“Songs for Sometime Losers: A Bebop Suite” — by Beth Spencer

August 22nd, 2015


“Songs for Sometime Losers:  A Bebop Suite,” by Beth Spencer, was a runner-up in our 38th Short Fiction Contest.  It is published with the permission of the author.


Beth Spencer is founding editor at Bear Star Press, which publishes poetry and short fiction by writers living in the west. Her poems and short fiction have appeared in River Styx, Iron Horse Literary Review, Weird Year, Split This Rock, and elsewhere. An unpublished collection of her acrostic microfiction will be performed by Slow Theatre in Chico, California, in October, 2015.



Publisher’s note:

“Songs for Sometime Losers: A Bebop Suite”  is a series of short acrostic riffs  — not unlike a long blistering saxophone or wistful piano solo within a larger piece — that together make up one jazzy whole.   The title of each part of the suite is the name of a jazz or blues album;  the initials of the sentences that follow spell out the name of a track on that album. (Ms. Spencer describes her piece as “acrostic microfiction”) 

The following is the acrostic key:

* Uncovered (Maya Beiser): “Summertime”
* The Real Thing (Dizzy Gillespie):  “High on a Cloud”
* Time Further Out (Dave Brubeck):  “Charles Matthew Hallelujah”
* Stay with Me (Billie Holiday):  “Ain’t Misbehavin'”
* Blue Gardenia (Etta James):  “Cry Me a River”
* You’re Mine You (Sarah Vaughan):  “Witchcraft”
* For True (Trombone Shorty):  “Buckjump”
* Reaching Fourth (McCoy Tyner):  “Goodbye”
* I Heard You Twice the First Time (Branford Marsalis):  “Rib Tip Johnson”
* Esperanza [1, 2, &3] (Esperanza Spalding): “Fall In”








by Beth Spencer




Slow slow slooooooooooooooow; the river was practically dry, a river in name only, a few puddles on
the mudflats where standing water reflected the cottony clouds that moved perpetually east, dropping
nothing anymore but empty promises. Unsettling in the most literal sense. Many people sold their houses
or just abandoned them, heading north, and those who stayed finally got serious about catchment,
rigging up elaborate systems of barrels and tarps that fed what little moisture now fell into concrete tanks
underground. Meanwhile, people in the north began to fear they were being overrun, some communities
even passing ordinances to limit growth. Eventually the west consisted of two zones: one whose few
residents were a ragtag bunch of sunburnt innovators, and the other drenched and very crowded with
paranoid, self-congratulatory dreamers who spent all their time checking real estate, wondering if there
was in fact an even wetter, even better place to live. Rare was the person who swapped zones, each
population certain it had, despite everything, the better situation. The rains fell harder every year in
the north, frequently causing flooding and mudslides, but in the south cactus was king, and people
learned how to tap even the spiniest cholla for a drink when necessary. Inevitably, prophets emerged
who capitalized on each region’s hopes and fears; in the south these figures were followed briefly, then
ignored, but in the north they became politically powerful, lending their names to everything from
freeway systems to athletic parks and municipal buildings. Midway through the century a comet grazed
Earth, causing the explosion of some volcanos and several nuclear reactors and bringing about an ice age
that lasted ten thousand years. Everything would be poisoned for a very long time after that, but when
the ice finally drew back, recharging old aquifers, the river that had dwindled to a damp spot in the sand
roared over the plains once again.



Hope is not the thing with feathers, it’s the thing with horns. I’m talking cornets and trombones,
trumpets and tubas—brass! God may whisper in the voice of a sparrow, but when he really wants to
get his point across he places his lips on the mouthpiece of a horn and blows. Hard. Once you hear him
wail you’ll follow that sound anywhere. Nasty, you might think, but when has that stopped you—or God
either? Another way of saying that world-making is a terrible business, impossible to get right, and no
amount of celestial mumbo-jumbo can override the sorrow and bloodshed, which is why we need a horn
section. Come the apocalypse we’ll want to be in the second line, waving white handkerchiefs on our way
to the burying ground. Louis used to say, You blows who you is, but I say a horn played right will tell the
rest of us who we are too. Only clay, only a crazy bunch of fools most beautiful while making music or
dancing. Until we’re gone but even then part of matter’s great spin around the sun. Dancing.




Chuck planned to quit his job at the end of his shift. He’d taken all the bullshit one man should have
to in a lifetime, and he was only thirty-two, and it was only Monday. All over the country people were
turning against the men in blue, who were, Chuck thought, far too well armed for their own good. Rabble
were roused, there was no doubt, and lots of cops had morphed into monsters. Lana didn’t understand
the pressure he was under. “Explain to me, please, how giving up a job with benefits, not to mention the
respect of so many, is going to make you a better person,” she said. “Show me the sense in that.” Maybe
he had already waited too long. August, the worst month of the year, was just beginning, and there would
be something called a super moon in two days—things were going to get pretty fucking cray, to borrow
a phrase one of his daughters was always using. Thea, his favorite, the one whose swearing drove Lana
pretty fucking cray herself, but hadn’t he just read someplace that people who swear a lot are kinder
than those who don’t? That had to be wrong. His partner, Yves, swore like a motherfucker, and he was
a motherfucker, another reason Chuck was determined to leave, not watch one more instance of Yves
slamming some brown-skinned kid to the pavement for being out five minutes past curfew. Eventually,
Chuck knew, Yves was going to get both of them accused of war crimes—well, wasn’t it war? The way
things were going on the street these days? Why allow a psychopath to ruin his life? Hell is other people,
someone had said in one of the books he’d read in college, though Chuck would amend that to other
police officers, dictators, bankers, and the undead taking over TV these days. A man couldn’t even kick
back in front of the tube anymore without some scabby army of desperate freaks filling up the screen.
Lana had a theory about this. Lana thought the American obsession with zombies was being deliberately
fostered by right-wing politicians to get people used to the idea of shooting the poor who were crossing
the borders and coming for their jobs. Especially the jobs no one wants anyway, she said. Lana was an
idealist, which besides her red hair was the main thing that attracted him. Unless we start educating
people better, she said, you can forget about Thea and Amity and Eleanor having any kind of life worth
living. Just totally fucking cray, these times. And here was Yves storming into the squad room, armed to
the incisors with every modern weapon he could carry. Here was America, and here, too, am I, thought
Chuck, unpinning his badge, stepping quickly out the side door.




Although I hate you, will you please stay with me? I have never hated anyone before and find it to be
bracing, such an improvement over the boredom I felt with all the men before you. Not one of them ever
gave me enough trouble to fit in a thimble, and trouble, too, is something I apparently need. Trouble
me more and I will be yours forever, hating you the entire time. My mother had what she called a happy
marriage, but to me it looked as though she was sleepwalking through her life. I used to lie in bed when
I was a child and listen to the clink of her cup in its saucer as she drank tea and spoke with my father,
always in a soft voice so I could never hear what they were talking about, while the smoke from his pipe
drifted out of the kitchen and eventually found me, putting me to sleep. She never lost her temper, nor
did he, and I had the mildest childhood imaginable, which may be why I find hating you so damned
interesting. Before you caught my eye I tried happiness her way, but that only seemed to elicit kindness
from my lovers, until I feared I was going to go mad or fast asleep, whichever came first. Everyone seems
to think anger and hatred are bad things, but if that is so, why is war still so popular? Hatred, I see now, is
hard-wired into us, waiting to erupt when we are thwarted and someone is on hand to blame—someone
like you, darling. As long as you deny me the pleasure of your glance, torture me with your indifference,
parade your other lovers before me, I burn red hot. Vex me! I have made you a place in the murderous
muscle of my heart. Nor will it beat for any other.



Collapse is not all it’s cracked up to be. Regardless of your faith in pharmaceuticals, they don’t work for
everyone, though they might if you could locate the right one before you give up and kill yourself. Yellow,
that cheery fucking hue, is not a color that when you are down you can abide for long—nor the middle
of the day when the sun has bleached the shadows from houses and trees. Maybe you read too much
Rimbaud when you were young because somewhere in the back of your screwed-up mind you seem to
have concluded that having the blues is essential to your artistry. Except that when you really have the
blues, when you’ve collapsed all the way down and locked the door, drawn the blinds, buried the phone
at the bottom of a basket of your dirty laundry, you can’t do jack. An object outside yourself is what you
need to focus on, but of course the question is what object because in your smoky darkened room you
can’t see your hand in front of your face. Really, what works best is something imaginary, something
you can view from every possible direction including inside out and through time, from the big bang on
into the future when we’re all of us so many atoms pulling apart in deep space. It’s rehab without the
annoying doctors and group therapy sessions, and now it’s whirling into view, spinning slowly toward
you till it settles in your outstretched palms: a blue gardenia. Votive—the creamy indigo of its petals,
how six of them fan out around the central whorl that is still folded in on itself, enclosing the secret of
your happiness; how like a flame it is, this flower that has been drinking the icy blue water of distant
galaxies and is now, in the warmth of your hands, beginning to release its exquisite scent. Enter its
chapel, kneel before your own crucifixion, and celebrate your blue blossoming. Rejoice!



Won’t you stop trying to escape? I’ve got you solid, dear—your nail clippings, hair from your brush,
copies of the emails you sent before you told me about your wife. Try to ditch me again, she gets them; I
will deliver them personally, along with a box of tissue and the name of a very good attorney. Come over
here right now and give me a kiss. Haven’t you learned a thing?  Circle of stones, circle of chalk and chaff:
you won’t get far. Rue our time together if you must, but realize I am the stronger one, which, admit it, is
what drew you to me in the first place. Amulets, asafetidas, I can work them all. Fix me a drink, darling;
let me watch you walk across the room. The antidote to every poison, every spell, is close at hand.


Before they broke things off for good he was beginning to annoy her by dropping hints that she was
not the woman he could love for true, which is how he phrased it over their last breakfast of scrambled
eggs and tofu, which, for true, was a meal she would not at all miss. Upping the emotional ante, he asked
her if she thought a particular woman at the natural foods coop where they volunteered could ever find
a man like him attractive. Completely, she said, slamming her coffee mug on the table for emphasis.
Knowing he was sensitive about his somewhat puny physique, she added that maybe completely was
not quite right, it would probably be more accurate to say the woman preferred athletic men, but she
would no doubt admire his hair and ethnic attire. July heat poured through the screen door of her small
house and she looked out at the garden he had planted for her, who had never had a garden before, and
she remembered how easily the valley loam turned over on the pitchfork, so black and rich and warm,
and how quickly the seeds in the furrows sprouted, practically leaping out of the earth, and now squash
blossoms were winding around stalks of blue corn, and chili peppers and tomatillos in their papery husks
bobbled in the vague morning breeze. Unless she could think of another bitter comment—and she could
not, her anger had passed—she wanted him to finish his breakfast and leave. Maybe she should have
paid attention earlier on to signs his heart was fickle, but he had such pretty skin, and she loved his
butterfly kisses, how he brushed his eyelashes against her cheek, so yes, she had probably ignored his
shortcomings. Premonitions were useful, she trusted in them, but so was the garden that would not be
here had she obeyed them.



Godless Jimmy Pete was stalled at Third. Oh, he was in a bad way about it, too. Operating on the principle
of the Little Engine, he thought he could, he thought he could, he thought he could, but he couldn’t.
Dymphna was the saint he prayed to, after his uncle told him of her ability to cure mental illness, which
seemed more doable than, say, walking on water or turning it to wine, but it tore at Jimmy Pete that he
was unable to be born again, to reach Fourth, to slide into home, as his uncle put it. By the time he was
sixteen poor Jimmy Pete was a walking mess of boils and eczema, and he trembled constantly from his
fear that he would never come any closer to Jesus than accepting him as a man of considerable beauty
and charisma and compassion, period, full stop. Yet the Lord, said his uncle, had not given up on him,
also that St. Dymphna was not an acceptable substitute. Enough, said Jimmy Pete, shaking and crying,
She’s more than enough for me.




Ribbing aside, you do in fact drive me nuts. It’s not what you have to say so much as—wait, yes, it
sometimes is—how you say it, like the ancient mariner who stoppeth one of three, grabbing your victim’s
lapels, insisting, well, I’m not sure, exactly, but it sometimes contains words like chemtrail or retrograde
or engram. But don’t let me get started because I can be a complete asshole, which anyone would agree
is far worse than spouting horseshit. This part of California has drawn a truly impressive number of
people, educated and not, who believe in such things as Bigfoot, testing the health of foods by swinging
a pendulum over them, and a secret city inside Mount Shasta inhabited by Lemurians. I may even believe
in Bigfoot myself, but that’s because I cherish the notion that anything at all has at this point eluded the
NSA. Please, my friend, don’t invite me to meet my inner child. Just the thought of her in her yellow
stretchy swimsuit, leaping the waves in Maine, makes me sad. On balance I’d have to say she should
never have moved to California, though it wasn’t her idea. Her idea was to go to France and live with
a poet named Jacques and paint gigantic canvases. Now you know more than you need to about how I
thwarted her ambitions. Say that again? Oh, right, in a past life I was beheaded in the French Revolution
so no wonder I have avoided Paris. No, I don’t think you’re stupid, I’m just a jerk, and no, I will not be
attending the workshop on undoing the damage of chemtrails with poultices of colloidal silver—but let
me know if you hear anything more about Bigfoot.




Four hundred times the government tried to kill her, but Esperanza, small, plain, and exceedingly
shrewd, was a genius at disguise, with friends everywhere who protected her, even at great risk to
themselves. As her fame grew, ballads were sung about her exploits, and the agents who pursued her
grew ever more desperate, therefore sloppy. Little did they suspect that Esperanza was not one woman
but several persons, that each of her deeds inspired more followers to take up her cause until, finally, the
government was itself largely made up of Esperanzas, and the agents spent most of their time drunk.
Like ticks engorged to the point of explosion, they dropped off their prey and died. In this way Esperanza
brought about profound and lasting change in the world without firing a single gun. No one remembers
anymore who the original Esperanza was, but it doesn’t matter—in the clothes of all nations, in their
myths and games and toasts, she lives on.



Falling in love with her, he thought he had never met anyone as lovely, as kind, as perfect as Esperanza.
Although, after they had been together for several years, he found that her loveliness was no more than
that of several other women he knew, her kindness a variety of shame, and her perfection, therefore, a
sham. Love her anyway—could he? Leave her now—should he? Incapable of making a decision, he froze
with his arms outstretched as if appealing for mercy, and Esperanza returned from work one evening
to find his statue in the living room next to a ouija board, the I Ching, and a pack of tarot cards. Notm
one to overlook the symbolic implications of personal tragedy or a good business opportunity, Esperanza
moved him outside, onto the lawn, his anguished arms now holding a sign saying Fortunes Told




Finding her we feel less alone. A hard thing to fake. Last item in the jar. Little triumph in the deathbed.
It got us this far. No telling where we go from her[e].


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