Short Fiction Contest-winning story #58 — “Mouth Organ” by Emily Jon Tobias

November 8th, 2021

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New Short Fiction Award

Three times a year, we award a writer who submits, in our opinion, the best original, previously unpublished work.

Emily Jon Tobias of Dana Point, California is the winner of the 58th Jerry Jazz Musician New Short Fiction Award, announced and published for the first time on November 8, 2021.

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photo via Pexels/Tatiana Syrvacheva Photography.

photo via Pexels/Tatiana Syrvacheva Photography

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Mouth Organ

by Emily Jon Tobias

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…..It was right close to August when they decided to give it another go. Mosquito season. Monk remembers suggesting a camping trip on the fly to the banks of some Midwestern river he’s since forgotten the name of. They packed the hatchback of Gloria’s Buick wagon as if winning a game of Tetris with no room to spare. Brought only last-minute necessities: two-man tent, single-burner camp stove, a couple wool blankets, and a pillow or two. A change of clothes for each was tossed into a shared duffel. Monk had his harmonica, as always. Gloria brought her new 1980 Martin acoustic, he’s sure—right, for campfire strumming, she’d said. And of course, her sheepdog, Puppy, never left behind, who jumped the back seat and made a nest of the blankets in the hatchback before they hit the first mile marker.

…..Gloria drove. His woman loved to drive. And Monk loved to watch her from the side. She wore cutoffs, her bare thighs buttered by the hot thick air. He kept a hand over her leg. She threaded her fingers over the top of his. They slid against one another, greased by the heat, touching the whole ride.

…..Monk turned up the radio dial. Gloria rolled her window down, all the way down. He sank back in his seat, she was propped against the door with her knee. He surfed the wind with his arm, she tapped her bare toes to their song. He put his dark shades on, she sang to him sultry and long. He drew his harp from his front shirt pocket, she kept time on the gear shift knocking. He breathed, she sang, he blew, she kept on. His woman was so good. She was so good at just keeping on.

…..In the rearview was Puppy, the dog, lips blown back by the wind, tongue loose and free. All three, on the open road. Monk closed his eyes. He had felt free like this once, as a kid, before Pop left, before his mother soured like bad milk. They’d driven this same route, the old Lincoln Highway, in summer. Monk took the back, he remembered, where Puppy sat. When he laughed at Pop’s stupid jokes, the hot air dried out his mouth. He remembered how when his parents began to argue up front, he’d closed his dusty lips with grit on his tongue.

…..Later that year, Pop cut and run with some lady his mother named Betty the Bimbo. After that, Monk’s mother insisted she be called by her given name: Bunny. No more of this kid shit, Monk, and no more calling me Mommy. You’re the man of the house now, she’d said. Bunny spent that whole school year in her nightgown, smoking one Pall Mall after the next. Until one day, Monk got home from school and Bunny had on a dress and a dainty apron tied around her waist. She’d reminded him of a paper doily all done up like that. She was cooking supper for a man she’d met at the Piggly Wiggly. That one down on Sheridan, Monk. You know, the fancy one. The two had met in the bread aisle when the man dropped a 12-pack of Miller cans and she came to his rescue, cradling the cans in her arms to carry them out for him. He remembers blushing seeing his mother so happy about that first one.

…..She called him Mr. Handsome. Really, he was a Mr. Brawny type, a burly man with a rugged beard who rode his Harley in from Chicago to shack up with her on the weekends. One time, Monk found Mr. Handsome’s Playboy in the bathroom hidden between Bunny’s Better Homes and Gardens. He thumbed through, skipping over the pages with words. The women with the pinkest nipples excited him most. When he found the centerfold, he tilted the magazine and the beautiful women’s long legs unfolded onto his lap. The crease ran directly across her belly. He smoothed her flat along his thighs. Suddenly, he could only think of Bunny positioned with Mr. Handsome. He dropped the magazine as if the thing was up in flames. Quickly then, he picked the lady up and folded her back in, head first, realizing that he was fully erect with only his mother on his mind.

…..Monk ran to his bedroom and slammed the door. He locked himself in. Frantic, he rummaged through his room and found the old harmonica Pop had left behind. The one he’d found in a cardboard box of things Bunny was set to give away. He ripped the covers back from his bed and jumped in. He pulled the sheet over his head, panting, his heart leaping like a bullfrog. With one hand, he held the harp to his mouth. He ran his tongue back and forth along the wood comb, he sucked and licked, caressing the back of the plate with one hand, the other hand rubbing himself down, while the harp wailed like a screeching cat. When it was all over, Monk slid the harmonica into his shirt pocket, just like Pop did, and patted it close up against his heart. Monk felt as if he’d reunited with a severed body part, like a long-lost limb or an extra organ.

…..That first Mr. Handsome bought Bunny a leather rider jacket and a black bandana. Even got a helmet with her name—Bunny—painted in red across the back and a little pink Playboy rabbit right below that. By the time summer rolled around, she’d perked up like a houseplant to water. By the summer after that, the helmet was bagged up, rolling around the trunk of her Lincoln Continental like a retired bowling ball alongside the leather biker boots she’d soon dump at the nearest Goodwill. Could’ve been Mr. Brawny’s head in that bag for all the kid knew. Never saw the guy again. Monk began to call them Bunny’s Honeys, all the men in and out. Only one guy stuck around; Monk still lived at home.

…..In the car, Monk lit a smoke. You want one, Glor? he asked.

…..Not today, she said. Take the wheel, would you? He loved that reckless move of hers, trusting him to steer. He kept his eyes on the road while she pulled her T-shirt above her head and threw it over his eyes. The smell on that shirt was earth and body, her body, all up his nose, ballooning around his head until his mouth watered. He threw the shirt back at her, aiming at her lap. There she was, in nothing more than her bra, one leg still propped against the driver door, her arm resting on her knee, hand surfing against the wind.

…..She laughed then, her free-falling gutsy bellow of a laugh, all teeth and spit and snorts. She’d come completely unglued, which never failed, always made him laugh, too. He’d never forget the first time he heard her like that, the night he met her, late, making the rounds with Frankie and Marz. As usual, they ended up at Redhead’s, the piano bar on Ontario off the Blue Line. Real snazzy joint with strong drinks and fine women. They’d go there late on weeknights. When customers cleared out, the manager let the boys get on stage and play. Marz was behind the four-piece kit, Frankie on that fancy old Steinway grand, and Monk standing at the front, both hands cupped around the mic and his harp. They were just about to get going with their set when Monk noticed her.

…..Yo, Frankie, Monk said, Look at the new girl behind the bar.

…..Holy shit, Frankie laughed and downed a shot. She’s fine, in a vanilla-suburb-kid kind of way.

…..You think she’s a real redhead? Could be false advertising, Marz said and winked at Frankie. Monk knew it was a dare. She really wasn’t his type. Too slight in the frame, auburn hair, emerald eyes. Fair-skinned and dainty like a baby bird. He liked Latin women the most, the ones who could roll their r’s to him in bed, bronzed ones, round ones in the hips and behind. Mostly, he liked women all at once, not one at a time.

…..Only one way to find out, Monk said, throwing back his Jack on the rocks. He made his way to the bar, dropped onto the stool, and slapped a ten dollar bill down. Laid his harmonica on top of the bill knowing she’d have to see it before she got paid. She barely talked to him at all when she served his drink, locked into his eyes the whole time. Didn’t skip a beat at the harmonica either, just slid the bill out from under. Graceful, she was, and delicate, like a kite in the wind.

…..Anyone ever say you look like Bob Dylan? she’d asked. Monk wasn’t surprised by her question. He had wild hair, a long nose, and deep almond eyes. The boys thought Monk played like him, too, could easily pass for his cover, especially when he wore his harp in a holder hanging at his neck. No, what surprised him was the way she asked him. It was the sound of her that brought Monk’s chin to the ground. Her voice was like a tiger growl from the mouth of a kitten. The sexiest purr he’d ever heard.

…..What’s your name?

…..Gloria. Who are you?

…..Monk.

…..How’d you get a name like Monk?

…..My pop named me. He loved jazz. Thelonious, Coltrane, Davis, you know. All that shit.

…..Do you?

…..Do I what?

…..Love all that shit.

…..I’m a blues guy. I’m better than that.

…..Better than what?

…..All that jazz.

…..Then, there it was, like lightning … a brash belly roar that cracked through the whole joint like when a bowling ball hits pins. She reminded him of mist and thunder, all rolled into one. The boys had to pry him away from her to get on stage. Monk was stumped. She’d gotten him all tripped up.

…..When he finally got up there, Monk pulled out his harp, wrapped his fingers around its back side, eyes on Gloria. He licked his lips caressing the cover plate with his thumb, then put the harp to his mouth like a pacifier, snuggled right up against his mouth. He knew every inch of that beauty by touch of tongue. His eyes softened as he closed them. He settled into “Just Like a Woman,” came down over the song like an umbrella, hunching his long back, leaning into his grip. He wagged one hand over the other so those first notes were long and soupy from the hammock of his hands. He swayed one leg in time with the slow rhythm as the boys played. His brow crumpled between his eyes like a paper fan, and his eyes rolled back as a tear spilled down his cheek. When he opened his eyes, Marz was in a roar beating on the drums while Frankie just shook his head down toward the keys. And there was Gloria, right next to him, her Martin acoustic hanging on a strap as she arched her neck up toward the mic. She leaned in so close to him that the air he gathered was partly hers. They were so tight, he tasted the cinnamon on her breath.

…..Monk stepped back away from the mic so he could watch her. Gloria finished the duet on her own while each hair on Monk’s body stood in salute to the way she sang. Her voice was husky, as if from ages ago, and low—so deep and slow … like molasses. From behind, her whole body moved like a finger through honey, and Monk felt so buzzed by her, it was as if she’d sucked him clean into her. They named the band Gloria and the Honeys. Monk’s idea, but Gloria loved it. He could tell by the way she smiled.

…..He looked out beyond the open road, then at her while she drove. He’d been growing into his love for her as if filling out a bigger sized shirt—slowly, without really trying. She made him feel more grown up. Truth was, he’d surprised himself by staying wrapped up in her so tight for the past few months steady. She was young, a year younger than Monk, just eighteen. But she looked young, too, and smart, like some bookworm type he’d find sitting under a tree in Hyde Park near campus. The women Monk dated were always older than him, late twenties at least. Sometimes he thought the band was what held them together.

…..Aren’t you glad you decided to roll with me, Glor? Monk asked. She nodded and grinned, but he could tell she was still stung. Monk wanted to apologize to her, right then and there, for what went down between them the night before. He’d rolled up to her pad late, way past bar time, in Frankie’s busted out Dodge van. Drunk as hell, they parked out front her apartment building, smoked a joint. He tried yelling for her from down below. She turned out her bedroom light. Next thing Monk knew, he was on the harmonica and Frankie had his guitar. Marz was banging on the wheel … Mama’s in the factory she ain’t got no shoes, Daddy’s in the alley, he’s lookin’ for food, and I’m in the kitchen with the tombstone blues …  Then, Monk made his way to the lawn, got down on all fours to serenade her but he was more like a wolf than a man with raucous howling being as high as he was until neighbors’ lights came on and some even came to their windows and finally, Gloria was forced to come on down.

…..She stood on the stoop in her pajamas. Puppy had followed her and sat at her feet. Both glared his way. I’m not sending you back to your mother’s like this, so you can stay, she said. But just remember, you are not the ramblin’ man you think you are.

…..He rolled onto his back, swaying his hands and feet up toward the sky. Come on Glor. I’m just blowin’ in the wind, baby. I’m just blowin’ in the wind!

…..No Monk. You’re just a kid who still lives with his mother. And if you want me, you’re going to have some growing up to do. And some settling down.

…..That was the closest to pissed Monk had ever seen her. In bed that night, he apologized by using what he’d read in the newest Playboy to try to get her off. She groaned like she was into it, but he could tell she was faking by her slack body. He peeked through one eye down on her, and there she was, staring up at the ceiling, lost in some kind of dream.

…..In the car, he couldn’t find the right words by the time they had popped the tent less than a mile down some trail off a frontage road leading to the river hidden just enough by a thicket of sumac under a clump of old sugar maples. So close to the old Lincoln that drivers could probably hear them make love after bickering about which way to face the tent. He smoked a joint. She didn’t want any. He remembers a dead leaf got stuck in Gloria’s hair on its sail off the branch. A red-tailed hawk swooped down on their sunset campfire from the top of a white oak at the river’s edge while Gloria sang to him right before Puppy got skunked. Frantic, the dog ran straight into the tent after being sprayed, fishtailed like a netted trout trying to rub the scent off before rolling herself in their bedding like a taco. They slept on the sand dunes that night, along the river, while Puppy took the tent.

…..In the morning, on the sand dunes, Monk looked toward Gloria. He wanted to trace the outline of her profile with his finger from the space between her emerald eyes, down the slope of her long nose, and dip into that perfect little divot above her upper lip. He smoked the roach. She lay belly side up along the banks of the river, as they laughed at how she looked just like one more billowing sand dune along that stretch. How her belly’s crest heaved when she breathed like the wind gathered dunes into waves. Auburn hair coiled down around her soft shoulder, just off to the side. Monk suddenly felt like he was on the set of some old romantic Western he’d seen as a kid with Pop where the cowboy rides off on horseback with the half-naked girl at the end. He still couldn’t find the right things to say. Instead, he draped his arm across his eyes.

…..Monk, she said. I’m …

…..I know, honey. Don’t say it. It’s my fault. I’m sorry.

…..No, she said, I’m pregnant.

…..He shot up so fast with fright, his favorite harp fell from his front shirt pocket, rolling like a stone to land square between them.

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…..It was right close to noon when Gloria pulled up to drop Monk off at his mother’s. They’d hardly talked on the drive back to the city, just a few words here and there. Monk filled the silence by breathing into his harmonica, barely took it away from his face. He grabbed every last item of his from Gloria’s Buick, even checked underneath the seats. As he shut the door, he smiled at her, then waved. He felt like a clown at the end of the party.

…..Gloria leaned across to the passenger side and rolled down the window. When you stop wanting to wander, give me a call, she said. Until then, don’t bother. Slowly, she drove off. As she did, Puppy hopped the seats to watch him from the rear window, panting … no, smiling, he thought. He stood there, still waving, watching them as if through a peephole until they were gone.

…..Inside the house, Monk smelled Folger’s and bacon reminding him of his childhood. He patted his pocket to check for his harp and walked toward the smell of food. He imagined how it would be—to sit down at the kitchen table with Bunny. She’d pour him coffee and waltz around in her dainty apron tied around her waist. He’d watch her dance around the kitchen like he used to while she cracked eggs and waved a fork through the air like a conductor, whipping and whistling as the fork tinged against a glass bowl. She’d let him cry about Gloria and she’d listen to him—Everything’s going to be okay, Bunny’s here, Monk—while she sprinkled flour on a board, search for a rolling pin in the back of one drawer. She’d make him his favorite cookies. Then after, she’d wipe her floured hands down her front before smoothing his hair and wiping his tears and hugging him in so close to her chest, he’d hear her heart beat and smell her sweat. He was beat.

…..Then, at the doorway of the kitchen, he saw them together, gathered around the breakfast table. Frankie, shirtless, looked down, buttering his toast. Marz was behind Bunny with his arm around her shoulders looking over her standing at the stove, their backs toward Monk. All three of them, in his kitchen, while he just stood there watching.

…..Frankie took a sip off the rim of his coffee cup. Hey man, you’re back. Great, he said. We stopped by to jam. You down?

…..Bunny’s the best, man. Marz spun around with bacon hanging from his mouth. She made us this whole spread. You look beat, man. Where’s Glor?

…..Monk let his duffel fall from his shoulder to the floor. He looked at Marz and shook his head. Then, Bunny turned toward him. Monk looked her up and down. She was in a black satin kimono with a full face of makeup and a lit cigarette stuck between her bright red lips. With an oven mitt on one hand, she held a frying pan with bacon still sizzling in grease off the heat.

…..She squinted through the smoke in her eyes. Sit, Monk. Have some breakfast with your boys and your dear old mommy Bunny, she said. Then she bent across the table toward Frankie to put the pan down. Her robe was tied so loose in front that when she reached forward, one breast spilled out the top of her red lace brassiere. She picked up a piece of bacon with her two fingers and dropped it on Frankie’s plate. Then, she licked her finger and ruffled Frankie’s hair. Eat up, cutie, she said. You’re probably ravenous. She winked. Frankie tried to look away, but it was like being stuck in traffic with an accident ahead. No choice in the matter.

…..What the fuck, Bunny? Monk said. What’s all this?

…..I’m just entertaining your guests, Monk. Pour me some more coffee, would you Marz, darling? She held her cup toward him.

…..I’ll get up with you boys later, Monk said. Thanks for coming by.

…..You don’t want to jam, man? Frankie asked.

…..Later, Monk said. Later.

…..Marz set the coffee pot down next to Bunny’s cup. Frankie got up from the table. On the way out, he grabbed a piece of bacon, shoved it into his mouth, and kissed Bunny on the head. Thanks for breakfast, Bunny, Frankie said.

…..Anytime, sugar, she said.

…..As the boys made their way out, Bunny poured herself a cup of coffee. She used a tiny spoon to add sugar, then stirred. Metal clinked the side of the cup. Monk walked over, sat at the table across from her, and took the spoon from her hand. He laid it down in front of her. Bunny wrapped the robe tightly around her middle and crossed her arms at her chest.

…..Look at me, Mother.

…..What do you want from me, Monk?  I’m doing the best I can to get by.

…..You know the thing about you, Bunny, is that you’re always trying to live someone else’s life. I want you to stay away from my friends. Stay away from my life.

…..Your life? Your life is only yours because I gave it to you. Me, and me alone, kid. The way I see it, you owe me everything. Bunny balanced the tiny spoon between her fingers, pinky out. She heaped a spoonful of sugar. Holding the mound high, she tilted slowly toward her cup, eyes on Monk. I sacrificed so much of my own pleasure to raise you up decent, she said. I was nineteen when I had you, Monk. Nineteen.

…..I didn’t ask you to stay with me, he said. I wish you would’ve left instead of Pop. Then, Monk bit his lip, hard, suddenly pained that he hadn’t stopped himself. His shoulders curved when he looked down, tapping two tense fingers on the table.

…..Bunny stood then, slowly. She walked to the refrigerator. At its front, she moved one of a hundred magnets aside—a miniature Harley from Mr. Brawny—and brought the hanging photo to the table. She sat.

…..Remember, Monk, there are so many things that a kid never sees. I used to hear you crying late at night, after your father left. I’d stand at your bedroom door. Sometimes I’d fall asleep right outside listening to you cry.

…..But you never came in, he said. I was alone.

…..Bunny spun the photo to face Monk. And there they were, Pop in the background, a can of Old Style in his grip, and Bunny, holding baby Monk wrapped up tight to her chest and leaning in, bright red lips to his tiny bald head. She traced her fingers along the photo, ending on Monk’s face as if he was the treasure on a map. The thing about being a kid raising a kid, she said, is that somehow you wind up fumbling around for a while being kids together. Then suddenly, you both have to figure out how to grow up.

…..You’re no kid now, Bunny.

…..Neither are you, son, neither are you. When you figure out how it’s all done, be sure to let me know. In the meantime, don’t turn out like your father.

…..He wanted to say, I’m better than him.

…..He wanted to say, You made me like this.

…..He wanted to say, I’m better than you.

…..But instead, she said to him, I’m sorry, son. Then, she touched her hand to his and said, I could’ve been more like a mother. I could’ve done better. Bunny slid the photo toward Monk. Keep this, she said, to remember.

…..She looked up at him then, and he noticed how her eyes were almond-shaped just like his. He saw the curls in her hair and brought his hand to his own head. He wondered what his muffled cries sounded like from the other side of his bedroom door. He wondered how different her bed felt the night after Pop left her and how different it felt the first night she had someone else in it. He wondered what it was like to be her. He wondered what it would be like for him without her.

…..I’ll just get changed and we’ll have some coffee together. How about it, Monk? Bunny headed away from him, down the dim hallway toward her bedroom, as her kimono came untied completely, trailing behind her like giant wings on a moth.

…..When she was gone, Monk got up from the table and pushed his chair in. He walked toward the front door of their home. With his hand on the knob, he stopped. Then, he rushed back to the kitchen to pocket the photo. Outside, he took a breath before walking to the Blue Line. Off the porch, he carried the smells of his childhood with him in the fabric of his cotton shirt. Folgers and bacon, right up his nose the whole ride, stops and all.

…..Later, when Monk rang Gloria’s buzzer, he suddenly wished he had played Bunny a song before he left. He would’ve played her the very first one he ever learned. He almost turned around then, to run back home. But then there was Puppy. And right behind the dog was Gloria. She was already on her way down.

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Emily Jon Tobias obtained her MFA in Writing from Pacific University Oregon in June, 2020 after graduating from the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee in 2017,  where she obtained her bachelor’s degree in creative writing. Her work has appeared in literary journals such as Santa Clara Review, Talking River Review, Flying South Literary Journal, Furrow Literary Journal, The Opiate Magazine, and The Ocotillo Review.

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Click here to read Short Fiction Contest-winning story #57 – “Constant at the 3 Deuces,” by Jon Zelazny

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Short Fiction Contest Details

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An interview with Larry Tye, author of The Jazzmen: How Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, and Count Basie Transformed America; an interview with James Kaplan, author of 3 Shades of Blue: Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Bill Evans, and the Lost Empire of Cool; 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

Ella Fitzgerald/IISG, CC BY-SA 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons
Click to view the complete 25-year archive of Jerry Jazz Musician interviews, including those recently published with Judith Tick on Ella Fitzgerald (pictured),; Laura Flam and Emily Sieu Liebowitz on the Girl Groups of the 60's; Tad Richards on Small Group Swing; Stephanie Stein Crease on Chick Webb; Brent Hayes Edwards on Henry Threadgill; Richard Koloda on Albert Ayler; Glenn Mott on Stanley Crouch; Richard Carlin and Ken Bloom on Eubie Blake; 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.

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