Dances with Words (End)


“We’re none of us pleased with the current book,” Olivia reported (they’d just finished Amsterdam and agreed it was a trifle), “and we all aspire to write…so what the hell: let’s write a little.” She looked around the table and saw interest. “Let’s do…say, four pages? On: the people on the bus?” and they all nodded with increasing energy. Grinning. Almost laughing a little. Two weeks.

They none of them created great literature then (or later), but they all got enough out of the exercise that they agreed to continue it. Indeed, although each approached the bus assignment differently, all four pieces had a character in common: the sun-averse plain Asian woman with the ratty old refurbished straw hat. Judd’s piece was the strongest and named her Ming, so they all became interested in the woman and began referring to her by that name, even after they learned she was called Mildred, and was Korean, and was uninteresting.

They took turns assigning topics, or themes, or phrases, and that kept the process fresh for all of them. They rarely extended deadlines, so they kept producing, and they all developed a facility at writing. But they didn’t develop a verve.

Judd’s pieces were well-written but sentimental. Often about solitary sailors or athletes. Man’s man unemotional nostalgic voice. Once he ventured into hippie memoir, but his story about sex with the 14-year old sister of a buddy, when Judd was 25, was not well-received. Karin used the word “molester” even after Judd insisted that the young lady was more than willing and still remembered the episode fondly. Karin maintained that not even the victim gets a vote about the act, not when the victim is a child.

Looking at them as a whole, Karin’s pieces were usually about acquisition of wealth and security. She avoided the sex/love theme, even though she admitted to herself that she found Judd provocative.

Olivia tended to write about sex, sex, and then sex. There was invariably a character in her work who looked a bit like she did when she was young: thin and willing to strip. Olivia’s hints about her personal history had her driving a cab in New York while addicted to heroin. Her reminiscences were not detailed and not believed but they kept making it into her prose pieces.

Diligent Eliot produced work which showed how much went into it. He was a tireless researcher. He loved to edit. Sometimes he reduced his own words to near-obscurity.

They might have gone on without change for years. All four were likely to stay in the area, even if not on the bus route. But one ride home, when they just happened to be on board the bus together and without many other passengers, there was a mishap. It might have been a tragedy but they reacted well.

The driver had an acute and initial attack of angina. He had no history of heart disease. His chest seized like a rock and he couldn’t make his arms work. They were about 200 feet west of Treasure Island, accelerating down into the tunnel through Yerba Buena.

Somehow Judd understood what was wrong. Enough so that he raced to the front of the bus, pulled the driver onto the aisle floor, and assumed control of the big vehicle. Judd had never driven a bus but he was good with cars and machines in general; he figured it out.

Karin was right behind Judd and tended to the driver. She put her CPR training to use; the paramedics and even the doctors afterwards commended her.

Eliot didn’t react fast but he did analyze well. The event reinforced his conversion to carpe diem; in fact what broke up the group was his announcement that he was selling his hill house and traveling around the world. He expected to be back in about three years.

Olivia didn’t expect to be around when he returned. She had a full face lift and a neck-tightening after the almost-accident, and she left for places unknown. She said she was going to be an artists’ model and have a lot of lovers.

The bus driver recovered fully and went on to pilot many transbay routes. Sometimes Karin and Judd saw each other on one of them. Other times they arranged to get together, for tea or a meal. Eliot stayed in touch by e-mail, and they expected to see him when he returned. But the writing group was over.

Judd wrote a bit and did it better. More about what he knew than what he dreamed, his short stories showed up here and there in magazines.

Karin published a vegetarian cookbook. She composed 327 sonnets. Typing with her left hand only, Karin wrote this.

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