January’s Paradigm Launch—J. Conrad Guest

January’s Paradigm is the novel that started it all.

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Photo courtesy of Craig David Butler

It’s been nearly fifteen years since the second edition of January’s Paradigm went to print and nearly twenty-five years since I sat down to write the first words: I stepped out of the dark, smoky habitat of Earl’s Place.

Two more January novels followed, and I’ve since seen six more of my babies published. I’ve learned much over the years about myself and also about the craft of writing. Should the learning ever cease, I will lay down my pen.

I was resistant to even read January’s Paradigm these many years later. As a matter of fact, I cringed at the prospect for fear that I would wish to rewrite large portions of it. Certainly there were many sections of narrative I would write differently were I writing it today.

In preparing this edition, I wished to maintain the integrity of as much of the original text as much as possible, not only to show where I was in my life twenty-five years ago, but also to show the progress I’ve made as a writer and a stylist.

The changes are minor, mostly to do with formatting and structure. I resisted the urge to add or revise narrative, with a very few excep­tions—what can I say? I’m a perfectionist and never could refrain from tinkering, which is why I rarely revisit my novels once they go to print. I can always find ways to improve a text; never perfect, I can only achieve “closer to perfection.”

January’s Paradigm holds its rightful place in my body of work, and I remain proud of this endeavor.

Below appears another excerpt.


“Look, Susan. I have a basic understanding of the tarot. I can appreciate that Monica has a thorough understanding of the cards, their symbols and meanings. She knows how they relate to one another once they’re laid out on the table, but it’s all just a parlor game. To think that the random placement of cards can in some way foretell what’s going to happen to someone is just, well, ludicrous.”

I was about to sum up all I’d just said when I stopped short.

Coming through the revolving doors and walking at a brisk pace was a woman with purpose, a woman on a mission. The woman from the photograph.

Kate.

I looked left, then right. There was no place to go, nowhere to hide.

Kate had spotted me and was coming toward me; a confrontation was inevitable.

So abruptly had I cut short my advance that Susan had gone on a step or two before realizing I was no longer at her side. Now she came back to me, the hurt of a moment ago gone, replaced by a look of con­cern. She placed her hand on my shoulder.

“Joe, what is it, what’s wrong?”

Where at first Kate had seen only me, she now saw the two of us.

Kate saw.

Her former deliberate pace faltered. A dawning look of realization appeared on her face: the phone call, my blunt dismissal of her and now the woman at my side, dark and beautiful. Younger than she and more voluptuous, but there were enough similarities for her to fill in the blanks and draw her own conclusions.

She closed the remaining distance between us at a perfunctory saunter.

To the casual passerby we looked to be a trio of good friends meeting in the lobby to discuss the beautiful New York spring weather and where within walking distance we might find a worthy dining establishment, for we were loath to take a cab when the weather was so pleasant.

I thought she looked older than in the photograph; then again, maybe it was the intensity with which she was peering at Susan.

Oh, she’s good, I thought.

My previous fear of confrontation was gone, replaced by detached aloofness. I had been born for moments such as this, to observe with dispassion and then react with all the passion the occasion demanded.

She must be seething inside.

Yet on the outside she was the consummate actress, the essence of cordiality.

“Introduce me to your friend,” she asked with spurious sweetness.

Susan, for the first time aware of the waves of pestiferous prejudice emanating from the eyes of the newcomer, looked as if she’d rather be anywhere else at the moment.

I smiled; I was truly enjoying this.

Kate was taken aback. She was leery of my smile; it put her on the defensive, where she wasn’t used to being. Her preference was for offense, where she could control and manipulate. Where she could gauge the reactions of her adversary and, as her position of authority grew, plot additional schemes to further enhance her grasp on her hap­less victim.

“Kate, Susan. Susan, Kate, my soon to be ex-wife.” Very matter-of-fact.

“I phoned earlier.”

Kate eyed Susan suspiciously for any sign that would betray what might have transpired in Porter’s penthouse apartment.

Susan portrayed innocence, and the tension rose another level.

“I could’ve sworn I dialed the right number.”

“Well, you know the phone company. Probably just a crossed line or something.” I made certain as our eyes briefly met that she knew exactly with whom she’d spoken.

“Yes, the phone company,” she said, seeking another tack.

“Actually, I’m more than a little surprised to see you here, Kate. The last time I saw you, suitcase in hand, you were heading out the door in avid anticipation of your new life with, oh, what was his name? You know I don’t believe you introduced me to your friend from the service station. How rude of you.”

Kate’s eyes went wide with shock. No doubt she had expected me, considering my circumstances, to be groveling in the face of her wrath. Instead, here I was casually discussing her departure and ignoring com­pletely an explanation of Susan.

“So what can I do for you, Kate?”

Kate was reeling. I savored the moment and watched as she shifted gears to try another angle.

“I thought we could—”

“You thought wrong.” All trace of humor was gone from my voice.

A look of desperation, then, “Please. Can’t we go someplace where we can talk? Alone?” A brief glance at Susan.

A mistake—the momentary flicker of loathing for the usurper of what she believed to be rightfully hers didn’t pass my eye unnoticed.

If I were someone else, I surely would’ve been taken in by her per­formance, a sucker for a woman in distress, vulnerable to her, albeit feigned, vulnerability. But I wasn’t someone else, at least not the person she thought I was. That gave me the advantage I needed, slim though it might be.

“You had your chance to talk, but you opted instead to walk. You obviously felt no obligation for an explanation then, and why you feel obliged now is beyond me; and believe me when I tell you I feel no onus to waste my time listening. Now if you will excuse us, Susan and I have to be on our way.”

I’d rejected her, something she’d probably never before experi­enced, at least not from the likes of hapless Robert Porter. Not that it would do much good, for she was beyond redemption, too used to having her own way.

But a blow had been struck nevertheless. Her subtle ploy of manipulation had failed. Now, if I knew anything at all about women, because I’d made good on my last statement by taking Susan by the elbow and moving past her and not wanting to be upstaged, Kate would have to throw all caution to the wind and try a full frontal assault.

Well, I ruminated. Whatever gambit she has in mind, I’m ready for it. The years may change, but a woman scorned can be counted on to react in pretty much the same fashion.

“You know, you men are all alike.” Her contemptuous tonality was not affected. The years of abuse she’d heaped upon Porter may have cost him his self-esteem, but Kate too had paid a price. How could she respect a man who would allow himself to be degraded in all the ways she had?

“I called earlier because I thought there might be something in our marriage worth salvaging, some strand to cling to, to weave back into something worthwhile. I can understand you not wanting to talk about it on the phone, so I take the trouble to come over here so we can talk face-to-face.”

She glanced at Susan with knowing eyes that saw only what they wanted to see: a made-up truth that lacked any. Insistent upon placing all of the blame on me, she turned her glare back on me.

“But now I understand. You told me you loved me and that you couldn’t live without me. But the truth is, you’re doing just fine without me. Oh you talk a good game, but look at you now. You’re doing just fine, aren’t you?”

I listened with amusement as Kate’s voice rose as she vented her pent-up frustration, while my nonchalance merely stoked the fire. Por­ter might cringe at the unwanted attention this little scene was attracting from those in the lobby who’d stopped to listen. Even Susan, who was used to being on stage, looked ready to blend into the crowd and sneak away without me. But I was enjoying every minute of it, mostly because my indifference served to fan the blaze of a fire that was threatening to burn out of control.

“What bar did you find this whore in anyway?” Kate shouted.

That was my cue to take action. I’d known the accusation was coming. Kate wasn’t about to let Susan get away unscathed. I hated to have her made a part of this; she was certainly innocent of any wrong­doing, guilty only in Kate’s twisted imagination. What I did next was a blow struck for Susan as much as it was for Porter.

Moving with surprising speed, I grabbed a fistful of Kate’s hair. Considerably shorter than Susan’s, I still managed to twist it around my fist once. I pulled back firmly and her head bent back on her neck at an awkward angle. My other hand went around her throat, while my fore­arm rested on her breastbone between the breasts I recalled from the previous night’s dream, swollen with desire then, and I felt no desire of my own.

I stepped forward, forcing her backward until her retreat was cut off by the unyielding barrier of the ceiling support in the center of the lobby. I leaned forward until my nose was but a finger’s breadth from hers. I was right, she was much older than the photograph showed. From this distance, makeup did little to mask the substantiation. Her skin looked wizened by too much time in the sun, with crow’s feet—“laugh lines” she would defend—around her eyes.

So this is what Porter wants so desperately to maintain as a part of his life.

To Kate, I whispered with all the venom the moment demanded, “You know a thing or two about whoring around, don’t you?”

At that moment a hand, large and its grip firm, alit upon my shoul­der. It was no threat, I knew, so long as I didn’t threaten the woman at my disposal with further menace.

“Why don’t you let the lady go?” The voice, an aged baritone, be­longed to the owner of the hand on my shoulder.

My glower never wavered, my grip never weakened. What I saw in Kate’s eyes was most gratifying: fear. Fear that I would do bodily harm to her. But there was more than just that most primordial emotion. I also saw the realization that something had gone terribly awry. Upon her arrival, she’d expected to have it all her own way, waltzing back into Porter’s life and with just the right line making him think she’d come to her senses, that she needed and even wanted him back in her life.

In actuality her intent was to merely wrap his puppet strings around her pinky finger so she could once again make him dance to the tune of her own deceitful, self-serving needs.

Now she could see that her grasp, at one time so sure and viselike, had suddenly become less than tenuous. She didn’t have a clue as to why her grip had slackened, only that a third player had entered the game, younger and more beautiful than she. And because this was something she hadn’t foreseen, her endgame would have to be radically altered if she were to regain control of the center of the board. The new player would have to be captured and removed.

In my mind’s eye I saw what Porter had seen on that last, fateful day. The sights and sounds of what would turn his life upside down and inside out: his wife in naked ecstasy upon their bed, the stranger with his head buried between her thighs, much like the fiend in my dream from the night before, the wet sounds of his tongue working its magic mingled with the soft whimpers of her pleasure.

My anger surged at the audacity of the woman. The affair had meant nothing to her. She’d done it out of boredom simply because she could and because when it was over, she knew it would be child’s play to coddle Porter into taking her back.

Monica’s words came back to me: “He will be defeated in battle and will no longer perform for her what she needs. Therefore, she will return to you.”

“Buddy,” the voice said again. “Let the lady go.”

My grip relaxed but I never took my eyes from Kate’s as I said, as much for her sake as the owner of the hand still on my shoulder, “If you knew the lady like I know the lady…” I let the unspoken sentiment sink in a moment, and then I let go.

Moments later we were in a cab heading for Greenwich Village. I trembled slightly. Part of it was due to the adrenaline-primed excite­ment of the moment, but there was more too.

That other part of me, the weaker part that had made itself known to me the moment I’d arrived in this continuum, had also thrilled at the way events had climaxed. But now it was in a state of panic, as if what had transpired in the lobby of the apartment would set into motion ac­tions that would result in consequences that could never be undone. It also sensed loss as well as an uncertainty of the future.

I felt Susan’s scrutiny and turned with a smile meant to be reassur­ing. I failed.

She’d seen a side of me that was not very pleasant. No, more than that, a side that was ugly, the book Joe January that she’d earlier argued was violent for the sake of violence. Where before I’d seen trust in her eyes, I now saw something else: reassessment.

I heard Monica speak the words as surely as if she were in the cab with us, “You are not who you pretend to be.”

I winced inwardly as I thought of how Susan must now see me: less than desirable. But then, had she ever looked at me with desire?

No. Affection, yes, but not desire. She’d just witnessed an angry man with violent tendencies.

You really would have struck her, wouldn’t you? her eyes accused.

No, I wouldn’t have struck her. I wanted to, and God knows I’ve done a lot of wayward things in my long and tumultuous life; but I’ve never hit a woman, not even in my dreams. Nor would I start now.

But it no longer mattered; her look told me everything I needed to know. She would have to watch what she said to me, lest she make me angry.

For the first time in my life, I saw myself as others must see me and I hated what I saw. I hated that passionate part of me that seethed and boiled beneath the brittle exterior that kept others at a distance.

“I’m sorry,” I said flatly, not knowing what else to say. “She man­ages to bring out the worst in me.”

No longer able to bear the pained look in her eyes, I turned away, preferring instead the passing panorama of the New York cityscape as the cab sped toward its destination.


 

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