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First pages

—1—

I never imagined the Angel of Death would be driving a piece-of-crap, lime-green, 1971 AMC Gremlin X. Fate might have laughed at that, but it probably swallowed hard when the woman sent to be my lover proved to be the cause of my death. Before I even had the chance to meet her. No, its plans hadn’t skewed. What the master of destiny didn’t know was this: When it came to revisiting our manufacturers, I would be recalled far more times than that car ever was.

I would be back from Heaven’s doorstep to fulfill its aim.

Fate had chosen me and the two women I loved to prevent God from meeting His Grim Reaper before His replacement could be named. Ironic because, like all people, the three of us were factory rejects. In the end, humanity received what I thought we all wanted—the ability to remember what we had laughed and cried about while we had lived and to continue improving after death.

No one who ever lived on the planet had asked me to take matters into my own hands. Nevertheless, as the overused expression states, it was a thankless job, and someone had to do it.

Even if I didn’t know what I was doing and when I was doing it.

###

As I awaited graduation from the University of Colorado in the spring of 1972, I didn’t need a piece of paper to confirm my writing talent. An editor in Florida had already done that in 1969 when he published my first article and ignited a fan base that burst into the millions in just days.

What I would need was a doctoral degree in existential architecture, and I’m not referring to some form of blueprint drafting. I’m talking about creating worlds that now accommodate every creature that has ever lived on Earth.

I didn’t volunteer. The Lord could have picked Margaret Mae Monahan, the smartest woman on Earth. Or Gronk and Grita, those super-intelligent neo-Neanderthal children who were reborn under the supervision of Maggie Mae. Or even Tsutomu Yamaguchi, the man who made Steve Jobs look like a slacker when it came to revolutionizing technology. No, I was drafted because God eventually recognized something within me that even I didn’t know I had.

###

Maggie Mae was special. Not only had she been the keenest female on the planet, but she also had been willing to overlook the fact I loved Alina Briarsworth as much as I loved her. Allie, as I had nicknamed her, was an intuitive free spirit—I just didn’t realize to what extent that was true in the beginning. It could be one reason she didn’t pressure me to choose between them, either.

Love triangles never seem to be equilateral, but our three-sided relationship was like astatine, the rarest of all Earth elements. Less than a gram of the radioactive decay product existed on the planet when the end came. It was never examined in a laboratory because it was so red-hot that it would have vaporized. So it was for Maggie Mae, Allie, and me. Losing something so precious never seemed worth the destructive scrutiny to determine how it could exist in the first place.

###

Fate no doubt was getting anxious by the time I was leaving college. Unknown to me, its plan must have seemed off track. But, at that time, I was wondering whether I could preserve my own life, much less God’s.

“Damn them,” I said after I had awoken earlier that graduation day. I had dreamt thousands of my devotees were standing around my bed, poking me while I slept. It was my subconscious self-depiction: I was a world-famous, twenty-two-year-old writer named Paul Alexander Tomenko who felt as dried as a strip of beef jerky curing in the desert.

Yes, damn them straight to Hell.

My fans knew nothing of the unspeakable pain I had been suffering, what I had lost. In some sense, it was all because of them. Who knew they would respond to Coco the One-Eyed Wonder Dog in the manner that they did? Had I remained an undiscovered hack, I wouldn’t have been penalized for exaggerating my political beliefs. Yet, they would want me to continue being the clown prince they so admired. Would I accept that role? Even though I had more money than I would ever need from a magazine sweepstakes and my parents’ estate? Of course. That’s because I needed to prove myself again through each sentence I wrote, to keep seeking a higher pinnacle.

To be the best writer in the world.

And that made me no different from Maggie Mae Monahan in at least one sense:

The drive to be the best. The very best. The absolute best.

That is what drove us apart. It would also saddle each of us with the kind of responsibilities no one should have to bear.

Damn us both.

Damn us both straight to Hell.

###

Nothing in the University of Colorado course catalog could have prepared me for my most important job. If I knew then what I know now, I would have leaned forward when I met Professor Franklin McRodgers, my academic advisor in August 1968, and asked this question:

“Is there a class that can teach me how to make appropriate decisions for everyone and everything that has ever lived?”

Yes, everyone. All 105 billion humans who had ever experienced at least one heartbeat in or out of a womb. And another nine billion who I had imagined had existed.

And everything—the souls of cyanobacteria, crickets, cats, and chimpanzees. Just to name a few.

Knowing the journalism professor and his sense of humor, I think McRodgers would have told me that, as an incoming freshman, I should avoid flunk-out courses.

Even though McRodgers hated clichés, I can’t seem to come up with a fresher phrase than what God Himself told me:

“What’s done is done. You did your best.”

Still, I wonder about it.

Is Confucius, after looking at his surroundings, characterizing them as just total bullshit? Is Joan of Arc standing on a smoldering wood pile, referring to me as a cocksucker? Is Adolf Hitler at a local barbershop, getting another terrible haircut and his mustache trimmed?

God claims He doesn’t know. And, at this very moment, He might not even remember that He doesn’t know.

###

As I sat in Folsom Field at my commencement ceremonies, I just wanted to disappear, but I knew that wasn’t possible. No, the clamoring masses were hounding me for more: additional articles, a first book. Today I expect they are demanding reasons for the choices I made for them.

Even if being rescued from oblivion had been included in the package deal.

As it was, graduation was a suitable time for me to don a square cap that symbolizes a bricklayer’s tool for holding mortar. What isn’t said is that it also represents a flat surface upon which the bricks of burden can be stacked.

Higher and higher.

A little more mortar, too, please.

Unlike the server who grates Parmesan onto your lasagna at an Italian restaurant, God can’t be told “when.” He isn’t paying attention as the bricks of burden are being added. Trust me on this. He said this Himself as Cher the Gatekeeper and Katharine Ross the Librarian are my witnesses.

Well, not the real Cher and not the real Katharine Ross. Neither would have any idea what I was talking about. However, the Universe is full of doppelgängers, and I have created billions of them. As Space, Time, Energy, and Matter taught me, sometimes hitting “copy” on the Xerox machine is the expedient thing to do.

When the time was right, someone on stage verified through a declaration that hundreds of students had earned the right to move forward into the world. That included me. Yes, Paul Alexander Tomenko was now the owner of a bachelor of science degree in news-editorial journalism “with all the rights and privileges thereunto appertaining.”

I had ascended. But not in the sense that all humans must to preserve their eternal existence.

###

On college graduation day, Margaret Mae Monahan was seated an undetermined number of rows in front of me. I had insisted on calling her “Maggie Mae” when I first met her in early 1969. That irritated her, even more so when a song entitled “Maggie Mae” appeared on the Beatles’ “Let It Be” album in May 1970. That’s because the track was about an unsavory whore who robbed a seafaring man. It couldn’t have been more opposite to what she was.

Which is why I used to sing the song to her.

Her persecution reached a much higher level when Rod Stewart released “Maggie May,” and the song exploded on the rock-and-roll radio charts in September 1971.

Now, as Stewart’s song states, the time had come for me to leave. Life without Maggie Mae was shredding my soul, and I was convinced those rips would never heal.

After the festivities had ended and mortarboard caps were flying into the air, Maggie Mae was approached by Dr. Peter Lexington Townshend, the chief executive officer of Bioprovidence. The use of a middle name prevented the doctor from being confused with the famed guitarist for The Who. As pompous as the name of his firm, Townshend knew how to recruit talent, and Maggie Mae was that. She was even more than that, really. She was the smartest woman on Earth, even if she had loved me.

Loving me wouldn’t be held against her.

As long as she and I remained apart.

I saw Townshend shuffle through the milling crowd as he worked his way toward his prized apprentice. As if his laser-beam senses had been triggered, he somehow focused on my position and scowled with complete disdain. His facial expression sent an unequivocal message: “Don’t even think about walking down here.”

I would follow the instruction from his semblance. I had made a deal with him because it had been the right thing to do. Actually, it was the only thing to do.

And, when the woman I loved looked up at me, I knew it could be the last time we would see each other. After all, life is short. Who would have even guessed I would be dead in less than a year?

“Goodbye, Maggie Mae,” I whispered from afar. “And good luck.”

—2—

As a child, my primary tasks were to absorb information and outgrow my clothing every two weeks. Neither chore seemed hard back then—I was spoon-fed data and food in generous amounts.

My mother, Valya Tomenko, and my father, Yaroslav Tomenko, were Ukrainian immigrants who had settled on a small farm in Cañon City, Colorado, after World War II. My mother was a cook at Rosarita's Cafe in nearby Florence during the day. My father was a janitor at Freddie's A-1 Cleaning Service during the night.

They taught me the United States of America was good, and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, which controlled Ukraine at that time, was bad. They also told me Democrats would maintain a vast separation between the two, and that Santa Claus would continue to come to our house in Colorado.

“Never trust those Republicans,” my mother would say. “They can still ruin everything. But for now, there is no better place than here.”

Yes, the United States, the country in which I was born. After all, where else could members of God’s Poor and Weak win one million dollars in a magazine sweepstakes? The odds were astronomical, even greater than being hit by lightning. Why? Some people on Earth believed God loved the Poor and Weak so much that He had made too many of them. Not true. Other people on the planet were responsible for creating them through such mechanisms as educational, economic, social, and political systems. That explained the inordinate amount of competition for cash drawings and life-ending electrical discharges among the masses. Regardless, my father won the sweepstakes in 1961 after I had bought a subscription to Sports Illustrated in his name because I was too young to do so in mine.

Yet, during a black-clouded summer afternoon, two unlikely events merged. My mother and father were being photographed holding an oversized one-million-dollar check on our front doorstep while the cameraman’s flash compensated for the gloom. Another flash followed a split-second later. My parents had been struck dead by a sizzling bolt from the darkened sky.

What are the odds?

###

It was my first lesson in the difference between impossible and improbable. The chances of winning a sweepstakes were one in the millions of entries. The odds of getting struck by lightning in any given year are better: one in about one million. But to have those two events manifest themselves at the same time? Perhaps as improbable as being struck by lightning seven times as U.S. park ranger Roy Sullivan was during his life. The odds of suffering such repeated misfortune are about one in 10 octillion. Still, I suspect they were better than those Las Vegas would have assigned to Maggie Mae, Allie, and me in our quest to preserve forevermore.

###

This could be an opportune moment to mention lightning strikes the Earth about 8.6 million times each day. Many ancient civilizations believed each flash represented the wrath of God, who was seeking vengeance against sinners. That would suggest God’s aim is far worse than that of any villain shooting an automatic weapon in a Hollywood movie. It also should have inspired at least a few reprobates to taunt the Creator whenever a major thunderstorm rolled through a village.

Just to prove they had the cojones to do so.

Truth be told, the worst criminals still hide as everyone else does. That’s because they embrace the question that is an answer for why many people choose to believe in some form of God:

“Why take a chance on being wrong?”

###

The neighbors, Susanna and Walter Pettijohn, became my foster parents before my twelfth birthday. The Pettijohns were in their mid-sixties, and I couldn’t have asked for two better people to raise me. My family’s assets were sold, and the proceeds were placed into a trust that I inherited when I turned eighteen. The fund also became the repository for the annual payments from the magazine sweepstakes.

Even though I wasn’t as smart as Maggie Mae Monahan, I was intelligent enough to skate through school with A’s and B’s. Doing even better would have required more discipline. With the death of my mother and father, I lost the driveshaft needed to propel excellence. I became a minimalist, working only as much as needed to pass required inspections.

Unless, of course, it involved writing.

Growing up in a rural Colorado environment had retarded my social development. When I wasn’t in school, I had little contact with people outside the family unit. Introverted, I chose to observe instead of participating when I did mingle with others. I spent far more time with my Underwood typewriter and my General Electric transistor radio because I discovered I loved writing and music. At age thirteen, I decided I wanted to be an author. I knew nothing about writing. I knew nothing about falling in love. So, I combined my ignorance.

I worked on a book manuscript at night for nearly six years. I did so while listening to KOMA, an AM radio station in Oklahoma City whose broadcasting signal was upped after sundown because of the Earth’s ionosphere. Artists such as Jimmie Rodgers, Dion and the Belmonts, and Brenda Lee yielded to the likes of Glen Campbell, the Beatles, and Dionne Warwick during that period. They all seemed to tell me about love while I typed.

I pictured myself chiseling the philosopher’s stone, using its powder to transform ordinary words into literary gold. It was my mission in life—to be the best writer in the world.

I have never become that, but I do know this:

I’m at least the second-best writer who ever affected the souls of 114 billion people. That’s because Allie Briarsworth was far more creative than I had ever been. Even if she did have help from an outside source.

Regardless, I was nowhere near the level of excellence I sought when I still lived in Cañon City. The light bulb needed to illuminate that path remained dim. The harder I tried to understand the world I hadn’t seen in person, the more I knew I had to experience it. Life in a small town was too restrictive for that.

I knew I needed the proper environment.

###

Susanna Pettijohn became a seventy-one-year-old widow just weeks before my eighteenth birthday. I had been driving my parents’ white-and-brown 1956 Pontiac Star Chief, but its transmission had died just after Walter’s funeral. Susanna insisted that I borrow the black 1952 Chevrolet 3100 pickup truck parked on her farm. Walter had died while he sat in that truck in front of Rosedale Market. Suffering from progressive memory loss, he may have been searching his shirt pocket for the grocery list that had been left on the kitchen table. More likely, Walter was just clutching his chest when his seventy-three-year-old heart stopped beating.

“I’m worried about Walter,” Susanna said one night while we ate the meatloaf, mashed potatoes, and peas she had prepared.

Puzzled by her offhanded remark, I wondered if Susanna was also showing signs of dementia. “How so?” I asked, hoping that question would be the safest response to what she had said.

“He’s never contacted me,” she said, shrugging her shoulders. “I think he would if he could. Have your parents contacted you?”

“You mean from the Afterlife?”

“Yes, from there.”

I shook my head no. “I have dreamt about them. But I can’t say I’ve heard from them.”

Susanna sighed. “That makes me glad and sad. I’m glad Walter isn’t the only one who hasn’t reached out to his loved ones from Heaven. On the other hand, I’m sad because maybe that means there is no Heaven.”

###

I didn’t visit any car dealerships until the time came for me to leave. That was because Susanna always had a wide smile on her face when I drove the truck. Somehow, I believe, it made her think of Walter.

Ah, memories. They were all we would ever have and all that we would lose.

About three months after graduating from Cañon City High School, I purchased a black 1968 Pontiac Firebird 400 Convertible. I did so because it exemplified what I wanted to become: fast, smooth, and appealing.

Incidentally, the reason I identify the color, year, make, and model of the vehicles in this recollection is to make this point: In the 1960s and for part of the 1970s, we still could differentiate brands of cars from one another. Had I died for the first time in 1993 instead of 1973 as I did, all I would have known was the person responsible for the horrific wreck was driving some unrecognizable piece of shit. Instead, I had no doubt the driver of a lime-green 1971 AMC Gremlin X had been responsible for what had happened to me.

I liquidated almost all items that I owned, reducing my material possessions to what would fit in my new car. I left to attend college in Boulder, seeking the intangibles that would help me be the best writer in the world.

It was what I thought I wanted to be.

Soon after, when I became surrounded by unbridled entertainment, I wanted to become something other than a writer. At least for a while.

Metaphorically, I became the dog that broke his chain and chased a speeding silver 1968 Dodge Charger down the street, barking at a spinning tire that would kill me if I ever caught it.

Why?

Because it was fun.

—3—

In the late 1960s, the University of Colorado at Boulder was a counterculture haven. The African-American Civil Rights Movement was peaking, and it had taught the nation the value of protest. The Vietnam War had gripped the country, and the sentiment that the fight against Communism was being waged effectively was waning. The ensuing peace movement spawned a self-indulgent age of sex, drugs, and rock and roll.

In 1968, college was perhaps the best option for male high school graduates who did not wish to be soldiers in war. A military draft ensured forced government employment without a reasonable guarantee of survival. Student draft deferments would at least delay such subjugation. After having been confined in a small Colorado town, the only hill I wanted to take was The Hill in Boulder, where I could drink 3.2 percent beer at places like The Sink and Tulagi.

###

I knew the metamorphosis from cautious, introverted farm hick to confident, extroverted suavecito would be tricky. With the help of beer and Johnnie Mirros, it proved not to be a problem.

First, let me describe my own physical appearance. I was nearly six feet tall, and I weighed about two hundred pounds. I had always looked bulky, but that was to be expected because I dodged all opportunities in high school to exercise when it wasn’t mandatory. I had blue eyes and brown hair that was long enough to be accepted within hippie circles, but short enough to be considered somewhat conservative. Girls told me I had a “nice face,” which in the female tongue meant “at least you’re not ugly.” Knowing I wasn’t starting from rock bottom was helpful.

To integrate into the college environment, I joined Phi Omega Rho, a fraternity with an unwavering commitment to hedonism. At one of its parties designed to entice members, two professional strippers were hired to assist recruiting. Dancing to The Spencer Davis Group’s “Gimme Some Lovin,’’’ the voluptuous ladies attracted prospects into the fold by allowing them to lick whipped cream from their nipples. This was analogous to the Sirens from Greek mythology that lured sailors to the dangerous rocks upon which they would shipwreck.

From lust to lost.

After that event, no freshman at the bash asked to read the full terms and conditions before signing. That’s because we all felt as though we had struck it rich with the POR house.

###

I met John Mirros at the POR house during the “strip and lip.” We became best friends in what seemed like minutes, and I agreed to become his roommate. I knew I could feed my need for women with just the crumbs that fell from his plate. If I needed proof, I could ask to see the two telephone numbers he had acquired from the older women who were now wiping themselves down before getting dressed.

I started calling him Johnnie because the nickname seemed to fit his fun-loving personality. He would later ask why I spelled it the way I did. I told him it was the uncommon form for an uncommon man. Truth be told, I had no real answer for that question.

A street-wise freshman from southwest Denver, Johnnie was of Mexican descent. Yet, he was a dead ringer for Omar Sharif, an Egyptian actor who had won the hearts of women across the globe with his roles in Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago. Most would have thought it impossible to improve upon the Sharif model, but Johnnie had. His irrepressible smile and smoothness would make a used-car salesperson bow with respect.

Johnnie was about two inches shorter than I was, and he weighed about fifty pounds less than I did. However, he was fast—so fast he had finished second in the 100-yard dash at the Colorado AAA High School Track and Field State Championship during his senior year at Denver Lincoln. His mother, Imelda, was proud. His father, Ralph, was unimpressed.

“Running fast doesn’t mean shit,” Ralph said during a dinner at the family’s house to which I had been invited. “You can’t outrun the mistakes of life.”

Ralph had made this observation after draining a six-pack of Coors beer and eating a plateful of beef tamales. He thought his son, who was sitting next to him, was wasting time in college and that he should have joined his plumbing business.

After, of course, Johnnie had served the inevitable tour of duty in the military.

Imelda reached over and shoved Ralph in the shoulder. “Estúpido,” she said to her husband.

Neither Johnnie nor I wanted to make a commentario on that.

###

Johnnie was no strategist. He lived in the moment without the slightest plan for tomorrow. As quick with his mind as he was with his feet, he could establish a conversational flow that favored his aims. Some would call him a bullshit artist, but that description was far too cheap to characterize him. He truly cared about people, even when he wanted something from them.

With no idea what he wanted to study, Johnnie had registered for five core classes that would, if passed, produce credits for whatever major he would choose. I, on the other hand, wanted to be a novelist, but I understood no writer becomes Ernest Hemingway through a college degree. Like all authors, I would need experience. I chose Hemingway’s path—start as a journalist to hone the skills I would need to write what I wanted to write. Fortunately, I wouldn’t need to subsist on a newspaperman’s meager pay.

Unless I spent all my sweepstakes money on The Hill in the meantime.

###

With the freedom we only dreamt about in high school, Johnnie and I were prepared to abuse it. Because neither of us had self-restraint, we prowled the nightclubs nearly every night during our first semester. When it came to beer, we used the suds to wash away our inhibitions. When it came to women, we would take no prisoners even if they surrendered to us. We just released them in the morning and sought replacements mere hours later.

Although Johnnie never said it, he knew I wasn’t his equal when it came to attracting gorgeous females. He was careful to engage only pairs of women who were head-turners so I wouldn’t have to settle for a poor selection.

What are friends for?

With each conquest, I became brasher even though I had no reason to be. Johnnie always worked the two women on my behalf as well. I assumed that was because he recognized that after he made his choice for which of the two he wanted to take to bed, the second woman might need additional nudging to warm up to me. He knew how to do that, too.

“You ladies might not know who the man sitting with us is,” he would say. “Remember the name ‘Paul Tomenko.’ He’s working on a novel that a famous literary agent in New York wants to see based on the outline and sample chapters he’s seen.”

What Johnnie kept telling women about my novel was true. I had submitted a half-assed work of fiction to Stephen Arthur Norris during the summer. While cleaning out my room before I left for Boulder, I cobbled together pieces and parts of the typewritten material, stuck it into an oversized envelope addressed to the literary agent, and applied the correct amount of postage before tossing it into a mailbox. What Johnnie failed to mention was that Norris wanted to see the book along with a $250 reading fee, presumably so he could make a profit on my terrible manuscript. Even though I was uncomfortable with the omission, the opportunity to interject that distinction never seemed to arise. That’s because I was immediately besieged by questions regarding the book’s title and contents.

My initial response was almost identical every time I uttered it:

“It’s a book about a teenaged boy looking for love. And the working title is Second Best.”

Albeit humorous in the context of what I was hoping to achieve, that was the truth.

The technique worked. The perception that I was already on the fast track to literary fame increased my desirability. Thus, Johnnie and I often went back to the POR house with drunken beauties hanging from our shoulders.

###

I’m not sure why someone thought the phrase “giving it the college try” should express the concept of exerting supreme effort. About 35 percent of all college freshmen flunk out, and another 10 percent fail to graduate within six years. It would seem many students jack around when it comes to academic drive. The college try had no relevance to Johnnie and me because we did everything but try.

Within weeks of meeting Johnnie, I knew we were struggling with scholastics. Our midterm examination scores were dismal. Perhaps it was because we seldom attended classes or studied.

“It’ll be all right,” Johnnie declared one evening while we sat inside Skunk Kreek Inn. He hoisted his mug of beer. “We’ll figure out something. We always do.”

“I don’t know about you, but I’m walking the tightrope,” I replied. “If you have a safety net, right now would be a good time to bring it out.”

Johnnie never responded to that challenge. He was too distracted looking at some gorgeous women who just sat down at a nearby table.

Our academic methodology remained unchanged. I was fortunate enough to have two classes that emphasized report writing in determining letter grades. Johnnie was not. When I tallied the results in December, I had posted a miserable 1.6 grade-point average. I wasn’t surprised when I found out Johnnie had failed all five classes. Both of us had to petition the university to stay in school.

I was told I could remain, but I needed to lift my average to at least 2.0 at the end of the spring semester. Johnnie’s request was rejected without comment.

Those outcomes brought us together on a frigid night one week before Christmas in 1968. Dressed in parkas, we trudged to Tulagi for a sad event that demanded more beer than a human should be able to consume.

“There’s a chance you won’t be drafted,” I said even though I knew otherwise. “And, even if you get drafted, they might send you to Germany or someplace like that.”

For the first time that night, Johnnie cracked a smile and shoved me in the shoulder.

Estúpido,” he said. He turned toward the bartender and waved. “Another pitcher of beer for my wishful-thinking amigo!”

###

Alcohol often clouded our thought processes. That dynamic was at work as we disputed battlefield tactics.

“It would work,” Johnnie insisted, his eyes glazed. “They would all be so surprised. They would stop shooting.”

“They would not,” I objected as I fought my own fog. “Everything that moves gets shot. Did you not watch John Wayne in The Green Berets? It wouldn’t matter if you weren’t wearing clothes.”

“No, you don’t understand, Paul. Without a uniform, they wouldn’t know what side I was on. Enemies can’t be just human beings. They have to be soldiers.”

I couldn’t argue with that logic.

We continued swilling beer until our surroundings blurred and our words slurred. Finally, we agreed we should vacate our seats while we could still stand without falling. Johnnie excused himself and disappeared into the men’s restroom. Minutes later, he bolted past me as he produced a blood-curdling scream.

Naked, wearing only his gloves, socks, and shoes.

Of course, I didn’t have a gun to disprove his argument.

He vanished through the front door of the establishment.

Chasing him would have been futile. No one would be able to catch him.

Well, maybe except for that one guy who beat him in the state high school track contest.

I found Johnnie three blocks away at the POR house, dead asleep in bed. Despite his brutal hangover, he packed his belongings the next morning and left for his parents’ home in Denver to await the inevitable letter from the Selective Service System.

It would be the last time I ever saw Johnnie. That is, of course, until after we were both dead.

Literally.

He just didn’t know who I was.

Or who he was.

###

After Johnnie had left, I dropped a pen and watched it roll underneath his old desk. I fell to my knees to retrieve the object, and I noticed a spiral-bound notebook that had fallen behind what Johnnie called his escritorio. He had scrawled “Political Science 101” and his name on its cover. Opening the journal, I found what I had expected: less than three pages of handwritten notes. I flipped through the remaining pages, and a photo booth strip fell to the floor. It was a reminder of our stop at a drugstore one September day. Johnnie and I had our heads together, laughing in all four photos.

I sighed and pinned the strip onto my bulletin board.

Amigos para siempre,” I said after I stood back and looked at it.

Yes, friends for always.

—4—

As a University of Colorado freshman who needed to perform at higher academic levels, I didn’t welcome spring semester classes. Yes, I would have to work harder, but I still resisted the idea I had to work that much harder. After all, the situation called for just a 2.4 grade-point average during the upcoming round.

The large living room of the POR house was packed with people celebrating the end of College Week One in 1969. With Cream’s “White Room” blasting from a stereo system, I realized Johnnie Mirros wouldn’t be leading the way for me to meet a woman in Boulder.

I had tried to talk to the beautiful Jennifer Nuevo Leon, but she seemed distant and more interested in Bobby Terrill, a handsome and muscular POR brother. Bobby, a senior, didn’t need or want a wingman. And, as far I knew, Jennifer didn’t have a sidekick.

When Bobby turned, he made eye contact with Jennifer. When he took a step toward the woman to whom I had been talking, I saw the woman with whom he had been conversing.

She was a beautiful, well-built, blue-eyed blonde. Her hair, feathered and parted on the left, descended past her jaw line. Dressed in a peasant blouse and blue jeans that accented her rear end and legs, she was of average height. Her smile looked confident, but it seemed to recede as it became evident that Bobby, perhaps the best catch in the living room, had dumped her.

Perhaps, I thought, I could help her deflect the pain.

I walked up to her with swagger, something Johnnie had taught me. “Hi, I’m Paul,” I announced.

“Margaret,” she replied. The inflection in her voice seemed to indicate she was so damn proud of the name.

“Oh, yeah. Maggie.”

“No, Margaret. Everyone calls me Margaret.”

“That’s a name that sounds as if it comes with a stick up your ass,” I observed, knowing I may have just terminated the conversation with my crudeness. “What’s your full name?”

“Margaret Mae Monahan, if you must know,” she replied.

“Okay, even better. Maggie Mae it is.”

“So, you’d like to pick a fight with me right off the bat?”


AUTHOR Q&A

About me

The son of Ukrainian immigrants, Alan Felyk is a University of Colorado graduate who was a newspaperman and space systems editor before becoming an author. His first book—Damaged Right Out Of The Box—is a sometimes hilarious, sometimes wistful memoir, but now he is branching into writing that blends science fiction/fantasy, romance, and satire. Felyk lists Kurt Vonnegut and Rod Serling as his favorite storytellers. A serious music fan, he has accumulated more than 27,000 songs on his iPod.

Q. What was the hardest part of writing this book?
A.
Before starting, I knew the beginning and the end. But I had no idea what was going to happen in between. After my fear subsided, the lack of a middle became the joy of it all: What was going to happen next? So, I began writing with the same eagerness for discovery that I want the reader to have.
Q. Why do you write?
A.
To me, a true writer would rather have a million readers and no money than a million dollars and no readers. I get great satisfaction when I receive a note from a reader telling me how much he or she enjoyed my book. If I can make readers laugh, cry, and think, my job is done.
Q. Tell us about the cover and the inspiration for it.
A.
I wanted the cover to express the science fiction/fantasy, romance, and humor elements of the book. I telephoned my illustrator, Cindy Swanson, and together we scrolled through Internet images based on keywords from the novel. In 15 minutes, she nailed what I think is an eye-popping concept.

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