The book will be out in September. Here's another story from the collection.
The Musicians' Corner in Purgatory
Musicians consigned to Purgatory like to sit around and talk shop. Many of them still gather in the mists after centuries of residency to reminisce and expand their musical horizons.
The notion of the musicians' corner was fostered by Virgil (Publius Vergilius Maro, 70-19 BC), who having spent more than a millennium discoursing with Sophocles, Dante Alighieri, and other luminaries, believes artists, authors, and musicians are best situated amongst themselves, rather than with the population at large.
"Artistic icons," Virgil says, an aide translating his Latin, "spent earthly lifetimes upsetting all manner of apple carts. Ordinary gentry won't accommodate ebullitions of artistic temperament. Thus, it is only appropriate they endure one another in this place before their final ascents, or descents. Musicians—some of whom composed or performed sacred music as corporeal beings—have had difficulty adjusting here. Elvis, for instance. The lad is upset, claiming that his earth-bound information from fellow Pentecostals, denied the existence of this dwelling, except as a Papist-generated superstition. He still rues the fact that his living acquaintances will never know to offer prayers to move him on and upward. But," said Virgil, almost smiling, "that's the way the shewbread crumbles."
Then Virgil sighed and said he was being summoned to the writers' station, where a dispute between Existentialists, led by Jean Paul Sartre, and Ralph Waldo Emerson's Transcendentalists threatened to get out of hand. Cinching his toga, Virgil admitted being weary of his special status, which allowed him to freely roam the levels of Purgatory, and permitted him to guide Dante's vision of it long centuries past. "I who possessed the soul of a poet, now find myself a mediator of petty imbroglios," he said, disappearing as Elvis emerged from the mists.
Clad in black leather, the king wore a puzzled frown, and peered into the fog upon hearing a male voice yodeling "Mule Skinner Blues." A man came forth wearing a velvet coat with ruffles embroidered in gold lace. A gold sword the size of a child's toy dangled from a scabbard at his waist. He hefted a billiard cue in one hand, and carried a tattered lace handkerchief in the other. "Good mornin' Captain. Good mornin' to ya son," he warbled. "Do ya need another muleskinner—. How am I doing?" called Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
"Ah'm big on country music, Wolfie," Elvis said. "Y'all ain't doin' so bad."
"That was terrible. Dreadful." The harsh shout was followed by the appearance of a swarthy man who hawked and spat near Mozart's shoes. Startled, Mozart leaped. "Ludwig you gave me a fright."
"Always you are frightened—such a stumpf . Won't you agree, Herr Presley?"
Ludwig Van Beethoven spat again and jerked a mass of frizzy hair from his eyes.
Overwhelmed by a commingling of odors—fry grease and perspiration— surrounding Beethoven, Elvis eased several paces away. "He's a delicate fellow, sir," Elvis noted, still unfailingly polite to his elders.
"I," said Beethoven, thumping his chest, "I who was one of the world's great geniuses, have been noodling with—what is it—Delta blues?" He gestured toward Elvis. "You, young hound dog, were a progenitor of such were you not? Or did you merely rip off Mama Thornton?"
Elvis drew a deep breath. "Ah ain't gonna fall for your goading, Ludy," he said. "I sang some blues, but I wouldn't call me no progenitor."
"Hah!" cried Beethoven, and both Mozart and Elvis turned away from the breathy assault. Descending on them, Beethoven sang, "I got a woman mean as she can be," in heavily accented German. "It's not exactly ta-ta-ta-tummm—ta-ta-ta-tummm," he bellowed. "But then," he added, shrugging, "what is?"
"Any of my horn concertos," answered Mozart. "Ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-baaa-ba-bumm," he sang. "The herren Flanders and Swan—contemporaries of Elvis—had a field day with that one, I'm told."
Virgil reappeared to remind the men that rendering their own tunes or compositions was strictly verboten, and could result in banishment to the authors' quarters, where they'd be subjected to repeated readings from "The Bridges of Madison County," and selected poems of Edgar Guest.
"Oh remand me, Virgil. Please, I implore you," said Mozart. "What I'd give to finally meet this Alexander Sergeivich Pushkin."
Virgil frowned. "What's your point?"
"His point, mein Virgil," hollered Beethoven, "is to once and for all determine whether or not our Wolfgang Amadeus was poisoned by Salieri."
"Hey, Ah see lots of them Eyetalian fellas here." Elvis said. "Besides ol' Celery, we got Dean Martin, and Enricky Caruso himself, who keeps after me to sing 'Vesti la Goombah' from 'Palachy'. But Ah ain't gonna sing no Eyetalian clown songs. Ah really want outta here." He looked into the faces of Virgil, Beethoven, and Mozart. "So, ya think Celery poisoned Wolfie?"
"Perhaps," said Beethoven, pulling Elvis away from Mozart. He cupped his hand to Elvis' ear and yelled, "It's been rumored for centuries that Salieri poisoned young Mozart in a jealous rage."
"Shoot, why'd he be jealous of little Wolfie?"
"You don't understand, kinder," Beethoven replied. "Mozart composed music with no more difficulty than breathing. Melodies, supertonic chromatic chords, even entire symphonies effortlessly gushed from him. He'd have a whole orchestration down on paper before Salieri—indeed any of us—might have conjured one single bar. It wasn't fair, of course. Salieri might have done the deed, and more power to him. But he never admits or denies involvement. He keeps saying, 'Ask Pushkin. He knows.'"
"Who is this Pushkin fella?" Elvis solicited.
"Russian writer," Mozart said. "Couple of his stories became operas."
"Russian, huh? In mah day, them Ruskies were sneaky spies. Ya couldn't trust 'em. The President of the United States, Mr. Nixon sure didn't trust 'em, and his word was good enough for me. I never trusted the Russkies neither, and I suggest y'all tell 'em to kiss off. Make ya feel just a whole lot better."
Virgil smiled. "There is of course, a void between authors and musicians which under present circumstances, cannot be bridged."
"Yes, it was Pushkin who first postulated the theory," Mozart said. "But that Shaffer twin fanned the flames with his twentieth century drama. Had he not read Pushkin he'd have never written 'Amadeus.'" Mozart sighed. "As for Salieri—. It was reported I died of uremia."
"Ooo--hurt real bad to pee?" Elvis grimaced and clutched his groin.
Mozart pressed on. "My demise was a tragedy for all mankind. What I would have accomplished in a normal lifespan boggles the mind. You might ask Ludwig how many symphonies he'd composed by the time he was 30."
Beethoven clapped his hands over his ears and hummed.
"See, he hears more than he lets on." Mozart smiled. "Before I turned 30, I'd completed 40 symphonies. Think of it. In Ludwig's entire career, there were but nine. Nine, and one measly opera. My first symphony was done when I was eight and by 11, I'd finished an opera."
"Say what you will, you little schnitzel," thundered Beethoven, "but at least I had integrity. I never wrote on the whim of any patron. I perfected my work."
"And where did that get you?" Mozart said. "You lived in a pig sty, and got on with no one. You were never invited to any of the soirees, because you offended everyone. And didn't I try hammering sensibility into that wooly head of yours when you visited Vienna in 1787? Haydn thought you were the next coming of me."
"Idiot—that Haydn!" roared Beethoven. "So bound by tradition. A man of limited paradigms."
"You are wrong." Mozart sighed. "Haydn thought you were a young man of potential. To hear you speak so disparagingly when it is abundantly clear that whatever vicissitudes befell you, were largely of your own making. I, the childhood playmate of Marie Antoinette; I who knew my way around the courts, tried convincing you that you did yourself no favors with your rudeness, your vulgarity, your avoidance of personal hygiene. Had your mother never told you to wash behind your ears, or scrub your waistcoat?"
"Hey, we never had none of them courts in mah day, but Ah went to the White House once," Elvis intruded. "Invited by Richard Nixon himself. The dude must be around somewhere. Be a kick to see him again. The Main Man, President of the United States standin' right across from me there in the big ol' White House. Y'all shoulda been there. The President gave me a Narcotics Bureau badge and tol' me Ah was designated as special assistant in the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs."
"It was nice of your president to do that," Mozart said.
Elvis nodded. "Momma always tol' me it never hurt nothin' to be nice. The President was nice to me. Ah was nice to Ann Margaret." Elvis assumed a thoughtful pose, fingers lightly touching his brow. "What I'd give to be ridin' a big ol' Harley with Ann Margaret right now. There was a real woman for ya."
"This Ann Margaret," said Beethoven. "She was a princess, a duchess, no doubt?"
"All of that and more, man," Elvis said, smoothing his hair, unzipping his jacket.
Mozart grew pensive. "I made do with Costanze. Hindsight leaves me to regard her a bit of a simpleton. She didn't even bother to have my grave marked. So I received none of the tributes I so richly deserved."
Beethoven cleared his throat. "Ugly woman, Costanze. And common. Myself I preferred women of title, when I preferred them at all."
"You were wicked to them, Ludwig," Mozart said. "Name one who would have had you. Beyond your filthy habits your politics were outrageous. Elvis, did you know der Spagnol here believed Napoleon was almost a god? He did. Actually, composed a symphony for him. Of course, he later changed it, and you are probably familiar with it as 'Eroica.'"
"Can't say Ah know the tune," Elvis said.
Beethoven cursed. "A man makes mistakes. I admired Napoleon for his decisiveness. In any case, after declaring himself Emperor, I had nothing to do with him." He turned to Mozart, and growled. "How many times must I warn you not to call me der Spagnol. As you are well aware, I'm no more Spanish than Beatrice."
"Ah'd dig a chick," Elvis said. "Who's Beatrice?"
"A woman for the ages, young man," said Virgil, reappearing. "The very essence of beauty and grace."
"Ah find that hard to believe. For mah money, it would still be Ann Margaret."
"Beatrice," pronounced Virgil in a stentorian voice, glaring at Elvis.
Elvis nodded and paused. "Well, in mah lifetime, everybody called me the king. Ah was too, in a way. How many number one hits you have, Mr. Beethoven, sir?"
"I was number eins all my life." He squared off before Elvis, hands on hips. "King, eh? I very much question that," he snarled. "Even that donkey, Von Lobkowitz had more royalty in his little finger than you. Lobkowitz was a patron. Treated artists like hired swords. But NOT ME!" Beethoven roared, his pocked face florid. "Haydn and Mozart—Salieri—all of them, toads. Obsequious, groveling and scraping, hoping for crumbs from the rich. But not me." He paused, a faraway look in his blue eyes. "You should have been there in 1824 when my Ninth Symphony premiered. You'd have learned something, I can tell you. After 'Ode To Joy,' the entire audience stood and cheered with such gusto I feared the chandeliers would loosen and crash upon the floor."
"Shoot, hardly nobody ever sat while Ah sang, man. You might say mah whole career was one great big standing ovation."
"They used to say the same things about me." Mozart sniffled and dabbed a handkerchief to his nose. "And still, Virgil, I take umbrage at my presence here. To think I was knighted by the pope when I was a boy of 14. That alone should have granted me an angelic escort to the heavenly realm, not to mention the 202 hours of music I composed in half a lifetime." He turned to Beethoven. "Now, you are quite another matter. When you were deprived of your hearing you remained nasty, even to those who sought to assist you. You absolutely savaged that splendid Graf piano you kept in your squalid room in the Schwarzpanier. Therefore, I can come to no other conclusion than that it was your temper that brought you to this place, and keeps you here. Am I right, Virgil?"
Virgil dematerialized. The three musicians were left with a shadow vision of what appeared as three young women dancing before a stage. The scene quickly dissolved in a cold white glare that seemed to have no source, and Elvis shielded his eyes. "Damn, Ah could do with muh shades," he said, before turning with the others as Virgil returned trailed by someone wearing a fedora with a trench coat tossed over his shoulder. The glow of his cigarette illumined one side of his face.
"Virgil never escorted me," Beethoven snapped. "Is this person of great import?"
"Ah'd say so," Elvis said, grinning. "It's Frank, the Chairman of the Board. Hey, Frank was big, done it his way, all the way. He was a swinger, man. Liked takin' things nice and easy. Had me on his television show when I got out of the army. You guys shoulda seen it."
Sinatra, ashen and tired, nodded at Elvis. "Who're the cats in the funny suits?"
"The big hair is Beethoven, and the little fella's Mozart," Elvis said. "How'd you get the personal escort, Frank?"
"I got friends with muscle."
Mozart stood nearby, giving Sinatra a once over. "We've often heard of you," he said. "Ludwig says you were no bel canto. But," he paused, pursing his lips, "you were no castrato either."
Sinatra stiffened. "Hey ciuco," he said squinting over his cigarette, and jabbing a forefinger into Mozart's ruffled chest, "I'd be careful how I talked if I were you." He nudged Elvis. "Does this dummy know who I am?"
"He might, Frank, but like me, you don't have the entourage anymore. It's every man for himself here."
Beethoven regarded Sinatra and approached him. "Don't get too close, dad," Frank said, recoiling from the composer's fetor.
"So you were a swinger, Francis Albert?" said Beethoven. "Tell me, exactly what is the swinger?"
"Piss off, mac."
"You sound much like our Elvis creature," Beethoven shouted around a derisive chortle. "I am not accustomed to being trifled with."
Cigarette ashes scattered over Beethoven as Sinatra waved him away. Then he approached Elvis. "You know I was never a fan of yours," he stated flatly, and leaned toward the younger man. "Having you on the show was strictly a business decision. We needed to pump up the ratings."
"Ah know that. And didn't it ever. That was about the only time you beat the opposition. Musta bothered you, Frank, to not have been all that successful on TV. Come to think of it, y'all didn't have that many million sellers either. Only one or two, I think." He sighed. "There ain't gonna be much about you we don't already know here, especially since stuff has been circulatin' all over from that biography of Kitty Kelley's. It was a scorcher, Frank."
Sinatra's jaws clenched; his fingers twitched, forming a fist. He looked around, as if half-expecting the pack would take over and thrash Elvis. He surveyed the others, spun about and peered into the Purgatorial fog. "Anybody seen Sammy or Dean?"
"Sammy?" said Mozart, and he hummed a few bars of "Adagio for Strings." "Herr Barber is here but keeps to the shadows. He's let Ludwig intimidate him, I'm afraid."
Sinatra briefly studied Mozart, then faced Elvis. "Who are these cretini? Don't they know who I'm talking about?"
"Ol' Wolfie's kind of a tease, Frank."
"Well, some tepppista might bust his chops if he isn't careful." Sinatra glowered, and lit a fresh cigarette. "Not that it matters much anymore, Elvis, but I always wondered about you and Nancy after you got discharged. I read the garbage in the papers, but you know what I thought of journalists—the leeches, the bloodsuckers, the scumbags. You had your own problems, hey? I was just curious. Nancy never said anything. But she had a look—."
Elvis was thoughtful. "Frank, Ah like to think of myself as a gentleman, and a gentleman don't talk about his ladies. But y'all done put me on your show once, gave me a big welcome home." He leaned in and put his arm across Sinatra's shoulders. "Mah advice is just forget it." He paused, then brightened. "Hey, y'all were tight with Shirley MacLaine. Listen, if there's anything to that channeling stuff she dug, maybe it's worth a try. We could go back and look around. Whaddaya think?"
Sinatra glanced at Elvis as he exhaled smoke through his nostrils. "Shirley was a great broad, Elvis, but a bit wackadoodle. For my dough, it was Jack Daniels who knew how to transport this mortal coil, if you know what I mean." Sinatra stared at the erstwhile king. "Elvis, I'm only gonna ask once about you and Nancy."
"Frank, if the blue suede shoe was on the other foot, y'all wouldn't be blabbin' to me about this lady or that." Sinatra sighed and Elvis continued. "Ah can appreciate your state of mind, Frank, so Ah'll make a suggestion. You're already tight with Virgil. Maybe he'll let y'all ask ol' Pushkin."