Tuesday, March 2, 2010

I lose...you win

Recently, the Harvard Book Store in Cambridge, Massachusetts, announced an open submission of short short fiction (500 words of less) to be published in a collection that would be printed on demand within the store. Writers were allowed to send up to three submissions. I sent the full allotment and from hundreds of submissions received from around the world, only 36 authors were selected to be represented. Unfortunately, I was not one of them. Fortunately, no one I know was.

Had I been selected, you would have had to drag yourself down to the book store and buy a copy just to satisfy your insatiable curiosity about what I wrote. As it is, I offer you these rejected works free of charge. Enjoy.

In the Nickel of Time
By Jason M. Rubin

Nickels. Can you imagine that? A handful of shiny silver nickels. That’s all it took. Not that I have anything against nickels, because I don’t. What’s not to like? Jefferson’s proud profile. That nice smooth edge. Far weightier than the meek dime though only half its value. Yeah, nickels. Nothing wrong with them.

Except that I’d never been handed an entire roll of them before.

I was behind the counter at the local Quickie Mart, where I’d been working three nights and one Saturday each week to make a little extra money. I’d been there almost three weeks now and was making literally that: a little extra money. But I supplemented my meager income by surreptitiously taking a few small items every now and then. Not enough to arouse suspicion, just a few household staples: a quart of milk, a can of corned beef hash, a pack of rubbers. Whatever we needed that night.

It was Thursday at about 10:30pm, a half hour to closing time. It took me 20 minutes to close out the register, straighten out the store, and lock up, then another five minutes to drive home. An older guy came in, kind of disheveled, his white hair all askew on his age-spotted head, wearing a dirty jacket too light for a damp spring night. He asked for two scratch tickets. Two dollars, I said. He handed me a roll of nickels. Forty nickels. Two dollars.

“You don’t have a couple of bills?” I asked.
“Nah,” he replied.

I bobbed my hand up and down a few times, as if assessing the weight of the roll to ensure that it felt like a full 40 nickels. As if I could tell. But I liked the feel of the roll in my hand. I didn’t want to break it open and have to count out each individual coin to confirm that he’d paid me the full amount, so I accepted it, knowing he had scant chance of even earning back his investment.

As he walked out of the store, I put the roll down on the counter, took out my wallet, pulled a pair of ones from within, and put them in the register. I kept the roll in my hand the rest of the night and was still holding it as I left the store and started to lock the door behind me. Just then I felt a hand push me against the door. A voice, soft yet sinister, ordered, “Open up and give me what’s in the register.”

Purely out of instinct, I turned and slugged the guy. Wasn’t even thinking. Didn’t know if he was armed, didn’t even know if he was big and strong or just a punk on an oxy high needing money to make another score. But I was so surprised that I just let loose with my fist. Which was holding a roll of nickels.

And that’s how I knocked the fucker out and earned a $100 bonus from my boss.

– end –


By Jason M. Rubin

We called him Kegger. There were two reasons why we called him Kegger. The first was that we didn’t know his real name. The second was because he had some kind of physical disability that made him walk in a jerky fashion so that he looked like someone leaving a “kegger” (that is, a keg party). In other words, he walked like he was drunk, even though he wasn’t. We used to joke that when he was shitfaced, he probably walked perfectly.

He was a classmate of ours in college. That was almost 20 years ago. We didn’t know what his ailment was. It could have been something like muscular dystrophy or cerebral palsy, but to tell you the truth, I don’t really know what those diseases are all about. He could have sustained a brain injury in an accident. It would have been so easy to get the answer…no, strike that. Even had I introduced myself to him and learned his name, I don’t think I would’ve had the nerve to ask him the nature of his disability. “So what’s with the funny walk: brain damage or incurable disease?” I don’t think so.

The strange thing is, ever since we graduated, I see him around the city every so often. Maybe once every three to five years. I went to a large state university and for all I know I’m constantly coming into contact with people from my class – but I wouldn’t know them from Adam, because there’s nothing about them that distinguishes them in my mind. Not like Kegger. I’d know Kegger anywhere. It’s true, because I’ve seen him with and without a beard, and there’s no question it’s Kegger.

Once we saw him at a Grateful Dead concert. For that night only, his name was changed from Kegger to Acid Casualty. There was no end to our empathy.

Here’s why I’m telling you this. I saw him again. Just yesterday. Only this time, I talked to him. Turns out he works at the Registry of Motor Vehicles, and I was in to get a new license because my wallet had been stolen.

I didn’t recognize him at first, as he was sitting down. But then he had to go over to the printer and there it was. The walk. It was Kegger. I smiled. Nothing to lose, I thought. So when he came back to me, I introduced myself and said that we went to college together.

“I know,” he said. “I see you around town every so often.”

“You do?” I replied. (What the hell was so distinguishing about me?)

“Yeah,” he said. But he didn’t say anything else. Then he handed me my license and called the next number.

I walked out of the building and began to notice the way I walk. It’s funny, when you think about how you walk, you can’t walk right. Old Kegger (I forgot to ask his name!), he doesn’t even have to think about it. He just walks.

– end –


Made It
By Jason M. Rubin

They never even made it.

And poor Tim, he still waited with breath that was bated. Alas, he was fated, it seemed, to ever be devastated – and never be elated. He hated this feeling, sought to evade it, and made it his mission to take his position and elevate it.

And yet, again, he was deflated. Tim knew it was a problem he himself created by refusing to be sated with anyone he dated. No one rated high enough, no one fellated well enough, no one could get themselves extricated from him fast enough. They felt intimidated, exasperated, and he only exacerbated the issue through the cruel tricks he perpetrated on them.

Frustrated, he took to drink, thinking that if sedated he would be less hated. But he played it wrong, stayed drunk too long, and demonstrated that he was not syncopated within love’s sweet song that serenaded others so well. If ever he’d come close to tying the knot, surely he would have frayed it. His heart, it seemed, was too well barricaded.

Within his mind he debated the proper course to take; but jaded, he could not commit. How he would have traded his conundrum for any other, waded into any other of life’s streams, aided only by his wits and compassion. Yet passion itself paraded by him, time after time, paying him no mind, until he laid it down to rest.

Only then it came to him, belated, and elucidated in his thoughts, the right response: online dating. And so a profile he created, though a computer crash delayed it. But then it went live and soon he was inundated with romantic offers (the truth, after all, was not often stated and so his appeal was upwardly graded).

Ever a devil, Tim on a whim replied to two at once and both were slated to show, and so he sat in a booth in a café where tables were waited and food was plated and cheese was grated and the knives were serrated. And there his hopes were raided, his light was shaded, and his pride was berated. His place in the booth, well, he refused to vacate it.

Even though they never even made it.

– end –

Monday, March 1, 2010

My brief career as a harp roadie

There was a short period of time in my life when I worked as a roadie for a harpist. It wasn't a full-time gig, but whenever this harpist would play locally, I'd drive out to the venue with her and haul her harp. I'd get $75 and the pleasure of watching the show. And what a show it always was. The harpist in question was Deborah Henson-Conant, a jazz harpist who has taken her immaculate instrument into the dirty downtown vibe of blues, funk, and electronica. Though I haven't seen her in years, she was a friend and the story of how we came entwined in each other's lives is pretty interesting.

It all started in 1985. I was freshly out of college, it was summer and my friends and I were looking for entertainment. We saw there was a jazz cruise happening in Boston Harbor, so we got tickets for it. I was just getting into jazz, my friends not quite so much, but we were into the idea of a "booze cruise" on a nice summer night, so we went.

There were two bands playing simultaneously. On the main deck was the Gary Burton Quartet. I knew of this remarkable vibraphonist from his duo recordings with Chick Corea. When the night started, I was all set to spend the night enjoying his artistry. After a while, though, one of my friends wanted to check out the other band playing below deck, so I went with him. There we saw a group calling itself the Jazz Harp Trio, featuring the tall, striking Henson-Conant with a bassist and a drummer.

The sight of this combination was enough to keep me there for a while, but it was the music that kept me there all night. The highlight was a medley from The Wizard of Oz, as epic and powerful as Buddy Rich's classic West Side Story medley. At one point, the drummer put down his sticks and did a scat-vocal drum solo. I was hooked. There was a sign-up sheet, which I applied my information to, and I may have bought one of her cassettes that night as well. The point is, I was under her spell.

I also knew where she lived, since her business address was also her home address. She lived outside Davis Square in Somerville, Massachusetts. I lived not far away and within a year or two I was actually living just a few blocks from her. I began going to her shows pretty regularly and bought a couple more tapes. In 1987, I lost my job and was unemployed for a number of months. During this time, I got a mailing from Deborah, asking for volunteers to help with mailings. Having nothing better to do, I called her and said I'd be happy to lend a hand.

I got to meet her and her then-manager Susan, and see her interesting home, which featured the fledgling Burnt Food Museum. We became friendly, and one day she asked me if I'd like to carry her harp for her at a show. Now, I'm a big guy but a harp is pretty big, too, and not the most symmetrical thing you might ever be asked to lift. Not only that, it's ornate and expensive and I was afraid if I mucked it up, it would not at all be a good thing.

But she told me she would teach me how to hold it and, of course, the prospect of earning some money convinced me there would be worse things than spending an evening with a tall, striking harpist. I forget the name of the venue and what town it's located in, but I'll never forget the architecture of the building. The downstairs was a restaurant, the upstairs was a jazz club. The stairs themselves were quite narrow and very steep. I was starting to have second thoughts, but it was too late to turn back. That harp had to get upstairs and I was the one who had to bring it there (I didn't even let myself think about how I was going to get it back down).

Following Deborah's instructions, I gripped the harp at just the right places, bent my knees and lifted it up. If I did nothing else with it, at least I knew I was holding it securely and ergonomically. Now, to climb the stairs. I went slowly, never looking down, stopping to lean my back against the wall when I had to, then continuing, keeping my grip firm (did I mention it was summer and I was sweating?). Amazingly, I made it to the top of the stairs, harp and me each in one piece. It was then that Deborah swooped in and grabbed the harp and placed it on the stage. Very smoothly, I might add. My work, for the next couple of hours anyway, was done.

I enjoyed the show and a couple of draft beers, and then it was time to bring the harp downstairs. To my surprise, it was actually easier; I'd been afraid the thing would drag me down or make me lose my balance. The final trick was laying it gently in the back of her car (I forget the make, but it was just a plain old urban shitbox, not a vehicle designed for transporting large, awkward, valuable objects). Anyway, the night went well, Deborah was satisfied with my hauling and enjoyed my company (I learned that part of the job was keeping her focused and unanxious before the performance), and subsequently she hired me at least a half dozen other times.

By that time, I'd gotten a full-time job and had begun my progressive rock newsletter, so I used my new desktop publishing skills to redesign and produce her newsletter, called Harp Strings.

By that time, I also had met a woman name Laura, who happens to currently be my wife. For our first date, I took her to the Regattabar jazz club, located in the Charles Hotel in Cambridge, to see - who else? - Deborah Henson-Conant. When we arrived, I saw Deborah's manager, Susan, and went over to say hi and introduce her to Laura. She shook Laura's hand and said, "Ooh, your hand is so cold!" Then to me, she said, "Are her hands always this cold?" I replied honestly. "I don't know, I haven't held her hand yet."

So that was our first date. When we got married in 1993, we decided to hold the wedding at the Charles Hotel. We hired Deborah to play during the processional and recessional, as well as the cocktail hour. And then Deborah suddenly got kind of big. She was signed to GRP Records, began appearing on TV, and toured the world. I think I've only seen her once since the wedding, but I'm glad she's taken off and gotten the recognition she so justly deserves.

At this point, I'd be very curious to see her perform again, to see how her music has progressed. My back, however, insists that the only harp I lift again be the one on a Guinness pint glass.

This, by the way, is a much smaller harp than the one I carried:

This one is more like it: