A dark cloud is descending upon the Ashby Avenue Writer’s Group. I feel its shade spreading over me like a wet blanket. I shiver slightly, take a deep breath, and look out the window, hoping it will pass.
“My name is not Meat-shits,” Misha (pronounced Mee-shah) says, voice quavering with rage, knuckles clenched red through dainty white lace gloves. “Why don’t you listen more carefully?” she continues. “Pay closer attention! Turn up your goddamned hearing aid!”
A few flowers are blossoming on the tree outside the rec room of the Senior Center where our class meets each Tuesday afternoon. It’s getting to be springtime here in Berkeley. Then again, it’s always like springtime in Berkeley.
Mary, the object of Misha’s vitriol, is mortified. She looks down, her lips moving slowly without words, as if chewing grass. Truth be told, Mary is slightly hard of hearing. Misha, however, is ten times worse.
“I don’t think that’s right, Misha, to yell at Mary like that,” Ruth says, with a thick, somewhere-from-eastern Europe accent. “She misunderstood you. There’s no need to be negative. We should work together. Isn’t that right, professor?”
Ruth tilts her head in my direction and looks up at me with big gray eyes. She is the voice of moderation in this little writer’s group, the peacemaker. Since receiving a favorable critique on an essay she penned about peach canning near the beginning of our ad hoc semester, I am fairly certain she’s been carrying a small torch for me.
Mary and Misha, on the other hand, are suspicious of each other. For starters, they have different views of characterization: Misha believes all fictional men are tall, dark, and handsome. Mary is of the opinion that they – and very likely, non-fictional men as well — are vaguely sinister, with ‘greasy hair and eyes lidded like a lizard’, to quote a line from a recently submitted manuscript. Ruth has no strong feelings either way. Victor, who we suspect lives in the park behind the Senior Center, sleeps near the radiator through most of our meetings.
Few would confuse us with the Bloomsbury Set.
Acknowledging Ruth’s intervention with a smile, I launch into my canned response. I’ve practiced it 100 times. “There is a great difference between criticism and constructive criticism,” I say, looking slowly from Mary to Misha. “Constructive criticism is — is like the fertilizer that helps a flower poke its stem through the soil and open its petals toward the sun. It nurtures and grows. Criticism — unconstructive criticism, that is — is a poison. It makes the flower wilt. It breeds weeds in the soil.” I pause to let this idea take root, gazing again out the window. A bird has landed in the tree outside. I believe it’s a robin.
Misha ruffles her manuscript violently, like a terrier shaking a rat. “I still don’t understand how Avery gets into her bedroom,” she says, scowling at Mary and I before throwing the manuscript to the table. “It’s so improbable. It just doesn’t make any sense.”
If I don’t take control now, this class session will be a wash. This community outreach assignment is the last teaching credit for my degree. I can picture myself explaining how things went wrong to my advisor Petrini as he fiddles with his prosthetic arm, alternately quoting the Upanishads and Poor Richard’s Almanac, which, I suppose, is his way of expressing intellectual detachment. “A bad teacher is worse than no teacher at all, Daniel. But hell! With practice, there might be hope. Poets & Writers Magazine is developing a new creative writing program for implementation in the state’s correctional systems. Intimate experience with men who’ve met with the peculiar challenges of institutionalized life will surely prove enlightening, and perhaps even inspirational to you in your efforts…” I grit my teeth and jump in.
“Does everything have to make sense?” I respond a bit too loudly, holding Misha’s eyes with mine. “Does everything that happens to you in the course of a day follow from a sensible, logical order? Does everything follow from a rational plan?”
Misha looks like she’s bit into an especially bitter lemon. I’m sure she wants to spit. Ruth comes to the rescue again. “Remember, Misha, what the professor said about ‘willful suspension of disbelief’? About giving the author the benefit of the doubt and letting the story take you on an adventure? Like a free van ride with one of those senior tokens. Isn’t that right, professor?” she says, tilting her head in my direction, smiling beatifically. Coming from Ruth’s lips, I’m not so sure.
Still, there’s something to be said for the resonance of one’s own phrases.
“I’ll tell you how he gets in the bedroom,” Mary hisses, renewing her attack with a vengeance. For a moment I fear that Mary will lunge at Misha, and the two will fall to grappling on our laminated card table: ‘Octogenarian Female Wrestling.’
“He has his ways,” she continues, her voice somewhere between a whisper and a snarl. “His sexual desires overcome him. There’s nothing to be done. He’d scale tall buildings, crawl through sewers, walk across deserts. There’s no controlling him in his passion.” Mary stutters slightly on the p of ‘passion’, catches her breath and slams her hand on the table. With her other hand, she clutches her breast. Why, I admonish myself, didn’t I finish those free CPR classes they were giving at Sprague Hall?
“I can see him there, alright,” she says, breathlessly, “crawling in the window, through the heating grate, drilling a hole in the ceiling or floor, so great is his lust. She’s there in the bedroom, naked except for her red panties, the satin ones with the ties at the waist.” Mary’s voice catches on ‘naked.’ She snatches the manuscript away from Misha, pages through, and begins to read. “Her skin is like bread dough, soft, white and pliant. She sees him for what he is, a man, a man’s man, with greasy hair, powerful, defiant, with lizard-lidded eyes fixed fast upon the pleasures of her buxom person.”
“Who said anything about panties?” Misha snaps, mere paragraphs, I imagine, before our heroine can be deflowered. “I don’t remember any panties,” she continues, wagging her head at me in the manner of those magnetic dogs that sometimes grace the rear sills of sedans.
“We didn’t say anything specifically about red satin panties,” I say, patting Misha gently on one lace glove. “We decided last week that Desiree should be wearing something. After all, she’s a Southerner and a lady of high social standing. Red satin panties are an invention of Mary’s imagination. What do you think of the device, Ruth?”
Ever my ally, Ruth smiles wistfully. “I like the satin,” she says. “It’s soft and cool like Desiree’s voice. But I’m not sure about the red. It’s too…too…
“SLEAZY!” Misha blurts out like a foghorn. It’s getting toward the end of our session, and her hearing aid is giving out. Victor stirs for a moment and mutters something that sounds like ‘pigeons’.
“How about a softer color?” I chime in, balancing the tightrope between a nice prep school gig and maximum security mornings honing Charlie Manson’s haiku skills:
“The long sharp machete…”
“No Charles. Ma-che-te has three syllables.”
“The long sharp death knife…”
In a flash, I recognize the tree outside the window. “How about an avocado green?” I say, as much to the tree as to Ruth.
“I like that,” Mary murmurs, crossing and scratching at her paper towel writing tablet, which she unfurls like a scroll.
“DID YOU GET THAT?” I scream to Misha. “DESIREE’S PANTIES ARE AVOCADO GREEN SATIN. WHAT DO YOU THINK?”
Victor covers his head with yesterday’s Chronicle as Misha ponders this revision. She raises her head after a moment and speaks quietly. There is great certainty in her voice. “I can tell you from experience that no one in the state of Mississippi has ever seen an avocado, let alone heard of its use as a color. What’s more,” she adds, leaning forward in a conspiratorial manner, “a tall, dark, handsome man like Avery Forsythe would have nothing to do with a woman in green panties. They’re undignified. They’d remind him of pea soup. Or worse.”
Victor begins to snore lightly as an ice cream truck rolls by. The driver rings his bell, and above its peal I hear the excited laughter of the children who clamor after him. “That’s a nice vocation,” I murmur to myself, wondering if Desiree would have been better off left naked, after all.