Blog Tools
Edit your Blog
Build a Blog
RSS Feed
View Profile
« April 2012 »
S M T W T F S
1 2 3 4 5 6 7
8 9 10 11 12 13 14
15 16 17 18 19 20 21
22 23 24 25 26 27 28
29 30
You are not logged in. Log in
Entries by Topic
All topics  «
Backstop
Cigars
Flash fiction
Memoir
News
Novel excerpts
Published articles
Short fiction
Sports
The Curmudgeon
Writing
J. Conrad's blog
Saturday, 14 January 2012
A Fistful of Polyphemus
Topic: Flash fiction

A piece of flash fiction I imagine will one day find its way into a novel ...

 

 

Nothing like a Saturday morning with a woody staring you in the face.

“Where is she?” Polyphemus asked me.

“Who?” I said, teasing him, knowing full well to whom he was referring.

“You know damn well to whom I’m referring—Kitty.”

“That’s Miss Kitty to you. You treat her with respect.”

“Where is she? I want her.”

“Who?”

He was starting to turn purple with rage.

“That ’Bama Baby you keep ogling on your desktop—damn, she looks fine nekkid—and that you take to bed in your mind’s eye when you climb into the sack every night. The one you fantasize about—running your hands all over her smooth skin, sticking your tongue in her navel, suckling her breasts, sucking her toes, kissing and tonguing your way up her soft legs, feeling her thighs clasping your ears as you—”

“Careful,” I said. “You’re getting excited and you know what happens when that happens.”

“Where is she?” he demanded, ignoring my admonition.

“Where do you think she is? She’s in Alabama.”

“Where’s that?”

I laughed.

“Are you laughing at me? You know I don’t like to be laughed at.”

“I know,” I said, recalling my wedding night more than twenty-five years ago, when my wife giggled at her first sight of Polyphemus in his rain gear.

Where’s that, Allybammy?”

“Alabama.”

“Yeah, that. Where is it?” He was getting persnickety.

“What do you mean, ‘where is it?’”

“You know geography was never my strength.”

“I know,” I said. “You always preferred biology—particularly where the female anatomy was concerned.”

“Why is it you always send me in to mop up after you finish with your tongue?”

“Because it’s about my pleasure, too, you single-minded goofus—and hers. It’s about anticipation. Are you complaining?”

He ignored me: “Where is she? Where’s Alabama?”

“Way down south in Alabama.”

“South! Yeah, there’s where I want to go … south … I want to go spelunking. Take me spelunking. Pah-lease!?”

I felt like choking the spit out of the little fucker, but instead I opted to douse him with cold water in the shower.

Oh, yeah. It’s allll about the anticipation …


Posted by J. Conrad Guest at 12:48 PM EST
Updated: Sunday, 4 March 2012 7:15 AM EST
Post Comment | Permalink
Saturday, 15 October 2011
Mommies Do Too Lie
Topic: Flash fiction

Tina was not yet quite five years old, but she knew Mr. Binkley was up to no good when she saw him in her backyard at three o’clock in the morning.

Tina was not what her mommy would call a light sleeper, but she awoke with a start when she thought she heard Mommy cry out. After a few moments, when she heard nothing more than the crickets outside her bedroom window, Tina convinced herself she’d been only dreaming and rolled over onto her other side, where she found Lucretia staring back at her with black button eyes.

“What should we name her?” Tina recalled asking Daddy the day he’d brought her home. “How about Lucretia?” he suggested. “That’s a good name for a teddy bear, don’t you think? We can call her ‘Lucy’ for short.”

“Lucretia,” Tina said. She liked the sound of the name, and enjoyed how it made her mouth feel when she said it, so she giggled and promptly affixed the name to her new best friend, and loved her daddy all the more—not only for bringing Lucretia home, but also for naming her.

Tina clutched Lucy and tried to fall back asleep; but the harder she tried, the more difficult it became.

Tina had just recently learned to tell time; the clock in her bedroom had no big and little hands, like the clock in her kindergarten classroom. The clock in her bedroom had numbers only—numbers that changed every minute. When she first awoke, the numbers showed 2:45. Now they showed 3:00. She knew that was fifteen minutes, but even though a minute can be only a minute—sixty seconds can no more take seventy seconds to elapse than it can take fifty seconds—from the perspective of a five-year-old (and insomniacs unable to sleep through their disorder), time passes much more slowly.

Eventually she heard Mommy’s voice whispering from down the hall, and then she heard footsteps followed by the creak of the third riser from the top of the stairs. She wondered why it creaked twice.

Tina set Lucy on her pillow and told her, “I’ll be right back.”

Then she hopped out of bed and pushed both her feet into her pink slippers and slipped on her just as pink robe. Was there truly a prettier color than pink?

It was then, as she passed her bedroom window, that she saw Mr. Binkley walking quickly past her swing set toward the fence at the back of the yard. It seemed he had come from the back of her house.

He must be up to no good, Tina thought, recalling that her daddy once told her that people out after midnight are likely up to no good.

Curious, Tina went to find her mommy.

 

“Honey, what’s wrong?” Mommy said, startled to see Tina standing at the top of the stairs, waiting for her. Tina yawned and rubbed her eye with a fist before sitting on the top step. A moment later her mommy sat down beside her.

“I woke up and heard you talking to someone,” Tina said.

“Me? Talking to someone? Are you sure you weren’t just dreaming?”

“Yes.”

“Well,” Mommy said, “I couldn’t sleep either, so I went downstairs for a glass of milk. Come to think of it, I was talking to myself, trying to remind myself to add a couple things to the grocery list for when I go shopping later.”

“Oh.” And then, “What was Mr. Binkley doing in our yard?”

“You saw Mr. Binkley in our yard?”

“Uh-huh. And I wasn’t dreaming.”

“I … I don’t know, honey, what he was doing in our yard.”

“I think he was up to no good,” Tina said knowingly, not knowing how she knew, only that if her daddy said that people out after midnight were up to no good, then it must be so.

Tina was suddenly very tired again and so she rested her head in her mommy’s lap, the mystery of the third riser on the stair creaking twice a forgotten curiosity. Mommy said nothing, so Tina asked, “When’s Daddy coming home?”

“Honey, I told you. He’ll be home in time for Christmas.”

Tina sighed. It was early September. Christmas seemed a lifetime away.

“Why did he have to go away to A … Af—”

“Afghanistan. Daddy is a marine, honey. He had to go fight to protect the Afghans.”

Tina knew what an afghan was. Grandma had one that she covered her lap with when it got cold outside and she sat in her rocking chair rocking and reading her bible. So Tina surmised her grandma’s afghan had come from Afghanistan, a place she knew was very far away. What she couldn’t quite grasp was why they needed her daddy to fight for them.

“I miss Daddy,” Tina said, and yawned.

“I know you do, sweetheart. So do I.”

And Tina believed her mommy, because her mommy had always been truthful with her. And because her mommy had always been truthful with her, Tina knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Mommy was truthful, too, to Daddy. If Mommy said she missed Daddy, it was true.

It would be a few years before Tina uncovered some of the untruths her mommy had told her. Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy—those are untruths all parents tell their children. But there would be other untruths Tina would uncover that would rock her small world to the core—like how missing someone doesn’t necessarily equate to remaining true to them.

But on this night, Tina believed her mommy, because she was nearly five years old and a good girl, and that’s what good girls did—put their trust and belief in their mommy.

After all, why would her mommy lie to her?

In time, she would come to understand that, too.


Posted by J. Conrad Guest at 10:43 AM EDT
Post Comment | Permalink
Should the Uninsured Be Left to Die?
Topic: The Curmudgeon

During a recent GOP debate, Ron Paul was asked if an uninsured man should be left to die and the audience screamed “yes!”

Initially, I was horrified by this response, but I was prompted, again, to consider the issue of health care in this nation.

Let’s face it, health care in America has been changing for decades, and not for the better.

The health care industry would have us believe that health care in America is the best care in the world. That’s like the airline industry saying that flying is safer than driving because more people die while driving than flying. Well, yeah. More people drive than fly, too. And most traffic fatalities occur within twenty miles of home—you don’t fly to the grocery store and the post office, so opting to fly instead of taking the car to run your Saturday morning errands or the kids to the mall isn’t going to skew those figures. The bottom line for me is that when an aircraft goes down it’s going to be catastrophic. There’s no such thing as a fuselage bender.

How does this translate to healthcare? How about this statistic: more people die annually while under the care of a physician than by guns.

The cold, harsh reality is that the cost of dying (it happens to all of us—if ever we live that long) is going up and, like the plastic surgery industry takes advantage of our fear of growing old, the health care industry takes advantage of our fear of dying.

How many times are they going to flip-flop on the “a glass of red wine every night is good for your heart” matter?

But the question, really, is not so difficult, even if the answer is complex: If I exchange money for health care (services) from my physician, why should the government tax me so that others can get health care?

The easy answer, and the rhetoric President Obama spouts when discussing health care reform, is that everyone in this country has a right to health care.

If that’s true, that health care is a right guaranteed by the Constitution, then the government must provide it, as it provides for our national security, public safety, and our judicial system.

“No!” you say? “That would amount to socialism.”

So on that premise, it is not such a right, right? After all, the Constitution is largely about what the government can and can’t do (also known as infringement) to We, the People. Nothing in the Constitution, or in the Bill of Rights, says anything about what others must do for us.

Therefore, government should remain apart from health care, yes?

 

I grew up in the 1960s and had an uncle who worked for General Motors. He had three boys who liked to roughhouse, and for every bump and bruise, every nick and cut, my aunt took them to the doctor and presented her insurance card and it was covered—all of it. Nothing out of pocket was ever required, no deductible ever needed to be met.

Flash forward forty-five years: a colleague recently informed me that she has carpal tunnel in one of her wrists. She can’t afford surgery because she’s still paying off last year’s deductible for other health issues. On top of that, she tells me a friend of hers, who is on Welfare, would be able to have the surgery and it wouldn’t cost her a dime.

Now, maybe if I was unemployed and uninsured and needed treatment for some serious ailment I couldn’t put off, I’d feel differently, but how is that fair? My colleague has a right to health care; but because she is employed she is penalized? And her friend, who for whatever reason isn’t contributing to society, gets a free ride because everyone in this country has a right to healthcare even though the Constitution makes no such claim?

Basically, my colleague and I contribute to our health care, which we select from a menu of benefits—the cost of which goes up a few dollars every year—incur a co-pay for each visit to our physicians, and have an annual deductible we must meet before our insurance kicks in, all so that those on Welfare and those who can’t afford health insurance, can get treatment for free. What’s my incentive to continue to function in the workplace, contribute to society, to go into debt to pay for health care, or file bankruptcy in the aftermath of a heart bypass?

I get it. It’s a global village in which we live. I do it because it’s right. But sometimes I struggle with doing what’s right because it’s the right thing to do. Sometimes I fail to do what’s right, and other times I do it and grumble about it. And sometimes it’s the right thing to do—grumble about it that is. Because only when one grumbles is there a chance to fix something that’s broken or wrong. Say nothing, bear the cross in silence, and you give a nod of approval to the status quo.

So maybe it is right, that the many pay so that the few can be cared for.

Or maybe it’s wrong because it’s a conspiracy: healthcare for the rich, let the rest of us die, especially now that the Baby Boomers are approaching that age when we’ll most need health care. Think about it—letting us die will help solve the Social Security dilemma.

Then again, maybe it’s right only because the health care system is broken, and why bother to fix it as long as it’s profitable—at least until the back of the middle class can carry no more?

“Broken?” you say.

Yes, broken. Consider that the pharmaceutical industry spends more money on advertising than on research and development—just about every station break in prime time has at least one commercial peddling some med with a list of side effects that’s nastier than the malady it purports to treat. How much of the cost of the average prescription goes into running those ads?

Heck, even hospitals, medical centers and cancer treatment centers spend millions on TV ads. Yep, my co-pays and deductibles at work.

Maybe it’s smart to shop ahead—like buying a casket ahead of time allows you to dicker over price—but I can’t help but think I’m not going to recall an ad for St. Joseph Mercy Health System when I go into cardiac arrest.

Consider the frivolous malpractice suits that drive up the cost of malpractice insurance—how much of the cost of open heart surgery goes to malpractice insurance?

But, perhaps most important, consider the profit margin in treating a symptom over finding a cure.

We put a man on the moon, are building an orbiting space station, have designed a car that can parallel park itself, can increase fertility and create man-made erections, and enhance the female body with silicone and Botox. We’ve even cloned a sheep. But we still haven’t found a cure for cancer.

Or have we?

Why would the health care industry want a cure for cancer if it cut into profits by eliminating the need for long, drawn-out treatment?

Imagine what legalized assisted suicide would do to profits.

How does profit margin fit in with the Hippocratic Oath anyway?

 


Posted by J. Conrad Guest at 10:05 AM EDT
Updated: Saturday, 15 October 2011 10:08 AM EDT
Post Comment | View Comments (1) | Permalink
Sunday, 25 September 2011
500 Miles
Topic: Novel excerpts

An excerpt from my novel in progress, 500 Miles.

 

 

Chapter 23

 

 

We bypassed the next event on the circuit, the Pikes Peak Hill climb, a twelve-mile, one car at a time timed dash up a hill. The next event, the Hoosier Grand Prix at Indianapolis Raceway Park, was three weeks later. Unfortunately for me, that left me far too much time to lose myself in thoughts of how Mindy had dumped me, my rivalry with Barkins, and missing Gail.

One day, while driving home from the post office, I drove past Brown’s and caught a glimpse of Mindy waiting on a car. Brown’s was the classic drive-in restaurant of the 1950s. She looked very desirable in hot pants and a tight blouse, and I recalled the evenings we’d spent together. I nearly gave in to the urge to pull in to talk to her, but then I remembered our last night and I felt anger well up.

I just think you’re more serious about us than I am.

“Shit,” I muttered to myself. If she only knew how unserious I’d been about “us.” But I missed my chance to tell her, which, I knew, was for the best. She could never provide what I wanted even if she’d become all too adept at providing for my needs. I never should’ve slept with her; but I’d hoped she would help me to forget Gail. Instead she’d only made me miss her all the more even as I despised myself for having sex outside of marriage; that I enjoyed it only made it that much worse.

Instead of stopping at Brown’s I drove to my folks’ house for lunch. On the way my thoughts turned to Barkins and our meeting with USAC. I wondered if their warning would make a difference.

Probably not, I concluded, deducing he’d just become more adept at making it look like a racing accident.

I wouldn’t always be able to avoid him on the track. I was always careful, but careful around Barkins meant nothing. He was intent on beating me in any way he could, which included wrecking me, and himself in the process, and I refused to not race him.

“Shit, shit.”

As I parked my car in front of my dad’s barn an image of Gail popped into my mind and I wondered if she ever thought about me anymore. That she hadn’t contacted me since she told me I would one day leave her a widow seemed to indicate she hadn’t.

“Shit, shit, shit.”

 

After lunch, Dad went out to the barn while I helped Mom clear the dishes.

“You okay?” Mom asked. “You seem sad.”

“I’m okay, Mom.”

“Alex, I’m your mother. Mothers sense when something is troubling their son. Talk to me.”

I said nothing.

“You miss Mindy?”

“Not really.” Although my hormones felt otherwise.

“Why don’t you give Gail a call?”

Her question startled me. Although my thoughts often wandered to Gail, especially when I was on the road, she was a topic that hadn’t come up with my parents since she turned down my marriage proposal. I’d said little to Mom and Dad in the aftermath. I hadn’t even told them I’d popped the question, and their efforts to draw me into discussion were met with silence. Eventually they stopped asking about her.

“I don’t think that’s such a good idea, Mom.”

“Why not? She was good for you. You were good together, don’t you think?”

“I’m sure she’s gotten on with her life.”

“You don’t know that for certain. She loved you very much. I don’t think you’ve gotten over her. Maybe she’s just waiting for you to call.”

“The phone fits her hand, too, you know.”

“It’s not a woman’s place to take the initiative.”

“Except where breaking a man’s heart is concerned.” I startled myself with that confession. It was the most I’d told either of parents concerning my feelings over the matter.

“Yes, well, it’s a gentleman’s place to pursue.”

I sighed and said, “And what of a woman’s place? I’m not a mind reader. If she still cared, she should tell me. After all, she’s the one who broke it off.”

“She was a shy girl, Alex.”

Mom put her arm around my shoulder and added, “All I’m saying is don’t let pride stand in your way. The worst that could happen is that she tells you ‘no.’”

I laughed. “The worst? As worsts go, that’s pretty damn worst. Why would I want to put myself through that?”

“Because,” she said, squeezing my shoulder, “the best that could happen is that you get back together. It would be a shame to waste even a day more because your pride stopped you from finding happiness.”

“I’ll think about it,” I said, but already I knew I wouldn’t.

Mom was right, I wasn’t yet over Gail; but I couldn’t be certain Gail wasn’t over me. If she was, then it was pointless to open the past; reconciliation would be out of the question. And reminiscing about the past would be too painful for me. I was convinced that time healed all wounds. Eventually enough time would pass to heal the hole Gail had left in my chest.

I went out to the barn to help Dad finish up rebuilding a transmission on a 1957 Chevy. We worked in silence, a father and son bonding not with words, but instead with grease and gears, wrenches and winches.

 

Sounds to me as if you embraced your grief, wore it like a badge,” Alicia said.

Alex finished blowing a series of smoke rings and said, “So what if I did? It was the sixties. It was what was expected of men. Hell, it’s little different today, even if women claim they want a warm and caring man, someone not afraid to show his feelings. Inevitably the sensitive and compassionate man is passed by or cast away in preference for the bad boy.”

“Your mother was right, though. The worst that could happen would be learning that she’d moved on.”

Alex nodded. “And why would I want to know for certain that she had?”

“You’d rather not have known?”

“Why would I want to know that she’d married another man—someone I might’ve known—that she’d started a family, had convinced herself that what we had was simply puppy love?”

“That sounds like your ego speaking.”

Alex bristled at Alicia’s accusation.

“Maybe it is and so what?” he said, a little too forcefully. Alex took a deep breath before he added, “Your ego wouldn’t be bruised if your husband told you he was leaving you for another woman?”

Alicia looked away and Alex saw her complexion flush and he knew he’d struck a nerve.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean to—”

“That’s okay,” Alicia said. “I sometimes forget that men, too, can be hurt.”

“Hell, Alicia, men don’t have a corner on the bad behavior market.”

“I know that.”

“Not that Gail behaved poorly. She just did what she felt was right, even if it was only for herself.” Alex shrugged. “She was protecting herself. As for the rest of it, well, not knowing if she’d chosen to spend her life with someone else left open the possibility that she might yet contact me. It drove me to excel on the track, to prove her wrong—that I wouldn’t get hurt—and to make her proud of me, even if she never picked up the Monday sports section. The phone might ring and I, expecting a call from Mom or Dad, might be surprised to instead hear her voice on the other end, asking me how I was doing, that she was following my career, was proud of me. It may have prolonged the healing process, but I preferred it to taking the cold turkey approach.”

Alicia appeared to doodle on her steno pad; Alex considered that perhaps she was still coping with the memory of her own unpleasant “profile.”

“Not all men’s fantasies have to do with sex, you know.”

Alicia smiled and looked up at Alex.

“That’s better,” he said. “You have a beautiful smile.”

Alicia rolled her eyes.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m sure you’ve heard that before, many times.”

“I have,” she said, “but thanks just the same.” Then she added, “I have my parents to thank. Two years of braces in my teens. You know their generation. They hoped to increase my attractiveness to men so they could see me married off. They lived at a time before women’s foray into careers.”

“But you followed your calling.”

“I wanted both.”

Alex ran a finger around the lip of his empty glass.

“I’m sorry,” he said again.

“I had both, for a time. And I still hope to have both.”

“I suspect you will, Alicia, and not just because of your braces.”

“Thank you again,” she said. “But what about you?”

Alex laughed. “Look at me. I smoke cigars.”

“So what? So do I,” Alicia said with a laugh.

Alex joined with her laughter and said, “If for no other reason than to get the story.”

“I’m more adventurous than you think.”

“Somehow I can’t imagine you returning to Michigan to invest in a humidor and keeping it stocked with Cohibas.”

“Probably not. But I wouldn’t not consider a relationship with a man who indulged.”

Alex wondered if Alicia were perhaps knocking on his door but chose instead not to crack the door.

“I’m approaching the double-nickel age. Love is for the young, those willing to make fools of themselves, like Romeo did.”

“Romeo killed himself.”

“I know,” Alex said. “What a fool.”

“Love is for anyone and everyone, age notwithstanding,” Alicia said. “Love is all there is. It’s why we’re put here.”

“Really? And here I thought my parents were responsible.”

Alicia smiled and said, “We learn from the mistakes of our youth to hopefully make wiser choices.”

“Are you a product of a poor choice, Alicia?”

“Let’s just say, in hindsight, I should’ve seen it coming.”

“Hindsight is only foresight but after the fact. If you should’ve seen it coming, chances are you did, but you just chose to ignore the warnings.”

Alicia nodded. “That’s beside the point. To find love you need to leave yourself open to the probability.”

“One doesn’t find love, Alicia. It’s not some object to be unearthed at an archeological dig. Love is a choice, something we choose to give another.”

“But—”

“Besides, I have a business to run—an auto parts store and shop not far from here. It takes up most of my time.”

“That sounds like an excuse.”

“Maybe so, but as excuses go, it’s a good one.”

 


Posted by J. Conrad Guest at 9:31 AM EDT
Updated: Sunday, 25 September 2011 10:05 AM EDT
Post Comment | Permalink
Tuesday, 23 August 2011
Eking One Out
Topic: Flash fiction

“E-K-E?”

“Eke.”

“What is that?”

“Are you challenging?”

“Believe it.”

Greg reached for the Scrabble Players Dictionary and began flipping its pages. He’d played this game against his old nemesis, Barry, plotting his strategy carefully. Playing his last tile a few minutes ago, Greg held a slim lead—347-341. The nearly three-and-a-half-hour epic battle had gone nearly the way he’d planned it. Barry had darted out to a quick early lead; but Greg had slowly reeled him in and, by the halfway point, he’d gone ahead, keeping it close, trading Barry’s scores nearly point for point. Greg’s catch me, kiss my ass strategy was to win by a single point if he could manage it, first pouring vinegar into Barry’s wound before rubbing salt into it; however, whether he won by a single point or six points, the shame would be all Barry’s.

Greg had only to wait as Barry futilely searched the board for someplace to play his final tile, “K,” and come up empty. Maybe he hoped to tag it onto the end of a word somewhere—how many words ended with a “K?” Ink, blink, think, sink, lick, stick, seek, peek, kick, monk, blank, click, tick, pick, pack, back, sack, peak, book, luck, cock, work, milk, chick, walk, talk, flick, link, bank, rank, drank, frank, junk, oak, quick, suck were just a few (Greg had played “pee” horizontally early on, scoring double word points, then made a new word of it a few turns later by adding “R” to the end of it when he played “harem” vertically, scoring triple letter points for the “H”). Or maybe Barry hoped to nestle it in between two letters to create something that, in his moody blues wildest dreams, would amount to seven or more points.

And so Greg had settled back into his chair, lips besmirked (not in the SCRABBLE Players Dictionary), smugly waiting for Barry to concede checkmate; the chair creaked from the weight of his great bulk, and he listened to the clock on the kitchen wall tick its tock. Greg was about to clean Barry’s clocK. All he had to do was wait for his capitulation.

This was going to be sweet.

FreaKin’ great.

Until clicK went the “K,” onto the plastic surface of the deluxe SCRABBLE playing board: EKE.

“Fahk,” Greg said.

“No, eke.”

“To supplement with effort; to obtain with great effort.”

Barry nodded. “Eke. Five points for the ‘K’ and one each for two ‘Es.’ I guess I managed to eke out this one, old friend.” Barry did his best Ricardo Montalbán impersonation from The Wrath of Khan, as Khan had repeatedly referred to Captain Kirk as “old friend.”

“I fuckin’ hate you, Barry. I fuckin’ hate you.”

Barry didn’t think Greg sounded at all like William Shatner.


Posted by J. Conrad Guest at 8:33 PM EDT
Updated: Tuesday, 23 August 2011 8:34 PM EDT
Post Comment | Permalink
Sunday, 10 July 2011
500 Miles
Topic: Novel excerpts
 

Another excerpt from 500 Miles

 

 

Ten

 

 

I lay in a hospital bed staring at my right foot, its cast still wet, while a nurse took my blood pressure for what seemed a tenth time. My head ached with the pain I recalled all too well from my previous concussion. Dad was down the hall heeding Mother Nature’s call.

“A concussion is nothing to fool with,” the doctor said.

“I’m not sure I even know what a concussion is,” I said.

“It’s a bruising of the brain and it can cause short-term as well as long-term issues, memory loss. I understand from your father that this is your second.”

I nodded.

“Your brain is nothing to fool with. I wouldn’t recommend risking a third.”

Just then Riesler came in, with Dad.

“How are you, Alex?” Riesler asked.

“My ankle is broken and I have a headache. I’ll be fine when I get back to Michigan.”

“He has a concussion,” the doctor said. “I would advise against flying until the headache dissipates.” Then he left the room.

“Don’t worry,” Riesler said. “Your room is paid for for as long as you need it.”

“Thanks,” I said. I was afraid to give voice to the question weighing heavily on my concussed mind; fortunately, Riesler came to my rescue.

“Don’t worry,” he said. “This changes nothing. Your wreck was not your fault. I still want to put you in the number 14 next year. The season starts in March right back here in Phoenix, on a new paved oval. The second race is at Trenton in April, followed by Indy. Are you up for it?”

“Of course,” I said, grinning. Unfortunately, I could see Dad didn’t share my enthusiasm.

“Glad to hear it,” Riesler said; then, after shaking my hand, he left.

“Alex,” Dad said when we were alone.

“No, Dad, I don’t want to hear it. This is something I have to do.”

 

We made it back to Michigan in time for Thanksgiving. I felt I had much for which to be thankful, even if I was hobbled by crutches. My career had launched and I had visions of winning races against the likes of A.J. Foyt, Parnelli Jones and Roger Ward.

Unfortunately my family seemed less thankful; Dad was aloof, Mom even quieter than usual, and Gail withdrawn. I knew what was troubling her.

“Hey,” I said when we had a few minutes alone. “I love you.”

Gail said nothing.

“Want to sign my cast?”

“No.”

A moment later I added, “It’s just a broken ankle.”

“It’s not your ankle I’m worried about, Alex.”

“The headaches are gone.”

“How many more will there be?” she said. “And what if next time it’s more serious than just your ankle? Concussions are nothing to take lightly.”

I sighed. “USAC boasts the best drivers in the world.”

“Tell that to Lloyd Ruby. He drove against you like he was Bobby Barkins. They don’t care about you. All they care about is keeping you behind them and they’ll stop at nothing to keep you there.”

I said nothing more and endured the gloomiest Thanksgiving dinner of my life.

 

The new track at Phoenix was beautiful. A one-mile oval, it boasted a dogleg on the backstretch. Turns one and two were banked at eleven degrees, while turns three and four, broader than one and two, were banked at nine degrees. It would be a challenge for all the drivers to set up their cars to negotiate all four turns optimally. Getting the car to work well in one and two would leave it disadvantaged in three and four; therefore the setup would be one of concession, finding balance between both ends of the track.

I drove the number 14 onto the track not knowing what to expect; it was the first time I’d driven on asphalt. Snyder had told me it would be easier than driving on dirt, but also less forgiving.

I drove a dozen laps to get the feel of driving on asphalt and then came into the pits to get advice and make suggestions for the chassis setup.

Snyder: “You’re entering the turns with too much speed, which forces you to use too much brake. Entering slower will allow you to use less brake and you’ll be able to carry more speed through the center. You can drive deeper into the corner. Let the asphalt scrub off your speed.”

I offered no suggestions on the chassis, preferring instead to go back out to employ Snyder’s suggestions before making changes to the car.

That Snyder had told me the paved surface would be less forgiving than dirt was an understatement. I wasn’t used to so much grip. Several times on entry I felt the car want to snap around on me.

I came back to the pits and had the mechanic soften the springs and went back out. Not only did I feel more comfortable, my lap times came down.

After the afternoon practice session was over, Snyder and I had dinner and a beer at our hotel and we discussed strategy and what I could expect for the race. He’d had much more experience on asphalt than I even if this was the inaugural race.

When I got to my room I thought of my family. Dad had stayed in Michigan, necessitated by business; while Gail, too, had stayed behind. She now had her teaching job. When she saw me off at the airport she kissed me longer and hugged me tighter than usual, as if she expected to never again taste my lips or hold me in her arms. But she said nothing, just as she had said nothing all winter long, about my choice to pursue my career with Riesler Racing.

The road life was new to me and I wondered if I’d ever get used to it. There was plenty to keep me occupied while at the track; but time weighed heavily afterward, in the evening.

I called Dad to tell him of my day, that Snyder had told me I’d taken to asphalt like duck to water, and that I expected to qualify well tomorrow. He told me he was proud of me, but he seemed distant, as if he, too, were worried about me.

“I’m sorry I can’t be there,” he said, and I wondered if maybe he thought he could protect me from injury if he were here.

“I understand,” I told him. And then, “Say hello to Mom for me.”

“Tell her yourself,” he said and handed the phone to her.

“Hi, Alex. How are you?”

“I’m fine, Mom. Driving fast.”

She laughed and said, “Not too fast I hope. Be careful.”

“Always.”

“I love you,” she said, and I wondered if she, too, were considering she might never again hear my voice.

“I love you, too, Mom.”

Then I called Gail to give her the highlights of my day.

“Miss me?” I said when I heard her voice say “hello.”

“Mountains.”

“Yes, we have those here.”

“Silly.”

“How was your day?”

“Lonely.”

“No difficult teenagers?”

“Always. How was your day?”

“Fast, but uneventfully safe.”

Then we went silent. I knew what was on her mind and she perhaps knew I knew; but neither of us seemed to want to bridge the miles between us by speaking of it. Finally I said:

“I miss you.”

“Do you?” There was nothing accusatory in her tone; just the tenor of someone trying to come to terms with my admission after voluntarily leaving her to fly two-thirds of the way across the country, and again I was forced to consider the drudgery of life on the road. At twenty-two, I still wasn’t yet ready to acknowledge the perils of my profession, my own mortality. Fatalities in racing happened only to other drivers.

“You don’t ever have to doubt that, Gail.”

After I hung up I realized, not for the first time, how much Gail meant to me and so I decided to ask her to marry me. Time and place would be paramount to me—not just anywhere, anytime.

A plan began to take shape.

 

Sunday’s race was uneventful save for two crashes before the race was half over—Johnny Rutherford and Jim Hurtubise both found the wall in separate crashes. Starting second, Foyt grabbed the lead when the green flag waved and never relinquished it. Four cars finished on the lead lap behind Foyt: Roger McCluskey, Parnelli Jones, Don Branson, and Roger Ward. I finished a lap down and where I started, in tenth place, behind, who else, Lloyd Ruby. After starting sixth, my teammate, Sam Snyder, finished twentieth in the twenty-two car field when his transmission failed on lap fifty-three.

I took little pleasure in driving; my thoughts were of my parents and Gail. The people who meant the most to me were two thousand miles away. In what should’ve been another step in my reaching my dream, I never felt so alone.

I’d always prided myself in being smooth; but I was sloppy after the first thirty laps. Maybe that was to be expected; after all, back home the feature races were only thirty laps. I’d never driven a hundred miles. What would I do in two months, at Indy, a five-hundred miles marathon?

I also drove cautiously, failing to capitalize on the mistakes of other drivers. After my crash last fall, I was determined to finish, to learn as much as I could.

With a handful of laps to go, as I gave up ninth place to Ruby, I wondered if this truly was what I wanted to do with my life.

Maybe dreams are better off left unfulfilled.

After the checkered flag fell I realized I’d learned little from being so cautious.

As I climbed from the cockpit, Riesler came over to speak with me.

“You okay?” he asked.

“Yeah, I’m fine.”

“You looked uncomfortable out there. Inconsistent.”

I nodded. “I know. After last year I wanted to make sure to finish and so I was overly cautious.”

Riesler put his arm around my shoulder and said, “Understood. Nobody was going to beat Foyt today. He’s going to be tough all year. You did well to finish tenth in your first race. You’ll do better next month at Trenton.”

I nodded but said nothing. Finishing tenth in a field of twenty-two cars, in my mind, was not much of an accomplishment, especially when I considered seven cars had failed to finish. In reality we’d beaten only five other cars running at the end, and only one of those was on the same lap.

 

“You didn’t really believe that, did you?” Alicia asked. “About dreams being better off left unfulfilled?”

“In that moment I did. Although they never voiced it, I felt my parents’ uncertainty and concern for my wellbeing. Gail had voiced her concern but knew it was useless to forbid me.”

“She was giving you rope.”

Alex nodded. “Yeah, to hang myself.”

“To make your own decision.”

“And what would that decision cost me? A scrambled brain the result of another concussion? Amputation of a limb? My life? Dreams, when they cause pain to those you love, become nightmares.”

“Yet you continued to drive for another twelve years. What changed your mind?”

“A lot of things. But without jumping ahead, what took me to Trenton was a desire to do better than I had at Phoenix, where I felt I hadn’t competed. I wanted to measure myself against the other drivers, especially against Foyt and the other four who’d finished right behind him, two of them—Jones and Ward—already legends. It didn’t hurt either that I wasn’t ready to embrace the idea of spending the rest of my life working in my dad’s shop.”

 


Posted by J. Conrad Guest at 10:18 AM EDT
Updated: Sunday, 10 July 2011 12:33 PM EDT
Post Comment | Permalink
Monday, 4 July 2011
500 Miles
Topic: Novel excerpts

An excerpt from my work in progress, 500 Miles.

 

Four

 

 

Who’s that?” I asked. It was the second week of the new school year and Vince and I were walking to our next class when I spotted the raven-haired goddess walking toward us. It was a rhetorical question. I didn’t really expect that Vince would know.

“Her?”

Don’t point you idiot! Yes, her.”

“Gail Russell. She’s in my second hour history class. I hate history.”

“That’s because you don’t think anything of any importance happened before you got here. Don’t you want to leave behind some legacy of your own—have people read about you in a history book after you’re gone?”

“I never thought about it that way.”

Gail passed us and I stopped to turn around to watch her retreating figure, which was divine, the way her hips swayed in the floral skirt that bared just enough of her shapely calves.

“You go on,” I said to Vince. “I’ll catch up to you.”

“But—”

“Go on. I won’t be late.”

Then I hurried to catch up with Gail.

“Excuse me,” I said, putting my hand on her shoulder. She stopped and turned to look up at me.

“Yes?” she said in a soft voice.

“Has anyone ever told you that you look like Gail Russell?”

She looked confused. Apparently it was a line she hadn’t heard before. I was pleased I was the first.

“But I am Gail Russell,” she said.

“Really? Imagine that. But I was referring to the actress who starred opposite John Wayne in Wake of the Red Witch. I think she’s the most beautiful woman in pictures.”

This Gail blushed and averted her eyes at my homage.

“I need to get to my next class,” she said.

“Yeah, me, too. But listen, I know it’s short notice, but how would you like to go to the dance with me tomorrow?”

Gail blushed anew, but she bravely looked up at me. She took a moment to consider; eventually a smile came to her lips—she had a beautiful smile—and then she nodded.

“I think I’d like that,” she said.

“Great! Meet me on the front steps after school and we can exchange phone numbers and particulars.”

“Okay,” she said and hurried off to her next class.

I stood a moment to admire her departure and wondered at my great good fortune—that she hadn’t yet been asked to the dance by some other guy. I was still too young to understand that the cutest girls were often left to spend Friday night home alone because guys figured they either had already been asked or they’d get shot down for presuming they’d consent to going to a school dance with a mere mortal.

And then it hit me that I’d neglected to tell her my name. Apparently this sort of thing was new to her, too, since she hadn’t asked for it.

 

My name is Alex Król.”

Gail smiled. “Thanks,” she said. “I realized I’d forgotten to ask after I sat down in my English class.” And then, “You must think me horrible.”

“Why?”

“I don’t want you to think I’m one of those girls.”

“One of what girls?”

“The kind that goes out with any guy who asks her. You know, loose.” Gail blushed and looked away.

“You blush. I like that.”

Gail’s discomfiture deepened.

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

She looked at me. “That’s okay.”

“If I thought you were that type of girl, I wouldn’t have asked you to the dance.”

Gail smiled and I felt my heart shift into a higher gear.

“Thank you,” she said.

“You a senior?”

“A junior.”

“Me, too.” And then, “I can’t believe I haven’t seen you around school before. You’re someone I’d notice.”

Gail smiled and said, “We just moved here, from North Carolina.”

“That explains the accent, which I like.”

Gail laughed. “To me, ya’ll have accents.”

I laughed. “I imagine we do. So what brought you to Michigan?”

“Politics mostly.”

I raised an eyebrow; Gail continued:

“The Dixiecrats are against civil rights.”

“So your dad’s a liberal?”

“No, not really. He’s a Baptist who believes in equal rights. It didn’t hurt that job opportunities here are greater.”

“What’s he do?”

“He works on the assembly line at the Rouge Plant. He hates it, fastening seats into cars. But the wages are good, and the union watches out for him.”

“Dearborn is quite a drive from here.”

“South Lyon is a lot like our home town.”

I nodded. “You like it here then?”

“So far. The kids are friendlier than I thought they’d be.”

“I’m glad you like it.”

“What about your dad? What does he do?”

“He’s self-employed. The town’s best auto mechanic. He has a shop in our barn.”

“Ya’all own a farm?”

I grinned. “Just my dad. A small parcel just west of town.”

“Are you making fun of me?”

“Not at all. I like your accent.”

“I just want to fit in.”

“Why would you want to fit in? Different is good. It gets you noticed. Those who achieve greatness are usually different.”

“I guess that never occurred to me.”

“But I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings.”

We went silent a moment. It was a silence that, in the months ahead, wouldn’t be nearly so uncomfortable as we got to know one another. It was the silence that comes with the comfort of simply being in the company of a loved one.

“I should be going,” Gail finally said.

“Me, too. But before we go, I should get your address so I can pick you up for the dance.”

“You drive?”

“I’ve been driving for two years, with my mom and dad of course. I don’t yet have my license, but I think I can get Dad to let me drive to the dance.”

“I’m not sure my dad would approve.”

“Does he have to know?”

“I won’t lie to him.”

“I understand. Then I’ll meet you at the dance.”

I watched Gail scribble her phone number onto a piece of paper; she handed it to me and I glanced at it, the treasure that it was. I thought her penmanship was as exquisite as her face.

“Thanks,” I said. “Oh, and here’s my phone number.”

I scribbled it onto a piece of paper and handed it to her, but before she could take it, I withdrew it.

“How’s your daddy feel about you calling boys?” I asked with a grin.

“I don’t know,” Gail said. She looked startled. “It’s never come up before.”

“Well, you should have it in case an emergency comes up and you can’t make it.”

“Absolutely,” she said, smiling.

“If I don’t see you around school tomorrow, I’ll see you at seven.”

“It’s a date,” she said with a smile.

I left for home feeling as if I’d just taken the checkered flag.

 

I’ve never danced with a boy before,” Gail whispered in my ear as the band played Goodnite Sweetheart Goodnite, a Spaniels song that was popular. I couldn’t believe how wonderful Gail felt in my embrace.

“That’s okay,” I said. “I haven’t either.”

Gail laughed, the sound tuneful.

“You’re funny,” she said.

“Well, looks aren’t everything.”

“No, they’re not.”

“Although I have to say you’re the prettiest girl I’ve ever seen.”

“Thank you.”

When the song came to end we made our way to the punch bowl.

“You know,” Gail said after taking a sip, “you’re my first date.”

“Ever?”

“Ever.”

“Not to call you a liar, but I find that hard to believe.”

“Oh, I’ve been asked once or twice.”

“Only once or twice?”

“Okay, several times. But I’m very choosy.”

“Huh,” I said, with a grin. “And here I thought I’d done the choosing.”

“I could’ve turned you down, you know.”

“True enough. So how come you said ‘yes?’”

Gail blushed and looked down.

“Oh, my, be still my beating heart,” I said. “Do you do that often?”

“What?” she asked, looking up at me again.

“Blush.”

She rolled her eyes and said, “Unfortunately, yes.”

“Well, I think it suits you. I hope it’s something you’ll do only for me.”

Gail smiled and blushed a deeper shade. I came to her rescue—that’s who I was in my youth, a rescuer.

“So why did you say ‘yes?’”

“Promise me you won’t laugh?”

“Scout’s honor,” I said, holding up my right hand, palm out.

“I liked the way you looked at me yesterday, when you asked.”

“How was I supposed to look at you?”

“I’m not expressing myself well.”

“That’s okay; I have that effect on people.”

Gail laughed. “I imagine you do.” And then, “It was obvious when you looked at me you liked what you saw. But you were respectful.”

“Why wouldn’t I be respectful?”

“You didn’t leer at me.”

“Oh. My turn to apologize. Sometimes I’m slow on the uptake.”

“Telling me I looked like Gail Russell didn’t hurt your cause.”

“I’m very honest,” I said.

“And …”

“Uh-oh, there’s an ‘and?’”

“I’ve seen you around school and you seem one of the better boys.”

“I don’t believe you.”

“What, that you’re one of the better boys?”

“No, that you’ve seen me around school. That would mean I’ve missed seeing you, and I can’t believe that.”

“Do you always flirt so outrageously?”

“Only with you.”

“Good answer.”

Just then the band segued into Honey Hush, a Joe Turner song that had been popular in 1953.

“Come on,” I said, taking Gail’s hand. “Let’s dance.”

 

The evening came to an end all too soon. We danced and talked and got to know each other, and liked what we learned.

We held hands as we made our way across the parking lot to where her dad sat behind the wheel of his idling car—a 1950 Ford Zephyr Six.

We stopped about ten feet from the Zephyr Six to look at each other; I held both of Gail’s hands in mine.

“What I wouldn’t give to kiss you,” I said.

“Why Alex Król, what kind of girl do you take me for?” Gail said with a smile.

“The kind I’d like to kiss.”

Gail grew serious. “I know,” she said, glancing at her father, seated in the car with his hands firmly gripping the steering wheel. Perhaps he knew this day had been coming, when his little girl would grow up to meet the young man who might take his place.

Gail raised herself up on her toes to kiss me on the cheek.

“Another time, I promise,” she whispered. Then she gave me a brief hug, her breasts feeling firm against me, and made her way toward her father’s car.


Posted by J. Conrad Guest at 9:11 AM EDT
Updated: Monday, 4 July 2011 9:16 AM EDT
Post Comment | Permalink
Thursday, 2 June 2011
A Dog's Wisdom
Topic: Flash fiction

This originally appeared in the June 2009 issue of Quill and Parchment

 

Joe is sad today. He sits and taps with his fingers. He stops tapping for a moment and says something aloud, which I don’t comprehend—I understand maybe 400 words, mostly commands and sentences are outside my understanding. The concept of “opposable thumbs,” which he once told a friend is what leaves Man inferior to the lower life forms, is beyond me. When he asks me if I want to go for a walk, it’s “walk” I respond to. I look up from where I’m laying, at Joe’s feet, to see light flicker across his face as he goes back to tapping.

Earlier, while it was still dark outside and before he started tapping, he stared into the light and said, “Another rejection letter. I’m a slave to the whims of others.” I don’t pretend to know what that means, but it made Joe sad. He sighed and put fire to one of those sticks he sucks on without ever eating. I don’t like those sticks; they make me sneeze. He sipped from the cup on his desk—I can smell its bitter scent—sighed again, and began tapping. I find the sound pleasing because it brings Joe contentment.

I can sense Joe’s moods as easily as I can detect my favorite smells—grass, bacon and Joe’s scent. The woman who used to come around no longer does, and I sense from Joe sadness in her absence, but also ease. Before she stopped coming, they often raised their voices at one another, which left all three of us unhappy.

Joe finds the smelly sticks soothing, and the steaming liquid in the cup leaves him feeling alert. He calls them his muses. Still, there is an underlying sorrow to his mood this morning, despite the tapping, which usually leaves him feeling good. He stops tapping to sip from the cup, and he puts the stick between his lips; I watch it glow and smoke rises lazily from its end. Joe leans over to scratch me between my ears and then goes back to tapping. A moment later he stops and, looking into the light, eyes moving from side to side, says something I don’t understand. Then he sighs and says, “Shit,” which is one of the commands I know. I’m confused because I’ve already been outside.

Joe gets up and takes his cup with him to the kitchen. I follow him and, as he pours more liquid into his cup, I sit salivating and stare at the door behind which he keeps my treats. A moment later the door swings open and Joe reaches in to get me a Milk-Bone—another word I understand. “Good girl,” he tells me, “you’re so easy to please.” And then, “I don’t get it: It’s a dog’s world? The hell it is.” Then he scratches me between my ears before leaving for the den and more tapping.

I don’t know why Joe is so sad. I wish he could be more like me. I’m happy with my morning walk, a tummy scratch, fresh water in my bowl twice a day and food in my dish, along with the occasional Milk-Bone and table scrap. I’m happiest when Joe takes me to the park and lets me run free among all the wonderful smells. I wonder if Joe would be happier if he had four legs and could run free with me.


Posted by J. Conrad Guest at 8:28 PM EDT
Post Comment | Permalink
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
Post Comment | View Comments (1) | Permalink
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
Post Comment | Permalink

Newer | Latest | Older