Episode 1: 86 the Cow Paste



Sketch No. 1: White-haired Imp as Café Mistress, Smuggling Key Lime Tart


Please, please, grab a coffee. Or whatever your beverage of choice: tea, Scotch, whatever it is, that drink you like to cradle in your hands and sip. If you were here, and I wish you were, here at my favorite table across from Café Confictura’s front counter, you’d be getting that drink on the house because first-time customers drink free (well, you’d have to bring your own Scotch, or just ask the owner nicely for a shot from her private stash). “You gotta give to get”: that’s one of Mrs. Phillipa Creaverton’s rules of business. Her rules have kept Confictura up and running for nearly forty-five years. “You gotta give to get.” It’s sort of like “you’ve got to spend money to make money,” only a little more Dale Carnegie. And Mrs. Creaverton knows her Dale Carnegie. Although, he asked her in ’67 to please stop calling him “her” Dale Carnegie because even though their friendship was entirely innocent he was concerned people might get the wrong idea.


In the more general sense, “here” is our little Applewood, Connecticut, right smack in the heart of the state. If you have occasion to come through town, don’t mind our main street, Beech Street--they’re working on fixing it up after what happened a couple Novembers ago. Maybe you saw it on the news? We netted a minute and fifty seconds on the nationals: “freak geological event.” We even made it to Canada: “mysterious orogeny.” Whatever you want to call it, it means we all woke up that November fifth to shards of asphalt heaving upward, leaving the street impassable.

Thing is, though--and this is what none of the news reports understood--it wasn’t just geological, and Beech Street wasn’t the only place affected, though it was hit the worst. Storefronts all over town were suddenly chipped, stinking of mold. You know those grassy strips between the curb and the sidewalk? Those turned dry as straw. Café Confictura was one of two businesses spared, even though it’s right on Beech Street too. The other was Ambrosia, a bakery across town. Bizzaro. But that’s Applewood’s only weird thing, I promise.

Oh, and the ghosts. I mean, we’re a small town in Connecticut. Of course we have ghosts. But ever since the “mysterious orogeny” they’ve kicked the hauntings up a few notches, from freaking out cats and knocking over Hummels to all-out Amityville. Even Mrs. Creaverton’s husband has reportedly popped up, and he’s been gone four years.

For the most part, though, Mrs. Creaverton has other things on her mind than the inevitable visits from her deader half. Her own mortality, for one. Case in point, the scene from earlier today:

Morning rush. A glut of customers at the counter, these poor folks squished together in their usual bulging glob. One part of the glob evidently bathed in lily of the valley; one part had garlic last night. It’s impossible to identify individual voices: “I’ll have a nonfat latte cruller with that order up for Anna I said nonfat can I get the small instead of Anna I’m Anne no whip? yeah that’s mine Napkins!”

Only since the quake has the glob been a glob. Before that they were Anne and Christopher and Maria. They’d stop a minute en route to their morning tea or coffee and talk to each other, debate each other. They were unique and had thoughtful things to say. Now when they come in they’re mechanical and quick, their faces brief afterimages floating, and then lost in the crowd. When they do talk, it’s like they’re in a fog, or drugged. They parrot each other. I miss their different voices. All of us who haven’t been affected wish there’s something we could do for them, especially for those who get flickers in their eyes, a moment of recognition of what’s happened to them, a moment of yearning to be who they once were.

No one knows what caused this affliction. All we know is it started the same night as the quake, and in the fourteen months since then, it’s spread.

But we go on. What else can we do?

Behind the café’s front counter, there’s a stairway heading up to Mrs. Creaverton’s apartment. This morning, on the fifth stair up was Mrs. C herself, a puffed zeppola of a woman with a dollop of white hair. On the third stair was her steadfast cashier, Violet, a living, breathing fashion sketch--angular, yet she can get her whole body to pout. Violet’s hand reached out, its demanding palm up, toward the plastic takeout box of key lime tart that Mrs. C had not very successfully hidden behind her back.

Since the two women were raised up above the crowd, I think that’s probably how I could hear them. Mrs. C said to Violet, “You know that Nessie brings tarts to every Merchants Association meeting. I took one to keep the peace. That’s what you do when--here, business lesson, write this down--that’s what you do when a shaky alliance is all that’s standing between you and catastrophe. You keep the peace. End of story.”

Mrs. Creaverton knew full well that Violet would not write that down. She never writes down Mrs. C’s lessons in café proprietorship. When it comes to committing things to memory, Violet lets her inner child hold all the pencils, and that kid’s got a single mind for couture.

“Not end of story,” said Violet. She has a French accent. She’s from Wisconsin, but she has a French accent. “Every month Nessie brings the tarts and every month you tell her, ‘No, I have a disease. I am on pills for my heart, pre-diabetes, and chronic pain associated with my diet. If I eat a tart or a cake or some other thing that lists ‘fat’ and ‘sugar’ as its first two ingredients, I might die.’ Nessie knows this.”

Mrs. C tried again: “It’s not for me. I brought it back as a surprise for you. I was just putting it upstairs for safe keeping.” She tilted her head and made her eyes twinkle. So help me, the woman can make her eyes twinkle--bright enough, mind you, for me to see it from where I sat. I glanced away instinctively. It might be a cool trick, but a little while after Mrs. C twinkles at you, your head clears and you realize she’s recruited you for doing inventory, cleaning refrigerators, or sneaking into the crooked preacher Sweeney’s penthouse to spell out “666” in ’Nilla Wafers on his kitchen table.

Violet’s no slouch; she glanced away too before the twinkle could take hold. “Nice try, old woman,” she said.

Mrs. Creaverton said, “Alfred Hitchcock once told me he’d give his chin for really good key limes. You know why? Secret to longevity. Poor guy didn’t get enough key limes. And now he’s dead.”

“Oh, come on. Hitchcock would be 117 years old.”

“He would be if he’d had more key limes.”

“Enough, now,” said Violet. She shook a ripple through her short black waterfall of hair. “Tell me what is wrong.”

“Why do you think anything’s wrong?”

“Because you took a tart. You don’t bring home a noose just to see how it looks sitting on the kitchen table.”

“You’re being overdramatic.”

“I am not,” said Violet. “Forget a moment about your health. Forget all the people who care about you who do not want to see you get a paper cut let alone get sick. Do you not see that this is exactly what Nessie wants?”

“To unload key lime tarts that, admittedly, probably contain neither limes nor anything else resembling fruit?”

“She wants Confictura.”

“All right,” said Mrs. Creaverton, “you really need to get back on the register, Vi. Denny’s fine at making bread pudding but I think he just charged seventy-three dollars for a muffin.”

Violet ignored her. “More than that, she wants the Merchants Association.”

“And so she’s planning to what? Pastry me to death so she can get me out of her way?”

Eyes down and chin stuck out, Violet dug her thumbnail into the dark wood banister. “Let’s say I were an evil queen who wanted the royal Merchants Association to pass new rules that seemed to help everyone but really just made my business richer, until I could buy up all the other businesses that are struggling since the quake. But a princess stood in the way of my plans, a princess who also owns Confictura, the only competition in town to my Ambrosia bakery. Perhaps, then, at every royal Merchants Association meeting, I would wheel in my dessert cart of deception until I wore the heroine down and convinced her that eating just one tart wouldn’t be so bad…” Slowly, she lifted her eyes. “Then all of a sudden it’s thirty tarts later, and the princess is gone, and I am free and clear to rule over all.”

Mrs. Creaverton came down a step, reached out, and delicately moved a few strands of hair from Violet’s face. “Aw, honey,” she said. “What the hell kind of freaky bedtime stories did your parents read you?”

Now within striking distance, Violet didn’t hesitate. She nabbed the takeout box. “This goes in the garbage,” she said, and started down toward the front counter. “It should feel right at home there.”

She didn’t get far before Mrs. Creaverton blurted out, “I’m dead anyway. That’s why I took the damned tart. I just thought I could enjoy a last supper.” Angry footfalls beat the remaining stairs up to her apartment.

The tart forgotten in her hand, Violet followed Mrs. C. I followed Violet.

By the way, I’m Clarissa. I’m one of the regulars at this crazy place we call Confictura. I hope you’ll be a regular too.

Sketch No. 2: Kitchen in Pockets and Chalk Dust



When the sun’s out, it beads the eaves of Confictura’s A-frame, like lemon drops on a gingerbread house. That was the view from one of the kitchen windows in Mrs. C’s apartment. She’s got the same feel going on up there as in the café, the same eclectic blend of furniture. A melting pot of lines and colors and generations, that. Tea and bistro tables of wonderfully different heights cascade through rooms down the building’s long reach. Bookshelves are as overstuffed as the armchairs. In Mrs. C’s apartment, the kitchen proper carries the café’s strong scent; the moment you walk in you’re swaddled in java and chocolate-cinnamon.

But then there are pockets, alcoves and closets and maybe even whole other rooms behind doors, just as there are downstairs. Secret pockets. I know of at least one tunnel you can get to from the café’s Fireplace Room. The walls of Mrs. C’s kitchen seem to be all pockets, and while the paint is daisy yellow, there’s chalk dust everywhere, a coating transient yet clinging, like powdered sugar. Blackboards of all sizes are propped up on shelves or on the floor, with ever-changing recipes and notes written over years of eraser swipes. The biggest board has Shopping List printed at the top.

We found Mrs. C sitting at her little round kitchen table. Violet said, “And what does this mean, you’re dead anyway?”

“I had my physical yesterday,” said Mrs. C. “Since being on the prescriptions, cutting out sugar and red meat, and switching to low-fat dairy, I have actually gained weight, my arthritis has gotten worse--which I could’ve told you, pain’s bad all the time now--and the pre-diabetes is apparently over and regular season has begun.”

Violet took a deep breath, slowly ingesting this. “All right. Then you’re not doing enough to get healthy.”

“Not enough?” yipped Mrs. C. “I’ve done everything my doctor has told me to do.”

“Which is what?” said Violet. “Stop eating red meat and junk food? That’s like telling a smoker he will avoid lung cancer by cutting back to only one pack a day.” She turned to me. “You are not wishing to back me up?”

I raised my hands. “I’m just a spectator.”

Mrs. C said, “See, this is why I was willing to settle for one of Nessie’s tarts. They may be full of chemicals, but I was pretty sure they’re better for my blood pressure than taking something from my own display case right in front of you and having to hear about it.”

“Ah…well…” I said, considering this.

“Well what?” said Mrs. C.

“You did a pretty bad job of hiding the tart for someone who didn’t want to get caught,” I said. “I mean, you kind of marched the thing right in front of Violet, I saw you.”

“Right,” said Mrs. C. “Because you’re just a spectator. Who’s suddenly feeling very chatty.”

Violet lit up. “I think, then, it is your subconscious telling you you’re ready to eighty-six the cow paste.”

“Wow,” I said. “That sounds disgusting.”

Mrs. Creaverton said, “It’s diner-speak. Cow paste is butter, technically. Eighty-six means nix it, throw it out. When Violet went all-natural health nut on me she started saying it as a euphemism for cutting out everything except, I don’t know, whatever the hell she still eats. The lawn? Life’s too short, thanks.”

“Yes, life is short,” said Violet. “So why spend what little time you have hooked to machines or lying in bed, in agony?”

“Would I rather not wake up with a foot tingling or a joint flaring up? Sure. Would I rather weigh one-thirty again? Of course. But what’s the point of living if you can’t have the things you love? A good steak. A slice of pie.”

“But this is not what you love,” said Violet, holding out the tart. “Café Confictura, your regulars, the townsfolk who hurt from what this quake has done, moi, this is what you love. Food is to keep you running, so you can be with the people you love. Food is not the object of your love. Do not say such sad things.”

“Besides,” I said, “Violet’s right about Nessie. If one of you alienates or attacks the other, the Merchants Association would be bitterly divided on everything from business regulations to the town’s reconstruction. That’d tear Applewood apart. The only thing worse is if we don’t have you around at all.”

Mrs. C looked up. I know she saw herself reflected in my eyes. Her lips moved silently, before she shook her head. “It’s too much. It’s all…too much.”

Violet said, “And when did you ever run from too much? You have never cowered away from change. Just because you fear getting older does not mean you should begin fearing everything else.”

Mrs. C banged a fist on her table, making Violet and me jump. “You’re not a shrink,” she rasped. “Contrary to what you might believe, you don’t know everything, so why don’t you just leave me the hell alone.”

Violet’s eyes widened at such a hit. A soft knock came at the door. One of the baristas announced that Nessie was downstairs, looking for Mrs. Creaverton. I’ve never known Nessie to come here before today. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one surprised.

“Nessie’s here?” said Mrs. C.

“Isn’t that a little like Russia dropping by the White House during the height of the Cold War?” I asked.

Mrs. C got up. At the door, she paused. “Look,” she said to Violet with a sigh, “how ’bout you and me play hooky next Saturday, have a little time out? We can take Manhattan. Twelve hours of Seventh Avenue and not a second less, as many stores as you want.”

Coolly, Violet said, “You should see what Nessie wants. You don’t want to keep Madame Hell Hound waiting.”

Mrs. C put her smile away. Violet stayed put. Down once more Mrs. C and I went, to see what Nessie Fyne had brought to the café’s door.

Sketch No. 3: The Three Heads of Nessie Fyne, Baring Teeth


Nessie likes to say in a joking tone that her heart is almost as big as her belly. Of course, she says a lot in joking tones. Like: “People are too sensitive these days. What am I supposed to do when I send out my Christmas cards, write in every possible holiday so I don’t offend someone? Should I write in all the holidays? ‘Merry Flag Day and a Happy New Year’?” Or, when she first met Violet: “Don’t you lose that French accent, dear. It’ll give your dates a funny story to tell their friends!” Then Nessie follows her jokes with her unfortunate smile. You know Mister Ed’s teeth when he’d “talk”? Whether Nessie is joking or serious, all eight of those incisors jump right out at you and they don’t let go.

When Mrs. C and I got downstairs, Nessie was picking through the To-Go’s: these are takeaway sheets that Mrs. C keeps in three pamphlet holders by the register. One holder is for Mrs. Creaverton’s featured recipe of the week. Then, one is for Violet, and one is for the café’s resident retired English professor, Roscoe Belesprit. Violet does fashion consulting here on her nights off; Roscoe runs a writing salon in the Riverview Room. Their To-Go’s advertise a taste of whatever they’ve covered with their clients that week. Nessie, however, apparently didn’t catch on that there were three pamphlet holders for a reason. She plucked a batch of Mrs. C’s “Yummy Nutmeg Snickerdoodles” and shoved them in front of Violet’s “Pencil Skirt with Pizzazz.”

Morning rush had calmed, the bell over the door slowing its tempo to adagio. Mrs. C said hello to Nessie, and ushered her to one of the front tables. I hung back to fix the To-Go’s and, of course, to eavesdrop.

They’d barely sat when Nessie reached into her oversized purse. “I came to bring you another tart,” she said, presenting it. “I was very happy you finally decided to try one.”

“Golly,” said Mrs. C with a laugh. “You trying to do me in, Nessie?”

And, hello, Mister Ed! “I’ll bring it to my next shift at the hospital. The children see me coming with treats and it’s all hugs and ‘Miss Fyne, we love you!’” She set the takeout box down in front of Mrs. C. “Did you like it?”

“Hmm?” said Mrs. C.

“Did you like the tart you took from the meeting this morning?”

“Oh,” said Mrs. C. “It was delicious.”

“Good, good.” Nessie leaned in. “Phil, can I admit something?”

“You know,” said Mrs. C, “that reminds me of my old friend Jimmy. He also used to forget how much I hate being called Phil. No matter how many times I told him, it just flew right out of his head.”

“Right, I’m so sorry I keep forgetting,” said Nessie. “Jimmy Bantam, over on Maple?”

“No,” said Mrs. C. “Hoffa. But he hasn’t bugged me in a while now, has he?” She laughed. Nessie did too, sort of. “You said you wanted to admit something?”

Nessie regrouped. “Well,” she said, “I wanted to say I’m happy you treated yourself today. Go on and take this tart too. I’ll be happy to bring you another tomorrow. My bakers are like machines, churning out so many goodies so quickly, I don’t know where to put them all. I’m just happy you’re letting yourself enjoy life a little.”

“I always enjoy my life,” said Mrs. C. “The food’s just there to keep me running.”

“Just do me a favor,” said Nessie, “and don’t wither away into one of these size-four monstrosities. Walking skeletons. Turns my stomach to have to look at them.”

She shoved in even closer to Mrs. C. “I think the mind starves, too, when you’re skinny,” she said, “because they actually start thinking they’re better than us normal folks. It seems they hate us. You see them plotting against us: wanting to label our food, posting nutritional information everywhere. They probably have a secret society that comes up with how to shove it in our faces all the time! But, you know, maybe it’s themselves they really hate. I mean, they’re practically anorexic. That’s psychological. Maybe they need professional help. Or at least a cheeseburger! It’s like, for God’s sake, be normal!”

I didn’t miss her glances at me. I once had some of the same health issues as Mrs. C. Then I took Violet’s advice, and I dropped forty-four pounds in the last few years. I happen to be built small so, yeah, I’m a smaller size. I get weird looks at restaurants sometimes if all I order is a black bean burger and a side of roasted veggies, even though I happen to like black bean burgers and roasted veggies. When Violet and I hang out we get smirks or the occasional “eat a sandwich.” But that doesn’t make me hate people. Makes me want to chuck a Brussels sprout at them sometimes, but I rarely ever do that. Also, I know there’s no Evil Society of Vegans and Vegetarians. I know this because if there were one I’d join just so I could put that on a business card. I almost told Nessie all this but, you know, I’m sure she was only joking.

Besides, Mrs. C had it covered.

She leaned away from Nessie’s confederate posturing. “You know my cashier, Violet?” said Mrs. C. “She’s a good girl. Looks out for me. Like with this damned disease. Doc can’t cure it. He doesn’t even have a real name for it. ‘Unspecified cardiac and endocrine affliction.’ I mean, what the hell is that? But Vi’s one of the folks I know who actually had it, and she cured herself. It wasn’t the easiest thing in the world, but she did it, because she’s no coward. She doesn’t fear change, or a little hard work. Or, in my case, a little hardhead. I think she cares more about getting me healthy than she cared even about getting herself healthy. Now, that girl is what normal should be. Loves talking to people, helping them feel their best. Sees the good in just about everybody. Of course, she’s not one of these size fours you’re talking about.”

Nessie had been looking a little uneasy there. “Oh. Of course she’s not.”

Mrs. Creaverton glared at her. “She’s a two.”

Nessie stuttered, “I hope you know I was only joking—”

“This is a serious disease, Nessie, I take it seriously, so I’d thank you kindly not to joke about it.”

“Of…of course,” she said through her teeth.

“Okay.” Mrs. C stood and ushered her back to the door.

Mrs. C really could have left it at that. The point was made, diplomatic ties had not snapped. Alas, it seemed one way or another Mrs. C was destined to have a tart tongue today.

She said pleasantly, “And please, for my waistline’s sake, don’t bring your surplus baked goods here anymore. I’m glad your bakers make so much you hardly know what to do with it all. I always seem to sell everything we make here. But if you still find yourself needing suggestions for where to put your leftovers, I’ve got an idea or two.”

A few customers giggled. Mrs. C looked satisfied.

Nessie froze at the door. “You know, you’re right,” she said. “So often it’s those little tastes of self-indulgence that can blow up into a world of regret. ‘A moment on the lips…’ right?” She left then.

I was about to ask Mrs. C if Nessie meant by that what I thought she meant; but I put my question on pause when we noticed that her huge Shopping List chalkboard, newly erased, had grown legs clad in stylish linen and stood on the stairs.

It said in a meek, French voice: “I would like for us to call a truce.”

“Truce for what?” said Mrs. C. “I’m the one who owes you an apology.”

“Well,” said Violet, poking her head over the board and coming the rest of the way down, “I have done a thing to further--how did you say?--look out for you.”

“Oh, God,” said Mrs. C. “What did you do?”

“Before, you did not have much in your fridge and freezer,” said Violet. “Now, you do not have anything.”

“What?”

“And I am purging your cupboards next, old woman. Later we shop for new, healthy things, and find new, healthy recipes you will try.”

“And you didn’t care how mad it might make me to find my entire kitchen purged?”

With a pout, Violet said, “Hate me or don’t. At least you will be alive to make the choice.”

They had a moment. Nobody rushed into a hug or anything; that’s not their bag. But they had a moment.

Violet pressed, “Come, now. This is our starting point. After that, we take it one day at a time. We do our best with whatever comes.”

Mrs. C paced around, her Violet-approved sneakers squeaking a score to her contemplation. She landed in front of the main display case, which houses all manner of sweets: cherry Danish, apple pie, apple cake, spice cake, gingerbread, tartlets, biscuits, Swiss rolls, cupcakes, cake balls, devil’s food, angel food, Blondies, brownies, cookies, doughnuts, Parkin, strudel, Bundt. Mrs. C stared at it all, and then she turned around.

“I’ll give it two months,” she said. “No meat, no junk, and whatever other rules you follow. If there’s not enough improvement by then, or if you try making me swallow even one blade of grass, I’m eating my weight in bacon.”

Violet grinned. “Oui. C’est bon.”

The three of us were halfway through making the new shopping list and we were up to our elbows in chalk dust when I remembered my question: “Did Nessie threaten you today? Just because you made a crack about where to put her leftovers?”

Mrs. C kept writing. “I think it’s more what I said than how I said it, actually. She can’t ply me with junk. If she is trying to get rid of me she’ll have to come up with another plan. And I don’t think she just threatened me…” She looked at us both.

“I think she declared war.”


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Episode 3: Roscoe Belesprit’s 9½ Rules of Writing

Sketch No. 7: Ransom Note on Crinkled Receipt: A Farce

It’s been three days and none of us still has any idea just what Nessie might be up to going into Pastor Sweeney’s church like she did. I mean, she went in on a Sunday morning, so there’s always the possibility she was just taking in a service. She spends almost as much time telling people how Christian she is as she spends snapping selfies at the soup kitchen, selfies at the children’s hospital, selfies at the Book Mobile. So one would imagine the woman might sometimes, you know, actually go to church. But Father Jack’s service over at St. Francis is where she’s been going ever since Pastor Sweeney was brought up on charges. And that glare she shot at Confictura seemed to virtually scream that she was seeing Pastor Sweeney for some reason connected to the café . . . or the people in it.

Not knowing what’s going on with her has us all a little on edge, and so tonight’s meeting of Roscoe’s writing salon was probably not the best time for all of his students to up the stakes of what I guess can be called their protest. They’d been pestering Roscoe about something for a couple of weeks--until tonight, I didn’t know what for--but they wanted something and he said no, and all of it came to a head tonight.

At 7:30, when the salon meets, their big, round table was still empty save Roscoe. He wondered if that had anything to do with Nessie and the article in the Applewood Timber last week that sabotaged Mrs. Creaverton’s dance. I said that it was probably a coincidence. That, or maybe his students were just rediscovering their love of the Jeopardy!/Wheel of Fortune hour. Then Clarke walked in, a small white paper clutched in his hand.

Clarke, presumably his last name, is all he goes by because he feels that a writer who goes by only one name carries an air of mystery. He’s twenty-two and wears a short Afro. He has these flashes of genius in the otherwise nebulous thoughts he’s been conveying, both on the page and in person, since the 11/5 quake. I didn’t know him before then, but he used to be a valedictorian. People say he could quote Langston Hughes, Pearl S. Buck, and Salman Rushdie, among others. His plan was to take five years off after high school to save as much as he could for tuition, since substantial scholarships are about as real as the emperor’s new clothes these days. Now, unless this affliction brought on by 11/5 is cured somehow, it’s hard to see Clarke realizing the education, the future, he was destined for.

Tonight, he was wearing his usual three-piece suit, with one of my favorite ties, this Art Deco design. He also wore a blue ski mask. This is not a usual addition to the ensemble.

“Hey, Clarke,” I said as he walked past my table.

“Hey.” He gave me a nod and a friendly wave, then put a finger to his lips. “Shh, though, dude.” (Clarke, I’m told, has adopted terms like “dude” into his vocabulary only since the quake.) “I’m here anonymously. I don’t want Roscoe to recognize me.”

“Right,” I said.

“Hey, how’d you guess it was me?”

“Psychic,” I said.

“Oh,” said Clarke. “That’s pretty cool.”

“Yeah.”

Bear in mind, this entire time, Roscoe was two tables away.

Clarke went over to the big, round table where Roscoe sat back in his chair, legs crossed, stroking his chin. “My,” said Roscoe, looking up at Clarke, “whoever might this be?”

Wordlessly, Clarke shoved the small paper at him. Roscoe read it aloud: “‘Your Strunk & White’s Elements of Style has been taken hostage. Pay up for its safe return. You have ten minutes to agree to these terms.’” He turned the paper over. “Masked man who is most certainly not Clarke, I see this is written on the back of a receipt. Do you know what it’s a receipt for?”

Clarke, pushing his voice low, said, “Ah, pay no attention to that.”

Roscoe read, “‘The Elements of Style, $9.95.’ So not only is the book you have not even really my copy, but you’ve just reminded me how cheap it is to buy a replacement if it were my copy.”

“Does it say what the ransom is?” I asked.

“No,” said Roscoe, “but I know. It’s what they’ve been demanding for a few weeks now. A big spoon with their Great American Novel scooped up for them, ready for feeding.”

“Mm-hmm,” I said. “And that’s Roscoe-speak for what?”

“Rules,” said Roscoe. “They want my rules.”

Sketch No. 8: Shadowed Pickets, Ghost in the Phone: A Retrospective

The Housatonic River flows past Applewood, and that’s the body of water you can see from the aptly named Riverview Room at the back of Café Confictura. Roscoe once told me that the reason he likes conducting his writing salon in that room is because “a lit hearth feels warmer when, just beyond, there thrashes the cold of nature’s current. Dichotomy adds dimension to any experience; and dimension is always the writer’s pursuit.”

That’s how Roscoe teaches his students in the salon, and I suspect that’s how he taught when he was tenured at Fairburne College, a liberal arts campus in the southwestern part of the state. He prefers broader instruction, a sort of holistic approach, as opposed to diagnosing individual writing ailments. For instance, rather than saying you can improve your short story by slashing all the adverbs, he would examine one paragraph of one story, and suss out all the possible emotion and action and dimension that paragraph has buried in it. Getting to the heart of that paragraph wipes out a lot of the traps his students can fall into, including extraneous “mightily’s” and “excitedly’s.”

This holistic approach led to the name he gave his salon: “How to Write a Novel in 30 Years.” He explains his philosophy to each new member of his salon as this: there are how-to writing books out there that put speed before quality, the worst of which are those that claim one can write a novel in some given, usually short, amount of time. Maybe you can throw together a pulp book in, say, thirty days, he says, but novels, in the traditional sense, are different. A good, thoughtful novel, worth writing and reading, is the accumulation of years of education, life experience, writing, and revision. A novel worth writing hardly takes thirty days. It's closer to thirty years.

So when Roscoe said that his salon students’ ransom was his own personal list of rules, I began to see just what the problem had been for the past couple weeks. Some formulaic list goes against everything Roscoe stands for.

The thing is, Clarke’s not the only student who’s regressed since the quake. There was a time Roscoe was churning out some damn fine writers from the salon. One was accepted into the prestigious Iowa program, several have had their stories published in respected literary magazines, and most have carried Roscoe’s recommendation with them into creative writing or English programs at good universities. Lately, though, the quality of all the students’ writing has plummeted, and no one seems to be learning from their critiques. Apparently, they came to the consensus that if Roscoe wants them to hand in decent writing, they deserve a starting point, something solid they can refer to.

When they first asked for this list, and he said no, that’s when they started demonstrating. First came the picket line in front of Roscoe’s house. Of course, all of these people have school or day jobs, so the only time they could come together was at night, but since no one could read their signs in the dark, no one knew just what their cause was. They did manage to get Roscoe’s attention one night, though. He invited everyone in and held an impromptu salon to correct the picket signs’ spelling errors and inexplicable overabundance of semi-colons and “whom.”

Then the prank phone calls started, which Roscoe had told Mrs. Creaverton about last week. “Yeah, dude,” a man would say, “this is Shakespeare. You know, the William one? Calling you from the great beyond. Yeah, I just wanted to say that I had a list of rules and that’s how I wrote all those stories . . . uh, plays, I mean.”

They got flustered and hung up soon after that, when Roscoe started asking questions about Falstaff and symbolism in Troilus and Cressida.

All of this, Roscoe explained to me while Clarke went up to order some hot chocolate. My guess is it’s the first ransom that’s ever been delivered by a guy who then asked if he could get coffees for anyone.

I said to Roscoe, “You know, with this regression or whatever it is, you might have to make allowances you wouldn’t normally make. You were used to dealing with the next Donna Tartts and James Baldwins. None of these people is a professional or academic writer to begin with.”

He raised an eyebrow. “Last week one of their protagonists ‘drugged himself right up off the floor.’ Now, unless that meant he scored some really good weed, you don’t need to tell me I’m not dealing with professional writers.”

“You just made my point,” I said. “Yes, okay; a list would clip the wings of a writer who’s moved on to more substantial critiques. But maybe here it’ll do some good. Give ’em a stepping stone.”

“And just what would such a list look like? ‘Number one: learn the past tense of drag’?”

“Do what you always do,” I said. “Instead of zeroing in on the picayune, give them the tools that will help them in a broader sense. So they’re stuck in this fog right now. So what? Regardless of that, they’re here. They’re dedicated. They show up, looking for help. They’re not pretending they’re these great authors. But they want so much to become great. They want to work hard for that. It takes a lot of guts to pour your heart into a story, admit you need help to make it better, and then work hard for that.”

Roscoe’s scowl had yet to lift.

I rolled my eyes, and resigned to the more obvious argument. “Okay, they’re paying you. If they stop, who’s gonna supplement your pension?”

This, he seemed to ponder.

Clarke came back in the room, trying to sip cocoa through that little mouth slit in the ski mask. Roscoe said to him, “All right. Why don’t you tell the others they don’t have to stand outside freezing anymore. I’d like to talk to you all.”

Hesitantly, Clarke peeled the ski mask off. “How’d you know they were outside?”

“Deductive reasoning,” said Roscoe, “based on keen observation. We’re going to study a Sherlock Holmes story in the near future. I think a lesson in observation is needed.”

Before turning to go out the front, Clarke pointed at Roscoe and said to me, “This guy’s so good.”

“He really is,” I said.

There’s a back entrance to the Riverview Room with a ramp for wheelchair access. For the past few minutes, the whole salon had been on the ramp, pressed up against the panoramic window. One young woman, Allie, was in front, shielding the glare from the interior lights with the Strunk & White.

I said to Roscoe, “I’m glad you’re being flexible on this.”

He said, “My wallet gives me no choice in the matter. You’re right. They pay. I can’t lose them, and I can’t afford it if they give me bad word-of-mouth.”

But it was more than that. I know my little speech got to him. He loves the writers in his salon. He loves their drive. They stay up late, they get up early, they change jobs and living situations to better support their dreams of becoming good writers. Anyone can write. Practically everyone who’s ever written “Chapter 1” at the top of a page has been writing stories since they were a child. But the members of the 30 Years salon, even in this strange altered state they’re going through right now, don't just want to write; they want to write well, and they know they'll get there with guidance from a teacher like Roscoe. While they may fight him at first blush when he critiques their work, they always come around to his advice. They always work even harder right after a critique, in part to prove to Roscoe, and to themselves, that they can write. Roscoe respects them for that. His heart embraces them for that.

Besides, even if he didn’t care a whit about anyone like he’d have us all believe, bad writing drives Roscoe insane. He’ll do just about anything to rid the world of it. It’s like the princess and the pea. Stick some pulp under his mattress and he’ll actually feel misplaced commas poking up at him. He’ll be tossed and turned by lousy sex metaphors and clichés tearing at each other’s bodices.

Pretty sure that paragraph would keep him up. Maybe I should grab a copy of his list too.

Sketch No. 9: Round Table Rules: A Study

After the group came in and got drinks and sat down around the table (and Roscoe’s brand spanking new Elements of Style was handed to him), Roscoe told them all to take out their notebooks.

“As requested,” he said, “off the top of my head, with absolutely zero time to prepare, here are my top ten rules of writing. Number one--”

“Ah,” said Clarke, raising his pen and cringing a little. “I don’t think it should be ten.”

“You have a problem with ten?” said Roscoe dryly. “Ten? The perfect number, the number of the universe, the completion of all, symbolically pregnant ten?”

“Yeah, exactly, man. It’s too establishment,” said Clarke. Others nodded. “We’re artists. We’re offbeat. We’re outside, looking in at all of you.” He swept his arm to indicate anyone not at their table.

Violet, passing through just then, muttered, “Which is why all of us turned off the lights and pretended we weren’t home, oui?”

Clarke didn’t seem to hear her. He stood, his impassioned speech compelling him to rise. “We are removed from the masses and everyday flashes of media, entertainment, and business as usual. For it is only from our lonely perch that we may cast a creative eye upon the other, and sing out that which we observe: our triumphs, our failings, our most human condition."

Violet and I shared a look of shock. Roscoe opened his mouth but stayed silent a moment, before uttering, “Clarke, that was profound. Really reflect a moment and try to hold on to that level of inspirati--”

Clarke’s phone buzzed on the table in front of him. “Yeh-hay! Ebay sneakers are mine. In your face, SneakyFeet73!”

Scowling once more, Roscoe said pointedly to him, “And is SneakyFeet73 also removed from the everyday flashes of business as usual?”

“Psh,” Clarke blew through his lips. “He was removed from this one.”

Roscoe dropped the torch he’d carried oh-so-briefly for Clarke’s muse. “If not ten, how many rules do you want?” he asked the group.

Allie spoke timidly into her long hair, which she twisted close to her mouth. “How about nine and a half rules? Halves are edgier.”

“I don’t know how half a rule would work,” said Roscoe. “‘Do unto others’? ‘Don’t look a gift horse’?”

“Be imaginative,” said Allie. “That’s what you’re always telling us.”

This advice actually seemed to soften a few of Roscoe’s hard lines. “Touché, Allie. Touché.” And then he listed his nine and a half rules, which I copied down verbatim just in case I could talk him into printing them up as this week’s To-Go. (Spoiler, I did talk him into it, and you can check out all the rules beneath this post.)

Since tonight’s session started late and drove itself a little off course, when he was done with the rules, Roscoe suggested that the group spend the rest of their time looking over the pages they’d brought to share, and finding weak spots where they could apply the rules. Clarke got up and came over to Roscoe’s chair, and shook the professor’s hand.

“Thank you,” said Clarke. “I’m sorry we picketed your house and called you at two a.m.”

“Oh, Clarke,” said Roscoe. “I’m sorry you picketed my house and called me at two a.m. too.”

“I think those rules are really going to help us, though. They were, you know, meaty,” said Clarke. “So, next week are you gonna cover, like, parts of speech and stuff?”

Roscoe handed him the copy of Strunk & White. “Why don’t you hold on to this awhile longer?”

“Cool,” said Clarke. He held it tight.

“Clarke?”

“Yeah?”

“I meant read it.”

“Oh.” Clarke saluted him with it. “Right-o, moan cappy-tain.”

From the next room, Violet groaned.

A little after nine, once everyone had left and the cafe was closing, Roscoe had his head down on the table. Mrs. Creaverton walked by with a push-broom. “Rough night?” she asked him.

Since he didn’t pick up his head, it was impossible to know for sure, but I’m pretty sure he whimpered something about tossing himself from the back ramp into the Housatonic.

Mrs. C ran a comforting hand over his hair, smoothing it back. She did this several times. He became completely still, as though afraid any movement on his part might disturb the moment. When she patted him on the shoulder and continued cleaning up, he lifted his head. I laughed to myself at his smile, which was this adorably doofy thing most people get when they’re in that perfectly toasty spot between sober and drunk.

As she walked away, Mrs. C said to him, “I’m sorry it was such a tough one for ya, hon.”

“That’s okay,” he said, touching his head and running his hand over the spot where hers had just been. “Totally worth it.”


The 9 ½ Rules of Writing

by Roscoe Belesprit

1) Read. Study good novels. Start with major award winners and classics, and go from there. A bestseller does not necessarily a good novel make, even a New York Times bestseller. We all love the New York Times but, let’s be clear, we know more about how sausage is made than we know about what goes into the Times’ formula for choosing their more obscure “bestsellers.” Read these good novels slowly enough so that when a phrase tastes particularly luscious, you savor it, and discern just what about its flavors delights you. Look up words. Absorb it all, from subject matter to the mechanics of the writing. But also read your own novel. When you’ve finished your first draft, it’s time to read it again, and again, and again, until you’ve revised and polished all you can. And if you’re finding that you don’t want to read your story over and over, you’re tired of it and it bores you, that’s a pretty good indicator that something’s wrong and you either need to start again, or move on to your next idea.

2)  Find your writing's "Remember when" moments. Each chapter should have one: a character, an idea, an event, an exchange that is memorable. Imagine your characters sitting around reminiscing one day about the time of your novel. Each chapter should be interesting enough to make someone light up and say, "Oh, and remember when..."If you can’t find this moment, try reexamining your characters’ goals in the scene, and clarify them. Remember: in every scene, your protagonist must have her goal, and her antagonist must present some level of conflict to that goal.

3) Be fearless. This means to chance the unlikable. Don’t confuse this with shock value. Mass audiences like shock value. Ergo, if you’re writing shock, you’re not being fearless. Fearless means to take on the subjects no one talks about, or to address subjects from a new viewpoint, one that may not be popular but is honest. Create characters who are not devoid of morals, but who have conflicting morals. Create heroes, but imbue them with flaws. Make them stand strong against injustice when most folks shun them for not going with the flow. This is harder than it seems. We want readers to relate to our heroes, to like them. The trick is making them relatable yet inspiring at the same time.

4) Take reputable college-level courses in literature. Audit, if need be. For a novelist, courses in literature are more important than courses in creative writing (though you should have a few of those too). If you do decide to enroll in creative writing courses, research the instructor first. What has she written? Where else has he taught? You don’t want someone who will take your money and give you nothing but empty praise in return; and you really don’t want someone who is just as inexperienced with the written word as you.

5) Get down to business. Too much education is almost as bad as too little, and you don't need your MFA to write good fiction. The classroom is a conventional, safe zone; therefore, it can be a dangerous place for those looking to make a living at the unconventional craft of writing. Novel writing in the real world bears absolutely no resemblance to writing in the classroom. It’s a business, and you don’t get an A unless someone thinks you can earn them money. So learn your basics, get out, write, and then revise revise revise, until you get good and salable.

6) Fight the temptation to consult writing guides at every block. Magazines, blogs, the “References for Writers” section at the bookstore are good for beginners, but you don't keep reading Dick and Jane after you've mastered chapter books, do you? They will keep you stunted if you let them, and they can distract from your own journey to find what works for your story. If you really need a refresher on the do’s and don’ts, visit your library’s fiction section and refer to Rule #1.

7) Learn from constructive criticism, and remember no one’s ever too good to learn a thing or two. But also find constructive critics. This can be quite the challenge. Some readers might be afraid of hurting your feelings. Some might feel obligated to find so-called problems with your manuscript (because, hey, you asked for it), and so they criticize what would have been just fine if left alone. Some might make a living off critiquing. It’s possible to spend more on a professional editor than on a car. And by no means should you seek out strangers whose literary purview extends only to the fifty-seven vampire romances they’ve self-published and priced at $.01 apiece on Kindle. Screen your readers. Be picky.

8) Value yourself. Value your work. Some novelists want so badly to be published that they believe the nonsense about exposure being just as good as a traditional publishing deal. Bull. Does a surgeon give away bypasses? Does a CEO work for free just to get his company’s name out there? Following your passion and getting paid are not mutually exclusive unless you treat them as such; and if you value your work at practically nil, so will everyone else.

9) Don't give up...on any of it. Revising stories, creating characters, chucking characters, outlining, not outlining, querying one way and then another, following up, throwing out whole novels--try it all, until something clicks. And even if it does click, never be closed off to new possibilities.

9½) This is inherent in every other rule: observe everything. As a writer, this is a big part of your job. Observation can pick the lock of any secret. Secrets of the human condition, secrets of society, secrets of the universe. While others jostle the knob of such unyielding doors, you find a way to open them, and you invite your readers to come inside with you.

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