Friday, July 15, 2016

The Twist.

You were well into your tenure at the Professional Writing Program at USC and as the leader of the late night fiction workshop for the Santa Barbara Writers' Conference, owned and run by your great pal, Barnaby Conrad. Your classrooms at USC changed from room to room and, in fact, building to building, depending on University whim and, to a degree, on the amount of money via enrollments your department brought in.


As long as the Writers' Conference remained at the fabled, blue-roofed Hotel Miramar, your classroom met in the huge, cavernous basement under the auditorium, beginning at 9 p.m., after the main speaker finished up,often lasting until three or four the following morning.

In addition to the regulars who were enrolled at the Conference, you never knew who would show up to visit, hangout, and in one way or another take part in those long, energetic workshops. Sometimes writer friends, other times students from USC, on occasion editor friends, and on one particular night, when you looked up to see a flinty, graying individual pushing his way through middle age like an eager Christmas shopper the day after Thanksgiving. He wore a rumpled tan suit, a conspicuously awful, heavily patterned tie, and a tan fedora.

Only cops wore fedoras by that time, indeed not Santa Barbara cops, LA cops.  He waved and you stood, thinking to greet him closer at hand.  He waved you to your seat. "Just checking catch you in action," he said.  "You could maybe come down next week, we could have a steak sandwich and a beer or so."

By "coming down," he meant not only L.A, but Taylor's Steak House, on Eighth Avenue between Vermont and Western, where you'd be the one civilian among a horde of LAPD's fines uniforms and suits, referred to variously as Th' (as opposed to the) Librul (as opposed to Liberal) and your respect for the then Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court, Rose Byrd, was well known.

"I could in fact," you said.

"Well then," he said. 

"Well then," you said. "Tuesday?"

"Tuesday.'  And he was gone.

Someone, curious, said, "Who was that masked man? Obviously a cop."

"Indeed," you said.

Indeed. The number on his LAPD detective's badge was #1. He was John St. John, your cop friend, just as you were his writer friend, the given for him being that a writer would be a liberal if not a pinko. "Every man ought to have a cop friend," he said once at the Code Six, a serious drinking establishment across the street from the Parker Center in downtown LA.  "Every man ought to have a writer friend," you said.

"Finish up," he said, "and I'll show you the latest dump site. Gruesome find. Got to catch that fucker. Leaves his victims in dumpsters."

One of your ongoing topics of discussion with St. John was motive. You, who were struggling with being plausible about writing of murders in the mysteries you hoped to complete, couldn't see why an individual would kill another.

"Mostly jealousy," St. John said. He spoke of men who killed other men because the other men had made moves on their women and the women had been encouraging.  "You kill the source that threatens to take away something of yours. Maybe, in some cases, a man will kill another man to prevent him from telling the world about his secret."

But even more important, one night, when you'd stopped at Taylor's after class, needing a steak sandwich and Molly (a quarter of a head of iceburg lettuce, drenched in blue cheese dressing). "You want to write mystery, you got to find your character's twist. Everyone has a twist."

"Twist?"

"Yeah. A Thing. A Weakness he can't control."

"So if you can control it, it isn't a twist?"

"You could say that," St. John said. "Your twist, you're a Librul."

"What's yours?"

"Who said I had one?"  St. John said.  "Say. If you're not going to finish those French fries--"


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