And Then There Were Six…
Tonight was my first Write Night and I was nervously excited, filled to the brim with “social science experiment” curiosity.
The Calgary Writers Meet Up Group was hosting the 2nd in a series of three such nights; whereby, hackers like myself could go and get some serious work done, on possibly not-so-serious topics.
The room was filled with warm, dead air despite the de rigeur hotel air conditioning. A sense of the closterphobic initially enveloped me, as it may have done to the others already seated in that tiny room. Possibly the dreary dark olive green walls didn’t help matters. Possibly the recessed lighting. Possibly it was the feeling that I had entered a funeral parlour without the de rigeur coffin and dead guy within.
It’s not right to be bothered like that, especially in a writing group, I thought to myself. One should feel open and relaxed to let the creative juices flow, as they say. Funeral parlours don’t often give off that warm and fuzzy-feeling affect but some of the best writers in the world were dead. Maybe there was a connection.
People stiff and unsure, shy and sedate, one by one they filed into that room. There had been some Front Desk confusion as to whether or not We as a Group even existed in the Port O Call Hotel that night and maybe that was fitting - non-existent people in a coffin-sized room. But eventually, all who had wanted to attend, did materialize, and we all chose spots around a large board room table, every other seat dutifully filled. Pens and paper, laptops and tablets, everyone was there to “work” but as yet we weren’t quite sure what that “work” would entail.
Introductions were first on tap. Every person in his or her turn giving a micro-diatribe of their accomplishments or lack thereof. I’m always more appreciative of the “lack thereof” People, that tells me they know their best work is before them and they are damn hungry to start feasting at the Table of the Literary Unknown. Fabulous adventurers, the “lack thereof” People are…with an as-yet-undeveloped egocentric facade! Next on tap was the tap, for although I, MsBurb, was the first one to voice this suggestion (hmm, all who know me already could have seen that coming!) - the need for alcoholic refreshment - it didn’t take long for the rest of the Write Night Gang to chime in as well. It may be hard enough to hack for a living but having to do so in front of strangers, well, if that doesn’t demand chemical infusion, what would?
The social banter continued for a time, amidst the in and out of our waitress who was in charge of taking our orders, a quiet girl, totally unassuming but typically hotel pleasant and efficient. Our Leader, Cheryl, finally had to put the “school marm” foot down to get Us (and possibly by Us, she meant me!) to pipe down and start producing. This was a Write Night, after all, and we were here to write, goshdarnit, not gain Miss or Mister Congeniality awards, and write well, even if it killed us.
Giggles now nicely supressed, heads slowly lowering, final coughing's made and We as a Group got at it. A topic idea had been suggested by Cheryl but it seemed most of Us knew what We wanted to hack out. The mystery still remained though of the What and the Why in each of Us.
As I began my tale, the plot already tightly sealed - and as yet unrevealed on paper - in my head, in between word choices, I would covertly gaze around the room at the rest of Us Literary Guinea Pigs. It’s not every day you get to observe how the Other Half hacks, you know, and my curiosity feverishly overtook me. It became utterly fascinating, observing how each member attacked their own work, rifling with abandon through their own brain for those 1000 watt-bulb ideas, choosing ever so smartly those surgically loaded words, all golden, I’m sure, well beyond mine. I had a plan as I’ve said but the atmosphere completely absorbed me. Calgarians, writers, hackers like me, the tiniest of microcosms, an infinitesimal percentage of the entire writing world, gathered here, tonight, right now, creating literary gems. It made one wonder just how much “greatness” was still out there, as of yet unpublished, for all of Us to read and enjoy.
Forcing myself to settle down now and focus, I still couldn't help but notice out of the corner of my eye, the salt and pepper shakers standing soldier straight in the middle of the table, desperately staring back at me. They had a voice, yes they did, and they were pleading for me to set them free. They had a severe case of the wanderlust, had never lived beyond the oh so nauseatingly boring confines of this hotel, the doors to Freedom just mere footfalls away but without feet impossible to reach. I told them to stop it already. I had work to do. I told them to pick on some bags-of-dough, big-headed corporate seminar dude the next time there was a meeting in here, someone who had all the time in the world and far less important things to do. They sighed and went silent, finally.
I had narrowed down my field of interest tonight to just simply writing the Great Canadian Novel. Nothing more, nothing less. All nicely punched out on my tablet keyboard, it would be, with the raunchy roughness of a Jerry Lee Lewis-type hacker…on Speed. No, I wasn’t on Speed but I was on several buckets of coffee. How else does one manage said in less than a couple hours?
My field of interest fantasy aside, the reality held for me a mere uncelebrated Short Story, I was sure. I could have continued writing on my book or on some other seriously demented research topic on murder and sociopaths but somehow who could possibly get that kind of inspiration in a funeral-like setting. Not I, I say. Not I. The salt and pepper shakers silently nodded in agreement.
I had ordered a Guinness as I had yet to have dinner – a meal in a glass, it is, kind of like a Slimfast shake but only tasty! The others ordered various beers and wines and our dutiful waitress came in to deliver. There was a bit of confusion as two women in the group had ordered red wine and the carafes - although one of Merlot and one not - looked identical and were initially indistinguishable by the waitress as to their vineyard types. Jade and Rachel said they didn’t mind who drank what, they wanted their drinks now, not later, and who could blame them. This Night, as I’ve said, just couldn’t be done on tea-totaling. Any delay to solve the Mystery of the Wines by our waitress was one delay too many. It turns out that waxing poetic takes a certain kind of mental fortitude often found at the bottom of a fermented bottle. I could have told everyone there, that.
Once the waitress had left, assuring the red wine women beforehand that she had got the carafes correct after all, all fell dead quiet, all fell funeral quiet.
Still no floral arrangement to fill one’s nose with sinus congestion nor any coffin on show at the head of the room. But I felt dead sure my literary attempt would end up D.O.A. if I didn’t start ignoring the atmosphere, stop gawking at the members, stop thumbing my nose at the shakers and start drinking and getting down to business. It’s amazing I ever write at all, I fear.
With incredible fortitude and self-discipline (no Leader whip on offer that I knew of) I was finally focusing, honing in, seeing clearly my task before me. I had wondered if I could pull it off, tonight, writing under pressure, but as it turns out I too can write silly crap when a figurative gun is pointed at my head. I’d hate to be “special”, you know, I’d hate to be that one in a million of Us uncelebrated authors that could actually write prosaic liquid gold, under deadline, in a hotel board room, in front of total strangers. That would make me feel so uneasy. Thankfully, that is a concern that will never keep me awake at night along with the walking Undead.
As I feverishly hacked, hotel guests came and went in the hall outside, our unobtrusive waitress came in to ask Us if we were alright. Everyone was alright, as it turned out, well, as alright as one can be “creating” to a micro-deadline. Good thing this “creation” of mine didn’t have to be read out loud at the end of the evening, I’d rather have time and space in between me and this publishing for All to read, to lessen the embarrassment.
Sixteen members were booked in for this meeting, seven showed up. A rather good percentage, if you ask me, given that most meetings of the artsy-fartsy crowd can often be hit or miss. It’s not like we’re uptight, anal-retentive stock-brokers you know, the muse to do anything hits and then misses, not just for the “Art” but for real life, Meet Up meetings included. The first Write Night, I gather, was a sell-out, a rousing success of eighteen souls. I began to wonder what happened to the others from that first meeting? The thought gave me the chills…or was it the air conditioning that was finally kicking in, in that room? It was hard to tell.
Just as I was pondering that question, in between choosing the right words for my Short Story tome, a slow but ever-so-smooth nautical “list” began to appear in my immediate vicinity, a vague awareness that what was directly across from me was no longer on the level as it had been. I thought, No, not from just one Guinness, I can’t be that bad off. And with that spark of concern now dawning on me, I decided to focus hard, directly across the table. Jade - that natural blond, lovely, soft-spoken woman, so polite, so professional, so focused - her torso, ever so slightly started to lean to the left and within seconds, which felt like minutes, down she went to the carpeted floor below, still, dead quiet, silent as the grave, no utterance was made by her at all as she fell like the Leaning Tower of Pisa will some day.
The loud bang as her head hit the table leg shook everyone seated around that table, back into reality and away from their page. Almost in unison we catapulted off our chairs and clumsily raced over to Jade’s body, now lying limp on the floor. Kevin who was closest to the exit ran to the Front Desk to call for help while Davey and Laurie helped slide the chairs and boardroom table to the right, to make more room around Jade’s body. The hotel doctor was summoned and on quick order he and his medical bag were kneeling beside the inert Jade. The rest of Us were stunned into silent submission, slowly backing away now to give Jade and the doctor some space, all of Us looking down, all with deer-in-headlight bulging eyeballs, utterly shocked at the spectacle playing out before Us. The doctor felt for her pulse and shot with bullet precision question after question at Us all – What had happened? Did Jade say anything? Did she injure herself? Was there an altercation in the room? We all just kept shaking our heads in the negative or mumbling No. There was nothing out of the ordinary at all, we said. Nothing at all. The room had felt like a funeral parlour, I told you, but I kept that thought to myself.
The doctor called for an ambulance but his shaking head told us the real story. Jade was dead. Stone-cold dead. Well, as stone-cold as a body can be in the middle of a Calgary summer, in the middle of a lousy air-conditioned board room, only seconds after becoming dead.
Our gasps were very audible. Luckily in this gathering though there was no rotund woman nor waif-like socialite screaming bloody murder as often is the case in Murder Mysteries. Had there been, I would have died of literary boredom, a second death, a second body on the floor. No one needed that, most especially me, the floor in this tiny room was only so big to hold so many bodies, you know.
The police were called of course. The ambulance was on its way. And the doctor was still kneeling over the corpse. “We Six Remaining” stood around the room in robotic shock and the hotel staff, now in what looked like Hotel Guest Service wolf-packs, started to race to the area, more curious than helpful. The room was anything like a solemn funeral parlour now, boy, more like a Barnum & Bailey madhouse.
No one paid any attention to the return in the room of our still humble, diminutive waitress, when she entered to clear off the used drink glasses that were now competing for space with the medical equipment strewn on that board room table. Nothing should have been disturbed, of course, but in that awful scene no one thought anything of her efficiency. In the one carafe and in its accompanying wine glass, chosen specifically for Jade by our waitress and then skilfully removed, the remnants of Merlot laced with ricin remained. No one had graduated to thoughts of murder, for even the doctor wasn’t thinking beyond trying to give Jade CPR in the vain hope the paramedics could still revive her.
Hours before, when our waitress wasn’t a waitress at all but working her day job as a Copy Girl down at one of Calgary’s local independent newspapers, she was again not really noticed by anyone she worked around nor who worked around her. After all, a Copy Girl is the last rung on the News Floor ladder. But it really didn’t matter what job Soon Lee took on, she was always rather an invisible creature in her modest efficiency. Working day and night, her main enemy was exhaustion and earlier today, nearing the end of her hectic shift at the newspaper, she had trundled into the Lunch Room to grab her favourite pick-me-up snack from the vending machine, the type of yummy, salty carbs-in-a-bag one can only find in a packet of
Every day, at about 3pm, Soon Lee would grab a bag and wolf them down, the empty calories were what got her though to the start of her night shift as a waitress for the Port O Call Hotel.
Only on this day, her yearning was unfulfilled. Unbeknownst to her, a co-worker, a journalist at that same newspaper, had got to the vending machine ahead of her and as Soon Lee watched, helpless, this woman punched F9 and out came the very last bag of Cheezies. Soon Lee couldn’t believe her eyes. She was almost at the point of tears, panicking now, asking herself how was she ever going to cope. Cheezie carbs or nothing at all, was her motto and now, for the very first time, it was nothing at all.
Jade, with that bag of cherished Cheezies in her aquiline, alabaster hand, her thoughts completely consumed on the article she had to put to bed before the 6 o’clock deadline, saw a girl behind her but really paid very little attention. Copy Girls came and went in this place all the time and to get too acquainted with them, well, it was never really recommended. As Jade passed by Soon Lee, Jade’s head lowered in utter concentration, Soon Lee glared at her in silent rage. How dare she take the last bag, she thought. How…dare…SHE!
No one in that hotel board room saw Soon Lee open Jade’s purse that had been perched on the back of her chair. No one saw her slowing unzip the top and extract a perfectly good, unopened bag of Cheezies. Soon Lee knew Jade was keeping them for tonight’s Write Night. She had overheard Jade tell a co-worker when she returned to her desk from the Lunch Room, that she was headed to the Port O Call (the exact same hotel Soon Lee worked at as her moonlight job) for a Write Night and the Cheezies were insurance in case of a munchie attack while writing, having no time to grab a decent dinner before it began and little time in between writing to order a proper meal at the hotel. Soon Lee couldn’t believe her luck. Jade would be her customer at the hotel, on that very night. Fate was smiling down on Soon Lee and as she witnessed Jade pack up at her news desk and leave for the day, a wide-mouthed Grinch-Who-Stole-Christmas grin over-took her expression.
Carrying a tray of used glassware in her left hand, she slyly stuffed into her right front pants pocket with her right hand The bag of cherished Cheezies. Soon Lee left that room of death as she had entered, a Spiteful Server Silent.
Then casually, covertly but ever so gracefully, Soon Lee entered the hotel kitchen and slid the tray of used glassware onto the massive dishwasher conveyor belt, Jade’s wine glass and carafe seconds away from pristine clean. Her “work”, to remove all traces of her dastardly deed, done, Soon Lee made her way to the Lobby and slowly sauntered out the Front Door of the hotel, unseen as always even when there, never to be seen there again.
“Teach you to take the last bag of Cheezies, teach you real good” was all she said, whispering those devilish words under her breath, her still thin-lipped, wide-mouthed, ghoulish Grinch grin now opening ever so slightly, fingers slowly pushing in one Cheezie after another, passing as they did through her dainty lips.
Photos, in Order of Appearance: Title Photo – Calgary Meet Up Member Photos, Montage by MsBurb; Glass of Guinness – ibabuzz.com; Glass of Red Wine – blackdoctor.org; Cheezies Cartoon – torontopubliclibrary.typepad.com; The Grinch Cartoon – kootation.com