by Susan Mart-Charman
part 1 of 2
In the history of the Post-Dispatch Journal, it was the most unusual ad that had ever appeared:
Wanted: Muse, literary, for extended, indefinite term to inspire future Pulitzer recipient. Please call John Smith, evenings, after seven, 442-7199.
John read his ad, satisfied. He had finally taken action, gone above the ordinary to make his dream reality. He was reaching for the stars or, in this exact case, a minor goddess.
It had been a struggle, but he’d set his goal and achieved it. He folded the Wednesday paper — the Post-Dispatch Journal only published a Wednesday edition — and took a few moments to savour his accomplishment.
The idea came to him when he remembered the two ‘free ad’ certificates received from the salesman who had sold him a two-year subscription to the paper. It was the first time in his entire life he had ever planned anything for Wednesdays, two years in advance. He wondered if he was only allowed to use one certificate per year. This was not noted on the certificate itself. What was noted on the bright-yellow-with-black-lettered coupon was that he was permitted to use only twenty words, and the value of the certificate was eighteen dollars.
It had taken John three days to write the ad. Which was, he mused, precisely why he needed to place the ad in the first place. Three days to write twenty words. Ridiculous! He had spent one entire day worrying about which two of the twenty words were worth nothing. No one wants to write a single word that has no value, let alone two. He finally solved this dilemma very late at night when he realized that, since all words should be created equal, each one in this instance was worth precisely ninety cents.
Day two of the writing campaign involved a long, silent, self-contained debate as to whether or not he should rent a post office box for replies to his ad. A post office box would allow him to remain anonymous. However, there were a couple of problems with this plan: firstly, since the population of his community had grown significantly over the last year, there was likely a waiting list for a post office box; and secondly, the cost of the box was more than a hundred dollars, the contract period extending for an entire year. He did not need the post office box for a year; he would need it only for as long as it took for him to process the responses to his ad. The deciding argument, anti-box and pro-name and phone number was the fact that no one he knew read the local paper.
The certificate entitled him to run his ad for three consecutive weeks. Twenty-one days. Twenty-one was a mystical number, wasn’t it? He had been born on the twenty-first of July. The great Hemingway had been born on the exact same day, the twenty-first of July. One couldn’t get much more mystical than that.
Hemingway was one of his heroes. Dynamic, dashing, living a life of daring-do, and daring to do whatever he chose, regardless of societal convention or opinion. Or so John imagined the famous author had lived.
Hemingway would not have piddled his life away, doing nothing but working a nine-to-five job five days a week for more than twenty-one years — there was that number again — and done nothing to improve his lot. Of this, John was absolutely certain.
It was for this reason that John had placed his ad.
He never doubted they were out there. Too many unexplained things happened to too many people for there not to be mythical, magical beings. He believed in them. And he was reaching out, confident that his plea would not go unanswered.
He folded the paper neatly, restoring it to its delivered condition. A glance around the neat, square room showed him all was in order. In what he now called his office but had always been the spare bedroom, he sat down at his oak library desk. A pad of paper was exactly in the middle of the desk. Beside it were four pens, each of blue ink, but each with a different feel to it, a different character. Above the pad of paper and to his left, standing smartly, the Concise Oxford English Dictionary, Thumb Index Edition. To the right, and just as neatly symmetrical, stood Roget’s Thesaurus, hardcover edition. At the top of the desk and directly above his pad of paper, sat the telephone.
He had bought everything in his office — except the paper, pens and phone — at the flea market. He considered briefly if he should return to that sanctuary of previously prized possessions, to purchase a lectern. He’d read somewhere that Hemingway had stood to write his novels, and sat only to write checks to pay bills. In the end, he rejected this idea. It had taken him three entire days to write a twenty-word advertisement. He didn’t want sore feet.
John loved words. He loved to read, often reading books many times over. No one, he was certain, had a lustier appreciation for a well-crafted paragraph, or a clever metaphor. No one treated books with more reverence. They were his salvation from the sediment of life, the jewels of his estate. They were his best friends. Since childhood he had held but one dream, to someday be heralded as one of the finest writers of modern times. Scholars would one day link his name in a single sentence with James, Fitzgerald, and Hemingway. This was his destiny.
He had the space, this fine office containing everything a writer could possibly need. Living alone now that the kids were grown, and his wife run off, he clearly had the time. There was, in fact, only one obstacle, only one missing link preventing him from the realization of his dream.
John could think of nothing to write.
The voice of Mrs. Bookmeister, his harridan grade seven English teacher was as sharp now in his memory as it had been in the classroom so many years before. “You must write from your own experiences, or write nothing at all!” He wondered briefly where Mrs. Bookmeister was today, and decided that as she had been ancient then, she was likely dead.
John sighed for he knew he had no experiences from which to write. He had never done anything exciting or noteworthy. He had scaled no mountains, forded no streams, crossed no deserts. He had never even seen a matador’s cape, let alone held one in his hands.
He was an ordinary man who had been born into an ordinary family and had lived all of his life within a fifty-mile radius of his current home. He had been an ordinary student, neither winning awards nor causing problems. He was a minor accountant for a mid-sized company and had held the same job for nearly a quarter century. He’d married the first woman who had really looked at him, and had lost her twenty years later to a dentist. His kids — Richard and Jane — were great, they were the most important people in his life but they were busy living their lives many miles away.
In other words, John knew that he had done nothing, seen nothing, thought nothing worthy of recording in the annals of fiction.
This was why John needed the help of someone who could open his eyes, heart and mind to the amazing possibilities he felt certain were just waiting for him. He needed the help of someone who could find the gold hidden within his dross. He needed a muse.
John’s glance wandered to the still silent phone. He wasn’t certain what time the paper came out on Wednesdays; it was always in his mailbox when he arrived home. He imagined that most people were just now sitting down to read it.
His attention came back to the blank piece of paper before him. He picked up the mauve pen with the soft rubber grip near the nib. This was a pen that felt good in his hand. It fit, was an extension of his arm, a part of his being. Was there an elemental link running all the way from his thoughts to this pen? He liked to think so. He held the instrument poised above the paper, the expression on his face one of serious contemplation.
Beneath his thumbnail he noticed that there was just a tiny speck of dirt. He frowned. He had scrubbed his hands before and after dinner. He’d washed the dishes too. Had that dirt been there all day, or had it recently been acquired? Had he done anything to get dirty? He’d finished the dishes, sat for ten minutes in his chair in the living room, perusing the paper and drinking a single cup of coffee. With a shake of his head he put the pen down and made his way to the bathroom. He scrubbed his hands with the small nailbrush, examining each nail in turn to ensure no dirt remained. Satisfied, he returned to his office, and picked up the pen again.
John tried not to think about the phone remaining silent. He was as confident at that very moment as when the idea first came to him. His ad would be answered. Help was on the way. Soon, right here in his office, a goddess would inspire him to write. She would sit by his right hand — or maybe his left — and watch as his pen moved like lightning across the page, as the next great Canadian novel was born.
He tilted his head to one side as a new thought occurred. Did he have anything in his fridge to serve a goddess for refreshment? What did a goddess drink? Nectar of the Gods, most likely. But what, exactly, was that? Grabbing up his dictionary he quickly found the word, nectar: a sugary fluid secreted within flowers to encourage pollination by insects. Well, that certainly didn’t sound appetizing. Perhaps she’d like a diet cola, instead.
He forced his focus back onto the page before him. Yet his mind would not stay where he put it. Instead, he was recalling the drawing he had once seen of the Muses, within the pages of the book on Greek mythology that had been part of his grade ten English lit course. Wispy, willowy, ethereal, they were everything one would expect goddesses to be. The expressions on their faces were a stunning combination of innocence and wisdom. How could the presence of any one of these beings fail to inspire a man to greatness?
Copyright © 2005 by Susan Mart-Charman