Last July, I announced the forthcoming launch of my latest novel, A Retrospect in Death, expected to be in October. With that announcement, I posted the prologue as a sort of teaser.
J. Conrad Guest
I knew that October was an aggressive timeline, but it was what Mike Simpson told me. I learned long ago that the review and editing process is painstakingly slow, and I know that Mike and Second Wind want what I want: a finished product that all three of us can be proud of.
That said, I was pleased to get an alert from Mike a few days ago that a file is soon to be sent to me, with edits. As always, Mike is very supportive of my work. We writers are a sensitive lot; we find validation in praise of our work. So when Mike wrote that I should “… read it closely and make sure that we didn’t misread an artistic passage and change it without recognizing your intent. You seem the master of numerous genres …” well, I was pleased to say the least.
In the prologue, the reader witnesses the death of an unnamed protagonist; they are taken to the other side of the Great Divide, where the protagonist is left alone, with his introspective thoughts on the life he left behind. After several millennia, he concludes that death, as he is experiencing it, is certainly no reward for his life’s suffering. At that moment, his higher self makes itself known to him.
Below is an excerpt from Part One: Old Age, which picks up with our protagonist learning, much to his chagrin, that he must return to the lifecycle. And the great debate commences …
Part One: Old Age
“All the best sands of my life are somehow getting into the wrong end of the hourglass. If I could only reverse it! Were it in my power to do so, would I?”
—Thomas Bailey Aldrich
“As in the first words?” I said, the patience of the other presence winning out over my own—it might’ve kept me waiting a minute or a millennium for all I knew. I didn’t utter the words as much as think them; not so much a telepathy, but an exchange of thoughts as energy.
“I am your higher self,” the Other said.
“If it pleases you to think of me as such. You and I are one, and we are one with creation.”
“I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together,” I said.
The Other seemed to find my Beatle-esque evaluation humorous, so I felt in the change in frequency of its energy.
“Quite right,” it said, the vibration of its communication feeling oddly Cockney to my life force; then, with a more familiar Midwestern twang, it added, “We are connected, you and I, through a channel, as I am connected to the Creator. And so, so are you.”
“Yes, but not as you, in life, perceived him.”
“Angry, vengeful, demanding, white robe, long just as white beard, and flowing hair.”
“A deity man created in his own image.”
“An image we needed to keep us in line. Yet over the years man certainly seems to have pushed the envelope with an absent God, like a teen thinking they can pull the wool over their parent’s eyes. Parents more concerned with careers than with their children.”
The Other, forgoing judgment, said nothing; I ventured: “Where am I and how long have I been here?”
“You are beyond infinity, a place where time has no meaning.”
I expressed confusion.
“Your last life ended, as you once measured time, many millennia ago.”
“What took you so long to make yourself known to me?”
The Other chuckled and the vibration revealed much to me.
“I was given a timeout?” I asked.
“You needed time to reflect, but it was you who took so long. You are, in death, nearly as obstinate—mulish—as you were in life. It was when you concluded that life had won you little recompense in death that I thought you might be open to discussion.”
“My last life?” I asked, going back several lines in our exchange. “I’ve lived others?”
“Many. You are, as am I, immortal.”
As I pondered this the Other continued:
“The world is, from the perspective you once knew it, in another ice age. Man as the dominant species is nearly extinct, waiting, as the Neanderthals once did, for another cycle of warmth. When you return, you will perhaps return to the previous cycle, the one from whence you just came, or the one still to come.”
“So we’re time travelers?”
“Not in the H. G. Wells sense, no. But we are not bound by time in the sense your corporeal self once was.”
In that moment I understood, without really understanding the how, that past, present and future all exist as one moment, except, apparently, in this place that was “beyond infinity.”
“So I can return as Joan of Arc, a black slave prior to the Civil War, George W. Bush, or even Ty Cobb?”
I felt the Other acquiesce.
“And because we are, as you say, beyond infinity, I can return to a future not yet lived?”
“The choice is ours—yours and mine.”
“But must I? Return?”
“You are the essence of what you once were—pure energy. The teacup that once was your body was broken when you died, but your life’s quintessence—the tea so to speak—remains. Your energy will be sent back into the lifecycle, to exist in another physical form.”
“Is there nothing I can say to change your mind?”
While my other self considered this, I furthered my argument: “Life is futile.”
“Life is experience.”
“But why would I wish to return?” I asked.
“It is essential to the Creator, who desires to experience his own existence through his creation, both the good as well as the not so good.”
“You mean the evil.”
“Evil is a creation of man, the result of a lack of love.”
“Still, what’s the point of it all?” I asked; I felt as if the Other were judging me. I’d received little love in life—not for want of giving it, or trying to. Could I be faulted that others had cast away what I freely gave? Had I become evil?
“I am beyond judging you,” it said, reminding me that my thoughts were its thoughts. “We are one, and as one we shine or shame.”
I cringed and said, “If I truly am immortal, have lived countless lives, what do I gain from returning to the lifecycle ignorant of my previous lives, to be burned at a stake, flogged for my skin color, hazed by teammates envious of my superior talent, reviled as the worst president ever to hold office?”
I recalled reading The Long Embrace, a biography of Raymond Chandler. Author of The Big Sleep, Chandler wrote of L.A. and California: The most of everything—
“The best of nothing,” the Other finished my thought for me. And then: “I am privy to every aspect of your life, as well as your every thought.”
“Then you know what Chandler knew: When you constantly change a landscape, you erase the collective memory of a city. To force me to return without the collective memories of my previous lives is amoral.”
“Most are anxious to return.” To my disbelief, the Other continued: “To feel the rain on their face, to brave the cold breath of winter so that they may appreciate a fire’s warmth, to hear the clatter of dog claws dance on linoleum, to hear the purity of a child’s laughter, to feel love—”
“Love is at best transitory,” I argued. “When we find it, if we find it, it slips away, abandoning us when we least expect. If it finds us, we find it’s not at all what we want.”
“Love is all there is. It is a choice.”
“Predicated on a feeling.”
“A feeling that was, for you, based on a visual image of body parts.”
I shrank away from the Other’s charge, although no judgment sounded in its tone; it simply stated the truth—not as it saw it, but simply the truth.
“What else do we have to go on, at least initially?” I said. “I was able to turn some heads, even after I turned fifty—until I got sick. At a subconscious level, women look for physical signs that a man will be a good provider—broad shoulders, a powerful build—while in return, men look for someone with a good childbearing body.” I was not to be untracked: “As for the feeling to which I refer, it often disappears when someone discovers you’re not who they thought you were, or worse, who they wanted you to be.”
If I’d had legs, I’d be pacing; I didn’t, so my frustration betrayed itself in the hue of my essence.
I continued with my tirade: “God—the Creator, whatever—sticks us in a shell of flesh and blood where we can view the world from only one perspective, and expects us to be unselfish, to put the needs of others ahead of our own desires. Well I did that, more than once, with friends, employers and lovers. And each recipient was only too happy to take what I offered and give little in return. Until they tired of what I gave. Then they cast me away, unwanted.”
“But you gave expecting in return, did you not?”
“So what if I did? Mother Teresa never gave a thought to a heavenly reward for the sacrifices she made, the good she did? Even God isn’t purely altruistic. He expects something from his creation, doesn’t he? Whether it’s to take a knee in deference to his glory, or, as you claim, to allow him to experience reality through us, there’s a price to pay for our existence. How many times did he forsake the Israelites because they failed to keep their covenant once they reached the Promised Land? So what if I expected something in return from the people in my life. It’s a sin to expect to be treated well in return for the good treatment you provide others? Matthew, chapter twelve, verse twelve: ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,’ yes?”
The Other went silent; I felt something like trepidation fill the void between us, as if it didn’t know how to respond. Then, perhaps in an effort to change tacks, it said, “Dave Matthews wrote, ‘you can be happy if you’ve a mind to.’”
“Yeah,” I said. “He also wrote, ‘you can’t roller skate in a buffalo herd.’”
“What did that mean?”
“I don’t know. You’re my higher self; I was hoping you could tell me.”
Out of abashment, the Other ignored my comment.
“So you wish to know how returning to the lifecycle can be to your benefit without memories of your previous lives.”
“The memories I can do without,” I said. “I can live without the anger, frustration and shame. It’s some of the more valuable lessons that I’d like to take along with me. To be born with specific wisdoms—knowing certain things without having to attend the school of hard knocks.”
“Isn’t that analogous to cheating?”
“So what if it is if it should make the world a better place in which to live, while providing the Creator a higher grade of experience? Wouldn’t that be more akin to the life to which Christ preached we should aspire?”
I was trying to deflect, make it sound as if I had the benefit of the greater whole in mind in addition to the Creator; but the Other was silent, and I knew my argument had left no impact.
Not knowing what else to say, I added, “All the more reason I’ve experienced enough living, thank you very much.”
“You were once a dreamer.”
“I was a lot of things, including, once, naïve.”
“You once loved a song, ‘The Kid,’ written by Buddy Mondlock. The lyric touched you: ‘the truth is, I could no more stop dreaming than I could make them all come true.’”
“My dreams all turned into nightmares.”
“All of them? There was a time when you dared to hope.”
“Dreams are a subject for poets.”
“Poets inspire people to reach out to make their dreams come true.”
“Not me. The only thing a poem ever did for me was solidify my belief that my dreams would never become reality. Somebody somewhere—maybe it was you—pushed a button, pulled a lever, twisted a dial, did whatever it took, to make certain that whatever I tried to do, even with the purest of intentions, always went awry, provided no return on my investment.”
“The real tragedy of your life is that you gave up trying.”
“Right,” I said. “The measure of a man is not that he failed, but that he kept trying. A platitude.”
“Christ fell three times.”
“And after the third time, the Romans compelled Simon the Cyrenian to help him to carry the cross. Talk about being at the wrong place at the wrong time.” I thought of Andrew Lloyd Webber, then said, “Jesus Christ, superstar, do you think you’re what they say you are?” I finished: “My point is, even the son of God got to a point when he couldn’t get up.”
The Other fell silent, so I added: “I truly have no say on the matter, whether or not I return?”
“The choice is ours alone.”
“Yours and the Creator’s?”
I felt rather than saw the Other nod, and I couldn’t help but feel something patronizing, a touch arrogant, even judgmental, in the non-gesture.
The Other ignored my exasperation—as in life I came to believe the god in whom I’d grown up believing ignored his creation—like a parent who thinks he knows what’s best for his children: Do as I say, not as I do. Vegetables are good for you, I recalled my father telling me through lips clenched around a cigarette.Sugar is not, he finished. I wanted to ask him, What about nicotine? But I was young and frightened of my father; yet when I turned sixteen, I smoked a few cigarettes—and later in life acquired a taste for cigars—even managed to pound back a few beers while I was under-aged. Looking back, that I never got caught somehow took some of the fun out of it.
Privy to the energy of my thoughts, the Other said: “Benjamin Franklin said, ‘Beer is living proof that God loves us and wants to see us happy.’”
It was an adage I’d often quoted in my younger, happier days. Before life beat me down.
“Ben also said that wisdom can be found in wine, freedom in beer; but in water you find only bacteria. God created water; man the former two.” When the Other remained mute, I added, “You don’t really believe that, do you, about beer and God wanting to see us happy? We’re supposed to be concerned about our eternal bliss, which means not enjoying life.”
“Not getting attached to earthly things does not preclude one from enjoying them.”
Feeling disadvantage in this debate, I said nothing.
“As for Benjamin Franklin, you forget that I have a personal connection with the Creator.”
“So he’s an alkie, the Creator is, and part of his twelve-step program is to make me go back but without any of the knowledge and wisdom I may have acquired during my previous lives.”
The Other ignored my derision. “You will have a choice in gender and certain other aspects of your next incarnation.”
“Like a role-playing game?” I put forth. “I get to pick attributes like charisma, looks, constitution, luck, and strength?”
I sensed the Other’s amusement, and I understood my analogy was spot on.
“I thought God had already experienced a little of life, when he sent his son to earth to be crucified.”
“A parable. God is at the center of the universe wherever he exists—as fauna, flora, as every molecule that composes his creation.”
“He exists in everything.”
“And he likes to suffer—or more accurately, like the boy who enjoys frying ants on a hot summer day with his magnifying glass, he likes to see us suffer.”
“He is not responsible for the suffering his creation wreaks upon itself.”
I sighed and shrugged nonexistent shoulders, a war veteran with phantom limbs.
“I suppose I get it,” I said. “Even pain is preferable to living in a vacuum.”
As if it were already decided that I’d return to the lifecycle, the Other said, “Before you return, I need to better understand your previous life.”
“You’re my higher self. You should already know everything you need to know.”
“If you don’t mind, I’d really rather hear it from your perspective.”