Glad to be unhappy
by David Rollow
“You’ve been unfaithful.”
“Not in a million years! I wouldn’t dare!”
“You have. You’ve left traces of my inspirations lying around.”
The writer sulked. She wasn’t wrong. In the flush of inspiration he’d typed up a report of her most recent visit, while still at the office (he had a day job to support himself), and he had unthinkingly left by the typewriter a second sheet for all to see. He didn’t use a carbon, so to anyone not overwhelmed by curiosity it would have seemed to be only a blank sheet of rough yellow paper. But the very same day, his neighbor in the office next door, himself a writer, came in to use the phone—why couldn’t he have used his own phone? Had he been snooping around?—and grabbed the first handy piece of paper to write a phone number on. It was the second sheet. A few hours later he was back, paper in hand . . .
“Well, writer,” he said, “I’ve found you at your work.”
“Where did you get that?” the writer said, inwardly groaning as the entire scenario flashed through his mind.
Days of paralysis followed. The writer knew his Muse would never visit him again.
“The damage is done, of course,” she said to him now.
“I never intended—”
“That’s no excuse. It’s too late.”
“I’m afraid so. This is goodbye.”
The writer had rehearsed this conversation again and again in her absence, so he wasn’t surprised at the line she took. After all, while she was the Muse, and his inspiration, he wrote her lines, and however often she might complain that they weren’t good lines they were the lines she had to speak.
“Don’t go!” he said. “I can’t live without you!”
“You’ll live,” she said. “It’s not the end of the world.”
It was the end of the world.
“I’m sorry,” she added, “but art is a jealous mistress. I can’t have you sending me off to bed with other men.”
“Bed?” the writer asked.
“Figuratively speaking, of course. My inspirations are for you alone. I’m your Muse.”
“What are you saying? Do you mean to suggest that, figuratively speaking, you could be faithful to me?”
“I didn’t mean to suggest anything. I’m saying ‘goodbye.’ Goodbye. I have to go now.”
“Stay with me!”
“I suppose you mean I should move in. Cook your dinner. Right? A hard day at the office for you, a day over the stove for me? I bring you a martini at the door, you drink it, then write busily away while I get dinner on the table. I find agents and editors for you. I suppose you want me to go to bed with them, too.”
“You haven’t even gone to bed with me!”
“I can’t write when I’ve had a martini. Some writers drink, but I’ve never been any good after even one beer.”
“Doesn’t it loosen you up? It sure loosens me up. Although I lose the ability to sing in tune. All right, no drinkie then, just din-din. And after that you’ll be asking me to do your laundry—”
“There’s something wonderful about the smell of freshly folded laundry—”
“That someone else has folded. Then there are the buttons that come off your shirts, even your pants. You have a plastic baggie full of them. I’ve seen it. As if you’re going to sew them back on yourself! What a joke. You’d want me around all the time.”
“What’s wrong with that? Why wouldn’t it be all right for you to be at my elbow, or my ear, whispering . . . whispering the news . . . What’s wrong with wanting to be together?”
“I’m not that kind. I have other responsibilities.” She drew herself up. “I belong to the world.”
“You’re my Muse.”
“And you’re my writer,” she said. But she hardened again. “You’re not the only one, however. No man could carry such a weight. You have to strike while the iron is hot. I come and go as I please. There is a time and a place for everything. If you are not for yourself, who will be for you? If you are not for others, what good will you be? I’m your Muse, but I’m my own woman, and I’ve gotta go—”
The writer was relieved to hear her spouting these familiar, prosaic clichés once more, a sure sign that she was still his.
“If not now, when? And I won’t have you making an easy woman of me.”
He knew he was close to the edge. She was his, but only within limits, and a misstep would plunge him into the abyss.
“Goddess,” he said, almost in a whisper.
“What did you say?”
“I always thought you were a goddess.”
The Muse was pleased.
“It won’t happen again,” the writer said.
“You’re free to think of me as a goddess, if it pleases you.”
“Oh, I do. But I meant I wouldn’t leave my papers lying around loose . . . it was just a second sheet . . . I didn’t think . . .”
She said nothing, looked stern. Her feathers were standing still.
“Please, O Muse, I implore you, don’t forsake me when I am in greatest need of your song!”
She inclined her head, her interest slightly quickened by his invocation.
“Yes . . . ?”
“O Muse, mistress of the wellsprings of fantasy, where the human imagination replenishes itself, the source, the Pierian Spring of fable and song . . .”
“Do go on,” she said.
“Sing in me the song the world delights to hear. Bring me those winged words, like the sweet notes of that harp you always carry with you—where’d you get that harp, by the way?”
“I’m glad you asked. For a minute there I thought you were waxing poetic. That’s not my style at all. Well, as you know, we muses are the daughters of memory; it’s not all singing and dancing, I mean. There’s a lot of hard work to being a Muse, and it takes a long time to become one.”
“You have to learn? It doesn’t come naturally?”
“That’s the thing about inspiration. It’s fickle, as you very well know. We have to prepare ourselves by years of study and practice. It’s not enough to be admitted to the Castalian College. Once you’re there, you have to learn all the stories. It wouldn’t be so terrific if we went around passing out stories that people already knew, would it? And of course, some of us have to learn all the songs, too. I was never able to sing by myself, though—I can sing in a group, but I don’t like soloing—so I went into prose. Oh, the harp, as you call it. (It’s actually a lyre.) It’s a late corruption introduced by my paterfamilias, Apollo, when he relocated us to Helicon. We each get one at graduation, along with the traditional laurel wreath. The original lyre is supposed to have belonged to Orpheus, Calliope’s child, who used it to charm the birds out of the trees. It was taken away from him when the maenads tore him to pieces. I wouldn’t know about that. Mine’s really just a toy.”
“I thought it was me! I thought I just couldn’t hear the tune!”
“It is you. You’re tone deaf, as a matter of fact. That’s why I was assigned to you. I just strum a little for effect. Nice, don’t you think? Gives the act a little class. And without it, who would recognize me? I’d be just like all the other girls.”
The writer remained faithful to the Muse from then on. It would be gratifying to report that inspiration never failed him afterward, but the Muse has a great many demands on her time, and as she reminded him herself, inspiration is fickle.
During one of the Muse’s fickle phases, the writer was more alone than he’d ever been before. He sat at his work table in a blaze of light. The page before him was empty, his mind a blank. A phalanx of sharpened pencils lay across the empty page, each poised to tell its own story, each a pointer to another world. The range of possibilities was enough to stop him right there.
He understood the reasons all too well. Hardly a sentence that came from his fully charged fountain pen or his ultra-sharp pencils went in the direction he’d planned. His subterfuges were many and effective in one sense--he did manage to write sentences. But they were sentences deflected by the walls of the invisible city whose gates were locked to him.
After vacillations as wide as a road-trip to California (she had called him from a phone booth on Hollywood and Vine to say “I want to be a star!”), the woman he had been living with finally moved to New York without him, and not long after that they broke up for good on a drizzly weekend in Atlantic City. The writer, deserted alike by Muse and lover, doubly alone, sat forlorn waiting at his worktable for something to come to him, but it seemed that he, although still a few years short of thirty, was written out. Clearly, he had made the mistake made by so many aspiring writers of failing to store up the basic capital of experience. He had no Muse, he reasoned, because he had no material.
It wasn’t like you could just sit in your room waiting for inspiration to descend from on high, even if on high was ultimately where it came from, for whatever came from that source had to be supplied with the lineaments of corporeality, and no amount of raving against the vegetative state in the tones of William Blake would get you anywhere if your characters weren’t fleshed out, down to the last hangnail, and living in plausible if not recognizable environments. You had to map the material provided by the Muse on to your actual experience, and it had to be from somewhere real. She brought raw material, but it had to connect to something in your life. The writer knew loads of facts about his city, its mores, its history, its deep prejudices, and its money. However, he had no interest in writing about this city and thought he had to invent another one, parallel to it, indistinguishable from Baltimore.
This parallel, imaginary city was a major seaport and shipping center. It had an international airport, but unlike the one in the city where he actually lived, it was accessible directly by subway underground, recently constructed at great expense, including a tunnel under the basin. Through the heart of this city, which had been laid out along wandering paths before anyone had thought of an urban grid, tree-lined parklands snaked whose only model was nature. The ocean was near, gulls sailed squalling over the local landfills and were almost as common as pigeons. In the main park downtown, an equestrian statue stood, but who it represented even the writer didn’t know. In an old part of town brick row houses that had once been inhabited by blacks, who had been forced into cheaper neighborhoods, were now being renovated by young white couples with small children. In the artistic district, brick town houses that had once been inhabited by blacks were now not being renovated by young people in the arts, supported by trust funds, who would one day also be forced to move to cheaper neighborhoods now inhabited by blacks.
He collected street names and mapped them against one another, so as not to have a taxi or a private detective take a wrong turn. He knew the one-way-system of the city by heart. He knew its grand boulevards and he knew its secret cross-town connectors. He might as well have been playing Monopoly.
For the Muse didn’t descend. She didn’t knock on his window. She didn’t ring his buzzer.
With the Muse gone, the writer worked without rest, hardly stopping to eat, just as if she hadn’t deserted him. After all, it was a weakness in a way to think he needed a Muse. A more determined writer, more sure of himself, with a deeper sense of his own autonomy, would have been glad to write without prompting from outside. It was a matter of doing it, that was all. The idea of inspiration was a childish, infantile fantasy.
What was the Muse but his fantasy of an inscrutable other, inscribed on the body of a woman? The Muse is a woman because inspiration is cyclical, on and off, like the lunar cycle, which is also why the Muse is a moon goddess. She comes and goes.
The writer would have liked a more regular Muse the way he would have preferred to be married, a steady state, but inspiration wasn’t like tap water in the kitchen sink, which could be turned on and off at will, its source a distant but inexhaustible reservoir, and if you wanted it hot it would warm up as it passed through the water heater. Access to the springs of the Muses was cyclical and irregular and unpredictable. Being a writer dependent on the flow of inspiration was like being a woman before the advent of the birth control pill, irregular, moods unpredictable, a womb in motion, fertile only for a few days in her cycle, desire tidal, increasing for a time, then falling off.
“I like variety, don’t you?” the Muse said. She didn’t mean varying lovers.
Evenings, he put on Billie Holiday’s Lady in Satin, one of her last albums, where her voice, cracked and croaking, was at its most heartrending. As he sat listening to her sing, fat tears rolled down his cheeks. “For all we know, we may never meet again,” she sang, and the writer agreed heartily, and wept. “I’m a fool to want you,” she sang, and with that he agreed even more strongly. “Fools rush in, so here am I.”
Who was he weeping for? It might seem that he was suffering because his girlfriend had dumped him, but if he was honest about it, he’d grown tired of her ups and downs, her lack of direction, and her kitsch esthetic. It had all come to a head during their weekend in Atlantic City. Atlantic City, for God’s sake! She had to see the boardwalk before it was demolished to make way for Vegas East. She had to see Park Place and Ventnor Boulevard, and they had to stay in the hotel used as the setting for the Bob Rafaelson movie (“Atlantic City”) with Jack Nicholson and Bruce Dern. What they found when they got there was a place of such banality that it was just banal and couldn’t be raised to the heights of banality by being surrounded by quotation marks. It was a boring place, and the writer was, when he was honest with himself about it, bored with his girlfriend, who, when you came right down to it and faced reality, was bored with him.
So it wasn’t that hard to say goodbye to her, nor for her to say goodbye to him.
Now that she was gone, though, saying goodbye wasn’t turning out as easy as he had thought it would be. No sooner was he alone with no one to call his own, reduced to depending on his own resources (which meant that he had to take up jogging), than the writer felt bereft of all that he had never in fact possessed: a true love, a companion with whom he could share all the interesting double features in the revival movie houses that abounded in his city, someone to cook for, someone to go out to dinner with, the sense of belonging to a couple who were going places—now that was a joke—him, part of a fun couple!—and of course he was no longer invited to dinner parties because he was too extra to be a suitable extra man. It was like he had six fingers on each hand.
One woman friend of his ex-girlfriend, a nutritionist, wanting to draw him out, engaged him in a bizarre scheme to write about Nouvelle Cuisine for her mentor, a world-renowned nutritionist and physician, but his article was turned down as “too academic.” Long afterward he used it as the basis for a story about the post-war career of Dr. Franz Kafka, balneologist, expert on eating disorders and health spas. The central scene was a visit to the restaurant and spa in Eugenie les Bains of one of the movement’s founders, Michel Guérard, where Dr. Kafka (the inhabitant of a parallel universe in which he did not die of tuberculosis or become a posthumously renowned fiction writer) astonished the chef by refusing to eat, explaining, “I always wanted someone to admire my starving,” and saying, when invited to visit the baths, “I did not come to take the waters.”
According to their publicity flier, the word “privation” isn’t in the Guérards’ vocabulary. How strange that idea was, when the whole cuisine was a starvation diet.
Lady sang, “I’m so unhappy, but oh, so glad,” and the writer nodded along with her. He agreed with the truth of “You don’t know what love is till you’ve learned the meaning of the blues—till you’ve loved the love you had to lose.”
The album revolved on his turntable every night for a year, but the Muse didn’t respond to this or any other invocation.
Then one night, a young woman clerk in a bookstore, on asking to see his ID, said, “You’ve changed,” looking back and forth between him and his picture.
“I know,” he said. “That sparkle in my eyes is gone.”
Something broke loose inside him when he said that, and he went home, made a fresh pot of coffee, and sat down to write, Muse or no Muse.
For that was the only way he would ever get her to show up.
“Unrequited love’s a bore,” he wrote, “and I’ve got it pretty bad. But for someone you adore, it’s a pleasure to be sad.”
IN THIS ISSUE–––
• DAVID S. WARREN
• MICHAEL CHAPPELL
• GEORGIA E. WARREN
The Woman Who Wore My Hat
• DAVID S. WARREN
The Third Leg
• FRANKLIN CRAWFORD
Dear Diary, 10,000 B.C.
• DANIEL LOVELL
• DAVID ROLLOW
Glad To Be Unhappy
• RHIAN ELLIS
•NANCY VIEIRA COUTO
Lily, Mister Bluebird, and the Beginning and End of My Singing Career
• GABRIEL ORGREASE
Stormy Daniels, Full Disclosure
• DYLAN THOMAS Before I Knocked
• MARY GILLILAND Vertical Before Dawn Strips the East
• FRANKLIN CRAWFORD
Burn the Timeline
• CHRIS MACCORMICK Disremembrances of the Russian Twilight
• PETER FORTUNATO
• MEMORY NUTS
OREN PIERCE Memory Nuts
R. Saminora, - Paris
Before I knocked and flesh let enter,
With liquid hands tapped on the womb,
I who was as shapeless as the water
That shaped the Jordan near my home
Was brother to Mnetha's daughter
And sister to the fathering worm.
I who was deaf to spring and summer,
Who knew not sun nor moon by name,
Felt thud beneath my flesh's armour,
As yet was in a molten form
The leaden stars, the rainy hammer
Swung by my father from his dome.
(the entire poem)
by Nancy Vieira Couto
"Nancy, I want to ask you something," my cousin Lily said. By the look on her face, I could tell it was important. "How would you like to be a flower girl at my wedding?" she continued. I didn't know what a flower girl was. I had heard people talking about sweater girls, and I sort of knew what they looked like, but I didn't think I could look like that. I was only four years old. "You would wear a pretty gown," Lily said, as if she were reading my mind, "and you would carry a bouquet of flowers." I was still worried about the sweater, but I liked Lily. So I said OK.
(go to story)
by Steve Katz
I was fifteen when my father died. He’d been sick for seven years already, was rarely home, usually bed-ridden in some dreary hospital in the Bronx, or upstate at some rest home. That was treatment for a heart condition at the time — stay in bed! Had my father been around, my fate might have been different. Without a father to slap me into the future I felt like upcoming life had been placed on the far side of a high slick wall. I couldn’t bust through it, nor could I scale it, but against its unyielding concrete I constantly slammed the enigmas of my adolescence.
(go to story)
by David Rollow
The writer sulked. She wasn’t wrong. In the flush of inspiration he’d typed up a report of her most recent visit, while still at the office (he had a day job to support himself), and he had unthinkingly left by the typewriter a second sheet for all to see. He didn’t use a carbon, so to anyone not overwhelmed by curiosity it would have seemed to be only a blank sheet of rough yellow paper. (go to story)
by Annie Campbell
I had gained only five pounds during my pregnancy, but walking in that oven-like heat made me feel like I had gained two hundred. My toes were so hot and swollen they looked like red potatoes and felt like they might explode. I could hardly wait for the heat wave to be over and my mysterious baby top reveal itself.
(go to story)
Review by Gabreal Orgrease
(go to review)
Before I Knocked (go to)
Vertical Before Dawn
Strips the East (go to)
Burn the Timeline (go to)
CHRIS MACCORMICK Disremembrances of the
Russian Twilight (go to)
1984 (go to)
I’d already been in bed four hours before I found out what the mattress pad was for. You don’t ask too many questions about hospital beds, in general, and I didn’t ask any about this one. They let me have a laptop, and the hospital has free wifi. My assumption is those things are supposed to make up for the horror I’m sitting on right now, just barely covered by the ratty mattress pad. (go to story)
The focus of our next Metaphysical Times will be
"Weird Tales" (see full size)
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