Excerpt From “World Without Music” by J. Conrad Guest

a world without musicReagan returns home from the first Gulf War horrified by the discovery of the mutilated remains of Tom Wallach, a marine he and his squad find a Kuwaiti desert. Suffering Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, he often carries on discussions with Tom in his dreams… at least, that’s what he tells himself they are: dreams.

***

Excerpt from A World Without Music:

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

“I know.”

“She’s twenty-one now.”

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

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

“Why? Aren’t you able to do that?”

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

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

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

“I hardly knew you, Tom.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reagan nodded.

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

Reagan nodded again.

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

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

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

“Jeesus.”

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

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

“So you’ll look in on her?”

“I don’t know, Tom.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How would I even find her?”

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

“What’s that?”

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

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

“Reagan.” Wallach put his arm around Reagan.

“Yeah?”

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

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

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

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

***

Author Bio

Conrad Guest is the author of Backstop: A Baseball Love Story in Nine Innings, available from Second Wind Publishing. Nominated as a Michigan Notable Book in 2010, the Illinois Institute of Technology adopted Backstopas required reading for their spring 2011 course, “Baseball: America’s Literary Pastime.” He is also the author of a science fiction diptych—One Hot Januaryand January’s Thaw—a time travel, alternate reality tale in which Germany wins World War II, his tribute to Raymond Chandler’s hard-boiled detective genre, and its prequel, January’s ParadigmA Retrospect in Death, Guest’s sixth novel, explores the meaning of life: prewired at birth, or a product of our environment? His seventh novel, 500 Miles to Go, is a tale about the importance of, and the risks associated with, the pursuit of dreams.

For a peek into J. Conrad’s literary world, visit www.jconradguest.com.

See also: Interview With J. Conrad Guest, Author of “A World Without Music”

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Excerpt From “500 Miles to Go” by J. Conrad Guest

500 Miles to GoGail had been Alex Krol’s girl since high school. She fell for him before she learned that he risked his life on dirt tracks during the summer months to the delight of the 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 death 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.

EXCERPT:

“I’ve never danced with a boy before,” Gail whispered in my ear as the band played “Goodnite Sweetheart Goodnite,” a Spaniels song that was popular. I couldn’t believe how wonderful Gail felt in my embrace.

“That’s okay,” I said, “I haven’t either.”

Gail laughed, the sound tuneful.

“You’re funny,” she said.

“Well, looks aren’t everything.”

“No, they’re not.”

“Although I have to say, you’re the prettiest girl I’ve ever seen.”

“Thank you.”

When the song came to an end, we made our way to the punch bowl.

“You know,” Gail said after taking a sip, “you’re my first date.”

“Ever?”

“Ever.”

“Not to call you a liar, but I find that hard to believe.”

“Oh, I’ve been asked once or twice.”

“Only once or twice?”

“Okay, several times. But I’m very choosy.”

“Huh,”I said, with a grin. “And here I thought I’d done the choosing.”

“I could’ve chosen to turn you down, you know.”

“True enough. So how come you said ‘yes’?”

Gail blushed and looked down.

“Oh, my… Be still, my beating heart,” I said. “Do you do that of­ten?”

“What?”she asked, looking up at me again.

“Blush.”

She rolled her eyes and said, “Unfortunately, yes.”

“Well, I think it suits you. I hope it’s something you’ll do only for me.”

Gail smiled and blushed a deeper shade. I came to her rescue – that’s who I was in my youth, a rescuer.

“So why did you say ‘yes’?”

“Promise me you won’t laugh?”

“Scout’s honor,” I said, holding up my right hand, palm out.

“I liked the way you looked at me yesterday when you asked.”

“How was I supposed to look at you?”

“I’m not expressing myself well.”

“That’s okay; I have that effect on people.”

Gail laughed. “I imagine you do.” And then, “It was obvious when you looked at me that y’all liked what you saw. But you were respect­ful.”

“Why wouldn’t I be respectful?”

“You didn’t leer at me.”

“Oh. My turn to apologize. Sometimes I’m slow on the uptake.”

“Telling me I looked like Gail Russell didn’t hurt your cause.”

“I’m very honest,” I said.

“And…”

“Uh-oh…, there’s an ‘and’?”

“I’ve seen you around school, and you seem one of the better boys.”

“I don’t believe you.”

“What, that you’re one of the better boys?”

“No, that you’ve seen me around school. That would mean I’ve missed seeing you, and I can’t believe that.”

“Do you always flirt so outrageously?”

“Only with you.”

“Good answer.”

Just then, the band segued into “Honey Hush,” a Joe Turner song that had been popular in 1953.

“Come on,” I said, taking Gail’s hand. “Let’s dance.”

The evening came to an end all too soon. We danced and talked and got to know each other, and we liked what we learned.

We held hands as we made our way across the parking lot to where her dad sat behind the wheel of his idling car, a 1950 Ford Zephyr Six.

We stopped about ten feet from the Zephyr Six to look at each other; I held both Gail’s hands in mine.

“What I wouldn’t give to kiss you,” I said.

“Why, Alex Król, what kind of girl do you take me for?” Gail said with a smile.

“The kind I’d like to kiss.”

Gail grew serious. “I know,” she said, glancing at her father, who was seated in the car with his hands firmly gripping the steering wheel. Perhaps he knew this day had been coming, when his little girl would grow up to meet the young man who might take his place.

Gail rose up on her toes to kiss me on the cheek.

“Another time, I promise,” she whispered. Then she gave me a quick hug, her breasts feeling firm against me, and made her way toward her father’s car.

***

J. Conrad Guest, author of: Backstop: A Baseball Love Story In Nine Innings, January’s Paradigm, One Hot January, January’s ThawA Retrospect In Death, and 500 Miles To Go has repeatedly demonstrated his ability to write stories of action, love, mystery and morality; tales that cross genres, seizing the imagination of the reader. Though his novels are varied and original, the reader will find that each is full of life’s lessons—full of pain and humor, full of insight and triumph.

Excerpt From “A Retrospect in Death” by J. Conrad Guest

retrospect_thOliver Wendell Holmes wrote: “After 60 years the stern sentence of the burial service seems to have a meaning that one did not notice in former years. There begins to be something personal about it.” While John Oxenham wrote: “For death begins with life’s first breath; and life begins at touch of death.”

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?

Darker than any of J. Conrad Guest’s previous novels, while also more humorous, it portends not only a search for the meaning of life, but also seeks to determine why we are as we are: prewired at conception, or the product of our environment?

EXCERPT:

My room was in Art Centre Hospital, on Woodward Avenue in Detroit.

The race riots were in full bloom in 1967, and from my first floor room I watched armed National Guard troops drive past my window in jeeps.

Mom left – Dad had stayed home – just before Ed Sullivan came on, telling me, “Good night, honey. I’ll be back in the morning, before you go into surgery. Don’t worry. Everything will be all right.” She sounded somewhat worried herself, although I wasn’t. This was my first night away from home; it was an adventure.

A short time later, a male intern came in with a chrome bowl and a straight razor to tell me it was time for my shave.

“I’m eleven,” I said. “I don’t shave.”

He grinned and told me to raise my hospital gown.

With that, he proceeded to lather up my balls with soap, and then shave them.

I was on edge, listening to the rasp of the blade against my balls. Rodney Dangerfield was doing a stand-up act on the TV. He told a joke about being held up by a mugger with a knife. “I could tell it wasn’t a professional job,” he said. “There was butter on it.” I heard the intern chuckle, which left me feeling even testier over my predicament.

The intern left; a few minutes later, a nurse came in, a plump black woman.

“Time for your enema,” she said.

“What’s an enema?”

“I put this,” she told me, holding up a plastic nozzle attached to a hose that was in turn attached to a bag of what appeared to be soapy water, “into your backside and release the contents of this bag into your colon.”

My eyes got the size of silver dollars, prompting the intern to laugh. I watched her immense breasts shake from the ferocity of her laughter, its pitch that of a baritone.

“Don’t worry. It’s not as bad as it sounds. It’s to clean out your colon before surgery. Now roll over onto your side.

I did as I was told; a moment later, feeling violated, I felt the nozzle inserted into my rectum. The flood of the water felt warm as my colon expanded to accommodate it.

“Almost there,” the nurse said. I felt as if my colon were about to explode.

A moment later, she withdrew the nozzle, and then told me to head to the bathroom to release the water. Like I needed to be told.

I raced to the bathroom and sat just in the nick of time, releasing the water, and everything that accompanied it, into the porcelain bowl.

I sat there for about fifteen minutes as my bowels emptied in sequential movements – like the orchestra to which my parents had taken me and Francine to see over the summer: long classical pieces played in what our program called “movements.” Every time I thought the musicians were done playing, they launched into yet another movement. Now, each time I felt I was done, I’d lean forward to wipe my backside only to feel yet another movement.

When I finally crawled back into my bed, I wondered what new dread might await me next in this little shop of horrors.

My surgery was scheduled for Monday morning, and a nurse came in first thing to give me a shot of something, which left me feeling groggy.

A short time later, my bed was wheeled out of my room and toward the operating room. My mother walked alongside me, with her hand on top of mine.

At the door to the operating room, my mother again reassured me that everything was going to be all right. At eleven, I had no clue as to the dangers of surgery. I was about to be cut open and couldn’t wait to tell my buddies of the ordeal, sans the shave and the enema parts. Like a soldier wounded in a war, I intended to bear my scar proudly.

I was wheeled under the brightest lights I’d ever seen, and a mask was put over my face; a voice told me to count backward from one hundred. I got to ninety-seven and…

***

Joe_Guest-171x271bJ. Conrad Guest is the author of Backstop: A Baseball Love Story in Nine Innings, available from Second Wind Publishing. Backstop was nominated as a Michigan Notable Book in 2010, and was adopted by the Illinois Institute of Technology as required reading for their spring 2011 course, “Baseball: America’s Literary Pastime.” He is also the author of One Hot January and January’s Thaw, both available from Second Wind.

J. Conrad appears on Facebook, Twitter, his website, and on his author page at Second Wind Publishing.

Excerpt From “January’s Thaw” by J. Conrad Guest

A man approached me in 1992 to tell his story — his name was Joe January, and he was a private investigator from the South Bronx circa 1940. A twenty-first century Philip Marlowe, January can best be described as an indignant Humphrey Bogart. That encounter resulted in January’s Paradigm. One Hot January and January’s Thaw conclude the January saga. Combined, they paint a profile of a man out of place out of time. Set against the backdrop of an alternate reality in which we are living in a timeline created by time travelers from the future, January’s tale is compelling, and I couldn’t be more pleased he chose me to tell it. I think I’ve managed to remain true to his story as well as his voice. —J. Conrad Guest

Fellow Michigan writer Rachael Perry and author of How to Fly writes of January’s Thaw, “Great books strive to entertain, enrich and do nothing less than change the world. In January’s Thaw, 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.”

EXCERPT:

Weary from consternation as well as the day’s events, which included a six-hour bout with airsickness, I climbed the stairs to my third story office and was surprised to find the door unlocked; a light shown through the frosted glass that identified the tenant as Joe January, Private Investigator.

Inside, Lindy was finishing the Chinese she’d ordered from around the corner.

“Lindy …”

When I didn’t go on, she said, “You said yesterday you hoped to be back in New York today.”

“I should’ve called you when we landed at Teterboro.”

“When I didn’t hear from you, I figured either you were okay and you thought it unnecessary to call, or something had come up and I should make myself available.”

The formality of this discussion was beginning to annoy me. I’d been gone for only a day and a half, but somehow it seemed much longer, and Lindy, despite the accusatory tone in her voice, was a sight for sore eyes. What I said was, “It’s good to be home.”

I hung my hat from the coat tree by the door and took a step, takeout in hand, toward the couch.

“Joe …” she said tentatively, her voice suddenly warmer, and I stopped. When I didn’t come to her rescue she went on.

“You look tired. You probably don’t want to drive home. That couch can’t be comfortable. Why don’t you stay at my place? I’ll drive and you can eat on the way.”

On the ride to Lindy’s place I filled her in on the high-lights of the day, primarily of our flight from the hotel to the track, leaving out the details—I was convinced she wouldn’t have believed me anyway. When she asked about Melissa’s brother, I told her that he had been a victim of mistaken identity but didn’t add that I thought it likely he was dead. I explained that I’d hoped the case was closed but thought it unlikely, and that I expected yet to hear from the MacIntyres, probably in the next day or two. That was the clinical part of our reunion.

Later, I undressed her slowly, gently touching her in those places I knew would bring, for both Lindy and me, the desired response.

I made love to her then, slowly, gently, but more passionately than I ever had before. Being an emotional coward, it was perhaps the best I could do in terms of an apology.

Maybe it’s because of the many years since that long ago night that today I surmise some part of me at some level knew I was about to lose Lindy.

“Lindy,” I said afterward, needing to come clean. “About the other night … Ginger—”

“Shhh,” she said, and covered my mouth with her hand.

I wanted to be angry at Lindy for not allowing me to make this confession—perhaps she feared it was a preface to my breaking it off with her—yet angry at myself for taking so long to admit to myself what she’d come to mean to me, and angry at her again for being so forgiving of my transgressions against her. I heard, and not for the first time, Melissa’s accusation: She sees in you what I see.

But Lindy was laughing softly in that melodious way that was hers and hers alone. Resting on my right elbow, I watched with fascination as her bare breasts, their nipples still erect, shook with her laughter.

“What?” I asked, surprised that my mention of Ginger had elicited laughter instead of tears or anger.

“I didn’t tell you this,” she said, her preface wresting my attention.

She was looking up at me in that way that was hers alone. Where my eyes once rested I now placed a hand; Lindy sighed softly and closed her eyes. Her tongue, moist and rough, darted out to wet her lips and I thought she would forgo the story she had not quite begun; but I was mistaken: the evening was yet young and the night long. She took a breath and continued, even as I felt her nipple stiffen between my thumb and forefinger.

“When I was talking to Ginger about Lance, she asked me how many medals he had.” Her eyes fluttered open and she laughed again, but not before I noted her quickened heartbeat. “It was the first time I could recall Ginger ever asking about someone else’s jewelry.”

“Lance would be offended,” I said. “In the service they refer to medals as decorations.”

“I know that, Joe. But a woman’s jewelry amounts to pretty much the same thing, doesn’t it—decoration?”

I laughed, and a moment later Lindy joined me. I rolled onto my back and after our laughter subsided Lindy covered my mouth again, but this time she covered it with her mouth.

***

I spent that night with Lindy, a rarity for me, as I preferred instead the distance that spending the night alone provides. I’m glad now that I stayed, no matter that my initial reason was one of convenience.

In the morning, after our shared shower, we made love to the sound of softly falling rain outside the bedroom window. In the afterglow neither of us told the other that we loved them.

I doubt that Lindy couldn’t have known how I felt about her. Perhaps in knowing, she didn’t need my reassurance; still, I regret not telling her, if not for her sake then for my own—to hear myself say the words, especially now, after discovering these many years later that she carried my child.

***

Click here for an interview with: J. Conrad Guest, Author of “January’s Thaw”

 

Excerpt From “January’s Thaw” by J. Conrad Guest

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 the words that follow and then ask yourself if you would have acted any differently.

Excerpt:

I stooped to brush several grass clippings from the simple marble marker:

Lindy Parquette Roberts
Wife, Loving Mother
November 11, 1918-March 10, 1986

Beneath the sunshine of a late spring morning the moment seemed surreal. Only two days ago Lindy had been alive to me—beautiful, young, vibrant; now, beneath this close-cropped sod were her remains, ravaged by a disease that before yesterday I’d never even heard of. Dead at the age of sixty-eight.

I couldn’t begin to imagine what she must’ve looked like at the end, how she aged, after I disappeared. Was it arrogant of me to think she’d have been happier with me than John Roberts? Perhaps it was at that.

“I’m sorry,” I whispered to the marker, as if what lay beneath could hear me; the marble was cool to my touch despite the late morning sun, and I wondered if its chill might be representative of Lindy’s reaction to my presence, this clumsy attempt at apology. “I’m sorry I abandoned you as I did, but I’m most sorry for never having told you that I loved you.”

Wife, Loving Mother.

I felt the sting of tears, and I wondered what the marker might read, whether the lone adjective might be juxtaposed to a more prominent place had I not been suddenly thrust a century away from her.

“I’d like to think I could’ve made a difference,” I said, for Lindy’s benefit as well as my own. “But through hindsight we see ever so much more clearly.”

I sighed.

“Maybe it means nothing to you now, Lindy, but I promise that I will, somehow, make a difference.”

I touched fingers to my mouth, laid them on the marble, and told her again that I loved her.

A moment later I stood and made my way toward Ecstasy, who sat on the grass near the cemetery path. She offered her hand to me, an invitation to assist her to stand. I took it but instead sat down next to her. I listened a moment to the sounds of the city traffic that, moments ago, I hadn’t heard but now seemed to intrude upon our privacy.

“Thanks,” I said, “for giving me a moment alone.”

She gave my hand a gentle squeeze, perhaps uncertain how to respond.

No, I thought, she knows precisely how to respond; such simple acknowledgement says more than any number of words.

I was grateful for the tenderness of her simple gesture, as well as for the warmth that flowed from her touch. It was so like the warmth I’d gotten from Lindy two days ago—two days that had spanned a century; for me a lost opportunity of a lifetime, for her, perhaps a lifetime lost. Warmth I’d denied until it was too late.

“Strange,” I added, “but it’s difficult for me to reconcile the finality of that marker with the fact that she still lives in her own time.”

Ecstasy smiled, and I looked at her hair, spun gold that shone brilliantly in a variety of shades and textures that would surely drive mad an artist trying to duplicate them with the colors on his palette.

“In time that will be all that remains of all of us,” she said.

I nodded. “A name, three words and two dates.”

Ecstasy was too polite to ask so I told her: “‘Wife, Loving Mother.’” I sighed. “She even had her maiden name chiseled into the stone.”

And then, looking back toward Lindy’s grave: “I wonder where John Roberts lays.”

“Ah, Joe,” she said. “Don’t blame yourself for her un­happiness.”

“How can I not?”

“You can’t hold yourself accountable for the choices she made.”

“Choices she made subsequent to my abandonment of her, no doubt limited by the child with which I’d left her.”

“But your abandonment, as you call it, wasn’t your choice, and you can’t know how it would’ve turned out had you stayed.”

“That doesn’t assuage my guilt and regret.”

I looked at Ecstasy. A part of me despised her for the role she played in our tryst the other night, even as I detested myself for my weakness—and I wondered if I had reviled every woman I’d ever encountered over the years, and whether my hatred of my mother was why I’d treated them so callously.

But there was too much compassion in the blue of Ecstasy’s eyes and so I banished my resentment, sighed, looked away—a feeble attempt to create an illusion of dis­tance—and said:

“I’m not a hundred miles away from her, Ecstasy, or a thousand or ten thousand. Those distances I could surmount. But I’m a hundred years removed from her, helpless to find my way back to her, and now robbed of any chance to even repent.”

“One can always repent.”

“Little good that does her—now, then, and every moment in between.”

“Perhaps not, but you have a chance to live differently from this moment forward.”

“To give meaning to her unhappiness?”

“To do otherwise would be disrespectful to your memory of her.”

“Why doesn’t that make me feel better?”

“In time it will.”

I lay on my back, held up my left hand, watched it clench into a fist, let it drop to the ground beside me.

“I can’t even be sure she cares that I cared enough to visit.”

“She cares.”

“How can you be so sure?”

“Why wouldn’t she?”

My fist relented, its fingers now lay splayed flat; the grass felt cool against my palm. I could say nothing to contest Ecstasy’s wisdom. I’d found little comfort in visiting Lindy’s grave. Not that I’d expected to; but I derived much from the notion Ecstasy might be right.

“Come on,” I said, getting to my feet. “It’s warm here, under the sun, and you wanted to get over to Connie’s apartment to pack her things.”

I extended my hand and Ecstasy took it. She stood, and I embraced her and thanked her again. She said nothing as she returned my embrace. I held on to her tightly, as if my life depended on her, as indeed it did. I couldn’t hope to survive in this twenty-first century New York without a job, without money, a place to stay. Without her. I wondered if she was truly aware of my predicament, if she as yet believed that I’d come, literally, from out of the past, whether she could em­pathize, put herself in my place.

A moment later I found the courage to let her go and we slowly made our way toward the cemetery gate.

Leaving the cemetery seemed, somehow, therapeutic for me, as if I were leaving something behind, closing the door on a hundred years of lost living, although I was certain I was in no way finished with my grieving. It would be a long time before I realized I would never be quite done with that.

***

In 1992, a man approached J. Conrad Guest to tell his story. His name was Joe January. A private investigator from the South Bronx, circa 1940, January can best be described as an indignant Humphrey Bogart. That encounter resulted in January’s Paradigm. Current Entertainment Monthly in Ann Arbor, Michigan, wrote of January’s Paradigm, “Personal identity—the slipperiness and the malleability of it—makes up the major theme of the story … (readers) will not be able to put it down.” One Hot January and January’s Thaw are companion novels to January’s Paradigm, although they need not be read sequentially. Combined, they paint a profile of a man out of place out of time.

J. Conrad Guest is the author of Backstop: A Baseball Love Story in Nine Innings, also available from Second Wind Publishing. For a peek into J. Conrad’s literary world, please visit www.jconradguest.com.

Click here to read Chapter 1 of: January’s Thaw by J. Conrad Guest

Click here for an interview with: J. Conrad Guest, Author of “January’s Thaw”

One Hot January by J. Conrad Guest

In One Hot January, Joe January, an emotionally aloof private investigator from the South Bronx, gets more than he bargains for when he uncovers this seemingly impossible plot of time travel and alternate realities by grudgingly agreeing to help a pretty young woman locate her missing father. Her father, a Professor of Archeology from Columbia College, must prevent the secret location of Hitler’s body, which lies in a cryogenic state awaiting a cure for cancer, from falling into the wrong hands. By the end of the novel, January is thrust one hundred years into the future, where he must survive on a century-old sagacity as he endeavors to find his way back to his own time and the woman he loves but lacked the courage to tell. The tale concludes in January’s Thaw, to be released later this year.

Excerpt:

I stood on the brake pedal. The front brakes bit harder than the rear brakes; a high-pitched squeal sounded as the tires fought against the car’s forward momentum. I heard Melissa’s quick inhalation of air and her single syllable exclamation “Oh! ” underscore Lance’s “Jee-sus, Joe, what are you doing?” as he braced himself against the dashboard.

The rear tires lost traction amid blue smoke and the back end of the Ford started to pass me on the right. I allowed the car to come around ninety degrees before correcting into the skid. A moment later the Ford came to a halt in a position perpendicular to the flow of traffic.

Through the windshield I watched traffic in the southbound lane flow past. In the rearview mirror I saw Melissa’s surprised face. A ragged line of bright red streaked her right cheek; she had been applying lipstick when I’d locked the brakes. Beyond her face, through the rear window, I could see the Mapes Gates of Columbia College, and beyond them, University Hall. Grunting my amusement at the irony, I glanced at Lance, who looked somewhat shaken.

“What’s the matter, Lance?” I asked. “You look like you’re about to lose your breakfast.”

“Huh?”

Ignoring Lance’s question, I looked to my left to find the surprised face of the bespectacled driver of the Packard staring at me over the steering wheel he still clutched. Due to the Packard’s close proximity I was unable to open my door.

“Huh,” I grunted in contempt, suddenly aware of the many different uses of the three-letter interjection Lance had used but a moment ago. Had he intended interrogation, or had his response been simply reflex, an expression of surprise the result of shock?

“Hold this,” I said, handing my hat to Lance.

“Where are you going?” Lance asked dumbly, the color drained from his face.

“To make an acquaintance,” I said, hauling my bulk through the window frame.

I stepped one leg out, then the other, landing lightly on the Packard’s bumper. From there I bounded down onto the brick that was Broadway and made my way around to the driver’s side of the Packard. Flinging open its door, I reached in, grabbed the still startled driver by the lapels of his cheap tweed suit, and shook him violently several times. The last of the repetitions partially dislodged the pince-nez from the bridge of the nose it spanned. The blue eyes, now just inches from my own, swam beneath water that wasn’t tears. One eye, the left, focused its terror on me while the other, due to a weakness of its tendon an optometrist would diagnose as strabismus, seemed to focus furtively on some distant object behind and to my left. I resisted the urge to turn around to see what it was that held that other eye’s interest.

“Now that I have your attention,” I rasped, “maybe you’d like to tell me just what it is you’re doing tailing us.”

The great eyes blinked; yet the pools of water still threatened to spill over their levees.

“I haff no idea vat you are talking a-bout.” The man spoke, his high tenor surprising me, in a carefully metered pace that betrayed an uncertainty of the English language and I felt my stomach sink. We had yet to leave New York and already my worst fears were confirmed.

The man’s a Nazi! I concluded.

“Shit!” I said. An image of the man whose lapels I still firmly held dressed in the black of the German Gestapo flashed before my eyes.

And to think I was concerned over the likelihood that he was an agent of our own government. Dammit!

“You always make a point of enjoying a cup of coffee while reading The Wall Street in front of my office on 59th before following me uptown?”

“I haff no idea—”

“Yeah, yeah,” I broke in, giving him another violent shaking. The action provided a release for my slightly trembling hands, the result of my surging adrenaline. “I’ve already heard that.”

I snorted aloud and a new strategy began to take shape. I released my grip and fussed over the rumpled lapels.

“Obviously you’re a tourist,” I said, righting the glasses that still teetered precariously near the end of his nose.

“Ja, a tourist,” the German answered with a slow nod.

I watched the conspiratorial gaze that had been residing in the right eye make its way none too stealthily to the good eye. In the vacancy left behind, I thought I detected a certain nonchalance that surely was intended to disarm me.

“Ja,” I mimicked. “Well, being a local maybe I can help you find whatever landmark it is you’re looking for, Herr Tourist.”

“Land-mark?” the big German enunciated carefully. Neither eye looked like it comprehended what I was talking about.

“Ja,” I repeated. “You know ¼ sightseeing.” I watched the light come on in the cerulean of the left eye and the thin lips parted in a good-natured smile to reveal a good-sized gap between the two front teeth.

“Ja, sight-seeing,” the stranger acknowledged with a nod, and his smile broadened.

“Ja,” I repeated a third time with a nod of my own. “What would you like to see?” The smile inverted itself. Neither eye met my penetrating gaze. “The Statue of Liberty?”

Silence.

I nodded. “I see. Been there already. Well how about the Empire State Building, then?” Like all native New Yorkers, I slurred into one syllable the second and third words of the proper name that identifies New York’s most famous landmark. The stranger brought one eye to bear on me while the other stared off into the distance. I wondered if any object it might focus on would register an image for the German. “No? Well what about Columbia College? You seen that yet, Herr Pal?”

“Co-lum-bia Col-lege?” The German enunciated each syllable carefully, uncertainly.

“Great!” I said, allowing my own manufactured smile to break out. “I know just where Columbia College is. Why don’t you slide on over and I’ll have you there in no time.”

“Nein. I do not vish to ¼ trouble you. I vill find land-mark.”

“Oh, it’s no trouble at all,” I said with finality. “Now scootch.”

I stared hard at the one blue eye and saw it consider several alternatives, discarding each of them in turn. With a nod, the German, resigned to his one and only option, the one that had been forced upon him, relinquished his place behind the wheel of the Packard, and I hauled myself in beside him.

Firing the ignition, I stuck my head out the window and called to Lance, “Go ahead and park the car, Lance. We’ll be back in a few minutes.”

“But, where are you …?” I heard Lance call back as I brought my head back inside the Packard, just in time to see my unwilling passenger fumbling with the catch on the glove compartment. With catlike quickness I grabbed the German by his wrist.

“I don’t believe you’ll be needing that tour guidebook for this one,” I said.

With that, I dropped the Packard’s automatic transmission into reverse, glanced over my right shoulder, and backed up the few feet I needed to steer clear of the Ford. A moment later, with the Packard in drive, I slowly accelerated past my own car, giving a wave to Lance and Melissa, and on up Broadway.

“You know,” I said as the automatic transmission smoothly shifted from first to second gear, “you rubbernecks would get around our city a whole lot easier if you just kept in mind that the Avenues”—I glanced over at the German’s profile, a mask of contrived sincerity on my face— “you know avenues—Park Avenue, 5th Avenue. Avenues?”

“Ja, avenues.”

“Right, avenues. The Avenues in New York all run north and south, along the length of the island. Now the Streets,” I continued patiently. “The Streets all run east-west. Now if more of you tourists understood that concept—that the Avenues run north-south while the Streets run east-west ¼ well, you’d all have a helluva lot easier time finding landmarks and such and you wouldn’t have to pester us locals. You understand what I’m saying, Herr Rubberneck?”

“Ja.”

“Ja.” I noted our speed had crept up to thirty miles per hour.

“Now take Broadway for instance—the street we’re on now? It’s not a Street, so it doesn’t run east-west. It runs north-south—like an Avenue. But it’s not really an Avenue, I mean like Park Avenue, see? But avenue is another name for a broad roadway. Which is where Broadway derives its name.”

Our speed had risen to thirty-five miles per hour by now, well above the limit for the city. I kept a close lookout for any police cars that might be patrolling.

“So you see, Broadway really is an avenue, which is why it traverses the island in a more or less north-south direction. Just a little something for you to keep in mind while touring the sights here in our fair city, ja?”

“Ja.”

Even from his profile I could tell the German was more than a little edgy.

The speedometer now registered forty miles per hour. The traffic light at West 135th Street was red. I sailed right on through it—as I had the red at 125th Street.

“Oh, what am I thinking?” I said, pressing the palm of my right hand against my forehead. “You know I got so carried away with my advice, I didn’t realize we just passed Columbia College twenty or so blocks back.”

With a glance into the rearview mirror, I slammed the gear selector into reverse. The Packard came to a stop in a hurry and filled up with smoke, as much from the tires as from the transmission. Reverse was stripped out but that was no problem; I had allowed the Packard to do a tight one-hundred-eighty-degree spin in the middle of Broadway so we’d be facing south. Pale as a ghost and staring straight ahead, the German clutched the dashboard as I crossed into the southbound lane and drove back down Broadway.

“Well here we are, Mac, none the worse for wear,” I said once I’d finished parking the Packard in front of Columbia, just a few yards from where we’d started our little jaunt.

Nose-to-tail with the car in front, the German would effectively be dead in the water. With no reverse, he would have no choice but to wait until the car in front was moved before he could continue his pursuit, and by then we’d be miles away.

“Sorry about all the confusion,” I said. “I guess I’m just not used to driving one of these new automatic transmissions. Although,” I added as an afterthought, “I’ve got a buddy who tells me they’re turning them out like hotcakes in Detroit.” 

***

J. Conrad Guest’s writing credentials include January’s Paradigm, first published in 1998 by Minerva Press, London, England. Backstop: A Baseball Love Story in Nine Innings,  available from Second Wind Publishing, was adopted by the Illinois Institute of Technology as required reading for their spring 2011 course Baseball: America’s Literary Pastime. Several of Guest’s short stories and non-fiction pieces have appeared on Internet publications, including Cezanne’s Carrot, Saucy Vox, River Walk Journal, 63 Channels, The Writers Post Journal and Redbridge Review. Blood and Thunder: Musings on the Art of Medicine published in November 2005 Mother’s Day: Coming to Terms with the Cruelty of Parkinson’s, a memoir chronicling his mother’s battle against Parkinson’s. 

See also:
Interview with J. Conrad Guest, author of One Hot January
Interview with Joe January, hero of One Hot January by J. Conrad Guest
Chapter One – One Hot January by J. Conrad Guest

Click here to buy: One Hot January

Interview with J. Conrad Guest, author of Backstop and One Hot January

How much of a story do you have in mind before you start writing it?

I start with a protagonist and his conflict; most times I have the ending in mind and simply write to it, although often the ending is amended depending on what happens prior to my getting there. Everything before that — the digressions, the journey — are discoveries that, hopefully, translate as discovery for the reader. I’ve never written from an outline. I haven’t even tried to work from an outline; I feel it would be too restrictive to me.

What is your writing schedule like? Do you strive for a certain number of words each day?

Raymond Chandler, one of my favorite novelists, despite Faulkner (no stranger to drink himself, Faulkner butchered the screenplay for The Big Sleep) calling him a “world class drunk,” wrote Alcohol is like love. The first kiss is magic, the second is intimate, the third is routine. After that you take the girl’s clothes off. My writing schedule is like that: the first sentence is magic, the second intimate, the third settles me in for the session, and after that it’s like taking the girl’s clothes off. I used to set a word count but learned to accept what comes. Some sessions produce more word count than others; but I focus on the content as my goal. Certain parts of the story are going to be more difficult to put down on paper than others. Some sessions result in 1,500 words, while others end with 4,000 words. I’m grateful for it all.

Do you have any rituals that you follow before sitting down to write?

Oh, yes, I do. We laugh at our pets for being creatures of habit, but we are, too, if we’re honest. My morning sessions start with a pot of coffee and a trip to my humidor to select a cigar. (In the evening, substitute bourbon and beer for the coffee.) The cigar is all about the ritual — selecting the right cigar to go with my mood, the time of day; taking it out of the cellophane, inhaling the fragrance of the wrapper, admiring the label, the workmanship (the better cigars are still handmade by someone with skilled hands in another culture thousands of miles away), snipping its head, lighting it, those first few draws, and watching the smoke infiltrate my den. The ritual helps get my creativity flowing.

Do you prefer to write at a particular time of day?

Yes, my preference is for Sunday morning. I schedule my entire day around my session. During the week, in the evening, I’ll polish or edit what I wrote on Sunday; but sometimes, if I’m really humming along, I’ll push the story forward during the week. But it’s difficult to do that consistently with a day job, especially one that puts me in front of a laptop writing. Sometimes the last thing I want to do when I get home from work is switch on my own laptop and be creative.

What are you working on right now?

I just finished a major project — A Retrospect in Death. It begins with a man’s death, and 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. I’m just now tinkering with a concept for my next novel, a period piece during the golden age of motor racing—the 1960s—with the Indianapolis 500 as the centerpiece.

What is the most difficult part of the whole writing process?

When I started my first novel, nearly twenty years ago, the hardest part was sitting down to write the first sentence—even though I’d written it in my head several weeks previously. I was intimidated by the whole process and feared that I’d never complete it. I only talked about it to friends. Finally, someone asked me when I would stop talking and do something. It was the kick I needed to set pen to paper. Now, when I near the end of a project, I begin to worry about my next one. What’s the story? Who are my characters and what are their conflicts? How can I top my last novel? Today I find the revision process the most difficult part. I love polishing a text; but sometimes I get carried away with the tinkering. At that point I go back to the original draft and determine whether the tinkering adds something, some new dimension, or does it get in the way?

What is the easiest part of the writing process?

The late great sports writer Red Smith wrote Writing is easy. I just open a vein and bleed. Opening a vein is never easy, but it’s essential, in my opinion, to great writing. It separates the great writers from the mercenaries, who write simply for the masses, for profit. Unfortunately, that seems to go against what many creative writing courses are teaching young writers today. They’re told that they must allow the reader to experience the text in their own way. I understand that, but one must still lead the horse to the water. What if your reader has never experienced what you’re writing about? For example, I’ve never fathered children, so it does me little good to read about a character’s joy over holding his newborn son for the first time by writing, “He was proud.” I like metaphor and so I could relate to something like, “Holding his son for the first time he felt as if he’d just hit the walk-off homerun in the seventh game of the World Series.” Raymond Chandler was one of the greatest stylists ever to write, and I consider myself somewhat of a stylist, too. It comes natural to me. I love language, and to me how something is said is as important as what is said; yet sadly, the publishing industry seems to frown on anything that might take a reader out of the story. Well, commercials do that on TV; but it doesn’t lessen our enjoyment of our favorite shows, does it? If the industry is losing money, perhaps they should reconsider the cookie cutter mold stories they seem to want to publish.

Does writing come easy for you?

It comes a lot easier today than it did when I started twenty years ago! That’s a product of experience — like an exercise routine, the first few workout sessions are difficult as your muscles rebel against the abuse you put them through. But in time, your body craves those workouts. Writing is like that for me. The more I do it the more I feel the need to do it. Raymond Chandler wrote Everything a writer learns about the art or craft of fiction takes just a little away from his need or desire to write at all. In the end he knows all the tricks and has nothing to say. I hope I never reach that end because every session is an adventure. I learn something about the craft of writing and, more importantly, about myself.

What, in your opinion, are the essential qualities of a good story?

For me, the most essential quality of a good story is characters with whom I can connect. Finding a good story to write is easy; but writing about characters the reader cares about is more difficult. Hannibal Lecter is one of the most demented characters ever conceived, yet he was fascinating, a train wreck away from which we want to look but can’t.

Where can we learn more about your books?

My third novel, One Hot January, is soon to launch, through Second Wind Publishing. You can learn more about me and all my literary endeavors at my website.