The night of the infamous Thursday writing group, it was storming. Rain pounded the roof of Shanahan’s Bar, where we’d met the past three months. I was about to discuss a Richard Ford story. The jukebox was blasting Kenny Rogers, “Just Dropped In.” I glanced at my watch once, twice. The second hand clicked, clicks reverberating in my ears.
The last members had slunk in. We were fifteen minutes and thirty-two seconds into workshop.
Margaret Browning spoke:
“You’re obsessed with time.”
The words tumbled into my consciousness, an avalanche pouring over me. I flailed.
“I do like Back To The Future.” I took a swig of my White Russian.
“If one story’s not in on time, you make it seem like the world’s ending.” Margaret ran her hands through her chestnut-colored hair, in a blunt bob. Margaret’s literary aesthetic was “divorce in the suburbs”, melding picket fences with precise prose.
We were sixteen minutes and fifty-five seconds into workshop.
“You know,” I said, “White Russians were named after anti-Bolshevik forces in the Russian Civil War.”
“I have to concur,” said Donny Greenleaf. “On time.”
Concur. Like a legal drama. Law and Metaphors. Donny looked like Adam Sandler, but he had written a story about a lawyer in an existential crisis, a fusion of Camus and John Grisham.
“What’s with this time discussion?”
“I mean, if a story comes in forty minutes late, you remind us.” Donny drew out the words. He smelled like onions, stale armpits, and chapstick, which he’d applied copiously.
“It’s about principle. Timeliness.”
“Berating us about time is a principle?” Donny said.
“I wouldn’t say berating,” I joked. “But yes.”
They didn’t know the hours I spent reading and re-reading. My pen was perpetually poised over paper, trying to offer the best suggestions. I wanted them to have good lives, lives with easier recognition and more praise. I hoped their childhoods were good, at least. I really hoped they’d never had mothers who pronounced love, lost jobs and tempers, and disregarded time. I hoped they’d never had to move from apartment to apartment, mothers blowing rent money on Merlots.
“But you regulate discussions,” Claire Van Pelt said. Her owl-like hazel eyes flickered. “You control who talks when. Can’t let a discussion flow. What’s the principle?”
“Richard Ford and workshop stories await,” I said.
“Just tell me,” Claire said. “What’s the principle?”
“Time.” I glanced at my watch again. We were nineteen-minutes and twenty-two seconds into workshop.
And we were going to workshop my fealty to Chronos.
There were ten in my group, most in their late twenties. We discussed two workshop stories and a published piece weekly. My writers were supposed to turn in their short stories via group email by Monday morning. This gave us ample time to dissect metaphors, arrest cliches, and devour well-crafted, depressing characters. Drunk mothers and passive-aggressive dads were well-represented. Dead siblings too. I loved watching new generations of Yates and Cheevers capture powerless souls on the page, characters grasping for something and fucking up. I knew drunks and debts, the sense of descending into holes.
But these authors-in-waiting turned in their stories late.
Not just two hours late. Like Wednesday night late. I struggled through seas of stories, trying to have comments ready when the first member entered Thursday night.
I despised defensiveness.
And I thought of my beloved writers discarding time. Shutting out talent. These were all people who knew responsibility among fast-food joints, movie theaters, and as teachers.
I showed up half an hour early for our weekly writing group and an hour early for classes at the university where I taught Beginning Creative Writing and English Composition. When you were early, it was easier to plot out all possible delays. It was hard for things to fall apart.
“What’s the big deal?” Claire said now. “The work comes in. Isn’t that what matters?”
Kenny kept singing about what condition his condition was in. The room smelled of Marlboros and pot. Balls crashed from the pool table, missing their targets. Two guys in baseball caps shoved each other near the jukebox, their laughter gruff, like Seth Rogen.
“I’ll put it this way,” I said. “You get behind on a payment or deadline, the world’s going to kick your ass.”
“All right,” Margaret said, leaning back. “Now that you made your point, can we talk stories?”
“Let’s just remember time.”
“Jawohl, mein Fuhrer,” Donny said, laughing.
I still smiled, a wobbly smile. They were douchebags, but my douchebags.
Once Mom and I watched Back To The Future. Time was an asshole, she said. If time was kind, why did it leave Doc hanging from a clock tower?
Maybe that was right. Maybe we would have failed, even if she colored inside the lines.
But people thought months and years ahead. The world rewarded them. And it could reward my band of writers. All of us.
What did you have if you didn’t have time?
We tried to talk about Richard Ford. And we got into setting as character and use of dialogue. But when it came time to discuss the workshop stories, Margaret asked if we could discuss her piece next week. She wasn’t feeling good about her draft, a story about two siblings in the 1950s.
We were one-hour and seven minutes into workshop.
“That’s all right,” I said. “It’s a draft.”
“I just think it would be better next week.”
The jukebox was playing the Eagles, “Peaceful Easy Feeling.” Shadows darted from the rainswept streets, accentuating the small rectangular spaces, the Fat Tire and Odells signs, the little wooden tables and ripped booths.
I hated the Eagles, their laid-back voices.
“Let’s just talk about it,” I said. “Go over the places where you’re struggling.”
“Next week, Nick,” Margaret said.
Next week, a term I’d heard many times. Next week, when Mom missed a birthday gift, a rent payment. Next week, a promise when Mom lost our lowly Dodge Stratus. Next week, Mom would give up Merlot we couldn’t afford. Next week, when they took our coffee table.
What if Margaret lost everything next week? Had she added up all the possibilities? She was twenty-six and at a point in life where actions actually mattered. If you were eighteen, twenty-one even, you could fuck up. Maybe.
But not now. She was twenty-six and I was forty.
“Margaret,” I said, inhaling. “This is your slot. You’re going to have to deal with deadlines. I know they’re a pain but might as well confront them now.”
“Go fuck yourself,” Margaret said, staring straight at me, each word accentuated.
“Already done that.” I tried to laugh.
“Look,” Claire said. “Why don’t you give Margaret a break this once?”
“I don’t feel good about a character,” Margaret said. “And you tell us to spend as much time with our characters as possible.”
A break. Everyone wanted a break.
“We can’t afford breaks,” I snapped. “We have a schedule. If you don’t want to be here, feel free to walk out.”
The Eagles kept singing and a group of college-age women streamed in, laughing. I picked up my drink, took another swig.
The students shuffled, looking at each other.
“Look,” Claire said, “you’re being a prick. You’re intense, but this isn’t you.”
Without thinking, I threw the glass down, shards of glass spraying the floor. Creamy substance slunk away, bit by bit.
They all stared at me. I saw looks of shock, bewilderment. I also saw something else. Contempt. Possibly amusement. As if I were a Quixotic freak, tilting at time.
“So, what’s it going to be?” I said.
“Look,” Margaret snapped. “We’re not going to hell if we don’t turn in the stories. We want to have fun. That’s what writing’s about. Creation.”
Margaret rose from the table and gathered her blood-red jacket. Claire followed.
“I’m sorry,” she murmured, which made it worse.
I reached out, as if I could pull them back.
“I love you all,” I said, my voice drowned by the jukebox, “you chuckleheads.”
They dispersed one by one, parting like the Red Sea.
I’d tried to make everything just right. Lay down rules. Still they’d come apart.
I paid the bill and walked out into the rain. There was fog and buildings around me were blurred. I didn’t know where I was going, where I’d stop, or when. I kept walking among neon signs and laughter, people who had all the time in the world, or pretended to. People who could easily discard it.
I tried to imagine what it meant to drift, to let time go. The thought filled me with anxiety,
thinking of those empty spaces. I had to have time. I hoped I could get my writers back. But how
would I speak of time? How would I convey the months and years of work in my life?
The fog deepened.
A clock tower chimed. Was it an hour? A quarter hour? It was a marker of something, but of what, I didn’t know.