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The heavy gift of forbidden love

By Marcus S. Conrad, Guest blogger

Since the days of William Shakespeare, writers have been using every tool and contrivance imaginable to bring together two unlikely characters. A flicker of attraction builds to a healthy dose of white-hot passion, then inevitable conflict snaps to life and suddenly, the reader is teetering on the edge as the two struggle their way back to each other. For some, the most engaging part of the story is seeing how they conquer obstacles to find each other again … as we know they will. As we hope they will.

Some say they don’t read romance novels because the genre tends toward the formulaic and predictable. Malcolm Ivey’s second novel, With Arms Unbound, is not strictly of the romance genre, but it does have a romantic subplot which is anything but formulaic and predictable.

The two characters who become lovers meet in the most unlikely of places. From one comes suspicion and aversion, while the other fast-forwards directly to hatred. A thoughtless remark is followed by an unexpected apology, and the ice between them begins to thaw. He risks vulnerability and opens his soul to her, she listens gently and touches his cheek. The author describes the feeling of her touch as “gold dust swirling around in his mouth, down his throat, into his lungs.” This simple gesture is restorative, transformative, astonishing.

Their attraction is hungry and raw, their love fragile and forbidden. Discovery would be disastrous for both. Among the others, they must act like nothing has changed. They must walk through their day outwardly embracing their roles as adversaries, while inwardly carrying this heavy and wonderful gift they’ve given to each other.

Knowing he uses sign language to communicate discreetly with his peers, she decides to learn it as well. From across the room, he watches as her delicate fingers form the letters of words that convey her deepening affection, the electricity of their sweet secret. When she leaves work one afternoon, she knows he’s watching her walk to her car. She appears to be adjusting the shoulder strap of her purse, while signing the letters “I-L-Y” toward his window. Her message hits its mark and he soars into thrilling distraction.

In a private moment, he teaches her the Spanish phrase “Te adoro.” She signs the endearment to him when they are separated. He is nothing like anyone she’s known before; he feels as if every day of his life has been leading up to the day he met her.

But the obstacles are staggering. Eventually, she allows a pessimistic inner voice to cast doubt on the truth, while he languishes in a torturous hell.

The author clearly knows what it’s like to yearn, to crave, to need, to cherish. He reaches into the vast underground of his own soul to dredge up the pain of the past, as well as the buoyant excitement of new love, when delightfully obsessive thoughts of the other person crowd out all reason.

With his skillful pen, Malcolm Ivey takes you back to when you would have recklessly sacrificed anything for just a stolen moment with the one who seems too good to be true and you don’t even care. You can taste the abandonment of your better judgment because you’re floating so high that nothing can even nibble at the edges of your bliss. The author also knows what it’s like to tumble head-first into the despair of loss, the grinding agony of separation.

This tale of forbidden love comes to a logical and satisfying conclusion. The difficult path finally leads home in a most unexpected way. Malcolm Ivey weaves this romantic narrative into his characters’ lives with spot-on mastery, and we are drawn in to accompany them.

Rewriting the code

By Kelly Z. Conrad, Guest Blogger

One of my favorite chapters in the Malcolm Ivey novel, With Arms Unbound, is called “Rewriting the Code” in Part Three. The character of Weasel, befriended and mentored by Kevin, has taken his teacher’s wisdom to heart. While he’s ashamed of a recent backslide into weakness, Weasel decides to avenge a wrong committed against his friend. Sometimes it’s easier to fight for a friend than for oneself.

With Kevin’s guidance, Weasel had begun to see the world and himself with new eyes, and from a fresh perspective. Even while he’s slipping into weakness, Weasel feels the strong pull of conscience. He knows that Kevin would disapprove of his recent choices and there’s a part of him that’s glad Kevin is locked away in confinement and unaware of his lapse in judgment. Weasel actually considers suicide, but doesn’t want to die a coward, and that alone keeps him from acting on it.

Then his opportunity comes. The bully who wronged his friend by taking a silver chain given to him by his deceased brother, is open and unsuspecting. Who would ever suspect Weasel? The scrawny geek who’s been invisible his whole life, easy prey for predators, the object of ridicule, the kid who’s always been too meek and awkward and scared to fight back.

Except on this day. Weasel takes a running charge, jumps and swings as he was taught, and knocks the guy to the ground. He lands another solid punch, then reclaims Kevin’s chain. Instead of simply getting up and accepting his punishment immediately, Weasel takes off in a wild sprint around the rec yard, to the growing cheers of his fellow inmates. He is liberated, joyous, a newborn man. He can hardly believe what just happened. His entire life, he bought the definition that others assigned to him. No one ever considered him because no one ever noticed him. Cowardice, weakness, invisibility were his birthright, written into the very code of his DNA.

Until today. He took action, avenged the crime of theft, stood in for his friend who couldn’t right the wrong himself, and rewrote the code.

This is a powerful lesson for all of us. We do not have to accept the box into which we’ve been placed, either by others or by ourselves. Settling for a lesser definition of who we are is the escape hatch of the lazy, the unevolved, the immature. It absolves us from taking responsibility for ourselves and our choices, which many are all too eager to do. Sure, you can lie down and passively allow yourself to be limited, restrained by the world’s labels. Or you can choose to rewrite the code.

If you’d like help rewriting the code, ask God for assistance.
“Who’s your enemy?” Kevin drilled Weasel during their training sessions.
“Not my opponent,” Weasel would answer.
“Who then?”
“Fear, panic, rage, doubt.”
“Good. Remember this, the opposite of fear isn’t courage. The opposite of fear is faith.”

How Scriptural is that? This dialogue could easily be an exchange between God and any of His children. While the author does not draw a direct line between faith and God, he leaves the door open for the reader.

Nestled among the raw, everyday realities of life depicted in this book are important life lessons, learned the hardest way possible, then illustrated for us by an astute and gifted writer. A man in the truest sense of the word, who began his difficult journey as a child, eventually saw the sense in choosing to rewrite his own code, and became an adult.

His writing is brimming with insight, shrewd and unflinching, into human behavior, human needs and desires, shortcomings and faults, violence, betrayal, tenderness, loyalty, compassion. He brings you crashing into his world, shows you around, and watches your reaction as you try to wrap your mind around, then take in, what has become boring routine for him. He takes you on a wild ride and leaves you off a changed person, inspired to rewrite your own code.

How to make a REAL difference

There is something unsustainable going on in this country. It’s happening in every project building and trailer park across the nation. Babies are being born into poverty, if they are lucky enough to make it that far, as many are discarded with the trash.

These kids grow up like weeds, forgotten by incarcerated and addicted parents — many of whom are still kids themselves — ignored by society, bouncing around state foster care systems and juvenile detention centers, raised by the streets.

When I was smoking crack, I remember driving to my local ghetto to score some dope one morning. I was amazed by how many kids mobbed my car. Eleven and 12-year-olds, pushing and shoving each other outside my window, holding out baggies of the rock cocaine I sought, vying to make the coveted sell. Even in my drug-addled mind, I remember wondering why these kids weren’t in school.

Now, ten years into a 30-year prison sentence, I see those same kids moving into the neighboring bunks in my dorm; 18-year-old boys with 50- and 60-year sentences, their lives already over. I know people will say they made their own choices, but when a child grows up unraised and unloved, when he has to hustle and scrap for everything he gets, when the only environment he knows is one of crime and violence, when the heroes of his community are gangsters and criminals, when the music he’s been listening to his entire life trumpets murder, robbery, and dope-dealing as a realistic, viable life path … it’s difficult to wake up one day and decide to get a GED. Maybe in Hollywood; rarely in real life.

The newspapers say crime is down 4 percent in this country. Somebody is skewing those numbers. With the rise of physically addictive prescription drugs, and heroin rearing its ugly head, there is no way the crime rate is dropping. The problem is not going to go away. It is a festering sore on the face of society that is expanding exponentially. And there’s only one way to stop it: Love.

Naรฏve as it may sound, if every child in this country were loved and nurtured, there would be a lot less violent crime in America 15 years from now. So let’s set aside the whales and the trees and the ozone for a minute. If we really want to make a difference, we need to save the kids.

Because there is no them; only us.

E = mc2

My fatherโ€™s father was a writer and the son of a philanthropist. His name was E. Malcolm Collins II. I never met him, but his novel, Angel Blood,ย was a permanent fixture on the bookshelf in our apartment when I was growing up.

The story passed down through the family was that he was an alcoholic and drug abuser, and in December 1971, he ran a bath of scalding hot water, stepped in, slipped and banged his head. He died in the tub. He left behind one daughter, my Aunt Carole, who also struggled with alcoholism and depression, and one son, my father โ€œMac,โ€ E. M. Collins III, who had his own issues with drug abuse and compulsive behavior.

In 1990, Aunt Carole checked into a hotel room and shot herself in the heart. Three and a half years later, my father died of congestive heart failure. A lifetime of Camel non-filters and horrible eating habits finally caught up with him. Aunt Carole had two daughters: Kelly and Ginger. Mac had four sons: Scott, Keith, Jeff and me.

Not to air any dirty family laundry, but I think deep down my brothers and cousins would agree that thereโ€™s a little crazy swimming in our DNA; a compulsive gene, a predisposition to addiction, maybe even a touch of psychosis. But thereโ€™s also an overwhelming amount of love and music and laughter.

September 5, 2014 is the 21st anniversary of my fatherโ€™s death. Itโ€™s hard to believe that over two decades have passed since the prison chaplain gave me the news. At age 40, I can see the evidence of his genetic fingerprints all over my life; and not just in my evaporating hairline or the blue eyes staring back at me in the mirror. I recognize him in my passion for sports, my own struggles with drug abuse, my love for the Blackjack tables in Biloxi, my affinity for cheesecake. There are signs of E. M. Collins II in me too, and his father, and the echoes of countless generations before them.

When I began writing novels, I took the pseudonym Malcolm Ivey as a nod to those men: Malcolm I, II, and III, the philanthropist, the writer, and the banker. The Ivey represents the Roman numeral IV, Malcolm the fourth, my fatherโ€™s son to the bone and the youngest of four brothers. Ivey.

Today, September the 5th, I will raise a bottle of water to my reflection and salute the Malcolms in me, blemishes and all. As the brilliant Albert Einstein put it, โ€œEnergy cannot be created or destroyed, it can only be changed from one form to another.โ€ I drink to that.