Movie Review—‘Arrival’

[Arrival Poster]
Photo courtesy of IMDb

Arrival’ (2016)
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Writers: Eric Heisserer (screenplay), Ted Chiang (based on the story “Story of Your Life” written by)
Stars: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker
Drama | Mystery | Sci-Fi | Thriller
Paramount Pictures
PG-13
Log Line: When twelve mysterious spacecraft appear around the world, linguistics professor Louise Banks is tasked with interpreting the language of the apparent alien visitors.

Boy, did I need to see this! 2016 was a tough year for many reasons, both generally and personally. It’s not often I watch a movie twice in a row, but after seeing ‘Arrival’ the first time the other night, I couldn’t wait to put it on again. I’ve always been a huge Amy Adams fan—two of my favorite movies of hers being ‘Enchanted’ and ‘Julie & Julia.’ She’s one of those rare actors who can exhibit both vulnerability and strength at the same time and break your heart in the process. And as a professor of linguistics trying to solve an impossible mystery, she is at the top of her game.

I won’t recount the story here—you can watch the trailer for that. But I will point out a few things I felt made this film—nominated for eight Academy Awards at the time of this writing—brilliant. First off, the writing. The story by Ted Chiang is filled with a profound sense of human longing—a longing to connect with something bigger. Many people interpret this as a search for God in our lives, and I happen to believe that. But I think, in general, people want to feel a part of something outside ourselves. Something that gives life meaning and us a purpose. The screenplay, based on that story, captures this feeling beautifully and reinforces it throughout so that by the time you arrive at the end, you can see.

The direction and cinematography were perfect for this kind of storytelling. Everything that happens is seen through Louise’s eyes, and we unravel the mystery with her. As if things weren’t difficult enough trying to decipher an alien language, she is always surrounded by strangers—army personnel and CIA operatives—whose purpose she can’t fathom and who seem to be in opposition to what she’s trying to accomplish. Inside the massive floating spacecraft, we lose our sense of direction. And the playing with time itself throughout is hypnotic.

Of course, any good movie has lots of conflict, which in this case is presented in the form of people’s paranoia about the aliens. The armies of the world all want to know what the aliens’ purpose is in coming here and, judging from their actions, they are all on a hair trigger. The director Denis Villeneuve captures this intense struggle with simplicity and clarity. And to balance things out—because not everyone in the military can be bad—we have the character of Colonel Weber, who is just trying to understand. Oh, and that soundtrack! Pay attention to the horns every time we see the aliens.

In the wrong hands, ‘Arrival’ could have turned into ‘Independence Day.’ Thank goodness cooler heads prevailed! No doubt, I will see it again.

You can find this review at IMDb. Now, check out this featurette.

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Free Fiction—CHAINSAW HONEYMOON Chapter Three

[I’m A Young Girl 2]
Photo courtesy of stephane via Creative Commons

For seven weeks, I will be posting chapters from my new satirical novel Chainsaw Honeymoon.

Blurb
Ruby Navarro, a bright, funny fourteen-year-old who loves horror movies, is on a mission to get her parents back together. But she can’t do it alone. She’ll need her two best friends, her dog, an arrogant student filmmaker, and a computer-generated, chainsaw-wielding killer. What could possibly go wrong?

Chapter Three

Don’t get me wrong. I was psyched to be spending the entire summer with my dad. I loved Mom, but enough was enough. I needed to hang out with the Big Guy for a while. That was not to say Dad didn’t have his own issues. Currently, number one on his hit parade was a certain Stacey Navarro. I was going to have to play this very carefully. I didn’t want to give away too much info, but I also didn’t want to blow him off. He would totally see through that. Hmm, or would he? Mom once told me men were thick. Nevertheless, I thought it better not to take any chances.

We were weaving through midday traffic on the 405 in Dad’s new Lexus NX Hybrid. Ed was safely harnessed in the backseat. I had on my Wayfarers and, as we passed the Getty Center, I noticed some preppy from Harvard-Westlake oh-so-casually checking me out as he sped by us in his Porsche. Be cool, Ruby! I loved that Dad worked at a car dealership. We got to tool around in these fantastic late-model vehicles and pretend we were somebody. For all this bub knew, I was on my way to the Scream Queens set to do a walk-on with Emma Roberts.

I grabbed a snickerdoodle from the paper bag Mom had given me, checked on Ed, and fiddled with the GPS. Dad was too distracted to notice. Probably because he’d been looking forward to this day for weeks and, now that it was here, he didn’t know what to say. Typical male of the species. Look, I knew Dad loved me and all, but lately he seemed more like a stranger. And he was. Living apart from Mom and me had really hurt our relationship. Time to break the ice.

“I can’t wait for self-driving cars,” I said, keeping my eyes on the road.

“What? Hey, don’t break that!”

Gently, he pulled my hand away from the controls and looked at me with these huge, sincere puppy-dog eyes. Oh, boy. I’d hoped to keep things light, but I could tell my father was in a rut and wanted to spill about the thing that was bothering him. I should’ve picked up on the clues—the nervous finger-tapping and the random humming—and misdirected him with a quick chorus of “Just A Girl.” But it was too late. Before I could open my mouth, Dad stepped in it with both feet.

“Does she talk about me?” he said.

I could feel my mouth going lopsided, which apparently is a thing I do whenever I’m confronted with the kind of bald-faced idiocy only a man could muster. I coughed, spraying cookie crumbs on the car’s nice clean interior.

“Dad!” I said.

He turned to me, looking confused. “What, honey? Are those snickerdoodles?”

Hmm, so we were playing hardball.

“She doesn’t say anything. She’s, I don’t know, getting on with her life?”

“I see.”

Do you remember Carl at the beginning of Season 4 of The Walking Dead, when Farmer Rick no longer permitted him to carry a weapon? That’s what Dad looked like. Not even an hour into my vacation, and summer already sucked. Nice going, Alan.

“And we’re not doing this third degree all summer,” I said. “It’s boring.”

“Sure, no problem.”

I might have gone a bit too far, having accused my own dear father of being the B-word. Boring. Like our neighbor Boyd, who taught geometry at a nearby charter school, drove a Corolla, ate Sun Chips, and was a champion thumb wrestler. Boyd, who liked to use words like “discombobulated,” “sammich,” “back atcha,” and “yea big.” Boyd, who was happily married to an equally boring woman named Barbara, had four healthy young children—all boring—and a twenty-year mortgage. Boyd, who took the family on annual driving vacations to visit relatives in Nebraska. Yeah, that neighbor. Great. Now I felt awful.

Dad let me stew in my own juices for a while. Eventually, we exited at Santa Monica Blvd.

“Want a burger?” he said.

It was like nothing had happened. Hmm… I think Mom may have underestimated men. Not that I’m thick! I totally saw what he was doing, but here’s the thing, I couldn’t turn down a burger. No way. Already imagining the succulent juices dribbling down my chin, I found myself laughing like the little girl he no doubt remembered. Oh, he was good.

“Can we go to Shake Shack?” I said.

“I don’t know.”

“Pleeeeeeze?”

“That place is always too crowded. Let’s try Irv’s.”

“Fine,” I said. “By the way, this wouldn’t be a bribe, would it?”

“Hey, would I bribe my own daughter?”

Can I get an amen?

* * *

If horror is my life, then meat is my passion. Beef, especially. So when Dad suggested a hamburger, you can see why I folded like a $5.99 camping chair from Walmart. Anyways. The traffic at Santa Monica and Laurel was nonstop and the parking nonexistent as we pulled up to the venerable Irv’s Burgers in West Hollywood. Fun fact for ya—Jim Morrison and Janis Joplin used to hang out there. Well, at the old location. Mom said they were famous musicians.

Eventually, we found a parking spot and were now sitting at a small outdoor table, eating cheeseburgers. The great thing about Irv’s is, it doesn’t matter how you are dressed or where you’re from or how old you are. We were like a family. One large, carnivorous family.

“I love burgers, don’t you?” I said, my mouth shiny with meat juice.

Dad was still distracted. “Yeah, I do. Listen—”

“I’m pretty sure I was a cannibal in a former life.”

“A cannibal?”

“Did you know scientists have learned that cannibalism goes back at least fifty-thousand years?”

Hoping to avoid any mention of Mom, I continued the anthropology lesson, but my father was finding it harder and harder to stay focused. Look, he’s really a very sweet guy—the best. And I’ll bet he had intended to keep the whole Stacey business to himself. But from the way he was looking at me, like I might be the NSA of Mom-tel, I knew he was going to pump me for information, or explode.

“Has Mom mentioned any male that’s not me?” Dad said, not making direct eye contact.

Though I felt sorry for the guy, I rolled my eyes and flung an angry fry at his head. It bounced and landed on the sidewalk, only to be inhaled instantly by Ed.

“I’m going to eat you, if you don’t quit it!”

To my surprise, he changed the subject.

“Listen, Rube,” he said. “Before we go to the apartment, I need to stop off at the dealership. Hope you don’t mind.”

“Sure, no prob.”

“Great. Are you done?”

“Hang on!”

Now, I am proud to say I’m a total vacuum cleaner when it comes to food. But as good as I am, I needed more than a few seconds to make half a cheeseburger, a basket of fries drenched in ketchup, and a large Diet Coke disappear. In the end, I beat my old record and came in at a minute-forty-five. In your face, Slimer!

* * *

It took us twenty minutes to get to the West Side. Dad worked at Lexus of Santa Monica and had been their top performer for, like, forever. Nevertheless, he hated the sales manager, Rick Van Loon. Though he had never put it into words, I could always tell there was this tension whenever those two were in the same room together. Sort of like Sam and Dean confronting Crowley.

“Wait here in the showroom and look at cars or something,” Dad said, handing me a brochure. “I need to see Rick.”

“Sure, Daddy-O.”

“And don’t ever call me that.”

“Roger that.”

Dad abandoned me, so to pass the time, I Snapchatted with Claire and Diego. Presently, I was sending them pics of Ed and me mugging inside the new cars while Claire gave us a quick clarinet concert and Diego showed me what it was like hanging curtains with his mom. When I turned around, I could see my father through the glass of Rick’s office, fidgeting and looking around.

Rick was standing in front of the big board, pointing at the names of the salespeople and their ranking. Dad’s name was at the very top, of course. I decided to eavesdrop and, putting away my phone, positioned Ed and myself outside Rick’s office, out of sight.

It was pretty obvious to me why Dad hated this guy. He was making these annoying clicking noises with his tongue as he used a dry-erase marker to update the numbers. Truly, he was a strange, grubby little poser who, despite his position, liked wearing ill-fitting Macy’s suits, and he had dandruff and smelled like Dentyne. On his desk sat a framed photo of himself with the governor. Photoshop, most likely.

Oh, and there was something else about Rick you should know. He was pretty much a washout with the ladies. I didn’t know if he insulted them or what. But he must’ve done something bad recently because one of his eyes was swollen shut and two fingers were taped together.

“Hot date last night, Rick?” Dad said.

Though Rick’s legendary facial tic was kicking in, he refused to take the bait.

“So! Looks like you’re a shoo-in to win the sales contest this month.”

Way to go, Dad! You know, I think my evil streak might have come from him. I could see he wasn’t letting this go. Smiling, he continued to poke the bear.

“Are you going to press charges this time?”

Rick’s cheeks got tight and the pupil in his good eye became a pinpoint. It was as if his entire face was controlled by a single wire that Dad was gleefully manipulating.

“My personal life is not up for discussion.”

Rick had said this with an air of importance only a short man could pull off. Boy, Dad must’ve gotten to him because the next thing Rick did was accidentally knock the photo to the floor, sending glass everywhere. As Dad helpfully picked up the frame, he noticed something. Now I saw it, too—it was the corner of another photo behind the first. What the…

Before Dad could say anything, Rick grabbed the broken frame and shoved it into a desk drawer.

“Thank you!” he said.

His face was three shades of red. Popping a couple of fresh sticks of Dentyne into his pie hole, he sat back and smiled like Dexter.

“Hey, are you and Stacey still trying to—”

Wait, did he just mention my mother? When the receptionist Gina came over, I ducked out fast, dragging Ed behind me.

Gina Wallace was a nice girl with unusually large eyes, a cute figure, and these tiny little teeth that reminded me of Del Monte white corn. Whenever I saw her, I got the feeling she was waiting for Rick to “come to his senses” and pick her, instead of going another round with the Ronda Rouseys of the world. Thanks to Dad, I knew Gina’s whole sordid history. Over the years, she’d nursed Rick through cracked ribs, broken toes, damaged kidneys, and a singed uvula, which happened the time he went out with a fire eater from a Polish circus.

“Alan, Ms. Heatherly is here,” Gina said, pretending not to notice Rick.

“I thought I was seeing her tomorrow. Okay, thanks, Gina.” Dad smirked at Rick. “Are we done here?”

“Sure, sure,” Rick said. “Mr. Contest Winner.” Then to Gina, “Can you get someone in here to clean up this glass?”

Rick always said “someone” when everyone, including the Pope, knew he meant Gina. And that poor girl would always pretend to call the maintenance guy, when I’d bet a dollar that in five minutes she would be back with a broom and dustpan. Sad, really, when you think about it.

As Dad strolled into the showroom, Gina and I watched as an attractive young woman wearing Armani checked out one of the new models. Gina tugged on Dad’s coat sleeve.

“Elizabeth Banks?” she said.

“Ooh, close.”

Adjusting his tie, he sauntered over to the woman, wearing that million-dollar smile. It was on.

“Ms. Heatherly! Alan Navarro. You know, you remind me of Charlize Theron.”

One of these days I was going to figure out how he did that. And I was about to say this to Gina when I noticed she was gone. A minute later I saw her walking into Rick’s office, carrying—you guessed it—a broom and dustpan. Easy money.

* * *

I hated Dad living away from us, but at least he had a nice apartment off Sunset in West Hollywood. It was relatively new and smelled faintly of paint. It had three bedrooms, one of which Dad used as his home office. He had done his best to make my room comfortable but, let’s face it, he was a guy, so. Though he had moved in a year ago, everywhere I looked, all I could see were stacks of moving boxes. Rather than deal with it, I shooed him out. I would have to make the best of things and live out of my duffel bag like a hobo.

After a dinner of spicy beef and Jasmine rice from the Vietnamese place around the corner, I sat at a small desk with my laptop, working away at my beloved machinima project while Ed lay on the floor, snoring. Other than horror, machinima was the best thing ever. Using a variety of software programs, I could create my own movies, populated by ghosts, demons, and evil clowns. Someday, I hoped to start my own video game company. Or I might write and direct movies. That would be cool, too.

This latest project was about a crazed killer. He didn’t have a name yet, but he wore the black hat and duster I designed. I had been having trouble with his chainsaw when I happened to connect with a software developer in Norway who liked to create cool weapons. I was able to import a lumberjack special that looked amazing. This guy even provided the audio for it.

A loud yawn startled me. It was Dad. How long had he been standing there?

“Come on, Rube, it’s late,” he said.

And by the way, when did he get all parental? Mom must’ve had a talk with him.

“No-uh,” I said. “I need to figure out this sequence.”

Between you and me, I was struggling to keep my eyes open.

Gently, he closed the laptop and guided me to my bed. As I dug through the duffel bag for my pajamas, I felt something foreign. Removing my hand, I saw Mr. Shivers. How had he gotten in there again? I thought I’d left him in the closet back home. Too exhausted to care, I tossed him into a chair, where he landed in a sitting position.

“Tomorrow, I could use your help setting up the Roku,” Dad said.

“Aghh, you’re so pathetic. Fine, I’ll see what I can do.”

I let go of a major yawn. Smiling, he gave me a bear hug, practically squeezing the air out of me.

“Ooh, I thought I heard a fart.”

“Dad, that’s so rude!”

“It used to make you laugh.”

“When I was five.”

“Good night, Rube. Brush your teeth.”

He and Mom had definitely spoken. I wondered vaguely if he was going to go off and practice The Beggar’s Sideshow per Mom’s instructions. Before he left, I broke down and decided to spill. After all, the man deserved to know the truth. I picked Ed up and put him on my lap for moral support.

“Dad?”

“Yeah, baby?”

“She is moving on, you know.”

He was leaning against the doorframe, staring at me intently. I could almost see the man hormones keeping his emotions in check. Barely. His face was a mosaic of disappointment, anger, and disbelief. He smiled sadly and, without another word, closed the door behind him. See, this is the difference between women and men. I would be throwing things at this point.

Lying in bed, I tossed around like a paper boat in a storm. I glanced at my phone to see the time. It was late. Ed was sitting on the floor motionless, looking at something. I followed his gaze. Across from me on the chair, Mr. Shivers sat staring at me, his eyes flat. I looked away and happened to notice the ceiling. A strange-looking stain was taking shape. It was blob-like and creepy. I hoped a pipe hadn’t sprung a leak.

“Nuts to you, Wes,” the doll said.

It took me a few minutes to calm down. As I closed my eyes, I pondered men versus women, crazed killers with chainsaws, and a plate of beef medallions I once enjoyed at a swanky hotel in San Francisco. Only now they were screaming like Mandrakes as I sliced into them with my gleaming steak knife.

Copyright © 2017 by Steven Ramirez.

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Free Fiction—CHAINSAW HONEYMOON Chapter Two

[Rotting Peach] Photo courtesy of Steven Depolo via Creative Commons

Free fiction has an expiration date—and this one has definitely come and gone. Please feel free to explore this site for more great stories.

Book Review—The Haunted

[The Haunted Cover]Sometimes, my wife asks how I can read scary books just before going to sleep. I’ve been doing it for as long as I can remember and it’s never bothered me. Like most people, I read for pleasure. But as a writer, I also read for understanding. Usually, when I read books about the supernatural, I intellectualize everything down to the story, writing style, and authenticity of the characters. I may have to revisit that approach.

The Haunted is the true story of the Smurl family, devout Catholics living in Pennsylvania who find themselves being infested with a demon and other vengeful spirits. Based on everything I’ve read so far about demons, this situation can occur when someone invites the demonic into their home through the use of Ouija boards, spells, or cursed objects like the Annabelle doll. Not so with the Smurls. This family did none of those things, yet the demonic entered their lives and plagued them for years, terrorizing individual family members—and even the neighbors.

Despite everything that happens, the Smurl family remains rooted in their faith. It’s the main reason they were able to manage for so long, undergoing multiple exorcisms and hordes of tourists wanting a glimpse of “the dark side.” As for me, I am comfortable in my faith and have always believed the demonic will leave me alone so long as I don’t seek it out. After reading The Haunted, I’m not so sure anymore.

You can find this review at Amazon US.

Synopsis
The world’s most famous demonologists, Ed & Lorraine Warren, were called in to help an average American family who were assaulted by forces too awesome, too powerful, too dark, to be stopped. It’s a true story, supported by dozens of eyewitnesses neighbors, priests, police, journalists, and researchers. The grim slaughterhouse of odors. The deafening pounding. The hoofed half-man charging down the hall. The physical attacks, a vicious strangling, failed exorcisms, the succubus… and the final terror which continued to torment the Smurls. In this shocking, terrifying, deeply absorbing book rivaled only by The Amityville Horror—a case also investigated by the Warrens—journalist Robert Curran digs deep into the haunting of the Smurl home in West Pittston, Pennsylvania, and the unshakeable family bonds that helped them survive.

Buy Links
Amazon US
Amazon UK
Amazon Canada

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Free Fiction—CHAINSAW HONEYMOON Chapter One

[Rotting Peach] Photo courtesy of Steven Depolo via Creative Commons

Free fiction has an expiration date—and this one has definitely come and gone. Please feel free to explore this site for more great stories.

COME AS YOU ARE on Channillo!

Hey, guys! Just wanted you to know that starting Tuesday, January 31st, I am posting chapters from my new YA horror novella Come As You Are at Channillo, a subscription-based online magazine that allows writers to share their work in regular installments. I will be publishing a chapter a week through the end of April, at which point the entire novella will be available for reading.

Please check out my series page. And happy reading!

[Come As You Are Cover]

Synopsis
Ivan Stein isn’t sure he can survive seventh grade—let alone middle school. Living in a town known for its poverty and violence, he is regularly bullied—along with his best friend, Ollie. But fortunes can change.

One day, Ivan finds an old notebook in an abandoned locker at school. Despite a nasty warning from the ill-tempered janitor, he takes the book home and soon learns that it once belonged to another kid named Craig and apparently possesses occult properties—powerful magic Ivan can use to punish his enemies.

The notebook describes five tasks Ivan must complete to unleash the full power of the book. But what he doesn’t know is demonic forces control the book’s pages—raw evil that will inflict suffering on the good as well as the bad and demand as payment Ivan’s very soul.

Read Come As You Are

 

Free Fiction—Lying to the Muse

[Euterpe]

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Lying to the Muse

After making a spectacle of destroying his work, a disenchanted writer is visited by a hungry Muse, who agrees to help him fix his novel. But he has more on his mind than writing.

Carefully with the skill of a surgeon, I sliced the last of the pages to bits with the good knife. Though they represented six tortured months of my life, I felt a kind of giddy satisfaction at seeing the mad confetti I had created flittering to the floor like silent snowflakes.

My dog Fellini must have thought I was doing this for him because he started pawing at the shredded mound and barking in his classic urp-squeak. Fellini was a Great Dane-Chihuahua mix. Though he was barely the size of a starved squirrel, his undercarriage was prodigious, and he rode it like a cannon in a Missouri Fourth of July parade.

Anyway, there it was: my awful samsaric masterpiece of Love, Death, and Disillusionment. Two hundred forty-seven pages of pure, unfinished dreck in pieces.

It was supposed to be the story of a spiritual orphan of uncertain gender named Muck who drifted through life pleasing both men and women but never itself. I started out by convincing Muck to get a job selling accordions to the star-struck parents of tone-deaf grade-schoolers. Then, I suggested it seek enlightenment in Chihuahua, Mexico, where it could live with the Tarahumara Indians and make dolls from wood and bits of colorful clothing. On its day off, Muck would paint fantastic murals of Our Lady of Guadalupe on the inscrutable rocky faces of distant mountains under thunderous gray skies.

I tricked Muck into descending into hell in a gutter in South Central LA, bleary from cheap, potent wine and dirty needles. Finally, it died from ebola virus. I buried it in an unmarked grave in Berwyn, Illinois, where years later a girl with disappearing bone disease would weep because she remembered knowing Muck in a former life when she was a Carthusian monk.

As I say, it was pure dreck and deserved to be burned.

I swept the last of my novel into the trash and put away the broom. As I shut the closet door, I heard a dull thud. Lowering his head, Fellini let out a deep background growl.

“Stop, it’s just the broom. See?” I opened the door to prove it to him.

That’s when I saw her.

She was very pretty and had strong Mediterranean features. Dark hair and dark brown eyes—not old and not young—with pale, luminescent skin. Seeing me for the first time, she smiled as if encountering a dear old friend. There was something unsettling about her gaze, though; it was as if she were surveying the long, lonely desert of my secrets and disappointments. She was wearing a filmy, faded pink tunic and worn ballet slippers. I half-expected to see a wand. But all she had in her hand was a leather musette bag.

“That closet’s really cramped,” she said. Her voice was melodious and unbearably pleasant. She extended her hand so I could help her climb over the vacuum cleaner. “You should clean it out sometime.”

“I—”

Fellini bolted up the stairs, yipping. “Nice dog.”

“I don’t mean to be rude,” I said, my voice wavering. “But just who in hell are you?”

“Okay if I sit?”

I watched as she plunked herself down on one of the dining room chairs. It was the one with the loose armrest. She wiggled it and gave me an annoyed “Who’s your decorator?” look. Then settling in like a snowy egret on her new egg, she let out a little musical sigh that reminded me of a silken French bagpipe.

Defeated, I slinked over to the table. “Would you like a glass of wine?”

“Not yet.”

“Espresso, then?”

“That would be nice.”

She sat there for a long time, stirring her coffee and staring at a black-and-white photograph of a toothless woman in rags. I had taken it in college. The woman was probably dead from tuberculosis by now.

“I’m sorry I didn’t come sooner,” she said. “I was on vacation.”

“Oh?” I said, feigning interest. My head was throbbing now with gloppy, nagging questions I was certain she would never answer.

“Yes. I just got back from Tuscany.”

“That was fast.”

“It’s the harvest, you know.”

“I know.”

“Have you been to Florence?”

“No.”

“It’s incredible. When you walk the streets, you can just sense the magic. I was composing sonnets in my head! You feel, I don’t know, so creative there. Like you could write anything.”

She sipped her espresso, waiting for me to jump in.

“It’s funny how sometimes the words just come pouring out,” she said. “You’d really like to stop, but somehow you’ve just got so much to say and, well, you won’t be satisfied until you get it all down on paper.”

“Is there a point to this?”

She threw me a sideways glance, smiled enigmatically, and went on. I proceeded to get comfortable.

“Why, just the other day—actually it was before I went on vacation—I was helping an elderly woman in Guangdong who thought she had nothing in the world to say about Love because her husband had been dead almost twenty years. He insisted on being buried with his exercise balls for some reason.

“Anyway, I convinced her she had plenty to say. After all, her mind was still sharp. And she had her memories. And do you know what that sweet old lady did?”

“Wrote down her memories?” I said.

Uffa! I knew you were no dummy!”

“Look, um… What was your name again?”

“Euterpe.”

“Now hold on!”

“They were supposed to send my sister, Erato, but she’s helping a famous Hollywood screenwriter through a personal crisis.”

“Anyone I know?”

“We’re not supposed to name names,” she said, touching her nose with her forefinger. Then, in a stage whisper, “His last movie bombed, though.”

“At least he got paid. Why didn’t they send Melpomene? After all, I was writing a tragedy.”

“The only real tragedy is that your book is so bad.”

“You’re a big help.”

“I am a help. You’ll see.” She pulled a surprising amount of paperwork from her tiny bag. “Now as you know, I am the Muse of lyric poetry and music. Are you musical by any chance?”

“Forget it.”

“Before I can start, you’ll need to sign this contract. There’s also a waiver and a model release form.”

“Model release—”

“In case we decide to use your photo on our website.”

“I’m not giving you permission to—”

“I’m kidding! Wow, lighten up.”

“And the waiver?”

“Just a formality, really. It basically states you relinquish the right to sue us later if your book doesn’t sell. Stuff like that. I mean, we can’t be responsible for the public’s taste.”

The documents looked like preprinted forms you could purchase in any office supply store. They were already made out in my name.

“I should really run these past my attorney,” I said.

“If you like. But I can’t start until they’re signed and dated.”

She was good. I scribbled my signature on each one. As I did so, she notarized everything and handed me a copy.

“You’re a notary, too?”

“Well, I can’t very well drag one around with me,” she said, squinting at the signature. “Now, Richard, how about showing me your work.”

“I’ve hacked it to pieces.”

“So print out another copy.”

“I’m out of paper. Can’t you just read it on the computer?”

“I hate computers. Go and bring me the trash.”

“But it’s all chopped up,” I said.

“Do you want my help or not?”

“Fine.”

Muttering, I brought the trash can over to her. Fellini was on the bottom stair, poking his head around the corner and wagging his tail. Euterpe sighed as she looked at the shreds of my misunderstood genius covered in cucumber skins, dog food cans, and coffee grounds. Reaching in, she pulled out the manuscript fully formed. Dusting it off she placed it on the dining room
table.

“Wait, how did you—”

“Okay, let’s see what we have here.”

She read for the next two hours. I pretended to have urgent business in the kitchen. I took out the garbage and put out the empty water bottles. I washed the dishes and cleaned the bathrooms. I took the dog for a walk. When I returned, I made more espresso. Once I thought I heard her giggle. I brightened until I realized that Fellini was licking her bare foot.

At last, she finished, closed the manuscript, and sat back, yawning and stretching. “Have you got any grapes?”

“Sorry.”

“Oh.”

She seemed more than a little disappointed. I remembered the cantaloupe and ran to the kitchen to cut up a few slices. When she saw it, she smiled.

“That was sweet of you. Do you have a girlfriend?”

“No. What’s that got to do with anything?”

“Just curious. Women can be a real inspiration.”

“They can also be a pain in the ass.”

“Oh, dear. Someone must’ve cut you to pieces. Did you have it coming?”

“Most likely.”

When she’d finished the cantaloupe, she wiped her mouth daintily and pushed the plate aside.

“Now, let’s talk about your work.”

I felt my stomach churn. Suddenly, I didn’t want to talk about it. What I had done only hours before was emotionally sever myself from this moribund piece of claptrap. I was prepared to never write again. I didn’t ask her to come here, dammit!

“Yes, you did.”

“Did what?”

“Ask me to come here. Or rather, you asked Erato. But she wasn’t available as I explained earlier.”

“I don’t remember asking.”

“No? You stood over there in the kitchen, and you mutilated six months of hard work with the good knife. If that isn’t a cry for help, I don’t know what is.”

“You’re unbelievable. Wait, you said you were on vacation. How did you get here so fast?”

“Time passes differently for us.”

“Of course it does.”

“Okay, we’ve wasted enough time. Look. You’re not a bad writer. Per se. You do have your own voice. You like to take tragic turns, then make them funny. That’s good. It keeps the reader involved.”

This wasn’t so terrible. I was starting to like her.

“But you lack discipline. Your work wanders all over the place. You can’t seem to stick to the point. You introduce characters who don’t serve any purpose other than to set up the next joke.

“For instance, here on page fifty-seven. You have this homeless man peeing off a building. And on the street below, the bank manager flips open his umbrella because he thinks it’s raining.”

“I thought it was funny.”

“But we never get to see the homeless man again. Or the bank manager for that matter. This is the sort of thing I’m talking about, Richard. It makes the reader very, very angry. It says you think she can be easily manipulated.”

“Can’t she?”

“Oh, and another thing. Your story offers no hope.”

“So?”

“People need hope. Just saying.”

“Huh.”

“Overall, what you have to say is worth writing down. And I think I can help you.”

“You can?”

“Yes. What time is it?”

“After eleven.”

“I’ve got to go!”

“What? But what about helping me?”

“Tomorrow night. No! I can’t. I’m seeing someone else then. Thursday. I’ll return on Thursday.”

“But what am I supposed to do until then?”

“Read. For you, I recommend Joseph Heller. Catch-22. That’s one of my favorites. Maybe you could pick up some Philip Roth. And John Irving. Stay away from Thomas Mann. You’re not ready for him yet.”

Before I knew what was happening, she got up and went out the front door. Fellini barked happily and tried to follow her, but I caught him just in time.

“Good night!” she said and disappeared. I didn’t see where she went.

#

That first night was hell. I didn’t sleep. Sharing my distress, Fellini kept groaning as my tossing and turning bounced him from one end of the bed to the other like a volleyball. In the morning I ran down to Book Soup to pick up the books she’d recommended. For two days, I did nothing but read and order take-out.

It was a relaxing time. Instead of stewing in my own misery, I let myself be carried away by the words. I trusted the author completely and allowed myself to be led wherever it was he wanted me to go. I didn’t feel cheated.

Thursday night, I made dinner. I thought Euterpe would like it. I prepared a simple salad of mixed greens, Roma tomatoes, Greek olives, and feta with homemade Vinaigrette. I’d gone down to the La Brea Bakery and picked up a loaf of Italian bread. Now I simmered a sauce of olive oil, garlic, black pepper, fresh tomatoes, and Pecorino that I planned to serve over linguine next to the cold chicken. On the counter stood two bottles of an interesting Barolo I had found at BevMo!

It was around eight when she knocked. I’d been half-expecting her to come out of the closet again. When I opened the door, I found her in a low-cut black tee shirt, black tights, and red sequined high top sneakers. Her shiny, dark hair was up, pinned on either side with black combs. She was wearing red lipstick.

“Something smells awfully good.” Smiling, she came in and patted the dog.

“I thought you might be hungry.”

“I’m always hungry.”

“Great. Would you like some wine?”

“Italian?”

“What else?”

“Perfect.”

I put on a CD of Maria Callas singing Turandot. Euterpe seemed to like it. We mostly listened to the music until I poured the coffee and Amaretto.

“You cook very well, Richard. I wouldn’t have guessed it from your book.”

“Why?”

“Well, nobody in it ever eats anything except canned beans, 7-11 hot dogs, and Milk Duds.”

“I was trying to show the poverty of spirit—”

“Through the cuisine, I know. It works. I guess.”

“You guess?”

She got up and stretched as I cleared away the dishes. I hadn’t noticed how firm her body was. I’d always pictured the Muses as generous and fleshy as in the seventeenth-century paintings I’d seen in art books.

“I work out,” she said.

We sat in the living room. I put on some Miles Davis. For a long time, she held the manuscript in her hands and patted it as if it were a purring cat. Before she arrived, I had determined to listen to everything she had to say and apply it to my writing. Finally, she opened the book to the first page, her delicate fingers with the red nail polish brushing past the
blurred, senseless patterns of light and dark.

It must have been the wine. I kissed her neck. It was fragrant like laurel. She didn’t startle or move away but pretended to consider the writing. Sliding closer, I gently took the manuscript from her hands and tossed it onto the floor. Turning her lovely oval face toward me, I kissed her red lips.

“Richard, I can’t help you this way.”

“Yes, you can. I don’t want to hear about the words right now. I just want to be with you. Please, Euterpe.”

She sighed. “This always happens when there’s wine.”

I kissed her again.

This time, she melted like a poppy drenched in honey. The last thing she said as I gently lay her on her back was, “We’re not supposed to get involved. It’s in the contract.”

We lay on the sofa for a long time. Fellini had fallen asleep next to Euterpe’s sneakers. Gently, she stroked the hairs on my chest, making little swirling patterns like tiny whirlwinds. Her body was so fragrant, it made me dizzy. I felt as if I were lying in a Tuscan field of wildflowers.

“What time is it?” she said.

“After midnight, I think.”

“We should’ve done some work. Come on, let’s do it now.”

I groaned as she pushed herself off me and got dressed. “Do we have to?”

“Yes. A contract is a contract.”

We worked until four. By the time we were on Chapter Eleven, I was exhausted. But she seemed as full of energy as ever.

“I need to sleep,” I said, rubbing my eyes like an exhausted toddler.

“Yes, I’m sorry. I tend to lose track of time.”

As she got her things together, I asked if she wanted to shower. Wagging her finger, she smiled wickedly and kissed me. Then, she slipped out the door. I went to bed and didn’t awaken until one.

#

Though we hadn’t arranged the second meeting, I knew Euterpe would be returning the next evening. After drinking three cups of strong Kenyan coffee, sucking on a navel orange, then walking Fellini, I showered and got to work on the changes she had suggested. It was remarkable. Everything she had told me was dead on. It was as if I were peeling away a dull, waxy coating and getting to the shining essence of my story—the thing I had always hoped was
there.

I didn’t have time to go to the store. I still had some wine and I had enough odds and ends to make a Sicilian-style pizza. The doorbell rang, and my heart leaped. On the one hand, I wanted to bury myself in her warm fragrance for a night and a day. On the other, I wanted to hear her every word—every criticism—about my evolving opus. I opened the door and found Euterpe with another woman who resembled her.

“Richard, this is Erato.”

“Hi.” All I could do was stand there frozen in stupid embarrassment. The smell of burning pizza brought me back.

Euterpe and Erato giggled a lot during dinner, alternately conversing in English and Italian. When we were finished, Euterpe helped me with the dishes. In the kitchen, I grabbed her arm and pulled her toward me.

“Ow!”

“What’s the idea?”

“What?”

“You know what. Why can’t we be alone?”

“Richard, I’m here to help you with your book.”

“But what about—”

“What happened before was a mistake.”

“You seemed to enjoy it.”

“Why shouldn’t I enjoy it? That’s not the point.”

“Oh, I get it. I’m not good enough. A mere mortal.”

“Stop it. You’re plenty good.”

“Then, why can’t we—”

“We can’t, that’s all. Now please, don’t make trouble. I’ve already been telling Erato how sweet you are.”

“I’ll bet.”

As I slinked back to the dining room with a tray of hazelnut biscotti, I put on my sweetest smile for Erato and hummed “La donna è mobile.”

Erato said very little during our writing session. She seemed to be fascinated with old Sex in the City episodes on cable.

“The changes you made are perfect,” Euterpe said and kissed my cheek.

“Don’t do that.”

“You’re not pouting?”

“What if I am?”

“Maybe if you’re a good boy and finish the book, we can see what else develops. By then you won’t be my client anymore. ‘Officially.’”

Inside, I was like Mt. Etna ready to melt Palermo. Outside, I smiled and said, “That will be nice.”

We made it halfway through the novel. Erato was asleep on the sofa where Euterpe and I had made love. I could hear Seinfeld faintly in the background.

“I think that’s enough for tonight,” Euterpe said.

Unlike her sister, Euterpe never seemed to tire. If I had asked her to, she probably could have run five miles, cleaned out the downstairs closet, and given Fellini a bath.

She woke Erato and kissed my cheek again. “I’m very proud of you, Richard.”

“Thanks.”

Sleepy and agreeable, Erato kissed me, too. Then, they went to wherever it was Muses go when they’re not on duty. This time, I wasn’t sleepy. I continued working, making the changes we had agreed on.

Whenever I work in my office, Fellini likes to sleep at my feet, lulled by the soothing sound of the little fan that keeps my computer from burning up and the steady tapping of my fingers on the keys. The book was taking on new dimensions. It was as if it had been in cardiac arrest all those months and Euterpe had given it the kiss of Life.

But there was more. She had given me the Kiss of Life. Though annoyed at having been denied her unashamed nakedness, I no longer felt the deep-seated anger that seemed to consume me for so long. For the first time, I was giving myself permission to let go. To stop the grasping and the criticizing and the loathing and just be—could I even say it? Happy.

That night falling asleep, I thought vaguely of Florence and how I should go there very soon before this wonderful feeling of carelessness and goodwill withered in the cold burning light of my regular solitude.

#

For the next three days, Euterpe appeared at seven and stayed until after midnight. Feeling she had made her point, she no longer brought Erato. And I no longer plagued her with low innuendo and impoverished pleading. On the third night at around eleven-thirty, we finished. All that was left was for me to make the final changes and have her proofread them. To celebrate, I made cappuccinos and brought out fresh cannolis I’d picked up that afternoon.

“You always know exactly what I like!” Euterpe said, wearing a little mustache of milk froth.

“I’m glad. I guess it’s my way of thanking you. For everything.”

“But you’re the one who did all the work.”

“It would never have happened without you.”

I kissed her cheek, then her lips. I could taste the coffee and the ricotta cheese. She didn’t seem to mind. But when my hand moved toward her breast, she moved away.

“Lots of times, my clients celebrate on the last day with champagne. It’s a kind of tradition.”

“I’ll make sure to have some chilled when you come tomorrow night.”

“That’ll be nice.”

Her voice was faint and distant. I recognized it as the sound of addio. We both knew there was no reason for her to come back. Just a few odds and ends for me to tidy up. Her returning now would just be out of politeness and professionalism.

“Tomorrow night then,” I said as she went out the door.

“Don’t forget the champagne.” She kissed me and disappeared into the moonless night.

#

When seven o’clock came again, everything was ready. The finished manuscript fresh from Staples was lying on the dining room table. Next to it stood two gleaming champagne glasses. I had decided on an Arugula salad and spaghetti puttanesca. For dessert, I had picked up two slices of tiramisu. La Bohème was playing on the stereo.

At seven-thirty, I turned off the music and ate my salad. At eight-fifteen, I boiled some pasta and ate the puttanesca. Finally, I cracked open the champagne, and flipping through the manuscript with a mixture of sadness and accomplishment, I drank a toast to myself. The tiramisu went well with the champagne. I carved off a tiny section and fed it to Fellini. He liked it.

I had known all along Euterpe wouldn’t return. She would only have had to try and worm her way out of staying the night. It was better this way. She had given me the help I needed. Why should I expect more?

At around ten-thirty, Fellini began scratching at the front door and whining. I stumbled to my feet, thinking that Euterpe might have changed her mind. When I opened the door, I found a note. There was no one outside, but I could smell her flower fragrance. She had come as promised.

The note was written on parchment with a quill. It was in
Italian.

Chi lascia la via vecchia per la nuova, sa quel che lascia ma non sa quel che trova.

It means, “He who leaves the old way for the new, knows what he leaves behind but doesn’t know what he’ll find.” The saying was familiar to me and made me smile. I drank the last of the champagne and went to bed.

#

As I settled into my first-class seat, the flight attendant was already asking me what I wanted to drink.

“Champagne,” I said.

In two months, my book would be in stores. It didn’t seem real, my time with Euterpe. Recently, I tried to find the legal papers and the note she had written me, but no luck. I was beginning to believe I had dreamed her up. Suddenly, she appeared in the cabin and sat next to me. She was dressed differently and had on a sharp pair of black Persol glasses. She wore a short black skirt, no stockings, a black sweater, and red barrettes that matched her lips and fingernails.

“Buon giorno,” she said, adjusting her seat.

Buon giorno.”

I listened as she spoke to the flight attendant in Italian. Her accent was delightful. She didn’t strike me as a city girl. I imagined her growing up on a small country farm in Sienna. Carrying buckets of milk to an ancient stone building where they made cheese the old fashioned way.

“Excuse me for staring. I thought you were someone I knew,” I said.

“It’s not very original.”

“No, it isn’t.” I tried laughing it off. “I’m Richard.”

“Claudia.”

My champagne arrived, and I went to sip it. Instead, I gave it to her and ordered another.

Grazie.

“Do you live in Rome?” I said after a while.

“No, Firenze.”

“Really? I’m visiting there! It’s my first time.”

“And you travel alone?”

“Yes.”

“Better to see the city with someone.”

“I agree. Are you volunteering?”

She sipped her champagne with amusement. That’s when I noticed her leather musette bag.

“When you are in Florence,” she said, “you must visit Uffizi Gallery. There you will find Allori’s ‘Hercules and the Muses.’ It is quite stunning.”

“I’ll be sure to check it out.”

She yawned and said, “I often go there.” Then, she closed her eyes.

As I watched her sleep, I thought of how much my story had changed. Now, there was hope in the subtle suggestion that Muck and the girl with disappearing bone disease would be together someday in a distant, starry future that neither could have predicted.

I closed my eyes, and finding myself in a field of poppies at forty-one years old, I accepted the cup that was offered.

Copyright © 2017 by Steven Ramirez.

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