Leslie, Larry, Dave, Dan and Anne
“Did you kiss her?, Sally asked her husband. By her tone, she might as well have been asking if he found any coupons in the paper.
“Charles, skewered between stunned and angry, responded, You told me to fornicate-
“That’s not what I asked. I said, did you kiss her?”
Reading her prologue aloud to herself in her office as the sun dipped behind the greenhouse, Anne hated the way her prose sounded. Too many adjectives. Bad similes. She should just step back and let the dialogue do the work. Anne sighed. It was too late to revise the piece again; the group met at Six, and she still had to tend the compost and answer some emails. She continued reading to herself softly.
“Charles shifted his feet. Sally took a few petulant steps closer, crunching the life out of his comfort zone like stomping on ants. Did. You. Kiss. Her? Stop acting like I’m cornering you. You always get defensive. I’m just asking. Did you-
“I should never have let you talk me into this. It’s done. Let’s not mention it again.
“Congratulations, honey, she said with sarcasm hidden in her voice like in alligator under water at nighttime, you’ve furthered the human race. Then my hero comes home and cowers. Stop looking guilty. Her line of sight drilled laser-like into his forehead until she was sure smoke would emanate from his scalp.”
Anne cringed. Emanate? Emanate? What kind of word was that? She would have to make a disclaimer, say she wrote it late at night- No. No disclaimers. The story had merit, and they would like it, would like her, if they got past the melodramatic prologue.
“With all the rudeness he could access, Charles delivered his faux confession; I had sex with another woman. I was reluctant, but a certain devil talked me into it.
“Sally was not playing anymore.” Anne pinched her eyes shut and swatted at the inside of her skull with her pupils. Show that through action or else don’t mention it, idiot, she thought. Anne lowered her voice and read on at a skimming pace.
“Since you still haven’t answered my question, I guess the kiss meant something.
“Charles winced. I told you a million times this was a bad idea. As momentum entered his voice, Sally became frightened. Good job. I shot out sperm that fit your computer’s little formula so that my great great great great great great great grandson’s third cousin will have fucking gills and eat fucking plankton. Bravo, honey.
“Sally had tears in her eyes. Say you kissed her. If it’s no big deal, then say it.
“I kissed her.”
Dialogue tags — where are the dialogue tags? How’s the reader supposed to know who is talking? Anne buried her face in her palm; some first impression this would make…
“Sally’s voice bled out from her folded frame. Your bad idea. Kissing her was your idea. Intercourse can be a soulless, mechanical act. You’re a guy, you should know that.
“Charles punched the countertop. A plate three feet away fell to the floor and shattered. FOR CHRISSAKES, WHAT DID YOU EXPECT?
“His burst of anger shot its substance into the crumpled mass of sadness that was Sally, igniting her. The two words were sparks that would burn her mouth if she held them in, so she spat it. Get out. She did not have to raise her voice to match his. Charles nearly tripped on his way out the door. Electric murder was in her eyes.”
Electric murder- Anne wanted to crumple up the pages and hide. She had taken a cliché and worsened it tenfold with the addition of the word electric.
It would be okay. They would like Anne, and they would like her story, and they would give sharp, candid critiques that would inspire her. Of course they would like her. Everybody liked Anne.
The sun rose up over the greenhouse and she shielded her eyes from the window. She put the manuscript aside, remembering the day’s tasks preceding its unveiling.
The prologue — the only scene taking place in present day — was unnecessary, she realized as she walked briskly, stopping at corners and peering into every glass door. Sally was a scientist involved in the government research project to steer and accelerate human evolution with the goal of returning to the ocean in time for the predicted flood that would submerge the planet in water approximately nine thousand years in the future. Her team developed a computer program that statistically analyzed DNA samples and selected one’s optimal partner with whom to mate in order to foster specific genetic mutations that would produce specific results thirty or forty generations down the line. The back-story had it that Sally showed Charles a profile of the woman the computer had selected to bear his offspring, urging him to volunteer himself as an example to inspire a mass movement of compliance to ensure the survival of the human race.
Anne clasped the folded stack of pages between her elbow and her side. She felt it rattle, keeping time with her heartbeat. She wondered again if she had printed out enough (five copies, the voice on the phone had demanded) and if she had stapled her manuscript properly. Would they care if she stapled it properly?
She could hear her own footsteps echoing down the hall. It was the loudest thing audible, and the sound annoyed her. She was not concerned that she had printed out the right amount of copies. She never worried about such things. Her worry was whether these four strangers would be impressed by a tale of a future Earth submerged in water, where humans had half evolved back into fish. What if mermaids did not interest these intellectuals? What if they thought her story was too childish to be a farce, and too ridiculous to be anything else? And what if they all had no talent, and she was equally unimpressed with their work and had to grit her teeth and smile through the evening?
She entered a busy juncture — what appeared to be a cross between a study lounge and a library — and looked for a sign that read Conference Room D. There were no labels.
Dave arrived before the rest of them. He sat with his elbows on the table and notebook in front of him, waiting. Dan and Larry came in the door laughing. In actuality, Larry was coughing boisterously, his meaty arm supporting itself on Dan’s shoulder and Dan sported a wry grin, which was, for the two men, the closest they would ever come to sharing a laugh. Dave nodded to them with his chin, his eyes still down.
Leslie always strolled in late and they always heckled her, and then she gave them the finger while she ate her granola yogurt snack. Tonight she would not be heckled.
Dave was polite, and always deliberately extended warm greetings, no matter what his mood. This was not a mood; this was something else. Larry opened his mouth to break the silence, and then, noticing the lost-looking woman wandering the hall with long, beaded hair and gems sewn into hemp necklaces over a beige shirt, his mouth hung open.
Dan noticed her too. She held a rolled up bundle of paper in one arm, and was clearly looking for an unmarked room.
Dave continued flipping through his binder, studying what appeared to be printouts of emails, professional emails with lots of small text.
Larry looked at Dan — who never showed anyone the satisfaction of a human reaction to anything, which was what made Dan the coolest guy in town — and then at Dave and said, “Hey, did you forget to mention that we’re welcoming a new member tonight?”
Dave waved to the lost-looking woman and motioned her in. Smiling nervously as she entered the room, she said, “This is the fiction group, right? I’m Anne.”
Leslie walked in behind her and stopped. She looked from the new girl to Dave — quickly recognizing and quickly dismissing the fact that Dave was embroiled in a crisis of sorts — and back to the new girl.
Leslie had short brown hair and wore jeans and a dark blouse with matching earrings. Her body was roguishly thin and contoured in sharp edges, and her center of balance was always in front of her, such that it had to be mechanically impossible for her to slouch.
“Anne, meet the Whopper queen,” said Larry. His arms were folded, and he chewed on imaginary gum. Larry was the tallest. He had slick black hair and wore a denim jacket over a white t-shirt with small writing all over it. All she could make out on his shirt were cuss words. Seeing the swell of his biceps against his jacket and the dirt-specked calluses on his hands, she knew that he worked in construction — probably operated an excavator or some big piece of machinery. Given the coloration around his eyes, it was also evident that this man had a penchant for bar fights.
Leslie gave Larry the finger without looking away from Anne. “You better watch out or they’ll give you a degrading nickname.”
“Leslie here works at an abortion clinic,” Larry explained. He paused, as if the connection from that to ‘Whopper queen’ was obvious. “Initials B K, for baby killer, also stands for Burger King, but Burger King got old, so now we call her Whopper.”
“And what’s your nickname?” Anne asked Larry, turning to him with full focus.
“Deliverance,” said Leslie. Larry looked angry, just hearing it. Anne could tell that he had a hatred for anything that was corny.
Dave regarded Leslie with…electric murder, Anne thought and bit her tongue.
Leslie threw her hands up. “What? The wilderness flick with Burt Reynolds. Larry writes like that. Survival stuff. Hunting stories, naked women getting chased by mountain lions, men getting lost in the woods and turning gay…some Boy Scouts grow up, others join fiction groups.”
“Remind us what your title last week was,” Larry taunted back. “Oh, wait, I remember. It was, Transaction Failed: Your Love Is Non-Refundable.”
Anne laughed without allowing her jaws to move.
Dan stood up next to shake her hand. His posture was a mirror image of Leslie’s; permanently leaning slightly back. Eerily calm. Dan had an untrimmed beard. He hid his body — which was a slacker’s compromise between a pot-belly and too-lazy-to-eat emaciated — in an academic looking brown sweatshirt over a gray undershirt. His pants had holes that were not intentional. He spoke in a breathy monotone. “I’m Dan. The best they could do for me regarding an obnoxious pet name was Prox. Nobody remembers where it came from or what it means, henceforth it’s perfectly fitting.”
“He gives me the creeps,” Leslie whispered in Anne’s ear. “He writes dark. Meditations on, like, fecal matter and doom. Some seriously twisted shit.”
Dave stood up next. Before he could speak, Leslie said, “Dave has no nickname. That’s because he’s the alpha.” She patted Dave on the back sportily. Anne knew, from witnessing that exchange, exactly what kind of relationship Leslie and Dave had, and envied it. Anne pictured them having endless heated arguments about politics. They had probably slept together once or twice after a night of light drinking, and agreed with each other to keep it their secret, and to never do it again.
Leslie went on. “The alpha makes sure everyone else has stupid names so that they know who the boss is, and the boss is just Dave. His full name is David Dillpole.”
“Just Dave,” said Dave, genuinely annoyed by everyone’s laughter.
“What, I like saying Dillpole,” said Leslie. “It’s like a free tongue massage.”
Dave proceeded to debrief Anne on the group’s mode of operations: every meeting he issued them an inspirational prompt — either a word or a phrase — on which each member produced a story to be read aloud and discussed. Anne asked if he ever sprung wacky exercises on them. Dave said he liked to keep things simple. Simple and effective.
Dave boasted local notoriety from the success of his novel Consumopia, the epic post-apocalyptic tale of an insular society of people who have been trapped in a mall buried beneath a volcanic eruption for four years prior to the opening of the story. Nobody has any contact with — or knowledge of — the world outside. The novel centers around a protagonist who gives birth to the first baby born within Consumopia’s tribal community.
They were all fascinated to learn that Anne was a certified naturalist employed by the state parks. She wondered if they would be equally fascinated with mermaids.
Dave had bad news. Even Anne could tell as much. The four kept on exchanging glances throughout the story critiques, until nobody could bear it anymore.
Dan’s story — titled Those Who Are Free From Sin Can Not Get Sunburned After Five PM — was exactly as Leslie had warned.
Larry’s story was no different than what Anne expected.
Anne’s heart was beating so fast while they workshopped her futuristic mermaid tale that minutes later she found she could not recall any words that were spoken about her story. All she was left with was a feeling: they liked it. They liked her. Of course they did. Everybody liked Anne. Anne was likable.
Leslie was the nonconformist of the group. Like her body, her writing style lacked grace, but it had a boldness and an uninhibited curiosity that was as addictive as chocolate, lacking nothing in competency, or in naked honesty. She wrote in formats that tended toward that abyss people liked to call ‘experimental,’ constantly looking genre in the face and giving it the finger.
Leslie wrote a story about a writing group whose members were caricatures of everybody in the room. The lack of laughs it received made Leslie slouch in her chair.
Larry was the first to comment. “That’s clever, Miss Whopper. That’s real clever. We come here twice a month to sit around this table and be transported to exotic, interesting places that we’re not quite fucked up enough to dream ourselves. Beautiful thing, the written word; lets you mock yourself. We come in expecting a journey, and we get a parody of us sitting in this room with our expectations. What’s the point?”
Dave never allowed jousting questions to hang in the air. “The premise is neither weak nor strong,” he offered. “It’s where you go with it. And I think Larry’s feeling — which I echo — is that it goes nowhere. The breaking-the-fourth-wall gimmick is fun, but if that’s your story’s only ambition, I feel cheated. I need bigger things to happen. Conflicts. I need to know why I’m reading this story.”
Without pausing to jot down notes from Dave’s critique — as Leslie normally did — she said, with her shoulders tensed like a weapon pointed at Dave’s stomach, “I need to know why you’re acting like it’s the fucking end of the world and it’s your secret burden.” Everyone else, including Anne, nodded in gratitude. “Dave. What’s going on?”
Dave knocked his binder to the floor and stood up. “If any of you wish to resign from the group after tonight, I understand.”
“What the fuck are you talking about?” said Leslie. “Are we in trouble- did we get sued or something?”
Dave nodded. “Damn your intuitions. Last month’s zine got us some heat. All day today I’ve been on and off the phone with-”
“Which story was it?” asked Larry. “Whose story? Whosever’s it was, I’m buying them a beer. This makes me proud. So what are we going to do, schedule live readings as fundraisers to get ourselves a lawyer? To hell with that, we’re all witty fuckers, we’ll represent ourselves. Who was it? Who’s the rascal who elevated us from puny hobbyist literati to fucking…to fucking…warriors?”
Dave shook his head. “It doesn’t matter who it was. That’s not what I want this conversation to focus on. Later we can dissect the passage and do our research.”
“Bullshit it doesn’t matter.” Leslie stood up. “You’re telling us right now.”
Leslie, Larry, Dan and Anne waited in tense silence as Dave swallowed.
Dave said softly, “Your prompt for next meeting is, revolution.”
Anne was not sure if she would return. As they went on talking, she pictured the five of them as mermaids swimming through caves while having the exact same conversation. Except, Larry would be more of a lobster-like creature, Dave would be an anthropomorphic sea anemone, Dan would be a jellyfish and Leslie…she wasn’t sure how to imagine Leslie. Something possessing the dexterity to constantly flash people the middle fin, for sure. And herself? Anne could be the mermaid. Yes. She would return. Revolutions required mermaids.
| COPYRIGHT 2006-2011
Portland Fiction Project
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED