The lamp that inspired this just-for-fun piece. You can find it at Gold Bar Espresso! I implore you to go there now and tell the proprietor you heard about it on amungus.
Maybe you should read this first, though.
Descriptive Writing Challenge: Instrument of the Devil or Conspiracy on the part of middling-quality writers to keep poor-quality writers writing poorly …
This piece, like some others you’ll find here, began as a letter to my son. I wrote it to make a point to him about creativity and imagination, and how there are people everywhere that don’t understand these things yet will lecture him on how to be creative. “Descriptive writing” is one instrument of these people.
He was 3 at the time. I don’t know yet that I made my point.
She would be among mounds of bubbles in an antique slipper clawfoot tub at the end of a day spent posturing at conference tables and barking into speakerphones. She would be exhausted by the effort of defending The Brand against a fusillade of disjoint and incoherent ideas thrown at it by earnest but uninspired male colleagues. In the sense that she had convinced Leadership to reject every new marketing campaign proposed at the off-site brainstorm session, she would have won the day, so earned the evening in the tub to rejuvenate herself with power drawn from artifacts of her success she’d acquired over numerous pilgrimages to Pottery Barn, Ikea, and Home Depot: Aged faux ivory, teak laminate over particle board, scagliola and marbelite, a red nylon shower curtain covered with the Chinese characters for ‘peace’ and ‘wealth’ in orange.
She would have stepped into the tub from a black cut pile loop bathmat, desiring to read his piece by the light of three thick, purple candles fixed to a four-by-six inch pink acrylic plate by their own congealed drippings. They would stand, vigilant, atop a wrought-iron-wire-in-faux-pewter-finish flower stand positioned at the head of the tub.
She would have left a leg positioned for shaving along the tub’s broad, white porcelain lip even after the final pull of a brand-new Bic Comfort Twin Sensitive for Women razor. Filaments of aloe and vitamin E exuded from the lubricating strip at the razor’s head would follow the curve of her calf. She would have left the leg there, shimmering with youth, after having declined to draw it back under the water.
Thus situated, she would read his submission …
“The rugged traveller laid a meaty paw on the burnished door handle to the weathered roadside café’ that had risen, mirage-like, from the unforgiving desert as he rolled along the undulating black ribbon of the lonely highway. He looked one last time at his “hawg” with apologetic eyes because he felt an oppressive guilt for leaving her to bake in the scorching desert sun while he satiated the hunger that gnawed at his innards from the inside.
But he could tell this was going to be no Sunday picnic, even if it was Sunday, and Super Bowl Sunday at that. He steeled himself against what he was about to witness there behind the massive, broad-grained wooden door. He inhaled powerfully. He exhaled equally powerfully. He strode confidently in.
She would not know that she had bitten her lower lip.
Nothing could have prepared him for what he saw next, which was the interior of a café’ strewn with junk, junk from where he could only guess, as if the café’ was actually a garage wherein a sale had been going on when a bomb exploded. Especially singular were the table lamps. No two were similar.
He surveyed the café’ for an empty table. He found one next to a table with a lamp having a round, full body finished as if bronze. But judging by the overall character of the place, injection-molded plastic was more likely. Delicate filigree ran over the lamp’s curves.
Four praying schoolgirls surrounded the lamp.
Though wet, warm, and comfortable she would shiver, and be invigorated by the weight of her breasts.
He navigated to the empty table for two by himself with his ominously black helmet under a beefy, tattooed arm. As he sat, he discovered that his table also had a lamp, but an exceptionally strange one. He welcomed its enchanting presence with a sheepish grin though he was a simple man with simple tastes. He would never have bought such an outrageous accessory, yet he remained open-minded enough to feel enriched by his encounter with it. He broadened his grin, happy to be distracted from his hopelessly lonely quest to recover something terribly important to him that he’d tragically lost long ago.
Beneath the water and the suds she would curl her wrist around the hip of her raised leg to attend to an itch at her deep inner thigh. She’d rake the irritation with four nails, roughly.
He grasped the lamp’s shaft with interest, seeking tactile confirmation of its visually-apparent girth and composition. Even his fingers, long as they were at the end of his enormous palms, only just barely encircled it completely. The shaft’s steely hardness was somehow reassuring. Being an imaginative pipefitter, he found it easy to believe the shaft had once been big-bore pipe that had brought steam heat to schoolgirls praying for succor while trapped in their prairie schoolhouse by a fierce winter blizzard.
She would realize that her pacification of the itch had been too severe. She would soothe the abused patch with light strokes of her fingertips, moving first in a circular motion, then in strokes that followed the swell of her gracilis up, then down, over and over. The reciprocating motion would induce warm wavelets that lapped the sweat running down the back of her raised thigh.
The lamp might have been uninteresting if not for the three monkeys in fired clay seeing, hearing, and speaking no evil in a ring around the lamp’s base. This was not the first time he’d seen the three monkeys in his short life, but on no previous encounter had he the time to consider, let alone learn, their meaning. What was the point of them? He decided resolutely that he would plumb their mystery now. He brought them close. Many indifferent patrons had sat at this table before him, no doubt, but only he would succeed in coaxing them to relinquish their secret. He showered them with attention from his bright grey eyes.
She had been open at the start. Now, too late, she would realize she was vulnerable. She would raise her submerged leg to plant her foot against the curved wall at the low end of the tub. Her knee would raise the suds like her own mons veneris until it burst through into cool air.
She would have told herself she was happy, that everything was going according to plan, that no effort on her part was required to salve her unrelenting, murmuring want. She need only wait for the lonely, rugged, travelling pipefitter to roll to her over an undulating black ribbon desert highway.
But she was not accustomed to waiting to get what she wanted. And at the moment, what she wanted was to be interested and engaged in the adventures of a tall, burly, handsome, grizzled stranger plumbing a lamp for meaning in a roadside espresso bar.
When he first saw them, he thought they were tacky. But up close like this, the monkeys took on a talismanic quality. They were not just a symbol, he decided. They were trying to tell him something. But what?
A drop of condensed moisture would fall from the shower curtain rod directly onto one candle’s flame. The candle would spit and hiss.
She would flash contempt at the reflection in the floor mirror of the three dour, purple Puritans, two still flickering, one extinguished and smoldering. She wouldn’t care if they saw her expression. She wouldn’t care if they saw what his piece was inspiring her to do. She hated them. She wanted them gone, and in their place she would crave the company of the traveller’s three No-Evil monkeys in fired clay.
She knew what they were trying to tell him. She would need the traveller to know, too.
“Your secret is safe with us.”
She would lightly blow across the suds, exciting uncountable microscopic bursts to a chorus that would swell and recede like a lover’s sigh. Beneath them, her fingers would spread. One would reach.
The lamp had evidently been hand-painted with a brush and under extreme duress, for the finish was sloppy with bristle streaks.
She would moan, arch her back.
The color of the paint was green.
She would scoff, and pull the raised leg back under the water with a splash. She would ball up his submission and toss it to the floor. She would groan and rub her temples with the heels of both palms, trying to drive away the memory of an ex-boyfriend shaving her legs with the dexterity and sensitivity of an aroused baboon, in this very tub, with his own dull razor, on Valentine’s Day, because he had thought it would be romantic.
The writer looked up to see a young girl in a white blouse and green plaid skirt paused at his feet, which, because he’d thrust them beyond own table’s footprint into the aisle, were obstructing her progress to the espresso bar. He apologized, withdrew his legs, sat up straight.
He congratulated himself while watching her go on her way. On the whole, this had been an inspired session: 602 words towards the limit of 750 he had moved his imaginary Reader with the best descriptive writing he’d ever done – without Google!
But ‘green’ had broken the spell; ‘green’ was going to be a problem.
Suspecting that nobody had ever won a descriptive writing challenge with a submission including the word ‘green’ he typed
descriptive writing challenge winner include green
into the Google search text box. The top 100 among approximately 4,150,000 results were inconclusive on the question he’d wanted answered, but among them, at position 83, was this from the ‘Strategies’ section of a site congratulating itself for 10 years of launching young readers and writers – to where the site did not say:
Teaching students to write more descriptively will improve their writing by making it more interesting and engaging to read.
He lifted his mug to his lips, drank the foamy dregs of a hot, wet cappuccino long ago gone cold. He set the mug back down, read and re-read the assertion, wondering what crisis had prevented the copywriter from finding a more descriptive way to write, ‘write more descriptively.’
He relaxed his eyes by checking the clock over the cash register.
4:38. Daycare charged a steep fee for storage after 6:00, and he’d need a half-hour to get there. So he had 52 minutes to get past ‘green.’
The challenge announcement had said, ‘Go to a café’ but he hadn’t fallen for that trap. He knew better than to go to just any café’, so where his competitors had likely plodded off to their customary uninspiring haunts, he had invested time enough to Google for “espresso eclectic café’” and the name of his town.
He’d further invested a day’s wages by calling in sick.
Google’s café’ was, as advertised, rich with intriguing art, signage, knick-knacks, tchotchkes, and a wire rack full of the proprietor’s self-published books on the worldly benefits of faith. From the instant he entered he’d been engorged with confidence that in that bizarre setting he would craft the submission that would crush those of all other contestants flogging at laptops in their bland, antiseptic, colorless café’s.
He had congratulated himself while waiting for his order and surveying his surroundings. He had nearly swooned with vertigo while cataloging objects worthy of his descriptive prowess on his way to an empty two-top. Vertigo gave way to apprehension: Where to start?
Then he spied the lamp.
He sat. He fired up his laptop, opened Word, and typed into the blank page the lamp’s salient attributes:
Shaft and Monkeys had gone well, but Green threatened to deflate him. The encounter with the schoolgirl served well to remind him the challenge was likely to receive submissions from women. She’d unwittingly advised him of his disadvantage, by virtue of his sex, for describing colors: Women have words for ‘green’ like Eskimos do for ‘snow’.
He resorted to Google. He opened a new browser window. He typed “green synonym” into the search box. The Internet, great vocabularic equalizer that it is, returned enough limp-wristed understudies for the word “green” to fill two theater wings. On impulse he copied “chartreuse” from the list because it seemed accessible yet freighted with significance, significance he hadn’t the time to figure out but didn’t think it unreasonable to believe that his Reader would. He highlighted “green” for deletion in the Word window. He poised fingers over the command and v keys simultaneously. But just before tapping to obliterate the brawny but stupid ‘green’ he withdrew to quell a protest arising from an uncomfortable fold in his scrotum.
While rearranging his junk he discovered that the schoolgirl, returning from the bar with an iced frapp and a stir stick, had stopped again to observe him. He apologized without understanding why, then bent to his laptop. To re-establish his dignity, he typed ‘chartreuse’ as though harangued by an overbearing muse.
Moments later he heard a chair scrape as the schoolgirl re-took her place among her three friends. Moments after that, he heard giggles.
At 4:44, he back-spaced over ‘chartreuse’. By 4:59 he’d rejected every other candidate in a list of synonyms selected from 5 distinct online thesauri, most of them because he had not the vaguest clue what color the words represented (Teal? Verdigris? Malachite? Beryl? Bice?).
He considered substituting ‘blue’, but after three minutes rejected the idea for failing to see how the substitution improved his prospects for winning the challenge.
In the browser he back-arrowed to page 1 and commenced slogging through the Google results a second time. At 5:07 he struck gold with a document he’d missed on his first pass. The supporting copy on this site promised that,
Your writing will blaze with colors that paint a picture in your readers’ heads. Instead of writing, “The man drove away in a green car,” say, “The green horn of a robber escaped in an emerald sedan.”
For one full precious minute he pondered what a ‘green horn of a robber’ might be before smacking a hand to his forehead and saying just loudly enough for the schoolgirls to hear, “’green horn’ is supposed to be ‘greenhorn’!”
He smiled at them. They did not smile back, but crossed themselves and kissed their rosaries to close the prayer his mild outburst had interrupted.
For two more minutes he tried to conceive of a narrative wherein the reader could not have understood long before the getaway that the robber was inexperienced, so would be grateful, rather than irritated, to learn of it at a point when he ought to be concerning himself with the story’s other details.
The method by which an author was to paint blazing pictures in the reader’s mind was, “Root and Branch,” a simple process with a name suggestive of a tree but illustrated by a diagram that looked more like a spider’s web. The method, as touted by its proponents, reduced the fulfillment of a writer’s obligation to choose only the most descriptive words to a pleasant diversion in following loops and whorls from the ‘root’ (which was the word ‘green’) to branches labeled with more blazing substitutes.
Above the diagram was text the designer might have intended to clarify its purpose:
Root and Branch: An expression used by the Puritans meaning the whole of it without any exceptions or omissions
But the text omitted any guidance or instruction on how to use the diagram to achieve the guaranteed result. For 7 minutes the writer tested numerous ingenious approaches that yielded words well suited to establishing his lamp as a symbol for, say, a very poisonous bright green powder (“Paris Green”), or a certain mountain in Costa Rica teeming with exceptional bird and mammal life. Blazing as the terms were, he was loath to use them because he could not see a connection between their etymology and the point of his story, which was …
He’d get to it.
Root and Branch sometimes yielded lesser forms of green, simple constructions formed by sticking a proper noun ahead of the color to bring focus, clarity, specificity, and purpose to green: Kelly Green, Lincoln Green, Mittler’s Green. He passed on these, figuring they could be called ‘descriptive’ only by an audience having the prerequisite familiarity with Mssrs. Kelly, Lincoln, and Mittler, which familiarity he did not possess.
Clearly, Nile Green was highly descriptive to any reader who had observed the Nile River. He skipped it though, risking the alienation of that particular audience.
He next wondered, while staring at the lamp on the schoolgirls’ four-top, whether ‘Catholic Green’ was valid, and if so, whether using it might shore up his piece with a deep, metaphorical underpinning he could figure out later, after he’d won. Or wait for the judges to figure it out for him.
It was the schoolgirl lamp that had been the inspiration for the neighboring lamp in the fictional café’ of his piece, because their lamp was all of the things described therein. Would it be cheating, he wondered, if he described their lamp rather than his own? Who would know? He’d already taken considerable liberty with the diameter of his own lamp’s shaft (it was in fact only about as thick as his thumb).
What would be the harm in tossing out his No Evil Monkey lamp in favor of their full, rounded lamp filigreed and finished as if bronze?
Eventually he would have caught himself staring at frapp-schoolgirl’s breasts and wondering whether they too were bronze, but because she’d caught him first, he turned back to the diagram.
He couldn’t find ‘Fucking Green,’ and that seemed a pity to him. It seemed legitimate.
The lamp was, he was near to conceding, just fucking green.
At 5:17 he abandoned the Root and Branch method.
Pacing sometimes helped him break through a block, so he tried it. During his sojourn around the tables he noticed the girls eyeing him warily. With good reason, he conceded to himself. He could not have made a good first impression.
The 5 online thesauri unanimously endorsed a family of several synonyms, most of them obvious: Jade, Emerald, Lime, Olive, Pea, the aforementioned Chartreuse. But another common synonym was one with which he wasn’t familiar. Rather than return to his laptop and simply Google it, he used his ignorance as a pretense for initiating an exchange with the girls, one in which he’d show that, despite his erratic behavior, he was harmless, indeed charming.
“Excuse me, ladies. I’m writing something rather important, against a deadline, but I’m blocked. I could use your help. Can you please tell me what ‘verde’ means?”
Catholic frapp stir stick girl replied, “It’s Spanish for ‘green.’”
“You’re fucking kidding me.”
“Okay, that was inappropriate,” she rebuked him, a bit more snottily than called for, he thought. “And no. I am not fucking kidding you.” To her three compatriots she said, “Duh.”
The girls were still giggling when he collapsed into his chair at 5:28.
With a thumb and forefinger he pressed the Command and A keys simultaneously. He sighed. He hit the Delete key. He banged at the keyboard with self-loathing and disgust.
The man entered a café’ unremarkable in every aspect – except for the conspicuous absence of table lamps