Sunday, December 14, 2014

#ShortStory #BookReviews and More

By Roy L. Pickering Jr.

     I saw them today, my ex-best friend and ex-girlfriend.  Over a year has passed since it happened, since he so skillfully, callously, and most important, successfully plotted to steal her away.  I ducked into a store to avoid them flaunting their happiness in my face.  That would be just like them.  Or rather, I should say like Julian.  For it was his duplicity that started the chain of events, and the chain was moved along by my actions, and mine alone.  Caroline didn't play much of a part in the process.  She merely went along for the ride.
     Caroline is the proverbial one who got away.  Not that she left me, for the truth is, I dumped her, just as I have ended all of my relationships for one reason or another.  But Julian was the one pulling the strings, guiding me without my knowledge towards the destination he desired.
     You see, I was in my younger days quite the ladies man.  Women were simply playthings.  I know what you're thinking.  What a pompous braggart I am.  But how could I possibly benefit by lying, or even distorting the truth?  You must believe me, I was, and to a lesser degree still am, exactly what I claim to be.  Some collect stamps, some bottles of wine, others cars.  I have spent the greater part of the four decades of my life collecting women. 
     Tall ones, short ones, slender and full bodied have taken turns filling my arms.  Blondes, brunettes and redheads all have had more fun with me.  I've known women (and when I say know, I mean know in the best sense of the word) of every race, nationality, and flavor invented.  None of the others were quite like Caroline.
     Upon first sight, I knew I was in the presence of one of God's most perfect creations.  Her visage exotically composed, angelically pure, as intoxicating and addictive to the eyes as heroin to one's bloodstream.  Her figure would have converted Liberace and made Ray Charles drool.  In bed, I bet you'd love to know the most intimate details, but I'm too much of a gentleman to divulge them.  Let's just say heaven will have to be damn good to surpass the moments of ecstasy Caroline and I experienced.
     Why then, you must be asking yourself by now, did I let such a magnificent woman out of my grasp?  And believe you me, she was as captive as a woman can be.  So why did I push away this woman whose adoration of me was only matched by mine for her?  I will commence to tell you, though the recollection of events pains me almost physically. 
     It was in the Metropolitan Museum of Art that Julian's intricate plot began to unveil itself.  We were admiring a painting by Botticelli.  I favorably compared Caroline to the woman encased by a frame.  Caroline was blessed less amply by the most hypnotic of curves.
     "Will you cut it out?"
     "Cut what out?" I asked innocently.
     "Your constant mentioning of Caroline.  You can't go five minutes without bringing her up.  It's growing tiresome."
     "I wasn't aware of this," I replied, and indeed I hadn't been. It was quite subconscious, the way my thoughts of her would leap from my tongue. 
     "What's so special about her anyway?"
     I was astounded by Julian's question, for the answer was blatantly obvious.  It was like asking if the sun was actually hot.
     "I would think anyone who has seen her would have no need to ask," I said.
     "Okay, she's attractive.  She's very attractive.  But you've been with plenty of beautiful women.  What else is there?  What makes her different from the rest?"
     Julian's inquisition was beginning to annoy me.  The audacity of him to categorize her as just one of many beautiful women. There was much more to Caroline than her physical attributes.  I began to list traits for him.
     "Well, for one thing she's ..."
     "And don't say she's great in bed, because we both know plenty of women are great in bed."
     He had knocked my first two reasons off the list.  No matter, there were plenty of others.  I prepared to recite them.  Problem was, none were springing to mind right at that moment.  I told myself there must be so many, I couldn't decide which to say first. But Julian was waiting smugly.  Compatibility came to mind. That seemed like a good choice.
     "Don't say you get along really well because you know that's bull," said Julian before I could open my mouth.  "How many times have you complained that the two of you have nothing in common?"
     In truth, he was right.  Caroline and I were not alike at all. Me with an Ivy league education, she with a high school diploma.  My passion for classical music and Motown, her’s for pop rock and rap.  How could I, a lover of champagne, caviar, and Baroque art, take seriously an aficionado of Burger King, wine coolers, and MTV? Much less profess to love her.  I had to admit to myself that I didn't really know.  But I couldn't confess this to Julian.
     The concept of opposites attracting occurred to me, but this time it was I who discarded the idea.  I couldn't think of a more ludicrous notion to base a relationship on, and had scoffed at many a couple who did.  Hadn't I broken things off with women in the past because their attitudes and interests did not adequately coincide with mine?  And wasn't it true that this was never more the case than it was with Caroline?  So why were we together?  Did I truly love her, or had I grown impatient waiting for the perfect woman and convinced myself to be content with the one I was currently with?  She was beautiful and sensuous and a great booster of my already inflated ego, but could I honestly say that she attained the highest of my standards?  Wasn't it possible for even a connoisseur to occasionally be misled by a well disguised, but nonetheless inferior brand?  So many questions that when honestly responded to, yielded unpleasant answers.
     I wondered if Caroline had pulled the proverbial wool over my bedazzled eyes.  Of course she had not.  Such deceitful behavior was not in her nature - yet another thing we didn't have in common.
     And so, it was in such a manner that the "truth" finally dawned on me.  It was I who had conned me.  Caroline was never any more or any less than herself.  The pedestal she stood upon in my mind, the light that seemed always to illuminate her, had been created wholly by me.  The past three months had not been spent with Ms. Right, my future bride, my one true love.  Caroline was just one in a long line of lovers.  Our time together was meant to be a fond memory, but nothing more.
     Despite these revelations, it was with deep sobriety bordering on sadness that I broke up with Caroline that evening.  Not that I had difficulty coming up with the words.  I issued my standard speech, told Caroline how much I cared for her, how it would hurt me more than it would hurt her, but that the relationship had run its course and it would be for the best that we ended it.  The moments we had shared would be eternally cherished by me, and I would always be there if she needed a friend.  Beautiful, don't you think?  Of course, she was devastated.
     "I don't understand.  I thought everything was going great."
     Of course you did, sweet, simple Caroline.  But how could I explain my sudden realization that she wasn't enough for me?  How could I say after the many times I had professed love (and love is not a word I toss around lightly), that I had not been lying?  I had sincerely believed what I now knew to be false.  I had no recourse but to fall back on familiar lines, not because she didn't deserve better, but because the truth was too complex to divulge.
     I never again spoke to Caroline after that day, and only conversed with Julian once more.  It was a week later, and I had just discovered that he and Caroline were now seeing each other.
     "Believe me, I didn't plan this in any way," said Julian ludicrously.  "It just sort of happened."
     "You tricked me into breaking up with her, you conniving bastard."
     "That couldn't be farther from the truth, you must believe me. I was earnest when I asked why you loved Caroline.  I had no designs upon her at the time.  I know it seems a bit too coincidental, but coincidence is all it is.  I had no idea things would turn out this way, and to prove it I would break it off in a second.  Except, I think I'm starting to fall for her.  There's just something about her, something indescribable that I simply cannot resist."
     The master had been bested by his pupil.  If I was a man who settled disputes with his fists, that's what I would have done.  But I've always considered myself above that sort of thing. Instead I walked away, dignity intact, but Caroline lost.
     I tried my best to get over her with the help of a host of beautiful women.  And eventually she ceased to regularly enter my thoughts.  The memory of how my supposed friend Julian duped me faded in time as well.  Until I saw them walking hand in hand today.
Instantly I was transported back to when Caroline and I were together.  I remembered running my hands through her blondish-brown hair.  Or was it brownish-blond?  Gazing for hours into her sparkling blue eyes.  Or were they green?  Kissing the birthmark on her inner right thigh.  Or the left.  No, it was on her shoulder blade.  Wait a minute, was that someone else altogether?  Oh, what does it matter?  Frivolous details which can be altered cosmetically on a whim, so why quibble?  I'm certain now that it was love.

A Lesson Before DyingA Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This may be the most heart breaking book it has ever been my sad pleasure to read. A young man is in the wrong place at the wrong time, and due to his poor decision making on this one ill fated occasion, ends up wrongfully accused of murder and condemned to death row. Set during a time when race relations were strained and tilted heavily in favor of privileged whites at the expense of struggling blacks who were looked down upon (in other words, a time much worse and yet insufficiently different from today), the best that his lawyer can think up as a defense is to compare the defendant to a dumb hog. When this fails to prevent Jefferson from being convicted and sentenced to the electric chair, his godmother calls upon local grade school teacher Grant Wiggins. What she asks of Grant is both simple and seemingly impossible. Jefferson cannot escape an unfair verdict in an unjust world. But instead of pitifully accepting designation as a brute animal, maybe he can find a measure of dignity in his final days, allowing him to take his final steps with head held high like a man. Grant is a cynic and less than a true believer in what we're taught about God and an awaiting Heaven. It takes the bullying of his aunt to make him accept the ultimate teaching assignment. He does his best. Jefferson does his best. Readers may do their best in the end not to cry. Many will surely fail.

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NWNW by Zadie Smith
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Carrying this book around I learned that just about everyone has read and really loved White Teeth, Zadie Smith's debut novel. Some of her faithful devotees may be less enamored with NW. Not that it isn't skillfully written. But the very fragmented style Smith chose to present it in probably will not be everybody's cup of tea. The choppy format did not take away from my ability to again perceive that Smith is an exceptional talent, but this book's flow took some getting accustomed to for me personally. NW chronicles the lives of two women who grew up in the same neighborhood and are friends from childhood. They both go on to get married and keep secrets from their husbands. To say much more about the plot would bring me into spoiler territory, so I'll leave summarizing to others who are better at it. Instead I'll say that I liked if didn't quite love this book, and that I do recommend it, even if you read it only to end up saying that you preferred White Teeth. There is only room for one as your favorite, but plenty of room to fill on the bookshelf of your life.

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Happy Birthday, Mrs. Piggle-WiggleHappy Birthday, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle by Betty MacDonald
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is the second Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle book I've read to my daughter. My wife was a fan from childhood but I had never heard of Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle before. Apparently the first one I read was written back in the 50's by Betty MacDonald whereas this one is comprised of a previously unpublished story and ideas for others that were found by her daughter. The story outlines were fleshed out into new installments in the franchise. My 8 year old, being way smarter than me, immediately picked up the more contemporary feel of this book. And as it turns out, we both liked this one better (perhaps because of the modernity, perhaps for some other reason that is a credit to Anne MacDonald Canham) than the truly authentic Mrs. Piggle book previously read. There was only one story (the one about a kid too cautious to attempt anything - from something legitimately intimidating like a climbing a tree to merely playing basketball with friends) that we found to be a total dud. Other than that we were charmed throughout. The concept of a woman with magical cures for annoying childhood behavior and vices is a timeless winner, so I can see why these books (originals and new entries) charm multiple generations of readers.

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