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J. Conrad's blog
Sunday, 9 May 2010
Mother's Day 2010
Topic: Memoir

Mother’s Day has been different for me these last 13 years, since Mom passed away. My inbox still fills this time of year with spam to “Don’t forget Mom.” Commercial.

I’ve written about Mom over the years—her battle with Parkinson’s disease, and she appears, in some form or another, in a lot of my fiction. My effort to keep her memory alive, and perhaps to find some reason for her suffering. Several readers have reached out to me, grateful to me for sharing with them her story. There is comfort in knowing someone shares your pain.

Mother’s Day has evolved for me since I was boy, when I hand-crafted cards for her, a heart-felt sentiment inside written in shaky block letters. When I got older it became a Hallmark day—flowers, brunch, a card with a heart-felt sentiment in a more elegant cursive.

My first Mother’s Day without her, two months after she passed away, was difficult; it was spent with Dad (who is now gone from me, too) and my sister. It made little sense for us to ignore the day. After brunch, while Dad gave me directions, I drove the three of us by the tiny apartment in which they lived for a time after they wed and before my sister was born. Sadly, the building, in a rundown neighborhood, was boarded up. Looking back, I now see it as a pictogram of the aging process. Heraclitus wrote: “All things flow, nothing abides.”

Each year since has gotten a little easier—several spent with a lady love who was herself a mother and whose mother still lived. But I always saved a moment for a thought of my own mother.

The lady love has moved on from me, but Mom is still a part of me. I know I’ve disappointed her in many ways; but I hope I’ve made her proud of me, if only in the trying. I’ve tried to live a good life and have, on occasion, failed. Yet we don’t have to let our failures mark us, the labels others place on us rule us. A man’s mettle in the face of adversity, his perseverance in the aftermath of disappointment, are better measures of who and what he is.

Each Mother’s Day I remember Mom in my own way and this year will be no different. I recently dug up an old photograph of her—sweet 16, a high school graduate and beautiful, I see in her eyes all the hopes and dreams of youth … destined to one day become my mother.

She who bore me, and now I bear her, her memory as well as her hopes and dreams.

Happy Mother’s Day, Mom.


Posted by J. Conrad Guest at 8:19 AM EDT
Updated: Sunday, 9 May 2010 8:39 AM EDT
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Saturday, 20 February 2010
What We Bargain For
Topic: Memoir

Earlier this week I bought a pewter whiskey flask. I didn’t really need one (who really does?), but I’ve long wanted one, so when I saw one I liked at my favorite tobacconist I laid down my coin and left with it.

Today I took it to the mall to have it engraved with my initials so that when I go out with it I can announce to the world that it is indeed mine. Not that anyone really knows who I am. I left it for an hour at Things Remembered, got a coffee at the Starbucks kiosk and did a little window shopping, eventually parking my backside on a sofa in the mall to rest my dogs and people watch.

I’ve always been naturally inquisitive; shortly before my father passed away he told me that as a tot I could’ve been the poster child for a “But Why?” campaign. As a writer, I’ve parlayed that inquisitiveness with a talent for observation.

It wasn’t long before an interesting couple strolled past me. The woman may have been in her late 20s, her mate (with a thinning pate) in his early 30s. The woman pushed a stroller with an infant and had two toddlers to her right, while her husband held the hand of a fourth toddler. What first struck me was that he trailed his stroller pushing wife by three steps. Then I was struck by how tired this couple looked, although the woman bore a mien of contentment. By contrast, her husband looked, at best, overwhelmed, at worst, trapped by the responsibility of this brood, all under the age of six.

I wondered, amused for a moment, that the woman might’ve been fertile to a flaw—that she might become pregnant at the very thought of communing with her husband in love’s ultimate act. Then I wondered if either or both of them had gotten what they’d bargained for when they’d exchanged “I dos” at the altar. All of which left me to consider whether I’d gotten everything for which I’d ever bargained in my life.

At 53, I have much for which to be thankful: good health, a job in a struggling economy, heat, hot water, food on my table, a roof over my head, and enough money to occasionally buy something frivolous. One of my novels was also recently published and I’m expecting to receive my first royalty shortly. I’m happily immersed in another novel (my fifth), and I never seem at a loss for something about which to write, whether a novel, short fiction, an op-ed piece, sports or a memoir.

On the downside, I’m divorced, have no children, have had my heart broken more than once, and have inflicted upon a woman the same. Two lessons I’ve learned the result of these past relationships: one, that whatever lessons I learned from my own broken heart don’t apply to the next relationship; and two, that it feels no better being the dumper than it does being the dumpee. In other words, it feels no better to wrong another than it does being wronged.

So now I sit here, alone on a Saturday night smoking a good cigar and sipping Japanese whiskey—I’ll try anything once and this is one whiskey I’ll try only once—typing these words. As a writer, I’m constantly, as Robert Lamm wrote in 25 or 6 to 4, searching for something to say. Lamm’s lyrics are often misunderstood as being about drug use when in fact they are about a songwriter’s frustrations. They are lyrics to which I certainly can relate. But I’m also searching for other things: love and acceptance, the meaning of life, peace of mind, and spiritual awareness. I’m wise enough to understand that finding love risks another broken heart; while learning the meaning of life and achieving peace of mind and discovering spiritual awareness may come at the cost of my hunger for arranging words on a white screen.

I left the mall with my newly engraved whiskey flask wondering if I’d gotten what I’d bargained for in my life. I know one woman who would say I’ve gotten what I deserve. Certainly I’ve earned what I have—both the good as well as the not so good. But do any of us ever get that for which we bargain or deserve? The truth is good things happen to bad people just as bad things happen to good people. Why should I be any different?

Life is a journey, not a destination; although at my life’s end I hope for a gentle goodbye and that my regrets won’t outweigh the good I’ve left behind.

 

JCG/February 20, 2010


Posted by J. Conrad Guest at 7:07 PM EST
Updated: Sunday, 21 February 2010 7:38 AM EST
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Friday, 12 February 2010
The Cobb Legacy
Topic: Novel excerpts

Thirty-Eight

 

“Navin and his scouts couldn’t make a good trade if it bit them.”

 

—Ty Cobb

 

 

Cagney stood staring at his own image reflected in the bathroom mirror. April’s knock sounded softly on the closed door; Cagney opened it.

“You okay?” she asked. “I heard the water shutoff a few minutes ago.”

“I’m fine,” Cagney said, glancing at the mirror. “I—”

“What?”

“I thought I saw my dad standing behind me, as he did when he taught me to tie a tie. I was attending my first high school homecoming dance as a junior.”

“Sounds like a nice memory.”

“Until you take into account that he got pissed when he had to show me again a few months later, when I next had occasion to wear a tie.”

“I’m sorry.”

Cagney shrugged. “He was a drill instructor. I guess he expected to have to show me once and I’d remember.”

“You were a teen. Not like you wore a tie every day.”

“I know that.” Cagney sighed. “It seems for every pleasant memory, I have six others that would make your hair stand on end.”

“Hold onto the pleasant ones, Cagney. That’s all you have left, now that he’s gone.”

Cagney nodded. “We only just started to connect, in the last weeks.”

“And now you wish you’d had more time with him.”

Cagney nodded again.

“That’s understandable.”

“I have some good memories. Too few. And I suspect the unpleasant ones will haunt me always, just as he was haunted by his.”

April said nothing, and Cagney added, “Dad always joked that no one wants to live to be 90, unless they’re 89—a milestone he missed by four months. Well, at least he lived to see the new millennium.”

“Come on,” April said, taking Cagney’s hand. “Let’s go open that footlocker that’s filled with your father’s life.”

The key to the padlock that safeguarded Cale’s life as a marine was, as Cale had promised, not well hidden. It was one of the keys on the keychain he’d always carried with him. Cagney had suspected as much; but he couldn’t bring himself to open the footlocker once Cale had moved to hospice. His curiosity had had to wait in deference to his father’s avowal that Cagney would find everything he wanted to know about his life in the Corps after he was gone.

Cale had died yesterday morning; the crematorium sent a team to pick up his remains within an hour. Before they arrived, Cagney removed the ring his father wore; it was 10K gold and bore the emblem of the Marine Corps—the anchor piercing the globe at an angle, the eagle, wings spread wide, perched atop the globe. Cale wore it on his left hand, as a wedding band, but the ring was a gift from a woman he’d dated before he met Cagney’s mother. Cale told him the story, what the inscription read (no longer legible due to wear), the name of the woman, a few days before he slipped into coma. It was a story even his mother hadn’t known. Cagney couldn’t bring himself to ask his father if that other woman had meant more to his father than the one he’d married and treated so poorly; he wasn’t sure the reason was out of respect, because it wasn’t his business, or because he feared knowing. In the end, he let Cale take the truth with him to the grave, along with all the rest of what he’d withheld from Cagney over the years.

Cagney also removed his father’s watch—a gift from his own mother 60 years ago, before departing for overseas. It, too, had survived events on Okinawa. Cagney had kept it wound, the time set, during the final three days of Cale’s life. But when he removed it from Cale’s wrist for the last time, he noted it had stopped, just minutes before death. When Cagney tried to wind it, he found the stem frozen.

In planning for a memorial service, Cagney hoped to find some relic of Cale’s life in the Corps to mention in the eulogy he would write. But more important to him was quenching his curiosity, to learn that which his father had, with purpose, withheld from him while he was alive. You’ll find in my footlocker, in the basement, all you need to know about my service with the Corps. Would the locker’s contents rock Cagney’s world, or simply serve to disappoint? He was about to find out.

He looked at the lid he’d recalled from so many years ago as a kid: reddish brown, the address of his father’s parents’ home carefully markered in block letters. Cagney wondered a moment, as he slid the key into the padlock, whether the key would even turn. He had no idea when the last time his father might’ve looked in on the contents of this part of his life, long hidden away in the corner of a damp basement. Perhaps he had no need; he’d lived the boxes’ contents every day of his life, haunted during his waking hours as well as by nightmares from which he woke, drenched in sweat, once with his hands gripping the throat of his wife—or so Iris once told Cagney. Even at age 16, the story had both terrified and intrigued him. Cagney never let on to Cale that his mother had shared that frightening bedroom encounter, but he asked him shortly thereafter to share some stories of the war. Cale only looked at him with haunted eyes mixed with anger and told him very sternly that he should never ask him about the war.

The key turned easily and Cagney removed the lock from the hasp. He sat back, conscious of April’s bare thigh against his own; the footlocker looked strange, having been brought up from the basement, a relic from some distant past, not having seen the light of day for decades.

“Cagney?” April whispered when Cagney hesitated to lift the lid. She seemed as curious as Eve surely must’ve been when the serpent approached her with its temptation of knowledge.

“Right,” was all Cagney said, and he opened the box.

The first item to greet April and Cagney was the backpack Cagney recalled from his youth; he’d worn it often while playing war with his childhood buddies. It was olive green and worn, and Cagney was aware, as he’d never been as a boy, of where it had been; yet through no fault of its own, it could no more betray the events that took place on that South Pacific island than could the marine to whom it had been issued.

The next item was a navy blue cloth bag with draw strings that Cagney guessed was Navy issue, for the voyage from San Diego to Okinawa. Cagney lifted these two items from the box and found a holster that had housed Cale’s sidearm.

Next to appear were a number of framed black and white photographs. Two appeared to be taken on Parris Island, where his father had trained. They were group shots of Cale’s unit and it didn’t take long for Cagney to pick out his father, standing in the back row with the other taller young marines; Cagney pointed him out for April. In one photo the unit looked serious, confident; in the other, most wore smiles, no doubt ignorant of what lay ahead for them. He thought he recognized Murphy, standing to his father’s left in each photograph, but he couldn’t be sure.

The other photos were taken years later, at Marine Corps reunions his father had attended through the years. Cagney was saddened both by the aged faces as well as by the smaller number of marines in these photos, although he always recognized Murphy.

Next came a photo of Cale, a bust shot in his dress blues (although the photo was black and white), his hat at a jaunty angle. Smiling broadly, he looked proud. Cagney couldn’t recall ever seeing his father look so innocent, and so he wondered if the photo had been taken prior to the nightmare that was Okinawa.

“He was very handsome,” April said.

“Yes, he was.”

“I see where you get your looks.”

Cagney only chuckled.

“I’m serious,” April said.

“Thanks,” Cagney said as he pulled a plaque from the footlocker. The plaque bore the Marine Corps emblem and read:

 

“To the most important girl in my life.”

 

Each day I love you
a little more … than
I did the day before

 

Serving Proudly

 

United States Marine Corps

 

“Your mother must’ve loved that,” April said, laughing.

“No doubt.”

Cagney pulled a framed presidential unit citation to the First Marine Division, reinforced. Typed, it honored the recipient for “extraordinary heroism in action against enemy Japanese forces during the invasion and capture of Okinawa Shima, Ryuku Islands from April 1 to June 21, 1945.” It went on to describe the marines’ efforts against “a formidable system of natural and man-made defenses protecting the main enemy bastion at Shuri Castle.” The citation was signed, for the President, by the Secretary of the Navy, John, L. Sullivan.

“Wow,” April breathed; but Cagney was pulling the next item from the footlocker: another framed citation, this one, with his father’s name typed at the top, from the White House:

 

To you who answered the call of your country and served in its Armed Forces to bring about the total defeat of the enemy, I extend the heartfelt thanks of a grateful Nation. As one of the Nation’s finest, you undertook the most severe task one can be called upon to perform. Because you demonstrated the fortitude, resourcefulness and calm judgment necessary to carry out that task, we now look to you for leadership and example in further exalting our country in peace.

 

It was signed, Harry S. Truman. The signature didn’t appear to be a rubber stamp, although it likely had been mimeographed as part of the citation.

Cagney felt his eyes tear up and he choked back a sob. So much his father had kept hidden from him. He felt April’s hand on his knee. He set down the citation and reached to remove the last two items from the footlocker: a third citation—this one unframed and folded in half—and a small navy blue box with twin gold pinstripes down its center. Cagney unfolded the citation to read how Cale Nowak had been left, alone, to guard a narrow pass to the rear of his unit as they advanced on Shuri Castle. Against overwhelming numbers of enemy soldiers that appeared from an undetected tunnel, Cale had emptied his sidearm, thereafter defending himself armed only with his bayonet knife. By the time help arrived, the fight was finished; Cale, overcome by exhaustion, lay unconscious but otherwise unharmed, beneath a dead Japanese soldier and surrounded by eight other enemy corpses.

Cagney opened the box, its spring-hinged lid stiff with age, and pulled from it a satin ribbon; from the vertical red, white and blue stripped ribbon hung a silver star.

It was too much for Cagney and he gave in to his grief.


Posted by J. Conrad Guest at 11:33 AM EST
Updated: Sunday, 3 October 2010 12:47 PM EDT
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Monday, 25 January 2010
Amy DeTrempe Interview
Topic: Backstop

Below appears an interview I did with Amy DeTrempe in which I was able to talk about Backstop and writing in general:

 

 

AMY: Thank you for joining me. What else would you like to share with us regarding your book?

JCG: Hi, Amy. You’re welcome and thank you for sharing your corner of the Internet with me. Backstop is the autobiography I wish I could’ve written, sans the infidelity aspect. My childhood dream was to play baseball, but like Backstop’s parents, mine would have none of that. So I started with my own childhoodyes, my dad was a Marine Corps DI and several recollections of Backstop’s youth are from my ownbut where I let my dream die, Backstop pursues and achieves his.

AMY: Were there any surprises that came about while you were writing Backstop, or did you stick with the plan you had set?

JCG: My original intent with Backstop was to depict the power of lies. Originally, I envisioned a jealous teammate of Backstop’s concocting a lie about an affair that never took place, thereby jeopardizing Backstop’s marriage. But I’ve always been fascinated by what, in today’s modern era of fiction, is known as the “antihero.” He’s not always heroic, not even particularly likeable at times, but he always does the right thing (even if he does so kicking and screaming). In the end he redeems himself.

In life, heroes fail. Some, like Tiger Woods, fail abysmally; after all, they’re human. I think our society in general is too quick to affix that hero status upon athletes and actors and actresses. Sadly, too few are deserving, while the real heroes—the father who takes a third job to put food on the table for his children, or the single mother who overcomes breast cancer to raise her family—we rarely read or hear about in the news. But that’s a whole other topic. The key to writing an antihero, of course, is to make the reader care enough about this often unsympathetic character to keep turning pages. I wouldn’t put Backstop into the category of an antihero. Unlike the antihero for whom we root to succeed, we root for Backstop to not fail; yet once he succumbs to temptation, we root for his redemption. At least, that is what I hope from the reader.

So, maybe a third of the way into Backstop, I chose to veer from the pure-hearted protagonist who would become a victim of a vicious untruth, and have him, in a moment of weakness, betray his wife of 12 years. The story ultimately becomes one of redemption and forgiveness—yes, in order to truly forgive, one must forget.

I think the reader is in for a few surprises along the way, too, but I’ll leave those for him or her to encounter on their own.

AMY: What inspired you to write this book or these particular characters?

JCG: Having realized I was never going to play major league baseball, I suppose it was inevitable that I would one day write a novel with a baseball theme. Backstop is a sort of alternate reality for me. In the title character I see the person I once wished to become, had I the courage to reach out to make my dream come true. My parents meant well, wishing to spare me the disappointment that comes with falling short of achieving a dream, but their lesson—that I should avoid risk—has also had a negative impact on my life, on some of the choices I’ve made along the way.

What also inspired me was my relationship with my father. We were never close, until the last year of Dad’s life, while he waited for cancer to claim his life. He’s been gone now nearly 12 years and I still find myself seeking his approval. Like me, Backstop puts questions to a man who, in death, is as adamant about withholding answers as he was in life. My father appears in a lot of my work, but always post mortem. My work in progress, however, is in part about a son’s efforts to connect with his father before he succumbs to cancer, proving the old adage that writers write from experience.

AMY: Tell the readers about your writing journey and how you ended up with your publisher.

JCG: My fiction tends to be literary. Elmore Leonard claims to leave out of his text all those long narratives he envisions his readers skipping over. But I love rich narrative. Backstop’s storyline is a simple one: a man’s efforts to make his dream come true while trying to connect with a deceased father, finding girl, losing girl, winning girl back. Yet the structure I employed—a baseball love story in nine innings—is anything but formula. Telling a man’s life story in flashback during game seven of the World Series, and bouncing from present to past and back again is complex (and I had one or two detractors along the way tell me it wouldn’t work), I think is rewarding for the reader.

Backstop wasn’t an easy sell. Despite a number of encouraging rejection letters, most publishers/agents were reticent about taking me on. I was told there is no market for baseball novels—try searching on Amazon using “baseball” as your keyword. Some of the most popular sports genre movies are about baseball: Field of Dreams, The Natural, For Love of the Game and The Rookie all started out in print. Who can forget Bull Durham?

I was convinced I had a winner in Backstop and I wasn’t going to self-publish. I tried that route when my publisher for the first edition of January’s Paradigm went bankrupt and I found I didn’t have the financial resources to make it a success.

Last April, Second Wind Publishing invited me to send my entire manuscript and by September we inked the deal. I cringed, initially, when I learned Backstop would appear as part of their Beckoning Books Romance imprint. I certainly don’t consider myself a romance novelist, yet many of my favorite novels have romance themes. There is a large market for romance novels, so I hope Backstop finds an audience. There is also enough baseball in Backstop to appeal to baseball purists as well.

Working with Second Wind has been a great experience. No heavy-handed ultimatums about changing this character or that one, revising this scene, deleting that one. They’ve offered suggestions (some I’ve taken, others I’ve rejected). They were patient as I continued to revise and polish, always encouraging me. I found it ironic that, just before Christmas, another publisher to whom I’d submitted Backstop last February finally sent me an email turning me down. Yes, I thumb my nose at publishers who advise against simultaneous submissions. No writer can afford to wait 10 months for a rejection letter.

AMY: If there is one piece of advice you could give an unagented/unpublished author, what would it be?

JCG: Assuming you have talent, further assuming you’ve gone through several rewrites, have revised and polished, have had more than one trusted reader give you their reaction and suggestions for improvement and have revised and polished some more, my advice is the same advice I’ve heard from almost every successful writer, and that is to employ another essential tool from the writer’s toolbox—perseverance.

If I recall correctly, Rowling endured nearly 100 rejections before Harry Potter was picked up. Publishing is incredibly competitive, perhaps never more than in today’s economic environment. There is no easy road into print, save for self-publishing. Expect twists and turns, to be turned down. But learn from your rejection letters—a handwritten comment that you have talent is gold because it tells you that you’re on the right track. If you have talent, it you have a good manuscript, you will likely find a home for it, but only if you employ perseverance.

AMY: Besides Backstop, which we highlighted here, have you published other books or are there some that are yet to be released?

JCG: January’s Paradigm is available on Amazon. I’ve written a companion novel, January’s Penitence, which I plan to submit to Second Wind in a few weeks, as they embark upon including a science fiction/fantasy imprint. I have a novella I’m currently shopping and another novel in progress. Information on and excerpts from all of these can be found on my website.

AMY: How can we find you on the Internet (FaceBook, Twitter, MySpace, blog, website addresses)?

JCG: In addition to my website, I have a FaceBook page; I appear on Goodreads, LinkedIn, and I Twitter. My fiction appears on a number of Websites—just Google me.

AMY: Is there anything you would like to ask the readers?

JCG: You know, there is. Writers write, in part, to connect with an audience. Sadly, all too often our only connection comes at the end of the month, when we receive our royalty statement. That said, I’d like to ask your readers to connect with me, and all their favorite writers. Please, stop my Website, sign my guestbook (I promise not to spam you in return for your generosity), check out my blog; leave a comment or two on those entries that move you. Let me know what you think. Writing is a solitary endeavor, but after a piece is finished, a writer wants to know that they’ve connected with you!


Posted by J. Conrad Guest at 1:30 PM EST
Updated: Monday, 25 January 2010 1:36 PM EST
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Monday, 18 January 2010
The Cobb Legacy
Topic: Novel excerpts

 

Thirty-Six

 

“It defies human capability for anyone to average almost .400 in the past five seasons. Is he bribing the pitchers? He’s simply from a higher league than any we know.”

 

—Ring Lardner

 

 

Cagney stood staring in the bathroom mirror, waiting for the water to run hot. Cale lay in the other room, comatose now for nearly 36 hours, unlikely to ever again regain consciousness. Cagney hardly recognized the image that stared back at him from the other side of the looking glass. April had told him not long ago that he’d grown more handsome with age, the etchings of lines at the corners of eyes and mouth, the graying of hair; but all Cagney saw was the stress of waiting for his father’s death mingled with the ugliness of his sin—guilt and something else. It was that something else, which he couldn’t quite define but understood, from which he shied.

Freyja had required little more from him during their affair than his presence in her bed. He didn’t want to believe Charlie’s charge that Freyja had all along faked her pleasure with him. Their trysts had been nothing more than physical, so Cagney believed, or wanted to believe, that she found his love-making pleasurable, desirable, even if she had faked it 60 percent of the time, as Charlie claimed most women did. He couldn’t believe that any woman would continue an affair with a lousy lover just to control him, a show of her power, to get back at an abusive father, a hatred of men, whatever her reasons.

Even though Freyja hadn’t called since the affair ended, there were times when Cagney found he still desired her body. Particularly troubling for him was that his desire for Freyja seemed to grow in direct proportion with his bonding with April. April offered everything he ever desired in a relationship but never found with Charlie—the friendship, companionship, comfort and intimacy he’d always thought a marriage should be. All the things he suspected neither of his parents ever enjoyed once the novelty of sex wore off. Cagney couldn’t recall ever seeing his father romance his mother; and his mother—well, apparently she never learned the art of manipulation that many women of her generation had employed in order to get what they desired by making their husbands think it had been his idea all along. All the things he never got from Freyja; but like Ron, it was a bargain he was happy to accept because there was safety in it. No commitment.

Cagney sighed and filled the bowl with hot water, then held his father’s badger hair shaving brush under the hot water before lathering up the soap, in its mug.

It was Saturday morning and the nurse’s aide assigned to Cale was tending another patient whose pending death required more immediate care. She suggested to Cagney that he shave Cale. Cagney consented; it was the least, if not the last thing, he could do for his father.

Cagney set the mug, with the brush inside it, alongside the bowl of water on the table that straddled Cale’s midsection; he set a towel on his father’s shoulder. Although his color was ashen, he looked to Cagney as if he were in deep slumber, the rise and fall of his chest slow and steady.

Cagney took up the mug, sat on the edge of the bed, and stirred the brush again to lather the soap; then he set about applying the soap to his father’s face. He expected the touch of the brush against his face would stir Cale from his sleep. When it didn’t, wanting to believe that some part of Cale was cognizant of the shrinking world he still inhabited, Cagney said, “It’s okay, Dad. It’s me. Your aide is busy, so you’re stuck with me to shave you today.”

Cagney reached for the double-edge razor in the bowl of water and proceeded to scrape the soap from Cale’s neck; he heard the soft scratch of blade against stubble.

“Thanks,” Cagney said, “for sticking up for me last week, when Charlie came to visit. I know you don’t approve of what I did to her, but …” Cagney didn’t know how to finish his sentiment, so he changed direction: “Freyja—the other woman—she was Swedish. You know my type has always been Mediterranean—dark, swarthy. Freyja’s name is from Old Norse, meaning lady, which she most definitely was not. It also means mistress.” Cagney allowed himself a chuckle. “Ironic, that, eh? Anyway, Freyja was blond and fair, but she had a great pair of gams.” Cagney paused a moment to dab dry a trickle of water from Cale’s neck.

“Do you recall the discussion we had years ago while we watched The Millionairess on Turner Classics? I told you I thought Sophia Loren was beautiful and that her legs were to die for.” Cagney chuckled at the memory and added, “When Charlie found out Freyja was Swedish, she set about hating all Swedes. I could understand the wrath she directed my way, with enough left over to rain down on Freyja, but an entire nation? Nicholas Lidstrom, Johan Franzen, Henrik Zetterberg, Tomas Holmstrom, all of them became detestable to her and so she stopped watching hockey.”

Cagney dipped the razor into the water, gave it a swirl, and set about shaving a cheek.

“Why she didn’t set about hating all women is beyond me. But Swedes suddenly became the lowlifes of the earth. It was shortly thereafter that she had me move out.” Cagney listened to the clink of the razor in the bowl and felt his eyes tear up. “I guess her respect for me, having consorted with such a lowlife, finally ran out.” A moment later he set about scraping clean of soap Cale’s other cheek.

“You were right, Dad, about Charlie forgiving me. Before I moved out, she used to delight in setting me up for failure. She once asked me if I thought Gwyneth Paltrow was beautiful. Like I’m going to disagree with millions of people around the world. Like casting directors cast her because she’s repulsive to look at. Southern California girl. I figured she was far enough away from Sweden to be safe. But no. Maybe it was because she was a blonde.” Cagney ran the razor along Cale’s chin. “Charlie used to knock me for being judgmental of women’s looks, but you know what? I’ve never known a woman who thought ugly some of the most beautiful women in the world.” Cagney sighed. “Saying you forgive someone means nothing unless you show them you have, and Dad? She says she’s no longer angry, but the things she says tell me otherwise. Maybe she doesn’t want to let go of her anger.”

Cagney sat staring at Cale, wondering if any of his words registered on what might’ve been left of his rotting brain. “I wish you’d been more nurturing to me, Dad. But I guess you gave what you could. Maybe you just didn’t know how any more than I know how. I just wish … I just wish I knew you better. Maybe then I’d better understand who I am, why I behave the way I do.”

Cagney dropped the razor into the bowl and proceeded to wipe the remnants of soap from Cale’s face. “There, finished, and without so much as a nick.” Cagney gathered his father’s shave accoutrements, stood and turned to head for the bathroom to find April leaning against the doorway to the room.

“Hi,” she whispered.

“You don’t have to worry about waking him,” Cagney said with a grin. And then, “How long have you been standing there?”

“Not long.”

Cagney recalled the day his father made the same claim, during a conversation he was having with April. From the discussion that ensued, Cagney knew his father had been awake far longer than he confessed, and so he only wondered how much of his soliloquy she’d overheard.

“Come on in and sit down,” Cagney said, and left for the bathroom.

When he returned he found April standing in front of one of the room’s chairs, her arms outstretched. He stepped to her and felt her arms go around him as he wrapped his own around her. A moment later he kissed her, conscious of his father’s presence, and they sat.

“I suspect you heard more than you let on.”

“I did,” April said, somewhat uncomfortably.

“Then why did you lie?”

“I didn’t lie, Cagney. I just … I don’t know. I didn’t want you to feel I’d intruded on a private moment.”

“I’m sorry,” Cagney said. “I didn’t mean to accuse you.”

“I understand.”

“Do you?” Cagney cringed at the accusatory tone of his question.

“I understand you have trust issues.”

“I don’t want you to make allowances for me.”

“I’m not making allowances, Cagney.”

“Oh, but aren’t you?”

“No, I’m not. I know some of what Charlie’s told you, which has left you questioning anything I say. Is it right that you distrust me? No. I’ve always trusted until someone proves untrustworthy. But I understand the why behind your distrust. In time, I hope you’ll be able to let that go.”

Cagney sighed. “I appreciate your patience.”

“It’s nice to know my Italian heritage fits with your type.”

“As do your legs,” Cagney said with a glance at April’s crossed legs. He felt his pupils dilate as they welcomed the image.

“Physical attraction has never been a problem for us,” April said, glancing at Cale, perhaps fearing she might find his eyes open. Cagney felt shame wash over him, that he’d spoken of his desire in the presence of his dying father, wondering whether their conversation might register in his cancer-riddled brain, no doubt frustrated by his inability to participate.

“Physical attraction got me into a loveless marriage and was also the basis for an affair that was equally lacking.”

“Which might be a fear of intimacy, the result of a father who wasn’t very nurturing as well as the role models you had as a boy. But that doesn’t mean you can’t learn. I think you’re more nurturing than you think. You’ve always been nurturing to me, even before you encouraged me to leave Ron.”

“I hope that was the right thing.”

“I know you fear I left him for you, but you gave me the courage to do something I should’ve done long ago.”

“Maybe, but I wonder if my motives were so pure.”

“If they weren’t, don’t you think we’d have consummated a physical relationship by now? That I have hope for a future with you brings me comfort, but believe me when I say you were not the reason I left Ron.”

Cagney said nothing; April continued: “I know you don’t want to hurt me any more than I want to hurt you. Nor do I want to be hurt. But there are no guarantees in life. At some point we have to risk—whether the risk is to change jobs, to self-publish to further a literary career, or to love.”

“My father’s life is filled with regrets, even if he hasn’t told me any of them.”

“And I understand your regret over the affair, and also your angst over future regret, but you can’t go through life avoiding risk because that will lead to much greater regret later. Who wants to end up in a hospice bed wondering what if, or I wish I had done this or that when I had the chance?”

“I know that, logically, in my head. But I’m stuck in this place, and I can’t keep from looking back over my shoulder, at the past.”

“And you can’t go forward without an occasional glance at the past. But the danger is in staring. That’s something I did far too long with Ron. I read in an article about a 91-year-old woman that she didn’t want to think about yesterday. She wanted to think about today, and what she was going to do tomorrow. She defined the moment when a man or a woman begins to grow old—when they find their thoughts turning more to the past than to the future.”

“Is it any wonder I’m feeling old?” Cagney said, grinning.

“And who wants to feel old?”

“But I am old.”

“You’re not old, Cagney, not at 52. Fifty-two is just a number.”

“Yeah, and I have more numbers behind me than I do ahead of me.”

“Even if that’s true, it’s defeatist thinking. You need to start living for today, as if it’s the first day of your life, and for tomorrow. Otherwise you’ll end up on your deathbed regretting that you left most of your life unlived.”

“If I’d asked you, six months ago, to have an affair, would you have agreed?”

“No, but not because I doubted my feelings for you. I understand, from what I’ve read and from my marriage, that men are capable of sex without love. I don’t pretend to understand why that is, but I know I would not have gotten from you what I want, even if you’d given me what I need.”

“Is there a difference, between want and need?”

“A world of difference, Cagney. A need can be easily satisfied, if only temporarily, which is perhaps why men more easily act on their need. Whereas a want is more difficult to obtain.”

Cagney thought about what he wanted, hoped to have, with April, why he feared he might not ever be able to have it. In marrying Charlie, he’d given in to need, as he had when he’d responded to Freyja’s initial flirtation. But neither of them had been able to provide for his wants.

“I’m not even sure what it is that I want.”

“I think you do, Cagney. You’re very introspective. You’ve told me what it was that was lacking in your marriage and the affair. I think what you’re unsure of is that having what you want might not bring you happiness.”

April followed Cagney’s gaze, to where his father lay.

“That was a wonderful thing you did, even nurturing, shaving him,” April said. “I’m sure at some level he was aware of it, was appreciative. Even if he couldn’t let you know.”

“Thank you. I needed to hear that.”

“What was so funny about you telling him that Sophia Loren’s legs were to die for?”

Cagney laughed. “He told me he couldn’t understand the allure legs held for some men, that you only end up pushing them out of the way.”

April laughed and Cagney found himself taken by the sound as well as by the brightness of her smile. He never would’ve guessed at the hurt Ron had inflicted on her heart.

When her laughter ebbed, he asked, “You believe in the theory about paying it forward?”

“I do. It’s easy to maintain the status quo, to take what was given you and pass it along to the next person. It takes great courage to break the chain, to unlearn those old debilitating lessons, to go forward with a renewed sense of employing something newly learned. It may be difficult, but it’s ever so much more rewarding. It’s contagious, self-perpetuating, and I think it can bring happiness, too.”

Cagney only looked at April, to acknowledge to himself her beauty as well as her wisdom, which, to his surprise, only made her all the more desirable.


Posted by J. Conrad Guest at 10:35 PM EST
Updated: Sunday, 3 October 2010 12:48 PM EDT
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Sunday, 3 January 2010
Backstop Now Available For Purchase!
Topic: News

Backstop: A Baseball Love Story is now available from Second Wind Publishing. A Kindle version is currently available from Amazon, with book to follow.

Rachael Perry, author of How to Fly and also a Michigan writer, says of Backstop: “Baseball, like love, is a game of errors and regrets. Pop-outs, ground-outs, strike-outs. A bad swing, a bad throw, a bad hop. But what captivates us most is the possibility of the next at-bat, of the chance for a rally, of an unlikely clutch play that suddenly changes the stakes. This is where J. Conrad Guest meets us in Backstop: in this beautiful, hopeful place closest to our hearts, where we play for the love of the game, and we love with everything we have.”

For this, my second published novel, I combined his love and knowledge of baseball with romance and the heartbreak of betrayal. Not your typical romance novel, Backstop can perhaps best be described as a literary Bull Durham, sure to appeal to purists of the game as well as those who enjoy a good love story. Backstop is a great winter read as we await spring and the arrival of a new baseball season, when hope springs eternal.


Posted by J. Conrad Guest at 7:41 AM EST
Updated: Sunday, 12 December 2010 7:27 PM EST
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Saturday, 2 January 2010
Happiness Is Just A Word
Topic: Memoir

 

I’ve always been a glass seven-eighths empty personality. While my mother battled Parkinson’s disease for 18 years, I watched as, in her bouts with depression, she spent a small fortune on clothes, jewelry, books and knick knacks for the house. While these purchases brought her temporary pleasure, they failed to make her happy. Often she returned many of her purchases a week or so later for others. In retrospect, I suspect her habit was symptomatic of her illness.

If it’s true that we often choose our unhappiness, then it can also be said that we can choose to be happy. It’s also true that old habits die hard.

I have much for which to be thankful. I still have good health, a job that pays fairly well in an economic climate the likes of which this country hasn’t seen since the Great Depression, and my second novel just launched. And yet I worry about its success. Will this child of mine, born of my imagination and hopes and dreams, be readily accepted by the readers with whom I hope to connect—yes, writers write, in large part, to connect with others.

I find it difficult to choose happiness in this step of publication. Perhaps I fear even more its potential success than I do should the number of sales fall short of my hopes and expectations because, like my mother, I find pleasure in the purchase of a good bottle of scotch or a box of cigars. But I know, from my own experience as well as from hers, that such purchases don’t make me happy.

Happiness, without peace of mind, is just a word, and peace of mind is something that eludes me, as it did my mother. Yet just as I understand that happiness is not a destination, it is a choice, one that I fear for a number of reasons. Am I deserving of happiness? Once achieved, will it disappoint me? Sometimes we hold onto our anger, our losses, our regrets, our pain and heartache as badges of honor, and doesn’t achieving happiness mean we have to let go of these?

It’s not happiness I seek as I progress through my sixth decade, but instead peace of mind. I’m convinced that without peace of mind, happiness is just a word, one whose definition I understand, but whose meaning doesn’t apply in my life.


Posted by J. Conrad Guest at 9:52 PM EST
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Wednesday, 23 December 2009
An Out of Tune Christmas
Topic: Memoir

 

 

 

“Oh boy. This piano’s out of tune. I love out of tune pianos.” —Rowlf

 

This time of year, I always feel a little like Rowlf, one of Jim Henson’s Muppet creations. Actually, I feel a lot like Rowlf this year more than most, because the meaning of Christmas is lost to me.

Both my parents have been deceased for more than a decade, and I have no children of my own. For the first couple years after their passing, I struggled with Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. TV commercials push remembering Mom and Dad, and my email inbox fills each spring with spam for products to buy for them. I felt then that I was the only person whose parents were deceased. But I got used to it. These many years later, I acknowledge my parents’ existence in my own way.

My girlfriend and I broke up a couple years ago, and we recently found that trying to maintain a friendship wasn’t working either, and so this year, for the first time in many years, I find myself alone for the holidays.

My second novel, Backstop: A Baseball Love Story in Nine Innings, will launch after the first of the year, and I’m happy, thrilled, by all that publication portends. But I have moments of melancholia, too.

In 1998, when the first edition of my first novel, January’s Paradigm, was published, I had no significant other either. Mom had passed away and Dad had but a few months to live before colon cancer claimed him. Cancer plays no favorites, waits on no one. Dad knew of my publication, but sadly, when my author copies arrived, he was gone. I poured a glass of scotch—Glenfiddich 21-year-old—lit a cigar (an Ashton if memory serves me), and opened the box. As celebrations go, it was subdued; but as sharing my publishing success with my parents went, it was the best I could do.

I have much for which to be thankful, but I have regrets, too (does anyone get out of life without a few of those?); and I’m sure I’ve disappointed my parents, maybe more than most children. Those days on which I succeed, I wonder if my parents, wherever they are, are proud of me. On those days I fall short, disappoint myself, I hope they care nothing at all about what happens on my plane of existence.

On Christmas morning I’ll arise early, as is my custom, have breakfast, put on coffee, light a cigar and put down a thousand or so words toward completing my next novel. After lunch, I’ll pour myself a glass of scotch (Aberlour a’bunadh), put on a Monk CD (I love Monk for all his dissonance and split notes), pull out some Christmas cards from my parents, and look ahead to a new year, as out of tune as many of its predecessors, and try to make the best of it—productive and, hopefully, prosperous.

Merry Christmas to one and all: may you find it to be all you wish.

—J. Conrad Guest/December 2009


Posted by J. Conrad Guest at 7:14 AM EST
Updated: Wednesday, 19 September 2012 8:38 AM EDT
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Saturday, 14 November 2009
Birth of a Novel
Topic: Backstop

I’ve always loved the game of baseball. What’s not to love? A simple gamehit a round ball squarely with a round batwith simple rules: reach base, move the runner along, and score more runs than your opponent.

My dad took me to my first ballgame, a Tigers/Angels night game at old Tiger Stadium, a game which the home team won. I was but seven years old. The Corktown district in Detroit, in the early 1960s, had not yet fully deteriorated, and the 1968 race riots were still a few years away. Al Kaline was my childhood idol, and I dreamed of playing major league baseball, of roaming the outfield the way Kaline did, of hitting for average, for power, and of winning a World Series.

Unfortunately, my parents had other ideas. I’m sure they meant well, to protect me from disappointment, by steering me toward a more attainable career. Pete Rose was still more than a decade away from signing a three million dollar deal with the Phillies.

I started writing my first novel, January’s Paradigm, when I was 35. A science fiction affair with an alternate reality theme written around a Chandleresque character who was a private detective circa 1945, two more novels would follow to complete a trilogy. The project took nearly 15 years to complete, during which I lost both my parents. Funny, what losing one’s parents does: drive home the reality of one’s mortality. When my father passed away, I realized what I’d already known for quite some timeI was never going to play major league baseball.

After I finished the January books, I started looking for my next project. I was 51, in the first year of my sixth decade, and it seemed only natural that I write a novel with a baseball theme. In Backstop, I started with the boy I once was, with a dream of playing professional baseball. His parents, too, had other ideas. But where I succumbed, this lad ignores his parents’ wishes, to make his dream come true. Sadly, Backstop’s father dies before Backstop is drafted by the Detroit Tigers. A major theme is Backstop’s drive to prove himself to his deceased father.

What’s a good story without romance? In his rookie season, Backstop learns that lovin’ can be readily found around the ballpark, but true love eludes him for a timeuntil a chance meeting with the owner of a small business in Chicago. What follows is a season-long courtship followed by an offseason marriage.

Twelve years elapse, and when the Tigers make the playoffs for the first time during Backstop’s tenure, he goes out to celebrate with team mates, and he falls prey to a younger woman.

Perhaps my most accessible novel to date, Backstop: A Baseball Love Story In Nine Innings is composed of multiple themesthe importance of dreams (and our pursuit of making them come true), of loss and love, and of redemption in the aftermath of infidelity.


Posted by J. Conrad Guest at 7:05 AM EST
Updated: Sunday, 15 November 2009 8:22 AM EST
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Sunday, 8 November 2009
The Cobb Legacy
Topic: Novel excerpts

Another excerpt from my completed novel …

 

 

 

Thirty

 

 

Down with this Cobb!

 

Sporting News, September 1909

 

 

As was his custom, Cagney let himself into his father’s house with the spare key he’d kept since his teen years. Cale, who was sitting on the sofa, glanced at Cagney, startled, then looked at the high-backed chair across from him.

“What ...?” he said.

“What is it, Dad?”

“I was just talking to you. You were there, in that chair.”

Cagney sighed. Cale’s doctor had told them this day would likely come. Now that he was off treatment, the cancer was left unchecked, to run rampant. Cale had hallucinated a conversation with Cagney. Had the cancer metastasized to Cale’s brain?

“Well, you’re here now,” Cale said, an effort to downplay the episode. Then, pushing himself into a standing position, he added, “I’m hungry, let’s go eat. I’ll get your mother.”

“Dad,” Cagney said. “Mom’s not here, remember?”

“Oh,” Cale said heavily, punctuating his statement by dropping heavily onto the sofa; the sofa groaned in protest of its burden. Cale looked up at Cagney, a moment of distrust seemed to gleam in his eyes, and Cagney wondered if the basis for his distrust might be Cagney’s mere presencethat his father feared he might be hallucinatingor that he was loath to believe what his son had told him about Iris being deceased. The moment passed and Cale looked at the floor, between his feet.

“It’s okay, Dad. I’m here,” Cagney said to reassure him.

“I’m fucked up, Cagney. Been seeing a lot of things that just aren’t there.” Cale looked up. “Isn’t that what the doctor said I could expect, at the end?”

“Yeah, Dad. That’s what he said.”

Cale let out a long sigh. “Ah, Christ,” he said.

 

Cagney waited, throughout the drive to The Broken Egg, for his father to bring it up; Cale remained mute.

A waitress came with two glasses of water and asked for their order. Her nametag said her name was Karen. Cagney asked about Sheila, whom he hadn’t seen the last few times he’d brought his father to this dinner. To his knowledge, she still hadn’t read Vito.

“She got a job at La Dolce Vita. More money, better tips.”

Cagney pictured Sheila in the short skirt and tight, low cut blouse she would be required to wear and wondered if the tips were worth it to herbeing ogled by the likes of Ron. Charlie insisted that no woman relished being leered at. Apparently, for a few extra dollars, some women would consent. Cagney recalled a piece of dialogue from Vito in which the title character had hit on a woman in a drinking establishment known to be a pickup joint. Mandy, a loose woman who dressed loosely (figuratively speaking), told Vito that if he expected her to invite him back to her place for the price of a couple martinis he was sadly mistaken. Vito had replied, “Now that we’ve determined what you are, we’re left to dicker over price?”

Karen left with their lunch ordera club sandwich for Cagney and a burger for Cale, cooked rare. Cagney refrained from advising his father against eating undercooked beef.

“Dad,” he said, “Don’t you think it’s time we made a decision?”

“About what?”

Cale refused to meet Cagney’s eyes, and Cagney was certain his father knew all too well to what he was referring.

“The decision is yours of course, but we agreed that when this day came, you would consent to moving to hospice.”

Cale met Cagney’s gaze and it took a moment for Cagney to recognize what he saw. He couldn’t recall ever having seen fear in his father’s eyes. Cale blinked away the fear, replaced it with defiance.

“Can’t wait to bury your old man, eh?”

“You know that isn’t so, Dad. We agreed you’d receive better care at hospice. Mother did.”

Cale seemed to relive those last days, as Iris waited for the inevitable, and Cagney watched the fear assail itself once more in Cale’s blue eyes. Again Cale blinked it away, and Cagney saw evidence of what Murphy had described as the bravest marine with whom he’d ever served.

“It is what it is,” Cale muttered to himself.

“Dad?”

“I can’t trust myself to make decisions. If you think it’s time, then it’s time.”

 

They returned to the house in time to catch Once Upon a Time in The West on Turner Classics. As westerns went, it was one of Cale’s favorites. Before the opening scene, in which Henry Fonda, playing the darkest character of his illustrious film career, wipes out the frontier family, Cale had nodded off.

A short time later, Cagney gave in to Nature’s call. In the bathroom, he found his father had left a mess on the floor when emptying the contents of his colostomy bag. Sighing to himself, Cagney relieved himself and left to find a bucket, a mop and a sponge in the basement.

When he returned to Once Upon a Time in the West, he found Cale awake.

“Thanks,” was all Cale said, and Cagney tried to recall a time when he’d heard that word from his father.

The next day Cagney arranged for his father to move to Angela Hospice.

 

Angela Hospice became the first freestanding inpatient hospice center of its kind in Michigan in 1994, and received the Governor’s Quality Care Award in 2000. Composed of 16 rooms, the facility is staffed by 16 nurses and eight nurse aides, all with special certification in hospice and palliative care. Each room is private, and daytime staffing is at a ratio of one nurse and one aide per four patients. An on-site chef prepares meals according to dietary needs or patient preference. As many as 500 volunteers provide a variety of services, including companionship, assistance with meals, respite care, and spiritual support. They also provide, at no cost, bereavement support to family.

Cagney’s mother had made it known, after her first stroke, that she did not wish to be tortured into being kept alive. Shortly after her last stroke, she’d slipped into a coma. Rather than keep her on life support indefinitely, Cale and Cagney agreed to move her from hospital to hospice, where she would receive much better care, her level of discomfort, even while in coma, would be monitored, and she would be given morphine whenever she needed it rather than on a strict two-hour regimen. As assisted suicide went, it was the best Cagney could do for his mother.

Cagney was fortunate to find, for Cale, several available beds at Angela Hospice.

They packed one small suitcase, mostly underwear, a robe, slippers and Cale’s shave kit—a badger hair brush, bowl and soap, double-edged razor and stand, all in brushed pewter. A much more elegant manner by which to shave, Cagney always thought, in a much simpler bygone era. On a whim, Cagney also thought to bring the Christmas gift he’d bought for Cale last year: a scaled replica of the Hopkins Special that Bill Vukovich drove in the 1955 Indianapolis 500. “Vukie” had won the previous two 500s and was a threat to become the first driver ever to three-peat.

Vukovich was leading just past the quarter mark of the 1955 event when he couldn’t avoid the three-car wreck of Al Keller, Johnny Boyd, and Rodger Ward. His car went airborne and over the wall on the backstretch, landing upside down and in flames. Cale was at the race that day, sitting in the bleachers on the backstretch. He once recalled for Cagney watching the pin-wheeling car, before it went over the wall, with Vukovich strapped in, likely already dead, his arms flailing like those of a ragdoll, his white T-shirt stained crimson red.

Cagney had struggled with buying a Christmas gift for someone who likely wouldn’t live to see another Yule. When he saw the replica on an online store that sold sports memorabilia, he threw all caution to the wind and opted for the frivolous rather than something practical. The replica, one of only 50, came with a number of authenticity as well as a display case. Also included was a framed black and white reprint of the car on pit road, a smiling and helmeted Bill Vukovich behind the wheel, his nine-member pit crew standing behind the car, all smiling. The photograph had been taken on race-morning, just hours before the crash that claimed Vukie’s life.

Cagney recalled looking at the photograph before wrapping it, the smiling faces, hopeful of making history at the world’s most storied race track. It’s true, he’d thought then. Life really does balance on a knife’s edge.

Still, on Christmas morning, Cagney held his breath, not sure how Cale would react. He was surprised when no verbal chastisement was forthcoming, nor had Cale asked how much money it had cost. What surprised Cagney most was the childlike look in his father’s eyes as he admired the craftsmanship, the minute detail of the replica, the half-smile he couldn’t keep from his mouth. Cale looked at the photograph and the half-smile disappeared as he nodded once, perhaps reliving the event in his mind’s eye. He said nothing as he set the photo down and looked at Cagney. As thanks went, it was the best Cagney could expect.

Once they were at hospice, Cagney unpacked his father’s suitcase—underwear in the small bedside dresser, shave kit in the bathroom—while Cale sat in one of the room’s two chairs, out of breath from the walk from the parking lot. Cagney stood in the bathroom a moment to admire the shave kit, a gift from his mother to his father during happier times, likely before Cagney came along.

Cagney came out of the bathroom and took the replica, in its case, from the bed and set it on a shelf recessed in the wall near the room’s lone door. He turned to see Cale looking at him, his breathing no longer labored.

“How much did that set you back?” he asked with a rare grin.

Keeping with his father’s levity, Cagney sat in the other chair and said, “I’ll tell you if you tell me about Okinawa.”

Cale’s smile immediately disappeared. “No deal,” was all he said.

“But why not? Even your pal Murphy said I should hear it from you. What could you have done that you’re so ashamed of?”

“Taking another man’s life shouldn’t be shameful?”

Cagney always suspected his father had killed during the war; to Cagney it was always a question of how many. But this was the first time Cale had acknowledged it.

“It was a war, Dad. Kill or be killed. You followed orders. I understand the Japanese were ordered to kill medics on-sight, to prevent them from rendering first aid to the wounded. That’s against the rules of engagement.”

“Rules!” Cale spat, and Cagney was surprised at the strength of his father’s vehemence. “War’s a dirty business, no matter how you try to sanitize it. Let me tell you, I saw a lot worse than unarmed medics being shot down while tending the wounded, and from our own.”

“I know, Dad.”

“Yeah, you know, from reading some text book.”

“Not a text book, Dad. Eugene Sledge was there on Okinawa, with you. He tells it like it was.”

“He tells it,” Cale aped. “Words on a printed page.”

“He doesn’t glorify it, the way Hollywood did with The Sands of Iwo Jima. I didn’t have to be there to be appalled by a marine removing the teeth of a dying Japanese soldier with his bayonet for the gold fillings. With the Old Breed should be required reading in our schools.”

“You don’t get it, do you?”

“What, Dad? What am I supposed to get? That all wars are politically motivated? That they could be avoided if the leaders of two disputing nations agreed to meet in the center of a boxing ring to duke it out? Tell me.”

“George Bush was quick to say that God was on our side in the fight against terrorism. And the Muslim world thinks God is on their side.”

“What, you think God takes sides?”

Cale waved aside Cagney’s question. “You think Hitler thought that what he was doing was evil?”

“Probably not.”

“You’ve seen some of the old newsreels. Hitler had the support of millions of Germans.”

“I know, and after he was killed a German couldn’t be found anywhere who admitted to supporting him.”

Cale sighed. “You spoke earlier of following orders. You don’t think the Japanese weren’t following orders, too?”

“The Japanese were expanding their empire. If we hadn’t stopped them we might all be speaking Japanese.”

“Yeah, they were. So did our forefathers, pushing west, taking land from the Native American Indians.”

“And I recall reading that John Wayne said we were right to do so, if the Indians couldn’t hold onto their land.”

“Our might made us right,” Cale said with a nod.

“The original quote, by August and Julius Hare, is ‘right is might.’”

Cale looked at Cagney and Cagney thought he caught a glimpse of acknowledgement, that maybe, in his father’s eyes, he’d attained some higher level of esteem. What he said was, “Another man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist.”

“I heard that, in the aftermath of 9/11.”

Cale nodded. “Wars are started by leaders of nations, but they’re fought in the trenches. We were indoctrinated, fed propaganda, of the evil Japanese empire, like Bush’s evil axis.”

“No doubt the Japanese soldiers were told of the evil West.”

Cale nodded again and Cagney felt that, maybe for the first time, they were actually communicating.

“I saw what some of our marines did to our POWs, just as I saw evidence in some of the caves on Okinawa what the Japanese did to their POWs. As squad leader, I made sure our POWs received humane treatment—because it was the right thing to do.” Cale’s eyes brimmed with tears over some distant recollection. “I could see the fear in their eyes. I knew I’d be terrified if I’d been taken prisoner. So I reached out. We had a translator in our unit, and I had him talk to our prisoners, assure them that they’d be cared for. These prisoners were with us only for a short time, maybe half a day, before they were moved to the beachhead, but I had the other members in my unit share some of their K rations with them, and you know what? I could see in their eyes the realization that we weren’t nearly the evil people they’d been told we were. We were no different, really, than they were. We were merely following orders, fighting in a war we didn’t start any more than they did.”

Cagney fought back his own tears. It was the most his father had ever shared of this time in the service.

Cale: “You’ll find in my footlocker, in the basement, all you need to know about my service with the Corps. It’s padlocked, and the key is not so well hidden that you won’t be able to find it after I’m gone.”


Posted by J. Conrad Guest at 12:45 PM EST
Updated: Sunday, 3 October 2010 12:49 PM EDT
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