I was in the middle of reading when he walked in for the first time in early January. He hovered out of the corner of my eye as I reached a critical turning point in my novella -- the protagonist three-putting the 15th green.
When I finished I looked over to see a tall, skinny white guy wearing all black: baggy jeans sagging below his waist, a t-shirt three sizes too big, and a do-rag wrapped around his head. He sat down across from me and I noticed he had tattoos on his fingers that, if I had to guess, were symbols for a gang.
Richard, the group's facilitator and author of the currently unpublished memoir The Perilous Path To Christ, was on him like white on rice.
"This is the Riverview Writers Group. Are you a writer?"
"What's your name?" Marsha asked. A retired teacher, she was half-way through her first novel. The narrator befriends a transgender classmate at a design school and there is something going on with green gunk.
"Q-tip," he said, staring at nothing.
Richard explained the protocol in the exact manner he had described it to me three months earlier. Q-tip played with his tongue ring. Then it was time for the group to give me feedback, and -- likely the result of our newest member -- the dramatic and pivotal twist in my story was lost on everyone. When the circle was complete, it was my turn to respond.
"I ask you, my fellow writers, did anyone notice how my character had not once three-putted in the whole story?" I began to list the other obvious signs of my kairotic moment, but the word kairotic proved to be a snag. Woody started in on the Greek origins and before I knew it, Richard's phone beeped and everyone's attention shifted to Q-tip to see if he had pages.
He didn't. Well, I thought, at least he brings an element of diversity to the group -- no one else was under sixty.
Whenever his turn came around to offer feedback, he whispered, "Pass," except when Debbie read her my-dead-husband's-birthday essay.
"I love your writing," he said in a soft voice. "It's achingly beautiful." I remember distinctly he said achingly.
We didn't see him for a month. When he came back, again he whispered, "Pass" each time, and only commented on Debbie's waking-up-with-grief essay. "I loved it," he said. He didn't seem impressed with my golf fiction.
Q-tip showed up once a month. He never brought any writing. One time I went to the bathroom and a drug bust was going down -- not all that unusual considering the location of the library near the public transit center. I thought maybe Q-tip ducked into our writer's group as a way to avoid 5-0 attention, though I didn't share this.
In April Richard said, "Q-tip, we enjoy your company but to be an active member you need to bring in your own work."
We didn't see him for another month. But last Tuesday he walked in with a stack of wrinkled pages.
Devon, the group secretary (and the real authority figure) asked him for his word count.
"309" he said in his soft voice.
His count was the lowest, even shorter than Clive's flash fiction, so he went first. You almost couldn't hear him.
the ball gos thru. the bears have beet the eagles 18 -16. ther movin on to the devishunal round. the players cary u off the field
thats when u hear broken glass. cuz im comin fo yo ass
yur dreamin. the ball didnt go through no uprights. it double doinked. just like the four doinks against the lions in november
then u hear me killin yur dog. yur dog that dont care about the bears and still loves u. he be barkin. dont kill me dont me. u aint gonna know what hit me
then he hear me on the stairs. i clime loudly with my steal toe boots. im comin to kill yur ass. but first i gonna kill yur wife. she dont care what happens to the bears but she gon care plenti when i kick her pretty bitch ass. she gonna be like no no no but i gonna be like yes yes yes. dum bitch gonna be fraid. he gonna hold her head while i kick it 43 yards right down the middle. she gonna be like why
dont matter that the ball got tipt. u think u some hero and done handled it like a man. but im gonna show u how a man handles things. first im gonna brake yur foot so u wont ever kick again. then im gonna leav and u think u gonna live and collekt all dat money from da bears. like u gonna uz it to buy a new foot. but u aint gonna get nothin. cuz when u think u gonna live and go on a mornin talk show and be some hero like us bears fans that thout are team was gonna win a playoff game for the 1st time since 2010 u think u gonna live but u aint. cuz im coming back to kill u
The standard minute passed and everyone made notes. When Richard's phone beeped, it was Jack's turn, since he was sitting to Q-tip's right.
"I'll start," said the retired lawyer and author of a legal thriller (in progress) The Dove's Shadow. "There's some very strong emotion in this piece. I'm often told that my work lacks emotion, so that's a real strong point for you. That's all I have to say."
Clive, a South African grammarian, went next. He didn't even get through the difference between proper and common nouns when Richard's phone beeped. Next was Wanda, a cozy mystery writer.
"I thought this was very interesting," she began, as usual. "The overall voice serves your purpose. There are a few words, like 'break' and 'steel' that are tricky and get all of us from time to time, so I've made notes. Nice job. Gary."
"The dream sequence that starts it off," said the author of some Asimovian sci-fi. "That's gotta go. It's a cliché. When you're trying to hook your reader, what you're really doing is establishing trust. And starting with a dream does the opposite. Devon."
The author of an unpublished YA novel called "The Curse of Love," started with her typical phrase: "So I agree with everyone so far." I knew what she was going to say next. I thought there was a chance she might not, but deep down, I knew she would. "You have an -ly word that needs to be cut. The killer climbed the stairs loudly. We don't need loudly. Just say 'I climbed the stairs.' But overall good job."
Next was Woody, the science blogger. "About half these words you don't need," he said, like always. He harped on the run-on sentence at the end. "We don't need to know the last time they won a playoff game." Then he closed with his usual note of ambiguity. "Otherwise, it's going somewhere."
After Woody was Marsha.
"There are some issues with point-of-view," she said. "We get a little lost in the pronouns. For example, 'you ain't gonna know what hit me.' Is that the dog's POV? I think it should stay with what the kicker hears. Also, 'she gonna be like why' needs a question mark. Richard."
Our Facilitator sighed. "When you first started reading, I thought, what kind of lunatic threatens the life of a professional football kicker? For missing a kick and losing a game. For being flawed and human as our creator has made all of us."
Richard squinted pensively out the window. "Thou shalt not kill."
He gazed upward. "But I noticed you taking notes during the feedback. So now I'm thinking this is one of God's children, contemplating an eternal sin, that also cares about becoming a better writer." Richard directed his gleaming eyes at Q-tip. "That last part," he said, and paused with one of his pregnant silences. "That, at least, is to be commended."
Then it was my turn.
"Pass," I said. After all, he never said one word about my golf story.