Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Delightfully Indulgent Conversation with Chad Thomas Johnston

Over the past three months, I've had the supreme joy of having a prolonged "conversation" with Chad Thomas Johnston, prolific blogger, author, artist, musician, and "PUNisher Royale".  His writing career spans a number of formats, media and genres.  His first collection of essays, Nightmarriage, is due out as an eBook from eLectio Publishing in late summer 2012.  His full length autobiographical work, The Stained-Glass Kaleidoscope, is currently searching for a home, but rest-assured.  It will be released (believe me, I've read it).

Chad is extraordinarily witty, a massively talented wordsmith and a great friend.  I know you'll enjoy reading this conversation as much as I enjoyed having it.

The Accidental Author:  Chad, first of all, thanks for agreeing to being put on the hot seat for my blog that literally tens of people read.  You and I first met in college at [Southwest] Missouri State University at the Baptist Student Union.  Fast forward fourteen years and two highly divergent paths later, and it appears that we have re-converged somewhat due to our love of writing.  Tell me a little about the path that brought you to where you are today.

Chad Thomas Johnston:  Dude, tens of people is not bad. Google Analytics says I have readers, but they apparently are not terribly fond of commenting. So in the end, I feel like I also have tens of readers, if that.

I’ve really always written in some form. As a child, I wrote little books and bound them with Christmas wrapping paper. My friends read them. I don’t know why, but they read them. Then in high school, I started writing music reviews for largely underground Christian magazines. I wrote about artists other than Amy Grant.

The only letter any reader ever addressed to me in a publication was written by a girl who bought the Prayer Chain’s 1995 Mercury album. I had written about how artful it was, but she only wrote about how the lyrics were too cryptic, and how she didn’t think it was really all that useful to her spiritually. I wanted to write her back and tell her never to read a poem of any kind, ever, because they would be of no use to her.

While working on my master’s degree, I wrote a thesis, which was my first long-term writing project. I got a feel for what that was like, and enjoyed it despite the often grueling nature of the project. Before bailing out of my PhD program in Film Studies at the University of Kansas, I decided that writing a dissertation would ultimately be of no use to me (just like the girl who could not interpret the cryptic lyrics). Only 5 people would ever read it. So I figured I could write a book of my own, and maybe net 6 readers. Unless my readers are lying to me, I have already done that. It took me three years to write my book, and now I’m writing a second with a friend of mine who lives in Virginia.

But writing my first book was when I got the writing bug for real. I realized I could put anything down on paper and lead any reader into my mental wilderness without a pup tent or a book of matches to save him or her from any mind-bears that might appear out of nowhere. I liked that. Thus it began. 
How did you get into writing? Or am I allowed to ask you questions?

AA:  Oh, Chad.  Those aren’t the rules of the interview.  But, since I love talking about myself, I believe I’m inclined to turn this into a conversation rather than an interview.  So, to your question.

I really loved writing when I was in grade school.  I wrote really ridiculous stories about Santa Claus, giant doughnuts and vampires.  Wait...those may have all been in a single story.  Anyway, I continued to dabble in writing when I was in high school, but I also found other ways to express myself artistically (acting and music).

I am reminded that during one of my early high school classes, we took an assessment that was supposed to reveal to us whether we were “right-brained” or “left-brained”.  I scored a big fat zero.  Fortunately, that did not mean that I was devoid of a brain.  Instead, it meant that my brain had no real preference for being artistic or analytical.  Ultimately, for my career, I chose to take the analytical path, and I got my Bachelor of Science in Chemistry, and then later got my Ph.D. in Physical Chemistry at Mizzou.  My dissertation was my first long-term writing project.  It is an excruciatingly boring 300-page opus, complete with graphs, charts and about 30 pages of C++ code that I wrote in the back.  I’m not even sure my committee even read it all the way through, nor do I blame them.

After the birth of my first daughter, I found myself in Washington, DC, working in the Optical Sciences Division of the Naval Research Laboratory.  My particular position did not encourage a great deal of creativity without abandon.  So, I found myself writing in my spare time.  I also found at that time, and enjoyed posting stories I’d written and having critiques, although, very few of the comments and criticisms were all that useful, since most people were reviewing my work just so I’d be obligated to review their work.  Of course, I would conscientiously write an honest review, which many people did not like, and so I didn’t make a great many friends there.

I never really did anything with my stories at that time.  Then I moved to Dallas, and took a position that required a great deal of travel.  So that meant many lonely nights in hotel rooms.  One of the ways I would “wind down” at night was writing.  In 2010, I wrote a flash fiction piece called A Summer Wedding.  It is a sweet tale of young teenagers in the Viet Nam war era.  I submitted it to Untreed Reads, and by May of 2010, it was released.  I have continued submitting a publishing fiction through them, and now have five short stories.  As a result of my “successful” writing, I also did a collaboration with my pastor (Marc Farnell) on a book called Learning to Give in a Getting World, which has sold DOZENS of copies worldwide.

Now, back to questioning you.  You seem to have many artistic outlets.  Do you feel that writing is your primary outlet or just a pivotal cog of your creativity?

CTJ:  I think writing is the area of my creativity where I am most capable of expressing myself. While I love art and music, for example, both end up being wrestling matches where I am pitting my abilities against the ideas my brain is generating. A lot of times, I cannot quite realize what I imagine in those two creative pursuits, but with writing I almost always feel satisfied with what I come up with, and it is enjoyable for the most part. There are definitely times of writerly constipation, but for the most part, I find that if I regularly sit down and make an effort to write, it happens, and I am satisfied. 
I first realized writing could be an outlet for self-expression in high school when I wrote poems about women who broke my pitiful high school heart. I considered myself a poet then, but it was very one-dimensional in the sense that I only wrote when I felt sad, or maybe really uninspired. The same was true of the music I began writing shortly after that.

Eventually, I realized through my friend, artist Danny J. Gibson, that creativity could be a daily pursuit that was not necessarily dependent on a muse. I just sit down and create, and inspiration usually catches up with me along the way. It does not necessarily precede the creative process for me anymore. It can, but as a rule it generally does not.

With that realization, I came to understand that I could write about literally anything I wanted. I did not have to limit myself to writing when I feel sad or elated. I could write about absolutely anything, and I could do it daily, as a discipline like a runner who runs daily to maintain the progress he/she has already made.

Do you write with any kind of discipline, or is it just as the ideas kind of make themselves known to you? I like Stephen King’s idea of discovering stories in a way that is comparable to unearthing fossils that are already formed, and have a shape of their own. I am learning to approach each idea I have as the tip of a discovery that may have roots beneath the surface that are worth exploring.

I bought your Rumspringa short story from today and am looking forward to reading it. It’s a strange thing to think that you’re selling a short story for $0.99, and other authors are selling their full-length novels for the same price. It reminds me of the bizarre new menu imperative at McDonalds where all coffees, regardless of size, cost $1. It seems reasonable, but it’s also a little strange. If I want to buy a smaller coffee, but the large costs $1, I feel somehow compelled to say, “But shouldn’t this small coffee cost less?” Ha! I think this kind of thing is just indicative of how the market for writers has changed, and is continually changing. That pay-what-you-want idea Radiohead introduced into the music market in October of 2007 with their In Rainbows record has sort of become a pricing cue for writers as well. I don’t know about you, but I’d like to think your work and mine both are worth more than $0.99. Ha!

AA:  Rumspringa is a bit of an enigma for me.  I started writing it with no apparent story line, just as a character study, since I tend to write more plot-driven fiction.  For me, my characters tend to be slaves to plot, and their environment and circumstances tend to mold their behavior.  I’ve never really written anything where the character is more the focal point, and so when I started out the story, I sought to study this interaction between biological mother and daughter meeting for the first time.  The protagonist, Corrie, is a sweet girl who was adopted by an Amish family, and whose life has been shaped by the values imparted to her growing up in a strict community that shuns modernity.  Her mother, Wilma, seems to be a vile human being that struggles with addiction of every flavor, and whose exploits have landed her in prison multiple times.

Funny thing, though.  As their interaction progressed, I found a story arc developing, and before I knew it, a simple plot developed.  Strange how those things work.  By the time it was finished, Rumspringa became something of a thematic piece about grace, mercy, forgiveness, and ultimately, sacrifice.

I wasn’t really sure how it would be received.  Much to my surprise, it has sold surprisingly well, in spite of its high “dollar-per-word” price point.  I can’t really say why it has resonated so well with buyers.  If I could, I suppose I would bottle that and sell it.

You mentioned writing as a discipline, with or without the ever-elusive “muse”.  However, every writer has something that consistently and invariably inspires them to write.  If you had to choose something that we could call, for sake of argument, your muse, what would it be?  And why do you think it inspires you?

CTJ:  I am almost always drawn to wondrous thingseccentric things, remarkable things, beautiful things, mysterious things. Whenever I come across something that arouses wonder within me, that’s where I truly light up and find myself inspired.

I was going through the list of films I have rated on Netflix in the past few months, and I ranked a few films highly for this reason alone. Films open up wonders to me on a regular basis. In my list of rated films, there was Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams, which has lingered in my mind since I saw it. It’s a documentary about a French cave that features pristinely preserved human drawings from over 35,000 years ago. I saw that film and thought, “Now there’s a film that’s shown me something truly marvelous that I would never behold on my own otherwise.” 

Another was a documentary called Abel Raises Cain, which is about this man who propagated all of these media hoaxes in order to make society look at itself in the mirror and take a gander at its own absurdities. For example, he created this nonexistent organization called Society for Indecency to Naked Animals (SINA), which railed against animal nudity. One of their slogans was “A nude horse is a rude horse.” People absolutely bought into this hoax, started SINA chapters of their own, etc. In the end, it’s a hoax that shows us how prudish and legalistic we are, and also how eager we are to champion causes of all kinds if we think we will be better people for doing so. It also goes to show: We’ll believe anything. I was just blown away by this master of media hoaxes, and it occurred to memaybe as a person with a public relations backgroundthat this sort of manipulation was just creatively brilliant.

Films like that have a way of inspiring me, and making me want to create simply because it was creativity that led people to create the films that inspired me. I suppose it’s a self-reflexive thing. I see the mechanics behind it and say, “Look what creativity can yield! I have to create, too!”
It’s this sense of “I want to be in on that!” The only problem is, I tend to get carried away, and I become like this kid at a buffetlike when my sister and I would eat at Golden Corral’s buffet with our parents when we were kidsand we would just go whole hog. We would eat everything in sight, and cover everything in this ‘liquid cheese product,’ and stuff it down our gullets. I end up wanting to create all these things all the time, and I never have enough time. I want to do it all. That’s where I think cloning myself would be ideal.

But then again, cloning myself would mean my wife would have to put up with more than one of me. I don’t think she ever bargained for that in agreeing to matrimony.

AA:  So you would say that you aren’t necessarily inspired to write by a single type of “thing”, but rather the products of creativity of others in the world? That’s a fascinating perspective. I find myself most motivated by music, mainly because it is an art form that resonates with me on a very visceral level.  My short story, Collisions, was written in my head on a five-hour drive from Tallahassee to Tampa.  It was dark, it was stormy and it was difficult driving.  But about two hours into the drive, I found myself flipping to the ‘80s music channel on satellite radio, and the first song that came on was “Owner of a Lonely Heart” by YES. As I listened while I tried to concentrate on the deteriorating road conditions, I found that I had never really listened to the words of the song before. I started to wax philosophical about the question posed in the concept of the song: “Is it really better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all?”  I allowed my mind to run laps around that idea, and by the time I pulled into my hotel for the night, the entire plot of Collisions was complete.

That’s the way I work quite frequently.  Other art forms can have similar effects, but rarely do they have the impact that music has on me.

But, let’s “turn the page” shall we?  In your autobiographical, magnum opus The Stained-Glass Kaleidoscope, you draw from a great deal of personal experience.  And, when honesty prevails, there is always the potential to paint unflattering portraits, not only of yourself, but of other people.  Even though the intent is not to offend, do you find that you have to balance your portrayals of real people in your life with a “dash of kindness”, or do you prefer a more unvarnished portrayal that is consistent with memory?

CTJ:  When it comes to portraying others in my writing, which I do often in my writing, I prefer whimsical, exaggerated recollections because they suit the way I see the world. When I write I sort of play in my little sandbox of ideas, and painting unflattering portraits is not really something one does in a sandbox. One plays in a sandbox. One does not stick it to people in a sandbox. That’s someone else’s hairy business. I don’t care to do that. If I truly do not like somebody, I simply will not write about them.

A lot of writers talk at length about this though. Anne Lamott tells the ugly truth with great gusto, and makes me laugh while she does it. I’m not as courageous as she is, frankly. But I also don’t think the ugly truth is the only truth there is. As much as relativism is a dirty word in church circles, I think it applies here: I think people are more than just collections of facts, or a summaries of experiences. People are who they are when they’re alone and no one’s looking, but they’re also publicly constructedtalked about by peers, coworkers, family members, etc. I like the notion that I’m writing about people in a way that only I experience them. And like in a lucid dream, I believe it’s okay to take the controls and take creative license with how I depict someone, especially if it’s true of how I uniquely perceive that person. Someone else might take issue with it, but my response is: Go write your own book about that person if you want. This is my book. I’ll write it my way. Ha!

By the way, I think ideas sort of plant themselves in my mind in all sorts of ways. I didn’t mean to say that I only find inspiration in the works of others. That’s just one source, really. I have experiences like you mentioned with that YES song all the time.

My last essay for IMAGE Journal’s blog was both inspired by and a reaction to the documentary Being Elmo. But the one I’m currently polishing up is inspired by and is about the new Mark Kozelek albumSun Kil Moon’s Among the Leaves. I got the idea for the essay while listening to the album over and over after getting it in the mail a few weeks backa few weeks prior to its official release. I pre-ordered it from Kozelek’s record label, Caldo Verde, and just devoured it as soon as it came in the mail.

It’s like “Put a quarter in my ear, and out pops a prize!” That’s how I feel about cultural consumption for me, and how I get inspired. But I also get inspired by nature, church, friends, family, books, Internet articles, tweets, etc. Nothing is off limits when it comes to the source of inspiration.

AA:  Whenever I allow thoughts to spill forth from my mind to the keyboard, via my sometimes unreliable fingers, in the afterglow of the birthing process, every piece I write always seems like the “World’s Cutest Baby”.  But, after it is allowed to sit and just exist for a while, it can occasionally fester into a steaming pile ofwell, you can choose your own euphemistic expression.  And yet, most times I can’t bring myself to consign even my worst writing to the digital oblivion that lies on the other side of the emptied recycle bin on my desktop.  In rare cases, something I’ve written before gets reincarnated into something that really is worthwhile.  As you process your writing projects, how do you know a “keeper” when you see it?  Do you save your “stinkers” for later resurrection?

CTJ: Yeah, I have “World’s Cutest Baby” syndrome with my writing, too. I really tend to think my writing is always good, but then I look back after about a year and react with something like shock (horror in some cases) at what I thought was great before. Sometimes it’s not even passable. Ha!

For me, that’s one of the benefits of writing over a long period of time. I can keep looking back at things I wrote a year or two ago, and determine if it’s substantial or not. It took three years to write The Stained-Glass Kaleidoscope, and I definitely threw out some contenders for inclusion along the way. (Note: “Threw out” = saved in a folder separate from the main document, but ultimately retained in case I want to revisit in the future.) It’s a good thing it took awhile though, or else I might’ve included some things in the moment that I wouldn’t have in the long run.

I also learned a lot about the writing process while writing it, and I’ve learned enough since finishing the book that I could never write The Stained-Glass Kaleidoscope again. It was just too cumbersome. So my 1,000 word essays for Image Journal are it for now. I want to write 50 of those and publish it as my next book. Not that the first book has been published yet, but … you get the picture. I liked tangents way too much before, and I still like them, but I’m learning to streamline things a bit.

AA:  Speaking of first publications, obviously, you and I (and a bunch of other people on Twitter and FaceBook) know that my digital publishing venture, eLectio Publishing, will be releasing your collection of essays about your wedding, marriage and parenthood a little later this year.  Obviously, in order to write a book like Nightmarriage that is very self-effacing at times, you have to be able to look at yourself and laugh, sometimes in situations that were probably very painful at the time.  How are you able to re-cast “cringe-inducing” situations in such a way that (1) they are pleasing for you to write, and (2) enjoyable for the reader?

CTJ:  Well, mostly I don’t like to think I have to remain the monster that I am at my worst moments. So the writing is a chance to redeem darker moments by finding humor in them.

People all have their flaws, and when two people marry, their flaws get married too. So it’s basically like agreeing to create a disaster with one particular person for the rest of your lives together.

In the end though, my worst moments, and my wife’s worst moments, are not definitive of who we are. They’re part of who we are, but they’re not all we are. Like this weekend, I lost the gas cap to my wife’s Honda Civic, and she was not all that thrilled about it. Neither was I. But am I only a guy who loses gas caps? No. Plus, my wife lost her driver’s license and debit card a few days later, so she could hardly be too mad at me about the gas cap. The best part is, I found her missing cards. So I got to be the hero. And in the end, two people who lose things cancel each other out. Neither is better than the other.

Nightmarriage is not a terribly serious book. It’s not a guide to marriage, or a seedy, gossipy kind of tell-all. It’s playful dark comedy, and it’s me looking back at the stories my wife Becki and I end up telling about ourselves to each other and the people in our lives that are privy to our dumber moments. It’s a compilation of blog entries, but I’ve gone back and reworked them and hopefully elevated them to book-writing status. (Emphasis on “hopefully.”)

In the end, I hope it entertains. But I also hope it gives other people permission to find humor in their own stories, no matter how awkward they are initially.

AA:  I also know that you are writing your first major work of fiction with a co-author who lives in Virginia.  You seem to have more of a natural proclivity for writing non-fiction pieces.  How difficult has it been to make the transition?  What have you been your biggest obstacles thus far?

CTJ:  My biggest obstacle has been, and remains, time. Time is eating my lunch. I want to write a lot more than I do, but it’s not an option if I want to spend adequate time with my family, get adequate sleep, function at my day job, and take care of my body.

I definitely do prefer non-fiction, but I had an idea for a fiction book, and I wanted to write a follow up to The Stained-Glass Kaleidoscope that was less laborious and less of an Olympic exercise in navel-gazing.

The other thing is, I understand and appreciate when other writers succeed in dramatizing ideas, but it’s harder for me to do it myself. Coming up with ideas is no problem at all. But making it all hang together is a challenge.

I still prefer non-fiction simply because I feel most like myself when I am writing it. I consider myself an essayist above all other things when it comes to writing. I have accepted that.

AA:  I found myself in an opposite situation.  I started by writing and publishing short fiction, and then through a series of unusual circumstances, I ended up writing and self-publishing a full-length work of Biblically-based non-fiction with the Senior Pastor at my church.  Fortunately, in my situation, I was able to exercise the creative muscle in my brain by crafting anecdotes to illustrate the concepts in each chapter.  Now, I’m working on a companion Bible Study, which really doesn’t offer much in the way of creative liberties.  It’s going to be a challenge.  We’ll see how it turns out.
Speaking of co-authoring, how do you find writing a book with someone else?

CTJ: My co-author Amanda Lynch does a great job of developing characters, and I’m more of a concept guy. I have a hard time making nonexistent characters spring to life and remain consistent throughout the duration of a story. I think I am just mostly a nonfiction writer, and I had this idea for this book that is a Young Adult-ish supernatural fiction piece, and I thought Amanda would be a good fit for it.

She lays a lot of the groundwork, and I fill in the details. The project has been paused for awhile now, as Amanda had her second child only a few months after Becki and I had our one and only (so far). Babies make rigid writing schedules a little less feasible when other things like jobs, spouses, and other things get in the way. But so far, we’ve had a lot of fun together, making something out of nothing. We need to press our noses to the grindstone again.

AA:  I know that certainly as I develop as a writer (and continue to do so, although I have a long way to go), there are some egregious errors and habits that I’ve shed over the past few years during my maturity.  If you had access to the mythical “Doc Brown DeLorean” and could go back in time and tell your younger self (oh, say, 10 or 15 years ago) some really valuable piece of advice regarding writing or the business in general, what would it be?

CTJ:  I would tell my younger self that it’s okay if he doesn’t figure out his life direction until he’s almost 30. Some people just take longer to finish cooking than others. I know who I am and what I want to do now. I couldn’t say that for sure when I was 27, or even 28. I am a writer, and a hunter-gatherer of beautiful and bizarre things, and I catch them all in my butterfly net and write about my pretty prisoners. Then I set them free for the world to see, that God might be glorified. Repeat ad infinitum. Amen.

AA:  Amen, indeed.

Chad Thomas Johnston is a writer, blogger, artist, singer-songwriter, and publicist who resides in Lawrence, Kansas with his wife Rebekah, their daughter Evangeline, and five felines.  He is represented by Seattle-based literary agent Jenée Arthur, who is currently shopping his manuscript, The Stained-Glass Kaleidoscope: Essays at Play in the Churchyard of the Mind, to publishing houses. He is a regular contributor to IMAGE Journal's "Good Letters" blog at  He has also written for The Baylor Lariat, and contributed a feature to ex-Melody Maker music journalist/Nirvana biographer Everett True's

His collection of essays, Nightmarriage, will be published by eLectio Publishing in late 2012.

JESSE S. GREEVER is "The Accidental Author" and CEO of eLectio Publishing, a digital publisher for Christian authors.  If you are a Christian author and have a manuscript that you think is worthy of publication, check out the submission guidelines and follow the directions for manuscript submissions.

Greever is also a co-author of the book, Learning to Give in a Getting World, and numerous fiction titles from Untreed Reads publishing.
You can become a fan of eLectio Publishing on FaceBook:

You can follow eLectio Publishing on Twitter (@eLectioPubs):!/eLectioPubs

Monday, April 23, 2012

Free Short Story: Sackcloth Angel

Well, in case you've wanted to try my fiction on for size, here is a short story, which I like very much.  However, it was turned down by the editor at my regular publisher (Untreed Reads) and his reasons for doing so are quite valid.  It still doesn't change how much I enjoy the idea of this story, and I think it makes a great story to post on my blog for everyone's enjoyment--completely free of charge.

Feel free to leave me some comments, suggestions for improvement, encouraging words, death threats, earnest pleas to stop writing for good, or recipes for Pots de Creme.

So, without any further delay, here is Sackcloth Angel.

by Jesse S. Greever

The quarter that would kill Jim Karthright jostled carefree in his front pants-pocket.  Jim strode down Fourteenth Street, retracing the same steps he had taken from 8:02 to 8:13 AM every morning for the last seventeen months, three weeks and two days.
And six minutes.
And thirteen seconds.
But who was counting?
After nearly twenty-two years overseas in faithful service to the National Security Agency, certain habits lingered in his demeanor.  The average person might peg him as a paranoid, perhaps even a schizoid weirdy, but meticulous attention to minutiae had kept him alive during some pretty dicey moments in the past.  He didn't see much use to messing with the formula just because he was retired.

He glanced furtively to his right towards the mirrorized glass of the Kerch Building, which afforded him a reflected view of the large picture display window of the Macy's across the street.  Spring dresses adorned eerie headless, yet shapely, mannequins.  It seemed that floral prints were the “in” thing this year.

Navy blue or black suits, crisp, starched white shirts and lackluster red or blue solid ties were the “in” thing for Jim every year.  He slowed his pace ever so slightly, and focused on the surface of the display window waiting for just the right angle to present itself.  He counted his steps carefully.
He willed his heartbeat to slow, as he forced himself into a calm state of mind.  He focused his eyes just beyond the plane of the large display window, deep inside the fleeting reflection of the space approximately twenty-five feet behind him.  His pace decreased imperceptibly, prolonging the brief glimpse of his six-o'clock position.
To his relief, he recognized no one from the last three times he had checked various reflection points.  Short of having eyes in the back of his head, the next best thing was stealing a peek using a technique he had picked up in Leningrad in the late 1970s.  It worked just as well in late 1980s America as it did in Soviet Russia just a decade prior.
Another forty-six steps and he would be at the threshold of the new Starbucks on the corner of Fourteenth Street and Rylen Avenue.  At precisely 8:13 AM, he would assume his position at the back of the ordering line and mentally rehearse his drink order.  In Europe, this type of establishment was quite common, but in America, the public was just kicking the tires of the corner coffee-shop where those who considered themselves trend-setters gathered and talked about the issues of the day.  In Germany they called it a kaffeeklatsch.  Here they probably just called it “bickering about politics and other random crap”.
This type of thing might actually catch on here in the U. S.
Jim applied a few careful foot-pounds of energy to the well-lubricated front door of the Starbucks, and the door swung effortlessly open.  The commingling aromas of ground coffee and steamed milk and forced an unguarded smirk to slide across his lips. 
Caffeine was a drug, no doubt about it.  He had been hooked since the age of thirteen.  Sitting at the kitchen table in rural Missouri, his father had held his finger to his pursed lips while motioning behind him with an awkward whip of the neck, the universal symbol for “I'm-about-to-do-something-that-your-mother-won't-approve-of-so-keep-this-just-between-you-and-me”.  His Dad slid the coffee mug across the table.  Young Jim gripped it by the handle, inhaled the intoxicating steam rising up from the surface, steadied himself and took a long slow sip.
The rest, as they say, is history.

*          *          *

The quarter that would kill Jim Karthright narrowly escaped being spent at the counter of the Starbucks.  Jim had fumbled in his pocket to find the final penny to complete the exact change for his $2.87 grande latte.  Under normal circumstances, he generally only carried enough change to pay for his morning coffee, but today, for some reason, an extra quarter had wound up in his front pants-pocket.  He studied it curiously, the same way a numismatist might scrutinize a 1913 Liberty Head Nickel.  He placed it on the counter, ready to give up the search and just shove $3.00 over to the cashier when he recalled that he had grabbed the other penny and slid it into his other pocket.

Such bewlidering inconsistency drove him crazy.

Just over a year out of the field and I'm already getting lazy.

The quarter destined to kill Jim Karthright slid comfortably back into his pocket.

*          *          *

Jim took measured sips of his perfectly prepared caffe latte while the lethal quarter rested comfortably in his pocket.  His eyes darted restlessly from side to side, scanning the landscape of humanity that crowded into this corner storefront.

Definitely going to have to invest in Starbucks.  Wonder if they've had an IPO.

He examined each person that walked through the door for a moment, noting height, weight, build, approximate age, skin color, hair color, and eye color (if he was able to make it out) with far more precision than the average John Q. Public, but far less than his previous vocation had required.  Every time the front door popped open and someone left the coffee-shop, he made a mental note to cross them off his psychic census.

Outside the large front window, he spied a ratty panhandler begging for loose change.  To Jim’s shock and amazement, the social pariah whipped open the door and strolled into the room with the ease of a regular customer, fouling the jovial atmosphere with a presence that could not be ignored.  The clientèle gave wide birth to the new arrival, as he tried his best to mingle with the general population.

Caucasian male.  Five feet, seven inches tall.  One hundred fifty pounds.  Moderately muscular build.  Perhaps mid-fifties to early-sixties.  Could be younger if hard living has aged him prematurely.  Salt-and-pepper, shoulder length, extremely greasy hair.  His eyes are—what are they?  Violet?  Impossible.  Probably just deep blue.  Maybe indigo.

Fascinated, Jim watched while the bum approached numerous patrons, each one uncomfortable by the spoilage of the homogeneous upwardly-mobile populace of the coffee shop.  He strained to hear what the man was saying.  He seemed rigid in his determination about something, based on his facial expressions and the tension that rippled across his forehead when he made his request.  He remarked to himself in disbelief that on more than one occasion, he shook his head in refusal of dollar bills.  He had an inexplicable, singular interest in something else.

Jim stared down at his coffee attempting to avoid eye-contact, but still strained to hear the man's obviously cockamamie story. 

Probably dying of cancer.  Maybe a Viet Nam vet.  Or maybe a Viet Nam vet dying of cancer.

Jim closed his eyes and concentrated on isolating the man's voice over the tumult of milk steaming, coffee grinding and pseudo-intellectual self-aggrandizing.  Once he locked in on the raspy voice of the unwelcome stranger, he entered a state of near trance-like meditation.

“I'm sorry sir, but I was wondering if I could bother you for a quarter.”

Well, he's nothing if not polite.  But why just a quarter?

He opened his eyes as a yuppie-wannabe across the room reached into his Dockers and pulled out a quarter.  He placed it into the derelict's grime-caked hand, which was met with a one-toothed smile (and that poor tooth was hanging on for dear life) and a wheezy cackle.  Propriety dissolved like saccharin in a hot latte as the Super-Prep recoiled with a surprising lack of subtlety, as if a skunk had just sprayed directly into his nostrils.

Jim smiled with the same smugness a struggling single mother might embrace watching a rich CEO after a fender-bender with a telephone pole. 

That'll teach you.

Jim watched the oldish man stagger over to a lone pay-phone on the wall opposite him, a tiny throng of coffee-sipping, self-centered, thirty-somethings scattered to give him wide berth.  Treating the quarter like a gold Krugerrand, the old man cradled it in his cupped hands and approached the phone.  With a touch of palsy unnoticed by anyone else, he grasped the quarter between his right thumb and forefinger, and guided it towards the slot.

Rapt, Jim leaned back in his seat and folded his arms across his chest.  He listened with every fiber of focused attention in his being.  The man picked up the receiver, fingers articulating with astonishing dexterity, wedged it between his ear and shoulder and slipped the quarter in the slot with a fluidity that betrayed the rest of his “poor-man-down-on-his-luck” demeanor.

His fingers hovered over the keypad on the dull silver phone console.  His dialing-finger hesitated for a split-second before punching numbers that at once seemed both random and purposeful.  Jim squinted to catch as many numbers as he could.

214 area code.  Local.  Somewhere in the Dallas metro area.

The man stiffened almost imperceptibly, and then began talking.  Jim leaned forward, hoping his attention would remain unnoticed.

“Sam and Julie's plane just landed in Haifa, but they are being detained by local law enforcement for an undisclosed reason and are unable to contact you.”

He cradled the receiver and whirled around, scanning the room with eyes that seemed decades younger than the face that framed them.

What the—?

The man resumed his quarter-scavenging hoedown around the room, approaching any new customer who walked through the door.

After another success, he repeated the process.  Jim couldn't help but stare, only slightly conscious that at any moment the bum could turn around and lock eyes with him and the jig would be up.  He was unsure that the man would have cared, but one could never be too sure about the privacy preferences of the homeless.

He connected to his next hapless victim.  “I'm sorry to tell you that your husband, Morris, has been involved in a bit of a fender-bender.  He's hurt his neck and is on his way to St. Bartholomew's downtown.  He's asked you to meet him there.”  Again, he hung up abruptly.

Guy probably hasn't eaten in days, but he's begging for change to make crank phone calls.  Jim grunted his disapproval as he waited for the stranger to find his next hapless quarter-donor.

The stranger shifted his approach, asking for multiple quarters from each new unsuspecting, coffee-deprived caffeine junkie who rushed in the door.  He hit on his third request, receiving three quarters from a well-meaning woman in a flashy, royal-blue pant-suit.

With mounting fascination, Jim followed the man with his eyes back over to the pay phone, and watched, spellbound, as he dropped three quarters into the slot, and proceeded to dial again.

913 area code.  Kansas, I think.  That explains the extra quarters—long distance charges.

As before, the strange caller cocked his head to the side, wedged the receiver against his ear, and slumped while waiting for the unwitting victim to answer the phone on the other end of the line.

Another apparent success.

“Mrs. Henderson?  This is to inform you that you have been randomly selected by KCMO radio as a $100 winner in our 'Hundred-a-Day' contest.  You need to come to the station today by 5 PM to claim your prize.”

Once again, he hung up abruptly without allowing the recipient of his mischief a chance to respond.  Jim cocked an eyebrow and found a sly smile curling the corners of his mouth.  Bemused, he dug around in his pocket to find the errant quarter that somehow had found its way into his pants pocket.  Not sure whether to motion to the vagabond or to wait to be approached and officially pan-handled, the tightness that coiled in his abdomen, a result of the momentary lapse in decisiveness, dissipated as the strange man turned towards him and strode with purpose in Jim's direction.

He gripped the quarter on opposite edges between his thumb and index finger.  He held it up in front of his face, awaiting the approach of its new owner.

Jim tried his best to purvey a sense of graciousness, an expression not in his normal repertoire.  He cleared his throat, and the man locked eyes with him.  Jim's awkward smile came off like an impossible mix of the few seconds after a particularly bad toe-stub and the split-second prior to a particularly humongous sneeze.  “I certainly hope you don't have to dial another long-distance number, because I only have one quarter left.”

The bum cocked his head to the side and studied Jim for a few seconds before reaching out and snatching the quarter with a confidence unusual for the beggar type.  “Don't worry, this one's local.”  He stood in front of Jim, fist clenched around the quarter.  “If you would be so kind, do you have the time?”

Man, this guy is abnormally polite.  Jim was befuddled at the apparent contradiction directly in front of him; shabby, somewhat malnourished, but educated and more polite than ninety percent of the customers in the coffee shop.  He found himself captivated again by the puzzle that was the exact hue of the man's eyes.  At the present angle, they appeared midnight blue; seconds earlier, deep indigo.  No matter what color, vibrant and effervescent.

He tore his eyes away from the stranger's face and glanced at his digital watch, complete with calculator.  He returned his gaze to its previous target and answered, “It's just a few seconds before 8:29.”

“Thank you.”

The quarter that would kill Jim Karthright started its march toward the ultimate fulfillment of its destiny.

Jim leaned back in his seat and watched as the same process as before was repeated.  He was so preoccupied with eavesdropping on the next prank call that he forgot to spy on the number dialed.

Once again, he dropped the quarter into the slot, dialed seven digits of a local phone number, and tapped his foot while apparently waiting for the call to connect.  He turned slowly on his heel and made eye-contact with Jim, his expression a swirl of resignation and something else.

Was it pity?

“I need you to go out on your balcony and look on the street below, Mavis.”

Without knowing why, Jim shuddered, as icy fingers gripped the nape of his neck.  The strange facial expression from the derelict left him with a haunted and hollow feeling in the pit of his stomach.  A maelstrom of inexplicable unease churned from his brain to the tips of his toes, and he was struck with an immediate need to leave.

The quarter that would kill Jim Karthright dropped into the reservoir of coins inside the pay phone as the man hung the receiver in the cradle.  Its work completed, it rested quietly with its minted brethren, waiting for the next opportunity to serve some grand design. 

*          *          *

Jim pushed through the crowd in the Starbucks, furiously shoving through the exit.  Emerging from the coffee shop, he gasped for breath, lungs tightening, chest constricting.

What WAS that?  The vagabond's expression was forever burned into his memory.  For all intents and purposes, it was the kind of look that a compassionate person would have given the bum, not the other way around.  The incongruity of it all tugged his brain in a million different directions, while he attempted to reconcile all the information cascading through his psyche.

He stumbled on the pavement, nearly falling face-first onto the sidewalk.  Righting himself, he looked up just in time to see the silver, late-model Cadillac buck like an unbroken stallion as it hopped the curb, thrusting itself up on to the sidewalk.  Frozen by a fusion of terror, confusion and acceptance at the inevitability of his own annihilation, Jim found himself enjoying the last few moments of life as he knew it in extreme slow-motion.

He made out the horrified look of the Cadillac driver, an old woman with a beehive hairdo that nearly reached the ceiling of the plush interior cab of the car.

He observed the scattering of fellow pedestrians, milliseconds crawling by like minutes, seconds like hours.  He vaguely heard screams and shouts of “get out of the way”, but the curious, echoing voices seemed millions of miles away.

He craned his neck and peered back toward the Starbucks just in time to see the vagabond making his egress, head bowed and feet shuffling.  Something wasn't right, though.  Jim was unable to discern what exactly was violating his sensibilities, but for some reason, something about the derelict did not belong in the tableau that played out in front of his eyes.

Wait, how is he moving faster than

The gigantic luxury vehicle overcame him and smashed against his abdomen, doubling him over, forcing his face against the hood.  The front bumper obliterated the massive front window of the Starbucks, glass shards large and small slicing and ripping Jim's flesh.  He felt the first few, but as his body was torn to fleshy ribbons resembling ground beef, agony gave way to numbness and shock faded into peace.

As the universe resumed its normal pace, screams and shouts assaulted his ears.  His lifeblood hemorrhaged onto the floor of the once bustling coffee shop.  Spine shattered, he was unable to move his head, but in the last few seconds of consciousness, his facial nerves registered the heat emanating from the hood of the car against his cheek.  He watched as the prank-calling pan-handler approached him, knelt down to meet his glassy gaze and placed a grime-laden hand on his forehead.

He spoke softly.  “It won't be long now.”  His voice had transformed from gravelly to preternaturally smooth, his words woven together with beauty and grace.  “Just close your eyes.”

*          *          *

Iris Pembroke pulled onto Fourteenth street, scalp still ablaze after being under the hair-dryer for almost thirteen minutes longer than recommended.  She knew it had been a terrible idea to keep her weekly hair appointment when she found out that Melanie was out sick, but in the last 24 hours, her hair had become unmanageable.  Desperation won out over common sense, and she kept her appointment with the new stylist.

Ignoring the instructions of Morgan, a wretched excuse for a substitute stylist, she reached up and scratched furiously at her overcooked scalp.  At least for the moment, the itching had subsided under the intense scratching, leaving only the searing pain of scalp on fire.

She glanced at the digital clock on the dashboard, then looked up at the road in front of her, just in time to see a young man in those strange tight exercise pants and a form-fitting shiny white shirt on a bicycle swerve into the her lane.  Grasping the steering wheel with a white-knuckle-grip-of-death, she yanked to the right, avoiding the cyclist by inches.

She screeched as the car jolted, pitching itself onto the sidewalk, dividing the throng of pedestrians like Moses  parting the Red Sea.  The unlucky soul who had not been paying attention slammed onto her hood as she exploded through the front window of the new coffee shop on the corner.

*          *          *

Just one more mile to go.

Courtney Jackson pushed against the pain as he pedaled the bicycle down the busy street.  He didn't particularly relish the heavy traffic this morning, as motorists generally didn't afford him the courtesy of giving him space on the roadway, but he shrugged it off.  Any cyclist who chose to ride through urban areas was well aware of the risks.

His mid-week thirty-five mile ride had taken him from the northern suburbs right into the heart of downtown.  Most of the way, traffic had been light for the morning commute, but as the skyline came into view, the usual gridlock had taken shape.  Courtney had enjoyed the flexibility of being able to weave in and out of the stopped traffic, and on only a few occasions, had he needed to stop with the rest of the traffic.

Making a split-second decision and seeing an opportunity to avoid the automotive log-jam ahead, he turned on to Rylen Avenue from Fifteenth Street.  He inhaled, filling his lungs to capacity as the roadway opened up before him, nearly all lanes clear.

Not much further.

The weekly ritual always brought him to Jackie's apartment, where he would immediately shower and then they would enjoy a leisurely breakfast before they were both off to work.  They had been dating for nearly three years, and the time had come for the inevitable “popping-of-the-question”.  His left hand fidgeted as he grasped fanny-pack which held the three-quarter-carat diamond engagement ring and the midnight-blue velvet box.  Satisfied that it was still in place, he resumed his normal grip on the handle-bars.

He glanced around behind him, checking the traffic in the right lane.  Only a large Cadillac was behind him, and it was a good distance away, so he made the appropriate hand-signal and drifted over to the right lane.

A large terracotta flower pot smashed to the ground a few feet in front of him, its floral contents scattering in the roadway.  Courtney jerked the handle-bars hard to the left to avoid puncturing his front tire on the shards of the flower pot.  His center of gravity shifted, and he touched his foot down on the roadway to avoid an embarrassing and likely excruciatingly painful face-plant in the middle of Rylen Avenue.

The Cadillac bore down on him, but seconds before impact, the driver swerved the car into the right lane, and ground the remnants of the flower pot into dust under its tires.  Courtney applied firm pressure to the handle-brakes and stopped in the middle of the street, but not before checking to make sure no other imminent danger was afoot.

Screams wafted into the air as the behemoth luxury car bucked up onto the sidewalk.

*          *          *

Mavis Torgerson ambled through the living room of her small one-bedroom apartment towards the ringing rotary-dial phone on the kitchen counter.  The clanging phone had startled her as it interrupted her morning routine of eyebrow landscaping.  Almost no one ever called her, and certainly not before 9 AM.

She reached for the receiver, lifted it from its cradle and brought it to her ear.

“I need you to go out on your balcony and look on the street below, Mavis.”


“What?  Who is this?”  The line was dead.

Scrambling to place the voice on the other end, her mind ran through dozens of possibilities.  The person on the other end clearly knew who she was.  Could it have been Harry?  He wasn't supposed to be home from his tour of duty until next month, but perhaps he had gotten to come home early, and wanting to surprise her, had disguised his voice.  Intense curiosity and anticipation gripped her as she slid the glass door open.  She stubbed her toe on the threshold, and pitched forward, catching herself on the railing.  Her hand thrust into one of her planters, and she gazed in horror as she watched it teeter over the edge, falling four stories to the street below.

She regained her composure, toe still throbbing.  She peered over the edge of the railing and watched the flower pot crash right in front of a bicyclist, missing him by mere inches.  Her heart pounded as she watched the cyclist steer away from the mess she had created in the street, and her breath hitched when she noticed the large vehicle approaching him.

“Oh my—”

She tried to look away, but found herself frozen, terrified by the scene playing out before her eyes.  She half-yelped when she saw the car swerve away from the man on the bicycle; she squealed in abject terror when she realized the car was barreling into a crowd of pedestrians on the sidewalk.

A cacophony of screams of dread and despair mixed with the grinding of glass and steel as the car careened into one of the storefronts below.  Mavis's own desperate cries mingled with them as she collapsed onto the concrete floor of the balcony.

*          *          *

Jim Karthright drifted in relative peace, as the horrific scene faded away.  Separate from his body, a mangled mess of shredded viscera laid out on the floor of the once bustling coffeehouse, he found himself at peace, detached from the chaos.

Darkness enveloped him.

The designs of the inevitable laid themselves out before him as the final words his mortal ears would ever hear followed him as he made his way towards the light.

It won't be long now.  Close your eyes.

Jesse S. Greever is the CEO of eLectio Publishing, a digital publisher for Christian authors.  If you are a Christian author and have a manuscript that you think is worthy of publication, check out the submission guidelines and follow the directions for manuscript submissions. 

Greever is also a co-author of the book, Learning to Give in a Getting World, and numerous fiction titles from Untreed Reads publishing.

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Learning to Give in a Getting World, by Marc Farnell and Jesse Greever, is available as both a paperback and eBook at the following locations:
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