A World Without Music: Accepted for Publication—J. Conrad Guest

J. Conrad Guest

J. Conrad Guest

Some time ago I posted an excerpt from what was then a work in progress, A World Without Music, the story of a marine returning from the first Gulf War haunted by horrific images of the body of a marine he brought back from the desert. Reagan seeks 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 affair with Rosary, a young woman he meets at one of his gigs. When his ex-wife Sarah looks into his life, they decide to reunite, and an incensed Rosary decides to get even with Reagan. With help from Tom Wallach’s ghost, the deceased marine Reagan discovered in the desert, and the daughter Wallach never met, Reagan must piece together the events that left Sarah comatose. A one sentence synopsis: Can a Gulf War veteran suffering PTSD finally leave behind his past to find the music that will make his life worth living?

I’ve since completed the novel and, after my lengthy revision process, Second Wind accepted it for publication in late 2014. My revisions include a complete rewrite of the prologue, which appears below. Those familiar with the first prologue will recognize this complete rewrite. Take comfort in that the original prologue appears, with minor revisions, later in the story.



Reagan was on patrol in Kuwait, with five other marines fanned out to either side of him in a vee formation, when they came upon a tarp covering a body-sized object half-buried in the sand. The squad converged on the tarp and stood in a circle, fearing what—or who—they might find under the tarp. As squad leader, Reagan bent to pull back the tarp and …

Awoke with a start, drenched in perspiration. Rolling himself into a sitting position on the edge of his bed, he muttered, “Fuck.”

Reagan glanced at his clock radio—nearly half past six.

He made his way to the bathroom, where he splashed cold water onto his face; then he stood a moment to glance at his mirror’s image. Staring back at him, his eyes were as wide and filled with the mortification he recalled from Tom Wallach’s death stare.

From the bathroom, he made his way back to the bedroom. Removing the Glock 21 from the top shelf of the closet, he padded, barefoot, to the liquor cabinet in the dining room to get his bottle of Bookers. Full the night before when he’d brought it home from the liquor store, it was now nearly half-empty. Dropping into a chair at the table, opposite the door wall to his deck, Reagan considered the drapes, drawn closed against the rising sun. They were blue. Not in the tone or shade of a John Lee Hooker tune, or in the term one might use to describe their disposition to their physician when seeking medication for depression, which is really no color at all but a mood. Not a navy or a midnight blue; not a Miles Davis “Kind of Blue.” Not the blue that accompanies the maize in the University of Michigan school colors; not the blue eyes of a Siberian Husky or a sky blue; but a sapphire blue—neither annoyingly cheerful, nor that draws attention to itself and away from the other furnishings in the room—pleasant, soothing. They were a blue that complements both a morning cup of coffee or tea—although Reagan believed, as Oliver Wendell Holmes had written, that the morning cup of coffee has an exhilaration about it that the cheering influence of the afternoon or evening cup of tea cannot be expected to reproduce (Reagan had not been cheerful, not in the morning or any other time of day, for more years than he could recall)—as well as an early evening glass of bourbon. They were the color blue that invites one nearer, if only to draw them wider to admire the panoramic view on the other side of the glass or to let more Sunday morning light into the room, to chase away the previous night’s bête noire. The trouble was the beast could always be counted on to return the next night.

Reagan grunted. Since Sarah left, he’d been more and more prone to long and meaningless meanderings. He pulled the cork from the bottle of bourbon and took a long swallow of the honey-colored liquid, straight from the bottle. A moment later, he felt it warm his empty stomach. After taking a second hit, he turned his attention to the weapon on the table in front of him. Picking it up, he noted the coldness of its grip.

“You know, Tom,” he said to the emptiness of his morning, his enunciation still slurred courtesy of last night’s Bookers. “I have you to thank for what my life has become. Sarah’s gone, and I’m drinking more.” To prove his point, he took another draw from the Bookers bottle. “All because you won’t let me sleep at night. I did the right thing. What any good marine would’ve done. I brought you out of the desert. I made sure you got home, and this is the thanks I get. Eight years of you tormenting my sleep. You know, it’s not my fault you never got to meet your baby daughter, or never again got to hold your wife, kiss her, make love to her.”

Reagan put the Glock into his mouth, surprising himself that he hadn’t given it any thought beforehand. As if not thinking about it would make it easier for him to pull the trigger.

Can a weapon taste cold? he thought. No, but it certainly feels cold.

Reagan much preferred the taste of Bookers to that of the Glock. Not that the Glock tasted of anything; it certainly didn’t remind him of pizza or steak, or the carrot cake at Brighton Bar and Grille. He imagined the aftertaste would be somewhat metallic. But at that point, he’d be beyond caring.

Reagan didn’t pull the trigger. Not that morning, or any of the many previous mornings, afternoons, or evenings that he sat at his dining room table, Bookered up with his trusty Glock in his mouth. And he likely wouldn’t tomorrow or next week, or next month, or ever.

Am I courageous for not pulling the trigger, for keeping alive Wallach’s memory, for enduring his torment? Or am I simply a coward, fearing what might await me on the other side of the Great Divide, that such drastic action on my part might have negative repercussions from the Big Guy?

“Don’t you know?” he heard God’s voice say. “I never give anyone more than they can handle.”

“Really?” Reagan whispered into the darkness. “I always thought that was something someone made up to help them peddle their religion. If it’s true, that you never give anyone more than they can handle, how come so many people commit suicide?”

Reagan sighed, stood, and strode past the blue drapes, through the door wall and onto his deck, where he and his bottle of Bookers could watch the sun rise on another cheerless day.


Filed under Excerpts, fiction, writing

3 responses to “A World Without Music: Accepted for Publication—J. Conrad Guest

  1. Haunting prologue, and a very enticing synopsis too!

  2. Intriguing, J! You’ve created a great deal of tension and makes me want to keep reading.

  3. Thanks, Sheila. Always nice to see your comments on my posts.

    Christine: Isn’t that the point of the opening pages of a novel? 😉

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