Author Archives: jcguest

About jcguest

J. Conrad Guest’s first novel, January’s Paradigm, was published by Minerva Press, London, England. Current Entertainment Monthly in Ann Arbor, Michigan, wrote of January’s Paradigm, “(readers) will not be able to put it down.” He has two other novels based on the Joe January character, One Hot January and January’s Thaw, both available from Second Wind Publishing. Backstop: A Baseball Love Story in Nine Innings is now available in print from Second Wind, and in Kindle and Nook formats. Backstop was nominated as a Michigan Notable book in 2010 and was adopted by the Lewis Department of Humanities at the Illinois Institute of Technology as required reading for their spring 2011 course, "Baseball: America's Literary Pastime." He finished work on a futuristic piece, Chaotic Theory, which explores the conjecture of how the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil might result in a tornado in Texas. It is available at Amazon. His fiction and essays appear in various online and print publications, including Cezanne’s Carrot, Saucy Vox, River Walk Journal, 63 Channels, The Writers Post Journal, Redbridge Review, and Blood and Thunder: Musings on the Art of Medicine. J. Conrad’s short essay on the writing life appears in the 2008 edition of Bylines Calendar—a 2006 finalist for the Walter Williams Award, given by the Missouri Writers’ Guild. He is also a contributing writer to Impact Times, and his sports writing can be found at Bleacher Report.

A World Without Music: Now Available from Second Wind—J. Conrad Guest

A fourth excerpt from A World Without Music, another Reagan-Tom Wallach exchange.

Twenty-six

 

“The notes I handle no better than many pianists. But the pauses between the notes—ah, that is where the art resides!”

—Artur Schnabel

 

Photo courtesy of Craig David Butler

Photo courtesy of Craig David Butler

Reagan’s eyes fluttered open; he felt as if he were being watched. He glanced at the window: it was still dark. Sarah was breathing softly beside him. She was still asleep. His eyes moved about the room—there, on the corner chair, sat Tom Wallach.

“You’re a light sleeper,” Wallach said.

“I’m still a marine.” Reagan sat up.

“Never goes away, does it? Especially in times of stress.”

Wallach watched Sarah roll over; then he stood, motioned Reagan to follow him, and made his way to the door.

Reagan rolled out of bed and stepped toward Wallach; halfway across the room, Sarah muttered, “Don’t leave me.”

Reagan turned toward the bed, but Wallach spoke first. “It’s okay, Reagan. She’s only dreaming. Come on.”

Reagan followed Wallach to the living room, where they sat, facing each other, in two high-backed chairs.

“How do I know I’m not the one dreaming?” Reagan whis­pered.

“You’re not.”

“But how do I know?”

Wallach shrugged, and, grinning, said, “Pinch yourself if you don’t believe me.”

Reagan refrained from doing just that; at some level he knew this was real: across from him sat the ghost of Tom Wallach.

“Death is permanent,” Wallach said.

“Don’t I know it.”

“I’m sure you do. Aren’t you glad now that you didn’t pull the trigger on your Glock? You were so convinced that you’d lost Sarah forever, but it was just a bump in the road. She needed time to realize what you meant to her. Had you pulled that trigger—”

“I know,” Reagan said, looking away in shame.

“No, you don’t, Reagan. You have no idea what that would’ve done to Sarah.”

Reagan sighed. “Suicides rarely understand the ruin they leave behind. They’re lost in their own pain.”

Wallach nodded and said, “Not pulling the trigger was an act of courage. Your work here is not done.”

“And you know this how? Are you omnipotent?”

“All knowing? No. Let’s just say I have night vision.”

“You can see the future?”

“The future is made up of myriad possibilities, all predicated on the choices we make, or fail to make, each and every day.”

Reagan thought about that for a moment, before asking, “So is there an alternate reality, one in which you came home from Kuwait?”

“There is only one reality; but I am attuned to all possibilities, including the one of which you spoke.”

“How do you bear it?” Reagan said. “Knowing what might’ve been?”

“It brings me much comfort.”

“Don’t you feel cheated?”

Wallach shook his head. “No. My life played out as it should have. My widow and daughter would not be the people they are today had I come home from Kuwait.”

“How do you know they wouldn’t be better off?”

For the first time since he’d begun haunting Reagan’s dreams, Wallach looked uncertain, as if he didn’t know how much he could, or should, share with the living.

“My death set something into motion.” And then, as if he couldn’t—or wasn’t allowed—to say more, Wallach changed direc­tion. “Why did you sleep with Rosary?”

Reagan could only hide his shame behind both hands.

“There is no need to feel disgrace, Reagan. I still understand the drive of the loins, the lure of a beautiful woman, although I was never tempted by one as beautiful as Rosary.” And then, as if he were privy to Reagan’s thoughts, he added, “We enter the afterlife as we exited life. The essence of what I am lacks what made me a man in life. It’s unnecessary to me now, but I still recall what it is like to be a man.”

Reagan removed his hands from his face. “You seem to know all. You should know why I slept with her.”

“I know what you told Sarah, but there is more.”

When Wallach didn’t go on, Reagan said, “So now you’re my shrink?”

Wallach chuckled. “No.”

“Is it so important, the why?”

“Not to me.”

“I was angry,” Reagan said.

“Yes, you were angry, because you blamed yourself for Sarah divorcing you.”

“Are you telling me I wasn’t at fault?”

“You gave her reason, but you were not to blame.”

“What’s the difference?”

“She never blamed you. You assumed blame because you couldn’t allow yourself to see her mistake. That she came back to you is proof that she was, in her own eyes, misguided in leaving you.”

Reagan said nothing.

“When you thought she’d abandoned you once again, you made certain to assume blame for that, too, by sleeping with Rosary.”

“I thought it was—”

“Polyphemus,” Wallach said, grinning. “Yes, he was drawn to Rosary, to be sure. But you would not have acted as you did had you not thought Sarah had once again forsaken you.”

“Are you blaming her?”

“No.”

“Why are we having this conversation?”

“Because you need to understand what was set into motion.”

“I already understand,” Reagan said.

“But what you don’t understand is that Mimi is destined to be a part of the outcome.”

“Does she have to be?”

“Yes.”

“What if she gets hurt?”

“That possibility exists.”

“I won’t assume that responsibility.”

“You have no choice.”

“Do any of us ever really have a choice?”

“We always have choices, Reagan, and this is Mimi’s choice. She feels a connection to me through you.”

“But she doesn’t owe me anything.”

“Does she have to? We are all connected. To love is to give without expecting in return. The greatest sacrifice one can make is to forfeit one’s own life for another.”

“Are you telling me that Mimi will die?”

“It is one possible outcome.”

“And how am I supposed to live with that?”

“It will be just one more choice—the choice to honor her sac­rifice, her memory. Like a choice to embrace happiness, or to cling to the past.”

“This isn’t about us—you and me—and our past,” Reagan said.

“Oh, but it is, isn’t it? You don’t understand how the choices of others affect you because you grapple with your past, choosing to hold onto it—one defining moment.”

“I am what I am today because of that past.”

“Because you’ve chosen to allow it to define you in the manner it has. You must let me go.”

“What if I can’t?”

“You must, Reagan. You do me no honor, pay no homage, by keeping alive the image of what was done to me.”

“Can you at least tell me if you know how this will play out?”

Wallach looked thoughtful, as if he might be communing with some higher authority about what he might be permitted to share about events to come. After a few moments, he nodded and said, “Sarah fears you will leave her again, as you did before.”

Reagan recalled Sarah’s words of a few minutes ago, talking in her sleep: Don’t leave me. “But,” he said, “it was she who left me.”

Wallach shook his head. “You know that is not true.” Then he added, “I can tell you only that the past repeats itself, unless we choose change—”

“Who are you talking to?” Sarah said from the entrance to the living room, and Wallach was gone, as if he’d never been there.

“To myself,” Reagan said. “A habit I picked up from living alone,” he added with a grin.

Sarah sat on the arm of Reagan’s chair, putting her arm around his shoulders. “I thought I heard another voice.”

“You’re sleepy,” Reagan said. “It was just me.”

“I woke up to find you gone.”

“I’m sorry. I couldn’t sleep.”

“The nightmare?”

“No,” Reagan said, taking comfort in that that was no lie.

“That woman?”

“Yes.”

“Well, she’s not here now, so come on,” she said, taking Reagan’s hand, “let’s go back to bed.”

Sarah quickly drifted back to sleep; but Reagan only stared at the ceiling, considering Wallach’s words: the past repeats itself, unless we choose change.

It seemed that he and Sarah would survive Rosary; but at what cost to Mimi he couldn’t know. Wallach’s warning was about Reagan’s connection with Wallach. Any hope to find contentment with Sarah was doomed to fail, unless he could let go of his past.

Reagan groaned and rolled over onto his side. But sleep was a long time coming.

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A World Without Music: Excerpt no. 3—J. Conrad Guest

J. Conrad Guest

J. Conrad Guest

Cover blurb: Reagan returns from the first Gulf War haunted by horrific images of Tom Wallach, a dead marine he brought back from the desert. Seeking refuge from his nightmares and broken marriage in a jazz quartet in which he plays bass guitar, fifteen years elapse and he has a one-night fling with Rosary, a beautiful young woman he meets at one of his gigs. When his ex-wife comes back into his life, Rosary’s obsession turns into a fatal attraction.

With help from Wallach’s ghost, the daughter Wallach never met, and a being from a distant planet in search of answers, can Reagan find the music that will enable him to finally let go of his tortured past?

 

Chapter Sixteen

 

“Richard Wagner, a musician who wrote music which is better than it sounds”

 – Mark Twain

“I have a daughter, you know,” Tom Wallach said from beside Reagan.

“I know.”

“She’s twenty-one now.”

“I’m sure she’s grown into a beautiful young woman.” Reagan took a sip from his glass of bourbon.

“Mind if I ask you to look in on her?”

“Why? Aren’t you able to do that?”

“Sure, and I have. She’s a smart kid. Takes after her mother. En­rolled in the law program at U of M. I’m proud of her. You’re right, she’s beautiful. But I’m partial.”

Reagan waited. It was his dream, but he had no control of the con­versation.

“When you get in touch with her,” Wallach said, the conclusion forgone, “tell her about me, will you?”

“I hardly knew you, Tom.”

“You don’t have to tell her much,” Wallach said, as if he hadn’t heard Reagan. “Tell her that I liked to laugh, liked to pull a practical joke, but that I had my serious side, too.”

Did you? Reagan asked himself. He was certain his subconscious was simply filling in fictitious details of Wallach’s life for him. Dreams were funny that way.

“I wouldn’t tell you if it weren’t so. Tell her I was a good marine.” Wallach held up his empty shot glass; a moment later, the bartender topped it off with Makers Mark.

After the bartender left, Wallach added, “You can tell her I liked bourbon – don’t all marines? But always in moderation.” He held up his shot glass to the light, to admire the caramel color of its contents. “God, I miss this stuff.”

Reagan thought about pinching himself to see if he could wake himself up.

“It’s tough, isn’t it?” Wallach said. “Losing your innocence. Your first drinking binge, your first woman, the first time you kill a man. The first time you see a dead body, mutilated. You spend the rest of your life trying to get that innocence back.”

Reagan took a sip from the second bourbon he couldn’t remember ordering. Such were dreams.

“It wasn’t your fault, you know?” Wallach said. “They came out of nowhere, while I was running a message from our position to the unit on our right flank. The area was supposed to be secure.” Wallach paused. “They gagged me and put a sack over my head. They marched me for a while. I don’t know, maybe an hour, maybe it was two. Funny how the passage of time is more difficult to measure without eyesight.”

Reagan nodded.

“They worked me over pretty good, once we stopped. But you know that.”

Reagan nodded again.

“It hurt, what they did. The torture. Funny thing about pain though. At some point everything hurts so much that each new pain they inflict, you don’t feel it. Maybe it’s because you’re on overload.”

“Maybe it’s because you were in shock,” Reagan said.

“Yeah, maybe. I never thought of that. Makes sense.” And then: “That last thing they did to me? It was almost a relief, because I knew they were done with me.”

“Jeesus.”

“I was a good marine, right to the end. Never cried, never begged for mercy. Wouldn’t give them the satisfaction.”

“That’s good, Tom. I’m proud of you.” Because he didn’t know what else to say.

“So you’ll look in on her?”

“I don’t know, Tom.”

“Her name is Mimi. Believe it or not, it’s a popular Arabic name. Gretchen and I wanted to give her a connection to that area of the world, as if we could somehow bridge cultures, bring a little peace to the planet.” Wallach allowed himself the luxury of a chuckle. “We later learned its meaning is ‘uncertain, maybe bitter.’ I guess it was apropos after all.”

“I’m sure she’s anything but bitter, Tom.”

“No, she’s not,” Wallach said, and Reagan wondered how he knew. “So what do you say, buddy?” Wallach added.

Reagan cringed. They were never buddies while Wallach was alive.

But we’re drinking buddies now, he thought. In my dreams.

“I don’t know, Tom,” Reagan said a second time. He wondered if Mimi would care, if she even thought about the daddy she never knew.

“She cares,” Wallach said. “She thinks of me more than she should. I don’t have to tell you how that makes me feel.”

“How would I even find her?”

“You won’t have to look too hard,” Wallach said, knowingly. “Re­member, she’s in Ann Arbor. One more thing I want you to tell her,” he added.

“What’s that?”

“Tell her that my last thoughts were of her.”

Reagan nodded yet again thinking, Funny, how when I’m awake I’m never at a loss for words. But in my dreams, I got nothing to say.

“Reagan.” Wallach put his arm around Reagan.

“Yeah?”

“You’ve been a good friend. But you’ve got to let go. For your own good. For your future happiness.”

Tom Wallach held up the shot glass again and, after a moment, he downed the Makers in a single gulp.

“God, that’s good,” he said. Then he looked at Reagan and said, “Semper fi.”

Reagan grappled with that. Before he could voice his confusion, Wallach told him, “You can remain loyal, you know, and still let go.”

Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000035_00026]

Coming this fall, from Second Wind Publishing

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A World Without Music Excerpt—J. Conrad Guest

Sarah hung, naked, bound to a gibbet by iron spikes through her hands and feet. Beneath her a woman knelt, her face streaked by tears. She knew this woman as Mother. Sarah called down to her in Hebrew, her voice masculine, “Woman, behold, your son.” Then, to John, her favorite, who stood near to her, she said, “Behold your mother.”

J. Conrad Guest

J. Conrad Guest

Beside this woman knelt her sister – Mary, wife of Clopas. Behind them another woman wept; at one time she sold her body for money. Sarah thought it strange that she had at one time desired this woman’s flesh. But Sarah knew that she’d never take that which the woman would freely have given. Her face upturned, the woman seemed intent on experiencing Sarah’s agony through her eyes. Sarah had witnessed such pain reflected in the eyes of only one other person – Reagan. But she’d never known the source of his ache, and that pained her.

To her right, where a criminal also hung from a gibbet, Sarah heard words of rebuke directed to another criminal, hanging from a gibbet to her left.

Sarah spoke: “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.” The words and the voice belonged to another.

Nearby, a group of Roman centurions with spears made sport of her shriveled nakedness. The earth rumbled and shook, and they at once lost their humor.

Sarah’s arms, outstretched to either side of her, bore most of her weight. It was becoming more and more difficult for her to exhale. Each breath she took filled her lungs a little more. They were, as her sixth hour on the gibbet neared, filled all but to capacity with carbon dioxide; she was slowly suffocating.

She looked to the darkened sky, where lightning flashed; a clap of thunder echoed, and a moment later large drops of rain began pelting the earth, kicking up dust.

The rain moistened her lips and she whispered, “I thirst.”

A sponge was thrust in front of her face, from which she sucked vinegar.

Her vision dimmed. After long minutes, she felt a searing pain in her side: one of the centurions had thrust his spear into her, to speed her death. She cried out, “My Power, my Power, thou hast forsaken me!”

As she felt the last vestiges of her strength abandoning her, she gasped, “It is finished.”

Then, in a loud voice, she spoke: “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”

But Sarah did not die. She withdrew into herself, to call upon the healing Power.

She was dimly conscious of being lowered to the ground, and then wrapped in cloth. Although the hands treated her broken and bleeding body with care, its wounds screamed their outrage. She slowed her breathing, so shallow as to be undetectable; she ignored the pain.

She was moved and, after a time, felt her body laid on a bed of rock.

For more than a day and a half Sarah endeavored to heal herself, summoning the influence of the One Power.

First, the gaping wound in her right side; the spear had perforated a lung. She felt the tissue knitting slowly, over a period of many hours. When the healing was complete, the scar was pale but visible.

Sarah rested for a time, before tending to the wounds in her hands and feet, closing each one, also leaving the scars as a reminder.

Then she turned the Power to the bruises and deep lacerations on her back and chest; finally, to those on her head and face.

On the third day Sarah emerged from the cloth that swaddled her. She stood, calling on the great strength of the Power, and moved the rock that shielded her from the morning light. Terrified by her emergence, the two centurions charged with guarding her tomb fled in haste.

Forty days later, Sarah left this body. Those in attendance saw her essence step forth and rise from the flesh it wore. She turned to look at the host body she had inhabited for three years, wondering if he would take Magdalene for his wife.

Then she stepped forward, and …

***

As Aurelius Augustinus Hipponensis, she converted to Christianity in AD 387 and influenced the development of Western Christianity. She developed her own approach to philosophy and theology, writing that the grace of Christ was indispensable to human freedom.

When the Western Roman Empire began to crumble, Sarah originated the concept of the Catholic Church as a spiritual City of God, separate from the material Earthly City.

Before leaving Augustinus, who would one day be elevated to sainthood, Sarah had the satisfaction of persuading the medieval worldview of God, while her book, City of God, became closely identified with the Church.

***

Next, she found herself in the body of Johann Sebastian Bach. Aged ten years, Johann Sebastian lived with his oldest brother, Johann Christoph, who was the organist at the Michaeliskirche in Ohrdruf, Saxe-Gotha-Altenburg. They studied and performed music, Sebastian and Sarah, receiving valuable teaching from Christoph, who instructed them on the clavichord and exposed them to the works of the great composers of the day, including South German composers Johann Pachelbel and Johann Jakob Froberger, Frenchmen Jean-Baptiste Lully, Lewis Marchand, and Marin Marais, and the Italian clavierist, Girolamo Frescobaldi. Sarah became obsessed with music, and the power it held in influencing, inspiring, others.

At age fourteen, they were awarded a choral scholarship to study at the prestigious St. Michael’s School in Lüneburg, where they enjoyed European culture. In addition to singing in the choir, they played the School’s three-manual organ and harpsichords.

Sarah left Johann Sebastian Bach as he came of age …

***

The Continental Congress met in Philadelphia, to vote for independence from England. The Congress selected a committee of five to draft a declaration of independence. The four other members of the committee – John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Robert R. Livingston, and Roger Sherman – instructed Sarah to pen the treatise.

She commenced her task on June 11 and wrote several drafts, presenting her final to the committee; the committee made several revisions to the document before submitting it to the Continental Congress on June 28. Four days later, the Congress voted for independence, and refined Sarah’s Declaration of Independence before releasing it to the public on July 4, 1776.

Several days later, as her host body lay sleeping, she stepped out – her host, who regarded music as “a delightful recreation for the hours of respite from the cares of the day, and lasts us through life,” was devoted to the violin (they practiced three hours a day), would live another fifty years, and have no recollection of Sarah whatsoever, that her presence was in part responsible for the birth of a nation and his presidency, the nation’s third – and forward, and …

***

As Jazz composer and pianist, Thelonious Monk, Sarah sat in on the 1956 recording session for the album, Brilliant Corners. The title track, which featured tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins, was so difficult to play that the final version was edited together from multiple takes. She experienced Monk’s six-month gig at the Five Spot Cafe in New York, beginning in June 1957, leading a quartet composed of John Coltrane on tenor saxophone, Wilbur Ware on bass, and Shadow Wilson on drums.

But Monk’s mental health left her unable to ascertain the answer to the question that plagued her, just beneath her awareness of the lives of those she’d shared. So she stepped forward again, and …

 

Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000035_00026]

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Get Me to the Church On Time—J. Conrad Guest

J. Conrad and new wife, Colleen

J. Conrad and new wife, Colleen

“I got to get there in the morning;
ding, ding, dong, they’re gonna chime.
Kick up a rumpus, don’t lose your compass.
Get me to the church, get me to the church …
Pete’s sake, get me to the church on time.”

Frederick Loewe, Alan Jay Lerner

 

Like marriage, no wedding is perfect. In fact, like imperfections that often draw us to someone—a lopsided smile for example, dimples, a tiny mole perhaps—a wedding in which all does not go according to plan results in lasting impressions that will in time create memories of grand warmth. Our wedding—mine and Colleen’s—left us with several such lasting impressions.

The photographer stopped by the house at eleven o’clock to take pictures of my shoes, cufflinks, my jacket on a hanger and, eventually, me in my tux; Colleen had left for her makeup and hair appointment. I wouldn’t see her again until she came down the aisle. After he left, I took the box bearing our unity cross, a two-piece cross that Colleen and I would assemble during our wedding ceremony to represent the two of us becoming one, along with the marriage license and Colleen’s ring (in a black box) out to the car. I placed them all in the backseat—the license (an original and two copies in a manila folder) on top of the box that bore our unity cross, and the ring box on top of that. Then I went back into the house for a final bio stop and to check myself out in a mirror.

A few minutes later, Rory, at age thirty-one Colleen’s youngest son, and I got into the car and proceeded to start for Mark’s place. Mark is my best man. He and I go back to the days when our ages were single digits. Rory had flown in from L.A. to, in the absence of Colleen’s father, give away the bride.

Halfway down the street, I looked on the dashboard for the ring: it wasn’t there. I patted myself down; no ring. After a moment of panic, I recalled where I’d put it. I called to Rory, who was in the backseat with our jackets, the unity cross, and the marriage license, to confirm the ring’s presence.

“Nope,” he told me after a moment. “Not here.”

Hard braking, I wheeled the car around and went back to the house to get the ring. After spending twenty minutes looking everywhere I could think to look—several times—with no luck finding it, I called the photographer thinking that maybe he’d grabbed the box inadvertently when he picked up his gear. He hadn’t. I checked everywhere a third time, under my bed, under the dresser, in the closet, the bathroom, the trashcan, even the bushes outside the front door. Then I asked Rory to check the car again while I called Mark.

“Houston, we have a problem,” I told him.

“What’s that?” he asked.

“I can’t find the ring.”

We spent the next few minutes retracing my steps of the morning—that is after I’d, as my dad used to say, shit, showered, shaved and shined my shoes—to see if we could jog my memory. We failed.

“What size ring does Colleen wear?” he asked.

“Four and a half.”

“Not a problem,” Mark said. “Kim wears a four.” Kim is Mark’s wife of thirty-six years. She was arriving later for the ceremony, driving separately from Mark. “That should work for the ceremony. Worry about your ring later. It’s someplace in the house, right?”

“Right,” I said. But I wasn’t certain. The only thing of which I was certain was that Colleen would not be pleased with me for losing her ring. Rings, with an “s.” She’d placed her engagement ring in the box. When the time came for me to place the ring on her finger, I’d place the wedding band on first and then the engagement ring.

So Rory and I piled back into the car and started for the second time to pick up Mark. A minute later, Rory handed me the black ring box from the backseat.

“Black box,” he said, “on black upholstery. It must’ve slipped onto the seat when we hung up our jackets.”

We got to Mark’s place and I told him we were good on the ring. “It was in the backseat all along. Black box, black upholstery. We missed seeing it three times.”

“Good news indeed.”

“My colon agrees, and I’m sure Kim will be so pleased to keep her ring.”

Mark chuckled.

“Do you have Nick’s phone number on your cell?” I asked.

I don’t own a cell phone. But Colleen thinks I should have one even though I don’t like them, so that will change after we’re married. The things we do for love. Nick is the pastor we selected for our ceremony. Mark and I were supposed to meet him at the church at noon. We’re already late and, with I-96 closed until October for road repair, easily thirty minutes away by surface streets.

“Yeah,” Mark told me.

“Dial him up and tell him we’re running behind.”

A minute later I hear Mark leave Nick a voicemail: “I’m with Joe and Rory. We’re a little late and will be there …” he glanced at his watch, “about twelve-thirty-ish.” After he broke the connection, he told me, “Twelve-thirty-ish I figure buys us up to twelve-forty.”

“Good thinking.” It seems I chose my best man wisely.

I picked up our speed, hoping to make the next light, thinking (in a poor Scottish accent), I’m giving her all she’s got, Captain. We made the light but missed the next two before we made the next one. I tried to time the lights, a practice Mark loathed whenever he rode with me when we were kids. It was a story he shared with Colleen upon meeting her for the first time. “He’d drive twenty-eight miles an hour in a thirty-five mile an hour zone so he wouldn’t have to stop at the red lights. I used to hate that.” Timing the lights here didn’t work, so I threw all caution to the wind and just picked up my speed whenever I could, risking five to ten miles an hour over the speed limit, which seemed to work better.

We arrived about 12:35; guests had been arriving for a few minutes. I greeted Colleen’s family—those I’ve met—most of whom have come from Chicago, and my own family, and a few minutes later, the ceremony started.

A couple weeks earlier, Nick had asked Colleen and me to each send him a few words describing our first meeting, our courtship, and how I proposed. He planned to use each of our perspectives in the ceremony. So we, along with our guests, listened as he described how I was taken, the first time I met Colleen, by her auburn hair, emerald eyes, and beautiful smile.

A few minutes later, Colleen and I exchanged the vows we’d written for each other. These went off without a hitch and we later learned that there wasn’t a dry eye in the chapel. Afterward, I heard Nick say something about Colleen’s “emerald hair.” Sheesh, I thought. If I heard it, then surely our guests heard it, and it’s captured on video now, too. So I turned to Nick and in a stage whisper said, “Auburn.” Nick laughed, as did family and friends (it’s a small chapel), and he corrected himself and went on.

After Nick pronounced us husband and wife, he told me that I was free to kiss my wife. Afterward, he presented us to the congregation as, “Mr. and Mrs. Guest,” and I asked him, “Does that mean we can change our Facebook statuses?”

Another woman might’ve been angry with my levity; but Colleen isn’t another woman. I’d dated women who turned out to be Miss Wrong, and others who maybe weren’t Miss Wrong but certainly weren’t Miss Right. I learned a few weeks after meeting her that Colleen was a keeper. Colleen laughed, as did everyone who witnessed our marriage, and today, as I sit typing these words a week later, I’m happy to call Colleen, “My wife.”

J. Conrad Guest, author of: 500 Miles To GoA Retrospect In Death, A World Without Music (forthcoming), Backstop: A Baseball Love Story In Nine InningsJanuary’s ParadigmJanuary’s Thaw, and One Hot January

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And They Say You Can Never Go Home — J. Conrad Guest

Plato’s Place, home of the best Coney dogs, best chili, and best fries I’ve ever had. Of course, I could be looking back through the mists of time with rose-colored glasses to a time when, after rehearsals for one of a variety of community theatre productions in which I participated as an actor, cast and crew retired to Plato’s for a late evening bite and brew. For some reason we always pronounced it with a short “a” sound: “Plah-tos.”

J. Conrad Guest (photo courtesy of Sommerville Photographie)

J. Conrad Guest
(photo courtesy of Sommerville Photographie)

I recall the first time I took a friend and his girlfriend to Plato’s: we came in through the back entrance and, as we passed the kitchen, we saw a young kid peeling potatoes that were destined to become French fries. I told my friend the kid was a member of the Potato Peelers Union. If his girl hadn’t laughed, I think he might’ve believed me. I was then twenty-one or twenty-two, which left him eighteen or nineteen. I thought I was so experienced then, and wise. But I would always be three years older and wiser than my friend. As for his girl, she was two years my junior, and it was many years too late before we learned the truth: that we each thought the other out of our league. By then I was sure I could never live up to her expectations of what she’d had twenty years to build up in her mind. That was ten years ago and even now I’m not sure it was wisdom that led me to that conclusion, or cowardice. But it matters little now, except to the writer in me who seeks closure, a tying up of loose ends, because I met my pearl a little more than two years ago.

A few minutes later our bowls of chili were set before us. I stirred into mine a quarter tablespoon of red chili pepper. Not to be outdone, my friend spooned in two heaping tablespoons. I shared a knowing glance with his girl, which my friend didn’t miss. “What?” he said. “Go easy on that stuff,” I said. He waved me aside, the kind of guy who jumps from an airplane at ten thousand feet and, when his chute fails to deploy, lands on the ground in a cloud of dust and hops up to proclaim, “I’m okay.” Like Wile E. Coyote, he’d simply walk off the accordion effects of that sudden stop.

We watched, his girl and I did, as the first spoonful of chili went in. From the look on his face we could tell he knew he was in trouble; but he wasn’t about to let us know. A second spoonful, and the fireworks hit: first the tears, then the emptying of his water glass, then his girl’s. Grinning from ear to ear, I held onto my glass. By now sweat had broken out on his face as he wiped at the tears and waved at the waitress for more water. It was a moment I delighted in reminding him about over the years, until the friendship came to its unceremonious ending a little more than a decade ago.

After I married, I left Garden City and hadn’t been back to Plato’s Place since. It was nothing personal against the owners — a young Greek and his nephew — I just never seemed to get to that neck of the woods, especially after my parents passed away.

My first marriage failed, followed by another relocation, again to a locale that wasn’t convenient to Plato’s. But I’m getting married at the end of this month, for the second time but to a different woman (thankfully), and in commuting from my place to hers I pass Plato’s, now moved to a new location down the street from the old location and a few miles from what will be our home. I was determined, after a nearly twenty-year hiatus, to check-out the new locale, to see if Andy the Greek and his nephew still ran the place, and whether the food was just as good as I recalled.

I walked in and saw Andy behind the till taking money from one of his patrons. He looked shorter than I recalled, but that was likely the result of that little extra weight we all seem to put on after a certain age. The tightly curled black hair of his youth — wild and unkempt, it resembled what was once known as an Afro — was still black and curly, but now it was close cropped, probably in deference to that horseshoe thing he had going. The tight Mike Stivic jeans of his youth were much looser and sat a little lower on his hips; but the face was the same: a little older, a little rounder. Still, it seemed the face of a life well-lived. I smiled to myself and asked a passing waitress if I could sit where I chose. She smiled at me and nodded.

I sat down in a booth in front of the cash register and to its right, hoping to make eye contact with Andy and wondering if he might remember me, my face if not my name. My forehead back then was less spacious, and my hair much darker. That glimmer of youth in my eye that spoke of a certainty that I was destined not to get out of this life unnoticed had long since been replaced by something else, by what I’m not sure. Like most of us, I think I’ve aged rather well. But then, the mirror that reflects our image daily often lies simply because the changes we see appear gradually. I share the same birth date with Carrie Fisher of Star Wars fame, and she likely would look at me and tell herself she’s aged much better than I have, even if she can no longer fit into that Return of the Jedi bikini.

After giving the woman her change, Andy closed the register and, as she walked away, looked over to me. There was no double-take on his part, as there often is between two people who’ve not seen each other for decades, no questioning look of “Don’t I know you?” A smile came to his mouth, he stepped out from behind the register and walked over to my table. I rose to offer my hand, which he took, and I told him my name, at which he nodded. Whether the nod was one of affirmation or something else, I couldn’t tell. He then joined me at my table for a few minutes where we each brought the other up to date in our lives. Yes, they still peeled their potatoes in the back room prior to slicing them for the deep fryer. I told him that I’ve had several novels published and he promised to check them out on Amazon.

Eventually my chili, Coney and fries were brought, and I was pleased to find they all tasted as good as I recalled, maybe better, and I’m resolved to bring my fiancée back, or maybe my wife.

So maybe you can’t go home — I’ve driven past the house in which I grew up several times since my dad passed away sixteen years ago to find the neighborhood smaller, the curtains on “our” house replaced by vertical blinds, the living room wallpaper torn down for paint, and the landscaping vastly different — but my Plato’s homecoming was close.

J. Conrad Guest, author of: 500 Miles To GoA Retrospect In Death, Backstop: A Baseball Love Story In Nine InningsJanuary’s ParadigmJanuary’s ThawOne Hot Januaryand A World Without Music (forthcoming)

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A World Without Music—J. Conrad Guest

Ah, the dance. What men and women put each other—and themselves—through during the mating ritual. But in this scene, who is leading?

This could be one of the most revised and reworked scenes I’ve ever written, a line or two added here and there increases the sexual tension between the two characters. Much that started as Reagan’s introspection—such as the Mr. Rogers narration—was turned into dialogue, I think to good effect, adding to the repartee. Overall, the reader is left to infer the sincerity of the much younger Rosary’s come on to a forty-something Reagan. Not so surprising, this scene has become one of my favorites for the give and take of the dialogue, interspersed with brief interludes of introspection, exchanged glances, sipped drinks, etc.

J. Conrad Guest (photo courtesy of Sommerville Photographie)

J. Conrad Guest
(photo courtesy of Sommerville Photographie)

***

Reagan sat at the bar in Gotham City, an Ann Arbor nightclub, sipping his club soda, when a young woman sidled up beside him to order an Oberon, a rather mild-tasting microbrew from Bell’s Brewery in Kalamazoo. Reagan had noticed her earlier, from onstage: long legs in slate satin slacks. While she waited for the bartender to draw her brew, she turned to Reagan.

“I’m Rosary. Rosary Bellamy. Bellamy’s French for ‘beautiful friend.’ Can I be your beautiful friend?”

Reagan looked at her – she was very pretty, even if she was a touch arrogant, with blue eyes and blond hair, and rather large breasts that he guessed had been surgically enhanced. Unlike many men, he didn’t mind breast implants, as long as they weren’t oversized and so firm that they didn’t shake, bounce or wobble.

“Weebles wobble but they don’t fall down,” he said.

Rosary cocked her head but withheld a query. A moment later she smiled, leaving Reagan to wonder if she might not be the prototypical model for the proverbial blonde jokes that never seemed to go out of vogue.

Reagan grinned. “You don’t sound at all like Fred Rogers.”

“Who’s he?”

And Reagan was forced to reassess anew her blonde status.

“A T.V. personality. Used to have a kids’ show, Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood. Said things like, ‘Won’t you be my friend?’”

“I never watched kids’ T.V. as a kid.”

Reagan laughed. “But you do as an adult?”

“No.”

Reagan was relieved that Rosary didn’t seem annoyed by his repartee. If anything, her smile indicated amusement, and her eyes, glowing warmly, their pupils irised wide open, apparently liked what they saw. So he continued.

“Fred was rumored to be a former Navy SEAL, combat-proven in Vietnam as a sniper with more than twenty-five confirmed kills, that his long-sleeved sweaters covered a host of tattoos on his forearms and biceps, and that he was a master in small arms and hand-to-hand combat, able to disarm or kill in a heartbeat.”

“A real life Rambo, huh?”

Reagan chuckled. Not only did Rosary have a killer diller body, she had a sense of humor, too. They could laugh together between screwing sessions.

“Not in the least,” he said. “Fred graduated college with a degree in music before becoming an ordained minister. His broadcast career lasted for nearly fifty years. He devoted his life to educating and bettering the lives of children because, sure, he knew he could.”

“I take it you grew up watching Mr. Rogers.”

Reagan waved his nearly empty glass of club soda. “Nah. I read an item that surfaced on the Internet about him shortly after he died. I spend far too much time surfing the Information Highway.” A mischievous glint shone in Rosary’s eye, and he wondered if she might be thinking what he was thinking.

“Rosary, eh?” he said, derailing a desire to ski the slippery slopes of her breasts. “Beautiful name. One I’ve never heard before.”

“I’m Catholic.”

Reagan laughed at the innocence of her statement. “No kidding?”

“I hated it as a child, for all the ridicule it drew. But I like it now – and don’t worry, I left my Catholic upbringing at the bedroom door.” When Reagan didn’t reply, she added, “What’s your name?”

“Reagan.” Wait for it, he thought.

“What a strange name.”

There it is!

“The actor who would be president. I have my father to thank, ‘thankyouverymuch.’”

Rosary laughed. “You do a good Elvis.”

Reagan nodded and returned his attention to his club soda, taking a sip.

To fill the silence between them, Rosary added, “I’d like to thank him, too, for doing such good work. When can I meet him?”

Reagan thought her question invasive, but he kept his umbrage to himself. “You can’t,” he said. “He’s been dead twenty years.”

“Mom?”

Reagan shook his head.

“You poor man. All alone in the world.”

“I’m a big boy.”

“Ooh, do I know how to pick ’em, or do I know how to pick ’em?”

Reagan thought she sounded more than a little like Mae West; but because of the Fred Rogers incident, he kept his comparison to himself.

“Anyway,” Rosary added when Reagan said nothing, “I like it – your name. It’s sophisticated. Intellectual.”

“Careful. You sound rather elitist. You can’t know anything about my level of intellect or sophistication.”

Rosary ignored Reagan’s self-deprecation: “Tell me something about you I don’t know.”

Reagan laughed. “We’ve only just met. You don’t know anything about me.”

“Then tell me a secret.”

Reagan lost his humor. “Tom Waits sings, in ‘Tango Till They’re Sore,’ ‘I tell you all my secrets, but I lie about my past.’”

“So you have a checkered past.”

“Not what I said.”

Rosary peered intently at Reagan. “Aren’t you going to tell me a secret?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“Then it wouldn’t be a secret.”

“It would be our secret.”

“How do I know it would remain our secret?”

“You see? You just told me a secret – you have trust issues.”

“That’s no secret.” Staring at Rosary’s breasts through the mirror behind the bar, Reagan was uncomfortable with the jousting. He shifted on his barstool and cursed the monster in his pants.

“But it’s something you prefer I not know.”

Reagan only shrugged to show his indifference.

“So it’s your band,” Rosary said.

Reagan nodded, relieved by the subject change.

“I’ve seen you play at LIVE.”

“Ah, a groupie.”

Rosary wasn’t to be put off: “You play a mean bass – fat and very funked up.”

“Thanks,” he said.

“You’re cute, too.”

Reagan rolled his eyes. “Puppies are cute.”

“I was afraid to tell you that I think you’re very handsome for fear it would go to your head.”

“You mean for a man of a certain age.”

Rosary offered him a smile. “I like older men.”

Reagan liked her smile, among other body parts. “I’m flattered.” After a moment, to fill the silence, he added, “Is this a come on?”

“That depends.”

“On what?”

“On your availability.”

“Alas, I have a girl.”

“Where is she?” Rosary took a perfunctory glance around the bar.

“Back home.” Reagan left unsaid that home, for Cam, was in far away Alabama.

“She must either trust you, or she’s a fool for letting you out of the house alone.”

Reagan considered taking up Rosary’s offer. It wouldn’t be the first time he’d had a one-night affair with a woman he’d met at a gig – it helped him sleep at night, to avoid the nightmare – but he quickly discounted it. While he hadn’t yet met Cam, and didn’t know what the future might hold with her, he didn’t want to diminish, if only in his own eyes, the esteem with which she held him – or his perspective of that esteem. He chuckled, recalling Prisco’s diatribe on “perspective.”

“I’m flattered,” he said. An image of Rosary easing her satin slacks down over her hips, letting them drop to the floor to reveal a succulent ass and dangerous legs played across the movie screen in this mind, in Blu-Ray. He pushed it away. “Really.”

“You said that already.” Rosary sounded hopeful.

“But no thanks.”

Rosary looked disappointed as she paid for her Oberon.

Reagan always hated beautiful women who bore disappointment on their faces, especially when he’d been the cause of their disappointment. Hazarding a glance at her breasts, snug in the tight top she wore, the heart-shaped pendant hanging from a necklace nestled in her cleavage, he felt himself respond and briefly reconsidered.

Don’t go there, he told himself.

Instead, he said, “Well, maybe I’ll see you around town, at another gig.”

Rosary brightened, and Reagan immediately despised himself for giving her false hope.

Still, pretty as she was, and with her bodacious fun bags, Reagan knew she would never be at a loss to find someone to pound her pussy. He imagined a tight fit, but oh what a slippery ride she would be …

“I’ll take you up on that,” Rosary said, smiling seductively, as if she might be privy to his thoughts, and then left with her Oberon.

Reagan watched Rosary depart, her backside looking oh so inviting in the gray slacks she wore, and felt himself begin to sink into that dark place. Although he hadn’t confessed his nightmares to Cam, or more accurately their cause, their discussion had brought it to the forefront of his consciousness – not that it was ever far from the forefront – and so he feared what the night held in store for him … alone. In the dark.

He regretted not taking up Rosary on her offer – her legs, long and shapely, her thighs pleasingly pillowy, he knew would do wonders to keep at bay his bête noir – knowing any guilt he might feel over his perceived infidelity in the aftermath would pale beside what lay in wait to haunt his sleeping hours.

J. Conrad Guest, author of: 500 Miles To Go, A Retrospect In Death,Backstop: A Baseball Love Story In Nine Innings, January’s Thaw, and One Hot January

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This Month, a Baseball Rant—J. Conrad Guest

Make no mistake, I love the game of baseball. As a youth I dreamed of playing professional ball. Alas, it was not to be, and I’ve spent the rest of my life chasing other dreams.

Photo courtesy of Sommerville Photographie

Photo courtesy of Sommerville Photographie

A few days before the new season started, it was announced that my Detroit Tigers had signed the game’s premier hitter, Miguel Cabrera, to a contract extension that likely will keep the old English D on the front of his jersey for the remainder of his career. The cost to keep him in Detroit for the next eight years: $292 million. I read somewhere that that amounts to $48,000 per plate appearance, for playing a kid’s game. A few days later, the Angels signed Mike Trout to a six-year contract extension worth a reported $144.5 million, after which he reportedly stated he was pleased with the amount of money because it represented security.

I’m old enough to remember when Pete Rose signed a deal with the Cincinnati Reds for $750,000, only to sign with the Philadelphia Phillies a few years later for $3 million. If the standard of that bygone era was an obscene amount, to what does $31 million year amount? Most of us will work close to half a century and never earn $31 million for our life’s work.

What price can one put on security? In today’s economy, is three month’s worth of savings enough to provide security should one lose their job? If only one percent of a MLB player’s career spans twenty years—the average career lasts but 5.6 years—is any ballplayer worth $31 million dollars a year?

There was a time, prior to the players association, that the owners took advantage of ballplayers, to the point they, well, pretty much “owned” them. The players deserved a larger share of the gate; after all, without them, the owners wouldn’t have a product to peddle. But most players held jobs in the offseason, tending bar or doing menial labor. After they retired, they worked other jobs.

Ty Cobb, the game’s first super star, played 24 years of baseball between 1905 and 1928. In 1927, after leaving the Tigers, Cobb signed with the Philadelphia Athletics, earning $85,000—more than 12 times the average player’s salary at the time. Accounting for inflation, Cobb would earn $1.14 million a year for playing in today’s game—a steal considering he still holds a number of baseball records.

Yet Cobb never got rich playing ball. He amassed his fortune investing in General Motors and Coca Cola. At the time of his death in 1961, Cobb was worth $12.1 million. That’s equal to $94 million in 2013 inflation adjusted dollars.

In his will, Cobb set aside a quarter of his empire to establish the Cobb Educational Foundation of Atlanta,which has, as of July 2013, awarded more than $15 million in college scholarships to tens of thousands of poor kids in Georgia. He also donated a large portion of his Coca-Cola shares to build the Ty Cobb Healthcare System, which today is composed of eight full service hospitals and care facilities throughout Georgia. Residents of Royston, Georgia refer to Cobb Memorial as “The hospital that was built with a bat.”

I try not to lose myself in the petty squabbles between billionaire owners and millionaire players. If I did I’d likely stop watching the game, and I’m not willing to do that because it’s still a beautiful game, largely unchanged since the early part of the twentieth century, even if this year they expanded replay review. Football, with annual changes to the rules and what constitutes a catch or a penalty and instant replay, little resembles the game I grew up watching. The NHL eliminated the center line, added a trapezoid behind the goal, and changes from year to year what constitutes a penalty to create more scoring and protect the players from injury. Maybe there would be fewer injuries if they eliminated helmets because the players would show more respect for each other, like they did before helmets were mandatory; but that would slow down the game.

I understand the importance sports hold in our society. It provides a sense of community. During the Great Depression, America found baseball a distraction to its depression. But $31 million a year for playing a kid’s game? Who do you blame: the players for being greedy, or the owners for overspending to keep a player from jumping ship to another team? How about the television stations who overpay the league for broadcast rights? The fans for paying thousands of dollars for season tickets? Is blame even to be found? After all, I likely wouldn’t turn down a $31 million advance for my next novel if Second Wind could afford it. But I wonder if I could, in good conscience, accept that contract knowing that so many others work far harder for much less.

But the real reason for my April rant is this: when colleges and universities look to make budget cuts, it’s always the arts that suffer, never the sports programs. Are sports really more important than the arts? Truly, what is a society without culture?

Novels connect us to the past, both to writers who long ago passed away and to ways of life that are no more. Novels express feelings, ask “why?” or “why not?”, and define values and traditions. They communicate ideas, and some novels do nothing short of change the world. I recently read a Facebook post that put forth the notion: If reading bores you, you’re not doing it right.

Without art, a culture erases its own future history.

More and more Americans today confess to not reading novels, even while they admit to enjoying reading. I don’t know about you, but I find time to do the activities I enjoy.

J. Conrad Guest, author of: 500 Miles To GoA Retrospect In Death, Backstop: A Baseball Love Story In Nine InningsJanuary’s Thaw, and One Hot January

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Sandlot — J. Conrad Guest

With the start of the baseball season a couple of weeks away, I thought I’d share this short story I wrote more than five years ago. It appeared in an online e-zine, and from it was born my fourth novel, Backstop: A Baseball Love Story in Nine Innings. It’s interesting, these many years later, to note how the protagonist evolved.

J. Conrad Guest (photo courtesy of Sommerville Photographie)

J. Conrad Guest
(photo courtesy of Sommerville Photographie)

***

 “Hey, Buzz, what happened out there today?”

Eighteen years in the majors and I still don’t like tape recorders pushed into my face after a game, especially not after a loss, and not when I’m heading for the shower with a bar of soap wearing nothing but a towel, and that draped over my shoulder. I’ve gotten used to it I suppose; it goes with the game, but I don’t have to like it.

“I fouled out to end the game,” I said into the recorder. “I stranded the winning runs on base and we lost the game.”

“A few years ago that wouldn’t have happened, right? You’d have brought those two runners home, wouldn’t you?”

He was baiting me I knew, this kid reporter trying to make a name for himself in the local paper, looking for a quote from the colorful veteran. I’ve never considered myself colorful. I’ve always just wanted to play ball. I don’t think of myself as outspoken, but I say what’s on my mind; sometimes, when I’m quoted in the morning paper, they somehow manage to make me sound erudite. Most of the time I find it amusing.

I looked at his press badge, pressed it, and asked him what was supposed to happen. He didn’t get it. I decided against explaining. You could say I was in a foul mood.

“Yeah,” I said, “and last night I hit a three-run shot to extend our lead. So what the game wasn’t on the line in the third inning.”

All the reporter did was stare at me. Somehow he knew I wasn’t yet done. Maybe it was because I’d sat down on the bench. I let out a long audible sigh.

“Look, what do you want from me, a scoop? You want me to tell you I’m washed up, finished? That this is my last year?”

The kid sat down on the bench across from me and I thought back to a similar discussion I’d had with my dad twenty-five years ago, when I was playing ball in high school…

“Look, what do you want from me?” I asked. 

“I want you to come to your senses,” Dad said. “Major league baseball, that’s a pipe dream.” 

Both Dad and Mom wanted what was best for me, and they both thought they knew what best was: they wanted me to play it safe — learn a trade or get a degree and spend the next forty years working nine to five for someone else. I saw that as a sentence, one that would end up with me, at age sixty-five, regretting that I’d never even tried, disgusted with myself that I’d given up my dream, sans the pipe, for what my parents had wanted for me. 

“I’m going to college, and I’ll get a degree” I said, “but I want to play baseball.” 

“But major league baseball —” 

“Is for a lucky few,” I finished for him. We’d had this discussion before. “Well who’s to say I won’t be among those lucky few? Guys get paid millions for hitting a meager .250. A few seeing-eye ground balls and bloop singles here and there over the course of a season spell the difference between mediocrity and superstardom. I’ve got some talent, Dad, and I’m hard-working. I can hit a curve ball, and if I can learn to lay off the high inside fastball I’ll be able to work a count. I’ve a pretty good glove, too. After my playing days are over, maybe I’ll end up managing, or maybe in a booth doing color. If I don’t make it, well, then I’ll have my degree to fall back on.”

I recalled Ty Cobb. His father hadn’t approved of his son’s dream either; but when he realized Ty had his heart set on playing baseball, he told him not to come home a failure. A couple weeks before the Detroit Tigers called Ty to the show, William Cobb was shot dead by his wife, who claimed she thought he was a burglar. Maybe that’s what drove Ty Cobb to become the demon he was on the diamond: that his father never got to see him play.

Dad said nothing to me after I’d made it to the show; he died the year before I was drafted. Maybe that was as much the reason I continued to play well into the twilight of my career.

Baseball is a humbling game. Trust me, I know. I was drafted… well let’s just say I wasn’t taken early. I spent a year in the minors; played solid defense at first base and hit well enough, for average and with above average power, to earn a good look the following year at spring training. I was fortunate that I had a good pre-season, so the team took me north. I worked my ass off to stay in the majors. I might not have Hall of Fame numbers, but I’ve rarely been cheated at the plate; sure I’ve had my share of oh-fers, but I’ve accumulated some three- and four-for-fours along the way, too, and a Gold Glove to boot. I haven’t won a World Series — this might be the year although it’s still only June — and have been voted an All Star only twice, but I’m proud of my career. I’ve played the game the way it was meant to be played, with adolescent joy. I’ve put up numbers good enough to have played my entire career for the same team, a rarity in the modern era, and I’m thankful each and every day I take the field, which isn’t as often as it once was.

Maybe I should’ve gotten out of the game a couple of years ago, but thanks to the designated hitter rule — a rule I despised when I broke into the game and still loathe for the sake of the game (call me a purist) — I’m still playing, at age forty, this kid’s game that I love so much.

I learned long ago not to pay too much attention to what the press writes or says about me, for good or bad, or to listen when the fans boo me. They’re the same ones who’ll cheer me tomorrow. This game, as much mental as it is physical, is filled with ups and downs, and I’m hard enough on myself without trying to please the press or the gate, and I think that has helped my longevity as much as my work ethic.

I didn’t say any of this to the kid reporter who sat looking at me, wide-eyed. I sighed, stood up and took a few steps toward the showers. When I turned back, the kid was still looking at me, still hoping for a story.

Sportswriters, I thought wryly.

I tossed him, underhand, the bar of soap. He reached for it — it glanced off the heel of his hand and landed on the floor, bouncing once. He sat and I stood, each of us looking at the other. After a long uncomfortable moment, for him at least, he picked up the bar of soap and lobbed it back at me. I snatched it out of midair, rolled my eyes, and headed for the showers.

J. Conrad Guest, author of 500 Miles To GoA Retrospect In Death, Backstop: A Baseball Love Story In Nine InningsJanuary’s Thaw, and One Hot January 

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A World Without Music: Accepted for Publication—J. Conrad Guest

J. Conrad Guest

J. Conrad Guest

Some time ago I posted an excerpt from what was then a work in progress, A World Without Music, the story of a marine returning from the first Gulf War haunted by horrific images of the body of a marine he brought back from the desert. Reagan seeks refuge from his nightmares and broken marriage in a jazz quartet in which he plays bass guitar. Fifteen years elapse and he has a one-night affair with Rosary, a young woman he meets at one of his gigs. When his ex-wife Sarah looks into his life, they decide to reunite, and an incensed Rosary decides to get even with Reagan. With help from Tom Wallach’s ghost, the deceased marine Reagan discovered in the desert, and the daughter Wallach never met, Reagan must piece together the events that left Sarah comatose. A one sentence synopsis: Can a Gulf War veteran suffering PTSD finally leave behind his past to find the music that will make his life worth living?

I’ve since completed the novel and, after my lengthy revision process, Second Wind accepted it for publication in late 2014. My revisions include a complete rewrite of the prologue, which appears below. Those familiar with the first prologue will recognize this complete rewrite. Take comfort in that the original prologue appears, with minor revisions, later in the story.

Prologue

 1998

Reagan was on patrol in Kuwait, with five other marines fanned out to either side of him in a vee formation, when they came upon a tarp covering a body-sized object half-buried in the sand. The squad converged on the tarp and stood in a circle, fearing what—or who—they might find under the tarp. As squad leader, Reagan bent to pull back the tarp and …

Awoke with a start, drenched in perspiration. Rolling himself into a sitting position on the edge of his bed, he muttered, “Fuck.”

Reagan glanced at his clock radio—nearly half past six.

He made his way to the bathroom, where he splashed cold water onto his face; then he stood a moment to glance at his mirror’s image. Staring back at him, his eyes were as wide and filled with the mortification he recalled from Tom Wallach’s death stare.

From the bathroom, he made his way back to the bedroom. Removing the Glock 21 from the top shelf of the closet, he padded, barefoot, to the liquor cabinet in the dining room to get his bottle of Bookers. Full the night before when he’d brought it home from the liquor store, it was now nearly half-empty. Dropping into a chair at the table, opposite the door wall to his deck, Reagan considered the drapes, drawn closed against the rising sun. They were blue. Not in the tone or shade of a John Lee Hooker tune, or in the term one might use to describe their disposition to their physician when seeking medication for depression, which is really no color at all but a mood. Not a navy or a midnight blue; not a Miles Davis “Kind of Blue.” Not the blue that accompanies the maize in the University of Michigan school colors; not the blue eyes of a Siberian Husky or a sky blue; but a sapphire blue—neither annoyingly cheerful, nor that draws attention to itself and away from the other furnishings in the room—pleasant, soothing. They were a blue that complements both a morning cup of coffee or tea—although Reagan believed, as Oliver Wendell Holmes had written, that the morning cup of coffee has an exhilaration about it that the cheering influence of the afternoon or evening cup of tea cannot be expected to reproduce (Reagan had not been cheerful, not in the morning or any other time of day, for more years than he could recall)—as well as an early evening glass of bourbon. They were the color blue that invites one nearer, if only to draw them wider to admire the panoramic view on the other side of the glass or to let more Sunday morning light into the room, to chase away the previous night’s bête noire. The trouble was the beast could always be counted on to return the next night.

Reagan grunted. Since Sarah left, he’d been more and more prone to long and meaningless meanderings. He pulled the cork from the bottle of bourbon and took a long swallow of the honey-colored liquid, straight from the bottle. A moment later, he felt it warm his empty stomach. After taking a second hit, he turned his attention to the weapon on the table in front of him. Picking it up, he noted the coldness of its grip.

“You know, Tom,” he said to the emptiness of his morning, his enunciation still slurred courtesy of last night’s Bookers. “I have you to thank for what my life has become. Sarah’s gone, and I’m drinking more.” To prove his point, he took another draw from the Bookers bottle. “All because you won’t let me sleep at night. I did the right thing. What any good marine would’ve done. I brought you out of the desert. I made sure you got home, and this is the thanks I get. Eight years of you tormenting my sleep. You know, it’s not my fault you never got to meet your baby daughter, or never again got to hold your wife, kiss her, make love to her.”

Reagan put the Glock into his mouth, surprising himself that he hadn’t given it any thought beforehand. As if not thinking about it would make it easier for him to pull the trigger.

Can a weapon taste cold? he thought. No, but it certainly feels cold.

Reagan much preferred the taste of Bookers to that of the Glock. Not that the Glock tasted of anything; it certainly didn’t remind him of pizza or steak, or the carrot cake at Brighton Bar and Grille. He imagined the aftertaste would be somewhat metallic. But at that point, he’d be beyond caring.

Reagan didn’t pull the trigger. Not that morning, or any of the many previous mornings, afternoons, or evenings that he sat at his dining room table, Bookered up with his trusty Glock in his mouth. And he likely wouldn’t tomorrow or next week, or next month, or ever.

Am I courageous for not pulling the trigger, for keeping alive Wallach’s memory, for enduring his torment? Or am I simply a coward, fearing what might await me on the other side of the Great Divide, that such drastic action on my part might have negative repercussions from the Big Guy?

“Don’t you know?” he heard God’s voice say. “I never give anyone more than they can handle.”

“Really?” Reagan whispered into the darkness. “I always thought that was something someone made up to help them peddle their religion. If it’s true, that you never give anyone more than they can handle, how come so many people commit suicide?”

Reagan sighed, stood, and strode past the blue drapes, through the door wall and onto his deck, where he and his bottle of Bookers could watch the sun rise on another cheerless day.

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Young Love: 500 Miles to Go—J. Conrad Guest

Getting older certainly can be challenging, as our bodies begin to slow down—and sometimes betray us in ways we couldn’t have imagined when we were younger—but I’ve said it many times: I would never want to be young again. A few years ago that statement came with a caveat—not unless I could bring my wisdom from lessons learned with me. Now, with the world in the state it’s in, a multi-trillion dollar deficit that grows greater each day, a corrupt government, school shootings, terrorism, and more … well, let’s just say I don’t envy our youth. That doesn’t mean I don’t care about the tomorrow I will one day never see, I’m just more realistic about making a difference in the world.

When I first started writing 500 Miles to Go, I struggled during the early chapters, when Alex Król was a teen. It’s been many years since I’ve been a boy, and so I had to dig deep to find the boy I once was: the endless energy, the ability to dream large, the belief I could achieve anything. But most daunting to me was writing of young love, especially in the mid 1950s and early 1960s.

When I started developing Alex and Gail’s relationship early on, I was fairly fresh out of a relationship. I was hurting, grieving, and pretty much had given up on finding love. But a writer writes. He or she draws on experience, and observes the world around themselves. For all our modern technology, the dating ritual is pretty much the same today as it was while I was growing up: boy meets girl, boy likes girl, boy asks girl out, girl agrees, boy and girl fall in love, boy loses girls, boy wins girl back.

Below is another excerpt Alex and Gail scene from 500 Miles to Go, now available from Second Wind Publishing, at Amazon in both book and Kindle format. It describes Alex meeting Gail’s parents for the first time—certainly composed of more angst than a young man can know prior to the event:

I met Gail’s mom the following Monday when I walked Gail home from school for the first time.

I slipped my hand into hers as we exited the building; I was aware of the envious glances of many of the guys we passed, and I thought, This is surely what winning the 500 must feel like.

As we approached Gail’s house, I let go her hand.

“Why did you let go of my hand?” she said, sounding dis­appointed.

“I don’t know,” I said. “I guess I wasn’t sure how your mom would feel seeing us holding hands. I don’t know what you’ve told her about us. About me.”

“It’s just hand-holding,” she said. Then she took my hand in hers, and I felt my heart over-rev: six thousand BPM and rising.

“Mom, I’m home,” Gail said as we entered the house.

I glanced around the modestly decorated living room, neat and clean.

A moment later, Mrs. Russell came around a corner. She was a woman of about thirty-five years, and it was obvious from where Gail had gotten her looks.

“Gail,” she said, “you didn’t tell me you were bringing home a guest.”

“Mom, this is Alex, the boy I was telling you about – the boy who took me to the dance last Friday.”

“Alex,” Mrs. Russell said, taking my hand. “It’s nice to meet you.”

“The pleasure is mine,” I said. “Any mother of Gail’s is a mother of mine.” I immediately kicked myself, thinking per­haps my comment, which hadn’t been rehearsed, was too familiar; but Mrs. Russell laughed and thanked me.

“Gail has told me a lot about you.”

“Really?” I said, pleased. “Considering we’ve known each other only a few days, she can’t possibly know much.”

“Well, what she knows, she likes.”

“Mother!” Gail said, blushing.

I grinned and said, “What I know about Gail, I like, too. What’s not to like?”

“She’s a good girl – but then again, I’m rather partial. Why don’t you two go sit in the yard. I’ll bring out some lemonade.”

“That would be swell,” I said. And then, with a glance at Gail, I added, “If that’s okay with you.”

We stepped out the backdoor into an expansive yard; a moment later, a brown ball of fur appeared from the furthest reaches of the lot and raced toward us.

“You have a dog,” I said, dropping to one knee. I was elated.

“That’s Dixie,” Gail said.

Dixie slowed as she approached me, and I held out my hand for her to sniff; then she wagged her tail and I scratched her between her ears.

“She likes you,” Gail said.

“What’s not to like?” I quipped again. Dixie was now licking my hand. I delighted in the sandpaper texture of her tongue.

“She doesn’t usually take to strangers so quickly.”

“I’ve yet to meet a dog that didn’t like me.”

“They’re very perceptive creatures.”

“Yes, they are,” I said. “I hope you’ll come to like me, too.”

“Silly Alex. I already do.”

“I’m glad.”

“You don’t have a dog?”

“No.”

“Why not? I’d have thought with a farm you’d have sev­eral.”

“My mother is a bit of a neat freak. Her idea of a clean house doesn’t include pets.”

“That’s too bad. Dixie is a toy collie-poodle mix. Fortu­nately, she doesn’t shed much; usually in the spring, with the onset of the warm weather.”

Mrs. Russell came out of the house with two glasses of lemonade on a tray. I stood up, took both glasses, and handed one to Gail.

“Will you be staying for dinner, Alex?” Mrs. Russell asked.

“I don’t know,” I said. Then to Gail I said, “Am I?”

“Would you care to stay for dinner, Alex Król?”

“I’d like to, very much.”

“Then it’s settled,” Mrs. Russell said. “Why don’t you two go sit at the picnic table while I go set another place at the table? Your father will be home shortly.”

We sat at the picnic table, under a Maple tree. Dixie was curled up at my feet. It was early May, and the temperature was comfortable. Gail looked radiant, her complexion smooth and soft. It was a good moment.

We said nothing for a time, but neither of us felt uncom­fortable with the silence, punctuated by the sound of birds chirping and the breeze rustling the leaves above us.

Finally, I ventured, “I like you, Gail.”

“You don’t know me well enough to like me, Alex Król.”

“True,” I said. “But I know that what I know about you I like, and I’d like to get to know you better.”

“So much the better, Alex Król,” she said with a sigh. “Because I feel the same way.”

“I’m glad,” I said, grinning. “Why do you call me Alex Król?”

“Because that’s your name, silly.”

“I mean, why do you use both my first and last names?”

“Oh, that. It’s southern etiquette, mostly. But also because I –” she averted her eyes and blushed.

“What?” I said.

“I like your name. Alex Król,” she said, looking at me. “They go together well. It sounds like the name of someone destined for fame. Are you going to be famous someday?”

“I want to be famous only in your eyes.”

Gail smiled and said, “You say the sweetest things.”

“You have a beautiful smile,” I said.

“Thank you. I like yours, too, mischievous as it is.” A moment later, she changed the subject. “Do you like to read?”

“I don’t read much. My father doesn’t approve of my taste for Strange Tales and the science fiction of Alfred Bester and H.G. Wells. He thinks I should be reading the classics.”

“He should encourage you to read anything, even if it is pulp. Your taste will evolve as you get older. You ever read Mark Twain?”

“I read Tom Sawyer, which I enjoyed. What do you like to read?”

“I have a voracious appetite for nearly anything. Jane Austen is my favorite. She was English, lived in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and wrote mostly romance. Sadly, she died very young, at forty-one. Emma is my favorite Jane Austen novel. It’s a novel about matchmaking. Before she began writing it, Jane wrote, ‘I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.’ In the very first sentence, she describes Emma as ‘handsome, clever, and rich’, but she’s also rather spoiled and greatly overestimates her matchmaking abilities. I loved John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. Much of the language is very vulgar, but accurate to the period. When George shot Lennie, I cried for days.”

“I like that you’re so passionate about books,” I said. “Do you think you’ll ever write one?”

“I never thought about it. What would I write about? I don’t think I’ve lived enough to write anything meaningful. I want to be a teacher. But who knows? Maybe one day I will – write a novel, that is.”

I was utterly charmed by Gail’s passion, as well as by her ability to carry on a discussion with little input from me. She was beautiful, intelligent, and had depth. She was the girl I al­ways dreamed of meeting.

“I think you can do anything you set out to do,” I said.

“That’s kind of you.”

“I mean it.”

I felt my leg nudged; Dixie stood, wagging her tail with a rubber ball in her mouth. She wanted to play catch, so I took the ball and threw it toward the back of the yard, and off she went, her paws kicking up blades of grass as they sought trac­tion.

“What about you, Alex Król? What do you want to be when you grow up?”

“I want to race cars,” I said without hesitation.

Obviously, Gail didn’t take me seriously since she only said, “That’s just a dream. Seriously, what do you see yourself doing after graduation?”

Dixie had retrieved the ball, which I took from her mouth and threw again.

“If the racing thing doesn’t work out,” I said, “I figure to work for my dad and eventually take over his business.”

When Gail said nothing, I added, “What do you think? Can I become famous in your eyes as a grease monkey?”

Gail smiled and said, “Only time will tell. But I can see you as a prominent businessman in the community.”

“Dinner is ready,” Mrs. Russell called from the back porch.

Once inside, I asked if I could use the phone to let my parents know I wouldn’t be home for dinner.

“Thanks for letting us know,” I heard Mom’s voice in my ear. “Enjoy yourself.”

“Thanks, Mom. I will.”

I sat down at the dinner table across from Mr. Russell. While Mrs. Russell had made me feel welcome, Mr. Russell’s stern mien took me by surprise, and then I recalled Gail telling me he was Baptist. Suddenly, I became very nervous.

After a brief prayer of thanksgiving, the plates were passed in silence: pot roast, string beans, and potatoes, along with banana slices suspended in lime Jell-O. While on the phone, I’d spotted on a counter what smelled like a rhubarb pie that looked to be homemade.

“Tell me, Alex,” Mr. Russell said. “What are your aspira­tions after graduation?”

My mind raced. Recalling Gail’s own same question from a few minutes ago, I thought it best to say nothing of my dream; instead, I settled on a noncommittal reply.

“I can see myself following in my father’s footsteps.” There was some truth in that. “He’s South Lyon’s best mechanic. If you ever need work done on your car, Mr. Russell, he’ll quote you a fair price, and his work is the best.”

“Thank you, Alex. I’ll keep that in mind.”

I took a bite of the pot roast; it was flavorful and not too dry. Mrs. Russell could give my mom a run for her money in the kitchen.

I risked a glance to Mr. Russell; he’d just forked string beans into his mouth. He chewed a moment, swallowed, and asked, “What’s your denomination?”

“Catholic, sir,” I said. “I’m God-fearing.” Although in that moment, I feared Mr. Russell more than I did God.

Mr. Russell nodded. “And your political leaning?”

“Republican.” And then, remembering what Gail had told me about the Dixiecrats in North Carolina – that they were against civil rights – I added, “I believe in human rights for everyone, color notwithstanding.”

And so it went throughout dinner, with Mr. Russell mak­ing no effort to conceal his efforts to determine if I was the right young man for his daughter. The only question he didn’t ask was what my intentions were concerning his one and only little girl.

After dessert – the rhubarb pie was delicious – Mr. Russell excused himself while I helped clear the table, then Gail showed me to the front door.

After making certain we were alone, I whispered, “How’d I do?”

“You did fine. I think Daddy likes you.”

“Really?” I said, grinning. “How could you tell?”

“He’s strict and stern and slow to warm to people. He’ll come around. What’s not to like about you?” she finished with a smile. And then, after checking to make sure we were still alone, she kissed me on the cheek and told me she’d see me in school tomorrow.

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Filed under books, Excerpts, fiction, J. Conrad Guest, writing