A man leaned back, in a precarious way, in a wooden chair. The chair was not designed to recline. The skeletal man was tipped precariously on the back legs of the unfortunate chair. He held his balance with his legs, and outstretched arms. He was a gymnast of sorts with no audience…but me.
There was nobody else in the conference room of the Dunkin’ Donuts on Spalding Avenue. Nice. Just lovely. I’d got off my fat ass, made an attempt at a conventional social interaction, and what do I get? A guy who uses his chair as a prop, where there should be a dozen people with lap top computers, and three ring binders.
It was a Meet Up group for writers, and I’d gone to great lengths to be sure no one could single me out on the first day. I’d even made the painful effort, against my instinctive punctuality, to arrive fifteen minutes after three. I was late on purpose, so I wouldn’t have to talk to anybody.
I didn’t really want to go to the writers group. I worked, slept, ate, and socialized with no one, but my Gecko lizard Rimbaud.
I was concerned about my behavior in public. I had been forgetting myself. I laughed inappropriately when I heard other people’s private conversations. I subsisted on ramen, and coffee. When I wasn’t working, at telemarketing, I sat for hours alone, reading from my massive library.
Always alone. I liked alone. People were a pain in the ass. Idle chit chat with strangers made me literally sick to my stomach. Now I was here. With Captain Recliner. Had everybody else had the same idea?
Finally, a lean, tall, well-proportioned, bespectacled, elderly lady slid into the conference room, rushed over to the man who would misuse a chair, and hugged him, “Hi Sam! How are you. You look good. Did you finish your story?”
Sam grinned, his teeth like tinned sardines, “Next week, it’s away for editing.”
As he finished his blurb, another woman entered, wearing her black hair piled on top of her head in ringlets most intricately. Her skin was like a cup of coffee lightened with just a tad of cream. She was far too beautiful for me. I wouldn’t dare make eye contact with her. But I swept my eyes over her image, and saw she had a brilliant red dot on her forehead, and wore a bright orange sari, covered by a black and white pashmina.
They sat at the large round table, exchanged pleasantries with the others, and got their work out. I hadn’t written anything. I was a fraud. Nothing in the Meetup post said you had to bring material with you. I felt deceived, and misused.
A rowdy newlywed couple, tragically in love, arrived. A rangy suntanned fellow in khaki shorts strode in. He wore a tank top that showed off way too many tattoos for one body. The bride wore clinging black and pink tights, and matching top that shared so much cleavage with the world, it was like an invitation to infants to have a pull, and slake your thirst.
Finally, a tiny woman, in a hausfrau dress, that would have been considered spinster garb in the eighteen eighties limped into the conference room. Her hair was screwed up into a tight bun, and her mouth screwed up even tighter. She wore wire rimmed glasses, and looked like the teacher that wasn’t going to take shit from any of her students. As she entered, everyone in the room said, “Afternoon Mona.” Aha! Wait patiently, and the teacher appears!
She smiled, an expression that looked wrong on her face. The way Splenda was sweet, but just wasn’t sugar. Artificial. Her face was made for frowns, and furious anger, never smiles. Mona said, “I see everyone from last week. She dipped her head as she labeled the other group members, “Sam,” the chair guy, “Dierdre, Rashida,” that took care of the well-built old lady, and the stunning Indian girl. I had to keep reminding myself she was out of my league to prevent myself from staring at her, agog.
She liberally dosed her attention on the weird couple, tattoos and tits, as I was thinking of them, Geraldine, and Jacob. Oh, holy shit. I was the only unnamed member of the group. I was going to have to open my mouth, and god only knew what unholiness, and insanity might erupt.
Mona turned a pinched, insincere, smile on me, “So you’re new. Why don’t you introduce yourself?”
To my ears it was, ‘You’re a sack of dog turds someone left on our front porch, and lit on fire.’
I screwed up my face into a smile, a little too much like hers for it not to be seen as mockery. I watched her eyebrows descend to form a scowl.
I said, “I’m Clem. Nice to meet everybody.”
Mona buzzed, “And what do you write?”
Man, this bitch didn’t let go. She was a bull terrier.
I mumbled, “Different stuff…stories…poetry…,” was that enough? I sunk my face from the mouth down under the collar of my jacket. If I couldn’t disappear, I’d at least make myself a smaller target.
Mona beamed victory. She had bested me, “Well. You all know this, but for the newcomer," she offered me a solicitous grin that signaled distaste, and annoyance in one go. "I'm a book critic. My work is all over t.v. and books. This group is my way of giving back. I think you'll very quickly find, this group has a long track-record of successful authors born here. In the meantime, there's nobody tying my hands. I've been musing on a romance novel. I'm thinking of the title 'Strawberry Parfait and Passion.'”
I blurted a concealed belly-laugh at the title. It was a weird sound, like a really loud fart mixed with a horse’s whinny. I didn’t know what to do. Pretend it was a fart? That was probably best.
The only trouble was, I couldn’t get the moronic title out of my head. It was so gut churningly stupid, and funny. I blocked my ears, so I don’t what was said for the next few minutes. When I felt under control I resumed listening to Mona.
Mona buzzed, “Geraldine, I’m so proud of you! You’ve finished ‘Subtle Discontent’.”
Geraldine stood, displayed her mammary cannons, and did a little series of bounces. Didn’t she own a sweater? Geraldine squealed, “It took sixteen weeks, and I let Jacob edit it for me three times. It’s perfect. Twenty-four pages. It’s perfect. I just want to thank you for all your support.”
To my thinking the title ‘Subtle Discontent’, didn’t infer a real page turner, but good for her. Finishing a story is an achievement in itself. Even if it’s about asbestosis, or limburger cheese. It seemed like quite a lot of time to write twenty-four pages, two months?
Mona kicked in, “You post the final copy to the group website, tonight, and I’ll have a look at it, no judgement. Just curiosity. See if you used any of my suggestions,” Mona scrinkled her mouth up, until it looked like a puckering anus. That was the apex of her ability to express delight, a tightly pursed asshole.
At that point Mona took over, and turned the group to her will. She had an agenda. everybody had to offer a passage, of ten minutes worth of reading, and it was tossed around the circle, for critique and comment. I plead the fifth, as soon as it was my turn to speak about, ‘The Dirigibliers.’, Rashida’s epic fantasy story. I planted my feet, and said, “It wouldn’t be right for me to speak until I present something of my own.”
Mona took that bait, swallowed it, and spit up the hook. She cleverly, threw the hook back at me, “Yes, Clem. That seems right. You’ll be first next week.”
Now I was roped in. I’d actually have to write something. And it would have to be good, or I’d feel like a moron.
The group lasted for two hours. Every critique was prefaced with a pleasant observation about something good about the writing, or the story. Mona had this group well trained.
As I pulled my heavy pea coat around me to protect against the November chill, Mona approached, and said, “This is an opportunity for you to fly to new lands, and populate them from your own imagination. You can write anything, just write something, and bring it in next week. You know how to use the group website? Make sure you post it on the website.”
I nodded. Her face was shrinking into itself. I feared if I just stared at her for too long her whole face would pucker up into a giant sphincter. I stepped back from the little woman, bowed, saluted, and ran out of the Dunkin’ Donuts.
I was committed to this writing group now. I had to produce. I was lazy, and uncreative. I scrawled out a vague outline for a comic fantasy story about a world where the alien ‘invaders’ land, teach people how to clean up the earth, and then, when the humans realize the aliens have no weapons, the humans turn on them, and eat them, or something like that. It was just the bare bones. I put myself, and thoughts of the class to bed.
Then I fell into my routine of telemarketing, Ring Dings, Doritos, Mountain Dew and books. I didn’t even think about the passages I’d written, until Tuesday night. Wednesday at three was writers group.
I slept poorly, dreading the trip to the Dunkin’ Donuts. Those people. The rest of the group. They were a gaggle of misfits. I acknowledged the irony. I saw my peers in the group as maggoty losers, but not one of them was a bigger loser than me. I was barely human enough to be in the group.
I slid into the Dunk’s at three, to find Sam the Flying Walenda, hard at work, balancing on his chair. He had, what had to, be a thick manuscript in a cardboard box, on the table in front of him. He grinned at me, “Hey Clem. Finished my story. ‘Whispering Tides.’ Sent it to an editor, and everything. Cost me a hundred bucks, but it’s perfect.”
These folks didn’t shy from self-praise, Geraldine’s story was perfect, Sam’s book was perfect. There was something wrong with Sam’s eyes. They were narrow, and red. He looked as if he hadn’t slept in far too long.
Sam forced a silvery grin, “I’m going to take a break from the group. I’m going to be busy marketing the book.” He looked over both shoulders, as he said this. He ground his teeth, and darted his eyes from the window, to the door, to the body of the Coffee Emporium itself. He was showing acute signs of paranoia.
I said, “I guess so.”
We exchanged no more words. I plugged in my HP Laptop, one year old, and already held together with Guerilla tape, and opened the file with the ramblings from last week. I didn’t even remember what I wrote. It was drivel. No matter. These weren’t literary titans, and my job was done…for the week.
They filed in, in order, Dierdre, Rashida, and Jacob, sans Geraldine. Apparently, there had been some out of class communication between the others. They huddled around Jacob, stroking his illustrated biceps, and hugging him. The first thing that came to mind was Geraldine, and her absence. Was she sick? Injured? Constipated?
Mona came mincing into the building at three fifteen, we were lucky to have her, she was doing us a favor. Couldn’t have group without her. She had a tagalong with her. A gawky fellow with a black leather jacket, gangling limbs, and an Adam’s apple the size of a fruitstand apple.
Mona thrust her briefcase on top of the table, lay her palms on the table, and lowered her head, “As you all know. I posted on the website that Geraldine passed away last Wednesday evening. She was in a tragic subway accident. When Jacob is ready to talk about it with the group or individuals, that’s fine. We’re going to go on with the reading group, as Geraldine would have wanted. But let’s have a moment of silence first, to honor Geraldine.”
They bowed their heads, and I looked around. Most of them had their eyes closed. Not Sam he was boring a hole into Mona’s skull. He was shooting a fiery tornado of hate at the old woman.
They all looked up, and Jacob said, “Thanks to everyone for your kind words. I read the posts on the website. He teared up, “And she just finished her story. It was accepted at Harpers, so she’ll be published…posthumously…but I’m going to stick with the group and write about her, and what a generous, kind, sweet girl she was.”
Sam darted his eyes all over the room, looking for what? Was he completely paranoid? Or did he know something about the group that I…didn’t.
The group got underway eventually, after much chit chat about Geraldine. Mona gave ten minutes for it, then she called the group to order, “Well, we should get to it, the group will go on. She motioned to Gary, who sat beside her, staring at his shoes, “This is a new group member, Gary. Welcome Gary.” A low ripple of welcomes brushed through the gathered writers.
Mona hadn’t forgotten I was to be first victim this week. The group eviscerated my plan for the novel. Then they offered a few suggestions as to ways to make the general premise work. It was an intelligent group, and they were well versed in story structure. I actually felt happy about my work when they were done with it. Who knew?
The proceedings concluded. Sam cornered me, and urged, “Get a drink with me. I want you to know what this group’s about.”
I thought I already knew the answer to that one, but I agreed, “Sure.” Maybe Sam was just crazy. But what if there was something nefarious about Mona and her writers circle?
We drank craft beer at the Donovan Bar on Broadway near Lafayette Park. Sam’s slippery eyes kept moving. He drank with the manuscript cradled against his body with his right arm.
Sam’s anxiety was palpable. He got right down to his point, “I’ve been in that writing group four years. Mona helped me write this incredible novel. Every time somebody finishes a project. They die, first they get replaced then they die. Gary is here to replace me. You came last week, and now Geraldine is dead…a year ago Danny finished his novel, ‘The Raid on Datura.’ The following week, he fell into an elevator shaft, and the book was on the New York Times Best Seller List. Then there was Jeremiah…He wrote an autobiography about hiking the Appalachian trail…died in a hiking accident. Replaced by Rashida when his book hit the List. I’m nobody. Posthumous fame is all I can hope for. I have family, they can use the money. If I don’t come back next week. I suggest you write very slowly, and write something very long.”
The rabid certainty of Sam’s claim stripped the believability from it. His conviction made it ridiculous. Silly little Mona was whacking the members of her writing group. Sam left Donovan’s peering over his left and right shoulder, scanning the crowd on Broadway for menace or threat. What a kook. Right?
I fiddled with the story that was coming to shape around my outline over the next week. It seemed promising. Just to put the work in. That was the hard part.
I returned to class the following Wednesday to find Gary sitting where Sam belonged, and he wasn’t trying to do anything funky with the chair. Spooky. I actually asked him, “Seen Sam?” He shot me a sharp look, “Don’t you look at the group website?”
I shrugged my shoulders, “Of course not. I avoid websites of any kind, at all cost. Just a bunch of babble. What’d I miss?”
Gary stated plainly, with no feeling one way or the other, “Got hit by a cab on eighth street last week. Dead.”
My weirdometer cranked to ten. I sat there marinating in this. Paranoid Sam was right? Was this the last stop for masterpieces?
I hadn’t even read Geraldine’s piece in Harpers. Was it astonishingly good?
I quickly turned on my computer, and checked the website for the Meetup group. There were condolence messages for both Geraldine and Sam. All curated by Mona the miserable.
How could this be? It was preposterous. But I was in it now. The others arrived. Mona made her appearance at three fifteen. Led us in a moment of silence for our departed members, and said, “I especially want to tell you that Sam’s book ‘Whispering Tides’ has been picked up by Random House. They’re going to publish it. Those of you who knew Sam were aware he has a wife, and three children. This is going to help his family a great deal. But we mourn.”
She was a monster. Sam was right. How did she do it? What was she doing? I’m terrified. I don’t want to finish anything. All I know is, I’m writing a three-volume novel, and I’m doing a page a week. At this rate, I’ll be a tired old man when I finish my book.