When a group of men and women from all walks of life and ages join a writing group for the first time conducted by a reluctant professor, surprises ensue. This was entertaining all the way through, an emotional roller coaster. I began rooting for each of the characters—even those with sour attitudes at first. This reader got involved with each person’s unique life and desperation, from a lawyer on the cusp of ruin to a dad losing touch with his family to a pregnant mom in dire need of support. The author also gives a glimpse of authentic Madison, Wisconsin, which I know well. This is a delightful debut novel filled with humor and hope.Christine DeSmet, author of Fudge Shop Mystery Series and Mischief in Moonstone Series
A young mom,
a hot shot lawyer,
a beleaguered landscaper,
and a feisty widow
sign up for a writers’ workshop
hosted by a professor who doesn’t want to be there.
Their families, careers,
and even the city they love
depend on whether they
champion each other’s stories,
or write one another off.
Join Professor Harrington and his students
as they eat and critique their way
through Madison’s downtown food scene
and struggle to get their stories–and lives–just right
before the Christmas deadline.
Read on for the first two chapters to see if this might be a good fit for you. ~Meg
Thursday, September 7th, 8:53 p.m.
A single light shone from Professor Brian Harrington’s Cape Cod, which even at night sat in the shadow of Camp Randall. It was a quiet house near the epicenter of campus life, but never part of it.
The desk lamp illuminated a laptop where Brian was hunched over, willing a clever cliffhanger to shoot out of his fingers. Just the right words would alleviate the burden of suspicion that this fourth book of his—Tally Ho!, a historical fiction starring a band of pirates searching for a mythical ship loaded with treasure—was garbage.
His first three novels had been disappointments. He needed this one to be a best seller. After twelve years of not having made a name for himself as a creative writing professor at the University of Wisconsin, he craved recognition and a little fanfare. Perhaps his real strength had always been as an author. If he devoted more time to it, surely it would pay out.
From his window he could see volleyball fans streaming out of the Field House next to Camp Randall, a whoop here and there. All was silent inside his house.
The cursor blinked at him. He blinked as well and looked around his living room. An empty Ian’s pizza box lay next to him, his stomach quieted by two giant Maui Wowie slices. Overflowing bookshelves lined the walls. Journals, photocopies from the historical museum, and ungraded essays lay on the floor. Was this a fire hazard? He didn’t have roommates to tell him when his habits had breached the lines of normalcy. Maybe he needed to attend some sort of lifestyle workshop.
The workshop! He groaned. The fall semester weekly writing workshop. He was required to lead it for his professorship, but it had slipped his mind as he tried to get Tally Ho! off the ground. The workshop was supposed to start tomorrow night. Would anyone commit to something like that last minute? He hoped not. The workshop ate into his writing time.
Brian closed out his novel and began an email to the senior editor of the daily student paper, Badger Times.
Friday, September 8th, 9 a.m.
Hattie Bouché ignored the twinge of arthritis in her knuckles and scrubbed the Breakfast Bar’s aluminum counter until it was the shiniest on State Street. She checked her diamond watch—nine o’clock, time for her break. After her shift she’d visit her sister-in-law Arlene, whose presence was the only thing Hattie enjoyed more than her work here.
She bagged up three lemon blueberry scones, frothed a cappuccino, and paid for them. She carried them to her favorite table, picking up a Badger Times on the way, and slid into the red vinyl booth. She sipped the cappuccino, which instantly banished the fatigue that had snuck up on her.
Delicate clouds cast shadows that flittered across the expansive steps of Wisconsin’s capitol building just outside. Inside, the kitchen skillets sizzled. The air was thick with the aroma of Door County cherry chocolate chip pancakes, the Breakfast Bar’s famous fried cheese curds, bacon from the butcher down the street, and roasted coffee beans. Two students at a table nearby tucked into ham and egg breakfast sliders with a cranberry compote. The chef-owner Trevor Doursey had developed the dish at Hattie’s suggestion.
Her stomach growled. She pulled a scone from the bag and took a bite from the side of her mouth in order to avoid disturbing her dentures, a trick she had learned from her favorite baking show host. The initial crunch gave way to a tender, moist crumb. Tart lemon popped against the sweet blueberries that were at the end of their season but still quite good. Thank God she hadn’t lost her appetite like other women her age.
Before she could open the newspaper, Trevor appeared at her table.
Hattie stopped chewing. Why was he out on the floor during the morning rush? His white chef coat was rolled at the sleeves revealing that ugly tattoo of Wisconsin with a star on Madison, a tribute to winning the Madison Good Taste award for best brunch three years ago. She’d told him not to get it, that no nice girl would want to date him. She wasn’t wrong; the restaurant had only barely survived his stint with the vegan girl. She folded the newspaper and slid it into her purse. Campus news would have to wait.
“Hattie, I need to tell you something.” Trevor looked grim. “This past year we’ve had some losses. I need to make cuts to keep us on track.”
She nodded. New restaurants were opening each month downtown. Of course he needed to stay competitive. What would her routine look like, moving to four morning shifts a week instead of five? It might even be nice having an extra morning off.
Trevor shifted on his feet. “I’ve really enjoyed having you with us.”
Hattie’s mouth went dry. “I don’t understand. I’m one of your best employees.”
Hattie crossed her arms. “Does this have anything to do with my age?”
“Of course not,” he said, sweating. “I’ve had to let all my part-timers go. We’re really going to miss you, Hattie. I mean that.”
“Well, I don’t know how you’re going to keep up the place. Who’s going to scrub the counters? These kids don’t know how to clean. The sunshine catches all the grease marks and dust. It looks awful if you don’t stay on top of it.”
Trevor nodded but his jaw was set.
She was clearly unwanted. Her heart sank. She mustered, “I’m going to miss you too. I’ll need a to-go cup for my cappuccino.”
Trevor looked surprised, but he walked to the counter and returned with a paper cup and lid. He poured the cappuccino into the cup, placed the lid on, and handed it to her. “Come back soon, Hattie. We’ll save your spot by the window.”
She nodded, placed her Italian leather purse on her shoulder, and picked up the bag of scones. She walked out of the restaurant with her head high, careful not to catch the eyes of those who had overheard their conversation.
She plodded down State Street and waited at a bus stop. Students passed her as they headed down the pedestrian street toward the campus buildings.
The bus soon arrived. She got on and rode it down State Street to University Avenue. She looked out as they passed the recently renovated Chazen art museum. She and Frank loved seeing the new exhibits. She glanced at her wedding ring. It was almost eight years ago that he died. The pain of his absence was still breathtaking at times.
She ran her hand over her ring, watch, and purse; all gifts from Frank, who had loved her. They’d always had far more money than they needed for just the two of them. After he died, she had taken the job at the Breakfast Bar simply for something to do.
More sixties-style campus buildings rushed by in a blur of concrete. The bus turned at the newer, attractive business school building and continued down the street before stopping at Saint Al’s Hospital where Hattie got out. It was newly redone and shimmered in the sun.
She walked through the sun-drenched lobby, alive with the sound of rushing indoor fountains, chatter, and elevators working double-time. A wall of windows in the back revealed a courtyard vibrant with a bounty of late-summer flowers. A man pushed a woman much younger than Hattie in a wheelchair. She said a prayer of thanks for her own good health.
She took the elevator to the orthopedic floor as she had many times before, and found the room of Frank’s sister who’d just had a second hip replacement yesterday.
“Arlene?” Hattie called through the door that was ajar. “You busy?” She laughed.
“Cut it out. Get in here.”
Hattie walked in to the spacious room. Arlene was in bed in a pink hospital gown with a newspaper on her lap. Her white hair was gathered back into a chignon.
Hattie planted a kiss on Arlene’s head. “How’d you do that? Your hair looks terrific.”
“I wanted to make sure I didn’t frighten whoever found me dead,” said Arlene.
“You’re not leaving me here alone. Besides, we’re going to Chocolaterian next week.
Arlene laughed. “I don’t think I’ll be on my feet by next week.”
Hattie tsked. “I’ll push your wheelchair then.” Infirmity was dampening the fun they used to have together. Hattie had no patience for it.
Arlene eyed the brown bag. “Are those the scones? I’ve been thinking about them all morning.” She gazed at Hattie as she set them out on the bedside table. “You look stunning, by the way, like you always do.” Arlene reached for a scone and took a big bite. “Yes, ma’am. These are the best in Madison. I didn’t even ask—how are you?”
Hattie eased herself into the recliner next to the bed. “Miserable. I was just fired.”
“Aw, Hattie, I’m sorry to hear that. But, gee whiz, you’re eighty-six.”
“Good grief, woman!”
“Maybe now you’ll have more time to visit me.”
“Arlene, I’m here almost as much as you are.”
“I know.” Arlene offered the other scone to Hattie, who declined with a wave of her hand. “Do you have the recipe for these? You could go into business on your own.”
Hattie chuckled. “I couldn’t keep up with the demand. You’d have to bake with me.”
“We’d call the store Timeless Treats!”
“Oldies and Goodies!”
“How about—” Arlene could barely get the words out, “Scones by Old Bones!”
They laughed until tears came. Hattie searched for some tissues and brought them to Arlene who thanked her and yawned.
Hattie sat back down and pulled the Badger Times out of her purse. “Now, don’t mind me. I’ll let you get back to your crossword puzzle.” She opened the paper and scanned it for something interesting. A blurb from the English department for a semester-long creative writing workshop beginning tonight caught her eye. The meetings would take place at the Helen C. White building on campus, a bit of a walk but nothing that she couldn’t handle.
Hattie sat up. She thought about the novel she had written to pass the time after Frank had died, a thriller starring the handsome, swashbuckling history professor Dr. Frank Bouché, based on their travels together. Her story came to life in her mind once again along with a nagging doubt: could she really complete a novel at her age?
She turned to bounce the idea off Arlene but found her fast asleep. Hattie leaned back.
She imagined Frank smoking a pipe and running his finger around a globe. “Where to, ma chérie?”
She smiled. She would finish the book in thanksgiving for Frank, to share him with the world—he really was such a character—and perhaps even to prepare to meet him again.
She made plans to return home later in the day to get her manuscript ready for the workshop. Her heart skipped a beat with excitement and nerves.
Marie Belle leaned against the rough pantry doorframe in her tiny kitchen. Nausea and fatigue gripped her. Her swollen tummy was the only part of her that felt alive.
She closed her eyes and willed that dinner would appear. She opened one, only to find the same box of saltines, canister of raisins, and tin of diced tomatoes. Nausea had foiled her morning grocery shopping plans. After lunch, she and her toddler Timmy had needed naps. She had woken up just as exhausted, and now her husband Dan would soon be home.
Sunlight streamed in through a smudged windowpane onto her laptop. The computer beckoned to her with the promise of escape. She sat down at the nicked kitchen table and checked her email, hoping that she had won a free dinner for three at a local restaurant. There was one new email from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, her alma mater eight miles away.
She opened the English Department alumni email and read about the current goings-on. There was a poetry slam at the Memorial Union. An alumnus had donated new tables for the Helen C. White building. That was good. Marie smiled at the memory of scribbling away at the shabby gray ones only a few years ago. And the writers’ workshop would begin that evening.
Marie had seen the same workshop advertised every year since she’d graduated. This was the third year in a row she knew she couldn’t go. It had been three years already since her cat short stories won wide acclaim at the South Central Wisconsin Literary Fair her senior year, three years since she thought her career as an author was about to take off. It hadn’t.
At the bottom of the email was alumni news. She scanned the text for familiar names and gasped upon reading, “Sarah Collins, novelist.” Sarah’s agonizingly long and depressing story during a creative writing class came to mind, as did her criticism of Marie’s upbeat tales. Tears stung her eyes. Sarah was living Marie’s dream. Marie searched online for Sarah’s book and found it instantly: Down and Out by Sarah Collins.
A thick sadness settled in. Marie was still unpublished. She had chosen instead to get married and stay at home with her son, who was a honeymoon baby. She thought she could be at home with Timmy and write but soon found it impossible. She had given up halfway through her first children’s chapter book. She looked longingly at the description of the writers’ workshop.
A steady rustling caught her attention. Timmy was pulling a hundred plastic grocery bags out of a cabinet. Marie could feel the one clean part of their small house slide into the same disorder that the other rooms had succumbed to. Overwhelmed by the mess, her gaze wandered back to the laptop.
Timmy was suddenly silent. As Marie turned to see why, another wave of morning sickness welled up. She started for the bathroom but saw that Timmy was clutching a glass shard. She must have missed it while cleaning up the tumbler she dropped that morning. Marie swooped down and plucked it from his hand, cutting hers, and her stomach turned. Timmy screamed and Marie threw up on the kitchen floor as her phone buzzed, a text from Dan saying that he was coming home from work early. Marie looked at her crying son and the bags, blood, and vomit on the floor and cried, too.
She’d just finished wiping up the vomit on the old linoleum floor when Dan’s car pulled into the driveway. Her heart sank. There was so much that she’d wanted to accomplish that day. All she had really done was eat a whole sleeve of crackers.
Timmy bounded over to her and pushed a piece of cereal into her mouth. “Best mama.”
Marie wrapped her arms around him and put his warm, soft cheek to hers. Her breathing slowed. She remembered that she was doing this for him.
Keys jingled at the front door. Dan walked in, wearing his new dress shirt and slacks. His styled blond hair and shining blue eyes looked just as bright as when he had left that morning, a telltale sign that he was loving his new job at a local marketing firm.
Timmy shrieked, tossed the cup of cereal, and ran to Dan.
“No, don’t throw—” Dan said as Timmy leapt into his arms. Dan looked over Timmy’s curly blond hair at the blood-streaked floor. “I heard about this on the news today.”
The tang of morning sickness threatened again. Marie paused until it passed. “I meant to go grocery shopping and clean the whole house,” she said, pushing a curl out of her eyes. “You know what I got done? Nothing. We’re having raisins and crackers for dinner.”
“Crackers!” Timmy shouted. He wiggled out of Dan’s hands.
Marie still knelt on the floor. The foul odor, her stomach, and parting with writing all made her want to cry, but it seemed like too much work. She didn’t move.
Dan helped her up and noticed the email open on her laptop. “You should do that.”
“The workshop? I’d love to, but I don’t think I can until this guy,” Marie put her hands on her midsection, “and that guy are in college. There’s no time for it now.”
Dan shook his head sadly and motioned toward Timmy, who was trying to carry his entire car collection, dropping three each time he picked up one. “He might not make it to college. Better not wait on him.” He grinned. “Go, but afterward you have to tell me how much better your story is than everyone else’s. Deal?”
Marie cried and threw her arms around Dan, who pivoted slightly to avoid her stained shirt.
The darkening sky behind the capitol building outside John Rueger’s office window alerted him that the workshop would be starting soon.
John had been working feverishly in his cramped office at Pennoyer Brown all afternoon in order to make it to the seven o’clock writers’ workshop on campus. He hoped he was the only one who showed up; he wanted the professor’s undivided attention and didn’t want to waste time reading other people’s embarrassing poetry or weird sci-fi.
John needed help with his legal thriller, Innocence Overruled. He’d cranked it out during summer nights at home when he couldn’t sit at his desk an instant longer, but was equally unable to mentally disengage from the partners’ incessant demands and the ticking of the billable hours clock. It was like in law school when he would fall asleep after a night of studying only to dream about civil procedure.
It was a risk leaving the office this early, especially as his sixth year was coming to an end. He was the highest-billing associate, having billed twenty-four hundred hours for the past five years and on track to finish strong again this year. Rumor had it that he was in the running for partner. But by the end of the week, he needed a little time out of the office before diving into a full weekend of work. He hoped the phone didn’t ring before he snuck out.
His mahogany desk was clear except for one file, a half-full University of Wisconsin Law School mug, a nineteen ninety-four Chicago Cubs bobblehead, and a picture of his brother Andrew and best friend Mathias in a canoe. John’s senses craved the sunshine and fresh air promised by next month’s annual camping trip with them. The air in his office was as foul and tacky as an airplane cabin at the end of an overnight flight.
He straightened the brief and placed it over the two prongs at the top of the file folder. The page holes didn’t line up. He aligned the holes, but the sides of the sheets swung out in different directions. His secretary Tara hadn’t punched the pages properly, the second time this week. He glared at the messy stack of papers. Sweat broke out on his back. Everything he handed to the partners needed to scream competence and dependability.
He could see Tara through the glass back wall of his office, surprised that she hadn’t left for the day yet. She was just out of college, beautiful, and constantly texting at her desk. The firm had hired her to assist the associates on his floor after the previous secretary had retired. It was still unclear to John if she actually assisted him at all or simply made his day harder. If he were made partner, he could hire his own secretary. It was time: associate life was killing him.
He glanced at the clock. Six forty-five. He had to leave. Deciding that bent edges would look more professional and less angry than ramming the prongs through the paper, he growled as he leaned on the file to crease the pages so that the cover lay flat. As he did, the floor seemed to rock underneath him, a recent development. His heart raced. He gripped the front of his desk until his equilibrium returned. He didn’t have time to get sick or whatever this was. He straightened his tie, logged his hours for the day, and then locked up. He handed the file to Tara on his way out.
She tossed her long brown hair behind her shoulder, kicking up a hint of perfume. “Going home already? I thought you guys stayed late.”
She was wearing a lot of lipstick and her question annoyed him. “I’ve got a meeting. But call me if Mr. Howard wants the status of the Wischill Mills acquisition.” She didn’t seem to be listening. John wrote down the instructions and slid the paper to her.
“I’m going home soon, but okay,” she said. “If I’m here, I’ll be sure to give you a call.”
John nodded slowly. “On my cell phone.”
Tara nodded slowly too. “Right. Can I have your number?”
He suppressed a yell. Did she really not have his cell phone number yet? What would have happened if they hadn’t had this conversation? Would she have left messages on his work phone? Would she have even noticed the phone ringing in the empty office? He snatched the paper from her and wrote his cell phone number at the bottom.
She pulled out her own phone and tapped something on it.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
“Putting you in my phone.” She looked confused. “In case I have to call you.”
“You can call from the office phone.” Would his office implode under her watch?
“Okay,” she said. She put her phone back on her desk.
“I have to go.” He tried not to run to the elevator bank.
“See you Monday,” Tara muttered. “Looking forward to it.”
John waited for the elevator doors to close behind him before swearing loudly.
The elevator stopped at the floor below. One of the senior partners, Mr. Harvey, and his client walked in. The client gave John a strange look as if he had overheard John’s outburst.
Mr. Harvey smiled and clapped John on the shoulder. It was obvious he had settled a lucrative case in his client’s favor earlier in the day. “There you are, John. Heading out early, I see.” Mr. Harvey laughed.
John managed a smile. “I am. Got a meeting to make.”
“That’s the spirit.” Mr. Harvey turned to his client. “George, this is John Rueger, one of our young guns. Don’t let his good looks fool you. He’s worked on some big cases for us this year. Not too long until he’ll be made partner.”
The older man nodded stiffly in John’s direction. John’s heart soared.
The elevator dinged on the first floor and opened. John bid the men good night and strode out into the soft evening air. Not too long indeed.
Paul Miller sat in his kitchen with a Milwaukee Brewers notebook, pencil, and empty diet dinner tray in front of him. He couldn’t believe he was going to let others—strangers—read his murder mystery series.
He drummed his grass-stained fingers nervously on the marble island. He was proud that his kitchen was as nice as his customers’; thanks to his wife Carol’s job, of course, not his. He looked out the bay window. Areas in the front yard needed edging. He would do that tomorrow. He mowed enough lawns today.
Paul thumbed the notebook he would take to the workshop. He hoped the people there liked his short stories. And if they did? Maybe this would be a new chapter of success. Carol might even be real proud of him. Their marriage had been rocky since their youngest son left for college last year.
He patted his belly. Losing a couple of pounds wouldn’t hurt either. He threw away the black plastic tray, oily from the three hundred calories’ worth of lemon chicken and vegetables. It was worse than venison that had turned. But he hadn’t overeaten like he usually did when eating alone, which seemed to be all the time now.
He checked his watch. Cripes. Carol still wasn’t home and he had to leave for the workshop. Blood rushed to his face. He was mad that she was late, but darn relieved too. As he hunted for the laptop he used for his writing, he heard the garage door open.
Carol walked in. “What’s that smell?” She wrinkled her nose.
Paul flushed again. “Supper.” His heart twisted. She hadn’t cooked him dinner in ages.
Carol watched as he gathered up his things. “When will you be home?”
“Probably ten minutes after you’ve gone to bed,” Paul muttered and started toward the door. He stopped. “I’m real sorry, Carol. I didn’t mean that.”
“You got that right.” She shot him a look that made him freeze. There was a new hardness in her blue eyes. Strands of silver hair in an otherwise blond ponytail glinted. He used to joke that she was so beautiful when she was angry. Lately, she’d just been looking angry.
Carol poured herself chardonnay from the box in the refrigerator. She took a long drink. “You’ve changed since Cole left.”
Paul felt his ears get hot. He’d gained twenty pounds in the last year. He was hoping to get back into shape before she said something about it.
Carol shook her head. “It’s too humiliating to even talk about—are you looking at porn?”
Paul’s face went red. He opened his mouth to protest, but Carol beat him to it. “You’ve been spending a lot of time with your computer and you take it into a separate room when you’re on it. I’ve been too ashamed to say anything. How could you do this to me?” Her eyes were wild.
“Good Lord, no! It’s not that—I swear!” He opened up the computer and turned it toward her. “These are my short stories. I didn’t want you to see them because they’re not done yet.”
She glared at him and then squinted at the screen. “Oh.”
Paul’s shoulders slumped. He had his faults, but that wasn’t one of them. Her accusation stung deep after twenty-five years of marriage.
She drained her wine then set the glass on the counter. “I’ve been seeing a coworker over lunch. He’s helping me process this.”
“But there’s nothing to process!” His blood froze as he imagined his college sweetheart out with someone else. “Who is it?” he asked before he realized it didn’t matter.
“David.” The other realtor at the firm.
Paul looked through Carol. “I’m going to my meeting.” He slammed the front door behind him as he left.
He sped away in his truck, his heart shrinking as fast as his house in the rearview mirror. Shock, disgust, and heartbreak whirled around in his chest. His life felt like a pile of leaves that might blow away at any minute.
Brian was prepared for no one to show. He would wait fifteen minutes, then head to the library to plug away at Tally Ho!
He eyed the empty black plastic chairs in Room 7103 of the Helen C. White building. They dotted the otherwise colorless tile, cinderblock walls, and tables arranged in a long rectangle meant to facilitate discussion. In years past, he had looked forward to these first meetings, getting to know the writers and their work. Sometimes the compositions were strange or simply unreadable, but more often than not they were brilliant. How such different people could have the same impulse to write used to amaze him. Now he dreaded the effort. What happened?
The wales of his corduroy blazer made a zipping sound as he crossed his arms to think. Early on in his career, his outlook had been bright. His first book had been published. He’d sold far less copies than he’d hoped to, but it was a start. He’d been proud to be a professor at such an outstanding university, even having proposed the creation of this workshop as a way to give back to the community. He’d thought that his career would soon explode; that his passion for writing would propel him to department chair, best-selling author, and celebrity status. His life would become an epic adventure like the ones he wrote about.
Instead, his second book tanked. Hoping it was a fluke, he wrote a third, which fared even worse. His agent wasn’t answering Brian’s emails. Then last year when a colleague was named department chair despite some hints that it might be Brian, it became clear that his career was plateauing and maybe even dipping. He began to lose interest in the daily grind. And he was still leading this workshop, which was originally intended as an assignment for the new instructors. Tally Ho! was a last-ditch effort to turbocharge his existence. If it didn’t work, he didn’t know what else would.
He looked out the back wall of large windows that displayed a wide view of campus and Lake Mendota. The setting sun glowed orange against the varied architecture. Cranes were parked near the business building that was getting a multimillion dollar facelift. The new tables and chairs were the English building’s renovation. He considered his own mediocre bank account, bleeding from a hefty downtown mortgage and daily takeout. He should’ve been an MBA.
Footsteps in the hallway made Brian jump. Someone was here.
An attractive but pale-faced woman in her early twenties appeared, her brown curls unruly from the wind.
“Hello,” Brian said, swallowing disappointment. There went his Friday evenings for the semester. “Come on in.” He smiled weakly.
The young woman froze, spun around, and dashed out.
He shook his head. “Writers.”
Brian stood alone in the empty room. Would she come back? Was she here for the workshop? Maybe not. Maybe he would have his Friday nights to himself after all. He looked out the window at the library.
Two minutes later the door opened again. This time a man wearing a fitted suit and holding a briefcase strode in. He was maybe thirty years old, at most. He had dark wavy hair, a chiseled face, and must have been lost. Had Brian seen him in a movie?
“Can I help you?” Brian asked.
“Is this the writers’ workshop?”
Oh boy. “It is. Please take a seat. We’ll be starting shortly.” Brian stifled a sigh.
“Thanks.” The man sat down and looked around. “Is it just us?”
The door creaked open.
The man huffed.
An elderly woman stopped in the doorway. Her white-blond hair was neatly bobbed and her clothes were expensive but tasteful: a patterned blazer over a crisp blouse and jeans. She flashed a smile at Brian. She must have been gorgeous when she was younger, which was quite some time ago. Would he have the energy to keep writing that late in life?
“Thank you for having me,” the woman said.
“Thank you for coming,” Brian made himself say as he helped her to a seat. She put an expensive-looking handbag on the table and sat down next to the man in the suit.
The woman looked into the man’s eyes and gasped. She reached for his hand and squeezed it. “I have to tell you—you look just like my late husband.”
The man squirmed and attempted a smile. He pretended to dig in his briefcase.
Brian dared not laugh.
There was another sound at the door. His workshop was filling up. Unbelievable. He’d never get Tally Ho! written at this rate. He raised his eyes and met a pair of bloodshot ones.
Looking to be about ten years older than Brian, the blotchy-faced man was heavyset and wore a thin camouflage jacket. He sat on the other side of the man in the suit and set a Brewers notebook on the table. The man pulled a candy bar from his pocket and ate it while looking at the floor.
The man in the suit loosened his tie and stared at his briefcase.
Brian searched in vain for something to say. Why had the man been crying?
The woman smiled at the red-faced man. “Those are my favorite. I keep them in my purse too.” She unwrapped the same candy bar and nibbled on it from the side of her mouth. “Scrumptious.”
The red-faced man laughed in spite of himself. “Yeah, they’re real good. I like them so much that I try not to eat them in front of my wife.” His smile disappeared. Big tears dropped onto his notebook.
The man in the suit ran his hand through his hair nervously. He opened his briefcase and produced a notebook with a Cubs logo emblazoned on the front.
The red-faced man blew his nose then noticed the man in the suit’s notebook. The red-faced man’s visage blackened. He picked up his things, walked to the opposite side of the table, and sat down.
Tension hung in the room as the men glared at each other. The elderly woman touched up her lipstick, unaware of the conflict. This was not the aging hippie, brooding college student mash-up of Brian’s previous workshops. What could he do to lighten the mood? He went with the first thing that came to mind. He leapt up from his chair and half-shouted, “Welcome!”
The red-faced man, the man in the suit, and the elderly woman jumped in their seats.
“Professor, you startled us.” The elderly woman rubbed lipstick off her cheek.
Brian’s face burned. “I’m sorry.” He glanced at the library. He could be deep in pirate lore right now, ensconced in the stacks, comfortable, enjoying himself. He cleared his throat. “I’m Professor Brian Harrington.” Just then, the young woman from earlier slipped into the classroom and sat near the elderly woman.
“Oh, hello there,” Brian said. “I was just saying that I’m Professor Brian Harrington of the creative writing department.”
The young woman smiled. “Professor Harrington! It’s so great to see you again. You might remember my maiden name: Przybyszewski.” She laughed. “I’m Marie Belle now.”
“Marie Przybyszewski, of course! While your last name was a little difficult to get through, your short stories never were.” He was relieved to see a friendly face. Marie had written a colorful collection told from the perspective of a widow’s many cats for her senior thesis, back when he still loved his job. “I’m sorry I didn’t recognize you.”
“Oh, that’s okay. Motherhood’s taken its toll,” Marie trailed off.
“You’re a mom now? Congratulations.”
Marie beamed. “Thanks! I’ve got a two-year-old and another one on the way.” Marie froze again. “I’m so sorry. Please excuse me.” She hurried out of the room.
Brian chuckled to himself, now understanding why Marie had left the first time. He glanced at the clock. It was a quarter after seven. Time to get on with it, come morning sickness, latecomers, or his own mid-life crisis. “Welcome. I started this fall semester workshop ten years ago. Each year has been better than the last, so I have high expectations,” he said mechanically, as if working from a script.
“We’ll read each others’ pieces and offer praise and perhaps some helpful criticism in order to produce our best possible work. Circle December twenty-second on your calendars. That’s when your stories need to be finished if you’d like to enter the winter contest of the local literary magazine, Madtown. The winner’s writing will be featured in the New Year’s edition. All of you are also invited to attend the regional literary fair in January,” he intoned.
The elderly woman raised her hand. “Would there be book agents at this literary fair?”
The man in the suit stole a look at her.
“There are indeed. We’ll get your writing agent-ready if you’re in the market for that.”
She nodded while the man in the suit looked at her, clearly impressed.
The door opened again. Marie tiptoed into the room and sat down.
“Marie, I was telling them about the literary fair. Do you remember when we went?”
“Oh, I do!” she said, struggling to get her coat off. “It was amazing meeting so many other authors, publishers, and agents.” Her smile faded.
“Marie didn’t mention that she was asked to read from her wonderful feline short stories.”
Did the man in the suit roll his eyes? “Let’s introduce ourselves. Later we’ll print out five copies of your work, one for yourself and one for the rest of us. We’ll pick one to read and critique for next week.”
“Professor Harrington?” The elderly woman raised her hand again. Her delicate watch slipped under her blazer sleeve.
“My novel is quite long,” she said.
The others glanced at each other.
“No problem at all,” said Brian. “I have serious printing privileges around here.” Unlimited copying was about the only perk he had. “Marie, would you start the introductions?”
“Sure. I’m Marie Belle. I was a creative writing major here at the UW. I thought that maybe I’d have a book written by now,” her dark eyelashes drooped, “but I don’t. It’s hard to find the time.” She touched the bandage around her finger.
“Good for you for coming tonight,” said the elderly woman. “And how wonderful that you have children. I wasn’t able to, but how I wish I could have.”
Marie smiled at the woman in earnest. “I hope that you all will be the encouragement I need to finish my children’s chapter book.”
Brian nodded at the red-faced man.
He pushed the candy wrapper into his pocket. “I’m Paul Miller.” His thick Wisconsin accent pierced the air. “I landscape. Got two sons in college, so I’m also broke.” The others, except the man in the suit, laughed politely. “Been working on some short stories. Murder mysteries. Hunting crimes.” He wiped his eyes.
What happened to Paul was the real mystery.
The man in the suit looked at Paul’s dirt-caked fingernails.
Paul noticed. “They take place outdoors—where real work gets done.”
The man in the suit straightened his tie.
“I can’t wait to read them,” said Brian nervously. He motioned to the man in the suit.
He cleared his throat. “I’m John Rueger. I’m an attorney at Pennoyer Brown. My novel, Innocence Overruled, is about a corporate lawyer who gets framed for embezzlement and stands trial in front of a corrupt judge. It’s a commentary on our justice system.”
Marie murmured quiet encouragement. Her curls bounced.
“Sounds long,” Paul said under his breath.
The elderly woman stared at John.
“Sounds great, John. I’m sure it’s a page-turner,” said Brian.
The elderly woman fluffed her hair. “My turn. I’m Harriet Bouché, or Hattie, as my mother called me. My late husband Frank was a history professor here many years ago.” Hattie’s gaze fell on John. “My novel’s about a history professor who goes missing after he uncovers a Nazi plot to steal the world’s art.”
John’s mouth fell open.
Paul whistled. “That sounds real good.”
Hattie smiled. “But it’s missing a title. Perhaps you can help.”
“We’d be happy to, Hattie, and your book sounds terrific,” said Brian. “The last thing to decide is the order in which we’ll read the pieces. How about we go the way we introduced ourselves: Marie, Paul, John, Hattie.”
Marie made an exaggerated nervous face. “Hope you like dogs.”
“Dogs?” asked Brian.
“It’s sort of a sequel to the cat stories,” she said.
“Excellent,” said Brian and noticed John’s stony look. Marie did, too. “Does anyone have any questions?” He didn’t wait for a response. “Before we print off our stories for the group to read in the coming weeks, I need everyone to write their names and email addresses on this.” Brian ripped a piece of paper out of his notebook and set it on the table. “Oh, and phone numbers, too, so that I can send a text if there’s a last-minute change or cancellation.” Like the rest of the semester.
The paper’s torn edge looked at Brian accusingly. He hadn’t had time the night before to set up the electronic forms. He would have to do that and get another email out to the group. Sloppy.
After they had written down their information, Brian gestured toward the hallway. “We’re off to the printers. Grab your thumb drives.” He used to love seeing the workshop pieces shoot out of the printers and the feel of the warm pages as he leafed through it all. Now every page was an obstacle to completing Tally Ho!
Brian held open the door. Marie took off down the hallway. Hattie peppered him with formatting questions. John stepped in front of Paul, who muttered, “After you.”
John spun around. “What is your problem?”
Paul straightened. “Think you’re better than me?”
“I didn’t say it.” John clenched his jaw and left.
Paul draped his jacket over his shoulder. “Didn’t think this day could get any worse.” He walked out of the room with his head low. Brian’s undershirt was damp with sweat. The business building caught his eye on the way out, still sparkling somehow in the evening shade. He sighed.
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