The Guru (short story)

Parker_Bookstores-Boulder-Bookstore

Some light reading for your weekend – a short story about a woman who plans to destroy a man who broke her heart years earlier but is stunned silent when she finally has her chance. (I can’t say how or why without ruining the story.) It’s not autobiographical, mainly because I’m not as much of a big shot as the guy in the story. It’s about betrayal and forgiveness, two themes I have always been interested in as a writer. I hope you enjoy it.

The Guru

Tamara’s favorite bookstore, The Seeker Sanctuary, the one place on earth she felt truly at home, had been defiled. As she approached it that Sunday morning, she was assaulted by the smiling face of an old boyfriend on a window advertisement. The text below it read, “Meet best-selling author and self-help guru J.C. Daniels, signing books today at three!”

“J.C. . . what a pretentious jerk,” she thought.
His name was John, or Johnny as he called himself back then, but she figured he abbreviated his first and middle names to sound like a serious writer. She couldn’t help noticing his rising success and had done her best to ignore it. Every time she saw his sappy grin, the bile rose in her throat, and the memories bombarded her, none pleasant. Seeing him before, she was able to close the magazine or change the channel, but seeing his phony smile in the window of her home away from home was like a punch in the stomach.

She mumbled “nothing is sacred” as she walked in and saw Debbie working at the sales counter. She had become a good friend over the years. Everyone there had. Maybe it wasn’t too late to convince them to cancel the book signing. “If they only knew,” she thought.

She had been coming here at least once a week for over ten years. They knew she had dated Johnny in high school but she spared them the depressing details. She had always felt obligated to show her best to them because of the nature of the store – self-improvement, spirituality, conquering pain and seeking spiritual advancement. She didn’t want them to know that she still held so much resentment toward him. But this was an outrage. A special circumstance. Once they heard the truth about the wonderful, syrupy sweet “J.C. Daniels”, they would surely cancel his event. She was about to speak when Debbie saw her coming, smiled her usual Ohio farm girl smile and enthusiastically greeted her.
“Hey, Tamara! That book you ordered came in this morning!”

Debbie was one of those people who was unreasonable happy all the time. Even the grouchiest customers fell at her feet. She was the perfect person to work at a metaphysical bookstore, where the goal of perfect peace was always pretended at but rarely reached completely and consistently. A walking party, Debbie gave all those seekers a goal to strive for.

“Hey!” Debbie said, “Did you see who’s going to be here today? Your old boyfriend.”

Tamara again felt the impulse to blurt out every bad memory she had of him, but she only smiled back at Debbie and said, “Yeah. That’s great.” She then paid for her book (a romance novel) and retired to her favorite chair by the window to read a few chapters. She purposely sat without a view of his photo, and tried to put it, to put him, out of her mind. She had begun to forget about him when she heard a young woman say, “I can’t believe J.C. Daniels is gonna be here today! His books have helped me so much!”
“Me, too!” Debbie replied. “It took forever to get him here. I can’t wait.”

Again, she wanted to yell, “I hate to break this to you fawning sycophants, but he’s an asshole!” And again, she bit her lip, not wanting to be seen as the bitter, jilted ex. Debbie and the other woman continued to praise Johnny and his writing. She couldn’t take anymore and walked outside. She window-shopped for a while but couldn’t shake the dark cloud of J.C. Daniels, the phony, rotten son of a bitch. She could write her own book on the “real” J.C. Daniels. What a bestseller that would be, she thought. A tell-all. She seriously considered it for a moment before remembering what she had read in dozens of books over the years – that resentment is poison to the spirit, that the only true path to peace is forgiveness. One of her favorite quotes, in fact, was, “Holding on to resentment is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.”

She knew all that, dammit, but there it was again. She had to admit to herself that his success bothered her. Despite all her attempts to let go, to forgive, to free herself of blaming him or anyone for her unhappiness and loneliness, she still wanted revenge. She would be happier if he was living in a roach-infested hovel, eating dog food out of an old shoe with a stick. That’s what the bastard deserved.

She thought about all the promises he made when they sat on her mother’s front porch, holding hands, when they were both eighteen. The world began and ended in his eyes then. He seemed so sincere before she found out about the other girls he was sleeping with, before the child she aborted because he just wasn’t around, before he abandoned her, knowing every secret pain she had hidden from everyone but him. It was a foul betrayal. Not the only one in her life, just the first and the biggest, the one that set the others in motion, the one no man she had known since could repair, the one that had ruined her life, and her trust.

Before long, she was in a full-swing pity party. Every memory was like a scab being torn off. She went outside and sat on a bench, buried in despair, eighteen again, as the happy energy of this fall day on the busy boulevard swirled around her. Even the autumn colors that usually soothed her soul had no effect. In fact, they represented all she had lost over the years, because of him. He was married with children. She was still alone. He was successful. She had bounced from job to job but never found her true calling. It wasn’t fair, she thought. It should be the other way around. Aren’t the good rewarded and the wicked punished in every movie, book, and fairy tale? Maybe that’s why people need them so much. People know the real world is usually just the opposite. Bastards prosper. Criminals get away with it. Murderers live long, happy lives while their victims rot in the ground. Well, she thought, not this time. She was tired of forgiving. She was tired of seeking the higher ground. Maybe revenge was exactly what she needed to finally move on with her life and stop pretending she was okay. There’s more than one kind of murder. She would go to that book signing today, and she would tell everyone exactly who Mr. Marvelous really was. She would have her revenge, even if it ruined her reputation. It dawned on her that she had been just as much of a phony as him, pretending she was okay all these years. That was about to end.

She wasn’t worried about him recognizing her because she had gained weight and cut her hair, no longer the beach bunny he knew and pretended to love twenty-five years earlier. She went home, put a baseball cap and glasses on, returned to the store and sat in the back, just in case. Before long, every chair was filled and he came to the table. The store owner announced him. The audience cheered. He read a few chapters of his new book. Everyone smiled adoringly and nodded in agreement as he read. One woman even gasped several times at the glorious brilliance of his insights. Tamara entertained the idea of finding something heavy and caving her skull in the next time she gasped, but her contempt was eased by the avalanche of truth that was about to come down on J.C. and all his clueless fans.

She figured she would start her outing of him with “let me tell you the truth about J.C. Daniels”, then parade the list of his offenses against her and watch with glee as he tried to wriggle his way out of it, the worm that he was. For a moment, she felt like Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction. She had become the “crazy bitch” she never thought she would. But now that she was giving into this dark impulse, it felt good, and she suddenly understood why women went off the deep end. The freedom of just not giving a damn anymore. When someone feels that not only their dignity but years of their life have been stolen, and the person who stole them not only doesn’t care but is prospering – well, let’s just say there’s a place for revenge, and it is just as sweet as they say it is.

The question and answer portion of the event had begun, but she was too lost in her own thoughts to pay much attention. She waited for her chance for payback at long last. But as she raised her hand, another woman asked, “Where did you learn everything you write about? Who were your masters?”
Oh, this I have to hear, she thought. When she had known him all those decades ago, he wouldn’t listen to anyone, and never read anything not assigned to him in school. She couldn’t wait to hear how deep his hypocrisy would go. In fact, it would steel her resolve for the verbal ass-kicking she was about to deliver.

But he didn’t answer this question as quickly as the others. In fact, he was silent so long, the crowd became uncomfortable. Finally, he spoke.

“If I have any wisdom, it comes from being an absolute fool. Any peace my words are able to give others arose from the worst kind of emotional pain imaginable. They were forged in the fire of a personal hell. Aristotle called philosophy adversity’s sweet milk, and I’ve had plenty of adversity, all self-imposed. I’ve hurt people. I’m responsible for a death – a baby I should have been man enough to support, but wasn’t.”

Tamara’s heart jumped. He continued.

“I’ve hurt people. Good people. One in particular who would have made a noble wife and loving mother. If I’m good now, it’s because I was bad before. If I’m smart now, it’s because I was an imbecile for years. I don’t write these books because I’m better than anyone else. I write them because I’ve been incredibly stupid. Maybe they’re my penance, my attempt to redeem myself. I’ve haunted my own life, returned to the places before the mistakes were made because I couldn’t go back in time and change what I did there, places that had become sacred because I made a sacrifice there – a self-sacrifice, but not the good kind – cutting my own throat at the altar of my own ego. I once sat on the porch of an abandoned house, alone – a porch I used to sit on with my high school sweetheart. I cried and prayed for her happiness, and forgiveness. I looked over the back yard fence and saw her first car – a car that took us on a hundred youthful adventures – abandoned, lying dead in the grass, tires as flat and empty as my soul felt. I paid for every bit of pain I caused her a thousand times over. Even if we weren’t meant to be together, she didn’t deserve to be lied to. She was a child of God, after all. Unless someone is a mindless animal, a sociopath, every hurtful word or deed must be atoned for. Sometimes what others call wisdom comes from that atonement, but only the so-called wise man knows the price he paid for it. Nobody gets away with anything.”

Tamara could hardly breathe beneath the weight of the discovery that he had suffered, too. She had never really considered it a possibility.

Someone asked if he had ever tried to contact her. He said he called several times but she hung up on him, and that he sent her a letter to her last known address but it was returned by the post office. Tamara remembered those first few tortured phone calls he made after she discovered his infidelity, and she believed he had written because she had moved so many times in those heartbroken years, running from herself and her own misery. Moving repeatedly had been part of her seeking.

“What about Facebook?” another asked.
“She doesn’t exist online,” he replied. “I have no idea where she is.”

Tamara knew this was true, too. She had purposely shunned social media because of its inherent invasion of privacy, and because she didn’t want to feel typical, but in doing so, she had made it impossible for anyone to find her. She realized she had contributed to her own loneliness by isolating herself. The importance and weight of what she planned to do began to diminish as she wondered who or what was to blame for all her years alone – him or her bitterness. He had never come to her house and drawn the curtains closed. She did that herself.
“It was like she vanished,” he said.

And she had vanished. The girl he knew had been dead for decades, the one who thought she could do anything, be anyone. She had destroyed herself as much as she thought he had destroyed her. Threw out the baby with the bathwater, as the saying goes.
“Look at yourself now,” she thought, “unrecognizable, sitting in the back, hiding.”
She had hidden from the world for so many years, hiding from him was easy. She had even physically hidden who she was under the weight she had gained.

Another woman in the group said she wondered if her old boyfriends ever thought of her. He answered, “Most men don’t have an outlet like writing, like I do. Most are uncomfortable even talking about past loves, but that doesn’t mean they have forgotten. Believe me, men remember just about every woman they were intimate with, and the longer they were with them, the better their memory is. It may not seem so if they have a wife and family, and they may never allow those memories to enter their world for the sake of preserving it, but if they were asked, they would remember. Of course they would. Every person we share our lives with is sacred, and become even more sacred as time passes and death draws nearer, as we look back on how we have lived, and remember who we were on the way to becoming who we are, who we were always meant to be. A singer named Bob Seger put it very well – ‘Sometimes at night, I see their faces. I feel the traces they left on my soul.’ If we treated people well, we feel integrity. If we didn’t, we feel despair. The only cure is to make sincere amends, or attempt to. Of course, it’s a pyrrhic victory because the mistake can never be erased and so much was lost, but it’s better than wallowing. As Aldous Huxley wrote, “Rolling in the muck is not the best way of getting clean.”

Tamara was surprised to feel her anger turn to something closer to sadness. Not for herself, or even for him, but for the human condition so common in the world – how so many must cause so much damage before they can acquire anything resembling wisdom, or peace of mind.

A man in the gallery asked, “What would you say to her if she were here today?”
She shuffled in her seat uncomfortably. If they only knew. If he only knew.
“I would say I’m sorry, of course,” he replied. “I would say I paid for every pain I caused her. I would say I’m certain I suffered as much or more than she did. And I would thank her for deepening and expanding my soul in the ways that only love, regret and sorrow can. Her influence is on every page of my books.”

Tamara was surprised to feel tears welling in her eyes. The last thing she was expecting to feel when she came to the bookstore that day was compassion. The owner announced the end of the Q and A session and said J.C. would sign his new book. A line began to form. Tamara went outside, stood on the sidewalk and wiped her eyes. A cool breeze kicked red and yellow leaves up around her feet, filled her lungs and stirred her soul in a way it hadn’t moved in years.

She looked at his photo on the poster in the window again. The smile she had hated so much before, that she had written off as falsely sincere, appeared entirely different, for she now saw it for what it was. As much as she still hated to admit it, it was the smile of a man who had conquered himself, a smile wrested from the grip of the despair that threatens to consume each human being, for different reasons.

She worried that she only felt better about him because she knew now how much he had suffered over her, but decided her heart was so much lighter because she had found out he was not the inhuman monster she always thought he was. She just needed to know that there was some justice in the world, that she wasn’t alone in her suffering. That’s all she ever needed to know. She planned to deliver some long-overdue revenge but discovered he had already done it for her. As he said, nobody gets away with anything.

She looked through the window at him, signing books, smiling at his readers. He sensed her gaze and looked up. Their eyes met. He smiled and looked away, then looked back again, recognizing her under the years, the extra weight, the shorter hair, everything. He stood up, forgetting the inscription and the person in front of him. She felt tears well in her eyes again and a small, warm, forgiving smile spread across her face, in spite of herself. He smiled breathlessly back at her. And for that moment, all the pain and years fell away and they were eighteen again – no longer the jerk and the jilted girlfriend, just two human beings struggling to find some happiness in this world. She waved softly. He waved back.

She turned, looked at the fall colors exploding around her, felt the cool, bracing wind on her face, pulled up her collar and walked away from the store, from him, from who she was, and toward whom she would be for every moment of the time that was left.

New Chicken Soup for the Soul Book Twitter Launch Party!

Step Outside Your Comfort Zone Twitter Party V1

If you’re like most people in the world, you own at least one of the over 250 Chicken Soup for the Soul books. This is my 18th story published with the franchise, and I’m particularly proud of it because it tells a story I always wanted to tell – about a six-month backpacking trip I took through Europe, Greece and Great Britain.

The book is called Step Outside Your Comfort Zone, and my story title is More Kindness Than Danger. It encourages people to not let fear prevent them from living an adventurous life. There are 100 similar stories by other authors in this book, stories that will inspire you to reach beyond your comfort zone and live the life you are supposed to be living.

Tune in to Twitter tomorrow, November 1st, between 2 and 3 EASTERN time (11-1 Pacific) for a Q&A session with the contributors and the publisher, Amy Newmark. Tell them Mark Rickerby sent you. I hope to see you there!

 

 

Alive (short story)

Nighthawks by Edward Hopper 1942

She had never been unfaithful to Edward before, but there was something special about Jack that made her feel alive again. 

It started simply and unexpectedly. She was shopping downtown and he used some corny pick-up line on her. A classic beauty, she was accustomed to such attention from men and usually dismissed it, but she couldn’t resist him. It was as if they had known each other forever. They arranged to meet at a diner in Jack’s neighborhood, a notoriously rough area that Edward avoided. They would come to call it their “rendezvous point,” speaking in code as if they were government agents on a secret mission. She had told Jack that she was married, but not that her husband was Edward Magnuson, one of the richest men in the state.

She met Edward while working at a department store. He was almost three times her age so she never thought of him romantically, but he fell in love with her and convinced her to see him socially. She enjoyed his intellect and old-fashioned charm. Because she had always been poor, she also enjoyed the high-society world he introduced her to. However, she quickly learned that no amount of material wealth could soothe an empty heart. His mansion had become a prison for her; the proverbial golden cage.

Ten long years of marriage passed before Jack arrived. He was a mechanic; dirt poor compared to Edward, but adventurous and untamed, impulsive and passionate, everything Edward wasn’t. They would meet at the diner, spend hours riding through the countryside on his motorcycle, and make love on the beach, in fields of high grass, or wherever the impulse took them. She found the freedom she was so hungry for on Jack’s motorcycle and in his arms. In both ways, he pushed the limits.

It had been two years since they met. Edward worked incessantly so he never had a clue until one evening when he came home looking uncharacteristically sullen. He sat in the study, drinking his usual scotch and water, staring at the fireplace. Finally, he called her in and asked her to sit down. With its high ceiling, dark cherry wood paneling, and big game trophies staring from the walls, the room had always intimidated her. He assessed her coldly with a look she had never seen before.

“Abigail, I’ve been made aware of something very . . . troubling.”
“Really?” she asked, her heart racing.
“A friend from the club told me he saw you with someone, and that you were kissing him.”
“That’s ridiculous,” she replied, too quickly.
“There’s no point in denying it. He made sure it was you.”
A terrible moment passed. He watched sternly as tears welled in her eyes.
“I’m willing to forgive you,” he said, “but only if you end it with him, tonight.”
She sat quietly, trapped.
“Well?” he demanded.
She heard herself say, “I can’t. I love him.”
He sighed and said, “Pack your things and get out.”

He stood up and walked away as if a meeting had just adjourned. He didn’t become so wealthy by being overly emotional. She telephoned Jack in tears.

“It’s me,” she said. “He knows.”
“Don’t worry, doll. Meet me at the rendezvous point. You can move in with me. It’ll be terrific. You’ll see.”
It would be hard adjusting to his small apartment, but she was no stranger to a humble life. She packed quickly and drove to the diner. A heavy rain started to fall. It was almost closing time so the diner was empty.
“Jack should have been here by now,” she thought.

She sat at their usual table and ordered a cup of coffee from Joe, the owner. Half an hour passed. He was usually early, anxious to see her. She was growing more worried by the minute. Another fifteen minutes later, she heard sirens speeding by on the road, not unusual on a rainy night, but then realized with a start why Jack might be late. She ran to her car and drove toward the lights. When she reached the accident scene, she rolled down her window to talk to a policeman who was directing traffic.
“What happened, officer?” she asked.
“Hit ‘n run. Move along, please, ma’am.”

Her heart pounding with dread, she passed a body covered with a white, blood-soaked sheet and, nearby, a crushed motorcycle she recognized as Jack’s. She felt the impulse to vomit. She knew immediately that Edward was behind this accident somehow. She should have known he wouldn’t take this rejection lying down.

Later that night, not knowing where else to go, she returned to their table at the diner, desperate to feel close to Jack somehow. At dawn, Joe entered, turned the sign on the door to the side that read “open,” and walked into the kitchen. Two city workers followed after him. Of all the empty tables, they sat down at hers. She looked at them incredulously.
“Excuse me. This is my table,” she said.
“Did you hear about that accident last night?” one man asked the other.
“Yeah. Poor slob,” he replied.
Aggravated, she said, “Are you both deaf?”
Growing angrier at being ignored, she stood up. Joe came to the table.
“Joe! Thank God,” she said. “Would you please ask these men . . .”
“What can I bring ya, fellas?” Joe asked.
“What?” she yelled, “What’s wrong with all of you?”
“Any apple turnovers today?”
“Yep! Heatin’ ‘em up right now.”
She yelled even louder, “You’re all crazy!” 
Again, none of them looked her way. With a series of jolts, she began to remember the events of the night before . . . seeing the accident, Jack’s crumpled body under the white sheet, driving into the mountains through lashing rain, struggling to see through her tears; the cliff’s edge, beckoning; the feeling of floating on the wind as the car plummeted; and finally, nothing. Blackness. Oblivion.

She screamed in horror as the men continued talking, then fell back into her chair and wept uncontrollably. 

Eighty years have passed, but she sits there still, waiting. Waiting for Jack to come back and make her feel alive again.

 

– Mark Rickerby

Art credit – Edward Hopper, Nighthawks, 1942

On Writing Greatness – The Saga of Donovan Stone

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Donovan Stone wanted to be a writer more than anyone had since the first hieroglyphs were scratched onto the wall of the first pyramid. He had read just about every book written on the craft, attended every fiction writing class he could, and had even changed his name to something he thought sounded more writer-ish. His actual name was Cedric Weatherwax, which he considered singularly inglorious and not in keeping with the illustrious future he had planned for himself.

In one of his writing books, the author outlined his formula for greatness. “There are three kinds of writers,” he wrote –

  1. Those who stink and don’t know they stink. This type of writer’s efforts will only be a big waste of everyone’s time, primarily his own. One lifetime is never enough to overcome pure, unadulterated stinkiness.
  2. Those who stink and are determined to become less stinky. This type of writer faces an uphill climb but may someday create something passable, albeit inconsistently, and then, usually, only by dumb luck.”
  3. Those who are great by divine intervention or some accident of nature and who couldn’t write poorly if they were being suspended over a pool of sharks. Only this kind of writer will ever be truly great, and even he doesn’t know how he does it. If you’re wondering if you’re this kind of writer, you’re not. You wouldn’t have to ask. Quit now.

Donovan wept uncontrollably after reading this, fearing he was a category two writer. When his wrenching sobs subsided, he steeled his resolve to achieve greatness. Still, every effort was met with severe frustration. There was just nothing in there. He loved poetry, but every word he wrote – nay, every letter – was a struggle he likened to childbirth.

One of his first poems read:

Her love reminds me of flowers.
I don’t need her tomorrow, but nowers.

He saw nothing wrong with the use of the non-word “nowers” because he once read that Shakespeare created many words when ordinary language failed him.

Donovan’s poem continued:

She’s hot, like a jalapeno squirt.
I would cut off my ear, but it would hurt.

He thought the Van Gogh reference was pure genius. Others, not so much. In fact, when he shared it with the crowd at The Daily Grind Coffeehouse, a normally gracious group, they laughed unguardedly, assuming his poem was meant to be funny.

With sweat beading on his upper lip, he continued,

“My love is a sponge,
On our love raft, we will plunge.”

The laughter grew louder. Trembling with a mixture of embarrassment and rage, he pressed on,

“Her love is a towel
cooling my weary browel.”

That was it. The room erupted. He could have saved himself some humiliation if he had pretended he meant it to be funny, but he was cut to the quick. He threw his Gauloise cigarette on the floor, spit in a very French manner, and said, “You people wouldn’t know talent if it bit you on your fat, pimply asses!” He then kicked over a table and stormed out the back door into the alley. He kicked over trash cans all the way home, cursing about how most great artists were misunderstood and how that audience of barn animals was just too ignorant to grasp someone as brilliant and tortured as he.

The next week was spent in a bottomless purple funk. He drank excessively, didn’t bathe, and barely ate. If his phone ever rang, he wouldn’t have even answered it.

He felt comforted by the tragic lives many great artists had. Hemingway shot himself. Plath had electroshock therapy in an attempt to cure suicidal tendencies. Dostoyevsky was exiled in Siberia for his political opinions. He felt he was suffering along with them, equally unappreciated. The more he suffered, the more romantic it felt. Unfortunately, he was the only one who felt it.

His father was no help. The last time he had spoken to him, he said, “Son, it’s time to grow up. How much of your life are you planning to waste on this pipe dream? Even the best writers struggle to eke out a living, and frankly, you ain’t one of ‘em. I found a poem in a notebook you left in the back yard and it stunk. Wait here, I’ll get it.”

He walked away and returned with a tattered, coffee-stained notebook, flipped through it and found the page.

“Oh, here it is,” he said. “Explain this one to me, if you even can. He began to read, “Flaming doorknobs tumble down my blasphemous eyebrows. The tragic sand screams oblong operettas to my parched bicycle seat. I am.”

He set the notebook down and asked, “What in hell’s blue blazes is that supposed to mean, Cedric? Why can’t you write a nice, rhyming poem that tells a story like Robert Frost or that Longfellow guy used to do?”

“I wouldn’t expect you to understand,” he replied, “and my name is Donovan.”
“That’s another thing,” his father continued. “That name might work if, A, it was 1957, and, B, you were a teen idol.”
“Look, daddio,” Donovan argued, “Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds. You know who said that? Einstein! That’s who!”
“Daddio? What is this? 1968? It’s 2017! Wake up and smell the failure, hepcat!”

After a pause, his father softened and said, “Look, son. I just want you to be happy. I hate seeing you running down a dead end like this, because there’s a big, brick wall at the end of it and you’re not gonna see it coming until it’s too late. I mean, of all things to choose to be, you had to pick a writer? Nothing has ever happened to you! I did two tours in Vietnam, was a prisoner of war, and survived cancer that damn Agent Orange gave me! If anyone should be a writer, it’s me!”
“Oh, so that’s it!” Donovan snapped. “You’re jealous because I’m a writer and you’re not!”
“Yeah, I’m real jealous I don’t have flaming door knobs tumbling down my blasphemous eyebrows. Think about it, son. All the great writers lived through some heavy stuff. Tennessee Williams had diphtheria as a kid, was tormented by a sadistic father, lived most of his life as a repressed homosexual, and died penniless after a nervous breakdown. But his sister one-upped him by getting a frontal lobotomy! So, again, what have you been through? What gives you the right to call yourself a writer? I would suggest you do some living first, then grace the world with your insights. You’re putting the cart before the horse, boy!”

Donovan couldn’t take anymore. He stormed out. He was good at storming. He didn’t speak to his father for weeks after that argument, which was difficult because he still lived at home. Though he cursed him inwardly, he couldn’t get his words out of his mind. What did give him the right to call himself a writer? Maybe his father was right. Maybe writing was so hard for him because nothing worth writing about had ever happened to him.

He decided to change that. He would do things, dammit, and starting right now. He showered, found clothes that smelled the least bad, and walked to a military recruiting office in his local mall. Many great writers had brushes with death and killed many men in battle. He would, too. That would show his dad.

He tried to enlist in the Army but was rejected because the minimum push-up requirement was forty-two and he was only able to do seven. The reviewer also mentioned a comment he had made in his application about hating America for runaway Capitalism and Imperialistic foreign policies.

Dejected but still determined to have something bad happen to him, he put on a white suit and costume jewelry rings, stuffed his wallet with toilet paper until it bulged, and walked through the worst neighborhood he could find on Saturday at midnight. A group of gang-bangers pulled up in a car next to him and yelled very hurtful things. His mania was such that he had no fear for his safety, but instead thought, “This will make a great story!” One of the men got out of the car and started pushing him around, but an elderly woman ran out of a nearby house and yelled, “You get on home and leave that boy alone! He’s obviously not right in the head!”

She drove Donovan back to his car, driving so slow pedestrians walked past them on the sidewalks. Oblivious to the cars honking their horns behind her, she gave him a lecture he thought would never end. When they finally arrived at his Ford Aspire, she handed him a Bible and said, “You need a whole lot of Jesus, son.”

The old lady’s lecture was the worst ordeal he had ever endured, much worse than being beaten and robbed would have been, so he figured he was off to a great start on his quest to collect bad experiences.

As he lay in bed that night, it dawned on him that he was going about things all wrong. Instead of trying to make bad things happen to him, he would do bad things himself! Be pro-active! His father always said he lacked initiative and was hiding in writing as a way to avoid taking real chances in life. This would show him once and for all!

The next morning, he bought a pellet gun at Big 5 and a pair of nylon stockings at 7/11, drove to his local credit union, pulled the stocking over his head, took out the gun, walked in and yelled, “This is a stick up!”

None of the customers paid much attention because his voice lacked the requisite amount of bass to properly scare anyone. To make matters worse, one of the tellers recognized his voice because he chose to rob a bank he’d had an account at for several years.
“Cedric, what are you doing?” she asked.
“It’s not me,” he said. “Uh, I mean, who’s Cedric?”
“I know your voice, Cedric Weatherwax,” she replied.

Cedric made a run for it but was tackled by an elderly security guard who had been awakened by the conversation. However, due to his advanced age, he began to clutch his chest. He had a heart attack and was dead in under a minute.

The trial was only a formality. Due to a recent rash of bank robberies, and because he had induced the guard’s death, the judge made an example of him. He received the maximum sentence of thirty years for robbery and involuntary manslaughter.

During his first year in prison, he was subjected to every atrocity imaginable, but his mania to amass colorful experiences to someday write about still overrode even his own retched misery. Finally, he was experiencing something extreme and dramatic, fodder for great literature.

To pass the time one day, he sat talking to his cellmate, a psychotic, sexually ambiguous brute nicknamed Animal.
“I’m here voluntarily, I’ll have you know,” Donovan said. “All this stuff that’s happening to me, including what you did to me last night, is going to be in a book someday. Remember my name because I’m going to be famous.”
“Cedric Weatherwax?” Animal replied.
“No! Donovan Stone, man!”
Animal laughed and said, “Don’t you know federal law prohibits you from profiting from your crime or anything that happens to you in here? You’ll never get that book through the bars!”

After a few months of severe depression, Donovan signed up to read a poem at the prison talent show. Surely, he thought, this menagerie of nincompoops would be impressed with his talent. He walked to the stage, cleared his throat, and said,

“Her love reminds me of flowers.
I don’t need her tomorrow but nowers.”

The prisoners laughed and laughed, and Donovan stormed back to his cell.

Dirt Road King (story poem for Elvis fans)

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I took a long road trip a few years ago,
Just exploring old Route sixty-six,
When I passed through a sleepy town
Somewhere way back in the sticks. 

I stopped at a run-down filling station.
With a run-down old man sitting inside.
He gave me a wave and yelled out to me,
“Hey, man! Now that is a beautiful ride.”

He was admiring my classic Cadillac,
A bright white, 1960 Coupe De Ville.
He said, “I used to have one just like her.
Drivin’ that beauty was a heck of a thrill.”

I had nowhere to go and plenty of time
And the old man’s smile had taken me in
So I said, “Tell you what, lock up for a while
And you and I will take her out for a spin.”

“Hot dang!” he said. “Don’t mind if I do!”
He ran back to the shop and locked the door.
I dusted the seat and said, “Your chariot, sir.”
He said, “Alright! Let’s hear that baby roar.”

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We left a cloud of dust at that old station
And headed out due south on Route 66.
My new friend and I barreling along
To obey the old song and get some kicks.

A scraggly beard covered most of his face,
But I just had to love the crazy, old guy.
There was something in the way he laughed
And the mischievous twinkle in his eye.

His mind seemed to drift back to the past
To when he was young and the car was new.
I got a tape out of the glove compartment
And said, “Here – I’ve got something for you.”

It was an old Elvis tape, one of his best.
The old man looked at me, oddly surprised.
And as If You Could See Me Now played,
I noticed tears start to well in his eyes.

If you could see me now,
The one who said that he would rather roam;
The one who said he’d rather be alone.
If you could only see me now.

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A long time passed as we drove along.
We didn’t talk much or feel the need.
He said, “This really means a lot to me.
I hope you’re rewarded for your good deed.”

We drove for miles along the winding highway.
The tape ended and returned to the start.
If You Could See Me Now came on again.
And I noticed again how it tugged at his heart.

If you could hear me now,
Singin’ somewhere in the lonely night;
Dreaming of the arms that held me tight.
If you could only hear me now.

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Finally, I said, “Is something bothering you?
Is there something you’d like to talk about?
I know I’m a stranger but I’ve found it helps
If you talk to someone and just let it out.”

The old man pulled the car onto the shoulder.
The evening stars were beginning to shine.
He said, “I’ve kept a secret for many years.
There’s so much sadness in this heart of mine.”

“But maybe it’s time that I shared my secret.
My health is failing. I could go any day.
We seem to have a lot in common, you and I,
This road, this old car, the music you play.”

He said, “You see, that’s my music on your radio.”
I said, “I know what you mean. It’s my music, too.”
He smiled and said, “No, son, you don’t understand.
I recorded that song back in seventy-two.”

Oblivious, I said, “Really? Were you in a band?”
He laughed and his upper lip came up on one side.
“You’re not listenin’, man,” he said. “. . . I’m Elvis.”
Then he laughed harder as my eyes opened wide.

He said, “It’s hard to see me under these whiskers.
My hair is gray now and a lot thinner on top.
But I wouldn’t’a been able to stay lost too long
Without hidin’ my face and that big ol’ black mop.”

I said, “Sorry but this is just too hard to believe
Though you do look like Elvis would at seventy-five.
The only reason I’m even accepting it’s possible
Is because so many people think he’s still alive.”

He said, “Well, they’re right. It’s all true, I’m afraid.
I was in a lot of trouble and had to start a new life.
I had nothing left to give so I just started over.
I went back to my roots. I even took a new wife.” 

“She knew my secret and took it with her to the grave.
I haven’t had much to live for since she passed on.
So you’re looking at a man with nothing left to lose.
Life falls away like Autumn leaves till everything’s gone.”

Eventually, I stopped caring about who he really was
And just felt compassion for the poor, crazy old guy.
I decided to surrender to this strange experience
And let him keep talking until the words ran dry.

I was amazed at how much he knew about Elvis,
As if he’d studied his life to the smallest detail.
It didn’t matter to me if he was Elvis or not.
I sat completely enthralled as he spun his tale.

He spoke of how hollow fame and fortune can be.
He spoke of love, heartache and shattered dreams.
His old life had gone from heaven to hell over time.
He said, “Being rich and famous ain’t all it seems.”

Whoever he was, he seemed to need my help
Or for someone to listen to him in his final days.
He was sure he was going to die any minute.
He said, “Only God’s love never dies or decays.”

He looked and sounded so much like Elvis,
I could even see why he believed it himself.
It was easy to imagine him belting out “Hounddog”
Before he became this wizened, old elf.

Hours passed before we went back to the station.
I never really believed him but I never said so.
If I could have cured his madness, I wouldn’t have.
If being Elvis made him happy, who was I to say no?

He made me swear to never reveal that I saw him,
And if I did, at least to never tell anyone where
Because he didn’t know how much time he had left
Before he went to what he called “The Big Up There.”

He got out of the car and said, “Hold on a second.”
He went inside and came out with an old paper bag.
He said, “This is to thank you for listening so well.
I sure went on. I hope I wasn’t too much of a drag.”

I said, “Are you kidding? Man, I got to meet Elvis!
And you chose me to tell your biggest secret to!
I just hope you know how much you’re missed.
Millions of people would still love to meet you.”

This seemed to make him happy for a moment.
He looked down the road as if wanting to return.
Then, just as fast, he snapped back to reality
And said, “Man, it’s true – some fool’s never learn.”

His act sure was convincing, if that’s what it was.
I really started feeling like I was with “The King.”
So I said, “I hope you don’t mind me asking but
Would you mind – I mean, could you . . . sing?”

He smiled and said, “For you, man? Sure I will.”
He walked under a lamp and slowly inhaled,
Then sang Love Me Tender softly and sweetly.
And old as he was, his voice never failed.

Love me tender
Love me sweet
Never let me go
You have made my life complete
And I love you so

He looked up at the night sky as he sang
As if serenading someone waiting up there,
In his voice, I heard joy but also sadness,
A deep passion for life, but also despair.

Love me tender
Love me true
All my dreams, fulfill
For my darling, I love you
And I always will

When he finished, I put my arm around him.
We both stood silently, staring up at the moon.
He said, “I miss my wife so much, and my mama.
I hope I get to see her sweet face again soon.”

No longer caring what the truth was, I said,
“Can you feel them smiling down on us? I can.”
And finally, he broke into tears and we hugged.
The wandering kid and the sad, lonely old man.

He wiped his eyes and said, “You should get goin’.
You’re young and there’s a lot of highway out there.
I wish I was your age again so I could join you
But I’ve lived long enough. I’ve had my share.”

We walked back to my car and he opened the door.
He said, “I need you to do me one last favor, y’hear?”
“Anything, Elvis,” I said, “Just name it, my friend.”
He said, “Don’t look in that bag for at least a year.”

At this point, nothing shocked me much anymore.
His Elvis act, or delusion, was so darn complete.
“And no matter where you go, remember,” he said,
“I’m always beside you, right there in that seat.”

“I’ll remember, Elvis,” I said. “You have my word.”
Then he shook my hand and I drove into the dawn.
I watched him get smaller in my rear view mirror.
He waved one last time and then he was gone.

I would often talk to Elvis, or whoever he was,
As I drove that Cadillac under the same moon.
And I kept my promise and didn’t open the bag,
Though I decided he was just an amazing, old loon.

I had stuffed the bag into the back of my trunk
To make it easier to resist the urge to peek.
At first it was easy but as the year passed,
That old paper bag took on quite a mystique.

The day finally came the following summer.
I rescued the old bag and went for a drive.
I didn’t want to open it just anywhere.
It had to be somewhere great and alive.

Playing Blue Hawaii, I drove to the beach
And parked on a cliff overlooking the sea.
I looked at the empty seat and smiled,
Imagining the old man sitting there next to me.

Then I slowly peeled back the wrinkled paper
And pulled out a white, sequined jumpsuit.
It was an exact replica, complete with tassles!
Crazy or not, his commitment was absolute.

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I laughed at the absurdity of the whole situation
And at the seed of doubt still alive in my mind.
Was he Elvis or just some delusional crackpot?
Whatever the case, he really put me in a bind.

I said to his memory, “You got me good, old man.
And whoever you were, I hope you’re finally free.”
Then, in a pocket, I found a yellowed note that read . . .

“I love you and miss you, daddy.
~ Lisa Marie.”

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New Publishing

Please look for my story He Wouldn’t Hurt a Fly in this book in all major booksellers on and offline in early August. This will be my 16th story in the Chicken Soup for the Soul series. I’m always proud to contribute to their wholesome and inspirational books! Royalties from this book go to the American-Human Society!

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New Book Release: Chicken Soup for the Soul – The Spirit of America

Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Spirit of America

My story “The Sixty-Year Old Little Girl” is in this new book – Chicken Soup for the Soul book – The Spirit of America, available now at Walmart, Barnes and Noble and online.

I have contributed to twenty Chicken Soup for the Soul titles now and am always proud to do so because of the positivity, inspiration and light they bring to a world that sometimes seems to grow more negative every day. This election is a perfect example. It’s not so much about the politicians. They’ve always been ruthless. What disturbs me more is the Americans becoming violent with each other for having differences of opinion rather than discussing it, even if that means yelling at each other. So at this time more than any other, I’m proud to be part of something that can help bring Americans together. Here is the official press release from Chicken Soup for the Soul headquarters:

This book focuses on what unites us, not what divides us. When Chicken Soup for the Soul’s author, editor-in-chief and publisher Amy Newmark decided to collect stories for a book about the spirit of America more than a year ago, she never anticipated how much we, as a nation, would need this book. “I knew that we would need an antidote to all the negativity that always arises during a presidential election year, but I had no idea it would get this bad,” she said. “We recognize there are significant problems that need to be addressed, but we do live in a wonderful country. We can forget that sometimes amid all the emotions of the election process. 

Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Spirit of America is our chicken soup for our fellow Americans—a reminder of why we are all so passionate about what we believe is best for our country. I hope this collection of 101 stories about everything American will help to unite us, not divide us.”

Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Spirit of America takes us on a journey across our beautiful nation, meeting our veterans, active service members and their families; revisiting the patriotism and unity of 9/11; showing us the ingenuity and positive attitude that we’re known for; displaying the diversity of our geography and our people; relating stories about our favorite American traditions; and introducing us to proud new citizens who remind us how lucky we are to live here—with our freedom to advance, to move, and to express ourselves. There’s even a whole chapter on the American flag, with inspiring stories about how much the red, white and blue means to us, right in time for Flag Day on June 14th.

“As we do often, we are using this book to raise money for a worthy cause – and one that is very relevant to its subject matter – the Bob Woodruff Foundation and its Stand Up for Heroes fundraising program,” said William J. Rouhana, Jr., chief executive officer of Chicken Soup for the Soul. “This is the second time that we have earmarked royalties from one of our books to raise funds for the Bob Woodruff Foundation to support their work with post–9/11 injured service members, veterans and their families.”

The book’s foreword writer Lee Woodruff, who is married to broadcaster Bob Woodruff, says, “The people you meet in these pages, and the tales they tell, will remind you why we are the most fortunate people in the world—Americans.” She talks about her particular passion—the military—in the foreword. After her husband was wounded while embedded as a reporter with the Army in Iraq, Lee saw our military at its best, saving her husband’s life. And she and Bob have given back in a major way, founding the Bob Woodruff Foundation to support programs that provide health and social services for veterans.

ABOUT CHICKEN SOUP FOR THE SOUL
Chicken Soup for the Soul, the world’s favorite and most recognized storyteller, publishes the famous Chicken Soup for the Soulbook series. With well over 100 million books sold to date in the U.S. and Canada alone, more than 250 titles, and translations into more than 40 languages, “chicken soup for the soul” is one of the world’s best-known phrases and is regularly referenced in pop culture. Today, 23 years after it first began sharing happiness, inspiration and hope through its books, this socially conscious company continues to publish a new title a month, but has also evolved beyond the bookstore with super premium pet food, television shows and movies, and a variety of other digital content and licensed products, all inspired by stories, as it continues “changing the world one story at a time®.”

To receive a review copy of Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Spirit of America or to request an interview, please contact Tanya Taylor Miciak at 615.254.9389 or tanya@triple7pr.com

CONTACT: Tanya Taylor Miciak 615.254.9389

New Chicken Soup for the Soul Podcast!

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Amy Newmark, the publisher of the Chicken Soup for the Soul book series, has started a series of inspirational podcasts. Each one will highlight a different Chicken Soup for the Soul book and story. A new podcast will be available each weekday starting February 22nd and they can be downloaded for free the same way that you get other podcasts.

If you are new to podcasts, you may be surprised to learn you already have a podcast button on your smartphone. You can listen to podcasts on your phone, your computer, or your iPad or other tablet. To find the Chicken Soup for the Soul podcast, just search within iTunes or your particular podcast app.

The podcasts are about six or seven minutes long, Monday–Thursday, and they provide entertaining stories as well as great advice and easy-to-implement tips to improve your life. On Fridays, publisher Amy Newmark will ask one of our co-authors or contributors to join her for a longer podcast — about fifteen minutes.

Here’s the rundown of the first week of the podcast:

MOTIVATIONAL MONDAY

Be Kind of Yourself

[story by Sara Matson]
TIP TUESDAY A Smile Is a Boomerang [story by Cristy Trandahl]
WOW WEDNESDAY

Impossible Love

[story by Sharon Graham]
THOUGHTFUL THURSDAY From Dumpster Dog to Service Dog [story by Kathryn Bales]
FRIEND FRIDAY

Supermodel EMME Joins Amy to Talk Self-Esteem, Body Image, and Curvy Women

 

Happy Listening!

Twitter Launch Party for new Chicken Soup for the Soul book about dogs!

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Dear Fellow Dog Lovers,

Chicken Soup for the Soul is having a Twitter Book Launch Party for their new book, “My Very Good / Very Bad Dog.” (My story, The Rainbow Bridge, is in it.) These parties are a tradition Chicken Soup for the Soul started in the fall of 2015 for each new book. The parties have proven to be a lot of fun and very well attended.

Please join our publisher Amy Newmark and foreword writer Robin Ganzert, President of American Humane Association, on Wednesday, February 17th at 3:00 Eastern time to  discuss this fun, new book and meet the contributors. Contributors will share photos of the dogs that star in their stories as they discuss them.

Here are the details again –

Date: Wednesday, February 17, 2015

Time: 3 PM Eastern time (12 Pacific time) for one hour

Hashtag: #VeryGoodDog

 It’s easy even if you’ve never done this before. Just go on Twitter your normal way and then click on the search function using the magnifying glass. Type in hashtag #VeryGoodDog so that you can see all the tweets at the party. And be sure to include #VeryGoodDog in all the tweets that you post. That way we all see everyone else’s posts. It’s like a big cocktail party conversation.

Share: We would be thrilled if you would invite your family and friends to participate.

In the meantime, you can follow @chickensoupsoul @amynewmark @RobinGanzert and @AmericanHumane on Twitter to read the pre-party buzz!

“The Warning.” (My Story in Chicken Soup for the Soul – Dreams and Premonitions.)

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This is my story from the book Chicken Soup for the Soul, Dreams and Premonitions. It’s an amazing book with 100 more stories by other authors about the mysterious language of dreams.

The Warning

I sought my soul, but my soul I could not see. I sought my God, but my God eluded me. I sought my brother and I found all three. ~ Author Unknown

My brother Paul started out in life with great potential. He was a gifted storyteller and an amazing athlete. I idolized him and followed him everywhere. We got along very well until he became a teenager. He changed drastically and I couldn’t understand why.

It was 1973 when he turned thirteen, and our Southern California neighborhood was awash in illicit drugs—mostly marijuana but also harder drugs like LSD. Paul became a stranger to me, and I became an annoyance to him and his friends. I internalized this rejection until I realized they didn’t want me around in case I “finked” on them about their drug use.

Most teenagers laugh at adults who tell them marijuana is a gateway drug that will lead to harder drugs, but in my brother’s case it was absolutely true. He went right up the ladder from pot to heroine, spent eight years of his life in jail for drug-related offenses, and died of an overdose at the age of thirty-seven.

His death devastated my parents and I after so many years of hoping and praying that he would get his life together. By the time he died, he was covered with menacing tattoos, had lost most of his teeth, and no longer resembled the sun-kissed big brother I played in the street with as a child. The athlete was gone and the only stories he told were lies to the police.

Mothers always suffer most for their children’s mistakes. My father told me that when the police called at three a.m. to tell them Paul had died, she walked away from the phone crying “no” over and over. Their worst nightmare had come true. She took prescription drugs for years afterward just to avoid being driven insane by grief. She slept a lot and my father buried himself in work. I was so angry and resentful toward Paul for dying in such a preventable way, and for the misery he caused our family, I couldn’t even cry. Anger and hatred were easier to handle than sadness.

I moved back in with my parents for a few months and found that I had to hide my grief to help them through theirs. The accumulated weight of their pain and my own was so overwhelming, I felt numb inside. Grief at its worse is a kind of walking death. Eventually, this numbness started to get me into trouble.

I was driving on a freeway one night when another driver started tailgating me, even though I was traveling ten miles per hour faster than the speed limit. I ignored him until he got closer and flashed his bright lights. A disproportionate rage started building in me.

Earlier that day, I had stood with my mother under an umbrella in a cold cemetery, trying to find a gravesite for my brother. I felt a kind of righteous indignation toward the tailgater for adding to the unbearable load of pain I was already carrying. In that moment, he became more than just some jerk on the road. He became a symbol of the chaos in life that attacks us without warning. He also became a target for my anger, which, until then, had been unfocused.

I slammed on my brakes. He went into a skid, then caught up with me and yelled at me to pull over. I did. He stopped behind me. We got out of our cars and walked toward each other. My grief had removed all fear. I had never been aggressive before, but that night, I wanted to fight. I couldn’t fight the bitter reality of my brother’s death, or the avalanche of misery my parents were buried under, or the dark labyrinth of despair my life had become. But I could fight this man. This was tangible. I suspect most violence is that way—an outward expression of deep inner torment and helplessness. People don’t punch each other; they punch their own misery.

He continued to curse at me, but I said nothing. As we got closer, he looked at my face in the headlights of oncoming traffic and saw my eyes, which had been rendered lifeless by sorrow. I wasn’t angry, scared, or even slightly agitated. I just didn’t care anymore. He stopped and asked, “What’s wrong with you?” I kept walking toward him. When I had almost reached him, he turned, ran back to his car, cursed me one last time and drove away. It was terribly reckless of me. If he had a gun, I could have been killed. Part of me must have wanted to die so the pain could finally stop.

The next night, I dreamed I was driving on the same freeway with the same tailgater behind me. Everything happened the same way, but as I walked toward him and his face became clear, I saw it was my brother. Shocked, I ran to him and hugged him tight, crying with relief that he was still alive.

I said, “Paul, you’ve got to let me take you to see mom and dad. They miss you so much.”

“I can’t. I have a new home now,” he replied.

I asked him where it was. He looked up, and then smiled at me. It was a smile full of the peace and joy he had lost long ago in life. The teeth that were rotted out by drug use were fully restored. I knew what and where he meant when he looked up, but I kept begging him to come home, desperate to keep him from leaving again.

He said, “Mark, listen. I came to tell you to stop doing things like this. Your sadness is making you crazy. Don’t die in some stupid way like I did. Mom and dad need you now more than ever.”

I promised I wouldn’t and hugged him again, as if I could make him live again by not letting go. But then he was gone. I awoke in bed and lay there thinking about the dream, trying to remember and feel every part of it again.

The psychologist Sigmund Freud said one of the purposes of dreams is wish fulfillment. My deepest wish was to talk to my brother again, so that may be true, but I still think Freud was too cynical. The fulfillment of a wish doesn’t make the dream untrue. I didn’t dream that my brother was alive again. He was physically dead in my dream and he knew that he was.

Maybe those we’ve lost can’t get through the wall of our conscious minds, but our unconscious minds are just porous enough for them to find a way in. Surely they’re just as desperate as we are to talk again, especially if they see us behaving foolishly, and need to warn us off a dangerous path.

Since I had that dream, I have honored my brother’s request. I allow myself to feel sad, and I don’t let it become rage. Aside from all the other gifts I might receive from being a patient, peaceful person, it is also the fulfillment of his dying wish for me, a wish delivered in a most mysterious and liberating dream.

 

“This story is from Chicken Soup for the Soul: Dreams and Premonitions © 2015 Chicken Soup for the Soul, LLC. All rights reserved.”