Author Archives: J. Conrad

About J. Conrad

I write novels about the universal ideals of love, loss, regret, and death—and the emotions associated with those ideals. A reader once told me that my work was, “Gritty, entertaining… real. Romance for the non-romantic.” My 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.” I have two other novels based on the Joe January character, One Hot January and January’s Thaw. Both are available from Second Wind Publishing. In 2008 I completed Backstop: A Baseball Love Story in Nine Innings, which is available from Second Wind Publishing as well as from Amazon in both book and Kindle formats, and from Barnes and Noble (Nook). Backstop was nominated as a 2010 Michigan Notable Book, while the Lewis Department of Humanities at the Illinois Institute of Technology adopted it as required reading for their spring 2011 course, Baseball: America’s Literary Pastime. Chaotic Theory, a novella that explores the conjecture of how the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil might result in a tornado in Texas, is now available from Amazon in book and Kindle formats. In April 2010, I completed my fifth novel, The Cobb Legacy, a murder mystery that spans two centuries written around baseball legend, Ty Cobb, and the shooting death of his father by his mother. The Cobb Legacy is now available for download for your Kindle, Nook, EPUB, MOBI or in PDF. Death is considered a universal ideal in fiction writing, so you’ll want to check out A Retrospect in Death, which is now available from Second Wind. 500 Miles to Go is set during the golden era of motor racing (the 1960s). The story follows young Alex Król as he seeks love while making his dream to win the Indianapolis 500 come true. 500 Miles to Go is now available from Second Wind. A World Without Music, speculative fiction set against a backdrop of romance, is now available from Second Wind Publishing and Amazon. I’ve commenced my next novel, Forever a Philanderer. My fiction and essays appear in various online and print publications, including Cezanne’s Carrot, Saucy Vox, River WalkJournal, 63 Channels, The Writers Post Journal, Redbridge Review, and Blood and Thunder: Musings on the Art of Medicine. My sports writing can be found at Bleacher Report.

Melee at McSorley’s—J. Conrad Guest

This short story (not so short!) is based on a chapter from January’s Thaw, the third and final book in the Joe January trilogy.

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

McSorley's Old Ale House

McSorley’s Old Ale House

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 sixty years largely unchanged, although in truth it had been only a matter of weeks, in 1947, since last I’d patronized this fine but seedy drinking establishment.

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

The owner of the voice was a voluptuous platinum 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 wasn’t used to the brazen way in which women in this century dressed. This gal may as well have walked in here with no top on at all. I sighed but bit back an angry retort even as I motioned to the bartender to bring another beer.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

“Obviously he succeeded.” Equal indifference.


“And what do you think of your future?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Just 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 sixties and seventies.”

I nodded. “After my time.”

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

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

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

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

“So we agree to disagree.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What about him?”

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

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

“And his buddy?” I said, referring to the first’s tablemate, who was muscular, mustachioed and had much shorter, wavy hair that glistened with one of myriad hair products that had been invented for men since the end of the 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.”

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

“What did I miss?” she asked.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Well,” she began.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I chuckled. “Is that a come on?”

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

I laughed a rich, hearty laugh.

“I say something funny?”

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

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

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

“The way I see it,” I said, “oppression comes in many shapes and sizes. The women in this century allow themselves—even participate in self-objectification—to be used as sexual objects, denying it under the pretext of freedom even as they rebuke the male species for embracing that objectification, which only results in widening the communication gap between the genders. You resent being looked at as a slab of meat but do everything to ensure that you are. You lie to yourself and us, and then blame us for our misunderstanding. Maybe it’s just more obvious to me, having jumped sixty years 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 glanced at my watch even as I was taken aback by her pronouncement; in my time women went to “the little girls” room. “Not likely,” I said.

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

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

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

J. Conrad Guest, author of: 500 Miles To Go, A Retrospect In Death, A World Without Music, Backstop: A Baseball Love Story In Nine Innings, January’s Thaw, and One Hot January

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Filed under writing

The ’Rithmetic Behind Reading and Writing—J. Conrad Guest

The Pew Research Center reported in January 2014 that nearly a quarter of American adults had not read a single book in the previous year. If you think that number is encouraging, consider that the number of non book readers has nearly tripled since 1978.


The reasons behind that dwindling number can be debated: Internet and TV conspiring to leave reading a boring activity in a society that more and more requires instant gratification, or parents who fail to teach their children the joy of the printed word. Which reminds me of a meme I saw recently: “If you think reading is boring, you’re not doing it right.” Novelist Samuel R. Delany said that a book is only as good as what its words make happen inside the reader’s head. Well, most books today do little to inflame my imagination.

But the gist of this post is the correlation between reading and writing. My writing keeps me from reading as much as I’d like, and I’ve read in a number of writing forums that most writers don’t care to read. Which prompts the question, if one doesn’t enjoy reading, how can one write well?

Depending on which source you read, somewhere between 600,000 and 1,000,000 books are published every year in the U.S. Many of those—perhaps as many as half or even more—are self-published. On average, a self-published title sells fewer than 250 copies, most to family and friends. It seems to me that self-publishing is an exercise in futility. Of course, some, like Fifty Shades of Grey, succeed at winning the lottery. But most writers stand a greater chance of winning a lottery than being courted by a major publisher and achieving bestseller status.

With so many new books being published annually and with the number of consumers (readers) diminishing, what is it that prompts so many to think they have a story to tell? Moreover, that their story is worth telling let alone reading, especially if it’s not well-written or even edited—in short a first draft uploaded to the Internet?

I don’t have an answer, and I’m not even certain the question is worth asking; but I am curious.

Many seem to view the writing life as glamorous. While I enjoy the creative process and find little else in life as gratifying as arranging words on a blank monitor, I don’t find the writing life glamorous in the least. While I find my muse in a cigar, a pot of coffee, and blaring Bose speakers, those images are hardly enchanting. I wonder if those household names who drive the profits of the big five publishers view the writing life as glamorous. Maybe James Patterson does now that he guests on Castle and appears in commercials to tout books that he no longer writes himself.

Writing requires work and dedication, along with a desire to learn and improve craft. And the real work commences after I type “The End”: finding an audience—or perhaps more accurately, helping an audience find me.

Many seem to think that uploading a file to websites like CreateSpace will result in royalties pouring in. A good social network is said to help—traditional publishers ask, in their submission guidelines, about your social network—but the numbers are slim: only one or two in a million succeed.

So I submit the question: What is it that prompts so many to think that they can lay claim to an audience that is declining?

J. Conrad Guest, author of: 500 Miles To Go, A Retrospect In Death, A World Without Music, Backstop: A Baseball Love Story In Nine Innings, January’s Thaw, and One Hot January


Filed under J. Conrad Guest, musings, writing

January’s Paradigm, Second Excerpt—J. Conrad Guest

I thought I would include as part of this excerpt the first poem I ever wrote (I’ve written maybe three more, and there’s a reason for that!). It opens the novel, prior to Part One, so it’s a little out of place in this excerpt.

Love Me Little, Love Me Long

Love is not a forest fire that burns intensely,
hotly and out of control for a brief moment until,
its expendable fuel spent,
it sputters,
seeking in vain for something else to consume,
to sustain itself before, finally,
it dies:
cold, black ash the only evidence of its passing.

Love is, instead, a campfire:
it provides ample heat and comfort
to the couple who sit before it;
and although its flames may at times wane,
a well-tended campfire’s embers can be nurtured and fanned
until the flames once again dance brightly and cheerfully,
providing comfort to those who care enough
to cherish the gentle warmth it ministers.

Part Three

Heart don’t try so hard this time.
There’s another lover waitin’ around another paradigm.
These tears we cry are just a waste of water don’tcha know?
We got to learn to see when somethin’s finally gone … and just let it go.

Little Feat

Chapter Ten

“Mommy,” came the squeal from around the corner.

A moment later, Sarah Jane – Susan had told me her daughter’s name on our way up to the second floor apartment – flashed into view. She wore a pink jumpsuit overlaid with a colorful floral pattern that I guessed Susan had allowed her to pick out for herself. She leaped into her mother’s outstretched arms. Unable to conceal her excitement, her laughter betraying unconditional love, she threw her arms around Susan’s neck and hugged her with all the might her tiny six-year-old limbs could muster.

I could make out her features, features that undoubtedly had belonged to Susan at one time. The same square jaw and dimpled chin, as well as the identical pouting upper lip and the same high and elegant cheekbones. The brown eyes beneath the finely arched brows hinted at some hidden mischief; and the hair – full, wavy and lustrously black cascading down her back nearly to her waist.

The reunion was complete. Now it was time for introductions.

“Joe, this is Sarah Jane. Sarah Jane, I’d like you to meet Joe January.”

I saw the child got a charge out of the formal introduction. I suspected Susan rarely talked down to her, preferring instead to treat her as an adult, her reasoning that a child treated as such would respond as such.

She offered me her hand.

“Hello, Joe,” she spoke with alacrity. Then, suddenly aware of her inadvertent rhyme, she giggled as she hid her mouth politely behind her hand.

I felt my face flush.

“And I thought I was the only one who could do that to you.” Susan’s smile mocked me affectionately, and I felt the heat rise higher as my discomfort grew.

“Have you had lunch yet, Sarah Jane?”

“Yes, Mommy.”

“And what have you and Monica been doing with yourselves all morning?”

“Watching Fantasia.”


“It’s a classic,” Sarah Jane replied with perfected adult inflection; I couldn’t keep from smiling.

“Well, go ahead and finish watching it while I visit with Monica and Joe, okay?”

“Won’t you watch it with me?”

“Just for a few minutes. I don’t want to be rude to our guest. Later this afternoon Joe and I will take you to the park.”

Sarah Jane’s face lit up at the prospect.

“Can I have an ice cream, too?”

“We’ll see,” was Susan’s measured reply.

I detected a glimmer of triumph in the child’s eye, as if the trophy had already been awarded.

“Come on,” Susan said, taking the child by the hand and leading her through the archway to the dining room and beyond.

And then they were gone, leaving me alone with Monica. Susan had briefly introduced us at the door, just before Sarah Jane’s entrance. Since then I’d been only dimly aware of Monica’s scrutiny of me. Although she’d been discreet, her appraisal hadn’t gone unnoticed.

Taller than Susan, her figure was also more boyish – flat-chested and long-waisted with narrow hips. Her facial features were masculine: large pores and leathery skin, as if she’d spent too much time in the sun. Her voice was deep with testosterone. Even her movements betrayed what I presumed when she first opened the door; confirmation came with the attitude she’d been displaying toward me since our arrival – indifference at first, now, jealousy.

Does she view me as a threat? I wondered.

If her affection for Susan was what I thought it was, then I was certain she had made her feelings known. I was equally certain that Susan had rebuffed Monica’s overtures toward anything but a strictly platonic relationship. She would be gentle yet firm, for she would view Monica’s friendship as a commodity much too valuable to be terminated. Did Monica still harbor hope for a physical relationship with Susan? I guessed yes, but I also knew it would never happen.

The silence between us since Susan’s departure stretched on uncomfortably. Finally, at a loss for anything of much substance to say, I broke the ice.

“That coffee sure does smell good.”

“I’m sorry,” she said, although I doubted she was. “Can I get you a cup?”


Even though I really didn’t care for any, I felt gratified that I had gained an advantage through this exchange. Not that I felt threatened. While it was obvious Monica was very protective of Susan, I didn’t wish to come between her and Susan any more than I wanted her to come between Susan and me, and so I would have to be careful.

“How do you take it?”


“Please, sit down. I’ll bring it in.” Her courtesy seemed forced.

I sat on the sofa, knowing that Monica would then be forced to opt for the chair in the corner. That would leave the spot on the sofa next to me open for Susan when she returned, leaving Monica further disadvantaged. Certain she would recognize my ploy, I wondered how she might counter.

Just then she came around the corner bearing the coffee, one cup for each of us, on a circular serving tray. The cups chattered noisily on the matching saucers as she strode gracelessly into the room, trying not to spill any of the contents of the too full cups. She set the tray on the coffee table in front of me and I noted happily that she’d failed in her effort to keep from spilling any of the liquid.

“Thanks,” I said politely while making a show of ridding the saucer of the spillage onto the bottom of the serving tray. I smiled my gratitude at her.

Mute, Monica took one of the remaining two cups and proceeded to settle herself into the corner chair. The seating arrangements hadn’t gone unnoticed.

Determined to coerce her into conversation, I ventured a comment on the arras hanging on the wall adjacent to her.

“Beautiful tapestry. What do the symbols represent?”

“It’s a chakra chart,” she replied icily. “The icons symbolize the centers of spiritual energy in the human body.”

“Oh,” I said with feigned interest. “You practice occultism.”

“I’m not a witch.”

I’ve managed to insult her. Good.

“I’m psychic,” she announced proudly.

“You mean there’s a difference?” I wondered if she’d caught my intended barb.

“I don’t cast spells. I’m a receptacle for psychic vibrations. I inter­pret those energies for those not blessed with the gift.”

I indicated the crystal globe, supported by a wooden base and cen­tered on a purple silk scarf adorned with the signs of the zodiac that was, in turn, centered on the coffee table. “You read crystal balls?”

“That one is glass, merely decorative. I keep my crystal wrapped in silk in another room. It is important that it be kept free of unwanted influence.”

“I see.” I tried to sound impressed.

She’d spoken of her crystal with reverence, I noted with amusement. I was enjoying this dialogue immensely, even though I didn’t have the slightest interest in her supposed “gift”. But then that’s what made it so much fun.

I wondered if she suspected what my actual thoughts regarding her psychic abilities were, and nearly laughed aloud at the lunacy of that notion. If indeed she could read my thoughts, then she would know with certainty that I believed it was all hogwash.

“I also read cards.”

“Really? Well perhaps one day you could read mine.”

Just then Susan returned.

“I’m sorry to keep you waiting, Joe.”

I liked the way she said my name, sweetly melodic.

“Sarah Jane and I get so little time together during the weekend, sometimes I just can’t say no.”

“I understand.”

“That coffee’s for you, Hon,” Monica piped in. “Cream and sugar, just the way you like it.”

I was certain her affectation of affection was intended for me.

“Thanks, Monica.” Susan’s tone, I noted happily, was purely pla­tonic.

“So tell me, Susan. How do you and Joe come to know each other?”

She’s fishing: how long have we known each other, how serious are we? Ad infinitum.

“From The Oasis,” Susan said.

“I supply Susan’s demand for Coke,” I said. My joke was ours to share alone, for Monica found nothing amusing about the pun; but then, I had counted on that.

“Joe was just telling me of his interest in the esoteric.”

“Interest born of ignorance. I’ve always been fascinated by that about which I know very little.” With a wink at Susan, I finished, “The detective in me, I guess.”

Susan smiled. She understood my allusion.

“Perhaps you would like a little firsthand education?”

I caught the look of rascality in Monica’s eyes. This was her chance to tip the scales in her favor.

“I don’t think –”

“I think that’s a wonderful idea,” Susan gushed.

Roguishness turned to triumph. “I’ll just be but a minute,” Monica said, crossing the living room to exit down the hall.

When she was gone I turned to Susan to protest.

“You don’t really believe she can read the future, do you? I mean, isn’t this against your religion or something?”

“She’s really very good, Joe. She uses her gift to help people, and there’s nothing in the Bible that prohibits that.”

Laughing, she put her hand on my knee.

“Besides, it’ll save me a lot of time and trouble getting to know you.”

“But –”

“Unless you’ve got something to hide,” she said ominously.

“No.” My denial sounded uncertain.

Initially, I’d fretted that Monica might use this opportunity to tell lies, to fabricate untruths to undermine my status in Susan’s eyes. But now I was forced to acknowledge the possibility that the truth – the truth I’d been hiding from Susan as well as myself – if indeed Monica held in her power the ability to decipher it, could be more damning than anything she could make up. Either way, I’d be at her mercy.

“In here,” Monica called from the dining room.

Resigned, I went to confront whatever fate awaited me.

In the dining room, Monica was arranging a midnight blue silk scarf, similar to the one in the living room that served as a doily for her imitation crystal ball, on top of a piece of wood that looked like oak, although it was stained a dark brown. The wood, about an inch thick, was approximately twenty-four inches square. From a small, ornately carved hinged box she procured a deck of Tarot cards.

“These have been in my family for three generations,” she announced.

What a pity, I reflected sardonically. With your sexual preference there will be no fourth generation to pass them down to.

I wondered if she’d contemplated that, and if she had, how she was planning to overcome that little obstacle.

Monica removed a card from the pack and set it down on the cen­ter of the silk scarf.

“This card, the King of Swords, represents you.”

“Why that one?”

“Of all the cards of the Minor Arcana, he looks most like you – fair, with blond hair.”

“I think he’s very handsome,” Susan said.

I’d never been able to take a compliment. Blushing, I glanced over at Susan and found her smiling warmly at me. The affection behind her smile warmed me further.

“Too bad the card can’t blush,” she added.

Embarrassed further, I took recompense from the daggers of jealousy that came at me from across the table, where Monica had been silently appraising our exchange. She caught my look, and in that moment, she knew that I knew. Embarrassed by her own transparency, she quickly averted her eyes.

“What’s the Minor Arcana?” I asked, trying to forestall the reading.

“Fifty-six cards make up the Minor Arcana,” she explained. “Like the four suits of a deck of playing cards, only with Kings, Queens, Knights and Pages. These cards deal with love, pain, gain or loss. Any­thing that has to do with earthly affairs. The remainder of the deck contains the cards of the Major Arcana. They represent primal cosmic beings. Unlike the cards of the Minor Arcana, they cannot portray a person.”

She handed me the pack of cards.

“Shuffle the cards well. Then cut them twice, using your left hand.”

My mind swam as I tried to think of some way to delay the inevitable. It was impossible. If I backed out now I would appear suspicious, and so I could only hope that Monica’s “gift” was a sham and that this would amount to nothing more than a parlor game.

After shuffling the cards, I cut them into three piles.

“Past,” Monica said, indicating the pile on my right. “Present and future,” she assigned to the remaining two piles. “Select one.”

I already knew what my future held, in 2047. And my past I could read about anytime in the biography on the coffee table in Porter’s apartment.

I pointed to the cards that would depict my present.

Monica looked askance at me, as if my choice surprised or puzzled her. She took the cards I’d indicated and squared them.

I watched Susan as she peered intently at the cards Monica turned over and positioned around the King of Swords. The first she placed across it at ninety degrees. She next placed four others around it, one above, one below and one to either side. Finally, she placed a column composed of four cards along the right edge of the silk scarf.

I held my breath. The cards meant nothing to me; yet not knowing what else to do, I carefully scrutinized the images that would, truthfully or not, reveal my present.

I’d wanted Monica to reveal my present first because it was that aspect of my life that I knew least about. Suddenly aware of the silence around me, I looked up to find Monica studying me intently. I saw distrust in her eyes. I let out my breath and …

Silently took another, grateful to see Susan still studying the cards.

“You are not who you pretend to be.” It was not an accusation; an assessment perhaps, based on uncertainty. Monica continued.

“The Two of Swords crosses you. You keep many secrets.”

She stared at the card a moment, as if seeking to discover some­thing more about it.

“You are a man shrouded in mystery.”

I felt my heartbeat quicken.

“The Justice card, reversed,” Monica said, pointing to the card. “You will not receive remuneration for that which you thought you had paid.

“Here, the Three of Pentacles. This card indicates material gain that was lost because of your own selfish reasons.

“The Two of Cups,” she said, eyeing me with suspicion. “The Two of Cups is the marriage card. You are estranged,” she added, her voice barely audible. “This relationship is flawed. You thought you loved her, but you were only in love with the idea of being in love.”

She paused a moment, perhaps for dramatic effect, perhaps listen­ing to some inner voice of her own.

“The relationship cannot be fixed, it is gone. Even though it is something you still want, you can never have it – it will never be.

“The Ace of Cups indicates you gave material things to this person out of love, expecting to receive love in return. This woman you gave these things to was materialistic, but it was never enough for her.

“The Strength card, reversed,” she said, touching the card.

“You must let go of this woman in order to go forward. Forget her,” she advised.

“The Hanged Man reversed. The Hanged Man provides strength – you will discover yourself, who you really are, through the guidance of this person.”

I chanced another glance at Susan, who was caught up in everything Monica was saying.

Monica continued with the reading.

“The Emperor reversed. An invasion of your privacy by another man.” Was that a glimmer of triumph in her eye? “The Strength card,” – she pointed to it again – “is also the Devastation card. You were unable to control your emotions over what was done to you, so you escaped. You must look to the Hanged Man for guidance.”

Monica now directed my attention to the last card, the bottom card of the column of four along the right side of the scarf.

“The Moon card indicates psychic ability.” She eyed me with amusement. “You knew she would do this to you, but you were unable to prevent it. Or perhaps you chose to do nothing. The Moon card also tells you to surrender and start over. This is a brand new beginning for you. But only if you choose.”

Here she stopped; the silence became deafening.

Not knowing what was expected of me, I looked from the image that depicted the Moon card – a dog and a wolf both baying at the moon – to Susan, who was staring at me, waiting expectantly for me to say something.

There was truth in Monica’s reading. How I knew I didn’t have a clue, but I knew. Images of the dark-haired woman from the hidden photograph haunted my mind’s eye.

Embarrassed by the idea of a past love, I felt myself redden.

Driven by the searching beauty of Susan’s warm brown eyes, I sought exile in Monica’s cold, calculating, masculine stare. She wore a look of superiority, born of the discovery of intimate events about my life.

How much does she know? More than she lets on.

But why hold back? Why not destroy me now, in front of Susan? Maybe she was playing a game of discretion, waiting to relate the rest of the damning evidence later, after I’d gone.

But if Monica was indeed psychic, then it was also conceivable that she already suspected the outcome and was content to allow Susan to make the discoveries on her own.

No. More than likely she merely wants to observe my discomfort.

“Wow,” Susan breathed.

“There is truth in what I have seen in the cards?” Monica was dar­ing me to refute the facts as she’d presented them.

I couldn’t.

And I’d already told enough lies.

So I conceded.

“Yes, there was a woman. She was unfaithful to me.” Somehow I knew this to be true. “She’s gone now. I don’t know where she is. She hurt me.” I sensed loss and felt pain in my breast, pain as real as truth. “But I’m working through it.”

Monica, I saw, was disappointed. She’d expected denial. On the other hand, my response elicited sympathy from Susan.

“Oh, Joe, I’m sorry.”

Susan’s response served to displease further, for Monica had ex­pected to see my esteem in Susan’s eyes fall, not rise. Her reaction to the ensuing silence was harsh as she gathered up the cards from the reading.

“Select,” she said. “Past or future.”

“Future,” I said, thinking there just might be more to my alleged future than I’d at first thought. There was my future in 2047, certainly. And being a part of my past, I already knew much about it; but there were questions regarding my future here in 1992 as well.

Curious, I waited in silence as Monica squared the pack of cards that contained my future, and then proceeded to turn them over, one at a time, placing them as she’d done before. I nervously glanced over at Susan for a measure of reassurance.

Her smile calmed me. I drew further assurance from the hand she placed on my arm. I drew in a breath and listened as Monica began the second phase of my reading.

“The Ten of Cups crosses you,” she said.

This time it was Monica’s turn to sneak a peek at Susan; in dismay, she went on.

“You will find that which you seek, your paradigm – that which has seemed so elusive to you. Because of her, you will be able to finish that which was started long ago. Also, a lost child will seek to renew a rela­tionship with you – this is indicated here, by the Ace of Swords.

“The Queen of Wands shows herself as an unfaithful lover. She will try to rekindle your love for her, but beware, she tells lies. Here,” she said, indicating the next card, “the Page of Wands, are those lies. But the truth is, if you take her back all will be lost.”

She paused again, head cocked, as if listening to a voice that was hers alone to hear.

“This woman caused you much suffering. You feel she must be punished because of the man who removed you from your place and subsequently caused you to lose your ambition. This man shows up in your reading as the Five of Swords reversed. He will be defeated in battle and will no longer perform for her what she needs. Therefore she will return to you.

“The Six of Swords tells of future travel. You will have business re­garding your work.

“A long lost brother will seek you out, as shown by the Knight of Wands. He is very angry with you, as well as disappointed. Listen to what your brother has to say. It will be easy for you to distrust his words, but he speaks the truth.

“The Ace of Pentacles, reversed, shows a loss of business or opportunity for continued success. You will regain all, but only if you spurn the Queen of Wands –”

“That’s enough.”

My outburst surprised everyone at the table save myself. My deci­sion to halt the reading was the only thing that hadn’t surprised me since this nonsense began.

“But I have not completed your reading.”

“I don’t need to hear more.”

“But, Joe, what about your past?” Susan asked.

“I already know what resides there.”

The truth was that the reading she’d completed thus far, concern­ing my present and the one that lay incomplete before me, didn’t be­long to me. None of what she was talking about dealt with me. Un­faithful lovers. How could a lover be unfaithful to me when in turn I had never been faithful?

Untrue, a part of me argued back.

But I was already moving on.

A child? Impossible. I’ve sired no offspring. And I have no brother. It’s all a sham.

Or meant for someone else. Who, then?

I stood, upending the board the cards had been positioned on, sending them into Monica’s lap and onto the floor; the reading had come to an end, of that I’d made certain.

I strode purposefully into the living room, where I stopped in front of the window to gaze at two fags strolling hand-in-hand past Monica’s second floor apartment.

A moment later, I felt Susan’s light touch on my arm. That simple gesture sparked anger in me – that she could make me feel the way she did just by the gentleness of her touch.

I turned, preparing a reprimand but was stopped short by the concern in her eyes.

Now my anger was directed inward. The very idea that I could even consider reproaching her was reprehensible.

Suddenly, I was nearly consumed with a passion to cup her face with my hands, to taste the sweetness I knew resided on her lips, and to hold her close and bury my face within the soft, luxurious texture of her wondrously dark hair, inhaling its fresh fragrance.

Ashamed, yet not knowing the source of my abasement, I turned away.

“What is it, Joe?”

I ached for her, and because I ached for her, it pained me to have to do what was becoming more and more common although no less difficult – lie.

There was trust in her eyes, but like the cards had foretold, I was a man shrouded in mystery. I held secrets that, were the truth known, could not be believed. Even I was finding it more and more difficult to believe the facts as they unraveled, so how could I expect her to com­prehend them?

I took a deep breath. I could seem, peripherally, Monica leaning against the archway to the other room.

How much did she actually know?

Would she contradict what I was about to say?

It didn’t matter. I had to say something; maintaining silence at this point was just as damning.

“I’m sorry. It’s just that … well, I thought I had that part of my life under better control. I thought I’d put all that behind me. But to see, in the cards, that I’ll have to deal with all that again, it’s painful.”

“Ah, but the cards also say you have the option of closing the door.”

“What if I can’t?”

“A better question would be what if you don’t want to?”

Then, in response to my exasperation, she added, “There is a dif­ference.”

“I know that.”

“Isn’t it better to recoup at least some of what you lost as opposed to losing it all, including yourself?”

I smiled down at her.

If you only knew, I reflected. If I opt for what you think is the best option the cards offer, then I will lose myself.

My smile seemed to reassure her.

“Come on,” she said, taking my arm and leading me back to the dining room. “Let’s have another cup of coffee.”

Thirty minutes later, Susan left to get Sarah Jane while I offered muttered apologies to Monica for upsetting her cards; she in turn ac­cepted them graciously enough. I thanked her for her hospitality and for reading the cards; she seemed indifferent.

She may now believe the advantage has shifted in her favor, I reasoned. That might very well be the case, but I’m still leaving with the prize, while she’s being left behind to play fifty-two card pickup.

J. Conrad Guest, author of: 500 Miles To Go, A Retrospect In Death, A World Without Music, Backstop: A Baseball Love Story In Nine Innings, January’s Thaw, and One Hot January

Cover concept

Cover concept


Filed under J. Conrad Guest

Novels of J. Conrad Guest

During a recent conversation I was asked how many books I have published. I said, “Eight.” That seemed to be an impressive number, because their response was, “Wow, you’re prolific.” I laughed and told them that I’d been writing for twenty-two years and that I considered that number not so high.

Photo courtesy of Craig David Butler

Photo courtesy of Craig David Butler

In truth, it took me ten years to write my first two, and I’ve written seven more (my ninth is soon to be released) in the last twelve years. Even that latter number pales in comparison to writers who complete a novel every six months.

In my defense, I go for quality rather than quantity. That is, I don’t write formula or even genre, even if all my stories are about the universal ideals of love, loss, regret and death. Although I apply what I previously learned to each new project, I tend to recreate the wheel for each one.

After that recent conversation ended, it occurred to me that for my monthly Second Wind blog, I’d include in one place all my titles with a brief synopsis of each one, along with reviews.

500 Miles To Go

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Click to purchase

A love story that touches four decades, 500 Miles to Go is about the importance of, and the risks associated with, the pursuit of dreams. When our dreams cause angst to our loved ones, they often become nightmares.

Gail fell for Alex Król 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. When Alex makes his dream to drive in the Indy 500 come true and he witnesses the deaths of two drivers in his first start, he must ask himself if his quest to win the world’s greatest race is worth not only the physical risk, but also losing the woman he loves.

“…J. Conrad Guest has demonstrated once again not only his innate literary ability, but also his marvelous ability to draw us irresistibly into this incredible, thrilling and heartfelt story. We would jump ahead to the finish, if the writing were not so compelling—and when the race is over, we want to go again!” —Lazarus Barnhill, author of Caddo Creek

“A sweet love story gives way to the love affair with speed… First loser becomes disillusioned winner, hindsight waxes philosophical, and a lonely man reminds us, ‘One doesn’t find love… It’s not some object to be unearthed… Love is a choice.’” —Sheila Deeth, author of Divide by Zero and Amazon Top 1,000 Reviewer

A Retrospect In Death


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A Retrospect in Death begins with a man’s death. The reader is taken to the other side where the narrator encounters his higher self—the part of him that is immortal and is connected to the creator. The protagonist learns (much to his chagrin) that he must return to the lifecycle. But first he must be “debriefed” by his higher self, and so they set about discussing the man’s previous life—in reverse chronological order: knowing the end but retracing the journey, searching for the breadcrumbs left along the way.

A Retrospect in Death is a story about discovery. You think you know yourself? Perhaps you only think you do. Do those closest to us know us better than we know ourselves; or do they, as we often insist, know jack? Consider that only in death can you really know, and understand, who and why you are—or were. And then ask yourself: At that point, is it too late? Does it even matter?

“J. Conrad Guest’s A Retrospective in Death is a languid, oddly compelling tale, evoking an era with a wealth of intricate detail, creating a memorable yet achingly ordinary man, and searching for meaning and purpose in it all.” —Sheila Deeth, author of Divide by Zero and Amazon Top 1,000 Reviewer

A Retrospect in Death is one part Ingrid Bergman, one part Joseph Heller, a la Catch-22, and—with its copious cigar smoke and leggy women—two parts vintage J. Conrad Guest. Like his previous novels, readers will be sorry when the story ends.” —Lazarus Barnhill, author of Lacey Took a Holiday

A World Without Music

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Click to purchase

Can a Gulf War veteran suffering PTSD finally leave behind his past to find the music that will make his life worth living?

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 friend who is much more than he appears to be, Reagan discovers he must let go of his tortured past if he is to embrace the future.

“J. Conrad Guest ventures into new literary territory, and once again the result is gripping and beautiful. The seamless prose draws the reader from the horror and peril of combat to the agony of post-traumatic stress and despair. Protagonist Reagan is a creature of the brutality of the real world, stripped of idealism and past, waiting for miracles, searching for the music that will make his life worth living.” —Lazarus Barnhill, author of Lacey Took a Holiday

“…And the music of the common man proves as vital to our world’s symphony as that of heroes and villains throughout all time. A World Without Music reads like a masterpiece of music, culture and life, and is highly recommended.” —Sheila Deeth, author of Divide by Zero and Amazon Top 1,000 Reviewer

Backstop: A Baseball Love Story in Nine Innings


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

Backstop’s story—told in his own words during the seventh game of the World Series in what could be his last game after fourteen years in the major leagues—chronicles his rookie season, takes the reader to Chicago where he finds romance, and reveals the heartbreak he endured in the aftermath of an adulterous affair.

Cheer for Backstop both on and off the field as he plays the most important game of his career—haunted by the ghost of his father who passed away before Backstop achieved stardom—and fights to win back the heart of the woman he loves more than the game.

Superbly crafted with a deft, tender touch, Backstop: A Baseball Love Story in Nine Innings is a compelling tale of following the true passions of the heart. A truly heartwarming read.” —Apex Reviews

“Baseball, like love, is a game of errors and regrets. Pop-outs, ground-outs, strike-outs. A bad swing, a bad throw, a bad hop. But what captivates us most is the possibility of the next at-bat, of the chance for a rally, of an unlikely clutch play that suddenly changes the stakes. This is where J. Conrad Guest meets us in Backstop: in this beautiful, hopeful place closest to our hearts, where we play for the love of the game, and we love with everything we have.” —Rachael Perry, author of How to Fly

January’s Paradigm (fourth edition forthcoming from Second Wind)

Cover concept

Cover concept

Robert Porter is enjoying the fruits of success: a best-selling detective novel featuring a hard-nosed detective circa 1947 named Joe January, and a lucrative contract for the sequel. But his world comes crashing down around him when he witnesses his wife’s infidelity.

As Porter sinks into a morass of grief over her abandonment, only one person can help him regain his self-esteem and dignity. One man alone can help Porter set things right… and that person’s name is Joe January. But he doesn’t even exist… or does he?

“J. Conrad Guest has taken the heartbreak of sexual betrayal and turned it into a romance-fantasy… Readers will not be able to put it down.” —Current Entertainment Monthly, Ann Arbor, Michigan

“Prompted by his detective’s instincts and the photograph of a woman who seems strangely familiar, January begins his search for the reasons behind his existence. His quest will take him down numerous and occasionally violent paths: there’s a beast lurking at the periphery of this, Robert Porter’s alternate reality.” —Ellen Tanner Marsh, New York Times best-selling author

January’s Thaw

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Click to purchase

Many people obsess over their past, but no one more than I. Perchance it’s because, as a man out of time, I left behind so much of it unlived. If that makes little sense, consider that I’m a time traveler. Although the backdrop for my story is time travel and alternate realities, the underlying theme is a more human one—of love lost, another love found only to be lost, and of a decision, the result of a single regret brought about by the realization that my self-professed courage to never risk my heart to love was instead cowardice, to rectify a wrong in a life filled with myriad regrets. You may judge me, as it is man’s nature to judge others, or discount my story as the ravings of a lunatic mind or simply the fiction of an overactive imagination—but before you do, I ask that you read on to the end, and then ask yourself if you would have acted any differently.

“J. Conrad Guest gives us an unforgettable adventure seen through the cracked lens of our broken present and an all-too-possible what-if past. Full of intrigue, romance and scathing social commentary, it is both an ambitious novel and an exciting, page-turning imaginative quest for that which is beautiful and true.”
—Rachael Perry, author of How to Fly

One Hot January

Imagine an alternate history in which the United States fails to enter World War II in time to help the Allies defeat the Tripartite before Germany becomes too strong to defeat. Imagine a future in which Germany has perfected genetic engineering and is systematically eradicating whole nations in an effort to secure the empire Hitler vowed would last a thousand years; a future in which Hitler lies in a cryogenic chamber, awaiting treatment for a cancer for which a cure has been discovered.

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Click to purchase

Imagine a future in which a faction of genetically engineered people, opposed to Hitler’s tyranny, choose to travel back in time to amend future history by influencing Churchill to withhold from U.S. Intelligence the vital decrypt specifying the date and time of the raid on Pearl Harbor. Imagine a fast-talking private investigator from the Bronx named Joe January who uncovers the seemingly impossible plot 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 of Hitler’s location from falling into the wrong hands…

By the end of One Hot January, January is transported into the future where, in the sequel, January’s Thaw, he must survive by his century-old sagacity in our modern world.

“He may be Bogart-cool and clever, sharp-tongued and fedoraed—but underneath the veneer Joe January reveals himself both in his vulnerability and the most ageless adventure of all: a journey of the heart.” —Rachael Perry, author of How to Fly

J. Conrad Guest


Filed under writing

January’s Paradigm—by J. Conrad Guest

Robert Porter is enjoying the fruits of success: a best-selling detective novel featuring a hard-nosed detective circa 1947 named Joe January, and a lucrative contract for the sequel. But his world comes crashing down around him when he witnesses his wife’s infidelity. 

As Porter sinks into a morass of grief over her abandonment, only one person can help him regain his self-esteem and dignity. One man alone can help Porter set things right … and that person’s name is Joe January. But he doesn’t even exist … or does he?

Photo courtesy of Craig David Butler

Photo courtesy of Craig David Butler


January’s Paradigm is the novel that started it all.

It’s been nearly fifteen years since the second edition of January’s Paradigm went to print, and nearly twenty-five years since I sat down to write the first words: I stepped out of the dark, smoky habitat of Earl’s Place.

Two more January novels followed, and I’ve since seen six more of my children published. I’ve learned much over the years, about myself and also about the craft of writing. Should the learning ever cease, I will lay down my pen.

I was thrilled when Second Wind agreed to publish this fourth edition so that the entire trilogy would bear their imprint. However, I was resistant to even read January’s Paradigm these many years later. I cringed at the prospect for fear that I would wish to rewrite large portions of it. Certainly there were many sections of narrative I would write differently were I writing it today.

In preparing this edition, I wished to maintain the integrity of as much of the original text as much as possible, not only to show where I was in my life twenty-five years ago, but also to show the progress I’ve made as a writer and a stylist.

The changes are minor, mostly to do with formatting and structure. I resisted the urge to add or revise narrative, with a very few exceptions – what can I say? I’m a perfectionist and never could refrain from tink­ering, which is why I rarely revisit my novels once they go to print. I can always find ways to improve a text; never perfect, I can only achieve “closer to perfection.”

January’s Paradigm holds its rightful place in my body of work, and I remain proud of this endeavor.

Below appears an excerpt.

“Come any closer and I’ll cut her, I swear,” the punk with the knife said. The fear in his voice was obvious, making him all the more dan­gerous.

While I’d been busy disposing of the first two goons, this one had managed to take Susan hostage. He stood behind her, his left arm wrapped tightly around her waist; Susan’s heavy breasts rested on the forearm that held her in check, while the punk’s right hand held the knife to the soft pale flesh of her throat. The corner streetlight glinted intermittently off the shiny blade, evidence of the kid’s nervousness.

I saw the stark panic reflected in Susan’s dark eyes, and the unspent portion of my rage ascended to a new apogee. That Porter would subject his supposed ideal to the rigors of this assault was beyond my capacity to reason, and I hated him for it. I hated him for being respon­sible for the terror that now resided where before I’d seen only laughter and love, brief respites of concern for me, and hurt (that I’d been the cause of); the sum of which had managed to endear her to me. But even they paled beside the intensity of what was now being reflected in her eyes.

Suddenly, I was uncertain of how to proceed, as I was equally un­certain of Porter’s intent for orchestrating this sequence of events. Did he intend to eliminate Susan from the story? If he did, would her ab­sence from this fantasy cause him to stir from his torpidity, or merely serve to drive him deeper into an already nearly fatal state of denial?

I was no longer certain, as I’d been moments before while dis­patching Porter’s other two lackeys, that Porter knew what would tran­spire in the next few minutes. To me, it felt as yet unscripted. The choice, it appeared, was mine to make. Just as it had been my choice the other night to deal with Kate in the manner I had.

Yet never before had the consequences of my options weighed so heavily.

To act might spell Susan’s demise, for by taking action there was al­ways the chance of success. But to turn around and walk away from this situation would certainly spell doom for her.

Some dim part of my consciousness knew that, in Porter’s reality, this is precisely how situations such as this ended. The assailant’s sexual climax was predicated on violence, and so the pinnacle of that act of passion was really in the aftermath, when the ultimate climax ended with the victim’s death.

“Walk away, man. I just want the girl. Walk away now and I just might let her live. Make any more trouble, I’ll cut her for sure.” I could hear the tension in the voice rising, while Susan’s eyes implored that I pay no heed to the voice coming from just behind her right ear.

In the past, I had always reacted on the pretense of right and wrong; those reactions usually benefitted the underdog.

To walk away now would serve Porter right; let him deal with his own tortured reality.

Yet to walk away would also be wrong, for by doing so I relegated Susan, the aforementioned aggrieved underdog, to certain doom. 

What should that matter to me? She’s just a product of Porter’s imagination, same as the kid threatening to spill her blood, same as everyone I’ve ever met, pre­sent, past and future. Hell, the same as me.

That’s not true, that other part of me rebuked. You are real. You must be.

“Come on, man. Don’t make me ask again.”

I noted the look of fear in the kid’s eyes and something else as well, something behind the eyes. Another presence. The same presence that was responsible for all that had, and would, transpire in this fantasy. It wrote the words the kid recited with such uncertainty; yet unsure how I might react, itself terrified that I might abandon it, that other presence betrayed its own uncertainty in the eyes of Susan’s captor. A look that was totally out of character for the character, it pleaded with me. It begged me not to abandon it.

That same presence existed in Susan’s eyes as well.

I closed my eyes as I became painfully aware that there was more at stake here than mere right or wrong.

Walking away to spite Porter would surely sign Susan’s death war­rant, and Porter’s shame at being the instrument of her degradation would be too much to bear. He would cut short her suffering because never again would he be able to look into her eyes through mine and bear the pain of having been the author of her fate. 

Yes, I reasoned, it would be wrong to punish you at Susan’s expense. She is but an innocent bystander. 

But why? I argued back. She’s not real. 

But what she represents is. The voice of the gargoyle.

“Porter’s paradigm is mine also,” I muttered.

“What was that?” the kid said.

I ignored him.

I saw the truth in my rationale; but it was a truth that remained blurred, just out of focus. That I should desire what Porter desired was only natural; it was no secret I desired Susan, as did Porter. We were, after all, one and the same. A derivative of Porter’s more abject nature, I allowed Porter the avenue of escape to investigate a lifestyle more glamorous than his own mundane existence permitted.

But I had discovered an unnatural attachment to Susan these past several days. Not only had I grown protective of her, but fond as well. In a way that my own equally mundane existence between the covers of One Hot January had not permitted.

In a sense, Susan was more real than anyone I’d ever encountered, because of Porter’s attachment to her. He’d modeled her after an ideal. She wasn’t just a fictional creation for one of his novels, but instead someone he wished with all his heart he might find in his own an­guished reality.

I recalled the way Susan relished teasing me, but instead of embar­rassment, I now felt the warmth of affection at the image of her making sport of me, playfully mocking my odd dialect. Coming to my rescue when my inhibitions allowed me to only blush. Her eyes, full of life and love and laughter, and the way she looked at me with those eyes; not with selfish lust as others had, but with selfless kindness, understanding and genuine affection, as well as concern, just as genuine, as she had when I’d arrived unexpectedly at The Oasis just an hour ago. Her laughter, warm and resonant, a wonderfully melodic sound to my ears. I recalled the way she touched me when I least expected it, and all of the other special gifts that made her uniquely her.

All the attributes that Porter coveted, and believed himself worthy of, were the same traits that I now discovered equally desirable yet un­obtainable, because I saw myself, in view of my checkered past, as un­worthy.

In short, I was in love with Susan Anders. The realization brought my eyes open.

“Don’t even think it, man,” the punk said, but the look in his eyes said otherwise. “I’ll cut her, I swear I will.” The statement lacked con­viction. Not a declaration of certitude, it seemed to invite a reply. I obliged.

“You do and I’ll kill you.” I spoke the words softly, yet the weight they carried was obvious.

The kid’s eyes went wide with fear; a moment later a puddle of water appeared on the sidewalk between his feet.

“You’re freakin’ nuts.”

“No,” I said. “Just pissed.”

If this had been a book, I might’ve found the moment humorous; but this wasn’t a book. Although the setting was fictitious and teeming with fictional characters, the outcome of events held life and death ramifications for Robert Porter and all he held near and dear. Susan Anders, for one, or more importantly the ideal she represented. The hope that she, or someone like her, existed in his reality.

And me, too, I suddenly discerned for the first time. Hadn’t I been a paradigm of sorts to Porter, albeit flawed as I was?

I now understood what the voice inside my head meant about be­ing stronger together as one. I also understood why Susan wanted him – Porter – to soften January’s character and make him more real.

In One Hot January, Porter would’ve found some way for me to come to Susan’s rescue in some fancifully violent way that would’ve left her assailant bloodied and broken, and somehow glorify the ferocity of my wrath by having the damsel in distress repay her debt to my hero­ism with sexual favors.

But this was not One Hot January.

I merely dismissed the kid with a nonchalant wave of my hand.

“Go on,” I said. All of the controlled anger of a few moments ago was gone.

“Get out of here before you get hurt.”

The kid didn’t wait around to be told a second time. Dropping the knife, he released Susan and, with a look of relief mingled with thanks, made good his pardon from my rage. The thanks, I was certain, be­longed to that other person I’d briefly glimpsed, the person who had pleaded that I not walk away. The rapidity of the kid’s departure left me momentarily amused.

The next moment found Susan in my arms, her body wracked by sobs, the release of her previous anguish.

In the past, I would’ve had some humorous anecdote ready, a segue into what would’ve brought the chapter to a sort of anti-climax.

But this wasn’t the past, so I kept silent, offering comfort in a strangely different way.

There was nothing I could say to assuage her distress, so I simply returned her embrace, stroking her soft hair, inhaling its fragrance, amazed that the adrenaline high of a moment ago, coupled with the firm reality of Susan’s close proximity, hadn’t resulted in the usual sex­ual arousal.

A minute later, the violence of her sobs ebbed, and she managed to say between hiccoughs, “I thought … for a minute I thought … I thought you’d leave me.”

“Never,” I whispered, and felt her grip tighten.

The word was meant to reassure her; but even as I spoke it, I knew it was a lie, for I now knew I would be leaving her. And soon.

Inside, I grieved over her loss from me.

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

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Black and White Reality of Fifty Shades of Grey—J. Conrad Guest

Photo courtesy of Craig David Butler

Photo courtesy of Craig David Butler

Disclaimer: Some will accuse me of envy that such drivel as Fifty Shades of Grey has become a phenomenon while, as a writer, I toil away in near obscurity. But truly? This is what passes as good fiction in the world today?

The book is an international bestseller, having sold more than 100 million copies worldwide, while the movie, billed as a “couples flick”, grossed nearly $158.3 million worldwide in its first weekend. Movie theaters were selling out a week before it opened. Amazon lists nearly 30,000 reviews of the book; slightly more than half the reviews rate the book four or five stars. Apparently readers either love it or hate it.

I read on a website, from a woman, that “women relate to Ana because she is so ‘ordinary’ that every woman can see herself in the character—her shyness, uncertainty, and ordinary looks.” Yeah, right, and Christian is the Prince Charming every young woman hopes to meet: handsome, rich, the bad boy for whom she dumps the warm and caring guy she professes to want because the bad boy is so broken he needs to be fixed and only she can love him in the manner he needs and deserves, all while he abuses her in every way imaginable. I’m so glad that my wife is extraordinary.

Another claims, “There is nothing wrong with women accepting and loving their sexuality as much as men. This includes watching and reading what turns them on and getting to know their own tastes and kinks.” Abuse, including rape and humiliation, is part of accepting and loving one’s sexuality? Ana is a virgin. What Christian puts her through is her introduction to sex. Our first time sets the stage for how we will view sex for the rest of our lives. In reality, a woman such as Ana would be scarred for life.

Fifteen hundred women die every year in the U.S. at the hands of their husbands or boyfriends. According to a Glamour study, 60% of women between the ages of eighteen and thirty-five have experienced physical or emotional abuse. More than half of that number have been hit, shoved, choked, or felt threatened to the point that they fear for their life. In addition, at least one in six men have been sexually abused by the age of eighteen.

What’s it say about a society that turns into a bestseller a book that depicts stalking, manipulation, intimidation, and physical threats and violence against a woman? This isn’t fantasy, this isn’t kink, this isn’t a love story. This is more than disturbing. A couple’s flick? Really? This is a movie to be enjoyed with your significant other over a bottle of wine and a bowl of popcorn, watching a young woman being degraded and humiliated in the hopes she’ll find her happily ever after?

I haven’t read the book, nor do I intend to; nor will I watch the movie. Ever. But I have learned that the story is about Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey. Christian, Ana’s romantic interest, is described as tall, lean yet muscular, and broad-shouldered, with dark copper-colored hair and intense, bright gray eyes. He keeps in shape by kickboxing and running. Ana describes him as, “He is not merely good looking—he is the epitome of male beauty, breathtaking.” Oh, brother. “Copper hair?” He looks like Carrot Top?

Born to a drug addled prostitute in Detroit, Christian’s mother committed suicide when he was four. He remained with her body for four days before the police discovered them. As he grows older, Christian continues having nightmares about the event, referring to his birth mother as “the crack whore.” This is supposed to make me sympathetic to him?

As an adolescent, Christian had violent mood swings that got him into many fist fights, and he drank alcohol. He hated all of the therapists that he’d been forced to see. At age fifteen, he took a landscaping job for one of his mother’s old friends, who seduces him and introduces him to the BDSM (bondage and discipline, sadism and masochism) lifestyle, where he learns how to control his emotions and channel his anger into positive channels. Yeah. Inflicting pain and humiliation on others is certainly positive. It’s okay for Christian to victimize others because he himself was a victim in his youth? We are always accountable for the choices we make as adults, no matter how disadvantaged our youth may have left us.

Christian briefly attends Harvard, studying politics and economics (how does he manage to get into such an elite school with his background?), but drops out to start his own business. Before he’s thirty, he’s a self-made multi-millionaire and pilot. Yes, well, it is fiction. I suppose if the consumer buys into everything else in this fantasy, they’ll easily embrace this as believable. They flock to the movie house to watch a woman, under threats, submit to her master in the bedroom while the bible, which teaches that a wife submit to her husband, is a threat against their rights.

By the end, after Christian manipulates her with alcohol, sex, threats, rape and abuse, Ana fixes Christian and gets everything she wants: a loving husband who is perfectly adjusted. Really? In the real world, Ana would end up in a shelter, maybe even a morgue, and Christian would end up in prison. But readers buy into this as a love story because… well, maybe because they still believe in Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, and happily ever after.

Yes, I understand that in science fiction I must be willing to suspend my disbelief in time travel, alternate realities, and faster than light interstellar travel, but the story, the interactions between characters, must still be rooted in reality. Escapism should still possess some thread of reality, shouldn’t it? How does this story, which I understand doesn’t accurately depict BDSM, even remotely resemble reality?

It’s a harmless fantasy, you say? It’s been said that fantasy is both an escape from reality and an expression of hidden desire. If that’s true, what message does Fifty Shades of Grey send to young people? What lessons does it teach about normal, healthy, nurturing relationships between men and women?

If fantasy reflects who we are while shaping what we become, imagine the damage this book and movie will do to future generations.

J. Conrad Guest, author of: 500 Miles To GoA Retrospect In DeathA World Without MusicBackstop: A Baseball Love Story In Nine Innings, January’s Thaw, and One Hot January

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What Is Truth?—J. Conrad Guest

Or maybe the better question, the more pertinent question where fiction is concerned, is where is truth in text today?

Photo courtesy of Craig David Butler

Photo courtesy of Craig David Butler

As a reader, I’ve always sought truth in what I read. As a writer, as an artist, I not only seek perfection in my work—a noble endeavor if not achievable—but also to impart truth.

The late Susan Sontag said, “Literature is a form of responsibility—to literature itself and to society. By literature, I mean literature in the normative sense, the sense in which literature incarnates and defends high standards. By society, I mean society in the normative sense too, which suggests that a great writer of fiction, by writing truthfully about the society in which she or he lives, cannot help but evoke (if only by their absence) the better standards of justice and of truthfulness which we have the right (some would say the duty) to militate for in the necessarily imperfect societies in which we live.”

Sontag thought of writers as “moral agents.” She said, “In my view, a fiction writer whose adherence is to literature is, necessarily, someone who thinks about moral problems: about what is just and unjust, what is better or worse, what is repulsive and admirable, what is lamentable and what inspires joy and approbation. This doesn’t entail moralizing in any direct or crude sense. Serious fiction writers think about moral problems practically. They tell stories. They narrate. They evoke our common humanity in narratives with which we can identify, even though the lives may be remote from our own. They stimulate our imagination. The stories they tell enlarge and complicate—and, therefore, improve—our sympathies. They educate our capacity for moral judgment.”

Some argue against moral judgment as an attack against their personal rights. “Who are you to define what is moral?” they ask, as if right and wrong are not obverse sides of the same coin, that they exist only in shades of gray, as if only some greater being—whether an existential being or an anthropomorphic deity—is capable of distinguishing between the two. For instance, it is okay to tell a lie to protect someone from a painful truth (or to hide one’s own shame and deny accountability). To take a life is okay if it’s in the name of country or honor, and Corporate America can profit from it. We flock to the box office to see the vigilante justice in franchises like Die Hard and cheer when revenge is exacted, which is not the same as justice. Pornography, they debate, harms no one. It is protected under the First Amendment; yet how many would freely admit to their spouse or significant other, their children, that they view such material, to the detriment of their family relationships? Which brings up a question better suited for another topic: How many live their lives as if it were an open book?

Sontag: “To tell a story is to say: This is the important story. It is to reduce the spread and simultaneity of everything to something linear, a path.

“To be a moral human being is to pay, be obliged to pay, certain kinds of attention.

“When we make moral judgments, we are not just saying that this is better than that. Even more fundamentally, we are saying that this is more important than that. It is to order the overwhelming spread and simultaneity of everything, at the price of ignoring or turning our backs on most of what is happening in the world.”

It seems to me that truth in fiction is dying. Writers talk about consistency of character, that they should behave in a believable fashion, but that’s not truth. The major publishing houses, agents, creative writing courses, seem to eschew truth for entertainment. One has only to look at the Bestseller List to see that this is true. The same can be said about movies: action and violence sells; truth is boring.

I’ve met my share of consumers who freely admit to reading simply to escape from their reality. Many don’t care to read anything too deep or thought-provoking, or that perhaps mirrors too closely their own reality. Their awareness of what lies outside their reality is that of a voyeur. Quality didn’t sell 50 Shades of Gray, nor did any semblance of truth. Curiosity and vulgarity did.

How many writers today seek truth in their work, and how many simply identify an audience—for instance, unhappy housewives, or fanatics of vampires or werewolves—and simply write to that audience? The mercenary who writes for a paycheck is really saying that sales are more important than truth.

This is why I think the novel is dying: the desensitization, or decay, of society. Writers today strive to be vanilla, politically correct, offensive to no one, so that they can reach the widest audience. As a result, few authors stretch our perception of the world around us, at least not beyond the bounds of poor taste, that which encompasses violence and vulgarity.

Sontag: “Is this refusal of an extended awareness, which takes in more than is happening right now, right here, not at the heart of our ever-confused awareness of human evil and of the immense capacity of human beings to commit evil? Because there are, incontestably, zones of experience that are not distressing, which give joy, it remains a puzzle that there is so much misery and wickedness. A great deal of narrative, and the speculation that tries to free itself from narrative and become purely abstract, inquires: Why does evil exist? Why do people betray and kill one another? Why do the innocent suffer?

“But perhaps the problem ought to be rephrased: Why is evil not everywhere? More precisely, why is it somewhere but not everywhere? And what are we to do when it doesn’t befall us? When the pain that is endured is the pain of others?”

In today’s book industry, if it doesn’t sell, it isn’t relevant. But if truth isn’t relevant, what’s that say about the world around us?

J. Conrad Guest, author of: 500 Miles To GoA Retrospect In DeathA World Without MusicBackstop: A Baseball Love Story In Nine InningsJanuary’s Thaw, and One Hot January

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Christmas 2014: Where Did Tolerance Go?—J. Conrad Guest

Maybe it’s just my age, looking through rose colored glasses into a past that seems much friendlier today than it perhaps really was fifty years ago.

Photo courtesy of Craig David Butler

Photo courtesy of Craig David Butler

The 1960s: turbulent. Two Kennedys assassinated, Martin Luther King gunned down, the war in Vietnam raged. But we also had The Beatles, Woodstock, The Dick Van Dyke Show, and Laugh-In. And people seemed much more tolerant. Sometime during the last fifty years individual rights took center stage, pushing tolerance into the wings, where it remains mute, perhaps suffering stage fright.

No tolerance today, not for pro choice or pro life, not for gay rights, not for religious beliefs. A young boy is told he cannot read the bible in school—not on his free time between classes or during lunch. A young girl cannot say a quick prayer of thanks at the school cafeteria before lunch. A nativity scene at Christmas is offensive. Some want “In God We Trust” removed from our currency. Maybe we should, since it appears that many believe in money as their savior.

Tolerance. Merriam-Webster defines it as a willingness to accept feelings, habits, or beliefs that are different from your own.

Today, tolerance means I must accept your feelings, habits and beliefs, but you are free to disregard my feelings, disparage me for my beliefs, and I must accept that under the guise of “human rights”. We’re so caught up in personal rights that we’ve forgotten that our rights end when they infringe on the rights of another.

I’ve long remained publically mute on the subject of Christmas, but this year I voice my opinion. You’re offended that I celebrate Christmas as the birth of a Messiah. You tell me he is but a myth. I have news for you. Santa isn’t real. He doesn’t make toys at his home at the North Pole, nor does he circle the globe on Christmas Eve to deliver toys down the chimney’s of billions of people—many who don’t have chimneys. I don’t push on you my belief in God, even though, in my mind, there is a greater chance that He exists than does Santa. But go ahead, put up on your front lawn your inflatable Santa, and the sleigh and reindeer on your roof. I can tolerate that, even if you can’t tolerate the nativity scene on my lawn, and petition City Hall to make me take it down.

Christmas has become, in my opinion, the measuring stick for how well the economy is doing. Black Friday: how does this year’s spending measure up against last year? Put up the tree, decorate it, and buy gifts, and for what? To help the nation’s economic recovery? To make up for the truly shitty way you treated your family the rest of the year? To buy the affection of your spouse and children because you haven’t earned it by spending quality time with them all year long?

My wish this Christmas season is that you find under your tree a large box of tolerance. Furthermore, that you learn to accept other thinking as simply that: thinking that differs from your own and doesn’t threaten you, your family, or your beliefs. Accept me for my feelings, habits and beliefs, as I accept yours. Life is short, shorter still when you consider the life of the planet and the universe. Only when we come to accept diversity will we become the Human Race, and not white, black, yellow, man and woman.

Why can’t we all just get along?

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

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Thanksgiving Day 2014—J. Conrad Guest

According to Wikipedia, Thanksgiving Day became an official Federal holiday in 1863, when, during the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a national day of “Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens” to be celebrated on the last Thursday in November.

Photo courtesy of Craig David Butler

Photo courtesy of Craig David Butler

The event that Americans commonly call the “First Thanksgiving” was celebrated by the Pilgrims after their first harvest in the New World in 1621. This feast, which lasted three days, was attended by 90 Native Americans and 53 Pilgrims. The New England colonists were accustomed to regularly celebrating “thanksgivings”—days of prayer thanking God for blessings such as military victory or the end of a drought.

Today, Thanksgiving is considered the harbinger of the broader holiday season, merely the announcement that Christmas and New Years are on their way. The day after Thanksgiving is considered the biggest shopping day of the year. Black Friday and the days leading up to Christmas are used as a measuring stick for how well the economy is doing.

Wikipedia claims the term Black Friday originated in Philadelphia, where it described the heavy and disruptive pedestrian and vehicle traffic that took place on the day after Thanksgiving. Use of the term started before 1961, and began to see broader use outside Philadelphia around 1975. Much later, it took on a financial meaning: that retailers operating at a financial loss (“in the red”) from January through November began turning a profit (“in the black”) on the day after Thanksgiving. For large retail chains like Wal-Mart, whose net income is positive starting from January 1, Black Friday merely boosts their year to date net profits.

On Thanksgiving Day, many gorge themselves on turkey and all the stuffings that go with it, watch football, and perhaps bicker with family members they haven’t seen since last year. How many of us think let alone speak of all for which we should be thankful?

In a world that grows smaller day by day—a world filled with ugliness and violence, hatred and terrorism—in our country, where lies govern politics and politicians govern for their own gain and no longer represent the will of We, the People who elect them to office; where individual rights overshadow the rights of all; where 10% of the population owns 47% of the nation’s wealth, and one percent of that 10% is one hundred times more well off than the next nine percent; where the middle class dwindles as more corporations offshore jobs to increase profits; in a nation that once led the world in many categories and now leads in only three: number of incarcerated citizens per capita, number of adults who believe angels are real, and defense spending; where mention of God in public is at best politically incorrect, at worst offensive; where holding government accountable for the poor job they do is considered unpatriotic or even racist; in a country where profit is more important than morals, it’s becoming more and more difficult to find reasons to be thankful, even as the rest of the world envies us.

This Thanksgiving Day, I’m humbly thankful for the love a good woman, the roof over our heads, the warmth under it, the food that nourishes us, and for the God who provides it all, who shows grace to us mortals who don’t deserve it, who one day will welcome us for a job well done, for not worshipping materialism, for our generosity in thinking of others, and giving to others even when it was a hardship.

We take none of our earthly possessions with us when we die, so it is my hope and prayer that more Americans come to realize that and so, instead of hoarding, give something to those in need.

Happy Thanksgiving to all who read these words: you have much more for which to be thankful than you perhaps think.

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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.



“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?”


“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?”


“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?”


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