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Murder in the Collective
A Pam Nilsen Mystery
By Barbara Wilson
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1984 Barbara Wilson
All rights reserved.
IT WAS EARLY JUNE and raining hard. Outside the print shop where our collective was having its weekly Tuesday night meeting, the Northwest storm lashed against the brick buildings of Pioneer Square, driving the bums out of their doorways into skid row missions and shelters. Through the front window I could see dirty water rushing down the gutters, propelling the empty green Thunderbird wine bottles along the street. The weather forecasters had been gamely predicting sunshine and rising temperatures for days now; no one believed them. It was going to be another soggy Seattle summer.
"The point is ..." someone was saying.
I wasn't exactly bored. Just finding it hard to get into the spirit of things. But as facilitator of this week's meeting I was supposed to be on my toes, keeping one person from talking too much, another from trailing off before she/he had made her/his point; circumventing useless conflict while encouraging problem resolution. It was something I was usually good at: understanding what people meant even when they were floundering. I would have made a good speech therapist, my twin sister Penny used to say.
"You seem to be able to make sense out of total gibberish—you hear meaningful sounds when I just hear nonsense ... it's amazing."
My sister, with the great sense of humor.
Maybe it was the weather, maybe it was just a symptom of the burnout common to all groups that are under-capitalized and over-idealistic. I was tired of hearing the same vague gripes over and over, but I didn't have the energy to do anything about it. Instead of gently but firmly cutting speakers off or trying to channel their complaints and charges into constructive criticism, I found myself just watching my co-workers as they talked.
First of all there was our twenty-five-year-old cameraman, Jeremy, rambling on about the poor quality of the new paper plates we were using on the press. He was small and thin, anemically good-looking with blond ringlets, earrings and torn tee-shirt revealing a skinny bare chest. He'd removed his Sony Walkman for the occasion, but the absence of music in his ears hadn't improved his coherence. "You know, I mean, it's like ... those paper plates ... they're just not up to...." Not that he didn't have some good things to say from time to time, but his thoughts were swathed in such soft blankets of disclaimers and fillers that they usually died of suffocation before they were lifted out of the mental crib.
June, breaking in impatiently, was actually somewhat like Jeremy—in the way a 78 rpm recording is like a 33 1/3. "Fine on the press.... What do you mean? ... Color registration perfect. No complaints from this end whatsoever."
June was Black, twenty-three, widowed, with two children. Her tough, little, flat-chested body and closely-cut Afro gave her an air of invincible efficiency; she was perfectly suited to the dangerous sports she loved: mountain-climbing, skydiving and white-water rafting. She also grew roses and wrote poetry and had helped all of us fix our cars at one time or another. She ran the press and she knew it inside out. "Those plates hold their position just fine!"
"Yes, but ..." Jeremy persisted, shaking his curls and earrings, "I mean, June, come on...."
I couldn't help sighing.
Four years ago Penny's and my parents died in a car accident while we were both in graduate school, leaving us Best Printing—a fully equipped print shop, a long lease and twenty years of business good will in the community. Instead of selling everything, as we were advised, and using the money for further studies (Penny was just starting a doctorate in biochemistry; I was finishing my Master's thesis on the Seattle General Strike of 1917), we decided to turn the shop over to a group of activists, to be used as a center for printing up political posters, flyers and books.
We hadn't meant to get involved at all.
Now, watching Penny writhe in her chair, and listening to June and Jeremy bicker about the paper plates, I still wondered why we had gotten involved, and whether we'd given up our academic futures for nothing.
Penny winked at me and blew out her cheeks like a pig, the same trick that had made me smile for years.
According to our parents and to the evidence of early photographs, Penny and I had started out our lives as identical twins. But something had happened along the way, and by the time both of us reached our present age of twenty-nine and a half, we hardly even looked like sisters, much less women originally from the same egg.
Penny had short brown hair, cut punky and spiky, unlike mine, still nostalgically long and French-braided back from my forehead. She wore glasses with hot purple frames that made the upper part of her face look both more sophisticated and more mischievous than mine, seriously bespectacled with wire rims. Perhaps because of the glasses our lower faces looked different too; my small lenses made my mouth seem wider, my nose longer and my chin more prominent, while Penny's top-heavy frames left only a little room for the rest of her face, with its small pointed chin and mouth curling up like a wisp of pink smoke.
Delightfully witty words could come out of that mouth, but also ferocious ones. She never scrupled when it came to laying the blame. For that reason many people professed to be afraid of her. Penny was the office manager and resident bookkeeper—some said resident Scrooge.
"This discussion is really useless," she was saying now. "We've got two boxes of the new plates to use up. It'll take us weeks."
"Yes, can we change the subject now?" Ray appealed to me impatiently. "We need to decide what to do about that flyer for the Nicaragua group. Are we going to let them have it for free or not?"
"At a discount," said Penny. "We can't just give away our labor all the time, no matter how deserving they are."
"But they're just getting off the ground, they don't have a dime," Ray burst out, and they were off.
I spaced out again. We must have had this same discussion fifty-two times in the past year and I knew the outcome already. If the group could come up with money for paper, we'd donate the printing. It was what we usually did, and probably the main reason for our financial precariousness. Penny always grumbled, "No one goes into the local alternative restaurant and says, 'Hi, I think the U.S. should get out of Central America—can I have a free bowl of soup, please?'," but for Ray every plea from a new organization was a personal soapbox issue, a forum for his own political beliefs.
"The U.S. is on the verge of invading Nicaragua, don't you care?" he was lecturing Penny. "This is a very politically progressive group, too. Not your usual mealy-mouthed leftist coalition...."
"We're not a charity," Penny held firm. "Not yet, anyway."
I stayed out of it. Ray and I had been lovers for three years, estranged for ten months, and the collective had asked us please not to argue during meetings. So I looked at him instead.
He was wiry and slender, the bronze-skinned son of a Mexican father and a Japanese mother, both of them Red Cross doctors. He had a rich, persuasive voice, deep brown, slightly slanted eyes and a full black beard. Handsome, he was definitely handsome; his current lover, Zenaida, obviously thought so too, sitting beside him and listening too intently for my taste. Not that I had any serious regrets about Ray, but I hadn't expected him to get involved quite so soon—and with someone I had to see every day.
"I think Ray is right," she said in a vehement voice and with a loving look. "We have to support the revolution. That means using our own paper, our scraps, anything we have! I will help Ray work on it."
Zenaida, or Zee, as we called her, was Filipina, slender and fragile as a gold-leafed statue, with heavy, black, well-cut hair and a wardrobe of beautiful clothes. She came from a family of lawyers, most of whom were in the Philippines and some of whom were in prison for opposing the Marcos government. She'd originally come to Seattle to study nursing at the university and had stayed to pursue photography and politics, especially anti-Marcos politics. She worked with Ray doing layout and stripping the negatives in place.
"I think they've still got to come up with the paper stock themselves, don't you, Elena?" Penny said, appealing finally to the last member of the collective.
Elena shrugged indifferently. "It seems like we've had this discussion before."
Right, I thought, and you've only been here four months.
While every collective member made a qualitative change in the group, Elena had made more of an impact than most. She was a very out lesbian, who'd been to court to keep her children in a contested custody case. She'd won, but as a result of speaking around town and having her picture in the paper, she had been fired from her high school teaching job. She had also taken that to court. She was famous, not to say notorious, and she brought in a certain amount of business from people who just wanted to look at her.
On the other hand, she was the only one of us without actual experience. She'd first come to us about having some posters printed and had stayed to watch the press in action. Fascinated, and in need of a job while her case was being appealed, she'd asked to be taken on as an apprentice, at half-wages.
After some discussion we'd agreed, but things hadn't worked out as planned. First of all, everyone felt too guilty about paying a thirty-four year old single mother—and famous lesbian-feminist—only half of what we made, which was no fortune. So we'd increased her salary to equal ours. Unfortunately, this was tantamount to accepting her into the collective before she was properly trained. And, as a matter of fact, Elena hadn't yet been properly trained.
She found she wasn't good on the press, so she switched to the darkroom. But Jeremy's charming vagaries got on her nerves after two weeks, so she came back out to the stripping area, so that Zee could teach her how to get the negatives ready for platemaking.
Elena was a little better at this sort of work, but after a month or so she began to complain that it was all too boring. What she was really interested in, she claimed, was the job of office manager. But here Penny drew the line. In her blunt, snappy way, she simply told Elena that she'd watched her go through too many people's time and energy in the last three months, and that wasn't going to happen to her.
As a result, Elena had been under my wing since then, doing whatever needed to be done. I was the general troubleshooter, no expert at anything, but able to do any of the jobs in the shop with some degree of competence. I was available when people were sick or overworked, or when we had a rush job or an emergency, both of which happened regularly once or twice a week.
Elena was pretty in an old-fashioned way, like the Breck Shampoo girl in a Good Housekeeping ad. Her face was baby pink, though lined at the forehead and around the mouth; she had a soft cloud of blond hair and her eyes were the color of milk chocolate. Her nails were chewed down to the quick of her thin, blue-veined fingers, and her manner could veer rapidly from the provocative to the indifferent to the hysterical.
It wasn't that I didn't like her. In fact, I found her, beneath the sometimes nervous behavior, fairly agreeable. She'd had a rough time the last couple of years. Becoming the media's favorite scapegoat for a whole movement just after you'd come out—with the consequent trashing in the movement itself for being a star—it couldn't have been any picnic. I could also understand why Elena, after the rigors of the custody case and the shock of being fired from a job she loved, would find the print shop a little dull. Printing is, for the most part, very routine work: a lot of measuring, adjusting, measuring again. There's not much intellectual stimulation to it, other than in the sense of being involved with words and images, and realizing the effect they can have.
Yet I still thought that Elena, if she continued working here, would probably be good for us in the long run. She'd already opened my mind to a whole section of the community I'd never known very well before ...
With a start I realized Elena was talking to me. "Are you asleep or what, Pam? This is the second time I've asked you."
"What? No, I was just thinking ... what is it?"
"I want to add another item to the agenda if we're finished with the other stuff. A proposal."
I looked around blankly at everyone's face, forgetting how intensely and strangely I'd been staring. Now they just seemed like the people I'd known and worked with for months or years: my little family, my collective. Too bad what they'd been talking about had passed me by.
"I guess I haven't been doing such a good job facilitating tonight," I apologized. "I'll try to do better. Any objections to Elena moving on to a new topic?"
Zee and June shook their heads; Ray shrugged; Jeremy scuffed his feet—he hadn't ever really taken to Elena. And Penny said, with the forced cheerfulness that comes from a long career of meetings, "Let's hear it."
Elena cleared her throat. She was very nervous suddenly, as if she were steeling herself for something unpleasant. A flush of red surged into her fair cheeks with their long creases around her mouth; she ran her fingers through her fluffy yellow hair, and I thought, with a start, how much she looked like Jeremy for an instant. With their coloring and blond ringlets they were certainly more twin-like than Penny and I.
"Let's hear it," said Penny again, with some impatience.
So Elena let us. "I've been talking to the women at B. Violet Typesetting and ." She looked around at us quickly, almost challengingly. "I want to propose we merge collectives."CHAPTER 2
B. VIOLET TYPESETTING WAS a lesbian owned and run typesetting and design business that had once been part of, as Penny liked to put t, a "co-ed" printing collective. It had been five or six years ago that the original women of Mobi-Print (named in honor of some anticipated mobilization of the Left back in 1970) had seceded. They claimed that since the men insisted on ghettoizing them in the typesetting room while they ran the presses, they might as well have their own business and make their own decisions.
The Moby Dicks, as the men inevitably and rather regrettably came to be called, fought it for a while (some of the women were their girlfriends, or had been), but eventually gave in and the collective split in two. It was a common story in the seventies. Mixed collectives started out having women's caucuses, then "women's spaces," then the women would either get the men to leave or leave themselves.
There were a lot of hard feelings in this case, especially since the new all-male Mobi-Print soon dropped like a great white whale into the unfathomable seas of bankruptcy. The women, who had regrouped and gained new lesbian members (or come out themselves), resurfaced as B. Violet Typesetting. They had wanted to call themselves Lavender typesetting but were afraid they wouldn't get enough business. Violet was practically the same thing as lavender, someone reasoned, with the added advantage of sounding kindly and respectable, at least in the phone book. The story went that, later on, when customers asked to speak to "Miss B. Violet," the women would variously call out, "Barbarella, it's for you," or apologize, "Boadicea isn't here right now, but can I help you?"
To the disgruntled Moby Dicks, however, the women's collective was always known as "Be Violent," and through the years they had spread rumors about having been driven out forcefully by a bunch of man-hating, T-square-wielding Amazons.
While I'd never believed those tales I had been somehow negatively affected by the idea of a group of politically correct separatists trying to make it in the business world. We'd dealt with them on occasion, but it had never been particularly comfortable. Ray, who was usually the one to mark up the copy with instructions for the typesetter, complained that they pretended not to understand his handwriting, or ignored him at the counter if there were women waiting too.
I'd never quite admitted it to anyone, but I was glad B. Violet was on the other side of town. Obviously it was so much more convenient to go to the typesetters three blocks away from us, even if they were male capitalists.
Elena joining our collective made a difference, however. As soon as she found out what typesetting was and that there was actually a lesbian typesetting business in town, she was astonished that we didn't take all of our work there. She didn't go for the excuse that they were too far away, and as for Ray's difficulties, Elena shrugged them aside, saying that she was sure he was just imagining it, but if it bothered him so much to deal with women, then he should just send her or Pam instead.
All the same, there was something about Elena that both cowed us and appealed to our better instincts, as when she added seriously, "I think collectives have a moral and political obligation to help each other survive."
Excerpted from Murder in the Collective by Barbara Wilson. Copyright © 1984 Barbara Wilson. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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