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.”
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?”
“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.”
“Have you been to Florence?”
“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?”
“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?”
“Before I can start, you’ll need to sign this contract. There’s also a waiver and a model release form.”
“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?”
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
“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?”
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?”
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.”
“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.”
“Oh, and another thing. Your story offers no hope.”
“People need hope. Just saying.”
“Overall, what you have to say is worth writing down. And I think I can help you.”
“Yes. What time is it?”
“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?”
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.”
“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.”
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
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.
“What’s the idea?”
“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.”
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.”
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
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.
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.”
My champagne arrived, and I went to sip it. Instead, I gave it to her and ordered another.
“Do you live in Rome?” I said after a while.
“Really? I’m visiting there! It’s my first time.”
“And you travel alone?”
“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.