Fiction Section: Fire Fiction
Banned Books Week is coming up at the end of this month, September 24th to October 1st, so everybody head to your favorite book store or library and track down copies of Catcher in the Rye, Lord of the Flies, Brave New World, 1984, Harry Potter, His Dark Materials, and–if you like picture books and penguins–Tango Makes Three (Yes, people have taken offense to a picture book about penguins). These books are some of the most commonly challenged–they frighten would-be-censors with their gritty truths, their radical ideas, and their threat to the status quo. In Fahrenheit 451, which–ironically–has also been banned in the past, Ray Bradbury writes, “There was always a minority afraid of something, and a great majority afraid of the dark, afraid of the future, afraid of the past, afraid of the present, afraid of themselves and shadows of themselves.” Censorship is primarily sparked by fear of knowledge and the way that it can open minds and lead to growth. But censors don’t see new knowledge as a path to learning and enlightenment if it addresses values they disagree with or tricky topics like sex, drugs, violence, or religion. To them it then becomes poison, brainwash, manipulation, contagious filth that threatens to mire the innocent and malleable minds of their children.
Censorship is an attempt to freeze a mindset–to craft a tiny sheltered bubble around it, to close it up and lock it down. But in seeking to protect a mind from the dark and dangerous influence of books, censors stifle its maturity and fill our world with blind, helpless people incapable of independent thought. Banned Books Week is a celebration of an open-minded, wholehearted pursuit of knowledge, of free, independent thinking. Join us! Shatter mind-forged manacles! Read everything and anything! Dive unreservedly into the deep, dark, roiling sea of literature. Be warned, there are sharks, but don’t let them stop you.
Start here, with our two wonderful fiction pieces “Jazz Gambling” by Brian Conlon and “Nothing Comes to Mind” by Katie Li.
by Brian Conlon
The highest note the trumpeter could hit was a concert E above the staff. Of this Stubbs was certain. He had listened to all sixteen of his known recordings and seen him perform live three times this past year. Not once had Verne Korg passed that note and had only hit it cleanly once at a clinic for young players at Truckee Meadows Community College and once on a recording entitled “Now There’s Some, Now There Ain’t” when he served as a sideman for the great saxophonist Avery Leonard.
Garvin “Stubbs” Vanderstyne himself had been a struggling musician for over twenty-five years. He was best known for his agility on the piano, despite his unusually short fingers. Highlights of his career included playing jazz piano at the Spokane Falls Community College Jazz Festival, lounge music for octogenarians, pop tunes for weddings, keytar for an 80’s cover band, and teaching rich children rudimentary improvisation and music theory.
Stubbs gave it all up, finding that he could apply his perfect pitch to a more profitable pursuit. The idea came to him after listening to a late night gambling sports talk show. The host was rambling on about the number of third quarter touchdowns the Detroit Lions had scored after trailing by two touchdowns or more as home underdogs, when Stubbs mind suddenly stumbled upon the idea that would let him leave his financial worries behind: jazz gambling. Stubbs thought if people could wager on what would happen, or happen next, at a sporting event, then why not do the same with live improvised music?
Stubbs was all too aware that sports betting had reached absurd heights. After playing a lounge gig in Vegas, Stubbs had sat down at a machine that allowed gamblers to bet on a per play basis. He decided to wager, at odds of 25:1, that the Dodgers’ right fielder would hit the next pitch for a single to left field. The right fielder took a called strike and Stubbs lost the bet. However, he never forgot the thrill of that very second when the pitch was approaching the plate.
Stubbs tried out his idea on a few fellow musicians attending a Lawrence Gorman Quartet concert at a club downtown. Gorman was a well-known alto saxophonist, who liked to play jazz standards in strange time signatures and tempos. Gorman almost never played any truly original music, but instead preferred to estrange classic jazz standards. Stubbs met his friends ten minutes before the concert began and asked them if they’d like to wager on tonight’s performance. The three fellow musicians were not certain what Stubbs meant, and asked him to explain.
“We’ll bet on what will happen tonight with Gorman’s set. I have a sheet made up with some odds and I’ll be the house, though if you think of any bets not on the sheet I’ll consider those as well.”
The musicians looked over the sheet, observing odds of 12:1 for Gorman to play some form of “You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To,” 50:1 that Gorman would play an original, 6:1 that Gorman would change reeds at some point during the performance, 2:1 that one of his sidemen would take a longer solo than him on any of their selections, and 500:1 that Gorman would recognize one of the four of them and invite them on stage to jam. The three musicians collectively thought this was a great idea and rushed to the ATM. The musicians each withdrew an even $100 cash and picked out their wagers carefully.
When the first song began with an eight minute bass intro, Stubbs knew he might be in trouble. Since all three of the gamblers placed the 2:1 bet, they sat on pins and needles as Gorman took his first solo. Five minutes passed and he was still going strong, effortlessly starting a new chorus with some choppy rhythmic lines Stubbs hoped could not be fully resolved for at least three minutes. Sadly at the seven minute thirty second mark (Stubbs brought a stop watch with him), Gorman faded out and his piano player began to solo. The three winners clapped vigorously and even howled, not because of Gorman’s solo, which was well-conceived, but somehow emotionlessly executed, but because they had each doubled their $5 bets.
By the end of the last notes of Gorman’s haunting version of “There Is No Greater Love,” Stubbs had lost $150, but his cohorts were beaming, like a young musician, after seeing his first extraordinary jazz show. Stubbs knew that from these three the word would spread quickly and soon enough there would be “jazz books” across the country. He had to get to Vegas and pitch the idea immediately.
The financial success was overwhelming. The first casino to offer not gambling and a show, but gambling on a show, began not only turning an immense profit, but also drawing the greatest talents in the jazz world. All the greats wanted to play where the audience was hanging on every note and nuance of their performance. The players, however, were strictly prohibited from gambling or even viewing the lines on their performances, under penalty of black-listing. Although, the players were allowed to wager on the performances of their fellow musicians and often won and lost their gig money doing so. One obscure clarinetist decided, after a particularly good night of gambling and rough night of playing, to abandon his fledgling career in favor of becoming a professional jazz gambler.
Initially Stubbs had set the lines himself, along with a panel of expert jazz musicians and critics, hired by the casino. But now there were twenty-three casinos with jazz gaming shows, with individual kiosks at each table, all done through a unified computer system that stored every recording of every artist who ever played at a casino, and precisely calculated the odds for even the highest pitch a certain player would play on a given night.
Given that Stubbs was no longer involved in setting the odds, he was allowed to gamble at certain casinos and the Traflon Palace was hosting the Hal Jenkins Quintet featuring Verne Korg on trumpet. Stubbs placed a bet of $2000 on the proposition that Korg would not play a note above concert E above the staff. The odds were 1:4, but Stubbs thought it was worth it, as there was just no way Korg would play anything higher than that E.
Then came the cadenza to a stirring version of “How Deep Is the Ocean?” Korg swooped and soared, his pace varying, at first lilting, almost comically teasing out the melody, then suddenly blazing up and down the register, never hitting a false note (or a note above the E). Stubbs was mesmerized, this had been the reason he had gone into music in the first place, for that moment when the musician’s creativity touches something unique and as yet unknowable in the audience. Something that makes the listener at once content and uneasy, wishing the moment would never end, but knowing that it will and when it does a new moment will appear through the horn, every bit as perfect as the last, yet still impossible to predict or define what about it is perfect. If he heard it on a recording, Stubbs might not even pay attention, might not even care, but he was there and in that moment Korg was creating something unique and unprecedented and he witnessed it, live!
Stubbs was lifted to his feet somehow unconsciously on the wings of the cadenza, and then . . . and then Korg slowed, letting each note ring clearly ascending up the staff until precisely hitting a concert F# and holding it for three full seconds. Stubbs’ ears immediately recognized he had lost. He slumped into his chair as the crowd roared around him.
Brian Conlon graduated cum laude from Harvard Law School this past May and magna cum laude with a degree in Comparative Literature and History from the University of Rochester in 2008. At Rochester, he studied creative writing with Joanna Scott and continued to study creative writing at HLS with Amy Hempel and Rose Moss. Brian won a short story writing competition at the University of Rochester for “Telephone Bill” and had two of his stories (“The XY Affair” and “Secular Caninism”) published in EST, a small literary magazine out of Burlington, Vermont. He has given readings at the University of Rochester, Harvard Law School and at two release parties for EST.
Nothing Comes to Mind
by Katie Li
I know I shouldn’t do it, but really, I can’t help myself. I know I’m going to feel guilty about this because it’s basically a million times worse than snooping through his texts or looking at his email while he’s out playing a pick-up soccer game or whatever but I can’t help it. I don’t think you could either.
Gay Bobby told me how to do it. We went out for drinks and I was telling him about how much I love Max–I love Max to the max!–but sometimes I wish I could understand him better. I want to know what he thinks, what it’s like in his head.
“There’s a way to do that,” he said, gingerly sipping his cocktail.
I didn’t believe him, but he told me the way. I would tell it to you, but I don’t know if that’s a good idea. Because even though it sounds totally crazy (and I realize it does) I know I’m doing it for the right reasons. I love my boyfriend so much and I just want to see what it’s like to be inside his head. I don’t know if you would do it for the right reason. No offense.
Anyway, Bobby told me how to get in there and I asked him, “How do you know?” And he said, “All guys know. We just know better than to tell anyone.” And I asked him why he told me and he shrugged and told me I looked hot in my outfit so whatever.
So I just got back home and he’s sleeping in bed. It was his bed, but now it’s our bed. I was so happy when he called it that. He was all: “Hey Wendy, will you put this box of CDs under our bed,” and I was so happy I could hardly contain myself.
I’m going into our room–he’s sleeping with the windows open–and I’m gonna go into his head. Even though I’m not telling you how I get in there, I want you to know what it’s like. Cuz that’s what friends are for!
It’s dark in here. That makes sense. Bobby (Gay Bobby) told me that he has to be unconscious, because otherwise he’ll know what I’m doing and would probably get pissed. Bobby also warned me that I might see things that I wouldn’t want to know, but I’m technically trespassing, so I shouldn’t get upset. I told him, “Duh! You can’t get mad when you do stuff like this cuz you’re basically asking for it!”
But so far, I can’t really see anything. I can’t decide if it smells really good in here, like brownies and aftershave, or really bad. Like a cross between mothballs and cheese. Gross. I’m gonna decide it smells nice. It’s also really cozy. Cozy like snuggling on the couch after a bike ride or a big dinner. It feels like he’s hugging me at a bonfire. Oh my god he’s so cute! I can’t believe I’m in here!
I can see a tiny light way off in the distance. I walk towards it and it looks like it’s far away, but it doesn’t take too long to actually get there. The light goes from being super small to a little bit bigger, and a little bit bigger, until I realize I’m standing in front of a TV that’s turned on, an old TV, like the kind everyone used to have in their dens and playrooms in the basement. And it’s all static-y.
I take a step forward and bang into something I couldn’t see in the dark. It’s a love seat, worn in and really soft, so I sit on it. There isn’t a remote for the TV though, so I have to get up to change the channels.
Nothing’s on TV, and I don’t want to fall asleep in here—I feel like that would be really bad—but he has Mario set up, so I play that for a while. I keep looking around, expecting him to show up, but he doesn’t. I guess that makes sense. But I’m lonely. I want to see him.
I’m thinking maybe I should go, because this really isn’t as exciting as I thought it would be, and I kinda have to pee. I wonder… Maybe there’s a bathroom in my boyfriend’s head? What would that do? If I peed in his head. I kinda want to know, but I feel like it’s probably not a good idea.
I get up and walk around anyway, and I shout, “Hello?” really long, like Hellllooooohhh? And I hear my own voice reverberating for a really long time. And I say “Echo!” And my voice goes Ek-oh Ek-oh Ek-oh on top of the sound of the hello. Nothing. No one.
I thought it would be some crazy sex party in here with all his ex-girlfriends, but no one’s around. What gives? Shouldn’t it be exciting while he’s dreaming?
I didn’t say that. “Who’s there?” I ask. It’s pretty dark again, I wish I had a flashlight or something so I hold up my iPhone. In its tiny glow I see someone’s face not far from mine. So I scream.
“Hey!” A girl’s hushed voice scolds me. “Be quiet, you don’t want him to wake up, do you?”
I don’t say anything and can hear her muttering to herself, looking for a light. She gives up after a minute and claps her hands and a disco ball turns on and starts revolving specks of reflected light around the room.
“Whoa!” I say. “You guys have The Clapper™ AND a disco ball?! That’s so cool!”
“Oh my god,” she says. “He’s so ridiculous. I told him to just get a normal light fixture installed, maybe a ceiling fan or something cuz it gets so hot in here, but noooooo why listen to me? I’m just some girl with too many shoes and a nice ass—clearly I wouldn’t know what I’m talking about.” She looks me up and down and apologizes.
“Sorry,” she says. “We don’t get a lot of visitor’s here. Obviously.” She gestures to the disorganized clutter around the room: mostly dirty clothes and half empty glasses of juice.
Oh my god. Who is this girl? How come she spends so much time with my boyfriend? They even shop together. And she’s hot too. I ask her, “Who are you?”
She rolls her eyes. “I’m you, genius. Well, sort of. I’m his version of you.”
Whew, okay. That’s a relief. For a second there I was worried, but now I know that I don’t have to be scared of her. And he thinks I’m so pretty!
She asks me how I got in here but before I get a chance to reply she holds her hand up and says, “I don’t want to know. But you got to get out of here. You know you’re not supposed to be in here.”
Ding! The chime of an iPhone informs us that one of us received a text. My mouth goes dry and I get nervous thinking that he’s looking for me but I know the text isn’t for me because it didn’t vibrate in my purse.
“I gotta get out of here,” I say.
And she tells me, “Yeah you do,” as her thumbs busily tend to the reply she’s texting. “Okay, I gotta go see Darlene. But the exit’s on the way. I’ll show you out.”
“Darlene?” I ask. “You mean his Mom? She hates my guts!”
“No, she doesn’t,” she tells me. We walk through a narrow hall with lots of doors. I can hear the heels of our shoes clicking far down either end of the hall. I want to ask her something deep but nothing comes to mind.
We arrive at a door that doesn’t look much different from the rest and she says, “Well, this is it.”
I reach to open the door and she stops me to say, “You know you didn’t need to do this. He loves you with all his heart, otherwise I wouldn’t be in here. But you have to get the hell out unless you want to ruin this for the both of us.”
I say okay as she smiles and shuffles me out the door.
When I get back to our room I am covered in this weird pink goo. My clothes are totally ruined and I have to take a shower, but when I curl up next to Max in bed I know he means it when he tells me he loves me.
Katie Li has been working in the arts for over ten years. She began her career while studying at the Boston Arts Academy (2003), where she majored in Theatre with a focus on Production and Stage Management. Katie was the co-host of the MCET program Writers On Writing, and received the Promising Writer Award by ArtsFirst, as well as the award for Excellence in Directing by the Emerson College High School Drama Festival. She also received funding to conduct her community service project, Everlasting Moments, a memoir writing group for senior citizens at a local nursing home. Katie attended Hampshire College (2007) where she designed her own course of study in Creative Writing and Contemporary Literature. She was a contributing performer to the ensemble based production Other: A Play By and About Multi-Racial Asians. Her writing was featured in The Nexus and Slateblue, as well as in performances by the local theatre company TC^2: The Next Stage. Katie is currently working on her first novel.