CBC Short Story Prize: "Sweet Dynamite" by Jay Tameling
Jay Tameling's "Sweet Dynamite" brings to life the sweet and sour notes of a bourbon-loving trumpet player, his chance encounter with a young Jewish woman in Montreal, and the son he leaves behind. It was shortlisted for the
Disclaimer: Please note that this story contains adult language that some may find offensive.
Music and drinking. Hemingway’s father did two things well and loved them both. He played the trumpet. He was in a jazz band. The band was named after the trumpet. The band nicknamed his father Three Fingers. He liked his drinks three fingers full. With three valves he and that horn could emote the most intimate moments. Brothers fighting. Hearts breaking. Children dying. Cheaters well, he didn’t judge. He made love to everyone with ears. Or no one. He could fill an empty room with sex. Open the door and the stench would knock you back. He carried his favorite newspaper review in his wallet. Topeka Capital-Journal. Folded neatly and tucked behind an expired, faded driver’s license from one of the Dakotas. He crossed out everything that didn’t matter. With a blue pen and cigarette for a ruler. Left just four words. That man can blow.
With infidelity on his father’s lips night after night, it didn’t leave room for lasting relationships. Relationships, sure. But not lasting. Often not longer than the club promoter's handshake. Or the twenty-six shots of motel end-table unleaded.
Sometimes he paid them. A ten. A twenty. More if they would suck his toes. Most didn’t. Sometimes he scared them off when they found him with his head submerged in a sink full of cold water, holding his breath for as long as he could stand. Longer. Too long. Until his chest burned to a fragile cinder and his brain slouched towards the shadows of unconsciousness. More than once he was robbed as he lay passed out on a damp bathroom floor. After three times he stopped carrying credit cards. After the first he left his horn with the drummer. That was the price to train his lungs to hold more pain and sex and joy. Lonely was the tip.
Montreal was no different.
It was Kentucky Derby day. He was buying bourbon. He had a craving for mint juleps. He didn’t look for the mint. He’d hidden two fives in his shoes the night before and settled on a bottle of Evan Williams Black. On sale. Eight dollars. He was turning for the cash register when he heard it. Newley and Bricusse. Feeling Good. Hemingway’s father peeked around the vodka shelves. He tried peering through the bottles at first, but the distorted images made his equilibrium waver. He was nursing a hangover and a fresh porcelain gash.
A stumpy brunette was nursing a broom through the store aisles, singing while she swept. Her skin was French-kissed by spring sun. Her nose was kosher. She wore foam radio headphones and mimicked Simone. The way the headphones arched over her pixie haircut reminded Hemingway’s father of St. Louis. Her voice reminded him of cats fucking. She hummed the horns. He wanted her right there. Between the cold beer coolers and the boxes of white German wine. Because she tried and failed and didn’t care who was listening. Because he was short of money for better. He waited until the song was over before tapping her shoulder.
Hemingway’s mother was startled. Most people ignored her. When you are plain and unremarkable this happens. The teasers and bullies find you boring. The homeless don’t even ask for change. Having a handsome, disheveled man inquire about her singing rendered her mute. She glanced around to be sure, pushing the headphones off her ears; Lady Day whispered into the corners of her eyes. If it was a warning, she wasn’t listening.
He was tall. Taller than her by nearly a foot. Skinny. Like one of those stick insects camouflaged in tree branches and long, dry grass but awkward anywhere else. His blazer was canary yellow with thin blue pinstripes and thicker piping. Badly wrinkled. Like he’d slept under a park bench with it rolled up for a pillow. His hair was cut close on the sides, nearly shaved; long on top and slicked back like a moonlight grey wave crashing over his head. She couldn’t tell how much older he was, or maybe just prematurely so—the coif the wrinkled blazer caged in the coalmine, follicle frogs in oil slick wetlands.
Above his left eye a long cut leaked through crudely ripped masking tape sutures. He dabbed the injury with a pale blue handkerchief; suavely folded the crimson polka dots away from sight. He never paused. He was always twitching or jerking or shuffling. His hands drew pictures and his eyes winked exclamation points. His drawl dripped California sun. Seattle was his favorite city, his teeth beamed. The rain washed away all extraneous—flesh, bones and bullshit—exposed the soul. Of people. Of place. Of impermanence.
With two fingers and his thumb he pulled a package of multicolored, felt-tip pens and a motel notepad from his jeans pockets. He scribbled an address and gently laid it in her palm. Rainbows of tiny notes tattooed the rest of the piece of paper, forking and merging in coded color combinations, folding over the edge and continuing on the back, ending abruptly in the middle of the page, half-finished clefs like recession house frames abandoned by their carpenters. He left abruptly. She doesn’t remember him paying for the bourbon.
She does remember going to his motel room that night.
She’d worn her favorite dress. A green with white polka dots halterneck. It had a vintage 50s swishing hemline that hid her knees. More importantly her thighs. He answered the door of room #12 still wearing his wrinkled blazer. His shirt was gone. His chest was hairy. She wanted to touch him. She did. Her fingers scraped his skin like the sandy bottom of a seaweed littered beach. His slim fingers held a nearly empty bottle.They tapped the neck and the beat echoed down to the final sips sloshing around the bottom. In time with her twisting hips.
When Hemingway asked questions about his father, his mother was mostly mute. Sometimes she would smile. Sometimes her eyes would mist over like a St. Lawrence fog. Sometimes she would hum the horns of her favorite song. His Bubbeh and Zayde rolled their eyes and spit spit spit into their angrily wringing hands. Hemingway stopped asking. He didn’t stop wondering who and where his father was.
The answer came when a tall, thin man knocked on their screen door. It was raining. It was summer. He was five. The man was a stranger. The stranger was drenched, holding a weathered red case shaped like a butternut squash. With his mother watching from the kitchen window, the stranger took Hemingway’s hand and walked him to the tin roof shed in the backyard. They sat staring at each other on overturned milk crates. Chickens pecked the ends of Hemingway’s shoelaces. The tall, thin man inhaled impossibly deep and let out an even longer sigh. The red case was snapped open. A half-bottle of Famous Grouse was pulled out. A trumpet followed.
Hemingway sat quietly as his father talked. Talked and drank. He tried to follow a meandering story up one coast and down another. He imagined crayon colored mountains and deserts, buildings built like castles, and people tall as the giant-sized man across from him. The story ended with his father pulling back motel curtains, the epileptic, alphabetic pulse of neon across his sleeping mother’s naked skin. The empty bottle was put down. His father raised the trumpet to his lips and together, stranger and brass, played the most ambivalent sounds Hemingway had ever heard. Sad and triumphant. Sweet and sour. He felt them turn gummy, like salt water taffy, in his watering mouth. His eyes dared not blink. His father’s fingers, long and skinny, danced with quiet urgency; muscles and tendons rippled under thin, pale skin, creatures beneath soft egg shells straining for birth. They were strong hands, but they cradled that horn with love. Hemingway felt something squeeze his tiny chest. A vice on his ribs. His heart burning. He wanted to smash that trumpet. He wanted to run to his mother and make the pain go away. He was frozen to his crate. The music was cement in his joints. The music was his mother’s favorite.
His father played the song just once. His father patted his head—too abruptly to be loving—and left, unwilling or unable to look over his bony shoulder or up at the sad eyes keeping watch from above. Hemingway stayed seated on his milk crate, listening to the soothing sounds of rain on thin tin, every drop against metal a tiny hammer chipping away at his dutiful stasis.