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Pennies Striking Dust

Illustrations by Daniel May

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.

 

The Los Angeles Writing Club began just like a relationship. The small talk, the sharing of clever opinions while roaming cordlessly around the house, the panicked attempt to seem capable of interesting gossip. Later the instant intimacy, the thwarted romance, the hurt feelings, the prima donna desertions and the interest waning like lust, all in a matter of weeks. But first the phone call. How would you like to write a short story every two weeks, recapture all the essential hardship of writing without the material gain, then meet with a small group of strangers in order to be criticized? My conscience recognized this voice as belonging to the King of the Universe (Do you even remember why you first wrote? Is it all about the money then? Who would want to read you, whore of Babylon?). And that is why today I have no shame. I mean about saying yes to the Los Angeles Writing Club.

The sad fact was that I’d been wandering in a desert. I was feeling barren even with a pregnant wife and three children, and I was praying for money or work. Twenty miles away, the city of happy creatives shimmered — an oasis with designer kitchens. That city was a desert too, but it was sprinkled by the kind of holy rain that L.A. is famous for — pennies striking dust, a wishing well in reverse. I could sense this reality just beyond my own reality, the way a lonely person knows that it’s date night outside.

To draw one more creative breath, writers always have to be falling in love with someone or something new. And our spouses and friends genuinely hate us for that, even for confessing to it as if we secretly adore ourselves. But foolishness in hard times is really the heart of wisdom, because it always happens that not five minutes after you promise you’ll say yes to anything, to get a teaching credential, to be a beginner again, to look like a complete loser, the telephone you were beginning to think was just a prop rings.

 

It was “Clive,” a novelist — the British kind of novelist who always looks exhausted but never is, who sees fascinating paradoxes wherever he goes and shares them, in a calm, incisive squishy-squeaky accent. Clive had been a fine chef and a classical guitarist before getting a quirky novel published in the 1980s the first time he tried. He was phoning from home, a ghostly ruin in Koreatown with vines floating in his pool, which image placed him higher up than me on several scales at once. I saw him as one of those expatriate geniuses who acquires houses in L.A. like they’re birdbaths, and flamboyantly lets them rot.

Now, he was looking for feedback and discipline in his work. He had started the writing club on an impulse — as if he’d noticed in the mirror that it was time to take up jogging. Though in every other decision, he was almost amazingly formal. That title, for instance. The Los Angeles Writing Club. It could have been monumental arrogance, or sober restraint, or dumbbell English. But a British accent always gets the benefit of the doubt.

In response to a written protocol that would intimidate a rector (“Each participant gets eight minutes, including questions to the writer and the reading of any excerpts . . . a timer will be used . . . revolving chair by alphabetical order . . . the onus of retaining focus is on the chair!”), the other four of us did the only thing we could do. We started exchanging self-deprecating e-mails, hoping to lower the bar. Unless that was just good manners on the part of “Macy” (a woman) and “Hollis” (her husband) and “Rhys” — all of whom clearly had names from the right side of the tracks, genderless Hollywood names, the names of people wittier on their coffee breaks than I am in three months at my desk. I saw at once that I would need to make them love me.

Then, just as quickly, it hit me that I would. And they would make me love them too! We would be good for each other: made brave by discipline, made graceful, possibly even flawless, except flawed enough to have something to be graceful and brave about. Every blank page would be a kind of second youth; it held the potential to redeem every ruined page that had ever come before. Which hints at why editors are able to seduce writers into rewriting things over and over and over: They know that we never stop hoping.

Without waiting a day, we set to work. The inaugural topic chosen by Clive — “My First Day at Harvard” — seemed uncannily appropriate. Close to home. Inspired. Art imitating life. Form following content. I wanted to flee. Then came the blocked writer’s reflexive second thought: Write about that. It might be my strong hand — disqualification. Don’t let those brainy, legitimate writers drag you onto their turf. Right there, a few theses began to fly. A dad in Long Beach walks with sack lunch to a bus stop for his first day at Harvard; he can’t quite make connections on the RTD, and is back home by dinner. I didn’t go with that premise — but there was something deeply true in the stranded emotion, as if I’d recurrently dreamed it. And aspects of it were all over the story I finally started (a doomed freshman arrives to find an overaged-male roommate diapering a baby; the two drink beer together by the Charles River and neither will last the semester; classes are missed and whole buildings not found . . .).

This became my L.A. Writing Club routine. One afternoon for dreaming, another for speedwriting and a third for turning that into sentences. Elatedly show the manuscript to my exhausted, pregnant wife, whose face would confirm that the piece was unintelligible. Then edit through the night, completing in a day and a half what would formerly have taken me a month. I might have had my writing-club epiphany right there.

Even with my wife in labor, a part of me was with the group, whom I cell-phoned from the hospital with the potentially ultimate excuse for bailing out (Benjamin, 7 lbs., 8 oz.). But I e-mailed them my story under deadline and was proud to have done so, devotedly, holding back nothing. I printed out the others’ pieces, too, a neat, weighty sheath — wine from water, manna, fruition out of ether.

 

All these new soul mates to encounter through the medium of fiction. All these Rorschachs of the psyche. This was the courtship phase — a phase of finding our romantic identity. Nobody had ever been us before.

Randomly, I began with Rhys. Rhys’ e-mail was kind of short.

Rhys, tragically, was leaving the Los Angeles Writing Club. Finished, overwhelmed, face-down at the first hurdle.

Hollis, an actor in his 40s, was mainly in the group to be a good sport to his wife, and his strategy was to pad alongside her, like when Rocky Balboa took his girlfriend to the ice rink. Hollis’ first story was very straightforward. The protagonist talked about majoring in environmental studies, and then he talked about young women’s breasts — and now he had made it to Harvard, where a fellow could surround himself with both: sex and achievement. “And the future sure was looking good.”

I re-read this ending four or five times, rarely a good sign.

Then, terrified of finding nothing nice to say in a critique, I began looking for buried irony. Maybe, I said in my benevolent memo, the narrator’s higher and lower natures had been vacillating. Maybe Hollis had been trying — not quite successfully, but ambitiously nevertheless! — to strike an exquisite tension between man’s drive to be noble and his drive to get laid, never knowing which self merely compensates for the other. Possibly this was satire, even, a speculative send-up of the origins of that stock American figure, the randy public servant. It was all in there, somewhere. You could get some good ideas for stories from reading Hollis’ stories.

Macy worked in talent management, and she was talented herself. Her piece was a sharp, lilting, funny-sad monologue full of chick wit. A male narrator comes to realize that, having made it to Harvard, he is only trying to get even with the high-achieving girl who once dumped him, a wound that even Harvard will never heal. The story read like some of the best work of Lorrie Moore — you could feel the winning hurt in every laugh. Wow.

This guy Hollis did not deserve Macy at all.

Clive’s piece could have been a lost draft of one of the Best Short Stories of 1942: so entertaining and reader-friendly it seemed simply beyond our generation. There were pitch-perfect dialects, authentic locations, historical tidbits about philosophy and plumbing, and an O. Henry twist. (The Harvard newcomer turns out to be the janitor.) His ending ruminated skillfully on the real purposes of philosophy, somehow marrying the story’s practical and abstract layers without either getting in the way of the other.

At least that is the story Clive almost wrote. Because there were sloppy parts, too — almost anachronistically offhanded, as if Clive weren’t really trying, or we weren’t worth it. Whole pages of dialogue were smushed together without paragraphing. End quote marks bumped into the next opening quote marks. And the crucial surprise was detectable, I thought, maybe a half-page too soon. Clive could have fixed all this in an extra half-hour or two. Why didn’t he?

 

By week three we had our own in-joke tradition: that of the scripted, slightly hammy oral critique. Clive’s delivery was part academic, part BBC entertainment anchor: He kept referring to the exotic setting of my Super Bowl story (for the assignment “The Bully Speaks”) as “an American football match.”

We were at Macy and Hollis’ house in Fox Hills, with Formica and great slab steppingstones and beams and light: an oasis with designer kitchens. A famous writer might live in this house, but only if he got famous before buying it. The talented Macy had angel-fine red hair and marvelous freckly skin and wore cute Capri pants — a vision not of men’s advertising but of women’s, the sort of childlike beauty who wins a husband and designer furniture by preserving her complexion and her heart. She was showing me the yard, because Hollis was still tapping away at the last of his critiques. Hollis, I think, was either barefoot or in a robe — he looked like a boyish Hefner. Clive asked some interesting questions about the landscaping with his hands behind his back until Hollis emerged, papers flapping in one hand, waving hello with the other.

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.

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.

Hey. Was the murderer coming up behind him? No! That would be obvious, like Hollis. Or classical, like Clive. So what was wrong with obvious and classical? I wasn’t sure anymore. I just knew that to make a suspense story with all the suspense inexplicably squandered was a rare, delirious, possibly brilliant idea — a challenge for a major artist like myself. I saw how all of life’s memories would resound like dull gongs, how the house plan would be a labyrinth of lost youth, how the convolutions of Alzheimer’s would be set against the timeless graveyard of the desert (beginning to sound like the Harvard dad at the bus bench, maybe the same guy). I got home and wrote something elegiac instead of funny, and way too long, and it was only beginning. I wrote longer and couldn’t remember why I began. Form followed content. Where was the magic, the magic? Deadline rolled around, and I was nowhere near completion.

Which was okay with Macy and Hollis: It was a bad month for them too. I should take my time, they told me. You see, they had a new puppy.

Yes? So? I had four children. Were they serious? Half of me was insulted, the other half grateful for the extension — my nobler and lower selves vacillating. My private eye was lost in a corridor. Now it was September.

 

My final voice mail from Hollis went like this:

“BAD DOG! BUSTER GET DOWN — Alan, sorry — I’m — BUSTER! GET! DOWN! I SAID: DOWN! — I’m going to have to — DOWN! GET! DOWN! — BUSTER!”

But even that shouting transmission seemed faraway and fading. I was falling in love with fall now. I was suddenly getting paychecks and assignments again — a miracle I credit, foolishly or not, to having taken chances for fun and for free. Like every other waste of time, in other words, this experience was worth the time. I believe Clive knew so when he felt moved to phone me in the beginning, whether Clive knew he knew it or not. So my wishing-well cosmos is intact.

As for the British novelist, the maiden, the husband guy, I’ve started wondering: Were they real themselves, or just characters? In the city of happy creatives, everything blurs. I only know that what felt charmed at the beginning of summer no longer was — a Cupid departed, inspiration’s serial dream. I had flung myself at love and rebirth. I had three short stories, already garnering their murderously polite rejections from East Coast magazines. (This isn’t for us. Thanks all the same. We’ll pass.) I had given my heart, gone to Harvard and been back by supper, and the future sure was looking good.