Author Archives: J. Conrad

About J. Conrad

I write novels about everyday people dealing with 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.

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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Forever a Philanderer Excerpt Two—J. Conrad Guest

The tale continues (mature audience for language and sexual situations)…

Photo courtesy of Craig David Butler

Photo courtesy of Craig David Butler

Dain left work, stopping at Poole’s Tavern in Northville, home of the best fish and chips he’d ever had, to contemplate his next steps.

Several hours later, the fish and chips sat in his stomach like a lump, while the single beer he’d ordered had turned into more than he could recount; but at least he had formulated a plan—what he would come to refer to in the days ahead as The Plan. It was a simple plan. Carrying it out would prove difficult.

Dain glanced at his watch to find that it was after eleven o’clock. He paid his tab and left.

By the time he got home it was nearly 11:30. With the house dark, he wondered as he wandered through the haze of alcohol with The Plan circulating through his thoughts, if he might find a Dear Dain letter on the kitchen table, or worse, on his pillow next to a chocolate mint, telling him that Betty had found someone else and was leaving him, leaving out that she was leaving him for another woman. Dain sighed. So many leavings.

Dain found Betty in bed, lights out sound asleep: at least she’d spared him the humiliation of abandonment, apparently preferring to continue to humiliate him behind his back.

In that moment Dain thought of waking her to make love to her, to try to win her back by reminding her of the one thing her lover could never provide her—a throbbing… His penis—always more grow than show—perked up, hopeful; but then his loathing resurfaced, loathing for her lie of omission, that she’d taken another lover, and that her preference was for one of her own gender. When had she discovered this preference for pussy, or had she always known, marrying Dain to lie to herself, as well as to him, her family, and her colleagues?

Dain cursed himself for asking, as if the answer might make a difference, bring him some measure of solace.

She’d gone to bed without him, without calling him on his cell to find out why he hadn’t come home. For all she knew, Dain was laying in some hospital, comatose, the result of being t-boned by a drunk driver on his way home, while her head had been buried between the thighs of another woman. Maybe that was what she’d hoped, that Dain had abandoned her in death, sparing her the task of telling him that she was leaving him for someone else—the identity and gender of whom she could keep to herself.

Dain felt the fish and chips shift uncomfortably in his colon, like a baseball making its way through his alimentary canal, and thought briefly about spending the night in the guestroom, not because he wanted to spare Betty the potential vocal displeasure of his anus.

Fat chance, he thought. It’s my bed even if I’m no longer sharing it with my wife.

Besides, he didn’t want to tip her off that anything was amiss, that he knew of her cheating. If The Plan succeeded, the slut who was Dain’s wife would never know that she’d been found out. Better still, Dain would never have met her; and best of all, he’d never know the pain he now felt.

Dain slipped out of his clothes and into bed beside the lesbian he never knew; Betty shifted and moaned softly, probably dreaming of her blond lover pushing a vibrating dildo into her: no fuss, no dripping man muss.

Shit, he thought, despising the image that was a fantasy of his own making. Suddenly his marriage had become all about him.

 ℘

Dain woke up spooned against Betty’s backside with an erection the size of Florida. It took him a moment to recall yesterday’s events, the video of Betty with another woman, the hours spent at Poole’s drinking beer after beer to deaden the pain that wouldn’t deaden, and finally, The Plan.

He pushed himself away from Betty, loathing his penis for its desire. It had no conscience or morals. It forgave as easily as a puppy.

Blues-rock guitarist, George Thorogood: “Stand still, honey. I’m gonna lick your legs like a puppy.”

“I don’t think so,” Dain muttered.

“Honey, what’s wrong?” Betty said, rolling over to face him. Dain wondered whether she’d felt his erection wedged between her voluptuously cheeky cheeks.

“Nothing.” Dain despised himself for his lie. Part of him wanted to spill what he knew, confront her with her disloyalty, see the shame on her face, listen to her stammer as she sought to make excuses for her betrayal, even as his penis wanted to spill something of its own. But her knowing that he knew would change nothing.

Eddie Valiant: “Weren’t you the one I caught playing patty-cake with old man Acme?”

Jessica Rabbit: “You didn’t catch me, Mr. Valiant. You were set up to take those pictures.”

Riiight. And then, Has it really been twenty-six years since Who Framed Roger Rabbit hit the silver screen?

She might apologize, assure Dain that she’d break it off with her accomplice in debauchery. But it wouldn’t erase the images indelibly etched in his mind. It wouldn’t change the fact that she’d chosen another lover over him, and likely would’ve continued seeing her if she hadn’t been found out—continued to make a fool of him.

“No,” she’d whisper to her partner, “He doesn’t know, our secret is safe. What he doesn’t know won’t hurt him.” Not calling him by name would make him less real, less a person. Less her husband. “Yes, I’ll see you again Thursday night… I can’t wait to feel your tongue inside me.”

Dain’s colon twitched: last night’s baseball was telling him it wanted to be set free, into the cold, white porcelain yonder.

“What are you going to do with that nightstick of yours?” Betty asked, a hint of what Dain guessed was only wanton seduction, probably to hide her shame, if she were capable of it, or more likely, to further bury her malodorous lie, that she was still performing her wifely duty, as if that made her deceitfulness okay. Maybe she wanted the best of both worlds: that which only Dain could provide, and that which only another woman could give herto touch her in ways that only another woman knew. Dain quickly discounted that theory, since he’d never craved the touch of another man.

But Betty’s lie was greater than Dain’s, greater than and more hurtful than Dain telling her that the new jeans she’d brought home from Macy’s didn’t make her backside look big when in fact they did. He loved her bulbous ass, whether clad in snug fitting denim or naked and jiggling as she padded barefoot to the bathroom for her morning shower. Men are far more visual than women, although several of Dain’s female Facebook friends seemed to contradict that presumption with posts of handsome young men sporting well-defined pectorals and six-pack abs. All of the corresponding comments ooh and ahh over these images. Dain never understood that abs description. He once joked that, upon turning forty—just last year—his six-pack had turned into a twelve-pack, and that he could look forward to a keg when he turned fifty. A six-pack was made of flexible cardboard, while a keg was made of stainless steel or aluminum. But Dain digressed.

Does anyone ever think that they’ll get caught cheating? he considered. Probably not. If they did, they’d likely never commit the heinous act, except in their head. But then there’s Matthew 5:29—“If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into Hell.”

Dain tried to recall if he’d ever, since marrying Betty, fantasized or lusted after another woman.

No. Which only made Betty’s sin all the greater, and Dain wasn’t one to judge others. Until now.

Dain swung his legs out of bed, feeling the blood drain from his penis. The pain of having been wronged began to reassert itself. “Nothing,” he said again. “I’ve got to get ready for work.”

Then he left for the bathroom, before Betty could voice her confusion: never before had her husband passed up a chance to make love to her.

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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Forever a Philanderer—J. Conrad Guest

When Dain Galdikas discovers his wife’s infidelity, he doesn’t confront her with her duplicity. He decides to go back in time to murder his wife’s mother in an effort to prevent the birth of his philandering wife. When he confronts his wife’s mother, a beautiful and sexy married woman, he finds he can’t go through with his original plan. Instead, he seduces her, but returns to his own present to find his wife still in the arms of another woman.

Photo courtesy of Craig David Butler

Photo courtesy of Craig David Butler

His actions draw the attention of the Messiah, who attempts to save Dain’s eternal soul. But Dain returns to the past again and again in an attempt to change his present circumstances, in time becoming obsessed with his wife’s mother, returning each time to 2014 to find slight alterations in his present, but always his wife continues to torment him with her betrayal.

Will Dain ever be able to undo the pain she’s caused him?

Forever a Philanderer is my new work in progress.

If you could go back in time, what would you do? Prevent the crucifixion of Christ? Maybe kill Hitler before he comes to power?

If your spouse committed the ultimate act of treason, perhaps you’d return to the past to murder their mother, thereby erasing their existence in your present. But would it erase your pain, or simply serve as the ultimate act of revenge?

For Forever a Philanderer, I once again explore the paradox of time travel: how undoing events in the past affect that past’s future, as well as how obsession can be our undoing. It is also my most provocative and graphic novel to date.

Below is a short excerpt.

 

Prologue

 

“All movements go too far.”

—Bertrand Russell

 

March 2014

Dain Galdikas didn’t have to watch very long: glistening perspiration, thrashing of naked limbs, the thrusting of a pelvis, soft moans and unrestrained squeals, the calling out of a name that wasn’t his.

He closed the lid of his laptop. There was Betty Boop, and then there was Betty Bitch. Dain’s wife had just become the latter.

Dain began to suspect Betty was having an affair a few weeks ago, when their sex life changed. After ten years of marriage one expects subtle changes in marital relationships as well as relations. But Dain had worked hard to keep his marriage fresh. He kept in the forefront of his mind what it was that first drew him to Betty. He maintained date nights, brought home flowers for no better reason than Betty loved them, cooked occasional meals because, frankly, he was better in the kitchen than she. He rubbed her feet at the end of the day, and did little things for her because he understood that marriage wasn’t for him. Foreplay began with breakfast in bed on Sunday morning, loving words throughout the day, a caress here, a kiss there, a romantic candlelit massage in the evening… it was all about her and the anticipation.

Prior to their wedding, a marriage counselor asked how Dain would feel about being told “no” to sex. He told the counselor that he didn’t expect to have to ask. Given the aforementioned foreplay, Dain suspected that he’d know whether Betty was in the mood—“the rhythm’s gonna put the woman in the mood, now you definitely want to…”

It was in giving that Dain received: the warm and sensitive man every woman claims to want only to, apparently, dump him in the end for the bad boy.

If that sounds strange, that marriage wasn’t for Dain, consider that successful marriages are those where both partners understand that the contract is for the other person. When one partner sees it as only about themselves, when one begins to take instead of give, the deal is doomed.

That didn’t happen with Betty, that Dain sensed she was taking or that she was taking him for granted. But something changed in their physical relationship. It was subtle: her touches seemed more decidedly obligatory—the mother’s lesson imparted to the new bride that sex was a necessary evil, her duty to spread her legs and allow the husband to get the dirty deed done; that the sooner she got pregnant, the sooner he would leave her alone in the dark—and she seemed to retreat from his touch, as well as his caress in the sanctuary of their bedroom.

When he noticed that she was arriving home later and more often, he asked her if everything was all right. He wasn’t a mind reader. If Betty wasn’t getting something from him that she needed, and she didn’t communicate to him what that something was, then he felt accountable for asking. She replied only that everything was fine. Then, instead of telling him, “Thank you. You’re a dear for asking,” she only sighed. So he pushed her—not hard, simply a nudge:

“Everything okay at work? You seem to be coming home later more often.”

Betty sighed again and told him she was feeling stressed. “I have a major project that’s nearing deadline, and it’s not going well.”

“Well, if there’s anything I can do to help,” Dain said.

Betty remained silent and went to bed early, turning down Dain’s offer to massage away her stressful day.

Convinced her sighs were hiding something, and dreading what he might learn was behind them, Dain hired a private detective to follow her after she left work. It didn’t take long. On the morning after his second night on the job, Dain got a call from Deke the private dick:

“You’re not going to like it.”

Dain gave his own sigh into the phone, then told Deke to stop by his office to present the evidence.

After Deke left, Dain dropped the disk into his laptop’s drive and watched, amazed by the clarity of Deke’s video, shot with his cell phone through the window of a seedy motel on Eight Mile Road near Woodward Avenue—an area of town noted for its topless bars, purveyors of triple-X rated DVDs, streetwalkers, and filthy motels for which patrons paid by the hour. Dain’s mouth went dry as his suspicions were confirmed. 

You’re not going to like it was a gross understatement. What Dain hadn’t counted on was that Betty’s lover was another woman.

Another man might’ve felt excluded and popped a woody at the thought of a threesome that included a woman with different hair color and body type than his wife—like Mike Stivic on All in the Family, the episode in which he wanted Gloria to wear a black wig to bed so that he could, in Gloria’s words, “be able to mess around with a different girl without cheating on your wife.” That other man might’ve asked his wife if he could join Betty and her lover. But Dain wasn’t another man. Like his countryman Karolis Bučinskis, Dain was Lithuanian. Because of the House Un-American Activities Committee proceedings in 1954, and at the suggestion of his agent who feared that an Eastern European surname might damage his career, Bučinskis changed his name to Charles Bronson, taking the name from the Bronson Gate at Paramount Studios. Bronson of course became a major box office draw after his appearance in The Magnificent Seven, a movie in which he was cast as one of the seven gunfighters, Bernardo O’Reilly, not because he looked at all like an O’Irishman. Although Bronson married three times, Dain fancied himself a one-woman man. The idea of a life-long partner appealed to him, a rarity in the twenty-first century. Betty changed that, and he hated her for it. She would pay. How she would pay Dain didn’t yet know, but she would pay, and dearly.

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.

Twenty-six

 

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

—Artur Schnabel

 

Photo courtesy of Craig David Butler

Photo courtesy of Craig David Butler

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

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

“I’m still a marine.” Reagan sat up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re not.”

“But how do I know?”

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

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

“Death is permanent,” Wallach said.

“Don’t I know it.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You can see the future?”

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

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

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

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

“It brings me much comfort.”

“Don’t you feel cheated?”

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

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

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

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

Reagan could only hide his shame behind both hands.

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

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

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

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

Wallach chuckled. “No.”

“Is it so important, the why?”

“Not to me.”

“I was angry,” Reagan said.

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

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

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

“What’s the difference?”

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

Reagan said nothing.

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

“I thought it was—”

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

“Are you blaming her?”

“No.”

“Why are we having this conversation?”

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

“I already understand,” Reagan said.

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

“Does she have to be?”

“Yes.”

“What if she gets hurt?”

“That possibility exists.”

“I won’t assume that responsibility.”

“You have no choice.”

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

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

“But she doesn’t owe me anything.”

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

“Are you telling me that Mimi will die?”

“It is one possible outcome.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What if I can’t?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I woke up to find you gone.”

“I’m sorry. I couldn’t sleep.”

“The nightmare?”

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

“That woman?”

“Yes.”

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

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

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

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

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

J. Conrad Guest

J. Conrad Guest

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

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

 

Chapter Sixteen

 

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

 – Mark Twain

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

“I know.”

“She’s twenty-one now.”

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

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

“Why? Aren’t you able to do that?”

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

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

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

“I hardly knew you, Tom.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reagan nodded.

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

Reagan nodded again.

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

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

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

“Jeesus.”

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

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

“So you’ll look in on her?”

“I don’t know, Tom.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How would I even find her?”

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

“What’s that?”

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

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

“Reagan.” Wallach put his arm around Reagan.

“Yeah?”

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

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

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

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

Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000035_00026]

Coming this fall, from Second Wind Publishing

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A World Without Music Excerpt—J. Conrad Guest

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

J. Conrad Guest

J. Conrad Guest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then she stepped forward, and …

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

Sarah left Johann Sebastian Bach as he came of age …

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

 

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