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J. Conrad's blog
Sunday, 8 November 2009
Melee at McSorley's
Topic: Short fiction

This chapter was cut from my novel, January’s Penitence, but with a few revisions, I think it works well as a short story.

 

 

Walking through the door of McSorley’s Old Ale House was like walking through a time warp into the past, its sawdust covered floor and myriad historical trappings on the walls a balm to this troubled future into which I’d been unwittingly thrust. This East Village institution was a favorite haunt of mine in 1947. Whenever working a particularly troubling case or seeking escape from some capricious dame threatening to slap a ball and chain on my ankle, I sought refuge within the friendly confines of McSorley’s, where life was so much simpler: cheese and crackers for lunch, two choices of beer—light or dark—and most importantly, it was off-limits to women.

I sat at the wooden bar nursing my first beer—the dark variety—initially contemplating my past and marveling that this watering hole had survived the last 60 years largely unchanged, although in truth it had been only a matter of weeks, in 1947, since last I’d patronized this fine but seedy drinking establishment.

“Buy a girl a beer?” said a soft, sultry voice from beside me.

The owner of the voice was a voluptuous platinum blond with multiple face piercings and a tattoo on her cheek of a purple clematis flower whose vine had climbed up from between her breasts—breasts free from the confines and support of a brassiere, pointed nipples showing through the thin fabric of her tight blouse.

“Hey,” said the young woman with mock indignity, “It’s not okay to stare.”

I hadn’t been leering, but I wasn’t used to the brazen way in which women in this century dressed. This gal may as well have walked in here with no top on at all. I sighed but bit back an angry retort even as I motioned to the bartender to bring another beer.

“Light,” called the young woman. Then, in reference to the fedora that sat askew atop my head: “Wicked hat.”

I let the compliment pass and, after a moment, said, “You know, there was a time when this bar was gents only—dames weren’t allowed.”

The woman laughed, said, “We’ve come a long way, baby.” When I withheld a reply, she asked, “Where you from?”

“1947.”

Not to be put off, the woman laughed again. Another time in another place under different circumstances I might have found the sound sexy. “That’s not a where,” she said, “but a when.”

“I’m from the Bronx,” I told her reflection in the mirror behind the bar.

The woman nodded, her eyes holding mine through the glass. “I didn’t think they had time travel back then.”

“They don’t.” I watched the woman’s image take a swallow from her glass; a few drops of condensation fell from the glass and found their way to between her breasts. I had hoped my snide first reply would result in the woman leaving me alone. “I got caught in a time warp the result of some clown from a future alternate reality in which Germany won World War II. In his time the empire Hitler vowed would last a thousand years is a century old.”

“Wow,” she breathed, and I couldn’t be sure whether the woman was only playing along with what I thought she thought was merely a game, or whether she believed me. “So it must be pretty bad, huh, in his present?”

“He came back to try to change it.” Matter of fact.

“Obviously he succeeded.” Equal indifference.

“Obviously.”

“And what do you think of your future?”

“Baseball isn’t the game it once was.” I took a swallow from my glass of beer before continuing: “Pornography, prostitution, pollution, government corruption, global warming, terrorism, and for all your purported connectivity through the Internet and cell phones, your society is more disconnected than ever. On top of that, the war between men and women is no closer to a cease fire than it was from when I come.”

“For someone out of the past, you seem to know an awful lot about my present.”

I thought her statement was intended to trip me up. “I’ve been here only a few days with little more to do but read the morning Times.” The woman seemed to accept my explanation.

“Still,” she mused, “it must be better than a future in which Nazis have been running the world for a hundred years.”

“Oppression under the guise of freedom is still oppression,” I said. When the woman said nothing, I added: “In my time we have burlesque, but here, prostitution has been all but legalized, and dames all walk around like you—advertising their body parts, and when I take notice you tell me it’s not okay to look.”

The woman laughed. “You sound like you’re out of an old Bogart movie.” When I said nothing, she added, “You also sound angry.”

“Just an observation.”

“William S. Burroughs observed that Woman is a different species from Man.”

“Never heard of him,” I said, “but he sounds like a wise man.”

“He was a popular writer in the 1960s and 70s.”

I nodded. “After my time.”

The woman ignored my simple statement, or perhaps it had gone over her head—with clearance to spare. “You can’t know what it’s like to be a woman, to be looked at as a piece of meat. To be objectified.”

“Another great author, this one before my time, once wrote: ‘A woman naked is a woman armed.’”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Her query betrayed no offense.

“It means that you can’t know what it’s like to be a man when a woman parades around her body parts in front of him.”

“So we agree to disagree.”

“Well, yes, I suppose we could do that,” I said. “But that brings us no closer to a solution, does it? That just maintains the status quo—no, on second thought it escalates the hostilities, as it’s done for the last 60 years. Perhaps longer. What’s wrong with compromising, with trying to see it from another perspective? Why does it have to be a war that’s won by one side and lost by the other? Sometimes the only way to achieve victory is through negotiation, because only in negotiation can understanding be attained.

“Look,” I said when the young woman only blinked. “You brought up the term objectification. It’s partly the definition of pornography—to objectify with the intention of arousing sexual excitement.”

“You think I dress like this to arouse men?” She was baiting me. “A man can look at a beautiful woman with admiration, or he can leer at her.”

“I understand the difference,” I said, “but I wonder if there is any real difference.” The young woman looked confused, so I explained, as much for her benefit as my own. “A strange man from across the room can look at you and if there is no interest on your part, then you perceive his look as unwanted and, as such, lewd. However, another man can look at you the same way, but if your interest in him is mutual—if you are attracted to him in return—then his look is welcomed and perceived as admiration.

“I can’t know what’s in your heart or mind when you dressed yourself this morning. Perhaps men have always objectified women to an extent. It happens in the animal kingdom often enough: the bird with the most colorful plumage gets the girl—or boy as the case may be. Yet appreciation of a woman’s body as a piece of art or as a collection of body parts is objectification of sorts no matter how you cut it. You can take a depiction of a naked woman painted on a brick wall in some back alley where people look away in disgust, slap it on a piece of canvas, call it a nude and hang it in a museum where those same people will pay to look at it approvingly. To some people art is art based solely on where it has been approved to be viewed as an artistic achievement.”

The woman ignored my case in point, seemingly stuck on the preceding page: “But you’re supposed to be intelligent. Are you saying you can’t control your body?”

“Intelligence has little to do with biology, Miss. Personally, I prefer the more subtle advertising the gals in my era practice.” Noting her face piercings I added, “Here you’re all flashy baubles and billboards promoting a product at which you profess it’s not okay to look. I have the intelligence to control my body, but that doesn’t mean a certain body part of mine, which has a mind of its own, isn’t going to sit up and take notice when a piece of meat saunters by whether or not you tell me it’s not okay to look.

“You see that gent over there, by the window?” I said, indicating a young man wearing a t-shirt that served as a poster for Coca Cola. Overly thin with long, scraggly hair and an earring, he looked away when he saw me nod in his direction.

“What about him?”

“He’s been ogling you since you came in.”

“Creep,” the young woman said; I couldn’t be certain her disdain was feigned or authentic.

“And his buddy?” I said, referring to the first’s tablemate, who was muscular, mustachioed and had much shorter, wavy hair that glistened with one of myriad hair products that had been invented for men since the end of the 20th century. I watched the young woman’s eyes linger on the man’s muscular torso a moment. “He likes what he sees in you, too,” I added, baiting the hook.

“Rugged,” she said. “Reminds me of a young Tom Selleck. I like him.”

“Thanks,” I said, “for proving my point.”

“What did I miss?” she asked.

“Two men, each one appraising you for your body parts from afar—to them you are the proverbial slab of meat you just told me you abhor being deemed. One repulses you, while the other you welcome, even as you objectify him in return.”

“So?”

“A man can look at a woman with all the admiration of a pure heart and if his gaze isn’t welcome, then her perception can be skewed into whatever she wishes it to be—including revulsion.”

“Don’t I have the right to rebuff the man I have no interest in?”

“Of course you do,” I said. “But dressed as you are, objectified as you are, you have to expect that all manner of men—those to whom you may be attracted and those who will repel you—are going to notice you. To accept the advances of a few while reviling the others shows a lack of accountability.

“The way I see it, women in 2007 ‘objectify’ themselves more than they ever did in my time. Times Square is filled with flashy advertisements portraying women using their sex appeal to sell a host of products and services. The broads in Central Park wear less than does my gal Friday when she takes me to bed. A dame like you walks into a dive like this dressed as you are and asks me to buy her a beer and then chastises me for looking at what she’s done to objectify herself.”

“And that leaves you feeling oppressed?” The young woman seemed to relish what she perceived as having gained the upper hand in our discussion, although as of late she seemed, to me, reluctant to participate much.

“Hardly,” I replied, noting the woman’s disappointment with my response. “But it does confuse me.”

“It’s really very simple,” she said. “We objectify ourselves to compete amongst ourselves. We want to turn your heads away from the competition and towards us.”

“But you don’t really want the prize.”

“The prize is being able to just say no.”

“I see,” I said, although I wasn’t sure that I did. “So you do dress to be noticed.”

“Well,” she began.

“Don’t you see the contradiction?” Because my glass was nearly empty and I didn’t wish to continue the discussion by ordering another, I added before she could respond, “You boasted earlier that your gender has come a long way, but I don’t see that you have, and you’d see it, too, if you understood that you can’t have a better tomorrow without occasionally looking at the past, to from where you’ve come. You may have won the freedom to dress as you do, to cover yourself with tattoos and adorn your face with all manner of hardware, to play games with men, to say ‘no,’ to tell me it’s not okay to stare, to enjoy sex without commitment—none of which holds a hint of accountability—but the result is still oppression.”

“Accountability?” she asked. “That’s the second time you’ve used that word. What’s that got to do with anything?”

“Everything. It’s one of the rules of negotiation toward achieving that understanding I mentioned earlier.” The girl’s large blue eyes were empty of comprehension, like the rich man born into his wealth and so has no understanding of poverty; I explained: “We all must be accountable for our actions.”

The woman seemed to take in my argument, perhaps unsure how to counter; I watched the wheels behind her eyes turn, trying to grasp certain, until now, alien concepts. When she said nothing, I continued:

“Look, in 1947 it’s rare for a woman to sidle up to a man in a bar and ask him to buy her a drink. Certainly it sends a certain message to a gent. It seems commonplace today for a woman to approach a man—with the intention to deceive.”

“Is that what you think, that I was hitting on you?”

I waved her aside. “Even if I was available, you’re not my type,” I said, glancing at her breasts, “despite your very impressive credentials.”

“And just what is your type?” The woman seemed disappointed, but I didn’t believe for a moment its authenticity. I was certain that, to her, I was merely a game—someone with whom she could amuse herself at my expense. She seemed driven, possibly by previous success with others of my species, to manipulate me to her own ends—to just say “no.”  I looked at the tattoo and the various rings on her face—lip, nose, eyebrow—and said:

“Let’s just say I prefer my women a little less forward and much more accommodating.” I wondered if she understood what I meant by accommodating.

“You were free to turn me down,” she said, and I understood this assertion, too, had gone over her head. It also hadn’t yet occurred to her that I already had turned her down.

Nodding, I said, “I’ve had my share of women reject my overtures.”

“I find that hard to believe,” the woman said. “You’re not a bad-looking dude.”

I chuckled. “Is that a come on?”

“If by ‘come on’ you mean flirting, yes, I suppose I am, but if you expect me to invite you back to my place for a matinee for the price of a beer you’re sadly mistaken.”

I laughed a rich, hearty laugh.

“I say something funny?”

“Now that we’ve determined what you are, we’re left to dicker over price?”

“That’s not what I meant,” she said, her face warming with a large measure of indignation.

“Relax,” I said. “I didn’t mean to offend you. Communication between the sexes has always been somewhat strained. I can’t say I’ve fared much better with the women of the 1940s.” I noted from the look on the woman’s face that she was just then considering the validity of my claim to be a time traveler from out of her past—a man out of place out of time. I enjoyed her bewilderment.

“The way I see it,” I said, “oppression comes in many shapes and sizes. The women in this century allow themselves—even participate in self-objectification—to be used as sexual objects, denying it under the pretext of freedom even as they rebuke the male species for embracing that objectification, which only results in widening the communication gap between the genders. You resent being looked at as a slab of meat but do everything to ensure that you are. You lie to yourself and us, and then blame us for our misunderstanding. Maybe it’s just more obvious to me, having jumped 60 years in the blink of an eye, but the women of the 21st century seem unaware of how little progress they’ve made since 1947, or maybe they choose to ignore it.”

The young woman seemed to take in everything I’d just said; perhaps uncertain how to respond, she announced: “Listen. I really would like to continue this discussion, but I’ve got to piss like a racehorse. Will you be here when I get back?”

I glanced at my watch even as I was taken aback by her pronouncement; in my time women went to “the little girls” room. “Not likely,” I said.

“Oh you!” she said, not believing me, or perchance confident in the allure with which her body held me.

I watched the young woman’s back recede as she headed for the loo, fascinated by the gentle sway of her hips snug in her Levi’s. When the door swung closed behind her, I finished what was left of my beer, told the bartender that the drinks were on the young woman, and left.

 

I returned to McSorley’s often, as did, I suspected, the young woman. I wondered if she ever expected to meet up with me again, or whether she ever speculated over my claim to be a time traveler from out of her past even as I, safe in my own era in 1947, occasionally wondered about the young woman’s arrogance, and of what crop might have sprung from the seed I sowed that long ago day in the future—a future that, although it had changed much from my present, had pretty much stayed the same.


Posted by J. Conrad Guest at 11:45 AM EST
Updated: Sunday, 8 November 2009 12:51 PM EST
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Thursday, 22 October 2009
The Cobb Legacy
Topic: Novel excerpts

Another excerpt from my completed novel:

 

Twenty-Six

 

Anytime a man can last more than 400 games and put his team into two Series, his path is chosen for him.”

 

Ty Cobb

 

 

“You ever tell the boy, Cale?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“He’ll find out, when I’m gone.”

“I hate it when you two do that,” Cagney said, “talk about me like I’m not here.”

“He wouldn’t understand, Norm. Hell, I’m not sure I understand.” Again, as if Cagney weren’t in the room.

“What’s to understand? It’s part of who you are.”

“I assume this has to do with Okinawa.” Cagney.

“I nearly got you killed.”

“You nearly got us killed, Cale,” Norm said with a chuckle. “But we survived.”

“I fell asleep when I was supposed to be on watch.”

“We were in a foxhole, the mortar fire ceased. We hadn’t slept in two days.”

“Wouldn’t have mattered to that Jap who happened upon us.”

“And that’s just what he counted on, that we’d be asleep. Two easy targets. Even a marine can’t function well without sleep, Cale.”

“That’s a helluva justification. It’s a good thing you had a weak bladder. If you hadn’t come back when you did—”

“You’d have been sporting multiple bayonet wounds.”

“Well, what happened?” Cagney asked.

“I left our foxhole to take a leak. I was a few feet away and had just finished tucking the old monster away when I heard movement. We were told to call out passwords if we were moving to another location, so we wouldn’t get shot by our own, so I suspected enemy movement. It was dark, but I crept back to our foxhole, my own bayonet blade drawn. I saw a Jap preparing to thrust his bayonet into your father, who was off in La-La Land snoring softly to himself. I lunged across the foxhole and wrestled that damn zipper-head to the ground. All the while we were grappling with each other to gain some advantage, he kept shouting what I took to be Japanese obscenities. Eventually we rolled over the side of the foxhole and on top of your father. ‘Jeesus!’ I heard him say. ‘It’s okay, Cale,’ I said, ‘don’t shoot.’ With all the wrestling going on, he was as likely to put a bullet in me as he was the Jap. I finally managed to slip my bayonet blade into the Jap’s gut and he let out a bloodcurdling scream. I put my hand over his mouth … ‘shhh,’ I whispered, twisting the blade. ‘Shhh.’ He stopped moving and a moment later I heard your father’s voice: ‘Get him off me, Norm. Goddamn it, get him off me.’

“By the time I managed to roll the body off your father, he was drenched in Jap blood. Your father sat up, looked at the corpse, its eyes wide but unseeing, and pummeled its face with the handle of his sidearm until the features were a bloody pulp. When he finished, I said, ‘Good morning sleepyhead. I guess you’re awake now.’ We laughed then, long and hard, before we pushed that little fucker out of our foxhole.”

During the silence that ensued, Cagney searched his father’s face for the young marine Norm had just described. The once steel blue eyes were now clouded by chemo and whatever other drugs his doctor was pumping into him.

What a horrific story, Cagney thought. And although Norm had related the events of that night with frank detachment, inserting humor at all the appropriate moments (if they could be called that), as if he’d related the tale countless times at numerous reunions—or relived the event through myriad nightmares—this wasn’t a story. No embellishments were necessary. Cale had confessed to Cagney of nightmares of his time on Okinawa, but never had he shared their content with him. Surely this was one of them. Cagney could only wonder what other lurid experiences his father might have tightly bottled up inside.

“I owe you my life, Norm,” Cale said. “But that doesn’t change the fact I fell asleep when I should’ve been on watch.”

“Ah, Cale. I can’t believe you’re still holding onto that after all these years. You’re still a good marine. The bravest I ever served with, and I made a career of the Corps.”

Cagney suspected this was not the story to which Norm, his father’s lifelong buddy, had alluded earlier. Certainly he saw no evidence, in this account, of the “bravest” marine with whom Norm had served.

“What is it I’m supposed to find out after you’re gone?”

“I don’t want to talk about it.”

“He’s your son, Cale. He should hear it from you.”

Cale’s lips pursed twice, but he remained mute.

Cagney looked from his father to Norm, a silent plea for clarity; Norm merely shook his head. He would not betray a brother.

“You’re a good-looking kid, Cagney, tall, well-built. You’d have made a fine marine.”

“You can’t know that.”

“You’re Cale’s son, aren’t you?”

Cagney didn’t know what to say, or maybe he did: his father had never advised him on enlisting in the Corps, or any branch of the military. Did he think to keep him from harm’s way, or was he merely reluctant to share the brotherhood, as he was reluctant to share any aspect of his time spent in the Marines?

Cagney, to Norm: “You remember being here in ’73 for a Marine Corps reunion?”

“Son, I’ve been to a lot of reunions over the years.”

Cagney couldn’t keep the disappointment from his face. He recalled that weekend as if it were last month: the bottle of tequila Norm and his father had shared, trading shot for shot—his mother trying to keep pace until she got sick—the tiny worm from the bottom of the bottle they cut in two and ate. Shortly before adjourning the patio for the bathroom, to empty the contents of her stomach, Cagney’s mother had contracted a bad case of hiccups. When it became clear they weren’t going to stop, Norm stood behind her, asked her to hold her breath, and stuck a pinky finger from each hand into each of her ears. After what seemed an interminable length of time, two, maybe three minutes, Norm turned to Cale and asked if she were still holding her breath. Cale nodded. A few moments later, she let out her breath, cured.

Yet what Cagney found most memorable from that long ago night was Norm’s arrival at their house. After flying in from San Diego, a nephew who resided in nearby Novi had picked him up from the airport. After getting settled in at his nephew’s house, Norm showed up in his nephew’s car, a two-year-old Lincoln Mark III. Without a thought, Norm tossed Cagney the keys and told Cale to direct him to the restaurant at which they’d be dining. Cagney recalled the looks of chagrin on his mother and father’s faces, their lack of confidence that their 16-year-old son could manage an eight-mile roundtrip to and from the German restaurant without damaging the big Mark III. Cagney said none of this, only:

“You let me drive your nephew’s Lincoln to and from the restaurant.”

Norm nodded, yet Cagney wasn’t certain if he truly recalled that night; Norm elucidated: “As I recall, you’d just gotten your diver’s permit.”

Cagney nodded and, watching his father, said, “You made me feel like a man.” When the intended barb didn’t penetrate Cale’s hardened veneer, he added: “You trusted me, as if we’d shared a foxhole together.”

Cale remained stoic.

Norm: “I’d gladly have shared a foxhole with you, son.”

Cagney grieved to hear those words from a stranger, words he’d longed to hear from his father.

“You’re your father’s son, aren’t you?”

Cagney felt his eyes tear up. He was certain Norm would interpret his show of emotion as pride. Yet Cagney felt no such pride. What he felt was the emptiness of a non-entity. Twice, in a matter of minutes, Norm had referred to him as Cale’s son. He’d called him by name but once since arriving, a last visit with Cale before he died, to revisit the good old days in the Corps, to swap stories Cagney had never heard. Bonded in the eyes of a near stranger as a chip off the old block, Cagney had never felt a bond with his old man. Will I ever be Cagney Nowak, sui generis?

“His wife is divorcing him,” Cale spat.

Norm only shrugged. “Common among couples of his generation, Cale. My oldest boy divorced his wife a few years ago. It happens.”

“He cheated on her.”

Cagney cringed from the harshness of his father’s accusation.

“He’s not the first married man to have dipped his pecker into another woman. My son left his wife for another woman, I imagine not without first taking a test ride.”

“I’m ashamed of him.”

Cagney averted his eyes, unable to hide his own shame.

“Ah, Cale. We raised our own brand of hell, didn’t we, when we were in China?”

“We did our share of drinking,” Cale said, but something in the way he avoided eye contact with Norm told Cagney that here, at best, was a plea for lenience, at worst, a lie of omission. “And that was before I met Iris.” As an admission of guilt, it was perhaps the closest Cale could come.

“It’s a different world in which we live, Cale.”

“That it is,” Cale said. “Not the place I’d envisioned when we dropped the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.”

“It’s a better place than it would’ve been had we not ended the war,” Norm said.

“Freedom without accountability—that’s not what I risked my life for. That’s not the American way.”

“Would you have done it any differently had you known the effect on later generations?”

Cale said nothing.

“We did the right thing, Cale. Our duty. What kids do today with the world we gave them, well, that’s up to them. Our job is done.”

 


Posted by J. Conrad Guest at 8:56 AM EDT
Updated: Sunday, 3 October 2010 12:50 PM EDT
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Wednesday, 7 October 2009
Backstop Published!
Topic: News

In early 2008, I completed Backstop: A Baseball Love Story In Nine Innings. Backstop is my fourth novel and now second to be published. Last year, Second Wind Publishing, an independent press entering their second year, offered to add it to their growing list of titles.

You know Backstop. He plays the catcher’s position for any team in any city in America with a major league ball club. You cheer him when he delivers, and boo him when he doesn’t.

I chose to relate the story in first person, from the perspective of the protagonist known only as Backstop. In what could be his last game after 14 years in the major leagues—the seventh game of the World Series—Backstop chronicles his rookie season, takes the reader to Chicago, where he finds romance, and reveals the heartbreak he endured in the aftermath of an adulterous affair.

After making his dream to play in the major leagues come true, Backstop is driven to succeed, to prove himself to his father, who passed away the year before the Tigers drafted him. In his first season in the big leagues, he meets and falls in love with Darlene, a former lawyer turned business owner in Chicago. After a season-long courtship, they wed, and 12 years of happy marriage ensue. However, when the Tigers make the playoffs for the first time in Backstop’s career, he goes out on the town to celebrate with several team mates and falls prey to the seductive overtures of a predatory younger woman. Thereafter, his world comes crashing down when Darlene asks for time apart to consider their future together. Backstop plays the following season, leading the Tigers to the World Series, while trying to win back both Darlene’s trust as well as her heart.

Fellow Michigan writer and author of Landscape with Fragmented Figures Jeff Vande Zande writes of Backstop: “J. Conrad Guest offers an entertaining and instructive journey into both major league baseball and major league matters of the heart.”

Ask your favorite brick and mortar bookstore about Backstop: A Baseball Love Story In Nine Innings, from Second Wind Publishing.

 


Posted by J. Conrad Guest at 7:15 AM EDT
Updated: Sunday, 3 January 2010 8:22 AM EST
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Make No Mistake: To Forgive is to Forget
Topic: The Curmudgeon

It’s been written that to forgive is human, to forget divine. Three words—“I forgive you.” Perhaps as easily said as three others: “I love you.” Yet if true love comes only later, when the butterflies stop flitting about, when we realize we like the other person, that we want to be with them (not just need to be with them), when the masks come off and we can gaze at them without flinching; then perhaps it can also be said that true forgiveness comes only after the forgetting.

Forgiveness, true forgiveness, means forgetting, which may be difficult if not, for some (depending on the offense), impossible. I’ve often marveled over couples who’ve endured infidelity and managed to pick up the pieces, make it work. Do they go back to the beginning to start over, or start anew, from the moment one expresses apology and the other determines to forgive? Perhaps it’s different for each couple. Whatever works.

In the aftermath of infidelity, the rules of the relationship are bound to change as the offender must work to rebuild trust—account for missing minutes in their day, allow access to email and cell phone accounts.

Certainly neither the offender nor the offended can forget the pain and shame associated with infidelity; yet the offended who says, “I forgive you” but continuously holds the sin over the offender’s head, makes him or her jump through hoops, tosses barbs their way, belittles them, fails to live up to the words, “I forgive you.”

To forgive is an easy response to “I’m sorry.” The forgetting is infinitely more difficult. But without the forgetting, the forgiving—like telling someone you love them (without action to prove it)—becomes but a meaningless mantra.

 


Posted by J. Conrad Guest at 7:11 AM EDT
Updated: Wednesday, 7 October 2009 7:13 AM EDT
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Saturday, 8 August 2009
Eight Seconds Less
Topic: Flash fiction

“You speak English?”

The German stood there, hands behind his head, rifle at his feet. Lying next to the Kraut was Reynolds, his throat an oozing red gash. I’d just stepped out of the brush, where I’d taken a dump, to find him rummaging through Reynolds’s backpack.

“No?” I asked, my rifle trained on his chest. “I suppose it doesn’t matter you don’t understand a word I’m saying because I don’t understand this fucking war any more than you do.” I looked over at Reynolds again and thought, There but for the grace of a bowel movement go I.

“You know, before Nature’s call, my friend Reynolds and I were having quite a heated debate over who was the better ballplayer, Ruth or Cobb. Didn’t matter which of us was right because it could never be proven.” The German kept looking from me to the barrel of my rifle. “And now neither of us will ever be able to convince the other.”

I glanced yet again at Reynolds, his blood soaking the French soil under his head, his eyes wide. Dead though he was, I wondered if his brain might still register the sound of my voice before it, too, died. I’d heard the sense of hearing was the last to go. I looked back at the Kraut, his own eyes wide; but where Reynolds’s held surprise, the Kraut’s betrayed fear.

“I hear that in the Pacific the Japs are trained to say, ‘fuck Babe Ruth,’ hoping the Marines will give away their position.” I chuckled and the German forced a smile onto his thin lips, as if suddenly we were buds and I’d just told him a joke he didn’t get but he didn’t want to be left out of the joke because that would mean we weren’t really buds. I ignored his gap-toothed grin.

“Back home, me and guys like Reynolds over there who you just cut, we’re heralded as heroes, fighting for truth, justice and the American way. Where you come from, in the Fatherland, I imagine they’re just as proud of you.

“But they don’t have a clue, do they, Herr Mac? War: It brings out the worst in us even as it sometimes brings out the best. Just last week, Wiggins, a guy I went through boot camp with, threw himself on a grenade, saving Reynolds and me. Earned himself a Medal of Honor. Not that it’s of any value to Wiggins. His life bought Reynolds another week. And me? Who knows whether I’ll make it home alive. I’m not even sure I want to. Sometimes I think the ones who go home in a box are the lucky ones. After what I saw at Normandy, I understand what they mean when they say you can never go home.

“But Normandy at least was war—at its horrific worst. Men with guns shooting at men with guns shooting back. Kill or be killed.” Reynolds continued to lay, inert, never to move again, not even to brush away the flies his rotting flesh would soon draw. I imagined his brain starving for oxygen, the sound of my voice perhaps growing fainter as the last remnants of his life faded to ... what? I didn’t have a clue. Since I’d landed at Normandy I seriously doubted the existence of a God.

“But what you did to Reynolds was murder. You never gave him a chance, did you? Snuck up behind him to cut his throat.” I looked at the contents of his backpack, spilled out on the ground: some K-rations, a couple of chocolate bars, a deck of playing cards—Reynolds loved to play Euchre—a letter to his girl, her picture. “To the victor go the spoils of war, eh?

 “Well, Herr Mac, I’m going to be sporting about this,” I said, raising my rifle. “I’m going to count to 10 ... one—”

The German dropped to his knees, thrust out his hands and shouted, “Nein!”

“Ten,” I said and pulled the trigger. The German fell onto his back, a perfect hole smoking in the center of his chest. “You dumb shit,” I muttered. “You just robbed yourself of eight seconds of the rest of your life.”


Posted by J. Conrad Guest at 12:17 PM EDT
Updated: Sunday, 22 November 2009 11:39 AM EST
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Sunday, 26 July 2009
One Hot January
Topic: Novel excerpts

The mind of man is capable of anything—because everything is in it, all the past as well as all the future.

 

—Joseph Conrad

 

Respect the past in the full measure of its desserts, but do not make the mistake of confusing it with the present nor seek in it the ideals of the future.

 

—Jose Incenerios

 

 

 

 

Prologue

 

My name is January. Joe January. I was a private investigator from the South Bronx, circa 1940. Was once described as an indignant Humphrey Bogart. Who am I to argue? The difference between Bogie and me is that I was the real McCoy. Where he took the scripts that Hollywood wrote for him, I took on the tough cases nobody else would. Unlike Bogie’s, my bumps and bruises were the real deal, not makeup. Although in retrospect I can see that this could be construed as a Hollywood type script that Bogie might have been interested in bringing to the screen were he alive today.

In truth, I’m no Joseph Conrad, but I wrote every word on these pages. This is my story, but make no mistake, it’s anything but make believe. Not being a scientist, I can’t tell you the “how” behind what happened, only that it did happen. It reads like science fiction, spanning two centuries and dealing with time travel and alternate realities, and the denouement is less than satisfactory. I’ve been accused of arrogance in my self-depiction, creating a sort of comic book superhero of myself. But in truth, in youth we often view ourselves as invincible. It isn’t until later that we realize how fragile life is; furthermore, that we see the repercussions of our actions. Yet given the chance to live life over again, avoiding the mistakes made during the first go-around, would you turn your back?

As a youth someone told me that man spends far too much time thinking and worrying about the future, and that he also spends too much time in the past, dwelling on mistakes and regretting missed opportunities. But in order to move into the future a man must spend a certain amount of time, in the present, looking into his past. I wish I’d done that more often. Now, at my age, with so little future to look forward to and to plan for, I have little else but the past and all my regrets to think about—the missed opportunities and how, through my foolishness, I lost the one woman who meant the most to me, not once but twice.

 

 

December 6, 1941

 

The man jerked and twitched—an epileptic in seizure. The right foot stomped in rhythmic time; shoulders bunched as fingers flew in a frenzied attack on the black and white ivory keys. Sweat poured from beneath the stocking that was a cap and ran in torrents down his face. A brief respite from his self-perpetuated paroxysm, and he mopped from his face what moisture he could with the stained handkerchief that lay beside him, before giving way to another fit of spasms.

Whether the demented cacophony that spewed from the piano he assailed with a vengeance was a result of the convulsions he initiated, or the notes themselves responsible for the musician’s spastic throes, I only wondered. For all the split notes, all the demented chromatic chord changes, for all the irregular intervals and rhythms that made his music unique, Thelonious Sphere Monk, the expectant father of modern jazz, would be scorned by critics, his music laughed at, misunderstood and unappreciated by the uninitiated for years. Until his death in 1982, when with the advent of the compact disk much of his music would be reissued and embraced by a new generation, proving again that all great artists enjoy their greatest success posthumously.

I sat and watched, amused, as Monk now stood and danced in a tiny circle, lost in a world of eccentricity as profound as his music, his arms swinging in time as tenor saxman Don Byas blew notes that rivaled Monk’s own in their dissonance¼

 

“I just love Monk, don’t you?” the young woman across the table from me asked.

I’d agreed to meet the woman here at Minton’s Playhouse to discuss locating her missing father. I don’t normally take on missing persons, but if the voice on the other end of the phone looked as good as it sounded and she was willing to meet my price, I was willing to make an exception. I’d been right about the voice. Its owner was Melissa MacIntyre, who didn’t look at all Scotch, but to me looked sweet enough to taste. Her auburn hair, cut in a neat pageboy, framed features more childlike in their innocence than glamorous. Thin lips painted a deep shade of red parted to reveal straight white teeth as she waited for my approval of her musical taste.

“That’s not music,” her brother said.

I had taken an immediate dislike of Melissa’s older sibling. Like his nose his arrogance preceded him. He was overbearing, opinionated, self-righteous and, where his sister was concerned, authoritative. All of this I had deduced through observation; his snide comment merely lent weight to my summation.

“It has no style,” he continued, although neither Melissa nor I had prompted him for edification. “There’s no cadence and it lacks intellect.”

I think it’s angular,” Melissa said, defending Monk against her brother’s unwarranted attack.

I smiled. The purity of her rejoinder, the result of youthful exuberance, sounded as if she were repeating something she had read in conjunction with Monk. Whether critical acclaim or disparaging condemnation didn’t matter. Apparently her brother had gotten far too used to having his own way. She would use whatever weapons at her disposal to counter his offensive.

“Why must you always be so rigid and traditional, Benjamin Junior?”

En garde,” Benjamin said. Then, with a conspiratorial wink at me, he added, “The avant-garde in defense of the accused.”

Monk was now back at the piano, pounding at the keys with a savage wrath in an effort to prove to all those present in the tiny club that the instrument he played was indeed a percussive one.

In truth, I didn’t care for Monk or his music, and for all the same reasons Benjamin Junior had just smartly ticked off. But I didn’t like Benjamin Junior either.

“Oh, I don’t know, Ben,” I said. “Maybe Melissa is right. Maybe you should loosen up.”

Melissa was smiling triumphantly. Her newly formed alliance outnumbered the opposition two to one, while Benjamin’s eyes threw daggers at me from across the table.

“Don’t call me that!” he snapped. “My name is Benjamin.”

“Oh, Benjamin, why must you always be so pretentious?”

“I didn’t say I agreed with her taste,” I said. Melissa looked crestfallen—her champion was about to betray her. “I just think she has a right to like what she likes.” Melissa brightened. In the span of a heartbeat I had gone from traitor to hero again. I thought that perhaps this was the first time in her life anyone had supported her right to her own opinion. That it had come in outright defiance of her brother only made it that much more gratifying.

“She doesn’t know—”

“Not with you force-feeding her your opinions she doesn’t.”

Benjamin was red with repressed anger.

“You must not want this job.” Benjamin said.

“I have yet to decide that,” I said. “Nor do I need it,” I added, countering the inference regarding the scruples of private investigators.

“I’m not sure I want to hire you.”

“And I’m emphatic about not wanting to work for you.”

“Mr. January¼

Melissa’s expression was a compromise between amusement—that I would have the audacity to face down her insolent brother—and dismay. Obviously taken in by my willingness to speak out on her behalf, I surmised she would’ve hired me then and there but for her brother. I guessed that Melissa was just learning to flex her independence, but had not yet gotten to the point where she could stand in outright insubordination of his authority.

I saw her conflict and immediately recognized my danger. I’m a sucker for a woman in distress.

“Come along, Melissa,” her brother said. “I’ll not tolerate someone working for me who exhibits a lack of respect for me.”

“You don’t hire respect,” I said.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“It means first and foremost that I work for myself. If I choose to help you find your father and you agree to pay my fee, plus expenses, then we have a business arrangement. But we do it my way. After all, that’s what you’re paying for, my expertise. I don’t want any interference from you. I’m taking all the risks; that’s also part of what you’re paying for. But I don’t need someone increasing those risks unnecessarily at my expense.” Sensing Benjamin’s unspoken skepticism, I added, “And if you don’t think you’re getting your money’s worth you can sever our agreement.”

“That’s not good enough.”

“Benjamin!”

“I’m sorry but that’s the way it’s done in this business. However, if you believe you might find a better deal elsewhere, I suggest you shop around.”

A poor response, I knew, for I also knew what game Benjamin Junior was playing. By stating my terms I had let slip my desire to take the job, and Benjamin Junior had picked up on that. He would now use that knowledge to try to take back control of the center of the negotiation table—revenge for having been shown up in front of his sister. In his dementia might and right were confluent. Such convoluted rationale justified any plot against both his sister and me.

The world is full of assholes, I thought. I’ve always loved that word, asshole, for the amusing visual that accompanies it. But I wasn’t amused now, not this time. Not with Benjamin sitting there, his lips parting like a pink sphincter to reveal the putrid knowledge that he knew he had me off balance and on the ropes. I hate being off balance.

Suddenly I no longer wanted the job. I had more than enough cases to keep me busy. I’d been a fool to allow myself to be taken in by the sound of a pretty voice on the phone. No, I certainly didn’t need this job—not at this cost. I drew in another breath, prepared to withdraw my proposal, but was stopped short by Melissa’s trepidation.

My own credo had always been that right is might, as penned by August and Julius Hare over a century before—the original translucence of their transcript lost through transposition—ever was and ever would be wrong. Hence my preoccupied obsession with the oppressed. My experience often shows the righteous underdog to be a casualty of the corruption might frequently engenders.

As I looked across the table at the waning hope on Melissa’s face, fearful that the might I attempted to wield on behalf of the right would one day come up short, I felt my own hope for the future waver. The world was a gloomy place because of people like Benjamin Junior. Dismal as it was, it was no match for my own dark mood, which was threatening to grow darker by the moment.

“Ben,” I began, and then quickly amended it to Benjamin. “You and I have gotten off to a shaky start here.” God, how I hated having to suck hind teat. “To tell you the truth, since it was Melissa I spoke with on the phone, and since she didn’t mention a brother, I’m a little taken aback by your appearance here. I assumed I would be meeting with her alone.”

“So that’s what this is about.”

I only stared as Benjamin’s eyes glowered with malice.

“Benjamin—”

“You think that because you get a call from a woman who arranges to meet you in this¼ this dive¼ you think that gives you the right¼ the free reign to¼ to¼

“Benjamin, it’s not like that, not like that at all. You know I wouldn’t—”

“Shut-up, Melissa, this doesn’t concern you!”

“I think it does,” I said amiably.

“This is my sister here, not some cheap slut you can pick up and take home to use and degrade for the price of a few drinks.” Benjamin’s face was turning a dangerous shade of purple.

“I had no intention of using and degrading her.”

“But you intended to take her home?”

“Benjamin, how could you think such a thing?”

None of it mattered any longer—not the job, not the girl; pretty as she was, and as taken as I was by her youthfulness, she was too skinny for my taste. “The thought crossed my mind,” I said, betraying a half-truth. My vulgarity was intended to brutalize. It did.

Bastard!” Benjamin roared, drawing the notice of a few more of our fellow jazz aficionados. His rage had caused him to stand. His tipped chair was resting against the railing behind him. Such was his tirade he was completely unaware, or perhaps he simply chose to ignore the fact that he was upstaging the featured artist at Minton’s. “She’s my sister! he shouted, leaning forward, hands flat on the table. He towered menacingly over me, but I betrayed no sense of being menaced whatsoever. “My¼ my¼

Benjamin suddenly became aware of the startled glances of those around us. Quickly, awkwardly regaining a caricature of composure, he finished quietly, “Come along, Melissa, we have nothing to discuss with the likes of him.”

Trotting after her brother, Melissa mouthed the words I’ll be in touch, and then she, too, was gone. Leaving me to ponder the peculiarity of what I’d just witnessed.

 

A woman of her word, Melissa did indeed get in touch with me. But her contact wouldn’t come for five and a half years.


Posted by J. Conrad Guest at 7:33 AM EDT
Updated: Sunday, 3 October 2010 12:51 PM EDT
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Tuesday, 21 July 2009
e-Book Publishing Industry Designed to Put Less Money in the Pockets of the Author
Topic: Writing

As both a reader and a writer, I have more than a passing curiosity in the Kindle 2 reading device. As a consumer who cares about the environment as well as my entertainment budget, I like the idea of spending $9.95 for a new release for a Kindle 2 as opposed to $27.99 for a hardback.

However, as an author I’m more than dismayed that Kindle pays no one for audio rights for its text-to-speech function. Furthermore, with fewer slices of the pie to share—no printer or distributor—one would think the author might be entitled to a larger piece of the pie. Alas, that is not the case.

In a recent New York Times article, Author’s Guild president, Roy Blount, says the breakdown is as follows:

 

·         Publisher: 33%

·         Amazon: 59%

·         Author: 8%

 

In short, Amazon swallows, whole, the slices that once went to the printer and distributor, or an additional 20%, while the author gets shafted.

I self-published a novel a few years ago and get a 35% royalty on print copies that retail for $14.95. With Kindle, a new release sells for $9.95 (a smaller pie with which to begin), and I, after having spent hundreds of hours writing a novel, can now expect an even smaller slice from that smaller pie, while Amazon, who risks nothing and has no investment in terms of imagination, creativity, blood, sweat or tears, gets 59%.

On top of that, my publisher, BookSurge (owned by Amazon) recently pitched me that my title (January’s Paradigm) should be made available for Kindle. If I recall correctly, they wanted me to pay them $250 to send to Amazon a file, a file BookSurge already has; I can’t imagine it would take more than a few mouse clicks to reformat (if necessary) and save as a Kindle compatible file. Heck, if it’s a PDF, I can do that.

This is how it plays out: Amazon has a site on which they already list my book. Now they, or my publisher (but they’re one and the same aren’t they?), want me to pay $250 for a file they already have, and Amazon will show on the existing listing that it is available for Kindle. For this Amazon profits 59% on the sale of my work. My work! While I must sell 313 Kindle 2 version copies to recoup my $250 investment. Not a lot, I suppose, until you consider the hundreds I’ve already invested with BookSurge, for setup, a listing, copies of my book (purchased at my author’s discount!) to take to author events. And consider, too, the average number of sales for a self-published author is, at last count, 165 copies. Is it any wonder that writing a novel is profitable for all parties save the author?

Does any of this sound fair, or even moral? Isn’t this the sort of practice for which unions were created?

 

I suppose it could be argued that more pies will be sold at this lower price, but the truth is I’m still going to have to sell an awful lot of pies to make up the difference.

A ballplayer who fails seven out of 10 times he steps up to the plate is paid millions; but in the arts, particularly in the publishing industry, we get 8% of less than $10, or 80 cents. Maybe I should’ve listened to my father when he asked me, 15 years ago when I was nearing completion of my first novel, “What are you doing wasting your time on something like that?”

Amazon should be encouraging writers to submit quality texts by sharing a larger slice of pie; instead they’re merely squeezing the novelist for every cent they can wring out of us. It’s not enough that many titles available on Kindle 2 are reprints of out of print texts with little to nothing paid in terms of royalties.

With more titles in print today than there are readers, the self-publishing industry—composed largely of unscrupulous names such as AuthorHouse—will publish anyone with a valid credit card. All of which makes it more difficult for any writer with more than 16 ounces of talent—those who have spent years honing their craft—to make a name for themselves let alone a dollar.

Now Amazon is offering smaller pies for less money, cutting out the middlemen, and offering to share less with the baker. But Amazon doesn’t care if I sell copies of January’s Paradigm, not when the likes of James Patterson and Danielle Steel, both available on Kindle, are driving their profits. Somehow I can’t imagine these heavyweights are getting a paltry 8% of Kindle 2 sales. The rich get richer while the rest of us get thrown a bone.

Apparently what Amazon doesn’t understand is that without authors they would have no product to peddle to readers.

No, silly me. It’s me who doesn’t understand: there will always be writers, hacks, who, thrilled to see their name in print, will be happy to give away their work for next to nothing. I can do little except, as a consumer, take my online purchases of books, CDs and other products to someone other than Amazon.

Or maybe I can do something more. I can give away PDF versions of all my novels. After all, that’s what writers, do, right? Write? It’s more important that our voice be heard, that we share our talent with the world, so we should do it for free, right? Better that than to let second and third parties steal 92% of my profits.


Posted by J. Conrad Guest at 3:32 PM EDT
Updated: Sunday, 15 November 2009 9:02 AM EST
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Sunday, 12 July 2009
Pining for Yesteryear
Topic: The Curmudgeon

After my morning writing session I thought about baseball—the business it’s become and the way the game was once played.

My research for Cobb’s Conscience has revealed a lot about the legendary Georgia Peach as well as the way the game was played at the beginning of the last century.

Cobb was a showman, often announcing to opposing pitchers his intention to steal a base.

Herman Schaefer, a team mate of Cobb’s and second baseman, once stole second base and promptly stole his way back to first just to see if it could be done.

Tigers’ manager Hughie Jennings, with his “Eeee—yahhhh!” cry, routinely tore up the grass around the coach’s box, performed an Indian war dance, and blew a policeman’s whistle. American League president Ban Johnson once suspended Jennings for ten days for “objectionable noisemaking.”

Even as recently as the 1960s the game was more entertainment. Tigers’ first baseman Norm Cash once approached the batter’s box with a table leg, claiming the stuff Nolan Ryan was tossing that day en route to his second career no-hitter was unhittable with a regulation piece of lumber.

Baseball has always been a business, even in Cobb’s day, from the owner’s perspective. But players today, in large part due to their huge contracts, approach the game as a business. Gone is the fun in playing a kid’s game.

All of which leaves me longing for the past, a much simpler time.

A colleague of mine eschews old movies, citing bad acting and poorly written screenplays.

Yes, today’s actors are superior to yesteryears. In Hollywood’s early days actors employed stage acting, emoting, or playing the emotion. In time, method acting took over, giving more realism. Today we have more accomplished actors with more range, but we have fewer movie stars. Russell Crowe is one of our most capable actors, but Clark Gable was a bigger movie star even if he earned less money per picture.

I enjoy some of today’s movies and admire the craftsmanship of actors and directors alike, but I also miss that invisible barrier that exists in old movies, that separated the viewer from the screen. I don’t mind knowing I’m watching a movie. Sometimes I don’t want to be immersed so totally in a screenplay that I forget I’m but a viewer.

On television, shows like Criminal Minds, with their penchant for real life drama, leave me decidedly uncomfortable.

In a society becoming more and more desensitized to sex and violence, I sometimes long for the days when Rob and Laura Petrie couldn’t be shown together in the same bed. In the 1960s I had no idea what a man and a woman did together in bed. Today, twelve-year-olds indulge in sexual activities.

We can’t go back to the way it was anymore than Adam and Eve could regain their innocence after partaking of the forbidden fruit. But it doesn’t stop me from regretting my own lost innocence and fearing for the future of this country.

Every generation perhaps looks back into their past to see the good old days. I wonder what the Millennium Generation will look back upon with fondness.


Posted by J. Conrad Guest at 11:48 AM EDT
Updated: Sunday, 12 July 2009 11:50 AM EDT
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Saturday, 4 July 2009
Let There Be Darkness
Topic: Flash fiction

December 21, 2012 

 

I think it’s time I did something about this creation of mine called Man.

He’s evil plain and simple, and I’m deluding myself by insisting that sometimes good beings just do bad things. The truth is, he has always been fascinated by the allure of the fruit—indulge the desire, ignore the cost. He has come to worship the seven: lusxuria, gula, avaritia, acedia, ira, invidia and superbia.

I’ve always despised haughty eyes, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked plots, feet that are swift to run into mischief, a deceitful witness that utters lies, and, most of all, he who sows discord among his brethren. Like the child who chooses to ignore his parents’ warning against disobedience, man has embraced the seven; indeed, he has taken them to levels even I could not imagine.

And still I forgave him. To love someone is to forgive them.

Adam was the crowning achievement of my creation. There was nothing I wouldn’t do for Adam, nothing I wouldn’t give him, and so when I saw that he was lonely, that he hungered for a companion, I created for him a woman. When Eve bid him to taste of the fruit, I knew I had lost him forever.

From that moment I knew nothing I offered could compare to earthly delights, not even the promise of eternity.

I once sent a great flood to wash away the evil, to start anew, but man again chose pursuit of that which he could see, taste, touch. For that I have no one to blame but myself. Being human must be very lonely.

As a deity, I flit among the stars, am able to travel light years in less than an instant, and can commune with the lowliest creatures.

I trapped the spirit of man in flesh. As a fetus he is one with his mother; but at birth he knows solitude, and for the remainder of his life he seeks the comfort of earthly pleasures—food, wine, the touch of others. Man mistakes communion of the flesh as love (a lie to himself as well as his mate), while woman is untrue to her mate in the intimacy of darkness.

The comfort I can provide he eschews because I am something he cannot see, touch.

And his desire, his need for creature comforts only grows with each generation.

Like the child who outgrows the need for parents, man has cast me aside. His hunger for knowledge has turned to a thirst for power and materialism, which, in the end, he must leave behind. Sadly, his wisdom has not kept pace with his knowledge.

I am at fault for setting rules to which he could not adhere. I set him up for failure, giving him the freedom to choose, fully aware that he might choose against me. I knew this, yet I hoped it would be otherwise. Such is hindsight, even for God.

There were, are, good men, and women, but always I know their hearts.

Mother Theresa, who endeavored so diligently to do my work, knew doubt. In her doubt, she chose not to feel my presence within herself.

Rodin created beautiful works of art, but always he lusted for that which he sought to immortalize in clay. I cannot condone beautiful creations born of vulgar, evil thoughts.

Mozart sought, in his musical creations, to be godlike. Does God suffer superbia in wishing acknowledgement of the gifts he bestows upon his creation?

Man has become a blight on my creation. Like a germ that devours its benevolent environment, he takes and gives nothing in return, not to his environment nor his brethren. He knowingly wreaks havoc and absolves himself of any wrongdoing. He is ego, avaritia his birthright. The world around him, his brothers and sisters, exist only for his benefit. No other creature save man savors, revels, in its cruelty toward others.

And so I find myself at this precipice—a perfect being having created in man imperfection incarnate. I wonder if, long ago, evil once existed in me and, in seeking to rid myself of the bile, I poured forth the evil into my creation. For surely, before this instant to which man refers as the universe, evil had not existed.

With no one to blame but myself, I speak the words:

“Let there be darkness.”


Posted by J. Conrad Guest at 10:36 AM EDT
Updated: Saturday, 14 November 2009 9:30 PM EST
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Saturday, 16 May 2009
Driver Training
Topic: Memoir

“All right, give it some gas,” my dad tells me, “and start easing the clutch out — not too much,” he warns when the engine revs too high.

I lift my foot off the gas; a blink of an eye later the clutch engages, the car lurches forward, and the engine stalls. I killed it, I think to myself morosely, waiting for my dad’s reprimand. It comes in the form of a long sigh modulated in such a way that I can’t help but notice his displeasure with me.

“Start it up,” he tells me. I turn the key and the car lurches forward again. “Foot on the clutch,” he barks, and I’m certain that this surely is how his recruits must’ve felt on Parris Island. My dad: the consummate Marine DI. I expect that, once we get home, he’ll have me run a mile in full gear.

I start the car and tease the clutch with my left foot while feathering the throttle with my right foot to get the car rolling. I’m accelerating now, still in first gear, toward the far end of the parking lot. Topps, a local retailer, went out of business a year or so ago, so the parking lot is empty, making it a good place for Dad to teach me how to drive the manual transmission in our 1965 VW Beetle.

“Shift it into second,” he tells me as the engine revs escalate. I release the gas pedal and step on the clutch with my left foot, then shift the gearshift into second gear, engaging the clutch a moment after stepping on the gas; Dad admonishes me: “Slipping the clutch like that will burn it out prematurely.” At the far end of the parking lot Dad tells me to come to a stop and has me repeat the process of engaging the clutch and shifting into second gear. We do this several times, the last two I manage to reach third gear; I’m noticing improvement in my technique.

“All right,” Dad tells me. “Let’s take her out onto Michigan Avenue.” I think I hear a note of excitement in his voice and wonder whether he’s getting into this as much as I am.

Michigan Avenue, I tell myself. It’s only a four-lane divided highway that once was the main connector between Detroit and Chicago, but eighteen or twenty miles east of here is Tiger Stadium, where the Tigers play and where the Lions played when last they won a championship. I hear Ernie Harwell, the radio voice of the Tigers, say in his southern drawl, “Welcome to another afternoon of Tigers baseball here at the corner of Michigan and Trumball.” Another eighteen or twenty miles west of here is Willow Run Airport — Charles Lindbergh was Henry Ford’s advisor on the aeronautical aspects of Willow Run when it was built back in 1941. That was 30 years ago — fifteen years before I was born. Dad works for Zantop Airways. Two years from now, after graduating from high school, I’ll get my first job at Willow Run Services, pumping 100 octane into World War II vintage aircraft — C-46s, DC-3s, and DC-6s, among others. But at that moment all Michigan Avenue means to me is another step toward achieving manhood: I’m learning to drive a stick-shift.

I pull out into traffic and accelerate from first to second to third gear, up to 35 mph. Each time I take my right hand off the steering wheel to shift, the Beetle veers left. I wonder if the wind is really that strong — in a rear engine car, the front end is light. Dad tells me: “If you didn’t have such a death’s grip on the steering wheel the car wouldn’t swerve like that every time you shift.”

We hit a couple traffic lights; I’m getting more practice starting from a stop, once on an incline, and now, cognizant of keeping a loose grip on the steering wheel, the car no longer veers left when I shift.

We’re approaching the city of Wayne. Once we get through downtown the speed limit jumps to 50. I hope Dad won’t make me turn around before I can achieve fourth gear. He doesn’t, and by the time I pull into our driveway at home I feel as if I’m ready to qualify for the Indianapolis 500.

 

I eventually bought that ’65 Beetle and made it my own: eight-track quad stereo, ten-inch diameter chrome steering wheel, Hurst short-throw shifter (replacing the knob with a Coors beer can), black shag carpeting on the dash, and replacing the VW emblem on the hood with a chrome swan taking flight. Of course by then the running boards had rusted off along with the back bumper, and on cold winter mornings Dad had to push me, backwards, with his car to jump start it. But it was all mine; it gave me my first taste of independence. It got me to work for two years, I took my first real girlfriend to a drive-in movie where I stole my first kiss, and while I never qualified it for the “500,” it got me down to Indianapolis as a spectator and provided me with some near-miss adventures.

When I finally sold it to buy a new car, I felt as if I’d let an old friend down; worse, that I’d dumped my girlfriend for another girl, one that was prettier and wore more baubles, but had little personality.

 

More than thirty years have elapsed since that driving lesson, and Dad is now gone, but I have this memory, and many more, some more pleasant than others; I treasure them all because that’s all that I have left. Maybe that’s what they mean when they say no one ever really dies, so long as you keep their memory alive.

 

—JCG/January 2007


Posted by J. Conrad Guest at 8:07 AM EDT
Updated: Tuesday, 25 August 2009 12:49 PM EDT
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