We agreed the event should be held at Reading Your Hopes and Dreams, Sheila’s funky used bookstore in Groverton, about ten miles away. Sheila wrote up a press release for the Minnetonka County Weekly with the tagline, “Come See Caged Fighting Writing.” I thought that was a bit strong, since this was really just a couple of competitive writer’s groups reading their works, but Sheila said the teaser would bring out a bigger crowd, more than the usual poets, J.K. Rowling wannabes, and their loyal family members. “Think of it like a reality show,” Sheila said. “A fight to the death for the prize.”
The prize, of course, was to be named as one of the “Best Writers of Minnetonka County,” with the winners published in an anthology produced by the County Arts Commission. About fifteen years ago, a county commissioner thought Minnetonka County needed to encourage more cultural events other than the high school talent shows and bird calling contests, so the “Best Writers” anthology was born. Originally, there was only one writers group in Minnetonka County, the one I manage called “The Minnetonka Writer’s Alliance,” but after the founder (now deceased) split with his wife, the ex stole all of his files, moved to nearby Groverton, and started her own group called “The Minnetonka Scribes.” The Alliance and the Scribes have been feuding over members and the “Best Writers” title ever since.
When the County Commission announced this year there would be no anthology due to budget cuts, I knew I couldn’t let that stand. The Scribes had dominated the “Best Writers” last year, and it wasn’t fair we wouldn’t get our chance. I called Sheila and discussed the matter. We decided, based on a popular vote from the audience, the winners of the Caged Fighting Writing Event could claim “Best of Minnetonka,” and if we made enough money from the sales of water bottles and self-pubbed books by our members, we could publish the anthology of winners.
Reading Your Hopes and Dreams was located in a strip mall set back off the county highway. If you drove by too fast, you would miss it, but inside it was a treasure. Sheila had bought the building from a former dance teacher, and the place was a warren of tiny rooms with hardwood floors and connecting doors. Overflowing bookshelves occupied every inch of the walls and extended out like hungry arms into the floor space. You could wander through the maze for days and never run out of good books.
Sheila, in her own organized fashion, had hand-painted and hung sheet metal signs from the ceiling that labeled each section by category: Historical Fiction, Mysteries, Romance, Self-Help, etc. And even though Sheila hosted our rivals, the Scribes, for their twice-monthly meetings, I loved shopping there for new reading finds.
The Alliance members gathered in the parking lot of Reading Your Hopes and Dreams on a sweltering Saturday afternoon, ready to do battle. I was counting heads when Stan, our SF/Fantasy writer, called to say he wouldn’t be there because his wife had refused to attend. “She told me she had been hearing about my damn book for ten years, and she didn’t need to waste an afternoon listening to me read from it,” Stan said as I strained to hear him over the noise of traffic. “Besides, I’m stuck here. Debbie took the car to go her Bunco group.” I offered to send someone out to pick Stan up, but he insisted he was too depressed to perform in public. It was a shame, because Stan could put on quite a show, but we still had our secret weapon: Aurora.
Aurora and her boyfriend Dude had settled in our small town a couple of months ago to open up a marijuana dispensary. When Aurora first strode into a meeting with her spiky black hair, tattoo sleeves, and piercings in her lips, nose, and eyebrows, I thought, What the mother…Well, you know. What the heck was happening to Minnetonka County? I expected her to go off on a diatribe about rape or heroin or something, but Aurora proved to be surprisingly shy–and a terrific writer. She stood at the portable lectern and introduced herself, saying, “I’m not used to speaking in front of groups unless they’re gangs, biker clubs, or AA meetings,” which got a nice laugh. Then she read a piece about vultures consuming a dead coyote along the highway.
Our jaws collectively dropped. It was prose poetry, with stunning lyrical descriptions and metaphors that would make your heart ache. She touched upon the whole circle of life thing and the essence of spiritual rebirth, and when she finished, we burst into applause. Some of us were quietly weeping. She was that good.
Inside Hopes and Dreams, Sheila apologized for the stuffiness. The AC was on the fritz, so she had set up fans all around the stage and seating area, which created a steady white noise roar. We were definitely going to need the mic if folks wanted to hear. A lot of the Scribes had arrived early, since this was their home turf, and claimed the first three rows of seats, but Sheila said she wanted to keep things fair by having readers approach the stage in alphabetical order by last name.
I found a seat near the aisle on the fourth row next to Sheila and fanned myself with the limp pages of a short story I had been working on. It wasn’t my best, but folks had already heard everything else I had, so it would have to do. Scribes’ member Louise Baker plopped down in the seat directly in front of me, accompanied by her entourage of old-ladies-who-furiously-knit-and-follow-Louise-everywhere.
“Well, excuse me,” Louise said in a loud voice as she adjusted her chair to accommodate her ample bottom. I pulled my feet back to prevent them from getting clobbered by her massive Bedazzled purse, which had enough papers stuffed in it to complete a handwritten version of War and Peace.
Since Louise’s last name began with ‘B,’ she was also first up to the stage. She approached the mic with flair, peering at the audience over black rectangle glasses while she waited for the crowd to settle down. Then she launched into a sappy piece about a widow falling in love with her high school sweetheart after they reconnect on Facebook, but he dies just before they can meet in person.
A retired English teacher, Louise had originally belonged to the Alliance–until we gently suggested she would be happier elsewhere. Her ruthless corrections of everyone’s grammar had driven our members crazy. I poked Sheila in the ribs. “I can’t believe she’s still in the Scribes.”
Sheila smirked. “The lady knows her commas.”
Louise concluded her reading with a tearful dab to her eyes and a dainty bow. Everyone applauded politely. Fred, our memoir writer, marched up to the podium. Sheila groaned. “Why did you invite him? We’ve got kids in this audience.”
“He has a right to be here.” I tried to project an assurance I didn’t feel. “He promised to keep it clean.”
Fred was working on his memoir, Butts and Boobs, about his life as a strip club owner and pimp in Las Vegas. When he got rolling, his language could make Grey from Fifty Shades blush. I took a swig from my water bottle and hoped that Fred had marked up his copy with good substitutes. Alas, it was not to be.
Fred had just started waxing enthusiastically about JuJu, a stripper he fucked once a night in his office: “She took my throbbing cock in her sweaty palms and rammed it into her slippery cunt, crying out…” when Sheila rushed past me to the stage. Behind me, I heard a mother dragging her two sons toward the exit. “But why can’t we stay?” one of them protested. “It was just getting interesting.”
Sheila snatched the mic from Fred’s hands. “Thank you, Fred, for your uh, enlightening tale. Now, we have–”
But Fred wasn’t so willing to be silenced. “Wait. I wasn’t finished.” Sheila shook her head, and he glanced at Louise and her unhappy friends, who were all giving him a furious glare that could stifle his creativity forever. “Uh, yeah. Okay. What if I say ‘frig’ instead of ‘fuck’? Will that work?”
Somehow, Sheila managed to whisk him off stage.
After Fred, we had a matched pair of female teenaged cousins reading their poetry, each with her own cheering section of family members and fans. The first girl, Stephanie, had long blonde hair colored with red streaks. As a resident of Groverton, Stephanie belonged to the Scribes. She read a series of poems about lost love and longing, finishing to a round of whistles and hoots and hollers. Her cousin, Chelsea, who was a member of the Alliance, could have been Stephanie’s twin, except Chelsea had blue streaks in her long blonde hair. Chelsea read an almost identical set of poems to equal applause from her family and friends.
It was blue states vs. red states. Of course, the blue-streaked hair belonged to the Alliance because the Alliance was more open-minded.
The match was going to be close. I followed the blue and red girls by sharing a piece about sorting through my mother’s diaries and journals, discovering a mother I had never known. The story needed revision, but it could be a prize-winner. One of Louise’s followers sniffled when I finished. Then she sneezed.
Mike, the presentation poet, was the next-to-last reader. He had brought his seventeen-year-old nephew with him, a scroungy-looking kid wearing sunglasses, baggy jeans, and an attitude that shouted, “Why the hell am I stuck at this crappy event on a Saturday afternoon?” Stephanie-red and Chelsea-blue both took notice of him, but the nephew looked ready to bolt at any minute, no matter how many pretty girls flirted with him.
As a retired DJ, Mike always recited his poetry from memory, acting out the dramatic moments with a rich, sonorous voice that could put screaming babies to sleep. He had been a member of the Alliance for many years until he met and married his third wife in Groverton. Complaining he didn’t like the commute, he joined the Scribes. Mike was tough competition, but he had never gone up against Aurora.
Louise’s friends shifted uncomfortably in their seats when Aurora took the stage. Aurora had outdone herself, dressing completely in black leather with chains hanging from her waist. She even wore open-fingered gloves studded with brackets on the knuckles. She looked every bit the tough road warrior. Then she began to read.
Holding her pages at arm’s length, Aurora rhapsodized about the trials of her C-section and the beauty and pain of giving birth. Who knew she had a child? By the time, she parsed out the phrase, “a vertical slice through the rectus abdominus,” the audience was mesmerized. Aurora surveyed the people leaning toward her and took a deep breath, ready to close with one of her vivid passages about the meaning of life, when she was interrupted by the howl of a fire alarm.
We all jumped. Sheila bolted to the stage and grabbed the mic. “It’s probably nothing,” she said, “but to be safe, we should evacuate. Follow me, folks.” Several of the writers fumbled to grab their printed pages and cell phones, but Sheila urged them to leave that stuff behind.
Louise and her friends stood in front of their seats, their forgotten balls of yarn rolling from their laps in a tangled web of shocking fall colors. Seeing that they had frozen in place, Sheila took charge and escorted them into a back alley where we all milled around, blinking like sleepy kittens in the bright sunlight.
The county fire crew arrived a few minutes later. Richard Simpson, chief of the volunteers, ordered a safety perimeter. “People, I need you to move to the parking lot out by the highway. A fire is a dangerous thing. You don’t want to be too close.”
Out front, we formed two ragged lines, one for the Scribes and one for Alliance members. Sheila fretted next to me. “Do you think there could be a fire? That place is a tinderbox. I could lose everything.”
I patted her arm. “It’s probably nothing. A smoke alarm with a bad battery.” Off to my right, Louise grumbled loudly about leaving her purse behind.
I spoke too soon. A dark gray plume unfurled from the back of the building, followed by licks of yellow flame arching into the clear blue sky. From this distance, it looked like a watercolor painting, but the sound of crackling and snapping wood destroyed the illusion. Sheila gasped and collapsed against me. I gripped her elbow and held her upright while we watched Hopes and Dreams go up in smoke.
Chelsea-blue pointed to Mike. “It’s your fault. I saw your druggie nephew in the bathroom toking on a joint.”
Mike, who always liked being the center of attention, had been pretty quiet since the evacuation. He straightened to his full height and glared at his teenage accuser. “My nephew is not a druggie. Besides, he left before–”
“I bet she sold it to him,” Louise shouted, indicating Aurora.
That brought the biker in Aurora to life. “Listen, bitch, our product is for medicinal purposes only. Why don’t you shut your fat trap?”
But Louise had thirty years of teaching high school English under her belt. To her, Aurora was just another bad-ass chick with a smart mouth. She waggled a finger in Aurora’s face. “Young lady, you need to learn some manners. You had better–”
Aurora shoved Louise. Hard.
Louise staggered backward, reached for her giant purse to swing at Aurora, and then realized she had left it inside. Her pinned bun flying loose, she whirled around to rally her friends in her defense just as a huge spray of water hit the back of building.
Although the fire chief had ordered us to stay back, we had all gradually moved closer to the entrance of Hopes and Dreams. As the fire hose shot streams through the dying flames, we were pummeled with dirty water and smoldering fragments of roof shingles. Stephanie-red shrieked, “I’m hit!”
Her mother swept her weeping daughter into her arms and screamed at Sheila.”We’re going to sue.”
“Oh, fuck, fuck it all to hell,” Fred cried. “My life’s work is gone.” He glared at Stephanie-red’s mother. “That’s nothing but a sunburn. Put some butter on it, and she’ll be fine.”
This was too much for Sheila. The caged fighting writing event was devolving rapidly into a riot. Sheila broke loose from my grip and darted toward her shop but was stopped by the arrival of the fire chief, who emerged from the clouds of smoke like a soot-stained wraith. “What the hell is going on? Why aren’t you people behind the perimeter?”
“My–my store,” Sheila stammered. “Is everything gone?”
He grinned, a flash of white teeth in a grubby face. “You were lucky we caught it early. Confined to the textbook section.” He held out a charred book. The words, “Fun With Differential Equations,” were barely visible on the cover. “These were the only books you lost.”
Nodding, Sheila opened the burned textbook. Bits of black paper fluttered in the breeze. “Math books,” she said, her voice so soft only the fire chief and I could hear. Five years ago, Sheila’s ex-boyfriend, Eric, had given her all of his math books after he decided to leave adjuncting and become a gardener at a monastery in San Francisco because the pay was better. She had never sold a single copy.
“It was a cigarette butt, right?” Louise asked, casting a disapproving glance at her nemesis Aurora.
Chelsea-blue corrected her. “Not a cigarette. A joint.”
The fire chief shook his head. “Nope. Faulty wiring. Looks like somebody plugged in a free-standing fan and overloaded the circuit.”
“Ah,” Sheila said. She looked pale.
“When can we get our stuff?” Fred asked. He was already moving toward the front door when the chief stopped him.
“Not today,” he said. “Maybe tomorrow. But first, the insurance folks have to get in there and take a look.” He motioned toward the rows of parked cars. “Go home now, and we’ll let Sheila know when you can go back in the building. Give Sheila your phone numbers so she can call you.”
We may have been writers, but none of us had pencil or paper except for Chelsea-blue, who began tearing out sheets from her diary.
Louise scribbled down her number and faced the fire chief. She turned on her teacher charm. “Ricky, I’ve known you since you were a little boy. Surely it won’t hurt for me to tiptoe in and grab my purse.”
But fire chief Rick was no longer little Ricky intimidated by his mean high school English teacher. He shook his head. “Sorry. Not today.”
Fred took Louise’s arm. “Come on, Louise honey. I’ll give you and your lady friends a ride, and you can help me figure out how to reconstruct my memoir. My spelling sucks dick.”
“Well, I…” But Fred was already guiding her to his SUV.
Sheila leaned close to me and whispered, “Did he mention insurance?”
“Yeah, why?” I looked at her. “You do have insurance, don’t you?”
“Of course.” Then she paused. “I think I made the payment last month. With all of the preparations for the Caged Fighting Writing Event…” Her voice trailed off.
I pulled her off to the side. “Come on. Let’s get a drink.”
She gestured at the store. “But I don’t have any money with me. Do you?”
“Joe will front us a few after he hears what you’ve been through.”
She nodded, and we scooted across the parking lot, leaving the others behind to sort out transportation and plans. Traffic whizzed by us as we lurched through the weed-choked path next to the highway, but the blinking lights of Joe’s Pub and Grill beckoned. Sheila was giggling her way through her third mojito when we decided: We were all the best writers in Minnetonka County, and we’d take on any contenders any time. Just put Aurora and Louise out front.
Jeanne Lyet Gassman holds an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts and resides in Arizona. Her debut novel, Blood of a Stone (Tuscany Press), received a 2015 Independent Publisher Book Award (bronze) in the national category of religious fiction and was a finalist for the New Mexico-Arizona Book Awards and the 2015 Independent Author Network Book of the Year Award. Her short work has been nominated for Best Small Fictions 2015 and the Pushcart Prize. Additional awards include fellowships from Ragdale and the Arizona Commission on the Arts. Jeanne's short stories and creative nonfiction have appeared in Hippocampus Magazine, Altarwork, Hermeneutic Chaos Literary Journal, Literary Mama, Barrelhouse, and The Museum of Americana, among many others. Visit Jeanne at her website: www.jeannelyetgassman.com