Excerpt for The Great Composer: Hope, Love, Purpose and Other Necessary Evils by , available in its entirety at Smashwords




The Great Composer







Contents:


Penny Sparrows 3

Smash 51

The Interview 75






Prefaces:


Generally a bad idea (if you’re reading this, you are more patient than I am). My main trouble with them is that they often blunt the impact, stand in the way of the arresting vitality of a, say, Dolores Claiborne to just grab you by the wrist and shout “still your jawin and listen to me for a while!”

That said, I’ll still my jawin soon and let the story begin. I would only pause here to say a word about the order of the stories to come, which I would actually like to leave up to you. The worlds of the following tales intersect at points, but I don’t believe anything would be lost by reading the last first or the first last. As presently arranged, this is a horror story. Place “Smash” at the end, however, and this becomes a story of silver linings and insistently springing hope. Place “Penny Sparrows” at the end and we have, perhaps, a hero’s journey. I remember a preface to a Robert McCammon novel in which he said—if you’ll forgive this reckless paraphrase—that writing, essentially, turns memory into art. I would agree. We are travelers in this life when we look ahead, and we are composers when we look behind. Godspeed to you, Dear Reader. I do hope you enjoy this brief excursion. I’ll see you on the other side… in the epilogue, where authors’ notes belong.

L.J.M.





Penny Sparrows





Insist on yourself.

Emerson




There’s this joke told fairly common in horse circles: a horse walks into a bar; the bartender, also a horse, says nothing.

Horses have a strange sense of humor. It’s a bit flat, like a copy of a copy, which is exactly what it is. They took it from us, swapped out leading figures for ones they could identify with, and then let the punchlines develop naturally from the new premises.

But horses aren’t funny, and I promise never to bring one into this bar again. I’ll just tell it straight: A guy walks into a bar, and he sees himself. He hadn’t come looking for a crisis, and he didn’t lead the sort of life that led to them. He was a software analyst, and he’d just botched the job opportunity of a lifetime by not knowing how to follow a receptionist’s simple lobby-to-office directions. He had shown up fifteen minutes early to the Global Systems tower, and, too embarrassed to go back down and ask directions, he spent thirty minutes trying to find the boss’s office, trotting down hallways and turning heads with a worried expression that suggested he was not trying to find his place there but to escape. Tomorrow he would return to the usual obscurity and inconsequential life that came with the job he just couldn’t seem to get rid of. In this moment, all he was looking for was a drink.

The door closed behind him and he was swallowed up by the cloud of souls hovering over the dance floor like ballroom corpses on the Titanic, not really dancing, just standing in, it seemed, for the dancers they wished they were. There was just a slim stream of unpeopled waters between the dance floor and the bar, and he slipped into it, searching patiently for a break in the phalanx of wallflowers and stool settlers that stood between him and the bartender. Nothing. Nothing. And then, at last, a familiar face— his.

“That’s me,” he said like an idiot. But no one was listening. A slight blonde woman at the bar sensed that he had spoken aloud to no one and instinctively sent out the sign of estrangement, but Dante didn’t notice this. He was busy. The man who was him stood up after the sound coming from his glass turned to dry suck and the crack of ice cubes falling over and then he blinked lazily and drew in a quick breath that straightened his posture. He slid out from the bar and his gaze came crashing down onto Dante’s, and he looked horrified, for a second; then, he looked relieved, as if he had just had a great cosmic joke revealed to him at last, but that look didn’t last long either. His joy broke. If the world’s end was a joke, this was the expression we’d be wearing when the laughter had worn off. As if the sickest part of the Cosmic Joke were simply that it wasn’t at all funny but it was still necessary to laugh along because God was telling it and it was his house after all. The look-a-like’s eyes glazed over, but he turned around too fast to show any would-be waterworks and when he did he was met by a man most certainly out-of-place in the young-ish, would-be-hip bar. He was a small man, just over five-feet, balding, dressed plainly but respectably, solidly round, like he was meant for it. Dante’s look-alike bumped into him and both their expressions changed and when the round man looked down, Dante followed his eyes to his forearm where a long kitchen knife had partly disappeared behind the flesh like a magician’s saw.

The initial feeling that hit Dante upon seeing this had little to do with the irreconcilable fact of having met, if only for a passing instant, his exact replica. It was the simple obscenity of the image. It was grotesque. It was impossible. It was the breaching of a wall somewhere in the backdrop of all-Dante-needed-to-believe in order to carry on as a fearlessly optimistic human being, and it was all disrupted by the sight of that blade peering out from either side of an as yet bloodless wound. He watched the dying man’s expression fade back to the ironic smile, as if the funny-cum-really-serious thing had become once again funny, and he was glad that this fellow, whoever he is, was, is… that he was smiling— dying, but smiling anyway.

The blood was running now. The little man who had cut him was gone. The small crowd around the double was just beginning to react to the grotesquery of a butchered human artery sending all of its life onto the vinyl tile below. The man was almost gone, and Dante knew that there had to be something he needed to learn from the guy because don’t ‘things happen for a reason?’ But Dante ran. He bumped into an onlooker as he swung around for the exit, and when their eyes met a twinkle of recognition lit up in the guy’s eye, who then shot his stare quickly back to the now dead man on the floor. Dante was gone by the time he turned back.

Outside, Dante slipped in the gutter and fell straight to his hip and the pain was a mute rage in his numb leg but he shimmied up off the blacktop and kept on. He got to his car. He got in. He made two shallow gashes in the steering column as he stabbed at the ignition, but the third brought the key home and he turned it violently and ripped out of his parking spot and hit the highway. He was still drunk, but the road was rolling away and he felt every hiccup in the concrete. He was alert as he ever had been, even if the only fact to be aware of was his ignorance of any facts at all. Who the holy fuck was that?

Was. That part was certain. The man is dead now. He had to be. That knife had floated straight down to the bone and stayed there. The blood rose up and turned over the tear in his skin like a river bends over a stone. It just fell. Without restraint and, most unsettlingly, without hurry… It just ran out freely like that was where it was headed all along. Dante blinked hard. Each time he did his eyelids sprung back with more and more force.

That was Friday night. Nearly two weeks passed before he saw the round man again.




“Hey buddy,” the bartender said, “why the long face?”

“I saw a guy get killed.”

“Whoa. Jesus. Really? What the…”

Dante told him. Everything except the part about the guy who was killed being his identical twin. It seemed maybe too relevant to share with a bartender, and, besides, time was already coloring his memory with doubt about the particulars.

“And the guy… Ok, wait a minute. This guy just takes that knife into his arm and stares at it while the other guy gets away? I dunno, bro.”

“I guess he was in shock.”

The bartender nodded at this. He had heard it before, so it was clearly possible. “Or he was just a pussy. My brother’s friend got stabbed once—Took the knife out of his shoulder and chased the fucker down the street!”

Dante stared at his sweating ice cubes as if in prayer.

“I don’t like that word, pussy,” said a woman’s voice.

“Here we go.” The bartender took Dante’s empty glass to the other end of the bar.

“Speaking of pussies.”

The bartender pretended not to hear him.

“Fuckin’ sexist, dude. And fucking disrespectful. The vagina… the vagina is the most badass muscle on the… it’s the… I just hate to hear that shit. Why is the weakest guy in a group always the ‘pussy’ of the group? Show some fucking respect for the thing you spend half your lives begging for. I mean—“

“It’s short for pusillanimous.”

“Excuse me?”

“Pusillanimous. Weak. It’s not sexist to call a dude a pussy.”

“That’s not—“

“It’s sexist to call your pussy a pussy.”

The strange woman giggled.

“What’s with the hoodie?” Dante asked.

“Not tryna be seen.”

“What are you famous?”

“I’m just trying to be alone.”

Dante went to apologize but held himself back. He sensed she wasn’t referring to him. Besides, he didn’t believe her.

“I heard your story. That’s some fucked up shit, man. I guess you never know, eh?”

“I guess not.”

“Just meant-to-be.”

He played his index finger around the rim of his glass.

“Do you believe in destiny?” she said.

Feeling like he was being set up but not really caring, he answered honestly: “Nope.”

“That was easy.”

“I guess it was. I didn’t realize how certainly my mind was made up on that ‘til just now. Thanks for asking.”

“C’mon, man. You really don’t believe in destiny?”

Dante, felt her hand touch down on his arm and, recoiling slightly at the memory of the knife, tried to think of a better opinion to hold, but she stopped him.

“No. No, tell me for real. I swear I’m not messing with you.”

“I believe in chaos.”

“Eeww, I take it back. Lie to me.” She released his arm and the absence of it lingered on his skin.

“Sorry, but you asked. I never told anyone that before. I don’t know if I’ve ever even had that thought before… but it feels good on my tongue. I don’t even know what it means, to be honest, but, now that I say it, I don’t think I’ve ever known anything more true.”

“Wonderful. I always wanted to be a muse for a confidently unclear nihilist.”

“Got a name, Ms. Destiny?”

“Sherry.”

“Lovely. I’m Dante. See now, if your name was Beatrice you may have had a convert.”

Her eyes narrowed.

“It’s a book. Nevermind. So, what’s a good girl like you doing drunk at five o’clock on a Monday?”

“I’m not drunk.”

“Aha.”

“I’m hiding.”

“Stalker?” He tilted his glass back to chase the word.

“Responsibility. Reality.”

“Destiny?”

“I wouldn’t hide from that, even if I could. Seriously.” She grabbed his shoulder and made him look at her and they both turned away embarrassed. “That guy you saw get killed, was it the guy at The Well?”

“That is where it was.”

“Oh, wow. Did you know him?”

Dante didn’t answer.

“Ah, man! You did know him, didn’t you? Oh shit.”

“No, I really didn’t.”

Dante heard the door slam shut behind him. In the mirror in front of them, a short round man with sparse hair arranged like a monk’s or like the crown of an impoverished king crossed and then sat, fixing himself as if by some artist’s stroke onto the glass. Sherry craned her neck to get a glimpse of him, and when her gaze returned Dante was gone. She leapt from her stool and ran into the parking lot, but all she could see was a tiny silhouette shrinking in the distance swiftly as if he were not running but falling away. She followed.




“Dante!”

He looked up as Sherry’s pumps clopped to a halt. “That… that was the guy. That was him.”

“The guy? Who?”

“The guy! The fucking guy!” he yelled freely as if she were in love with him and could not be scared.

“He died, Dante. It’s all over the news.”

He shivered. “No. Not the guy… not the guy who got killed… the guy who... The guy with the knife.”

“I thought… I thought I heard they got him. I—“

“It was him. That was him.”

“We’ve got to call the cops.”

Dante only nodded. Then he began to cry.

“Heya. What’s happening here? Here, I’ll—“

He slapped his hands around hers.

“Please, no. Wait. Something isn’t right. I… I can’t—“

“Dante, if that guy’s the guy, then we gotta call somebody… Oh dear. You’re really shook up, man.”

“Who are you again?”

“Your destiny.” She smiled timidly as if not ready to test her old theory and she pulled out her phone and summoned a car. “Says three minutes. Can you just be cool for three minutes? Hey… Hey! Just. Be. Cool. Listen, can you hear me? I’ll get you out of here. Did you drive here? No. Ok. Good.”

“Who are you calling now?”

“Nine-One-One, who do you think?”

“Wait…”

Sherry took a step back. “Why?”

“No, don’t be afraid. I just don’t know how not to sound crazy right now, but…”

Just then the ride pulled up and an awkward silence ensued.

“Sherry?” the driver called out through the open passenger window.

She did not take her eyes off Dante.

“Sherry!”

“Yes. Yes, sorry.” She checked her phone. “Michael? Yes, hi…. Well, stranger?”

Dante did not wait for her to lose her nerve again. He got in, and the driver pulled out into the nearly empty street.

“Where are we going?” he asked, palms pressed against his temples.

“My place. Don’t be weird about it.”




“Do you work tomorrow? Do you work?” Sherry’s keys hit a brass dish on the small entry table with a ring.

“I do.”

“What do you do?”

“Fuck if I know.”

A skeptical eyebrow arced as she laughed.

“I work for a software company. I play with numbers.”

“Dreamy.”

“What do you do?”
“Bartend.”

“Excellent. I’m glad that’s out of the way.”

“Ha! This is funny, you know?”

Dante thought of the smile on his twin’s face receding and returning to the tune of a joke only he knew. “Funny?”

“Sure. I mean, the drama of it all. Really this is barely suitable for a soap opera,” she continued, kicking her shoes across the short parlor area into a corner, her feet crunching softly now in the loops of the carpet. She disappeared into a narrow kitchen situated between the single bedroom and the common area and returned with two bottles of beer. “I mean, I feel like the movie’s been made a hundred times already: twins, separated at birth, meet at random in The Big City… Just this one’s, ya know, like the Cable version.”

“Are you trying to make me feel better or worse?”

“Neither, really. Well, better I suppose, in the long run… I mean, this is all going to resolve itself neatly. That’s what life does, just like T.V. But that doesn’t mean you just sit tight and wait for the happy ending, right? Destiny, my strange stranger friend. Destiny.”

"I don't quite understand where you're going, but I like this story better than the one that keeps playing when I shut my eyes." His rubbed the eyes as if the memory were a spot on them that could be removed. "The guy was smiling, like at his own death. Who does that?”

“Modern times, my friend. Everything’s funny now.”

“Call me old-fashioned.”

They sat in silence long enough for the taste of the old conversation to die and be reborn in the innocence of petty things. They sat long into the night like this, the conversation drifting far, far away from murder and incidence. At times it would turn to banter, but they seemed to become aware of it as one and would each back away into the natal silence. Destiny, she had said, and now, for just a minute, Dante managed to build and sustain a concept of it that his cynical way of seeing could accept: not a grand fate, only a synchrony of expression between two private selves. Each of us, he thought, in that sage stupor that overcomes us when exhaustion and anxiety have worn down our psychic defenses, might be destined for this, and, if we weren't, God forbid we should ever know what was possible. Human communion. One person reflecting in the eye of another. He had felt this before but memories of such feelings always melted like snow in the hot pain of their dissolution. When this feeling hits you, he remembered, it really does feel like destiny. Maybe that's why when it leaves you it feels like The End.

"Keep talking," she said as she closed her eyes. He didn't, but she fell asleep anyway. A voice kept coming to him. You're dead, it would say. That was you and you are dead. He played his thumb against his index finger as if to test his corporeality; then he walked over to a window that looked out upon the courtyard. A couple of people came in through a gate and rushed anxiously into their apartment and the silence swarmed back in in their wake as if they had never been and Dante took a sip of his beer and the mood passed in the carbonated afterburn quietly, as if it knew the way out, an arrogant god that didn’t need Dante's recognition or care about his denial.

He shook Sherry by her shoulder but she only grumbled. He shook her again. She got up and shuffled towards her bedroom. The lights were mostly out, but the city itself lit the room with an electric dusk-like glow that she used to find her way into bed. In the morning, exhausted from imagination, she called out to him.



Her phone rang arresting her attention with its lifeless music and the world around her in all its lovely post-orgasm deaf-mute thoughtlessness disappeared. She looked at the unknown number displayed on the screen. She heard the faucet handles creaking on their axes and the water come alive and then she heard the sound of it deaden as her welcome but still somewhat frightening stranger stepped in its way and she lay back in her bed wondering if she had done the right thing.


Dante hesitated at the door of the bar in which he had met the girl of his dreams and then abandoned his cell phone the night prior. A stupid thing to do, losing his phone, but he was at least glad to have, for once, gotten laid without it.

"What? It's not like they would have let him— What? You think he spent the night here?" Sherry shoved the bar door open and forced her way in, dispelling its imagined content like a flock of startled birds. Dante's eyes went straight to the empty chair that last night had sat his twin's murderer. Empty. Of course. At the bar a young girl was drying glasses.

"Hi," Sherry began.

"We open at eleven."

"No… I mean, my boyfriend lost his cell phone here last night… I mean, he left his cell phone here."

The woman's gaze went from the polished glass to the couple: "Your boyfriend… left his cellphone here, huh?" The emphasis was heavier on the “boyfriend" than on the “left."

"Could you check the, I dunno, lost and found?" Sherry asked, noticing on the rear countertop a couple of credit cards and a wedding band sitting atop a pile of receipts.

Dante looked back at the bartender but he couldn’t meet her eye and the dull flash of metal coming off the wedding band on the counter married itself to his vision like a cataract. There, it seemed to say, is a story told a thousand times a night all over the world, same as the story told by the army of spotted glasses being lined up for tonight’s slow deaths same as the thousands of songs that sleep in the idle jukebox like the too-late last words of hung men like the slow and impassive cynicism on the barmaid’s face, like a snow globe that you can just shake up and let fall all the new banter new faces new women new craft beers and allstar teams— to repackage all the laughs orgasms flavors and anticipations into something worth buying again—but all of this, this real-life fiction, depended on the ability to sit down, order a drink, tell a joke and cheer at all the right moments, but now the rhythm, the flow of that fantasy—and God how it depended on that flow!— was interrupted by that goddamned grinning cadaver of a doppelganger that he had watched fall once in the real world only to rise a thousand times in his mind’s eye like a phoenix that just couldn’t become anything greater than its ash crying Those days are done! That beer that laugh that kiss is already a memory by the time it touches your lips and it means nothing because you were just the face that stood in its way and no kiss no laugh no bliss is truly yours, you who thought you were the corpse but now know the real truth— that you are just the coffin carrying something that died long, long ago…

“It’s where I found this one,” Sherry added, making a cute smile that died in the barmaid’s impassive glare.

The young woman craned her neck just enough to indicate that the small pile of flotsam on the counter was the Lost and Found, but she didn’t take her gaze off them. "Nope, " she confirmed, registering them now with the absentminded boredom of someone who’s lived too long, as if years and not seconds had just transpired.

The heavy wooden door creaked behind them and when they turned they saw the face of the bartender with the ninja friend who could survive knife attacks. “Shit,” he said. “Emily, pour this guy whatever’s his pleasure. Her, too.” He set a laptop bag that he had been cradling under his arm on the bar and took a seat next to it. “Brother, you’re all over the news.”

Dante’s first thought was that the police were looking for him, but then he realized that they already had him in a refrigerated storage locker. “What do you mean?”

“I mean I saw your face on T.V. last night. As the dead guy.”

“As the dead guy?” Christ, was everything a goddamn television show to these people.

“You know what I mean. You’re him. Or they think you’re him. When you shot out of here last night that guy (I know you know who) almost took off after you, but I saw him get a gander at your phone you left on the bar and he sat back down all casual like I didn’t see what he had his eyes on.”

“I was looking for that.”

“Here.” He reached into his bag and retrieved the phone then slid it on over. “He ordered a drink when he thought he had a chance to grab it. You should have seen his face when I picked it up and laid it out of reach. A glass of milk, the weird bastard, that’s what he orders. I pour it and flip on the T.V. just to change the subject if you know what I mean, and then I see your face pop up! If that wasn’t you then you’ve got a twin.”

“I don’t.”

“That’s what I thought was strange... I mean, who sees their brother get killed and then tells the story cold as Johnny Cash the next night at a bar? That guy, he’s the killer, isn’t he?”

“Jesus Christ,” interrupted the other bartender.

“I told you to lock the door behind you when you came in this morning.”

“Told me to lock the door? Why the fuck didn’t you tell me there was a goddamn serial killer lurking around here?”

“Who else was gonna open?”

“What did he say?”

“Huh?”

“The guy,” Sherry joined in, “what did he say? Did he say anything to you? Did you get his name at least or call the cops?”

“Mortimer-something, but he didn’t tell me. He split as soon as I took my eyes off him to put the T.V. on—that’s where I got it. I called the cops but I swear to God they were like pissed that I even called. Told me to ‘waste somebody else’s time.’ That was when I was like what the fuck kind of Twilight Zone shit is going on here with a supposed-to-be-dead guy and his killer in my bar and cops acting like I should get over it?”

“You’re a piece of shit, Tom.”

Sherry looked down at the back of her arm.

“Sorry,” Tom said, ignoring her. “She’s just pissed she got ripped off.”

“I’m pissed you don’t seem to give a fuck that I opened alone this morning. Sal’s gonna kick your ass.”

“No he won’t,” he replied without taking his eyes of Dante and Sherry. “So, c’mon man, what gives?”

Sherry took up Dante’s arm and leaned into him and that was when he knew: for all her talk of destiny, she was not accustomed to meaning something to someone. Neither was he. It was tragic that somebody had to die to make that happen, but, tragic as it may have been, the rush was so perfect that Dante, were his double to rise from the dead and walk right up to him, might have killed him all over again just to make all of this true. What would he have been charged with, he wondered, murder or suicide?

“Thank you for holding my phone. We have to go.”

They got up and went out together, leaving the two bartenders with yet another story to tell their drunks tonight.





Her car pulled away and Dante stood out at the curb in front of his apartment building. She had offered to come up with him, but what would have been the point of that? You can't stop bad guys with pluck and optimism. He recalled the tag-line from his favorite childhood show, The A-Team, essentially an armed version of the Scooby Doo team— “When you can't call the police, you call the A-Team.” Silly. Foolish. There was no knife-wielding killer waiting in his apartment.

Inside, he took the crumpled piece of paper bearing Sherry's number and flattened it out and pinned it to the door of his mini-fridge with the pig-shaped magnet that had come with it.

He dug through his dresser drawers until he found the hunting knife his father had left him (as in: left it when he left them). It was rusty and hard to open, and the locking mechanism wouldn’t catch. He closed it and threw it back in the drawer. He turned, took two steps towards the door and then froze, arrested by the sight of his own reflection staring back at him from the mirror that hung there. He felt the echo of a human being, the sign of the man, an empty symbol suspended in the air between a soul and its avatar. He removed a t-shirt from his closet and carefully tucked it over the glass the best he could.