New Short Fiction Contest-winning story #32: “The Valley of Ashes,” by Anna Dallara

March 8th, 2013

.

.

New Short Fiction Award

Three times a year, we award a writer who submits, in our opinion, the best original, previously unpublished work.

Anna Dallara of Chapel Hill, North Carolina is the winner of the 32nd Jerry Jazz Musician New Short Fiction Award, announced an published for the first time on March 8, 2013.

.

.

dallara

Anna Dallara

.

 

 

Anna Dallara is a high school senior.  She is a black belt, jazz flutist, and amateur book-binder.  She has won community writing events, but “The Valley of Ashes” is her first published story.

.

.

___

.

.

 

.

The Valley of Ashes

by

Anna Dallara

.

______

.

     She didn’t dance to the music; she danced with it. The melody wrapped his arms around her and the chords ran ivory fingers through her curls. Harmony whispered in her ear and she laughed at all his jokes. She twirled up and down scales with him, the hem of her skirt swirling a single syncopated beat behind her. Her form in her red dress was as curvaceous as the treble clef, and her quick smile flashed staccato at the other dancers and drinkers, lingering largo in the hearts of those who were gifted with the lively beats.

     Where she moved, others followed, enraptured by her dance, her smile. Most of them already knew her; indeed, it was hard not to know her. Her skirt fanned out to the very edges of a room, tickling the ankles of everyone who walked by.

     Just beyond the jagged borders of the crowd was another woman. She didn’t dance. She stared at the pattern on the carpet, afraid to meet melody’s gaze, afraid to let her feet tap or her hips swivel. She didn’t smile. She just stood, arms folded, heart folded. Her thick hair was too heavy for her face, like a small, pale window no bigger than a port-hole curtained off by brocaded drapes long enough to brush the floor.

     You stood somewhere between them, the bright dancer and the dark specter. You’ve seen them before, many times. Their faces were calendar months; you flipped the pages, wound the clock, but somehow, you always circled back to them. You’ve learned to recognize them in an instant, search for them in a crowd. But you don’t know who they are. Then again, you don’t know who you are either, do you? What are you doing here, seeing everything and nothing all at once, surrounded by familiar strangers?  You are a god, a ghost, a shadow creeping across the carpet or nestling in the hollows of cheekbones. You are déjà vu; you are the face in the mirror. You know everyone and no one. You are surrounded by people who are strangers; yet you know all their names. You are the truth behind the lie, the screaming silence of words unspoken, stories untold. Silence stretches between the two women, and you move to fill it. Something lurks behind the pale woman’s empty face and the bright woman’s smile. Something. A story, maybe? And who is that man approaching them? He’s a liar too, you can tell. There is a secret here. And you, you who have everyone’s eyes and ears, you are here to tell it.

.

********

.

     “You’re late,” the clock sneered. Its mocking tick lurked just underneath the screech of metal scraping against metal as clothes hangers slid across the rack like a train across its rails, pulling into the station. “You’re late.” Tick-tock, choo-choo, and the thump-thump in my chest. I yanked a black blouse off its hanger and held it up. Too dark, too dark again! Why do I only own boring clothing? I tossed it over my shoulder like a superstitious pinch of salt. It fluttered down to the sea of wrinkled cotton my pale feet splashed in; all black and dark gray clothes. Tick-tock. A blue sweater? I toss it to the waves, thinking, “Too bulky, I’ll look like I’m drowning.” I look like I’m drowning in this ever-growing ocean of not good enough. I took down a dark purple skirt, a gray sweater, a pair of black dress pants. I violently jerked a navy shirt off the rack. It ripped, buttons popped, the wire hanger fell to the floor, clatter muffled by the rising fabric tide. Tick-tock. A denim skirt, a deep green blouse, a brown skirt and matching blazer, a gray button-down, a black pullover…I was barely treading water, water, water stung my eyes…I ripped. Tears popped from my eyes like buttons from a sleeve. I fell like the wire hanger, muffled by the rustling garments. I floated on my back on the dark sea of all that has been rejected.

I don’t know how long I lay there, listening to gulls cry inside my head. “You’re pathetic. You’re plain. You’ll never be pretty like she is. You’ll never be good enough for him. You’re late. You’re too late.” I stuffed my ears with a fallen shirt. “Shut up! Shut up….” I muttered. “It’s not true…it’s not true.” I sat up. “It’s not true, not true, it’s not true.” I wadded the shirt into a ball. I threw it at the clock, which fell into the storm-tossed water. I rose from the ocean, eyes dripping salt water. “It’s not true!”

I swam into a black skirt and waded through the clothes until I found the tightest shirt I could find and slid it on over my head. I imagined how curvy my hips must look, and how narrow my waist. The skirt, I knew swirled around my ankles like a cloud from Van Gough’s Starry Night.  High heels made me tall, and a silver bracelet, sophisticated. I let my hair cascade down into shimmering waves down my back. I touched the ring on my finger and smiled, my teeth white rosebuds in a bridal bouquet. I was beautiful. I was sexy. I was gorgeous and curvaceous and confident and untouchable. I wiped the last tears off my face and reached for my purse. He wouldn’t be able to stop staring at me tonight. He would remember who I am and why he loves me. And he wouldn’t even glance at her. I took a deep breath and stepped out of my closet, emerging from the foam a beautiful Aphrodite. Tonight was mine.

I should have known better. The first person I saw at the party was Cathy. She danced in the center of the crowd, a brilliant sun, orbited by laughter and conversation. She wore a red dress that was daringly low cut; she didn’t even have that much to show off, she just acted like she did. She moved with the music, gracefully swaying from friend to friend, changing topics like changing keys, trilling small talk, deftly transposing awkward beats into clever syncopation. Her cool, improvised solos left everyone laughing.

I tried to step in, to talk to people, to join in that song that she conducted, maybe change the tempo. But a swirl of her red skirt cut me off at every turn. She narrowed her eyes at me and waltzed the conversation away from things I knew anything about. I tried to stand in the circle, tried to cast a shadow, but she moved in front of me, blocking me, leaving me stranded on the outside. I clenched my teeth.

She saw an old acquaintance enter the room somewhere in the crowd. She smiled, her grin disproportionably huge, but it was a strangely beautiful flaw, fascinating like a dash of Picasso’s paint on her face, surprisingly lovely and intriguing. She waved and stepped forward to greet the newcomer. The hem of her red skirt brushed my calf, and she “accidentally” bumped my shoulder. She didn’t apologize; she didn’t need to; after all, it’s not like anyone noticed.

“Alex! You’re here!” she laughed, wrapping her arms around him in a brief hug.  I tensed. Alex. My husband had arrived.

I wanted to move, but my legs were too stiff. I wanted to say something, but my mouth wouldn’t open. All I could do was watch as he grinned back at her, his smile as warm and familiar as hers was flashy and exotic. I knew that smile, or at least I used to. Alex. I used to be the only one he smiled at like that.

He leaned in to her, adding balance and calm to the whirling epicenter where she stood. He brushed a strand of her copper hair behind her ear and whispered to her. The music played, the people talked, the glasses clinked, and Alex whispered, “You look beautiful.”

He didn’t see me. He didn’t know I was there, standing at the edge of the crowd, her crowd. She knew I was there. She knew I’d heard. Her gaze slithered out of the corners of her eyes and found mine. Her smile widened.

I felt the emotion drain from my eyes like water down a sink. My face froze in a blank mask, my back straightened, and my arms crossed over my chest. I was shut down, and she was shut out. I was a wall. She couldn’t see my hurt.

She turned to speak to another partygoer and Alex looked up and saw me. “Sally!” He didn’t look even a little ashamed.

I didn’t flinch. I didn’t smile or wave back. I stayed straight and dignified. No one could ever read my poker face. I turned and walked away.

 

I could still hear the music and laughter from the party room blurring into a splotchy mess of colorful sound. I stood in front of the bathroom mirror, fighting to hold back the ocean behind my eyes. The gulls circled inside my head. You’re pathetic. You’re plain. You’ll never be pretty like she is. You’ll never be good enough for him. You’re late. You’re too late. I wasn’t beautiful. I wasn’t curvy, I was flat chested, and I wasn’t sexy, I was skeletal. My hair was frizzy, and my skirt hung in stiff folds around my gnawed chicken legs.

I wasn’t beautiful. Cathy was beautiful. You’re beautiful. Beautiful, horrible Cathy that Alex loved; he didn’t love me. You’re too late. I hated her. I hated her. My heartbeat pulsed in my shoulder where she had bumped into me. I clenched the edge of the sink and squeezed, the pressure bleaching my hands as white as the marble. I saw her smile behind my eyes, sexy and shimmering and loveable and everything I wasn’t.

I hated Cathy. I hated myself.

 

.

********

.

     It’s 4 o’clock in the morning, and she’s smiling at herself in the mirror. Her dress is lovely, her hair, her face, her eyes are lovely. This is what they all see, all those people laughing at her jokes and watching as she danced. This is all they see.

She puts a hand to her flat stomach. Hunger leaves her feeling thin as a sheet of newspaper, as if a single pinprick of a fork is enough to punch straight through her. She has lost eighteen pounds over the past few months. Her ribs are visible through her skin, flat and hard as xylophone keys. But she still feels fat, fleshy. Alex’s wife, skinny Sally was still so much thinner.

The skirt is long enough to hide the writing on her legs, the poetry written on her calves and thighs.  “For My Lover, Returning to His Wife,” by Anne Sexton; she hid the sad, sexy words under the restless red skirt.

“Let’s face it, I have been momentary

A luxury, a red sloop in the harbor…”

     This won’t last. This can’t last. Her stomach rumbles, asking her why. Why? Why is she doing this? Why does she care? Because she’s in love. She’s in love with a man who is in love with his wife. But he says he loves her too. He braided flowers in her hair in the spring, and they read poetry together straight through June.  Yet he goes home to her every night, and she only shares her bed with impossible daydreams and nightmares.

“She is so naked and singular

She is the sum of yourself and your dream

Climb her like a monument, step after step, she is solid.

As for me, I am a watercolor.

I wash off. “

     It’s four o’clock in the morning, and the Mistress smiles at herself in the mirror. Her smile splinters like shattered glass, beads of crystal cling to her eyelashes. A clock ticks. This can’t last. Tears leak from her eyes like water from a faucet, washing the lying grin off her face. As for me, I am a watercolor. She covers her eyes with her hands and cries while her smile washes away. I wash off.

.

.

*

.

.

Short Fiction Contest Details

 

.

.

 

 

Share this:

2 comments on “New Short Fiction Contest-winning story #32: “The Valley of Ashes,” by Anna Dallara”

    1. How amazing is this for a high school senior! The feelings exhumed are gut wrenching, the pain tangible, the tears tactile, and the doubts the protagonist has about herself are like the umbra of a Stygian waterfall pouring into the caverns of a roiling mind.

      Ms Dallara’s contrasts and comparisons explore the depths of the psyche. References to gulls, the tic tock of time, Van Gough’s Starry Night and the clothes she throws aside like estranged ideas and inadequate images of herself are priceless. Where will this young lady be in twenty years? One can only hope she’ll keep writing!

Comment on this article:

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

In This Issue

"Nina" by Marsha Hammel
A Collection of Jazz Poetry — Winter, 2024 Edition...One-third of the Winter, 2024 collection of jazz poetry is made up of poets who have only come to my attention since the publication of the Summer, 2023 collection. What this says about jazz music and jazz poetry – and this community – is that the connection between the two art forms is inspirational and enduring, and that poets are finding a place for their voice within the pages of this website. (Featuring the art of Marsha Hammel)

The Sunday Poem

photo via Pickpic
“Footprints to Infinity” by Michael Amitin

Poetry

Proceeding From Behind: A collection of poems grounded in the rhythmic, relating to the remarkable, by Terrance Underwood...A relaxed, familiar comfort emerges from the poet Terrance Underwood’s language of intellectual acuity, wit, and space – a feeling similar to one gets while listening to Monk, or Jamal, or Miles. I have long wanted to share his gifts as a poet on an expanded platform, and this 33-poem collection – woven among his audio readings, music he considers significant to his story, and brief personal comments – fulfills my desire to do so.

Black History

The Harlem Globetrotters/photo via Wikimedia Commons
A Black History Month Profile: The Harlem Globetrotters...In this 2005 interview, Ben Green, author of Spinning the Globe: The Rise, Fall, and Return to Greatness of the Harlem Globetrotters, discusses the complex history of the celebrated Black touring basketball team.

Black History

photo of Zora Neale Hurston by Carl Van Vechten/Library of Congress
A Black History Month Profile: Zora Neale Hurston...In a 2002 interview, Carla Kaplan, editor of Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters, talks about the novelist, anthropologist, playwright, folklorist, essayist and poet

Black History

Eubie Blake
A Black History Month Profile – Pianist and composer Eubie Blake...In this 2021 Jerry Jazz Musician interview, Eubie Blake biographers Ken Bloom and Richard Carlin discuss the legendary composer of American popular song and jazz during the 20th century

Feature

Jamie Branch's 2023 album "Fly or Die Fly or Die Fly or Die ((world war))"
On the Turntable— The “Best Of the ‘Best Of’” in 2023 jazz recordings...A year-end compilation of jazz albums oft mentioned by a wide range of critics as being the best of 2023 - including the late trumpeter Jamie Branch's Fly or Die Fly or Die Fly or Die ((world war))

Essay

"Lester Leaps In" by Tad Richards
"Jazz and American Poetry," an essay by Tad Richards...In an essay that first appeared in the Greenwood Encyclopedia of American Poetry in 2005, Tad Richards - a prolific visual artist, poet, novelist, and nonfiction writer who has been active for over four decades – writes about the history of the connection of jazz and American poetry.

Interview

photo of Pepper Adams/courtesy of Pepper Adams Estate
Interview with Gary Carner, author of Pepper Adams: Saxophone Trailblazer...The author speaks with Bob Hecht about his book and his decades-long dedication to the genius of Pepper Adams, the stellar baritone saxophonist whose hard-swinging bebop style inspired many of the top-tier modern baritone players.

Interview

IISG, CC BY-SA 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons
Interview with Judith Tick, author of Becoming Ella Fitzgerald: The Jazz Singer Who Transformed American Song...The author discusses her book, a rich, emotionally stirring, exceptional work that explores every element of Ella’s legacy in great depth, reminding readers that she was not only a great singing artist, but also a musical visionary and social activist.

Poetry

Trading Fours with Douglas Cole is an occasional series of the writer’s poetic interpretations of jazz recordings and film. This edition is influenced by Stillpoint, the 2021 album by Zen practitioner Barrett Martin

Playlist

“Latin Tinges in Modern Jazz” – a playlist by Bob Hecht...A nine-hour long Spotify playlist featuring songs by the likes of Horace Silver, Lee Morgan, Miles Davis, Wayne Shorter, Ahmad Jamal, and Dizzy Gillespie that demonstrates how the Latin music influence on jazz has been present since the music’s beginnings.

Poetry

[Columbia Legacy]
“On Becoming A Jazz Fanatic In The Early 1970’s” – 20 linked short poems by Daniel Brown

Short Fiction

Christerajet, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Short Fiction Contest-winning story #64 — “The Old Casino” by J.B. Marlow...The author's award-winning story takes place over the course of a young man's life, looking at all the women he's loved and how the presence of a derelict building informs those relationships.

Feature

George Shearing/Associated Booking Corporation/James Kriegsmann, New York, via Wikimedia Commons
True Jazz Stories: “An Evening With George,” by Terry Sanville...The writer tells his story of playing guitar with a symphony orchestra, backing up jazz legend George Shearing.

Short Fiction

Defense Visual Information Distribution Service/via Picryl.com
“Afloat” – a finalist in the 64th Jerry Jazz Musician Short Fiction Contest – is about a troubled man in his 40s who lessens his worries by envisioning himself and loved ones on a boat that provides safety and ease for all of them.

Poetry

The poet Connie Johnson in 1981
In a Place of Dreams: Connie Johnson’s album of jazz poetry, music, and life stories...A collection of the remarkable poet's work is woven among her audio readings, a personal narrative of her journey and music she considers significant to it, providing readers the chance to experience the full value of her gifts.

Book Excerpt

Book Excerpt from Becoming Ella Fitzgerald: The Jazz Singer Who Transformed American Song, by Judith Tick...The author writes about highlights of Ella’s career, and how the significance of her Song Book recordings is an example of her “becoming” Ella.

Community

Nominations for the Pushcart Prize XLVIII

Interview

photo courtesy of Henry Threadgill
Interview with Brent Hayes Edwards, co-author (with Henry Threadgill) of Easily Slip Into Another World: A Life in Music...The author discusses his work co-written with Threadgill, the composer and multi-instrumentalist widely recognized as one of the most original and innovative voices in contemporary music, and the winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Music.

Poetry

art by Russell duPont
Three jazz poets…three jazz poems...Takes on love and loss, and memories of Lady Day, Prez, Ella, Louis, Dolphy and others…

Playlist

photo by William Gottlieb/Library of Congress
“A Baker’s Dozen Playlist of Ella Fitzgerald Specialties from Five Decades,” as selected by Ella biographer Judith Tick...Chosen from Ella’s entire repertoire, Ms. Tick’s intriguing playlist (with brief commentary) is a mix of studio recordings, live dates, and video, all available for listening here.

Poetry

"Jazz Trio" by Samuel Dixon
A collection of jazz haiku, Vol. 2...The 19 poets included in this collection effectively share their reverence for jazz music and its culture with passion and brevity.

Jazz History Quiz #170

photo of Dexter Gordon by Brian McMillen
This bassist played with (among others) Charlie Parker, Erroll Garner, Nat King Cole and Dexter Gordon (pictured), was one of the earliest modern jazz tuba soloists, and was the only player to turn down offers to join both Duke Ellington’s Orchestra and the Louis Armstrong All-Stars. Who is he?

Interview

From the Interview Archive: A 2011 conversation with Alyn Shipton, author of Hi-De-Ho: The Life of Cab Calloway...In this interview, Shipton discusses Cab Calloway, whose vocal theatrics and flamboyant stage presence made him one of the country’s most beloved entertainers.

Community

Nominations for the Pushcart Prize XLVIII...announcing the six Jerry Jazz Musician-published writers nominated for the prestigious literary award

Poetry

Gotfryd, Bernard, photographer, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
“Devotion” – a poem and 11 “Musings on Monk,” by Connie Johnson

Photography

photo of Mal Waldron by Giovanni Piesco
Beginning in 1990, the noted photographer Giovanni Piesco began taking backstage photographs of many of the great musicians who played in Amsterdam’s Bimhuis, that city’s main jazz venue which is considered one of the finest in the world. Jerry Jazz Musician will occasionally publish portraits of jazz musicians that Giovanni has taken over the years. This edition is of the pianist/composer Mal Waldron, taken on three separate appearances at Bimhuis (1996, 2000 and 2001).

Interview

Leffler, Warren K/Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
A Black History Month Profile: Civil Rights Leader Bayard Rustin...

Community

FOTO:FORTEPAN / Kölcsey Ferenc Dunakeszi Városi Könyvtár / Petanovics fényképek, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons
.“Community Bookshelf, #1"...a twice-yearly space where writers who have been published on Jerry Jazz Musician can share news about their recently authored books. This edition includes information about books published within the last six months or so…

Short Fiction

photo by Thomas Leuthard/Wikimedia Commons
“The Winslows Take New Orleans” a short story by Mary Liza Hartong...This story, a finalist in the recently concluded 64th Jerry Jazz Musician Short Fiction Contest, tells the tale of Uncle Cheapskate and Aunt Whiner, those pesky relatives you love to hate and hate to love.

Short Fiction

painting of Gaetano Donizetti by Francesco Coghetti/via Wikimedia Commons
“A Single Furtive Tear” – a short story by Dora Emma Esze...A short-listed entry in the recently concluded 64th Jerry Jazz Musician Short Fiction Contest, the story is a heartfelt, grateful monologue to one Italian composer, dead and immortal of course, whose oeuvre means so much to so many of us.

Interview

photo by William Gottlieb/Library of Congress
Interview with Alyn Shipton, author of The Gerry Mulligan 1950’s Quartets...Long regarded as jazz music’s most eminent baritone saxophonist, Gerry Mulligan was a central figure in “cool” jazz whose contributions to it also included his important work as a composer and arranger. Noted jazz scholar Alyn Shipton, author of The Gerry Mulligan 1950s Quartets, and Jerry Jazz Musician contributing writer Bob Hecht discuss Mulligan’s unique contributions to modern jazz.

Book Excerpt

“Chick” Webb was one of the first virtuoso drummers in jazz and an innovative bandleader dubbed the “Savoy King,” who reigned at Harlem’s world-famous Savoy Ballroom. Stephanie Stein Crease is the first to fully tell Webb’s story in her biography, Rhythm Man: Chick Webb and the Beat that Changed America…The book’s entire introduction is excerpted here.

Short Fiction

pixabay.com via Picryl.com
“The Silent Type,” a short story by Tom Funk...The story, a finalist in the recently concluded 64th Short Fiction Contest, is inspired by the classic Bob Dylan song “Tangled Up in Blue” which speculates about what might have been the back story to the song.

Book Excerpt

Book excerpt from Easily Slip Into Another World: A Life in Music, by Henry Threadgill and Brent Hayes Edwards

Contributing Writers

Click the image to view the writers, poets and artists whose work has been published on Jerry Jazz Musician, and find links to their work

Art

Designed for Dancing: How Midcentury Records Taught America to Dance: “Outtakes” — Vol. 2...In this edition, the authors Janet Borgerson and Jonathan Schroeder share examples of Cha Cha Cha record album covers that didn't make the final cut in their book

Pressed for All Time

“Pressed For All Time,” Vol. 17 — producer Joel Dorn on Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s 1967 album, The Inflated Tear

Coming Soon

An interview with Tad Richards, author of Jazz With a Beat: Small Group Swing, 1940 - 1960;  an interview with Laura Flam and Emily Sieu Liebowitz, authors of But Will You Love Me Tomorrow? An Oral History of the 60's Girl Groups;  a new collection of jazz poetry; a collection of jazz haiku; a new Jazz History Quiz; short fiction; poetry; photography; interviews; playlists; and lots more in the works...

Interview Archive

Eubie Blake
Click to view the complete 22 year archive of Jerry Jazz Musician interviews, including those recently published with Richard Carlin and Ken Bloom on Eubie Blake (pictured); Richard Brent Turner on jazz and Islam; Alyn Shipton on the art of jazz; Shawn Levy on the original queens of standup comedy; Travis Atria on the expatriate trumpeter Arthur Briggs; Kitt Shapiro on her life with her mother, Eartha Kitt; Will Friedwald on Nat King Cole; Wayne Enstice on the drummer Dottie Dodgion; the drummer Joe La Barbera on Bill Evans; Philip Clark on Dave Brubeck; Nicholas Buccola on James Baldwin and William F. Buckley; Ricky Riccardi on Louis Armstrong; Dan Morgenstern and Christian Sands on Erroll Garner; Maria Golia on Ornette Coleman.

Site Archive