New Short Fiction Award
Three times a year, we award a writer who submits, in our opinion, the best original, previously unpublished work.
Brian Greene of Durham, North Carolina is the eighteenth recipient of the Jerry Jazz Musician New Short Fiction Award, announced and published for the first time on July 10, 2008.
Brian Greene’s short stories, personal essays, and writings on books and music have appeared in a variety of print and on-line publications, from 1991 to the present year. He was recently a semifinalist in the University of Iowa’s annual book-length fiction contest. Brian lives in North Carolina with his wife Abby, their daughter Violet, and two cats. In his spare time he sometimes works as a DJ in bars.
The first of my notes read I’M IN A STATE OF DISBELIEF. I left this one on top of a counter at a place where many of the thousands of people who worked in the same building as I did went to get their coffees and pastries in the morning.
The second note went AN ANGEL GOT IN BED WITH ME LAST NIGHT — OR MAYBE IT WASN’T AN ANGEL. I taped this one to the inside of the door of one of the stalls in the public bathroom of the same building.
The third note was longer. It had three separate parts to it: A RETIRED TWENTY- YEAR OLD LEAVES A GROCERY STORE PRESSING HIS HANDS TO HIS EARS AND STARING HARD AT THE GROUND AS HE WALKS ANGRILY IN NO PARTICULAR DIRECTION.
A TOWERING INFANT RAISES ITS REDDISH HAND TO ITS FATHER ON ITS FIRST DAY HOME FROM THE SMELLY HOSPITAL.
A MAN GETS IN BED WITH THE WRONG WOMAN — AND DOESN’T GET OUT.
I slipped this note into a customer’s bag, when the customer wasn’t looking, at the newsstand where I worked.
It’s hard to say why I started writing these notes and leaving them for people to discover. It seems like something that only a person who has something wrong with them would do. And there didn’t seem to be anything wrong with me then.
In fact, I was quite regular at the time. I was working a full forty-hour week, which was a first for me. I went to the grocery store every Sunday and didn’t leave until I had enough food for seven lunches and seven dinners (I never eat in the morning). I put the trash out on trash day and the recycling out when it was time for that. I paid my rent on time and didn’t have to ask the phone and electric companies for extensions on my bills.
The work-eat-sleep routine did get to me at times. But when that happened I would ride my bike out to this abandoned house I knew of and I would yell things and throw baseballs at the side of the house until I started to feel better. That only happened once a month or so, though, and otherwise there didn’t seem to be anything especially wrong with me then.
Wait — now I remember when things started to change. It was after I took the train two hours to see that old friend of mine.
This was a guy I had known a few years before, and who I hadn’t seen or talked to for some time. I hadn’t been so regular back then, when I was hanging around with this guy and some other people. That was a different kind of time. It was a time when my voice sounded like thunder to me when I spoke, but other people swore it was coming out as a whisper. I’d be walking along and a shrill whistling would start up in my head, and I’d have to go somewhere and stand still and wait for it to stop. One time I was standing there like that, the shrill whistling going through my head and me waiting for it to stop, and a bag lady who was carrying a basketball approached me and asked me, “Wanna see me take a shot?”
Back during that time, at least once a week I would meet somebody who it seemed like I should have known my whole life. A bunch of us would sit up all night and talk, and sometimes by morning we’d have a new life plan mapped out, part of which involved moving to a different city. One time three of us actually did that — moved to a different city after sitting up all night and talking about it. None of us could find any way to make rent money in the new place, and we came back six weeks later, but at least we tried it.
At some point that whistling started up in my head, and it wouldn’t stop. I had to go to my mother’s house and lie down in my old bed, because I couldn’t stand to be outside, and I couldn’t talk to people with all that noise going on inside me. I think I was at my mother’s house for about a year. The noise in my head didn’t go on for the whole year, but maybe I just needed some time to rest and gather myself once it finally stopped.
Eventually I got out of my old bed and went outside and started talking to people again. A friend of mine from high school who had a job at a newsstand told me about an opening they had there, and he recommended me to the manager. After working there for a few months I saved up enough money so I could move out of my mother’s house and get an apartment of my own. And I had been going on like that, working at the newsstand and living in my own place and just generally being regular, for maybe a year and a half. Then that old friend of mine called me, and I rode the train two hours to go see him. And now that I’m really remembering all of this, I think I can definitely say that that’s when things started to change for me.
The guy had some photo albums from that time when we were hanging around each other a lot. I couldn’t stop looking at the pictures in the albums, even when my old friend was trying to tell me about his new life. In my mind’s eye I kept seeing the images of the photos from his albums on the ride back home the following morning, and when I got home I found that I was suffering from a kind of vague restlessness.
I kept writing notes. I wrote THIS MORNING THE SUN DENIED A DIVORCEE’S REQUEST THAT IT LAY OFF FOR A DAY. I left that one on the vacant seat next to me on the bus I took to work. Another one read YOU KNOW WHEN PEOPLE YOU BARELY KNOW AND HARDLY EVER THINK ABOUT WIND UP IN YOUR DREAMS? YOU’RE THINKING ABOUT THESE PEOPLE MORE THAN YOU REALIZE. That one went inside of a newspaper at the newsstand.
About two or three weeks after I started writing the notes and leaving them for people to discover, I found that the thrill or relief or whatever it was that I was getting out of this activity seemed to be fading off. I had to stop and think for a while.
I didn’t write any new notes for about ten days, and was terribly restless during that time. I tried to ease myself through regularity, by shaving once every other day and reading exactly twenty pages from a book every day. I went out to that abandoned house and yelled and threw baseballs twice during that time. But none of this was helping me feel less restless.
Finally, my next move came to me. After suffering through hours of fitful sleep one night, I got out of bed at around four in the morning and wrote a new kind of note. This one read THERE’S SOMETHING I HAVE TO ADMIT: I NEVER REALLY GOT OVER MY JUNIOR HIGH GIRLFRIEND, AND I STILL LOOK FOR PARTS OF HER IN THE GIRLS I MEET NOW. I stuck this note inside one of my neighbors’ mailboxes on my way to the bus stop later that morning, and I immediately felt my restlessness pass though me, and I got that thrill or relief or whatever it was again.
It was three or four days before I wrote another note. But I had been okay in the meantime, and anyway I was newly energized after writhing this new one, which went ONCE, WHEN I WAS SEVEN OR EIGHT YEARS OLD, I WENT INTO A TRANCE WHEN I WAS GOING TO THE BATHROOM AND WHEN I CAME OUT OF THE TRANCE THE WALLS AND FLOOR OF THE BATHROOM WERE COVERED WITH MY EXCREMENT. I WOULDN’T ADMIT TO MY PARENTS THAT I HAD DONE IT, AND MY SISTERS AND BROTHER AND I HAD TO COME INSIDE WHEN THE STREETLIGHTS WENT ON FOR THE NEXT TWO WEEKS. This note went inside the pocket of someone’s jacket, which was hanging up on a rack at the coffee shop I went to for my after-lunch coffee every workday.
Another week or so after that, I wrote this note: I’M AFRAID OF WHAT’S GOING TO HAPPEN TO ME WHEN I DIE. This one I put between two pages of a magazine at the public library.
At some point these new kinds of notes seemed to have exhausted their ability to give me that thrill or relief or whatever it was, the same way the first set of notes had, and once again I fell into a phase of restless inactivity.
I don’t remember how long that restless phase lasted, but I definitely remember what pulled me out of it and started the next phase. I was standing at the bus stop one evening, getting ready to go home from work, when I looked through the window of a coffee shop behind the bus stop and fell in love at fist sight with a girl who was working in the shop.
She had pretty, long brown hair and dreamy eyes — I couldn’t make out the color of her eyes from where I was standing, but I was ready to bet they were a deep green color. She looked and acted like a girl who had been hit on enough so that she knew she was pretty but not so much that she became the kind of girl who acted like she expected people to want to do favors for her all the time.
I got myself situated so that I could look at the girl — whose name I decided was Sandy — but she couldn’t see me. I let bus after bus pass by and I had to ignore people who noticed that I seemed to be staring at something and tried to figure out what it was for a few seconds.
I finally got on one of the buses and went home, and when I got there I skipped dinner and just got in bed and started thinking about Sandy. Thinking about her made me think back to that other time in my life, when I wasn’t so regular. I remembered that I had been quite active, romantically/sexually, at that time. There had always been two or three pretty/smart/fun-to-be-with girls around who seemed to be interested in me, and I often would call one of these girls or just show up at her door, and we would spend time together.
After reflecting on that for a while, I started to think about how I had become wholly inactive, romantically/sexually, while I was regular. I was eating right and paying my bills on time, but I wasn’t meeting any pretty/smart/fun-to-be-with girls, or I was meeting them but no connection was happening between them and me.
I started hanging around outside Sandy’s coffee shop and looking at her for fifteen or twenty minutes after work every evening. I got creative at making out like I was busy doing or looking at something else, so that people walking by wouldn’t get too interested in what I was up to.
The more I saw of Sandy, the more I felt for her. And the more I felt for her, the more I remembered about my old life, how things had been for me before I became regular. For instance, as I was staring at Sandy’s hair one evening, I remembered that back during that other time I had decided that I was going to become a writer. I had an almost-complete outline of a novel in my head, and everybody I described the outline to said it sounded like it could be a great book.
Another time, when I watched a guy try to flirt with Sandy, and saw how gracefully she brushed him off, I remembered that I had also been in a band at that other time. I had gotten hold of a guitar and learned to play the basic chords in the standard positions, and I could come up with a catchy riff or chord progression without having to try too hard. People who could play the bass or drums or other odd instruments, or who could sing or yell or read poetry in a tuneful way, or who could just dance in an eye-catching way — people like this materialized, and soon we gelled into a band. We played several open-mic nights at a bar, and once we performed in front of a mall and put a hat out for donations to our creative cause (we made enough for an entire twelve-pack of beer).
All at once I was remembering that when that shrill whistling started up in my head and wouldn’t stop and I had to go to my mother’s house and get in my old bed, I had two or three pretty/smart/fun-to-be-with girlfriends, I was about to write a book, and I was in a band.
When all of these thoughts took a firm hold of my mind I was thrown into a fit of restlessness that I didn’t know how to cope with. I decided that what I needed to do was start living like I did back in my pre-regular days. I bought a guitar at a pawn shop. I got a notebook from the drug store and wrote down as much of my novel outline as I could remember. I started making phone calls, trying to get back in touch with my old girlfriends.
Nothing was working, though. I found that playing the guitar wasn’t something I could do effortlessly now, and I couldn’t make anything rhythmic or tuneful come out of the guitar. I wrote out everything I could remember from my novel outline, and when I read back through all of these bits and pieces I had to admit that I had no idea what this book was supposed to be about. I was only able to get in touch with one of my old girlfriends, and when I suggested that she and I meet up sometime, she said she didn’t think her husband would appreciate that.
I was still looking in at Sandy through the coffee shop window nights after work through all of this, and still feeling things when I looked at her. One time I went home after looking at her and wrote a third kind of note, one meant solely for her. It went HOW ABOUT SOMETIME NEXT WEEK, WHEN EVERYBODY’S WORKING OUT AT THE GYM OR SEEING WHAT NEW THING THEY CAN DO ON THE COMPUTER, WE GO SOMEWHERE AND TALK?
Another note for Sandy followed soon after, one that read HOW COME ON FRIDAY NIGHTS WHEN I GET HOME FROM WORK I WISH THAT YOU AND I WERE HOME WITH OUR KIDS, FEEDING THEM FOOD THEY DON’T WANT AND WATCHING MOVIES WITH THEM THAT WE DON’T WANT TO SEE?
A third note to Sandy went IF WE BOTH GO ON ONE MEAL A DAY AND DON’T BUY MINTS OR ANYTHING AFTER LUNCH FOR A WHILE, I BET WE COULD SAVE ENOUGH TO GO IN ON A RESIDENCE HOTEL ROOM TOGETHER FOR AT LEAST A FEW MONTHS.
I wasn’t giving these notes to Sandy, though. I still hadn’t gone into the coffee shop (hers wasn’t the shop I went to for my after-lunch coffee), had never looked at Sandy up close or heard her voice, although I was thinking about her all the time now, seeing little pieces of her in every book I read and feeling things for her when I heard a song that did something for me. For the time being I was still leaving my notes in strangers’ jacket pockets and mailboxes and newspapers, and having to suffice with the thrill or relief or whatever it was that that activity gave me.
All the while, I was starting to become less regular. I was on my way to the grocery store one Sunday and on the way there I decided I didn’t want to go to the grocery store, not that day and not for a long time. I started eating out or grabbing odds and ends from little corner markets, and although I was spending much more money on food than when I was getting it from the grocery store, I was eating much more poorly. This extra spending on food threw my budget off, and soon enough I found that when the phone and electric bills came I didn’t have enough in my bank account to cover them, and I had to call the companies and ask them for extensions. I shaved only when I felt like it, and more often than not I didn’t bother to ask myself if something I was about to toss into my overflowing trash can was recyclable or not.
Everything kind of came to a head on one particular day. The owner of the newsstand came by for a surprise visit in the morning, and before she left she pulled my boss into his office and told him to tell me to get a good shave before I came to work in the morning. Later in the day a customer asked me why we didn’t carry a particular magazine, and when I told him, truthfully, that I had no idea, since I wasn’t the buyer, his face went red and he demanded that I tell him my name, the manager’s name and the phone number of our head office.
I kept buying things I didn’t need or even want that day: a second cup of coffee in the morning, a bagel with cream cheese before lunch, a roll of mints and a candy bar after lunch . . . The more of these things I wasted money on, the more disgusted I felt with myself, and the more of them I wanted.
I knew that, in my present state of mind, this wouldn’t be the best day for me to go into Sandy’s coffee shop after work and finally meet her. But just as it was with all the snacks I’d been eating all day, I couldn’t seem to help myself. When I got off work I walked directly to her shop and went right in and didn’t stop until I was standing in front of Sandy, asking her for a small coffee to go.
I don’t really know how to tell you about Sandy, about what she was like when I finally saw her up close and heard her voice. Usually when you build something up in your mind the way I had with her, when you finally experience that thing it’s a letdown, something less than what you had let your imagination believe it was going to be. But Sandy was actually even better than what I’d thought she be like. Her eyes were green and deep-set, just like I knew they would be, and she had the prettiest head of hair I had ever seen, full and brown and long. She smiled easily at me. When she handed me my change, and before I put the change in her tip cup, our fingers touched for a few seconds and I felt the deep, natural warmth of her being.
Even though I’d asked for my coffee in a to-go cup, I took it over to a table and sat down. Once situated there, I got out my notebook and a pen out of my backpack, and I wrote Sandy a new note. This note was several pages long. I can’t remember all of it, but I know that in it I told Sandy about how I fell in love at first sight with her that first time I saw her though the shop window. I told her how pretty she was and what a good person I could tell she was, and how looking at her always made me feel things.
I also told Sandy some things about myself. I told her about the different times in my recent life, about how things were with me when I wasn’t regular, years before, and how things were when I got regular in more recent days. I explained to her that I seemed to be caught just then, that I was in some kind of place that was neither regular nor irregular, and that I didn’t know what was going to happen to me next. I concluded the note by saying that whatever it was that was about to happen to me, I thought I could handle it if she would be close to me.
When I knew the note was done I tore the pages out of my notebook and folded them up. I drank the last of my coffee, gathered my things and started to head to the counter, where I would hand Sandy her note.
Before I could get back up there, though, everything changed. A guy walked into the coffee shop, and when I saw the way Sandy looked when she saw him, I knew he was her boyfriend. He had curly hair and a light beard and he wore a suede jacket with a fur collar. Sandy said something to her co-worker, then came out from behind the counter and gave her boyfriend a hug. I guess I was just standing there, staring at them in a funny way, because after a minute Sandy pulled away from him and looked at me and said, “Was there anything else you needed?” I hesitated, and then said, “No, thanks. I’m going home now.” Sandy looked confused and maybe a little worried about me. That was too much for me to handle. I had to get out of there quick, because now that I knew about her boyfriend I couldn’t let her care about me. I tried to act normal and regular as I said goodbye and walked out to the bus.
I was still clutching the note I had written to Sandy when I got on the bus. When I sat down I let the note drop into the vacant seat next to me. After a few stops a man got on the bus and wanted to sit in that seat. Before sitting down he looked at me, then at the folded notebook pages sitting on the seat. I made a facial expression telling him I didn’t know what the pages were, and he picked them up before sitting down.
Then the man sat there and read my note to Sandy. I watched him read it, and waited to see what kind of reactions he might make to what he read. But his facial expression never changed while he was reading, although he seemed to be fully engrossed in the content of the note. When he finished reading he let out a little chuckle, then he offered the note to me, making out like he was giving me an opportunity to partake of something that I might find amusing. I shook my head in a way that told him thanks, but no thanks, and he shrugged his shoulders before folding the pages and letting them drop to the floor of the bus.
I didn’t sleep that night, but I wasn’t feeling all that bad. In the morning I called my boss at the newsstand and told him I was quitting, effective immediately. Then I called the owner of the newsstand and told her that if she had something to say to people who worked for her, like that they needed a shave before coming to work, she should say those things herself and not get other people to say them for her. I also told her that, with what she paid people to work at her newsstand, they might not be able to afford shaving cream and a razor. Then I hung up on her before she could respond to any of that.
I fell asleep for a few hours after making that call. When I woke up I took a shower and got dressed, then went out and bought coffee and the paper. I went back home and read the want ads in the paper while drinking my coffee. Later that day I went around and filled out job applications at a few of the places that were looking for help, and at one of those places somebody called me “sir” for the first time in my life.
Author’s Statement about this story
“The Notes” was a breakthrough for me when I first wrote it some years ago. At that point I had been writing in earnest for several years — toiling away, scribbling furiously during nearly every waking moment when I wasn’t at work (and sometimes when I was). Through those years I experienced many near misses and a seemingly endless cycle of one-step-forward/two-steps-back as I sought to find my voice as a writer. When I finished my working draft of “The Notes” I felt I had finally completed a fully realized short story, one that was strong all the way through and which effectively put down on the page some of what I was carrying around in my mind and heart.
- Brian Greene