift. Her ability to draw you into her characters and touch those deep fragile places that exist in all of us is the very thing that a writer strives for but rarely achieves.
    What a lovely piece.

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