The publication of Arya Jenkins’ “LIKE A PIGEON IN THE PARK” is the tenth in a series of short stories she has been commissioned to write for Jerry Jazz Musician. For information about her series, please see our September 12, 2013 “Letter From the Publisher.”
For Ms. Jenkins’ introduction to her work, read “Coming to Jazz.”
LIKE A PIGEON IN THE PARK
“What a shame,” people always said whenever they saw the two of them, Jeremy and Jade. What a shame the beauty of the boy had escaped the girl, who had her mother’s small oval face and father’s prominent nose and small dark eyes that were filled with a peculiar, almost unnatural intensity. “Such a shame,” relatives observed unabashedly at family gatherings. The remaining phrase that hung in air unspoken was, ”that she isn’t the beautiful one. “
To herself in the mirror, Jade’s own face and visage seemed fine, just a part of her, not even all that consequential. Didn’t brains and character matter more? She was striking much in the way Zelda Fitzgerald had been—a beauty you could not capture in photographs, more in movement, gesture, articulation. Somewhere, not far from the small, provincial town where Jade lived, where people stared at you if you did not fit a mold, there were people like her who were different and proud of their differences and she looked forward to meeting them one day. In the meantime, she would have to deal with challenges.
Growing up, many of them had to do with her brother, who was two years older. Although Jade garnered high marks in school, not much was made of it so as not to embarrass Jeremy, who struggled with his grades. To her parents, aunt, uncle and cousins, it didn’t seem fair someone so good-looking should have to deal with anything that diminished him. Jeremy’s struggle with his grades endowed him with an almost tragic aura and only served to make him seem vulnerable, more appealing, and so he was spoiled even more.
While Jade’s A’s were treated as B’s, Jeremy’s B’s and even C’s were applauded like top grades. Once, at the dinner table, Jade wondered aloud to her parents– “Do you care that I’m an honor student?” Her mother responded by daintily scooping up a mouthful of lemon ice and placing it on her tongue as if to keep herself from uttering something inappropriate.
“Yes,” her father said, “Of course, we know that,” registering mainly impatience with his daughter, whose constant questioning of everything annoyed him. He was always letting her know–“You’re too curious. Why do you always want to know why? Not everything is yours to know. Remember, curiosity…”
“Yes,” Jade would say, “I know, dad. Curiosity killed the cat.” Then she would roll her eyes at some unseen ally who understood her predicament, turn and leave the room.
It was as if her father, who rarely heard or understood her, wanted her to remain in a bubble of ordinariness. At the same time, her mother always refrained from contradicting him or making waves or even suggesting she thought differently from the “man of the house.” They were so old-fashioned, so typical of the Midwestern town they inhabited.
No matter what the actual circumstances, it was always Jeremy, the first born, the beauty, who got support and praise, and not just from his family—from everyone. Once, as a junior, he was called upon to act in a play in which he had little more to do than kiss a girl, then turn to the audience smirking, but he brought the house down like a would-be star acting in his first production.
After graduating, Jere returned to their high school to perform with his jazz group. Wearing jeans, a tight tee and expensive Maui Jim sunglasses their mother bought for him, he looked like a cross between James Dean and a young Chet Baker. Jere was facile on the horn, although his overconfidence and lack of discipline made him make mistakes that a trained ear could detect, that made Jade wince at times.
He stood to the side, a short distance from the bass player and drummer, and when he was not blowing his horn, stroked and kissed it, a bit of business that kept attention on him, so at the end of the gig, the audience composed mainly of crushes and friends of the family, gave him a standing ovation. His parents, thrilled by his antics, applauded him mightily.
Psychologists say a child’s ego is formed in the first year, and if all goes well then, no matter what damage comes after, the child will be able to shoulder it. It was thanks to her uncle Mel that Jade always felt cared for, no matter the reality, and thanks to him she found her passion early.
After Jade’s birth, and finding herself in a quagmire of post-partum depression, Jade’s mother went to stay with her sister in Missouri. As Jade’s father could only handle one child, Jade was sent to live with her uncle Mel in New York. Mel was single, had never had a child, and delighted in Jade’s company. His enchanting mobiles of colorful star shapes and laminated images of photos he’d taken of movie stars and famous musicians he saw regularly in the city wooed her subconscious. And for nine months he played the best jazz and Broadway tunes he owned for Jade, the music he loved too.
At six, Jade begged her parents to let her study music. Finally, believing it was not a phase, they let her start when she was 10 and only because her piano classes coincided with Jeremy’s horn lessons at the same school. What besides the piano would a girl play? By the time Jade was 12 and fluent in the standards most students take twice as long to learn, she was eager to try something new. She had heard the crazy inventiveness of Bird and others on Youtube and had to learn the alto sax.
Her parents let her know right away they couldn’t support her doing that. The alto was wrong for a girl. “What are you thinking? Where will that get you,” said her father. Eventually, they bought her an instrument, figuring Jade could learn what she wanted while keeping her brother company while he practiced in the studio they built for him.
“Was that you?” Jade’s mother sometimes inquired when she and Jere emerged from the studio after a session. “Was that you playing the sax so beautifully, or your brother, teaching you how?”
“Talent runs in the family,” Jeremy said, flicking back a strand of his sister’s hair, rubbing her cheek playfully with the back of a forefinger.
Encouraged by the stream of girls that never failed to flock to him after gigs, and by his own family’s enthusiasm for all he did, Jeremy kept his sights on what he assumed was a kind of birthright—success in the music biz–so when it came time to go to college, he went to a local school close to home, so he could always come back to his studio to practice, to do what he was meant to do. He and Jade often hung out there, jamming, sometimes with friends.
While Jere took everything for granted—from his parents to the love of his friends and sister, Jade herself took nothing for granted, working hard at odd jobs through high school, putting aside money so she could leave home and forge a real life after graduation. Then something happened, something that made all the difference to her.
Uncle Mel passed away leaving her his rent-controlled apartment on West 10th Street in New York. Jade was a senior then and Jeremy had not yet dropped out of college. This was the small square of freedom Jade needed that Uncle Mel had always wanted to give her, to nurture her potential and talent, having always been the one family member who believed in her. An apartment in New York’s West Village was a dream come true, and Jade seized her opportunity.
In New York, Jade felt like someone who mattered among others like her also developing their dreams and talents. Her small, cozy studio had a warm shag rug and a high ceiling that provided decent acoustics. A bookcase full of CDs and books divided the living room from her sleeping area. Sometimes she opened the back screen door and played to weepy trees that loomed over her back patio. She worked hard as a waitress and practiced long hours at home, looking forward to the day when it would be right to share her music.
What is a girl? She had asked herself that question so often when she lived at home. Away from home, she explored more relevant questions like, what makes an artist? The first part of her life had held so many limitations. But her other life, the life she was cultivating now, felt limitless, boundless with opportunities as manifold as her own expectations.
One Sunday, unassumingly, almost as if she was catching her own self by surprise, Jade grabbed her case with her instrument and took the subway to the hottest spot she could think of in the city—Wall Street, where there was a revolution going on and therefore, where jazz belonged.
Positioning herself across from Zuccotti Park, Jade took out her alto, braced herself, one sneakered foot back against the wall of a bank, and played her “Prelude” for protesters across the way. This would be her spot every Tuesday and Sunday, her days off.
During the week, stockbrokers and other businesspeople strutted arrogantly by, vaguely insulted by Jade’s intrusion, or rather, that of jazz, which must have seemed to them like part of the protest movement in the park. Dressed in a brown beret, vest and baggy jeans, Jade showed off her own sense of style, fitting in with the contrarily dressed activists, hippies and beatniks that copied other eras.
From the first moment Jade began playing in public, it seemed to her this was all she had ever done—play to strangers passing by who, at first, resisted turning in her direction or stopping to listen, then gradually paused or turned to smile at her. Sometimes they reached into pockets and handbags for a bill or two to toss into her open case. This was New York, after all, where people’s taste doesn’t lie, where they expect the most, where the question always asked is—who is great? Who besides Vi Redd, Candy Dulfer or Gigi Dryce could be that good? Greatness was a needle in a haystack, especially in New York.
One evening after finishing up her street gig, Jade decided to check out what was happening across the street. She came upon a young man behind a tent cycling fast on a stationary bike in order to create energy and electricity in the park. Next to him, seated under a bright bulb, a young woman was reading Manifestos of Surrealism. Between her and the cyclist, a poster listing names of people who would relieve the cyclist so as to keep up electricity, had been leaned against a tree. Just away, a young couple with dreds tousled affectionately while painting each other’s faces with white and gold primitive designs. Sunset shed a warm, optimistic light on all these people that, like Jade, knew something beyond the ordinary, and like her, were happy in self-created worlds.
For the moment, Jade likened herself to a pigeon she saw alight on a sign that read, “Greed is not a family value,” as if to parlay a message, but as she approached, the pigeon took off. “Chicken,” she called out. And somebody said, “Don’t worry, they come back.” Jade smiled to herself heading home. Like a pigeon in the park, she would alight with her music, depart, and come back.
In public, she liked wearing a façade so as not to draw attention to herself. On the more crowded days, when she competed with drummers and chanting, she wore a top hat and coat. The costume helped her stay focused, inside herself, so she could let the music be everything. As sunlight beat down on the round top of her hat, falling change jingled falling among the bills inside her open black case. Whenever people crowded around, they created an encompassing shade and Jade closed her eyes to escape deeper into the music. She frowned when she played, her eyelids pinching shut and her brow furrowing with concentration.
She closed her eyes against the brightness of the sun and the skyline, against too many people and their complicated lives of doubt and discontent, and blew her own version of jazz standards–“My Favorite Things,” “Body and Soul,” “Summertime,” and “Georgia On My Mind.” On the best days, as sun started to set and people began heading homeward, she spun out a most unearthly rendition of “Europa,” tenderly enunciating the special language of her instrument so strangers going home could own it too as they faded into the distance.
When she had to, she played counter to the music of people’s voices, constant calls and chanting and assorted drums all beating the sounds of a new movement. She let those sounds stimulate and encourage her to stay true to herself and what she knew. She collected decent money on her adventures, once as much as $240 in a single day. Sometimes people threw cards in with their money and she kept them too.
Then one fourth of July weekend, after a killer shift servicing tourists at the restaurant where she worked, Jade decided to bypass the park and deal with other business. Perched on her studio love seat, she sorted through the cards she had collected. One that read, “Sonny Jones” had a number, name and nothing more. “Sonny,” like Sonny Stitt and Sonny Rollins. Who would not like that name? So she tapped his number into her phone.
“What? Hello? Who is it?” The man at the receiving end yelled. The call was static-y, so she hollered, “You gave me your card. I play Sundays at Zuccotti Park.”
“What? Screw you, whoever you are” he said, “I don’t have time for this.”
“Fucking occupier,” she heard him say to someone nearby before the call went dead. Jade laughed to herself. “So much for that.”
So what if that one call hadn’t worked out. Another number might. She would keep trying. The right person would come along eventually to help her grow. It was just a matter of time. Jade put away the business cards and picked up a letter from Jere that she had received a few days before, and propping her legs up on an armrest of the love seat, re-read it.
“Dear Sis,” she read. “I know it’s been a while. I’ve been meaning to write forever. It’s different without you here. You’re my sounding board.” She skipped mundane paragraphs and went to the second page. “The trio broke up. You’ll be surprised to learn it wasn’t me, at least not really. Remember Dean? Big brown eyes like a model, Dean. That one. We’ve been seeing each other. And of course we spend a lot of time in the studio because it’s the one place that’s private, where mom and dad will never show. But of course I made the mistake of giving the guys a key and, to make a long story short, they found out. So now they don’t want to be seen with a fag, don’t want to be associated with one. The group is over, we are done.
“I’m not blaming anybody. Dean and I are still together and that’s what matters. That and the fact I know you don’t care except about what makes me happy. I’m definitely busted up about the trio, but the thing that worries me most is wondering whether Dick and Charlie will start spreading gossip. What could I do to stop it? Nothing. I want you to know I am happy with Dean. Nothing else matters. Not even the fact there will be no gigs. To tell you the truth, I hardly miss it. I hope you’re killing it in NYC. Love, Jere.”
Slowly, Jade re-folded the letter and put it away. She was concerned about Jere. He was playing Russian Roulette having a same-sex affair in that place. She had not been all that surprised when he came out to her before going off to college, but straight, conservative Salem was no place to come out of the closet. Under Obama, things had gotten better for gays in America, but she hoped Jere would get wise and escape with Dean to New York. It was the only place for them to be.
The following Sunday as Jade played her outdoor gig, she saw that her call to the mystery man named Sonny had not been in vain. A crazy-eyed hipster with a goatee and a jacket with patches at the elbows caught her eye as he cocked his head attentively in her direction. Suddenly, he clasped his forehead with one hand, swearing under his breath. At the end of her round of numbers, he approached her. “Hey, I’m Sonny Jones. I apologize. It was you who called the other night, right?” She broke into a smile, “yeah.”
“Oh, man, I couldn’t hear you. I was at a party. I’m sorry. You’re outta sight. Are you from Julliard? Berklee?”
He couldn’t get over the fact Jade was mostly self-taught. He checked her out. She was waif-like, crazy hair, and what an outfit. “Kid, you’ve got IT, you know that. Tell me what you want to do. Let me buy you some coffee.” He pulled out a wad of greasy bills impulsively. Laughing nervously, she gently pushed his hand with bills away. What was he thinking? No doubt it was part of his schtick. She would go along with it just to see what would happen.
As they sat together at the nearest Starbucks, Jade checked out his dirt-lined fingernails and somber, fixed gaze as he leaned toward her shelling out promises. She half-listened, another part of her already knowing his words. Here was the greedy but knowledgeable stranger almost as hungry for success as she was coming to her aid that she had long hoped for and imagined.
Greed in this case was good, she told herself. She wanted to work with somebody who cared that much about her music, who fought for her. She knew Sonny would do that and that, for a time anyway, his greed would work for her. She shook his hand. “Get me the gigs. You’ll get your percentage.”
Heading toward her apartment, Jade walked slowly, telling herself, “nothing to get worked up about–this is just a step, that’s all,” in that way keeping herself on an even keel about the major page she had just turned in her life and career.
At home she wrote a quick letter to Jere about finding a manager and asked him to come to New York. “Practice up, bro. We might even go on the road together,” she wrote.
For a while the rapport between Jade and Sonny clicked. But the more people liked what they heard when she performed, the pushier Sonny got. You need to do this, you need to do that. “You need to learn to double on the tenor and soprano sax, maybe flute too so we can get you more gigs with the best groups.”
“I don’t want to do that,” Jade told him. “The alto is my instrument. That’s how it is and how I want it to be.”
Then he started in on her wardrobe, trying to get her to dress up more. “You got great legs, kid. Make that work for you too. You could get yourself a sleek dress at any thrift store.”
“I’m not playing my legs. I’m playing my Mark VI,” she raised her instrument mockingly.
“Look, Vi Redd dressed up in sequins and gowns because she knew she had to. Why can’t you?”
“Because it’s not the 80s anymore. I don’t care if it’s Trump times and certain men think women have to live and breathe for them. It’s my way or none.” She was getting pissed, and she was adamant.
Of course Sonny acquiesced—what choice did he have? He did not want to lose his rising star. So Jade wore what she wanted—black or brown tights on top with a vest, jeans, and alternately black or green or red high top sneakers. Whenever Sonny went to see her play, he closed his eyes because to him, it made her sound that much finer. In his mind, she was a sleek, beautiful young woman dressed to the nines instead of some chick who looked like a beatnik on the stage. He got her gigs and she started to get recognized and popular, although it stung him all the while she was so stubborn she could not see how much more successful she would be if she just listened to him.
Jere came to New York finally, a month or so after Trump’s election. He and Dean found an affordable flat in Brooklyn and moved in with the idea of getting married as soon as possible, before Trump changed his mind and rescinded their right to do so. Since being with Dean and letting his parents know they were an item, Jere had become politically active. Both had supported Hillary’s campaign and were intent on making a statement about their union in a world that was turning and now starting to resent their human rights and liberties. He told Jade—“Until we get married, I’m putting music aside and concentrating on keeping house. After that, who knows?”
While Dean brought in most of the couple’s money modeling for a top agency, Jere launched a new hobby, collecting records and music books. At 30, Jere had gained a few inches around his middle and wore a sexy beard stubble. His pale green gray eyes, which now turned slightly downward, were still “show stoppers,” as Dean liked to say. His relationship to Dean had both calmed and matured him, so now he sometimes called Jade just to check in on her.
“How’s my famous sis? Where are you playing next? Can we come?” Jere’s interest delighted Jade. She was thrilled that he seemed to care about her music, her evolution as an artist. He was not, after all, the misogynistic narcissist of his youth who had more patronized than encouraged her. She was always pleasantly surprised to see him, often with Dean, sitting in her audience, watching and listening.
The last night of her run at The Blue Note, she was surprised not to see Jere and Dean at the table she knew they had reserved. So, at 11 o’clock, with one more set to go, she checked her cell phone messages. There was one from Dean urging her to come to New York Presbyterian Hospital soon as she could.
Jere had been at an anti-Trump demonstration with a bunch of his LGBTQ friends outside the towers bearing the man’s name, waving a sign that read, “Rights and equality for all,” just as he had done at many other protests. Upon seeing Jade, Dean said right away, “I guess the wrong people got wind that it was a gay team. Jere got beat up pretty bad.” He approached her, pushing up the sleeves of his blue pullover as if getting ready for a big task ahead.
“Oh no,” Jade tried to go around him, but he grabbed her by the shoulders. “Wait, let me explain. He’s been beaten up really badly by Trumpers. If he hadn’t been so vocal.”
“But what did he do?” Jade tried to understand.
“The truth is, nothing but protest. He and his friends were just protesting, that’s all.” Dean let go of her, lowered his head, covering his forehead with one hand. “It’s really bad,” he repeated. At the door, she ran into a doctor.
“You are Jade?” An attractive Indian woman shook her hand, gazing at the floor momentarily before looking her square in the eyes. “I’m Doctor Anan. Your brother has several broken bones in his face including a broken nose and he has suffered a severe concussion. He has also lost sight in his right eye. I’m afraid this is going to take some time. Healing will take time,” she explained.
“Oh my god. “ Jade stepped around the doctor to Jere’s bedside. His head was completely bandaged save for his good eye and a space around his nostrils. A nurse on the opposite side of the bed was adjusting his pillows. Only his arms were visible—tubes sticking out of the right; his left arm lay over the cover, palm up. Dean came up behind Jade and gently placed his hand over Jere’s.
She had an impulse to hug Jere, but how? He was swathed in bandages and probably in a lot of pain. Still, wanting to connect with him, she went to the foot of the bed and hugged his covered feet.
“Jere, you’re going to be okay. We’re here. We love you.” She heard herself say. Then she began to weep. “Oh my god,” she wiped away her tears saying to Dean, “I’m such a baby.”
“No, you’re not.” They spent all night there beside Jere, arranging to take turns the next night and the night after that. Early morning, when Jade finally staggered home, she called Sonny.
“What happened to you?”
“Wow,” was all Sonny could say when she relayed about Jere. “Wow,” and “wow.” Jade didn’t care if he was being real or not. She just needed to hear herself tell him what had happened, to ground herself. “It’s going to be a long road to recovery and I’m going to have to foot the bills. He doesn’t have insurance.”
“You’re shitting me.”
“I’m not. Dean and I are going to have to take care of everything. He was going to get on Dean’s insurance, but they had not done it yet.”
There was a long pause on the phone.
“Hello, you there?” Jade said.
“I’m here. I have good news. You’re wanted at Blue Whale in LA.”
“It’s a very cool, intimate scene. You would really be spreading your wings.” He paused. “Would you consider formal attire?”
Jade could hear him holding his breath. She thought about Jere, how she needed everything to go smoothly for a while, how an outfit didn’t matter in the scheme of things, how she would do anything for her brother.
“Sure, why not?”
“That’s great!” He could barely contain himself. “You’re not going to wear a man’s suit or anything like that, are you?” he said.
“No, nothing like that.” She laughed at his foolishness and fear. She would wear a dress, something elegant and sharp, something to highlight her playing.
She let Sonny pick out a black number and heels to match, having warned him she would not go higher than one inch. When she performed in it, she felt only vaguely like a recalcitrant Cinderella. Sonny was right. The applause was mighty, and her CD’s sold out after the show. What fools people were about a costume, a façade.
As an artist, she could mold herself into anything. It was like blowing a musical phrase. You blew it, lived in it, and left it for something else. That was what made music beautiful and rare, what made jazz tick too. To stick to a thing too long killed its uniqueness. She understood she had to be fluid, and her feelings about changing her style superficially didn’t matter. Music wasn’t about ego after all. She would do what she had to do for her brother, that was all.
A year or so after Jere’s attack before Trump Towers, Jade, Dean and Jere found themselves lunching together at Prune’s on East 1st, commiserating about the not too distant past. Thousands of dollars and four surgeries later, Jere looked like a slightly tarnished Marlon Brando, tough in a fragile way, the surgeries having smoothed his imperfections so that he was almost too beautiful now. Dean was tired, his eyes ringed with circles. He and Dean were planning an overseas getaway. They had let go the idea of being married. “With so many people divorcing around us, it’s obvious marriage doesn’t work. It’s better to be free about love,” Dean now said. “It’s best not to be tied to one another.”
“So, how are you,” Jade asked her brother. It was the question she always asked first.
“I’m okay, still sad we lost the best woman this country ever had.” He picked at his buttered asparagus dish.
“It’s been a year, dude,” said Dean.
“You forget I was drugged up in the hospital most of that time,” Jere reminded him.
“True,” Dean nodded in assent.
“It’s too bad there aren’t more women like her. Troopers, you know, that just keep going even when the going gets tough. You know, like she did coming out in support of a cause just a week after Trump won. She’s still out there, still fighting. She’s one in a million. If I just knew one other woman like that, I might go straight.” He winked at Dean playfully.
“Jere?” Dean addressed his partner as if he was in a somnolent stupor. “One of those women is sitting right here.” He eyeballed Jade at his side.
“Oh please, that’s my sister. She’s just being a sister. Right Jade? You’re my sister. I’m talking about a real woman. I mean, they don’t make more than one Hillary, do they?” He plucked up a roll, broke it, and continued with his meal.
Dean rolled his eyes at Jade as if to say, “forgive him, he knows not what he says.” But Jade understood. She was there for her brother because she was a good sister. She herself had thought nothing of it. She was just doing her job. Just as she tried to do the right thing with her music. It didn’t matter that Jere was still blind, deaf and dumb to her accomplishments and generosity, or that she had put aside her own desires to go her own way accommodating to Sonny’s wishes. These were incidentals and they didn’t matter.
None of that mattered. She was long practiced in dealing with ignorance. And she was equally practiced in perseverance. It didn’t matter what Jere thought or failed to see, or what Sonny thought either. What mattered was that the music was good, and that Jade did what was right. Nobody had to tell her who she was. After all, she was the one on the stage playing music everybody loved.
She gazed at Jere, the slightly closed right eye that had gained enough vision to see outlines, color, and the other eye that was still full of vitality. No, it didn’t matter to her brother that he was half blind. From the outside, no one could tell, and to him, that was what really mattered.
Arya F. Jenkins’s poetry, fiction and creative nonfiction have appeared recently in journals such as Agave Magazine, Brilliant Corners, Brilliant Flash Fiction, Cider Press Review, Dying Dahlia Review, The Feminist Wire, and Provincetown Arts Magazine. Her poetry was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2015. She writes jazz fiction for Jerry Jazz Musician, an online zine. Publications are forthcoming in Otis Nebula and Sinister Wisdom. Her second poetry chapbook, Silence Has A Name, was published in 2015 by Finishing Line Press.