“The Wailing Wall” — a short story by Justin Short

January 11th, 2019

.

.

“The Wailing Wall” by Justin Short was the winner of the 48th Jerry Jazz Musician Short Fiction Contest.  It was originally published in July, 2018, and is one of six pieces published onJerry Jazz Musician. in 2018 nominated for the prestigious Pushcart Prize

 

.

.

 

 

__________

.

.

 

.

_____

 

.

The Wailing Wall

by Justin Short

 

.

.

When they came to build the wall, I played Mingus.

I stood in the blistering sun, watched them arrive, and did my best to blow my lungs clean out.  They climbed down from hissing dew-sprinkled trucks, adjusted their hard hats, and went to work setting up the barricades.  They ignored me completely.

They didn’t ignore me long.  I was off-key, and I was loud.  Ain’t always about hitting all the right notes, man.  A clarinet’s gotta be raw.  Real.  None of that philharmonic fast food commercial stuff.

I could almost hear Tony taking the high notes right beside me.  He would have, too.  He always loved a good revolution.  But they really gave it to him this time.  Ten years, man.  Ten years for a couple measly grams.

My serenade lasted all day.  The spit sizzled on my sidewalk shadow; my denim crackled and steamed.  I guess I was hoping for a miracle.  Construction workers can have epiphanies too.  Maybe they would see the error of their ways, come to their senses, tell their boss to shove it.  Anything’s possible.

I went to see Tony afterwards.  He looked good.  The prison-issues made him look a little like a nurse, and we both laughed at how the sight of him in a hospital room would scare anyone back to perfect health.

“I want you to have my old horn,” he said.

“I can’t.”

“Dude, just take it.  Before my crazy family gets their hands on it.  They’ll be at the pawn shop so fast it’ll make your head spin.”

“Fine, fine.  I’ll keep it safe.  But only till they let you out.”

He laughed.

I went to the storage unit later that night.  Dug through mountains of sheet music and faded set lists.  Finally found the case buried under a stack of sleeveless Coltrane records.  I flicked my fingers against the ancient latches and popped it open.  The dusty clarinet slumbered in green felt.  I stood there a minute in the air-conditioned stickiness, remembering the old numbers.  Remembering his embouchure.

I played Ella Fitzgerald the next morning.  It was a hundred and two degrees out, and the trucks burped soft-serve concrete in neat little rectangles.  My lips cracked, and the blood pinkened my reed.  Sweat singed my eyeballs and glued my hands to my horn.

Another day, another night, another morning.  They blended together, each one just a little hotter than the last.  Steel followed concrete, and the beams grew higher and higher.  I sang my appeal, and wished Tony could do the same.  His was by the books: lawyers, money, more money.  Mine was a gut-feeling kinda thing.  Basie in the morning, Ellington at noon, Satchmo at night.  A screechy call-to-arms, an instrumental middle finger.

The night they picked Tony up, they put him in a room for hours and hours.  Cop after cop slamming fists on the table, asking him where he got the stuff, who the big movers were, threatening everything under the sun if he didn’t name names.

Tony ain’t like that.  He ain’t a snitch.  He just likes to smoke a joint on the back porch now and then.

     Who doesn’t?

He wouldn’t play their game, so they played it for him.  Gave him ten.  That’s how they operate, man.  They didn’t ask for character witnesses.  Didn’t give him a chance to bust out La Vie en Rose in the courtroom.  If they would have, I’m convinced the judge woulda wiped back a couple tears and told him he was free to go.

He says he’s still getting used to his new neighbors.  The killers and rapists and all those guys.  Crazy how they threw an old hippie in with the worst of the worst.  But Tony can make friends with just about anyone.  One thing he’ll never get used to, though, and that’s the walls.

Me neither.

My horn didn’t seem to be slowing them down.  If anything, it had the opposite effect.  Hammer pounded nail in double-time, a staccato thwack-thwack-thwack that made me wonder if they ever stopped long enough to question any of it.  Their role.  Their silent heil.  Who they were blocking out, blocking in.

As the power tools whined, the Rio Grande disappeared little by little.  I painted Guaraldi in the spaces between their chaos.  Wept Miles from a sidewalked kitchen chair.  Injected their backbeats with sizzling Dizzy.  I gave them squealing, howling minor keys.  Dying-cat deep cuts.  My sunburn was bubbled and purple by the time they strung the prison wire on top.

I guess I knew it was over.  This thing was really gonna happen.  Had happened.  They turned me into Tony.  Only difference was the size of the exercise yard.

I played his horn the night they finished.  Sat in the moonlight and pulled the pieces out one by one.  Worked up a sweat jamming them together.  As I twisted the mouthpiece into place, I saw his old teeth marks, deep and jagged.  Like a wild animal had torn into it.

It was all over, but I played anyway.  I had to play.  Sometimes you gotta stand on the concrete at midnight and bleed Bill Evans through your reed.

The workers are gone now, but they left their scent behind.  Their beer cans, their empty pizza boxes, their cigarette butts.  But mostly, they left that thing.  Nineteen feet of blinding steel.  Two stories of neighborly love.

I spend most my sunsets at the wall.  I use his horn.  I took it to the shop for repairs, but half the notes still won’t play right.  I dig the imperfection.

I don’t know who I’m playing to anymore.  The men who paid me in chucked ham sandwiches are long gone.  Now it’s only me.  Me and the shadow of the wall and the eerie echo as I cry my way through an old song.  Maybe I do it for Tony.  Maybe I think we’re both looking over walls and wishing for freedom, like we’re characters in some mushy old movie staring at the moon and singing the same song at the same time.

Who knows, man.

Some nights, if the wind’s not too loud, I hear another sound.  It’s soft and far away, like he’s standing just on the other side, turning my solo into a duet.

 

.

_____

.

.

.

Justin Short’s fiction has previously appeared in places like The Arcanist, The NoSleep Podcast, Broken Pencil, and Dear Abby.  He can be found online at www.justin-short.com.

.

.

 

Click here for details about how to enter your story in the Jerry Jazz Musician Short Fiction Contest

.

.

 

Share this:

Comment on this article:

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

In this Issue

A Collection of Jazz Poetry – Spring, 2020 Edition There are many good and often powerful poems within this collection, one that has the potential for changing the shape of a reader’s universe during an impossibly trying time, particularly if the reader has a love of music. 33 poets from all over the globe contribute 47 poems. Expect to read of love, loss, memoir, worship, freedom, heartbreak and hope – all collected here, in the heart of this unsettling spring. (Featuring the art of Martel Chapman)

Interview

Ornette Coleman 1966/photo courtesy Mosaic Images
In a Jerry Jazz Musician interview, Ornette Coleman: The Territory And The Adventure author Maria Golia discusses her compelling and rewarding book about the artist whose philosophy and the astounding, adventurous music he created served to continually challenge the skeptical status quo, and made him a guiding light of the artistic avant-garde throughout a career spanning seven decades.

Features

Red Meditation by James Brewer
Creative artists and citizens of note respond to the question, "During this time of social distancing and isolation at home, what are examples of the music you are listening to, the books you are reading, and/or the television or films you are viewing?”

Book Excerpt

In the introduction to Dave Brubeck: A Life in Time – the author Philip Clark writes about the origins of the book, and his interest in shining a light on how Brubeck, “thoughtful and sensitive as he was, had been changed as a musician and as a man by the troubled times through which he lived and during which he produced such optimistic, life-enhancing art.”

Interview

NBC Radio-photo by Ray Lee Jackson / Public domain
In a Jerry Jazz Musician interview, acclaimed biographer James Kaplan (Frank: The Voice and Sinatra: The Chairman) talks about his book, Irving Berlin: New York Genius, and Berlin's unparalleled musical career and business success, his intense sense of family and patriotism during a complex and evolving time, and the artist's permanent cultural significance.

Book Excerpt

In the introduction to Maria Golia’s Ornette Coleman: The Territory and the Adventure – excerpted here in its entirety – the author takes the reader through the four phases of the brilliant musician’s career her book focuses on.

Art

Art by Charles Ingham
Charles Ingham’s “Jazz Narratives” connect time, place, and subject in a way that ultimately allows the viewer a unique way of experiencing jazz history. Volume 7 of the narratives are “Torn from Its Moorings", "Watching the Sea" and "Plantations" (featuring west coast stories of Ornette Coleman and Billie Holiday)

Interview

Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Carl Van Vechten Collection
Richard Crawford’s Summertime: George Gershwin’s Life in Music is a rich, detailed and rewarding musical biography that describes Gershwin's work throughout every stage of his career. In a Jerry Jazz Musician interview, Crawford discusses his book and the man he has described as a “fresh voice of the Jazz Age” who “challenged Americans to rethink their assumptions about composition and performance, nationalism, cultural hierarchy, and the racial divide.”

Jazz History Quiz #138

photo by William Gottlieb/Library of Congress
Shortly following their famed 1938 Carnegie Hall performance, Benny Goodman’s drummer Gene Krupa left the band to start his own. Who replaced Krupa?

Interview

photo unattributed/ Public domain
In a Jerry Jazz Musician interview with The Letters of Cole Porter co-author Dominic McHugh, he explains that “several of the big biographical tropes that we associate with Porter are either modified or contested by the letters,” and that “when you put together these letters, and add our quite extensive commentary between the letters, it creates a different picture of him.” Mr. McHugh discusses his book, and what the letters reveal about the life – in-and-out of music – of Cole Porter.

Book Excerpt

The introduction to John Burnside's The Music of Time: Poetry in the Twentieth Century – excerpted here in its entirety with the gracious consent of Princeton University Press – is the author's fascinating observation concerning the idea of how poets respond to what the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam called “the noise of time,” weaving it into a kind of music.

Short Fiction

photo Creative Commons CC0
Short Fiction Contest-winning story #53 — “Market & Fifth, San Francisco, 1986,” by Paul Perilli

Photography

photo by Veryl Oakland
In this edition of photographs and stories from Veryl Oakland’s book Jazz in Available Light, Frank Morgan, Michel Petrucciani/Charles Lloyd, and Emily Remler are featured

Poetry

photo Bret Stewart/Wikimedia Commons
“Afterwards — For the Spring, 2020” — a poem by Alan Yount

Interview

photo by Fred Price
Bob Hecht and Grover Sales host a previously unpublished 1985 interview with the late, great jazz saxophonist Lee Konitz, who talks about Miles, Kenton, Ornette, Tristano, and the art of improvisation...

Book Excerpt

A ten page excerpt from The Letters of Cole Porter by Cliff Eisen and Dominic McHugh that features correspondence in the time frame of June to August, 1953, including those Porter had with George Byron (the man who married Jerome Kern’s widow), fellow writer Abe Burrows, Noel Coward, his secretary Madeline P. Smith, close friend Sam Stark, and his lawyer John Wharton.

Interview

photo by William Gottlieb/Library of Congress
Con Chapman, author of Rabbit's Blues: The Life and Music of Johnny Hodges discusses the great Ellington saxophonist

Humor

photo by William Gottlieb/Library of Congress
"Louis Armstrong on the Moon," by Dig Wayne

Book Excerpt

This story, excerpted from Irving Berlin: New York Genius by James Kaplan, describes how Berlin came to write his first major hit song, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” and speaks to its historic musical and cultural significance.

Pressed for All Time

In this edition, producer Tom Dowd talks with Pressed for All Time: Producing the Great Jazz Albums author Michael Jarrett about the genesis of Herbie Mann’s 1969 recording, Memphis Underground, and the executives and musicians involved

Interview

photo by Bouna Ndaiye
Interview with Gerald Horne, author of Jazz and Justice: Racism and the Political Economy of the Music

Great Encounters

photo of Sidney Bechet by William Gottlieb/Library of Congress
In this edition of "Great Encounters," Con Chapman, author of Rabbit’s Blues: The Life and Music of Johnny Hodges, writes about Hodges’ early musical training, and the first meeting he had with Sidney Bechet, the influential and legendary reed player who Hodges called “tops in my book.”

Poetry

The winter collection of poetry offers readers a look at the culture of jazz music through the imaginative writings of its 32 contributors. Within these 41 poems, writers express their deep connection to the music – and those who play it – in their own inventive and often philosophical language that communicates much, but especially love, sentiment, struggle, loss, and joy.

“What are 4 or 5 of your all-time favorite Blue Note albums?”

"What are 4 or 5 of your all-time favorite Blue Note albums?"
Dianne Reeves, Nate Chinen, Gary Giddins, Michael Cuscuna, Eliane Elias and Ashley Kahn are among the 12 writers, musicians, and music executives who list and write about their favorite Blue Note albums

In the Previous Issue

Interviews with three outstanding, acclaimed writers and scholars who discuss their books on Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, and Cole Porter, and their subjects’ lives in and out of music. These interviews – which each include photos and several full-length songs – provide readers easy access to an entertaining and enlightening learning experience about these three giants of American popular music.

In an Earlier Issue

photo by Carol Friedman
“The Jazz Photography Issue” features an interview with today’s most eminent jazz portrait photographer Carol Friedman, news from Michael Cuscuna about newly released Francis Wolff photos, as well as archived interviews with William Gottlieb, Herman Leonard, Lee Tanner, a piece on Milt Hinton, a new edition of photos from Veryl Oakland, and much more…

Contributing writers

Site Archive