Short Fiction Contest-winning story #51 — “Crossing the Ribbon,” by Linnea Kellar

July 9th, 2019

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Three times a year, we award a writer who submits, in our opinion, the best original, previously unpublished work.

Linnea Kellar of Eastport, Michigan is the winner of the 51st Jerry Jazz Musician New Short Fiction Award, announced and published for the first time on July 9, 2019.

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Linnea Kellar

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Linnea Kellar lives and writes in Northern Michigan. “Crossing the Ribbon” is her first published story.   When not writing, she can be found hiking, drinking copious amounts of coffee or swing dancing (not necessarily in that order).

 

 

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Photo by .Alysa Bajenaru .on. Unsplash

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Crossing the Ribbon

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Linnea Kellar

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………Do you ever have a time in your life when you feel like you’re about to step off a cliff?

 ………I don’t normally have those moments. If I could organize my entire life playing by the rules, I think I could mosey along and get through living just fine. I am the student my teachers wish me to be. I am the daughter my parents desire. I am the perfect best friend to the girls in my class. According to choirmaster, I am one of the best sopranos in the church choir.

………But I have a secret.

………This secret prompts me to buy a scuffed-up pair of pumps without Mama knowing. This secret takes my impatient feet down Checker Avenue on Thursday evenings when I know I am supposed to be at piano lessons. This secret leads me to the dark, mildewed door of the Blue Smoke, an abandoned warehouse devoted to the closeted swing dancers of New York City. This secret pushes me through a teeming mass of jiving bodies to  along The Ribbon.

………What is The Ribbon, you may ask?

………The Ribbon is my boundary. This is the limbo my body is perpetually trapped in until I decide to take the plunge. Tonight is the night that I have decided to take the final step. This is the evening I will leap over the line and into Sonny Williams’ arms. We’ve been staring at each other for weeks now. The boy could Lindy Hop better than anyone I’ve ever seen. Dancing with him would be the greatest of honors for a novice like me. His long arms could twirl a dame out and in like a top, his legs springing across the floor like nobody’s business. When I watch Sonny dance, I can hear the jazz music flow through my veins, spreading down to my toes. I can feel the echoes of the saxophone pulsing through my soul. I can sense the bass permeating through my entire being, thrumming its melody clear to my fingertips.

………I’ve had the chance to talk to him a few times after the dancing was over. He was always real nice and gentleman-like, his smile as wide as the Brooklyn Bridge. He has a voice as smooth as chocolate and always has a kind word for everyone. I could not help but tell him what a great admirer I was of his dancing. He was the right sort of person, the right sort of dancer and the right sort of guy I’d love to go steady with.

………Only problem was, according to Papa, he was the wrong sort of color.

………It doesn’t matter to me one way or the other. Unfortunately, it matters to the whole world and that opinion outweighs my small, insignificant voice. Regardless, I just don’t think that’s right. I’m dead gone on Sonny and maybe he’s interested in me, too. Or maybe not. There is only one way of knowing for certain and my perfect, rule-following life is about to be upended in order for me to find out.

………“You were just swell out there!” I had exclaimed the previous week, my voice pitching just a little too high in my enthusiasm.

………“You weren’t so bad yourself, little sister,” he had said, looking bashful.

………That had been enough for me and now here I am, ready to step off of the cliff. I have seen some young people do it before and it seemed to have gone well. They’d received plenty of ugly looks but most everyone just kept on dancing. It was only a problem if the Johns showed up with their nightsticks and nasty attitudes. Their flat feet had no business on the dance floor but even so, they had hauled away plenty of dancers before for crossing the line.

………I have steeled myself for this moment all week long. My feet tap nervously, my hips swinging slightly to the music that floats above the crowd. I breathe in the smell of sweat, perfume and cigarette smoke, trying to get my bearings. I try to catch Sonny’s eye and his face lights up when he sees me. He was swinging with his little sister, Maybelline, and he drops her into a dip just as the song ends. He makes his way over to me, wiping away the drops of sweat that have beaded on his forehead.

………“How you doing, Ruthie?” he asks from behind the line, grinning at me.

………“I’m doing real fine,” I mumble, scuffing my heel on the worn, wooden planks. “I have a question for you, Sonny.”

………“Sure thing,” he says, looking distracted as his gaze roams over the crowd.

………“May I join you?”

………His whole frame stiffens and he meets my eyes, looking astonished.

………“Only if you want me to, Sonny,” I stammer. “I know what it means. I know we can both get in loads of trouble. I don’t want to put you in a hard position so you say no to me if you like. I would understand.”

………“There’s nothing I would like more but…” He trails off as a couple knock into him. Recovering himself, he straightens his back, his gaze hardening. “You know what? Step on over. I won’t deny it. I’ve been wanting to dance with you ever since you started coming here but I wasn’t going to ask. You know how to Hop, gal?”

………“Not real good but I can learn quickly!” I say, tugging nervously at the sleeves of my brown cardigan. This is it! No turning back now. I take one step toward The Ribbon, meeting Sonny’s eyes. I know he’s taking even more of a chance than I am and I’m scared. I’m scared for him and I’m scared for me. But the world’s got to move in a certain direction and there have to be people to move it.

………Sonny offers me his hand and I take it, feeling reassured at its warmth. I’m already sweating profusely and I haven’t even started swinging yet. I hop over the barrier, knowing my face is probably turning an unattractive shade of radish-red. Already, the stares are beginning to collect around us. A palpable wave of tension settles over Sonny and me like a cloud and I can almost hear the whispers of judgement. It seems like the whole world has paused to hold its breath. Everything stops except for just one thing.

………The music.

………The song continues, the melody just as constant and forgiving as it was before I crossed the line. I square my shoulders and turn to face Sonny, ready to start dancing. He starts off slow and easy, helping me to get into the rhythm. Initially, I feel as stiff as a board. My nervousness is overwhelming and my legs are like wooden stumps that clump across the floor. After a few moments, however, a new sensation begins to take place. I let the notes from the saxophone set the cadence of my steps, my curls bouncing as we become synchronized in our movement. The faces around us blur as we lose ourselves in the dance. Sonny spins me out and I kick my heels, shuffling my feet through the crowd of swingers. My skirt twirls in a dizzying maelstrom of worn tweed and I can feel my best hose slowly acquiring a new tear.

………Plenty of eyes are still on us but we ignore them.

………I’ve stopped caring at this point. I’m solely focused on following Sonny’s lead, relaxing into his gentle grip as we sashay across the floor. All I see is my partner’s wide smile and the cheeky wink that accompanies it. We step the Charleston, our feet pivoting in and out in time with the music. His timing is impeccable and I struggle to keep in time with the fast, quarter-time beat. With Sonny twirling me through the crowd, I feel like a regular Joan Crawford for a moment. He throws me into a low dip, holding me there just long enough for me to feel his heart beating a mile a minute. It distracts me from worrying about what everyone else is thinking. It distracts me from the secret I know I will be keeping from Mama and Papa. It distracts me from the plunging of the stock markets outside the doors of the club. It distracts me from the animosity between people clothed in different colors of skin.

………And it distracts me from the figures in navy-blue who have burst through the doors of the Blue Smoke.

………“Johns!” shouts a young man from the balcony, straining to be heard in the crowded room.

………“We’ve got to scram!” I whisper as Sonny pulls me out of the dip. He nods silently and takes my hand, both of us ducking low. We can hear the officers shouting and from the sounds of it, one of the policemen had caught sight of us. We take off through the masses, scampering past the bandmembers. We duck into a passageway, bursting out of the building and into a back alley. Sonny hauls me to a fire escape and we both begin to ascend the building. We make it to the roof just in time. Officers are spilling out into the alley like steers in a bullpen, heading off in different directions to look for us. We retreat to the center of the roof where we are out of sight of the alley.

………“That was pretty darn close, Ruthie,” Sonny proclaims, shaking his head as his narrow chest heaves for air. “Almost did me in. I’d be a goner if we hadn’t gotten out so quickly.”

………“I’m sorry,” I say, my voice breaking. “I never should’ve asked you to do that.”

………“Glad you did,” he retorts, scratching the back of his head. “I’ve been wanting to dance with you for weeks now and I’m glad we had the opportunity. We were really grooving there for a moment. I only wish we had been able to dance longer.”

………“Why can’t we?” I ask, grinding the toe of my shoe into the gravel-lined roof.

………“There’s no music,” he replies, craning his neck upwards at the clouded night sky.

………“Sure there is,” I say, smoothing down my creased skirt. “We’ll make music.”

………“You got it, little sister.” With that, he takes my hands.

………And we dance. We dance to the rhythm of a hundred window-panes rattling in the November wind. We dance to the sound of vehicles on the streets below. We dance to the sound of our shoes spraying small pebbles into the air. We dance to the sound of two souls colliding in a brilliant kaleidoscope of jazz, swing and a hundred different colors. We dance to the sound of forgetfulness, of mutual understanding, of secret rebellion, of precious oblivion and of youthful innocence.

………We dance to the sound of Ribbons crossed and worlds slowly mending.

 

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Short Fiction Contest Details

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2 comments on “Short Fiction Contest-winning story #51 — “Crossing the Ribbon,” by Linnea Kellar”

  1. This is a wonderful story. Without reading the others, (except my own), I believe this one deserved to win.

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