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J. Conrad's blog
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
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
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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
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Sunday, 24 April 2011
A Retrospect in Death
Topic: Novel excerpts
 

Another excerpt from my completed novel, A Retrospect in Death

 

How come I never see you have any visitors?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Nurse Ratched?”

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

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

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

“That must be it.”

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

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

“I’m sorry,” she said.

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

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

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

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

“Thanks,” I said.

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

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

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

“And they call Poles dumb,” I said.

“What do you mean?”

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

Kelly laughed.

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

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

“I think so. Why do you ask?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s a beautiful cup,” Kelly said.

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

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

“Just skim milk.”

“That’s fine.”

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

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

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

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

“Then he’s a fool.”

“Thank you. You’re a nice man.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Guilty. It’s a proof copy.”

“What’s it about?”

I told her.

“It sounds intriguing.”

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

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

“Correct.”

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

“Early May.”

Kelly looked crestfallen; but her disappointment seemed for me.

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

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

“Really?”

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

“But—”

“Trust me. I have no use for it.”

“Would you inscribe it for me?”

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

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

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

“Oh, no, I couldn’t.”

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

As I rinsed the cup the doorbell rang.

“I’ll get it,” Kelly said.

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

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

“Sure,” he said.

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

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

“Sweet kid. Going through a tough time.”

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

“I say something funny?”

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

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

“How are you doing?” Patrick asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Okay,” was all Patrick managed.

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why is she haunting me, tormenting me now?

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

No, the sketch isn’t of that woman.

Whoever she was, she was beautiful.

 

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

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


Posted by J. Conrad Guest at 5:46 PM EDT
Updated: Sunday, 24 April 2011 6:16 PM EDT
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Saturday, 25 December 2010
A Retrospect in Death
Topic: Novel excerpts

Second Decade, Age 11

 

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

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

“What?” my mother said. “But how?”

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

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

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

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

My mother scheduled surgery for me the following Monday.

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

He grinned and told me to raise my hospital gown.

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

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

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

“Time for your enema,” she said.

“What’s an enema?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

“No,” I said.

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

“But why?”

“Hospital policy.”

She left and I looked at my mother.

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

“Well, try, honey.”

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

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

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

“No.”

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

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

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

Nurse: “Have you…?”

Me: “No.”

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

“What’s this?” I asked.

“A suppository. It’ll help you go.”

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

“No, it goes into your backside.”

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

“I’m sorry,” I said. “Would you …?”

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

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

 

 

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

“It was strange,” I told my mother.

“What was?” she asked.

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

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

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

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

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


Posted by J. Conrad Guest at 7:42 PM EST
Updated: Saturday, 25 December 2010 7:46 PM EST
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Friday, 29 October 2010
A Retrospect in Death
Topic: Novel excerpts

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

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

“Thanks.”

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

“Honest.”

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

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

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

“Ever hear of beginner’s luck?”

“If you say so.”

“I say so,” I said, grinning.

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

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

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

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

“How about a rain check?”

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

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

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

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

“Is that what you heard?”

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

“A summons for dessert.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Never mind,” I said.

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

“Isn’t she pretty?” Nora asked.

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

“She thinks you’re cute.”

“Not something a guy wants to hear.”

“What’s wrong with being cute?”

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

“But you are cute.”

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

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

Mike got up and Maggie sat down beside me.

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

“Thanks,” she said.

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

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

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

“What?” Maggie asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But I don’t love her, I argued back.

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

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

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

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

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

I laughed.

“What?” she asked.

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

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

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

I lasted about five minutes before I climaxed.

 

›

 

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

The Other waited patiently for me to continue.

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

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

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

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

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

“Once the novelty of the sex wears off.”

“Isn’t that what I just said?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You said that once already.”

“It was, after all, your first time.”

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

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

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

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


Posted by J. Conrad Guest at 6:06 PM EDT
Updated: Friday, 29 October 2010 6:14 PM EDT
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Sunday, 3 October 2010
A Retrospect in Death
Topic: Novel excerpts
 

From A Retrospect in Death, Part Three: Youth

 

 

“The deepest definition of youth is life as yet untouched by tragedy.”

 

—Alfred North Whitehead

 

 

Third Decade

 

I watched the woman, upside down, her arms extended to either side of her and her thighs clasping the metal pole around which she slowly rotated. Her butt cheeks seemed to grip the thong she wore.

I had come of age—21—and was celebrating. Although the drinking law still allowed eighteen-year-olds the right to imbibe and this wasn’t the first titty bar I’d patronized, somehow, in my mind, this night out made it official. After turning 18, I’d registered for the draft, which had been abolished a few months later. Next month, November, I planned to vote to raise the legal drinking age to 21, knowing I would incur the wrath of my younger buddies. What did I care? I had my whole life ahead of me—years of drinking. It was a good time to be me. I’d kissed more than one girl, but was still a year away from losing my chastity.

The dancer, her feet in high stilettos, now on the runway, was fast-gyrating her hips to the sound of the music—Led Zeppelin’s Moby Dick. She hadn’t yet removed her bra, so I was taken by her navel, pelvis and legs, all glistening with a thin sheen of perspiration.

“I think she likes you,” Malcolm said from beside me.

“What’s not to like?” I called back over the music, without taking my eyes from her pubic area.

“She keeps looking at you.”

I tore my eyes away and glanced up at the girl’s face. Indeed she was looking at me, a sly grin on her lips that revealed overly large teeth crowded into a small mouth. Her teeth were discolored and she had a bad complexion.

“Yeah,” I said to Mal, “but with that face I wouldn’t screw her with your prick.”

“With that body, who cares what she looks like?”

“I do,” I said.

“So put a bag over her head.”

“I’d have to put one over my head, too, in case the bag over her head breaks.”

“Okay, Rodney,” Malcolm said in my ear. He, too, was a Dangerfield buff.

The bra had come off, to land in my lap, as Moby Dick segued into Birthday by the Beatles.

“Happy birthday, man,” Malcolm said, putting his arm around me.

“Thanks.”

The girl now sat/squatted in front of me; her breasts, just inches away from my face, jiggled as she shook her shoulders from side to side, her hands resting lightly on my shoulders.

Unlike Mal, a self-professed boob man through and through, I was a leg and ass man. In high school, Nanette had been my favorite pompom girl; she had great gams—sensuously curvaceous—and full and rounded thighs, smooth. Together, her gorgeous legs went all the way up to make quite an ass of themselves. It was then that I’d coined the phrase “peanut butter legs,” so judged for their spreadability, an adage that had granted me instant celebrity status among my buddies. I’d already noticed that most girls seemed to boast one or the other—great legs but small breasts or large breasts but unflattering legs. Nanette, however, had also been blessed with large breasts, completing the package that left me, in my mind, out of her league, so I never approached her, my newly acquired celebrity amongst my buddies notwithstanding. It didn’t help that she was one of the most popular girls in school, while I was just a wall hanging to most girls. I once chanced, at the urging of my pecker, to say hello to her in passing in the hall between classes and she replied, “Asshole.” It never occurred to me that one of my good buddies might’ve passed along to her my assessment of her glorious gams. Her return greeting merely affirmed to me that she was out of my league.

Looking at these boobs, I wondered what Mal might see in them as arousing. They were small and contained little substance—this was in the days before breast augmentation.

I glanced down at her thighs, slightly spread, her lower legs folded under her, butt resting on her heels, and imagined myself kissing them, so soft and firm.

Birthday ended, although it wasn’t yet midnight, and I handed the girl her bra. She waited for me to stuff a couple bucks into the front of her thong; then, without a word, she climbed down from the runway to walk away, arms crossed in front of her to hide her breasts (an effort perhaps to appear demure), to be replaced by another girl who was much too thin for my liking.

“Why didn’t you get her phone number?” Malcolm asked.

“You mean besides her being ugly?”

“Who cares about her face? She had a great body.”

“She has about as much interest in me as she does the guy in the corner with the Peterbilt cap.”

“He’s old.”

“Which only proves my point,” I said. “She worked me to inflate the size of her tip, with which, not so coinkidinklely, she seemed disappointed.”

“You should’ve made it a ten.”

“I’m a working stiff, remember? I’m saving my money to buy a new car. Besides, it would not have guaranteed a phone number even if I’d wanted it.” I finished what was left of my beer and added, “Come on, let’s blow this joint. This working stiff has to work in the morning, even if tomorrow is Saturday.”

In the parking lot Malcolm asked me if Marty was still being a dick at work.

“I know he’s your wife’s cousin, Mal,” I said, “but, yes, as the weekend supervisor, he figures he doesn’t have to do his share of work. He just hands out the tickets and sits on his ass.”

Malcolm sighed and told me he’d talk to Marty again.

I drove home, slightly buoyant with beer, and thought of the guy in the Peterbilt cap, what his story might be. What drove him to frequent places like Henry the Eighth. Was he trapped in a loveless marriage to a woman who no longer put out for him? Not that he could hope to find love in a topless bar. Maybe he needed help to perform in the bedroom in the aforementioned loveless marriage.

I made an oath that, when I got to his age, I’d never find myself sitting in a titty bar watching young girls take off their tops for tips. I was destined to be happily married to the girl of my dreams, making love every night of the week. I’d do my father one better by fathering three children. My parents had two children—a boy and a girl—and my father had once joked that he’d wanted a third so that he could have “one of each.” Whatever that meant.

Then I turned my thoughts to that new car on which I had my eye: a red Toyota Celica I was sure would attract the notice of the girls. (I would later learn it would also attract the attention of police patrol cars.)

I was tired of driving the rust bucket ’65 VW Beetle I’d purchased from my dad. I’d made a lot of special modifications to it—installing a four-channel eight-track tape player/radio (my miserly father had purchased the car new, sans a radio), replacing the original steering wheel with a sporty ten-inch three-spoke chrome steering wheel, replacing the original shifter with a Hurst short throw stick (replacing the knob with a Coors beer can) and buying a wood grain dash kit. But there was little I could do about the rust. In addition to the Panama beige paint that was peeling, the running boards were threatening to fall off, as the rear bumper had already done; on cold winter mornings, when the Bug refused to start, my dad had to push me down the street, backward, with his ’76 replacement Beetle in order to jump start it.

Yes, it was definitely time to turn in the old girl for a new one. In my mind it would be another milestone in achieving manhood: plunking down a thousand dollars (hard earned) and locking myself into a three-year bank note.

It would be the better part of two decades and five new cars before the routine of buying a new car every three years became distasteful to me, before I would come to resent what corporate America and the federal government fed me as part of the American Dream.


Posted by J. Conrad Guest at 12:38 PM EDT
Updated: Monday, 4 October 2010 6:47 AM EDT
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Sunday, 25 July 2010
A Retrospect in Death
Topic: Novel excerpts

Another excerpt from A Retrospect in Death …

 

Why did you put up with her torment for so long?” he asked.

“I earned it,” I said.

“But did you deserve it?”

“Is there a difference?”

“You may have earned her wrath by your betrayal; but through your contrition you deserved her forgiveness.”

“You know what was in my heart.”

Although my statement was not intended as a question, I felt the Other nod.

“Then you know I didn’t love Judy.”

“That you stayed with her as long as you did, tried to make it right, would seem to indicate otherwise.”

“I only wanted to love her, but I never loved her. How could I? Our relationship developed into something unhealthy—if ever it was healthy. I was driven to win her forgiveness, while she … I don’t know. Maybe she became addicted to berating me.”

The Other seemed to ignore my psycho-babble.

“You wanted to love her body as you loved Jovita’s.”

I cringed; although inadvertent, there seemed, to me, something critical in the Other’s simple evaluation, or was it intended as a correction to my assessment?

“Maybe I did,” I said. “But I couldn’t love her, her body notwithstanding, not as long as she continued to hound me.”

“And you wished you could have loved Jovita for more than just her body, perhaps as you loved Judy,” the Other finished, and I realized this wasn’t so much a dialogue as a rehash of an introspection I’d had many times while I’d been alive, before I finally let Judy go; I went along with it:

“Proof of what Judy always accused me—that I compartmentalized women. Some I saw as body parts and others for their intellect. I wanted to screw the body parts and discuss politics, religion, movies, books and my broken hearts with the others.”

“What became of Jovita?”

“I tried to get in touch with her after I left Judy, but she didn’t return my phone calls, ignored my invitation to connect on Facebook.”

“It would seem she didn’t love you as she claimed.”

“What, you thought she did? She was the other woman. Did you really think she would risk that another woman would take her place in my life as ‘the other woman?’”

“It would seem that Megan was right,” the Other said, changing direction. It was good at that, changing direction.

“Megan?” This wasn’t part of any of my previous private introspections. “Megan who?”

“The woman from the fragrance counter at Hudson’s who befriended you after your mother’s death.”

“Oh, Megan.” I’d forgotten about Megan after I moved from my home town and hadn’t thought of her in the millennia since my death. I’d leaned on her in my grief and discussed with her my predilection for eye candy in the aftermath of Joy (that’s right, another “J” woman), but never considered her as a sexual partner (not just because her first name started with “M”—she was ten years my senior and a flaming redhead; therefore she’d fallen into that latter “compartment” of women).

“Didn’t she tell you,” the Other said, “that all body parts are just that, body parts?”

“I recall her telling me that,” I said.

“One pussy on the end of a pecker feels pretty much the same as any other pussy.”

I was startled by the Other’s vulgarity, far more than I was when Megan had put forth that same sentiment.

“Yes, I suppose that’s true,” I said, “although I resented her speaking from the masculine perspective. Putting the shoe on the other foot, I never met a woman to whom size didn’t matter.”

“Maybe that was because they found you well-endowed.”

“Or I knew how to use what I had,” I said. I was growing uncomfortable with this discussion of peckers and pussies alike. “But how would I know? Most women fake their orgasms most of the time.”

“So Judy told you.”

“I read the studies. She was right about that. And I was smart enough to know that no woman would ever suggest to her man that he should buy the oriental-sized box of condoms. But all that’s beside the point. What of everything that takes place before the mating ritual? We must first be attracted to a partner, yes?”

“There are many reasons for attraction.”

“Initially,” I said in my defense, “from across the room—before you find out she voted Democratic in the last presidential election, before you learn she’s a member of NOW and bashes men on her blog, that she’s a vegan, that she detests sports and sees athletes as sweaty with little between the ears, that she prefers chardonnay to reds, or that she’s high maintenance and looking for a bad boy in need of fixing (not what you do to the family canine) and spent years trying to change her previous boyfriend only to dump him in the end for not being the man she met—it’s appearance, chemistry, pheromones, animal magnetism, whatever, that first catches your eye. It’s no different in the animal kingdom. The bird with the most colorful plumage draws the most attention.”

“And yet many homely, overweight people find a partner.”

“What do you want from me?” I asked. “So I was more visual than some men. I wasn’t the only sixteen-year-old kid with a Farah Fawcett poster on the back of my bedroom door.”

“I only meant that there is someone for everyone.”

“Unless you’re me,” I said. And then, “Many people lower their standards rather than risk being alone.”

“Or,” the Other said, “They see the inner beauty of their partner.”

“Yeah,” I said. “Like Judy had so much of that.”

“She was once the other woman in a love triangle, was she not?”

“So what if she was?”

“Perhaps that, in part, helped to fuel her anger toward you.”

“Who cares? She’s not here to discuss her issues. All I know is she had a never ending supply of vitriol. She harbored as much resentment and anger two years after the fact as she did the day she made me get a cell phone.”

“And you felt you deserved her anger.”

“I was responsible for putting it there.”

“Was she not accountable, for keeping her anger alive?”

“What difference does it make? I was to blame but she was at fault; or maybe it was the other way around. She never forgot and she certainly never forgave, despite telling me many times that she had. More lies. When I was caught I confessed, told the truth, that Jovita screwed like a porn star. Those truths hurt, more than had I lied. But she insisted on the truth, as did I from her. But I was playing by her rules and wasn’t allowed to suggest amendments or expect fair play. I may have abused her trust by having an affair, but what was her treatment of me if not abuse?”

“Actions speak louder than words,” the Other said.

I ignored the pilfered maxim.

“You asked me earlier why I put up with her torment for as long as I did. A better question is why did she torment me for as long as she did?”

“This isn’t about her.”

“You sound like a shrink I once had.”

“I’m your higher self. I care not about her.”

“Wow,” I said. “And to think I once paid for someone to tell me that.”

“You’re a sarcastic snipe, you know that?” the Other said, before adding, “I suspect that she tormented you for as long as she did because you allowed her to.”

“So I’m not only to blame for cheating on her, I’m to blame for her treatment of me because I didn’t put a stop to it? I’m a patsy no matter what I do. Is it any wonder I don’t want to go back for more?”

“Did you not deserve her forgiveness?”

“I wanted her forgiveness,” I said. “I learned that life has little to do with deserving. Else babies wouldn’t be born to crack addicts or HIV positive.”

The Other remained mute and I wondered if it might be assessing whether I deserved another timeout.

“If my infidelity earned her wrath,” I said, “I tried to earn her forgiveness as well as her trust. In the end, when I could no longer take her abuse and walked, she blamed me for that, too. Probably because I’d removed from her, in one fell swoop, the source of her rage as well as the object on which she could vent it.”

“And in the ten years that remained of your life, you never again risked your heart to love.”

“That was a choice and are you going to argue that it wasn’t the right choice?”

“I only wish to understand, not argue.”

“How many times did I hear that from Judy, that she didn’t wish to argue? Usually just before the storm hit.”

“Why did you choose not to love again?”

“Because I no longer believed in love, not in the manner I did as a boy, before I discovered sex. Like many young men, I confused sex with love and never outgrew it. By the time I understood the difference, it was too late for me.”

“It’s never too late for love.”

I ignored the Other’s adage; it was plagiarized anyway. “I’d always believed I’d rather be alone alone than alone with the wrong person.”

“Judy was the wrong person?”

“Maybe she wasn’t the wrong person, at least not until she discovered my affair. But she wasn’t the right person either, not any more than my wife or any of the other women in my life were right. And before you blame me for not being the right person for them, a lot of wrong-matched couples find a semblance of happiness. Need I also remind you that I worked hard toward self-improvement, to become the right person. What good is being the right person when everyone else is the wrong person?”

“New Age bullshit,” the Other said.

“You know me well. And since you do, you know I got involved with Judy for the wrong reasons. I was on the rebound. I wasn’t ready and I knew it. I was certain it would never work with Judy, and I made sure it wouldn’t. Save after Jennifer, I spent time after each broken heart trying to assess what went wrong, learning from my mistakes.”

“Why didn’t you take that time after Jennifer?”

“Because I figured I was over thinking everything. The lessons I learned, or thought I’d learned from previous disappointments, never seemed to apply to the next relationship anyway. The next one always brought some new dysfunction into the mix.”

“So you admit to being attracted to broken women.”

“You get to a certain age and you find we’re all broken. It’s part of the human condition. Maybe the crack first appeared in childhood, because your mother never held you enough or didn’t breast feed you, or your father wasn’t nurturing enough, and the crack only widens, gets deeper with age. Which is why the old proverb it’s never too late is but a poet’s deception. At some point you realize you’re never going to uncover the source of the break, so you give up trying. But to answer your question, I figured to take the plunge and wing it for a change. The end result couldn’t be any worse.”

“Yet it was,” the Other said.

“You’re so understanding.”

“Where did you get your sarcasm? It wasn’t from me.”

“From life,” I said. “And you would have me go back for more.”

“Not before I understand the final years of your life.”

“As if you don’t already.”

“More sarcasm.”


Posted by J. Conrad Guest at 12:11 PM EDT
Updated: Sunday, 3 October 2010 12:45 PM EDT
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Saturday, 24 July 2010
A Retrospect in Death
Topic: Novel excerpts

An excerpt from Part One of my work in progress. The prologue can be read on my Web site.

 

 

Part One: Old Age

 

 

“All the best sands of my life are somehow getting into the wrong end of the hourglass. If I could only reverse it! Were it in my power to do so, would I?”

 

—Thomas Bailey Aldrich

 

 

“As in the first words?” I said when the Other’s patience won out over my own (the Other might’ve kept me waiting a minute or a millennium for all I knew), although in truth I didn’t utter the words as much as think them; not so much a telepathy as I understood it, but an exchange of thoughts as energy.

“I am your higher self,” the Other said.

“My soul?”

“If it pleases you to think of me as such. You and I are one, and we are one with creation.”

“I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together,” I said. The Other seemed to find my Beatle-esque evaluation humorous, or so I read in the change in frequency of its energy.

“Quite right,” it said, the vibration of its communication feeling oddly Cockney to my life force; then, with a more familiar Midwestern twang, it added, “We are connected, you and I, through a channel, as I am connected to the Creator. And so, so are you.”

“God?”

“God, yes, but not as you, in life, perceived him.”

“Angry, vengeful, demanding, white robe, long just as white beard and flowing hair.”

“A deity man created in his own image.”

“An image we perhaps need, to keep us in line. Yet over the years man certainly seems to have pushed the envelope with an absent God, like a teen thinking they can pull the wool over their parent’s eyes. Parents more concerned with their careers than with their children.”

The Other, apparently forgoing judgment, said nothing; so I ventured: “Where am I and how long have I been here?”

“You are beyond infinity, a place where time has no meaning.”

I expressed confusion.

“Your last life ended, as you once measured time, many millennia ago.”

“Why the wait? What took you so long to make your presence known to me?”

The Other chuckled and the vibration revealed much to me.

“I was given a timeout?” I asked in disbelief.

“You needed time to reflect, but it was you who took so long. You are, in death, nearly as obstinate—mulish—as you were in life. It was when you concluded that life had won you little recompense in death that I thought you might be open to discussion.”

“My last life?” I asked, going back several lines in our exchange. “I’ve lived others?”

“Many. You are, as am I, or more accurately as are we, immortal.”

As I pondered this the Other continued: “The world is, from the perspective you once knew it, in another ice age. Man as the dominant species is nearly extinct, waiting, as the Neanderthals once did, for another cycle of warmth. When you return, you will perhaps return to the previous cycle, the one from whence you just came, or the one still to come.”

“So we’re time travelers?” I said.

“Not in the Jules Verne sense, no. But we are not bound by time in the sense your corporeal self once was.”

In that moment I understood, without really understanding the how, that past, present and future all existed as one moment, except, apparently, in this place that was “beyond infinity.”

“So I can return as Joan of Arc, a black slave prior to the Civil War, George W. Bush or even Ty Cobb?”

I felt the Other acquiesce.

“And because we are, as you say, beyond infinity, I can return to a future not yet lived?”

“The choice is ours—yours and mine.”

“But do I have to? Return?”

“You are the essence of what you once were—pure energy. The teacup that once was your body was broken when you died, but your life’s quintessence—the tea so to speak—remains. Your energy will be sent back into the lifecycle to exist in another physical form.”

“Is there nothing I can say to change your mind?”

While my other self considered this, I furthered my argument: “Life is futile.”

“Life is experience.”

“But why would I wish to return?” I asked.

“It is essential to the Creator, who desires to experience his own existence through his creation, both the good as well as the not so good.”

“You mean the evil.”

“Evil is a creation of man, the result of a lack of love.”

“Still, what’s the point of it all?” I asked, feeling as if the Other were judging me.

“I am beyond judging you,” it said, reminding me that my thoughts were its thoughts. “We are one, and as one we shine or shame.”

I cringed.

“If I truly am immortal, have lived countless lives, what do I gain from returning to the lifecycle ignorant of my previous lives, to be burned at a stake, flogged for my skin color, hazed by teammates envious of my superior talent, reviled as the worst president ever to hold office?”

I recalled reading The Long Embrace, a biography of Raymond Chandler. Author of The Big Sleep, Chandler wrote of L.A. and California: The most of everything

“The best of nothing,” the Other finished my thought for me. “You forget that I’m privy to every aspect of your life, as well as your every thought.”

“Then you know what Chandler knew: ‘When you constantly change a landscape, you erase the collective memory of a city.’ To force me to return without the collective memories of my previous lives is amoral.”

“Most are anxious to return.” To my disbelief, the Other continued: “To feel the rain on their face, to brave the cold breath of winter in order to appreciate warmth at a fire, to hear the clattering claws of a dog dancing on kitchen linoleum, to hear a child’s laughter, to love—”

“Love is at best transitory,” I argued. “When we find it, if we find it, it slips away, abandoning us when we least expect. If it finds us, we discover it’s not what we want.”

“Love is all there is. It is a choice.”

“Predicated on a feeling.”

“A feeling that was, for you, based on a visual image of body parts.”

I shrank away from the Other’s charge, although no judgment sounded in its tone; it simply stated the truth—not as he saw it, but simply the truth.

“What else do we have to go on, at least initially?” I said. “I was able to turn some heads, even after I turned fifty—until I got sick. At a subconscious level women look for physical signs that a man will be a good provider—broad shoulders, a powerful build—while in return men look for someone with a good childbearing body.” I was not to be untracked: “As for the feeling to which I refer, it often disappears when someone discovers you’re not who they thought you were, or worse, who they wanted you to be.”

If I’d had legs I’d be pacing; I didn’t, so my frustration betrayed itself in the brightness of my essence. I continued with my tirade: “God—the Creator, whatever—sticks us in a shell of flesh and blood where we can view the world from only one perspective, our own, and he expects us to be unselfish, to put the needs of others ahead of our own. Well I did that, more than once, with friends, employers and lovers. And each recipient was only too happy to take what I offered and give little in return. Until they tired of what I gave and then cast me away unwanted.”

“But you gave expecting in return, did you not?”

“Even God isn’t purely altruistic. He expects something from his creation, doesn’t he? Whether it’s to take a knee in deference to his glory or, as you claim, to allow him to experience reality through us, there’s a price to pay for our existence. So what if I expected something in return from the people in my life? It’s a sin to expect to be treated well in return for the good treatment you provide another? ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,’ yes?”

The Other went silent; I felt something like trepidation fill the void between us, as if it didn’t know how to respond. Then, perhaps in an effort to change tacks, it said, “So you wish to know how returning to the lifecycle can be to your benefit without memories of your previous lives.”

“The memories I can do without,” I said. “I can live without the anger, frustration and shame. It’s some of the more valuable lessons that I’d like to take along with me. To be born with specific wisdoms—knowing certain things without having to attend the school of hard knocks.”

“Isn’t that analogous to cheating?”

“So what if it is if should it make the world a better place in which to live while providing the Creator a higher grade of experience? Wouldn’t that be more akin to the life to which Christ preached we should aspire?” I was trying to deflect, make it sound as if I had the benefit of the greater whole in mind in addition to the Creator; but the Other was silent and I knew my argument had left no impact.

Not knowing what else to say, I added, “All the more reason I’ve experienced enough living, thank you very much.”

“That is not for you to say.”

“So I have no say on the matter.”

“The choice is ours alone.”

“Yours and the Creator’s?”

I felt rather than saw the Other nod and I couldn’t help but feel something patronizing, a touch arrogant, even judgmental in the non-gesture. The Other ignored my exasperation—as in life I came to believe the god in whom I’d grown up believing ignored his creation—like a parent who thinks he knows what’s best for his children: Do as I say not as I do. Vegetables are good for you, I recall my father telling me through lips clenched around a cigarette. Sugar is not, he finished. I wanted to ask him, What about nicotine? But I was young and frightened of my father; yet when I turned 16 I smoked a few cigarettes, even managed to pound back a few beers. Looking back, that I never got caught somehow took some of the fun out it.

Privy to the energy that was my thoughts, the Other said: “Benjamin Franklin said, ‘Beer is living proof that God loves us and wants to see us happy.’”

It was an adage I’d often quoted in my younger, happier days. Before life beat me down.

“Ben also said that wisdom can be found in wine, freedom in beer; but in water you find only bacteria. God created water; man the former two.” When the Other remained silent, I added, “You don’t really believe that, do you, about beer and God wanting to see us happy?”

“You forget that I have a personal connection with the Creator.”

“So he’s an alkie and part of his twelve-step program is to make me go back but without any of the knowledge and wisdom I may have learned during my previous lives.”

The Other ignored my derision. “You will have a choice in gender and certain other aspects of your next incarnation.”

“Like a role-playing game?” I put forth. “I get to pick attributes like charisma, looks, constitution, luck, and strength?”

I sensed the Other’s amusement and I understood my analogy was spot on.

“I thought God had already experienced a little of life, when he sent his son to earth to be crucified.”

“A parable. God is at the center of the universe wherever he exists—as fauna, flora, as every molecule that composes his creation.”

“Even granite?”

“He exists in everything.”

“And he likes to suffer—or more accurately, like the boy who enjoys frying ants on a hot summer day with his magnifying glass, he likes to see us suffer.”

“He is not responsible for the suffering his creation wreaks upon itself.”

I sighed and shrugged nonexistent shoulders, like a war veteran with a phantom limb.

“I suppose I get it,” I said. “Even pain is preferable to living in a vacuum.”

As if it were already decided that I’d return to the lifecycle, the Other said, “Before you return I need to better understand your previous life.”

“You’re my higher self. You should already know everything you need to know.”

“I’d rather hear it from your perspective.”


Posted by J. Conrad Guest at 9:00 AM EDT
Updated: Sunday, 3 October 2010 12:46 PM EDT
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Friday, 12 February 2010
The Cobb Legacy
Topic: Novel excerpts

Thirty-Eight

 

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

 

—Ty Cobb

 

 

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

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

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

“What?”

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

“Sounds like a nice memory.”

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

“I’m sorry.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cagney nodded again.

“That’s understandable.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He was very handsome,” April said.

“Yes, he was.”

“I see where you get your looks.”

Cagney only chuckled.

“I’m serious,” April said.

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

 

“To the most important girl in my life.”

 

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

 

Serving Proudly

 

United States Marine Corps

 

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

“No doubt.”

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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


Posted by J. Conrad Guest at 11:33 AM EST
Updated: Sunday, 3 October 2010 12:47 PM EDT
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