COLUMN | By Sami Zahringer

Almost everybody else had arrived by the time Stephanie Potts (Phanny to her friends) got to the library to lead the regular Monday writing workshop. They weren’t an easy lot but they turned up week after week, animated by some inner fire, hungry for an elusive something — people so different they would never meet under any other circumstances

between them they had developed a sort of reluctant friendship; a grudging trust, if not in each other, then in The Group. They understood the importance of having a place free of snickering to expose their fledgling work. Such places were becoming increasingly rare in the noisy, scornful world.

Phanny was a local journalist and had had a difficult day already. Sightings of the Beast Of Upper Ojai were increasing but eyewitness reports varied wildly. “The beast looked very much to me like a child accountant stapled to a shag rug,” one had said. A tiny man with wide, bloodshot eyes and a strong smell of methylated spirits about him said the beast was “enormous and bounded! Odd bounding at first, then more normal bounding. I’ll never forget it. Especially the normal bounding.” He shuddered. A large woman with an arthritic Labrador under one arm and an “I garden so I don’t kill people” T-shirt had said “No, no, I saw it very clearly. The beast was really quite small and made a noise like the start of the News at 10.”  In the end, Phanny had just written “The beast was monstrous in its indefinability.”

She looked around at the group. The Reverend Moley, his wife, Judy, and their five children, all of whom were  crawling around on the floor were there. Their eldest, Damian, was inventing a Death Ray with rubber bands and a vape; Punky Suzy was there;

Octavia Cadwallad’r, British heiress to the Toilet Duck millions; Mary-Ann, poet of the high-blown Restoration style; Pablo Escobar (yes, really), a dentist and speculative fiction writer.

Phanny looked around at the potluck food they had brought and perceived that Westridge Market had had a sale on pre-cut cheese cubes. She had brought a large mason jar of her much requested sourdough starter for everybody to take a bit home.

“Now, it’s not for me to draw parallels between my life and the life of Christ,” the Reverend Moley, was saying gravely to the already assembled, “But people say that at a certain time of twilight, when I’m standing against a tree they have perceived from me a strange and holy emanation.”

“Actually,” piped up Judy, “They said “an odd discharge.” You do have a robust sinus problem, darling.”

“But,” continued the reverend smoothly, “I also have a plantar wart and some nasty splinter scars on the palms of my hands from when I was a boy and I was forced to climb a tree to escape my sister’s pony. The pony’s name?” He asked with a smile that could barely contain its own triumph. “Roamin’ Norman! Make of that what you will!”

The looks around the room could not have been blanker had they been oil company checks to a presidential campaign.

“Roamin’ Norman! ROMAN Norman! Scarred palms and a verruca! Do you see?”

They did. They did all see.

Damian death-rayed a Puffy Cheeto.

Next to the reverend was Suzy Whatro, a tiny, many-pierced member of several major Oak View Anarcho-syndicalist organizations who were dedicated to the overthrow of everything the reverend believed in. She passed him some pasta salad, adjusted her cheek-ring and said “Have we started then? What’s your poem, Moley?”

“Well, Suzie …” he said, allowing himself a small preen. Not a mortal preen or anything, Pride being a deadly sin, and all. But just enough to indicate to everyone that they were about to hear something very special indeed.

“Suzy,” she corrected.

“Well, I was inspired by you actually. With all your many punctures.” 

“Piercings,” she growled.

“Looking at your piercings, I was reminded of St. Sebastian’s horrible arrowy death and martyrdom for Jesus at the hands of the Emperor Diocletian’s soldiers. And

although the circumstances are different, in the same way I believe you have mutilated yourself for your beliefs too. I find that very moving.”

Suzy found it very weird but even though she was an anarchist sworn to burn the system to the ground, she felt compassion for the reverend. Something must have gone very wrong in his past for him to choose a life like that. She nodded and gave a brief, tight smile.

The group winced and leg-crossed its way through the reverend’s poem as the air about them fizzed with words like stab, lance, flesh, spike, and sea-urchin. Phanny gently suggested the reverend hold back on the torrents of blood flowing from the Suzy’s hideously sliced belly-button piercing and the reverend, although slightly irritated nobody had been moved to weeping, agreed it needed more work.

Next it was Suzy’s turn, but she said that she now wanted to perform her poetry exclusively in a cupboard in an abandoned farmhouse in the the Hebridean wilderness because “the audience is a passive concept” and she didn’t want to feed her ego.

Fair enough, thought everyone, a bit relieved, and turned to Mary-Ann, a spinster of the reverend’s parish who had forgotten her poem but wanted instead to talk with some animation to the reverend about improving the quality of the communion wine. The minister visibly slumped. Mary-Ann’s disapproving pucker reminded him keenly of his mother’s. Although dead and buried many years now, he was sure that like the Cheshire Cat’s smile, her pucker would be the very last thing remaining in the dark of her silent, reproachful coffin, long after the rest of her had turned to dust.

“Last week’s,” she said “was quite good …”

“Oh yes?” The reverend sat forward looking hopeful.

“… But at the same time immensely disappointing.”

Mary-Ann was good at being disappointed in the same way that a dwarf is good at being short.

A meanly-nostrilled woman, she had that type of brutal honesty that was more interested in the brutality than the honesty.

“I found it plucky, yes, but almost Episcopalian in its predictability. To me it wasn’t the sort of thing The Host would credibly inhabit. I mean I just don’t BELIEVE Our Lord would bother to show up in such an insipid wine! It tasted like liquid Belgium. I know we can do better, Reverend. From my not-insignificant monetary contributions alone. Perhaps also you could put a little more red meat into your sermons, too. Bit of bracing Old Testament with a nice communion Pinot sounds like just the thing to move into winter. ”

“Darling, Mary-A!” trilled Octavia Cadwallad’r who had been watching Mary-Ann’s genteel savaging of the minister from beneath her dangerously smokey eyelids. “You must tell me about this marvelously rough kind of paté you’ve brought to share!”

“It’s meatloaf” spat back Mary-Ann, her nostrils going menacingly white around the edges. Reverend Moley gave Octavia a look you could have poured on pancakes.

The tension was broken as the sourdough starter suddenly bubbled gastrically in its jar. Unfortunately, it was on a seat next to Pablo, the dentist, and nobody could help notice how much more charismatic the starter was than Pablo.

Pablo was the sort of person who was not born as a baby. He was born aged 54, was 17 for a minute when he said and did all the regrettable things he had ever done thus far, and now is an age nobody knows.

He spoke at length about something or other, rhyming sonorously in such a way that two of the children on the floor went to sleep.

“Dum de dum de dum de etter,”  he intoned.

“Dum de blah blah dum de dead

Life would be so very much better

if you could take your arms off in bed.”

Wait! Wait now, what did he just say? Everybody suddenly came to and considered this carefully for a while. The murmured consensus was that yes, things WOULD definitely be improved if we didn’t have to sort out what to do with our arms in bed! There always seemed to be one too many, even when sleeping alone. Very good point. Huh! That Pablo, he’s more interesting than we thought.The quiet ones, eh? Privately, they each hoped he wasn’t a serial killer.

Then Pablo said had to leave early to pick up his pregnant wife and their son. The reverend laughed and said “I understand completely. What a merry-go-round! My wife and I had five children under five at one point!”

“Five under five! Wow! Are any of them twins?” asked Phanny.

“No,” said the Reverend and glanced lovingly at his wife who was patiently trying to comb some strawberry jam out of her hair.

The words, “We are just sexually irrepressible” hung, unspoken, in the air. The silence was broken, thank God, with a sad fizz as Damian death-rayed a bumblebee, leaving just a tiny smoking pile of ash and wings.

In reality, Pablo did not have a wife or a child. He was going home to watch competitive Ballroom Dancing and eat cheetos from a bowl resting on his tummy, like a happy otter.

In reality, Pablo was a serial killer. He just hadn’t killed anyone yet…

Part 2 of Writing Group, next issue …

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