So imagine this: The club is packed. Standing room only. Stuffy, unbreathable air. Candlelit tables. The sounds of clinking glass, talking, and laughter. All these people have come to hear four authors read their work for Opium's Literary Death Match. They're lining the walls, sitting on the floor, perched on the bar. I squeeze through the crowd to greet friends that have come to the reading. It fills me with pride and hope to see that so many people care about writing and have chosen to spend their evening this way. There must be two hundred!
Soon the MCs come on stage and announce the judges, who take their seats. Comedy queen Melanie Case, editorial gurus Andrew Leland (The Believer), and James Hass (The Farallon Review). There is applause. And then the readings begin.
Jaynel Attolini, reading from Six-Word Memoirs on Love and Heartbreak, is first up. She’s hot. Young. Beautiful. Funny. The crowd loves her. I listen to her story from the green room, along with fellow writer Katie Crouch, who is pounding a martini, and new novelist Rhodes Fishburne, who is chuckling amiably with Katie, and we all agree that Jaynel is great and will be hard to beat. I’m jittery. I want to pound a martini too, but I’m afraid it’ll make me feel dopey. So I gulp down half a beer, borrowed from a friend who visits me in the green room.
Katie, reading for Tin House, goes onstage and is amazing. She plays the crowd. She’s relaxed, her writing is dynamic, quirky, and unpredictable. She’s got personality. Her voice, writing, and demeanor are highly entertaining. She ends up winning that round.
Round two. Here comes Rhodes, author of Going to See the Elephant. He seems born for the stage. He’s handsome and cool and polished. Opens his novel, and reads an excerpt with flawless articulation and engaging energy. I’m impressed. I laugh at several parts and think, “Damn! I gotta read his book.” The crowd goes wild. He’s a hard act to follow.
So then the hostess announces me, the author for Memoir (and), and I walk to the microphone. I honestly feel like I’m in third grade, standing before the whole school to read a story I wrote for English class. The crowd is silent. I lean toward the microphone and say what I prepared to say, in a weak, trembling voice. “This is a true story. It’s about my first love. I cried while I was writing it. It’s called FLEA SPIT.” I take a deep breath. I begin to read.
“He runs. He always runs. From the fleas that make him crazy. From the sting of their bites. From the tickle of their crawling. He runs to cool the heat of his skin, to throw off the invisible enemy playing at the roots of his hair. He does not know the fearsome sight he creates when he runs. He simply runs.
His name is Beau, meaning beautiful in French.
The irony was accidental. He was beautiful when I named him three years ago—when he was a bumbling comedy act of a mixed-breed puppy, and I was a love-struck fourteen year old. But then he grew. His roundness took on edges; his black coat lost its sheen; his testicles ballooned and hung low. Beautiful evolved into charming. Charming into peculiar. Peculiar into homely. Homely into ugly. The chubby fur ball with droopy ears disappeared and a different dog took his place: a bull-chested, bony-legged, long-tailed mutt with a shocking case of mange.”
I gather courage as I go along. After all, I know this story backwards and forwards. It’s about my dog. He’s a part of me. His memory is alive within me. I feel like I'm introducing him to everyone. And that they're bound to love him. To my surprise, people laugh. Someone whistles at some point. I catch sight of several faces in the audience. Their expressions show intrigue, curiosity, amusement. I think to myself, Hey! This is cool! They like my story! I end with a bang. The audience cheers. Andrew, the literary content judge, says, “You fucking deserved to cry while you wrote that story.” And I end up winning that round.
Next comes the surprise part. The showdown. No, not another reading (which is what I was prepared for). But a contest between Katie and me, to see who can last the longest reading Shakespeare’s soliloquy from Hamlet (“To be or not to be”) while. . . hoola hooping! I hadn't hoola hooped since I was about twelve, and to do it now, on stage before two hundred people, while reading Hamlet. . . I went to get my reading glasses.
Somehow (I don’t know how), I manage to get through three or four lines (and about eight hoola twirls) when Katie, who’d only managed one or two, comes after me from off-stage and wrestles the hoop from me. The crowd is roaring, someone yells, “Hey! It's Tanya Harding!” and the competition is over.
I can’t say I’m proud to have won the literary crown over a hoola hooping contest, but the fact is I did. And I walked around the Mission with friends half the night wearing the crown. And I sat in bars and ordered Chimays wearing it. And all night people called me Queen. And now the crown is sitting on my shelf. So whether it was fair or not, I’m just glad I can still swing my hips!
If you're in the mood, watch the judges do their thing on my "media" page!
Causes Veronica Chater Supports
Sierra Club; Public Library; Public Schools; Crowden Music Center; Women's Cancer Resource Center; Democratic Party