“Mysteries,” says the sign above the shelves. From rows of books below, John Parker removes one hardback, examines the cover, opens to a page, not the first page. He reads a few lines, riffles to another page, reads more.
His hair is thinning; some red, some gray. Wire-rimmed glasses, aqua sweater, gray trousers.
His watch tells him 6:45. This Mission Hills branch stays open tonight — it’s Monday. He slaps the book closed, reshelves it, glances to his left. The library is almost deserted. Tiny voices — two or three — from the children’s section, Washington Street traffic, just outside the door. Washed-out light through high windows. For a moment, nothing happens.
John sees the door swing open. Two women, under 40, walk in, turn left into the children’s section. Each carries a purse, a book. They reach a certain table near John, seat themselves.
John turns back to the shelves, lifts an arm, aiming for another book.
Two months ago, John read a posted bulletin in the Mission Hills branch public library. The library was seeking a qualified volunteer to lead its monthly book discussion group. The senior librarian, who launched the enterprise four years ago, hadn’t time enough for its proper management. John Parker — accountant, part-time poet — stepped forward and was enlisted.
At John’s first meeting with the group, he passed out nametags. For that month’s reading assignment, to prepare for tonight’s discussion, they chose The Rules of Life, by English novelist Fay Weldon. Some members had read other Weldon novels, like The Heart of the Country and The Shrapnel Academy. John spread notice of the choice with a pile of homemade fliers, set on the library’s checkout counter, inviting the public to attend tonight’s meeting.
Nearly 7:00. John sits at the head of two child-sized tables butted end to end. Photocopied pages from The Rules of Life rest on his notepad. Joan and John F. sit to his left; to his right Patty, Lee, Lucy, and Doris.
Lucy and Lee, the early arrivals, chat quietly. The two, along with John F., are longtime regulars. The rest are first-timers.
“Okay,” says John, “I think we can start.” He places palms on the table. “Will everyone give me their first reaction to Fay Weldon?”
Lee glances at Lucy, turns to John, shows thumbs down. “No way!” she says.
“I agree, John,” says Lucy. “Left me so cold.” Lucy wears glasses and a gray sweatshirt. “I felt like throwing the book out the window. I’m, like, ‘Who publishes this?’ ” Shakes her head. “John, I’ve also read Heart of the Country, and it just meandered on and on about this divorced woman sleepin’ around with one guy, and her friend’s sleepin’ around with another guy, and half their crowd were on the dole.”
“Well,” says Lee, “I also read The Shrapnel Academy.” She wears a shirt and slacks. Has a pixie’s voice. “It takes place in a graduate school for military officers; and these people have a banquet on the anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo. There are supposed to be ten servants living downstairs, but actually a hundred are living down there, and they’re plotting against the bourgeois people upstairs. One of them brought their dog, so at the climax of the novel, they disembowel the dog and grind him up and make pâté and serve it as a midnight feast. Anyway, it ends up the whole place blows up from a bomb one of ’em has invented. It was a great ending, but —” she inhales, cocks her head — “it was bizarre.”
“I have a question.” Joan looks 50. Dark skin, black hair, high nasal voice. “What does the laundry mean?” she asks John. (The assigned book’s central character is obsessed with laundry.)
John is distracted; he sees a long-skirted woman approach the far table. “Hi. You’re new, and you are…?”
“Jane,” she says, seating herself on the end. She’s middle-aged, with severe eyeliner, polished nails.
“Jane? Did you read this assignment, Jane?”
“I missed,” Jane starts, unsurely, “the point of it all.”
In unison, the others explode into laughter.
As convulsions ebb, Lee says, “Her writing is very precise. In The Shrapnel Academy, she has these fantastic things — plot, counterplot. It takes technical expertise to manage bizarre characters and somehow get them to interrelate, and I thought blowing up was a nice way to finish.”
“John, did you like it?” asks Lucy.
John smiles. “Oh, I love The Shrapnel Academy.”
“Didn’t it bother your stomach when they were cuttin’ that dog?” she asks.
“I think your stomach should be bothered once in a while,” he says.
“So,” Lucy wonders, “what was the point of Heart of the Country? These people are all unhappy and all on the dole and all divorced and messin’ around.”
“It’s a rather inaccurate picture of life in England,” replies John.
“But then,” says Lucy, “all this weird stuff — in another novel, this woman is writing the book from the nuthouse because she’d killed this other woman on this funky float?”
“I find that is what life is like,” John says, soothing his temple. “Maybe you live in a different world than I do.”
Lucy stares ahead. “I don’t know about your world,” she says softly, “but life isn’t like that in La Mesa.”
“Anyway,” John concludes. He searches his sheaf of photocopies, pulls one out. “What do we think of this?” John reads, “ ‘One of the great rewards of my life has been the discovery that there is always a better lover than the last.’ ”
Finally, Lee says, “I haven’t discovered it.”
Faces mask emotion.
“It’s a possibility,” she adds.
Lucy half whispers, “I couldn’t say that; I’m monogamous.”
“It might be that you learn —” Joan wavers. “As you grow older, you learn more, and you appreciate more, and so” — her eyes search for help — “what makes a good lover is what you think about the person? Or.…”
John F. — around 40, bearded, shirt and tie — speaks for the first time. His words are nearly inaudible. “Some people just live in the present, and the present’s always there in the past.”
Group leader John scans faces around the table. “No one else got any experience from this?” He fixes on Patty’s nervous features. Sixtyish, straight gray hair, faint-voiced; she forces a smile. “Not” — her voice cracks — “to share.”
John relents, returns to his photocopies. “Now what about this.” He holds a page before him. “This is the scene in your library, and she writes, ‘The year was 1956. Now in those days it was considered very unhealthy for men, physically and mentally, to be sexually aroused and then not satisfied.’ ” John’s speech is rapid, murmurous, like flowing water. “ ‘Men were convinced of it, naturally, and women quite seriously believed it. As for self-satisfaction, that was out of the question since — as some said — it made a man blind, or at the very least — as others said — it rendered a man impotent. So once a girl had, as it were, aroused and excited a man (and she could do that simply by existing, let alone standing staring up at him in a warmly glowing library in a blue and white checked dress, so virginal as to challenge a man’s virility) it was her duty to satisfy that need.’ ” John raises his eyes. “No one ever heard that? I heard that all the time in the 1950s.”
Doris — fiftyish, pale blonde, neatly coiffed — says, “Only from the boys I dated.”
Joan concurs. “Oh, yes, men did say that.”
“It’s a good line,” says Lee, smiling.
“It was a famous joke about a guy on a plane,” says John, “and he would say to the hostess” — with a growl — “ ‘If I don’t have sex, I’m going to die.’ It was a joke among men all the time, and apparently a lot of men still, uh.…”
“Try that line,” says Lee.
John has another excerpt. “It says, ‘Of all things, boredom is the most aging.’ ”
“Well,” John says, “I know so many people who have gotten old being bored. Mostly wives. You can see it in their faces after five years of marriage.”
Joan sounds an aww, as one might on seeing a furry puppy.
“So what is the point of the book?” Lee asks John. “I mean, what is she doing with this clever writing of hers?”
“What do you think she’s doing?”
“Well, I don’t know. I wonder if perhaps her whole point isn’t to make fun of society. The Shrapnel Academy certainly takes the military upper crust in England and shows the absurdity; but also, the people trying to overthrow that — she shows how useless that will be — you know, everybody will be blown up. So okay. But then, in The Life and Loves of a She-Devil, what is she railing against there?”
Lee has only heard about this Weldon novel; Joan has read it and offers a summary. “Well, it’s about a very homely, awkward woman who loses her husband to a very beautiful woman and how she got her revenge. No sweet understanding: she made their lives absolutely miserable.”
“Roseanne Barr,” says John. “We all know who she is? The woman who’s proven that fat is in? She’s gonna make a movie out of this. As for Fay — she is the heroine of her own books, and this is her revenge. There’s a picture of her in one of her early books - she is a blimp.” Joan takes her copy of The Rules of Life, finds Weldon’s photo, but John tells her, “You don’t see it there; there she’s thinned down.” John reaches over, taps the photo. “But this is her.”
“This is Fay,” says Joan.
“This is her,” says John, “fighting against a world that doesn’t like fat women. These plots are her little fantasies. Obviously, some man did her wrong…”
“Must have,” Lucy whispers.
“…and went off with another woman, and this is her: Fay is the she-devil. Just huge — or she was. And fairly plain, at that time, and she was just writing it all out and getting even with this brute who’s probably responsible for her literary success.”
Lucy is transfixed. “Must have gotten dumped really bad.”
“I’m happy to hear that all you women are quite satisfied with the record of men.” John wonders at the cool response to Weldon. “I mean, no one here seems to find that a man ever done her wrong.”
A woman — mid-30s, shirt and jeans — appears at the table, standing behind Lee.
“We have a latecomer,” John announces. “You are…?”
She says, “Joan,” drags a little chair between Lee and Lucy, sits down. This Joan, Joan W., is a veteran attendee.
“Joan, you want to put a word in about Fay Weldon?” John asks. “Everyone else hates her.”
“I found myself wondering,” she says, “if I’m mixing my reds and whites in life — is that why my laundry looks pink?”
“Well,” says John, after a pause, “I think we’ve finished with Fay. No way for Fay, okay?” He puts photocopies aside. “So what next? One suggestion I have is Barbara Pym, who has been called today’s Jane Austen. She writes about spinsters — gray little ladies on the margin of life. They’re usually involved with clergymen, who are not very exciting as men.”
Joan W. asks, “What about science fiction?”
John looks at John F. “He’s the expert.”
“I never got into it,” Joan W. says.
“Me neither,” Joan says.
“I tried once,” Lee says.
Quietly, John F. states his case. “As you get older, it’s harder to find new ideas, because you’ve heard it all before. The reason I like science fiction: It has more new ideas per page than anything else.”
Joan W. says, “I was intrigued by a tape I checked out. Basically, the story started before birth; then the two characters are born, and they fall in love, and they meet in the afterlife. It’s called Forever.”
John looks at her. “Do you really want that kind of world? Like that coffee commercial, where she knows her brother?” He mimics in falsetto, “ ‘Didn’t he have the nicest blue eyes?’ Ever see that one?”
“Oh, yeah,” says Lee, “the girl is moving into the room.”
“She moves in,” John says, “and the other one is wearing the…”
“Oh, the T-shirt!” says Lee.
“…beautiful T-shirt, and it turns out she used to date her brother or something like that.”
A chorus of appreciative uh-huhs.
“Well, we haven’t heard from the rest of the table,” John says. “Doris, tell us what you think.”
“Well,” she begins, “I don’t read what you’d call ‘women’s books’: Barbara Cartland and those type. But I do like Daphne Demure, Taylor Caldwell — now, with her, you deal with life as it really is, so you couldn’t call it a women’s book.”
“We’re not restricting ourselves to one area,” John says. “I just recommend women’s books ’cause I’m a provocateur.” He chortles; Lee giggles. “Other suggestions?” He looks at John F. “John, you have any strong preferences?”
John F. utters a tiny “No.”
“Do you have any strong feelings about anything, John?” Group leader laughs.
Joan wonders, “You ever read Joyce Carol Oates? She makes Fay look normal.”
“Joyce Carol Oates was a good poet,” says John. “Now she’s a bad writer.”
“John,” Lucy admonishes.
“Today,” says John, “I was reading The American Poetry Review. Had an article on South American poetry, and there are very few women poets. It’s not a matter of getting it published, because in South America they’ll just about publish anything.”
Joan W. says, “The family read a wonderful thing by Dean Koontz, called the Oddkins. It’s a fairy tale for all ages, about stuffed animals — good animals and bad animals. Just fascinating. I had to leave town, and my husband continued to read it to the kids, and I would call every other night and say, ‘Now what happened? What happened?’ ” Laughter all around. “It’s got beautiful colored pictures like a perfect fairy tale. Realistic, too! I was very worried about that teddy bear. It was wonderful. I just found another one by him that — that seems —” she stumbles, looks troubled. “Total opposite. It — it almost sounds like — satanic.”
Fifteen minutes later the group chooses a John Mortimer novel as the next assignment.
“I’ll go along with that,” says John. “I’m not one of those bossy men.” He gathers his materials. “So we’re all set, and we’ll meet here in a month.”
Slowly, a swell of chatter builds over the table, as it becomes host to several conversations.
“…find me a new genre. Sydney’s been working on me with biographies. That was eight months ago.…”
“I’ve certainly been broadened.…”
“…better dream nutrients.…”
“…remember that Hemingway jag? Lucy and I — we didn’t like it. It was those two bizarre women, who were not representative of our sex.…”
John gets up, papers in hand.
“…a real ugly sleeper.…”
“…Maybe I’ve achieved too much.…”
John walks to Lee’s chair. She looks up. The others, gabbing briskly, are oblivious. He points to her copy of The Rules of Life. “So why’d you think I liked this book so much?”
“No, no!” says Lee. “It’s just — I thought —”
“Just like me — is that it?”
“No, John, it was just…different enough. Maybe that’s your mistake — you’re tryin’ to find a women’s book. And maybe you don’t understand.”
John’s gaze searches the table; no one is listening.
“I’ve never claimed to understand women.”
“Good,” says Lee, “good.”
John steps back.
“Both my wives told me that.”
He walks away, out of the children’s section, toward the door.
“…Well, she started out as just a real pushy woman and forced this guy to teach her how to cook, and she eventually cooked for the Candy King, who decided that she was so good she’d be his mistress. She finally got rid of him but then started this hotel and got killed.…”