New Short Fiction Award
Three times a year, we award a writer who submits, in our opinion, the best original, previously unpublished work.
Kevin Bennett of Fort Collins, Colorado is the winner of the 42nd Jerry Jazz Musician New Short Fiction Award, announced and published for the first time on July 9, 2016.
Kevin Bennett’s first novel The Thief and the Sacrifice debuted in May 2015. His second novel, Amphibian, was released on March 8th. His story “2135: The Year Disco Came Back” headlined the ‘B-Sides’ segment of Drabblecast’s internet sci-fi theater. He has a piece published through Amphetamine Blue Press, another distributed by Escape Clause magazine, a story in issue number five of Abandoned Towers Magazine, is published with Bewildering Stories, Neonbeam Magazine, Clockwise Cat, Perpetual Magazine, The Short Humour Site, LitSnack, Print Static Movement, Freedom Fiction, The Fringe Magazine, and in several issues of Golden Visions Magazine. He also has published pieces in Crossed Genre‘s “Menial” anthology, and Zharmae’s “Irony of Survival” anthology. He’s also a standup comedian; Google “Kevin Bennett” and look for the guy with the eye patch and the accordion.
Playing for Tips
It was a persistent and gentle nudge—always was. He knew who was prodding him and what she would say without turning, so he continued to run his fingers up and down the keys—there was a major seventh followed by a fifth interval; repeat several times, arpeggiate, transpose—
“Sir? I’m sorry sir—”
The nudging again. He spoke as if distracted—which he was: “Yes?”
“Some of the people are trying to work,” she said.
“Have them come and talk to me,” he replied, and continued to play.
The barista was put-off for a moment, but she jostled him again. “If you could just play a little quieter—”
The words were like daggers. They weren’t new, they weren’t original, and they brought hate like bile to his mind and body; coursing in and throughout him like a thousand charioteers, screaming toward the enemy. With calm enforced by a rigid hand, he ended the chord progression, then stood from the bench, looked the barista in the eye, and turned to leave the coffee shop. Applause followed him—there were some two dozen patrons reading various haute literature, sipping over-priced coffees and adjusting same-looking berets. He didn’t look back. He didn’t bow. He didn’t shudder, tremble, or respond in any way beyond a measured and confident gait. But if you saw his face, you’d see his eyes were moist.
“The old lady in the hat liked it. She kept telling me to keep playing,” he muttered. There was a cigarette on his lips, and its acrid output mingled with already ghostly winter exhalations.
The street avenue down which he walked was peopled with upper middle-class couples and drunken collegiate pseudo-intellectuals, bouncing in and out of bars offering the same specials and the same services to the same clientele and bragging the same hours and the same loosely-dressed waitresses with tip-digging walks and cynical minds. Smokers stood outside near the drifts, further elucidating the windless chill as they breathed like chimneys. Old homeless men tried to make eye contact, but he avoided them. For if they managed to catch him, he would surely give them any spare change he had, or cigarettes. Not out of fear, or magnanimity, but because the young man wasn’t the type to refuse imploring from those in need; even if he disliked them for it.
None could meet his eyes now, however. They stared deadly ahead as his hand alternated between briefly touching his lips and swaying by his side, cigarette between restless fingers. His mouth moved, and he spoke in a whisper for none to hear but the invisible acquaintances of his mind; nodding phantasmagorically as they would and providing him with additional points of contention which were annexed to his never-ending monologue:
“They let me play before, didn’t they—?” (drag, exhale) “—I wonder what happened to that tall girl used to work there; she seemed to like it—” (smile, exhale) “—can’t they ever come up with an original one? ‘The customers are trying to work’. No they’re not, they’re in a coffee shop getting atmosphere. I work in a coffee shop all the time, but I don’t do anything serious in there. And if I do, the people around don’t bother me. What, that indie music you pipe over the speaker doesn’t catch anybody’s interest? All them high-school kids taking up all the couches and wearing skirts like that in winter aren’t a distraction? What about your blender? That thing’s louder than any chord I ever played; I can hear it through earphones—that doesn’t bug somebody writing a dissertation? No, no it doesn’t. No, it’s me, playing a little piano—I’m such a big bother. Why? I don’t play too loud. I want to play loud, but every time I sit down, I cut down the volume by half, and I play songs people’ll know—not just my stuff, stuff people know! Stuff they have to know, right? Who hasn’t heard Time in a Bottle? Who hasn’t heard As Time Goes By? What about…A Day in the Life? What about Eleanor Rigby? And I don’t try anything new—not beyond how I learned the song anyway. Just the basic changing chord structure. I might stretch it out a bit; but I play it quiet and intelligible. Everybody always claps, don’t they? And they’ll tap me on the shoulder and come over and say: how long have you been playing? Keep it up. You’re really good. The old people like it, the young girls like it—nobody gets up to move when I sit down, and I asked to play before; so who’s working can’t stand it? I ain’t got a tip jar up, I don’t go around bowing and causing a nuisance of myself—and I know how to play. I’m not that homeless guy that just sits there drunk and hits one key for an hour. God, thank you I’m not that guy. I don’t wanna be that guy. But here she comes, and she says there’re people trying to work, and I’m just too loud, could you please stop? Could you turn it down? I already turned it down! I’m playing quieter than your damn blender! And ain’t nobody complaining, it’s just you, because you’re scared of your boss and don’t have any chutzpah. Or you’re one of these post-pubescent know-it-all college types that hates any music maintaining rhyme and rhythm and not bashing the status—OUCH!” He jumped; the cigarette had burned itself down to his fingers and tried to catch his knuckles on fire. Unfortunately nerves brought the story to his mind and halted his monologue as he threw the still-smoldering butt into frozen-dry snow and cursed to himself.
There was the car, anyhow. He got in, started the engine, and drove on into the night.
One last try, that was all. He’d saved paychecks from the gas station, put a little away every check against the trip. Now he had enough, he drove to The City. On the passenger seat were several metal contraptions designed to hold desk-proportioned signs and business cards. Then there was the fedora—that’s where he’d put the tip-sign.
He’d had to use the old printer at the landlord’s office, and brought his own special paper—thicker than the usual stuff, with texture and depth that somehow seemed to drink up light. Then he’d printed business cards on its thickness and cut them out as evenly as he could—he didn’t have one of those big paper cutters like they had in Kinkos.
Now he drove determinedly. He’d get to the hotel by eleven, and he’d talk to the concierge—or whatever that guy at the front desk was called—and he’d play all afternoon. They hadn’t ever bothered him there, before. He remembered walking the hallways and sitting down at the bench, and playing as loudly as he wanted, and people walking by and nodding, and one young bellboy telling him he had what it took; go ahead, keep doing it. A half hour, and nobody told him to quit, and there was an audience, an audience! What’s the point of playing to yourself all the time? Somebody’s got to listen—but if they know you, you’re just showing off. If they don’t know you, it’s just a little atmosphere. And they don’t have to sit around all day. Just catch a little and move on, right? It wasn’t like he charged them admission, or took ten minutes to explain each song, or begged for anything. Just his little tip-hat. All he wanted to make was enough to drive back—if he could do that, then every Saturday he got off he’d drive down and play through the afternoon, then take his meager earnings back with him satisfied. He could practice in the night, and perform on the weekends, and put a chart together tabulating his tips and see if he were doing better or gaining a small following or anything like that.
There was his exit. He turned, snaked through a hundred different alleys and streets, finally found a spot without a time-limit or a parking meter, locked his car, grabbed the small briefcase containing the ‘Playing For Tips’ sign and the business cards, pushed his fedora down around close-cropped hair, and turned to the street. It was several blocks to the hotel. One of those swanky downtown types with its own garage and tailored uniforms—famous people would stay there, no doubt about it. And there were musicians in The City. Who’s to say one wouldn’t stop him and take a business card, or leave ten dollars in his hat?
He took a trolley up the shopping-district and got off at the right street, then walked through revolving doors and up an escalator. There was the plush carpet, the incomprehensible paintings and the high-vaulted ceilings complete with crystalline chandeliers and filigreed rooftops—and there, at the end of the long hallway, on the second story of the massive hotel building, glistening in the warm lobby lights, was a baby grand in polished obsidian. There were no signs warning hotel-guests not to play, and there were no ribbons stretched between poles to ward off children, and the cover was up, and the keys ached to be touched. He smiled at them, walked to the bench, put down his briefcase. Then, turning, he strode to the front desk, caught the eye of the concierge, motioned him forward: “Afternoon.”
“How may I help you?” A red uniform contrasted against the tanned skin of a Latino in his forties.
“I understand it’s a little odd, but I play piano, and I was wondering if I could play that one a little bit, quietly. If any guests are bothered, I’ll jump right off—they won’t be, I been playing twenty years—but if they are, I’ll jump right off.”
The concierge bit his lip and looked at the piano with a considering stare, then back at the young man in the suit and tie with the fedora and overcoat. He blinked once, then: “Are you staying at this hotel, sir?”
“No, no I’m not. If I get too loud, just nod at me—I’m not charging anything, I just want to play, and I want somebody to listen.”
Pursed lips and a squinted expression acquainted themselves with the concierge’s face again, then he shrugged: “Go ahead.”
The smile that threatened escape was tempered by a well-reasoned nod, and the young man turned on his heel and walked swiftly to the piano. Without hesitation he opened the briefcase and stuffed his business cards into the little metal carrier, resting them on the end of the piano facing any who might walk by. Then he stretched a letter-sized bit of paper bearing the legend Playing For Tips across the two over-sized vertical paperclips, pulling the holders back slightly so the sign bowed out. He removed his overcoat and folded it gingerly over the briefcase, then set both beneath the polished bench of the piano, sat down, and hovered his fingers a centimeter above the keys; wondering what to play. He looked up and saw the concierge staring at him, then swallowed, blinked slowly, and started with an old love song he’d written to a girl that broke up with him before she could hear it.
He started playing very slowly, and then pushed it a little louder—not too much. Though the caverns of the hotel were echoing, and tended to eat the music, you couldn’t push it too hard. You pushed it too hard, and you really could get too loud. And sometimes that was hard to tell, when you played so much.
He didn’t try anything new or experimental—there were several hours’ worth of material in the back of his mind, all accompanied by lengthy segues and forays into newly discovered concepts that he would try; if only between songs.
People were mostly indifferent to him for the first minute or two, then several of the guests stepped out of the line at the help desk and instead sat on plush seats nodding, watching him play. Older women would whisper between themselves and slight smiles stuck to their lips. Some very young children stared at him in awe, and a young man or two stood with his arms crossed, leaning on a column of handcrafted architecture.
Five minutes passed, smoothly. Then the measured insistent and uncompromising gait of a ne’er-do-well echoed across marbled-tile and threw him in a minor key. This particular ne’er-do-well was dressed in ranking hotel uniform—rouge vest over starched shirt and high-fastening pants. He had his hair combed to the side and a nametag with an abbreviated “MGR” made the pianist cringe internally.
Words jumped out of MGR’s mouth before he was ten feet away: “Are you a hotel-guest, sir?”
The young pianist looked up, continuing to play. “No, sir. I got his permission,” he nodded toward the concierge.
“You play with us regular? On union?”
“No, I just sat down.” The chord he had been rolling mellowed to an end and he released his fingers.
“You’re not employed here?”
“No. I just walked in. And I’m not charging anybody, and they can listen free—or does it sound bad?”
Pursed lips. “It doesn’t sound bad. You can’t just walk in here and start to play—”
“I’ll take the tip-sign down. I just want an audience.”
“You can’t just sit down—”
“But I asked him first!”
MGR squinted, and was about to say something when there was a small business card thrust in his face: “Here, you can even call me sometime. I do parties, and I can sing—won’t do it without a microphone, but I can.”
MGR took the card and squinted at it, then smiled through an insincere façade and pocketed it. He looked about to say something, but instead turned to the help-desk and without another word strode that direction.
The pianist returned to a new song, and decided not to worry about volume. He played naturally and stared at the keys, and resolved not to see the man coming to pull him off. He would get another five minutes, he had to—
A harsh jostling on his shoulder that was all too familiar brought his head around. A man in a security uniform stood, one hand on his baton. “Let’s go, son,” he said.
“But the man at the front desk—”
“Ain’t my boss. Get up.”
“Am I bothering anybody?” He gestured impotently to those who were gathered, talking amongst themselves.
“Don’t matter to me, I just do what they tell me.”
“Does it sound bad?”
“Couldn’t say,” he scratched a fat chin that liked to dribble donuts.
“I don’t see anybody complaining.”
“Don’t matter to me, kid; you can’t just walk in and sit down—”
“I didn’t just walk in, I came and asked and then sat.” He was off the bench now, packing up his signs, grabbing his hat, throwing on his coat.
“Are you a hotel guest?”
“I’m not a hotel guest.” When he was finished, he sat back down and started playing again with his belongings beside him on the bench. He might have to bolt.
“I’ll get the cops if I have to, son,” said the security man.
“I figured you weren’t a real officer—”
“Listen, I don’t make the rules!”
“Does anybody ever play this piano? Does anybody ever come and sit down here, and use it for what it was intended for? Or does it just sit here, collecting dust; an ornament for the hotel? What happens to it? You tell me that. What’s the purpose of this thing?”
The security guard reached for his radio, looped a hand under his arm: “I’ll call ‘em if I have to—”
“I’m going,” the pianist stood angrily, briefcase in hand, and headed the way he had come.
“Where you goin, kid?”
“I’m leaving—isn’t that what everybody wants?”
“What, am I a terrorist now? You gotta escort me out?”
“I don’t make the rules—”
“They must drill that line into you all through training.”
The guard huffed. Nobody responded as he escorted the pianist out, everyone looking this way and that; finding sudden urgent business to attend to. “You part of a union?” He asked.
“I’m part of no union—”
“You come in here, you start playing somebody else’s property—it’s not just there for anybody to play, kid. What do you expect? I gotta’ follow rules—”
They were at an escalator leading down to the bustling street below. The pianist yanked his arm loose and met the man’s eye: “Don’t worry. You don’t have to answer to me,” he said.
The walk to his car was consumed in cigarettes and impotent tears that fell from expressionless eyes.
It was one of those sports bars; with the big-screen TVs all keyed to one remote and seventy people rumbling through laughter at each other over strained decibels of an old jukebox in the corner. The women dressed skanky, the men drank wantonly, and a good half of the bar had their eyes centered on the three massive screens behind the counter and above the assembled bottles. Two, three minutes were left in a final game of the season.
The pianist sat beside the remote control, sipping an eighth beverage and muttering to himself bitterly. Everyone watched the jumping athletes like plebeians in worship of some Grecian god. Entirely rapt.
Somebody changed the song on the jukebox to a conglomeration of swearing and rap tempered by ubiquitous female-stereotypes. Women, likely brandishing feminist flags and sipping coffee by day, now unwound themselves and gyrated in little groups near shoes at the other end of the pub. A circle of perhaps ten equally out-of-place men were all that didn’t watch the game; these sitting near the girls with hungry eyes.
The pianist didn’t care terribly. Women—wonderful. But they didn’t matter. No more than that gyrating bloodlust beat, or the stupid basketball game, or the indigestion, or the gas station job. Where did you go to stick your foot in? Who did you have to talk to? What did you have to do? The answer was almost always money.
He wasn’t an angry man; he wasn’t an angry drunk—he was seldom angry at anything, in fact. But it was bubbling, just beneath the surface. Memories of mother forcing him to play as a child for her friends and sisters; just so she could stand back and chatter on with pride. No, don’t play your song—play that one you learned, yes that’s the one; the one you learned at your lessons. That’s much better than that other one. Oh, she loved to show him off. Her little piano-playing son.
He growled into his drink. She couldn’t always force him to play. He could act embarrassed and shy away.
Now God was getting him back. All those times he shied away as a child, feeling strange and not quite sure how to reconcile it. Now God was getting him back. Now, he wanted to play. Now he wanted to share his gift, now he wanted people to listen. He wasn’t in it for any money. Though some would be nice. Just to know people somewhere, somehow, appreciated it—just for a bit. That’s all. Music made you think of better things. It made you think outside yourself; outside the game on the beer-stained screens, outside your job, or getting laid—you could lose yourself, for a little. Then move on, that simply.
Nobody liked music anymore. They liked basketball. They liked hump-rhymes. They liked drugs. They liked to screw. Nobody cared about a melodic and harmonic progression that switched between keys and spoke of the majesty behind mountains or the wonders beneath white-capped waves. Nobody wanted art for art’s sake. Closest you got was strung-out rock stars and retard rappers.
He growled into his drink some more, glancing absent-mindedly at the game. Ten seconds left, championship something-or-other—he didn’t know, who cared about sports? It was hard to think of any more useless way to waste hours of one’s time.
He glanced around the bar, seeing the rapt faces, the hurried bartenders, the slutty girls with their monosyllabic men, making a show of caring about some sport they couldn’t understand. And his fingers brushed the remote control for an instant, and in that instant an idea swam through his drunken brain, and he grabbed up the control, and he pointed it at the TV and he turned all of them off a spark before the ball made a final basket in a tied-up game at the end of the season.
There was a second—hardly a second, maybe half a second—of absolute silence. Even the jukebox seemed to catch as it repeated a song about boots and straps and a club looking at some whore. Then a wail, a guttural moan of anguish and hate and surprise swept the bar, and a myriad of curses made bartenders go white. One man polishing a glass had seen what the pianist did and pointed to the control, but liquid courage had cemented an objective in the young man’s mind, and he jumped up on the bar, and using all of the strength he had from years of opera lessons pushing diaphragm projection, he cupped his hands around his mouth and screamed: “FUCK BASKETBALL!”
Silence came back again, and it was a matter of moments before they jumped him. He didn’t care; fists came from nowhere and he threw in his own. At some point he managed to beat an older man over the back of the head with a stool; catching a pool-cue in the kidney in the same instant and tumbling gropingly into one of the jukebox sluts who gasped and slapped him while the unattached youths grabbed their fists and egos to jump into the fray. It wasn’t long before he was the butt of a full-scale riot, and as may be surmised, he didn’t hold out too long. A musician against a cadre of drunken sports-fans seldom will. But he broke some faces, and some glasses, and some mugs, and some furniture, and he never whimpered, and he never cried, and he never stopped or ran or accepted restraining hands or helping arms. He pummeled and was pummeled; kicked as boots broke his ribs; spat blood and grabbed at ankles as a circle of light became quicker-and-quicker eclipsed with angry punching silhouettes that soon faded in a cacophony of sound that brought to mind a beautiful progression he would write, someday, and that all would cherish and love, and would tell their friends about, and would praise and study and discuss.
The progression echoed through his mind until the lights were dim, and then disappeared.