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.

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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Click to purchase

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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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A Prayer Answered—J. Conrad Guest

“You can’t always get what you want; but if you try sometimes, well you might find, you get what you need.” —Jagger/Richards

You may think my fear of flying is irrational; if so, don’t expect me to sympathize with you over your fear of spiders, or water, or whatever it is you dread. To you, it’s very real, just as my fear is very real to me. So when my boss told me about a month ago that my presence would be required at the company’s annual meeting in Dallas, I briefly considered driving, but it quickly became obvious that the only way I could make the meeting and return home without taking personal time would be to (gulp) fly.

J. Conrad Guest (photo courtesy of Sommerville Photographie)

J. Conrad Guest
(photo courtesy of Sommerville Photographie)

 ***

It’s Sunday morning and yesterday’s snow storm lingers. My fiancée is late picking me up and so my stress rises to another level. Colleen finally arrives, thirty minutes late, and I have visions of missing my flight, which is, not surprising, a comforting thought; but we arrive at the airport by eleven o’clock. I grab my bag and briefcase and, behind her SUV, I hug and kiss her for what I’m sure will be the last time. She tells me that everything will be fine and that she’ll call me at my hotel later.

Once inside the Delta terminal, I manage to get my boarding pass printed (I’d checked in the day before over the Internet) and check my bag. The agent informs me that there will be an additional $25 charge for the bag. I argue that the website told me I was entitled to one free bag. She counters that that refers to my carryon. I sigh, knowing it’s useless to argue against her logic. She hands me my baggage claim ticket and I’m off to security to, in my mind, be strip searched and delayed long enough that I will miss my flight, which, in the end, wouldn’t be so terrible a thing. But I manage to skate through, having only to empty my pockets and my briefcase x-rayed.

I follow the signs to my gate, 074—thirty-seven gates away.

Once I arrive at my gate, I glance at my watch to find I have maybe twenty minutes before they commence boarding, so I sit and wait. Eventually the gate agent calls for zone one passengers and, a few minutes later, zone two passengers. In line with the other zone two passengers, I wait my turn to have my boarding pass scanned; a moment later , the gate agent hands it back to me. As I walk through the tunnel that leads me to my A320 Airbus, I wonder how it is that a bus can fly.

I feel like a death row inmate walking to the room in which he will receive his final injection. The family members of the young woman he killed will watch from the other side of the glass, just as millions will watch on CNN the wreckage of my bus that went down in a field shortly after takeoff. Under one of the bits of yellow that show onscreen will be my remains … I shake the thought from my mind and find row 9. I have seat A, the window seat, and in seat C sits a woman I must ask to rise so that I can take my seat.

After a few minutes it becomes clear that the seat between us will remain empty for the duration of the flight. It’s one of the few empty seats on the bus. I remind myself that this bus is unlike any bus on which I’ve ever sat. With thousands of pounds of highly volatile jet fuel sitting beneath me, this bus will launch me seven miles above the ground and get me to Dallas in the time it will take the Detroit Lions to lose a football game—but it occurs to me that the Lions are playing on Monday night.

I lean over the empty seat and tell the woman, “I wondered if they could’ve made the walk to our departure gate any further. Imagine my surprise when I found that they couldn’t.” Gates 073-078 are at the very end of the concourse. She laughs and says, “Well, I arrived from Grand Rapids at gate 1, so I had twice as far to walk.”

I ask her who she knows in Dallas and she tells me she’s meeting a daughter. After spending a night in Dallas, they both will board another flight, this one to Beijing. After a twenty-hour flight to China, they will transfer to another flight, which will take them to where her other daughter lives, about an hour north of Beijing, for a holiday visit. “My Beijing daughter says the temperatures have been hovering around zero for the last week,” she tells me.

I lean over, offer the woman my hand and say, “My name is Joe.” She takes my hand and, with a sly smile, says, “My name is Joanne.” I’m dumfounded, but manage to chuckle. Like Leroy Jethro Gibbs, I don’t believe in coincidences. I’m convinced this is the work of some higher authority. Last night, Colleen and I listened to one of her favorite pastors give a sermon on expecting the unexpected where God is concerned. Our prayers for what we want, like our Christmas wish list, often seem to go unheard, maybe because we’re not listening; yet God seems always to provide for our needs. I’m convinced that this woman, as well as the empty seat between us, is God’s way of providing for my need. That her name is Joanne is God thumbing his nose at me, telling me, “In case you miss it, she’s a gift from me to you, a reminder that you’re safe with me. I haven’t always agreed with some of the choices you’ve made thus far in your life, but it is your life. I know what’s in your heart, and I knew you while you were in your mother’s womb—she’s fine by the way, proud of you—and I have plans for you. You’ve not yet reached your potential.”

I tell Joanne that I haven’t flown since before 9-11.

“Is that by choice,” she asks, “or don’t you find it necessary?”

“I make it a choice to find reasons not to fly,” I say. She smiles and I go on to tell her that I’m the very definition of a white-knuckler. “Look up the word,” I add, “and you’ll find my picture.”

She laughs and tells me, “They say flying is safer than driving.”

They,” I counter, “being the airline industry.” I notice the guy in 8C listening to our conversation; his head bobs once, as if he’s in agreement with me. “More people drive on a daily basis than fly, and most traffic fatalities occur within twenty-five miles of home—to and from work, the grocery store, the post office … all places to which you can’t fly anyway. I may be at risk for a greater period of time during a four-hour drive between Detroit and Chicago than I would be during a forty-five minute flight, but how many traffic accidents on the open highway are fatal? If flying is so safe, how come they still use a seatbelt when, forty years ago, the automobile industry went with a three-point harness?” I’m firing all salvos now: “People say, ‘if my number’s up, it’s up.’ Well, what if it’s the pilot whose number is up? Does that mean the rest of us have to go, too?”

I can see the guy in 8C listening intently, perhaps committing to memory my arguments. I drive home my final point: “When an Airbus goes down, it’s never a fuselage bender, and it always makes the evening news.” 8C chuckles to himself, and I’m pleased that I’ve won him over to my way of thinking, as if having his advocacy would matter in the grand scheme should our bus plummet to the ground. Like a school bus, I envision the pilot deploying the hexagonal Stop sign just before we hit the ground, nose first.

It’s Joanne’s turn. She assures me that we’ll be fine, safe in the hands of God. Again I’m struck by that feeling that this is no coincidence. She hands me a card, business card size, and I read that “I am not my own, but belong—body and soul, in life and death—to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ.” In that moment I realize that this is not my time, and that I will arrive in Dallas and return home safely, to again hold Colleen in my arms and taste her sweet lips.

I offer silent thanks for Joanne’s company: a better seatmate I could not have asked for.

“Even should we die,” Joanne says, “Our eternal souls will be safe.”

“I know that,” I say, “but it’s the people I’d leave behind that I worry about. I just got engaged Friday night, and if I don’t come back, Colleen will never forgive me.”

“Congratulations,” Joanne tells me. “Colleen’s a lucky girl. I understand about grief. But I truly believe that we’ll be reunited with our loved ones in heaven.”

“Ah, but C.S. Lewis wrote, in A Grief Observed, that nowhere in the bible does it say we will be reunited in heaven.”

“Nor does it say that we won’t,” Joanne counters, and I see that 8C has lost interest in our conversation; he’s in a discussion with 8B, maybe about the Lions’ game against the Ravens tomorrow night at Ford Field, a game I’m certain the Lions will find a way to lose: an interception, a blocked field goal attempt, a fifteen-yard personal foul penalty to keep a Raven’s drive going in the final two minutes. I gave up on the Lions decades ago, and wonder about the sanity of season ticket holders.

And so it went for the duration of the flight, our bantering about life, death, grief and more. Her husband is a retired physician who spent time in D.C. seeing to wounded marines returning from Vietnam. He wrote a book—A Doctor’s Devotion: a Call to Serve. I promise to check out her husband’s book. I give her my business card and tell her about my novels, and she seems intrigued by the premises of several. I invite her to my website, the address is on my business card, and ask her to sign my guestbook.

“But I won’t be home again until January 2,” she tells me.

“That’s okay,” I say. “I’ll be here when you get back.”–

 ***

Later that night, Colleen calls me in my room: “How was your flight?” she asks, and I hear the love in her voice. It’s always there; but tonight, from nearly a thousand miles away, it’s music to my ears.

“Well,” I say, “you’re not going to believe the flight I had …”

But you know, in the end, after all was told, Colleen believed it.

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500 Miles to Go—J. Conrad Guest

500 Miles to Go is soon to launch. The  story was born from a part of my youth that I shared with my dad, who took me to see the Indianapolis 500 in 1966. I still have my ticket, which bears the image of the winning car from the previous year—Jimmy Clark’s Lotus. Clark would die a few years later while compet­ing in a Formula 2 event at Hockenheim, in Germany. Motorsports during that era was very hard on mortality.

J. Conrad Guest (photo courtesy of Sommerville Photographie)

J. Conrad Guest
(photo courtesy of Sommerville Photographie)

A retired marine, Dad was more drill instructor to me than a dad. But I recall with much fondness the entire trip: leaving our home in Garden City, Michigan (a suburb of Detroit) at two in the morning, along with my maternal grandfather and one of my dad’s brothers. We drove five hours and arrived in Indianapolis at a little after six local time. We had breakfast at the International House of Pancakes at the corner of Meridian and 16th Street. I had banana waffles. Sadly, a couple years ago I drove to Indy for the track’s 100th anniversary with a childhood buddy who’d never been to the 500, and a couple of his buddies, to find that the IHOP had been razed to make room for a Walgreens.

After that banana waffle breakfast, Dad parked the car on a side street and we caught a shuttle to take us the eight or so miles to the track. The pageantry of the 500 was amazing for a nine-year-old boy.

For 500 Miles to Go, I wanted to capture the allure of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing, along with its long history and rivalries. Initially, I worried that I wouldn’t be able to carry off writing from the perspective of a teenage boy in the early chapters; but I stayed the course, drawing on my own memory of asking a girl out for the first time, and the dance that comes with teen dating during the decade of free love. The relationship Alex has with his father is the first in any of my novels to depict a healthy, nurturing relationship—what took me nearly forty years to achieve with my own father.

A theme of 500 Miles to Go is the importance of, and the risks associated with, the pursuit of dreams. Or as Alex discovers, achieving our dreams, when they cause pain to those you love, become nightmares. Below appears a short but poignant excerpt.

“I looked at the phone, silent on the nightstand, and for the first time since she walked out of my life, I thought about calling Gail. Never had I longed so much to hear her voice. ‘Alex Król,’ she’d say into the phone, the way she used to when we were young. I imagined her telling me how glad she was that I’d called, that she’d listened to the race on the radio, had watched it later that night on tape delay, and had celebrated with me. She’d go on to say that she’d followed my entire career, was proud of all that I’d accomplished, maybe even adding that she’d been foolish to worry about my getting hurt. I’d tell her it was okay, that I understood. Then I’d ask her to join me for dinner when I got back to town, and she’d sigh in that way she had, and tell me that she’d love to…”

Alex paused, and Alicia waited patiently for him to continue:

“But so much in life never plays out the way we envision it. My marriage was proof of that.

“I re-imagined the phone call: Gail’s father would answer. He’d congratulate me on winning the 500—assuming he was aware of it. He’d ask how I was doing, and I’d tell him, ‘Great, I’m doing great.’ Then I’d ask about Gail. He’d tell me that she’d met a young man a year or so after we’d broken up, married him, and that she was now mother to two healthy toddlers, a boy and a girl. Then it would be my turn to congratulate him, for becoming a granddaddy. Maybe, to save face, I’d nonchalantly ask him to say hello to Gail for me, give her my best, hoping he wouldn’t, not wanting her to know that I’d asked about her. More than likely, I’d leave it at ‘Congratulations’ and simply say ‘Goodbye.’

“I rolled over, turning my back on the phone, and prayed for sleep’s escape.”

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January’s Thaw—J. Conrad Guest

In One Hot January, Joe January, an emotionally aloof private investigator from the South Bronx, uncovers a seemingly impossible plot of time travel and alternate realities by grudgingly agreeing to help a pretty young woman locate her missing father, a Professor of Archaeology from Columbia College, who must prevent the secret location of Hitler’s body from falling into the wrong hands. In January’s Thaw, January finds himself thrust one hundred years into the future where he must survive, a man out of place out of time, on sagacity out of date.

J. Conrad Guest (photo courtesy of Sommerville Photographie)

J. Conrad Guest
(photo courtesy of Sommerville Photographie)

Below is an excerpt from January’s Thaw, the second book in the Joe January science fiction diptych. It was a scene I cut, following the advice of another Michigan author who claims she cuts from each of her novels the sentence she likes most; but at the last moment I decided to include the scene—a decision I don’t regret making.

 —

Then I hoofed it down to the East Village, to McSorley’s Old Ale House, where, in 1947, I’d found life so much simpler: cheese and crackers for lunch, two choices of beer—light or dark—and, most importantly, it was off-limits to women.

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

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

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

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

I hadn’t been leering, but I still wasn’t used to the brazen way in which women in this century dressed. This gal may as well have walked in here with no top on at all. I sighed, recalling my discussion with Ecstasy about a woman’s right to dress as she pleased, but bit back an angry retort and motioned to the bartender to bring another beer.

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

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

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

“1947.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Obviously he succeeded.” Equal indifference.

“Obviously.”

“And what do you think of your future?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Just making an observation.”

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

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

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

I nodded. “After my time.”

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

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

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

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

“So we agree to disagree.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What about him?”

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

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

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

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

Not knowing who Tom Selleck was, I said, “Thanks, for proving my point.”

“What did I miss?” she asked.

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

“So?”

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

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

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

“The way I see it, women in 2047 ‘objectify’ themselves more than they ever did in my time. Times Square is filled with flashy advertisements portraying women using their sex appeal to sell a host of products and services. The broads in Central Park wear less than does my gal Friday when she takes me to bed. A dame like you walks into a dive like this dressed as you are and asks me to buy her a beer and then chastises me for looking at what she’s done to objectify herself.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Well,” she began.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And just what is your type?”

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

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

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

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

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

I chuckled. “Is that a come on?”

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

I laughed.

“I say something funny?”

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

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

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

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

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

I was taken aback by her pronouncement; in my time women went to “the little girls’ room.”

I glanced at my new watch and said, “Not likely.”

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

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

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Mommies Do Too Lie—J. Conrad Guest

I’m told that in flash fiction what the writer leaves unsaid is as important as what is said.

Photo courtesy of Sommerville Photographie

Photo courtesy of Sommerville Photographie

A couple years ago, the facilitator in my writers group gave us a writing exercise: select one of the sentences she provided as a first sentence, and write a piece of flash. I was intrigued by the idea of not only writing from the perspective of a five-year-old child, but a girl child as well. The challenge was to reveal to the reader, through Tina’s eyes, what she is far too young to understand: that parents lie to their children, keep secrets, and that they are not nearly as perfect as we, as five-year-olds, often think.

Mommies Do Too Lie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then she hopped out of her bed, pushed both feet into her pink slippers, and slipped on her just as pink robe. Was there a color prettier than pink? Tina didn’t think so.

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

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

Curious, Tina went to find her mommy.

“Honey, what’s wrong?” Mommy was startled to see Tina standing at the top of the stairs, waiting for her.

Tina yawned and rubbed her eye with a fist before sitting on the top step. A moment later her mommy sat down beside her.

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

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

“Yes.”

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

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

“You saw Mr. Binkley in our yard?”

“Uh-huh. And I wasn’t dreaming.” Tina was adamant about that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I know you do, sweetheart. So do I.”

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

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

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

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

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Like it or not, Words are a Writer’s Best Friend — J. Conrad Guest

If I had a dollar for every time someone told me, “that’s not what I meant,” I’d be rich. Wars may be politically motivated, but they’re started the result of a misunderstanding of words.

J. Conrad Guest (photo courtesy of Sommerville Photographie)

J. Conrad Guest
(photo courtesy of Sommerville Photographie)

My father always told me that the burden of communication lies with the communicator. On the other hand, if someone wants to misunderstand something you say or write, they will. No power on earth will stop them.

I once read a narrative that described curtains as “sad,” a reference to their color being blue. Curtains can no longer be sad than a cup of coffee or any other inanimate object. Still, with so many shades of blue from which to choose, as a writer, I would probably indulge myself, and be criticized for being too verbose, as follows:

The curtains were blue — not in the tone or shade of a John Lee Hooker tune, nor in the term one might use in describing 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; 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 nor a sky blue; but a sapphire blue — not annoyingly cheerful, nor that draws attention to itself and away from the other furnishings in the room — pleasant, soothing. The color blue that compliments both a morning cup of coffee or tea — although, as Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote, 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 — as well as an evening glass of scotch. The color blue that invites one nearer, if only to draw the curtains wider to let more Sunday morning light into the room, or to admire the panoramic view on the other side of the glass.

J. Conrad Guest, author of: Backstop: A Baseball Love Story In Nine InningsOne Hot JanuaryJanuary’s ThawA Retrospect In Death

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Literary Genre Intimidating to the Consumer? — J. Conrad Guest

J. Conrad Guest and cigar

J. Conrad Guest and cigar

I recently participated in a forum in which the question was put forth, “Do literary novels intimidate consumers?”

I voiced my opinion that how a text is written is as important as what is written, that writers of literary novels focus on word choices and arrangement of words, and not just story. We’re challenged to use new words we’ve learned, but use them in such a way that the reader can infer their meaning; while other writers write to a sixth-grade level. We’re concerned about the turn of a phrase, the beauty of the prose, what Elmore Leonard calls “the writer butting into the story.” Mr. Leonard, forgive me, but you write with a screenplay mentality, and I’m underwhelmed by your work.

If I were writing to a genre, a formula, it would be a much quicker process: start with my last novel, change all the names of the characters, change the setting, maybe the period, toss in a couple different plot twists, and I’m ready to go to print in three months. The market seems huge for genre-specific novels that allow consumers to escape from their own mundane reality. While the publishing industry seems to think they must compete with Hollywood blockbuster action thrillers, requiring page-turning narrative designed to keep the reader in the story from start to finish.

But what about those of us who write “small” novels about everyday people dealing with the universal ideals of love, loss and regret? My protagonists don’t go on quests to prove that Jesus was indeed married and fathered a child; but I like to think that readers can connect with someone dealing with those universal ideals with which perhaps they, too, are grappling.

Does that mean that the consumer is put off by something labeled as “literary?” Do they fear it will be too deep for them, that the language will be too dense? I can’t say. I only know there is a market for what I write, because I seek  for my own reading pleasure novels that are similar to my own. The world will either embrace my work, or eschew it. Nothing will ever change that. Hemingway had his detractors. I have mine. Art either connects with someone, or it doesn’t. Writers today are taught that if they want to be a bestseller, they must become a mercenary. Identify your audience and write to it. One of the largest audiences today seems to clamor for stories about vampires and werewolves.

I’d like to hear from other writers about their views on literary fiction: do you write with an audience in mind, perhaps dumbing down your text in an effort to appeal to the masses? Or do you write what you wish to write, following your heart, and hope that your audience finds you?

J. Conrad Guest, author of: Backstop: A Baseball Love Story In Nine InningsJanuary’s ParadigmOne Hot JanuaryJanuary’s ThawA Retrospect In Death

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500 Miles to Go — by J. Conrad Guest

Over the years I’ve been writing this blog, I’ve devoted many words to the past—I’ve reminisced over my youth, written about both my parents, even written a letter to myself that was left undelivered to my younger self, aged eight. Two of my novels, One Hot January and January’s Thaw, are time travel yarns that largely deal with regrets, and living life right, of the importance of making the right choices simply because they are right. In my latest novel, A Retrospect in Death, the protagonist conquers the Great Divide and must review with his higher self his past life, searching for the bread crumbs that led to his great dissatisfaction with the corporeal world in preparation for his return to the lifecycle. In Backstop: A Baseball Love Story in Nine Innings, I wrote the autobiography I wish I could’ve written (sans the infidelity) had I the courage to go against my parents’ wishes that I not play organized baseball to see if I could’ve had a career in major league baseball.

J. Conrad Guest

J. Conrad Guest

In my forthcoming novel, 500 Miles to Go, to be released by Second Wind Publishing this fall, I turn my pen to writing about the importance of, and the risks associated with, the pursuit of dreams. The Declaration of Independence grants us certain inalienable rights, including life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But when pursuit of a dream affects others, causes them angst and results in their concern for our well being, turns them away from us, what then?

Alex Król made his dream come true to drive in the Indianapolis 500 eight years after seeing his first 500, in 1955, the year Bill Vukovich was killed in his bid to become the first driver to win three consecutive 500s. Alex had been following the career of A.J. Foyt since he’d broken onto the scene in 1958, and he wanted to pattern his driving style after Foyt’s catch me kiss my ass technique.

Then there’s the girl: Gail Russell. No, not the Gail Russell, who starred opposite John Wayne in Wake of the Red Witch and was in her own right downright gorgeous. Just not as gorgeous as Alex’s Gail. Alex’s girl since high school, Gail fell for Alex before she learned that he risked his life on dirt tracks during the summer months to the delight of fans who paid to see cars crash—the more spectacular the wreck the taller they stood on their toes and craned their necks to see the carnage. By the time she learned the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth—that Alex had vowed to one day drive in and win the Indianapolis 500—it was too late. She was in love with him.

Below appears a short excerpt.

“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, Vince. I’ll catch up to you.”

“But –”

“Go on. I won’t be late.”

I then 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; her accent told me she wasn’t from around these parts.

“Has anyone ever told you that you look like a young 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 that they’d get shot down for presuming the gal would 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.

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