A Narrow Slice of Time: Chapter 7

Bill Plum put some extra cream in his coffee. He had made it too strong yesterday and left it simmering too long this morning while he slumped on the sofa with an ice bag on his head. The black water was nearly as bitter as the charred toast on his plate. The only thing that he had managed not to burn for breakfast was his scrambled eggs. They gave off a faint sulfurous odor that offended his nose and roiled his stomach. He had downed nearly a third of a bottle of Scotch last night, and the after effects of drinking a cheap blend instead of his usual Laphroig were painfully apparent. He made a mental note: economy wasn’t a virtue when it came to liquor.

The phone rang. Eventually it stopped. It rang again, and its tone had somehow become angry and insistent. He almost let it ring itself out again, but thought better of it. He was off today, but his boss liked to call him in at odd hours to patch the holes left by some of the less motivated members of the “office team”. Bill wondered if being the indispensable man in a government office was just another term for being the biggest patsy. He barely earned a tenth more than the grunts he badgered and cajoled into doing their jobs, and he bore the responsibility of fixing their mistakes on his own time. Management was not paid by the hour.

He stumbled across the room and managed to avoid falling over the hassock, but stubbed his toe on the leg of the phone stand. He picked up the receiver as he hopped and cursed under his breath.

“BILL!” a woman’s voiced yelled into his ear.

“What? Who is this?” he asked cautiously.

“Aubrey, Aubrey Piazza, Bill! You’re supposed to pick me up! Didn’t they tell you?” the woman screeched.

Her voice sounded familiar, but the name did not match any one he knew. Aubrey was an unusual name, however, and there was a secretary in Thurston’s office down the hall who seemed friendly when he came by her desk. Her name was Aubrey, Aubrey something or other. He wondered how she had gotten his number. She was a married woman, so it did seem a bit odd that she was calling him at home.

“Aubrey…uh yes, does Thurston need me for something? I don’t remember any projects that we’re currently working on together…can you explain what you want again? My head’s throbbing and—yes, I can tell that you’re upset, but I don’t know why—yes, but couldn’t your husband pick you up? He’s dead? I’m so sorry! I beg your pardon…oh—you’re not sorry. I see…no, actually I don’t see. Well if you insist, but I truly don’t remember offering you a ride home from GURUTECH. Well, as I said, my head is throbbing with a…headache…a very powerful headache, and I may be forgetting that I offered you a ride. It feels like my brains are made out of cotton and shards of glass. Please stop yelling. Please. All right! I apologize. Yes. I’ll come right away.”

Bill scrambled to find his pants and his car keys. His shoes had somehow made their way into the bathroom closet, and all his decent shirts were in the laundry hamper. He found a t-shirt with paint stains and a hole in the armpit and pulled it on. He could still smell alcohol on his breath when he blew a puff of air into his cupped hand. He took a mint from the jar he kept by the door. With his luck he would probably get pulled over on the way there.

The car started on the second grind and left behind a noxious cloud of black smoke. The GURUTECH building occupied a whole city block near the south end of downtown. It would only take him twenty minutes or so in the midmorning traffic to get there if his car did not stall out at every other intersection. He hoped it would not. He wanted to get his errand of mercy over as quickly as possible. His plan was to pick up a good bottle of Scotch on the way home, or at least a decent fifth of bourbon, have a snort and fall asleep in front of the television. The way to survive a day that promised nothing but irritation was to ignore it until it went away.

When he pulled into the GURUTECH parking lot he saw a woman on the steps of the building. Her reddish brown hair stuck out in haphazard spikes from the sides of her head, and her eyes popped when she spied him getting out of the car. She stalked toward him with furious, quick steps. Her face was twisted into a fierce snarl that promised such violence that Bill retreated to the safety of his car before she reached him. He locked the doors and inserted the key into the ignition as she rounded on his driver’s side window. She beat her hands against the glass and screamed his name. Just as he was about to pull away she made an effort to calm herself, and she stepped back away from the window. She motioned for him to lower it so that they could talk, mouthing the word, “please,” with plaintive look on her face. Bill cautiously rolled the window down three inches.

“I’m sorry, Bill. I don’t know what got into me. I feel so out of sorts. My trip went badly and now nothing feels right. Those monks treated me so poorly. I can’t remember what they did, but I’ve just got to get out of here. Please take me home, Bill. I’m sorry I yelled at you. Please,” she begged.

“All right, Audrey, uh, Aubrey. Get in,” he said in a cautious tone that one would use to calm an angry dog.

The woman stumbled as she got into the car and almost fell across the seat onto Bill. Once she had managed to sit down properly, she could not latch the seat belt buckle. Bill finally had to help her guide it home. The woman panted with frustration as he pulled out of the lot, and nervously pulled on the skin of her forearm. She lifted flesh off muscle and bone, and let it drop back in place. She lifted and dropped. Her face was a study in confusion. After they had driven a few blocks north Bill worked up the courage to ask her where she wanted to be taken. She stared at him as if she did not fully understand what he was saying.

“Home—where else?” she said.

“Uh, yes, home. Could you tell me where you live?” he inquired delicately.

“The same place you took me last Sunday! The same place I’ve lived ever since we met. What the hell is the matter with you?” she yelled.

“Last Sunday…last Sunday…I believe you must be mistaken. I went bowling with some friends from work,” he said.

“You drank a bottle of cheap Chianti with me by the fire. We ate a take-out order of fried Thai shrimp.”

“Madam, I assure you that—“

“We got drunk. You ripped off my clothes and then you screwed me on the sofa! For god’s sake, you ought to remember that!”

“If you say so, Audrey.”

“Aubrey! Aubrey Piazza! Why can’t anyone get my name right?” she wailed.

“I’m sorry if I’ve said something to upset you. I don’t intend to make you any angrier than you already are. But I think that there must be some mistake. I’ve never been to your home, never gotten drunk with you, and we’ve never, ever…made love. I barely know you,” he said.

“Pull over! Pull over right this minute! Let me out of this car!” she demanded angrily.

“Gladly, Madam,” he replied.

She nearly fell into the gutter as she exited the car, and tripped on the curb as he drove away with the passenger side door swinging free. Bill pulled over a half block down the road and got out to close the door. The berserk woman came stumbling in a loose jointed run toward him. She muffled her sobs with one hand clamped to her mouth, but Bill could still hear her piteous cry: “Please, Bill. I’m sorry. Please forgive me!”

He slammed the door and ran to the opposite side. He screeched his tires as he pulled out into traffic and narrowly missed colliding with the back end of a pick-up that was slowing down to make a turn. He wiped the sweat from his forehead when he had traveled a safe distance away from the drunk, mad woman, and circled his way on side streets back to his apartment.

When he stopped at a liquor store on Old Winter Park Road he sat in the car for a moment to regroup. His nerves were raw. A memory popped into his mind of his mother lecturing him: she shook her fat finger at him and said, “Your father was a drunk just like you. You’re gonna end up in the gutter. I bet you can’t remember what you do when you’re drunk, can you? You’re just like your father!”

Dad had died broke and wasted, hounded until the end by a mistress and an estranged wife both demanding money and attention. Bill wondered whether it would be better to just go home and take a nap. But he could taste whisky on the back of his tongue. The sharp flavor lingered like a phantom that refused to give up its haunt and drove away his weak desire for a sober life. He fought the urge for several minutes and felt disgusted with himself as he finally succumbed, but when he entered the store the rows and rows of liquid comfort welcomed him as if he had arrived at a gathering of old friends. He bought a bottle of Macalan and headed straight home. He planned to quit boozing sometime in the near future, but as for right now, he really needed a drink.

A Narrow Slice of Time: Chapter Six

Donald stretched and yawned and slowly opened his eyes. He saw an unfamiliar landscape painting above a chest of drawers that was not his. The sheet that covered him had purple flowers on it. He could smell the scent of lavender coming from a candle on the night stand next to him. The only things that looked familiar were his shirt and pants folded neatly on a chair by his side of the bed. He heard the sound of someone scraping a skillet and smelled coffee brewing. When he felt a bit more alert he sat up and began to put on his clothes. Brooke—he had spent the night with Brooke.

He stumbled off to the bathroom halfway down the hall and splashed his face with water. His reflection in the mirror above the sink looked ridiculous: he badly needed a shave and his hair stuck out at bizarre angles. He took his morning piss, washed his hands and found a clean hand towel, wash rag and bath towel piled in a neat stack on the bathroom counter. A woman’s razor lay nearby, but he doubted that she meant for him to use it. Little bits of black stubble were caught between the twin blades. He wondered if he should make an appearance in the kitchen first or take a shower. The smell of hot food, bacon, eggs and toast, drew him to the kitchen.

Brooke was seated at the table with a coffee mug in hand. She wore a white bathrobe, powder blue men’s pajamas and fuzzy brown slippers. Her unbrushed hair was a bushy tangle. She smiled and gestured for him to sit down across from her. A plate of food with a cover on it waited for him there. She got up and poured him a cup of coffee, sat back down and began to eat her breakfast. Donald tucked in, dipped buttered toast into the yolk of his eggs over easy, and crunched down on a piece of crisp bacon. He usually had no appetite for breakfast, but this tasted good and he was ravenous.

“I can make you another egg if you’re still hungry,“ Brooke said after he ate the last bite.

“No thanks. Everything tasted great. I don’t usually eat this much in the morning.”

“Ah…not much of an early riser then?”

“No. I don’t really wake up until I’m halfway to work and I’ve had a second cup of coffee.”

“Well, I better get you another cup, then. It’s 7:30. What time do you have to be in?

“9:00. How about you?”

“The same.”

“Would you like a ride?”

“Hmm. I’m doing a calibration check in Rama Suite today. If there’s nothing but good vibrations I usually can shut things down around 6:00. Is that too late for you?”

“We’re still going over the cupcake mission. We haven’t figured out what went wrong yet, and there’s some pressure from above to deliver a report soon. They’re still spooked about the recent string of failures.”

“Oh. So you don’t know when you’re getting off. We’d better go separately.”

“Too bad.”

“We’ll have to plan things better next time.”

“Next time?”

“How about Saturday? Then we can sleep in and take our time getting up. What do you usually do on Sunday mornings?”

“Recover from a hangover…go over some figures for Monday…watch a news show.”

“Not a church going man, are you?”

“No, I’m not all that religious. Are you?”

“I go ever so often when the mood strikes. I was raised Catholic. Most Sundays I read the paper or putter around in the garden. Sometimes I catch up on my housework if I’ve let things go during the week. I can be a slob sometimes. I get the impression that you’re very tidy and organized, Donald. Am I right?”

“God, no. I spend the whole week trying to be exacting and precise. I don’t give a damn about being neat at home. It’s a common misperception that all historians are tight asses.”

“I stand corrected. You want to shower first? The heater is pretty small and there’s not enough hot water for two long showers.”

“We could save some water…”

“We could, but I’m afraid that we might be late for work. One thing can lead to another.”

“One can only hope. I’d like to see you before next Saturday. Is there any room for me in your schedule?”

“Room for what? More sex? I suspect, sir, that you have begun to see me as nothing more than an object of sexual pleasure.”

“Not really. I barely find you attractive. Last night was a tragic mistake. I think that we should go back to being Platonic friends right after we take a shower together.”

“Sure, sure. That’s what all the boys say when they want to make more mistakes with the ladies…” She leaned over the table and gave him a kiss.

They barely made it to work on time. They held hands at the stop lights as they rode together in Donald’s car. They could not meet for lunch, and agreed that Brooke should catch a bus home after her shift ended. They would spend the weekend together. Brooke did not finish until 6:30 and decided to read her romance novel in Donald’s office while he edited a report. She made them a late supper of Italian sausages served over penne pasta when they got back to her place at 8:00.

When Donald woke up early the next morning he stretched and yawned and slowly opened his eyes. The dresser, the painting and the purple flowered sheets all looked a bit more familiar. Brooke lay beside him and snored quietly, her hair a wild nest of tangles. He kissed her forehead to wake her up, but she barely stirred. He got up and started the coffee. She stumbled in with eyes half closed while he was busy scrambling eggs, and she put two bagels in her toaster oven. She smiled and kissed him and her mouth tasted like stale bologna. He handed her a mug of coffee and said, “Drink this, dragon breath.”

“What’s the matter, Donald? Don’t you love me? Give me another kiss. Please, please, please.” She pushed her lips out in a ridiculous pucker and waited for him to comply.

Donald kissed her again: more stale bologna. Then he kissed her again. The flavor was growing on him.

A Narrow Slice Of Time: Chapter 1

Judy and I are working on our third novel in our sci-fi time traveler series.  I’m going to post one chapter a week from the first book, “A Narrow Slice of Time”, until we finish “Stitches Nine”.

narrow slice cover 4

Grasping at Time is a fool’s errand. The faster it slips by the quicker our release from misery and regret. And only a Fool wishes to go back and relive his life, to undo mistakes made, to savor in full the precious moments he once neglected to treasure. If he could return and make his corrections, then another line of errors would spring forth; if he cherished an instant he had previously ignored, then he would forsake another sweet demand upon his attention. Tis better to live in the middle of each minute and advance as Providence allows, looking neither forward nor back. Do not concern yourself with the Speed and Course of your Days, but swim in time’s stream from Birth to Death like a fish gliding through tranquil waters.
R.L. Mundicutt, 1832, Cottage Whyteford, Sussex.

Chapter 1

2036 (Standard Timeline)
Bill Plum and Aubrey Piazza climbed the steps to a gleaming, white building that resembled a knock-off copy of the Taj Mahal. The cylindrical towers on either side of the faux mausoleum were made from a material that looked like marble when viewed from a considerable distance. A sign carved in bas relief above the central, arched doorway was inscribed with the corporate logo: GURUTECH. The letters had the lilt and tilt of Sanskrit.
Aubrey was a hard faced, large boned, somewhat muscular woman of forty. Her auburn hair had a few streaks of grey near the temples. She wore tan slacks, a black silk blouse with a plunging neckline, and leather sandals. Her sunglasses were very dark, and her eyes were concealed by the reflections on the surface of the lenses. She had deep grooves on either side of her down turned mouth, and when she paused as she spoke she sometimes twisted her lips and grimaced as if she were sucking on something distasteful.
Bill was a nondescript rabbit of a man. His doughy face was dominated by a large, barrel shaped nose that skewed slightly to the left. His midsection sagged over his belt and his shoulders rounded forward. His suit was gray and rumpled, his hair mouse brown, and his black shoes scuffed. He had the neglected appearance of an aging bachelor, a threadbare man who had exhausted his meager promise long ago. Bill pulled Aubrey aside before they reach the entrance.
“Did you study the packet, Aubrey?” he said.
“Yes, of course I did,” she answered.
“I know that you don’t believe in their mumbo-jumbo, but they won’t let you take your trip until you satisfy them.”
“Why do you keep after me about that? I studied. I’m not stupid.”
“Tell it to me again. I helped you pay their fee and negotiate your errand. I don’t want to waste my time and money.”
“It’s always about that, isn’t it? It’s all about the cash.”
“Yes, dear, it is. Recite.”
“Jesus, what a pain…GURUTECH was founded in 2028 by a bunch of swamis from Kerala who enlisted the aid of a theoretical physicist from Stanford University named Fleming Anderson. Together they discovered that all moments in time exist simultaneously; they’re stacked like slices of bread. Every narrow slice of time has its own vibration signature and, and…and then they go on about string theory, Heisenberg, fluid time and gravity constants, mumbo jumbo Einstein, blah, blah, unified field, blah.”
“Correct so far. They won’t expect you to totally understand the physics, but I would leave out the blah, blah, blahs if I were you. Go on.”
“Right. If a person can attune their own personal vibration signature to the signature of a particular time period, they are instantly transported to that moment. Then there’s something about a law of affinity and spontaneous attraction. That part always sounds like a pick up line to me.”
“Bill. Stop fussing. I’m not going to say that to the techs when I walk through that door.”
“Most people cannot attune their personal vibration signal, or PVS, or maintain it long enough for the transportation to occur. GURUTECH’s engineers developed a wave mirror chamber that echoes and enhances the chance vibrations that are synchronous with a distinct time period. The person gradually comes more and more into alignment with their target destination, and within an hour they find themselves in Ancient Rome or 20th century Europe. They are allowed limited engagement with the events of the target time period, and must return within seven minutes. A chip embedded in the base of their skull acts as a portable enhancer and causes the traveler to fall into a trance at the end of seven minutes. A warning buzz in the ear alerts the traveler to their imminent departure. Traveling back to one’s own time is easier because the traveler is naturally in synchrony with their own period. The transportation goes much more easily, however, if the traveler assumes the correct mental posture just before the portable enhancer goes off.”
“And you’ve been practicing that, I hope?”
“Yesss—you’re such a worry wart. Yes, I’ve been practicing. You close your eyes, center them on the magic spot in the middle of your forehead—“
“Stop calling it that! Third eye. Be sure to call it the third eye!”
“Yeah, yeah. Then I watch my breaths. I say Om when I inhale and moo when I exhale.”
“Stop being such an ass. Om and aum. Om and aum.”

“Don’t call me an ass. Can’t you recognize when I’m telling a joke by now?”
“This is serious, Aubrey, very serious.”
“Yeah, yeah…Are you sure that it was okay to tell them about what I plan to do?”
“Yes. Telling your ex-husband what a jerk he is, or was, or will be will not significantly alter the present. The man had literally no impact on anyone but you. But remember to carry out your assignment too. You have to buy the last vanilla iced cupcake from that shop near your old apartment. That’s vital. And it’s part of the price of your ticket.”
“Messing with Jeff’s head is okay, but it’s vital that I buy a cupcake. That’s weird.”
“Vanilla iced cupcake with pink sprinkles. The gurus know what they’re doing. Carry out the deal as stated in the contract or they might send you to medieval Germany at some random moment. They don’t like it if you fail to carry out your part of the bargain.”
“Are we done now?”
“Yes, dear. You know it’s not just about the money. I care about you and I’m worried that something bad might happen. Promise me that you’ll be careful and do as you’re told. Please don’t lose your temper and do something rash.”
“Stop talking and let me get on with this.”
“It won’t really help, you know. The satisfaction will be momentary, and it won’t improve things in this time.”
“Bill, at my age I’ve learned that all satisfactions are momentary. You and I have proved that over and over. Last night was another example.”
Bill sighed and let go of her arm. They climbed the last few steps and entered a doorway to the right. A sign above their heads told them that they were entering the Hall of Time. The smell of sandalwood incense overwhelmed them as they passed inside. Orange robed monks and nuns walked about with quick, light steps, entering and exiting through arched doorways on either side of the hall. The men had shaved heads, and the women wore light scarves that covered their hair. Bill and Aubrey walked down the long, marble-floored hallway until they reached a reception desk. A few armchairs upholstered with a shiny, orange material were placed in a semicircle off to the left. When she studied the chairs closely Aubrey saw that the cloth was stitched with magenta threads that formed pulsating, interlocking patterns. The receptionist wore a fixed smile on her face. Her lips curled serenely, but the slight clench of her jaw gave her an air of willful determination.
“Namaste. Good morning. Welcome to the GURUTECH Hall of Time. What is the nature of your business?”
“My name is Aubrey Piazza. I’m scheduled to make a journey today.”
“Ah, yes. I have you down on my roster. Forgive me for not recalling your name. We have had many travelers the last few days.”
“Don’t worry about it. What’s next?”
“You will have to fill out some paper work: some forms giving us final clearance, a legal statement freeing GURUTECH from liability in all instances save technical failure, and a form declaring that your present physical and mental state is sound.”
“I thought that I already signed off on that.”
“Oh, no. Many of our clients make that assumption when they begin training. Those forms just cleared you for the training program. These forms are for the actual trip. And after you’ve finished with these there’s a short test that tells us whether you have studied the process and are aware of the parameters of your mission. Please take a seat over there and use the touch screen attached to the arm. This should only take about twenty minutes.”
“Seems like a lot of paper work for a seven minute trip.”
“You may back out of our arrangement if you wish, Miss Piazza.”
“I’ve come this far. I might as well go through with it.”
“We would be most pleased if you did, Miss Aubrey, as our technicians have devoted a great deal of time and effort in making your dual mission safe, comfortable and full of purpose.”
Aubrey took a seat in the nearest armchair, swung a padded arm over her lap and booted the touch screen embedded in the arm. Bill watched her type in her answers until he heard the receptionist cough politely.
“Sir, will you be traveling today also?”
“No, I just wanted to make sure that Aubrey, Miss Piazza, was taken care of.”
“She will be fine, sir. Her trip has been planned meticulously, and our technicians will watch over her with great care.”
“Yes. I remember you telling me that when I went on my mission. That didn’t go as planned. Did your technicians watch over me?”
“It’s Mr. Plum, is it not? I believe that I have seen your face before on memos received from our legal department. Your complaints about your experience have been taken into consideration, and your journey is now used as a case study when we train new technicians. We are pleased that you made it back to our time and that the errors that you introduced into your time line were insignificant and easily erased. I trust that your trip to Magdeburg was not too unsettling.”
“Magdeburg! Do you know what that was like?”
“Yes, Mr. Plum. All employees of GURUTECH are given a simulated experience of our default destination. There were many choices that we considered during the Thirty Years War in Germany. The 17th century in Europe was rife with wholesale slaughter, religious persecution, famine, pestilence and aimless destruction. We narrowed our selection down to the Fall of Magdeburg as it was an event so utterly chaotic and disastrous that no amount of interference by our travelers could significantly change the flow of time. Such moments in time are rare, Mr. Plum. We regret any discomfort that you experienced there, and hope that the basket of fruit and bottle of brandy we gave you on your return relieved your anxiety in some small way.”
“I spent four weeks in a psych unit having the emotional scars erased. I still can’t go to a barbecue. My memories of that place are nearly gone, but I know that it was total hell.”
“Yes, sir. Many of our default travelers describe Magdeburg with those very words. If you wish to file another formal complaint about your experience, I can ring this buzzer and two of our most considerate monks will escort you to our public relations office.”
The receptionist pointed to a buzzer on her desk with her index finger, and looked over her shoulder in the direction of two burly men in an office behind her. Bill raised his hands in supplication and took a step back from the desk.

“No, no. I don’t want to make a complaint. I just want to make sure that Aubrey—Miss Piazza is taken good care of.”
“Your concerns will be noted in our log. Perhaps it is time for you to wish Miss Piazza a successful journey, sir. Will you be here tomorrow in case Miss Piazza needs assistance following her return and processing?”
“Yes. Do you still have my number on file?”
“Yes, sir. We know all about you.”
The receptionist smiled as she said these last words, but there was no warmth in her expression. Bill took another step back and turned in Aubrey’s direction. She waved the back of her hand at him to dismiss him, and Bill stammered out a weak, “Good luck,” before hustling away.
“I’m ready,” Aubrey said to the receptionist as she finished her last entry. The receptionist transferred Aubrey’s forms and the completed test to a screen on the reception desk; she maintained her fixed smile for the most part, but frowned occasionally as she clicked buttons on the keyboard and touched icons on the screen. At one point, as the receptionist carefully studied a form, she reached for a phone, but hesitated and withdrew her hand. She glanced up at Aubrey with doubt in her eyes as she reread a passage several times, and then scrolled through all of the documents one more time.
“Why yes, Miss Piazza. You are ready,” she finally replied. She gave Aubrey her cold smile and waved to the burly monks in the office behind her. They stepped forward and Aubrey was surprised to see that they wore pistols in the orange sashes around their waists.
“What’s with the hardware?” she asked the receptionist.
“Bon voyage, Miss Piazza,” said the receptionist.
The two men rapidly came up to Aubrey and stood on either side of her. The one on the right took a gentle hold on her elbow and began to lead her toward the office. When she jerked her arm out of his grasp and tried to pull away from them, they simply picked her up by the shoulders and feet and carried her end to end as if she were a rolled up carpet.
“Bill!” she screamed once before disappearing behind the doors of the office.

What the Hell Was That All About?

DSC_0151 (2)Yesterday I sat in the shade under our blossoming magnolia and finished reading Robert Olen Butler’s novel, Hell.  The author imagines the after lives of politicians, writers, actors, and artists.  His main character is a news anchorman, and his punishments in hell include reading from flawed and obscene teleprompters (“poopy butt, poopy butt”), holding a wooden smile as the camera refuses to pan away at the end of a broadcast, and running stories by Beelzebub, his producer.  I smoked a cigar and enjoyed the cool breezes that stirred the leaves and branches overhead.  The contrast between the suffering depicted in the book and the comfort I felt created a pleasant dissonance.

One of the themes in the book is that we often are the cause of our own suffering.  We choose situations and people who harm us.  We do this repeatedly as if our learning curves are flat lines.  One character in the novel, Anne Boleyn, is still obsessed with Henry VIII and is incapable of loving any other.  She seeks him out, but their relationship is just as dysfunctional as it had been in the mortal realm.  After one reunion she gets so depressed that she removes her head and puts it on a shelf.  But in the end she reattaches and goes back to him.

Another idea that Butler revisits is that our thoughts are often a source of  pain.  When we live in the past and consider things we’ve done we eventually find painful memories and regrets.  The protagonist, after seeking out his three ex-wives in an effort to discover how he ended up in hell, discovers little that provides him clarity.  His exes are just as self-delusional as he.  The newscaster learns that living in the moment, no matter how painful, causes less suffering in the long run.

The author also depicts heaven as a place of sterile perfection.  In the last chapter the newscaster escapes through a back door into paradise, but eventually decides to return to hell.  He realizes that he prefers a messier place where everyone searches for satisfactions they cannot find and seeks comforts that their fellow damned cannot provide.  No one in hell can truly understand the suffering of another person, yet all are united by a common denominator:  pain.  The newscaster realizes that he belongs in hell with the flawed beings parading before him and declares his love.

A man pulled up in an old sedan across the street from me and interrupted my reading when I had just a few pages left.  He delivered a pizza to the house next door.  As he stepped back into his car he grimaced, slung the thermal bag into the back seat, and asked, “Why does it burn?”  He dropped to the hot pavement and began to do push ups.  After twenty he stood up, wiped sweat off his forehead, got into his car and drove away.

I watched his car turn a corner and disappear.  I thought, “What the hell was that all about?”  Maybe I need to reread the book.

A Narrow Slice of Time

narrow slice cover 3    Cover image for “A Narrow Slice of Time”                      

“A Narrow Slice of Time” by Dennis and Judy Schmalstig is available on Amazon.com.  The following is the link for the print version (also available in Kindle):  https://www.amazon.com/Narrow-Slice-Time-Traveller/dp/1533577420/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1466860827&sr=8-2&keywords=a+narrow+slice+of+time+schmalstig

The summer of 2013 sucked.  Actually the whole year turned out to be a torture fest of illness, hospital visits, departures, wrangles with an Insurance Company Who Will Not Be Named, and a death in the family.  My wife Judy and I hit bottom sometime in August.  There was nothing wrong with our relationship, but the circumstances of our lives had become harsh. I cast about for something to distract us from continuously brooding over our situation.  I remembered that Judy had mentioned that she was interested in writing a time travel book with me.

Her eyes didn’t exactly light up when I mentioned my willingness to try a writing project with her, but we began to brainstorm a plot.  Judy was set on trapping someone in the past, and I had ideas about a time travel device and an organization that made changes in the past for the supposed benefit of the future.

I began to write chapters late at night after Judy had gone to bed.  I would print them out and show them to her, and she would get back to me in a couple days with editing suggestions and positive criticism about my dialogue, plot twists and character development.  As the story progressed and various characters went about their business on different time lines, Judy provided the vital function of keeping things straight.  She has a clear, logical mind well developed from years spent doing research as a plant physiologist, and she was able to keep the book on track.

We still faced a good deal of miseries during the time we spent working on the book, but every time we sat together and discussed it we forgot about our troubles for a while.  We got excited about exploring new avenues and about planning the end of the book.  We even got way ahead of ourselves by playing around with ideas for successive volumes in a time traveler series.

It’s been nearly three years since we began “A Narrow Slice of Time”, and our circumstances are better.  We no longer need a distraction to help us get through our days, but have decided to continue working together.  We found out that we deeply enjoyed sharing the creative process of writing a book.  Of course we don’t always agree on all issues, and I’ve dug in my heels on a few occasions.  I’ve discovered, however, that Judy has a very good sense of plot and doesn’t care for a lot of fancy frippery in the telling of a story.  She wants me to move things along and to get to the point.  She has good taste when it comes to character development wanting fully fleshed out villains and protagonists with believable motives.  I’ve learned to take her advice on most occasions.

The best thing about this whole experience has been finding something new to share as a couple.  It’s an unexpected journey, an adventure that has shown us that our horizons are still open and that there is still more to see and do.

Rough Sketch: An Interview with Aimee Mamelon

rough sketch cover

Here are some sections of an interview with Aimee Mamelon, the author of a new adult novel set in the Central Florida art world.  The book is called,  Rough Sketch.

JR:  I understand that Aimee Mamelon is a pen name.  Why adopt a false identity?  Aren’t you proud of this book?

AM:  Nice opener.  Let’s get to the hostility right away.

JR:  I’ll rephrase my question.  Aimee Mamelon is a pen name.  Interesting…

AM:  I’ve worked as a model, artist and art instructor in the Orlando area.  Some of the characters are composites based on people I’ve met, and the plot contains elements of stories I’ve been told and my own experiences. I didn’t want colleagues and  acquaintances and friends leaping to conclusions.

JR:  You didn’t want them to find out that you were writing about them?  Won’t they figure out your identity once they read a few passages that are about things that only you and they went through together?

AM:  Please listen carefully.  This is a novel, not a memoir.  None of the things that happened in this book are a blow by blow account.  The characters in the book are representative of certain types of people I’ve met in the art world, but none of them are direct portraits of actual people.  Got it?

JR:  So you’re not a sex addict?

AM:  No.

JR:  But your main character, Lizzy, is.

AM:  Maybe at the beginning.  I think of her more as a female Don Juan, as someone who’s desperately trying to find fulfillment, to patch a few gaping holes in her life.  She uses sex to take the cutting edge off of her loneliness.

JR:  Why did you open the book with a graphic sex scene?

AM:  Well, obviously, I wanted to get my readers’ attention.  And I wanted to introduce the main character’s core problem right at the outset.  The first chapter is really about playing out her frustrations more than reveling in her satisfactions.

JR:  She keeps trying to find some sort of escape from reality?

AM:  Yes.  Exactly.  She drinks and goes out clubbing and has one night stands to forget that she’s just scraping by, her family drives her nuts, and that she feels unloved and unlovable.  When she takes someone home she can believe for a moment or two that she’s taking control of her life and her needs.

JR:  But of course she just makes things worse.

AM:  Yeah, it takes her a long time to figure out what she really needs and how to get it.

JR:  Have you ever modeled in the nude?

AM:  Yes.  I’ve modeled for art classes, and I posed for a boyfriend who is a figure painter.

JR:  So the scenes where Lizzy models are fairly accurate?

AM:  Oh, yes.  The first time I modeled in a class I thought that I was going to throw up or faint.  It feels pretty strange to be the only naked person in a room of 25.

JR:  Does that get easier the more you do it?

AM:  I was a little nervous every time I modeled, but not nearly as bad as the first time.  It depended a lot on the instructors and the students.  Some teachers were very demanding and didn’t care if my leg went into a spasm during a pose.  They just expected me to keep holding it.  They acted like I was an object.  Some were a lot more kind and took my needs into account…One creepy guy wanted to date me and called me up at home at all hours and asked me what I was wearing.

JR:  That had to be awkward.  What were some of the stranger moments you faced in class?

AM:  I was modeling at a little, nonprofit art school, and all the students were in their thirties or forties.  I relaxed.  Usually it’s younger college kids who show no respect.  Well, anyway, I’m standing on the modelling stage wearing a bathrobe, waiting for the male instructor to stop talking to one of the female students.  He finally says a few words, I drop my robe and hit a pose, and this old bat in the corner looks me straight in the eye.  Her face is red and she’s glaring at me.  She throws down her charcoal, points a finger at me and yells, “Jezebel!  You brazen Jezebel!”

JR:  Really?  What was the class?  Watercolor still life? 

AM:  Figure drawing.  I guess that lady had no idea that artists draw nudes in a figure drawing class.  Go figure.

JR:  What did the instructor do?

AM:  He was pretty cool.  He asked me to put the robe back on, and then he told the lady to pack up and leave.  She demanded her money back, and he opened up his wallet and peeled off a few bills.  He apologized to me after class and said that the school gets some odd balls from time to time.

JR:  Is the art world as tough as you’ve portrayed it in the book?  Is it all about finding out a way to sell out in order to make some cash?

AM:  I’ve understated some things.  It’s intensely difficult to make a living doing anything creative.  Some artists try to tailor their work to a market.  In Central Florida there are a lot of artists doing old fashioned still lives and landscapes.  I see lots of flower paintings and landscapes with a palm tree stuck dead center.  Sky, water, palm tree.  This kind of work usually sells a lot better than scratchy, dark abstractions. 

JR:  Do you look down on the sell-outs?  You went to art school.  Didn’t they teach you to look down your nose at realism?

AM:  I don’t blame them at all.  If they figure out how to turn a buck selling art I’m ready to applaud.  One thing you learn in the art world is that it’s not a meritocracy.  Some of the best artists I’ve known have a huge collection of their own work.  They can’t give it away, and the only ones who really like their work are fellow artists who can’t afford to buy.  Sometimes the least talented artists get to the top of the heap by relentless self-promotion.  But there are times when crap art gets exposed and the good artists get shows and sell.  It’s all random…If someone can figure out how to make the money flow in their direction, even for a short while, then I say, “Go for it chickee!”

JR:  That sounds a little bitter.

AM:  Just trying to be realistic.

JR:  Are you still working as an artist, or are you devoting all of your efforts to perfecting your craft as a writer?

AM:  It’s about even.  Sometimes I feel less inspired to go into my studio and work on a painting.  The computer looks more inviting then.  And sometimes I get tired of digging around for the right word, the right turn of a phrase, and it’s nice to pick up a brush and turn off the words in my head.

JR:  Are you modeling anymore?

AM:  I trade off with friends from time to time.  They pose and I paint, and vice versa.  Mostly it’s just for portraits.  I can’t remember the last time I posed in the nude.

JR:  But not for college classes?

AM:  No.  I gave that up when I put on a few pounds after I had my first baby.  A lot of models quit when they no longer feel confident in their body image anymore.  It takes guts to get up on stage and have twenty pairs of eyes poring over every square inch of your body…And the joints get achy.  I did yoga to stay loose and limber, but after a while I started visiting my chiropractor more often than I wanted to, and modeling seemed like a less attractive way to pick up a few extra bucks.

JR:  At the end of the book Lizzy gives up a lot of her independence to take care of her lover.  Do you think that she made a good choice?

AM:  She learns to give more of herself, to expect less from others.  But I’m not sure if Peter is a good bet in the long run.  He’s an alcoholic with personal issues of his own.  But I think that their relationship gives Lizzy a chance to figure out a different route for her life.  When she’s with him he presents enough of a challenge to force her to make different choices.



 annie baby backpack

The other morning I finished reading Ann Patchett’s novel, “Taft”. The book is unusual in that the white author imagines the life of a black man who imagines the final days of a white man. You could accuse Ann of taking liberties in writing about an experience beyond her culture and gender, but she appears to have done her homework and makes her characters convincing.

I nearly abandoned the book about half way through. I got depressed reading about two families suffering through a death, abandonment, addiction and estrangement, but held on to the end. The author succeeded in bringing her book to a satisfying conclusion, and ended it with a flashback involving the white man fourteen years before his death. He is twenty six and is looking after his young children. He is sure of himself as he tends to their needs and protects them from harm. He does not know that he is fated to die young and leave his boy and girl behind when they are teenagers. He doesn’t see the consequences his early departure will have on those he loves dearly.

Those final passages brought to mind moments when my boy and girl were young. I feared for their future and hoped that I would be around long enough to see them properly launched in their lives. I’m pleased to say that they are making headway and are relatively happy.

Patchett stirred up a few more thoughts before I put the book down. It occurred to me that my choices in life were a series of risky ventures that could have ended badly. It was a mistake to love someone dearly and tie my life to her (all the eggs in one basket). It was foolish to bring children into the world and take on the responsibility of raising them (so much time spent preventing disaster). It was stupid to make friends with fellow travelers I met at church and in my profession (so many hypocrites and users mixed in with well meaning people). What was I thinking?

Some of my loved ones are going to leave me, and I’ll hurt the remainder when I go. Nothing lasts. Everything changes. This is terribly obvious to any one who has ever lost a loved one, but has become relentlessly evident now that I am approaching sixty.

I know that I would never trade away the richness of my family life and the sustenance I gained from my friendships.  I’ve met people in the later stages of their lives who never committed themselves to anything beyond narrow self interest, and their accomplishments seem dry, dusty and somewhat barren. But sometimes I wonder if the coming pain of separation and loss will equal the joys I received years ago.

It’s a bigger mistake to even think about trying to balance the accounts. I would have had nearly no life at all if I hadn’t taken all those risks.  And my time here would certainly have been boring and dull.  But gamblers generally lose in the end even after a long run of good luck.

Sometimes when I’m feeling down I recall scenes from when my children were toddlers. I call to mind a moment when my little girl ran to me across our lawn after I returned from a trip. She shook her golden, red hair and laughed, and she jumped into my arms and hugged me.

The comfort of that recollection is bittersweet: I was loved wholeheartedly by a child; that moment is gone and can only be partially reclaimed in memory. I feel blessed to have been given such a gift, but I long to go back and relive it in vivid, tangible reality.