“This Music Is Not Your Nightmare” — a short story by Molly Ertel

April 23rd, 2019



“This Music is Not Your Nightmare” a story by Molly Ertel, was a finalist in our recently concluded 50th Short Fiction Contest. It is published with the permission of the author.







This Music Is Not Your Nightmare


Molly Ertel






…..She aimed her horn at my left ear and blasted it for 16 seconds that lasted the rest of my life. Even though the trumpet was pressed to her lips, I could see the smirk her mouthpiece couldn’t quite hide.

…..I’d been the one judging her out of the corner of my eye in the hallway before the show thinking, “Who is that slob of a woman wearing a muumuu and a backwards ball cap?” I assumed she was a friend of a friend of a friend that they let in for free, out of pity. When they announced her name, she, Janie Burch, lumbered onto the stage flaunting my disdain.

…..She wasn’t the kind to do something normal like say, “Good evening” to her audience or talk about her new album. Hell no. She had a signature greeting, and it was to let us have it with one everlasting shrill note that had enough power to pierce the heart of the world. And we felt relief when it was over and gratitude that she gave us a split second of silence so we could pledge ourselves to her, in the hopes she would not cause us any more pain. We, her now-adoring audience, had Stockholm syndrome and were beholden to her for the rest of the show.

…..I was the one holdout with my sucking-lemons face. Channeling my mother’s, “You call that music?” when she caught me listening to Bob Dylan on the radio at age fourteen, I thought-bubbled those immortal words out towards the stage. The “from” part of the thought bubble pointed to me. Cartoon character that she was, Janie saw it and sent me a “to.” Note-shot wound to the ear. My front row table six feet from, and at ninety degrees to, the stage had my left ear in the perfect position and Janie was rat-a-tatting away at it. Shards of notes bled out of my ear in telltale trickles that signaled me as the Janie Burch Cult defector.

…..Back to reality, my unprotected ears were throbbing. True Manhattanites, such as my daughter having lived here for ten years, wear earplugs any time they go out to hear music. Though born here, I moved away decades ago and am no longer a true Manhattanite. I was not wearing earplugs.

…..Even with two glasses of cheap jazz club wine in me, my brain struggled to get the music. I tried to follow a melody. I tried to make sense of it. I tried to let go and just feel it. This wasn’t the symphony, and I knew I couldn’t just sit there hands folded in my lap, a portrait of Northern European approval. But there was no way I could tap my foot to it or groove with my head without jerking around like I was covered in red ants.

…..Janie wasn’t much of a talker, but halfway through the set she finally introduced her cellist, bass player, and drummer. Even within spitting distance of the stage, I’d barely been able to hear them. I’d watched the cellist, her eyes closed in concentration, boutique eyelashes fluttering ever so slightly while her bow floated above the strings. The bassist, rapt, undulated his shoulders to a vibration that only he could feel. The drummer basted the tops of his drums with a brush, the buttery beats just loud enough to close any gaps between yelps of the horn. Janie’s bandmates were mere decorations.

…..Pleasantries done, that damn woman was blasting away again. She should take her horn to a quarry to break up boulders. She should use it as an emergency siren to alert people it was time to dive down into their basements. I wish I were in a basement right now. Where it was quiet.

…..She didn’t deserve the loyalty of her bandmates or the devotion of her audience. She was a fraud, and I seemed to be the only one who knew it. Again she heard my thoughts. I could tell from the way she smiled at me, a stupid, naked-eared boomer. I’d wasted time earlier in the evening choosing an outfit and trying to look nice for this torture. Double plus idiot me, especially since she looked like she’d dressed out of the trash bin behind a Goodwill store. She grinned and hit me with another series of blasts.

…..There was a microsecond lull and the words, “This music is not your nightmare,” broke through to my brain. It wasn’t really a voice but a thought so clear it brought its own sound with it.

…..“What?” I said.

“Did you say something?” my ear-plugged daughter said leaning in closer.

…..“No, nothing.” I didn’t want my daughter to think that I’d reached that stage of my, uh, development, that I muttered to myself.

…..I wondered if Janie was communicating telepathically with me. Maybe she was supernatural. Maybe she was super-resentful at a front row seat being taken up by someone who hated her music, so she decided to take sonorous revenge. I wanted to ask her, “If this music is not my nightmare, then what the hell is?”

…..But she was still on stage, testing our ability to fend off migraines with another few compositions from her own dissonant mind. Finally, the announcer had us applauding the Janie Burch Quartet’s exit. I wanted to jump up and down shouting, “Bravo! Bravo!” that she was finally leaving. She bowed before she left the stage. Bowed! I imagined her ball cap falling off and her being weird enough to do a headstand to get it back on, showing her hairy legs and white cotton panties in the process. I shuddered.

…..“So, what did you think?” Elisa asked, eyebrows tenting together.

…..I had been thinking I wanted Miles Davis to play for me. I wanted his trumpet to sidle inside my mind, stroke my cheek, massage my shoulders, and relax these hands of mine that clenched the world. But long-dead Miles wasn’t about to come back to this hell on earth.

…..“Oh, I enjoyed it.” Not very convincing, I knew, so I rushed in some filler. “I like to experience new things. My brain didn’t quite know what to do with it, but, well, you can’t say you don’t like sushi if you’ve never tried it. Right?”

…..That was bad. Elisa’s eyes quivered, trying hard not to roll around. “You want to get a bite to eat somewhere?” she asked.

…..We didn’t eat sushi.

…..Later that night I was trying to sleep on the foldout sofa as 100 per cent humidity rushed over me with each swipe of the ceiling fan’s blades. I said to myself, “I know that bitch jinxed me.”

…..I fell into a dark swamp of my own sweat. I was up to my neck in murk, possibly eyeball to eyeball with alligators and snakes. No stars winked. No frogs croaked a welcome. In a state of sluggish panic, I struggled to wake up but couldn’t quite. The heavy clouds above made an opening just wide enough for the full moon to spotlight the inky water out in front of me. A chair stood in the circle of light. A trumpet sat on the chair.

…..Miles Davis emerged from a stand of cypress trees on the far side of the swamp and walked across it to the chair. He sat and caressed his trumpet. He raised it to his mouth as he glanced in my direction, a hint of a smile on his face. Then he hit me with those sixteen agonizing, eternal seconds of Janie’s opening note. It pierced the air, killing every mosquito in a hundred-mile circumference. When I took my hands off my ears and opened my eyes, the chair was empty. Miles was laughing thunder all the way back up to the clouds as they closed behind him. “So what!” I yelled at the sky.

…..The moonlight gone, I felt myself to be floating on the swamp’s surface. I heard voiceless words again. They said, “You asked what the hell it is. Do you think music has to be pretty? Should you be able to hum along? Clap your hands? Play it as background dinner music to aid digestion? Fuck no. Music is art. It reflects our world. Is our world pretty?”

…..I woke up on the couch that felt marshy with its caved-in cushions. “Jesus, a lecture in the middle of the night to top it all off.”

…..Elisa mumbled something from the bedroom. I think it was, “Everything ok?”

…..“Yeah, can’t sleep is all. Sorry.” The couch was working at putting an “S” curve in my spine before morning, but I’d volunteered to sleep on it, not wanting to disturb my daughter’s routine during my visit.

…..In the morning over gluten-free muffins and green tea, Elisa offered to sleep on the couch for the rest of my visit. “I don’t mind. You take the bed.”

…..“Mmm, I don’t know. We’ll talk about it later. I’ve been thinking about buying Janie Burch’s album. You know, that trumpet player?”

…..“Mom, you hated her.”

…..“Shush,” I said. “I’ll grow to love her. Expand my mind.”

…..“I thought you guys had psychedelics way back when for that.”

…..I let her have that one.

…..I didn’t tell her I’d broken up with Miles, at least for a time. The way he made fun of me…it hurt, made me feel fragile. I know what he was thinking – that I’m close-minded and unable to let new music just wash through me without judgment.

…..I also didn’t tell my daughter that I’d already downloaded Janie’s album after “returning from the swamp.” I listened to it through earbuds over and over again. Her music wasn’t anything like an ear worm that merely pulsates and loops around. It was an electric eel that found every nook and cranny of my brain and filled it with the intolerable brightness of sound.

…..And it took me places. I stood atop a sunflower and looked at the earth far below with ants, real ants, scuttling around like city people. I lay plastered against a license plate on the front of a pickup going eighty miles an hour down the freeway. I could barely breathe, but the thrill of it bonded me with every dog I’d ever seen with his head out the window of a speeding truck. I returned to the swamp and dove inside the mouth of an alligator when it opened its jaws. I marveled at the mountain ranges of teeth above and below, some blade sharp, others rounded. One near the back had a cavity and oozed brackish stuff, and it made me laugh imagining “Allie” in a dentist’s chair.

…..By the end of he album I had danced in and out of a candle flame, eaten my way out of a bar of dark chocolate, and shoved an apple into the mouth of every yapping kid on a yellow school bus. I became part of each scene, and each scene was perfect. They appeared in succession without segue, and no explanation was necessary.

…..Fifty-seven minutes of Janie’s album had allowed me to live superlatives; the tallest, tiniest, fastest, and weirdest… It was so vastly different from my conventional life. I was grateful, but it pained me to admit that I had boxed myself into a comfortable, but closed, world and had ceased to really live. I had become my own nightmare. I sure as hell didn’t want to see my daughter’s knowing look if I confessed as much.

…..Pushing aside my plate with the half-eaten muffin I joked, seemingly out of nowhere, “From here on out, I am going to play Janie’s damn album every May – What was yesterday’s date? – every May 15th. Oh, and I’ll be wearing a muumuu and a backwards ball cap.”

…..“Glad you’re coming around,” was all Elisa said.









Molly Ertel has been writing in random notebooks and on scraps of paper since she was six. Recently, she began to formalize her approach by using a computer, saving her work, and submitting it. She writes mainly flash and short fiction and has been published by Akashic Books and The Dark City Mystery magazine. She is also a reader for the Silver Blade Anthology, considering it an educational opportunity to learn from other writers.  She is currently working on a novel in which the ghost of Clara Schumann figures heavily.




Details about our 51st Short Fiction Contest







Share this:

2 comments on ““This Music Is Not Your Nightmare” — a short story by Molly Ertel”

  1. Molly Ertel beautifully depicts that inglorious intersection when someone (like me) is forced to reconsider stale attitudes derived from stale comfort that gets chipped away to reveal the sort of discomfort we all need to keep growing. She hits me first, with her humor, my eyes drawn to the glossy surface, then with staring longer, I see the many layers, social, personal and philosophical that underpin this story of self evolution. I hope to see more of her writing! Perhaps a novel to curl up with?

Comment on this article:

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

In This Issue

The Modern Jazz Quintet by Everett Spruill
A Collection of Jazz Poetry — Summer, 2023 Edition

A wide range of topics are found in this collection. Tributes are paid to Tony Bennett and Ahmad Jamal and to the abstract worlds of musicians like Ornette Coleman and Pharoah Sanders; the complex lives of Chet Baker and Nina Simone are considered; devotions to Ellington and Basie are revealed; and personal solace is found in the music of Tommy Flanagan and Quartet West. These are poems of peace, reflection, time, venue and humor – all with jazz at their core. (Featuring the art of Everett Spruill)

The Sunday Poem

photo by William Gottlieb/Library of Congress
“Erroll Garner at the Ace” by Kristofer Collins


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.

In Memoriam

Fotograaf Onbekend / Anefo, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons
A thought or two about Tony Bennett


"BG Boogie’s musical tour of indictment season"...The podcaster “BG Boogie” has weaponized the most recent drama facing The Former Guy, creating a 30 minute playlist “with all the latest up-to-date-est musical indictments of political ineptitude.”


Chick Webb/photographer unknown
Interview with Stephanie Stein Crease, author of Rhythm Man: Chick Webb and the Beat That Changed America...The author talks about her book and Chick Webb, once at the center of America’s popular music, and among the most influential musicians in jazz history.


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 vi Wallpaper Flare
Short Fiction Contest-winning story #63 — “Company” by Anastasia Jill...Twenty-year-old Priscilla Habel lives with her wannabe flapper mother who remains stuck in the jazz age 40 years later. Life is monotonous and sad until Cil meets Willie Flasterstain, a beatnik lesbian who offers an escape from her mother's ever-imposing shadow.


Trading Fours, with Douglas Cole, No. 16: “Little Waltz” and “Summertime”...Trading Fours with Douglas Cole is an occasional series of the writer’s poetic interpretations of jazz recordings and film. In this edition, he connects the recordings of Jessica Williams' "Little Waltz" and Gene Harris' "Summertime."


photo by Bob Hecht
This 28-song Spotify playlist, curated by Jerry Jazz Musician contributing writer Bob Hecht, features great tunes performed by the likes of Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Sarah Vaughan, Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins, Bill Evans, Lester Young, Stan Getz, and…well, you get the idea.

Jazz History Quiz #167

GuardianH, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Before becoming one of television’s biggest stars, he was a competent ragtime and jazz piano player greatly influenced by Scott Joplin (pictured), and employed a band of New Orleans musicians similar to the Original Dixieland Jazz Band to play during his vaudeville revue. Who was he?

Short Fiction

Warner/Reprise, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
“Not Just Another Damn Song on the Radio” – a short story by Craig Fishbane


"Horn" by Samuel Dixon
Jazz Haiku – a sampler

Short Fiction

back cover of Diana Krall's album "The Girl in the Other Room" [Verve]
“Improvised: A life in 7ths, 9ths and Suspended 4ths” – a short story by Vikki C.


photo by William Gottlieb/Library of Congress
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.


photo by Giovanni Piesco
Giovanni Piesco’s photographs of Tristan Honsinger

A Letter From the Publisher

An appeal for contributions to support the ongoing publishing efforts of Jerry Jazz Musician


Maurice Mickle considers jazz venues, in two poems

In Memoriam

David Becker, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons
“Tony Bennett, In Memoriam” – a poem by Erren Kelly


IISG, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Ella Fitzgerald, in poems by Claire Andreani and Michael L. Newell

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.


Hans Christian Hagedorn, professor for German and Comparative Literature at the University of Castilla-La Mancha in Ciudad Real (Spain) reveals the remarkable presence of Miguel de Cervantes’ classic Don Quixote in the history of jazz.

Short Fiction

Dmitry Rozhkov, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons
“A Skull on the Moscow Leningrad Sleeper” – a short story by Robert Kibble...A story revolving around a jazz record which means so much to a couple that they risk being discovered while attempting to escape the Soviet Union


photo by Robert Course-Baker, via PxHere
“On The Road: 2023” – a poem by Phil Linz

Book Excerpt

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

Short Fiction

photo via Appletreeauction.com
“Streamline Moderne” – a short story by Amadea Tanner

Publisher’s Notes

“C’est Si Bon” – at trip's end, a D-Day experience, and an abundance of gratitude


photo by William Gottlieb/Library of Congress
A Charlie Parker Poetry Collection...Nine poets, nine poems on the leading figure in the development of bebop…

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


Photo of Stanley Crouch by Michael Jackson
Interview with Glenn Mott, editor of Victory is Assured: The Uncollected Writings of Stanley Crouch (photo of Stanley Crouch by Michael Jackson)


photo of Sonny Rollins by Brian McMillen
Interview with Aidan Levy, author of Saxophone Colossus: The Life and Music of Sonny Rollins...The author discusses his book about the iconic tenor saxophonist who is one of the greatest jazz improvisers of all time – a lasting link to the golden age of jazz


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


© Veryl Oakland
John McLaughlin and Carlos Santana are featured in this edition of photographs and stories from Veryl Oakland’s book, Jazz in Available Light

Coming Soon

An interview with Judith Tick, author of Becoming Ella Fitzgerald: The Jazz Singer Who Transformed American Song; A new collection of jazz poetry; 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