Blog Tools
Edit your Blog
Build a Blog
RSS Feed
View Profile
« December 2008 »
S M T W T F S
1 2 3 4 5 6
7 8 9 10 11 12 13
14 15 16 17 18 19 20
21 22 23 24 25 26 27
28 29 30 31
You are not logged in. Log in
Entries by Topic
All topics  «
Backstop
Cigars
Flash fiction
Memoir
News
Novel excerpts
Published articles
Short fiction
Sports
The Curmudgeon
Writing
J. Conrad's blog
Sunday, 28 December 2008
Lions Achieve Immortality Through Perfection
Topic: Sports

No NFL team has ever gone through an entire season without scoring a win. Until 2008.

Last season the New England Patriots finished their season a perfect 16-0 only to cap it off with a disappointing loss in the Super Bowl. Disappointing. The Lions record in futility is abysmal. Embarrassing. Sixteen games without a win. After going a perfect 4-0 in the preseason. Does a team have to work at that sort of ineffectiveness?

 

To read the remainder of this article, click Bleacher Report.


Posted by J. Conrad Guest at 5:46 PM EST
Updated: Saturday, 7 February 2009 12:26 PM EST
Post Comment | Permalink
Wednesday, 24 December 2008
Graves Duty
Topic: Published articles

This originally appeared in the fall 2005 issue of River Walk Journal.

 

“I’ve learned that regardless of your relationship with your parents, you'll miss them when they’re gone from your life.” — Maya Angelou

 

 

I visit my dad twice a year. On this particular early May morning the sky is cloudless, the air crisp; the grass is bejeweled with dew. Leaning against the side of my truck, I clip the end of an Onyx Vintage ‘97 and light it, taking a long, satisfying drag. I let the smoke warm the back of my palate, and a moment later I exhaust it with a long sigh. I discovered the pleasure of cigar smoking two years too late. I’ve convinced myself that this custom is something my dad and I could’ve enjoyed together.

I don’t need to come here, to Fort Custer National Cemetery, to visit Dad. Most people forgo visiting their loved ones in the cemetery two years after relegating them to their final resting place. My dad has been gone from me for a little more than seven years, but coming here a couple times a year somehow just feels right. I also suspect we have unfinished business between us.

I envision us sharing a smoke on a Saturday afternoon over a couple of glasses of bourbon or scotch as we listen to Ernie Harwell call a Tigers game. We had our differences, Dad and I, but whatever they were we could always put them aside for a couple of hours for the enjoyment of a baseball game.

One of my fondest memories is sitting alongside my dad, behind first base at Tiger Stadium. The year is 1968, it’s September and the Bengals are destined to go on to win the World Series the following month. Denny McLain would win 31 games that season, but it would be Mickey Lolich who would win the Series MVP award.

Earlier that summer, Dad had come home one evening after work and slipped into my hand a brown piece of paper haphazardly torn from a grocery bag. I turned it over and saw some markings. Puzzled, I looked closer. I turned the scrap 90 degrees, then 90 more: the first set of markings soon turned into a word, a moment later the word became a name. When I recognized the first name I didn’t have to puzzle over the second — “Bill Freehan!” I exclaimed, overjoyed. It was that famous Freehan trot I always emulated after drawing a walk and making my way down to first base during our neighborhood baseball games. “I ran into him in a grocery store this afternoon,” Dad told me, matter of fact. I was thrilled, not only by the treasure, but because Dad chose to give it to me instead of keeping it for himself — I was touched by his selflessness. Today I’m ashamed to admit that I can’t recall what became of that scrap of, to me, priceless grocery bag.

The Yankees were in town for a weekend series, it was late in the game with the Tigers comfortably ahead and McLain was on the mound. Mantle stepped up to the plate. Beyond the twilight of his career, he was in that crepuscular place reserved for athletes who have overstayed their welcome in a game in which, at some point, experience no longer counts.  He’d lost his timing, along with much of his grace, and he routinely swung wildly and missed pitches that, a few years earlier, he would have sent into orbit. McLain looked in to Freehan for the sign; he shook off the first, as well as the second. Then he leaned back, stepped off the rubber, and held up the ball for Mantle to see, asking Mickey where he’d like the pitch. The crowd, which had grown complacent with the home team’s lead, sensed something was up. Mantle gamely swung his bat — arcing gracefully through his wheelhouse — to indicate where McLain should leave the ball for him. McLain nodded, went into his windup… and blooped the ball right where Mickey wanted it… Mickey returned the favor by launching the pitch into the right field bleachers. The crowd erupted. Mantle had certainly hit longer and more important homeruns, but the crowd perhaps had seen the writing on the wall, although they may not yet have read the text: this was Mantle’s final appearance at Tiger Stadium, and the homerun counted as the next to last round-tripper in his if not long but illustrious career. Mantle retired from baseball the following spring.

Beside me, Dad snorted his disgust. To him McLain committed the ultimate sin in baseball, or in any sport: allowing the opposition to score. Perhaps he recalled all too well the Black Sox scandal, thirty-nine years before I was born, in which eight Chicago White Sox players, Shoeless Joe Jackson among them, were found guilty of conspiring to throw the 1917 World Series. Although he was only a year old at the time it happened, the story reverberated throughout the baseball fraternity for decades. Years later, after Mantle died the result of a bad liver, I realized Dad knew more about Mantle’s off the field behavior and drinking habits than I did when I was 11, and that that perhaps played a part in his reaction that long ago afternoon.

I push myself away from the side of my truck and slowly make my way up the small knoll toward my dad’s marker. I’m thinking about that day at Tiger Stadium, the images undimmed by the passage of 35 years, and I regret not having relived the experience with Dad that final year of his life. In retrospect I think I feared that, had I asked him if he recalled what was for me such a memorable experience, he might say “No.”

I feel emptiness and a pain in my chest. I suspect the pain comes from not having more such fond memories, and wishing I had fewer memories of a childhood in which Dad often seemed a ghost, except as a disciplinarian.

I was six or seven years old when I took a spill from a bike that didn’t belong to me. It was too big for me and I was riding too fast and lost control. I landed hard, the bike on top of me, and promptly burst into tears. Dad, who’d watched the entire proceeding from a lounge chair on our porch, crossed the street in no great hurry. Perhaps he already knew what hadn’t yet occurred to me: that I was crying more from having given myself a good scare than from being hurt, although I’d banged my ankle pretty hard. He carried me back across the street and, once he’d determined I suffered no real damage, scolded me for being on a bike that I hadn’t yet grown into and for being so reckless. The lesson I came away with was to avoid risk.

I kneel at the slab of marble that marks my dad’s existence and brush away a few dried grass clippings:

 

James C Guest

SSgt US Marine Corps

World War II

Oct 29, 1918 — Feb 10, 1998

 

Dad served in the Pacific arena and saw action on Okinawa, where some of the bloodiest fighting of the war took place. Dad had been retired from the Marines several years before he met and married my mother — “I was smitten,” Dad related to me once shortly after Mom passed away. “She was the first woman I’d ever met who not only knew but had read…” I curse myself for not being able to recall the name of the author he mentioned: another element of his life has passed from existence forever.

Growing up I knew little of his wartime experiences. In youth we believe that little of what happened before we got here is of much importance. Still I learned, the hard way, that Dad was not an ex-Marine or a former Marine. He was a retired Marine. I learned that the Marines were a far more elite group of this country’s armed forces than was the Army.

Dad kept in touch with a select few of his comrades, most of whom to me were merely names he mentioned from time to time, save one — Sgt. Major Bean. Bean I met several times before he passed away the result of having acquired the HIV virus from tainted blood he’d been given during heart bypass surgery. I was 18 the last time I saw Bean. I had already reached my adult height but still skinny; Bean looked at me approvingly before looking over to my dad and exclaiming, “God, Jim, he’s a good-looking kid. We’ll make a Marine out of him, eh?” He promptly looked back at me and asked, “Do you like to kill?” I managed to stammer that the only things I’d ever killed were mosquitoes and that while I couldn’t say with any degree of certitude I enjoyed it, I enjoyed a certain gratification in succeeding with my first strike initiatives.

Dad never talked to me about joining the service. He never explained to me what I might be missing by forgoing a tour of duty during peacetime — the camaraderie, the male bonding. Years later, when I asked him why he never advised me, he merely said he thought I should live my own life and make my own decisions. I realized much later that I couldn’t have made an informed decision without the information he had withheld from me. I was angry but kept my disappointment to myself.

I recall standing next to Dad at the foot of the Marine Corps Memorial in Washington D.C. during one of the many Marine Corps reunions he attended.  It was the summer of 1966. Earlier in the day, on a bus ride to the Marine Corps base in Quantico to attend an artillery demonstration, Dad introduced me to General Lewis B. “Chesty” Puller, the most decorated Marine in history. I heard the reverence in Dad’s voice as he introduced me to this small and wiry man who, to me, seemed ancient. The best part of his life was obviously behind him, but he seemed an important personage to my dad, so I tried to hold him in some higher esteem.

That evening, at the foot of the memorial, as I looked at the names of battles during which Marines lost their lives etched into the pedestal, many which I couldn’t pronounce, I heard my dad hiccough. I looked up at him and saw tears coursing down his cheeks. It was the first time I’d ever seen my dad cry. It would be many years before I understood the why behind the tears.

I asked my dad twice — once when I was a kid and again during the last year of his life, when I was 43 — to share with me some of his overseas experiences. The second time I’d hoped to come away with a greater understanding of why he was the way he was, and that perhaps, in sharing, he might experience a sort of healing. Each time I asked him, he refused. Whatever he did on Okinawa, whatever he saw, whatever he endured, he took with him when he died.

I learned more about the Marine that was my dad, after his death, from an older cousin who recalls Grandma reading a letter that her Uncle Jim had written on the back of a dead Marine, and that for years he couldn’t stand the sight of ketchup on the kitchen table. My cousin relates her favorite uncle’s homecoming: “He was tall and looked so handsome in his uniform. He dropped his duffel bag on the landing and I squealed, ‘Uncle Jim, tell me some stories about the war!’ He looked at me and his smile disappeared and he told me very sternly that I was never to ask him about the war.”

Dad related to me, a few months before his death, a different, very abridged account of his homecoming: “I always felt cheated,” he said holding back his emotion, “because the family had moved while I was overseas and I never felt the satisfaction of coming home.”

Dad’s footlocker now serves as a coffee table in my house. Inside it are many treasures he left me, some which I’d never seen while he was alive. A black and white photograph depicting Dad as a young, handsome Marine in his dress blues sits next to the flag I was presented after his death. I display in my living room the saber he took from a Japanese soldier he left no longer in need of it, along with some photographs of John Wayne and Robert Ryan on location during filming of Flying Leathernecks. Dad sheepishly tells the story of his celebrity encounter: “They were rehearsing for a scene and the question came up whether the correct term was ‘graves duty’ or ‘grave duty.’” Graves duty meant retrieving the remains of dead Marines after a fire fight.  “Wayne looks at me and says, ‘What about it, Sergeant, is it grave or graves?’ I told him, ‘graves.’” Of course when I tell the story I embellish it and impersonate my dad impersonating the Duke, and I end the tale by saying “And that’s how my dad became an unofficial advisor to John Wayne on the set of Flying Leathernecks.”

On March 14, 1997, I stopped by the house to pick up Dad. Four months previously he had been diagnosed with colon cancer, had since had a colostomy and begun chemo and radiation therapy. But that morning I was driving him to a memorial service for my mother, his wife of 43 years. Mom had died three weeks previously.

Dad’s eyes were red and he confessed to me how much he missed her, and how much he’d be willing to bargain for the chance to help her down the hall and to the bathroom just one more time. And then he burst into tears. Somewhere I found the wisdom to put my arms around him, noticing how narrow his shoulders had become, and held him until his grief was spent. He suddenly cursed himself for his weakness. I surprised myself further with additional wisdom, assuring him that his tears were in no way a sign of weakness, that they were a normal and healthy response to grief. He looked at me, and somehow we each understood that the student had, for that moment at least, become the teacher. The hug was something I gave often over the next 11 months, knowing how difficult it was for him to initiate it, and getting as much in return as I’m certain Dad received.

Seven months later, just a few weeks before Dad checked into hospice, I stopped by the house to take him to dinner. Dad was lonely without Mom and detested eating alone, and so this was a custom we repeated several times a week: I picked him up after work and took him to his favorite greasy spoon diner where everyone knew his name and where he seemed to take great pride in introducing everyone to “my son.” He of course insisted on picking up the tab for “intruding” on my time. On this particular evening I turned to lock the door while Dad took a cautious first step down from the porch and toward the car. He suddenly lost his balance and took a spill onto the concrete, hitting his knee hard. I bounded down the steps, knelt beside him and, after making certain he hadn’t seriously hurt himself, helped him to his feet. He attempted to hide the fear in his eyes by muttering something about his knee buckling. I drew a breath, prepared to scold him for not waiting for me, for taking an unnecessary risk, but some distant memory — the memory of a father scolding his young son for taking an unnecessary risk by riding a bike that was too big for him — stayed my mild rebuke.

Once Dad checked into hospice, I watched him slip the rest of the way away from me. One afternoon, while I was sitting at his bedside, his eyes suddenly flashed open, he cast a furtive look at me and exclaimed, his voice laden with paranoia, “ Who are you?” I winced inwardly, but placed my hand on his to reassure him. “It’s okay, Dad, it’s me, Joe. Your son.” The tension immediately left his face, and while I saw no recognition in his eyes, the smile that spread across his mouth assured me in return that he trusted my words. The smile lingered but a moment, before he drifted off again, but I was convinced that in that moment I also glimpsed no small measure of pride.

Two weeks later, at Dad’s memorial service, I spoke a few words; afterward family and friends told me that they were good words, spoken with eloquence. I thanked them because that was the polite thing to do, but I thought, then and even now, that they weren’t nearly enough. That a man’s life can be summed up in but a few hundred words seems, somehow, amoral.

Since Dad died I’ve returned to Washington D.C. to stand at the base of the Memorial I first saw in 1966, and I’ve read With the Old Breed, considered by many historians to be the finest account of World War II combat in the trenches ever written by an enlisted man. The author, Eugene B. Sledge, or Sledgehammer as his buddies called him, in his account of the fighting on Pelilieu and Okinawa told me all I needed to know about my dad’s service to this country, including what “graves duty” often really entailed — picking up corpses that have been sitting in the sweltering South Pacific sun for several days only to have the weight of the body cause it to separate from the arms — and I now understand a little better why he was the way he was.

So now these twice yearly sojourns to visit Dad at his gravesite, the closest I can come to his realm without stepping over to the other side. I wonder if he is aware of my presence, if he can hear my silent musings, my audible ruminations, or if he even cares that I visit. I often wonder if the reason I visit is because I’ve taken it upon myself to care enough for both of us.

I take a long drag on my Onyx Vintage wondering how it could’ve burned down so quickly. I want to forgive my father for so much, but in order to forgive him I must elevate myself into a position of judge, and that’s something I find I just can’t do. So instead I decide that I must accept that I am who I am, in part, as a result of this man about whom I know so little.  I need to consign him to a less prominent place in my life, perhaps in some favorite corner to which I can come from time to time if only to dust off the cobwebs. I resolve to stop staring at my past looking for answers, or to assign blame, and to start living my life today. Wanting to believe that I have within me the power to change and the courage to risk, to become the man I want to become, I resolve to reach out for my dreams, even if they should exceed my grasp, for, as Robert Browning wrote, “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp. Or what’s a heaven for?”

My cigar has gone out, and something in my eyes blurs my vision; I blink away the moisture and lay my hand on the cold marble into which my dad’s partial obituary is chiseled. In time that will be all that remains of him: a name, a rank, a war and two dates, not so unlike those around him in this honored place.

A moment later, I stand and make my way back down the knoll, the white markers across the way bearing witness to my departure, the silence a stark contrast to a battlefield I can only imagine.


Posted by J. Conrad Guest at 6:16 PM EST
Updated: Thursday, 25 December 2008 1:33 PM EST
Post Comment | Permalink
Saturday Morning At South Street Cigar
Topic: Published articles

This item appeared in the January 2004 issue of Encore magazine, Kalamazoo, Michigan.

 

Walking into South Street Cigar & Spirits for the first time I was taken aback by its two aisles of fine wines and exotic liquor, its selection of distinctly different imported beer, its humidor chockfull of aromatic cigars, and its display of cigar lighters and cutters, and the young boy that still resides inside me recalled the special pleasure associated with walking into a candy store, mouth watering as my eyes, big as saucers, hungrily roamed over the sweet morsels in the display case. My palate has grown much more sophisticated over the years since then, but the feeling was the same. And South Street, unlike the candy store in my youth, as I was about to learn, offers more than just product.

On this particular Saturday morning, damp and drizzling, Dan Woltersom, otherwise known to the Kalamazoo community as Chicken Dan and the owner of South Street Cigar & Spirits where his patrons affectionately refer to him as the unofficial Mayor of Kalamazoo, has agreed to meet with me to discuss his business, cigars, and his philosophy on life. I’m greeted at the door by the scent of fresh coffee and cigar smoke. A big, burly, bespectacled man with salt and pepper hair and matching beard, and whose ritual job is to bring donuts, offers me his hand and, through the cigar clenched between his teeth, introduces himself to me: “Hi, I’m Angel.”

“Angel?”

“You got a problem with that?” he barks with mock menace. Obviously I’d placed too much emphasis on the first syllable of his moniker.

“Not at all,” I reply, feeling right at home. “I imagine it’s a well-deserved name.” Doug Angel is a recovering alcoholic who long ago worked as a bouncer at various questionable joints around town, owns a Harley Davidson and attended Evel Knievel’s attempt to jump Snake River Canyon, was shot three times in Viet Nam, and now runs a desktop publishing business two doors down the street from South Street Cigar.

Already seated at the tiny coffee table behind the front window, adorned with neon lights buzzing comfortingly, are two other gentlemen enjoying coffee and smokes — Kim Mihalik, a security guard at Bronson Methodist Hospital, and Michael Small, a technician at Palisades Nuclear Plant. Kim has found cigars to his liking reasonably priced, and a friendly atmosphere at South Street. “I’ve found a real brotherhood of cigar smokers here,” Kim says. “The conversation is good, but sometimes we just relax and watch people try to parallel park. It’s amazing how bad people are at parallel parking.”

Michael has known Dan for about 10 years and finds South Street reminiscent of the small town barbershops of yesteryear. Says Michael, “I can picture my grandfather in a place like this, sitting around talking and smoking with friends.”

Dan arrives with my coffee and joins the chat as the five of us watch South Street come to life.

Dan was born in 1957 to Al and Anne Woltersom, and recalls growing up in Kalamazoo, playing high school football and wrestling. “I was fourth in the city my senior year at Christian High and was a member of the Pin Club.”

Dan’s dad worked for Upjohn, “in Research and Development raising bugs in Petri dishes,” he says; but unlike Dad, Dan always wanted to own his own business. “Professional traveler would’ve been good, too,” he adds with a grin, “but now I travel down to South Street.”

At age 14, Dan was working at Chicken Coop, owned and operated by Jim Van Der Horst, and where he and Angel first met. “I ended up buying into the business in 1976,” he says, “and I managed the Center Street store for a time.”

Dan learned a lot from Van Der Horst but decided to strike out on his own in 1980, building his first restaurant, Chicken Port, with help from Scott Keyser. Incidentally, 1980 was the year Dan got married.

“Debra’s mother and sister worked for me when I was managing Chicken Coop, and she thought I was the most obnoxious person in the world.”

“And she still does,” pipes in Angel.

“Why’s that?” I ask.

“It might’ve had something to do with my calling her on a Wednesday to go to a wedding with me on Saturday,” Dan explains with a guffaw. “‘How long have you known about this?’ she yelled at me through the phone. “I just said, ‘You want to go out or not?’”

Despite such an inauspicious start, Dan and Debra have been married 23 years and are the parents of Jared.

“Jared just turned 15 on October 21,” Dan says.

“Really? That’s my birthday,” I say. “And Carrie Fisher, Princess Leia from Star Wars, although I think I’ve aged far better than she has, and Dizzy Gillespie, the jazz trumpeter, were also born on the 21st.”

“Oh, I liked him,” says Angel, referring to Dizzy. “I’ve never seen anybody that looked like him when he was blowing — like somebody stuffed walnuts into his cheeks. You know how his trumpet got bent?”

I shake my head. “I always thought he just had it designed that way.”

“No,” says Angel. “Somebody fell on it at a party and bent it. He found the 45 degree angle of the bell made playing the trumpet while sight reading easier.”

I was beginning to learn that Angel, now busy reigniting the cigar he was negligent to keep lit, was a walking encyclopedia, a plethora of knowledge and trivia.

“So what’s it like for young Jared growing up the son of Chicken Dan?”

Dan chuckles. “His name is Jared, not Chicken Jared, not Chicken’s Leg, not Drumstick, but overall, he likes it. The last three girls he’s gone out with, it’s like, ‘Your dad’s Chicken Dan?’ so he can’t get away with anything.”

By 1992 Dan had four restaurants — Chicken Docks — one on Riverview, another in Fort Custer, one on Sprinkle Road, and the fourth on Portage Road, but decided it was time for a kinder, simpler life.

“Life was too hectic,” he explains. “I was living to work and not working to live. So Tom Berry, who used to own the Munchie Marts here in town, he and I went skiing out west and we came across a place called Antler’s in Fresno where they sold liquor and cigars, and we thought we’d like to open up something like that here in Kalamazoo. So we opened Portage City Wine and Cigars over on Westnedge. About five years ago, when things started happening downtown, I decided I wanted to open up a business and be a part of the resurgence. I wanted to open the kind of place like the old style barbershops, where you could come if you were having a bad day, have a smoke, and leave feeling better about your day.”

“Morning! Couple cigars for the weekend.” Almost as if on cue — a customer.

Dan departs to help this elderly customer with the smile of a kid in a candy store, while Angel takes up the conversation.

“You might say Dan and I were estranged for about 10 years. I worked for Gibson, and when they left Kalamazoo I moved from near West Main and didn’t stop at his chicken place anymore.”

Angel worked for Gibson Guitar from 1972 to 1979, bending rims and working what he called the steam box. After Gibson left Kalamazoo, Angel found himself unemployed, and so he returned to college. “I got a certificate for board drafting and became a rental pencil. I spent eight years working in Grand Rapids and always liked electronics. I had a Commodore computer, so when the company I was working for decided to upgrade to a computer and found out I was keyboard literate, they taught me AutoCAD.”

Angel became so proficient he bought himself an IBM system for his home and did some freelancing, recreating on Zip disks drawings that long ago had been done by hand. As a member of a Commodore user’s group, he did a monthly newsletter and so, “I was doing desktop publishing long before it became fashionable.”

Dan returns with more coffee. “Speaking of guitars,” he says. “When I worked at my first chicken place, I used to spend a lot of my spare time at Pete Moreno’s Guitar Clinic in Oshtemo, which is still there. I’d get through lunch, clean up the restaurant, and walk over to Pete’s to help work on guitars and do anything he wanted me to do just to be around guitars.” Since then Dan has amassed a collection of maybe 15 Gibsons, one or two that Angel likes to think he made.

Although Dan plays guitar, he had no desire to make a career in music. “I had a couple buddies who did that, but the thought of playing in bars until 2 o’clock in the morning just never appealed to me.”

“Especially the ones with the chicken wire in front of the stage,” Angel adds.

“But I’ve played in church, and the Gospel Mission downtown. At least there they have to listen to you if they want to eat.”

Angel and Dan were reintroduced six or seven years ago. “I had no idea Dan owned a cigar shop,” Angel explains, “but a mutual acquaintance of ours mentioned to me Chicken Dan, and it didn’t really click at the time, and then I showed up here one day and I looked at Dan and said, ‘I know you,’ and he said, ‘I know you, too, but we were smaller then,’ and I said, ‘Yes, we were.’ So ever since I’ve been coming down here twice, sometimes three times a week.”

Part of Angel’s ritual is to bring chocolate glazed donut holes on Wednesday mornings. “And now the cops all show up,” he says. The ritual started two years ago when Angel was laid off. “I’d come by with donut holes, smoke a cigar and visit with Dan.”

“Why chocolate?” I ask.

“Actually,” Dan says, “it started out powdered sugar, but I got mad at him for leaving a mess on my carpet every Wednesday so he switched to chocolate.”

Last March Angel moved his home business into a suite two doors down from South Street Cigar. “I was collecting my ‘unenjoyment’ money when my wife suggested I find a place in town. I’d been working out of my house near Paw Paw but most of my clients were in Kalamazoo. So one day I ran into a guy here at South Street Cigar — an American Express financial advisor who worked two doors down in the Park Building — and he told me they had a suite open, so that’s when I started working down the street. I make about enough money to keep them from turning off my lights.”

“Now whenever I’m running late or have an appointment,” says Dan, “I just call Angel to open up shop for me.”

“I leave a sign on my door,” Angel adds, “that says, ‘I’m at South Street Cigar two doors down.’”

“Good morning.”

It’s Officer Hancock, one of the men in blue to whom Angel alluded earlier, here to enjoy a cup of java. I offer him a donut. “No thanks,” he says. “I’ve already had breakfast.”

I ask Dan if he intends to put South Street Cigar & Spirits on the Internet.

“Dan on the Internet?” Angel snorts. “For years his e-mail address was Idon’t.com.”

“Maybe if I had a million dollars, like Chris here,” says Dan, referring to Officer Hancock.

“Ee-yeah,” says Chris. “That’s why I’m working overtime.”

After the laughter subsides, Dan explains. “No, not with my clientele. It doesn’t make sense. You can’t sell liquor out of state, and with J&R and Thompson Cigar, I’m not about to compete with the likes of them. I’m content with the guy who buys two or three cigars a week.”

“Hi, guys.” It’s Cassandra. She works across the street at Kalamazoo Advantage Academy.

“What are you up to today?” Angel asks.

“Not much,” she says. “I’ve got to baby sit later on.”

“For who, your husband and his brothers?”

“No,” she answers, “although that’d be a lot easier... I’d just take them over to the bar and turn them loose.”

And so it goes, another Saturday morning at South Street Cigar & Spirits. For Dan, business and pleasure; for Angel, Kim, Michael, Cassandra, Officer Hancock, and the many other patrons whom I’ve yet to meet, camaraderie. Dan will leave shortly to catch the tail end of a tailgate party prior to a Broncos game — Dan loves the Broncos. Angel invited me to come back and share a smoke with them again anytime, and I know I will because I know Angel isn’t the kind of guy to offer up that type of hospitality if he didn’t really mean it.

Oh, and Dan’s philosophy on life? “The more people you meet, the better life is.” You know what? After sharing a coffee, a cigar and conversation with Dan and everyone else I met on a damp and dreary Saturday morning, I think he’s right.


Posted by J. Conrad Guest at 6:03 PM EST
Updated: Wednesday, 24 December 2008 6:06 PM EST
Post Comment | Permalink
Remembering Dad
Topic: Memoir

 

Written for my dad’s memorial service in early 1998. I wish I’d had more time to spend with my dad. I missed so much while I was growing up, and he did, too, but I’m grateful for the year I had — so many people don’t even get that. Photo is of baby Joey with Dad, late 1956, early 1957.

 

 

Death — the last voyage, the longest, the best. — Thomas Wolfe

 

Sometimes in preparing for death we learn something of life.

I learned much of you and from you, Dad, during these last long months. You would find the most ordinary day a marvel to behold, and so I learned to awake each morning from my own temporary respite from life with renewed fervor. I watched you savor the sweet succulence of a piece of fruit as if for the first time, and I learned a greater appreciation of the smaller things in life. And as you stood in the pouring rain, letting the water soak your clothes and stream in torrents from your face, I was reminded of a child jumping from puddle to puddle in the aftermath of a rainstorm, and made acquaintance anew with the boy within myself.

You shared much of yourself with me this last year, Dad. You shared the story of how you acquired the Marine Corps ring you wore for over fifty years — a story no one knows, not even your wife. You wept openly upon the death of my mother, and I glimpsed a side of you — a softness, a tenderness — I previously could only guess existed. You told me that I needn’t tell you that I love you, that you already knew, through my actions. Still, I wanted to tell you, Dad. Perhaps I needed to, for my own sake as well as yours. Besides, I knew a crusty old Marine like you could bear hearing them — after all, the worst harm that ever became of them was a choked sob from you and a hastily brushed aside tear.

I held you often during this last year, wanting to (yes, perhaps even needing to), knowing how hard it was for you to take the initiative, but knowing also, from something you had shared with me long ago, what a comfort it was for you. Well, I have news for you, Dad. Those hugs were a comfort for me, too.

Some treasured memories of the past year: mowing the lawn on Saturday afternoon and my dad fetching me a beer as we listened to the ballgame. Washing the car together for the last time before turning it back in to the dealer. A trip to the cider mill last fall also comes to mind. I couldn’t believe that in nearly 79 years you had never tasted hot-spiced cider. Our Friday evening dinners at that greasy spoon where everyone knows your name. All the football games you slept through, and me having to stifle my enthusiasm when the home team scored so I wouldn’t wake you. And finally, Christmas morning, the childlike look in your eyes when you opened my gift to find the car I always dreamed of buying for you — a replica of the 1930s racing Bugatti. I was so pleased, Dad, that you decided to take it with you when you moved to Hospice. I promise to keep it washed and to change the oil often. I guess dads really can be the stuff that dreams are made of.

I love you, Dad, and I miss you. Yet I have one regret. You know what that is. And when the time comes, my joy will be markedly less than it could have been. Still, I’ll take solace in that you made a dream come true…

 


Posted by J. Conrad Guest at 5:42 PM EST
Updated: Saturday, 27 December 2008 2:04 PM EST
Post Comment | Permalink
Tuesday, 23 December 2008
Mother's Day: Coming to Terms with the Cruelty of Parkinson's
Topic: Published articles

This appeared in Blood and Thunder: Musings on the Art of Medicine, a print magazine published annually by the University of Oklahoma College of Medicine. Photo at right of J. Conrad Guest with Mom and sister.

 

Mother’s Day at six: finger-painted pictures, cutout flowers and Elmer’s Glue. Clumsily fashioned ceramic turtle ashtrays, and cards with simple words filled with love and written in shaky block letters… all long since forgotten by the child, but cherished forever by Mommy, so proud of her young son.

As the child grew older, the homemade treasures became a Hallmark tradition: cards chosen with care, a special sentiment scrawled inside to personalize it, to make it different from the hundreds of other cards purchased for other moms. A necklace, a pair of earrings, a ceramic or pewter figure, sometimes a book, and always a brunch — time with Mom, perhaps the most treasured gift of all.

When did all that change? For me the change came in my 24th year, my mother’s 52nd. A weakness on one side of her body and a slight tremor; diagnosis: Parkinson’s disease. I’d heard of this disease, but knew little of it and its cruelty. Human nature, I suppose, to ignore the unpleasant until it touches us personally. Parkinson’s had touched my mother. She would suffer from its effects, become weaker day by day even as she fought her battle, a battle she was destined to lose, one day at a time.

Yes, Parkinson’s had touched my mother, but it would touch me, too, and my dad and my sister as well. For the next 18 years we would all become intimately familiar with Parkinson’s and its relentless pursuit to steal from Mom her functionality as well as her dignity. Helpless, we could only watch. Innocent bystanders, we would see, firsthand, Parkinson’s handiwork. And in the process Dad would lose his wife, and my sister and I would lose our mom.

In the early stages its effects were barely noticeable and came and went. Mom had good days and bad days. All too quickly that changed: she would have bad days and worse days. She quickly learned that protein in her diet would worsen the tremors, and so she began eating less and less. She would lose the 10 pounds she always wanted to lose.

Through it all, Mom struggled to maintain a sense of normalcy to the madness. She drove a car for as long as she could. In time it would become an effort for her to get up from a chair and cross a room; at the very end she needed assistance getting from the bed and down the hall to the bathroom and back.

My visits to the house I grew up in revealed Mom engrossed in her daily routines: dusting, vacuuming, laundry… struggling to keep house in the same fashion she had while my sister and I were growing up. “Why,” I asked one day, not understanding, as she struggled mightily to iron a pillowcase, “why do you work so hard, Mom?” “It has to be done,” she answered patiently.

During the early stages of her condition it was good therapy; towards the end it seemed that she had become somewhat of an automaton, functioning solely on what she’d managed to convince her broken brain was necessary in order to maintain her normalcy.

In public she was most self-conscious of her condition. “I’m sorry,” she would say, apologizing for the extra few moments it took her to make up her mind over which item on the menu she wished to order, to get her wallet out of her purse, or for the difficulty she had in making herself heard as her speech became more and more slurred. “I have Parkinson’s.”

Once a month I would get a call asking if I wanted to split a pizza. Splitting a pizza with Mom meant that I’d call the order in and pick it up. Once home, she’d pay me for the pizza. How could I pass up an offer like that? She rarely ate more than one slice, because the protein would cause her to shake, but that pizza always managed to “hit the spot”.

As dad got older, I helped with much of the yard work, mowing the lawn in the summer, raking the leaves and cleaning the eaves in the fall, and shoveling the snow in the winter. I also painted the garage for the last time. But Mom was always out there too, offering what help she could, even if it was only to bring me a cold beer. In the spring, when most Michiganders welcome the warm weather after months of winter and thrill at the sight of new growth, Mom would panic. Springtime to her was the harbinger of autumn, when the leaves would drop, and who was going to rake up the leaves for her?

The 10 pounds had become 20. Eventually her forays into public became less and less frequent. On her worse days she refused to put herself on display; on her bad days she needed to get out of the house. A prisoner of her own body, she would occasionally seek an escape from the prison that her own home had become.

Spending money would become one of her few pleasures. It would make her happy to bring home a new plant or a knick-knack for the house or a new sweater for herself. Unfortunately it was a quick fix — spending merely propagated more spending. Yet for all the pleasure it gave Mom, Dad, ever the more practical one and ignorant of the why behind her spending, grew more and more frustrated. A new pair of slacks was never a single trip to the mall. Mom’s condition prevented her from trying on the outfits she bought until she got home. Often it would be much later that she would find she had brought home the wrong size, or that it was the wrong color to go with the blouse or sweater she had purchased a week before. The woman who once was able to unerringly pick out a picture for the dining room without a piece of wallpaper and a carpet swatch to match it to now became indecisive about which kitchen trash bags she wanted to purchase.

Despite the many clocks she purchased over the years, perhaps as a reminder that the sands of time were dwindling for her when so much living remained, a 20-minute trip to the mall to exchange an outfit would end up a two-hour ordeal, with stops at the fragrance counter as well as the handbag and linen departments. Too late I realized the shopping meant little to Mom; it was the getting out that brought her the most pleasure.

Towards the end the Parkinson’s began to affect her speech. She would have difficulty supporting her voice and would speak in little more than a whisper. About that same time Dad’s hearing began to deteriorate. The timing would’ve been amusing had the potential for disaster not been so real. One day Mom fell while in the garage and struck her head on the driveway. Unable to call out for help, she lay in a puddle of her own blood for 30 minutes before it occurred to my dad to go looking for her. Vanity aside, Dad finally agreed to get a hearing aid.

Mom began to lose her balance more and more frequently. She would come to a stop, nearly in mid-stride, her muscles locked in a sort of rigor mortis. She would stand for minutes at a time, unable to move or to call out, until Dad would find her and coax her into motion again and assist her to a chair, or she would just topple over. It’s a wonder she never broke anything, or worse, that she never fell down the basement stairs.

Each Christmas she would make the arduous journey into the basement several times to bring up her decorations, despite the fact she and Dad rarely entertained family anymore. Yet she managed to do all of her own Christmas shopping, right up until the very end. Always a gift for me; always something I needed. Each card she ever bought for me spoke to me: somewhere inside this frail and failing body was a six-year-old boy’s mommy.

Three years before she passed away, I had a minor surgery to repair a hernia. I would be off work for several weeks and unable to drive for at least a week. Mom sent Dad to the hospital to pick me up and bring me home — their home not mine. I live alone, and she insisted I stay with them for the weekend so they could care for me. Not wanting to be a burden, it felt odd having her fuss over me, after all, she was the invalid; but it was comforting, too, being home. Having Mom take care of me.

On Monday Dad took me to my place, and every day for a week thereafter they’d come by together to take me to lunch. Of course I thanked them for all they did for me, but it wasn’t until Mom was gone that I realized what taking care of me had meant to her. Although she never said it, perhaps she didn’t understand it, but I had given her life a purpose again, if only for a few days. Someone needed her. Her son needed her. I’m glad now that I let her take care of me.

The 20 pounds had become 30. Mom fought extreme depression, courtesy of her affliction. It was rare that I saw her lose her temper, rarer still that I saw her question the reason behind her disease. “Why me?” she pleaded on a rare occasion. And I could only shake my head. She would lash out from time to time, at Dad most often because he was there most often. She tried Dad’s patience; I know she did because she tried mine, too, as surely as she must have tried my sister’s.

Helpless to do little else but watch, I became angry with myself for my inability to do anything but watch. She needed assistance with nearly every aspect of her life now. Where once she needed someone to cut her food for her, she now needed someone to feed her. Someone came into the house two or three times a week to bathe her. And she began to panic: so much work needed to be done around the house and who was going to do it all?

Yes, I was angry at my inability to do anything about my mother’s condition save take care of her, and so I became angry, too, at what she had become — what the Parkinson’s had made of her. I have few regrets where Mom was concerned, but one of them is that I raised my voice to her, more than once. I hope she understood that it was never her that I was angry with.

 

December 1996: Dad is diagnosed with cancer. While he recovers from a colostomy, I spend the next few weeks going home — the home I grew up in — after work to fix them dinner, make sure Mom has her meds, do a few odd chores, and get Mom ready for bed. I spend the night on the sofa. Mom urinates frequently now, and she cannot make it through the night without going to the bathroom. I sleep fitfully, waiting for her to call my name to help her to the bathroom, two, three, sometimes four times throughout the night. In the morning I help her from bed and dress her for the day, fix a quick breakfast and coffee, and then go off to work, only to come back in nine or ten hours to repeat the custom.

I hear her voice call out and roll off the sofa and into motion. I pad down the hall on bare feet and pull the covers off her and help her to a sitting position. After a moment, I assist her to her feet and guide her to the bathroom. Once she is seated, I ask if she needs any meds. She has taken to calling them by color and tells me in a whisper, “Two blues and a yellow.” At this stage of her illness she takes them when she needs them, which is not always as prescribed. Who am I to argue with my mother? I go to the kitchen, wash my hands and get her meds and some water. Back in the bathroom I place the meds in her mouth and hold the straw to her lips so that she can suck some water. She swallows and I am amazed at the effort it takes for her to do so. A moment later she looks up at me with her beautiful blue eyes and destroys my last hope. Until that moment I had always hoped that whatever the Parkinson’s was doing to her brain synapses to cause the tremors, the rigidity in her muscles, her loss of balance and all the rest of the horrible symptoms of this dreaded disease… I had always hoped that it would have the decency to cloud her thinking, too. That a lucid, thinking, aware brain would not be trapped inside this fragile, malfunctioning body.

“You always wash your hands before bringing me my meds,” she tells me, matter of fact. “Your father doesn’t.”

I have been struck a blow; I nearly double over but manage to overcome the urge.

I get her back into bed. I pull the blanket up to her chin and gently arrange it around her tiny frame. I’m suddenly struck by our sudden role reversals. A six-year-old boy is tucking his mommy into bed. Has it really been so long ago that she was doing this for me? I ask myself, hastily brushing aside a tear and hoping that Mom has not seen it, that she will only see me rubbing sleep from my eye.

She looks up at me, her eyes seemingly seeing into me, and whispers, “I’m sorry to be so much trouble.”

I manage a smile and wonder if she sees her own dimples in my smile. I lean down and kiss her forehead and whisper, “You’re no trouble at all, Mom.”

A few moments later, back on the sofa, I cry myself back to sleep.

A few weeks pass and I find I am wearing myself out with this schedule. I had only suspected how difficult it was for my dad to care for Mom all these years, and suspecting is a far cry from experiencing it firsthand. She needs more care than I can give, and needs it most during the day, during the hours I am away. She is active during the day, and should she fall, my father will be unable to get her to her feet. I suggest that she consider having someone come to the house during the day to sit with her, or consider staying at a care facility for a few weeks while Dad completes his recovery from surgery, although by then he will have begun his Chemo and radiation therapy. Her eyes tear up and she shakes her head. I suggest that she deserves and needs better care than I can give her. She gulps and says, “Nobody wants me.” Crushed, I give up my argument, and never again breach the subject.

Another week passes and she complains of abdominal discomfort. It worsens the next day. She is taken to the hospital where she is diagnosed with a urinary tract infection. Admitted on Friday, she can be treated over the weekend and be home on Monday. On Sunday a blockage is discovered in her lower intestine. Because of her condition, the doctors advise against surgery. It will only serve to traumatize her and prolong the inevitable by a few days. The inevitable. For 18 years we awaited the inevitable. Now it was here.

Mom had made it known long before that she did not wish to be tortured into being kept alive. The next day we move her to Hospice, where they will monitor very closely her discomfort and administer morphine whenever she needs it.

The 30 pounds has become 40 — she now weighs but 90 pounds: a skeleton sheathed in a thin veil of skin.

I visit her every day during my lunch and every night after work. On Wednesday evening I walk in and tell her how much I wish I could split a pizza with her, but that Lona’s won’t deliver this far. Her face lights up with a smile I take with me forever. Later that evening I manage to spoon some tapioca pudding — another favorite of hers — into her mouth. I ask her if it tastes good. She nods and manages to say, “It’s delicious.” A few minutes later she slips into a coma, one from which she will never come out.

On Sunday evening, just after 9, my dad, exhausted by his vigil, asks me to take him home. I remind him to say goodnight to Mom. When he finishes, I lean down to kiss her and whisper into her ear that I love her, and that I’m proud of her. I tell her that it’s okay, that everything is going to be fine, and that I will always carry her with me. And then I ask her to let go. “Your time has come, Mother. There is nothing left here for you to do. Go and rest. You deserve it.”

My sister stays with Mom.

At just after 10, a few minutes after I get home, the phone rings. It’s my sister. My world has suddenly become a much colder place in which to live.

She passed very easily; no death's rattle. Her breathing, which had been irregular for three days, simply stopped. Even had she the will to continue living, the Parkinson’s had left her too weak to do anything but succumb. In this she was blessed. After 18 years fighting a losing battle, she deserved an easy death.

 

And now as I sit writing these words so many years later, trying to find some meaning for her suffering in a world where little of anything that happens to any of us in this brief moment we call life — for good, bad or indifference — has so little to do with meaning, or deserving, I’m nearly compelled to throw in my towel. But I cannot. I will not.

Perhaps the meaning is in the writing of these simple words, although this has been no simple task. Perhaps the meaning is in the impact of what she was and what she became and how she faced her adversity. Perhaps it is in the memory of a young boy and the pride a young mother took in hearing her son utter his first word, in taking his first step, in doing well with his studies, in leaving the nest and alternately pleasing and displeasing her, as all children must surely do. But in every card I ever received for holiday or birthday, she spoke of her love and of how proud she was of her son. Perhaps the meaning of her suffering comes in the full circle of life: that I now bear she who bore me — her memory as well as all that she gave to me and sacrificed for me.

To me, Mother’s Day is now everyday, as there isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think of my dear mother — she who bears the sweetest name, and adds a luster to the same; long life to her, for there’s no other who takes the place of my dear mother.

Why do I write these words? The answer begins to come into focus, becomes crystal clear: I write these words because it is a task that must be tended to… a task from which I will not back away, nor will I stop until I have finished writing the last…

 


Posted by J. Conrad Guest at 8:05 AM EST
Updated: Wednesday, 24 December 2008 6:13 PM EST
Post Comment | View Comments (1) | Permalink
Bathman
Topic: Short fiction

Another of my favorites, written many years ago and dedicated to the Dilbert generation — those cube rats who are overworked, underpaid and underappreciated. I never did find a home for this with a publisher, although one suggested I write an alternate ending, which I did; they never did accept the piece. The alternate ending appears after the original. Which do you prefer?

 

 

I’d had a miserable day. A perfectly miserable day. A perfectly miserable ending to a perfectly miserable week.

I work with college nincompoops. They may be very good at what they do — providing consulting services to the healthcare industry — but they sure as hell aren’t any good at writing about what they do for our clients. That’s my job — making them look good in the eyes of the client. I format their documents to a certain standard and perform a business read. I chase down errant punctuation and place it where it belongs, correct incorrect punctuation, and eliminate it entirely when it’s unnecessary. I cut the strings on dangling participles. I splice split infinitives and juxtapose compound sentences into their proper order, making sure all clauses are properly tucked into place where they belong, and further making certain that the predicate actually predicates what the subject is or does. I get tense making certain the nincompoops use the proper tense, and lower the case in cases where uppercase is inappropriate and vice versa (or as one nincompoop once wrote, “visa versa”). I also correct misspelled words as opposed (or as another nincompoop once wrote, “aposed”) to letting the nincompoop embarrass himself in the eyes of our clients by ignoring my penchant for perfection. I ensure that modifiers modify what they’re supposed to modify and make my own modifications when they don’t. I also meet impossible deadlines.

Got a deliverable that needs to be at a client site by tomorrow? Give it to me; I’ll get it to done. I just wave my magic wand and it shows up at the client site on time looking like a million bucks and reading like someone with some actual intelligence wrote it.

It was Friday and I’d had a particularly brutal week. I’d had to stay late tweaking some nincompoop’s HIPAA Impact Analysis — over 100 pages of drivel (if you can’t impress them with clarity, overwhelm them with garrulous claptrap) — and had just finished a hastily prepared meal: a Dolly’s pizza that had been less than hastily delivered a little more than an hour after I’d ordered it… 20 minutes longer than had been promised. The pizza was good, but it was difficult to tell whether it had hit the spot by itself, or whether the shot of bourbon chased by the beer had paved the way.

I settled into my recliner to watch the ballgame. It was late September and the Tigers were struggling mightily. They’d been out of the hunt since late April, and now, instead of struggling to make a late run for the playoffs, they were struggling against finishing the season with 100 losses. If I’d been a betting man, I’d have bet on them to attain that triple digit milestone. Having fallen behind the Yankees early, tonight’s game looked like they would move one game closer to that dubious plateau.

Two and a half hours later the game ended with yet another loss, and I shut off the TV and went to bed. No sooner did my head hit the pillow than I heard the bathroom water go on in the apartment above mine: Bathman was awake and on the prowl…

Since moving into this apartment a few months ago I’d been continuously annoyed by the bathing habits of the resident of the unit above mine. Not having met him, I could only surmise I’d recognize him instantly if not by his acute cleanliness, then most certainly by his water-wrinkled skin, or maybe even by the scales I was beginning to suspect he needed to irrigate so regularly. I never heard splashing, so I assumed he was merely enjoying some perverse Calgon moment, letting the water soak away whatever dirt may have accumulated during the couple of hours since his previous soaking.

He bathed constantly. By noon on weekends he’d already have bathed twice, without ever having left his apartment. Twice more by six in the evening, and twice again by midnight. On one particularly restless night I’d been treated to the sound of his bathroom plumbing (located in my bedroom closet) groaning its protest at 2 a.m., signaling to me that it was time for rub-a-dub-dub, one man in a tub. By the end of my first month, for the first time in my life — no mean feat considering my ex-wife (towards the end I’d taken to playing at full volume Jimi Hendrix’s Hey, Joe, the song that asks the musical question “where you going with that gun in your hand?”) — I’d been ready to commit murder.

I soon began referring to this Bozo as Bathman. The name was accompanied by an image of a caped crusader clad in black latex, with soap scum around his ankles.

The plumbing sang in a high falsetto as Bathman shut off the water, and a moment later I heard him slip-squeak into his porcelain tub. I imagined pasty-white blubbery skin and wondered if his tub, too, might have stretch marks. I closed my eyes and began to drift off…

The bright light outside my bedroom window brought me instantly awake: a circular white spotlight against the night sky with a black “W” embossed within its halo. The Commissioner was summoning The Wordsmith. Someone needed my services.

I bounded out of bed and adjusted my tights made tighter still by a nearly full bladder. “No time,” I told myself and threw my cape over my left shoulder and dashed out the door and down the two flights of stairs that lead to the parking lot. Sliding behind the wheel of the Wordmobile, I flipped the ignition switch and the engine roared to life. I threw it into drive and picked up the Wordphone as I sped around the corner on two wheels and headed east. A moment later the Commissioner picked up.

“Wordsmith,” I heard him say. “We’ve got a situation at a client site.

“What is it?” I said doggedly. My heart was racing with expectation. Last night I’d been summoned to lop the “s” off a series of pro formas, one of those funny little words who’s plural is the same as its singular. The night before someone had relied on Spellchecker and I had been called in to slash all the hyphens from multiple appearances of inter-dependencies and bi-weeklies. God, I love my job.

“One of our consultants has been submitting status reports to a client without first submitting them to you to work your magic.”

“Damn,” I breathed. “How many?”

“Three.”

It looked like I’d be pulling an all-nighter. “What’s the excuse?”

“She said the CEO never reads them.”

“And now?”

“The CEO resigned. The new one wants to see the documentation for everything we’ve done on this project. The three documents are waiting for you on your office e-mail.”

“Thanks,” I said. “I’ll copy you on the final versions.” I broke the connection.

Moments later I squealed to a halt next to the unmanned booth outside the parking lot. I palmed the green disk that prints the ticket, pulled the ticket from its slot, and waited for the gate to lift. I stuffed the ticket into my tights so I wouldn’t forget it.

I raced across the street and stooped at the door so the scanner could read the big red “W” scrawled in script across the black backdrop that was my costume. A moment later I heard the lock click open. I raced to the elevator and pounded the Up button. The door sighed open and I leaped inside and pushed the button for the fourth floor.

Consultants, I thought to myself as I waited impatiently to reach my destination. I couldn’t think of another business where a client is happy to pay someone they didn’t call to tell them something they already know.

The elevator door parted down the middle (I felt like Moses standing on the bank of the Red Sea), and I dashed down the hall to my cubicle. I put on a pot of coffee while I waited for my PC to boot up.

The files were there, as the Commissioner had said. I downloaded the first one. I groaned. It was a mess. It would need a tremendous amount of reformatting to bring it to standard, and from the Executive Summary I could tell that whoever had written it had probably had someone else write their college dissertation.

I took a sip from my coffee mug and—

 

Awoke with a start from the sound of water draining from the tub upstairs.

“Just a dream,” I sighed with marked disappointment.

I settled my head back onto the pillow and into my own very mundane life. I closed my eyes determined to get some sleep. Tomorrow was Saturday and I didn’t have anything major planned. But I knew Bathman had a big day in store for him.

I rolled over and pulled the pillow over my ears to muffle the sound of the draining water…

 

 

And the alternate ending:

 

I took a sip from my coffee mug and —

Six a.m. and the plumbing in my closet that was my alarm clock went off: Bathman was determined to start the day off with a clean slate. Yesterday’s HIPAA Impact Analysis had had its impact on me. I rolled into a sitting position and launched myself into action. Without bothering with slippers, I raced into the bathroom.

If it’s clean he wants to be, I can help with that, I thought as I reached for the toilet bowl brush that stood in its plastic receptacle in the corner behind the toilet.

I was in boxer shorts and a T-shirt, but I didn’t care. I needed to make sure I got to Bathman before he hit the water. I bounded up the stairs and pounded on the door with my brush raised, prepared to do battle.

A moment later the door swung in and I stood there, with water trickling down my upraised arm, unable to say a word. In the few months I’d lived here my febrile imagination had created for me an icon I was certain reality could only fail to match. And so before me stood the figure I had not dared to imagine.

“Uh,” I stammered, at a loss, for the first time in a long time, for words. I looked away from the dark eyes that stared at me, down at dainty feet with nails painted red.

“Yes?” came a sultry voice that sounded to me, as my blood pressure fell, as far away as last night’s dream.

My eyes moved slowly up from those two delicately formed feet to take in two dangerously curved legs that disappeared beneath the hemline, about six inches above the knees, of a tiny robe cinched tight at a narrow waist, to linger a moment on the proud swelling of two rather large but not too large breasts that the tiny robe Bathman… um, Bathwoman, wore couldn’t conceal.

What I’d envisioned as pasty white skin akin to something that might crawl out from under some rock was instead a medium shade of Mediterranean bronze, well irrigated not from repeated bathings, but instead, or so I imagined, from recurring application of skin lotion, rich in aloe and vitamin E.

“Can I help you?” the sultry voice asked.

A few minutes later, armed with a pint of Vanish, I padded back down to my own apartment. Yesterday’s HIPAA Impact Analysis was forgotten. And as I vigorously brushed a bowl that didn’t need brushing, I heard my neighbor slip-squeak into her bathtub and cursed myself for not asking her opinion on use of the ellipsis as a licentious literary device…

 


Posted by J. Conrad Guest at 7:38 AM EST
Updated: Wednesday, 7 January 2009 11:37 AM EST
Post Comment | Permalink
Sunday, 21 December 2008
Sandlot
Topic: Short fiction

This appeared in River Walk Journal a few years ago… it’s always been a favorite of mine.

 

 

“Hey, Buzz, what happened out there today?”

Eighteen years in the Majors and I still don’t like tape recorders pushed into my face after a game, especially not after a loss, and not when I’m heading for the shower with a bar of soap wearing nothing but a towel, and that draped over my shoulder. I’ve gotten used to it I suppose; it goes with the game, but I don’t have to like it.

“I fouled out to end the game,” I said into the recorder. “I stranded the winning runs on base and we lost the game.”

“A few years ago that wouldn’t have happened, right? You’d have brought those two runners home, wouldn’t you?”

He was baiting me I knew, this kid reporter trying to make a name for himself in the local paper, looking for a quote from the colorful veteran. I’ve never considered myself colorful. I’ve always just wanted to play ball. I don’t think of myself as outspoken, but I say what’s on my mind; sometimes, when I’m quoted in the morning paper, they somehow manage to make me sound erudite. Most of the time I find it amusing. I looked at his press badge, pressed it and asked him what was supposed to happen. He didn’t get it. I decided against explaining. I guess you could say I was in a foul mood.

“Yeah,” I said, “and last night I hit a three-run shot to win. So what the game wasn’t on the line in the third inning.”

All the reporter did was stare at me. Somehow he knew I wasn’t yet done. Maybe it was because I had sat down on the bench. I let out a long audible sigh.

“Look, what do you want from me, a scoop? You want me to tell you I’m washed up, finished? That this is my last year?”

The kid sat down on the bench across from me and I thought back to a similar discussion I’d had with my dad 25 years ago, when I was playing ball in high school…

“Look, what do you want from me?” I asked.

“I want you to come to your senses,” Dad said. “Major League Baseball, that’s a pipe dream.”

Both Dad and Mom wanted what was best for me, and they both thought they knew what best was: they wanted me to play it safe — learn a trade or get a degree and spend the next 40 years working nine to five for someone else. I saw that as a sentence, one that would end up with me, at age 65, regretting that I’d never even tried, disgusted with myself that I’d given up my dream, sans the pipe, for what my parents had wanted for me.

“I’m going to college, and I’ll get a degree” I said, “but I want to play baseball.”

“But Major League Baseball —”

“Is for a lucky few,” I finished for him. We’d had this discussion before. “Well who’s to say I won’t be among those lucky few? Guys get paid millions for hitting a mere .250. A few seeing-eye ground balls and bloop singles here and there over the course of a season spell the difference between mediocrity and superstardom. I’ve got some talent, Dad, and I’m hard-working. I can hit a curve ball and if I can learn to lay off the high inside fastball I’ll be able to work a count. I’ve a pretty good glove, too. After my playing days are over maybe I’ll end up managing, or in a booth doing color. If I don’t make it, well, then I’ll have my degree to fall back on.”

Dad said nothing more, not then and not after I’d made it to the show; he died the year before I was drafted. Maybe that was as much the reason I continued to play well into the twilight of my career.

Baseball is a humbling game. Trust me, I know. I was drafted… well let’s just say I wasn’t taken early. I spent a year in the Minors; played solid defense at first base and hit well enough, for average and with above average power, to earn a good look the following year at spring training. I was fortunate that I had a good pre-season, so the team took me north. I worked my ass off to stay in the Majors. I might not have Hall of Fame numbers, but I’ve rarely been cheated at the plate; sure I’ve had my share of oh-fers, but I’ve accumulated some three- and four-for-fours along the way, too, and a Gold Glove to boot. I haven’t won a World Series (this might be the year although it’s still only June) and have been voted an All Star only twice, but I’m proud of my career. I’ve played the game the way it was meant to be played, with adolescent joy. I’ve put up numbers good enough to have played my entire career for the same team and I’m thankful each and every day I take the field, which isn’t as often as it once was.

Maybe I should’ve gotten out of the game a couple of years ago, but thanks to the designated hitter rule — a rule I despised when I broke into the game and still loathe for the sake of the game (call me a purist) — I’m still playing, at age 40, this kid’s game that I love so much. I learned long ago not to pay too much attention to what the press writes or says about me, for good or bad, or to listen when the fans boo me — they’re the same ones who’ll cheer me tomorrow. This game, as much mental as it is physical, is filled with ups and downs, and I’m hard enough on myself without trying to please the press or the gate — and I think that has helped my longevity as much as anything.

I didn’t say any of this to the kid reporter who sat looking at me wide-eyed. I sighed, stood up and took a few steps toward the showers, and then I turned back; the kid was still looking at me, still hoping for a story. Sportswriters, I thought wryly. I tossed him, underhand, the bar of soap. He reached for it — it glanced off the heel of his hand and landed on the floor, bouncing once. He sat and I stood, each of us looking at the other. After a long uncomfortable moment, for him at least, he picked up the bar of soap and lobbed it back at me. I snatched it out of midair, rolled my eyes, and headed for the showers.

 


Posted by J. Conrad Guest at 8:48 PM EST
Updated: Sunday, 21 December 2008 8:54 PM EST
Post Comment | Permalink
Friday, 19 December 2008
No. 52
Topic: Memoir

Sister, I hear you laugh
my heart fills full up
Keep me please
Sister, when you cry
I feel your tears running down my face
Sister, Sister will you keep me?

 

— Dave Matthews

 

A daughter was born to my parents nearly 54 years ago; twenty-one months later a brother was born to her: so close in age yet distant — an expanse that only swells as the years race by.

I recently asked my uncle if he had any recollections of my mother, deceased now eleven years, from their youth. Alas, he is five years her junior and recalled little. Yet in adulthood they were very close. My father was not a handy man around the house, and so whatever the need — putting a new roof on the house, hanging wallpaper, laying down tile in the kitchen — my mother had but to call and her brother was there. I recall my uncle as a presence in my youth: at age four or five, sitting between his legs at the front of a toboggan as it raced down a snowy slope in Hines Park; also that he entrusted me with his new Chevrolet Impala to drive my prom date to the event located in the New Center area in Detroit. Knowing my parents, I’m certain they fretted more over my returning his car without a scratch or dent than he did. I must make a point of sharing these two memories with my uncle, even if I can’t today recall my date’s name (only the name of the girl who was my first choice, who accepted only to bail out) or the name of the hotel at which we danced and dined. His trust in me made me feel a man.

Neither my sister nor I have children, and so no niece or nephew will ask of us stories from our youth, which is perhaps fitting. I recall so very little of our childhood: no protective older sister, no rainy day playmate. Different as night and day: she a night owl, me up with the sun. I recall eleven years ago, our first Mother’s Day without Mom, my sister and I took Dad to Sunday brunch. I wore for the first time a summer suit and tie; she wore for the last time a winter outfit. Perhaps she wished to lay to rest that Mom was gone whereas I wished to celebrate her life. I grieved her loss in my own way, but I was looking forward, pleased that her suffering was at an end and that surely she was in a much better, happier place.

In childhood we had our differences, as surely all siblings do. Just as surely that all children at times disappoint their parents — does that mean the parents like the child any less? Perhaps it was our different temperaments that kept us from getting close.

At any rate I married at twenty-three and we drifted further apart. I was divorced before I turned thirty but never reconnected with my sister. I’m ashamed to admit that, at that age, it seemed unimportant. Perhaps it did to her, too.

The years continued to pass and shortly before my mother’s death in 1997 she wept openly that my sister and I were but strangers. My mother told me my sister had once told her she had no brother (from my perspective the obverse was certainly true), and that she didn’t like how I treated women, and I marveled over how alike our perceptions of one another were since I, too, hadn’t approved of her treatment of the young men she dated when we were in our teens.

No one gets out of this life without breaking a heart or two or without having their own dashed (along with some of our dreams) — it’s the stuff of which novels are written and seems to be the legacy the Baby Boomers left behind (and upon which future generations will certainly embellish), which makes it no more right but somehow acceptable. I have my share of regrets (my father told me shortly before he died that no one gets out of life without a few of those, too), and I’m not pleased or proud of some of the things I’ve done, some of the choices I’ve made. I’ve lived my life mostly by default, avoiding risks associated with career even as I’ve risked greatly in other areas.

It’s funny how we so often stumble when it comes to walking the talk where the biblical lessons of judging and forgiveness are concerned. If God can forgive us our transgressions, why can’t we?

 

I was too young to recall the rift between my dad and his oldest brother, my uncle Ed, who I never met until my father lay in hospice awaiting cancer’s claim. A few weeks after my dad passed away, my Uncle Ed took me to dinner. Apparently in January of that year (1998), just a few weeks before Dad checked into hospice, he’d taken my dad and sister to dinner to celebrate the holidays; for some reason for which he forgave my father, I was not included. But that night after dinner at one his favorite sports bars, during which we talked baseball (a love we shared) and of all the history he’d lived through in his eight-four years, as he drove me back to my car he explained to me the reason why he hadn’t been a part of my life. The reason seemed important to him; certainly it seemed important to him that I understood. But it wasn’t important to me. The reason for those missing years seemed, to me, ancient history. What mattered to me were the missing 42 years. That we all had allowed the empty years to stretch on seemed the greater tragedy. I learned a couple years later from his daughter (who taught at my high school) that she’d brought her dad to see me in a high school play in which I had a bit part. Sadly, I don’t recall that she introduced us.

 

As my mother lay in hospice dying, her heart weighted with a lifetime of unhappiness, it was for my sister and I that she wept most: that as a mother she’d failed because my sister and I were so distant. I promised her I would change that. Yet just as surely as love cannot conquer all — not if only one party is committed to the cause — my efforts fell short. An invitation to take her and her husband to dinner to celebrate her birthday was met with excuses and no offer to take a rain check. At a cousin’s sixtieth birthday celebration she not only avoided me, acknowledging my presence from a distance with a nod, but avoided any room in which I might mingle with other celebrants, finally leaving early. She invited me to her wedding but looked decidedly disappointed that I’d attended. My phone calls are answered by her machine and returned during the day to my own machine, when she is most certain I am at work. I receive annual Christmas cards from her that wish me well but speak nothing of her life or of any interest in mine. I stopped reciprocating, not out of anger but because of the Potemkin village hers seem to portend — a façade behind which she continues to hold onto her anger or indifference, or whatever it is she holds onto.

I hear from her only when necessity prompts her to pass along the news of a death in the family: my father’s second oldest brother, Alphonse, a few years ago, and most recently when my youngest cousin, Tom, died of a heart attack at age forty-four. I arrived at the funeral home on a Tuesday evening after work to offer condolences to my aunt and uncle and their other two sons, the cousins I hadn’t seen in close to thirty years. Not surprisingly, I missed my sister by a few minutes.

It was good seeing my cousins and their families, catching up on their lives and they on mine, trading memories of our youth. With sincerity they expressed that they’d thought of me often over the years and that they were pleased to see me. I’ve since spoken with my uncle twice, and after I suggested we not wait for another similar occasion to meet, he proposed dinner in the near future. I intend to hold him to that.

It is with heavy heart that I write these words because it’s true, the concept of paying it forward, just as it’s true that, sadly, we continue the mistakes of our parents.

  

JCG/August 2008


Posted by J. Conrad Guest at 7:57 AM EST
Updated: Tuesday, 23 December 2008 7:23 AM EST
Post Comment | Permalink
Monday, 15 December 2008
A Case of Writer's Block
Topic: Flash fiction

I once had a life outside this park. Years ago, and it was a pretty good one, too. I’d been a private investigator and some of the cases I worked on would’ve made for good reading had they been fictional. As a matter of fact, the last case I’d been working on had started out to be a simple missing person—an attractive young woman from Gramercy Park had hired me to find her missing father. The case had turned out to be anything but simple.

It seems her father had, for six years, been on the lam from a very elite overseas group. When I finally caught up with him, he spun a wild yarn about an alternate reality future in which the Nazis had won World War II. Of course the story sounded crazy to me, and I hadn’t believed any of it, but I couldn’t disbelieve the two Germans after this woman’s father—I’d met them both—and so I had had to be careful.

That was 50 years ago and about all I remember until ...

I first noticed the tall man passing through the gate at 86th Street. Obviously he was a tourist, with a Yankees cap pulled down over his eyes, wearing a University of Michigan t-shirt, and holding hands with a pretty and petite woman who had eyes only for him. He looked familiar—slender with broad shoulders and gray hair showing from beneath the edges of his cap. Because I have a good mind for names and faces, I knew I’d never seen him before. Still, I couldn’t help but feel we had unfinished business between us.

Our eyes briefly met as we passed, going in opposite directions, and I saw brief recognition in his eyes followed by a look of shame mingled with guilt. The woman holding his hand, oblivious to the look we exchanged, laughed—a rich, sultry sound—and whispered, “So do you love me just a little, J. Conrad Guest?” and the name registered, although I couldn’t say from where or when. That feeling of unfinished business grew stronger.

I followed the two of them across Central Park, not intending to eavesdrop, but I couldn’t help but hear bits and pieces of their conversation—two lovers on vacation from someplace in Michigan, and something about an unfinished novel and the writer’s block that seemed to have crippled the man’s creativity.

Just before they exited the park from its west side, the tall man glanced back at me. I considered pretending I hadn’t noticed, but somehow I knew I couldn’t pretend anything in front of him: he had known I was here from the moment he entered the park. Even from a distance I could see his nearly imperceptible nod. A smirk came to his mouth; a moment later he winked at me and turned to leave the park with the woman.

The exchange puzzled me, yet it seemed to comfort me as well. Somehow I knew this tall man who seemed familiar but whom I had never met, knew me intimately. I also knew that he wouldn’t forget me in this park, and that one day soon my life outside its walls would resume ...


Posted by J. Conrad Guest at 1:28 PM EST
Updated: Sunday, 1 November 2009 11:54 AM EDT
Post Comment | Permalink
Wednesday, 10 December 2008
Ritual of cigar smoking
Topic: Cigars

Cigar smoking dates at least as far back as 1492, when Christopher Columbus arrived in the West Indies to find the natives smoking a primitive cigar shaped from rolled leaves and made of aromatic herbs. Today, cigar smoking is immensely popular, and although many claim that cigar smoke is equally dangerous as cigarette smoke, the leading cause of death today is, as it has always been, birth.

For the benefit of the uninitiated, cigar smoking boasts an elegance as well as a ritualistic pleasure not found in cigarettes. Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote, “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.” The same comparison can be made of cigar and cigarette smoking.

The ritual starts with selecting the proper cigar for the proper occasion. Whether opting for something mild to enjoy with your morning cup of coffee and crossword puzzle, a bourbon-flavored cigar while sipping your favorite bourbon in the evening, or perhaps something simple to enjoy while puttering around the house, even the novice can derive pleasure from the selection process.

When cutting the head of your cigar (the end that goes into your mouth), opening between 75%-85% of the cigar’s surface will allow for a nice, easy draw. A quick examination of the head will reveal how far the cap extends down the barrel of the cigar, usually between ¼” to 3/8”. It’s best to cut just above the cap line; a cut below the cap may cause the cigar to unravel. When cutting a tapered (torpedo) cigar, you may have to cut more to enable a sufficient draw, although because the narrowing ring concentrates the smoke, many smokers find that less of the cigar’s surface needs to be opened. The key to a good cut is to be quick — quick cuts are clean cuts. Once you find your spot, clip it.

A punch cutter works well and is easy to use. Simply line up the cutter on the center of the head and twist. The punch cutter will remove the cut portion of the cigar when you withdraw the cutter. Some smokers complain that a punch cutter fails to cut a large enough hole for 50+ ring cigars, but to each their own preference.

When lighting your cigar, it’s best to warm the foot (opposite the head) for 10-20 seconds, never touching the flame to the cigar but passing it over the flame while rotating it. Then, with the cigar in your mouth, bring the flame near the foot and simultaneously puff on the cigar to draw the flame into the cigar while rotating it between your lips to assure even ignition. Once lit, gently blow on the lighted foot to confirm that it’s evenly lit across its ring. The key to lighting a cigar is to ignite the tobacco at a low temperature, thereby allowing a cooler, smoother smoke, one that will be free of harsh flavor.

When using matches to light a cigar, be sure to wait a moment for the ignition to stop or you’ll end up with an unpleasant sulphur flavor to your smoke. Paper matches burn too quickly, and while kitchen matches work well, multiple matches are often required. Long Spanish cedar matches specially designed for lighting cigars can be found in many fine tobacco shops.

Torch style butane lighters have recently become popular, but as this type of lighter can burn as hot as 1,500 degrees, care must be taken to avoid using the hottest part of the flame and instead use the super heated air just above the flame.

A cigar is not meant to be smoked like a cigarette; never inhale, but instead allow the smoke to circulate in your mouth and nose … and like a glass of fine wine, don’t forget to enjoy the fragrance of the wrapper!


Posted by J. Conrad Guest at 2:58 PM EST
Updated: Thursday, 28 October 2010 2:06 PM EDT
Post Comment | Permalink

Newer | Latest | Older