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Mini Sledgehammer: August 2010

We had a thin crowd here this month, but four of us here still had a good time writing. Congratulations to Elissa Nelson, whose story took home the prizes!

Character: a new neighbor
Setting: locked out
Action: playing the cello
Dialogue: “busier than a one-armed paper hanger”

Julie is writing frantically, with a nine a.m. deadline in the morning, nine a.m. east coast time so this really has to get done now. It’s one of those articles you take because you need the money, and then you think So this is making a living from my writing, using my gift, my talent.

She interviewed a woman who’s started what is essentially a pyramid scheme, but the woman, Phyllis Camera, calls it entrepreneurial, and it’s for WorkingLadies.com, so it’s entrepreneurial, it’s not a pyramid scheme. If it was for Fortune, or Ms., it might be about pyramid schemes and using feminism and capitalism to prey on poor mothers who feel they should be full-time moms and have successful careers, simultaneously. She could tell them that’s not possible, but nobody’s supposed to tell them it’s not possible.

Phyllis is an older lady, and no, her last name isn’t Camera, it’s McManus, but Camera goes better with her business concept, which is about using adorable photos of children and pets to create serieses of postcards for all occasions.

Julie is trying to wax super-positive about the postcards—the story will be accompanied by a selection of images, including several of children in sweet and homemade costumes ranging from bumble bee to carrot (with the green top, of course—she had to look it up because what do you call the green top part? carrot greens of course). She’s crafting a description that includes “entrepreneurial and forward-thinking, without losing the caring vision of a loving mother, the vision which makes Mrs. Camera’s postcards endearing and universal” when the doorbell rings.

She doesn’t answer it. It’s eight p.m., she plans to stop for dinner once she finishes the rough draft—seven hundred words to go—but she can’t answer the door right now, she’s as much in her groove as she ever gets when she’s doing this kind of work, she has to stay in the groove, shallow as it is. Any little thing could bump her out, way out—

But the doorbell rings again. And then it rings again. And then a voice she doesn’t recognize yells, “Hello? Hello? Sorry if it’s not a convenient time but it’s freezing out here and I’m your neighbor, please help!”

She keeps writing. There’s other neighbors, it’s not like they live out in the country. This is Portland.

The doorbell rings again. “Please, I just need to use your phone. Nobody’s home over to the other side and they didn’t answer the door across the street and when I peeked in I saw there was just a little kid and I didn’t want to make some little kid home alone open the door for a stranger so I just came here. I know you’re home, I can see you out the side window typin’ away. Type type type. Please. Give me two minutes, let me in and I’ll use the phone and then I’ll sit quiet and wait for the key guy.”

Julie gives up. She might get more done once she opens the door than she’s getting done now.

She opens it. There is a very tall woman standing there. She adjusts her view. She realizes you open the door for a woman looking within a certain range of vision, and she had it wrong, because this woman must be over six feet.

“Hi, I’m Lydia,” says the lady. “I’m your neighbor.”

“Hi, Lydia. I know. I heard. You need to use the phone. I’m Julie and I’m on deadline and I’m way behind so please come in and use the phone but I have to keep working or I won’t get any more work from this magazine and you know how times are.”

Shit. She said too much. “Magazine! Wow! What kind of magazine! Gosh, you’re a writer. That’s great. I used to be a writer. I won first prize in the prose essay contest in ninth grade, it was in the yearbook and everything. I got a hundred dollars for writing an ad slogan once too, that was just ten words—the maximum was twelve words, did you ever know those slogans have to be so short? The slogan—it was for this dog food company, you’ve probably never heard of them, they went under pretty soon after my ad ran but not before they paid me my money—the slogan was Even Johnny loves Carnivore, the all-meat food for dogs! And there’s a picture of my son and his dog, Petey, and the caption says, Johnny and his dog, Petey, and Petey’s eating out of his bowl, and Johnny’s eating out of the can, and you can see it says Carnivore.”

Julie’s been holding the phone out since the part about the yearbook.

“Lydia, that’s fascinating, and I’d love to hear more after I finish this article. But really, right now, I’m so sorry, here’s the phone and I have to get back to work. Just let yourself out when the locksmith gets here. We’ll have to have tea sometime soon.”

“Thanks Julie. Sorry, Julie. Except I don’t drink tea, I only tried that chai stuff once and I broke out in these disgusting hives, all over my body, seriously all over my body, and the doctor said it was because chai has tea in it, and sometimes people are allergic to tea, and hives are a common reaction—“

“I’m sorry, Lydia, I HAVE TO GO WORK.” Julie doesn’t want to raise her voice but it’s a natural reaction when someone doesn’t seem to hear you.

She gets back to the article, is writing about Phyllis’s first customers and how they became her business partners, when she realizes Lydia is talking again. “He said I’d be busier than a one-armed paper hanger and I’d never heard that expression before, I thought it was something dirty, I don’t know what I thought he said, but I clocked him with the arm I always use to clock people except this time it wasn’t just my arm, it was my arm in a cast. Anyway I play the cello all the time except I couldn’t hardly at all that summer. Eventually I figured out how to move my fingers around but—“ she shakes her head.

Julie keeps writing.

“I mean, what do you do, you play the cello, it’s your artistic outlet, your calling, what do you call it, your vocation, the thing you do that’s meaningful, and are you going to let a broken arm stop you? Tom said it was too bad I didn’t break my face, but I told him if he talked like that I’d put a restraining order on him, and he said maybe that way he’d get some peace, and his nose was bleeding the whole time because I’d hit him so hard, back-handed, which isn’t such a big deal when your arm’s not in a cast.”

“Lydia, I’m going to have to ask you to wait on the porch if you can’t be quiet.”

“It’s thirty degrees!”

“I have to get my work done.”

“I wasn’t bothering you! You were still typing away!”

“Lydia. There are some magazines on the coffee table in the living room. Please, take a seat in the living room—the couch is really comfortable, or the rocker—have a seat and peruse a magazine.”

“You’re trying to get rid of me.”

Julie does not answer. She keeps writing. “Of Phyllis’s first three business partners, Helen chose to retire after she made a hundred thousand dollars, since her husband is independently wealthy and they decided to move to their summer home in Martha’s Vineyard” (is it in Martha’s Vineyard or on Martha’s Vineyard? that’s a question for the second draft, Julie)

“What the hell kind of magazines are these? You don’t have anything with people on the covers. What’s that about? Not even National Geographic! What kind of magazines do you write for? What are these magazines that just list a bunch of titles?” Lydia is up in Julie’s face.

“Lydia. I need to work.”

“Where’s your TV?”

“I don’t have a TV.”

“You don’t have a TV? Then how do you know about anything at all?”

“Please wait on the porch.”

“I’m not waiting on the goddamn porch.”

Julie doesn’t even think about it—if she thought about it she probably wouldn’t have done it. She clocks Lydia, hard, with her arm which is not in a cast, but she doesn’t back-hand her, it’s a full out fist. She doesn’t think she ever did that before. Lydia’s nose starts bleeding. Julie raises her fist again. “Get out of my house before I call the police.”

Lydia backs toward the door. She spits at Julie and turns and runs.

Julie wipes the spit off with her sleeve, and goes back to her computer.

© 2010 Elissa Nelson

Elissa Nelson is a writer and teacher, currently completing her first novel. She has published fiction and nonfiction in publications including The Sun, Slate, and Seventeen magazine, in addition to making zines since the early ’90s, and she just finished her first zine since 2006: The Hundred Most Influential Writers in My Life to Date, As Best I Can Remember and Mostly Not Including Zines #1.


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