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  • J Hopkins

Read First Chapter of My Novel "Babe in the Woods," by Jude Hopkins, 11/4/23

“And she tried to fancy what the flame of a candle is like after the candle is blown out, for she could not remember ever having seen such a thing.” — Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Chapter 1 / Babe in the Woods by Jude Hopkins

September 1995

By the time Hadley reached the old Universalist Church, she was cold enough to have wished she had worn a winter coat instead of a raincoat. The fall evenings, as they wore on, were already turning chilly, electric-blanket chilly. That’s what single women with few illusions use to keep warm at night, she mused. That or a large dog who sleeps at the foot of the bed. Hadley had chosen the former for the sake of convenience. Blankets, after all, had a control setting and didn’t require letting out in the middle of the night.

Hadley Todd, thirty-five and tall-ish on the outside, and more than a little heartbroken on the inside, clomped down the church’s old wooden stairs.

A familiar voice rang out.

“’My God, Felicia,’ he said. ‘My God, I can’t get enough of you. You’re… you’re… absolutely ravishing.’ He mounted her in one fell swoop then expiated his masculinity in a—.” The voice stopped.

It was the latest torrid scene from the pen of Delores Malvern, local accountant and aspiring romance writer.

“Hadley?” Dr. Marsha Culpepper interrupted. “You’re just in time.” She pulled out a wooden Sunday school chair at a table low enough for a pre-teen. “Delores is reading a new chapter from her novel.”

Culpepper was the ringleader of the writing group because as the writing teacher at the nearest community college, she was the closest the group had to a pro. The rest of them, whose core members were rapidly dwindling with the onset of fall and its dark evenings, numbered only two, beside her and Culpepper.

“I’m sorry I interrupted.” Hadley scraped the chair across the hardwood floor. The basement smelled of must and crayons, a cask for generations of children who had sat at this table coloring pictures of Moses, Daniel, and Adam and Eve in splashy Pucci colors, oblivious to the spiritual weightiness of their subjects. Instead of the great Biblical cast, the now-abandoned church walls were filled with the one-dimensional feral characters sprung from the accountant’s fervid imagination.

“Go on, Dee,” Culpepper instructed.

“Hiya,” she said to Hadley, still keeping her index finger on the passage she’d just read.

“Delores?” Culpepper peered over her horn-rimmed glasses at the accountant. “Go ahead. Read more.”

“Let me see, where was—oh yes, ‘… gush of passion…’”

“Excuse me? But what exactly is a ‘gush of passion’?” The inquirer was Sal DeBrozzi, the town’s only plumber, a self-described “student of the arts,” and the other member of the group. He wrote frequent letters to the town’s newspaper, The Tillsdale Town Crier, about the need to establish some sort of civic society in the area. “The town’s cultural I.Q. should be ‘kicked up a few notches,’" he’d say, quoting his idol, Emeril. Tillsdale folks knew Sal did his part by whispering snippets of bad poetry in the ears of all the women he seduced, poetry he himself had penned, created through this self-same writing group.

Delores stared at him. She seemed rapt with attention whenever he spoke. “I think one’s imagination can figure it out without going into graphic detail.”

Sal shrugged. “Show, don’t tell. Isn’t that what you’re always saying, Marsha?”

Hadley stared at the group’s leader. Had there ever been anything between her and Sal? It was impossible to tell. Dr. Culpepper seemed so above any earthly desires, seemingly content to exist between the pages of a book. Her sensible clothing reflected her desire to remain above the coarser concerns of the world, her uniform of preference being an A-line tweed jumper hanging over a white turtleneck, dark brown tights, and loafers. Once she had worn patterned white tights with Mary Jane shoes to a meeting, and Hadley had deduced Sal was on the make. The return to her regular togs may well have indicated the affair had fizzled, never having led to the gush of passion Delores wrote about.

“I must agree with Dee. I think we can all let our several imaginations make the necessary leap.” Culpepper cleared her throat loudly before checking her watch and turning to Hadley. “Unfortunately, you’ve come so late, we’ve all but finished for the night.” Her tone couldn’t hide her displeasure. “We’ve started meeting an hour earlier now that fall is upon us.” She gazed heavenward at the flickering fluorescent lights.

Hadley was the errant child, transformed into one of her own high school students. Now she realized how they felt when reprimanded: shamed.

“Better late than never,” Sal said. He flashed Hadley a wide grin, exposing an uneven row of front teeth framed by long incisors giving him a vampire-like quality.

“But as long as you’re here,” Culpepper continued in a higher voice, “are you working on your—what was it? Short story?”

“Play.” Hadley corrected her.

“Play, yes, of course. How’s it coming?”

Hadley ran her index finger over the word “piss” that had been etched into the old wooden tabletop. Maybe joining the group hadn’t been such a good idea. It wasn’t the muse-prodder she had hoped it would be when she signed up. They were good people, nevertheless, and she liked being around new faces.

“It’s not. I thought it was, but…” She glanced around at the group. Sal sat with his arms folded across his chest, and Delores gave her a half-smile capped by a crinkly brow.

Culpepper now took a different tack, one delivered in her teacher’s voice. “You have to share your work to stay in the group. Those are the rules. Didn’t you get the letter about the time change and the rules?”

Sal leaned forward, his hairy forearms still intertwined. “To get, you gotta give, capisce? Same’s in life.” The chair creaked as he leaned back.

“I’m sorry. And, no, I didn’t get the letter. I came here tonight,” Hadley said, “because I was hoping you could help me. I’ve had a bout of writer’s block that, with a bit of a push, may be on the verge of breaking up.”

Delores squinted as if reading Hadley’s lips, then struggled to get up from the chair, her husky torso and short legs making her less limber than the long, lithe ladies she created. Once on her feet, she came over to Hadley, and hugged her. “Don’t you worry, honey. If you want, call me and we’ll talk.” She was too close; her breath was sour. “Funny, I never have writer’s block. Maybe together, we can get you working again. Maybe you’ll have a few pages for us by next week?” Delores nodded, first to her, then individually to the members of the group, as if to signal a group nod, like a wave in a football stadium.

Hadley smiled at Dee Dee’s heartfelt attempt to cheer her on.

After all, what could Hadley expect of them? This was no Learning Annex in Los Angeles, workshops where you could learn from industry professionals, a place for aspiring, ambitious writers to network and spur each other on—and hopefully make some connections. This was simply a well-meaning knot of small-town folks who wanted to push back the blandness of their lives, to enlist others to cheer them on so they might feel better about themselves than if they had been home watching inane reality shows all evening. That, in itself, was admirable. But if she wanted inspiration and support, Hadley realized, then and there, she’d have to provide it herself. She hoped her personal rejuvenation would go well even though her nuclear family had imploded with atomic proportions while she had been in L.A. for the past decade. Oh, sure, she intended to go back there one day. But this time, she’d go back a lot more triumphant than when she’d left it.

“Delores is right. We’ll do all we can to help you, won’t we?” Culpepper said, dropping any hint of recriminations.

Sal muttered a “Why, sure,” as he unfolded his arms and uncrossed his legs. Hadley imagined how he’d spent the day cramped up in crawl spaces staring at pipes and the underside of weary housewives. It was time to leave.

“So, it’s agreed. Hadley will have the floor for next week’s meeting. Bring what you have, and the whole meeting will be devoted to you.” Culpepper appeared to force a smile. Her mouth had square parameters, like a robot’s. “By the way, what’s your play about?”

Hadley’s gaze went from one set of eyes to another. They regarded her with interest. “It’s about loss of innocence. When exactly we lose—women, that is—when we inevitably fall into disillusionment and despair. I want to know the exact moment before we lose our illusions about romantic love.”

An awkward silence ensued. Nature filled the vacuum with the sound of wind swirling through every gap in the old brick building, as well as the ancient pipe organ a floor above. It seemed to Hadley this moment of non-speaking was fitting, given that all Sunday school lessons delivered in this room deserved reflection.

Had she made them think?


Walking back to her car, Hadley mulled over her all-consuming desire to write this play. She wanted, first of all, to figure out why she—and many other girls and women—were attracted to the same type of guy over and over, the ones who always seemed to break her heart. Sure, she understood the initial attraction, but why stay when they proved to be veritable will-o’-the-wisps in terms of faithfulness? Why did women cede their romantic innocence to these heartbreakers? Weren’t there clues they should watch for? Once figured out, she could educate the female sex in her play, including that decisive moment when girls unwittingly stepped into the muck with their kitten heels only to find them irretrievably stuck. She would break the code. And it would be there in black and white, to be read, re-read, and acted out on stage. That would be Hadley’s mission.

And, most of all, by writing the play, Hadley herself would avoid these blackguards once and for all. Like Derek, her ex-boyfriend from L.A, a walking heart smasher. She once overheard him talking on the phone to God knows who: “She’s old. She can’t put up with this much longer.” Old? Maybe thirty, thirty-one at the time? What a bastard! OK, he was a good five years younger, but that didn’t make her old! She’d show him. She’d write her play and have it staged while he still flirted with younger women who might be interested in him until they found out he had everything but money.

But it had stung, the insult and his subsequent leaving. It had been etched into her soul, the opposite of lovers’ monograms carved into trees. Both, however, seemed permanent. She had believed Derek to be the real thing, laughing with her, putting his muscular arms around her, saying he loved her and always would. She fell hard for him when he seemed to adore her sense of humor, the books she had in her bookcase, the way she could imitate any female celebrity. She missed that. And she wanted to be in love—and loved back.

As she’d flown back home last year, she thought of how tucked away it was in spite of the “N.Y.” in the address. If the Midwest was called the fly-over states, what was western New York state? It was more the buckle-up-and-secure-trays-onto-back-of-seats part of the country. It seemed like the perfect place to think and write, what with the slow pace and all the damn trees. In returning home, she hoped she could become the writer she believed herself to be instead of the high school English teacher she was. This much different environment, she had surmised, would be more conducive to writing given that Tillsdale did not have memories of Derek on every corner as did the City of Angels. So, in truth, home was an escape, too.

Yet, the writing wasn’t forthcoming. Writing the play was proving difficult. Writer’s block, she had come to find out, can be a stowaway, no matter where you go.

And then, there was the self-imposed deadline. She’d given herself five years before the millennium. She’d have to get something accomplished before her 40th birthday or the world blows up. It’d be all over then. Either way.

The chill she’d felt upon arriving had now turned into cold. The bursts of late summer weather in the daytime would only last a few more weeks in Tillsdale. Like all upstate cities, its winters were rough—impassable roads, bitter wind—and its summers so hot and humid that blow-drying one’s hair was as futile as finding a decent bagel. It was, above all, not a town of pretense: The elements always exposed a person first.

Perhaps that’s why L.A. remained so inscrutable. Weather, she concluded, made people real.

And she was real all right.

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