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J. Conrad's blog
Monday, 30 May 2011
Back Home Again in Indiana
Topic: Memoir

Yesterday’s Indianapolis 500 was certainly one for the ages.

It was the 100th anniversary of the speedway—not to be confused with the anniversary of the race, which was halted several years during the war years, both the first and second World Wars. The 100th running of the event will be marked later this decade. Coincidentally, I attended my first 500 in 1966 as a nine-year-old boy. It was the 50th running of the race, and a tradition of my own was born that year. In the seventies and eighties I strung together more than twenty consecutive races—I have the tickets to prove it. I witnessed Foyt become the first man to win four 500s. I’ve seen some of the greatest drivers—A.J. Foyt, Jimmy Clark, Graham Hill, the Unsers and the Andrettis, Emerson Fittipaldi and many others. I witnessed history as Janet Guthrie became the first woman to ever start the Indy 500.

Sadly, in the 1970’s, the sport began to change. It became more about technology. Where once a great driver could put a car into Victory Lane, it’s now about investing the most money in equipment. Today a winning team is composed of maybe 40% driver. In the 1990’s I stopped going to the race.

Three and a half years ago my now ex-girlfriend, knowing of my past love for this event, asked me when I was going to take her to a 500. She’d long complained that I didn’t take her out enough and so I ordered two tickets—not the best seats in the house; I ordered them late and few good seats were available. We went and she complained about the seats, the noise and the heat and I was reminded why it was I rarely took her anyplace. Did I mention she’s now my ex-girlfriend?

Last fall I suggested to a boyhood pal, who had never been to the Greatest Spectacle in Racing, that attending this special anniversary celebration might be the one to make his first. Mark told me, “Sure, let me get back to you,” leaving me to wonder if he really would. True to his word, he contacted me a few days later to tell me that two of his buddies from church wanted to come along and so I ordered four tickets.

Four grown men, we guys of a certain age, driving all night to attend the Indy 500—truly a recipe for a grand time. Or maybe disaster.

I told Mark we should leave at 2:30 Sunday morning, which would allow us enough time to enjoy breakfast at the International House of Pancakes on Meridian at 16th Street. There was nothing special about the IHOP other than its rich history: Dad had taken me there in 1966 and I’d gone there every year I ever attended a race. I took a previous girlfriend there—it was the year Foyt won his fourth—as well as my wife and, three years ago, my old girlfriend. The IHOP was long part of my tradition. From there we’d head downtown and grab a shuttle to the track where we’d roam the infield to check out the sights before the race.

Well, David was late arriving to Northridge Church, where we’d all agreed to meet. By the time we got his stuff loaded into Mark’s Expedition we were thirty minutes behind schedule. But Mark got us back on schedule by pushing the upper limits of the posted speeds.

We talked all night, the stuff guys talk about. Mark talked about his three sons, of whom he is rightly proud. I’ve met them all and they are fine young men.

“Daniel,” he said, “had to do a paper for school on the merits of video games.”

Daniel is Mark’s youngest, at age nineteen. He’s intelligent and, as Mark claims, not nearly as quiet in private as he is in public. Best of all, he’s respectful of others—including our generation, when it’s earned.

“There are merits to playing video games?” David asked from the backseat. “As opposed to, say, reading a book?”

“That was the challenge of the assignment,” Mark said. “He put forth a good argument.”

“He convinced you?” I asked.

“No.”

We all laughed.

“Daniel told me he caught up with you on some website where you were carrying on a debate about some aspect of baseball,” Mark told me.

“No kidding?”

“I forget what the discussion was about but he told me he thought you sure were passionate about baseball.”

“That was a surprise to you?”

Mark laughed. “No.”

From there we talked of baseball, the beauty of the game, instant replay, steroids, the petty squabbles between billionaire owners and millionaire players.

“You’re against instant replay,” Mark said to me, “even though last summer it would’ve guaranteed Galarraga’s perfect game?”

“He still twirled a perfect game,” I countered. “Everyone knows that. Jim Joyce admitted it later, that he blew the call. In my mind I attended the only perfect game in major league history that will never appear in any record book. There’s something field of dreamish about that.”

“It’s not a perfect game if it took twenty-eight outs,” Mark said.

“It is if the umpire admits he blew the call.”

“Tell that to Galarraga.”

“He knows,” I said. “In his heart he knows. He doesn’t need no steenkin’ record book to tell him.”

We both agreed that Galarraga showed incredible class in the aftermath of what might have been.

We talked of politics and bin Laden and what constitutes torture.

“I’m not above torture,” Mark said. “I’d employ water-boarding to obtain the information that might save my family.”

We talked of David’s recent separation from his wife and his impending divorce.

Starlin talked about his motorcycle accident.

“I looked down for a minute,” he explained, “and when I looked up again a Volvo was stopped right in front of me. I went over the handlebars.”

Mark quipped that a minute was a long time to have one’s eyes not on the road.

We spoke of a variety of topics, including the race and who our favorites were.

“My favorite is anyone not driving for Penske or whose name is not Danica Patrick,” I said.

“I think she’s hot,” Star said.

“What’ve you got against Danica?” David asked.

“When she first broke in,” I said, “she did an interview during which she said she wanted to be taken seriously as a racecar driver, not a woman trying to play in the sandbox with the boys. Then she proceeded to take off her clothes for the swimsuit issue of Sports Illustrated.”

“You have a problem with that?”

“I like pretty girls as much as the next guy,” I said. “But if she wants to be taken seriously as a racecar driver, that’s not the way to go about it.”

“Carl Edwards in NASCAR did a spread for a magazine. That guy is ripped.”

“So what’s good for the gander is good for the goose.”

“Right.”

“Two wrongs make a right.”

“What’s wrong about it?”

“In a society that purports to be anti-objectification of women, a lot.”

And so it went. We passed the miles and the hours debating, in a healthy fashion, a host of topics, each of us respectful of the other’s opinions.

 

Four hours later we rolled into Indianapolis, gassed up the Expedition, and made our way into town.

We turned left onto Meridian and as we approached 16th Street I told Mark the IHOP would be on the left; but when we got there we saw that the IHOP had been replaced by a CVS and I found I was more than a little disappointed that a part of my past had been unceremoniously eradicated.

We drove downtown to get our shuttle tickets—$24 for a roundtrip fare. I recalled my dad telling me when he first started coming to Indy, in 1951, the train fare was but fifty cents.

We found another diner for breakfast where the food was far better than the IHOP had ever been; but it did little to assuage my disappointment.

It was nearly ten o’clock by the time we arrived at the track, and we spent an hour roaming the infield before making our way to our seats in turn one.

The atmosphere was electric, as it always is during the prerace festivities.

I was gratified that some things never change—God Bless America and America the Beautiful were sung. The invocation was given, Military Taps played, the Star Spangled Banner sung (a stealth bomber flew overhead looking sleek and ominous and took with it our breath). When Jim Nabors sang Back Home in Indiana it was again, for a moment, 1966 for me. I thought of my dad, shared the moment with him, and was glad the guys couldn’t see the tears in my eyes behind my sunglasses.

When the command was given to the drivers to start their engines I was only dimly aware of the addition of “ladies.” When the engines fired the four of us exchanged high fives and remained standing through the parade laps and the pace lap.

When the green flag dropped and the cars came by at speed, Mark turned to me and said something I couldn’t hear for the sake of the blessed noise of the screaming engines, but I didn’t care.

We then settled into our seats to watch the race unfold.

It was a race for the ages, a throwback to the golden age of motor sports. The rabbits, one by one fell by the wayside. Castroneves fell a lap behind; the pole sitter, Tagliani, crashed. The race was fast, with few caution periods.

When Danica Patrick took the lead late in the race, Mark elbowed me; but I told him she’d have to stop for fuel and would finish no better than 10th, which is pretty much where she’d been running all day.

The finish, like the race, was fast but eventful.

Kanaan and Franchitti looked to be contenders for the Borg Warner, but they, too, had to stop for a splash of fuel with a handful of laps to go.

J.R. Hildebrand inherited the lead and the race was his to lose, which he did when he hit the fourth turn wall on the last lap, leaving Dan Wheldon to take the checkered flag in one of the wildest finishes I can remember. Hildebrand's wrecked car stopped in front of us and he climbed from the cockpit looking as demolished as his once sleek car looked.

 

On our shuttle, as we inched along, I spotted a woman in a day-glo pink swimsuit top and short denim cutoffs. Although buxom, she wasn’t very pretty and was too old to be dressed as she was; but who was I to judge?

I called out to David, seated across the aisle from me, if he thought her top was indeed day-glo pink.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I’m terrible with colors.”

A woman’s voice from behind me concurred with my assessment. I turned in my seat thinking I was about to incur her wrath. But she was an attractive woman of our age, seated next to her husband, and she was good-natured about it.

“Did you notice her sunglasses were white?” she asked with a dazzling grin as her husband laughed.

I looked back at the woman in question and then back at the woman behind me.

“No, I missed that,” I said. “To be honest I was trying to make out the tattoo on her navel.”

When the bus inched past her, I added, “Dere dey glo.”

We had a bird’s eye view of the bus in front of us, where an advertisement stared back at us: a photo of a mansion and the words, See the House that Jefferson built.

“Bus driver,” I called out from my seat three rows behind him.

“Yessir?”

“What’s your name?”

“Howard.”

“Howard,” I said. “Are you going to show us the house that Jefferson built after you drive your bus through it?”

Howard joined us with a laugh and assured us that wouldn't happen.

 

Our drive home was pleasant and we passed the miles by talking about the day’s events and the lives to which we were returning. I mentioned some small piece of 500 trivia, adding that I was a wealth of worthless knowledge where Indy was concerned, and David said, “That’s something you wouldn’t learn by playing video games.”

Mark said he could see taking his grandchildren to a 500 one day when they got old enough and I took pleasure in passing a new tradition to someone.

 

We arrived at Northridge Church just after nine and I exchanged handshakes with Star and David, a hug with my childhood buddy, Mark.

On my drive home I lost myself in thoughts of the day, the race, what it meant to me, its traditions, Dad, and my own traditions. I thought of A.J. Foyt, a boyhood idol, who drove the pace car earlier in the day. It was the fiftieth anniversary of his first 500 win, and I wondered where the years had gone.

I fought back tears as I realized, yet again, you really can’t go home again.

I’d learned that lesson fifteen years ago when, after Dad passed away, my sister and I sold the house in which we grew up.

Alone in that house for the last time, I made my way through it, checking all the cupboards to make sure we hadn’t missed anything, and I caught a glimpse of myself in the bathroom mirror. The image that stared back at me was fifteen years old. Behind me stood Dad, teaching me how to tie a Windsor knot in the tie I wore to my high school homecoming dance.

A few weeks later I drove by that house on my way to visit friends who lived around the corner. It was dusk and I noted the new owners had replaced the drapes of the living room window with vertical blinds. The blinds were open and I could see the wallpaper in the living room had been torn down and the walls painted: the home my parents had made for me and my sister was now someone else’s home.

They, whoever they are, say that change is good. But that’s a blanket statement. Not all change is good, even if it is inevitable. Today’s Indy 500 is faster and safer than it was during the golden age of racing. It’s common for women to compete in what once was a male sport; when I first started attending the Great Race women weren't allowed in the pits. This year’s field boasted four women. Eventually the Borg Warner trophy will bear the likeness of a woman, and that, along with all the rest, is a good thing.

But this morning that does little to assuage my grief over a past forever etched only in memories.

 


Posted by J. Conrad Guest at 10:14 AM EDT
Updated: Saturday, 4 June 2011 3:43 PM EDT
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Saturday, 14 May 2011
Sad State of the Publishing Industry
Topic: Writing

“Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.”

Only one man could’ve written the sentence above: Raymond Chandler.  It was from an essay that appeared in The Atlantic Monthly in November 1945.

Raymond Chandler has been called one of the greatest stylists of the twenty-first century. Who am I to argue? I love this man’s prose.

From The Long Goodbye: “Alcohol is like love,” he said. “The first kiss is magic, the second is intimate, the third is routine. After that you take the girl’s clothes off.”

It’s true: they don’t write prose like that anymore.

Why?

Because creative writing courses, agents and publishers alike all claim it takes the reader out of the story.

What’s wrong with that? Commercials on TV take us out of our favorite dramas; but do we enjoy them any less? I live for prose that makes me stop and think whoa. That makes me reread the passage several times and leaves me wishing I’d written it.

Raymond Chandler, from The Lady in the Lake: “The little blonde at the PBX cocked a shell-like ear and smiled a small fluffy smile. She looked playful and eager, but not quite sure of herself, like a new kitten in a house where they don’t care much about kittens.”

As a novelist—one who professes to be somewhat a stylist—I’ve endured my share of rejection letters: I really like your voice, but this just isn’t right for us. Translation: We really look for something milk toast, something anyone could’ve written that has no style.

Creative writing courses advise wannabes to write little narrative, to focus on dialogue because, in their opinion, that’s what drives a novel.

Elmore Leonard (who writes with a screenplay mentality) claims that he leaves out of his novels anything he perceives the reader will skip over, i.e., narrative, and that narrative is the author’s attempt to butt into the story.

Raymond Chandler, from The Lady in the Lake: “I had a funny feeling as I saw the house disappear, as though I had written a poem and it was very good and I had lost it and would never remember it again.”

I once submitted to an online writer's forum as my own work an excerpt from a Joseph Conrad novel. Not surprisingly, it got ripped.

Writers are advised to write to a ninth grade level.

I might subscribe to that advice if the book industry were profitable. But the truth is it continues to lose money at an alarming rate. You’d think that maybe they’d look at their product and reconsider feeding the consumer the same old tired product—that which fits neatly into a box.

Raymond Chandler, from Farewell My Lovely: “I needed a drink, I needed a lot of life insurance, I needed a vacation, I needed a home in the country. What I had was a coat, a hat and a gun. I put them on and went out of the room.”

Sadly, the industry would prefer the above to be written as: “I needed a drink.”

What a shame that, were Chandler attempting to break into publishing today, he’d be turned away.


Posted by J. Conrad Guest at 2:08 PM EDT
Updated: Tuesday, 31 May 2011 6:09 PM EDT
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Sunday, 24 April 2011
A Retrospect in Death
Topic: Novel excerpts
 

Another excerpt from my completed novel, A Retrospect in Death

 

How come I never see you have any visitors?”

Kelly was the young nurse aide who came from the hospice in the evenings to take my vitals. Young. It’s a relative term: when you reach sixty, everybody seems young. Maybe it’s partly to do with the fact you’ve for­gotten what’s it like to be young. Then there’s the lyric in Billy Joel’s An Innocent Man: “Some people see through the eyes of the old before they ever get a look at the young.” But then, I’m hardly an innocent man. Anyway, I recall a comedy routine I’d seen years ago, maybe when I’d been in my early thirties. It might’ve been a George Carlin routine but I can’t be certain—hell, I’m not certain of a lot things since I started get­ting sicker. The routine: You become twenty-one, turn thirty; you push forty and reach fifty. After that it’s all downhill: you make it to sixty, building up speed until, if you’re fortunate, you hit seventy. Well, I’d made it to sixty but I’d never hit seventy. The routine finished with each day in your eighties being a complete cycle unto itself—hitting lunch, turning 4:30, and, finally, reaching bedtime. It was funny then; not so much now.

In her late twenties, tallish and slender, I deemed Kelly, by my younger standards, to be rather plain, wearing no makeup and typically pulling her hair back. I guessed, with her hair back, it made her job easier. Still, she had a pleasant face, and when she smiled, she smiled with her eyes. She was kind to me, attentive, and genuinely seemed to care, making small talk that didn’t seem small. Unlike Lynn, her counter­part, who came each morning. Perhaps, because of Lynn’s age—I guessed her to be in her early fifties—she’d seen it all and was therefore suffering burnout. Not that she didn’t do her job; it was just in the way by which she went about it. Lynn was clinical, asking only the questions she needed to ask regarding my condi­tion and how I was feeling. I once asked her to have a cup of coffee and sit with me while I had breakfast—I’d never cared much for eating alone, a dislike that had manifested itself greatly since I’d become house-ridden—but she told me she had to keep to her sche­dule; I couldn’t fault her for that.

 “Because,” I said, “this is our time together, Kelly.”

She laughed in that tuneful way of all women whose origins come from Ireland. A woman from my past, I can’t recall who but it may have been someone I’d hurt, would claim Kelly’s laugh was forced, that she was laughing only from obligation or was laughing at me, and that inside she was probably thinking, asshole. I didn’t think it was forced for either of those reasons, or out of pity for a dying old man. Nor did I think she thought me an asshole.

“You know, your morning counterpart, Nurse Ratched, seems in a hurry to be on her way and won’t even have a cup of coffee with me.”

“Nurse Ratched?”

“Jack Nicholson’s tormentor in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” I said. “A movie from the seventies. Won like, five Academy Awards. But I guess that was just a little before your time. Lynn,” I thought to add.

 “Well,” Kelly said, “don’t be too hard on her. She has her whole day ahead of her and really must try to stay on schedule. I’m fortunate that you’re my last patient.”

I’m fortunate, her words echoed. Not you’re fortu­nate.

“That must be it.”

“Seriously,” she said. “Don’t you have family—children or a brother or a sister—friends who come to visit?”

“I have no family, no love interest, no life-long partner I can trust to not abandon me as she waits for me to abandon her. I may once have had a sister, but my memory sometimes plays tricks on me these days. If I did we were never close. I’ve an old friend who comes to visit every day, after you’re gone.”

“I’m sorry,” she said.

“Whatever for? It’s by choice and by way of the life I chose to live.”

“Everyone should have someone,” she said, and I recalled a time in my life when I’d felt the same way. Maybe I still felt that way—everyone should. But some of us manage to make it out of this life without some­one.

On a whim I asked if she could stay while I ate my dinner. Meals on Wheels was now bringing me my three squares and I didn’t really have anything to share but bottled water out of my refrigerator or a cup of tea.

Kelly looked uncertain; perhaps it went against hospice regulations. But something else mingled in her mien, which I would later, when I was alone, identify as pity. After a moment, to my surprise, relief and pleasure, she agreed to a cup of tea.

“Thanks,” I said.

As I filled the kettle with water, Kelly told me she liked the ring that I wore.

“It was a gift,” I said, “from a former girlfriend who was of Latvian descent.” I wondered why my memory managed to hold onto this particular recollec­tion—Judy had been the gifter of the ring. In which side of the brain did regret reside? Apparently the can­cer had not yet assailed that side. “Legend has it that a ruler of Latvia—king, or regent or whatever they called them several hundred years ago—was deposed by some invading country. Riga is an important port city on the Baltic Sea. He wore a ring just like this one. He fled and to prevent his capture, all the men in Latvia took to wearing a ring just like it, to make his capture more difficult—sort of a Spartacus thing.”

“A cool legend,” Kelly said, and I wondered if she knew who Spartacus had been, if she’d seen the movie.

“And they call Poles dumb,” I said.

“What do you mean?”

“Wouldn’t have been easier if he’d just taken his off?”

Kelly laughed.

While we waited for the water to boil, I asked: “Are you happy, Kelly?”

If my question surprised her, she didn’t show it.

“I think so. Why do you ask?”

“Just an observation. You seem a very pleasant sort and very happy in your work.”

“I am. I’ve wanted to do this since I was a little girl.”

“You’re very lucky in that you heard your calling early. Some people never really hear it and go through life in a reactive fashion.”

“That’s sad,” she said, as if this were a revelation.

“Yes, it is.” Then, “Are you married, Kelly?” She looked away, seemingly embarrassed, and so I added, “I’m not asking for myself you understand. I mean, surely you know there’s no future with me?”

Kelly met my eyes, smiled and told me she wasn’t married.

I poured the hot water into a ceramic teacup with a colorful floral pattern on its sides. The cup had a sort of colander sleeve that fit inside with holes in the bottom and sides for use with loose tea; I had but Twinings peppermint tea bags. The peppermint was soothing to my irritable bowel. Irritable was an understatement. These days it was downright outraged, despite eating what my doctor had prescribed as a “bland” diet. I ate only a bite or two of any meal and as a result my weight had dropped to under one-hundred-seventy pounds, a weight I hadn’t seen since I’d turned twenty. I dipped the teabag into the cup a half dozen times and then put the lid on the cup. It, too, had a floral pattern.

“That’s a beautiful cup,” Kelly said.

“It belonged to my mother.” I glanced at my watch. “Give it three or four minutes to steep. Longer if you like it stronger. Honey?”

“A large dollop of cream, if you have any.”

“Just skim milk.”

“That’s fine.”

I retrieved the milk from the refrigerator and sat down across the kitchen table from Kelly.

“Anyone special in your life?” I asked and Kelly again looked away, so I ventured, “From the way you said that I’d venture you’ve recently had your heart bruised.”

Kelly’s eyes teared up and I apologized. “I didn’t mean to bring up any pain.” I pushed a box of Kleenex across the table to her. I had boxes all over the house—kitchen, bedroom, living room—since my sinuses seemed to run constantly, like the bathroom faucet I figured to let go on dripping for the new owner to fix.

“That’s okay,” she said, dabbing at her eyes. “I met someone a few months ago, a nice guy, but recently he’s been kind of distant. I think he may be getting ready to break up with me.”

“Then he’s a fool.”

“Thank you. You’re a nice man.”

“You’ll get over him,” I said, thinking, If you only knew, Kelly. “And I expect you’ll find a terrific young man because you’re a terrific young woman.”

“Thanks,” she said, managing a smile that sud­denly made her look, well, terrific. At some point, I couldn’t recall when, she’d let loose her hair, making her look downright pretty.

“You’re welcome. Look, you want my dinner? My appetite isn’t so good tonight.”

“No, thank you, but you should have a couple of bites at least. You’ve lost a lot of weight, even in the last week.”

“Yeah, the twenty pounds I couldn’t lose the last ten years, and now it’s dropping like the hygrometer in my humidor when I forget to fill it with solution.”

Kelly laughed musically and I wondered if she even knew what a hygrometer might be. I forced my­self to take a bite of the side dish, unadorned rice, while she removed the lid from her teacup, placed it on a saucer and added some skim milk, all before I realized I’d forgotten to check my watch.

“That book in the other room,” she asked, “When Legend Becomes Myth? Is that your name I saw on the cover?”

“Guilty. It’s a proof copy.”

“What’s it about?”

I told her.

“It sounds intriguing.”

I laughed. “That sounds real politically correct. Very non-committal.”

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it that way, really.” Then she said, “A proof copy? That means it’s not available for e-readers?”

“Correct.”

“I’d love to read it. When will it be available?”

“Early May.”

Kelly looked crestfallen; but her disappointment seemed for me.

“I’m sorry,” she said. She knew I wouldn’t live to see that day.

“I can let you have that proof copy, if you’d like.

“Really?”

“I approved it several weeks ago, after having poured over it a half-dozen times and finding no errors. Besides, there comes a time when, where revi­sions are concerned, a writer must let his work go.”

“But—”

“Trust me. I have no use for it.”

“Would you inscribe it for me?”

I nodded and grinned. “Already, I have a fan.”

Kelly smiled and told me she needed to get going. She’d finished her tea and I hadn’t even been aware she’d been drinking it.

“Listen,” I said as I got up and reached for her empty teacup. “I want you to take this, too.”

“Oh, no, I couldn’t.”

“I won’t take no for an answer. My mother would want you to have it and we both know you’ll take good care of it.”

As I rinsed the cup the doorbell rang.

“I’ll get it,” Kelly said.

A few moments later I brought the teacup into the living room to find Kelly introducing herself to Patrick. He’d been good about visiting me, at times bringing along Shelly, since I’d lost my driving privileges the result of the hallucinations I started having a couple weeks ago. Shortly thereafter my doctor informed me the cancer had likely spread to my brain and so I’d given up driving. The last thing I wanted was to jeopardize other motorists. The news brought to mind a fairly recent Mose Allison blues tune, My Brain. In­itially, his brain, a “cool little cluster,” is “steady working long as you keep that coffee perking;” but by the end of the tune, the result of “losing twelve hun­dred neurons every hour,” he’s soon to become “dumbfounded.” Dumbfounded: that’s where I was heading; soon after I could expect to become as func­tion­al as a stalk of celery, and about as interesting looking. Funny, the things that came to mind as my memory fell apart; easily, with no effort, they just popped up.

 “Hi, Patrick,” I said, handing Kelly the cup, and then I stepped over to the coffee table where When Legend Becomes Myth sat. I picked it up along with the pen that sat on the morning Free Press crossword puz­zle. That’s right, I work crosswords in ink, arrogant bastard that I am. Sadly, the crossword was unfinished. More and more, the clues were becoming meaningless to me. “Do me a favor, Patrick. Call the Freep in the morning and cancel my subscription, otherwise I’ll forget to do it.”

“Sure,” he said.

I scribbled a few words on the title page of Legend, signed it and handed it to Kelly. She of course opened it to where I’d written my inscription. A moment later she hugged me and left, obviously overcome with emotion.

“What was that all about,” Patrick asked when she’d gone.

“Sweet kid. Going through a tough time.”

Patrick forced himself to chuckle, a sound I hadn’t heard from him since I told him the news several months ago.

“I say something funny?”

“You’re dying and she’s going through a tough time?”

“Dying is not so tough. You’ll understand that when it comes your time, which hopefully won’t be for a long time. Sit down,” I added as I dropped to the sofa.

“How are you doing?” Patrick asked.

“Great. I finally dropped the weight I’ve been meaning to lose. Another ten pounds and I’ll be able to fit into the sport coat I wore to homecoming.”

“I should be so lucky,” he said. “You look great.”

He was lying but I didn’t tell him that. I knew I looked like death chilled over: gaunt, ashen. As bad days went, this had been a particularly good one; that Kelly had agreed to share a cup of tea with me had been the highlight. I had no idea what tomorrow might bring other than a few hours closer to the inevitable.

“Call me tomorrow, will you?” I asked. “I want to call my lawyer and make a change to my will. I want to leave my royalties to the hospice. They’re nonprofit. I know my insurance is paying most of the bill, but I want to give a little something extra back to them for the trouble I’ve put them through. I’ll need you to drive me over to his office, too, to sign the new papers. Oh, and I’ll likely need you to remind me that I want to do that.”

“Sure.” Patrick then went silent, which he’d been prone to do the sicker I became, as if he didn’t know what to say to a dying man. I resented him for that, not a lot, but a little. It’s okay, I think, for someone to re­sent a friend once in a while. Yet a dying man wants a sense of normalcy to the time he has left, some dis­trac­tion; but I said nothing to him. I can’t say I’d act any differently were our roles reversed.

“There’s something else I wanted to tell you,” I said, rummaging through the grab bag my once cool little cluster brain had become. “Oh, yeah. Take my humidor with you when you leave tonight. I know you’ve had your eye on it since you saw it. It’s got nearly fifty sticks in it. Far more than I’ll ever be able to smoke in what’s left of my lifetime.”

“Okay,” was all Patrick managed.

We then watched the hockey game for a while. The Wings were playing the Blackhawks at Joe Louis Arena and the Hawks were ahead when Patrick finally called it a night shortly after nine, taking with him my humi­dor, which he needed to remind me I’d given him. Un­fortunately for Patrick, he missed a Wings comeback—a goal scored in overtime.

I turned off the TV and went to my den to sketch. I’d taken it up a year or so ago, out of boredom. I’d done some sketching when I was a lad—nothing I ever kept, save for a Mother’s Day card I’d made for my mother that I came across while I’d been going through her belongings after she’d passed on. It was a drawing of a log cabin in the woods. I couldn’t remember how old I’d been, but the perspective was slightly off, so I must’ve been fairly young.

When I took it up again I sketched exclusively landscapes; I’d never been very good at portraits, but tonight I made an exception. For some reason Kelly’s image, as she’d taken my blood pressure, had stayed with me: her youthful innocence, prior to my learning of her bruised heart, and compassion had imprinted itself on some part of my brain left untouched by my cancer, perhaps the creative part—was that the left side or the right? It didn’t matter.

An hour later I sat looking at the result—the pers­pective was good and I’d captured her expression as well as I’d recalled it and I saw in my work what I’d seen in Kelly during the week I’d known her.

By the time I went to bed I’d forgotten that Patrick had come to visit, that we’d watched the hockey game, that the Wings had won in OT, that I’d given Patrick my humidor, that I’d ever owned one.

 

The next morning Patrick called to remind me to call my lawyer and why. He told me he had the day off and could take me to sign the papers if they could be prepared today. I called my lawyer immediately, be­fore I finished my cup of coffee, so I wouldn’t forget.

“What about the rest of your estate?” Frank asked me through the phone.

I waited a moment, became frantic; then I con­sented: “I’m sorry, Frank, my memory is spotty. Who gets it now?”

“Defenders of Wildlife. To protect the wolves in Wyoming and Alaska.”

“That’s right,” I said. I’d originally had my entire estate going to Defenders of Wildlife because I thought it horrendous what they were doing to wolves, aerial shootings, leaving poisoned meat for them to ingest, killing pregnant females and shooting pups in their dens—all because they were doing what they do: sur­viving on instinct, taking down a few head of cattle. All about the almighty dollar. That I was a canine kind of guy was secondary; I’d given up on man as a species to which I wanted to leave anything. Kelly had left me hope that there were some good people left in the world, so I wanted to give something back to the hos­pice for whom she worked. I thought a moment about leaving the remainder of my estate to the hospice, but in the end decided to leave it to the wolves: they needed protection.

Then I called Patrick and asked him if he could take me to the lawyer’s office after lunch to sign the papers.

After we hung up I noticed a dark rectangle on my liquor cabinet and wondered what was missing.

 

Patrick brought me home and stayed with me until the aide from hospice came. She told me her name and in­formed me that Kelly had been delayed by another patient and couldn’t come tonight; I stayed myself from asking who Kelly was.

The aide (already I’d forgotten her name) left and Patrick also left a short time later. Sadly, Patrick had little to contribute to conversation; but I forgave him. I found I, too, had little I wanted to discuss. I was so tired.

In my den I came across the sketch I’d forgotten I’d done the previous night and spent several minutes walking from room to room, sketchbook in hand, as if I might discover her name in one of them.

There was a woman, long ago—she had been my first lover although I couldn’t recall her name. We were together only three times. I felt no disappointment when she broke it off with me so I know I didn’t love her, or she me.

Something in the sketch reminded me of that woman from so many years ago, but it wasn’t her.

I struck my forehead with the flat of my hand, as if I could jar some memory from out of the void my brain had become.

Why is she haunting me, tormenting me now?

I looked more closely at the sketch. The paper was off white, but it didn’t show signs of aging, no yel­lowing.

No, the sketch isn’t of that woman.

Whoever she was, she was beautiful.

 

The next morning a stranger let herself into my house, telling me she was from hospice and that her name was Lynn. She startled me, as I’d been asleep. She assured me she was no burglar and had let herself into my house using the key I’d given her.

She took my vitals and asked a few questions, and then asked me to get up. I couldn’t get out of bed. She made a phone call, but I never knew to whom or why; by then I’d slipped into a coma, from which I never re­gained consciousness.


Posted by J. Conrad Guest at 5:46 PM EDT
Updated: Sunday, 24 April 2011 6:16 PM EDT
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Sunday, 20 March 2011
The Long and Winding Road
Topic: Writing

Finally. One Hot January is available through my publisher, Second Wind, and also from Amazon, in hard copy and Kindle formats, and from several other online sources that sell good books. 

It’s been a long, arduous task, from inception to publication. Other writers understand this. Yet, as writers also understand, there is no greater feeling—that sigh that reflects a host of emotions—than seeing the labor of your love in print, bound and on a bookshelf in a brick and mortar bookstore.

I started writing my first novel, January’s Paradigm, in 1992. It’s the story of a writer who has written a best-selling novel—One Hot January. References to OHJ abound in January’s Paradigm, and I soon decided my next project would be to write OHJ, a sort of standalone prequel to January’s Paradigm, with a sequel of its own. It’s a Chandleresque piece (although I hadn’t yet read Chandler) about a private investigator, Joe January, circa 1947. January uncovers a seemingly impossible plot of time travel and alternate realities. What started, in January’s Paradigm, as therapy for me following the grief of a broken relationship, ended with the discovery that I am a writer. 

I started writing OHJ in 1995. The going was slow—there was plenty of research about the period and World War II. Purely fictional, I couldn’t draw on the personal experience that was my inspiration for January’s Paradigm. Populated with characters fictional as well as factual, OHJ’s plot is based on the premise that Winston Churchill withheld from U.S. Intelligence the vital decrypt specifying the date and time of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor—a decrypt that many believe lies locked away in a box, to remain unopened for 75 years. But what if he’d passed along that intelligence, allowing the U.S. to perhaps head off the attack, thereby delaying U.S. involvement in the war? Would Germany perhaps have grown too strong to defeat? Would we today all be speaking German?

About a year into the project my father was diagnosed with colon cancer after years of annual colonoscopies that revealed nothing. He was given no more than a year to live. So much for catching it early. On top of that, Mom was nearing the end of her eighteen-year battle with Parkinson’s disease. She succumbed in March 1996. 

Work on OHJ came to a crashing halt. I wanted to spend as much time with Dad as I could. Dad hadn’t been the most nurturing father in my youth; but somehow, after Mom passed, we began to connect. We had a lot to connect over and so little time. The writing would have to wait. 

Dad passed away in March 1998. I grieved both their losses at once. I have no children of my own so it hit me hard. Perhaps it was only natural to look behind me, focus on the family who’d left me behind instead of the family I would in time abandon. With Mom and Dad gone I lost my passion for words as well as my muse. 

The short: I wouldn’t finish OHJ until 2001, after which I immediately launched into the sequel, January’s Thaw. I began submitting OHJ to agents and publishers alike; although I received several encouraging rejections, I had no takers. 

Two years later I finished January’s Thaw and commenced writing Backstop: A Baseball Love Story in Nine Innings. I continued submitting the two January books as a package but received only more rejection letters. One publisher suggested they might be interested if I cut about 30,000 words and combined the two into one novel. I resisted that idea; but when I finished Backstop, on a whim, as an exercise, I did what they suggested and resubmitted. They politely declined. 

When I completed Backstop I focused on submitting that novel, easily the most mainstream novel I’d written and commenced my next project—The Cobb Legacy. The January books were put on a back burner, but not forgotten. About a year later, Second Wind Publishing accepted me into their family of writers, agreeing to publish Backstop. I was elated. Subsequent to that, I proposed the two January books and Second Wind agreed to publish them under their Blue Shift science fiction imprint. 

Oh, and I since have completed The Cobb Legacy and my sixth novel, A Retrospect in Death, and have commenced my seventh novel. 

And so, more than fifteen years after sitting down to write the first sentence in One Hot January—My name is Joe January—the journey comes to an end. Sort of. It will end proper when January’s Thaw hits the shelves. Not my best work—that honor goes to A Retrospect in Death (my White Album)—but they were the best work at that time and I’m proud of them nevertheless. As I’m sure are both Mom and Dad.

As for that sigh: Ahhhh.


Posted by J. Conrad Guest at 8:28 AM EDT
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Sunday, 30 January 2011
Music a Part of My Writing
Topic: Writing

I recently completed my sixth novel and it was no surprise that, like many of my novels, music plays a large part in the narrative.

In my first novel, January’s Paradigm, each of six parts is prefaced with a lyric from a variety of songs; while in One Hot January, a reference is made to Johnny Mercer and Harold Arlen, two successful songwriters from the 1940s, not to mention appearances made by the late greats Thelonious Monk and Art Tatum.

In Backstop, my protagonist is a pianist, and in The Cobb Legacy, much of the epilogue references many of my personal favorite songwriters and songs; indeed, it concludes as I conclude all of my novels, listening to the Beatles legendary Abbey Road CD—I type “The End” as The End blares from my Bose speakers.

Indeed, all my writing sessions are accompanied by music, as much a muse as are my cigars and coffee or scotch and beer (depending on time of day).

Music has been called a universal language. I recall when the Iron Curtain fell and Billy Joel played to a packed house in Russia; I own the CD. No doubt very few in attendance that night understood the lyrics, but they cheered as loudly as any English speaking audience.

Music moves us, perhaps better than language—and no one is moved by a beautifully written passage, a lyrically conveyed sentiment, more than me. Music speaks to us, overcoming language barriers, through its rhythms, the feelings the composer and, later, the musicians put into notes.

I use music to amp up my own feelings when I’m writing, and I reference lyrics in my narratives as a means to connect with my reader as much as I endeavor to connect with them through my text.


Posted by J. Conrad Guest at 10:56 AM EST
Updated: Sunday, 30 January 2011 11:01 AM EST
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Saturday, 25 December 2010
A Retrospect in Death
Topic: Novel excerpts

Second Decade, Age 11

 

“Your son has a hernia,” the doctor told my mother.

I’d noticed a bulge in my abdomen, just above the root of my penis a few weeks ago. It was accompanied by bloating and painful gas buildup that went away after I pushed the bulge back and lay horizontal for a while.

“What?” my mother said. “But how?”

The doctor shrugged and said, “It might be congenital.”

“What’s congenital?” I asked. It sounded pretty serious.

“You might’ve been born with a weakness,” he explained. “Or it might’ve been the result of trauma. Have you sustained an injury to your groin?”

I recalled Francine’s kicks to my balls but said nothing.

My mother scheduled surgery for me the following Monday.

 

 

My room was in Art Centre Hospital on Woodward Avenue in Detroit.

The race riots were in full bloom in 1967 and from my first floor room I watched armed National Guard troops drive past my window in jeeps.

Mom left (Dad had stayed home) just before Ed Sullivan came on, telling me, “Good night, honey. Don’t worry. Everything will be all right.” She sounded somewhat worried herself, although I wasn’t. This was my first night away from home; it was an adventure.

A short time later a male intern came in with a chrome bowl and a straight razor and told me it was time for my shave.

“I’m eleven,” I said. “I don’t shave.”

He grinned and told me to raise my hospital gown.

With that he proceeded to lather up my genitals with soap and shave my balls.

I was on edge as I heard the rasp of the blade against my testicles. Rodney Dangerfield was doing a standup act on the TV. He told a joke about being held up by a mugger with a knife. “I could tell it wasn’t a professional job,” he said. “There was butter on it.” I heard the intern chuckle, which left me feeling even testier over my predicament.

The intern left and a few minutes later another intern came in, a plump black woman.

“Time for your enema,” she said.

“What’s an enema?”

“I put this,” she told me, holding up a plastic nozzle attached to a hose that was in turn attached to a bag of what appeared to be soapy water, “into your backside and release the contents of this bag into your colon.”

My eyes got the size of silver dollars, prompting the intern to laugh. I watched her immense breasts shake from the ferocity of her laugh, its pitch that of a baritone.

“Don’t worry. It’s not as bad as it sounds. It’s to clean out your colon before surgery. Now roll over onto your side.

I did as I was told and a moment later, feeling violated, felt the nozzle inserted into my rectum, the flood of the water felt warm as my colon expanded to accommodate it.

“Almost there,” the intern said; I felt as if my colon were about to explode.

A moment later she withdrew the nozzle and told me to head to the bathroom to release the water. Like I needed to be told.

I raced to the bathroom and sat just in the nick of time, releasing the water, and everything that accompanied it, into the cold porcelain.

I sat there for about fifteen minutes as my bowels emptied in sequential movements—like the orchestra to which my parents had taken me and Francine over the summer: long classical pieces played in “movements.” Every time I thought they were done playing they launched into another movement. Each time I felt I was done, I’d lean forward to wipe my backside only to feel yet another movement.

I finally made it back to my bed wondering what new dread might await me next in this little shop of horrors.

 

 

My surgery was scheduled for Monday morning, and a nurse came in first thing to give me a shot of something, which left me feeling groggy.

A short time later my bed was wheeled out of my room and toward the operating room. My mother walked alongside me with her hand on top of mine.

At the door to the operating room my mother again reassured me that everything was going to be all right. I was eleven and had no clue as to the dangers of surgery. I was about to be cut open and couldn’t wait to tell my buddies of the ordeal, sans the shave and the enema parts. Like a soldier wounded in a war I intended to bear my scar proudly.

I was wheeled under the brightest lights I’d ever seen and a mask was put over my face; a voice told me to count backward from one hundred. I got to ninety-seven and …

 

 

… the next thing I heard was the sound of a child wailing. It wasn’t me. My lower abdomen, on the right side, felt as if it were on fire. It seared.

A mask covered my face and my tongue was as dry and as rough as a Brillo pad right out of the box, before it’s been soaked in water. I tried to roll over onto my left side but found myself restrained.

The screaming child, somewhere to my right, continued to exercise its pipes. Shut-up, I thought, and then tried to work my mouth around the words, to give voice to my annoyance; it resisted my best efforts and what came out sounded as if it were mired in oatmeal.

I breathed deep from the mask several times, which must’ve been oxygen, and my head began to clear.

The scream came again and I told it to shut-up again; the scream ignored me and I heard a voice, although I could make out no words, try to placate the screaming voice.

I waited for what could’ve been minutes, months or a millennium.

Finally hands removed the mask from my face and a moment later I felt the bed on which I lay pushed into motion.

I was brought back to my room, the gurney on which I lay aligned with my bed and I tried to roll over onto my bed. Two hands pushed me back and two interns lifted me, by the sheet under me, and slid me over onto my bed.

A voice told me I was to remain on my back. I asked for a drink of water and was denied.

My mother was at my side; she applied a wet washrag wrapped around some ice chips to my lips—it felt blessedly cool. I sucked on the rag to moisten my tongue and drifted off into unconsciousness.

Some time later, it might have been minutes, months or a millennium, I awoke and tried to roll over; my abdomen was a flaming sword of agony. Hands stopped me yet again. The hands may have belonged to my mother. I heard her voice tell me I had to remain on my back or I would become ill, the effects of the anesthetic.

“But I want to roll over on my side,” I managed to say, although I couldn’t be certain if anyone understood me. I had no idea why I wanted to roll over. The body wants what the body wants.

I heard voices but the words meant little to me. A moment later I felt a pillow pushed under my right hip; it was enough to give me the illusion of being off my back and I settled back into slumber.

 

 

By late afternoon the worst of the anesthetic wore off and I was able to sit up. An intern brought me some cottage cheese in a small cereal bowl. I ate three or four spoonfuls and promptly threw it up; for my effort the stitches holding my abdomen together pulled and the resulting pain was excruciating. For the remainder of the day I sipped grape juice and water.

Mom stayed until visiting hours ended. We talked little as I drifted in and out of restless sleep.

I awoke in a darkened room; my mother had left for the night. Outside my room I heard footsteps, but they passed my door.

Outside my window, on Woodward Avenue, a jeep with armed troops drove by and I imagined myself in a hospital in Europe during the war. I’d been wounded and had had field surgery to remove a bullet and had been brought to some small town in France to recover. I was proud that I’d made it through without once crying.

It occurred to me that my dad hadn’t come to visit and I was disappointed that he couldn’t witness how tough I was.

 

 

Breakfast was brought in about eight the next morning: oatmeal and toast. My abdomen still hurt but I was ready to go home.

My mother showed up shortly after nine. A short time later a nurse came in to take my vitals. After she finished she asked if I’d had a bowel movement.

“No,” I said.

“You have to have one before we can release you,” she told me with raised eyebrows.

“But why?”

“Hospital policy.”

She left and I looked at my mother.

“I haven’t had anything to eat since Sunday night, other than breakfast this morning. They gave me an enema Sunday night to clean me out. I can’t go.”

“Well, try, honey.”

I hobbled to the bathroom and sat. I felt no urge because I had nothing in me. I strained but was only rewarded with pain as my stitches strained to hold me together.

After about twenty minutes I got up and returned to my bed and shook my head.

The nurse returned to ask if I’d had any success.

“No.”

“If you don’t go we’ll have to give you another enema.”

I felt my rectum clinch. Like threats were going to help.

Lunch was brought in around noon: more cottage cheese. Afterward, I sat on the throne again but no reward was forthcoming.

Nurse: “Have you…?”

Me: “No.”

“Here,” she said, handing me a soft capsule that was bullet-shaped.

“What’s this?” I asked.

“A suppository. It’ll help you go.”

When I started to put the suppository into my mouth she stopped me.

“No, it goes into your backside.”

I looked at the capsule in the palm of my hand.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “Would you …?”

She had me roll onto my side and a moment later I felt her finger push the suppository into my rectum.

It didn’t take long for it to work its magic; within ten minutes I hit the bathroom and had a full and satisfying bowel movement.

 

 

I felt a little woozy on the drive home; apparently the anesthetic hadn’t yet fully worn off.

“It was strange,” I told my mother.

“What was?” she asked.

“I remember being wheeled into the operating room, under these bright lights. Then they put a mask on me and told me to count backward from a hundred. I didn’t get very far. The next thing I remember was waking up. It wasn’t like sleep though. Even while asleep there’s a sense of time passing. This … this was like being robbed of an hour of my life. It’s like it never happened.”

“It was the anesthetic,” she said. “I’m proud of you. You took this like a trooper.”

After a moment I asked why Dad hadn’t come to visit me.

“Your father has been working a lot of hours,” she said. “He’s been tired.”

I was too young to understand she was making excuses for him.


Posted by J. Conrad Guest at 7:42 PM EST
Updated: Saturday, 25 December 2010 7:46 PM EST
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Thursday, 25 November 2010
Wisdom: It Comes Alone From Living
Topic: The Curmudgeon

I ONCE RELATED TO MY FATHER, shortly before he died nearly a baker’s dozen number of years ago, of my surprise at the number of questions about life and living that I seemed to uncover—more since turning 40. He grinned and said, “That’s a sign you’re acquiring wisdom.”

“Wisdom?” I said in return. “I thought wisdom was in knowing all the answers.”

Dad laughed at that and said: “No, that’s called youth.”

He then went on to tell me that every answer will often reveal another question, sometimes several. And that answers didn’t always come in packages of yes/no, right/wrong, white/black. He was right.

And yet there’s something to be said for youth, its folly, the blissful state bred of its ignorance.

I recall a comedy routine I’d seen years ago, maybe when I’d been in my early 30s. It might’ve been a George Carlin bit but I can’t be certain. The routine: You become 21, turn 30; you push 40 and reach 50. After that it’s all downhill: you make it to 60, building up speed until, if you’re fortunate, you hit 70.

It’s true. When I became 21 I had my whole life ahead of me. I was going to make something of myself, leave my mark on the world. I was not destined to get out of this world unnoticed.

By the time I turned 30 I was divorced and realized my boyhood dream of becoming a major league baseball player was gone. I never really made the effort—I allowed my parents to steer me in another direction—but somehow, turning 30 really drove home the point. While I was in my 20s I still had the option, if I really wanted to make it happen.

Turning 30 was more difficult for me than was pushing 40. Turning 30 meant I was leaving my youth behind. Forever.

I did a lot of growing in my 30s. I changed careers twice, wrote my first novel, had my heart bloodied and bruised twice (the former had nothing to do with the latter—at least I don’t think it did, but I now realize how little I know about women). And still I felt my star was on the rise, that I had my whole life ahead of me, that, like the sun approaching its zenith, I was growing stronger every day, that it would always be that way, and that the girl of my dreams was just around the next corner. And so I walked a little faster.

Once I pushed past 40, I saw my first novel published and wrote two more; but I was sidetracked by the deaths of both my parents, within eleven months of one another. We think of orphans as being children; but I certainly felt orphaned when my dad left me. The world suddenly became a much colder place in which to live; perhaps more so for not having children of my own.

For seven years in my 40s I was alone; but having worked hard to become a better person, I reached out again, confident that I’d learned and could apply what I’d learned to achieve a happily ever after. But the lessons I’d learned previously didn’t apply to the new relationships—they brought with them new issues with which I had to grapple, and so I had my heart bloodied and bruised twice more.

When I reached 50, I knew there was more life behind me than before me. I’ve since written two more novels—one has been published and the two I wrote in my 40s are forthcoming—and have started my sixth. As I commence the final third, I worry over my next project—surely this is my best ever? What will I write about next? What more do I possibly have to say?

And it’s becoming more difficult to be hopeful about the future. I wonder whether that’s part of the wisdom that comes from living—the life I’ve led, the choices I’ve made (not all of them good ones)—the state of the world, the society in which we live, or just part of getting older.

Oil spills in the Gulf, corrupt government (it’s always been cor­rupt, but in my youth I could hope for something better the day after an election—now I don’t so much vote for a candidate as vote against his opponent), global warming, tension in the Middle East, jihad, terrorism, the struggling publishing industry, the dying novel, the rising cost of healthcare, and the states of the economy and the job market. Have I missed anything? I’m sure I have.

And this time it was my turn to bloody and bruise the heart of another. It’s no easier being on the giving end than on the receiving.

They called the 1960s tumultuous: Nixon was in office, the Cold War was escalating, two Kennedys and Martin Luther King were gunned down, and our boys were killing and being killed in Viet Nam.

Yet the ’60s also saw the emergence of the Ford Mustang and the birth of the Beatles. The Detroit Tigers came back from a three games to one deficit in the World Series to beat the Cardinals in the seventh game in 1968. We put a man on the moon. My generation protested the war and was anti-establishment, defenders of the environ­ment.

But we went astray. The hippies became the yuppies who in turn became the establishment. Our greed was responsible for the Wall Street debacle and the failure of the banking industry. Where my parents worked to give me a better life, the Baby Boomer generation works to acquire more meaningless things. For all our connectivity through cell phones and the Internet, we’re more disconnected than ever. Our youth are depressed and more prone to commit suicide, and are more hopeless about the future than anyone.

I’m wondering if I’ll make it to 60 let alone hit 70.


Posted by J. Conrad Guest at 10:30 AM EST
Updated: Thursday, 25 November 2010 10:54 AM EST
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Friday, 29 October 2010
A Retrospect in Death
Topic: Novel excerpts

An excerpt from my work in progress, A Retrospect in Death ... 

“Nice form,” Maggie said when I sat down beside her. I’d just thrown my third consecutive strike.

“Thanks.”

“You expect me to believe you haven’t bowled since high school?”

“Honest.”

“My momma always told me not to trust anything any boy tells me.”

“Why would I lie?” I hadn’t ever lied to a girl to get her into bed (because I had yet to take one to bed), so Maggie’s comment was lost on me.

“Then why do I feel as if I’m being hustled?”

“Ever hear of beginner’s luck?”

“If you say so.”

“I say so,” I said, grinning.

Maggie returned my grin with one of her own, her teeth even and bright.

“What are you doing tomorrow night?” she asked over the din of crashing pins.

“Nora’s dad offered me a ticket to a Red Wings game. I’ve never been to Olympia before.”

“Oh.” Maggie sound disappointed. “I was going to invite you over for dinner.”

“How about a rain check?”

“Deal,” she said, and got up to take her turn at knocking down defenseless pins.

When she was out of earshot, Mike, the fourth member of our bowling quartet and who’d I only just met, leaned over and said: “You opted for a hockey game over a night with Maggie?”

I watched Maggie bend over to pick up a ball from the ball return. Her ass looked spectacular in their tight jeans. It was the type of ass that, in my mind, left me well out of Maggie’s league.

“It was an invitation to dinner,” I said.

“Is that what you heard?”

“Um, yeah. That’s what she said. What did you hear?”

“A summons for dessert.”

I laughed but wondered if Mike might have firsthand knowledge of Maggie’s horizontal side, although he didn’t seem her type—overweight and rather greasy, I deemed her even more out of his league than mine.

“I guess I’ve never been good at reading women,” I said. “The truth is, I’ve gone dancing, spent evenings chatting with women, buying them drinks and thinking they were interested only to have them blow me off at the end of the night when I asked for their phone number.”

“You’re young,” Mike said, although I didn’t think he was that much older than me. The he laughed and added, “You’ll learn.”

I considered what Mike had implied as I watched Maggie throw her first ball. How many pins she may have knocked down was immaterial; I only had eyes for her ass.

Just then Nora returned from the restroom and sat down on my other side. Nora and I had met in high school. She invited me over to her parent’s house to shoot pool one day after school and her parents took a liking to me. After that, I was invited over regularly to shoot stick and sometimes play cards with her family, who were euchre players. I’d been slow on the uptake then, too, although in retrospect I could see her parents treated me like the son-in-law they assumed I’d become. Nora just about had to hit me over the head with a cue stick before I realized her interest in me was more than just friendship. She was good about it when I told her I didn’t share her feelings and we continued the pool and card nights. When she invited me to come bowling it was with the intent to introduce me to Maggie.

“So what do you think?” she whispered so Mike wouldn’t overhear. Maggie was readying herself to throw her second ball in an effort to pick up her spare. I wondered if she could feel my eyes on her backside; if she hoped I might find it to my liking—it definitely had more cush than was fashionable for the late 1970s, which was fine with me.

“She called me a liar, but I like her.” Then I went on a fishing expedition: “Are you sure she’s only twenty-four? She seems more sophisticated.”

“She came to work at the nursing home a few weeks after I started. Unless she lied about her age on her job application, yes, she’s twenty-four. I thought you liked sophisticated women.”

“Never mind,” I said.

I was getting nowhere with Nora. What I really wanted to know was whether Mike was right about Maggie’s intentions. Evidently the word “sophisticated” held a different connotation for me than for Nora, who was two years younger me. I’d had to phrase my comment carefully. After all, I couldn’t just come out and ask Nora if Maggie were loose and was it likely I could score all the way from first base on a second date.

“Isn’t she pretty?” Nora asked.

“She is that,” I said, thinking, There’s a certain sluttish quality about her, too. Definitely not someone I’d want to bring home to meet Mom.

“She thinks you’re cute.”

“Not something a guy wants to hear.”

“What’s wrong with being cute?”

“Good-looking, handsome, yes. But cute is something reserved for babies and puppies and kittens, and certain girls.”

“But you are cute.”

“If you say so,” I said, feeling uncomfortable with Nora’s comment.

Suddenly I wasn’t so sure she still didn’t harbor some hope that we might one day become an item. But then, why fix me up with Maggie? Blond, Maggie still bore the remnants of a summer tan (although it was late October) and was the icon of the surfer girl the Beach Boys epitomized in their songs.

Mike got up and Maggie sat down beside me.

“Nice job picking up that spare,” I said. Then I took the second biggest risk I’d ever taken where girls were concerned—the first being the night at the drive-in when I chanced to kiss Cindy, who seemed to welcome the close encounter with my lips. I put my hand on Maggie’s knee. Not only did she not push it away, she placed her hand on top of mine, assuring me my hand was welcomed, and I wondered if Mike had been right about her invitation to dessert.

“Thanks,” she said.

Two potential firsts in my life, I thought. My first hockey game and my first sexual encounter and they both book themselves for the same night. And then: How can I possibly get out of the hockey game?

My hand delighted to the feel of Maggie’s denim-clad knee, her hand atop mine, and I felt my desire make its presence known in my own jeans.

Sorry, Mr. Preston, something just came up? I thought, and laughed aloud.

“What?” Maggie asked.

“Another time,” I said, giving her knee a fond squeeze.

At the end of the night, my best score a 162—the highest score I ever bowled and ever would bowl—Maggie and I exchanged phone numbers.

“Are you sure I can’t entice you with dinner tomorrow night?” she asked, and I marveled again at Mike’s perceptivity.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “It just wouldn’t be right to stand up Nora’s dad on the day of the game.”

“What time do you think the game might end?”

“Too late for dinner, I’m sure,” I said, and immediately kicked myself for my naiveté.

“Well, if you can make it before 11:00 just ring my doorbell. I’ll be waiting.”

With that, she scribbled her address and apartment number on the scorecard that bore her phone number.

I was acutely aware of Nora, standing a few feet away. Surely she knew what we were planning.

 

 

The next night, at the Red Barn, I kept glancing at my watch, a habit that Nora’s father didn’t miss.

“You have someplace you have to be?” he asked before the first period was half played.

“No,” I said, and completed the lie by adding, “I have to work in the morning and 5:00 comes awfully early.

He laughed and said, “It comes at the same time every morning, now relax and enjoy the game.”

The game was little to enjoy, with the home team losing to the Rangers 3-1. I was no hockey buff, but I thought our star center, Dale McCourt, was a loafer on the ice.

“He doesn’t chase loose pucks,” I told Mr. Preston. “He just waits for someone to pass it to him.”

“That’s his game,” Mr. Preston said. “He’s a floater.”

 

 

On the way back to the Preston’s household I refrained from looking at my watch. I suspected 11:00 was fast approaching and I silently urged Nora’s father to drive faster.

Shit, I thought to myself when he stopped for an amber light instead of speeding up to make the changing light.

At his house, Mr. Preston invited me in for a beer but I begged off due to the late hour. I thanked him for the ticket and was off.

The quartz clock in my dashboard revealed 10:40. I had just enough time to make the bewitching hour; but still I wasn’t sure that this is what I wanted, how I wanted to give up my chastity.

When I got to the traffic light at Inkster and Maplewood, turning left would take me home. But my pecker had a firm grip on the steering wheel and so we bore onward, toward uncharted waters.

Those commercials that were to come in thirty years for male erectile dysfunction that warn the user to seek medical attention for erections lasting more than four hours? Well, I’d had an erection throughout the hockey game as I envisioned Maggie’s dessert tray. I was closing in on the four-hour limit but it wasn’t medical attention for which I was racing.

I pulled into the parking lot of Maggie’s apartment; my quartz clock, which was due to fail next spring, read ten minutes of eleven.

I shut off the Celica—I’d dubbed her Colleen, in deference to my first crush, a girl who lived on our block.  I’d asked Colleen to my senior prom and she’d accepted, only to break our date, and my heart, less than a week before the prom.

I rang the bell to Maggie’s apartment. The thought never occurred to me that she might ignore my summons; but a moment later, the buzzer rang. I pulled the door but the doorknob slipped from my hand and closed, locking me out so that I had to ring again. The buzzer rang and this time I made sure to maintain a tight grip.

Maggie greeted me at the door in a cotton nightgown that, although shear, wasn’t very revealing. Still, her nipples showed, already erect with arousal. Around her living room no fewer than a dozen candles burned.

“I’m glad you could make it,” she whispered in a husky voice.

She led me to her sofa where we kissed and fondled one another for a few minutes before she led me to her bedroom. I remained a discrete distance behind her so I could watch her ass move seductively from side to side, and I thought my pecker would burst at the seams before it could release the contents of its arousal.

I undressed quickly while she unbuttoned her nightgown and, after freeing her arms from its sleeves, let it fall to the floor and stepped out of it. Her body was beautiful—medium sized breasts, a narrow waist, while wide hips completed the hourglass. I couldn’t believe what I was about to do and the briefest moment of doubt nudged its way into my conscience.

Some dim part of me understood that Pandora’s box had this night been unlocked, and if I were to go through with this the lid would fly open and my innocence would forever be lost.

If not tonight, then some other night, I thought.

My hormones only urged me onward: You’re here, she’s willing

But I don’t love her, I argued back.

Nor does she you, and that’s okay. It’s recreation. It’s a man’s responsibility to enter into a serious relationship, with the woman he marries, knowing how to pleasure her.

That was a weak argument I knew. It was a thinly veiled line from Neil Simon’s The Good Doctor, a show in which I’d played several roles a couple years ago. In one of the final scenes, a father takes his teenage son to a prostitute. The boy, realizing the value of what he is about to lose, hesitates; but his father urges him on, advising him that it is his duty to enter marriage experienced in the ways of love. In the end the father gives in to his son and agrees to put off his initiation for another year.

But it was too late for me. Maggie was standing there, gloriously naked, waiting for me. Her eyes looked hungrily at my erection, an angry purple. It was painfully erect, and the opening in the tip seemed to stare up at me and whisper, Look at her … she’s magnificent, and not so out of your league as you thought. She wants me, and I want her. What are you waiting for? You’ve made me wait twenty-two years. How much longer are you going to make me wait?

I stumbled forward and grabbed one of Maggie’s breasts.

“Easy, lover,” she said. “Be gentle. It’s not a door knob.”

I laughed.

“What?” she asked.

“Nothing,” I said, taking a nipple into my mouth. It was pink, thick and rubbery, reminding me of an eraser on the end of a no. 2 pencil, and it tasted salty.

Maggie moaned softly and I was sure I must be doing it right. She fell back onto the bed and I dropped next to her, my mouth finding her other breast while my hand stroked the inside of a thigh; my hand rose higher and Maggie’s pelvis lifted from the bed in anticipation. I could feel the heat radiating from that tabooed place and I slipped a finger inside her. Maggie squealed and a short time later I climbed between her open legs and slid my erection inside her, feeling no resistance; I thought I’d just died and gone to heaven. I never dreamed anything could feel so pleasurable. Her pussy fit around me like a glove … so warm, so snug, and so slippery.

I began moving faster and faster, caring only about my own pleasure and little of hers.

I lasted about five minutes before I climaxed.

 

›

 

“As first times go, mine was largely forgettable, and I cursed myself on my drive home. It was not what I’d envisioned as my first time. I knew nothing of the art of love-making, but I also knew love had nothing to do with that tryst.”

The Other waited patiently for me to continue.

“We would screw twice more, before Maggie broke it off, and she was right to do so. Despite my telling her that I loved her, we both knew that it was only sex I was after.”

“Maybe she broke up with you because you weren’t a satisfying lover,” the Other said.

“I’m sure I wasn’t,” I said, annoyed; even in death, who wants to be told they were a lousy lover? “But she didn’t seem eager to teach me, or at least encourage me in what pleased her. After years of repressing my sexual urges, that first time I was overanxious. But after that, I wanted to learn how to be a good lover, how to please her.”

“She left the learning to you without much tutoring.”

“That about sums it up,” I said. And then: “It’s true, what they say about putting the dessert before the main course. When a couple indulges in that kind of intimacy without laying a foundation, without getting to know one another, without building trust and love, without the nutritious part of a relationship, the bonding, then they’re not likely to last long as a couple.”

“Once the novelty of the sex wears off.”

“Isn’t that what I just said?”

“You would forget Maggie’s name in the years to come.”

“Which was, perhaps, as it should’ve been.”

“Yet much later, near the end of your life, you wondered once or twice what her intention had been, seducing you as she had. Initiation of a younger man into the world of sex?”

“How would she have known I had yet to lose my chastity? Not even Nora knew that.”

“Maybe she saw something in you worth caring about.”

I dismissed the Other’s conclusion. Like a therapist, it seemed to want to lead me somewhere—a somewhere I was determined not to go; like I was determined not to return to the lifecycle.

“She didn’t love me, if that’s what you mean,” I said, “that nameless women from forty years past. Not any more than I loved her, not after one night of bowling.”

“And surely as a lover you were less than skilled.”

“You said that once already.”

“It was, after all, your first time.”

“I was young and curious about sex, and maybe she just wanted to get laid. Two ships passing in the night.”

“Yet at the other end of your life, you fretted over the why’s concerning a woman whose name you’d forgotten long before your memory started to fail you.”

I had no response, no wisdom or snappy retort. My father once told me that in the art of repartee it is better never than late, so I said nothing.

“Perhaps no encounter,” the Other added, “no matter how short, no matter how forgettable you may think it later, is meaningless.”


Posted by J. Conrad Guest at 6:06 PM EDT
Updated: Friday, 29 October 2010 6:14 PM EDT
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October Birthdays
Topic: Memoir

I turned 54 last Thursday. Today marks what would’ve been my parents’ birthdays. Yes, they were born on the same day but ten years apart—Dad in 1918 and Mom in 1928.

They’ve both been deceased for more than a decade now and I’ve written about each of them in a variety of ways, mostly in memoirs. But they show up from time to time, in one form or another, in my fiction—my dad especially.

I’ve been criticized resoundingly for writing so much about them, for not letting them go, and that’s okay. I’m sure that they’re okay with it, too. I have no children of my own, so I endeavor to keep alive the memory of those family members who left me behind. In time I will be gone and my voice will be forever silenced, and so their existence will be further dimmed. They deserve to live a little longer, at times shine a little brighter. I think they’d be pleased.

If I write so much about my father it’s because so much between us was left unsaid at the time of his passing.

Sadly, we never really connected until the final year of his life. By then Mom was gone and Dad was endeavoring to stretch an eight-month death by cancer diagnosis into thirteen months.

I never knew my dad as a marine. Before he met and married my mother, he served in World War II, saw action on Okinawa. During an eight-year career in the Corps he was a drill instructor (which probably explains why he was so hard on me), but he also served as an unofficial advisor to John Wayne during filming of Flying Leathernecks. I have the photos to prove it.

As a boy I feared my father. Dad wasn’t a former marine, he was a retired marine. He attended Marine Corps reunions, exchanged letters with those with whom he served. But of all the pride he felt over his service years, he never shared with me, his only son, any of what he saw, did, and endured on Okinawa. Those nightmares he took with him when he passed away.

During the final few months of his life, I caught a glimpse of my dad’s softer side when he expressed to me the guilt he still felt, decades later, for the violin lessons for which his father paid and that my father loathed.

“I always felt I’d stolen that money from the old man,” he told me, his eyes filled with tears.

Apparently, as a boy, he, too, feared the repercussions had he voiced to his father his dislike for something forced upon him.

My father was not a nurturing man to me or my sister, and his comment about the violin lessons told me that perhaps the same was true about his father. So my father paid it forward. He hated that as a boy I read comic books, fearing I’d never acquire a taste for finer literature; so I had to sneak Spiderman into the house.

And the baby boy Dad named for his favorite author grew up to be a writer.

 

 

It’s strange, watching a parent prepare for death. My father approached his with dignity and courage; he was ready.

In turn I prepared for something else—life without the person who’d always been there: the man who, as my father, demanded respect from me, instilled fear in me, and served as a role model of manhood; the man I wanted to respect and love instead of fear, but often resented for his treatment of my mother, my sister and me.

In the end he was simply my father, a man I still called “Dad” but little understood. Just a man, imperfect (like the rest of us); a father who wrote in his last Christmas card to me: “With more and deeper understanding …” words to this day I struggle to understand, wishing I’d asked for edification while he could still provide it.

We define orphans as children. Yet if parents only ever see their offspring as children, how can I, with their absence from me, be anything but an orphan?

I asked questions during those final months, but not nearly enough. Twelve years ago I didn’t know the right questions to ask, and I’m still not sure I know the right ones. I just know I have questions.

 

 

I’m working on a new novel, A Retrospect in Death. Like some of my previous books, for A Retrospect I’m drawing on my personal relationship with my father. I’ve tapped a vein and I’m bleeding profusely. I know my protagonist will come out the other end better for the experience. Me, I’m not so sure. Some things perhaps are better left under the rock under which we buried them many years ago. In reality, life doesn’t always turn out happily ever after. I’m more capable of writing a satisfactory denouement for my fictional characters than I am for myself.

Imagine my surprise when, during my last writing session, it occurred to me that I’d more freely lied to my father as a boy than I did to my mother.

Closer inspection reveals the why: my mother invited me to tell the truth. She was never angry with me for telling the truth even when it revealed something unpleasant, and she rewarded me with love in the aftermath of any confession even as she expressed disappointment in me. With my mother I chose truth over deceit and endeavored to never disappoint her.

Where my father was concerned, he demanded the truth and threatened me with consequences if I withheld the truth. When I told the truth, I was punished for my crime; so I learned that the truth would still incur his wrath. As a boy it never occurred to me to ask my father why the truth should result in anger and punishment.

Therefore I had another option: lie to him and hope to get away with it. Yes, if I got caught I would still incur his wrath, but at worst it would be delayed; at best (if I never got caught), I’d avoid it altogether.

My caught/not-caught record wasn’t too shabby, although today I’m ashamed to have a record at all. Whether I’m a better man because of it, well, I can’t say. Does anyone know the right answer to the question “Is a person ever justified in telling a lie?”

So, Dad, I’ll refrain from asking you any questions. You haven’t been any more forthcoming with answers these last dozen years than you were when you were alive anyway. I’ll file any that come to mind in the file I set up a decade or so ago—Questions I Wish I’d Thought to Ask Dad While He was Alive.

Instead I’ll take this opportunity to offer up my apologies and a confession to all the untruths I told you when I was a boy.

At this point I hope you’re beyond holding me accountable anyway. I know now those violin lessons you spoke about—the money you feel you had stolen from your father—it wasn’t about your own father. It was about you.

I have enough to worry about, enough keeping me awake at night. I’m letting this go and hope that you will, too.

Happy birthday Dad, and you, too, Mom. Your son loves you both, and he misses you.


Posted by J. Conrad Guest at 6:16 AM EDT
Updated: Friday, 29 October 2010 6:17 AM EDT
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Sunday, 10 October 2010
By Writing I Desire to Connect
Now Playing: The Kid, by Buddy Mondlock, sung by Art Garfunkel
Topic: Writing

I seek, I learn, I grow;

I dream, I hope, I desire;

I care, I risk, I fear;

I ache, I grieve, I weep …

I am fragmented.

I have longed,

oh so long,

to connect.

 

 

My work in progress, A Retrospect in Death, begins with a man’s death. The reader is taken to the other side where the narrator encounters his higher self—the part of him that is immortal and connected to the creator. The protagonist learns (much to his chagrin) that he must return to the lifecycle. But first he must be “debriefed” by his higher self, and so they set about discussing the man’s previous life—in reverse chronological order: knowing the end but retracing the journey, searching for the points of fragmentation along the way.

He and I embarked on this journey in April, recently surpassing the halfway point. Perhaps the two most surprising lessons we’ve learned so far, he and I, is how fragmented we truly are and how much we yearn to connect.

I’ve been married once (divorced, no children) and have had, in the last twenty-two years, several serious relationships, all of which, after starting with promise (don’t they all start that way?), ended not so happily ever after. I’ve had my heart bloodied and bruised and have done the same. Not my best moments, these failures to connect (although I won’t take full responsibility—it does, in all such cases, take two to tango).

Yes, I think we all yearn to connect with others—even as we look for red flags (convincing ourselves we’re just keeping our eyes open), sometimes even manufacturing red flags to suit our purposes, to prevent ourselves from getting close to someone or allowing them to get close to us.

There have always been red flags and always will be red flags. In youth, we merely chose to ignore them; now, having survived the school of hard knocks, we’d rather raise the white flag of surrender than risk a red flag.

Wisdom may come alone through living; but there is something to be said about the ignorance of youth.

Maybe it’s that, in youth, we’re ever so much more resilient.

Consider that before birth we are one with our mother and thereafter, as we become self-aware, we seek to connect with others—friends, pets, employers/employees, lovers, husbands, wives, our children—for the remainder of our lives.

It’s strange what self-awareness and opposable thumbs can do to a species. We consider ourselves superior life forms; but oh what we could learn from babies and animals if we would but open our eyes.

Lower life forms openly display their affection—for their young as well as their mates. A baby, by instinct, desires touch, to be held; sadly, with self-awareness, we learn that it’s politically incorrect to show affection in public.

If we spend a third of our lives sleeping, we wear a mask fully half our lives during work hours, when we must adhere to policies of human resources and put forward our best professional foot. In dating, we don yet another mask because we want the other person to like us. Is it any wonder that love comes later, when the masks come off and we can see the other person—both the good and the not so good—and not look away?

I’ve always looked to connect with others through my writing, but more so in the last few years, since finding myself between relationships (does that sound hopeful about the future of my love life?)

I’ve always been a loner and writing is a solitary endeavor; but we are social animals, men and women, and depression often becomes a partner to those who spend too much time alone. I was never what you would call a social butterfly, even in my youth; but now that I’m over fifty I find myself much more accepting of couch tatering on any given night of the week to watch a ballgame or a hockey game or any one of a handful of TV dramas I’ve come to enjoy rather than going out to socialize.

That this arrangement doesn’t alarm me is perhaps reason for concern, save for my creative forays.

Despite containing more humor than all of my previous novel projects, A Retrospect in Death, as you might (rightfully) expect, is a dark write. I’ve cut deep into a vein and have bled profusely to create what I’ve been told is, thus far, a compelling read. More than once I’ve felt the pull of depression, but with the ending already written I know I will come out the other side, as early as next spring, if not as okay as my protagonist, at least better because of the experience.

I’ve started posting short excerpts from A Retrospect in Death on my Facebook page and links to my blog, where longer excerpts can be found, and, not that I need encouragement to finish this, my best work to date, the response has been great. I’ve had one Michigan bookstore owner ask me when it will be available.

I’m connecting.

 


Posted by J. Conrad Guest at 8:02 AM EDT
Updated: Wednesday, 4 July 2012 10:23 AM EDT
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