Writers Night… at the Bookstore
Good evening, I’m Ken Holder. This is my first time up here speaking before the group at this podium and mic. It’s Writer’s Night.
I’ve been coming to these monthly readings for a long time. I’ve been expecting to test out a writing of mine before you, the audience. So far I have been too reluctant to write and read before the group. Tonight that ends with this.
Usually I just volunteer to help with the folding chairs and the refreshment table.
It has been good getting to know some of the readers over the months. Among those writers is my subject tonight. That would be Marga. Marga is a real live person, a regular attendee at these readings. She often reads at the lectern before us. She told me that she would be here tonight as usual.
In my report I will be telling you of some interesting goings on here. My story is based on her presentation here last month. This is non-fiction of a personal nature.
Before the program started last month I had talked for a minute with Marga. She was intense, as usual. But her friendly greeting was appreciated. I sat in the row behind her row and in the chair behind hers. I could hear what went on there easily.
If you were here last month then this is an explanation about what you witnessed and must have wondered about. Some pretty weird stuff happened.
I’ve got the story within the story.
The story begins with Marga. Hi Marga, I know you are here tonight. There she is. Marga, I’m not going to embarrass you. I don’t think. You kinda did that already all by yourself. I surely don’t mean to embarrass you. But don’t you dare leave.
In fact however, I should tell you all, I did get her permission for this. She might regret that later. We shall see.
Last month on our Thursday reading night Marga called it “The Gray Night”. The fires were burning. Fires up north especially. We were in the days and nights of smoke. We can’t forget that. Or can we? It was gray with smoke, so think back to last month. Paradise was burning.
Here, the book store’s front display windows were darkened. It had become night outside, early.
So as usual from the speaker’s location provides a view of the store’s entry area. It’s easy to see people as they come and go.
In the audience white masks covered most faces of the people who came for the readings. N95 masks. Their eyes shown with attention while they were expressionless otherwise.
I’ll skip ahead, for a minute, to Marga’s turn at this podium. As the writer presentations moved along, everything seemed to be going pretty much as usual.
Then, at the podium the microphone needed adjustment. And, after the four other writers, then Marga began.
Marga stepped up to this microphone she said this.
This Gray Night
What I’ve got for this audience tonight is a letter which I’m writing to my mother. I’m writing it extemporaneously. That’s how I like to keep in touch with her.
So that’s how Marga began. If you were here last month no doubt you will remember. She was speaker number five and she shook the crowd, including many of you, to the point that half of the audience left the place. I’d suggest that it must have been her intent to spoil the reading because she jumped behind the lectern and let it happen. Or so it seems to me now. I don’t think that she admits to that however.
She didn’t read from a prepared writing. She held a blank paper in hand and she just vamped. She just blurted stuff out. Here goes the story in the story of how it all went.
Here’s my letter, she said.
The fires have been burning for a week. The level of the smoke at home is unprecedented. Fires are burning to the north and to the east and some even to the south. We have smoke and we have fire almost surrounding us. To our west, well its the Pacific Ocean. It would be our escape route if we don’t get some rain, maybe. When will we be driven out of our homes, our land? If ever? We don’t know.
While Marga continued I happened to notice a darkly dressed man with a large red mask entering the store. He didn’t seat himself. He went walking into book sections for History, Science, Nature, Economics, Business while returning to the counter with his book choices.
I could tell that Marga had noticed the tall figure too, just as I had. He was a late arrival and he wasn’t in a hurry to be seated. The mask of the tall figure covered his face including his eyes. His mask was red, his coat black.
So Marga started off that way. I’m remembering that there had been another reading scheduled for three nights earlier in the week, the Monday night, at the cafe across the street It had been cancelled. “Due to unhealthy conditions.” So when they kept the schedule here for Thursday night I was surprised. The conditions hadn’t gotten better. I’d say they were worse. Just three days later. Who would come?
Well some did not come. But about half the regulars did come through the door to the bookstore reading on that gray night.
In the audience there was worry in the people’s eyes. I could see plainly the concerns of the audience members. You could see concern in their eyes above their N95 masks.
But back to Marga’s comments.
By the time I got here tonight it was a lost cause in many ways, Mom. The smoke from the fires have reached us with a vengeance. My decision for me to leave home and walk to the reading was uncertain. Upon my arrival into the book store some of the regulars attendees commented that they had been unsure about their decision to drive or walk here. Otherwise they could stay home. We who did come have taken our seats. We do our readings in the prescribed order, as usual. I’m sure those here in the listening audience had also had to measure their willingness to breathe in the smoke in their coming to the reading. Attendance is obviously down.
I’ve seen Agnes here tonight Mom. You remember her from the times you would come here with me. You remember, she always sat with us? “Hi Agnes,” I said to her, “you’re here. I didn’t know if you would come tonight.” “Well, I may as well,” she told me. “I’ve been cooped up for days. Wearing these damn masks all the while.” “I’m glad to see you,” I said to her. “I guess Wilma won’t come.” “Hell no, not with her condition,” said Agnes. “But I do worry about her.”
“You look like you are doing well,” said Agnes to me! “I answered her, “So far so good I guess Agnes. I’m scheduled to read.”
She again noticed the red masked man in the black long coat who was busy selecting books. She followed him with her eyes.
She kept faking her reading from her blank sheet of paper and often looked throughout the audience.
Of course it was the first reader who had spoken at the start of the program. He spoke with a soft voice and a southern accent. He brought us into a story involving a carpentry workshop filled with strange tools and forbidden projects. His vision was enough to carry us away for the time allotted. It got our minds off the gray smoke. We needed that.
Reader two had a story of car travel with a family. Probably it was a bit like her family vacation. They finished in New York nicely
Marga, in her turn, began speaking strongly into the mic. It wasn’t a reading. It wasn’t a story being told. And at about this point the audience was looking about them in a restless way. What was up with her? This was out of the ordinary. Previously the readers had been pretty much reading material that was standard and even interesting in its creativity.
Looking back now, her coming diatribe certainly clashed with the all things offered by the proceeding speakers.
Her rant was just getting started.
Mom, maybe it is the strangeness of this evening seems to have gotten to me. Mom, I’m wondering about so much now. My thinking tonight about all the smokey mystery around us. Could this all be an illusion? An illusion with groups of masked people gathered together into a bookstore for writer recitations? I wish! What a writer “prompt” that would be! Were we all going to a masked ball? Didn’t the Titanic have a masked ball going on when it struck the iceberg? Or was that just in the movie?
Marga seemed to be asking the audience about the Titanic movie at this point.
Again Marga paused and watched the man for a moment. She quickly returned to her comments.
She continued to speak directly into the mic. Her words just flowed, for better or worse. The words came from nothing. What she said into the mic. It all became like a letter to her mom from her dad. She said what he might have written if he had seen this day coming. What he might have said if he had been here, and alive. Or in the school where he taught. What he would say to his students in science class. It all came out of her mouth ranting and being pissed off about how things were working out. Outside in the smoke.
Mom, maybe it is the three of us who are pissed off and not going to hide that. There were things that we hadn’t seen coming. Still, there were things that he and you warned me about. And that your students had been warned about by you both. And that the books had explained in so many ways
Mom, I’m just getting started. How I wish that we could at least talk on the phone like we used to. Maybe I would calm down. I’m trying to not let my thoughts to you run on like my phone calls used to. Even when you were in deliriums I think that we connected better than this. I’m remembering so much of what you and dad both taught me and I’m trying not to forget. Actually, I don’t think that I could forget if I tried.
It would be better and easier if you weren’t dead Mom. Or if dad was still here.
Especially I could blame you both tonight. It’s a gray night here Mom! Dad too. Especially when we know what the facts are.
If you guys were alive then the three of us could go at it just like the old days.
Debate, postulate, justify! I will always miss that. You taught me well you know. Do all kids with science professor parents become their parent’s star pupils? I did. You taught me permanently too. I’m always mindful of your teachings. You were my best teachers. Right now I wonder if I was unlucky to have you as parents. Look at what you made me.
But usually I am proud. You know that.
Dad used to say, “watch your step, watch your surroundings. We don’t know what’s coming.” These days are just what he was talking about. “You don’t know what you are in for,” I remember you saying. I’m quite the careful child these days. You didn’t quite prepare me for this. Not even with all that science that you both loved so much. And the science books you had me read, But how could you have prepared me for this?
We don’t know what we are in for.
In the room the tall figure, eyes covered with its red mask, moves swiftly around the book displays. Marga sometimes followed his movements.
You know me mom, your little movie loving drama queen. If only the actor Vincent Price was here. In a scary movie role. He would add to the strangeness. Add to the nightmare. I’m over the top already, I know.
But this is the way I see it on this gray night Mom.
Marga seemed to be on the verge of speaking in toungs. Not that I think she did. But she rattled away almost automatically like Carrie! Or Linda Blair.
Her voice changed. Now she sounded coldly authoritarian in her tone.
Good evening all. Keep your masks on everyone. The air is filthy. Even inside here. Who knows what is next. I’ll put my mask back on in a few minutes.
For starters, let me ask you. Did you read “Silent Spring” by Rachel Carson? If not, go ahead and read it. It’s in this book store. It’s on the science shelves, or ought to be. Look for Best Sellers from the ‘60s if there is such a thing.
It’s about saving the planet. That’s the plot!
Look in the Nature aisle. This place, this store full of books, is a god damn life raft! All these books. Instructions on saving the world, the air, the water, the people. All these aisles full of books. Who do we have to make this a safe world but us? We start with reading Rachel Carson. That’s a good start. Call it step one. Do it yourself.
The audience was getting more and more restless. Earlier in the evening, at the start of the readings things were what I would call normal.
Earlier, during the break between reader number one and reader number two I noticed a young girl went to the refreshment table. She crossed along the row just in front of Marga who was still in her seat. She brought back a handful of cookies to her chair and to the man seated at her side. Her seat was to Marga’s left.
The girl passed some cookies to the man. I heard him say “thank you” and then saw him whispering some other comments in the girl’s ear. Immediately she stood up from her chair, turning directly to Marga. She looked up at Marga and offered her a cookie from her hand. “Hello, I’m Vero. My name Vero is short for Veronica. That’s my dad,” she said. Young Vero was loud, even louder than Marga. I could hear them both very clearly. “Would you like a cookie?” Marga gestured yes and took a cookie from her little hand.
Marga said, “Thank you Vero. My name is Marga. Oh, that’s short for Margarita.” Vero stood smiling and Marga said to her, “You are very nice, Vero.” Her short brown hair complimented her large brown eyes. Then Marga looked at her father to her left, while his daughter sat down. Same brown hair but long to his collar. He said “Thank you.” He smiled. She smiled back at him. She finally took a bite of her cookie. Vero’s father held his look at Marga.
“Of course Marga!” He said.
I could tell that neither paid any attention to reader number three at all.
Preceding Marga’s stand at the podium had been reader number 4, Vero’s dad.
“Mr. Jessup?” asked the host. The father quickly rustled together his typed sheets and rose to become reader number four at the mic.
Mr. Steven Jessup, the man, the father of Vero, was introduced. Taking his turn he gave us a recollection of a trip in the South Seas. His story was told in his poems. The first three poems described bees. These bees were native to some South Sea islands. Their hive wax seems to benefit burn victims. It can be used in the generation of new healthy skin for burn victims. The islands were inspirational. He had written some poems while doing a study there. His fourth and last poem took the viewpoint of a butterfly making the best of its few days alive. The audience clapped enthusiastically.
Move the line below?
The fires were burning up Paradise. Sending the gray smoke. It was all around us in the bookstore.
But I’ve gotten ahead of myself. The previous reader’s stories were left in the dust, so to speak. Left in the gray matter.
Of course Marga’s ranting would soon overshadow the thoughtfulness of Steven Jessup’s poems in our memories. It didn’t take long.
Mom, did you or dad ever predict this gray night coming? Probably you did.
Gray smoke is covering us. We are ingesting gray smoke and gray smoke no- doubt is in our eye sockets, burning our eyes. And there is gray smoke beyond our imaginations outside the store window. This is the reality whether you chose to ignore it or not. It’s a nightmare because around here we sure don’t know what more we might be in for. What we might be in for tonight and tomorrow. I’m not exaggerating. That’s for sure. I know I’m not alone in dreaming about the unknown. We are here in a nightmare.
Pointing at the audience she said into the mic!
“Your masks are helping you. Your masks filter out a lot. Some of your masks are discoloring. The white material is becoming gray. What does that teach us? What stuff couldn’t get through the mask is darkening the material. It’s clotting the material. The masks are disposable. In about eight hours the mask will be so full of particles of dead trees, burned houses, remains of the incinerated who were too slow to flee the inferno. Someday your masks may become ash too. What’s not filtered out are the finer particles. Particles of fine ash go right on through. Fires now burning in the north are burning away the lives of our neighbors and their remains are in the air sent by the winds. The air is here, tonight, and the remains are in your (our) hair, on your skin and covering the books you see throughout the store.
Obviously! Yet invisibly.
At about this point I heard someone in the audience cry out, “I get it, I get it Marga!”
She wouldn’t be stopped.
Marga, looking far too comfortable, though red faced and almost scowling, walked from the lectern with mic in hand to the aisle labeled Religion and Spirituality. As she approached that book section the tall man scurried away toward the counter, one book in hand.
I’ll take a look at that aisle to my right. It’s the Religion books aisle. I call it The Department of False Prophesies.
Here in the Religion section in this book store you can find a book that isn’t going to help. I’m talking about the book titled End of Days. Is this end of days idea really a thing? End of days? Who’s calendar is it even based on?
Read the cover and wonder. What’s this thing, an end of days? What is the religion that this book talks about? Inside the cover is it all bad news or was there good news too. Do some people welcome the end? An end of days? What could we be in for? What’s coming and is it worse? Could there be
anything worse? Worse that an end of days? Well, yes. There could be. Of course, there could be an end of minutes! Inside the binding of that book would be a warning. It would say, You are running out of minutes. Do something! Like the warning on a pack of cigarettes. Like a parking meter.
Mom, I’m shouting. All of a sudden. Like me shouting and warning and extolling the science of it all. Like the Sunday morning fanatics. And the list of dinosaurs and other species now extinct. Only I’m shouting science, not faith.
One book, over in the Science isle, Silent Spring used to be called an important book. How important is it now? Life raft important? We are living in a nightmare tonight. This is a man-made problem! Is there no hope? Some people have tried to warn us. Some have tried to educate us. We didn’t get it yet. How many more gray smoke nights will it take? Silent Spring, this is your reading assignment.
Is this gray night the End of Times? Or the End of Days? Or quickly how, the End of Minutes? I hope not.
Who preaches the end of days? Is this a harmless prophesy? I’d say nothing’s harmless if you are prompted to take your foot off the break. Lots of preachers have endorsed this belief and died before the end of their own days. But not the end of our days. They didn’t see what hit them when it hit them. The clock of days didn’t run out before theirs did. They are gone, as in ended, and we are still here. False alarm. False prophesies.
And there are more fanatics who are not going to beat the clock I am sure. As sure as I can be, that is. We never know what is coming, my dad would always say. He gave short shrift to the Sunday morning prophets. Science professor that he was. Like you were too Mom. Me, the child of science teachers. What should one expect!
Pray your little hearts out? Try that! Try reading The End of Days. To me it’s bull. It’s bull if you want to survive to raise your kids. It’s not science at all. But if survival means getting out of here, jumping ship on this world, meeting your maker, having a miracle, then you can grab onto it I guess. Good luck. The end is nigh. Use your head I say.
But just a minute.
The story, somewhere told on pages in many books and in newspapers and magazines, about those who predicted the end of days. And the final end of minutes. But in science there are no days that had ended yet to be analyzed and studied. Even those dates predicted by the most prophetic of preachers. Dates that passed. That didn’t happen as preachers predicted. Not yet. In fact some of those dates, the predicted ending dates, were heralded from pulpits and printed on pamphlets but later the people survived and passed without the ending as predicted. Indeed these dates passed and further dates ushered the maker of those prophesies into their eternal reward. These predicting evangelists died in their unpredicted own time, an unscheduled passing, undead at the moment before their passing. We have seen this while we all stood by un-ended in our days. Had there ever been an end of time? Yes, for everyone past and there will be for those present and those in the future, it would seem likely.
Hey Mother, here we are, sitting in the smoke, un-ended in this day. In this minute.
All this isn’t scientific as you know. No replication of empirical evidence and analysis. Just faith. We don’t know what is coming.
I watched the crowd while Marga spoke at the podium railing away. Some of it’s members just up and left to go home. Or go somewhere. Anywhere maybe. Out! She was speaker number five and it was her damn fault. So many vacant chairs all of a sudden.
The gaunt man in the black long coat with the red mask was busy selecting another book. He brought it to the counter. Upon the finish of the program the tall masked figure would be gone.
At this point, unstoppable, Marga continued storming ahead.
Oh, Mom, it might have been the fault of my own mother and my own dead father. You gave me the words from all the teaching as I grew up. Your dinner table conversation came back to haunt me. That’s you guys. Face up to it. You raised me and you never know what you are going to get. We can debate that someday. Maybe.
It would be a lot easier if you both weren’t dead.
Walking around with the mic, I’d say she again hit her stride. But it wasn’t going to last much longer.
I came to notice that in the audience young Vero had put her head against her father’s arm and she was holding on tightly. The little girl might have been crying. Marga we ranting and people where starting to look away from her. Some stood and started to leave their seats. The little girl’s eyes had tear stains under them. Tears were dripping down into her mask.
We are surrounded by stories. Breath in deeply, breath some out.
As a genus, we haven’t got too far. It’s time for the fire. The fire next time, is it happening? Bit by bit, piece by piece, trick by trick. Some of the surprising things are the surprises that could have been expected.
So the micro particles are in the air all around. Tasting Paradise.
Breathe deep. Sick? Hemorrhage on a plane?
Ebola. Zika infection. Mass extinction, Ozone, supernovas, super volcanos, nuclear winter.
The Host finally stood, said “Thank you Marga.”
Marga, holding the mic high up to her chin said,
“It may be, it seems to me, that a science class final is to be held soon. Like now maybe. You can’t tell. I think that we can pass this test. This test is pass or fail. No Bs, Cs or Ds.”
She put the mic back into the host’s hand.
Now the tall man in the red mask was gone. His books left on the counter. Number six speaker was gone too. Unheard from.
Marga returning to her chair in a room now much less crowded with so many more empty chairs than before. She sees young Vero hugging her father so tightly. Peaking up at her. With tear drops lining her mask. Vero’s father, Steven Jessup, looked up to her as she was approaching them.
Marga sat and turned, looking down to the teary eyed girl. “Vero, Vero. I’m sorry,” she whispered close to her ear.
Vero looked up at her. “I miss my mom so much. So much. I want my mommy. So does my dad.” (She’s never coming home, I know.) She was completely in earnest. Her eyes searched Marga’s. Her father was watching quietly while Vero and Marga talked. She had more to tell. Vero moved her mouth close to Marga’s ear. “My dad makes me laugh all the time. He is so funny.” Her still moist eyes beamed. If a mask could smile this would be that moment. She rocked back as she kneeled on her seat, looking directly into Marga’s eyes. Each smiled inside their tear stained masks. At their side, clearly Steven Jessup smiled too. It was clear, despite their N95 masks.
The two hugged. Vero became wide-eyed seeing Marga’s tears.
Steven stood to leave. “Marga, will you join us for something to drink,” he said? “Yes.”
They grabbed their coats and walked together toward the door of the store, toward the gray night. Soon they would enter the corner Starbucks.
On the way out, the stack of books that the man had left was still on the sales counter. Marga went directly to the books. She noticed the top volume and stopped. She read silently the 7 book titles noticing that they were stacked in alphabetical order by author name. “My dad’s curriculum,” she said softly. “Every book.” Her hands reached out for the counter. Steven Jessup moved close to see each title and stepped back to see Marga’s face. He said to her, “Well.” He offered his hand to her and she took it.
Sitting in Starbucks Marga said to Vero’s dad, Steven Jessup, that she was sorry for all of her odd and strange behavior. “Your mother and father loved you very much without a doubt,” Steven told Marga. Marga said, “They still do.”
He laughed and shouted “Yes! Yes!!” loudly. “Where is your science now Marga,” Steven thought out loud? She heard him. Then he seemed to laugh at himself. “At least I’m not the only one.” Vero hugged her dad and wouldn’t let go for a long time. It was so sweet.
Sipping a hot chocolate, Vero told Marga, “I was afraid that you were so mad, like I mean really mad. You know, not like the Hatter, just mad.”
“Well, I am mad Vero,” said Marga. “I’m sorry too. I don’t mean to frighten you. Maybe I am just getting it all off my chest. Maybe I might be mad like the Hatter. I don’t know.”
Vero looked at her chocolate.
“I’m going to my new school here starting next week,” said Vero kneeling on her chair’s seat and leaning against Marga’s shoulder to speak into her ear. “What school Vero?” “Otis School. It’s just down the block from my new home,” she said. “I’m going to be in the seventh grade.” She smiled proudly. “Well, I’ll see you there Vero. I’m a teacher there. I teach eight grade,” Marga told her. “Really,” Vero moved even closer to her face, looked at her for the longest time and said, “OK.”
Since then she has gotten to know Steven Jessen and Vero pretty well, Marga told me. “And I believe that Steven thinks that I am crazy. Funny. Some people might.”
Ken addressed the audience. So this is the finish of the monthly reading. We hope you found the explanation of last month’s reading on the gray night the informative. And I want to say that I’m glad that you stayed tonight Marga.
Ken, Please give me a chance at rebuttal. I want a moment in my self-defense. I’m not going to quibble with you and your interpretation of last month. It’s just that, well, after what I did, things changed a bit. Let’s say I was gifted a book. Alice Through the Looking Glass. And I read it. Now I’m the caterpillar.
I just want to say that my Mom and Dad worked hard, in their way, to get the message across. And I want to say here tonight that their message stands. I know that Wilma didn’t make it. But, I’ve learned since last month, thanks to Vero here and her father Steven, that we can’t be full time apostles all the time. We aren’t made that way. We can be mad and we should be sometimes. Then again we can be mad as the Hatter sometimes. And that isn’t always such a bad thing. And being the son or the daughter gives the kids of brilliant parents some latitude. Something like that.
We need a little madness in our method apparently. I’m saying that we can go through the looking glass sometimes. I’ll take being a caterpillar on its way into its cocoon.
And so I’m in recovery you might say. I am sure now that there are other ways to look at the world and it’s behaviors. Yes, some might think me crazy. Maybe my mom does. I don’t know about that. I could ask her I suppose.”
Then Marga smiled a devilish smile to Ken, and to Vero and Steve. Mad hatter style. The audience laughed to all of our relief. Agnes shouted out, “Katy bar the door!”
So tonight we can go and have hot chocolate. We can walk into a clear star studded evening and turn our attention to the moment we live in. We can all join in doing that in one way or another. And you might also pick up a copy of Silent Spring on your way out. It’s on the first table by the door. Also on the table, Alice Through The Looking-Glass.
I’ll take my minutes over those seconds said the butterfly. I’m coming out of my cocoon finally. Coming out of a stage into a new one. Butterfly. Be my days short or long, I know that they can be beautiful.
I’m laughing to keep from crying now Ken. So there! Carry on!