Douglas Clegg

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The Marriage of Figaro, Chapter 4

Wednesday, May 25th, 2016

Books to read, currently in-progress on this blog:

Mr. Darkness    The Marriage of Figaro    

Museum of the Innocents  

The Marriage of Figaro by Douglas Clegg

 The Marriage of Figaro, Chapters 4

Dear Reader,

Now on to Chapters 4 of the book. If this is your first time reading any of this, start here:

Chapter 1, The Marriage of Figaro

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All material on this page is copyright Douglas Clegg ©2016 — Find books by Douglas Clegg at Amazon, B&N.com, Kobo, iTunes, Google Play & Payhip. You will notice some advertising on these and other pages. These exist in order to help defray costs related to the maintenance of this website and Doug’s newsletter. More information on privacy and advertising here.

℘℘℘

The Marriage of Figaro

by Douglas Clegg

Note: Most of this is rough draft. Enjoy at your own peril.

 

4. Chetty

The acreage was a bit nicer than afterbirth. I took long walks alone along woodland pathways while Chetty went off on his boat. I bicycled to the village and spent afternoons at the library or in a café. Now and then we’d drive to an estate auction so he could buy some painting for twenty grand, taking my breath away with his ability to put it all on a credit card without a second blink.

Their housekeeper – with that perfect New England name of Hester – looked to be about seventy but seemed much younger in terms of her bright eyes and quick jaw. She had known “John Robert,” as she called him, since he’d been eight years old. She’d worked for his parents in those days. The way she described it, it was as if she’d been an indentured servant to Chetty her entire adult life.

“But now, I run this place,” she told me. “I say ‘jump’, and John Robert says ‘how high?’ But that ex-wife of his, I don’t like her one bit, I’ll tell you and anybody who asks. Cold as an eel – but that’s an insult to eels.”

Chetty often made Hester a ham, cheese and butter sandwich with a bowl of Campbell’s tomato soup – her favored lunch — as if he were the servant. I rarely saw her do much cleaning up. She always hovered, eager to join conversations and elbow the ex, too.

“Hester’s family at this point,” he told me when she’d stepped out of the kitchen. “You know I hate all my relatives. She’s my one good memory from childhood. I cling to her, maybe too much.” An after-thought: “But she’s got a prickly side, too. My ex believes Hester’s a poisoner. And she just might be on to something.”

They invited six or seven friends over every other evening for dinner, and their cook – an overly-muscled young man whose gravy tended to clump – stayed late cleaning up after I went back to my little place.

At dinner, Chetty and his ex sat at opposite ends of the table from each other. He always made sure I was seated to his right so he could turn to me when the table talk bored him. Their friends were mostly financial experts or trust fund middle-agers who favored subjects like the tyranny of taxation and the latest divorces and foreclosures among the absurdly rich or else which Ivy League school someone-or-other had attended and how it had doomed them or improved their sorry lot, but Chetty and I carried on conversations half the night about music and the old days and whatever-happened-to. We could talk for four hours straight about the beautiful gloom of Beethoven, dissect the over-rated Mahler and the under-appreciated genius of the obscure professor – Mansfield the Magnificent, we’d dubbed him — who first took a shine to our tribe in college.

Chetwin would bring up that awful literature class the Conservatory foisted on us, which we’d nicknamed “The Girl Dies At the End” because it included Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary, Daisy Miller and others. He’d remember jokes he hadn’t told since the age of 20; and the winter trip to Vassar to visit an Interloper we’d both been smitten with; the road trip to Florida that ended on some mountain highway in Appalachia when the car Spiro borrowed died.

I had the strange feeling in these conversations that Chetty was trying to lead me to some specific memory, some subject he wanted to talk about but never could quite broach. I tried to draw it out of him. He’d get evasive, and glance over at the ex and her friends around the table and ignore me for a bit.

He never brought it up, whatever it was. We’d find ourselves alone – suddenly – the dinner party over, just the two of us gabbing on about our interests, old movies, books we’d read, whether or not there was life on Mars. Nothing serious, but I always had the feeling that he wanted to talk about some subject that bothered him.

“Is something up?” I asked one night.

“You know me so well,” he said, suddenly looking like a schoolboy who’d just been found out. “I got that feeling again. When we were young. How I miss it.”

“Me, too.”

“Ever wish you could go back and fix things?”

I shrugged. “Like what?”

“Like what we did that we didn’t even know we were doing? Like remembering people we shouldn’t have ignored back then?”

But that was as far as the conversation ventured toward whatever he held back.

I was surprised by how much I loved my old friend despite his little casual cruelties and snobberies, and how good it felt to be there, doing essentially nothing at all — and for so long.

I felt like a mascot or pet – an idler who might be valued for entertainment only, a paid companion but without the pay. Being good-natured in that environment was easy. I never felt cross when a four-course meal appeared like clockwork every evening, when outside my door there lay a swimming pool to dive into, a sailboat to launch, thousands of books to read and movies to watch, a dozen nature trails, an available car – always gassed up – and a bicycle or two to choose from.

I struck up a conversation with a woman who worked in a coffee shop in the village, we had a brief fling, didn’t go anywhere, ended within a week, never even brought her out to the house, forgot her name within a week. Chetty wanted the juicy details, but I held back mostly because there was nothing memorable about it. Now and then, during that summer, I’d take the train to Manhattan, wander museums, have lunch at Grand Central, meet a colleague for drinks and then manage to get back up for the nightly dinner ritual at Chetty’s.

I hadn’t had such a real summer since the Conservatory days. It was the freedom of being young when someone else paid the bills and just told you: “be young.” I hadn’t even had much of that in my college years, because I’d always had to work to pay what my scholarship didn’t cover.

At the Chetwins’ place, I felt rich, young, wonderful.

I grew lazy. I began to feel like Chetty’s twin and had a moment or two when I genuinely believed this life was the one I’d been meant for.

His ex-wife gave us our space; she never bothered us; never seemed to feel left out. She would leave the table but make sure the wine or gin continued to flow. She’d turn on firefly lights in the Japanese garden so we could sit out on the deck overlooking the koi pond and chatter away until nearly dawn.

I liked Chetwin’s ex very much, perhaps because she barely spoke to me; but not in any rude way. Friendly but distant, she kept to the background of things when home with Chetty. She was one of those women with whom you feel immediately familiar, but for no outward reason you can think of.

She seemed ethereal and plucky – like the harp she played. Whenever I saw her, half her pale face seemed hidden behind a shiny waterfall of long red hair, as if she were self-conscious of a scar. She seemed a spirit of the air sometimes – doing her morning exercises just seconds before sunrise, which I spied those few times I was just getting to bed when the first light rose up. She was soft and moved like a dancer. She projected a kind of lightness of being.

I watched her from varying distances on the hot afternoons. She practiced yoga on warm paving stones that rose up above the trickling pond. She swam a hundred laps every day in the long stretch of pool. She had friends over for tennis.

While reading my way through Chetty’s extensive library of pulp novels, I found a comfortable distraction in the sound of balls hitting the clay court and occasional grunts and groans from the players.

I often heard his ex playing harp in the little studio they’d built out among the weeping willows and purple butterfly bushes. She was magical with the instrument – soaring, despondent, gorgeous, somber, robust — all of it within her fingers. Her music actually drew tears out of me as I sat alone on the bench by the cottage, listening, remembering being young and loving music as she, apparently, loved music. It gave me a twinge of regret when I heard the beauty of her art; I missed the cello, I missed the days with my friends when we’d get together, all our instruments in hand, playing this absolute piece of heaven.

When the ex wasn’t away in rehearsal, she brought black tea and a small pitcher of milk in the mornings to the bench by my cottage door, along with fresh warm muffins dotted with currants and spread with raspberry jam, all wrapped up in colorful kitchen linens to keep the tray and its basket warm. She never once knocked on my door or used her morning gift as an opportunity for a private chat. She’d drop off the tray and I’d nearly be to the door to thank her. She’d flit off, and there I’d be, with my little breakfast right before me, the smell of honeysuckle and jasmine in the air. She’d leave unobtrusive but informative notes written within “Thinking of You” cards under the tea cup, like “John’s sleeping in, pool 87 degrees, no storms,” or “See you at 6, out all day, John wants to kayak,” or “Gone to Waverly, back late, use Volvo if want, keys on kitchen table, lunch in fridge.”

In essence, she seemed perfect as exes went.

I told Chetwin one afternoon while we lay out on the dock, tanning.

“Oh yeah, perfect, sure,” he said. “For somebody, just not me. And her nose.”

“Now I know why she’d divorce you.”

He laughed. “Oh, I don’t mind her nose. But she does. I’ve told her to get it fixed if it bothers her so much. It’s easy enough to do.”

“I hadn’t even noticed.”

“It’s only slightly broken. A little bump. I mean, nobody else even sees it. She can’t stand it. She had some kind of fall — a long time ago — and her nose is the one thing that never got fixed. It’s her only physical flaw, actually. But she sees it as the Continental Divide.”

I tried to imagine her nose, and wondered if that was why she’d allow her hair to fall across half her face whenever I was within a few feet of her. Even at the dinner table, her hair hung like a curtain between us.

“But I love her, broken nose and all,” he said. “And she loves me, but just not in the way you want to be loved. I guess this is a problem of music history more than anything. Harpists don’t play well with others. They work best as soloists. Not like violinists – we’re made for orgies.”

I didn’t completely understand why they’d divorced at all given their camaraderie, but Chetwin soon let me in on that one when I woke up in the middle of a rare cool July night – the digital clock by the bed read 2:15 — to find Chetty with his mouth over my prick.

I don’t need to mention the thousand and one things going through my head at that moment, or how I pulled away and he sank down to the floor and then switched on the bedside lamp and lit up a cigarette and got up to go sit in the wicker chair – wearing his aquamarine swim trunks and a blue Polo shirt — near the window and spoke in low tones about how happy he was that I’d come up, and he hoped this wouldn’t interrupt anything for my stay.

Interrupt? — I thought – the hell!

But backing up: at the Conservatory, we’d all slept with each other, at least any of us with that perfect combination of low self-esteem and enormous id coupled with egos over-bloated as if they’d been dredged from the Ganges, waterlogged and deadened and waiting for a new incarnation.

And horny.

That’s where we were in our school years, studying for careers that might never happen, playing music, learning about the varieties of drugs then available, talking sex, whispering sex, getting so drunk that once I woke up with my trousers pulled down and a naked girl – some Outsider — I couldn’t remember her name and barely saw her face — slept beside me and Chetwin – yes, John Chetwin from a fine, upstanding, olde Newe Englande family that founded the entertainment empire, descended from a long line of swindlers arrived on the Mayflower — smoking a cigarette by the tiny dorm window — fondling himself as he watched us in post-coital, boozy exhaustion. His ancient Polaroid camera swung from his bare shoulders. I said something to the effect that he better not have been taking pictures of me or the girl. He said something suitably uncomfortable, and later showed me dirty pictures of one of our professors and the same girl I’d bedded.

“She’s a fucking succubus,” he said. “You’ve got to watch out for those types.”

When I was twenty, it didn’t shock or bother me that Chetty would be watching us go at it. It made me feel I was part of this intense, artistic group. We were sexual, a lot of us, and we got drunk like a tribe and once in a blue moon dropped acid like a tribe — and we were this gang of musical geniuses (we thought) — all of us, and even Alexa once gave me a hand job in the J.C. Penney’s parking lot when Don Giovanni came on the local classical station, back when we knew we didn’t much like each other.

So this new moment of sexual molestation was preceded by other ones trailing behind in our youth. I wasn’t hurt by it, nor did I mind as much as I should’ve, but the shock of it was enough – and the basic bad manners of a host surprising me like that – well, it hurt my feelings a bit.

“Look, there’s a misunderstanding here,” I said, as politely as I could be given the circumstance.

“You sound like a twat. ‘A misunderstanding?’” he grinned. “Which part did you not understand?”

“I’m not gay.”

“Of course you’re not,” he said. “If you were, I’d have had you in broad daylight, down by the boathouse yesterday.” A brief draw of smoke into his mouth and then out through his nostrils. “When I could practically see your religion through your trunks.”

Then, as if it surprised him, “Oh shit. You don’t mind, do you?”

I stared at him. As if I’d caught him cutting his toenails or picking his nose – a mildly embarrassing moment. “So you’re gay and Max Porter was – and Figaro?”

“Not Figaro. He might have been asexual I guess,” Chetwin said with a bit of a grunt for emphasis. “And I’m not genuinely gay – not like gay people are. I’m attracted to people. To beauty.”

I let his self-deception hang in the smoky air between us. I wondered if the muscular young cook could get away with lumpy gravy because of other talents.

“I just wanted to relive a bit of college. I miss those days,” he said. “Don’t you? Just the word ‘tribe’ turns me on.”

Yes, the tribe again. Always with the tribe. We had bonded and bared our youthy souls to one another, took humiliation and gave back fondness.

It was unbreakable, that chain.

After a few more words about the old days and the Conservatory, he went back to the main house.

From the safe distance of my front window, I watched the red dot of his next cigarette; he must have been sitting on one of the many front porch chairs. Thinking; smoking; wondering.

I got up and locked the door to the cottage.

In the morning, I almost thought it was a dream.

When I opened the cottage door, I found no tea tray, no muffin basket, no note from the ex.

That afternoon, Chetwin invited me out on his sailboat – a massive craft.

“I don’t love sailing alone,” he said, but I made my excuses, and he accepted them all with a slight reference to “last night’s little gaffe,” and made me feel slightly guilty for not getting over myself.

I took off — in the rental car I’d picked up the fifth week of my visit — to Essex, a town not far away. I wanted to browse some stores and consider my exit strategy now that I’d discovered Chetwin’s true motives for having me up.

On the way back, owing to a misinterpretation of a One Way sign, my rental car bumped into a Mercedes. I honestly wasn’t sure if I were at fault at all. An underweight matron — far too advanced in years for the girlish headband she wore — leapt out from the sleek black car. She began screaming at me as if I’d murdered her first-born while her schnauzer yowled and barked from the passenger seat. I spent the afternoon talking with a world-weary cop, avoiding my accuser, calling the rental company and my insurer. It all got straightened out. But her screams of my incompetence and criminal negligence echoed in my head as I sat down in a local bar for a grilled cheese sandwich and a beer.

Noticing that it was nearly six – and Chetwin’s cook had dinner waiting promptly at 6:15 every single night — I called up the house.

No one answered. I texted Chetwin, then his wife. After twenty minutes or so, she texted back,

Something happened. Terrible.

I sent this:

?

And got no reply.

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This is where I’ll stop with The Marriage of Figaro for now. Hope you’ve enjoyed what you’ve read so far. It’s a strange story that builds to a very dark moment indeed. I’ll post news here and in my newsletter when I know the publication date.

Be sure to subscribe to my free newsletter if you haven’t yet. Click here to go to the signup page.

Check back soon. I’ll get a new chapter going of another book-in-progress up on the blog, too. (Bear in mind, I have about 12-15 books in close-to-finished stages, but I’m hoping to knock them down one after another. We’ll see!)

In the meantime, check out the various books, both upcoming and past here.

All material on this page is copyright Douglas Clegg ©2016 — Find books by Douglas Clegg at Amazon, B&N.com, Kobo, iTunes, Google Play & Payhip.

You will notice some advertising on these and other pages. These exist in order to help defray costs related to the maintenance of this website and Doug’s newsletter. More information on privacy and advertising here.

The Marriage of Figaro, Chapters 2 & 3

Wednesday, May 25th, 2016

Books to read, currently in-progress on this blog:

Mr. Darkness    The Marriage of Figaro    

Museum of the Innocents  

The Marriage of Figaro by Douglas Clegg

 The Marriage of Figaro, Chapters 2 & 3

Dear Reader,

Now on to Chapters 2 & 3 of the book. If this is your first time reading any of this, start here:

Chapter 1, The Marriage of Figaro

℘℘℘

All material on this page is copyright Douglas Clegg ©2016 — Find books by Douglas Clegg at Amazon, B&N.com, Kobo, iTunes, Google Play & Payhip.

℘℘℘

The Marriage of Figaro

by Douglas Clegg

Note: Most of this is rough draft. Enjoy at your own peril.

 

  1. Tribal Matters

 

Despite anything we did – humiliations, stupidities, unrequited foolishness, insult and injury unaware – the tribe was the tribe.

In college – at the Conservatory – we knew we’d all become famous and make our marks in the world of music. We glued together with whim, affinity and those coincidental meetings that bond you when you’re young and credulous.

A self-styled fraternity of eccentric and sublime, some rich, some poor, all with tribal drums beating in our hearts.

There were eight of us in the tribe – Chetwin, me, Max, Diane, Figaro, Felice (or Fleas, the preferred nickname), Spiro and then Alexa.

We lived for us and us alone. We loved us, which is such a strange thing to say, but it was true.

My memory of those days became less about others and completely about the tribal We. There were others, of course. We called them by a variety of names: Invisibles, Interlopers, Satellites, Intruders. If any of them made it into our photographs, it was because they’d managed to infiltrate our ranks, briefly. Sometimes, Chetty snipped them off the photos later, the way one might cut out a divorced spouse or someone who steps into the background while you snap a picture of your family on vacation. You want to remove that outsider and only see those you want to see.

Chetwin, our unofficial photographer, never without a Nikon or Leica or Polaroid or whatever Kodak Instasomething he had in his hand at the time. Snap-snap-snap, there we were: several photo albums worth of our tribal craziness. These snapshots built a visual history for us, solidifying a sense of our group.

Figaro didn’t like getting his picture taken.

He didn’t want people to remember him. He seemed to always be vanishing, even when he was around – like that birthmark on his face – since birth, one assumed. The mark faded by the time he was twenty-one. We couldn’t figure out how it disappeared, but one day someone – maybe one of the nameless Outsiders or Interlopers – commented on it. They were always commenting on us, these spectators and observers of the tribe.

“You’re disappearing day by day,” she said to him, while we were all drinking around the little round table in Chetwin’s room.

(Yes, Interlopers were allowed in the inner sanctum now and then, if they’d slept with one of us – but not for long. Or, if we thought we could learn something from them, we’d bring them in for some inside scoop, but those instances were “rare and useless as a third tit,” in Chetwin’s words.)

All our stories of Figaro were the same: he was a bit of a freak.

Funny and bright and odd in the ways that we considered charming. He composed music and he wrote about us. He documented our joys and sorrows and recorded dreams when we remembered them.

He scratched these memoirs in diaries. Little red and blue notebooks, some black, some fake leather, some tawny brown spiral pads, nameless, bought at all-night drug stores.

Chetty called Figaro our recording secretary, The Keeper of Tribal History.

“One day, when we’re famous and too old to fuck,” Chetwin remarked, “He’ll publish them. They’ll be bestsellers. We’ll augment our fame with the in memoria of what we did in school. We’ll be reviled by puritans and beloved of libertines.”

I saw one of these notebooks in those olden days. I snatched it from Figaro, his guard down. He whined so much, I gave it back, but not until after I’d flipped through it.

He’d written the entire thing in a code of musical notation, nearly indecipherable except, perhaps, by the Tribe itself.

This, his written language — these notes, these chords, these arrangements of our history. What we did, what we dreamed, where we went, with whom we slept.

Figaro didn’t sleep with anyone in the tribe – at least, as far as I knew. He went outside of our circle. He had a penchant for Interlopers from the university exchange who tried to nudge or elbow their ways in through drink, drug or sheet.

Yes, we had groupies. We were kind of a legend at the Conservatory. Known at the other schools for our performances, our compositions, our magic with music. Our closeness made satellite tribes spread jealous rumors about orgies and excessive drug use and cultish goings-ons.

Our parties were legendary – dusk to dawn affairs, with angels and demons and every creature in between.

We were artists, after all.

By the ages of twenty-one we were the stars of our own movie, our own soap opera — our own opera, even — with our fiddles and pianos and cellos and bassoons and piccolos and theories about art and life and the death of music and how we would revolutionize it. We despised the voice students, looked down on the music education scholars and those brief transfer students from the local colleges who invaded our rehearsal rooms and lecture halls winter term.

We spoke in grand terms; we didn’t waste time with the minutiae of news or politics or crap art.

We felt successful without having actually done anything. In our classes, we were told we were the best and the brightest. Our mentor-professors praised us to the skies. One such mentor wept when we gathered to give a performance of an original work. He begged us to never lose our vision. Local papers wrote up our concerts and recitals. We were the soloists. We were the winners of regional competitions. We were the elite.

The Conservatory was our crucible – this place was world-renowned at the time and had produced great and near-great and those-never-heard-of-again. The auditions to get in were brutal – talent and magic were all that mattered. And we had it, the eight of us.

We were on fire.

It was incredibly exciting and debilitating, all at once.

Figaro didn’t live at the center of the tribe, but in its periphery. Still, he was part of us, he existed in the essential we.

Tall and lanky, Figaro had the body of a toned greyhound — this, I saw in the showers. His muscled sinews surprised and shamed me. The rest of us had no genuine athleticism.

His nose, a steep cliff thrust out over a flat line of lip. Black eyes. Uneven teeth – which, according to Chetwin — meant his family had no money. This mattered only to Chetwin, who took to moneyed people like anyone else might take to coffee or chocolates.

Figaro’s hair, in his late teens and early twenties, defined our sense of Figarosity. We all had good hair then, but Figaro had a rain forest canopy of locks. Thick and black was this Amazonian jungle, copious and undisciplined, obscuring sixty percent of his face. He seemed in perpetual hiding from the world behind it.

He was handsome in a hidden way, a shaded grotto – a secret beauty, that’s what Chetwin called him — ironically — when we were twenty, and then not so ironically later.

A secret beauty.

And of all the tribe, Figaro was the person we knew least – at least on the inside. We guessed things about him from clues in his face, his expression, the slump of his shoulders.

And his music! Theory and practice and soul! That kid was so into music that he was music. He excelled at composition, counterpoint and harmony in ways I never understood. He didn’t just play Berlioz and Copland and Stravinsky – he possessed them. He angered his teachers; he argued with conductors; he once took a trumpet from some poor guy and flung it across the orchestra hall. He had days of madness, said things that made no sense to any of us, all-nighters with coffee and cigarettes and a piano. I once found him asleep in the catacombs of practice rooms, his body curled around his violin as if it were his lover. Always rehearsing, always banging it out on whatever instrument he chose to pick up; or scribbling in his composition books, arranging music, events, life. He could murder a violin – anything, classical, rock, jazz. We all thought that given his intensity and weirdness he’d go on to be one of the great violinists – or else end up in the subway, playing for nickels.

Either extreme, he’d fit right in.

He also had a bent towards petty crime, and by that I mean: he stole your secrets and hoarded them.

Those tribal councils took place in the days when we all thought we’d have big careers as artist-musicians.

I dropped the cello by twenty-nine to become a sound engineer-for-hire on audiophile recordings and made a decent living at this. My cello lay in its case in the back of a variety of closets, depending on how often I moved apartments.

Diane ended up in the music department of a major online booksellers’ and was its vice president by the age of thirty-two. Fleas became a Junior High teacher right after the Conservatory. Chetwin worked for the Devil – as he called his father, who ran an entertainment empire – but also had gallery shows for his photographs of rich people doing trivial things in expensive places. (That was actually the name of the show that took London by storm: “Rich People Doing Trivial Things in Expensive Places.”) Spiro and Alexa became famous in ways that none of us imagined possible for two people who could clear a room with their non-entities. They wrote and sang hit songs and practically lived on television– you probably remember them; if not, all the better for you.

None of us quite knew where Figaro landed – so to speak – in the sweepstakes of success or failure. He stayed away from us after graduation. Sometimes, in the subway, I expected to hear him playing Sibelius or Stravinsky – or even Turkey in the Straw.

His college roommate Max Porter became a piano salesman – and killed himself.

That was the third occasion to which we flocked as a tribe, after a couple of half-sad little reunions in which most of us began to acknowledge that music was no longer our primary language.

 

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3.  Max

We gathered around at Max’s sister’s place in Greenwich Village for a “friends only” memorial meet-and-greet – and an informal post-mortem.

We reminisced about our recently washed-away youths when we were all stupid and bright-eyed and believed in what came next. Max rarely came up in that first hour of his own funeral party. To speak of him too much was to kill him all over again.

Spiro and Alexa showed up–a pair of genderless twins with geometro haircuts and a drizzly way of speaking, like half-wits or tabloid celebrities. They no longer looked real. Their faces, smooth and shiny as bone china. They made sure to show up for any and all reunions since they’d hit it big.

Alexa gave a bravura performance by opening up her phone every few minutes and turning to us to say, “Excuse me, just a second, it’s Sony,” or “Oh god, it’s that awful woman from Disney.”

Chetwin — who referred to them as “the Royal ‘It’ — clutched a little silver camera and took pictures of pouty Alexa, Max’s sister with her tray of sandwiches and the various Interlopers from the past. He snapped photos of everyone there, sometimes in secret and sometimes as a formal proposal.

“For my rogue’s gallery,” he said to me. “You don’t mind, I assume.”

“Snap-snap,” Spiro said. “There he goes.”

“Chetty and his camera,” Alexa said, as if she were witty.

Fleas – spindly and overdressed — stood nearest the door as if she’d planned a quick exit. She still had that luxuriantly scrunchy hair, combed back by her toothpick fingers.

“She’s twitchy,” Chetwin whispered to me. “I’m guessing an amphetamine drip.”

Within twenty minutes I wanted to leave, but felt the weight of Max’s life, stones on my chest. Imagined him in his final river, face down. I puzzled out his likeness within his sister’s face. I saw his ears, nose and chin in some distant cousin who hovered near the sour cream and onion dip.

I remembered Max at twenty-one – rounded and perpetually grinning, that flop of thick genius hair always hanging down to cover one of his eyes, nearly buzzed in back at his neck, the way he kind of bounced on his heels when he walked.

This retrieved the memory of a particular night. He made us all feel ennobled and perfect as he hammered out a composition on the piano in a gray practice room, hair flying, chin jutting, fingers stretched to the limit as he reached for remarkable chords.

It was a kind of grand mad waltz mingled with experimental rhythms. The music had been dedicated to the tribe. It was about us and where we would go and how we would become.

Figaro had hated it; they’d argued all night, at the bar, at the bistro, back in our rooms, to the point that Max grabbed some original composition of Figaro’s and proceeded to lampoon it while we all sat around, drunk, wondering if this would send Figaro off the deep end.

Instead, Figaro laughed, agreed with Max, called himself a “poor excuse for a musician.”

Now, poor Max, dead. Figaro was nowhere to be found.

Diane swept in late, whispering to a scruffy teacup-sized Maltese, its fluffy white head just poking up from a wide-mouthed purse. Diane had gotten chubby, but the upside — according to Chetwin, who leaned into me to whisper– the girth gave her “massive Gibraltars,” and “she’s still got eat-me eyes — agree or no?”

A few minutes later — again leaning so close I could smell his disruptive nature – Chetty whispered, “What if I fucked Max’s sister, later? On that crappy green sofa. She’s not half-bad. Knobby knees and all. It would be almost like fucking Max.”

He noticed my expression. “You look like a hypertensive virgin.”

“You’re being inappropriate,” I whispered.

“Of course I am,” he whispered back.

I scanned the room, face to face. Everyone crammed in, strangers, Interlopers, Outsiders — and us.

I suspect someone else heard Chetty’s caustic whispers, because the room went silent for a brief flickered second.

We watched Max’s sister as she served little tuna and American Cheese sandwiches on the kind of bread that crunched when you bit down. She skimped on the mayo but made up for it with liquor in tall frosty glasses.

She apologized for the lack of chairs, and finally – after midnight when we’d all gotten shit-faced on cheap vodka – John Chetwin said, loud and clear, “I think Max made the leap because of the prophecy.”

Chetwin hadn’t really changed much in the intervening years since I’d last seen him. Snotty and endearing as ever. My mother met him once when we were in school; called him arrogant but had nearly fallen in love with him. He inspired that sort of thing – women hating him and loving him, men wanting to have what he had and never be more than a whisper away from him.

It was hard work hating Chetty for very long. Handsome, rich, magnetic and unfiltered buys you a lot of friends. I had instant empathy with him when we met freshman year, even while he dismantled my ego and the way I spoke (“Midwestern twang by way of North Carolina,” he told me, too accurately).

Some people just have it – a charm that bridges even the worst insult.

He liked taking pictures, money, and himself – as he had ever been, so he continued.

When asked – during a murmuring moment – Chetwin elaborated on Max’s demise among our tribal circle. All any of the rest of us knew was that it involved a river.

Max had jumped off a one-lane bridge in Port Van Eyck in upstate. He’d been driving the piano truck from his shop. The truck was empty. A foggy night. He just stopped midway on the bridge and jumped, Chetwin informed us.

“Bit of a double tragedy. The truck — parked on the one-lane bridge. A motorcycle smashed into it.”

A dead silence overcame the room. Chetwin took a sip of his drink. Everyone watched him.

“The motorcyclist was a college boy,” he said, as if this detail might fascinate us. “Driving too fast in the fog. He didn’t die. Just nearly lost an arm and got scraped up. A junior at Bard. A film studies major.”

While I wanted to ask what ‘nearly lost an arm,’ meant, the topic of film studies interrupted Spiro and Alexa’s silence.

“Remember film class?” Spiro asked.

“God, I hated it,” Diane said. “All the electives sucked.”

“And poor Mansfield,” Fleas said. “I mean, later.”

“Oh, god,” Diane whispered, nodding, closing her eyes for a second. “I forgot all about that.”

“But wasn’t Mansfield brilliant?” Spiro ignored Diane. “Watching The Go-Between four times. Julie Christie.”

“Alan Bates,” Alexa said.

“Julie Christie,” Spiro said, softly.

Cries and Whispers,” Alexa said. “Garden of the Finzi-Continis.”

The Damned,” Spiro said with a child-like adoration. “Charlotte Rampling.”

“Charlotte Rampling.” Alexa nodded, as if recalling a vision of the Virgin Mary.

The two of them noticed the glares around the room. Alexa leaned her head against Spiro’s shoulder, closing her eyes, shutting us all out.

“People never change,” Diane whispered, so quietly I barely heard her.

But Spiro and Alexa’s brief conversation dredged up an old and arbitrary memory for me: sitting in film class junior year. We had to take a certain number of classes outside the Conservatory’s usual music theory and practice. Watching movies in an auditorium was an easy A, and sometimes I managed a nap during a particularly long Norwegian or German film.

My recall was crystal clear; I felt transported. Some brief fling of a girl sat beside me. We held hands like kids while a film flickered by.

In front of us, the back of Max’s head, all clean-cut and perfect. He turned around once during the movie and looked at us. Combed his magnificent flop of genius hair away from his forehead.

“If this movie goes any slower,” he said. “It’ll run backwards.”

The girl laughed – rather sweetly – but I remember her hand dropping out of mine at that moment. I felt Max had jinxed us in some way. I remember quite sharply wishing him dead at that moment, back at the age of 20 or 21, back when a word like “death” didn’t mean the same thing it would when Max was truly dead.

Beyond us, the dusty light from the projector, the sense of a dozen students seated not far from us, the luminous screen at the front of the auditorium.

On screen, a beautiful young French actress in close up, then a distance shot, a rustic cottage behind her at the edge of the woods, a reedy pond.

She carries a little empty bird cage in her hand.

Its door, open.

Is she weeping, or are those merely droplets of rain? The top branches of trees wave slowly with an approaching summer storm. Rain disturbs the pond’s surface. Her reflection in the water shimmers and blurs. A small dead bird floats among the reeds, its wings spread wide. The actress glances up. A strapping young actor rides a horse in a distant field. Thunder breaks; her eyes widen; music crescendos.

Professor Mansfield shouted above the film score, how its composer used the story’s subtext, directly opposed to what the character was doing on-screen.

“The unwritten truth in the music!” Mansfield crowed over the swelling soundtrack. “She’s at war with her own heart! What’s she thinking about? Him? The bird? What does it tell us? Clues! Look for clues in the music itself!”

The hardness of the auditorium seats. The loss of my girl’s warm hand. My anger. Max looking at the two of us, somehow making me feel as if I didn’t count.

It was a strange remembrance that made me feel ugly and worthless in light of Max’s death.

A slight chill came over me as I broke the surface — back to the present, to the little apartment, the tribal gathering within the more anonymous crowd of Max’s friends.

I realized I had never really liked Max all that much. He had been dismissive of me, my music and cello. He’d once accused me of being a fake.

And it made me feel awful that such memories bubbled up in his sister’s crowded living room.

Chetwin – who paused to eat a half-sandwich and refill his glass — resumed the tale of Max’s last hour or so, finishing up with the details he knew: Max, despair, bridge, the jump, the finding of the body, the college boy at the hospital, and the note.

“Everything about this is a mystery,” Chetwin said. “Every detail, important.”

Max’s suicide note definitely existed, Chetty told his audience. But no one knew what it said except his sister – and she hadn’t mentioned it.

At least not when she’d been sober.

Max’s sister slipped away to the micro-kitchen to get another tray of sandwiches. We all noticed she wobbled a little, wearing that overly-smiled face of the properly-liquored. We hoped she’d open up about the note.

“What did you mean – a prophecy?” I asked Chetwin.

Diane, leaned forward, dog under arm. “You mean, someone predicted he’d kill himself?”

“Think about it,” Chetwin said. He turned to me. “You know.”

“Maybe,” I said, but I didn’t.

“Max was chronically depressed in school,” Alexa said.

“We were all chronically depressed,” Fleas said. Her voice seemed husky and mature and not the little soprano squeak of the early Fleas. She shot a glance at Alexa. “You were practically the Hunger Artist.”

“He was in love with someone,” Max’s sister said, returning with her arms laden with a sandwich-heavy tray — and another large bottle. “That’s what his note said. He wrote it on the back of a fortune cookie slip. There was an unopened box of Pork Lo Mein next to where he’d left his shoes. The bits of fortune cookie were there, too. He hadn’t eaten it. And the pen that he wrote the note with. It was from a bank.”

Pausing, she then added, “The note was tucked into his loafers.”

“That girl has a mind for useless details,” Chetwin – to the left of me – whispered to no one in particular as we again descended on the tiny sandwiches. “And why did Max take off those shoes? And why loafers? One wonders.”

“Stop it,” someone said.

The sister continued. “He was in love and he said it didn’t matter. He’d never be happy and it left him empty and who needed it? That’s what he wrote.” She didn’t seem quite so drunk at that moment.

“All of that?” Diane whispered, her breath full of booze, hand at my shoulder. “On the back of a little slip of paper from a stale cookie?”

“Makes you wonder what the actual fortune said,” Chetty whispered. “Must’ve been epic.”

“Nobody eats fortunes cookies, do they?” Spiro said, pouring drinks for himself and his conjoined wife. “I always throw them away. I feel as if they’re made of the dust of old bones or something.”

“And take-out on the night he jumps? Now, that sounds fishy,” Chetwin said, a little too loud.

It hit me just then how horrible we all were; and yet I still loved my old friends, bitter and jaded and deeply unfulfilled.

After a suitable moment of silence – when I realized that the sister and her pals had overheard the latest round of insensitive tribal comments and stared at all of us as if we were the unsolvable negative equation of Max’s short life, I said, “Poor Max. I’m sorry. I didn’t know he was in love. I guess I hadn’t kept up enough.”

“Or at all,” Diane whispered, mostly to her Maltese.

“But that’s not really why he did it,” Chetwin said.

The entire room – us and them — looked at him. A hum of disapproval arose against Chetwin, and by extension, all of the tribe.

“He was fulfilling that prophecy,” Chetty said.

“Again with the prophecy,” Spiro said, groaning.

Max Porter’s sister squinted at John Chetwin and muttered something under her breath.

Chetwin looked around at each of us – the tribal we. None of us moved. I imagined we all felt embarrassed, responsible for anything uttered by any one of our group.

“Suicide, birth, murder, an accident, failure, love, revenge, atonement,” Chetwin said, and then finished off the last of a bottle that had lingered near his hand. “It begins the whole prophecy. None of you remember?”

“I remember,” Spiro said. “But not quite like that.”

“How do you remember it going?”

“Figaro read it to us. It was in one of his Little Books of Everything We Ever Did. I thought there was ‘success’ somewhere in there, too.”

“I doubt that,” Chetty said.

“Figaro said this?” Diane asked.

I shrugged. “No idea.”

“Not Figaro,” Fleas said. “It was a Satellite.”

“Oh, right,” Alexa nodded. “We pissed someone off. They blew up. God, who was it? Figaro kept reminding us about it. It bothered him. Sometimes it’s good to forget that stuff.”

“It was a girl,” Spiro said. “That one with the tattoo on her thigh. But I don’t remember her saying it. Just Figaro repeating it.”

“You actually know someone named Figaro?” some shadow among the gathering asked.

“It was a nickname,” Diane said.

“Yeah, like Fleas,” Fleas said, with a certain sour quality to her voice.

“I wonder what he’s been up to,” Spiro said.

“Busking the subway, probably.”

“Somewhere in Maine,” Chetwin said.

“Figaro made that prophecy?” Diane asked. “About us?”

“Not Figaro,” Chetty said. “One of the Interlopers. Spiro’s right – it was a girl.” He glanced over at me as if expecting me to jump in.

“You guys had a lot of girls,” Diane said. “I couldn’t keep track.”

“I could never tell them apart,” Alexa said. “There was this type all of you were into. And they worshipped you guys.”

We’d gotten too loud. Max Porter’s sister shifted uncomfortably, scowled a bit, complained of a migraine. We decided – almost to a person – to thank her, wish her well, leave her to her friends and Max’s untribal group who circled like protecting angels. We offered one last hug and then scrambled into the street, down to a late-night café on the corner of Perry and Holmes.

There – under the soft green lanterns of a summer evening – we exchanged remembrances of things past related to Max and Figaro and the season of our corruptive innocence.

We wagged our jaws into the deep hours. The café shut down, but allowed us to remain at the tables outside.

Exhausting the mundane topics of where we’d been and what we’d done, we returned to the solemnity of Max and the strange prediction.

First, some of us argued with Chetwin that he made it up; he swore it happened and couldn’t believe none of us remembered it.

“But you were all probably drunk,” he said. “Something happened – not sure what set it off — and then someone said it and all of us laughed at it, and I wouldn’t have even remembered it except that Max fulfilled one bit of it.”

“It was this girl,” Spiro insisted. “I just can’t remember anything about her. She was some pretty, misguided thing. Had a tattoo, right here.” He stood, pointing to the outside of his leg. “It was yin-yang looking. You only saw it if she was naked. And I think we all saw her naked.”

“You have a great memory for the dozens of girls you bedded,” Alexa said.

“Most of them are blurs,” he chuckled. “But I never forget a tattoo.”

No one seemed to remember the name of this mythical tattooed Interloper with her bizarre prediction of our futures.

“Someone must’ve really pissed her off,” Fleas said.

“We pissed a lot of Interlopers off, I suspect,” I added.

We dissected the infamous prophecy, after asking Chetty to repeat it a few times.

As I looked around the table, the others repeated each word silently, trying to understand it.

Spiro and Alexa identified with the “love” part of the prophecy, which made all of us exchange glances. Fleas and I identified with the “failure” part, at least in terms of playing music.

“But we’re still involved with music,” she said. “So maybe that doesn’t count.”

No one had yet given birth. We wondered if any of us might be murdered someday. This was qualified with: “If we believe in this stuff, of course.”

“Well, Max fits the suicide bill,” Alexa said. “I mean, unless he was murdered.”

“I doubt that,” Chetty said. “Don’t forget the fortune cookie.”

“If we believe the fortune cookie theory,” Diane said, meaning to be funny.

“Revenge and atonement. Sounds Old Testament,” Fleas said. “Who really gets revenge? Who really atones? Nobody. Life is this endless cycle of wash, rinse, drain and repeat. And then you drop dead.”

“You’re a murky little creature,” Chetty said.

“Maybe there’s a reason for revenge. And maybe Max atoned,” Alexa said.

“You atone because of sin,” Chetwin said. “Did we sin? Did any of us really sin – I mean in the grand scheme of sin where people murder and steal and – I don’t know – do terrible things. I mean, there’s Hitler sin and murder sin. There’s even beat-your-wife sin. Were we terrible? Somehow I doubt it.”

“We fucked around a lot,” Fleas said.

“If sex is a sin,” Chetwin said. “Send me to Hell right this instant.”

“You were a beast,” Diane said, and she might’ve meant any of us.

“Maybe we did something awful back then and didn’t know it,” I said.

“I don’t think I developed a conscience til I was 25,” Chetwin said.

“If ever,” Fleas laughed.

“We’re just obsessing over this stupid prophecy,” Spiro said. “Revenge? Atonement? Murder? Who says that kind of thing?”

“Someone who meant it, I guess,” Diane said.

“We stepped on a lot of toes when we were young,” Spiro said.

“Doesn’t everybody?” Chetwin said. “Young people do shit all the time. Drugs, sex, drunkenness, dumbassedness – practically degree requirements. It’s all about me-me-me. You get a pass at that age.”

“Maybe for minor things,” Fleas said.

“Exactly,” Chetwin nodded. “And anything awful we did was minor league. We weren’t bullies. Forgot to call an Outsider for a second date. Lied to someone to get out of running into them. Sucked up to a despised professor to get a good grade. Slept with somebody to get back at somebody else. Ran a little wild. Told our parents what they wanted to hear. Never told them what we were really up to. That kind of stuff. Did we deserve a curse? No more than anyone else in college did – or does.”

“You make us sound like sociopaths,” I said. “We didn’t do all that.”

Chetty raised his cup of coffee as if in a silent toast.

“Makes you wonder how we found time to actually rehearse,” Diane said.

“Max didn’t deserve to die.” When Alexa said this, a hush fell over the rest of us. “He didn’t. He was always nice to me.”

After a momentary silence, idle chatter picked up again. We’d moved on from the prophecy and back to happier memories. Chetty took pictures, his flash blinding us. Fleas talked about the kids she taught and of some trip her students took to Thailand to build a school for the poor. Spiro and Alexa held court about Hollywood, Paris, the West End and some charity concert in Italy. We all played up to them a bit, hoping for crumbs of jobs. Diane with her snoring Maltese leaned back in her chair, more interested in another cup of decaf than the conversation.

As the cicada chatter continued, I remembered something about the curse.

I recalled the essence of some fabled beauty of an Interloper – not her face, but her sooty eyes and her cigarette smoke and May wine perfume and how we’d all been fighting – this must have been junior year.

We’d gotten disruptive at a party honoring us. The Interloper hurled those words, a grenade, in our midst.

In memory, I mashed it all up with memories of the dozen or more Satellites we’d all known, so I couldn’t quite put a face to the voice, but I heard the words.

Not one of you is special, the Interloper said. Garbled in my memory, those words – suicide, birth, murder, accident, failure, love, revenge, atonement – as if she were an escapee from the garden of Furies, damning us with an overly-dramatic set of possibilities.

I looked across the table to Chetty. He glanced back, sensing the shift in my demeanor.

I felt he could read my mind at that moment. I remembered precisely our intense closeness, all of us, practically inside each other’s heads at the Conservatory. And in that moment, I remembered Chetty sitting beside me, laughing, as that Interloper spewed her prophecy across our group.

Who was the unhappy messenger? I couldn’t quite remember the voice, let alone the face of this dreaded Cassandra.

Eight words for eight members of the tribe.

I ended up spending the night with Diane. She lived a winding drunken walk from the café. We did more sleeping than anything else, after a half hour of fumbling in the dark with each other’s bits and pieces. When the slap of morning met my forehead, I glanced over at her. She talks to her Maltese, what the fuck are you doing with your life?

We’d slept together at the Conservatory. The tribe had been incestuous. Sex and friendship got confused and convoluted in the undertow of being young.

In the kiosk bathroom of Diane’s place, I checked my phone.

A text had come in from Chetwin.

“At the ‘Royal It’ place,” he wrote. “Palatial. Their own private swimming pool. An elevator for their Mercedes. It’s all shiny. I want to fuck both Alexa and Spiro to see if fame works like an STD.”

He told me to meet him at the cafe again for coffee at noon.

Chetwin looked fully recovered from the previous evening. He wore a freshly-starched white shirt, rolled-up cuffs, and lean khakis with flip-flops on his feet, a thick silver bracelet around his wrist. A gift, he told me, from his ex. I didn’t know he’d ever been married; I wanted to pry but he wanted to keep going on about Max.

“The real reason Max killed himself,” John Chetwin told me as he fingered the rim of his cup. “He was in love with Figaro. His sister doesn’t know this fact.”

The impact of what he said was immeasurable to me. Figaro, Max Porter, love, suicide.

I didn’t want to think it, but I imagined Max and Figaro at the age of 20, spooning in white briefs in the dormitory’s procrustean bed. Genius hair met rain forest jungle hair as they lay entwined. I had no memory to match this – I created it from whole cloth.

“But his sister said…”

“Didn’t say. Implied.”

“I’m pretty sure she said it was a woman.”

“That’s not really what happened,” Chetwin said. “There was a woman – but not in a romantic way. We’ve spoken about it – she and I. Which is why I know all these details of Max’s last leap. But she’s not the one Max was in love with. She was a friend. A buddy. It was Figaro. Unrequited. And that’s why he did it.”

“Who’s ‘she’?”

He gave me an odd look, a narrowing but sharp gaze as if he were examining my face for something it lacked.

“Just a friend.” Chetty quickly added, “But not his lover or anything. Max was into men only.”

“Suicide for love. At the age of thirty-four. For Figaro.”

“Yeah, I know. If anyone was least-likely to inspire homoerotic lust, it would be Figaro. Still, he had that secret beauty – under all the hair. And the phallic nose. I guess Max found him irresistible. But musicians, what can you do?”

We both chuckled. Having abandoned our dreams of being musicians, we’d learned to dismiss them as if they were children who knew nothing of the real world. This spared us feelings of failure.

“Max in love,” I said. “Figaro. All these years. How didn’t we see any of it?”

“Did we even understand love in college?” he said. “I mean, we thought we did. But we were idiots about that kind of stuff. I regret half of what I did.”

“We were in love with the Muse.”

“Oh yeah, the Muse.” He wiped his face as if trying to erase a memory.

“You okay?”

He nodded, a weak smile as he looked down in his cup. “Bad coffee.” Then, “Ah, poor Max.”

Nearly a minute went by before he spoke again.

“Only mystery is why jump?” he asked. “I’d do pills. Something to knock you out. Then something else to stop the heart right after. ‘He died in his sleep,’ the papers will say. Doesn’t everybody want to die while sleeping? Not this drowning bullshit.”

I felt a sudden weight on my chest. I imagined Max floating in water, as if I could see his face from beneath. A memory came with this: swimming in college, diving under water, looking up, seeing a naked girl above me.

After the Conservatory, naked girls never swam above me again.

“You didn’t like Max,” he said, suddenly, intuitively.

I shrugged. “We never really hit it off.”

“You weren’t alone. The girls liked him, but I’m not even sure Figaro cared much for him. But we liked his talent and he was our little messenger of the gods. He’d do anything Figaro asked of him. But he was annoying. Still, he should’ve had a big career. And he didn’t.”

“He probably should’ve been famous.”

“In Port Van Eyck he was. I read the obit online. He was beloved, apparently, in that corner of dank infestation known as the upper Hudson Valley.”

“You’re the same snob you were at twenty.”

“Moreso,” Chetty agreed. Then he invited me to his home in Connecticut, a large acreage “shaped like afterbirth,” on a wide river.

He described his boredom with life, how his ex-wife – a savage harpist – still occupied space there, “though she’s not around much. Always on tour. Always recording. You know the drill. It’s why we divorced at all. Well that, and lack of children, I guess.” They had been married four years and divorced for two. They’d wed quietly, and he’d never mentioned it at previous tribal gatherings because (he said) “it wasn’t that kind of marriage.”

His family hated her. “Hate, like people hate terrorists. They just think she’s awful. But she’s not. They’re monstrous people, my family. Our home is a bubble of safety for the two of us.”

“Why not just stay married?”

“That’s what I said,” he chuckled. “She’s not built that way, she told me. If it’s over, it’s over. We were always just friends, I suppose. Still are. And she’s hardly around. Maybe for dinners, sometimes. But you’d like her, anyway. She’s your type.”

“But not yours.”

“She was, once. But I’m not hers. Oh, I chased her mercilessly,” he said, losing his smile. “I’m not proud of it. But I was a hunter. She was a gazelle – with sharp horns. I pretty much spent a year or more just convincing her to go out on a date. It was humiliating.”

The more he mentioned his ex, the sadder he seemed.

The house, he said, was big enough for at least three exes.

He extolled the pleasures of the guest cottage. “A modest caretaker’s place. You expect to see seven little dwarfs running around. Sparrows and chipmunks all skittering beneath the windows – that kind of thing. Come up in June. Hell, you don’t even have to see me more than once a week if you want. The guest place looks gargantuan next to Max’s sister’s little mousetrap. I’d love to spend more time with you. Summers get boring for me. All those Connecticut rich people and their Country Day School brats.”

“The idea of taking a summer off would be nice.”

“You’re a freelancer. You can do it.”

“Unless someone calls and then I run to the studio.”

“You’ll have no expenses. I’m rich.”

“Rich rich?”

“Not as rich as the Royal It. But we’re good. We have a maid named Hester and a cook named Terry. When we throw parties, we even have a butler named Mortie. Plus a local girl who hangs the wash so it always smells like a summer garden full of…well, all those little fucked-up flowers you see in summer gardens.”

Between leases, I decided to stay with John Chetwin and his somewhat-absent ex-wife at the idyllic cottage he’d described.

I arrived in June.

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Now on to Chapter 4.

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The Marriage of Figaro, Chapter 1

Monday, May 23rd, 2016

Books to read, currently in-progress on this blog:

Mr. Darkness    The Marriage of Figaro    

Museum of the Innocents  

The Marriage of Figaro by Douglas Clegg

 The Marriage of Figaro, Chapter One

Dear Reader,

Now for another short novel I’m working on. I think I posted enough of Mr. Darkness until the book’s ready to go, so for now there’s this strange tale of a group of young musical prodigies and the terrible events that surround them.

As you can see from the cover to the left, this is called The Marriage of Figaro, clearly one of the strangest titles for a strange little novel. I hope you enjoy it. I’ll post a few chapters every few days, and I hope you enjoy them and will come back for more.

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All material on this page is copyright Douglas Clegg ©2016 — Find books by Douglas Clegg at Amazon, B&N.com, Kobo, iTunes, Google Play & Payhip.

℘℘℘

The Marriage of Figaro

by Douglas Clegg

Note: Most of this is rough draft. Enjoy at your own peril.

 

  1. In the Bar at Trois Freres

 

“If you’re going to murder someone,” Ned Donnelly said, “it should look precisely – in every detail – like bad luck. Something that could happen to anybody. You listening?”

I nodded, putting my drink down.

“And you’re not planning a murder yourself?” he asked.

Ned’s eyes were small and pinched until he put on a pair of thick-framed glasses, and then they were surprisingly bright and large. You could trust him because he told you the worst of himself upfront. Other than liquor and dreamless sleep, he loved three things: women “with a little experience under their belts but before the world has its way with them,” classical music, and the subject of murder.

We’d first met at one of Chetty’s gatherings at the country house. Ned, in semi-retirement, taught criminal justice classes at a night school. That particular evening, he sat across from me at one of the endless summer suppers, wedged between a socialite named Bunny and the famously defrocked priest from Ridgefield.

After the table cleared, Ned remained behind, chumming up to Chetty and me because he wanted to hear about our music. His elbows dug into the tablecloth, bottomless glass of Chateau Neuf du Pape in fist. We chattered into the amethyst hours of Mozart and Mahler and misspent youth, our muses and lack thereof, with only an occasional nod to the tribe itself.

Years passed. I ran into Ned again, at this bar, not too long after. I bumped into him twice at concerts in Manhattan, and then, after I’d moved for the fourth time, we began corresponding about concerts and recordings, and of course, Chetwin and the others and everything that had gone wrong.

I always knew where to find Ned no matter the time of year and if I felt the need on one of my business trips, as I did this particularly chilly night, I’d brave the ice and snow and drive to Connecticut. He’d become a seasonal fixture in the raftered bar of Le Bistro Trois Freres, a little dungeon of a place along a lost stretch of wooded road between Greenwich and not-Greenwich.

“Someone smart can basically finesse murder,” He said, two martinis ahead of me.

“By finesse, you mean…”

“To make it look natural. Keep those arrows from pointing at you, anyway. Nobody does that overnight. I worked a case where the killer planned his crime beginning when he was ten years old. Didn’t carry it out until he was close to forty. Imagine that. The waiting must’ve been excruciating. The people he’d plotted against were in their late seventies and eighties by the time he got around to it. If he’d waited a few more years, they might’ve all been dead anyway. His victims didn’t even know their connection to each other. But once upon a time they’d all lived in a specific county. And our killer had lived there, too, as a child. And even though we knew he’d done it, we had no evidence – not DNA, not a witness, nothing — to tie him in. He had alibis each time. Plus he was what we used to call upstanding. Respected. Community work, all that, happy wife and four cute kids, and none of them had a clue. To them, he was the good man.”

Ned put his chin in his hand and shook his head slightly.

“But we knew this guy did it. We could place him as a boy in each of his victim’s homes during a devastating year of his life. His mother had died in a terrible way and his father, unskilled and backward in some way, went house-to-house looking for work. And these particular people had said something to the boy’s father that must’ve burned in his memory. Must’ve just hit the nerve that changed the course of his life. I spent years on that one.”

“You ever catch him?”

“Not me. Another guy. Not long ago.”

“How?”

“The longer you wait for revenge, the sloppier you get.” He sat up, losing the slouch. “It can be a slow burn of years. There may be some way to work out the problems, the possible ways this thing can go. So one day, long time after we closed the file on this, it happened. Got himself a promotion at work, big salary. A move to a better neighborhood. He and the wife threw out a bunch of old stuff from the attic and basement – broken furnitures, appliances, lampshades. And one of the neighbors — a real piece of work — goes through the trash hoping to find something to resell but instead discovers a water-stained shoe box packed with little three-by-five cards.”

“His victims?”

Ned grinned as if I’d just located the shoebox myself.

“Maiden names, married names, addresses, specific details, a couple of faded photos, a timetable. Brief notes of schedules, habits. I’m still jealous of the guy who nailed it. Wish I’d figured all this out early.”

“Why’d he keep evidence all that time?”

Ned shrugged. “Blind spot. Part of the whole thing he wants to forget. So, he does forget. We’re more than a decade past the murders. He got his relief. His targets are dead. This guy doesn’t see himself as a murderer. He didn’t do it for money or out of anger. It was justice to him. He sees himself as a secret righter of wrongs and he knows nobody figured it out enough to charge him with anything. You know how you keep stuff in your house for years and you don’t even realize you have it or what it means anymore? That shoebox was probably just crammed up in some cupboard or attic, mixed in with old bills and tax crap. You keep a diary and then stop one day. You forget you ever kept it until you run across it years later and think what an idiot you were to ever keep a diary. And – in your case — you find those notes, you got your guy.”

Then, a second later, he added, “But you’re probably wrong. Mostly what looks like an accident is an accident. If the means of death’s nearly impossible for another person to have engineered, you go with reality. Life murders more often than other people do.”

A jukebox in the corner, silent, suddenly came to life, a pop tune of the moment.

“Now, who the hell put that crap on?” he said too loud. “Let’s get a table, far away from this awful racket.”

Settling into a corner of the dining room, we ordered dinner.

Ned switched topics. Had I been to the winter concert series in New Haven? How often did I get to Carnegie Hall? Or the Met? What was it like, my life these days?

To appease him, I drew from a shortlist of music-world anecdotes: ribald tales of the various musicians I’d worked with, and the now-famous soprano (a former classmate) who used studio tricks to cover a voice ruined by cigarettes and late nights, and what a genius a certain violinist was although he remained an awful human being in every other way.

The gossip of my sphere, basically.

Ned asked about my old friends, Spiro and Alexa of course (because everyone asked about them) and then he wanted to know more about Figaro and we talked about John Chetwin, too, and the conservatory days, back in the olden times of twenty years earlier, when — I told Ned — we believed we were all prodigies and dreamed of becoming celebrated musicians while still in our late teens and early twenties with a little experience under our belts but before the world had its way with us — before Death entered the snapshot.

Dinner arrived. Ned ate, noisily, as if French Onion soup and steak frites were the last meal he’d ever have in his life.

“And this whole tribal business,” he said. “I never understood that. I’d think you’d all have been too competitive. Maybe even at each others’ throats.”

“Sure.”

“How’d you decide who was in and who was out?”

“We’d been hand-picked by Mansfield.”

“Ordained,” he nodded. “What was he like?”

“Impulsive. All over the place. He laid out all the rules and then told us to break them. To explore our creativity. Find our source. Discover what we believed. That kind of thing,” I said. “He encouraged all the liaisons. The wildness. I honestly believe he idolized us. He said we were the best and brightest and we’d set the world on fire.”

“And you believed him?” Before I could answer, he added, “At twenty, who doesn’t want to believe that.”

Ned asked more; I told less.

And then, before we parted that night, he asked me again what he’d asked each time I’d sought him out that winter:

“So, who’s this murderer?”

“At this point, I think it’s what you said. It’s life. There’s no way one person could’ve done it. And so perfectly.”

“Sounds about right,” he concluded, as we shook hands. “Your reaction’s natural. The injustice of loss. You want to blame someone, but usually it’s just the way things go.”

I called a cab for him, and – mostly sober – I braved dark roads back up the coast.

On the night’s long drive, the scalpel of memory cut to the bone of my twentieth year:

My father in his pin-striped suit of disapproval.

“You need something more stable than this…this dream,” my father said. “Look who you surround yourself with. They’re not your friends. Think of what could’ve happened. Think of how this could’ve turned out. I mean, as horrible as it is, think how much worse it might’ve been.”

He told me if I didn’t straighten up, I’d be at a regular old college in no time, studying something serious like economics — or else lucky to get a job at a gas station. “Your mother should never have bought you that cello in the first place. There’s more to life than music.”

But music was my life in those days. All of our lives. It was who we were. It was our communal heartbeat.

We were the tribe.

Now, on to Chapters 2 & 3

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Check back soon. I’ll get a new chapter going of The Marriage of Figaro, and once I know the publishing schedule, I’ll post it. (Bear in mind, I have about 12-15 books in close-to-finished stages, but I’m hoping to knock them down one after another. We’ll see!)

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Dinner with the Cannibal Sisters

Wednesday, June 25th, 2014

Dinner with the Cannibal Sisters by Douglas Clegg

 New Book Alert!

“In the fall of 1910, several months after Halley’s Comet blazed a corner of the sky, I took the train north to meet the famed Windrow sisters…”

–the first sentence from Dinner with the Cannibal Sisters by Douglas Clegg.

READ MORE, GET THE BOOK.

 

 

About the Book:


From Douglas Clegg, award-winning author of Neverland and Isis, comes a dark gem about a notorious family — and a feast like no other.

You’re invited to dinner…

In October 1890 authorities discovered two teenaged girls at Bog Farm surrounded by a scene of unimaginable carnage. A legend grew of their cannibalistic night of terror, but young Lucy and Sally were never put to trial and no one has ever before gotten close enough to interview them.

Twenty years later, an inexperienced reporter travels to their New Hampshire farm, determined to shed light upon the events of that night.

Lizzie Borden, Dr. Crippen, the Windrow Sisters — murderers whose mystique has lasted more than a century. But of them all, the tale of the Windrow girls is unrivaled in its legend of depravity and innocence corrupted.