By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
My bully-story narrator had been a new-breed football player who violently, remorselessly disgraced his older opponent, one of the game’s legendary gentlemen. Hollis dove right into his suave critique. “Right out of the bucket,” he said, in a lusty cackle, “this guy grabbed me with his no-apologies philosophy.”
He even read some of my lines out loud, passing them around like the most outrageous contraband.
“Folded over him like I was packing a bag!”
“Full beers flying!”
Then Macy’s crit: a deft, approving squeeze. She pointed out my story’s “enchanting and manly phrases.” Two separate times, not to analyze this too closely, she interjected the stylishly potent dangler “Love it.” Memorably: “I’m getting a feel for the Alan Rifkin style — love it.” My own full name rubbing up against the words feel, style and love, with only a couple of flimsy prepositions and articles between them, is a very good sentence, a sentence worth keeping, a sentence I would walk home to put under my pillow while forgetting my car.
We hit some trouble discussing Clive’s piece. That was a confusing development, because Clive’s bully story, if possible, was even more brilliant than his Harvard one. A philosophical joy ride in the voice of a criminal psychologist who plumbs the heart of evil in a barroom after hours, it surpassed all of us, surpassed Mailer, surpassed De Lillo — all of us said so. But we confessed, too, that we had struggled just slightly to keep some of Clive’s characters straight, because within the story, the characters themselves were telling a story. Which meant that there were quotes within the quotes. And all the quote marks were the funny British kind, so that the outside quotes were single ones, and the inside quotes were double ones. Clive had started the story, actually, with a triple inversion — in effect, a quoted quoted quote.
“How do you mean?” Clive said when we pointed this out.
“Well, the quotes within quotes,” I said. “That, along with the British style — it just raised the level of difficulty for me. As a reader.”
Clive tried to swallow this input. “I can’t believe I’m hearing this.”
We all searched ourselves. Hearing what?
He looked both betrayed and disbelieving. “I feel a little as if I were black and you’d called me a nigger,” he said.
Macy and Hollis were having none of that. They stood their ground, firm and world-weary, as if pushing their alcoholic uncle back into his chair. All the while I kept flailing to rephrase myself. (What happened to the onus of retaining focus? As the evening’s chairperson, by alphabetic progression, it was on me. For I cite Clive: “It is not appropriate for the reviewed to interrupt . . . nor is it appropriate for other members of the group to interject . . . This is very important. On rare occasions, and then only unwillingly, the chairperson may interrupt to keep focus or to arbitrate if the discourse becomes unruly.”)
But I got hamstrung by the literal text. How do you will yourself to interrupt “only unwillingly”? And whom to interrupt? Certainly not the aggrieved Clive. Instead I apologized — first, for sounding culturally insensitive about punctuation (it was the first I knew that Americans could look down at the British); second, for reading his story too fast (because on inspection all those quote marks were in proper order). And we got through the calamity, confused, muttering, a small family of elephants soothing itself with rumbles eddying front and back. This brought us to Hollis.
Hollis this week had written a hard-knuckled story about the friendship between a schoolyard bully and the bully’s protégé. Blood, fists, asphalt. The story ended with the bully ordering a strawberry parfait at an ice cream parlor and adding, as the waitress left the table: “With sprinkles.”
Elated, I praised this new, nuanced, cryptic, almost-realized attempt at ironic swishiness, or swishy irony, or what-ever it was. Only Hollis had no idea what I was talking about. No irony intended. No swishiness.
A total, awkward impasse. Finally I had to ask him outright.
“Well, why did you write that then? About the strawberry parfait, and the sprinkles?”
And he said, completely puzzled, “Because that’s what we always ordered!”
I phoned the next week to get the assignment for topic three. “Clive isn’t going to make it this time,” Hollis said.
That’s too bad, I figured. We’ll just set another date.
“No — I think Clive is done with the group.”
Clive quitting his own group? That was troubling. (Could we survive leaderless? Could we keep that name?)
By cosmic coincidence, though, I had just been that week to a “relationships workshop” at a Long Beach hotel. It lasted four days. It was nearly sadomasochistic. In it, I learned that relationships were the most, if not the only, important thing in life. In other words, I was in a really good mind to admit wrongs, to salvage things. I would ask Clive what he needed in order to stay. I would do the very humbling thing that allegedly would have salvaged a half-dozen important relationships in my past and a couple of marriages.