Tag Archives: j. conrad guest

Yearning for Simpler Days

My first car was a 1965 Beetle that I purchased from my dad for $200 (he bought it new for $1,795). I was probably eighteen years old. Panama beige was the color. He’d purchased it, sans a radio (Dad tended to be miserly), and a summer or two later the family (Mom, Dad, my sister and I) drove from Michigan all the way down to D.C. for a Marine Corps reunion. Imagine the four of us—I was eleven or twelve and already five foot seven or taller, my sister thirteen or fourteen—baggage for all of us for three or four days, no radio, making that trip today.

A few years later, after I got my driver license, Dad taught me to drive the stick shift in the Bug. I was petrified, not by the clutch but by Dad, the retired marine who was more drill instructor to me in my youth than Dad. But it turned out well. I was a quick study and thereafter anytime I asked for the keys to the car Dad would make a point of asking me where I was heading and how far it was. Then he’d go out to the car to record the mileage on the odometer. A few years later, after I brought it up to him, he told me it was a father’s duty to distrust his children. Ouch.

So when I bought it from Dad the first thing I did was install a quad stereo radio/eight-track player in the dash. Then I added a Hurst short-throw shifter, replacing the knob with a Coors beer can. This was before Coors could be gotten east of the Mississippi. I knew a pilot who flew to Colorado on occasion and I often had him bring me back a case of the beverage. Strange today how I never purchase Coors and drink it only when family or friends have it at their homes.

A ten-inch three-spoke steering wheel and wooden dashboard ended my, in Han Solo’s words, “special modifications.”

By the time I took it off my dad’s hands the running boards had rusted off, as had the back bumper. On cold winter mornings when it wouldn’t start, Dad had to push me with this car, backward, down the street. I’d wave him off just before popping the clutch to jump start it.

Kissed a girl (not my first) in that car at a drive-in movie (can’t recall the title).

Some grand memories, although one or two might not have been so grand at the time.

I sold it three years later for maybe $75 to a kid with whom my dad worked and bought my first new car: a Datsun B210 for (if I recall) just over $3,000, and I thought nothing of that Beetle for many years.

But then I wrote about it for one of my novels—most of my novels contain biographical moments from my life. In A Retrospect In Death, my protagonist trades his Beetle in for a Toyota Celica, and as he drives his car off the lot he sees his old Bug in the lot and feels a certain remorse I didn’t when I’d been his age, as if he’d broken up with an old girlfriend for a prettier model, one with more baubles but little personality.

It’s been said we become old the moment we begin to look back, reflect more on the past than looking ahead to the future. Maybe that’s human nature. After all, I have far more years behind me than ahead of me, and I can only hope and pray my future won’t be laden with adverse health issues.

VDub

Just like my old friend, including the half-moon wheel covers

Anyway, I’m not sure this is worthy of taking up space on my blog, but there you have it.

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A Day to Look Back

Well, Dad, nineteen years ago today you left this world for bluer skies. I’d ask where have the years gone but I know the answer: into the past. Gone but not forgotten.

babyjoey

Dad, with J. Conrad, circa 1957

Did you ever think I’d live to be sixty, ever imagine what I might look like? I didn’t. It’s not that I have a death wish, but I wonder if anyone ever views themselves as old. Inside me there is a twenty-five-year-old wondering, “What happened?”

I think about you every day. And as I sit here sipping a White Russian—one of your favorite cocktails—I hope you don’t mind that I’ve written about you often, in memoirs mostly; but aspects of who you were in life appear in my novels, too. My way of keeping you alive, I guess, and of tipping my hat to you because I feel you were a better man than me. Your firstborn doesn’t approve that I write about you and Mom, but what the hell, she never liked me anyway.

We had our differences, you and I: days and sometimes weeks when we didn’t speak. But in retrospect I can honestly say I never felt unloved or unwanted.

Still, you weren’t very nurturing to me in my youth (I forgave you for that long ago). Whether that’s good only you can know. Perhaps one day I’ll find out. It would be nice if I learned the answer before I step over to your side of the Great Divide. That’s been a problem for me as I age: expecting that every question has an answer. Some just don’t and never will, not while I live and breathe at least. Probably the greatest unfairness in life, that we must die in order to learn some of life’s great mysteries.

I’ve made a lot of mistakes and have my share of regrets. You once told me no one gets out of life without a few. Sometimes it feels as if I have more than most. Maybe that’s a sign I’m getting old. In my defense, being introspective and reflective, I find it difficult not to look back at the past, especially since there are far more years behind me than ahead of me. You once told me it’s okay to look at the past, because we learn from it. But I suspect I tend to stare too long. Do that too often and you miss what’s in front of you.

Yet I’ve found a measure of happiness, having gotten remarried nearly three years ago. You and Mom would love her. Her name is Colleen and she’s part Polish, which should please you, and I can honestly say she’s getting my best.

Say hello to Mom for me, will you? And tell her your baby boy misses you both.

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The Girl Who Loved Cigars

It’s said that those who experience a life-threatening event see their whole life flash before their eyes.

What if a fetus, at the moment they feel their limbs about to be torn asunder in abortion, see their whole unlived life flash before their eyes?

Marla is haunted by nightmares of being in the womb, terrified by the prospect of having her whole life—everything she’ll ever have and everything she ever will be—taken from her.

The Girl Who Loved Cigars is my new work in progress. It’s been nearly two years since I finished my last novel and I’ve been itching to start a new one. After kicking around two ideas for several months I finally settled on this one and set pen to paper.

I love new projects, but it’s a love-hate relationship. I love them because… well, they’re new, fresh. The ideas for characters, story, plot twists flow freely. The downside is they’re new, fresh. Ideas abound, which results in a lot of starts and stops, and false starts. It takes me a while to settle in, to become intimately involved with the characters, and settle on a theme.

The Girl Who Loved Cigars promises to be my most challenging write to date. I’ve written several short stories from a woman’s perspective, but never a novel. It’s intimidating, and I fear I won’t be able to pull it off, to write convincingly from a woman’s point of view. I don’t know whether I’m good enough to succeed. But I do know I’m ready to try.

Below is a short excerpt.


“It’s a hell of a thing, killin’ a man. You take away everything he’s got, and all he’s ever gonna have.”
Bill Munny, Unforgiven

“Even the smallest person can change the course of the future.”
Galadriel, from the movie adaptation of Lord of the Rings


Part One

“I’ve noticed that everyone who is for abortion has already been born.”
Ronald Reagan


Chapter One

“I’m Marla. I’m almost four years old.”

“Good. And where do you live?”

“In Michigan.” I giggled. “It’s shaped like mitten. Daddy showed me a picture of it in a big book of maps that has all the states. There are fifty. That’s a lot. But not as many as a hundred billion. Which is how many stars Daddy told me are in the Milky Way. The galaxy, not the candy bar.”

“Our address, honey. What’s our street address?”

I felt my smile turn into a frown.

“Come on, sweetie. You know this. It’s just four numbers.”

“I live at 6-5-4-3 Arcola in Garden City, Michigan.”

“That’s right. And what’s our phone number?”

I closed my eyes and tried to picture it. Mommy had written it down on a piece of paper. “Our phone number is Grafield—”

“Garfield.”

“Garfield, G-A-2-468—”

“Nine.”

I felt my eyes begin to tear. Mommy had been making me say my name, our address, and phone number for the last long time. I was bored. I wanted her to read to me. Tubby Turtle is my favorite. Tubby is sad because he’s slower than all his forest friends. But one day he saves Squirrel and Rabbit from drowning and becomes a hero.

“Say it again, honey, from the start.”

“Mommy, but why?”

“Because if you should get lost you need to be able to tell whoever finds you who you are and where you live.”

“Why?” I didn’t understand. Lost is what happens to pennies when you can’t find them, or a sock. And then you do, between the cushions of the sofa or in the dryer. Nothing is ever really lost. You just need to find it.

“I just told you.”

“Why would I get lost?”

Mommy breathed deep. She did that when she got mad.

“I’m sorry, Mommy, I’m sorry.”

“For what, Marla?”

“For making you mad.”

Mommy took my face between her hands, which always makes me feel happy and safe. “I’m not mad, honey. It’s just…”

“What, Mommy?”

“I don’t want anything to happen to you.”

“Why would anything happen to me?”

Mommy hugged me. After a moment she pulled back, holding me by my shoulders.

“Remember yesterday when we went to Hudson’s?”

“Oh, yes!” It was a grand adventure: a bus ride downtown, all the pretty clothes and shoes and perfume—and the toys! All the toys on the twelfth floor!

“Remember when we got separated?”

I nodded. “Is that what it means, getting lost?”

“Yes.”

“But you found me.”

“Yes, I did. But what if I hadn’t? What would you have done?”

I looked at Mommy, unsure. Then I shrugged.

“That’s why you need to know your address and phone number. So you can tell someone if I can’t find you. So they can tell me where to find you. Understand?”

I wasn’t sure I did. But if Mommy thought it was important, then it must be, and I wanted to make Mommy happy.

“I guess so,” I said.

“Good. Now tell me again, your name, where we live, and our phone number.”

And so it went for the next long time, until I got it right enough times to make Mommy happy, and she knew I wouldn’t ever forget.

After she read Tubby Turtle to me it was time for my nap.

Floating, warm and safe and comforted by the rhythm of life, in a black hole of perpetual darkness. Not blinded by obscurity, uncaring of lack of sense of sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell. Nothing exists in this crèche to delight or disenchant, save the bean.

Muffled sounds from nearby—voices, words mean nothing, not having mastered language—other times cadences of varying tempos, some canorous, soothing; others cacophonous, unsettling…

Accosted by upset, fear, anger: emotions not understood but eschewed, embracing, always seeking to commune with the constant rhythm of life. The voices intensify in volume—short, clipped words. Meaningless, they communicate more upset and anger and hurt…

The passage of time has no meaning, not hours, days or months to mark the growth of the bean—constant change, evolution, becoming, unquenchable thirst.

Stirred by sorrow followed by great distress. Sobbing, the darkness wracked by great waves of anguish, then dizziness and a feeling of sickness followed by euphoria. But the euphoria, too, sickens, alters. Turns perfection into something… less perfect.

More time passes and something changes. The rhythm of life distorts. Still floating, still warm, the previous tranquility gone, replaced at first by indifference, then a growing loathing, directed at the bean that has done nothing save only desire to grow, to become more, to seek meaning, find acceptance. To love and be loved…

In time, immeasurable, more words, filled with vitriol, spoken by a single voice, hurled at the bean. After the words comes acceptance, the anger gone, replaced by a singular purpose that frightens…

The seat of creation preemptively invaded. The fluid that sustains drains; air rushes past unformed ears, lungs sear, pressure exerts on limbs.

In that split second, as the pain grows to excruciating proportions but just before being torn asunder, an unlived life flashes before unseeing eyes…

“Shhh, honey, it’s okay. It’s okay.”

I was awake before I knew I was, wrapped by familiar arms. My scream died in my mouth, replaced by a whimpered, “Mommy?”

“Yes, sweetie, it’s me.”

I wriggled out of her hug. I needed to see the proof. Mommy wiped a tear from my cheek with her thumb. “The bad dream?” she asked me.

I nodded. “Uh-huh.”

“The monster?”

I shook my head.

“No?”

“Nuh-uh.”

Mommy moved my hair away from my face. “Want to tell me about it?”

“I—”

“What is it, honey? You can tell me.”

I shook my head again. “I can’t.” Because not yet four years old I was unable to explain what I did not understand.

“Well, you can tell me about it whenever you feel like it. Sometimes talking about something unpleasant can make it go away. Okay?”

“Okay.”

“Now come on. You can help me fold the laundry and then help me get dinner ready.”

“Daddy!”

Daddy scooped me up into his arms. “Who’s this little girl?”

“Daddy’s little girl!”

“That’s right. Daddy’s little girl. But you’ve grown so big since I saw you this morning.”

I giggled as Daddy kissed my cheek. Then he rubbed his cheek against mine and I felt its roughness.

“You’re picky,” I said.

“Darn right I am. I picked you as my little girl, didn’t I?”

I giggled. “Silly, Daddy. Your face is picky.”

“Well, excuse me for not shaving before coming home.”

“You smoked a cigar, too, didn’t you? I can smell it.”

“No pulling one over on you, is there?”

“How come Mommy won’t let you smoke at home?”

“She does.”

“Outside doesn’t count. How come she doesn’t let you smoke in the house?”

“Not everyone cares for the smell of cigars, Marlie.”

“It’s not that,” Mommy called from the kitchen. “It leaves a film on everything—the cabinets, the furniture. Now come on. Dinner is on.”

After dinner Daddy put Glenn Miller on the record player and when “Kalamazoo” came on we danced. I stood on his feet as he twirled me around the living room. I sang the chorus: “K… A… L-A-M-A-Z-oh, oh, oh, I gotta gal in… Kala-ma-zoo…”

Then we went onto the patio. Daddy lit a cigar and I sat on a cushion between Mommy and Daddy and we watched two sparrows bathe in our bird bath next to the garage. After they flew off I asked, “Daddy, can we move to Kalamazoo?”

Daddy laughed. “Why would you want to move to Kalamazoo?”

“I want to be a girl in Kalamazoo.” I loved the melody of Glenn Miller’s song. It was playful. That’s what Daddy once said. But I also loved the word Kalamazoo, the way it made my mouth feel when I said it. The way it sounded in my ears. I saw it as a fun place. Otherworldly, like the land of Oz, which also had a “z” in it.

Mommy said, “Not satisfied to be a gal in Garden City?”

“There’s no song about Garden City.”

“Well then, why don’t you write one when you grow up?” Daddy said.

That surprised me. “You really think I could?”

“You can do anything you want, honey,” he said.

We went quiet then, as the sun set behind the house behind ours. Soon the crickets started chirping. I looked up at Daddy. The end of his cigar glowed cherry red as he drew on it. He saw me watching him.

“What am I doing?” he asked.

“Drawing,” I said. “Which isn’t the same thing as drawing a picture.”

“Good girl.” Then he added, “English is a funny language.”

I recalled our lesson from a few days ago. “‘There,’ ‘their’ and ‘they’re’ all sound the same.”

“But all are spelled differently and have different meanings.”

“There,” I said, pointing at an airplane passing over our house, “is an airplane. T-h-e-r-e.”

I heard our neighbor’s dog, Skippy, bark. “Skippy isn’t our dog. He’s their dog. T-h-e-i-r.”

“Right.”

“The Tigers lost fifteen of their first seventeen games this year, but they’re—‘they are’ with a, a…”

“An apostrophe.”

“A apostrophe.” I said the word slowly so I would remember it.

“‘An,”” Mommy said. “An apostrophe.”

I ignored her. Mommy was always correcting me. I didn’t like being corrected.“They’re playing better after firing their manager.”

“That they are,” Daddy said. “Although I don’t believe Norman’s replacement, Jimmy Dykes, is the answer.”

He was nearly finished smoking his cigar, which meant it would be time for me to go to bed. I shivered, although it wasn’t cold outside. I inhaled deeply. I loved the smell of cigars. It reminded me of Daddy. I couldn’t understand why Mommy didn’t like it. If she loved Daddy she should love cigar smoke.

But I had another reason for wanting to take the smell of Daddy’s cigar to bed with me: I hoped it would keep away the bad dreams.

The face, long and white and haggard, nearly hidden by long hair, greasy and unkempt, loomed above me. I reached for the face. Tiny arms with tiny fingers flexing fell woefully short. I wailed, wanting to be held.

The head shook once from side to side. A hand, large and heavily veined, pushed a smoking white stick between the lips on the face; its tip glowed red as the face breathed in deeply. A sigh accompanied by a thick cloud of smoke.

I wailed and reached.

Words mumbled, barely audible. They meant nothing to me, whose only means of communication was crying.

Hungry: cry.

Soiled: cry.

Hold me: cry.

The words registered no meaning; but the hostility with which they were spoken instilled great fear in me. But fear held as little meaning to me as did words. I only wanted, needed, to be held. To be coddled. To be loved.

The lips on the face parted to reveal yellowed teeth—nearly as yellowed as the hair that hung to either side of the face. The smile was not one of affection or meant to reassure. Cold, calculating eyes stared down at me, helpless and needy…

I wailed: Hold me.

The hand that held the smoking stick dropped. A moment later I felt a searing pain on the bottom of my foot. My wail turned to a scream…

I came awake, unsure whether the scream had passed my lips or was only in my dream. When neither Mommy or Daddy came into my room, I knew the scream had only been in my head.

I rolled over onto my tummy and turned my body to let my feet drop to the floor, then pushed myself away from my bed.

Barefoot, I walked past Mommy and Daddy’s room to the bathroom. The wood floor creaked and I hoped it wasn’t too loud. In the bathroom, after closing the door, I switched on the light. Then I hoisted myself onto the toilet seat to tinkle.

When I finished I got down and sat on the rug in front of the sink. Grabbing my right foot I leaned forward and turned my foot so I could see the bottom. There were several pink, puckered scars. But they didn’t hurt.

I got up and, standing on my toes, reached for the cold water tap. I let it run for a while to get good and cold, then half filled the cup that sat next to Daddy’s razor. I drank most of it, spilled the rest into the sink, turned off the light, and went back to my room.

As I passed Mommy and Daddy’s room Mommy said, “Are you okay, Marla?”

“Yes. I was thirsty.”

“Okay. I love you.”

“I love you, too,” I said.

A moment later I crawled back into my bed, confused.

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A World Without Music—Chapter Three

“Mozart is sunshine.”
 – Antonia Dvorak

April 5, 2012

“I can’t believe you’ve never been to a ballgame.”

Reagan and Prisco sat in row D, behind the Tigers dugout. It was opening day at Comerica Park, and Tigers fans had high hopes for the season. The organization had signed hard-hitting Prince Fielder in the off season, shortly after learning that Victor Martinez would miss the entire season due to knee surgery. Reagan had hoped the Tigers would acquire a bona fide leadoff hitter with some speed. With Fielder the new first baseman, Miguel Cabrera, who’d won the batting title in 2011, was moved to third base, and Reagan thought that combination would be a defensive liability – one which he couldn’t see the power hitting of Fielder and Cabrera combining to consistently overcome. Only time would tell.

“It seems a silly game, chasing a little ball around a field,” Prisco said.

“Prisco, Prisco. That’s the beauty of the game. It’s a simple game, a kid’s game – hit a round ball squarely with a round bat. It’s also a game of percentages and statistics – ideally suited for an analytical mind like yours. A manager knows if his utility infielder hits better under the lights than in the afternoon. It doesn’t mean he’ll hit in the clutch at night, but the manager, more often than not, plays the percentages.” Reagan took a sip of his Summer Shandy before adding, “Nearly every boy in America dreams of playing major league baseball when he grows up.”

“Did you?”

Reagan nodded. “I dreamed of being Al Kaline. Kaline is in the Hall of Fame. He played for the Tigers in the late fifties, sixties and early seventies. Played twenty-two seasons for Detroit. The greatest right fielder I’ve ever seen – a real natural even if he wasn’t the most gifted athlete. He hit for average and occasional power. Won the batting title at age twenty, the youngest player to win it. He wasn’t fast, but he was a smart base runner, and could steal a base from time to time.”

“Why didn’t you play?”

Reagan laughed. “This game is not as easy as it looks. Today, with thirty teams, the majors are composed of maybe seven-hundred-fifty ballplayers. Back in the mid-eighties, when I might’ve played, there were twenty-six teams. So there were fewer roster spots. And I didn’t have the talent to get noticed by a major league scout. I was a solid first baseman in college; but I never learned to hit a curveball.”

Prisco only nodded.

“Besides, at this level, it’s a thinking man’s game. When I was a kid, pitchers threw hard and I hacked at anything close to the plate. But the situation constantly changes, depending on the count, the score, whether men are on base, early or late in the game, the matchup between hitter and pitcher. Does the manager put on the hit and run, risk having the runner thrown out before his cleanup hitter can drive him home?”

“What’s a hit and run?”

“The manager puts the runner on first base in motion once the pitcher goes into his delivery, and the batter hits the ball to protect the runner.”

“Then isn’t it more accurate to call it a run and hit?”

“Yes, well, I suppose so. But baseball is filled with nuances like that. For instance, a walk isn’t considered an official at-bat, but a batter who walks with the bases full is scored with a RBI.”

“RBI?”

“Run batted in. He doesn’t actually bat him in, but baseball had to somehow allow for the scoring of the run.”

Prisco sighed. “It would seem this game isn’t as simple as you make it out.”

Reagan laughed. “The basics are very simple – pitch, hit, field and score more runs than your opponent. But the strategies are practically limitless. A manager’s decision to pinch hit in the ninth can make him look like a genius, while the same decision the next night can leave him looking like a goat.”

“A goat?”

“Don’t ask me to explain the origin of the phrase. It’s a derogatory euphemism.”

“You called it a kid’s game. I assume that is a reference to children and not the aforementioned Bovidae.”

“If by Bovidae you mean goat, you are correct.”

“But these are grown men.”

“Who as kids played baseball.”

“They are paid to play?”

“Very handsomely – too handsomely. Today’s players make millions. But there was a time, before the Players Association, when the owners took advantage of the players. If you consider how much revenue the owners take in the result of the gate, television contracts and advertising, it’s only right that they share more with the players, without whom they wouldn’t have a product to peddle.”

They went silent for a time, finishing their hotdogs and sipping their beers as the game entered the ninth inning, with Detroit holding a 2-1 edge over Boston. Tigers’ manager, Jim Leyland, pulled Verlander, whose pitch count was 105, and inserted his closer, Jose Valverde.

“They call Valverde ‘Papa Grande,’” Reagan said.

“Why, because he’s overweight?”

“Sort of. A teammate gave him that nickname when he played for Arizona. It was meant as a term of endearment, and the teammate thought it meant Big Daddy. But the actual translation is Big Potato.”

“Why would someone wish to be affiliated with a potato?”

Reagan laughed. “One wouldn’t. But a nickname is hard to shake. Shit!”

Valverde had just allowed the tying run to cross the plate on a Ryan Sweeney triple that scored Darnell McDonald.

“I had a feeling that was going to happen,” Reagan said.

“You had a premonition?”

“Just a feeling, Prisco. Valverde was a perfect forty-nine for forty-nine in save situations last year, and I knew he was bound to blow a save eventually. That’s why they play the games. I’d just hoped it wouldn’t be today.”

A few moments later, Cody Ross lined out to Jhonny Peralta at short to end the top of the ninth.

After Ryan Raburn flew out to right field to open the Tigers ninth, Peralta singled and the sellout home crowd was on its feet, urging the Tigers to rally.

Alex Avila followed with a single, so Bobby Valentine, Boston’s manager, pulled Mark Melancon for Alfredo Aceves, and Leyland inserted Danny Worth to pitch run for Peralta.

Aceves hit Ramon Santiago to load the bases, bringing Austin Jackson to the dish. Jackson had had a disappointing season a year ago, striking out far too often for a leadoff hitter. But this was a new season, and Jackson had had a good day, getting two hits in four trips, and scoring once.

After three pitches, the count two balls and a strike, Prisco asked, “Do you have a feeling for what’s going to happen?”

“No, but I’m pulling for a hit.”

A moment later, Jackson singled home the winning run to send the fans home happy.

Later, Reagan and Prisco sat sipping Summer Shandys at Miller’s Bar while they awaited the arrival of their cheeseburgers.

“What did you think of your first ballgame?” Reagan asked.

“It would seem the key to getting a batter out is to keep him guessing as to what type of pitch is coming.”

“Precisely!”

“But this Valverde seemed only to throw fastballs.”

“Which is what got him into trouble. Still, it’s his best pitch.”

“And the batter knows this, which gives him the advantage.”

“It didn’t last season. He didn’t blow a single save all season long, throwing mostly fastballs. Come Saturday, in a similar situation, the percentages will favor Valverde to save the win, at least on paper.”

“But they don’t play the game on paper.”

“Exactly. That’s why they have to play them. Hundreds of things influence the outcome of a game, including luck.”

“I don’t believe in luck.”

“Really? If not good fortune, how do you explain a batter getting enough wood on a fastball out of the strike zone to get a base hit?”

“Perhaps he anticipated the pitch, and his exceptional eye-hand coordination, along with his skill, allowed him to connect his bat with the ball.”

“How about a grounder with top spin resulting in the ball skipping under the shortstop’s glove?”

“That’s just physics and the inability of the fielder to anticipate the bounce.”

“Point taken,” Reagan said. “What about the guy who wins a lotto worth two million dollars? He almost never buys a ticket, but on a whim on his birthday, he purchases the winning ticket.”

“The odds are certainly against him winning, but someone has to win. Why not him?”

“Why not the guy who spends fifty dollars on lotto tickets every week?”

“His chances are increased; but his inability to win is not the result of luck. Poor luck is merely a term devised to deflect accountability in a poor choice, while good luck is used to define an unexpected windfall.”

When Reagan was unable to debate Prisco’s logic, Prisco continued.

“Bad luck can be no more attributed to a man getting hit by a car the result of his failure to look both ways, than to a man who slips and falls in the shower because he chose not to use a non-slip shower mat.”

“So you don’t believe in being in the right place at the right time any more than you believe in being in the wrong place at the wrong time?”

“Life is predicated on percentages. A man who never had an accident while driving, because he never sped and always obeyed the rules of the road, can still have an accident. In fact, his chances increase as he gets older because his eyesight becomes diminished and his reflexes slow. An accident in this case is not the result of bad luck.”

“I recall many years ago an entire college basketball team, save one, was killed in a plane crash. That one player remained home because of injury and wasn’t going to play. Two weeks later, he was killed in a car crash. Luck or destiny?”

“Neither.”

“Coincidence?”

Prisco shook his head. “Coincidence can also be defined as luck, a fluke, happenstance.”

“I get it.”

“I would ask what the road conditions were on the day of his death. Was he inebriated? Was he suffering survivor’s guilt?”

“Okay, Prisco, you win.”

“What did I win?”

“Our debate.”

“Oh,” Prisco said. “I did not intend to debate. I was merely expressing my opinion.”

“As was I, which is the basis for debate.”

“But I did not endeavor that you should lose. I merely wished to convince you of my perspective.”

“Which is to say my perspective is wrong.”

“If I convinced you of my perspective, do you not, in coming away with the correct perspective, win?”

Reagan laughed. “I suppose that’s one way of looking at it.”

Their cheeseburgers were served and the conversation changed to Reagan’s love life.

“I’m enjoying getting to know Cam,” Reagan said. “I think she could be the one.”

“With a world population in excess of seven billion, you would find numerous potential mates. In fact, I would estimate that –”

“Please don’t,” Reagan said. “I’m only interested in this one.”

“She lives in Alabama.”

“So what? It’s not like I’ve had good luck with Michigan women.”

“How can you determine, from nearly seven-hundred-fifty miles away, whether you wish to commit to her?”

“Well, the geography forces us to go slowly, get to know each other, become friends first, before we become lovers.”

“And then?”

“And then, what? Her parents and my parents are deceased. I have no family ties to Michigan. She has an adult daughter who lives in California.”

“Will she move to Michigan?”

“I haven’t asked her.”

“Why not?”

“It’s presumptuous and premature.”

“But it will come up. You complain of the heat and humidity now. It will be more uncomfortable for you in Alabama, which is much nearer to the equator.”

“I know where Alabama is,” Reagan said. “Are you trying to talk me out of this?”

“No. I merely wish to express to you the chances of a successful outcome are low.”

“Maybe they are. Doesn’t mean we can’t beat the odds. I only know I’m enjoying her company, even if it is only over the phone. I like her. I like how she makes me feel. I’ll worry about the logistics later.”

“That’s illogical.”

“Okay, Spock.” Reagan was beginning to feel perturbed.

“Why wouldn’t you wish to increase the odds of a successful outcome?”

“How? By dating someone closer to home? I’ve tried that. Contrary to your non-belief in luck, I still believe in it. Who are you to say I can’t increase my chances of finding love in another state?”

“Why are you angry?”

Reagan ignored Prisco’s question: “Two people can ride the same subway to work each morning in New York and never meet. While two others, on opposite sides of the planet, no power on earth can keep them from meeting.”

“Yet the two on the subway stand a greater chance of meeting, if they should leave themselves open to meeting. Perhaps she is intent on reading O and he, New York Times.”

“The chances of meeting someone on a subway –”

“Are no less than meeting someone on Facebook. One just needs to leave oneself open to the possibility.”

“I can’t dispute that any more than I can disprove your theory, Prisco.”

“It is not a theory. It is fact predicated on numerics. If you take into account competition, input into the equation that many men and women are addicted to dating – to meeting lots of potential mates without making a commitment – the chances of finding love while riding a subway are no less than while on a night out speed dating.”

“Too bad we don’t have a subway system in Ann Arbor.”

“You would put my theory to the test?”

“Maybe, if you’d asked me a week ago, before I met Cam.”

“Why should that make a difference?”

“Because I’m committed to seeing this through.”

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Filed under Books

A World Without Music—Chapter Two

Two

Caught in a love storm
Howlin’ like a newborn
Trying hard to stay warm
My cover-up is torn up and tattered

Addiction to Apocalypse
Looking for the big hit
Tending to take trips
The ship of love is beat up and battered

 – Robert Lamm

March 31, 2012

Cam

By the way (and yes, I ask a lot of questions …), why is a good-looking guy sitting at home alone on a Saturday night?

March 31, 2012

Reagan

Same reason a beautiful woman like you is home alone on a Saturday night. I choose to be because I’d rather be alone alone than alone with the wrong woman.

March 31, 2012

Cam

YES!!! I can so relate to that. I’d rather live the rest of my life alone and happy than to be with someone that makes me miserable! Your profile says you’re a retired marine. Did you see action?

March 31, 2012

Reagan

I served in the first Gulf war. Don’t ask specifics. I don’t yet know you well enough to share more.

March 31, 2012

Cam

Sounds ominous. Are you divorced?

March 31, 2012

Reagan

Well, yes, I’m divorced. I’m alone on a Saturday night, aren’t I? More than 15 years. One 3-year relationship that ended nearly four years ago and a couple shorter ones. What’s your battle story?

March 31, 2012

Cam

My hubby and I split 9 months ago. Really, 4 years ago … our marriage ended in 2007, and I finally moved out last year.

March 31, 2012

Reagan

Ah, so recent. Sorry to read that. But, perhaps it was for the better, if you’re happier.

March 31, 2012

Cam

Oh, no need to be sorry. Like I said, it had been over for 4 years before I moved out. He’s a great guy, but it just didn’t work. I’m definitely happier. 🙂

March 31, 2012

Reagan

Well, he’s either a fool or gay. <g> He must not have known what he had in you.

March 31, 2012

Cam

To tell the truth, I really don’t know what happened. We went from having a great marriage to nothing. Literally. One day everything was normal and good … the next day he slept in the guestroom and never came back. He still hasn’t told me what happened. Oh well … onward and upward! What about you? Why a divorce after all those years?

March 31, 2012

Reagan

Wow, and he never told you? That’s too bad.

I was married only five years. It’s a long story. Too long to go into here. Let’s just say she thought she was in love, wanted to be in love; but when the going got tough, she got going.

March 31, 2012

Cam

No, still hasn’t told me. The funny thing is, we have never so much as had an argument. Even to this day, we talk at least once a week. But he won’t talk about anything personal. He calls to check on me or to say “Hi,” but that’s it.

March 31, 2012

Reagan

Gee, maybe he is gay?

March 31, 2012

Cam

LoL! I don’t know what his problem is. I don’t think he’s gay … but nowadays … who knows?

March 31, 2012

Reagan

Ah, you do know how to put a smile on my face.

March 31, 2012

Cam

Smiles are a really good thing.

March 31, 2012

Reagan

Speaking of smiles, you ever see Airplane!? Directed by Jim Abrahams, David Zucker. With Robert Hays, Julie Hagerty, Leslie Nielsen, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. An airplane crew takes ill. Surely the only person capable of landing the plane is an ex-fighter pilot turned cab driver now afraid to fly. His name is Ted Sriker, but don’t call him Shirley.

March 31, 2012

Cam

YES! I loved that movie!

March 31, 2012

Reagan

Have you seen Julie Hagerty lately? She was cute in those movies, although a little too skinny; but she looks, well, hagerty, I mean haggard.

March 31, 2012

Cam

Uh-oh! No, I haven’t … what’s too skinny?

March 31, 2012

Reagan

Like, Shelly Duvall skinny?

March 31, 2012

Cam

Oh! That’s pretty damn skinny.

March 31, 2012

Reagan

Yeah, Shelly Duvall. Remember her in The Shining, with Jack Nicholson? I kept rooting for Nicholson to ax her. She was just annoying in that movie.

March 31, 2012

Cam

Hah! I loved The Shining!

March 31, 2012

Reagan

Too bad I didn’t know you ten years ago, before I met my last girlfriend and before you got married. Somehow I think we’d be pretty good together. And yes, I loved The Shining, too, but only because of Nicholson. I didn’t like the ending, which differed from the book.

March 31, 2012

Cam

Why is that too bad? So 10 years passed by … that was then and this is now. You’re not planning on dropping off the face of the planet anytime soon, are you?

March 31, 2012

Reagan

No, not planning it; but hey, none of us is promised an unlimited number of tomorrows. Especially if you buy into that whole Mayan calendar spelling the end of the world thing.

You really are adorable and SO my type, and I haven’t met too many my types in my life. But you’re seven hundred miles away.

March 31, 2012

Cam

That’s interesting (what you wrote about a feeling we would be good together). I don’t meet many that are my type either. They’re very hard to find. Okay, I won’t lie … yesterday I was browsing your profile pics and thought, “damn … he’s a good looking man.”

March 31, 2012

Reagan

Ah, well, you really are sweet. Thank you. I don’t blush easily, but I am now.

March 31, 2012

Cam

I like it that you’re blushing 🙂 I think when we stop blushing we’re in trouble.

March 31, 2012

Reagan

How come we haven’t talked before?

March 31, 2012

Cam

That’s a good question … If you scroll to the top of this thread it looks like we said hello once in March of 2010!!! That was 2 years ago!

March 31, 2012

Reagan

I guess that’s when we became friends here on FB. I’m sorry I didn’t flirt with you before now.

March 31, 2012

Cam

Yeah, you’re kinda slow, huh? LoL! Just kidding!

March 31, 2012

Reagan

Hey, nothing wrong with slow, unless you prefer fast-movers!

March 31, 2012

Cam

No, I prefer slow. Nice and easy 🙂

March 31, 2012

Reagan

Yeah, nice and easy is how I prefer it, too. ;-P

March 31, 2012

Cam

Mmmm … another thing in common! Are you an only child?

March 31, 2012

Reagan

Alas, I’m an only child; but I was never spoiled. The son of a retired marine who was not very nurturing to me. At least that’s what some shrink once told me. I think he told me that so that I could deny accountability with a clear conscience.

Can I ask you a question? It’s okay if you’d rather not answer.

March 31, 2012

Cam

I’m an open book. You can ask me anything. By the way … you really are a good looking man 🙂 Have I told you that yet?

March 31, 2012

Reagan

Ah, we’ll see how you feel about that after I ask … and yes, you’ve told me that, maybe as often as I’ve told you how adorable you are. And thanks. Flattery will get you anywhere.

You know, for as much time as we’ve spent trading messages here, and I’ve loved every minute of it, we could’ve gotten to know each other in a third of the time with a phone call. Would you be up for that sometime? Too forward?

March 31, 2012

Cam

Pure sweetness! That’s what you are. ♥ I’d be more than happy to share my phone number. (205) 555-2424 (home) (205) 555-4698 (cell). I only turn on my cell if I’m not at home.
March 31, 2012

Reagan

Ah, thank you. I promise not to pester you (too much). Would you be up for a call tomorrow sometime? I’d love to hear your voice. Put a voice with the face. I’m free anytime after about one. Name a time.

Your wall says you’re from Hueytown, Alabama. That where Huey Lewis is from?

March 31, 2012

Cam

I was browsing the pics on your site (great music by the way) and laughed out loud reading the captions! Posing with a family, not my own?! Ha-ha.

Yes, give me a call tomorrow! I’ll be home all day. I don’t plan on going anywhere. Well, I need to go to the store, but I’ll do that early in the day. You’re an hour ahead of me.

No, Huey Lewis isn’t from Hueytown, but the Allison’s are. Davey, Bobby … and so is Neil Bonnet and Red Farmer. The Hueytown gang! I don’t know if you’re into NASCAR, but they’re all from here.

March 31, 2012

Reagan

Actually, yes, I follow NASCAR. I was pulling for Tony Stewart all the way last year and was so happy he won the championship. And thank you, for your comments on my pictures. I had fun writing the caps.

Okay, I’ll give you a call early to mid-afternoon. That should give us plenty of time before bedtime to get better acquainted. Somehow I don’t think we’d ever be stuck for conversation. But you know, sometimes a lull in conversation is good. Better than filling it in with idle chatter. Sometimes it’s just nice to be in good company with someone.

March 31, 2012

Cam

Okay, I’ll be looking forward to your call. I like putting a voice with a face, too.

March 31, 2012

Reagan

You know the 10th anniversary of George Harrison’s death was this past week. Can’t believe it’s been 10 years already. But you’re probably too young to remember the Beatles. Ah, here’s another question for you: Beatles or Led Zeppelin?

March 31, 2012

Cam

Of course I remember the Beatles! Who doesn’t love John Lennon??? I prefer Led Zeppelin over the Beatles. I wasn’t a Beatles fan, but I was a fan of Lennon and McCartney as solo artists.

March 31, 2012

Reagan

Well, I like them both; but a nod to the Beatles. I hear more McCartney in all the Lennon-McCartney tunes; but Lennon penned some great tunes, as both a Beatle and a soloist.

You like jazz music at all? I’ve seen Dave Brubeck perform in concert three times.

March 31, 2012

Cam

I like to listen to all genres. I’m one of those people that listens to absolutely everything. To prove this, I’ll give you a short list: I met Frank Sinatra and James Brown, and my father was friends with Elvis.

March 31, 2012

Reagan

I like pretty much all genres, too, save for hip hop and country. I met Brubeck and his wife and one of his sons at a Christmas party. Way cool. And I saw Elvis perform (the fat Elvis) a couple years before his death. And I saw James Brown, too. He put on a helluva good show. Wow, you met Sinatra? What a rush that must’ve been.

March 31, 2012

Cam

I don’t listen to rap, unless you consider Kid Rock rap … I love Kid Rock! If you’re not a fan, I will send you some of his stuff, and I promise, you’ll become one. Oh, poor Elvis … such a shame the way he went out. I’ll never forget the day my dad came home and told me.

Yes! I was 15 when I met Sinatra! He was extremely cool. I bet you were thrilled to meet Brubeck, huh?

Let’s switch topics … favorite author?

March 31, 2012

Reagan

Favorite author? That’s changed many times over the years. I grew up reading Samuel R. Delany, who writes science fiction. Black and gay, but oh, can he turn a phrase. First published at 20. Then I found Gene Wolfe, who also writes science fiction. Now I’m into Umberto Eco. I might change yet again. How about you?

March 31, 2012

Cam

My favorite authors … gosh, I have a few. I like Stephen King, some of James Patterson, and I was a huge fan of Nicholas Sparks, but he became a writing machine and his last few books have sucked. He’s cranking them out too fast so they can be turned into movies, and they’re just bad. It breaks my heart, really. I’ve met him 5 times (twice by accident), and now he’s just in it for the money.

March 31, 2012

Reagan

Never cared for Sparks. Too syrupy. I read a lot of King in the eighties and nineties. Love his book on writing, although he had a lot of anger over the driver who hit him. I’ve never read Patterson. People either love him or hate him. I understand he no longer really writes his novels anymore. Pays someone else, then puts his mark on them, and presto, a new Patterson novel. You met Sparks?

March 31, 2012

Cam

Yep … that’s exactly what Patterson does now. There’s another big writer doing the same thing, but I can’t think of who it is right now. It’s a joke. Sparks had a lot of talent. He got sucked into the business and now writes crap. Yes, I met Sparks three times at book signings, once we bumped into each other at a mall, and another time we ran into each other at a restaurant. Still a nice guy though.

March 31, 2012

Reagan

Well, it does my heart good to read you recognize formula fiction when you see it.

March 31, 2012

Cam

Oh, I’m pretty good at recognizing crap. I think it’s sad when talented people get caught up in the business of it. It drives me crazy that Patterson does commercials, and I get really irritated when money (and everyone with money can do it) gets people with no talent on major networks.

March 31, 2012

Reagan

Huh, I wonder if there’s a limit to the number of messages we can send. Do you Skype?

March 31, 2012

Cam

I don’t Skype … I have a laptop and no web cam 😦

March 31, 2012

Reagan

No webcam? You need to get with it, girl!

March 31, 2012

Cam

LOL! I’m buying a new lap top early next year, so I’ll make sure it comes with all the bells and whistles!

March 31, 2012

Reagan

I think they all come with cams now, Cam. Hey, how about that? I’m a poet and don’t even know it!

Well, it’s late and I’m starting to fade, and my fingers are heavy. I’ve enjoyed this, very, very much, and I look forward to talking to you tomorrow. Don’t forget to sign my guestbook so I can get your email address.

March 31, 2012

Cam

You must work normal hours during the week, huh? Oh, I signed your guestbook an hour ago!!!

Okay, talk to you tomorrow 🙂 I enjoyed it as well! Sweet dreams 😉

March 31, 2012

Reagan

Rest well, too. I’m a night owl. You’re probably a morning. One thing we don’t have in common, eh?

March 31, 2012

Cam

I’m usually in bed by 11pm, and I’m up every morning at 6:30.

March 31, 2012

Reagan

You think we can make those hours work?

March 31, 2012

Cam

Won’t know unless we try. ♥

Nite!

March 31, 2012

Reagan

Goodnight.

March 31, 2012

Cam

xoxox

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Filed under Books, Fiction

A World Without Music—Chapter One

One

“Classic music is th’ kind that we keep thinkin’ll turn into a tune.”
 – Frank McKinney


March 30, 2012

“Tell me about music,” Prisco said.

“Tell you about music?” Reagan took a sip from his glass of club soda, listening to the buzz of the other patrons around them. He glanced at his watch to confirm that he had a few minutes before the quartet had to start their second set. “You might as well ask me to explain the origin of the universe.”

“The cosmos began with a bang approximately thirteen point seven billion years ago, as you measure time. A fraction of a moment later, the universe was a formless soup of the most elementary particles, quarks and leptons.”

“Quark was a character in the television series Deep Space Nine. He was a Ferengi. I don’t even know what a lepton is.”

“A lepton is an elementary particle and a fundamental constituent of matter. The best known of all leptons is the electron that governs nearly all of chemistry as it is found in atoms. It ties directly to all chemical properties.”

“Okay. You know, sometimes you really do sound like Mr. Spock.”

“Another fictitious character.”

“Only one of the most beloved sci-fi characters of our generation – you never watched Star Trek growing up in the sixties?”

“I did. But I found the special effects lacking, the storylines trite. Not to mention I found Captain Kirk an arrogant womanizer. What did women see in him?”

“Does it matter, Prisco? It was science fiction. I was seven. I had no interest in whether Kirk and Yeoman Rand were getting it on, or whether he scored with Yvonne Craig as the green-skinned Orion woman. It was only after I reached puberty that she became hot. All I cared about was going where no man had gone before. As for the special effects, sure they’ve come light years since then, but they were state of the art back then. What was important was what they made happen inside my head, how they stimulated my imagination, and gave me hope for the future, that man might one day put aside his differences, see beyond race and culture, to live in harmony. Besides, as far as violence and sex are con­cerned, we’ve been desensitized in this country. There was a time when we couldn’t see Rob and Laura Petrie in the same bed together.”

“Who are they?” Prisco took a sip of his ginger ale.

The Dick Van Dyke Show? A sitcom in the early sixties.”

“My parents did not get a television until 1967.”

“It never occurred to me to ask my parents where their son Richie came from, since his parents slept in separate beds.”

“I assume the way all children come into the world.”

“He wasn’t really their son, Prisco. He, too, was an actor. But TV back then was much simpler, and far less suggestive and graphic. When the bad guy got shot on Gunsmoke, we never saw any blood. He merely doubled over and died with a groan. Today we see all manner of soft porn in prime time, as well as autopsies in all their gruesome detail.”

“Do you think that has contributed to the decay of your society?”

Again Reagan thought Prisco sounded as if he were of another spe­cies, an outside observer gathering data on a dissertation of the fall of mankind.

“I’m convinced of it,” Reagan said.

“And you accept it.”

“What can I do to change it?” Reagan shrugged. “Adam and Eve chose knowledge. By doing so, they opened Pandora’s Box. You expect me, a nobody from Northville, to not only close the lid, but get every­thing back inside the box?”

Prisco shook his head. “Of course not.” Then he continued with his diatribe on the origin of the cosmos – he was good at that, finding his way back to his original subject.

“The universe expanded and cooled, and layers of structure devel­oped – neutrons and protons, atomic nuclei, atoms, stars, galaxies, clus­ters of galaxies, and super-clusters. The part of the universe that can be observed is composed of a hundred billion galaxies, each containing a hundred billion stars, and a number of planets at least equal in number. The universe continued, and continues to expand, at an accelerating pace, driven by dark energy, a form of energy whose gravitational force repels rather than attracts.”

“Okay, Prisco,” Reagan said. “You would know that, and thanks for the science lesson. But what caused the Big Bang?”

Prisco thought a moment. “It was not an explosion. It did not occur inside a laboratory. Assuming that neither time nor space existed before the bang, then we can conclude only that there was no cause.”

“Assuming? That’s not like you, Prisco, to make assumptions.”

“What could exist previous to that moment of creation?”

“That, I think, is for far greater minds than mine to determine.”

“The solution, the reason for creation, must therefore exist outside time and space.”

“God?”

“If I said, ‘yes,’ you would then ask from where does God come.” Prisco never ended a sentence with a preposition.

“Hasn’t he always existed?” Reagan took a swallow from his glass of club soda.

“To consider that presents a conundrum – a situation related to cau­sality no easier to explain than a universe born from nothing. A creator that has always existed is a being that, itself, or himself or herself, exists without a cause.”

“Perhaps that’s where faith comes in. Yet if God were to ever ask me what I thought Man’s greatest achievement was, I’d have to say, ‘Our ability to achieve new and more efficient ways of killing each other, the innocents especially.’ That we can kill so easily, without conscience, has led us to shirk our responsibility to the global community.”

Prisco raised his eyebrows. “The question is one of biology, or more pointedly, evolution. A century ago, your people couldn’t comprehend that the Milky Way was only one galaxy in a sea of galaxies numbering one hundred billion. Two centuries ago, you couldn’t imagine the stars were more distant than thirteen thousand light years. Five hundred years ago, you believed your planet was stationary to your sun. Around 300 BC, Aristotle went against the belief of a flat planet to put forth the notion that it was instead spherical-shaped.”

Reagan smiled. For as long as he’d known Prisco, which wasn’t long at all – not by age of the universe standards, or by standards of the aver­age life expectancy of the average man – only a few months, Prisco al­ways set himself apart from the rest of humanity, referring to his fellow men and women as “your people.” Reagan assumed it was nothing more than elitist behavior, despite the fact that Prisco sounded rather Spock-ish in his naiveté. But Spock was a fictional character from a fictional planet, figments of Gene Roddenberry’s imagination.

“The truth of the cosmos,” Prisco continued, “it would seem, is al­ways beyond what can be conceived.”

“Well, then, it’s only a matter of time before we learn the truth.”

“Hardly likely,” Prisco said. “With your proclivity for making war, your growing population, and the rate at which you use up your planet’s resources, you will become extinct before you learn the answer. However, to respond to your statement, the mind is finite. Its comprehension is limited. Suffice it to say that some questions will always be beyond under­standing.”

“Oh,” Reagan said.

“That is the fate of all civilizations – to perish before they can achieve total understanding.”

“And you know this, how? Wait, don’t tell me – it would seem, to you, to be ‘logical.’”

“It is logical.”

“Do you at least have a theory about the origin of the universe?”

“As is the case with all theories, there comes a time when it must be put to the test, outside the laboratory. I know only that the answer, what­ever it may be, will be strange, and likely beyond my experience.”

“On the other hand, maybe it’ll be so simple a child could understand it.”

“Highly unlikely,” Prisco said.

“Will all be made known to us after we die?”

“The essence of who we are never really dies. It merely transmutates into something else.”

“Something greater?”

“Greater is subjective.”

“Something spiritual then?”

Prisco ignored Reagan’s question: “You will see beyond the virtual reality of your corporeal existence. Yet it, too, will be limited.”

“And you know this how?”

“I –” Prisco thought better of his response. “That is beyond my knowledge and understanding.”

“What about your experience?” Reagan attempted to bait the hook he knew Prisco to be. At times Prisco seemed adolescent beyond … well, beyond the great beyond. But Reagan also found him to be wise beyond human measure. Beyond this virtual reality.

Prisco only steered the discussion elsewhere, leaving Reagan to won­der if he were perhaps incapable of telling an untruth, only able to with­hold it, a sort of Star Trek prime directive, Starfleet’s General Order num­ber one, which dictates no interference with the internal development of alien civilizations that have not yet achieved warp technology, and there­fore are unaware of the existence of other worlds in galaxies far, far away. Reagan knew that he was mixing pop culture icons, but withholding a truth, to Reagan, was the same as telling an untruth.

Reagan glanced at his watch; his break was nearly over.

“Tell me about music,” Prisco asked again.

Reagan sighed. “Music is a strange thing. I would almost say it is a miracle. For it stands halfway between thought and phenomenon, be­tween spirit and matter.”

“Heinrich Heine.”

“Who?”

“You quote Heinrich Heine, a nineteenth century German poet.”

“I didn’t know that.”

“Yet you quoted him.”

Reagan laughed, and played to Prisco: “We humans are like that. We often know things without knowing how we know, or from whence we got the knowledge.”

“Doesn’t that infringe upon copyright laws?”

Reagan grinned. “Only if we use such knowledge for gain – usually monetary. I know the quote, read it somewhere. But who wrote it is un­important to me.”

“Why?”

“Why is it unimportant to me? I don’t know. I’m a wealth of knowledge of worthless trivia. The human condition maybe? I liked the quote, even if I can’t remember where I read it, and so I committed it to memory. Someone else may read it, find it unimportant to them, and so they will immediately forget both it and the man who wrote it.”

Prisco seemed to find that incomprehensible; Reagan continued.

“You want to know about music. I learned in my youth that music is mathematical, a statement I won’t pretend to understand, even though I play bass guitar in a jazz quartet.”

“Mathematics is the basis of sound,” Prisco said. “The musical as­pects of sound exhibit a remarkable array of numerical properties. Nature itself is mathematical. The Pythagoreans of ancient Greece studied the expression of musical scales in terms of numerical ratios, particularly those of small integers. They believed that all nature consists of harmony arising out of numbers.”

“You don’t say?”

“I did say.” One of those many moments Prisco betrayed his ingenu­ousness.

Reagan laughed. “I know nothing about Pythagoreans.”

“Yet you are of this planet.”

“That has nothing to do with my knowledge of the ancients. I love music. That I do doesn’t mean I have a desire to understand it in terms of ratios and numbers. In fact, if I understood music at that level, I’d likely be unable to play.”

“Why?”

“I’ve known a few mathematicians in my time, and computer geeks and IT types. Most are introverts, lacking much in the way of social skills.”

“As are many artists,” Prisco said. “Introverts lacking communal dexterity.”

“True. But geeks are outcasts. Musicians are cool, hep.”

“Hep?”

“An earlier version of ‘hip,’” Reagan said. “It got its start in the early days of jazz. If you got jazz, you were downtown, man; groovy, mod, now, trendy, turned-on, and with it.”

Prisco thought a moment before saying, “Au courant.”

“Yeah, that,” Reagan said, making a mental note to look up the term. “Back in Monk’s day, devotees referred to him as Theonliest, which was a play on his first name, Thelonious. To them, no one else existed in jazz. He was the onliest.”

Prisco only nodded and asked his question again: “Why would you be unable to play if your understanding of music included its mathematical aspects?”

“I knew a computer geek who played a musical instrument – guitar. He dug music – that is, he grooved on the blues.”

“He thought it was groovy?”

“Right. By day, Larry works for EDS, implementing computer hard­ware and software for clients. Extremely proficient at what he does. A few months ago, when I was considering adding a guitarist to Imbroglio, Larry auditioned for us.”

“He didn’t play well?” Prisco said.

“He played very well. That was the problem.”

Prisco looked confused.

“He was very precise. Played the notes as they were written. But we’re a jazz quartet, Pris. Jazz is about improvisation. Music is as much about playing the notes in the right key as it is about feeling the music, and putting feeling into the notes. In jazz, one must play not only what’s there, but what’s not there.”

Prisco only shook his head.

“Think about an author reading from his or her own book. He or she might write beautiful prose, lyrical. But if they stand there and read it in a dull monotone, with no inflection – no feeling – the end result will only bore the listener.”

Prisco sipped from his glass of ginger ale; Reagan continued:

“I dig music. It’s a universal language. It transcends gender, race and culture. It inspires. It can soothe the savage breast, incite a people to re­volt. It can bring two lonely hearts together.”

“But how does it do those things?”

Reagan shrugged. “I don’t know. Is the how really so important?”

“To exist is to seek understanding.”

Reagan shrugged again. “All creatures, great and small, have emo­tions. Somehow, music manages to touch those emotions, and it’s capable of amplifying them. Even my father, who disliked rock and roll in general, recognized quality musicianship. I came home one Saturday, after playing baseball, to find him listening to Chic Corea’s “Return to Forever,” which I’d bought the week before. I’d listened to it that morning, and had left it on my turntable. Although “Return to Forever” was more jazz-based than Corea’s later jazz-rock fusion albums, Dad told me he really enjoyed Chick’s keyboard playing, as well as Joe Farrell’s soprano sax. They touched Dad, and amplified his love of music.” Reagan smiled, and added: “Maybe our connection to music goes back to our time spent in the womb – the rhythm of our mother’s heartbeat. The rhythm of love. Beyond that, I can only say that some things, like what existed before ex­istence, are beyond understanding.”

Reagan saw his band mates taking the stage, so he finished his glass of club soda and told Prisco he’d see him after the final set.

As Reagan hoisted his bass, he looked out at the sparse Wednesday night crowd. LIVE had recently acquired new ownership and changed its name from Goodnite Gracie. On the corner of Huron and 1st Street in Ann Arbor, the weekly lineup included a live music showcase each Wednesday night, a Thursday grad night, a live music happy hour on Fri­day evenings, and a DJ on Friday and Saturday nights. Reagan much pre­ferred his Saturday night gigs at Gotham City, just down 1st Street a cou­ple blocks. The crowds were larger and far livelier, no doubt because of the weekend. But a gig was a gig, and he needed the money.

A few moments later, the Reagan Imbroglio Quartet – composed of keyboards, bass, drums and alto sax – launched into an instrumental jazz-rock fusion rendition of “Dixie Chicken.” From the Lowell George era of Little Feat, so named for the size of the feet of the band’s founding father, “Dixie Chicken” was the showcase piece of their live perfor­mances. George had once played with Frank Zappa; but their creativity clashed, and Zappa eventually told George that he needed to get his own band. “Dixie Chicken” was the tune after which Dixie Chicks had taken their name.

The piece lasted nearly twenty minutes, and allowed each band mem­ber to take extended improvisational rides. Near the end of the piece, Reagan heard the final verse in his head:

“Well, it’s been a year since she ran away – guess that guitar player sure could play. She always liked to sing along – she’s always handy with a song. Then one night in the lobby of the Commodore Hotel, I chanced to meet a bartender who said he knew her well. And as he handed me a drink, he began to hum a song. And all the boys there at the bar began to sing along … If you’ll be my Dixie Chicken, I’ll be your Tennessee Lamb. And we can walk together down in Dixieland … down in Dixieland.”

In Reagan’s life, it had been fifteen years since she ran away.

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A Dog’s Wisdom

Joe is sad today. He sits and taps with his fingers. He stops tapping for a moment and says something aloud, which I don’t comprehend – I understand maybe four hundred words, mostly commands. Sentences are outside my understanding. The concept of “opposable thumbs,” which he once told a friend is what leaves Man inferior to the lower life forms, is beyond me. When he asks me if I want to go for a walk, it’s “walk” I respond to. I look up from where I’m laying, at Joe’s feet, to see light flicker across his face as he goes back to tapping.dog_wisdom_quote_wood_wall_art-rbe31e22c49434b52b049d65342392213_zfgxb_324

Earlier, while it was still dark outside and before he started tapping, he stared into the light and said, “Another rejection letter. I’m a slave to the whims of others.” I don’t pretend to know what that means, but it made Joe pissy, as the woman who used to come around said. He sighed and put fire to one of those sticks he sucks on without ever eating. I don’t like them; they make me sneeze. He sipped from the cup on his desk – I can smell its bitter scent – sighed again, and began tapping. I find the sound pleasing because it brings Joe contentment. I can sense Joe’s moods as easily as I can detect my favorite smells – grass, bacon, and Joe’s scent. The woman who used to come around no longer does, and I sense from Joe sadness in her absence, but also ease. They often raised their voices at one another, which left all three of us unhappy.

Joe finds the smelly sticks soothing, and the steaming water in the cup leaves him alert. He calls them his muses. Still, there is an underlying sorrow to his mood this morning, despite the tapping, which usually leaves him feeling happy. He stops tapping to sip from the cup, and he puts the stick between his lips; I watch its end glow and smoke rises lazily from its end. I sneeze, and Joe leans over to scratch me between my ears and then goes back to tapping. A moment later he stops and, looking into the light, eyes moving from side to side, says something I don’t understand. Then he sighs and says, “Shit,” which is one of the commands I know. I cock my head because I’ve already been outside.

Joe gets up and takes his cup with him to the kitchen. I follow him and as he pours more water into his cup, black and bitter smelling, I sit salivating, staring at the door behind which he keeps my treats. A moment later, the door swings open and Joe reaches in to get me a Milk-Bone – another word I understand.

“Good girl,” he tells me, a sad smile on his lips. “You’re so easy to please.” I wag my tail: a dog’s response to a human’s smile. Then he scratches me between my ears before leaving for the den and more tapping.

I don’t know why Joe is so sad. I wish he could be more like me. I’m happy with my morning walk, a tummy scratch, fresh water in my bowl twice a day, and food in my dish, along with the occasional Milk-Bone and table scrap. I’m happiest when Joe takes me to the park and lets me run free among all the wonderful smells.

I wonder if Joe would be happier if he had four legs and could run free with me.

 

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The Greatest: What a Legacy

Last week we lost a legend, The Greatest.

Last night I watched CNN coverage of the life of Muhammad Ali, which included footage of him lighting the flame for the 1996 Olympics. I cried back then to see the man who once floated like a butterfly with the physique of a Greek god, stinging like a bee his opponents with quick jabs, shaking from his Parkinson’s, fighting to hold onto that torch, and again fought back tears as CNN replayed that footage.

They showed a clip of Ali’s personal gym, with Ali claiming he was planning a comeback. I laughed, but believed if anyone could come back, he could.

Say what you will about him. Call him a braggart and a draft dodger, but on the former, baseball legend Dizzy Dean once said, “It ain’t braggin’ if you can do it,” and Ali did pretty much everything he ever bragged of doing. As for the latter, he made an important statement about the war in Vietnam, and all wars.

I loved him as kid growing up, rooting for him in every fight. Yes, he was imperfect, just like the rest of humanity. Married four times, fathered children out of wedlock. I don’t judge him for that. I won’t judge him for that.

I base my opinion of him for what his daughters say about him today as a daddy—that he taught to them only love and acceptance of others—what they say about him as a human being and the life he led—that he wanted to help others. I base my opinion of him for what his opponents—those he left on their backs in the ring—said of him, decades later, that he was the greatest in the ring and a wonderful human being outside the ring.

Did Joe Frazier hold a grudge against Ali for his taunts during their fight years? Yes, but that was his choice. Ali apologized, but Frazier chided him for doing it through the media and not face-to-face. Ali only said, “If you see Frazier, you tell him he’s still a gorilla.” Vintage Ali.

At Frazier’s private funeral service in Philadelphia in 2011, the Reverend Jesse Jackson spoke. When Jackson asked those in attendance to stand and “show your love”, Ali stood with the other attendees, which no doubt took great effort given his advanced Parkinson’s, and applauded.

He was the greatest, not only in the ring but in life, using his celebrity to further more than one cause.

In my opinion, for what it’s worth, he was the most colorful sports figure of all time. He was a showman, to be sure, taunting his opponents in press conferences leading up to fights and predicting the round in which they would fall. Ali and Howard Cosell were like a comedy team akin to Abbot and Costello, with Cosell playing the straight man to Ali’s antics: calling Cosell “How-weird” and threatening to pull off his toupee during interviews. But according to one of Ali’s daughters, he loved Cosell like a brother.

Maya Angelo wrote that people will forget what you said, and they’ll forget what you did. But they’ll never forget how you made them feel. That may be true of the rest of us mortals. But I dare say people will never forget what Ali did and said, nor will they forget how he made them feel. I read that everywhere Ali went, not matter where in the world, people stopped and smiled at him. This thirty-five years after he left the fight game.

Today, I grieve the loss of The Greatest.

ali1

Courtesy of chicagonow.com

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Desire for Acceptance

I never met my wife’s father; but he left me a great gift. He knows that I promised, in my wedding vows, to always cherish his daughter Colleen’s heart as the treasure it is to me.

I was fifty-seven when I married for the second time, after a hiatus as a bachelor for nearly thirty years. After my divorce I figured to marry again, but at some point—and I can’t say when—it stopped being a priority.

I dated several women, had serious relationships with five. Four bloodied my heart. The greatest lesson they taught me was that the lessons I learned in those relationships didn’t always apply to the next one. The fifth taught me that I’d much rather someone inflict pain on me than to be the one inflicting pain on another. Flaws

I told Colleen shortly after we met that I wasn’t looking for someone to fix me, to which she replied that she wasn’t looking for someone who needed it. That’s not to say that each of us hasn’t accumulated some baggage along the way, the result of choices we made, paths down which we traveled that led to some nasty destinations, childhoods that left us handicapped. We accept that baggage, carry it together, and try to enhance each other’s lives.

There are days when I’m not very likeable; and yes, there are days when I don’t much like Colleen. But that doesn’t mean we love each other any less.

Also from my vows: “Some have told me that I’m an acquired taste. To them I say, ‘Acquire some taste.’”

I never was much of a follower, even in my youth. I never marched to the beat of a different drummer. I marched to the beat of my own drum, which hasn’t always been a good thing. Sinatra may have done it “my way”, but no one calls me “Chairman of the Board.” Some have called me a writer of no small talent, while others have said I’m a shitty writer. Hemingway had his detractors, as all writers surely do; but I can’t say it doesn’t hurt. Creative types are sensitive, perhaps more so than others.

I’ve ruffled some feathers along the way of my life, but I long ago gave up trying to please others in an effort to get them to like me. It doesn’t work. Accept me as I am, a man reaching to make his dreams come true—or what’s a life for?—who endeavors to enhance the lives of those his touches, who tries to do what’s right because it’s the right thing to do but sometimes falls short, who tries not to judge others but holds them accountable; or accept me through my affiliation through my wife, until I prove otherwise.

I’ll say it again: I’m not perfect. No one is, which is not an excuse. I haven’t always lived my life as if it were an open book, but Colleen makes me want to be a better person. Each day with her by my side is a new day, a chance to do better than yesterday, a day of discoveries—of myself as well as her. That she loves me and accepts me as I am should be enough.

To those who accept me I raise to you a glass of Booker’s (because sometimes I prefer a good bourbon to burn). Thank you.

To those who don’t and won’t even try, I’m sorry, but only because it’s your loss.

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The Cobb Legacy: Life, Death, and Ty Cobb

“I used to think Romeo and Juliet was the greatest love story ever written. But now that I’m middle-aged, I know better. Oh, Romeo certainly thinks he loves his Juliet. Driven by hormones, he unquestionably lusts  (7)

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May 15, 2016 · 10:58 am

Now Available—The Cobb Legacy

Cagney Nowak is writing a novel around the 1905 shooting death of baseball legend Ty Cobb’s father by his mother a week before Ty was called up by the Detroit Tigers. Although she was acquitted by an all-male jury on the grounds that the incident was accidental, the townspeople of Royston, Georgia, thought otherwise. When Cagney begins to relive the night of the shooting in his dreams, more than a century later and in the guise of Amanda Cobb, he is led to discover his father’s deepest secret.

More than a mystery, The Cobb Legacy is the story of a man’s efforts to connect with his dying father, a World War II veteran suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and to come to terms with his obsession over the Cobb legacy as well as his own adulterous affair and impending divorce, while doubting that love with an old friend can be his.

Apex Reviews gave The Cobb Legacy its highest rating—five stars—calling it “an eye-opening tale of drama, scandal, and intrigue highlighting the living, breathing history of a fatally-flawed, intrepid folk hero.”

TCL Front Cover

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What Is It Readers Want?

Writers today are advised to identify their audience and write to it. Hence vampires and werewolves were, for a time, the hottest genres in literature. The Hunger Games became a phenomena, as did Harry Potter and The Da Vinci Code; Fifty Shades of Gray continues to inspire erotica.

I recently read that a large portion of the Potter books go unread, used as doorstops, despite Rowling’s imagination and talent. Dan Brown has been labeled a hack for employing numerous bells and whistles to keep readers turning pages. Even readers who propelled Fifty Shades to the number one bestseller of all time snickered at the writing, even as they professed a connection to the female protagonist, a victim of sexual abuse they chose to ignore, wanting to see a romance, a poorly written one at that.Genre

Genre has existed since the beginning of literature. Poetry, the oldest form of literature, older even than prose, was in ancient times divided into narrative, dramatic, and lyric forms. Narrative poetry was primarily epic. Dramatic poetry was divided into tragedy and comedy. Greek philosopher Aristotle named story genres by categorizing dramas according to the value-charge of endings and the design of stories.

Today no fewer than twenty-five genres exist, from romance to mystery to western to horror to fan fiction, and a host of others, including mainstream and literary. All because the publishing industry requires everything to fit into neat categories to increase their bottom line, and perhaps driven by demographics that prefer the same to facilitate their tastes.

It’s difficult for me to imagine what today’s consumer seeks in a novel, mostly because I have eclectic taste. Oh, in my youth I had a voracious appetite for science fiction, but as I grew older my tastes expanded.

Today I seek novels that are well-written, with an artistic flair. Characters with whom I connect are more important to me than storyline. Victor Hugo and Joseph Conrad employed a different set of best practices, but they’re still talked about in creative writing classes. Raymond Chandler is considered one the greatest stylists of the twentieth century; but today’s writers are advised to write in a vanilla style so as not to take the reader out of the story.

The stories to which I gravitate don’t have to be world changing, but I’m attracted to characters who transform, the result of some life-changing obstacle—real people faced with real challenges. But it seems I’m in the minority.

As a writer, I’m faced with a dilemma: write what pleases me, stories similar to those I enjoy reading, or employ a formula to attract an audience hungry for genre. A critic called my work, “Gritty, entertaining… real. Romance for the non-romantic.” I like that as a brand.

Yet I continue to struggle to find an audience, an audience I know exists because I’m a part of it.

But my work is difficult to brand, perhaps because that audience isn’t a member of the vast social network that promotes today’s popular genres.

I must face the probability that today’s consumer cares little about the lyrical and more about being hooked by the first sentence else they will close the cover never again to be opened. With short attention spans, they seek entertainment first and foremost, and care little about three-dimensional characters or stories well-told. Curious as lemmings, they follow the trends.

Self-published writers consider themselves independents, along with small independent presses. They blog about how digital technology has transformed the publishing industry, and it has; just not all for the better.

Yes, it gives consumers a variety from which to choose. But a lot of it—most of it—is poorly written, unedited, poorly packaged drivel. Self-publishing allows publication without having to learn craft. Good writing requires more than simply opening a vein and bleeding. It requires knowledge of craft and best practices as well as talent.

Self-published writers boast that with a traditional publisher they have to do as much work and share their royalty, and if they don’t succeed—if the publisher doesn’t make enough money quickly enough—their title will be dropped.

They look at E.L. James’ success and think they, too, can win the lotto: self-publish and wait for Random House to come calling. It happens, but not all that often. Random House doesn’t care about quality. They care about return on investment. If Fifty Shades had bombed, do you think they’d have published the sequels? They were in such a hurry to get the first book to print that they didn’t bother to work with James to improve the text.

All of the above is true. The only thing good about the twenty-first century publishing model is that it gives voice to talented writers whose work might not ever see the light of day with one of the Big Five. Unfortunately the number of talented writers is minimal compared to the number of hacks.

Nearly a half-million new titles were published in 2014, most self-published. In my opinion that just makes it more difficult for the cream to rise to the top.

 

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Chaotic Theory—Chapter One

One must care about a world one will not see.

—Bertrand Russell

In 2115, unbeknownst to the world, a savior was born unto the future…

Antanas sits and watches entranced, his drink untouched, as the young woman, a natural exhibitionist, dances on the table before which he sits. Bathed in the bright spotlight affixed from the ceiling half a room away, her face bears the beauty of her Estonian descent, and her body is that of a goddess. He admires, with his artist’s eye, her well-sculpted glutes, her narrow waist and full hips, well-proportioned breasts, and especially her legs—lush, rounded thighs, taut hamstrings, and curvilinear calves.

Antanas has had success finding subjects at several other similar clubs where women dance, nude, for tips and drinks. He is eighteen and already well-known in Lithuania for his work in clay. Several of his pieces, all nudes, are on display at the Kazys Varnelis House-Museum in Vilnius. Varnelis had spent the second half of the 20th century in the United States and was renowned for his abstract paintings of optical illusions. Before the fall of the United States in the latter half of the 21st century, his work had been on display at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City and the Art Institute of Chicago. Antanas will likely never travel abroad, as the airline industry succumbed (for myriad reasons, not the least of which were acts of terrorism against refineries as well as a lack of qualified pilots) long before he’d been born, so he has no idea whether any of Varnelis’s work overseas have survived, although rumor has it that much of it—that which has not been brought home to Lithuania—now belongs to private collectors.

When she finishes her routine, Antanas tips the woman generously and asks, in her native tongue, that she join him. If she is impressed by the size of his tip or that he speaks Estonian she doesn’t show it; she merely leads him by the hand to a more secluded portion of the club where she begins quoting him her prices. Antanas offers two bills and asks that she merely sit and enjoy a drink with him. The woman accedes, betraying mild surprise that nothing more will be required of her. After her drink arrives—vodka with water on the side—Antanas introduces himself as an artist, one of Lithuania’s most promising young sculptors. The woman looks unimpressed.

“I want you to sit for me, nude,” he says and watches the woman’s esteem rise with the posturing of her head. “I’ll first need to make several sketches in various poses, and for the clay I’ll require several sessions of no more than a few hours each over several days. I’ll pay you, for each session, whatever you earn for a good night’s work dancing.”

“Nothing else will be required of me?”

Unaware, in his youthful naiveté, of what she is intimating, Antanas shakes his head and watches the woman consider his proposition.

“How do I know you are who you say you are?”

Hurt by her accusation, Antanas shows the woman his identification and tells her a phone call to the Kazys Varnelis House-Museum will prove the validity of his claim.

The woman nods and Antanas wonders if she is considering the notion that she is to be immortalized in clay or simply allowing her self-image to run away with itself, the result of what she may perceive to be, like the other patrons of this establishment, his obsession with her body.

“My name is Loviise,” she says. “When do we start?”

“Tomorrow morning,” he tells her, and gives her his address.

For the remainder of the night Antanas watches Loviise dance. She seems to prefer the sensuous as opposed to the overtly provocative, but she indulges in whatever each patron demands to maximize the size of her tip, and Antanas, his creativity inflamed, imagines a variety of poses by which he might denote Loviise’s incredible anatomy for all time—what little of it remains in the world of man.

Tomorrow arrives and with it Loviise to Antanas’s studio. After two hours Antanas has four sketches: one with Loviise, on her hands and knees, looking back over her shoulder; another in a reclined position on a bed; a third showing Loviise standing, her right leg bearing most of her weight, hands on hips with feet widely spaced; the fourth her feet again apart but with toes in and knees together, with Loviise bent at the waist, torso nearly parallel to the floor, to show her backside, her right hip thrust in that direction and slightly higher than the left as she peers back at the viewer.

When he is finished Antanas bids Loviise to inspect his work. She seems disappointed.

“These look nothing like me.”

Antanas smiles. “No, I suppose they don’t. For my sketches I focus on your musculature—what makes your anatomy do what it does.”

“Draw stares wherever I go.”

“Yes, I imagine it does that,” Antanas says with a laugh.

“Will the sculpture look like one of these?”

“No, it will look more like the real you.”

“Which will you choose?”

“I don’t know yet.” But already Antanas is torn between two—the one that shows Loviise in seductive repose or the one with her bent at the waist; the latter draws the viewer to her backside and best showcases her legs, the stretched hamstrings and graceful curves of her calves, and he likes her asymmetrical posture. While the former, a more traditional pose, shows elegance, Loviise’s open legs indicative of trust. Antanas begins to consider the necessity of a second piece.

Antanas asks Loviise to arrive the next day at the same time to commence work on the clay, and she leaves, seemingly taken aback that nothing more is required of her.

With Loviise gone, Antanas, still chaste at his young age, is acutely aware of the desire with which she’s left him.

Antanas stands back to admire, for a moment, Loviise’s lovely body, which he’s just finished posing for their morning session. She lays on her back, left leg upright but bent at the knee just so to flatter the gentle swell of its calf, foot balanced on a fifteen-centimeter stiletto; her right leg, also bent at the knee, lays flat on the bed at a right angle to the left, its thigh taut, the point of her stiletto-clad right foot nearly kissing the point of its counterpart; her back slightly arched with her right hand rested lightly on her ribcage, nearly in support of her breast, while her left arm falls above her head, where her long brown hair is carefully arranged to look natural on the pillow upon which her head rests. The stilettos are all Loviise wears.

Antanas allows his desire to wash over him for a moment as he drinks in Loviise’s nude form, prone on the sheepskin blanket, his eyes linger on her legs, her rose-tipped breasts. She smiles at him, perhaps guessing his thoughts. Antanas blushes and turns his attention to the mound of clay before him.

“I’m surprised you chose this pose,” Loviise says from her reclined position. “I had taken you for an ass lover.”

Antanas laughs but is unable to mask his embarrassment at her accusation. He briefly considers letting her in on his wish to do a second piece but decides to wait. Instead he says, “You have a beautiful body.”

Loviise sighs as if his assessment were something she’s heard countless times. “They are just body parts.”

Antanas wonders, as he picks up a chisel and sets about sculpting the clay’s shapelessness into the semblance of Loviise’s form, if this were Loviise’s way of telling him she tires of hearing such praise. “You are right,” he says, “if you consider only their basic functions—legs as a means of perambulation, breasts a source of nutrients for infants, the breadth of a woman’s hips to accommodate child-bearing. But there is something artistic in anatomy. God must have been a sculptor when he created Adam and Eve.”

Loviise laughs. “God created all creatures, great and small—the colorful and the graceful as well as the unsightly. To propagate their species, a toad must copulate with a mate. Surely they are not driven by their attraction to another toad?”

“Who can say what attraction exists between genders of another species—perhaps toads perceive the human form hideous. I suspect it is only instinct on which they function.”

“Which is no different than any man I’ve known,” Loviise says with a smile designed to distract Antanas from her callous tone. “At least that’s been my experience.”

“Beauty can be found in many places: in a song, a poem, a glade, a panorama, a woman’s body. That’s not to say such beauty speaks to everyone, but to those who seek, such beauty exists.” Loviise says nothing, so Antanas adds: “Even a baby responds more favorably to a beautiful face.”

“What can a baby know of beauty?”

“Infants are very perceptive. Symmetry is the basis for much beauty. While a baby certainly is incapable of reasoning, it responds more favorably to aesthetically pleasing features.” Antanas works his chisel through the soft clay that will become Loviise’s left leg, removing portions of unwanted clay as he goes.

“But getting back to your comment regarding body parts,” he says. “The history of art is a catalogue of beauty at any given moment of the past. Consider that Peter Paul Rubens, a Flemish painter in the seventeenth century, portrayed his nudes as pear-shaped and somewhat full-figured—by today’s standards they would be considered overweight, even obese. But in Rubens’s time, such images depicted the very wealthy aristocrats. To be slender, waifish, betrayed one’s status in society as underprivileged. Yet in the mid- to late twentieth century, the standard for female beauty in print, film and fashion was astonishingly slender—the latter, I suspect, was to allow no distraction from the clothing the model wore. Many women succumbed to anorexia.”

“Which only serves to prove that women have, for centuries, been objectified for their bodies.”

“Yes,” Antanas says, admiring Loviise’s body in its prone position on the bed. “But you allow it, no?” Not an accusation; merely observation.

Loviise seems startled by Antanas’s perceptivity but quickly recovers. “It serves me,” she says. “It provides me a better living than I could otherwise hope for in this dying world. Even if it has left me handicapped in many ways.”

“Handicapped?” Antanas watches Loviise consider her reply.

“I am pleased the world will not outlive me,” she says. “In time my beauty will abandon me and where would that leave me?”

Antanas is silent. He knows opportunities, for men and women alike, are dwindling along with the planet’s resources. For a woman like Loviise, like the women of biblical times, she is surviving the only way she can.

The world’s oldest profession.

Loviise intrudes on his sad thought: “Would you deny you would like to fuck me?”

Antanas blushes and thinks about admitting that he’s never been with a woman, but he doesn’t wish to betray his naiveté. Instead he merely says, “I’m very attracted to your form, for my art.”

“You’re a liar,” Loviise says with a sarcastic laugh.

“I find you very desirable—as you’ve already told me many men do. Your profession invites it, even if your reasons for choosing such a profession are a matter of survival. I would never force myself on you, nor would I pay you for sexual favors.”

“No? Why not?” The woman who professed to abhor being judged for her body parts sounds disappointed. When Antanas doesn’t reply, Loviise adds, “Perhaps you are a pervert and will tend to your own pleasure over that statue you create, when I am gone for the last time.”

“No,” Antanas says. “That is not my purpose.” The thought that he, or anyone, would find his work pornographic is unconscionable.

“Then why do you create it? You wish to immortalize me in the eyes of men for all of twenty years?”

“This statue will endure for centuries.”

“What good does that serve if there is no one to appreciate it?” Antanas can say nothing to rebut Loviise. Then, perchance wanting to hold on to some ideal of her own she would in all likelihood deny, she adds, “Then maybe it is because you are young, idealistic. Could be you still believe in love.”

“I’ve always believed in love,” Antanas says.

“Then you’ve not yet had your heart broken.”

Antanas thinks a moment of Giedre, the girl who’d done just that, broken his heart, two years ago when her family moved to Finse in Norway. Even though they’d never consummated their love, Antanas remained in touch with Giedre for nearly a year, and then her letters to him became fewer, finally stopping altogether a few weeks ago, and Antanas was forced to consider the likelihood that she’d met someone else. He sighs aloud, which prompts a laugh from Loviise.

“From your sigh it seems you believe otherwise.” When Antanas says nothing, Loviise asks, “What was her name?”

“Giedre.” Antanas’s hands stop their work; he feels Loviise’s eyes upon him. “It was perhaps only puppy love,” he says to hide his embarrassment.

“There is something to be said for young love,” Loviise says. “Innocence lost can never be regained.”

Moved by the sorrow in her voice, Antanas looks up, sees pain in Loviise’s countenance, and grieves for her. Not wishing to intrude on her discomfort, he is quick to look away.

“Where did Giedre go and why did she go?”

“Her family moved to Finse, where a greater supply of fresh water exists, thinking to buy a few more good years before―”

Loviise nods to show she understands. After a moment, she asks, “And you? Why did you not follow her?”

“I’m Lithuanian. I was born here and don’t wish to die in some foreign land.”

“Perhaps you did not love her so much as you thought.”

“Or she, me,” Antanas is quick to add as he works the cool, moist clay of Loviise’s left thigh, such a contrast to how he imagines her real flesh would feel to his kneading hands—smooth, like the clay, but warm, soft like a pillow, velvety.

“A young man should pursue his heart’s desire,” Loviise says, as if she is taunting him. Antanas ignores her.

“And you?” he asks. “Will you return to Estonia?”

Antanas watches Loviise consider several replies before she settles on: “There is nothing for me there. I will remain here, where in all likelihood I will die alone.”

“Surely you must have family, friends, a lover.”

“My mother is dead, and my father molested me when I was but a girl. I have no siblings and my friends, if they can be called that, work with me, and they see me as I see them: competition, a hindrance to making a living. As for a lover… I have as many as I wish.” Loviise sounds proud, but Antanas wonders if her pride is manufactured, a mask to cover up some inner damage. “They provide me pleasure and distraction, but little comfort. But at least they cannot break my heart, as I do theirs when I tire of them.”

Antanas looks at Loviise’s magnificent body on the divan before him, tries to bring to mind Giedre’s much more girlish figure (she’d been nineteen when last he’d seen her), and wonders how she might appear today—softer, rounder, fuller. Her name means serenity, and she had provided much comfort to him in these troubling times. Still, her form had not inspired him in his art. No sculptures of her nude body would ever grace the halls of museums—not that she ever would’ve agreed to pose for Antanas; she was much too shy. Still, he’d loved her, for her shyness, her sweet innocence, kindness and compassion, her keen business mind (she’d been instrumental in getting his work into the Kazys Varnelis House-Museum), and perhaps most for her ability to find hope where little existed. In return she had loved Antanas, and seemed secure in her place. And here before him is perhaps the most beautiful woman he’s ever seen; yet she is cold, insensitive, indifferent, perhaps incapable of love. Perfect as her flesh is, inside, despite her arrogance (or because of it), she is broken. Lovely as she appears, Antanas knows he could never love Loviise.

“Why do you look at me like that?” Loviise asks.

“Like what?”

“As if you pity me.”

“I’m sorry. It’s just that… it hurts me to hear you speak of love as you do. Love is all that matters in the world. I believe it is what we are put here for.”

“There are many forms of love we seek, all of them for selfish reasons. We want it, of that I have no doubt. But few are willing to give it in order to receive it, preferring instead to take. Then there is love of money—which has made the world what it is today. Many love and covet my body―”

“Even as you loathe it, for what it has failed to bring you.”

Loviise falls silent a moment, perhaps taken by Antanas’s vision, before saying: “A love of flesh is not the same as love of a person. This flesh I wear is not who I am, inside.”

Antanas nods. “What were your dreams, as a child?”

“Dreams? What good are dreams? They are but a momentary escape, in repose, from the harsh truth of reality.”

“A wise man once wrote, ‘Just as man cannot live without dreams, he cannot live without hope. If dreams reflect the past, hope summons the future.’”

“My father dashed my dreams, left me with only nightmares of my past. As for hope, what optimism can be had in the face of what lies ahead?”

“Which makes love all the more important,” Antanas says. “Men and women have been dying for centuries. The man who is told his days are numbered the result of some incurable disease often finds purpose and comfort in love. That our days as a species are limited has always been true; that they now have been given a fixed number makes love imperative, the only thing that should matter.”

“You are young and…” Loviise trails off.

“Foolish?”

“Idealistic.”

Antanas smiles. “If I weren’t I’d long ago have ended my life. I’m sorry you have no hope in finding love.”

“You hope to find love?”

“I find it where I seek for it—at present in my work.”

Loviise thinks a moment, says, “As a girl I dreamed of making scientific contributions to prolong man’s existence.”

“A worthwhile vision.”

“A child’s foolishness. How could I expect to undo man’s centuries of folly?”

“Many have turned a deaf ear to ridicule to accomplish great things. Not all have contributed to man’s demise.”

“Do you also hope to find love with a woman?”

“I do.”

“Then hold onto your hope, and dreams.”

“I despaired, after Giedre left, that I would ever again find love. But time is mending my hope. Perhaps it will mend yours, too, if you wish it.”

“I give hope to others,” Loviise says, “of finding love, even if their love is misplaced in their hatred of me or in their desire for my body.”

“Everyone wishes to be loved, even you, Loviise. You may be broken, the result of what your father did to you, but you can mend, perhaps not as good as new, but well enough to find your heart’s desire.”

“My heart is closed.”

“That is a choice.” Antanas looks up from where he is working, on the clay that is to become Loviise’s right leg, sees Loviise studying him. Rather than acknowledge his wisdom, she deftly changes the direction of their discussion:

“Giedre left before you consummated your love.”

Blushing, Antanas looks down to where his hands shape the clay.

“Nor have you known the pleasure of a woman’s body.”

Antanas sighs but refuses to look up from where he molds his hands to Loviise’s right thigh.

“You fear me,” Loviise says. “Or perhaps you fear your desire for me, because it is not love.”

Little more is said during the remainder of the session; when Loviise leaves, Antanas looks at the clay he’s formed—two legs and a portion of a torso—and he considers the remainder of the sculpture as well as his subject. He recalls the sculptures of the great artists of the past he’s studied. Beautiful renditions of beautiful women; great works of art. It was said that Auguste Rodin had often molested his models, leaving Antanas to consider whether something of beauty could be created from vulgarity. Had Rodin’s models, too, been broken inside, as Loviise was? Perhaps brokenness was a prerequisite for such women—women willing to take off their clothes for the sake of art. Suddenly he finds it difficult to separate Rodin the man from his art.

Antanas recalls a class he’d taken that presented the history of art. There’d been a discussion about a Canadian woman of the mid-20th century who’d voiced her disdain for paintings depicting the beautiful Canadian landscape, which an artist of the time had defined as made for the canvas. The woman had said, “It’s bad enough I have to live in this godforsaken country, why would I want to hang pictures of it in my house?”

It’s true, Antanas considers. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder—which is just another way of saying beauty is based on perspective. One man’s art is another man’s pornography.

Antanas sighs as he ponders the lie of his own creation. He envisions the finished piece as beautiful, perhaps his best work to date. Yet for all its beauty, it would not, perhaps could not, reveal Loviise’s tormented inner self. It could show only what she was, never the who: the dashed hopes, the broken dreams, the heartache that all combine to make this woman unique and something more than the shell he endeavors to immortalize in clay.

Later that evening, as Antanas prepares his tools for the next morning, his father comes over to his studio from the house. After taking a moment to admire, from two perspectives, the beginnings of what Antanas will call simply, “Loviise,” he nods appreciatively.

“Your work improves with each piece, sūnus,” he says.

“Thank you, tėvas. It helps to have a beautiful subject.” Antanas recalls his earlier discussion with Loviise, his rumination after her departure, and cringes at his reference to a woman as a subject. Loviise is the sum total of her beauty as well as her personality, intellect, her life experience; but the latter has conspired to contrast with her outward appearance. Broken, she strives to hide her pain behind the perception others have of her.

“She certainly has lovely legs—very much like motinėlė’s, when she was young,” his father says, smiling a sad smile, and Antanas realizes his father isn’t paying him a social call, to see his new work. “I look forward to seeing it completed.”

“What is it, tėvas? You look troubled.”

His father looks from the clay to Antanas. “You should know,” he says tentatively, “Jiera has returned from Finse.”

“Giedre’s motinėlė?”

“Yes.”

“What is it?” Antanas says again, his heart sinking when his father hesitates to continue.

“I regret to have to tell you, Giedre was killed a few weeks ago, along with her tėvas.”

“No,” Antanas says, as if saying so would undo it. And then, “How?”

“Many are immigrating to Finse, further straining the water supply there. The local government passed an edict denying entry. The edict also included immigrants of the past year. Many were asked to depart.”

“But Giedre and her parents have been residents for two years.”

“There was an uprising. Giedre and her tėvas were caught up in it, killed along with a dozen others. Victims of circumstance.”

Antanas can say nothing. He’d assumed Giedre’s letters to him had stopped because she’d found another love. He’d grieved her loss to another, had tried to be happy for her. But he finds the truth behind her lost correspondence far more painful. “Giedre, dead,” he says tentatively, trying on the words like an artist might apply a new color to his canvas.

“I’m sorry,” his father says, putting his arms around Antanas. “I know you cared very much for Giedre.”

Antanas returns his father’s embrace and lets out his grief: great sobs of anguish, and he realizes he hadn’t stopped loving Giedre, that his hope they might one day be reunited had never waned.

“You seem sad today,” Loviise says from her place on the divan, where Antanas is arranging her hair on the pillow.

Antanas feels his eyes tear up; he had thought to withhold his grief from Loviise, to lose himself in his work, but her simple statement, posed sincerely—or perhaps it was just the sensuous quality of her voice?—reopens the wound that has had scarce time to form even a scab.

“Giedre,” he whispers, as if her mere name were sacred, “is dead.”

“Antanas,” Loviise says softly, and Antanas tries to recall if she’s ever before called him by name. “I’m sorry.”

Antanas looks into Loviise’s gray eyes, sees his own pain mirrored, and wonders at her ability to perceive the hidden feelings of another; perhaps she is not so cold, aloof, as she wished others to perceive her.

“It is the world in which we live,” he says simply. “We will all join her much sooner than we wish.”

For the next several hours Antanas works silently, sculpting away unwanted clay from Loviise’s torso, tenderly working the clay into semblances of her heavy breasts, right arm and shoulders. On those occasions when he looks up at his subject, he several times catches her studying him. The previous day, when they’d freely conversed, she seemed to relish being the center of Antanas’s world, excluding him from hers. Whether she enjoys watching his hands work the clay or feels pity for him the result of his loss he can’t know, but he feels comfort commingle with discomfiture as her eyes seem, for the first time, to see him.

“I’m tired,” Loviise says much later, not so much a complaint. Antanas has worked longer than he’d originally planned, not wanting, after Loviise’s departure, to be confronted with Giedre’s loss. “My left arm”—the arm that Antanas had arranged above her head—“has fallen asleep.”

Antanas laughs. “And now it will be up all night.”

Loviise joins his laughter. “I wondered if you might have a sense of humor. Come, help me up.”

Antanas walks to where Loviise lays and offers a hand, still damp from clay; she takes it but instead of leveraging herself upright, she pulls him down to sit on the edge of the divan.

“I’ve enjoyed watching you work,” she says, placing one of his hands on a breast. “Watching your hands work my breasts, so lovingly,” she adds with an envious glance at her twin. Antanas feels his face redden. “I wondered how they might feel on mine. You have strong hands, but soft. Can you deny you haven’t wondered how my real breast might feel?” Antanas only looks up from where his hand rests, to find Loviise looking at him. “It’s okay if you want to squeeze—just pretend it is your clay.”

Antanas feels his hand constrict, the breast yield amiably, then he caresses the soft warm flesh, such a contrast to the cool medium of his art; he feels the nipple stiffen beneath his touch, hears Loviise’s quick intake of air.

“Kiss me,” she says.

Antanas lowers his head to partake of Loviise’s parted lips.

Afterward, as Antanas drinks in Loviise’s beautiful body, where traces of dried clay dust reveal where his hands have explored—cheek, shoulder, breasts, hip and thigh—he is unprepared for the flood of guilt that now assails him. He’d barely time to commence grieving for Giedre, whom he hadn’t seen in two years, and who in all likelihood had found love with another, and he now finds himself burdened by his perception of his betrayal.

Antanas studies Loviise’s eyes; in turn hers study his, and he wonders at her reasons for seducing him in the manner she had. Was it because he’d maintained he would never pay for her favors or force himself on her, because he’d professed his love for another woman? Because her arrogance sought to be his first? Or because she felt pity for him, seeking to distract him from his grief for a time? Certainly it wasn’t because she cared for him. Or me for her, he censures himself. Something in him had broken at the news of Giedre’s death and so he’d sought succor in the arms of another, lost that which he’d hoped to one day give to Giedre, or someone else he might come to love.

“You feel guilt,” Loviise says. Her tone is not critical. “Because of Giedre.”

“Yes.”

“And you wonder at my reasons for giving myself to you.”

Antanas nods; Loviise sighs. “It was not out of pity, if that is what you are thinking.” And: “You are unlike any man I’ve met. You are filled with hope, your dreams flourish, which makes you very handsome to me, and desirable.”

“A folly of youthful naiveté,” Antanas says with no small measure of irony.

Loviise ignores him. “I loved watching you work. Your hands work artistry, create beauty from shapelessness. I envy your love of your work, and wanted to feel your hope inside me.”

“You feel no love for me.”

“I don’t know you well enough to feel love. Love comes only later, when our clay masks come off and we can see the unpleasantness in our partner without looking away.”

Antanas is unable to disguise his disappointment by looking away. Loviise goes on:

“You were right yesterday: there is a part of me, a part I thought dead, that desires to be loved. Others have fucked my body, but you, Antanas,” she says, enticing him to look back at her. “You loved my body, tenderly, attentively—even if you are inexperienced.” She smiles at him affectionately, proof, to Antanas, that she isn’t mocking him. “You cared about my pleasure, and made it your own.”

“Well,” Antanas says, somewhat embarrassed by Loviise’s praise, “tomorrow I will finish with Loviise. What would you say to sitting for another piece?”

Loviise smiles warmly at Antanas and says, “I was hoping you would ask.”

Antanas finishes Loviise’s left arm and hair before, forced to confront his greatest fear, turning his attention to her face. He can easily mold her features as she presents them to the world—elegance mixed with manufactured haughtiness—but he wants something more. Like da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, whose fixed gaze and secret smile provoke a silent communication between subject and viewer, Antanas wants, needs for the sake of his art, to portray, along with Loviise’s great beauty, something of her inner brokenness. Her smile, which personifies equal parts seduction and arrogance, he manages to fashion, in the set of her mouth, into semblance of a mask; while the eyes—slightly downcast—seem to refuse to meet the gaze of the imaginary viewer, contrasting with the smile. The overall effect, Antanas hopes, will invite the viewer to consider something of Loviise’s inner ache.

When he finishes, Antanas invites Loviise to inspect herself. Unlike their first sessions, which ended with Loviise donning a robe before inspecting Antanas’s work, she pads over on bare feet unaware of her nudity, perhaps secure in his presence. Antanas hopes her security is sincere and not manufactured, as he envisions it is when she dances nude for her clients. She seems intent on inspecting her own face, ignoring those aspects of her figure she’d previously discounted as body parts. Perhaps she is already intimately familiar with his imitation, having watched him work on them the past two days, or perhaps she is merely familiar with their representation as seen through the lustful glances of her clients. As she studies herself, from several perspectives, Antanas is acutely aware of her body not as a subject but as a woman, the woman who’d introduced him to the pleasures of the flesh; if Loviise is aware of his scrutiny she gives no hint. She studies her features long moments, and Antanas begins to fear her disapproval. Finally she asks:

“This is how you perceive me?”

“Yes.”

A moment later Loviise nods. “There is something here revealed I thought my secret alone.”

A wave of relief washes through Antanas that he’s succeeded; but it is immediately followed by angst—that she may request that he change it.

“I thought I’d glimpsed it,” he says, “during our first session, through our discussion. But yesterday, after we…”

“After we made love,” she finishes, looking up at him. It is the first time she’s looked at him since coming over to inspect his work. Again she seems to see him, into him, as if he is someone she is loath to hope exists.

“I don’t pity you,” he says, answering her two-day-old charge.”

“But you grieve for that which you perceive as lost.”

“Wounded,” he corrects.

Loviise smiles, takes him by the hand to lead him back to the divan, where they indulge in their sexual passions for the second time in as many days.

Afterward, as they lay basking in the afterglow, Antanas wonders if Loviise might be the woman to replace Giedre, feels uncertainty creep in—whether Loviise might feel love for him. As if she is privy to his inner thoughts, Loviise advises: “Don’t confuse love with sex, Antanas.”

Because Loviise is his first lover, Antanas can’t know that men often blur the two. Confused by her statement, he says nothing.

“I know you love my body, which is not the same as loving me. You want to fix in me that which you think broken, which is both admirable and foolish.”

“Foolish?” Antanas asks, suddenly fearful that Loviise will one day break his heart, as she has told him she’s done many times when she tired of her other lovers. He’d originally thought her comment a lie, to keep up the barrier between them; but now he is forced to consider the truth behind her statement. “Love is never foolish,” he adds.

“But lovers often are just that. No, I’m not referring to you but to me.”

“It is not foolish to believe in love, to desire love, to wish to give love.” Antanas hears Loviise sigh beside him.

“As you’ve already deduced, and shown in your statue, I’m broken.”

“To remain so is a choice.”

“You know nothing of me.”

“I know what you do for a living, and that it’s something you detest.”

“Yet it is something at which I excel. Opportunities in the world today are slim for a woman like me.”

“You don’t have to continue doing something you despise.”

Loviise laughs softly, a canorous sound to Antanas’s ears. “I should work for you? How many statues of me can you create from your obsession with my body parts?”

“I’m not obsessed with your body.”

“So you think,” Loviise says in a patronizing tone.

“You don’t know me so well as you believe.”

“But I know men. You love Giedre, mourn her loss, perhaps seek to replace her to allay your ache.”

“You could work for me, from a business perspective. Promote me, my work.”

“I know nothing of business.”

“It’s not so difficult. I could teach you.”

Loviise falls silent and Antanas hopes she is considering his proposition. A moment later she says: “To what end? Do you imagine that, as time grows short, your art will have meaning?”

“Art will always have meaning,” he argues because he wishes to believe it will be so.

“I love that about you, sweet Antanas—your romanticism.”

“Do you believe that your art, your dancing, will also endure near the end?”

“Pornography has always had its place in the world, perhaps more so in times that were darkest.”

Antanas sighs, unable to refute her wisdom. “Just promise me you’ll consider it.”

“Very well,” Loviise says, but Antanas wonders if her concession is meant only to end their discussion. A moment and she punctuates its end by reaching down between his legs. Antanas feels himself respond and gives in to his desire.

The next day Loviise arrives to commence work on the new piece, and the next day again. Nothing is said about Antanas’s proposition, but each session ends with their customary love-making and Antanas begins to believe in a happily ever after as he feels Loviise begin to feel hopeful about her future.

However, like Giedre, Loviise abandons Antanas, before their third session—long before she might tire of him.

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God Spoke To Me Today

I wrote this piece a few weeks ago in anticipation of a new novel. I’ve spent the time since kicking around a number of ideas about where the story will go, and the characters. After percolating for a while, I think I’m ready to roll up my sleeves, dig in and commence. God Spoke To Me Today is a working title at this point.

Feel free to leave comments.


Prologue

God spoke to me today, through a woman I never met.

I didn’t ask her a simple “why” question. Not like the ones we put forth from the moment we become self-aware and learn to misuse language—“Why is the sky blue, Mommy?”—and throughout our life—“Why do I exist?” to no one in particular, or to a god who only chuckles and replies, low so as not to be overheard, “Because I wish to torment you.” It was a “how” question. Despite the care the woman put into her effort, she failed to answer my simple question. What I took from her, reading between the lines, was equally simple, bringing me to this moment, to see if God would stop me, or save me.

Jesus loves me, this I know, for the bible tells me so.

I wasn’t much for prayer when I was young. Is anyone in youth? Or does it come only later, after life beats you down and you realize you truly are powerless, so you turn to that higher being, wondering if he really listens, hoping he got out of the right side of bed that day and will grant you an answer, or pull the right strings, push the right button, turn the right knob, throw you a bone, or will he only sigh and whisper to himself, “Another one comes to me for a miracle when he has nowhere else to go. Will they never learn?”

I was convinced in my long ago youth, perhaps as all young men are, that I was destined for an extraordinary life. In time I settled for ordinary, living a life of, as someone far more extraordinary than me said or wrote, “quiet desperation.” When even that was denied me, I turned to God because I was not yet ready to go to my grave with the song still in me.

They say God never turns his back on anyone, and that if we don’t get a reply it’s because we’re not listening.

A platitude.

My prayers led me to believe in Spinoza’s god—a god whose existence is evident in the order of creation but who doesn’t concern him or herself with the silly fates of men. Spinoza didn’t believe God lived outside of Nature to con­trol it, but instead was a part of it. He couldn’t care less that I was likely to get out of this life unnoticed.

Religions preach that Man is God’s crowning and most prized creation.

Bullshit.

In all the universe, ninety-one billion light years in diameter and growing, with its one hundred billion galaxies, each containing hundreds of billions of stars, with its black holes and nebulas, its hypervelocity stars—stars travelling at a high rate of speed after interacting with a black hole—and who knows what other mysteries, Man is God’s greatest wonder? I don’t think so.

Surely there are greater, less violent intelligences in the universe. Beings who use their opposable thumbs for good and not evil. Unlike Man, whose greatest ambition is devising more efficient ways to kill its own species. If the bible is to be taken at its word, Man so pissed off God that he sent a flood to destroy him.

God, the great I Am.

If God spoke creation, spoke existence into existence, why did he have to send a flood? Couldn’t he simply speak oblivion into oblivion?

I’m convinced that if Christ were to return, he’d take a look around at what Man has done to this wondrous planet, throw up his hands in disgust, and walk away, leaving mankind to finish destroying itself so that this tiny jewel in the cosmos could heal from what we’ve put her through. From the state of the world, I wonder if maybe he already had. Returned, that is, and walked away.

Nihilism is the result of a failure to discover the meaning of life. It sacrifices the meaning God brings into our lives for matter and motion, physics, and objective truth—truths that we can see and touch, in our self-professed intelligence eschewing all things spiritual.

Is anything in life truly objective?

When it comes to truth, we embrace lies, seeking to fulfill our ever-growing wants, taking for granted our needs, which are easily satisfied by that which is all around us.

Jeff Bridges as Jack Lucas in The Fisher King, while in the drunken stupor that frees us, put Nietzsche’s beliefs into the simplest of terms:

“Nietzsche says there are two kinds of people in the world. People who are destined for greatness, like Walt Disney and Hitler. And then there’s the rest of us. He called us ‘the bungled and the botched.’ We get teased. We sometimes get close to greatness, but we never get there. We’re the expendable masses. We get pushed in front of trains, take poison aspirin, get gunned down in Dairy Queens.”

Despite the fact that Nietzsche suffered a mental collapse, claiming to have had Caiaphas fettered and demanding that the German emperor be taken to Rome to be shot, I embrace his philosophy.

Death by train was far too public. Poison much too dramatic. I couldn’t hope to get gunned down at a Dairy Queen, or at a Post Office for that matter, even if the mention of my name in the press might garnish me my fifteen minutes of fame.

I looked down at the water, lapping gently at the pier on which I stood. It beckoned me.

I’d lived for a time in water; that I should die in water seemed appropriate. It would bring my life full circle.

There seems to be two beliefs: one is that it is fairly painless if not quick. The other is that it is very painful, the lungs frantic to draw oxygen while at the same time fighting to expel the substance that, since birth, is foreign to them.

I no longer cared. I just wanted the pain to stop.

I took a step forward, off the edge of the pier, wondering whether it was true: that in dying one’s entire life flashes before their eyes…

God-spoke-to-me-yesterday-e1431173874464

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Monday Moanin’ Blues

A Michigan novelist I know claims to cut from her finished manuscripts her favorite line. Symbolic, I guess, of not getting too attached to her own work.

Below is an excerpt from my latest novel, A World Without Music. I can’t say it’s my favorite paragraph. Some critics might say it deserves to be cut. Perhaps some readers will skip over it for its density. But I think it goes a long way toward establishing Reagan’s state of mind, his PTSD. He goes on to admit, in the next paragraph, that since his wife left him he’s been more prone to long and meaningless meanderings. As meanderings go, I think it’s rather entertaining.

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

got-the-monday-blues

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Love Me Little, Love Me Long

I’ve written but three poems in my life; this is the first, from 1991 for January’s Paradigm, my first novel. For years I called it Love Is, for which I never much cared.

As I prepared the forthcoming fourth edition of January’s Paradigm, I recalled a line from my fourth novel, Backstop: A Love Story in Nine Innings. The title character professes for the first time his love for Darlene. She sighs, a weight lifted from her shoulders, and tells him, “I’ve known that for months. You’ve showed me that you do many times and in many ways. But I’ve been waiting to hear you say the words. Thank you.” And then she says, in her native Greek, “Aγάπη μου λίγη αγάπη μου μακριά.” Translated it means, “Love me little, love me long.”

I think that fits very well this slow burn analogy of love as a campfire.

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 twosome 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 the couple who care
to cherish the gentle warmth it ministers.

campfire

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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 I’d include in one place all my titles with a brief synopsis of each one, along with reviews.

500 Miles To Go

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.

“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

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A Retrospect In Death

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

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A World Without Music

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.

“…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

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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


The Cobb Legacy

Cagney Nowak is writing a novel around the 1905 shooting death of baseball legend Ty Cobb’s father, William, by his mother a week before Ty was called up by the Detroit Tigers. Although she was acquitted by an all-male jury on the grounds that the incident was accidental, the townspeople of Royston, Georgia, thought otherwise.

When Cagney begins to relive the night of the shooting in his dreams, more than a century later and in the guise of Amanda Cobb, he is led to discover his father’s deepest secret. More than a mystery, The Cobb Legacy is the story of a man’s efforts to connect with his dying father, a World War II veteran suffering from what today is known as Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome, and to come to terms with his obsession over the Cobb legacy as well as his own adulterous affair and impending divorce, while doubting that love with an old friend can be his.

“… an eye-opening tale of drama, scandal, and intrigue highlighting the living, breathing history of a fatally-flawed, intrepid folk hero. Five stars.” —Apex Reviews

“The Cobb Legacy balances the pursuit of happiness with the choice for happiness, presenting lives wounded by guilt and regret, scarred by lack of communication… Threads come together with gentle touches of fate, and there’s a satisfying completeness to the tale which goes beyond past and present into eternity.” —Sheila Deeth, author of Divide by Zero

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January’s Paradigm (fourth edition)

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

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January’s Thaw

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.

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

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Tigers Sweep Yanks in ALCS

The brooms were out at Comerica Park yesterday as the 2012 Detroit Tigers swept the New York Yankees out of town in the American League Championship Series. Detroit faces the winner of the St. Louis-San Francisco NLCS, to be determined tonight or over the next few days.

Yankee players were humbled, their bats silenced by Detroit pitching that game up six runs in four games. The Yanks, by the way, scored the second most runs in MLB during the regular season. Yankee fans, on the other hand, were humiliated and left scratching their heads—three times in the last six years their team has been eliminated from the postseason by the Tigers.

Yankees manager Joe Girardi was left to wonder aloud, during his post-game interview, what they had to do to improve next season, including himself, to ensure this doesn’t happen again. It was almost as if he couldn’t bring himself to credit Detroit for playing a helluva series, for wanting it more.

Max Scherzer pitched no-hit baseball into the sixth inning—the only Yankee to reach base up until then was by way of error. Phil Coke was stellar, again, in relief, as Jose Valverde, after his performance in game two in New York in which he blew the save and was saved from further embarrassment by the Detroit bats coming alive to win the game in the twelfth inning, once again rode the splinters.

Delmon Young, who was booed much of the season for his inconsistency, got hot at the right time and won series MVP in becoming the first man in MLB to get the game winning hit in all four games.

Even though triple crown winner Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder were relatively quiet (but not silent), other players stepped it up: Jhonny Peralta hit two big flies yesterday. Austin Jackson did his part with both bat and glove, as did Quinton Berry and Omar Infante. Offense is usually difficult to come by in the postseason, but Detroit got it done yesterday in a big way: four big flies, 16 hits and eight runs.

A series for the ages when you look at the numbers: the New York Yankees, as a team, were held to just above a .150 batting average. They looked to be boys playing against men. Quite simply, the Yanks stank. Swisher sat against Verlander. Cano didn’t get his first hit in the series until game three. Axle-Rod was pinch hit for and rode the bench, signing a baseball from the dugout for a young woman and getting a phone number in return.

Colleen and I attended Tuesday night’s game, the first at Comerica Park for the ALCS. It was damp and chilly, and there was a threat of rain; but the atmosphere was electric. Justin Verlander was pitching for the good guys, and when JV pitches, good things often result.

You’ve heard the expression “Must see TV,” in reference to your favorite prime time drama? In Detroit, during the baseball season, we do it a little differently. When Verlander takes the mound, Comerica Park sells out to SRO crowds. Fewer lawns are mowed than on any other day of the week, and people stop at their favorite watering hole on their way home from work to watch JV work his magic with a baseball. It’s called “Must see JV.”

When Verlander pitches, there’s always the possibility of seeing something great. He’s already pitched two no-hitters in his young career, and the last few years he’s been at the top of the league in innings pitched and most strikeouts. Last year he won League MVP and the Cy Young.

But he has been human in the postseason, simply because he is his own worst enemy. During the regular season he pitches to hitters’ weaknesses, watches them to see what they’re looking for; but in the postseason he tends to amp it up, wants to get hitters out with what he wants to throw—usually that 100 mph fastball he features—instead of setting up hitters and letting his defense play behind him.

Which Verlander would show up for game 3? Colleen and I were about to find out.

After Detroiter Jeff Daniels sang the National Anthem—accompanying himself on acoustic guitar—a not so memorable rendition but a vast improvement over Jose Feliciano’s interpretation at game 5 of the 1968 World Series at venerable Tiger Stadium, Verlander took the mound to a thundering ovation. We wanted to let him know he wasn’t alone out there, that we were behind him 100%.

Opposing hitters know the importance of hitting a pitcher early, before he settles in, and it’s no different with Verlander. He sometimes gets hit around in the first inning; but Tuesday night he was awesome, taking but ten pitches to retire the side, and Colleen and I hoped it was a precursor for a complete game performance.

Verlander was perfect through three innings and allowed only one run on three hits over 8 1/3 innings. The Yankees were forced to go to their bullpen in the fourth when Phil Hughes exited with a stiff back, but not before he gave up a solo homerun to Delmon Young. Detroit would add another in the fifth frame.

Colleen and I had a grand time, sipping beers, eating a hotdog and keeping each other warm as the temperature dropped to under 50 for a few minutes before heating up again to 51 for the last couple innings, even as a drizzle began to fall, and stopped only to start up again.

The crowd was boisterous but not mean—no Detroit fan is ever mean when the Tigers are ahead, despite what Tom Monahan once said about Tigers fans. A brief political disagreement broke out between two fans—one a row in front of us and the other across the aisle—but I put a stop to it before it got too heated, calling out, “Leave your politics at home, this is a ballgame!” and received a short cheer. Baseball and politics don’t mix.

Late in the game, after a Yankee hitter fouled off a Verlander heater, I called down to the Yankees’ dugout—yeah, like Joe Girardi could hear me—”Hey, Joe, maybe you want to call for an instant replay review on that one!” That earned me a fist bump from the young man seated in front of us. He, too, recalled Girardi’s comments in the aftermath of game two concerning the missed call at second base, when Infante, clearly out, was called safe. In his post-game comments, Girardi suggested MLB implement instant replay. But a couple years ago, when the Twins were burned in the ALDS against the Yankees by a bogus call, Girardi was quoted, “I like the way it is now.” The grass is browner on the other side, eh, Joe?

Eduardo Nunez led off the Yankee ninth with a solo homerun—the first run given up by a Detroit starting pitcher in 37 2/3 innings. Leyland came out to ask Verlander if he could get one more out. Verlander told him, “Yeah.” And I imagined Leyland’s reply: “Well then why did you make me come all the way out here to ask?”

Leyland later said, “Normally, I guess you don’t take Secretariat out in the final furlong, but that was pretty much it for him.”

Box score on Verlander: 132 pitches, one run, three hits. Yeah, must see JV.

One out later, Detroit manger, Jim Leyland, brought in Phil Coke to get the final two outs and the Tigers were within one game of clinching their eleventh appearance in the Fall Classic.

A high-five, a hug and a kiss from Colleen, a second fist bump from the guy in front of us, and Colleen and I were on our way home, thinking sweep and wondering who Detroit would meet in the World Series.

Early prediction: Detroit-St. Louis, with Detroit winning in five games.

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The Good Old Days of Who’s Youth?

November 29 marks the anniversary of the death of former Beatle, George Harrison. Has it really been ten years already? A tribute concert was performed, recorded and released on CD in 2003. A Concert for George featured many of George’s oldest and best friends: Jeff Lynne, Gary Brooker, Joe Brown, Tom Petty, Billy Preston, Eric Clapton, and the two remaining Beatles, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr.

While listening to that CD a few days ago I recalled an interview George did many years ago, about his days with the Beatles. He said something to the effect that, if you were going to be in a rock and roll band back in the 1960s, it might as well have been the Beatles. It would seem George had some fond memories of his days as one of the Fab Four.

That got me to thinking about the 1960s. I can say I grew up in the ’60s even though I didn’t much participate in all that older members of the Baby Boomers did. For instance, I was too young to protest the Vietnam War. Although I registered for the draft when I turned eighteen in 1974, the draft was abolished a few months later and the war ended shortly after that.1960s-collage

There’s a website today devoted to Woodstock. The home page proclaims: “Woodstock is more than a moment in time. It is a way of being in the world.” I’m not sure I get that; maybe whoever wrote it is a pothead. I was twelve that summer of 1969, so to me Woodstock is but a moment in time.

On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong became the first man on the moon. He commemorated the moment by saying, “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”

I hadn’t yet turned twelve when, in October 1968, my Detroit Tigers won the World Series. It wasn’t easy for them—they had to overcome a three games to one deficit to beat the Cardinals. But in winning the championship, the Tigers miraculously healed a city that had been torn apart by race riots the previous year. A few years later, my boyhood idol, Al Kaline, would turn down a $100,000 contract from the Tigers, feeling himself, a future Hall of Famer, unworthy of so much money for playing a kid’s game. In the 1960s, baseball was still twenty years away from steroids.

I have fond memories of the ’60s. Not that I had any choice, but if there was a decade in which to grow up, it might as well have been the ’60s.

Still, it was a decade of contradictions. Sure there was free love, rock and roll, miniskirts, bikinis and Laugh-In. But two Kennedys were assassinated, as was Martin Luther King; our young boys were dying in Vietnam fighting a war they couldn’t win, while Cassius Clay changed religions and his name to Muhammad Ali in order to dodge the draft. Richard Nixon was in the White House late in the decade, taking over for Lyndon Johnson who’d taken over for JFK.

Politics in the 1960s may have been just as corrupt as they are today, but back then freedom of the press was practiced—the media asked the tough questions. Today they contribute to political campaigns; therefore, investigative reporting is passé.

It’s been said that every generation must face its obstacle. My dad’s generation—the Greatest Generation—fought a World War; his father’s generation endured the Great Depression. And the Boomers? We seem to have faced a lot, from Vietnam and Watergate, to Desert Storm and Afghanistan; 9/11 and terrorism, the Wall Street and housing debacles, global warming, as well as a multi-trillion dollar deficit (the latter will be passed down to future generations).

A country rich in resources but unmindful of waste, we cannot hope to defeat Mother Nature, who is battling back the only way she knows how—with earthquakes, tsunamis, and hurricanes. In the end, I can’t imagine we’ll be able to stand up to her.

Billy Joel defends the Boomers: “We didn’t start the fire/it was always burning since the world’s been turning/We didn’t start the fire/no we didn’t light it/but we tried to fight it.”

In all honesty, I’m not sure that our efforts to fight the fire haven’t been half-hearted. Sure, we started out with good intentions. In the 1960s we protested the war, stood up for the environment and were anti-establishment. But the hippies of the ’60s became the yuppies of the ’80s and a lot of what we battle today we brought on ourselves, through unmitigated greed. My parents’ generation worked to give my generation a better life; since the Boomers became the establishment, we’ve worked simply to acquire more meaningless things.

So I look at the past not so much through rose-colored glasses. The decade of the 1960s was a much simpler time with much simpler solutions. But I recall, in the 1960s, my dad’s longing for his own youth, an era to which he, too, referred as “much simpler.” My father cared for a world which he would not live to see. In fact, he cared so much he risked his life in World War II to save our way of life and to shape the world order in the second half of the twentieth century.

What, if anything, are the Boomers willing to risk to save our way of life for future generations and a world which we will not live to see? Sadly, it seems we are only intent on using up all our resources in the name of money.

And now, with my own brand of cynicism, I’ve become a chip off the old block. In the 1970s, Elvis died of a drug overdose and American hostages were held in Iran while the price of a gallon of gas threatened to eclipse a dollar. In the 1980s, John Lennon was murdered and we invaded Kuwait to drive out Iraqi troops. In the 1990s a president slept with an intern, but at least we had a balanced budget.

The new millennium has seen no improvement; only a sense of sliding more quickly into a cesspool of greed as the wealthiest top ten percent threatens to kill off the middle class and the threat of Armageddon as the planet shrinks, and still no one can look at someone without judging them by color, gender, religion or ethnicity and, out of hatred the product of fear, cast stones.

Maybe that’s the way of the world. And maybe, too, it’s human nature, after reaching a certain age—an age that forces us to face our mortality—to look back at the good old days of our youth.

But if that’s true, then one can only wonder what, in thirty or forty years, today’s youth will look back upon as good?

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Back Home Again In Indiana

Yesterday’s Indianapolis 500 was certainly one for the ages.

It was the 100th anniversary of the speedway—not to be confused with the anniversary of the race, which was halted several years during the war years, both the first and second World Wars. The 100th running of the event will be marked later this decade. Coincidentally, I attended my first 500 in 1966 as a nine-year-old boy. It was the 50th running of the race, and a tradition of my own was born that year. In the seventies and eighties I strung together more than twenty consecutive races—I have the tickets to prove it. I witnessed Foyt become the first man to win four 500s. I’ve seen some of the greatest drivers—A.J. Foyt, Jimmy Clark, Graham Hill, the Unsers and the Andrettis, Emerson Fittipaldi and many others. I witnessed history as Janet Guthrie became the first woman to ever start the Indy 500.

Sadly, in the 1970’s, the sport began to change. It became more about technology. Where once a great driver could put a car into Victory Lane, it’s now about investing the most money in equipment. Today a winning team is composed of maybe 40% driver. In the 1990’s I stopped going to the race.

Three and a half years ago my now ex-girlfriend, knowing of my past love for this event, asked me when I was going to take her to a 500. She’d long complained that I didn’t take her out enough and so I ordered two tickets—not the best seats in the house; I ordered them late and few good seats were available. We went and she complained about the seats, the noise and the heat and I was reminded why it was I rarely took her anyplace. Did I mention she’s now my ex-girlfriend?

Last fall I suggested to a boyhood pal, who had never been to the Greatest Spectacle in Racing, that attending this special anniversary celebration might be the one to make his first. Mark told me, “Sure, let me get back to you,” leaving me to wonder if he really would. True to his word, he contacted me a few days later to tell me that two of his buddies from church wanted to come along and so I ordered four tickets.

Four grown men, we guys of a certain age, driving all night to attend the Indy 500—truly a recipe for a grand time. Or maybe disaster.

I told Mark we should leave at 2:30 Sunday morning, which would allow us enough time to enjoy breakfast at the International House of Pancakes on Meridian at 16th Street. There was nothing special about the IHOP other than its rich history: Dad had taken me there in 1966 and I’d gone there every year I ever attended a race. I took a previous girlfriend there—it was the year Foyt won his fourth—as well as my wife and, three years ago, my old girlfriend. The IHOP was long part of my tradition. From there we’d head downtown and grab a shuttle to the track where we’d roam the infield to check out the sights before the race.

Well, David was late arriving to Northridge Church, where we’d all agreed to meet. By the time we got his stuff loaded into Mark’s Expedition we were thirty minutes behind schedule. But Mark got us back on schedule by pushing the upper limits of the posted speeds.

We talked all night, the stuff guys talk about. Mark talked about his three sons, of whom he is rightly proud. I’ve met them all and they are fine young men.

“Daniel,” he said, “had to do a paper for school on the merits of video games.”

Daniel is Mark’s youngest, at age nineteen. He’s intelligent and, as Mark claims, not nearly as quiet in private as he is in public. Best of all, he’s respectful of others—including our generation, when it’s earned.

“There are merits to playing video games?” David asked from the backseat. “As opposed to, say, reading a book?”

“That was the challenge of the assignment,” Mark said. “He put forth a good argument.”

“He convinced you?” I asked.

“No.”

We all laughed.

“Daniel told me he caught up with you on some website where you were carrying on a debate about some aspect of baseball,” Mark told me.

“No kidding?”

“I forget what the discussion was about but he told me he thought you sure were passionate about baseball.”

“That was a surprise to you?”

Mark laughed. “No.”

From there we talked of baseball, the beauty of the game, instant replay, steroids, the petty squabbles between billionaire owners and millionaire players.

“You’re against instant replay,” Mark said to me, “even though last summer it would’ve guaranteed Galarraga’s perfect game?”

“He still twirled a perfect game,” I countered. “Everyone knows that. Jim Joyce admitted it later, that he blew the call. In my mind I attended the only perfect game in major league history that will never appear in any record book. There’s something field of dreamish about that.”

“It’s not a perfect game if it took twenty-eight outs,” Mark said.

“It is if the umpire admits he blew the call.”

“Tell that to Galarraga.”

“He knows,” I said. “In his heart he knows. He doesn’t need no steenkin’ record book to tell him.”

We both agreed that Galarraga showed incredible class in the aftermath of what might have been.

We talked of politics and bin Laden and what constitutes torture.

“I’m not above torture,” Mark said. “I’d employ water-boarding to obtain the information that might save my family.”

We talked of David’s recent separation from his wife and his impending divorce.

Starlin talked about his motorcycle accident.

“I looked down for a minute,” he explained, “and when I looked up again a Volvo was stopped right in front of me. I went over the handlebars.”

Mark quipped that a minute was a long time to have one’s eyes not on the road.

We spoke of a variety of topics, including the race and who our favorites were.

“My favorite is anyone not driving for Penske or whose name is not Danica Patrick,” I said.

“I think she’s hot,” Star said.

“What’ve you got against Danica?” David asked.

“When she first broke in,” I said, “she did an interview during which she said she wanted to be taken seriously as a racecar driver, not a woman trying to play in the sandbox with the boys. Then she proceeded to take off her clothes for the swimsuit issue of Sports Illustrated.”

“You have a problem with that?”

“I like pretty girls as much as the next guy,” I said. “But if she wants to be taken seriously as a racecar driver, that’s not the way to go about it.”

“Carl Edwards in NASCAR did a spread for a magazine. That guy is ripped.”

“So what’s good for the gander is good for the goose.”

“Right.”

“Two wrongs make a right.”

“What’s wrong about it?”

“In a society that purports to be anti-objectification of women, a lot.”

And so it went. We passed the miles and the hours debating, in a healthy fashion, a host of topics, each of us respectful of the other’s opinions.

 ℘

Four hours later we rolled into Indianapolis, gassed up the Expedition, and made our way into town.

We turned left onto Meridian and as we approached 16th Street I told Mark the IHOP would be on the left; but when we got there we saw that the IHOP had been replaced by a CVS and I found I was more than a little disappointed that a part of my past had been unceremoniously eradicated.

We drove downtown to get our shuttle tickets—$24 for a roundtrip fare. I recalled my dad telling me when he first started coming to Indy, in 1951, the train fare was but fifty cents.

We found another diner for breakfast where the food was far better than the IHOP had ever been; but it did little to assuage my disappointment.

It was nearly ten o’clock by the time we arrived at the track, and we spent an hour roaming the infield before making our way to our seats in turn one.

The atmosphere was electric, as it always is during the prerace festivities.

I was gratified that some things never change—God Bless America and America the Beautiful were sung. The invocation was given, Military Taps played, the Star Spangled Banner sung (a stealth bomber flew overhead looking sleek and ominous and took with it our breath). When Jim Nabors sang Back Home in Indiana it was again, for a moment, 1966 for me. I thought of my dad, shared the moment with him, and was glad the guys couldn’t see the tears in my eyes behind my sunglasses.

When the command was given to the drivers to start their engines I was only dimly aware of the addition of “ladies.” When the engines fired the four of us exchanged high fives and remained standing through the parade laps and the pace lap.

When the green flag dropped and the cars came by at speed, Mark turned to me and said something I couldn’t hear for the sake of the blessed noise of the screaming engines, but I didn’t care.

We then settled into our seats to watch the race unfold.

It was a race for the ages, a throwback to the golden age of motor sports. The rabbits, one by one fell by the wayside. Castroneves fell a lap behind; the pole sitter, Tagliani, crashed. The race was fast, with few caution periods.

When Danica Patrick took the lead late in the race, Mark elbowed me; but I told him she’d have to stop for fuel and would finish no better than 10th, which is pretty much where she’d been running all day.

The finish, like the race, was fast but eventful.

Kanaan and Franchitti looked to be contenders for the Borg Warner, but they, too, had to stop for a splash of fuel with a handful of laps to go.

J.R. Hildebrand inherited the lead and the race was his to lose, which he did when he hit the fourth turn wall on the last lap, leaving Dan Wheldon to take the checkered flag in one of the wildest finishes I can remember. Hildebrand’s wrecked car stopped in front of us and he climbed from the cockpit looking as demolished as his once sleek car looked.Indianapolis 500 Mile Race

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On our shuttle, as we inched along, I spotted a woman in a day-glo pink swimsuit top and short denim cutoffs. Although buxom, she wasn’t very pretty and was too old to be dressed as she was; but who was I to judge?

I called out to David, seated across the aisle from me, if he thought her top was indeed day-glo pink.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I’m terrible with colors.”

A woman’s voice from behind me concurred with my assessment. I turned in my seat thinking I was about to incur her wrath. But she was an attractive woman of our age, seated next to her husband, and she was good-natured about it.

“Did you notice her sunglasses were white?” she asked with a dazzling grin as her husband laughed.

I looked back at the woman in question and then back at the woman behind me.

“No, I missed that,” I said. “To be honest I was trying to make out the tattoo on her navel.”

When the bus inched past her, I added, “Dere dey glo.”

We had a bird’s eye view of the bus in front of us, where an advertisement stared back at us: a photo of a mansion and the words, See the House that Jefferson built.

“Bus driver,” I called out from my seat three rows behind him.

“Yessir?”

“What’s your name?”

“Howard.”

“Howard,” I said. “Are you going to show us the house that Jefferson built after you drive your bus through it?”

Howard joined us with a laugh and assured us that wouldn’t happen.

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Our drive home was pleasant and we passed the miles by talking about the day’s events and the lives to which we were returning. I mentioned some small piece of 500 trivia, adding that I was a wealth of worthless knowledge where Indy was concerned, and David said, “That’s something you wouldn’t learn by playing video games.”

Mark said he could see taking his grandchildren to a 500 one day when they got old enough and I took pleasure in passing a new tradition to someone.

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We arrived at Northridge Church just after nine and I exchanged handshakes with Star and David, a hug with my childhood buddy, Mark.

On my drive home I lost myself in thoughts of the day, the race, what it meant to me, its traditions, Dad, and my own traditions. I thought of A.J. Foyt, a boyhood idol, who drove the pace car earlier in the day. It was the fiftieth anniversary of his first 500 win, and I wondered where the years had gone.

I fought back tears as I realized, yet again, you really can’t go home again.

I’d learned that lesson fifteen years ago when, after Dad passed away, my sister and I sold the house in which we grew up.

Alone in that house for the last time, I made my way through it, checking all the cupboards to make sure we hadn’t missed anything, and I caught a glimpse of myself in the bathroom mirror. The image that stared back at me was fifteen years old. Behind me stood Dad, teaching me how to tie a Windsor knot in the tie I wore to my high school homecoming dance.

A few weeks after we sold the place, I drove by it on my way to visit friends who lived around the corner. It was dusk and I noted the new owners had replaced the drapes of the living room window with vertical blinds. The blinds were open and I could see the wallpaper in the living room had been torn down and the walls painted: the home my parents had made for me and my sister was now someone else’s home.

They, whoever they are, say that change is good. But that’s a blanket statement. Not all change is good, even if it is inevitable. Today’s Indy 500 is faster and safer than it was during the golden age of racing. It’s common for women to compete in what once was a male dominated sport; when I first started attending the Great Race green was considered a superstitious color, and women weren’t allowed in the pits. This year’s field boasted four women. Eventually the Borg Warner trophy will bear the likeness of a woman, and that, along with all the rest, is a good thing.

But this morning that does little to assuage my grief over a past forever etched only in memories.

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