New Short Fiction Award
Three times a year, we award a writer who submits, in our opinion, the best original, previously unpublished work.
Zandra Renwhick of Ottawa, Ontario is the winner of the 52nd Jerry Jazz Musician New Short Fiction Award, announced and published for the first time on November 13, 2019.
photo by Brenda Rose
Zandra Renwick’s fiction has been translated into ten languages, podcast, performed on stage, and optioned for television. Find a complete bibliography at. zandrarenwick.com .or hit her up @zandrarenwick.
by Zandra Renwick
…..I’ve been bitter a long time. It’s like sucking a wedge of lemon on and on and on, pulp disintegrating, everything dissolving until the flavor turns mellow and mild, almost sweet. I’ve been bitter so long it’s hard to know anymore how anything should feel, or which part of me navigating the world each day is tainted with bitterness and which part is how I always was, even before Ty Greggor smashed through my life.
…..When did I first see him play? It must’ve been him opening for us back when the Goldy Figs were in that heady elation fog over signing with a small indie label, indulging nascent delusions of vinyl grandeur. Back then our gigs were still paid in beer, mostly, and we had to take our own broke-down joke of a van on tour – tour meaning three weeks on the road swimming in each other’s girl stink because even without functional air conditioning our van was more comfortable than most of the motels our label arranged for us, and me driving the whole time, the only one sober enough for legal purposes – but it was, looking back, the greatest summer of my life.
…..Girl bands probably aren’t called girl bands anymore. That’s how long I’ve been out of it. Two decades gone, flashed by like the snap of an E string. You’d think I’d be over this. But here I am in a basement dive in the ghost-town end of an unfamiliar city, watching Ty blow that ugly dented horn of his, all those old feelings skittering sharp along my skin keeping pace with his loose lazy riff as delicious as ever. I want him so badly I have to blink back the stinging in my eyes, and I want to take that horn and ram it down his neck until he chokes.
…..Before the set ends, before Ty stands from his stool, steps off the tiny crescent stage and peers into the club’s fuggy darkness and his eyes adjust and he can see me, I tug my cap brim down to shadow my face, leave a folded bill on the table to cover my drink, and slip out into the dank night. As the heavy door hinge swings slow shut behind me my traitor ears strain to hear the final notes wafting from Ty’s horn, my traitor skin tingling as if stroked by his long musician fingers, my traitor mouth turning all that citric bitterness almost into sugar on my tongue.
…..The thing about beautiful men is, they never feel obligated to take any responsibility for your devotion. Back at my motel, a bleak weekly flop eager for cash in advance and not picky about ID at registration, I imagine Ty talking to me, imagine him sitting beside me on the sagging tweed cushion of this swaybacked sofa and saying, Baby, I never asked you to quit your little band.
…..Everything he said came with that Texan drawl, Houston or not too far, some words ending in a sibilant whistle against his teeth I always somehow related to his embouchure, though I’ve heard other southern men talk who’ve never touched a trumpet in their lives and they whistle just the same, breathy and loose like they want to kiss you but are waiting for you to ask. That’s all they need: for you to ask, just once. After that everything they do or don’t do is on you. Like the day I quit the Goldy Figs.
…..We were a jazz quartet masquerading as punk rock. All girls, all golden blonde – three of us from bottles and one from the random intersection of DNA and what my mamma always called god’s good grace. We played the old purist standards but fast and hard and much too loud. Not everyone knew what to make of us and our shows often got confused reviews, positive but almost curt, as if the guys sent to cover our gigs – always guys, journalism more biased in gender even than art, even than music – knew we had something special, but weren’t sure they were allowed to like it. Except Ty. Ty knew what he liked, and wasn’t afraid to go after it. And when he saw me up there thumping those skins with too much vigor and too little finesse, twenty-one years old and five feet tall and blonde as a cartoon pony, all he had to do was walk up afterward with those straight white teeth of his and smile. He tossed off some remark about girl drummers being rare as unicorns and twice as hard to tame and somehow him saying it was all it took for me to ask him to tame me. That’s how beautiful that man was, twenty years ago.
…..The motel room doesn’t have a safe, but it has a shoebox. Shoved under a mattress so lumpy, it accepts my additional violations with hardly a quiver. I reach under and drag out that flattened shoebox, and pull out the gun I bought from a man who knew a man who knew another man back in Austin. Ten years it took me to buy this gun, after Ty left. Eight more years to decide to use it, and two more tracking Ty down and finding the right time to confront him. And here I am.
…..I slip the gun from its rumpled cardboard sleeve, the heavy metallic wrongness of it making my fingers feel oily and numb. I hate guns. Hate bullets even more. Hate Ty most of all for deserving one.
…..The gun drags my coat pocket low on one side. I leave the motel room again, looking left and right at the door as if someone might be watching, might have sensed the dark blot of murder in my heart as if I were broadcasting a dread signal into the world. The club isn’t far. A few minutes’ walk. The night is crisp and too lovely for my leaden mood. The town is so quaint they’ve got flowering fruit trees lining the avenue, something out of a Rockwell tableau, Americana dripping nostalgia so syrup it burns the tongue, too hokey to believe. The trees shiver as I pass, and slough pink petals turned grey underfoot by the nighttime, muffling the click of my boot heels. My sister would’ve loved it.
…..Sticking to shadows I duck into the alley behind the club. Ty is there, leaning with an air of ownership against a shabby nondescript car, banished to the parking lot like all smokers these days and too stubborn to switch to the delicate misting contraptions people prefer, clinging instead to the thick poisonous smoke of genuine fire-lit tobacco. Hard to believe a trumpet player wouldn’t better take care of his lungs. But then, Ty never took good care of the precious things.
…..I step from the wall and under the bright cone of light filtering down soft and mild as the rest of this town, this night. I pull off my cap and wait for him to recognize me.
…..He squints through the cloud of noxious nicotine exhalations, tosses the filterless paper stub of his cigarette, and says, “Goldy?”
…..I hadn’t known if he’d recognize me after all this time. And we all went by Goldy then, the whole band, part of our shtick. For all I know he’s mistaking me for Marlena or Jo, or even Kate. He must’ve slept with all of us, before the end.
…..Moving closer so he can see my face, not just my unlikely golden hair, I say, “Hello, Ty.”
…..A grin splits his face. Cheeks hollower than they once were, teeth not as white. New wrinkles I never see in my recollections. He pushes from the car and lurches toward me for a hug, and for the first time I notice the cane.
…..His few hobbling steps are as painful to watch as they must be to take. But his grin doesn’t fade as he wraps one arm around my shoulder, the other gripping the cane propping him up like a straighter, stronger leg. “Goldy! How you been? Where you playing these days? How’s your family?”
…..For a moment twenty years drop away and I’m lost in his embrace. His scent is the same, strong and woody, not the scent of someone older and wrinkled and in pain. The gun barrel digs into my hip where I clutch it in my pocket, my arm caught between us at an awkward angle, reminding me why I’m here, reminding me to be angry.
…..My pulling away almost causes him to fall. He grips the cane, pain drawing his features tight. I resist the natural impulse to reach to him, steady him as one might any stranger in the street. He catches me looking and his expression turns wry. “Yeah. Degenerative tissue disease. Incurable. Hurts like you wouldn’t believe. Worse every day, no treatment my body doesn’t reject, prognosis good as a death sentence and boring as hell. You still slapping sticks to skin?”
…..So he does know it’s me. That was the Goldy Figs: me on drums, Jo on keyboard, Kate on clarinet, and Marlena on bass. “No. I don’t play anymore. Not since you asked me to quit my band and hit the road with you, then ditched me in the middle of nowhere and took off with my kit, my gear, my money and my sister. ”
…..My hand tightens on the gun, waiting for him to deny it so I can make him change his tune. But his face goes sad and he pats his breast pocket, pulls out his same old cigarette case, dented and worn and ugly as his horn. “I was a selfish little bastard.”
…..“You were a crook. A womanizer. A liar. A thief.”
…..“All those things. It’s true.” He nods and his eyes go even sadder. He leans back against the shabby car, flips open the case with the hand not white-knuckle gripping his cane, and says, “Spliff? Medical grade. Covered by insurance and the only thing that blunts the pain enough these days to get through a set.”
…..I shake my head at the open case of small paper twists, unsettled by the readiness with which he agreed to my accusations. I’d expected smooth talking and denial, and teeth warm and bright and white as a shark’s. This bent premature oldster with a cane isn’t what I’d pictured. On stage, under lights, with a trumpet to his chiselled lips, he’d seemed more the man I remembered.
…..He slides a thin joint between his teeth. In the flare of his lighter he looks closer to a hundred than the fifty he must be. He takes a deep drag and looks me straight in the face, and says, “How’s your sister?”
…..Rage stokes again in my chest, reminding me why I’m here, what he did. I surge forward, crush him against his sad crusty car and hiss into his face, “As if you don’t know.”
…..My illegal gun digs into his chest, slick in my grip, an extension of my sweaty fist. Behind me the rear door to the club swings wide and the barkeep rolls out an empty keg. I flinch away but Ty wraps one arm around me again and tugs me close, hiding the gun between us.
…..“Hey man, nice set,” calls the bartender, nothing striking him off key about a musician in the back lot with his arm around a random blonde, night air tinted sweet with cannabis and fallen cherry blossoms.
…..Ty’s voice rumbles in his chest, reverberating through the gun into my fingers as he replies in that voice guys use with each other, nonchalant and confident, as if all the world owes them a favor and they’re only deciding when to collect: “Thanks, man.”
…..The bartender disappears and we’re alone again with the night, the fruit trees, the small town near a big ocean with too little light to block out the stars. Ty eases his arm but doesn’t release me. “I’m not one for keeping up with people, but last I saw your sister, she was safe in front of a big TV in a motel outside New Orleans. Told her I had a couple gigs in Memphis and I might be back in a few days.”
…..“But you weren’t back in a few days. You never went back.”
…..“I never went back,” he agrees, the new sadness in his voice accompanied by a weariness that feels even newer. “I was a selfish little bastard.”
…..The gun is heavy. The barrel has slid down toward the pavement, not aimed at Ty’s heart where it belongs. I lift it. “And after a month, she took the last dregs of what cash you left her and bought enough booze and benzos to end her own wait. You killed her, Ty Greggor. Add murderer to your list: crook, womanizer, liar, thief, and murderer.”
…..His face under the alley lights reminds me of the rumpled cardboard shoebox I’d pulled from under my mattress, flat, creased, lifeless. Then he drags on the aromatic joint and shakes his head, pain returning to his features. “She had enough for a bus ticket home. I never asked her to wait.”
…..The gun suddenly feels alive in my palm. It nuzzles up under his chin as if on its own, no conscious movement from me. “She was confused, and alone, and nineteen, and pregnant. And you never asked anyone for anything, but it didn’t stop you from taking.”
…..“Jilly was pregnant?”
…..All these years, I’d been sure he’d known. Been sure that’s why he’d left her and moved on, one more complication he never asked for. But seeing him slump back against the car I can see he didn’t know. And I believe him about not keeping up with people, even in this day and age. He always was a nomad, a drifter, using up whatever he wanted in one town before rolling on to the next but never keeping tally. Never asking means never owing. But it also means never knowing.
…..Deflated, defeated in one silent anticlimactic moment after years and grief and rage, I let the gun drop and move to put it back into my pocket.
…..“Wait!” Ty grasps my wrist. The motion throws him off balance and he wobbles on his cane. A grimace of intense pain chases everything else from his face and I picture his insides, as if slit and peeled and staked wide, bared for a camera or surgeon, scarred and knotted tissue dissolving itself between all his bones, his organs, throughout his nervous system. I imagine him dissolving on the inside until he feels like I do, hollow and useless and in constant agony, the physical manifestation of my emotional state. Only the fury has kept me upright all these years. Only my rage. Only vengeance. And now it’s all draining away. He draws my hand toward him until the gun nudges into the fabric over his ribs, gleaming soft and angry in the gentle night, and says, “Aren’t you going to kill me?”
…..Hearing it out loud makes me recoil, my thousand fantasies about how this night would go spinning away from the single reality of the actual moment. I try to move away but his grip tightens. The gun noses into him as if eager to finish what I started.
…..“Goldy, listen. I been wondering for weeks how to end this thing before it ends me. These days, it’s pain all the time. It hurts to eat. It hurts to sleep. It hurts to walk and breathe and Goldy, it hurts like you wouldn’t believe to play. Tonight near killed me, it hurt so bad. Come the day soon, it’ll just be me sitting alone in a chair in front of the TV, too afraid to move, waiting for it all to stop.”
…..It’s still in my heart, the way he played tonight, deep and loose and slow. It dawns on me what else there was, the ingredient he’d been missing twenty years ago: pain. Grief and pain, as essential to art and humor and love as glue and nails are to carpentry, holding everything else together.
…..“Now you know how Jilly felt,” I tell him.
…..His pupils dilate, widening as I watch. “Yes,” he says. “I deserve this. Jilly deserves this. Kill me.”
…..The more he speaks, the more insane it feels. Why did I ever think this would solve anything? I’d been blinded by the seductive fantasy of vengeance. Nothing would bring my sister back, or the band, or my sense of rightness with the world. I might have altered the course of my life years ago if I’d started again, bought new gear, found a new band. It feels too late now. Somebody else’s life. As much a fable as a unicorn ever was.
…..He wobbles on his cane, sweating in the evening chill from the effort it must be costing him to keep upright. Twenty years ago he never sat while playing – every gig, night after night, hours of standing under the lights. Tonight, he’d sat the entire set.
…..His voice comes as a throaty whisper, little trace of the sibilant drawl from his younger days. “Goldy, please. Please do it for me. Just pull the trigger. Just once. Please. . .”
…..And there it is at last, all these years too late: Ty Greggor, asking.
…..Slowly, I lean close – close enough to kiss – and slide the gun into the pocket of his blazer, vintage wool and houndstooth check, the kind of moldy figgish splendor we all wore in mocking worship, back in the day.
…..“It’s a gift,” I tell him, patting the weighted bulging pocket. “But no matter what you do with it at home, frightened and alone, sitting in front of that big TV, pondering a quick painless death over a slow one of agony and indignity, remember this: I never asked you to do anything.”