Mulholland Books Popcorn Fiction Popcorn Fiction - Lightning in a Bottle by Craig Mazin
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A drummer chases a mysterious legend in this story from screenwriter/director Craig Mazin.

Lightning in a Bottle

"God damn, that was hot."

Chess said that a lot, but this time Avery wasn't arguing. 89 degrees outside in the middle of night, 94 in the old dance hall, humidity peeling the paint, peeling the decals on his toms, peeling his brain out of his skull. Avery worked quietly, unscrewing clamps and handing the cymbals to Timo, who stacked them in his hands. The Bitch was already on the van, probably running the AC, burning up gas money. Chess said that was pretty much all the Bitch was good for, but she was Chess's and the band was Chess's, and so none of them ever said much about it to him.

These were the worst of the joints. Tin roofs, torn up amps, a drunk sitting way back on a milk crate working a beat up Mackie you couldn't sell on the net for a dime. A Mackie he barely understood. This particular jackass had cranked the high end up so the guitar sounded like it was coming out a fucking telephone. It was offensive.

Chess took a swig of Corona and spat it out onto the floor. "God damn. Hot."

Avery looked down at the dark wet stain. It wasn't the sound guys or the watered-down bug juice or the fat girls in skirts and heels that bothered him as much as the floors. The floors in these places were covered in dirt, old puke, splinters, cigarette butts, bits of roach and a million heel marks all piled on each other. They smelled like rot. Like fermentation. And when the boys got it right—and they had gotten it fairly right this night—the floor would bounce under the weight of the dancing, it would sway and shift, and Avery would watch from behind his drums until he started to feel sick from it all. The sickness made it so that he didn't want to find the pocket at all, but that's where he ended up anyway.

He mopped his face with his shirt as he broke his kit down, holding the drum key in his mouth while he worked.

"Tole you not to get that double-braced shit," said Chess. "Too heavy." He swished and spat another mouthful of beer. "Too hot to be luggin' all that metal around."

"Is it hot, Chess? Is it? Cuz we hadn't fucking noticed," said Timo.

Chess sucked his teeth and winked at Avery. He enjoyed winding Timo up, mostly out of boredom. It was a desperate thing, the boredom. Day after day, nothing but each other, their faces, the van, the smoke, the ringing ears, the rolls of cash, the next joint, the next highway, the next filthy shaking floor...

Avery pushed the door open with his kick and walked across the wet gravel. The vapor in the hot night air made halos around the neon signs. Even the stars seemed blurry, like this wasn't quite the same sky he started under.

He slid the drum into the back of the van. The Bitch was in the front, singing along to some melismatic crap on the radio. "She likes crap," Chess told him soon after he'd met her. "She enjoys listening to that shit, you believe that?" Avery did believe that. The Bitch wasn't particularly musical. She had a decent range, but she was routinely sharp by twenty cents or so. He mentioned that to Chess once, and Chess just laughed. "Twenty cents? Motherfucker, no one cares about twenty cents. No one even know what that cents shit is."

"You Avery James?"

Avery turned to the voice, surprised. The gravel had crunched loudly under his feet, but this cat had come up behind him without a sound.

He was black, thin and short. It was the thin that Avery noticed first. Black and short was common enough, but this was country Louisiana, and people were fat. So maybe this guy wasn't from around here. Avery's mind slipped comfortably into paranoia. Maybe the cat thought the gig's pay was in Avery's pocket and ought to be in his. Maybe he was a church nut handing out humid-soggy pamphlets about opening your heart. Maybe he just wanted to suck Avery off behind some bushes. Wouldn't be the first time a guy asked.

But he had said Avery's name. And this was the Chester Dukes Band, not the Avery James Band.

"I know you?"


"If you're looking for a CD, Chester's inside."

"Don't want no CD."

Avery stared at the guy, his face dripping. "So what the fuck are we talking about here?"

"Nice little groove you had goin' tonight. Good hands, good feet. Lotta drummers got good hands, but you don't always see good feet."

Avery looked around for Chess or Timo, but they weren't coming out. "Listen..."

The man held a hand up, reaching into his pocket with the other hand and pulling out a business card. Oh, Avery thought. Which one was this guy? Manager? Producer? Didn't matter. What Avery really wanted to play, no one was ever gonna buy. But now there was a card pressed into his hand, and this guy didn't seem like the type you could just tell to fuck off, so Avery lifted the card up and held it close, squinting to make out the words in the wet dark.

And there they were.

He looked back up at the man in shock.

"I ain't him," said the man. "Just a messenger. You be there?"

Avery nodded.

"Tell no one. You hear? No one."

Avery nodded once more, then read the card again. "This is real?"

"Boy," said the man. "You got no idea."

The first time Avery heard the name was at Berklee, ten years earlier. He was a gawky boy then, a suburban boy, his head singing with triplet strokes and ratamacues and crossover breaks and polyrhythms. He listened to Rich and Krupa and Roach and Bozzio and Colaiuta. He studied New Breed and broke his stubborn brain down, brushing his teeth with his left hand, writing with his left hand, jerking off with his left hand until the hemispheres gave up and he could play anything you put in front of him.

But Avery didn't want to just play. He didn't pick up the sticks to get laid or be famous or have fun. He had an ache. He never told anyone, but he never denied it to himself. He wanted. He wanted, he wanted...

He wanted a moment of greatness. Only a moment. A moment where everything he played was just right. Where every choice was perfect, where the music felt preordained, part of God or the universe or something. He'd heard it peek through with the greats, and he wanted it for himself. There were glimmers...bits of milliseconds where everything clicked in and resonated...but always passing too fast, always seen sideways out the corner of his eye.

He ate shrooms, he dropped acid, he smoked hash.

He flailed.

The ache didn't go away. It grew stronger. The more he played, the more he wanted the day when it would all go right and he'd catch lightning in a bottle. It would be his reward for every bad garage band, every clam-infested jazz combo, every shithead guitarist who couldn't feel when to hold back and when to let go.

But in the early winter of his final year at school, Avery felt no closer to it than he had when he'd begun.

Snow was already on the ground, and his face was shining wet. They were in the basement of the old building, the boiler hissing along with his ride. Greenberg played a junky Hammond someone had abandoned to the dirty brick dungeon. Avery didn't mind him, but he wasn't anything special.

"That was the shit right there," said Greenberg. "That was the shit."

"Nice Lee Michaels thing going on," said Avery.

"Fuck Lee Michaels." Greenberg put his feet up on the organ and leaned back against the brick to cool himself down. "That was Avery James. You make me sound good."

Avery said nothing. It was true, but he didn't care. All he knew was that it hadn't been the shit. It never was. With anyone.

Greenberg suddenly sat up straight, like he'd read Avery's mind. "You ever hear of Sojourn Sweat?"

Avery shook his head. "Band?"

"Not a band. A man. Sojourn Sweat," he repeated. "C'mon, you never heard of him?"

"No, I've never heard of a guy named Sojourn fucking Sweat. I think I'd remember a stupid fucking name like that."

They sat quietly. Avery thought maybe he'd hurt Greenberg's feelings. "Okay," he said. "Tell me."

Greenberg leaned forward, excited. "They say this cat is the best ever. And he's always looking for a jam. But not any jam. Only with cats that can keep up. No one knows where he lives. No one knows how he finds you out. But supposedly one night you get a tap on the shoulder, and you go to him, and you play better than you ever played in your life. Like, be-fucking-yond. Holy grail stuff."

Avery waited for more, but Greenberg just leaned his head back against the dirty brick wall.

"Are you shitting me?" asked Avery. "What is he, like musician Santa Claus?"

"Just telling you what I know."

"What does he play?"

"I heard guitar, I heard bass, piano...pretty much everything."

"And you know someone who jammed with this guy?"

Greenberg nodded. "You know Alex Malenkov? His brother Chris went here with a guy named Carlisle Kennedy, played bass, supposedly the sickest chops. Anyway, Alex says Chris told him that Carlisle knew some guys who had played with Sojourn, and he was gonna go find him and play with him too."

"Oh," said Avery. "Alex Malenkov's brother's friend knew a guy who knew a guy. Great fucking story, Greenberg."

"Yeah, well it's true."

"Lemme guess...he's really the devil, and he teaches you how to play in exchange for your soul."

"He's not the devil or any stupid shit like that. He's a man."

"Good," smiled Avery. "Then you go find him."

"No." Greenberg stared at the floor in the dim light of the boiler room, moisture wiggling trails down his forehead.

"Why?" asked Avery.

"Because," said Greenberg.

"Because why?"

Greenberg looked up, his face distorted with shame, and Avery knew the answer before he said a word, and knew he shouldn't have asked.

"Because I'm not good enough," said Greenberg.

They never spoke about Sojourn Sweat again, but it wasn't the last time Avery heard the name. He would sometimes catch it muttered between two first-years as they walked by on the way to class, or whispered by teachers when they thought they were alone. Once he saw it etched into a music stand.

He couldn't help but think about it. About getting the tap on the shoulder, sitting down with the man, playing the best he ever played, finding that moment...

Years later, as he hit the road drifting from one band to the next, searching along the southern highways and inside the poverty of the river towns and gulf cities, he would hear the name time and time again. To the nomads of the music world, Sojourn Sweat was everything and everywhere. Old and young, white and black, dead and alive. He played guitar, drums, keys, bass. He was a jazzman, a bluesman, he invented fusion, he was rock and roll. One old journeyman in Jacksonville swore up and down that Sojourn Sweat played the flute, and if you ever heard him, you'd break your own instrument over your knee and never play again.

But for all the rumors and versions and spins, one thing remained constant through every telling of the story.

If the man sent for you, it meant you were among the very best.

Avery turned the card over in his hand, then back over again, just to watch the words appear and reappear.

Sojourn Sweat, 118 Emmetsville Road, Old Ocean, TX 77463

He looked back at the van. The Bitch was rocking back and forth in the driver's seat to some Ne-Yo. She smiled and waved to him.

He didn't wave back.

Emmetsville Road started in Old Ocean, but it didn't end there. Four lanes turned to two as Avery made his way out of town and into the scrubby flats. The numbers started in the 20's, and with a structure every mile or so, the last leg of the drive began to drag. Trees sprung up on either side of the road, out of place for that part of the world but there anyway and more of them thickening along the edges until Emmetsville Road felt like a mountain pass.

It was dusk when he rolled onto the dirt driveway of 118. Moths clouded around the lights of the slumping little house. Avery walked across the unkempt front yard, ducking under the Spanish moss that hung from the oak in the front yard. The front steps of the wooden porch were soft, and clumps of mushrooms erupted from cracks in the floorboards.

For the first time since he told Chess he was driving off to Texas—couldn't say where or why, couldn't say when he was coming back, didn't give a shit if he lost his job, didn't give a fuck about his pay—the old paranoia began to hum. What decisions had he made in blind haste? What if the old man wasn't here? What if he was just some crazy coot looking for company, for an ear to bend with stories about the good ole days? What if this was a scam? What if this wasn't the real Sojourn Sweat at all, but some con artist trading on a myth?

A set up. I walk through that door, knife goes in my gut, they take my cash, my drums, no one knows I'm here...

He fished his cell phone out of his pocket. No bars. He couldn't call Chess to beg for his job, and no chance he was making it back to Louisiana before the next gig.

He was standing stupidly on the decaying porch, debating what to do and where to go, when the door opened and a short, pudgy man appeared under the moths.

A big smile spread across the man's pasty white face as he grabbed and shook Avery's hand up and down in big amplitudes like he was welcoming a long-lost brother. His thick black curls of hair bobbed along with his pumping arm, and his eyes wrinkled into dark flecks.

"Avery James, Avery James, I'm so glad to meet you! My name is Sojourn Sweat."

Avery followed Sojourn into the house. The place was clean and simple. Wood everywhere. Paneling, some cheap and some real, all under painted wood ceilings and over rough wooden floors. Avery ducked as he followed Sojourn through another threshold. The hallways were narrow and the ceilings low, as if the house had once been normal-sized and had simply shrunk and warped over time.

"I know you got questions," said Sojourn. "In a minute. Got something to play for you first. C'mon."

As they crossed toward the kitchen, Avery noticed a pair of paintings on either side of the hallway. To the left, in oil, was a tall, pale white man with deep black eyes and a long thin nose. Avery didn't know anything about painting, but he knew whoever had painted this did. The proportions, shading and lines were dead on, photographic...

To the right, hanging askew, was an illustration of a woman's face, all charcoal on paper that had been glued to a piece of cardboard and affixed to the wall with a single nail. The image wasn't so much drawn as framed by a tempest of marks and smudges, the features appearing like out of smoke, the head thrown back in laughter, the mouth open, the hair swirling off to the edge of the page. There was beauty in the face, and madness.

"Avery! Brother! C'mere, man, listen to this. Just got finished mastering it." Sojourn entered the kitchen from a side door; Avery hadn't realized he had left at all. The man moved clumsily but lightly on his feet, so that when he walked it looked a bit like the jerky dancing of a child. "Just me on guitar and this cat on bass, you gotta hear this, brother!" He dropped a CD into a player.

The bass plucked through the air, and Avery turned, half expecting to see a big Mittenwald right behind him. The sound came from speakers all around him, big ones and bookcase models, all carefully arranged about the kitchen. The guitar entered now, dancing through the bass and around it, perfectly separate and together all at once.

"How's that sound, huh? How's that sound?" asked Sojourn.

It was beautiful. More than beautiful. It was the best sound Avery had ever heard in his life. And he knew now that it was going to happen. He was going to get where he wanted to go. His mind raced. He wanted to know how. He wanted, he wanted...

"What's driving all these speakers? How did you split the fields on the bass and the guitar? What gear?"

Sojourn clapped his hands together loudly. "Oh, I'm proud of my system, brother. It's pro-pri-e-tary! Yeah, yeah, I really caught this one, right?"

Avery let himself forget about the recording and just listened to the music, his fingers subconsciously playing brush strokes on his pants legs. It was complicated, very advanced. He understood it, but he couldn't imagine how it had come together as elegantly as this. But it wasn't just Sojourn who was playing. There was someone else. Someone like him.

Sojourn held a single finger up in the air. "Great player! Great player! Cat named Leroy Crook. You know him?"

"Leroy Never heard of him."

Sojourn nodded to himself a bit sadly. "No, I guess you wouldn't have." Then he jutted his head forward with that big smile again, like someone had cut him open right across the face.

"So, what are they saying about me?"

Avery picked his words carefully, trying as hard as he could to pocket his awe out of sight. "Well, your name is around all right."

If Avery came off cool, Sojourn didn't seem to notice.

"Good! Any details? They still saying I'm the devil?"

Avery forced a bored laugh. "Yeah, some of the older guys..."

The little man burst out laughing, pounding his hand on the table until the CD skipped from the vibrations. "Ooooh, the devil! Man, I ain't the devil! I don't take souls. I put soul back IN!" He punctuated that with another slam to the table.

Sojourn rocked his head in his hand, giggling. Finally he took a breath, rose from his chair, and slapped his hands on his gut.

"So!" he said. "Let's play."

"What. Now?" asked Avery.

"Shit yes now, that's why you came, right?" He waved impatiently at Avery, who was already turning to the door to get his drums. "I got it, I got it. Don't worry. C'mon. We're gonna play." He slid a pocket door open and looked back at Avery.

"We're gonna find something!"

Avery followed Sojourn into the studio. The ceiling seemed even lower here, as if the structure were crouching in wait. It wasn't a square or rectangle—more of an ugly, uneven shape like a warped stop sign. But unlike the rest of the house, this room had been built by a precise hand. There were no gaps in the floorboards, no seams where the walls met the ceiling. Above them, twenty microphones dangled from the low ceiling like frozen raindrops.

It was a bit insane, but perfectly so.

Avery was glad to see the drum kit raised up slightly on a platform. There were five Zildjians, maybe even pre-Quincy, surrounding some beautiful Gretsch tubs. The round badges and milky haze in the shells made him think at least 70 years.

"1923," said Sojourn.

"Where did you find these? They're in incredible shape."

"Long story," he smiled, and said nothing else.

It was then Avery noticed that the Gretsches were maybe the youngest things in the room. The space was full of—well, he didn't know much about history, but he could tell this wasn't just junk. There were colored glass lampshades and ancient boat wheels and rusty swords hanging on the wall. There were spears and knives and violins that could have been Amatis for all he knew, propped up against faded rugs.

Sojourn rummaged through a box on the sort of desk Jefferson or Washington might have used. "There you are, there you are," he said, moving aside a corroded metal cup and lifting up a pair of pliers.

"Where did you get that?" Avery asked.

"I don't know. Home Depot or some shit," said Sojourn.

"I mean the cup."

"Ahhh," he smiled. "You like that, huh?" He turned to look at the cup, crude etchings on its side frozen in the rust. "Isn't it beautiful? You know, you have good taste. It's maybe the oldest thing I own. Greek."

He turned away from the desk, waving at Avery to get behind the kit. As Avery settled in and picked up the sticks, Sojourn lifted the lid on a dusty spinet and reached in with the pliers, tweaking a tensioner. He didn't tap the wire to hear the adjustment. He just tweaked and then slammed the top shut.

"Ready?" he asked, not waiting for an answer. He opened a cabinet and punched some buttons on equipment Avery couldn't see from behind the kit. Then he sat down at the piano.

Avery was scared. He'd never had stage fright. He'd never been the kid who forgot the notes or displeased the teacher or hit the clam. But in this room, he felt entirely inadequate.

"Come in when you feel it," said Sojourn, who began to play.

He'd never heard a spinet sound like a Steinway before. Sojourn played a simple pattern with his left hand while his right scattered lightly. He didn't look at Avery, but simply waited as he played.

Avery's mind raced with panic. Every choice seemed like a mistake. But if he sat there and played nothing for one more measure, wouldn't Sojourn soon decide he'd made a mistake picking this hapless idiot?

At last, a groove came to his mind. It was elegant enough, but advanced...he'd impressed everyone with it at school. That was the one. Now Sojourn would see he belonged in the room.

His hands came down and his foot went to work, and he nailed the groove just right. He was concentrating so hard on hitting the pocket, he didn't realize for at least a bar or two that the piano had stopped.

Avery ground to an awkward stop, the ride still sizzling in echo.

Sojourn was looking straight at him. His smile was gone. In its place was a pure and unmoving expression of disappointment. It was the coldest face he had ever seen in his life, and Avery felt unborn under its chiseled gaze.

Sojourn dropped the cover down over the keys, stood up without a word, and walked out.

When Avery woke, it was already late in the afternoon. He'd slept through most of the day on Sojourn's couch, his mind winding through nightmares of frustration: endless hallways, blurred vision and people who could not hear him no matter how loudly he screamed.

He walked into the kitchen and found Sojourn drinking wine.

"There he is! I thought you went and died on me."

If Sojourn retained any disappointment from Avery's failure of the night before, it was undetectable. He poured some of the wine into a second glass, swirled it gently, then slid it across the table to Avery. Avery took the glass, then paused.

"I'm not really a wine drinker."

"Oh yeah?" said Sojourn. "Well you are when you're with me."

They touched glasses, and Avery drank. Warmth rose up in his stomach, but it wasn't a bad feeling at all. He took another drink, and another.

"What kind is this?"

Sojourn refilled his glass. "The old kind. My mother made this wine. Long time ago. Tell me what it tastes like to you."

"Sweet. Maybe some licorice."

"It's something like licorice, yes, very good, very good!" said Sojourn, who refilled Avery's glass yet again.

Avery took another drink, and he noticed the bottle had no label. Three others just like it rested on their sides across the table, waiting to be opened.

"Your mother was a talented woman."

Sojourn chuckled. "She was wild. But my father, look what he did."

Sojourn held up the bottle. Avery stared at it blankly, taking another drink, wondering what he was looking for. He couldn't feel his teeth anymore.

"The bottle, Avery!" said Sojourn. "The bottle! Lookit. No seams. The glass was blown and shaped as one single piece. See the bottom? That's a circle. Not a 'circle' but a circle, 3.14 blah blah blah circle. It's flawless in every way. Incredible, right?"

Avery nodded. He was sure it was incredible. Sojourn pulled the cork from a second bottle and poured more wine. As Avery drank, he realized music had begun to play. This time, it was saxophone and flute. Avery looked around, but he couldn't see the speakers anymore. The music might as well have been coming from the bottle.

"What format?" asked Avery.

"What format what?" asked Sojourn, who was staring into his glass.

"This, what you record on. Computer, DAT, analog, what?"

Sojourn smiled. "Depends. Depends on the music. Always."

"But," asked Avery, swallowing more wine, "Then how do you know before you record?"

"No, no," said Sojourn. "It's not two separate things. It's one thing. I know what I'm gonna use because I know what I'm gonna play, and I know what I'm gonna play when I know what I'm gonna use."

Avery stared at him, trying to make sense of the words. The inside of his head had grown velvety.

"Look," said Sojourn as he lifted up the empty bottle. "Wine bottles have wine in them." He turned the empty upside down. "This isn't a wine bottle. This is nothing, see? No wine, no bottle."

"Oh," said Avery, taking the half-full bottle. "So, it's the wine that's important. I mean, the music."

Sojourn looked at him, and then with remarkable speed he snatched the half-full bottle from Avery's hands and threw it against the kitchen wall. The bottle shattered against the wood into a cloud of black shards, and the wine splashed down to the floor where it puddled and wormed into the cracks in the boards.

"No bottle, no wine," Sojourn said.

Avery sat perfectly still, frightened and drunk.

Sojourn watched the wine drip down the wall for a short while, then rose from his chair.

"Let's go," he said.

Avery sat down behind the kit and picked up the sticks. The room looked different. Were there more sides to the walls? Everything seemed warm and brown, and he thought he could feel the blood moving through his veins.

"You wanna start?" asked Sojourn, who pressed some buttons inside the cabinet and took a seat behind the spinet.

"Yes," said Avery. "I do."

His right hand was already on the 16 inch tom, playing something that moved in and around his own heartbeat. His leg started on the hats, and now his left wrist was flicking at the snare.

The piano came in, tripping slowly like a shy child, and then with force...a challenge...and suddenly Avery was angry and defiant, sick of the intimidation and the pressure and the rejection, and he lashed out at the cymbals, following the crashes with rolls across the tubs, and the piano fell under his spell, and Avery was million miles away from the schools and the lessons, from Chess and soundmen and stinking vans and dirty floors, from the ache and the wanting and the displacement and dysrhythmia of his entire life.

They played for minutes or hours or forever, teasing each other, joking, hiding, bitching and boasting, and it was schizophrenic and precise and murderously cruel and heartbreakingly lonely. This was what he had worked and waited for, and it was so much better than he had imagined, so much more than divine, so much more than God or the universe or any of his wretched hopes. He threw his head back and played himself out, his mouth hanging agape, his body burning itself into the air, into the only music he ever wanted to hear again. And when it had to end they each sensed it, and they played it down from where it was to where they were, letting it ebb and whisper and beg until there was nothing left to say but that they should say no more.

Avery put his sticks down and tried to speak, but he was empty, and the room slipped away.

The first thing he saw was sky. There was a crack in the ceiling, a real opening, with sun and blue streaming through and everything. Had that always been up there? He was prone, right next to the drums, and there wasn't a sound anywhere in the house. The piano was gone. Tiny shoots of green slivered through fissures in the floor, and when Avery was finally able to get up and regain his balance, he noticed grass creeping up from the ground in every room.

What happened? They'd drank, gone into the room, Avery sat behind the drums, Sojourn started, something else first. Sojourn had gone to—the cabinet! Avery bent down and opened the small wooden door.

Inside was a space, about two feet square, and nothing in it at all but for an empty wine bottle and a note written in beautiful, sweeping penmanship.

"It was a pleasure."

It took Avery four days to catch up to Chess.

The boys and the Bitch were playing a small college gig outside Vicksburg, and when they piled out of the van, he was waiting for them. They had a new drummer, but Chess nodded off to the side halfway through the set, and Avery came out on stage to sit in.

It was a night like any other for the crowd, for the band, for the halfwit in the back on the sound board, for the promoter, for the bartender. Just another evening of okay music and tangled legs and arguments and flirtations and bathroom lines and air guitars.

And no one ever notices that a drummer has changed.

But after Avery sat in, they knew the air itself had been altered to carry something great toward them. They couldn't tell you why it was great. Not as they tried to explain the next day in class or the next year at a wedding or after they'd grown old sitting on their porch. They would struggle for the right words, each giving up in the end and sighing that you just had to be there...

When the fourth song was over, Chess jumped to the mic and preached out to the frenzied throng, all lottery winners, all chosen people, all blessed. "Yes!" he shouted. "Yes yes yes!" But when he turned back, the drummer was gone.

Avery had run out the back door, stumbled behind a dumpster and vomited, his repulsion spraying out onto the weeds. He could hear them through the walls, gibbering for more filth, more shit, more pollution.

How could he have played it again? How could he have ever played it at all? He knew what real music was. This wasn't it. This was a scraping mockery. This was vinegar for blood. This was a mouthful of chalk.

He ran home.

The bum had sat on the same street every day, but when the cop asked the people in the crowd if anyone knew his name, no one did. Not the kids from the project, not the Syrian who owned the liquor store...

It didn't matter. This was common enough for February in Trenton. "A fucking shame," said the Syrian. "Three year he sit there, he never cause trouble. He buy from me, pour into his own bottle. Always drink from this bottle."

The cop stared at the body, frozen perfectly in place on the ground, a wine bottle gripped tight in the right hand. It had no label. No cork. It almost looked valuable.

"Always drink from this bottle," repeated the Syrian. "Then he will put his hands over his ears like this." The Syrian cupped his ears. "I says 'What you doin' buddy?' He says 'listening to my music.' Just like this. Every day."

The cop frowned at the miserable cold as he sipped his coffee. "Yeah, well, no more."

The woman from the coroner's office asked her intern for a screwdriver, then knelt down to shimmy it between the dead man's cheek and the icy pavement. The intern watched the face separate from the ground, its purple lips curled back and up, coated in rime.

"That's rictus," he offered, hoping to impress.

"No," said the woman. "That's a smile."

About the Author

Craig Mazin is the cowriter of the hit comedies Scary Movie 3 and 4. He has written in a variety of film genres, including screen adaptations of Philip K. Dick's The Short Happy Life of the Brown Oxford and the classic Broadway play Harvey, both for Miramax Films. Currently, he is writing an action-comedy for producer Jerry Bruckheimer, a science-fiction comedy for Paramount Pictures, a family adventure for 20th Century Fox, and a book adaptation for director Scott Frank and Mandate Pictures.

Craig runs The Artful Writer—a website for professional and aspiring screenwriters. Craig lives with his wife and two children in a small town north of Los Angeles.