New Short Fiction Award
Three times a year, we award a writer who submits, in our opinion, the best original, previously unpublished work.
Joe DiBuduo of Prescott Valley, Arizona is the winner of the 31st Jerry Jazz Musician New Short Fiction Award, announced and published for the first time on November 8, 2012.
Joe DiBuduo began writing classes after retiring at the age of 66. In the six years since then he has earned a certificate in creative writing and has had many stories and poems published online. He also has four or more stories published in print anthologies. He has published one nonfiction book, A Penis Manologue, two journals of poetry, and six flash fiction collections. All are available on Amazon.
Le Cafe de Nuit
Vincent van Gogh, 1888
When my doctor released me from the asylum in Saint-Remy, he warned me to stay away from absinthe or my hallucinations would worsen. I didn’t tell him I had no need for absinthe to hallucinate. I often had company, even when there wasn’t anyone with me.
I’d spent some of my time in the asylum playing billiards. Everyone assured me that I was a natural, the best player they’d ever seen. Maybe, instead of painting, I’d play billiards for a living. As soon as I walked past the gates of the asylum, I headed to Arles and the Cafe de la Gare at 30 Place Lamartine. I’d heard many stories about the fine billiards table in this tavern and the ample crowd of gamblers willing to bet large sums of money on every game.
Night descended as I entered the cafe, lit by four hanging lamps made of lemon-lime glass that emanated a greenish light. The blood red walls seemed to ooze into a lower section painted in a dark yellow, and the green billiard table in the middle of the room added to the eerie sensation of color revolving around me in kaleidoscopic circles.
The odor of stale beer and cigarette smoke penetrated my senses and my clothes. I ordered a beer from a heavy-set man behind the bar. “Is there much action at your table?”
“You bet there is. The best players come here from all over to play pocket billiards.” His deep, raspy words came out as a growl. Do you play?”
I wanted to tell him yes, but my companion, Guy de Maupassant, who accompanied me from the asylum, disagreed. “Be quiet, Vincent, and don’t tell him.”
I shrugged my shoulders. “A little,” I said. I remembered then that Guy had died while confined in the asylum. But he sometimes still hung around and gave me advice about billiards.
The players began to shoot. Judging by the plays, I could easily beat any of them.
“Monsieur, you can play next if you’ve money to bet,” said a small raggedy man who stood waiting his turn.
I stared at this undignified man who didn’t measure up to my level. He turned and took his shots, and to my surprise, his technique was so smooth and perfect that I drank to the game he was about to win.
The drink caused me to see flashing colors. Suddenly, this nondescript billiards player changed into a princely figure. His attire changed from lackluster working class garb to well-tailored clothing bedecked with shiny buttons and gold chains, a man worthy of my challenge. I lay all my money on the billiards table.
“I’ll play you – straight pocket billiards.”
He gazed at the sum I’d placed on the table, went around to his compatriots, and borrowed money until he matched my bet.
“I want to be sure I understand the rules, so when I beat you there will be no questions,” I said.
Together we went over the rules. We agreed the object would be to reach one hundred points, meaning at least one hundred balls pocketed to win. One point scored for each ball pocketed with no foul made. He agreed to let me shoot first, a distinct advantage for me.
I royally beat him by running one hundred balls without a miss. While waiting for them to decide who would play next, I went for another pint.
“Biere de Chartres,” I said, and threw some coins on the countertop.
“All I have is du Croissant, de Monaco, or de Vezelise,” the barman replied.
I gazed at the posters advertising the different beers behind the bar. A beautiful woman dressed as a goddess swinging on pale greenish-yellow moon caught my eye. She sipped from a mug of beer. I ordered the same beer, “du Croissant.” The lovely lady seemed to be staring at the end of the bar. I followed her gaze to a gallon glass jug that had coins and a few bills filling but a small portion of it. A large sign pasted to it read Help the Widows & Orphans, Please. But I couldn’t help them. The rest of my money sat on the billiards table.
I closed my eyes to fantasize about the moon woman, and before I knew it, I found myself sitting beside her on the quarter moon.
“Hello, I’m Vincent,” I said.
I was close enough to feel her breath on my face when she turned to me.
“We’ll play, you and I,” she said. “Is that all?” a gruff voice asked. I opened my eyes to the barman’s ugly face and stinking breath. I tilted the glass and the aroma of barley and hops washed the foul smell away.
I hoped I could meet the moon lady again. I returned to my winnings along with my original bet on the billiards table. Men gathered in groups and more money changed hands as they debated who’d play me next. I won another game and decided to try another beer.
A new barkeep was on duty and he introduced himself as Joseph, the owner of the cafe. Gazing at the posters again, I fancied the one that said La Celebre Bieres de Monaco, with a picture of two women and a huge mug of the “famous Monaco beer.” The greenish color from the hanging lights mixed with the colors of the poster. Everything spun, mixed, and swirled faster and faster until the mug of beer disappeared and the entire room filled with spiraling colors.
I found myself standing between the two beautiful women draped in shimmering red and yellow dresses. Sweet perfume mixed with the unmistakable aroma of fine beer mingled amidst the vibrant colors. Hot, sweet female breath flowed over both sides of my face as they leaned in close to whisper, “Bieres de Monaco, Bieres de Monaco, Bieres de Monaco.”
They recited this over and over until finally, I too shouted, “Bieres de Monaco.” Joseph put a full glass in front of me, bringing my imagination to a sudden halt.
“Are you going to play?” A well-dressed gentleman in black approached me, chosen by the anxious gamblers to challenge me in an attempt to win their money back.
I played the gentleman and although a better player than my previous opponents, I easily beat him. I pocketed my money, easily four times greater than my original sum.
I returned to sit at the bar. My emotions demanded I paint this barroom scene. My ear itched as it always did before one of my “visions.” If I didn’t scratch, I knew the itch would turn into a burn I couldn’t stand. One of these days, I’d fix that damn ear, visions or no.
A sound from heaven soothed my itching ear, and the mellow tones caused my whole being to drink in the beauty. Not only did I feel it, but I also saw the sound vibrating and dancing in vivid yellows and blues that lifted me to the heavens, and browns and blacks that took me to the depths of despair.
This emotion-filled sound seemed to issue from the goddess poster. The lovely moon-green goddess extended her arms, urging me to come and sit beside her. Her voice compelled me to fly to her side and partake of the beauty filling the night sky that only we could see from the vantage point of the quarter moon.
The goddess sang on and on until I too began to sing. I tried to match her note for note, but in comparison to her, my voice sounded off-key.
My bellowing voice and swinging motion attracted the attention of Joseph.
“Hey, hey, take it easy,” he said, mopping the counter with a rag. “Calm down. Let me buy you another drink, and then you can go home.”
“Home, I have no home. I search for beauty and I find it here. This will be my home.”
“This can be your home, for a price. I have rooms for rent in the rear,” Joseph said.
“I can afford lodging. Look, I’ve won this playing on your table.” I showed him a large roll of bills. “Not only am I the best billiards player in the land, I’m an artist of great renown – someday.” I bowed my head to accept his recognition of my greatness to be.
“Quite a bit of that money in your hand used to be mine,” Joseph said. “I bet for your challengers.”
I saw the dismay at losing in his eyes. I knew he’d be happy if I returned some francs to him as payment for room and board.
I stored my belongings in one of the rooms and returned to the bar to spend more of my winnings. “No more beer for me,” I told Joseph as he set a glass in front of me. “I want a Green Fairy.”
The billiards players smiled. They knew those who drank absinthe usually lost their skills for shooting billiards. I watched as the barkeep poured the absinthe in a glass with a bubble in the lower portion denoting the measurement. He placed a slotted spoon inside the glass and dropped a sugar cube into the spoon’s bowl, taking great care in adding ice-cold water, drop by single drop, onto the cube. Each individual drip cut a milky swathe through the peridot-green absinthe. As the pungent smell of aniseed refreshed me, a swirling mist in the glass became a solid cloud. Joseph let the milky louche sit for a moment to let the herbs blossom and bring out flavors overpowered by the anise.
“There you go, le Fee Verte.” He left the bottle so I could make myself another.
I put the glass to my lips and slowly let the bitter liquid, now sweetened with sugar, flow over my teeth and swirl around them. I held the liquid in my mouth, trying to absorb it rather than drink it. I swallowed the drink in small dribbles, sipping another bit, and then another.
I paid for the absinthe and my room. Then I handed Joseph some small bills. “Here, put this in the widows and orphans jar.” The Goddess smiled and our eyes met in mutual sympathy.
Those who watched me drink challenged me to play again. Joseph must have had the next challenger specially sent for because of his reputation as the best billiards player in Arles.
I knew I could play even better when imbibing absinthe. I laid the remainder of my bills on the billiards table and watched as my opponent matched the pile, bill for bill. We ran over the rules of the game and lagged to see who shot first. He ran eighty-eight balls before missing. I, on the other hand, shot one-hundred balls and won the game. I now had more money than I ever dreamed of in my entire life.
Then I sat at the bar and drank much too much absinthe.
Where was I, how was it I still sat there? I don’t know. I must have passed out. But the empty absinthe bottle on the bar was evidence of my debauchery. Joseph had used the entire bottle for my drinks. Sadly, I sat all alone in the eerie, glowing light.
Then she approached me and I couldn’t believe my eyes. The beauty of the Green Goddess overwhelmed my senses. She floated above the floor wearing an almost transparent gown. Her full lips moved in a song so beautiful that I began to weep. I glanced up at the poster but the quarter moon shone alone. The goddess no longer sat on it, but of course, how could she? She was standing before me at the bar.
The warmth became heat and my blood felt as though it would boil. Desire spread with the heat and compelled me to touch her. As if she could read my thoughts, she leaned forward and touched my hand with a fingertip. Celestial sparks flew, blood boiled. Weak from so much wanting, I collapsed and dreamt the night through on the floor of the Green Goddess’s heavenly abode.
Joseph poked me with a dirty mop. “Wake up!”
The Green Goddess had vanished with my sleep. Bright, brain-piercing, yellow sunlight streamed through the windows, revealing the debris on the floor where I lay amongst spittoons, cigar and cigarette butts, and tobacco chewers’ spittle. Disgusted with myself, I crawled to the window to lower the shade to shut off the penetrating light that felt like hot needles pricking my eyes. Inconceivable relief came when Joseph stomped past me and dropped the shade.
Joseph’s face contorted in anger. “I can’t have a drunken sot sleeping on my floor. Sleep in your room from now on.”
In the now cool gloom, I looked for my Green Goddess even though I knew I had drank too much absinthe and let my imagination run wild. Still, unbelievable despair rolled through me at the thought I had only imagined her, a woman like no mortal woman. She enthralled me with a touch of her finger. Any touching with more than a finger would be pure ecstasy for me.
I couldn’t accept my goddess’s absence. I hungered for her touch and knew the absinthe could bring her back. I ordered another Green Fairy, and as I put it to my lips, my eyes roved over the posters behind the bar. I gagged and spat the drink all over the polished wood. My unbelieving eyes stopped on the Biere du Croissant poster. The Green Goddess had disappeared. The quarter moon hung in a star-spangled sky without her.
Where is she? What have you done with her?” I demanded.
“That stuff is going to your head. Why do you drink it in the morning? What are you talking about?”
I pointed to the poster.
Joseph looked at it and shrugged his shoulders. “What?”
I pointed at the spot where she sat only yesterday. “The goddess, you fool, she’s gone.”
He grabbed the bottle of absinthe. “No more of this for you,” he growled.
Astonished that he had taken my absinthe away, my hands shook. Knowing I couldn’t have another drink made me need one desperately.
A debonair man strode through the door and approached me. He ignored my disheveled state. “Joseph has told me, Monsieur, that you’re a good billiards player. I want you to know that I’m a fair player myself. I have adequate funds to cover any bet you wish to make.”
He pulled a stack of bills from his overcoat to show he indeed had more than enough funds to cover any bet. I counted my remaining bills and coins. To me it was a small fortune. I could paint for a long time without any financial worries with what I already had. Should I risk it all? My hands trembled. No more absinthe, Joseph had said. But I couldn’t play billiards with shaking hands.
“I’ll play for all I have,” I told the debonair man. I was sure he was a ringer that Joseph had brought here to beat me. “But it’s a bit early. I need time to freshen up before I play.”
“Take all the time you want as long as it isn’t more than an hour. I’ve got business elsewhere,” he said.
I returned to my room, splashed water on my face, combed my hair, and changed my shirt. Then I did what I always do when I need to focus. I opened my box of paints, filled my mixing cup half-full of linseed oil, squeezed a few drops from a tube of ultramarine blue into it, and added a few drops of cadmium red. Red was expensive, so out of habit I used just a tad. Then I added a quarter tube of titanium white and stirred it with a mixing stick.
I watched the blue and red swirl around in the oil, slowly becoming a vortex of purple swirls. Tendrils of white flowed into the mixed color, making swirls of lilac. When the entire liquid mixed thoroughly it became a striking lavender color. I wished my blood could become this color. A royal hue, I thought, light enough not to be a blue-blood. I swirled the liquid around, making sure all the colorant dissolved, and then put it to my lips. The taste needed a dash of raw umber to give it a proper flavor.
I mixed in a few capfuls, put the drink to my lips, and closed my eyes. I envisioned a Green Goddess drink in my hand and let the liquid flow over my teeth. If not for the smell of linseed oil, I would have sworn I was drinking absinthe.
Soon my hands stopped shaking and Guy appeared at my side. He told me not to worry. “You can beat any player in the entire country,” he said.
I returned to the billiards table, and lagged the debonair man for the break.
The balls rolled so close to the rail he called a tie. “Wait,” I said. I picked up a playing card and handed it to him. “See if that fits between your ball and the rail.”
He snatched the card from my hand and slid it between his ball and the rail.
“Now see if it’ll fit behind mine.”
He tried, but my ball was dead against the rail. That meant I won the lag and would shoot first. I knew he had to be one of the best billiards players in France or he wouldn’t be here challenging me. Whoever won the lag would run one hundred balls without missing. He knew it as well as I did, and his face fell into a frown once he saw I would shoot first.
He tried to distract me, and Joseph watched intently as I again ran one hundred balls without missing. “I’m the best! I can beat anyone on this table, man, beast or immortal,” I foolishly shouted.
I picked up my cash and returned to the bar as the debonair man walked out the door with slumping shoulders.
Joseph’s face twisted in grief or anger, I didn’t know which. He must have lost more money on the game I just won. I ordered a bottle of absinthe. Joseph was so upset about losing that he forgot he had said no more for me. Before long, an empty bottle lay before me as I stared at the poster with the empty quarter moon. Broken-hearted, I wondered if my Green Goddess had floated off to the sky, never to return.
The bar filled for the evening and then emptied. How long ago, I didn’t know. I sat alone in the dim light. Although I had plenty of cash, my life would be nothing without my Green Goddess.
Relief spread through me when I suddenly heard her singing. I wept again from the resonance of her mysterious language and her soulful voice. I turned as she floated toward the billiards table, her long golden hair enveloping her face. Her skin shone with an ethereal radiance, her transparent gown revealing more than it obscured. The greenish light transformed her into a glowing apparition.
Feelings flashed through me: joy, desire, gratitude, and of course, love. For I now knew I truly loved this immortal woman. If I couldn’t have her in this world, I must have her in the next.
She began to speak to me in the mysterious language she sang in, but I understood every word. “A mere mortal can never claim a goddess unless he can best her in at least one trial.”
How could I ever best a goddess? I almost gave up hope when I saw her looking at the billiards table. I wondered if she had heard my boast.
She reached a long, translucent arm toward the rack of billiards cues hanging on the wall. “Bet your winnings against me, win, and I’m yours. Lose, and the widows and orphans get your money.”
I thanked the gods for the opportunity presented to me. Thoughts of possessing this goddess paralyzed my mind. I lay all my winnings on the billiards table and reached for a billiards cue.
She lifted the wooden rack from the balls and looked into my eyes. How could I have missed the whirling colors in her irises? Hues spun, changed, purple, gray, blue, and green, whirling in a vortex so swift I felt I’d become sucked into the whirlpool if I didn’t look away. But I couldn’t look away. My body floated towards her, my eyes locked to her spinning irises. I floated into her and became part of her until her eyes closed and shut me out.
My Green Goddess never stopped singing while she racked fifteen balls. With open eyes and new resolve, I strode to the billiards table. I took careful aim and shot hard and straight as I called, “Five in the corner.” The cue ball hit the rack dead on, and the colorful balls rolled in all directions. The rainbow of shades filled me with wonder – I wanted to paint these orbs of moving color. I saw in my mind the beauty of the canvas blended with the bright yellows and reds of the room on a wavery, deep green background. I knew this would be my masterpiece. The best painting I’d ever create was already painted in my mind, thanks to my Green Goddess.
The five ball sank in the corner pocket. I ran five complete tables. Then I looked at my love, and when I did, her sea-green eyes disoriented me. I missed the intended target.
She floated to the end of the table, picked the cue ball from the pocket, and placed it on the table. Leaning over to aim her shot, her long lustrous golden hair framed her face as it reached to the table, flowed around her arms, and covered the green felt table top. She lifted one leg and bent it at the knee, an erotically beautiful pose, possibly never before seen by a mortal man. Inspired, I knew she was my muse, sent by fate. Once she was mine, I’d be able to paint beauty as never seen before, and she’d star in every painting.
Her shots were flawless. She sank every ball she aimed at, sometimes without looking. All the while, she trilled that hauntingly beautiful song in the mysterious language I was beginning to understand. Soon she sank her ninety-ninth ball. Despair washed over me. My Goddess would beat me and I’d lose her if she sank the next ball. I had to do something to stop her from winning. As she gauged her next shot, I put my hand on her arm to cause her to miss. I hoped she would think it an accident.
As soon as my hand touched her arm, her warmth spread through me like wildfire. My blood boiled. I spun her around to face me and put both arms around her. When I brought her body into contact with mine, a fire consumed me, so hot it sizzled and cooled me all at the same time. I strove to put my lips on hers, still moving with song. My mistake became clear when she sang “a goddess would never belong to a man who would cheat.”
My Green Goddess vanished, instantly gone. I frantically looked around for her, but she was nowhere to be found. I searched for the money I had bet, and it was gone too, all gone. Distraught, I shuffled to the bar and fixed another glass of absinthe. The milky white liquid rolled over my teeth, bringing the bittersweet flavor to my tongue. I closed my eyes for a minute, and saw the Green Goddess, but only on the insides of my eyelids. I finished the absinthe and cried myself to sleep atop the table where her memory lay.
“Wake up! I can’t have you sleeping on my billiards table and drinking all my liquor,” Joseph said as the bright yellow light pierced my brain again.
I pointed. “The shade.”
For whatever reason, maybe because he was a decent man, Joseph dropped the sunshade. My brain stopped burning and I opened my teary eyes. Memories of the Green Goddess flooded through me, and I wept for my loss. My muse was gone, dragging the colors and music from my imagination. The tavern was now a drab, dark place where I didn’t want to be. Even Guy had deserted me.
“Don’t cry, come have a drink,” Joseph said, cutting lemons for drinks he would mix later. My eyes landed on the knife blade that so easily sliced through the rinds.
Joseph glanced at the Widows and Orphans jug filled with what must be my winnings from the night before. His face spread in a friendly smile.
I sat and sipped the beer he handed to me. Remorse filled me. Not for the money the Green Goddess had donated – I never had much money before, so it didn’t bother me to be without any now. But why I had tried to cheat my muse? Shouldn’t I have known I couldn’t, that she would be lost to me?
I knew mine would be a one-sided love unless I could somehow demonstrate my commitment. I glanced up and saw the Green Goddess was again upon her poster, sitting on the quarter moon with a mug of beer in one hand.
I looked at the Widows & Orphans jug full of money, smiled, and raised my glass to my lovely moon lady, the Green Goddess. She looked at the jug, smiled, and raised her glass, returning my salutation. Our eyes met in mutual understanding as I picked up the sharp blade from the bar, slashed at my ear, and held my sacrifice out, hoping for her forgiveness.