"'"I shall not stay behind. I will dress as a man if I must, but I shall go with you," Aurelia declared, her opal eyes sparkling with fresh determination.'" Nan Millard paused in her reading to slap yet another white sheet of paper face down onto the stack on the glass-topped table in front of her. The stack had to be a quarter of an inch high. She went on. "'"No, you must not!" Dalton cried. He reached out for her silken white hand ... '"
Nan had been reading for at least half an hour on that Saturday afternoon in July. I resisted the urge to look at my watch. That would be rude. And it was my first time at this writers' critique group. I didn't want to embarrass my friend Carrie.
I snuck a look at Carrie. She at least appeared attentive. Carrie was a short, round, African-American woman with freckles scattered like cinnamon over her caffe latte skin. She was even shorter than I was, but unlike me she had a very tall personality. She had to. She was an appellate attorney. Her dark eyes were wide with what might have been intelligent interest in Nan's reading. But when I looked at her hands, sure enough, she was wiggling her fingers, one by one. I recognized the habit from some twenty years ago when we had come fresh out of college to work together in a mental hospital. If Carrie was wiggling her fingers like that, it meant that she was either bored or worried or angry. Or all of them combined.
I tried and failed to catch her eye, then guiltily jerked my head back to Nan, promising myself to focus on what she had written and was so lovingly presenting to us.
"'"It would be no life for you, my darling," he said. "It's still a frontier out there. No running water. No electricity. And nothing but men."'" Nan smiled widely, showing perfect white teeth. Maybe she was thinking of all those men. She recrossed her long, tan legs. "'A bird called outside the window. The call seemed sad to Aurelia suddenly, infinitely sad. "Must you go?" she asked softly ... '"
I let my eyes drift to the others sitting in Slade Skinner's living room. I had been briefly introduced around when I came in with Carrie, but I had lost most of their names as Nan read on. And on.
There was the very thin woman perched on a carved wooden chair. Was her name Vicky? I wondered why she was so thin. Maybe she was sick. AIDS? I hoped not for her sake. And the woman sitting by her dressed in swirls of purple cotton was Donna. I remembered her. She had tripped over one of the coffee tables on the way in.
Those tables, made of curling wrought iron with glass tops, looked like incorrigible leg-biters to me. The whole room seemed aggressively Western. Red-tiled floors, with Indian scatter rugs, coppery leather sofas and tall, carved wooden chairs. At least it was cool in here, mercifully cool after the July heat outside.
Slade himself held a dumbbell in his fist, which he was rhythmically pumping up and down, inflating and deflating his biceps muscle. And he was staring at that muscle with unabashed admiration. It was his living room. I guessed he could do what he wanted. It didn't seem to bother Nan. He switched the dumbbell to his other hand. Up, down. Up, down.
"'"I wouldn't have a poor man marry you, not even myself," Dalton whispered. Aurelia tossed a stand of bronze-burnished hair from her fair face.'" Nan tossed her own blond hair from her tanned face as she spoke. She had a model's good looks, a California model's. Good tan, good teeth, good legs. I could see most of her legs below the cream-colored miniskirt she was wearing. "'"And I shall return, my darling. I promise you ... "'"
It seemed to me he had already made this particular promise to Aurelia. More than a few times. But I might have been wrong. I continued my survey of the living room.
A woman with black, permed hair who looked like she should be a blonde sat on one of the leather sofas, her eyes half-closed, breathing in through her nose and out through her mouth noisily. I hoped she wasn't having an asthma attack. A well-built man with Asian features was on her left, staring through tinted glasses, his body and head completely still. It was kind of spooky to be that still, I decided with a little shiver. The elderly woman on the black-haired woman's right side wasn't still or spooky, though. Her eyes were bright and her face animated as she listened to Nan. She nodded as Nan slapped another sheet of paper facedown.
"Good golly, that's mighty interesting stuff you've got there," she put in quickly. Her raspy voice was a welcome contrast to Nan's smooth tones. She took off her thick glasses and wiped them with the hem of her lavender jacket as she spoke. "Might want to skip to the chase, though. There's a lot of good grub in the kitchen waiting to be eaten."
"Only for you, Mave," Nan said with a flash of white teeth. She blew the older woman a kiss and thumbed through the chunk of paper in her hand.
Right, I remembered, the older woman's name was Mave Quentin. And then the others popped into my head. The woman with the black, permed hair was Joyce something-or-other. The Asian man was Russell, Russell Wu. And the drop-dead handsome man sitting next to Carrie on the other sofa was Trevor. No, Travis. God, he was gorgeous. He looked like a gypsy with his long black hair, swarthy skin and big brown eyes. I wondered why he was scowling, not that it detracted from his looks any. Was he angry with Nan? Or maybe--
"I'll skip ahead to chapter thirteen," Nan said, interrupting my speculation. She took a deep breath, then resumed. "'"I haven't heard from him in months," Aurelia told Polly. Her eyes shone with impending tears. "Is he dead? Has he found someone else to love, someone else to caress as he once caressed me?" Polly shrugged her square shoulders. Then she bent forward, her cold blue eyes glinting. "Marry Harry," she said. Aurelia put her face into her hands. A bird called nearby ... '"
Maybe Polly could shoot the bird, I mused. She seemed pretty practical.
"'"But I don't love Harry ... "'"
I leaned back in my chair and asked myself how the hell I had ended up at this critique group. It was all Wayne's fault, I decided. My own eyes got misty. I had put Wayne on an airplane to visit his uncle for a couple of weeks the night before, and now I was suffering all the separation anxiety of ... well, of Aurelia and Dalton. God, it was true, I realized. Disgusting but true. No wonder I was having such a hard time listening to Nan.
I sat up straighter until I felt the carved wood of my chair pressing against my shoulders. I pushed back, hoping the pressure would keep me alert. I was here for the critique group and I ought to listen. Of course, Wayne was the real writer. He wrote wonderful short stories, gentle dissections of human nature surprising from such a shy man. A couple of his stories had even been published. And then suddenly, in the midst of designing the gag gifts I made for a living, I had felt an urge to write something myself. Something besides silly slogans for the sides of coffee cups. Something like poetry.
Not that I would have ever shown the poems to anyone. I had only told two people of their existence, Wayne and Carrie. And when Carrie had suggested I come to this critique group to hear working writers discussing their work, I had agreed. But only after instructing her to tell people I wrote short stories if she was asked. Somehow, writing short stories seemed a lot less embarrassing to me than writing poetry.
I took a deep breath, clamped my eyeballs onto Nan Millard's face and willed myself to listen.
"'The man with the heavy brown beard looked somehow familiar,'" Nan was reading. "'The way his golden eyes folded at the edges. My God, it was Dalton!'"
What a surprise.
"'She opened her arms, forgetting Harry. Forgetting everyone but the man who stood before her ... '"
My mind drifted back to the design I had been working on before Carrie had come to take me to the critique group, a necktie in the shape of a computer with a matching tie tack in the shape of a computer bug. My ex-husband had convinced me there was money to be made in computer-nerd gag gifts. A vision of computer earrings danced into my mind.
"'But Dalton did not return Aurelia's embrace. "You're a married woman now," he hissed. His familiar eyes glittered with anger--'"
"No shit," a voice muttered.
I looked around, afraid for an instant that my own mind had spoken out loud. But Nan was looking at Travis, her eyes narrowed with anger, if not glittering. Uh-oh.
I stiffened, waiting for the explosion. But then Nan bared her white teeth in a smile.
"I'll take that as a compliment, Travis, dear," she said, her voice high with false sweetness. "I'm so, so very glad you're involved in the story sufficiently to identify with Dalton."
"Me?!" Travis protested, leaping from the sofa. "Me? I don't identify with that jerk. He's a complete idiot!"
Carrie stood now too, putting a restraining hand on one of Travis's oscillating arms. Travis muttered something under his breath. But he sat back down.
"Grow up," Slade advised a beat later, his eyes still on his biceps.
Travis jumped back to his feet, his mouth open, his arms spread wide. But Carrie spoke before he had a chance.
"You will both stop this behavior right now," she commanded. She straightened her back, seeming to grow a good three feet. "We are intelligent adults here, not squabbling children."
Slade shrugged his shoulders as he passed the dumbbell from one hand to the other. Then he started pumping again. I could see why he chose his biceps to look at. The rest of him wasn't as impressive: a tall, stringy body with a small but distinct pot belly for all his weight-lifting, and a weasely kind of face complete with close-set eyes and weak chin. His thin, graying hair was pulled back into a pony tail.
"But I--" Travis began.
Carrie glared at him. It was a good, laser kind of glare, born of years of practice with her two children. Not to mention numerous recalcitrant judges.
Travis shut his mouth and sat back down, scowling silently once more, looking even more handsome than he had before. The dark eyelashes shading his big brown eyes must have been nearly a full inch long. I wondered if Slade was jealous of the younger, better-looking man. That might explain the way he had goaded him.
"I suppose the reading portion of the afternoon is over," drawled Nan. She reached her arms behind her and stretched before adding, "By popular demand."
Smiles broke out on some faces. Mavis chuckled.
"Okay," Nan said, all business now. "Most of you have read the whole manuscript anyhow. How about some feedback?"
Travis opened his mouth, but Carrie beat him to the verbal punch once again.
"It's difficult for me to judge a work of this genre," she admitted, waving a hand in the air. "But perhaps a little more subtlety with the main characters would be in order. And a bit more development of the minor ones."
Nan frowned and crossed her arms. This was obviously not the kind of feedback she wanted to hear.
"But other than these minor flaws, I would say that it is a very well-written novel," Carrie added quickly. Carrie never has been slow on the uptake.
Nan nodded in agreement, her face relaxing.
"The story could use more intrigue, especially in the scenes with Dalton out West," Slade threw in. He put his dumbbell down on the coffee table. "Beef it up. And give the guy more personal power. When he finds out who falsely accused him of thievery, have him meet the accuser man-to-man. Just because he has a woman waiting for him doesn't mean you have to make him a wimp."
Nan nodded again after Slade had finished, but there was a flush beneath the surface of her tanned skin. I didn't think she really appreciated his advice.
"Oh, but I think Dalton's incredibly sweet," the woman wearing purple said. Donna. She seemed sweet herself, with her wide honey-colored eyes and masses of tangled black hair. Her voice was that of an enthusiastic child. "He has real integrity. I mean, he could, you know, like shoot it out or something, but he doesn't. He comes back to be with the woman he loves--"
"But that's real integrity," Donna insisted, her childlike voice rising an octave higher. "To survive a trauma like that and retain your personal dignity. That's incredibly appropriate, I think."
"Maybe it's appropriate," pronounced Slade. "But he's not a real man. And that's where the real power of the novel is, giving the reader characters he can admire, characters he can identify with--"
"Might just be that most of Nan's readers are she's, not he's," Mave put in. She grinned. "Maybe they appreciate a more sensitive human being."
"You're no more an expert on what a normal woman wants to read than I am," Slade told Mave dismissively.
I wondered what he meant. Whatever it was, it didn't seem to bother Mave much. She just tilted her curly gray head to the side and eyed him for a moment.
"Maybe," she said. "Maybe not."
Slade picked up his dumbbell and began pumping again. Up, down. Up, down.
"I only have one or two comments," Russell Wu said into the silence. He had the voice of a classical radio announcer, low, rich, and soothing. "Your use of archaic language isn't always consistent. And you repeat certain phrases too often."
"Like what?" Nan demanded with a glare. Maybe Russell's voice didn't seem so soothing to her. Or maybe she was tired of criticism. I certainly would be.
"'The bird called,'" Russell answered mildly.
Nan's nostrils flared. "The bird is symbolic--"
"That's not the problem," Travis cut in indignantly. I had almost forgotten him. "You're all talking about these stupid little points. The real problem is that you set this story in the West at a time when the Native Americans were in their last death throes, and you never even mention their oppression! What the hell point are you making? What are you writing--"
"Oh, for God's sake," Slade interrupted. "This is a romance, not a serious novel. It's entertainment."
Travis wasn't the only one scowling at Slade now. Nan had joined him. Not that Slade had noticed.
I watched as Nan took a deep breath, uncrossed her arms and bared her teeth in another smile. Why had she challenged Russell Wu, but not Slade Skinner? Maybe it was because Slade was the expert. Carrie said the thrillers he wrote were close to best sellers.
"'Literature flourishes best when it is half a trade and half an art,'" Mave pointed out. "W.R. Inge said that. He was the Dean of Saint Paul's."
"The quotation might have some relevance if we were talking about literature," Slade fired back. "A romance novel is not literature. It's not even a real novel as far as I'm concerned."
I took a peek at Nan's face. It was a battleground of conflicting emotions, though anger seemed to be winning.
The woman with the permed, black hair, raised her hand hesitantly.
"Yes, Joyce," Nan said impatiently.
"I wanted to say that I appreciate your story for its lack of violence," Joyce told her slowly, her voice barely above a whisper. Her skin pinkened as she spoke. "That in itself is a kind of statement, with all the obsession with violence these days."
Nan just stared at Joyce, unsmiling.
"That's all," Joyce finally added. "I can't really comment on the romance angle."
"No," drawled Nan. She drew herself up straight in her chair. "I guess you can't at that."
Joyce's skin went red to the roots of her black hair. Damn.
What was that all about? I was liking the idea of spending time with working writers less and less.
"Now, Nan," Mave said, waggling a finger. "We all get a mite testy when we're critiqued, but that doesn't mean you can just ride roughshod over the rest of us--"
"Mave, will you knock off the folksy routine?" Slade demanded. "You grew up here in Marin just like I did and you had fucking well better--"
Travis leapt from his seat. "Don't you talk to Mave that way!" he shouted. "Or I'll--"