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
From the parking lot of the Seal Beach Pavilions, phoning in what looked a little like hurricane weather — green sky boiling in July — I let Clive have his way. I let him prove, Socratically, that the rest of us could only have assailed his punctuation out of laziness, incompetence or sheer dishonesty. Except that one fragment of that concession just hung there in my throat — and I felt it necessary to point out to Clive there was such a thing as an honest mistake, and that if three readers of his story had made the same mistake independently of one another, it might be unloving if we didn’t suggest, you know, that he take a look at it. On a final draft.
This set our phone call back to square one. So I prostrated myself all over again. After a half-hour of pleading, Clive said he’d think it over.
Then he called Macy and Hollis to tell them he was done with the group.
What the three of us did in the wake of this defection, bravely enough, was reaffirm our vows. I did not want to squander the creative momentum, I said. The whole experience had been valuable practice for me. I would be devoted forever, even if it was just going to be me and the heartbreakingly talented Macy. And Macy’s husband.
Belief in one another begat passion. Macy chose a next topic, “The Comfort of Creatures,” and I could feel claws and fur and mortality in it, all the sad gorgeousness of the fallen creature world. So I rose to the occasion, as did the others, the first sign that something magical had possessed us being a flurry of e-mails around 9 p.m. on the due date, warning each other that we were going to need every last minute to write.
I read Macy’s story at midnight — slain by every word.
A story that could only be written by a certain kind of heartbreakingly talented woman with red hair and freckles, it told the fatal last ride and otherworldly release of Bo T. Blackeye: rodeo clown, widower, a man still leveled, as we are, by the plain mention of a sentimental oak. (“Lily’s oak.”) Midnight felt like a new day starting.
“Are you coming to bed?” my wife asked.
I worked almost as hard on this critique as I had on my story:
Just as tragic and bowleggedly lyrical as a rodeo clown, in a voice I would follow anywhere, part Lorrie Moore (you really do have to read her) and part Mark Twain. The stoic nobility of Bo T.’s cowboy lonesomeness and low expectations is punctuated by attacks of sudden, doubled-over grief, which he wobbles through dutifully. (“It made him laugh aloud, just that the thought played with his work-calloused mind. Silly, he thought. Onward.”) Such startling moments captured perfectly for me the phantoms of eternity that visit life on this side of ‰ heaven’s reward, the life of anonymous heroes everywhere . . .
Heroes like her.
And the only thing to do was to tell Macy so, honing my worshipful critique until nearly dawn. At which point, nearly hyperventilating over the page, I knew I would have to confess to my wife. The next day, in fact, I did so (“she’s talented, and she really likes my writing, and —”). First giving myself an hour to end the literary romance in my head.
A relationship in Los Angeles ends just like a writing club. Or, say, beauty (“whose fair flower being once displayed, doth fall that very hour”), a metaphor Shakespeare made pretty enough but which L.A. perfected.
That next meeting had been a strong showing for all three of us. We really were continuing to improve. (“Creatures,” I think, was my best story — I got the idea of writing about a trophy girlfriend torn between two guys and her preacher dad.)
Granted, Hollis’ choice of a next topic was a little ominous (“The Last Call”), but I don’t think that was the problem. The problem was something more mystical. The problem was that the whole summer seemed to turn, like a sandstorm, spun outward from the grain of a story. First, an uncle of Macy’s died, so she and Hollis had to drive up north. And I took my family with newborn on a camping vacation. The club agreed on a two-week postponement — beware the single exception. Somewhere near Santa Cruz, I unfolded our assignment sheet once more and studied it.
It was a fertile enough topic. Maybe it could evoke a closing-time scene, like in Hemingway’s “A Clean Well-Lighted Place.” Or a boxing match, like in Jack London’s “A Piece of Steak.” Write about being middle-aged and punch-drunk, answering the bell of life when you can barely make out its sound any longer from the bells and birdies inside your head. Which brought up a few other associations — senility, vocation, maybe a combination of the two.
Between campsites I wrote down an idea: A police detective, well past retirement age, pores over phone records of a crime victim’s Last Call. Trying to stay focused on what he’s investigating, he regresses to an era when calls could be traced only by switchboards — a pre-digital era of innocence and human connectedness before all the rules changed and the child kidnappings began. Why was he in this house? What year was this? He couldn’t remember. He needed to rest. He needed a cold drink.