David Newton, young project manager, was in a harshly lit meeting when he realized that he’d rather die than spend another stupid month at his job. The conversation among his coworkers, now as always, was dry and droning—the sound of life passing you by. But where else could he go? The arts were his passion but not his talent. He wanted to holler curses and topple everyone’s water bottles. Instead, he decided to take a year off and buy a motorcycle and teach a music appreciation class at the library.
“You’re either the craziest person I know or the bravest,” his supervisor Jill said when he put in his two weeks’ notice later that day. “Let me know how things turn out.”
The biking turned out instantly bad. He went to a dealership, picked out a styling blue cycle to test ride, and lost control and spun out fumingly. The salesman said the laugh was worth the damage. David’s first class, however, went amazingly well. The library classroom was small and paisley-walled. David asked the nine students, seated in desk-chairs arranged in a semi-circle around his own, to introduce themselves. Then he lectured at length about the joys of great music. The students were vigorously engaged, asking questions and sharing stories. David felt like sparkling feathers. The only bad moment came when Carla, an alluring copyright lawyer, mentioned that as a teen she had played clarinet. David winced. The clarinet was his sweetest love and his keenest failure. For homework, David asked them to listen to the Beatles’ Revolver, his favorite album, and be ready to discuss it at next week’s class. A floppy-haired dude named Mogie, who looked weirdly familiar but had volunteered only his name in his introduction and hadn’t spoken since, appeared vastly skeptical. Everyone else, though, murmured excitedly. At the end of class, Carla gathered up her purse and notebook and gave David a foxy smile.
“Can’t wait for next week,” Stan, a retired postman, emailed David a few days later, bolstering his good feeling. “It’s a fun group, with a terrific teacher.”
The next class was indeed lively. Stan and Niles, a jokester architect, got into a friendly debate over which Revolver song was best. Niles did a funny Paul McCartney impression. When David remarked that the album was a gift from music heaven, Carla leapt up, jogged over, and fist-bumped him. He hadn’t felt this cool since ninth grade. But floppy-haired Mogie was an eerie distraction. Why was the guy so quiet? Why was his face so familiar? Finally, Mogie spoke. He believed in music heaven, he said affably, but rock songs were hardly its only manna. Consider all that came before them—jazz and blues tunes, as well as, going further back, madrigals and art songs. David, whose only expertise was rock, felt a dark goosey chill. The madrigal was an especially lost art, Mogie said, a layering of two or more voices, performed a cappella or with accompaniment. The other students looked puzzled at first, then enthralled. David realized with a sick jolt why Mogie looked so familiar: he was a dead ringer for David himself. Slimmer, fitter, with thick artsy hair whereas David’s own was thinning, but otherwise exactly the same.
“Dang, Mogie,” Carla said when he finished. “You’re a book of knowledge.”
“Lovely words, lad,” Niles added in his McCartney voice.
David was unnerved and angry. A week later, he took charge right away, asking the class to write an essay about their favorite lyrics. Notebooks were opened, pens dutifully taken up. But after ten minutes Mogie lit a cigarette and wondered aloud: wouldn’t it be more fun to write their own lyrics? The class, gasping in pleasure, turned to a fresh page and started scribbling. David clenched his fists, trying not to snarl. Life was dumber than waddling dodos. After class, driving away in his car, he noticed Mogie expertly zooming off on a majestic Harley, his thick hair fluttering suavely in the breeze.
Things spiraled. At the next class, David sat by miserably as the students gathered their chairs around Mogie’s. Carla stood behind Mogie, rubbing his back. Niles jauntily lit his Parliaments for him. Mogie said that it was time to grab life by the cojones—time to make music themselves. They would create melodies for their lyrics, he said, and sing them madrigal-style at a town hall performance. David, sad and seething, nevertheless kept attending class. What else could he do? The chairs were dragged out, and a musty harpsicord carried in. Mogie played it fluently, of course, and sang beautifully. Would the fucker bleed if David slashed his own wrists? If the bastard hung himself, would David choke? The class sang at first like barn cats, then like born sparrows. Only David failed to improve. Mogie slapped his back amiably and said, Well, someone had to go for snacks and supplies, right? David stared into Mogie’s face, kind and stubbly, a living mirror that showed David the amazing person he might have been, should have been, but most emphatically was not. During rehearsals, held with the lights off, in magical darkness, David sat on the floor and angrily stuffed himself with Cheetos. The singers, illuminated by flicker-pink floor candles, looked almost spectral. The madrigals were hushed and sweet and hugely stirring. On the day before town hall, David bought a shiny razor blade.