Writing in Arizona ain’t like writing in Florida. So if you are an aspiring writer, and thinking of moving to Arizona because you’ve heard it’s a state warm and inviting for people such as yourself, I offer this anecdote for, well, for whatever it’s worth to you [bpm]
My hostess in the pie shop off Arizona’s I-17 has an authoritarian bearing about her when she says, by way of greeting, “You better be here for the workgroup.”
“The Mad Writers, yes.” I peer at her nametag. It says, “Cindy.”
She jerks a thumb toward a group seated at a round table far across the dining room. “Right over there.”
I smirk and wink when I say, “Thanks, I figured,” because there is nobody else in the place. I am still smirking when I throw out the joke I’ve been working on since discovering the workgroup on meetup.com. “Any idea what they’re so mad about?”
“No. Find out when you sit in with them, come and tell me. Need a menu?”
I shake my head and point to the display case, which is full of pies. “My appetite’s for the pie. I hear it’s heavenly.”
“It is. You should order here so I can give it to you now. We got no servers tonight.” She moves to stand behind the display. “So which do you want?”
“I suppose it’s all good, I can’t make a poor choice, can I?”
“Yet somehow I’m feeling apprehensive. Anxious. Overwhelmed. Agitated. Pressured.”
“Right. So which do you want?”
The safe choice would be apple, of course. But I need a new experience; I need to get out of my comfort zone.
I bend at the waist and inspect the pies through the glass, reading aloud the tag for each.
“Peach cobbler, apple cobbler …” I glance up at her. “It wouldn’t make sense for me to come to a pie establishment and order cobbler, now would it?”
My hostess Cindy soundlessly mouths, “no.”
“Though I bet there’s considerable overlap in the skill set necessary to produce either,” I observe, then go back to reading. “Pecan – no. Blueberry – no. Cherry – no.” There is no pie behind the sign that says, “Pumpkin – Seasonal.” I look up, hopefully.
My hostess Cindy soundlessly mouths, “no.”
“That’s a shame. There’s the apple. Good, old apple. Got some meringue over there. Key Lime, of course.” My eyes fall on the only remaining variety of pie in the case. “Rhubarb. I’ve never had rhubarb.” I straighten again. “That’s fun to say! ‘Rhubarb.’ Yes, I’ll take the rhuuuuuu-barb, please.”
“Rhubarb. Gotchya. Stay right there.”
While she cuts a slice, I look to the Mad Writers and jape, “Rhuuuuuub-arb.”
She is pulling the pie from the case as I wave a hand across the dining room. “Yelp said it was always crowded here.”
“Not on Mad Writer’s Workgroup night.”
“Serious? Why’s that?”
I hear indistinct pleasantries coming from the table of Mad Writers, and “Love’s Theme” from the P.A.
“I dunno,” she says, pushing the plate across the counter, but I don’t believe that she doesn’t know. At the end of a long pause during which I look from her to the pie and back to her I finally say, “How about I just seat myself?”
“How about it? I’m all alone out here.”
So I take my pie and go across the dining room to join the Mad Writers. On my approach I see a pan at the center of the table with just one slice left in it of what once was a whole apple pie.
I stand behind the empty chair, rhubarb in hand, computer bag hanging on my shoulder heavy with way too many copies of my piece in it for this tiny gathering. “Good evening! My name is Brian, and I’d like to be a Mad Writer. Whom among you do I talk to about that?”
A woman looks over her reading glasses to smile at me. “Oh! Brian. You’re the literary one.” She’s prim, dignified, spry.
I wonder for just a moment why she would think I was literary, but then remember that I had selected, “Literary” from the meetup’s pulldown menu for Genre, for the same reason I had chosen “Undeclared” for a major on all my college applications. But “The Literary One” has a nice ring to it. I decide to own it.
“I aspire to it. It’ll be up to my readers to determine whether I deserve the mantle, of course.’”
She nods to a bearded, rather serious man seated behind a cup of steaming coffee. “We tell Glenn here that he can be rather literary. He’s very philosophical. You two will probably get along.”
Upon sizing Glenn up I am convinced that he and I cannot possibly get along any better than could two women arriving at a highly publicized social gala wearing the same dress. The title, “The Literary One,” I decide, will be our McGuffin for the evening.
Despite that our prospects for friendship are doomed, I try to be civil. “Fantastic! How do you do, Glenn?”
He nods without looking up from the coffee steaming in front of him, hands on his thighs. “Good.”
“Literary, indeed!” I smirk, working the entire table. My jab elicits titters. Round One goes to the challenger.
As I sit, Sandy introduces me to Jenn, Thaddeus, and Mimi. Thaddeus says, “Wow!” and asks, pointing to the stack I pull from the computer bag, “Is that what you brought for us to read, Brian?”
“Yes.” I drop the stack onto the table; my flatware bounces when it lands. “But it appears I brought too many copies. I expected more people. The meetup lists more than a hundred members.”
“We’ve had some attrition.” Sandy is solemn. The others are, too, when they all nod in unison.
Sandy explains to me that their custom is to let the newcomer read first. “But we have two newcomers tonight! It’s Mimi’s first time, too. Would either of you like to volunteer?”
Mimi is quick: “You go!”
I accept, saying magnanimously, “So it would appear I’ve been volunteered!”
“So it would,” says Glenn.
I distribute five copies of my piece, keep one for myself, and leave the excess in a stack at my elbow.
“Title?” Thaddeus wants to know.
“It’s on the manuscript. The meetup didn’t say anything specific about formatting so I just tried being considerate. I put in headers and footers with my name, email, the title, page numbers. I numbered the lines. Double-spaced, plenty of room for all your constructive criticism.”
Sandy is impressed. “Oh! Thank you!”
“You’re quite welcome.”
Glenn’s brows knit as he reads the title aloud: “’Epiphany Born of Ruminations upon a Neatsfoot Swirl.’”
“I’m excited,” says Thaddeus, sounding excited. “Literary, indeed!” The group, minus Glenn, titters again.
“I was worried the title might be transparent.”
Everybody shakes their head. Sandy says, “I have no idea what it’s going to be about!”
I read in a voice that brings just the appropriate gravitas to the piece, which is about a man applying neatsfoot oil to a new fielder’s glove on a spring day and while sitting in a folding lawn chair. It begins with the protagonist opening the bottle of oil; it ends 4,996 words later with the glove slathered in the oil and the protag struck by an eiphany. Hence the title.
Between beginning and end is all the taut, first-person rumination promised by the piece’s title, delivered throughout the protag’s pouring oil onto the glove, then swirling the oil around and around with his fingers.
To make room for all the rumination I had to sacrifice the devices applied in most literature: Setting; characters; plot. Action. There was simply no room for any of it. I went with first person for intimacy, then exploited the license it gave me to pontificate relentlessly while turning up the tension with obscure metaphors and similes and other such accepted tools of the literary craft: At word 2966 he discards the rubber glove he’d worn to protect his hand; at word 3827 he switches up the direction of the swirls from counterclockwise to clockwise; at word 4321 he changes hands.
At 4839 he observes the swirl that will eventually lead him to his epiphany. His rumination upon it consumes the final 157 words.
Of course as I read I am listening for reaction from my audience. My low estimation of their literary refinement is confirmed: Nobody laughs, gasps, or sighs upon the revelation of any symbol that I’d planted. I’d get more feedback from a ring of tree stumps.
I finish, place my copy on the table, push it away. I take up the fork and, though I have no use for it, the knife. I take a bite of my rhubarb pie.
I hear Yanni coming to us from the P.A., and then a cough from Glenn. Finally, Thaddeus gushes, “I loved it!”
Glenn clears his throat. “Literary, indeed. I loved it.” He grows in my estimation. Maybe we can be friends after all.
“Thank you. I’ve been reading lots of New Yorker for inspiration.”
Leaning forward he says, “Keep reading.” He blows at his coffee.
In quick succession, the others concur: They all love it. Nobody has any criticism or question or theory or suggestion as to how it may be improved. Which is pretty much the result I had hoped for yet, somehow, I am unfulfilled.
“I deliberated over the glove for hours – which glove should it be? Catcher’s mitt, first base, third base, shortstop. Then it hit me: Fielder’s glove! Of course! But while reading it here I started to worry the symbolism might be a tad obscure.”
I hope for somebody to ask what the meaning of the fielder’s glove is supposed to be, and why it had to be a black glove with gold lettering rather than brown with black lettering, but I get no response other than Thaddeus’s blank smile, and Sandy asking, “Do you like baseball?”
“Uh-huh. Mimi? How about you go next?”
I nurse my wounded pride to the strains of Kenny G.
Mimi is young, adorable, polite, earnest. Nice. A bit doughy. Her clothing is second hand. “It’s a poem, I hope that’s okay.”
“Oh! We don’t get a lot of poetry here.” Sandy nods to the table, and all except Mimi and me nod back.
“Reminder to everyone,” says Thaddeus, holding up a hand, “poems don’t need to rhyme.”
Jenn says, “Right, in fact it’s considered bad form if they do.”
Mimi pulls a clutch of little notebook pages that have been crumpled then flattened by palms grimy with sweat, judging by the smeared ink. “I’m sorry, I don’t have a printer.”
“Oh! That’s okay, dear.”
“I keep my notebook on my nightstand, because I’m always in bed when I feel inspired.” While we are all still nodding encouragingly, her face hardens. She clenches her free fist, the one on the table not holding the clutch of pages, and barks, “Impalealation!”
Thaddeus says, “Sounds good!”
She reads. From her soft lips spews a verbal effluent I can almost see that describes either rough sex from the perspective of a submissive female or ritual sacrifice from the perspective of the sacrificial beast. I struggle to discern which but fail, until the closing stanzas, which go (line breaks are estimated):
having overstayed its welcome
releasing our hot, mingled juices
from my holes
red raw from your abuse
in satin rumpled by your manly exertion
or cling to your angry interloper’s purple helmet
in filaments glistening
upon your veiny throbbing member.
You look away just as I
for new want.
Is this love?
With that, Disturbed Mimi departs, and on her departure, Adorable Mimi returns.
“Okay,” Sandy starts brightly, turning to me. “Why doesn’t The Literary One go first?”
I look to Glenn, who is blowing, blithely, on his coffee. I steel myself by shutting my eyes a moment as one might if called upon without warning to be constructive in his criticism of the BP Gulf oil spill.
I face Mimi. “This is a poem?”
Against the vision of a dam break, I proceed.
“Um – I don’t know much about poetry, so you should take all this with a grain of salt.”
“It certainly is … vivid.”
A bridge spanning a deep gorge collapses under the burden of more traffic than had been anticipated by its designers. The cars and the bridge’s failed members tumble into the gorge. “I suppose it has – from my perspective – a naïve charm. So many verbs, and each one so … vivid.”
Humans and their beloved pets flail in angry foam at a tsunami’s leading edge. “I had no idea ‘thrust’ has so many synonyms.” A tortured thesaurus pants atop a trash basket overflowing with crumpled pages torn from a little notebook.
“The line breaks are … good. Very natural, I’d say. But here’s a question I have for you: is ‘impalealation’ a word? If not, maybe it ought to be. You used it well enough for me to understand what you meant by it. But then, simple ‘impalement’ works too, and might distract less from the poem’s … message.”
I stop, wait for an acknowledgement that my criticism is helpful, but none is forthcoming. Instead, Mimi has picked up her purse.
A black tornado hurling trees and cattle bears down on a lonely cabin on a prairie. “What is the poem’s message, by the way?”
She is rummaging through the purse. “My boyfriend has a big cock. Did I not make that clear?” She looks up a moment, appears to be in earnest. “I can fix it,” she says, then goes back to rummaging.
Glenn, singing in a high register that he probably doesn’t visit very often, says, “Somebody get her off the ledge.”
Sandy ventures, “Mimi?”
I slump a bit in my chair, relieved by Sandy’s rescue, and await a lesson in how to deliver devastating criticism to an unstable young girl.
Sandy places her hand on the table, leans toward Mimi with a solemn expression.
“I loved it.”
“Really?” Mimi stops fumbling in her purse.
“Yes. I did.”
Glenn clears his throat. “Loved it. Wouldn’t subtract a word.” He blows again at his coffee, puts his thick fingers on the cup like a powerlifter about to break the world record in the clean and jerk.
Jenn says, “Same here. Loved it!”
Mimi is gushing. “Oh, I’m so glad! This is the best workgroup! You’ve made me the happiest girl on earth!”
She rummages a bit more before stopping. She looks up, scared.
Thaddeus asks, good-naturedly, “Forget something?”
“I have to go!”
She exits, with Sandy calling after her, “Please come back, we’re here every week!”
The door squeaks on swinging shut. Glenn for some reason is looking at me when he says, “That was close.” He glowers, finally hoists the cup to his lips with hands shaking so violently he spills coffee all over his place setting and his coveralls. “Aw shit!” The cup bangs back down onto its saucer, splashing all that was left of the coffee.
Thaddeus is sardonic as he hands over a napkin. “Literary, indeed!”
Only I laugh. Glenn reaches and pulls a few copies off the stack of excess Neatsfoot pieces. “I could use a few of these,” he grumbles, ineffectually wiping at the spill. “Oh look,” he says pointing at the mess he’s made. “Swirls!”
The group, minus me, titters. Glenn takes the round.
Sandy asks, “Who’s next?”
Jenn reads. It’s an excerpt from a vampire novel, first person, female protag who, with her husband, hunts vampires for a living.
Everyone else says they love it.
I point out an implausibility. “Why don’t they just call the police? Or some government agency chartered to eradicate the menace? How did it get to this point where vampires are roaming the streets and the woods in large numbers without the CDC quarantining the outbreak very early on? Government at every level would mobilize to protect the citizenry. The President might appoint a czar.”
Jenn laughs. “You’re funny!” Sandy purses her lips. Thaddeus chuckles while doodling on his copy of Jenn’s manuscript.
It occurs to me that I have been insensitive to a protocol of this workgroup, so I try fitting in by saying that I loved it. It comes out sounding like a question, but Jenn seems satisfied. “Thank you.”
When Thaddeus volunteers to go next, Sandy and Jenn seem excited, receiving the hardcopy with schoolgirl giddiness. It’s a memoir of a fresh divorcee’. The protag and her black, lesbian friend are commiserating, with wine and ice cream and a romantic comedy on pay-per-view in a tropical 5 star hotel, about failed relationships.
On his finish, Jenn asks, “This is the same piece as last week, right?”
“Yes, except I changed the chamomile to cabernet.”
“Right! It works so much better now.”
Predictably now, everybody loves it. When the accolades die down, I offer up my criticism. “Well-written, Thaddeus, but I can’t help feeling I’ve read this before. Also, I wonder: do women drink cabernet?”
Sandy and Jenn both square up in their respective chairs. “I do,” they say together.
And then I remember the protocol. “But don’t get me wrong: I loved it.”
Thaddeus is leaning back in his chair and smiling broadly. “Ah! Good! Thank you! Means a lot coming from you.”
Glenn reads a bizarre piece wherein talking animals debate schools of philosophy and systems of government. In the end the eagle (“Jefferson”) devours the snake (“Karl”).
Everybody else loves it, but I don’t. “I have to be honest, Glenn: It’s a bit weird.”
“That’s pretty bold,” Glenn growls. “You’ve been bold all evening. So I will ask you a pointed question.”
“What are you carrying?”
“What are you packing? What’d you bring?”
“I’m sorry, I don’t understand.”
Sandy places a hand on the table. “He wants to know about the piece you brought.”
“I already read my piece. I went first, remember?”
She purses her lips. “No,” she says, and is a bit exasperated when she says it. She reaches into her purse on the floor next to her chair and draws from it a handgun that she points to the ceiling. “Piece. What are you packing?”
Jenn gasps. “Sandy!”
Thaddeus leans away with his hands at his cheeks, exclaiming, “Oh my god!”
I barely get out a “Holy shit!” only to hear Glenn say, admiringly, “It’s beautiful! Is it new?”
“Yes! Thank you for noticing! Charter Arms 38 Special. ‘The Pink Lady.’”
Jenn practically squeals. “It’s so cute! So that’s why you’re wearing red. You always accessorize so well!”
But I’m aghast. “You brought a gun? The meetup didn’t say anything about needing a gun.”
Sandy is ignoring me, willfully I think, when she says, “Oh c’mon, Jenn: Show us that gorgeous Ruger again.”
Thaddeus has drawn as well. “I still like Glenn’s piece. It’s a classic.”
Now Glenn draws a gun that is indeed classic, even to my eyes, which would die happy if they had never seen a gun while they lived. It’s a big revolver with a long barrel. How he kept the piece hidden from view all the while I’d been seated right next to him is a mystery.
Jenn is giggling and pointing to a little heart on top of the barrel of her gun, which is purple. “Nail polish! I did it myself!” Then she points it to the floor and turns to me. “So you’re not armed?”
“Of course I’m not armed! Why on earth would I think to bring a gun to a writer’s workgroup?” I say this loudly, hoping to draw the attention of the hostess. It works, but doesn’t get quite the result I wanted. She leaves her station, heading into the kitchen.
“Because you’re in Arizona,” says Glenn, struggling to steady his piece with both hands.
“You guys really are mad!” I’m shouting to the kitchen.
Sandy says, with umbrage, “You seem to be using ‘mad’ as a synonym for either ‘angry’ or ‘crazy.’”
“Of course I am. That’s what it means.”
“But we’re neither angry nor crazy. Do any of us look angry or crazy?”
Glenn is concentrating hard on steadying his piece, with little success. “It ain’t Florida, for fuck’s sake.”
I can tell Thaddeus is trying to be helpful, not patronizing, when he says, “MAD is, M-period-A-period-D-period, the acronym for, Mutually Assured Destruction.”
Nodding to Sandy, Jenn says, “It’s how we enforce civility and decorum.”
“But how … ?“
Glenn has given up trying to hold his classic revolver. He’s resting the butt on the table. “If it was good enough for the Cold War, it’s good enough for a writer’s workgroup.”
Thaddeus leans out of the line of Glenn’s fire.
Sandy asks the group, “Does anybody have a spare for the newbie?”
“Maybe the meetup should say to bring a gun,” says Jenn as though she’s made this suggestion before.
Sandy is losing her cool. “I thought M.A.D. was pretty clear. And funny.” She turns to me: “Seriously, you didn’t get that?”
“Seriously, I didn’t get that.”
Jenn’s arm with the gun hangs at her side. “I want to be real sure: You’re unarmed?”
Her arm with the gun rises and points it at me. “Well then I take back what I said about your piece. I hated it.”
Sandy nods. “It really was stupid.”
“And boring.” This from the formerly-excited Thaddeus.
Glenn takes up his gun and tries to sight along the barrel with just one eye open and his tongue sticking out. He tries directing it at me, but the muzzle wavers chaotically. “You never said what the protag’s epiphany was.” I have just enough time to realize that he’s right before he fires. Accidentally, judging by his expression.
The gun recoils out of his hands and hits him in the face. Behind me, glass shatters.
The hostess’s shriek cuts through the ringing in my ears. “Son of a bitch!”
Jenn, emboldened on comprehending that he is a poor shot, swings her purple gun over to Glenn. “Your allegory is weak and obscure! I don’t understand the point of anything you say!” She fires. Glenn clutches his stomach, blood coursing between his fingers.
Thaddeus sputters as he sights on Jenn. “You don’t understand the difference between a hyphen and a dash!” When both lady guns swing toward him, and Glenn’s gyrates generally in his direction, I dive beneath a neighboring table. Two nearly simultaneous shots later, Thaddeus’s corpse falls out of its chair. Jenn falls out of hers after a trailing third shot. A fount spurts from her temple once, twice, then she is done for.
Glenn says, “Oops.”
Sandy shoots Glenn.
I turn when I hear Cindy the hostess striding to the table. She has a single-barrel shotgun at the ready. “Finally!” I cry out, rising to my feet.
I see behind her that Glenn’s first shot took out the pie case.
She halts with the shotgun swinging back and forth between Sandy and me. “Who started it?”
“He did,” Sandy says with a confidence that she will be believed.
“But – “ I say, with less confidence.
“Both of you: Drop your weapons!”
Sandy’s Pink Lady clunks onto the table. She lays her hands on either side of it.
I shout, “I don’t have a weapon! I didn’t do anything!”
The hostess lowers her shotgun. “You’re not carrying?”
We both look to Sandy, who says, “Do you understand the problem now?
“Hell yeah, I do.”
I raise my arms. “Look! Just call the police! Please!”
“It would take them too long to get here. So in this place we prefer the 2nd Amendment remedy.”
A groan comes from Glenn. His eyes are shut tight, he is grimacing, but his fingers twitch, go scrabbling for his gun, but it is nowhere near. A lump has been rising on his forehead.
Sandy says, “Oh Glenn,” picks up her Pink Lady, discharges it into his chest, drops it back onto the table, and places her hands to either side of it again.
Glenn applies direct pressure to the latest wound. “Ow.”
“It’s like he’s goddamn Rasputin,” she says, looking imploringly to Cindy, who obliges by delivering a blast to Glenn’s face. He kicks, his fingers spasm once, then relax.
We wait some more.
We wait throughout the climax and close of “Love is in the Air,” which seems a sufficiently long time to confirm that Glenn is at last dead.
Sandy is wistful when she says to the hostess, “I have to get one of those.”
“You can have this one when the owner buys the two-barrel I keep telling him we need.” She lowers the shotgun. “There’s always one,” she snarls at me. “One asshole that shows up without protection.”
“I’m an asshole?”
“Yeah. But it looks like this is your lucky day, sir. I have to go to the storeroom for another shell. And Sandy’s Pink Lady here ain’t gonna stop you, so while I’m gone I suggest you just leave. Take your pie and get the fuck out of here.”
“Thank you! Thank you oh so much!”
Sandy says cheerily, “Don’t forget your stack of extras!”
“Of course.” I sling my computer bag over my shoulder. “Thank you! You’ve been very … helpful.”
She nods to the coffee-soaked copies Glenn had used to demonstrate his opinion of my piece. “Those too.”
“Especially those,” says Cindy.
“Sure thing!” Then I remember the deal she and I had struck earlier. “By the way,” I say, taking my pie and heading for the door, “M.A.D. is for Mutually Assured Destruction!”
“I know, dumbass!”
My hand is on the panic bar when I hear the impossible.
“Now I am The Literary One!”
I pause, shake my head, hard.
“Glenn? But I watched you die.”
Incredulous as I am, I cannot bring myself to look back in there, into the carnage, the waste, the wanton destruction wrought there by the very Meetup group that just an hour earlier I had hoped to make my new circle of friends. Nothing good would come of my gawking at the aftermath anyway. If Glenn is still alive, he’s the hostess’s problem, not mine.
And that hostess can take care of herself.
I shout, “You can have it!” And then I run to my car.