General Fiction posted November 27, 2020

This work has reached the exceptional level
A tragedy of good intentions

The Last Requiem

by Brad Bennett

Brett Matthew West Prose Challenge Contest Winner 


The packed theater erupted in applause when the Maestro appeared. He strode across the stage and took his position at center. The clapping grew louder––cheering soon followed. The conductor came to the podium, and the audience quieted.
“Ladies and gentlemen," he began. "Maestro, Langdon Wallinski will now play Concerto Number One from his classic music score for the soundtrack, Requiem for a fantasy.”

Total silence.
The Maestro raised his bow and nodded to the piano accompanist to his side. The pianist began slowly, repeatedly striking a single note, softly introducing the coming theme's melody. Now came the flowing, sweet song of the violin. 
The sound grew stronger, rising in intensity until the piano, following the violin, filled the theater. The music winged upward––a soaring majestic bird––each pull of the string holding the Maestro completely under its spell, his face twisting and agonizing under its commanding grip. On and on, the powerful sound continued. There seemed no end, no beginning, building, ebbing, issuing a story that begged to be known. At last, the piece began its final descent, falling once again onto a single fading note. Then silence.    
The entire theater erupted into a rousing ovation. The violinist brought down his bow and held the instrument in both arms, clutching it tightly to his chest in a lover's embrace, a powerful, moving gesture. The Maestro abruptly left the stage; enormous cheering and applause followed him off.
Soon the theater quieted down into a low chatter. Now, they anxiously expected the violinist's return for the next part of the Requiem. But still, the Maestro hadn’t shown.
Then, a loud gunshot!
The sound resounded from somewhere behind the stage, shocking the house into silence. The music director immediately jumped up and ran back towards the dressing rooms. Nervous chatter filled the auditorium. The startled gathering could only wait as the drama of the shot unfolded. The theater's manager soon came to the stage and asked for quiet. 
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he told them. “We are so sorry to inform you of an incident. The rest of the concert is now canceled. We will return your tickets as soon as possible. Thank you.” He turned and left. 
Cindy William's cell phone always had urgent calls. But this one had a New York City prefix with the name Wallinski, which certainly got her attention. It was a name familiar to anyone who followed the music scene. She instantly called back. “This is Ann," an older woman's voice answered.”
“Hello, Ann, this is Cindy Williams. You left a message on my cell.”
“Yes, thank you for calling back, Cindy. I'm Ann Wallinski, Landon Wallinski's sister.”
“Oh, dear Ann. I heard about the tragic incident at the concert. So sorry to learn about your brother's death.”
“That’s not surprising, Cindy. Langdon has had many emotional problems over the years.”
“What can I do for you, Ann?”
“I would like your professional help. I hear you are well known for your work in suicide cases in the Dallas area.”
“Ann, I must tell you I'm not a professional; I have no medical degree. I may not be the person you want.”
“You are the only one left, Ms. Williams. I've called many experts; no one can help me. It’s been a week now since Langdon's death, and I’ve gotten nowhere. But I’ve read so much about you and your success in suicide cases.”
“Ok, but tell me, what is it you expect from me? I’m just a social worker in mental health.”
“Oh, it's not for me, Cindy. It's for Langdon’s brother, Quentin.”
“Quentin, Wallinski? I’ve never heard that name. How is he involved?”
“He was mixed up in a scandal over six years ago when he disappeared. The last I recall, he was in the Dallas area. But he can't be found. I don't know if he's even alive.”
“What can you tell me about that incident?”
“There was a death in the family–Langdon’s wife, Alexia. There were rumors she had an affair with Quentin. Then, several months after the alleged incident, she took her own life.”
“How did that accusation affect the two brothers?”
“We have no proof, and both brothers denied that ever happened. But Alexia was a stunning beauty with a somewhat wild reputation. And Quentin was always around, so it's not too hard to believe."
“But, if they both denied this, why did the two men drift apart?”
“It mainly was Quentin. They were two struggling musicians living in Greenwich Village. But when Langdon introduced his composition, it took off. Then Hollywood used the piece for a hit movie, and he became instantly famous. Quentin, however, struggled with his work and became depressed. His career faded, and he soon disappeared. We never saw him again. As for Langdon, he never got over Alexia's death. That's probably why he finally took his life.
“But, Ann, Langdon’s been playing the piece for over six years. Why now?”
“Cindy, he had to go under psychiatric counsel before every concert. Playing that score took him to the edge. It made him famous, but it finally destroyed him.”
“Ann, I must tell you. I can't promise anything. I work with Texas mental health services; their resources are limited.” 
“Please, Cindy.” Ann's voice began breaking up. “Quentin is all that remains of my family. You're my last hope.”

The Dallas mental holding facilities’ for street people are very familiar to Cindy. She has worked with many suicide cases from the area. But the officer in charge was of little help.
“Quentin Wallinski? Yeah, a guy named Quentin has been in and out of here a lot, but we’ve released him.”
This was no surprise to Cindy. Derelicts, druggies, and mental cases are a real problem for jail holding areas. They’ll disturb regular prisoners, and the staff hates cleaning up after them. They’re put back on the street as soon as possible.
“Do you have any address?”
“No, he’s a street bum. You'll probably find him living near downtown around Greenville Ave. That’s where a lot of the low life hang out.”        
“Can you provide a description, any pix?”
“Yes, here’s his rap sheet with his habits and a recent photo.”
If city streets are arteries, then Greenville Avenue would be Dallas's lower colon. But it's an intestine of trouble, starting from midtown and runs east out to the fringe—a stretch of rundown lower-income apartment buildings with a history of crime and drug addiction.
Cindy parked her car near downtown and began walking east past Greenville's dilapidated and rundown buildings. Her slim, attractive frame, now draped in coarse, billowy-fitting clothes, she wore no make-up, her hair tied back. A trick she had learned the hard way in tracking street people in dangerous areas. Along this area are many little food shops that graced the street. These were the usual places where derelicts begged for change. Cindy queried each one asking for info, but she had little luck until she came to a tiny fruit kiosk on the corner. The owner was an elderly Vietnamese man.
“Ah, sure, I know him. He comes here sometimes. He's a good guy but still trouble. He steals; I give him apples, so he does not steal from me.”
“Where does he usually stay?” 
“You try down under the freeway overpass. Street people go there all the time.” 
Cindy knew that area. It's the absolute bottom for the most desperate lost souls, both the innocent and the evil. She would be ok in the daylight but would never go there alone at night.
She made her way down a steep embankment and began walking along the large foul-smelling drainage ditch, carefully avoiding discarded refuse and squalor. It wasn't long before she spotted a man fitting Quentin's description. He was sitting next to one of the tall concrete pillars that held up the noisy freeway above. She went over. It was him for sure.
“Hello, Quentin.” She said. “My name is Cindy.”
He was sickly and frail, with a myriad of bruises and cuts over his arms. From the look of rips and tears in his filthy pants, his legs were probably in the same shape. Cindy could tell right off, though. He wasn't a druggie––no needle marks. It looked like he was going to get up and walk away. Cindy backed off a bit.
“Hey, no need to leave; I'm a friend.”
He looked up, his sunburnt face half-covered by a knotted, dirty beard. “I don’t need any friends.”
“You must have some out here.”
“What the hell is good about friends? They are useless; they just want something from you.”
“Your sister wants you.”
Quentin's eye's narrowed. “My sister? How do you know her? I'm an outcast, a scourge on her family.” 
“She called me; I work with welfare services.” 

“Why me?”
“It's what your sister wants. I don't know you. It's her I'm trying to help. You can lie out here and rot like a dead pigeon for all I care.”
The statement seemed to stun Quentin; he looked surprised. “Well, how about that? The first God damn honest person I’ve met.” 
“Why don't you take my cell and talk to her? What have you got to lose?”
“I'm a disappointment to her. Why should she care?”
Cindy knelt on the concrete and faced the man. “Well, I talked to her, and I didn’t hear that. Tell me why I'm wrong?” 
“I'm a disaster. How could she like me, look at me, look at where I am? I belong here.”
“They tell me you have a talent in music like your brother. Is that true?”
“Music talent? My brother tell you that?”
This was a shocker! He didn’t know his brother was dead? Cindy had to stop and carefully weigh her next questions.
“Did Langdon really tell you all those things?”
“He didn’t have to say it. I knew what I had become. I knew I couldn’t measure up to him. He was the success, and I was the outcast brother. 
“Is that why you stopped playing, quit your violin?” 
“No, the violin quit me. I could not play it anymore.” 
“Tell me, Quentin. I have on record that you tried to take your life many times. Tell me now. Why?”
Anger suddenly welled up in the man. He stood up, frightening Cindy, and smashed his fist hard into the concrete pillar.
“SEE these hands!” he yelled, holding them up to her. “They have no talent. I possess no skill. I'll never be like him. Never! His right hand was bleeding, damaged from the blow. “I am not worthy of the man.”
Cindy tried not to show shock. She carefully stood up and asked to look at his wound. 

Quentin pulled it back. “It's just a hand; it has no special meaning.” 

It was clear there was a different problem here. “Ok, please talk with me. You hate yourself. Why?”
“I need to die. What is the meaning for me to be here? I’ve nothing to offer but inward disgust. And it’s ripping me apart inside.” 
“I’ll not ask you for hate’s reason. I'll ask you for the way to get by it.” 
“As long as my brother is alive, I must bear it. That's my reason. Now you must leave me alone. GO! Get away from me!” 
It was time now to tell Quentin his brother was gone, but how would he react? “Quentin, listen to me carefully now. I have something to tell you. Will you promise me you won't do anything rash?” 
“There is nothing that could do that.” 
“Your brother is dead. He took his life a week ago after playing the opening piece from the Requiem.”
Quentin's face turned ghastly white. He stood, saying nothing, his mouth agape. Then he leaned back against the pillar and slowly sank to the concrete. He put his head in his hands and cried. Cindy sat down on the concrete beside him.
“Why, why him first?” He blurted out. “It should have been me.” 
The two people sat in the squalid ditch for a time, saying nothing to each other. Cindy felt it would be best if she remained silent.
Quentin finally spoke. “I didn’t mean to kill her.”
“Alexia, it was all my doing.” 
“What happened?” 
“I was with Alexia in their apartment when Langdon caught us. I tried to reason with him, convince him this was only an affair––I’d leave New York and never come back. But then Alexia screamed at me––"you liar! We both planned to leave Langdon," she railed. "Tell him that!" She ran wailing into the bedroom and slammed the door.”
“What did your brother do?”
“Langdon rushed into a blinding rage; I tried to convince him I started the affair, which I hadn’t, but I thought I could save his marriage. I told him; I would leave, go away, and never see Alexia again.”
“Did he believe you?”
“He called me every name in the book, told me I was the devil. I had no conscious, a thief. I agreed with him; I was the worst traitor on the earth for what I had done. Then I did the unthinkable. I told Langdon I would give him my new concerto, which I had just written. I took the music score from my briefcase and put it on the coffee table. “This is my gift to you, I told him. Then I left. I never saw him or Alexia again.”
Now Cindy had heard it all. But she needed to address this killing of Alexia. “Why blame yourself for her suicide Quentin, you weren’t even there?”
“Oh, But I was, Cindy. She called me many times after I left, asking me if we could make it work, that she didn't love Langdon. But, I could not tell her how much I loved her. Instead, I lied, tried to convince her to stay with Langdon, that I would not ruin my brother's marriage.”

“Then did she stop?”

Quentin fought to control his voice. “She tried to call again over the following months, but I didn't answer. Then, she left me a final heartbreaking message. She was distraught, could not go on with Langdon. The next day, I received the terrible news. Alexia had leaped from the twenty-first floor of their downtown apartment. That's when I left New York for good.”

Now it was all out. This man had carried his love and his guilt for this woman's death all these years. “The Requiem,” Cindy asked. “Was that the score you gave Langdon? You wrote it for Alexia, didn't you!”
“Yes, but only I, and now you must ever know that.” 
“You wrote it with such power, though. How is it a love song?”
“It’s the deep sorrow of an empty heart, pounding out its aching pain. Longing for something it can never have.” 
“Listen to me, Quentin, this is a tragic story, but it's not just about you. Langdon didn't have to take that music score. He didn't have to say it was his. He lied! His sin was as great as yours. And Alexia, she enticed you into that affair, and she is equally guilty. Don't you see Quentin? There are no villains here, only victims!”
“No. I live on, and they are dead. It's my fault, all mine!  I gave him the Requiem as a gift to absolve myself for my sin, but the piece became a curse instead. A millstone around his neck that he must always carry, reminding him of Alexia's crushed body lying in the street. I put that curse upon him.” 

Cindy reached her arms forward and grabbed the man's shoulders, and shook him. "NO, YOU DIDN'T! There is no curse, only guilt. He put that guilt upon himself by taking it. It's all divided equally among you. Death has taken two of you. Now it's just you and your sister. Do not pull her down too. Be there for her and save the fourth person in this story.”

“I, I couldn't bear her death too.”
“Come with me now, Quentin. Ann loves you. You're all she has left. She has grieved for you all these years. You can make everything right through her.”
“I cannot.” He said. “I will deny every word I’ve told you here today.” 
“The Requiem is safe in the hands of your brother's legacy. I truly believe he loved you for that. We can leave it there for him.”
“But I can't go back. I belong here; it's become my place in life.”
“NO! It isn't your place. It's an excuse for running away. Don't you see Quentin? You can't hide from your guilt, but you can deal with it in time. I can get you a room in health services.” Cindy looked at his swollen, bleeding hand. “You need a doctor, your hand's broken. Will you at least do that? Please!"
Quentin looked away from Cindy; she could see he was fighting the request. Finally, he nodded. "Yes, I will go.“ 
The two people standing in the ditch under the freeway began walking down the dirty causeway, back towards the direction of the city.
With Cindy's constant visiting and encouragement, Quentin was finally certified fit to leave the care facility. She then found him a room in a hostel with money her sister sent for him. Then he began several more months of counseling. Over time he recovered enough to be ready to return to his sister. That was a banner day. That was the day Cindy put him on Amtrak, to New York City. He now appeared ready to face his past world with his sister’s help and further care.
Cindy would receive encouraging texts from him from time to time. Then a year later, a phone call. She knew this was important; she quickly answered.  

"Hi," Cindy," His voice much more robust and positive than the sickly man she placed on the train. “Guess what? I’m playing again, and I think I may even have some work!” 
“That’s fantastic, Quentin. I knew you would.”
“Yeah, but I put it down to my last name. That's what opened the door.”
“Well, listen, the door opened, but with your talent, you will keep it open.”
“I've got a problem, though, Cindy. They want me to play The Requiem. I, I don't think I can do it.”
“You can, Quentin. Get it past you. It's best if you faced your demons. Remember, the music still has its beauty. Everyone who hears it will place their own personal experiences within it. Channel yours to the good things that can happen now.” 
“Ok, I'll think about it. I certainly can use the gig.” 
“Do it, Quentin. In fact, you have to. It will never go away until you face it.”
Three weeks later, Cindy got a text from Quentin: Good news, I’m playing my first recital of the Requiem on June 1, at 8: pm on PBS. It will help me if I know you’re watching. 
She texted back: Of course, I will be honored. Cindy.
The excitement of the audience was noticeable as Quentin appeared. He was walking straight and tall as he crossed the stage and took his place at the center. After the applause quieted down, Quentin took the mic and spoke. 
“Everyone,” he began. “Thank you for coming and putting your faith in my attempt at my brother’s masterpiece. Playing this piece had become difficult for Langdon for personal reasons. But now it’s my turn to play it. As you may have heard, I've had a hard road to arrive here myself, but I could not have survived that journey without a special person who saved me. Langdon wrote this piece originally for someone else, but I want to dedicate it to another. This person is listening now, and I want her to know every note of this composition is just for her.”
When the concert was over, Cindy clicked off the TV and sat in silence. Cindy Williams, it is said, was the toughest worker in suicide watch. She has seen horror and death most of her adult life, working with victims' in the most tragic cases. But today, she watched a ten-minute music composition on PBS, and when it was over, for the first time in her career, she broke down and cried.
*Requiem For A Dream, Kate Chruscicka Electric Violinist. 
(To hear the incredible piece that inspired me to write this story,
enter the above tag in Google.)


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