New Short Fiction Award
Three times a year, we award a writer who submits, in our opinion, the best original, previously unpublished work.
Anastasia Jill, a resident of central Florida, is the winner of the 63rd Jerry Jazz Musician New Short Fiction Award, announced and published for the first time on August 4, 2023.
photo via Wallpaper Flare
by Anastasia Jill
…..Priscilla removes her toenails with a rusted butter knife. Not the tips, not the edges, but the whole nail. The skin beneath is jaundiced and bruised, and her nail beds bloated from the years of nonstop abuse.
…..For most of her life she’s performed this makeshift procedure. When she was younger, mother would trim her nails until they bled until one day, when she peeled them like a shell from a hard boiled egg.
…..Mother discarded the clippings into a plastic bag. “They’re big enough without the nails, don’t you think de-ah?”
…..It was easier back then, when Priscilla was small, and her skin was soft. She limped and danced on stubby toes, the pink muscle leaving blood on her white socks. Now, her nails grow in brown husks. It’s gotten harder to remove them, yet still, she does. Her whole foot is raw by the time she is done, and bits of nail litter the kitchen floor. For now, she is bare. In seven months, they will grow back.
…..And so, the process repeats.
…..Mother stands over the kitchen sink tweezing her eyebrows. She uses a serving spoon as a makeshift mirror. She smokes cigarettes that turn her glasses and the tips of fingers gold. Mother works while Priscilla bleeds. That is their rhythm, their harmony; Priscilla’s birthright.
…..All of this — the maintenance, the pain — is for the mother’s benefit. She defiles her body and forgoes her dignity so she can dance and sing on street corners for cash. It’s jazz, most of the time. According to her mother, that is music; the best kind there is. She’s stuck in 1928, before the Wall Street crash, in the era of flappers and red lips. Mother wanted to be a Ziegfeld girl, in another life, maybe. She was tall yet stocky, with wide hips and saggy breasts. Her face was plain, even made-up. She was pretty enough, but not quite beautiful. Youth was on her side, even as she surpassed middle age, and her talent, which spoke for itself, was remarkable, so she thought.
…..The mother and daughter pair were once the backbone of their community’s theater. Nowadays, they perform anywhere that will have them: churches, even though they are Jewish; taverns, though neither of them drink. Then there were days like this one, where they stood on street corners and danced like flappers for anyone who would pass them by.
…..This day is no exception. With her feet fully butchered, Priscilla slides into her size 6 dance shoes. She outgrew them years ago, but buying new ones is simply out of the question. Mother puts the finishing touches on her makeup, including a beauty mark on her lip. It’s not real, of course, but drawn on with a Clairol eye pencil. It’s never perfectly round, rather oblong and faded with sweat.
…..“Almost ready,” mother says. “Go wait in the cah.”
…..Mother had lived in Florida before Cil was born but still clings to the remains of her Boston accent. Car is cah, remote controls are click-ahs, and each night, she calls Cil down for supp-ah. She claims to be from Manhattan, but her accent gives her away–a social marker lodged like Judas Iscariot in her throat.
…..If there’s one thing a mother hates, it’s betrayal.
…..Priscilla wants nothing more than to tell the stuck up cow she’s full of it. All that would earn her is a smack upside the head. She’s dreamed, so many times, of telling her off and running away. Alas, she was all show and no go. The only place she goes is to the car obediently, where she folds her hands, looks forward, and waits.
…..Mother gets in the car with a flourish, waving her skirts and batting her eyelashes. Priscilla feels plain in comparison — her dress more practical and muted, the makeup a subdued reflection of mother’s. She has no say in this. Mother chooses the outfits. Mother dictates it all, down to the songs played in the car.
…..And I think to myself, what a wonderful world.
…..They drive to the park downtown with the big fountain and swans. There’s always people and the fuzz rarely lingers. No one cares about the two girls singing and carrying on. Mother has put together an acapella medley of Annette Hanshaw: “Am I Blue,” “Little White Lies,” and “Daddy Won’t You Please Come Home.”
…..Their only audience is the honking, ornery geese.
…..The dance steps are tedious and hard on her toes. Priscilla’s foot screams, but she is docile. She smiles through her harmonies. Due to the pain, she’s a few steps behind, but she supposes mother likes it better that way. There’s no solos, not with mother wanting to be the star, always. She is a good daughter. She does her two steps and hits her notes. They stay until the sun turns inky and mauve across the horizon.
…..They return home and eat their supp-ah. Priscilla soaks her feet in buckets of ice while mother watches Here’s Lucy on television. Cil keeps her mother company, as she’s meant to do.
…..That is, until mother falls asleep.
…..Then and only then, does Priscilla slip out the front door and makes her escape.
…..Near their home is a clearing full of tree stumps and mounds of dirt. A group meets there each night, reading poetry by the light of a bonfire. They call themselves beatniks — a meridional version of the movement that began out west. They wear blue jeans, smoke cigarettes, kiss other girls with calluses from bass guitars. A group of them met downtown. She often snuck away while mother napped after a “performance” for a rendezvous of balladry and queerness.
…..Priscilla first saw them one night while bringing her trash to the curb. A small lick of flame shone between bodies. She grew curious, and walked down in her nightgown and slippers. She watched from a distance, at first. Then, someone noticed her pale face wrapped around a cigarette, blazing like a small sun.
…..She nodded to the nightgown. “Is that a doily around your neck?”
…..Priscilla flushed. “This is Peignoir. My mother bought it.”
…..“Alrighy, fancy girl.” Puff, puff, blow the cigarette. “I can dig it.”
…..Despite the bummer of an introduction, the two got on rather quickly. Her name was Willie. She wore men’s clothing and penny loafers, dressed completely in black, from her beret down to her well worn socks. Her hair was cropped close to her scalp and bleached with peroxide. She had a scar on her lower lip that was scarred purple, but her lips were soft.
…..Priscilla loves her.
…..She loves what she was and what she stood for. Willie taught her a new word: lesbian.
…..Priscilla never knew what that meant, and knew it wasn’t strictly applicable to her. She often dreamed of herself in the company of women and men, assuming the former to be a passing fancy, until Willie came along. Now, it was all Willie.
…..Willie and the poetry on her slick, red mouth.
…..Willie and her arms, strong like an ox and her taut and tan thighs.
…..Most importantly, with Willie, she is finding her voice.
…..Their clandestine meetings were a blast; a cut out from the life of mother and her mad decade fever. It became a ritual of sorts. Mother takes her Seconal after her television programs. Sometimes, she falls asleep in the chair or manages to stumble to bed. Regardless, she will sleep through the night. Priscilla dons her simplest dress and worn out Mary Janes. She limps — oh, how she limps — as she tries to stay silent through the pain. Her feet are still raw, but she’ll walk on hot coals if it means spending the night in Willie’s arms.
…..The night air is hot as the fire’s blaze, yet everyone is in denim, save for Priscilla. She laments that mother will not allow blue jeans or even slacks. Shoes like sneakers were out of the question for a “nice young lady.” It infuriates Cil — she’s not young anymore. Why, she’s almost 20! She feels as out of place as ever, in her pink dress and little kid shoes.
…..Willie comes up behind her, kissing her neck and hugging her waist. This pushes Cil forward, putting pressure on her toes. She winces. Despite a quick recovery, Willie notices, and verily.
…..“Are you okay?” Willie says.
….. “It’s my toe,” Priscilla says.
….. “What happened?”
….. She shrugs.“I fell, that’s all.”
….. Willie steps back. “I don’t believe that.”
….. “You wouldn’t believe the truth.”
….. Willie shrugs and says, “Well, I’m sorry about your toe.”
….. She knows of the struggles, vaguely. Priscilla is a private person, and gives details in small parts. Cil suspects, deep down, that the writing’s on the wall. Willie often speaks in confidence, saying things like, “You can tell me, you know, if she’s bugging or anything.”
….. Her mother is rarely hostile. There’s no need, with Cil so compliant. But there are elements of control that will always remain. In those troubling times, it’s Willie that brings her repose, the words that bring her comfort: “Just say the word, and we’ll burn rubber right out of town.”
….. Priscilla takes Willie’s hand, hoping the smarting lapse will be forgotten. Every few minutes, though, she is asked, “Are you okay?”
…..Finally, Cil has enough, and drops the woman’s hand. “How many times do I have to tell you. I’m fine!”
…..Willie pulls the cigarette hanging from her mouth, grinding it out on the bottom of her shoe. She reclaims Priscilla’s hand, nudging her towards the wood. “Come with me.”
…..They walk slowly. Cil hobbles the whole way. Willie is patient, offering her arm to take the burden off the ever-injured feet. They don’t go far — just a ways from the rest of the crowd — but far enough that their words will come as whispers to the rest. Priscilla collapses into the dirt.
…..Willie says, “Your skirt will get dirty.”
…..“I don’t care.”
…..Candles burn on a tree stump. A row of them sit next to her. Their waxen fingers are burned to stubs, golden wick knuckles pounding on the wheaten bark.
…..“For ambiance,” Willie says as she sits on the ground.
…..“It’ll start a fire.”
…..“Nothing wrong with a little heat.”
…..They are silent until Priscilla speaks. “You want the truth?”
…..“The real truth.”
…..“Are you sure?”
…..“Sock it to me.”
…..She doesn’t speak another word, instead taking off her shoes, and then her socks, unraveling one raw toe at a time.
…..“Jesus.” Willie vaults backwards, as if the sores are catching. She even drops her cigarette still smoldering in the grass.
…..Both of Priscilla’s feet are bare, throbbing in the open air. She is in no hurry to put her shoes back on. Willie is horrified, and can’t bear to look at them, but Priscilla doesn’t care. “You wanted the truth. Well, here it is.”
…..They both stare at her mangled appendages. In the darkness, backlit by candles, they look like spoiled plums.
…..“Do I want to know what happened?”
…..Priscilla looks at her, then back to her feet. “Probably not.”
…..The blanks are filled with silence. Willie knows mother is involved, but still, she doesn’t.
…..Willie changes the subject. “You giving any thought to us…leaving town?”
….. Priscilla sighs. “I don’t know.”
…..“It’ll be a gas.”
….. She knows, deep down, it’s an option: a hairy yet practical option. They’ve nowhere special to go, but Willie has a car and money saved up from her day job as a soda jerk. She is practical and good with her hands. Priscilla worries about her role in their new life. What skills does she have, besides playing the chorus?
….. “I don’t want to be a sponge,” Priscilla says.
….. “You won’t be. I’ll take care of you,” Willie says. “You can learn to type, or get a job with me.” Her eyes fix on Child’s feet. Something shifts behind her deep blues. “Don’t worry too much. We’ll figure it out.”
….. “I’ll think about it.”
….. Willie lights a new cigarette. “Solid.”
…..Mother spends her days preening her faded looks. She’s growing older and works hard to beautify herself. She views Cil as “hopelessly plain,” and delegates the housework to her; cleaning, laundry, and yard work, all of which is performed in a floral skirt. It is the shortest one she owns, drab and withered from years of use. She ties her hair into a makeshift braid and gets to work to a backdrop of, ironically, Let’s Misbehave.
….. It wasn’t always such a drag. There were times where life was good, and mother was fun. She remembers the good old days of rocking around the Christmas tree outside JCPenney, collecting coins in an old hat to pay the bills. People would ask, “Are you two sisters?” despite their stark distance in age. And it was good like that: Dolly and Cil; two girls with shiny curls, pinched cheeks, and porcelain lips.
….. Puberty struck like a metronome; Priscilla’s hair reddened, and her face freckled and creased around the eyes, forehead, and mouth. See how times have changed! Priscilla isn’t cute anymore; she was plump and had breasts, and her nose stuck out like a savage root breaking free from the ground. Even still, she dolls her up and parades her out as a backup dancer for a blight of the jazz age.
….. Mother sings while Priscilla cleans. First the kitchen, the living room, the bathrooms and finally, the two bedrooms. Priscilla hates her room; the grey curtains, teak furniture, pink blankets and table runners. Her underwear and socks, normally pressed with great care, were a heap in the drawer, a cotton tumor of navy, white, and taupe. Her beige brasserie — two big tan clots — sat like bug eyes on the top of the drawer.
…..The last drawer no longer closed.
…..Mother could never see.
…..It is full of socks — mismatched, holey, mostly white socks. Beneath was a lone blue sock, stolen from Willie. Though she forgets the circumstance, she knows its purpose: to hide cash. What started as change found in gutters turned to dollar bills stolen from mother’s pocketbook. She started long before meeting Willie for no discernable reason. Perhaps because she could, or for some mythical, far out future. Now, there is a reason. She knows she has to help, even if it’s with a fistful of petty cash.
,,,,,Cil takes out the sock and counts it. There is a little over a hundred dollars, not including change. She rolls it carefully before placing it back in the drawer.
…..“Priscilla, dear, the y.-ah-d” Mother calls out. “Don’t forget to clean the y-ah-d!”
…..There is a single palm tree in the middle of their yard. Fronds stiff as wallpaper lazily thumping against the trunk. They turn yellow when they die, dry and fall head first onto the ground. Priscilla pushes up her sleeves to cut them up into three parts: base, stem, and leaf. She places the remains in a plastic bag. Mother is on the porch, watching from her rocking chair. She looks ridiculous, in her hair rollers and blanched, wet face mask.
…..Priscilla wipes sweat from her brow. “I didn’t hear you come out.”
…..“I wanted to make sure you got everything done.”
…..“I’m not a child.”
…..“I know. Well…you know.”
….. Mother spoke like this frequently. Out of the spotlight, her words were fragments, never complete thoughts. It was a strange dichotomy, Cil reckoned. Without an audience, she had much less to say.
….. Priscilla finishes her yard work and joins mother on the porch. There is only one chair, so she sits on the stoop. Mother cools herself with a folding fan. Somewhere close, a catbird chirps. It’s nice, the two of them, enjoying each other’s amity.
…..Mother asks, “How are your feet?”
…..Cil looks at her gummy socks. “Sore.”
…..“Let me see.”
…..Priscilla scoots across the porch, and lifts her leg onto her mother’s lap. Her feet are bared and her toes examined. The cuticles house infested brown nubs.
…..“It’ll hurt more the longer you wait.”
…..As usual, mother was right, but that didn’t make the excisions easier.
…..“I don’t like this,” Priscilla says.
…..“You never did.”
…..“Why do we do this?”
…..“Your nails grow fast.”
…..“I can trim them, you know. I think that would be easier”
…..Priscilla knows, in this moment, that the whole thing is hogwash, and always was. Questioning mother was, well, out of the question. She’d been so young when the toenail excavations commenced. Now, it was routine. She thought nothing of it, until Willie planted the seeds of mutiny in her mind.
…..“Mother,” she says. “Why do you make me remove my nails?”
…..Mother sighs, and never replies. Maybe there is no answer, or the answer itself isn’t worth admitting.
…..Priscilla looks out at their yard, takes note of their many trees. The laurel oak, arthritically standing, covered in Spanish moss. The hawthorn tree trunk twisted like fingers guarding a lie. And then — the tall palm, not sweating the loss of its fronds. It was never important to the structure — it was an ornament, the chorus.
…..Mother rises from the chair, beckoning Priscilla to follow. She moves effortlessly, while Priscilla shuffles and falters more, each step a stake on her uncovered feet.
…..“Keep up, if you can,” mother says behind a chuckle.
…..It becomes clear as mother calls her to the kitchen. She stands at the table, butter knife in hand. Mother relishes in her writhing, being two steps behind. Priscilla sits in the chair, letting mother hurt her. She realizes, through the pain, “It’s time to go.”
…..Priscilla and Willie escape to an abandoned playground after the poetry reading. It takes longer, as Cil moves slower. “We can stop,” Willie says, but Priscilla is determined to put as much distance as she can between her and mother’s house. They sit on dewy grass and listen to the cicadas scream.
…..“I’ve been thinking,” Priscilla says, staring into the distance. A broken carousel ride sits in the shadows, sun-bleached of color, grey and abandoned. The clown-painted kangaroo had lost an arm, a slate blank gnome was broken from his stand, and sits in a big teacup. Two airplane shaped seats — one yellow and one red — ingot twins of lost propellers and broken wings.
….. “Well?” Willie says.
….. “Well.” Priscilla says. And she thinks–really thinks of what saying yes will mean. A world without makeup and music; the decay, the two-steps, and jazz. No Louis Armstrong, Fletcher Henderson, or King Oliver. No more mothers. No more anything but her and Willie. The choice is not hard.
….. “Okay. I’ll go.”
….. The sod beneath them is soft. Willie lies back, and Cil follows. Their hands touch for a moment; soft butterfly wings sticking together by force of wind. One movement could change everything. Willie reaches out once again.
…..It’s Priscilla’s choice.
…..Hold on or let go.
….. Priscilla packs her suitcase with one dress, two shirts, and her new blue jeans. She folds her undergarments and several scarves; a warm jacket, her jewelry box, an old teddy bear. She takes the money from her sock drawer and tucks it in her purse.
…..Willie is down the road, waiting in her old Corvette. She will wait forever — Cil knows — but she doesn’t want to leave her for long. She is not sentimental for this life, and takes only what she needs. With a hand to her mouth, she takes one more look around her room before shutting the door for good.
…..It is after midnight, and the house is in dead sleep. The television has turned to static, and slumber fills the home with an atypical silence. There is mother, crumpled like a blanket in her chair.
…..Priscilla watches from the stairwell.
…..Mother’s skin is swaddled in creams. Her mouth hangs open, a maw in the middle of her pearly face. Her body looks grey in the glow of the screen. Priscilla watches her as she descends the stairs, slowly. She gets to the front door before she hears, “Cil, where’ve you gone?”
…..Priscilla’s hand lingers on the knob. “I’m right here, mother.”
…..The woman says, almost imploring, “Where ah-re you going?”
…..Down the street, a car honks.
…..Mother pleads, “What ah-re you doing?”
…..The car honks again.
…..Mother cries, “Priscill–ah?”
…..Her feet throb as the fresh blood turns to cement.
Anastasia Jill (they/them) is a queer writer living in Central Florida. They have been nominated for Best American Short Stories, The Pushcart Prize, and several other honors. Their work has been featured or is upcoming with Poets.org, Sundog Lit, Flash Fiction Online, Contemporary Verse 2, Broken Pencil, and more.
Click here to read “Mr. P.C.,” Jacob Schrodt’s winning story in the 62nd Jerry Jazz Musician Short Fiction Contest
Click here for details about the upcoming 64th Jerry Jazz Musician Short Fiction Contest
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