Can a Gulf War veteran suffering PTSD finally leave behind his past to find the music that will make his life worth living?
Reagan returns from the first Gulf War haunted by horrific images of Tom Wallach, a dead marine he brought back from the desert. Seeking refuge from his nightmares and broken marriage in a jazz quartet in which he plays bass guitar, fifteen years elapse and he has a one-night fling with Rosary, a beautiful young woman he meets at one of his gigs. When his ex-wife comes back into his life, Rosary’s obsession turns into a fatal attraction.
With help from Wallach’s ghost, the daughter Wallach never met, and a friend who is much more than he appears to be, Reagan discovers he must let go of his tortured past if he is to embrace the future.
Reagan’s eyes fluttered open; he felt as if he were being watched. He glanced at the window: it was still dark. Sarah was breathing softly beside him. She was still asleep. His eyes moved about the room – there, on the corner chair, sat Tom Wallach.
“You’re a light sleeper,” Wallach said.
“I’m still a marine.” Reagan sat up.
“Never goes away, does it? Especially in times of stress.”
Wallach watched Sarah roll over; then he stood, motioned Reagan to follow him, and made his way to the door.
Reagan rolled out of bed and stepped toward Wallach; halfway across the room, Sarah muttered, “Don’t leave me.” Reagan turned toward the bed, but Wallach spoke first.
“It’s okay, Reagan. She’s only dreaming. Come on.”
Reagan followed Wallach to the living room, where they sat, facing each other, in two high-backed chairs.
“How do I know I’m not the one dreaming?” Reagan whispered.
“But how do I know?”
Wallach shrugged. “Pinch yourself if you don’t believe me.”
Reagan refrained from doing just that; at some level he knew this was real: across from him sat the ghost of Tom Wallach.
“Death is permanent,” Wallach said.
“Don’t I know it.”
“I’m sure you do. Aren’t you glad now that you didn’t pull the trigger on your Glock? You were so convinced that you’d lost Sarah forever, but it was just a bump in the road. She needed time to realize what you meant to her. Had you pulled that trigger –”
“I know,” Reagan said, looking away in shame.
“No, you don’t, Reagan. You have no idea what that would’ve done to Sarah.”
Reagan sighed. “Suicides rarely understand the ruin they leave behind. They’re lost in their own pain.”
Wallach nodded and said, “Not pulling the trigger was an act of courage. Your work here is not done.”
“And you know this how? Are you omnipotent?”
“All knowing? No. Let’s just say I have night vision.”
“You can see the future?”
“The future is made up of myriad possibilities, all predicated on the choices we make, or fail to make, each and every day.”
Reagan thought about that for a moment, before asking, “So is there an alternate reality, one in which you came home from Kuwait?”
“There is only one reality; but I am attuned to all possibilities, including the one of which you spoke.”
“How do you bear it?” Reagan said. “Knowing what might’ve been?”
“It brings me much comfort.”
“Don’t you feel cheated?”
“No. My life played out as it should have. My widow and daughter would not be the people they are today had I come home from Kuwait.”
“How do you know they wouldn’t be better off?”
For the first time since he’d begun haunting Reagan’s dreams, Wallach looked uncertain, as if he didn’t know how much he could, or should, share with the living.
“My death set something into motion.” And then, as if he couldn’t – or wasn’t allowed – to say more, Wallach changed direction. “Why did you sleep with Rosary?”
Reagan could only hide his shame behind both hands.
“There is no need to feel disgrace, Reagan. I still understand the drive of the loins, the lure of a beautiful woman, although I was never tempted by one as beautiful as Rosary.” And then, as if he were privy to Reagan’s thoughts, he added, “We enter the afterlife as we exited life. The essence of what I am lacks what made me a man in life. It’s unnecessary to me now, but I still recall what it is like to be a man.”
“You seem to know all. You should know why I slept with her.”
“I know what you told Sarah, but there is more.”
When Wallach didn’t go on, Reagan said, “So now you’re my shrink?”
Wallach chuckled. “No.”
“Is it so important, the why?”
“Not to me.”
“I was angry,” Reagan said.
“Yes, you were angry, because you blamed yourself for Sarah divorcing you.”
“Are you telling me I wasn’t at fault?”
“You gave her reason, but you were not to blame.”
“What’s the difference?”
“She never blamed you. You assumed blame because you couldn’t allow yourself to see her mistake. That she came back to you is proof that she was, in her own eyes, misguided in leaving you.”
Reagan said nothing.
“When you thought she’d abandoned you once again, you made certain to assume blame for that, too, by sleeping with Rosary.”
“I thought it was –”
“Polyphemus,” Wallach said, grinning. “Yes, he was drawn to Rosary, to be sure. But you would not have acted as you did had you not thought Sarah had once again forsaken you.”
“Are you blaming her?”
“Why are we having this conversation?”
“Because you need to understand what was set into motion.”
“I already understand,” Reagan said.
“But what you don’t understand is that Mimi is destined to be a part of the outcome.”
“Does she have to be?”
“What if she gets hurt?”
“That possibility exists.”
“I won’t assume that responsibility.”
“You have no choice.”
“Do any of us ever really have a choice?”
“We always have choices, Reagan, and this is Mimi’s choice. She feels a connection to me through you.”
“But she doesn’t owe me anything.”
“Does she have to? We are all connected. To love is to give without expecting in return. The greatest sacrifice one can make is to forfeit one’s own life for another.”
“Are you telling me that Mimi will die?”
“It is one possible outcome.”
“And how am I supposed to live with that?”
“It will be just one more choice – the choice to honor her sacrifice, her memory. Like a choice to embrace happiness, or to cling to the past.”
“This isn’t about us – you and me – and our past,” Reagan said.
“Oh, but it is, isn’t it? You don’t understand how the choices of others affect you because you grapple with your past, choosing to hold onto it – one defining moment.”
“I am what I am today because of that past.”
“Because you’ve chosen to allow it to define you in the manner it has. You must let me go.”
“What if I can’t?”
“You must, Reagan. You do me no honor, pay no homage, by keeping alive the image of what was done to me.”
“Can you at least tell me if you know how this is going to play out?”
Wallach looked thoughtful, as if he might be communing with some higher authority about what he might be permitted to share about events to come. After a few moments, he nodded and said, “Sarah fears you will leave her again, as you did before.”
Reagan recalled Sarah’s words of a few minutes ago, talking in her sleep: Don’t leave me. “But,” he said, “it was she who left me.”
Wallach shook his head. “You know that is not true.” Then he added, “I can tell you only that the past repeats itself, unless we choose change –”
“Who are you talking to?” Sarah said from the entrance to the living room, and Wallach was gone, as if he’d never been there.
The Unsettling Beauty of a Perfect Chord… “Discussions of life, love, faith and the universe fuel J. Conrad Guest’s intriguing dialog-based novel A World Without Music
. Music itself ‘stands half way between thought and phenomenon,’ a fascinating concept that leaves the reader pondering all. But the conversation’s powerful and real, and the tale moves on; locations change, topics flow and grow, and the reader soon feels like a traveler delighting in overhearing strangers who might become friends.
“This novel’s path through music, movies, sci-fi, baseball, politics, faith and romance is endlessly intriguing and deeply involving, even as mystery deepens and danger looms. Allusions to jazz and song lyrics are as natural as the flight of a softball into the air, smoothly delighting the reader whether they’re caught or simply catch the eye. And Reagan, born to lust, love or jazz, has choices to make, and scary consequences to navigate.
“And the music of the common man proves as vital to our world’s symphony as that of heroes and villains throughout all time. A World Without Music
reads like a masterpiece of music, culture and life and is highly recommended.” —Sheila Deeth, author of Divide by Zero
and Amazon Top 1,000 Reviewer